Living Does Not Lead To Death–Lent Week Five

John 11: 1-45

The Gospel of John is full of long and poignant stories. It seems we often only pay attention to this gospel in the season of Lent, and sometimes Advent. Perhaps that is what it is~a gospel of life and death. The lectionary for this week is exactly a recounting of life and death, literally, and one that underscores the impact that life and death have on community.

I have preached on this text before, it feels familiar. Yet this time what captures me is the line “This illness does not lead to death…”  They are the words of Jesus. Words that are so easily forgotten in our daily lives. As a chaplain I saw how illness can radically change a life of an individual or family, sometimes even led to the end of the physical life. The line is paradox. It is wise for us to ever remember the line that repeats through out scripture “be not afraid”. Both illness and death have a way of making people afraid in our real lived lives. Illness and death do of course bring change, different kinds of change. Change frightens us, always. Jesus seems to be reminding us that illness does not always  bring death. He is challenging a stigma that plauges  humanity to this very day. We assume illness and change lead only to death. Of course, the paradox in this text is that illness does lead to death, and then back to life. That is the cycle of Lent. It is also the cycle of life, forgiveness, spiritual growth, and resurrection among others.

John 11 is of course the recounting of the resurrection of Lazarus from the grave. When Jesus is telling his followers that Lazarus’ illness would not led to Lazarus’ death, it seems that Jesus was pointing them to the larger picture of existence, one that his followers could not imagine. The disciples had no frame of reference for anyone returning from the dead. As if to make the point Jesus delays his return to Bethany. When Jesus arrives at Bethany there is no doubt among any assembled that Lazarus is dead, and buried.

That is when the unexpected happens. That is when Jesus reveals that something beyond human understanding is at work, and that something more powerful than death can triumph. Jesus calls Lazarus out of the grave, and out Lazarus comes to greet the professional mourners who have been hired to wail at the grave. People have all kinds of justifications to make sense of this account. Personally, I do not think it is a literary device in the gospel to foreshadow the death and resurrection of Jesus the Christ. I think Lazarus was dead not sleeping, and I think he returned from that state to the living. I do not not know how it occurred other than through Jesus and powers we still do not understand. While I do not think it was foreshadowing, I do think Jesus may have been teaching those around him that there was more to life and death then their understanding.

I still think there is more to life and death than what we understand. My work as a chaplain in the hospital ICU wards and in hospice have only confirmed this belief. Although I have seen people resuscitated, I have never seen that done days after their death, after they have laid in the tomb. That is difference between resuscitation and resurrection~time. But this chapter of the Gospel of John and in the cycle of Jesus’s death and resurrection which we will celebrate and ponder in the weeks to come speak to us of something that, to me at least, is more intriguing than life and death. They speak to us of life after life in the flesh. What is beyond death? We don’t have answers for that. But as I ponder John 11, two things seem clear that Jesus loved his friend Lazarus and that life somehow exists after life in the flesh–if the former was not true how would Lazarus or Jesus return? Resurrection is more than an issue of time it also speaks to us of love for the companionship of the other, and God’s love for us. “This illness…”, this living, “…does not lead to death” is one thing that my work with persons who are dying has confirmed for me beyond any shadow of doubt.

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Grief

 

Buber and Kelli

Buber and Kelli

I never saw this coming. My beloved Buber the Dog died on March 12, 2013. (Yes, as in Martin Buber, I thank those of you who get that, because it was essential to his canine-ality.) We had taken him to the Vet ER because he suddenly could not stand up, would not eat, and looked like he might be in pain. They took x-rays, said his skeleton was fine and suggested that we follow-up with a neurologist which we planned to do. We took Buber home. He looked comfy and sleepy on a cushion we had for him. I asked him if wanted to go “out”, he lifted his head and torso to look over at me and then just flopped back down as if wanting to sleep. I turned off the light and left the room to let him sleep off the pain meds, little did I know that was my last conversation with him. Less than two hours later I went to pet him good night and found that he was already gone.

We had a home vigil. Burial in the high desert at a friend’s ranch.

I am a hospice chaplain I work with loss and grief all the time. But this has got to me in ways nothing else has. Perhaps it should. This was my and my husband’s beloved dog, this was family, this was my baby. This was the animal that just simply wanted to be next to me all the time, and when I was home he mostly was next to me. This was an animal who connected to my soul–Buber was his name.

