Death has been on my mind a great deal the last couple weeks. Prior to my grandmother, Kitty, passing, I had been reflecting on the Eucharists I had celebrated at the time of death of some parishioners. The stonemason, as many of you know from Facebook, showed up to etch the names of our deceased interred in the Prayer Garden into the granite memorial bench. Polly, Vern, and I had not been able to catch him working both times he worked at church since I had come to St. Alban’s. The weather over the last few years had also complicated matters. He needs the weather cool, but not too cold. We have been skipping from summer to winter to summer so quickly the last few years that he had very little time to do his jobs in fourteen states. Upon his arrival here, he had some questions. Chiefly, he wanted to know about this Norm Roby. Specifically, he wanted to know how Norm had gotten his phone number and why Norm was so insistent on getting Thelma’s name etched into the bench. We got to talking about Norm and his cancer and his devotion to his wife. That got us talking a bit about Thelma. That got us talking about the other names he had etched or was here to etch. We might call it a stroll down memory lane. I shared some stories, shared a secret “real” middle name, and generally reveled him as he worked and asked questions about us and our garden.
I don’t know if it was my attitude or the stories or the collar (this was after LutherCrest so I had one on!), but that got him talking about other observations. I will not claim that he had any particular insights that would surprise you, but he deals often with those dealing with death. He has noticed that the hope of a Resurrected Christ sure does make his job much easier. Christians mourn, but they mourn with hope. Christians experience the sadness of loss, but their loss is tempered with the belief that the grave is not the end. For those without that hope, though, the monuments he inscribes really become the sum of their existence, both their past and their future. It’s really kind of sad. As much as an artist as this mason is, I can’t claim to be too surprised by his observations. He is keenly aware of the human condition, and the pride with which he approaches his work tells us he has more than a bit of a poet in him.
Of course, as he finished up, my grandmother fell and died some 60 hours later. There are no real good deaths. The world might like to try and convince us that dying in one’s sleep after a long life is pretty good. But, as I write this a couple weeks after her death, I am very cognizant of her absence. Death still sucks. There is no getting around it. Death, and all that surrounds it, the pain, the emotion, the feelings of loss, the guilt of feeling good about release—all of it was not supposed to happen. I remind you all every time at funerals that this was not what our Lord intended when He created us. As we are sojourners in this land, however, death becomes a constant companion. Sure, the elderly feel it more, but all of know lives taken by untimely death, as if saying it that way implies a timely death.
It was with that background noise in my life and in our collective that I approached the readings this week. Specifically, it was that background noise in our life, and the planning of yet another funeral, that caused me to pay closer attention to the letter to the Romans rather than the other three. It makes sense, of course. Chapters 5-8 are sometimes called the biblical definition of pastoral theology. That falls within the first 8 chapters of Romans, which some refer to as the Gospel according to Paul. When we understand what the author, traditionally thought to be St. Paul, is trying to accomplish, those accolades and titles make sense. The Church in Rome is getting ready to experience a great tribulation, a great persecution, under Nero. This upcoming persecution will include the gladiatorial games where Christians will be fed to wild animals and will include what you and I would call human torches. Nero, in an attempt to scare people from following this new “Way” will let convicted followers truly become the light of Christ. It will be a gruesome scene. Family members will turn on one another. The powerful will take the lives of the weak. It will be a time that will serve as the background when the Holy Spirit inspires John to write his Revelation. It will be a time full of death, full of suffering, full of pain, full of mourning, full of fear for any who would call upon Christ as Lord and Savior. It will be a time that looks like the very opposite of the reign of Christ and the Kingdom of God. And Paul is trying to comfort his brothers and sisters in Rome in the midst of this terrible ordeal.
