“What Needs to Die?”

This was the title of the November 4 sermon by Executive Associate Pastor, Rev. Meghan K. Gage-Finn, at Minneapolis’ Westminster Presbyterian Church’s “Gathered at Five,” a casual, conversational worship service at 5:00 pm. The location: Westminster Hall in the church’s new addition. Below are photographs  of Rev. Gage-Finn and the Hall.

 

 

 

 

Sermon

(This sermon commented on All Saints Day, which was celebrated in the regular morning worship service with Rev. Tim Hart-Andersen’s “What Endures?” sermon.)

“This morning in worship we celebrated All Saints’ Day, remembering the names and lives of those in our congregation who died in the last year. We paused to recall their faces, their voices, their service to Westminster and community. The celebration of All Saints’ Day in the church began in the 9th century, but today in our context it is less about honoring the Saints (with a “Capital S”) and more about giving glory to God for the ordinary, holy faithful ones of our time whom we remember and love. It is yet another chance to declare and rejoice that nothing in all of creation can separate us from God’s love, as we pray that God’s good purposes would be worked out in us, that we would be helped in our weaknesses as we await the redemption of all things.” (Emphasis added.)

“It is a day when we think and talk about death and when we name the courage and hope with which others have lived, and imagine how we might model our lives of faith in the same way.”

“[For someone with a conflicted relationship with one of our deceased, All Saints Day was a] reminder that the final death of that relationship in life opened up something, created space for something new to emerge and begin. It was almost as if the death made way for a waiting change that couldn’t otherwise take shape.”

“This [observation] has pushed me to wonder about what we hold onto or are trapped by in our lives, and what happens when we are released from these burdens. In the context of All Saints’ Day, it led me to the question of, ‘What needs to die?’” (Emphasis added.)

“[The Ruth and Naomi story in Isaiah shows] cultural and religious norms at play for [them], which both women push back against. Both have to let these die in a way Orpah cannot, and because of this a new way forward opens up for them. They embrace each other and find healing and genuine friendship. [1]

“Dutch priest and theologian Henri Nouwen observed, ‘The dance of life finds its beginnings in grief … Here a completely new way of living is revealed. It is the way in which pain can be embraced, not out of a desire to suffer, but in the knowledge that something new will be born in the pain.”[2]

“The women of the book of Ruth certainly didn’t desire to suffer, but in their journey of letting go, of letting expected structures and frameworks die, they found knowledge in the birth of something new.”

For about the past 8 years I have been involved in a progressive movement of the PC (USA) called NEXT Church, which . . . seeks to build the relational and connectional fabric of the denomination, by cultivating leaders and congregations to serve a dynamic church in a changing context. About 4 years ago I came onto the leadership board of NEXT, [which] . . . set a goal of having representation of 50% people of color around the table.”

“I was in the meeting when this was decided, and I am pretty sure we all thought we could say it, wave our magic white privilege wands, and sprinkle the same old Presbyterian power dust, and so it would be. We quickly found it was going to take more intentionality than that to build any type of appreciable change, and that, of course, bringing balance to the leadership board needed to be based on relationships. And in a denomination that is 95% white, nurturing lasting relationships between white people and people of color takes a whole lot more than wand waving, magic dust, and good intentions.”

“I can report that now, in 2018, we have achieved the goal set 3 ½ years ago, but we find ourselves as a leadership board in a very tenuous and precarious situation. We have called people of color from across the denomination and country, but what we haven’t done is change how we are organized, how we communicate, how we make decisions, how we raise money, and we haven’t brought about change to any other critical structural framework within the organization.”

“And that has created an environment where trust and welcome haven’t been properly established, openness and safety is lacking, blinders are on and assumptions are prevalent. Frankly, it feels like a mess, but we are doing our best to wade through it together.”

“We are reading as a board Robin Diangelo’s book White Fragility, and discussing it in small and large groups. Personally, Diangelo’s book casts a harsh light on things I have said and silences I have kept, decisions I have made and systems I have benefited from since before I was even born. I thought I had some understanding of my own privilege and whiteness, but I have so much work to do.”

