Blog Archives

Charlottesville! What Do We Need?

_97314644_mediaitem97314643            What is happening in Charlottesville? We know what’s happening in Charlottesville! Again, factions of our society have chosen some one, some event, some thing to rally around and espouse their opinions and beliefs-prejudices and ideologies perhaps. And, again, being the diverse peoples that we are, opposing factions have rallied in protest. And again, mutual respect and rationale thinking has been replaced with anger, hate, and violence. And again, sacred lives have been injured and killed. When will we learn that we must come to respect human life, be respectful in our disagreements, and seek peaceful cooperation and co-existence with one another? Succumbing to violence harms us all, physically and/or morally, and contributes to the decay and demise of our nation.

            The “thing” that has become the rallying point in Charlottesville, and other places, is a statue. In this instance the statue of Confederate General Robert E. Lee, a prominent figure in our nations history during the Civil War. The debate over removing the statue is burning! Proponents for removal argue the statue is a symbol that honors Lee, the Confederacy, the enslavement of hundreds of thousands of African Americans, and memorializes racism. Proponents for keeping the statue argue it honors our Southern Heritage.

            It is a statue-mere bronze and stone. Although Charlottesville officials report it will cost $330,000 to remove it, it has no value compared to a human life. It is a statue the primary purpose of which is to make us remember. Yes, we need to remember the Civil War-slavery, succession, reconstruction. We need to remember the misery, the suffering, the cruel, inhumane treatment of our African American brothers and sisters, the families broken and destroyed, the deaths both off and on the battlefield. We need to remember and embrace this portion of our national history as the horrific and tragic era that it truly was. We, white Americans, need to confess and repent for the sins of our fathers and perhaps in some degree our own-the sins of fostering white supremacy, either intentionally or unintentionally, and subjugating African Americans to the horrors of slavery and oppression. Out of genuine confession and repentance, can we ask for forgiveness? In no way being able to know the experience of my African American brothers and sisters, I dare not speculate on what they might need.  Could we not rally, even around the statue, for these purposes? With remembrance and repentance,  can we then refocus on hope and healing amidst our national values- truths that we hold to be self evident, “that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights, that among these are life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.”?

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What’s happening in Charlottesville is reported as “white nationalist” rallying around the Lee statue honoring “Southern Heritage.” Really! I don’t think so! Folks are carrying Nazi flags, chanting “blood and soil,” as well as “Jews we will replace you.” Doesn’t look or sound at all like “Southern Heritage.” One might ask, “What nation?” Maybe shades of another nation bent on white supremacy in another horrific and tragic historical era, and hopefully not our nation of America today.

And, by the way, I don’t know that the presence or absence of a statue is going to change hearts and minds one way or the other without the presence of meaningful relationships and community. We need a narrative change, a paradigm shift. We need to remember, repent, forgive, and refocus on hope and healing grounded in our national self-evident truths.

Stop the Bleed-Out!

Note:  Occasionally I hear or read something that just simply makes me say “Oh, Geez,” and I can’t help but respond.  Well, this is one of those occasions!     Unknown-5

     The Tyler Morning Telegraph Wednesday, June 7, article, “East Texas lawmakers respond,” is evidence of a huge problem we face locally and nationally. The problem –labeling and the growing division and partisanship reflected not only in our politics but also in other vital areas of our communities. This concerns me deeply.

     In the article these comments were made: Sen. Hughes – “…it’s easy for conservative bills to get lost…” Rep. Schaefer, “Gov. Abbott just scheduled a conservative home run derby.” Rep. Hefner, “…special session includes many important conservative priorities…” It is disappointing that our local legislators, elected to represent the common good for all the PEOPLE, seem more focused on labeling and promoting an ideology. We, all of us, must stop thinking and talking in terms of labels and ideologies if we hope to heal the partisan wound in our nation. If we don’t, we will surely “bleed out” and die–no longer the nation of the people and the beacon of democracy and freedom to the world.

     Let’s make the effort to drop the labeling and ideologies. Maybe if we start by changing our language, our heads and hearts will follow. Let’s talk about the substance of the legislation. What will the legislation do? Is it just and helpful? Will it pass the test of equal justice under the law and non-discrimination? Let’s think and talk about the people affected by the legislation and how they will be effected-physically, emotionally, financially, socially. I hope and pray our strength and courage as a people and nation will rise to the top.

We don’t matter so much, but the children do.

<> on April 1, 2014 in Nogales, Arizona.

