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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A Prayer for the Dying

O God who knows and sees all:

She died this morning.  We do not know the ins and outs of how it came to be, but one she bore bore no interest in her passing.  Papers signed and legalities addressed and niceties tended, the child said good-bye to others, swore she would not return and cared neither to know when the mother died or how her mortal remains were disposed, and stepped away into an unknown future.

O God who knows and sees all:

We do no know what failings brought such fracture of family; we cannot know the deep seas of anger, pain, rejection, abuse or guilt that roil the lives of others; or overwhelm the connections of kin; or drown fragile cargoes of faith or hope, love or mercy, kindness or forgiveness.  But you know, O God, and so knowing nothing of these your children, we simply and humbly pray for mercy and healing, forgiveness and grace, tenderness toward wounds, and peace beyond all knowing.

O God who knows and sees all:

She did not die alone.  You were there at her final breath as at her first; you knew her before she was born and now know her in ways we cannot know.  For that we give you thanks.  And we give thanks for nurses and volunteers who tended her with compassion and care simply because she was in need, and that was what could be offered.  Blessings and glory to you for goodness given and received without regard.

O God who knows and sees all:

She did not die alone.  She was in the company of countless others among your beloved who died today; again we do not know them or their stories, and mostly most do not notice.  The grief would be beyond bearing and so we cease caring; there will be more tomorrow joining those of yesterday and today: refugees on high seas or behind high walls, street children or old folks who simply lived too long, the addicted or victims of violence not in our backyard, homeless folks or immigrants in a desert, people who were a pain and hard to endure and whose passing is sadly but honestly, a relief.

O God who knows and sees all:

Daily your great heart is battered and broken; your tenderness toward your own knows no bounds; your sadness before suffering does not know limits.  Soften our hearts; open our eyes; inspire us to notice even the least of these; and in whatever way we can, great or small, enable us to companion and befriend those most in need, and trust that at our end, you will know and see and stay with us, who also are your precious and beloved.

Amen.

How I Went to Church and Was Convicted of Being Disingenuous (and That Was a Good Thing)

     Yesterday I went to church and was blessed with an awareness of how I had been disingenuous with my children over the years; how easy it is to be seduced by the Siren songs of our culture; and how daunting it is to be the disciple you long to be. I suspect I am not alone in that.
     Now rest assured, this insightful moment of conviction did not lead me to feel an overbearing load of guilt, or beat me down with a sense of being an utter screw-up. It was a grace-filled experience in which I could accept the truth of what I heard, acknowledge my failure to live into that truth, and experience the mystery of divine acceptance, nevertheless, providing hope that I can move on and be more honest and truthful in days to come.
     Moments like these again confirm for me why I need to be engaged in worship, prayer, scripture study, and Christian community on an ongoing basis, as I hear truth through the community and its means of grace I will not hear otherwise. There is a generous acceptance, and offer of ongoing transformation and sanctification that I would not necessarily believe, if I did not continue to hear of such things in such practices and among others who also are on this journey with me.
     When our children were little and restless in worship, I would often lean over and whisper to them, “Trust me; you get a better dad at the end of this time than the one you brought with you.” I don’t think that at their young age they had any idea what I was talking about, but it was true. At its best, Christian worship is an occasion for truth-telling, conviction, conversion, gratitude and joy for the offer of such gifts.  
     Yesterday was a day for such gifts to be offered. As is often the case, yesterday brought me to Bruton Parish Church in Williamsburg, which provides a service of Eucharist each Wednesday. Typically the focus of the Word proclaimed is on a saint of the church whose feast day falls on or near a particular Wednesday. Yesterday’s gospel text was one of the tellings of Jesus’ teaching that if we want to gain our life, we must lose it by taking up our cross and following in the Jesus Way; it included the compelling question, “What does it profit a person to gain the whole world and lose their soul? And what can they give to buy it back?” Or as the New English Bible puts it, “What does it profit a person to gain the whole world and lose their true self? And what can they give to buy back their true self?”
     The priest told us that this particular text is often used for the feast days of martyrs throughout the liturgical year, and said that the saints are those who show in their lives what it is to live self-sacrificially. And then he spoke the truth that convicted me in a profoundly deep and compelling way.
     I cannot quote him exactly; preaching is such an in the moment, aural experience. But this is what I remember: the saints give the lie to what culture tells us about how to live well. We are told life’s goal is happiness, and we tell our children that all we want is for them to be happy.
     But in reality, he said,what we want for them is to be good and to enter into the life of God. And I thought, “Yes, that is true.”
     That is what I have ever wanted for myself when I have been my best self and most honest. And to be good, to participate in the true and beautiful, is to enter into the life of God who alone is true, good, beautiful, all-together right, just and merciful. At my best and and most honest, that is who I want to be. It is not something I can achieve on my own. It is not always an easy route and is not always a source of happiness. But to participate in that reality is to experience joy and fullness of life.
     Happiness is so ephemeral, fleeting, and transitory. What promises to give happiness today will be passé tomorrow, and a new source of happiness will be offered that also will soon fade away. I am persuaded that I can always be joyful, even in the most horrible of circumstances; but perpetual happiness is an illusion, and the quest for it as a permanent feature of life even is perhaps something unhealthy and foolish.        On more than one occasion I have told my children that all I wanted for them was for them to be happy. But as the preacher said yesterday, what I really wanted for them was that they would be good, and participate in the life of God.
     And what I mean by “being good” is not a bourgeoisie goodness that entails being nice, obedient, compliant with authority, and adhering to the rules of society. By goodness I mean a life characterized by the goodness of God, which includes mercy, grace, hospitality, humility, forgiveness, compassion for the poor and weak, advocacy for those demeaned or mocked or marginalized, a life of integrity and commitment to the well-being of all, even if that requires self-sacrifice. Such goodness produces a sense of wholeness and harmony of life that is seen in the wholeness and harmony of the Triune God known in the Christian tradition, and embodied in the life, ministry, death and resurrection of Christ.
     And participating in the life of God is grander and broader than simply participating in the life of the church, as useful (and as maddening) as that may be. It is a good thing, a means to the greater end, but in and of itself ultimately it is not enough. Life in God is so much more. Our culture whispers that true happiness is found through self-actualization. Be the best you you can be, do whatever brings you contentment, whatever works for you. The problem is that such promises put me at the center of my life, and prioritizes my happiness above all other things, including what is good and life-giving for you and others who also inhabit this village we inhabit.
     What culture offers is an inversion or perversion of the truth told by the faith community. That truth is that I find myself by losing my self in the life of God so that, as St. Paul puts it, “It is no longer I who live, but Christ living in me.” I may be able to reflect such life and goodness in my own life; that is what grace enables. But apart from a deep, intimate, and ongoing connection with God, in which God’s life continues to flow through me and nourish the goodness within, it will soon wither and fade, like a cut flower. As Jesus put it, “I am vine, you are the branches. Abide in me, for apart from me you can do nothing.”
     That’s really what I want for myself and my children: life abundant, i.e., living in God and being shaped and formed in that divine image and likeness. Happiness through self-actualization, as offered by the world, is a poor substitute for such glory. I believe true happiness and deep and abiding joy are possible in the Way lived by Jesus. I was convicted yesterday that I simply have been disingenuous and have not always told this entire truth to those dearest to me (ironically because I did not want to turn them away from this hidden joy); I pretended that I knew less than I really did.
     By God’s grace, I strive to be better; such blessing is priceless and too valuable not to speak with all truthfully, humbly and with grace, including those who are especially most precious. 

