Scripture: II Corinthians 4:16-5:5
For the life of me (or for the life of him), I don’t know what happened to Robert Fulghum. Several years ago, he burst on the scene with a book of homespun essays entitled All I Really Need to Know I Learned in Kindergarten. It was good stuff. It was also popular stuff. Books flew off the shelves so fast, he wrote six more. The best one (for my money, anyway) was entitled From Beginning to End: The Rituals of Our Lives.
Turn with me (in your imagination, anyway) to page 28 where you will find a most unusual picture. It shows a man sitting in a beach chair amidst the tombstones of a cemetery. We later learn that the man owns the property on which he sits. More to the point, he is sitting on his own grave. Not because his death is imminent….he’s in pretty good shape, actually. And not because he was in a morbid state of mind when the picture was taken. To the contrary, he claims it was one of the most affirmative afternoons in his life.
I do not own a grave. But if I had one, I doubt I’d visit it….let alone sit upon it. Still, it’s worthy of contemplation. Were I going to sit for an afternoon over the place I was going to lay for eternity, what kind of chair might I use? Beach chair? Deck chair? Lawn chair? La-Z-Boy chair? I think I’d prefer a recliner, given that I could both kick back and look up….which, as postures go, would be both physically correct and theologically appropriate.
Not that I dwell on such things, mind you. My hope is that, like Robert Frost’s traveler “stopping in the woods on a snowy evening,” I really do have miles to go before I sleep. But even the nimble-footed can’t dodge death. And even though I ran a trio of 10K races in my mid-fifties, nobody ever called me nimble of foot. “Plodding” would be a better word to describe my pace and gait now. So, as with many of you, my mind occasionally turns to the time I have left….and to what follows after what’s left is gone. This could lead to a doctrinal sermon on the prospect of heaven, or a speculative sermon on the furniture of heaven. But, concerning the “prospect,” Paul says: “It’s a certainty.” And concerning the “furniture,” Paul says: “It’s a mystery.” And who am I to one-up Paul? I am confident that God has prepared something….that God’s “something” will be a very good thing….and that I won’t know anything more until such time as God’s “good thing” becomes my thing.
But that has never stopped the guesswork, either from scholars or from simpletons. Dante pictured heaven as a seven-story pyramid, while Kinsella pictured heaven as a baseball field in Iowa. If those are my only two choices, I’ll go with the baseball field in Iowa. Which explains why I love the full-page picture from Baseball Weekly, featuring a long-suffering Cub fan saying: “If heaven is anything like Wrigley Field on a Saturday afternoon, I am not afraid to die.” Which calls to mind that marvelous story about the fellow who died and fried down below for several years. Then, one day, he felt a coolish breeze or two, followed by hints of a frost, followed by the actual formation of ice crystals in the air. All of which led him to turn to his friend in chilled amazement and say: “I guess the Cubs just won the pennant.”
As for me, I find myself caring less and less about where I go, and more and more about who I go to. I suppose you could fashion an entire theology around that distinction. And the issue is so serious that the only way we can comfortably talk about it is with humor.
Three-year-old little girl has a cat.
Cat dies, flattened like a pancake under the wheels of a semi.
Little girl to mommy: “Where is Fluffy now?”
Mommy to little girl: “Fluffy is with God, my dear.”
Little girl (claiming the last word): “Don’t be silly, Mommy. What would God want with a squished old cat?”
One hopes that mommy trusts the imagination of God enough to say: “Plenty.”
A clergy journal tells me that my Presbyterian colleague, Morgan Roberts, has published a collection of sermons entitled Are There Horses in Heaven? Not having read the book, I don’t know Morgan’s answer. But he would never have fashioned such a title unless he had a personal investment in the outcome. As to what that may be, only Morgan can say. I don’t know whether Morgan wants horses in heaven so he can ride ’em, breed ’em or bet ’em. I do know that C.S. Lewis expects to have sex in heaven (that is, if God is even half as good as Lewis thinks He is).
But none of us know, do we? At least we don’t know for sure. That’s because we are on the wrong side of a “frosty glass,” says Paul….the other side being the “face-to-face” side. If only we could see clearer, we could feel better. About dying, that is. Although some claim to have seen more than enough to convince them. They tell stories of how they almost died, but didn’t. Instead, they came back. But all they could describe was a tunnel, a powerful light, and a reception of incredible kindness. Still, it made believers out of those who weren’t. And it buttressed the confidence of those who were.
