22 May 2007

On the Passing of Colleagues

We've all heard the old sayings: tell your friends now that you love them, don't wait until your only option is to send flowers to their funeral... if you cannot say something nice about someone, say nothing at all... do not speak ill of the dead... we've all probably got a million of 'em. We also tend to think of them when someone has passed away--think of them for good or ill, depending on circumstance.

When the deceased is beloved, words come rather easily. Fairly recently I lost two very dear friends--one a colleague in the world of writing, the other in the world of religion. Both are so easy to talk about; so easy to think that they are just around the corner or are at home awaiting a phone call. The hard part is thinking of them as promoted into the Choir Invisible, the cloud of witnesses that surround us all in spirit, in memory, and in heart. I know they're there; I cannot conceive of circumstances that would deny either of them. But they're not HERE, with us. I cannot call, cannot drop an e-mail, cannot stop by on my way somewhere else to pass a precious few hours in their company. Grief attends that concept, but it is muted with joy: they are past pain, they are free of fleshly encumbrances, they are dancing with God. Not a bad deal! We sorrow, but not as those who have no hope.

When the deceased is not necessarily beloved (at least not of myself!), words take longer. Perhaps we are taking that socially-mandated pause to ponder... if I cannot speak nicely, I should remain silent... but sometimes one must speak, because another living loved one is standing before us, or is on the other end of the phone line or e-mail server, hoping for a reply, waiting for wisdom. Death, after all, engages way too many neurons in us. It makes us weep or exult, depending... it stops us in our tracks. Even if it comes at the end of illness, there is still a slammed-door finality that hurts. "What do you mean, he's... gone?? I just talked to him this morning!"

And Lord knows... when it hits without warning Death is like taking that door right in the face in a physical sense. It feeds into so many things: myriad layers of guilt, anger, sorrow, shame, pain, tears. I can recall from many years ago the death of a friend whose spouse was left behind, suddenly and without any warning. As they say in the army, he went from duty to deceased in the blink of an eye: a stroke took him and he was gone from us before his body folded to the floor. So many who knew the couple expected there would be, amid all the other sensations, a feeling of relief for the survivor--for this couple had argued like cats and dogs with attitude many times, often quite publicly, over the years. The spouse's tearful, heartbroken response to everyone's surprise at their sorrow was an exclamation of pain: "But we didn't finish the argument!"

The nervous laughter that greeted this outcry occasioned more distress--and we began to realize how little we had known them, separately and together, despite all the years of history represented in their relationship. It was far more complicated than that they had loved to argue--for though there was an almost sport-like sense to it, they were loud, bitter arguments full of hurtful episodes. In the end it turned out that screaming and hurting was the only way they knew to communicate the meaningful things of their lives--which of course was another whole layer of pain in itself. It brought home with a vengeance the concept that sometimes the public face of those we love (or hate) is not always the True Self--in fact I would go so far as to say it very seldom is.

Recently a major religious figure passed away. Quite a lot of humour was leveled at the situation: now he'll find out if he was right... Look out, Heavenly Debating Society... Boy will HE be surprised.... The punch line is that we will never know his reaction, because... frankly, it's none of our business. How disappointing! A public figure of controversy--and we don't get to know how it all turns out in the end??

I would like to submit a thought on that score. I was not fond of him, and often (frequently painfully!) disagreed with him. In my opinion he had a tendency to speak without thinking; his words sometimes caused pain in many places and people, and occasioned much rolling of eyes. He prompted a bumper sticker that would have made me cringe, had I been the cause of it: "I love Jesus, it's His fan club I have issues with!" (Echoes of Matthew chapter 18 come immediately to mind, with great sorrow...) But at the end of the day, he was a human being--flawed, thoughtless, amazingly unkind from time to time despite his vocation and his education.

He was... human.

Just like me.

Just like you.

I think of the marvelous Jesus of Nazareth movie made several years ago by Franco Zeffirelli. The scene where the adulteress is literally dragged before Jesus by the mob is particularly memorable. We've all read it in scripture, but somehow seeing it on the screen brought an immediacy to it all: the terror-stricken woman with her running mascara and kohl from tears of panic; the furious crowd, some with leers, some with looks of triumph at bringing down the sinner... and Jesus, sitting off to one side toying with pebbles and stones. They demand his judgment: Rabbi, shall we stone her? She was caught in the act, taken in adultery! The Law demands....

