The Sound of Sirens and Helicopters

Palmer Memorial Episcopal Church, Houston, Texas
The Reverend Neil Alan Willard, M.Div.
Easter Day, April 12, 2020

Jesus, Savior, may I know your love and make it known. Amen.

On one of the first days we started recording these services in the church without anyone in the pews, I saw something that’s haunted me ever since. I was about to walk through the side door at the bell tower when I happened to look out toward Main Street, through the bars of the locked gate. Near the front of the church, I saw a solitary man standing there, looking unsure of himself. He was wearing a hospital mask over his face and seemed, understandably, a little lost in this strange new landscape. I mean, I was too. I couldn’t tell if he was trying to figure out if our church was open, or how to get somewhere in the medical center, or just waiting for someone to join him as he stared down the street. I don’t know if he was a patient or the loved one of a patient. I don’t know if he believed in God or would’ve understood anything about the meaning of Easter Day for Christians around the world.

Of course, Christians around the world, including us, are having to wrestle with the meaning of this day in circumstances that last year would’ve seemed unbelievable. Maybe that’s unsettled you. Maybe you or someone you know is plagued by doubt or filled with fear or overwhelmed by sadness like Mary Magdalene must have been as she came to the tomb, “while it was still dark,” on the first day of the week. Maybe we’re afraid these words from a poem by Erika Takacs, harkening back to the beginning of our Lenten journey on Ash Wednesday, will be a description of reality, a description of the truth, as we walk in the dark with Mary to the tomb of Jesus:

They say there will be no Easter this year.
No hats.
No hunts.
No hymning.
No lilies to fill a bright room
with a fanfare of pollen.
No garden, no angel,
no victory.

They say that our journey
born in sackcloth and ashes
will lead us at last
to nowhere.

And so we sit worried
that the tomb, this year,
will be found, for once,
still full.

That Mary and the others
will leave with their spices
and come back home with nothing.
That this year the women will finally end their work —
anoint and then
leave empty.[1]

Mary went to that tomb to complete the funeral. Like those who’ve died in recent weeks around the world, the circumstances under which Jesus died meant he had to be buried without all of the proper rites of his religious tradition. Left undone were things meant to treat his body respectfully after it had been so mistreated by those who tortured him, after he had been abandoned by his disciples, after he had been forsaken, hearing only divine silence in response to his cry from the cross.

In years past — or “the before times,” as one of my friends put it — I’ve always been struck by the jarring transition from our quiet and solemn reflection in worship inside these walls on Good Friday to what happens afterwards as soon as the front doors of the church are opened wide onto Main Street. There’s the rush of traffic coming in and out of the medical center, and not infrequently the wailing of a siren from a passing ambulance. But that’s only a contrast in sound, not in significance. Then as now, many of those people heading into the medical center are having their own experience of Good Friday, or fear they might feel abandoned by God if things don’t improve for themselves or for someone they love but cannot help.

Casey Cep, writing in The New Yorker magazine two Sundays ago, recalled watching her father serve as an usher in the rural Lutheran church where she was raised. He handed out bulletins to those who arrived for worship, of course, and passed the offering plates to them in the pews. He also rang the church bell, not only before and after the service each week but also in the middle of it, during the Lord’s Prayer. When she was old enough to wonder why he did that, why he rang the bell, and asked him about it, he reminded her of farmers who were absent because of the harvest and also of those who were homebound because of age or health:

We ring the bell for them, he told [her], so that they know when we have gathered and when we are sent back into the world, and so that, no matter how far they are from the [church], they can join us in reciting the words that Jesus taught us to pray.[2]

And so that became a powerful message for her. It can be a powerful message for us too — Christians being called together in prayer by the sound of church bells when they have to be apart from one another, often for reasons beyond their control. Years later, when Casey Cep was living in a city, a pastor offered her something to ponder each time she heard the blaring sound of ambulances in the streets:

Think of it as a kyrie, he said: a plea for Christ to have mercy. Many of us will be hearing more of those sirens than church bells in the weeks to come, [she writes,] but perhaps those, too, can call us to prayer, and to one another.[3]

Even though I hate what is happening in the world around us at the moment, I love that sense that we are being called together in prayer, even when we aren’t together here in the pews. We are surrounding the world with the love of Jesus, a simple way to think about what Christian prayer is, with many people from many nations.

In addition to sirens and our own church bells, there are others sounds that are heard daily here at Palmer. On the very same Sunday that Casey Cep’s essay was published in The New Yorker, some of you may have heard on the video of our worship service a Life Flight helicopter either landing or taking off across the street at Memorial Hermann Hospital. I’ve said to myself many times that I never want the sound of those helicopters to fade into the background like wallpaper. And now I think I’ll never hear it as anything less than “a plea for Christ to have mercy.”