Teach the children. We don’t matter so much, but the children do.

— Mary Oliver

This was my morning read. My heart aches as the truth of Oliver’s words is juxtaposed with the recent actions of our Texas Senate. In passing SB 1018 our elected senators are in so many ways saying that children do not matter. SB 1018 will allow the warehousing of immigrant families and children in family detention centers licensed as child care facilities. Not only would these centers be licensed, but they also would be allowed to waive certain minimum standards established for day care centers. Why would we allow ANY facility to “care” for children in a place or manner that does not meet a minimum standard of care? Our Senators seem to be sending the definite message, “You do not matter, and we don’t care!”

Another aspect that makes SB 1018 even more abhorrent, if that is possible, is the fact that the bill was written by the GEO Group, a for-profit corporation that operates these types of detention centers often referred to as “baby jails.” https://www.texasobserver.org/texas-senate-votes-license-baby-jails-child-care-facilities/

The bottom line is that our elected Texas senators have approved the for-profit incarceration of families and children in “licensed” facilities that do not have to meet minimum standards of care. We do have better options available to us! What are we teaching our children, all our children? Surely not that their lives matter! I am appalled and ashamed of our senators’ actions. Our own District 1 Senator Bryan Hughes authored this unconscionable bill. As I said, my heart aches for us all, especially our children.

The BGCT – Welcoming and Affirming

1460028409100 As the dialogue and apparent divisions within the Baptist General Convention of Texas and local congregations over the issue of a welcoming and affirming stance toward their LGBTQ members continue, I encourage us all to stop and ask ourselves, individually and congregationally, this question: Who are we welcoming and what do we really want to be the focus of our affirmation? The “who,” I believe is relatively simple. We want to welcome ALL peoples into the love of Christ and the fellowship of His Body, the Church. Answering the question, “What do we want to be the focus of our affirmations?” may be a bit more complicated. Or, maybe not!

     I sometimes wonder if we, christian folks and congregations, have not allowed ourselves to be overly focused on the sexual orientation and same-sex marriage issues. Do we really want to spend our time and energies squabbling over these issues and in the process threatening our unity in and ministry for Christ? Enough is enough already! Let’s truly practice our belief in the priesthood of the believer and respect the spiritual discernment of our brothers and sisters in Christ and our congregations in these particular matters. If we continue contentious dialogue or debate, insist on being right or winning the other side over to our “right” way of thinking, or denying fellowship, we are all wrong, and we all lose with the greatest loss being the cause of Christ. We can respectfully state our beliefs and our respect for the others discernment process, acknowledge our disagreement, and agree to disagree. When we do this, we can then turn our energies and cooperative efforts toward focusing on far more meaningful areas of affirmation.

      What might be the affirmations of a welcoming and affirming congregation? Here are a few suggestions for starters:

    — Let’s affirm God’s sovereignty over all our lives.
    –Let’s affirm our love of God and our love for our neighbors.
    –Let’s affirm the sacredness of every person – every human life. Let’s live out that affirmation by treating everyone with respect, seeking to listen to and understand their stories and struggles, and participating in their lives in ways that engender human flourishing, spiritual growth, and opportunities to reach one’s God-given potential.
    –Let’s affirm the sacramental nature of all relationships for every relationship has the potential to be a portal of God’s grace in and to our lives.
    –Let’s affirm and encourage fidelity and commitment in marital, covenantal relationships.
    –Let’s affirm the value of our children and our families by offering support, encouragement, and guidance to parents as they nurture and guide their children.
   –Let’s affirm our desire to follow Christ and be His Body and Presence in and to the world.

     I believe the BGCT and local congregations can be both welcoming and affirming. I believe this as I recall the first scripture verse I ever committed to memory: “I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me.” — Philippians 4:13

     Can’t we?

 

BGCT – Welcoming but not affirming

    gay-flag-church I have been particularly distressed, disappointed and saddened by the news coming out of the Baptist General Convention of Texas this week. The BGCT sent letters to Wilshire Baptist Church in Dallas and First Baptist Church in Austin indicating that any affirming stance toward LGBT members taken by the congregations would place them outside the bounds of “harmonious cooperation” with the convention.