Now Buber is dead and buried and life is all odd. I come home from work and there is no pup, if my husband is out there is simply no one there. The house feels empty, and yet somehow it feels more like home now and less of a convenient rental. Things that seemed so important no longer seem so important, and I have this urge to simply slow down.

I know all about grief, intellectually. and personally. I have lost many loved ones to death. Professionally I see death so often it is a real presence. But this is different.  I feel ridiculous. I work with dying people and grieving families, and the death of my beloved pup has turned my life upside down. But I think this is the way it should be.

We feel the pain of loss to same extent that we have loved–and love survives death. It still seems sacrilege to not say “hello” to Buber when entering the house. I look for him in all his favorite spots. And every time I imagine petting his beautiful fur and know I will never get to do that again, tears well up in my eyes. I have done the shock and disbelief. My anger and bargaining have been intertwined….if I had known he was dying….if only I had not been so busy…..thank God he did not die three days before when I was away on a church business trip…. I have even berated myself for not seeing the signs and symptoms of canine dying, thinking that as a hospice professional I should have foreseen this—we don’t always see it even in people, and I had never seen a dog die. Death can surprise you. I have been unkind to myself.

There will be firsts. Like today, we washed the bedding and no more will there be Buber on the bed. And yet in my mind’s eye, I am sure I saw Buber sitting on the clean bedding as I walked by the bedroom just before dinner. When I watered the fruit trees and roses in the yard, Buber was no longer in the yard avoiding the water hose (he did not like to get wet, but he found the waves at the beach fascinating).  Nonetheless, I had the sense the other day that he walked around to the back of the house as I was watering. Yes, I put down the hose and followed just to check his favorite spot to see if he were there.  And I keep forgetting that I don’t have to worry about Buber catching his ear on the rose-bush and getting his ear pierced by a thorn. I am sad that I don’t have to throw the lemons that have fallen on the ground straight into the compost because they may have dog pee on them and thus would be unfit for human consumption. Mostly I am sad that as I write this post Buber is not sitting next to me–often he would  get up on the bed and cuddle next to me as a wrote or use the foot of the bed as a platform to nudge me at desk if I were sitting there. Nope, now it is just here, me, writing on my own…and horribly undistracted. I hope I still will have something to say. Those eyes had much wisdom and grace and taught me so much.

I know the fifth step of grief is acceptance. I am not ready for that yet. I still feel that a part of me has been ripped away with no chance for goodbyes.  But what would I have said? “Don’t go?”  That would only be cruel. “I love you and you are the best dog ever?”–I said all that. He had had pain medication, so if he had pain that had been addressed and he was at home with his people, where he would want to be. So I am assured that Buber the Dog had what we call in hospice “a good death”.  People and food were the most important things in life as far as Buber was concerned. In fact, being and dying at home where he could hear his people talking and fretting over what to do for him next may have been exactly as he wanted  it to be. It was all very hospice like really. I still  feel like this was sudden and I am not ready to accept it.

Yes, l may likely get another canine in time, but there is none like Buber the Dog and his sweet soul that poured the love of God right onto you whether you thought you needed  it or not. The loss of such a being I cannot accept right now, and maybe at least, theologically, I can never accept. May we all meet a living being sometime in our lives who simply think we are worthy of all the grace and love they can bestow. Though I bid adieu to my theological pup and I am pretty sure that I now not only have a direct line to God , but also a fan putting in a good word for me with the Supreme Deity, whose heart will also melt at the sight and touch of the floppy ears

Buber th Dog's resting place

Buber the Dog’s resting place.

 

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Hold on…wait!

Moses spoke to them, “Wait, so that I may hear what the Lord will command concerning you.”
—Numbers 9:8

I have already been a bit of Ba-hum-bug this year. I pooh-poohed the Advent and Christmas decorations that went up  the day after Thanksgiving, or before. It still seems too early in the season for much fanfare. The annual hanging of the church greens reminded me that the time was indeed coming. And slowly the sound and colors of advent are starting to march their way even into the ba-hum-bug of this Rev. So I did it, decorated our Women Who Speak in Church with the purple background for Advent.

It’s not that I dislike the Advent season and don’t want to see the decor or hear the familiar tunes and words. It’s not that at all. I actually like all of that. It’s just that the season is just now coming upon us. Why rush it?