That haunting sound, that heartfelt plea, came at the very moment I repeated the words that Jesus said at his last meal with his friends, while I was holding up the bread and the cup at this Holy Table. It came in the middle of a prayer called the Great Thanksgiving, which recalls the story of our salvation. That prayer is a reminder that God’s mercy enfolds not only us but also the whole world. And while we cannot feast together until we meet again face to face, we can receive God’s mercy on this, the holiest day of the year for Christians.

Each of us needs a love that casts out fear. Each of us needs forgiveness, a lot more than we realized before living under a stay-at-home order. Each of us needs for something to happen, something that’s unexplainable to happen, before we walk to the tomb with Mary Magdalene today in the dark. Otherwise, our cry, our plea for Jesus, the Christ, the Messiah, to have mercy will have no effect, will not mean love is stronger than death, will not assure us that God has the last word. If God doesn’t, the ringing of Palmer’s bells tonight during the daily evening shift change for those walking into and out of the largest medical complex in the world will only be an act of thanks to them for their work but not also an act of prayer to the God who is present with them, with those who are suffering, with those living and dying.

But I believe it’s true, that love is stronger than death and has destroyed death, that hell’s gates have been trampled down forever by the risen Christ. I believe the stone that separates the living from the dead at the tomb has been rolled away. I believe the terrifying and confusing sight of that is given meaning when the emptiness of Mary’s heart is filled with divine love as the risen Christ calls her by name. And I believe the risen Christ will have the last word on the last day, calling us by name.

Erika Takacs believes that too. Her poem — the one I quoted earlier — is titled “A Coming Alleluia.” That’s a hint that it doesn’t end with despair and disappointment. It reminds us rather that whatever Easter is, it is God’s doing, and God’s alone. Our own belief or lack thereof doesn’t change it. And that is good news for all of us.

As she asks us in the voice of the risen Christ:

Did I not once prove
once for all
that there is nothing you can do,
no decision you can make
(for good or for ill)
that can stop
me
rising?[4]

That question is left for the reader, for us, to answer as we ponder with amazement that since the first Easter morning, Mary Magdalene, apostles, martyrs, and saints, including the saints here at Palmer, have said, “Yes, alleluia, alleluia, alleluia.”

AMEN

BACK TO POST Erika Takacs, “A Coming Alleluia,” Earth & Altar, April 2, 2020.

BACK TO POST Casey Cep, “The Gospel in a Time of Social Distancing,” The New Yorker, March 29, 2020.

BACK TO POST Cep.

BACK TO POST Takacs.

Jesus, Lead the Way

Palmer Memorial Episcopal Church, Houston, Texas
The Reverend Neil Alan Willard, M.Div.
Lent IV, March 22, 2020

Jesus, Savior, may I know your love and make it known. Amen.

I can still remember standing off to the side of the altar here in the church a few years ago with my eyes closed. It was on a Sunday morning, and I was the celebrant. That means it was my turn to be the priest who would say the words of the Great Thanksgiving at that Holy Table for Holy Communion. But that particular day, someone else was setting things out and getting it all ready for me, for us. So I was able in that moment, as I stood there, to pray. I was praying in the sense of listening for God to speak to me. And I was also able to hear the anthem the choir was singing so beautifully, as the music and the words washed over me. Something, as I stood there, seemed vaguely familiar but out of place, like a faint echo from the past.

The tune — it seemed like I had heard it somewhere before. The words, I suddenly realized, were similar but a little different from a hymn I had known as a child:

Jesus, lead the way,
Through our life’s long day,
And with faithful footsteps steady,
We will follow, ever ready,
Guide us by thy hand
To our Fatherland.

Now, even though there is a member of this church whose business card literally says “Rocket Scientist,” you don’t have to be one to figure out that’s probably a German hymn. I knew it as “Jesus still lead on.” And these days we would surely write something like “to the Promised Land” rather than “to our Fatherland.”

The German words were written by Nicholas Ludwig von Zinzendorf — a bishop who also ordained my 6th great-grandfather as a pastor in the Moravian Church. They describe a whole life as one long day, a day of walking in the footsteps of Jesus on our way home to God. That’s a lovely picture of what it means to be a Christian.

