Saturday, November 24, 2007

Memorial Service for Marvin Olson


Marvin Olson
(April 27, 1933-Nov. 21, 2007)
West Funeral Home
West Fargo, ND
Nov. 24, 2007

Isaiah 40.3-5; Psalm 121

None of us, of course, want to be here today. We don’t want to be here, saying good bye to this man who, to those of us who knew him, was more than just any man. He was a father, he was a brother, for me he was an uncle—a wonderful uncle—for others he was a good friend, a companion, a buddy.

And yet, we all know, this is just the way it must be sometimes. This is the gamble we take in life. If we are going to live, if we are going to allow ourselves to love, we must also know that to live, to love, we must also experience loss. We must face the fact that, when we love, we also will some day lose those whom we love.

Marvin understood that in his life. Marvin lived his life to the fullest. He enjoyed his life. And he loved many people and knew much loss in his life. But through it all, he kept on. He kept on moving. He kept on his way.

In our Old Testament reading for today, we get an image that Marvin no doubt would have appreciated.

“…make straight in the desert a highway for our God.”

And later in that same reading, we hear,

“The uneven ground shall become level and the rough places a plain.”

It is an image of movement, of the open road. It is an image of smooth roads. It is an ideal place—a place where someone who loved cars and motorcycles—who loved simply driving—would truly appreciate. If Marvin was able to tell us his idea of what heaven would be like, it would be place like this reading.

Probably even more appropriate is the psalm we just heard Marv’s grandson, David, read—Psalm 121. We shared this Psalm together on Tuesday night as we were saying our goodbyes to Marvin at the hospital. Psalm 121 is Marvin’s Psalm if there ever was one. It’s one of those “muscular” psalms. By that I mean, it’s a psalm of strength—a psalm of fortitude.
In it, we find the psalmist wandering in the wilderness. The journey—the pilgrimage—is full of hardships. There is the possibility of disaster on the road: he might hurt his foot and not be able to go on. During the day, the hot sun will sap his energy. At night, the moon, cold and distant, has the potential to do equal harm to him. At the time this Psalm was written, there was a belief that the moon caused sickness (it’s from this idea that we get the word “lunacy”). But in spite of all these dangers along the way, he looks to the cool green hills rising above him, knowing that despite being in this wasteland, despite the heat and the illnesses, despite being exhausted and weary from the journey, there is hope, there is a reward awaiting him at the end of the journey. He only needs strength to get there and he knows that that strength comes from only one place: from the God in whom he not only trusts, but longs for. For God will preserve him from all evil, and will keep him safe. The Lord will watch over his going out—his journey into the wilderness—and his coming in—his arriving at his destination—from this time forth forevermore.

See, it really is Marv’s Psalm.

In both scriptures, we find images of movement. And the main image we get from Marvin’s life is an image of movement. It is an image of a highway that is often uneven and rough. Let’s face it, the road of Marvin’s life wasn’t easy. But uneven and rough, he was always on the move—in one way or the other.

My mother—Marvin’s sister—was talking the other day that she has very few memories of Marvin when she was young. It wasn’t that she blocked them out. It was simply because Marvin wasn’t always there. From her first memories of him, he seemed to always be out working—even as a young boy. He started out working for places like Western Union, as a delivery boy. It’s not hard for us to picture him, riding around on that bike of his, delivering telegrams. He was on the move as a teenager, working on cars and other modes of transportation. Out of high school, he was on the move again—this time to places more exotic than North Dakota, like Japan; and to places not by any means exotic, such as Korea. In the aftermath of Korea—an event in his life he kept for the most part to himself, an event I think that haunted him and changed him and transformed him—he came back and was on the move again. There was a restlessness to his movement.

The road throughout his life was often rough and uneven. And he himself was reflected that road. He wasn’t perfect, not did he ever claim to be perfect. He had his faults, just as we all do. But Marvin was a man who, despite whatever failings he had, despite, how rough and uneven the road of his life got at times, he was always capable of love.

On Tuesday night, as I gathered with the children for their final goodbye with Marv, I was struck by something very wonderful and incredible. In those last moments of his life here, Marv was surrounded by love. He was surrounded by a love that continued to move him and a love that went with him as he moved on.

It’s a difficult time right now for those of us who loved Marv. Although he wasn’t saint—he would be the first to admit that he wasn’t a saint—he would have laughed that wonderful laugh of his if he ever heard anyone call him a saint no doubt—he was a genuinely good man.

I was shocked, the last time I was able to speak with him, how much he reminded me of his father, my grandfather, Ted Olson. My grandfather wasn’t a saint either. My grandfather had also traveled a long, rough and often uneven road in his life. But in the end he too emerged as a genuinely good man. Marvin and his father had a lot in common in their lives. That day in the hospital room, it was almost like Déjà vu, sitting there with Marv. Because it felt for me like I was also sitting there with my grandfather at times. The last time I saw my grandfather, I was six years old. And yet, sitting there with my uncle that afternoon, it was almost like everything had come together in some strange way. It struck me that there was a kind of continuity. There was a connection between all of us with those who have gone on before us.