We live in an instantaneous world. We crave immediate gratification. We instant message. We check our Facebook accounts multiple time a day, sometimes even in the presence of others.

Part of me thinks this is too much. If the basis of civil living is relationship, and we can not be in the presence of others without looking at our devices to connect with other people at the expense of disengaging with those we are in the presence of, then we have failed to live the basic spiritual value of the I-Thou relationship through which the holy enters our realm (Martin Buber, I-Thou). It also makes me long for the “Be Here Now” philosophy of my parents’ generation.

Advent is a season of expectation, not gratification. It is a time of waiting. That is something that is hard to do, waiting takes practice. But remember we are waiting on a baby to arrive, that is something that should not be rushed. There are still somethings that take time in the world. Things like birth, the response from a loved one we hope to hear from but may not, illness, waiting for the job interview and the response, and death. The timing of these events are normally far out of the control of human beings.

Advent. Waiting. Hoping. It is something that seems countercultural and yet there is a spiritual lesson to be learned when it is done. I have found that waiting brings a fullness, a wisdom, a maturity not able to be reached in any other way. I have experienced this personally. But I have also seen it in the faces of the very aged persons nearing the end of life whom I serve. There are somethings we can only learn in waiting. Sometimes it is the long waiting that helps us to understand that there is a difference in our time and God’s time. Sometimes it is only through settling into the waiting that we can start to hear anew God’s leading in the moment, and slowly tune ourselves to it for the journey ahead, even if the journey is one of more waiting.

This year, I challenge us all, myself included, not to rush the season. Let us pray, Loving God who knows no time help us your children, stuck in time, ignore the ticking of the clock, the passing of days, the agony of years when that is what it seems. Help us to hear you in the here and now, help us to rest in your time though we cannot comprehend it. Help  us be your partners as You enter and move through the world.  And when all is said and done, Lord, welcome us at last to your eternity. 

She Who Calls

Michelle Obama was speaking at the Convention about how adults within the community influence the young people and look after them, even when the adults in question are not their parents. The point was the important role that all members play in shaping the lives of the growing generation…. And then my phone rang.

I did not hear the end of the speech.  But I heard the voice of our church secretary passing on the news to me that one of the members of our church, I’ll call her Antonia, had died about an hour previously.  It is not news that most people want  to hear. It was not unexpected. Our pastor had told me the Sunday before that the time looked more like numerous hours than days. Antonia had beaten cancer before. I remember when she gracefully stood before our congregation to tell us all how much she sincerely loved each and every one of us, and how she now had stage four cancer and was not expected to live more than two years. It tugged on me. I knew that she had loved the life she had lived, and was continuing to do so. I hated the news. I loved seeing her children move closer to be with her and the joy on her face as her grandchildren became involved in activities at church. But as a hospice chaplain, I knew it was unrealistic to expect a single soul to face cancer and win twice. I think she knew I saw the same writing on the wall that she did. But we never talked about it. Instead we carried on our relationship as it always had been only with more hugs and words and glances of affection.

I was not her pastor or her chaplain. I, however, was also not just another member of the congregation either. I grew up in this particular congregation. I had known Antonia probably since I was six months old–my entire life as far as I am concerned. Antonia, you see, had been one of those adults who makes a profound affect on the growing generation. She had been a teacher, I am sure she affected the lives of many youth. But this about she and I. She defended my mother’s right to be a single mother, in the days when that was not quite the trend it is now. She was one of my first Sunday school teachers. She was one of the “proper and successful” adults to remark on my maturity and confidence as I grew through adolescence. She and her husband danced at my wedding.  As a young adult trying to establish a life she made it known to me, very intentionally, that I was never alone, that she was there. And somewhere in between there was that day she called me….it went something like this:

Me: Hello?

She: Hi Kelli. I was meeting with the Trustees. We are trying to fill the church leadership positions for the next year. And well, we decided that since you are already teaching the Sunday School that you could take on the role of Christian Education Director.

Me: What does that mean, what do I have to do?

She: Don’t worry you’ll be great. Thanks! (end of conversation).

I should probably also say that Antonia’s skill as a successful member of the nominating committee pretty much went down in the history books after this stunt. She was just not a woman I would say no to, about anything–and she never exploited that, so I always simply trusted her.

