Come in from the Cold, Friend

“Come in from the cold, friend, and join us,”

Bobby instructed me. At the time, Bobby was hugging two of his hospice nurses as he bid them a final farewell. Later in the day, Bobby would be leaving with his son for a city in the South where he was planning to die surrounded by family. Beloved patient that he was, Bobby was being visited by a stream of nursing home staff, hospice personnel, and fellow residents who wanted to say goodbye.

The “cold” place from which Bobby called me was a corner in his room where I had positioned myself in order to hold my own grief in check. Even in the midst of physical pain and emotional upheaval, Bobby clearly sensed my sadness and pulled me close to join the “group hug” that was taking place at his bedside. For moments, which seem as if they were frozen in time, Bobby’s room in that squalid, over-crowded nursing facility became a holy shrine, a tabernacle of the Divine Presence, a place where God’s healing grace transfigured the wounds of our humanity into bright rays of love.

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“Come in from the cold, friend.” These words of invitation, blessing and embrace were spoken by a man who had lived many of his days and nights in the cold, both figuratively and literally. Born into a poor, Mississippi Delta family only a generation removed from sharecropping in the Jim Crow South, Bobby spent much of his life feeding his addiction to alcohol and then crack cocaine. Along the way, Bobby served in the Army, fathered a child, and burned nearly every bridge he ever crossed.

As a consequence of the “hungry ghost” of addiction which enslaved him, Bobby had become homeless for significant stretches of time and developed more than a passing familiarity with the backstreets, flop houses, detox cells, and men’s shelters across the Delta. One particular “bottom” in his addiction career took place a few years ago when someone in a group of men with whom he had been gambling behind a dumpster stole the new dentures he had acquired just the day before at the VA Hospital.

Why Bobby, in a drunken stupor, decided to seek another “geographical” cure two years ago by hopping a bus from Mississippi to Minneapolis with no more than the shirt on his back is anyone’s guess. Bobby had no family or connections in Minnesota. He told me that he had passed through the Twin Cities once back in his Army days and that he remembered the people being “nice” here.

What is clear is that when Bobby arrived on the Minnesota plains from the Mississippi Delta two summers ago, he was homeless, friendless, penniless, and sick with cancer. Bobby was at the end of his rope. Bobby believed that he had come North to die as he had lived – ashamed, alone, high, out in the cold.

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“God often writes straight using crooked lines,” Mother Teresa liked to quip. From the vantage point of polite, respectable, Middle American society, the lines in Bobby’s shattered, destitute, alienated life couldn’t have looked much more crooked. In many respects, Bobby resembled what the old psychiatrists used to label “a hopeless case.” He had been in and out of rehab for years, failed to hold a job for any significant period of time, and betrayed the trust of everyone who tried to love him.

The “Big Book” of Alcoholics Anonymous states, “The age of miracles is still with us.” At the time of the “Big Book’s” publication in 1939, the assertion that recovery was possible for “hopeless” addicts such as Bobby was met in many quarters by skepticism, even derision. As far as the reigning lords of medicine were concerned, the only “hope” for addicts entailed locking them up and throwing away the key.

Along came the movement of Alcoholics Anonymous, claiming that through the adoption of certain spiritual principles, men and women in the death-throes of addiction could be healed and go on to live meaningful, productive lives in the service of others. Six decades and tens of millions of transformed lives later, we now know that long-term recovery from addiction is possible; addiction is not a moral pathology or curse, but a treatable disease.

The paradox of recovery (as understood by the Twelve Steps) is that an addict can begin to get better only by first admitting utter defeat. The old, “false” self – and all of its striving for control, mastery, and escape – must die and be replaced by the True Self – the person who God, in love, created us to be.

To use Christian language, addicts must realize how “lost” they are before being “found” by the miracle of God’s grace. In Eugene Peterson’s contemporary rendering of the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus says, “You are blessed when you are at the end of your rope. With less of you there is more of God and God’s way. You’re blessed when you feel you’ve lost what is most dear to you. Only then can you be embraced by the One most dear to you.”

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When I first met Bobby, he was a man who had lost literally everything in his life, including his health. And yet before me on that nursing home bed sat a living miracle. For the first time in his adult life, Bobby had achieved nearly six months of continuous alcohol sobriety. Friends from a local AA group faithfully came three times a week to take Bobby to meetings. In working the Twelve Steps with his sponsor, Bobby confronted the horrible wreckage he had made of his life and began to make amends to those he had wounded the most. Bobby would eventually reconcile with his family in the South, and they would come to Minnesota to take him home to die within the circle of their loving care.

Even as the cancer took its brutal toll, Bobby became the Good Samaritan of the nursing facility. He spent his days visiting bed-bound patients, wheeling fellow residents to the outdoor patio, and spreading good cheer in whatever hall he was wandering. No matter how bad he was feeling physically, Bobby never failed to ask those of us who visited him about our children and families. The day before he left Minnesota to die, Bobby snuck a $5.00 bill into my Bible with a note instructing me to give it to my daughter who was turning seven that week. Every person on the hospice team has a story to tell about how Bobby touched them. His lead nurse told me that in her decade of hospice nursing, few patients have affected her as profoundly as Bobby.

In the eyes of what our culture values – wealth, health, productivity, longevity, status, morality, etc. – Bobby was an utter failure. And yet he finished his earthly pilgrimage as one of the most grace-filled souls I have ever met.

Why? Because in his total poverty (spiritual, financial, relational, emotional), Bobby was embraced by the Christ Mystery in its most radical, scandalous simplicity: we are loved, cherished, forgiven, and accepted by the Beloved who created us to have life and have it more abundantly. Like the dying thief on the cross and the Prodigal Son, Bobby’s abject need invited him to encounter the “One Thing Needful.” Indeed, Bobby was ushered into the Heart of God, which breathes, beats, bleeds and burns for us with a Love beyond our ability to comprehend.

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“Come in from the cold, friend.” During our many hours together, I had told Bobby some of my own story. In our shared histories of brokenness and failure, I experienced a powerful bond with Bobby. More significantly, however, it was Bobby’s metamorphosis from dejected street-dweller to joy-filled, spiritual teacher that drew me to him. I have more often than not chosen to live “out in the cold” of my own fear, defensiveness, ego, and loneliness. Bobby reminded me that it need not be that way, that the Beloved’s arms of divine mercy are always open and ready to embrace me, bless me, and heal me.

As I made my way across that room to join the “group hug” taking place at Bobby’s bedside, I realized that suddenly I was walking on holy ground. Without even knowing what I was doing, I found myself kneeling before Bobby to ask for his blessing. When he placed his hands on my head and prayed for me, I knew that God was using Bobby – broken, mangled, frail vessel that he was – not to preach but to make present the Jesus Way in all of its messy glory.

