About TraumaTransformed Spiritual Care Network

Convener of TraumaTransformed Spiritual Care Network. Trauma Center Chaplain Leader (my views do not represent the views of my employers)

For my brother Craig following his suicide

Funeral Meditation for Craig L. Hottinger

October 7, 2020, Marion, Ohio

Rev. David Hottinger 

Scripture: 1 Corinthians 13.8-12 (The Message)

Love never dies. Inspired speech will be over some day; praying in tongues will end; understanding will reach its limit. We know only a portion of the truth, and what we say about God is always incomplete. But when the Complete arrives, our incompletes will be canceled.

 We don’t yet see things clearly. We’re squinting in a fog, peering through a mist. But it won’t be long before the weather clears, and the sun shines bright! We’ll see it all then, see it all as clearly as God sees us, knowing him directly just as he knows us!

1 Corinthians 13.8-12 (The Message)

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As I look around this space, I have images of Craig and me riding around this parking lot – me on a bike and he on his big wheel during the time we lived above this funeral home. I had just hit first grade and he was in pre-school when we moved to Marion from Bowling Green – where we also lived above a big (but far spookier-looking) funeral home. As children, we spent a lot of time “helping” my Dad and his colleagues – setting up chairs, moving flowers, washing the hearse and limo…well, I am not sure how much help we actually were but growing up here instilled in Craig a deep desire to be of service to others. 

This began very early and did not always show up in ways that made my Dad happy. I am told that when Craig was three or four, he went missing from his room one night. To my parents’ shock, they found him in the Prep room, perched on a stool, earnestly attempting to shave off a deceased man’s mustache. He was very proud of himself but after that a latch was placed on the outside of his door! 

Like me, Craig was adopted by my mom and dad at birth in Bowling Green. From what we know, his biological mother was 14 years old and walked into the hospital to give birth to him without ever having seen a doctor. From the get-go, Craig was a spirited human being. One of my parents confessed to me that if Craig had arrived first, they might have stuck to adopting just one child. 

Still, over the years, he was deeply loved by his circle of family and friends – especially my parents (Jack and Marilyn),  grandparents (Albert and Lucille, John and Fran), aunts and uncles (Dan and Norma, Kristi and Steve, and  cousins (Ben and Heidi, Shelly and Nick), and family friends (Jim and Gerry, Jeannie and Mike, George and Mary). I am told that I was a little more ambivalent about Craig’s sudden arrival. When my parents took us to the courthouse to sign the permanent adoption papers, the judge asked me how I liked my new brother. Reportedly, I told the judge that he was great but that he could take him back now! 

School years could be topsy-turvy for Craig. All the energy he demonstrated could be challenging for teachers and my parents. But his warmth, passion, laughter and enthusiasm earned him a lot of friends and the love of many, including those who mentored us at the Mt Vernon Ave Church of Christ and our neighborhood on East Walnut Street. I especially want to acknowledge the care we received from our “second family” in Marion – the Garnes’ – John, Elaine, David, and John Jr – and our neighbors on Walnut Street – Cathy, Tom, Ryan and Travis. I am not sure Craig would have survived elementary school at Indian Mound without the extra outlet of their cool, wood jungle gym in the back yard. 

Eventually, Craig focused some of his tremendous energy into becoming a successful athlete, first as a football player, then as a wrestler at Harding. He enjoyed the intensity and passion it took to be a competitive wrestler at the varsity level. Craig continued to help my Dad, David Haines, Gene Farison, and David Palo with tasks around the funeral home. Craig could be an incredibly hard worker and began to think about following my Dad’s footsteps to go into the funeral business. 

Unfortunately, as Craig’s college years unfolded, so did increasingly severe symptoms of mental illness begin to appear. Following a scary episode after which he was hospitalized, my brother was finally diagnosed with Bipolar Disorder. To our family, it was a bit of a relief to have some framework to understand Craig’s mood swings, periods of manic energy, and occasions of erratic behavior. But we had no idea back them how debilitating this illness would be for him. 

Amazingly, after college at the University of Toledo, Craig went on to complete a Master’s Degree in Therapeutic Recreation – also at UT. I think this vocational path emerged out of that deep place in himself where the desire to serve and heal and love was very strong. Recreational Therapists are on the front lines of using a variety of modalities to help maintain or improve patients’ physical, emotional and social well-being. Even as Craig began to suffer more, he was intent on using his professional training and broken places to be – in the words of Henri Nouwen – a wounded healer. 

It took me a lot longer to realize this about my brother than it did many of you. Ours was often a conflicted relationship growing up. I saw him as a muscle-bound jock, and I think he viewed me an arrogant egghead. In my twenties, I did not see Craig that much, and I am sure that my fear of the darker parts of his mental illness was a factor. But my parents, my grandparents, aunts and uncles and some of his friends did not run away. They were able to see in Craig a sensitive, compassionate, loving, light-filled soul who was struggling mightily against descending confusion and darkness. 

The one job Craig was able to work in his field was at the William Sharpe Psychiatric Hospital in Weston, WV. I imagine that my brother excelled in this work. I also know that his upfront and personal exposure to the intense trauma, grief, and suffering of some of his patients eventually prompted a spiral of his own into a hellacious mental health crisis. 

As I have come to understand Craig, this spiral – and his subsequent inability ever again to work in the psychiatric field – was not a sign that he was “weak” (even though he often thought of himself that way) or lacked the “willpower” to recover and become a “functioning” member of society (whatever that means). Craig was afflicted with an illness that caused him decades of anguish, loneliness, suffering, turmoil, and pain – the likes of which most of us could barely comprehend. 

Still, he fought. There were the years he lived in Cleveland working as a personal trainer and his time in Macon, Georgia where he had moved to help a friend with his family business. 

And he loved – especially my parents, grandparents, his friends and his beloved dogs, Sugar, Bandit and Trooper. 

And he served – bringing meals to the elderly in Georgia under the loving guidance of Miss Mary, the matriarch of the church kitchen; volunteering with Mom at Leapin’ Outreach Ministries and the First Church of the Nazarene; parking the cars of patients at Marion General. 

And he cared – about my Dad as was dying, my Mom in her grief; me as I endured my own losses these past few years; my kids as they grew; some of you, his friends, as you reached out to him; his neighbors over in Crescent Heights.

With the pandemic, the last seven months were particularly brutal for Craig. Because of COVID-19 restrictions, his valet job at the hospital was eliminated. He continued to grieve my father’s death. In his state of isolation, he pushed away those who tried to reach out. Our family is unsure whether he was taking his medications as prescribed. The battle became seemingly more desperate and finally insurmountable for Craig. And he lost his decades-long civil war with mental illness a week ago today. 

Yes, Craig died by suicide, but suicidal depression is the disease that killed him. It takes a person out of life against his or her will, the emotional equivalent of a deadly stroke, heart attack, or cancer. Like other diseases, some people with the disease get better over time while others live with its effects every day. Tragically, some people die from it. It is normal for those of us left to struggle with questions about whether we could have done more to help or recognize signs of how seriously the disease was threatening his life. Suicide is an illness and as with any illness we can love someone and still not be able to save their life. 

As Ronald Rolheiser writes, 

There is no pain like the one suicide inflicts. Nobody who is healthy wants to die, and nobody who is healthy seeks to burden his or her loved ones with this kind of pain. And that’s the point: This is only done when someone isn’t healthy. The fact that medication can often prevent suicide should tell us something. Suicide, in most cases, is an illness, not a sin. 

Nobody, who is healthy, willingly decides to die by suicide and burden his or her loved ones with that death any more than anyone willingly chooses to die of cancer and cause pain. The victim of suicide (in most cases) is a trapped person, caught up in a fiery, private chaos that has its roots both in his or her psyche and in his or her biochemistry. Suicide, in most cases, is a desperate attempt to end unendurable pain, akin to one throwing oneself off a high building because one’s clothing is on fire.

Richard Rolheiser

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The spiritual part of this is also hard to comprehend. For a lot of Christian history, suicide was considered a terrible sin because it was thought to violate the Fifth Commandment “Thou Shall Not Kill.” While suicide is certainly a tragedy and inflicts horrible pain, I believe we understand so much more now about how the roller coaster of mental illness can severely compromise a person’s capacity to make decisions.

As people of faith, our conviction is this: In Christ, both in this life and the life of the world to come, we are held in God’s loving arms of mercy. In Christ, nothing – “neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor any thing else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ in Jesus” (Romans 8). 

Moreover, Craig’s life is neither defined by his illness nor how he died. We should remember him as the kind, gentle, generous, genuine, sensitive, compassionate person that he was. 

In the past days, tributes about Craig have been pouring in, and I have heard wonderful stories about him from his friends, coaches, classmates, and loved ones. Here a few things I saw. 

“I always remember Craig with a smile. May you be comforted knowing he touched so many lives.” “I have great memories of Craig; always enjoyed his energetic personality.” 

“I have many good memories of Craig from high school; he always brought a smile to my face.” 

“I always remember him to be quiet and kind.” “I dearly loved both my Hottinger boys. This is tragic.” 

“I am so incredibly sad. Craig was my first ‘boyfriend’ and he was always on my side and just a great person.” 

“Craig was always so good to me and my family.” “Craig, I thought you would be a General in the Army someday.” 

“Craig was always so kind and helpful whenever I saw him. He never hesitated to offer his assistance or say a kind word. He was a devoted son and I and I saw him frequently during his daily visits with Marilyn. He will be greatly missed.”

 “I remember Craig as we played baseball and football together. You always played with passion, dedication and was great teammate Craig. Rest in Peace and God bless you.” 

“Craig was a very nice young man who I enjoyed being around. He always was a respectful person to Linda and to me. He was really a funny guy who would stop by the office to talk wrestling and other sports with us.” 

“What a special young man. His kindness, friendliness, and helpfulness to others was something I always remember about Craig. His love of sports and dedication to wrestling at Harding will be remembered for a long time. I had not seen Craig for many years until last summer at Jack’s funeral where he sought me out to update each other on what had been happening in each of our lives.” 

“Sweet guy – always helping others.” 

“We are so sorry for your loss. We remember Craig as a tremendous dog lover, caring and playful uncle, and compassionate soul. That he cared so genuinely about others says so much about his character and his personal struggle.

“Craig was a classmate of our daughter and visited our home frequently. It was always a joy to see Craig and talk with him.”  

“I will always have great memories of Craig – in fact, I still have a voicemail from him from last September. In the middle he says ‘How you doing Buddy – haven’t seen you forever! “And he ends with “OK Buddy – love you, bye!’ Like it says in his story – he always asked how I was doing and the rest of the family. A lot of people will ask that – but you could tell that he really cared about the answer.”

“Craig was truly a kind guy with a huge heart and loving soul. I always enjoyed seeing him and Trooper in my office and talking to him. He was always very uplifting and would always be sure to make everyone smile.” 

“I have been thinking about you for days now and finally have the strength to say something. I have distinct and fond memories of your family and my first childhood buddies, David and Craig. I remember your kindness and perpetual positive attitudes. I don’t remember much from those early years of my life, but for some reason your family stands out. I remember when fearless Craig swung from a rope on the jungle gym in the back yard and ended up swinging right into the trunk of a large tree. I think he got a concussion from that little stunt. I really admired Craig as an outstanding wrestler and a really great guy. I remember going to one of his wrestling matches and deciding I wanted to start wrestling too, after seeing him. I have no doubt that Craig will be greatly missed by many people.”

“Craig had such a beautiful and kind heart. I cannot comprehend the struggles he endured all these years. God knows that too. I am sure He welcomes him with wide open arms.” 

Following up on that last statement, let us absorb some more words from Fr. Richard Rolheiser: 

Fortunately, we are not without hope. The redeeming love of God can do what we can’t. God’s love is not stymied in the same way as is ours. Unlike our own, it can go through locked doors and enter closed, frightened, bruised, lonely places and breathe out peace, freedom, and new life there. Our belief in this is expressed in one of the articles of the creed: He descended into hell.

To say that Christ descended into hell is to, first and foremost, say something about God’s love for us and how that love will go to any length, descend to any depth, and go through any barrier in order to embrace a wounded, huddled, frightened, and bruised soul. By dying as he did, Jesus showed that he loves us in such a way that his love can penetrate even our private hells, going right through the barriers of hurt, anger, fear, and hopelessness. 

We see this expressed in an image in John’s Gospel where, twice, Jesus goes right through locked doors, stands in the middle of a huddled circle of fear, and breathes out peace. That image of Jesus going through locked doors is surely the most consoling thought within the entire Christian faith (and is unrivalled in any other world religion). Simply put, it means that God can help us even when we can’t help ourselves. God can empower us even when we are too hurt, frightened, sick, and weak to even, minimally, help ourselves.