But what I like about the first verse used in the anthem — a verse, by the way, which also appeared in our own Episcopal Church’s Hymnal 1940 — is that you can easily transpose that image of a very long day into difficult chapter in your life. And the words of this hymn can become for you an appeal, a prayer, a cry for help, a plea for Jesus to lead the way through just such a time as this. Bring us, Jesus, to a new day on the other side of the fears and anxieties and uncertainties that are threatening to overwhelm us, whatever those things may be for you or for me this morning.

So when that music and those words surprised me a few years ago as we gathered here for Holy Communion, it made me weepy as I moved to where I could see your faces, your faces in these now-empty pews. That music connected me not only to my childhood, but also to the present and future. I knew then, as I do now, that God was, and is, and would continue to be the constant through all of our joys and sorrows.

Today we heard the words of the 23rd Psalm. For many Christians, it’s one of the most beloved parts of the Hebrew Bible. A lot of us, in childhood, memorized this psalm, this poem or prayer, in the language of the King James Bible:

The Lord is my shepherd,
I shall not want.
He maketh me to lie down in green pastures:
he leadeth me beside the still waters.
He restoreth my soul . . .

In a similar way, there’s a favorite German chorale most Moravian Christians know by heart. It’s a paraphrase of the 23rd Psalm, and the first verse goes like this:

Jesus makes my heart rejoice,
I’m his sheep, and know his voice;
He’s a Shepherd, kind and gracious,
And his pastures are delicious;
Constant love to me he shows,
Yea, my very name he knows.

I’ve always loved those words because they remind us that if Jesus is our shepherd, we will know his voice and, most importantly, that he knows each of us by name and shows us what The Jesus Storybook Bible describes so awesomely and wonderfully as a “Never-Stopping, Never Giving Up, Unbreaking, Always and Forever Love.”[1]

And isn’t that what each of us longs for right now — whether silently or through a barely audible whisper or maybe even with a lot of very understandable shouting — that Jesus would calm the waters and make them flow gently through pastures of love and mercy where we can be fed, that Jesus would be present with us so that we don’t have to be afraid, that Jesus would bring us back to this Table, to sing once again, together, in the house of the Lord? And wouldn’t it bring a tear to your eye?

As a minister of the gospel, it’s counterintuitive for me to speak the truth on this Lord’s Day that each of us is loving our neighbor by keeping our physical distance from them. But that, at least for a season, is our reality. In the meantime, as I wrote to the parish last week, we as the people of God will have to learn how to sing together in new ways, how to sing the Lord’s song in a strange land, as another psalm puts it so memorably. Being physically distant doesn’t mean we really have to be socially distant. In many ways, by the grace of God, we might even grow closer.

Like me, I know many of you have been moved by seeing videos of Italians trapped at home for the most part who nevertheless found a way to do this. They found a way to sing together, not metaphorically but literally, by coming to open windows, standing on the rooftops, or going out onto balconies. The sound of their voices and their instruments has echoed through narrow streets in crowded cities, lifting the spirits of their neighbors, young and old alike, drawing them closer to one another. I love how Emma Santachiara, who lives in Rome, described it in a New York Times article last weekend. She’s 73 years old and said, “It’s not like we’re maestros. It’s a moment of joy in this moment of anxiety.”[2] She discovered joy without denying the anxiety.

That article ends with Ms. Santachiara teaching an Italian classic to her 3-year-old granddaughter on a Saturday night. It’s a song the people on her street would be singing later that same evening. She does this with gratitude for the extraordinary work of professionals like the girl’s father. He’s “a doctor who has been putting in extra hours and covering shifts to make sure that people don’t go without primary care. He has been sleeping in his office where he [heats his food in a toaster].”[3] And yet that grandmother somehow, in spite of all the things, still finds joy to share.

I’ve found glimpses of joy this past week — in talking with some of you on the phone, in watching parents of young children share ideas with one another and teachers offering resources for unanticipated home schooling. I have seen Palmers come together to make this kind of worship service possible and to get needed items from the pharmacy or the grocery store to our most vulnerable members in the safest possible way. I have talked to more neighbors — standing on the other side of the street, of course — within the past several days than I normally would over the same number of months. It’s been wonderful in the midst of things not so wonderful.

This past week, my family and I received a postcard in the mail. Do you remember what old-fashioned mail looks like and feels like? The one we received is handmade with “LOVE” written on one side and the words of a kind note on the other side.

Also this past week, my wife and our sons checked in with one of the elders here at Palmer who lives alone but not too far from the Rectory. They could even see her on a video through Facebook, which is really amazing to me. Technology may not be everyone’s cup of tea, but it’s not limited, of course, only to those who are younger.

