Archives For Death

Here’s my Good Friday sermon from tonight, using the lectionary text from Hebrews 10.11-25

     On Ash Wednesday, I suffered my monthly battery of labs and oncological consultation in advance of my day of maintenance chemo.

During the consult, after feeling me up for lumps and red flags, my doctor that day- a new one as my own doctor was on the DL for cancer of his own- flipped over a baby blue hued box of latex gloves and illustrated the standard deviation of years until relapse for my particular flavor of incurable cancer.

Cancer didn’t feel very funny staring at the bell curve of the time I’ve likely got left. Until.

Leaving my oncologist’s office, I drove to Fairfax Hospital to visit a parishioner here at Aldersgate named Jonathon.

Jonathon’s a bit younger than me with a boy a bit younger than my youngest. He got cancer a bit before I did. He’d thought he was in the clear. No.

The palliative care doctor was speaking with him when I stepped through the clear, sliding ICU door. After the doctor left, our first bits of conversation were interrupted by a social worker bringing with her dissonant grin a workbook, a fill-in-the-blank sort, that he could complete so that one day his boy will know who his dad was.

I sat next to the bed. I know from both from my training as a pastor and my experience as a patient, my job was neither to fix his feelings of forsakenness nor to protect God from them. My job, I knew, as both a Christian and a clergyman, wasn’t to do anything for him, but, simply, to be with him.

I listened. I touched and embraced him. I met his eyes and accepted the tears in my own. Mostly, I sat and kept the silence as though we both were prostrate before the cross. I was present to him.

We were interrupted again when the hospital chaplain knocked softly and entered. He was dressed like an old school undertaker and was, he said without explanation or invitation, offering ashes.

Because it was the easiest response, we both of us nodded our heads to receive the gritty, oily shadow of a cross.

With my own death drawn on a picture on the back of a box of latex gloves and his own death imminent, we leaned our foreheads into the chaplain’s bony thumb.

“Remember,” he whispered (as though we could forget), “to dust you came and to dust you shall return.”

As if every blip and beeping in the the ICU itself wasn’t already screaming the truth: none of us is getting out of life alive.

———————-

    You’re not, FYI, getting out of life alive.

When you give up the ghost, your soul isn’t going to fly away to the great by-and-by.

Your body isn’t going to become just a shell while your spirit whisks away down a bright tunnel filled with warm light.

People will stand by your grave and weep, as they should, because you are not a thousand winds that blow. You are not the diamond glints on snow.

You are there. Planted in the ground. Earth to earth. Dust to dust.

Ashes awaiting God’s final resurrection.

None of us is getting out life alive.

Someday, maybe soon maybe later, your breath will become air.

And you will be as dead as Jesus is tonight, every bit as dead as Jesus is tomorrow and tomorrow night.

If Jesus doesn’t get to Easter without going through Good Friday then neither do we. We are baptized, after all, not into a club called church. We’re baptized into death, his death.

Death is not natural. It is the enemy of God, says scripture; however, death is as ubiquitous as it is inexorable.

None of us is getting out of life alive.

And we don’t like to talk about it much anymore in churches like ours with tax brackets like yours but, before the final resurrection, you will be called before the mercy seat of Almighty God, what the Book of Common Prayer calls “…the dreadful day of judgment when the secrets of all our hearts shall be disclosed.” 

That line about “the dreadful day of judgment” comes from the wedding liturgy, right before the vows so that the bride and groom know the stakes before they promise not to destroy each others’ lives.

Because all of us, married or not- we are a people who actively every day do damage to the people in our lives and every day by our apathy do damage to people we never see except in the news.

We’re sinners.

And as we are, just the way we are, to stand before the Lord would be a terror not a joy. We forget- that’s why the Israelites charged Moses to go up Mt. Sinai to go before the Lord. They didn’t want to do so themselves.

That isn’t to say God is awful or angry; it’s to recognize that very often we are both, awful and angry, and if God is a refining fire then to stand before the Lord just as we are, the way we are, the sum of so many of our sins- to stand before God who is a refining fire means that there is much of us- much about us- that will get burned away by the holiness of God.

———————-

     Speaking of fire, no doubt talk of judgment sounds brimstone harsh to you.

Of course it does. You have been conditioned by a culture that has made that word ‘judgment’ the worst of pejoratives: judgmental. And if its the worst that can be said of us, it’s the last that should be said of God.

We think.

God, our culture has conditioned us to think, is like Billy Joel.

God accepts you just the way you are, which is ironic because it turns out Billy Joel didn’t love Christie Brinkley just the way she was. He went searching for something else from someone else, which maybe makes him someone who shouldn’t be accepted just the way he is either.

I don’t mean to pile on Billy Joel; I know some of you love him more than Jesus. I don’t mean to pile on Billy Joel or you. Lord knows- or least my wife knows, I’m no better than most of you.

I don’t mean to smote you with fire and brimstone. Since it’s Good Friday, I mean only to point out the basic presupposition of Jesus’ Bible.

This:

You aren’t acceptable before the Lord just the way you are.

The gap between our sinfulness and the holiness of God is too great. We aren’t acceptable before the Lord just the way we are. We have to be rendered acceptable. We have to be made acceptable, again and again.

That’s the thread that stiches together the Bible by which Jesus understood himself and understood his death.

———————-

     Thus does the Book of Leviticus begin with God’s instructions for a sin-guilt offering: “The petitioner is to make his offering at the door of the tent of meeting so that he may be accepted before the Lord.” 

The worshipper, instructs God to Moses, should offer a male from the herd, a male without blemish; he shall offer it at the door of the tent of meeting, what becomes the veil to the holy of holies when the temple in Jerusalem is built.

God instructs Moses that the sinner is to lay his hand upon the head of the offered animal and “it shall be accepted as an atonement for him.” 

For him. On his behalf. In his place.

The offered animal, as a gift from God given back to God, is a vicarious representative of the sinner. The offered animal becomes a substitute for the person seeking forgiveness. The blood of the animal conveys the cost, both what your sin costs others and what your atonement costs God.

 God intended the entire system of sacrifice in the Old Testament to prevent his People from thinking that unwitting sin doesn’t count, that it can just be forgiven and set aside as though nothing happened, as though no damage was done.

Those sacrifices, done again and again on a regular basis to atone for sin, were offered at the door of the tent of meeting. Outside.

But once a year a representative of all the People, the high priest, would venture beyond the door, into the holy of holies, to draw near to the presence of God and ask God to remove his people’s sins, their collective sin, so that they might be made acceptable before the Lord.

Acceptable for their relationship with the Lord.

After following every detail of every preparatory ritual, before God, the high priest lays both his hands on the head of a goat and confesses onto it, transfers onto it, the iniquity of God’s People.

And after the high priest’s work was finished, the goat would bear the people’s sin away in to the godforsaken wilderness; so that, now, until next Yom Kippur, nothing can separate them from the love of God.

———————-

     It’s easy for us with our un-Jewish eyes to see this Old Testament God behind the veil as alien from the New Testament God we think we know.

It’s easy for us to dismiss this God behind the tent door as aloof and unapproachable.

It’s easy for us to miss that it’s God who gives his People the instructions for all these sacrifices; that is, God himself gives his People the means for the ongoing restoration of their relationship with him.

In Jesus’ Bible it’s true we’re not acceptable before God just the way we are but it’s God himself who gives us the means not to remain just the way we are.

God gives his perpetually wayward People the means to stand before him unburdened and unafraid. So these sacrifices in the Old Testament are not the opposite of the grace we find in the New. They are grace.

As Christians we’re not to see them as alien rituals or inadequate even. We’re meant to see them as preparation. We’re meant to see them as God’s way of preparing his People for a single, perfect sacrifice (Hebrews 7).

—————————

     Preachers and theologians like to point out how the Church never settled upon a single answer to the question “How does the death of Christ save us?”

The Gospels, after all, exposit Jesus’ crucifixion but they never explain it.

The creeds require us to profess that Jesus Christ suffered under Pontius Pilate, was crucified, died, and was buried, but the creeds do not ask us to agree on what that death accomplished or how.

Through the centuries the Church has offered possible answers.

On the Cross, God in Christ defeats the Power of Sin and Death. On the Cross, God in Christ transforms our hearts by demonstrating the love in his own. On the Cross, Jesus suffers the punishment owed to us, setting us free from our debt of sin by paying it in our place.

And so on.

     Preachers and theologians like to point out how the Church never settled upon a single explanation for Christ’s death.

Except, that’s not exactly true.

The Church did decide to include in the New Testament canon the Book of Hebrews. Not only is it one of the longest books in the New Testament, it is the only book in the New Testament devoted entirely to describing the meaning of Jesus’ death.

And it does so exclusively by framing Jesus’ death in continuity with the sacrificial system of Jesus’ Bible.

But get this- all the sacrifices of the Old Testament they were to atone for unintended sin. There is no sacrifice, no mechanism, in the Old Testament to atone for the sin you committed on purpose. Deliberately. Not one.

By contrast, the Book of Hebrews describes Jesus’ death as the sacrifice for sin. All.

One sacrifice. Offered once.

For all.

For unwitting sin and for willful sin.

A sacrifice not just for God’s People but for all people.

———————-

     Jesus, says the Book of Hebrews, isn’t a victim of our wrath. He isn’t a ransom paid to the Devil. He isn’t the punished in your place or the debt that ameliorates God’s offended honor.

Jesus, says the Book of Hebrews, is our Great High Priest.

He’s our Great High Priest not through lineage like those other high priests but “through the power of his indestructible life.” 

Jesus, says the Book of Hebrews, bears the stamp of God’s own nature. He’s the heir of all things and through him all things were made.

But-

But he was made like us in every respect. This priest was made like his people in every way.

Just as we are tempted and weak, he was tempted and weak. Just was we hunger and thirst and fear and feel forsaken, so too did he hunger and thirst, fear and feel forsaken. He suffered just as we suffer. And, he died just as we die.

 Just as none of us is getting out of life alive, neither did he.

His death, in other words, isn’t the death we had coming to us.

His death was a death that comes to us all.

His death isn’t a penal punishment but the product of his having been made like us in every respect.

He died the way he did because of the way he lived, but he died because he lived, because he was made like us in every respect.

And because he has been made like us in every respect, not only do we have a Great High Priest who sympathizes with us in our weakness we have a priest who when he enters the presence of God he does not go alone.

Aaron all the other high priests from the tribe of Levi they went beyond the veil alone and they came back alone.

But this Great High Priest in his flesh, his flesh of our flesh, he carries all of us- all of humanity- to the mercy seat of God, says the Book of Hebrews.

He draws near to the Holy Father and, in him, all of us draw near too.

And there this Great High Priest offers not a ransom or a debt.

    This Great High Priest offers a gift.

    Not a calf or a goat or grain but a gift so precious, so superabundant, as to be perfect.

    A gift that can’t be reciprocated it can only redound to others.

His own life. His own unblemished life.

We choose to put him on a cross, but this Great High Priest chooses on it to gift himself as sacrifice, to sprinkle his own blood on the mercy seat of the cross, to make atonement.

For us.

A gift exceeding all cost such that no sacrifice ever need be offered again.

——————————-

     Jonathon died this evening.

None of us is getting out of life alive.

But none of us need fear. None of us need to fear death, fear that day when the secrets of our hearts will be disclosed.

We need not fear because, after he gifts himself as a perfect once for all sacrifice, this Great High Priest never leaves the Father, because he draws near and stays near, because he sits down at the right hand of the Father permanently, says the Book of Hebrews, he intercedes for us.

Perpetually.

He intercedes for us. Perpetually. He prays for us. Without ceasing.

He confesses for us.

Perpetually.

So that-

Although we know we are not acceptable before the Lord just as we are, we need not fear.

We need not fear that God will make us more than we are.

We need not fear that the secrets of all our hearts one day will be disclosed and God will render us into something other than what we are now.

Thanks to our Great High Priest we can trust.

We can trust that when we die and our breath becomes air and the dust of our bones returns to the dust we will experience the refining fire of God’s holiness.

We will.

But we will not experience it as the wrathful heat of hell.

We will experience it as the warm light of God’s love.

Thanks to our Great High Priest we will all become as the Burning Bush, ablaze with God’s refining fire.

But not consumed by it.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

kenneth-tanner-headshot-400x401For Episode #48 (#50 is fast approaching), we talked with our #1 Fan, Kenneth Tanner.

Who is Kenneth Tanner?

Ken is best known for his Facebook memes. No, they are not memes about cats playing a piano but instead are of the theological flavor. Ken has found a way to utilize what is normally a means of poking fun or ridiculing someone, to now be a way of sharing theological ideas in a way that is more accessible than most blogs.

This is from my podcasting partner Teer Hardy. If you haven’t already, check out his blog.

