Going home without my burden

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Some things are too close. Too personal. As Leonard Cohen put it in his songs Going Home and If It Be Your Will, my best friend over the past 55 years has “gone home without his burden, [gone] home behind the curtain without the costume that he wore.”

Wayne Granberry Boulton — click HERE for the obituary — died peacefully at home in Indianapolis under the tender care of the love of his life — his one and only wife — and their older son Matthew (Matt).

The costumes Wayne wore were academic (Duke Ph.D.) and ecclesiastical (McCormick Theological Seminary M.Div.) robes, but these costumes were faint glimpses into his underlying character.

Harry Strong, Vicki Boulton, Wayne Boulton, Gordon, Nadja Shoemaker, Steve Shoemaker (seated), Divide CO, 2006

Knowing the hospice drugs soon would ease him into wherever people go at the end of life, I visited Wayne and Vicki, Matt and Chris and all the Boulton family in Indianapolis two weeks ago. Wayne’s mind was still clear and sharp. His heart, which was always big, without ever being sloppy, was closer to his sleeve.

If it be your will
That I speak no more
And my voice be still
As it was before
I will speak no more
I shall abide until
I am spoken for
If it be your will [Leonard Cohen, If It Be Your Will]

“Hi, my name’s Wayne Boulton,” said the new roommate in 1964, where we had been assigned to Alumni Hall Room 312 by the housing office at McCormick Theological Seminary in Chicago. Although he had arrived hours before my key opened the door, he had not yet chosen which of the two beds, desks, and dressers would be his. That was the first clue that my roommate was un-selfish.

We were roommates for two years until he exchanged vows with Vicki in 1966. I was to be Wayne’s Best Man, but that was before the Chicago Chapter of the Experiment in International Living sent me packing to Czechoslovakia that summer, reducing my status to “would-have-been/ could-have-been/ should have been” Wayne’s Best-Man. When I returned to the States, Vicki had become the roommate to whom he had pledged his troth.

If it be your will
That a voice be true

Wayne’s word was his bond. He was loyal. Honoring his family and friends came second only to honoring the First Commandment to have no other gods but I AM. Wayne knew that we are covenantal creatures whose joy is found in steadfast love, a voice that is true to itself. Wayne did not sing of himself. Self-promotion was not his thing. Close to being fitted for the MBA costume of Northwestern University’s School of Business, he left the fitting room to prepare for a different robe in service to the church and the academy.

From this broken hill
All your praises they shall ring
If it be your will
To let me sing

It was during the Lafayette College choir concert at Westbury High School that Wayne and Vicki met. The love at first sight led to the births of Matthew and Christopher, and stayed fresh until there were no more costumes. What began with the twinkling of an eye ended the same way — with thanksgiving washed by tears.

Going home
Without my sorrow
Going home
Sometime tomorrow
Going home
where it’s better
Than before

No compassionate person would wish that a loved one with terminal pancreatic cancer continue to wear the patient’s costume. “I’m dying,” he wrote to the members of the wide circle of friends he had gathered. Former students, faculty colleagues, and neighbors in Holland, Michigan and in Richmond, Virginia;  members of the churches he’d served in Maryland, New Jersey, and Massachusetts, and the  latest friends in Indianapolis. He embraced the coming end of life, neither denying death’s finality nor betraying his deepest conviction: “in life and in death, we belong to God.”

Going home
Without my burden
Going home
Behind the curtain
Going home
Without this costume
That I wore. [Leonard Cohen]

The loss of of a best friend hits hard, no matter how much we expected it. “Hey, Roomie” was the way he began our phone calls. Choking through the tears on this side of the curtain, I give thanks that my roommate has “gone home/Without [his] burden/Behind the curtain/Without the costume/That [he] wore,” and pray against all my doubts, that some other strangers may be greeted the way I was:

“Hi, my name’s Wayne Boulton.”

Wayne wearing Chicago Dogs shirt in honor of seminary friends who call ourselves “The Dogs”

And draw us near
And bind us tight
All your children here
In their rags of light
In our rags of light
All dressed to kill
And end this night
If it be your will

If it be your will [Leonard Cohen, If It Be Your Will]

— Gordon C. Stewart, one four remaining Dogs “bound tight . . . . in our rags of light,” Chaska, MN, February 4, 2019.