Each of us can reach out to someone like that, even if it’s only through a few kind words that are spoken with love over the phone. I mean, it’s not all bad. It’s not like it’s the 1970s when some of us had to use a rotary dial on a phone with an actual cord. Back then you couldn’t walk around while talking. Many of those phones we were holding were the color of mustard or of pale green peas. That’s a different kind of tragedy, although one for which we would gladly trade right now. I know I would.

But since we can’t do that, remember this: Whether you’re imagining what this building is like in these strange times on Sunday mornings or looking around your home right now, the room is never empty. Jesus is present here, Jesus is present with you, Jesus is present in the community that has gathered together for this hour of prayer from the four corners of the earth. Jesus will lead the way as our shepherd, whose voice we know, and who calls us each by name. And goodness and mercy will pursue us all our days, until we return to the house of the Lord. This I believe.

AMEN

BACK TO POST Sally Lloyd-Jones, The Jesus Storybook Bible (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2007) 36.

BACK TO POST Jason Horowitz, “Italians Find ‘a Moment of Joy in This Moment of Anxiety’,” New York Times, March, 14, 2020.

BACK TO POST Horowitz.

 

The Akedah and the Godfather of Gloom

Palmer Memorial Episcopal Church, Houston, Texas
The Reverend Neil Alan Willard, M.Div.
Proper 8, July 2, 2017

God tested Abraham. He said to him, “Abraham!” And he said, “Here I am.” He said, “Take your son, your only son Isaac, whom you love, and go to the land of Moriah, and offer him there as a burnt offering on one of the mountains that I shall show you. So Abraham rose early in the morning . . . and took . . . his son Isaac . . .” (Genesis 22:1-3)

Last fall the world mourned the death of the “high priest of pathos,” Canadian poet and songwriter Leonard Cohen, who was also known as the “godfather of gloom.” He was 82. Most people know him for his song “Hallelujah” from 1984, which was resurrected in the 1990s through a reverent version of it by American singer Jeff Buckley. “Hallelujah” became a kind of secular hymn.[1]

Not surprisingly, a deep and abiding spiritual life was important to Leonard Cohen. He believed that everything he wrote was liturgy.[2]

While some might recall his interest in Buddhism, to the point of becoming a Zen monk, Cohen himself thought of that as merely a discipline for meditation. “I’m not looking for a new religion,” he said in an interview in 2004. “I’m quite happy with the old one, with Judaism.”[3] Cohen’s paternal grandfather and great-grandfather were presidents of the Montreal synagogue where he was raised and to which he maintained a connection for his entire life. His maternal grandfather was a Talmudic scholar. “I had a very messianic childhood,” he once remarked. “I was told I was a descendant of Aaron the high priest.”[4]

His second album, released in 1969, included a song called “Story of Isaac.” Written by Cohen, it retells part of today’s first reading from the Book of Genesis:

Well, the door it opened slowly,
my father he came in,
I was nine years old.
And he stood so tall above me,
and his blue eyes they were shining
and his voice was very cold.
He said, “I’ve had a vision
and you know I’m strong and holy,
I must do what I’ve been told.”
So we started up the mountain,
I was running, he was walking,
and his axe was made of gold.

Now the trees they got much smaller,
the lake was just like a lady’s mirror
when we stopped to drink some wine.
Then he threw the bottle over,
I heard it brake a minute later,
and he put his hand on mine.
Thought I saw an eagle,
might have been a vulture,
I never could decide.
Then my father built an altar,
he looked once behind his shoulder,
and I guess he knew I’d never hide.

As someone with blue eyes who also happens to be the father of a nine-year-old son, I can hardly read those lyrics without shaking, whether out of fear or out of anger. Most Jews refer to this story about Abraham and his son Isaac as the aqedah — the “binding.” Leonard Cohen’s version takes us right up to the point in the narrative when Abraham is about to tie up his son and place him on top of the wood on the altar that he has just finished by hand.

Most Christians oddly refer to this same story as the sacrifice of Isaac. That’s, of course, the very thing that doesn’t happen in the end. Regardless of the title we give it, this is a story that is gut-wrenching for Jews and Christians alike. It’s difficult to hear, whether we’re strong in our faith or struggling to believe that God exists.

In spite of the grace that appears at the last possible second like a sudden, life-giving rain in the desert, we find the prelude to all of that barbaric. What was truly barbaric, however, was the fact that child sacrifice was a common practice in many cultures throughout the Ancient Near East. Believe it or not, it’s the end of this story that would have surprised those ancient peoples.[5]

And we have more in common with them than we would surely like to admit. Leonard Cohen knew that because his song shifts gears from the biblical narrative to our own narrative. Cohen doesn’t sing of the binding or the saving. Instead he addresses directly those who stand where Abraham stood, singing:

You who build these altars now
to sacrifice our children,
you must not do it anymore.