Little did I know, when I hung up the phone that day that Antonia had set my life on a path that would change me and my path forever. I ended up being the Director of Christian Education for two or three years, and only left it  for a required internship with another congregation (whom I also loved). But, it was during my time as Christian Education Director that I came to realize that six of the ten children in my Sunday School class had siblings or parents with disabilities and that this affected all of them–and that somehow I was called to address this. It was during my time running the Sunday School I came to learn that I loved teaching and wanted to teach in the church in some capacity for the rest of my life. It was in the time after Antonia called to tell me  that I was not only needed but was GOING TO do THIS work, that I finally embraced the call to seminary and ministry. Yes, there have been several literal phone calls that have vaulted me into new forms of ministry, but this was one of the firmest and the one to which there was only one answer.

I am not the pastor of the church that Antonia and I shared for thirty-five years, but I am a chaplain in part ordained by this congregation to the work I do. And I must admit its been hard to know my place, in this situation, at all times these last several months. Wanting to run to her, as the youth I have always been in relation to her and to tell her how much she has influenced me. Wanting to embrace her with all the love I could, and the skill surrounding end of life care I have acquired, and simply not knowing what role to play. In the end I was simply a member of her church congregation, and perhaps that is as it should be. But knowing how Antonia had embraced me with her genuine love and simple concern throughout my life, it was nearly heart-rending to know it was not my place to get into the car and drive to her home and sit with her family the night she died. Dinner had already been provided by the congregation and the pastor was there; and as a chaplain I know that more people often create more chaos in the hours just after death, I did not feel it was my place to impose that night.

I had already planned to be out-of-town the day that was scheduled for Antonia’s memorial service, so I did not get to share the impact she had on my life with her family at that time. I was in a grove of grand Sequoia trees at the time of her memorial. Minutes after I expected her service was over I felt the undeniable feeling of her hug surrounding me and I knew I had made the right choice in not changing my plans–that I needed to be surrounded by trees that were growing when Jesus walked the earth to continue my path of ministry. She knew this and knew right where I’d be.

The greatest saints who call and nominate the members of the church to ministry never really leave us. I think in even in death part of them remains with the church and the clergy they have called, whether as cheer leaders, challengers, or  simply out of pity and remorse I can not yet say. I have decided that I may still have to thank Antonia for that call so long ago. That I may still need to express the many effects it had. But  for now, I think I’ll continue to wait. I think I’ll just have to thank her when I know how it all works out …just to be sure …she didn’t have the wrong number after all.

Death and Advent

Why should I fear in times of trouble,
when the iniquity of my persecutors surrounds me,
those who trust in their wealth
and boast of the abundance of their riches?
Truly, no ransom avails for one’s life,
there is no price one can give to God for it.
For the ransom of life is costly,
and can never suffice,
that one should live on for ever
and never see the grave.

When we look at the wise, they die;
fool and dolt perish together
and leave their wealth to others.
… Mortals cannot abide in their pomp;
they are like the animals that perish.

—Psalm 49: 5-11, 12

The spirit of the Lord God is upon me,
because the Lord has anointed me;
he has sent me to bring good news to the oppressed,
to bind up the broken-hearted,
to proclaim liberty to the captives,
and release to the prisoners;
to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor,
and the day of vengeance of our God;
to comfort all who mourn;
to provide for those who mourn in Zion—
to give them a garland instead of ashes,
the oil of gladness instead of mourning,
the mantle of praise instead of a faint spirit.
…I will greatly rejoice in the Lord,
my whole being shall exult in my God;
for he has clothed me with the garments of salvation,
he has covered me with the robe of righteousness,
as a bridegroom decks himself with a garland,
and as a bride adorns herself with her jewels.
For as the earth brings forth its shoots,
and as a garden causes what is sown in it to spring up,
so the Lord God will cause righteousness and praise
to spring up before all the nations.

—Isaiah 61:1-3, 10-11

I must admit I am composing this devotional afresh just before it is to be posted. I had to. The mixed metaphors of this holy season have caught up with me. Advent, a season of waiting, formerly a season of penance, is full upon us today as we enter the midpoint of this season. I have been struck in reading the devotionals written for WWSIC (particularly those that follow the daily lectionary) at how the advent season is so admixed with the passages of Jesus’ death and ultimate resurrection bringing new life into the world, even life after death.

