I should probably have some better pastoral response to the one stable reality of life--that it ends--but I don't. It sucks. There. Screw eloquence.
When someone you know and love dies, there is nothing that anybody can say that magically makes it better.
All you can really do is gather around. Huddle. Share good stories. And agree with each other: "This sucks."
Of course, where we are going with this week, in the church anyway, is the victory of life. But we first live in the reality and the shadow of death. And, if we are honestly engaging in the process of this week, we have nothing to do but to stare that reality in the face.
Still. I'm not giving up on life. On life lived in the face of death. On life lived well, life lived so that there are stories to tell.
Clarence Jordan once said that the Christian life is "a call of life, to life, for life." He also said that faith is not a stubborn belief in spite of evidence but a life lived in scorn of the consequences. That meant a lot to me when I was considering a call to ordained ministry. Which I still am. Because it's a decision that I make, a particular claim that I make, when I say that I am called to life. As Andrew Solomon, who suffers from severe depression, says "Every day, I choose, sometimes gamely and sometimes against the moment’s reason, to be alive. Is that not a rare joy?”
Of course, in our society, there are all sorts of ways that we end up serving death. I'd say more about that, but the poem "Conscientious Objector" by Edna St. Vincent Millay says it better than I do:
I shall die, but
that is all that I shall do for Death.
I hear him leading his horse out of the stall;
I hear the clatter on the barn-floor.
He is in haste; he has business in Cuba,
business in the Balkans, many calls to make this morning.
But I will not hold the bridle
while he clinches the girth.
And he may mount by himself:
I will not give him a leg up.
Though he flick my shoulders with his whip,
I will not tell him which way the fox ran.
With his hoof on my breast, I will not tell him where
the black boy hides in the swamp.
I shall die, but that is all that I shall do for Death;
I am not on his pay-roll.
I will not tell him the whereabout of my friends
nor of my enemies either.
Though he promise me much,
I will not map him the route to any man's door.
Am I a spy in the land of the living,
that I should deliver men to Death?
Brother, the password and the plans of our city
are safe with me; never through me
Shall you be overcome.
Poets, as it turns out, have this crazy idea that death doesn't get the last word. Take that John Dunne character, for instance:
Death, be not proud, though some have callèd thee
Mighty and dreadful, for thou art not so:
For those whom thou think'st thou dost overthrow
Die not, poor Death; nor yet canst thou kill me.
From Rest and Sleep, which but thy picture be,
Much pleasure, then from thee much more must flow;
And soonest our best men with thee do go--
Rest of their bones and souls' delivery!
Thou'rt slave to fate, chance, kings, and desperate men,
And dost with poison, war, and sickness dwell;
And poppy or charms can make us sleep as well
And better than thy stroke. Why swell'st thou then?
One short sleep past, we wake eternally,
And Death shall be no more: Death, thou shalt die!
Death, thou shalt die. Or as Paul says:
‘Where, O death, is your victory?
Where, O death, is your sting?’
That's where we're heading, this week. But in the meantime, death sucks, and we have to make a decision. To live.
Let's do it.
This Holy Tuesday, I'm not giving up on life.