a death of my unconscious

My friend Melinda McDonald, reading my post of yesterday, a World AIDS Day tribute (reposted from December 1, 2016), really, a poem in commemoration of my brother Wayne and his courageous facing of his dying and death at the insidious hand of AIDS, wrote to me, in part: How you have been formed in the refining fires of love and loss and grief. These are what make us what we are, hopefully better and more pure of heart.

On this morning’s reflection, I realize that I read her words as a question – How have you been formed in the refining fires of love and loss and grief? – and recognize the irony that Melinda’s comment stirred and brought to light (to life?) something, a thought, an idea that, doubtless, for some time, since Wayne’s death in 1995, had lain in the recesses of my unconscious. That is, what happens after people die; not only to them, but for those who live on?(1)

I responded to Melinda, writing (again, now it is clear to me something I had been pondering unawares, but now, due to her gracious word, has died to my unconscious, flowering fully in the light and life of my consciousness): Wayne’s death has taught me that grief – though, yes, there are stages – has no end. I will mourn his death until I die. Something else I believe I have learned… I used to think that when a person died s/he remained frozen in time (that is, as s/he was at the time of death) in the memories of living loved ones. In Wayne’s case, I, amazingly, have discerned that he has continued to be and to become – perhaps, yes, as I would have imagined and envisioned his development; nevertheless, o’er the years, I have heard him speaking to me of things in my ongoing experience. Perhaps, for me, this is proof, tho’, by faith, I need it not, of the life everlasting.

Thank you, Melinda. Thank you, Wayne. Thank you, God.

Wayne & me

Footnote:

(1) In this, I think of the Apostle Paul’s grand assurance to the living both about those who have died and those who live on: We do not want you to be uninformed, brothers and sisters, about those who have died, so that you may not grieve as others do who have no hope. For since we believe that Jesus died and rose again, even so, through Jesus, God will bring with him those who have died. For this we declare to you by the word of the Lord, that we who are alive, who are left until the coming of the Lord, will by no means precede those who have died. For the Lord himself, with a cry of command, with the archangel’s call and with the sound of God’s trumpet, will descend from heaven, and the dead in Christ will rise first. Then we who are alive, who are left, will be caught up in the clouds together with them to meet the Lord in the air; and so we will be with the Lord for ever. Therefore encourage one another with these words (1 Thessalonians 4.13-18).

Photograph: Wayne and me, c. 1956/7

Advertisements

Of life in the still-Christian South (a retired cleric’s occasional reflections)…

On the passage of death

Daily, I read the obituary page of my local newspaper, memorializing those, most of whom I do not know, who have died. I proffer as much care and attention as, perhaps more than I render to the A section, op/ed, business, local news, and sports pages. For I, believing in the sacred, shared kinship of humankind – or, à la John Donne, “No man is an Island, entire of itself…any man’s death diminishes me, because I am involved in Mankind”[1] – reflect on the text associated with each name and photograph; the words constituting a brief biography of familial roots and relationships, associations and achievements; these summations of multiple journeys in and through this world shaping the larger story of the life of a community.

Daily, nearly every announcement, after listing the resident’s South Carolina town or city, her/his name, age, address, and date of death, contains the following wording, representative of a decidedly Christian religious ethos: “passed peacefully into eternity” or “went home to be with the Lord” or “gained her/his wings”.

cross

There was a time, now long past, when I, at best, that is, charitably, eschewed (and, honesty compels the confession, at worst, that is, disparaged) such language; considering it sentimentalizing metaphor of the stark fact of death. When rising to the heights (or rather falling into the depths) of my theological elitism (truly, alway a pseudo-sophistication, for I ne’er possess the last or first and surely not the only word on anything!), I opined: “Passed? Passed where?” orHome? Home is hereorWings? Angels, if there are angels, have wings.”

Daily, as I continue my inexorable journey toward the threshold of my death, I have come to appreciate these phrases. I read and interpret them as expressions of hope. The hope of those who live that their loved ones abide forever in the nearest presence of God. The hope that the Apostle Paul’s words are true:

We do not want you to be uninformed, brothers and sisters, about those who have died, so that you may not grieve as others do who have no hope. For since we believe that Jesus died and rose again, even so, through Jesus, God will bring with him those who have died…Therefore encourage one another with these words.[2]

and

So it is with the resurrection of the dead. What is sown is perishable, what is raised is imperishable…It is sown a physical body, it is raised a spiritual body. If there is a physical body, there is also a spiritual body…For this perishable body must put on imperishability, and this mortal body must put on immortality. When this perishable body puts on imperishability, and this mortal body puts on immortality, then the saying that is written will be fulfilled: “Death has been swallowed up in victory!”[3]

