Today I went back up to the chancel, thinking I needed my prayer book and hymnal. I realized when I got there that I would be back in less than 24 hours and could probably do without. I stopped and chatted with my choirmaster and dear friend, and with some others. With more than a hundred years of combined ministry experience they had not one instance between them of a funeral being cancelled.
We do this thing called the prayers of the people, and we have all these people that have their names there and those names are called out each Sunday, recalling to us, in our rosy cheeked good health, that some members of our corporate body are ailing. The man who passed away has been on that list for a very long time.
Today I watched his widow, it seemed to me that if she could have she would have climbed into his casket with him and laid full out next to him just one more time. Then the entry way was full of paramedics and then the widow was moved out on a stretcher, and the funeral cancelled. I had moved into the Parish Hall, which was full of the people who came in uniform to provide military honors for the deceased. I’d gotten caught up talking with a whiskered old man who had a handle bar mustache like my grandpa, who wanted to call me “Mother” when another friend told him I was in the process of being ordained. I tried to explain as weird little lights went on all over the map in my brain that tells me what is possible and what is not, what I can ask of my children and what is too much.
And then a keening broke through all of our silly conversations, all of the talk that showed how alive we are when just outside the door was a man in his casket. It was the daughters who had come to bury their dad, weeping as their mother was wheeled out on a stretcher, bound for the hospital. It was not a sound that was of this world, not a sound I’d heard before.
I wonder if sometimes, in the inner circles of the great campground that surrounds the throne of God, on an island in a misty lake, I wonder if sometimes the vested choir stops in their songs. I wonder if a member is struck as though stabbed in the heart, drops her music, sits heavily and keens in just that way. I wonder if our misery is able to move into that space, I think it does. I think sometimes the angels weep.
Another is ailing now, I wanted to go and talk with her next week, I wanted to hear the memories that only she can have, like oil stored in a bottle I wanted her to pour her memories out into my hands so that I could absorb some of what she had lived, some of what she knew. I would rub my hands together, making sure the substance sank in. How to be a woman for so many years. How to watch your children grow up and grow old. How to be a faithful steward of your memories and your wisdom, I know that she had things to tell me, and that some of those things were meant for me, from where I come from, from what I know.
We do all that we can to pretend that this won’t be us. We do all that we can to embrace everything that is light, everything we can to be happy and safe and comfortable when the truth is someday these families, these old women, will be us. Someday I will have knowledge that could not be imparted in time, probably something that had only just occurred to me. Someday I will bury my parents, and my sisters will keen.
I ran into a friend today and she talked about how hard it is to shake this sadness off. She talked about how she is living through it. I think she is immensely wise, because we cannot experience deep joy without deep sadness to mirror it. How would we know the difference?
I picture this deep and stone lined well, the sort that Alice fell down as it took her to a place where flowers sing and a Cheshire cat talks nonsensically. At the bottom are two mirrors, somehow winking in the gloom, one is sadness, ornate and gilded, and one is joy, and it has just the slightest beveled edge. Our joy and our sorrow wink back and forth in the light, all the time, mirrors that reside in a place deep inside us that face each other and trade stories.
I don’t want anyone to cry or to hurt or be hungry, but the fact is that if we don’t cry or hurt or experience hunger we cannot know what happiness or a feeling of being full are.
And there is more good news, though it is, at times, hard to believe, hard to take.
When hell grasped a corpse it met God.
Another circle was added to the great campground beyond, another level that love could redeem, another level that love could reach, another circle for the bus to traverse, with the bus driver stopping about once a week and calling out, anyone ready yet? Taking on the stragglers, the ones who weren’t sure, the ones who thought they’d probably get to the next level and be kicked back anyway, deemed unworthy.
There is nothing that we can do to be unworthy, because we were never worthy in the first place.
There is no understanding, no quantifying this wide grace. We cannot measure it, we cannot bottle it, we cannot put it into bottles and sell it like perfume.
When hell grasped a corpse it met God, and hell was overcome with what it could not see.
There is so much that we cannot see.
And when God descended to hell death was over turned, made invalid, made nothing, made impossible.
So though I looked on a man in a casket today, I know that he is really puttering outside a little trailer, some sticks are smoking in a pit he’s dug in the earth and that work felt good and there are children laughing. Perhaps his camper is like the one my grandparent’s used to have, and he is waiting to hear the sound of her steps on the dirt path. I know that because God descended to hell that the man is just a few circles from the throne room of a God that he loved, that the bus will come, that the driver will call out, that more will board the bus, wondering if they are worthy for what comes next.
And I know the angels keen sometimes.
And I know the world is hard and evil and unfair.
And I know that you feel like these are comforting fairy tales but that they aren’t real.
When you and I stop at the robing room together, when we walk down that dark hall together and slip into those vestments, I will hold your hand, I’ll tell you the secret things I pray when I put my robes on, though I am not yet ordained, though I do not yet know if I am called to offer sacraments or justice, of where the line between these things lives. I won’t tell you that I knew when you didn’t. I don’t think those things matter.
When we slip into the back of the church and hurry up the aisle, when we take our places in the choir loft I’ll try to show you what we’ve been working on, I’ll try to point out to you the parts in the music that are hard, the places where you should breathe.
I am trying to tell you in the here and the now that the whole world, and our whole lives, are a piece of music. I am trying to tell you that it’s ok to breathe here so you can hit that high note, I am trying to tell you that there are places that are hard.
And I am trying to tell you that even if you don’t believe me death is no more. You have overcome the grave, and you won’t go to some dark hole, you’ll go to a campground. And you will be forever within the reach of the awesome and terrible love of God.
There is your good news, it is right there.
And I know it is hard to see that now. And I know that the world is awful. But there is this love, and there are memories poured out like oil into my waiting hands, music a balm to a soul that is battered, and always more work to do.
As the Anglican Communion suspends us we react in love, we react with clear eyes and straight spines and we say that we don’t care who you love and we don’t care what you’ve done, and we don’t care who you are. We do care, of course, but its only because we want your memories, we want you to be our travel guide, we want you to tell us where you’ve been and what you’ve seen, to report on glorious valleys and paths that twisted through a dark wood or dry desert. Its only because we want to welcome you into this wide grace that we know exists, this place where the next thing is a campground of concentric circles, its only because we are called to love, and we take that so seriously.
When hell grasped a corpse all of those bony fingers were reaching for something they could never have.
I’ll drop flares, I’ll lead the way, I’ll send a messenger back. There is a place of endless love and its just over the next dune, around the next curve.
I promise you its there.
And I am not afraid.