Monday, March 29, 2010

life, death, and life beyond death

fifth page for March 29, 2010

Our guest speaker at Trinity yesterday, Joan Cooke, spoke from the heart about her “journey of joy”- which began with the death of her husband, Ron. Joan decided that funds given in memory of Ron would be given to an organization called “Roofs for the Roofless”, which was, and is, engaged in development and outreach work in a number of rural villages outside of Chennai, India.

Later this week, the audio recording of Joan’s presentation will be available on the Trinity website. I recommend it as a story to ponder as we approach Easter. What I heard in Joan’s words was the story of a woman who moved through the grief and sadness of loss, into a continuing journey of transformation, that has given her a life she might never have imagined.

I spoke this week with a close friend who has just had a loss, and at this point, cannot quite imagine how her life will be in the days, and weeks, and years following the funeral.

The Jesus story is about life, and death, and new life. We can hear the story as being about one figure in history. We can also look at the pattern, or paradigm for existence towards which that story points. For all of us, there is life, and life interrupted by loss, and the possibility of life beyond that loss. There is also the hope that the Spirit will be at work, to not just sustain us through our grief, but to help us live in new ways.

In his book,"The Awakened Heart", Gerald May wrote, "...the journey of presence will take us places we would not have chosen for ourselves. Some of these places turn out to be filled with beauty and joy; others show us painful brokenness in ourselves and in our world. At such times what had felt like trust now feels like taking a risk. And it is in the risking, not the trusting, that we most fully live our consecration."

Joan Cooke opened herself up to a journey of joy that has led her through grief into an unknown, sometimes risky territory, where she has seen much human brokenness, and incredible hope.

Monday, March 22, 2010

God is where we are

This past Wednesday on the Roman calendar was the Feast Day of Saint Patrick. I cannot claim to be Roman Catholic, and have only vague connections to Irish roots, but as they say, on Saint Patrick's Day, we are all Irish. For the last two Saint Patrick's Days I have marked the occasion with a "Celtic Communion" service at a nearby senior's residence. Much of the liturgy is borrowed from the service book of the Iona Community. I love these words from a prayer of approach and confession:

"O hidden mystery,
sun behind all suns,
soul behind all souls,
in everything we touch,
in everyone we meet,
your presence is around us,
and we give you thanks."

I think that this sense of the immediacy of God- of God being where we are, is one of the gifts of Celtic spirituality. Of course, it is much more likely that we will be aware of, and appreciate the closeness of God, if we are also present where we are.

On Sunday I talked a bit about the challenge of actually living in the present moment, in the place and time occupied by our body. It is very easy to "be somewhere else" emotionally, mentally, spiritually. We have memories that tug us backward, and worries that pull us forward.

In the Gospel lesson for this past week, Judas Iscariot chided Mary, sister of Martha and Lazarus, because she lavished an expensive gift on Jesus. Mary anointed Jesus' feet with perfume made of nard, an expensive substance often reserved for the preparation of a body for burial. Judas railed that the perfume might have been sold, and the proceeds used to help the poor.

Judas may have a point, and the conversation he seem to want to have, about how people of faith should use their resources to do acts of mercy, would be worth having. But I think that Judas is also trying to shift attention away from that particular moment. It may be that he finds Mary's expression of love and of anticipated grief too much to face.

Talk about money, and obsession with possessions is often a way to avoid living in the moment, and directly experiencing the pain and the joy of human existence. I know that I do it! Often after an emotional pastoral visit I will go for a walk through a department store or a thrift shop. I usually don't buy anything- but the "shopping therapy" is a deliberate strategy of escape.

Part of the appeal for me, of Celtic Spirituality, is the invitation to stay in the present moment, because that is the place where we can meet God, and know that God is with us in all of our celebrations and consolations.

In her article. "The extraordinary in the ordinary", a scholar of Celtic spirituality named Esther de Waal quotes an ancient prayer spoken at the beginning of the day, by a woman in her hut in the Outer Hebrides, off the west coast of Scotland:

" I will kindle my fire this morning
In the presence of the holy
angels of heaven. "

Tuesday, March 16, 2010

In the last few years a significant aspect of my ministry has been working with families who are "outside" the church, and who request the help of a minister with a funeral. I am grateful for good working relationships with a number of very sensitive and ethical funeral directors, with whom I share a desire to help families.

I meet a lot of people who are leery of organized religion. Sometimes it is because they have had no experience of church. More often it is because they have had negative experiences of church. As a United Church of Canada minister, I have the somewhat dubious, but occasionally helpful distinction of being seen as "not too religious"!

