Tag: aging

To be or not to be?

Jonah 3:10-4:11 Tennant_and_Tchaikowsky_as_Hamlet_and_Yorick
Philippians 1:21-30

“To be or not to be; that is the question” is a famous phrase from Shakespeare’s play Hamlet, and is spoken by Hamlet. He asks – what is better? To live; or to die? Back and forth Hamlet goes, considering the pros and cons of living or dying.

In our scripture readings today, both Jonah and Paul are considering living or dying, too. Considering if life is worth the effort to keep fighting for every second.

The word of God has come to Jonah and told him to go to the home of his enemies, to warn them if they don’t repent, God will destroy them. Instead, Jonah runs the exact opposite way. And runs and runs. And each encounter he has with death – storm, whale, desert – he doesn’t die. Finally he delivers the message half-heartedly to the city of Ninevah. Instead of killing him, as what happens to most prophets, the city immediately changes their way.

He’s the most successful prophet.

And yet, Jonah gets very mad, for now God won’t destroy the town. Jonah complains to God – “This is why I didn’t want to come! You, God, are too merciful and loving! You should kill me now! It’s better I die than I live.”

I wonder, what is too much for Jonah, so much that he wants to die. Is God’s mercy too much?

God’s care for the righteous and the unrighteous too much?

God’s love for all people too much?

I wonder if Jonah wants to die because he’s saved his enemies. When he goes home, what will his neighbors and friends say when they hear that the Assyrians are doing just fine, even after all the murder they did to the Israelites, because Jonah went and preached to them.

I wonder if Jonah wants to die because he feels his life has no meaning whatsoever. He knew from the very beginning that God wouldn’t kill all these people. So what was the point of even going?

God asks Jonah, “Is it right for you to be so angry?”

Jonah doesn’t answer, but goes out of the city, makes a little tent, and sits to watch and hope that the city doesn’t keep up their changed ways… or God changes God’s mind again. Jonah wants God to destroy Jonah’s enemies.

As Jonah sulks, God causes a bush to grow and give Jonah shade. Jonah goes from very angry to very happy. The next day, a worm eats the bush, there is no more shade, and now it is hot and windy.

Jonah tells God, again, to kill him. This time because he is suffering from the heat and dust.

God asks Jonah – is it right for you to be angry about the bush?

Jonah replies: “Yes! Angry enough to die!”

God replies back, “You didn’t plant the bush or cause it to grow. It just appeared and disappeared. I made people, and cause them to grow, and they’ve been here a long time. Shouldn’t I be concerned about Ninevah, with its 120,000 people who don’t know right from wrong, and all their animals?”

The book doesn’t record Jonah’s reply.

Maybe Jonah replied once again, “Yes, angry enough to die!” This would mean Jonah thinks God should be so angry when someone hurts people that God would be willing to die.

Or maybe Jonah’s answer is again, “I knew you wouldn’t harm them. Just let me die.” Jonah continues to sulk and miss God’s point and message of universal love.

I read, that for Jonah, life is cheap. He’s willing to give his life up out of anger over a bush; and he’s willing for innocent people and animals to die because he doesn’t like their leaders.

God, however, says life is not cheap. God tries to show Jonah again and again that even a bush has worth. People have much, much more worth.

Not a sparrow falls without God knowing. And we are worth many, many sparrows.

There are no lives that are truly meaningless. Somewhere, somehow, every person is called to bring good into the world. Some do this like Paul, with eagerness. Some do this like Jonah, begrudgingly. But we all have the call, the invite, to deep meaning and purpose to our lives.

Even so, death can be a sweet thought.

It is for Paul.

Paul is pretty much sitting on death row. He is accused of sedition, of encouraging others to be more loyal to someone other than Caesar… and he is very guilty. So guilty, he is STILL preaching against Rome through his letters to the young Christian churches. This letter today is addressed to the church in Philippi and full of messages such as “don’t be intimidated by your opponents” and they may destroy your body, but not your soul.

Paul also writes about considering death. How can you not contemplate death when you can feel it coming closer and closer?

Paul writes, “I don’t know which I prefer” living, or dying. To paraphrase, he says: If I die, I know I’ll be with Christ – and that is far better than any day here on earth. But if I live, I can help you all and encourage you. I guess, living or dying, I am with Christ. And living or dying, I gain.

Since I don’t know if I’m going to die and see Christ, or be released and see you, give me this comfort: live your lives in a manner worthy of the Good News of Christ. So whenever I hear about you here in Rome or there in heaven, I’ll hear you are standing firm together and striving together in the faith of the Gospel.

