April 20, 2013


Sermon for the Funeral of Phyllis Gillespie
By The Rev. Torey Lightcap
Saint Thomas Episcopal Church
April 20, 2013

Welcome, each and all, to this service celebrating the life of Phyllis Gillespie.
Welcome, also, to this service of celebration of the resurrection.
These two things are really just the same thing –
  A way to mark Phyllis’ death which is really also a way to mark her resurrection.

Christians – followers of Jesus – make powerful and heady claims over death.
We do not do so lightly or irreverently,
  But with full voice and in believing hope.
Not as a way of avoiding the reality of death,
  But in fact as a way of facing it, head-on.
We believe that just as God raised Jesus from death,
  So too will God raise us from death.
That “nothing in all creation can separate us from the love of God in Christ.”
We believe that we came into this world from out of something –
  That God, who has always been, made us, so to speak;
  And we believe that when we shall pass from this earth,
    It will not be into nothing that we go,
  But that we will rest in the perfect contemplation of our Creator.

So you are here for two celebrations, two parties: a life that has been lived,
  And a life that somehow, beyond our capacity to see or understand, lives still.
A passing-from. A passing-into. A party in either case.
And our service of burial is nothing more than a pausing at the threshold,
  And an acknowledgement, with great joy,
  That because our Redeemer lives, so, too shall we.
Great mystery of mysteries, so shall we.

I met Phyllis recently. Saw her a few times.
Really, really liked her energy and her spirit.
Even said something like, “Phyllis, where you been all my life?”
Saw the fight and the fire in her eyes.

Took her a milkshake back on Maundy Thursday, about three weeks ago,
  And we chatted about death, casually, like you’d talk about anything –
    Making a grocery list or an appointment to have your car serviced –
    And she said, “I have to get out of the hospital. I just have to.”
“I have got to see my grandson grow up.”
And I said I thought that if death did come, she could still watch Arlo grow up.
That it would just be different.
And she took a sip of milkshake, and she shook the cup at me,
  As if to say, Not acceptable.

Somewhere along the way, though, she fell victim to an aggressive cancer
  She had so successfully eluded for several years.

And then something pretty extraordinary happened,
  Which was that she got to be in charge of making her own decisions
  About how the end of her life was going to go.
She was forced – no doubt forced – to turn all of that energy to get rid of cancer
  Into a posture of how to live with the facts:
  Into an energy to direct the decisions for her benefit, yes,
    But also for the benefit of Bob and Ashley and Andrew and Arlo
    And Wally and Stephanie and Joe and Jennifer and Cheryl
    And her nieces and nephews and her many, many friends,
      And Antti from Finland, and other exchange students from Switzerland and Sweden.
For all their benefit.
She turned the death-dealing poison of cancer on its ear
  And she said, Cancer, you old fool. Even if you have me, you’ll never keep me;
  Even at the grave I’ll make my song – Alleluia, alleluia.

She called her shots – at least three of them, and I’m going to tell you what they were.

Here, I believe, is the first shot she called.
She opened the door wide for God and did not hesitate.
She confessed and prayed, and she took the right hand of fellowship
  And she quaffed the Blood of Christ and ate the Body of Christ
    All from a little kit that we carry from the door of the church to the hospital bedside.
And it touched us both, radically and deeply.
It was like remembering. “Holy food for holy people.”
And she went down square to that temporary resting-place of death
  In which both she and I are sure she no longer resides.

The second shot she called was to direct the manner and timing of her death
  Until she no longer possessed consciousness,
    And she was possessed of consciousness quite close to the end.
This is, as I say, extraordinary.
Most people have little to no choice in the matter when it comes down to it,
  And we go off scrambling, looking for any paperwork they signed years before,
  Or trying to remember any conversations we had with them.
We interpolate their wishes based on the past:
  What did he say back when his best friend was on life support –
    That he did or didn’t want that if it were him?
  Or, Does she want comfort measures only, or everything that can be done?
In other words, we play high-stakes guessing games.

