Sunday, April 25, 2010

Notes from the Other Side

I am not preaching today; we are celebrating the accomplishments of our University of Virginia students at the 10 am service, and we have two student preachers who will be in the pulpit.

Later today, Lori and I are hosting our first “Parish Tea,” a Southern tradition whereby we open our home to the parish for tea in the afternoon, followed by Evening Prayer, followed by cocktail hour.

If you are in town, please come by. Being Westerners, we’ve never done this before so we are not entirely sure what to expect (we’ve done big barbeques, but not a tea). Fortunately, we have a small army of volunteers helping out. We are looking forward to this new cultural experience.

Having a big party is precisely what we need at St. Paul’s right now. Our parish is suffering through a wave of illnesses and deaths; yesterday was the first Saturday in weeks that we’ve not had a funeral or memorial service. Alas, there are more coming up in the next few weeks.

Meanwhile, at least a half-dozen parishioners have recent diagnosis of cancers. Others have been laid up with serious debilitating maladies. The people of St. Paul’s are going through a great deal right now.

In many churches, today is called “Good Shepherd Sunday” because the gospel lesson (John 10: 22-30) focuses on Jesus vowing to find his sheep and bring them safely home no matter what. Today we hear some of the most soaring, assuring and familiar words in the New Testament:
“My sheep hear my voice. I know them, and they follow me. I give them eternal life, and they will never perish. No one will snatch them out of my hand.”
I think these words are meant not just to offer comfort, but courage. People get sick and die. But death is a horizon over which we cannot yet see. Healing will come, either on this side of the horizon or the other. The Good Shepherd will be with us, even when we don’t see it or feel it, no matter how difficult and rocky the path may be. We aren’t alone in this walk. God is with us. We will get through this.

One of the reasons we gather as faith community is to be the face of Christ to each other, and have faith when others’ faith is faltering. When my prayers don’t come, I know you will have prayers for me.

Sometimes I wonder why we offer prayers for the sick and those who have died. Doesn’t God know all this already? Of course. But maybe God likes to hear us say the words about those who are suffering, and by our words, we connect our souls to each other. When I pray for someone who is sick, a part of me – maybe just a sliver – shares in the sickness with that person. When all of us pray, the slivers become a giant redwood.

Recently I came across a book of poems about loss, grief and recovery compiled and edited by Kevin Young, a remarkable young poet in his own right (I mentioned him HERE a few weeks ago after hearing him read at the Virginia Festival of the Book). Poetry, like prayer and art, reaches depths in our souls that lengthy prose and scientific treatises just cannot reach.

Below is a poem from this book by one of my favorite poets, Jane Kenyon. The artwork is by Kathrin Burleson (that’s how she spells her first name), who lives on the North Coast of California. This painting, entitled “Resurrection,” is the last in a series she painted on the Stations of the Cross.
Notes from the Other Side
By Jane Kenyon

I divested myself of despair
and fear when I came here.

Now there is no more catching
one’s own eye in the mirror

there are no bad books, no plastic,
no insurance premiums, and of course

no illness. Contrition
does not exist, no gnashing

of teeth. No one howls as the first
clod of earth hits the casket.

The poor we no longer have with us.
Our calm hearts strike only the hour,

and God, as promised, proves
to be mercy clothed in light.
Reprinted in The Art of Losing: Poems of Grief & Healing, edited by Kevin Young, 2010, Bloomsbury.

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