Back in early August, I had the privilege of walking the Table Rock Wilderness Trail near Mollala, Oregon, with my grandson, Moses. On the trail I was captured by the play of light and shadow along the trail. Among the images I photographed that day was this one of a monarch butterfly on the path among the circular shadows created by the sun shining through the trees:
In September, back in Sarastoa, a friend who was the husband of a colleague, died too young, unexpectedly, as the result of an accident on his bicycle on the way to work.
This image from the Table Rock Wilderness Trail kept playing in my mind as we prepared to celebrate his life.
These are the words I shared with the community of the faithful who gathered to celebrate his life.
(I have changed the names, well, because I can . . . ):
Joe was married back in the very early seventies to Sally. They have two adult children, a son and daughter, and two very smart, very cool, granddaughters
Joe was let go (along with 4,999 corporate employees) on a dark day in his life in 2009. Sally says Joe never recovered from the insulting loss of his life work at the age of sixty. He wasn’t ready to retire, let alone ready TO BE RETIRED through a “downsize” by his corporation.
And, Joe struggled for a lot of years with the disease of alcoholism. When we hear that kind of sentence it is usually followed with, “Oh, he was an alcoholic!” which is like saying Bill was a colon cancer, or Margaret was a breast cancer, or Jeff was a heart attack, or Grace was a MERSA infection. None of these are true. These were/are all people. They had/have an illness.
People are not their illness.
People are people. And, some of us have a disease.
Joe had alcoholism.
Yes, alcoholism is a disease.
It is not a moral failure. It is not the description for a person with no will-power.
Studies show alcoholism is a disease of the brain. It appears “as a mental obsession that causes a physical compulsion to drink.” Someone on the internet said it is like . . . well . . . have you ever woken up with a song or some ditty playing over and over and over in your head – all day it plays, and on into the night. You listen to other stuff to try to get it out of your head and still, there it is singing away, unbidden, in your head. You can try to whistle, or listen to another song on the radio, and still the one in your head keeps on playing. You didn’t put it there. No matter how hard you try you can’t get it out, still it plays on and on.
Alcoholism is a bit like this . . . only more so. When the drinking song starts to play in the brain of a person who has alcoholism, that person is powerless. The only way to get the song to stop is to take another drink.
During the last two or three years of Joe and Sally’s life, Joe was able to build three months of sobriety as recently as this year. He was very proud of his 90-day medallion from AA.
Sally told me early in the week she and I planned for the service to celebrate the life of her husband, “Joe was a good man with a bad habit – his fight with addiction was a part of him – but it is definitely not the extent of his life.”
Sally asked that we remember all of Joe – his voice, his math, his fathering, his grandfathering, his husbanding, his service, and, yes, his addiction. She asked us to remember all the bits and pieces of him, not just one.
Joe was, in some ways the embodiment of Patrick Kavanagh’s words from his poem, The Great Hunger:
“God is in the bits and pieces of Everyday, a kiss here, a laugh again, and sometimes tears. A pearl necklace around the neck of poverty.”
God is in the bits and pieces of us . . .
God is in the WHOLE . . .
THE ALL, of us.
I like the words of scripture chosen for today’s service by Sally. They are good words for me and maybe others too.
God will guard your coming in and your going out, for now and forever from Psalm 121.
Rejoice in God always. Again, I say rejoice, from Philippians
The good fight has been fought. The race is finished, from II Timothy.
I promise God will be with you . . . I promise.
The joy Philippians is inviting is not some surface pleasure – it is the stuff of our marrow. It is not some passing fancy that makes us beam with a happy smile. It is, instead, the song of our hearts that sings “We shall overcome” (sing it with me) . . . Yes the joy Philippians is inviting us to is like singing “We Shall Overcome” even when tears of injustice or loss are streaming down our faces.
It is a rhythm from deep.
We are better able to understand joy if we think about it’s opposite which, Paul Tillich taught, is: sorrow . . .
Sorrow has many forms:
It is peculiar to me that, according to our faith:
Joy and Sorrow are joined inextricably by the bridge of blessedness.
Blessed are those who . . . for they shall . . .
(Repeat X 3)
Blessed are those who have been fed at the table of sorrow for they shall prepare, serve, and savor the feast of joy.