Yes Mary. Everything Does. And Too Soon. Way Too Soon. (RIP)

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David Kanigan’s tribute to Mary Oliver arrived this morning while waiting for word of the end of a best friend’s life that will die too soon from pancreatic cancer. His family and friends are paying close attention, kneeling down in the grass for a holy rest and peace at the last.

— Gordon

Who made the world?
Who made the swan, and the black bear?
Who made the grasshopper?
This grasshopper, I mean-
the one who has flung herself out of the grass,
the one who is eating sugar out of my hand,
who is moving her jaws back and forth instead of up and down-
who is gazing around with her enormous and complicated eyes.
Now she lifts her pale forearms and thoroughly washes her face.
Now she snaps her wings open, and floats away.
I don’t know exactly what a prayer is.
I do know how to pay attention, how to fall down
into the grass, how to kneel down in the grass,
how to be idle and blessed, how to stroll through the fields,
which is what I have been doing all day.
Tell me, what else should I have done?
Doesn’t everything die at last, and too soon?
Tell…

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A Walk Down the Hall

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There are for most of us those rare moments that give definition to one’s life. Such singular moments cast a wider light on all the other moments on calendars and clocks.

These are moments of the heart that touch us deeply — like Sunday’s return to Cincinnati to preach the sermon for the ordination of David Annett who was a boy when I served as his pastor at Knox Church 25 years ago, and the Monday and Tuesday times with my best friend Wayne as he nears the end of life in Indianapolis. Jean-Paul Sartre’s words from Nausea were never far away:

“One is still what one is going to cease to be,
and already what one is going to become.
One lives one’s death, one dies one’s life.”

The friendship with Wayne began at McCormick Theological Seminary in Chicago where the housing director had assigned us to room together in Room 311 of Alumni Hall. No friendship has been longer or deeper since that day in 1964. We have lived our deaths together over the years, and now one of us is in hospice care dying his life. The visits last Monday and Tuesday were what they have always been: moments described by the old hymn “Blest be the ties that bind Our hearts in Christian love.”

Front row: Don. Back row: Harry, Wayne, Bob, and Gordon at Wrigley Field

Sometimes a singular moment of time reveals one’s continuing character. I cannot yet find the moment that would open the window into who Wayne is or what our friendship has meant over the years since we met in Room 311. Memory will open it when the time is right, as it did when David invited me to preach his ordination sermon.

Our life stories rise out of the meeting points when our separate journeys converge as a dramatic moment that feels like fiction. As I spiraled back to the 11 years with David here at Knox, a singular moment in time seemed to put a frame around who you have ceased to be but still are, David, and who you will become after we have prayed over you with the laying on of hands.

The day I’m remembering happened years ago. You were eight years-old the day I’m remembering. Your grandmother was dying, You asked me to take you to see you grandmother one last time. We drove to Mercy Hospital and talked about what it’s like to visit a hospital, what he was likely to see in preparation for David’s visit with his Grandma.

At the hospital, David punched the elevator button for Grandma’s floor. When the doors opened, we exited the elevator, and walked side=by-side down the long hall toward her room. As I recall, I had to slow you down! You marched down that hall like a soldier, brave and true, a soldier of love for you grandma. You went directly to your grandmother’s hospital bed and stood there, refusing to submit our culture’s denial of death. You didn’t run. You put your hand on her arm and stayed awhile in the silence. And, when you’d taken in the sober reality of it, you spoke the words you had come to say, “I love you, Grandma.” We offered a brief prayer by her bedside and walked back down the hall in the kind of silence that comes over you when you’ve said good-bye to a loved one.

I was so proud of you that day! That moment will stay etched in my memory so long as my memory lasts. I feel that same pride now as you become the pastor who takes a walk down the hall with the other Davids of this world — the children here at Knox and at Cranston Memorial, and their parents; and the Syrian, Yemeni, and Guatemalan children and parents who have been left to fend for themselves. That brave, compassionate walk down the hall that is behind you is the ministry before you. As your train makes the curve around the bend to ordained Minister of Word and Sacrament, the connections slowly emerge, and the way you’ve come is the way ahead. Long before today, David, you were already what you would become.

Excerpt from Ordination sermon, Knox Church, Cincinnati, OH 1/13/19


The Monday following David’s ordination, I drove two hours to Indianapolis, knowing it likely would be the last time with Wayne. But funny things happen on a walk down the hall to the room that soon will be empty. To my surprise, the one dying his life was more cheerful than the one who expects to continue living his death. Sometimes, the one who’s dying becomes the pastor to the boy.

