Facing Death as People of Resurrection

30072805_10212970897759808_4660996771050760893_oAnswer me when I call, O God, defender of my cause; you set me free when I am hard pressed; have mercy on me and hear my prayer.  I picked up the phone and dialed one of the most respected ministers I knew:  Gilbert Hellwig, the German American pastor of the storied First Baptist Church, Cleveland’s equivalent of Manhattan’s Riverside.  Dr. Hellwig listened to my heartbreak, as all good pastors learn to do, then replied wistfully in that ponderous voice of his, “You know?  We Christians claim to be people of resurrection and yet we are so afraid to let some things just die.  But if we are who we say we are—that is, people of resurrection–we must be willing to let some things die so that new life can spring up, albeit in a very different way.”

He said these unforgettable words as I was making the painstaking decision to leave a congregation on the South Side of Chicago, the last Baptist church I would ever serve.  By the time I arrived at divinity school in the late 1980s, I had already served for five years as an associate  minister of Bethany Church, a 1300 member African American congregation.  Despite my indignation over having to do an internship on top of what I had already done, Dr. Rowan, my pastor and mentor at the time, thought I should use the requirement to get out of my comfort zone and serve a white, fringe urban congregation.  

The pastor of the new congregation in Chicago was delighted because, in his words, they were a church in a transitioning neighborhood and they were struggling with integration.

After a few months, it became crystal clear that the pastor had confused his prepositions:  They weren’t struggling with integration.  They were struggling against integration.  When it became clear that there was too much confusion, heartbreak, and anger on everyone’s part to call what we were doing “ministry” I made the call to my friend in Cleveland and heard those words:  “If we are who we say we are, people of resurrection, we have to be willing to let some things just die.”

“Tremble, then, and do not sin; speak to your heart in silence upon your bed.”  Gil continued with his sage advice about how I should take my leave of them.  He said to be clear with them about what it has been like for you, but do not leave violently.  Go gently.  Go graciously.  Don’t let your anger and disappointment cause any further destruction.  Remember to leave the possibility for life to spring up again, albeit in a new and different way.

I remembered Gil’s sage advice some years later when I landed, for two years, in an Anglican Benedictine Monastery in Berkeley, California, as my marriage approached a gracious but painful end.  Chanting the Daily Office with the monks at Incarnation Priory brought some semblance of order and peace in the midst of the turmoil and confusion. At Compline, the final office of the day, we frequently chanted Psalm 4 in choir, today’s appointed Psalm.

In those days, as our marriage came to a heartbreaking end, MeShelle and I did our very best not to violate one another, for the sake of our own sanity and the health of our four year old daughter.  And over time, that gracious effort to leave something alive, to refuse to destroy everything around us just because one thing was dying, allowed for the possibility of something new—not the least of which is a bright and beautiful grown daughter.

You have put gladness in my heart, more than when grain and wine and oil increase.”  Over the years, the family circle has expanded, and as some of you know, every Thanksgiving Day, Cliff, Tempest, MeShelle and I, along with the great Barclay tribe headed by the African American ancestor I buried last year, my late father-in law Lawrence Barclay, with any friend who happens to be in the same city we choose, rent out the great hall of a local parish church and keep the great feast together.  Dr. Barclay used to say, “I figure that even if anyone couldn’t stay together, this hall is big enough for everyone to find a table, or at least a spot in two different corners of the room.  We do this for our children.”  For something new.

After I left the last Baptist church I would ever serve, I landed an office job in an Episcopal Church in Chicago to help pay the bills while I finished divinity school.  The rector insisted that I come to Holy Eucharist one Sunday so I could understand the congregation better, even though I only worked part-time during the week.  As I sat in the pew, I looked around to see white people and black people, a male couple with a teenage son, wizened professors and callow undergraduates, all making their way to the same communion table.  (And the rest, as they say, is history.)

We begin our ventures together with such deep longings, such high hopes.  Sometimes we even mark our new commitments beneath the grandeur of gothic ceilings, dressed in our finest regalia, carried aloft by the sound of the brass and of the organ, the soaring rhetoric of the speakers, the aspirations poured out in prayer.  Sometimes, to our great horror and dismay, the dream of a future together comes crashing down to the indifferent earth.

Yet through all our disappointment and anger and confusion, we must not scorch the earth between us.  We dare not rob the seeds and the saplings of their potential by perpetuating the conflict long after the last goodbye.

If we are who we say we are—people of resurrection—we must be willing to let some things die so that life can begin anew.

(Preached in St. John’s Chapel on the Third Sunday of Easter)

Psalm 4

Cum invocarem

Answer me when I call, O God, defender of my cause; *
you set me free when I am hard-pressed;
have mercy on me and hear my prayer.
“You mortals, how long will you dishonor my glory; *
how long will you worship dumb idols
and run after false gods?”
Know that the Lord does wonders for the faithful; *
when I call upon the Lord, he will hear me.
Tremble, then, and do not sin; *
speak to your heart in silence upon your bed.
Offer the appointed sacrifices *
and put your trust in God.
Many are saying, “Oh, that we might see better times!” *
Lift up the light of your countenance upon us, O Lord.
You have put gladness in my heart, *
more than when grain and wine and oil increase.
I lie down in peace; at once I fall asleep; *
for only you, Lord, make me dwell in safety.

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About D. Maurice Charles

Maurice is an Episcopal priest and historian of Christianity who reflects on religion and violence, having received his M.Div. and Ph.D. from the University of Chicago. Most of his ministry has focused on higher education, having previously served as Associate Dean for Religious Life at Stanford University. In 2015 he was appointed Chaplain of the Colleges and Assistant Professor of Religious Studies (by courtesy) at Hobart and William Smith Colleges in Geneva, NY. Maurice contributes to this blog with his Chicago friends in the hope that personal reflection and heartfelt discussion lead to building beloved community.