Wednesday, 25 January 2017

The gift of weakness: a funeral homily

(Myra was a 79-year-old former primary school teacher, keen golfer, and faithful church member who spent the last 7 years of her life in a nursing home before dying of a dementia-related illness. One of her two sons, John, gave the eulogy. The lesson from 2 Corinthians 4:7-18 was then read, and the homily followed.) 

What can I add to John’s tribute to Myra? With a portrait so rich in detail and colour, not much! The focus on family – devotion to Graham, pride in her boys, delight in her grandchildren; the importance of friendships; the vitality – and that smile; the practical faith visible in attention to others and service in the church (at Bethel, on the Social Committee): that’s the Myra we knew in Sketty. But not the only Myra. For the Myra finally overtaken by dementia was Myra too. And God may have something to tell us through Myra in her weakness as well as Myra in her strength. After all, isn’t that the way God worked through Jesus?

Dementia has now replaced cancer as the illness that embodies our deepest fears. Pitiless and inexorable, it seems to threaten our very identity as human beings. Memory evaporates as the past splits from the present like an iceberg cracking from the inside out. Recognition blurs, relationships pale, self-care crumbles.

But how much of this appraisal simply reflects our own visceral fears shaped by a culture captive to the idols of autonomy, productivity, and control? How much of our default evaluation of dementia as a “living death” is simply a projection of unexamined assumptions about selfhood? Are we ever masters of our own experience? Are we not always strangers to ourselves? Isn't all that we have not a secure acquisition but a fragile gift? And isn't who I am finally determined not by what I achieve but by how God sees me?

What if we stop assuming that dementia is solely an affliction that takes us into a bad place and consider the possibility that it might even be a grace that moves us towards a new place? Perhaps the truly awful thing for people with dementia is not so much that they forget – for memory is a collective enterprise, something we do together – but that they are often forgotten.

Certainly Myra was not forgotten by her own family, and if my own experience rings true, amidst her frailty and helplessness, and your loss and pain, there were moments – holy moments – of intimacy, tenderness, humour, and love, a love which the pathos of the situation only served to clarify, deepen, and sustain.

In Wendell Berry’s wonderful novel Hannah Coulter, the elderly twice-widowed heroine, reflecting on life and loss, observes: “I began to know my story then. Like everybody’s, it was going to be a story of living in the absence of the dead. What is the thread that holds it all together? Grief, I thought for a while…. But grief is not a force and has no power to hold you. Love is what carries you, for it is always there, even in the dark, or most in the dark, but shining out at times like gold stitches in a piece of embroidery.”

The tapestry that is each of us: this side of death I think mostly we see the back side with its loose ends and knots and messiness. But on the other side, the side of resurrection: there the stitches shine like gold, the pattern of our lives – the pattern of Myra’s life – completed, perfected, glorious, woven by the God of creation and recreation we see in Jesus.

Wednesday, 4 January 2017

Doodlings at dusk

The gospel in 2 words: “Hey, Boo.”

If it’s a clear night on New Year’s Eve, I make a point of gazing at the heavens and counting the stars, to get a tally of my sins at Old Year’s End.

And New Year’s Day? The annual absolution of Sunrise – starlessness – and the single resolution to sin better.

The insidious secular-fundamentalist time-totalitarianism of wall calendar-makers, beginning the week with Monday – a New Year’s pox on you!

Time used to be a friend of mine. No more. He’s become a thief, first nicking bits and pieces of my memory, and now – the bastard – serially robbing me of friends.

My faith in God is sure because it expects nothing from him and always gets it. God is utterly reliable and blesses me with the gracious gift of inconsolability.

“Every writer has only one story to tell, and he has to find a way of telling it until the meaning becomes clearer and clearer; until the story becomes at once more narrow and larger; more and more precise, more and more reverberating” (James Baldwin). So too for every preacher.

What do I make of the prayer Psalm 19:14 when said by many a minister before preaching? Wishful thinking.

“No arts, no letters, no society, continual fear, rich, nasty, brutish, and 6-foot-2.” – Thomas Hobbes on Donald Trump

You’ve got to hand it to The Donald: he’s a master of word-care. Sorry, that’s a typo: I left out the “s”.

The world according to Trump – is it not one vast self-projection? Trump wants only one thing: attention. I therefore propose that the way to make him go away is to live rebelliously etsi Trumpus non daretur.

But one thing in defence of The Donald: he was culpably misquoted about building a wall along the Mexican order. He said mall, not wall.

If I could ask Mr. Trump one self-revealing question, what would it be? That’s an easy one: what have you read in the last 5 years? Not counting Two Corinthians.

A friend of mine said to me, venomously, that he wouldn’t piss on Trump if he was on fire. I told him I’m not surprised: I wouldn’t piss on Trump if I was on fire either. However I would if I wasn’t.

Sign seen at a white evangelical rally: “Thank you, President Trump, for Jesus”.

What is social media, with its wilful and shameless decimation of the private, but a vast technological concentration camp, replete with its rapid descent into brutality?

In the toxic world of social media, name your poison: Facebook for kitsch, Twitter for Krieg.

In an age of multifarious distractions, liturgy teaches us the joy and excitement of monotony.

There are maximum security prisons, and there are maximum insecurity prisons. Many of the latter are churches.

What can we say about many a church-swapper? Amos 5:19a.

Listen to your conscience. It is your PMA (personal moral adviser). Just remember that sometimes it gives you bad advice. Remember too, however, that a bad conscience may be better than a deluded one (Bonhoeffer).

In The End of Protestantism Peter Leithart suggests that “doctrines have mattered and do matter; they have mattered enough for people to kill and die for them.” Hold on: doctrines have mattered little enough for people to kill for them.

Motoring around Europe during the summer of 1969, I spent a few days in Geneva. What struck me most about Calvintown was its spotlessness – the streets were as clean as plates. And that if the city were a painting, it would be a still life. Bad Presbyterianism in a nutshell: anal retentive and nothing happening.

What are we to think of the people who leave strict instructions for their funerals (from music and readings, to dress codes, to embargos on sadness)? Hell, if you’re going to micromanage, micromanage, and write your own goddamn eulogy too.

It is said that God has no grandchildren. He doesn’t know what he’s missing. Though I guess he does. Poor old God.

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