Richard Rolheiser

Indeed, as St. Paul tells us in that reading from 1 Corinthians, in this life, we are far from seeing things clearly. We are squinting in a fog. Peering through mist. We know only a portion of the truth and what we say about God is always incomplete. 

The tragedies and traumas of this world (such as the one we are marking today) can catapult us towards despair and paralysis. There is no way we can do other than mourn Craig’s tragic death and rail against the suffering which caused it. His suicide leaves a gaping hole in our family and community and makes many of us angry that it came to this. It causes us to cry out, “Why, God? Why, Craig? Why, all of the others suffering so much that they cannot see beyond today?”

And yet….and yet…faith beckons us to peer beyond death’s dark vale to that blessed transformation in which death is no more and our tears are wiped from our eyes and there is no more crying and no more pain, because the old things are passing away and all things are being made new…. (Revelation 21). 

Craig Hottinger’s battle is over. Those of us who held Craig in love will keep him in our hearts, even as we journey through this desert of sadness.  But in that journey, remember this: we are now held by a Love which will never abandon us or forsake us. Craig is no longer with us but in Christ, the Holy Spirit is always interceding for us in our weakness, with sighs and groans too deep for words (Romans 8). 

Dietrich Bonhoeffer, a Christian martyr of Nazi Germany, once put it: 

Nothing can make up for the absence of someone we love…. It is nonsense to say that God fills the gap; God doesn’t fill it, but on the contrary, God keeps it empty and so helps us keep alive our former communion with each other, even at the cost of pain…. The dearer and richer our memories, the more difficult the separation. But gratitude changes the pangs of memory into a tranquil joy. The beauties of the past are borne, not as a thorn in the flesh, but as a precious gift in themselves.”

We love you, Craig – son, brother, uncle, nephew, cousin, friend. We are so grateful for all that you gave us and taught us. You are a sheep of God’s own fold, a lamb of God’s flock, a beloved child of God’s own redeeming. May you rest in peace and dwell in God’s paradise forever. 

Surrounded by Saints (COVID-19 and George Floyd version)

Sermon at Mayflower Congregational United Church of Christ

July 5, 2020

Therefore, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us also lay aside every weight and the sin that clings so closely,[a] and let us run with perseverance the race that is set before us, looking to Jesus the pioneer and perfecter of our faith, who for the sake of[b] the joy that was set before him endured the cross, disregarding its shame, and has taken his seat at the right hand of the throne of God. – Hebrews 12.1-3

All of the places of our lives are sanctuaries; some of them just happen to have steeples. And all of the people in our lives are saints; it is just that some of them have day jobs and most will never have feast days named for them – Robert Benson.

One of the advantages of growing up as the son of a funeral director is that an early age I gained a keen awareness that the reality of death always frames the film we call life. How could it have been otherwise when my first bedroom neighbored the casket showroom in a Victorian funeral home in Bowling Green, Ohio? As a toddler, I rode my Big Wheel around the embalming area while my dad was working; my first paid job was washing the hearse and vacuuming the wilted flower leaves leftover from burials. In the course of my childhood, I viewed the mortal remains of not just a few of my fellow townspeople.

With this odd familiarity with the various and sundry ways in which we leave this world (and there are many), I developed a rather intense fascination with ideas about what stood beyond the veiled curtain of this mortal life – a life I learned that sometimes ends with alarming speed, violence, and unpredictability.

My quest assumed particular urgency in sixth grade when my maternal Grandmother died suddenly and tragically. In the sickening chasm of grief into which I catapulted, the bland reassurances I received from my pastor and Sunday school teachers about heaven seemed artificial, if not outright disingenuous. Plus, the picture of the afterlife they were painting looked unimaginably dull; I don’t think too many adolescent boys long to walk on streets of gold with winged angels flying overhead.

What did begin to fire my imagination were graphic depictions of an apocalyptic destruction of earth – preceded, of course, by the rapture into heaven of the few brave souls who had resisted “the mark of the Beast” and had been sealed with the blood of the Lamb. Much to the alarm of my parents, I became obsessed with the imminent end of the world. I worried deep into the night about the eternal destiny of every soul I encountered (including my desk mates at school who soon grew tired of my assurances that they were bound for hell unless they repented of their vile language and rule-breaking).

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Fortunately, by high school, I had mentors who helped me see that in Christianity salvation is not merely an otherworldly venture. Jesus came, not to condemn the world, but to save the world by ushering in God’s reign. The Jesus Way is just as much about the work of healing, reconciling, justice-bringing, and peace-making in the here-and-now, as it is preparing ourselves for what the Creed calls “the life of the world to come.”

One of the qualities I find most attractive in the more “Catholic” expressions of the Christian faith (Roman, Orthodox, Anglican,) are their ability to focus on God’s activity in the world without forgetting that the trajectory of Divine Love always transcends the realm of that which we can see with our eyes and know with our reason. The Kingdom of God is now but not yet. The world is hurting and broken but is also the dwelling place of the Divine Presence.

This balancing act is made possible by the doctrine of the Incarnation – the idea that God took on bodily form in and through Jesus of Nazareth. Because God became a human in Jesus, it is possible for human beings to share directly in God’s own divinity. Through the lens of the Incarnation, the world – battered and broken as it is – is also beautiful and good because it is in the process of being healed and restored to its state of Original Blessing.

Moreover, all who walk the Jesus Way are invited to share in that work of healing made possible by God dwelling in the world.  Central to the notion of Incarnational faith is the understanding that God makes the world holy (whole) by showing up in and through the everyday, human lives we lead with our bodies, minds, and spirits.

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A huge breakthrough for me occurred when I was introduced to the idea of the “communion of saints,” or the notion that somehow my life is inextricably part of and connected to all of God’s people who lived before me, all of those with whom I now share the earth, and all of children of God who will come after me when I am gone.

Saints are those people who mediate God’s peace, mercy, justice, healing, forgiveness, and grace to us in a special way. For a long time, my understanding of a saint was limited to the “great ones” of history. In addition to the official, canonized saints of the Church, in my pantheon of the Great Cloud of Witnesses were inspiring figures such as Martin Luther King, Jr., Dorothy Day, Dag Hammarskjold, Rosa Parks, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Oscar Romero, Bede Griffiths, and the Jesuit martyrs of El Salvador.

When I started doing hospice work in Boston while I was still a divinity student, I began to understand that saints were not just the “big” personalities of history. Defined as those who are powerful channels of God’s Eternal Now, saints literally surround us, if only we develop the eyes to see and the hearts to feel their presence.

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I remember the first patient I met in hospice, Ruth, as if it were yesterday. Ruth had endured decades of physical abuse, domestic violence, and mental illness and lay dying from ovarian cancer in the hospice house a few miles from Harvard Square. In the hours that I sat with Ruth, holding her hand and listening to her sobs as disease ravaged her already frail body, Ruth taught me more about life, dignity, death, and resurrection than the most learned theologians I was studying.

Kneeling beside that deathbed with the late afternoon sun streaming through the windows, my status as an “intellectual,” a theology student, and a professional “helper” faded into the New England autumn shadows. Even in the midst of her suffering, Ruth radiated a light, a peace, and Presence which I could neither deny, nor explain. Ruth invited me to see the world, not just as a vale of tears but also a landscape infused with Sacred Mystery, Beauty, and Divine Love. What mattered was my willingness to be a fellow pilgrim with a heart open enough to experience that mystery, beauty and love.  Over the course of my 25 years working among those at the margins of life, I have encountered many such saints like Ruth. They remind me on a daily basis that, in the end, nothing really matters more than embracing life with open arms and soft hearts.

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Quite frankly, were it not for the saints of my life, past and present, I am not sure how my faith would be sustained during these past months working inside the COVID-19 wards and trauma bays of Hennepin Health care and living in the midst of a pandemic which continues to devastate vulnerable communities – black and brown and confined elderly people  – with shocking unfairness. I live alone and have not had the comfort of seeing my children very much, in large part because of the fear some of their relatives have about where I work and what I might bring home. 

As a human being, I am created for communion and community and these have been very hard to come by – at least in person since March. Yes, there are also times I grow close to despair about the political disrepair, social alienation, economic and racial inequality, ideological fragmentation, and environmental collapse my generation has handed down to our children. 

My life has been blessed with much privilege – based on the fact that I am white and male and over-educated. There are days when the realities of racism, injustice, oppression, white supremacy, violence, poverty, addiction, mental illness, and tragedy to which I bear witness as a chaplain in a trauma center tempt me to use that privilege to escape to some enclave where I live closed off from the pain of the world – unencumbered by facts or news or people who don’t look like me or stories that might make me uncomfortable and push me to live differently or question why things are the way they are and my part in them…

Ah, but the saints in my life, past and present, through story and song and blessed memory and example, remind me that there is no road to glory, to Emmaus and the New Jerusalem, to transformation and union and bliss, except the one which traverses the sometimes dark and often treacherous path past Golgotha. In more contemporary lingo, no justice, no peace. We cannot really talk of healing until we have done the hard work of transformation.

I spoke of Ruth as one of the saints who sustain me. Let me honor two more (even though there are many). 

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My Dad. He was born at the end of the Great Depression to children of the Greatest Generation. When my Grandfather finally arrived home from his World War Two combat service in the Pacific, my Grandma had to introduce my Dad to his Dad because my Dad did not recognize him, he had been gone so long. After serving in the Army and working in a factory, my Dad followed in the footsteps of his uncle and became a funeral director.  

It wasn’t until I became a hospice chaplain, that I became aware of two things: how incredibly hard my Dad worked his entire life and how much of his work touched thousands of people – literally – and their loved ones through his care. And now I to I wonder – too late to ask him – how much some of that care must have exploded his heart? 

On the surface, Dad and I were light years away from one another politically. Looking back, I am not sure how he tolerated me on those trips home from college when, from my newly-found high-horse I belittled his sense of patriotism, criticized his political leanings, attacked his Middle American worldview, and started arguments just to make myself feel better. Sometimes he argued back but usually he just smiled and said he was happy I was getting educated about things he knew little about. 

When I came home after 18 months in Jerusalem a few years later, I had very much fallen off that high horse. I had seen more death and destruction than my thin, liberal idealism had prepared me for. My Dad was there – not to understand (he said he did not) but to listen, take me out for dinner, and to remind me that I was his son and he would always have my back.

In the ensuing decades, I presented a lot of other challenges to my father: broken relationships, failed plans, dashed hopes. I did not end up living the geographically, financially, and vocationally stable life he had led. But even as he declined from Alzheimer’s dementia, which finally took his life this past October, I ALWAYS felt loved by my father, in part, because I know now we shared a bond in the vocations to which we were both called. 

His was the vocation to tend to and care for the body of the ones who had died and for their loved ones in the most tender moments of sorrow. Mine has been to journey as far as I can go with those walking through the valley of the shadow and like my father, to be a channel of solace to the grieving who are left on this side of death’s dark vale. In this work, especially during the time of COVID-19, I feel God’s presence, as mediated by my father’s witness, more powerfully than words can describe. 

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The second saint (again, I have had so many!) who is sustaining me now is Elaine Garnes of Blessed Memory. I always knew her as “Auntie Elaine” because that is what she is asked me and my brother to call her. Elaine was the mother of one of my closest childhood friends, John Garnes, Jr. John became my classmate in elementary school when my family moved to Marion, Ohio, a Rustbelt City north of Columbus, when my father co-purchased a funeral business there. 

While technically Marion is in “North-Central Ohio,” its cultural fabric is Appalachian through-and through because many of Marion’s residents have roots deep in the hollers of West Virginia and Kentucky from which the robber barons of Marion’s steam shovel and steel industries recruited cheap labor to work in their factories. Marion could be a harsh place. It was pretty much the quintessential picture of Bruce Springsteen’s “My Hometown” – boarded up factories and businesses, soaring unemployment, class antagonism, widespread anxiety about the future in Ronald Reagan’s “It’s Morning Again” America.  A bumper sticker urged the last resident leaving Marion to turn off the lights.

One of the most prominent features of Marion as I remember it was racism – and not always the subtle kind. I heard the “n” word roll off the tongues of police officers, barbers, neighbors, coaches, and friends with shocking regularity. This is not how my parents talked but the fear and disdain of black people was part of the air I breathed as a child. Through the 1960’s Marion had a thriving chapter of Ku Klux Klan.

