Tuesday 20 March 2007

"Embraced by Grace with Open Arms" (Part 4 in a series of reflections on "Things That Really Matter”)

After crawling into bed at 3 am, I got up mid-morning Sunday to finish preparing for the 2 pm funeral of our ICU nurse/friend's son, utilizing the facilities of the First Presbyterian Church here in Goshen. This is not where this young man's family is involved presently, but where they had connections some years back, and the pastor there (also a good friend of mine) though he didn't know the family at all, was very cooperative. I knew without a doubt that I had been at the "right place at the right time" the day before (see Part 3) but still felt sorry I had to miss the community visitation when hundreds and hundreds of people showed up to support this grieving family. The ICU staff provided a lot of excellent food for that event on Saturday, as well, and at their own initiative - which says a lot about the sort of caring community we have within our hospital.

I can say the prayers of many were certainly answered Sunday afternoon, because that service was blessed by some very powerful moments of laughter and grace. I decided to basically function as the facilitator - intentionally staying out of the limelight, but instead moderating some fantastic spontaneous extended family sharing in the midst of it all. That part in itself stretched for almost 40 minutes involving at least a dozen people. This included C___'s mother who read a stunner of a poem she had composed, with me standing beside her so she could get through it; then his girlfriend who had wrotten and framed a special poem read it from the podium, as well. Also his former fiancé, who broke up with him when he came back from Iraq "because he just wasn't the same person anymore" shared for a few minutes, from where she stood in the midst of the congregation; and her remarks were actually well-received.

After all that, since we had a very good picture of what a fun-loving, thrill-seeking, animal lover, people-caring guy that he really was, instead of offering a traditional "message" I led into an extended 7 to 8-minute pastoral prayer, which apparently "worked" for almost everyone and brought in the fresh breeze of the all-embracing grace of God. I prayed for C____, presenting this prodigal son to the grace of God, asking that God’s hands and loving embrace surround him and receive his spirit into God’s eternal care. I thanked God that now he could be completely healed from the results of poor choices and that which had trapped him so unmercifully. (Although I didn’t’ read it, or directly allude to it in my prayer, I worked with some of the images in the story in Luke 15 - one of the lectionary texts for yesterday which was preached across the world. More on that later.)

I also prayed for each of ourselves, as well, that we be mindful and not ignore the dependencies and addictions we are often too timid to confess; to confront the storm that arises from time to time within each of us; to acknowledge the brokenness we allow to go unmended, and know the unfinished business we carry around within ourselves – and to avail ourselves of the tremendous resources we have in Christ and the community of faith. “Because we say that in Jesus Christ every barrier is broken, every sin overcome, every fear removed, and death itself is overcome” I ended by asking God to give us the faith “to believe these things with everything that is within us.”

People responded to that sort of confessional tone, all held within the context of prayer. Apparently it was what was needed to bring some resolution and healing because positive responses emanated afterward from over a dozen people processing their thoughts with me afterward one-on-one. His mother and father said back at the family home during the post-funeral interaction "we really did it." This family was not spaced-out as I’ve sometimes observed at the many funerals I have conducted - with eyes glazed over. No, they were all fully "engaged."

There were a few additional serendipitous moments that have since unfolded - and are quite worthy of note:

The first one happened when I had already left the interaction after the funeral in time to finally connect with my wife, Carole Anne, for a bit and then attended the worship service at Faith together. (We meet at 5 pm on Sundays.) It was certainly not a traditional service, but that is not unusual for us. When it came time for the sermon, the other lights were dimmed and lo and behold, the one remaining light was focused on a famous painting: You guessed it – “The Return of the Prodigal Son” by Rembrandt. We all were treated to a dialogical sermon on the theme “God Reaches Out With Open Arms” involving both our pastors, Kay and Deron, reflecting on the various characters in the painting and inviting us to think about which one we identified with the most – to place ourselves somewhere in that picture.

Some of Pastor Kay’s reflections really “struck home” for me. First, I was drawn strongly to thoughts about myself and my parents, then to thoughts about C___ and his parents. But most of all, I was drawn back into thoughts from the afternoon - about God’s incredible love for each of us, and his incredible embrace with open arms. Pure grace, because, as Kay was saying, none of us have fathers or mothers who can even come close to loving as God loves. None of us can find an example of God’s deep love in any human relationship or experience, although we may spend our entire life searching and longing for it. Then came some of Kay’s reflections that really pulled it together for me, because they drew me to thoughts about both C___ and myself -- and I realized in the process that in spite of huge differences in age, circumstances and choices, we were not all that much different when it comes right down to it – and certainly not different when it comes to God’s response!

Here now are Pastor Kay’s exact words, for I acquired them from her: “The father did not prevent the son from leaving home. He did not force his desires on the son. It was the father’s love that let his son leave. In this lies the mystery of God’s love. We are loved so much that we are left free to leave home. We are the prodigal son every time we run off looking for love in faraway places, looking for love where it can’t be found. We look for it in things that end up controlling us, and that is what we call addictions. We may look for this love from our husbands, wives, friends, church, or pastors. Again and again we are let down. We over eat, we get lost in the world of books and ideas, we spend money unwisely, we hoard our money, we over work or expect others to take care of us, thinking this will satisfy our deepest longing for love. When we have nothing left, when we are hungry, have failed utterly, we remember God’s love for us and know this is our only hope or we will die.

