January 06, 2019
Forty years ago this spring, my life’s direction veered towards a vocation in the priesthood. By that September I was enrolled in seminary, a postulant for Holy Orders. A year from now, next January 4, I turn sixty-five. The following day, the twelfth day of Christmas, is a Sunday. On that Monday, I will retire.
We had a funeral here two days after Christmas. For the service I chose a reading I had never used at a funeral before, from Lamentations, chapter 3.
The steadfast love of the Lord never ceases,
his mercies never come to an end;
they are new every morning;
From now to January 5, there are 365 mornings, including what’s left of this one, to see what mercies God will have in store for us with me as Dean. We’ll not waste them.
The funeral on December 27 was for a talented young woman who had grown up here. Caroline Chesnutt Hanna is her name. My homily began like this:
YouTube throws songs at us that it thinks we’ll like and not long ago it gave me “For a Dancer,” by Jackson Brown, on an old fuzzy video of a tribute concert for Lowell George of Little Feat. George was one of the great music talents of my generation who lived too recklessly and died too young. Brown wrote “For a Dancer” for someone else who’d died too young. It’s a lament.
I don't remember losing track of you
You were always dancing in and out of view
I must have thought you’d always be around
Always keeping things real by playing the clown
Now you’re nowhere to be found.
This is a funeral for a dancer. This church and its school were Caroline’s stage when she was young. As dancers go her form wasn’t willy-nilly. It was trained, precise, stretching for perfection. She was a ballerina.
Bernard Taper, writing on ballet, calls it “an ancient code of movement,” striving for “a particular kind of beauty.” “I would like to show,” George Balanchine once said, “that these bodies of ours, which most of the time are used for dull and ordinary things, can be beautiful—really beautiful.” The purpose of the classical technique was to realize the “grandeur and grace that was potential in the human form.” But, as Balanchine also used to say, “first comes the sweat… then comes the beauty—if you’re very lucky and have said your prayers.”
“For a Dancer” is a beautiful song, the prettiest Jackson ever wrote in my opinion. About death, the lyrics are agnostic. This is a verse I didn’t quote at Caroline’s service.
I don’t know what happens when people die
Can’t seem to grasp it as hard as I try
Its like song I can hear playing right in my ear
That I can’t sing. I can’t help listening.
I didn’t quote that part because, concerning death and what comes after, I am not agnostic.
There is a saying that goes around the church: “the opposite of faith is not doubt, but certainty.” I first heard that from the writer Anne Lamott. Only half of it is true. It is true that faith is not the opposite of doubt, but nor is faith the opposite of certainty. I am following Thomas Aquinas here, because his thinking wasn’t willy-nilly. It was classical and trained, striving for the true like a ballerina stretching for an ideal of beauty.
You have heard this from me before, but let’s review. For Aquinas, certainty is knowledge. I know that such and such a thing is true when I see why its true. I see why two and two make four. With respect to that, my mind is at rest and can move on to other things. Doubt is the opposite of that. Doubt is when, with respect to such and such a thing, my mind is equally divided: it may be true, it may be false—I lean towards neither view. If the mind begins to lean, we call that suspicion. Now I suspect that such and such a thing is true, but understand that I could very well be wrong. Leaning harder, I now have an opinion. “I’d bet that such and such a thing is true.” For example, I would bet that when we die we are not destroyed; instead, we see the Lord. The amount anyone would bet depends upon the strength of their opinion. I would say I’d bet my last forty years of work and study on the opinion that when we die, we live.
Actually, it is more than an opinion. Faith, according to Aquinas, is a “hybrid state,” blending knowledge and opinion. Unlike doubt it leans, sometimes very strongly. The firmer the faith the more it leans. That is the case with our faith that when we die we live. There are many good reasons for believing it and they come new every morning.
Today is the Feast of the Epiphany
My announcement at the beginning of this sermon was a (small e) epiphany, the disclosure of something that, had I not told you, you would not otherwise have known. You might have suspected, strongly or firmly, for reasons such as: “Well, he’s getting old,” or “His father retired at sixty-five,” or, “I bet he wants to try to write a book.” Maybe there was a betting pool. But now you know.
In the time of King Herod, after Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea, wise men from the East came to Jerusalem, asking, “Where is the child who has been born king of the Jews? For we observed his star at its rising, and have come to pay him homage.
That is the Epiphany of Christmas, the birth of God Incarnate. Paul says “In former generations this mystery was not made known to humankind.” Some might have suspected or opined what God is like, but now, through faith in Christ, in that blended way, we know.
My ministry has been normal, with two exceptions. One exception is that I carved a large chunk of time out of parish ministry in order to go back to school and earn a Th.D. I thought it would take five years, which is what it took for Dr. Hoke. I’m a slow learner and it took me ten, which is the average. That is a long time to put your head in books, especially when you aren’t going to write books and teach seminary classes, which as it turns out I haven’t done. Nine tenths of what I learned those extra would bore you.
For me it has worked as ballast. I don’t have certainty on things about which we can’t be certain, but I am certain now, coming out of that pile of books, that we can be confident in faith. That steadies the boat in rough seas.
The other way my ministry has been an exception to a rule is that I’ve carried it out all in one state, Arkansas. For an Episcopal priest, that is a little bit outside the norm. I wasn’t opposed in principle to the idea of answering a call to another state—but whenever I opened one of those search committee envelopes or emails I never felt anything other than: “nope.” I don’t know why this is, but whatever the reason, it runs deep. I was called to stay put.
Looking over the horizon, I will be retiring in place in Little Rock. Come next year, I will need to worship elsewhere for a good while, staying out of the next Dean’s hair. Our granddaughter and our pledge will stay with this church.
Why? Because Trinity Cathedral is a light in Little Rock, a beacon of faith. Julie and I met and fell in love here. We were married at this altar, as were our children. Rosie will be baptized at this font. I was ordained here in 1982. For us, this is home—and I more than suspect that when God finally calls for us up yonder, we’ll be here.