good grief

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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.

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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.

Of life in the still-Christian South (a retired cleric’s occasional reflections)…

On public prayer

In South Carolina, folks pray publicly (hence, doubtlessly, I imagine, privately). Saying grace at mealtimes, oft joining hands in a physical and psychic circle of union. Giving audible air to petitions and intercessions at events of commemoration and celebration, moments of tribulation and tranquility, instances extraordinary and mundane. And alway expressing thanksgiving to the God in whose hands abide all times and from whose hands all blessings flow.

Now, with sincerity’s speed, I neither suppose nor suggest that inhabitants of other regions of America do not pray, privately or publicly (or even that the discipline of prayer, given my sense of the manifold individual and, at times, wholly self-serving intentions of those and I who pray, necessarily makes one a better person). I do contend that, here in South Carolina, I have observed more people on more (most!) occasions praying.[1] In a word, in my view prayer is an inherent and ineffaceable part of the sitz im leben, the social context or life setting of the South.

 

Footnote:

[1] Honesty compels my confession that prior to coming South my public profession of prayer usually was restricted to those circumstances when I functioned in a clerical role, whether within the church on Sunday mornings, officiating at weddings, presiding at funerals or other ecclesiastical rites or in the world offering an invocation or benediction at some community gathering. On reflection, I think my reticence stemmed from my desire not to discomfit others – or myself in the company of others – who, consonant with their beliefs, either eschewed devotional practices or reserved them for their individual and familial moments.

Easter people

a sermon, based on John 17.1-11, preached with the people of Epiphany Episcopal Church, Laurens, SC, on the 7th Sunday of Easter, May 28, 2017

Jesus looked up to heaven and said…[1]

On the night before Jesus’ betrayal and arrest, trial and condemnation, crucifixion and death, he gathers with his disciples for a last supper. Following John the evangelist’s narrative of that night, Jesus washes their feet, giving them an example of self-sacrificial, slavish service that he bids they imitate.[2] He tells them again and again who he is in relation to them: “I am the way, the truth, and the life”[3] and “I am the true vine, you are the branches.”[4] In preparing to depart, in preparing them for his departure from them, he gives them his final instructions, chiefly his one and only commandment: “Love one another as I have loved you,”[5] his promise of his abiding presence with them, within them in the Advocate, the Holy Spirit,[6] and his warning of their coming sufferings for his sake.[7]

After Jesus had spoken these words, he looked up to heaven and said…

Here, Jesus prays to God not in some faraway place, not on a mountaintop, not in a garden not apart and away from his disciples, but right there, at table with them, in their presence, in their hearing. And there, in prayer, Jesus defines for them and for us the heart, the point, the greatest gift of Easter: “This is eternal life, that they may know you, the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom you have sent.”

Eternal life is to know God and Jesus. Our knowing is more than our intellectual assent to the idea of God, more than our cognitive awareness of something, Someone greater than we, more than our understanding of the ways and workings of God. To know God and Jesus is to be in relationship with God as Jesus makes God known to us.

And what, Who is the God Jesus makes known? Following the revelations unfolded in the Gospel of John…

God is divine logos, Word; the animating power of the universe. The Word that became our flesh and dwelled among us in Jesus, no longer to be far off, but ever near.[8]

Jesus who went to a wedding feast and changed limpid, life-giving water into vibrant, soul-stirring wine, revealing that God wills to be at the center of our times of joy as well as our moments of sorrow.[9]

Jesus who met with Nicodemus[10] and the Samaritan woman,[11] speaking to both of spiritual things, revealing that God reaches out to all people, the high and the low, the greatest and the least.

Jesus who healed those with broken bodies,[12] fed those with hunger-bloated bellies,[13] forgave the woman caught in adultery, saying, “sin no more”,[14] raised Lazarus from the dead,[15] revealing that God wills all be restored to wholeness and righteousness.

Jesus who promised another Advocate, the Holy Spirit, to abide with us, within us,[16] revealing God’s presence and power to continue Jesus’ ministry of love and justice.

Jesus who prays, “I am no longer in the world, but they are in the world. I am coming to you. Holy Father, protect them in your name that you have given me, so that they may be one, as we are one.”

