Posts Tagged ‘death’
Last week, a beloved member of my congregation died. He was a prominent businessman and philanthropist in the community, so his death prompted a front-page article in the community newspaper. The reporter called me, and I offered a few words of appreciation. The article that followed was lovely, but it referred to me as his “former pastor.” I suspect the reporter intended to indicate that since the man was “former,” then our relationship was “former” as well. I probably used the past tense in describing him, my regular practice to adjust to the reality of death. However, we were just entering into one of the deepest and most holy parts of the pastoral relationship.
As your pastor, I accompany you when you die. Unless your death is sudden, I will come and sit with you and invite you to talk about dying. What frightens you? What gives you peace, and what peace do you need to make? What have you left undone, unspoken, unacknowledged? Can I help you tend to those things, or let them go? Together in prayer we will hold the grief and gratitude for your life, the fears you face and the confessions you make.
As you approach your last breath or immediately after it, your family will call me. I will come and sit with them and with your body. I might put a touch of scented oil on your forehead to bless your body one last time. We will touch you as you grow colder, pray that God will deliver you to peace and that we might have strength to confront our grief at your absence. I will share with them, gently and without violating your confidence, what you told me about your own death. It helps your family to learn that we talked about these things.
After they meet with the funeral director to tend to the details, I will gather with your spouse or children or grandchildren or closest friends. They are exhausted from the things of death—caskets and cemeteries, death certificates and disposal of property, phone calls and insurance. Often we sit around your kitchen table, or in your living room. I think about times I visited with you during your life, and I ask them to do the same. As the stories flow, it’s like you are there with us. We smile and laugh, and we all cry together, too. I take notes. They tell me secrets you probably wish they didn’t, and I promise not to repeat them. Sometimes, if I knew you well, I get to reveal stories about you, too. Together we put aside the things of death to pick up the things of life again–your sense of humor, your pet peeves, your passions, your work, your love. If you were not always a nice person, we talk about that too. Honesty is important.
We talk about how to place your life in the context of God’s wider story of love. How was God revealed in your life? What faith did you practice? We read scriptures and listen to music together until we find just the right verses to connect your spirit to God’s Spirit. Before I go, I pray with your family, and we call your name, giving thanks to God for you.
Over the next few days or hours, I think about you all the time—washing dishes, praying, driving around town, listening to music, looking in the bathroom mirror. I almost always dream about you, and sometimes I think you speak to me in dreams. I read through the notes and scriptures again, and contemplate how to talk about your life and God’s place in it. When you are alive, you are dynamic, changing, conflicted, plural. Suddenly, the story is closed, the ending known. I take a scattered mix of memories and images and senses and feelings and string them together to make sense of your unique, complex self—and of the presence of God. I pray that I can give your family back the words they shared with me, to replace the things of death with the things of life again.
At the funeral, my body accompanies yours from beginning to end. I enter with you, leading the casket into the chapel or sanctuary. When the service concludes, I stand a few feet from you while everyone pauses to say their last good-byes. I try to stand slightly apart, so that people don’t feel like they need to shake my hand. I don’t eavesdrop on their private farewells, but I see them touch your hand, call your pet name, kiss you on the cheek. I always fight tears.
When everyone else has left, I stay. I pray with your body one last time, just the two of us, before watching the funeral director close your casket for the last time. I walk with you to the hearse, stand by while the pallbearers lift you inside, then climb in the front seat to ride with you to the cemetery. When we arrive, I lead you and the pallbearers to the graveside, offering final words and prayers before you are laid to rest. The family often comes forward to touch the casket, to take a rose, to say one more goodbye. They drive away, but I stay behind with the funeral director. I watch until you are lowered into the ground. Only then do I leave your side. Only then might I be considered your “former” pastor.
But the truth is that I will always carry you with me. The threshold between life and death is a thin place, and when we have stood there together, we are forever linked. The holiness of accompanying you through the rites of death leaves a mark on my soul, even if I never met you in life. I may speak in the past tense and say, “I was your pastor,” but as I accompanied you in death, you accompany me in life. I remember you on All Saints Day, on the next visit to the same funeral home, hospital room, cemetery. I remember you when I hear that hymn or read that scripture or drive by your old house. And I still think of myself as your pastor.
