That Which We Have Heard & Known

Occasional thoughts of an Anglican Episcopal priest

Category: Family (page 2 of 13)

A Meditation on Mortality (for the parish newsletter)

====================

A “Rector’s Reflection” offered by the Rev. Dr. C. Eric Funston in the July 2016 issue of “The Epistle,” the newsletter of St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, Medina, Ohio, where Fr. Funston is rector.

====================

firefliesThe week of the summer solstice was an interesting one in the Funston household.

The night of the solstice there was what is known as a “strawberry moon,” a phenomenon which only occurs when a full moon coincides with the northern hemisphere’s summer solstice, longest day of the year. The moon takes on an amber or pinkish glow which astronomers explain is caused by the setting sun’s positioning, affecting the angle at which the sun’s rays pass through Earth’s atmosphere and, thus, the apparent coloration of the moon.

The name “strawberry moon” was given by the Native American Algonquin tribes of northern Michigan and Canada. They believed that a full moon in June signified that it was time to start picking fruits, including strawberries. It is also known as the Rose, Hot, or Honey Moon (the latter being the origin of the name given a newly married couple’s post-wedding get-away). The last time there was a “strawberry moon” was during the so-called “summer of love” in 1967.

Biblically, the summer solstice and the nearest full moon are associated with punishment and death. It was taught by the rabbis in their commentaries on Scripture that this was the time when Moses disobeyed God and was told he could not enter the Promised Land with the rest of the Hebrews, but would die instead.

I made note of the “strawberry moon” as I took Dudley for his last walk of the evening before going to bed. I also noticed a large number of fireflies winking in the trees and lawns of our neighborhood. Fireflies always remind me of two things: summers spent with my grandparents in Winfield, Kansas, during the 1950s, and burying my late brother in 1993, also in Winfield which was his home town. The night after his burial in late June, the fireflies were more numerous and more active than I had ever seen them before, nor have I ever seen that many since!

So the “strawberry moon” and the fireflies were, in a sense, a reminder of mortality. The next day, I was scheduled to visit a urologist at the request of my primary care physician. The reason: elevated prostate specific antigen levels in my blood. “Not a big deal,” I thought. I have always had a high PSA level. However, after taking my history, asking a lot of personal questions, and conducting an examination, the urologist told me that I have the classic signs and symptoms of prostate cancer and referred me for a biopsy. That will happen later this month.

“Still,” I thought, “No big deal.” Prostate cancer is slow growing and can often be left untreated without any real impact on a man’s health. However, given my family history of various sorts of cancers, it’s a matter of some (though not a lot of) concern.

I thought that would be the big medical news of the day until late that night. I had gone to bed and was sound asleep when Evie woke me up gasping for breath and obviously very anxious. We headed for the hospital where, eventually, it was discovered that she had two pulmonary emboli, blood clots, in her left lung. (See note below.)

That was yesterday. As I write, she is still in the hospital and will be for a few days while the doctors try to determine how and why she developed these clots.

So in the course of 24 hours, we have both been reminded of our own mortality and, I have to say, I think we’re taking it rather well. Several years ago, the New York Times Magazine ran an article about how we modern human beings face the reality of our own mortality (Facing Your Own Mortality, 9 Oct 1988).

The article contrasted a 60-year-old woman “stricken by two life-threatening ailments – insulin-dependent diabetes and breast cancer” – with a man in his 60s, a doctor “crippled by amyotrophic lateral sclerosis – Lou Gehrig’s disease.”

The woman, the author wrote, “stares death down every day. Despite the odds against her, she accepts the possibility of her imminent death with astonishing serenity. When she was diagnosed with cancer, she did not ask, as many patients do, ‘Why me?’ Instead, she thought, ‘Why not me? Rather than crying about your affliction, you have to live every minute you have as a gift.’”

The man, on the other hand, was described as “unable to overcome his anger at being crippled.” He “refused to acknowledge his encroaching impairment. He became hostile toward those around him. As his condition forced him to give up his practice, his anger often exploded. His wife, his full-time caretaker, bears the brunt of his fury. She has confided to friends with great sadness that she awaits the time when both of them will be released from the prison of terminal illness.”

What is it that makes it possible for some of us to face our own deaths with equanimity while others become anxious and angry? I believe the answer is faith, not necessarily the Christian (or even religious) faith, but that sense that life has meaning and that there is a greater purpose in the universe than simply our own meagre existence.

As I write on June 23 for the July issue of The Epistle, today’s Daily Office Lectionary texts included a selection from the Letter to the Romans in which Paul writes, “Suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, and hope does not disappoint us, be-cause God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit that has been given to us.” (Rom 5:3b-5) That, it seems to me, is the essence of faith, the sure and certain hope that (as Paul writes later in the same letter) “all things work together for good for those who love God.” (8:28)

I used to have a congregant (in another parish) who frequently asked me, “What will happen when I die?” I would answer her, “Martha, I don’t know and I don’t care. I don’t know because I haven’t been there yet; I don’t care because there’s not much I can do about it.” Jesus asked his followers, “Can any of you by worrying add a single hour to your span of life?” (Matt 6:27) He clearly didn’t think so, for his follow up instruction was, “Do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will bring worries of its own. Today’s trouble is enough for today.”

It is that attitude of faith, to live for today and not worry about tomorrow, that I think allows some to face death with calmness and composure. I commend it to you.

Live for today! Enjoy the summer!

(Note: Yesterday, the day after this was written, I was told by the attending physician that Evie had “a lot of clots, so many clots” in both her lungs. He said that if I hadn’t brought her to the emergency room on Wednesday night, but had opted to wait until morning, she would probably have died. So, take it from me, don’t dismiss even a little unexplained shortness of breath! – Return to Text)

====================

A request to my readers: I’m trying to build the readership of this blog and I’d very much appreciate your help in doing so. If you find something here that is of value, please share it with others. If you are on Facebook, “like” the posts on your page so others can see them. If you are following me on Twitter, please “retweet” the notices of these meditations. If you have a blog of your own, please include mine in your links (a favor I will gladly reciprocate). Many thanks!

====================

Father Funston is the rector of St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, Medina, Ohio.

A Priest (And My Demons) – Homily for Proper 7, RCL Year C (19 June 2016)

====================

A homily offered by the Rev. Dr. C. Eric Funston on the Fifth Sunday after Pentecost, June 19, 2016, to the people of St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, Medina, Ohio, where Fr. Funston is rector.

(The lessons for the day are Proper 7C of the Revised Common Lectionary: Isaiah 65:1-9; Psalm 22:18-27; Galatians 3:23-29; and St. Luke 8:26-39. These lessons may be found at The Lectionary Page.)

====================

EricOrangeStoleTwenty-four years and 363 days ago I was made a priest; some what more than a year more than that, I have been a deacon. I have been in parish ministry for more than 26 years and on Tuesday I will celebrate the 25th anniversary of my ordination to the Sacred Prebyterate.

I am good at what I do. I know well how to craft liturgy; I take care in what I do and the choices I make in creating the outline of a worship service, and I do a good job. I run a tight ship when it comes to parish administration and management of the church’s resources.

I have been a Diocesan Chancellor, and served on Diocesan Councils, Standing Committees, Commissions on Ministry, Constitution and Canons Committees, and other interim bodies of the church. I have been a deputy to General Convention, an alternate Deputy, and a participant in the church’s deliberative and legislative processes.

I have shepherded aspirants through the church’s ordination process and mentored the newly ordained and the newly assigned; one of my apprentices is now the rector of a major parish in this diocese; another is now bishop in an important and historical diocese; my own son is rector of an important congregation in his diocese.

People tell me I preach a pretty good sermon, though sometimes I don’t recognize the homilies they tell me I have delivered. They tell me I’m good with death, that they want me to officiate at their funerals when the time comes. Others compliment me on the beauty of weddings at which I preside.

I’m a good priest.

