Ashes, ashes, we all fall down

img_0596I ran home at lunch today to burn last year’s palm leaves.  It’s a funny smell and my neighbors might have wondered just what the minister next door was doing.  Nothing untoward, truly – unless you consider taking a symbol of honor and life (the palm) and burning it to ashes to remind people that they are oh, so mortal untoward.

Another Ash Wednesday is nigh upon us.  I think about my first Ash Wednesday as a pastor some twenty-five years ago.  Death seemed neither imminent nor scary, just a nice little comma in this journey with God.  But I stayed long enough in that first congregation to start loving those people, some of whom got sick, some of whom were dying as I drew a cross of ashes on their forehead.

Fast forward, as Ash Wednesday falls three days after what would have been my dad’s 89th birthday; as Ash Wednesday falls two days before my darling daughter’s 14th.  I fear death now.  I know the havoc it wreaks, the worry it brings, the dread not just of the slow march of dying but also the crushing emptiness of the one who is gone.

Yet here we are, making crosses out of ashes and saying to young and old, to hale and sick, to the faithful and doubting, mortals all, “Remember you are dust, and to dust you will return.”  Stern stuff, these ashes.

Here’s a little spoiler alert because I’m going to mention the end of The Good Place so if you haven’t seen it yet, don’t read any more, but happy Lent.

I thought that last episode was exquisite, with the prevailing realization that what made life so precious was the knowledge that it would end.  We would never know what would be our last sunrise to awaken to, what would be our last time to hear our favorite piece of music, what would be our last time to tell that old story and laugh and laugh.  I remember the last time I spoke with my dad – and I knew it was the last – and it’s still so hard to think about and to write about. I said goodbye, then joined my siblings where I sobbed and fell to the floor.

Remember you are dust, and to dust you will return.  Ashes, ashes; we all fall down.  We fall down in grief, in wonder, in agony, in worship.  We fall down in disbelief, maybe, that all this will end, that to the dust we will return.

But unless the seed falls to the dust, to the dirt, and dies, no new life will come.  Fall down we must.  Rise, we will.

Sunrise at the columbarium, with coffee

Two days after my father’s memorial service, my mother and sister and I had coffee at dawn at the columbarium where his ashes had been laid. It was a cool, dry morning, and while we did not see the sun, we did see the color of the sky change. We talked quietly, looked at the names next to the place where his name plate would eventually go, and sipped our coffee and blew our noses

This week as I think about Easter, I keep going back to that scene: three woman at the grave at dawn. Certainly we were still so very sad, and the worst of the grief had not yet set in. We were still together but later that day, after the sun had fully risen, I would make my way back to Oregon and my sister would go back to North Carolina. Our brothers would return home too, and Mom would return to her new life, life without Dad.

We left the columbarium so we could pack and head to the airport. Each goodbye weighed heavier than the last, though they were lightened by promises to see each other soon, to stay in touch, and we have, but still – there is nothing like being together in the flesh.

The Easter story tells of three women, or two disciples, or one woman and a gardener, all at the tomb. I know their grief, and I want to know their hope and surprise. This Holy Week in the thick of things, I do not know them. Not yet.

Sunday morning I will stand in the pulpit and read that magnificent story and I will bi-locate, and part of me will be at the columbarium with my mom and my sister, waiting for the sun to rise. One never really knows what will happen while preaching, if the Spirit will rush through me and I’ll know – know – that I’ll see Dad again; or if I’ll be totally disconnected from my words and putting on a good show; or if I’ll look out at the beloved congregation, so many of whom have walked through death and grief and hope, and who still show up in on Easter morning because there’s nothing like being together in the flesh, whether the news be bad or Good.

It wasn’t a wedding but maybe it was

All the family was there, and we all looked nice. Lifetime friends from all over the country came, and those who couldn’t sent wonderful cards. The church hosted a reception afterwards, and we schmoozed and hugged and told stories. When it was over, we were glad to get off our feet.

But instead of gifts from a registry, people sent flowers, and instead of a wedding, we had a memorial service.

It reminded me of our family’s weddings, and the camaraderie and deep emotion that flowed these past few days were reminiscent of other, happier gatherings.

I really wish someone had been getting married. I really wish Dad were still here, and I have moments of shock when I realize – in my gut and not my head – that he is gone.

Rumi once wrote, “Our death is our wedding with eternity.” Maybe that’s why things felt familiar. Maybe Dad isn’t gone, but has simply gone on. I like to think so.

