On Living Close to Death

I am re-posting these reflections on John 12:1-11 in honor of my father, David Harader, who died three years ago today. This piece is a distillation of the sermon I preached on the Sunday after Dad’s funeral–which was apparently the fifth Sunday of Lent.


“Six days before Passover.”
Probably a couple of months–though only one chapter–after Lazarus was dead, and then not dead.
Only seven days–and seven chapters–before the crucifixion.
“Six days before Passover.” Wedged between resurrection and death.

“Jesus came to Bethany.”
Just north of Bethlehem and that legendary manger.
Just east of Jerusalem and that infamous cross.
“Jesus came to Bethany.” Wedged between his birth and his death.

It must have been a tense time and a holy time around that table in Bethany, six days before Passover.
Because the Holy Presence hovers in these liminal spaces, these in-betweens, these thresholds separating life and death.

The morning my dad went into Hospice–the day before he died–he told me:
“I am with God. As long as you are with God, we are together.”
“I am with God.”
But he didn’t mean it that way. That easy way that we mean when we say, “God be with you.”
He meant that he was really, deeply, already–though not quite yet–fully with God.
I’ve had many holy experiences in my life, and I have never known God to be so thick and terrifying and real around me as in that moment.

I can only imagine that God was present around the table in the home of Mary and Martha and Lazarus that night. Present in this same intense and disorienting way.
Because like my dad’s bedside, that table was a place wedged between life and death.
A threshold where you want to linger. Unsatisfied with what has been. Afraid of what will be.
Yes, Lazarus is alive. But he has been dead. Wrapped, buried, stinking dead. And because he has been dead, Mary and Martha are acutely aware that he can and will be dead again. Ashes to ashes. Dust to dust. . . . Yes indeed.

And then Jesus shows up with his followers–only one and a half miles from Jerusalem,
where there is a warrant out for his arrest.
Where there are armed soldiers looking for him.
Where guards carry whips.
Where the vertical beams of crosses already rise from the ground of Golgotha–the “Place of the Skull”–waiting for the condemned who haul their own crossbeams.

Jesus certainly seems to know that his journey into Jerusalem will end (initially) with his death.
Mary and Martha and Lazarus must have a pretty good idea where this is headed–if they will let themselves know it.Their friend, their teacher, their Lord, Jesus, is, as they say, not long for this world. Ashes to ashes, dust to dust. Yes.

And so this meal becomes a sort of death bed scene. Infused with the energy of life, the energy of death.
Revealing the hearts of those who surround Jesus.
And it is beautiful.

We usually focus on Mary-the sharp scent of her nard, the caress of her long silky hair.
It’s easy to miss the second part of the second verse: “Martha served, while Lazarus was among those reclining at the table with Jesus.”
All three siblings are doing what should be done on that threshold between life and death.
Six days before Passover. A mile and a half from Jerusalem.
In serving, relaxing, anointing, each one is doing what needs done; they are being present in the moment. They are willing to stay right there with Jesus in that intense, God-thick, death-echoing, life-pulsing place.

It is only Judas who tries to get away. Judas who says, “Why didn’t Mary sell that expensive perfume so we could give the money to the poor?”
“Oh,” says Jesus, “You always have the poor with you, but you do not always have me.”

Even those who hadn’t yet accepted the fact of Jesus’ impending death could not escape the sharp, minty scent of the oil as Mary anointed Jesus for his burial.

Even my 8-year-old daughter knew the closeness of death as she clung to her grandfather’s hand in the hospice room.

Sometimes we know how close death is.
Because the warrant is out and the cross posts are set.
Because the tests have come back and the diagnosis is in.

Sometimes we know, and in those moments–those frightening and holy moments, it can be easy to focus on the person in front of us.Easy to let other things go as we massage the feet, wipe the brow, of the person we love.

Sometimes, though, we don’t know.
God is more hidden. The smell of death is not in the air.

Yet still, we live always wedged between the temporal and the eternal.
Any moment could be a threshold between life and death.
Any moment could be that holy ground.
And because it could be, it is. Holy. Every moment. Amen.


Reflection for All Saints Day

My dad, saint of my life, who would be really excited about the Royals going to the World Series.
My dad, saint of my life, who would be really excited about the Royals going to the World Series.

The Lectionary readings for All Saints Day and All Souls day include lovely words and images of God’s care for us and the Divine promise of eternal life:

  • The Lord is my Shepherd, I shall not want.”

  • “God will swallow up death forever.”

  • Death will be no more. Mourning and crying and pain will be no more.”

  • If we have died with Christ, we believe we will also live with him.”

  • I am the resurrection and the life.”

