Tag Archives: death

Isn’t Life Peculiar?

8 Nov

 

Okay. I’ll be straight up with you, dear reader. I actually wrote this a few years ago but it’s so appropriate for me this time of year that I’m posting it as a blog entry.  This is a sermon I first wrote in seminary and have delivered some variation of several times. It will probably remain one of my favorite sermons as it keeps working it’s way into my life and personal theology more and more. It’s been said that every preacher basically preaches the same sermon meaning that they tend to dwell within a particular place theologically more than the same wording, though some are guilty of that too.

 

Please note that it was written in the Fall, hence some of the early references in the beginning and it is enacted a bit. I sometimes show some pics I made to go along with it if a projector is convenient, sing in one section, and so on and so forth. Point being, the spoken word can lose something of it’s punch when reduced to written words. All the same, I hope the reader enjoys and may gain something from it too.

Ecclesiastes 12.1-8 New Revised Standard Version – verse 8 is altered to reflect personal preference in translation :

1 Remember your creator in the days of your youth,

Before the days of trouble come,

And the years draw near when you will say, “I have no pleasure in them”;

2 Before the sun and the light and the moon and the stars are darkened and the clouds return with the rain;

3 In the day when the guards of the house tremble,

And the strong men are bent,

And the women who grind cease working because they are few,

And those who look through the windows see dimly;

4 When the doors on the street are shut, and the sound of the grinding is low,

And one rises up at the sound of a bird,

And all the daughters of song are brought low;

5 When one is afraid of heights, and terrors are in the road;

The almond tree blossoms,

The grasshopper drags itself along

And desire fails;

Because all must go to their eternal home, and the mourners will go about the streets;

6 Before the silver cord is snapped,

And the golden bowl is broken,

And the pitcher is broken at the fountain,

And the wheel broken at the cistern,

7 And the dust returns to the earth as it was, and the breath returns to God who gave it.

8 Absurdity of absurdities, says Qohelet; all is absurdity.

Isn’t Life Peculiar?

It’s that time of year again when calendars begin to show up at stores and mall kiosks inviting us to mark our days and plan our futures while showing what our interests are– be it kittens, classic Far Side comics, Van Gogh paintings, or the Sierra Club – you’re all but guaranteed to find a big, beautiful picture calendar that will serve as both self revealing eye candy and a convenient way to tell what date next Friday is. I find myself slowing down at these stands to look for a new calendar of the inspirational, devotional sort. You know – the kind that usually has photos of beautiful landscapes with a moving line of scripture. Something like a pristine mountain range and part of Psalm 8, “O Lord, our sovereign, how majestic is your name in all the earth!” Or maybe a field of flowers with Matthew 12.27, “Consider the lilies, how they grow: they neither toil nor spin; yet I tell you, even Solomon in all his glory was not clothed like one of these.” You’ve seen these or had one, haven’t you? It may even be a standard gift for pastors, because I seem to get one for Christmas almost every year.

But I’m looking for one based on Ecclesiastes this year. Problem is, the really juicy lines from that book don’t ever seem to make the cut with calendar designers. Maybe it’s not considered as inspiring enough or the verses just don’t go along with pictures of cute kittens very well. I may just have to make my own. How about a photo of a nice sunset with 2:11,  “I considered all that my hands had done and the toil I had spent in doing it, and again, all was vanity and a chasing after wind, and there was nothing to be gained under the sun.” Aaaah. Doesn’t that make you want to hit the ground running in the morning? A peaceful graveyard or just a blank page with 4:2-3“And I thought the dead, who have already died, more fortunate than the living, who are still alive; but better than both is the one who has not yet been, and has not seen the evil deeds that are done under the sun.”  Maybe something with a bit more hope? How about 9:4? It’s one of my favorites. “But whoever is joined with all the living has hope, for a living dog is better than a dead lion.” It would go great with a picture of a scrappy little Jack Russell terrier, wouldn’t it?

Of course, the high point of the calendar would have to be the finale of the whole book, Chapter 12, verses 1-8.  It’s very poetic and conjures up some moving imagery. We could have a calendar of just this passage. Begin with a picture of some young folks hanging out but there’s a dark, brooding storm coming with verses 1 and 2 – “Remember your Creator in the days of your youth, before the days of trouble come and the years approach when you will say, “I find no pleasure in them”–before the sun and the light and the moon and the stars grow dark, and the clouds return after the rain”. Well it began inspiringly. Let’s turn the page.

