NOTHING IS IMPOSSIBLE WITH GOD, AN ANNUNCIATION PRAYER

On this end of the parish hall, where my office sits, things are quiet once again. There’s some coming and going down the hall, in the kitchen; folks getting ready for the fish dinner Friday: bustling, cleaning, prepping. And I, for my part, am supposed to be working on any number of things connected to Holy Week and Easter, not to mention a few bits of diocesan work I’m wrapping up and, oh right, summer camp and General Convention, both of which will be here before I know it.

Late yesterday afternoon, I dumped in a box a bunch of loose papers which had becoming nothing more than an annoying pile of clutter; it’s now titled “Open & File after Easter.” I told myself I was going to focus on the people and projects and things which God was placing in front of me right now – not yesterday, not even tomorrow.  I said I’d be more present in these hectic days, more present to, well, being present. And I’ll let God fill in the spaces I might leave open, which I seldom do anyway.

I will get around to the paperwork and these other things. I will, I told myself.

And then I worked until 9:30pm.

I’m not such a good learner.

Earlier today, we gathered, as we regularly do, for mid-day healing prayers and Holy Communion in the church. Generally, it’s a quiet half-hour of contemplation and prayer, occasionally interrupted by someone coming forward to the altar rail.  I lay hands on them and ask God to heal them. Communion follows, a simple yet intimate and holy gathering. Joking, as per usual, JoAnn said I should put up a sign that read, “Handicapped ONLY on Wednesdays.” She was referring to the average age of those who show up, mid-day.

Today is the Feast of the Annunciation, the day Gabriel announced to Mary news that would change the world; March 25 being nine months – the time it’d take a baby boy to grow in the womb – before Jesus’ birthday. The gospel reading for today is a scene from Luke’s first chapter, the story featuring that lively conversation between Gabriel and Mary, herself a young, confused but by no means unassuming girl.(Lk.1:26-38)  I love the back-and-forth, the give-and- take; it’s kind of like a bargaining session. For some reason, today, what stood out for me was Mary’s own “Huh?” when Gabriel shows up. What gets her going is not merely the fact that an angel is in her room; it’s not bafflement, but that she’s puzzled, perplexed at his strange greeting! (Lk.1:29) The conversation ensues: he has a promise, she has questions; he has wisdom, she has strength.

“Well and good,” she (kind of) says, “but how is this supposed to happen?” To which Gabriel says: “For nothing will be impossible with God.” (v.37)

Nothing.

Will be impossible.

With God.

Nothing.

I said these words to Kitty, to Charlotte, to JoAnn. Kitty’s the oldest of those three, Charlotte and JoAnn are quick to point out; she’s 90. The other two aren’t far behind, though, and they’ve all lived fascinating, rich, full lives. They are also, one to another, dealing with their limitations and their struggles, confronting their own mortality in ways which are, somedays, difficult; other days marked by at least a hint of a smile; better: a smirk.

“’Nothing will be impossible with God’ scripture says. Do you believe it?” I asked. One shrugged a halfway answer; it seemed to sit heavily on all. No one gave me a straight-up “Yes!”  Good.  At this point in life, no one’s studying for the test. It’s time to get real. Time to take off the masks and be honest: “Lord, I don’t know what you’re doing and why I’m even here. I don’t know why I’ve outlived my own husband,” I could hear the prayers at night; “I know my life is filled with good things and that all is in your hand but …” These are real thoughts, real prayers, real lives. That’s why we pray, not because we have the answers or because we once had the answer but we’re afraid we’ve drifted too far from it. We pray because we know no other way to live. We pray life. We pray our lives, as rich and textured and, sometimes, bumpy and perplexing as they may be. We pray our lives.

“Nothing will be impossible with God” is precisely such a prayer, in and of itself. When you do believe it, pray it: “Nothing will be impossible with God.” And when you don’t believe it, especially when you don’t believe it, pray it: “Nothing will be impossible with God.” When you don’t know the answer or what the plan is or what you might even hope to have God do, if ever God was going about doing what you were asking God to do, pray it: “Nothing will be impossible with God.”

