Who Owes Me Three Dollars?

January 29, 2008

Again I quote #3:

Filed under: Uncategorized — ineedsheetmusic @ 8:37 pm

Psalm 34:1-9 OF DAVID, WHEN HE CHANGED HIS BEHAVIOR BEFORE ABIMELECH, SO THAT HE DROVE HIM OUT, AND HE WENT AWAY. I will bless the LORD at all times; his praise shall continually be in my mouth. My soul makes its boast in the LORD; let the humble hear and be glad. Oh, magnify the LORD with me, and let us exalt his name together! I sought the LORD, and he answered me and delivered me from all my fears. Those who look to him are radiant, and their faces shall never be ashamed. This poor man cried, and the LORD heard him and saved him out of all his troubles. The angel of the LORD encamps around those who fear him, and delivers them. Oh, taste and see that the LORD is good! Blessed is the man who takes refuge in him! Oh, fear the LORD, you his saints, for those who fear him have no lack!Romans 8:38-39 For I am sure that neither death nor life, nor angels nor rulers, nor things present nor things to come, nor powers, nor height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.

“As almost all of you know, a week ago last Monday night, driving in a terrible storm, my son Alexander – who to his friends was a real day-brightener, and to his family ‘Fair as a star when only one is shining in the sky’ – my twenty-four-year-old Alexander, who enjoyed beating his old man in every game and in every race beat his father to the grave.

“Among the healing flood of letters that followed his death was one carrying this wonderful quote from the end of Hemmingway’s Farewell to Arms: ‘The world breaks everyone, then some become strong at the broken places.’ My own broken heart is mending, and largely thanks to so many of you, my dear parishioners; for if in the last week I have re-learned one lesson, it is that love not only begets love, it transmits strength.

“When a person dies, there are many things that can be said, and there is at least one thing that should never be said. The night after Alex died I was sitting in the living room of my sister’s house outside of Boston, when the front door opened and in came a nice looking middle aged woman carrying about eighteen quiches. When she saw me she shook her head, then headed for the kitchen saying sadly over her shoulder, ‘I just don’t understand the will of God.’ Instantly I was up and in hot pursuit, swarming all over her. ‘I’ll say you don’t, lady.’ I said. I continued, ‘Do you think it was the will of God that Alex never fixed that lousy windshield wiper of his, that he was probably driving too fast in such a storm, that he probably had a couple of frosties too many? Do you think it is in God’s will that there are no street lights along that stretch of road, and no guard rail separating the road from Boston harbor?’

“For some reason nothing so infuriates me as the incapacity of seemingly intelligent people to get it through their heads that God doesn’t go around the world with his finger on triggers, his fist around knives, his hands on steering wheels. God is dead set against all unnatural deaths. And Christ spent an inordinate amount of time delivering people from paralysis, insanity, leprosy, and muteness. Which is not to say that there are no nature-caused deaths, deaths that are untimely and slow and pain-ridden, which for that reason raise unanswerable questions, and even the specter of a Cosmic Sadist – yes, even an Eternal Vivisector. But violent deaths, such as the one that Alex died – to understand those is a piece of cake. As his younger brother put it simply, standing at the head of the casket at the Boston funeral, ‘You blew it, buddy. You blew it.’ The one thing that should never be said when someone dies is it is the will of God. Never do we know enough to say that. My own consolation lies in knowing that it was not the will of God that Alex die; that when the waves closed over the sinking car, God’s heart was the first of all our hearts to break.

“I mentioned the healing flood of letters. Some of the very best, and easily the worst, came from fellow reverends, a few of whom proved they knew their Bibles better than the human condition. I know all the right biblical passages, including ‘Blessed are those who mourn,’ and my faith is no house of cards; these passages are true, I know. But the point is this: While the words of the Bible are true, grief renders them unreal. The reality of grief is the absence of God – ‘My God, my God why has thou forsaken me?’ The reality of grief is the solitude of pain, the feeling that your heart is in pieces, your mind’s a blank, that ‘there is no joy the world can give like that it takes away.’

“That’s why immediately after such a tragedy people must come to your rescue, people who only want to hold your hand, not to quote anybody or even say anything, people who simply bring food and flowers, people who sign letters simply, ‘your broken hearted sister.’ In other words, in my intense grief I felt some of my fellow reverends were using comforting words of scripture for self-promotion, to pretty up a situation whose bleakness they simply couldn’t face. But like God herself, scripture isn’t around for anyone’s protection, just for everyone’s unending support.

“And that’s what hundreds of you understood so beautifully. You gave me what God gives all of us – minimum protection, maximum support. I swear to you I wouldn’t be standing here were I not upheld.

“After the death of his wife, C.S. Lewis said, ‘They say,” the coward dies many times”; so does the beloved. Didn’t the eagle find a fresh liver to tear in Prometheus every time it dined?’

“When parents die, as did my mother last month, they take with them a large portion of the past. But when children die, they take away the future as well. That is what makes the valley of the shadow of death seem so incredibly dark and unending. In a prideful way it would be easier to walk the valley alone, nobly, head held high, instead of – as we must – marching as the latest recruit in the world’s army of the bereaved.

“Still there is much by way of consolation. Because there are no rankling unanswered questions, and because Alex and I simply adored each other, the wound for me is deep, but clean. I know how lucky I am! I also know that this day-brightener of a son wouldn’t wish to held close by grief (nor, for that matter would the meanest of our beloved departed), and that, interestingly enough, when I mourn Alex least I see him best.

“Another consolation, of course, will be the learning – which better be good, given the price. But it’s a fact: few of us are naturally profound; we have to be forced down.

“And of course I know even when pain is deep, that God is good. ‘My God, my God why has thou forsaken me?’ Yes, but at least, ‘My God, my God’; and the psalm only begins that way, it doesn’t end that way. As the grief that once seemed unbearable begins to turn to bearable sorrow, the truths in the ‘right’ biblical passages are beginning, once again, to take hold. ‘Cast thy burden upon the Lord and He shall strengthen thee.’; ‘Weeping shall endure for a night, but joy cometh in the morning’; ‘Lord, by thy favor thou has made my mountain to stand strong’; ‘for thou hast delivered my soul from death, mine eyes from tears, and my feet from falling’; ‘In this word ye shall have tribulation, but be of good cheer; I have overcome the world.’ ‘The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it.’

“And finally I know that when Alex beat me to the grave, the finish line was not Boston Harbor in the middle of the night. If a week ago last Monday a light went out, it was because, for him at least, the Dawn had come.

“So I shall – so let us all – seek consolation in that love which never dies, and find peace in that dazzling grace that always is.”

William Sloane Coffin – Alex’s Death – a Eulogy Sermon 1982.

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