Tuesday, September 29, 2015

Death where is thy sting?

"Death is a very dull, dreary affair, and my advice to you is to have nothing whatsoever to do with it," was the advice of W. Somerset Maugham. I disagree. In the Christian tradition, and that of many other religions, death is actually a joyful occasion, even though it certainly stings.

Many people that I know have recently died. All of them happen to have been Christians, and several of them clergy. They were convinced that life was not ending, just changing. Yes, it is very sad when someone we love won't be around to interact with us. I'm not saying it isn't, or that it is unchristian, but Jesus Himself wept at the grave of his friend. The celebration of a person's life, is the happier and more joyful way to approach this. Indeed, a fried who just died, left his instructions: "Please, as few tears as possible. Remember the many great times we shared, and look toward to our eventual reunion in Heaven with joyful anticipation. Kindly smile a lot, too."

T. S. Eliot said "I had seen birth and death but had thought they were different." Are they different though? When someone is born to their earthly life we always rejoice, and it is said that we should do they same, when they are born to eternal life. What is there about a loved one that made you love them? What moments did you share that were special?

Saint Paul said "Where, O death, is your victory? Where, O death, is your sting?" That might not be the most reassuring thing he ever wrote, but in his letter to the Romans, he gives us a blessed assurance that takes away all of our fears when our mortal life is over. "For I am persuaded, that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor principalities, nor powers, nor things present, nor things to come, Nor height, nor depth, nor any other creature, shall be able to separate us from the love of God, which is in Christ Jesus our Lord."

Remember those who are no longer with us. Rejoice in having known them. Hold your fond memories and even share them with others. Look to the day when you too will be born to eternal life and you will be reunited with family and friends, and be thankful.

Monday, September 28, 2015

Where in the world is Wilson Fang?

Budapest, Montreal, Washington, Kyoto, Boston, Dublin, Prague, and dozens of other places all over the world played host to a guy who loved to travel. I only saw him in San Francisco, his home, and the place where so many shared adventures with Wilson Fang. His love for travel was part of his zest for life and his kind heart and warm spirit. Waking up to news this morning that he had lost his battle with cancer, is devastating to say the least. Remember when Reader's Digest had a regular feature where folks wrote about the most unforgettable character in their lives? For me, that would be Wilson.
This blog, as the name says, is not about me, and by extension is also not about my family or friends, but occasionally I have broken that rule, and today there is nothing else on my mind. What I write about here is making a difference in this world, and Wilson certainly did that. That horrible thing called cancer, which has claimed so many lives, came and took away Wilson when he was only 42, but he had already touched more folks and accomplished more than many folks who live twice as long.
Folks in San Francisco will of course know him for his work in the community, on the board of the Gay Asian Pacific Alliance, and ten years ago as Mr GAPA, but his friends and family also know him as a fun loving, warm, compassionate man of great faith. One of my most treasured possessions is a book of daily devotions he gave me several years ago. He an excellent gift-giver. Presents were always items of significance to the recipient, not a gift card or random piece of junk he had hurriedly picked up. When he said he carried about you, he truly did.
His loveable sheepdog made him smile from ear to ear. So did happy moments with friends. A very happy moment for him was just a couple of years ago when he finally received the sacrament of Confirmation in his church. He was like a kid in a candy store! Perhaps the proudest moment came just a month ago when he traveled to Southern California and walked his sister down the aisle at her wedding.
Although we have close to a hundred friends in common, many of the folks in his life I have never met, and this morning I am hearing moving tales from many of them, all saying the same thing. Wilson could tell his story much better than I. He was always a much better reporter. He was larger than life. I miss him already. Wilson was an incredible human being and I am fortunate indeed that he came my way. My deepest sympathies to Zonie, his mother, and to his beloved partner, and his siblings, and all who loved him.
Where in the world is Wilson Fang? Today he is in paradise. Today he is in the tender embrace of Our Lord.

Friday, September 11, 2015

Remembering that dark day again

Today on this 14th anniversary of one of the saddest days in world history, I want to again quote a clergyman named Frank Griswold. Back on that dark day in 2001, Griswold was the Presiding Bishop of the Episcopal Church in the US. This essay of his (which he wrote a few days after the terrorist attacks, and which I have printed here before) is a personal account of how he spent the days that followed those attacks, and it is a story of hope in the face of despair. Hope that we should all continue to carry with us. This is what he wrote:

On Friday, September 14, the day of national mourning, I knew my place was here in New York with those who were courageously struggling with the aftermath of the hideous events of the previous Tuesday. A police van picked me up at the Church Center and transported me through checkpoints to the Seaman's Church Institute within the restricted area where police, firefighters, National Guard, rescue workers and Con Edison technicians were being cared for with food, fresh changes of clothing, and words of thanks and encouragement from tireless volunteers.

