Memorial Day

On Monday, Memorial Day 2007, Vickie and I went to American Village to attend the Gold Star Memorial Service in the chapel for fallen servicemen and women who have died since the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq have begun.  I went because my friend Marynell Winslow, with whom I collaborated on a song about her fallen son Ryan (which many of you heard last November when she and George came to our church on a Wednesday evening around Veteran’s Day).  It was sung beautifully at the beginning of the service by 800px-US_Navy_040531-N-6371Q-223_Marines_and_Sailors_march_in_the_Little_Neck_Memorial_Day_Parade_in_Queens_N.Y._during_the_17th_Annual_Fleet_Week_2004a talented young soloist from Nashville.

Later, family members or representatives of the families walked one by one to the front and laid a single rose across a pair of combat boots as a symbol of the one whose full name was called.  As the roses piled higher and higher and you heard that list of names, one at a time, there was time to think about each family, each person, and who they were—what did they dream?  What was it like for them?

Memorial Day was originally called Decoration Day.  It is a day of remembrance for those who have died in the service of our nation. According to a website on its observance, how it began is mysterious.

There are many stories as to its actual beginnings, with over two dozen cities and towns laying claim to being the birthplace of Memorial Day. There is also evidence that Forgotten Memorialorganized women’s groups in the South were decorating graves before the end of the Civil War: a hymn published in 1867, “Kneel Where Our Loves are Sleeping” by Nella L. Sweet carried the dedication “To The Ladies of the South who are Decorating the Graves of the Confederate Dead.”

Memorial Day was officially proclaimed on 5 May 1868 by General John Logan, national commander of the Grand Army of the Republic, in his General Order No. 11, and was first observed on 30 May 1868, when flowers were placed on the graves of Union and Confederate soldiers at Arlington National Cemetery.

                                         — http://www.usmemorialday.org/

800px-bn3q09604_candle_lightTo a mother whose son has died, nothing can give complete comfort.  To know that he died for a good cause, as a patriot, as a loyal soldier, even with the gratitude of the nation, is meaningful.  But there is still that terrible void—the child she held in her arms, taught to walk and talk and pray and play, is gone.

I think about those families during this week. However their deaths came, for each family this was deeply personal, irreplaceable, terrible and relentless.

Remembering is a holy act.  Death is a doorway into that mystery called eternity—a door that opens only one way for us.  In the anguish of loss, we search for meaning, for hope, for comfort.  At the very least, to be remembered is a moment of relief.  It is good for us to place a hand on the parent of a son or daughter who died and say, “We remember.  And we are sad, too.”  Death is terrible enough, and grief is its horrid companion.  At the least we should not have to bear it alone or without a sense that our loved one’s life really mattered.

Memorial Day was a time for me to reflect, not just on this war, but on all wars we have endured.  The price is always enormous.  I miss my World War II veterans and Korean War veterans. If they had seen these angry people walking around our streets with guns, threatening one another when we should be pulling together.  They would have shaken their heads. They knew what it is really like.

The toll is deeper than we know.  It is good to pause and remember and count the cost.  It is good to understand that in all that we do, there are those from among us who cannot sit comfortably and do it.  They carry a heavy load.

I am reminded to pray a little harder for peaceful solutions, to be slow to anger and quick to forgive, to pray for safe returns, for just outcomes, for intelligence to prevail over impulse and rage against each other, for healing and effective grief, for a more thankful heart, for emotional restoration.  And to appreciate those who do the hard part of democracy.

But most of all, I have been pondering about widening out Memorial Day this year a little more to include a different war, against an invisible virus, taking some of our brightest and best and too many people who are loved from us. It makes no distinctions at all as we do with one another. And most of all I think of the soldiers in this war, doctors, nurses, dedicated researchers and healthcare professionals, farmers and ordinary truck drivers and workers and factory employees risking themselves to feed us, retail workers who have to ask us too much to abide by some simple courtesies, a little irritation and inconvenience, just for the privilege of shopping for what we need in a world where even now we have ten times what most others in the world could dream of.