Holy Week is here, and Resurrection seems all the more real to me because of my friendship with Bobby. “Come in from the cold, friend,and join me,” I hear the Risen Christ say. Saints like Bobby have shown us the path. Time to get those feet a movin’…

From longing to belonging

Prayer is that bridge from longing to belonging.

– Irish poet, John O’Donahue

As a hospice chaplain, it is pretty much part of my “job description” to pray with my patients. Most of the time, those prayers are so-called “free prayers”(prayers not written down). There are other occasions, especially when a patient has died or is actively dying, for which I use liturgical prayers from various worship books, i.e. The Episcopal Book of Common Prayer, the Lutheran Occasional Services, the United Church of Christ Book of Worship , and the Roman Catholic Pastoral Care of the Sick.

I must admit that as a “professional prayer-giver,” it is easy for my prayer routine with patients to get a bit stale. In fact, I am certain that my verbal prayers have a uniformity about them. I think that this is probably true for anyone who regularly prays in a public setting.

I grew up in the Churches of Christ, a tradition which vehemently rejects the practice of any kind of written prayer. “Your prayers must come from your heart, not from the words of other men,” I remember a Sunday school teacher exhorting us in a humid Ohio church basement. So why did almost every prayer I heard during worship – from the Elders’ communion prayers to the preacher’s weekly altar call sound virtually identical to one another?

During my years of sojourning within the more “High Church” expressions of Christianity (Lutheranism and Catholicism), I developed great appreciation for the grace, spiritual depth, and beauty of liturgical prayer. Especially during moments of crises and tragedy, it is a gift to be able to utilize the words of petition, lament, and consolation from holy men and women through the ages rather than try to “make up” something meaningful to say.

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I vividly remember keeping all-night vigil with a two year-old boy and his parents as the boy – “Luke” – lay dying in the hospital from cancer. “Daddy, I am scared,” were the last words his parents heard Luke say. Over the course of the night, Luke began to die from internal and external hemorrhaging, the horrors of which I could not begin to describe. When Luke’s little lungs breathed their last, I can assure you that I was bereft of any and all words as his mother cradled the body of her only child and his father let out a blood-curdling yell of defiant rage.

Still, the medical staff – choking back their own tears – came around the bedside to encircle Luke’s parents with as much support as they could muster. Suddenly, all eyes were on me – as if I were supposed to say something – anything – to bring a sliver of light or hope or comfort in what had become an unbearably oppressive sarcophagus of despair. At that moment, I was never so grateful for the endless “sword drills” (contests to see who could look up and shout out certain Scripture verses the most quickly) of my fundamentalist childhood.

Spontaneously, words from the eighth chapter of Romans began to flow from my trembling lips:

We know that the whole creation has been groaning in labor pains until now, and not only the creation but we ourselves, who have the first fruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly while we wait for the adoption, the redemption of our bodies…the Spirit helps us in our weakness…and intercedes for us with sighs and groans too deep for words.

The truth is, NO words, Scripture passage, or pious exhortation could make sense of the horrific tragedy of a child’s death. And yet the family and several staff members told me later that St. Paul’s simple reminder that the Holy One dwells within our screams of abandonment as much as in our shouts of thanksgiving brought one, tiny drop of solace into a room awash with grief.

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Before Luke’s mother allowed herself to leave his room, she made me promise that I would accompany her little boy’s body down to the hospital morgue and remain with him until the funeral directors arrived. Thus at half past four on what was an unseasonably balmy March morning in Minnesota, I processed alongside Luke’s sheet-draped stretcher into the bowels of the hospital to keep watch over the mortal remains of this beautiful, little boy.

Shell shocked and numb beyond tears, I felt the scoured tiled walls of the morgue beginning to close in on me with a tomb-like grimness. Although I had seen my share of morgues and been around death most of my life (I grew up in the funeral business), I experienced an overpowering urge to abandon my commitment to Luke’s mother and bolt from that basement.

More from desperation than faith, I fetched from my pocket a book of “pastoral prayers” and began frantically turning the pages. The first prayer I landed upon was the “Salve Regina,” a 10th century hymn honoring Mary, the Mother of Jesus. According to this strain of ancient Christian piety, the act of remembering the steadfast, faithful witness of Mary’s fidelity to her son Jesus – even unto the foot of the cross – helps us see beyond our “mourning and weeping in this valley of tears.” With Mary as one of our guides and examples, we are called to look “homeward” upon the merciful face of the Christ who is our Resurrection and our Life.

Hail, holy Queen, Mother of mercy, our life, our sweetness, and our hope. To you we cry, the children of Eve; to you we send up our sighs, mourning and weeping in this valley of tears. Turn, then, most gracious advocate, your eyes of mercy toward us; lead us home at last and show us the blessed fruit of your womb, Jesus: O clement, O loving, O sweet Virgin Mary. Amen.

Traditionally, this prayer is sung nightly in Cistercian monasteries before the monks retire for bed. During my college years, I went on several week-long retreats at the Trappist Abbey of Gethsemane in Kentucky – the home of Thomas Merton. The last formal liturgical act of the day was to sing this hauntingly beautiful hymn in the darkened abbey church. On one side, surrounded by a halo of candles, stood the Byzantine icon of the Virgin of Vladimir and the Christ child (see above).

The hymn served as a nightly reminder of the reality of death as we prepared to surrender ourselves unto sleep. Even more significantly, the image and the prayer were signposts that death, sadness and crying in this “valley of tears” are not, indeed, the final sum of our existence, but only way stations on a far more mysterious and wonder-filled pilgrimage.

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So it was that I found myself in that tomb of a hospital morgue praying the words of a tenth-century hymn with every ounce of energy I had left in me. There were no flashes of lightning, no choirs of angels, no visions of glory. Luke’s lifeless hands, which I held in mine, grew colder by the minute. The valley of tears which was that night seemed as deep and foreboding as ever.

And yet in the repetition of those words, I began to inch my way onto that bridge from “longing to belonging.” I know the longing part well – longing for a society free from violence, suffering, and injustice; longing for relationships characterized by intimacy and forgiveness; longing for a Church which showers people with God’s grace and blessing; longing for a world in which two-year olds don’t bleed to death in front of their mommies and daddies.

It is getting to the “belonging” side of the river with which I need great help. This is where, for me, prayer isn’t merely a bridge; it is a lifeline. As a hospice chaplain, I have the privilege of watching people almost every day use prayer to make their journey from this vale of tears unto the great “Undiscovered Country” where mourning and weeping will be no more and where we will be known fully by that Love which has no beginning and no end.

