Wednesday, February 29, 2012

Midweek Poem 3: An overspilling jar

[Of all that God has shown me]



Of all that God has shown me
I can speak just the smallest word,
Nor more than a honey bee
Takes on his foot
From an overspilling jar.
------------Mechtild of Magdeburg
----------(tr. Jane Hirshfield) 

Tuesday, February 28, 2012

A promise from the clouds

Then God said to Noah and to his sons with him, 
"As for me, I am establishing my covenant with you and your descendants after you, and with every living creature that is with you, the birds, the domestic animals, and every animal of the earth with you, as many as came out of the ark. I establish my covenant with you, that never again shall all flesh be cut off by the waters of a flood, and never again shall there be a flood to destroy the earth."
God said, "This is the sign of the covenant that I make between me and you and every living creature that is with you, for all future generations: 
I have set my bow in the clouds, and it shall be a sign of the covenant between me and the earth. 
When I bring clouds over the earth and the bow is seen in the clouds, I will remember my covenant that is between me and you and every living creature of all flesh; and the waters shall never again become a flood to destroy all flesh. When the bow is in the clouds, I will see it and remember the everlasting covenant between God and every living creature of all flesh that is on the earth." God said to Noah, "This is the sign of the covenant that I have established between me and all flesh that is on the earth." Genesis 9:8-17
During our travels last summer, we were reminded of the power of water. We began by the ocean, and worked our way down the coast, then we turned inland, but still we were drawn to water. This water was not like the water of the ocean that we saw from the safety of the shore; this water roared and carved the living rock and tugged at your feet if you ventured in. 


It flung itself like a wild creature over high canyon walls and tumbled down rock faces and crashed into the abyss. It did the work of millions of years with each second and reminded us of the beauty and power of the primal creation.


Water was used to inspire fear in many of the stories of the Bible. It was mysterious; it was powerful; it harbored secrets. And so it still remains, although we humans keep trying to choke it off and tame it and bend it to our will.


In the story of the flood from Genesis, water is both the sign of God's power, and the sign of God's promise. Without water vapor in the clouds, there could be no rainbow, and the rainbow represented God's abiding care even more than God's determination to wipe the slate clean and start again.


The flood waters had symbolized death and burial. The water refracted through the clouds symbolized hope and commitment. It refracted the promise of God's abiding mercy to us, so generously given even when so obviously unmerited.


As we begin this first week of Lent, I am thinking about the wideness of God's mercy, as we sing in the wonderful old hymn:


There’s a wideness in God’s mercy,
Like the wideness of the sea;
There’s a kindness in His justice,
Which is more than liberty.

There is no place where earth’s sorrows
Are more felt than up in heaven;
There is no place where earth’s failings
Have such kindly judgment given.

There is welcome for the sinner,
And more graces for the good;
There is mercy with the Savior;
There is healing in His blood.

There is grace enough for thousands
Of new worlds as great as this;
There is room for fresh creations
In that upper home of bliss.

For the love of God is broader
Than the measure of our mind;
And the heart of the Eternal
Is most wonderfully kind.


Thursday, February 23, 2012

For your Lenten consideration...

Bishop Andy Doyle from the Diocese of Texas has a great post about failure and Lent that really spoke to me. How often do we decide not to challenge ourselves because we are afraid of failure?

The post can be found here.

Wednesday, February 22, 2012

Practicing in secret

"Be careful not to practice your righteousness in front of others to be seen by them. If you do, you will have no reward from your Father in heaven. So when you give to the needy, do not announce it with trumpets, as the hypocrites do in the synagogues and on the streets, to be honored by others. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward in full. But when you give to the needy, do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing, so that your giving may be in secret. Then your Father, who sees what is done in secret, will reward you. 

"And when you pray, do not be like the hypocrites, for they love to pray standing in the synagogues and on the street corners to be seen by others. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward in full. But when you pray, go into your room, close the door and pray to your Father, who is unseen. Then your Father, who sees what is done in secret, will reward you.

