I continue to look at prayers that pull me and others through, focusing on ones in my United Church of Christ Book of Worship, for I find in my moments of deep despair and vexing disorientation that I go through in loss, grief, and trauma that it is often in community in which I find God most present and while praying, working, laughing, crying with others that this often introverted guy finds healing.
The words I focus on now come from 2 Corinthians 4 and 5:
“But we have this treasure in earthen vessels, to show that the transcendent power belongs to God and not to us. We are afflicted in every way, but not crushed; perplexed but not driven to despair; persecuted, but not forsaken; struck down, but not destroyed; always carrying in the body the death of Jesus so that the life of Jesus may also be manifested in our bodies. For while we live we are always being given up to death for Jesus’ sake, so that the life of Jesus may be manifested in our mortal flesh. So we do not lose heart. Though our outer nature is wasting away, our inner nature is being renewed every day.
“For we know that if the earthly tent we live in is destroyed, we have a building from God, a house not made with hands, eternal in the heavens. Here indeed we groan, and long to put on our heavenly dwelling, so that by putting it on we may not be found naked. For while we are still in this tent, we sigh with anxiety; not that we would be unclothed, but that we would be further clothed, so that what is mortal may be swallowed up by life. The one who has prepared us for this very thing is God, who has given us the Spirit as a guarantee.”
Last time I focused on the beginning of this passage, the first paragraph about the strength available to us through opening up to our experience and that of God within it. Today I focus on the last paragraph and even as I do so my heart throbs with pain. This week as I write I have just passed through the third month of my late wife’s passing and also what would have been her 34th birthday. I was snowed in this weekend so my grand plans to surround myself with others and be very active, so that the finality of those memorials did not hit me like a weight falling from the heavens didn’t get to happen. I am blessed to have had many good friends make time to talk with me on the phone and virtually through text and online message. I am blessed to have had many reach out to me. But alone in such moments I easily find myself in my mind back there, on that morning when I found her body still as a stone, breathless and empty. In such moments it all hits me.
Though I love this text, that second paragraph brings it all back to me. It speaks to what I saw that day.
I have told many people that as traumatic as walking in to find my wife dead, her body empty of breath and spirit, and to try relentlessly to resuscitate her while I awaited the paramedics, in a way discovering what I was told by them was helpful: she was already dead when I found her. She was not in that body. She had left.
For 3 long years I saw this woman whom I loved so much who loved me in ways I do not know I will ever experience being loved again slowly, painfully die a little every day. Her Arnold Chiari Malformation caused her again and again, every day, to lose some independence. To lose memories. To lose the ability to one after another thing on her own. To move in this world without crushing pain. Some time after she died I looked through our photos beginning at those a few days before she died, going back these past three years. Every day backward she looked healthier, happier, stronger. I saw then what I could not see being beside her every day but I felt deep in my heart and in every cell of my body. She had been fading a long, long time.
To use this text’s analogy, like a home we had after a storm in rural North Carolina which after the storm began to have piece after piece of the home begin to fall apart, so the home of her body piece by piece was coming undone. Though she tried valiantly every day to live her life with joy and peace, happiness and love for others, how she hurt, became wore out, and near the end was running on empty. Others didn’t see it, for she could muster the joy, love, and strength to bring laughter and friendship to others when she was in unimaginable pain. But I saw her when she put aside pretenses, letting herself feel all her exhaustion and pain.
So I often say to people that when I walked in and found her I feel like I was Elisha. In the classic story in the books of Kings, when it is time for Elijah to pass into the next world he does not die but is swept up to heaven in a fiery chariot. His good friend whom he mentored, Elisha, walks alongside him. He will not leave his side, knowing it is Elijah’s time to pass. And when it happens, a pile of Elijah’s clothes – or at least his mantle he wore around his shoulders like a preacher wears a stole over her robe – was left behind, laying in front of Elisha. Elisha took the mantle as a sign that he would continue on Elijah’s legacy and felt in doing so the spirit and energy of Elijah’s work continued in him.