In the face of death, these are the promises we cling to as Christian people. And they are good promises. True promises.

And, to be quite honest, annoying promises to have repeated to you over and over and over again when you are in the midst of deep grief.

Maybe my situation was a little different from most. Maybe because my dad was a pastor and my mom is a pastor and I am a pastor people felt like they had to quote all of these eternal life Bible verses to us when dad was dying in the hospital. And after.

It’s not that I didn’t want to hear these words of hope and promise. I did. I still do. I need these words in order to breathe sometimes.

It’s just that these are not the only words I wanted to hear. A basic internet Bible search will bring up passage after passage about people grieving. (Genesis 23:1-2; 37:32-35; 50:7-11; Exodus 34:5-8; 2 Samuel 18:33; John 11:17, 20-36) Abraham mourning for Sarah. Jacob bewailing Joseph’s blood-splattered robe. Joseph mourning Jacob. The Israelites weeping for Moses. And, of course, David’s heart-wrenching cry over his son. A cry that must resonate in the heart of any parent who has experienced the death of a child: “O my son, my son. Would I had died instead of you.”

Because even with the promise of eternal life, death is horrible and hard. And the enactment of grief is a faithful response. Wailing, weeping, tearing clothes, traveling, burial.

We also have this beautiful story of Lazarus’ death and Jesus’ response. This story from John 11 contains what is arguably the most popular memory verse of all time: “Jesus wept.” It’s popularity as a memory verse stems, no doubt, from its length. But I love this verse for its depth.

Jesus weeps at Lazarus’ death. Even though Jesus has just told Martha that he is the resurrection and the life. Even though Jesus surely knows better than anyone that the promises of God are true. Even though Jesus is getting ready to raise Lazarus from the tomb. Still Jesus weeps.

And the people watching say, “See how he loved him!”

Our grief does not mean that our faith is weak. It means that our love is strong.

And that love, and the tears, and the promises to which we cling are all part of the flickering flame that lights our way.

Some more for all Saints Day:

Call to Worship
Sermon on Revelation 21:1-6
Call to Worship and Reflection

Sestina for Dad

Today is your birthday–
or was. I don’t know
what it is now that you
are dead–just a shadow
to remind us that last year
we gave you tickets

to a KU game–tickets
for you and Matt to celebrate the day;
a festive end to a pretty good year.
We didn’t know
how near to valley of the shadow
we were. “Happy birthday to you!”

Without a hint of foreboding we sang: “Happy birthday to you!”
and were proud of the tickets
we presented. Oblivious to the shadows
gathering. I was the sick one that day,
and I let everyone know
how unfair it was that I had to start the new year

with the stomach flu–give up my once-a-year
romantic getaway reservations to you
and Mom. “Who knows,”
I moaned, “when I will ever get away.” So KU tickets
and a little vacation–not a bad birthday.
Please know that the shadow

of resentment I felt then–that shadow
of disappointment at missing a yearly
pleasure–burst into light and tears the day
I realized that you
and Matt would not use any tickets,
you and Mom would not visit any bed and breakfasts together again. I know

this realization was as cliche as it was heartbreaking. I know
this day–your birthday–will always be shadow:
like Christmas, anniversaries, KU basketball tickets,
like every New Year–
just three days from the day you
were born; just seventy days from the day

you–well, you know–
from the day you quit caring about any tickets,
from the day that began these years of glorious shadow.


Holy Communion

8885024392My family shared communion bread in my father’s hospice room before he died. We blessed it, broke it, and ate it. My mom caught a few medical professionals off guard by holding the loaf out to them when they came into the room to check Dad’s blood pressure or give him his medications.

But all awkwardness aside, it was a beautiful thing to share this ritual with my dad one last time. . . . Except that Dad was past eating, even something as small and perfect as a piece of holy bread. So my mom tore off a piece for him and laid it on the pillow near his mouth.

As he took his final breaths–those breaths that are ragged and uneven, those breaths that make you count the seconds between them–I imagined that small piece of Jesus’ body filtering the air. As Dad drew air into his failing body, as his lungs struggled to push air out, it flowed through the blessed and broken bread.

That bread remained there when Dad died, on the pillow next to his beloved face–small and white and still.

This final image of my father is a painful blessing. It comes unbidden each time I speak the words, “This is my body,” each time I offer the loaf to those who can still take and eat.

For me, the phrase “communion of saints” used to conjure up vague images of sparkling lights scattered out there, somewhere–kind of like stars, but less specific, less real. Now the “communion of saints” is that hospice room. Too specific. Too real.

