That Which We Have Heard & Known

Occasional thoughts of an Anglican Episcopal priest

Category: Burial (page 1 of 2)

After Hearing of Saudi Executions

I don’t think that a single day has passed since my adolescence that I haven’t thought about death, my own death. Mortality has been a reality of life for me since my father killed himself in a drunken automobile crash when I was five years old. In my pre-adolescent years, I was convinced I would die before I turned 22; I’m forty-five years beyond that limit and death is a closer probability now than it has ever been.

Sometimes when I think about my death, I consider what it would be to die by accidental means. This is why I service my vehicle before long road trips, making sure the tires get rotated and properly inflated, having my service garage do its “88 point safety check” and change the oil, and making sure the safety box of road flares, bottled water, and space blankets is filled. This is why I stay behind guard rails at the Grand Canyon and Cliffs of Moher, and why at Dún Aonghasa on Inismór where there are no guards I stayed well back from the edge.

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Lenten Journal 2019 (15 March)

Lenten Journal, Day 9

I woke up this morning thinking of cleaning toilets. Not in the future sense, the “I have to clean the toilets today” sort of thinking. I did that yesterday. At least I cleaned one toilet yesterday, the one in our master bathroom. Put a gold star on the calendar and mark the day!

It’s probably because I did that yesterday that I woke up this morning thinking about toilets and whether the job I did yesterday would have passed Doris’s standards. Doris was my boss when I was 19 years old and working as a janitor at a small acute care hospital in Southern California. Doris was the hospital’s Executive Housekeeper. She was, I think, the first Muslim with whom I ever had any daily interaction.

Doris was in her 50s when I worked for her, so I’m pretty certain she’s dead now. Actually, this is sad to say, I hope she’s dead. I would rather think of her in Paradise than imagine her facing today’s world of bigotry and the news of Muslims murdered for their faith. Because today I also woke up to the news that 49 Muslims had been shot to death while worshiping in their mosques in Christchurch, New Zealand.

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Eternal Now: Homily for the Requiem of Hildegarde B_____, 24 November 2018

We are gathered here today to honor and remember our friend and sister in Christ, Hildegarde B_____; to give thanks for her life and witness; to pray for her repose and for comfort for those who love her; and to praise God for God’s ineffable goodness. As many of you know, at times like these I turn to the work of the poets to help me process and understand the events of life. We have in our readings from Holy Scripture the work of the poet called “Qoheleth the preacher”, the famous opening of the third chapter of Ecclesiastes, set to music by Pete Seeger in the 1950s and made popular in the 1960s by The Byrds. Hildegarde selected that reading both for her husband Earl’s funeral and for her own.

I’ll come back to the words of Qoheleth in a moment, but the poem that came to mind as I considered what I might say about or learn from Hildegarde is one by the contemporary British artist, poet, and cyclist Carlo Castelvecchio entitled A Ride Through Time:

I ride through time,
Stretching it out with surreal distortion,
I ride for freedom,
I am immortal, freedom from the fear of death,
I push myself to the limit of my mortal frame,
then transcend that human pain,
enter into that fourth dimension.

My wheels no longer touch the ground,
they’re floating on passionate effort,
a whole-hearted, single-minded effort,
the rhythm of a perfect circle,
a pulsing rhythm that rises above the world’s woes.

Movement brings freedom.

Unfettered yet fitting in perfectly,
unconventionally conventional,
an independent form of movement.

I know exactly how far I have traveled,
I can feel how far I have moved.

Allow the spirit of your surroundings to feed your movement,
the harder I push the more I merge with my surroundings,
my aim is to reach that point of effortless movement,
turbo boosted blood pumping round my muscles,
my spirit is one with my body,
brain, muscles and spirit in total harmony,
producing a pure single-minded effort,
human body, trees, mountains, rivers, spirits and bike.[1]

She was a strong woman, a strong-willed woman, sometimes abrasively so. She was opinionated and not unwilling to share those opinions, which she was quite convinced were correct and, if you disagreed with her, you were simply wrong. She might occasionally have been what one would call “cantankerous,” sometimes “curmudgeonly,” but mostly she was just forthright and plain spoken, take it or leave it as you would. Her name was Martha __________.

(I’ll bet you thought I was describing someone else….)