     This is disturbing for several reasons. One being that this action seems to fly in the face of the centuries long Baptist tradition of local church autonomy and subsequently our long held Baptist belief of soul competency or priesthood of all believers. Another concern is the question of creedalism. By drawing “lines in the sand” and delineating requirements for participation, is the BGCT leading Texas Baptists more toward a people of creed and less a people of confession? Also, the timing of the letter might be a bit suspect in that it was sent shortly before Wilshire Baptist was  voting to affirm, or not to affirm, its existing bylaws providing for a single class of membership which would translate into full inclusion for LGBT members. One might view this as the BGCT’s attempt to influence the vote. (Or maybe the peculiarities of our recent national election are skewing my perceptions!) Finally, this is distressing in that it seems to signal the opening volley in what could be a very divisive and contentious struggle within our Texas Baptist congregations and community. It makes me sad when good folks, good Christian folks, bicker and argue with the end result sometimes-perhaps often-being damaged and broken relationships and congregations. Not to mention the damage this does to our mission and witness for Christ!

     I was given some hope by Marv Knox’s editorial, “A welcoming way ahead for the BGCT,” and his discussion around extending grace even as I cringed at some of the comments and suggestions. David Hardage, BGCT Executive Director, is quoted as saying, “I believe a church can be welcoming but not affirming.” Speaking frankly as a gay christian woman and as a member with my partner and now wife of a “welcoming but not affirming” Baptist congregation for almost fifteen years, I have some difficulty with this statement. Although congregation and staff were respectful and kind in most ways, there were actions and words that were at times hurtful. When I made a public statement outside the church regarding the 2005 Texas Marriage Amendment, I was called in and told I could no longer hold any positions of leadership in the church. I was then chairing a church committee, teaching a Sunday School class, and answering the prayer line during our televised services. My sexual orientation, which I had come to view as a minuscule part of who I am as a person and a christian woman, and my covenant relationship with my partner suddenly became prominent in how I was viewed and what I could do to live out my calling in Christ. It hurt! I felt discounted, less than! We also were denied participation in a church family outing with the only explanation being given, “We just think it is best.” It hurt! I felt rejected! When my partner offered a copy of her recently published memoir, sharing her coming out story after decades of struggle with hiding her sexuality, to the church library, the senior pastor would not place it in the library deeming it inappropriate. It hurt! I particularly felt confusion and discord around this incident. We had been hearing much in the church, including from the pulpit, about the importance of our stories, listening to one another’s stories, trying to understand others, and fostering deeper relationships. This action, which screamed, “We don’t want to hear your story!” bewildered me. Was this hypocrisy?

     Even with the incidents and the underlying feeling that we were “second-class members,” we continued to attend and participate in the work and ministry of the church because sharing the love and work of Christ remained our focus. We visited with our pastor on several occasions and though always kind and respectful of one another, we understood each other’s differing beliefs regarding homosexuality and same-sex relationships. We agreed to disagree on these matters, and continued in our commitment to work and minister together. Acknowledging and discussing our differences personally and privately with kindness and respect was the key, for me at least, to being able to continue in a “welcoming but not affirming” congregation. Sadly, this changed in the spring of 2015 when the same-sex marriage issue was being considered in the Supreme Court, and our pastor began to speak openly from the pulpit against same-sex marriage. On April 26, 2015, I read a letter to my Sunday School group (and sent copies to all the staff) informing them that I was leaving the congregation “with no animosity or ill will toward anyone” and why I was leaving. That’s my experience of “welcoming but not affirming.”

     Hardage continues to say regarding welcoming but not affirming, “I believe that (it) is not only possible, but also biblical. . .” From my experience, I would agree it is possible; however, given subsequent feelings of hurt, rejection, hypocrisy, and public denigration, I am not sure the actions were “biblical.”

     From my perspective and experience there is a greater question we must ask and answer with regard to “welcoming and affirming.” It is, “Who are we welcoming and what needs to be the focus of our affirmation?” The “who,” I believe, is relatively simple. We want to welcome ALL peoples into the love of Christ and the fellowship of His Body, the Church. Period! What needs to be the focus of our affirmation gets a bit more complicated. A topic for later thought!

Leaving the Church

abandoned-church_wordsNote:  In the spring of 2015 I made one of the most difficult decisions of my spiritual pilgrimage.  I left the church congregation that I had been a part of for almost fifteen years.  Below is the letter I read aloud to my Sunday School group and sent to my pastor and church staff informing them that I was leaving and why I was leaving as well as why it was important to me that they know why I would no longer be attending.  Unfortunately, I have not been able to find a truly inclusive, welcoming and affirming congregation in my area, and admittedly, I often miss the corporate worship and fellowship.  My current worship usually occurs on the hiking trail, in the kayak, or while sitting in my back porch swing listening to the birds and watching the squirrels play.  I find fellowship on those occasions I am blessed to sit with  friends and share our lives and stories.