— Gordon C. Stewart, Chaska, MN, January 20, 2019.

Habits and Inspiration

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I’ve never been a big fan of habits. In spite of what Octavia Butler believes — “Habit will sustain you, whether inspired or not” — I have scorned habits in favor of a more creative, spontaneous, non-habitual life. But this morning I came to my senses. I’ve not been inspired, and I’ve gotten out of a habit that sometimes brings inspiration.

Elijah joy IMG_9566

Elijah

I’ve felt like the psalmist . . .  or like poor little Elijah just 24 hours ago when he couldn’t keep anything down. Not even the Gatorade. When a joyful 19 month-old child gets sick, he doesn’t know what hit him. Sometimes his 76 year-old grandfather doesn’t know either.

Some viruses can’t be seen under a microscope. Some illnesses require more than an Internist’s diagnosis. Their origins defy medical explanation and resist our usual remedies: a stiff drink, an anti-depressant, vitamin and mineral supplements, exercise, or a change of diet. Which is where habits come in.

It’s been weeks since I got out of the habit of morning prayer. Flailing about at four o’clock this morning, I remember the line from Chaim Potok’s The Chosen: it’s the four-o’clock-in-the-morning questions that trouble us over a lifetime. I’ve gotten out of the habit of greeting the day with readings from the Book of Common Prayer (BCP), spending a quiet time pondering the psalms and other readings assigned by a calendar prescribed by doctors of the soul. I need to return to a healthy diet.

My best friend is hospitalized, awaiting surgery required by complications from pancreatic cancer. His time is limited. So is mine. Fifty-four years of friendship soon to vanish like the morning mist. Whatever happens today on the operating table, it won’t be long before one of us is gone. I open the BCP. “What profit is there in my blood, if I go down to the Pit? Will the dust praise you or declare your faithfulness? Hear, O LORD, and have mercy upon me; O LORD, be my helper,” cries the psalmist (Psalm 30:10-11, BCP), recognizing that there is no quick fix for what ails him.

My friend knows this feeling. He also has a habit that serves him well when the raindrops keep falling on his head. When the four-o’clock-in-the-morning clouds and torrential rains come over him, he turns, as do I this morning, to that which he has not made up, and crawls inside the psalmist’s faith that “weeping may spend the night, but joy comes in the morning” (Ps. 30:6, BCP).

Returning to the habit I’d neglected, I read the psalm again and pray for my friend. But I’m not seeing my friend. I’m seeing someone else. I’m looking at Elijah. He has crawled inside his mother’s watchful care…in the bathtub. He is smiling, playing, and splashing the bath water with no hint of memory of last night when he couldn’t even keep down the Gatorade.

“You have turned my wailing into dancing; you have put off my sack-cloth and clothed me with joy. Therefore my heart sings to you without ceasing; O LORD my God, I will give you thanks for ever” (Ps. 30:12-13. BCW).

— Gordon C. Stewart, Chaska, MN, December 15, 2018.

Two Minute Silence

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Veterans Day poster 2018

Veterans Administration poster

I remember standing with my classmates at Marple Elementary School for a period of silence on November 11. It was Armistice Day, the anniversary of the end of World War I.

Observing the silence was hard! It wasn’t happy; it was sad. It was an enforced unhappy silence to remember what none of us kids wanted to remember: those who had died in an antique time in service to their country, and the horrors of war itself. I must have wondered why our teachers would enforce a sad silence that made us unhappy. In 1954 Armistice Day became Veterans Day in America. (Click HERE for information about the change.)In Canada, Europe, Great Britain, and Australia, November 11 is called Remembrance Day.

Malcolm Guite — Anglican priest, song writer and poet in Cambridge, England — recalls his experience of the public Two Minutes Silence of Remembrance Day in Silence: a Sonnet for Remembrance Day,

On Remembrance Day I was at home listening to the radio . . . when the time came for the Two Minutes Silence. Suddenly the radio itself went quiet. I had not moved to turn the dial or adjust the volume. There was something extraordinarily powerful about that deep silence from a ‘live’ radio, a sense that, alone in my kitchen, I was sharing the silence with millions. I stood for the two minutes, and then, suddenly, swiftly, almost involuntarily, wrote this sonnet. You can hear the sonnet, as I recorded it on November 11th three years ago, minutes after having composed it, by clicking . . . clicking on the title.

