Camino Musings

          On the Camino, you meet interesting people who share stories and themselves in the most intimate of ways, so as to take each of us to new depths of understanding, insight, faith and life. Such an encounter with an Irishman led to this.
          Frank (not his real name) crossed paths with us as we waited for a bus to take us to the Santiago airport to fly to Dublin. We would continue the next day to home in the US; Frank would arrive in his own land and take a several hour bus ride to his home in another Irish county.
          Since we had several hours to wait at the airport we spent the afternoon together, talking about why we had done the Camino and sharing our lives, ever so briefly. Frank described himself as Catholic but not practicing. He hadn’t been to Mass since he was nine, and he was now in his 60s. Oddly enough, he got into trouble with the church the one time he confessed honestly and truly, but that’s another story for another time. Nevertheless, there was much of Christ in him.
          A story or two or three (and one hilarious joke) stand out from our time together. In one he told of his sister’s grief of a mother, whose son was struck down one day by an aneurysm. He was rushed to hospital and while at first there was hope and expectation that all would be well, it was not to be. The aneurysm had sufficiently damaged her son’s brain that there was little or no activity and no prospect of change. A doctor came to visit her and confessed, “This is the hardest conversation you and I can ever have…” and initiated an invitation for her to give permission to donate her son’s organs to bring hope and life to others. Because he had a history of alcohol abuse, his liver could not be used, but there were other, more promising possibilities.
          “How long do I have to make such a decision?” the mother asked. “Not long,” came the reply. The mother, Frank’s sister, needed a day, and Frank and his other sister accompanied her on the deciding path, although it was hers alone to walk. As Frank told the story, there was such tenderness and love for his sister, and the awful choice laid on her. He did not tell her what to do, but helped her to see that her son was gone. There would be no more stories or conversations. No more shared memories or asking about each other’s day. What was, was what would be, now and always. To let him go was to let go of what had already departed, and to open a better possibility for others.
          It was not an easy conversation then, and the telling to us was still somber, quiet, reflective, alive with the memory of a mother’s grief and loss and generosity; and perhaps a hint of question about how he had done a good thing and if he had done it well enough.
          That called to mind a story I also could tell, of a friend who received a new heart from another son not unlike Frank’s nephew. Amber Donald (not her real name) had been living with her new heart for a year or more when circumstances brought her together with the mother of the dead son who was now making life possible for her. They met in a hotel gathering of donors and recipients, if I remember the story right,and when that mother met Amber, her first action was to draw close to Amber to lean her head against Amber’s chest and listen to the steady, strong beat of her son’s heart, pulsing with life in the body of another. The image is beautiful; the mother leaning in, ear pressed to chest, quiet, attentive and attuned, connected to her son once more in the life of another.
          That story seemed to be a gift to Frank, who found himself unexpectedly moved by the beauty of the generous unity of those lives entwined as one. Irishmen may not weep, but that afternoon one did. And because he was so struck by it, I was led to take another, deeper, metaphorical step.
          Our Catholic brothers and sisters are drawn to the Sacred Heart of Jesus as a devotional path. And now I find myself imagining another Parent whose Son’s death has brought life to me and to many, drawing close and leaning into my chest to listen if that Son’s living heart can be heard and felt in me, throbbing with His life in mine. Does His sacred heart send his life-giving flow of compassion and kindness, mercy and grace throughout and through me? Through His sacrificial death, does His life now live in me? Is His hospitality and care for the least and the last taking form in me? Will the steady beat of His commitment to the hungry poor, the stranger and imprisoned, the sick and the thirsty and the very heart of God be known and felt and heard as God leans in to listen? Has His life been transplanted into me, strong and resistant to sin’s infection, thriving and strong?
          O God, may it be so; may it be so.
          When that mother leaned into Amber and listened, there was joy, gratitude, wonder, awe, even holiness. May that be true for all, blessed to have received the heart of Christ.
There is a place of quiet rest,
Near to the heart of God.
A place where sin cannot molest,
Near to the heart of God.
O Jesus, blest Redeemer,
Sent from the heart of God,
Hold us, who wait before Thee,
Near to the heart of God.
-Cleland Boyd McAfee (1903)
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God Sightings in Williamsburg and Bournemouth

There is so much grace, mystery, wonder to be seen, and I mostly miss it, but today I saw a blessing.  An elderly woman was making her way toward the local Lutheran facility where the church gathers weekly for worship (St. Stephen, you may know of whom I speak); she looked frail and ancient leaning on her cane, and yet there she was making her way toward the place where she expected, by grace, to meet the God she’s forever known in Christ.  I suspect she was unnoticed  because this is who she is and what she does; most Sundays I have also missed her on the way but today I saw and marveled at her faith, her steadfastness, her enduring perseverance that was Spirit-inspired to move her toward worship once more.