There is an ancient legend of Jesus’ ascension into heaven. All the heavenly hosts, angels and archangels, cherubim and seraphim, greet his arrival, welcoming him home. The angel Gabriel asks, “O Son of God, what have you done to continue your work on earth?” Jesus answers, “I have disciples whom I called to learn from me. Now, as apostles, I have sent them into the world to teach.” Gabriel, alert to a potentially serious, perhaps fatal flaw in the plan, frowns, asking, “O Son of God, what if they, frail and fearful, forget and fail? What then?” Jesus answers, “I have no other plan.”

We are Easter people. We know God and Jesus. We have eternal life. Therefore, we, in this world, in this day, in this time, in our generation, with God at the center of our lives at all times, are to reach out to all people with hands and hearts that heal and feed and forgive and give life to the dead.

 

Footnotes:

[1] John 17.1

[2] John 13.1-15

[3] John 14.6

[4] John 15.5

[5] John 13.34, 15.12, 17

[6] John 14.16-17, 26

[7] John 15.18-21, 16.2

[8] John 1.1-4, 14

[9] John 2.1-11

[10] John 3.1-17

[11] John 4.7-42

[12] John 5.1-9, 9.1-7

[13] John 6.1-13

[14] John 8.1-11

[15] John 11.1-44

[16] John 14.16, 26

when Jesus advents

Washington Diocese of the Episcopal Church

a sermon, based on Matthew 11.2-11, preached with the people of Epiphany Episcopal Church, Laurens, SC, on 3rd Sunday of Advent, December 11, 2016

Whenever I consider this world’s sickeningly repetitive demonstrations of inhumanity, I say, I shout, “This must stop!” And whenever I feel this rise of righteous indignation, I know I share spiritual kinship with John the baptizer who preached to all who dared listen:

Bear fruit worthy of repentance…

for the ax is at the root of the trees.

Every tree that does not bear good fruit is cut down

and thrown into the fire…

One who is mightier than I is coming…

His winnowing fork is in his hand.

He will clear the threshing floor,

gather the wheat into the granary,

and burn the chaff with unquenchable fire.[1]

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Jesus, whose advent John proclaimed, arrives, but without the expected judgment. John, arrested for disturbing the peace, huddled in a dark prison, still harbors hope for the fulfillment of his prophecy. Hearkening for word that the ax has swung, the winnowing fork has swept, he hears news of Jesus’ ministry, taking sad note that the world continues on its weary, wicked way as though nothing had happened or would happen.

I share John’s disappointment whenever I imagine how life could be or, arrogantly, ought to be or whenever I join in countless prayers and efforts to bring dreams to light and to life, yet behold the vision evaporate in the heat of the world’s stubborn resistance to change. (Truth be told, sometimes my desolation is about my reluctance to engage and enact my vision to do something different, to be someone different.)

Long ago, at moments like these, I’d cry out to God, giving God another chance to prove that God is God, in charge of the world and in control of me. But God always declined my graciously offered opportunities to fulfill my visions. (My disillusionment with God often led to my deeper, personal discouragement, for I believed my dreams were flawed or, worse, false, thus unworthy of being fulfilled as, indeed, I myself, the dreamer of my dreams, must have been.)

Today, I no longer wishfully theologize about a god of my imagining. Yet, after 2000 years of Christianity, in the face of sadly abundant signs of humanly sinful, sin-fueled suffering, I still share John’s soulful lamentation: Jesus, are you the one or must I look for another? Usually, I raise the question in curiosity. For John, imprisoned, awaiting execution, it was a matter of life and death: Jesus, are you the Messiah or has my ministry, my life been a lie?

Now, there are times when John’s cry is an issue of critical concern. Whenever the hungry again plead for bread and the homeless for a bed and an uncaring world shrugs, “There’s no room in the inn!” Whenever a prayer for peace again is drowned out by the deafening sound of war. Whenever the call of the oppressed for freedom again is reduced to a whisper under the weight of bondage. Whenever visions of love again are vanquished and dreams of justice again denied. Whenever and wherever, we might cry: Jesus, are you the Messiah or have we been fools to follow you?