April 26, 2015

Dear

       It is with both sadness and hopefulness that I share with you that this is my last Sunday to be with you in Sunday School and worship at First Baptist Church. After wrestling – praying and seeking discernment — with this decision for several months, my Lord has given me clarity and peace with the decision. I leave with no animosity or ill will toward anyone. I am truly grateful for my years (13 or 14, I forget) at First Baptist and the fellowship with the singles group. Each of you has blessed my life in tremendous ways! I hope and pray that blessing has been mutual.

      I want to share with you the reason(s) for my leaving. Far too often in our lives and fellowship folks just disappear or quit showing up, and we are left confused and questioning as to “what happened.” I don’t want to do that. I value personal authenticity and the integrity of our relationships far too much to just disappear. Some of you know, or after fourteen years have figured it out, that I am gay. I really prefer to refer to myself as a woman and a committed christian who happens to have a same-sex orientation. Lou Anne and I have been in a loving, committed, monogamous covenant relationship for over fourteen years.

      It has become increasingly difficult for me to maintain a continued sense of personal integrity and authenticity as a member of First Baptist knowing the public stance that the church, our pastor, and the Southern Baptist Convention as a whole has taken on same-sex relationships.   As one who believes firmly in the traditional Baptist concept of “soul competency” or “soul liberty,” I truly respect everyone’s freedom to follow their conscience or soul dictates in matters of religion, theology, and scripture interpretation. As I shared with our pastor in May 2012, we truly have Unity through Christ – His love for us, our love for Him, and our desire to share His love with the world – and unity does not mean nor require uniformity in thought and/or action. So, to maintain my sense of personal integrity and authenticity, I believe it is better that I seek a more inclusive, affirming congregation whose beliefs and public stance regarding same-sex relationships are similar to my own than to remain at First Baptist.

     Also, for the sake of the fellowship here at First Baptist, I believe it is better that I leave. Over the last fourteen years I have placed my focus on Christ, His love and His work in our lives, and I have remained mostly silent on my life and my beliefs regarding sexual orientation. The one time I did speak out in a somewhat public forum that was separate from the church, I was promptly removed from Sunday School teaching and leadership responsibilities.   I cannot continue to edit my life and remain silent. I know that issues around same-sex orientation and relationships can be divisive. Families, congregations, even full denominations have become contentious and split over these issues. So, in the grand scheme of things, I believe it is better to leave First Baptist, than to stay and possibly risk creating conflict.

       Be assured that my heart’s desire for us – each of you, First Baptist, and myself – is that we continue to be the church, the body and presence of Christ in and to the world.

In Christ’s Love,

Brenda McWilliams

 

 

Henri Nouwen and a Response to the Orlando Attack

        

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Henri J.M. Nouwen

Last Saturday, June 11, my morning coffee companion was Henri J.M. Nouwen and Reaching Out: The Three Movements of the Spiritual Life written and published in 1975. Much of his basic premise is that “the spiritual life is that constant movement between the poles of loneliness and solitude, hostility and hospitality, illusion and prayer. That morning I was contemplating Nouwen’s words reflecting solitude not as a state of loneliness, but as a condition of our heart and soul that makes “it possible to convert slowly our fearful reactions into a loving response.” How was I to know that the very next morning, June 12, the nation and I would be horrified by the Orlando attack on the LGBT community?

       I am a christian, a follower of Christ. I am also a lesbian. For most of my life I kept my same-sex orientation a secret and did everything I knew to do to not have the attractions and not be gay. It was a secret that took me to the depths of depression, the doors of insanity, and the brink of suicide. In my journeys into contemplation and spiritual solitude I have moved toward acceptance and reconciliation—acceptance of myself as a lesbian christian woman and reconciliation between that fact and my basic spiritual beliefs. I certainly identified with Nouwen’s counsel that in our solitude the events of the world around us “as well as the many personal disappointments and pains, no longer can be seen as unavoidable concomitants of our life, but all become urgent invitations to a response; that is a personal engagement.”

       Faced with the burdens of our reality, the few “extremists” or “fanatics” become “indispensable reminders that no lasting healing will ever take place without a solidarity of heart.” These few “force us to ask ourselves how many games we play with ourselves and how many walls we keep creating to prevent ourselves from knowing and feeling the burden of human solidarity.” Nouwen proclaims that we fluctuate “between the humble confession that the newspaper holds more than our souls can bear and the realization that it is only through facing up to the reality of our world that we can grow into our own responsibility.”