Ordinary Grace by William Kent Krueger. Atria Books, 2013, 307 pp.
The title drew me in from the “new books” section of the library. I’d never heard of William Kent Krueger before, but he is apparently best known as a mystery writer. Ordinary Grace is a bit of a mystery, but it is mostly a coming-of-age story about a young boy, son of a Methodist minister, as the reality of death touches his small community and his family. It is not the best book I’ve ever read, but it was a good story well told. I couldn’t put it down, and it made me weep more than once. It spoke to my heart in a powerful way in this season of my life, as the pastor parent of a young boy.
The story belongs to Frank Drum, who is thirteen in the summer of 1961 and the novel’s narrator. Frank and his younger brother Jake have the run of their Minnesota small town, while their older sister Ariel is busy preparing to attend Julliard in the fall. Their daily explorations unpack the town’s characters: the minister father who carries invisible scars from his bleak past at war; the mother who gave up her own musical dreams; the piano teacher Emil Brandt, blind from war wounds and resigned from a life of fame; his sister Lise, living with mental illness; their father’s war buddy Gus, who lives in the church’s basement. There are savory and unsavory characters, from their young friends to a Native American with a past to the rowdy teenagers to the town police officers. The story unfolds a series of tragic deaths that occur over the course of the summer. As Frank is exposed to these deaths, and to the events that led to them, he enters an adult world of violence, betrayal, adultery, prejudice and more.
What drew me in was the plainspoken style that Krueger gave to many of the adult characters, especially Rev. Drum, as they explained to the boys and to one another the realities of loss, hope and especially grace. I put nearly a dozen flags in the book, and copied out countless quotations to keep for later. Here are just a few.
These are Rev. Drum’s remarks at the funeral of a transient man whose identity is unknown. I would hope to speak so simply and truthfully.
We believe too often that on the roads we walk we walk alone. Which is never true. Even this man who is unknown to us was known to God and God was his constant companion. God never promised us an easy life. He never promised that we wouldn’t suffer, that we wouldn’t feel despair and loneliness and confusion and desperation. What he did promise was that in our suffering we would never be alone. And though we may sometimes make ourselves blind and deaf to his presence he is beside us and around us and within us always. We are never separated from his love. And he promised us something else, the most important promise of all. That there would be surcease. That there would be an end to our pain and our suffering and our loneliness, that we would be with him and know him, and this would be heaven. This man, who in life may have felt utterly alone, feels alone no more. This man, whose life may have been days and nights of endless waiting, is waiting no more. He is where God always knew he would be, in a place prepared. And for this we rejoice.” (71)
When the Drum family suffers a terrible loss, Rev. Drum questions whether his own sins in war might be to blame. His war buddy Gus responds with words that cut to my heart as a pastor who has known times of doubt.
Gus said, “You think God operates that way, Captain? Hell, that sure ain’t what you’ve been telling me all these years. And as for those sins of yours, I’m guessing you mean the war, and haven’t you always told me that you and me and the others we could be forgiven? You told me you believed it as surely as you believed the sun would rise every morning. And I’ve got to tell you, Captain, you seemed so certain that you got me believing too. … I can’t see any way that the God you’ve talked yourself blue to me and everyone else about would be responsible for what happened.Seems to me you’re reeling here, Captain. Like from a punch in the face. When you come around you’ll see that you’ve been right all along. I know I give you a hard time about your religion, but damned if I’m not grateful at heart that you believe it. Somebody’s got to. For all the rest of us, Captain, somebody’s got to.” (191-192)
I know what it feels like to carry the weight of faith because other people need you to believe it, even when you have your doubts. Krueger’s ability to name this subtle experience of ministry so plainly moved me.
I also learned from the Prologue a quotation from Aeschylus that I had not heard before.
He who learns must suffer. And even in our sleep pain, which cannot forget, falls drop by drop upon the heart, until, in our own despair, against our will, comes wisdom through the awful grace of God.