Silence

November pierces with its bleak remembrance
Of all the bitterness and waste of war.
Our silence tries but fails to make a semblance
Of that lost peace they thought worth fighting for.
Our silence seethes instead with wraiths and whispers,
And all the restless rumour of new wars,
The shells are falling all around our vespers,
No moment is unscarred, there is no pause,
In every instant bloodied innocence
Falls to the weary earth, and whilst we stand
Quiescence ends again in acquiescence,
And Abel’s blood still cries in every land
One silence only might redeem that blood
Only the silence of a dying God.

— Malcolm Guite, Sounding the Seasons

Blake_Cain_Fleeing_from_the_Wrath_of_God_(The_Body_of_Abel_Found_by_Adam_and_Eve)_c1805-1809

William Blake painting of “Cain fleeing from the wrath of God “as Adam and Eve look on in horror following the fratricide.

All these years later, I still struggle with silence on November 11, and on days like yesterday, the 80th anniversary of The Night of Broken Glass (Kristallnacht). Yet, as a person of faith who knows darkness as well as light, I have learned over the years to silence the radio for an unenforced Two Minute Silence.

Abel’s blood still cries in every land
One silence only might redeem that blood
Only the silence of a dying God

— Gordon C. Stewart, Chaska, MN, November 11, 2018.

The Straw that Breaks the Camel’s Back

256px-John_McCain_official_photo_portraitIt’s a familiar idiom from the old proverb that “it’s the last straw that breaks the camel’s back.”

The last straw is not the only straw. It’s the seemingly insignificant weight added to all the accumulation of straws. Wikipedia describes it as “the seemingly minor or routine action that causes an unpredictably large and sudden reaction, because of the cumulative effect of small actions. This gives rise to the phrase ‘the last straw’ or ‘the final straw’, meaning the last in a line of unacceptable occurrences, provoking a seemingly sudden strong reaction.”

 

The American public is deeply divided. Though the number of straws placed on the president’s back increased daily with the straws of guilty pleas and convictions of his inner circle, his support remains strong among his base. The president can do no wrong. He can lie. He can cheat. He can slam the press. He can belittle the disabled. He can blame ‘the deep state’. He can paint himself as a victim. But, then, something happens. One more straw appears that draws a gasp. Even on FOXNews, as in Brit Hume tweet yesterday, “Still not a kind word about McCain himself.”

Whatever one’s political leanings, people have learned that you respect the dead. You don’t speak ill of the dead. However much you may not have liked the deceased, common decency demands something different.

Donald Trump, Abdel Fattah al-Sisi

President Donald Trump listens to a question during a town hall with business leaders in the South Court Auditorium on the White House complex in Washington, Tuesday, April 4, 2017. (AP Photo/Evan Vucci)

This morning the Washington Post reports that an official White House tribute prepared in advance of John McCain’s expected death, was squelched by the president. In its place the president issued the insensitive tweet that may be the straw that breaks the camel’s back.

No matter what other news the president creates this week, John McCain’s casket in the capitol rotunda and the funeral to which the president has been disinvited will dominate the news irrespective of any particular medium’s political bent. John McCain, the POW whom the Donald Trump viewed as a loser, the former Republican Party candidate for president, will lie in state with nothing more than a disrespectful tweet from the President and Commander-in-Chief.

Some things are deeper than politics. Some things we can all understand. Some things — like the violation of the most basic civil code most Americans understand — have a way of provoking a seemingly sudden reaction.

  • Gordon C. Stewart, Chaska, MN, August 27, 2018.

 

A Profile in Cowardice

News of Senator John McCain’s death highlights the contrast between John McCain and Donald Trump, who belittled McCain’s service, never mentioned his name at the recent announcement of the defense bill that bears McCain’s name, and sent a terse condolence to the McCain family on the occasion of his death:

My deepest sympathies and respect go out to the family of Senator John McCain. Our hearts and prayers are with you!

The ‘respect’ was for the family, not for the Senator, one more back-handed slap at the now deceased senator. What kind of person expresses ‘respect’ for a grieving family?

JFK

President John Fitzgerald Kennedy

President Trump’s disrespectful tweet calls to mind President Kennedy’s autobiography, Profiles in Courage. Whatever one thought of JFK’s claim of war heroism, and whether or not one supported John McCain’s politics and candidacies for president, the chasm between the two men of courage and Donald J. Trump is unfathomable. But fathom it we must.

