Sundays With Gary

Sundays With Gary

“A life defined by love will not seek to protect itself or justify itself.  It will be content to be itself and to give itself away with abandon…. love never judges.  Love simply announces that the person you are, nor the deeds you have done, have erected a barrier which the power of this invincible presence cannot overcome.”. Bishop John Spong.

In 1997, journalist Mitch Albom wrote a heart-warming chronicle of the final months he spent with his college professor and mentor, Morrie Schwartz, who was dying of ALS. Many of us, like Albom -a reporter whose world view had been hardened by a career exposed to life’s harsh inequities, were moved by the valuable life lessons tutored from a 78 year old sociology professor who had dedicated a lifetime of service to shaping young minds.  In the process of imparting his final vita dictata to Mitch, he touched the world.

Morrie’s favorite saying from WH Auden was emphatic: we must “love each other or perish.” In the book, Albom is slowly resuscitated to see the world for its possibilities instead of its limitations, and in his personal resurrection, we find hope. We are blessed if we are fortunate enough to find a Morrie Schwartz – a selfless mentor whose life exemplifies the simple truths that “love conquers all” and that “fear and faith cannot not possibly coexist in the same space.”

New Canaan possessed for a brief and magical time our own Morrie Schwartz in the physical and spiritual being of Pastor Gary Wilburn. Diagnosed with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS) – a form of Lou Gehrig’s disease, Gary stepped down from a dozen year tenure as pastor of New Canaan’s Presbyterian church in 2008.

While his body was beginning to succumb to the debilitating symptoms of his disease, he and his wife Bev, sharpened their resolve and focused on the gift of life – moving to a remote town in Baja Mexico to be closer to family, praise every day and to race time to craft a handbook of living in the form of a trilogy of books. His first two books, The God I Don’t Believe In : Charting A New Course for Christianity and Lot’s of Hope pushed us to reclaim the essential message of Jesus and to embrace the power of hope to change a broken world. Gary’s third and final book – Lots Of Love – is an urgent and loving testimonial to the simple but fundamental building blocks of our human and spiritual DNA – that “love is the beginning and the end of our journey.”

Gary and Bev Wilburn’s triumphs and setbacks are faithfully chronicled by Bev on a website called Caring Bridge that reaches across time zones and distance to bond friends and family of those living with chronic illness.  With Bev as the family air traffic controller, Gary redirects every ounce of his physical being as an author – a celestial cartographer and guide — tracking our human journey as spiritual beings and interpreting along the way the simple divinity that swirls around us.

In a time of great fear and uncertainty, we need these clerics, shamans, priests, and holy persons in our lives to help interpret the deeper meaning of our existence. “Lots of Love” achieves spiritual interpretation the way Stephen Hawking fashioned a less complicated lens to the cosmos in his brilliant book, A Brief History of The Universe.   How ironic that these extraordinary insights should come from two men whose bodies conspire each day to rob them of their ability to teach us.

Pastor Wilburn understands that society is, by nature, cynical with self-interest but also believes unquestionably in the divine flickering in us like a candle hidden under a bushel basket.  Our life’s mission is to discover our potential as change agents in a world through the simple act of loving.  Gary guides us the way a naturalist might walk us along a gentle mountain path, pointing out the beauty and genius of simple acts of kindness and beckons us to be certain we inhale the rich pine scented humanity that comes from our compassion, humor and values that bind us all as families and communities.

Gary chronicles and celebrates the undeniable goodness of people and relates vignette after vignette of countless acts of love, gratitude and faith – whether it is in the simple act of passengers giving up their seats at Christmas so an overbooked flight can make room for soldiers trying to get home on leave from Iraq, to the half century romantic story of Nate and Theo, a New Canaan couple whose lives and deaths proved as remarkable a testament to inexorable love as any parable.

Each day physical life may conspire to ebb out of Gary’s body but his spirit flows through his pen and his glorious fight to bring us all a message of hope at the holiday season. Lots of Love is an ornament to be hung on every tree, a candle to be lit on the last night of Hanukkah, an Eid prayer at Ramadan and a strand of lights at the new moon of Diwali.

Gary’s message at these holidays is captured in the haunted words of the great social reformer, Charles Dickens and the miraculous self-revelation of George Bailey in “Its A Wonderful Life”. Lots of Love walks us across a shattered mosque in Iraq and points out the angels that flit around us each day – our eyes not completely adjusted to see these selfless spirits in the bright light of their kindness.

I can see Gary Wilburn every night in my minds eye.  He is resting in his motorized chair, silhouetted against a tangerine and blood red sunset praising every minute of a warm, Baja afternoon.  Bev is nearby, a soft constant breeze and beloved companion.   He smiles and rests – a spiritual being on a human journey.  He considers the gifts and challenges that he has been presented in a life advising and leading affluent and underserved communities. He is at peace.

I call him my Captain and miss him every day that he has been away.  He taught his congregation to listen, to seek to understand, to probe for the truth and yes, occasionally cry with outrage when a serially flawed society fails to make unconditional love its ultimate priority.  He urges us with labored breath that it is through this door of love that we can discover joy, spiritual connection with a power greater than ourselves and rise to heights as humans never thought possible – buoyed by the sheer weightlessness of seeking truth and justice.

Gary has discovered his one thing and shared it with us.  He offers up in Lots Of Love an antidote to anyone whose life is ruled more by fear than faith and who has yet to extricate themselves from the cat’s cradle snares of life’s material traps.