Yes, I have come to appreciate, indeed, favor “passed peacefully into eternity”, “went home to be with the Lord”, and “gained wings”, for these phrases capture my hope, too. My hope, again, à la Donne, that: All mankind is of one Author, and is one volume; when one man dies, one Chapter is not torn out of the book, but translated into a better language.[4]

 

 

Footnotes:

[1] From Meditations XVII, John Donne (1572-1631), English poet, lawyer, and Church of England cleric

[2] 1 Thessalonians 4.13-14, 18

[3]  1 Corinthians 15.42, 44, 53-54

[4] From Meditations XVII. The full text of this passage: All mankind is of one Author, and is one volume; when one man dies, one Chapter is not torn out of the book, but translated into a better language; and every Chapter must be so translated; God employs several translators; some pieces are translated by age, some by sickness, some by war, some by justice; but God’s hand is in every translation; and his hand shall bind up all our scattered leaves again, for that Library where every book shall lie open to one another.

a prayer for a breezy, chilly, bluesy Wednesday

Lord, my body’s weary, but I didn’t sleep well last night or the night before last night or the night before the night before last night. Rather, hour after hour, through teary eyes, I stared above, watching ambient light dance across the ceiling, but really, trying to see…trying to find You…

For my weariness and teariness, Lord, are conditions, disorders, now, seemingly chronic, begotten of my feeling about, fretting over situations in this world. This world that Your Father made and gave into human care. This world that Your Father sent You to save. This world, it’s clear to me, for which we humans have not cared very well. This world where it’s sometimes unclear to me where I must look (having longed, yet failed) to see evidences of Your salvation.

This past Sunday, Lord (though I know You know), twenty-six of Your disciples, gathered in Your Name, were shot to death, half of them children, Lord, and twenty more wounded. I remember Your word about those Galileans who, when offering ritual sacrifice to Your Father, were slain on the order of Pontius Pilate.[1] So, yes, Lord, I know that to gather in worship, whether in a Baptist church in Texas, the temple in Jerusalem, or anywhere is no bulwark of safety from violence wrought by human will, whether at the hand of a lone gunman, at the point of a soldier’s spear, or by any other means. Yet, Lord, their murders, any murders, all murders grieve my soul.

So, today, Lord, after sleepless Sunday, Monday, and Tuesday nights, on this breezy, chilly, bluesy Wednesday, I, weary and teary, feeling…being lost, am trying to find You. Yet, Lord, even…especially amid my weariness and teariness, I have faith in You and Your Love. I remember Your parable about having a hundred sheep, losing one, and leaving the ninety-nine to go in search for that wandering one.[2] Lord, I’ve often wondered about this. It doesn’t make sense to me for You to do that. But, then again, my faith doesn’t make sense, for it (as is true of its object; that’d be You, Lord!) is beyond the fullest, even faintest comprehension of my reason. So, Lord, though it makes no sense, in faith in You and Your Love, please, I pray You, come find me.

Amen.

 

Footnotes:

[1] Luke 13.1

[2] Luke 15.3-7

you’re in good hands with All…

(not state,[1] but rather) Souls – a personal reflection post-All Souls’ Day, November 2, 2017

In this recent annual 3-day cycle of All Hallow’s Eve (better known in common parlance as Halloween), All Saints’ Day, and All Souls’ Day, I, as a Christian – and without the slightest disparagement of any other faith tradition or spiritual custom – have been put greatly in mind of those, commemorated by this last observance, who have died in the faith of Jesus as Lord.

O’er two millennia, some of these, whom Revelation refers to as having “died in the Lord”,[2] verily, a tiny few, are personally known to me and a few more only by historical record and reputation, and, clearly, most not at all. Nevertheless, perhaps it is my daily increasing awareness of my aging and, thus, my mortality that sharpens my focus on the inexorable journey’s end of all who dwell in this world: death. In this deepening recognition, the Spirit of God floods, as life’s blood, my heart with these words: Therefore, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us also lay aside every weight and the sin that clings so closely, and let us run with perseverance the race that is set before us, looking to Jesus the pioneer and perfecter of our faith.[3]

This late 1st century writer, seeking to bolster the determination and dedication of Christians living in Jerusalem and under persecution, recalls the examples of those, Hebrew heroes and heroines, who lived and died with faith, “the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen”[4] – among them, Abel, Enoch, Noah, Abraham and Sarah, Joseph, Moses, the Israelites in their exodus from Egyptian captivity and their trek to the Promised Land, the judges, David, and Samuel. As the ongoing arc of the epistle extends through and beyond any given historical era and as long as time in this world lasts, it is reasonable, indeed, a testament of conviction to expand and include in the “great cloud of witnesses” all who lived and died in faith.

saints (a great cloud of witnesses), Fra Angelico (1395-1455)

I find this a momentous thought – one that grants me the comfort of encouragement, especially in moments of trial and tribulation when life’s only surety seems to be (and, as it seems, so it is) struggle – that all who have gone before me:

  • wait for my eventual arrival that where they dwell in light eternal, there I will be and
  • watch me in my life’s journey and
  • watch over me, fretting over my failures and praying for my progress and, in all things,
  • willing me to carry on!