Who is Kenneth Tanner?  This is what I asked Jason a few months ago as our podcast, Crackers & Grape Juice, began to gain more followers than the average United Methodist Church has sitting in the pew each Sunday morning.  Kenneth Tanner is a Charismatic Episcopal Priest in Rochester Hills, Michigan.  Before meeting Ken on Facebook a few months ago, I had no clue there was such as a thing as a Charismatic Episcopal.  Having grandparents who are and were Episcopalian, and even taken a class at an Episcopal seminary, a Charismatic Priest in the Episcopal church is like a Millennial walking into a mainline church.  They just don’t exist, and if they do, we need to study them.

Ken is best known for his Facebook memes.  No, they are not memes about cats playing a piano but instead are of the theological flavor.  Ken has found a way to utilize what is normally a means of poking fun or ridiculing someone, to now be a way of sharing theological ideas in a way that is more accessible than most blogs (including this one).

I want to share one of those Facebook commentaries with you.

Ken wrote the following as a response to a video showing what can only be described as a WWE-style baptism.

Ken’s response:

A sad mockery, which exposes what must be a total misunderstanding of the sacrament. Baptism is a participation in the death of Christ, a reenactment of the cross. It’s a gift but also one approached with great reverence and humility. It is the work of the Spirit of God and not, as the actions here suggest, something that *we* do. Yes, it is to be celebrated but this practice loses connection with the hard wood realities of the cross.

Baptism is not a spectacle.

And this is not a matter of worship “style.” I disagree with any sense of subjectivity —you have your way of doing it and they have theirs—because the vast majority of Christians around the world across all denominations who are alive and walking the earth today, including the vast majority of those who lived in past centuries, would not recognize what’s happening here as Baptism.

Ken will be joining us on an upcoming episode of Crackers & Grape Juice.  We will talk about what a Charismatic Episcopalian is, he will dive into this video a little more, and I even attempt a Fleming Rutledge podcast prayer.  Use the links below to subscribe to the podcast so you do not miss our conversation with Ken and our other great guests.

Be on the lookout for future episodes with Brian McLaren, Father James Martin, Becca Stevens, Danielle Shroyer, and Mihee Kim Kort.

We’ve already got enough interviews lined up to take us into the new year.

You can download the episode and subscribe to future ones in the iTunes store here

We’re breaking the 1K individual downloaders per episode mark. 

Help us reach more people: 

Give us 4 Stars and a good review there in the iTunes store. 

It’s not hard and it makes all the difference. 

It’ll make it more likely more strangers and pilgrims will happen upon our meager podcast. ‘Like’ our Facebook Page too. You can find it here.

Oh, wait, you can find everything and ‘like’ everything via our new website: www.crackersandgrapejuice.com

“…the meaning of life is connected, inextricably, to the meaning of death; mourning is a romance in reverse, and if you love, you grieve and there are no exceptions—only those who do it well and those who don’t.”

– The Undertaking LynchHat

For episode #44 of the podcast, newcomer to the posse, Taylor Mertins, joins me for a conversation with: Thomas Lynch.

Thomas Lynch is quite simply and without exaggeration one of the best damn writers in the English language. And, it turns out, he’s a delightful human being too.

A renowned poet, essayist, and fiction writer Lynch is something of an oddity in the book world for also being a full-time undertaker. Lynch is the inspiration behind the television series, Six Feet Under, as well as the subject of a PBS Frontline Documentary.

the_undertaking.largeI first encountered Lynch’s work at Princeton when I was assigned his book of essays, The Undertaking; Life Studies from the Dismal Trade. It’s elegantly written and achingly beautiful and was a finalist for the National Book Award. You should stop and buy it right now.

His poetry is likewise beautiful and frequently takes up the same themes of death and life and holiness.

 

Near the end Thomas Lynch answers my theological twist on James Lipton’s 10 Questions, which has become a podcast tradition.

Be on the lookout for future episodes that we’ve got lined up with Ian McFarland, Joseph Mangina, Danielle Shroyer, Ephraim Radner, William Cavanaugh et al.

We’ve already got enough interviews lined up to take us into the new year.

You can find them all on the brand spanking new Crackers and Grape Juice website Teer built for us.

You can download the episode and subscribe to future ones in the iTunes store here

We’re breaking the 1K individual downloaders per episode mark. 

PLEASE HELP US REACH MORE PEOPLE: 

GO TO OUR PAGE IN ITUNES AND GIVE US A REVIEW AND RATING

It’s not hard and it makes all the difference. 

It’ll make it more likely more strangers and pilgrims will happen upon our meager podcast. ‘Like’ our Facebook Page too. You can find it here.

Many of you have messaged me to ask for the funeral sermon for Joshua, the 6th grade boy in our community that we buried this weekend. He died of cancer. The sermon is by no means adequate. I can only pray by its inadequacy it testifies to how there is no ‘explanation’ to a child’s suffering apart from a suffering, incarnate God.

As the school choir planned to sing ‘Somewhere Over the Rainbow” I chose Genesis 9 to pair with Matthew 18.1-6 for my texts. At a time when many grumble about public schools being antagonistic towards churches and when many lament the alienation between black and white communities, Josh’s tragic death proved the begrudgers woefully wrong on both counts. Both school and church partnered to shepherd Josh to the grave, and his funeral service proved that the name of Father, Son,  and Spirt unites many of us in a way that transcends color or culture.

Two weeks ago tomorrow, when I first went to visit Josh in the hospital, Josh’s bed was decorated with sheets of printer paper scrawled in different colors with sharpie-written Jesus speak:

“Thy will done.”

“In my Father’s House are many rooms”

“Let the little children come…”

The faith papers were arranged around him like flowers. Josh had written them.

Joshua knew his bible. And why should he not know his bible backwards and front? Josh didn’t just enjoy music and video games and basketball; Josh wanted to be a pastor when he grew up too.

If I’d had more time with Joshua I might’ve tried to talk him out of being a pastor. After all, it’s not a gig that pays very well but, then, Josh is smarter than me and he already had a plan figured out for that wrinkle.

He thought Richard should go to med school, become a doctor, and that way Richard would earn plenty of money to support his little brother the pastor.

The truth is-

Josh already was a pastor. To you all.

Josh already was a pastor.

He played the peace-maker among his friends, with his siblings, and even to his parents.

Everyone’s takeaway attribute about Josh was his kindness and kindness, in the bible, is what St. Paul refers to as the fruit of God’s Spirit. So St. Paul would agree Josh was already a pastor.

Ever since he got sick last March Josh was the one who consoled his Mom and Dad. He’s the one who calmed their fears and worries. He’s the one who comforted them in their grief. He was their pastor.

And he was the one who gave me the words to pray over him that Sunday in the hospital.

That same Sunday some of Josh’s classmates from Stratford Landing were here at church for our sixth grade confirmation class.

They were learning about the Book of Genesis, at the very beginning of the Bible, and they were at the part in the story, just after the story of Noah, the part where God calls Abraham and makes his covenant-his promises- with Abraham.

I wish so much Joshua had been here at church that Sunday instead of in a hospital bed. I wish Josh had been a part of our confirmation class that day. Whenever I teach our confirmation lesson on Abraham, I act out the story with the kids.

“I need a volunteer for the lesson” I always say.

If Josh had been in the class that Sunday I’m sure I would’ve seen a kid wearing a Redskins jersey and sporting a sideways, wise-guy grin shoot his skinny arm up in the air to volunteer.

Joshua wasn’t self-conscious at all, after all, so I’m willing to bet his hand would’ve been the first to go up.

If Josh had been in the confirmation class that day, then I would’ve picked him out from all the other raised hands and called him forward so that he stood in front of me with the crowd of students around us.

And then I would’ve put my hands on his shoulders, and I’d set the scene for Abraham’s story. But before I did, I’d probably need to stop and look down to the boy standing there in my arms and I’d probably need to ask: ‘Wait, tell me your name again.’

And he would’ve said: ‘Josh.’
‘Josh,’ I would’ve said, ‘today you’re Abraham.’

And he probably would’ve shot me his sideways grin and said: ‘Cool.’

Then with my hands on his shoulders, I would’ve told the story of God calling Abraham to come near and look up at the stars in the night sky and to imagine that all of those stars in the sky every one of them was like a promise of God.

A promise that would come true for him.

With my hands on Josh’s shoulders I would’ve explained how those stars were signs of the all great things God wanted to do through him.

——————————

The next night, the night he died, I held Josh’s head and I rubbed his hair and, with my voice caught in my throat, I whispered a prayer: ‘Father, receive Josh into your Kingdom. Receive him, God, with the same love and joy we have for him.‘

That’s what I said, but really what I was praying was: ‘God make it not so.’

God make it not so.
And that’s been my prayer since that night.

Sylvester and Alice, Richard and Caleb and Elizabeth-

There’s nothing I wouldn’t do to bring Josh back.
And there’s nothing any one of us here wouldn’t do to make you whole again. And just because that sounds impossible doesn’t mean every last one of us won’t try.

Ever since I let go of Joshua in the hospital room, I’ve wanted to one-up Job. I’ve wanted to shake my fist at the sky. I’ve wanted to curse and shout at God.

Because it’s not fair. It’s not fair.

I think even Jesus Christ would agree that those may be the truest words we can speak in this sanctuary today.

I know I speak for everyone when I say I don’t want to be here. I don’t want any of us to need to be here. Because I want Josh to be here still.

I want his sideways smile and warm, wise guy grin to greet me on the Stratford Landing sidewalk.

I want his skinny arms to shoot basketballs on the playground with my son.

I want him to go to college and realize the potential God gave him.

I want to advance to the next level of Sonic and get old enough to play Mature Rated Xbox games.

I want him to sing at the Kennedy Center again, as a teenager, when he knows firsthand the romance in the love songs he could sing so well at 12.

I want Josh.

I don’t want to wade through questions that will never have answers.

I don’t want this grief that right now feels more real and nearer than our faith.

And I don’t want to celebrate memories.

Because there weren’t enough of them.

And there are too many dreams still remaining.

——————————

These last two weeks I’ve realized there’s not a lot of which I’m certain. I can’t answer the question: ‘Why?’

I don’t know why Josh is not here.

  • I don’t know why God calls this creation “very good” yet so often it feels “very bad.”
  • I don’t know why God can’t create a good world without cancer in it.
  • I don’t know why the prayers of mothers and fathers and brothers and sisters and friends and teachers and neighbors go unanswered.

I can’t answer the why question.

And anyone who tells you they can answer the why question is a liar.

I can’t answer the why question, but I can tell you what is the wrong answer to the why questions.

God.

God’s not the answer to the why questions.

Why did this happen to Josh?

Why did Josh get sick?

Why did Josh die?

I can’t answer those why questions, but I can tell you that God is not the correct answer to any of them.

Josh would know. Josh was a pastor. Josh knew his bible.

So you can bet that Josh knew the scripture passage Stephanie read today from Genesis 9. Josh could tell you that what’s important about the Noah story isn’t the when of the flood or the where it happened or the how of Noah getting all those animals inside the ark.

No, Pastor Josh could tell you what’s important about the Noah story isn’t the when, where, or how. What’s important about the Noah story is the who.

The Book of Genesis isn’t trying to teach us about an ancient flood; it’s trying to teach us about the heart of God. And from that heart God makes a promise to Noah and to all of us. “I will never bring hurt and harm to any of my creation,” God promises.

And Pastor Josh could explain to you that in the Church we call a promise like that from God “covenant.” That is, neither Noah nor any of us have to do anything in order for God to keep that promise.

“I will never hurt and harm any of my creation,” God promises, “and just in case you forget I’ll put a rainbow in the sky as a sign of my promise.” 

When suffering and tragedy comes to you, let the rainbow help you remember, God says, I will never do anything to hurt you.

That’s the heart of God.

And Josh believed- enough to want to give his future to it- that that heart of God was revealed to us again and perfectly so in Jesus Christ.

That in Jesus we see that the heart of God responds to our lack of faith with Christmas. God doesn’t reject us; God comes among us in the flesh.

And in Jesus we see that the heart of God responds to our sin- to our cross-building- with Easter. God doesn’t punish us; God raises from the dead.

I can’t answer the why questions about Josh, but I can testify that God- the God Joshua loved- is the wrong answer to them.

Let the rainbows help you remember.

——————————

I can’t answer the why questions. But the one thing I do know, the one certainty I can lean on, the one question I can answer isn’t why, it’s: ‘Where? Where is Josh?’

The where question comes up several times in the Gospel stories. It happens more than once where the disciples interrupt to ask Jesus questions about heaven.

The disciples, like a lot of grown-ups, always want to worry themselves with questions about heaven, like: Who’s in? Who’s out? Except when it comes to heaven, the disciples just assume they’ll make the cut. After all, they’ve earned it.

The disciples don’t doubt they’ll make it to heaven, but they want Jesus to tell them their place in it. They want to hear Jesus tell them that one day they will sit closest to God’s throne.

They want to hear Jesus reassure them that of all the creatures in the world they are the most cherished.

“The disciples asked Jesus: Who is the greatest in the Kingdom?”

And Jesus responds-
Jesus responds by picking a child out of the crowd.

Matthew doesn’t say- maybe Jesus picked the child out at random.

