Monday, December 31, 2012

I want to be present at my funeral

I want to be present at my funeral. Rather, I want my body to be present even if it is cremated later. Today at many funeral services everyone is present but the deceased person.

As I watched news clips of funerals of Sandy Hook young school  children deliberately shot recently, I noticed the small coffins carried lovingly, gently, to the cemeteries. Their funeral services had the bodies present.

Were any of these small bodies  buried or cremated first and the service held later?  I don’t know but I doubt it.  

Today funeral services, or memorial services as they are called,  are often held without the body. Only a few photos, maybe a video of the person’s life and other mementos,  sometimes anecdotes, represent the “dearly departed” person.   It’s a celebration of life, not death, we’re told.So the body is buried first with just a few people present and the services held later, sometimes weeks later.

Yet such a service is impoverished without the body.  Bodies matter, even in death, at funeral services.

Sometime in the 1970s I visited India for an extended period.  At one stop we  were told on arrival that the infant daughter of one of the seminary  teachers had died.  In that hot country burial always takes place within 24 hours.

My hostess and a few of us went to the home where the body of the tiny infant was laid out on a bed bedecked with flowers.  Friends and family would spend the night here drinking tea, praying and singing.

The next morning, very early, we headed for the chapel for the funeral service. A tiny white coffin stood before the altar.  After the service, the entire congregation headed slowly for the cemetery about a quarter of a mile away.  At the head of the procession several men carried the precious little burden, followed by the immediate family of mourners,  singing hymns of faith and trust. The memory of that long line winding up the hill, women in beautifully colored saris, will never leave me. The body of Christ was upholding the body of one of their members.

Funerals should make a theological statement about life and death. But I don't mean a high-powered evangelistic  sermon.  These people had supported this  young family in life. Now they were performing the final task  for them in death  --- carrying the body  to its final resting place and together stating that life is a journey toward God and we make this journey together as believers in Christ.  Bearing the body is evidence of the church in action. 

I have another memory of a funeral procession that took place here in Wichita about six years ago.  My son’s father-in-law, Preston Huston,  had died. At the cemetery the pallbearers, six young adult grandchildren, including three girls,  carried the heavy coffin from the hearse to the burial spot.  They staggered slightly before they found their balance.  In life Grandpa Huston had supported them in many ways.  In death, they were now carrying his body.   The symbolism was strong.

Today funeral services, often divorced from the body, are a showy, sometimes expensive feel-good service for mourners – to help them get over it and get on with living. To get on with it is today’s mantra.  Yet mourning is a process, sometimes a long one, and it begins with saying good-bye to the body as well as the spirit of the person.

Death, the great enemy,   is much more than a medical failure or biological ending to a life.  It is not just  a blip on the screen  of life highlighted  by a video clip. It is an autobiographical event, especially in the life of believers  – a journey  onward to God and eternity.

Yes, I want my body to be present at my funeral.

Thursday, December 13, 2012

A story is nothing but a big hug

Why tell a story? 

The answer  became clear to me once again this morning as I read Frederick Buechner’s words: “My story is important not because it is mine, . . . . but because if I tell it anything like right, the chances are you will recognize that in many ways it is also yours.”  

Yesterday in church a couple of people commented on my recent essay published in Mennonite World Review: “Christmas: Season of Courage.”  When  people like a piece of writing it is usually because they identify with the stories in some way. Their circumstances may have been quite different from mine, but the emotions are the same. And that is why they like the stories.  Someone is telling their story.  And they recognize it. 

I treasured my father’s stories while growing up.  He told stories about his experiences in World War I in the Russian medical corps. He knew the loneliness of being away from home in the huge city of Moscow as a young army soldier for the first time. 

He also told about the deaths of his father, grandparents and an uncle in two quick weeks because of typhus and famine.  He learned of the inhumanity of man to man when he was desperate for help to bury these four bodies. 

I realize now he was trying to make sense of the atrocities and absurdities of the horrible violence he had been witnessing daily by talking about them. 

I treasured each story not because I had experienced war horrors  but because I have experienced the same emotions--the same aching emptiness after the  death of a family member, the  same desperate despair when the family purse kept getting emptier and emptier, the  same strange exultant peace in the soul at arriving at a spiritual decision. 

I think that is why I wait for a story, a personal story, when I listen to a sermon—I am looking for inspiration, not just more abstract terminology and vague generalities. I am waiting for the preacher to tell my story.