Seen or unseen, something of a heavenly vision gave Paul his confidence, allowing him to say to the Corinthians: “Though our outer nature be wasting away, our inner nature is being renewed, day by day.” Following which he continues: “For this slight momentary affliction….”
Can you believe what Paul is saying?
Cancer, a slight momentary affliction.
Rheumatoid arthritis, a slight momentary affliction.
Alzheimer’s, a slight momentary affliction.
MS….ALS….TB….HIV….slight momentary afflictions.
An old friend called me from Ohio on Friday. I hadn’t talked to him in years. The purpose of his call was to tell me about twelve tumors….all of them malignant….ten of them in his brain and two of them in his lung. I did not suggest that he think of them as “slight momentary afflictions.”
But we need to give Paul his due. At least we need to let him finish his sentence. “For this slight momentary affliction is preparing us for an eternal weight of glory, beyond all comparison. Because we do not look to the things that are seen, but to the things that are unseen.” For it is in the “unseen things,” Paul says, that we find clues to our destiny.
But concerning “the things that are unseen,” are we forced to walk by faith alone? Or is it possible (as we draw closer and closer to them) that we can also walk by sight? From this point on, the burden of my sermon will be to convince you….or at least suggest to you….that we walk by sight. For I would suggest that scales do fall from our eyes at the hour of our dying….perhaps even before….so that we can glimpse some of the things that are eternal, not just at the hour of our clinical death, but (in many cases) hours….even days….before our clinical death.
In a lovely little book entitled A Year to Live, Stephen Levine writes:
Death, like birth, is not so much an emergency as an emergence. Those who know the process directly do not speak of death as a single moment (before which you are alive and after which you are not), so much as a point where holding onto life transforms itself as a letting go into death.
All I know is that some years ago it struck me that very few people die frightened. Very few people die agitated. People seem to die peacefully. Even those who were previously afraid and distressed, die calm. Having been where people die, I can tell you that it is seldom, if ever, horrible. I can also tell you that it occasionally borders on the beautiful. Not that I am always there at the last minute. That’s because a disproportionately high number of people die without anybody in the room. I almost said that a disproportionately high number of people die alone. But that would be wrong. I don’t mean “alone.” I mean “without anybody in the room.” It’s a distinction to which I will return in acouple of minutes.
Why is there no fear at the hour of death? Could it be narcotics, administered by physicians? Perhaps. Could it be narcotics, self generated by the brain? Perhaps. But let me suggest another possibility. Let me suggest that people are “transitioned” from death to life by spiritual presences that include everything from God himself to that “incredible cloud of witnesses,” which is a biblical euphemism for what the church has commonly called “the communion of saints”….or who my late North Carolina colleague, Carlyle Marney, loved to call “the balcony people.”
It was a doctor in an intensive care unit who first suggested this to me. We were talking about my parishioner….his patient….who was still capable of sight, speech and conscious awareness of his environment. But he preferred remaining silent, even though his eyes often seemed to be following something other than us. After watching this for a while, the physician remarked: “Would you keep your eyes open to look at these walls, these tubes, these machines?” And when I doubted that I would, the doctor concluded: “I think the pictures Harry sees in his head are a whole lot prettier than the pictures Harry sees when he opens his eyes.”
But are the “pretty pictures” self-created or sent? Or could they be both? Some years back, I conducted a memorial service for a man my age. He was gifted teacher and an able administrator. Kids loved him. Adults loved him. He was a tough, warm, friend-making, fun-loving kind of guy. He was also, insofar as I knew, utterly unchurched. Cancer got him. Got him quick. But just before he died, he told his wife about the most vivid dream he had ever had in his life. He was sailing on an ocean. Alone. Toward a beautiful sunset. Suddenly he sailed toward a rock, upon which was seated a man. The man was well-dressed and clean-shaven. Smiling, the man beckoned. The man on the rock was his father. And, in a matter of hours, my friend joined his daddy in death.
