Archives For Thomas Lynch

Covert Christians

Jason Micheli —  March 9, 2017 — 3 Comments

I take an attribute of strong preaching to be the ability to take a cliche or convention and upend it. Here, my Jedi Master, Robert Dykstra, takes John 3 and counterintuitively makes Nicodemus the hero of the story. In a world of 3.16 eyeblack and politically compromised evangelicals, this is a fresh word from this Sunday’s lectionary Gospel:

A Sermon Preached at the Fifth Avenue Presbyterian Church

New York, New York

Sunday, May 28, 2006

by Robert Dykstra

John 3:1-10, John 19:38-42

I thought her invitation a bit presumptuous, a bit out of place, though it was benign enough as invitations go. It was an altar call, really, and I havenít anything much against altar calls, though I donít ever remember issuing one myself as a preacher, perhaps for fear of a lack of any response. But this particular altar call seemed a bit unusual, a little presumptuous, a little out of place.

The place was Miller Chapel on the Princeton Seminary campus, back in my days as a student there. Her invitation came at one of the seminaryís brief weekday morning worship services. The preacher on that particular day was a guest minister from outside the seminary community, a distinguished and eloquent African-American woman  ñ I canít even remember her name now. But what I do remember is that at the end of her lively and powerful sermon ñ the way of African American sermons and far more compelling than our usual white-boy-student-sermon fare ñ this preacher issued an altar call to those of us in the congregation. She asked those who wished to commit their lives to Christ to come forward into the chancel for a prayer.

Well, I found this invitation a little odd, a little out of place, a little presumptuous of her. No one can enroll as a student or be hired on as a faculty member at Princeton Seminary without claiming to be a Christian, though I canít fully guarantee that Jesus himself would claim us all as such. You have to say youíre a Christian to get admitted to Princeton Seminary, so whatís up with this preacher issuing an altar call at a place like this, in a place like Miller Chapel?

I thought to myself, No one is going to go forward to commit their lives to Jesus at Princeton Seminary.

I was dead wrong, of course. Of the perhaps hundred or so students and faculty in the chapel that day, a huge throng of worshipers made their way to the front of the sanctuary. In fact, when the procession ended, I looked around and noticed that there were maybe only four or five of us still seated in our pews. The preacher herself looked out on us pathetic holdouts and noticed it, too. So she said straight to our faces, ìYou folks still sitting out there might as well come on up here, too.î

Now it was I, of course, who was feeling a little presumptuous, or, at least, a little conspicuous. Who did I think I was to imagine that I didnít need to commit my life to Jesus, especially when everyone else in that room seemed to think that they themselves did? No matter that, as far as I knew, Iíd been committed to Jesus as long as I could remember. I recall as a boy still in my booster seat asking my parents how God could be everywhere if we couldnít see God ñ asking questions like that and loving how they would reply: God was inside us, they might say; or God is Spirit, they might say.

I remember as a sixth-grader on the cusp of adolescence attending a Presbyterian summer church camp ñ my first time away from home alone for a whole week, a time full of excitement ñ loving every minute, falling in love perhaps for the first time not only with another camper, but fully, knowingly, with Jesus, feeling him in my heart, openly committing my life to him, praying to him, singing songs to him.

As a high school boy I was allowed to become the church organist of our little congregation, and I took this responsibility very seriously, practicing hymns from the same green hymn book you use here at Fifth Avenue, sometimes late into the night all alone in the darkened sanctuary, a room tiny by this sanctuaryís standard but that seemed voluminous to me at that age ñ alone in the dark, the little light on the organ the only one burning. And I felt warm and secure and so at home in the quiet darkness of Godís house. And I still feel that way today, perhaps most at home of any place I could be in a sanctuary like this, especially if all alone in it, especially at night with one light burning.

So in chapel as a seminary student that day, I felt Iíd been committed to Jesus for a long time. But I knew what I had to do, so at the preacherís bidding to us holdouts still in the pews, I slunk up out of my seat, feeling a bit chastised, and made my way with the other four or so of my less-than-devout comrades to pray with everyone else there in the chancel. But I knew by then that I was a little more reluctant to be born again this time after having been born so many times before.