I hope we’re up to it. But it may require, as Old Testament scholar Walter Brueggeman said, that we first grieve our losses before we can be sane about resuming life. I hope we don’t skip over the remembering, as painful as it might be. Because there is also joy in the remembering. And you don’t get the joy without the sorrow. If there are no parades this year, let it not keep us from remembering, honoring, mourning, and giving thanks. Be grateful for every act of sacrifice for the greater good, no matter how small.

Good Men and High Callings

So much about bad things men do these days. But what about good men? Five years ago today my father-in-law, one of the best men who ever walked this earth, left it. He is surely playing the front nine in heaven if they have a course. From the obit I gave for him in 2014:

The goal, the prize of the high calling, was never about piling up money for its own sake, but for being able to help others. In our early years, Forrest drove, excuse me, a crappy car. It was an old sky blue Ford that seemed a hundred years old. It smelled like a paper mill and the only luxury in it was his golf clubs in the trunk.Forrest and our girlsvickie-and-dad-e1497743310363.jpg

In our time, it is wonderful to still find people who work hard and save up so they can care for their family, help their grandchildren and children, and give to those in need. I cannot tell you how many times in our ministry we had some need in somebody’s life and the next thing I knew, Forrest and Betty were sending money. “Don’t tell anyone it came from me.”

Being grateful, truly grateful begets generosity from the heart. Forrest and Betty were thankful people. In 2011, Forrest wrote a short autobiography. It’s funny, so Forrest, his stories written like he talked. He put a picture on the front from the peak of his working life. I told him it looked a little like a mafia don. But the book is a glowing tale of gratitude for his beloved Betty, the love of his life, his three children and their families, his work, parents, siblings. He was glad to be alive, glad to be here. And it ends with these words: “Betty and I are extremely proud of our family, and recognize them as the crowning achievement of our lives. To all who read this, enjoy your life to the fullest.”

Of all the magnificent blessings I’ve had in my life, I believe the three F’s are the crux of life. These three are: faith in Christ, a loving family, loving friends. There is nothing of greater value. If you have these in your life, you are wealthy.”
Notice—nothing about money, lake houses, fame, and having status. Just core treasures that radiate through you. That’s the man we knew.

I had a fourth F.   In addition to faith, family and friends, I was blessed to have Forrest. A real man, but also a good man to the bone. I was fortunate to know and love him.

I miss you.

Between Cross and Easter

Of late, not only in my ministry work, but through the connections of social media, I have been highly conscious of the processions of sorrow that go on around us in the midst of life. In my work, we are walking near every kind of brokenness and sorrow in the world every week, then trying hard to stand up and proclaim hope on Sunday.

Brokenness comes in so many different forms, but it all shares one truth–suddenly we are in a room with no walls to keep predators out, no roof to shield us from torrential storms, no floor to stop us from going down. WIth that comes temptation to panic, that we might absolutely burst from the heaviness of it all. It is here that faith matters most if it matters at all.

This prayer is from my 2015 book, Poems, Prayers and Unfinished Promises.  It was a prayer given originally as an invocation to a performance of the Requiem by John Rutter. If you are in that place, perhaps it would be of some encouragement today.

We came here tonight to wait and to hope

That tombs and sorrow and death and loss

Are only prelude

To seek the Living shepherd,

Beyond our doubts, beyond our fears,

From death into life.

We wait faithfully

Hoping that

You might meet us in our gardens of sorrow as you met Mary,

We wait for unexpected visions in the midst of our tears.

And for you to come to us

As you came to them behind the locked doors of fear

To wait tonight is enough

For tomorrow we will walk to the tomb again Continue reading “Between Cross and Easter”

Brian: In Memoriam

On Monday, I conducted a funeral service for a 43 year old man, Brian Booth, whom I’d known for 25 years. He had never spoken a single word to me, only responding with eye signals and laughs and sounds. Brian lived with cerebral palsy, profound in its limitations. His father shared a story about him.