Enter the Garnes family, the only African American family on “our” side of town. I am not exactly sure when John Jr.’s parents, John Sr. and Elaine moved to Marion from Los Angeles for John Sr. to take a job in one of Marion’s industries. I know that John Jr. and I became fast friends. We were both sensitive kids and shared a love of those all day, black-and- white Godzilla movie marathons that showed on a Cleveland tv station. 

When the Garnes’ joined the same church as my family, John and I became inseparable in Sunday School, church camp, and the Children’s choir where we became famous for our duets.  I loved John but was still scared of him, well – really just scared of his blackness. This became very apparent the first time he invited me over for a sleepover. Even though John was my close friend, I had never been in a social situation where I was the only white person. 

Growing up where I did, I had been socialized into the norms of White Body Supremacy. (For more on this, read “My Grandmother’s Hands” by Resmaa Menakem). My little white body and brain had a fear-based reaction to being outnumbered by black people. Sensing that fear in me, Elaine went out of her way to welcome me, to make me feel like I was home, that I “belonged.”

Now, I realize how much of a precious gift Elaine gave me. She could have responded to my own inherited racialized trauma in a very different way because of her own racialized trauma history. Years later, I learned more about the challenges Elaine had faced because of racism. Raised in Jim Crow-era Washington, D.C., Elaine moved to LA to find a different life. That is where she met John Sr.  After Elaine died, my mom told me harrowing stories of the explicit and implicit racism Elaine had endured in her job at the state maximum security prison in our town. I can remember incidents where neighborhood kids attempted to vandalize the Garnes’ house with racist graffiti. When John’s brother got engaged to a white woman, I recall an intense debate among our adult youth leaders about whether the Bible forbade interracial relationships. I look back and wonder how Elaine, John, David and John Jr. not only survived but thrived in such a hostile place. 

I know that as a young person the thing I found most true about Elaine was her rock-solid faith. I am not talking about some pie-in-the-sky, things-will-get-better-if-we-pray-hard-enough-faith. I am talking about a faith rooted in centuries of surviving and struggling and suffering and overcoming. Overcoming, not based on white America helping black people, but overcoming rooted in the conviction that ALL people are created in the image and likeness of God and possess inherent dignity that no one can take away. 

Elaine made no apologies for who she was: an incredibly proud, Jesus-loving, African American woman living in a sometimes hostile environment. She stood up for her children, and she welcomed their white friends into her home as one of her own. Her witness gives me hope as I continue to confront my own racism and to use my power to fight White Body Supremacy here in Minnesota.

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I work in a racist health care system. I am not singling out Hennepin Healthcare. Actually, we are doing some good work there to confront racism, beginning with an acknowledgement of the reality of the historical trauma that many of our patients have experienced vis-à-vis genocide, slavery, boarding schools, segregation, mass incarceration, unjust policies (the list goes on). I am speaking about all health care systems in Minnesota which have a shameful legacy of participating in the creation of one of the worst racial disparity gaps in the nation. Racism and White Body supremacy are the soil in which we are rooted and the air most of us have breathed for a very long time. The murder of George Floyd is shining a spotlight on these shameful gaps and has awakened a lot of people to the need for systemic transformation. 

The impetus for this change should NOT be on the backs of black and brown people who have already suffered enough. White people must partner with people of color and indigenous people to tear down the system we have created for the benefit of white people, to build something which will equitably benefit ALL people. For me, especially in my role as a white leader in spiritual care, this journey has many miles to go. I have been on it for a while, and I do get weary sometimes…

And then, just as I did a few mornings ago, I wake up smelling eggs and bacon and grits cooking in Auntie Elaine’s kitchen. As far as I know, she never gave up or gave in or cursed the darkness the way I am tempted to do. Even when she was battered by the bruises of living in a racist society and system, Elaine welcomed me, a little white boy into her home and family as if I were her own child. She lived the Bible more than spouting it. And Elaine will remain one of my saints until I breath my last. 

Because of Elaine, and many others in my Great Cloud of Witnesses who have taught, led, inspired, challenged, and loved me along the way, this Jesus Way, I commit to keeping my heart open in hell;  to using my power “with” and not “for” people; to confront racism in my life and the system in which I work;  and to welcome “strangers” into my midst, not as enemies but as friends and fellow children of God.

—————— 

I think that the great Trappist monk and mystic Thomas Merton summed it up well when he wrote shortly before his own accidental death,

Love is our true destiny. We do not find the meaning of life by ourselves alone – we find it with another.

Saints are the ones who help us discover and fulfill the Love for which we were created – the Love that sustains us in this world and the Love that will carry us to that place where death and crying and pain will be no more because “the old things will have passed away and all things are being made new” (Revelation 21).

This holiday weekend, when we celebrate the birth of a country with such a mixed legacy for many,  I hope to spend some time remembering and giving thanks for all of the men, women, and children whose lives remind me of the Love for which I have been created and whose deaths teach me how to welcome my own death when that moment comes. May all of God’s Friends rest in peace and dwell with joy in God’s Eternal Now. Amen.

Broken open at the abandoned places: a Holy Week reflection

Faith-L'ville 046 Awareness of God does not come by degrees: from timidity to intellectual certainty; it is not a decision reached at the crossroads of doubt. It comes when, drifting in the wilderness, having gone astray, we suddenly behold the immutable polar star. Out of endless anxiety, out of denial and despair, the soul bursts out in speechless crying.

– Abraham Joshua Heschel, Man Is Not Alone

With Anna there is no hiding behind “Minnesota nice,” no pretending to have it all together. As the early afternoon light streams into our group room, she holds nothing back. “I am a hater sometimes. I am one of those people who just doesn’t know how to forgive, but I want to…God seems so far away. I have done terrible things but usually to people who beat me down. Still, I don’t know if I can go on this way. I’m so damn tired. All this hurt is killing me.” We shift in our chairs, letting the weight of her anguished words settle. I see the glimmer of a teardrop forming on Anna’s world-weary face.

Ever so tentatively, Bev, a woman in her late 50’s speaks. “For me, the thing I can’t let myself forget is that I always have choices. No matter what someone else has done to me, I can choose to let my resentments poison me. Or I can let go and let God take care of that mess. I’m not saying that it’s easy but that’s what gives me peace; it is how I get through the day.”

More silence. Then Michelle, a 20-something African American woman, whispers, “I gotta listen. What is the pain teaching me? Do I need to soften my heart somewhere? Maybe the person who hurt me is in even worse shape. Maybe deep down we are all good people, even when we screw things up. We ALL need some help.”

_____

This exchange is typical in the Spirituality groups I lead. Week after week, I am the privileged witness to the flowing forth of wisdom, amazing in its depth. Even more remarkably, the setting of the group is not a congregation of pious church-goers or a collective of like-minded spiritual pilgrims but one of the locked psychiatry units of the urban medical center where I am a chaplain.

Often those in the group have long-standing mental health histories that have trapped them in a revolving door of lengthy hospitalizations, homelessness, and legal problems. Many abuse drugs and alcohol as a way of “self-treating” the symptoms that haunt them. A significant number have suffered unimaginable trauma and tragedy. And yet I continually find myself inspired, even awed, by the strength, courage, and resilience of these men and women, who, in the eyes of our health-obsessed, image-conscious society, are little more than “social misfits” and “disturbers of the peace.”

From what I can tell, psychiatric wards –  along with prisons, homeless shelters and nursing homes – are among the “abandoned places of empire” to which we often relegate those who are chewed up and spat out in the American Dream’s relentless pursuit of perfection, productivity, and prosperity.  But when I have the eyes to see, it is in these “abandoned places” where  I find the Way of Jesus revealed with great clarity and power.

_____

Not that I am always open to becoming aware of God’s presence in the people and places I would rather avoid. Like any good denizen of upwardly mobile Middle America, I have done my part to stigmatize people labelled as “deviant.”  Most of the time,  my gaze is fixed firmly on that which is sleek, powerful, “beautiful.” Poor, visibly afflicted people are unwelcome heralds of my own vulnerability and need.  Rather than let my heart be broken open – and changed – I join in our culture’s collective contempt for the ‘other.’

Just the other day, for example, a dishevelled-looking fellow on my bus to work turned on his AM radio (without ear buds!), thus interrupting my  pre-dawn practice of spiritual reading. My first impulse was to be outraged that someone so annoyingly “odd” be allowed to shatter the peace and quiet of our express commute from the suburbs. I had fantasies of tossing his little radio out the window as we sped towards the downtown Minneapolis skyline.

I don’t remember what I was reading that morning – perhaps something on Benedictine spirituality or the New Monasticism.  Or was I in the midst of contemplating a 12 Step meditation or praying the Daily Office?  No matter, my hostile reaction to the presence of this “stranger” on the bus was a stark reminder that the path of transformation entails more than filling my intellect with lofty ideas about compassion, hospitality, recovery,  etc.  Real conversion happens when I allow my heart to be broken open by people I would rather not see,  situations I would rather not experience, and places I would rather avoid.

____

I likely would have been among the merry throng of Passover celebrants boisterously cheering Jesus’ triumphant entry into Jerusalem.  I enjoy a rousing political rally and  would have had fun waving a palm or two in homage to that charismatic wonder-worker from Nazareth!

My enthusiasm would have waned quickly a few days later when the forces of Empire began their Shock and Awe campaign to crush the Jesus Movement. There is no way that I would followed the condemned Man of Sorrows to the killing fields of Golgotha, let alone have gone with his women disciples  down to the stench-filled tomb where his corpse had been laid.

And yet it is there in that forsaken wilderness of violence and desolation that the “long arc of the moral universe” began its bend back towards love and justice (Dr. King). Amidst the gloomy backdrop of Holy Saturday – on which death had seemingly won the day – the light and life of the Risen One begins to flicker and then to shine forth in a mighty flame on Easter morning.  The place of utter abandonment becomes the touchstone of the new and everlasting Jerusalem where the lion lies down with the lamb, swords are melded into plough shares, and mourning turned to dancing.

________

This Holy Week I find myself grateful for all that I continue to learn from my family, friends, patients, recovery peers – and, yes, strangers on the bus – about walking the Way of Jesus. Namely, I am reminded that to meet the Risen Christ of Easter morning, I must also trod the wilderness path of Good Friday and experience the abandoned tomb of Holy Saturday. The Emmaus Road first winds through a hill called Calvary.

Indeed, there are many such wilderness roads and suffocating tombs (and inhabitants thereof) in late modern America. Christ is risen!  Instead of running from the abandoned people and places of our world, may we allow our hearts to be broken open by them – so broken open that our souls “burst forth in speechless crying.”

Holy Week blessings to all…

 

 

 

 

Why Paul Matters: On Following Jesus in the Shadows of 21st Century Empire

Why Paul Matters: Following Jesus in 21st Century Empire

David Hottinger
Mayflower Church, June 17, 2012

Reading: II Corinthians 5-6

Hmm…I am not sure whose idea it was to have a series on Paul here at Mayflower. In many progressive Christian circles today, the very mention of Paul is met with a collective groan of frustration if not outright contempt.

When I told several liberal-leaning colleagues that I had been invited to preach on Paul, one of them said, “Ugh, that guy took Jesus’ message of love and inclusion and turned it into a mess of condemnation.”

For a number of years, I would have probably said something similar. During my childhood in a more theologically conservative tradition with deep roots in Appalachia, I  remember hearing more Paul than Jesus. And the Paul I heard didn’t seem to like Jews, wanted women to remain silent in the church, and had some big hang ups about sex.

By high school, when I was searching for a Christian faith that allowed me to use my mind as well as fire my heart, Paul seemed more and more like the kind of religious zealot I wanted to avoid becoming: narrow-minded, dour, body-denying, world-loathing.

Well, over the years as I went on to study theology and my own spiritual path unfolded, I found it impossible to get around dealing with Paul. The progressive Biblical scholars, Marcus Borg and John Dominic Crossan list a few of the reasons that it is hard for a Christian to ignore him.

First, there is the sheer volume of material either written by Paul or attributed to him in the New Testament – 13 of its 27 books.

Second, most scholars agree that Paul was the one chiefly responsible for expanding the Jesus movement beyond the borders of first century Judaism. In essence, all of us non-Jews have Paul to thank for the fact that we are sitting here this morning.

Third, Paul’s influence on the history of Christian theology and practice especially in the West, is enormous. From Augustine in the 5th century to Luther and Calvin in the 16th to John Wesley in the 18th to Karl Barth, Dietrich Bonheoffer, and Paul Tillich in the 20th, the writings of Paul have shaped much of the Church’s theology, particularly Protestant theology.

That is not to deny that teachings attributed to Paul have been used in Christian history to justify evil practices, including the subordination of women, the oppression of sexual minorities, the existence of slavery, blind obedience to unjust rulers, and the persecution of the Jewish people.

