As a preacher, I spend a great deal of time crafting words and finding ways to express thoughts about issues that transcend and somehow give meaning to our lives. And, yet, there are times when I am so deeply humbled that I find that words cannot express the thoughts and experiences that I face. As a pastor I have the great honor and privilege to be with people during extreme times of loss, pain, suffering and challenge. Simply being present with others is for me one of the most rewarding experiences I have in the role of priest; for it is in these moments that I unfold what I can only express as deep love and compassion for those with whom I sit and pray.
I have sat with many people as they faced death, and also with families who have lost loved ones. In each case I learn more about the mysteries of this life and see the harsh reality that the deeper we love, the deeper the hurt and loss when we lose someone we love. I also know that no matter how long the illness and how well we prepare for someone’s death, it is always difficult when the time comes. So recently, with all my knowledge and experience, I was faced with the death of my mother. And all the truths I knew were there for me to experience first-hand for myself. What was renewing and overwhelming for me was the deep care and gentle gestures offered by those with whom I have sat. People who I know have faced deep wounds and loss, and know the valley of the shadow well. The honor of companionship is something that I cannot express, I come up with words like thankful and overwhelmed, but there is so much more to the experience.
In this time of loss I have been humbled to see how I sometimes hold onto simplistic notions and expressions; sometimes I am moved by what could be seen as sentimental theology, and superstitious thinking. It does not surprise me, because I and so many of us have superstitious or simplistic beliefs when it comes to sporting events – like how I find myself leaving the room when my team is winning, because that will help them continue to win. But the journey of faith is the common life in which we find ourselves with each other as we face our mortal journeys. The experience of religion is not the understanding or formulated thoughts with which we agree or not, but the wrestle and the engagement with each other in our struggles which sometimes leads to common understandings or even the transforming of older understandings. There is an old hymn that begins, “What a friend we have in Jesus, All our sins and griefs to bear!.’ I have always held onto the presence of God in a very quiet way as I have faced trying times, more so than I hold onto my ideas of faith. And I have experienced that somehow my suffering is felt by God, and it is most often through sharing our experiences with each other, seeing the loss in someone else and coming to the place where I can share my own pain.
I try to write what it is I have come to see and feel, and it ends up like trying to write music to a symphony with simply crayons and markers. The formulas of faith, the definitions and expressions always come after the experience; and like retelling a dream, they continually change in the retelling to the point that perhaps the descriptions begin to make their own story apart from the original dream. There is a place of love; and it is in the eyes and hands that reach out to us and to whom we reach towards. This place and time of holy engagement is not found in what might be considered or wished for blessings but in the blessings of what might be in fact what we wish our blessing would help us from having to face. The simplicities and intricacies of understandings are helpful, but what matters more, I am finding, is the presence of life with life, pain with pain, grief with grief, laughter with laughter, and in these moments are mysteries beyond anything I can express. It is in this place that I am so deeply honored, and so deeply alive.