“As for the state of our board community, it is complicated, but I hope it is akin to what happens when you clean out your closet or basement or garage, any place that has old, outdated pieces of you and your history, things you have carried around that weigh you down, or maybe you even look at them all the time, but you hardly even realize they are there. Letting go, letting things die in order to create space for newness of life — sometimes it has to get worse before it gets better.”

“It is All Saints’ Day, and death is, and can be all around us, if we would but recognize it.”

“I recently read Atul Gawande’s Being Mortal. [3] Gawande is a surgeon in Boston and professor at Harvard Medical School, an accomplished writer, and he also runs a non-profit organization that strives to make surgery safer across the globe. And for his work in public health, he is a MacArthur Fellowship winner. He is one of those people who causes you question if you are really making the most of the 24 hours you are given each day.”

Being Mortal explores the relationship we have with death, both as individuals as our bodies fail us, but also as a society, as generations age and needs change and death approaches. He speaks of the experience of one patient, Felix, who said to him, ‘Old age is a continuous series of losses.”[3]

“I think in NEXT Church right now the white folks are feeling the reality of that necessary series of losses- the way we are accustomed to doing things, the loss of hiding behind our cult of whiteness, the default of not sharing, the posture of being the experts in the room. And since so much of this is deeply ingrained and largely unconscious, letting it die means naming its life in us first. In some ways, maybe even these losses are what is hardest, or as Gawande reflects: ‘It is not death that the very old tell me they fear. It is what happens short of death—losing their hearing, their memory, their best friends, their way of life.’ For many of us, our way of life works really well for us and for people like us, at the cost of the way of life of so many others.”

“Luther Seminary Professor Karoline Lewis, in writing on All Saints Day, says, ‘We allow death to have its way and a say before it should. We allow death to determine a way of being in the world that has acquiesced to a matter of factness, an inevitability that truncates the power of the Kingdom of God, the presence of God, in our midst. And finally, we allow death to have more power than resurrection.”[4]

“The same could be said of racism and the other social evils and ills of our day–  we let them have their way and say and we allow them to determine a way of being in the world that has acquiesced to a matter of factness, an inevitability that truncates the power of the Kingdom of God, the presence of God in our midst. We allow racism to have more power than resurrection.”

“[Gawande also says,]’Whenever serious sickness or injury strikes and your body or mind breaks down, the vital questions are the same: What is your understanding of the situation and its potential outcomes? What are your fears and what are your hopes? What are the trade-offs you are willing to make and not willing to make? And what is the course of action that best serves this understanding?’”

“So once we name the things that need to die–racism, anti-Semitism, sexism, classism, heteronormativity, the fracturing of our political bedrock, we must ask ourselves these same questions:

  • What is my understanding of the situation and its potential outcomes?
  • What are my fears and what are my hopes?
  • What are the trade-offs I am willing to make and not willing to make?
  • And what is the course of action that best serves this understanding ?” [5]

“Just as Gawande emphasizes the concept of being an active participant in mortality and the dying process, so too must we be active participants in bringing about the death of the social sicknesses and diseases which are killing our children, our communities, our siblings of color, separating us from the Good News of Jesus Christ in the world, and separating us from God’s beloved.”

“So I close by giving us space in silence to ask ourselves these questions–what needs to die and in that dying and rising, what are your fears and hopes? What is the course of action that best serves this dying and new life? What new creation might God work through that death? How can you make room for the power of the Kingdom of God, the power of resurrection life”

Closing Prayer

“This is the Good News we know–you are God with us and you are here. By the power of your Spirit, help us to name what needs to die, help us to grieve the losses, but push us to move forward in the hard work ahead, to change ourselves and the communities you have created, that we might be repairers for the world. In Christ’s name we pray, Amen”

Reflections

This sermon had a surprising and different slant than that of Rev. Tim Hart-Andersen’s sermon (What Endures?) at the morning service.

Rev. Gage-Finn focused on societal beliefs and actions that need to die: racism, anti-Semitism, sexism, classism, heteronormativity and the fracturing of our political bedrock. These beliefs and actions, she says, should prompt us to ask these questions:

  • “What is my understanding of the situation and its potential outcomes?
  • What are my fears and what are my hopes?
  • What are the trade-offs I am willing to make and not willing to make?
  • What is the course of action that best serves that understanding?