In the end, it was the grace of Ordinary Grace that moved me–the way the characters in this small town extended grace and forgiveness to one another across terrible circumstances.
This is one of the most frequent theological questions I get asked. If you believe in the Holy Spirit, can you also believe in spirits? If you believe in resurrection, in heaven, in hell—can you also believe in ghosts?
I usually field these questions from those who are dying and those who have recently lost loved ones, and they arise in response to a direct experience that feels like an encounter with someone beyond the veil. It’s not anything like Casper the Friendly Ghost, or Poltergeist, or even the friendly haunts from Hogwarts. Almost always, people just describe a presence that they can feel, or sometimes a voice they hear or a vision that they see.
When people are dying, they often tell friends and loved ones (and their pastor) about visits from loved ones who have already died. People will detail elaborate conversations they have had with their parents or spouses or children who are long deceased. These conversations seem as real to them as conversations with living family members. My own grandmother, in the final days of her battle with Alzheimer’s Disease, described the “red-headed angel” that came to see her, and we all thought of my aunt, her daughter, who had lost her battle with breast cancer a few years earlier.
Those who have recently lost loved ones—especially a spouse or parent—will describe feeling, hearing or seeing that loved one with them again. These encounters often come in the night, either through a sophisticated dream or a sudden awakening to the brief sight or sound of the person in the room. Other times, it just feels like the person is there, even though the bereaved person knows that they have died. I have had countless people share messages from their mother, father, wife or husband. Almost always, these visits provide a sense of love, peace, connection and healing to the grieving heart.
People tell me these stories to see if I think their encounters are real, to test if they are losing their minds, and to ask whether believing in the reality of these experiences is somehow incompatible belief in the reality of God and God’s promise of resurrection. As a pastor, my answer to all of the above questions is always unequivocal. Yes, I believe them when they tell me about the power of these experiences. No, I don’t think they are crazy. No, I don’t think believing you’ve seen or felt the presence of someone who has died is incompatible with Christian theology.
Are these “ghost stories”? Who is to say? We do not have sophisticated, subtle language to discuss our experiences that touch the space between this life and the next. From earth, the boundary between life and death seems impermeable, but we have no knowledge about how that boundary works from the other side.
No one knows for certain what happens when we die. It is all a matter of faith and speculation. At the heart of the Christian faith is the promise of the resurrection—that Jesus somehow was raised from the dead, which means that death does not have the last word, that there is life beyond this life, and we need not fear the grave. Does that resurrection mean that our beloved ancestors return to us at the time of our crossing over or theirs, to comfort us? Or is it all something our minds concoct in times of stress and distress? I don’t claim to know or understand. I certainly don’t find anything in Christian theology that precludes the possibility, nor anything that affirms it. Who am I to say that it is not of God?
As a pastor, I am grateful for those grieving loved ones who have these encounters with spirits, because their pain is eased and healing begins. Maybe it is all just the one Holy Spirit, the Comforter, who comes to us in many forms to bring consolation.
Since I started seminary 14 years ago, I have offered words of remembrance at the memorial service of every family member who has died, along with countless church folks I have known and loved. In that time, I have learned to grieve and to heal by writing those remembrances. While it may be unusual to eulogize a cat, Ringo was an unusual cat. Writing him a letter felt like just the right way to honor his memory and work through my grief at his passing today. I share it with you with a light heart and much love.
To Ringo, My Little Lion
July 26, 1997 to June 27, 2011
You came into our lives in October 1997, when you were just 10 weeks old. At the Berkeley Humane Society, all the other kittens were sleeping quietly in their cages, but you and your jet-black sister were racing in gravity-defying circles around your cage. I immediately thought you were beautiful, and we brought both of you home.
That first night, before you even had a name, you were both so tiny we were afraid we would lose you in our giant one-bedroom apartment. We made elaborate plans to let you spend the first night in the bathroom, then move to the bedroom, then the whole house. But you and your sister were so cute and irresistible, and you slept in our bed that night. We should have known right away that this was a bad idea, because you kept us up all night. We discovered you had been weaned too early, and had taken to suckling (loudly) on your baby sister’s soft stomach. Hours and hours you carried on, and we couldn’t tear you away. This was just a preview of your lifetime of obstreperous behavior.
