November is a juvenile delinquent, hanging out on a street corner, looking tough. Not one of those innocent, baby-faced delinquents who’ve only made a few mistakes and can still be salvaged, but a tough, street-smart young thug on his way to incarceration and/or an early death. Soon he’ll grow into December, and then he’ll be a made man.
November is, in poetic perspective, a season of death. The midlife crisis of fall is declining into a slow old age. I went to a sort of a wake tonight. There were three deaths in my life last month, and this was the only one involving a gathering I was able to attend. It wasn’t a drunken wake in the classic tradition, nor a religious wake in the Christian tradition. Just some people gathering to support a family which had lost its central heart.
Yesterday was cold and rainy. Today, bright and cool. It
kind of works out the same either way, though, because the night falls early now
and makes itself at home.
The only good thing I have to say about November is that it’s
not quite winter yet.
[Sorry I didn’t post last night. I did a lecture, and when I came home I found this site unresponsive. Short report: I spoke to a Cub Scout pack, and they were a good audience.]
I am wondering how much my perceptions of the world are influenced by the aphorisms I’ve learned, more than actual experience.
This is what I mean: Some time ago, one of my brothers said, referring to a couple deaths in the autumn, “Well, Dad always used to say, ‘It’s fall – harvest time.’”
I actually have no memory of Dad ever saying this (not that I doubt my brother’s word – lots of things go over my head). But ever since then, when someone dies in the fall, I think about it, and respond (on some barely conscious level), “There it is. Fall, harvest time.”
Except I know it isn’t true. People die all year round. Dying in fall is just thematically harmonious.
That said, there’s been a lot of harvesting this fall, in my
The first death was particularly sad. A lovely Christian couple I know, who live in another state, had a little son who suffered severe disability from birth. For the years of his short life they’ve done everything possible to care for him and cherish him. Love being true riches, that boy was richer than a king. But his small body finally wore out not long ago. I mourned with them in spirit.
Some weeks ago, I’ve just learned, my uncle died. We weren’t informed for a while because his widow (a lovely woman) has been too overwhelmed to handle the notifications. I don’t begrudge it. We all have to deal with these things the best we can.
He was the last survivor of my dad’s siblings, and one of my favorite relatives. He was the brother who made good – went to work for IBM and rose to an upper management position on the Saturn Project at Cape Canaveral.
And a friend’s mother died the other day. He’s not a close
friend, except in proximity. But his family has had a sad time watching their
parent fail for some time now. Ironically, this is the only memorial service of
the three I’ll be able to attend.
Matthew McCullough’s recent book on death was featured last week in World Magazine’s Saturday series. It’s not a subject I like to think about, perhaps because I like to imagine I’m above it just as he says here:
The reality of death is profoundly humbling. It tells me that I’m not indispensable. It assures me I will be forgotten. And so death boots me from my self-appointed place at the center of the universe. But learning to recognize death’s challenge to my subconscious narcissism also raises haunting questions about who I am. It isn’t just that death is humbling. It can also be profoundly disorienting.
Most of us would probably agree that a reality check is a generally a good thing. No one likes a narcissist. Wouldn’t it be better for all of us if none of us saw himself as more important than everyone else? If death puts us in our place, that’s ultimately healthy, right?
Yes … but. Death’s challenge actually pushes even deeper. Death’s statement does more than put us in our place. It also raises questions about where our place actually is.
Had a strange phone conversation last night. It wasn’t as grim as that summary might suggest – it just had a sort of black humor quality.
One of my cousins died recently – much too young; sad story. Shortly after her death, I had a call from her brother, who wanted to talk, and I was happy to offer a shoulder. He was also concerned that he hadn’t been able to reach our last surviving mutual uncle. Uncle O_____ has had some health problems recently, and my cousin couldn’t find a number for him that worked. I promised I’d call him myself, since I’ve been in pretty regular communication with him, until recently.
I tried calling, and the numbers I had didn’t work.
After the funeral, my cousin called again, and I told him about my failure. My cousin suggested I go through Facebook (which he doesn’t use anymore), messaging O____’s grandchildren. I tried that and broke through. They said they’d pass the news on.
So last night O____ and his wife called me. Apologized for losing touch – they’ve been going through a difficult time of selling a house and relocating, on top of health issues.
