Friday, April 22, 2011
My father died at Christmas when I was a boy. I was sent to church and prayed that prayer; "Our Father who art in Heaven." I looked up into the church's clerestory and saw beauty and art and stained glass windows. I saw light refracted from the sun to bathe lovely wooden pews in an opalescent light. But I did not see God and worse still, I did not see my dad.
When we got to Good Friday, and I saw what they did to Jesus, I couldn't help but ask somewhere deep in my soul and often right out loud to Sunday School teachers and clergy; "How can you call this Friday "Good"?
There were no satisfying answers.
Today I am praying for Peter. He was killed in a motorcycle accident. He was 44, and leaves a young bride and two boys 8 and 6. Barbara just found out that she has lung cancer, and that sounds very serious. Charlie went blind in one eye, his face went into paralysis, he could not walk without assistance. All this on "Good" Friday.
My dad is dead, so is Jesus, and the millions more suffer like Jesus suffers on the cross. I myself have just come through a bout with prostate cancer and on it goes.
So how is any of this "Good"?
When my father died, religious folk said he could not go to heaven because he did not go to church. The non religious folk in my family were much more merciful. They just said he was dead. Period. The religious people wanted him to serve time in purgatory, or worse still in a place where there is much discomfort for ever.
Thank God I'm not religious. Thank God my family isn't either. My grandmother on the other hand was religious in a different kind of way. She was a storyteller, a grand storyteller, who could take a narrative from scripture, twinkle up here eyes, hold your attention with all the dramatic flair of a Shakespearean actress. She told me the story one night of the Call of Samuel (1 Samuel 3). She looked me in the eye when she said "The young boy Samuel did not yet know God". She looked right at me. She did not have to read the text. She knew it by heart.
Something caught me then and there. Later I asked her if God could really call a young boy into the ministry, and she merely hugged me.
Not long after that, coming home from church one clear and sunny summer's day, I sauntered home in wonder as I often did about life and death, and as I squeezed a leaf between my nails from a city hedge, it was as if there was a voice within my heart that seemed to say; "Don't you know there's a special place in my love for your dad? I stopped dead in my tracks. I listened to that silence more closely and it said the same thing again. Then I gave it a voice and said it right out loud. "Don't you know there's a special place in my love for your dad?"
I ran home as fast as I could. I burst into the kitchen where "Ma" as we called her was stirring up a recipe for her family.
"Ma is there a God?"
"Of course there is," she answered simply and as a matter of fact.
"Is there a heaven?"
Somewhat irritated by this sudden onslaught of mundane theology, she said, "Of course there is."
Then daring to pose a somewhat more difficult question, I asked her this; "Is my daddy there?" I knew what she thought of the Irish. They ruined Boston, and my mom too apparently. She didn't think much of the Italians either and I ended up marrying one contrary to her wishes.
She hesitated, but then she said something I shall never forget. In fact I can still feel her embrace and even smell her, and feel her hair as it brushed up against me when she held me in the nape of her neck and said; "Of course he is."
My heart leaped for such joy then as it still does. Imagine! Some day I will see my dad again, and we can go for a ride in his brand new 1951 Chevrolet (that how long ago all this happened).
So I became a priest. I wanted as many people as possible to know what I knew.
There is a special place in God's love for you and all those you love both here and forevermore.
Over time I understood that this Friday is "Good".
I have been a priest for 38 years. Hundreds upon hundreds of Baptisms, Marriages, Holy Unctions, Funerals and Sunday after Sunday lively proclamations of God's Good News!
I fought for civil rights, gender equality and the emerging inclusive church.
I fought for the poor, the hungry and the homeless and built a homeless shelter, helped battered women and abused families find shelter. I expanded a soup kitchen and a food pantry. I fought against injustices of all sorts and I collaborated with hundreds and thousands of those who fought side by side with me.
There's lots of Good in that and it all started because Jesus died. My dad died. And God spoke in the silence of the human heart. "Don't you know there's a special place in my heart for the love of YOU!"