His words bring to mind the anniversary yesterday of the worst date in British military history when 19,240 men fell at the Battle of the Somme in 1916.[6] In a ritual that had become routine during the trench warfare of World War I, the whistles sounded, and they went “over the top” for the last time. A survivor said, “It was hell let loose . . .” Another witness said, “There was nothing but brown earth, shell holes, and death. Nothing else.” One Scottish veteran would later recall that “[his] company went over 230 strong [that day], and only 11 privates survived.”[7]

And Cohen’s plea reminds me of the time I officiated at a graveside funeral at Hollywood Cemetery in Richmond, Virginia. Not only is the President of the Confederate States of America, Jefferson Davis, buried there, but also 28 Confederate generals and more than 18,000 Confederate enlisted men, including some 7,000 bodies reinterred there from Gettysburg battlefield.[8] The anniversary of that battle is also this weekend.

To describe all of those enlisted soldiers as “men,” however, is not to tell the whole truth. I had arrived at the cemetery a little early for the service, so I took a short walk to the nearby Confederate section. I soon found myself surrounded by the graves of hundreds and hundreds of soldiers. The headstones with dates on them testified to the fact that too many of those buried in the ground had been teenage boys when they left home to fight. They had their whole lives ahead of them.

An important difference between the hills of Hollywood Cemetery that overlook the James River and the unknown mountain in the land of Moriah from Genesis is that Abraham wasn’t cut off from his future as he stared, surely with grief, at the body of his son. The promise that his descendants would bless the nations of the earth had seemed like a flickering flame that was about to be extinguished. Yet it wasn’t. But Abraham hadn’t always been so trusting in the God who had called him to step out in faith. As Ellen Davis, an Old Testament scholar at Duke Divinity School, puts it:

You might remember those stories of Abraham passing off his beautiful wife Sarah as his sister when they are traveling in foreign territory. So Sarah gets taken into the royal harem as a concubine, not once but twice . . . and Abraham gets protected status as her “brother.” God never told Abraham to do that. Abraham did it because he was scared; he might get killed if someone wanted Sarah, knowing she was his wife. Abraham put Sarah in that terrible situation because he did not trust God to pull them through the danger.[9]

Professor Davis, who would later reflect on the binding of Isaac in relationship to Jews who kept their faith during World War II in the ghettos and in the Nazi death camps, suggests that:

[T]his harrowing story exists to help people who already believe make sense of their most difficult experience, when God seems to take back everything they have ever received at God’s hand. . . .

This story appears front and center in Genesis, where no reader of the Bible can miss it, because the hard truth is that the world turns upside down for the faithful more often than we like to admit. . . .

The 22nd chapter of Genesis is the place you go when you do not understand at all what God allows us to suffer and, it seems, asks us to bear — and the last thing you want is a reasonable explanation, because any reasonable explanation would be a mockery of your anguish.

This story of Abraham and God and Isaac is the place you go when you are out beyond anything you thought could or would happen, beyond anything you imagined God would ever ask of you, when the most sensible thing to do might be to deny that God exists at all, or to deny that God cares at all, or to deny that God has any power at all. That would be sensible, except you can’t do it, because you are so deep into relationship with God that to deny all that would be to deny your own heart and soul and mind.[10]

Just before the Jewish high holy days last fall, Leonard Cohen celebrated his last birthday. His gift to himself and to the Jewish world was the release of a new song, hauntingly beautiful, called “You Want It Darker.” Some of the words come from the Kaddish, the Jewish prayer of mourning.[11] Others — and not for the first time in Cohen’s songs — might even hint at Jesus, at least to Christian ears:

Magnified, sanctified, be thy holy name,
Vilified, crucified, in the human frame.

Cohen seemed to acknowledge that he was in the sunset of his life as he sang:

If you are the dealer, let me out of the game.[12]

But he does so with a profound trust in the Lord, and looks back to the aqedah, which is read during Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year Festival, at the beginning of the high holy days. The refrain for the song is the Hebrew word hineni, which means, “Here I am.” It’s what Abraham says to God and to his son and to the angel.

So Cohen sings:

Hineni, hineni,
I’m ready, my Lord.

Cohen lived through those high holy days and died a couple of weeks later. I, for one, expect him finally to see the face of the messiah for whom he was taught to long from his childhood. “Vilified, crucified, in the human frame,” Jesus embraces even those who stand where Abraham once stood and begin to wonder with fear and trembling if God will — or even can — make a way where there is no way.