Brian had a wonderful nurse for a number of years who was originally from Jamaica. Joan was one of those people that Brian would welcome with that beaming dimpled smile. Joan provided Brian with such incredible loving care and he was so appreciative. She would sit in the floor so she would be on his level, and talk to him about all sorts of things. He sincerely enjoyed hearing about other peoples’ trials and travails…so much so that he would laugh out loud when Joan would tell him about things that weren’t going just right. She always said that his laugh would make her forget anything that wasn’t going as expected. She would go home and share Brian’s ministry of laugh with her sister. If things were going off the tracks for her sister, Joan would simple tell her “you need to go see Brian”.

The differently abled and their families have so much to teach us. As a part of that service, I wrote and shared the following.

Yes, Brian was once a little boy.

Brian, on the day of his baptism in 2013.Yes, Brian was a little boy.

But not forever. He became a man.

His wheel chair and the helpless limbs kept most of us

From knowing that—but he had a quick mind.

Rapid eyes followed all that passed by.

He did not miss any of life. He lived it

even if it wasn’t like yours and mine.

He lived his days knowing father and mother love

Far more than many who never have it at all;

Brothers and sisters made him laugh

and loved him, loved to be with him and whatever

Scrapes they might have had with each other they knew

What was said to Brian always stayed with Brian

No matter what.

 

It’s easy to see only limbs that don’t work

And stop seeing a brain that does, a heart that feels,

A young man’s understanding soul inside that laughed

At the name of Jesus. When did you last

Show your Lord such honor?

He had his preferences, like everyone.

Reese’s peanut butter cups were just this side of heaven;

Barney on the other hand, never made the cut. Something

About a man in a purple dinosaur suit hit Brian wrong.

But of all the things of earth, the bad was a very short list.

 

How well have I done to avoid whining,

or being critical, complaining and unhappy?

And what reasons do I have for my hurried ingratitude?

Life is gift, but to know it while you live it?  That’s pure grace.

He did. He caused so much love, beyond mere pity.

Yes and No with his eyes would do for ordinary things.

Smiles and laughter and groans and moans

For all the rest. And that is enough to live a life

Impart love to all around you and make it worthwhile

to have been here at all.

It’s the wake behind the boat that shows its power. Not admiration or envy

But waves and waves of love and the ache of its departure..

He was here. Jesus loved him. And he knew it.

That should be enough for any of us. The rest is for show.

Isn’t it?

Abide With Me

Henry Francis Lyte was an Anglican priest who originally intended to be a doctor, but then entered the ministry. He was a prize-winning poet during his university years, and best known for his elegant hymn, “Abide With Me.” He continued to write religious poetry through his life.  He was born in 1793 and died when he was only fifty-four years of age. The first verse captures a transcendent and haunting mood:

“Abide with me; fast falls the eventide;

The darkness deepens; Lord, with me abide.

When other helpers fail and comforts flee,

Help of the helpless, O abide with me.”

 

It is uncertain when he penned this text. It has been connected to the death of a fellow  clergyman, of which he said

“I was greatly affected by the whole matter, and brought to look at life and its issue with a different eye than before; and I began to study my Bible, and preach in another manner than I had previously done.”[1]

Regardless, it’s reflective and somber tone nearly always takes me to a melancholy mood. It is often sung at funerals.  In one of the eight original verses is the line  “Change and decay in all around I see.”

Ian Bradley, a leading scholar of Victorian hymns, names his book on this subject, Abide with Me: The World of Victorian Hymns. He notes, “John Bell, the leading contemporary Scottish hymn writer, has pointed to the damage done to the cause of reform and moving on in the life of churches by the deadening effect of [this line] from ‘Abide with me.’”[2]

Nevertheless, the end of life is a serious and inevitable matter. In the ministry, we deal with it all the time. There are other things to talk about in life, joys and pleasures, work, goodness and family. We cannot long live in the valley of the shadow. But when it comes, it is good to know that we are not there alone.

Our church sits atop a mountain, a beautiful garden behind the sanctuary perched on the edge, looking out across the southern suburbs of Birmingham. It is a view that invites meditation and deep thoughts. Once, while there with a friend, a retired missionary and a man of great kindness and compassion, I asked what he was thinking about. He pointed to the hospital below, in the valley. “I was just thinking about all the human suffering contained in that place, every single day, and that Christ dwells with them there.”