And yet I have my demons. Visiting someone in the hospital, or sitting with a family planning a funeral, or counseling a couple prepare for marriage (or a couple in the midst of a marriage possibly coming to an end) … I’m never sure that I have said the right thing. In fact, I’m often positive that I’ve been a complete failure, that nothing I’ve said has made any difference, except perhaps to have made things worse.

Sometimes I get cards, or letters, or emails thanking me for my ministry. I treasure those; I keep them in a special drawer in my desk. More often, I get letters and emails telling me how I have failed, how someone is disappointed in what I have said or done or failed to say or haven’t done, or (worse) I am forwarded a note or email telling someone else like a church warden or a vestry member what a disappointment the rector is.

I don’t keep those – I don’t have to; every single one of them is etched into my consciousness, engraved on my heart; every single one of them hurts as much today as when first read however recent or long ago it may have been. Every one of them is a constant reminder of how I have failed to live up to my ordination vows.

But I’m a good priest; I know I’m a good priest.

I love the people of my parish – you. Sometimes, I don’t like some of you very much, but I love you. I pray for you every morning; I lay awake at night worrying about you; I cry myself to sleep when I feel that I have failed you.

I love you, but I don’t do what I do for you. And when I fail you, when I don’t live up to you expectations, when I preach a word that discomfits you and you push back … it isn’t you to whom I answer. It is the one who sets me free from my demons.

Jesus says to me, as he said Gerasene demoniac, “What is your name?” And demons begin to name themselves, “Parishioner complaint. Parishioner disappointment. Self-criticism.” And then, of course, there’s “Disappointing son. Inadequate father. Second-rate spouse. Poor excuse for an attorney.” The demons are legion. And Jesus gives me permission to let go of them, and gives them permission to leave. Because what I do, I do for him. I do what I do for God. I don’t know where those names, those demons go … maybe into a herd of swine; I don’t know. They go away … sometimes they seem to come back, but mostly they go away.

And sometimes I just want to go away, too; I want to go away with Jesus. I beg that I might just go away and be with him; but Jesus won’t let me. He says to me, “Return to your home, and declare how much God has done for you.” So I preach. I preach about gun violence; I preach about mental health; I preach about community, and fellowship, and love; and I preach about what I read in the newspaper and what I read in the Scriptures. But always, no matter what the subject may seem to be, I preach about how much Jesus has done for me. For 25 years.

For 25 years. And I’m grateful to Jesus who called me to this ministry, who has sustains me in this vocation, and who frees me from my demons. Because of him, I’m a good priest.

====================

A request to my readers: I’m trying to build the readership of this blog and I’d very much appreciate your help in doing so. If you find something here that is of value, please share it with others. If you are on Facebook, “like” the posts on your page so others can see them. If you are following me on Twitter, please “retweet” the notices of these meditations. If you have a blog of your own, please include mine in your links (a favor I will gladly reciprocate). Many thanks!

====================

Father Funston is the rector of St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, Medina, Ohio.

A Wedding Homily – Sunday, 15 May 2016

====================

A homily offered by the Rev. Dr. C. Eric Funston at the Blessing of the Civil Marriage of Christopher William White and Robert William Powell, May 15, 2016, to the people assembled at First Congregational Church, 91 South Main Street, Sunderland, MA.

(The lessons for the service were: the poem who are you, little i by e.e. cummings; an excerpt from The Velveteen Rabbit by Margery Williams; and a portion of the Beatitudes (Matthew 5:1–10, NRSV). These lessons are set out below after the sermon.)

====================

marriagestoleWhy are we here? Well, for a wedding, of course. But, more specifically, you may be wondering why an old Episcopal priest from Ohio is here in an 18th Century Puritan meeting house trying to do 21st Century Anglo-Catholic ritual. The short answer is that Chris asked me to. Chris was my music director at St Paul’s Church in Medina, Ohio, when he was a student at Oberlin (which his mother reminded me yesterday was just a few weeks ago), and we’ve been friends ever since.

The long answer to why we are all here is that we love these two men, that we wish them well, that we want to support them in this endeavor called “marriage,” and that we are asking God to bless them today and throughout their life together which (we hope) will be for life.

We’ve been treated to some readings, not all from Scripture, which they have chosen and which speak to them and to us about this thing they are doing.

First, that delightful little poem by e.e. cummings, who are you little, i – a bit of verse which reminds us of the magic of childhood which we sometimes seem to lose as we age. Cummings reminds us that it is never lost, but that it does often get buried under the pressures of adult life, and as anyone who is married will tell us, there are few adult demands more pressing than those of marriage. Chris and Rob have each just promised “to love [the other], comfort him, honor and keep him, in sickness and in health,” and to be faithful to him for life. Those are heavy promises, heavy obligations; they can weigh us down and bury the “little, i”. Another poet, Mary Oliver, has an answer to that concern which I will share with you in a moment.

Then we heard that wonderful excerpt from everyone’s favorite childhood book, Margery Williams’ The Velveteen Rabbit in which the Skin Horse observes that love is what makes us real and that people with hard edges or sharp corners, or break easily, seldom become real, and in which we see the Rabbit become real as his hair is loved off, his tail becomes unsewn, and the pink is kissed off his nose.

Chris and Rob have paired these readings with the Beatitudes, Jesus’ list of people who are blessed not because of anything they do but because of who they are. This is not Jesus’ social program; he’s not laying out a course of conduct by which we can earn blessedness. It occurred to me as I went over these three readings that what Jesus is doing is describing people whose “little, i” has not been buried (or, if it was buried at one time, it has been dug up again); he describing those who either never had sharp edges, or whose sharp edges have been softened and worn away, whose hair has been loved off by others, who have been hugged by others so tightly that their joints are loose and shabby, whom people have kissed so often that the pink has rubbed off their noses. And he is here promising that the reward for being loved like that is blessedness, what the Skin Horse calls “reality.” That is what we hope for Rob and for Chris when we ask God to bless them in this thing, this relationship we call “marriage.”

Marriage in the eyes of the State is a contract; two people make mutual promises and if they fail live up to those promises, the law will take action. If one or both of them later decide they don’t want to honor the contract, they have to go to court to be relieved of its obligations. In the eyes of the church, however, marriage is much more – it is what we call a “sacrament.” A sacrament, we say, is “an outward and visible sign of an inward and spiritual grace.”

So what is the outward and visible sign of marriage? When I ask that question in confirmation classes, the most common answer is “the rings.” Good answer, but not exactly right.

I’m wearing stole which has on it three symbols connected with marriage. The interlocked rings, a funny looking thing that looks like a capitol-P with a crossbar, and palm branch. Although the rings are not the outward and visible sign, on this stole they represent that sign, which is the couple themselves. The sacramental sign of marriage is the two people who live together in the sacramental relationship; they symbolize the grace of human companionship, the possibility of love and peace between individuals so deep and so profound that they (in Jesus’ words) “become one flesh.” They are living symbols of the hope and possibility that all humanity can do that as a world-wide community. In the Skin Horse’s word, they make it real.

But they do not do that as a couple alone, they do that with through the grace and empowerment of God; thus, the second symbol, which isn’t a P-with-a-crossbar. This symbol is a stylized combination of the Greek letter Chi and Rho, the first two letters of the word “Christ”. It reminds us that God a part of, a party to, and a partner in every marriage. In token of that reality, Chris and Rob will share the sacrament of the Eucharist today, another sacrament reminding us of Jesus’ words “Remember, I am with you to the end of the ages.”

The third emblem on my stole is a palm branch. Some of you will remember the story of Jesus’ triumphal entry into Jerusalem which the church celebrates every year on the day called “Palm Sunday.” The people along his path from the Mount of Olives, through the Kidron Valley, and into the Holy City spread his path with branches of palm and waved branches as they sang “Hosanna!” and wished him well. On this stole, this palm branch represents the crowds who support Chris and Rob; in other words, you and all the people you represent! A marriage does not exist in a vacuum; it is a social contract, a sacrament, a way of life lived out in the context of a community and the married couple rely upon that community. Each of these men will not be able to live up to that promise to love, comfort, honor, keep and be faithful to the other unless you help them do it. That’s why we began this service not just with their vows, but with yours. You were asked: “Will all of you witnessing these promises do all in your power to uphold these two persons in their marriage?” and you answered loudly and whole-heartedly, “We will!” They are going to rely on that promise . . . a lot!

