Faith Journey

In the midst of life we are in death

In the midst of life we are in death

 

I have spoken these words at every funeral at which I have officiated over 25+ years.  The words are likely from a hymn originating in France around 750 AD.  As long as I can remember they have been part of the suggested graveside service in The United Methodist Book of Worship 

They came to mind over the weekend. Late Saturday evening I had a series of text messages telling me that a Masonic Brother died suddenly at age 43. I did not know him well but had come to know him over the last few years. He had become a Scottish Rite officer only a few months ago and I looked forward to years more of friendship and service. Some stories do not end where we imagined they would.

At first hearing these beautiful words are quite sobering. We are in life and then confronted, sometimes as here suddenly and tragically, by death. It comes we know not when. It seems, at times, to come with neither rhyme nor reason. If human biology is the sum of our existence – if the last beat of our hearts is the last of us – this may be a cry of despair.  It is an observation of the universality and finality of death.

But these words are in truth an affirmation, even words of praise. Death is in truth an episode in life and not its end.  It comes in the mist of life – if you will in the middle. There is more on the other side of it. Much more.

In his marvelous reflection on the resurrection, Paul writes:

 “Where, O death, is your victory?
    Where, O death, is your sting?”

The sting of death is sin, and the power of sin is the law.
But thanks be to God! He gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ.

(1 Corinthians 15:55-57  NIV)

Paul is actually quoting the prophet Hosea in the first bit where God promises to deliver from the power of the grave. If the grave is the end its power to overshadow life is immeasurable. If it is a door to more life on the side? Its power is real but temporary, its shadow dark but only for a passing moment.

I need to hear these words today when a 43-year old man with young sons and a grieving wife finds himself in the midst of death. In Christ there is a victory even in a moment of tragic death. And not just for Larry… but for us who remain to bear its grief and puzzle over its meaning.

 

“For the Christian, death is not the end of adventure
but a doorway from a wold where dreams and adventures shrink,
to a world where dreams and adventures forever expand.”

― Randy Alcorn, Heaven

 

 

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Easter 2018

He is not here; he has risen, just as he said. Come and see the place where he lay. Then go quickly and tell his disciples: ‘He has risen from the dead and is going ahead of you into Galilee. There you will see him.’ Now I have told you.”

Matthew 28:6-7 NIV

 

We who celebrate today (and next week in the Eastern Church) celebrate not that Jesus is alive but that he is risen.  That the tomb is empty – not that Jesus lives eternally. That Jesus appeared several times and in several ways including, of all the odd facts, eating fish with his disciples on the shore of the Sea of Galilee.

In the years I have followed Christ I have had many doubts. I have wondered about many things. Curiously the physical, real resurrection of Jesus from the dead has remained one of the things that I haven’t doubted or questioned much if at all.

Jesus has gone where we must all go. Jesus has experienced what every human I know has and will know – the end of life. His death is as real as that of every person I have loved who has gone. His resurrection is just as real – he has been raised from the grave. Not some spirit who ascended to heaven leaving earth behind. Not a ghost who appears to comfort his grieving friends. He rose – his tomb was empty. Some days later this same Jesus ascends in his new body.

To say Jesus is risen is to place the locus of our faith in the present and not the future only. I am not just waiting for the sweet by-and-by. I live in the world, the reality where Jesus rose from his grave. A world where something changed. There is no going back to the shadows. There is no undoing of the undoing of his death.

A bit of the future has leaked into the present if you will. The resurrection of the dead that we proclaim in the creeds has started. Only one so far. But not the end or only one ever. Not a solitary resurrection but a prologue of what is to come. A promise of what will break forth. A new heaven and a new earth John saw (Revelation 21:1). Not just heaven.

This all matters because the reality of the resurrection is not only for the graveside. It is for the breakfast table and the office chair and the checkout line at the grocery. To live in a world where Jesus rose is to live a risen life in that world. Jesus is risen. Now he invites us to go and do likewise. I am not always sure what that means. But I am sure it is so.

 

 

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Good Friday 2018

Gasping out his last breath. Calling out for help. Alone. In pain. Suffering at the last instead of peace.

Not the kind of death we want for ourselves or those whom we love.  Over the decades that I was a pastor I was with many people in their last days, hours, even moments. Almost to a person they died peacefully. Beautifully even. Surrounded by friends and family in many cases they breathed their last breath of earth.

Good Friday is a day that will not let us sanitize either death or suffering. It will not let us think that every death is like the ones I witnessed over those years. Jesus’ death was not so.

Those opening words above were not just about Jesus – they were about my dad. I had never thought until I woke this morning about my dad’s death in the shadow of Good Friday. But he died alone. And his death was unpleasant and unthinkable from all we can tell. It still haunts me. As does – and should – the death of Jesus on that long ago Friday.