Sometimes it’s less a dream and more a vision. I have had dying people describe faces I couldn’t see….but they could. And I have heard dying people talk to folks I couldn’t hear….but they could. I once asked a member of my choir, who was as alert in dying as most of us are in living: “Glenn, do you see anybody you know….people who have gone….but who may now be coming to be with you?” And although he couldn’t talk, the smile on his face, coupled with the strength in the squeeze of his hand, told me all I wanted to know.
Not so long ago, one of my dearest friends died following a multi-year battle with malignancy. She died at home, as was her wish. In the last hour of her life, I baptized her grandchild (newly arrived from California) in her bedroom. She held onto consciousness long enough to tell Kris where to find the Waterford bowl on her sideboard. Then she held the baby. When I was finished, she let go. And when the end came, her husband said: “She had a calling. She did not go by herself. It was the most beautiful thing I ever saw.”
Three nights previous, after making it clear to the people at Providence Hospital that she was leaving, come hell or high water, she whispered to me: “I’m going home.” To which I said: “That’s right, Jan. Frank’s coming to take you in the morning.” To which she said: “No, you don’t understand. I’m going home.” To which I added: “Say hi to our son.”
Earlier, I said that most people die with no one in the room. They die when you and I step out for coffee. They die when we slip home to shower. They die when the doctor forces us to get some sleep. I think they die without us because they are afraid for us….not for themselves. Which is why the best gift we can give a dying loved one is permission to go. I recently buried a man who hung on….hung on….and hung on some more, defying everybody’s expectations. Then, late on a Sunday, everyone left to go to supper. Except his grandson, who quietly said: “Go see Grandma, big guy.” And in a matter of minutes, “big guy” did. But, you see, if I am right about being transitioned….and I think I am….it doesn’t matter if anybody is in the room. Because nobody dies alone.
* * * * *
In closing, let me leave you with this. From time to time, I am invited to preach in a distant city, necessitating a flight of some duration. Invariably, someone on the destination end will offer to meet me at the airport. I always decline the offer. Not because I am anti-social. But because I am considerate. I know that people lead busy lives and have other needs. Besides, I’m a big boy. I can get on a plane. I can get off a plane. I can grab my bag. I can hail a cab. I can get wherever it is I need to be, whenever I need to be there. I am well schooled in such things.
Still, there is often a change of heart when I reach my destination. The plane descends and taxies across the tarmac. Finally it butts its nose against the body of the building and everything shuts down. At the very same moment, everybody stands up. Don’t ask me why we do that….stand up together, I mean. Those of us in row 27 aren’t going anywhere. But we stand up anyway. Collectively, we reach for our overhead luggage. Slowly, we inch our way down the center aisle. Upon reaching the front of the aircraft, we see the captain and one of the flight attendants. Both are smiling. Speaking with one voice, they express hope that we enjoyed our flight. We tell them we did (whether we mean it or not). Then we deplane.
Four steps to the left get us out of the aircraft and into the jetway. The jetway is that motorized corridor that links the airplane to the building (resembling a Habitrail for humans). Once in the jetway, we turn right. It’s the only way we’re going to get to the terminal. Prior to 9/11, it was after making the right turn that we could see the faces coming into view. What faces? The faces waiting for deplaning passengers. Craning their necks, they are waiting for us to walk into view. There are wives waiting for husbands, and husbands waiting for wives. There are little kids perched on somebody’s shoulders, looking for a grandparent. And there are people with white hair and bifocals waiting for grandchildren. Along with neighbors waiting for neighbors….friends waiting for friends….and lovers waiting for lovers (who will clog the works by passionately embracing in the midst of the flow). And there are others who are not even certain who they are waiting for. They are the ones holding those hand-lettered signs.
As I start toward those faces, I never look up. I know I won’t recognize anybody. I told my friends not to bother meeting me. After all, I’m a big boy and can take of myself. Which is true. But with each passing step, I find myself scanning the crowd….searching the faces….in hopes that one of them (just one of them) will be waiting there for me.
* * * * *
I don’t know about you, but the older I get, the less interest I have in eternal life….if, by eternal life, you mean endless extension (going on, and on, and on, etc.). But if you mean blessed reunion, then you’ve captured my interest. Because having lived this long, I have lost far too many to want it any other way.