In the days to come there will be notes to write, and things to put back in order, and grief that morphs into different grief. But I’m holding on to the the wedding image, too. I imagine Dad raising a glass to our successes. I imagine him finding Benny Goodman’s band and kicking up his heels. I imagine him waiting for my mom to make her entrance, and I hope that doesn’t happen for a good long while, at least in the way we count time.

Maybe life’s great events – birth, marriage, death – are really just variations on a theme: the theme of an unknowable adventure that lies ahead, an adventure that will be the best kind of adventure as long as love is present.

See you soon, Dad – but not just yet.

Advent Vigil

232_Barrick_Advent_Purple_72_dpiFor Jack, Annie, Tom, and Grace

This is not the Advent I anticipated,
The one with three purple candles and one pink
The one with meditating on the birth of the Christ child
and pondering the meaning of the Incarnation
It isn’t that Advent

It is an Advent
with picturing my mother holding Baby Jesus
the way she holds any baby she can
And delighting in Him
And having a moment of joy

It is an Advent with a flurry of bushtits landing in the small tree in the courtyard
Angels in disguise
Chirping some song I assume to be good news though I cannot understand it
But they seem to happy in their trilling, and good news is in short supply
They’re gone when the hummingbird finds the Mexican Sage,
the one thing around here observing the purple of the season

It is an Advent with stars leading the way to places unknown
To people who have Gone On
With wondering if he’ll join the meteor shower and fly through the night sky
Or catch the tail of the too-close comet
And leave us

It is a season of waiting
For a death and not a birth –
But not an Eliot death.*
No one is clutching the old dispensation here
No one is really clutching anything

We are, rather, letting go of someone we have loved
Of someone who has loved us in return

It is a holy season
But not the one I expected

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* T. S. Eliot, Journey of the Magi, excerpted:

All this was a long time ago, I remember,
And I would do it again, but set down
This set down

This:
Were we led all that way for
Birth or Death? There was a Birth, certainly,
We had evidence and no doubt. I had seen birth and death,
But had thought they were different; this Birth was
Hard and bitter agony for us, like Death, our death.
We returned to our places, these Kingdoms,
But no longer at ease here, in the old dispensation,
With an alien people clutching their gods.
I should be glad of another death.

The quick and the dead

Today I paid a visit at our local retirement high rise.  Here at church we refer to it as our south campus, what with a few dozen of our members living there.  In the past five years I’ve come to think of it as the place where people I love have died.  It’s a holy place, a sacred space.

It’s full of the quick and the dead, that place – our living saints (and a few curmudgeonly types) and ghosts, too, for me and I suspect for others.  I walk by an apartment that used to belong to someone else.  I take communion to folks on the nursing floor, and remember the overheated room where a saint experienced hospice care and left his earthly body.

I remember another saint whose husband died there, and her dismay when his body was taken out the back via the service elevator.  When she died, in the same building but a different room, the gurney holding her mortal remains was wheeled proudly through the lobby and out the front while her children sang “Immortal, Invisible, God Only Wise.”  I never hear that hymn without thinking of her.

My parents live in such a place in another state, and have long referred to it as “the last stop.”  I am glad they are there, taken care of by staff as needs arise, since none of us kids lives anywhere near them.  I remember when they first moved in how surprised they were that people kept dying.  I did remind them, gently (I hope), that it is the last stop.

In those places there is often a fine line between the quick and the dead.  Perhaps those places are thin, in the Celtic way, liminal places that contain both life and death.

I’m preaching this week about the story that took place on the road to Emmaus; that seven mile path was a thin place, liminal, a place of life and death.  The resurrected Jesus appears to be both quick and dead.  It’s a marvelous little story, and weird too, and there’s much to say about it and yet I find I want to say nothing about it, but simply to sit with it.  Maybe hovering between life and death and hanging out with the saints will do that to you.

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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Christmas Eve at the cemetery

Arlington-without-Christmas-wreathsIt was such a brief scene as I drove by: a man pulled over on the side of the road, standing on a hillside that was dotted with in-ground gravestones, standing in front of one that was decorated with some red and white flowers – carnations, maybe.  I saw him for only a few seconds, and I wondered why he was there, standing on the muddy ground in the rain.

Was that his mother, his wife, his best friend, his brother?  Why that moment?

The chiaroscuro of the season always gets to me: life’s way of creating shadows so that the candlelight seems all the more bright; life’s way of creating drama about everyday things, like visiting a cemetery, or pulling over on the side of the road in the rain.