Life and death. Are these not the crux of the Advent season? In the time of year when we witness the “death” of the sun and foliage; in this time of year when Earth herself seems to go into hibernation, it is hard to not be reminded of the realities of death. I think of this both figuratively and literally.

As Psalm 49 from today’s lectionary reminds us, none of us shall live forever. Rich or poor, we are but creations of God, and no matter how wise or wealthy we may work to become, “Mortals cannot abide in their pomp; they are like the animals that perish.” And yet, many of us find ourselves in a culture that wants us only to seek knowledge and wealth. Moreover, we find ourselves in a cultural season that celebrates overconsumption and greed. If we find ourselves not pondering physical death this season, we may be pondering spiritual or financial demise. And, just where in a season of joy, hope, love, and peace are we to sit with such woes? In Advent we await the birth of Christ and all that means. But this does not mean that all is “well with my soul” in the waiting. In the waiting we find the realness of life: the aches, pains, fears, and contractions that come before birth, particularly when it is unknown how the labor may go.

The season of Advent is dark. The love, hope, joy, and peace we yearn for may not yet have come. Still we wait. It is a wonder to me how and why we do this. Professionally and personally, I am keenly aware this season of how myriad emotions of the human experience—particularly loss—changes the waiting. And I’m aware how experiences of injustice and oppression make the waiting seem like it will simply go on and on, and that change to finally bring relief may never arrive.

And there it is in the lectionary this week: the presence of death in the season of Advent. It is a reminder that we do not live forever. But it also a reminder of God’s promised work in the world. In the passage of Isaiah for this week we are told that God intentionally sends one to help the “oppressed,” “broken-hearted,” “captives,” “prisoners,” and “all who mourn.” It is a promise that even when the world seems most troubled, God is still working out a way out of no way. It is a hopeful text, telling us that God is seeking to liberate those who have been exiled for years—even generations—in a foreign land; that God is coming even for those in a culture that leads them to believe that materialism and greed is all that exists. And God is not only coming for those who mourn—for loved ones or beloved values—but God is going to provide all who mourn “a garland instead of ashes.”

What stands out to me most from this week’s Isaiah text is the promise that God has already “clothed me with the garments of salvation / covered me with the robe of righteousness.” It is a comforting promise, even as I mourn a colleague, and as I am reminded of all those whom I/we have lost this year. It is comforting to me as I think of a friend fighting for life in the ICU even as I write. It is promising to me, this promise that God is not only coming but has already provided garments and robes for me, and all people, at our meeting, the way a mother prepares for her newborn. As the darkness of the season deepens it is comforting to know God is sending someone to meet me on the way, someone who will bring good news and will make me—and all of us—welcome even in the darkness. In the end, it is a mixed metaphor of both death and birth, of waning and waxing.

Good Grief: Memorial Day 2010-2011

Today is Memorial Day, a day to remember those we have lost to war and those we have lost whom we love. I thought I would post a sermon in acknowledgment of the day. The following sermon “Good Grief” was preached at the Community Congregational Church of Pacific Beach on May 30, 2010. This particular sermon provided a context to speak to my congregation about our collective grief. I find it highly relevant a year later, so I am posting it here. For all those we have loved and lost…we remember on Memorial Day.

Fort Rosecrans National Cemetery

Good Grief

Lamentations 3: 19-30    John 11:1-20, 30-37

On May 5, 1868 General John A Logan, as the commander-in-chief of a veterans organization issued a proclamation that Decoration Day should be observed nation-wide.(1) Decoration Day is very traditional throughout parts of America. So traditional in fact that we don’t know when or where it started. It seems to have just appeared in multiple communities, perhaps as a corporate response to death. What we do know is that Decoration Day came to be celebrated throughout America around the end of the Civil War. It was a time, historically, during which the gruesomeness and numbers of human deaths not only seemed unparalleled in American history, but devastated communities because the war was so divisive. As General Logan sought to make Decoration Day a national event, May 30th was chosen specifically because it was not the anniversary date of a battle.(2)

Decoration Day has played an important role in American communities. As early as the 1880’s Decoration Day was also called Memorial Day in the South. This name change to Memorial Day in the South may have been a political one to accommodate people who also mourned Confederate soldiers.(3) So Decoration Day became “Memorial Day.” But I feel compelled to point out to you that to this day in the South, Memorial Day, in addition to being a day to honor those who died in the Civil War and World Wars is still held as a day set aside to remember and honor all those loved ones that the community has lost from its corporate life.

