Back in September of ’15, I was getting acquainted, as a resident, with Northport, Michigan.
Matt Fitzgerald, whose mother introduced me to this fine village any number of years ago, posted a “Daily Devotional” on the UCC (United Church of Christ) webpage. Among his faithful words that September day were these
“. . . I stood in front of my dad’s grave trying to muster up some reverence . . . ”
This is the picture I took on Memorial Day, 2016, of the gravestone where Matt was trying “to muster up some reverence.”
His dad, John D. Fitzgerald, who I knew as “Jack,” was my pastor at Pilgrim UCC in Duluth a few years before he died. Back that long ago, I was honored to teach a seminar for UMD (University of Minnesota, Duluth) med students. It was called “Caring and Curing.”
Jack knew he was not going to survive his cancer.
I knew that he knew. I invited him to be in conversation with the small group of students-learning-to-become-doctors about what it is like to be the recipient of a physician’s care.
Jack’s was an eloquent, humble, courageous, kind, strong, patient, eager, wise presence in our midst that day. I remember, as he described the bedside manner of two of his physicians, how attentive these first-year med students were to the stories of his experience.
Toward the end of our time, one of the students struggled with a question that was stuck in her throat, and couldn’t quite be given voice by her.
Jack listened to her.
He said to her, “Are you trying to ask me, ‘What is it like to be dying?'”
The student, whose face flushed a deeper shade of red, said meekly, “Yes.”
He had already acknowledged in definitive and direct words like the ones that MD’s use that his disease was not curable.
He looked for a tender moment at this bright human being who would one day be doctor and said, “I don’t think about it all that much.”
Ohhhhhhh . . . not at all!
Jack knew there was “a great love” that would one day welcome him “into paradise.”
He was not afraid.
“Why not me?”
He chose to live and breathe and be present all the while that he could.
Without a single touch,
this great man nearing his own death,
embraced a future physician,
and in that embrace affirmed,
“death is not the victor!”
Jack’s ashes are buried in the Leelanau County Cemetery in Northport. He was the pastor at First Congregational Church here in the early sixties. It is his leadership that helped First Congregational to merge with the Northport Methodist Church in 1965 to become Trinity Church of the United Church of Christ.
I was installed as pastor at Trinity on May 22, 2016.
If you are interested in an eight minute video about such events, here is a beauty: installation.
Not too many weeks ago, I was asked if I would pray at the Memorial Day event at Leelanau County Cemetery this year on May 30.
I said yes.
It was not an easy yes for me.
My father was a conscientious objector during WWII.
I did not serve in Viet Nam. I went to seminary instead.
I learned in seminary that the God I was coming to believe in “again for the very first time” (Marcus Borg) taught peace . . . you know, lions and lambs lying down together . . .
Yet . . .
I was honored to pray at the Memorial Day event in Northport this year.
There was music.
There was singing.
Neal Shine, who received an Award for his journalistic coverage of the shootings at Kent State University, gave a significant keynote address about both honoring those who have died in service to our country . . . . and the complexities of war. I was humbled to be among those who heard him speak.
Memorial Day in Northport is a tradition that includes a reading of General John A. Logan’s Memorial Day Order which you can find online and includes this directive about two thirds of the way through his words: “Let no wanton foot tread rudely on such hallowed grounds. Let pleasant paths invite the coming and going of reverent visitors and found mourners.”
It seems likely his idea of “reverent visitors” would be those who walked with hands folded in a mood that was both quiet and somber.
As I was writing the Invocation, it was Matt Fitzgerald’s post that had me imagining reverence differently.
“Where, O Death, is your sting?” – 1 Corinthians 15:55
In the middle of vacation my wife and I took our kids to my father’s grave. His headstone is modest. It sits flat on the ground in the newest part of an old rural cemetery.
Is there anything so severe as an unaged graveyard?
We visited in the midst of hikes and swimming, bike rides and board games. It was a hot afternoon. The grass around the grave was parched, the sunlight stark as it broke through thin piney shade.
Our kids carried vacation playfulness straight into the graveyard. Still in their bathing suits, they ran between the headstones laughing.
Meanwhile I stood in front of my dad’s grave trying to muster up some reverence. And then, one of our sons came racing toward my father’s grave and jumped right over it, clearing an entire generation in a single flying leap. My instinct was to grab him out of the air, teach him some respect, “No, no, no!” But I stopped myself.