In my first six years of ministry, I conducted a funeral or memorial service every year on December 23rd, or 24th, or 26th.  Ruth, age 84.  Jean, age 81.  Gene, age 78.  Faith, age 85. Maybelle, age 79.  Bob, age 89.  I would often use the texts about Simeon and Anna for those service, old people who died knowing the full consolation of Israel and the promised savior.

But still.  Standing at the cemetery on Christmas Eve – it makes your heart break a little, when you get back into your car and “Grandma Got Run Over by a Reindeer” is the first thing that comes on the radio, and then some idiot passes you by with a loud blare of his horn because you’ve slowed down, because you can’t really drive very well with the tears flooding your eyes.

A friend of mine let me know I won’t see her on Christmas Eve; it’s a hard time right now, and she didn’t think everyone around her would appreciate her tears.  It is bleak, this midwinter, and for us in Portland is has been gray and sodden.  There are other  people I won’t see at church on Christmas Eve.  Some leave town to be with whatever family is still left.  Some will be full with a feast and wine, sleeping through our carols and candlelight.  And some will just stay home, because all the songs and all the twinkling trees cannot fill the well of sadness that’s taken squatter’s rights in the heart these days.  But there are many I will see, there because they have joy to share, or questions they seek answers for, or because they love to sing in the candlelight, or because their Mom made them come, or because this is their community, and of course they’ll be there on Christmas Eve.

A church I used to be a part of has Easter sunrise services at the cemetery every year.  I wonder what it would be like to have a Christmas Eve service at the cemetery – too Dickensian, waiting for the ghosts of Christmas past, present, and future to show up?  Too morbid, like the Zombie Nativity that’s made a few headlines?  Or too real – the presence of death even as we celebrate birth?

The mind goes to T.S. Eliot, who often gets the last word with me.  From “The Journey of the Magi”

All this was a long time ago, I remember,
And I would do it again, but set down
This set down
This: were we led all that way for
Birth or Death? There was a Birth, certainly
We had evidence and no doubt. I had seen birth and death,
But had thought they were different; this Birth was
Hard and bitter agony for us, like Death, our death.
We returned to our places, these Kingdoms,
But no longer at ease here, in the old dispensation,
With an alien people clutching their gods.
I should be glad of another death.

And still:  a warm Christmas to you, whatever that may mean.easter-candle

The Terrible Beauty

Halloween is done, thank God.  I am so over that holiday.  This year we carved exactly one pumpkin, and I let the real spiders decorate inside and out.

Actually, Halloween was over for me after fifth grade.  That year, near Houston where I grew up, a father was found guilty of killing his son by lacing his Pixie Stix with cyanide.  The next year I broke my foot, and that was that.

Maybe part of the reason I’m glad Halloween is over is because I really, really, really love All Saints Day.  It’s right up there with Christmas and Easter for me, only better, because there are fewer expectations.

But this year, in the middle of the service – after I had preached but before we began to celebrate the Lord’s Supper, after we had sung “For All the Saints” and named our beloved dead – in the middle of the service as the choir sang an extraordinary anthem, I thought to myself

This is a terrible thing to do to people.

The choir was singing “Entreat Me Not to Leave You” by Dan Forrest.  (You can listen to a different choir sing it here.)  I was thinking about all the people I have loved who have left me in death, and I did not have the literal opportunity to tell them not to go, not to die, not to succumb to the cancer or the internal injuries or old age.  I got so sad, and had to do that pastor thing of disengaging emotionally so I could stand up and do the next thing.

Celebrating All Saints is a terrible beauty.  Terrible in that all that pain and grief and rage is unleashed again.  Terrible that it’s done publicly.  Terrible that we don’t all stand up and stomp around and insist that God stop all the tragic deaths.

But then it’s so God-damned beautiful too. The golden shining of those souls.  The memories.  Naming the names.  Affirming the hope that they are not gone forever.  Not being alone in our grief.  Really beautiful music.  Holy communion.

The best analogy I can find is wiggling a loose tooth.  It hurts, but it’s a good hurt. Today I think All Saints is that way, the worship service at any rate.  It hurts, remembering those people who have gone from us.  But it’s a good hurt, because we had them for a while, and now we have each other, and that will do.

 

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My husband and daughter, years ago, at Yellowstone, walking toward a wide sky.

On thoughtfulness and reunions

My friend told me a lovely story today.  Over the weekend she received a letter from a stranger, and the opening line read, “I hope this is not intrusive.”  The letter was from a person working with the state hospital; the hospital has hundreds of containers of people’s cremated remains, and they are attempting to return them to the family of the deceased.