*******

Thereís a part of me that admires the courage of a preacherís altar call to seminarians. Thereís something exactly right about that invitation. But I think itís also true that, as Iíve grown older, Iíve grown even more uneasy than I was as a student in chapel that day with the kind of public declarations of Christian faith that have grown increasingly familiar and have become not a little divisive in our churches and in our nation today. I get nervous about all those Christians who borrow the ìborn againî language from this very passage in John 3 ñ the chapter of the Bible that contains its most comforting verse, ìFor God so loved the world that he gave his only Son…î ñ but Christians who wear that ìborn againî language as a badge of honor, who use this language to fashion a kind of litmus test or entrance exam into Christian faith, into true discipleship, use it therefore as an instrument of exclusion rather than of grace. Thereís part of me that wishes I had resisted the preacherís second invitation that day to the four of us still remaining in our pews, wishes I had stayed put and prayed by myself there where I was sitting. That would have been more the Christian I now want to be.

I think Iím a born-again Christian going increasingly undercover, becoming increasingly private, increasingly stealthy about my faith. Iím becoming more like Nicodemus, a man who knows that thereís great power and great risk in meeting Jesus, a man who does not take lightly such an encounter with him, who knows thereís a lot at stake. I think Iím someone who now prefers to talk with Jesus in the dark of night, in the middle of the night, as when a boy in that empty church sanctuary with just one lamp burning.

*******

Nicodemusí story, of course, moves in just the opposite direction. His moves from meeting Jesus first in the dark ñ Nick at Night ñ to, by the end of Jesusí life, embracing Jesusí body in broad daylight. You see, Nicodemus shows up several times in Johnís gospel, each time appearing more bold, more public, more decisive about following Jesus, about being seen as his disciple, as if Jesusí lesson that first night about his needing to be born again, born from above, really took hold in his life, really sank in. If my story begins with a public love for Jesus in the daylight to increasingly private encounters with him at night, Nicodemusí story moves from a shadowy encounter with Jesus at night to a powerful declaration of his love for him in the light of day. It is Nicodemus, after all, a Pharisee and leader of the Jews, a member of the Sanhedrin, the elite Jewish ruling council just 70 members strong, the council that proved finally to be Jesusí undoing, his death ñ this Nicodemus is the man who, with the help of his friend Joseph of Arimathea and at great personal risk, embalms Jesusí body after his death, and he offers this painful and tender declaration of love, this intimate final gift to his friend, no longer under cover of darkness.

*******

The nationís most famous undertaker, Thomas Lynch, lives in Milford, Michigan, a small town just north of Detroit, where he buries his friends and neighbors for a living. He also writes amazing books, the reason heís now our nationís most famous undertaker. In his book The Undertaking: Life Studies from the Dismal Trade, Lynch tells of preparing the body of his dead friend, Milo Hornsby:

Last Monday morning Milo Hornsby died. Mrs. Hornsby called at 2 a.m. to say that Milo had expired and would I take care of it, as if his condition were like any other that could be renewed or somehow improved upon. At 2 a.m., yanked from my REM sleep, I am thinking, put a quarter into Milo and call me in the morning. But Milo is dead. In a moment, in a twinkling, Milo has slipped irretrievably out of our reach, beyond Mrs. Hornsby and the children, beyond the women at the laundromat he owned, beyond his comrades at the Legion Hall, the Grand Master of the Masonic Lodge, his pastor at First Baptist, beyond the mailman, zoning board, town council, Chamber of Commerce; beyond us all, and any treachery or any kindness we had in mind for him.

Milo is dead….

[In the hospital where he died,] Milo is downstairs, between SHIPPING & RECEIVING and LAUNDRY ROOM, in a stainless-steel drawer, wrapped in white plastic top to toe….

I sign for him and get him out of there….