Paul is considering his death because it literally may be this afternoon, or tomorrow, or in years. But he can feel its presence. And he has decided – he is ready to die. Death no longer scares him. He welcomes death, even.

Have you ever met someone who is ready to die? It is unnerving. Every creature has a survival instinct that makes us fight tooth and nail to survive, to live. We abhor death, and avoid it, or try to make it pretty and sanitized. We say euphemisms – she passed away. He is in eternal sleep. They went to heaven.

Death is taboo.

But Paul is welcoming it. And sometimes, people we love welcome death too.

Someone I love recently told me she is ready to die. I wanted to protest and tell her I want her to see my daughter grow up. I want her to always be around in my life because she’s always been in my life. I want to know so much more about her childhood and have a million conversations I’ve put off or not yet even considered. I want…

And I realized, all my protests against my loved one dying are because of things –I wanted–.

I paused in our conversation, and I considered her life, and what she wanted.

She wants her parents, and siblings, and even some children, who are all long dead. She wants to converse with friends about times no one else alive remembers. She wants to be less lonely.

She wants to be in less pain and misery. Every day there is more of both as her body slowly dies and she knows there will be no more better days… only worse and worse days trapped in this fragile flesh body.

She wants to pass with dignity and grace.

If she gets her druthers – at home and in her sleep. Who wouldn’t want to go that way?

And if that’s not possible, then in a nursing home where there are people to care for her without being a strain on her family.

And she is ready. Ready to die.

I am not ready for her to die.

When I worked at Children’s Hospital, sometimes doctors or nurses or chaplains asked parents, “Who are you doing this treatment for? For your child, or for yourselves?”

Is it in the child’s best interest to do another round of chemo that likely will not work but which will make them very, very sick. There is a slim chance it will save their life… but the evidence in this case shows it is much more likely the child will spend their last month in misery. Is it better to go for this tiny slim chance, or is it better to have the child go home and die with grace and dignity?

What does the child want?

Dylan Thomas wrote a poem called “Do not go gentle into that good night.” The refrain is “Rage, rage against the dying of the light.” He tells wise men, good men, wild men and grave men to fight for every single second of their lives and not to die gently, peacefully. The last line is addressed to his own father who he pleads for any blessing, any word — just don’t die and rage instead against death.

Who did Dylan write the poem for, and who was he considering?

His line to his father is: “Curse me, bless me… I pray.”

Sometimes, the most loving thing to do is to accept the person we love, that we are going to miss more than our own lives, is ready to die. Accept their choice, and help them go gently into the good night. Help them die in the manner they choose. Love them, as they let go bit by bit, of this world and step into the next.

Love them, and support them, when their wishes for their lives, and deaths, are counter to our own.

Love them, and support them, and know that death is hard work and as they go about the hard work of dying, we are called to be Christ for them. To walk along side them. To be their advocates, to give them agency, to give them dignity, and to help them depart to Christ.

It is actually a blessing when our loved ones jar us with mentioning their preparations for death. That panic we feel tells us how much we have left undone. Moves us to have those conversations we have put off and do those things we always said we’d do someday.

It is a blessing, because we can work on ourselves accepting our loved one’s desires… and when they ask for the permission to let go, to stop fighting, and go home… we can take their hands and say, “Well done, Good and Faithful servant, enter now into the joy of your Lord.”

“It’s okay to die.”

We know it is okay to die because it is not the end of God’s story. It is not the end of ourselves. Death is not the final word – there is a resurrection and a victory.

So… Is it better to be or not to be? That is not the question. The question is: In who’s interest am I acting? Whom am I considering? How can we face this transition together?

Amen.

Advertisements

Never Orphaned

Acts 17:22-31hands-old-young
John 14:15-21

 

Orphan. This is one of those categories of people the Bible has a lot to say. Over and over again God tells us to care for the orphaned and the widows. To care for the fatherless and the stranger. To care for the outcast and the afflicted. A sign of God’s people is their love and care for those who are most vulnerable.

In these ancient cultures where our scripture comes from, men are the people who can own property and bring in income. So… a widow… or a child without a father…. where are they going to get food? Water? Shelter? Who is going to protect them from being victims of violence?

God says again and again – you are. You are their protection.

Jesus reminds us that it isn’t just widows and orphans God wants us to care for – but ALL. So he shows us again how to care for strangers, care for outcasts, care for the physically and mentally sick. Whomever is at risk, we are their guardians.

So who is at risk? Who is Jesus telling us to remember in our prayers, to give our money and food to? Telling us to protect?