As the prophet Isaiah says, “a dimly burning wick he will not quench.”[13] And that is good news not only for the “godfather of gloom” but also for each one of us, in the midst of whatever time of trial we may be facing. We’re neither alone nor unloved.

Hineni, hineni,
I’m ready, my Lord.

AMEN

BACK TO POST Ashly Fetters, “How Leonard Cohen’s Hallelujah Became Everybody’s ‘Hallelujah,'” The Atlantic, December 4, 2012.

BACK TO POST Mordecai Finley, “Being Leonard Cohen’s Rabbi,” Jewish Journal, November 16, 2016.

BACK TO POST Gideon Zelermyer, “Leonard Cohen’s Temple Song,” The Globe and Mail, November 18, 2016.

BACK TO POST John Haydon, “Leonard Cohen releases ‘Can’t Forget: A Souvenir of the Grand Tour,'” Communities Digital News, May 13, 2015.

BACK TO POST I’m aware of the fact that offering this as part of the interpretation of the story, although it does touch real history, is not embraced today by a majority of biblical scholars. That is say that I acknowledge that it might not have been what was originally intended when the story was first told, which is not to concede that peoples in the Ancient Near East would not have been surprised by the ending rather than the beginning of the story. That is true and worthy to be contemplated.

The Bible itself is a witness to the power of reinterpreting what has been received in light of the present realities facing the people of God. Prophetic literature such as Jeremiah 19:4-6 seems to put an emphatic divine thumb on the scale in favor of this part of the interpretation that I’ve offered. During the Babylonian Exile, which continued beyond the lifetime of Jeremiah, surely the children of Israel debated whether the Lord would sacrifice Israel or rescue his chosen people.

The Letter to the Hebrews in the New Testament, believing wholeheartedly in the Christian witness to “the fact that God is able even to raise someone from the dead,” reinterprets the same story as God figuratively raising Isaac from the dominion of death by giving back to Abraham his son alive. In the same way, it suggests that we can always trust God, including those moments when the facts on the ground testify otherwise. The ultimate example of that, of course, is Good Friday. Neither sin nor death will have the last word, even if their shouting is the only thing we can hear.

BACK TO POST Matt Brosnan, editor, “What Was the Battle of The Somme?,” Imperial War Museums, undated.

BACK TO POST Christopher Woolf, “Why the Battle of the Somme sas the bloodiest day in British military history,” Public Radio International, July 1, 2016.

BACK TO POST “Hollywood Cemetery and James Monroe Tomb,” National Park Service.

BACK TO POST Ellen F. Davis, “Radical Trust,” Faith & Leadership, July 25, 2011.

10 BACK TO POST Davis.

11 BACK TO POST Zelermyer.

12 BACK TO POST Leonard Cohen sent a beautiful letter to his dying muse Marianne Ihlen, who was the inspiration for his songs “So Long, Marianne” and “Bird on a Wire.” She died in Norway on July 29, 2016, at the age of 81. Two days earlier, these words from Cohen were read to her by a close friend:

Well Marianne it’s come to this time when we are really so old and our bodies are falling apart and I think I will follow you very soon. Know that I am so close behind you that if you stretch out your hand, I think you can reach mine.

And you know that I’ve always loved you for your beauty and your wisdom, but I don’t need to say anything more about that because you know all about that. But now, I just want to wish you a very good journey. Goodbye old friend. Endless love, see you down the road.

13 BACK TO POST Isaiah 42:3.

From the Rector #58

Weekly thoughts from the Rector of Palmer Memorial Episcopal Church in Houston, Texas, where these words remind us that Jesus’ peace goes with us into the world.

Peace I Leave with You

The middle of the summer always seems like a good time to contemplate a poem from Wendell Berry, who is not only a lyrical wordsmith but also a novelist, cultural critic, and a Kentucky farmer. From The Selected Poems of Wendell Berry, here is his poem “The Vacation,” which is a good reminder to be present not only during times of refreshment but also in our day to day life:

Once there was a man who filmed his vacation.
He went flying down the river in his boat
with his video camera to his eye, making
a moving picture of the moving river
upon which his sleek boat moved swiftly
toward the end of his vacation. He showed
his vacation to his camera, which pictured it,
preserving it forever: the river, the trees,
the sky, the light, the bow of his rushing boat
behind which he stood with his camera
preserving his vacation even as he was having it
so that after he had had it he would still
have it. It would be there. With a flick
of a switch, there it would be. But he
would not be in it. He would never be in it.