Back at the funeral home, upstairs in the embalming room, behind a door marked PRIVATE, Milo Hornsby is floating on a porcelain table under florescent lights. Unwrapped, outstretched, Milo is beginning to look a little more like himself ñ eyes wide open, mouth agape, returning to our gravity. I shave him, close his eyes, his mouth. We call this setting the features. These are the features ñ eyes and mouth ñ that will never look the way they would have looked in life when they were always opening, closing, focusing, signaling, telling us something. In death, what they tell us is that they will not be doing anything anymore. The last detail to be managed is Miloís hands ñ one folded over the other, over the umbilicus, in an attitude of ease, of repose, of retirement.

They will not be doing anything anymore, either.

I wash his hands before positioning them [Thomas Lynch, The Undertaking: Life Studies from the Dismal Trade, New York: Penguin Books, 1997, 9-11].

*******

Thatís what Nicodemus will end up doing, though in the light of day, for Jesus. Setting his features. Washing his hands.

Maybe thatís the direction of faith that Jesus prefers, from darkness to light, from stealthy discipleship to public declarations of born-again faith. Maybe thatís what Jesus wants, itís probably what this story in John chapter three is trying to suggest.

But the more that contemporary American Christians insist that everyone become born again and insist too that we all sign on to a prescribed and unyielding roster of accompanying social and political doctrines; the more, so to speak, that weíre pressured to come up to the front of the chapel: the more I want to seek out Jesus in private, at night, undercover, like the early Nicodemus.

The more they press us to become daylight Christians, bumper-sticker Christians, card-carrying, banner-waving Christians, the more I appreciate those stealthy Christians whom I have known and increasingly want to emulate along the way: Christians who are not always so sure of their status before God, seekers who find their encounters with Jesus to be a risky business, who go about their faith without ostentation and perhaps also without complete assurance, in secret, in darkness, undercover, uncertain. The more that born-again Christians fill the airwaves with their certitudes and self-assurance, the more I want to be that Christian with just one lamp burning in the middle of the night.

ìThe wind blows where it chooses,î Jesus tells Nicodemus there in the darkness, ìand you hear the sound of it, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes. So it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit.î The wind blows where it chooses. God blows where God chooses. We do not control God any more than the wind.

Your being born, my being born, though we can be reasonably sure that we were once born, was not in your or my control, is not something we can take much credit for having done. We had very little to say about our being born the first time, and we would do well to have very little to say now about our being born again, born from above.

It happened once, yes, your birth; it happens sometimes, yes, being born again. But itís not something to spend much time talking about, not if you want to retain any friends. Itís not something in which to take pride or boast. You didnít have that much to do with it. No, better instead just to get on with the business of living, of loving, of serving, of worshiping, of picking up your friends at 2 a.m. and doing for them what needs to be done, however painful or dismal the task. Quiet Christians, steady Christians, stealthy Christians, modest, unassuming, grateful, lunar Christians. Have you known any Christians like that in your life?

*******

A few years ago, as a promising young theology professor at Notre Dame in her early forties, Catherine LaCugna was told by her doctors ìthat there was nothing more that they could do for her and that cancer would kill her within a few months.î At receiving this terrible news, her friend Kathleen Norris writes, LaCugna ìdid not run away to nurse her wounds but continued teaching. She told only a few close friends that she was near death, and she went on living the life she had chosen. She was able to teach until a few days before she died.î

Reflecting on her friendís life and death, Norris says:

I can scarcely imagine what it meant to her students when they found out what she had done, when they considered that they and the dry, underappreciated work of systematic theology that they had been engaged in together meant so much to her. Now, whenever I recite the prayer that ends the churchís liturgical day, ìMay the Lord grant us a peaceful night, and a perfect death,î it is her death that I think of. A perfect death, fully acknowledged and fully realized, offered for others. (Kathleen Norris, ìPerfection,î Christian Century, February 18, 1998: 180).

I think of Norrisí words and of LaCugnaís death from time to time, for they capture the kind of Christian I want to be ñ quiet, steady, faithful, courageous, but, oh, so aware that time is short, the stakes high, the questions we pose to Jesus in the dead of night so very important, with so much hanging in the balance.