My friend learned that the hospital had her great-grandmother’s remains; would she like them?  She said yes, and plans to take them to the cemetery where her mother and grandmother are buried.  She will go with her daughter and granddaughter to the graveside, and there will gather six generations of strong, beautiful women.

As my friend told me this story, I got a little teary.  Maybe it was the thoughtfulness of the gesture.  I think that’s part of it, but part of it too is this strange thing I have about reunions, even beyond the grave.  (Or at the grave, in this case.)

Now I don’t believe that those cremated remains or any decaying body of flesh and bone have any power in them.  There is no life there; they are going back to the dust from whence they came.  The souls that inhabited those bodies have gone on, I believe, and while the soul makes its home in skin and sinew, it is not confined there.  The souls of my friend’s mother and grandmother and great-grandmother have gone on.

And yet.  And yet there is a poignancy to reuniting these ashes with those of a daughter and granddaughter.  I have no idea what happens when we die.  Maybe this faith thing has been one big crap shoot and when it’s over, it’s over.  Or maybe we fall asleep for a while, and wake up when Gabriel blows that horn.  Or maybe we die and boom we go to heaven and the reunion is instantaneous.

If we die and sleep for an eon, imagine the waking up.  Imagine my friend’s great-grandmother waking up, and those ashes and pulverized bones coming together again, kneaded back into vibrant form; imagine her waking up and seeing her daughter and granddaughter with her.

Wouldn’t that be something.

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Many waters cannot quench love

A few days ago I asked my Facebook world what they were hankering to read a blog about; the answers were few.  But two friends both said they wanted to read something about love.  One of them, a former college professor of mine and a drama queen in the absolute best sense of the term, said this:  “The mystery of love is greater than the mystery of death.”  I don’t think my former professor is a religious sort of person, but her suggestion immediately took me to the Song of Songs.

Set me as a seal upon your heart,
as a seal upon your arm;
for love is strong as death,
passion fierce as the grave.
Its flashes are flashes of fire,
a raging flame.
Many waters cannot quench love,
neither can floods drown it.

Death has been around more than usual of late, and I find little mysterious about the deaths nearest me.  A member of my extended family died after a long illness, and there may have been some small mercy that he died before the disease took a more humiliating and painful toll.  A young child in our congregation’s circle had a brain tumor removed and the family faces a very different future than the one they imagined for her; their original dreams have died.  Little disappointments add up to small deaths.  And all this in the midst of Eastertide.

Death has not felt mysterious lately, but I know that it does feel that way sometimes.  To be with someone in his last hours; to sit with a family as tears pour out when their 102-year-old aunt steps through the veil, tears of gratitude and relief; to walk a cemetery like a tourist, an unintentional voyeur of another’s grief: there is mystery in death.  It’s not the mystery of why lungs stop inflating and deflating or why a heart stops beating.  It’s the mystery of the silence after, the vacancy of a life.  It’s the void that some of us fill with hope that there is more.  It’s the moment after the conductor picks up the baton, before the music begins.

Love usually feels mysterious.  On any given day I would be hard-pressed to say why I love my spouse and child.  I could tell you what I love about them, but if you asked my why I love them, I’d likely stammer out, “Because I do.”  It’s a privilege to love others in the cloud of mystery – some bosom friends, a parent or two.  Some loves defy explanation.  I will not name their names in order to protect the innocent, but I have two relatives, married to each other, and for the life of me and everyone else in the family, we cannot figure out what ever got them together, but fifty years later, there they are, tending to each other and bickering and getting creaky together.

Maybe love is more of a mystery because unlike death, we cannot always point to its work.  We see the still, yellowing body and we know that death has come; mystery solved.  But we see a garden, or a child, or we stand in a field in the middle of nowhere and look up at the shimmery night sky, and wonder if love made those things come to be.  We watch the protests, and volunteers going through the rubble, and watch the watchers of the Supreme Court, and wonder if love is the force that weaves them together.

Would I say love is stronger than death? I would. I believe I have evidence to support the claim.  But I would rather join Oscar Wilde in saying that the mystery of love is greater than the mystery of death.  It is in the mystery where we find ourselves without answers or solutions or our usual bag of tricks. It is in the mystery where we have only ourselves, and those few friends who will stay with us in the uncertainty, and for some of us, the Divine.

It is the mystery of love where I find my greatest hope, because if I cannot explain it, then it must be true.

http://www.forestwander.com

For Jim and Zinnia, with love