One of my clergypersons in the Columbia District is enduring an unusual burden. His wife’s parents have been ill. Saturday night the father died at home. The mother was in the hospital, and the family decided not to tell her until Sunday morning. In their tenuous broaching of the news with her, she interrupted them, “I know what’s going on. Jack’s dead. I felt it during the night.” Within a few hours she was gone, too. Eleven hours apart they met Jesus face to face. It’s a powerful example of the intuitive power of love in a good marriage, yet a tough grief for a family to bear. How do we handle such news? Where is our solace?
Overcome by the news trickling out of the middle and upper Atlantic regions of the U.S. and the broad swath of tragic effects from Hurricane Sandy, I think there’s a message for all who go through the trials of life. Here we are in an uncertain economy, a toss-up election season, and a society that has more non-religious people than people of faith. What is our message to a hurting world overcome by natural calamity and difficult choices? What is our message to Marcus Lattimore, University of South Carolina running back and faithful United Methodist, who has already endured one horrific knee injury and rehab last year only to have another disaster hit his other knee this past Saturday? How do we encourage this forlorn planet where so many bad things happen to good people?
First off we have to answer people’s “Why?” questions with a non-Rick Warren/Purpose-Driven response. We do not believe it is God’s purpose to harm God’s children. That would be child abuse! The Scriptures tell us that “every good and perfect gift comes from our Father in Heaven …” (James 1:17). Therefore, hurricanes, cancer, knee injuries, and economic disasters don’t come from God. Grace is what comes from God. Call the source of calamities whatever or whomever you will, but never say that it’s the God we have encountered in Jesus. Jesus enters our pain rather than causing it. He redeems our fallen faltering world. He works for good our mistaken freedom-caused dilemmas that have led us down the dark path of blaming God instead of the real culprits.
So today as I ponder my daughter’s continuing saga of a brain tumor, and my dismay at the world’s suffering, I will NOT go quietly into the dark abyss of hopeless fatalism that falsely claims that our God is the enemy. I will rather face this day and every day with the Christian Hope that life trumps death; God’s grace and strength are sufficient for every time of need; and I am one of God’s agents for redemption in every situation. I choose to remember God today!
I dare you to read Roberta Bondi’s Memories of God as a way to recall the ways of God in tough times. Her last chapter is especially helpful to me. It is entitled, “Memories of God: In the Communion of Saints.” In it she poignantly describes her Auntie Ree’s last days on earth and the struggle Roberta had with medical professionals about her aunt’s end-of-life decision. Her Aunt Ree was ready to die and refused further treatment. The healthcare professionals wanted to attempt some more heroic efforts. Unable to fend for herself, Roberta interceded on her aunt’s behalf. Her Auntie Ree was ready to leave the Church Militant and join the Church Triumphant. With Roberta’s successful intervention, the last doctor and nurse indignantly left the room. Roberta says that her aunt’s joy was overflowing at that point, not so much because of the absence of jabbing needles, but because, as Aunite Ree said to Roberta, “You have given me eternity, my darling.” She thanked Roberta over and over again for the gift of transition from one life to another.
All Hallow’s Eve is tomorrow, October 31, and my mind is swirling with memories. My mother was the best at finding the right houses to get the most Halloween candy. Every year the car would be filled with ghoul and goblin dressed kids who wanted a chance to ride on my mother’s treasure-filled route. She made me a popular kid! I miss her greatly. She was so full of love and gave it so freely.
Bondi’s book comforts me because in 1993 after suffering a major stroke I hung on the side of Mother’s bed begging her to wake up and come back to us. I was selfish. I think that I got my wish because she was selfless and responded out of her love for us without a thought about herself. As usual! Unfortunately, she came back with only the faintest resemblance of her old self. She was so debilitated. She could only move one finger and smile just a bit and that was it. In her gift to us she allowed us a few short months to say goodbye and let her go. As she was finally dying, like Roberta Bondi’s Auntie Ree, you could see the response in Mother’s eyes, “You have given me eternity, my darlings.”
As Halloween approaches and I think of Mother I find great comfort in the Apostles’ Creed. In it we say that we believe in the “Communion of Saints.” What does it mean? Very few of the classes that I had in seminary discussed it, so I naturally assumed it had something to do with Holy Communion, the Lord’s Supper. It’s not that it doesn’t in a tangential way, but the creed speaks of a communion that goes well beyond the tremendum mysterium of a regular Communion service. It really wasn’t until my parents died that a study of eschatology gave me a proper grip on the subject.
The “Communion of Saints” is all about eschatology. Eschatology is literally “a study of last things.” So, when we say that we believe in the “Communion of Saints” we’re saying that we believe that there is some sort of mystical interaction, call it influence, memory, or inward impression that occurs between the saints in heaven and those on earth – an intersection of this life and the after-life. Saints on earth are called the Church Militant because we’re still struggling through life. The saints in heaven are called The Church Triumphant because they have overcome. Though dead, they are yet alive and continue to influence and inspire us to greatness.
They cannot see the bad things that we do. That wouldn’t be heaven, would it? I cherish the hope that just as much as I can feel my mother and father’s cheerleading presence, somehow, they, too, can know the good things that happen in my life. If they can see the good that I do, I am inspired to do all the more. Therefore, the “Communion of Saints” is a wonderful basis for inspiration and hope. It evokes the image of the family table reunited, loves ones living eternally, the cross-generational transmission of positive influence, and the circle unbroken.
Robert Benton’s Academy Award-winning film “Places in the Heart” captures this motif better than I can say it. The movie is a story of a young woman, played by Sally Field, widowed within the first few minutes of the film, struggling against all odds in a desolate corner of Texas during the 1930s. Her husband is killed and human vultures try to take away the only thing her husband has left her and her two small children – a small farm. The tapestry of Benton’s story is woven with every sin and hardship imaginable.
Then the film ends with a communion service. At first the camera shows you a few of the good folk in town. Next, the film reveals some of the not-so-good characters who have been part of the movie, like the banker and others who conspired to take away the farm. They’re all sitting together on the same pew, or in the same church. Suddenly the scene morphs into a visualization of the Communion of Saints. The camera continues to move with the cups of wine. There is the faithful African-American farmhand who helped bring in the crop so the widow might pay her mortgage; next to him, the blind boarder. The plate passes to the children, then to their mother. She is seated next to her late husband. As you are trying to take this in, the plate moves to the deceased young man who shot her husband. They commune, and each responds one to the other: “The peace of God.” All these folks, some dead and some alive, commune, and there’s peace!
This is more than a regular Sunday morning Communion service; this is the kingdom, eternity captured in time. The camera has given us a new look at life, the way Jesus said God looks at it. God has done something to enable everyone to come to the Table. The apostle Paul says it this way: “In Christ, God was reconciling us to himself, not counting our trespasses against us.” This is the Communion of Saints that we celebrate! This coming All Saints Day, Thursday, November 1, 2012, I will remember. Though the goblins of life attack and assail us in countless ways, I will not yield to despair. I will claim the Good News of Jesus Christ that God is love and love turns crosses into crowns. That is the story of Jack and Judy Lewis who died 11 hours apart. It is the message that the world needs desperately to hear on tough days. This is the only way for all the non-religious people to survive the Frankenstorms of life. In Jesus, the Wounded Healer, we can find hope and redemption.