This concentration on societal and political problems, while understandable, can lead to reading and studying about the problems and to a sense of hopelessness. What can I do as one individual to combat such large problems? Instead, I suggest, we should focus on what can I do in my everyday life to combat these problems? And is there at least one of these problems where I can get more deeply involved by studying and getting active in a group that attacks the problem?

For me, blogging about law, politics, religion and history is one way to study and advocate for change on these and other issues. I also am active in various Westminster programs that address some of these issues.

And I make financial contributions to groups that concentrate on these issues, including the Equal Justice Initiative, a nonprofit law organization that has challenged mass incarceration, excessive punishment, imposition of death penalty, abuse of children, and discrimination against the poor and disabled; Advocates for Human Rights; Center for Victims of Torture; American Refugee Committee; immigrant Law Center; Amnesty International; Human Rights Watch; Center for Constitutional Rights; American Civil Liberties Union; and Center for Justice and Accountability. I urge others to add these groups to their charitable contributions.

In my everyday life, I seek to smile and greet people, regardless of race, I encounter while walking downtown.

The Isaiah passage also poses even more challenging personal questions: What am I trapped by in my life and what happens when I am released from these burdens?

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[1] Wines, Commentary on Ruth 1: 1-18, Preach this Week (Nov. 1, 2015).

[2] Henri J. Nouwen & Michael Ford. The Dance of Life: Weaving Sorrows and Blessings into One Joyful Step. (Notre Dame, IN: Ave Maria Press) 2005, p. 56.

[3] Atul Gawande, Being Mortal (New York: Picador) 2014, p. 55. [See also these posts to dwkcommentaries.com: Another Perspective on Dying (Oct. 6, 2014); Comment: Review of Dr. Atul Gawande’s “Being Mortal” (Oct. 7, 2014); Comment: Another Review of “Being Mortal” (Oct. 17, 2014); Comment: Yet Another Review of “Being Mortal” (Oct. 21, 2014); Comment: Interview of Dr. Gawande (Oct. 26, 2014); Comment: Dr. Gawande’s Conversation with Charlie Rose (Oct. 30, 2014).]

[4] Lewis, For All The Saints, Dear Working Preacher (Oct. 29, 2018).

[5] Gawande, p. 259.

 

 

 

Christian Wiman’s “Gazing Into the Abyss”

Christian Wiman
Christian Wiman

 In 2006 at age 40 Christian Wiman conducted a retrospective examination of his life in his essay, Gazing Into the Abyss, American Scholar (Summer 2007).[1]

This post examines that essay and other writings by Wiman, now a 48-year-old writer and Lecturer in Religion and Literature at Yale University’s Institute of Sacred Music.[2]

 Gazing Into the Abyss

He grew up in a “very religious household” of his Southern Baptist parents in West Texas who held “the poisonous notion that you had to renounce love of the earth in order to receive the love of God.”

In his late teens (while a student at Washington & Lee University) Wiman rebelled against his religious upbringing and stopped attending any church. This rebellion lasted for more than 20 years or until he was in his late 30’s.

After graduating from college, he began a career as a poet. Indeed, poetry became “the central purpose of his life” for almost 20 years, or until he was 36 years old. Looking back on that period, Wiman can see “how thoroughly the forms and language of Christianity have shaped my imagination“ and “how deep and persistent my existential anxiety” was. Although he rejects the notion that poetry does or should replace religion, Wiman admits that “poetry is how religious feeling has survived in me.” Indeed, the one constant he now sees in his own poetry is God or “His absence.” (In a subsequent interview he said, “my refusal to admit [God’s] presence—underlies all of my earlier work.”)

Then three “shattering” events occurred in his life: one, of “necessity;” the second, of “glory;” and the third, of “tragedy.”

In 2002, at age 36 he encountered the event of necessity or despair. He stopped writing poetry. This was a conscious decision because he told himself at the time that he had “exhausted one way of writing.” Now he believes the “deeper truth” is that he was exhausted. The connection he had felt between word and world “went dead.”

Nearly simultaneously, however, his “career in poetry began to flourish” as he “moved into a good teaching job,” which he left in 2003[3] to become the Editor of the Poetry journal (which he held for the next 10 years); and found a publisher for his previous work. However, “there wasn’t a scrap of excitement in any of this for me. It felt like I was watching a movie of my life rather than living it, an old silent movie, no color, no sound, no one in the audience but me.”