That, at its best, is what faith can do. Today, while my own dear mother is taking her second chemo for stage IV cancer, I pray for her and for the millions every day who make the journey along the cliffs of suffering and disease. Perhaps these lines sit well here for us all:

When other helpers fail and comforts flee,

Help of the helpless, O abide with me.”

LISTEN to the Mormon Tabernacle Choir sing Abide with Me, arr. Mack Wilberg.

 

 

[1] Darrell St. Romain, “History of Hymns: Abide with Me” https://www.umcdiscipleship.org/resources/history-of-hymns-abide-with-me

 

[2] St. Romain.

Death Grief and Hope: Songs for the Shadows (2)

So, then, to continue from my last post, If we are not to grieve as those who have no hope, and not to hope as those who have no grief, then only one conclusion is left to us.  We should grieve as people of hopeso what does that mean?

Here is where grace enters in powerfully.  “Grieving as people of hope” means that God’s grace is in the picture with us as we sorrow in life.  Grace does not magically take away our pain or make it hunky-dory wonderful.  I have heard preachers stand up and talk about heaven and hope in a glib and superficial silliness that emotionally slaps the faces of the grieving ones sitting in front of him or her.  If it gives them a moment’s comfort, the dark shadow will soon come.  If Jesus wept over Lazarus, there is something important in it for us as well. Whatever we believe about the life to come, it is always in faith, in part, clouded by the contrast between the only reality we know with some certainty against a promise that is yet to be.

Paul helps us in a second passage from the New Testament. In 2 Corinthians 4:7-9 he wrote, “But we have this treasure in clay jars, so that it may be made clear that this extraordinary power belongs to God and does not come from us. We are afflicted in every way, but not crushed; perplexed, but not driven to despair; persecuted, but not forsaken; s_s_hopestruck down, but not destroyed; Afflicted but not crushed.”

  1. Perplexed but not driven to despair
  2. Persecuted but not forsaken
  3. Struck down but not destroyed

What sustains us in life is not to escape affliction, questions, persecution and suffering.  It is being rooted in the life that transcends it. This means accepting

  1. The reality of death—as well as the truthfulness of grace. It not only does not avoid the worst features of human life, it enters into them.  Grace is seeing the worst about us and still loving us. I once wrote a song to try to express the anguish of this, called,
  2. The necessity of grief— Grief is part of life just as death is on its path. If we are to imbibe life as a gift, we have also to taste its bittersweet transience.  In the nineteenth century, Ray Palmer wrote the great hymn, “My Faith Looks Up to Thee,” and penned these wonderful words:

When ends life’s transient dream,
When death’s cold sullen stream shall o’er me roll;
Blest Savior, then in love, fear and distrust remove;
O bear me safe above, a ransomed soul!

I have written about 110 songs at this point, bits and fragments of maybe 250 more, but looking over them, I realize how much time grieving has occupied in my mind. I am sure much of this has to do with my vocation–I cannot avoid walking through the valley of someone else’s shadow weekly–but I am also impressed with the massive  energy spent on avoiding the subject in our culture–and the price we pay for it. One song on this subject for today, “Trying to Remember” Continue reading “Death Grief and Hope: Songs for the Shadows (2)”

Death Grief and Hope: Songs for the Shadows

  We must face our losses.  Courage does not spare us from them. 

Courage’s work begins at the other end of honest acknowledgement.

          Grief can encompass many parts of life, not merely death.  It is, in many ways, our most universal experience.  It can be the death of dreams, grief of a way of life that ends, the end of a relationship, leaving home, moving to another town, divorce, a broken friendship.  The question is, “What are we to do with it?”

I can’t speak for people who have no faith in God, but I will admit that having faith in God doesn’t dispose of grief. It is just the same, just as overwhelming, the same disbelief followed by disintegration and despair and a long struggle to put life together again.

One verse of scripture I have found meaningful is  this one:

But we do not want you to be uninformed, brothers and sisters, about those who have died, so that you may not grieve as others do who have no hope.   1 Thess. 4:13

 I take great comfort that it does not say, “Don’t grieve, you’re a Christian,” but I have heard many a well-meaning minister stand up and talk about death like it was a flu shot. Death is real, it is irreversible, it is disheartening. I don’t think dismissing reality is a good idea. It has a way of showing up again with reinforcements.