In story-telling the listener learns that hope is always hope, forgiveness is always forgiveness, courage is always courage.  And even if he or she can’t quite articulate this vague  understanding,  identification takes place. “I am also that person in the story.” 

This Christmas interest will once again migrate to new electronic equipment like  smart phones, computer   software,  digital cameras, bigger TVs and much more.  I find it hard to talk about such items because I know too little about them. I feel  like a rabbit in a fish pond. I don’t migrate willingly to discussion about such items. 

Since I live alone and don’t go out much anymore, I spend much time thinking about the past – retrieving the stories of my life.   These elusive events flit back into my mind like butterflies on the wing, begging to be remembered.  Other times they’re like wild boars, grunting “Remember me?” But they want to be brought to life, to be retrieved by someone. They are demanding to be told.

I like to tell stories about my life because that is what I know best.   I like to give away my stories because then they become a shared experience. 

What people my age have to offer in terms of wisdom, experience, and stories seems almost quaint when compared to passing on information about which is the best electronic  game to buy.

In  Michener’s Hawaii, the native children memorized their family tree, back eighty generations, and learned the stories of those generations. It was the life-blood being passed down generation to generation. DNA, if you  will.

I see stories as a way of embracing another person or group – even a congregation.  They tell the listener: “I trust you with this story about my life.”  

In this hug-happy society, I advocate we pass along more stories. Hug someone with a real story today.

Monday, November 26, 2012

What I don't want for Christmas

Although it seems early for anyone but eager children, over-eager shoppers, and already-weary  program planners  to think seriously  about Christmas, I would like to present what I call my Christmas non-gift list.  These are the things I don’t want for Christmas. 

First, I don’t want  less commercialization at Christmas.  I have come to see buying and selling as a normal condition of our society. Like death and taxes, it will always be with us.  The babyinfant Jesus was born into a very commercial world. His adult ministry was performed in the midst of rank commercialism. 

He watched the temple abused by the money changers. He ejected a legion of devils from the man of the Gadarenes and sent them into a herd of swine. He was much aware that the village people were more concerned about their financial loss than the healing of the man.  Jesus did not run away from commercialism or merely decry it.

I don’t  want less commercialism, but I do want to know when its power is controlling my soul.   I want the courage to resist the pressure to make endless card lists, gift lists, food lists, clothes lists, and activity lists more important than people and their needs.  The latter was Jesus’ concern.

Second, I don’t want the mystery of God demystified. I don’t want the mystery of God incarnate reduced to a simple mathematical equation so that I can feed the data into a giant computer to find out why God  loves sinful humanity, how God works in an individual’s life to bring awareness of forgiveness, or even why a person hungers to know God better.

I do not deny the longing that overcomes a person to reach out into the darkness to feel that God has skin or to hear an audible voice—to prove he is real by my  senses. Yet to have the revelation of God completely analyzed and reduced to concrete terms would bring the meeting of God and humanity to the level of an encounter with the grocery checkout person.

Within each of us is a constant pressure to analyze and systematize what we cannot fully understand.  Some preachers can’t resist hammering the great truths of the Scripture into three-point alliterative sermons or simple propositions, although I admit that sometimes they help.

The great sweep of God’s relationship to humanity  from Genesis to Revelations is sliced  into dispensations. The experience of  Spirit of Christ’s indwelling the believers becomes a complicated diagram with circles and thrones and dots and arrows. Christ’s return shows up as a complicated chart with lines and curves.

All these may have their place at some time, yet to be able to systematize, organize, put into order, gives me a sense of power and control, whether it is a Christmas shopping list or God’s revelation to humanity. To systematize means control. 

This Christmas I want to stand in awe and wonder with the shepherds and wise men at the glory of the God coming to earth in the form of a baby. I  want to experience with Isaiah “the Lord high and lifted up,”  very high up, higher than I can understand.
To demystify God is to do away with faith and worship and turn humanity into totally mechanical beings.

Third, I don’t want things seen to become the evidence of things not seen. In Hebrews 11 the apostle Paul writes that our faith-life is to be the evidence of the supernatural world – the things we cannot see with the physical eye. By faith we are to believe in Christ as Savior of the world.  By faith we are to believe in his power to work through us.

I do not want jeweled crosses or lapel pins, badges and buttons, mottoes and posters, bumper stickers and banners, resolutions and church constitutions to become the evidence of the Christ-life. 