I tell you, I visited an orphanage.

I know – you tell me they are all closed. There are no more ran in the US and we only use the foster care system. But I tell you otherwise: I walked in and signed my name to the Visitor’s Sheet. Eyes poked out of doorways to see who this new person was with curiously and then disappeared back into their rooms. I got my badge that marked me as something even more different. That badge saying I’m permitted to be there, but not OF there. Permitted to enter, but also permitted to LEAVE. And I walked the halls of these orphans. Some laid in their beds calling for their mommies. Some had photos of their missing parents on their walls. Some asked me if I’d seen their loved ones, or knew who they themselves were.

Here, in this Alzheimer’s Unit, are the people who need others to give them food, and water, shelter. To protect them from violence. To be parental figures.

I found my orphan and she didn’t know who I was. But my orphan and I, we sat and talked anyways. Bit by bit, she told me a few memories of her parents, a sister… or a brother…

I sat and I thought it’s strange to think that nearly all of us will be orphans before we pass away. Eventually, nearly all of us, will bury first one parent, then a second, maybe even a third. We actually pray we pass away before our children, so it’s not a strange thing to be orphans… but yet… it doesn’t mean its any easier.

My orphan lost her parents decades ago, but the hurt was still so deep and fresh. And she still thought of them with mixed emotions. Relief – that they are no longer in pain. Relief – she’ll see them again. Sorrow – she doesn’t see them now. Sorrow she can’t ask them for advice, can’t introduce them to her great-grandchildren, can’t just share a cup of coffee. Simultaneously she recalled to me great bitterness and anger with her parents and great love and longing for her parents. No one has simple relationships with others when we’re honest.

The same is true in our scripture on feeling like an orphan today. This isn’t a simple relationship Jesus is describing. He is giving his farewell speech to his disciples. He’s telling them he’s going to a reunion with his father and they’re not welcome… yet. Telling them they know the way… but it isn’t on a map. And they are realizing Jesus is speaking about his death, and going to Heaven, and waiting for us there.

They are realizing they are about to be orphans.

Anger. They can’t go back home. They gave up their homes to follow Jesus. Fear. Who is going to protect them when Jesus is gone? Worry. Who are they going to turn to for advice? How are they going to keep following Jesus’ Way when Jesus isn’t there to lead them? Sorrow. There won’t be walks together and sitting down to dinner. Fear. How can they trust themselves to be the leader, the parent, the wise on when they know they know so little? Feeling so not ready.

And Jesus reassures them in these words. You do know the Way. What is more, the Spirit of Truth, which you have known through me, will be given to you to abide in you. This Holy Spirit will help guide you on the Way. We will meet again.

You will not be orphans. You will not be without someone caring for you. You have someone watching out for you, someone being your advocate – your helper and companion and champion – you have someone leading you, listening to you, loving you.

Want evidence? Lead, listen, and love another – and you will find you, too, are led, listened to, and loved.

So, again, who is at risk? Who is Jesus telling us to remember to lead, to listen to, and to love in our prayers, to give our money and food to? Telling us to protect?

Those who are aging are one of our brothers and sisters we need to give special protection to.

Another is those with physical or mental disabilities. Remember in Jesus’ time he cared not just for the widows and orphans… but also those with trouble walking, or speaking, or seeing. And those who suffered from mental illness and internal distress.

Today, our orphans are not in orphanages. They are in nursing homes, and at friends’ and families’ homes. And our orphans are in foster care and state custody. Our orphans are often homeless because there is so, so little help for those with mental demons.

Sadly, many police are like you and I, and not trained how to handle responding to someone in mental distress. So they see this ‘crazy erratic’ person, and choose to respond in ways that cause MORE distress and so more erratic behavior. Many, many mentally ill people are killed by responding officers because neither the cop nor the person know how to relate to each other – fear takes over – fear what the other will do – and one or the other goes from fear into attack mode.

Growing up, there was one of these guys living under a bridge near my hometown. Everyone knew him. He screamed at telephone poles most of the day. Where was his family? Did they know he was doing this? Had they passed away, had he run away and they lost track of him? Had he been more than what they could handle and care for?

… I’m his family, you know. So are you. Where were we?

Standing on the opposite street corner watching him and blaming his absent family. Judging them. When in actuality, Jesus commissions us – gives us the commandment – to love and care for those at risk and orphaned.

That man with mental illness is my brother. Your son. Our family.