Or maybe…maybe the little boy in the crowd was a boy who loved to participate. Maybe he was the sort of little boy who never tired of helping and who was everyone’s best friend. Maybe Jesus picked him out of the crowd because his skinny little arm was the first to go shooting up in the air when Jesus said: ‘I need a volunteer for the lesson.’

And I imagine the boy in that crowd he might’ve had a Redskins cap on top of his head.

Jesus calls on this little boy and calls him over.

And Jesus puts his hands on his shoulders. Matthew doesn’t say- but maybe Jesus starts to explain, starts to answer the disciples’ question, but then stops and asks for the little boy’s name.

‘Josh’ he says.

And then to all the grown-ups who think they have things figured out, to all the adults who think they have the answers to life, to all the disciples with their assumptions about heaven- Jesus tells those grown-ups that if they want to get into heaven, then they have to be like this little boy.

That if they want to know heaven they have to know this little boy. They’ve got to get to know this kid.

This kid who’s:

kind and innocent and consoling who always tells the truth and doesn’t have a mean bone in his body

so alive and curious it reminds you life is a gift

You’ve got to know this kid, Jesus says.

This kid who could make any parent seem like a great parent and who made you look forward to the kind of parent he would be one day.

This kid would could remind you why you wanted to be teacher in the first place.

And who could make every rotten day as a principal seem worth it.

You’ve got to know this kid, Jesus says.

If you want to get into heaven, Jesus says, if you want to know about heaven then you’ve got to get to know this little boy. 

No, you’ve got to become just like him. 

It’s going to be hard for me to read these Bible passages from Genesis 9 and Matthew 18 and not think of Josh in the future.

And on the one hand, that terrifies me.
And on the other hand, I think that’s the way it should be.
Because Josh was filled with a spirit that could’ve only come from Jesus Christ.

——————————

I can’t begin to answer why Josh isn’t here, but I do know where Josh is now.

I know because whenever anyone asks Jesus about heaven in the bible, Jesus responds by saying ‘You’ve got to know this kid.’

Whenever Jesus talks about heaven, he doesn’t say anything about billowy clouds or streets of gold. He never points to Peter and says: ‘You’re going to be manning the gates for eternity.’

No, he talks about kids:

“Truly I tell you, unless you change and become like children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.” 

‘Let the little children come to me, for it is to such as these that the kingdom of heaven belongs.’ 

‘Let the little children come to me…Truly I tell you, whoever does not receive the kingdom of God as a little child will never enter it.’ 

And then at the end of the Bible, St John paints a picture of a day when tears and sadness will be no more.

And at the end of that passage is a picture of God with children.
I can’t answer the why question. But I do know where Josh is now.

Somewhere else in the Gospels Jesus says the door to heaven is ‘small.’

But I think it’s small in the sense that its like 4 1/2 feet tall.

Because when the disciples ask about heaven, Jesus says it’s kids like Joshua who are the greatest in the Kingdom.

And there’s another time when they ask Jesus about heaven.

Jesus says heaven belongs to those who mourn.

Those who cry. Those who grieve. Those who ache. Those who wish it weren’t so.

And that may not be good news, but it does means we’ll see Josh again soon.

When I Hate My Job

Jason Micheli —  September 26, 2016 — 5 Comments

rp_lightstock_70038_small_user_2741517-1024x683111111.jpgI’d made it as far the Jersey line, headed to Princeton for a week-long con ed course on philanthropy. Just shy of the bridge, ordering coffee at Peets, I received a text about a 12 year old in my son’s school dying (actively so) of the same two syllable word that my son still worries is going to kill me.

His is in the brain.

They don’t say dopio at Peets.

I changed my order to a double expresso and turned around south down Interstate 95. Just yesterday Facebook timeline reminded me it’s been 24 months since I wore my clergy collar and tossed slow straight fastballs to the lineup on my son’s coach-pitch baseball team before I dusted myself off in the 5th inning to lead a prayer vigil at my church for Hannah Graham.

A neighborhood girl.

They found her body a few days after the game.

15 years I’ve pastored and in those years… just as many funerals where the casket measured about 48 inches.

Or less.

I fucking hate my job sometimes.

A truer, holier sentence I cannot write, for I take the suffering of children to be profane in the truest sense of the word. It’s a stain on any notion of God’s sovereign goodness and to hate my vocation from such a God, to hate it with the perfect hatred of a prophet like Amos, often seems to me the most righteous of priestly postures.

Sometimes I hate my job.

As often (or, more specifically: on those occasions) I feel just as pissed off at God. I don’t believe God is the reason behind everything. But I DO believe, as the Cause of everything, God is at the very least responsible. Morally, if not directly, responsibly.

If there was such a thing as a believer’s thesaurus, then “Pediatric Oncology” would be a synonym for atheism. Especially when the name of the hospice nurse is written on the dry erase board. J’s bed was decorated with 8 1/2 x 11 sheets of printer paper scrawled with sharpie- written Jesus speak:

“Thy will done.”

“God doesn’t make mistakes.”

“In my Father’s House are many rooms”

“Let the little children come…”

J wrote them before his hands palsied, because of the brain tumor, and he couldn’t write anymore. His mother told me he stopped being able to speak on Wednesday. Yesterday he lost control of his eyes. Today his breathing grew as shallow as the eyes of his family gathered around his bedside.

I wrote a book called Cancer is Funny that’s due out in a handful of weeks. But I didn’t laugh today. Part of me, initially at least, wanted to take back my 70K plus words about cancer as I held J’s mother’s hand, after wiping the spittle from his mouth and helping to bath him, and traced the cross on his forehead with my other hand. This shit isn’t funny at all, I thought, while consoling and counseling and praying.

Maybe, I wondered, the premise of my book was all wrong.

Or, maybe my premise was my perspective alone. And, of course, it is only my perspective.

Except…

The comedian George Carlin in some long ago album argues that anything can be funny provided that in the story there is something that is grossly out of proportion.

Anything can be funny, Carlin asserts, so long as the narrative incident has something in it that is ridiculous and exaggerated.

J’s bedside today wasn’t ha-ha funny but something seemed out of proportion: God.

Our faith in Him.

Holding J’s mother’s hand in one hand and holding his dying body in my other arm, taking my cues from the Sharpie-scriped faith pictures around me, I prayed about God’s Kingdom and God’s Power and God’s Will-Be-Done, and I thought how our collective faith seemed pathetically disproportionate to the reality before us. Our faith, I thought, seemed at best like a mustard seed against a mountain.

My nose ran onto his blanket as I prayed.

Or, possibly the malproportioned sizing went the opposite direction. Our claims about God’s loving goodness sweep too broad, offensively so, considering the concrete reality of J’s small, shallow breaths.

Maybe, irrespective of my book, that’s what makes cancer funny- not because it causes us to laugh but because it makes us a cause for laughter.

Derisive laughter.

Maybe George Carlin is right.

Maybe all you need for (black) comedy is a giant effing gap between what is and what, in God’s good world, ought to be. Maybe that’s the gross, out of of proportion exaggeration of which Carlin speaks. Maybe this world, where children die and mothers mourn them, as measured against the naive eyes, lofty claims, and stained glass language of our God-speech is the exaggeration that should leave us red-faced and laughed at in this world.

The joke is on us who so often suppose that God is in control, that everything happens for a reason, or that God wills our suffering for some mystery that will be yielded to us in the fullness of time. Believers deserve to be the object of laughter, such laughter it seems to me is the most thoroughly Christian reaction to the lie that Death is anything but the Enemy.

People of faith deserve to be scorned with laughter and ridicule, righteously so. Unless, all the world’s bitter laughter and the pain which it occasions really is born by a God emptied of all power and pretense and poured out in suffering. As Paul all but says in 1 Corinthians 15, the joke is on us if the joke we tell is not true: that in taking on our humanity, Christ suffers in himself the exaggeration, the malproportioned gap, between what is and what ought to be and in dying defeats Death.

heresy_GMSI’ve had funerals and death on the brain this past week. It comes with the job. I’m just happy that for the first time in over a year it’s not my own death and funeral that’s lingering on the brain. It’s most often in the context of death that I hear some hackneyed version (‘God has a plan for everything’ or ‘There’s a reason for everything’ or ‘I know it was a horrific life-altering loss for you but God must’ve needed one more angel in heaven.’) of what I’ve concluded is the most common heresy among Americans, Christian and Non- the fraught, turns-God-into-a-prick-that-his-Son-should-depose bullshit belief that God can do whatever God wants.

No.

No, God cannot do whatever God wants.

The notion that God can do whatever God wants is called ‘Sovereignty’ by Calvinists.

The notion that God is free to do whatever God wants is called heresy by the ancient Christians.

 

As I’ve said again and again on this blog, God, by definition of the word ‘God,’ does not change. God’s unchanging nature, God’s immunity to change we could say, is called ‘immutability.’

Understanding God’s nature as immutable has been the consensus belief of most of Christianity since the time of Christ and continues to be so in most of the Church catholic. Behind the doctrine of immutability is the more foundational doctrine of Divine Simplicity; that is, God is not composed of parts whether spatial, temporal, or abstract. To be composed of parts, the ancient Christians held, implies that God is not the Composer.

Another way of putting it is that God is Simple in that there is no distinction between God’s Nature and God’s Will.

Or, to channel Forrest Gump, God IS as God DOES.

And God cannot DO in contradiction with who God IS.

The ancient Christians held that the categories we call Truth, Beauty or Goodness exist outside of our minds, cultures and languages. They are not merely relative concepts or words we attach to things in this world with no reality beyond this world.

They derive from the universal, eternal nature of God.

What we call ‘Goodness’ derives from the eternal, unchanging nature of God, whose Being is Absolute Goodness. In addition, God does not change.

So:

If God is Perfect, Immutable Love then God cannot do something that is unloving.

If God is Perfect, Immutable Goodness then God cannot do something that is not good.

Not even God, the ancient Christians believed, can violate his eternal, unchanging nature. God cannot, say, use his omnipotence to will evil, for to do so would contradict God’s very nature. Unknown

For God to be free, then, is for God to act unhindered according to God’s nature.

As creatures made in this God’s image, therefore, our freedom is necessarily freedom ‘for.’ We are free when we are unhindered and unconstrained from acting towards the ‘Goodness’ in which we all move and live and have our being.

The heresy that says God can do whatever God wants is called ‘nominalism.’

In contradiction to the ancient tradition, nominalism argues that God has no eternal nature which limits, controls or guides God’s actions.

God is free to do whatever God wants, and those wants are not determined by anything prior in God’s character.

If God wants to will the collapse of a bridge, God has the freedom to will the bridge’s demise, no matter how many cars may be passing over it.

If God wants to break his promise to a People, by all means. What’s to stop God?

If God wants to give someone cancer or, on a different day and in a different mood, something better then God can.

According to nominalism, God can do whatever God wants and, by extension, whatever God does is ‘good’ simply because God does it.

It’s God’s actions in time and space that determine the ‘good’ not God’s eternal being.

Whereas ‘freedom’ in the realist mind refers to God acting in harmony with God’s eternal nature, ‘freedom’ for the nominalist refers to God’s ability to be pure, arbitrary will.

God’s will is supreme over God’s nature. Freedom, for God, is the freedom to will.

And as creatures made in this God’s image, freedom, for us, is the freedom to will. To want. To choose. Independent of and disconnected from the Good we call God. Freedom is for freedom’s sake alone.

Thus enters the atheist’s familiar conundrum:

Is something good because God says or does it?

Or does God say/do that which is good?

A Christian answers that it has to be the latter.

God is absolute goodness and God does only that which is good (all the time), and if it ever seems to us like God is not all the time good then the problem is with our perception of God not with God’s character and action.

 

I’m closing in on my 11th year of serving this particular congregation and more so every day I’m convinced there is fruit in ministry that only becomes possible with a longer measure of time.

For instance, a few weeks ago I confirmed about 30 students in our congregation many of whom I remember from their baptisms and from their Day School years here at the church. The students from my first confirmation class 11 years ago are now in the midst of starting their careers and have since blossomed into adults.

These are all blessings only made possible by the patience and passage of time, blessings our Methodist system of itinerancy rarely affords pastors.

Yet of all those, one such example is at the fore of my thoughts tonight.

Last week I was privileged to spend several hours at the deathbed of someone in my congregation, a woman whom, for several years several years ago, I would’ve ended any mention with the passive-aggressive Southern epilogue ‘…bless her heart.’

Today Shirley died.

And like Jesus, I wept.

I don’t cry over most deaths. When you’re a pastor, you get used to death, coming home so often as you do with blood on your clothes. I cried over.

I can be honest about the rough edges of our relationship because to pretend otherwise would be to dishonor the grace-filled trajectory of our relationship ultimately took.

She was a thorn in my side and, to my chagrin, I could not avoid being so in hers. She was for me the personification of what pastors and non-churchgoers lament as ‘church politics.’ She was convinced I didn’t know what I was doing, was insufficiently enamored with John Wesley (true), couldn’t preach my out of a paper-bag and would be the ruination of her church…”bless her heart.”

My- less than pastoral- thoughts generally ran ditto but in the likewise direction.