Their lives, JoAnn’s, Kitty’s, Charlotte’s – yours and my life, too – are probably, more often than we care to admit, caught up in this prayer. Most likely, we’ve been praying this prayer, day in and day out, even though our lips may not utter the words and the thought may not even cross our mind.  “Nothing will be impossible with God.”  Our life is its own offering to God, and a constant journey toward the One who reveals Himself to us, just as with Mary, time and time again.

With Kitty back in the summer of 2012
With Kitty back in the summer of 2012

St. Augustine said as much, I reminded them, way back in his day, preaching to the people in northern Africa that “God created us without us, but he did not will to save us without us.” (Sermon 169)  This may be one of those things we see a bit more clearly at the end of our life, when we are facing the limits of our mortality head on, but I, too, see glimpses of it, faintly and sometimes, at the end of a day.  I, too, see this mystery when I remember that I’m also a partner with God in this gift called creation; that I have a responsibility and a role to play; that I am asked to bless and heal and love and share; that I, too, have a role to play in my own salvation and that salvation is not mine, alone, but ours, only ours, a collective returning to God in Christ. “God did not will to save us without us,” the good Doctor preached, which is nothing more than yet one more invitation to make our lives a prayer – a richly textured, very real, heartfelt prayer, not only with our lips but with so much more.

Here we are, gathered for a simple lunch on Annunciation afternoon - March 25, 2015
Here we are, gathered for a simple lunch on Annunciation afternoon – March 25, 2015

JUST BECAUSE IT BURNS DOESN’T MEAN YOU’RE GONNA DIE

“Peter felt hurt because Jesus said to him a third time, ‘Do you love me?’” (Jn. 21:17b)  ‘Felt hurt’ or, as in some translations, Peter ‘grieved’ is the Greek word (lupeo) that means to be distressed. When Jesus told his disciples he would be killed (Mt. 17:23), for instance, or when at the Last Supper he declared that one of them would betray him (Mt. 26:22) they became “greatly distressed” (lupeo).  It can indicate being ‘in heaviness’ or ‘suffering’ as in 1 Peter 1:6: “…you have been (lupeo) in heaviness in various trials.”

It’s odd that Peter is distressed when, in fact, Jesus is reaching out to him, asking him three times to love him.  Jesus’ actions are a counterpart to Peter’s earlier three-fold denial, a rather passionate denial, at that, with cursing and swearing in Matthew’s telling: “…Then Peter began to curse and he swore, ‘I do not know the man!’ At that moment the cock crowed.  Then Peter remembered what Jesus had said: ‘Before the cock crows, you will deny me three times.’ And he went out and wept bitterly.” (Mt. 26:74-75)

Peter’s once ‘bitter weeping’ becomes, in time, a different kind of grief – Peter’s heavy heart as Jesus restores the relationship once broken.  When God meets us, face to face, we are undoubtedly, like Peter, not just sorry but profoundly distressed, even to the point of grief.

And it feels so good.

Let me explain by way of a story.  (It’s a story told in Adam Makos’ book, A Higher Call; click here.  And in John Blake’s CNN report, “Two enemies discover a ‘higher call’ in battle; click here.)

CHARLES BROWN

Several days before Christmas 1943, high in the skies over France a young American B-17 pilot named Charles Brown was struggling mightily to get his nearly sacked plane and injured crew back to England.  Brown was all of 21 years old, a West Virginia farm boy flying his first combat mission when his “flying fortress” was shot to pieces by swarming fighters.  Half his crew was wounded, and the tail gunner was dead.

In a moment, Brown glanced outside his cockpit and froze.  Spencer Luke, his co-pilot, saw the same horrible thing.  A German Messerschmitt fighter sat just feet from their wingtip, having closed in ready for the kill.

“My God, this is a nightmare,” the co-pilot said.

“He’s going to destroy us,” Brown added, knowing that that moment was the end of his life.  Never again would he see his family and friends.  Never again would he breathe the mountain air of his hometown.  High above France, alone and frightened, that was how it ends.

But what they saw next was an odd thing.  The German fighter pilot didn’t shoot.  Instead, he nodded at the pilots.  And then did an even more amazing thing.