Instead, this Christmas I pray that a cup of cold water for a thirsty person,   visiting an hour  with a lonely older person,  the gift of a coat, peace where there is bloodshed and bombing,  may be more clearly the “evidence of things not seen.”

Finally, this Christmas, in my 88th year, I do not want an end to questioning. I realize that often a person’s faith is judged valid to the extent that he or she  accepts all ecclesiastical pronouncements without embarrassing questions. Too often a probing person makes others uncomfortable and is labeled “unspiritual” and out of order. 

I believe we need more questioning about the church’s responsibility regarding racism, ageism, sexism, violence, and rank injustice of all kinds, not just about issues related to human sexuality. We need disturbing questions that rouse us out of our lethargy and a readiness to follow the Spirit’s leading in the answers.

Here ends my non-list. Blessed Christmas to all. 

Friday, November 9, 2012

Entering the Wild with Jean Janzen

In the spacious hallway of Jean Janzen’s home in Fresno hangs a large painting, life-size but  looks larger, of her paternal family:  Mother and father sitting tall and straight with seven children surrounding them.  Overlaid with gold, this portrait of this Russia-born  family takes on the feeling of an Orthodox icon. 

The son  standing at the back, strong and tall,  was the father my late husband Walter. The first time I saw the painting, I wanted to look and look  to fathom the thoughts of each member of this family group, now immortalized in this highly stylized painting. Who were they?  What were they thinking.  I only met two of the three oldest sons who found their way to America-- my father-in-law and one brother.

Jean and I didn’t connect until well after Walter’s death  and she and Louis were firmly entrenched in their sprawling Tudor house.   I spent many nights in this home enjoying the gracious hospitality and friendship of these relatives by marriage. By then Jean was well on her way to becoming a poet and I was discovering details of my husband’s family I hadn’t known during our short marriage about his family.

In her most recent book Entering the Wild, a compilation of essays about faith, family, and writing, Jean delves into the depths of her own life to identify the compulsions that turn life into the words  of poetry.

One after another, she offers possibilities for the origins of her growing body of poems.  Was it her father’s love of learning?  Possibly. 

Was it born during the period of isolation when husband Louis was deeply immersed in medical residency and she was left to her own resources? Could be. 

Was it marriage itself, which she terms “a mix of harvest and relinquishment”? 

It could have come from the crossover of her love for music (she was an accomplished pianist) to poetry.  Love of music was a key characteristic of the Wiebe family I learned to know.   Any time some of them gathered, before  long, they were gathered around the piano singing  hymns learned in childhood. 

Jean comes closer to answers when she first studied literature as a mature woman at the university and encountered  unforgettable poets like Emily Dickinson,  not hampered by restrictions  on language. Jean writes about her own  “slow release from piety,” from writing words expected of her to meet church specifications to be considered spiritual. 

Dickinson used ordinary experiences like encountering a bee on the prairie to create poems that have nourished  countless readers. She entered the wild to find  her voice.  Such poets and inspiring instructors urged Jean to also “enter the wilderness” that the creative life demands. 

But even that is not the whole answer to the origin of her poetry.

Jean found her true voice in family stories, better still, family secrets, one of which she learned about for the first time the day after her father’s death:  the suicide of her grandmother in the Russia,  a source of “sorrow and shame.”  

Out of that new awareness came the gripping  poem “These words are for  you, grandmother.”

I remember visiting with Wiebe family members shortly after this poem was read publicly and they were forced to deal with this secret now in the open.  The discussion at the family gathering was intense. Why bring this suicide up now when this shame had lain buried for some sixty or more years, probably in a grave outside the fence, as it was the custom decades ago. Suicides had no place in the graveyard proper. 

Yet Jean dug even  deeper into family stories,  visiting  the former USSR to meet with uncles and families to hear their painful stories of flight, forced labor, death by starvation, and much more during the Stalinist era.   

Her poetry comes out of  the “roar and silences” of life, she writes.  She holds stories of such times  in her memory and entrusts them to her words for others to savor. Her words are always picked with love, tenderness, and precision.   

Poetry is meant to be read and reread.  I keep thinking of the fast forward trend toward e-books.  Yet how can I hold an e-reader in my hands and turn again and again to poems I cherish to look for underlined phrasesBooks of poetry, like Jean Janzen’s, are meant to line shelves.  I want them to be there, always, with  personal penned  dedication to me, not in an  impersonal  hard, metallic  e-reader.