She has the distinction of being the first parishioner in this particular parish to point a shaky finger at me in frustration and then storm out of my office, slamming the door so hard it knocked my Karl Barth portrait off the bookcase.

And the softie in me hopes no one ever takes that distinction from her.

Yet with all that ‘history’ between us, something after the first few years changed between us. She first made peace, I think, that I wasn’t going anywhere anytime soon and decided to make the best of it.

She then started earnestly to listen and read my sermons, stealing them from the pulpit lectern (sometimes before I’d preached…teaching me to have a spare copy handy) and concluded that even I’m not Billy Graham I’m not without some gospel IQ. Comments on my blog followed after.

When we adopted our first child, she was the first person to articulate that adoption is the first form of Christian life, and thus natural, making her one of the only people not to ask us when we were going to have kids of our ‘own.’

She was the first person in the congregation to call me when I was in the hospital last year to tell me she loved me. And when I went to see her this week last in the nursing home in Richmond, she said it to me again. Weak, emaciated and slightly agitated, she smiled when she saw me. She grabbed my hand and tried to hug me.

Pulling me close, with her only eye that would open on me, she asked said the same thing to me: ‘I love you.’

(* If I was in a different temper I’d insert a diatribe here about how our United Methodist system of itinerancy actively prevents moments like this, moving pastors before relationships can come full circle, but that’s a grouse for another day.)

I sat there quietly amazed that 10 1/2 years ago I was about the last person she would’ve wanted next to her in those moments yet all the more amazed that just a few years since there was absolutely nowhere else I’d rather have been.

It would take me a while to track back through all the deaths and burials I’ve been a part of since I started out in my little parish back in Princeton. Whatever the number, it’s a lot. Children, parents, men no older than me. They cover the gamut from tragic to the welcome blessed rest, with some well-loved congregants sprinkled in along the way.

Seldom, if ever, has a death hit me the way as has this one.

I’m not quite sure what’s behind this effect.

Is it that I saw in her someone much like myself, someone who as Martin Luther described was ‘at once sinner and justified?’

Is it that, in both the good and the bad, there was absolutely no pretense about our relationship- something that can be rare in congregations?

Is it that she (or our relationship) was a genuine, identifiable proof of grace, that tempers can ease and relationships can heal?

Is it that with her I’d experienced both how petty church politics can be but also how easily such pettiness pass into irrelevance if we let it?

Probably, I suspect, it’s a little of all the above which is but another way of saying:

‘Shirley was like family to me’ with all the complexity and joy the word ‘family’ entails.

And though the me from 11 years ago would’ve laughed at the thought, I can now honestly say I will miss her like family. I used to joke, derisively, that she was like my mother. Now that she’s gone though I think that’s exactly right. With whom but your mother can you have a complicated, sometimes difficult, but ultimately life-giving relationship?

Spitting in Sin’s Face

Jason Micheli —  February 15, 2016 — 6 Comments

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     This past weekend was my official return to Aldersgate after a year on medical leave. Returning meant more to my family and me than we could have anticipated, and we’re grateful for the warm welcome the congregation showed us.

     Kevin Spacey, as Keyser Soze, says the greatest trick the devil played was convincing us he doesn’t exist. I think the greatest trick Sin plays on us is convincing us that it still has power over us. Here’s my sermon from the first Sunday in Lent, in which I attempted to underscore our liberation from Sin by first laughing at the power of Death and then spitting on Sin. The text, as if there could be another, was Paul’s baptismal passage in Romans 6.1-11.

     ‘Whoever has died with Christ [through baptism] is free from sin.‘      

Speaking of death-

A year ago this week, I woke up from abdominal surgery to a doctor telling me I had something called Mantle Cell Lymphoma, this incredibly rare, aggressive cancer with long odds for a happy ending.

I don’t want to be melodramatic about it, but I thought I was going to die.

When you’re convinced you’re going to die, you think about it. You can’t help dwelling on what it will be like, the moment you pass through the veil between living and everlasting. When you think you’re going to die, you fixate on it, obsess over it, daydream and nightmare about it.

And you daydream not only about your death but about your funeral too.

I daydreamed a lot about my funeral. I visualized the whole service, starting with the bouquets. I know its popular nowadays to request that, in lieu of flowers, money be sent to this or that charity.

Not me. In the funeral in my mind, this room is wearing more fauna than Brooke Shields in Blue Lagoon, like each and every one of you took out a line of credit at FTD.

I mean- charity is about other people. I’ve lived my whole life as if it’s all about me; at least in death it really is. And so in my daydream you all send so many flowers the sanctuary looks like American Pharaoh exploded all over it.

And back in the narthex, for one last prank on the 8:30 service, Hedy sets up a toilet and, next to it, a roll of appropriately mournful black toilet paper. So in my daydream there’s flowers up here and a toilet back there and in here the pews are packed.

Its standing room only in the lobby. It’s so crowded that Sasha and Malia have to sit on their Dad’s lap, and everyone nods in approval when Pope Francis gets up to offer his seat to Cindy Crawford.

In the funeral in my mind, when it comes time for the processional, Dennis, his voice cracked and ragged from raging Job-like at the heavens, invites everyone to stand. And in that moment my boys stop playing on their iPads and they carry in my casket.

As they bear my casket forward towards the altar, on the organ Liz plays the music from Star Wars Episode IV, the score from the scene when Han and Luke (but not Chewy, for some ethnocentric reason) receive their medals.

Once I’m brought forward in front of the altar table, He Who Must Not Be Named kneels before my casket and quietly confesses his many sins against me and begs me not to haunt him like Jacob to Ebenezer.

Then, he’s followed by a long line of women in veils and stilettos who all look like the woman in the ‘November Rain’ video.

They come forward, each, to lay a rose on my casket, and each of them behind their veil wear an expression that seems to say: ‘You were a man among boys, Jason.’

In the funeral in my mind, as Dennis begins with his lines about the resurrection and the life, the bishop slinks into the sanctuary embarrassed to be running late and second-guessing his decision to show solidarity with me by wearing a bandana and booty shorts.

But as he squeezes into a spot in the back corner, Stephen Hawking assures the bishop in his Speak-N-Spell voice that the booty shorts look quite nice with his clergy collar.

After the opening hymn, Andreas plays my favorite Old Testament song, ‘Female Bears are Eating My Friends.’ As he strums somberly with his eyes closed members of the Journeys Band notice that for the occasion of my funeral Andreas has bought a brand new pair of dutch boy clogs. Plus, he’s wearing his very best Cosby sweater.

When Andreas finishes, Dennis gets up to preach. And because he’s nervous to preach in front of the Dali Lama, Dennis has actually taken notes for the sermon instead of just shooting from the hip.

But then Dennis is overcome with emotion so he hands his notes to Hedy and Hedy stands up in the pulpit and, first, she reads the gospel scripture, the centurion at Christ’s cross: ‘Truly, this was God’s Son.’

And then she looks down at Dennis’ notes and reads what Dennis has prepared: ‘While these words normally refer to Jesus, I think we can all agree that in Jason’s case…’

After the sermon, which in my daydream, does a thorough job of quoting my own sermons, the choir comes to the front, wearing brand-new robes that have my likeness on the back in sequins.

The choir is led by a special guest vocalist who, in my daydream, is always a heavyset black woman (I’m not sure if that’s racist or not) and together they tribute me by singing the Gladys Knight single ‘You’re the Best Thing that Ever Happened to Me.’

Despite the heavyset black woman leading them, the choir veers off key because Ernest Johnson’s eyes are filled with angry, manstrating tears and he can’t see his music to conduct it. So the choir’s singing their heart out even if they’re singing off key and, while they sing, Scarlett Johansson leans over to Dennis to ask why Terri Phillips is wearing a Cinderella costume.

‘It’s what Jason would’ve wanted,’ Dennis whispers to Scarlett and Penelope Cruz just as the choir belts out the final Gladys Knight line: ‘I guess you were the best thing that ever happened to me.’

After the applause dies down, Ali chokes back her tears and anguish, and she steps up to the lectern to eugugolate me. She starts by pointing out how she knew me longer than anyone, from the time she saw me in my speedo at swim practice, which is to say it was love at first sight.

‘So I just want to say,’ Ali concludes and dabs her eye in my daydream, ‘Jason was mostly an okay guy.’

With that, she steps down and afterwards, in the funeral in my mind, there’s no closing hymn or benediction, no ‘Amazing Grace’ or Lord’s Prayer, because at some point during the prayer of commendation the roof is rent asunder as at the Transfiguration.

As God the Father declares ‘This is my Beloved Jason in whom I am well pleased’ Jesus and the Holy Spirit descend from the clouds, along with the ghosts of Mother Theresa, Dumbledore, Gandalf and Leonard Nimoy, and together, like the prophet Elijah, they carry me up into the heavens.

And so, then, there’s nothing else to do but go to Wesley Hall where the stage is lined with kegs of 90 Minute IPA, where my boys are back to playing on their tablets, and where the food is piled high around a giant ice sculpture. Of me.

——————

But I digress.

My point is- For a long time, I thought I was going to die.

When I realized I wasn’t going to die, when I got my bone marrow results back a few weeks ago, and I realized the inevitable wasn’t yet, I was so freaking grateful.

Bowled over with gratitude. To God.

I felt so thankful that I promised a vow to God. I swore an oath to God. For the gift of my life, I would offer the gift of my faithfulness. It’s true. I stared at myself in the mirror at my oncologist’s mens room right after I received my results.

I splashed water on my face to make sure I wasn’t daydreaming. I stared at myself in the mirror and I swore, from here on out, I would be a perfect Christian.

No more snark or sarcasm. No more dark cynicism. No more cussing or anger. No more can’t be bothered apathy or little white lies.

 God had rescued me from death so I promised to the mens room mirror: ‘I will never sin again.’

And I meant it. I was doing a pretty job with it until I walked out of the bathroom and over to the elevator. The elevator at my doctor’s office, no matter the time of day, it’s like the DMV was outsourced to supervise the Final Solution. It’s a constipated, huddling mass of people frantic with their self-importance.

So I waited and waited, as the elevator would come and close, come and close, each time too crowded for me. But I was a good Christian. I kept my vow. I was patient. I did not think any dark thoughts in my heart. I did not sin.

So I was doing pretty good, and my turn was next. I was right there at the front of the line.

But as soon as the elevator doors opened, this old guy with wispy white hair and an oxygen mask, out of nowhere, wedged a walker in between me and the elevator doors and, like he was Patrick Ewing, he threw a varicosed elbow at me and pushed me out of the way to wait longer for another elevator.

Patrick Ewing looked at me as the elevator doors closed between us. And he smirked!

And if anyone had been able to read my mind in that moment I would’ve been whistled for a flagrant foul.

On my way home from the doctor, I stopped at Starbucks for a coffee. I was standing at the counter about to pay. Next to me, in front of the other register, a homeless man poured coins out of an empty Cheetos bag and, coming up short, he looked over at me and asked if I had any money.

Without thinking about it, without meaning to, just reflexively (which says a lot about me), I said: ‘I’m sorry, I don’t have any cash.’

My words were still hanging thick in the air when I looked down at my wallet in my hand, which had a wad of wrinkled 5’s and 10’s sticking out of it like a bouquet of dirty green flowers.

Not only had I lied, not only had I refused charity, Jesus says whatever you do to the poor you’ve done it to him so 20 minutes after my I’ll-never-sin-again-oath to God, I’d managed to lie to and stiff Jesus. Not to mention swearing false oaths is one of the 10 Commandments so that was a sin too.

And leaving Starbucks, I accidentally cut a guy off in traffic. It was an accident, not a sin.

But then when he rolled his window down to offer his opinion of me (at the traffic light), and when he offered his opinion of my mother (at the next light), and when he described everything he thought I deserved to do to myself (at the light after that), did I turn the rhetorical cheek? Did I forgive his trespass against me? Did I forgive him 70 x 7 times? Did I offer to walk a mile in his jerk shoes?

No, I said goodbye to him with a sarcastic smile and a one-fingered wave.

When I got home, I watched a clip of Joel Osteen, America’s favorite preacher, that one of you was kind enough to share with me on Facebook. I listened as Joel Osteen talked about how he doesn’t like to preach about the cross or other ‘depressing things.’ He prefers to keep it positive and uplifting.

Jesus says if you’ve lusted in your heart, you’ve committed adultery. By that same moral logic, if you’ve thought about killing someone, knocking in their toilet lid teeth, punching them in their vacant, Botox eyes, pulling out their mousse-hardened hair and turning their syrupy smile upside down- if you’ve thought about it, you’ve committed murder, Jesus implies. Guilty.

After I broke that commandment, I made the mistake of going to the Soviet Safeway just down Ft. Hunt.

I was in the Express Line, the Express Line, the 15 Items or Less Line.

I was in line behind this blue-haired woman who had 28 items in her cart. 28. I know because she was moving so slow I had time to count the 28 items in her cart at least 28 times while we stood in the 15 items or less aisle.

But I didn’t say anything. I didn’t sigh out loud or point to the Express Line sign that she should’ve been able to see since it was nearly as big as her perm.

