Last Thursday I attended a conference clergywomen’s lunch. We were asked to break into small groups to discuss how we were observing a holy Lent and what our churches were doing to do the same, especially any neat ideas or innovations. Well, I can tell you the first is a giant fail for me this year. I shared that with the group with the offhand remark that Ash Wednesday is probably my least favorite day of the Christian year, except maybe Good Friday.
My clergy sisters seemed shocked. “Really? Why?” was the general follow-up. I don’t know. Who wants to be reminded of their mortality? And who really wants to walk to the cross? I know why we do it, I know it’s healthy, but I don’t have to like it.
I was surprised that my sentiments were so unusual. Do some people really love these holy days of remembering death? Maybe I was younger than usual when I realized the reality of mortality. I remember lying awake in bed as the shadows crept around the room, feeling utterly small and alone, knowing that one day my heart would stop, my breath would cease, and something of what it was to be me would no longer exist. That’s a scary thought for a child, and some of that remembered fear colors my thoughts on it even now.
Most of the time you don’t know it’s coming. Death, that is. Well, sure you know that it comes to everyone, but most of the time, it’s the last thing on my mind. At the Large Church Initiative in January, Mike Slaughter, pastor of Ginghamsburg United Methodist Church near Dayton, Ohio, said that he always tries to pretend that he has one year left to live and then live into the boldness that inspires. And that sounds good to me, on the surface, but if I really knew I only had a year to live, I think I’d be depressed for a good long while. I’d probably become rather me-focused, seeing as how I was the one who was going to die. But maybe not.
Recently I logged onto Caring Bridge, a great website that helps those with a medical issue keep friends and family updated without the continual barrage of phone calls. While I was there to read a church member’s page as he battles another round of leukemia, as I logged in, I was brought to my home page. Listed there was my page as well as the pages I’ve visited. My page is the one I created for my grandmother a little over 2 years ago. And because I’m a masochist, I guess, I clicked on the link and read it in chronological order.
My eyes teared up as I realized how deeply we didn’t know what we were in for. My grandmother, who had suffered for a long time with Alzheimer’s, had gone in to figure out what was going on with her stomach. I remember being frustrated since she couldn’t help us with this diagnosis – the cruel overarching disease prevented her from telling us simple details like where it hurt, when it had started, what the pains were like, did they come and go. So her family had to make their best guesses with medical advice.
We thought she was doing better after surgery. She was moved into a nursing home, set up with rehab exercises. I read my reassuring tone as I talk about a scrapbook project she is working on with a therapist. And then the next few entries detail the quick decline as one surgery led to another to repair things that had gone wrong. In a matter of days, she was gone.
My mother said afterward that if she had known what the eventual outcome would be, she wouldn’t have put my grandmother through so much. But there was no way for us to know. Death comes like that sometimes. It walks alongside of us, content to stay at arm’s length, until it is our turn. Sometimes it brushes across our shoulder by mistake and we shudder at the near miss, if we realize it. Or it claims someone dear to us and we cry out in distress.
I believe in God, but many times I wonder at the Christian doctrine of providence (see the post More Questions than Answers). Some people use it to say that if God’s protective hand is on you, no harm will come. Really?! Surely God did not abandon the early Christian martyrs or those who still die for their faith today. Some people say that a natural disaster or an illness is the fault of those afflicted because of their sinfulness. Really?! It couldn’t possibly be because we rape and ravage the earth such that paradise is showing the scars.
But I also know what it is to huddle in the bathroom, my arms around my infant son, as the sirens wail the warning that death is approaching from the clouds. And I prayed. O God, did I pray. I bargained and whispered and cried. But I don’t think that my prayers spared me or that God chose to turn the storm aside from my home. I just think it happened to work out that way. As I preached last week, God limits God’s own self for the sake of the free will and creativity of humanity, despite our proclivity for evil. While I’m still struggling with the story of Noah and the flood, I can see it more clearly in Jesus. God put limits on God’s self to show us the way, not force us.
Yesterday morning, a clergy sister and I discussed a church member’s passing. It was unusual in that he was very conscious just before it happened. She shared the gift it was to her to be able to ask him, “Are you at peace?” and offer any pastoral counsel he might desire. I thought about the funeral I led a little over a week ago, how I got to know the family and be alongside of them in a hard time, but how I felt guilty that the service lasted only around 30 minutes. Shouldn’t it take more time to honor a life? I know the family chose not to have much music and not share witnesses, since the grief was so fresh, but I felt that it was so little to offer. They hadn’t seen death coming, since she went into the hospital for one thing and was on her way to rehab before coming home. But death kept pace with her and claimed her from our sight.
I don’t like Ash Wednesday. I don’t like Good Friday. I don’t think I have to. But I take comfort, hope, and strength from the fact that God is alongside me, even as death counts my steps. And though my mortal strength shall fail and death shall try to claim me, I’ll sing on as I go to glory. Death, while not a welcome companion, has no final victory. That is God’s. Glory be.