Category Archives: Suffering

Sermon: “Whether we live or whether we die . . .”

St. Stephen’s Episcopal Church, Edina, Minnesota
The Reverend Neil Alan Willard, M.Div.
Proper 19A, September 11, 2011

We do not live to ourselves, and we do not die to ourselves. If we live, we live to the Lord, and if we die, we die to the Lord; so then, whether we live or whether we die, we are the Lord’s. (Romans 14:7-8)

For many of us, those words of Saint Paul in his letter to the Romans bring to mind the opening sentences of the burial liturgy. Perhaps you’ve been to a funeral in this church and heard them spoken by a priest as one of the saints who has died is accompanied on the last part of a pilgrimage — a lifelong journey toward God. Those words remind us that we are the Lord’s possession no matter what happens to us in life or in death. It seems appropriate, therefore, to contemplate that reality on this tenth anniversary of the terrorist attacks that forever changed our life together as Americans.

Do you remember what you were doing ten years ago? People stopped the ordinary activities of daily life to watch the news reports about those awful events. We watched them over and over again. Throughout the country, others were doing the same thing, experiencing the same emotions, and fearing for the safety of family and friends. For weeks churches overflowed with those who needed community and who had promised themselves that the most important things – their loved ones, their neighborhoods, and the grace that binds us together – would thereafter be the main focus of their attention.

As this solemn anniversary drew near, more than a few of us shared a very different kind of experience with friends and strangers. This one was a wonderful, almost magical event. Continue reading

Martyrs Topic: David Brooks, Death, and Budgets

David Brooks – the closest thing our society has to a public theologian – wrote an important reflection over the summer about our unwillingness to face death. It reminded me of the very first “Martyrs Topic” that was posted here, “Keeping Death in Mind,” which was both serious and slightly humorous in light of the name of the men’s group that discusses these topics. Here’s the beginning of this essay by Brooks, which is later tied to the huge amounts of money that are spent on health care near the end of life when death isn’t confronted honestly:

I hope you had the chance to read and reread Dudley Clendinen’s splendid essay, “The Good Short Life,” in The Times’s Sunday Review section. Clendinen is dying of amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, or A.L.S. If he uses all the available medical technology, it will leave him, in a few years’ time, “a conscious but motionless, mute, withered, incontinent mummy of my former self.” The intellectual, cultural and scientific findings that land on the columnist’s desk nearly every day.

Instead of choosing that long, dehumanizing, expensive course, Clendinen has decided to face death as one of life’s “most absorbing thrills and challenges.” He concludes: “When the music stops — when I can’t tie my bow tie, tell a funny story, walk my dog, talk with Whitney, kiss someone special, or tap out lines like this — I’ll know that Life is over. It’s time to be gone.”

Clendinen’s article is worth reading for the way he defines what life is. Life is not just breathing and existing as a self-enclosed skin bag. It’s doing the activities with others you were put on earth to do.

You can read the whole article here.

At the end of that article, Brooks links to the following three related essays:
“Born Toward Dying,” by Richard John Neuhaus
“L’Chaim and Its Limits: Why Not Immortality?” by Leon Kass
“Thinking About Aging,” by Gilbert Meilaender

Learn more about the St. Stephen’s Martyrs and how to find them here.

The Archbishop of Canterbury Remembers 9/11

Reynolds Price, “Outlaw” Christian, 1933-2011

A week ago today, Reynolds Price, the James B. Duke Professor of English at Duke University, died at the age of 77. Other than the three years he spent as a Rhodes Scholar in Oxford, England, Price lived his entire life in northeastern North Carolina. He once described his hometown of Macon as “227 cotton and tobacco farmers nailed to the flat red land at the pit of the Great Depression.”

His obituary in The New York Times, where that quote recently appeared, was a beautiful tribute to his life and his work. Here are the last three paragraphs:

The undercurrent of Christian charity evident in Mr. Price’s previous work became even more pronounced in these and later novels, like “Roxanna Slade” (1998) and “The Good Priest’s Son” (2005), in which fallible characters face momentous moral choices. The deepening moral tinge, which some critics found too schematic, was rooted in Mr. Price’s Christian faith: he was an unorthodox, nonchurchgoing believer.

“The whole point of learning about the human race presumably is to give it mercy,” he told The Georgia Review in 1993.

If Mr. Price shook off the burden of Faulkner, his work remained elusive despite its strong regional flavor and commitment to “the weight and worth of the ordinary,” as the novelist Janet Burroway once put it. Mr. Price himself ventured a succinct appraisal for The Southern Review in 1978: “It seems to me they are books about human freedom — the limits thereof, the possibilities thereof, the impossibilities thereof.”

