When you get a glimpse of heaven, it’s wonderful and sad, all mixed up together.
I had two such glimpses in the past month. They are with me every day now, coloring my horizon with a mixture of hope and despair, desire and depression. Not a day goes by that I don’t think of them.
The last glimpse came a few weeks ago at my home church. It was during a celebration of the 50th anniversary of the ordination of Fr. Stan Sledz. Fr. Stan is one of my favorite priests. He used to fill in for our pastor on weekends, and you can’t find a more gentle, humble man who deeply cares for the people he serves. Over the years, he’d served in a broad spectrum of ministries, from a small Polish city parish to a large suburban community, from a primarily African American parish to a Native American community, and to many versions of prison ministry. His Jubilee Mass drew participants from these many and diverse communities.
The celebration began with a calling song from the Native American drummers and singers. Then a combined choir sang a spiritual during the sprinkling rite and procession.
We’ve come this far by faith
Leaning on the Lord
Trusting in His Holy Word
He never failed me yet
Oh, can’t turn around
We’ve come this far by faith.
In his homily, Fr. Stan spoke about each place he served, sharing what he learned from each community. It was a beautiful tribute, closing with a song used during one period of his prison ministry, “Who You Say I Am,” by Hillsong Worship, which was a moving statement of faith in our God who loves us no matter what:
I am chosen,
I am who You say I am
You are for me
Not against me
I am who You say I am.
As the congregation stood for the song’s video, more and more voices joined in the singing. And I caught a glimpse of heaven, of a moment/time/place when it wouldn’t matter who we were, what we did or didn’t do, what we looked like or even how we came together to worship. All that would matter was that God loved us equally and we loved God. It was a moment I cannot forget.
And it reminded me of another glimpse of heaven that happened in mid May when I attended the Festival of Homiletics in Minneapolis. It was a weeklong conference that brought 1500 ministers, lay preachers and professors of homiletics (preaching) and at least one Catholic laywoman (me!) to focus on the theme, “Preaching as Moral Imagination.”
I didn’t really know what to expect when I signed up for the conference at the urging of a dear friend who is a Presbyterian minister, other than the chance to hear some fantastic preachers and to catch up with my friend and to step away from the hum drum of my daily life. I did worry some that it would be awkward to be a Catholic laywoman in a sea of ordained Protestants, but that worry was groundless. My theological education (M.Div.) fully prepared me for all that I experienced, and I felt very comfortable. But then again, comfortable is not really the best word because the conference was not aimed at making people comfortable. It was aimed at being both supportive and challenging–the preaching and teaching was meant to equip these servants of God to speak the Word that God’s people needed to hear in difficult times. So perhaps, I should say that I felt affirmed and energized and challenged to figure out how to apply what I was hearing and learning to my little portion of God’s world.
And in the midst of all that affirmation and challenge, I caught a wonderful glimpse of heaven. We moved between Central Lutheran Church and Westminster Presbyterian, gathering each day in worship, worship that took on the flavors of the various denominations represented by those attending: Lutheran, Presbyterian, Baptist, and Methodist, to name only a few. The preachers were young and old, white and people of color, men and women. And they were all wonderful. I didn’t always know the hymns chosen, but they were easy to pick up as hundreds of people carried the tune around me. Today, if I close my eyes I can still return to those moments of communal worship. And the wonder and awe of those moments give me such joy and hope and vision.
But then the sadness creeps in. Because these glimpses of heaven, of the kingdom of God that is already here and not yet fully realized, seem to have such a great gap between the already and not yet. There were no Catholic preachers at this conference, a fact that my friend suggested could be easily remedied while another pastor wondered if that might be difficult because Catholics were not known for their preaching. I myself wondered if Catholic priests could be comfortable seeing the many outstanding women preachers as their equals, much less participate fully in the various forms of worship, including a joint communion service.
And that thought brings me to the sadness that crept in at the end of Fr. Stan’s Jubilee Mass. It was only a brief prayer, and I can’t recall the exact words that pushed me out of my heavenly vision. But it was during the blessing of Fr. Stan that there was a reference to men and the call to the priesthood that reiterated the supposedly definitive statement that only men are called by God to serve in this way. And it just didn’t square with that earlier glimpse of the kingdom of God led by men and women of faith. It was as if the opening song was rewritten to say, “We’ve come this far by faith–but go no further.” And the stirring anthem, “I am who you say I am,” was really marked by an asterisk that noted “Unless, of course, you are a woman.” The kingdom of God is already among us, and yet, not yet fully realized. Would it ever be?
But it will not serve anyone to lose hope. So let me share what I remember from a particular powerful presentation I attended called “Preaching as Faith Formation.” The presenter, Rev. Rolf Jacobsen, referred to the work of Stephen Brookfield who said that in order to learn to do something, a person needs three things: to understand it, to see it modeled, and to get a chance to practice it. Rev. Jacobsen demonstrated how this could be done as a part of preaching, giving a brief sermon on forgiveness. Perhaps what we need to do is to sponsor as many Catholic priests and bishops to attend the Festival of Homiletics. There they might come to understand that women also can feel called by God to serve the people of God as pastors, and they might see it modeled with grace, humility and passion. Who knows? Perhaps someday we might all get a chance to practice this and the kingdom of God would get a little closer to the fulfillment of the “not yet.”