So, I suggested that e.e. cummings’ concern about our buried “little, i” has been answered by another poet, Mary Oliver. I will close with her answer, the poem “I worried.”

I worried a lot. Will the garden grow, will the rivers
flow in the right direction, will the earth turn
as it was taught, and if not how shall
I correct it?

Was I right, was I wrong, will I be forgiven,
can I do better?

Will I ever be able to sing, even the sparrows
can do it and I am, well,
hopeless.

Is my eyesight fading or am I just imagining it,
am I going to get rheumatism,
lockjaw, dementia?

Finally I saw that worrying had come to nothing.
And gave it up. And took my old body
and went out into the morning,
and sang.

Chris . . . Rob . . . your “little, i” (like all of ours) is in constant danger of being buried under the concerns of life, none of which are heavier than the promises you have made to be responsible in love to and for one other special person. But you have not made those promises alone; you have the grace and support of God, and you have the love and support of this community of family and friends. So don’t let that heaviness bury you . . . just love one another through rheumatism and lockjaw and dementia and hair being rubbed off and the pink being kissed away; just get up every day and go out into the morning and sing.

The Readings:

who are you, little i by e.e. cummings

who are you, little i

(five or six years old)
peering from some high

window; at the gold

of November sunset

(and feeling: that if day
has to become night

this is a beautiful way)

From The Velveteen Rabbit by Margery Williams

“What is REAL?” asked the Rabbit one day, when they were lying side by side near the nursery fender, before Nana came to tidy the room. “Does it mean having things that buzz inside you and a stick-out handle?”

“Real isn’t how you are made,” said the Skin Horse. “It’s a thing that happens to you. When a child loves you for a long, long time, not just to play with, but REALLY loves you, then you become Real.”

“Does it hurt?” asked the Rabbit.

“Sometimes,” said the Skin Horse, for he was always truthful. “When you are Real you don’t mind being hurt.”

“Does it happen all at once, like being wound up,” he asked, “or bit by bit?”

“It doesn’t happen all at once,” said the Skin Horse. “You become. It takes a long time. That’s why it doesn’t happen often to people who break easily, or have sharp edges, or who have to be carefully kept. Generally, by the time you are Real, most of your hair has been loved off, and your eyes drop out and you get loose in the joints and very shabby. But these things don’t matter at all, because once you are Real you can’t be ugly, except to people who don’t understand.”

That night, and for many nights after, the Velveteen Rabbit slept in the Boy’s bed. At first he found it rather uncomfortable, for the Boy hugged him very tight, and sometimes he rolled over on him, and sometimes he pushed him so far under the pillow that the Rabbit could scarcely breathe… But very soon he grew to like it, for the Boy used to talk to him, and made nice tunnels for him under the bedclothes that he said were like the burrows the real rabbits lived in. And they had splendid games together, in whispers… And when the Boy dropped off to sleep, the Rabbit would snuggle down close under his little warm chin and dream, with the Boy’s hands clasped close round him all night long.

And so time went on, and the little Rabbit was very happy-so happy that he never noticed how his beautiful velveteen fur was getting shabbier and shabbier, and his tail becoming unsewn, and all the pink rubbed off his nose where the Boy had kissed him.

And one night Nana grumbled as she cleaned the rabbit off with a corner of her apron. “You must have your old Bunny!” she said. “Fancy all that fuss!”

The Boy sat up in bed and stretched out his hands. “Give me my Bunny!” he said. “You mustn’t say that…. He’s REAL!

The Beatitudes (Matthew 5:1-10, NRSV)

1 When Jesus saw the crowds, he went up the mountain; and after he sat down, his disciples came to him.

2 Then he began to speak, and taught them, saying:

3 “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.

4 “Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted.

5 “Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth.

6 “Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled.

7 “Blessed are the merciful, for they will receive mercy.

8 “Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God.

9 “Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God.

10 “Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.”

====================

A request to my readers: I’m trying to build the readership of this blog and I’d very much appreciate your help in doing so. If you find something here that is of value, please share it with others. If you are on Facebook, “like” the posts on your page so others can see them. If you are following me on Twitter, please “retweet” the notices of these meditations. If you have a blog of your own, please include mine in your links (a favor I will gladly reciprocate). Many thanks!

====================

Father Funston is the rector of St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, Medina, Ohio.

Claim the Openness! Claim the Kingdom! – A Reflection on April, Politics, and Marriage

====================

A “Rector’s Reflection” offered by the Rev. Dr. C. Eric Funston to the people of St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, Medina, Ohio, where Fr. Funston is rector, in the April 2016 edition of the parish newsletter, St. Paul’s Epistle.

====================

wedding-rings1It’s April! When did that happen?

The Anglo-Saxons called April êastre-monaþ. (That funny looking letter at the end is called a “thorn” and is pronounced like “th”.) This literally means “easter month” and April was called this because it was sacred to the goddess Eostre. According the Venerable Bede (a very early English historian) this is why in the English language we call the feast and season of Christ’s Resurrection “Easter” rather than some variation of the Latin word for “Passover” which is most common among European languages. Of course, this is one of those oddball years when Easter did not, in fact, fall during the month of April.

In 1980, however, Easter fell on April 6. Why would I know this? Because Evelyn and I were married during April, 1980. On Saturday, April 12, in fact. It was the Saturday after Easter Sunday. For some reason, we had wanted to get married on March 15. Thirty-six years later I cannot for the life of me remember why we wanted to get married on the Ides of March, but that was the date. I went to see my parish priest, Fr. Karl Spatz, about that and he just looked at me with an expression of distaste: “That’s during Lent,” he said. “You don’t want to get married during Lent.” He was (and I wasn’t yet) a very high church Anglo-Catholic. So, we got married on the first available Saturday after Easter Sunday.

Here’s a good thing about getting married on Saturday in Easter Week: the Easter flowers and lilies are still really lovely and in full bloom. We had a lovely wedding and we’ve had a lovely marriage and I’m very grateful for it all. Fr. Karl was probably right to encourage us to not get married during Lent; Easter Season was a much better choice.

Easter and April are good times for just about anything. Although we English speakers gave the Anglo-Saxon name to the Feast of the Resurrection, we took the Romans’ name for this month. Etymologists tell us that Aprilis, the original Latin name, is derived from a word meaning “opening,” probably in reference to the opening of leaf and flower buds. To me, however, it suggests Christ’s open tomb.

This time of Resurrection and rebirth is also a time of opening. Opening ourselves to the world around us; opening ourselves to the graces and blessings that come from God the Father. The former news reporter Jon Katz, who writes a blog about living on a farm and raising dogs, and who has written numerous books about dogs, is also a poet. One of his pieces is entitled Open Up, Open Up:

I don’t want to live a small life,
open your eyes,
open your mind,
open your heart.
I have just come from the Dahlia garden,
the first Dahlia kissing me with its blood red mouth,
the wind-winged clouds roaring overhead,
exciting me,
sending me hurtling along, thinking I might perhaps catch a ride,
feel the wind in my face, but no,
the clouds rushed away, places to go.
So I carry these dreams only to you,
One of the last gifts I can ever bring to anyone
in this world filled with love and hope and risk and fear,
so do look at me, listen to me.
Open your soul, let it breathe,
Open your life, open your heart.
I don’t want to live a small life,
of warning and fear.

I don’t want to live that sort of life, either, but it has seemed to me, especially in the current presidential election cycle, that that is exactly the sort of life forced onto all of us by the world in which we live. Palpably since September 11, 2001, we have lived a life “of warning and fear.” That’s nearly a quarter of my life. It’s half of my children’s lives. And it’s the entire lifetime of all of our Sunday School children and many of our youth group members.