Today is a day to be uncomfortable. To remember there is pain in the world. To remember that not all deaths are peaceful transitions. Not all passings are easy. Not everyone’s earthly journey ends as it should or might.

Jesus’ death changed everything. But it changed nothing. Something to ponder today.

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Masonic Quote of the Week – 3/19/2018

Yesterday was the 99th anniversary of the founding of the Order of DeMolay and the 704th anniversary of the death of Jacques DeMolay. Rather than post a quote I share this video of an interview with Dad Frank S. Land and President Harry S. Truman:

 

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St. John’s Day Reflections 2017

st__john_the_evangelist_icon_by_theophilia-dat6azkToday is the annual observance of the feast of St. John the Evangelist (sometimes called St. John the Apostle as well). One of the lodges to which I belong traditionally installed its officers on this day – as do some Grand Lodges.  As some have noted, neither St. John revered by Freemasons has anything to do with building or architecture. What makes the Evangelist worth our devotion as men and Masons?

John is the only apostle who (according to tradition) lived to old age. While modern biblical scholarship tells a different tale, the early Freemasons grew up in a culture that taught he wrote one of the four gospels that tell of the life and ministry of Jesus. One of the notable features of that story is that John never refers to himself by name but as the one whom Jesus loved.

At 51 I appreciate that John’s great revelation (the book of Revelation) comes in that latter part of life. The one whom Jesus loved had lived almost his entire life before that revelation came to him. Like a medieval cathedral that took generations of planning and execution to complete, John’s life laid the foundation for that moment of profound vision.

Our building is not complete until life nears its end. We make our plans (often unaware about how the Grand Architect of the Universe plans in parallel and sometimes contrast) and place our stones. The work of a lifetime is just that – a work unfinished until we lay the last stone with our last strength.

May we build faithfully in the year to come. May we reflect with satisfaction and gratitude on what God has allowed us to build – even if partially. Even in the moments when we think we are finished… or may be  frustrated at our lack of understanding of what our building will be… may we remain faithful to our calling and profession.

 

 

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Masonic Thought for Week of 12/4/2017

“The importance of improvement, setting an example, and shouldering responsibility for the future are our Masonic goals. And where will it all end? In brotherhood. What we build today will endure. That is our hope and our faith.”

– Stanley F. Maxwell

 

Stanley F. Maxwell was the Sovereign Grand Commander of the Ancient Accepted Scottish Rite, NMJ. 1975-1985.  Among his most notable achievements was, during his time as Executive Secretary of the Supreme Council, overseeing the construction of the Scottish Rite Masonic Museum & Library. 

 

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Masonic Thought – Week of 11/20/2017

The purpose of Freemasonry?

362065_1Its purpose is the same as it has been since the day when the stones for King Solomon’s Temple were hewn, squared and numbered in the quarries where they were raised. It is to take an individual – just one man at a time, mind you, and as good a man as possible – and try to make a better man out of him. That is all. How desperately the world needs just that! And if that technique is outmoded, then the experience of two thousand years is all wrong; the Parable of the Mustard Seed is horse-and-buggy philosophy; the Leaven in the Loaf is a cruel hoax.

The mere fact that men do not comprehend its purpose does not mean that Freemasonry has no purpose, nor that its purpose is outmoded – it only means that the stones are not being well hewn and squared in the quarries where they are raised.

Freemasonry has not been tried in the balance and found wanting: it has been found difficult and not tried.

Dwight L. Smith

Brother Smith was a Past Grand Master and long-time Grand Secretary of the Grand Lodge of Indiana. He wrote a number of Masonic books. Among his best known writings is “Whither Are We Traveling?’ from which this excerpt comes. 

 

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The Cost of Dreaming

The Lord had said to Abram,
“Go from your country, your people and your father’s household
to the land I will show you.

Following your dream – rather, following God’s dream – is one of humanity’s great adventures. Something for which we are made. Our lives have their greatest significance when we follow God’s leading and live out God’s dream.

Abram (who becomes Abraham) followed what God had said to him. It wasn’t easy. Nor quick. He spent years before he saw the fulfillment of God’s promise. And even then he saw only part of what God promised. Along the way, he made mistakes often. Along the way, he experienced doubt and family discord and loss.  

Sometimes we think if we could just get it right… if we could just discern God’s will… if we would hear clearly what God is saying then it will all be all right. But it won’t. We may find ourselves broke, alone, and wounded. Many of the faithful ones of God experienced suffering and even death because they said “yes” to God. Jesus himself reaches the climax of his mission in suffering and death. Should we expect anything different?  

Too often we think, and I have thought and counseled and even preached a gospel of “everything will be all right.” It will but perhaps not now. It will but perhaps not here. To follow God’s vision for your life is always right – it will not always turn out all right.  

