Morning by Morning

"The Lord GOD has given me the tongue of those who are taught, that I may know how to sustain with a word him who is weary. Morning by morning he awakens; he awakens my ear to hear as those who are taught. The Lord GOD has opened my ear, and I was not rebellious; I turned not backward." Isaiah 50:4-5

Sunday, March 25, 2012

The Language of Loss

It has been a difficult week for Russ and Suzanne Crawford and their children at the death of their son John.  It has also been difficult for our small family at Trinity as we have grieved along with the Crawfords.  Part of the problem is that in the face death all of us are helpless.  In the light of that St. Paul advises that we Rejoice with those who rejoice, and weep with those who weep.”[i] 

Sometimes our language with its delicate nuances manages to avoid very simple and profound realities.  It was once the fashion to use ‘obsequies’ for ‘funerals’ and today we hear of people ‘passing’ instead of ‘dying.’  The latter I can almost understand along with the rest of the phrase, “passing on into the great beyond” which was a common expression during the American Civil War era.  The problem is our attempt to treat death in an antiseptic way avoiding the sharp pain of loss that accompanies death and dying.

There is a sound psychological and theological reason why The Book of Common Prayer doesn’t call that final service either the Obsequies or the Funeral, but rather The Burial of the Dead.

While dealing with death in a frank and honest way The Book of Common Prayer puts death and dying in the context of the Resurrection, and the Burial service starts with the words, “I am the Resurrection and I am the Life, says the Lord.  Whoever has faith in me shall have life, even though he die.”[ii] 

When John Crawford died last week, he was immediately absent from the body and present with the Lord; fully conscious, fully aware, fully physical.  That’s the nature of the heavenly realm.  Saint Paul tells us, “I tell you this, brothers: flesh and blood cannot inherit the kingdom of God, nor does the perishable inherit the imperishable.”[iii]  The simple reality is that in order to enter into eternal life one has to die. 

In Christ, we die in order to live.  It is a passage ‘into the great beyond,’ but a passage laden with grief and loss both for the one dying and those who love him.  The fear of death lies in part in our evaluation of our own lives and in the fear of the unknown.  For Christians that self-evaluation is resolved by the confession of our sins and by our acceptance of the Prayer Book faith that Christ Jesus has died and risen again to bring us into eternal life.

I don’t so much fear being what they call ‘dead.’  I know that when I die that I, like John, will be absent from the body and present with the Lord.  That is after all an essential confession of our Christian faith.  On the other hand I have some anxiety about the process of getting there.  Launching off in faith on that final journey has a breath-taking challenge about it and resonates with the words of Andrew Marvel who wrote:

But at my back I always hear
Time’s winged chariot hurrying near;
And yonder all before us lie
Deserts of vast eternity.                  

[i] Romans 12:15
[ii] The Book of Common Prayer, p. 491
[iii] I Corinthians 15:50

Thursday, March 8, 2012

The Invisible Stigmata

Many Christians bear the invisible stigmata, for after all suffering is a part of Christian life; but that is only our share in the suffering of all humankind.  The great difference is that the suffering of the Christian can be redemptive.  Our sufferings come from many sources, not the least from ourselves.  I grieve that I cause pain to others, and thus to myself.  That suffering from time to time affects every area of our lives, even our marriages.  Indeed in every marriage there will be the pain of parting at the end.

Christian lovers, who have considered within themselves the nature of Love, will have known from the beginning that there is another side to the early delight.  To them it is a place of purgation as well as joy; it is in truth a little universe of place and time, of earth, of purgatory, of heaven or hell.  The companion in this experience is to him or to her the instrument of fire which shall burn away his corrupt part. . .

Love is Holiness and Divine Indignation; the placidity of an ordinary married life is the veil of a spiritual passage into profound things.  Nor is this all; the lover knows himself also to be the cross upon which the Beloved is to be stretched, and so she also of her lover.[i]

Paul advocates, “Husbands, love your wives, as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her.”[ii]  It is sometimes necessary to die to ourselves even as Christ died to himself.  That dying is not academic, but personal and painful.  There is suffering within marriage.  It would be some sort of solace if we could delude ourselves into thinking that we were not at least partially responsible for the pain that we are experiencing.  Sometimes we are largely responsible, at other times we are not; but it really doesn’t matter who is to blame.  The blame game has no place in our surrender to being stretched on the cross of our beloved.