It is the gummy bread in my mouth, the labored chewing, the effort of my tongue and throat muscles as I swallow. It is holding hands with my brother and my husband, scrunching down and twisting my head to wipe the tears on the sleeve of my sweatshirt. It is watching my mom lead this ritual as both faithful pastor and grieving wife, somehow standing strong and collapsing all at once.

It’s a painful blessing–every time there is a loaf of communion bread, I am in the hospice room with my father again. I realize that I never saw anyone take that torn-off piece of bread away. And so it will always be there, on the pillow, next to Dad. It will always be there, holy and broken and unconsumed.

Fatherless Fathers’ Day

May 2004 013A few weeks ago, my Facebook pages and blog feed were abuzz with discussions about impending Mothers’ Day worship services. Most of the posts said essentially the same thing: Remember that Mothers’ Day is hard for many people. It’s hard for women who have chosen not to be mothers and women who want to be mothers but aren’t; it’s hard for people who have difficult relationships with their mothers and for people whose mothers have died. People were posting personal essays and sensitive Mothers’ Day prayers. Post after post after post about motherhood.

And now, this week before Fathers’ Day–nothing. My virtual world is surprisingly silent on the topic. But my physical world, inside my own head, it’s quite noisy.

This will be my first fatherless Fathers’ Day. That’s how I’ve been thinking of it. The first Fathers’ Day since my dad died on March 7. The first Fathers’ Day that I can’t mail a card to wherever it is he is living now. (Not to say it will be the first that I haven’t mailed a card.)

There will be no plotting with my brother about a gift. No Sunday afternoon phone call so all the kids can shout “Happy Fathers’ Day” across the line. Just silence. Or, more likely, a much less exuberant phone call to my mom.

My first fatherless Fathers’ Day.

Except it’s not. Because I have had and always will have a father. Actually, a dad. (I NEVER referred to him as “my father” until he died. What’s up with that?)

Just because my dad has died does not mean I don’t have him any more. I have him–sometimes more of him than I want, but usually just enough. The man he was has shaped who I am–who I continue to be. Changing circumstances don’t change our essence. Or, as Dad liked to say, “Wherever you go, there you are.”

So here I am. Facing this upcoming Fathers’ Day with dread and with gratitude.

Dread because I know that I will feel my grief deeply that day. I will be sad. Very sad.

Gratitude because I have a father that I miss. Not everyone can say that.

My friend’s father died several months before mine, and her grief is very different. She grieves because her father never overcame his alcoholism. Was never able to be the father or grandfather that she wanted him to be. She grieves because she never had a warm and loving relationship with him. And now that he has died, her hope for his healing–for their healing–has died with him.

And so, in the midst of mourning, I acknowledge that my particular grief–the grief of missing a wonderful father–is it’s own distinct blessing. Even as the tears flow, I continue to receive the gift of being my dad’s daughter.

New Years Eve 2003 029

Here are links to previous posts about my dad’s illness and death:

Psalm 63 Call to Worship–from the hospital
Why the Silence–includes the poem I wrote for Dad’s funeral
Praying through Grief–the doodle prayer from Dad’s hospital stay
On Living Close to Death–a Lenten sermon focusing on Jesus’ meal with Mary, Martha, and Lazarus
Holy Week–on why I am canceling Lent next year
Attending Death–my Good Friday post at Practicing Families
Living with “Desire”–and despair


Living with “Desire”

IMG_2358On Epiphany, fellow pastor and blogger Marci Glass was giving out star words–words to hold and ponder and listen to in the coming year.

My word is desiring. And it has woven its way through these past five months with glitters and shimmers and quavers and shouts and sighs too deep for words.

The good Christian girl–the Mennonite–in me was suspicious of this word from the beginning. Isn’t desire something that just gets us in trouble? It leads to unplanned pregnancies and obesity and credit card debt and any number of other evils.

Yet as I wrote this word out on a sparkly yellow star and rolled it around in my mind and heart, it began to shine a little. To seem less scary. To feel a bit like permission.

If “desiring” is my star word, my spiritual guide for the coming months, then surely my desiring is of God. Surely my desires are not wicked, but are God-given, grace-filled. I began to think more about what I did desire, and how my desiring was part of God’s broader desires for the world.

And then, at the end of February, my dad went into the hospital. All of my lovely, spiritually enlightened ponderings about desire were overwhelmed by the one, intense, unbearable desire that my dad be made well.

At first, this was a desire for a diagnosis. I thought that if we could just name his disease, they could make Dad better.

I was wrong.

When I got what I desired, I didn’t want it after all. Because the diagnosis was aggressive killer cell leukemia/lymphoma. It was a death sentence. And my deepest desire was for my dad to not die. For him to not be in the hospital with oxygen flowing into his nose through tubes, barely able to talk, having to call in a nurse to help every time he had to urinate.