I agree, however with scholars like Borg and Crossan, who argue that to throw out Paul because of things done in his name would be a profound mistake.  In fact, as I have grappled with Paul again in recent years, I have come to believe that Paul’s writings and witness from the first century Roman Empire have much to teach those of us trying to walk in the Way of Jesus in the American Empire of the 21st.

This morning I want briefly to highlight five things that I believe Paul has to say today to those of us trying to follow in the Way of Jesus as progressive people of faith.

——

First a short word about Paul’s life. Paul was roughly a contemporary of Jesus, probably born in the first decade of the first century and died sometime in the 60’s. Unlike Jesus, who grew up in the Palestinian Jewish countryside, Paul was from Tarsus, a thriving, cosmopolitan city in what today is southern Turkey. Jesus spent his whole life in the Jewish homeland while Paul hailed from the Jewish Diaspora – the significant communities of Jews who were scattered throughout the Roman Empire.

Paul was a faithful Jew, a member of the Pharisees which was a movement dedicated to being as zealous and on-fire for God as possible. Even after his conversion to the Jesus Way, Paul did not understand himself as founder of a new religion called Christianity but as a prophetic reformer within 1st century Judaism.

Paul first shows up in Acts 7, several years following Jesus’ execution. Stephen, a Jesus follower, is being killed by stoning for his inflammatory and seditious claim that Jesus was the Messiah. We hear of Paul – then known as “Saul of Tarsus” approving of this persecution of the Jesus movement, which to Paul would have looked like blasphemous nonsense.

As a faithful Jew, Paul was waiting for the Messiah who would liberate Israel from her Roman captivity and inaugurate God’s reign of justice. Clearly, this Jesus of Nazareth who died on a Roman cross was an imposter, and his followers were leading the Jewish people astray..

Then Acts 9 tells the story of this same Saul having a profound experience of transformation about three-to-five years following Jesus’ death when he encounters the risen Christ near Damascus. That encounter changes him from Saul the persecutor of the Jesus Way to Paul the apostle of Jesus, especially to the non-Jewish world.

This divine revelation rocked Paul to his core and became the defining moment in his life. For the next 25 years, Paul travels by foot and by sea over a huge portion of the eastern Roman Empire, mostly in Greece and Asia Minor to cultivate small, communities of Jesus followers. He ends up in Rome finally where he was probably executed in the early 60’s.

Paul’s letters – written in the 50’s – are the earliest books of the New Testament.

Most mainstream scholars agree that Paul’s letters fall into one of three categories. The first are the seven letters definitely written by Paul: Romans, 1 and 2 Corinthians, 1 Thessalonians, Galatians, Philippians, and Philemon. The second category is the three letters most certainly not written by Paul (but attributed to him as was a common practice in antiquity): 1 and 2 Timothy and Titus which were probably written around the year 100.  Into the third category fall the letters about which there is no scholarly consensus about authorship: Ephesians, Colossians and 2 Thessalonians.

______

So what does Paul have to say to those of us today, trying to make sense of what it means to follow in the Way of Jesus in 21st century, superpower America?

I want to start by quoting Michael Gorman, a New Testament scholar who has noticed the similarities between Paul the Apostle and Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. “Like Dr. King, Paul knew himself to be commissioned by God to preach and live a socially and politically charged message that

  • Focused on the justice of God
  • Called for the inclusion of outsiders in the beloved community;
  • Necessitated the rejection of violence;
  • Implicitly and sometimes explicitly challenged imperial power;
  • Meant living in the shadow of the cross and the power of the resurrection;
  • And resulted in much persecution and eventually death.

That sets the stage nicely from the five things I want to highlight.

1. Grace matters. Says Paul, through the power of Jesus’ life, death and resurrection we are made a new creation. The Christian Gospel – the ‘good news’ – is not a set of propositions we have to believe or repeat, but the account of how God enters history through Israel – through Jesus of Nazareth – to make Israel, the world, the whole cosmos right again.

Over the long course of Christian history, many people’s understanding of salvation got reduced to some things that one has to believe in order to convince God to let us into heaven. During the time of the Protestant Reformation a lot of ink – and blood – got spilled in debates about how God actually saves us.

Many Protestants, beginning with Luther, honed in on some language that Paul uses to present God’s saving work in primarily legal/juridical terms. Certain Reformation theologies made it seem like Paul’s primary message is that God is in the business of imputing or bestowing justice on a people who do not deserve it: We are bad. God is good. Jesus comes to cover us in God’s goodness or righteousness, even if we remain fundamentally “bad.”

In that view, all we need to focus on is God’s grace – God’s gift of love for us, even though we remain lousy, messed-up, dysfunctional sinners. On one level, there is truth in that: God does love us, no matter how messed up and dysfunctional we are. What got lost sometimes is any understanding of how God works through grace to change and heal us – so that we can carry out’s God’s work in the world.

Recent scholarship has helped us remember that for Paul the goal of salvation in Christ is not being declared innocent as in a legal transaction but in being transformed from the inside out. Through Christ we are not merely forgiven of our shortcomings – we are changed, healed, and empowered by the Spirit to be agents of God’s reconciling love for the world. When we are touched by grace, good works naturally flow from us.

Much of Paul’s language is full of wild, hopeful, passionate, even mystical declarations that in Christ God is doing amazing things to transform us:

So if anyone is in Christ, there is a new creation: everything old has passed away; see, everything has become new!  All this is from God, with whom we have been reconciled through Christ, and by whom we have been given the ministry of reconciliation; that is, in Christ God was reconciling the world to Godself, not counting the people’s trespasses against them, and entrusting the message of reconciliation to us.  So we are ambassadors for Christ, since God is exhorting you through us; we entreat you on behalf of Christ, be reconciled to God (II Corinthians 5).

2. The Church matters. Through and through, Paul was a Jew and understood what it means to be part of a people. For Jews like Paul, the path of following God is more of a communal than an individual affair. After his encounter with the risen Christ, Paul came to see that in Christ God had grafted onto Israel a new people – the church.

This will sound wildly un-American, but Christianity is not a lone-ranger path! Together, we are called to a new life in Christ. That way of life involves belonging to a community of fellow travelers – a community of grace, forgiveness, reconciliation, nonviolence and peacemaking

By definition, living in this new community of grace has profound political implications, primarily because often what the church values stands in contrast to what the world values.

One scholar says that the message of Jesus crucified and risen is a “theo-political” message – a message about God with political implications. Jesus was not crucified by the Roman Empire for preaching a God within but for proclaiming that the coming of the reign of God was at hand – something that stirred up hope among Jews and fear among Romans

The fear in first century Rome was that God’s politics were about to replace Caesar’s.  To say that Jesus is Lord (as Paul did many times) was to say that Caesar is not. And in imperial Rome, that was high treason. To declare that Jesus was Lord set the church’s way of non-violence, peacemaking, and reconciliation over and against the empire’s practices of domination, injustice, and inequality.

3. Peace matters. Paul begins and ends every letter with the words “grace and peace.”

Peace in Caesar ‘s Rome was achieved this way: prayer and sacrifice were offered to ensure that the gods were on the side of the emperor. The armies were sent to fight, conquer and occupy. When victory through overwhelming military force was achieved, peace was declared. Pax Romana. Hmm…does this sound familiar to anyone who reads a newspaper?

The Jesus Way delineates a very different path to peace.

According to Paul, peace enters the world not via the shock and awe campaigns of conquering armies but through the self-emptying, non-violent love of God’s Anointed One, Jesus the Christ, dying on a cross. NT Wright notes, “It took genius to see that the symbol which had spoken of Caesar’s naked might now spoke of God’s naked love.”

In stark contrast to any peace built on violence and control, the peace of Christ breaks down walls of hostility and creates new communities of radical hospitality and reconciliation:

Galatians 3. 27-29. “As many of you were baptized into Christ have clothed yourself with Christ. There is no longer Jew or Greek. There is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are on in Christ Jesus.”

4. The cross matters. The grace and peace we receive in Christ is free but not cheap. Theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer, who was executed by Hitler for his resistance to the Nazi regime, famously wrote about the danger of “cheap grace” in contemporary Christianity. By this, he was referring to the insistence that we receive grace with no corresponding transformation, discipleship, or conversion.

Paul reminds us that the cross is how God shows up most fully in the world – through self-emptying, sacrificial love. There is no Christianity without the cross. As Borg and Crossan say, “For Paul the cross revealed God’s passion, God’s will for the world a world different from the normalcy of this world of domination, injustice, and violence, all legitimated by the wisdom of the world. It also revealed the path of internal transformation, the path of becoming ‘ in Christ” by dying and rising with Christ.”

The cross reveals the way God is by revealing the way God works in the world – through foolishness and weakness and powerlessness, at least as they are usually measured

5. Resurrection matters. For Paul the cross of Christ is meaningless apart from the resurrection – the raising of Jesus by God from the darkness of a death into a new and transformed reality of life and hope.

The appearance of the resurrected Christ to Paul transformed him. In experiencing the resurrected Jesus, Paul began to see the cross, not as a sign of divine curse but as a means of divine blessing.

Borg and Crossan put it like this: “The empire killed Jesus. The cross was the imperial ‘no’ to Jesus. But God had raised him. The resurrection was God’s ‘yes’ to Jesus, God’s vindication of Jesus – and thus also God’s ‘no’ to the powers that had killed him.”

We moderns, with our mind-body dualism, have a hard time making sense of resurrection. While resurrection for Paul was clearly bodily, it was not just the resuscitation of Jesus’ corpse but about the transformation of his physical body into a “spiritual” or “glorified” body.

Moreover, the living Christ is not some kind of ghost who makes random appearances to people in mystical trances. Rather, Christ takes up residence and embodies his presence in the living communities of his followers especially when they gather to remember him, worship him, and do acts of mercy and justice in his name.

Because of resurrection, suffering and death are never the last word. There are those who might dismiss the passage we read from Paul this morning as pie-in-the-sky utopia-seeking:

So we do not lose heart. Even though our outer nature is wasting away, our inner nature is being renewed day by day. For this slight momentary affliction is preparing us for an eternal weight of glory beyond all measure, because we look not at what can be seen but at what cannot be seen; for what can be seen is temporary, but what cannot be seen is eternal (II Corinthians 5).

At one point in my life, I would have joined in our skeptic’s dismissal, just as I did with the rest of Paul. Before I started spending my work days in hospice houses and psychiatric wards and intensive care units and trauma bays as I am privileged to do now, some of the more mystical, other-worldly passages from Paul about “the redemption of our bodies” and “inner natures being renewed” and “eternity” irritated me. Doesn’t this kind of talk distract us from our work of ending wars, and fighting poverty and overcoming injustice in the here-and-now?

Sure, there is that danger. But if we know anything about the Apostle Paul it is this: Paul saw everything that he did as part of a much larger move on God’s part to renew and transform not just Israel and the Gentiles but the whole world, the cosmos even. Paul catalogs for us several times the hardships he endures as a consequence of being a Christ follower: imprisonment, ridicule, rejection, beatings, torture. Eventually Paul will die a martyr’s death, perhaps in the Emperor Nero’s ferocious persecution of the early church.

But in the face of it all, Paul keeps forging ahead – preaching, writing, traveling, nurturing new followers on the Way of Jesus, affirming through his words and witness that God is at work in Christ bringing forth a world long promised by the prophets of old: a world in which the lion shall lie down with the lamb, and swords shall be broken down into ploughshares, a world in which death and crying and pain will be no more because in Christ the old things have passed away – and the creation has been made new.

This is the power of resurrection for Paul – power that is available to us as well.

—-

You will be hearing a lot more about Paul in the weeks ahead but for this morning, as you leave this beautiful sanctuary for the hustle and bustle of a world a world hungering for hope, I invite you reflect on what God might be saying to you through the ancient words and witness of Paul of Tarsus. Grace matters. The church matters. Peace matters. The cross matters. Resurrection matters. Above all, Christ matters. As our reading proclaims,

For we do not proclaim ourselves; we proclaim Jesus Christ as Lord. For it is the God who said, “Let light shine out of darkness,” who has shone in our hearts to give the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ.

Desiring the Real

In the Sermon on the Mount, original humanity speaks. Blessed are the poor in spirit means, “The new time is here, the time of the liberated heart, and lucky are the marginalized people who haven’t learned society’s way of ignoring the heart and its real hunger. They’ve really lucked out, in this new age when the God of desire is supplanting the God of power and prestige and respectability.”  ~ Sebastian Moore, O.S.B.