Some of you know that my father’s family is in the South. I can tell you that in rural Alabama, Memorial Day—and indeed the remembrance of loved ones who have died—is a bit different from it is here in urban California. Here we have large cemeteries in different regions of the city and often you have to go out of your way to get there. There, cemeteries are scattered everywhere throughout the community, and often they have no walls or fence— just acreage you pass daily on the sides of the roads.

As is common in that rural area, my own father is buried in the churchyard of the church closest to the family land. Many people visit the graves of loved ones daily or weekly. This is part of the Southern culture and expected of those who mourn. But even after mourning, there is a cultural expectation of remembrance.

My step-mother in Alabama makes silk floral arrangements and she will tell you that most of her business is done between April and May each year preparing floral arrangements that will decorate the tombstones of loved ones on the local celebration of Decoration Day and when flags are added to the graves to recognize Memorial Day. And yes, in parts of the South some people plan these arrangements out months in advance. To neglect to decorate the graves of your loved ones this time of year it is a serious cultural taboo akin to forgetting Thanksgiving and Christmas. In some ways all this effort of decoration seems strange. But in some ways, being adopted into my step mother’s culture, it makes sense and seems almost comforting to have a communal event remembering and honoring individual losses and creating public space for the needs of those who grieve.

If this still seems foreign to you, I can liken the rituals of Decoration Day only to the cultural and religious festival of Dia De Los Muertos—Day of the Dead—that we in southern California may witness at the beginning of each November. Indeed, in some lore about origins Decoration Day there is a mention of a woman who wrote that decorating the graves with flowers should be held as a “religious custom of the South.” (4)

Mourning and grieving is not something we often talk about. Because we avoid it, some even say that observation of Memorial Day should be returned to May 30th rather than observed as a three-day weekend that serves more as the opening of summer than the national day of mourning and remembrance it was intended to be. We must admit that with all the commercial sales and BBQ’s and our beautiful beaches mourning and reflection is not something that we really want to do—not with summer coming! Indeed there are many reasons to be distracted from the reality of death.

Our text this morning, however, is one that speaks of the realities of death and is one that clearly shows us a religious custom of grieving. The eleventh chapter of John and its account of mourning leading up to the raising of Lazarus is a text packed with theological implications. There is the question of why Jesus waited two days rather than going to Lazarus immediately and why this seemed so offensive to Mary and Martha. There is the conversation between Jesus and Mary about who and what resurrection is—and its underlying debate about the existence of an afterlife that persists in the Jewish faith. There is the implication that discipleship means following Jesus even when the journey is potentially to one’s own death and then there is the whole issue of Jesus having control over life and death in what comes next in the gospel—the raising of Lazarus, which in the Gospel of John will be the last straw that leads the temple authorities to arrest Jesus.

However, it is the scene of mourning that is of particular interest. Not only are the sisters and family of Lazarus mourning, but community members and friends of the family have also gathered to mourn Lazarus. The Gospel of John is clear that Lazarus and his sisters were friends of Jesus. For Jesus is not sent message that Lazarus, but that he who you love is sick. Jesus is part of the community of friends and family who join in the mourning. It was part of the religious and social customs of the time not only for others to join in the mourning, but for this gathering to continue for a week. Jesus arrives on the fourth day (of mourning). And in one of the most profound moments of the narratives we have of Jesus’s life we are told that “Jesus wept.” (verse 35)

He simply wept for his friend Lazarus. And the grief of Lazarus’s sisters.

Before the gospel account gets on with its important points of drawing parallels between the raising of Lazarus and the resurrection of Christ or illustrating that Jesus has power over death or even suggesting that God is about to do a new thing, never seen by humanity, it proclaims that even the Son of God pauses to mourn and to grieve.

It is a gospel lesson that we may do well to relearn in this twenty-first century. Too often in our fast paced world the once-natural processes of life and death are rushed so production is not slowed and we don’t fall too far behind.