Martha __________ was the director of the Altar Guild at St. Francis of Assisi Episcopal Church where I was rector for ten years before coming to Medina. She was also a very active participant in every educational offering ever made at St. Francis Church. Bible studies, Anglican or Episcopal history courses, Lenten soup-supper programs, whatever, Martha took part in them all and in every one, eventually, Martha would get us around to what she really wanted to talk about: “What I want to know,” she would ask, “is what’s going to happen when I die?” I came to think of that, and still think of it, as “the Martha __________ question” – “What’s going to happen when I die?”

About three weeks ago around noon on a Friday, Jennifer B_____ called me to ask if I could stop by her mother’s room at Brookdale; Hildegarde wanted to talk to me. “Sure,” I said, “but not today. Would tomorrow be all right?” She said it would and so on Saturday morning, I went to see Hildegarde. After an exchange of pleasantries, we got around to what she wanted talk about. I could see it coming a mile away . . . the Martha __________ question! “What’s going to happen when I die?” Now, it’s the Hildegard B_____ question . . . and I gave Hildegarde the same answer I gave Martha.

What I told them, and what I tell you, is that I don’t know what happens when we die! I haven’t done that yet; I haven’t been there yet. However, what I could tell them and what I now tell you is what I believe, what I understand our faith to teach. First, I believe that everyone who dies rests in the Lord in a place – or perhaps it’s better to say a state of being – we name Paradise, and we rest there until what the church calls “the last great day,” the day of the general resurrection when (as the Evangelist Luke put it paraphrasing the prophet Isaiah) “all flesh shall see the salvation of God.”[2] On that day, we will be reunited with our loved ones and together we will stand before the throne of God. On that day, we will face judgment about which Jesus told us:

When the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, then he will sit on the throne of his glory. All the nations will be gathered before him, and he will separate people one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats, and he will put the sheep at his right hand and the goats at the left.[3]

But on that day we will also find mercy and forgiveness, for we are called to “approach the throne of grace with boldness, so that we may receive mercy,”[4] and “mercy triumphs over judgment.”[5] Thus, St. Paul could rightly assure us

. . . . that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.[6]

In the end, I believe, and I believe our faith teaches us, that we will be united with God in love.

That, of course, is from the human perspective of time, of chronos as it was called by the Greeks. It is this chronological time about which Qoheleth wrote when he said that “for everything there is a season, and a time for every matter under heaven: a time to be born, and a time to die . . . a time to mourn, and a time to dance . . . a time for war, and a time for peace.”[7] In Hildegarde’s life there was a time to be born, a time to experience the exotic sights and sounds of Tehran as a teenager in the early ‘50s, a time to fall in love with Earl B_____, get married, raise a family, a time to complete a couple of degrees and to teach high school English, a time to know the joys of piloting her own plane and to bicycle across the hills and through the valleys of Michigan and Ohio. This is how we humans experience time and so we think in terms of the Martha McEldowney question.

But there is another way to think of time and that is how we believe God sees it, what theologians call kairos, another Greek word for time. In Greek, it means “the critical time” or “the opportune moment.” Theologically, it is what theologian Paul Tillich called “the eternal now”[8] in which all those times listed in Ecclesiastes, all the times of our lives are the same moment, now. This is what the author of the letter to the Hebrews hints at when he says that “Jesus Christ is the same yesterday and today and forever.”[9] This is what John of Patmos tried to express when he described God as the one “who is and who was and who is to come.”[10] This is what we try to express in our liturgy when we end a psalm with the Gloria Patri saying, “Glory to the Father, and to the Son, and to the Holy Spirit: as it was in the beginning, is now, and will be for ever.”[11]

We struggle to describe kairos, though occasionally we are able to perceive it through our prayer or our music. Sometimes we feel it during worship; in Eastern Orthodox theology, Divine Worship is understood to be an intersection of chronos and kairos. We are, however, limited creatures, trapped in chronos, and so we cannot fully experience God’s “eternal now” until that “last great day” when, as our lesson from the First Letter of John puts it, God “is revealed, [and] we will be like him, for we will see him as he is.”[12]

That is what I believe, and what I believe our faith teaches us, that in the end we will be united with God in love, and experience God’s kairos. As St. Paul wrote in his first letter to the Corinthians, “Now we see in a mirror, dimly, but then we will see face to face. Now I know only in part; then I will know fully, even as I have been fully known. And now faith, hope, and love abide, these three; and the greatest of these is love.”[13]

In that “eternal now,” we will (as our gospel lesson promises) abide in Christ’s love, just he abides in the Father’s love.[14] We will, as cyclist-poet Carlo Calvecchio wrote, “ride through time . . . immortal . . . free from the fear of death . . . in total harmony” with our Creator and with one another.