        Do we and how do we protest the realities of our world out of solitude? Hopefully we do as “life can teach us that although the events of the day are out of our hands, they should never be out of our hearts, that instead of becoming bitter our lives can yield to the wisdom that only from the heart a creative response can come forth.” Nouwen reminds us that, “When our protest against war, segregation, social injustice, (the Orlando attack against the LGBT community,) do not reach beyond the level of a reaction, then our indignation becomes self-righteous, our hope for a better world degenerates into a desire for quick results, and our generosity is soon exhausted by disappointments. Only when our mind has descended into our heart can we expect a lasting response to well up from our innermost self.”

       Can we, in the solitude of our hearts truly listen to the pains of the world—most especially now the pains of our LGBT community? Nouwen asserts that we can for in the solitude of the heart “we can recognize them not as strange and unfamiliar pains, but as pains that are indeed our own. There we can see that what is most universal is most personal and that indeed nothing human is strange to us.” When we stand in solidarity with our fellow humans, our LGBT brothers and sisters, in their suffering and pain, then “our first attempts to alleviate these pains can come forth.” Feeling another’s pain leads us to compassion, which “brings healing and new strength. The paradox indeed is that the beginning of healing is in the solidarity with the pain.” Nouwen recalls our history “when men and women have been able to respond to the events of their world as an occasion to change their hearts, an inexhaustible source of generosity and new life has been opened, offering hope far beyond the limits of human prediction.” My thoughts go to the work and movement of Ghandi in India, Mandela in South Africa, and King in America.

       Nouwen reminds us that spiritual “movement from loneliness to solitude, therefore, is not a movement of a growing withdrawal from, but rather a movement toward, a deeper engagement in the burning issues of our time.” Our acceptance, affirmation, and welcoming of our LGBT persons has been an issue in our nation for decades. Does not the senseless, violent attack targeting the LGBT community known to frequent Pulse, prominently known as a gay club, elevate the issue to that of “burning issue?” Must we not respond and engage this issue from the solitude of our hearts!

       And then Sunday morning, June 12, 2016, happened! With my shock and horror of the attack, with my heart both numb and yet heavy with sorrow and compassion, and with Nouwen’s word fresh in my heart, I was moved to engage, to seek a creative response — to bring our local LGBT community as well as our community at large together in a gathering to remember and honor the Orlando victims, and to stand in solidarity in our pain and sorrow as well as in our hope and resolve for positive change and a brighter future. Over 200 people gathered at a local park on Thursday evening, June 16, and we did just that. My words to that gathering and to everyone, everywhere:

On behalf of East Texas PFLAG and our other sponsors – Tyler Together, Pineywoods Voice, Tyler Area Gays, Tyler Transgender Support Group, East Texas Islamic Society, and Life Covenant Church – I want to say welcome and thank you for your attendance and participation this evening. We are gathered here as a community to stand in solidarity with Orlando and the families and friends of the victims in the horrific attack on the LGBT community there last Sunday. Earlier this week, our president called for our nation’s flag to be flown at half-mast in memory and honor of the victims in Orlando. Tomorrow our nation’s flag will return to full mast “normal,“ if you will. But life will never be the same for friends and families of the Orlando victims, nor for the LGBT community, most especially for those whose lives were murderously taken last Sunday morning. They have no life to live. We want to take this time to remember and honor those killed and reflect on 49 lives, 49 sacred souls with names and faces that were snuffed out by an act of senseless violence fueled by hate and terrorism. As we seek to come to grips with, and process the shock and horror of the attack, we grieve and we support one another. For those of you who may not be an integral “part” of the LGBT community, we want you to know that your presence and your shared grief and support is important, desperately needed, and much appreciated.

Now, we will remember and honor the victims, their families and friends as we join one another in the bonds of our common humanity – our sorrow in loss and our hopes for positive change and a brighter future. John David Creamer, pastor of Life Covenant Church, will lead us in prayer.

(As each name and brief bio of the 49 victims was read a volunteer from the crowd walked to the front carrying their picture. A bell was rung.)

