Thursday, 02 June 2011 00:00

"Gratitude in the Midst of Grief", May 29, 2011

“Gratitude in the Midst of Grief”
Isaiah 65:17-25
Diane K. Hooge
May 29, 2011

It had been two generations since the people of Jerusalem had celebrated the end of their exile in Babylon and had returned to their beloved city.  They returned with all their hopes and dreams along with the promises from the prophets who spoke about how God would build a new Temple set within a sparkling city (Ezek. 40-48).  So, they collectively visualized the pile of rubble that had been their beloved Temple being transformed back to its original magnificence.  They pictured the broken walls of their city being restored in such a manner that they would again feel secure.  And, they imagined the gravel pits that were former neighborhoods being restored along with the market place.

The painful reality was that

-Their re-built Temple was a shabby shadow of the past grandeur of Solomon’s era.  I suspect that if it rained they were fighting with sump pumps and trying to track down why the water in the sanctuary kept leaking in through the roof.

-There were still piles of rubble which stood as monuments to past neighborhoods.

-And the walls of the city had not been re-built.

In the midst of despair, in the midst of seemingly shattered dreams, came members of the community who began to hear the prophetic vision with new ears.  They began to speak about a New Jerusalem that transcended the rubble of the past and the fading Temple blueprints.

These new voices spoke about God’s view of a New Jerusalem. Not a stone and mortar Jerusalem – but a New Jerusalem that came from transformed hearts.  This poet of Isaiah is convinced that God is in control.


As I read and studied today’s text, I was drawn to my own story of taking a family road trip earlier this month.  When I married Ken Hooge, I wasn’t just marrying into a family that attended a Mennonite Brethren Church; I was marrying into an ethnic culture, based on a Mennonite Brethren movement. I was blessed to be accepted as a daughter-in-law coming in from outside. In past generations, I would have been referred to as “English”, and perhaps not been accepted. I joined a tightly woven family history that can trace its roots back to Mennonites who migrated from the Netherlands to Prussia.  They were enticed by Catherine the Great’s invitation to farm the vast Russian land of the Ukraine in exchange for freedom to live out their faith by not serving in the military.  Our bookshelves hold many books on the Mennonite heritage and we can trace each family member going back generations.  I have cookbooks that offer traditional recipes such as; Pluma Moos, Roll Kuchen, Verenica, Swieback, and Bubbat.  All of this d is in contrast to my family where I have vague information on my great- grandparents, and nothing in writing, not even any recipes from my grandmothers.

In 1980, Ken and I took a pilgrimage to the then Soviet Union led by a professor at the Mennonite Brethren Tabor College in Hillsboro, Kansas.

We went to the former colonies where the Russian Mennonites had not only successful farms but had built villages and town, established manufacturing mills and industrial enterprises.  We saw the remnant of a girl’s school and a school for the deaf. We heard the stories of how many within the community became very wealthy employing Russian help in their homes and fields and learned of how they became suspect because of their wealth.  We also heard the stories of how many had lost the passion of their faith as they gained prosperity. The final push to leave Russia came in l874 when the passage of the universal military service law was put in place.

Between the years 1874-1880, 18,000 Russian Mennonites immigrated to America.

It was this kind of heritage that called to Ken and his brother Paul to retrace the steps of their own family of origin. On May 12th we launched our Hooge Roots tour. Paul and Bonnie pulled their 5th wheeler, and we rented a 22 foot trailer complete with a furnace that sounded like a 747 taking off each time it blasted on throughout our cold nights on the plains of Nebraska, South Dakota and North Dakota as we retraced the history of their parents, Henry Hooge and Anna Fast Hooge.  We stopped in Mountain Lake MN, where Grandpa Jacob Hooge first bought and worked the land, before heading for bigger opportunities in Munich North Dakota, where Ken’s Dad and siblings were born and grew up.  The family farm went to the youngest son, and now has been passed on to the next generation.

The most touching moment for me was visiting the old site of the Rosehill Mennonite Brethren Church, where the lovingly cared for cemetery still stands with its graves of pioneer Mennonite family members. Members came together with the common collective bonds of those who entered into the hardships of the new land with its sod houses, or when there was enough money, small frame houses, that were the only protection on a land known for its piercing and ever present wind while plowing unbroken fields, weathering droughts, blizzards and crop failures.

We have a church pew in our home that was purchased from the auction that took place in l992 when the church closed its doors. When it became clear that no faith community was going to buy it’s building,  the church chose to hold its final service, and then burn down the building, rather than risk having it be turned into a feed storage building as had happened with past churches in Russia.