 

Illustration: Saints, Fra Angelico (1395-1455)

Footnotes:

[1] Since the 1950s, You’re in good hands with Allstate has been that insurance company’s reigning slogan expressing a commitment to customers’ wellbeing.

[2] Revelation 14.13

[3] The Epistle to the Hebrews 12.1-2a

[4] Hebrews 11.1

today and every day, I remember…

a personal reflection for All Souls’ Day,[1] November 2, 2017

cemetery - church

For all the saints who from their labors rest,

Who Thee by faith before the world confessed,

Thy name, O Jesus, be forever blest,

Alleluia! Alleluia![2]

Today and every day, I remember with gratitude, O God, alway to You…

my mother Lolita and my father William through whose loving union You granted unto me the gracious gift of life in this world…

my mother through whose unassailable forbearance, You granted unto me the inestimable gift of the revelation of unflagging faith come what may, come whene’er, come howe’er…

my father through whose fiery temperament and his paradoxically simultaneous acknowledgement and disregard for the odds against him, You granted unto me the discomfiting gift of an abiding intestinal impatience with injustice…

my brother Wayne through whose abundant compassion for all in travail, especially the disenfranchised, the least and the last, and his indomitable courage in the face of his own tribulation unto his dying day, You granted unto me the splendid gift of the vision of the noblest humanity of Your Son Jesus.

Almighty God, with whom still live the spirits of those who die in the Lord, and with whom the souls of the faithful are in joy and felicity: (I) give you heartfelt thanks for the good examples of all your servants, (especially, on this day, my parents and my brother) who, having finished their course in faith, now find rest and refreshment. May (I), with (them and) all who have died in the faith of your holy Name, have perfect fulfillment and bliss in your eternal and everlasting glory; through Jesus Christ (my) Lord. Amen.[3]

 

Footnotes:

[1] All Souls’ Day, also known as the Commemoration of All the Faithful Departed, following All Saints’ Day (November 1), since the 11th century, has been a part of the Western Christian calendar of observances.

[2] Words by William Walsham How (1823-1897)

[3] The Book of Common Prayer, page 503 (my emendations)

the politicization of death

On October 4, 2017, Staff Sergeant Bryan Black, Staff Sergeant Jeremiah Johnson, Sergeant La David Johnson, and Staff Sergeant Dustin Wright, members of a 12-man unit on routine patrol in Niger, were ambushed and killed by a larger force of ISIS militants.

This past week, we have borne witness to what I consider the sordid politicization of death.

First, believing no two people ever mean the same thing when employing the same words and, thus, as the firmest believer in the necessity of defining one’s terms, I digress.

Politicization, in my lexicon, is the act or process of becoming politically conscious. Here, I understand “politically” in the primary sense, derived from the Greek polis (city) and, broadly applied, the human community (which is as expansive – locally, regionally, nationally, globally – as one’s imagination allows). Thus, to be politicized is to be aware and to practice with effective, respectful care the art of human relationships.

In the clutch of human selfish self-interest, politicization can be distorted. An example: One’s negative description and definition of the word or action (or unspoken word or untaken action) of another so to depict, so to diminish that person as lacking in character or virtue or falling short of accepted ethical norms.

This, for me, is when politicization is made sordid. This is what we witnessed this past week.

President Donald Trump telephoned Mrs. Myeshia Johnson, wife of Sergeant La David Johnson, to express his condolences and those of a grateful nation, saying, in part, as it has been reported, “He knew what he signed up for, but it still hurts.” U.S. Congresswoman Frederica Wilson of Florida and a friend of the Johnson family criticized Mr. Trump as lacking empathy. Mr. Trump defended himself, denying Representative Wilson’s characterization.

I am no fan of Donald Trump. I consider him zealously egoistic and injudicious in speech and action, at times, dangerously, given his role and responsibilities. (However, I am not one who claims, “He’s not my President.” I am an American. Mr. Trump is the American president. Therefore, he is my president.)

