That Which We Have Heard & Known

Occasional thoughts of an Anglican Episcopal priest

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.

Neither his parents nor his fiancée with whom he was to meet later than evening knew that he had gone to the party. Apparently no one at the party, nor at the hospital to which Gabriel was taken knew how to contact them, so for a few days, his family did not know where he was, nor what had happened.

We might know nothing of that young man but for the fact that his father was the noted and well-respected contemporary American poet Edward Hirsch who processed his grief by writing a book about his son, a book which included a 75-page poem entitled simply Gabriel. I thought of Mr. Hirsch, his book, and his son when Don Powell first came into the church office in February with the news that his son Paul was missing, and I thought of that long poem again when Jason Powell called me on February 21 to tell me that Paul’s body had been found.

Edward Hirsh wrote:

I did not know the work of mourning
Is like carrying a bag of cement
Up a mountain at night

The mountaintop is not in sight
Because there is no mountaintop
Poor Sisyphus grief

I did not know I would struggle
Through a ragged underbrush
Without an upward path

Because there is no path
There is only a blunt rock
With a river to fall into

And Time with its medieval chambers
Time with its jagged edges
And blunt instruments

I did not know the work of mourning
Is a labor in the dark
We carry inside ourselves

Though sometimes when I sleep
I am with him again
And then I wake

Poor Sisyphus grief
I am not ready for your heaviness
Cemented to my body[1]

We are here today to remember Paul Powell and to commend his spirit to God who created him and who has received him back. In the words of prayer written by another poet, the English Dominican Bede Jarrett:

We seem to give him back to thee, O God, who gavest him first to us. Yet as thou didst not lose him in giving, so do we not lose him by his return. Not as the world giveth, givest thou, O Lover of souls. What thou givest, thou takest not away, for what is thine is ours also if we are thine. And life is eternal and love is immortal, and death is only a horizon, and a horizon is nothing, save the limit of our sight. Lift us up, strong Son of God, that we may see further; cleanse our eyes that we may see more clearly; draw us closer to thyself that we may know ourselves to be nearer to our loved ones who are with thee. And while thou dost prepare a place for us, prepare us also for that happy place, that where thou are we may be also for evermore. Amen.[2]

But in addition to giving Paul back to God, and perhaps more importantly, we are here today to sustain Paul’s father and siblings and one another in our grief, to aid one another in what Edward Hirsch so accurately called “the work of mourning,” to move with one another through that dark plain of grief in which there seems to be no mountaintop, no upward path. The mountaintop, as Hirsch’s poem laments, may not be in sight, but that is only because, as Jarrett’s prayer says, “death is only a horizon, and a horizon is nothing, save the limit of our sight.”

Our faith teaches us that there are many mountaintops where we encounter the power of God. Moses encountered the Lord in the burning bush at “Horeb, the mountain of God,”[3] and received the Law at Mount Sinai in the midst of thunder and lightning “while the whole mountain shook violently.”[4] Elijah the Prophet also found God at Mount Horeb, not in storm, or earthquake, or fire, but in the “sound of sheer silence.”[5] The disciples Peter and James and John encountered God on the Mount of the Transfiguration when they accompanied Jesus to the mountaintop and beheld him shining like the sun and clothed in dazzling white.[5] Life is full of mountaintops where we encounter God; sometimes in our griefs, carrying our heavy cement bags of sorrow through the dark brambles of bereavement, the mountaintops seem far off, perhaps even absent, but they are there. They are there.

It is no wonder that the Psalmist whose words we recited today lifted up his eyes to the hills expecting help to come from the mountaintops, from “the LORD, the maker of heaven and earth.”[7] And it is equally no wonder that the Prophet Isaiah foresaw the end of our days in celebration on the mountain of the Lord:

On this mountain the LORD of hosts will make for all peoples
a feast of rich food, a feast of well-aged wines,
of rich food filled with marrow, of well-aged wines strained clear.[8]

We can, I think, be comforted that Paul, of whom his brother Jason wrote in his obituary, “His true loves were food, wine, and people,” is surely now enjoying God’s party!

Back on February 21, when Jason called to tell me that Paul had died, I had just read the work of another poet, who like Edward Hirsch, envisioned life in terms of highs and lows, but his metaphor was neither a thorny valley of despair nor an absent mountaintop; this poet saw life as an exciting ride:

Life is like a roller coaster
it has some ups and downs
Sometimes you can take it slow or very fast
It may be hard to breath at times
but you have to push yourself and keep going
Your bar is your safety
it’s like your family and friends
You hold on tight and you don’t let go
But sometimes you might throw your hands up
Because your friends and family will always be with you
Just like that bar keeping you safe at all times
It may be too much for you at times – the twists, the turns, the upside downs
But you get back up
you keep chugging along
eventually it comes to a stop
you won’t know when or how
but you will know that’ll be time to get off and start anew
Life is like a roller coaster[9]

The poet who wrote that was 14-year-old Alex Schachter, a high school freshman who, two weeks after he wrote the poem, was killed at Marjorie Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida. His father, Max, read the poem at a public forum on the day I learned that our friend Paul Powell died. Perhaps that’s merely a coincidence, but it is for us a reminder that for Paul the time had come to get off the rollercoaster and to start anew on that mountaintop with God. For us the ride continues; we still face what poet Hirsch call the hard work of mourning, but we do so with the assurance of young Alex Schachter that our friends and family will always be with us.

The section of Edward Hirsch’s poem that I read does not end where I stopped reading, there are two more verses:

Look closely and you will see
Almost everyone carrying bags
Of cement on their shoulders

That’s why it takes courage
To get out of bed in the morning
And climb into the day.[10]

We are in this together. Whether life is a series of despondent valleys and enlightening mountaintops or a rollercoaster ride of exciting ups and downs, we are in this together. We all have our bags of cement and we all are one another’s safety bars, holding on tight and not letting go. We are in this together, climbing into each day and knowing, as the Prophet Habakkuk wrote, that “God, the Lord, is [our] strength; he makes [our] feet like the feet of a deer, and makes [us] tread upon the heights,”[11] so that we may “see further … [and] see more clearly.”[12]

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 [our friend and brother Paul] and all your servants, who, having finished their course in faith, now find rest and refreshment. May we, with [Paul 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.[13]

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This homily was offered by the Rev. Dr. C. Eric Funston at the Requiem Eucharist for Paul Edward Powell (January 28, 1966 – February 20, 2018) celebrated April 14, 2018, at St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, Medina, Ohio, where Fr. Funston is rector.

(The lessons for the service are Isaiah 25:6-9; Psalm 121; 1 John 3:1-2; and St. John 6:37-40. These lessons can be read at The Lectionary Page.)

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Notes:

[1] From Gabriel by Edward Hirsch, online (Return to text)

[2] From The End of Life: Exploring Death in American, NPR, 1997-98, online (Return to text)

[3] Exodus 3:1 (Return to text)

[4] Exodus 19:16-18 (Return to text)

[5] 1 Kings 19:12 (Return to text)

[6] Matthew 17:2 (Return to text)

[7] Psalm 121:1-2 (Return to text)

[8] Isaiah 25:6 (Return to text)

[9] See Amanda Jackson, Father reads poem of son killed in Florida school shooting, CNN, February 21, 2018, online (Return to text)

[10] Hirsch, op. cit. (Return to text)

[11] Habakkuk 3:19 (Return to text)

[12] Jarrett, op. cit. (Return to text)

[13] The Book of Common Prayer, 1979, pg. 503 (Return to text)

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1 Comment

  1. This is a fine funeral sermon that captures the heaviness of grief yet leaves hope in the distant. Excellent and Thank you.

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