I remember seeing a video years ago on a hidden camera sort of show that dealt with death in an unusual way. Folks checking out at a cash register could see themselves in a round mirror above the cashier’s head. It’s that kind of mirror that gives a full view of the store. Through clever technology they superimposed the Grim Reaper just behind the customer and I thought it was both funny and surprising at how seriously some people took this brush with their mortality. Take a look at it to see how some people feel when it seems like death suddenly comes knocking at their door! https://youtu.be/SuM2osrEEzE
I guess I find it surprising that folks would believe such a stereotyped apparition and that their response would be so visceral! But the reality is that few of us would respond calmly to news that our time on earth is nearing an end. We are a people who go to doctors for a diagnosis, fully expecting a treatment plan. We have much to live for on this side of heaven so we fight for more time with our loved ones. Alan Minter, a British professional boxer, was quoted as saying, “There have been injuries and deaths in boxing, but none of them serious.” If the video tells us anything, we can be sure that no one considers the possibility of imminent death, whether in a boxing match or suffering in a hospital with COVID, as anything but serious. We have seen people triumphantly leave a hospital to the cheers of medical staff after months of being on a ventilator. What leads them to fight for life when they have suffered so greatly?
In his daily meditation for September 14, Richard Rohr addresses the subject of suffering. He reminds us that there are no dead ends with Jesus. Even when our circumstances seem hopeless, Christ meets us in our suffering. He transforms it into a teachable moment. We don’t ask for these trials nor do we necessarily appreciate them at the time. In fact, most of us will choose the easy path over the steep, rocky path if given the choice. But suffering happens. Problems show up on our doorstep. Reminders of our mortality confront us and how we respond to these moments is telling. Richard Rohr writes about the approach we are invited to take toward our suffering. Facing our challenges with faith can bring relief not just to us but to those who see how our faith shines out in dark valleys. Inasmuch as we have held onto our faith in a loving God in dark times, we become crucial companions to others when they face their own trials. We claim our identity as wounded healers instead of bitter pessimists who have given up on God.
Rohr writes, “What we do when faced with our deepest wounds determines whether there is authentic spirituality at work or not. If we seek to blame other people, accuse, attack, or even explain and make perfect, logical sense out of our wounds, there will be no further spiritual journey. But if, when the wounding happens, we find the grace and the freedom to somehow see that it’s not just a wound, but a sacred wound, then the journey progresses. Then we set out to find ourselves, to find the truth, and to find God. It’s all about what each of us does with the wound.” (Richard Rohr’s Daily Meditation from the Center for Action and Contemplation, Wounded Healers, September 14, 2020.)
We have been walking with Moses in recent weeks through the lectionary texts. We have witnessed his courage, his exasperation with his people and, above all else, his complete trust in God. We appreciate this as he faces his death in Deuteronomy 34: 1-12. He isn’t looking over his shoulder, trembling with fear. He isn’t railing at God, asking for more time. He isn’t even questioning God’s determination that, after all he’d done to lead his intransigent people for 40 years in the wilderness, he wouldn’t be allowed to lead them into the Promised Land. I am upset for him when it comes to this Divine Decision that seems harsh for such a faithful servant. But Moses is at peace. What we read from Deuteronomy 34 is his obituary. It is glowing. It exalts Moses as the pre-eminent prophet who had the distinct honor of meeting God face-to-face. Because of his powerfully personal relationship with God, Moses could let go of his life. Even though he fell short of his end goal he was at peace because he dwelt in the safe embrace of his Creator.
I stumbled across an unexpected news story this past week. It was about the memorial service for a cat! In 2008 a cat showed up during the Christmas holidays at the Southwark Cathedral in London. She was looking for food. When she received it, she settled into the cathedral for good. She was named Doorkins Magnificat and became a favorite presence in this architectural gem of a cathedral. She sprawled out on the pews as if she owned the joint. She scampered across the altar during mass. She napped in the hay of the nativity scene one year, giving evidence to the presence of animals at Jesus’ birth. She died on September 30, blind, deaf and beloved. So much so that the Dean of the cathedral hosted a live streamed memorial service for this internationally beloved feline “parishioner” on Wednesday. Not everyone in the upper echelons of the Catholic Church thought it fitting but people tuned in from all over the world. The loss of an aged cat named Doorkins Magnificat gave permission for people to grieve other losses. Presenter Kate Bottley said the service allowed her to grieve the passing of an aunt. She stated, “I hadn’t cried yet, until today. I watched this and cried and cried and cried, because you know what? This wasn’t about a cat. It’s ok if you don’t get it, it’s ok if you think it’s silly, but for me this helped, it really helped.”
On All Saints Day our congregation pauses to remember those who paved the way of faith for us by their own example. We put death in its proper context: the natural endpoint to our earthly lives with an assurance of eternal peace. We read aloud the names of loved ones we have lost, perhaps enabling us to more fully entrust them into God’s eternal keeping. Sometimes hearing the names of complete strangers invites us to grieve our own loved ones. This year has been a time of unequalled loss for our generation. I suspect all of us, by now, know of someone who has died from COVID. Even if it’s not someone close to us, it reminds us that death is never far from us. It can tap us on the shoulder when we are in our prime. Some of the losses we have mourned remind us that there is no guarantee that we will get to the “promised land” of our own dreams. Can we let go in peace as Moses did, with the assurance that we have handed off our earthly endeavors to those who can carry the torch of our faith forward? Can we be at peace in dark times because our eyes are fixed on Jesus who calls us home?
There was one scene in the movie, Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood, that brought me to tears. Tom Hanks played the role of Fred Rogers, legendary creator of supportive TV programming for children. Based on Rogers’ life as a TV personality and ordained Christian minister, in one scene Mr. Rogers is visiting a man dying of cancer. The man lived a rebellious life that distanced him from his own family. He spent the last year of his life trying to make amends for his mistakes. He sought out his grown children who weren’t ready to forgive him. Mr. Rogers stopped by the house when the man was confined to his hospital bed, set up in a small living room. Family members were keeping a vigil in a time of precious reunion. Before he left, Fred quietly spoke into the man’s ear, causing him to nod and smile. The son walked Mr. Rogers to his car and asked him what he had whispered to his father. “I asked him to pray for me. Anyone who’s going through what he’s going through must be very close to God.”
Can you imagine how amazed this lost soul must have felt to be entrusted with the responsibility of praying for such a Godly man? If your loved one had made painful mistakes throughout your life, costing you much joy, would you appreciate it if a pastor asked for that relative to pray for them? Would you believe it possible that they had a clear view of God in this very last chapter of their life? Would you be willing to forgive them their past and believe that God dearly loved even them? Or would you cling to your own interpretation of who gets into God’s eternal presence and who does not?
We would never view death as being “not serious.” We treasure our earthly life too much to readily greet death. But, as people whose faith has been shaped by the saints in our past, we rest in the assurance that our present trials are only temporary. The way we face them will either transform us more into Christ’s likeness. Or they will derail us from God’s presence so that we slog through each day with bitter remorse. Moses was remembered as a prophet whose “eyes were not weak or his strength gone” as he breathed his last. The people who tested his leadership grieved his loss, knowing that they met God through him. With his eyes fixed on the Promised Land he would never enter on earthly terms, Moses let go in peace. He knew that what awaited him on the other side was even more beautiful. For all the saints, like Moses, who from their labors rest, we thank you.