A Communion Meditation delivered by The Rev. Timothy C. Ahrens, Sr. Minister, The First Congregational Church, United Church of Christ, Columbus, Ohio, Ordinary Time 13, July 2, 2006, dedicated to Ethan McCabe Grunkemeyer on his baptismal day and to all the members and friends of First Church who are battling cancer and other terminal illnesses and always to the Glory of God!
II Samuel 1:1, 17-27, Mark 5:21-43
II Samuel opens with David receiving news of King Saul's defeat and death in the battle with the Philistines. Saul has been slain along with his three sons—including Jonathan, David's closest friend. What follows in today's text are the deepest expressions of lament. David wails and moans in the depth of his pain and loss. He expresses anger about the death of Saul and Jonathan. He cries out that those who have died should never be forgotten. All of Israel must remember and celebrate their great contributions, forever. Finally, David calls upon the nation to mourn and grieve.
On the Sea of Galilee's western shores, Jesus faces the suffering and dying in Mark 5:21-43. Back from casting out Gentile demons across the lake, Jesus' return to the Jewish shoreline brings hordes of people to his side. While speaking with Jarius about his dying daughter, Jesus' robe is grabbed by a gravely ill woman who has suffered hemorrhages for 12 years. She is losing blood, losing life and losing hope as she grabs at Jesus—her last chance for healing. She is healed as she holds on for dear life. This healing intrusion happens while Jesus is listening to Jarius, whose daughter is clinging to the edge of life in a nearby village. Going with Jarius and four disciples, Jesus enters the synagogue leader's home and lifts the twelve year-old girl from her deathbed to walk in new life.
Loving laments for loss in the battles of life and raising those clinging to life in the battle to overcome sickness and death—today's texts bring us close to home this holiday weekend. Today in our church family members and friends are clinging to life, battling sickness at the edge of death, and raising a flag and a loving lament at the graves of their beloved, now gone. We have members engaged in battles with cancer and facing stem cell transplants. At this hour, Mae Johannes clings to life, hoping to pass over to the other side. Hoping for a miracle, you and I can relate to those who pray and battle for themselves or their loved ones to live and not to die. Hoping for peace at last, we can understand the bedside vigil with those who seek a heavenly reunion with Christ and their beloved now gone. Hoping for rest from the tears, you and I feel kinship with the ones who weep and wail, who are angry and lost, who desperately seek an end to the pain they feel in the loss of loved ones. There is perhaps, no pain, like that felt in death and loss, no sadness, no quiet beyond telling in missing the ones we love most in this world.
Joan Didion chronicles the first year of living beyond the sudden death of her husband John Gregory Dunne in her book The Year of Magical Thinking. The book opens with these words: "Life changes fast. Life changes in the instant. You sit down to dinner and life as you know it ends. The question of self pity." (Joan Didion, Alfred Knopf, New York, NY, 2005, p. 3). These were the first words this author of 12 books wrote nearly five months after the death of her husband. John died instantly while sitting at their dinner table on December 30, 2003, all this while having just returned from the hospital bedside of Quintana, their daughter, battling for life in a hospital nearby.
The Year of Magical Thinking follows Joan's journey through the first year without John, a year spent nursing daughter Quintana back into life. Didion writes her starkly personal story of the year beginning December 30, 2003 and ending on New Year's Eve, 2004. She writes of her "attempts to make sense of the weeks and then months that cut loose any fixed idea I ever had about death, about illness . . . about marriage and children and memory . . . about the shallowness of sanity, about life itself" (from the inside jacket cover).
Joan writes of grief's power to derange the mind and disturb the spirit. She notes that Freud wrote of this power in "Mourning and Melancholia." She comments, "We rely . . . on its being overcome after a certain lapse of time. We view any interference with it as useless and even harmful" (p.34). But, she notes, for those going through grief, this attitude simply drives them under cover. In her case, her irrational and disordered thinking became "covert." No one else noticed, for it was hidden from Joan at times. Nevertheless, in this year, her thinking was both urgent and constant. For example, she could not give away all of John's clothes. Why? Because in her heart of hearts, Joan believed he would be coming back. And when he returned, what would he wear? You see, in the year of magical thinking, Joan started her journey in deep denial of death—normal for every person who experiences death. Truthfully, only the details of this often covert operation of pain differ. We can relate to Joan. So many of us find ourselves unable to speak our grief aloud, fearing that those around us would judge us mentally ill. But, as noted by Melanie Klein in her 1940, Mourning and Its Relation to Manic-Depressive States, "The mourner is in fact ill, but because the state of mind is common and seems so natural to us, we do not call mourning an illness . . . " Klein continues, "To put my conclusion more precisely: I should say that in mourning the subject goes through a modified and transitory manic-depressive state and overcomes it" (p. 34).
We see our friends and family members in mourning and our expectation is that they will overcome it—that WE will overcome it. But, what does that really mean—we will overcome death? In speaking of the death of his mother, I once heard a teenager say, "I would go to her closet everyday hoping that, even as my memory of her was fading, I would be able to smell her perfume on the clothes she had last worn. I feared the day would come when I lost all sense of her presence."
We pray for simple sanity in the face of immeasurable losses. But, we may not find it. At least, we may not discover it for a while. While none of this makes sense to us, all of it makes sense to God. You know—the God who lost his son on the cross—and then in the pain of loss tears the curtain of the Temple in two! God knows we are suffering and sad. God also understands when we, like Jarius or the unnamed bleeding woman, grasp for life! We cling to Jesus. We hope beyond hope that he can postpone death or resurrect life on our behalf. When postponement or resurrection of our dead doesn't happen, we too often become cynical. We blame him, we walk away from him, we think him impotent and incompetent to be a Savior, let alone our Savior.
But, in the end, is this right? While we walk away from him, he constantly and consistently calls to us and approaches us. He appeals to us. His appeal to us when we take and eat the bread; when we take and drink the cup, is to remember him. That is all he asks of us—remember him. In this simple and splendid appeal, he makes no promises to end our spiritual hemorrhaging or raise us from the edge of death, or death itself. Instead, his promise is to remember us, to abide with us, to be present to us as we are present to him and one another. He loves us in our lament. In fact, in the end, that may be the best thing about him.
Come to the table. Come lamenting lovers. Bring your grieving hearts. Bring your mournful truths, your silent tears wrought through restless years. Come, bring your hopes and dreams in the face of death. Come, cling to the bread and the cup. Come, our Savior is present—once again. Amen.
The Benediction for the 11:00 a.m. service on July 2, 2006 was the following prayer. It was offered by Rev. Tim Ahrens with this introduction.
143 years ago today, our nation was engaged in one on the bloodiest battles in American history. The Battle of Gettysburg, where the armies of the North, under General Meade, and the South, under General Lee, met in a small hamlet in the hills of southern Pennsylvania, left 51,000 dead, and more than 100,000 casualties in three days of fighting from July 1st-3rd. On the body of one Confederate soldier killed on this day at Devil's Den was found this prayer. Our benediction:
A Christian Confederate Soldier's Prayer
I asked God for strength, that I might achieve.
I was made weak, that I might learn humbly to obey.
I asked for health, that I might do greater things.
I was given infirmity, that I might do better things.
I asked for riches, that I might be happy.
I was given poverty, that I might be wise.
I asked for power that I might have the praise of men.
I was given weakness, that I might feel the need of God.
I asked for all things, that I might enjoy life.
I was given life, that I might enjoy all things.
I got nothing that I asked for but got everything I had hoped for.
Almost despite myself, my unspoken prayers were answered.
I am, among all people, most richly blessed.
Copyright 2006, The First Congregational Church