As he would often share with his loving but recidivist and reluctant congregation, “these three things remain: Faith, Hope and Love. But the greatest of these is Love.” (1 Corinthians 13)

The Son Also Rises

The Son Also Rises

“Amazing grace, how sweet the sound that saved a wretch like me.  I once was lost but now am found, was blind but now I see”. John Newton, 1773

It’s spring and with it comes an avalanche of Easter lilies, bunnies, egg hunts and hidden baskets.  Somewhere off in the distance, floating like buds on a dogwood is the message of redemption.  Buried under a benign avalanche of modern day commercialism, resurrection stirs.  It may be as subtle as a crocus risking its bloom in an early spring chill or the daffodil bravely signaling that we have once again been reborn from the depths of winter.  It is a time of year that activates a latent emotion deep within us, the idea of dying and being born again.

The concepts of redemption and resurrection are essential threads in the fabric of human history and culture.  No matter a person’s ideological or theological orientation  – atheist, agnostic or fanatical acolyte, the idea that one might redeem themselves and “resurrect” to become a better human being, holds deep spiritual appeal.  As children we heard stories that focused on individuals losing and regaining their purpose in life.  For those marched to Sunday school each week, we were taught the religious allegory of The Prodigal Son.  As a parent, the story of unconditional love resonates more today.  In the parable, one of two sons leaves his family, demanding his inheritance early from his father, which the son then summarily goes out and wastes.  When the son returns home broken, the father does not reject him but rejoices while the brother who had remained faithful to the father becomes upset.  The father explains to the faithful son that he is rejoicing that the “lost” son has returned just as a shepherd rejoices when he finds a lost sheep.  Because of a father’s unconditional love, the son rises again.

In life, redeemed sinners have left indelible marks on the world. Bill Wilson was a physician that had lost his reputation, self respect and soul to alcoholism.  Through his efforts to help another alcoholic stay sober, he founded the most successful spiritual movement of the 20th century, Alcoholics Anonymous.  Bill Wilson was hardly perfect.   But through the simple act of sharing his humanity and serving others, he was reborn giving hope to an entire generation of broken souls. Bill W was resurrected.

Literature offers us innumerable examples of the rise, fall and resurrection of mankind.  Charles Dickens created our most beloved Christmas fable, a Christmas Carol, a ghost story of redemption detailing the transformation of Ebenezer Scrooge.  In 1965, Alex Haley chronicled the story of Malcolm Little, a small-time crook and angry hoodlum who discovered Islam during his many years of incarceration.  His epiphany led to his reincarnation as Malcolm X, a fire brand minister for the American Nation of Islam that tirelessly labored to advance the moral and social future of the African American community.  Most recently, a popular South African movie, “Totsi” offers us the view of a ghetto tough in the shanties of Johannesburg that finds a baby while carjacking the vehicle from the child’s mother.  His encounter with the child transforms him and redeems him.

Every culture values redemption and resurrection. Buddhists believe one can improve their karma and achieve enlightenment with personal change and better moral conduct.  Hindus believe that Moksha, the release from the cycle of birth and rebirth (reincarnation), can only be achieved through the personal change and improvement – – through meditation, good works, devotion or knowledge. Many Christians worship the teachings of St Paul who prior to his miraculous conversion on the road to Tarsus, was Saul, the “crazed destroyer” of Christians.

As human beings, we are a complicated collision of opposites. We are fascinated by failure and those in our society who fall.  Even though we know at our core that everyone is imperfect, schedenfruede and insecurity compel us to watch the spectacular failings of people.  We are riveted by the gory public revelations of celebrities, politicians and every day people’s private imperfections.  In a bizarre way, we feel better about our own uneven lives.

Yet, within that same psyche that celebrates the fall, we also celebrate redemption. We are irresistibly drawn to tales of emancipation, salvation, and atonement.  The most happy among us seem to be able to re-embrace those that they, at one time, had banished. We find ourselves pulling for any person who overcomes self inflicted hardship. Whether it is a pro athlete who was once addicted to pain killers or a celebrity that succumbs to the artificial reality of stardom, we have short memories and a predisposition to forgive.  We love a comeback.  We have awards for most improved person and the comeback player of the year.  We love redemption.

What reassures me is this human capacity for compassion and forgiveness.  Vengeance and resentment are social and psychological cancers.  Actress Carrie Fischer once remarked that resentment was like drinking poison and then waiting for the other person to die”. Resentments are warm, familiar mud but they wash away in the fresh water of resurrection. We want to believe in salvation.  We pray for the various forms of resurrection – recovery from disease, release from heartache, redemption from corruption or resurrection from failure.    The one common attribute in anyone’s recovery and resurrection is the love of others – an individual or a community willing to unconditionally help a flawed person recover and find their way.  It is our quest to be part of a society that participates and celebrates in the return of any prodigal “son”.

As my children search for Easter eggs and baskets, I search for something more elusive, a golden egg hidden deep in the tangled undergrowth of my soul.  I am reminded on Easter of the value of resurrection.  In my church, I will faithfully hear the story of the son of God who rose from the dead.  As I ponder the themes of death and resurrection, I try to translate this to my children so they can practically understand that anyone can be reborn. Progress, not perfection is our human quest. The ability for anyone to recover depends on the love of another. Forgiveness and the instinct to celebrate when another lost sheep rejoins the fold, is an essential ingredient of our humanity.

I guess in the end, the “golden egg” I seek is grace – the ability to give it and receive it.