Twice in my life I have made a big career change. In both cases, I experienced a significant financial loss. In both cases, I lost a security net and, even more, a sense of security in leaving “my country and my people.” In both cases, people were confused or uncertain about what I had done. People questioned the rightness of my choice.  It was right in both cases. Even now I am experiencing some of the cost in multiple ways of having left ministry when I did. It was still the right decision. It was still what God led me to do.

It was right in both cases. Even now I am experiencing some of the cost in multiple ways of having left ministry when I did. It was still the right decision. It was still what God led me to do. It may not all “work out” – meaning some things lost are lost for good. Some costs (by which I mean not just financial but also relational, social, emotional, etc.) won’t get repaid. 

I would be wrong to compare my experiences of following God’s will in great and small moments to the suffering of Christ or the deaths of the martyrs. But saying “yes” to God always costs us.  The journey of faith will lead to places where did not want to go and might not have gone had we known. But it is always worth it. So say “yes.”

 

 

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The Bishop’s Ghost

In the last few days I have read several blog posts about the church – church attendance, church culture. This one from the Facebook post of a friend on church attendance. But this one on ghosting by the in the church – Christian Ghosting. – has really stayed on my mind. The blog was originally shared on a Facebook friend’s timeline, too. The long chain of responses expressing hurt and pain were hard to read – harder to ignore.

Ghosting means someone abruptly ends a friendship with little or no explanation and withdraws from a person’s life. I’ve experienced it in many spheres of life. But this ghosting in the church? I’ve seen it.  I am afraid I have done it. I have experienced it.

When I was a United Methodist pastor, we talked often of covenant, collegiality, community. What we don’t talk about it and won’t admit that the ghosting in the church extends to this sacred community of clergy colleagues. It might be where it has its most perfect form.

When I talked with my district superintendent about my decision to leave active ministry, I chose a method of leaving that made the most sense to me and to my family. I submitted the paperwork, And I waited. I heard from the board of pensions because I was due certain benefits on the route I chose. I heard from the benefits officer in my annual conference.

But I never heard from my bishop, the man who is supposed to be my spiritual overseer. I even emailed him to share a bit of my journey to this decision to leave. Nothing. Not a polite “thank you.” Nothing. After 20+ years of living in what I was told was a sacred covenant I didn’t merit a single word. Nor did I hear from the committee on conference relations whose chair was supposed to sign my paperwork. I was supposed to meet with them to talk about my decision and my new status. Nothing here either. No one checked on me or my family to see how we were or if we needed spiritual or other support. Q

I had been – perhaps unintentionally although it’s difficult to think so – ghosted. I became an unperson. It was as if I didn’t exist and never had.

Something funny happened though. As little as I mattered to the institutional structures, it dawned on me that they were as unreal and unimportant to me as I was to them. My bishop, my conference relationship – they quickly became ghost-like, ethereal to me. What I thought was at the core of my identity turned out to be unimportant. I am not talking about my ministry or the real colleagues and friends I made along the way. But the structures and those who preside over them.

Ghosts in stories frighten and trouble us. The bishop’s ghost holds no fear for me. Only sadness. Perhaps that’s how ghosts feel when confronted by other ghosts. But I am learning anew what is real.

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On Not Fretting

I have been amazed over the years the number of times that things happening around me and in me come into sharp focus in a single verse from Scripture. It is God speaking – reaching out into chaos or hurt or confusion or doubt or whatever else. Like handwriting you recognize before you read the return address on an envelope. Or seeing the car of a beloved friend or family member in the driveway and know that one is here.

I began a Bible reading plan Friday morning and the first verse I read was Psalm 37:8:

Refrain from anger and turn from wrath;
    do not fret—it leads only to evil.

“Do not fret.” I had always thought of “fretting” as worrying. The word as used in the Bible is more akin to anger, frustration, and the like.

Last week Dana and I received some good news about a possible health issue. The relief was almost overwhelming. And then the rest of the week fell apart. A series of things about which I was concerned or that I had anticipated in a positive way all came undone on Friday. And I found it hard not to fret. I was so sure about several things and then in a few hours – nothing.

We humans, being made in the image of God, are prone to fret. We become frustrated and even angry because we are not the one whose image we hold inside. We cannot control circumstances. We have no real control over what other people – even well-meaning – do. We can hope, plan, pray, choose, direct and still not get where we thought we were going.

Maybe it IS more like God than we understand? God wills our good in every sense of the word. Yet how often is God’s will frustrated? Often I would guess. And sometimes by the very creatures – you and I – whom God wants to bless.

This morning (Saturday) it is the day after these frustrations and fretting all came to roost. I am seeking God’s gentle voice in learning how not to fret. To fret our way to evil is not what God intends whatever else may be true. Finding our way to God is. Things don’t always work out. They don’t always come to fruition in some other way.

Faith leads us not so much to a better future but to the One is our future. Hope too.

 

 

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