In the creeping of Lent towards Easter, the bridge from longing to belonging seems a little less foreboding, a few steps closer to home. Whether it be shouts of ecstatic praise, groans and sighs of anguish, the silence of sitting on a pillow, the chants of monks in a darkened church, the whispers of an old preacher, or plain, boring words off a page, I am thankful for prayer and the Love and Life and Home – the Belonging – to which it beckons.

Grace Beyond Words

Ruby is dying in front of me from complications due to advanced dementia. Long alienated from her adult children, Ruby’s final earthly companions are the nursing home and hospice staff members and volunteers who shower her with affection. Still, the sight of Ruby – whose smooth skin and glowing white hair make her look decades younger than her eighty-plus years – scares me.

On my visits before today, Ruby would, upon the sound of my voice, usually look at me briefly and then drift back to staring absently out her window for the remainder of my visit. I have many patients like Ruby who have lost their ability to speak coherently, if at all. My communication with them is through touch, eye contact, and song.

As an overeducated American who spends way too much time living in my head, being with Ruby stretches me beyond my comfort zone. I am the product of the best formal education money can buy. My trade is in words – books, conversations, ideas, writing. Words have nurtured me and given me life. Words have connected me to people and worlds far beyond my limited experience. Words have been my anchor, my lifeboat, and my shore.

Which is why being in the presence of Ruby pushes my buttons. After hours of sitting with Ruby and many others like her recently, I have come to see that while words have often been my salvation, they have also been my prison. I have used words to attack, wound, and manipulate. One of my professors at Harvard once congratulated me on my “killer instinct” and encouraged me to become an academic because of what he saw as my outstanding “intellectual ruthlessness.” Most of all, I have used words to run away from intimacy, to hide my true self behind massive walls of feigned self-sufficiency, control, and superiority.

At Ruby’s bedside, words offer me neither comfort nor protection. Her sheer powerlessness in the face of dementia’s cruel ravages unmasks my own vulnerability – and my sheer terror of losing my intellectual capacities and cognitive ability. I am a member of a society that judges people by what they do, how they think, and how much they produce and consume. Truth be told, I am probably more captive to the world views of Wall Street, Washington, and Hollywood than I am surrendered to the Sermon on the Mount. Who would I be, after all, were I not able to function as a “productive,” “autonomous,” “self-actualized” individual?

Ah, here is where Ruby – and the millions of other people with intellectual disabilities – transform themselves from patients into prophets. Jean Vanier, one of the great spiritual heroes of our time, reminds us,

God has chosen the weak, the foolish, and the crazy to shame the clever and the powerful; he has chosen the most despised, the people right at the bottom of society. Through this teaching we see a vision unfold in which a pyramid of hierarchy is changed into a body, beginning at the bottom…The mystery of people with disabilities is that they long for authentic and loving relationships more than for power…They are crying for what matters most: love. And God hears their cry because in some way they respond to the cry of God, which is to give love (Vanier, Living Gently in a Violent World , p.30.).

Ruby challenges me to remember who I am – a beloved child of God – and WHOSE I am – a Loving Presence in whom I live and move and have my being. Through encounters with those who are helping me accept my own fragility and vulnerability, I am learning that it is okay for me to feel my feelings and to share them with others; that I am only “as sick as my secrets;” that life is to be lived one-moment-at-a-time with joy and gratitude; that I am capable of love, honesty, and intimacy with others; and that God loves me for who I am and not because of anything that I have or have not done.

As I prayed the final Prayers of Commendation for the Dying over Ruby’s sweating brow a few hours ago, I noticed that hanging in the corner of her room is the famous picture of the elderly man giving thanks for his meager loaf of bread and bowl of soup. First taken in 1918 by photographer Eric Enstrom in the tiny mining town of Bovey, Minnesota, the image was then painted in oil by Enstrom’s daughter.

During the Great Depression and Second World War, Grace (as it is known) became for many Americans the iconographic embodiment of humble gratitude in the face of deprivation, suffering, and loss. That same picture keeps vigil over my parents’ kitchen table, just as it did over my grandparents and great-grandparents’ tables.

In my youthful arrogance, I used to dismiss that image as a piece of trite, sentimental Americana. More recently – and most especially this afternoon – Grace has assumed a prized place in my spiritual life. Seeing it near Ruby’s peace-filled deathbed reminded me that, at the end of the day, what matters is not words but the Word-made-flesh who heals us in Love and holds us in Life, even that Life and Love which are everlasting.

I have a sense that the old man in the photograph knew what Ruby and many of my patients seem to know: the mystery of grace is never an object to be grasped, only a gift to be received with empty minds, bowed heads, prayerful hands, and surrendered hearts.

Paul Tillich, a famous Protestant theologian of the 20th century, uttered one of the great truths of the Christian story when he wrote this about grace.

Grace strikes us when we are in great pain and restlessness. It strikes us when we walk through the dark valley of a meaningless and empty life. It strikes us when we feel that our separation is deeper than usual, because we have violated another life, a life which we loved, or from which we were estranged.

It strikes us when our disgust for our own being, our indifference, our weakness, our hostility, and our lack of direction and composure have become intolerable to us. It strikes us when, year after year, the longed-for perfection of life does not appear, when the old compulsions reign within us as they have for decades, when despair destroys all joy and courage.

Sometimes at that moment a wave of light breaks into our darkness, and it is as though a voice were saying: ” You are accepted. You are accepted, accepted by that which is greater than you, and the name of which you do not know. Do not ask for the name now; perhaps you will find it later. Do not try to do anything now; perhaps later you will do much. Do not seek for anything; do not perform anything; do not intend anything. Simply accept the fact that you are accepted!”

If that happens to us, we experience grace. After such an experience we may not be better than before, and we may not believe more than before. But everything is transformed. In that moment, grace conquers sin, and reconciliation bridges the gulf of estrangement. And nothing is demanded of this experience, no religious or moral or intellectual presupposition, nothing but acceptance.

Thank you, Ruby. And may you be at peace this day and dwell in the paradise of God forever.

Joy: Rumors from an Insurrection



Sermon preached by David Hottinger

Mayflower Congregational Community United Church of Christ

Minneapolis, MN, 13 December 2009

Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, Rejoice. Let your gentleness be known to everyone. The Lord is near. Do not worry about anything but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God. And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus. (Philippians 4:4-7)

Hmmm. On first hearing, I resent those words. “Rejoice always…Don’t worry about anything…just pray?” What kind of Hallmark greeting card spirituality is that?

Has St. Paul not been reading the headlines? 30,000 more troops to Afghanistan. Health care reform watered down. Charities in Texas requiring proof of citizenship of children before the children are given presents.

