Tuesday, October 31, 2006

Now that my brain cells are down to a managable number...

OK, my 50th birthday has come and gone...as have the 575th and 576th sermons of my career. Tonight is All Hallows Eve, followed by All Saints Day and then All Souls...it's a season of the year (as I said last Sunday in my Dia de los Muertos homily) when the "spirit world" seems especially close to our own, however we may choose to understand that. But the contrast between my birthday celebration and "the day of the dead" seemed especially noticable this year -- basically a sharp reminder that our experience of church spans the entire spectrum from birth to death, cradle to grave. It's a shared experience of Community, which binds us together in both celebration and compassion; its the Universal Experience of All Humanity, which unites All Souls in one common, human family.

Personally, I've been very lucky when it comes to death. Both of my parents are still living, as are all of my siblings, both of my aunts, all of my immediate cousins, nephews and neices. My grandfathers both died within a month of one another in the Autumn of 1978 -- the year I started at Havard Divinity School. One was 88; the other (the disolute one, who smoked two packs of Lucky Strikes a day) only 82. My maternal grandmother passed away five years later, also at the age of 88; whyle my paternal grandmother lived well into her 90's, and passed away only a decade ago.

But in my work and role as a minister, I am frequently brought into the presence of death: both with individuals who are dying, and also their loved ones...more times than I can count, really -- although even now the mere mention of a name will bring back a flood of memories decades later. Death is the one universal experience of all living things, and often it seems to me that how we choose to deal with the reality of death is the one key thing that defines us people of faith.

We all know of folks who appear to believe in some form of the hereafter: from vague notions of the immortality of the soul and the possibility of reincarnation through an never-ending series of past and future lives, to literal understandings of "pie in the sky when we die" -- heaven and hell, eternal reward and punishment, a "life everlasting" not TOO dissimilar from our lives here on earth. Yet it also seems to me that those of us who are skeptical of such things are also often guilty of taking it all too literally -- weighing bodies at the moment of death in vain attempts to discern the "weight" of a soul, or probing about the pineal gland in search of the physical location of the human spirit.

But the truth is simply that the "other side" of death is a complete mystery. And what we think we know of it we know only through metaphor -- through a process of analogy to familiar things which seem to provide insight into things we will NEVER know or experience, at least in THIS life.

Still, inuitively we seem to know that there is more to us than just our bodies. And so (at least here in the West) we divide our "selves" into flesh and spirit, body and soul. And we also know that at our death, our flesh returns to the earth from which it came -- ashes to ashes, dust to dust. The various elements that make up our bodies: the oxygen, hydrogen, nitrogen and carbon -- are all recycled into something else. So why should we not assume that at the moment of our death, our spirit also becomes "at one" with the Creative Spirit of the Universe that gives us life, and exists at the source of all existence? Yet even the idea of "spirit" itself is simply a figment of our imaginations. It's something we make up in order to speak about an aspect of our experience of a mystery we will never fully understand.

Here's another insight about the nature of the spirit. In culture after culture, thoughout recorded history, we are taught that spirits which cling too tenaciously to life fail to become at one with their creator. They become instead "hungry ghosts" -- thirsting after something that is no longer theirs to possess, tormented shadows of their former selves, neither satisfied nor at rest. It is only when we can surrender our lives graciously that we are free to experience whatever lies beyond. And this too is something we know in analogy to our experience of the "real" world.

I'm struck, for example, by the contrast between the families of the victims of the recent Amish School shootings, and the families of the victims of the Rhode Island Night Club fire, who were so angry that those they felt responsible for that tragedy were not more harshly punished. Their need for vengence and retribution -- to "get even" with those who had caused them pain -- simply created an even bigger hole in their lives, preventing them from feeling whole again. Yet the Amish community -- victims of a premeditated act of deliberate violence -- were quick to accept their loss and even to forgive the perpetrator. They will never forget, nor cease to love those who were so brutally taken from them. But they are moving forward rather than clinging to their grief, simply by forsaking vengence for forgiveness.

And this is the dualism of life and death, between a desire to get even and the ability to move on. Grief AND Compassion. Loss AND Forgiveness. Sorrow AND Celebration. And yes, Birth and Death....

Thursday, October 19, 2006

October is Clergy Appreciation Month?

OK, I’ll admit it. I was as surprised by this as anyone. Like a lot of ministers I know, I'm just now starting to come up again for air after a busy autumn start to yet another church program year. Until just a few weeks ago, I had no idea there was any such thing as a “National Clergy Appreciation Month,” much less that “Clergy Appreciation National Day of Honoring is always celebrated on the second Sunday in October.” But thanks to the Hallmark website, not only do I now know that Clergy Appreciation Month was established in 1992 (although I'm still not sure who established it), and that its “mission is to uplift and encourage pastors, missionaries and religious workers by providing physical, emotional and spiritual support,” I’m also aware that “Hallmark offers 35 Clergy Appreciation cards,” and that “Clergy Appreciation cards may be found wherever Hallmark brands are sold.”

I also have to admit though that I kinda like the idea of there being a National Clergy Appreciation Month. Heck, I think it ought to be International Clergy Appreciation Season. Not that I generally go around feeling unappreciated for what I do. In fact, just the opposite -- I generally feel like I am able to accomplish relatively little compared to all the things I WISH I could do in my ministry, and am always a little amazed by how much people seem to appreciate my feeble contribution to the quality of their spiritual lives.

But the truth is, I’m not so sure that anyone can really appreciate what clergy do except for other people who have been doing ministry themselves for a significant amount of time. I know this was true for me. I first got involved in this line of work because I thought I’d like it, that I’d be good at it, and that it would provide me with an opportunity to accomplish something important with my life. I also liked the idea of working with both books and people, and that there was only one hour a week when I absolutely had to be in a certain place at a certain time.

Of course now, twenty-five years after my ordination, I’ve discovered that ministry is easily the most emotionally and intellectually demanding thing I’ve ever done in MY life, and doubtlessly among the most emotionally and intellectually demanding occupations on the planet. The relentless and unforgiving weekly deadline of Sunday morning can quickly become all-consuming if I let it (and often even when I don’t). I still like my job a lot (most days), and like to feel that at least now I do it better than I did when I first started out. But sometimes it’s still hard to see what tangible good I’ve been able to accomplish with my life, especially since so much of my work is intangible and highly subjective to begin with.

More to the point, I also have a much greater appreciation at this point in my life for how much ministry truly is “shared.” I try to do my job for the benefit of the people under my care, but I also can’t do my job without their active encouragement and support. Furthermore, a good portion of my job is to help equip people to be of service to others (i.e. to “do ministry”) themselves, and in this regard it is sometimes hard to tell where my ministry leaves off and all of theirs begins. Ministry is a lifestyle as much as it is a profession or an occupation or a vocation. Or to put it another way, ministry is what we do together when we make up our minds to take the mission of the church seriously.

In any event, I'm very grateful for all the expressions of appreciation I've heard for my ministry over the years -- not just during National Clergy Appreciation Month, but often at some of the most random times and places. And I also hope you all know in your heart-of-hearts, more than I can express in words, that the feeling is mutual....