If you have ever desired something impossible, you know how it feels. Like your soul is banging itself against a brick wall. And the wall doesn’t give. And your soul won’t stop. Every time it flings itself it just hurts worse because it’s already so battered and bruised.

Despair–that’s probably what you’d call it. I assume that Marci didn’t give anyone “despair” as their star word. Because it’s not a star. It’s a shadow–the shadow side of desire. When desire sucks you into a black hole of hopelessness.

The tendency, I think, is to save ourselves from despair by moderating desire. By trying not to want anything too much. This is certainly not a way to live life to the fullest, but it can work in staving off despair–until it doesn’t.

We fall in love. We get sick. We watch someone we love waste away. And the desire sparks and burns into despair.

Then what?

In my dad’s hospice room, there was a moment . . . When he didn’t have the energy to speak. When his breathing was labored, hollow. When we knew the disease was poisoning his whole body. When his children, wife, grandchildren were gathered around him and the Hallelujah chorus was playing. There was a moment when my deep desire shifted and I desired, for him, his release from that broken, breaking body.

A shift in desire. To desire something we don’t really want–something painful in its goodness, heart-wrenching in its holiness. Is that a form of grace?

. . .

I have more to say about the twinkling of the desire star in my life this year. Those words will come later. I need to sit with these words for awhile.

Thoughts on Revelation 21:1-6

'The Vision of the New Heaven and the New Earth...' photo (c) 2013, Sharon - license: http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-nd/2.0/[Below is an excerpt from a sermon I preached on All Saints’ Day a few years ago.]

This vision John gives us is a beautiful vision. A necessary vision. It is a vision that Christians have clung to through persecution and war and slavery and untold numbers of personal sorrows and tragedies.

“And I saw the holy city, the new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God.”

We tend to think of eternal life with God as completely other than what we experience now. That when we die our souls somehow fly away . . . up there . . . to another place, another mode of time, another reality. That our flawed earthly existence will be erased, replaced with heavenly life.

But that is not John’s vision in the book of Revelation. John’s vision is of the new earth and new heaven. If we believe John’s revelation, we believe that this earth—God’s magnificent creation, our bittersweet home—does not need to be removed. It needs to be redeemed and transformed.

People are not whisked up into some other place in the sky. The new Jerusalem comes down. This Jerusalem is not the same violent, greed-filled place that it had been. But it is still Jerusalem.

As I’ve been reading this passage, I’ve been thinking about this idea of a transformed reality as opposed to a removed and replaced reality. And I’ve been thinking that what we believe about the end times, about the afterlife, may have more bearing on our call to follow Jesus than I had previously thought.

Transformation versus removal.

We see the tendency toward removal in our penal system: the continued use of the death penalty; the scarcity of programs that work toward transforming the lives of the prisoners. But there are people of faith stepping in and offering the alternative of redemption and transformation.

Transformation versus removal.

Watch these ideas battle in our foreign policy and our national security efforts. Our efforts to remove terrorism seem basically to have increased animosity toward the United States. What would happen if, instead of trying to defeat terrorists, we worked to redeem and transform them? I don’t know. Most people would probably dismiss the suggestion as naïve.

Transformation versus removal.

A friend passed on a great article to me about a woman whose husband tried to leave her. He told her that he didn’t love her anymore and he wanted a divorce. She told him that she didn’t believe him and wouldn’t give him a divorce. He wanted to remove himself from the life he had. She insisted on transforming it. The transformation wasn’t easy. But eventually the husband came back to the family. And the marriage was transformed.

Of course, it might not have been. The husband could have decided to move to Cancun and never see his wife or children again.

And I think that is the crux of why we—as a society—seem to favor removal over transformation. We can control the removal. It might not give us the best result, but we can control it. We can abandon the relationship. We can administer the lethal injection. We can drop the bombs.

Transformation, on the other hand, is ultimately the work of God. We can work towards it. We can facilitate it. But we cannot make it happen.

Sometimes our efforts will succeed. Sometimes our efforts will fail.

Always we have God’s promise of a new heaven and a new earth. We can rest in the knowledge that God is the Alpha and the Omega. God was at the beginning. God will be at the end. And God is with us now. God’s home is among mortals. God dwells with us as our God, and we can live joyfully as God’s people.

God’s promises are for this life. And God’s promises of transformation are also for the life to come. Thanks be to God.

*Also, for folks working on services for Easter 5C, I posted some family worship ideas based around Psalm 148 over at Practicing Families earlier this week.