good grief

IMG_1001

Mom’s cancer, with relentless, rapacious appetite, spread from her lungs to her brain, then to her brain lining. Her decline, swift, over the sparest number of weeks, and savage, instant by inexorably passing instant, stripping her of bodily function and proffering only pain.

On April 28, 2017, Geneva Theodosia Reynolds Mack Watkins, the mother of my wife, my mother in law, a proverbial force of nature, yea, verily, nature itself in the immensity of her love, died.

IMG_1002

Since then, I have watched and continue to watch Geneva’s daughter, my wife, Pontheolla, grieve, embracing her sorrowing, weeping heart and soul…

through those initial moments of her acknowledgement of the inevitable; the oncologist saying those dreaded, yet essential and candid words, “There is nothing more we can do”…

through the calling of family members and friends, receiving, responding to their questions, “How?” “When?” “Why?”, accepting, answering their expressions of concern with a  gracious “Thank you”, a slight and earnest nod, a sympathizing falling tear, soon followed by a pitying flood…

through the planning of mom’s funeral, truly, justly a celebration of her life supremely, freely, fully, faithfully well lived; the testimonials from persons from ev’ry path of her earthly being and doing; the songs of praise and the prayers to God, all bidding, believing in her gladsome greeting in the heavenly habitations…

through engaging mom’s affairs – initiating probate, closing accounts, and cleaning her home, sorting through the years of the daily accumulations of living, but more, existentially, spiritually, moving through her space still warm and welcoming with the manifold memories of times spent luxuriating in the wealth of her hospitality…

and through every day and counting since, Pontheolla hails as blessed her ev’ry reminiscence, honors as the bounty of her holy sorrow her ev’ry tear, holds fast to her ev’ry thanksgiving for the nonpareil grace of God incarnate in the life and love of her mother…

Hers is good grief.

getting up and going out

a sermon, based on Genesis 12.1-4 and John 3.1-17, preached with the people of Epiphany Episcopal Church, Laurens, SC, on the 2nd Sunday in Lent, March 12, 2017

God calls Abraham and Sarah[1] to “Go from your country, your family, your home to a land I will show you. I will make you a great nation.”

What a promise! Abraham and Sarah are of seasoned years, content with their life, comfortable in their land. And with no children, it is impossible to become “a great nation”; to be father and mother of countless generations. Nevertheless they get up and go out, according to a latter first century Christian writer, “not knowing where (they were) going.”[2]

Abram's Counsel to Sarai (1898-1902), James Tissot (1836-1902)

What commitment! What courage! And, considering what happened afterward, what madness! Abraham was nearly one-hundred years of age and Sarah, ninety, before a child, Isaac, was born;[3] preceded by a prophetic angelic announcement, which, utterly unbelievable, made Sarah burst into incredulous, riotous laughter.[4] When Isaac came of age, God called Abraham to kill his son, which, as a test that Abraham passed without having to fulfill the deed,[5] would have been tantamount to Abraham and Sarah, already forsaking their past, relinquishing their future!

God calls Abraham and Sarah to “leave (their) country.” They didn’t and couldn’t know what was to come. Nevertheless, they got up and went.

Nicodemus is a “a leader of the Jews”, a Pharisee , a living, breathing authority on God’s Law, its interpretation and application, a member of the Sanhedrin, the highest governing body of ancient Judaism.

He, like Abraham and Sarah, gets up and goes out. Unlike Abraham and Sarah, Nicodemus knows where he is going. He seeks Jesus, who, it has been reported, at a wedding feast in Cana of Galilee, miraculously turned water into wine,[6] and then in Jerusalem, audaciously drove merchants and money changers from the Temple, declaring their rapacious commerce a violation of God’s will.[7] Nicodemus, looking for this wonder-worker Jesus, goes out “by night.”

Why? Perhaps Nicodemus, mindful of his role as a guardian of the faith and a guide for the faithful, wants to know whether Jesus is real or fake. Or perhaps Nicodemus dares not to be seen for fear of ridicule, even rebuke by his fellow Pharisees for falling for the Jesus-hype. Or perhaps John the evangelist, who uses darkness and light to symbolize the state of one’s soul, is saying something about Nicodemus. That there’s an itch, a vexing question, immune to ready answer or quick resolve, that Nicodemus, despite the great reach of his intellect and wisdom, can’t scratch.