What about the sorrows and tragedies many of us are experiencing? The illness or death of loved ones? Job losses? Broken relationships? Addictions? Depression? In my work as a hospice chaplain during the last two weeks, I have encountered the suicide of one patient, the death of five others, and the intense emotional and physical suffering of a dozen more. Where is the rejoicing to be done in all of THAT?


Come to find out, when Paul wrote these words in a letter to the Jesus-followers in Philippi, he was in a mess of trouble himself. Granted, he WAS in a gated community but it wasn’t the Club Med-kind. It was the prison-kind, where Paul was likely awaiting execution for the charge of sedition against the Roman Empire.

Paul and his ragtag band of Jesus hooligans had been crisscrossing the Empire doing their darnedest to comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable. They did this by proclaiming the story of Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection and Jesus’ reckless, liberating love for every human being – regardless of social status, religious affiliation, race, or nationality.

This story-telling was causing problems. People in far-flung parts of Caesar’s realm were becoming enthused by the proclamation of an Upside-down kingdom. A kingdom where the lost are found, the sick healed, the dead raised, and the prisoners set free. The leaders of the empire were getting nervous; this Jesus business was beginning to look like the stuff of insurrection.

It’s not that these Christ fanatics were killing soldiers or kidnapping imperial officials. Perhaps what they were doing was even more subversive. Christians were calling people to a higher allegiance than to Caesar.

In imperial Rome, as long as you declared that Caesar was Lord and gave your primary loyalty to him, no problem. You could practice your religion and pray to whatever god you liked – just as long you remembered who was first in line.

These people on the Jesus Way, however, were bucking the system with their ridiculous claim that some crucified Jewish peasant from the backwater of Palestine was more powerful than Caesar. One of their propaganda slogans, “Jesus is Lord,” directly mocked the reigning ideology of the empire. With songs about Jesus on their lips, the Christians were running around healing sick people, rescuing abandoned babies from the city walls, feeding orphans and widows, forming communities of radical hospitality, and getting people to think about their lives and destinies in new ways.

Perhaps most infuriatingly, the Jesus people did NOT appear to be taking their own persecution very seriously! Locked up in hellish prisons and torture chambers, they had been known to break out singing, dancing, laughing, and praising their Jewish God as if they were not afraid of the empire’s ability to shut them up for good.

The national security types in Rome crunched the numbers and sent a memo upstairs to the Palace elite: These Christ- people were posing a clear and present danger to the state. And in Nero’s imperial Rome, insurrections of any kind – could not, would not be tolerated. _

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So here we have Paul, one of the leaders of the Jesus Way, first placed under house arrest and then confined to prison. Aware that death by beheading could come to him at any moment, he writes letters to other Jesus followers around the empire as a kind of last will-and-testament to them.

What is advice does Paul give in his letter to the Philippians? To scheme? To run? To hide? To give up? To fight? Against all conventional wisdom, here is what Paul tells his peeps on the Jesus Way: Laugh! Play! Dance! Sing! Don’t worry! Be gentle! Be merciful! Give thanks! Be at peace! REJOICE!!!

Let’s admit it. – from a so-called “realist” point of view, Paul appears to be out of his mind. Nero is getting ready to smash these nettlesome Jesus people. The hammer would come down. The Jesus movement would be exterminated. And the Thousand-year Reich of Caesar would leave all of that sentimental silliness about gentleness, joy, mercy, peace, and love in the dustbin of history. Right? Right?

Wrong. Wrong. Wrong because Paul knew what Mahatma Gandhi, Mother Teresa, John Woolman, Nelson Mandela, St. Teresa of Avila, and Desmond Tutu knew. What Thich Nhat Hanh, Oscar Romero, John Paul II, Martin Luther King, Jr. Victor Frankl, and Fannie Lou Hammer knew. What St. Francis of Assisi, Dorothy Day, Caesar Chavez, St. Catherine of Siena, Rosa Parks, and Daniel Berrigan knew. What Clarence Jordan, Maximillian Kolbe, and Anne Frank all knew. NAMELY that while the empires of this world (and there are many such empires) might be able to kill the body, they can NEVER annihilate a soul fueled by the fires of joy.


When the young theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer came from Germany in 1930 to teach at Union Theological Seminary in New York, he frequently worshipped at the Abyssinian Baptist Church, the historic African-American church in Harlem. Deeply worried about the evils of Nazism beginning to dominate his homeland, Bonhoeffer became transfixed by the spirit of freedom and joy, which characterized the soulful Jesus followers at Abyssinian Baptist

Bonhoeffer soon learned that the joy of those black Christians budded forth from the depths of great suffering: slavery, injustice, racism, oppression. What Bonhoeffer discovered is that for the Spirit-filled congregants of Abyssinian Baptist, joy was not dependent on the ups and downs of external circumstances. Joy is a quality of being, rooted in the conviction that we are chosen, accepted, and loved by God – no matter what the conditions imposed from the outside.

In the worship, prayers, singing, and stories of the men and women he encountered at Abyssinian Baptist, Dietrich Bonhoeffer experienced a way of following Jesus that had a joyful, even mystical sensitivity to God’s presence in all things without falling into the trap of ignoring the suffering of the world.

Paul says that we can rejoice, be free from our worries, and experience peace because “God is near.” Elsewhere Scripture refers to God as one in whom we “live and move and have our being.” St. Augustine poetically referred to God as being “closer to us than we are to ourselves.” Bonhoeffer realized that while he believed these things in his head, at Abyssinian he was with a community of Christians who LIVED this God-presence as their very means of survival. After Harlem, Christianity became a “full-body” experience for Bonhoeffer; his theology and ministry were profoundly changed

Those Christians in Harlem knew from lived experience that the Jesus Way didn’t mean denying the power of evil or allowing themselves to become victims. They knew, however, what Paul in his prison cell knew: achieving freedom and joy on the Jesus Way is an “inside job.” Freedom is knowing who we are – beloved sons and daughters of God – and Whose we are – a loving, liberating, Presence in whom we live and move and have our being. Joy is living in a posture of trust that the One who made us in love is always working in the world to bring the peace that passes all understanding.


This peace, by the way, looks very different from the peace that the empires of the world proclaim.

We have our own versions of empire and “peace” today, don’t we? For many years, I lived in the empire of active addiction where my primary allegiance was to doing whatever I had to do to drug myself into self-centered oblivion. My “peace,” my “pax David,” was about looking good, pretending that I had everything under control, manipulating people into liking me, and presenting a “good boy” façade to the rest of the world. When my empire finally fell under the weight of its own delusion, I was forced to face vast wreckage of ruined relationships, shattered trust, emotional devastation, moral bankruptcy, and broken hearts.