Can you imagine John McCain announcing his decision to fire a staff member with a tweet without a face-to-face meeting? Announcing a firing in a tweet, as Trump has done repeatedly, violates the most basic moral norms of common decency. Firing someone in cyberspace without meeting eyeball-to-eyeball in real space and time is not only insensitive. It is everything John McCain was not; it is cowardly.

donald-trump-presidential-announcement-supercut-tsr-vo-00000002-large-169

President Donald Trump

Senator John McCain was no fan of Donald Trump and Donald Trump was no fan of John McCain. The late Senator criticized Mr. Trump openly on matters of public policy; the president impugned McCain’s character as a loser. Big difference.

Before his death, Senator McCain requested that President Trump not attend his funeral and asked that Mr. Trump’s predecessors, Presidents Barack Obama and George W. Bush deliver the eulogies. Click this link for more information.

President Obama’s condolences to the McCain family include the following tribute to Senator McCain:

[W]e shared, for all our differences, a fidelity to something higher — the ideals for which generations of Americans and immigrants alike have fought, marched, and sacrificed.

Few of us have been tested the way John once was, or required to show the kind of courage that he did. But all of us can aspire to the courage to put the greater good above our own. At John’s best, he showed us what that means. And for that, we are all in his debt.

The American people salute John McCain’s honest character, and his courageous service to his country before and after he endured five years as a POW. The late senator leaves office as a winner.

115th_Congress_Freshman_Class

Photo of newly elected members of Congress.

Meanwhile, the president who disrespected him remains in the White House until Congress fires him face-to-face, and Presidential historian Michael Beschloss publishes the biography of Donald J. Trump, Profile in Cowardice: High Crimes and Misdemeanors.

  • Gordon C. Stewart, Chaska, MN, August 26, 2018.

 

No one owns a woodpecker!

Pileated_Woodpecker_(9597212081),_crop

Pileated Woodpecker

It was only a matter of time. Its girth was huge — much too big to get our arms around. Its top had fallen off. What remained was filled with gaping holes, but still standing at the southwest edge of the land with the cabin by the wetland. 

The tree had stood here decades before we imagined ourselves to be its owners last August. We paid good money to buy the property, including the naked tree that had not yet fallen. It was only a matter of time before it fell. It concerned us that it would topple on someone playing on the back of the yard — Barclay, the canine member of the family, one of the grandchildren, or the grounds-keeper who comes by every three weeks — but not enough to take it down. It continued to stand there with a still attached heavy limb causing it to lean slightly toward he east. It would fall of its own weight or by a lightning strike in due time. 

IMG_1546Tom, the Mennonite grounds-keeper, found the upper parts of the dead tree on the lawn last week while we were away. Its five-feet girth logs now serve as a barrier between the woods and the open space where the cabin sits. There’s no one left to remember how old the tree was, and what remains of it is too rotten to identify the rings. But the fallen tree that once fed the pileated woodpeckers continues to serve the community as a grocery for ground-feeding birds and other animals that feast on the termites and carpenter ants that once drew the woodpeckers.

IMG_1547Property is only a matter of time. No one owns a woodpecker. No one owns an insect!

  • Gordon C. Stewart on the wetland, August 16, 2018.

Good Friday Kind of Grief

Good Friday is not a happy day. It’s a day to stand at the abyss of hopelessness and to turn what Otis Moss III and his father Otis Moss, Jr. call “pathetic grief” into “prophetic grief” that lifts up others.

Good Friday is a day for heart-felt reflection. A day to stop talking. A day to listen carefully to the Gospel readings and the Requiems of Gabriel Fauré or Maurice DurufléA day to let the tears well up in us. A day to stop pretending. A day to experience afresh the pathetic grief that links us with all the world until is becomes the prophetic grief that turns the world right-side up.

I wish you a meaningful Good Friday.

  • Gordon C. Stewart, Chaska, MN, Good Friday, March 30, 2018.

Getting Older

256px-George_Burns_1961INTRODUCTION: There’s nothing like an old friend when you have nothing worth saying, as though you ever really do, and are focused on getting back to writing a novel instead of your blog. One such old friend is the Rev. John M. Miller, or “the Least Reverent John Miller,” as I call him, whose sermon from The Chapel Without Walls arrived by email this morning. John remembers a Pickles comic strip. I think of George Burns.

