Tuesday, November 08, 2016

Reaching out to Your Loved ones who Have Died

Charles Cowherd is a Seminarian at Virginia Theological Seminary in Alexandria, Virginia.  Charles had a twin brother who served in the army: 2nd Lt Leonard M. Cowherd III. In 2004, Charles’ twin brother was killed in Iraq. His body is buried in the Arlington National Cemetery and his twin goes by there often just to be close to him.

What is it like when your twin dies?  Charles says that it is like having a limb amputated but worse.  Half of yourself is gone and you are convinced that it is the better half. Charles’ grief and his longing to find out what happens after you die led him deep into the Christian tradition and eventually to Seminary to become a priest.

Charles wrote, “His death weighs on me daily.  I will never be truly whole again.”

Almost all of you have experienced that pain that we call grief.  It is real.  The people that we love will die.  We will die.  And we should not be afraid to talk about them.  We should not be ashamed to speak their names.

I will never forget, when I was a Seminarian here at the Cathedral, a woman’s 22 year old son was killed in a car accident.  One month after the funeral, I took her out to lunch.  She had on dark glasses.  I asked her to tell me about her son, John and she burst into tears. 

“No one wants to talk about him! They try to remind me of other things, as if by mentioning him they will be bringing up painful memories but don’t they know that he is all that I think about!  Thank you for saying his name…”

When someone we love dies, they leave a great big hole.  And we are afraid, so afraid that this is the end.  We are so afraid that we will never see them again.  We are afraid that our relationship with them is over and we are ashamed of how much this hurts.  It is impossible to describe the waves of grief that crash upon a person.  The waves of this frightening truth: that the one we love is gone and will never come back.

But we are believers.  We are people who follow Jesus.  We believe that death is not the end. We believe that when we baptize a child, that child becomes part of God.  That child is welcomed into life eternal.  Given eternal life! A bridge is built to heaven itself when that water touches the forehead of a child. A bridge to heaven.

The communion of saints is the name that the church gives for everyone who we love who has died.  Those people who will be standing there when you get to heaven, standing with a huge sign that says WELCOME HOME!  The ones who will run to you with their arms out.  "Finally!  At last!  You made it!" they will cry out.  Our loved ones are alive in God.  And if you truly believe that, then we must and should not only speak their names but communicate with them.

That sound spooky doesn’t it?  Talking to the dead?  But it is not spooky at all, it is spiritual.  As believers, we must embrace the mystery of God and accept the fact that there is so much we do not understand.

Here is a Christian perspective on death….

When someone that you love moves far away, that person does not stop being your mother, or brother or best friend.  Your relationship does not end, it just changes.  If you truly love them, and if you make the effort, the relationship continues.  What happens is that you are forced to use new forms of communication: you go on Facebook,  you send an email or text, you learn to Facetime and Skype. The relationship with your loved one is not over, it just changes. They are still your best friend or mother or brother.  There is never a doubt about your love for them.  You just need to learn to communicate differently.

When someone dies, the relationship does not fundamentally change.  Death is just a new kind of distance, a new kind of being.  And if you want to stay in relationship with those who have died, you can. All you need to do is learn how to communicate.

My good friend Jody Giles is writing a brilliant book. It is called Missing Pieces.  It is about how you can begin to communicate with those you love now so that they will hear from you after you die.  In the book, she recommends that you begin thinking about and writing down all of your precious belongings and giving them as intentional gifts when you die.  Your physical things can become pieces of a love letter that you send to everyone you love after your death. You can write notes to accompany your gifts. Not just your money but every single thing you own can become part of the masterpiece that you leave behind to communicate your thanksgiving for those causes and people that you love. For example, you can give a friend your grandmothers lamp because that friend as been a light in your life…

But what do we do when we are the ones left behind? How can we communicate with the people we love who have gone on to God? You can start by simply saying the name of the one you love.  Speak that name with pride and courage! And yes, talk to them.  They can hear you in the same way that God hears you.  They are now part of the communion of saints, the community of heaven.  Just like you can pray to God, you can pray with them and for them.  But you must make the effort and you must be willing to listen.  Live in prayer, open yourself to the possibility that your loved one may be listening. Their love for you is not always obvious but you will experience it with patience and time.

