Tag Archives: death

Birthday Blessings

birthday candlesI celebrated my sixty-ninth birthday yesterday, and so I was particularly happy that today I found myself singing with the children in Sunday School, “I sing a song of the saints of God…”

We all love birthdays, ours or others, for they are celebrations of life. Birthdays are markers in time, signposts on our journey from birth to death. Birthdays proclaim birth-years, a twelve month unit man has created to organize his life on earth. When we are young birthdays mean cake and presents. In this way we are taught to celebrate them. As we age, birthdays say, hooray, I’m alive, I made it another year. Birthdays are one way man faces the reality of his existence, life’s transitory span, the fact that our bodies will, no matter what we do, one day turn to dust.

We are creatures bound in time, yet we yearn for eternity. And so we ignore, even deny, that our time is limited with a beginning and an end. We live as though we will live forever, and this denial of our mortality is not only a protection against facing our death, but evidence that eternity lives within us, our very Creator.

There was a time in Western Christendom when days were not divided into hours, and hours not divided into minutes. There were no clocks ticking, no watches with hands counting seconds. Days were observed by sunrise and sunset, and by the ringing of church bells at matins and vespers. In earlier times sundials prefigured clocks, the pointer casting a shadow, and the shadow revealing the movement of the day’s time by the movement of the sun. The longer the shadow, the lower the sun and the coming of darkness, its drawing near, nightfall and nighttime and all that that meant. Night falls, drops upon us with the setting of the sun, blanketing the earth in the sun’s giant and forbidding shadow.

We light the dark with fiery candles, so we can see. Just so eternity intersected time with the coming of Christ, a light in the darkness, gifting temporal creatures with God’s glorious present, Christ, who fills past and present and future with eternal presence, turning we mortals into immortals. But in our journey in this life we are still bound by time.

There are times when I forget time, when I am outside of time in a blessed way. They are moments of devotion, concentration, living outside myself, absorbed by others. Stories, songs, and children pull me out of time, pull me out of being aware of the minutes slip-sliding away, disappearing. Love does this too, with the touch of friendship, the eyes of the beloved. The mysterious bond of marriage that, with grace, time strengthens, is a bond forged in mutual selflessness and sacrifice birthed by vows blessed by God. The love of mothers and fathers for their children opens a door to the eternal. The mystery of love, moving away from self toward the other, pulls us to the shores of eternity so that we can dip our toes in its waters. These mysteries tell us eternity is now.

On the annual remembrance of the day of birth we light birthday candles. We sing to the honoree. We give gifts to bind us together with love. The ritual teaches our children that life is good, to be celebrated, that life shines light upon the world, and that we are thankful for life, every year, day, minute, second. We show our thanks by our love. We sing joyously, triumphantly, carrying a blazing cake into a darkened room. The birthday honoree makes a wish and blows out the candles. In the light we wish for our heart’s desire, and the wishing itself (and all those fairy tales about wishes) reflects our yearning for eternity, our longing for the flames on the cake to never go out. The child blows and the light is gone. We sigh, seeing our future.

The colored wax drips, drowned by the frosting. The cake is cut, and we break bread together. We take part in our common humanity in this celebration of another year of life.

Last night, I dipped my fork into the chocolate brownie cake, with its gooey frosting and melting ice cream alongside. I tasted the dark richness and briefly wondered whether chocolate itself might be a bit of eternity. Thinking back, I’m sure it is.

We are given so many tastes of eternity in life: through our senses, through scripture, sacrament, and song, through the glory of the earth, through our life with one another.

But we are also given tastes of no-eternity, darkness, that other state of being, often called Hell. The two streams, the river of Heaven and the river of Hell, flow through our own time in this world. One stream is love and the other unlove; one selfless, the other self-ish; one sacrifice, the other indulgence; one freedom, the other slavery; one life, the other death. We can choose which stream to follow.

My old bishop loved the hymn, “Shall we gather at the river”:

“Shall we gather at the river/Where bright angel feet have trod,/With its crystal tide forever/Flowing by the throne of God?”

And the refrain:

“Yes, we’ll gather at the river,/The beautiful, the beautiful river;/Gather with the saints at the river/That flows by the throne of God.”

And so my sixty-nine birthdays have flowed like a river through my time on this earth, and I now sail into my seventieth year. There will be swirling currents, still-waters, waterfalls, undertows, risings and floods. But through the Church, and with the grace of God, the stream will lead to the river that flows by his throne. I shall then celebrate a rebirth-day in a timeless time, marked by the singing of saints and angels.

The children this morning sang with gusto, twirling and pointing and folding their hands, showing and telling about the saints of God. It was a perfect birthday gift, a grace-filled birthday blessing and I grinned as we sang the last verse:

“They lived not only in ages past,/There are hundreds of thousands still./The world is bright with the joyous saints/Who love to do Jesus’ will./You can meet them in school, or in lanes, or at sea,/In church, or in trains, or in shops, or at tea;/For the saints of God are just folk like me,/And I mean to be one too.”

Memorials to Remember

Memorial DayTomorrow is Memorial Day, the American holiday that honors all those who died while serving in the nation’s armed forces, defending our borders at home and abroad.

And yesterday was the first anniversary of the death of our Archbishop Morse, a man who died while serving in the Church’s armed forces, defending our borders of life and death, loving us to his last breath.

Today, this Sunday in Trinitytide, connects the two, and my memory remembers these borders of human life, of our nation, our great experiment in democracy, and of our Church, the Body of Christ on earth.

I am editing Bishop Morse’s sermons to be published by the American Church Union. One of the recurring themes is that religious belief begins when we accept our own death. This acknowledgement prompts us to consider the meaning of life, asks us to question who we truly are. What makes us human? Are we any more than a collection of molecules thrown together randomly?

Many have written intriguing answers to these questions. The Christian answer, of course, lies in what we call apologetics, the making a case for belief in a loving God who created each of us with and through love. In fact, as St. John (and my bishop) writes, God is Love. His breath breathed over the waters, created day and night, stars and sun and moon, breathed life into dust to create Adam, en-livening him with Himself. And so the Christian answer is that we are made in God’s image. We will not die, but through union with Christ, God in human form, we will enter eternal glory.