“I believe within us all is rooted a deep knowledge that true love is found only in God. I believe this because God created us. Since we are created in the image of God, how could not a bit of God’s love be planted deep within our spirit? This is the love that the prodigal son remembers and longs to return to.

“This is a story of one journey home, but I believe in our lives we make the journey toward God’s love and away from it many times. We may start on our journey home and than change our mind and return to the distant land. We all have within us the desire to be loved fully and unconditionally. This desire accompanies us from the moment we leave the safe protection of our mother’s womb.”

Kay then challenged us to take a close look at the father’s large left hand in the picture. On this hand are broad, strong fingers spread across the son’s right shoulder. But the fingers and shape of his other hand are much more feminine – in contrast, like a mother’s hand, gentle, caressing - the mothering hand of God embracing the son. The wide spread-open red cloak, like a mother hen hovering over her chicks, protecting, surrounding. The prodigal son, a grown man, has the head shape and position, however, more like that of a newborn nestling against his mother’s womb – an image of rebirth.

At that very moment I experienced myself in the arms of God, with unconditional acceptance, resting against God’s womb, the place of birth, a place of secure protection and nourishment. This was also where I began to image C___ being now, finally home, safe from destructive forces he could not control. I had prayed at the funeral just prior for this very thing, commending his spirit into the safe arms of God, the place of the greatest and deepest love. Now, through this guided reflection by my own pastors, I was able to envision this, to “know” that he was feeling the embrace of a Love that looks beyond all of his sins and addictions, and respond to outstretched arms, to the Voice that says, “You are my beloved child!”

I also knew at that moment that I was being prompted to give C___’s parents a copy of that painting and to share some of these interpretations with them, as well. For starts, I plan to provide a copy of these reflections.

A second great “moment” came in the evening after being at worship with my own congregation, when I went back over to C___’s family home where I’d been invited to spend some more time. Various extended family members were still hanging out at this family’s home, and I met a number of very interesting people, but one conversation with a particular couple really stood out. I met C___’s first cousin and his new wife who traveled here from Washington D.C. and who, as it turned out, attend the National Cathedral as Episcopalians. In fact, they had been committed to helping usher at the event I attended at their church Friday evening, but they had to leave for Indiana! (They, too, were significantly delayed due to the storm and had to wait to fly out until Saturday morning.)

They had no idea I had just come from this experience, until we talked. What a remarkable, animated conversation that was...because the wife of this couple is a sharp young doctoral student in Political Science, who studied and worked in Great Britain in recent years and has associations within the State Department, as well. The husband, C___'s first cousin, works as a business consultant with international NGO’s, the World Bank, and certain projects affiliated with the IMF. To make a complicated story concise, he is working at enhancing international development work where it really matters to people, especially those struggling to get a leg up on their life.

They are both obviously committed young adult Christians, representing the cream of the crop of their generation, and personally supportive of everything I just described above. While tending to fall off on the liberal/progressive side of things, politically, this very astute young woman admitted to some anger and disillusionment with the state of current leadership on these matters and issues regarding the war in Iraq, including those within the Democratic Party - a point with which I could strongly identify.

Our conversation, which was only made possible through a death – a major family storm, so to speak - was in the midst of it all so very life-giving, and gave me much hope for the future in spite of the incredible challenges this generation of new leaders will surely face. I even began to reflect a bit more with them about my own sense of call and some possibilities Carol Anne and I were exploring for international work in the future. There was a sort of instant affinity there, hard to put into words, but we agreed it will be very good for us to keep in touch with each other!

A third serendipitous moment came today (Monday) when I responded to an intuitive urge which hits me once in a while – and which I have learned not to ignore. I phoned up my new friend, Mike Wilker, at his LVC office in Washington DC, and invited him to reflect on his own experience on Friday night during the civil disobedience. He described being in the second wave that crossed into the "forbidden zone" at about 1:30 AM, engulfed in the stench of exhaust fumes that wafted over from the nearby waiting police buses as he knelt to pray. The marchers in the larger crowd across the way were singing a chant at the time "Peace, Salaam, Shalom."

As Mike was reflecting at that moment on this incredible juxtaposition of themes amidst the stench of the oil-based fumes, on the oppression within our nation and many parts of the world from the current policies we are foisting, the Lenten themes of oppression and crucifixion, and on the counterpoint of deep healing peace – the “Shalom” rooted in the message of Jesus – two other women knelt down beside him and began singing a beautiful harmonized duet of "Were You There When They Crucified My Lord" – overarching everything else. This was, as Mike described it, a stunning paradigm for the entire evening, a rich, empowering, and absolutely memorable Lenten experience.

I can’t think of a better way to sum everything up than to break into one of my own favorite songs:

My life flows on, in endless song, above earth’s lamentation
I hear the sweet though far-off hymn - it hails a new creation.
No storm can shake my inmost calm, while to that Rock I’m clinging,
Since Love is Lord of heaven and earth, how can I keep from singing?

Peace, Salaam, Shalom...

Chaplain Clair Hochstetler

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