I believe that was what Hildegarde experienced in her cycling, the harmony about which Calvecchio wrote, and I believe that is what she is experiencing now, what we will all experience when our chronos finally and eternally intersects God’s kairos.

As I was looking for Calvecchio’s poem, I found another short piece by another cyclist poet with whose words I will close. This is October Warm by Michael Blotzer:

I cannot turn
down the road
to the house
where dinner waits

The morning’s frost
into October warm evaporated
and the road stretches through red and gold
to a sky as blue as the black of space

The rhythm of heart and lungs
of legs and cranks
the whisper of chain and gears
of tires on pavement
form a mantra that chants

There is no past
no future
there only
is.[15]

As our Book of Common Prayer expresses it, in death “life is changed, not ended; and when our mortal body lies in death, there is prepared for us a dwelling place eternal in the heavens.”[16] “Death [is merely] the gate of eternal life [through which] we [will be] reunited with those who have gone before.”[17]

And that, Hildegarde – and Martha – and all of you, that is what I believe and what I believe our faith teaches us happens when we die. No past, no future, only God’s eternal now, reunited with all who have ever been important to us and, in the words of our opening hymn, filled with God’s goodness and lost in God’s love. Hildegarde, the Christian hope is that some day we will see you again and confirm that what I told you is true!

Let us pray:

Almighty God, with whom still live the spirits of those who die in the Lord, and with whom the souls of the faithful are in joy and felicity: We give you heartfelt thanks for the good examples of all your servants, who, having finished their course in faith, now find rest and refreshment. May we, with all who have died in the true faith of your holy Name, have perfect fulfillment and bliss in your eternal and everlasting glory; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.[18]

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This homily was offered by the Rev. Dr. C. Eric Funston on November 24, 2018, at the Requiem Mass for Hildegarde B_____ at St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, Medina, Ohio, where Fr. Funston was rector.

The lessons used for the service (selected by the family of the decedent) are Ecclesiastes 3:1-8; Psalm 23; 1 John 3:1-2; and St. John 15:9-12.

The illustration is Bicycle Day by John Speaker, available for purchase here. Used here with permission of the artist.

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Notes:
Click on footnote numbers to link back to associated text.

[1] Bicycling Poetry, Bicycle Life, online

[2] Luke 3:6

[3] Matthew 25:31-33

[4] Hebrews 4:16

[5] James 2:13

[6] Romans 8:38-39

[7] Ecclesiastes 3:1-2,4,8

[8] See Tillich, Paul, The Eternal Now (Charles Scribner’s Sons, New York:1963)

[9] Hebrews 13:8

[10] Revelation 1:8

[11] Daily Morning Prayer: Rite Two, The Book of Common Prayer 1979, page 80

[12] 1 John 3:2

[13] 1 Corinthians 13:12-13

[14] John 15:10

[15] Bicycling Poetry, op. cit.

[16] Proper Preface: Commemoration of the Dead, The Book of Common Prayer 1979, page 382

[17] Burial of the Dead, Rite Two, Opening Collect, The Book of Common Prayer 1979, page 493

[18] Burial of the Dead, Rite Two, Additional Prayers, The Book of Common Prayer 1979, page 503

Climbing Into a New Day – Sermon for the Burial of Paul Edward Powell, 14 April 2018

In 2011 a young man in New York City named Gabriel went to a party. While there, he drank some of the alcoholic punch being served. Unknown to the young man, the punch had been spiked with a drug called Gamma-Hydroxybutyric Acid, commonly called GHB. Prescribed as Xyrem and also called by a variety of “street names,” it is known as a “date rape” or rave drug. It comes as a liquid or as a white powder that is dissolved in water, juice, or alcohol. In most people it produces euphoria, drowsiness, decreased anxiety, excited behavior, and occasionally hallucinations. For Gabriel, however, who suffered from medication-controlled epilepsy, it caused a seizure. Apparently interacting with his regularly prescribed medication, the GHB he had unknowingly consumed caused a fatal convulsion.