Another theme in Bishop Morse’s sermons is that if you don’t like being in love you won’t like being in Heaven. Falling in love with God is a magnificent journey that never ends.

I’ve been reading a book about this recently, The Romance of Religion, Fighting for Goodness, Truth, and Beautyby Fr. Dwight Longenecker, a Roman Catholic priest. Father Longenecker invites skeptics to view faith from new perspectives, to live dangerously with an open heart and mind. His blog at Patheos.com is called “Standing on My Head,” titled thus to encourage a new way of looking at Christianity, a more adventurous way, a romantic way.

I often feel guilty that many of my extended family, whom I love dearly, are missing out on life’s most beautiful, good, and true journey. They are, quite bluntly, being left behind. They are not living the great romance between man and God, the falling in love on both sides, the enjoyment and pleasure of knowing their Creator who so loves them.

As a writer I particularly appreciate Father Longenecker’s  apologia, for he explains the role of language and how words themselves link the physical world of matter with the spiritual realm of sharing ideas. He explains the historical roles of heroes and quests and storytelling, of fantasy and fiction and fairy tales. All of these core elements of our humanity, our history, define us as human, and for a reason. They tell us we are creatures greater than our material bodies, more than our lifespans. We are meant for something beyond, something glorious.

When we face our own death (the truth we know to be universally acknowledged, at least in the middle of the night), we become more interested in those spiritual realms, in man’s spirit, in that something beyond the present.

As an English Literature major at San Francisco State in the sixties, I was required to read the existential works of Sartre, Camus, and others. I wish I had been required to read more Dante and Shakespeare, but this was not the fashion. As I absorbed existentialism, the belief that all we have is the present and what we can see, I became keenly aware that I would one day die and that would be the end. The awareness threw me into a deep depression. But in 1967 pills to cure sadness weren’t as ubiquitous as they are today.

I asked the question that awaited in the dark corners of those pages: why bother to live if you were going to die? I considered suicide, for life had no meaning. What pulled me out of the depression was love, the love of a friend who encouraged me to read C.S. Lewis’ Mere Christianity, which provided a logical foundation for belief. Then I crossed the threshold of St. Matthew’s Episcopal Church in San Mateo where I found the tools needed to build upon that foundation: Scripture and sacraments, prayer and song, actions and words that defined the glorious worship of this loving God. I fell in love with Love, and with its cousins: beauty, truth, and goodness.

The borders of life are not birth and death but something far better. And like those brave men and women who lived and died defending our nation’s borders, our faithful clergy and laity live and die defending our spiritual borders. In America the two kinds of borders are vitally connected, for without freedom to worship and speak, believers will be silenced.

Memorial Day reminds us that borders preserve a way of life, indeed, preserve life itself. Our laws create borders, lines that we citizens must not cross over, lines drawn by all of us, together. As a culture we draw these lines between other behaviors as well, between the civil and the uncivil, between the mannerly and the unmannerly. Such borders are not legalized but they are protected by social sanctions – applauding and lauding, shunning and shaming. These are borders rooted in Judeo-Christian belief and practice, and should we cease to acknowledge America’s vital history, our borders (both national and social) will collapse.

My novel, The Fire Trail, speaks of these things, reminding us to remember who we are, to memorialize the many Memorial Days that honor our nation’s borders and those men and women who defend them throughout the year. For when we honor those who have died for our freedoms, we turn death into life.

Flowered by Christ

Easter St. Peter's  with family (2)We have a lovely tradition in our local parish church. The Sunday School children and staff “Flower the Cross.” Shortly before the sermon in our Anglican liturgy, during the “sermon hymn,” we process up the central aisle carrying flowers to the chancel steps where a thick white cross, about six feet tall awaits us. The cross has deep holes that penetrate the beams and we insert the stems into the holes. Soon the white cross is covered in brilliant color.

This year as I helped small hands reach for the cross to add another flower, I thought how each of us was like those flowers and stems and bits of green. We each had our own colors and characteristics and we carried them to the cross. We each had our own talents and treasures and we offered them to the cross. We each had our own joys and sorrows and we slipped them into the deep holes of that wooden cross.

The white cross welcomed us, pulling us into its wood, and in some way we became part of that cross of Christ. And with the flowering we were flowered too, changed, reborn into new life.

For Easter celebrates new life, not only spring and its seeds bursting into blossoms, but our own new resurrected life. For forty days and nights we have been dormant seeds buried in the dark soil of Lent. We waited and we watched and we prayed for this glorious Easter morning when death dies and life lives, rising from the tomb, Christ’s tomb, our own tombs.

There is no point to Christianity if one does not believe in the resurrection of Christ and its revolutionary effect upon us all. In the resurrection, suffering and sorrow change into love and joy. Darkness becomes light, and the words of the psalmist are fulfilled: 

“If I say, peradventure the darkness shall cover me; then shall my night be turned to day. Yea, the darkness is no darkness with thee, but the night is as clear as the day; the darkness and light to thee are both alike.” (139:10-11)

Today we are covered by darkness. We hear of wars and rumors of wars, of new horrors, new terrors. Brussels, Paris, London, San Bernardino, Boston, New York, Fort Hood. Evil robs youth of innocence, prompting massacres in schoolyards or classrooms. Darkness spreads across the face of the earth.

And so we reach for the light in the darkness that enshrouds our world, entombs our people. We look to God, the author of love and life. We look to the only man who claimed to be God, who rose from the dead, the one whom St. John describes as “the true Light that lighteth every man that cometh into the world.” (KJV, 1:9)

Why I believe in the resurrection and its challenge and others do not, I do not understand. For the evidence is there, clear as the light of day. But I suppose one must seek it, desire it, even long for such belief. For believing costs us. Believing means turning toward the light of love and away from the darkness of self. My bishop often said, “all doubt is moral.” I’m not sure if all doubt is moral, but I’m beginning to agree that belief requires a change of heart, an honorable discipline, a code of ethics that challenges us to change our ways. It is sometimes tempting to doubt, when belief accuses and demands our time, talent, and treasure. Demands our hearts and souls and bodies.