No, I didn’t complain.

I didn’t gripe that I had places to go and people to see. And I didn’t complain when she pulled out a stack of wrinkled, mostly expired coupons to try to haggle the price down.

No, I kept my vow. I was Jesusy good.

But then when it came time to pay, the old lady reached in to a purse the size of El Salvador and after searching in it for…oh, I don’t know…forever…what did she pull out?

That’s right: a checkbook.

It was big and fat and had like 8 rubber bands wrapped around it and old deposit slips sticking out everywhere.

And after she then searched for her ‘favorite pen’ she filled the check out like she was signing a Syrian Peace Treaty and then she carefully tore the check out of the checkbook and then she marked the transaction down in her checkbook register with crossword puzzle care and then- finally- she handed the check to the teenager working the cash register, the teenager who had clearly never seen nor processed a check in his life.

‘Oh my Lord! You should just keep a goat in that purse because the barter system would be a quicker way to pay!’ I didn’t say to myself.

If the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, gentleness, and self-control, and so the opposite of all that produce must be sin, right?

God rescued me from death, and still my new life of sinless perfection was shorter lived than Lincoln Chaffee’s presidential campaign.

—————-

     ‘How can we who died to sin [in baptism] go on living in it?’ 

     Paul asks at the beginning of Romans 6.

I know our teachers all lied to us and told us there’s no such thing as a stupid question, but there is and this is one. The answer is not only obvious it’s ubiquitous. How can we go on sinning? Uh, very easily, Paul. I can do it without even trying.

‘How can we go on sinning?’! The better question is how can we not go on sinning? It’s what we do. It’s who we are.

‘How can we who died to sin [in baptism] go on living in it?‘ It’s a rhetorical question. Paul obviously thinks its not only possible but expected for those who’ve been buried in baptism to live free of sin.

According to Paul here, roughly 93% of my waking life should be impossible. I’ve been baptized. I’ve died to sin- Paul means that literally not figuratively- so my sinful life should be impossible. Your sinful life should be impossible.

Maybe you’re different, to me it’s Christ’s life that feels impossible.

But if Christ died to sin and we with him then why? Why do we so often and so easily sin?

So what gives?

What’s the disconnect between what Paul assumes to be true and what we assume to be obvious?

Who’s wrong?

Are we wrong? Is sin really easier to shake than everything in our lived experience leads us to suppose?

Or is Paul wrong? Have we not really died with Christ, died to sin, so that we can live free of it?

But if Paul’s wrong, then that means the Gospel’s wrong too. Christ, good dude though he was, did not set his people free by overcoming the pharaoh of Sin. And we who have been plunged under with him in baptism have not died with him so we have no share in him.

How can we go on sinning?

How can we not go on sinning?

The assumption are not compatible. So who’s wrong? Paul? Or you and me? What’s the disconnect?

     It’s almost as though when we talk about Sin, Paul and you and me, we’re talking about two different things.

—————

     In the ancient Church, baptism would be performed almost exclusively on Holy Saturday, the day when Jesus is as dead as you will one day be, when, as the Church says, Jesus is our Passover, passing over from Death to Life.

The baptismal ritual wasn’t a sentimental one with babies and lacey heirlooms. Instead it was imagined and staged like a funeral. In the middle of the Easter vigil, after the Exodus story was read, the worshippers would move outside to the baptistry.

Often those to be baptized were carried in caskets.

When they reached the flowing water, before they stripped naked to shed symbolically their old self and before they were plunged into the water just as the sea drown the chains of Pharaoh’s army, those to be baptized would face West, the direction where the light of the sun sets and the darkness rises.

They would face West and they would renounce Sin.  They would declare their independence from it.

And then, they would spit.

They would spit in Sin’s face. They would spit on Sin. They would draw up all the disgust and anger, all the self-loathing and pain, they could muster in their mouths and then they would spit in Sin’s face.

Here’s the thing-

You can’t spit in the face of a behavior.

You can only spit in the face of a person.

And really, it only has righteous power if you spit in the face of a person who thinks they control you. In the face of a Master.

—————

     When it comes to Sin, Paul and you and me, we don’t mean the same thing.

We think of sin as behavior. We think of sin as something we commit, like lying or cheating on your husband or lusting in your heart to do grave bodily harm to Joel Osteen.

We think of sin as behavior, but Paul thinks of Sin as a Power.

You can think of it as Darkness with a capital D. You can call it Satan if you like. If you’re a nerd, you can compare it to Sauron’s ring of power.

But to understand Paul you have to understand that he understands Sin not as our behavior but as a Power outside of us, as a Pharaoh, as a Master, whose will it is to have dominion over us, to bind us.

Our little ‘s’ sins are just signs and symptoms of our enslavement to the power of Sin with a capital S.

So for Paul, sin isn’t about our behavior. Sin is about our status, which Master do we believe we belong to?

For Paul, sin isn’t about what we do or don’t do. It isn’t about who we are on the inside or behind closed doors. Sin is about where we are.

Do we believe we’ve made an exodus in Jesus Christ? Or not? Do we believe we’ve passed over from the Kingdom of Sin to the Kingdom of God?

We think of sin as things we do that disobey God’s will and provoke God’s anger.

But not Paul.

Paul doesn’t think of sin as disobeying God’s will for you.

Paul thinks of sin as obeying Sin’s will for you.

     Paul thinks of sin as obeying Sin’s will for you.

That’s how Paul can ask a rhetorical question like ‘How can we who died to sin go on living in it?’

It’s ridiculous to him that we would go on living under sin because we’ve been set free from the Power of Sin.

Sin’s let God’s People go. That Master no longer has any dominion over us or claim to us. That’s not who we belong to anymore. And Paul’s not being metaphoric.

     Paul believes emphatically that when we are joined in baptism by faith to Christ’s death something objective happens.

    We are moved, transferred, from the Kingdom of Sin to the Kingdom of God, and it’s a 1-way, once for all, no going back, nothing you do can undo it, kind of journey.

As we say with bread and wine, Christ has set us free from slavery to Sin.

That’s why Paul’s question is rhetorical, and rightly so. Why would you live your life as though the Power of Sin had any claim on you? That’s like obeying a Master who no longer owns you, submitting to a Ruler who’s already been deposed, fearing an Enemy that’s already been defeated.

Why would you want your life to be a prison when you’ve passed over with Christ from Egypt to freedom?

Paul doesn’t mean that baptism is a magical inoculation that makes it impossible for us to sin. He means to it’s impossible for us to see ourselves as slaves to it, to our sins.  We’ve been set free. That doesn’t mean we’re free of sins. It means we’re free from Sin. We’re free to choose a different story for ourselves. We’re free to turn from our sin, and we’re free to turn away the sins of the world. We’re not powerless against the sins in our lives nor are we excused to be passive about the sins in the world.

We’re free.

—————

     Okay, but that just leaves a big, fat question on the table: How?

How do you do it? If we’re free from Sin, how do we live free of sins?

Chances are, you didn’t hock many loogies at your baptism, and even though you can’t be rebaptized, it’s never too late to take a page from the wisdom of the past and spit in Sin’s face. Renounce it.

Look in the mirror even and pretend its Sin with a capital S staring back at you and spit in its face. Announce your rebellion.

Maybe you were abused. Stare that sin down and spit in its face and announce to it: ‘I don’t belong to you.’

And how about that anger you can’t keep from spilling out onto the people you love- look it in the eyes and spit in its face and tell it what my kids tell me: ‘You’re not the boss of me.’

The prejudice you try to justify, the spending that fills a hole no one can see, the resentment and regret that’s crippled your marriage, the callousness that’s grown up over your wounds- give it all the dead-eye stare.

Spit in its face and say to it: ‘You have no claim on me.You’re not my Master.

I don’t even live in Egypt anymore.’

Spit in its face. Stare down your shame, and declare your disobedience. Say to your shame and self-loathing:

You may call me a slut

You may call me an addict, a freak, a loser, a disappointment

You may tell me I’m a failure, I’m fat, I’m ugly, I’m old, I’m whatever

But just as God declares of Jesus at his baptism so God declares of me because I’m in him and he’s in me and so I’m a beloved child of God and with God’s only Son I’ve passed over from captivity.

The only chains on me are the ones I put on myself.

Stare Sin down. Spit in its face. Laugh at it.

And say to it: Why would I obey you? I’ve been set free.

—————

      This time last year I thought I was going to die.

Just a few weeks ago, I thought the good news was that I wasn’t going to die. And I’m not saying I’m not happy about it…but in this place, the good news is that with water and promises by people like you I’ve already died.

With and in Christ.

So I don’t need to make any promises, take any vows, or swear any oaths to become a completely different person.

No, I only need to learn how to become who I already am.

Free.

 

 

 

 

16th-St-Baptist-Ch-WalesScot McKnight, who hosts the popular Jesus Creed blog, has invited me to post a series of reflections during Lent on Fleming Rutledge‘s new book, The Crucifixion: Understanding the Death of JesusFleming Rutldge BandWhite

I want to give Scot the love and force you to read it over on his site so here’s my teaser:

The spiritual intuition of god in your garden will never lead you to submit to a naked, homeless, cheek-turning, executed Jew.

Perhaps more importantly, ‘spirituality’ will never compel you to identify with the world’s forsaken as a necessary implication of your faith.

Vague spirituality, untethered from orthodox tradition, certainly won’t require you to identify with the world’s forsakers.

But the cross, where Christ dies for the ungodly, demands exactly that, as offensive and counter-intuitive as it is to all our natural religious and moral impulses.

Okay, whistle wetted, read the post here: http://www.patheos.com/blogs/jesuscreed/2016/02/12/fleming-rutledge-and-the-atonement-by-jason-micheli/ 

 

It’s exactly a year ago the GI doctor called me the night after my CT scan and asked if I was sitting down.

I missed Ash Wednesday last year.

The year before immediately after the Ash Wednesday Service I ran to Safeway to procure a few (non-meat) products for the first dinner of our Lenten fast.

I was standing in line in the small, Soviet-esque Safeway near my house, about 4 people back. I could hear the bagger and the teller whispering words like ‘what’s’ and ‘going on’ and ‘holiday’ and ‘apocalypse’ and ‘probably’ and ‘something’ and ‘in’ and ‘Revelation.’

They were staring at the black, greasy cross on my forehead.

When I got to the checkout, one of them asked me furtively:

‘So, uh, is it like a holiday or something? Or did you go to a funeral?’

Thinking that would certainly be a memorable (and probably psyche-destroying) funeral, where we grind up the dearly departed and wipe him on our collective craniums, I replied:

‘It’s Ash Wednesday.’

‘Oh, right!’

Long pause.

‘What’s Ash Wednesday?’

And I replied with exactly what I’d told the congregation 30 minutes earlier: ‘Ash Wednesday is the day we remember that life is a gift from God by remembering our mortality.’

Longer pause.

‘I don’t get it.’

I kind of just smiled and swiped my debit card not wanting to venture too much more into this conversation and not because there were a dozen people waiting behind me impatiently with their lunch meat, TP and Crystal Light.

I didn’t want to say much more because, in all honesty, I still hadn’t processed or recovered from the night’s service.

Less than hour before, I had traced an ugly black cross on a child in my son’s class and said: ‘Remember that you are from dust and to dust you shall return.’

Words that become jarring when spoken on to a 10 year old’s forehead.

And after her, several people back in line, I traced the same bruise-like cross on the forehead of someone whom I’ve grown to love over the past 8 years. Knowing that if I stay in this congregation for a while longer I’ll likely perform this person’s funeral, I said to this friend: ‘‘Remember that you are from dust and to dust you shall return.’

I fought back the sudden urge to cry.

And after that friend came another soon after, someone with whom I’ve shared many a laugh on mission teams in Guatemala. On him, I traced a brooding black cross and said: ‘Remember that you are from dust and to dust you shall return.’

There were others like that.

Like the parishioner whose battle with cancer I was privy to. When I marked him with the cross and said ‘Remember that you are from dust and to dust you shall return’ the words rung with a painful truth.

Or the parent worried that their child will one day make good on threats to return themselves to the dust prematurely.

And then there was a handful of complete and total strangers. People who came in off the street because they saw the service announced on the sign out front. To these strangers, I drew an executioner’s tool on their forehead and basically said: ‘Remember, eventually you’re going to die.’

More so than any other holy day in the church year, Ash Wednesday affects me.

On Ash Wednesday it’s as though every one gathered in the pews becomes a walking, talking, breathing (for now) illustration of the day’s meaning:

life is a fragile, tightrope experience, sometimes precious and sometimes terrifyingly awful and, good or bad, it will one day end.

In so many ways, we’re finite. We’re grass, says the Poet. Just a part of the world God made. Worse than grass, says the Ash Wednesday, we’re like dirt.

But were it not so, our lives would cease to be gifts.

I didn’t preach a sermon that Ash Wednesday. A year later, last winter, I learned how I hadn’t need to preach one.

I was, somewhere deep in my percolating marrow, already embodying the day’s message.