One of the great gifts of being around people who have mental illness is how little pretense there is in the conversation. Often the lives of people who are seriously and chronically mentally ill have been shattered to such an extent that there is not much tolerance for the kind of polite pretending that “everything is fine,” which passes as conversation in Middle America. They have had everything precious to them – relationships, jobs, homes, reputations, freedom itself – stripped away via a grinding cycle of negative symptoms, societal stigma, and legal and financial consequences.

There are times when my interaction with people facing such devastation triggers fear in me because, I suspect, it reminds me of the utterly terrifying precipice I have walked myself in past years.  only some six years ago. As I heard one wise person say, “Some of us might be further down the road than others, but we are all the same distance from the ditch.” Being so close to those on the margins makes it hard for me to forget how fragile and fleeting this troubled dream of life actually is.

In this way, hanging around emergency rooms and psych wards and sick beds continues to teach me what it means to walk in the Way of Jesus in this twilight time of the American Empire.  In particular, I am reminded that truly to hunger and thirst for God means dying to all of those “counterfeit kingdoms” that seek to claim my attention and my allegiance: my need for approval and status, my ceaseless thirst to be comfortable and satisfied (now!), my urge to know it all and be in control.  Alas, how many lifeless bodies and broken hearts do I need to see to get it through my head (and into my heart) that all that appears solid and important to me now is but a flickering shadow in light of eternity’s long gaze?

———

Die before you die.  ~ Rumi

A few months back, one of the students at the university where I teach Bioethics asked me to explain why I had the above quote from a 13th century Sufi mystic at the bottom of my e-mail signature. I was caught off guard by the question. I went on to tell her that even though I personally encounter hundreds of situations of death and dying every year, I need regular reminders that the day will come when I, too, will be in that hospital bed, fighting for my last gasps of air.

The question that Rumi’s exhortation compels me to explore is how best to prepare for that moment. Will I enter God’s Eternal Now still clawing for ego gratification and clinging to all of my petty judgments, resentments, and delusions? Or will (what the African American tradition calls) my “Home-going” be marked by a peaceful surrender unto Mercy’s tender arms? To take Rumi’s advice to “die before I die” means practicing the art of letting go long before everything is taken from me by force.

One discipline of letting go I have been trying to practice this Lenten season is giving up some of my anxiety about time. I started doing this when a patient, who himself only had weeks to live, urged me to slow down, breathe, and attend more to the present moment.  I was in a hurry that morning to see a lot of patients.  Noticing my rather frenzied demeanor, he pointed to my left wrist and gently whispered to me, “Chaplain, perhaps you should be paying more attention to that prayer bracelet you are wearing than to your watch.” Busted!

———–

Admittedly, all of this talk of dying, surrender, impermanence, etc. can seem rather morbid. I am aware of the danger of using these concepts to justify a kind of life-and -body-denying religiosity all too often used as a tool of political and sexual repression. We all know hyper-religious types (both of the Left and Right-wing variety) with perpetually gloomy faces and grim demeanors who seem to take perverse pleasure in rendering apocalyptic judgments about the end times, the collapse of civilization, the death of the eco-system, the imminent coming of Christ, etc. Yes, we need our prophets but not self-loathing doomsayers with a death wish for humanity.

As I have come to understand the Jesus Way, however, the spiritual path is about dying to our illusions and idols in order to be united with the One who can give all of the joy, fulfillment, and passion for which we desperately long. In order to do that, we must be in touch with our own hunger. We must acknowledge all of the myriad ways that we fill what Pascal marvelously called “the God-shaped hole” residing in every human heart with those things that are not God. In this practice of confession (to use Christian language) we admit our vulnerability and brokenness, not to heap shame upon ourselves, but to humbly and gently unclench our fists and open our hearts to the Love from which there can be no separation.

So rather than than to condemn or repress our longings, we can allow God to transform them into agents of healing grace. I think that the English Benedictine theologian Sebastian Moore is on to something profound when he says that the key to our happiness is – with Jesus as our model – coming to know God as the “object of all desire.”

Jesus knew God as the object of all desire. For him the object was not just a hint, it was the most certain reality. He knew the ultimate as his Abba, which according to one Aramaic scholar, is best rendered ‘loving birthing parent:’ he knew all desire in himself, for joy in all its forms, for sexual fulfillment, for laughter and the love of friends, as the multi-faceted single thrust of eros toward its absolute origin.

And thus Jesus dreamed a society ruled by desire as he knew it, and not by the myriad forces that come to rule the world forgetful of real desire and forever sinking into its counterfeits. What we call sin is the enormous darkness everywhere, the worldwide conspiracy to turn our back on what we most deeply know about ourselves….Jesus had a name for society as he dreamed it, society ruled by our real desire. He called it the Kingdom of God.

~ Sebastian Moore, O.S.B.

May this Holy Week be filled with opportunities for each of us to get in touch with our “real” desire (desire for the Real) and thus to experience the true delight for which we were created. Jesus lived, died, and conquered death so that “we might have real and eternal life, more and better life than they ever dreamed of” (John 10.10, The Message translation). What we imagine to be “life” is short and pales in comparison to the Real thing. Off with that watch and over to the prayer beads! Holy Week blessings to all.








Christmas in Occupied Bethlehem (or why we must face the darkness to experience the Light)

The light of Christ is a persistent light. It shines through the most powerfully oppressive darkness, shines in the midst of devastation, disaster and upheaval, yet without explaining them, justifying them, or making sense of them. The gospel of incarnation and resurrection is not the answer to a set of questions. It is a persistent and defiant light…(Kenneth Leech)

Twenty-one years ago, I celebrated Christmas Eve in Bethlehem. In 1990, Bethlehem still lived under the boot of Israeli military occupation.  The first Palestinian Uprising was still in full force; my little group from Saint George’s Anglican Cathedral in Jerusalem had to acquire special passes from the Israeli military to enter the West Bank to mark the birth of the Prince of Peace. The Middle East was just weeks away from the Gulf War which would commence with the American bombing of Baghdad , followed by the retaliatory Iraqi SCUD missile attacks on Israel.

Two months previously, I witnessed firsthand the aftermath of what was then the bloodiest day in Jerusalem since the 1967 War. On that mid-October day, seventeen Palestinians were shot dead by Israeli security forces outside of the al-Aksa mosque complex (or Temple Mount).  Seven of those people died at the Lutheran hospital at which I was interning. The floors of the grand Augusta Victoria Hospital literally ran with blood that terrifying afternoon.

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The folks back home were rightly thrilled with the idea that I would be attending Christmas Eve services near the site of Jesus’ birth. I had spent every Christmas Eve except for this one at my grandparents’ cozy home in the tiny hamlet of Portage, Ohio. My favorite part of the evening was our obligatory sojourn down the street to Portage United Methodist Church for candlelight services following my grandmother’s always magnificent dinner. The service concluded the same way each year; after hearing the Christmas story, we would light candles while singing “Silent Night” and quietly process from the darkened sanctuary.

I not only felt close to my family during those services  (how I loved to hear my grandmother sing). The idyllic and peaceful nature of the Christmas narrative made my childhood world feel safe and secure. Sure, as I got older, some holes began to appear in the literalistic theology with which I was raised. But I drew comfort from the predictability of celebrating Jesus’ coming in such a warm, enclosed environment. I suppose that that the Christmas story had become for me theological “comfort-food.” What is more heart-warming than a manger scene, complete with baying sheep, adoring wise men, and serenading shepherds?

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The reality of occupied Bethlehem on the eve of war was appallingly different from the idealized projections of my American childhood. As we passed through several military checkpoints that night, I encountered dozens of stone-faced, heavily armed soldiers on the lookout for would-be terrorists (or protestors). Armored vehicles roamed Bethlehem’s darkened streets, which were under curfew. A helicopter gunship hovered not far from Nativity Square, breaking the silence of the night with its whirling blades. Inside the Church of the Nativity itself, the congregation was limited to a spartan crowd of diehard Palestinian Christians. Most international Christians had cancelled their pilgrimages to the Holy Land with the looming threat of a Middle East conflagration.

Aside from the stark external scene, my faith that damp December night was in the process of being shattered. I had neither the emotional nor spiritual resources to cope with the trauma I was witnessing. The binge, blackout drinking that I had started to do in college became a regular occurrence for me.  By the end of college, the  “gentle Jesus, sweet and mild” of my middle-class, Midwestern childhood had been replaced by the “do-gooder, ” ethical role-model Jesus of liberal Protestantism.  Both of these versions of Jesus began to seem irrelevant in a land haunted by the screams of violence and oppression.

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And then I heard the Christmas story again, this time not from the confines of a comfy pew but from the ramparts of a town under siege. Our little group of Anglicans worshipped on the roof of the Church of the Nativity. One of the English clergymen, with us, the Rev. Peter Crooks, had spent the previous decade in Beirut until the threats of kidnapping and assassination became so prominent that his family had to leave their beloved Lebanon for the relative “peace” of neighboring Israel/Palestine.

In his meditation that night, Peter pointed out that the Bethlehem below us was far closer to the reality of the Bethlehem into which Jesus was born than the “Little Town of Bethlehem” imagery of traditional lore. Like late 20th century Bethlehem , the City of David in the first century was a town under occupation. Rome ruled Palestine with an iron fist, using the half-Jewish, puppet-king Herod to do its bidding with the locals.

According to Luke’s narrative, Jesus was born in Bethlehem because that is where Joseph and Mary had been forced to go by the imperial authorities in order to register for taxation purposes. In Matthew’s account, King Herod becomes so agitated by the news of Jesus’ birth that he orders every boy in Bethlehem under the age of two to be executed to prevent any threat to his corrupt regime. Joseph is warned of the coming slaughter in a dream and flees with Jesus and Mary to Egypt to seek asylum.  As with tens of millions people in today’s world, Jesus, the Anointed One of God, begins his earthly mission as a homeless refugee.

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Hmm, the celebration of Christmas did not seem such a quaint undertaking with a helicopter gunship hovering nearby and the whiff of tear gas floating through the chilled night air. As connotations of mistletoe, overstuffed stockings, and Jolly Old St. Nick faded from relevance, I heard the angelic announcement of Jesus’ birth with new ears:

Do not be afraid. I bring to you good news of great joy that will be for all the people. Today in the town of David a Savior has been born to you; he is the Messiah, the Lord…Suddenly a great company of heavenly hosts appeared with the angel, praising God and saying, ‘Glory to God in the highest heaven, and on earth peace to those on whom his favor rests.’ (Luke 2.10-14)

From the vantage point of a war zone, Christmas is not merely a charming tale about a cute baby being born in a barn; the great good news of Christmas Eve is the startling claim that God has come to dwell on earth in human form. And not merely to be honored by doting wise men and adoring shepherds watching their flocks by night. This Emmanuel (which means, “God is with us”) child

has come to show strength with his arm, to scatter the proud in the thoughts of their hearts, to bring down the powerful from their thrones and to lift up the lowly, to fill the hungry with good things and to send the rich empty away (Luke 1.51-53).

This is the night when God’s kingdom of justice, peace, healing and mercy enters history in a dramatic, new way. God’s Christmas kingdom calls into question our allegiance to what St. Paul labels the “principalities and powers of this world” (which take many forms and go by many names). This Christmas kingdom directs us away from our own frantic pursuits of comfort, power, and control and allows us to experience the true freedom found in serving one another and living in communion within the bliss of God’s Eternal Now.

God’s kingdom comes and transforms history using methods that might appear nonsensical, if not downright scandalous from the perspective of the kingdoms of this world. As a good, upstanding citizen of the American Empire in 2011, I pay homage to many thrones: Wall Street, the Mall of America, Big Medicine, the Pentagon, the Apple Store, Hollywood, Harvard….

The Christmas King beckons me to worship at some very different altars: in a stench-filled barn in the Palestinian countryside; along the back roads of Galilee, shoulder to shoulder with a throng of lepers, prostitutes and other social outcasts; on a hill called Golgotha where a naked, battered corpse lies nailed to a bloody cross; inside an empty tomb on a spring Jerusalem morning.

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It was in Bethlehem that I began to see the importance of always viewing Christmas in light of Easter. Our Christmas celebration of Incarnation (of God becoming flesh and dwelling with us) is a pie-in-the-sky exercise in sentimentality (and now consumerism) unless we remember WHY God came in Christ Jesus: to mend a broken world and to conquer the powers of sin, evil, and death.

As the Anglican spiritual theologian Kenneth Leech has put it,

The saving power of the Christmas celebration depends upon the truth that Christ is risen from the dead. It is the presence of the risen Christ in the eucharistic mystery which transforms a nostalgic memorial into a source of light and glory….It is the joy of the resurrection, of the Christ who is present through his conquest of death and decay which enters our hearts at Christmas.