As we prepare to leave this place may we carry these sacred lives with us. May the light of their lives continue to shine in us and through us and may their light guide us and give us courage. Courage to act in ways that champion acceptance, not accusation; courage to seek out and participate in conversations and community, not condemnation; courage to speak and act in ways that foster love and compassion, not hate and violence. Courage to know, not just in our heads, but also in our hearts, that every human life is sacred and to live respectfully of one another and our beautiful, God-given diversities.   In doing these things, then, and only then, will we truly remember and honor these 49 beautiful, sacred lives.

Join me in 49 seconds of silence as we remember these, reflect, and resolve to act and live in ways to honor these 49 and ultimately ourselves and our community.

(Silence).

Thank you.

       Anwar Khalifa with the East Texas Islamic Society will close our gathering.

It was an outpouring of community solidarity, grief, compassion, and love. In his closing, Anwar asked all the clergy present to come to the front and join him for the closing prayer. A very moving and much needed gathering together. It is my hope and prayer that as a local community, a nation, and a world we will seek the solitude of our hearts and that our hearts will change in ways that nurture our compassion and desire to live in solidarity with all humankind.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Sacred: Part II-Reflections and Ponderings

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          “Brenda, if you learn and know nothing else, know this:  the sanctity of life, the sacrament of relationship, and the sacredness of death.”

          In reflection, it seems ironic that the night I heard these words ended my CPE training. I continued to have difficulty with the retina, needed additional surgical procedures, and was not able to return. However, I continued, and to this day continue, to revisit and ponder upon the events of that night and the words I had heard. Given the manner in which I had received them they were much more than mere words. It felt as if they were more like an edict, a proclamation, a lens through which to view all of life.

          “Brenda, if you learn and know nothing else, know this: the sanctity of life. . .”

          I know that sanctity is the quality or state of being holy or sacred; thus life itself is considered holy and sacred; inviolable — to important to be ignored or treated with disrespect. The origin of “sanctity” is the Latin word “sanctus” meaning sacred. 

          I believe the “sanctity of life” message that I heard was a foundational theological and spiritual truth based on the sacredness of life — all lives.  It was not the “sanctity of life” political message that was being touted then, and we hear often today in the Pro-Life/Pro-Choice debate. Again, it was a universal truth based on the sacredness of life — all lives. We hear today the expressions — Black Lives Matter, LGBT Lives Matter, Cops Lives Matter — and they do because ALL LIVES MATTER. Oh, that we might embrace ALL LIVES MATTER and SANCTITY OF LIFE as spiritual truths and live them out in our daily lives and not simply use them as catchy slogans to promote our political, racial, or cultural biases.

          Christianity’s foundation for sanctity of life is grounded in the doctrine that God is the Creator and God chose to create man in His image. Man is God’s image bearer. It is also quite relevant and important to notice that this valuing, worthiness, sacredness of life is universal to the traditions of all major world religions and perhaps represents their deepest teachings, roots and values. Sadly, we, all of us, are not living up to our traditions.

         “Brenda, if you learn and know nothing else, know this. . .the sacrament of relationships. . .

          What does that mean? Being brought up in the Baptist faith tradition, I was more familiar with the term ‘ordinances’ than “sacrament” so I had to do some study.  I knew of Baptism and the Lord’s Supper as “sacraments” in the Protestant faith traditions.  I quickly learned there are seven sacraments in the Catholic faith tradition. But,what exactly is a sacrament? What is the meaning and purpose of a sacrament or sacramental rite.

          Well, I read a lot about sacraments, their meaning and purpose.  Most of which I understood, some I did not as I am not a theological scholar.  I was able to grasp that sacrament is derived from the Latin word sacramentum and means “a sign of the sacred.” A sacrament is also a portal of grace in and to our lives.  Sacraments not only come from God, but they also make God present in our lives. Saint Thomas Aquinas wrote, “Sacraments are visible signs of invisible things whereby man is made holy.”

            So, in my ponderings, I have come to understand sacrament to be an outward expression of the sacred/the holy, that which points us toward God, and/or that which invites God’s participation in our life. I had learned long ago that in a sacramental marriage God’s love is manifest in the loving, grace filled, covenant relationship between the couple. God and His love are mirrored in that relationship. Thus, the sacrament of marriage is intended to be an outward sigh of God’s love and grace, the sacred and holy.  Now, that is in theory, at least. We know from experience that that is not nearly always the case.

