“You say goodbye, I say hello”: A Requiem Sermon

Joe and Phyllis Golowka (1940s)

I’ve brushed the dew on Jordan’s banks, the crossing must be near.

– Jefferson Hascall, “Angel Band” (1860)

This winter, my dear friends Joe and Phyllis Golowka died five weeks apart in their 71st year of marriage. I was privileged to preach the sermon today for their Requiem Eucharist at St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, Cambria, California.

In his younger days, Joe Golowka led teen backpacking trips in California’s Sierra as part of the camping program for the Episcopal Diocese of Los Angeles. I had the joy of being the chaplain on those hikes. At some point time caught up with Joe, and he decided to let a younger generation take over, but not before taking one last big trek. We made it a good one: a 10-day traverse of the Sierra Nevada, ascending the western slope along the Middle Fork of the Kings River, crossing two high passes at the crest of the range, and descending the steep eastern escarpment to the Owens Valley. It was one of those revelatory walks which, as John Muir once put it, open a thousand windows to show us God.

On our sixth day, we stopped around noon to make camp along a stream, Palisades Creek, so we wouldn’t have to make a steep climb to our next lake in the heat of day. Instead, we would get up at 4 the next morning, walk by the light of the full moon and a rosy dawn, and reach the lake at sunrise.

With the rest of the day suddenly free, Joe went fishing. He wandered down the stream until he found a pretty good spot, but after a while he got restless, and went looking for some place better. But the second place also failed to satisfy his longing for that holy grail of fishermen: the perfect fishing hole.

As the fairy tales teach us, the magic is always found in the third place––in this case, a slope of smooth granite where the stream rushed down into a quiet, shaded pool. As Joe approached, he saw golden trout leaping out of the pool into the cascade, only to be swept backward by the swift volume of water. Over and over again, the fish threw themselves against the stream’s powerful flow. But none of them could breach the crest of the cascading whitewater.

As Joe watched this spectacle of fierce desire, so thwarted yet so relentless, he felt the call to intervene on life’s behalf. He cast his barbless hook into the deep blue pool, and almost immediately, a trout tugged on his line. He pulled it out, slipped it unharmed off the hook, and tossed it upstream, beyond the cascade, where it could continue its hero’s journey. Again, Joe cast his line, and the same thing happened. Over and over, a trout would bite almost immediately, surrendering to Joe’s saving presence. It was as if the fish somehow understood that the fatal hook would prove to be the instrument of life, not death.

In the space of forty minutes, Joe caught and released thirty-four golden trout. Overcome by the sheer wonder of it, he finally had to stop. Miracles send a lot of voltage through your body. You need to step away and recover. He returned to camp shaking. When he finally shared his story at the evening campfire, it struck me that he had been privileged, for a moment, to share the work of our Creator and Redeemer–– rescuing the hopeless from the depths, casting living seeds into the future, turning a dead end into a gate of life.

And now, forty years later, Joe himself has gone through that gate, with his beloved Phyllis right behind him. They are in glory now, but what about us? Who will wipe the tears from our eyes?

Joe and Phyllis walked this earth for nearly a century. A presence we always took for granted has suddenly been withdrawn. The empty chair, the empty room, startle us with absence, and trouble us with longing.

There Is a time to be born and a time to die––this is the inescapable human condition––but acknowledging our mortal nature does not lessen our grief. Indeed, grief is the price of love, whenever that time comes when we must take the parting hand.

How we wish it were otherwise. Couldn’t we have had them just a little longer?

There’s an Irish song called “The Parting Glass.” They sing it in pubs at closing time. Its minor key and wistful words express the sorrow of ending the evening’s camaraderie as people go their separate ways into the night––a sorrow which feels like a rehearsal for the end of life itself:

Oh, all the comrades that e’er I had,
Are sorry for my going away.
And all the loved ones that e’er I had
Would wish me one more day to stay.
But since it falls unto my lot
That I should rise and you should not,
I’ll gently rise and softly call,
“Goodnight, and joy be with you all.”

I love that last line. The singer doesn’t just say farewell and disappear. He pronounces a blessing upon those who remain: “Joy be with you all.” Yes, we honor our dead by the tears we shed. We honor them even more by embracing the joy they wish for us.

The Bible describes the company of heaven as a great cloud of witnesses, cheering us on from above. The novelist George Eliot called the departed “the choir invisible whose music is the gladness of the world.”[i]

Give your sadness all the time it needs, but remember to hold a space in your heart for the ways the departed will return to you––the choir invisible whose music is the gladness of the world.

For the absence of a loved one in a bodily and temporal form
is succeeded by new forms of presence.

I once asked a group of high school students to write their own epitaph, and this is what one seventeen-year-old girl proposed for her imaginary tombstone:

You say goodbye,
I say hello.

The people who matter have a way of sticking around. Although death changes the relationship, it doesn’t end it. The dead continue to occupy our thoughts. They remain present to us in stories, memories, emotions, DNA (in some cases), and whatever else they left us with.

Our beloved Joe and Phyllis are no longer in one particular place. They are in every place we remember them. They are present when their voices echo in our ears, or in those places where we shared special times together. They are present whenever we think of them, or speak of them, or tell the stories that were their lives.

When C.S. Lewis wrote about the grief process after the death of his wife, he said that as the acute sense of loss began to fade, he wondered whether he was starting to forget her by being happy again, or whether he might betray the rich complexity of her being by reducing her to a fixed set of memories.

But once he just stopped worrying about it, he found that, as he put it, he “began to meet her everywhere.” It wasn’t a voice or an apparition, or even a big emotional experience. It was, he said, “a sort of unobstrusive but massive sense that she is, just as much as ever, a fact to be taken into account.”[ii]

Michael Smith, a folksinger from Chicago, described a similar sense of presence in a song about his late father.

I brought my father with me
I hope that you don’t mind
I couldn’t find it in me
To make him stay behind…

There are some ways I’m just like him
Some ways he was just like me
And sometimes when the mirror’s dim
His face is clear to see
Tonight the winds of heaven
Blow the stars across the sky
I brought my father with me
I couldn’t say goodbye [iii]

We have all  brought Joe and Phyllis with us this morning. And they will remain with each of us in countless ways. I can’t go on a hike without hearing Joe’s voice, telling me to pay attention, to take in the beauty offering itself in every moment. Don’t just stare down at the trail! Look around!