Thank God we’ve gotten rid of the color-coded threat-level gauges the government at one time encouraged every news service to broadcast, but even without those the world of warning and fear prevails. Much of this arises, I think, from the clash of personal rights and privileges in a society which has become increasingly and destructively individualistic. A former bishop of mine once remarked that it is a small step from insisting on one’s rights to insisting on being right, from insisting on being right to insisting on being in control, and that being in control is not meant for any of us who claim to follow Jesus.

Consider these admonitions:

“If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross daily and follow me.” (Jesus in Luke 9:23)

“For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake, and for the sake of the gospel, will save it.” (Jesus in Mark 8:35)

“Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility regard others as better than yourselves.” (Paul writing in Philippians 2:3)

For the sake of openness to one another, we are not to insist on our own individual rights, but rather concern ourselves with the needs and well-being of others. Were we to do that, there would be no need for warnings and fears. We have been assured of that by God himself who constantly in both Old and New Testaments, through prophets, through apostles, through Jesus himself sends the same message:

“Moses said to the people, ‘Do not be afraid . . . .'” (Exodus 20:20)

“Be strong and bold; have no fear or dread . . . .” (Deut. 31:6)

“The Lord is at my side, therefore I will not fear.” (Psalm 118:6, BCP)

“Say to those who are of a fearful heart, ‘Be strong, do not fear!'” (Isaiah 35:5)

“Do not fear, only believe.” (Jesus in Mark 5:36)

“Do not be afraid, little flock, for it is your Father’s good pleasure to give you the kingdom.” (Jesus in Luke 12:32)

“So we can say with confidence, ‘The Lord is my helper; I will not be afraid. What can anyone do to me?'” (Letter to the Hebrews 13:6)

When Evie and I got married, the current Book of Common Prayer had been fully official for less than a year (it was ratified by the 66th General Convention in September of 1979). Its marriage vows, however, were and are ancient and revered. We promised, as all marrying couples promise, to take one another as spouses “to have and to hold from this day forward, for better for worse, for richer for poorer, in sickness and in health, to love and to cherish.” In a word, we committed, as do all married couples, to be open to one another in all circumstances.

Like all sacraments, the sacrament of marriage is “an outward and visible sign of an inward and spiritual grace.” The outward and visible sign in marriage is the couple, the two people themselves, and the inward and spiritual grace they are a sign of is exactly the sort of God-empowered interpersonal openness that conquers warnings and fears. If two people can live together in this way, says this sacramental sign, then so can all people.

We’ve been able to do it for 36 years. For that I am grateful to God . . . and especially grateful to Evelyn. In this month of Resurrection, rebirth, and openness, I encourage you to think on that (and on all married couples who have done likewise) and realize the promise of the sacrament’s grace, the promise of openness: God’s promise that none of us needs to “live a small life, of warning and fear.”

“Do not be afraid, little flock, for it is your Father’s good pleasure to give you the kingdom.”

It’s April! Claim the openness! Claim the kingdom!

====================

A request to my readers: I’m trying to build the readership of this blog and I’d very much appreciate your help in doing so. If you find something here that is of value, please share it with others. If you are on Facebook, “like” the posts on your page so others can see them. If you are following me on Twitter, please “retweet” the notices of these meditations. If you have a blog of your own, please include mine in your links (a favor I will gladly reciprocate). Many thanks!

====================

Father Funston is the rector of St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, Medina, Ohio.

Saying “Good-Bye” to Our Dog (9 January 2016)

fionnaportrait2

Her Ladyship Fionnaghuala “Fionna” nic Bhailecraic, Dowager Marchioness of Medina, my nearly constant companion of the last nine years, made her last trip to the vet’s office this morning and went to sleep for the last time at 9:10 a.m. For the first time in 27 years, the Funstons are dog-less. For me, personally, it’s only the second time in 45 years without a dog. I’m not sure how to handle this, but I will.

When I was a kid, my parents had a volume of poetry entitled “Best Loved Poems of the American People.” I always thought that an odd title. How did they determine that? Better title would have been “Best Loved Poems of the Editors of this Collection.” In any event, just about the only poem I remember being in that book was entitled “Rags” by Edmund Vance Cooke. I thought it a great poem back then, then I went to college and studied English literature and realized that it really isn’t very good, at all. Nonetheless, it has stuck with me through the years and the last two verses sum up the way I’m feeling right now:

We called him ‘Rags.’ He was just a cur,
But twice, on the Western Line,
That little old bunch of faithful fur
Had offered his life for mine.

And all that he got was bones and bread,
Or the leavings of soldier grub,
But he’d give his heart for a pat on the head,
Or a friendly tickle and rub

And Rags got home with the regiment,
And then, in the breaking away-
Well, whether they stole him, or whether he went,
I am not prepared to say.

But we mustered out, some to beer and gruel
And some to sherry and shad,
And I went back to the Sawbones School,
Where I still was an undergrad.

One day they took us budding M.D.s
To one of those institutes
Where they demonstrate every new disease
By means of bisected brutes.

They had one animal tacked and tied
And slit like a full-dressed fish,
With his vitals pumping away inside
As pleasant as one might wish.

I stopped to look like the rest, of course,
And the beast’s eyes levelled mine;
His short tail thumped with a feeble force,
And he uttered a tender whine.

It was Rags, yes, Rags! who was martyred there,
Who was quartered and crucified,
And he whined that whine which is doggish prayer
And he licked my hand and died.

And I was no better in part nor whole
Than the gang I was found among,
And his innocent blood was on the soul
Which he blessed with his dying tongue.

Well I’ve seen men go to courageous death
In the air, on sea, on land!
But only a dog would spend his breath
In a kiss for his murderer’s hand.

And if there’s no heaven for love like that,
For such four-legged fealty-well
If I have any choice, I tell you flat,
I’ll take my chance in hell.

Fionna looked at me from the examination table with those big brown eyes, her failing heart pounding and her breathing labored, and I had to tell her that I couldn’t make it better, but I could make it stop. The vet injected the medication, Fionna leaned her head into my hand as I scratched her ear, and then she was gone.

I took this photo just before we left for the vet’s office this morning.

Remember and Rejoice: Sermon for the Funeral of Sheryl Ann King (14 December 2015)

====================

A sermon offered at the Funeral of Sheryl Ann King (12/14/1967-12/09/2015) on Monday, December 14, 2015, to the people of St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, Medina, Ohio, where Fr. Funston is rector.

(The lessons selected by the family were Isaiah 25:6-9 ; Psalm 121; Revelation 21:2-7; and John 14:23-30.)

====================

funeralsprayA Native American proverb instructs us, “When you were born, you cried and the world rejoiced; live your life in a manner that when you die, the world cries and you rejoice.” Today, on what would have been Sheryl Ann King’s 48th birthday, the world (you and me and everyone who knew and loved Sherry) is crying, but Sherry is rejoicing. “If you loved me,” Jesus told his followers, “you would rejoice that I am going to the Father” (Jn 14:28); we who love Sherry, let us rejoice (even through our tears) that she, too, has gone to the Father.

In the Jewish religion going back at least as far as the Babylonian exile it is a tradition that those mourning the death of a loved one recite a prayer called the Mourner’s Kaddish. The prayer begins with these words:

Exalted and hallowed be God’s great name in the world which God created, according to plan. May God’s majesty be revealed in the days of our lifetime and the life of all Israel – speedily, imminently, to which we say Amen. (ReformJudaism.org>

As the prayer continues to its conclusion, there is not a single mention of the loved one, no mention of the loved one’s passing, no mention of the mourner’s grief. The prayer is, in its entirety, a sanctification of God and a petition for peace. The rabbis tell us that this tradition arose to remind us, even in the midst of great sorrow, to rejoice and to give thanks.