"And when you fast, don't make it obvious, as the hypocrites do, who try to look pale and disheveled so people will admire them for their fasting. I assure you, that is the only reward they will ever get. But when you fast, comb your hair and wash your face. Then no one will suspect you are fasting, except your Father, who knows what you do in secret. And your Father, who knows all secrets, will reward you.
"Don't store up treasures here on earth, where they can be eaten by moths and get rusty, and where thieves break in and steal. Store your treasures in heaven, where they will never become moth-eaten or rusty and where they will be safe from thieves. Wherever your treasure is, there your heart and thoughts will also be."-- Matthew 6:1-6, 16-21

Some might find it ironic that this is the reading for today when many of us are getting ready to go to church for the imposition of ashes. On the surface, it would seem that we are engaging in exactly the kind of grandstanding that Jesus is warning about. But when we have the ashes placed upon our foreheads, the purpose is to remind US that we are entering a penitential season, and that since we are ashes, it is important to live our lives in the most faithful way possible.


The other thing I am struck by is that the next thing this text provokes in me is a wish to inscribe this before the eyes of every single politician who attempts to use his or her identification as a Christian as a way to gain votes. With every election cycle, the cynical use of religious litmus tests seems to get more outrageous and less CHRISTIAN.


The latest is Rick Santorum claiming that he grudgingly will believe President Obama's statement that he is a Christian, although he will claim that Obama's theology is a "false theology" not "based upon the Bible." Franklin Graham, always know for his... incisive... comments about other people's religious beliefs, jumps in with his own doubts. Now, you don't have to love President Obama to find this kind of attack scurrilous and outrageous no matter what.


This hypocrisy is highlighted in the last section, for those who attempt to use religious affiliation to gain treasure here on Earth have set their minds on the things that perish, on the things that wither and fail and fade.

One of the great things that I always remember thanks to the season of Lent that is initiated today is to questions and examine just exactly what I treasure. Some of the things I cling to are distracting, and Lenten discipline gives me a chance to re-examine the things I hold tightly to see if they are really worthy of such anxiety. Other things in my life aren't treasured by me enough, and the call to focus during this Lenten season should help me remember this as well.


On Ash Wednesday, Christians are called not just to play the part of a better person but to actually try to BE that better person. We should not impose the ashes upon our foreheads unless we are dedicated to inscribing the true lessons of Jesus' abiding love for us on our hearts. What an amazing gift we are given, and how easy it is to lose sight of that gift in the cacophony of our lives. This is our chance to re-center ourselves, not just for forty days but for each moment. This is not a season to be endured but a gift of insight into what we really should treasure. It is in the everyday world that we live, and we need to make our faith not just a Sunday faith or a Lenten discipline but a part of a living and breathing. The Buddhists call this mindfulness, and it is such a wonderful concept. 


We often talk about what we are going to give up as part of our Lenten discipline. I want to try to give up my preoccupation with my oh so noble but temporary suffering over 40 days and instead focus my attention on the incredible love shown to me from the life and the cross of Jesus as we approach it during this season.  May we emerge on the other side of this season of Lent as an Easter people bringing the joyous message of Christ's love into the world for all to see. Amen.

Midweek Poem 2: Ash Wednesday

From Ash Wednesday

VI 
Although I do not hope to turn again
Although I do not hope
Although I do not hope to turn

Wavering between the profit and the loss
In this brief transit where the dreams cross
The dreamcrossed twilight between birth and dying
(Bless me father) though I do not wish to wish these things
From the wide window towards the granite shore
The white sails still fly seaward, seaward flying
Unbroken wings

And the lost heart stiffens and rejoices
In the lost lilac and the lost sea voices
And the weak spirit quickens to rebel
For the bent golden-rod and the lost sea smell
Quickens to recover
The cry of quail and the whirling plover
And the blind eye creates
The empty forms between the ivory gates
And smell renews the salt savour of the sandy earth

This is the time of tension between dying and birth
The place of solitude where three dreams cross
Between blue rocks
But when the voices shaken from the yew-tree drift away
Let the other yew be shaken and reply.

Bless├Ęd sister, holy mother, spirit of the fountain, spirit
of the garden,
Suffer us not to mock ourselves with falsehood
Teach us to care and not to care
Teach us to sit still
Even among these rocks,
Our peace in His will
And even among these rocks
Sister, mother
And spirit of the river, spirit of the sea,
Suffer me not to be separated

And let my cry come unto Thee.
-------------------T. S. Elliot
 
Find the entire poem here.

