January 20, 2013

Funeral for a complicated friend

Last week someone in our parish died. I don't generally post funeral sermons, but in this case I there seemed to be some things in it that I thought others might benefit from reading.

The death was sad, the situation complicated. I'm still working through it.

Sermon for the Funeral of Anne Blackburn
By The Rev. Torey Lightcap
Saint Thomas Episcopal Church
January 18, 2013

My friends, may grace and goodwill be with you each and all this morning,
  … Peace from the very bottom …
  And may these things come and flourish among us
  As a sign of hope in this weary and broken world.
May Christ himself be our honored guest today
  While we begin to walk in earnest with the reality of this present moment,
  As we seek to give Anne Elizabeth Blackburn back to God, who gave her to us.

If our service today seems complicated,
  Please know that it is actually meant to convey a simple message:
  A beautiful and lasting and true message,
    About resurrection and about Easter.
And if it uses a lot of words or obscure symbols,
  Please know that it is trying to say something in a very plain way,
    About the love of God for all of God’s good creation.

It’s human nature to want to provide some sort of form, some ritual, for this day,
  And this is what it looks like in Christian circles: at least, in The Episcopal Church.
It’s human nature, because death makes us run to a place of grief,
  And grief has its natural expressions and phases.
A deep friendship, when someone dies, can produce a deep grief,
  But sometimes even the death of a passing acquaintance, a professional friend,
  Can knock the air out of us, get us way down, make us want to scramble for the truth,
    Bring us into a room like this wanting to understand and pay respects.
Grief over a death can make us wail and tear our clothes,
  Or retreat into our homes and lock our doors, shutter our windows,
    And produce great tears and sighs:
      O those deep, painful breaths of confusion and disorientation.
Grief over the death of a loved one or a friend or a co-worker
  Can churn up within us so many questions, so many terrible, nagging questions:
    … What did I/we, do, not do … say, not say?
    … What might have been done in a different way, or not done at all?
    … Doesn’t it all seem so unnecessary?
    … Was it preventable? Was it inevitable?
    … What, if anything, have we learned, and what do we do now?
Perhaps of all questions, this last might be the best.
“What do we see now that we didn’t see before?” “What do we do now? How to live?”
Because this death is something that has already happened; it happened;
  We can’t reverse it. So now what?

Over the last few days, many wise people have been generous with their wisdom.
(You can always tell a wise person because he or she is generous.)
Wise folks have asked themselves, “What can we take away from this?”
What is the learning that emerges from the body of the grief?
If we can’t have Anne in life anymore, is there anything to be gained now, in death?
(Another mark of wisdom, in addition to generosity,
  Is that people are bold enough to ask themselves very hard questions
  At terribly inconvenient times.)

So, what have we learned?
What is the collective wisdom?
Here’s what I’ve heard.

For one, it’s that old expression: That it is better to have had someone in this life
  Than not to have had someone;
  That it is better to have had Anne and grieve the loss
    Than for her not to have been here at all.
A daughter, a mom, a grandma.
When she was well, God be praised, her family was her delight.

And did you ever see Anne with Edwin?
Of course you did!
Maybe it would have just been easier to ask if you had ever not seen her with Edwin!
Of all she was, of all she did, of all the good and all the bad mixed in together,
  Of all her life, her hope, her deepest charity,
  It was etched there on the surface of her relationship with her father,
    Whom she always called “father.”
(I can hear her saying it.)
It is, to me, the very best of her.
It was a visible love and respect, an evident love, an abundant love.
A sign of unity in a culture of estrangement and isolation.
If you want a memory to cling to, it’s a good place to start.

The last time I talked with Anne was Sunday the sixth of January.
She was leading Edwin out of the sanctuary; they were on each other’s arms.
She said they were going out to buy a Scrabble dictionary
  Because he’d played the word “zoot” – as in “zoot suit” –
    And she didn’t think that was a word all by itself!
(I thought it was a clever way to score 13 points – 36 on a triple word score.)
See: No matter her state, her place,
  Whatever happened to her in death,
  Whoever she was when she slipped away early Monday morning –
    She would have counted this life incomplete without the assurance
      That at the very least, at the very bottom, Edwin would be well.