Leech tells us that both Christmas and Easter are “festivals of light,” moments in which we are reminded of the destiny that God intends for each of us – to become “divinized,” to share in God’s light and life and love, from glory unto glory.

To see the centrality of the symbol of light as common to both incarnation and resurrection is to see how inseparable are the Christmas and Easter mysteries…Without Easter, Christmas has no point; without Christmas, Easter has no meaning. Both incarnation and resurrection have significance because in these events God is glorified in the flesh. The flesh becomes the source of light, the raw material of glory.

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Leech asserts another truth (the ignoring of which nearly cost me my faith): there is no Easter glory without having first passed through the dark night of surrender and of death. At many moments of my spiritual journey, I have sought what the “Big Book” of Alcoholics Anonymous calls “an easier, softer way.”

I want to be safe, pain-free, and in-control. I am comfortable with a Santa Claus God who gives me what I want, when I want it. Perhaps this is why I laugh so hard at the Baby Jesus prayer from the movie, Talladega Nights. How often does Ricky Bobby’s self-aggrandizing, consumerist spirituality look like my own ego-centered posturing and pleading with God!

From a Christian perspective, one problem with viewing  God as cosmic Santa Claus (who has his own “naughty” and “nice” lists which he uses to reward the “good” people and punish the “bad” ones) is that it flies in the face of the Scriptural account of who Jesus is, why Jesus came, what he taught, how Jesus acted, and the manner in which he died. The “health, wealth, and prosperity” gospel of large segments of American Christendom (Mainline, Catholic, Evangelical, and Liberal versions included) seems to have a lot more in common with the “Gimme, Baby Jesus” of Ricky Bobby than the Messiah we find in Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John.

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The Jesus of the Gospels invites us to an ongoing journey of radical transformation (conversion). While the Jesus Way might look foreboding at first glance, it is the path to peace,  fulfillment, happiness, and freedom far beyond our most wild imaginings.

In order to take that journey, we must not be afraid to hear the cries of a world in pain, to enter into the great anguish of one another’s broken hearts, to touch the sorrow of those who are suffering. For, as Kenneth Leech again reminds us, we cannot fully enjoy the Light of Christ until we have entered the darkness of death.

The gospel of incarnation and resurrection cannot be preached in an authentic and truthful way unless it faces the terrible reality of homelessness and meaningless death. It is these two realities which provide the only possible material context for the light of Christ.

For it is the homeless unwanted Christ of Bethlehem and the naked condemned Christ of Golgotha that the light shines with its strange persistence and its baffling power to draw people to its shining, enabling them to become dynamic agents in the historical process, lights in the world…It is a transforming light. As Paul says, we are being changed into the likeness of the Lord whose glory we have seen. (Kenneth Leech)

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I credit that Christmas Eve in Bethlehem with initiating a shift in how I live in relationship with God. A lot has happened in my life in the subsequent two decades: the birth of four amazing children; the painful ending of some significant relationships; the witnessing of hundreds of deaths as a hospice and hospital chaplain; work with persons living with severe mental illness; the losing and finding of numerous ecclesial homes; the discovery of new spiritual paths, friends, and teachers. Change is a constant with which I am intimately familiar.

While I cannot pretend to understand the tragedy and trauma to which I have been a witness, I know in my heart that the Light first made known as a babe in Bethlehem continues to emanate rays of compassion, healing, and mercy, even in the most despair-ridden situations. Blessed Pope John XXIII knew of which he spoke when he penned this Christmas prayer:

O sweet Child of Bethlehem, grant that we may share with all our hearts in this profound mystery of Christmas.  Put into the hearts of men and women this peace for which they sometimes seek so desperately and which you alone can give to them. Help them to know one another better, and to live as brothers and sisters, children of the same Father. 

Reveal to them also your beauty, holiness and purity.  Awaken in their hearts love and gratitude for your infinite goodness.  Join them all together in your love. And give us your heavenly peace. Amen. (Pope John XXIII).

Happy Christmas, friends. May Christ’s Light lead you home this night and in the nights to come.

In the Valley of Tears: an Advent reflection, part 1

Jesus wept.

“I am so sorry. I told myself that I wouldn’t cry today,” the elderly woman said to me as we stood at the bedside of her dying daughter. Martha was a faithful, church-going Christian. I doubted if she ever missed a Sunday in her small-town parish. Now, here she was in an urban, long-term care facility watching her only child succumb to a dreadful neurological disease. “I know that my daughter is going to a better place, so I have no right to cry; it’s selfish of me, right, chaplain?” Martha asked, choking back her tears.

It happened again not long after that, this time as a young child lay dying in the next room. Trying to make sense of why such a precious young life was being snuffed out in the blink of an eye, the distraught friend of the family proclaimed, “I guess that God needs her in heaven. I need to be happy about that. But I don’t feel happy…”

Where did so many of us get the idea that God expects us to streak through life as one, unending Hallmark card of giddiness and good cheer? How did we learn that we are supposed to suppress our grief and stuff our sadness because, after all, “God is in control?” Why do we feel compelled to pretend that everything is “okay,” even when it seems that our inner and outer worlds are hurtling toward collapse?

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By and large, chaplains are trained to offer “non-anxious presence” in the face of tragedy. Our place is neither to judge, nor to preach. Most of the time, I see myself as a “soul friend,” giving answers far less than asking questions. My faith is radically Incarnational, expressed most eloquently by the “Breastplate of St. Patrick” from the Celtic tradition.

Christ behind me, Christ before me, Christ beside me, Christ to win me, Christ to comfort and restore me. Christ beneath me, Christ above me, Christ in quiet, Christ in danger, Christ in hearts of all that love me, Christ in mouth of friend and stranger.

In other words, through Christ, God is already and always present and working in the world. God doesn’t need me to “make” anything “happen.” My calling is to help others recognize places in which they might recognize traces of the Divine Presence, even as they traverse the dark caverns of suffering, grief, and insecurity.
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This is far from easy. “Religious types” like myself are often terrified to admit the limits of our abilities and understanding. In the presence of agony, we feel compelled to provide explanations, to offer words of solace, to quote Scripture or utter soft-sounding pieties. Keeping silence is a skill no one learns in seminary (nor can I imagine any of my divinity school professors, save one or two Jesuits and a Franciscan sister, actually being quiet!).

The reality is that most people in intense distress neither want, nor need our words, no matter how well-intended. They are looking, rather, for shoulders to cry on, arms to grip, chests to pound, hands to squeeze. They seek eyes to witness their anguish and ears to hear their “mourning and weeping in this vale of tears.”

I learned this the hard way once upon a time when I came to announce to a father that his young son had died in a freak accident. No sooner had I opened my mouth with a basic expression of sympathy than did he forcefully ask me not to speak. I realized later that my attempt at words was more of a strategy to distance myself from the horror unfolding than to comfort this man.

More times than not, what is being asked of us as spiritual caregivers is, like Mary, to keep silent vigil at the foot of the cross. My job is not to be an “answer man.” I am there to be a fellow pilgrim along the Jesus Way, even when that Way takes me down paths I would rather not trod.

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In the two situations in which the bereaved apologized to me for crying, I felt led to make an exception to my general practice of pastoral silence. On both occasions, without thinking, really, the words, “Jesus wept,” leapt from my tongue.

One of the gifts of growing up on the “saw dust trail” of Appalachian, revivalist Christianity is that I learned my Bible well. From Sunday School “sword drills” to summer Bible camps, I was relentlessly taught the “old, old story of Jesus and his love.” Without doubt, the favorite verse in the Bible (next to the ubiquitous John 3:16) for every young denizen of evangelical Protestantism comes from John 11:35: “Jesus wept.” It is popular because it is the shortest verse in all of Scripture.

When I memorized it many moons ago, I was probably more focused on impressing the girls in youth group than I was on grappling with its theological implications. But the shortest verse in the Bible might also be one of the most profound in what it reveals to us about the nature and character of God. It is definitely one with which American Christianity needs badly to reacquaint itself.
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The scene from John 11 is a gripping one. Jesus is summoned to the grave of his dear friend, Lazarus, who has just died. Lazarus’ sisters, Mary and Martha, are outside the tomb, the stench of death wafting about in the mid-day heat of the Palestinian hills. In accordance with Semitic custom, the mood was electric with grief: not the stoic, tear-swallowing, Minnesota kind – but the weeping, wailing, thumping-of-chests, Middle Eastern variety (I remember attending my first Palestinian funeral; it was for a teenager killed by Israeli security forces, and I could hear the wailing nearly three city blocks away).

Here comes Jesus – the Anointed One, Israel’s Messiah, the Word Made Flesh Dwelling Among Us. Yes, he comes as all of these but also as the friend of Lazarus. And what does Jesus do? Jesus, who in a short while will raise Lazarus from the dead, WEEPS. Jesus Christ, the Second Person of the Trinity, CRIES. Jesus, who the Nicene Creed proclaims to be “the only Son of God, eternally begotten of the Father, God from God, Light from Light, true God from true God, begotten, not made, of one Being with the Father” breaks down and WAILS tears of grief.

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I do not pretend how to understand this passage intellectually. The older I get, the more I harken back to something said to me in college by of my most beloved spiritual mentors, Bishop C. Joseph Sprague. In those years, I was overwhelmed by many questions about how to reconcile the intense Christian piety of my childhood with the historical-critical methods of analyzing religion I was learning in college. I spent many hours hashing through my doubts and fears in Joe’s book-lined study, first at Epworth United Methodist Church in downtown Marion, Ohio and then at North Broadway United Methodist in Columbus.

Without trying to explain away my confusion or relieve me of my doubt, Joe, in his soft but passionate voice, said to me, “David, this Jesus faith we hold dear is never irrational but it is always transrational.” In other words, the Jesus Way cannot be reduced to our arguments, intellect, theories, ideas, creeds and dogmas. It may include those things but is always beyond them.

Moreover, the Love that tumbles empires and transforms frail and finite humans into courageous warriors of compassion and justice like Teresa of Calcutta, Jean Donovan, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Simone Weil, Charles de Foucauld,and Dorothy Day is the Love most often encountered most profoundly in and through the times we feel most broken, abandoned, and grieved.

Nearing his death, Dr. Clyde Holbrook, the great lion of the Oberlin College Religion department, boomed at us:

“Ladies and gentlemen, you does NOT find God at the end of your argument. You find God at the end of your rope!

With Jesus as our guide, might we also say that we find God in a puddle of tears? Our tears, most certainly. But also in the tears cried by Jesus. If Jesus wept for his friend Lazarus, then surely he weeps for us as we experience death’s unbearable sting.

Following the tragic death of his son in a flash flood, the maverick American preacher, William Sloan Coffin, Jr., was asked how he made meaning of what had happened. “This, I know,” said Coffin, “God did not send the water to sweep my son off that bridge. But God was there, and God was the first one to shed a tear when my son hit the water.”

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The idea of a God who weeps may be uncomfortable to many of us because it implies that God is vulnerable. When I am honest with myself, I must admit that I would often prefer a Zeus-like Superman god or a happy-clappy Santa Claus god over and against the self-emptying, bleeding God of Golgotha or the homeless, hunted God of Bethlehem. What good is a God who hungers, thirsts, mourns, and cries? How is the God revealed in Jesus supposed to help me conquer my enemies, triumph over adversity, and eliminate pain?

Hence we get to the scandal at the heart of the Jesus Way. The babe of Bethlehem and the corpse of Golgotha indicate that the Way of Love involves not eliminating suffering but transforming it. The Holy One uses the inevitable presence of brokenness and anguish in our lives to create in us compassionate hearts and courageous spirits. Jean Vanier, describes God’s way of being

which is not to be strong, wonderful, and all powerful but rather to be humble, to become human and to go down to the bottom, to become not only the servant but the rejected servant. At the bottom of the social ladder, he joins all those who have been rejected and with them he creates a new order, a new community. They are the starting point of this new creation, this new body of humanity which has been torn apart – and continues to be torn apart by the desire for power and prestige” (Jean Vanier, Befriending the Stranger).

The Jesus Way goes against many of the things I have been taught to value as an American: strength, speed, efficiency, independence, wealth, status, fashion, physical appearance, intellectual dominance. The God made known in Jesus calls me to admit my brokenness, accept my limitations, acknowledge my wounds, and make peace with the fact that the road to Emmaus always passes over the hill called Calvary.

This does NOT mean that we seek suffering or try to make ourselves miserable through acts of self-punishment; self-inflicted pain (whether emotional or physical) flows from an egotistical obsession with self. What the Jesus Way teaches is that WHEN suffering comes (and it will come to all of us, albeit in different forms), God can use it to enter us, empty us, and transfigure us.

