Henri Nouwen has written that ministry is receiving God’s blessing from those to whom we minister; in the midst of serving we are blessed with passing glimpses of the face of God. The most humbling gift I have experienced in the practice of ministry is being called into moments in people’s lives that can only be described as holy. These experiences have affirmed my faith in the fundamental witness of Scripture that God is Holy and God is With Us.
Early on a Saturday evening, two days after we celebrated his fiftieth birthday, I received a call that John had died. He was a free-spirited Texan, a grade-school teacher, with a devoted wife and three middle-school aged children. Throughout the four years I knew John, he was in and out of chemotherapy for cancer that had metastasized into his lungs. I heard a pastor once say that the mystery of life includes our death. Ministry at the time of death is one of those mysteries into which I am invited, undeserved, that is as sacred as it is difficult.
When I received the call that night, I drove to his home immediately. The cries of John's grieving children echoed throughout the house and are seared into my memory. When the time seemed appropriate, I gathered his children, wife, and immediate family; we held hands in prayer and surrendered his spirit to God. I waited with them for the morticians to arrive, escorted the body to the van, and said good night.
For me, the word “holy” means that God is utterly unique, set apart from the world of our common sense. God is beyond our imagining and beyond our words. Yet Scripture teaches that our Holy God is also with us. If God is with us, sacred moments in our lives should be plentiful. They are, extravagantly so: an astonishing live performance of Beethoven’s ninth symphony at Disney Hall; dolphins dancing in the surf on Easter morning; a choir member offering a heroic solo the Sunday after she had been diagnosed with cancer. With Anne Lamott, I believe that we can look for encounters with the holy by searching our lives for moments of wonderment, when the only possible response is silence or a breathless “wow.” These moments are the fingerprints of God upon our lives. That is not so difficult to grasp; but sitting alongside a father's lifeless body with his grieving children … where is God here?
The insight has not come easily. Only now after 11 years in the practice of ministry am I coming to trust in it, and then only after spending year after year bearing witness to the passion of the One we call divine. John's was a fractured life in ways dIfferent from mine. Yet in the days ahead, as I spoke to the family and presided over the largest memorial service I had ever seen, I recognized that he was dearly loved. His life, my life, your life, each and every life is a gift of God. Beloved.
Human beings in all their complexity, imperfection, and beauty are simply a miracle. The breath of our Holy God graces each one of us with infinite value; but more than this, I believe that if we listen closely, we can hear in the moans of the sick, in the lament of the outcast, and even in the cries of a grieving child, the very voice of God who chooses not to be a distant other, but chooses to save us by suffering with us even unto death.
Seared into my memory are the cries of John's children that night, but in them I hear the voice of God: I hear Jesus weeping with Mary and Martha over Lazarus; I hear Christ’s dereliction in Gethsemane and his excruciating suffering on a cross; I hear God’s joy at our birth and God’s grief in the midst of our loss. Holy & with, almighty & vulnerable: I don’t understand it, but I know it to be true. In the end the only help we can offer one another is our solidarity, our vulnerability, our presence. Some call it love. This is what God offers us; and if we have the courage to turn toward the awe-inspiring love through whom we were created, the suffering love through whom we are made innocent again, we might just be able to accept the gift, know that we are beloved, and call it grace.
Rev. Mark F. Sturgess