To use a biblical image, there is truly a cloud of witnesses about us. And I do believe that. I believe that what separates those of us—here and alive in this world—from that next world—that world in which the cloud of witnesses lives—is a thin one. Marvin is now a part of that cloud of witnesses. He has gained a place for himself in that place we cannot fully fathom or appreciate today.

For those of us who love Marvin, this is not a happy day for us. Yes, we take consolation in the fact that it is a good day for him—he is out of his suffering, he has shed that body that caused him such pain. He is freed. It is not happy for us because, for a little while at least, we will not see him. But, with faith, we take consolation in the fact that we know this is only temporary.

For Marvin, the rough and uneven road of his life has now become level. He is traveling that straight highway. The destination is in sight. And it is a marvelous and beautiful place. It is the place he has been headed for all of his life. He no longer knows weariness or pain or frustration. All of that has passed away like some bad dream. He is there in those cool, green hills, in that place of rest and beauty—a place we are headed toward as well in our lives.

So, yes, we can be sad today, but we can also know that sadness is not the same thing as despair. Despair is a sadness without hope. We can be sad, and yet we know that we are able to hope in the fact that what awaited Marvin—and what he has gained now for himself—awaits us also.

In a few moments, I will say the words of Commendation for Marvin from the Book of Common Prayer. I will say the words, “All of us go down to the dust; yet even at the grave we make our song, Alleluia, alleluia, alleluia.”

That is where our hopes lies. Our faith tells us that, in the end, death does not win. Sickness does not win. The grave does not win. God is more powerful than all of that. God is a God life. God is a God of the living. God is a God of life that does not end. And because of our faith, we almost audaciously are able to say, “alleluia” in the face of death. We are able to say that “alleluia” in defiance of death and all that it stands for.

So let us look, with Marvin, at the journey ahead. Let us, in this sad moment, look forward down the road to those cool, green hills ahead of us. And, knowing that Marvin and all our loved ones—that whole cloud of witnesses—are there waiting for us with our God—we can go on. We can move forward without despairing. And we can follow a road that now at times might seems rough and uneven but that will even out and be straight as we journey toward our living God.

Amen.

Wednesday, November 21, 2007

Prayers for the soul of my Uncle Marvin Olson

I ask your prayers for the soul of my uncle, Marvin Olson, who died this morning, Nov. 21, at the Veteran’s Hospital in Fargo.

I will preside at the Burial Office at West Funeral Home in West Fargo at 11:00 AM Sat. Nov. 24. His ashes will be buried afterward in the family plot in Sunset Memorial Gardens in Fargo.

I also request your prayers for his children, Renaye, Mitchell, Shayne and Robin and their families.

Also please pray for my mother, Joyce and her sister, Shirley.

Father of all, we pray to you for Marvin, and for all those whom we love but see no longer. Grant to them eternal rest. Let light perpetual shine upon them. May his soul, and the souls of all the departed, through the mercy of God, rest in peace. Amen.

Thanksgiving Eve

November 21, 2007
Chapel of the Resurrection
Gethsemane Episcopal Cathedral
Fargo

John 6.26-35

In the Name of God, Father+ Son and Holy Spirit. Amen.

Tomorrow is, of course, Thanksgiving. It is a time in which we can and should think about all the blessings of our lives and express our thanks for them—to God and to one another.

One of my favorite topics on this holiday is the topic of grace. In today’s Gospel, we find Jesus talking about the manna that God sent to the Israelites as they wandered in the wilderness. As we prepare for Thanksgiving—as we think about the blessings of our lives and all the goodness God has given to us, what I find so amazing is how the truly wonderful things in our lives—the things we cherish the most—are the things we haven’t asked for. This is what grace is all about. Grace is that which God gives us even when we haven’t asked for it nor even fully deserve it.

I usually talk about grace at weddings, because, for the most part, marriage is an example of grace in our midst. People come into our lives we don’t ask for, we don’t even know how to ask for, but who are still given to us. And the joy and contentment they bring is the greatest gift any of us can ever expect.

Children are another example of grace. No one fully realizes the blessings a child will give to one’s life until they come into our midst.

There are countless other graces we have in our lives that we are no doubt thankful for. Especially in the cases of marriage and children, these graces change our lives. We are never again who were before they came into our lives.

And that, I think, is the sign of true Grace. True grace transforms us and makes us different—and hopefully better—than who were before.