In about 2003, he encountered the event of “glory,” meeting a woman and falling in love with her. He recalls “color slowly aching into things, the world coming brilliantly, abradingly [erodingly?] alive.” He continues, “I was completely consumed” and “for the first time in my life, [I felt] like I was being fully possessed by being itself.” He now had “a joy that was at once so overflowing that it enlarged existence, and yet so rooted in actual things that, again for the first time, that’s what I began to feel, rootedness.”

This glorious state of love prompted a longing for divinity. Wiman and his lover started to pray –“jokingly” and “awkwardly” at first and then “with intensifying seriousness and deliberation”—by naming each thing they were thankful for and praising “the thing we could not name.” On Sundays they half-jokingly entertained the idea of going to church, and on “the morning after we got engaged, in fact, we paused for a long time outside a church on Michigan Avenue” (4th Presbyterian Church on North Michigan Avenue in Chicago?), but did not enter due to his resistance.

In any event, in 2004 when he was 38 years old, the two of them were married.

In 2005, on his 39th birthday, the third event—the one of “tragedy”—occurred. He was diagnosed with an “incurable cancer in my blood.” Christian and his wife “sat on the couch and cried, . . . mourning the death of the life we had imagined with each other.”

Over the next year, they found themselves going to church and discovering “where and who we were meant to be.” He also remembers the walks they took after church and the “moments of silent, and what felt like sacred, attentiveness . . . to: an iron sky and the lake [Lake Michigan] so calm it seemed thickened; the El blasting past with its sparks and brief, lost faces; the broad leaves and white blooms of a catalpa on our street, Grace Street, and under the tree a seethe [constant agitation] of something that was just barely still a bird, quick with life beyond its own.” This was “a love of the earth and existence so overflowing that it implied, or included, or even demanded, God. Love did not deliver me from the earth, but into it.” (These experiences also constituted a thorough rejection of his childhood religious belief that one had “to renounce love of the earth in order to receive the love of God.”)

By “some miracle I do not find this experience is crushed or even lessened by the knowledge that, in all likelihood, I will be leaving the earth sooner than I had thought. Quite the contrary, I find life thriving in me, . . . for what extreme grief has given me is the very thing it seemed at first to obliterate: a sense of life beyond the moment, a sense of hope.” This is a hope for “a ghost of wholeness that our inborn sense of brokenness creates and sustains, some ultimate love that our truest temporal ones goad us toward. This I do believe in, and by this I live, in what the apostle Paul called “hope toward God.” [4]

“To find life authentic only in the apprehension of death, is to pitch your tent at the edge of an abyss,” and according to Friedrich Nietzsche, “when you gaze long into the abyss, the abyss also gazes into you.”

“I was not wrong all those years to believe that suffering is at the very center of our existence, and that there can be no untranquilized life that does not fully confront this fact. The mistake lay in thinking grief the means of confrontation, rather than love.” Our “intuitions” of grace, eternity and a love that does not end “come only through the earth, and the earth we know only in passing, and only by passing.” Faith, therefore, “is not a state of mind but an action in the world, a movement toward the world.”

Here Wiman draws upon a favorite metaphor of Simone Weil: two prisoners are in adjacent solitary confinement cells and communicate using taps and scratches on the wall between them. Weil says, and Wiman concurs, this is like the wall that separates us from God. Wiman concludes his essay, “the wall on which I make my taps and scratches is . . . this whole prodigal and all too perishable world in which I find myself, very much alive, and not at all alone.” Now he constantly is “trying to get as close to this wall as possible . . . [and] listening with all I am.”

Subsequent Writing

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In the “Preface” to his latest book– My Bright Abyss: Meditation of a Modern Believer (2013) [5]—Wiman referred to readers’ reaction to the “Abyss” essay.[6] He said this reaction made him realize there was “an enormous contingent of thoughtful people . . . who are frustrated with the language and forms of contemporary American religion . . . [but] feel the burn of being that drives us out of ourselves, that insistent, persistent gravity of the ghost called God.”