We carry Joe and Phyllis with us. But we also grieve their absence. They’ve been a presence in our lives for so long, It’s hard to believe they are gone. Our hearts go out to their family, especially to their children. Losing one’s parents is one of the hardest things we ever do, no matter how old they were or how old we are. There is great sorrow in that. It is a time to weep.

But it is also a time to dance.
We lament today, but we also praise.

Thank God we had Joe and Phyllis in our lives for so long.
Thank God that Joe was what only Joe could be,
that Phyllis was what only Phyllis could be.
Thank God for what Joe and Phyllis could only be together.
Thank God for what they gave us.
Thank God for the ways they loved and mentored and befriended us.
Thank God for the ways they blessed us.

Joe and Phyllis will live on in memory and story, and we take great comfort and pleasure in that. But we also make a deeper claim here. Joe’s life, and Phyllis’ life, are not just something we remember––because their journey is not over and done. They still have a future––with Christ and in Christ in the company of heaven. God loses no one.

Death is not the last word, the final chapter. It is, rather, the passage into the unimaginable fullness of unending life in God.

Death, be not proud. though some have called thee 
Mighty and dreadful, for thou art not so; 
For those whom thou think’st thou dost overthrow 
Die not . . .
One short sleep past, we wake eternally 
And death shall be no more . . .[iv]

So said John Donne, 17th century Anglican poet and priest, because he knew how the story goes: Love wins and death dies.

This is the story that God’s friends stake their lives on:
God has loved us into existence.
God sustains us every step of our life’s journey.
And even after our bodies give out,
God loves us too much to let us go.

This Requiem eucharist is above all a celebration of resurrection. In our hymns and our prayers we proclaim the God of life who has made death into the gate of heaven.

Everything we sing and pray today comes down to this: We are here to celebrate the entrance of Joe and Phyllis into the land of light and joy.

Some of you know how I love American shape note hymns. They were written at a time when people with shorter life expectancies had to look death in the face every day, and they still managed to proclaim the victory of life. Even at the grave, they made their song:

Why do we mourn departing friends,
Or shake at death’s alarms?
‘Tis but the voice that Jesus sends
to call them to his arms.[v]

Filled with delight, my raptured soul
Would here no longer stay,
Though Jordan’s wave around me roll,
Fearless, I’d launch away.
I am bound for the Promised Land,
I am bound for the Promised Land![vi]

Farewell, my friends, adieu, adieu,
I can no longer stay with you;
My glitt’ring crown appears in view,
All is well, all is well.[vii]

About the same time those hymns were written, Henry David Thoreau was on his deathbed in Concord, Massachusetts. A few days before he died, a family friend said to him, “You seem so near the brink of the dark river that I almost wonder how the opposite shore may appear to you.”

And Thoreau, who had spent his life carefully observing and describing what he saw in the fields and woods around Walden Pond, replied simply, “One world at a time.”[viii]

However curious we may be about what it’s like across that dark river between the worlds, we can’t see it from here. But I would venture to say that heaven is not so much a place as it is a relationship. We live in God and God lives in us. And that is true on both sides of the river. Whether we live or die, we are the Lord’s possession.

If you want more details, the Scriptures provide so many vivid images of what it means to be in God’s presence:

Isaiah says that wherever the oppressed begin to hear good news, and the prisons go out of business, and the tears of the brokenhearted are replaced by the oil of gladness, heaven is already happening. (Isaiah 61:1-3)

St. Paul assures us that nothing––neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor presidents, nor things to come, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, can ever separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord. Nothing. Not now, or ever. (Romans 8:38-9)

Today’s Epistle declares: “God will dwell with mortals, and they will be God’s family… Death will be no more; mourning and crying and pain will be no more.” (Revelation 21:3-4)

And Jesus our Brother tells us, “It is the will of the One who sent me that I shall lose nothing of all those entrusted to me. . . and I will raise them up on the last day.” (John 6:39-40)

By the way, when I think of the Last Day, I imagine it’s something like the shock of your first morning on a backpack with Joe. You’re in a peaceful sleep, snug in your down bag, content to postpone the shock of the cold mountain air.

Then, as sudden as the angel’s resurrection trumpet, a hand shakes you awake, and a voice shouts, “Rise and shine! Come out of that fluffy cocoon. This is the day which God has made, let us rejoice and be glad in it!” Those may not have been Joe’s exact words, but some of you were there on those mornings. You know what I’m talking about. The Day of Resurrection!

In a few minutes, we will collectively perform our central image for life in God:
We will gather around a table where Love bids us welcome,
to be richly nourished by the food of heaven.

There’s a place for everyone at God’s feast.
No one is excluded or banned or forgotten.
As they say at heaven’s gate, “Weary pilgrim, welcome home.”

One last thing.

Joe and Phyllis were both blessed to die at home, in hospice care, with family keeping vigil. My father-in-law, Arthur, did the same at the end of January, and I found a strangely beautiful grace in those last days. The soul’s departure is an awesome and holy thing to witness. It is life’s profoundest mystery.

When the time comes, people seem to know exactly what to do: their body gradually letting go as their attention shifts from this world to the next.

And as they depart from us, this is how we pray for them:
Receive them into the arms of your mercy,
into the blessed rest of everlasting peace,
and into the glorious company of the saints in light.[ix]

The contemplative monk Thomas Merton said that death is not something that just happens to us as passive recipients. It is, rather, something we do, an act of self-offering, what Merton called “the last free perfect act of love which is at once surrender and acceptance.”[x]

In other words, in the act of dying, we let everything go
and give ourselves over completely into the hands of God.
That is what Joe has done; that is what Phyllis has done.
And one day, you and I will do the same.