Nicodemus finds Jesus. Cautious, he tries flattery: “Rabbi, we know you are a teacher from God.” Jesus replies with a cryptic word about rebirth. Nicodemus can’t imagine how this can be. Jesus then speaks of Spirit, like wind, coming and going, blowing where it will.

Interview between Jesus and Nicodemus (Entretien de Jésus et de Nicodème) (1886), James Tissot (1836-1902)

Reflecting on Jesus’ words, we may think of the spiritual life; the life lived of, in, and with God. Or the spirit of life; that awareness that one has life and that recognition of why one has been born; that sense of the truth, the purpose of one’s life. Either way, God or life, it’s the sort of thing not easily known or readily understood that can keep us up at night vexed by unanswerable questions, calling us to get up and go out, metaphorically or literally, not knowing where we are going.

Will we embark on that journey? If so, blessedly, we have Abraham, Sarah, and Nicodemus as biblical models of those who take that journey in search of their truth about who and why they are. They are biblical mentors whose stories remind and warn us that this journey is no once-in-a-lifetime, short, risk-free trip on a sunlit trail just around the corner within the boundaries of a familiar land, but rather often is a continuous, long perilous trek on a shadowy path over alien terrain far from home.

Even more, they tell us that honest ignorance, more than haughty knowledge is the common condition of being on this journey and sometimes what we know or think we know won’t, can’t help us.

Still more, they tell us that this journey is necessary. That this journey not taken is a discovery about ourselves unmade. That on this journey, our faith, our confidence and conviction, will be stirred and shaken. That we must be courageous, for frequently we will be afraid. That this journey of getting up and going out often not knowing where we are going is as important as where we find ourselves at journey’s end.

It is Lent. For us, as Christians, Jesus is our model and mentor. He journeys to Jerusalem toward his truth about who and why he is. His story confirms everything that Abraham, Sarah, and Nicodemus have told us.

Jesus calls us to follow him. Will we?

 

Illustrations:

Abram’s Counsel to Sarai (1898-1902), James Tissot (1836-1902). When I study this painting, especially Sarai’s countenance and posture, it strikes me that she is not wholly convinced about following God’s call to “Go from your country, your family, your home to a land I will show you. I will make you a great nation.”

Interview between Jesus and Nicodemus (Entretien de Jésus et de Nicodème) (1886), James Tissot (1836-1902)

Footnotes:

[1] Note: At the beginning of the Abraham-Sarah story, their given names are Abram and Sarai, which God later will change, signifying a new status (see Genesis 17.5, 15: [God said] “No longer shall your name be Abram, but your name shall be Abraham for I have made you’re the ancestor of a multitude of nations…As for Sarai…Sarah shall be her name.”) However, in preaching, for the sake of clarity, consistency, and less confusion for the congregation, I use Abraham and Sarah.

[2] Hebrews 11.8

[3] See Genesis 21.1-3.

[4] See Genesis 18.1-12.

[5] See Genesis 22.1-18.

[6] See John 2.1-11

[7] See John 2.13-17

a-Lenten-prayer-a-day, day 6, Tuesday, March 7, 2017

my-hands-2-27-17Note: As a personal, spiritual discipline, I write a prayer for each of the forty days of Lent; each petition focusing on a theme, truly, relating to a care or concern weighing on my mind and heart, at times, vexing my soul and spirit…

On signs: O God of wonder, in Your gracious Governance, You gave unto Your people, sojourning through the wilderness from captivity to liberty, the guidance by day of a pillar of cloud and, by night, a pillar of fire.[1] Many a day, many a time during these days, life, for me, seems…is barren of ease, desolate of comfort, bounding on every side with ravenous beasts of fear and anger, suspicion and reproach. Send, O God, a sign of Your abiding Presence and abundant Power to help me hold in the hands of my prayers the heart of my hope that come whate’er, whene’er, howe’er, I may rest in Your Love. Amen.

Footnote:

[1] See Exodus 13.21-22

it’s about righteousness

Washington Diocese of the Episcopal Church

a sermon, based on Matthew 3.13-17, preached with the people of Epiphany Episcopal Church, Laurens, SC, on the 1st Sunday after the Epiphany, January 8, 2017

Of this life, it hath been said that there are two significant moments from which all else comes. Without the first, one’s birth, the inauguration of life in this world, there is nothing else. Without the second, what I will term one’s rebirth, the revelation or awareness of who one is and why one was born, nothing else matters.