Jesus sits there for rather a long moment, not looking up; the camera lingers lovingly on his strong hands as he plays with stones. Then he utters that one unanswerable truth: "Let one without sin cast the first stone." There is a moment of silence; some muttering... then rocks begin to fall from hands, and the crowd either stomps off or wanders away, some angry, some bitter, some amused, some just stunned by the implication. Not the least, the woman who was caught in the act... It is a powerful image, a powerful utterance--and a daunting thing to contemplate. Thus I shall keep my rocks to myself, because I know for a fact there's no WAY I am without sin.

Lately a couple of particular concepts keep floating through theological discussions I have had with folks: 1) that Jesus came into the world because God needed first-hand comprehension of what we were going through, in order to be able to save us from ourselves, and 2) that if we were perfect and never did wrong, we would not require the grace that saves us. The Recently Departed Person (tm) was a Christian; a believer. He had heard and studied the word of God, had made his informed decision, confessed the faith that was in him, and thus was saved. Jesus understands this man far better than thee or me could ever do--and in my heart of hearts I believe this man is now in the company of the Elect.

To believe any other thing would make it very hard for me to wrap my brain around my own personal hope of salvation; just because I haven't made my stupid moves as publicly as this man, doesn't mean I haven't made them. I have said things that could very easily have set people on the path away from Christ; I have hurt people, sometimes intentionally, and while I have dealt with those situations early or late, I regret them deeply. It is at times like these that I bless God all the more for Jesus's painful, bloody field trip into this life and death, because without that I have no great confidence that I could bluff my way alone inside the Pearly Gates.

If you believe in karma and reincarnation, I suspect you also believe nothing happens for no good reason. Whatever the choices this man made for the life he just completed, he made them because they needed to be made. We may never know the whys of it, just as we don't always know until Checkout Time why some of our own choices were made or why they turned out as they did. We could stretch and say that maybe somewhere, some impressionable child with a Destiny needed to hear a thoughtless, prejudicial remark in order to think it through and make some important conclusion--or, just as likely, someone somewhere needed to have the touchstone of prayer or healing offered publicly by this man in order not to commit suicide so they could be present for some important turning point or action. The ramifications descend from both possibilities like dominoes or water... we'd be here forever if we tried to think them all through.

But all he did, for good or ill, is now marked complete. The book is closed--for him personally. Was he a great man? Did he leave us object lessons, was he a good example or a bad one? I have my thoughts on that, but I hold them within out of deference to the fact that I don't have all the answers--and because I am hoping for the same loving, sanctifying, saving grace that redeemed his soul. Both of the dear friends I have recently lost would probably have offered (each in their own particular unique idiom!) their thoughts on it all--and in the end would have come to the same conclusion: What is done is done, and those of us left behind have to move on. If you loved and lost, and you do good because of his example--that's a good thing. If you loathed and lost, and do good despite his example--that's a good thing too. Just do it mindfully, I beg of you!

Embrace your humanity, forgive as you would be forgiven... then take a moment to call or write to a friend you have not seen in a while. Death comes like a thief in the night, like a lover, like summer lightning... you might have until Father's Day, or their birthday, or the high school reunion--or you might lose someone today.

Or you might go yourself.

It's worth a thought, after all....

In Service,
Rev. Sharon +


seeking chivalry said...

A nice take on a horrendously controversial man. Thanks for this post, Sharon.

Mother Laura said...

Thanks, Sharon+. This was powerful.

Also I love the picture!!!

Have you thought about joining the RevGalBlogPal ring? It's a great community, and we need to increase the IC contingent :-).

Rev. Sharon said...

Hi Mother Laura! I have actually applied to join, and am in the queue; apparently there are 50+ others ahead of me, but I can be patient. :-) Thanks for your comment, and thanks to Kate for her comment as well! Sharon+

Mother Laura said...

Yippee! Can't wait till you join...Whoa, RevGals is taking off big time...no queue when I signed up in January or so.

Did not know that the other day was Alexandra and David's anniversary--they must have been married Memorial weekend, like us. (Ours is tomorrow and since that starts in ten minutes, by the time we tuck in will probably be today). You remind me to pray for her and email her. Thanks.

Check out my blog for the latest Pentecost shock from the Holy Spirit....