Alice and Earl and Grace and Maxwell and Collin,
  I never heard the end of all the stories about you
    Because there was no end, no stopping her: no end to her pride in you.

Earl and Amy and Brian and Katrina and Mark:
  Take what comfort and counsel you can
  From the words of her letter:
    “Please know how very much I love you,” she wrote,
      “And have always appreciated the gift of being a mom.”

These are holy things.
We’re left to sort through them.

More wisdom from the wise.
Someone said,
  “If I can take any comfort from this,
    It’s in knowing that Anne is not in pain anymore.”
This life is no free pass; it’s hard; suffering comes and goes
  And sometimes it makes itself a permanent fixture.
Faithful Christians understand that sooner or later
  Life will just walk right up and hand you a cross;
  You don’t have to go looking for trouble.
Bad things happen to good people;
  Bad things happen to bad people;
  Some suffer more in this life than others.
This is not according to what you didn’t or didn’t do before;
  It’s not about getting what you deserve; it’s not about life being fair.
The secret of life is to avoid pain for as long as you can,
  And then after that, when suffering comes, it’s all in how you respond.
I belive in Jesus Christ, who was tried in a kangaroo court
  And made to suffer mightily;
  And I believe in a God who redeemed the cross and the grave
    Not by spurning them, by disbelieving them,
      But by turning instruments of torture into instruments of grace and love.
Take comfort, now. Anne is not in pain.

More wisdom from the wise. More learnings for this life, for this time.
Someone thinking on the last few months of Anne’s life,
  How she seemed to withdraw, said to me, “It’s okay to change who you are.”
And that resonated. Deeply.
“It’s okay to change who you are.”
A little scary, a little risky, yes, but worth it if a change is what you really need.

It can be so, so hard to live in this often cynical and dark world.
It can be so easy to go about it
  Believing that we are somehow, fundamentally, alone …
  That when it comes down to it, we’re left to live our lives all on our own
    And no one else will be there to pay our bill or soothe our pain or hold our hand.
That a hard life is the only kind of life we deserve.
We seem to slip into that kind of cynicism, that kind of straightjacket thinking,
  All too easily.
We’re cruel in our thoughts to ourselves.
We may come to believe life is “nasty, brutish, and short,” as they say, and what of it.
That, my friends, is a seductive master narrative, but it’s not the whole story.

I believe in a God who made all things and called them good,
  And who then made a human being and said it was Very Good.
Don’t confuse the length of your life or the quality of your life
  With the fact that you were created to begin with,
    And that God calls you good, Very Good.

I truly don’t know Anne’s thoughts from these past few months and weeks,
  Even though from time to time we talked in a kind of a small way about this and that;
    I’m not sure where she was in her head, and I regret not knowing;
  Still, I would offer this one observation.
No matter how much our lives may have trained us to believe that we are alone,
  Or not good,
  Our faith ultimately shows otherwise;
  God is totally and evermore, everpresent;
    God sees all that is made and blesses it, declares that it is Very Good.
And if we lack the vision to see the world as God sees it,
  Perhaps it is some comfort to remember how much
  Jesus seemed to enjoy healing the blind.

So. Three pieces of wisdom.
That’s all I have to offer you today.

One: We had Anne for as long as we had her,
  And that’s better than never having her at all.
Two: No more pain.
Three: “It’s okay to change who you are.”

Oh, and, okay, just one more thing.
Such a simple thing.
Anne wanted to give. She wanted to give and give and give and give and give.
As her priest, I saw this up close and vulnerable.
I sometimes found myself wondering, Where’s the line?
  C’mon, Anne, save a little for yourself.
This is not flattery; neither is it lies; for who would slander the dead?

You, too, in fact. You may have had an experience like this with Anne,
  When she was well,
    Where you saw an open and undefended person offer so much of herself
  For the life of others.

I want to say that this is what lived at the center of this person,
  And that if we only had a little more of such kindness,
  I’m sure the world would be a much better place in which to live.
I call this wisdom, too.

So it seems fitting that her wisdom has the chance to have the last word of this sermon.

For now, then, we continue in our prayers.
Thank God for Anne; thank God for our own lives;
  May we mark this moment and remember it for ever,
  As the completion of her baptism –
    Coming together to share wisdom, and promising to live better.

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