FOR OLDER AMERICANS WHO ARE GETTING OLDER

Text – “For everything there is a season, and a time for every matter under heaven: a time to be born, and a time to die.” – Ecclesiastes 3:1-2 (RSV)

This sermon has taken many years to germinate. In one sense, it has taken almost seventy-nine years for it to come to full fruition. Thus the first reason for preaching this sermon is that the preacher himself is an older American who increasingly realizes he is getting older. The other reason which prompts this sermon is that Lois and I have lived in a retirement home for almost three years. That has given me the opportunity to have observed more than three hundred other older people getting older. That leads someone such as I to reflect on what all that means.

Hilton Head Island has a much older average population than the average American community. That has been true for at least the past fifty or sixty years. Over time we had three large retirement homes built here, plus several other smaller facilities of various types for various older people. The Seabrook, where we live, has 225 residents. Of those people, a hundred are ninety or older. We even have eight centenarians, people who are a hundred years of age or more.

Americans are getting older. Of course everybody is getting older, even newborns. However, by means of advancements in medical care, nutrition, and physical activity, many millions of Americans are going to make it into old age, whether they like it or not. Are we thinking about that? Are we consciously and conscientiously preparing for it? Or shall we just let it happen, come what may, with little or no thought given to it and what it might portend?

A member of The Chapel Without Walls sent me an email piece which he received as an email from someone else who no doubt received it as an email. It is called Ramblings of a tired mind. Among other things, it said these things: “I was thinking about old age and decided that old age is when you still have something on the ball, but you are just too tired to bounce it….The older you get the tougher it is to lose weight because by then your body and your fat have become really good friends….Aging: Eventually you will reach a point when you stop lying about your age and start bragging about it.”

But what happens if you realize you are old and you’re not bragging about it, or you fear it, or you wonder what is going to happen to you because of it? What if you’re older and not feeling well, and you think you are probably going to feel worse and worse, or you are fairly certain you’re going to run out of money because you lived too long and you see no way out of that heretofore unforeseen eventuality? Old age isn’t for sissies, they say, but must it be a severe trial for everyone who makes it into old age? For everyone, no, but for many, sadly, yes.

 When I was young, I didn’t like the Book of Ecclesiastes. I thought the writer, who is variously known as Ecclesiastes, Koheleth, or The Preacher, was too skeptical and cynical and sour. Now that I’m old I am more positively drawn to the unquestionably older person who wrote Ecclesiastes than to any other writer in the entire Bible. I suggest all of you take an hour or two this week to read this short book, and then ponder it and ruminate upon it. It is directed especially to older people who are getting older, and it has multitudes of golden nuggets for golden-agers. I’m serious. Read Ecclesiastes. Throughout this sermon I will use isolated quotes from Ecclesiastes. I won’t identify them as such, but if you listen closely, you’ll recognize them when you hear them, because you heard two readings earlier from this outstanding book.

I have said this before in several different ways, but I want to say it again: God does not determine when or how or why anyone dies. In my opinion, it is a serious mistake for anyone to believe God determines those things, because it can turn people into puppets or doormats. “Nature,” terminal illness, or longevity may terminate our lives, or we ourselves may do that, but it is never God who settles when anyone dies. Young or old, we die when we die. There is no explaining when or how or why it happens, other than medically or forensically. Theology can’t unveil why death happens when it happens. We die when we die, and faith cannot explain why.

That having been said, it behooves all of us, particularly as we get not only older but actually old, to contemplate everything we need to do to prepare for death. This may sound morbid, but what is really morbid is not to prepare for death by merely waiting passively for death to negate our existence. When we are living is the only time we have to prepare for death.

So what do we need to do? We need to have a written will, and a living will, and a medical power of attorney, whereby we designate someone to make medical decisions for us if we are physically and/or mentally incapable of expressing our own wishes for ourselves. We need to make sure somebody knows where all our important papers are, and to have access to them if they are under lock and key. We should establish a legal power of attorney for someone we trust who can handle our financial affairs if we are unable to handle them ourselves. We need to let our spouse or children or other relatives or attorney or somebody know what our wishes are concerning some sort of official recognition of our life soon after we have died.