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The tears that we shed for the brokenness of our world then become instruments of grace. Rather than being a shameful thing that “good” Christians should not do, crying can be an act of worship. Crying is a means of lifting up our grief for the agony of creation unto God’s tender Heart, where all things are held in Love and caressed by mercy.

St. Paul reminds us that the Spirit dwells within our deepest longings and most intense heartache:

The moment we get tired in the waiting, God’s Spirit is right alongside helping us along. If we don’t know how or what to pray, it doesn’t matter. God does our praying in and for us, making prayer out of wordless sighs, our aching moans” (Romans 8.26, The Message translation).

I think of this passage as I sit by the bedside of dying patients. In those last days and hours of life, verbal, “wordy” communication may have ceased. And yet I have often sensed at the deathbed a far more powerful form of spiritual communion taking place in and through the “wordless sighs” and the “aching moans” of those who are making their pilgrimage unto the Beloved who “will wipe away every tear from their eyes” (Revelation 21.4). This is the Beloved in whom all things are made new and in whom all of our longings are fulfilled.

Anglican contemplative and professed solitary, Maggie Ross, explores this movement beautifully when she writes,

It is only when we are willing to live in our wounds without hope of healing that we begin to live in faith – and thus in real hope – for it is only then that we give up the last vestige of the comforting illusion of control and exploitation and the denial of our creatureliness. Only when we wait, wounded, in the dark I AM, can we receive the sign of Jonah, God’s merciful love for us as we are. Only then can Christ fully dwell in us; only then can our wounds become his glorified wounds…only then by the radiance of Christ’s wounds in ours can the creation enter transfiguration” (Maggie Ross, Pillar of Flame: Power, Priesthood, and Spiritual Maturity).

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A confession: I am not very good at practicing what I preach. Tears do not come easily for me, and facing my own grief scares me. I will be reflecting more on that in the next post.

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For now, I am trying to make this prayer by Celtic spiritual writer, J. Philip Newell, my own Advent prayer:

In the darkness of the evening the eyes of my heart are awake to you. In the quiet of the night I long to hear again intimations of your love. In the sufferings of the world and the struggles of my life I seek your graces of healing. At the heart of the brokenness around me and in the hidden depths of my own soul I seek your touch of healing. O God, for there you reside. In the hidden depths of life, O God, there you reside” (Philip Newell, Celtic Benediction: Morning and Night Prayer).

Advent blessings to you all.

“Ain’t no way I deserve this:” A Tale of Grace in Dixie

My nostrils were already overwhelmed by the stench of spilled beer and stale smoke. As I knocked on the door of the trailer, Ralph eyed me suspiciously through the screen and then let me in with a grunt. “A fine mess of my street all of these n*****s have made,” Ralph pronounced with clenched fists.

As soon as I stepped into the sweltering trailer, I was greeted by an enormous Confederate battle flag hanging over Ralph’s sofa. Sitting beside the couch was a 12-gauge shot gun. “That gun is gonna be what they’re gonna get if any of THEM people come to my door,” Ralph informed me, pointing to several school-aged, African-American children sitting at a picnic table across the street.

Ralph was in the final stages of dying from esophageal cancer, and I was his hospice chaplain. Although I had witnessed my share of racism while growing up in a Rustbelt town where racial tensions were high, I had never encountered the venom with which Ralph spewed his hatred of black people.

During one hour of visiting Ralph on that oppressively hot South Carolina summer afternoon, I heard the “n” word uttered more times than I probably had in my entire life. Ralph was a character straight from the set of “Mississippi Burning” – a hardened, hateful, old-time racist who I imagined could have spent some time donning a white sheet, underneath the glow of a burning cross.

Every moral sensibility in me was offended by Ralph’s vitriol. And yet some power entirely beyond myself made me stay put and not run away. When Ralph saw that I was not going to be triggered by his outbursts, he quieted a bit and invited me to sit down. It was clear from looking at his skeletal frame and seeing him cough up streams of blood and sputum into an old coffee can that Ralph was not long for this world.

He began to tell me a little about his life which was, well…pathetic. Divorced and childless, Ralph’s only family member was a nephew with whom he had an ambivalent relationship at best. A son of poor, white, Carolina dirt farmers, Ralph left home early, fought in Korea, and then did construction work for a living.

I quickly got the impression that he had slashed and burned his way through life. Now facing his final days, Ralph was lonely, bitter, and – above all – scared to death. “I don’t know, preacher…Do you think there is any hope for me?” he asked in a hoarse, weak voice.

In response, I mouthed some churchy-sounding pieties about grace, forgiveness, redemption, etc. My reply lacked conviction, though. At that point in my life, I was embroiled in my own self-destructive spiral – of which I was horribly ashamed and over which I felt utterly powerless. Questioning God’s ability to change me from the inside out, I certainly had my doubts about the prospect of Ralph experiencing some kind of death bed transformation.

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Quite rightly, Ralph did not seem entirely satisfied with my all-too-easy answers that day. As I walked back into the oven that was late summer South Carolina, I felt like I had utterly failed Ralph in my role as a spiritual caregiver.

Sure, part of me wanted to rant and rave about Ralph’s ignorant stupidity, especially his unvarnished hatred of African-Americans. Lest we forget our own American history, the same evil that led fanatical men to fly planes into buildings nine years ago also once drove “true believers” of another sort to blow up Sunday schools full of young black children, bomb synagogues, and assassinate Civil Rights workers.

At another level, I found it impossible to condemn Ralph to a fate worse than my own. Driving out of that little trailer park on the outskirts of Columbia, I could see in Ralph signs of my own brokenness writ large; I just did a much better job of hiding the ways in which I was wounded and bleeding.

I may not have had a Confederate battle flag hanging in my living room, but my heart was jaded by violent thoughts and prejudice, especially towards anyone who threatened my ego (a long list indeed!). I didn’t spend my days smoking and drinking with a shot gun on my lap, but I had traversed through some very dark places. As hard as it was for me to admit, my brokenness was just as life-denying and love-destroying as Ralph’s.

Even more terrifying, the verdict was still out in my mind whether redemption was truly possible for the hopeless cases and losers and phonies and hate-mongers and hypocrites and failures of this world – all of the bastards like Ralph and like me. Were we destined to squander our gifts, hurt others, destroy ourselves and die miserable deaths, world without end? If so, what was I doing in the “God business,” pretending to help others with their spiritual crises, mired as I was in the mud and muck of my own pathetic struggle to surrender to a God of my understanding?

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I had planned to see Ralph the following week back at his trailer. The day before our appointment, a hospice nurse called to tell me that Ralph’s condition had declined so rapidly that his nephew had made arrangements for him to spend his final days in a nursing home where he could receive around-the-clock care.

My first thoughts went to the nursing home’s paid caregivers, the vast majority of whom were African American women. How would Ralph, the long-time racist who had threatened to shoot his neighbors if they came to his door, tolerate being cared for by black people? The kind of help that Ralph needed was as personal as it gets – toileting, bathing, feeding, etc. I predicted disaster for everyone involved.

Paralyzed by my own fear and loathing, I avoided going to see Ralph until the third day after he had been admitted. A bit to my surprise, I found him comfortably propped up in bed gazing out his window. Gone was the profanity-laced bravado and defiant swagger. The scowl with which Ralph first greeted me only last week had softened into a gentle smile. Ralph beckoned me to his side with his eyes and then extended his bony arms in warm greeting, “Preacher, I wondered when you were gonna get here.”

Just as I was going to utter some lame excuse for my delay in visiting, the unit nurse, a stout African-American woman in her late thirties, entered Ralph’s room. “Is there anything you need, Ralph? How are those pain meds working? If you are feeling uncomfortable, you have to let us know so that we can help you, okay, honey?” She spoke these words with a tenderness which left no mistake about their authenticity.

Expecting the worst, I turned back towards Ralph to see on his face a look of child-like contentment. “You’all are taking such good care of me,” Ralph whispered back. “I don’t…I don’t…I don’t deserve this.” Ralph’s voice trailed off in what I could see were choked- back tears.

The nurse seemed a bit puzzled by Ralph’s response and walked away to tend to other patients. I knew exactly what Ralph had meant. And it was shattering. “After how I have lived, how I’ve treated them people…Then they come in here all caring and kind and wash my face and rub my back. Damn it, preacher, they even change my dirty pajama pants. Ain’t no way on God’s green earth that they should be so good to me.”

Ralph couldn’t talk any more; his shoulders began to shudder in waves of sobbing grief, tears pouring down his sun-hardened cheeks. I, too, was speechless. What does one say after witnessing a miracle?

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Ralph soon fell asleep with me holding his hand. His breathing was shallow and labored, but he seemed to be truly at peace. One of the nursing assistants came in with a cool cloth and lovingly mopped the tiny beads of perspiration from Ralph’s brow. The corners of his mouth curled up again into a slight smile. He didn’t open his eyes. Ralph was sleeping the sleep of small child, relaxed and surrendered unto the embrace of a Love beyond all telling.

Ralph took leave of his mortal flesh later that night. By all accounts, his death was remarkably uneventful. I never found out if anyone was with Ralph when he died. I do know that every staff member on duty in his unit that night was African American.

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Most people in my line of work will tell you that we see very few “death bed conversions.” “People usually die as they have lived,” goes one hospice adage. In Ralph’s case this was decidedly NOT the case. From what I could tell, Ralph frittered away decades of his life drinking, fighting, cursing, and hating. He alienated his family, drove away his friends, and kept at bay any force of love that might have shown him a happier, more fruitful path to trod. It seemed that Ralph was destined to die as he had lived : conflicted, bitter, resentful, miserable, alone.

Instead, Ralph died on clean sheets, in a place where people truly cared for him. And not just any people – but people of color who Ralph had spent his life hating. Unbeknownst to them, those African American caregivers at the nursing home were conduits of saving grace to a man in desperate need of it.

Ralph knew that he didn’t “deserve” the unconditional love and mercy of his caregivers. That is the amazing thing about grace – it is a gift and not a reward. As an ancient slogan from the rooms of Alcoholics Anonymous puts it, “God loves you, and there isn’t a damn thing you can do about it!”

The Prophet Isaiah reminds us that our thoughts and ways are not identical with those of the Most High. We are children of a loving Father, not nameless, faceless minions of a cosmic tyrant.

I have plans for you, says the Lord, plans for your welfare, and not for harm, to give you a future and a hope (Jeremiah 29.11)

Ralph entered the nursing home shriveled up in hatred for himself and others. At the loving hands of his caregivers, who looked beyond the shell of his bigotry and nastiness to see a beloved, beautiful child of God, Ralph got a taste of that Jesus Kingdom where

Every valley shall be filled, and every mountain and hill shall be made low, and the crooked shall be made straight, and the rough ways made smooth; and all flesh shall see the salvation of God” (Luke 3.16).

Ralph’s transformation came not in spite of the fact that he was a dyed-in-the-wool, hateful, racist; Ralph’s conversion occurred in and through the reality of his most loathsome traits. In other words, God used Ralph’s brokenness to bring healing. That which was most ugly in Ralph’s life unveiled that which was most beautiful.

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I am certain that the miracle that I witnessed at Ralph’s deathbed has played a role in my own journey from death back into life. Though my growth since those early years of ministry has been slow and uneven, I have repeatedly encountered the power of hope and the promise of grace.

Moreover, I have come to embrace my weakness and to make friends with my brokenness, rather than try to present a “perfect” self to the world. This is because the greatest healing in my life has occurred not through my “successes” but through my wounds and the places in which I am most needy and broken.

I would like to believe that I could have acquired the authenticity I bring to relationships and the authority I bring to ministry today without having hurt many people along the way through acts of betrayal and inauthenticity. That is not the case, and it’s foolish to pretend otherwise. I am free to live beyond the walls of fear, shame, and addiction not in spite of my failures but because of them.

This paradox of the spiritual life is beautifully captured by the Rev. Gardner C. Taylor, who was a close confidante of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and who is often called the “dean of American preachers.”

Any authenticity that we are going to have as persons of faith and any authority that we are going to have as witnesses to the gospel of Jesus Christ will come because of our exposure to bruises and scars and by wounds. There is no other way to authenticity. There is no other way…

I promise you this, if you can take whatever deep hurt that occurs in your life and hold it up before God and say to God, even in bitterness, of this which you despise and this which you hate, “If there is anything you can do with it, take, and use it,” I promise you, you will be utterly amazed at what will occur.

