Thursday, November 23, 2006

Thankful for Enough

I sit in my den, at my faux clawfoot desk with leatherette inlays, banging away on an old dell lap-top--which is lighter but does not seem to be holding up as well as the old Royal my dad said got him through the war and the first twenty years of his career--thankful for the day, the family, the work, the blessings which are mine but only by grace.

I do not have much money, but I have a beautiful home--a "benefit" of serving this particular congregation. My wife and I are getting older and gaining weight, and my knee is still gimpy after summer surgery, but we travel along, singing a song, side by side. My kids are not in Harvard or MIT, but they are doing well and finding their way. They have faith, and hope, and oh, so much love. My book is not a classic or a best-seller, but I am as proud of it as I can be. I have finished the rough draft of my rough draft of the book that will come out September next, and I am WAY thankful for that!

Every once in a while I get a piece of good news or a little attention about my writing; yesterday I heard that an article I wrote, originally, as a presentation for a group of my peers, is being published in our official UM journal next March, and an e-interview I did for Dabbling Mum is on line:
I fire off emails to friends and family to share the news and I am always convinced, a few hours later, that I should not have, that they wiill take it for bragging or hubris, especially when I title the email, as I often do, "A bit of Hubris," but it really is thanksgiving. Humble thanks for these little and to me HUGE blessings associated with what I have long worked to do: which is, of course, write.

Tuesday at our community Thanksgiving service--and I love those kinds of events because you get to be for an hour what you are not normally, and in this case, a Pentecostal, as our preacher for the evening capered about and danced and sang his sermon up and down the aisles, mopping his brow and trying to provoke us (in the best sense of that word, "to call forth") into a less constipated praise than is usual for Presbyterians and Methodists, Lutherans and Baptists. He finally stopped when it was clear we had come about as far toward him as we could, and that was not that close... but he preached on the text in II Timothy 3, about how in the last days people would be all the things we are in these last days, but especially this, he said: unthankful. And it is the truth that we are so unthankful. We are so entitled, we feel, instead, imagining that we deserve what we have and deserve even more. We lack graciousness and grace, we lack humility and deference, we do not love or hear the cry of the needy...instead we want, we demand, we expect, and then we want demand expect more.

I have long thought and often said that we need to develop a theology of enough. As when Esau said to Jacob, "I have enough, my brother. Keep this gift for yourself." But in addition to that theology of enough we need also I think to develop a sense of gratitude that is in keeping with the rabbis' counsel, that we pray to God to want what we have instead of praying to have what we want. If God is the giver and not the Wal-Mart, or the military, or even our own ability to provide, then we can enjoy the bounty that is already ours and not hanker after, or covet, the bounty of another. Enough, together with thankfulness, is shield against envy, greed, gluttony, lust, anger, and even despair--and pride, too, I guess. So ALL the seven deadly sins are silenced in us when we are thankful for our enough.

I have enough, my brothers and sisters. Which is not to say that I would not be thankful for more, but I want what I have, am thankful. Today and always.

Wednesday, November 01, 2006

Their Faults Forgiven--An All Saints Meditation

On June 2, 1935, at eight-thirty in the evening, and I assume the service started so late because of the heat, or the lack of air conditioning, or both, Lynn Harold Hough, then Dean of Drew University, offered the first sermon ever preached in the newly constructed Duke Chapel—the dedicatory sermon. “The Cathedral and the Campus,” it was entitled, and it was full of the kind of public optimism that existed in those uneasy days between the world wars. Public opinion: things are getting better, a little better all the time.

The nation was still in the throes of the Great Depression, the great Duke Chapel—itself built and paid for in those lean years—seemed to be the very symbol of the abiding American conviction that education and hard work (and a little help from the Almighty) can solve any problem, economic or otherwise. Yes, there were rumors of storm clouds gathering on an axis between Berlin, Rome an Tokyo, but the granite sanctuary stood as testimony to the classic and liberal Christian sentiment of a universal brotherhood, as it were, an enlightened good will between persons and nations beyond all class consciousness and ethnic hatred. Soon, education and hard work, thriftiness and democracy, would put a forever end to racism and poverty, hatred and war. Had not Christian thinkers at the end of the nineteenth century foreseen that the twentieth would be the “Christian Century”?

But on that same June evening in 1935, half-a-world away, Josef Mengele was in medical school, preparing to perform grotesque experiments on the powerless in Germany—thereby proving that education is not salvation; Dachau had already been in operation for two years, not as a killing place, not yet, at least not as it would become, but as a prison for German communists. Other camps were planned and would soon be under construction—Treblinka, Auschwitz, Bergen-Belson—thereby proving that hard work is no savior. The same nation that produced Brahms and Beethoven was about to unleash Goering and Goebbels on the world.

Dean Hough’s sermon was optimistic, like we are sometimes optimistic, but the reality of our world is sometimes quite different. We need more than education and hard work, more than business sense and sound-byte bromides. And Dean Hough was wise enough to realize all of that, though he did not say it just that way. What he did, though, was end his dedicatory sermon with a story—a story that speaks to a need beyond what we ourselves can attain, a reality beyond what we can build and learn in this world.