— The Rev. Neil Alan Willard, Rector

Haiku Friday: Delis and Restaurants

Kenny & Ziggy’s New York Delicatessen is an amazing place to eat here in Houston. The 2014 documentary Deli Man is about the owner of Kenny & Ziggy’s and also reviews the history of Jewish delicatessens in the United States. Miracle of miracles, he opened a second location very close to our neighborhood. We could walk there.

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Everyone in our family can find something good to eat at Kenny & Ziggy’s. There are guaranteed to be leftovers for the next day too. The manager of that second location now recognizes the family of the Episcopal priest who wears a seersucker suit (i.e., me). And the husband of a woman who is a rabbi at one of the other congregations that also border Rice University stopped to introduce himself to me recently on his way back to his table. It’s an interesting place to meet people and to watch people. Even more interesting is taking a look at all of that wonderful food in the glass case.

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I’m hungry now! So let’s write haiku about our favorite places to eat a delicious meal with family or friends, like Kenny & Ziggy’s. Your one verse only needs five syllables in the first line, seven syllables in the second line, and five syllables in the third line:

Sandwich #1:
“Fiddler on the Roof of Your
Mouth.” Yum! Thanks, Ziggy!

Haiku Friday: Hearts

Yesterday I was one of several parent chaperones for a field trip with my oldest son’s second grade class. We went to the Houston Museum of Natural Science and spent the morning in the Hall of Ancient Egypt. These are canopic jars that held the mummified and wrapped internal organs of a person who had died. But I was most interested in the winged scarab and the heart scarab in the middle. Those amulets are inscribed on the back with a spell that commands the heart not to betray itself during the judgement of the dead person on his or her journey to the afterlife.

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That’s an important insight into our human nature. The problem of being human is equally distributed, even across millennia. Here’s how I put it in a recent sermon:

“If our heart condemn us, God is greater than our heart, and knoweth all things.” That is good news for those of us who are a tangled mess of the holy and the profane, which is to say all of us, no exceptions.

When our hearts condemn us, as they inevitably do, God is greater than our sin and our self-righteousness. Through the waters of baptism, we have been clothed in the righteousness of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. As my favorite Moravian chorale puts it: “Thus well arrayed I need not fear, when in his presence I appear.”

Traditional liturgies from the Book of Common Prayer conclude with a blessing that also speaks to the idea of shielding our hearts and is introduced with these words:

The peace of God, which passeth all understanding, keep your hearts and minds in the knowledge and love of God . . .

The New Revised Standard Version of Philippians 4:7, which is the source of those words, says that the peace of God “will guard your hearts and your minds.” What a wonderful image that is: God, who is greater than our heart, will also guard it. So let’s write haiku about our hearts — how they break, how they love, how they hold our secrets, how they make themselves vulnerable, how they need to be protected, etc. Describe something about those experiences in a verse with five syllables in the first line, seven syllables in the second line, and five syllables in the third line:

Nebseny, a priest,
was given this heart scarab
to live without fear.

Haiku Friday: Travel

The Rev. Henry Strobel, Ph.D., is not only an Episcopal priest but also a professor emeritus of biochemistry and molecular biology at McGovern Medical School in the heart of the Texas Medical Center. Over the last 30 years, he has taken Houston medical students to China to learn about the Chinese medical community through its schools and hospitals. Dr. Strobel, who has celebrated Easter Day more often in China than in Texas, will be my special guest on Sunday, May 8, at Palmer Memorial Episcopal Church for the Rector’s Forum, which begins at 10:15 a.m. in Room A102.

My conversation with him earlier this week reminded me of my first encounter with a culture that seemed radically different than the world of my childhood. It was 1984, and I was 14 years old. I was on a mission trip with my father and others from Union Cross Moravian Church in Winston-Salem, North Carolina, to Bethel, Alaska. Bethel is located 400 miles west of Anchorage on the Kuskokwim River and home to many Yup’ik people who are members of the Moravian Church, which dates to 1885 in that region. Bethel is only accessible by air or by river. When I was there, it was a dry town with a curfew from late night until early morning for children and youth.

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That experience changed the way that I looked at the world around me and my place in that world. I even met a friend named Adam, who was there with his father from Texas. They were members of the Unity of the Brethren in Texas, a family of Czech congregations that are related to the Moravian Church but with their own separate history in present-day Czechoslovakia that also looks back to the life and witness of the reforming priest John Hus, who was martyred in 1415. I’d never heard of them.

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Travel opens up new horizons, inviting us to see the world with fresh eyes, as though for the first time. So let’s write haiku about that. Compose a verse with five syllables in the first line, seven syllables in the second line, and five syllables in the third line:

My America
embraces many peoples,
many histories.