Price was diagnosed with spinal cancer in 1984 and received radiation treatments that, unfortunately, left him paralyzed from the waist down. In the midst of that, before the radiation treatments began, he experienced what he believed to be a vision that was set along the shoreline of the Sea of Galilee. He once described that unusual experience in an interview with NPR’s Terry Gross:

And all of a sudden [a man] got up and came toward me, and silently, sort of, beckoned me to follow him into the water. And I did and we wound up in this lake up to our waists. . . . And I could see my back and I could see the very bad scar that was down my back and the sort of tattooed radiation lines that had been drawn around that scar to guide the radiation when that was to begin. And this man, whom I realized was Jesus, was just simply picking up handfuls of water out of the lake and pouring them over that scar. And he said – the only thing he said, initially, was – your sins are forgiven. And I thought well, that’s the last thing I want to hear right now. And I said am I also healed? And as though I had extracted it from him, perhaps rather against his will, he said: that too. And he turned and walked away and that was the end of the vision.

You can listen to the whole interview here.

You can also read a transcript of the whole interview here.

Lastly, in case you’re wondering about the addition of the label “outlaw” to his identity as a Christian, read the last section of this transcript of a different interview with Ray Suarez of the PBS NewsHour.

Sermon: The Story of Jonathan Daniels

St. Stephen’s Episcopal Church, Edina, Minnesota
The Reverend Neil Alan Willard, M.Div.
Proper 16, August 22, 2010

“. . . ought not this woman . . . be set free from this bondage on the sabbath day?” When [Jesus] said this, all his opponents were put to shame; and the entire crowd was rejoicing at all the wonderful things that he was doing. (Luke 13:16-17)

I love the image of Jesus noticing this unknown woman who was bent over and bowed to the ground for 18 long years. While teaching in a synagogue on the sabbath, a holy day of rest at the end of each week, Jesus has compassion on her, calls her to himself, and heals her. The woman stands up straight and begins to praise God, and eventually the crowd rejoices too. Before their rejoicing, however, a confrontation erupts between Jesus and the leader of the synagogue over the fact that an act of healing had taken place on the sabbath. Jesus observes that even animals are allowed to be untied and led to water on that holy day, so he believes that setting this woman free from her bondage is more than justified in the eyes of God. Continue reading

Remembering Jonathan Myrick Daniels

45 years ago today, a seminarian from Episcopal Theological School in Cambridge, Massachusetts, was shot and killed on the front steps of a small grocery store in Hayneville, Alabama. His name was Jonathan Myrick Daniels, and he was trying to protect an innocent seventeen-year-old girl. Here’s a preview of an award-winning documentary about the life of this remarkable witness to the Christian faith, who risked and lost his life for the sake of others:

The following words about Daniels, written by the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., are quoted near the end of the documentary:

The meaning of his life was so fulfilled in his death that few people in our time will know such fulfillment or meaning though they live to be a hundred.

You can watch the entire one-hour documentary here.

Sermon: The Problem of Suffering

St. Stephen’s Episcopal Church, Edina, Minnesota
The Reverend Neil Alan Willard, M.Div.
The Fifth Sunday of Easter, May 2, 2010

And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, “See, the home of God is among mortals. He will dwell with them; they will be his peoples, and God himself will be with them; he will wipe away every tear from their eyes. Death will be no more; mourning and crying and pain will be no more, for the first things have passed away.” (Revelation 21:3-4)

For many of us, those words from the final chapters of the Bible are not only comforting but also bring to mind an anthem at the end of the burial liturgy in The Book of Common Prayer: “Give rest, O Christ, to your servant with your saints, where sorrow and pain are no more, neither sighing, but life everlasting.”[1] It goes on to affirm that “even at the grave we make our song: Alleluia, alleluia, alleluia.” Yet certain things unfold in the history of the world that cause doubts not only about God’s goodness but also about God’s very existence. And those who rush to God’s defense often make matters worse with hurtful words of false comfort. At times they dishonor God’s holy name more than ecclesiastical outlaws who raise their fists to heaven in moral outrage over innocent suffering. Continue reading

The Problem of Suffering

On Monday morning, folks throughout the Twin Cities awoke to this headline above the fold in that day’s edition of the Minneapolis Star Tribune:


A 16-year-old-driver with a car full of friends - possibly all not wearing seat belts - and an SUV collided about 2 a.m. “Enough is enough,” State Patrol says of teen deaths.

The online version of the same article, which you can read here, included this updated summary:

The crash killed 4 young people in a car that smelled of alcohol. Two more died in a charred SUV. Since Monday: 11 dead in Minnesota in 4 crashes involving teen drivers.

