Giacomo Ceruti, Chicken Tetrazzini

“You are dust and to dust you shall return,”

but first my duty was to help you along

lying as you were in the corner of the coop

your feathers still,

your body hushed & crumpled

in the dry heat of late August

I believed you gone

but then you cried as I went to lift your broken body.

How frail and finished you were–

no Samaritan could save you

as death lingered patiently in our midst.

So what could you call it, other than mercy

to offer succor to one of God’s designs in its time of trial?

Could it be anything but grace,

to lift the shovel and strike without hesitation;

sever you from your suffering and usher in peace?

Love is as Strong as Death

I got the call as I was leaving a lunch date with a lovely church member who lost his dear wife back in June. Another fucking overdose in our little community, a 27-year old young man with a lifetime of struggle in his past. He had just left the sober house, had told his parents “I can’t keep living like this.” He was right. He could not keep living, not like this. And now he is gone.

And so the mothers in our recovery community are raging today. They are wailing and rending their clothes at another senseless death, even as they worry over their sons and daughters whose struggle is the same. It always comes in threes, one whispered to me through tears on the phone. I was over here worried about my son, my daughter, my grand baby. I didn’t see this one coming.

Do we ever see death clearly? For death is an unknown landscape littered hip-deep with the hangups that our family and cultural systems have wrought within us. It is a place many of us fear to tread, a Pandora’s box to keep tightly shut. And so we avoid it at all costs, even when the price that is counted is our children, our neighbors, our friends who are struggling.

It is not so with everyone. I know that of us are hungry to talk about death more frankly. I am craving honest conversation on the topic. I want to journey with people who are not afraid to face their own finitude, who know they will die, and for whom that fact is a reason to live all the more fully in the present. I want to, in the words of JK Rowling, “greet death as an old friend” instead of an enemy to be vanquished.

So today I am letting myself feel all of the feels. I will sit in the quiet of my room and drink a cider, and think back on the beloveds that I have lost. I think back to my own uncle, who never lived to be as old as I am now. I think of his desperate struggle to leave his heroin addiction in the past. Of the pain that he caused in his family, who wanted nothing more than for him to live without the struggles of addiction, but who also struggled to live with him in his addiction. Of his own plaintive cry: “I can’t keep living like this.” I was only 10 years old when he took his life, and I still do not know exactly how he did it. His death was hidden behind the veil of adult conversation, not accessible to a child who saw more than they knew, but did not understand.

I remember Elizabeth, who fought her addiction invisibly because no-one wanted to admit that a 16 year old girl could possibly be addicted to anything. And Tommy, her brother, a sweet and suffering young man who took his life when he was no older than his sister had been when she left this life. I mourn them, I keep watch, and I refuse to forget them, or erase their stories. I choose this because life is precious, and I don’t want to forget that for a single second. Even if that truth causes me pain. Because I cannot imagine living any other way.

Great Day

Well, it probably wouldn’t look like it on the surface… this week was dominated by the sudden passing of Gilbert Smickle, the brother of our clerk of session at UPC.  It was painful, and it certainly was occasion for more than a few tears and sighs too deep for words.  And yet, I am consistently overwhelmed by the goodness of God and the power of community in this sad times.  For quickly on the heels of the tears were stories with great power, power enough to sustain and remind us of connections between the family and friends of the departed, power that knit us all together as one family, a body of Christ, rather than isolating any one person.

I am amazed, I must admit, by the sacred space that I am privileged to inhabit as a pastor.*  I get to be a part of this journey in a way that I could never have anticipated.  Sure, I sit with families in the midst of terrible, horrible, gut-wrenching grief, and sometimes it is true that I am asked to ferry the lost and the despairing the through the dark night of the soul that seems it may never end (in case you are wondering:  I have not special powers or experience in this mysterious territory–all I can do is point to the light and hope folks someday will see it… all I can do is be honest and real and present, which often feels like doing nothing, feeling helpless, and holding trembling hands or rubbing tired shoulders).  But I also get an inside look at the joy that the departed has left behind–and when we are lucky, there is much joy to go around.

This week was tearful, yes, but it was also one of great joy.  I was and am honored to have been able to be a part of it, and it is my prayer that all such departures can be as graceful, faith-filled, and beautiful as Gilbert’s was in our beautiful sanctuary, with these beautiful saints, today.

*speaking of which, who would have thought that the rites that come at the end of life would end up being a space in which I felt so at home?  Death seems scary when it only happens to other people, and by the grace of God I count it a blessing that in my work death comes running straight at me, and those who are left behind cannot be ignored.  I think many more on this earth might feel less scared of death if they were given the opportunity to face it and talk about it as openly as I need to in my own ministry.