Setting Our Minds on Divine Things: Death, Grace, and Love

by The Rev. Ashley Freeman

“For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it.” Matthew 16:25 NRSV

This week my family and I have dealt with an incredible loss. In the past few days, my grandmother, unexpectedly, became very ill and died. Her death has left me and my family grieving and hurting in ways we are not even aware of yet. Nonetheless, this is where I find myself as I begin to reflect upon Jesus’s words in this verse from Matthew’s gospel.

Jesus’ statement here is one of the most challenging in the gospel. How does one save one’s life by losing it? Does following Jesus require that we actually die in his service? Is Jesus speaking metaphorically? If so, how do we lose our life for his sake? These questions and many others have surfaced for me this week as I have thought about Jesus’ statement in light of my grandmother’s death. Chief among these questions has been, what steps must we take to die?

This week as I sat in the waiting room, surrounded by family members and friends, many of whom I have not seen in years, and others who I rarely see, a thought occurred to me. My grandmother was able to do something in her death that rarely occurred in her life. While laying weak in the ICU, unable to speak, and laboring to breath, she gathered us together. Many were physically in the waiting room, others present via mobile phone and social media as they offered their love and support from afar. The grace and love she shared with others in her life now drew them all together in her death.

The ability for the dying to gather the living is not unique to my grandmother. As a priest, a central part of my ministry is spending time with families as they await the death of loved ones. The experience is always different. However, almost always one’s death gathers together those whom they loved.

The last great work of love performed by the dying is the weaving together, like a fabric, of the lives of all those they are leaving behind. This weaving is powerful and profound. So much so that I have witnessed, on multiple occasions, people who have been angry and spiteful toward one another for years tearfully embracing one another as they gathered at the death of a loved one. Perhaps a few days after the death, these individuals returned to their spite and anger. However, the fact remains the love and grace they shared in life and death offered them reconciliation, even if only for a moment.

So how do these insights help us answer my question, “what steps must we take to die?”

In short, I do not know. It seems to me that often Christians, myself included, think of God’s love and grace as an exchange system, in which we hope our doing, asking, praying, or saying something in the proper way, persuades or convinces God to demonstrate love and grace. This is rarely the case, if ever. Rather, God’s grace and love is present in our lives at all times. When a death, like my grandmother’s, gathers people into community and intimately weaves their lives together, fostering the bonds of love, mutuality, or at times reconciliation, it becomes a moment that highlights God’s grace and love for us, even in the face of death.

At this moment, even though I do not know what steps I need to take in order to die, it seems to me that Jesus’s advice to Peter, to set our minds on divine things will be required. My hope is that my experience of God’s grace and love during my grandmother’s death will empower my family and empower others, too, to seek the divine in all aspects of our lives. Perhaps then, we can begin to die and start to find the life to which God is calling each of us.

The. Rev. Ashley Freeman, graduate of the Seminary of the Southwest (MDiv ’15), is the rector of St. Patrick’s Episcopal Church in Zachary, LA, where he resides with his wife, three children, and three dogs.

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Advent Wilderness

“To put it another way: if you, as the owner of the house, know that the thief is coming but not the hour that the thief is to arrive, do you sit between now and that time, anxious, hyper vigilant, rigid in an armchair perhaps, smack dab in front of the door, hands tight on a shotgun, afraid to leave the chair? Are you then awake? How else might you prepare?” –from Advent Anxiety

The second Sunday of Advent and still Matthew’s gospel serves as a provocateur, pulling me up, wresting the shotgun out of my numb fingers, saying “armchairs are notoriously difficult to turn around in; how then can you repent?” Pulling me through zig-zagging narrow corridors in a rush, past vitriolic tweets and social media frenzies, past scores of emails per day from retailers reveling in their revealing of ever lower discounts and ever more perfect gifts. Until finally, I’m pushed–

out, crying aloud in wonder at the stark light of the sun and the radiant heat of the desert. At first, I mistake the absence of noise as total silence, but while marveling at the needed quietude, random buzzes (not the large drone of a hive), creep into my awareness. Stones, too, in some pattern I cannot discern, laid down long ago by flood and cataclysm, make themselves known to me. For a surreal second, I ponder whether stones can buzz, but then, camouflaged against the hard-packed sand, locusts move. Not enough for a plague, but plenty if you’re hungry. Watch out, I murmur softly, the prophet, the baptizer, might be about.

Of course, that’s exactly when the gospel nudges me forward. There’s a man, a ways from me; it’s hard to estimate distance in the desert. Is that what camel hair looks like? Hesitation on my part, only because I don’t want to disturb the stones. There’s no path, though the way is certainly straight. There’s no choice for me, really, and so I step forward.

When I reach him, he’s sitting, cross-legged at the edge of a shallow arroyo, a stream gurgling through it. “Child of Abraham,” he greets me, patting the ground next to him. We sit in silence for a bit; me, studying him surreptitiously and expectant of a prophetic rant about vipers; he, turning a stone over in his hands. The locusts sing. Finally, I ask, “Am I the wheat or the chaff, John?”