As he cleared the grave he grinned. I could almost see him levitate for a second.
Years ago a great love reached down from the heavens into his grandfather’s grave and pulled the dead man’s presence up out of the earth and into paradise. As he leapt it was as if the same love caught the child and held him in mid-air for a beat, a pulse, half a second.
And the sunlight was no longer stark. The whole cemetery glowed gold and green. And my boy was laughing as he landed.
If we believe in heaven, why not be gleeful in the graveyard? Grief has its place, but eventually, if you believe in death’s destruction, grief can give way to play.
Laughing thanks to you, O Christ, for defeating death forever. Amen.
Thank you Matt.
It is the image of your son, “as he leapt it was as if the same love caught the child and held him in mid-air for a beat, a pulse, half a second,” that prompted me to include these words in my invocation for Memorial Day 2016 at Northport, Michigan:
After the speeches were done that day, children from the Soldiers and Sailors Orphan Home made their way through the cemetery, strewing flowers on Union and Confederate graves, saying prayers, singing hymns, and, because they were children, they allowed the playful joy within them to be expressed even there in that place on that day.”
Here is the link to my video of Memorial Day ala’ Northport.
And here is the text of the invocation and the benediction.
From the prophet Isaiah we learn:
There is a day coming when the mountain of God’s House will be the highest mountain – and the people from many nations will come streaming to it. And on the mountain God will teach the people the Way of God and the people will understand the teaching and begin to live in the Way of God. Arguments between the people will be settled. They will turn their swords into ploughshares and their spears into pruning hooks. Nations will not rise up against other nations and they will not train for war anymore.
We are here to honor the women and men who have sacrificed their lives in behalf of what is most honorable.
Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel said, “When we pray, let’s not pray to get things, no, let’s pray to be worthy.” And I say, yes, let us pray today to be worthy of the sacrifice women and men have made in behalf of us, in behalf of freedom and liberty for all
Decoration Day formally began three years after the Civil War ended, May 30, 1868. It was an occasion to honor the war dead and a step toward the healing of our nation.
After the speeches were done that day, children from the Soldiers and Sailors Orphan Home made their way through the cemetery, strewing flowers on Union and Confederate graves, saying prayers, singing hymns, and, because they were children, they allowed the playful joy within them to be expressed even there in that place on that day.
Two years before, in 1866, a group of women visited a cemetery to decorate the graves of Confederate soldiers who had died in the battle of Shiloh. Nearby were the graves of Union soldiers, neglected because they were the enemy. Disturbed at the sight of the bare graves, the women placed flowers on those graves as well.
May the example of these orphaned children and these widowed women from 150 years ago surround and embrace us here today. May our thanksgiving for them, and our honoring of the women and men who made the ultimate sacrifice inspire us.
Let us begin in silence, for thirty seconds, listening to the still.
Blessed are you, O God of the Universe.
You granted us life.
You sustained us.
You enabled us to reach this occasion.
Inspire us to climb the mountain of your love.
May we give of our very best to veterans wounded in body or spirit because of their service.
May we reach for peace.
May we love the earth.
May we care for the poor.
May we embrace the beautiful diversity of all your people.
May we reject racism.
May we forgive often.
May we share our resources with largesse.
May we savor life.
May we love you, O God, with our whole selves.
Look upon us here, gathered as one people in a cemetery to remember people of many faiths, traditions, and ethnicities who sacrificed their lives in behalf of what is most honorable.
May we be worthy of their sacrifice.
Amen and Amen
Sisters and brothers of Leelanau County and beyond our time for honoring women and men who have given their lives in our behalf has ended for this Memorial Day.
Now the time for living in ways that are worthy of their sacrifice begins.
Go forth from this beautiful and quiet place.
The whole world awaits you.
Be worthy, every moment of your lives, yes be worthy every moment until the finality,
for it is true the God of the High Mountain,
the God of relentless grace,
goes with you.
Amen and Amen
On May 31, 2016, the day after memorial day in Northport, MI, I saw this pair of lady slippers at Houdak Dunes.
My, oh my, it is true “the God of the High Mountain, the God of relentless grace, goes with us” whoever we are and wherever we find ourselves on life’s journey.
“Grief has its place, but eventually, if you believe in death’s destruction, grief can give way to play.”
My we be worthy, indeed. The God of the High Mountain yearns for no less from us.