Unimaginable Loss

Every life is so precious, so very precious.  At any moment of any day we cannot imagine how dear a life is … until it is gone.  One of the gifts of ministry is that we share life with amazing people. Another gift and challenge is that we experience the deep pain of loss and share in the grief of families and friends.

I’ve always said that it seems to come in waves, and I hold to that.  Lately, we’ve experienced so much grief in our congregation as families have lost dear ones … some after long battles with illness, some sudden loss to illness that took them in blink, another the tragedy of a shooting.  For others the loss is a slow creeping thing; life holds on but the ravages of disease cause the person and family to grieve what has been lost and will never be again.

There are those with whom we have been able to share stories, to celebrate precious memories; to prepare for that “good death.”  As a pastor, I savor those and am grateful to God for such a leave-taking.  But too often, lately, this is not the case.  There is just that breathless shock as life has changed in the blink of an eye.  A sudden absence, emptiness leaves families gasping for air. No, not air — God; gasping for God.  Trying to get a grasp on life as they fall through what seems like nothingness.  Trying to see some possibility when everything – every daily task – now seems impossible.

The amazing gift is that as we wrestle with God and with ourselves in the dark night of the soul, we slowly discover what is possible.  A step at a time, the ability to get up and make toast, to do the laundry, to go to the grocery, to work, to have a 5 minutes conversation without tears and then a 10 minute conversation ….

I somehow find a strange comfort in the fact that as precious and particular as each life is, every person who has ever lived before us has died to this life. Every beloved, special, unique person has lived a limited life-span.  And everyone who loved that particular person has grieved because of so great a love.  It has always seemed impossible to imagine that this person could die, could be here one day and be gone the next.  And yet it is so.

I believe we go on, and the world goes on, because deep down we know that there is life beyond this life.  That the spirit and the soul of each person is a part of life that goes on.  We who are Christian believe those promises – that there is place for us, that we will not be orphaned, that now we see through a mirror dimly, but then we will see face to face.  We believe that we are surrounded by that “great cloud of witnesses.”   Yes.  Thanks be to God.

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All Saints Sunday — Lift Every Voice …

All Saints Sunday is one of my favorite Sunday’s of the church year.  The power of Naming those who have gone before us in faith always moves me to depths I do not anticipate.  Though I know how significant All Saints worship is for me, I am still surprised each time at the power of Naming.  This morning, we began worship singing that beloved hymn “For All the Saints”  while members of the congregation came forward to light candles.  We had arranged about 15 pillar candles of differing heights and colors around the Christ Candle on the communion table.  The beauty of the light of all these candles was a lovely symbol throughout the service of the light of Christ and the light of that great company of saints.

In the sermon I talked about the power of naming; that when we stop speaking the names, we stop telling the stories.  I described my experience earlier in the week of writing the names of the saints who have touched my life — both those I have known personally and those I have known through the witness of others, through history.  Then I  invited the congregation to begin writing their own lists of names.  After a few moments, we began speaking the names aloud.  Voices throughout the congregation spoke the names of the saints of the church and the world.  Name upon name they came, rolling, at times speaking on top of one another.  They continued to come.  I don’t know how long it was; only that the names filled the sanctuary and God’s Spirit was in that place. (A gift of God was that my watch stopped this morning toward the beginning of the service. God has a way of curbing my control needs at just the right times!)

Following a prayer of thanksgiving for those who have gone before us in faith, in struggle, and in hope, we extended the Invitation to Discipleship and sang “Lift Every Voice and Sing.”  I had never before chosen this hymn for All Saints; for other Sundays, yes, but not for All Saints.  Now I wonder why!  I first saw the smile on the face of an African American Elder on the front row and then looked into the face of an African American man two rows behind her, who had just named several of those who had gone before him and now he sang with his whole being, never opening his hymnal — never needing to. (We who are European American and Asian needed our hymnals.)   But his entire body and soul seemed to move with the words.  As he sang them in this All Saints celebration, I heard them anew:

Lift every voice and sing, till earth and heaven ring,
ring with the harmonies of liberty; let our rejoicing rise
high as the listening skies, let it resound loud as the rolling sea.
Sing a song full of the faith that the dark past has taught us;
sing a song full of the hope that the present has brought us;
facing the rising sun of our new day begun, 
let us march on till victory is won.

Stony the road we trod, bitter the chastening rod,
felt in the days when hope unborn had died;
yet with a steady beat, have not our weary feet
come to the place for which our people sighed?

We have come over a way that with tears has been watered;
we have come, treading our path thru the blood of the slaughtered,
out from the gloomy past, till now we stand at last
where the white gleam of our bright star is cast.

God of the weary years, God of our silent tears,
thou who hast brought us thus far on the way;
thou who hast by thy might led us into the light,
keep us forever in the path, we pray.
Lest our feet stray from the places, our God, where we met thee;
lest our hearts drunk with the wine of the world, we forget thee;
shadowed beneath thy hand, may we forever stand,
true to our God, true to our native land.

           (Words: James Weldon Johnson, 1921   Music: J. Rosamond Johnson, 1921)

All Saints indeed!  Thanks be to God.

 

Preaching from the Cloud

I’ve recently picked up again Thomas Troeger’s book Preaching While the Church is Under Reconstruction (Abingdon, 1999). Indeed, we are always ‘under reconstruction’ but it seems that in these days we are called to examine ourselves anew. In recent years the pull toward ‘seeker’ and ‘contemporary’ worship has often included a rejection of tradition. Troeger approaches preaching by calling us to see tradition not only in the image of the anchor (buried in the bottom of the sea, holding us in place, stunting our movement) but in the image of the ‘cloud of witnesses.’ I am moved by his words: “a cloud forms and reforms with the play of wind and light. An anchor may stunt innovation, but not a cloud. The cloud of witnesses reminds us that reality will not stay put. The cloud reveals that tradition is a dynamic process, that tradition initiates creativity, that tradition gives our imaginations depth and wisdom by connecting us to a greater base of human experience than the puny little domain of the present moment. Knowledge of the past feeds our imaginations and stimulates our visionary energies for preaching in a fragmented age.” (Troeger, 22)

Troeger goes on to acknowledge the danger of assuming that the witnesses who speak to one of us are the same witnesses who speak to everyone. He references Ada Maria Isasi-Diaz’s observation: “I learned to distrust those who claim objectivity, which in my view is merely the subjectivity of those who have the power to impose it on others.” (Mujerista Theology: A Theology for the Twenty-First Century, Orbis Books, 1996) The cloud of witnesses is far greater that any one individual, race, nation, or religious tradition.

Perhaps this knowledge, living deep inside me, is the reason I have been drawn in recent time to those who have gone before — not only in what I consider “my tradition,” but traditions different from my own. In fact, I find myself no longer willing to claim “my tradition” in the limited way I once did. It is all my tradition to explore and tap; the voices of those who have gone before us are able to speak to me so that I make new friends and find new family. Whether the medieval women mystics or Latin American, Asian, or African voices, or Black American witnesses, I need to hear the voices of those who have experienced God’s life-giving grace in times of turmoil and transformation for the church. I am healthiest when I remember that many, many have dared to embrace the challenge of preaching — long before I was was born. I am healthiest when I remember that I am one voice among the many. I enjoy responding to Troeger’s guiding:

“Stop. Imagine the cloud. Who emerges from the cloud for you? What wisdom do they have that you need? Let them join in the conversation. Hear them intermingling, correcting and affirming my witnesses from the cloud.”