The words of Jesus are hard to hear today….and yet I have learned that what he points to, while painful, often simply is.
And so it is that the story I share now still lies close to my heart — never mind that the memory is nearly 40 years old, it still pains me to remember.
It was Christmas Eve when I was in the 8th grade. My grandmother had died the week before and immediate family had gathered at the funeral home that afternoon.
Immediate family included only my parents, my three sisters and my grandfather.
My dad’s folks had moved to the Midwest the year before when Grandma’s Alzheimer’s Disease meant they needed the support of family in the day to day. My folks bought the house next door to us for them and a wonderful group of friends from our congregation showed up and cleaned and painted and readied it for their arrival. I remember that as an especially happy time — a time when I witnessed the church at its best.
Only my grandparents had never been involved with a church. It was never talked about though. To this day I have no idea what their thoughts were on the matter of faith, but their absence from all involvement spoke for itself I suppose.
Indeed, when Grandma Hunt died, this was especially evident, for this is what I remember from that day. The church was not there: not its people, not its pastor. This would not have been my parents’ choice, I know, but they were following her wishes and that of our grandfather. My dad, her oldest son, was the one who stood at the head of her casket and spoke words which I have long since forgotten. I only remember his voice breaking as he spoke. I can’t imagine how difficult that must have been for him.
When we left the funeral home that afternoon it was raining. I remember waiting for my grandpa to pick me up at the door for I was riding home with him and how sad I was and stamping on my memory that detail so I would not forget. When I got home, while the house was more quiet than it normally would have been, there was still the special day that was upon us. Looking back now I would guess my folks must have just been going through the motions of last minute preparations for our Christmas celebration then. I remember pausing in the kitchen where the grief was heavy and asking if perhaps we ought to ask Grandpa Hunt to go to church with us that night. No one looked at me. Finally my dad shook his head and said he didn’t think that would be a good idea. I never brought it up again.
Years later when Grandpa died we gathered around his grave in Boston. By then I was in my first year of seminary and my dad and I shared the speaking then.
For years I pondered and worried and wondered over this. Some time ago though I finally let it go, entrusting them both into God’s tender care — whether it was a love they ever acknowledged or not.
So I know a little of what Jesus speaks today. I know it is so that family can be divided by matters of faith and its expression. I know something of the heartbreak it carries — spoken or not. And I know that it just is. That though the life of Jesus and all that it was is meant to unite it doesn’t always. Sometimes it does precisely what Jesus says it will do today.
It is a wonder to me, really, that my dad, his brother, and his sister, all were people of faith — all deeply involved in congregations, and they raised their children to be and do the same. I choose to focus there — knowing that no matter what has been, hope can still emerge. And while my dad was always a good son, he did not let that loyalty dictate his life choices. Some things, I expect he discovered, matter even more than that. Still, this must have been hard for him —- harder than I ever thought to ask about. Even so, you never would have known. The belonging, the joy, the hope he found among God’s people were always a wonder to him. Perhaps especially because he came to it as an adult.
And yet it is so that I am still shaped by those people, those events from so long ago especially in this way. You’ve heard me say this before. I’ll do a funeral for anyone. If I can, I will stand with those who grieve so that no family will have to be as alone as we were that Christmas Eve. And I am not surprised to hear that others share the same experience with those they love. I understand the real grief they live with, for I share it, too.
So I hear the hard words that Jesus offers now as simply describing what can be so. Following him is so much more than choosing to worship on Sunday morning — or Christmas Eve — although that may be the first place the difference becomes evident. Even more than that, this journey we are called to impacts our life choices, our values, our priorities. One who even seeks to listen for the Holy Spirit’s leading may find oneself at odds with even those most dear. It is not, I know, that the division is necessarily permanent, although my example above makes it appear to be so. Still, this is faith that matters, and as such, it is likely to make us look different than we would had it not claimed us in some real way.
Is there grace and gift in the fire and division that Jesus brings? I imagine there is, although in this life, perhaps, I will always grieve those most dear to me with whom I could not share this most important, this most defining of things. Maybe I will always wish this were not so, and yet Jesus offers the simple truth today that when we stand for that which matters most, not everyone will stand with us. Knowing this, while I acknowledge that I cannot fully know the mind, the heart of God, still I trust that God somehow holds us all.
- What do you make of Jesus’ words today? Do you struggle with this as I do? Are you able to find grace in what he has to say?
- Where have you witnessed the truth that sometimes faith divides? Have you also witnessed reunion once more?
- Is there some measure of ‘comfort’ in the fact that we who have experienced such division are not alone? If nothing else, do Jesus’ words remind us that what we are called to be and do matters and as such we may find ourselves at a different place than others?
One more. Division happens. It happens when we choose to embrace others that some reject – and denominations split over gay marriage. It happens when we look beyond political differences to work together and some call us 'sell-outs' – from both sides. But our trust is beyond the divisiveness and our identity is more than keeping folk in our club.
So there's a challenge here that pushes us. for one person the word 'father' is the supportive, loving presence in their lives. For another, an abusive, angry, judgmental figure. And either can project that on their experiences. We don't know what's going on. 'Faith' can be a defiant affirmation of a non-religious life as much as an engagement with an embracing congregation. The DNC had black youth chanting the words to Invictus – not exactly a Presbyterian or Lutheran hymn! We see the surface decisions, not the engagement of the heart and soul underneath the pain and frustration. And we trust that the encompassing love and compassion at the center holds us all in its grasp and does not let us go.
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