Thursday, May 20, 2010

More on Ordination

I have now been a Reverend for nearly 4 weeks.

My, how time flies!
It still feels weird when people refer to me as "Rev", but I guess I'll get used to that soon enough.

I thought it's probably about time to post some pictures of the ordination service for those of you, dear readers, who haven't already seen these on my Facebook profile.
(and I thank the lovely Michael Kregor and Barry Liersch, who took these photos during the service).

Sharing my story

Making my vows

Ordination by prayer and the laying on of hands.

"... accept this stole as a sign of the joyful obedience you owe to Christ."

The Rev Caro Field, enjoying the moment.

Friday, May 07, 2010

Sermon for April 25 (Psalm 23; John 10:22-30; Revelation 7:9-17)

The 4th Sunday of Easter is traditionally known as ‘Shepherd Sunday’. From listening to the lectionary readings we heard this morning, you will note they all have a shepherd theme:
- The Revelation reading speaks of the ‘lamb that was slain’, becoming the shepherd of those who have been through a great ordeal;
- in John we see Jesus as the Good Shepherd, who knows his sheep, and they know his voice, and the assurance that they will never be snatched away from God.
- and then we come to Psalm 23, which for many is the ultimate word on shepherding and shepherds.

Psalm 23 is one of the best known passages in the whole Bible- familiar to people both within and beyond the church. In fact, I’ll bet most of you would be able to recite Ps 23- whether in its entirety, or in part. It’s little wonder, then, that this Psalm is very popular as a reading at funerals, and in fact, of the dozen or so funerals I have conducted since I’ve been in ministry, probably 4-5 of them have had Ps 23 as one of the readings.

In the context of funerals we often focus on the verse (in the old language): “Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil”. The direct reference to death can bring comfort to those people who are experiencing the harsh reality of the death of a loved one. In fact the psalm as a whole is a psalm of comfort, and this is partly due to its familiarity, because, let’s face it, if we are going through a difficult time, don’t we derive comfort from the familiar?

But, outside of that context, is there the danger of familiarity breeding contempt? We know the words of the psalm, but how much of the meaning sinks in whenever we hear, read, or rattle off the words? This is one reason why I chose a translation of Psalm 23 in unfamiliar words to be read today; to get you thinking about what the psalm is actually saying. (the translation from the original Hebrew text is by the Jewish Publication Society of America, rendered fairly recently, in the 1970s)*.

So, as we chew over these unfamiliar words of a familiar psalm, I want to focus on v. 4: the ‘valley of the shadow of death’ line. In the reading we just heard, this verse reads: “Though I walk through a valley of deepest darkness, I fear no harm.” If we take it out of the funeral context into the context of our own life and experience, what does it have to say to us?

Whatever translation we look at, the language is highly symbolic, and the more traditional “valley of the shadow of death” is meant to represent the worst possible times of life- not necessarily limited to literal death. Because, death is not always the worst, or most difficult thing that can happen. During my life, I have had two friends who suffered from long-term depression, and eventually committed suicide- one fairly recently, just over a year ago, and the other about 10 years ago. For them, death was not the worst thing, because by their reckoning death was preferable to the living hell they were experiencing in their depression. So, to associate this verse with literal death, can in some ways, rob it of some of its meaning, and to instead use the term, “valley of deepest darkness” can thus encompass a wider range of human experience than just the fear of death. Something else that is important to note in this psalm is the different ways in which the psalmist refers to, and addresses God. At the beginning and the end of the psalm, we see a more formal form of address, referring to ‘the Lord’, and ‘he’; effectively speaking about God. However in the middle, in vv. 4-5, the psalmist speaks to God directly, addressing God as ‘you’ (eg, “you are with me… you prepare a table…” etc).

And this more personal and intimate form of address comes precisely at the point of greatest danger (in the dark valley; in the presence of enemies). This speaks of intimacy and a personal relationship of trust between the psalmist and the shepherd he or she trusts; and that trust in the Lord’s provision and protection is not just something the psalmist knows about, but is part of a personal experience, emanating from a personal, intimate relationship with the Lord. It is this trust and relationship that allows the psalmist not to fear.

Now, this is all very well for the psalmist (whether King David, or someone else) all those years ago, but what does it mean for us today?

I want to tell you a story about my friend, Mark. Before I start, I need to tell you that he has given me permission to share this part of his story with you . When I asked him about it, he said, “I’ve never featured in sermon before… it’s like being an extra in Neighbours”. I’m not quite sure what experience he has as an extra on Neighbours, but he has given me permission to share his experiences with you
(and to publish it on my blog).

I first met Mark when I was working with Fusion in Sydney, and he played in a band that we used in some of our outreach work, and the band rehearsed in our drop in centre for a while. I got to know Mark, and the other guys in the band, we became friends, and I went to some of their gigs in local pubs (and discovered on one of these occasions, that in the 80s it was not the done thing to order a mineral water at Wentworthville pub- in the western suburbs of Sydney).