I’m going to give you an opinion about which I have thought a great deal, probably more than most people. In my vocation, one is thrust into thinking about these things more than most other people. My advice? Please don’t tell your children or your lawyer that you don’t want any kind of service after you die. That is unfair to those who have known you and loved you, even if you are an irascible or ornery old coot, which of course no one here is. Everyone is a child of God, and as such, other children of God should be granted the opportunity and privilege to acknowledge and give thanks for the life of everyone who dies. Those who know they are going to die may not want a service, but a memorial service or celebration of life is for those who have lost the one who has died, and not for the deceased.  Everyone dies, and everyone else should have the  option of giving thanks to God for that person’s life when anyone dies. In my long-considered opinion, it is unseemly for a dying individual to prevent others from joining into a celebration of that person’s life, and also in a witness to the resurrection for those who are Christians.

Half a century in the ministry has convinced me that sadly, many people live too long. Most such people are not happy about that situation, but slowly or rather suddenly, there they are. For many oldsters, their quality of life declines into oblivion. It is my three years in a retirement home that have alerted me as nothing else could to the heart-wrenching reality of how relatively quickly too many Americans discover themselves to be living too long. Laws, customs, and faulty theology all contribute to their dilemma. The long-running British comedy on PBS called Waiting for God accurately describes this sober circumstance in a humorous but also telling manner.

Last Monday evening Turner Classic Movies showed a bittersweet film called Whales in August. It was about some elderly people on the Maine coast, and it starred Betty Davis in her final role, Lillian Gish, Ann Southern, Vincent Price and a couple of other loveable, colorful geezers. In the movie, Betty Davis and Lillian Gish play elderly sisters. The sister who is nearly blind says to her more positive and able-bodied sibling, “We have outlived our lives.” That was an honest, but sober, statement. We have outlived our lives. “So I hated life, because what is done under the sun is grievous to me, for all is vanity and a striving after wind” – Ecclesiastes 2:17).

Outliving one’s life in advanced age is a circumstance no one would ever choose. Nonetheless it is a situation confronted by increasing numbers of older people. Where once they were hale and hearty, now they are frail and weak. Where once their funds were sufficient, now they wonder which shall give out first, their money or them. Is it wise or prudent  — or ethical — to run out of money in old age? In any event, can it always be avoided? “In the day of prosperity be joyful, and in the day of adversity consider; God has made the one as well as the other, so that man will not find out anything that will be after him” Ecc. 7:14).

Countless older people have told me that wherever they are living is the last place in which they shall live. They say they are too old for another move. Don’t count on it. Circumstances may force older people to move to a nursing home or to be closer to children in other quarters or in a nursing home there. We like to think we are in control of our lives, but we may not be.

Thus far society has not made sufficient preparations for the legions of oldsters who are confronting the viability of the American health system. Social Security, pensions, and 401Ks cannot handle the costs of maintaining everyone who needs to be maintained. Here is an extremely sober and sobering question: Is it valid for any of us, if we are very old and sick, to keep on living? Voluntary, not mandatory answers to that question are the only valid ones.

Illness of any sort becomes a growing concern for older people. Dementia is a far greater concern. The older we get, the more likely we are to be afflicted with Alzheimer’s disease or some other form of dementia. Dementia requires more care than almost any other form of illness. If one spouse in a marriage begins to lose memory, demands inevitably shall increase for the other spouse who is still doing relatively well. Both can only try to make the best of it.

A few days ago I saw my longest-term close friend on the island. I hadn’t seen him for a couple of years. I was astonished at how much he had aged in that time. He has lost weight and is stooped and uncertain in his gait. His wife has had dementia for perhaps eight to ten years, and he is at the point where he simply is no longer able to give her the care she needs, but he has not found a suitable and affordable memory care facility for her. And so they both toddle along into a darker and ever more uncertain future. “Sorrow is better than laughter, for by sadness of countenance the heart is made glad” (Ecc. 7:3) Was Koheleth correct when he wrote that?

One of my favorite comic strips is Pickles. It features flinty Earl, his wife Gladys, and their grandson Nelson. Earl and Gladys look to be in their seventies, and Nelson is about six or seven. Last Monday Earl was in the kitchen with his hand on his chin. Gladys asked him what he was doing there. “I came here to get something,” he said. “To get what?” she asked. “I don’t know. It slipped my mind. But I’m not leaving until it comes to me!” Exasperated, Gladys disappears. Earl looks after her, saying, “How about bringing me a chair?” On Tuesday he was still in the kitchen, trying to remember why he came there. She offered him a cookie while he waited. “Now I know why I came here!” he said, happy that the mystery of his muddled memory had been solved.