Monday, February 20, 2012

Being transfigured

Six days later, Jesus took with him Peter and James and John, and led them up a high mountain apart, by themselves. And he was transfigured before them, and his clothes became dazzling white, such as no one on earth could bleach them. And there appeared to them Elijah with Moses, who were talking with Jesus. Then Peter said to Jesus, "Rabbi, it is good for us to be here; let us make three dwellings, one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah." He did not know what to say, for they were terrified.

Then a cloud overshadowed them, and from the cloud there came a voice, "This is my Son, the Beloved; listen to him!"

Suddenly when they looked around, they saw no one with them any more, but only Jesus. As they were coming down the mountain, he ordered them to tell no one about what they had seen, until after the Son of Man had risen from the dead.
---------------------------------------- Mark 9:2-9

Of all the miracle stories in the Bible, this is one of the most amazing, because this is not a miracle done by Jesus but done TO him. For a moment, Jesus appeared as must have always been. His true nature was revealed there in front of Peter and James and John. They had seen him perform amazing feats by this point in the gospel of Mark; they had even seen him walk on water. But now Jesus himself was changed in front of them. He is there with the two greatest prophets of Israel-- Elijah and Moses. Elijah and Moses had also performed miracles, but Jesus is different. 

There is one line there in that passage that has always jarred me. "Suddenly when they looked around they saw no one with them any more, but only Jesus." Only Jesus. Elijah and Moses both disappear, but only Jesus then remains. Jesus is more than a prophet. He is named as God's Son. He is named as the Beloved. He is named as the bearer of God's authority and message in a way that no one else had ever been before. As we prepare to enter the season of lenten preparation for the further revelation of Jesus' true nature for us, let us all pray that our true natures be transfigured to help bring about God's kingdom here on Earth. Amen.

Wednesday, February 15, 2012

Midweek Poem 1: What did I know of love's austere and lonely offices?

There is more to love than romance....

 

Those Winter Sundays


Sundays too my father got up early
and put his clothes on in the blueblack cold,
then with cracked hands that ached
from labor in the weekday weather made
banked fires blaze. No one ever thanked him.

I’d wake and hear the cold splintering, breaking.
When the rooms were warm, he’d call,
and slowly I would rise and dress,
fearing the chronic angers of that house,

Speaking indifferently to him,
who had driven out the cold
and polished my good shoes as well.
What did I know, what did I know
of love’s austere and lonely offices?
------------------Robert Hayden, 1966

Sunday, February 12, 2012

Hope for healing


A leper came to Jesus begging him, and kneeling he said to him, "If you choose, you can make me clean." Moved with pity, Jesus stretched out his hand and touched him, and said to him, "I do choose. Be made clean!" Immediately the leprosy left him, and he was made clean. After sternly warning him he sent him away at once, saying to him, "See that you say nothing to anyone; but go, show yourself to the priest, and offer for your cleansing what Moses commanded, as a testimony to them." But he went out and began to proclaim it freely, and to spread the word, so that Jesus could no longer go into a town openly, but stayed out in the country; and people came to him from every quarter."-- Mark 1:40-45
Jesus shows incredible power in today's gospel. He is confronted with a man who has leprosy. Now the first question we should ask is, "How in the world could this meeting even happen?" "Leprosy" probably included any skin condition at that time, including psoriasis, vitiligo, and eczema as well as what we call leprosy, so this was a much more common condition than we would imagine. First, lepers were completely outcast throughout most of human history, and during Biblical times were usually quarantined outside the city walls, often living together for sheer survival's sake. Second, given that these illnesses were thought to be highly contagious, no one wanted to be near lepers. Third, lepers were believed to be suffering as punishment for sin, so they were expected to live apart until they had been reconciled through their illness as punishment that would bring expiation for that sin. Given all these facts, this leper had to leave the place where he had been quarantined and venture into the path of Jesus, into a place where those encountering him would at best draw back in revulsion and at worst attempt to physically drive him away through stoning him or other methods. As a good Jew, Jesus would interact with this leper only by making himself ritually unclean and by risking contagion himself. And yet that is exactly what he willingly did.

The complete lectionary readings for today, the 6th Sunday of Epiphany in Year B, are about the human body. The reading from 2 Kings about the healing of Naaman by God through the intercession of Elisha has obvious parallels to the gospel account from Mark. The epistle uses the analogy of the long distance runner and athlete as similar to the discipline we must exhibit to proclaim the message of Jesus to the world whatever the physical risk or cost. So the obvious topic is healing and being restored to strength and wholeness.