I remember Mark as a talented singer/songwriter/muso, and a deep thinker; what I would describe as an artistic soul. Around the time I moved to Hobart, about 20 years or so ago, I lost touch with Mark.

Recently, about a week or two ago, I received a message from Mark via Facebook. Now I know that some people scoff at the social networking websites like Facebook and Myspace, but I have found Facebook to be very useful in keeping in touch with people I don’t see very often, and in fact, a number of people who attended my ordination service yesterday wouldn’t have been there if not for contact via Facebook.

So, hearing from Mark was a delightful ‘blast from the past’, and we have exchanged a number of messages over the past week or two, sharing some of what’s been happening since we last saw each other.

His comment was, “I’ve been around the universe and back since we last met”.
- In the late 80s/early 90s, he was on the verge of rock stardom, with a recording contract.
- Then he was diagnosed with Bipolar Disorder (manic depression) and was subsequently sued by the record company when he was unable to honour his contract with them due to his illness.
- He ‘lost’ his marriage, and spent around 10 years living as what he describes as ‘a mad hermit’, isolated, alone and feeling like he was on the verge of losing his mind.
- He later formed a new relationship, and subsequently ‘lost’ that,
- and sometime in all of this he also walked away from his relationship with God.

I am convinced that in all this, Mark experienced first-hand what it is to ‘walk through a valley of deepest darkness’ (perhaps even more than one valley). He commented about his illness, that when he was younger, he tended to be more manic, but as he gets older, he tends to be more depressed (something he has become a little philosophical about as he contemplates turning 50 later this year).

For a long and painful 10 years (or maybe longer) Mark’s life was lived in the darkest valleys, and he felt very alone and miserable. About a year or two ago, he started to come out of the downward spiral (I think he saw losing that subsequent relationship as a kind of ‘wake up call’, and started to take positive steps to reclaim his life). So life is gradually starting to look up for Mark, and part of this process, has involved him recognising God’s love and presence, and walking back into the loving embrace of the Father.

Life is still not easy for Mark, and he still has his times of darkness, but through it all is the reassurance that he “needs fear no harm, for God is with him”.

Back in my Sydney days, Mark and I were mates; I liked him a lot (and if truth be told, when I was 19-20, I had a bit of a girly crush on him- well, he was tall, dark, handsome and played in a rock band; what is a girl to do?)

When he shared his story with me, I cried when I heard what he’s been through, and is still going through. I wanted to rant at God, and shout, “It’s not fair for one person to suffer so much!” I’m sure that many of you would also have been in situations where you wanted to scream at God because of the unfair suffering of people you know and love.

Rabbi Harold Kushner, in his book about Psalm 23 says these words:
“God’s promise was never that life would be fair. God’s promise was that, when we had to confront the unfairness of life, we would not have to do it alone, for He would be with us.”

This is the message of hope this psalm has for us today. When we go through the darkest, unfairest valleys: of depression, broken relationships, illness or other dark passages of life, we are not alone.

But even more than this, the Shepherd who travels with us is the same Good Shepherd who gave his life for his sheep, the same ‘lamb that was slain’, who became the shepherd for those who had been through a great ordeal; whose journey to the cross and back means that he knows and understands our pain and loneliness because he has walked through his own dark valleys.

Because of this, we can truly rejoice and join with the psalmist in saying, “Only goodness and steadfast love shall pursue me all the days of my life; and I shall dwell in the house of the Lord for many long years.”

Thanks be to God. ……

* Psalm 23
The Lord is my shepherd;
I lack nothing.

He makes me lie down in green pastures;
He leads me to water in places of repose;
He renews my life;
He guides me in right paths
as befits His name.

Though I walk through a valley of deepest darkness;
I fear no harm, for You are with me;
Your rod and Your staff- they comfort me.

You spread a table for me in full view of my enemies;
You anoint my head with oil;
my drink is abundant.

Only goodness and steadfast love shall pursue me
all the days of my life;
and I shall dwell in the house of the Lord
for many long years.

Translation: © 1972, The Jewish Publication Society of America

From Tas...

I'm conscious that I've been a tad silent of late, this is partly because life has been busy for a while, and also because for the last two weeks I have been on holiday in Tasmania, after my ordination, on April 24, and have had intermittent access to the internet and even mobile phone coverage (gotta love Optus mobile coverage in country Tasmania- NOT!)

Anyway, I will eventually get around to blogging about my ordination- and maybe even posting some pics that a friend took and posted to his Facebook site (for those of you who are my FB friends, you will be able to view them on my site, under "Photos of Caro").

The day after my ordination, I was privileged to lead worship at Sandy Bay Uniting Church (my former 'home congregation', from which I candidated, and where the ordination service was held), and in my next post, I will publish my sermon from that occasion (not that I'm in the habit of posting all my sermons to my blog, but I feel that this one was pretty special for a number of reasons).

So there you have it, a brief reminder that I am still alive in teh blogosphere, and a promise that I will eventually get around to blogging about my ordination and holiday sometime Real Soon Now.


Promise :-)