Probably the greatest grace in our lives—and the one we might not fully appreciate—is the one Jesus speaks of in today’s Gospel. The greatest Grace in our lives, is none other than Jesus himself. For the Israelites, wandering in the wilderness, hungry and anxious, God provided them manna from heaven—bread that literally fell upon them from the sky for them to eat. For us, our Manna is more substantial. Our Manna is the Bread which comes to us to feed us in such a way that we will never feel hungry again. It is the Bread that will not feed this body, which will die on us and be disposed of, but the Bread which will feed our souls, which will feed that part of us which will live forever. The Bread Jesus speaks of in today’s Gospel is Jesus himself. And it is Jesus whom we should be most thankful for.

Jesus’ presence in our life, the fact that in him we see God—God who came to us like manna from heaven, in flesh like our flesh, and who, by dying, destroyed that which we feared the most—death—that is something we didn’t ask for. We are probably unable to even know how to ask for such a gift. And yet, unasked for, Jesus came to us and fed us with his own Body. Unasked for, God provided us with life in a way we still don’t fully appreciate or understand.

Jesus came to us, like manna falling upon us as we wandered about in our personal wilderness, and fed us in a way we didn’t even realized we could be fed. This is the ultimate grace in our midst. This is the ultimate gift for us.

So, tomorrow, as you gather with your loved ones, as you take that time to inventory the blessings and all the good things in your life, don’t forget to be thankful for that ultimate Grace in your life—Jesus who is everything we need and long for and strive for.

Jesus—our Manna from heaven.

Jesus—our living Bread of life.

And thank God for the Grace above Graces, for the Grace that that is him.


Sunday, November 11, 2007

24 Pentecost

November 11, 2007
St. Mark’s Lutheran Church
Fargo, North Dakota

Luke 20.27-38

We have to give the Sadducees credit. They were smooth and smart. They knew how to present a sly argument without being blatant. And they did believe that by bringing up the resurrection, they would show Jesus to be the fool and the charlatan.

For the Sadducees, the resurrection was a fairy tale. It was something gullible people hoped in. It was absurd and ridiculous.

And there are some Christians today who feel the same way about the resurrection. The fact is the Resurrection—and our belief in it—is very important. In some circles, belief in the Resurrection is a litmus test for one’s orthodoxy.

I know of a former parishioner who later joined the Eastern Orthodox Church over his belief in the Resurrection. He refused to receive Communion from priests and pastors he knew did not believe in the Resurrection. In fact, one of the first questions he would ask a new priest when he would meet them is: So what do you believe regarding the Resurrection? I luckily passed that test, but not without a good deal of spiritual searching and struggling.

The fact is, we still have Sadducees in our midst. I was reared, theologically, on thinkers who did not hold the Resurrection up very highly. The theologians who captured my imagination in my twenties were people like John Shelby Spong, the former Episcopal Bishop of Newark, New Jersey. One of the first books of his I read was called Resurrection: Myth or Reality? I don’t think I’m giving the end away by saying that Bishop Spong’s answer to that question was: Myth. Bishop Spong believed that there was no resurrection—rather that whatever resurrection one believed in was purely metaphorical. Yes, Jesus died on the cross. Yes, he lives on among those of who believe in him. But there was no bodily resurrection. In fact, in this book, Spong asserts his belief that Jesus’ body was probably taken down from the cross and given to the dogs to feed on. The tomb is empty, Spong said. Yes, but not because of any supernatural events. The tomb is empty and Jesus is not here because he was never there in the first place.

It was interesting to read these works of Bishop Spong and I still find them interesting. But I don’t necessarily believe them. I know that Jesus is resurrected. I know it because I have encounter him and continue to encounter him as resurrected over and over again in my life. I have encountered him in the people I have served alongside in the Church and in the world. I have encountered him at hospital bedsides, at funerals, at burials. I continue to encounter him whenever we gather together to hear him speak to us in His Word and to share his Body and his Blood here at the altar. And with each of those encounters, I know full well that because he is resurrected, I too will be resurrected with him. And that wherever the resurrected Lord is in the future, I will be there too.

This is what we believe as Christians. And if anyone says it is not important to believe in the resurrection, I say that it is. Whenever I hear people say that those basic beliefs many of us take for granted are not important—or are simply fairy tales we hold on to so we can continue on in a kind of trace-like hope, I find myself digging in my heels a bit.

The other night I was having supper with a Pastor friend from the United Church of Christ. The U.C.C. has often been referred to as Unitarian Considering Christ, because of the views of some of their pastors regarding such issues as the Trinity and the resurrection. He was telling me about a candidate for ordination he was interviewing who informed him that she did not believe in the Trinity—in God as Father, Son and Holy Spirit. He had to inform her that despite whatever popular positions people had about the U.C.C., belief in the Triune God was essential.