This past weekend my muse visited my congregation as our guest preacher.

Thomas Lynch, readers of the blog will already know, is a poet and writer who also happens to be an undertaker in Milford, Michigan. His prose has inspired my own, his writing on the funeral trade has informed how I conduct them as a clergyman and his hopeful gallows humor has given me cheer these initial weeks in my struggle with cancer.

Here’s his sermon from the Saturday evening service. It’s worth your time. If you subscribe to the blog by email, you may need to click over for the sermon.

The Seamus Heaney poem Lynch references is ‘Miracle’ based on Jesus’ healing of the paralytic in Mark 2.

Not the one who takes up his bed and walks

But the ones who have known him all alongAnd carry him in –

Their shoulders numb, the ache and stoop deeplockedIn their backs, the stretcher handles

Slippery with sweat. And no let up

Until he’s strapped on tight, made tiltableand raised to the tiled roof, then lowered for healing.

Be mindful of them as they stand and wait

For the burn of the paid out ropes to cool,

Their slight lightheadedness and incredulity

To pass, those ones who had known him all along.

(HUMAN CHAIN, Poems, Seamus Heaney, 2010, FSG)

lightstock_70038_small_user_2741517Dear friends, HEWHOMUSTNOTBENAMED and random visitors,

As you may already know, I’m going on my 10th year at Aldersgate Church and in all that time I’ve taken 1 paternity leave, several long potty breaks and, count them, 0 vacations.

Working with a man like Dennis Perry, a man whose name will go down in history with names like Michael Scott, Gomer Pyle and Roscoe Peco Train, I simply couldn’t afford to take time off of work. I cared too much about you all to allow you to suffer long under Dennis tired, broken body, diminished mental faculties and antiquated job skills.

I couldn’t even get away and let Dennis ‘phone it in’ at work because even then, I knew, the phone in question would be a rotary phone.

Just think, there’d you be, waiting as long for Dennis to complete a thought as it takes to dial a number with a 9 and a 0 in the area code. People of Aldersgate, I just couldn’t do that to you. I love you too much.

Fortunately for you all, Hedy’s arrival on staff has made me as irrelevant, ineffectual and archaic-seeming as Dennis has proven these past many years, which is lucky for me because, now, like Bilbo Baggins, I’m going to be away for a while.

If you skipped church last Sunday, are not on social media or were just trapped under something heavy this week then you might not have heard already that I have the ‘C’ word.

No, no that ‘C’ word. Don’t be so vulgar. This is church.

No, I have that other ‘C’ word.

Cancer.

The irony in all this is the first thing that hit me too: this past year Aldersgate has had a healthy, in-shape pastor and his name was Dennis Perry. I’m never exercising again.

To make a long story short, I’ve suffered abdominal pains since the early fall, pains I chalked up to too much coffee in my stomach, too much fat in my diet or too many church people in my schedule.

That most of you didn’t even know I was suffering such pains, I attribute to a virility that makes Lee Marvin look like Judy Garland.

Last Thursday I had a CAT scan of my abdomen, which showed that my pain was caused by an intussusception, a rare condition (for adults) where my small intestine had inverted and was ‘telescoping’ in on itself. Ali and I met with a surgeon on Friday morning who explained the surgery and warned us as well that she was concerned about what could be causing the intussusception.

The surgeon had hoped she could do the procedure laparoscopically, but when I woke up on Monday evening, feeling like someone had gone at my gut with an electric Thanksgiving knife and a battery acid chaser, I suspected it had been a bigger surgery.

In fact, they removed about 3 inches of my intestine to correct the inversion, and they also removed from my small intestine a 10 by 10 inch tumor baby, whom I’ve since taken to calling- affectionately- ‘Larry.’

Let that sink in: 10 by 10 inches. I can now say I understand what women go through in child birth, which I think should make me even more appealing to the ladies (if such a feat is even possible).

A 10 by 10 inch tumor baby, unlike a real baby, however is not an occasion for cigars and balloons.

The pathologist took initial slides of the tumor immediately after surgery and on Tuesday the oncologist told Ali and me that, even without the exact biopsy results, he knew:

I had a lymphoma that fell somewhere among 5 rare cancers of the blood.

You can imagine how we took that news. I went to the doctor last week thinking I had a gall stone or an ulcer. The idea that my body, which has always been a source of pride in me and arousal in women- the idea that my body was now trying to kill me was a complete shock to us. The idea that if I do nothing at all I’ll swiftly be dead was an even bigger shock.

We cried.

A lot.

I made lots of apologies for all the ways I’ve been a crappy husband because I assumed we had all the time in the world.

Finally, we dried our eyes and told our boys, Gabriel and Alexander, that Daddy has cancer, which is what was making his tummy sick, that I’m still sick and that the doctors are going to work to make me better but it’s going to take a long time and I’ll be sicker in the meantime.

Today is Friday. We met with the oncologist last evening. It turns out:

I have Mantle Cell Lymphoma, a rare, non-Hodgkins form of B cell lymphoma that typically only organ music-loving people the age of the 8:30 service get. Its spread through the GI System and bone marrow.

 

I like to think I’m unique in all things and it turns out I am in diseases as well.

Because it’s a rare, aggressive lymphoma, I’ll be fighting it likewise. I will begin 4 two-part phases of aggressive chemotherapy this coming Friday- not much of a break I know.

Each phase will last approximately a month. The lymphoma has spread to the rest of my system so I’ll definitely be hospitalized again for the first phase as the oncologist wants to monitor my kidneys. Hopefully, hospitalization won’t be necessary for the succeeding treatments. At the end of the 4 phase treatment, it’s likely I will need to undergo bone marrow transplants as well.

All in all, I think its safe to say 2015 will be an exceptionally crappy year for the Micheli household. The Nats better freaking make it out of the first round because I’m not going to have much else going for me this year.

In case you were wondering, I won’t be around much for the next 6 months.

I hope you continue to be around for us though. I’m not normally given to sappy, sentimental nonsense, but I can’t tell you how fortunate we feel to be going through this in a church and a community we’ve come to know so well. Already so many of you have been key to getting us through the dark nights we’ve had. We’re going to need you and we’re not the type to ask so don’t wait for us to ask. Just continue to do what you’ve been doing.

ImamPastorI like to yank Dennis’ chain but without him I’d probably still be in the corner crying and sucking my thumb.

I couldn’t have made it through this week without Dennis and I won’t make it through the weeks ahead without him, so cut him some slack. And even though you know I won’t be preaching for quite a while and you know he’s likely to bore you to tears, please show up at church anyway.

It might not surprise you, but my biggest fear- the thing that wakes me up in the middle of the night with panic attacks- has been about my boys. I don’t want to put them through this and I certainly don’t want them to lose me or the family they know. You can help on their end too. When you see them, please don’t ask about me or my cancer.

Please just treat them like normal kids because a normal life for them is my biggest goal in all of this.

10350435_10204746594086950_2925906432646049018_n

I miss you all. I really do, and I wish I could be there today to say all this to you. And don’t sweat the God thing, people. Please. I never believed before that God does mean-ass stuff like this to people so I’m not hung up on God doing it to me. I don’t believe there’s any mysterious ‘reason’ other than the chromosomal one that cancer- however rare- is happening to me, and I don’t believe there’s a bigger plan behind all of this other than the same plan God has for all of us: to love and glorify him through Christ. I’ve just got to figure out how to do that given my new circumstances.

Finally, don’t pity me.

Cancer’s not all that bad.

For example, just as I was drifting off before surgery I heard one of the surgical staff say aloud: ‘We’re definitely going to need a bigger tube for the catheter…’

See, some dreams do come true. Even amidst nightmares.

– The End. 

PS:  I hope to hell not. 

lightstock_70038_small_user_2741517I know all the words by heart such that even now they’re at the edge of my lips ready to take the jump.

It’s not an accomplishment; it’s the trade. .

Well over 100 times now I’ve stood in the center of a sanctuary or in the middle of a funeral home chapel or at the head of an open grave on the fake plastic grass under an uneven tent or even a few times in a ‘sitting’ room and in front of all number and manner of mourners I’ve recited verses as inextricably linked with my character as ’…it is a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing’ belong to the chorus of Henry V. 

     My lines, if not bald-faced lies or pious candy, signify a great deal more than nothing: ‘I am the resurrection and the life. Those who believe in me, even though they die, yet shall they live, and everyone who lives and believes in me will never die.’

Sitting here in my kitchen, staring at the baby blue folder folder whose top sheet is labeled ‘Preparing for Your Surgery,’ with my surgeon’s frank Army countenance (‘We won’t know what we’re facing until after your surgery’) ringing on repeat in my head- and my wife’s, it suddenly occurs to me that in all those 100 plus times I’ve never once stood by the dead and looked out at the living and proffered a follow-up question:

Do you believe this?

Do you believe (any of) this? That Jesus is the resurrection and the life? That those who trust in him (even though they die) yet shall they live? Are these just lines? Do you believe it? Really?

I’ve never thought to ask because, for one practical reason, the United Methodist Book of Worship doesn’t instruct me to ask it. For another very intuitional reason, it would seem boorish.

Funerals, after all, are usually emotionally bare (as in, vulnerable not sparse) ocassions with a higher likliehood of truth-telling breaking out compared to the rest of the working week. And if the Pew Surveys and Gallop Polls are to be reckoned accurate, then the priest or pastor who dares to ask ‘Do you believe this?’ should be ready for roughly half the grieving gathered to answer ‘No.’

No, we don’t.

Believe much of any of this.

Indeed I’d wager that the number of those responding in the negative would increase the closer you crept to the front pews, especially on those ocassions where the caskets are shorter or the left behind’s hair less grey, those ocassions where circumstances still seem to demand the wearing of black or where the shoulders are stooped not from age but grief.

I bet, if I asked, I’d hear more no’s up close near the front. And so I’ve never asked the question because neither my ecclesiastical script nor good manners suggest I do so. Jesus does though, in John 11, after speaking the lines whence this funerary quote gets lifted.

The dead Lazarus’ sister, Martha, gives the Gospel’s best example of tearing Jesus a new asshole: ‘If you’d only come when I called, Jesus, my brother would still be alive.’

Jesus responds with a resurrection rejoinder that ends where I begin whenever death enters in: ‘I am the resurrection and the life.’

And then Jesus, unlike me, follows up with the question: ‘Do you believe this?’

     Maybe, like Jesus, I should ask it too, propriety and piety be damned: ‘Do you believe this?’

Because, obivously, it’s a question meant for the living. Jesus isn’t asking what Lazarus believed. Four days dead, serene and sealed in the tomb, nobody cares anymore what Lazarus believed. Not God. Definitely not Lazarus.

No, Jesus is asking Martha what she believes.

When Jesus tells Martha about the power of the Resurrection, what Martha doesn’t get is that Jesus isn’t talking about a power available to us only after we die. He’s not talking about a one day down the road or even on the last day.

He’s talking about a power available in the present, today, in the here and now.

Because if you believe that Jesus Christ has destroyed Death then Resurrection doesn’t just make heaven possible, it makes a bold life possible too.

Because if you believe that Death is not the last word, then we have the power to live fully and faithfully.

And we don’t have to try to live forever.

Here’s what I’ve learned after those 100 plus ocassions delivering my lines for other people:

     When you’re staring at a euphemistically hued folder from your surgeon and when the -c- word has made a grim if hopefully premature intrusion in to your not-yet-graying-life and when wildly melodramatic Lifetime movie-type voices chatter in the back of your head, you don’t much give a damn about forever.

      Longer is all you want. Longer will do. Longer with….

And here’s what you notice:

Martha’s ‘Yes, I believe’ doesn’t guarrantee a happy ending for her brother.

The size of Jesus’ tears outside Lazarus’ grave suggest even Jesus was a little shocked the dead guy walked out newly alive, but, even after all the trouble, Lazarus will die again, of old age and natural causes, or post-op infection perhaps or maybe of a broken heart.

Martha says ‘Yes, I believe’ and no doubt she does, but, seen from Jesus’ POV, she doesn’t grasp at all what it means to believe.

She and Jesus are speaking past each other. He’s talking about his very Being; she’s talking about the Last Day. Even our strongest beliefs barely scratch the surface of what’s True.

In case those first two observations strike you as dissatisfying, here’s the last thing you notice staring at a baby blue folder embossed with the caduceus and your name in hasty yellow marker.

 A God who works by Resurrection is, by definition, a God of surprises- light from darkness and all that- and a God of surprises is, by definition not a genie in a magic lamp.

     The antonym of Resurrection isn’t Death; it’s Predictable.

Perhaps then that’s the best reason not to add to my familiar script and pose that question to mourners: ‘Do you believe this?’

Because even when the answer is in the affirmative, even where the faith is as strong if uncomprehending as Martha’s, ‘Yes’ is still a complicated answer. Now that the shoe gown is on the other foot body, I regret any of the times in those 100 plus that I might’ve implied anything other.

 

quote-well-the-themes-for-me-were-and-remain-sex-and-love-and-grief-and-death-the-things-that-make-us-thomas-lynch-116137I spent the day with a couple nervously standing vigil by their boy’s bedside in the PICU.