Rev. Gardner C. Taylor (1918-), great American preacher, teacher, Civil Rights leader, mentor to Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

Amazed I am, and by God’s grace, will continue to be amazed – one day at a time and world without end. Amen.

Alleluia Death?

Death surrenders us completely to God; it makes us pass into God. In return we have to surrender ourselves to it, in love and in the abandon of love, since, when death comes to us, there is nothing further for us to do but let ourselves be entirely dominated and led onwards by God…

Lord Christ, you who are divine energy…set me ablaze and transmute me into fire that we may be welded together and made one…To receive communion as I die is not sufficient: teach me to make a communion of death itself.

~ Fr. Pierre Teilhard de Chardin (Jesuit priest, paleontologist, and mystic, 1881-1955)

My mood that morning matched the dreary Minnesota weather. The truth is, it was one of those days when I had to force myself to go visiting patients. I felt weighed down with self-pity and agitation.  I debated whether to hang out at the office to do paper work, but I knew that William was in the final days of dying. After chugging another cup of coffee, I decided that I needed to go and say goodbye. I am grateful beyond measure that I did.
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I had only known William for about three weeks. By the time he came on to hospice, William had largely lost his capacity to speak because of a fatal respiratory condition that required a tracheotomy and constant suctioning. And yet William didn’t need words to communicate what defined his outlook on life. The joy of this man’s spirit literally glowed on him. I didn’t get to hear any of the stories about William’s generosity and compassion until the day of his funeral, but I knew that he was extraordinary just by the way he smiled.

It was breathtaking, really. William had over the past few years suffered unimaginable physical travails due to his disease process. By the standards of our health and wealth obsessed society, William had an exceedingly poor “quality of life.” At one point during my first visit with him I had to hide my initial revulsion at certain aspects of his appearance (and having grown up in a funeral home, I am not usually in the the least bit squeamish). Sitting before me, however, was a man translucent with an open-hearted graciousness and tranquility that defied explanation. Sadly, William’s condition declined very rapidly, and by my second visit he was barely responsive.
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On that final visit to William, he was nearing death. As I trudged my way into the nursing facility (still wondering if I was in any spiritual shape to “help” anyone else at that moment), I was overtaken by the sounds of loud, joyous, spirited, Black Gospel music echoing from William’s room.

At first my sensibilities were jarred. Where I grew up, death was a somber thing, only to spoken about in hushed tones with low-key organ music playing in the background (funerals had a way of constantly interfering with my play time as a child!). Through a CD player, William’s room, on the other hand, had been converted into a lively, passion-filled African American Baptist tabernacle. There was clapping and dancing and the shouting of “Amen!” and “Alleluia!”

And there was the lifting of hands. Barely conscious and seemingly unable to respond to verbal requests, William was lying flat on his back with his arms open wide and lifted up in the ancient posture of prayer and praise.

The sight of that undid me. Here was one who had endured years of what would seem to most of us to be unbearable suffering and who was literally at death’s door. And yet William appeared to be enraptured in a cloud of joyous surrender, ecstasy, and love. The “fire” of divine energy about which the mystic Pierre Teilhard de Chardin writes was ablaze in that room.

Through my mind flashed those haunting last words of Christian martyr, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, before he was hung by piano wire in a Nazi death camp:

This is the end – for me the beginning of life.

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In a recently published work, Archbishop Rowan Williams and Benedictine Sr. Joan Chittister explore the spiritual meaning of the word “alleluia.” Asking the question whether saying “alleluia” in the face of failure, disappointment, suffering, and death is just one form of “emotionally unhealthy self-deception?” they reply,

alleluia is not a substitute for reality. It is simply the awareness of another whole kind of reality – beyond the immediate, beyond the delusion, beyond the instant perception of things…it calls us to see all of life as life-giving, somehow, in some way, whether its present gifting is apparent or not…It is learning to cling to a sense of alleluia that carries us through life to that moment when everything in us has come to fullness and our only next step is immersion in God.

I learned more about William at his funeral the following week. The old hospice adage, “People usually die as they have lived,” certainly rang true in his case. William knew what I have yet to practice in my own life: “alleluia” applies as much to the valleys and shadows and dark caves of life as it does to times of health, brightness, and blessing. The man did not have an easy life, and he most assuredly did not die an easy death. He approached both, however, with gratitude and a smile.

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I entered William’s room (or should I say “temple”?) in a state of self-pitying glumness. After being given a small taste of the “communion of death,” I walked out a changed man. Just spending a few moments in William’s presence – as he made his dying into a profound prayer of praise and thanksgiving – reminded me that in the bosom of G-d, there is Life and Love and Belonging beyond my wildest imaginings. The Mexican folk song, Pues Si Vivimos, beautifully expresses the heart of Jesus’ message this way:

When we are living, we are in the Lord. When we are dying, we are in the Lord. For in our living and in our dying, we belong to God, we belong to God.

Alleluia for that. And alleluia for William and for all my guides on the Jesus Way who teach me that in every end – even the end which we call death – is the beginning of life.

Keeping the Heart Open in Hell

The question in the face of suffering is not, what can we say? but what can we bear to hear? ~Herb Anderson

I wanted to run away from this man, his situation, his suffering. Bill had been one of my patients for nearly a year, and providing him spiritual care turned out to be one of the greatest challenges of my career as a chaplain. Helping care for Bill pushed me far beyond anything that I had been trained to do or say as a ministry “professional.”

There were no more comforting words to be uttered, therapeutic questions to be asked, soothing Scriptures to be read, or healing prayers to be said. There was only Bill’s hell to be encountered, his suffering to be entered into with mercy and compassion. Would I be able to stay present and bear witness with an open heart?

From my experience, Bill was one of the very few exceptions as a hospice patient whose suffering could not be alleviated by the hospice team’s comprehensive approach to symptom management. Bill had advanced lung disease which left him painfully short of breath as he slowly died from lack of oxygen.

The team scored a short-term victory some months into his care when Bill was put on a round-the-clock IV pain pump. For a time, the liquid morphine provided an ease of breath that he hadn’t had for months. But Bill’s symptoms returned with a vengeance, even after massive increases in his pain medication.

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It is clear, however, that Bill’s suffering was as emotional and spiritual as it was physical. For most of his life, Bill endured severe bipolar disorder which he often attempted to self-medicate by abusing alcohol. Married and divorced numerous times, Bill had a child he hadn’t seen for over twenty years.

In his own telling, Bill was abusive to the ones who tried to love him, and he pushed away all those who got close to him (upon his admission to our hospice program, it took our team over three months before he would allow anyone but me to visit him). Other than the hospice team and nursing home personnel, Bill had not a soul to visit him or a person that he could come close to calling a friend.

I will admit something that so-called “compassionate” caregivers are not supposed to say: Bill could be an exceedingly difficult man to like. With his rough exterior, sailor’s vocabulary, and negative disposition toward virtually everything and everyone, Bill had a way of generating hostile reactions. Even on his better days, Bill’s caregivers often left his room feeling drained and discouraged.

Over time, however, Bill began to inch his way into our hearts. Little by little, as we continued to provide him consistent, competent care and support, cracks started to appear in his well-defended armor. A veteran, he told me once that he trusted absolutely no one – including himself. Merely the fact that Bill began asking members of the hospice team to visit more regularly was itself a minor miracle.

In the months when Bill’s physical symptoms were under control, he showed us sides of himself which were funny, gentle, even compassionate. It was usually my custom to pray with him near the end of my visits. On one such occasion, as I was concluding my prayer, Bill shocked me by asking me whether he might also pray out loud. I agreed, of course, and Bill went on to offer a profound prayer of gratitude for all of those who cared for him and came to see him. “I will never be able to tell you how thankful I am for you and the hospice workers, David,” Bill said to me with tears running down his cheeks.

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Those are the moments when caregiving has its rewards. Most of the time, I readily admit that I receive far more from my patients and their families than I am able to give back. But what about those occasions when visiting seems like a chore, when being a compassionate presence becomes a clenched-jaw struggle – as many of my recent encounters with Bill were?

I agree with Steven Levine that what blocks us from meeting the suffering of others with mercy is our fear of having to meet our own neediness in the process. When I truly seek to come alongside the suffering of one I cannot “fix,” change, or control, then I am brought face to face with my own powerlessness and vulnerability. It’s fine and dandy when I can walk away from an encounter feeling good about “my” ability to buoy spirits and bring comfort. But what happens when my words are met with dismissive grunts, my soft smile by a pained grimace? What if my well-constructed (and carefully charted!) interventions cease to be “useful?”

I get terrified and run away, that’s what.
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Bill taught me to remember one of the hardest lessons of my own journey: the path to spiritual freedom and authentic connection with others is always by way of brokenness. It is only when I first get in touch with my own need for grace that God’s healing power can begin to change me from the inside out.

Paradoxically, admitting my brokenness allows me to embrace the wholeness, the shalom, God intends for me. From that place of wholeness, I am then empowered to reach out to others in their own state of need, not as a “fixer,” but as a fellow pilgrim along the Jesus Way of healing, justice, and love.

This way of doing ministry is as disruptive and scandalous now as it was in Jesus’ day. Admitting brokenness totally goes against what we are taught by our culture and often by the church. Brennan Manning tells the story of a public sinner who was excommunicated and forbidden entry to the church. He took his woes to God, “They won’t let me in, Lord, because I am a sinner.” “What are you complaining about?” said God. “They won’t let me in either!”

Carl Jung, the great psychiatrist, illuminated the problem of Christian “helping” in a letter he wrote to a Christian friend:

I admire Christians, because when you see someone who is hungry or thirsty, you see Jesus. When you welcome a stranger, someone who is “strange,” you welcome Jesus. When you clothe someone who is naked, you clothe Jesus.What I do not understand, however, is that Christians never seem to recognize Jesus in their own poverty. You always want to do good to the poor outside you and at the same time you deny the poor person living inside you. Why can’t you see Jesus in your own poverty, in your own hunger and thirst? In all that is “strange” inside you: in the violence and the anguish that are beyond your control! You are called to welcome all this, not to deny its existence, but to accept that it is there and to meet Jesus there.

Remember with whom Jesus spent his days? Prostitutes, traitors, criminals, illegal immigrants, drunkards, riffraff, rebels, crazy people – the “trash” of Palestine. Why? Because, according to Jesus, the Kingdom of God shows up first and foremost among the weak and the foolish and the crazy and the despised. Why is that? Because those in the back alleys and detox cells and prison yards and concentration camps and cancer wards and crack houses and dementia units and homeless shelters KNOW what it means to be hungry forGod

Who does Jesus really annoy? The “good”, “moral,” upright, law-abiding, model religious people. Why? Because they have no room in their nice, ordered worlds for a Savior who turns everything on its head and tells them that they are broken and that they have to lose everything to find God.

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One of the gifts that people in addiction recovery often have is the ability to meet the broken and outcast as equals. This gives them the credibility to offer God’s love in ways that are more likely to be received than if they were “helping ”from a position of superiority.

We see Jesus working this way when he encounters the outcast, adulterous, Samaritan woman at the well. Jesus does not condemn her for “living in sin” but gently invites her to acknowledge her brokenness and to drink from the “living water” that is his reconciliation and transformation.

Jean Vanier recalls this when he writes about a chronically-relapsing alcoholic who said to him:

“Now I understand. There are two women living inside me. The one who drinks and the one who, when she is not drinking, refuses to look at the wounded part of me, as if it was too dirty for God to love. I deny that that part exists and I only speak to God about the bright side of me. I understand now that I have to let God meet the wounded, broken, woman inside of me and let him enter into all the dirty places inside me” (Vanier, Befriending the Stranger).

As a supposed follower of Jesus, can I find ways to imitate Jesus’ all-embracing love for the most disgusting, offensive, and broken parts of those I encounter in my daily life? If I understand Vanier and Jung correctly, the answer is “yes” – but only if I first have the courage to face, befriend, and love those most frightening and revolting shadows in myself.
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As I sought to keep my heart open in the hell that was Bill’s long suffering and slow dying, it helped me to remember that his terror of dying and fear of living and agony of losing control are also my own. And by the same token, the Love that connects me to life and frees me from fear and makes me whole also belonged to Bill. Indeed, wonder of wonders, that Love belongs to us all.

My prayer tonight is my version of the “Loving-kindness” blessing from the Buddhist tradition:

Oh, Beloved Christ, may Bill and me and all sentient beings dwell in your Heart of Love. May we be free from the suffering of our fears and unfulfilled longings. May we be healed from our brokenness and awaken to the beauty of your Love. May we know Peace – the Peace that makes us whole and invites us to dwell in Love’s Heart forever. Amen.