Now, healing is not always available for everyone who is ill. I once heard someone remark about a person with cancer that she was still ill because she did not have enough faith in the ability of God to heal her-- that if only she would pray harder, more fervently, she would be well. This is a modern version of that belief that illness is a punishment for sin. We have all known wonderful people who have gotten sick and wondered why. Obviously "This is God's will" just doesn't cut it. Anyone reasonable knows that that is not the way the world works. Good people get sick and sometimes even die from those sicknesses just as people who commit evil often enjoy good luck and health.

But today's gospel is not just about healing. Instead, it is about reconciliation as well. Jesus not only cleans the body of this man but also reconciles him to the community. This story makes it clear that illness is not the product of sin, either, but like sin, illness can cause separation from the community. When someone is ill, they often lose contact with the outside world either out of concern for their own health or for the health of others. Illness and sin and alienation are all about imbalance. And how are those in our readings today restored to the community and to health and wholeness? Through faith. Through the free gift of reconciliation and restoration given by the power of Jesus Christ.

When it comes to reconciliation, we are all lepers in need of healing. We are all alienated from each other as well as from God. We all blessed that Jesus chooses to heal us of this if only we ask it. Amen.

Sunday, February 5, 2012

Have you not known?

Do you not know?
   Have you not heard?
Has it not been told you from the beginning?
   Have you not understood since the earth was founded?
He sits enthroned above the circle of the earth,
   and its people are like grasshoppers.
He stretches out the heavens like a canopy,
   and spreads them out like a tent to live in.
He brings princes to naught
   and reduces the rulers of this world to nothing.
No sooner are they planted,
   no sooner are they sown,
   no sooner do they take root in the ground,
than he blows on them and they wither,
   and a whirlwind sweeps them away like chaff.
“To whom will you compare me?
   Or who is my equal?” says the Holy One.
Lift up your eyes and look to the heavens:
   Who created all these?
He who brings out the starry host one by one
   and calls forth each of them by name.
Because of his great power and mighty strength,
   not one of them is missing.
Why do you complain, Jacob?
   Why do you say, Israel,
“My way is hidden from the LORD;
   my cause is disregarded by my God”?
Do you not know?
   Have you not heard? 

The LORD is the everlasting God,
   the Creator of the ends of the earth.
He will not grow tired or weary,
   and his understanding no one can fathom.
He gives strength to the weary
   and increases the power of the weak.
Even youths grow tired and weary,
   and young men stumble and fall;
but those who hope in the LORD
   will renew their strength.
They will soar on wings like eagles;
   they will run and not grow weary,
   they will walk and not be faint.
--Isaiah 40:21-31



First, this made me think about the claims God makes in the book of Job. I am taking part in Bible 365, a program at church to read the entire Bible in a year. We just finished the Book of Job.

Then I read this lovely sermon by Rosalind Hughes.  It got me thinking about how the stars have been seen as guideposts for so many different people in so many different cultures. This text from Isaiah uses the stars as one of the many wonders pointing to the proof of God's existence.

 We live in a world were the stars are ever more obscured by pollution made by light and pollution in the air itself. A couple of years ago I bought my husband a decent telescope, and it was amazing to see so many more objects, even surrounded by the cast-off light of the suburbs. We still haven't gotten around to taking it out into the countryside to really get away from urban light pollution, due to exhaustion, because, you know, it's LATE at night when you get a chance to do these things, and we are already tired.

But I know that the night sky I can see now seems much dimmer than the one I could see as a child-- even accounting for changes in my vision due to aging. I remember lying in the back of the station wagon (yeah, I know, it's a miracle we survived childhood) during the 250 mile trip back from Grandma's house in western Oklahoma and seeing the Milky Way in all its glory (see the first image on this page). I remember the hundred of shooting stars zip along the highway there on the prairie until it seemed certain that they had landed out there on the plains somewhere and thinking about something from millions and millions of miles away reaching the earth, and that those distances were still nothing compared to the full breadth of space.

And yes, this made me contemplate the miraculous works of God. I was certain I was seeing the handiwork of the Creator. It seemed impossible to me to imagine that all this distance and breadth and wonder had come into being merely based on random chance. These were some of my most memorable encounters with what I would later learn to call "the numinous," and it left me in awe.