J named you “Ringo,” and the name fit you perfectly. Your sister became “Lilith,” and she has grown aloof and reserved in accord with her name. In that first apartment, you grew and discovered the world. You and she found a way to crawl inside the back cushion of the sofa, and made us worry you were lost or trapped. You would mewl and tap us on the back through the thick fabric. One day, you got curious about something outside the unscreened, second-story window, and took a flying leap to the alley below. It was the first of many times your wild side gave us a scare, but you landed just fine and took it all in stride.
When we moved to our second apartment just a block away, you were already two years old. You immediately took an interest in the small yard out our back door. Within just a few days, looking out the window was no longer good enough. You started keeping us up all night again, yowling and begging to go outside—even though your only previous experience outdoors was your flying leap out the window. We tried a leash, and supervised outdoor playtime, but you were relentless and demanded to go out all the time. Who could blame you? It was Berkeley, and the backside of the PSR campus. We finally gave up, and let you go free. You only became more affectionate and attached to us, and always returned home from your wanderings.
When the time came to journey from California to Boston, it was you, me and Lilith driving all the way across the country in a tiny, 12-year-old Ford Escort with no air conditioning. I couldn’t stop for more than 15 minutes at a time, because the car would get too hot for the two of you in your carriers. That first night in Elko, NV, we stopped at a Motel 6. I put you and Lilith in the room with food and water, and left to go eat and cool off. When I returned, you acted like a watchdog at the front door—guarding it with your body and your fiercest meow. All night long, you laid like a sphinx by my side on the bed, and at the smallest noise you would send up a loud warning growl. I don’t think you managed to scare anybody away, but you showed me that night how much you loved me. I realized that you would fight to the death to protect me and Lilith, and ever since that night, I have felt honored by your devotion. I started calling you “my little lion,” because you acted as big as the king of the jungle.
When we moved to Boston, we tried to keep you inside again. That didn’t last long, and you were again an urban outdoorsman—prowling the backyards and driveways of Brighton in all hours and all seasons, even insisting on going out into two-foot snowdrifts that swallowed you whole. It was there that you honed your skills as a hunter. You jumped into the front window bearing mice, birds, rats and even a snake one time. Sometimes, they were still alive in your jaws, and I had to finish them off just to be humane. Once, you dropped a crushed, crippled, but very much alive and FAST mouse in the middle of the kitchen floor, and it scurried under the couch on three legs. You sat and watched as I chased it all over the house. I’m not sure if you thought you had provided me with great entertainment, or you just did it for your own amusement. I was pretty amused, though, when we left you in the care of our two PETA-loving vegan friends, and you left them the head of a mouse on the kitchen floor as a gift. They were horrified! I still chuckle when I remember it.
You always maintained your wildness, your fierceness. Of course, that meant you were also a bully. I was so embarrassed when I realized that you were the one starting all the fights with the other neighborhood cats. I had to go apologize to more than one neighbor. When we moved here to Indiana, you were older and the neighborhood cats were tougher. You tried to keep on being a bully, but you kept getting injured. After two $150 trips to the vet to drain infected cat bites, we had to keep you inside again. J told you that we didn’t have $150 to let you go outside, and if you wanted to go back out, you’d have to give us $150. You didn’t ever come up with the money, but you did manage to wheedle your way outside again. You could be just that annoying, demanding and obnoxious. We realized we couldn’t live together in peace if you were an indoor cat, so you got your way.
When B was born, I was afraid of your fierceness. I worried that you would be jealous, or play too rough, or love too hard. But you directed all your fierceness to protecting my tiny child, showing distress when he cried and joining your yowls to his if I did not respond quickly enough. To B, you gave only gentleness and patience. I cringed when I saw baby B grabbing fistfuls of your fur, pulling your tail, or leaning open-mouthed into your flank and emerging with a giggle and a face full of gray hair. You just laid there, even seeming to enjoy his crazy attention. As he got older, B became your playmate, and I never had cause to worry about his safety with you around. He always called you, “my best kitty,” and you were. You two roughhoused and snuggled and got on each other’s nerves just like brothers.