This realization prompted him to write essays or meditations “to figure out my own mind. I knew that I believed, but I was not at all clear on what I believed. So I set out to answer that question, though I have come to realize that the real question—the real difficulty– is how, not what. How do you answer that burn of being? What might it mean for your life—and for your death—to acknowledge that insistent, persistent ghost?”

Kathleen Norris, another contemporary author of religious/spirituality books, says that My Bright Abyss “reveals what it can mean to experience St. Benedict’s admonition to keep death daily before your eyes.” She adds, “With both honesty and humility, Wiman looks deep into his doubts, his suspicion of religious claims and his inadequacy at prayer. He seeks ‘a poetics of belief, a language capacious enough to include a mystery that, ultimately, defeats it, and sufficiently intimate and inclusive to serve not only as individual expression but as communal need.’”

My Bright Abyss is now on my iPad to be read.

Conclusion

Wiman’s essay reminds us all of the importance of periodically examining your own life. For him this task is assisted by the discipline of writing. I share this belief, and some of my blog posts attempt to do this although without the felicitous vocabulary and style of Wiman.

Like Wiman, I grew up in a religious home although not as fundamentalist as his. Like him, I abandoned religious belief and practice during my college years, and my time in the spiritual desert, like his, lasted for about 20 years. During this period, my “central purpose” was lawyering, which in some ways was similar to his focus on poetry. My reclamation of a religious and spiritual life, however, was not precipitated by “shattering” events like Wiman, but rather by an inner emptiness and a sense that the secular world did not have all the answers to life’s problems.

I share Wiman’s belief that the language and forms of much of contemporary American religion leave much to be desired, but I have found a church–Minneapolis’ Westminster Presbyterian Church–that, in my opinion, speaks to the world as it is and has become my spiritual home as I have shared in posts to this blog.

Moreover, Westminster recently was host to a national conference of the “NEXT Church” movement that seeks “to foster relationships among God’s people:sparking imaginations;connecting congregations; offering a distinctively Presbyterian witness to Jesus Christ.” To that end,“Trusting in God’s sovereignty and grace, NEXT Church will engage the church that is becoming by cultivating vital connections, celebrating emerging leadership and innovation, and working with congregations and leaders to form and reform faith communities.”

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[1] I first learned about Wiman and the “Abyss” essay at the June 8, 2014, “Virtues and Values” adult education class at Minneapolis’ Westminster Presbyterian Church.

[2] My review of Wiman’s essay also draws upon the following: Wikipedia, Christian Wiman; Yale Univ. Institute of Sacred Music, Christian Wiman; Bill Moyers, Poet Christian Wiman on Faith , Love, and Cancer (Feb. 23, 2012); Jeter, Exclusive: Christian Wiman Discusses Faith as He Leaves World’s Top Poetry Magazine, Christianity Today (Jan.-Feb. 2013);  Yezzi, Cries and Whispers, W.S.J. (April 19, 2013), ; Krista Tippett, Christian Wiman—A Call to Doubt and Faith, and remembering God (May 23, 2013) (includes audio of Wiman reading some of his poems); Kathleen Norris, Faith Healing, N.Y. Times (May 24, 2013); PBS, Christian Wiman Interview (Oct. 25, 2013), ; Stimpson, Review of Christian Wiman’s ‘My Bright Abyss: Meditation of a Modern Believer, Huff. Post (Mar. 24, 2014); Domestico, Being Prepared for Joy: An Interview with Christian Wiman, Commonweal (April16, 2014).

[3] Wiman has been a Visiting Professor of English at Northwestern University, which I suspect is the teaching position he references in the essay; the Jones Lecturer at Stanford University; and Visiting Scholar at Lynchburg College, all before assuming his current position at Yale’s Institute of Sacred Music.

[4] Presumably this a reference to 1 Timothy 4:10: “For to this end we toil and struggle, because we have our hope set on the living God, who is the Savior of all people, especially of those who believe.”

[5] His other recent books are Hard Night (2005); Ambition and Survival: Becoming a Poet (2007); and “Every Riven Thing” (2010). This Fall “Once in the West,” a poetry collection, will be published.

[6] The “Abyss” essay was retitled as “Love Bade Me Welcome” and published in his book, Ambition and Survival: Becoming a Poet.