Last week we were with family as we celebrated the life and witness of Becky and indeed of her sister Andrea who died this past January. It was a long and productive week. Catherinanne and I were privileged to be present with the family and are grateful to our parish home for not just the prayers and well wishes that we have received in these past months and years but also for your patience with me as I do my best to minister with this congregation side by side.
We returned yesterday to a host of cards and emails and phone messages that all brought comfort in some way. Today I spent some time decompressing. It is hard to believe that last week at this time I stood and delivered what was to most difficult homily I have ever had to offer – and in many aspects, the most important. So many thoughts came to me as I prepared for that day. There were so many things that I could have said. I prayed so hard to find the right words, the right stories, the right remembrances.
Each day I receive a new note from the Henri Nouwen Society. It is how I begin my day…most days. Many of you know how much I love the writings of this great prophet. It is so wonderful the way that the words that are posted each day seem to be the words that I need to hear, and last week was no exception. So the morning of Becky’s funeral I went back and I read the emails I received going back to the day Becky died. It was a very calming prayer for me and as I read each word I prayed for strength for Gary and Annette and Leah as well as my Sister Helen and her husband Gary and indeed the entire family. These words were so profound that I felt I should repeat them in this forum for all of you to read. Here is what my inbox held;
Wednesday Morning – December 3.
“There comes a time in all our lives when we must prepare for death. When we become old, get seriously ill, or are in great danger, we can’t be preoccupied simply with the question of how to get better unless "getting better" means moving on to a life beyond our death. In our culture, which in so many ways is death oriented, we find little if any creative support for preparing ourselves for a good death. Most people presume that our only desire is to live longer on this earth. Still, dying, like giving birth, is a way to new life, and as Ecclesiastes says: "There is a season for everything: … a time for giving birth, a time for dying" (Ecclesiastes 3:1-2).
We have to prepare ourselves for our death with the same care and attention as our parents prepared themselves for our births.”
Thursday Morning – December 4
“The knowledge that Jesus came to dress our mortal bodies with immortality must help us develop an inner desire to be born to a new eternal life with him and encourage us to find ways to prepare for it.
It is important to nurture constantly the life of the Spirit of Jesus – which is the eternal life – that is already in us. Baptism gave us this life, the Eucharist maintains it, and our many spiritual practices – such as prayer, meditation, spiritual reading, and spiritual guidance – can help us to deepen and solidify it. The sacramental life and life with the Word of God gradually make us ready to let go of our mortal bodies and receive the mantle of immortality. Thus death is not the enemy who puts an end to everything but the friend who takes us by the hand and leads us into the Kingdom of eternal love.”
Friday Morning – December 5
"One of the greatest gifts we can offer our family and friends, is helping them to die well. Sometimes they are ready to go to God but we have a hard time letting them go. But there is a moment in which we need to give those we love the permission to return to God, from whom they came. We have to sit quietly with them and say: "Do not be afraid … I love you, God loves you … it’s time for you to go in peace. … I won’t cling to you any longer … I set you free to go home … go gently, go with my love." Saying this from our heart is a true gift. It is the greatest gift love can give.
When Jesus died he said: "Father, into your hands I commit my Spirit" (Luke 23:46). It is good to repeat these words often with our dying friends. With these words on their lips or in their hearts, they can make the passage as Jesus did.
Saturday Morning – December 6 – Feast of St. Nicholas
There is no "after" after death. Words like after and before belong to our mortal life, our life in time and space. Death frees us from the boundaries of chronology and brings us into God’s "time," which is timeless. Speculations about the afterlife, therefore, are little more than just that: speculations. Beyond death there is no "first" and "later," no "here" and "there," no "past," "present," or "future." God is all in all. The end of time, the resurrection of the body, and the glorious coming again of Jesus are no longer separated by time for those who are no longer in time.
For us who still live in time, it is important not to act as if the new life in Christ is something we can comprehend or explain. God’s heart and mind are greater than ours. All that is asked of us is trust.
Sunday Morning – December 7
"One thing we know for sure about our God: Our God is a God of the living, not of the dead. God is life. God is love. God is beauty. God is goodness. God is truth. God doesn’t want us to die. God wants us to live. Our God, who loves us from eternity to eternity, wants to give us life for eternity.
When that life was interrupted by our unwillingness to give our full yes to God’s love, God sent Jesus to be with us and to say that great yes in our name and thus restore us to eternal life. So let’s not be afraid of death. There is no cruel boss, vengeful enemy, or cruel tyrant waiting to destroy us – only a loving, always forgiving God, eager to welcome us home."
I was well attended to by Henri Nouwen during this difficult time. I was also well cared for by the love and compassion expressed by so many of you. It is a reminder for me of what a special place this church is.
While I was away my 10th anniversary at St. Mark’s quietly came and went. My first Sunday was December 7, 1998 (Advent 2). On that Sunday I told a story in an attempt to bring some sense of holiness and pride back to a parish that had fallen on some hard times. I was oh so young then and really knew very little about being rector of a parish. But I did bring all of myself to it – and I believed that my brokeness would be healed by this parish‘s brokeness and that this parish’s brokeness might be healed in that same process. I think that prayer was answered.
For old times sake (and to make a point of course) I will relate a paraphrase of that story. There was a Monastery in the woods that had fallen on hard times. There were hardly any people left in the monastery and closure was a real possibility. The Abbot went to see a wise Rabbi whose hermitage was also in those same woods. The Rabbi said very little. He left the Abbot with a simple message – “The Messiah is among you!” The Abbot returned to his small band of brothers and he repeated what the rabbi had said. They all pondered and wondered quietly who the Messiah might be. They found it hard to believe that some of this group would be the messiah…but what if? What if Brother John who is sloppy or Brother Robert who smells poorly is the Messiah? What if Brother Richard who had upset everyone at night with his loud snoring was the messiah? What if….? Things changed after that and there was a new level of respect among those who hallowed the halls of that monastery. That respect became almost legendary and people from far and wide began to make prayer pilgrimages to this very holy place. More people took the oath and assumed a life of prayer and the community was alive and well again. All because they heeded the words of the wise old Rabbi – “The messiah is among you.”
Ten years later I have no doubt – ‘The Messiah is among you.” After the week that we have just lived I am even more certain of it. The trouble is with so many doing what Paul implored us all to do “be imitators of Christ,” it is hard to tell who the Messiah is. I think I like it like that!