Release

Our youngest, J., chooses to wake up between 6:30 & 6:45 AM. I’m already up by then and welcome the opportunity to get out of the house and walk down to the local elementary school. Since March, the school has been unoccupied due to the COVID-19 virus. At the beginning of the pandemic I started noticing the newspapers piling up near the entrance to the school. We are not subscribers, but I took it upon myself to gather up the discarded papers and recycle them – reading the headlines or an occasional article that piqued my interest before doing so. Later, I emailed the principal to let her know who was taking her papers. She blessed my efforts, dubbing me the elementary school’s official recycler.

 On Tuesday of this week, J. and I were making our way to the school when I saw a cardinal land on a high wire singing its song. All of a sudden, I felt an immediate need to pray the prayer for the dying called A Commendation at the Time of Death found in our prayer book.[1] There was a stillness to the air that seemed to be inviting me to ‘come along.’ There was an ineffable hope and promise that ‘all shall be well.’ Who was I to question this invitation? I prayed the prayer and kept walking, making my way to the school and the news of the day. Peace was now me and my son’s companion as we were reassured that death and life are not opposed to one another.

 On Sunday, my mother-in-law asked my wife and our family to come and say our goodbyes to my father-in-law, Chuck. It was another invitation to come along, to say hello/goodbye, and to freely walk into those thin places of paradox. Unlike the cardinal, Chuck’s song was not a surprise. He’s been battling the debilitating disease of ALS for over 2 years now. Throughout these years he’s been fighting back death as best he could, but this week and for reasons only the angels know, he’s decided to acquiesce.

 Before making the journey to my in-law’s home, J. needed his afternoon nap. We’re a liturgical family and like our patterns. We’re raising both J. and H. to recognize these as constants among the chaos. As is our custom, we read a few books but always end with Margaret Wise Brown’s “Goodnight Moon.” It’s always amazing to me how her words meet our son’s yawns. Each page makes their eyes grow heavy as their bodies long for the rest of their beds. This time, and as I was reading to J., I intuited that I was also reading to Chuck. I was already saying my goodbyes to him – first with Tuesday’s Commendation at the Time of Death, and now with a children’s author who has long asked little ones to go to sleep by letting go. “Let go of the moon, and the bears in their chairs.” Say goodnight to the “toy house and young mouse.” Listen to the “old lady as she whispers, hush.”

 Perhaps J. was more tired than usual because he started flipping the pages to the last. He loves that final page in the book with its soft (eternal?) flame in the fireplace along with the moon and the stars begging for a final glance above – one last time before sleep. I suppose I imagined something similar for Chuck. “Release” was my new prayer companioned with peace.

 “Goodnight stars. Goodnight air.”
“Goodnight noises, everywhere…

 “Goodnight, Chuck.”    

 

[1]            Depart, O Christian soul, out of this world;
In the Name of God the Father Almighty who created you;
In the Name of Jesus Christ who redeemed you;
In the Name of the Holy Spirit who sanctifies you.
May your rest be this day in peace,
and your dwelling place in the Paradise of God.
~The Book of Common Prayer, 464

 

Spiritual Growth

“A tree gives glory to God by being a tree. For in being what God means it to be it is obeying [God]. It “consents,” so to speak, to [God’s] creative love. It is expressing an idea which is in God and which is not distinct from the essence of God, and therefore a tree imitates God by being a tree” ~Thomas Merton, New Seeds of Contemplation