Nonetheless, there is a very human need to acknowledge the loss of the one we love and in a prayer book of the Reform Jewish movement entitled New Prayers for the High Holy Days there is this lovely meditation:

At the rising sun and at its going down, we remember them.
At the blowing of the wind and in the chill of winter, we remember them.
At the opening of the buds and in the rebirth of spring, we remember them.
At the blueness of the skies and in the warmth of summer, we remember them.
At the rustling of the leaves and in the beauty of the autumn, we remember them.
At the beginning of the year and when it ends, we remember them.
As long as we live, they too will live,
for they are now a part of us.
As we remember them.
When we are weary and in need of strength, we remember them.
When we are lost and sick at heart, we remember them.
When we have decisions that are difficult to make, we remember them.
When we have joy we crave to share, we remember them.
When we have achievements that are based on theirs, we remember them.
For as long as we live, they too will live,
For they are now a part of us, as we remember them.
(Sylvan Kamens & Rabbi Jack Riemer, We Remember Them, New Prayers for the High Holy Days, Media Judaica, New York:1970, p. 36)

What memories do you have of Sherry? I will always remember three things about her. The first is her competence and her drive. When Sherry was doing volunteer work here at St. Paul’s Church, I knew that if she said she would do something it would get done and it would get done well. (Parish priests really appreciate that and remember with special blessings those members on whom they can rely as one could rely on Sherry.) The second is that she loved to have a good time: she was a great hostess and she enjoyed a good party. I’m sure that she is just as pleased as she can be to be joining the saints in light at God’s great party, the one Isaiah described, that “feast of rich food, . . . of well-aged wines, of rich food filled with marrow, of well-aged wines strained clear” (Is 25:6).

The third thing I will remember is the way she always looked when she came back from her annual trip to Cancun. Sherry was someone who clearly enjoyed the sun! I have to admit to being somewhat amused when I realized that the family had selected a psalm with the verse, “The sun shall not strike you by day” (Ps 121:6)! I’m not sure Sherry would have gone for that, but I am sure she is now enjoying what Malachi prophesied, “For you who revere my name the sun of righteousness shall rise, with healing in its wings. You shall go out leaping like calves from the stall.” (Mal 4:2) Sherry, we believe, is now in that place “where sorrow and pain are no more, neither sighing, but life everlasting.” (BCP 1979, p 499)

And this is where our Christian faith takes us beyond the meditation in the Reform Jewish prayer book. We are assured that more than our memories sustains the lives of our departed loved ones; it is not “as long as we live” that they shall live, but forever. We are assured, because of the birth of Christ which we will celebrate in just a few days, because of his life, his death, his resurrection, and his ascension, that the way to eternal life has been opened to Sherry, to all of our loved ones gone before, and to all of us.

Sometimes when we bury the dead, we also celebrate the Holy Communion. In the Episcopal Church as part of that service, in the introductory preface to the consecration of the bread and wine, the priest presiding at the altar says these words:

Jesus Christ our Lord . . . rose victorious from the dead, and comforts us with the blessed hope of everlasting life. For to your faithful people, O Lord, life is changed, not ended; and when our mortal body lies in death, there is prepared for us a dwelling place eternal in the heavens. (BCP 1979, p 382)

This is our Christian hope and our assurance, that in Christ Jesus God has (as Isaiah prophesied) “swallow[ed] up death forever” (Is 25:8), and as John of Patmos heard the voice in heaven saying, “Death will be no more; mourning and crying and pain will be no more, for the first things have passed away.” (Rev 21:4)

So, our memories are precious and we cherish them, but it is more than our memories which sustain Sherry or any of our departed loved ones: through the love of God and the salvation of Christ, rest eternal has been granted to them, and light perpetual shines upon them. And we honor them with more than our memories; we honor Sherry not by living in the past, not only by remembering her, but by living into the future. When Queen Mother Elizabeth passed away in 2002, this meditation entitled Remember Me by David Harkins was included in the order of service. It seems to me appropriate today as we remember and celebrate Sherry’s life:

Do not shed tears when I have gone
but smile instead because I have lived.
Do not shut your eyes and pray to God that I’ll come back,
but open your eyes and see all that I have left behind.
I know your heart will be empty because you cannot see me,
but still I want you to be full of the love we shared.
You can turn your back on tomorrow
and live only for yesterday,
or you can be happy for tomorrow
because of what happened between us yesterday.
You can remember me and grieve that I have gone
or you can cherish my memory and let it live on.
You can cry and lose yourself,
become distraught and turn your back on the world,
or you can do what I want –
smile, wipe away the tears,
learn to love again and go on.
(See Poetic Expressions.)

The French novelist Marcel Proust once wrote, “Let us be grateful to people who make us happy; they are the charming gardeners who make our souls blossom.” (Pleasures and Days, Hesperus Classics, London:2004, p 116) “Do not let your hearts be troubled,” said Jesus, “and do not let them be afraid.” (Jn 14:27c) Instead, let them blossom, and let us rejoice and be grateful for the life of Sheryl Ann King. Amen.

====================

A request to my readers: I’m trying to build the readership of this blog and I’d very much appreciate your help in doing so. If you find something here that is of value, please share it with others. If you are on Facebook, “like” the posts on your page so others can see them. If you are following me on Twitter, please “retweet” the notices of these meditations. If you have a blog of your own, please include mine in your links (a favor I will gladly reciprocate). Many thanks!

====================

Father Funston is the rector of St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, Medina, Ohio.

Imperfection Incarnate – From the Daily Office Lectionary

Imperfection Incarnate

From the Daily Office Lectionary for Wednesday in the week of Advent 1, Year 2 (2 December 2015)

Psalm 119:1 ~ Happy are those whose way is blameless, who walk in the law of the Lord.

The Old Testament can be so unforgiving! Who is “blameless”? What human being can attain such perfection? I wrote the following reflection on perfection for the December issue of our parish newsletter.

A few weeks ago, my wife Evie and I went to the movies! We saw Bridge of Spies (which I strongly recommend, by the way) and several promotional “trailers” for up-coming movies, one of which is playing in the local theater as I write this reflection.

The movie is a holiday comedy starring Diane Keaton and entitled Love the Coopers; I know nothing about this movie and hadn’t heard of it until seeing the trailer. As the promo begins, we see Keaton in a department store speaking to someone and saying, “It’s the only time of the year when we’re all together! I want the perfect Christmas!”

As soon as I heard those words, I turned to Evie and said, “O my God! She’s my mother!”

I love my late mother and miss her dearly, but if she had one besetting sin it was holiday perfectionism. Whatever the holiday – New Year, Easter, Fourth of July, end-of-summer Labor Day, Thanksgiving, or Christmas – these were times for the family to gather and the festivities had to be perfect! And . . . of course . . . they never were. The holiday wasn’t perfect, Mother was disappointed, and her disappointment made the imperfection worse. Especially at Christmas.

Thank God that perfection is not what Christmas is all about! If it were, there would be nothing at all to celebrated because, in all honesty, it would be a dismal failure for all of us. Quite to the contrary, Christmas is about imperfection, about weakness, about foolishness.

If the Incarnation was all about perfection, the Word of God would have arrived as Someone like the Greek god Apollo, riding in a flaming chariot, bedazzling humankind with Sun-like brilliance. If the Incarnation was all about strength, the Savior would have come as Someone like Hercules, wrestling serpents and conquering lions. If the Incarnation was all about human wisdom, the Lord might have appeared as Someone like the lady Athena, the Greek goddess who sprang fully formed from the brow of Zeus.

Instead, the Word of God arrived not in a shining chariot but in a dirty stable; the Savior came not as a strongman but was a weak newborn; the Lord appeared not uttering words of wisdom but unable even to communicate for himself. Foolishness indeed. Imperfection incarnate.

“Love came down at Christmas,” wrote Christina Rossetti and though it isn’t usually associated with Christmas, her verse makes me think of St. Paul’s First Letter to the church in Corinth: “Love is patient; love is kind; love is not envious or boastful or arrogant or rude. It does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful; it does not rejoice in wrongdoing, but rejoices in the truth. It bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things. Love never ends.” (1 Cor. 13:4-8) Love does not insist on perfection or strength or wisdom; love accepts and works through those human frailties, not against them.