I do not believe this story is literally true. I do not believe a real fiery chariot came down from the sky and truly lifted this prophet man into some place in the atmosphere where he continued to exist and, with the right telescopes, we might discover him today. I think instead it is a symbolic representation of what happens for holy people as they pass. Our bodies are like Elijah’s clothes and mantle. There comes a point when our spirits are so full this world and our bodies can contain them no longer. And like a surfer off the California coast, we ride the rising tide of undying life that flows through such a full soul, straight out of our bodies as if on fiery chariot, into the next world that is larger and deeper, a world ready for such fullness.
I feel this is what happened to my late dear wife. For though outwardly she was crushed, crushed in ways that it still brings me to tears to remember, yet such fullness of heart, depth of love, and compassion I have not seen in anyone as I saw in her. She loved in a way that was so amazing I wonder if ever I will find such a love again. Her commitment to the beautiful things which made her life radiate joy, care, compassion never wavered but was strengthened. And ultimately I walked in to find her body, put aside like abandoned clothes, with her deepest self already ushered like Elijah upon some fiery chariot into the next world, a world where she could now express all of her inner beauty without having her body become a barrier, a weight, that held her back any longer.
I feel I see this all the time in my work as a hospice chaplain. I sit with people who truly do find themselves discovering deeper reserves of love, creativity, and compassion. Who find ways to let their pain, struggle, loss, trauma, open themselves up to others, to God. Though outwardly crushed, they are renewed every day.
I see the heartache they and others face as it is as if their bodies betray them. They reach a point where the depth of who they are is no longer expressed in these worn down bodies, and they long not to be unclothed – without expression, gone and forgotten – but to be further clothed: able to enter into a life in which they can be fully themselves. Having stood at the bedside praying the prayers for the dying and holding families’ hands while such ones pass to the next world, I can say I have a deep sense that these truly to enter into another world in which they can be fully themselves. So often in fact family members later share of experiences where they felt this person appeared to them in a vision or a dream, among other ways, and let them know “I am at peace. I am in joy. My suffering is over. I have a new life in the next world”.
I close with a poem I wrote some years ago, on the death of a dear friend, with whom I had just such experiences, which confirmed to me that though they had spent many years losing bits of themselves physically, dying suddenly far too young, that they now had entered a life more fully their own, through passing into the next world. May its words inspire you to see and know there is hope for you and all you love not just in this world but the next.
Your progressive redneck preacher,
On Golden Streets
The last time
I saw you
a kaleidoscope of color
was it you I saw
or some phantasmic vision
of my desperate mind?
My heart knows.
Has always known.
Finally I saw you that day
as you’ve always said
in your dreams.
As you have always been
though too few saw it.
Your crumpled form
I had been told fell lifeless,
and without warning
like some rag doll dropped
by an untidy and careless child
was such no longer,
but now you stood alive
more alive than ever.
You stood almost three inches taller that day.
But, how can I call it standing?
Your feet were ever moving
your body swaying like a ballerina.
You were dancing,
moving as always
to music you alone could hear,
dancing upon that marble altar
as if it was transfigured into some disco-balled club,
and no longer the altar before which cold preachers droned on
like the foghorns of Fort Fisher
mournful in the mist
announcing the coming of the night.
Your laughter chimed out its own song,
a thousand hand-bell choirs
in joyful unison
cheerfully echoing on the tin roof of my soul
like summer rain on my old home,
drowning out those other more ghostly voices.
I could have sworn this brilliant form
all crutches and wheelchairs laid aside
and you giggled
whispering of joys
that mournful company could not dream of.
Another secret you whispered
like the many we shared
as friends so long ago.
You were a gift to me, dear one,
a friend and big sister
when friends fled
and my own big sister forgot me.
Know you are never forgotten.
I can still remember our late night talks
stories and jokes
singing in my Chevy Sprint
en route to each visit our youthful loves,
and the whispered stories
we both shared of our romantic endeavors
Nor can I ever forget
the wonder of
seeing in you
a person more alive
than I’d ever known,
never worried what the world would say
free to be herself.
Dance on, bright spirit.
And one bright morning I shall don my dancing shoes
and join you in moving again
to the music of the spheres.
Dance on, bright spirit, dance on!