This page describes an estate falling apart. The servants are trembly and tired. The windows are dingy and cracked. It’s the kind of place with creaky doors and groaning floors. Imagine an old, decaying home with an old, decaying butler at the entrance like we may see in an old mystery movie. But Qohelet, the writer of Ecclesiastes, is thought to be painting a picture of the body’s estate in old age and all that often comes with it: weakness, blindness, deafness, toothlessness, fearfulness, tiredness, impotence, grayness. And you don’t have to be prophetic to know what’s next in line. I bet you can come up with your own picture for that page – a return for all to an eternal home and a funeral procession to see you off. Turn the page. Objects of light and beauty are ruined. The means of drawing water from the well, the stuff of life, has an “out of order” sign on it. The dust from which we’re made returns to the earth and the breath of God goes back to God who gave it to begin with. And Qohelet ends his book on the same note that he began the whole book with – life is absurd.

The reason this isn’t a calendar is it wouldn’t sell too well. Qohelet may be a bit too lacking in sentiment for most people.  I’d buy it though, but I have an unusual viewpoint and so did Qohelet. The world he lived in seemed out of whack.  In the centuries leading up to his life, the Hebrew people had been conquered and shuffled around over the years from their homes in Israel to Assyria, then Babylon, and then back again – under the thumb of different rulers. Finally under Persian rule, some returned to Jerusalem but it wasn’t the same. There hadn’t been an Israelite King in a few hundred years and the good ‘ol days of God’s favor were a distant dream from the past in the bad ‘ol days of the present.

Qohelet may have been back in Jerusalem with his people, but they still answered to a foreign power from a distant land that gave gifts without obvious rhyme or reason. And so God seemed distant and life didn’t have much rhyme or reason either.  The wisdom of yesteryear didn’t seem to fit this time and place. Follow the wisdom of proverbs all you want, but they’re no guarantee of health or wealth in these crazy days. Take comfort in Job who admits that life is hard, but don’t leave the light on for God, because he hasn’t shown up in a while.  Qohelet is often accused of being a pessimist, but I think he’s just taking a long, hard look at life as it is and calls it like he sees it. If we’re willing to take a hard look at life now, it doesn’t seem all that different. There’s truth to his statement, “there’s nothing new under the sun”. For him and us, life can seem rhymeless and reasonless, but Qohelet never sees it as Godless, and I hope you don’t either.

There isn’t a lack of faith in his words. God gives the gift of life and the gift returns to God. God is mysterious. And if we’re to be as honest as Qohelet is – life rarely makes perfect sense. It may even seem absurd, like a divine comedy.  Injustice is out there. Nothing’s quite fair and life flickers by like a movie reel. But in spite of all that, God is not missing in action. I see his action all the time.

I have an unusual job of hospice chaplain. When people find that out, they often give one of two reactions. Either their condolences for having such a job or some sort of reverence, neither of which I deserve. It’s not a sad job. I found the tedium of factory work far more depressing. And it’s not a “Hallmark” movie either. There’s never any soft, mood lighting with a poignant soundtrack to swell with the impassioned final words of a suspiciously attractive patient’s last breath.  Working with hospice is more a shovel and grit job helping people with the hard work of living as they’re dying. The blessing is that I sometimes find myself near what the Irish call “thin places”.  Those moments in which the veil between here and there is thinner and we almost get a glimpse of what lies beyond mortal sight. When you are part of the birth of a child, and you laugh and cry at the same time because neither can quite express the joy of witnessing life come kicking and screaming into the world – that’s a thin place many of us have been to. There’s another thin place I’ve often been to as well. It’s when the same thing happens in reverse and someone long loved slips off behind the veil that separates our world from what lies beyond.

In the summer of 2007, I experienced one of those moments. John had come onto hospice care because cancerous tumors were spreading throughout his body and destroying it from the inside out. He and I had known each other for some time. We’d graduated high school together. Lived in the same town most of our lives. Had been married to our wives for about the same amount of time and had daughters nearly the same age. It seemed so absurd and unfair to be from such similar backgrounds with such similar lives and such vastly different circumstances. At the end of the day, I went home to do whatever I wanted and John lay in the same bed staring at the same room, almost able to count the number of words, respirations, and touches he had left.

The day of John’s last breath, I was called in the twilight of dawn to come out. He’d died early in the morn and his family needed prayer. When I walked into the room where John’s body was, still warm but perfectly still, surrounded by about three dozen grieving souls, it was twilight in there too. A gray and colorless people in a gray and colorless room that death’s shadow had shooed all feelings of life from.

I led them in a prayer and tried to make sense of the moment in my own mind. John had done things right. He’d worked hard and been a good husband and father. It seemed absolutely ridiculous that this young, vital man should die while we looked on and lived on. In that imaginary, cosmic calculator we sometimes tally our lives up on, he’d lived no worse than me and I’d certainly done no better. As we sat there after saying ‘amen’, there was that deep silence you know of if you’ve been there. Just a sniffle or soft crying here and there to puncuate profound quietness. Sometimes, there just aren’t words for when the reality of the grief hits home.