People of all ages have been talking about this tragedy. Many of them have been asking – either silently or aloud – the question that was featured prominently in the headline above. So I’ve decided that my sermon on Sunday, May 2, at St. Stephen’s Church will address that question directly. Everyone will struggle with the problem of evil and suffering at some point in his or her life. Too often, however, our responses make matters worse, unintentionally, for those who are already hurting.

My thoughts about this have been shaped in important ways by David Bentley Hart’s The Doors of the Sea: Where Was God in the Tsunami? Hart is an Eastern Orthodox theologian who wrote this little book after the devastating tsunami in Southeast Asia at the end of 2004. It’s an expansion of his column, Tremors of Doubt, which appeared in The Wall Street Journal only days after that tragedy. Here’s what Fleming Rutledge, an Episcopal priest and lecturer, had to say about this book:

In a lifetime of struggling both personally and pastorally with the problem of evil and suffering, I have come across no brief study more immediately relevant than this one. . . . Hart mounts a searing attack on all accounts of horrendous evil that allow observers to offer packaged comfort while contemplating the suffering of others from a safe distance. . . . Above all, in his “rage against explanation,” he shows us how we can be true pastoral companions to those who suffer.

Haitian Episcopal Church in The Wall Street Journal

This article highlights the work of the Haitian Episcopal Church over the past week and appeared today on The Wall Street Journal website. It is well worth reading in its entirety along with the accompanying short video, both of which are linked below:

PORT-AU-PRINCE, Haiti— Outside a red and gray Coleman tent, a boy sat mute in a wheelchair holding a dented metal bowl of yellow gruel. His arms were laced with pus-filled wounds, flies swarmed around his grotesquely swollen ankles, and his right foot was missing its littlest toe—but he was lucky. Not only had he escaped the school for the disabled, where many of his handicapped classmates were crushed to death, but he had found his way to what passes for an oasis in this city of death and ruin: a camp run by the Episcopal [Church]. . . .

The Episcopal camp was started the night of the quake with three tents scrounged up by Ogé Beauvoir, the dean of the Episcopal seminary. He and colleagues pitched the tents on the soccer field of a crushed parish school. A seminarian with medical training spent the night treating the injured. A team of young people dug through the school’s rubble “with their hands, with iron bars,” said Father Beauvoir. . . .

The Episcopal cathedral itself, several blocks from the camp, is ruined. The roof cratered, and the tower is now a pile of bricks entombing a car. The cathedral’s frescos, icons of midcentury Haitian art naïf, are lost, just another stack of the rubble that is everywhere in this city. “It wasn’t just a place of prayer,” says [the Episcopal Bishop of Haiti, Msgr. Jean Zaché] Duracin. “It was a place of culture.”

On Sunday, Msgr. Duracin held services on the steps of a one-story building on the school ground—a structure that looks to be the most solid around. The altar was a dilapidated wooden folding table, draped with a white cloth. He said, “We must keep the faith, knowing that God is with us, in the good as well as in the bad days.”

You can read the whole article here.

You can also watch this 3 minute video from The Wall Street Journal, which includes an interview with Bishop Duracin and scenes of the camp and of the ruins of Holy Trinity Episcopal Cathedral.

Christian Faith Endures in Haiti

Christians who attended worship services yesterday in parishes of the Episcopal Church heard the story of Christ’s first miracle at a wedding in Cana of Galilee. Those familiar words from John’s Gospel describe water being turned into wine – good wine – at a party to celebrate a newly married couple. The colorful mural shown at left depicts that biblical scene and was created by Haitian artist Wilson Bigaud. Until last week’s devastating earthquake, it was one of many famous murals that adorned Holy Trinity Episcopal Cathedral in Port-au-Prince, Haiti. Now it exists only in pictures like this one, which was taken by Galen Frysinger of Sheboygan, Wisconsin. All but one of the murals were destroyed.

The New York Times website recently posted “Haitians Seek Solace Amid the Ruins,” an article by Marc Lacey and Damien Cave about the endurance of faith in the midst of unimaginable human suffering. It provides a small glimpse into the some of the realities now facing the people of the Episcopal Diocese of Haiti, which is actually a part of the American-based Episcopal Church:

PORT-AU-PRINCE, Haiti — With their churches flattened, their priests killed and their Bibles lost amid the rubble of their homes, desperate Haitians prayed in the streets on Sunday, raising their arms in the air and asking God to ease their grief. . . .

At Holy Trinity Episcopal [Cathedral], the world-renowned murals in the sanctuary had been reduced to rubble as drab as chalk. Only one wall stood, showing the baptism of Christ. The rest of Jesus Christ’s life, as depicted by artists like Wilson Bigaud who displayed biblical figures with dark skin and tropical-colored clothes, were all destroyed. . . .