Nevertheless, I believe that John asked his poignant question, yes, in despair, yet also with hope that Jesus would answer. Jesus did answer. Though not saying, “Tell John who I am, that I am the Messiah!” or “Tell John what I say!” but rather, “Tell John what I do. The disabled, diseased, deaf, dead are made whole.”

Yes, the world goes on its weary, wicked way. Jesus never promised anything else. ‘Til Judgment Day, there will be sin and suffering, hunger and homelessness, war and strife. Yet whenever and wherever we, who follow Jesus, do what he did – feed the hungry, clothe the naked, pray and work for freedom and peace, act in love where there is hatred, welcome and acceptance where there is exclusion – there and then Jesus advents, he comes with hope and healing.

John was God’s messenger proclaiming the coming of the Messiah. Yet he could not perceive that Jesus, as Messiah, rules with love, not force, governs with justice, not judgment, whose power is revealed in service and sacrifice, not violence. Therefore, “the least in the kingdom of heaven”, the least of Jesus’ followers, those who behold, however imperfectly, who Jesus is and those who do, however partially, what Jesus does, even we, are greater than John.

 

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

Illustration: St. John the Baptist in the Prison (1565-1570), Juan Fernández de Navarrete (1538-1579), The State Hermitage Museum, St. Petersburg, Russia. Note: John is depicted with his wrists bond, his head bowed and eyes downcast in disconsolation. His camel hair garment (Matthew 3.4, Mark 1.6) lay at his side, above which, partially visible is the head of the staff, often associated with John the Baptist in art, bearing the scrolled Latin inscription, Ecce Agnus Dei, “Behold, the Lamb of God” (see John 1.29, 35).

Footnote:

[1] Matthew 3.8, 10, 11b, 12. From the gospel passage appointed for the 2nd Sunday of Advent.

a Lilliputian prayer

Washington Diocese of the Episcopal Church a sermon, based on Luke 18.9-14, preached with the people of Epiphany Episcopal Church, Laurens, SC, on the 23rd Sunday after Pentecost, October 23, 2016

Sometimes one can be good and inspire intense dislike or bad and dislikable, yet, perhaps paradoxically, useful.

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Jesus tells a parable of two who prayed. One, a Pharisee.

Historically, Pharisees haven’t fared well. “Pharisaical” is a synonym for the hypocrisy of outwardly doing of all the right things, but inwardly being less than true to the values the actions symbolize.

All Pharisees weren’t bad. Indeed, their “job” in Judaism was to know and do God’s Law – all 613 ritual imperatives of Sabbath observances and feast days, dietary rules and tithing. They were to be embodiments of the heart of the Law: love for God and neighbor. Yes, Jesus condemned the Pharisees as legalistically obsessed with externals; more concerned about correct conduct than love or justice.[1] Nevertheless, their role in the life of the community was important, for all of us need outward and visible, at times, living symbols of the values we cherish if we are to know and remember them.

All said, Pharisees were respected, admired, but not well liked. Hard to like someone who rises above us and perhaps looks down on us.

The second actor in Jesus’ two-person drama is a tax collector. A despised collaborator with the hated Roman Empire. A desecrator of the Law, taking money from his own people on behalf of the enemy. A thief who often levied higher amounts than were owed, pocketing the difference.

Tax collectors, seeking to repent, came to John the Baptizer, asking, “What should we do?” John said, “Collect no more than is due!”[2] Zacchaeus, a tax collector, overwhelmed with gratitude that Jesus would come to his home, joyously declared, “If I’ve defrauded anyone, I’ll repay fourfold!”[3] Clearly, tax collecting was profitable; the prosperity often the spoiled fruit of the misery of others.

Nevertheless, the disrespected, despised tax collector was useful as one who falls beneath us and perhaps upon whom we can look down.