We saw first-hand how many vacant farm homes there are in North Dakota where families can no longer survive on smaller farms.  We heard the grief of family members who have no one to pass on their land, and we heard the pain of others who cannot take up farming because the land is now too expensive to buy.

Going home can be difficult and at times costly. On this Memorial Day weekend, we know that it can be costly for soldiers—soldiers who have been diagnosed with PTSD? It can be costly for any of us.

On this holiday weekend, some of us might find ourselves back at a family table.  If you are like me, gathering at a family reunion means that I often wrestle with wanting to enjoy any common bond that can be mustered, while at the same time monitoring how much to speak my truth politically or otherwise related to my values.  Returning home can be joy-filled, and it has the possibility of triggering unresolved issues carried deep within us.  Sometimes we choose, for good or bad, to refrain from acknowledging or acting on what we see and feel.

We learn early in life what the rules are, and IF we abide by them, we can assure a certain level or safety…or do we?  What price do we pay if we don’t speak the truth? And, what price do we pay when we do?

With the ancient ritual of being anointed, the prophet’s role was to speak with authority.  They came into familiar towns with fresh vision.  They pushed, prodded, and annoyed a great many folks who considered them to be meddling.  They carried the truth that oppression and poverty isn’t just about not having money.  Prophets knew that there were plenty of prisoners who did not live behind bars.

The thrust of Isaiah 65 could be viewed as pie in the sky…but is it?

The prophet/poet is convinced that God is in control.  The writer lists the grief that plagues humankind and fosters despair.  The hope that is held in this text is that sin—that which separates us from longer has a power hold over us.  God brings healing and wholeness.  In the mystery of hearing with new ears, segments of the population are bringing a new understanding.  People who have given up on their dreams are reclaiming them in the belief that God is bringing about a new heaven and a new earth to those who are faithful.  They believe that God is inviting them to open themselves to transformation in order to live into a new harmony.  William Bridges in his book, Managing Transitions opens his book with these words, “It isn’t the changes that do you in, it’s the transitions.”  Letting go can be brutally hard work.

For the people of our text returning to Jerusalem demanded that they let go of “the way it used to be”.  They had to let go of what was familiar for the generations that went before them.

For the Mennonites of Munich, North Dakota, they had to let go of “the way it used to be”.  They had to let go of the setting of their parents and grandparents.  They learned that the call on their lives was not to live in insular Mennonite communities, but to join in with other communities of faith and to become more inclusive.

One of the great gifts of a faith community is the collective strength of holding on to hope.  In the midst of ten plus years of war in Iraq and Afghanistan expected to have cost 1.29 Trillion at the end of this year,  in the midst of global warming, in the midst of incredible losses by record setting tornadoes, we of the faith community must hang on to the hope offered us.  What we do know is that a new heaven and a new earth often follows a long and deep period of grief.

Jon Powers did not plan to become a soldier.  He wanted to be a teacher.  He joined the ROTC because the program paid for his college.  He graduated in 2000 with a degree in education, and a second Lieutenant’s bar and a debt to his nation.  He began in Germany, found himself in Afghanistan, and ultimately ended up in a suburb of Baghdad. His time was extended in Iraq.  He became aware of how the children were paying a huge price for the war.  He visited a Baghdad orphanage called St. Hannah’s.  One of the nuns took him aside and told him not to come again, because if the insurgents saw the American soldiers visiting the orphanage again, she said, they would massacre the children.

Jon Powers tells the story that it was in that moment, that the idea for War Kids Relief was born.  After arriving home in 2005, the kids in the orphanage continued to weigh on his heart.  His biggest concern was that they were not in school.  As Jon put it, “…it doesn’t matter where you stand on the war.  These kids had nothing to do with it.”  Working with a Veterans organization, and partnering with the Iraqi Ministry of Youth and Sports, he hopes to raise the funds to begin a pilot project to launch a youth center.  Out of his exile in war has come transformation. Jon Powers has been given a new vision. He longs to bring a new heaven and a new earth to the children of Iraq.

We are invited into the story of our text.  The poet of Isaiah invites us to look at God’s sustaining grace in a new way.  God is inviting those who have experienced the grief of exile to turn their hostility, their pain and their losses into hospitality.   We are invited to see to ourselves as change agents; people who while clinging to God, dare to risk opening ourselves to transformation.  We’re called to be people who risk creating space for the stranger.  We’re invited to be partners with God in those places in the world where a new heaven and a new earth are being created.  May it be so.  Amen.