Darkness. Risk. Courage. Faithfulness. A stealth Christian. Thatís the kind that, more and more, Iíd like to be.

*******

Remember Thomas Lynch taking care of his friend, Milo Hornsby? Lynch says:

When my wife moved out some years ago, the children stayed here, as did the dirty laundry. It was big news in a small town. There was the gossip and the goodwill that places like this are famous for. And while there was plenty of talk, no one knew exactly what to say to me. They felt helpless, I suppose. So they brought casseroles and beef stews, took the kids out to the movies or canoeing, brought their younger sisters around to visit me. What Milo did was send his laundry van around twice a week for two months, until I found a housekeeper. Milo would pick up five loads in the morning and return them by lunchtime, fresh and folded. I never asked him to do this. I hardly knew him. I had never been in his home or his laundromat. His wife had never known my wife. His children were too old to play with my children.

After my housekeeper was installed, I went to thank Milo and pay the bill. The invoices detailed the number of loads, the washers and the dryers, detergent, bleaches, fabric softeners. I think the total came to sixty dollars. When I asked Milo what the charges were for pick-up and delivery, for stacking and folding and sorting by size, for saving my life and the lives of my children, for keeping us in clean clothes and towels and bed linen, ìNever mind thatî is what Milo said. ìOne hand washes the other,î [is what Milo said].

I place Miloís right hand over his left hand, then try the other way. Then back again. Then I decide that it doesnít matter. One hand washes the other either way [Lynch, 11].

*******

One hand washes the other. Thereís Nicodemus at the end of Johnís gospel washing the hand that once washed his, embalming Jesus.

Nicodemus is not filling the airwaves with endless chatter about his having been born again, though he may well have been thus born. Heís just risking his life, his status, his reputation in this last, quiet, heroic act of love for his friend.

Heís not talking about his birth. Heís living his life. Heís giving his life to the one who so loved the world, to the one who gave his life for him.

Will you?

“…the meaning of life is connected, inextricably, to the meaning of death; mourning is a romance in reverse, and if you love, you grieve and there are no exceptions—only those who do it well and those who don’t.”

– The Undertaking LynchHat

For episode #44 of the podcast, newcomer to the posse, Taylor Mertins, joins me for a conversation with: Thomas Lynch.

Thomas Lynch is quite simply and without exaggeration one of the best damn writers in the English language. And, it turns out, he’s a delightful human being too.

A renowned poet, essayist, and fiction writer Lynch is something of an oddity in the book world for also being a full-time undertaker. Lynch is the inspiration behind the television series, Six Feet Under, as well as the subject of a PBS Frontline Documentary.

the_undertaking.largeI first encountered Lynch’s work at Princeton when I was assigned his book of essays, The Undertaking; Life Studies from the Dismal Trade. It’s elegantly written and achingly beautiful and was a finalist for the National Book Award. You should stop and buy it right now.

His poetry is likewise beautiful and frequently takes up the same themes of death and life and holiness.

 

Near the end Thomas Lynch answers my theological twist on James Lipton’s 10 Questions, which has become a podcast tradition.

Be on the lookout for future episodes that we’ve got lined up with Ian McFarland, Joseph Mangina, Danielle Shroyer, Ephraim Radner, William Cavanaugh et al.

We’ve already got enough interviews lined up to take us into the new year.

You can find them all on the brand spanking new Crackers and Grape Juice website Teer built for us.

You can download the episode and subscribe to future ones in the iTunes store here

We’re breaking the 1K individual downloaders per episode mark. 

PLEASE HELP US REACH MORE PEOPLE: 

GO TO OUR PAGE IN ITUNES AND GIVE US A REVIEW AND RATING

It’s not hard and it makes all the difference. 

It’ll make it more likely more strangers and pilgrims will happen upon our meager podcast. ‘Like’ our Facebook Page too. You can find it here.

This past weekend my muse visited my congregation as our guest preacher.

Thomas Lynch, readers of the blog will already know, is a poet and writer who also happens to be an undertaker in Milford, Michigan. His prose has inspired my own, his writing on the funeral trade has informed how I conduct them as a clergyman and his hopeful gallows humor has given me cheer these initial weeks in my struggle with cancer.