And God, as promised, will prove to be “mercy clothed in light.”[xi]

O glorious day! O blessed hope!
My soul leaps forward at the thought:
When, on that happy, happy land,
We’ll no more take the parting hand.
But with our blessed holy Lord
We’ll shout and sing with one accord.[xii]

 

Related post: Fathers, we must part

 

 

 

[i] From her poem, “O May I Join the Choir Invisible,” q. in All in the End is HarvestL An Anthology for Those Who Grieve, ed. Agnes Whitaker (London: Darton, Longman, & Todd, 1984, 1995), 83

[ii] C.S. Lewis, A Grief Observed, q. in All in the End, 105

[iii] Michael Smith, “I Brought My Father With Me,” on his album Time, 1994

[iv] John Donne, Holy Sonnets X in John Donne, The Complete English Poems, ed, C.A Patrides (London: Everyman’s Library, 1991), 440-1

[v] “China” in The Sacred Harp 163b (Bremen, GA: The Sacred Harp Publishing Company, 1991)

[vi] “The Promised Land” in ibid., 128

[vii] “All Is Well” in ibid., 122

[viii] Malcolm Clemens Young, The Spiritual Journal of Henry David Thoreau (Macon, GA: Mercer University Press, 2009), 8

[ix] Ministration at the Time of Death in The Book of Common Prayer (New York: Oxford University Press, 1979), 465

[x] From posthumous publication, Love and Living (1979, p. 103), q. in The Thomas Merton Encylopedia (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 2002), 107

[xi] Jane Kenyon’s sublime image is from her poem, “Notes from the Other Side,” in Jane Kenyon: Collected Poems (St. Paul, MN: Graywolf Press, 2005), 267

[xii] “Parting Hand” in The Sacred Harp, 62

Not in Our House: Why the National Cathedral Should Refuse the Inaugural Prayer Service

St. Ambrose barring Theodosius from Milan Cathedral, Anthony van Dyck (1619-20), National Gallery, London

St. Ambrose barring Theodosius from Milan Cathedral, Anthony van Dyck (1619-20), National Gallery, London

Where once Thy churches prayed and sang
Thy foes profanely rage…

– The Sacred Harp

In the year 390 the populace of Thessalonica rose up in revolt against the local Roman authorities to protest the arrest of a popular charioteer. The Roman emperor Theodosius, known for his thin skin and quick temper, was swift to respond. He sent a letter ordering troops to punish the inhabitants, which they did by means of a terrible ruse. They invited the whole town to attend a special sporting event. Once the stadium was packed, the soldiers locked the exits and slaughtered the entire crowd. The notoriously erratic Theodosius, meanwhile, had cooled off and changed his mind, sending another letter to contradict his original order, but it was too late. Seven thousand Thessalonicans were already dead.

Bishop Ambrose of Milan, where the emperor had his official residence, condemned the massacre, refusing to say mass in the presence of Theodosius until he repented his crime. Van Dyck’s painting (above) depicts the bishop barring the emperor from entering the cathedral. It was an unprecedented example of the Church speaking truth to power. The bishop explained his position in writing:

“What could I do? Should I not hear?… Should I remain silent? But then the worst thing would happen as my conscience would be bound and my words taken away. And where would they be then? When a priest does not talk to a sinner, then the sinner will die in his sin, and the priest will be guilty because he failed to correct him.”

Sadly, there will be no bishop to bar the Father of Lies and his minions from the National Cathedral in Washington this Saturday. The inaugural prayer service, a tradition since FDR’s inauguration in 1933, will go on as usual despite fierce protests from the many Episcopalians who regard such normalization of the president-elect to be at best a foolish mistake and at worst a desecration of sacred space.

The diocesan bishop, Mariann Budde, has cited two “spiritual principles” to justify the cathedral’s decision. The first is inclusiveness: Episcopal churches, she says, “welcome all people into our house of prayer.” She is aware that Trump is not a model citizen. “Welcoming does not mean condoning offensive speech or behavior; it does not mean we agree with or seek to legitimize.” But I think she fails to acknowledge the critical difference between opening our doors to notorious sinners and letting them dictate the content and flavor of our worship.

Bishop Budde’s second principle is that “in times of national division, the Episcopal Church is called to be a place where those who disagree can gather for prayer and learning and to work for the good of all.” This reflects the noble Anglican ideal of church as family. We may not always agree or get along, but we don’t stop gathering or trying to love each other anyway. We recognize truth not as the fixed possession of a single faction, but the product of a dialectic exchange, where we each contribute our incomplete perspectives to a process of mutual listening and collective discernment. This process is ongoing and never finished.

But a commitment to communal harmony has its price. At the time of the Civil War, the Episcopal Church maintained its structural unity by declining to make an official condemnation of slavery. As a result, it was spared the North-South splits of other denominations. While many individual preachers, parishes and dioceses spoke out against slavery, the church at a national level remained silent on the gravest moral crisis of the 19th century, lest they endanger the principle of welcoming all people.

The Bishop of Washington hopes that the inaugural prayer service will, at a time of intense national conflict, “offer a few moments of spiritual solace and the healing gift of transcendent beauty.” As a priest, liturgist and artist, I am a great believer in the value and necessity of providing sacred space and time, where sin and strife are hushed and we may encounter the world of God, not only in our minds and hearts but also with our senses. However, that should not mean losing touch with the imperatives of justice and love. Worship isn’t just to soothe and bless. It must also challenge, unsettle and transform.

As I understand it, the inaugural service will do none of these things. Preaching (always a risk) has been forbidden by Trump’s people, who are tightly controlling the whole order of “worship.” Judging from everything the president-elect has said and done over the years, we may expect no prayers of repentance for racism, misogyny, or xenophobia, or petitions that God may frustrate the designs of evil tyrants. Trump is no more submitting to the norms of Christian worship than he is to the norms of our democracy. He is essentially renting the spectacular Gothic edifice to bathe his authoritarian persona in a faux-religious glow. To allow such a charade threatens the integrity of the cathedral’s essential mission while abetting the fascist tendencies of Trumpworld. All glory be to the Leader.

At least one member of the Mormon Tabernacle Choir has bravely refused to sing at the inauguration. “It would be like throwing roses to Hitler,” she says. The National Cathedral choir, however, has agreed to participate. As the cathedral dean explains, “We do not pray or sing to bless a political ideology or partisan agenda…We sing to honor the nation.” But is it really the church’s business to honor the nation?

Despite our roots in the Church of England, the Episcopal Church is not a state church. It is time to shed all pretensions of being an indispensable cornerstone of civil religion. Our job is not to bless the status quo or national interests, but to proclaim and embody the gospel. Instead of praying for the president as if the soon-to-be-degraded office earns him any special attention, let us pray for everyone in the world who wields power, that they may do no harm and nurture the common good. Let us pray not just for the leaders of the nations and economies of the world, but for the prophets who speak to power and the activists who work for change. Less elitism, more democracy in our prayer life. Less nationalism, more globalism as well. Such an expanded range of attention retains the Anglican commitment to engage public affairs rather than flee them, while rejecting the fiction of American exceptionalism.