Now the stars seem obscured. Is it because of that light pollution, or is it because we rush about and work until late in the night and forget to look up to treat ourselves to some of the most incredible proofs of the existence of the Creator?

But I can't allow myself to forget. "Have I not known? Have I not heard?"

I have heard and I have seen. I just have to not forget, or to close my eyes or my mind to the marvelous presence of God in everyday, yet certainly not humble, things.

Thursday, February 2, 2012

Holy.. um, you know.

There are so many wonderful people who are evangelical Christians in the world. Actually, I have trouble with the current understanding of that term. We should ALL be evangelical Christians, by which I mean that we should attempt to witness to the love of God through Christ and the movement of the Holy Spirit within all of our daily activities, being candles shining love into the darkness of a world that is all too starved for a spirit of compassion and Godliness. But, going back to my first sentence, there are so many people who self-identify as evangelical Christians.

And then there are the folks I am going to talk about for the next few minutes here below, whom I will referred to a Reactionaries, since from my judgment, they are neither "traditionalists" nor "fundamentalists" in the best sense of either of those words.

Here's the take of a writer for the Guardian on the latest weirdness coming out of JOE (Jolly Olde England, to the uninitiated). The Church of England continues to struggle with a small but rabid minority who oppose women's ordination. The latest manifestation of this disagreement is now over whether women should be ordained as bishops.

This week, the General Synod said yes... but.

A little history might be necessary, with appropriate links for later reading enjoyment. So, as we all know, when the Church of England decided to allow women priests back in 1992, it was far from a unanimous vote in the General Synod. Approximately 1000 priests threatened to break away and form a rival group. As late as 2000 (according to the same link from the BBC) it was still reported that half of England's clergy refused to take communion from a woman priest. Apparently, about 1,000 of the 13,000 parishes in England have registered that they do not wish to have female priests serve among them, and just over 300 parishes have asked for oversight from so-called "flying" bishops rather than remain over the authority of a bishop who will ordain women to the priesthood. Women are therefore far from being treated as equals in ministry in the CoE. It appears that the CoE is willing to continue to encourage this same idiocy in some vain hope that this will prevent further chauvinistic demands on the part of "evangelical" who seem to be holding the whip hand again in the Anglican Communion.

Then there is this appalling little tidbit which I found on the Episcopal Cafe. Here's the summary from Ekklesia:

A Church of England bishop [the Rt. Rev. Wallace Benn, Suffragan Bishop of Lewes] has recommended a booklet that supports the legalisation of rape within marriage and the criminalisation of same-sex relationships.

The booklet, by Stephen Green of Christian Voice, is called Britain in Sin. While it was written a few years back, Green’s revamped website now includes an endorsement of it by Wallace Benn, the Suffragan Bishop of Lewes.

It is sad but not surprising that Green’s band of fundamentalists should support policies of this sort. What is more alarming is that Benn should endorse them.

Britain in Sin argues that the UK has declined spiritually, morally and socially due to the abandonment of Christianity since the mid-twentieth century. In the booklet, Green lists government decisions which he regards as contrary to the Ten Commandments, beginning with the UK’s membership of the United Nations in 1945.

The booklet opposes a legal right to equal pay for men and women, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and power-sharing in Northern Ireland. Green supports the death penalty and advocates an extremely right-wing approach to economics, with heavy cuts to the welfare state and the abolition of all inheritance tax. It implies that adultery should be a criminal offence.
Make sure you read the hyperlinked texts to get just a smidgeon of the horrible things that the author of this pamphlet, who is a noted alleged evangelical, supports. Now, that is bad enough, but apparently the Bishop of Lewes was quoted as endorsing this pamphlet on a website affiliated with its author. After an outcry, Bishop Benn has disavowed his support of this piece of garbage, claiming that he had not read the entire work. Just as a note, kiddies, make sure you read things you actually endorse, especially when written by reactionaries. Just sayin'.

Wednesday, February 1, 2012

On death and love

Yesterday was the sixth anniversary of my father's death. This beautiful piece found me through The Lead. It is entitled "My Faith: What People Talk About Before They Die," and was written by Hospice Chaplain Kerry Egan on the CNN Belief Blog. I am going to post it in its entirety here, if only so I can find it again whenever I need it.