Here’s his sermon from the Saturday evening service. It’s worth your time. If you subscribe to the blog by email, you may need to click over for the sermon.

The Seamus Heaney poem Lynch references is ‘Miracle’ based on Jesus’ healing of the paralytic in Mark 2.

Not the one who takes up his bed and walks

But the ones who have known him all alongAnd carry him in –

Their shoulders numb, the ache and stoop deeplockedIn their backs, the stretcher handles

Slippery with sweat. And no let up

Until he’s strapped on tight, made tiltableand raised to the tiled roof, then lowered for healing.

Be mindful of them as they stand and wait

For the burn of the paid out ropes to cool,

Their slight lightheadedness and incredulity

To pass, those ones who had known him all along.

(HUMAN CHAIN, Poems, Seamus Heaney, 2010, FSG)

lightstock_70038_small_user_2741517I know all the words by heart such that even now they’re at the edge of my lips ready to take the jump.

It’s not an accomplishment; it’s the trade. .

Well over 100 times now I’ve stood in the center of a sanctuary or in the middle of a funeral home chapel or at the head of an open grave on the fake plastic grass under an uneven tent or even a few times in a ‘sitting’ room and in front of all number and manner of mourners I’ve recited verses as inextricably linked with my character as ’…it is a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing’ belong to the chorus of Henry V. 

     My lines, if not bald-faced lies or pious candy, signify a great deal more than nothing: ‘I am the resurrection and the life. Those who believe in me, even though they die, yet shall they live, and everyone who lives and believes in me will never die.’

Sitting here in my kitchen, staring at the baby blue folder folder whose top sheet is labeled ‘Preparing for Your Surgery,’ with my surgeon’s frank Army countenance (‘We won’t know what we’re facing until after your surgery’) ringing on repeat in my head- and my wife’s, it suddenly occurs to me that in all those 100 plus times I’ve never once stood by the dead and looked out at the living and proffered a follow-up question:

Do you believe this?

Do you believe (any of) this? That Jesus is the resurrection and the life? That those who trust in him (even though they die) yet shall they live? Are these just lines? Do you believe it? Really?

I’ve never thought to ask because, for one practical reason, the United Methodist Book of Worship doesn’t instruct me to ask it. For another very intuitional reason, it would seem boorish.

Funerals, after all, are usually emotionally bare (as in, vulnerable not sparse) ocassions with a higher likliehood of truth-telling breaking out compared to the rest of the working week. And if the Pew Surveys and Gallop Polls are to be reckoned accurate, then the priest or pastor who dares to ask ‘Do you believe this?’ should be ready for roughly half the grieving gathered to answer ‘No.’

No, we don’t.

Believe much of any of this.

Indeed I’d wager that the number of those responding in the negative would increase the closer you crept to the front pews, especially on those ocassions where the caskets are shorter or the left behind’s hair less grey, those ocassions where circumstances still seem to demand the wearing of black or where the shoulders are stooped not from age but grief.

I bet, if I asked, I’d hear more no’s up close near the front. And so I’ve never asked the question because neither my ecclesiastical script nor good manners suggest I do so. Jesus does though, in John 11, after speaking the lines whence this funerary quote gets lifted.

The dead Lazarus’ sister, Martha, gives the Gospel’s best example of tearing Jesus a new asshole: ‘If you’d only come when I called, Jesus, my brother would still be alive.’

Jesus responds with a resurrection rejoinder that ends where I begin whenever death enters in: ‘I am the resurrection and the life.’

And then Jesus, unlike me, follows up with the question: ‘Do you believe this?’

     Maybe, like Jesus, I should ask it too, propriety and piety be damned: ‘Do you believe this?’

Because, obivously, it’s a question meant for the living. Jesus isn’t asking what Lazarus believed. Four days dead, serene and sealed in the tomb, nobody cares anymore what Lazarus believed. Not God. Definitely not Lazarus.

No, Jesus is asking Martha what she believes.

