Tag Archives: life

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.

Easter Lilies

Easter LiliesIt is a rich and glorious season, this time of Eastertide. 

As I plucked wilting blossoms off my Easter lilies near our front door I inhaled the sweetness of those remaining, taking care to avoid the staining powder of the yellow stamens. I then attended the roses that once sat on my dining table and now are over the kitchen sink. Five buds are left with shorter stems clustered together in a small pitcher between sculpted figures of Mary Magdalene and an angel. As I gaze at these reminders of the season, and especially of Easter Day, I wonder at it all.

The season of Eastertide, the fifty days linking Easter and Pentecost, provide a joyful time of quiet reflection on the meaning of the Resurrection. The immense implications of this historical event, when eternity intersected time, continues to stun me. And the scripture readings assigned for these days reflect as well, considering the meaning of this new world that was created by the empty tomb.

And indeed a new world was created with the death and resurrection of Christ. It is a revolution changing everything. In one of his first resurrection appearances to the disciples Jesus gently explains what has happened. As our preacher said this morning, Christ appears to them in an upper room where the doors have been locked. He has passed through material barriers to be in their midst. He has power over the world of matter in which we live. Is he a ghost? A vision?

St. John’s eyewitness account describes how Christ points to his wounds in his hands and his side as proof he is no ghost or vision. The disciples can see and touch him. He has a material body of flesh and blood. He is real. And yet he has the power to pass through matter.

In much the same way he seeks to enter our hearts, our own bodily chambers, to dwell in us. How does he do this? He gives the apostles power to forgive sins by breathing his spirit upon them. From this time on, the apostles, who give life to the Church, act for God in the forgiveness of sins. Why?

Christ desires clean-swept hearts, hearts of light that have expelled the dark. He can only enter a heart that is full of light, enlightened, clean of sin.

It is a profound mystery and yet it is profoundly simple, just as each of us is a profound mystery and yet profoundly simple. All creation teems with intricate complexity yet delightful simplicity. The day turns to night. The rain falls on the earth. The sun shines. And the layered meanings and conclusions of learned theologians can be summed in one sentence: God is love.

Just as I pluck the dying trumpet blossoms with their staining stamens, I pluck out my own selfishness, greed, envy, pride, my own staining sin. I trundle to Mass and confess. I repent and am forgiven. I can now enter the open doors of the Eucharist through prayer and praise, Creed and Scripture, to meet Christ in the bread and the wine. He enters my body, heart, and soul. I am given life and light and joy, having partaken of the divine.

All this Christ Jesus taught and showed in his life on earth, as he walked among us. The week before his death he gave us the Holy Supper and showed how he would return among us again and again with each Eucharist. After his resurrection, he gave us the Church and the way to forgiveness. After his ascension he gave us his Holy Spirit to strengthen, to comfort us. All told, Christ Jesus gave us himself, the only path to Heaven – the Way, the Truth, and the Life for, as St. John writes in today’s Epistle,

 “And this is the record, that God hath given to us eternal life, and this life is in his Son. He that hath the Son hath life; and he that hath not the Son of God hath not life.” (I John 5:4)

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.

Sacred Dignity

Michelangelo CreationThe belief in the dignity of every human being is based on the Genesis account of creation, that we are made in the image of God. The Judeo-Christian tradition celebrates this idea that there is a sacredness, a holiness, to all human life. Our system of laws and our identity as free nations in the Western tradition are founded on this idea.

And so it is vital that we do not disparage Western civilization. We must not equate our values to those of other cultures, as if there were no difference, but rather give place to the Western tradition as vitally superior, a way that respects human dignity.  There is a moral hierarchy, with judgment and approval, and we desire to preserve our own culture in a world that seeks to destroy it.

Being made in the image of God makes us different from other animals, for we are given the ability to reason. We seek truth and ferret out lies. We are blessed with minds that sift and sort facts in order to conclude. We recall the past to conserve its best for the present, so that we may effectively plan the future. And we do this to provide for our children, the next generation, stamped with this sacred dignity as we have been.

Our belief in human dignity is the foundation of our desire to do right and eschew wrong, to uphold truth and expose lies. And so it is troubling to see the public twisting of truth today – Ms. Clinton’s hiding of state emails and lying about them; the mainstream media’s near cover-up of her obstructions; her lying about the Benghazi attacks on September 11, 2012 when she claimed they were a reaction to a video. Lies about lies, covering-up cover-ups. It is deeply troubling that Ms. Clinton, who clearly sees herself as privileged and above the law, is running for the presidency of our nation, a country based on equality before the law.

Our belief in human dignity, the foundation of this equality, also raises concerns when government allows some racial groups to be above the law and others left unprotected. Where police presence is threatened by cellphone cameras, as it increasingly is, those same communities become victims of their own violence. Most black crime is caused by blacks, not police, and those rates are rising rapidly with the retreat of law enforcement in black neighborhoods. According to FBI Director James B. Comey, in a speech at the University of Chicago Law School, October 23:

“Something deeply disturbing is happening all across America…something has changed in 2015. Far more people are being killed in America’s cities this year than in many years…. far more people of color are being killed… And it’s not the cops doing the killing.. We need to figure out what’s happening and deal with it now.”

Without the rule of law and its enforcement, the truth of sacred dignity is forgotten. Chaos reigns, tribes war against one another, families feud for power, and a jungle culture becomes the new American way. Civilization crumbles, dignity disintegrates, spirits shatter.