Their son, confirmed by me years ago, is only a few sizes and grades ahead of my eldest.

I can’t say much more than that, pastoral privilege and all.

What I can reveal:

Right after I left that family, I collected my youngest son, Gabriel.

We got in the car. Closed the doors. Buckled our seat belts (‘I beat you Daddy’).

I turned on the ignition. Looked in the rearview mirror at Gabriel behind me; he was wearing my faded UVA hat and smiling.

And I started to cry, suddenly feeling like I’d gotten into my car wearing someone else’s shoes.

Life is so infuriatingly fragile.

This isn’t something my boys have taught me.

My boys have no notion that while God may be good and gracious, life is seldom fair or forgiving.

It’s not a lesson my boys have taught me. It’s more like a lesson my job has taught me, a lesson I wasn’t in a position to learn until I had children. It’s more like now that I have skin in the game my vocation won’t let me forget just how fragile are my boys’ own skin and bones.

They’re here today…(down in the basement playing Legos, actually).

But tomorrow? The day after tomorrow?

I bring my work home with me.

I watch my boy turn his bike out the cul de sac for the first and I close my eyes to wait for the inevitable sound of screeching brakes.

I can’t drive by a car accident without imagining my own impending, parallel nightmare.

Standing in line at a roller coaster with my son, I can’t look at the twists and turns of the track without imagining my boy in the statistical margin for error.

Death is a big part of what I do.

The resurrection proclamation requires the dismal trade to precede it, make sense of it. 

If I punched a clock, several many hours of every year would be taken up by people mourning the sudden absence of someone who’d made their life whole.

I bring that absence home with me.

Or rather, like a nurse who comes home wearing a uniform with blood stains on it, that absence follows me home and there it gestates into something else: my own fear of absence.

Theirs.

And while if you caught me in a different mood I might say I’d prefer not to bring this part of my work home with me, it’s more true to admit that this near constant dread of their absence has woken me to something else, their presence in my life.

The sheer- as in flimsy– grace- as in unwarranted gift– of it.

Just like someone who doesn’t realize the pain of unbelief until they begin to believe, the fear of losing my boys calls out the greater joy of having them. 

Life is frageelay.

It wouldn’t be worth it otherwise. 

“…the meaning of life is connected, inextricably, to the meaning of death; mourning is a romance in reverse, and if you love, you grieve and there are no exceptions—only those who do it well and those who don’t.”

– The Undertaking LynchHat

For our third installment of the podcast, we’ve got a heavyweight of the literary world: Thomas Lynch.

Thomas Lynch is quite simply and without exaggeration one of the best damn writers in the English language. And, it turns out, he’s a delightful human being too.

A renowned poet, essayist, and fiction writer Lynch is something of an oddity in the book world for also being a full-time undertaker. Lynch is the inspiration behind the television series, Six Feet Under, as well as the subject of a PBS Frontline Documentary.

the_undertaking.largeI first encountered Lynch’s work at Princeton when I was assigned his book of essays, The Undertaking; Life Studies from the Dismal Trade. It’s elegantly written and achingly beautiful and was a finalist for the National Book Award. You should stop and buy it right now.

His poetry is likewise beautiful and frequently takes up the same themes of death and life and holiness.

His most recent book is co-authored with theologian Tom Long on grief and death.

Why Mr Lynch accepted my invitation for an interview I have no idea but I’m glad he did. He’s on my Mt Rushmore of writers so I make no attempt to hide my adoration. You’ll have to suffer through my fanboy conversation about Seamus Heaney’s poetry.

Near the end Thomas Lynch answers my theological twist on James Lipton’s 10 Questions, which will have to become a podcast tradition (least favorite theological word: ‘Shalt’). He closes out our conversation by sharing a new, unpublished poem.

thomas-lynch-480Oh, I almost forgot: I’m now on his Christmas Card list.

Be on the lookout for the next installments of the podcast.

We’ve got Stanley Hauerwas, Scot McKnight and Brian Blount in the queue.

You can listen to the Lynch interview here below or in the ‘Listen’ widget on the sidebar.

You can also download it in iTunes here or on the app here.

 

matisse-chapel.01I’m a big believer that funerals need to be worship services in witness to the Resurrection not merely memorials of the deceased. Funeral sermons need to be expositions of scripture not eulogies. Death needs to be boldly confronted and called out as an enemy of God.

And I agree that all of above becomes increasingly important the further our culture drifts from any trace memories of the Gospel proclamation.

All that said, I think preachers (or the professors who train them) make a mistake to think all the heavy-lifting, the Resurrection pointing and Death confronting, has to happen in the sermon.

As Catholics would point out, that’s why we have the liturgy.

To suppose that everything important must be conveyed through preaching betrays an impoverished (and in-artful) form of Protestantism.

The whole of the liturgy, of which the sermon is only 1 piece, should witness to the Resurrection, but the Resurrection is NOT the only doctrine Christians profess nor is it the only doctrine relevant for a funeral.

Generically affixing 1 Corinthians 15 to every dearly departed leaves out another, equally (more?) important, just as culturally forgotten Christian doctrine.

The incarnation.

Funeral preaching needs to proclaim not just that God will be with us one day, ‘after the first things have passed away.’ Funeral preaching needs to proclaim that God has been with us, in the flesh, in Jesus Christ and therefore all of our days before the last day have been charged with the grace, presence and love of God.

Sometimes, I think, funeral preachers need to let the liturgy take up the Easter message so that the sermon can take up the Christmas message. Sometimes funeral preachers need to point not to what is to come but the grace that has already come to pass. In other words, sometimes the funeral sermon needs to name not the gathered’s hope but their gratitude for how God’s love has been incarnated in their lives.

To show what I mean, here’s a funeral sermon I wrote late this week, using the story of Jesus’ circumcision and the holy family’s encounter with Simeon and Anna.

The Holy Family: Luke 2.21-38

As is my habit, I changed today’s scripture passage several times this week, changing my mind from one text to another until my assistant,Terri, finally told me I had to make up my mind or the scripture readers would kill me.

I changed the scripture several times, but, talking with Sam and Susanne and Mark in the days before and after Jane died, my mind kept coming back to this Gospel reading from Luke 2.

Now, I know what you’re thinking. What does this story have to do with Jane?

What in the world does this story about the Holy Family taking the infant Jesus to be circumcised and there encountering two people named Anna and Simeon have to do with Jane? Or why we’re here?

The reason I kept changing my mind about the scripture passage is because I knew this would strike you as an usual story for a service of death and resurrection.

I mean, for one thing there is no mention of the resurrection in this story. Jesus is not yet the Risen Savior; he’s just a little boy. And even where death is hinted at in this story, it refers not to ours but to Jesus’ death.

It’s an unusual story for a day like today.

You come to church on occasions like this expecting to hear John 14 or 1 Corinthians 15 or Revelation 21.

You come to church on days like this expecting to hear Jesus promise that he goes to prepare a place for us.

You expect to hear Paul proclaim that death has been swallowed up in Easter victory.

You expect to hear John prophesy of that day when the first things will pass away, when mourning and crying and pain will be no more.

But you don’t come to church on days like this expecting a…Christmas story.

Especially not one with characters, like Anna and Simeon, characters we don’t even bother with at Christmastime.

I admit it’s an unusual story for a day like today.

Just chalk it up to Exhibit B that the Schrage-Norton family does not lend itself to predictable scripture passages.

It’s an unusual story for an occasion like this, yet I kept coming back to it this week.

I know Jane preferred the bible’s poetry to its prose; nonetheless, I kept wondering about this passage from Luke 2- because I couldn’t help but wonder what someone as opinionated as Jane would have to say about it.

For starters, let’s not even dwell on the fact that a dignified South Georgia lady like Jane would probably blush and take issue with the ‘c’ word at the beginning of this scripture passage, even if it did cause her to chuckle to herself because this story of the baby Jesus coming under the knife might’ve reminded her of a not too different knife she once threatened to take to her son-in-law.

Once she got past the undignified beginning of today’s story, it’s easy for me to imagine Jane pointing out Simeon as someone after her own heart, someone she could relate to, someone she could sit beside at parties or family gatherings and pass the time engrossed in intellectual discussion.

After all, when Simeon first lays eyes on the infant Christ his immediate impulse is to recite poetry of all things.

And Jane loved poetry.

She read it and dog-eared it and underlined it and circled bits of it.

She memorized poetry and she forced others to memorize it too.

No matter how Jane might feel about the unmentionable beginning of this passage, I bet Jane would appreciate the poetic gesture with which Simeon greets the Holy Family.

What’s more, Simeon’s poem is littered with biblical quotes and historical clues. Luke doesn’t tell us much about Simeon, but just from his poem we can tell Simeon was not an ignorant man. He was smart and well-studied.

Luke does not tell us Simeon was a professional scholar so probably he was the product of a lifetime of self-education and self-improvement. Probably he was someone with an insatiable curiosity about the world, someone with an even bigger appetite for learning.

It’s obvious just from his poem alone that Simeon was probably someone who liked to say ‘I want you to hear a little something I read…’

He was probably someone like Jane.

Except…

on the other hand-

Jane was someone who liked to sing and dance- whether it was the jitterbug or the Beach Boys. Jane could guffaw and squeal and cackle louder than anyone in the movie theater.

Jane loved afternoon milkshakes topped with 30 minutes of ‘I Dreamed of Genie.’ Jane could throw a dinner party for complete strangers at an afternoon’s notice.

Jane knew how to have a good time.

And though Luke tells us he’s been anointed by the Spirit, Simeon doesn’t exactly come across as someone who knows how to have a good time.

Their mutual love of poetry aside, I imagine that if Luke 2 were the assigned reading for one of Jane’s discussion groups then Jane would say that someone like Simeon strikes her as an overly serious sort of person.

Not to mention, Jane had 7 grandchildren and once famously worried that she would never stop having grandchildren.

In contrast to Simeon, who apparently had no experience with children whatsoever, I bet Jane would point out that when you see a baby for the first time, you don’t say ‘this boy is assigned to be the cause of the falling and rising of many.’

No, you just say ‘Oh, what an adorable baby! Can I hold him?’

This story about Anna and Simeon and the Holy Family- this might not be the story you expected to hear today, but it’s a story about which I expect Jane would have plenty to say.

For example, even though Luke doesn’t say so explicitly I bet Jane could make a convincing case that Mary was the reason that Mary and Joseph brought their child to church on the accustomed day.

Even though it’s not spelled out in the text, I bet Jane could persuade us that Mary was the person responsible for making sure the Holy Family worshipped as they were supposed to worship, with turtledoves and pigeons.

Luke doesn’t say it was all because of Mary, and actually I doubt Jane’s humility would allow her to say it either, but you would because you know that raising your children in the faith- more often than not, that’s something a mother, a wife, does.

And then there’s Anna.

This may not be the story you expected to hear today, but I expect someone like Jane would not be able to resist giving someone like Anna a piece of her mind.

I mean, after Anna loses her husband, she stays in church all day long, every day, praying and fasting.

Never leaves.

And to an extent, I think Jane would appreciate that.

Church was important to Jane too, important enough that she made sure her kids memorized the Psalms.

And for years Jane studied transcendentalist philosophy so I doubt Jane would minimize the significance or the power of prayer.

And, we all know, once he finally convinced her to marry him, Jane loved ‘her Sam.’ So it’s not difficult, at all, to imagine Jane sympathizing with someone like Anna, sympathizing with someone who’s grieving the loss of a beautiful and beloved spouse.

Still though, Jane had a Southerner’s sensibility. Jane hated, deplored, idle time. Anything that might resemble or result in laziness.

Of all the poems she loved, Jane’s favorite poem was one titled ‘Keep-a-Goin.’

So sympathy and spirituality notwithstanding, I’m willing to bet that eventually Jane- as in Penelope’s grandmother- would lose her patience with someone like Anna. I’m willing to bet that eventually Jane would tell Anna how it is. I’m willing to bet she’d say to Anna: ‘I can’t help how I am, but this is my opinion: Are you going to sit here forever?‘

There’s too much to do, Jane might say, to sit here all day, every day, in grief.

There’s art to see and new food to try and requiems to hear and operas to watch and places to visit and grandchildren to take with you. And at the very least, you could curl up on the couch with the Reader’s Digest.

Just keep-a-going.

Jane might say.

To the grieving

Anna.

I changed today’s scripture passage several times this week before I finally crossed my fingers and went with my gut. I’d be lying if I said that Sam’s high expectations for my preaching today did NOT induce a paralyzing writer’s block. And I admit it’s unusual story for a day like today, not the sort of story you expected to hear.

Fact is, it is a story about which I expect Jane would have much to say, but to be honest that’s not the reason I couldn’t shake this scripture passage.