Instead, Phyllis had the chance to say what she wanted,
  But I think in this case she would also say, if she were here, that the takeaway
  Is to not wait: to get your affairs in order and to keep them current,
    No matter how healthy or young you may be.
Because you don’t know what’s going to happen.

Here’s the third shot she called – powerful, and final.
She left last words to ponder.
Stephanie took many notes at the bedside, and some were handed to me.
And I joined them with other notes I’d taken over the past few days,
    And I remembered a conversation I’d had with a chaplain at St. Luke’s
    And pretty soon there was this lovely litany of instructions and ideas.

Listen to this. These are her words and no one else’s.
Not words from beyond the grave, but from the bedside:
  … “Celebrate my life. Do not grieve.”
  … “Sprinkle my ashes over beautiful flower beds somewhere. Not buried.”
  … “Thank you to my family and friends – you were all there for me!”
  … “Ashley, I am the proudest mother anyone can ask for.
          Especially my sweet Arlo.
          I hope he grows up just like his father and grandfather.”
  … “Bob, go fishing anywhere in the world, and don’t be sad.”

I hope you heard what I heard when I said just now what she said then:
  “Don’t be sad.”
  “Thank you.”

Are these the words of a person who didn’t love her life?
The words of some sullen, slinking grouch?
By no means.
They sound to me for all the world like the words of a person who embraced her life.
A person who went to San Antonio with friends
  And instead of finding sun and heat found it cold and rainy,
  And so, inexplicably, swaddled herself in bubble wrap and fell asleep!
A child who so cherished her new shoes
  That she kept them always close at hand, even in bed!
A person who rattled a half-consumed milkshake at her parish priest,
  As if to say, I’m not done living and just try and stop me.

Lots of good stories like this, to mark this life.
There are, and will doubtless be forthcoming, more stories of Phyllis.
More good memories.
Some will be about Phyllis calling her shots. Some won’t.
A lot of them, I suspect, will be about hospitality and friendship.

We might do well to ask ourselves
  What any of these stories might have to teach us:
    To show us about our lives, hidden in God …
    How to live more harmoniously …
    How to walk the earth …
      And how, finally, to leave this life.

You might know that recently Phyllis and many friends
  Had moved out of playing bridge a little and over toward mah-jongg.
It’s a game played with tiles.
If you want, you can take everything in it purely at face value. Probably many do.
But when you start to look at the markings on the tiles,
  You find on them a world of symbols.
And in his seminal text on mah-jongg,
  A.D. Millington summed up what he believed
  To be that game’s ultimate philosophy.
He wrote that
  “[The symbols on the tiles] serve to remind the player
    Of the ... virtues which he should possess.
    They also remind him of the spirit of the game,
      Which no player should ignore,
    And of its purpose, which is to develop the mind
    To search after Truth and to conform and reconcile itself –
      Serenely, yet not in an attitude of indifference, resignation or fatalism,
      To the decrees of Heaven.”
“To conform and reconcile [the mind] serenely … to the decrees of Heaven.”
Now is this not what we have seen and heard here today?
Of one who reconciles her mind, serenely, to the decrees of Heaven?
And does not Jesus Christ himself “conform [himself] … to the decrees of Heaven”?
Yet it is for us an ultimate philosophy, a high calling:
  Whether calling the shots or having the terms dictated to us,
  To remain faithful to the One who makes us,
    Calls and shapes us to conform,
      And finally, at the last, grants us rest and refreshment past the veil of death
      In a way we cannot begin to understand.

[For] “Now we see things imperfectly,” St. Paul wrote to the Corinthians,
  “Like puzzling reflections in a mirror,
    But [in time] we will see everything with perfect clarity.
    All that I know now,” he wrote – All that I know now
    Is partial and incomplete, but then I will know everything completely,
      Just as God now knows me completely.”
For us, for now, this somehow has to be enough to keep us going.
For our sister Phyllis, for whom we now pray, it is done and over with. A fact.
For this we have great joy, just as she had hoped. So thanks be to God!

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