And so Easter’s resurrection message is a radical one. It says to our world, as Father James Martin writes in the Wall Street Journal, “Listen!” Listen to what the resurrection means for us! For the resurrection demands that attention be paid to a man who conquered death. Attention must be paid to his words, his deeds, his miracles of healing and feeding and calming storms and walking on water. Attention must be paid to his claims to be God, and to his Church’s claims after his ascension to Heaven. For the Church he founded, a stepchild of the Jewish temple, witnessed to Christ’s life, death, and resurrection, again and again, in word and deed. Christians died tortuous deaths for their belief in Jesus Christ and who he was. They did not invent him. They knew him. And the witness continues.

Today Christians die daily for their belief in this God-made-man. They cannot deny Christ, cannot deny his light, his joy, his glory. They have been changed, reborn. They cannot go back to the darkness of self.

On Easter morning I thought of these things as I handed a flower to one of the children and helped her shove the moist green stem into the deep dry hole, into the wood of the cross. In that moment, she was part of the cross. She stood back and smiled, satisfied, and reached for another. Our baskets empty, we recessed out to the Sunday School.

We had given ourselves to Easter’s resurrection cross, and Christ had returned the gift a thousand fold. The dead wood had been reborn. So had we. For each of us had been flowered by and with Christ.

Americans for Life

voteThey marched in freezing temperatures with a blizzard fast approaching. Washington D.C. was closed down – transportation systems crippled. There were fewer valiant witnesses to the Pro-Life plea than in previous years, yet their hearts burned with the love of life and of God. 

And it was perhaps the fire within them that I saw in the photos of the tens of thousands gathered in our nation’s capitol, to march to the steps of the Supreme Court. In the dark of winter they carried their flaming hearts, lighting the way, reminding the world to see what we have done and are doing to our nation. 

It is difficult to see in a storm, and a blizzard is blinding. But these valiant marchers represented the majority of Americans who do not believe abortion on demand should be the law of the land. They represented the forty-three million unborn children murdered, a massive genocide. Their crime, these little ones? Wanting to live. 

I am thankful these protesters gave witness. Abortion is like the elephant in the room, only it is an elephant in our nation, avoided, not spoken of in polite society. Those of us who can see the elephant can no longer turn away and pretend it’s not there. We cannot say that taking innocent human life is a choice, a right, in a civilized world. Recently it seems that our laws protect those who break them, yet do not protect the innocent, the least of us, the most vulnerable, the unborn. 

There will be a judgment one day, a day when each of us will stand before God in His brilliant all-seeing light. We shall answer for our lives. We will be judged, essentially, on how well we have loved one another, on whether we loved life more than death, loved others more than ourselves. God does win in the end, and he is a loving God, desiring us to love, commanding us to love. 

The annual March for Life is held on or near January 22, the day of the 1973 Supreme Court ruling, Roe v. Wade. It is a wintry time, when light is less. But the days are lengthening, and soon we will enter the Lenten Season to prepare our hearts for Easter. Lent means lengthening, a stretching of the light to shrink the dark. And so our nation, in the cold of winter, tries to see a way forward in today’s blizzard of choice. Our nation needs to lengthen the light and shrink the dark.

January 22 borders deep winter and early spring. In the Church we have been celebrating Epiphany, a starry season of light and seeing, of manifestations of God become man, when Eternity intersected Time. Epiphanytide is short this year, two Sundays, so that today we suddenly find ourselves in Pre-Lent, three Sundays before Ash Wednesday. We prepare our hearts for Easter, and in the discipline of fast, prayer, and sacrifice, we shed light on our own lives so that we can repent and move toward the light of God’s love once again, so that we can truly see the resurrected Christ and partake of his resurrection. During Lent we confess our unlove, the selfishness that hardens our own hearts, and that hardens the heart of America. 

Our nation, in this election year, is also called to choose light over darkness, life over death. Our country is called to repent, to change. As we cast our votes we become part of our culture, be it one of life or death, and we become responsible for its law. Each of us will one day account for the vote we cast, the part we played in creating those laws. As a conservative in California, my vote doesn’t seem to make a difference in the electoral system. But I know it does. God counts my vote, and it lessens my culpability in the ongoing genocide of our next generation, a genocide that averages a million babies a year, forty-three million lives in the last forty-three years. 

We hear that women want to “own” their bodies. They want to fulfill their dreams. Such ownership of another person is slavery. Dreams are not fulfilled through such ownership. Such dreams, built on such a lie, are nightmares. President Lincoln and Dr. King knew this. Such nightmares lead to suicide; such lies will kill America.

We must pray for our country, for this lie lives in our law. It is said the tide is turning, that eighty percent of Americans now favor restrictions on abortion; two-thirds of those are “pro-choice.” As we enter this time of choosing our leaders let us choose those who will work to redeem our culture, so that America can once again be a beacon of light to a darkening world. 

As we step into Lent, we must pray for light and life. We must fan the flames of love in order to see our way to Easter.

All Hallows

all saintsHallowe’en comes from the contraction of All Hallows Eve. To hallow is to make holy, and October 31 was (and is) the eve before All Hallows Day, or the All the Holy Ones Day, All Saints, honoring Christian saints. The celebration is followed by Allhallowstide, in which all of the Christian dead are remembered. This coming week churches all over world will remember their dead, their loved ones, calling out their names on All Souls Day and, in this ceremony of love, hallowing them. The evening before, Halloween, sees the last of the unfriendly spirits roaming the night, for they are vanquished by the light of Christ in the morning, and fear is vanquished by joy.

Sometimes fear is good. It is an intuitive instinct that signals danger. Gavin de Becker, an expert who evaluates potential threats to famous people, titled his invaluable book on safety, The Gift of Fear. And in this sense, fear is a gift, a survival signal, a warning that lights the dark.