As the infant born in Bethlehem grew and became a man, his life was filled with what we might call imperfections. He soon became a refugee in a country not his own: “Get up,” said an angel to his father, “take the child and his mother, and flee to Egypt, and remain there until I tell you.” (Mt 2:13) He was rejected by his family and friends: “Prophets are not without honor except in their own country and in their own house,” he said. (Mt 13:57) He wandered as homeless person: “Foxes have holes, and birds of the air have nests; but the Son of Man has nowhere to lay his head,” he once remarked. (Mt 8:20)

Love came down at Christmas to be a refugee, rejected and homeless. Christmas is about love, not perfection:

Love shall be our token,
Love shall be yours and love be mine,
Love to God and to all men,
Love for plea and gift and sign.

Forgive yourself and others whatever imperfections there may be. The Incarnation is about love, not blameless perfection!

May your Advent preparations and Christmas festivities, imperfect though they will be, be filled with love!

Never Again! – From the Daily Office Lectionary

From the Daily Office Lectionary for Monday in the week of Proper 29, Year 1 (Christ the King, 2015)

Joel 3:14-15 ~ Multitudes, multitudes, in the valley of decision! For the day of the Lord is near in the valley of decision. The sun and the moon are darkened, and the stars withdraw their shining.

This morning I am stumbling through the darkened valley of decision. I was pretty certain that this might the day I would have to take my dog to the veterinarian for the last time, that I would be saying “Good bye” to my almost-daily companion of the last eight years. I wished there might have been “multitudes, multitudes” who could share this burden. A sorrow shared is half a sorrow, they say, although I don’t know whether that’s actually the case. Shared or unshared, sorrow is still soul shatteringly deep.

It was 8-1/2 years ago that my wife’s co-worker, knowing that we were about year out from having lost another cocker spaniel (Josephine – “the best dog ever” we still call that little girl), said “We have a stray cocker spaniel . . . ” – my wife’s associate was then president of a local “rescue” organization.

“Let’s just go meet her,” my wife said to me. I laughed out loud! “Meet her?” I answered. “If we meet her, we’ll bring her home!”

Well, obviously, we did meet her, and when she came home with us we named her Fionnaghuala (usually just Fionna or even Fi). She didn’t like me, at all. She didn’t like large, bald men in general. There was some speculation that she might have been abused by someone of my description. Eventually, however, she got used to me although it took her a while longer to be comfortable with other bald men; I’d had her only about three or four months when she bit a parishioner who reached out his hand toward her in friendly, but rather to rapid gesture.

She has gone to the office with me almost every day since that first meeting. She has gone on pastoral visits. She has played with parishioner children and nuzzled the hands of aged church members. She has insisted that the bereaved who have come to plan funerals forget their grief for a minute or two to scratch her ears. She has filled the silence of a lonely church office with her soft, snuffling snore.

But several months ago she developed a heart murmur, which revealed an enlarged heart, which developed into congestive heart failure. Medication has, until the last few days, relieved her symptoms, but it’s clear now that her heart is giving out. She is easily exhausted even just stepping outside to “do her business”; she has dad little interest in eating; she pants and whimpers in her sleep.

So, today, I am in the valley of decision. We went to see the vet. A shot, some special food, another day, another week, maybe another month. But I know the day is coming soon. I have been here before – with Josephine and Rascal and Kelly and Shadrak and Tina and Baron . . . and every time I have said “Never again” and every time . . . . Yes, I’ve been here before.

That’s the nature of the valley of decision. The Lord may have promised the Israelites that “strangers shall never again pass through” Jerusalem (v. 17), but somehow the valley of decision is a place we pass through many times. “Never again” never seems to work out that way!

So, it wasn’t today, but I’m pretty certain that some day soon, I will have to take my dog to the veterinarian for the last time, that I’ll be saying “Good bye.” And I will probably say, “Never again!” And nonetheless, I will also, probably, some day, be back in the valley of decision.

Baseball and a Father’s Death: A Funeral Homily, 18 November 2015

====================

A sermon offered at the requiem for James E. Freiberger, held November 18, 2015, at St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, Medina, Ohio, where Fr. Funston is rector.

(The lessons for the requiem were Lamentations 3:22-26,31-33; Psalm 27:1-7; Romans 8:14-19,34-35,37-39; and John 11:21-27. These lessons may be found at the Burials Lectionary Page The Lectionary Page. Mr. Freiberger’s obituary may be found here.)

====================

Baseball and GloveThe death of anyone important in our lives is a tragic and painful thing, even if the relationship was strained or even broken. This is especially so when a parent dies and, for some reason, more so when that parent is our father, perhaps because we use that metaphor of fatherhood to explain God’s relationship to us. Whenever someone’s father passes away, I cannot help but remember the poem by the Welsh poet Dylan Thomas, Do Not Go Gentle Into That Good Night:

Do not go gentle into that good night,
Old age should burn and rave at close of day;
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.
Though wise men at their end know dark is right,
Because their words had forked no lightning they
Do not go gentle into that good night.
Good men, the last wave by, crying how bright
Their frail deeds might have danced in a green bay,
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.
Wild men who caught and sang the sun in flight,
And learn, too late, they grieve it on its way,
Do not go gentle into that good night.
Grave men, near death, who see with blinding sight
Blind eyes could blaze like meteors and be gay,
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.
And you, my father, there on the sad height,
Curse, bless, me now with your fierce tears, I pray.
Do not go gentle into that good night.
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.

The death of a parent, especially a father (I think) no matter what our relationship with him may have been, fills us with rage, with conflicted emotion, with a frustration difficult to name. Let us commend all of that to God, as we commend the soul of James E. Freiberger to God’s eternal care.

I didn’t know Jim Freiberger; I do not know if he was (to use poet Thomas’s labels) a wise man, a good man, a wild man, or a grave man, so I cannot eulogize him. But I do know that he was a father and I know that he was in the Navy, that he had a career in data processing, and that he had three children, one of whom I know. I am told that he was a gifted athlete and almost had a chance to play professional baseball, a game about which he was passionate . . . a love I know he passed on to his daughter.

So I got to thinking about baseball and did some research and found an article about the lessons baseball can teach us, lessons that can be applied in business and management. I think what the author has to say suggests that baseball can also teach us something about our spiritual life, as well. It’s a cliché, I think, that baseball is a metaphor for life, but (in many ways) it actually is.

The author of that business article contrasts the timing of baseball with the timing of sports such as football or basketball, noting that in those sports there is a clock which limits the time of the game and ticks down inexorably and finally, and although there might be overtime in the event of a tie at the end of regulation play, even that is bounded by the clock. In contrast, he writes:

Baseball is a game that is pastoral in nature, a reminder of a time that our life was slower and most of us lived on farms and small towns. You have 27 outs and the game is not over until all outs are exhausted. There is no clock to pressure you. You simply go on your business until it is done. Time marches slowly in baseball and baseball allows us to simply relax for three hours while drinking a few adult beverages.

I think this is part of the message of the lesson from Lamentations: “[God’s] mercies never come to an end; they are new every morning.” God’s time marches slowly and it is always merciful and every morning is new. We can relax into God’s time; we can find comfort in God’s time; we can find all things renewed in God’s time; we can abandon our frustrations, our rages, and our fears in God’s time. “The Lord is the strength of my life,” says the Psalmist today, “of whom then shall I be afraid?”

In the article, then, the author talks about the way baseball deals with failure:

Baseball teaches about failure as the length of the season reflects the pace of our life. You have 162 games and there are days in which the batter can’t see the ball or the pitches look more like beach balloons as the opposing hitters feast on the big fat pitches coming their way. The beauty of baseball is that you can suck one day but the next you can redeem yourself. You don’t have to wait a week before getting a chance to get it right.

