Sunday, August 30, 2015

... my heart has joined the Thousand, for my friend stopped running today

my father passed away in 1997 and though it's almost twenty years since, i sometimes feel as though he never left. unfortunately, that speaks more to how little we saw of one another and how poorly we stayed in touch. in those last couple of years we talked about hard things - his cancer and what would happen to him when we was dead. he asked me one day what i thought.

"are you a Christian?" i asked.

"i think so," he answered. "i don't know."

"why should you go to heaven?"

he started speaking about how he'd lived his life, how he'd worked hard, had never stolen from anyone, that sure he'd made mistakes but so has everyone and that he was confident that wouldn't disqualify him from going to heaven. then he asked if i agreed. i didn't really want to answer but didn't have an alternative.

"i think there are plenty of good people who are not in heaven because they feel they earned the right. i read in the Bible and know in my heart that it's not a right to be earned but a privilege granted. God offers us forgiveness for our wrongdoing and healing for our brokenness - we simply have to take up that offer and say to any who ask, 'i am forgiven in Christ and when i die i will join him in heaven. not because of anything i have done but all because of what God has done in Jesus for me.' i personally believe that if you cannot say that honestly, then you're probably going to hell."

"you think i'll go to hell when i die?"

"yes, i do."

he was silent for a moment. it was an awkward conversation to be having but one i am still glad that we had. he asked what he should do and i said that he should start by reading the Bible. i gave him mine, set three bookmarks inside where i felt he would most benefit from reading, and asked him to contact me with any questions he had.

six months before he died, he became a Christian, publicly declaring that Jesus Christ was his lord and saviour. he was like a baby in a spiritual onesie, to me. we talked, afterwards, about things. why he continued to feel guilty about some things; the riddle of whether he was always destined to become a Christian or if he chose to on his own; the mystery of knowing he didn't deserve to go to heaven but would go anyway.

then he died. after a while, my memories of those conversations became memories of memories, photographs of thought instead of spools of memory in my head that i relive as i recall them.

since the movie four weddings and a funeral, it's hard to imagine a funeral poem that isn't by w.h. auden. "stop all the clocks" seems to me to have become the go-to poem for loss at a funeral and i almost feel like it's being imposed on my brain by that same part of my consciousness that makes me remember seven lines out of eight in a song and makes it whirl around and around in my head without resolving - auden as earworm.

since my father's death, however, i've come across other poems that i feel now would have far better captured my thoughts and feelings then. dad's funeral was held in the same church that my high-school had used for school chapel services and i think to that point i'd only stood at the lectern out the front barely more than two or three times. to speak the eulogy for my father felt stilted and strange.

i went to boston, massachusetts, on holidays a couple of years ago and while there found a piece of verse on a t-shirt, that came from a tombstone, in one of the oldest colonial cemeteries in the united states: king's chapel crypt and burial ground, boston.
Wait the great teacher Death
DEATH is the good man's FRIEND:
And the day of his death
Is better than the day of his birth.
"Was DEATH deny'd
E'en FOOLS would wish to die".
The hope of death softens our cares,
And heightens every blis.
Then rest in peace for we shall live again.
(Monument to Joseph Barrell)
written in a time when people knew the text of the Bible much better than they do know, the verse echoes passages in job, and the psalms, that reflect on the struggle of life, the hard work and uncertainties of the future. in the face of calamity, some people would say that wombs that had never given birth to children would be blessed, or that children delivered stillborn were better off than they would be were they born healthy.

this verse also reflects on the brokenness of the world and of this life. in this life we will know love but also loss; rest, after much toil; bliss, yet only amidst myriad cares. that there should be an end to life as we know it now is thought of as a good thing - that at the end of a long life, full of struggle and strain, death comes as a relief.

consider how many people we have in the world today. what if we suddenly stopped dying? how fast would the world fill to overflowing and society collapse? what horrible choices would good people make, thinking that they were acting in the best interests of humanity as a whole, let along the choices that the evil and selfish might make!

my father was in much pain, at the end, hallucinating because of the morphine and talking to a girl he could see standing at the end of his bed. i learned later that he was talking to my sister, a baby who had been miscarried between my birth and my sister's; a sister i never knew of. i hope that it ^was^ my sister he was talking to, sent by God as a comfort for dad as his time was winding down.

so i'm thinking about these happy, joyful things because i went to another funeral this week. my friend's mother passed away after a brief and horrible struggle with illness and "the thousand natural shocks that flesh is heir to". this woman has been a Christian for more years than i've been alive and it was a warming and wonderful thing to hear her family and friends talking about her, not merely praising her smiles and good nature and deep love for her family but also sharing the rich depth of her faith in God.

at the conclusion of the service i felt that were i able to ask her, are you happier dying? she would say yes. i believe, however, she would rather stay and not die, because she loved her family and friends and would have wanted, i'm sure, to have seen so much more of their lives, enjoyed their company, shared their joys and sorrows and love. Jesus says that a person's life does not consist in the abundance of their possessions; we must be rich towards God and not merely ourselves. my friends mother was surely rich towards God, as well as those family and friends around her.

wisdom recognises that this life is difficult and the wise person sees that it is not designed to be this way, that it is seriously broken. that same wise person does not wring their hands or raise their fists or turn their back when faced with the God who made the world, however: the wise person respects God, trusts in his will and care, and looks forward to that day when death ushers them into the presence of God and the world as it is truly meant to be.

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