Children are afraid of the dark. And we should be too. Novelist Jake Halpern writes in the Wall Street Journal about fear of the dark:

“Since the dawn of man, night has been a time when we were in danger, when we were vulnerable – to lions, club-toting men and giant chasms into which we could fall… it was evolutionarily advantageous for us to be afraid of the dark. Those of us who feared the night and cowered from its dangers, survived. Those who went for strolls in the dark ended up as snacks for lions.”

Today with electric light we laugh such fears away. Yet we are ambivalent about fear itself, sometimes denying it, sometimes welcoming it. We flirt with it, tease it, to see what happens when it draws near, for we have banished most survival fears from long ago such as hunger, shelter, wild animals. We are curious, enticed by darkness.

A friend of mine once claimed that she liked the feeling of fear, of being on the edge of danger, secondhand fear experienced in a book or movie. There are many words for this feeling of excitement. We shudder and shiver, chilled to the bone. A frisson gives us goosebumps. A ghost walks over our grave. We are on the edge of our seats, waiting to be safe again. What is the lure? Why flirt with the dark, with falling into the abyss? Are we rehearsing our future? Our death?

Halloween has in many ways become a rehearsal as well, as children (and adults) don costumes and pretend to be someone or something else and venture into the dark. For some the choice is innocent role playing, choosing to be princes and princesses, musicians or athletes. Still, others choose to be witches and goblins. Some choose the light and some the dark. Some choose life and some choose death: skeletons, ghosts, and grim reapers, desiring to scare.

Our nation too seems on the edge of darkness, in the dusk of its day, playing dangerous games with life and death, slaughtering generations of unborn innocents. We survivors look away, pass on the other side of the road, just as we do in the world theater of wars and rumors of wars, withdrawing and allowing the dark to swallow the light, whether in Moscow or Tehran or the borderlands of the West.

Light and darkness, life and death. The line between them is not often clear, sometimes smudged into dusk and dawn. And so it is in our hearts, where good sheds light and evil darkens.

And so I’m grateful that the dark of All Hallows’ Eve is banished by the light of All Hallows’ Day and the light of Sunday resurrection. This morning I gazed upon six thick white candles on the stone altar of St. Joseph’s Chapel near U.C. Berkeley. The candles flamed brightly, the fiery wicks drinking in the air above, flickering their tips toward heaven. A roughly carved crucifix rose above the tabernacle, beyond the suspended Sanctus light. We stood and turned toward the entry as five student acolytes processed in, carrying torches and crucifix, followed by the white-robed clergy. The organ bellowed through the vaulted domed space and echoed over the russet-tiled floor as we joined in songs of praise to God for his saints.

Halloween would not exist if it were not for All Saints, the holy-day that gives the costumed evening its name. After the night of darkness, a weak sun broke through this morning and bathed our world in light. We sang as one people, giving thanks for those men and women who chose the light and turned away from the dark. Martyred for their choice, and today still being martyred, we honor them. History has known a world without Christ, a world of impenetrable darkness, one rightly feared. We peer through the dusk of our days, keeping our candles lit, sharing the love of God, the light of Christ, looking to the morning of resurrection.

The Human Search for Meaning

IMG_0044One of the many reasons I like going to church each Sunday is that I am reminded regularly of what it means to be fully human and to live life to the fullest, within a human community, a society.

For I do not live alone. What I do affects others. What others do affects me. With the creed of self, of rampant individualism birthed in the sixties and nurtured by the sexual revolution, one needs reminding regularly what it means to be human, that we are a human community.

And the community is not only a horizontal one in present time, but one which extends back in time and forward in the future. What I do today affects future generations. What my ancestors did, my parents, my grandparents did, has affected me.

So in church I come face to face with the fact that not only do I bear some degree of responsibility for others, that it’s “not all about me,” but that my life has real meaning.

Rabbi Jonathan Sacks in the Wall Street Journal writes of the vital role of religion in society:

“No society has survived for long without either a religion or a substitute for religion… Homo sapiens is the meaning-seeking animal. If there is one thing the great institutions of the modern world do not do, it is to provide meaning. Science tells us how but not why. Technology gives us power but cannot guide us as to how to use that power. The market gives us choices but leaves us uninstructed as to how to make those choices. The liberal democratic state gives us freedom to live as we choose but refuses, on principle, to guide us as to how to choose… the twenty-first century has left us with a maximum of choice and a minimum of meaning.”

We are creatures who  seek meaning. We are recognizing today that generations have been raised in a largely secular society that has sought to strip serious meaning from the public square, substituting causes, grievances and movements that gather around likes or dislikes. These politically correct “isms” do not tell me who I am, why I am here, how I should live, where I have been and where I am going. There may be meaning on some level in decrying global warming or GMO’s or political candidates but not meaningful enough to ward off depression and it’s offspring, despair.

And there is plenty of depression and despair that has filled the void. Pharmaceuticals and other feel-good drugs have followed suit, re-enforcing the divine monarchy of self and isolating us more and more from one another. The vicious spiral continues downward into darkness.

And so I go to Church where I am told that, as a matter of fact, it is not all about me. Mary Wakefield writes in The British Spectator, “In my twenties… full of self-pity…. I dropped in to see a priest… and poured out my woes. (He) listened quietly, then said: ‘The point of being a Christian is not to feel better, it is so God can use you to serve others.’ Others? It wasn’t all about me! I actually laughed with the relief of it.”

Yes, the relief. And we end up feeling better by serving others. Instead of contemplating my own needs, worship and service pulls me out of myself, towards God and my fellows, and life becomes deeply and beautifully meaningful. Depression and despair will ever be nearby, waiting to fill the void, so I make sure there is no void to fill. I make sure I am full to the brim with meaning, with God, by going to church regularly.

Our preacher today spoke of his heartrending experience as a social counselor to prisoners being released in California. He has come to see that their broken lives do not exist in a vacuum, but were influenced by earlier generations – their parents, grandparents, even great-grandparents. And so the “sins of the father” were indeed visited upon the children. He works to stop the cycle.

Our preacher said how science has given us proof of that legacy in the way drug use is biologically passed on to offspring, so that newborns must undergo a detoxing, shattering the air with their screams.