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The Work of Christ – Sermon at the Requiem for Elizabeth Scott Bres, January 28, 2018

You all know the truth of the statement, “You can’t take it with you.” What you may not know is that that sentiment is straight out of the New Testament! St. Paul, writing to the young new bishop Timothy, says, “We brought nothing into the world – it is certain that we can take nothing out of it.”[1] Once upon a time a man who died was given a dispensation from this truth. Before his death he was given a very special suitcase into which he could put one thing to bring with him to heaven. He gave it a lot of thought and over a period of years, as he led a successful life, he made his final decision and loaded up his suitcase. He put it under his bed waiting for that last day. When he finally died, he showed up at the Pearly Gates carrying his special suitcase with his one important thing. Word spread through heaven and all the angels gathered around him wanting to know what he had brought. So he knelt down and, with great flourish, opened the valise to reveal bright shining bricks of gold. The angels were stunned; they just stood there, staring silently at the man and at his suitcase. Finally, Michael Archangel, the commander of God’s army and spokesman for the angels, in a disappointed and incredulous tone of voice asked, “Pavement? You brought pavement?”

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God the Embroiderer – Sermon at the Requiem for Susan H. Potterton, January 13, 2018

Why do we do this? Why do we gather when a loved one dies and hold assemblies like this? Most human beings believe that death is not the end of the person who has passed away. Except for the few human beings who really strongly subscribe to an atheist philosophy, and they truly are a minority of our race, everyone on earth belongs to some faith group which teaches that we continue on, whether it is by reincarnation or in the Elysian Fields or the happy hunting grounds, as a guiding ancestral spirit or at rest in the presence of our Lord. So why do we do this?

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Death at Christmas – Sermon for Advent 2, RCL Year B

Today’s Gradual, Psalm 85, includes what may be my favorite verse in the entire collection of the Psalms: “Mercy and truth have met together; righteousness and peace have kissed each other.” (v. 10)

I think it may be my favorite because it figures prominently in the movie Babette’s Feast, based on a short story by the Danish write Isak Dinesen (Karen Blixen). The story tells of a grand meal prepared for the residents of a small Danish village in memory of their deceased Lutheran pastor. In flash backs, we see his ministry and on several occasions we hear him quote this verse, which seems to be a rallying cry for his flock.

Mercy and truth have met together; *
righteousness and peace have kissed each other.

It’s a lovely poetic summation of the Peaceable Kingdom painted by Isaiah in our Old Testament lesson and elsewhere in that book of prophecy.

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Sweet, Sweet Spirit: Homily for the Requiem of Organist Roberta Stamper, 8 Sept 2017

Sweet Holy Spirit, sweet heavenly dove,
stay right here with us,
filling us with your love. Amen.

(Please, be seated.)

I wonder if you remember a few years ago when the Broadway actress and singer Patti Lupone performing in a revival of Gypsy stopped the show, broke the “fourth wall,” and berated an audience member who was using his cell phone? She launched into what has been called a “blistering tirade” and “legendary rant,” and had the spectator thrown out of the theater. Her moment of ignominy is preserved forever on YouTube. (Radar Online)

In contrast, there is a story about Wynton Marsalis playing at the Village Vanguard in New York City’s Grennwich Village in 2001 told by The New Republic‘s music critic David Hajdu:

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Gloria! Homily for the Funeral of C. Nevada Johnson, Jr., 6 June 2017

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A homily offered by the Rev. Dr. C. Eric Funston for the Requiem Mass for C. Nevada Johnson, Jr., June 6, 2017, at St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, Medina, Ohio, where Fr. Funston is rector.

(The lessons for the service from the New Revised Standard Version of the Bible were Isaiah 61:1-3; 2 Corinthians 4:16-5:9; and St. John 5:24-27. These lessons can be read at The Lectionary Page. The Gradual Psalm for the service was Psalm 121 from the Psalter in the Book of Common Prayer; it can be read at The Online Book of Common Prayer.)

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As my parishioners know, I often find the images invoked by poets comforting and illuminating in times of grief.

