My youngest daughter, Annie, got married last fall at her Uncle’s Camp in the mountains of North Carolina. In the middle of the wedding ceremony, the Minister did an unusual thing. He had the couple turn and look at the congregation as he reminded them that all of these people loved them. It was really too much because when you take that in for a minute, most of us just become overwhelmed with emotion. But spiritually, I think that is a really substantive thing to do once in a while, to reflect on what actually girds you up and supports you.
Two days later, I was standing at the camp alone. I was packing away the last of the votive candles, boxing up the last of the table cloths and twinkle lights. It was fall and the Camp staff had closed up and were gone, the wedding was over, every guest was gone, and I was all alone.
There is something very sad about the end of camp, about the end of the summer, about the party being over. The baby is married and that generation is launched and that whole chapter of my life had just come to something of a spiritual close.
I stood there in the peace of the afternoon and I was just washed in tears at the sadness of it all. This happens to me every so often now because of my age. Albert Camus used to call these moments ‘petite morts’- small deaths.
Once you get past a certain age, these moments of ‘goodbye’ open up an existential door to the great ‘goodbye’ of death that we all must face. Unconsciously, we have to ready ourselves for it, to imagine for just a moment what it would be like to pack up for the last time, to say ‘goodbye’ to all of our family and our friends. I found myself almost saying out loud, “I don’t want to go.”
Later that day, as I was riding my bike up the mountains, I kept seeing flashes of different people that I had known in my life that were meaningful, interesting, all members of my spiritual family. They just kept appearing like my soul wanted me to check in with them because they had been a blessing to me and they would certainly be on the list of people I would want to say ‘goodbye’ to if I had to say ‘goodbye’ for good. A number of you came to mind, not surprisingly.
We are truly surrounded by a web of inter-related love. It is important to keep this before us and to bless those around us as a tangible expression of gratitude. It helps us to remember which direction we should all be pointed.
There is a spiritual gravitas to this that we need to draw upon collectively. The author Elizabeth Gilbert was going through a bad divorce that seemed like it just wouldn’t end. Her husband had the final papers but wouldn’t sign them and after rounds of vengeance, lots of reflection and sadness, she just wanted it over. It was one of those unreasonable divorces that finally had a settlement and then her husband just let the papers sit, week after week, which turned into months. She would call her lawyer. No movement. Call again. Nothing.
She was like a lot of us in that she didn’t think this particular problem was important enough to bother the Almighty because there is so much serious suffering in the world that this is just picayune. [Right now we have hurricane Idai that has destroyed costal cities in Mozambique].
She was sharing this with a friend of hers from Beirut, Lebanon when they were driving across the country together since her friend had lived through bombing in Beirut, she lived through the Civil War and occupation.
Her friend looked back at her quizzically, “where did you get that stupid idea? Where did you get the idea you aren’t allowed to petition the universe with prayer? You are part of the universe, Liz. You’re a constituent- you have every entitlement to participate in the actions of the universe and to let your feelings be known. So put your opinion out there. Make your case. Believe me- it will at least be taken into consideration…” Together they decided to write a letter. And this is what she said.
Please intervene and help end this divorce. My husband and I have failed at our marriage and now we are failing at our divorce. This poisonous process is bringing suffering to us and to everyone who cares about us.
I recognize that you are busy with wars and tragedies and much larger conflicts that the on-going dispute of one dysfunctional couple. But it is my understanding that the health of the planet is affected by the health of every individual on it. As long as even two souls are locked in conflict, the whole world is contaminated by this… that we may be healed.
I thank you for your kind consideration.
Her friend says to her, “Now can you think of two people that would sign that letter with you?”
“My mother and my sister would… and my father would too”, Elizabeth said.
“Good… have them sign it… Can you think of one other person?”
“Yes, my neighbor in New York”
“Good… have them sign it… Think of one more person.” This went on and on as she named a large number of people. After a while, people that she didn’t even know directly were signing her letter to God.
Oprah Winfrey signed it. President Clinton signed it. St. Francis of Assisi signed it. Gandhi signed it. Bono signed it. Muhammad Ali signed it… even the Dali Lama signed it.
And she realized what a great teeming crowd of support she actually had all around her, this great Cloud of Witness’ as the author of Hebrews puts it so wonderfully. These were all her balcony people and she was enlisting their power and support.
They are driving across Kansas and she lays her head down and starts to drift off. Every once in a while she would call out another name and then she finally fell asleep. She is holding her cell phone in her hand and she feels it vibrate. She answers the phone groggy. It is her lawyer calling her. He says to her, “I just wanted to call because I thought you might like to know that your husband just signed the papers.”