So, for Jesus. It is no accident that the church first celebrates his birth at Christmas and follows immediately with the season of Epiphany, the principal proclamation being who Jesus is and why he was born. Epiphany declares that Jesus’ life and Messianic ministry are unconditional and universal. For all people. To the whole world.

So, for the church, Epiphany is a prime season to celebrate baptism. Yes, the initiatory rite of welcome into the life of the community of the followers of Jesus, yet it is more! Through baptism, we ritually, symbolically point to this truth of our lives. We are to be like Jesus and to do as Jesus for all people, to the whole world. We remind ourselves of this reality, our reality every time we ask, in the words of the Baptismal Covenant, will we “seek and serve Christ in all persons, loving our neighbors as ourselves and will we strive for justice and peace among all people and respect the dignity of every human being”?[1]

To accentuate this point about the unconditionality and universality of Jesus’ life and ministry and our share in it, today we read Matthew’s gospel account of Jesus’ baptism that recounts a conversation no other evangelist – Mark, Luke, or John – recalls.

the-baptism-of-jesus-bapteme-de-jesus-1886-1894-james-tissot-1836-1902-brooklyn-museum

John the baptizer proclaimed that God’s Messiah was coming, the preparation for which was a baptism of repentance; washing in water as a sign of one’s cleansing and choosing to forsake selfish self-interest for the sake of God’s will. Jesus is God’s Messiah. Yet he, who needs no repentance, submits to baptism. Why? John, surprised, shocked by the irony, the nonsense of it, would refuse. But Jesus says, “Just do it, John! It’s about righteousness!”

Righteousness. Not merely a moral quality of virtue, even rightness, but rather that state of being in line, in league with God’s purposes for humankind. In other words, Jesus submitted to a baptism that he didn’t need to signify his decision to share in the truth – the “who” and the “why” – of human life.

That truth is about righteousness. About being aligned with God’s will. About whether you and I dare decide daily to submit to the strength of the Holy Spirit to be and do as Jesus is and does.

Our earthly nativity, being born in flesh in this world happens once for each of us. Our epiphany, our revelation of who we are and why we are born is a repeatable historical event. As long as life lasts, there are epiphanies, revealing to us, clarifying for us, deepening our awareness of why we were born.

My sense of why I was born, which I began to appreciate more fully and understand more deeply a bit more than ten years ago (for I am a slow learner!), is grounded in my interpretation of Jesus’ gospel of love and justice. I was born to do, to be love and justice for all people, always, and when I fail, trusting in the ever-present strength of the Holy Spirit to strive to love justly and just love again.

That is righteousness for me. What is righteousness for you? Why have you been born?

 

Photograph: me preaching at The Washington National Cathedral, Friday, January 27, 2006 (by Walt Calahan)

Illustration: The Baptism of Jesus (Baptême de Jésus) (1886-1894), James Tissot (1836-1902), Brooklyn Museum

Footnote:

[1] The Book of Common Prayer, page 305 (my paraphrase and emphases)

facing another way, part 5 of 5

thinkinga biblical and personal reflection, based on Matthew 2.1-12, for the Feast of the Epiphany, January 6, 2017

January. Named for Janus, the Roman mythological god of gates and doors, entries and exits, beginnings and endings; often depicted with a double-faced head, one looking to what was, the other to what is to come.

janus-detail-of-the-nave-ceiling-art-of-the-abbey-church-of-waltham-holy-cross-and-st-lawrence-waltham-abbey-essex-england

A fitting image, matching the lovely story of magi following a star, finding a transforming revelation in a Bethlehem born baby, returning home by another way, looking back and looking forward.

the-journey-of-the-magi-1894-james-tissot-1836-1902

A fitting image for our stories, we who have entered a new year.

Still, I think there must be less, therefore more to life than this simple, swivel-headed, potentially dizzying experience of looking back to what was, what is known, what is “once upon a time” and looking forward to what is to come, what is unknown, what is not yet in time. If looking back and forward is all or even much of what we do, then, I think, we can miss and will miss what is most true.

For between the two countenances of Janus, one peering into the past, the other gazing into the future, we see his true face – invisible, incapable of representation, for it looks always at the present.

The present. This instant moment, the immediate moment, the only moment in which you and I, with all who we are and all that we have, can be.

The magi came from afar, found the one for whom they had searched, and “left for their own country by another road.” Maybe this was their epiphany, the light of insight they experienced at Bethlehem. Maybe this is how they were changed. To live in each present moment, bringing, being all that they would, all that they could be.