Ronald Stuart Thomas, usually called simply RS Thomas, is generally acknowledged to be one of the greatest English language and European poets of the 20th Century. He was an Anglican priest serving in the Church in Wales. No less a person than the Most Rev. Barry Morgan, Archbishop and Primate of the Church in Wales, has said of Thomas that he

. . . articulate[d] through his poetry questions that are inscribed on the heart of most Christian pilgrims in their search for meaning and truth. We search for God and feel Him near at hand, only then to blink and find Him gone. This poetry persuades us that we are not alone in this experience of faith – the poet has been there before us. (BBC News, RS Thomas centenary celebrated by Bangor Cathedral service)

When Thomas’s wife of 51 years passed away in 1991, he published a multi-part poem entitled Mass for Hard Times. I would like to read for you the section entitled Gloria:

From the body at its meal’s end
and its messmate whose meal is beginning,
Gloria.
From the early and late cloud, beautiful and deadly
as the mushroom we are forbidden to eat,
Gloria.
From the stars that are but as dew
and the viruses outnumbering the star clusters,
Gloria.
From those waiting at the foot of the helix
for the rope-trick performer to come down,
Gloria.
Because you are not there
When I turn, but are in the turning,
Gloria.
Because it is not I who look
but I who am being looked through,
Gloria.
Because the captive has found the liberty
that eluded him while he was free,
Gloria.
Because from the belief that nothing is nothing
it follows that there must be something,
Gloria.
Because when we count we do not count
the moment between youth and age,
Gloria.
And because, when we are overcome,
we are overcome by nothing,
Gloria.

(Gloria from Mass for Hard Times by R.S. Thomas (1992), in Collected Later Poems 1988-2000, Bloodaxe Books, Tarset, UK:2013, page 135)

In Thomas’s first lines, I find an echo of the words of St. Paul in our epistle reading today from his Second Letter to the Corinthians, “Even though our outer nature is wasting away, our inner nature is being renewed day by day. For this slight momentary affliction is preparing us for an eternal weight of glory beyond all measure.” (2 Cor. 4:16-17)

Those of us who like Nevada have known cancer in ourselves, or like Roberta and their sons have known it in our loved ones, know all too well that “our outer nature is wasting away,” that (as Thomas put it) the body is at its meal’s end. There is no gentle or genteel way to put it: cancer is not an easy way to die. I don’t know that there is an easy way to end life, but if there is one, cancer isn’t it. That Nevada fought the disease as valiantly as he did and with his characteristic confidentiality, on might even say secrecy, is testament to both his strength of will and his private faith, to what St. Paul might have called his “inner nature . . . being renewed . . . for an eternal weight of glory.”

Our first reading was from the Prophet Isaiah; it is that portion of scripture with which Jesus began his public ministry, taking the scroll from the attendant and reading these same words in his hometown synagogue in Nazareth, and concluding with the declaration, “Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.” (Lk 4:21) In it we are told that the Messiah’s mission is to proclaim freedom to the captive. In Thomas’s poem he gives glory to God because the captive “has found the liberty that eluded him while he was free.” He must refer, I am sure, to the liberty from the pain and suffering of chronic disease that comes with physical death.

But physical death is not the end of life. As Paul wrote in his First Letter to the Corinthians, through the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, physical death, “the last enemy,” has itself been destroyed (1 Cor 15:26) Christ “overcame death and the grave, and by his glorious resurrection opened to us the way of everlasting life.” (BCP, page 377) As the preface to the Eucharistic Canon which we will pray in a few minutes says, to God’s “faithful people … life is changed, not ended; and when our mortal body lies in death, there is prepared for us a dwelling place eternal in the heavens.” (BCP, page 382) As Jesus promised in our reading from the Gospel of John, “Very truly, I tell you, anyone who hears my word and believes him who sent me has eternal life, and does not come under judgment, but has passed from death to life.” (Jn 5:24)

I am intrigued by the poet Thomas’s penultimate stanza:

Because when we count we do not count
the moment between youth and age,
Gloria.

When we think of all that passes between youth and age, when we (as we do at requiems like this) look back over the life of a friend and loved one and take stock of all that someone like Nevada Johnson was and did – student, law student, member of the Bar, captain in the Army and decorated hero, son and brother, lover and husband, father, fellow follower of Christ, volunteer in his community, hospital board and zoning commission member, historical society founder, and so much more – it is difficult to comprehend what Thomas means calling it a “moment” that “we do not count.”

