Death, Grief, Humility and God's Love
As most of you know I had surgery in early August and spent about 8 weeks recovering. I was pretty lucky during this time because I got to spend some of it up at my parent’s cottage on Lake Simcoe almost right on the water. What’s special about that for me is that it takes me back to being a kid sitting on the dock of the bay lake of my grandpa’s house in Presqu'ile, MI. It’s as if my chair on the beach and the end of the dock merge into one moment.
The young kid sitting on that dock, brain stocked with memories of boat trips and fishing, motorcycle and dune buggy rides, and backyard campfires, at age 10 wondering where his grandpa was now that he had died. Was he still there? Could he see me? Does he know how it all works and how it’ll all turn out now? Will I ever see him again? The adult having lost so many friends and family members to cancer, suicide, war, accidents, and murder, tells the boy on that dock: “I don’t know where they all are, son. But I have the sure hope based not in my own conjecture, but in Jesus’s coming into this world and hanging out with kids and adults just like me, that my grandpa, my friends and my family, are united in him with God, our Father.”
In our reading from God’s revelation to John we hear about the last days, when all of time and of course human life, will be completed, so gathered into a perfect relationship with God. God of course reveals this perfection to John when John is still alive and I can only imagine, kind of like God revealing himself to Moses or to the disciples at the transfiguration, how seeing oneself, one’s loved ones, and everything that has ever existed, in perfect relationship with God, would profoundly affect and probably change how John thought about and acted in the world today.
If I knew, if you not only knew, but really truly believed fully and completely, that you and those you loved would be fully healed, in full perfection of how things, of how they and you and you with God, were intended to be - without tear of pain, suffering and loss - would you continue to act in the ways you do now? To think in the ways you do now?
One of the most remarkable things I have encountered as an adult, particularly as a priest, is the way some people - true Saints of God, common folks to be sure, but little pinpoints of the light of God’s grace in this world - have responded to their own imminent deaths.
Those who have a strong faith in Christ display the sort of words and behaviors Jesus speaks of in our Gospel today: “blessed are those who are humble, who are merciful to others, who are pure in heart, and who seek peace, even to the point of being persecuted, for they will inherit the kingdom of God.”
I’ve often wondered and so asked what it is that causes them to act with the self control of being merciful and kind - things to which I aspire - rather than being harsh in judgment with criticism or anger, or acting in ways that are passive aggressive. The humorous and short story is that doing the latter doesn’t work and usually actually backfires. The Scriptural reflection is that I don’t think it’s that, “because they believed in Christ they received the ability to be humble or merciful or pure in heart or peace seekers.” Rather I think it’s that they recognized that God alone can see and judge people and situations perfectly; that God alone has made the natural world with a perfection that we cannot match. And in acknowledging God’s superiority in making and reconciling the world to him, they let go of their own sense of being entitled to getting things their own way in their own time. They allowed Jesus to reform how they thought about every single thing in the world, and so how they acted with other people in the various circumstances of their lives.
I sometimes wonder if this is the true gift of being mortal and of recognizing that we ourselves, and more especially, those we love, are mortal: when we face this reality we realize that even our own circumstances at work, at home, in our friendships, in our churches, and in all our relationships in these places, let alone the circumstances of the world, are not ours to control or to make right. Much like emotions, each of us - all our influence, our power, our money, our capacity, our relationships - come and go quickly. What those who have died before me leave me with is that the central question of meaning is not what we have, but rather what we leave behind. And ultimately, what we leave behind are the decisions and choices in life that take shape either negatively or positively, around the only true and eternal human being: Jesus Christ. And so when I sit on my lawn chair staring out at the ever rolling waves that represent life and they carry with them not just my present but so too my past and my future, I am confronted with how the lives of my grandfather, of my friends and family now dead, press, whittle, call, and challenge me to live not for myself, but for and with those whom God has given me in this life: shall I love them as I have been loved not just by God, but by my grandfather, by my loved ones now dead? This is the true question of life for all of us still here. AMEN