This past week I was asked to help with a memorial service for a man who had died in his early sixties of lung cancer. The family had met with another minister and decided not to work with him, largely because he came into the meeting with his plan for the service already laid out. The family did not experience much "room" for them in the planning process.

What I often find when I work with families is that they are quite open to hearing my ideas, and my beliefs, if I have first taken the time to hear them out, and get a sense of their ideas, needs, and beliefs. It also helps if I can show them that I am not attempting use the "opportunity' of a vulnerable time to push a particular agenda. (Like getting them "saved".)

Most families are looking for care, for comfort, and for hope. Of the many families who have requested "something not so religious", I can recall only two situations in which the family was totally opposed to there being prayers, scripture, readings, or a sermon in the funeral service. Most of the time, it seems, that the concern is around style and tone rather than content.

People do not want to get beat up with a Bible.

I was thinking about all this on Sunday, as we sang "Amazing Grace". This hymn is often picked to be played at "non-religious" funerals.

I think this makes a lot of sense. When people are in grief, and when they are planning to gather their loved ones together for a funeral, they are often, perhaps unconsciously, seeking grace rather than religion, and hope rather than shame.

Monday, March 8, 2010

“My aching back, the Buddha, and my children”

My back hurts when I don’t take good care of it. Good back care means regular exercise, some specific stretches prescribed by my physio-therapist, and ice. At least once a day, I am to apply a cold pack to my lower back. It sounds awful, but feels wonderful, after the initial shock. When I remember to do these things, my back hurts a lot less.

When life seems too busy to take proper care of my back, it lets me know. There is a temptation, then, to medicate, to swallow ibuprofen every few hours. This masks the symptoms, but does nothing to change the reality. My back, and the rest of me, is getting older, and painkillers won’t undo the aging process. In fact, the pills make me groggy, and crabby, and are usually not worth the temporary relief they offer.

It is far better for me to be realistic about life, and do the self-care my body deserves. This reminds me of the first of the four noble truths of Buddhism is that “life means suffering”. As explained at:

“To live means to suffer, because the human nature is not perfect and neither is the world we live in. During our lifetime, we inevitably have to endure physical suffering such as pain, sickness, injury, tiredness, old age, and eventually death; and we have to endure psychological suffering like sadness, fear, frustration, disappointment, and depression. Although there are different degrees of suffering and there are also positive experiences in life that we perceive as the opposite of suffering, such as ease, comfort and happiness, life in its totality is imperfect and incomplete, because our world is subject to impermanence. This means we are never able to keep permanently what we strive for, and just as happy moments pass by, we ourselves and our loved ones will pass away one day, too.”

As a person of faith, I do not look to God to be some kind of spiritual ibuprofen that masks the pains of life. I see God as the source of the strength, and love, and joy, and grace, that make living possible, even in the midst of hardship.

Our spiritual lives are about learning and doing the practices that reflect our faith in God, and which make it possible to live with integrity.

This past week my wife and I worked with one of our kids to help them deal with a tough moment. Our child had made a bad choice, and it was necessary for them to admit to, and apologize for their actions. As we were listening and talking our way through this “life lesson” moment, I recognized within me the deep desire to fix things. I wanted to somehow relieve our child of this burden, of the discomfort, the embarrassment, the “loss of face” that was likely worse in anticipation than it would be in reality.

I found myself saying out loud to my child, and to myself, that there are some things that we cannot go around, or over, or under. There are some things that life requires us to “go through”, even if they are painful.

Friday, March 5, 2010

Retreat time

I was on retreat from Feb 22-25 at a Cistercian Monastery in Monck's Corner, South Carolina. The place is called Mepkin Abbey, and began in 1949 as an off-shoot from Gethsemani Abbey in Kentucky, which was the monastic home of Thomas Merton. Mepkin Abbey is situated on a large parcel of land which was at one time a working plantation, and more recently the family estate of Henry and Clare Booth Luce. Henry was the founding publisher of Life and Time Magazine. His wife Clare was also a journalist, and an American Ambassador.

I found the monastery grounds to be a wonderful place to walk, to run, to sit in the sun, and to wander about and take photos. The image I have included here is a view of the monk's cemetery in the late afternoon, approaching sundown. At some point I will write a reflection on what I saw and felt in the moment my camera captured the sun's rays beaming through the canopy of live oaks.

To learn more about the Abbey and its work, check out: