On: Death and Dying

I write on the heels of Halloween, of a day where the veil between the living and dead is especially thin. Halloween is not really about costumes for me, though I do not mean to negate how fun (though, at times, problematic) they can be. For me, Halloween is a time to dedicate to the honoring of that thin veil and to observe All Souls/ All Saints Day in remembrance of those who have passed on. It’s a communal memory of public losses in society to injustices, but it is also a personal memory of the folks whom you knew and loved who passed along through the veil this past year.

As a society, we do not talk about death very much, at least insofar as the act of death. Often the subject of death is immediately subsumed by conversations about Heaven or the afterlife. I am not immune to this as I will admit that death is not a topic that I am comfortable talking about over dinner. I mean, do we all want to be bequeathed with indigestion?

Because I don’t like talking about death, I forced myself to enroll in a class called, “Death and Dying” this semester. Go figure. (I often subject myself to these sorts of things when I know they especially address/poke/prod a weakness of mine).

I am positive, though, that I am not alone and that this is a communal/societal experience. I know this because I see how hard we try to avoid death –we separate ourselves from the animals that had to die so that we may eat them and we sanitize death in impersonal funeral homes rather than house wakes. Thinking about death generally brings anxiety, uncertainly, and fear to many folks, and this should not be denied or covered up by one’s view(s) of the afterlife. Uncertainty often brings natural anxiety for us. Let’s face it, if you are reading this, you have not died and know not what the experience of death feels/ sounds/ smells/ tastes/ looks like for you personally. One’s view of the afterlife does not negate the uncertainty of the experience of death.

The fact remains that we do not know what it is like to die. And in the un-knowing [the un-known] a space is created for fear, or anxiety, or hope, or maybe especially faith.

No matter how sure you are about the afterlife or lack thereof, faith always must be just that. Faith. The knowing amidst the un-knowing; the trust that even through the un-knowing about the experience/ process of death, there will be a way. Thanks be to God.

    Now faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen. (Hebrews 11:1, NRSV)
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Accompaniment

I am constantly amazed at how dis-attached I feel from myself, others, and the earth when I do not live in rhythm with the seasons. The seasons are good teachers for us. They show us that change does come, that beauty –and hardship– is to be found in change. The winter is beautiful, but in a dormant kind of way. The spring is full of life it seems, but still brings a lethal frost. The summer draws us into long, enduring warmth but can overheat us in our epidermal exchange. The fall brings us more vivid colors than we could ever dream up by ourselves, but with the color comes death. The seasons remind us that death is a part of life, for it is as natural a cycle as any; without death, we would not have life. The seasons are reminders of the good gifts that the earth gives: the harvest, the sunsets, the rain, the protective layer of Ozone.

It is good to live into the change of seasons, to tarry with them in their ebb and flow.

All of life is dynamic. It must be dynamic to stay in equilibrium. For if it becomes static, it is dead.

Though there is little about life that is immune to change, relationships of all kinds can ground us to weather the change.

That friend who is ceaselessly present especially when you do not quite know how to go on. That lover who fills you with more joy than you thought possible. That parent, whether kin or by choice, who believes that you can do anything. That sibling whose relationship with you has evolved from rivalry to friendship. That grandparent who tells you stories of your heritage, stories they have lived with courage, joy, pain, and even regret. That neighbor who works to live in community with you. Those colleagues who you spend more time with than some of your family members….slowly, they become family.

It takes courage and commitment to sustain a table conversation with someone that lasts a lifetime. The novelty of the person, however you know them, wears off and so does yours for them. What is left is a deep, sustaining aura that draws you in. Somehow, they sing a song that is similar to your own, if you listen closely enough. “I believe in you”, “I love spending time with you”, “you can trust me”, they sing. They forgive you when your flaws and insecurities fester like gaping, infected wounds and you respond out of the pain. You forgive the same way. You share tables with them on the holidays or at least send loving well wishes.

These folks do not make change any easier or harder; they just commit, whether implicitly or explicitly, to do the change with you. You and they become seasoned travelers together on the journey of life.

I think this is the way that the Creator God designed it to be.

Accompaniment.

May it ever be so.

Pieces

In wintertime, amnesia arrives,

she makes it easy to forget,

to forget that spring will come,

that new life is awaiting in dormancy,

that sunshine will return and coat us,

that humans care about each other.

 

In winter, I start to forget faces,

the faces I’ve loved,

eyes that are no longer looking into mine,

hugs that I can’t feel anymore,

voices that I can no longer remember,

and I curse mother amnesia, as I pray,

for returned memories,

a smile,

a piece of advice,

an exhortation,

a song,

a day spent together.

 

And then I remember,

in a moment’s brevity,

that they live within me, in my spirit.

My passions, my battles, my joys, my sorrows,

swirl in me, cultivated by their love.

That song which inspires so,

came from her,

That resilience which sustains long days,

came from him.

 

Pieces of them in me,

I live to honor their memories,

I stand on their shoulders,

their mistakes,

their successes,

their endurance.

 

And as spring greets me, I remember,

the pieces of them in me.


Who are you remembering this winter?

Again We Defiantely Sing Alleluia

Tonight we are grieving the loss of brothers and sisters in CT. I don’t have any words to write, so I am reposting a piece that I wrote in July in response to the Aurora theater shooting. It is as appropriate today as it was that day.

LORD have mercy, Christ have mercy, LORD have mercy on us.

Sunday, July 29, 2012

Defiantly Singing Alleluia

A week has gone by since the shooting in Aurora/ Denver Colorado and yet, I am still hurting. You see, I’ve spent the last week in Colorado… and the state and its people kind of grew on me.

I began to feel like the murders that occurred actually took place in my own backyard because when it comes down to it, I think Coloradans are my brothers and sisters too. And it still really hurts.

I came across a sermon from Nadia Bolz-Weber who is the pastor of The House for All– Sinners and Saints, a Lutheran congregation in Denver. She gave this stunning sermon two days after 12 people were killed in a theater. You can hear her sermon here.

She called the act “horrific, evil, senseless violence without a thread of anything redemptive about it.” And that despite the violence and fear, that it’s still always worth it to love God and to love people and always, always, it is worth it to sing “Alleluia.”

The night after the massacre, Nadia’s congregation gathered in a Denver bar to sing hymns to the Lord even as they were grieving. Amongst the singing, she heard a defiant tone in her congregation, a defiance that was the sound of a people who do not believe that violence wins. Their singing was an act of defiance against evil. Singing praises to God amidst violence and destruction. Putting evil in its place, saying it was here and it goes no further. That death and evil are not the final words. They sang alleluia.

If you listen to her sermon, the last seven minutes are of her congregation singing “Alleluia.” A group of Coloradans defiantly singing that evil does not win. Love does. God does.

It’s the most beautiful thing I’ve heard in a long time.

Hurt

So I was listening to one of Johnny Cash’s last songs this week. I have a great amount of respect for Cash though I’m not necessarily a country music connoisseur. The song is entitled “Hurt” and here are the lyrics to the chorus.

“What have I become,
My sweetest friend,
Everyone I know,
Goes away in the end,

And you could have it all,
My empire of dirt,
I will let you down,
I will make you hurt.”

I have never listened to the song before (if you haven’t I’d recommend it with all due haste…listen to it while you are reading this) and naturally, I loved it. It seemed so heartfelt and raw. Raw was something I had been feeling… in the advent of my maternal grandfather’s sudden brain aneurysm and death in January. After the funeral, I had to immediately jump back into the whirlwind of all things graduate school and really didn’t have much time to process the “hurt” I felt… so upon hearing Cash’s song, it sank in. At the same time, I had learned of a friend who was going through a very difficult time and was bearing consequences that were not of her doing. I hurt for her… I hurt for me.

I began reflecting on relationships… people that I know now… that I have known… that I will know. It’s powerful stuff. The fact of the matter is that we will lose each other eventually. Think about people you’ve known and loved… people who are no longer a part of your life for one reason or another. That hurts. Even aches. To have loved and lost that which you loved. For me, it drives home the fact that life comes in seasons… people come into our lives for a season to teach us, to love us, to walk beside us, to change us… but part of living is that we eventually have to give them up… they “go away in the end”… eventually…they’ll make us hurt, like Johnny so eloquently conveys. And then what do you do?

You keep going. You keep loving. You let yourself be changed. They knew you, they loved you and hurt you, they are in your memory, they are in your soul. But you are in a new season now… you can’t become immobilized because of the pain of the past. You can’t shut down. You keep going, keeping your heart open to meet and love new people. This is the blessing of life… a gift of God. So as hard as it can be, you have to be grateful to have known that person and grateful for the memory that you carry.

Then, with all grace and strength… you rise.

Traveling mercies, my friend.


I went backwoods camping recently with my three life-long friends, known affectionately as the Who-ha’s… a knockoff name derived from The Divine Secrets of the Yaya Sisterhood. Armed with the strength of a sisterly bond, the fierceness and determination of the female species, and the love of Yahweh, we trekked on to our next great adventure. We tend to welcome the outdoor adventures that require a certain sense of survival sweetly mixed with the desire to sleep among the stars, sunsets, and sunrises. Our first major endeavor some years ago was a 3 week road trip across the greater United States that took us nearly into Canada… we camped, we feasted over the campfire, we visited old friends, we took pictures, we sang hymns, we laughed, we drove, we quoted Thoreau, we prayed, we conversed, we star-gazed, we hiked, we met new friends, we sweated, we danced. This past weekend lacked nothing as we reunited to repeat these things once more… picking up where we had last left off. What a rich life. Our time together got me thinking…

I’ve been savoring my reading of Anne Lamott as of late. The San Francisco Chronicle writes: “Anne Lamott is walking proof that a person can be both reverent and irreverent in the same lifetime. Sometimes even in the same breath.” Lamott is irreverent, but she writes about grace as if it is desperately needed, as if it is her salvation. She can write like this because she has a codependency on Christ that leaves you realizing that Christ is literally her Savior through such personal grace that only she can know. She’s been through it all and back. She is endearing with her funny stories, crude language at times, fervid political beliefs, and her dreadlocks. She is ruthlessly honest in her pursuit of both life and grace. I love her writing; I see more grace in it than in many religious writings, excluding the Holy Bible, of course. In her book, Traveling Mercies, Lamott explains that she derived the title from her pastor, the Reverend Veronica Goines and her congregation who wish other members traveling mercies when they are about to depart on a journey away from the congregation. “Traveling mercies: love the journey, God is with you, come home safe and sound.” These are the sentiments that they wish each other; this reminds me a lot of the Who-ha’s, our individual and collective journeys, and the traveling mercies that have followed us through the years.

Later, Lamott writes about Bee, an old friend who had weathered the years and was close to her last breath. Anne sat with her during this sacred time, held her hand, and whispered something so profound as her old friend was slipping away to Glory: traveling mercies. So that’s what I wish to say to you today: Love your journey, know God is with you, come home safe and sound. Traveling mercies to you, my friend.

A New Life.

Almost four months into the new year… and I am in love with it.

Today I rested….well after I got home from classes and obligations… I rested. I soaked the sunshine in that was so generous to come. I walked around outside… I saw the beginnings of blooms…of new grass covering the old, dead. I heard birds chirping songs of spring. And I couldn’t remove my mind from the Creator of it all. It is the Creator who gives new life, Jesus.
There is a verse in 2 Corinthians 5…and it says “Therefore if anyone is in Christ, he/she is a new creation, the old is gone. The new has come.”
Do I believe that? That the old is gone. The new has come. Today I am becoming new.

There is nothing that both humbles and excites me more. I don’t want to be who I was yesterday, rather, I am becoming new. Just as the spring has come… new life is given when we are in Christ. I am not my own anymore… my hope is not in this world, neither is my joy, or my peace. It is in Christ. I am in Christ, a new creation. It is the most beautiful thing that I have ever experienced. Life anew.

Taking it a step further, I refer to an earlier blog post. How can we be a new creation if we don’t know who gives life?
Jesus speaks, saying… “I have come that they may have LIFE and have it to the full.” The word life there is a Greek word and its Hebrew equivalent used in Ezekiel 37, where the Ezekiel stands in a valley of dry bones of what was once a vast mighty army. The LORD asks him: “Can these dry bones come alive?” Ezekiel replies, “O Sovereign Lord, You alone know the answer to that.” ……The Lord replied, “I will put breath into you and you will come to life. Then you will know that I am the Lord.” Then Ezekiel watched as the Lord raised the bones and breathed LIFE into them.
The words “life and alive” are used several times here both in the Hebrew Bible and the New Testament. We even see this same Greek word again in the New Testament in Ephesians 2 where Paul writes that “though we were dead because of our sins, He gave us life…for it is by grace we have been saved.” So…

Can God bring that which is dead back to life? A dead marriage, a dead friendship, a dead soul, a dead city, a dead church? Without a doubt. “Then breath came into them, they stood on their feet, a great army.” (Ezekiel 37:10) Christ… the giver of Life. And when we are in Christ, we are a new creation. The old is gone, the has come. Life has been breathed into us. We are no longer dead. We are alive. Hallelujah.