And you don’t have to dwell on getting it wrong. It occurred to me this morning that there’s a real contrast between football and baseball with regard to getting it wrong. In football, every mistake a player or a team can make has a name and is remembered by that name: the quarterback sack, the fumble, the incomplete pass, the missed block, and so forth. Fans and players relive, again and again, all the mistakes of past games. In baseball, on the other hand, there’s just one word for every sort of mistake: error. The scorekeeper and the statisticians keep track of “errors,” but the rest of us move on. There’s no point in dwelling on mistakes, because (after all) they are forgiven. They will be of no consequence in the end. As Paul said, “I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, [and I would add that includes ourselves and any mistakes or errors or bad decisions we have made] will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.”

The author of our article on baseball and business then takes a look at the game’s attitude towards success, something that none us (especially in our families and interpersonal relationships) really have much of. He writes:

In baseball, if you hit .300, you are very good. In most sports, hitting .300 represent failures. Quarterbacks lose their jobs if their accuracy is 55% but in baseball, a manager who win 55% of the games is brilliant. In college football winning only 55% of your games will get you fired. Ask any good salesman and they will tell you if they get 30% of their prospects to buy their products, this will produce a successful year. There are days that you wonder why you got up and then there are days in which wow, you can’t do no wrong just like the baseball player who hits for the cycle.

In the Christian faith we believe in a cycle . . . a cycle of birth, life, death, and rebirth that we call “Resurrection,” not a rebirth into this world as taught by some other religions, but a rebirth into the Presence of God. This is the assurance Jesus gave to Martha, to Mary, to their brother Lazarus; it is the assurance that his own birth, life, death, resurrection, and ascension gives to us. “I go,” he told his disciples, “to prepare a place for you . . . and I will gather you to myself, that where I am you may also be.” Martha said to Jesus about her brother, “I know that he will rise again in the resurrection on the last day.” And we can say that now about Jim Freiberger and about all of us, no matter what our “batting average” or our “percentage of accuracy” may have been.

So, baseball (about which Jim was passionate) has something to teach us about our spirituality; it may be a cliché, but it is true that baseball can be a metaphor for life. If you “Google” that phrase – “baseball is a metaphor for life” – you will find, among many other less colorful explanations, this somewhat off-color monologue by the character Kenny Shea in the television program Rescue Me:

Anyway, baseball and life, one in the same. Everybody always says that life is too short. Bullshit. Life, unless you get cancer or hit by a bus or set on fire, takes forever. Just like baseball. It’s a series of long, mind-boggling boring stretches of time where absolutely nothing happens. So, you take a nap, and then, after a little while, when that crisp crack of the bat hittin’ the ball, so crisp you could almost smell that wood burning, jolts you awake and you open your eyes to see something so exciting and intricate, and possibly, very, very meaningful has just happened, but you missed it ’cause you were just so goddamn bored in the first place. Oh, you know, a couple of hot dogs, throw in some beers, . . . and that’s that.

So baseball is a metaphor for life with its long boring stretches and its moments of excitement and its disappointments. The author L.R. Knost didn’t mention baseball but she made the same point when she wrote:

Life is amazing. And then it’s awful. And then it’s amazing again. And in between the amazing and the awful, it’s ordinary and mundane and routine. Breathe in the amazing, hold on through the awful, and relax and exhale during the ordinary. That’s just living heartbreaking, soul-healing, amazing, awful ordinary life. And it’s breathtakingly beautiful.

Today, we commend to almighty God the soul of James E. Freiberger – Navy man, father, grandfather, data processing worker, lover of baseball – whose life was amazing and awful and ordinary and routine and, like everyone’s in its own way, breathtakingly beautiful. Remember that, remember the beautiful part, and remember that, whatever else may be true about Jim Freiberger, remember that “nothing in all of creation will be able to separate [him] from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.” Amen.

====================

A request to my readers: I’m trying to build the readership of this blog and I’d very much appreciate your help in doing so. If you find something here that is of value, please share it with others. If you are on Facebook, “like” the posts on your page so others can see them. If you are following me on Twitter, please “retweet” the notices of these meditations. If you have a blog of your own, please include mine in your links (a favor I will gladly reciprocate). Many thanks!

====================

Father Funston is the rector of St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, Medina, Ohio.

Turn, Turn, Turn: Sermon for Pentecost 14 (Proper 17B) — 30 August 2015

====================

A sermon offered on Fourteenth Sunday after Pentecost (Proper 17B, Track 1, RCL), August 30, 2015, to the people of St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, Medina, Ohio, where Fr. Funston is rector.

(The lessons for the day are Ecclesiastes 3:1-15; Psalm 15; James 1:17-27; and Mark 7:1-8, 14-15, 21-23. The Ecclesiastes lesson may be found in the Oremus Bible Browser; the others may be found at The Lectionary Page.)

====================

Clock face and calendar composite“This is neither the time nor the place . . . .”

Have you ever heard anyone say that? My mother and her mother were very fond of that saying. If you were doing something they didn’t approve of, that was the sure fire way to stop it. If you were asking something they didn’t want to answer, that was the answer you got. If you wanted to discuss something they didn’t want to talk about, that put an end to the conversation.

“This is neither the time nor the place . . . .” (I learned very early on that, in my mother’s and grandmother’s estimation, there were somethings that never had a time or a place!)

Three weeks ago, you may recall, we heard part of the story of the rebellion of King David’s son Absalom who had set himself up as a rival king leading to a civil war in ancient Israel. At the beginning of the Proper 14 reading from the Second Book of Samuel, David is sending out his army and giving instructions to his generals: “The king, David, ordered Joab and Abishai and Ittai, saying, ‘Deal gently for my sake with the young man Absalom.’” (2 Sam 18:5) But Joab fails to follow the king’s orders and Joab’s armor bearers kill Absalom. As the army is returning to Jerusalem, a Cushite messenger runs ahead and informs the king of his son’s death and, at the end of that reading, we are told:

The king was deeply moved, and went up to the chamber over the gate, and wept; and as he went, he said, “O my son Absalom, my son, my son Absalom! Would I had died instead of you, O Absalom, my son, my son!” (2 Sam 18:33)

What we did not read on that Sunday but were given to read this year in our Daily Office lessons is Joab’s rebuke of the king for his mourning. You see, when his soldiers returned they found their king weeping and so, says the writer of Second Samuel, “the victory that day was turned into mourning for all the troops.” (2 Sam 19:2) Joab tells the king “you have covered with shame the faces of all your officers who have saved your life . . . . You have made it clear today that commanders and officers are nothing to you.” (vv. 5-6) He tells David to “go out at once and speak kindly to your servants; for I swear by the Lord, if you do not go, not a man will stay with you this night; and this will be worse for you than any disaster that has come upon you from your youth until now.” (v. 7)

In other words, what Joab says to David is, “This is neither the time nor the place . . . .”

So David did what Joab advised him and nowhere again do we read about him mourning the death of his son. But I have a feeling that David was left to wonder, “If that wasn’t the time, when is it? If that wasn’t the place, where is it? When is the time to mourn the death of one’s child?”

There must be one because elsewhere in Scripture, in the Book of Ecclesiastes, we are told:

For everything there is a season, and a time for every matter under heaven: . . . a time to weep, and a time to laugh; a time to mourn, and a time to dance . . . . (Eccl. 3:1,4)

When is the time to weep and mourn the death of one’s child? When is the time to shake one’s fist at reality and exclaim, “It isn’t supposed to be this way! Parents are not supposed to outlive their children!?”

I don’t know the answer to a lot of questions I get asked as a priest, but I do know the answer to that one as I have lived with it most of my life. Both my father and his only brother died before their parents, my grandparents. My only brother died before our mother. I know that the answer to that question is, “All the time and any time.” Oh, one doesn’t cry and carry on every minute of every day, and though pain of loss is never gone it’s not always present, either. One gets on with life, like King David did because as Qoheleth the Preacher (as the author of Ecclesiastes is called) says, there is also a time to laugh and a time to dance and times for all those other things that make up our lives.