Her witness reminded me of another moment of mystery and wonder I encountered in a small Methodist church building in Bournemouth, England in 2004, with a group of students from the Wesley Foundation at The College of William and Mary.  Worship was being led by Kara Cooper, a W&M alum, now a British citizen and Methodist chaplain at Lancaster University.  What I will remembers always from that Sunday was a trio of members coming forth, the middle an elderly WW 2 veteran aided and upheld by his fellow sisters in Christ who had come and brought him to the Lord’s Table.  There is a hunger and a thirst that only God can quench, that draws us until we draw our last breath, and is a blessing.  These poems respond to the epiphanies I was blessed to see today here and then, in England.

I.

She creeps

Her three-legged crawl near imperceptible

By drivers passing on their way

Like a vine she moves toward the Light

She grasps

Her outstretched hand feeling for the sign

Aptly marking the privileged place for her

Who no longer moves so fast or far

As others do and once she did

But blesses and is grateful for a place

Reserved for her

She steps

Shyly lightly curb-toeing her way up

Wondering not if it can bear her up

But if she can bear herself to that low height

Rocking back and up once twice thrice

The small swell of success waving her on

She processes

A one-woman band gliding toward the parade

Others also drawn toward that Light

Just inside the door

Where she expects to meet The Door

The Shepherd True Gate Way of Life

She follows

The path paved every first day of life

A lifetime lifelong journey

She cannot think not going

Woman toward the well where the thirsty Savior waits

Thirsty to bless and he blessed

To feed and be fed

Welcomed Home once more grateful

II.

Call sounded

Invitation sent

Table set and prayer ended

Bread fractured Cup filled

They come

Hungry hearts anticipating

Empty hands filled with hope

The pastor stands

Dispensing grace

Ordinary ways ordinary folk

Mundane ho-hum

Nothing new as always

Until he comes they come as one

Mystery on the move

An ancient man

Armed with two women

Who stand him guide him on

Lest he fall or fail

To reach the goal of God

No rush ever patient

They have eternity

Slowly shuffling

Feet sliding on holy ground

Once young guarding shore

Ludicrously armed with battle axe

Now feebly muscled yet faith strong armed

He comes as two stand guard and lead

The pastor ready at her post to feed and bless

A miracle seen at life’s ebbing shore

Ancient soldier at ease before the soul’s Guard

At peace and fed and blessed

By two by all by One

And blessings he because I saw

-2017, David M. Hindman, soli Deo gloria.

That We May Pray Aright

Words matter.

Words form sentences, which give shape to ideas, which constitute philosophies, ideologies and world-views, which ultimately inspire and shape ways of living, priorities, understandings, values, and faith.

But we can be rather cavalier with how we use words, which can result in shoddy thinking and poorly formed lives.  That can be particularly true with theological language and thought, and the consequent understanding of who God is, our relationship with God, and our practices of discipleship.

This is a problem I often ponder, as a theologian and member of Christ’s Body, the church (specifically that portion of the Body which exists in the USA), and as someone committed to language well used.  Here in the US we are often motivated by what works, and not necessarily by what is faithful, true, or consistent with the teachings of scripture, or the rich tradition of the church through the ages.   That utilitarian spirit is also sometimes reflected in our God language and church practices.

For many years, The Interpreter was published as a resource for clergy and lay leadership of The United Methodist Church.  Each issue included a section called, “It Worked for Us,” in which subscribers would report on activities and programs that “had worked” in attracting people, capturing the interest of children, involving youth, etc.  Certainly some of the stories were inspiring and helpful in sharing news of imaginative or creative ways to deepen faith and form disciples.  Others were, quite honestly, inane or frivolous.  The most memorable of these for me was the story of a church that put goldfish in the baptismal font, not because there was any expressed symbolic meaning or theological significance to having fish there, but because “the children loved it.”

When German theologian and pastor Dietrich Bonhoeffer (1906-1945) spent a year studying at Union Theological Seminary in New York City, his initial impressions of the curriculum and the student body left him rather unimpressed.  Charles Marsh writes in Strange Glory: A Biography of Dietrich Bonhoeffer (New York: Vintage Books, 2014), “He was decidedly underwhelmed by a religious culture in which people fashioned their beliefs the same way a man ordered a car from the factory – according to taste and preference,” and surmised that “pragmatism explained much about Protestantism in the New World” (Marsh, 103).  Bonhoeffer studied the writings of William James extensively while a student at Union, which to his mind “was the intellectual source of the local compulsion ‘to hasten past difficult problems and to linger inordinately on things that are either self-evident or that without additional preparation cannot possibly be adequately addressed.'” He also described his classmates initially as completely “clueless with respect to what dogmatics is really about.  They are not familiar with even the most basic questions…. [T]hey talk a ‘blue streak,’ but often without the ‘slightest substantive foundation,’ blithely indifferent to the two thousand years of Christian thought” (Marsh, 104).