Concurrent with the controversy over the inaugural prayer service is a lively debate over prayers for the president at any public worship. Are we praying for the man, the office, or good governance? For those of us who may be his victims, are we praying for an enemy? If so, what is the aim of such prayer? And if we mention him by name, do we risk polluting worship with a rush of negative associations?

All this bears close consideration, but it is not really pertinent to the question of whether the National Cathedral should host the inaugural prayer service, to which the answer should be an unequivocal no. It is one thing to pray for our enemies. It is quite another to let them dictate what happens within our sacred spaces. Bishop Ambrose regrets that he cannot attend on Saturday. Is there anyone who will take his place at the cathedral door?

 

Related posts

Top Ten Reasons to Stop Trump Now

Can This Be Happening? – Donald Trump and the Rise of Authoritarianism

“God isn’t fixing this”

Advent installation by Jim Friedrich at St. John's Episcopal Church, Los Angeles (1977)

Advent installation by Jim Friedrich at St. John’s Episcopal Church, Los Angeles (1977)

O come, O come Emmanuel,
and ransom captive Israel.

Once upon a time, worshippers entered their church on the Second Sunday of Advent to find a great wall between themselves and the sanctuary. The beautiful mosaics, the richly colored marble walls, and the magnificent carved Christ above the high altar were all hidden from view by this strange iconostasis, made from front pages of the Los Angeles Times. Instead of the images of holy men and women that adorn a traditional altar screen, there were banner headlines screaming catastrophe and mayhem.

When the assembly was seated, a mime came up the aisle to stand before the wall, searching for some way through it. His movements and gestures indicated perplexity, frustration, and finally discouragement. Then a voice from beyond the wall cried out,

Jerusalem, turn your eyes to the east,
see the joy that is coming to you from God. (Baruch 4:36).

Responding to the voice, the mime tore a small hole in the wall, and peeked through. He seemed entranced by what he saw.

The voice continued:

Take off the garment of your sorrow and affliction, O Jerusalem,
and put on forever the beauty of God’s glory. (Baruch 5:1)

The mime began to tear down the wall, encouraging others to join him. One by one, people rose from their pews to rip down the veil “of sorrow and affliction,” until the beauty of God’s sanctuary was finally revealed.

This simple but powerful ritual, the prelude to a eucharist I curated forty years ago at St. John’s Episcopal Church in Los Angeles, comes to mind whenever I hear that passage from Baruch in the December lectionary. It’s what we pray for each Advent from our place on this side of the wall: Good Lord, deliver us. Stir up your power. Tear down the wall between us. Show us your glory.

That wall of headlines reflected my ongoing interest in connecting Advent themes with the news of the world. The WTO protests in Seattle (1999) and the Occupy Movement (2011) both coincided nicely with Advent, mirroring its prophetic themes of judging the present order with the hope and vision of something better.[i] And just last week, the front page of the New York Daily News supplied a marvelous Advent provocation. By noon, it had 11 million Facebook views, and 74,000 shares.

New York Daily News, 12/3/15

New York Daily News, 12/3/15

The headline was a sharp rebuke to the shameless politicians who promise prayers for the victims of gun violence while refusing to do anything about the guns. Calling them “cowards who could truly end gun scourge” but instead “hide behind pious platitudes,” the newspaper offered a blunt theological assertion: “God isn’t fixing this.”[ii]

The daily office Old Testament readings for early Advent, calling the world to account for its evils, say much the same thing. To those who refuse to “renounce the dictates of our own wicked hearts,”[iii] the prophets imagine God declaring, “You made your own bed. Now lie in it.” (Thankfully, the prophets always redeem their rants in the end with comforting decrees of mercy and salvation).

However, the Lieutenant Governor of Texas was not comfortable with the Daily News’ riff on the old biblical idea that God sometimes gets fed up with human folly. His photoshopped revision was posted on Facebook and Twitter.

God hears our prayers

Of course this clueless retort (note the unfortunate juxtaposition of the headline with the red banner above it) did not actually answer the question of whether – or how – God acts in the world to “fix” things. It was just a clumsy attempt by a presumed gun lover to change the subject. Platitudes about prayer in the abstract are safe because they have no consequences, unlike real prayer, which always implicates the petitioner in a process of change and action. If we pray for an end to gun violence, we obligate ourselves to do all in our power to reduce it. Prayer is a call for action; it politicizes what we pray for. Prayer is not simply leaving things up to God. It is an act of volunteering to be part of God’s solution.

But is there such a thing as God’s solution? Does God – can God – fix things? It is not a question with a clear and simple answer. Human freedom has thrown a monkey wrench into the story of the world, while God has surrendered absolute control of the narrative. If we make a mess of things, God is not an indulgent parent rushing in to cover for us. We don’t get to multiply our weapons and then wonder why God allows so much violence.

So where does that leave us? In the Advent section of his Christmas Oratorio,[iv] W. H. Auden describes a closed-in, godless world where hope is absent.

Alone, alone about a dreadful wood
Of conscious evil runs a lost mankind …
The Pilgrim Way has led to the abyss.

But what if we are not alone? What if there is a God who can make the abyss into a way? What if an unexpected future is breaking through the walls of our self-made prison? The Advent message is to embrace this hope, as we take off the garments of sorrow and affliction to welcome the God of joy into our midst.

Whatever the “solution” (salvation) may be in the tangled histories of the world and the soul, it is a long-term, sometimes excruciating, process, requiring honest engagement with the consequences of human sin in acts of confession, repentance, reconciliation, justice, healing, sacrifice, and transformation. And I submit that these are not simply things we do with God, as though God were only a helper from the outside. They are things we do in God, or God does in us, as our own intentions and actions become the embodiment – the incarnation – of divine purpose.

So yes, I believe that God is fixing the world, but not in the short run. And not without us.

 

 

 

 

 

[i] I preached on both these events at the time, with mixed results. Some were not so ready to find traces of God in social movements which trouble the powers-that-be. One church subsequently banned me from its pulpit for being too “partisan.” Guilty as charged.

[ii] New York Daily News, December 3, 2015.