The writer, Nora Ephron, died in June of 2012 at the age of 71. Ephron was a prolific writer known mainly for her screenplays focused on strong female leads. Some of the movies she was best known for were Julia and Julia, You’ve Got Mail and When Harry Met Sallie. In 2010, she published the book I Remember Nothing: And Other Reflections. The book was a memoir that focused on her eclectic life as a writer, but also her love of life. HBO produced a documentary in 2016 on Ephron entitled, Everything is Copy, where many excerpts from her memoir were brought to life through pictures, video, and voice over. The movie ends like the memoir – with a list. The first list made up the things Ephron would not miss in this life. The second are the things she would. In a moment, I’ll offer her lists to you because scattered throughout reveals the contents and constants of one person’s life. As humans we desire constants, both seen and unseen that give our lives meaning, bring order out of chaos, and comfort us when the bottom seems to drop out. Sometimes we are trees planted beside still waters, while at other times are uprooted without warning. In today’s lessons, we get fresh, green imagery of seeds, trees, mountains, and forests. In other words, today’s lessons have us imagining growth; growth firmly rooted in the soil of God’s Spirit.

The Prophet Ezekiel had God speaking when he wrote:
I myself will take a sprig
from the lofty top of a cedar;
I will set it out.
I will break off a tender one
from the topmost of its young twigs;
I myself will plant it
on a high and lofty mountain.

In Psalm 92 we imagine:
Those who are planted in the house of the Lord
shall flourish in the courts of our God;
They shall still bear fruit in old age;
they shall be green and succulent;

 And finally, in The Gospel of Mark, Our Lord shares parables comparing the kingdom of heaven to the growth of grain readying itself for harvest, or a tiny mustard seed bursting forth from the earth eventually providing shelter and shade for the birds of the air.

Although Ephron’s lists are mostly made up of creature comforts, there are certainly moments of depth when she muses on about the concept of this or the idea of that. It is here where she takes a dip into the eternal. It is here where there are hopeful moments of faith. It is here where we get to experience one person’s anxious heart – restless, until it rests in Thee, O Lord. Below are Ephron’s two lists:

What I Won’t Miss
Dry skin
Bad dinners like the one we went to last night
E-mail
Technology in general
My closet
Washing my hair
Bras
Funerals
Illness everywhere
Polls that show that 32 percent of the American people believe in creationism
Polls
Fox TV
The collapse of the dollar
Bar mitzvahs
Mammograms
Dead flowers
The sound of the vacuum cleaner
Bills
E-mail. I know I already said it, but I want to emphasize it.
Small print
Panels on Women in Film
Taking off makeup every night

What I Will Miss
My kids
Nick
Spring
Fall
Waffles
The concept of waffles
Bacon
A walk in the park
The idea of a walk in the park
The park
Shakespeare in the Park
The bed
Reading in bed
Fireworks
Laughs
The view out the window
Twinkle lights
Butter
Dinner at home just the two of us
Dinner with friends
Dinner with friends in cities where none of us lives
Paris
Next year in Istanbul
Pride and Prejudice
The Christmas tree
Thanksgiving dinner
One for the table
The dogwood
Taking a bath
Coming over the bridge to Manhattan
Pie

As Christians, we have lists of our own:  The 10 Commandments, the 7 deadly sins, cardinal virtues, and the fruits of the Spirit to name a few. We take vows to seek and serve Christ in all persons, and with God’s help experience the dignity of every human being. What are your lists of constants? What won’t you miss about this life? What will you? Would your lists be made up mostly of creature comforts, or is there some depth to them? Do you still have a longing to grow deeper in God’s Spirit? If so, how do you keep your roots planted no matter the stillness of the waters or the wind as tempest?

As the Church enters her green season why not use this ordinary time to focus on growing taller, diving deeper, and putting forth large branches where new friends are found and old neighbors remembered? How we practice spiritual growth is more attitude than aptitude, more focus than function, and intentionality over intensity. It’s gaining sea legs to weather the storms, and eagle eyes to spot the pitfalls. It’s becoming shrewd as snakes and innocent as doves. It’s telling stories with an eye on Our Savior, and counting our blessings naming them one by one. It’s faithfully knowing that God is the ultimate constant in our lives forever pointing us to Love. It’s a list too long but a faith full of hope. It’s imitating God…by being human.

~Click here for the trailer to Everything is Copy.

