Rev. Jim Ryan, PhD — email@example.com
Co-pastor of Mary of Magdala, Apostle to the Apostles Community
4th Sunday of Easter, May 3, 2020
I erased my calendar last week – one more covid effect, though admittedly an insignificant one in the context of all that is going on. Still, I’m guessing that you share this experience of cancelling out an entire summer of upcoming, highly anticipated trips and/or events. There are the two reunions, for example, Louisville in May for the 50th college anniversary, and Cleveland in June for the 59th grade school anniversary (not going to that one is the one that really hurts).
And on and on – You, too?
Along with my erased calendar a blur and a fuzziness comes over the question, “What do I do with this time?” Sure, there are tasks to address new needs, books to read that have been unread (or must be reread) for way too long, and new ways to figure out how to socially connect inside a social distance reality. Nevertheless, there is the time of emptiness, of a void – time that may scare us into feelings of loneliness and anxiety. This kind of time exists because sometimes you and I really don’t know what’s next.
This kind of time is not about boundaries that separate the new from the old, one era from another, or even in-between old and new, former and future. This kind of time is not necessarily futile – not even bad. This kind of anxious, lonely time can actually be a time of preparation. This kind of time calls for prayer – the kind of prayer that wastes time because the only way to get beyond this time is to leave this time behind us.
Do you know what eternal life is, really? I don’t, not really. Do you know what your relationship with the eternal Creator of life will be? I don’t. Do you experience time outside of this universe? I don’t. How else can one experience eternity except by paying no heed to – in effect, wasting – this time?
As I was considering this experience of having time to waste for the sake of preparing for eternity, I got the news of the death of a friend, Tim Berlew, Pastor of our host congregation, Wauwatosa Area United Methodist Church. That news of his sudden and tragic death at age 61 hit me up the side of the head, and put a jangle into my thoughts.
Tim’s time too quickly became no time. In an instant all his preparation for it became New Life. How untimely it must be to enter that realm. One of the conversations Tim and I had about the relationship between our two communities was actually his reaction, in part, when he received his Call from WAUMC. He told me one of the things he was very happy about, something he looked forward to exploring, was the relationship between our two communities of faith. It has become clear over the years that his experience of Jesus Christ drove him to an openness to and a love for mutual service among us. I will always treasure concelebrating with him at our joint Ash Wednesday Eucharist. You see it’s about preparation for whatever it is that lies beyond this time. None of us has time for division, separation, and isolation. This time must be for unity.
Since none of us knows or sees beyond this time, not really, it’s not the limits or the differences or the in-betweens that matter. We are on our way so let’s practice leaving time behind. David Tracy, formerly of the Divinity School at the University of Chicago, used a term for this way we are headed. He called it the “uncanny.” That’s right, we are headed beyond all the canned packaging of our spiritual reality here on earth. When we consider this New Life to which we are headed we will all someday share with Pastor Tim the experience of the uncanny. We have no idea, no packaging, no can to contain it. All the better reason to enjoy wasting time in prayer.
I’m willing to bet you know the kind of prayer (wasted time) I mean. It is the kind that, when it’s over and we “return” to “real” life, we ask ourselves, “What just happened? What was that all about?” I know I wasn’t napping and I feel refreshed, at peace. It’s the experience that mystics may have only a few times in their life, but then they spend the rest of their lives in the hope of experiencing it again. People of action experience this also. Mother Teresa, according to her biographers, had exquisite early prayer experiences of this type. Then she had 50 years of spiritual dryness and feelings of abandonment while she maintained her ministries.
It’s the kind of prayer that Thomas Merton wrote in his 1956 work, “Thoughts in Solitude” (his prayer follows this homily). It’s also the kind of prayer Dietrich Bonhoeffer wrote when he titled it, “Who Am I?” It is included in his “Letters and Papers from Prison.”
To pray in this way of preparation, of wasting time with no purpose or technique, gives us the chance to hear today’s Gospel of the Good Shepherd in a way that may be different than we usually read it. We are told that the sheep recognize the Shepherd’s voice. In this analogy, of course, Jesus is the Shepherd and we are the sheep (we hope) who recognize him.
The problem with recognition is it’s not enough. It’s not enough to only recognize. We have not come all this way by preparation to only recognize the Shepherd’s voice.
You see this story is not about recognition. It is about Revelation. And the revelation is that Christ is the Shepherd, we are Christ, and therefore we are the Shepherd. That’s right, the analogy breaks down. Recognition gives way to revelation. The way we accept this revelation is to see the eternal Christ, to see that we are that Christ, to leave time behind (erase our calendar) and act now as Christ calls us to act and to be.
We pray with gratefulness that our friend, Tim, became a shepherd – not as some leadership position – but because he became Christ among us. Just so, he, you , and I are Christ and Christ is God’s. (I Corinthians 3:23)
A Prayer, that we pray reluctantly, for our friend Tim Berlew
Give eternal rest, O God, to our friend, Pastor Tim Berlew. He died in your service of his congregation, our sisters and brothers in faith and justice. Let his commitment to the love of Jesus, the Redeemer, encourage us as we carry out the mandate to go and do the same. While we cannot physically gather for support and comfort we pray for a deeper awareness of how we connect beyond the limits of disease and death.
As he loved and performed sacred music to the honor and glory of your Name may we sing with him in the heavenly choir. As he sought the freedom of all your children to express love freely and openly may we be joyful for whom we love. As Tim’s Easter is now fulfilled; let our hope of resurrection be the North Star of our life’s journey.
We pray in Jesus’ Name. Amen.
Thomas Merton Prayer, “Thoughts in Solitude”
I have no idea where I am going. I do not see the road ahead of me.
I cannot know for certain where it will end. Nor do I really know myself,
and the fact that I think that I am following your will does not mean that
I am actually doing so. But I believe that the desire to please you does
In fact please you. And I hope I have that desire in all that I am doing.
I hope that I will never do anything apart from that desire.
And I know that if I do this you will lead me by the right road though I may
know nothing about it.
Therefore will I trust you always though I may seem to be lost and in the shadow
of death. I will not fear, for you are ever with me, and you will never leave
me to face my perils alone.