In the midst of the chaos I was asked to celebrate the Eucharist. It was Holy Cross Day, and how appropriate and right it was that our mourning and grief be rooted and grounded in the mystery of the cross. St. Paul speaks of sharing the sufferings of Christ. I thought that every act of violence, and all that it produces, is an instance of Christ's own suffering with and on behalf of those he came to reconcile to one another through the cross.

In the Gospel reading for the day, we hear Jesus proclaim: "When I am lifted up from the earth, I will draw all people to myself." The cross is Jesus' facing into all the subtle and obvious forces of evil the divide the human family, drawing us all to himself in order that we might be transformed and live in new patterns of relationship: patterns which are grounded in the awareness that - at the heart of all differences of language, race, culture and ways of believing and naming God - we are profoundly one in the mind and heart of our Creator. That this terrible act of terrorism has provoked blind and indiscriminate blame directed against our Moslem and Arab neighbors is to allow the evil we are suffering to catch us up in its ongoing destructive force, and make us its victim in yet another way.

After the Eucharist, Phoebe and I were taken through more checkpoints to "Ground Zero." This close to the impact, gray ash lay everywhere and coated the silent and abandoned buildings, among them St. Paul's Chapel where George Washington worshiped. Outside the church the American and Episcopal Church flags, stained and torn, fluttered at half-mast. An ancient tree had been uprooted and its branches rested on the gravestones. The building was intact, but the churchyard was thick with ash and debris and thousands of bits of paper. The iron gate was ajar. I pushed it open and climbed the littered and ash covered steps to the open door of the church. In an eerie way, everything seemed to be in order, except for the covering of dust. I found myself in tears. Here, at the heart of all the chaos and destruction was a place of solace and prayer.

The sacristy door stood open. I went in and found a piece of paper and a pen and wrote "I have been here and you have my prayers and my love. Frank Griswold, Presiding Bishop." I turned to leave and just then the priest arrived. "I'm here and the church is open," he said. What more could one ask for at a time like this than the ministry of presence.

As we left, I looked up at the crucifix above the altar and had the sense that the extended arms could receive and embrace all the madness and hatred and destruction and suffering that lay close by and in all the places in our fragile world where violence and death and innocent suffering are a daily reality. Somehow this terrible event has joined us in solidarity with the suffering of the world.

That evening I took part in a service at the Cathedral of St. John the Divine. At the end of the service, the congregation with lighted candles in hand followed us out onto the cathedral steps where people, instead of dispersing into the evening, drew close to one another, still holding on to their candles. Passersby joined them, some stopping to buy candles in nearby shops.

Spontaneous singing began…"We shall overcome…." I thought of the overwhelming generosity of spirit that had flowed through the day. I thought of the selfless volunteers and their eagerness to be useful; the many workers and their gratitude; the congregation bound together in mutual support. I was seeing evil overcome by good which is the only way in which our world can be healed. I was also seeing our church in action and prayer and hospitality mediate the real presence of Christ.

How grateful I am for our Episcopal household and for its clear witness at this time. The days ahead will be difficult and demanding for us all, and I pray that we will be able to live them with the courage and strength that are ours in the risen Christ.

-The Most Reverend Frank T. Griswold
XXV Presiding Bishop and Primate
The Episcopal Church, USA

Tuesday, September 1, 2015

Grouchily Retired Cancer Warrior Passes

Over the years, I have been fortunate to know many great leaders who are giving back to our world and truly making a difference. Yesterday, I received the sad news that one of those marvelous people, the Reverend Karen Johanns, had passed away. Saying that Mother Karen was a marvelous leader, is really an understatement.

By the time I met her, she had already moved from an earlier career in restaurant management and was pursuing ordination to the priesthood in the Episcopal Church. If ever there was someone suited for ministry, it was Karen Johanns. I had the privilege of being present when she became a deacon and from her active participation in church events, along with Claire Dodds, the woman who would become her wife, it was obvious she was going to make a difference. I'd love to give some examples here, but I invite you also to share any stories you know about her in the comments section below.

She ministered at a number of parishes and was loved by those congregations, but then along came cancer. Some would give up, but not Mother Karen. She waged an all out war against the invader with surgery, radiation, and chemotherapy, and for more than two years thought that she might win, but it kept spreading. Just about a year ago, she retired on medical disability, but she kept telling her friends and all who would listen, that her fight was continuing. All along the way, she showed courage, grace, and love.  She referred to herself as a grouchily retired cancer warrior.

I heard her speak out against injustice on so many occasions and I heard her urge people to get involved. Back in July, she indicated that her days were numbered, and she activated her "bucket list" saying she wanted to give and raise as much money as possible to restore Black churches that burned earlier in the year. On her twitter account, she gave the URL where we can all do something: https://cccathedralstl.dntly.com/campaign/2571#/  In her memory, what could be a better thing to do?

An online memorial, which includes service information and also photographs, is available HERE. What a great joy it was to know this woman. May she rest in peace.