This deep-in-the-marrow-of-us-joy is not a belief that there will be nothing but rainbows, that ours will be a life of ease, that we will be pain free, that there will be nothing but ecstasy and bliss.
Joy is kin with sadness and unhappiness, oppression and loneliness, betrayal and shame . . . joy hears the rhythm of the earth’s pulse and the song of the people of faith. God’s people are borne across the abyss of empty nothingness on the bridge of blessedness.
Greg Russell, a Christian Church, Disciples of Christ retired pastor, spends some months of each year here in Sarasota and at St. Andrew. He sings in our choir. He inspires me.
He once told me this story:
Imagine the silence of the night, broken only by the hum of an outboard motor as you glide down the river under a canopy of a million stars. My friends, Sharon and Rick were on just such a journey a few years back as they visited congregations in the Democratic Republic of the Congo.
Sharon, who was head of the Disciples in those days, led a delegation of church folk to cement ties with their counterparts in the Congo, as part of a celebration of one hundred years of cooperative mission work there. The river was their highway as they traveled from village to village as far as a single day’s journey would take them.
Now it was time to come back to home base, and night was falling. As the sky grew darker, the stars began to come out from hiding, first one, then a few, and then what seemed like a million. With no light pollution to distract the eye, the Southern Cross and all its friends shone with a brilliance we don’t experience in our urban experience lives. The Milky Way seemed like a river of stars, a continuation of the river on which they sailed.
“Then it got dark – seriously dark,” Sharon said. Unaccustomed to such complete darkness, they grew anxious.
“Then we heard it,” she said,
“singing. We rounded a bend and saw a huge bonfire on the shore at the edge of a village we had visited earlier, and the singing grew louder as we drew nearer. They were singing Christian hymns to soothe our spirits and send us on our way.
“And that’s the way it was for the duration of our journey through the night. We would round a bend and see a light as they sang us all the way home.”
That’s not a bad metaphor for the church says, Greg.
Let us be the community that light a fire and sing for the people all the way home!
Sorrow and joy . . .
Fifteen months ago we began a half hour midweek contemplative communion liturgy on Wednesdays at 6:00pm at St. Andrew.
We haven’t missed a Wednesday in all those months.
We have renamed this midweek worship: Celtic Evensong –
Celtic as in: of the earth, of the people, of the Spirit, of love, of peacefulness, of God, of laughter, lightness, grace, of Christ.
And Evensong? – Well it is not the sung liturgy from an Episcopal Book of Common Prayer – it is people. We gather for a common liturgy from “The Wee Worship Book” (Iona, Scotland), and often we listen to some Taize music as we call upon the-joy-deep-in-the-marrow-of-us.
Joe was a frequent participant with us on these 60+ Wednesdays. Two or three times during these months he was the guide for our meditation.
Each week we are like the villages on the bank of the river: we light a candle and sing songs to bring our sisters and brothers to safety.
Seventeen of us gathered here for Celtic Evensong on the Wednesday after Joe died.
We were silent.
Then something very strange happened.
After standing for the blessing at the end of our half hour
together . . .
without a word from anyone . . .
we did something that is counter to our practice . . .
an action that was noticeable as unusual to almost all of us.
In silent unison,
we sat back down
in the circle of our gathering around the light of the candle.
It was like we each knew we were not yet done.
In unison, all of us sat back down.
Usually, we just remain standing,
you know, engage in some chatter,
and then head for home.
On that Wednesday . . .
we sat in unison . . . all of us . . .
we had spoken of Joe’s death.
We had prayed for Sally,
for their children, for their grandchildren . . . and others too
We were aware, somehow,
of our vulnerability,
facing each other in a circle . . .
it was as if
in this community of the faithful,
as we faced the tragedy of Joe’s-death-too-soon,
we each wanted a necklace of joy
round the neck of our poverty.
We needed each other.
“I promise said Paul, I promise, the God of peace will be with you always.”
All through the night,
it is the community of those who love,
infused with joy,
who light the fires
sing the songs to lead us safely home.
My faith assures me, Joe is home!
We are here for you, Sally . . .
we are here for all your family.
I promise! I promise!
Amen & Amen.