Likewise the Spirit helps us in our weakness; for we do not know how to pray as we ought, but that very Spirit intercedes with sighs too deep for words. As I read those words with my conversation with the stonemason in the back of my mind, I was reminded how many times we find ourselves silent before God. Our Intercessors experience that deep sigh, that deep sense of not knowing what to pray as they faithfully, day in and day out, lift the concerns of those in the parish and those who seek their intercession to God. It is that same silence that we experience at the loss of a loved one. As I read those names on the bench last week in light of this passage, I saw husbands, wives, children, grandchildren, friends, and other loved ones left speechless before God. Time and time again I have witnessed that deep sigh. Time and time again I have reminded those among you that not knowing what to pray is ok, especially in the times of loss and grief. Time and time again I have experienced that silent sigh myself. What should I be praying for this individual? What? Why? Paul answers that question for us. Because God, who searches the heart and knows the mind of the Spirit, knows the Spirit will intercede on behalf of the saints according to the will of God. It is a deep consolation to realize that the Spirit is interceding behalf of all those who call upon Christ as Lord.
Better still, Paul goes on to note, we know that all the mournings, all these deeply sad events, and even all the joyful events in our lives work together for good for those who love God. That seems a ridiculous statement to make, does it not? I know it causes some to be pollyannish in some Christian circles. It’s ok, God wanted that to happen for me. It’s ok, God never gives us more than we can handle. Worse, it causes some who are new to the faith to allow their circumstances to be the basis of their relationship with God. If things are going well, God must be pleased with them. If things are going horribly wrong, God must be angry or indifferent to their plight. Such attitudes are easy for the Enemy to use to seduce people from the Christian faith. Understand, though, what Paul is saying. God is making sure that all things in the end work for our good. All things, even death, are used by God for His people’s good and His glory.
As the mason and I were sharing a couple weeks ago, we chatted a bit about this passage in Romans. Well, I was chatting with this passage and the OT passages that focused on the next generation to decide whether to follow God in mind. He was more concerned about what you and I would call legacies. Part of the reason he does not give his number out is that people are so concerned about the way the name or inscription looks. Sometimes, when the person has passed, they become intensely focused on the carvings. Too focused, sometimes, from his perspective. He has been yelled at because the letters weren’t crisp enough or too crisp, because the carvings were too deep or too shallow, and, understandably, because the names have been misspelled. He mentioned that Norm’s repeated efforts to speed up his visit was all too reminiscent of that kind of focus. Death, he said, sometimes brings out the worst in us. I agreed heartily and shared how funerals and weddings are tough for clergy. After laughing a bit, though, he asked why I thought death becomes such a toughie for Christians.
I answered that it is in the face of death where our faith is really tested. To some extent, we all create God in our own images—that’s part of why Scripture exists to correct and educate us. It is easy to claim to be a Christian, though, in many places in western culture. Yes, I know, sometimes our friends or coworkers or families mock us for believing in God, but few of us in America have ever really felt threatened for our lives for calling Christ Lord. Certainly, our poor are better off than the poor in other countries. Our sick have access to better medical care than is available to the sick in other countries. In many ways, death is the hardship we face in life. It is also the place where we have no answers. There is a limit to our doctors’ skill. Once they have gone so far, that is it. But God is not bound by those limits. Part of Christ’s coming was to demonstrate God’s power over death. And if He used His Son’s death to demonstrate His power to redeem all things, we can expect that He will use ours as well. But it is tough path to walk when we have created God in our image, when we have lived our life the way we see fit, when we have picked and chose what part of God’s revelation is important and what parts can be discarded.
The mason commented that we ought to expect for our most effective ministries and witness to be in the shadow of death. After all, He redeemed by dying for us. I agreed, but I also recognized that death truly challenges us. One of my primary roles is to remind those near death of God’s promises. Everyone, everyone is attacked by the Enemy near their death. One of the reasons we clergy visit parishioners and others on deathbeds is to remind them of God’s unfailing love and power. I do it, I find, not just for the benefit of the dying, but also for the benefit of those in their life. There is a criticism in the Star Trek movies of Captain Kirk and his “solution” to the Kobyashi Maru. In the Wrath of Khan it is his son rebuking and in the reboot movie it is Spock, but both make the observation that how we face death is every bit as important as how we face life. Kirk, naturally, rejects that understanding. To him, there is no such thing as a no-win scenario. We know as Christians, though, that, unless our Lord returns before He calls us home, all of us will face that no-win scenario we call death. As it is an experience that transcends culture, economics, race, and every other trait that divides humanity, we ought not be too surprised that people pay attention to us when we face death.
