It has been a very sad time lately, death seems to be stalking my church congregation and everywhere I turn the darkness of loss and grief has appeared. Not only for those within the congregation but also outside amongst my friend’s families.
I realise that in the last few years I have had to think about death quite a bit! Now I know it’s a mystery but when you are a pastor at a church, even part time, perhaps one has to have some thoughts on the matter. And I do. Although my thoughts were a bit muddled until I read a blog I wrote after my mother died a few years ago. Little did I realise that what I wrote then would help me now.
So maybe revisiting it might help you to….
It has been some time since I wrote a blog. In some ways it seems a life time. This year has been full of ups and downs culminating in the death of my mother in October, Shirley, at the age of 87. She lived a full and active life, which in the last year had more downs than ups.
Death seems to have bypassed me these past years. My father died many years ago when I was only 12, and since then, while I have lost relatives who were older, and one beautiful friend who was only 38, it has been quiet.
Yet I feel as though the unrealised burden of loss is getting heavier, as many of my congregation are aging, have significant health concerns and increasingly losing independence. A few have already died. Beautiful, faithful and loving people. And it is not just my congregation but my friends, similar in age to me, who are facing life threatening illnesses and long months of treatment. Ah!!!
But I am realistic as well. It is not that I think that we will all live forever, but that those that journey with you, and who are the closest to you, will be the hardest to say goodbye to. I also understand that we are biological creatures, with a limited shelf life. In fact I am often amazed that we live so long, when at any moment our dividing cells may make a mistake, producing a cancer cell, or that our wonderfully well balanced systems will fall out of balance, leading to illness and infirmity. And which no amount of modern medicine can stop, even with all the advances.
No, it is more than this, it is how I am to understand life, and then to understand death. I went to a funeral the other week, funnily enough in the same chapel where the service of my mother was held. We said goodbye to a lovely man who had had dementia for some time. In some ways the family had already said goodbye to him some years before, but no matter the circumstances it is still a wrench.
In the service the celebrant spoke about the mystery of death, the mystery of God and how the two may met. But the most important thing she said was that the loss and grief felt by those attending was due to the life this man had led, here, in this time and place and with these people. The love and loyalty and forgiveness and compassion they received from him and in turn gave to him were the things they would remember, deep in their hearts. These are the things that live on in this world, in those that remain after a person dies.
We celebrate our connections, deep, deep connections, and maybe mourn the things we said or didn’t say, when we say goodbye to someone we love. For me I grieve that I did not speak to mum more about her life, and take her to the movies more often, which she really enjoyed doing.
But a little bit of my heart will be hers, just as a little bit of my heart belongs to all those who have shaped and influenced me and have travelled with me in this life. As Frederick Buechner would say, “as we move around here knee deep in the fragrant muck and misery and marvel of the world”.
Yet what happens when I too head off into the sunset, and those that hold the memories of the past have also gone. What happens then. Who will remember the love then?
Well I think there are two things to consider.
The influences we have with people throughout life can be because they constitute our closest relationships, and what we do with and for them matters. But we may also have met people along the way, someone who we have sometimes inadvertently touched with our love or kindness. Either way, down the generations, the person may not be remembered but the act will be. Love and care and compassion goes on and on, because it is life giving, even if a name, our name, is lost along the way.
But I can’t help but think that there is more. I know many people would dismiss this notion of a spiritual heart, a place within my deepest self where I sense and feel a divine presence, a mysterious connection to all that is and all that is to come, but it has always seemed real to me. Call it God if you like, but regardless of what it is called, maybe there is a memory of me and you kept there as well.
This is not about what I have done or not done, about a heaven or a hell, or in fact anything at all tied with the doctrines of the church. It has to do with life, all of life, from the universe and its stars down to the very molecules and atoms that make up who we are. In all of it I find this spiritual or divine presence. So I have this inkling that not all is as it seems, not all can be measured and located in time and space. And it has to do with the whole of creation, not just us.
So, yes, I believe in God, a creative and infinite driving impulse to life and love found within everything, even if we ourselves are finite. Even if we ourselves and our bodies, finally run out of steam! God is the source of all there is, so maybe some hidden part of me or all of us, is never lost but remains within the heart of this source. Maybe some part of my essence will meet this eternal presence outside of what we know. So much of who we are and what life is remains a mystery so I leave room to be surprised.
Actually, it is a comforting thought that carries me along, as I strive to somehow to be a life giving presence in this world!!!
And for the times when I have to say goodbye.