We all have empires that hold us prisoner, even as we all have our own distorted ideas about “peace.” The peace about which Paul writes is the peace, which shatters the so-called peace of empire. The peace that our tiny Christmas baby Jesus comes to proclaim is the peace that brings down the mighty from their thrones. It is the peace that scatters the proud in the imagination of their hearts, fills the hungry with good things, and sends the rich away empty.

This peace, the peace of Christ, brings light from darkness; hope from despair; healing from brokenness; reconciliation from division; and life from the pit of death. It is the peace not just of Good Friday but of Easter Sunday, not only a bloody cross but an empty tomb, not merely an absence of strife but a community of radical hospitality, scandalous mercy, and liberating justice.


A few years after his voluntary return to Germany, Dietrich Bonhoeffer became actively involved in resisting the Nazis. In his most famous work of theology, he wrote,

Where will the call to discipleship lead those who follow it? What decisions and painful separations will it entail? We must take this question to him who alone knows the answer. Only Jesus Christ, who bids us follow him, knows where the path will lead. But we know that it will be a part full of mercy beyond measure. Discipleship is joy” (Discipleship).

On April 9, 1945 in Flossenburg concentration camp, Dietrich Bonhoeffer was stripped naked and brutally executed by being hung with thin wire for his role in resisting the Nazi government.

His last reported words are these: “This is the end. For me, the beginning of life.”

The camp doctor who witnessed the execution wrote this,

I saw Pastor Bonhoeffer … kneeling on the floor praying fervently to God. I was most deeply moved by the way this lovable man prayed, so devout and so certain that God heard his prayer. At the place of execution, he again said a short prayer and then climbed the few steps to the gallows, brave and composed. His death ensued after a few seconds. In the almost fifty years that I worked as a doctor, I have hardly ever seen a man die so entirely submissive to the will of God.”

That language about being “submissive to the will of God” might seem antiquated to us today. Perhaps we could say that both in his living and dying, Dietrich Bonhoeffer was fully surrendered to the God he saw most beautifully revealed in the joy of those gathered Christians back in Harlem 15 years earlier.

To use words from our reading this morning, even while climbing his way to the gallows, this Jesus follower, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, knew what it meant to rejoice at the nearness of God. Bonhoeffer experienced in the soul of his being a peace that passes all human understanding.

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Ok, St. Paul. I take it back. I don’t resent your recommendations. They don’t disgust me anymore; they just terrify me. Terrify me in a good way. The empires around us and within us continue their efforts to lure us into slavery with their siren calls of success, power, efficiency, escape, pleasure, and control.

But this Way of Jesus, this Jesus Insurrection, is showing us a way to freedom beyond slavery, recovery beyond addiction, life beyond death. The empire can rattle its saber all it wants. Ours is a freedom and a joy rooted in who we are and WHOSE we are.

The heart of Jesus’ message is this: We are loved. In life and unto death and beyond death, we belong to God who made us, forgives us, and desires us to share in God’s light and joy forever. As our Lover, God takes our deepest woes, our most anguished cries, our most shameful failures and uses them to bring us into God’s heart, which is Love Itself.

And finally, this path to true joy is one that we never, ever have to walk alone. Perhaps echoing convictions he had heard sung so long ago in those mournful but joy-filled spirituals in Harlem, Dietrich Bonhoeffer penned this prayer from his cell while awaiting execution:

O God, early in the morning I cry to you.

Help me to pray

And to concentrate my thoughts on you:

I cannot do this alone.

In me there is darkness,

But with you there is light;

I am lonely, but you do not leave me;

I am feeble in heart, but with you there is help;

I am restless, but with you there is peace.

In me there is bitterness, but with you there is patience;

I do not understand your ways,

But you know the way for me…

Restore me to liberty,

And enable me to live now

That I may answer before you and before me.

Lord, whatever this day may bring,

Your name be praised.


May it be so for the rest of us, this day, and in the days to come. Rejoice in God, always, my friends on the Jesus Way. And again I say rejoice.

 

NOTHING is lost to God

This past Sunday evening, one of my patients ended his own life. A WWII combat vet, a devoted father and grandfather, a gifted craftsman and avid outdoorsman, “Tim” spent his last months struggling under the burden of congestive heart failure. He gave no indication to anyone that he was planning to take his life. When he did, Tim’s loved ones were horribly shocked and heartbroken.

I was called to the scene of Tim’s death and spent over seven hours with his immediate family as they attempted to face their grief, answer police questions, and try to make some semblance of sense of the tragedy that had just unfolded. For me it was one of those nights during which I found words to be utterly useless as a means of consolation or support. All I could do was to make myself available and pray that somehow I could be an instrument of God’s merciful and abiding Presence.

What follows is my meditation at Tim’s funeral yesterday. Truly, it was one of the most beautiful funerals I have attended because of the tributes paid to him by his sons, daughters-in-laws, and grandchildren. One of Tim’s sons left not a dry eye in the chapel when he concluded, “If love could have saved dad, he would still be with us.”

Humanly speaking this is might be true. Why Tim took his life when he was surrounded by such a loving family will always be a mystery.

At the same time, however, in my heart of hearts, I believe that Love DOES “save” Tim – and the rest of us – from the fate of being separated from God. The words of theologian Jurgen Moltmann have served as a kind of mantra for me this week:

“With God, nothing is at all lost. Everything remains in God. We experience our life as temporal and mortal. But as God experiences it, our life is eternally immortal. Nothing is lost to God, not the moments of happiness, not the times of pain. ‘All live to him (Luke 20.38).’”

Amen and amen.

_____________

Funeral meditation for Tim
David Hottinger, December 2009

We just heard read one of the most classic passages in Christian spirituality, the 23rd Psalm. I would like to share with you a contemporary rendering of the Psalm – one that captures, I think, the intimate Love that God has for us, God’s sons and daughters.

O my Beloved, You are my shepherd,
I shall not want;
You bring me to green pastures for rest
and lead me beside still waters renewing my spirit;
You restore my soul.
You lead in the path of goodness to follow Love’s way.

Even though I walk through
The valley of the shadow of death,
I am not afraid;
For You are ever with me;
Your rod and your staff they guide me,
They give me strength and comfort.

You prepare a table before me
in the presence of all my fears;
you bless me with oil, my cup overflows.
Surely goodness and mercy will
follow me all the days of my life;
and I shall dwell in the heart
of the Beloved forever.
Amen     –
(Psalms for Praying, Nan Merrill)

___________

At its essence, the Christian story is one big love story. It is the story of God creating the world, taking flesh as a human being in Jesus, laying down God’s life freely in love, and then conquering death so that we might have love and life and joy in God forever.

