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.”
Like any parents, Cherry and I would do anything to protect our children from harm. Lately, I have been trying to imagine what it would have been like for us to have to gather up our three children when they were little and run for our lives. Considering the massive refugee problem in the world today, I think Jesus is asking everyone who lives in a country that is capable of granting asylum to imagine these things. “Do to others, as you would have them do to you,” he said. And as an American Christian, I am troubled right now.
When the Angel Gabriel visited the young Virgin Mary, it is no surprise that she was “troubled” and that she “cast in her mind what this might mean.” It’s an interesting expression. I cast into the ocean, and 90 percent of the time, I reel my line back in with absolutely nothing, except maybe a little seaweed. It’s like that when we are worried or troubled – we cast in our minds repeatedly, wondering what’s happening and what we should do, and each time our line comes back with nothing. When that happens to me, my feeling of being “troubled” or “perplexed” can start to turn into dread, anxiety, and even terror.
When I wake gently after a good night’s sleep, there is something about that quiet, in-between space that feels especially holy. If I’ve been dreaming, I often try to remember the particulars of my dream, wondering what God, angels, and the spirit world might be trying to tell me through the unconscious. Sometimes I’ll gradually start to become aware of sounds that usually go unnoticed – my own breathing, the rustling of wind in the trees, birds singing. It is a dreamy, open space in which I am gradually moving from a place of deep surrender and vulnerability, a place where I have not had any control whatsoever.
Whether your presidential candidate won or lost, one thing most of us can agree on is that we all woke up on November 9 having wandered far in a land that is waste. It reminds me of the prodigal son who woke up one day in a pig sty. He just felt dirty, depleted, and wanted to go home. Whether your candidate won or lost, you might have felt something like that – a little dirty, depleted, and wishing you could go back to a time and place when you felt less anxious about life and more at ease with the people around you.
I have been giving a series of reflections at church recently on “Buried Treasure,” a conviction I have about something beautiful, true, and life-giving that perhaps is buried in the field of every one of our lives. But the run-up to the presidential election has had me wondering about another reality in every one of our lives: buried trash.
You’ve probably had the experience of driving on a long trip, making good time on the interstate, when suddenly you see ahead that things are slowing to a crawl. It doesn’t make sense – it’s not rush hour, and you’re nowhere near a busy city. An hour later, after you’ve covered less ground in your car than you could have on foot, you discover the problem. There’s been a wreck, and everyone needed to slow down, not for safety’s sake, but just to get a good, long, gawkish look.