Now I don’t have to tell you that things don’t always wrap themselves up so neatly with a bow on the box. That is not the point.
But neither should we overlook the obvious that collectively there is a tremendous spiritual power when we pray together in a direction. And about some things, we are always free to pray: for reconciliation, for integrity, for the right thing to be done, for grace, for healing, for an end to violence, for spiritual depth. When we bless those around us, we are open ourselves as spiritual conduits and we enlist them in God’s goodness. And this is the point, that we need to draw upon our Cloud of Witnesses to keep us pointed in the right direction and we need to encourage one another to do the same.
Because prayer and blessing are most important precisely when we don’t really know what is going on and our lives are full of ambiguity and it may not work out all right.
I finally watched ‘Flight 93’ a couple years ago after putting it off. Like many of you, I am periodically astonished at the depth of rage that I still have about the events of September 11th. It comes back instantly.
One of the things that the movie reminds you powerfully is the unknowing that took place on that day. We saw what was happening. There was some speculation but mostly there was this gulf of uncertainty and no one was quite sure what to do.
The passengers on that flight were stymied because one of the hijackers was wired with explosives or what appeared to be explosives. Their instinctive response was to acquiesce and try to negotiate, following the well-worn script of hijackings from the past 40 years. One by one as they called their loved ones on cell phones furtively, they got some pieces of information that there was something wider happening.
They heard about the Towers but their spouses obviously were more interested in making a profound emotional connection than they were dispensing information. Several of them had to hang up mid-sentence often dealing with the hijackers who were killing offenders.
One guy calls the operator to report the hijacking to someone in authority and the poor woman on the other end is frantically flipping through a Crisis manual trying to locate Airplane hijacking to figure out what to do. Of course, there is no procedure for dealing with a novel situation and all she could do was give them as much information as she had which wasn’t very much.
There came a point where a group of them decided they had to act but they had no idea if this was the wise thing to do, as collectively they had a grave sense of responsibility for each other.
The guy on the phone with the Operator asks the lady on the other end if they should rush the cockpit. She can’t answer that question for him. And she asks him back if there is anything she can do… He stops for a moment and says, “Yeah… will you pray with me”?
She is disoriented. “Pray?” she says. “Yeah”, he says, “pray with me.” What do you pray in a moment like that?
She fumbles for a minute and says, “Our Father who art in heaven, hallowed be thy name. Thy kingdom come, thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven. Give us this day our daily bread and forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us. Lead us not into temptation but deliver us from evil, for thine is the Kingdom and the power and the glory forever.”
It came back to her when she needed it in a crisis. And it fit poignantly at the moment. Prayer is most powerful precisely when we don’t know what to do but we have to do something; it is most powerful precisely when things are the least clear.
I hope you never have to go through something that dramatic or conflictual. But life being what it is, you know that you are going to get to some very tough places that are rife with ambiguity and no clear path forward. I want you to be able to pray in that situation because you are used to praying for other people. You already live a life of blessing those around you. You have something substantial to fall back on.
I just want to remind you to deploy the obvious, your Spiritual power to bless your family, your friends, your community. Let those people around you know that you care about them enough to keep them pointed in the right direction.
This is the season of the year when Christians have traditionally followed Jesus to the cross at Golgotha where he had to face the most difficult time of his life. The Gospel of Luke says he was so concerned that when he prayed it was like he was sweating drops of blood (Luke 22). Boundary situations are like that.
Draw upon that power. Take your concerns to God in prayer. Meditate and intentionally call to mind images of people that you are concerned about, situations that are particularly difficult. See them surrounded by God’s effulgent grace, resolving complex contradictions that you cannot resolve.
St. Paul says, “make your supplications to God be known and may the Peace of God, which passes all understanding, (something you would not expect, at least not at first) cover your heart and your mind.
Channel the Spirit in the midst of conflict, in the midst of ambiguity. St. Paul was about to be executed. His last words were “Whatever is true, the things that are morally honorable acts that are filled with grace, moments where you see what is excellent in human nature, things that are worthy of praise- meditate on these things.
Feed yourself things that are spiritually nutritious and inspiring, the stuff that makes you remember why you love being alive, the things you would be wistful for tonight if this were the first day of the last week of your life. Get in touch with that for God’s peace, a surprising, transcendent peace will fill you.
Gracious God, for Your Spirit to fill us we pray, that Your song might fill our hearts, for a spirit of joy, for grace and graciousness, for depth of character, for compassion, for community that complements our difference, for Your love that binds everything together in harmony, for your presence through us to those around us, for sensitivity to the woes that others must bear, for strength and courage, that peace might take root in our hearts, for the edification of each other, that we might grow to become Your Spiritual family. Amen.