But then I return to St. Paul and today’s epistle reading in which he refers to this earthly life as a “slight momentary affliction,” and I am reminded of the Psalmist’s declaration of how fleeting life is, that life is but “a few handbreadths” and “everyone stands as a mere breath.” (Ps 39:4-5)

In contrast are the promises of Isaiah that good men like Nevada (and, we believe, all of us through the grace of God) “will be called oaks of righteousness, the planting of the Lord, to display his glory,” and of Paul that this “weight of glory beyond all measure” will be eternal. As the Gradual Psalm which we recited together says: “The Lord shall preserve [us] from all evil; it is he who shall keep [us] safe. The Lord shall watch over [our] going out and your coming in, from this time forth for evermore.” (Ps 121:7-8; BCP, page 779) It is as Jesus promised: we have passed from death to life eternal.

In his First Letter to the Corinthian Church, Paul wrote, “When this perishable body puts on imperishability, and this mortal body puts on immortality, then the saying that is written will be fulfilled: ‘Death has been swallowed up in victory.’ ‘Where, O death, is your victory? Where, O death, is your sting?'” (1 Cor 15:54-55) Death has no victory; death has no sting. Death is nothing.

The Rev. Canon Henry Scott-Holland, a priest at St. Paul’s Cathedral in London, preached sermon entitled Death the King of Terrors while the body of the late King Edward VII was lying in state at Westminster Abbey in 1910. His point in that sermon was that death is neither a king nor a terror. In it, he offered this meditation:.

Death is nothing at all. It does not count. I have only slipped away into the next room. Nothing has happened. Everything remains exactly as it was. I am I, and you are you, and the old life that we lived so fondly together is untouched, unchanged. Whatever we were to each other, that we are still. Call me by the old familiar name. Speak of me in the easy way which you always used. Put no difference into your tone. Wear no forced air of solemnity or sorrow. Laugh as we always laughed at the little jokes that we enjoyed together. Play, smile, think of me, pray for me. Let my name be ever the household word that it always was. Let it be spoken without an effort, without the ghost of a shadow upon it. Life means all that it ever meant. It is the same as it ever was. There is absolute and unbroken continuity. What is this death but a negligible accident? Why should I be out of mind because I am out of sight? I am but waiting for you, for an interval, somewhere very near, just round the corner. All is well. Nothing is hurt; nothing is lost. One brief moment and all will be as it was before. How we shall laugh at the trouble of parting when we meet again!

And so we understand Ronald Stuart Thomas’s final stanza in the Gloria of the Mass for Hard Times:

Because, when we are overcome,
we are overcome by nothing,
Gloria.

Let us pray:

Almighty God, with whom still live the spirits of those who die in the Lord, and with whom the souls of the faithful are in joy and felicity: We give you heartfelt thanks for the good example of your servant, Carroll Nevada Johnson, Jr., who, having finished his course in faith, now finds rest and refreshment. May we, with him and all who have died in the true faith of your holy Name, have perfect fulfillment and bliss in your eternal and everlasting glory; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen. (BCP, page 503, modified)

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Father Funston is the rector of St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, Medina, Ohio.

A Meditation on Mortality (for the parish newsletter)

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A “Rector’s Reflection” offered by the Rev. Dr. C. Eric Funston in the July 2016 issue of “The Epistle,” the newsletter of St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, Medina, Ohio, where Fr. Funston is rector.

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firefliesThe week of the summer solstice was an interesting one in the Funston household.

The night of the solstice there was what is known as a “strawberry moon,” a phenomenon which only occurs when a full moon coincides with the northern hemisphere’s summer solstice, longest day of the year. The moon takes on an amber or pinkish glow which astronomers explain is caused by the setting sun’s positioning, affecting the angle at which the sun’s rays pass through Earth’s atmosphere and, thus, the apparent coloration of the moon.

The name “strawberry moon” was given by the Native American Algonquin tribes of northern Michigan and Canada. They believed that a full moon in June signified that it was time to start picking fruits, including strawberries. It is also known as the Rose, Hot, or Honey Moon (the latter being the origin of the name given a newly married couple’s post-wedding get-away). The last time there was a “strawberry moon” was during the so-called “summer of love” in 1967.

Biblically, the summer solstice and the nearest full moon are associated with punishment and death. It was taught by the rabbis in their commentaries on Scripture that this was the time when Moses disobeyed God and was told he could not enter the Promised Land with the rest of the Hebrews, but would die instead.