Second Lt. Franz Stigler was an ace fighter pilot.  One more kill and he’d earn the The Knight’s Cross, the highest award for military valor.  By late 1943, however, Stigler was no longer motivated by thoughts of glory or pride.  Earlier in the war, his older brother, August, a fellow pilot, was shot down and killed.  The tide of the war was shifting, and the war in the skies was increasingly difficult.  Exhaustion, war fatigue and untold loss were starting to get to Stigler.  By war’s end, it should be noted, of the 28,000 pilots who fought for the Luftwaffe only 1,200 survived.

FRANZ STIGLER

Dark and sinister emotions flooded Stigler. While he stood smoking a cigarette near his plane one afternoon, he heard the roar of Charles Brown’s “flying fortress,” a plane that was wreaking destruction upon the homeland he vowed to protect.  Filled with thoughts of revenge, he hopped in his fighter, saluted a ground crewman, and took off in hot pursuit.

Coming upon the American plane, he decided to attack from behind.  His hand was on the trigger.  Then he hesitated – no one was firing at him.  Flying closer to Brown’s B-17, he saw the tail gunner humped over and lying still, his white airman’s collar covered in blood.  The American plane was a sorry sight – its skin had been peeled away by shells, its guns knocked out.  Inside, he could see men tending the wounds of other crewmen.

He nudged his plane alongside the bomber’s wings, and locked eyes with the pilot whose own eyes were wide with horror.  Stigler eased his index finger off the trigger.  He couldn’t shoot.  It would be murder.

In that moment, alone in the skies with the crippled bomber, Stigler single-mindedly changed his mission.  He nodded at the American pilot, and began flying in formation so German anti-aircraft gunners on the ground wouldn’t shoot down the slow-moving bomber. (The Luftwaffe had B-17s of its own, shot down and rebuilt for secret missions and training.) Stigler escorted the bomber over the North Sea and took one last look at the American pilot. Then he saluted him, peeled his fighter away and returned to Germany.

“Good luck,” Stigler said to himself. “You’re in God’s hands.”

The horror of facing his own death, for Charles Brown, which quickly turned to his salvation is its own shock.  Franz Stigler’s turning from vengeance to empathy was an inner-struggle.  Setting aside revenge for compassion brings its own heaviness.  They saw the other’s humanity.  They met on equal terms.  The ending was happy but the process was heart-wrenching.

And it’s the kind of sorrow that just feels so good.

……….

Because it’s perhaps the one biblical passage with the single worst translation, across the board, any English version of the seaside conversation between Jesus and Peter about love (John 21:15-19) so utterly fails to convey what’s actually going on.  In the Greek of the New Testament, there are multiple words for love.  Agape is perfect and selfless love.  It’s looking out for the interest of the one who is loved, putting them ahead of self.  It’s what we call unconditional love, the love God has for us.  There’s a lesser kind of love, as well; the affection we have for a friend or family member, brotherly love.  In Greek, philios.

When Jesus asks Peter if he loves him, in John 21, the text alternates between different words.  You can’t hear this story let alone understand the message, unless you hear it closer to its original tongue.  Let’s give it a shot:

When they had finished breakfast, Jesus said to Simon Peter, ‘Simon son of John, do you (agape) love me unconditionally?’ Peter said to him, ‘Yes, Lord; you know I (philios) love you like a brother.’

… A second time Jesus said to him, ‘Peter, do you (agape) love me unconditionally?’ Peter said to him, ‘Yes, Lord; you know that I (philios) love you like a brother.

…Jesus said the third time, ‘Peter, do you (philios) love me like a brother?’ Peter felt hurt because he said to him the third time, ‘Do you (philios) love me like a brother?’ And he said to him, ‘Lord, you know everything; you know that I (philios) love you like a brother.’

Peter felt hurt, but it wasn’t remorse.

Peter felt the profound life-altering hurt of being truly, wholly loved.  God met Peter, face to face.  God comes to our level and loves us.  The response when we are so profoundly known and still loved, oddly enough, is a piercing heart-wrenching pain that is, at once, so refreshing.  Time and again throughout history — above all, when God became a vulnerable baby born in the utter darkness of the year — God risks everything, God risks God’s own majesty and stoops to our level, to our humanity.  God comes to us not in pomp or power, but in humility: along the shoreline for Peter and his fellow fisherfolk; for us, in the context of our own particular circumstances.