So, the Pharisee. In his prayer, his hubristic litany of self-praise, he saw himself as morally superior to the tax collector. And he hadn’t lied. He had done everything he said. But he hadn’t lived the Law. He hadn’t loved. Thus he fulfilled Paul’s sad commentary on a loveless life; blessed with ability and achievement, but lacking compassion for others: “If I speak in the tongues of mortals and angels…if I have prophetic powers…understand all mysteries and all knowledge…and faith…but do not have love, I am nothing.”[4]

The tax collector, in his contrite confession, had gotten nothing right, but everything real, for he hadn’t fallen prey to the temptation of comparison. (Whenever I measure myself against another, I know the risk. Whenever I, by my standards, look for some lesser mortal over whom to exalt myself, I will find that person. Yet inevitably I also will stumble into shadows cast by giants whose Brobdingnagian achievements by comparison make my accomplishments appear Lilliputian.[5]) The tax collector, judging himself only by himself, found himself lacking, compelling his cry for mercy.

As we interpret this tale, it is good for us to remember that Jesus was an intuitive story teller who taught in parables because he wanted us to think for ourselves. I believe Jesus ended the story with the tax collector’s plea: “God, be merciful to me, a sinner!” Luke, writing a generation after Jesus, added the moral to the story, “All who exalt themselves will be humbled, but all who humble themselves will be exalted.” I guess Luke didn’t trust us with our own ruminations.

I think this because the ethical line that Luke draws is too solid and too straight. The Pharisee, outwardly righteous, inwardly flawed. The tax collector, outwardly flawed, inwardly righteous. Nothing in life or human experience is that clear!

So, taking up the story where I believe Jesus left it calls us to recognize that a Pharisee and a tax collector abides within each of us.

Like the Pharisee, we, at times, compare ourselves with others. The cost is that our self-perception and esteem can rise or fall in relation to how we view others. At the same time, we need to claim the pharisaical promise that we are “not like other people”. Each of us is created wonderfully, differently, uniquely, individually. Therefore, there always is something each of us can give to others and receive from others.

Like the tax collector, we earn much of our profit, yes, our material treasure, yet also the wealth of our personalities at the cost and through the giving of others. Therefore, forgetting that, we always are in danger of believing somehow we did it ourselves and, thus, need to remember to pray like a Lilliputian, in gratitude, always in mind and heart of our need for mercy.

 

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

Illustration: The Pharisee and the Publican (1886-1894), James Tissot (1836-1902). The Pharisee (left), as described in the parable, “standing by  himself”, his bearing erect, hold his hands aloft in prayer. The tax collector or publican (right) also stands alone and, “far off”, his posture abject, leaning against a pillar for support, his head bowed in his hand, unable to “look up to heaven”, his other hand grasping, “beating his breast”, all signs of contrition. (Note: publican was a title given to a public contractor who served the Roman Empire in a variety of roles, one of which was tax collection.)

Footnotes:

[1] See Matthew 23.1-36 and Luke 11.42-44.

[2] Luke 3.12-13

[3] Luke 19.8

[4] 1 Corinthians 13.1, 2, my emphasis

[5] A reference to peoples, respectively great and small in size, in Jonathan Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels (1726).

Father, into your hands – a personal Good Friday reflection

handsWith his last breath, Jesus prayed: “Father, into your hands I commend my spirit”; words that remind me of my childhood nightly petition: “Now I lay me down to sleep, I pray the Lord my soul to keep. If I should die before I wake, I pray the Lord my soul to take.”

Both Jesus’ prayer and mine give voice to faith in God. In this similarity, I discern a difference.

As I read the gospel accounts, I behold in Jesus an admirable, enviable constancy. His faith in God that inspired his teaching (“Don’t worry about your life, what you eat or drink, or about your body, what you wear, for life is more than food and the body more than clothing. Strive first for God’s kingdom and righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well” – Matthew 6.25, 33) is the same faith that prompted his praying: “Into your hands I commend my spirit.”

As a follower of Jesus, I sometimes wonder whether faith in God is as constant in my life. Often I’m conscious of my faith in myself. Even when I’m aware of the illusion, the self-delusion of thinking I can be and do all things, and even when I continue to act as if it were so.

Yes, sometimes I wonder: Do I commend my life to God? Not always. Sometimes not at all.