He said this: “The other day I heard an address by a Christian leader of great eminence. I walked away from the building with a man whose name you would recognize. ‘It was a notable address, was it not?’ I said to my friend. ‘Yes,’ he replied, ‘it was a great speech.’ He was silent for a moment. Then he added: ‘I am over 80 years of age. He told me nothing about what I can hope for when I make my great adventure.’”

Death: the great adventure. And what that wise old unnamed man in Dean Hough’s story was saying is this: I need to hear a word from the leaders of the church to help me die well. Education, hard work—money, maybe—they may, may, help me live well, or not, but what will let me die well? What will give me strength for today and bright hope for tomorrow? That is the message the church needs to proclaim: nothing less, and maybe not even a lot more.
But what is that message? Dean Hough concluded his story this way: he said, “One of the great French proverbs tells us that to understand earth you must have known heaven.”
To understand earth, you must have known heaven.

That, my friends, is why we gather Sunday by Sunday and come to the Table of the Lord month by month: to know heaven. That is why we celebrate a day like today, the Feasts of All Saints, to let us know that there is hope beyond the ordeals of our world, and to know it so well that we can understand: that if this is a world where in the name of science and medicine crazy men experiment on the helpless; if this is a world where political leaders in the name of life still send thousands and millions to their deaths; if this is a world where for all our education and hard work were are still not saved—then there is coming another world, another day, a Savior and salvation which will do for us what we cannot do for ourselves. That is no opiate, my friends, to anesthetize us to the world’s ill; it is instead a promise, and a command, a hope and a summons to live now as we will live then, to understand earth, and our place in it, by knowing heaven.

John saw a multitude that no one could count, from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages. The Elder said, “These are those who have come through the Ordeal, the horror, the death; these are those whose rags, dirtied by the world and its ways, are now glistening white because of the blood of the lamb. Because of the blood of the Lamb—because of that and no other thing.

Because of grace, in other words. Grace greater than the struggle, greater than the sadness; grace greater than the sin.

Several years ago, I was at our Annual Conference of ministers and laity at Lake Junaluska, NC. I was standing to pray in Stuart Auditorium during what is, for me, the high point of every Annual Conference: The Memorial Service. We take time each year to remember the ministers and spouses of ministers, who have died that year, and we thank God for them.

Pictures flash across the screen as the liturgist reads the names—I would like to do that in here—and there, all at once, was a minister I knew. I will not mention his name, but he was a difficult and troubled man. A man who had, in some obvious ways, betrayed his vows of ordination, and maybe in some other ways, too. And yet there he was with all the rest, his picture among the others, his name read as one of the faithful departed… I was still trying to puzzle all of that out when the liturgist had us read a prayer, and part of the prayer said this:

Eternal God, we praise you for the great company of all those who have finished their course
in faith and now rest from their labors. We praise you for all those dear to us, our loved ones
who are no more. Days, months, and even years may have passed, and still we feel near to
them. Our hearts yearn for them… (and then this) We see then now with the eye of memory,
their faults forgiven, their virtue grown larger. So does goodness live and weakness fade from
sight. We remember them with gratitude and bless their names…

Their faults forgiven, their virtue grown larger. And I guess to the cynical mind that is an opiate, a kind of denial, like the kind of we experience now and then in funerals when the preacher says, “He was a good man,” and everyone in the house knows he was a louse.

But to the faithful mind it is not opiate at all, but an echo of God’s grace, and the very thing we need to know of heaven—that in heaven, dirty robes are washed clean and faults are forgiven and virtue grows large. In heaven goodness lives and weakness fades from sight, and with gratitude we bless our God who forgives, and we bless our loved ones who are departed and forgiven, and even our enemies—Can God forgive their faults, make their virtue grow large? Of course God can. That is what we need to know of heaven.

And if we know that, then we can understand that if this earth is an dark evil place, sometimes, full of dark evil people, some of them, we need not fear. Though tribulation overcome us, that is not the last word. Though we have all of us sinned, fallen short of God’s glory and our own expectation, there is grace—our faults will be forgiven, our virtue grown larger. By grace. Thought we are all of us different, different languages, tribes, tongues, God will have us together at the Last, and that will be a day of rejoicing.

When we ALL get to heaven, that to say, and not just our closest friends and neighbors, but multitudes which cannot be named or counted, and all so precious to God he felt them worth the life of the Son…

When we ALL get to heaven, what a day of rejoicing that will be. We will see there those we love and have lost, and there we will regain them again. But even more than that… we will rejoice to see Jesus.

Does that give you hope for your great adventure? Whether you are eight or eighty, does that give you hope? Is that what you need to hear? Not by wealth, or education, or work, but by grace our faults will be forgiven, by grace our virtue grown larger, when we all get to heaven, what a day of rejoicing that will be.

In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.