In The End Love Remains

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

MawMaw and I dancing at my cousin Tony’s wedding a few years back

Romans 6:12-23

When those who are close to us die, or are actively dying all the pettiness of life with its distractions and annoyances are disregarded like a heavy coat. The living suddenly awaken to shed inconsequential irritations in the name of love. This may be the last lesson from the dying to the living. When those whom we love have died, reflecting on all our silly habits, the way we spend our time, and the people we have ignored or left unforgiven are all revealed. The dead and dying gift us with new, living eyes that expose our trivial ways. In the end, we are all left with nothing just as we had nothing upon entering into life. Why do we spend large amounts of time, energy, and money seeking things that will pass away? In the end, love remains. Love brought us into the world and it stays with us in the end.

In today’s Epistle, St. Paul is promoting new life; but this new life – this new beginning – is only revealed when we have bumped up and against death. When we face death, we see the things we should have seen all along. We remember love. We see beauty. We experience gratefulness, and even regret. The regret (I suppose) comes from bumping up against the truth – the truth that love was always there, and is always an option. It is not inconsequential. Being able to see these things anew can make one regretful of their past sins.

Christians believe that Christ’s death was and is a gift. His death is a gift because we are asked to join him in his death, and in doing so we get to shed those parts of ourselves that keep us from loving – that keep us from His Love. The good news of Jesus Christ is that death is not the end, but a new beginning in Him. Just as Christ has died, we will die (in him) but just as Christ has risen – we too are called to newness of life. St. Paul put this way, For the wages of sin is death, but the free gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord (Romans 6:23). What Paul may be saying here is that we can do nothing apart from God. God is with us when we are dying, dead, and done. God is with us when we are living, alive, and experiencing life eternal. We cannot get away so why not choose life (in Him); and if we choose this life Paul says we are set free. Free to love. Free to forgive. Free to be forgiven. Again, all our pettiness passes away and the road to freedom is made clearer.

What then, do we do when we remember the freedom of Christ and at the same time forget it? Paul answers this with a fancy word. He says, the advantage…is sanctification (Romans 6:22). Sanctification defined is simply being made holy in and by and through God. In other words, you can’t be made holy on your own. Holiness comes from God; therefore, we are only holy when God’s holiness is shining and showing through us. This may be Paul’s argument in a nutshell, but what does it mean for us today?

I believe it leaves us with two choices: To get busy dying, or to get busy living. For Christians, however, these two choices become one reality when we realize we are constantly dying to ourselves in order to experience more of the eternal found within us. This is what’s called a life in Christ. Christ unites the dead to the living and at the same time transcends both. So again: What does this mean for us? Here in lies the brilliance of God: It has nothing to do with “us” and everything to do with Christ. In other words, God is asking “us” to get out of the way, and to be receptive to his love, forgiveness, mercy, and sanctification. This is such a hard lesson because we always want to do something. St. Paul is saying we don’t do anything; instead, we let go, and let God.

On Friday, I personally had a let go and let God moment or two. I got a call from my Mom letting me know that MawMaw (my 99-year-old maternal grandmother) was having post-operative complications. She was non-responsive; her blood pressure was dangerously low, and nobody (including the doctors) knew if she was going to pull through. Listening to my Mom’s retelling of her last 24 hours put me into two different mindsets. One was that MawMaw was simply ready to go. She had lived an amazingly full life, and her time was immanent. The other thought was more selfish: What about her 100th birthday party? So many people, including MawMaw, are so looking forward to it, but like the above example that referred to choices of life and death these too were transcended in Christ, and I remembered God’s transcending power. I remembered that ultimately these things have nothing to do with me, and everything to do with God.