As for heaven’s landscape, I’ll wait for the surprise. Not without my own fantasies, given that we all entertain them. You want pearly gates and golden streets? Be my guest. You want lush golf courses and unrestricted tee times? Be my guest. I’ll be satisfied with passing through the turnstile, emerging through the portal, and gazing upon a diamond that is green, complete with bases that are white, on a day that is sunny….rejoicing that my ticket has already been paid for….and the crowd, much bigger than I expected.
William A. Ritter
Nardin Park United Methodist Church, Farmington Hills, MI
A couple of weeks ago, when I was cross-checking calendars with my running partner, Dick Cheatham, I reminded him that I would have to miss our next scheduled workout, given the trip that Kris and I were making to take Julie to Duke. This was not unfamiliar conversational terrain between Dick and myself. As good friends do, we had discussed both the facts of the move and the feelings surrounding the move. Which is, perhaps, what led Dick to remark, as a parting word:
I hope you do better than I did when Diane and I took Chrystal to Michigan State. I kissed her goodbye, turned my back, bit my lip, and cried all the way home. But since Chrystal’s dorm was in East Lansing and our home (at that time) was in Brighton, “all the way home” only represented 30 minutes of tears. If you cry all the way home from Duke, you’ll be red-eyed for 12 hours and become something of a public menace on the highways.
I am here to report that I did nothing of the kind. Kris and I took her … unloaded her … spent a couple of days with her … oriented her … kissed her goodbye … and drove away. In the immediate aftermath there were a couple of sniffles and some long, introspective silences. Then the two of us engaged in an extensive rehash of three very tightly-scheduled and emotionally-laden days. I don’t know everything Kris may have been thinking. But I was certain that I was doing well. That was Friday morning.
Much of Friday afternoon was spent driving through the residual rain squalls of Hurricane Andrew. It was tense driving … tough driving … white-knuckled, rigid-necked, through the mountains driving. Then (somewhere around Pittsburgh) when the heavens finally decided to stop weeping, I started. Which launched Kris. And for the next 30 minutes, there was little either of us could say that made it any easier, or any better. So we just held hands or touched each other’s leg, doing anything to make a connection, and (secondarily) to make it down the highway.
All in all, Julie couldn’t be happier with her choice. And we couldn’t be happier for her. After a Thursday filled with separate orientation activities for parents and freshmen, and after her first full night in the dorm, we picked her up for one final breakfast at our hotel. She was operating on four hours of sleep, having socialized with newly made friends until 3:00 in the morning. Still, she was vibrantly awake, bubbling over about her classes, her classmates, her room, and everything from the way the place looked to the way the place felt. “This is even better that I expected,” she pronounced. “This feels exactly like where I should be.”
Which makes it easy for us to be happy for her … and easier to leave her. A tone of work went into the making of this decision, and early confirmation of its rightness, however premature, felt good. May future pulse-takings be so healthy and feel so fine. It could have been so much worse, and then our sadness would have had a real “bite” to it.
As it was, a tear or two was as predictable as it was explainable. She is our last kid. She is a “neat” kid. And 700 miles is not an easily-negotiable distance for any kid. She has not only gone away, but she has gone a very long way away. Whatever else Duke may be, it is not a “commuter college” for people who live in Michigan.
As parents go, Kris and I may be an overly sentimental pair. Although I think not. More honest about our emotions, perhaps, but not more emotional. I think that such things really are “big deals” for a lot of you. And unless I miss my bet, a number of you are going to tell me so at the close of the hour.
In the orientation session for parents, we heard from three different speakers, with each speaker (strangely enough) zeroing in on the issue of “separation anxiety.” Not class schedules. Not dormitory regulations. Not grading procedures, health services or financial aid. But separation anxiety. “This is a major transition,” we were told. “It is hard for them. It is equally hard for you.” Such was the tone of the messages. And I thought to myself: “How perceptive. Howright on.” Because this was what we all were dealing with. Not with, “Where can my kid stash their bicycle?” or “How does my kid get a lock on her closet?” But: “How am I going to leave my kid here and go home … when I am not all that certain I am ready to leave my kid here or go home?” As to what the kids may have been thinking (listening to similar presentations elsewhere) heaven only knows. But given my ability to read crowds, it was clear that the people speaking to us were touching all the right buttons and hitting all the right nerves.