Our culture tells us to keep quiet, move on, get on with life after someone we love has died.  No, we say. No, I am a believer.  I will speak the name of the one that I love who has died.  I will speak their name with courage and hope.  I am not ashamed to pray and listen for the ongoing love of the communion of saints.

Tuesday, October 25, 2016


When I was seventeen years old, I took the train to my godfather’s house.  He lived just up the Hudson River from New York City.  He was a deeply religious man, a Russian Orthodox Christian.  He had a PhD in world religions.  I admired him a lot.  He promised to teach me how to pray.
As part of his studies, my godfather had taken a long retreat and lived with some Greek Orthodox monks on Mt Athos.  I don’t know how long he stayed with them but from them, he learned a prayer that he wanted to give to me.  I don’t remember the specific moment when he taught me the words. They are in Greek.  But I remember that he told me to repeat them all the time, whenever I could think of it.  “Eventually it will become like a wheel that turns on its own, the words, they will almost pray themselves,” he said. These are the words that he taught me,
            Kyrie, Jesu Christe, Eleison Me
These words come directly from a parable that Jesus used to explain about God’s mercy. In the parable, a Pharisee and a tax collector go to the temple to pray. The Pharisee is confident in his devotional practices.  He fasts, he gives alms, he prays.  So he basically tells God that he is thankful that he is so great!  He stands proud and confident before God, certain of his salvation.
The tax collector, on the other hand, stands at the back of the temple.  He knew that he had been betraying his fellow Jews by collecting taxes for Rome.  Some tax collectors were known for taking some of the money for themselves as well. This tax collector was keenly aware of his mistakes and he stood in the back of the temple and asked God for mercy.  He said, “God, have mercy on me, a sinner.”  It was his prayer that was heard by God.

By the third century, the words of the tax collector would be used by Christians to pray what they called The Jesus Prayer. The Jesus Prayer is said to purify the heart and draw the mind to God. 

I remember taking the train home and repeating the prayer in my mind… Kyrie Jesu Christe Eleison Me.

I trusted my godfather but, to be honest, I was uncomfortable with the Jesus Prayer.  Why did I have to ask for mercy?  What had I done wrong?  I was a young woman struggling to find God.  Was I really so bad that I had to beg God for mercy every chance that I got?  I was grateful that the words were in Greek because they made me so uncomfortable.  I kept saying them because I loved and respected my godfather but I had no clue what they really meant.

It took me years to begin to understand what it means to ask God for mercy. I still don’t fully understand but I would like to share with you what has come to me.

You see, when I was young, I was just being a normal American. Americans begin with the idea that we are good and capable. We believe that we can make our lives into what we want.  We can earn money, learn subjects, get food when we need it.  We are self-sufficient and we have a confidence that is one of our best qualities in many ways.  It makes us a great nation.  But it is also a lie.

We believe that we can survive on our own, make our lives better, change our destinies.  And we do have capabilities and intelligence and even wealth.  But the truth is that we cannot do anything without God. The truth is that we are incomplete without God.

We think that asking for God’s mercy means that we have done something wrong, that we are bad.  We think that when we say I am a sinner, we are saying I am a jerk or I am bad or stupid.  But that is not it at all.  The bad things that the tax collector did served to open his eyes to the fact that he needed God.  He became aware that he was incomplete.  The Pharisee had led a life of obedience to God but as a result, he was not aware of his helplessness.  He thought that he would come to God out of his own effort, that he did it, that he basically saved himself.  And he was proud of himself for doing everything right meanwhile, he did not understand what it means to be human. The Pharisee did not understand about the mercy of God because he didn’t really think that he needed God.

There is a gap, a hole in every human being.  There is a piece that is missing and that is why we are so hungry for love, for acceptance, to be respected.  We are searching for that one thing that will make us complete. Some people think that it is romantic love or money or power but none of these things fill the emptiness.  We have a part of us that only God can fill, a hole, an emptiness that can be filled only by our Maker.
Asking for mercy is nothing more than asking for God to fill in the gaps.  But in order to be comfortable asking for God’s mercy, you need to be willing to admit that you have something missing, that you are not perfect.  You need to be aware of your faults, shortcomings and of the fact that only God can help you. That is why Jesus tells us that the poor are blessed, or people who are grieving.  I would add that the very old often are blessed, or the sick.  The reason why these challenges are blessings is because they serve to wake us up to the fact that we need God’s help.

