Thursday, April 23, 2015

One From the Heart: When Things Look Like They Are Coming To An End, or "Why Mortality Really Stinks Sometimes"

Bloggers Note: This is a post about resurrection and hope. The challenge? To read all the way to the end without getting completely overwhelmed by the pain, loss and grief that always seem to be harbingers of the radical life of resurrection we find through our faith and hope in Jesus Christ. For some, that will be an effort. For others, just putting up with my writing might be enough. Bear with me, though....this challenges me as much as I hope it will console you!

We are all going to die someday. Realize that right now, as you sit there reading this, the last moment leading to this moment....and leading now on to the next moment is proof positive that not only will you someday be dead, you are also in the process of dying. It is a fact of life that we have an unalterable appointment to keep with our dying. It is also a fact that we as human beings are among the few sentient beings on this planet that know we have an incontrovertible end ahead of us. Life is about mortality, and much of our existence is spent either coming to terms with that mortal yoke, or being in some degree of active denial of it to the best of our ability.

Some of you might be actively dying, though if that is the case I urge you to step back from the screen, find a flower and a patch of sunlight and take some time to dwell in the life you have right now instead of rumination on its end. Others of you might have lost someone recently, and so the thought of meditating on death and dying might be difficult. If that is so, then step away from the screen and call a trusted friend, pastor or counselor and reach out. The glory of the internet is that while we pass, data lives on. I am sure that if you choose, then this missive will rest somewhere in your browser cache, and clicking back to it "someday" is better than poking a finger into an open wound.

Those caveats aside, I would like to take a moment to reflect on the mortalities we experience in this life. Some of those are quite personal: our own mortality, the death of a friend or loved one, the tragedy of witnessing a death that comes too soon or too violently (even when that person is a stranger). Others are slightly more abstract: the closing of a favorite place, the cancellation of an activity or program you enjoyed, the shuttering of an institution (a church, a school, a treasured "third place").

Right now, I am pondering the possible, and sadly it seems quite probable, death of my seminary. The place I was formed and trained as a postulant and then candidate for holy orders in the Episcopal Church, The General Theological Seminary of the Episcopal Church, is and has been in crisis for the last few couple of years. At this moment in time, as the Dean, the faculty, the Board of Trustees, the Alumni/ae and the Student Body struggle, it looks like the prognosis is grim, at best.

Some of it is about money, or the lack thereof. Choices were made in years past that leveraged the real estate the seminary sits on in lower Manhattan against a debt service that blew out of control when the economy crashed in 2008. Some of it is due to the unwieldy nature of a board of governance that actually outnumbers the population of students enrolled. Some of it is due to competing visions of just how and for what purpose people are formed for ministry, ordained or otherwise, in the Episcopal Church. Some of the conflict has become personal, hurtful, and the damage done and wounds inflicted are at the least painful...and for some they feel mortal, indeed.

All of that forment is doing two is challenging us, who call GTS a spiritual home, to reevaluate the ideal that a place can be "forever." Easy enough to admit in abstract. What happens when you have to confront the fact that the place you knew and loved, the place that formed you, will not likely be there at the end of this year? Perhaps the next? The end, then, is not far off. It is nearer than you think.

Is now the winter of our discontent?
I attended this school in the early 90s. During chapel services, when the intercessions were read, there were from time to time names noted of alumni/ae who had come to the end of their natural life. Their names were read when the community learned of their death, and then again during Commencement Week during a special Eucharist at which the past year's necrology was intoned by one of the venerable faculty.

My best friend, the winner of the Bishop of Newark Preaching Prize, was the Alumni/ae Eucharist preacher the year we graduated. As he stepped into the pulpit, he preached to the Gospel of the day, and to the memory of those names we had heard sung in that chapel for the past three years. Those names affected us. They were the names of GTS graduates who had gone on to lives dedicated to the ministry of the Gospel of Jesus Christ. There were great names, and small. There were names of "note" and celebrity...and some whose obscurity was their only notable virtue. There were names of people whose families had grown and supported them in their passing, and whose legacy would pass on through the generations. There were names of those who had walked a simple, solitary path. No children or grandchildren to speak of, other than those spiritual whose formation they had supported with their wisdom.

I was moved by that sermon, for my friend noted that it was these walls (and he reached out and touched them) that would absorb our the necrology of our names one day. When we would reach the end of our mortal pilgrimage, there was the quiet assurance that whatever our end, our name would be offered as an oblation of service to the Body of Christ in a place we for a time called home, school, and crucible of faith.

And now, it is passing. 

Funny, I have been a pastor to people who are dying, even among my own family, and I have not had this depth of existential upheaval. Perhaps it is because when I care for someone who is dying, I am focused on easing their anxiety and pain, even as I attempt to prepare them for their entrance into the light of God's true presence. Perhaps it is because I understand that all flesh must pass, even if it means grief.

This passing means that a chapter of the life of the institution of the Church, that bastion of assurance in our lives, is ending. It must happen sooner or later, but why now...and to those who are calling the Close their home, and to those who have known it as home in the past? Part of it is anger at failure...people who had a chance to "fix" things were either too late or unable to alter this dark course; but that is futile and could easily devolve into finger pointing. Part of it is the shattering of my naivete, I am sure, for none of us can call a building or even a particular configuration of people at one time and place the "Church." The Church is always being born, always dying and always rising to new life...the same as its founder.

I think the struggle is realizing that NOW is the time to acknowledge all of this passing around us, and to embrace the truth and light found in the confidence that we cannot call any one place, or any one moment in time the "RIGHT" place where it all meant something. There were good days, there still are...and bad ones too, to remember about GTS. But to assume that the good of the place justifies its continued existence is not only error, but arrogance. We cannot assume that everything we deem "good" in this world deserves an existence that continues on "forever."

Still, and so, (and "Why Mortality REALLY Stinks Sometimes) I am saddened when I ponder that it is a real possibility that my name and the names of colleagues I know and love will not be intoned in that hallowed place where I heard so many others remembered in years gone by. Even when my true confidence and joy lies in the knowledge that it is not so much being remembered in a dusty chapel that matters at the end for me and all those others; but rather that our names are recorded in a Book that does not ever close, nor will it ever rot. That book of Life is the one in my resurrected Savior's hand.

My task is to recall that I cannot practice the life He calls me to when I insist on holding close to the dust we must commit to the ground as we pass completely to Him.

Boats sink. Buildings fall down. Institutions close and disband. People die. These things are true.

What is also true and worthy of proclamation? That death cannot and never will hold us again. It is life eternal that really matters, and that is ours. All we have to do is be willing to let go of the dust.

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