In that gray, still silence, someone’s cell phone went off and it wasn’t a typical ring. It was a song. It began very softly, “I’m gonna whoop your ass.” (sung slowly and soulfully) A few heads cocked and then a few more because it grew louder each time until it was impossible to ignore, “I’m gonna whoop your ass!” (still sung soulfully but loudly) louder and louder each time repeating this ridiculous, funny phrase over and over as the phone’s owner finally moved across the crowded room with people moving out of her path because her considerable girth called for a considerable passage.

In that absurd moment with that unlikely song going on and on, louder and louder, something magnificent happened as the people did what you may be doing. They laughed; smiled. In that moment, the pall of death was lifted by laughter and life and light refilled the room. It was as though God gave another gift. This reminder that life may be topsy-turvy, even hurt like hell sometimes, but it is still LIFE and a gift from the source of life. “Remember your creator in the days of your youth” Qohelet tells us, as though to say ‘remember the giver of life’. Cherish the giver by cherishing the gift. How can we live in such a way? Qohelet tells us. Remember. Be mindful. Place this mysterious being we call God at the center of your life. Pray. Allow the Word to weave into the fabric of your heart, mind, and soul. We have such a beautiful gift! The gift of life always returns to the source of life, God. I think one of the many things Qohelet teaches is don’t waste it and return to God dead on arrival because you forgot to love it anymore.

We need to hear that because too many of us die before we ever come close to breathing our last. We can become caught up in distractions that keep us from truly being alive. Worrying about our toy collections or taking care of “numero uno” or allowing the pains of life to whither the heart long before it stops beating. I’m sure you’ve witnessed some lifeless living and don’t need me to fill in that blank.

I recently cleaned out an old lock box and found an unexpected prize, this old Zippo lighter. I looked closely and beneath the scuffs and scrapes, is my grandmother’s name, “Dorothy” on one side and “Happy 39th” on the other. It was an anniversary gift from my Granddad. Grandma died after a long, tough life. She had the emotional scars that came from grieving the deaths of her life companion and both their sons. She had the scrapes and scuffs that living through the ups and downs of life leave. This old, beat up Zippo reminds me of her because of that. It also still lights. (A strike of the wheel and a flame) That reminds me of her too. It reminds me of her tenacity to keep living fiercely with hope, love, and faith despite life’s tragedies. Sometimes all the more sweetly, because of that bitter awareness that life is like Hebel – the Hebrew word for vapor, smoke, breath, and absurdity that we find so often in Ecclesiastes. Hebel is a word that beautifully conveys how fragile and beautiful life is and how it can go away from our sight and grasp anytime. The moment we’re alive is this moment. Look. Here comes a moment. Here it is. Oh. Now it’s gone.(the lighter is closed, extinguishing the light) Can’t relive it, rewind it, or even Tivo it.  We can’t hold onto breath or smoke. It flows where it will, doesn’t it and our joy is connected to our sorrow. Kahlil Gibran wrote,“The deeper that sorrow carves into your being the more joy you can contain. Is not the cup that holds your wine the very cup that was burned in the potter’s oven?” I think there’s a truth in that.

I carry this Zippo with me now. It helps me to remember- not just her and many of the other souls who have touched my life, but to remember God who created and touches all our lives.  It’s not the only way I remember, but one of the ways. How do you remember your creator? How do you live and breathe with joy and thanksgiving, in the face of life’s terribly wonderful beauty? Remember your creator before you grow old.

Maybe I’ll quit wasting my time looking for that new calendar. There’s more beauty in every moment of this roller coaster called life than any big glossy picture can freeze in time or place. Maybe I’ll listen to Scripture more closely too. Let’s start with St. Matthew who wrote, “Do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will worry about itself.”  Next Friday will come in due time. I want to focus on this moment. This moment. How about you?

wakes and wakefulness

26 Sep

This has been a day in which I feel more like a cat than a human. I want to sleep. And then sleep some more. Maybe take a nap after that. The sense of tiredness I’ve been feeling is hardly dented by black Kona coffee and definitely not relieved much by the handful of hours of rest I throw at it from time to time over the last few days. There’s reason why it’s been about a month since I sat down to tap out a notion or two for my first blog. Life gets daily as an old southern saying goes. Nothing new for me or anyone else reading this, I know. Like many folks, I get caught up in the currents of making a living, raising kids, running a household, blah blah blah only to look up a few days or weeks later to see that I’m much farther down the river than I expected since the last time I bothered or was able to look up and attempt to read my bearings.