Mother’s Day Gratitude

I Thank My God for You

(words and music by Joseph M. Martin)

For a lovely choral presentation of this anthem, go to

I thank my God for you each time I think of you.

Each time I pray for you, I’m filled with thanksgiving.

For ev’ry word and deed, for helping those in need,

I thank the Lord for you and give Him the glory.

And even when we are apart, you are always in my heart.

We are bonded by God’s Holy Spirit for we are one in God’s embrace,

one in love’s unfailing grace.

We give voice to one great Alleluia.

I give thanks. I thank my God and give my praise. Alleluia.

I thank my God for you and each time I think of you.

Each time I pray for you, I’m filled with thanksgiving.

And when the day is done, and ev’ry race is run,

God’s perfect grace will bring us home.

We will be together. for ever and evermore.

I thank my God.

At the gathering for worship in which I participated today, this was the anthem, inspired by Paul’s letter to the Philippians, “ I thank my God every time I remember you, constantly praying with joy in every one of my prayers for all of you…” (1:3).  In our worship we celebrated the 5th Sunday of Easter, observed the secular Mother’s Day holiday, and The United Methodist Church’s Festival of the Christian Home.  In addition to a marvelously broad-stroked pastoral prayer, this anthem was a worship highlight for me, not only for its beauty of language and melody but because it led me to reflect on the thanks I give for my mother and the family into which I was welcomed, nurtured and formed.  

It is nearly two and a half years since my mother, Hilda Mitchell Hindman, died in her 100th year.  My father, Neville Millard Hindman, has been dead nearly 30 years.  Today marks the 35th year since I asked my wife to marry me; my parents celebrated 38 years of marriage and so I find myself being mindful of the brief, precious and beautiful  gift we receive in marriage and family.  No matter how many days we have, they are soon gone and we fly away; but today I sense my parents’ nearness in the great cloud of witnesses, and am especially thankful for them.  In the words of the anthem, Mamma and Daddy, “I thank the Lord for you and give him glory.  And even when we are apart, you are always in my heart.  We are bonded by God’s Holy Spirit for we are one in God’s embrace, one in love’s unfailing grace. We give voice (here and on that far shore and in a greater light) to one great Alleluia.”

What follows is not a perfect nor exhaustive listing, and it is not intended as a list of perfect family or parental gifts or characteristics.  It is simply my list of those things for which I give thanks to God for my mother and father;

I thank my God for you each time I think of you.  From you I learned

*the mystery, wonder and gift of faith in Christ

*to give God preeminence in all things, and to participate in the church, not because it is perfect but because it is beloved and cherished by Christ

*to give thanks to God every day for simple things like food, and to form the discipline of daily and regular prayer, lest I take life for granted or miss its wonder

*to be true to my word and a reliable person on whom others can surely count

*I am not at the center of the universe and to be content with what life brings

*one role I have in life is to help others and to be generous with time, talent and treasure

*music and song are beautiful and worth the discipline

*integrity, honesty, character are irreplaceable treasures to be enacted in small as well as great ways

*there is honor in hard work, perseverance, and determination

*to speak my mind without fear

*over the years that the above gift can be both bane and blessing

*to cherish family and remember that this is one of God’s best gifts

If this serves as a prompt for you to enter into a similar season of reflection and gratitude for those who welcomed, nurtured and formed you, all the better.  May your day be an occasion to say, “I thank my God for you each time I think of you.”