We are not alone in our actions. No man is an island, as the priest-poet John Donne said.  We are affected by those who have gone before us and we will in turn affect those who come after. We affect one another today.

Douglas Murray writes of the slippery slope of euthanasia, assisted suicide, a topic debated in Britain, passed into law in Holland and Oregon, and recently signed into law by the governor of  California. Mr. Murray traces the acceptance of this shift in our culture to the baby-boomer generation desiring the “full panoply of rights”:

“The right to education and welfare were followed by sexual liberation, which… came with the idea of having total rights over one’s own body, including the right to abort unwanted fetuses… the baby-boomers (are) awarding themselves one last right – the ‘right to die.’ “

The ownership of one’s body is a powerful idea. The fallacy lies in the fact that we are communal beings, with responsibilities to one another today and to the future. In terms of abortion, the fallacy also lies in the right to own another human being by virtue of that person residing within one’s body.

We fought slavery and won, but society will always know the anguish that we allowed it to happen at all. So too, as we kill our children because we own our bodies and claim ownership of the life growing within, we will grieve far into the future. We shall wake up and see the greatest genocide of all, generations of Americans lost, our own children, our own grandchildren, and now our own great-grandchildren, all fellow human beings on this good earth. We know already the grief of Rachel weeping for her children that were no more, the slaughter of the innocents. We are linked together in our humanity.

It has been observed that where euthanasia has become legal, palliative care has lessened. Those in favor of assisted suicide using the euphemism “death with dignity,” point out that I don’t have to choose death by injection. But others choosing assisted suicide may mean that my end-of-life care, my palliative care, will diminish in quality, availability, and affordability. A slippery slope. We are linked together.

There are ways to care for one another that reflect our Creator’s love for us. When we choose death instead of life, at either end of our numbered days, we withdraw from our common bonds, our humanity. Christianity and Judaism has taught for centuries to choose life over death. Doctors have sworn an oath to do so; what do they swear to uphold today? Can I trust my doctor?

I recently watched a good friend meet a good death. I pray, when my time comes, that I die as well as he did. He knew who he was, why he was here, and where he was going. He knew he was passing through a gateway into eternal life, eternal love, eternal joy. Shedding the corrupted body is not easy, but we have many means to palliate and soften the journey.

When I go to church I am reminded of these things, these “higher” things, the difference between truly living life to the fullest, as our Creator intends for each one of us to do (he should know) and slowly dying by degree, inch by inch, slipping into myself, into depression, despair, and eternal death, even while living.

And when I come home from church I come home full of meaning, full of God, nourished and ready to brave the six days until the next Sunday.

Incarnations Among Us

Michelangelo CreationThe link between God and man has always been sacred. The glory of the Creator permeates his creation. His life pulses through us, from conception to death, and into eternity. God, our preacher reminded us yesterday, is incarnate within us.

Such incarnation – in the flesh – is the heart of Christianity. This mystery was revealed two thousand years ago, made perfect in God’s incarnation as Jesus the Christ, the Messiah. As St. John writes: 

In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God… All things were made by him; and without him was not any thing made that was made. In him was life; and the life was the light of men. And the light shineth in darkness; and the darkness comprehended it not… And the Word was made flesh, and dwelt among us, (and we beheld his glory, the glory as of the only begotten of the Father,) full of grace and truth.” (KJV)

This moment in history revealed to a barbaric world the innate natural law to honor the dignity of all human beings, regardless of gender, race, handicap, age, born and unborn. To be sure, before Christ, God led his Chosen People to this moment by giving them laws and judgments that taught the same respect, belief, and charity for one another and set them apart from other communities. But when God the Son entered humanity to live among us, he gave us incarnational means, sacramental means, to take part in his divinity through God the Holy Spirit.

The Church through the centuries has worked to make incarnation understood and experienced. Doctrines and dogma explain in words. Sacraments provide incarnate ways for God to enter his creation again and again in human time, hourly, daily, weekly. We receive his body into our body. We pray and praise, and his Spirit weaves among us, entering our hearts and minds. We, the created, are called to converse with our Creator, and he descends upon us, within us, filling us with his life and love. This is incarnation. This God in our own flesh.

Recently, at a concert at St. Peter’s, Oakland, “Bach Vespers, Cantata 199, Mein Herze schwimmt im Blut” with soprano Juliana Snapper and organist Jonathan Dimmock of the San Francisco Symphony, I knew I was experiencing a kind of incarnation. For music c0mposed for the worship of God, as this was composed, is prayerful praise. It links us with God through our hearing and our singing. Johann Sebastian Bach (1685-1750), church organist, wrote this stunning cantata for a Lutheran Evening Prayer service (Vespers), weaving music through Scripture readings and prayers. The audience of varying beliefs sang hymns with the rest of us. The music danced around us, in, and through us.

I have often called for the return of the Judeo-Christian tradition to the public square, not as theocracy but to remind our culture of the roots of our historic belief in human dignity founded on the belief that God indwells in each of us. Here, in the nave of this Oakland church, the public square came to us, for it was a public concert reminding ordinary citizens of the roots of freedom, this God of revelation. It was a powerful moment.

And when I saw Pope Francis address Congress this weekend, the first pope to do so, I was encouraged to see that Christianity had entered the public square for a short hearing. The pope, to be sure, appeals to a broad spectrum. As Peggy Noonan writes, Pope Francis has two sides, a lovable one, preaching the dignity of human life, and a not-so-lovable one, preaching an economic theory long ago discredited as helping the poor, one that hurts the poor. He is a pope, she writes, who “endorses secular political agendas, who castigates capitalism in language that is both imprecise and heavily loaded… he doesn’t, actually, seem to know a lot about capitalism or markets, or even what economic freedom has given – and is giving – his own church.” Indeed, his own Argentina has fallen into poverty through socialist ideology. Hoover Institution economist Thomas Sowell weighed in this week: “The official poverty level in the United States is the upper middle class in Mexico. The much criticized market economy of the United States has done far more for the poor than the ideology of the left.”