Editor's Note: Kerry Egan is a hospice chaplain in Massachusetts and the author of "Fumbling: A Pilgrimage Tale of Love, Grief, and Spiritual Renewal on the Camino de Santiago."
By Kerry Egan, Special to CNN

As a divinity school student, I had just started working as a student chaplain at a cancer hospital when my professor asked me about my work.  I was 26 years old and still learning what a chaplain did.

"I talk to the patients," I told him.

"You talk to patients?  And tell me, what do people who are sick and dying talk to the student chaplain about?" he asked.

I had never considered the question before.  “Well,” I responded slowly, “Mostly we talk about their families.”

“Do you talk about God?

“Umm, not usually.”

“Or their religion?”

“Not so much.”

“The meaning of their lives?”

“Sometimes.”

“And prayer?  Do you lead them in prayer?  Or ritual?”

“Well,” I hesitated.  “Sometimes.  But not usually, not really.”

I felt derision creeping into the professor's voice.  “So you just visit people and talk about their families?”

“Well, they talk.  I mostly listen.”

“Huh.”  He leaned back in his chair.

A week later, in the middle of a lecture in this professor's packed class, he started to tell a story about a student he once met who was a chaplain intern at a hospital.

“And I asked her, 'What exactly do you do as a chaplain?'  And she replied, 'Well, I talk to people about their families.'” He paused for effect. “And that was this student's understanding of  faith!  That was as deep as this person's spiritual life went!  Talking about other people's families!”

The students laughed at the shallowness of the silly student.  The professor was on a roll.

“And I thought to myself,” he continued, “that if I was ever sick in the hospital, if I was ever dying, that the last person I would ever want to see is some Harvard Divinity School student chaplain wanting to talk to me about my family.”

My body went numb with shame.  At the time I thought that maybe, if I was a better chaplain, I would know how to talk to people about big spiritual questions.  Maybe if dying people met with a good, experienced chaplain they would talk about God, I thought.

Today, 13 years later, I am a hospice chaplain.  I visit people who are dying in their homes, in hospitals, in nursing homes.   And if you were to ask me the same question - What do people who are sick and dying talk about with the chaplain?  – I, without hesitation or uncertainty, would give you the same answer. Mostly, they talk about their families: about their mothers and fathers, their sons and daughters.

They talk about the love they felt, and the love they gave.  Often they talk about love they did not receive, or the love they did not know how to offer, the love they withheld, or maybe never felt for the ones they should have loved unconditionally.

They talk about how they learned what love is, and what it is not.    And sometimes, when they are actively dying, fluid gurgling in their throats, they reach their hands out to things I cannot see and they call out to their parents:  Mama, Daddy, Mother.

What I did not understand when I was a student then, and what I would explain to that professor now, is that people talk to the chaplain about their families because that is how we talk about God.  That is how we talk about the meaning of our lives.  That is how we talk about the big spiritual questions of human existence.

We don't live our lives in our heads, in theology and theories.  We live our lives in our families:  the families we are born into, the families we create, the families we make through the people we choose as friends.

This is where we create our lives, this is where we find meaning, this is where our purpose becomes clear.

Family is where we first experience love and where we first give it.  It's probably the first place we've been hurt by someone we love, and hopefully the place we learn that love can overcome even the most painful rejection.

This crucible of love is where we start to ask those big spiritual questions, and ultimately where they end.

I have seen such expressions of love:  A husband gently washing his wife's face with a cool washcloth, cupping the back of her bald head in his hand to get to the nape of her neck, because she is too weak to lift it from the pillow. A daughter spooning pudding into the mouth of her mother, a woman who has not recognized her for years.

A wife arranging the pillow under the head of her husband's no-longer-breathing body as she helps the undertaker lift him onto the waiting stretcher.

We don't learn the meaning of our lives by discussing it.  It's not to be found in books or lecture halls or even churches or synagogues or mosques.  It's discovered through these actions of love.

If God is love, and we believe that to be true, then we learn about God when we learn about love. The first, and usually the last, classroom of love is the family.

Sometimes that love is not only imperfect, it seems to be missing entirely.  Monstrous things can happen in families.  Too often, more often than I want to believe possible, patients tell me what it feels like when the person you love beats you or rapes you.  They tell me what it feels like to know that you are utterly unwanted by your parents.  They tell me what it feels like to be the target of someone's rage.   They tell me what it feels like to know that you abandoned your children, or that your drinking destroyed your family, or that you failed to care for those who needed you.