Maybe this is a fitting, faithful reminder for you and for me in 2017.

 

Illustrations:

Janus, from the Nave ceiling of The Abbey Church of Waltham Holy Cross and St Lawrence, Waltham Abbey, Essex, England

The Journey of the Magi (1894), James Tissot (1836-1902)

facing another way, part 2 of 5

thinkinga personal reflection in anticipation of the Feast of the Epiphany, January 6, 2017

We, sharing our common human life’s journey, have entered a new year. We look forward. Yet, as 2016 remains fresh in our memories, we (surely, I!), on occasion, glance over our shoulders, looking back, recalling some telling, touching moment, some thrilling, perhaps, too, tragic event.

Especially at the beginning of a new year, as we evaluate the last and hold expectation for the next, as we remember yesterday and make resolution for tomorrow, we are decidedly two-faced.  Not deceitful, but rather looking simultaneously in opposite directions, to the past and toward the future.

Looking back, what epiphanies do you see? What revelations, what “Aha!” moments did you experience? And how have you been changed?

More to come…

freed to be(come)

At an early morning klatch with two friends over vanilla lattes (I had my regular, boring black coffee) we, per custom, talked about current events, our families, health concerns, and job-related issues. coffee

After nearly an hour, our, really their conversation shifted to religion and spirituality. For the next few minutes, I was a privileged listener as they shared vulnerable, introspective words about their journeys. (Some details I knew. Some, not. Nevertheless, I was reminded that knowing something about another is not the same as knowing another.) I was touched, moved at my core. With their permission, I share their testimonies.

“I was born into a church-going family and raised never to question my beliefs, which weren’t really mine. As soon as I could choose, I left church. Later, almost by accident, I stumbled through the door of one in my neighborhood. It felt warm and welcoming. For the first time in my life, I was invited to question what I believed or what I thought I believed. I feel liberated to find myself in ways I’ve never known.”

“My parents were pretty eclectic. They dabbled, sampling a bit of this and that. We moved a lot, too, resettling every few years. I learned tolerance, but I wasn’t sure I believed anything. Here’s where my story’s similar. When I grew up, driven by some vague yearning for connection, I looked for a church. I found one. Teaching the faith is central. Still, questioning is encouraged, even expected. ‘Liberated’ is a good word. I now understand that I believe and what I believe. And I’ve gained a new, deeper sense of myself.”

This morning, thinking of my friends, I reflected on these words: Do not remember the things of old. I, your God, am doing a new thing.

Isaiah prophesied to a captive people in Babylon, who longingly remembered the centuries-old flight to freedom of their forebears from Egypt. Isaiah called the Israelites not to look back to that exodus, but forward to their release from bondage, declaring that this new thing would be liberation and transformation. In that first exodus, the people passed through desert that remained desert. In this new exodus, the people would pass through wasteland remade: “I will make a way in the wilderness and rivers in the desert.” river in desert2

Did rivers flow in the desert? Probably not. But that’s not the point. The prophecy wasn’t about wilderness, but people. They were to be transformed. Freed to be and to become who they were created to be: “I give water in the wilderness, rivers in the desert, to give drink to my people, those whom I formed for myself to declare my praise.”

My friends, liberated from their pasts, felt transformed. Or perhaps they, believing themselves transformed, felt liberated. I don’t think it matters. For a commonality of their experience, one that works in either direction, is community, which, bearing gifts of challenge and acceptance, grants freedom to be and to become.

This I continue to relearn through the communities in which I, paraphrasing a prayer, live and move and have my being. I am challenged by criticism earnestly given and praise honestly bestowed. I am called to be truthful about myself, to live authentically; more honest, present, responsible, response-able, and when I fall short to try again.

As it was for Israel, for my friends, and for me, so I believe for all: People make a person.

This word, though not daring to call it prophetic, is important for our cyber-connected, hyper/über-cluttered warp speed world. Though community and communication derive from the same root, meaning, to share, we have numerous ways to connect without seeing faces, hearing voices, touching or holding hands. We live moment to atomistic moment, in tightly spiraling, largely non-concentric and separate circles; disengaged from others and ourselves, except in those moments of seemingly random collision that pass for human encounter.

As I believe my friends discovered, it is a radically counter-cultural and ever new thing to seek one’s self and life in community, discerning afresh the truth of that paradox: We can be and become fully our individual selves only with and through others.