[Below is the text of the sermon I preached at campus chapel this morning. I think it went well, judging by the response. I hadn’t preached in many years, and I’d forgotten how exhausting it is. Someone told me, “Of course you’re exhausted. You’ve been wrestling with the Word of God.”]
Chapel Sermon, Nov. 3, 2016
“The Ruthless Love of Christ”
“Martha therefore, when she heard that Jesus was coming, went to meet Him, but Mary stayed at the house. Martha then said to Jesus, ‘Lord, if You had been here, my brother would not have died. Even now I know that whatever you ask of God, God will give You.’
“Jesus said to her, ‘Your brother will rise again.’” (John 11:20-21)
Many long years ago, I was involved with the ministry of an organization called Lutheran Youth Encounter, which, as it happens, just went out of existence this past year. It was similar to our AFLBS summer teams. We sent musical and ministry teams out to work with the youth in congregations. The musical group I was part of was somewhat unusual, in that we organized ourselves and wrote our own music. I was the lyricist. You’ve probably never heard any of our songs, and with good reason. But we had our own fan base, and were famous to a tiny public.
At the end of one summer’s ministry we had a big final concert for all the teams. Afterward I spoke with an old friend, who introduced me to his new girlfriend. I told them I was depressed. A rewarding summer of ministry was done. I was moving on to a different college ahead of my friends. I felt lonely and unsure of the future.
The girlfriend said, “Don’t be depressed. Didn’t you hear the song that one group sang tonight? The one that said, ‘If You Love Me, Live?’”
“I know the song,” I told her. “I wrote it.”
It was worth the depression to be able to deliver a line like that. I live for that kind of stuff.
I’ve always been a glass-half-empty kind of guy. I look at the dark side. I’m not bragging about that. I hold – intellectually – with the ancient wisdom that says that happiness is a moral virtue. Happy people generally make the world better. Unhappy people make it worse. There’s no sanctity in a long face. The joy of the Lord is our strength.
But I also mistrust those people whose Christianity seems to deny the dark side of life. There’s a strain of Christianity that suggests that if your faith is genuine, you will never suffer. That Jesus will roll away, not only your sins, but all your troubles of any kind. Continue reading ‘The Ruthless Love of Christ→
It started out with the aftermath of several terrorist incidents, one as close to me as St. Cloud, Minnesota. I was troubled enough to abstain entirely from “Talk Like a Pirate Day.”
Then I got personal bad news.
My friend Steve died Sunday night. I won’t give his full name because I don’t know his family’s wishes. But I will sing his glory nonetheless.
I only met Steve in the flesh two or three times. Once at a Scottish Fair in St. Paul, and once more (or twice, I’m not sure) at the L’Abri Center in Rochester, Minn. But we communicated much online. He was considerably younger than me – surely too young to die suddenly.
He was a musician and a connoisseur of music. He was a fan of fantasy literature. And he was a devout, evangelical Christian.
According to reports, he spent Sunday at his parents’ home, enjoying time with them at an antique engine show, and playing games in the evening. He went to bed, and the next morning his father found him lying there still dressed, a smile on his face.
Pretty much the way every one of us hopes we’ll die. But few are actually blessed to pass like that.
He was one of the foremost fans of my novels, boosting my books all the time. I feel as if I’ve lost one of the chief props of my literary career. And I’m the least of those mourning him.
Sometimes I have the feeling that the Lord is taking the best of us now, before dropping the hammer for good on this worm-eaten culture.
Rejoice in the presence of your Lord, Steve. I’ll see you in the morning.
Tony Woodlief offers this prayer for his eventual death: “When I die, Lord, let me go in a plane crash, spiraling down, earthward, earthward, apportioned enough time to pray but not nearly enough to forget what we’re all prone to forget: that the end comes, it rushes up to greet us, every one in flight.”
Mercy. Just when you think he’s telling a joke, he brings it home.
“For since we believe that Jesus died and rose again, even so, through Jesus, God will bring with him those who have fallen asleep” (1 Thessalonians 4:14).
Tom Nelson wrote on May 8 about the life and death of Dallas Willard. He quoted him, in reflection on this verse, “The difference is simply a matter of what we are conscious of. In fact, at ‘physical’ death we become conscious and enjoy a richness of experience we have never known before.”
Not that this world isn’t real, as some say, but it is like an illusionist, distracting us with the inconsequential so that we miss the most important things. At death, we see through it all.