          As I continued to ponder on “sacrament of relationship” I began to ask myself could it not be possible for us to manifest/mirror the love of God in all our relationships from the loving, covenant relationship between life long partners, to the kind, helpful, affirming relationship between intimate friends and family, to the courteous, respectful relationships with our co-workers, to the respectful acceptance of differences with those we call our enemies. If we accept the premise of the sanctity/sacredness of human life — all human life — then it is not a huge jump to conclude that if I am sacred, and you are sacred, then how we relate and treat one another should be “an outward expression of the sacred” — a sacrament, if you will. Can our relationships not be a “portal of grace” to one another? The sacred in me recognizes, respects, and responds to the sacred in you in a sacred fashion. Can not the sacred and grace be expressed in how we relate to one another? Thus, the Sacrament of Relationships–all relationship.

          “Brenda, if you know nothing else, know this. . .the sacredness of death.”

          What is sacred and holy about death? For so long in our cultural history we have not talked about death and dying and what it means for us individually and as a people. Thankfully, we are beginning to move toward conversations regarding death, even our own deaths. As Michael Dodd, a religious naturalist, says, “Death is sacred, necessary, and real.”

          As I studied the word “sacred,” the definition “worthy of or regarded with religious honor and respect” caught my attention. Certainly through my experiences that evening in the hospital, I began to view death with a worthy regard and sense of honor – sacredness. I suppose that, in the first place, if we view the individual life as sacred then the death of that life is no less sacred. Death is a necessary and inevitable part of the cycle of life. As surely as we have birth and life, we must have death. In our natural world, death is life-giving.

          Just a little aside here: I have an affinity for dead trees, and my partner gives me grief about that at times, especially when I am taking photos of them. I see a dead tree still standing tall or fallen, and I am in awe at the growth and change that has occurred from tiny seed to towering trunk. I envision the life that the tree has exuded and nurtured from the insects it has fed, to the nests and young is has held, to the seeds and seedlings it has propagated. Even in its dying it will decay and continue to provide sustenance and return rich, life-giving nutrients to its mother earth. For me, that is a sacred process.

           Then even more so would not the death of a person, any human being regardless of race, creed, or culture, be a sacred thing. Consider with wonder the growth and change the person has experienced in his/her lifetime. Note with awe, perhaps most strikingly, at the deathbed, the lives, the family, the relationships the person influenced and nurtured. Yes, and even as much as we don’t like to think about it, and however we frame it –“dust to dust, “ashes to ashes,” “coming from God and returning to God,” that person’s remains will in some fashion return to the earth and become life-giving. Death – a sacred/holy thing in the cycle of life.

          Now, in my opinion, what makes us as humans different from the tree is our attribute of soul or spirit. What I have come to believe regarding the human soul/spirit — and I believe it is undeniable and universal — is that it is “eternal.” In our christian faith tradition the soul/spirit of the deceased has eternal life with God. And, perhaps an additional way of viewing eternal life is that the soul/spirit of the deceased is carried and lives on within us — in our hearts and souls and in our minds and memories. And that is a sacred/holy thing—coming from and perhaps an extension of our sacramental relationships.

          “Brenda, if you learn and know nothing else, know this – the sanctity of life, the sacrament of relationship, and the sacredness of death.”

          Those words have become transformative in my life – my beliefs, my thinking and my sense and expression of my spirituality. I had begun to move and grow from a more rigid, perhaps fundamental, spiritual worldview a couple of years prior to this experience. You might say this night and these words somewhat “sealed the deal.” I am, and always will be, a christian (with a small “c”), a Jesus-follower, and a member of the church catholic – again small “c.” However, much of the dogma and doctrine of faith traditions no longer fit into my new found paradigm of what is truly sacred and holy.

          What I heard that night was a universal spiritual truth of the sacredness of life, relationships, and death common to all peoples, cultures, and faith traditions.   In all our differences, we as the human race hold, at the very least, these three things in common. We all have life. We are living, breathing, and capable of thought, emotion, and action.

          We all have relationships. We are born into relationship. You and I are someone’s son or daughter, perhaps mother or father, or brother or sister. So is our neighbor that aggravates us at times, our Muslim co-worker, the immigrant, perhaps undocumented, that does our yard work, the adorable grocery clerk, the annoying taxicab driver, the soldier we would call our enemy. All people are in relationships, and someone loves them and they love others. Think about it.

          We will all die, at some point, and that death will be sacred as it marks the passing of a sacred life, a shift in sacramental relationship, a return to that from which we came. In death we all participate in that natural circle of life. In death, a life is mourned by others, and others will continue to carry the soul/spirit of the deceased within themselves.  