Bishop [Jean Zaché] Duracin said organization and survival were still the priorities for both people and institutions.

“Most of the churches are down,” he said, estimating that more than 100 of the 140 Episcopal churches here had collapsed. “There is almost no place for worship or prayer.”

. . . When asked what parts of the Bible he had been contemplating lately, he answered quickly: “Job,” he said.

Like Job, who persevered through death and destruction, Bishop Duracin said he hoped that Haiti would soon find a way to continue living.

“We have to look for opportunities from the disaster,” he said. “We have to mourn. We have to suffer. But we have to get up because life has to continue.”

You can read the whole article here.

Speaking of that little devil Pat Robertson . . .

C.S. Lewis wrote in the early 1940s a simple yet very effective book about the Christian life entitled The Screwtape Letters. It offers a humorous depiction of hell as a bloated bureaucracy in which “everyone is perpetually concerned with his own dignity and advancement, where . . . everyone lives the deadly serious passions of envy, self-importance, and resentment.” The letters featured in this wonderful book are authored by a mid-level demon for his lower-level nephew and coach him in the art of tempting his “patient” away from God.

In the spirit of C.S. Lewis, a local woman named Lily Coyle this week created a letter from the Tempter-in-Chief, Mephistopheles himself, to Televangelist Pat Robertson. (CNN iReporter Brixton Doyle takes this to another level with his provocative editorial cartoon.) Here’s the devilish letter as it appeared in the Minneapolis Star-Tribune:

Dear Pat Robertson,

I know that you know that all press is good press, so I appreciate the shout-out. And you make God look like a big mean bully who kicks people when they are down, so I’m all over that action. But when you say that Haiti has made a pact with me, it is totally humiliating. I may be evil incarnate, but I’m no welcher.

The way you put it, making a deal with me leaves folks desperate and impoverished. Sure, in the afterlife, but when I strike bargains with people, they first get something here on earth — glamour, beauty, talent, wealth, fame, glory, a golden fiddle. Those Haitians have nothing, and I mean nothing. And that was before the earthquake.

Haven’t you seen “Crossroads”? Or “Damn Yankees”? If I had a thing going with Haiti, there’d be lots of banks, skyscrapers, SUVs, exclusive night clubs, Botox — that kind of thing. An 80 percent poverty rate is so not my style. Nothing against it — I’m just saying: Not how I roll.

You’re doing great work, Pat, and I don’t want to clip your wings — just, come on, you’re making me look bad. And not the good kind of bad. Keep blaming God. That’s working. But leave me out of it, please. Or we may need to renegotiate your own contract.



Where is God in the Haitian Earthquake?

This reflection by the Rev. Frank Logue, Vicar of King of Peace Episcopal Church in Kingsland, Georgia, was created as a thoughtful and faithful response to the recent controversial remarks of Televangelist Pat Robertson, which linked the current and past suffering of the Haitian people to the “true story” that their ancestors “swore a pact to the Devil.” There is information at the end of the video about contributing toward critical assistance in Haiti through Episcopal Relief & Development.

A Prayer for Haiti by the Dean of Duke Chapel

Earlier this week a 7.0 magnitude earthquake struck near Port-au-Prince, Haiti. The photograph to the left shows the Roman Catholic cathedral in that capital city. The Roman Catholic archbishop was killed in the earthquake along with thousands upon thousands of his fellow Haitians. The Episcopal cathedral was also destroyed, along with other Episcopal churches, schools, and a convent.

The human suffering and material wreckage has been heartbreaking to watch on seemingly endless news reports about this disaster. The devastation has been compounded by the fact that Haiti is the poorest nation in the Western Hemisphere.

When words fail us, we often turn to God in silence or pray with the psalms of lament or borrow the language of others. This is obviously such a time for many people. So here is a prayer composed by the Rev. Sam Wells, Dean of the Chapel at Duke University in Durham, North Carolina:

God of the living and the dead,

we wail in grief at the pain and loss and horror and distress

of our brothers and sisters in Haiti.

We do not understand your ways –

that those who already suffer the most,

now suffer so much more.

Lead us to repentance,

that we who have sinned so much are punished so little,

and they who already struggle have now impossible burdens to bear.

Where people are still breathing under collapsed buildings,

give them air and hope and courageous searchers.

Where children are injured or orphaned,

find them trusted friends and generous caregivers.

Where despair is infectious and disease or looting spreads,

bring patience and forbearance and healing and strength

to conquer temptation.

And when others look with compassion from afar,

release resources, empower expertise, shape political will,

and bring deliverance for your people in their distress.

Through him who was crushed and bruised for us,

in the comfort of your Holy Spirit. Amen.