It is wise for older people to do what they can while they can still do it. Take trips. Go on cruises. See relatives, or have relatives come to see you. Visit friends. Go to the movies. Walk.  Play games, especially “thoughty” games like bridge. Have fun. Enjoy life. “I have seen the business that God has given to the sons of men to be busy with. He has made everything beautiful in its time; also he has put eternity into man’s mind, yet so that he cannot find out what God has done from the beginning to the end” Ecc. 3:10-11). Life becomes more of a mystery in old age.

On the cover of the bulletin today is a quote from an article wisely entitled Old, frail, called by God (Christian Century July 17, 2017. It was written by Joyce Ann Mercer, who teaches pastoral theology at Yale Divinity School. The author quoted the psychologist Erik Erikson. “Old age in one’s eighties and nineties brings with it new demands, revelations, and daily difficulties.” He said it is the time of the struggle between integrity and what he ruefully identified as “despair and disgust.” He went on, “Loss of capacities and disintegration may demand almost all of one’s attention. One’s focus may become thoroughly circumscribed by concerns of daily functioning so that it is enough just to get through a day intact, however satisfied or dissatisfied one feels about one’s previous life history.” To me, Erik Erikson sounds a lot like Ecclesiastes, Koheleth, the Preacher.

Commenting on this, Dr. Mercer writes, “Perhaps at no other time…does the body occupy such a premier place in defining the contours of life….The heightened body consciousness of older adulthood critiques the cultural overvaluing of independence and autonomy.” How true that is! Why should anybody imagine, as we get older, that we should be physically able to do all the things we could do when we younger? Can a fifty-year-old Triumph sports car still do 140 miles per hour for four hours? Can a century-old clock still keep perfect time? Why do we think we can do what we always did? Why do younger people expect us to do more than we can do?

Joyce Ann Mercer ended her article with these words: “God’s call in older adulthood sometimes takes place in a receptive-dependent mode, a vocation of forming others in faith by evoking in them the practices, habits, and dispositions of faithful people….God’s call for older adults to receive care from others is also a call to experience the care and presence of God.” Or, as Koheleth put it, “That which is, already has been; that which is to be, already has been; and God seeks what has been driven away” (Ecclesiastes 3:15).   

 It has often been said that in old age people are “cramming for their finals.” That phrase is meant to be humorous, but it is also very serious. Many who are older feel closer to God. If that is true, we should make the most of it. Cram away! Carpe diem; Seize the day! If you didn’t do it before, do it now; get as close to God as you can, because God is getting ever closer to you.

Some of you have met my wife’s sister, Millie Ruhl. Millie has been visiting us for the past three weeks. In December, she will moving into The Seabrook. Lois has the second-best memory of anyone I have ever known, but Millie is the unquestionable Number One Rememberer.

When Loie and her two sisters were in grade school, their parents were the counselors for three summers at the Nottingham Camp in northern Maryland, near the headwaters of the Chesapeake Bay. It was a very fine camp which attracted girls and boys from wealthy families all over the Northeast. The three Seifried girls had a free ride there for those idyllic years. Millie was reminiscing about the prayer the entire camp recited every morning. It was composed by the camp director, Cal Burley, a remarkable man about whom I have heard much through the past twenty years. “O God, forasmuch as without Thee we are not able to please Thee in anything we may undertake, mercifully grant that Thy Holy Spirit will direct and rule our hearts and minds in all that we do this day, so that, at the end of the day we shall hear the eternal benediction: Well done, thou good and faithful servant.” He is now gone, but well done yourself, Calvin Burley.

“If a man begets a hundred children, and lives many years, so that the days of his years are many, but he does not enjoy life’s good things, and also has no burial, I say that an untimely birth is better off than he” (Ecc. 6:3). Mr. Burley taught values to his campers, and his life continues to live on in them. May we also live on in those who shall live after us long after we are gone.

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Rev. John M. Miller, Chapel Without Walls

The Rev. John M. Miller, Chapel Without Walls, Hilton Head, N.C., Nov. 12, 2017 sermon.

John Miller has written and published six books including The Irony of Christianity: A Pastor’s Appeal for a Higher Theology and a Lower Christology, which was published by The Institute for Religion in 2002. The book remains available thru Amazon.