The Rev. Elizabeth A. Eaton
Evangelical Lutheran Church in America
Last night a friend and I went to see the movie “The End of the Tour,” about David Lipsky’s interview with David Foster Wallace for the Rolling Stone. Lipsky shadowed Wallace and the two shared many hours in cars and on planes, talking about writing and relationships and addiction and reality and despair… it was like watching the author of Ecclesiastes on a book tour, only it was the author of Infinite Jest instead.
Having just a week ago read from Ecclesiastes for a celebration of life service, I had that writer’s words in my head: “For every thing there is a season, and a time for every purpose under heaven.” Other better-known lines from our book of wisdom literature include: “Vanity of vanities! … All streams run to the sea, but the sea is not full… I became great and surpassed all who were before me in Jerusalem… I considered all that my hands had done and the toil I had spent in doing it, and again, all was vanity and chasing after the wind…”
There are many pointed and powerful lines in the Wallace movie. Conversations about meaning and meaninglessness. How the American Dream, the drive to achieve this next thing, and then the next, and the next, working up a ladder toward an always unattainable ‘happiness’ that is more like junk food – fun to eat, sweet to taste, ultimately no nutritional value whatsoever. Wallace talked in the film about being addicted to screens, addicted to television, which isn’t as exciting an addiction as heroin, but an addiction nonetheless. The search for pleasure and meaning which leaves us disconnected despite its promise to give us something worthwhile… sound familiar?
What are you striving for? What gets you out of bed in the morning? Where do you find your sweet spot and connecting point? Is it all only a chasing after the wind, or do you have a different response to life at the end of a long day? It seems everything going on is in competition for our attention, leaving us strung out and stressed and overextended. What’s important enough to garner our attention?
It’s a strange balance, living life the best we know how and doing so in community with others who are trying to do the same. If you get the chance to take a moment and listen to David Foster Wallace’s commencement speech, called “This Is Water,” consider how it relates to the way we talk about sin and eternal life… seriously. Luther summed up the problem of sin as being curved in toward ourselves, and it’s that self-centeredness which divides us, when we are more concerned with saving ourselves than in serving each other. Being curved inward is a sure path to slow death, isolation like solitary confinement in a crowd that prevents communication of any meaning or compassion.
So in the middle of this despair of isolation and meaninglessness, we are never as alone as we think we are. We might even be a community of wanderers, bumbling along together as we try to make sense of our purpose and the struggles of life within and around us. Anger, sadness, boredom, searching… these are the places where we find each other, and the depths of where God comes to find us.
Then again, this may not be your story. So, then I ask: what is? What is your story? How do you make sense of your one, strange, and wondrous life?
People of God at Christ our Emmanuel,
Addiction is something we all live with, in one form or another, and the worst of it is the isolation and shame spiral when we disconnect from each other and from the world. We might be addicted to the adrenaline high of arguing and always being right, or to the rush of feeling good when we buy a new pair of shoes, or the comfort of good old nostalgia when we indulge in a favorite childhood food, or the safer numbness of over medicating to avoid PTSD.
We are one month away from our “God’s Work, Our Hands” event set for Monday, September 14th, at 6pm. The theme is addiction, specifically addressing our community’s struggles with Heroin addiction. Council has been planning and preparing for this event for many months, St Luke’s Valatie is preparing to provide hospitality that evening, and Mayor Curran is excited to see this opportunity for conversation, training, and support for our community.
We have a big opportunity in front of us! Addiction is nothing to be ashamed of, and the more we approach it with grace, and welcome those who struggle with it, the more we are empowered to clearly proclaim God’s love for the entire world. If you have not yet read the book “Addiction and Grace” by Gerald May, I invite you to find a copy at the library or borrow one of the 2 copies we currently have at the parish. Or, if you are able, find an open AA (Alcoholics Anonymous) or NA (Narcotics Anonymous) meeting (make sure it’s an open meeting, not a closed one) and listen awhile to some of the stories and the way those stories are shared.
Please keep this project in your thoughts and prayers, search out ways of understanding and compassion, and help us get the word of welcome and invitation to teachers, nurses, caregivers, family and friends.
Wow, what a wonderful, full, exhausting, creative, inspiring, musical week here in Atlanta! Eight hundred music ministers, synod staff, clergy, and friends gathered to sing and pray and share the energy of our excitement about Evangelical Lutheran worship. Eight hundred voices raised in song, eight hundred from across the country (and even a few international guests), eight hundred from a variety of churches in our ELCA who are big and small and multicultural and historic and new, eight hundred who love the church and love finding ways to beautifully and strongly communicate the Good News of Jesus through worship which centers, grounds, and feeds us for mission and deeper love in the world. It has been a lot to digest, and I look forward to joining with other Upstate New York Synod people to empower a worship staff who can enrich and educate us in our worship across the synod.
So, what else is there to say about this past week? We are not alone. That is primary. Every one of these major church events I attend is a huge reminder that we are so much bigger, so much more, so much older and more diverse and more gifted than we realize when we get stuck on expectations for how many people we think ought to be in our Sunday worship. It’s true that we miss the faces and voices of our community when we are not all there, either on vacation or away for other events or gone to the church eternal, but how good it is that we who gather are together! We are a church connected to the saints, as we remember every time we pray the Eucharistic prayer at the Table for communion. We are a church connected to each other, every time we read Scriptures chosen for the Revised Common Lectionary, used not only by all of our denomination but by Anglicans, United Church of Christ, Methodists, Presbyterians, Reformed Churches, Roman Catholics, the Polish National Catholic Church, Disciples of Christ…
The Presiding Bishop spoke to us this week while we gathered, too, with humor and joy and passion and deep dedication to our Evangelical Lutheran identity which is not defined by culture (think potlucks and jokes about Jell-O), but by the saving work of Jesus Christ on the cross. We have a particular witness to offer as Lutheran Christians, and the more clear we are about what that means, the better we can engage in ecumenical dialogues with those who hold different emphases in their faith confessions.