Not that they did it without humor. Separation anxiety can be pretty heavy stuff, unbroken by levity. One speaker told us that she knew why God created adolescence: “So that when our kids are ready to go to college, we are ready to have them go.” Other speakers listed some of the immediate “pluses” we would experience, especially if we were saying goodbye to the last one. Such pluses included no more MTV … fewer wet towels one the bathroom floor … the possibility of refrigerated leftovers actually being left over … and the sheer delight of hearing the phone ring and knowing that possibly, just possibly, it might be for you.
We were reminded that, as parents, we were still very much needed. We would get urgent phone calls of three distinct types.
• requests for sustenance: “I have overspent my Duke account and have less than $20 in my checkbook.”
• requests for encouragement: “I have never had less than a “B” in my life, and now I haven’t gotten above a “C” on my last three papers.”
• requests for advice: “I’ve forgotten everything I ever knew about washing underwear. Tell me again, where is it you’re supposed to insert the quarter?”
Therefore, Kris and I have little doubt we will be needed, valued, and that our parenting chores are far from finished. Yet, there was also a little doubt in either of our minds that the single most important parenting chore we could do at that particular moment was to go home … without trying to fix, correct, amend, or teach one more thing. “Just go home,” making as small a deal out of the whole matter as possible. Not because going home is really a “small deal.” But because going home is such an incredibly “big deal” that it is (for many) almost too hot to handle and too close to touch.
Julie is one of those rare kids who talks about everything and anything with us. Yet even she said: “We’ll be okay, as long as nobody tries to make any speeches.” So none of us did. Kris spent the final pre-departure days helping Julie assemble her stuff. And at Julie’s request, I took her to the Whitney for a final daddy-daughter lunch. (Seven years earlier, Bill’s choice had been the London Chop House. Whatever else my kids may lack, you can’t say they don’t have class.) But there were no speeches. Had she asked me, I simply would have said: “Julie, whether by planning, providence or accident, you seem to have stumbled on an amazingly successful formula for living your life. Don’t abandon it now.” And I believe she’s heard that … and that she knows that … without my needing to put it in a final speech at all.
“There is a time to embrace, and a time to refrain from embracing.” So said a wise old biblical sage writing under the pen name “Ecclesiastes.” If you stretch that a bit, I suppose it also means that for every time of holding close, there is also a time of letting go. Among the many things love does, love releases. Virtually every Sunday morning, given the location of my office, I see a parent struggling with what it means to walk away from a screaming, clinging toddler in the nursery. And while I know how hard that is, I also know how necessary that is. I also know that the same scene sometimes repeats itself at the other end of life’s spectrum. I see love occasionally expressed in the words of one family member saying to another: “I am going to miss you terribly, but it’s ok for you to go.” Lots of people simply are unable to die until they’ve been given permission. Love releases.
Earlier, I read to you a portion of Ruth’s story. It’s one part of the Old Testament that most people can manage, which is probably why it’s one part of the Old Testament that most people love. But when you look at it, it is just as much Naomi’s story as it is Ruth’s. Naomi is a Jew, married to Elimelech, another Jew. They have a pair of sons. The sons grow up. A famine hits the land. Naomi, her husband, and her two sons move to Moab … a foreign country. Moab has food. Moab has jobs. Moab also has women. Each of Naomi’s sons marry Moabite women. One marries Orpah (that’s Orpha, not Oprah). The other marries Ruth. Then things take a turn for the worse. Naomi’s husband dies, followed by the death of each of her sons. Just like that. All the men are gone. Naomi is left with a pair of foreign women for daughter-in-laws. Naomi decides to go back to Israel. But realizing that Israel is no place for a pair of young, attractive, non-Jewish widows, Naomi tells them: “Split. Make your home here. Stay with your own people. I’m going home. To be with my people. Your chances of finding husbands in Israel are two … slim and none. You’ll do better here. People know you here. People worship like you do, here. Even if I get married … get pregnant … and get two more sons … by the time they’ll be grown up, you’ll have callouses on your hope chests.”