Today, we will formally accept and dedicate gifts from two of our parish families who, like my mother and my grandparents, have lived through the loss of their children in whose memory these gifts are given. Susan and Paul _________ have given us a new set of green vestments and hangings in memory of Susan’s son Paul who died of cancer; Nancy and Michael ____________ have given us our new piano in memory of their son Colin who was lost to an immune-deficiency disorder. We are grateful to them for their generosity and hope that, in some way, their ability to make these gifts in memory of their sons eases their weeping and pours some small amount of the oil of joy onto their mourning.

The reading from Ecclesiastes which we heard to as our Old Testament lesson this morning is not the reading prescribed by the Lectionary. I chose to deviate from the Lectionary and use this text for a couple of reasons. One of which will become clear in a bit, but mostly I chose it because several years ago, Evelyn and I had the great misfortune to attend the funeral of a 6th Grade boy who had accidentally killed himself with his father’s handgun. He was a school friend and fellow Boy Scout of our son. The preacher at the funeral used this text, or really I should say “misused this text,” to deliver the message that the boy’s death was “God’s will and we just have to accept it.” I cannot tell you how angry that sermon made me. Death of a child by whatever means, accident or disease or whatever, is never, ever God’s will! “I have no pleasure in the death of anyone, says the Lord God,” in the Book of the Prophet Ezekiel (Ezek 18:32). This first part of 8th Chapter of Ecclesiastes is one of my favorite parts of the Hebrew Scriptures, so I hated to see it misused that way; I want to set the record straight!

The great folksinger Pete Seeger set the words of Ecclesiastes 3:1-8 to music in the late 1950s and in 1965 the British rock group The Byrds covered it and had a No. 1 hit. I’m told Turn, Turn, Turn is the No. 1 pop song with the oldest lyrics. I’ll bet most us who sang along with them during the rebellious 1960s had no idea we were singing words from the Bible. Anyway, it’s a great song with a great message . . . and that message is not that everything happens according to some mysterious and arbitrary plan of God that we just have to accept and it is not that “everything happens for a reason.”

Among those who believe that there is a God and that God created all that is, there is a spectrum of understanding about the involvement of God in the running of the universe. At one end of the spectrum is so-called “Deist” position; this is the belief that was held by many highly educated people in the 18th Century, among them most of the Founding Fathers of our nation. Deists held that God was less in the nature of a father-figure intimately involved with his children, and more like a clockmaker who had set the world running, wound up its spring and then let it function; this clockmaker God really takes little or no notice of what is happening in the lives of human beings. At the other extreme is the notion that “God has a plan for your life … for everyone’s lives” … and that everything that happens in anyone’s life is in accordance with that plan, everything is predetermined, and everything happens for a reason, which is God’s reason and we should just accept that.

The truth is, most likely, somewhere in between and that’s clearly where Qoheleth is. “Things and actions have their time,” he says, “then they pass and other things and actions have their time;” there is a natural cycle to things. (P. Tillich, The New Being, Scribner’s Sons, 1955) Qoheleth starts his enumeration of these things, these natural cycles, with birth and death. The natural cycles of time are beyond human control. We cannot control them and whatever control we may have of time is limited by them. They are the signposts which we cannot trespass.

Ecclesiastes is best known, perhaps, for its refrain, “Vanity of vanities; all is vanity!” (Eccl 1:2) In this regard, Qoheleth is testifying that “any human attempt to change the rhythm of birth and death, of war and peace, of love and hate and all the other contrasts [which he lists] in the rhythm of life is” a vanity. (Tillich) Instead, Qoheleth encourages us to be aware of these cycles, to understand that within them there is a “right time” to do one thing and not to do another. He does not suggest, in any way, that God is the micro-manager of every human life. Rather, he counsels us to follow these cycles as we exercise responsibility for our lives, do our own planning, and exercise our limited control according to them.

Qoheleth’s assurance that there is a time for everything is part of what another preacher has called “the background operating system of [our] faith,” the core truth that there is a God who is good and that existence. But this “operating system, this core truth “doesn’t come with the assumption that all things, (including all the horrors we might encounter here), have a purpose,” that “everything happens for a reason” known only to God.

That other preacher, the Rev. John Pavlovitz (who writes for Relevant Magazine), suggests such a distortion paints a picture of a god who makes us suffer for sport, who throws out obstacles and injuries and adversities “just to see what we’ll do, just to toughen us up or break us down.” To me, statements that “everything happens for a reason” or that something “is just the will of God” describe an arbitrary god who decides that this child will die of cancer while that one will become a star football player, or that this person will die of an accidental gun shot in the 6th Grade while that one will live to be 91. That is not the God in whom I believe and it is not the God testified to in these verses from Ecclesiastes. Qoheleth’s God and ours does not arbitrarily micro-manage our lives. Rather, God wants to be “be happy and enjoy [our]selves as long as [we] live,” for “it is God’s gift that all should eat and drink and take pleasure in all” that we do (vv 12-13).

To believe otherwise leads to the religion of what James, in today’s epistle, calls “hearers” who “on going away, immediately forget,” rather than to the religion of “doers” who practice a holy generosity. To believe otherwise leads to the sort of religion that Jesus condemns in today’s Gospel, a religion of arbitrary rules, of “washing of cups, pots, and bronze kettles” as Mark puts it, a religion of vain worship “teaching human precepts as doctrines” as Jesus puts it quoting Isaiah. To believe otherwise leads to “wickedness, deceit . . . envy, slander, pride, folly” and all those other “evil things [that] come from within and . . . defile a person.”

Qoheleth’s list of contrasting times, as one commentator has put it, “provides structure rather than a calendar,” a structure within which “individual human moral decision making is possible.” Ecclesiastes challenges us “to be wise, to be ethical, to discern when [our] actions are in keeping with God’s time and then to act decisively.” (NIB, Vol. V, page 308) Then, in the words of the Psalmist, we “may dwell in [God’s] tabernacle,” we “may abide upon [God’s] holy hill.” (Ps 15:1)

“This is neither the time nor the place . . . .” My mother and my grandmother were probably right about that most of the time. But Ecclesiastes is also right, “For everything there is a season, and a time for every matter under heaven . . . .”

I don’t know why some children die before their parents, and some live to ripe, old age; I don’t know why some people get cancer, and some don’t; I don’t know why some people get shot, or have to deal with disability, or suffer with mental illness. I don’t know why there have to be hurricanes, and earthquakes, and parasitic worms that eat children’s eyeballs. But I do know that these things do not happen for some arbitrary God-determined reason, that these things are not the will of God.

What is the will of God is that there is a time to deal with such things and there is a time to live life in spite them. Remember what Qoheleth wrote: “[God] has made everything suitable for its time; moreover [God] has put a sense of past and future into [our] minds . . . . [Therefore,] there is nothing better for [us] than to be happy and enjoy [our]selves as long as [we] live.” The Indian poet and sage Kalidasa, about 400 years before the time of Christ, expressed the same thought:

Listen to the exhortation of the dawn!
Look to this day!
For it is life, the very life of life.
In its brief course lie all the
verities and realities of your existence.
The bliss of growth,
the glory of action,
the splendor of beauty;
for yesterday is but a dream,
and tomorrow is only a vision;
but today well lived makes
every yesterday a dream of happiness,
and every tomorrow a vision of hope.
look well therefore to this day!
Such is the salutation of the dawn!

Now is the time and now is the place when we give thanks with and to Nancy and Michael, and Susan and Paul, as they remember their sons, not their deaths but their lives, not with mourning but with joy, not with weeping but with generous acts of giving. May we all look well to this and every day and never be overthrown. Amen.

====================

A request to my readers: I’m trying to build the readership of this blog and I’d very much appreciate your help in doing so. If you find something here that is of value, please share it with others. If you are on Facebook, “like” the posts on your page so others can see them. If you are following me on Twitter, please “retweet” the notices of these meditations. If you have a blog of your own, please include mine in your links (a favor I will gladly reciprocate). Many thanks!

====================

Father Funston is the rector of St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, Medina, Ohio.

Older posts Newer posts