But your true sister was always Lilith. You two were siblings in every sense of the word. Sometimes, you loved on each other, groomed each other, healed one another’s wounds and showed enormous affection. Other times, you were jealous of one another, snappy and bickering and screaming at one another. But you always protected each other, just like all good siblings. I don’t think she realizes yet that you have gone for good. I don’t know how she will grieve for you, but I know she will miss your companionship.
We all will. You were a big presence in our household. I keep expecting to hear you yowling at me about something, or jumping in the front window to come inside, or head-butting my chin to get my attention, or pawing my face to get me to pet you more vigorously. You drove me crazy most of the time, and I was annoyed by you as much as I enjoyed you. Yet you were the most friendly, tolerant animal I have ever known, never showing a hint of meanness (except to other cats) and letting us lift, carry, pull, tug and pinch you without concern. You were fierce in your loyalty, fierce in your affection, fierce in your independence and aggressive in your demands for love and attention. I loved you even when you made me want to throw you across the room. You loved me even when I did toss you across the room—and you immediately came back for more.
Tonight your fierce and restless spirit has at last been silenced. I held you in my arms to the very last, and your persistent spirit kept purring and begging to be petted some more. Your sweetness and love prevailed as you purred through your last breath.
I wasn’t always the most attentive caregiver, Ringo, and for that I’m sorry. Please forgive me. If you could talk, or feel regret, or ask forgiveness, I hope you would finally admit you weren’t always the most patient or pleasant of pets, either. You were stubborn, obstreperous and frequently rude. I don’t think I’ll miss that behavior anytime soon. But you were also the most loyal, devoted, loving animal I have ever known, and I will miss your presence on my feet, in my lap and in our lives. You will always be my little lion. I love you.
Thank you for sharing your life with us, Ringo. I hope it was a good one.
This has been a difficult week for my congregation. We have experienced the death of two beloved church members this week, as well as three unrelated deaths of family members (a mother, a father, a sister) of church leaders within the last two weeks. I have been responsible for officiating at four of the five funerals, including three in five days.
As a pastor, these difficult, exhausting times are just part of the job sometimes. It comes with the pastoral life. The middle of the night phone calls and trips to the hospital, the painful hours spent sitting with grieving families, the processing of lifetimes in writing homilies and prayers—this is the work of ministry. When the crises pile on, we get tired, but we keep putting one foot in front of the other and do the work that God has called us to do.
In my church, I am giving thanks this difficult week that I do not do this work alone. I am beyond exhausted by the sadness and heartbreak of it all, not to mention the scramble to prepare services and interrupted, sleepless nights. I have my own grief to manage as I say goodbye to people I have come to love dearly. But I am not the only one carrying this burden, or doing the work of caring for these families.
I am surrounded by so many faithful Christians who are also participating in the work of ministy to these grieving members of our community. The Women’s Fellowship has coordinated a funeral meal for four of the services. Several were very large families and groups, and they reached out to the rest of the congregation for help. I know that even as I am up late in the night writing another homily and formatting another bulletin, the church family is up late in their kitchens preparing casseroles and vegetable trays and chocolate cakes. When I arrive early to print out programs in my office, they appear just a few minutes later to start preparing the coffee and the lemonade.
During the meal, I watch them make their way to the grieving family members. I see the women who’ve lost husbands in recent years spending time with the newest widow, reassuring her that she will survive this heartbreak. I see caregivers who’ve supported each other in holding on now supporting one another in letting go. When my feet are aching and I just want to go home, I am not there alone—they are packing up the leftovers, washing the dishes, wiping the tables. We arrive together, we leave together. We grieve together, we serve together.
I am so blessed to serve in this community, where we are the church to one another. Each one of us is doing our part. I carry the pastoral load of emergency calls and funeral rites. They carry the load of food and friendship. My hours might be longer on weeks like this one, but I feel their ministry carrying mine when I am about to fall exhausted. I am so grateful.