I am of a similar opinion regarding churches like the ELCA and the Episcopal Church. As much as I like Bishop Spong and as much as I enjoy reading his works, I have a problem with someone who professes to be an Episcopal Christian saying that he does not believe in those essential tenets of that church. It is essential that we actually believe what we profess and what we pray.

Every Sunday we gather, we profess our faith in the words of the Creed. The Creed—whether the Apostle’s Creed or the Nicene Creed—is essential for understanding who are as Christians and what we believe. What we profess in those creeds is our belief in the Triune God. We believe in God, the Father, almighty. We believe in Jesus Christ, his only son our Lord. We believe in the Holy Spirit. And we profess our belief in the resurrection—and not only in Jesus’ resurrection, but in the resurrection of the body—our body—as well.

Now, does that mean, that I believe in a literal interpretation of that profession? Do I truly believe that one day, all the graves will be opened and the physical bodies we have buried will rise up to meet with our spirits in heaven, or do I believe that the seas will give up their dead? I think the imagery of that sort that we find in scripture is beautiful and helps us to wrap our minds around the resurrection. But I also believe that our understanding of such things allows for a certain freedom of movement.

I often use the image of jazz to explain what it is we believe. In jazz, there is a certain musical structure one has to abide by. There’s a frame work, shall we say. Within that framework, a jazz musician has the freedom to do many things. But they still have to stay within that basic framework.

I feel the same way about our faith as Christians. The Creeds give us that very basic framework. There are certain things we simply need to believe to be Christians. We need to believe in God as Trinity. Because we believe in the Trinity, we need to believe in the Incarnation—in the belief that Jesus is God in the flesh—true God and true Man. And because he is God in the flesh, we need to believe that Jesus, after he died on the Cross, was resurrected. And we need to believe that, because he died and was resurrected, we too, when we die, will be resurrected as well. There’s the framework.

When we start becoming too specific, we start losing something of the beauty of our faith. We lose the purity and the poetry of our faith. When we start trying to examine too closely how the resurrection will happen and when it will happen and how a pile of bones or cremated remains or a body destroyed in the sea can be resurrected into another body, we find ourselves derailed.

What we do know, however is that what the resurrection promises is a new body. We will be given new bodies unlike our present bodies. And these new bodies will reflect our new resurrected lives. The whole basis of what Jesus is getting at in today’s Gospel, in this discourse on marriage, is that the resurrection is not, as the great theologian Reginald Fuller, said, “a prolongation of our present life, but a new mode of existence.”

We will still be us, but we will be living on a different level—with a different understanding of what it means to be alive. Issues like marriage, will no longer be an issue. Now some of us might despair at that fact. We want to know that when we awake into the resurrected life, we will have our families there, our spouses and our loved ones. I have no doubt that our loved ones will be there, but it will be different. We will have a truly fulfilled and complete relationship with all of our loved ones, and also with those who we may not have loved. What this leads us to is, at the same time, a glimpse of the freedom that we will gain at the resurrection.

Just as some things such as marriage will no longer be an issue, all those other issue we are dealing with now in our lives and in the church will also no longer be with us. The issues that divide us as a church, as a community—issues of sexuality or differing religious views or race or culture, will all be done away with at the resurrection.

And these bodies too will be done away with as well. These bodies that will fail us and betray us—these bodies that will die on us and be buried and molder in the ground or be burned will no longer be a part of who we are anymore. We will be given, at the resurrection, in some way we cannot fully comprehend or fathom in this moment, new bodies, that will not fail us, that will not betray us, that will not die. We will, at the resurrection, be made whole and complete and perfect, in Christ, who is perfect.

The reason we know this is because the God we serve—the God we have gathered together to worship this morning, is not a God of the dying bodies we have with us now. The God we serve and worship is a God of the living. When Jesus identifies God as the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac and the God of Jacob, he is saying that Abraham, Isaac and Jacob are alive and that their God is the God of the living—the God of us who, because of Christ, will not die.

So, Resurrection is important to us. Don’t let anyone tell you otherwise. Resurrection is so important to us, despite what the Sadducees in our midst tell us. Resurrection is essential to our faith, because in it we have not only met and faced death , but because Jesus met and faced it first, because Jesus, by his resurrection, destroyed death and rose above it, we know that we will too. Death no longer has control over it. It longer has any power in our lives. The power and strength of death has been defeated in the resurrection. In the resurrection, we have the almost audacious ability to say, at the grave, that power-packed word of life: Alleluia.

So, ignore the Sadducees in our midst—those glitzy, smooth voices of supposed reason that lull us into believing that the resurrection is a fantasy. Resist any voices that wrestle that hope away from us. Because it is our faith in the resurrection that will truly sustain us in those moments of doubt and despair, in those moments when death and darkness seem to have won out, when our hope has waned. For our God is not a God of the dead, but of the living. Our God is a God of life. And only in life can we fully and truly serve God.