Some of the most devout church goers are alcoholics.  Do you know why?  Alcoholics who have struggled to attain sobriety are aware that they need God. It is not a matter of convenience, whether or not they come to church, they know that they have to come. Because God keeps them well.  They know that they have to attend AA meetings and they have to give generously to the church.  It is necessary for their health and salvation.
God gives us mercy and what is mercy like?  I have come to realize that mercy is like air.  We cannot really live without it.  Mercy is God’s love and favor that is given to us not because we earn it or deserve it but because God adores us.  Mercy is something that keeps us alive and well.  Mercy fills in our gaps. It completes us.

Maybe it takes growing older to begin to understand that my body will not always work right no matter what I eat and how much I exercise.  Maybe it takes living with another human being in marriage to realize that I have faults that will never really go away, no matter how hard I try.  I need JD to sometimes just accept me, faults and all.  And I need God to accept me to, just as I am.  I need God’s mercy.

Maybe the best translation today for the Jesus Prayer is simply this… “Lord, I need your help.” Or perhaps these words, “Lord Jesus, complete me.”

Don’t you need God’s help with almost everything?  God gives us air to breathe, water to drink, friendship, work, food clothing.  Without God’s help, I could not walk or talk or even breathe.  God, I need your help. Lord Jesus Christ, have mercy on me.  Jesus, you complete me.

Jesus had to hang powerless on a cross in order to become the one who rose from the dead.  You and I must admit our powerlessness.  We must admit that we can do nothing without God.  The word humility comes from the same root as the word for human.  Humility is simply realizing that you are human and God is God.  Mercy is a gift to us from the one who has everything, the One who holds eternity, the One who breathes life into us.  There but for the grace of God go I.

Kyrie Jesu Christe Eleison Me.