We shared creative ideas for using the arts in worship, we celebrated the ongoing work of Lutheran-Catholic dialogue, we look forward to the 500th anniversary of the kick-off of the ongoing Reformation of the church, and we lifted up the work of our musicians who offer so much skill and dedication to this ministry from which flows all of our mission in the world.
Atlanta truly was a Jubilee gathering, hot on the heels of the National Youth Gathering in Detroit (some participants came directly here from there!). It is an exciting time to be church. We are free, we are gifted, we are gathered, claimed, fed, sent, together into the great wide world where God is already working to give us all the love and grace and forgiveness and new life that we so desperately need. And we get to be part of this work of renewal. How cool is that?
As a summercamp counselor for a handful of years, I’ve reminded kids over and over again that “by the time you’re thirsty you’re already dehydrated.” It’s easy to forget to drink water when you’re out playing soccer, or grilling on the back deck, or swimming at the beach, or hiking through the woods (where you also need to watch out for ticks!). Sometimes it’s easier to remember to take care of the kids we’re watching than to keep ourselves covered in sunblock at the pool, but every body needs water to survive, needs protection from the elements, even while we’re having fun.
Water is necessary to keep our bodies functioning well on a cellular level. Water is necessary to crops that grow. Water is also dangerous – it only takes an inch of water for someone to drown; floods or sudden storms in parched areas can erode away precious topsoil; the cost of bottled water in areas struggling under drought conditions can drain dry tight budgets of those already living under strained economic conditions.
Water is the element which makes life possible on this planet. Water is what we look for on other planets when looking for signs of life. One of the most exciting things about those images of Pluto that are coming in through NASA’s New Horizons is that Pluto is covered in mountains of ice – which means there is water – which means there could be life there, too.
Water falls from the sky, freely, yet there are places which have banned the collection of rainwater because they make a profit selling water. This is like the ways we tell each other we will be worthy of love if we follow certain rules first. If the love of God is big enough for all of us, then it’s big enough for all of us. In the first creation story in Genesis, the wind of God moved over the waters, called over the deep, and pronounced creation ‘good’ at every step of the creative process.
Water surrounds us in the womb. Water washes over us in baptism. Water keeps our organs safe and our blood flowing. It’s in the humid air of summer and the ice pops we devour to stay cool. It’s the element God has connected to the Sacrament of baptism and it is everywhere. We bottle it, we wash with it, and when it rains or when hurricanes come, we know we can not always control it. So it is with God’s love. Sometimes we hang on for dear life, sometimes we thirst, sometimes we remind others they are loved but forget to rest in that love ourselves.
Where is God’s love refreshing you this summer like water? Where is God spilling over in your vacations and in your work days? Where are you thirsty? God has connected water to a life-long loving embrace and belonging which we cannot get away from, with the command and promises of Baptism. These promises, this embrace, all for you, for your family, friends, neighbors, and enemies.
Don’t forget to hydrate!
Dear people of God at Christ Our Emmanuel,
I want my life and witness to speak more clearly of the power of resurrection than of the fear of a threat of death. We have far too many voices telling of anxiety and fear and negative possibilities, and need to make better use of opportunities and platforms for sharing our hope and conversion experiences. We have the gift, as Christians, to bear witness to life in places of death, hope in times of despair, and being found by the One who has made us, claimed us, and called us to new life again and again.
When I came here for my first call, nervous and excited and hopeful and wanting so badly to ‘get it right,’ I was as open about my bisexuality as I thought I needed to be for letting people in the community know that we at Christ Our Emmanuel are a welcoming, and a safe, community. Within the safety and welcome of this community, I have also come to understand and accept another part of myself as a Pastor and as a person: God gave me a female body and a male mind. In some cultures, I would be considered of a third gender, and our culture is stumbling around learning how to process this reality of God’s creativity in our species, but the label we have for this experience, if we must have one, is Transgender, or, in my case, Female-to-Male.
With the coming out of Caitlyn Jenner, this timing is either perfect or horrible, but with this year’s Senior High Camp theme on living boldly, it is according to my call to serve with integrity that I am known there as Pastor Andrew, using he/him/his pronouns, so that the kids can ask questions in a safe and supportive environment. Those of you who have seen me regularly in worship may or may not have noticed the sound of what could be an oncoming cold but is really my voice dropping, and those of you who are only able to join us in person periodically may notice my transition more readily across time. I am still the same person who you called to serve as Pastor here, and it is my intention to continue in this role to the best of my ability, but it seemed good to let you know about this adjustment lest a comment made in the wider community catch you unawares. It is also my intention to be as open about this process, and as visible, as possible, for the sake of proclaiming the grace of God whose welcome and mercy are unceasing.
So now what? This is kind of a big deal, no matter how I want it not to be. We are called to bear witness to life in the midst of death, hope in the midst of conflict and change, and this is a big change. There are a lot of resources to be found at Reconciling Works online, and for talking with kids about being Gender Fluid or Gender Creative, parents can read the blog “Raising My Rainbow,” just for a start. There is no one-size-fits-all guidebook for how to do this transitioning thing together. I do hope you will feel safe in talking with me about questions you have, or at least in talking with the council if you are uncertain about asking me directly. Above all, I thank God for your love and welcome, and for the health of this community where I felt myself safe enough to begin this process while serving among you.
Pastor Nelson and the parish council of Christ Our Emmanuel Lutheran Church