God is a lover. In fact God is THE Lover – perfect and ravishing and complete and passionate in love for us – no matter how far we stray or badly we screw up or run away from that love.

There is a passage in the New Testament that captures this truth with great beauty. In the 8th chapter of the Book of Romans it is written,

The One who died for us—who was raised to life for us!—is in the presence of God at this very moment sticking up for us. Do you think anyone is going to be able to drive a wedge between us and Christ’s love for us? There is no way! Not trouble, not hard times, not hatred, not hunger, not homelessness, not bullying threats, not backstabbing, not even the worst sins listed in Scripture…
None of this fazes us because Jesus loves us. I’m absolutely convinced that nothing—nothing living or dead, angelic or demonic, today or tomorrow, high or low, thinkable or unthinkable—absolutely nothing can get between us and God’s love because of the way that Jesus has embraced us. (The Message translation)

In other words, we are born in God’s love, we live in God’s love, we die in God’s love, and we are raised to new life in God’s love.
____________
Just like the rest of us, Tim was part of God’s love story. Tim may not have been a “religious” man in the way religion is often defined. But he was a deeply spiritual man with a real connection to the God who is Love – the Love in which we live, and move, and have our being. As one of his sons told me, Tim took particular joy in communing with God in God’s gift of creation, especially during long trips into the Boundary Waters with family.

Jesus said that by their fruit we will know his followers – not by their words but by their fruit. After spending only a few hours the other evening with you, Tim’s family, under very traumatic circumstances, it is clear to me that Tim’s life bore much fruit, which, if passed on, will continue bearing fruit for generations to come.

These are truths of which we must be mindful today as we remember Tim, a man who brought great love, wisdom, passion, and joy to many, especially his beloved family. It is apparent that he was a man full of passion, creativity, humor, integrity, fidelity, and zest for life.

You will share some of the stories of Tim’s love – and the ways in which that love shaped you – in a few moments. All one needs to do is look around this room today, see the pictures on display or view the video made for his 50th wedding anniversary to see the great fruit born by Tim’s life of 85 years.

In all respects, his was a life well lived – not perfect by any stretch of the imagination, not without its share of flaws and brokenness – but a life lived well. A life that has made the world more whole by having him in it. The task of celebrating and giving thanks for Tim is one that will – and should – continue far into the future.
_______________
There is no escaping the fact, however, that gratitude and celebration co-mingle this day with sadness in the wake of Tim’s death on Sunday evening and shock at the way in which he died.

The path that was Tim’s to trod recently was not a smooth one. There were the years of providing painstaking care to his beloved wife of 60 years she walked into her own valley of the shadow that is Alzheimer’s disease.

His last year was one of bad news, major transition, doctor visits, medical treatments, physical decline, and more bad news. And yet Tim tried to make the best with what he had and continued to share of himself with his family. It sounds to me like he gave you and you gave him precious gifts during these recent months, gifts that might never had been shared otherwise.

One thing that I am certain Tim had was an outpouring of love from all of you. You cared for Tim in these last months with great compassion, competence, and courage. When those of us from the hospice team came to visit, we were struck by the fact that you were a family who would be loyal and steadfast to the end. And you were.

One of Tim’s most dreaded fears was dying in a nursing home. You prevented that from happening by bringing him into your home and providing him such outstanding nurture.

Your whole family fought the good fight alongside Tim. You journeyed with him as far as you could go. Then on Sunday evening – sooner and not in the way anyone expected – you were forced to bid farewell to your father, grandfather, great-grandfather, and friend – as he made his final journey from this life unto the next.

Yes, Sunday night there was a tragic end. But in the grand scheme of Tim’s rich and fruitful life, the end is far from being the defining moment. And most certainly, in God’s great love story, in God’s tender mercy, death – no matter how sad, tragic, or disruptive – is NEVER the end.

______________

Having God as our Lover doesn’t mean our path will be without trials or tears. In the same chapter in Romans from which I just read, St. Paul says that the whole creation is going through a process of redemption that looks and feels a lot like childbirth.

There is moaning and pain and blood and the yelling out of questions like, “when will this ever end?” Above all, there is waiting…and waiting…and waiting. Paul writes that this waiting becomes viscerally real through our bodies as they wear out, get sick, and die. He says, “These sterile and barren bodies of ours are yearning for full deliverance.”

Life can be tough, particularly at moments like these in which we are forced to say goodbye to someone we love: someone, who, it seems, died tragically. Life hurts, especially when we endure pain, loss, sickness, despair, and injustice. Our natural instinct is to cry out, “Why?” and then we feel lonelier than ever when we don’t seem to hear an answer.

Here is where the Love story gets interesting. Even from the mire and muck of these things, God’s love and beauty can spring forth and transform everything.

It is at times like these – when we face the reality of death and admit the failure of all of our efforts to avoid pain – that God is made known most powerfully. That’s what the cosmic Love story of Christ is about – God’s overflowing love for us in the middle of this funny, broken, tragic, painful, and beautiful thing we call life.

The heart of Jesus’ message is this: We are loved. In life and unto death and beyond death, we belong to God who made us, forgives us, and desires us to share in God’s light and joy forever.

And there is NOTHING in all of creation – death, disease, depression, despair, broken relationships, loneliness, – NOTHING – smashed dreams, unfulfilled expectations, regrets, rejection, shame, trauma – NOTHING – can separate us from the love made known through Jesus the Christ.

As our Lover, God takes our deepest woes, our most anguished cries, our most shameful failures and uses them to bring us into God’s heart, which is Love Itself.
______________
Ours is a God who brings light from the bleakest darkness; hope from the deepest depression; joy from the bitterest pain; healing from the worst brokenness; peace from the most violent struggle; and life and resurrection from the very pit of death.

As we give thanks for Tim’s life and mourn his death today, let us remember all of the ways in which God became present in our lives and world through him. And may we be mindful as well that God is present here and now, even in the face of such grief.

Jesus is, indeed, our good shepherd. and there is nothing that can separate us from God’s Love.

Even though we walk through
The valley of the shadow of death,
We are not afraid;
For You are ever with us;
Your rod and your staff they guide us,
They give us strength and comfort.

You prepare a table before us
in the presence of all our fears;
You bless us with oil, our cups overflow.
Surely goodness and mercy will
follow us all the days of our lives;
and we shall dwell in the heart
of the Beloved forever.
Amen

May the heart of the Beloved Christ heal, comfort, and strengthen you on this day and in the days to come. Amen.