But even with the two sides of this lovable Pope Francis, I rejoice in his presence, for he has brought the Church into America’s public square, and many are listening to his words spoken from a loving heart. He has reminded us of our Judeo-Christian roots simply by his white-robed incarnate presence among us, for he represents historic Christianity through the ages. His visit, in this sense, has been a sacramental journey, to America but in time as well, as all true pilgrimages are.

Saturday night, at my fiftieth high school reunion, I saw  schoolmates I had not seen since high school. I tried to match names and faces. I studied the class photos on the wall. And as we linked with one another, searching for recognition and trying to read name tags with our reading glasses, I thought how unique each one of us was, how we had all moved through our given time changed and yet unchanged. Each one of us, created in the image of our Creator, carried his life within, in varying degrees. We are neither God nor gods, but we carry God’s spark within us, and those who had fanned it into a flame with prayer and praise and Scripture and sacrament shone brighter than those who hadn’t. They lit the room with their quiet glow.

Incarnations of God are all around us, in every person we meet. We are born to love and praise God, and this is the good, the wondrous news of salvation. We need not despair, for he is with us if we desire him. But we must desire.

I look forward to more public square incarnations, to the fusing of our culture with the Judeo-Christian belief in a loving God who proclaims the dignity of each one of us, no matter what, no matter who.

Requiem

APCK-Logo-10-03-2008It was as if Archbishop Morse of our Anglican Province of Christ the King were present among us, and perhaps he was, the sense was so palpable. 

My husband and I arrived early Saturday morning for Bishop Morse’s Requiem Mass at St. Peter’s Anglican Church in Oakland, near Berkeley in the historic residential neighborhood of Rockridge. The clergy were vesting in the Sunday School rooms (the sacristy being too small for such numbers) and as I checked on the nursery – lights on, toys set out, our young attendant waiting for the first arrivals with her sweet smile – I was greeted with the awesome anticipation I usually sense when dozens of clergy meet for a single Mass, whatever the occasion. 

But Saturday’s occasion was a serious one, an especially joyous one. These men knew this was a historical event, a meaningful time in all of their lives, in the life of the Church, in the world itself. This funeral was for no ordinary man, not your average priest. Bishop Morse had welcomed these men into the fold of the Anglican Province of Christ the King over the past thirty-seven years with the vision to continue traditional Anglican Christianity. Each man who had known  this bishop had differing and yet similar stories to tell of his love for them. 

A good shepherd, Bishop Morse had found these young men at miraculous moments in the millions of moments in their lives – at crossroads moments – and revealed the love of God in a compelling way. Saturday morning, as they robed in the Sunday School of St. Peter’s, pulling cassocks and cottas and stoles over their heads, chatting and catching up with one another’s lives since the last gathering, they were thankful for this man who had changed them forever. 

I had checked on the nursery and had watched the tide of clergy ripple through the Sunday School rooms. I now entered the nave of the church and joined my husband in our pew. I said my prayers of thanksgiving and looked about. Four large candles stood at the head of the central aisle, before the chancel steps, waiting for the casket. To the side of the chancel an acolyte entered from the sacristy. He lit tall candles on the altar. A large medieval crucifix hung over a tented tabernacle and marble altar. I thought how the steepled wooden ceilings and red-brick apse formed the bow of our ark. Stained glass windows, glittering along the side aisles, told stories of St. Peter. Behind and high above us rose the choir loft with St. Ann Chapel’s wondrous singers. Beyond them more stained glass burned bright with Pentecost crimsons, flaming to the eaves. 

As we waited in our pews, the choir sang softly, and I recognized Shall we gather by the river. Then the choir was suddenly silent, and in the silence a procession stepped up the aisle. Torchbearers held flaming candles, the thurifer swung clouds of incense, the crucifer held high the crucifix. Four young men, the bishop’s grandsons, rolled a closed casket to rest between the standing torches at the head of the aisle. 

I gazed at the draped casket, knowing that the spirit of this man was no longer there. He was alive, but where was he? Sleeping? Purgatory? Heaven? The body had become, now separated from the spirit, a symbol or memory, something tangible, and as sacramental Christians we honor the material of creation. We believe God  created us and our world from his great love. He even entered  our created order himself to walk among us, to die among us.

So in our liturgies, matter matters. Matter is our means of expression; matter is our vocabulary, our dialog with God. Hence, candles burn, incense billows, bells ring. We use our bodies to kneel and genuflect and make the Sign of the Cross over our heads and hearts. We process with our feet, we anoint with oil, we baptize with water, we mark foreheads with ash. We act the story, we celebrate the glories as we re-create Maundy Thursday, Good Friday, and Easter Sunday in every Eucharist. We receive the Son of God, uniting his body and blood with our own, taking, eating, and drinking the consecrated bread and wine at every Mass.

Words are one means of expression, but only one (and I do love words). We desire to express the profound love of God through the dance of the liturgy, through our bodies, through our living lives. 

So I gazed at the coffin, now anchoring our ark of a parish church, sitting in the heart of its cross. It was as though our ship had paused in its sailing through the rough weather of our world, and in this time of standing still we on board in the pews wove prayer and song around and over the body of the man who had fought for us all these years. 

Robert Sherwood Morse took a strong stand against the riptides and undertows of the seventies, eighties, nineties, and the first fifteen years of this millennium. He told the truth, unafraid, always listening to the voice of God spoken through scripture, sacrament, and tradition. Especially in the last few years, a time in which I was given the grace to work with him, I could see him listening, looking, feeling his way through choices, sometimes hard choices. In essence, he protected us from heresy, ensuring the ancient creeds would continue to be recited and, more importantly, believed. So, like Noah, he built an ark and welcomed us in. And like Moses, he led us through the desert to the promised land. He walked straight and tall, holding fast his shepherd’s crook. He watched out for hungry wolves. He protected us. He guided us. He loved us. 

And in that love he taught us how God loves. In that love he taught us how Christ loves, how to love one another. “Christianity is caught, not taught,” he often said. His exuberant witness was indeed catching, and the fire of God’s love spread from soul to soul in his congregations as his many arks set sail through the years. And we always knew it was Christ who acted through him. He was a vehicle, a way, a disciple who pointed to Christ, waving his hands in gentle arcs as he preached from the central aisle.

