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United Methodists don’t often gather midweek to observe the festival days of the church year. Christmas Eve and Holy Week are just about the only exceptions. All Saints Day was Wednesday, November 1. We observed it last Sunday, November 5, remembering the saints of our lives in prayer and song, thanking God for the communion in which we “join our friends above” in heavenly joy, united by love even while we are separated by the “narrow stream of death.”

One of our hymns was Charles Wesley’s 1759 lyric, Come, Let Us Join Our Friends Above.” (#709 in the UM Hymnal) The tune is cheerful, and so are most of the lyrics, though I debated leaving out verse 3:

Ten thousand to their endless homeCharles Wesley
this solemn moment fly,
and we are to the margin come,
and we expect to die.
E’en now by faith we join our hands
with those that went before,
and greet the blood-besprinkled bands
on the eternal shore.

I almost omitted this verse because it was going to be a downer. Singing about our unity in love, even spanning the “narrow stream of death,” that’s one thing.  But singing in the same cheery voice, that “we expect to die,” that’s another.

If that’s not enough, those “blood-besprinkled bands” remind us of Jesus’ slow and bloody death on the Roman cross that both repels us, and – because it’s part of his saving story and ours – has that “wondrous attraction” we sing in a better-known song. Whether we lean heavily into the language of bloody sacrifice as God’s way of atoning (at-one-ing) us with God, or whether we don’t, we’re gonna come away from the cross with some blood spatter.

Anyway, we sang the hymn – all four verses. We sang that jarring truth that “we expect to die,” and we greeted, in our faithful imaginations, the “blood-besprinkled bands” of those who have died into the fullness of the presence of God.

And then.

And then, as Steve and I visited in the fellowship hall, as Steve’s grandkids and my wife Kathy were downstairs with the Sunday School, the news came through our social media feeds. Sutherland Springs.

In that solemn moment, all those ancient lyrics words were transformed. Go back now, and read verse 3 again (or read the whole thing) in light of the  shootings in the First Baptist Church of Sutherland Springs, Texas.

First-Sutherland-Springs

Richard Rohr, in Falling Upward: A Spirituality for the Two Halves of Life, echoes Ernest Becker’s The Denial of Death, when he asserts that “it is not love, but ‘the denial of death’ that makes the world go round” (Rohr, Kindle edition, location 356).

Denial of death surely makes the healthcare industry go round: we all have our stories of heroic, macabre and unimaginably expensive measures to preserve bodily persistence long after bodily and mental joy or competence have departed.

Denial of death makes the security industry go round: one guy tries to wear explosive shoes on a plane, and millions of travelers now remove our shoes. A couple people tamper with pills, and all sorts of tamper-resistant packages are now mandatory. There are armed guards and metal detectors in the entrances of schools and hospitals … and churches?

Denial of death makes popular religion go round: we treat dying as a spiritual or moral failure. With all good will, we say of those who recover from illness, that they’re blessed (implying without meaning to, that those who don’t recover are not). We say that healing comes through faith (implying that illness comes from a failure of faith). Even at funerals, even in the presence of the body, denial of death is epitomized in that final line of Mary Frye’s poem: “Do not stand at my grave and cry; I am not there. I did not die.”

Dietrich BonhoefferWe Christians slip into this denial of our own death all too often. It’s easy, especially in a culture that denies it all the time. But we do die. And Christianity doesn’t even try to deny death. In the Gospels, the only times Jesus talked of the cross, it wasn’t about the cross he would carry, but about the one that we would carry:
All who want to come after me must say no to themselves, take up their cross, and follow me.” (Matthew 16:24 CEB)

And the cross isn’t just about inconveniences and irritations. As Dietrich Bonhoeffer put it in The Cost of Discipleship (1937), “Jeder Ruf Christi fährt in den Tod.”  — “Every call of Christ leads to death.”

There are several different directions we can go from here. This blog’s already way into TLDR territory, so I’m only going to touch on one:

The killings in Sutherland Springs prompt me to dive deeply into what it is to “take up my cross.” Taking up my cross might involve undergoing oppression unto death by state violence, or the violence of a culture that reinforces toxic masculinity and violence against women, or the crazy correlation of firearms and mass shootings in this country, or some other systemic evil. It might. But it will not involve surrendering my truth and my trust in God to these possibilities.

I can’t speak for the dead and wounded in Texas. Their blood cries out from the ground. It would be wrong of me to co-opt their story.

But I testify: when I have focused on my own safety, or on suspecting or blaming or demonizing others, I have been farther from following Christ.

And I testify: when I have been intent on living his life, and on discerning and naming the Spirit and image of God, the imago Dei, in others, I’ve been nearer to his way.

And yes, crosses are involved.

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Frederick Buechner said that your vocation is where your deep gladness meets the world’s deep hunger.

Vocation – with the same root as “voice” – is about a person’s calling, and the concept that God, the mystery at the heart of all creation, calls and invites you to take on some of God’s mission for the world.

It’s not always about hearing voices.

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