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

Dream/Reality

A-dreaming-person-008Last night I had a weird dream.  It wasn’t a nightmare, but it wasn’t a good dream either.  I dreamt that all the oxygen was running out, and soon everyone in the world would die.  Neither my husband nor my child was in the dream (thank goodness) but our dog was.  I remember wanting him to be near me when I died.  In the dream I was a little frantic and very, very sad, not only because I was going to die but because everyone was going to die.  And soon.

I woke up from the dream around 4am and was able to fall asleep again.  In that time between waking and falling back asleep, I started thinking about what I would do if the oxygen really was running out of the world.  Would I panic?  Would I break into a hospital or doctor’s office or scuba shop and steal oxygen?  Would I try to get on the good side of some conspiracy theorist who had a bunker stocked with oxygen just in case this scenario played out?  I went back to sleep and this time dreamt about being in NYC with college friends, so evidently my subconscious wasn’t too scarred by the oxygen deprivation.

The dream has stuck with me today.  Where did it come from?  We recently were watching some procedural crime show in which the victim died from asphyxiation, but that was over a week ago.  The dog was curled up at my feet, which is probably why he made it.  But someone once advised me to pay attention to the emotions that stay with me after a strong dream, so I’ve been thinking about low-level frantic-ness and deep sadness.  My best guess is that this dream was about the world running out of something.

Unless you’ve been off the grid with your head in the sand lately, it’s hard not to notice that there is a lot of bad stuff going on right now.  Those Nigerian schoolgirls are still missing, and since they’ve been gone, eleven of their parents have died.  Seven were killed in a Boko Haram attack; four died from health-related issues.  We lament the disappearance of these girls half way across the globe while we wring out hands over what to do with the refugee children flooding into Texas from Central America.  An airliner was shot down, killing hundreds of people, many of whom were involved in the vital work of AIDS research.  More planes have crashed.  ISIS is now requiring that all women and girls in Mosul undergo genital mutilation.

And I have no words about the violence in Israel and Palestine.

Maybe my dream was about the world’s loss of capacity to breathe in something – peace, maybe, or patience, or reason.  Or maybe I’m a little frantic and very, very sad because it feels right now, at both the conscious and subconscious level, as though we are running out of hope.  And we will all die without hope.

May we catch our breath soon.hopeless

Haunted

Door-AjarToday, after lunch after worship, I went to one of our senior living communities to preside over our monthly communion there.  I love doing that – extending the morning’s table to a group of our saints who can’t make it to the church in the morning.  For some, it’s too hard to physically get into the van that brings them to church, and then too hard to climb even a few stairs.  For others, one hour-ish is just too long to sit in a less than comfortable pew with restrooms too far away.

So we take church to them, gladly.  Two retired clergy who live in this place, and who worship with us regularly, organize the whole thing and I appreciate that.  These two guys could easily play Statler and Waldorf – the old Muppets commentating in the balcony. They love to make cranky observations about church, but I’ve learned as I watch them minister to the saints at communion that you only have to dust off that fine powder of curmudgeon to discover some sweet and compassionate men.

When I arrived at our communion place, which is also where people gather to watch movies and assemble jigsaw puzzles, one of the deacons told me that a regular wasn’t feeling well enough to join the group; could we take communion to her?  Of course.  As we went to her room, we passed one room where a church member recently died.  Farther down the hall, we passed the room where that woman’s husband died a year or so earlier.  Other people now live in those rooms.

It was odd passing those rooms where I spent a few very intense hours as they lay dying.  It’s odd that other people live there now.  It’s odd that those place which were so holy during those dying days are now rooms for another purpose.  Is the holinesss still there?  Or did it leave with the soul of the departed?

After communion I stopped by the hospital to visit another member who has been unconscious in the intensive care unit for ten days now.  She’s another saint of the church.  At 93, she’s been taking French lesson.  As I entered the ICU, I passed by the room where a member was recovering from a stroke.  She has since passed, but I remember the conversations she and I had in that room, and the prayers shared there with family and friends.

So I’m feeling a bit haunted today; haunted by the memory of people who have died, haunted in spaces they inhabited, haunted not so much by their death but by their absence.  It’s odd to feel haunted on the first day of Advent.  Of all the things this season is about, mourning loss or even just remembering it doesn’t quite fit the bill.  It’s a season of light and dark, of portents and hope, of God breaking into the world.  It’s not about our breaking out of the world, or about emptiness.

But maybe it is.  Maybe Advent is about loss, in a way – the loss of the old way of doing things, the loss of the old understanding of how God does things. And maybe it’s a little okay to be haunted by that.