He loved the Holy Eucharist: “The purpose of the Church is to give humanity the Eucharist. The Church must clear the roads so that this can happen.” 

And so, as I gazed upon the draped casket surrounded by flaming candles, as I joined in the prayer-dance of liturgy and song, and as I stepped to the altar to receive Christ, our good bishop was present, with us. He heard us, he smiled upon us. His love wove between us, pulling us into Christ. For our bishop knew, and knows at this moment as I write this, that he formed a cross with his body, linking earth to heaven, a cross pointing to the true Cross, the way to life, to God, today and in eternity. 

As we sang, Yes, we’ll gather at the river,/The beautiful, the beautiful river;/Gather with the saints at the river/That flows by the throne of God, I could hear him singing with us, gathering us together in his love this first Saturday in June 2015, gathering us together in our mortality, so that we could gather later in eternity by the river that flows by the throne of God. 

Biography of Archbishop Morse

Gathering at the River

gathering at the riverMy good friend, wise counselor, and sacrificial priest, is dying of terminal cancer. He is ninety-one. He will be leaving us soon. 

I owe him my life, at least my reborn life, after returning from Canada to the Bay Area where I grew up. I was twenty-nine, wounded from a disintegrating marriage. On the third Sunday of January 1977, I climbed the broad steps of St. Peter’s Anglican Church, Oakland, holding firmly the hand of my towheaded, bouncing, four-year-old son. 

I was already an Anglo-Catholic, having come from Vancouver’s St. James, so I had high expectations as I entered the hushed nave, but my expectations were surpassed on that Sunday morning. The beauty of the liturgy with its fragrant incense, flaming candles, chanting responses, poetically profound hymns, pulled me into the heart of God. The sixteenth-century language – Shakespearean and Elizabethan words and phrasing – restored my soul and renewed my heart. I had come home to beauty, truth, and goodness, to the family of God, the Body of Christ. I had entered Love incarnate. 

The rector, a simple priest of large frame and thick hair, who preached earnestly about the love of God from the central aisle, welcomed us. The families of the parish adopted us. Over the years I traveled in the faith, learning its language, the necessary art and parts of prayer. I began to glimpse heaven, in the daily faithfulness of an Our Father and Glory Be, and in the increased faithfulness of Morning and Evening Prayer, in the joy of receiving the Eucharist into my body and soul, in the “parting of the veil” at the altar. 

I remarried at St. Peter’s, before that same altar. My son served as an acolyte and was confirmed before that altar. In the course of time, my priest and his wife traveled with me and my husband to Western Europe, to the Christian foundations of Western Civilization in Italy, France, and England. We visited monasteries, memorials, great basilicas and humble hermitages. We journeyed from abbeys to cathedrals to healing waters to shrines of the saints. My priest was a wise mentor, showing me how God worked in and through history. 

My first three novels were born of those travels. They explore our history through the journeys of Madeleine and Jack Seymour, a present-day couple who climb a ladder of Christian challenges – healing of body and soul, penitence and forgiveness, redemption and salvation, sacrificial love versus narcissistic lust. These stories comprise Pilgrimage, Offerings, and Inheritance, set in Italy, France, and England. My priest is the genius behind these stories; where they sing in key they do so because of him; where they sing off-key they do so because of me. They are given depth with his words, his beliefs, his ways of seeing and understanding that settled into my soul. 

The stories in turn gifted me with the joy of writing, and for this gift I must be ever in my friend’s debt. As he lay dying he turned to me with half closed eyes, my novel-in-progress on his mind. “The new book – don’t forget the changes,” he barely breathed. “I won’t,” I said. “They’ve already been made.” It was true, I had rewritten portions as he suggested after his reading an early draft, making The Fire Trail richer and more powerful in its consideration of barbarism and civilization. He won’t be able to read the new version until later, at the river. 

Christians never really say goodbye. They say God be with you (the origin of goodbye) or Till we meet again. My priest says he is leaving us, not that he is dying. He often said that we will “gather at the river.” I asked him one afternoon as he lay dying, “Which river? I need to know where we are gathering when we meet in heaven.” His eyes opened wide and locked on mine. “Why, the one that flows by the throne of God.” I laughed. “Of course,” I said. “Now I know where to gather.” I later looked up the lyrics, and sure enough, the refrain was just as he said: 

Yes, we’ll gather at the river,
The beautiful, the beautiful river;
Gather with the saints at the river
That flows by the throne of God.        (Robert Lowry, 1864)

When I left him that day, I kissed his forehead and said, “Till we meet again.” He barely nodded and smiled as he drifted off to sleep. 

We worked together on many projects, my saintly priest and I. I always considered it an honor to do what I could, as best I could, with the time given. I prayed about what to do next, listened to Holy Spirit nudges, trusting that the Holy Spirit, that Breath of God, would breathe me along the right path. When I made wrong turns, I prayed I would return to the crossroads and choose again. 

Sacramental Christianity, the faith taught me by my priest, is woven with these wonderful truths – the turning, the changing, the leading, the following the star. Life is a dance, a sacramental dance between heaven and earth, and through Christ, in Christ, the two – the invisible and the visible, God’s world and man’s world –  waltz with one another. Without the Incarnation, that first dance two thousand years ago, we would not be dancing with the angels. We would not know how. 

All this and much more I learned from my prayerful and penitential priest. I sing with gratitude for his life, so thankful that I could share a small part of it, and now, as he leaves us, he is teaching us how to make a “good death.” For one day I will follow him. I will leave; I will die. The best way, it seems to me, is to have made a “good life.” Then, leave that goodness in the hands of those you love and who love you. For love unites us all – the love of God, the love of Christ, the love of the Holy Spirit binding us together. And my priest loves each one of us, as we love him, binding us together in this God of infinite love.