I told the mason that we just have to trust that, even though God did not create us with the intention that he would engrave any names on benches in such gardens, He would use those deaths for good and to His glory. Do you believe it? I told him of course I did. I had seen it too many times not to believe it. I look for it, but I never get to see the dead raised like Lazarus. I reminded that all things work for good and to His glory, not the way we want to see things work out. What do you mean? We love the flashy miracles. I get it. I have prayed over a dying man and seen God answer that prayer with an emphatic yes, but I also understand my ways are not His ways. I asked him how many churches he works at during the course of the year. His answer was that it depended on the year. So I challenged him a bit and asked why he thought he and I were having this particular conversation at that particular time. In the past, he has managed to get in and out without Polly or Vern or me spotting him. He couldn’t think of anything specific in his life. So then I pointed to the intersection. As he and I chatted, car after car kept coming through the intersection. I asked if he thought it possible if any drivers or any passengers might simply have needed to see a priest and someone else speaking easily in the Prayer Garden. That, he said, was entirely possible. So I reminded him that while God had not intended for any of those names on the bench to have died when He first conceived them in His mind, He was able potentially to use their deaths to reach others. The mason agreed and commented it was such a waste. I asked why He thought Jesus wept at the death of His friend.
A number of us in this parish have had the, what the world calls misfortune, to experience those deep, sighing moments. Most of us have been touched by one or more of those names on the bench. Perhaps, as I was sharing my story of reflection, you were engaged in your own. Some of us, though, have experienced those dark moments recently. Some of us have had to face death. Some of us have had to face serious disease. Some of us have had to face serious questions of provision. Some of us have simply been given compassion by the Holy Spirit to intercede with sighs on the behalf of rampant evil and destruction in the world. Some of us have simply been given the responsibility of shepherding a friend or family member through their own grieving process. If forced to depend upon ourselves, we would be hopeless indeed. How we will solve Middle East peace? How will we solve the problem of children entering our country? How will we solve the Russia-Ukrainian problem? What will we do with Iran’s nuclear ambition? As Paul reminds us here, though, that you and I are never dependent upon ourselves. In fact, you and I know, as St. Paul reminds us, that we can be left utterly speechless, silent before certain tragedies and events in our lives and in the world. Even then, God does not expect us to figure out His plan. He asks us simply to trust Him and allow Him to work, going so far as to even intercede in such moments Himself.
Brothers and sisters, do you believe this promise? Do you have this hope? Do you understand that whatever you face in life, He will redeem? Just as importantly, do you live your life reflective of that belief? If you are, fantastic! Well done good and faithful servant. But what if you have forgotten He whom you serve? What if, in the face of certain challenges, you forgot that you followed a Lord who was crucified, died, and was buried? What if you found yourself overwhelmed by circumstances and, instead of trusting God, tried to force your own solution to the circumstances? What if you found yourself mocking those witnessing that kind of faith? What if you, like Paul, found yourself fighting God rather than working with Him? Paul reminds us that our Lord is as merciful as He is powerful. The same God who promises to usher us through those moments of deep sighing has also made it possible for us to be restored to a right relationship with Him, and inheritors of all those promises He has made. All He asks is that we repent, repent of our failures and try again. Better still, there is no limit to our failure. There is no “you must get it right in ___ tries.” All He demands is that we sincerely repent and ask for the grace to succeed in the future. The rest, as well as the question of what to pray, is up to Him.