           We can’t escape it. The sanctity of life, the sacrament of relationships, and the sacredness of death are elements that unite us with one another. It is my hope and prayer that we can come to realize this at both the head and the heart level, come to truly see others as “sacred” beings, and seek a respectful, peaceful unity in sacramental relationships with all peoples.

 

 

The Sacred Part I: What I Heard!

We are in the midst of Holy Week and I awakened this morning to the breaking news of a deadly attack in Brussels. Two locations bombed, thirty-one individuals killed without provocation, hundreds others injured–physically and/or emotionally, and relationships and families thrown into turmoil and grief with the loss of loved ones. In the wake of increasing global violence and incidents such as this, I am shaken with grief and despair. I am apt to question “why.” Why do we continue to destroy our fellow humankind? What have we lost, forgotten, or failed to learn in our lives’ journeys that we treat one another with such disregard and inhumanity.
      Honestly, as I lay in bed last night, I committed to sharing this post today. The news of this morning affirms our need to be reminded of what is holy and sacred.  I so want to hope in the midst of despair! 

The Sacred: Part I– What I Heard!Unknown

      In the late 1980’s I marked a verse in my old King James Bible, Matthew 10:27:

What I tell you in darkness that speak ye in light, and what ye hear in the ear, that preach ye upon the housetops.

 

More recently I discovered and really like The Message translation:

             Do not hesitate to go public, now!

I’m going public today and share my story of an experience that changed me, my life, and my spiritual path and journey.

         In October of 1997 I was in Clinical Pastoral Education (CPE – chaplaincy) training. I was six weeks into the course, and it was my first rotation being on call– an all-nighter as hospital chaplain on-call. As I sometimes do with first-time experiences, I felt a bit apprehensive, but not overly so, trusting God to lead and guide in all that I might be called upon to say or do. I also knew that as I began the evening, I was a bit more vulnerable –physically, spiritually, and emotionally — than I might ordinarily have been in that I was recovering from surgery for a detached retina. The last couple of weeks had been full of uncertainties. My prayers were for a quiet night.
         I began the evening by making a few visits and the “rounds” of the various floors and departments. I then retired to my assigned “sleeping” room. Although, there would be no sleeping that night. Without going into the details of each case, I will simply say that there were four deaths in the hospital that night.
         The first was a heart attack victim in the emergency room — a 60 year old man, a family in the midst of shock, confusion, questioning, and grief. I have distinct memories of physically supporting the wife as she stood by the gurney holding her deceased husband’s hand. I did everything I knew to do as chaplain even as I wrestled with this, my first face to face encounter with death.
         The second was a middle-aged woman who had been on life support for several days and the decision had been made to remove the life support. I checked in on the family a couple of times, thankfully, the family’s minister was present with them.
         The third death that evening was an elderly gentleman in the oncology unit. He was alone as family members did not arrive until after he had expired. The final death was an older gentleman also in the oncology unit. His wife and daughter were present with him. I assisted them with some of the necessary paper work and waited with them until the funeral home came for the remains. When they left, I walked them to their car through the maze of construction that was going on at the time. As I walked back into the hospital through the construction tunnel shrouded in black plastic, it was four o’clock in the morning. I was exhausted — even more drained than when the evening began. I recall my prayer as I walked, “Please, God, no more tonight.”
         I got back to my “sleeping” room and leaned against the bed. That’s when it happened. I fell apart–overwhelmed with emotion and exhaustion. I began to cry — deep gut wrenching sobs. The events of the evening were soaking in, and I felt tremendous sorrow for the families. I also felt a sense of wonder and gratitude for the guidance and grace that got me through the night. In the midst of my sobbing I heard God’s voice — not a loud audible voice, yet more than “a still, small voice.” I heard these clear, distinct words in the depths of my heart, mind and soul.

              “Brenda, if you learn and know nothing else, know this: the sanctity of Life, the   sacrament of Relationship, and the sacredness of Death.”  

I was taken aback. Where did that come from? And I continued to weep hearing those words over and over again.
      I did lay down for a bit, but sleep was impossible. The events and scenes from the evening were running like a video loop in my head. I could not shake them. In wonder and awe and still somewhat incredulous, I kept hearing and thinking about His words. The message that the most important things in life to know were the sanctity of life, the sacrament of relationship, and the sacredness of death. It was as if when we know and practice these, everything else will take care of itself. I left the room early, completed the log of the night’s events, and exited the hospital shortly after 7 am in wonder and awe, and with lots to ponder. 

In the Moment — September 11, 2015

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