To which Orpah says: “Makes sense to me. Here, let me kiss you good-bye, mommy-in-law dearest.” And to which Ruth says (while clinging fervently to Naomi):
Entreat me not to leave thee,
For whether thou goest, I will go.
Whither thou lodgest, I will lodge,
They people will be my people,
And thy God, my God.
Now everybody loves those lines, especially when they read them (as I just did) from the stilted prose of the King James Version of the Bible. And everybody, upon reading them, looks at Ruth and says: “What devotion. What love. What fidelity to Naomi. And she’s not even her daughter, save by marriage.”
But Naomi, however grateful she may be for Ruth’s companionship, realizes that this is not as it should be. Ruth should have a life of her own … lived on her own … in response to commitments made on her own. So, in the part of the story nobody ever quotes, Naomi orchestrates a scenario wherein Ruth meets a rich, eligible, Jewish bachelor, whereupon she marries him and bears his children (one of whom becomes the grandfather of King David). In an even less quoted part of the story, Naomi teaches Ruth some tactics in the gentle art of flirtation (in reality, the gentle art of seduction) so as to insure that Ruth will get her man.
It appears that the Jews have preserved this story for a whole host of reasons, including whatever light is may have shed on the changing practice of interfaith marriage. After all, if King David’s great-grandmother was a foreigner … and a seducer of David’s great-grandfather (who, incidentally, was half in the bag when Ruth first came to lie at his feet) … it shoots a pretty big hole in the notion of ethnic superiority and racial purity on the part of the Jewish people. Right?
But not to be lost is this elemental understanding of Naomi, who (in effect) says to Ruth: “As much as I love you … and as much as I need you … you need to be on with your life. And if you will not take that step on your own (however admirable your devotion may be), I will have to take it for you.” Which is what Naomi did (perhaps to her own short-term detriment, but to the long-term betterment of Ruth).
Love lets go. And it sometimes falls to those of us who are older to instigate the release. Not to be overlooked (in life) is the subtle ministry of the gentle nudge.
I am sure this was painful for Naomi, not solely because of what she may have feared for Ruth, but because of what she may have feared for herself. Separation anxiety is always harder on the one doing the releasing than it is on the one being released. Which is another new truth I discovered over the course of the last five days. When Naomi said to Ruth, “Don’t look to my womb to produce you a new husband,” what she was really saying was:
Time marches on.
Human beings get older.
I’m getting older.
And some things will never be the same again.
I know the feeling. During the last few of my child-raising years, people have said to me: “Treasure these days with your kids. They go by so incredibly quickly.” I always listened and nodded, figuring that what they meant was that kids get old before you know it. It never occurred to me that what they meant was that I would get old before I knew it. A few minutes before we left home last Tuesday (practical parent that I am), I decided to walk through the entire house in search of potentially forgotten items. In the basement, I found a portable electric fan. Necessity! In the basement, I also found a child’s table and chairs along with several Barbies. No longer necessities! I remembered buying every last one of them and felt suddenly sad. It also took me a few minutes to come up from the basement.
I am going to be all right. We are going to be all right. I say “we” because that’s where it rests now … with the two of us. Which may be why Kris and I felt a need to touch each other a lot on the way home (especially during that period where we couldn’t say anything without breaking into tears). A line from an old Sonny Bono song kept creeping into consciousness … “Just you and me, babe.”
And Julie will be all right, too … although I can’t ensure, determine or guarantee that. Would that I could. Would that I could have done it for Bill. But I can’t now. And couldn’t then.
So all I can do is trust. Trust who she is … what Kris has done … what I have done … what others have done … and what God will do. But even trust has its risks.
I prayed to God and said: “Don’t let her fall, God. Don’t let her fail. Don’t let her meet up with anyone who’ll abuse her, hurt her, or disappoint her. She is my little girl. Do you know what it feels like to be a father?”
And God, who still occasionally speaks with a hint of a Jewish accent, said: “Do I know vat it means to be a father? You got a minute? Sit down … let me tell you about my
Yesterday morning, before retreating to do my writing, I did a little reading of the newspaper….that hybrid thing the News and Free Press pony up to print on Saturday. Imagine my surprise to discover that the three most interesting stories, relative to Mother’s Day, were deadly.