[iii] Baruch 2:8

[iv] W. H. Auden, For the Time Being: A Christmas Oratorio, in Collected Poems, ed. Edward Mendelson (New York: Random House, 1976), 273

Reprise: Ten Ways to Keep a Holy Advent

image

Here in Puget Sound, the first Sunday of Advent has begun in darkness, fog, and frost. It is for many of us a deeply felt time, the season where we wait expectantly for the dawning of the New. The spiritual practice of waiting is not a state of passivity, but rather the cultivation of attention, lest we miss what is being offered to us in the unfolding of God’s future.

I do not usually do re-runs of old posts, but some readers found last December’s “Ten Ways to Keep a Holy Advent” a useful list, and you can access it here. I hope you will find some blessing in it. And please feel free to share it with your communities.

Sweet miracle of our empty hands

Young priest in the Chapel of the Transfiguration, Grand Tetons National Park (1976)

Young priest in the Chapel of the Transfiguration, Grand Tetons National Park (1976)

When I preached at my wife Karen’s ordination on All Souls Day, 2005, I reflected on the peculiar vocation of priesthood. Since today, the Feast of Hildegard of Bingen, is the 45th anniversary of my own ordination, it seems fitting to publish it here.

In nineteenth-century Paris, there was a certain priest who was not quite right in the head, and one day he walked into a bakery, made the sign of the cross over the assorted breads, and said Hoc est corpus meum (This is my body) – the Words of Institution from the eucharistic prayer. When the Archbishop of Paris heard what had happened, he bought up every baguette and croissant in the shop, and reverently consumed them.

This story reflects an understanding of priesthood and sacrament which we do not share, but it does raise questions about the power that is conferred in ordination. What will happen to Karen tonight when the Holy Spirit is called down, and the hands of bishop and priests are laid on her head? How will she be different? What is the nature of the gift she will receive?

Priesthood has a certain aura. You wear special vestments, preside over worship in the name of the whole assembly, and stand at altar and pulpit to speak for God and Christ as though you were heaven’s ambassador. You are called and set apart by God and the Church to do holy things.

Eventually, the doers of holy things are sometimes regarded as possessors of an occupational holiness. The distinctiveness of what priests do becomes a distinctiveness in who priests are. The parson is seen as a kind of model person.

At its best, this understanding of a priest as a walking icon of the Christian life has produced some remarkable saints, clergy who have indeed exemplified a godly life, clergy whose words, actions, and faithfulness manage to bring God a little closer. At its worst, this attribution of holiness to the priest has let everyone else off the hook. We don’t have to be faithful or devout. The priest does that for us.

But in our own day, we have been rediscovering, to our joy, the ministry of all the baptized. All of us, clergy and laity, are empowered and called to be ministers of the gospel, to be doers of the Word in all the times and places of our lives.

Whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is pleasing, whatever is commendable [i] – that’s on every Christian’s agenda. When the saints go marching in, we are all “in that number.”

Our common vocation as ministers was beautifully summarized by Paul Moore, the late bishop of New York. When he retired, his last words to his people were these: “You are messengers clothed in the beauty of God. Take hope, be strong, be brave, be free, be open, be loving, and hold up the vision of the Heavenly City.”

You are all messengers clothed in the beauty of God, and you will be reminded of that again tonight, when you renew your baptismal vows and are sprinkled with water from the baptismal font, in the hope that Isaiah’s cry may ever be on your own lips: Here am I; send me.

But if we are all ministers, then what is so distinctive about the role of priest? If your understanding of priesthood is purely functional, based on what a priest does, the ministry of the baptized creates a crisis of definition as more and more of the priest’s jobs are outsourced to the laity.

Parish administration, pastoral counseling, preaching, teaching, evangelism, social witness and outreach, worship planning and a great deal of worship leading can all be done by laypeople. There are really only three things that a priest can do that a layperson cannot: preside at the eucharist, pronounce God’s forgiveness after confession, and give God’s blessing.

Just these three things. But perhaps they are not such little things.
Bread, forgiveness, blessing.
The things that priests give, in the name of God, in the name of Christ.
Bread, forgiveness, blessing.

It’s actually quite a lot, really, requiring no less than everything – and a lifetime of preparation. Why a lifetime of preparation? Can’t anyone do these things? Speak some words, perform a few actions? Simple, yes. Easy, not so much.

Ritual is like art, requiring natural gifts, extensive training, and a deep grasp of the cluster of conditions that constitute ritual practice: theology, history, the meaning of sign and symbol, the nuances of body language, gesture and gaze, and so forth.

Karen comes to this calling with her own particular identity, her own unique blend of gifts and qualities. Priesthood is always an embodied phenomenon, something only realized in the form of particular persons. In that respect, each priest is different.

But when the Church sets a person apart in ordination, she becomes more than her individual self. Whenever Karen puts on her priestly stole, she will become 2000 years old, a public representative of the cumulative tradition and collective wisdom of the Church.

As priest, she will be a keeper and guardian of our sacred stories, whose task it is to tend the flame of their saving grace. At the same time, she is given the privilege of being entrusted with the stories of her people, helping them to understand that their own lives are also sacred stories.

The priestly role is not for everyone. It requires a delicate balance between self-awareness and transparency to Spirit, the sensitivity to be attuned not only to one’s own self but also to all the other selves in the room, and to the Holy One in whose presence we gather.

At the eucharist, who the presider is, and how the presider is, both have an effect on the assembly’s understanding of what is really going on when we gather to worship.

The performance of ritual doesn’t happen by accident. It is the product of charism, call and holiness of life. It is a full-time, serious business, as Richard Baxter insisted in the seventeenth century when he said to worship leaders:

[A]bove all be much in secret prayer and meditation. There you must fetch the heavenly fire that must kindle your sacrifices. Remember that you cannot decline and neglect your duty to your own hurt alone; many will be losers by it as well as you. For your people’s sake, therefore, look to your hearts… If [your hearts] be then cold, how [are they] likely to warm the hearts of [your] hearers?[ii]

In its essence, priesthood is a concrete and visible expression of belief: belief in the presence of God, and belief in the meaning and destiny of the eucharistic assembly as the body of Christ.