Tuesday, September 27, 2016

Close the Gap

I have to admit that I am terrified of the parable about the rich man and Lazarus the beggar.  When you really think about it, it is terrifying. 
A rich man ate well and dressed in fine clothes. Well, he didn’t just eat well, he feasted every day and he didn’t just wear nice clothes, he wore purple and fine linen.  Purple was the color of royalty and linen, so light and beautiful, was one of the most expensive fabrics in Israel. Meanwhile outside the rich man’s house, a poor man named Lazarus lay there dying. He was not only poor and hungry but he had sores. And the dogs came and licked his sores. He was degraded to lower than a dog.  He lay in the dirt.  And the poor man has a name, Lazarus. And the rich man does not.
Both men die and Jesus paints a vivid picture of what happens next.  Lazarus is taken to heaven by angels where he sits with Abraham. The rich man just ends up in Hades and we don’t really know how he got there.  But what we do know is that he is very hot. There is fire all around him and it torments him. Worse still, the rich man can see Lazarus and Abraham in the comforts of heaven. He can see them but he can’t get to them.  He must watch paradise from a seat in hell.
The rich man asks Abraham to send Lazarus to dip the tip of his finger in water and cool his tongue.  It is a small request.  He does not question his fate.  He does not yell and scream.  He does not ask for a way out of hell. All he asks is for a tiny bit of water, enough to moisten the tip of a finger, a tongue.  But Abraham answers by telling him about the chasm.
Abraham addresses the rich man with the word “child.” He does not seem angry or offended by the rich man, rather, it seems that he is trying to educate someone who knows next to nothing, someone like a child.
Abraham describes the gap to the rich man. “There is a great gap between heaven and hell and you can’t cross over.  No one can, not in either direction.” And this is what I find so hard to digest in this parable.  Heaven and hell are cut off from each other.  There is no redo.  Once you end up in one place or the other, that’s it.
And the rich man ends up in Hades because he did not see the man who sat on the ground right on his doorstep.  He did not see a person there.  He had a chance to make a connection that would have served as a bridge between him and Lazarus, but the gap that was there in life was even worse in death.  The rich man could simply not cross over.
The rich man failed to see Lazarus. Lazarus looked so different. He was so dirty, so ugly, so smelly.  The rich man didn’t want to see.  So he just walked on by and the distance that he created became the chasm that kept him from God. 
The distance that he created became the chasm that kept him from God.
Our relationship with one another is part of our relationship with God.  When we fail to see each other, when we allow the gap to exist, we alienate ourselves from God.
All over this country, there are riots going on in our cities. These riots have been going on periodically for decades.  White and black people are not seeing one another as human beings.  There is still so much blindness.  So little communication.  So much hatred.  And we all are suffering, all of us.
Lazarus was lying right in the path of the rich man, at the gate to his home.  He was right at his doorstep.  The rich man had to pass by Lazarus every time he left home and every time he returned. And even still, he did not see Lazarus as a human being. Day after day, he simply refused to see.
So how can we bridge the gap in this life?  What could the rich man have done to save himself from eternal torment?  The answer is simple. See Lazarus.  Enter his skin.  Learn about him.  Serve him.
God is not asking us to fix it the problems of the world or the suffering of humanity, but to see the people who are in our path as people.  To learn their names.  To see with God’s eyes and to ask ourselves, “What is God asking of me?”
This love your neighbor as yourself stuff, it’s no joke. We are being asked to close the gap.
It’s scary to see each other, to risk letting someone change our lives. But if Jesus is right, it is essential.  We cannot cross the gap to God if we haven’t crossed the gap to understand each other.
Yesterday, I was leaving the church after an emotionally-charged funeral.  I was walking to my car when a homeless woman came marching towards me swearing at the top of her lungs. She seemed to want to tell me something, but the swear words were so thick that I had to ask her to stop swearing so much simply so I could understand her.  She was carrying a children’s book wrapped in plastic, like the kind you get at a McDonalds drive through or a Chick Fil A.  When she slowed down enough, I began to understand her story.
It turns out that this woman had tried to give the children’s book to a little girl as she and her family were leaving the church after the funeral. And the little girl refused to take it.
“I had a present for her!” the woman cried. “And she didn’t want it!”
I realized that this woman, who was so loud and abrasive, had had her feelings hurt.  When I told her that it sounded like this hurt her feelings, she said, “Yeah it did!  That little girl…she broke my heart!”
And then, to my surprise, the woman thanked me for listening and walked on.  Turns out that all that she needed was simply to be heard.
Who is on your doorstep?  That person is an essential part of your story, a way for you to grow closer to God.
To close the gaps in this broken world is to grow to God in the next.  It is all so intertwined. We must see one another as human beings for the very salvation of our souls.