Still, I recognize the need, my need to ask this question again and again. Because my talents and resources are finite. So, too – given that my life in this world will end, although I don’t know when – are my opportunities to use them. This is true for all. Hence, in this world, there’s nothing to which and none to whom I can commend my life; for nothing and no one is as God, the One before my beginning, through my living, and at and beyond my end.

This being so, I ask: Will I commend my life to God?

If I did this more readily, regularly than I do, my life would be transformed. As I envision it…

Welcoming the gift of each day with more gratitude than I do now, therefore…

Wanting to live more fully, laboring in service of others more freely, less self-interestedly, facing trial and test less fearfully, therefore…

Waiting with courage my end, whene’er it is to come, therefore…

Walking through the valley of the shadow of death, praying with Jesus with confidence, “Father, into your hands I commend my spirit.”

If I do this, then this Friday and every day forward truly would be Good.

spiritual discipline – a Lenten reflection

Lent - pray, fast, giveMarch 7. Day 16 of Lent. A good time to look back to Day 1, Ash Wednesday, to reflect on spiritual discipline. (I could wait ‘til March 12, Lent’s Day 20 and halfway point, but I’ve always been in a hurry!)

Believing that bloggers (preachers, too!) write first to themselves, in fairness, not assuming anything that follows applies to anyone else, I “speak” in the first person.

Lent invites me to practice spiritual discipline (of course, not only in Lent), so to continue my pilgrimage from who I am to the one God wills I become. As a follower of Jesus, I revisit his teaching on alms-giving, prayer, and fasting, which always intrigues me mainly because Jesus isn’t nagging me to start doing them. Saying “whenever”, not “if”, he assumes I already do, then warns me of the inherent danger of doing the right thing for the wrong reason. To give, pray, fast to demonstrate my generosity, my spirituality, my self-control. When I do this, Jesus calls me a hypocrite (from the Greek, hupocritēs, originally an actor wearing a mask on stage, thus), one whose true face is hidden.

I say “when”, not “if” I do this, for even at my best, for example, my charity comes with conditions.  When I give I always get something, even if it’s only benign self-satisfaction. As my charity, however generous it appears, is not pure, I don’t show my true face to others or to myself.

And here’s more danger. Spiritual discipline can become a tool of my self-delusion. Maybe it would be better, best not to try at all! But then I’d miss the reward…

Jesus, regarding those who practice spiritual discipline to win public praise, says, “Truly I tell you, they have received their reward.” The Greek word translated reward is an ancient marketplace term meaning one receives only that for which one pays. If I seek and gain the applause of others, that’s all I’ll get, nothing more, nothing less.

However, spiritual discipline offers greater rewards. Knowing myself as I truly am in relation to who I long to become. In knowing myself, my humanness, which is both unique to my individual self and shared with all, I have a glimpse of others. In glimpsing others, I get a peek into the mind and heart of the One who created all to be in relationship.

And relationship, I think, is the point. Jesus, spiritual discipline, Lent remind me that I’m related to everyone, thus dependent. I don’t stand alone. This state of related dependence is my truest self. If, when I act otherwise, I’m a hypocrite, an actor.

Believing this to be true reforms and reinvigorates my practice of spiritual discipline…

I give alms, yes, aware of the needs of others, of the world, but also as an outward expression and constant reminder that I need the help of others, always.

I pray less to demand of God what I desire (even less to counteract the prayers of folk who think differently than I!) and more as an act of confession (from the Greek homologeo, “to say the same thing”). Speaking with my lips the truth of my heart. Daring to be honest about my dreams and fears, wants and needs, loves and hatreds. Saying everything in the hope, the belief that God accepts me, in the words of one of my favorite hymns, “just as I am.”

I fast less for self-improvement (though, yes, I can afford to lose a few, several pounds!) and more as an act of emancipation. Freeing myself of any notion of my self-sufficiency.  Rediscovering my deepest hunger to be at-one, at peace with myself, others, God, and the whole creation.

March 7. Day 16 of Lent. 24 more days of giving, praying, and fasting ‘til Easter, and then the rest of my life of giving, praying, and fasting.