The harsh and dreadful face of Love


In my last post, I reflected on the paradoxical truth that wholeness and healing always come through experiencing, admitting and accepting our brokenness. This past week I was present at the death of a man named Mike, whose last several weeks of life embodied this paradoxical truth in all of its messy glory.

Up until two weeks ago, Mike was a man utterly alone in this world. Through years of active alcohol and drug addiction and his refusal to stay on medication to treat his bipolar disorder, Mike had driven away everyone who ever cared about him. His behavior towards his parents, wife, and children was abusive, bordering on the violent. In self-defense, years ago his loved ones decided that they could no longer have any contact with Mike. Most of them concluded that they would never see Mike again and did their best to cope with their unresolved grief about the complete breakdown of relationship.

As a direct result of his alcohol and drug abuse, Mike ended up penniless and alone, dying of advanced and painful liver disease in an inner-city nursing home. When we admitted him, Mike told the hospice staff a little about his family but said that he expected to have no contact with them before he died. Clearly, Mike was not at peace. As with many cases, we had to conclude that we would do as much as possible for Mike to make his final days comfortable; we were not, however, miracle workers. The old hospice adage, “people usually die as they have lived,” seemed particularly apt in this case.

Through what I can only conclude was an act of providential synchronicity, county social services placed Mike in a nursing facility room directly across the hall from the room of a relative of his by marriage – this, in a metro area with thousands of nursing home beds! A little over two weeks ago, Mike’s mother, Eileen, happened to come visit the relative across from Mike. During her visit, Eileen learned about Mike’s presence in the same facility and determined that she would try to avoid him if possible.

Just as Mike was wheeling himself out of his room, he spotted his mother making a hasty exit down the corridor. Mike called out to her, not really expecting a response. Eileen later told me that at that moment “something snapped” inside of her well-defended heart, and she turned to face her dying son. What she saw shocked and appalled her. After years of massive self-destruction, her once handsome and strapping son had turned into a jaundiced, emaciated, sagging sack of skin and bones. “I would not have recognized him had he not called my name,” Eileen said. Eileen could only bring herself to spend a few minutes with Mike before leaving the facility feeling overwhelmed and confused.

Just two nights later, it appeared that Mike was beginning actively to die. Word reached Eileen through the family member in the facility. Astonishingly, Mike’s long-alienated loved ones, including his four adult children, sister, and parents, began to arrive to keep vigil. As the on-call chaplain that evening, I was summoned by the hospice nurse who reported a scene of chaos, conflict, and angst unfolding at Mike’s bedside.

By the time I got there, things had calmed to a low simmer, but I could have cut the tension in the air with a knife. Standing beside Mike’s bed, I invited the family members to vent some of their emotions and thoughts. A bit to my surprise, they poured out stories of unimaginable abuse, addiction, meanness, and rejection. The feelings were so powerful and painful that no one could recall a single positive memory of Mike.

Any grandiose idea I had about bringing some kind of deathbed reconciliation to this family dissolved with great speed. Suddenly, I began to feel paralyzed in terms of my ability to provide spiritual care in this wretched situation. Facing people, who for decades had endured their hearts being broken by evil, I stood there empty-handed and speechless. The only image that entered my mind was that of Jesus turning to the thief on the cross, dying a bloody death next to him. “Today, you will be with me in paradise,” said Jesus in response to the thief’s desperate expression of trust in Jesus as the Anointed One of God.

I found myself blurting out the suggestion (which I must conclude came from a Power greater than myself) that each family member spend some time alone with Mike in order to say what they needed to say to him. This was well received, and for the next hour Mike’s loved ones took turns going into his room to speak whatever truth was on their hearts to this man.

Mike’s sister and mother then surprised me by asking me to collect everyone around Mike’s bed in order to conduct a blessing service. I actually expected that family members would have said their goodbyes and then left quickly. Instead, they wanted to circle around Mike’s heaving body to commend him to God’s everlasting mercy and care.

Eileen made it clear in a somewhat apologetic way that no one in the family was “really religious.” I assured her that I didn’t think that God was very “religious” either and that the courage they were demonstrating by their very presence revealed an openness to God that would put many self-professing church members to shame. To a symphony of muffled sobs, flowing tears, and stone-faced silence, I conducted the blessing service, more aware than ever that grace is neither cheap nor easy.

As it turned out, Mike survived another two weeks, during which time he was able to utter the words, “I am sorry” to a number of his loved ones. It’s not like all of the decades of unresolved pain and unspoken anguish just melted away; everyone involved had been trapped inside walls of hellish resentment and wounded memory for too many years for that to happen.

And yet when I arrived the other night to gather Mike’s family around his forever stilled body, the rage and fear of a few weeks ago were gone. This time, Mike’s family stepped close to his bed to touch his cooling skin as I prayed those haunting words of the traditional Christian deathbed liturgy: “Accept, we humbly beseech you, o God, our brother, Mike. A sheep of your own fold, a beloved one of your own flock, a lamb of your own redeeming. Receive Mike into the arms of your mercy, into the blessed rest of everlasting peace, into the glorious company of all the saints in light.”

Tears fell like gentle rain onto the stiff, institutional sheets covering Mike’s emaciated frame. No one spoke for a long time after the conclusion of the prayer, until Mike’s mother, Eileen, lifted her eyes from the floor and said, “Mike finally got his peace. Maybe it is our turn now too.”

Writes Dostoevsky in The Brothers Karamozov,

Never be frightened at your own faint-heartedness in attaining love…Love in action is a harsh and dreadful thing compared with love in dreams. Love in dreams is greedy for immediate action, rapidly performed and in the sight of all. Men will even give their lives if only the ordeal does not last long but is soon over, with all looking on and applauding as though on the stage. But active love is labour and fortitude… just when you see with horror that in spite of all your efforts you are getting farther from your goal instead of nearer to it- at that very moment I predict that you will reach it and behold clearly the miraculous power of the Lord who has been all the time loving and mysteriously guiding you.”

I rest in gratitude this evening, knowing that Mike and Eileen and their sorrowful clan gave me another luminous encounter with the Jesus Way, complete with its harsh and dreadful Love and its path of healing through brokenness. I lay down my head this night with a new understanding that I am the offender Mike, as well as the well-defended Eileen. I am Mike’s wounded family, and I am the desperate, dying thief on the cross.

Yes, I am – we all are – these and many more. But more fundamentally we are these and always these: sheep of Jesus’ own fold, beloved ones of Christ’s own flock, lambs of God’s own redeeming.

The wholeness of a broken heart

There is nothing so whole as a broken heart,”

wrote the Kotzker Rebbe, a great master of Hasidic Judaism. While I love that saying, I also struggle with it.