Which, finally, brings me to the topic of prayer: how we pray, the focus of our prayers, and what I humbly consider to be right and faithful prayer.  I begin by confessing that I have not always prayed aright, or in conformity with the thoughts that follow, and gratefully claim the grace that covers a multitude of sins, including talking out of my head, or praying with ignorant foolishness.

Today, as is often my practice, I went to Bruton Parish Episcopal Church to participate in the mid-week service of Eucharist.  While waiting for the time of worship to arrive, I paged through The Book of Common Prayer, looking to find a prayer appropriate for preparing myself for worship, when I encountered this Call to Confession in the liturgy for Morning Prayer:

Dearly beloved, we have come together in the presence of Almighty God our heavenly Father, to render thanks for the great benefits that we have received at his hands, to set forth his most worthy praise, to hear his holy Word, and to ask, for ourselves and on behalf of others, those things that are necessary for our life and our salvation.  And so that we may prepare ourselves in heart and mind to worship him, let us kneel in silence, and with penitent and obedient hearts confess our sins, that we may obtain forgiveness by his infinite goodness and mercy.

What a wonderful template for forming prayers and disciples, reminiscent of the ACTS (Adoration, Confession, Thanksgiving, Supplication) prayer form I learned as a child.  What particularly caught my eye and heart was this statement: to ask, for ourselves and on behalf of others, those things that are necessary for our life and our salvation.

To ask: when we address and petition the Sovereign of the universe, it is unseemly to make demands, to assume that the Holy One is our servant required to be at our beck and call and to provide for our every want.  It is an act of hubristic arrogance to presume that our personal needs are most important in the universe, or that we know what is best for its maintenance and operation, or that we are so important that nature’s laws should fall before us simply because that is our wish and desire.  We humans are treasured and cherished by God, along with the whole creation, and God is always at work for our good; so says Paul in his letter to the Romans in the New Testament.  But sometimes what is best for us is not what we want; sometimes our personal desires cannot be met without harming others; there are some things that must happen simply because we are creatures, and not God.  We will all die; we age and suffer injuries of all stripes; we experience failure and disappointment; we are nowhere guaranteed that in all times and all places we can have our way or whatever we want; sometimes the wisest and best answer to our prayers is not yes, but no or not yet.  Prayer rooted in trust and humility knows the wisdom of asking in prayer, and not making demands, or threatening to walk away from God if God doesn’t deliver in the way we want.

For ourselves and on behalf of others: We thrive best in the world and most faithfully, when we acknowledge that we live in community, not in isolation.  It is certainly appropriate to pray for ourselves, and to make known our needs and desires, to the God and Parent of all.  Most attentive and loving human parents know what is happening in their children’s lives; they may not know exactly or fully what is transpiring, but they likely have the sense that something delightful or dreadful is occupying their children’s lives, hearts and minds.  To paraphrase some words of Jesus, if we who are evil know such things, certainly we can trust our Creator Parent to know us more fully and deeply.  But there is something powerful and transformative about speaking our desires, failures, regrets, sorrows and shortcomings, our need for guidance and help.  Sometimes it is in praying and speaking that truth is revealed to us that otherwise would not have come.  And all of aspects of our prayer life are richer and more full when offered in light of the needs of others with fresh awareness of the possible repercussions my prayer requests may have on the lives of others.  If what I ask will diminish the life of another, or is not rooted in mercy and love, it seems I should not offer that prayer.  If my quest for abundance of resources and riches causes harm to others, it seems I should pray differently.  If what I want damages and puts at risk others or the creation today or in the future, that is not a prayer I should offer, and I trust it will not be favorably heard by the God who loves and cherishes all.

Those things that are necessary for our life and our salvation: In my life I have prayed for many thing not necessary for life and my salvation, and have heard countless others do the same: for my team to win, for a good grade, not to be caught in my sin or to escape punishment for lesser deeds, to be chosen for some select group, to be popular or wealthy or successful by the world’s standards, to win the lottery.  These are things we may want, but they are not essential; they are not necessary for true life and salvation.  Indeed, we may sometimes be so bold as to pray for things that are not good for us, or for an abundance beyond our need.

For people of faith there are few things necessary for life and salvation: faith, hope, love, grace, mercy, forgiveness, compassion, commitment to justice and right living, insight and discernment leading to true wisdom, peace, deep awareness of divine presence, daily sustenance, shelter, warmth, security, a  sense of belonging and communion, meaning and purpose, goodness (for the Christian, Christlikeness).   When we pray for what we need rather than what we want, our prayers become more lean, more focused, simpler, more humble and expressive of our acknowledged dependence on God.  Life is less focused on my will or the things of this world that pass away, and on what is eternally significant and valuable.  Indeed, our words paradoxically may become fewer because we pray for fewer things, and more expansive as they probe more deeply and extend to the needs of others I may previously have failed to notice because I was so preoccupied with my own wants.  And through God’s grace, the words I offer in prayer become a way for the Word made flesh to transform me to know what truly matters; for words do matter.

-2017, David M. Hindman, soli Deo gloria.