Tomorrow 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 Beauty, by 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.