Even in these cases, I am amazed at the strength of the human soul.  People who did not know love in their families know that they should have been loved.  They somehow know what was missing, and what they deserved as children and adults.

When the love is imperfect, or a family is destructive, something else can be learned:  forgiveness.  The spiritual work of being human is learning how to love and how to forgive.

We don’t have to use words of theology to talk about God; people who are close to death almost never do. We should learn from those who are dying that the best way to teach our children about God is by loving each other wholly and forgiving each other fully - just as each of us longs to be loved and forgiven by our mothers and fathers, sons and daughters.
 My father died of cancer. He told me of his diagnosis on December 20, 2005. On January 31, 2006, at 2:13 pm, he died. We only had about six weeks. But we did have six weeks. Which meant there was time for peace, and acceptance, and treasuring the gift of time no matter how short before he was gone.

Now, as he was dying, Dad actually WAS concerned about God, because he carried a lot of sadness and guilt over events in his life. None of us are perfect human beings. Some of us get forgiven for our imperfections. But some of us have a hard time believing in that forgiveness. Some of us have an even harder time forgiving ourselves. And if it hard for us to believe that those here in our lives forgive us, how much harder is it to believe that God forgives us too? My father was not a religious man during his life, but he certainly had drunk deep of that "old time religion" that teaches about divine retribution and eternal torment, and the thing that was not a blessing about knowing that he was going to die is that he had time to dwell upon the certain judgment that he had been promised was waiting for him.

Since Dad did not have a relationship with a minister-- but came from a milieu in which only a minister would have the authority to set his mind at rest-- we were lucky to have a priest from a church I had attended in Tulsa be willing to come and talk to Dad. Another priest (actually a pastor) later came and led my father through a ritual of forgiveness and assurance that allowed him to rest more comfortably, it seemed. Even though my father was not an Episcopalian, he seemed to sink gratefully into the soothing waters of love and reconciliation that were offered by these words.

Soon afterward, Dad was moved into palliative care. He slept most of the time. When he would awaken, he would sometimes reach his hands out and call out names of friends, cousins, loved ones long gone and welcome them as if they were standing right before him. His eyes would light up, and he would drawl out, "Weeeeeeelllll, Hank!" and have brief conversations before subsiding again into quiet sleep (I don't remember many of the names, since these people had been long gone before I was ever born, but I can tell you nearly all the women he knew had a middle name of "Mae." That's how we Okies roll).

I believe that was Love visiting my Dad there in his hospital room. The love that all of these people had given my Dad in his life gathered around him in the gathering twilight and illuminated the pathway for him into peace.

I hope he finally felt all the love that had been given him during those times, and during the times when the rest of his family or friends would come and take his hand and speak to him. Sometimes, we would just hold his hand. Sometimes, we would sing him songs, quietly, but hoping to surround him with memories of music and harmony, which he loved. My niece and nephew was there, and that was a comfort to him. His children were there. His cousin and his wife and his twin brother were there. But most importantly, I believe he knew that God was there, because of that love. That's why these words from Ms. Egan's essay are so dear to me:

"We don't live our lives in our heads, in theology and theories.  We live our lives in our families:  the families we are born into, the families we create, the families we make through the people we choose as friends.

This is where we create our lives, this is where we find meaning, this is where our purpose becomes clear.

Family is where we first experience love and where we first give it.  It's probably the first place we've been hurt by someone we love, and hopefully the place we learn that love can overcome even the most painful rejection.

This crucible of love is where we start to ask those big spiritual questions, and ultimately where they end.....

We don't learn the meaning of our lives by discussing it.  It's not to be found in books or lecture halls or even churches or synagogues or mosques.  It's discovered through these actions of love.

If God is love, and we believe that to be true, then we learn about God when we learn about love. The first, and usually the last, classroom of love is the family."

Love lives forever. Long after our bodies have gone, the echoes of the love we have given and have received radiates.

I loved my Dad. I know he loved me, even when it was difficult to see, when times for him or for me were hard, and the static of our own fears and vulnerabilities and anger seemed to cut like a cold knife into our ability to accept each other as we were instead of demanding that the other be who we wanted them to be, who we thought we deserved.

It is love that matters.