I made note of the “strawberry moon” as I took Dudley for his last walk of the evening before going to bed. I also noticed a large number of fireflies winking in the trees and lawns of our neighborhood. Fireflies always remind me of two things: summers spent with my grandparents in Winfield, Kansas, during the 1950s, and burying my late brother in 1993, also in Winfield which was his home town. The night after his burial in late June, the fireflies were more numerous and more active than I had ever seen them before, nor have I ever seen that many since!

So the “strawberry moon” and the fireflies were, in a sense, a reminder of mortality. The next day, I was scheduled to visit a urologist at the request of my primary care physician. The reason: elevated prostate specific antigen levels in my blood. “Not a big deal,” I thought. I have always had a high PSA level. However, after taking my history, asking a lot of personal questions, and conducting an examination, the urologist told me that I have the classic signs and symptoms of prostate cancer and referred me for a biopsy. That will happen later this month.

“Still,” I thought, “No big deal.” Prostate cancer is slow growing and can often be left untreated without any real impact on a man’s health. However, given my family history of various sorts of cancers, it’s a matter of some (though not a lot of) concern.

I thought that would be the big medical news of the day until late that night. I had gone to bed and was sound asleep when Evie woke me up gasping for breath and obviously very anxious. We headed for the hospital where, eventually, it was discovered that she had two pulmonary emboli, blood clots, in her left lung. (See note below.)

That was yesterday. As I write, she is still in the hospital and will be for a few days while the doctors try to determine how and why she developed these clots.

So in the course of 24 hours, we have both been reminded of our own mortality and, I have to say, I think we’re taking it rather well. Several years ago, the New York Times Magazine ran an article about how we modern human beings face the reality of our own mortality (Facing Your Own Mortality, 9 Oct 1988).

The article contrasted a 60-year-old woman “stricken by two life-threatening ailments – insulin-dependent diabetes and breast cancer” – with a man in his 60s, a doctor “crippled by amyotrophic lateral sclerosis – Lou Gehrig’s disease.”

The woman, the author wrote, “stares death down every day. Despite the odds against her, she accepts the possibility of her imminent death with astonishing serenity. When she was diagnosed with cancer, she did not ask, as many patients do, ‘Why me?’ Instead, she thought, ‘Why not me? Rather than crying about your affliction, you have to live every minute you have as a gift.’”

The man, on the other hand, was described as “unable to overcome his anger at being crippled.” He “refused to acknowledge his encroaching impairment. He became hostile toward those around him. As his condition forced him to give up his practice, his anger often exploded. His wife, his full-time caretaker, bears the brunt of his fury. She has confided to friends with great sadness that she awaits the time when both of them will be released from the prison of terminal illness.”

What is it that makes it possible for some of us to face our own deaths with equanimity while others become anxious and angry? I believe the answer is faith, not necessarily the Christian (or even religious) faith, but that sense that life has meaning and that there is a greater purpose in the universe than simply our own meagre existence.

As I write on June 23 for the July issue of The Epistle, today’s Daily Office Lectionary texts included a selection from the Letter to the Romans in which Paul writes, “Suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, and hope does not disappoint us, be-cause God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit that has been given to us.” (Rom 5:3b-5) That, it seems to me, is the essence of faith, the sure and certain hope that (as Paul writes later in the same letter) “all things work together for good for those who love God.” (8:28)

I used to have a congregant (in another parish) who frequently asked me, “What will happen when I die?” I would answer her, “Martha, I don’t know and I don’t care. I don’t know because I haven’t been there yet; I don’t care because there’s not much I can do about it.” Jesus asked his followers, “Can any of you by worrying add a single hour to your span of life?” (Matt 6:27) He clearly didn’t think so, for his follow up instruction was, “Do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will bring worries of its own. Today’s trouble is enough for today.”

It is that attitude of faith, to live for today and not worry about tomorrow, that I think allows some to face death with calmness and composure. I commend it to you.

Live for today! Enjoy the summer!

(Note: Yesterday, the day after this was written, I was told by the attending physician that Evie had “a lot of clots, so many clots” in both her lungs. He said that if I hadn’t brought her to the emergency room on Wednesday night, but had opted to wait until morning, she would probably have died. So, take it from me, don’t dismiss even a little unexplained shortness of breath! – Return to Text)

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Father Funston is the rector of St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, Medina, Ohio.

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