So it goes. Life. Moving, ebbing and flowing and we move, ebb, and flow right along with it. It’s nicely delusional when I feel like a have a grip on it and can control something of where I’m at in it but if I’m honest with myself, having a grip on life is about as realistic as having a grip on a river. I can’t exactly hold on to either in a symbolic or literal sense of the word. This thing called life will just keep on flowing whether or not I like the current or depth or rocks along the way. And it seems that we bump into others and sometimes, the river keeps them near us throughout its course and others are swept away from us, even if we swim like crazy to stay within hand’s reach. Life is funny that way. Well, I think that’s enough of river metaphors. We get it, Mike. Life is like a rambling river. Duh. Get on with it, man.

So like many preacher sorts, I say one thing to really say another. To get to what’s really on my mind. Us dang preachers are doing that all the time, aren’t we? Today, I began a sermon talking about dressing up with my family as zombies for Halloween. The sermon really had nothing to do with zombies but much to do with the masks we can wear on non-Halloween days of the year. So it is with rivers too. Just so you know, there will be no advice coming up on successful kayaking or exciting river rafting trips.

What I’m wondering about is how we remember the journey at its end. I have the job of doing that all the time in funerals, memorial services for individuals and groups, celebrations or life, or whatever else you may want to call the ceremonies we hold to remember and honor the departed at the end of their earthly life. I speak at the occasional hospice conference on such and have ‘done’ more services than I have clear track of. I’m currently in the ballpark of 150-200 funerals that can have “Reverend Michael Moore” associated with them, but I never bothered to keep any records. Regardless, here I’ve been, trying to weave the life story of people into poetry, planning and presiding a gamut of burial ceremonies as simple as a pine box next to an open grave with two attendees to a service for a community leader that was filmed for news and had the participation of firetrucks, honor guard, and a drum and bagpipe band as part of the ceremonies. Whoever thought I’d be the guy sought out to do more than the occasional funeral? Not me. That’s fo sho.

But like life, what we do is often unpredictable and here I am in a tradition older than history. The buried remains of Neanderthals have reportedly been found with flower pollen distributed on them in a repeatedly characteristic way, leading some to believe that even these most ancient of our forebears had burial rituals and beliefs about it all.  Along with that, I attend a lot of funerals for hospice patients I helped take care of but who’s services are conducted by other colleagues. I like to think I’m a becoming a sommelier of funerals, if you will, able to distinguish the nuances and quality of a day that most people would sooner forget than savor.

And strangely enough, I’m a sommelier in the sense that I savor these moments too. Again, another metaphor, but these moments of rememberance allow us to take a pause, sip in the meaning and chaos of life, swish it about inside, and taste the bouquet of life in general, a person’s life in particular and how we celebrate them both. Where is it from? What sort of fruit grew there? What hardships or benefits came in its growing season? What sort of earth did it grow in? How well was it tended? How was it harvested? How was it aged? Is it bitter, sweet, layered, simple, complex, etc.? Perhaps like those ancient Neanderthals and most of the members of the human family who walked the earth since, I look up at the stars, watch the sun rise and set, stare into camp fires, witness the newborn, the dead and wonder. What’s it all about, what it means, why we’re hear, where we go, what do we do in the mean time??

Make no mistake. I’m not exactly morbid or in love with death. Rather, I’m very much in love with the splendor and beauty of life, but learned quite young that death is a natural and unchangeable part of life. As Robin William’s character, John Keating, in The Dead Poets Society reminds his students, “We’re all food for worms.” May not sound life affirming on first hearing, does it? But it is my conviction that living with an awareness of one’s mortality enables us to live life more fully and more awake. As much as I want to nap away through the day like my cat, Tamale, has been doing since I got home from church today; as much as I need to rest a bit and catch my breath, I want to stay awake and aware. As much as I want to stop and lay down sometimes, it’s hard not to prefer to play, breathe deeply, pay attention, keep swimming in the river of life and not miss a beat of the drum.

I don’t know what my funeral will be like or who will come or how they will remember me. And I’m not sure how much it even matters to me, but I hope to die as one who fully lived with my eyes wide open and my soul filled with delight. I hope those who may show up will have a wonderful wake and if I have one druther come to be in such a gathering, it’s that this poem be read.

The Laughing Heart by Charles Bukowski

your life is your life
don’t let it be clubbed into dank submission.
be on the watch.
there are ways out.
there is a light somewhere.
it may not be much light but
it beats the darkness.
be on the watch.
the gods will offer you chances.
know them.
take them.
you can’t beat death but
you can beat death in life, sometimes.
and the more often you learn to do it,
the more light there will be.
your life is your life.
know it while you have it.
you are marvelous
the gods wait to delight
in you.