And yes, he needed more help than any one set of parents, any one person, could give. But that is why we are more than one. We are the Body of Christ. Our parent in heaven, our risen Messiah, and our abiding Holy Spirit give us when we work together all that we need to care for all the orphans among us.

Paul argues to the Athenians in part that God isn’t like their statues. God doesn’t need us to feed God, bathe God, and bring God gold and silver because God provides US with everything and God isn’t IN a statue. Rather, God is in us and we are in God. We are God’s children, offspring.

In the same way, Jesus says he is in God, and we are in Jesus, and therefore with God. God doesn’t need us to care for God… but if we love Jesus, we will do as Jesus asks. Jesus asks us to love God – and love each other. Scripture tells us to love God, and love each other. The Spirit within us tells us to love God, and love each other. That Advocate reminds us again and again of the highest commandant: Love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul, and mind: and love others as you love yourself.

God doesn’t need bathed, need food, need support – God’s children do. The aging and the young, the physically or mentally challenged, or able or disabled, the often well or often ill – the widows and widowers – the orphans and the foster care kids – the moms and dads – the grandparents and neighbors – every single soul needs someone being their earthly advocate, just as we all need our Heavenly Advocate.

So who are the parents to the orphans?

Who are your parents?

We are. We are each other’s support, each other’s protection, each other’s advocates. We are each other’s family. We are the family of God.

Care for every person in some way – great or small.

Care for each other – here. And care for each other – out there, the strangers we are yet to meet.

We are never orphaned.

We are the children of God.

We are the family of God – and to love God is to love one another.

Amen.

I Will Follow

P1020212.JPG2 Kings 2:1-2, 6-14
Luke 9:51-62

How far will you travel with someone? How rough until you call it quits? I don’t think we really know until we begin to go.

Growing up, I had a neighbor who was like my grandmother a woman who I would talk with whenever I needed advice or companionship. She could do everything: kept a two acre garden by hand — and that was the vegetable one alone. She had more for flowers. Mowed, managed acres and acres of property, did all her own laundry, canning, cooking, selling at the farmer’s market, shopping, housework and bills… Her husband had died, and her kids grown – but this elderly woman kept an active life that put my own family of kids and 30-something year olds to shame. She honestly had far better lawns, gardens, and home-made meals than us. And you never, ever, saw her without her hair done perfectly and her makeup on.

In high school, I remember standing in my bedroom looking out across the corn fields and I saw an outline in the crop. I realized it was the old edge of my neighbor’s garden. Over the years, the farm land had crept into her garden, and her garden had shrunk to about an acre. It was so slow, I hadn’t noticed.

In college, the little creep had really begun to become noticeable in other areas of my neighbor’s life. Weeds – formerly an unheard of event – sometimes showed up in her flowerbeds. She stopped driving, and had her son drive her instead. More meals came from the freezer. Less tomatoes were boiled and canned each summer. Sometimes, her lipstick was crooked.

How far will you go with someone? How rough?

In graduate school, I no longer lived at home, but I still went to visit home and my adopted grandmother. She now had a ramp, and had a yardstick she used as a cane, and more often than not sat the day away. When once she told me with stunning clarity about riding the train to go meet her husband home from Army, or how as a child her parents used a team of horses to move her house on logs to its current place… now she struggled to remember what she ate for breakfast, and who the dashing young man with a bride was in the photos on the wall.

Some of her friends stopped visiting. It was too hard, too rough, to see their loved one… going away, moment by moment, erased and leaving a shell of the woman they loved behind. She would hate to know she’s out in public without makeup. Do we tell her? Cause her that pain? If we don’t, are we treating her like a child, babying her? She’d hate that too!

How do you love someone who has always been perfect, always been in charge, always been your leader and role model and guide… and now they need help remembering how to use a spoon? How do you stick by someone who goes from being parent to child? How far can you stick by a loved one’s side?

I don’t think we know until we try.

It was so hard visiting my neighbor in a nursing home the final days of her life. I felt like neither she nor I belonged there. But this is where the journey was taking us – to the river’s edge, or where the sweet chariots would swing low, the final fight with pain, or whatever analogy you want from scripture and songs: it’s the same. We were coming to when we would be separated by death.

She didn’t know me anymore. She only knew her daughter (usually). I could easily have stopped visiting and she wouldn’t have known the difference. But I kept going. This woman had mentored and tutored me from diapers to grad school. And we talked of birds and flowers and nothing consequential. We shared presence.

I wasn’t there for her final hours. God granted she spent those in the loving arms of her children, in one of their homes. I’m so glad for that; and I look forward to our conversations again.

