Mortal, after all

Yesterday I led a memorial service, a celebration of life, for a two-day old.  It was excruciating, as you might imagine.  It was also stunning and beautiful, as you might not imagine.  Pain was real and evident, but more present was the love that surrounded these two parents and these three grandparents.

That service came on the tail of four other deaths in our congregation, all women in their 90’s.  Those deaths were sad, but not unexpected, and really, not tragic. My colleague’s husband finally succumbed to the cancer he fought bravely and vehemently.  That was awful, too.

A long-time friend of mine – would I call him a friend? – lost his battle to ALS.  We went to junior high and high school and college together, but we didn’t run in the same circles and we never really hung out, except for long drives across Texas to out-of-town debate tournaments.  Still, his death has hit me hard.  Maybe I’m facing my own mortality.  Maybe I’m owning up to the fact that we are mortal, after all.

Add to that the violent deaths in St. Paul and Baton Rouge and Dallas, and Baghdad and Nice; aging parents and more cancer and random car accidents and plane crashes: mortality is announcing itself, loudly and proudly, and I want none of it.

My daughter is fed up too, maybe not with death but with the professional call of her parents to deal with death and dying.  It feels like all the time to her.  Evidently there is some sound I make, some short expulsion of air, and a way I say “oh no” that makes her look up from her book or computer screen and ask me, “Who died this time?”

That’s a question I never asked my parents when I was ten.  My grandparents were alive and healthy, as were my friends and their parents.  No one I knew had cancer; no one I knew got shot.  A cousin I didn’t know died in a motorcycle accident, but that’s it.

Why do we have to die?  I know the answer to that, and I don’t know the answer to that.  I also know that getting each other through the grief of death while we’re still this side of the grave is one of the highest callings we have, which doesn’t mean that it’s all pretty and lovely and tied up neatly with a sweet little bow.  Grieving and sitting with the grieving is most often awkward and inconvenient, messy, full of swear words and uncomfortable silence and wadded-up tissues and casseroles that will be reheated for the week.

But then sometimes the light breaks in, through the stained glass window of a sanctuary, or across the row of crosses at a cemetery, or glistening on the water where ashes are scattered.  Sometimes laughter sneaks in, in gallows humor or a hilarious memory. Sometimes some a minuscule thing happens, and the grief is eased an iota, and the future shimmers for a moment with hope – a mirage in the desert of sadness while we wait for the real oasis.

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The table

I have a thing about tables – end tables, side table, telephone tables, coffee tables, dining room tables, drop leaf tables, round, square, triangular.  I have a thing about tables.  It might have to do something with an appreciation of horizontal surfaces on which to put stuff.

So when I had the opportunity to buy one of the communion tables built for the recent General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church (USA) I jumped at the chance.  I gave my best doe-eyed look to my husband, and told him we really could use it in the back.  I’m pretty sure it wasn’t the doe-eyes that won him over, but now it sits in our backyard.

The table was made out of our Pacific Northwest native wood, the Douglas Fir, the Pseudotsuga menziesii .  Its scientific name is derived from the pseudo prefix because the Doug Fir isn’t really a fir tree; the menziesii come from the name Archibald Menzies, who classified the tree before David Douglas, who named the tree after himself.  So you could say the table isn’t what it seems.

I wrote the communion liturgy that was used for one of the services at the table during GA.  The preacher/presider that day chose not to say all the words I wrote; I believe they did not suit, theologically-speaking.  I was a little miffed, to be honest.  But then I remembered it is a table of grace.

The table was transported from the Oregon Convention Center to our home a few miles away because of the strength of many and the generosity of a friend, who provided both muscle and pick up truck.  It is a table of friendship, too.

Its debut at our home was for a potluck dinner for all of us who were on the steering committee that provided hospitality for the General Assembly, and on that beautiful Thursday night, it was laden with wine and lemonade and iced tea and brats and chicken and pork and watermelon and crudites, and laughter, and stories, and gratitude.  It is a table of abundance.

Our child protested the arrival of the table in our small backyard – it takes up space she plays in.  It is a table of inconvenience.

But I love it.  I love where it has been, and who has stood behind it and broken bread and poured the cup.  I love who has gathered around it, and who will gather around it.  It is the holy in the ordinary, and I am reminded that the holy calls me to gracious, and generous, to be a friend.  I am also reminded that, like the table, the holy can be inconvenient at times, nudging us to let go of grudges, to rely on loaves and fishes, to find a way to squeeze one more person in.

It needs another coat of lacquer, according to its builder Michael.  A little care must be given for it to survive the long haul, not unlike all of us.

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