I also am less than sanguine about Representative Wilson’s public and repeated declarations of her discontent with the content of Mr. Trump’s words to Mrs. Johnson. For her criticisms, in my view, precipitated a furious round of point-and-counterpoint because of which the primary attention has been given to the politicization of death and not on the lives and legacies, the memories of and the memorials to the dead.

I never served in the military. In World War II, my father, William, served honorably in the army in the Philippines. Through his recounts of his experiences and his revelations of the scars he bore, some invisible, but no less abiding, I, at an early age, learned to honor the sacred sacrifice of all who wear the uniform and bear arms, whether near or far, to maintain the liberties Americans enjoy (though, yes, it must be confessed, imperfectly and unequally).

Thus, this day, I want to – I will – do nothing but pray:

O gracious God, Sovereign Source of all life, Supreme Solace for the dead, I pray You receive into Your nearest, dearest Presence in Your heavenly habitations the souls of Staff Sergeant Bryan Black, Staff Sergeant Jeremiah Johnson, Sergeant La David Johnson, and Staff Sergeant Dustin Wright: Heal their wounds, bind them fast and forever in Your peace. And, by the living breath of Your Spirit, comfort, come with strength upon the families and friends of these fallen brothers in arms, guiding them through the shadowy valleys of their grief with the grace of the light of Your everlasting love; through Jesus Christ. Amen.

predictable patterns?

On October 1, 2017, in another American mass shooting, 59 people were killed (one being the assailant from a self-inflicted gunshot wound) and over 500 injured. By the numbers, this is the deadliest mass shooting in modern American history.

Still, I think, I feel that all whose loved ones died last year in Orlando, Florida or in San Bernardino, California in 2015 or in Newtown, Connecticut in 2012 or in Blacksburg, Virginia in 2007 (or in any other incident in our ongoing national saga of mass violence), for as long as they grieve, which will be for as long as they live, may consider those the deadliest mass shootings.

Since Sunday, as in the instances of all mass shootings, I observe a predictable pattern; some, not all of the elements being…

Every one of us of goodwill, regardless of race or religion or no religion, class or culture, personal philosophy or opinion, decries the murders.

Some of us demand and some of us resist renewed efforts to enact tighter gun control laws; and, in this, some of us in either camp vilify the motives and the morals of some of those in the other.[1]

Still others of us contend that, for the sake of compassion for the mournful, the immediate aftermath of the tragedy is not the time to engage in political combat.

And, inevitably, all of us who live will “get on with it”, going back to living our lives as we have known them, that is, until the next mass shooting.

However, on this last score, something for me, something in me has changed. Perhaps it is because, as I age, I find myself more attuned to and pained by our human trials and tribulations, worries and woes, sufferings and sorrows. Yes, mine own, yet, even more, those of others, all others.[2] Thus, though I will “get on with it”, I won’t, can’t get over it.

What I think, feel, believe this means for me is that my awareness of human mortality and life’s fragility, suddenly, shockingly, sickeningly renewed this past Sunday, will not, will never fade…

What this means is that I, every day, will be more conscious that all of us are mortal, we will die, and that all of us are fragile, our lives, whether by natural calamity or human violence, accident or disease, can be tragically transformed in an instant…

What this means is that I pledge to live with more intention than I ever dared to dream…

And, on this feast day of St. Francis of Assisi, I can think of no greater, grander guide than to live my life in the conscious keeping of the prayer attributed to him:

Lord, make me an instrument of Thy peace!

That where there is hatred, I may bring love.

That where there is wrong, I may bring the spirit of forgiveness.

That where there is discord, I may bring harmony.

That where there is error, I may bring truth.

That where there is doubt, I may bring faith.

That where there is despair, I may bring hope.

That where there are shadows, I may bring light.

That where there is sadness, I may bring joy.

Lord, grant that I may seek rather to comfort, than to be comforted.

To understand, than to be understood.

To love, than to be loved.

For it is by self-forgetting that one finds.

It is by forgiving that one is forgiven.

It is by dying that one awakens to Eternal Life.

 

Footnotes:

[1] Here, I think, in political terms, it has become all too facile to cast Democrats as gun control advocates and Republicans as gun rights activists. For it seems to me that either the stance of gun control or that of the Second Amendment “right of the people to keep and bear Arms” is not the sole interest or desire of any party or persuasion. Indeed, I have been surprised, which, confessedly, reveals more about my biases and assumptions, when discovering that a friend, an avid hunter and combat veteran, is a longtime believer in strict gun laws and another friend, who has never owned or desired to own a gun, is a staunch supporter of individual gun rights.

[2] I wrote about this in a previous blog post, continuing becoming… (August 30, 2017).