All About Money

There is an ancient Viking legend about a great warrior-king.  When the king came to power, he demanded that his soldiers immerse themselves in a river to show their allegiance. Every part of you that the water touches belongs to me, he said.  The Viking soldiers were strong, vigorous men, used to defending their families. They dutifully submerged their bodies in the cold water of the river but they held out their sword arms. Those alone remained dry, as they wanted to keep the right to defend themselves and their families should the need arise.
That is what Americans do with our wallets.  We submerge ourselves in the waters of baptism and give our lives to God, but we hold out our wallets. You can have all of me, God, but just not my money, we say.  I will pay my dues.  But my money does not belong to you, God.  In fact, I just don’t want to talk about it.  I want to live my life with prayer, service and maybe paying my dues to the church or charity and that’s it.  I don’t want to actually reflect on what money means to me or what I am doing with it in the rest of my life.  That part must remain separate.  My financial life has nothing to do with God.
But really, the opposite is true.  Your relationship with money, no matter how much you have or don’t have, is important.  You cannot separate your financial life from your prayer life.  They are interrelated. Your relationship with money effects not only yourself but the people around you. Money is a tool for the building of the kingdom of God.  It is not to be worshipped, or adored.  It is a moving thing. Money is incredibly important in the spiritual life.
When John the Baptist was asked how people should get ready for the Messiah, he told them to give away their stuff.  There is no denying the importance of money and belongings in Scripture.  Jesus talks about money more than he talks about prayer.  But when it comes to our faith, we don’t want to think of money as a part of it.  We just want to pay our pledge and move on to prayer.
When I preach about money, I can see people react. It is like nothing else.  People assume what this is really about is that I want you all to give so that the church can pay its bills but I have to talk about money because Jesus did.  I have to talk about it because it is such an important part of your life as a Christian. And I don’t even think many of us know what money really is.
Deep in the Amazon rain forest, there is an indigenous tribe called the Achuar.  For thousands of years, they have lived without money.  Generations grew up, worked, built homes, raised families and maintained communities, all without any concept of money.  They lived off the land.  When a couple got married, the village built them a hut. When a hunter killed a wild boar, the whole village ate.  Life was mostly focused on events of nature.  There was no concept of currency at all.
Chumpi was 26 when missionaries came to his village and changed everything.  Having seen other tribes devastated, they instructed the Achuar to send one of their smartest young adults to America to learn.  Chumpi was selected and he moved from the Amazon rain forest to the United States of America where he lived with a missionary family and went to school.
Chumpi learned that the land on which his village sat was worth a lot of money.  He learned that there were many different plants on the land in the rain forest that had yet to be discovered.  Many of them could have medicinal qualities. His tribe was offered a large sum of money for the land.  But he also learned that if his village sold that land, the money would run through their fingers like water and it would soon be gone. Then they would be lost.  This had already happened to other tribes.  Chumpi learned that he must value money but also say no to it and learn that there were things that were more valuable than money.  He learned that his village was rich in relationships, rich in history, rich in land. If they were to hold onto their riches, they must not succumb to the temptation to sell.  Ironically, he had to advise his tribe to say no to money in order to become rich.
Picture a river.  The water moves at different paces depending on the day, on how much water is in the river.  You can ride it.  You can take people places on it.  It can create energy. It is beautiful. But if you lose control of it, you can drown in it.
Jesus tells us a parable about a manager.  He is in charge of a man’s wealth but he uses it unwisely for his own enjoyment.  He “squanders it.” This is the same word used by the prodigal son, so it probably means that he partied and ate and drank a lot. So the master finds out and prepares to fire him.  Suddenly, the manager wakes up.  He realizes that he only has a few days left as manager of the master’s wealth.  So he begins to use the money to build relationships.  He forgives debts one by one.  He is kind.  He is generous.  He serves and loves people he hardly knows so that they in turn will care for him. It is selfishly motivated but it is good.  He uses his treasure to build up relationships.
All that we have is God’s. All of it.  I know it seems like we have stuff, but we don’t.  It is like trying to cup water in your hands.  Your hand may be full of water one moment but believe me, it will slip away.  You cannot hold onto any of this.  The only thing that lasts is love. So take your money and use it to love.  Love your family, provide for them.  Celebrate life. Give generously.  Don’t be afraid of not having enough or of having too much. It doesn’t matter how much you have as much as it matters what you do with it.  Build up the kingdom of God.  Harnass the power of money to build the kingdom of God.  Love at the core of your hearts and your wallets.
Reed Dearing passed away and we buried his ashes yesterday out here in the Bishop’s Garden. He gave his grandchildren some money when he died.   He told them that he would.  And this is what he said to them when he told them that he would be giving it to them.
“I want you to use this money to celebrate.  Celebrate that I am going to the King!”

Money is a tool of love, of celebration, of providing for the ones that you love and for the whole of humanity.  It is a moving river that can be harnessed for great good.  But the first step is just to wake up and become aware of it.  You are the steward of whatever God has given you.  What will you do with it?

Monday, August 29, 2016

Making Time

Carla was on an overnight train because her plane wouldn’t take off. She was trying to get to New Orleans for an audition.  Her career as an actress was taking off.  She had already landed a small role on a sit-com.  Her schedule was crazy, living in New York City.  She hardly ate and barely slept.  Her agent said that the must read for this part. She decided to take a train from New York City to New Orleans. She could catch up on email, study the script.  It would give her enough time to get everything done.
At first, she spent all her time on her iphone, texting friends, checking emails, Facebook. Then something unexplainable happened to her phone. It just started malfunctioning.  Oh, no!  I don’t have time for this! She thought.  She turned it off and when she tried to restart the phone it just was dead.  DEAD. Nothing.
What was she supposed to do for 28 more hours?  Sleep?  There was this baby across the aisle that was crying and driving her crazy so she looked over. A young man seemed to be caring for the baby and a little boy all alone. Was there a mother?  The dad looked tired. 
Carla listened to the baby cry a little longer and then tried making silly faces at the baby.  And it stopped crying, reaching out its arms to her.  “Can I hold her?” she asked the weary dad.  He seemed grateful.
Carla played with the baby, who wanted to chew on her hair.  Soon the little boy came over, curious about his sister’s new friend.  Slowly, Carla came to know the little family.  By evening, the baby and the little boy had fallen asleep and she found herself talking to this young father.  As the train rolled on through the night, he told her how his wife had been hit by a car and how he was doing the best he could and it was like a space opened up in her heart.  Her busy life was just shoved aside and she was present with this man as he opened his life to her.  And she was changed.
They fell in love that night on the train.  Years later, she would tell her children that she would never have met their father if her iPhone hadn’t died.