In my own life, I often reacted to the reality or threat of having my heart broken by shutting down in defensiveness and fear. I used my words and intellect in ways that hindered my mind from connecting with my heart. I hid my pain, sadness, and vulnerability behind efforts to look good, be “right,” and make others approve of me. Most of the time, I denied that my heart was broken at all. I believed that if I just kept moving fast enough on the outside, I would never have to feel or face the gaping wounds which were sucking me dry on the inside.

The soul-sickness inevitably caught up with me when the devastation of my outer life finally began to match the bankruptcy of my inner life. The destruction was so sudden, shocking, and complete that I began to experience being broken as a kind of relief. The game was over. As Springsteen sings, there was “nowhere to run, babe, no place to hide.” There is freedom in having one’s choices narrowed to life or death.

“Die before you die,” says the Sufi mystic, Rumi. It felt as if I were dying a thousand deaths those sweltering nights of late South Carolina summer when my “old” life evaporated into the mists of the Blue Ridge foothills. For some days, I didn’t know if I had it in me to awaken with the morn. As grace would have it (and this is a story for another day), out of the ashes of despair were born the seeds of surrender, healing, and peace.

Accepting my brokenness as a gift has transformed my understanding of what it means to be a pilgrim on the Jesus Way. Remaining in touch with my broken heart has opened for me a path of living the Christ life with the wholeness of my being. God loves me, changes me, and uses me to touch others through ALL of who I am: my passions, relationships, failures, gifts, weakness. sexuality, spirituality, intellect, body, thoughts, finances, politics, work, emotions, dreams, etc. In other words, in my brokenness, I have discovered what it means to be a whole, beloved child of God on the Way of Jesus.

This is all a long way of introducing my next post which will be about one of my patients, Mike, who died earlier today. What happened during Mike’s dying over the past few weeks is one of the most remarkable examples I have ever encountered of God’s love for us at the “end of our rope.”

On one level, Mike’s story is one of unimaginable pain, alienation, and destruction. Through the eyes of grace, however, the saga of Mike’s last days in the valley of the shadow of death is one of healing, wholeness, and hope and one which defies the power of words to describe. But try, I shall. Stay tuned.

Thanks and Yes – Words from a Life Deeply-Lived



“I’ve had a good life,” is her mantra. During my visits with Ellen, a striking 85 year-old woman dying of cancer, she repeats those words throughout the hour. “I am grateful to God and to Jesus for everything that has come my way,” Ellen tells me, her piercing blue eyes focused on mine.

The first time I met Ellen about six months ago, in my arrogance, I mistook her expressions of gratitude for evidence that she had lived a “charmed” life. After all, here she was in a beautiful assisted living in one of the tonier suburbs of the Twin Cities. Surely her existence was a bed of roses compared to some of my other patients (who often spend their final years in warehouse-like places not necessarily fit for human habitation), right?

Wrong. As Ellen began to share her life with me, she revealed story after story of tragedy: her mother dying when she was two; being raised by an emotionally broken (and likely alcoholic) father and older sister; enduring emotional devastation when that sister had to leave the home when Ellen was 14 in order to work in another state; experiencing the birth of a child with disabilities and then the death of that beloved child from cancer thirty years later.

There were other tales of suffering and loss. Whenever Ellen told me of them, though, she unfailingly got around to saying that she knows that God was somehow with her every step of the way. “I didn’t always feel Jesus, and I wanted the pain to end. But I knew that it’s not God’s way to throw us to the wolves,” Ellen said.

Once more I had been quick to put someone in a little box and then compelled to eat humble pie when grace- in all of its grandeur, outrageousness, and ability to surprise – collided with my pinched, fearful, judging mind. Ellen’s long life has been punctured by traumas and trials. And yet she sits in her little room, a picture of serenity and acceptance about which many us can only dream of experiencing.

When I began praying with Ellen this afternoon, one of my favorite quotes danced from my lips:

The night is drawing nigh. For all that has been, Thanks. For all that shall be, Yes.”

Dag Hammarsjkold, the United Nations General Secretary who was killed on a 1961 peace-keeping mission in the Congo, composed that prayer in his spiritual journal shortly before his death in a suspicious plane crash. To me, those few words express beautifully the spirit of open-hearted gratitude with which Ellen has lived her life and is now approaching her death.

Tonight as I walked into the chilled but crisp November evening, I began to cry because I know that my time with Ellen is coming to an end. Her body grows increasingly frail and her voice more distant as the disease takes its toll. I realized just how much this woman inspires me, how many things she has taught me, and how greatly I will miss her. Sensing my sadness, Ellen grasped both of my hands in hers and said, “I have had a good life. God is here, and Jesus will take care of the rest.”

May I be able to begin and end my days with even a mite of the spirit of gratitude demonstrated by Ellen- yet another of my teachers on this pilgrim Way of Jesus. The night IS most certainly drawing nigh. For all that has been, let us be thankful. For all that shall be, let us say, Yes.

Because…

I have been wanting to write for a long time. While I don’t fancy myself a “writer,” many people over the years have encouraged me to take the time to share through the written word some of my ideas, reflections, and experiences.

I have entitled the blog, “In Face of Mystery” because those words describe perfectly the approach I try to bring to my encounters with those I meet on my path (I stole the name from the title of the theological magnum opus of Gordon Kaufman, Jr., one of my divinity school teachers). For many years, I was a man on the move in search of answers. There was little room in my world for mystery, ambiguity, or what the Zen masters call the “don’t know mind.”

I devoured books, shredded ideas, and inhaled systems and ideologies as if there were no end to my appetite for “truth.” For me, however, my crusade to be “right” and “know” everything ended in spiritual exhaustion, moral bankruptcy, emotional burn-out, and near ruin.I learned the hard way that many of the things I clung on to – whether theological concepts, political causes, substances, activities, or spiritual practices – had more to do with my ego-driven projections than the mystery of the Love in which we live, move, and have our being.

After two decades of restless searching – and causing tremendous pain to the ones I love the most – I am reaching a place in my journey where the focus of my life has become connecting with the Divine Mystery, one joyous breath at a time.

The world looks very different to me today, and I have many teachers, friends, and loved ones to thank for helping give me a new set of eyes with which to see the world in all of its comedy, tragedy, complexity, beauty, and grace. So this blog is my own little “experiment in truth” – albeit a very different kind of truth than I used to pursue in ideas, ideologies, and systems. The truth I experience now is one of God made flesh and dwelling among us as the weakest, most vulnerable, and marginalized members of our human family. In my writing I hope to share with you some of my musings as one who is trying to live as a follower of the Jesus Way. I feel rusty as I begin this venture. Bear with me. Pray for me. Struggle with me. Thanks for being here.