God doesn’t expect us to be better or in a different place but where we are, right here, right now.  And God asks us, like Jesus asked Peter, to love him in the way we can, putting aside any question of how we should.  There’s no judgment here, no brow-beating or submission.  There are no power ploys or manipulative games.  Just an honest invitation to relationship, as we can, with the One who loves us in all the ways we can’t.

The story Christian people need to re-learn and tell others is that we are moved to follow Christ not because we feel things that are better than an ordinary person does but, rather, because we are perfectly ordinary people who actually let ourselves feel, who are unafraid to be broken by love.  Perhaps Pink’s wisdom sums it well.  In her song, ‘Try,’ she sings: “Where there is desire, there is gonna be a flame / Where there is a flame, someone’s gonna get burned / But just because it burns doesn’t mean you’re gonna die / You gotta get up and try.”

Peter was broken by love.  How much more wonderful for you and me that God, the author and lover of souls, would so love us that we find ourselves weeping and laughing, distressed and refreshed, in heaviness and set free, all at the same time.

……….

Whatever happened to Charles Brown and Franz Stigler, you ask?  Brown got married, had two daughters, worked for the State Department and eventually retired to Florida.  Shortly after retirement, he began to have nightmares about that incident with the German fighter pilot. Wanting to find him, he asked around at pilot’s reunions.  He put out an ad in a German newsletter for former Luftwaffe pilots, telling his story and asking if anyone knew anything.

On January 18, 1990, Brown got a letter in the mail.  It read:

“Dear Charles, All these years I wondered what happened to that B-17.  Did she make it or not?”

It was Franz Stigler.  In 1953, he moved to Vancouver.  In the letter, he told Brown he’d be in Florida that summer and, his words, “it sure would be nice to talk about our encounter.”

As the years went on, their acquaintanship became a friendship.  One time, the former members of that B-17 crew assembled a reunion and invited Stigler as guest of honor.  There, they put on a slide show of all the children and grand-children and great-grand-children who were born, all because Stigler didn’t shoot.  Their wives became friends, as well, and Charlie and Franz went on regular fishing outings.

Charles and Jackie Brown, from left, with Hiya and Franz Stigler

The war cost Stigler nearly everything; as I mentioned earlier, of the 28,000 Luftwaffe pilots, only 1,200 survived the war.  They were orphans to their own cause and country; no one to talk to, no one to commiserate with and, as in Franz’s case, not even his own brother remaining.  For Stigler, there was nothing redeeming about the war.  Nothing except that B-17 he let go.  Stigler’s and Brown’s reunion was not only profound but salvific.  At long last, after too many generations of others making war, they had the opportunity to write their life’s score.  When they did, they let love win.

A love, it should be noted, which broke them both.  At one of their earlier meetings, Stigler was asked what he thought of Brown.  In heavily accented English, straining to fight back tears, he said: “I love you, Charlie.”  Sometime later, Stigler gave a book about German fighter jets to Brown, knowing that both of them were country kids who loved, when they were boys, to read about planes.  In the inside cover, Stigler wrote an inscription:

“In 1940, I lost my only brother as a night fighter. On the 20th of December, 4 days before Christmas, 1943 I had the chance to save a B-17 from her destruction, a plane so badly damaged it was a wonder that she was still flying.

The pilot, Charlie Brown, is for me as precious as my brother was.

Thanks Charlie.

Your Brother,

Franz”

In 2008, they died within months of one another.  Stigler was 92.  Brown was 87.

Franz Stigler, on left, with fishing buddy Charlie Brown

Love broke them, permanently, irreparably, wonderfully.  Loving and being loved in that way wasn’t easy, I’m sure, and it brought its own hurts and pains, its own heart-heaviness and distress, its own suffering and sorrow.

And, I’m also certain, it must’ve felt so good.

Be willing to be loved, then, like Peter and Charlie and Franz.  Be willing to be so broken by love so God is, in fact, re-making you.  Be willing to be distressed by God’s love, for surely it means you’ll find yourself in prayer crying pain and joy, all at once.  And it’ll feel so very good.  Just because it burns doesn’t mean you’re gonna die.