Recently, a parishioner came to talk with me about a particularly painful event in her life, an event that involved unimaginable cruelty and ugliness. When she finished describing this deeply upsetting and life-altering event, an event that decimated many people, she said simply, “So, I want you to tell me what to do, because this situation feels unbearable.”This happens a lot; it’s a reason many people turn to religion. In this case, the parishioner knew I would not be able to wave a wand or give her something to do that would make it all better. She is a person of deep and mature faith. When she said, “I want you to tell me what to do,” she was really just saying, “I am lost and in pain; I cannot see the way forward.”
When I woke up this morning, I noticed two major news stories. The first was that the Nobel Prize in medicine had been awarded to three scientists who had identified a kind of inner clock in plants, animals and humans that keeps our biological rhythms in sync with the earth’s revolutions.
A strong “Statement of Unity” is being issued by faith leaders in Richmond on Monday, denouncing racism, nationalism, and white supremacy. It originated in the conservative, evangelical Christian community, whose leaders signed it and invited representatives of “mainline” Christian churches to join them. By the time I saw it, many people whom I admire and respect, both in the conservative Christian community and in the more progressive churches, had signed on. I told one colleague, the strength of character of some of the signatories was so great that it made me want to sign on myself, just so I could be associated with them.
Psalm 85 was appointed for Sunday, August 13, the day after violence erupted in the streets of Charlottesville, and one of its more poetic verses stood out for me:
A parishioner died recently, after a six-year battle with cancer. There were years when she held out hope that this cup would pass her by. Treatments seemed to work beyond everyone’s wildest dreams. Then there were setbacks, blood tests indicating the cancer’s rapid return. New medications would again bring promise, and we would all celebrate. Then, more setbacks. Up and down like that for years. And finally, the reality set in – she was dying; even if a miracle drug appeared, her body could not take any more treatment.
When I was in my late twenties, I served as the vicar of a very small start-up Episcopal church that met in a warehouse. We had folding chairs instead of pews, a piano instead of an organ, a simple table for an altar, a bowl of water for a font, and a small, wooden stand for a lectern and pulpit. Behind the lectern was the bathroom, and when little boys made their way there during my sermon, I just hoped they would remember to close the door behind them. I was the only full-time staff person, but we had a young jazz pianist as our music director – he loved traditional hymns, and he sometimes showed his appreciation by getting lost in some colorful riffs on the piano that had worshipers swaying.
The plain-spoken, crusty Baptist preacher, Carlyle Marney, once addressed a student audience at Duke University during religious emphasis week, and in the course of the Q and A afterward, a student asked him, “Dr. Marney, would you please speak a bit about the resurrection of the dead?” And Carlyle Marney replied bluntly, “No. I don’t talk about that with people like you.”