In Jesus’ time, the most precious commodity was food. You never knew when your next meal would be served.  Fish had to be caught. Bread made from scratch.  Even water was scarce.  So the best thing in the whole world was a wedding banquet.  The bride’s family would pull out all the stops, there would be meat, wine, bread, dates, and the feast could last for days.

When you went to a wedding banquet, the seats of honor were served food first.  So to sit in a place of honor was like a guarantee that you would get to eat.  And in a land where food was that scarce, that was a big deal.  Everyone wanted to sit up close and be served first.  And Jesus gave the radical message to his followers that instead of trying to sit in the front, they should sit in the back and maybe they would be invited up. Anticipate that those who have not yet come are more important than you are, he said.  Make room for them.  Make room for the stranger.

Eating meals today is not a big deal.  We all have food in this country.  But what we are running short of is time.  Technology is making us feel as if we do not have enough time.  So I would like to reinterpret Jesus’ parable to make it more relevant to our day. Instead of leaving space at the table for the stranger, I want you to consider making space in calendars for strangers and for the unexpected.  I want you to think of giving your time.
Do not neglect to how hospitality to strangers, says the Letter to the Hebrews, for by doing that some heave entertained angels without knowing it.  Make room for people that you do not know.  Make space for God to tell you something through people you may not have even met. You may meet someone who will change your life.  But you must have time to listen to that person, time for the unexpected. You must retain the ability and the space to listen to your life.
The word angel means messenger. Anyone can be an angel, a relative, a friend or even a stranger. Whether they know it or not, angels carry messages from God. But how can we entertain angels if we have no space in or lives, no time in which to meet them?  What if Carla’s phone had not broken?  She would have been texting and emailing and she would not have had time for the stranger across the aisle or for his children.  She would have missed out on love.
If you take up the prime seats in your life with your current job and relationships and obligations, how can God send you anything new?  If there is no space in your life for the unexpected, how can anything ever change?
In order to listen to God, we must not only give God time but we must give strangers time too.  We must let people in when we are driving, we must give our attention to someone who makes a request of us, we must try to give make room for God’s Spirit to move.  There is another word for giving up the central seat in your life, it is called listening.  Or another way of putting it is being present.
Make space for God in your lives.  Keep your eyes open to what God is saying and doing. Listen. Watch. Welcome the stranger into your life.

When I was in college, I spent a few summers working in Russian orphanages.  My home church gathered toys for the orphans that I would then take over with me.  This was before 9-11 before threats of terrorism.  My church was so generous that I filled a UHAUL with toys, gum, craft supplies and made my way to the airport with boxes upon boxes. I was so young. I didn’t realize that there is a weight limit on airplanes.  There was no way that I could take all that stuff.  So there I was, in a long line at JFL Airport in New York with boxes and boxes full of toys and no way to get them on the plane.
A group of Orthodox Jews stood in front of me.  When they learned what I was trying to do, they opened their suitcases.  A woman threw away a dress, a hairdryer. “Give me some of those toys,” she said.  A man shoved his books aside.  More suitcases opened.  Clothes were being thrown away, toiletries, shoes.  The news traveled further down the line.  “Give me a stuffed animal!  Give me more!’ “I can fit some,” said another teenaged girl.
The people on that airplane made room for those toys.  Every single toy made it to Moscow.  Because people made room.

Your life is like a suitcase.  It is full of appointments and obligations and errands. But you must take some of these things out in order to make room for God.  It is essential.  Leave space for God in your life.  In that way, you will be open to the message of the angels.