It is natural to desire to avoid the pain; but it is necessary to tread the way of acceptance rather than to kick against the goads.  Sometimes the inner being throws up a froth of anger, resentment, and self-pity, stemming from a sense of helplessness.  Giving vent to these things only rubs the wounds raw.  The problem in part is our desire to control the outcome and reduce our pain, but what if that is not possible?  Then what does one do?  Make your surrender to God in the real situation in which you find yourself. Live in the real, the now, and forsake the past.  You cannot yet live in the future; do not borrow its imagined woes. Resist the temptation to fix what is not yours to fix.  Pray and pray again.  Use the tools of your faith.  Read Scripture, learn, and inwardly digest.  Turn your reading into prayer.  Listen, and be responsive.  Fear not, but trust in the One who redeems all things.

[i] Charles Williams, Outlines of Romantic Theology, ed. Alice Mary Hatfield, (Berkeley, CA: The Apocryphile Press,  2005), p. 23. 
[ii] Ephesians 5:25  

Thursday, March 1, 2012

Oh, Stop that Grovelling!

GOD:  Arthur!  Arthur, King of the Britons!  Oh, don't grovel!
    [singing stops]
    One thing I can't stand, it's people groveling.
ARTHUR:  Sorry.
GOD:  And don't apologize.  Every time I try to talk to someone it's 'sorry
    this' and 'forgive me that' and 'I'm not worthy'.
    What are you doing now?!
ARTHUR:  I'm averting my eyes, O Lord.
GOD:  Well, don't.  It's like those miserable Psalms-- they're so depressing.
    Now knock it off![i]

Admittedly Joshua and the Children of Israel had a serious problem.  God had worked a tremendous miracle with them in the destruction of Jericho, and he had given them some clear directions.  Among other things he said in effect, “All the stuff in the city is mine.  It is devoted to me.  Don’t touch the holy stuff.”  One of the children of Israel stole a beautiful cloak, some silver and a bar of goal.  He looked at the holy stuff and made the mistake of saying “Mine!”  The result is that God does not go out to battle the next time with the Israelites; they lose the battle and about thirty-six of them die.  That’s a serious problem.  Now comes what to me is the interesting part.

6 Then Joshua tore his clothes and fell to the earth on his face before the ark of the LORD until the evening, he and the elders of Israel. And they put dust on their heads.  7 And Joshua said, "Alas, O Lord GOD, why have you brought this people over the Jordan at all, to give us into the hands of the Amorites, to destroy us? Would that we had been content to dwell beyond the Jordan!  8 O Lord, what can I say, when Israel has turned their backs before their enemies!  9 For the Canaanites and all the inhabitants of the land will hear of it and will surround us and cut off our name from the earth. And what will you do for your great name?"[ii]

We should have a great deal of empathy with Joshua because when a disaster happens that tends to be our response as well.    We throw ourselves on the ground and throw dust on our heads, and cry, “Alas, O Lord God, why?”  If Joshua stopped there it wouldn’t have been so bad, but he goes on with a bit of self-pitying wailing and moaning, all mixed with a lot of projection about how bad all this is going to turn out.   What is God’s response?  “Oh, stop that grovelling?”

“The Lord said to Joshua, ‘Get up! Why have you fallen on your face?”[iii]

I can almost feel God’s exasperation with us at points like this.  Yes, this or that situation might be serious, but grovelling and over exaggerating really won’t help.  What God calls for in the rest of Joshua’s story is a fresh consecration of Joshua and his people, and some God-directed steps to rectify the situation.

[i] Monty Python and the Holy Grail - (c) 1974 - Python (Monty) Pictures, Ltd., Scene 7
[ii] Joshua 7:6-9  
[iii] Joshua 7:10