“Why is it always an ‘either/or’ question?” He looks at me, and I can’t help but notice the little smudge of honey in his beard. “When you ask it that way, you begin to ‘other,’ even yourself.” He shows me the stone in his hand–it’s vaguely heart-shaped. He tosses it into the flowing water. “It’s really difficult to baptize stone hearts–open yours and let the chaff therein float away.”

John reaches down and slips off my flip flops. Rising, unsure, I step into the stream, the cool water rushing over my dusty feet. I pivot back toward him. “Will you help me to open my heart?” I whisper.

The baptizer smiles. “Ah, that’s a better question.” I feel a tap on my shoulder.

“Turn around,” John says, “the one who comes with the Holy Spirit and fire is here for just that reason.”

It’s All Chicken But the Gravy

That includes chicken wings at Hooters on Mother’s Day. That was my treat to myself again this year; I looked forward to it eagerly. 2016 marks the fourth anniversary of this tradition for me–two of my closest friends included me in this family tradition of their own, inviting me the first year of seminary together in 2013. This married couple–Leroy and Lacey (not their real names; my friend chose his pseudonym)–have been celebrating Mother’s Day at Hooters for the last fifteen or so years, the happenstance of all the other restaurants in their Alabama hometown having been packed for the holiday one particular year. Needless to say, my friends have taken a lot of flack for frequenting “that restaurant, which degrades women,” especially on a day (a Sabbath, no less) set aside to honor mothers.

I’ve written in an earlier post (“Theo-proprioception“) about my perception of transcendence at a friend’s ordination to the priesthood. Leroy’s ordination took place few days after the one about which I’ve already written. That tangible sense of grace–where would it manifest this time?

Leroy’s wife, Lacey, and I are close friends–she’s one of my few close friends who is a woman. Both of us are what she calls “guy girls;” given our druthers, we’d choose to hang with the guys rather than with a group made up solely of women. We’re not “girly” or ultra-feminine. That’s just who we are. We also are not militant feminists, though we do support women’s rights. But we support men’s rights, LGBTQ rights, in short, a moderately liberal understanding of “love one’s neighbor as one’s self.”

I must admit, though, when Leroy invited me to join them the first time, I was taken aback a little. Hooters does have that reputation; I’d never set foot in one before, on principal, because of that reputation. Plus, I was unsure how I comfortable I’d feel around svelte, large-breasted women in skimpy outfits. When you’re a short, dumpy, nearly fifty-year-old woman coming to terms with her own sexuality, well, not necessarily where you envision a Mother’s Day meal.

However, the kindness of the offer, combined with the fact that this would be my first Mother’s Day without any of my own children, and that I loved being a part of my friends’ rambunctious family, prompted me to accept. Despite my reservations, I opened myself to the adventure.

Due to travel mishaps, my arrival time to Leroy’s ordination cut it close–I got there after the rehearsal had begun, and I was one of the readers (had the honor and pleasure of reading  Isaiah’s call story). Hot and grumpy, I felt unsettled and unready, though happy to be there, in a old Southern church that smelled old, musty, and loved. After helping myself to a drink of water from the kitchen, I found the sanctuary, where the sacramental party gathered–Leroy, Lacey, their three children, Lacey’s brother, some family, a couple of diaconate and priestly seminary classmates, assorted bishops, priests, church members. Not as large a party as that sounds. A hushed urgency filled the space.

Once seated (at one of those high tables Hooters has), Leroy proceeded to strike up conversations, first with our hostess–a blonde, if memory serves–and then with our waitress, a petite brunette. Without much preamble, my friend asked these young women how they felt about working at Hooter’s–did they feel objectified, did they feel less than human? How self-possessed and unashamed  these women appeared as they responded–both were university students doing this to support themselves. They were doing as they chose; they were aware of why men frequented the space, but they weren’t letting that define their lives. Leroy told the story of how he and Lacey came to have this tradition and he shared why he was interested in their stories–the agitation of friends who disapproved of the restaurant chain. His own agitation at being lumped in and objectified himself as a misogynist (well, at least that’s been shared with me). A matrix of human connections appeared amid the wings and the family chaos.

I joined the rehearsal; stepping up to the lectern to make sure the mic was set right, to make sure I was set right. And then out into the jumble of folks to line up and process and sit and read Isaiah and wait for the moment of the Holy Spirit. Leroy prostrated himself for the prayers as had my other friend had just an eon ago, just a few days before. No sparklies then did I see; no overwhelming presence, no desire to fall to my knees. Had I missed something?  Not when the bishop laid hands on him nor when Leroy was vested–beautiful moments in themselves, but. . .

“Peace be with you,” Leroy, as newest priest in the Episcopal Church, said to the congregation as strongly as Isaiah’s, “Here I am, Lord.” And there was the Spirit, the transcendent moment, as he reached out, a beatific look on his face, making the connections he so loves to make, and even better, encouraging others to make those connections.

It’s all chicken but the gravy.