Haiku Friday: Parties and Receptions

Last weekend I officiated at another beautiful Saturday evening wedding at Palmer Memorial Episcopal Church in Houston, Texas. There were lots of alumni/ae from Wake Forest University present, including me, the bride and groom, most of their parents, and most of the wedding party. I noted that in my remarks, of course, and also quoted the flamboyant Prince of funk, rock, and pop music, saying to all, “Dearly beloved, we are gathered here today to get through this thing called life.”

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The reception after the marriage liturgy was held at the Houston Zoo, which is actually within walking distance of the church. My wife and I soon discovered that we got to sit at the fun table. Seriously, it was awesome. I’m so happy for this newly married couple and for the family and friends that surround them. Wedding receptions like this one, and many different kinds of parties, are ways of coming together in friendship and in community to get through this thing called life.

So that’s our haiku theme for this week — parties and receptions. Say something about an experience with those in a verse with five syllables in the first line, seven syllables in the second line, and five syllables in the third line. Here’s mine:

Sat down at the zoo,
pondering this thing called life.
It surrounded me.

“Still, still with Thee”

Today was the Fifth Sunday of Easter at Palmer Memorial Episcopal Church, where one of the readings came from Revelation 21:1-6. Those words speak of a new heaven and a new earth, when God will wipe away every tear from our eyes and “mourning and crying and pain will be no more.” I thought about that as I heard the sound of a flute, and later the pipe organ with it, accompany the voices of the choir singing a beautiful text of Easter joy by Harriet Beecher Stowe for the offertory anthem.

Still, still with Thee, when purple morning breaketh,
When the bird waketh, and the shadows flee;
Fairer than morning, lovelier than daylight,
Dawns the sweet consciousness, I am with Thee.

Alone with Thee, amid the mystic shadows,
The solemn hush of nature newly born;
Alone with Thee in breathless adoration,
In the calm dew and freshness of the morn.

Still, still with Thee! As to each newborn morning
A fresh and solemn splendor still is giv’n,
So does this blessed consciousness, awaking,
Breathe each day nearness unto Thee and heav’n.

So shall it be at last in that bright morning,
When the soul waketh and life’s shadows flee;
O in that hour, fairer than daylight dawning,
Shall rise the glorious thought, I am with Thee.

Haiku Friday: Fall of the Purple Reign

Yesterday a funky icon of pop music, especially throughout the 80s and 90s, died at the age of 57. Known to the world as Prince and, during a dispute with his recording company, as The Artist Formerly Known as Prince, he was a favorite native son of the Twin Cities. Purple, of course, was his signature hue. One of my staff members at Palmer Memorial Episcopal Church in Houston wrote a wonderful reflection, “. . . and the purple rain falls,” that’s worth taking a minute to read in order to appreciate the power of music to shape our lives and the world around us. Meanwhile, the Dean of St. Mark’s Episcopal Cathedral in Minneapolis wrote these words:

For three nights, your cathedral tower will be washed in purple to honor and celebrate someone who was, for me and for many, our very earliest border-bender. Well done, good and faithful servant [Prince]. May you rest with the angels in peace and rise with the saints in glory.

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Did the songs of Prince shape your life in some way? Let’s write haiku about Prince or the music of other pop icons like him who created the soundtrack for high school or young adulthood or watching your children become little children no more. This time I’ll let Prince himself write a haiku and pray that his dream has come true:

Prince: “Dream if you can
a courtyard, an ocean of
violets in bloom.”

Haiku Friday: Wild Rides

The Houston Livestock Show and Rodeo is in full swing, and one of the events there is called Mutton Bustin’. An announcer gives the name of a kid between the ages of 5 and 6 and tells the audience what that kid wants to be when she or he grows up. We heard about cowboys and fire fighters and, interestingly, Secretary of the Treasury. Then a gate is opened, and that same kid tries to hold on tight to a sheep that bolts to the other end of the arena. It only lasts for a few seconds, but — wow — what a ride!

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I would image that Mutton Bustin’ is both thrilling and terrifying at the same time. There are all kinds of wild rides — race cars, roller coasters, a ship rolling with the waves, driving 30 miles per hour on an endlessly curvy road in the mountains, riding in a helicopter across the edge of the Grand Canyon as the ground below suddenly drops away from view, etc. Write a haiku about your experience with five syllables in the first line, seven syllables in the second line, and five syllables in the third line.

Saw bucking broncos
at the Houston Rodeo.
That’s not for me, y’all!