The denial of death is, as Ernest Becker said, the most pervasive of human failings, and the most futile. The Apostle Paul said, very intentionally, that we should not “grieve as those who have no hope.” Instead, I would assume, we should grieve as people who DO have hope. Continue reading “Death Grief and Hope: Songs for the Shadows”

In Memory of a Dhogg

My kids are headed our way from NY for the holiday, but had the sadness of the death of their beloved dog, Mara. Mara had lived a good, long life, and like any family pet, had the run of the house. When our oldest granddaughter was born in Seattle five years ago, I was given the couch as my sleeping quarters, and she slept next to me on the floor, licking my hand regularly through the night, which, if not a regular experience, is a bit of a start for a sleeping person. Burglar or beloved, a licked hand is terrifying.

Mara D Dhogg, late of upstate New York.
Mara D Dhogg, late of upstate New York.

Eventually over those happy days we became friends and I would return the greeting in my sleep with a perfunctory half dozen strokes. These creatures who live with us accompany us in life, become part of the furniture of our homes. We miss them when they are gone.

It was time, as that time always comes, and Mara had no regrets. I reminded my daughter that marah could be taken as the Hebrew word for “bitter,” but Mara seemed remarkably sanguine toward the discomforts and outrageous fortunes of human beings and their ways. And she had it good–her own facebook page as Mara D Dhogg, the run of the house, better medical care than any except Continue reading “In Memory of a Dhogg”

Another Day of Terror: Holy Week Reflection

I woke up to the bad news from Brussels, Belgium today. We are so numbed to the violence on our globe, we have to wonder about the ambivalent gift of “information.” There is no time to digest, reflect, pray, consider. We are, instead, an endless echo of bad news cycles, compounded by the “unsocial media” that encourages the worst among us to speak loudly even if it is unworthy to hear. Here is the reflection I sent to my congregation today:


The recurring horror of terrorism is found in the terrorists themselves.  They are, finally, demented haters of life, of humanity, of our collective existence—that is the essence of terrorists’ acts. There is nothing in them but absolute despair of hope, and the desire to destroy it in all others for the sake of fantastic delusions of forcing the hand of the universe to bend to their will. There is nothing at the end of

Brussels Subway system attacked

their action except death and blood.

They are not new. Throughout all of history, they have killed, as governments and society seek to kill them in response. On and on the fatal disaster continues, hopelessly. It is into Holy Week that the latest delusion happens. In Brussels the fanatics strike civilization once more, convinced that they will prevail, and destined absolutely to fail.

Of all weeks, this one should comfort those who believe in Christ Jesus. Of all people, we began in a story of unjust death, amid terrorists who led people into the desert (Acts 21:38) and to the top of Masada only to die for nothing and their hopes dashed. Those who waved the palms would flee for their lives—and for what? The emptiness of a lost cause. Continue reading “Another Day of Terror: Holy Week Reflection”

Getting Ready to Die … and Live

A friend asked me about this piece.  I wrote it a few years back while talking to an engineer friend who was then trying to prepare for the end of his life. He kept asking me, “Gary, how do I KNOW I’m ready to die.” And I kept answering with pastoral comfort about facing death, quoting verses, and my typical caring responses. When I got home, I expressed my sense of frustration.  “I don’t think I answered his question, because he kept re-asking it.”

Vickie said, “Gary, he wants a punch list.  He’s an engineer (my wife’s father was an engineer), he wants a list of things to do.” Well, Myers Briggs, you did it again. So I set about a list, and she helped me with it. I have shared this often with my deacons in the church, with individuals, and it seemed useful to share it here if it helps. This is my list, so yours may be a little different, and it certainly isn’t exhaustive, but I know this: if you spend time preparing for death, you will really be prepared anew for life.

 

Getting Prepared to Die—and to Live

Gary and Vickie Furr Continue reading “Getting Ready to Die … and Live”