In some cultures it is normal to have an extended period of mourning when a loved one dies. But too often in our American culture, we get three days’ bereavement leave. According to tradition not only would Lazarus’ sisters have a week of mourning after the funeral but another month of lesser mourning and, depending on the relationship one has with the person who died, the period of mourning may last up to a year. To us this period of mourning may seem a luxury, but it may be necessary.

Before the Civil War, death was a common part of life. In the period following the Civil War, when Decoration Days were first established, the numbers of deaths society had to adjust to because of the war was uncommon and so required a new approach to corporate mourning.

As I read around and reflected on the grief in our text this morning, it was interesting to note that while pastoral care, psychology, and even biblical scholars agree that death is a separation of relationship that has to be experienced and in time readjusted to, that all these disciplines also make note of the fact that the sheer number of deaths in the World War I and World War II forever changed how we culturally approach the reality of death by making burials more industrial and less personal. Following the thousands of tragic deaths on 9/11 and the wars that have followed, some (scholars) seem to question how we might cope with all our losses. (5)

How we might ever cope with our grief is a good question. It seems clear that we can’t avoid mourning. It seems clear that a short bereavement will not fill our needs. The Gospel of John shows the human and divine Jesus pausing to mourn. Generations before us have set time aside for us to grieve and remember those who have died. Many religious traditions, including our own Christian seasons of Lent and Good Friday, require periods of mourning. Still, culturally we avoid mourning and deny death.

Lamentations is one of the few books permissible for Jewish mourners to read. It is a book that chronicles the complaints and grief of the people following the destruction of Jerusalem in 587 BCE. Here we find an ancient doxology detailing God’s faithfulness, speaking from a time and place that seemed to its author the end of the world. It’s not just about faith, but there is something more in it. The word “hope” it uses (in verse 21) also means “expectation” indicating that even in the most dire of times we can expect God’s faithfulness. (6) Perhaps this was the source of the expectation Mary and Martha had of Jesus to come to Lazarus. Our modern expectation is not necessarily that God will fix all things to our liking but an expectation that God will come and be there in depth of our despair.

We never know when God may do a new thing. But we know God is present with us in our joy and in our sorrow. There is a wisdom we have been given which we may want to recall this Memorial Day, as we remember our personal losses, and as we mark the death of 1000 American soldiers in Afghanistan.

The wisdom of Ecclesiastes is this:

There is a time for everything…
a time to be born, and a time to die…
a time to weep, and a time to laugh,
a time to mourn, and time to dance…
a time for war, and a time for peace.

—Eccs 3:1, 2a, 4, and 8b

*** Endnotes

  1. “Memorial day” [on-line] at http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Memorial_day accessed On May 29, 2010.
  2. ibid.
  3. ibid.
  4. “Confederate Memorial Day” [on-line] available at http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Confederate_Memorial_Day accessed May 29, 2011.
  5. Gene Fowler, Caring Through the Funeral: A Pastor’s Guide, (St Louis: Chalice Press, 2004)
  6. The Broadman Bible Commentary. Vol.6. (Nashville:broadman, 1971) 216.

The Empty Chair

empty chair with man's old shoes in a stone room.Two chairs once side by side, both having worn away markings in the carpet suggesting years of permanence.

Perfectly sited for viewing pictures that hang neatly on the walls revealing two lives shared together. These chairs have stories, and if they could speak they would tell you 43 years worth of late night conversations, midnight snacks, newspapers, coffee, and hand holding. Yes, lots of hand holding. At one time, these chairs were solace for the two people.

Now, they are painful reminders of what was.

Using her cane to point, she states, “I would like them back together.” You see these chairs have been separated for some time pulled apart and placed in different rooms. In their place a brown metal hospital bed has now worn its markings into the carpet. Today, the bed was disassembled and carried away as it is no longer needed. Now there is nothing but an empty space. “Do you think you could help me,” she asks. “Sure, just tell me where you want them.” As I begin pushing and pulling them one at a time I am instantly aware of their smell and texture and it’s in this moment I realize what is happening in this sacred space. Like a shattered glass can no longer hold its contents neither will these chairs absorb any more stories…some things really can’t be fixed.

Having found their original markings using the carpet to navigate my way she sits down heavy, as if all the weight in the world now rests on her lap. Labored breathing with dramatic pause she asks…

“Chaplain, tell me how do I live the rest of my life with an empty chair?”