The belief in the value of human life is an exceptional one, unique to the West and its children of many races around the globe. The twentieth century saw this belief erode when the false narrative of population explosion swept America, propelled by the mainstream media. Paul Ehrlich, a biologist with no credentials as a demographer, wrote The Population Bomb in 1968. This myth of overpopulation birthed the United Nations Population Fund and the Malthusian Club of Rome. Indira Gandhi’s government forcibly sterilized eleven million, among whom 1,750 died. China’s one-child policy, supported by UNICEF, was rigidly enforced, causing a surfeit of boys and a disappearing work force, not to mention the tragedy in human lives. As Bret Stephens writes in the Wall Street Journal: “It’s not surprising that someone like Mr. Ehrlich, trained as an entomologist, would be tempted to think of human beings as merely a larger type of insect.” The lie was lucrative, providing posh conferences and bestseller books, becoming self-propelling.

The truth is that the world’s population could fit comfortably into an area the size of Texas. But without belief in God and the sacred dignity of his people, interest groups seek power and wealth at the cost of truth.

The importance of Western values is seen in a story told by Jonah Goldberg in National Review about General Charles Napier, British commander-in-chief of colonial India. General Napier was asked by Hindu priests to be allowed to practice their venerable custom of sati, where widows throw themselves onto the funeral pyres of their husbands, sometimes forced to do so. The general replied,

“Be it so. This burning of widows is your custom; prepare the funeral pile. But my nation has also a custom. When men burn women alive we hang them, and confiscate all their property. My carpenters shall therefore erect gibbets on which to hang all concerned when the widow is consumed. Let us all act according to national customs.”

Not all cultures and customs are created equal; we must evaluate and judge according to our founding belief, the sacred dignity of every human life. We must follow the Napier Doctrine.

In another instance, Mr. Goldberg cites the New York Times’ report that American soldiers have been ordered to ignore child rape by Afghan soldiers, even on U.S. bases. Special Forces captain Dan Quinn retaliated against an Afghan commander who kept a boy as a sex slave. Quinn was removed from his command.

Mr. Goldberg suggests an etiquette manual for Afghan troops that would include: “Do not rape young boys when you are a guest of the Americans. If you wish to follow your own customs in this matter, take note: It is an American custom to beat the stuffing out of men who chain up and rape young boys.” Hooray for the Napier doctrine.

We honor Western civilization. We celebrate the dignity of persons of any age, any class, any race, any gender, any place. We judge other cultures based on this belief.

For we are made in the sacred image of God.

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.

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.

Family Deficit

marriage and family

The future of humanity passes through marriage and the family. So proclaimed Pope John Paul II. When traditional marriage and family is threatened, damaged, and destroyed, so is humanity’s future. Many have written recently about the severe decline in birth rates that will soon cause a global crisis.

Today the Baby Boomer generation is moving into their senior years. Born in the post WWII boom, they comprise a significant percentage of the U.S. population. They will require massive care as they age. Where will that care come from? And with increased longevity, they will require such care farther into the future.

Since the second world war, we have lauded individual autonomy. In our pursuit of happiness we find we may have taken a wrong turn, have embraced self and mocked the authority of tradition, faith, and family to our peril. We have redefined and weakened traditional marriage through no-fault divorce, as we no longer recognize producing and nurturing the next generation as the primary goal of marriage. Birth control began the winnowing, and abortion killed the others who were unwanted. Children, as well as the elderly, have become inconvenient in their demand sacrifice of time and money. As we have sought our own way and individual happiness, we have been inevitably destroying the family and thus the future of humanity.

The world is soon to face a critical shortage of workers. It is ironic or perhaps an obvious result, that my generation of Boomers who failed to provide a substantial next generation, will now have fewer to care for them as they age. In addition, we have not produced the next work force that will manufacture goods, the next police force that will ensure the peace, the next military force that will defend our borders. For a sneak preview, read P. D. James’ dystopian novel, The Children of Men.

I’ve counted at least five trends that will probably coalesce in the next few decades: a worldwide (and massive) graying population, the destruction of the extended family that cares for the aged, the absence of a younger generation that will care for the aged (due to population decline), the increased longevity of the aged, and the culture of self over a culture of  self-sacrifice.

As Nicholas Eberstadt writes in the Wall Street Journal,

“Our world-wide flight from family constitutes a significant international victory for self-actualization over self-sacrifice, and might even be said to mark a new chapter in humanity’s conscious pursuit of happiness. But these voluntary changes have unintended consequences… by some cruel cosmic irony, family structures and family members will be less capable, and perhaps also less willing to provide… care and support than ever before… (which) promises to frame an overarching social problem…throughout the world. It is far from clear that humanity is prepared to cope with the consequences of its impending family deficit, with increasing independence for those traditionally most dependent on others – i.e. the young and old.”

We’ve been warned about the population deficit, that we will not have the numbers to support our economy or defend our borders. But it may come home sooner than that, as we age and become abandoned by our own society.

Some of us have family. Some do not. Digging into the deeper and better part of our human nature, we want to care for both groups.

It is no surprise that with a national health care system that is economically unviable, assisted suicide is encouraged. What committee will decide who lives and who dies? What pressures will be felt by seniors to end their lives for the convenience of their loved ones? What happens to the mind (and heart and soul) of the physician who has journeyed down that path… one that no longer supports life. And should those in the medical industry who support life be forced to defend themselves?

In the end, I suppose, we do reap (as a world, a nation, a family, an individual) what we sow.

If John Paul II is right, and the future of humanity is indeed passed on through the family, we are in trouble. As marriage and the family dies, so does humanity.

And as the family weakens, the wisdom and culture of the past is not passed on. We are left bankrupt not only in terms of matters of defense at home and abroad, matters of health care. We are left without the moral compass of over two thousand years of Judeo-Christian ethos.

Let us renew life. Let us fight for every unborn child. Let us revere and care for our aged as long as we can. Ancient societies understood this and so should we if it is not too late.

Let us support marriage and family life whenever and wherever we can.