Every time the priest stands at the altar and says the holy words, the whole assembly is alerted to the fact that we all stand on the border between earth and heaven, the visible and the invisible. The border is where worship is conducted: it is where God gives us the bread of life and we offer in return “our selves, our souls and bodies, to be a reasonable, holy and living sacrifice”[iii] unto God.

The priest’s ritual words and actions make clear to the assembly what is going on at the border. It’s not a place where we escape the world; it’s where we discover just how sacred the world is. Ordinary bread and wine become the food of heaven and the cup of salvation.

As Gordon Lathrop puts it, the eucharistic assembly is “a hole in the fabric of things, through which life-giving power flows into the world.”[iv]

But the priestly work of bread, forgiveness and blessing is something that belongs to the entire body of Christ – not just the priest, not just this particular assembly, but the whole Church of God’s people throughout the world and throughout all time.

You and I are all priests in a cosmic sacrament, standing in the place of Christ, seeing with the eyes of Christ, in order to make visible and tangible the eucharistic nature of all things. As priests, we look at our neighbor with the most sacred attention – and intention – and say, This is my body, that is to say, Christ’s body.

We look at the stranger and say, This is my body.
We look at our enemy and say, This is my body.
We even look at bread and wine,
ordinary matter, the stuff of the universe,
and say, This is my body.

And so, to return to that bakery in Paris, we may assume that the bread was already sacred before the priest ever got there, and that every crumb was already worthy of reverent consumption. But we would never know these things had not Jesus, and every priest since, taken bread, said the blessing, broken it, and passed it around.

When I was preparing to preach this sermon, I emailed some of my ordained friends around the country, asking if they had any words of counsel or encouragement for a priest at the beginning of her journey.

One priest repeated what a Methodist minister told him at his own ordination 30 years ago: “You can’t help anybody in their relationship with God unless you are completely human.”

Another said that “who you are is infinitely more important to God and the world than the words you speak, the lists you complete or the sermons you write.”

A priest ordained for 46 years offered this advice: “Try to see [God’s people] the way God sees them.”

A seminary classmate who went on to become parish priest, cathedral dean, and diocesan bishop said, “Never leave or forget your diaconal calling. Jesus came as one who serves. As a priest, you must first of all be a servant.”

And a priest I’ve known since elementary school simply said, “Give all to God.”

I also asked my friends if they could provide a few words that distilled for them the essence of priesthood. One of the best teachers I’ve ever had – an Old Testament professor, seminary dean, parish rector, and priest for 63 years – described it this way:

living with and for sisters and brothers
being the body of christ
celebrating with brothers and sisters
word and sacrament and pastoral act
christ recalling us reshaping us refreshing us
being christ’s body for the world

A priest and poet who has worked since the 1960’s in parishes, campus ministry, foreign missions, and the national church office, offered this succinct couplet:

Everything we share is broken;
and yet we remember the whole and make it present.

Another longtime priest wrote: “Yours is to walk with people to the Mystery and back.”

 And finally, the canon to the ordinary in a Midwest diocese, a woman ordained five years ago, quoted a 16th century Sufi mystic:

Go where you are sent
Wait until you are shown what to do
Do it with your whole self
Remain until you have done what you were sent to do
Walk away with empty hands

Empty hands. I have loved this image ever since I first encountered it, just before my own ordination, in Robert Bresson’s film of the Georges Bernanos novel, Diary of a Country Priest.

The story, a retrospective account narrated with passages from a young priest’s journal, turns on a dramatic and transformative pastoral encounter with a parishioner. In one of the great scenes of cinema, fraught with a severe and holy beauty, we witness “a supernatural storm.”[v] And somehow, by what the young and inexperienced priest says to this woman, but even more by who he is, the woman’s hardened heart is broken open, and she is filled with grace and peace.

That night, the priest learns the woman has suddenly died. He hurries to the vigil where her body lies. We see him kneel by her bed to make the sign of the cross over her. At the same time, we hear his voice describe the moment as he would later record it in his journal:

“Be at peace,” I told her.
And she had knelt to
receive this peace.
May she keep it forever.
It will be I that gave it to her.
Oh miracle –
thus to be able to give
what we ourselves do not possess,
sweet miracle of our empty hands.

Sweet miracle of our empty hands. Let us pray that Karen, like every priest before her, may go to the altar of God, the God of her joy, with empty hands:

Hands that offer, and hands that receive,
hands that feed, and hands that heal,
hands that welcome, and hands that bless.

[i] Philippians 4:8

[ii] Christopher Cocksworth and Rosalind Brown, Being a Priest Today: Exploring Priestly Identity (Norwich: Canterbury Press, 2006), 150

[iii] From Thomas Cranmer’s 16th century eucharistic prayer, retained in Rite I of The Book of Common Prayer (1979), 336

[iv] Gordon Lathrop, q. in Graham Hughes, Worship as Meaning: A Liturgical Theology for Late Modernity (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2003), 150

[v] André Bazin, trans. Hugh Gray, What is Cinema? (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1967), 137

Three things you should know about the Trinity (Part 2)

Andrei Rublev, The Holy Trinity (1425)

Andrei Rublev, The Holy Trinity (1425)

Trinitarian doctrine, like other key Christian doctrines, was hammered out, not in sterile study, but rather in the midst of lived spirituality, prayer, and the worship life of the church.[i]

                                                                        – Veli-Matti Kärkkäinen

The Trinity has to do with the lives of each of us, our daily experiences, our struggles to follow our conscience, our love and our joy, our bearing the sufferings of the world and the tragedies of human existence; it also has to do with the struggle against social injustice, with efforts at building a more human form of society, with the sacrifices and martyrdom that these endeavors so often bring. If we fail to include the Trinity in our personal and social odyssey, we shall have failed to show the saving mystery[ii]

– Leonardo Boff

Part 2: You can’t make this stuff up

Early in the twelfth century, a German monk named Rupert of Deutz went into a church where mass was being said by a white-haired bishop. At the offertory procession he experienced a vision of the Holy Trinity:

On the right at the edge of the altar stood three persons of such revered bearing and dignity that no tongue could describe them. Two were quite old, that is, with very white hair; the third was a beautiful youth of royal dignity …[iii]

A century later, Hadewijch of Antwerp, one of those remarkable women mystics who flourished in the late middle ages, also had a vision of the Trinity. But instead of three white males, what she saw was a dark whirlpool, which she described as “divine fruition in its hidden storms.” Hovering over this whirlpool was a spinning disc, on which sat a figure wearing the countenance of God – the face of God – on whose breast were written the words, “The Most Loved of All Beloveds.”