What really drew me to this story-

What made me think of this story, many months ago, the last time I saw Jane and Sam share a booth at Faccia Luna and watched as Sam made Jane laugh and made her eyes light up and made her cheeks blush and made everyone else in the restaurant assume everything was completely fine and normal with his wife

What made me think of this story again last week in the hospital, seeing Sam and Susanne and Mark with Jane

What made me think of this story earlier this week as I listened to Susanne and Mark talk about how their own kids cared for Jane these last 8 years

 What really drew me to this story is the way that 2 bystanders, 2 spectators, 2 outside observers, like Simeon and Anna, are able- instantly- to identify and name what Mary and Joseph do not yet themselves fully recognize.

Sure, Mary and Joseph know that what they share between them in Christ is unique. They know their vantage point- it’s special. They know that what they share between them is better than anything they could’ve hoped for or expected.

They know it’s already changed them in forever kinds of ways. They know not every family has the privilege of the relationship they enjoy.

And Mary and Joseph, they know that what they share together with this person, because of this person, is unique to them. It’s their relationship. It’s their family. The stories and the memories and the inside jokes are all theirs.

Mary and Joseph know that no outsider, no spectator could ever begin to understand or appreciate what it’s like to be a part of their family.

But still-

Strange as it might sound, there’s something BIGGER- more FUNDAMENTAL- about what they share between them that they themselves do not fully recognize.

Two outside observers identify in no time at all what Mary and Joseph do not yet themselves understand.

Which means, I guess, that when you’re in the thick of it, living it, day to day, you need an outsider, a bystander, a spectator, a 3rd party, to name it for you.

To identify precisely what it is you have in your embrace.

To give you a sense of the proportions that only become visible when you step further away.

Mary and Joseph, they needed someone else to point out to them that what they shared between them- it wasn’t just precious; it was the very presence of God.

If the Holy Family needed someone else to point it out to them, then maybe your family does too.

So let me just make plain what is so plain to see for all the rest of here.

The love you shared with Jane- the love you showed to Jane- it wasn’t just precious; it was the presence of God.

What you shared- it wasn’t just good or great even; it was the grace of God.

Whether it was Penelope and Tallulah performing puppet shows last week at the foot of Jane’s bed- just as they had done when they were little girls

Whether it was the grandkids each taking their turn to be Jane’s protector, her guardian, her care-giver

Or whether it was Sam, who these past 8 years fed Jane and and dressed her and carried her. How he made her laugh and sang to her.

How he did her make-up and her hair and learned how to redirect her frustrated dementia with a few steps of the tango, every day showing her a love that was patient and kind, a love that never grew resentful, a love that beared all things, a love that, Paul tells us, will abide in the Resurrection.

If the Holy Family needed an outside observer to identify it for them, then it can’t hurt to point out to you what is so plain to see for all the rest of us here:

that the love you shared with Jane is a love that could only have come from God

and therefore it is the love of God.

This story from Luke 2, it’s usually only read around Christmastime when we remember how the love of God took flesh in the Holy Family.

But today- you remind us that the love of God takes flesh again and again and again in our own lives. And Paul reminds that that love will abide, that it will take flesh again one day.

 

The word ‘holy,’ after all, just means ‘different.’

And you all are a different kind of family.

I admit this story of Simeon and Anna is an unusual story for a day like today, but then you all are an unusual family.

A holy family.

In the name of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Amen.

 
*Nerds: pic is from the Matisse Chapel in Vence, France.

 

 

 

IMG_1411One of the happy accidents of this blog is that I know have ‘friends’ whom I’ve never met save this space here.

One of the downsides of making such friends- the same downside that comes with working for or belonging to any congregation- is that I find myself mourning with or for such friends.

A friend of this blog recently lost her young son in a car accident. Her brother is a real-life, flesh-and-blood friend of mine, whose faith I admire- though his character is such he’d insist it should be the other way ’round.

Her brother, my friend, ‘Ben’s Uncle,’ wrote this reflection about his nephew’s funeral service. It’s a beautiful (made me weep) testimony to grace and our ultimate hope.

Mike had the grace to share it with me and the trust to let me share it with you. If you do me any favors in the back end of ’13, let it be this:

Read…

Although most of the many people who came from Ephraim, Manasseh, Issachar and Zebulun had not purified themselves, yet they ate the Passover, contrary to what was written.  But Hezekiah prayed for them, saying, “May the Lord, who is good, pardon everyone who sets their heart on seeking God—the Lord, the God of their ancestors—even if they are not clean according to the rules of the sanctuary.”  And the Lord heard Hezekiah and healed the people.  2 Chronicles 30:18-20

The Gathering Place in the church was bright—lots of windows.  There was a beautiful arrangement of flowers prominently displayed, sent from out of town, and bearing the condolences of family in a distant location.  The mood was subdued—not somber—just subdued.  The immediate family had gathered, and then the friends began to arrive—two groups of friends.  The friends of the family tended to be older—though not exclusively so.  Many had known Ben as he was growing up.

Many were members of the church where Ben’s parents were long-time members.  Some were members at the church where Ben’s grandparents were members and where Ben had participated in youth activities.  The other group—Ben’s friends—seemed youngish to me.  But then most people seem youngish to me these days.

My sense was that they were vaguely ill at ease, worried about being out of place in an unfamiliar environment, wondering, perhaps, how the Ben they knew fit in with these family friends who were right at home in church.  As you would expect, the two groups tended to cluster with their own in the large, open room: the respectable, pillar-of-the-community folks in small groups; and small groups of 21st century James Dean types, both men and women.  They were all well dressed for this memorial service for someone they all knew and loved.  But peeking out from under the sleeves or above the necklines of the young friends was a moving gallery of art.  And some of the ink wasn’t peeking; it was right out there, expansive, striking even.

I have to admit that I find tattoos off-putting.  A long-engrained prejudice.  I tried hard not to judge but could hardly help it.  As I was standing in the receiving line, a young woman held out her hand to me, and my eyes were immediately drawn to the extensive tattoo on her upper arm and shoulder.  But as she said her name—Elise—my eyes snapped to hers.  I knew the name, but not the person.

Just a few days earlier, Elise had gone to the place where her friend, Ben had been killed.  She went looking—looking for a license plate that she hoped had survived the crash.  She knew that little piece of metal had special meaning for Ben—and for Ben’s grandfather.  After a long search, and as she was about to give up, she looked down at her feet, and there it was.  She took it away with her, framed it, and gave it to Ben’s grandfather.  The awkwardness of the moment, there in the line, faded.  We hugged each other, and she moved down the line.

We spent an hour and a half in the Gathering Place, but it was that few seconds with Elise that I was thinking of when the doors of the sanctuary opened up, and the family went in to take our seats.  Those few seconds are prominent in my thinking now, weeks later.  The sanctuary was packed—about evenly split between the two groups.

We sat and listened to a wonderful service—beautiful music, readings from scripture, words of comfort and assurance from the pastors.  All the while, the two groups sat behind us—each person, no doubt, with their own thoughts of Ben.  With their own thoughts of what it meant to be in that place—a place of worship.

Looking back now, I marvel at these two groups, mingled in the pews.  The “good” people and the “maybe not so good” people.  The establishment people, easy to spot in their manicured neatness.  And the renegades, a little rough around the edges and sporting a bunch of body art.  But every one of them was there to remember Ben.

And Elise has become something of an emblem of that day for me.

I don’t know her.

I don’t know what kind of life she lives.

I do know that I judged her when I saw her in that receiving line—once in the negative, and seconds later, very differently.

What a heart!  What a sense of kindness and love!

I very nearly didn’t see that.  It was hidden to my eyes, hidden behind some ink.

And if her goodness was hidden to me, surely everyone in that room—including me—was concealed by some form of camouflage.

But we serve a God who sees through it all—the first time.  A God who knows full well who he created us to be.  And a God who has promised to finish the good work he started in us.  My prayer is that every time we open our eyes, we will see people though his eyes.

That’s our best hope.

For Ben, who was at home with everyone in those pews….

“Because I don’t have to be the old man inside of me;
His day is long dead and gone….” 
Redeemed

Maybe because I’ve been writing a sermon on Eutychus, the first victim of bad preaching in the Church. Paul literally bores him to death. It’s in Acts 20 and may be the reason why I have death on the brain and recalled this wonderful essay from David Hart, who writes beautifully about losing a friend and sensing the event from miles away.

I was fairly close to both Angela and Jacob throughout our teens; at least, we were all part of the same circle. I briefly entertained the hope of something closer between Angela and myself, and for a few weeks she was more or less my girlfriend; but Jacob “swept her off her feet,” and they were at one school and I at another, so I had no chance. It made no difference to our friendship, though.

Unfortunately, I largely lost touch with Angela when I started attending university. Over the course of the next six months, we crossed one another’s paths only three times or so. On the last occasion, she had just returned from a visit to Paris, from which she had brought home, among other things, the Pléiade edition of Montaigne she proudly showed me.

And that was that. Two and a half years later she was killed when a drunk driver struck her car in an intersection; she was alive for several hours after the collision, but never regained consciousness. That was twenty-five years ago tomorrow.

I learned of her death three days after, from Jacob. (Their romance had not survived their remove to separate colleges, but they had remained friends.) I won’t bother to say how the news affected me, but I will remark that I had had what in retrospect seemed to have been a premonition of it. On the night of her death, Angela had suddenly, for no discernible reason, come into my mind, attended by an inexplicable sense of aching melancholy, which at the time I simply took for acute nostalgia.

Jacob, though, had had something that seemed like much more than a premonition. On the night of Angela’s accident, apparently during the hours when she was lying in the hospital unconscious but still breathing, he had had a particularly vivid dream in which she and he had spoken to one another in a strange house that, after the fashion of dreams, was also somehow a garden (if I have the details right).

Their conversation, which had been pervasively sad, concerned her imminent departure for somewhere far away; and it seemed to Jacob that it was understood between them—in that way in which, in dreams, many unspoken things seem simply to be presumed—that she was leaving on a journey from which she would never return. She told him, he recalled, that she had come only to say good-bye.

Now, these things—my vague intuitions, Jacob’s haunting dream—may have been merely coincidences; but, frankly, I can’t make myself believe that the universe is quite large enough to accommodate coincidences of that kind. What was most extraordinary about our experiences, however, is that they were not that extraordinary at all.

That is, it is rather astonishing how common these encounters with the uncanny really are. You may not recall any yourself, but it is quite likely that you need only ask around among your acquaintances to discover someone who does. I myself have had at least two others, one utterly trivial, one of the most crucial importance, and both together sufficient to convince me that consciousness is not moored to the present moment or local space in quite the same way that the body is.

The mind can, of course, deceive itself; it can retrospectively fabricate spectral connections or occult sympathies and convince itself they were there all along. But there are still a great many experiences that resist any too effortlessly reductive an explanation.

There was a period of two or three years, for instance, when a member of my extended family temporarily acquired the unsettling habit of dreaming abnormally clear dreams that later came true (as well as several that did not). I was even present on one occasion, under circumstances neither of us could have foreseen or planned, when a dream he had described to me months earlier came to pass.

What does it all mean, though?

Well, obviously, persons who have known such moments are unlikely to be convinced by any purely materialist account of consciousness, at least of the “mechanical philosophy” variety. The confirmed “physicalists” among them might toy with ideas drawn from, say, some of the more stochastically adventurous quantum theories of consciousness, but mostly out of desperation.

Whatever the case, though, such experiences should chiefly remind us how many and how deep the mysteries of consciousness really are. And the profoundest mystery of consciousness is consciousness itself, because we really have little or no clear idea what it is, or how it could either arise from or ally itself to the material mechanisms of the brain.

There are, of course, intellectually serious books with titles like How the Mind Works (Steven Pinker) or Consciousness Explained (Daniel Dennett), but the preponderant consensus in the philosophical world is that they do not deliver more than a fraction of what they promise. The logical high ground is still occupied by consciousness “mysterians” like Colin McGinn or, at least, by skeptics like John Searle.

Most attempts to describe the mind entirely as an emergent quality of the brain, or as another name for the brain’s machinery, not only fail convincingly to bridge the qualitative distance between sensory impression and coherent thought, but invariably bracket out of consideration a great deal of what any scrupulous phenomenology of consciousness reveals. Certainly they do not seem to explain the “transcendental” conditions by which consciousness is organized: that primordial act within and prior to all our other acts of mind and will; that constant mediation between thought and world that we both perform and suffer in advance of all experience or volition.

Consciousness has not been explained until one can provide a comprehensive picture of how the mind not only “fits” the world, but also “intends” and “constitutes” it as an intelligible phenomenon. And that is not the straightforward mechanical problem it is often mistaken for.

But these are matters that have been tormenting philosophers and cognitive scientists for decades, and they will not be resolved by any arguments or any science currently at our command. And, anyway, even if humanity should some day penetrate the ordinary mysteries of consciousness, the more extraordinary mysteries will probably remain, and continue to urge human beings to think in terms not only of the mind, but of the soul.

Whatever the case, I cannot help but believe that on the night when Angela lay dying, some portion of my consciousness was remotely, flickeringly aware of the fact; and that she, or something of her, was able to reach out into Jacob’s dream to make her farewells. But, even in admitting I believe such things, I would never claim to understand them.

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