In my freshman year in college in 1965 one of the final exam questions in my Western Civilization class was: “What is the good life?” It was of course a reference to the classical philosophers, but today I know the true answer. The good life is to know God, to be redeemed by Christ, and to live the life of a sacramental Christian. There is nothing better than that. Such goodness defines everything else.

And I owe the answer to my priest, who, in time, became bishop and then archbishop. At this writing, on Ascension Sunday 2015 celebrating the ascension of Christ to heaven, this earthly shepherd of souls lingers in his love for us, even after last rites. In my ongoing prayers for him, the river is never far from my thoughts, beckoning us, calling us to gather by the throne of God. And I realize now it is the river of life, eternal life and eternal love.

Deo Gratias…  Safe travels, dear friend.

Time Turning and Returning

PassiontideThe altar was draped this morning in purple – purple covered everything, it seemed – the tabernacle, the giant candlesticks, the huge medieval crucifix, the Lady Altar, the lecterns. We were drowning in purple. And so I considered my purple, penitent past, one which I revisited recently. 

I returned to a place I had not visited in thirty years, a city in which I had lived in the 1970’s, for the funeral of an old friend gone to Heaven. He was a devout Christian; he knew where he was going and he knew the way. He was eight-two, my son’s godfather. We had been in touch by phone and through Christmas cards, but not much else. 

So my son (42) and I (67) flew north to Vancouver, Canada. And as we flew above the clouds, I traveled back in time to a younger version of myself. The younger version, a girl in her twenties, peered over my shoulder that day of the funeral as though watching and taking stock of who she would become one day. 

I considered from time to time, as we prayed the prayers over the ashes in the Anglican Church, sitting with old friends in the pews, the unique journeys we each had made to this place and this day in this year 2015. I learned more about journeys, those stories, later over coffee and sandwiches. My friends had suffered death, illness, and loss. But we were joyful in spite of it. Children had grown to be parents, just like my son, and I marveled at these children now in their forties who once played together and flew kites on the green lawns of Stanley Park. Our children had grown up. And of course I noticed other graduations: retirement, gray hair, silvery beards. 

IMG_0437 (2)My son’s godfather, Frits Jacobsen, whose ashes we placed reverently in the square space in the cemetery grass, was a rare creature, a Christian bohemian. Born in 1933, he emigrated from Holland to Toronto with his young family after the war. Many years later he resettled in Vancouver and made a humble living as a book illustrator. He devoted countless hours to his church, his community, and the poor. He was self-supporting with his pen-and-ink drawings. He might have been confused with the hippies, a generation later, but he was far nobler. He lived in a garret in Shanghai Alley, Chinatown, in old Vancouver. Today the building is adjacent to the newly redeveloped Olympics and World’s Fair district, but back in the 1970’s it was a poor, albeit quaint, neighborhood, with soup kitchens and lines of homeless. 

IMG_0425My son, with the help of his miraculous IPhone, found the address. I recognized the door, with the 522 painted over it. We took photos from all angles. It was when we headed back to the car, time telling us it was time to leave for the funeral, that a lovely young lady came through 522. We asked what floor she lived on. The top, she said, curious. Could we come up? we asked. My son explained our connection with the former inhabitant (Frits had moved with the area’s redevelopment). When she learned that an artist had lived there, she was delighted to invite us in. And once again, as I climbed the familiar stairs to Frits’ studio and smelled the same musty stairway smells, that other girl I was, so many years ago, smiled from behind my shoulder. I pinched myself as I watched my grown son climb the stairs ahead of me, for I could see the four-year-old blond towhead clambering up behind him to visit his Uncle Frits. 

Frits, opining in his heavy Dutch accent, with his beret and his trim beard, was both gregariously joyful and astutely serious. He brooked no compromise with his Christian beliefs and would follow those who pledged the same. He was sure the Apocalypse was imminent. He judged his culture and he judged rightly, I believe, although he was a bit too harsh, to my way of thinking, on other denominations within the Body of Christ. Frits had his opinions and wasn’t shy about voicing them. And we loved him for it. He was a breath of fresh air. 

After the graveside service last week we gathered again to recall Frits and how he would love our gathering. We looked at his artwork, shared plates of fruit and salad. We laughed a good deal, and we knew Frits would have liked that. We remembered how we had found one another at church, our glorious Anglo-Catholic St. James, and how we had formed friendships including singles, couples, and young families. We didn’t have much, but we liked to talk about faith, about Lewis and Tolkien, about books, about theology, and we would gather together over wine and cheese and pineapple upside-down-cake. We picnicked at Stanley Park and dreamed where our lives would take us. For we were young then, and our future spread before us. We were fearless, undaunted. We embraced living. 

And so as I revisited my earlier life, more battle weary but also more wise, I guessed my friends felt the same. We looked different and yet the same, and we wove together the years we were apart in our conversations, asking, remembering, wondering why this and how that and where was so and so and what happened then. Each of us carried a universe within us; we had lived most of the universe already, and the stories, like planets, revolved around one another once again. 

I realize now as I write this, how rich we all are to have lived so long, to have so many stories texturing us and coloring our lives. Some are painful tales to be sure, but some are joyful. The threads of the weaving are both dark and light, drab and colorful. 

And also, as I now think back on this morning, Passion Sunday, when we enter the heart of Christ’s story – who he was, who he is, how he saved us from death to be with him – I understand a bit more than I did last year at this time. For my own passio – my story of moving through time, suffering the wounds of life and celebrating the healings – is fuller than it was even then, one year ago. For each of us, as Christians, are not only a part of God’s great creative project for his creation, but are also part of God’s great creative project for each of us individually, if we say yes, if we say, “be it unto me according to thy word.”

And so as we enter Passiontide, we look to Palm Sunday and Holy Week. We consider what it all means, our lives and the lives of those we love, weaving them together in our prayers and offering our new coat of many colors to God. We look to Palm Sunday and Our Lord’s entrance through the gates of Jerusalem. As the children waved the palms, just so we wave our lives woven by each minute, hour, day. We lay down this fabric of our lives before the Son of God who rides on a donkey through the holy gates. We lay them down alongside the children’s palms.

And we look forward to the glories of Easter.