We may find Hadewijch’s vision more congenial: it is genderless, and less crudely specific than Rupert’s. And the tempestuous whirlpool, a flood of energy ceaselessly flowing through the universe, conveys a dynamic image of divinity that resembles the postmodern cosmologies of process theology and quantum physics. It’s probably easier for most of us to believe in a divine whirlpool than in three white guys.

But the crucial difference between Rupert and Hadewijch is not in the relative resonance of their imagery, but rather in what happens next. Rupert remains an observer, one who stands apart and sees God as an object. But Hadewijch does not remain separate from what she sees:

Then I saw myself received in union by the One who sat there in the whirlpool upon the circling disc, and there I became one with him in the certainty of union… In that depth I saw myself swallowed up. Then I received the certainty of being received, in this form, in my Beloved, and my Beloved also in me.

Rupert’s knowledge of God remained conceptual. Hadewijch’s knowledge of God became experiential. She was gathered into the circulating current of divinity. She became part of its flow, and that divine flow became part of her.

The language she uses for this experience is not mathematical or philosophical. Her language is the language of the heart. She describes being “swallowed up… in my Beloved, and my Beloved also in me.”[iv] Love, she discovered, is the way the soul knows. Love is the way the soul sees.

I begin this reflection with a mystic’s personal testimony because Trinitarian theology was not forged by inventive theorists, but by faithful Christians trying to make sense of the concrete, experiential data of salvation, beginning with the biblical narrative and continuing in the ongoing history of believing communities. Based on our collective and personal experience of being “saved” (or, if you prefer: healed, forgiven, reborn, renewed, resurrected, empowered), what can we say about the God who has done this? Trinitarian reflection began within an ancient community deeply grounded in the monotheism of Judaism, which had, over the centuries, found ultimate reality to be not a plurality of disconnected or contradictory energies but a coherent unity. But once the early Christians began to attribute divinity to both Jesus and the Holy Spirit, a simple self-contained oneness was no longer sufficient to describe the Reality.

Without losing the unity of God, how could they account for the divine diversity revealed in the saving activities of Christ and the Spirit? Once they began to call Jesus “Lord” (Kyrios), which happened very early in their worship and their storytelling, traditional monotheism was radically destabilized. The growing perception of the Holy Spirit as a guiding and empowering presence of deity in their communities only compounded the problem.

There were various attempts to solve the problem by downgrading Jesus and Spirit to subordinate, derivative, or semi-divine realities, by no means equal to the eternal and uncreated God. Such “heresies” were popular with those who wanted to keep God simple. But “orthodoxy” was unwilling to deny the fullness of divinity to either Christ or the Spirit. Only God can save us. Christ and Spirit, in the biblical revelation and Christian experience, are integral and essential to salvation. Therefore, they must be equally integral to the Holy One who is the Creator and Redeemer of all things.

The question wasn’t only metaphysical (What is the relation between the one and the many or the finite and the infinite?) or logical (How can One be Three and Three be One?). Trinitarian reflection was also a deep engagement with the question of suffering. If God incarnate in Christ chose to share the human condition, to live and die as one of us, does that mean that vulnerability and suffering have become part of God’s own history? And if these human elements have been added to the divine life through specific temporal events, has time itself disturbed the perfect calm of eternity? If God has been affected and changed by events in time and history, what can we then say about the consistency and transcendence of the divine nature? How can God be decisively linked to the history of the world without losing freedom or transcendence? Can a changeless God weep? Can we be saved by a God without weapons?

In his comprehensive survey of contemporary Trinitarian thought, Veli-Matti Kärkkäinen argues that “the assumption of humanity by God, the Son, means that human capacity to suffer is not foreign to the being of God. How else could one speak of God as love? … It is more biblical to think of God as passionate love, the Father who chooses to engage the suffering of the world, than as a Transcendent One whose separation from the world’s suffering guards his freedom.”[v] Robert Jenson, a foremost North American authority on the Trinity, rejects the notion of divine detachment from creation in dramatically succinct terms: “God … is what happens with Jesus… God is what will come of Jesus and us, together.”[vi]

The problems and paradoxes that arise from such far-reaching assertions have been debated and puzzled over throughout Christian history, and the recent profusion of Trinitarian theology has become an incredibly rich conversation. There is, of course, no final version of God awaiting discovery, no definitive outcome to all this reflection, only an endless attentiveness to the Mystery which may consent to dance with language, but always outruns it in the end.

So why presume to talk about the Trinity at all? Why can’t we simply say and think and pray to “God” and leave it at that? We can’t do that because Christians don’t belong to a theoretical God, a reasonable and logical divine construct worked up by professional philosophers. We belong to the self-revealing but complicated God of the Bible who has, in the form and activity of Christ and the Holy Spirit, rescued us from our own folly and gathered us into the communion that is the very life of God. And no matter what diverse strategies of insight and understanding we may employ, what we can actually say about the Trinity is always grounded in experience, both the experience of our ancestors encoded in Scripture and tradition and the contemporary revelations of communal and personal life.

Trinitarian thought isn’t made out of thin air or abstract speculation. It is produced and nourished by the concrete, tangible history of Christian experience. However each day manifests for us “the means of grace” and “the hope of glory,” whatever the myriad ways by which we love and serve and witness, we need the threefold name to account for the diversity of God’s relations with us. Anything less would impoverish our prayer and considerably reduce the scope of our attention.

For most theologians, our experience of God as threefold also reflects a Trinitarian life within God’s own self. Since God’s inner life is beyond our sight, this can only be an assumption. But it is a crucial one. If God is trustworthy and self-revealing, it must be that when we meet God as Trinity, we get the real thing. God isn’t just pretending to be Three for us; God’s own inner life is constituted by relationality and communion.

Finally, how shall we address or invoke this Mystery, which a Japanese theologian intriguingly calls “Three Betweennesses in One Concord?”[vii] The traditional “Father, Son, and Holy Spirit,” despite its authoritative pedigree, is distractingly masculine for many, and various substitutes have arisen, each with their own impediments. “Creator, Redeemer, Sanctifier,” for example, is a bit impersonal, and risks reducing the three Persons to job descriptions. Likewise, “Source, Word, Spirit,” “Creator, Liberator, Comforter,” “Parent, Child, Paraclete,” “Mother, Daughter, Spirit,” and “Mother, Lover, Friend” all have their particular assets and liabilities. My own current preference, since I suspect that God is more verb than noun, is “Love who loves us[viii], Word who saves us, Spirit who revives us.”