Friends can so often be as close or closer than family.

Elisha is not Elijah’s biological son. Elisha was a teenager or so, working his dad’s lands with oxen, when Elijah the prophet walked by. Elijah dropped his mantel, the cloth, he’d used to hide his face from God on the mountain, over Elisha. Elisha was so excited – so thrilled – to be chosen as a prophet he nearly ran away from Elijah to go tell his parents and family. Elijah had to remind him to pray first – and THEN celebrate. Elisha burned his wooden plow, butchered his oxen, prayed a lot, had a big goodbye party, and joined the prophet.

Elijah became an adopted dad, a mentor, a guiding friend for Elisha.

And when Elijah felt his time on earth was done, he began to remove himself from the world. A little bit at a time, a city here, a city there — saying goodbye — telling the prophets he had helped raise up around Israel to stay behind. But Elisha would not stay. He vowed to stick by his friend through thick and thin, though the good times and bad times, through sickness and health, life and death.

We hear today how at last Elijah comes to the Jordan river. On the other side is where the great prophet Moses died, and it’s there that Elijah feels called for his ending. He again tells his followers — stay here. And again, Elisha vows he will follow.

Like Moses, Elijah splits the water in two, and the mixed family of Elijah and Elisha cross the Jordan. Alone, just the two, Elisha asks Elijah to give him a double portion of his spirit. Maybe he means make me your son; or maybe he means let me do twice as many miracles. What’s certain is Elijah tells him this is a big, big wish… and only possible if Elisha can stick through this to the very, very end. As they walk and talk in the desert on the other side, abruptly there is a whirlwind and fiery chariots from God. In the chaos, Elijah is whisked up to heaven and Elisha cries out after his adopted dad, and when he can no longer see him, he sinks to the ground tearing his clothes as he cries.

Eventually, the sorrow passes, and Elisha picks up the mantle Elijah dropped, and continues the prophetic work of Elijah for God.

Elisha had stayed to the very end – through the loneliness and sorrow. Through the unknown. Through the reversal of roles. He stuck by Elijah.

How far will you travel with someone? How rough until you call it quits? I don’t think we really know until we begin to go.

In our second reading, Jesus knows his end is coming too. And like Elijah, he begins to walk towards where he knows he will be “lifted up.” However, as he goes, the going gets rough. How far will those who love Jesus go with him?

Through Samaria, where Jesus bans them from returning violence for insult?

Through homelessness and a lack of a safe place to lay your head?

Though inconvenience and misunderstanding?

Will those who would follow Jesus know to stick by Jesus’ ways even when their family obligations call them elsewhere?

I will follow you wherever you go is a very, very big promise. Jesus points this out right up front. Tells all those who would follow that the Way of Christ demands much. Even Elisha had time to go back and say goodbye to his family before following Elijah… but Jesus says to be Christian, there is a bigger cost – a cost where we may be at odds with our families. A furrow gets all crooked when we try to plow and look behind us. It’s like trying to drive a car on the interstate while watching the rear view mirror the whole time.

Jesus says to these would-be followers… Are you sure you mean you’re ready to commit all of yourself? To burn the plow and eat the oxen — no going back — as Elisha did? Are you sure you mean you’re willing to follow me all the way to end? Do you know what a hard thing you’re asking?

How far will you travel with someone? How rough until you call it quits? Jesus warns us up front it isn’t always easy to be Christian, and to be a follower of Christ… we will have hard tasks and hard days.

Will you travel with Christ and the Christians knowing it isn’t an easy path?

Knowing it leads to a cross long before it leads to any heavenly ascension?

As Christians, we’re supposed to stick by each other through to the end and beyond. This journey, this walk, is a hard one that demands following it through to the end when memories fade, bodies fail, there is no more that medicine can do, and prayers don’t seem to work.

It’s a walk that takes us through times when Christianity is healthy and young and full of life – a thriving new church, full pews, prophets full of fire and dreams… And through times when our faith is sick, feels weighed down, and feels hollow and dead. When we’re not certain what tomorrow will bring.

Walking with other Christians means walking when the weather is fantastic; and walking in snow and sleet. Walking when we all agree, and walking when we bitterly disagree.

Walking with each other means sticking together when roles get reversed due to illness, age, and changes. It means loving our adopted family from cradle to grave, and beyond.

Other commitments, other priorities, will always come up and demand our time. But may you keep your eye on the goal of Christ – your eyes ahead and focused on where you are going – so that in all things, at all times, whatever you’re doing, you live your life as a faithful disciple following the leadership of Christ. Amen.