This afternoon, Henry and I are driving to Texas. For Henry, it’s a planned trip where he will get to see his MeMe and Papa. For me, it’s an unplanned trip where I may be saying a last goodbye to my MawMaw or not. As of yesterday, she has perked up and is doing better. Also, we still have plans to celebrate her 100th birthday in August, but for now thanksgiving and gratefulness are made present in my heart, and what will be will be when August 20th rolls around. In fact, what will be will be at any old time. This whole experience has awakened me to pay a bit more attention to the things that matter most in my life. It has also given me the chance to reflect on my own life and to focus on what’s important and what to let go. Finally, it has allowed a part of me to fall away and to remember that it is not all about me. It’s about Christ, and relying on him to do what he always does: To hold the balance of life and death in Himself, yet transcending it all, awakening the heart to trustworthiness in His Love.

MawMaw&Henry MawMaw and my son, Henry, in her sunroom

Question(s) on Suffering *

So much hate, violence, and overall uncertainty have been going on in the world around us this year. Our culture seems to wake up to nightmares daily instead of floating on a midsummer night’s dream. As a priest just finishing my first year of parish ministry, I have buried twelve persons, and counseled countless souls who are lost in grief, anxiety, and despair.

While I’m not an expert on suffering in the world, I have noticed a few things in my first year that gives me hope. Even though life can feel like the experience of a sparrow in a hurricane, those persons who approach the twister at the right angle seem to be the ones who are forever wounded, but also forever changed – forever changed (and wounded) for the better. It is a deep change full of humbleness, grace, and faith that start with the same question, but then upon realizing the madness in it, they administer an about-face, and proceed to march with a much nobler question in mind.

The problem that drives persons crazy is the question of “why”:

“Why is their suffering in the world?”

“Why do bad things happen to good people?”

“Why isn’t God listening to me?”

“Why aren’t things getting better?”

These are the “go-to” questions when it comes to suffering. They are the default position in the human psyche, but the default question seems to me to be the wrong one, or better, the question of “why” should follow at a later time – once the dust has settled, once the air has been cleared a bit, after everybody has gone home. “Why” is a great and profound question, but it is the starting point for the scientist, not the existentialist. I don’t know anybody who comes into my office asking, “why their mother died,” expecting me to say, “because she had cancer.” It would be cruel and ridiculous of me to answer in that way because the grieving person in front of me asking that question does not expect an answer in return. They simply want someone to ask it to – a personal sounding board, a lending of an ear.

The question of “why” might be humanity’s default pathway into the forest of our lives, but the road less traveled is a question of “what”:

“There is suffering in the world. What (if anything) am I going to do about it?”

“Bad things happen to good and evil people. What do I do when bad things happen to me?” “What are my patterns?” “What is my mindset?”

“God doesn’t seem to be listening to me. What can I do to reframe the question, the prayer, or even my life to get the sense that God is still here?”

“Things are not getting better. What do I need to refocus on in order to see life at another angle?”

Asking the question, “What” instead of “Why” takes away some of the sting from thorns found within the flesh. Asking the question “What” instead of “Why” brings us back to the present moment, to the here and now, to where we need to be. Instead of asking the initial question of “why” – “Why did Aunt Sally die?” what if we started with, “what?” “What am I going to do now that Aunt Sally has died?” Well, for starters you can cry. For starters, you can grieve. For starters, you can ask for a hug. You don’t have to take life ‘day-to-day.’ By asking the question of “what” you can take life ‘moment-to-moment’, a position much closer to our hearts than some future point within the day.

As a Christian, I believe we get closer to God by asking the question, “What” instead of “Why.” Starting with “Why” makes God seem so distant and isolated that we get the sense of our own distance and isolation from God. The question of “What” brings God closer because we can open our Bibles and tangibly see what Jesus was like. Then our eyes are more open to tangibly see the breadth and length and height and depth of Christ’s love in our world today when we see ourselves and others acting like him. In other words, we are reminded of God’s love for us every time we get to experience love ourselves. I don’t have the answers to why there is suffering in the world, but what I do have are the questions. Lord, help me to ask the right ones.

*The following was an excerpt from my sermon preached Sunday, July 26, 2015. To read the full sermon, click here.