I leave the last word to 16th century reformer Philip Melanchthon, who said, “We adore the mysteries of the Godhead. That is better than to investigate them.”[ix]

[This is the second of three reflections on the Trinity. The first, on the essential relationality of God, may be found here.]

[i] Veli-Matti Kärkkäinen, The Trinity: Global Perspectives (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2007), 35

[ii] ibid., xv-xvi

[iii] Bernard McGinn, The Growth of Mysticism: Gregory the Great Through the 12th Century (New York: The Crossroad Publishing Company, 1994), 330

[iv] ibid., The Flowering of Mysticism (New York: The Crossroad Publishing Company, 1998), 212-16

[v] Veli-Matti Kärkkäinen, 99

[vi] Robert W. Jenson, The Triune Identity: God According to the Gospel (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1982), 22-3

[vii] Nozumu Miyahira, in Kärkkäinen, 314

[viii] I take this resonant phrase from Terrence Malick’s transcendent film, To the Wonder.

[ix] Kärkkäinen, xvi

Three things you should know about the Trinity (Part 1)

The Trinity is hard to visualize, as this late Gothic painting from the Louvre demonstrates.

The Trinity is hard to visualize, as this late Gothic painting from the Louvre demonstrates.

I’ve heard a lot of clergy say they hate to preach on Trinity Sunday. It seems too abstract, too complex, too heady a topic for a Sunday congregation, especially in a culture where thinking theologically is not a widely practiced art. It’s like trying to explain quantum physics to non-scientists. It took centuries for the ancient church to shape the doctrine of the Trinity. How can anyone explain it in 15 minutes? Besides, people look to the preacher for inspiration, not explanation. They want a sermon to make sense of things, not to make their heads explode.

Even Gregory of Nyssa, who thought a lot about the Trinity in the 4th century, found it a daunting subject:

You tell me first what is the unbegottenness of the Father, and I will then explain to you the physiology of the generation of the Son, and the procession of the Spirit, and we shall both of us be stricken with madness for prying into the mystery of God.[i]

I actually enjoy preaching the Trinity. I like it so well I even preached when Trinity Sunday fell on the day between my wedding and my honeymoon. It’s an inexhaustible subject – the Christian theory of everything – but over my next three posts, let me (humbly) suggest three things which I believe to be foundational for trinitarian faith.

Part 1: God is relational

We tend to think of a person as defined by his or her separateness. I’m me and you’re you! We may interact and even form deep connections, but my identity does not depend upon you. I am a self-contained unit. You can’t live in my skin and I can’t live in yours. That’s the cultural assumption, which goes back at least as far as Descartes in the seventeenth century, and continues today in such debased forms as rampant consumerism, where my needs and my desires take precedence over any wider sense of interdependence, community, or ecology.

But what we say about the Persons of the Trinity is quite different. Each Person is not an individual, separate subject who perceives the other Persons as objects. The Trinitarian persons experience one another not from the outside, but from the inside. They indwell each other in a mutual interiority.

John Lennon expressed the Trinitarian spirit when he sang, “I am he as you are she as you are me and we are all together.” And a French mystic put it this way: “it’s a case of un ‘je’ sans moi” (an “I” without a me).

But if the divine Persons are all inside each other, commingled, “of one being,” as the Creed says, what makes each Person distinct? To put it succinctly: the Persons are distinct because they are in relation with one another.

As Martin Buber observed, we are persons because we can say “Thou” to someone else. To be a person is to experience the difference – and the connection – that forms the space between two separate subjects. My consciousness is not alone in the universe. There are other centers of consciousness: Thou, I… Thou, I… The fact that you are not I is what creates self-consciousness, the awareness of my own difference from what is outside myself.

If we apply this to the Trinity, we say that there are Three Persons because there is relation within God, relation between the Source who begets, the Word who is begotten, and the Spirit who binds the two together and moves them outward in ever widening circles.

These relations are not occasional or accidental. They are eternal. There is an eternal sending within God, an eternal self-giving within God, an eternal exchange by which God is both Giver and Receiver simultaneously.

Trinitarian faith describes a God who is not solitary and alone, a God who is not an object which we can stand apart from and observe. The Trinity is an event of relationships: not three separate entities in isolation and independence from one another, but a union of subjects who are eternally interweaving and interpenetrating.

The early Church had a word for this: perechoresis. It means that each Person penetrates the others, each contains the other, and is contained by them. Each fills the space of the other, each is the subject, not the object of each other. As Jesus says in the Fourth Gospel: I am in the Father and the Father is in me.

This divine relationality is not something which an originally solitary God decided to take up at some point. God is eternally relational. Before there was an external creation to relate to, God’s own essential self was and is an event of perpetual relation. There was never simply being, but always being-with, being-for, being-in. To be and to be in relation are eternally identical.

When the Bible says, “God is love” (I John 4:16), it means that love is not just something God has or God does; love is what God is. As Orthodox theologian John D. Zizoulas says in his influential text, Being as Communion, “Love as God’s mode of existence … constitutes [divine] being.”[ii] Feminist theologian Elizabeth Johnson echoes this in her book, She Who Is: “There is no divine nature as a fourth thing that grounds divine unity in difference apart from relationality. Rather, being in communion constitutes God’s very essence.”[iii]

In other words, God is Love giving itself away – self-emptying, self-diffusing, self-surrendering – and in so doing finds itself, receives itself, becomes itself.

For those of us made in God’s image, who God is matters deeply, both for our own self-understanding and for our engagement with the world. The Trinity isn’t just a doctrine or an idea. It’s a practice, a way of life, the shape of every story.

To be continued … 

[i] Sermons of Gregory of Nyssa, Orat. xxxi, 8

[ii] John D. Zizoulas, Being as Communion: Studies in Personhood and the Church (Crestwood, NY: St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 1993), 46

[iii] Elizabeth Johnson, She Who Is: The Mystery of God in Feminist Theological Discourse (NY: Crossroad, 1993), 227