When Jesus tells Martha about the power of the Resurrection, what Martha doesn’t get is that Jesus isn’t talking about a power available to us only after we die. He’s not talking about a one day down the road or even on the last day.

He’s talking about a power available in the present, today, in the here and now.

Because if you believe that Jesus Christ has destroyed Death then Resurrection doesn’t just make heaven possible, it makes a bold life possible too.

Because if you believe that Death is not the last word, then we have the power to live fully and faithfully.

And we don’t have to try to live forever.

Here’s what I’ve learned after those 100 plus ocassions delivering my lines for other people:

     When you’re staring at a euphemistically hued folder from your surgeon and when the -c- word has made a grim if hopefully premature intrusion in to your not-yet-graying-life and when wildly melodramatic Lifetime movie-type voices chatter in the back of your head, you don’t much give a damn about forever.

      Longer is all you want. Longer will do. Longer with….

And here’s what you notice:

Martha’s ‘Yes, I believe’ doesn’t guarrantee a happy ending for her brother.

The size of Jesus’ tears outside Lazarus’ grave suggest even Jesus was a little shocked the dead guy walked out newly alive, but, even after all the trouble, Lazarus will die again, of old age and natural causes, or post-op infection perhaps or maybe of a broken heart.

Martha says ‘Yes, I believe’ and no doubt she does, but, seen from Jesus’ POV, she doesn’t grasp at all what it means to believe.

She and Jesus are speaking past each other. He’s talking about his very Being; she’s talking about the Last Day. Even our strongest beliefs barely scratch the surface of what’s True.

In case those first two observations strike you as dissatisfying, here’s the last thing you notice staring at a baby blue folder embossed with the caduceus and your name in hasty yellow marker.

 A God who works by Resurrection is, by definition, a God of surprises- light from darkness and all that- and a God of surprises is, by definition not a genie in a magic lamp.

     The antonym of Resurrection isn’t Death; it’s Predictable.

Perhaps then that’s the best reason not to add to my familiar script and pose that question to mourners: ‘Do you believe this?’

Because even when the answer is in the affirmative, even where the faith is as strong if uncomprehending as Martha’s, ‘Yes’ is still a complicated answer. Now that the shoe gown is on the other foot body, I regret any of the times in those 100 plus that I might’ve implied anything other.

 

quote-well-the-themes-for-me-were-and-remain-sex-and-love-and-grief-and-death-the-things-that-make-us-thomas-lynch-116137I spent the day with a couple nervously standing vigil by their boy’s bedside in the PICU.

Their son, confirmed by me years ago, is only a few sizes and grades ahead of my eldest.

I can’t say much more than that, pastoral privilege and all.

What I can reveal:

Right after I left that family, I collected my youngest son, Gabriel.

We got in the car. Closed the doors. Buckled our seat belts (‘I beat you Daddy’).

I turned on the ignition. Looked in the rearview mirror at Gabriel behind me; he was wearing my faded UVA hat and smiling.

And I started to cry, suddenly feeling like I’d gotten into my car wearing someone else’s shoes.

Life is so infuriatingly fragile.

This isn’t something my boys have taught me.

My boys have no notion that while God may be good and gracious, life is seldom fair or forgiving.

It’s not a lesson my boys have taught me. It’s more like a lesson my job has taught me, a lesson I wasn’t in a position to learn until I had children. It’s more like now that I have skin in the game my vocation won’t let me forget just how fragile are my boys’ own skin and bones.

They’re here today…(down in the basement playing Legos, actually).

But tomorrow? The day after tomorrow?

I bring my work home with me.

I watch my boy turn his bike out the cul de sac for the first and I close my eyes to wait for the inevitable sound of screeching brakes.

I can’t drive by a car accident without imagining my own impending, parallel nightmare.

Standing in line at a roller coaster with my son, I can’t look at the twists and turns of the track without imagining my boy in the statistical margin for error.

Death is a big part of what I do.

The resurrection proclamation requires the dismal trade to precede it, make sense of it. 

If I punched a clock, several many hours of every year would be taken up by people mourning the sudden absence of someone who’d made their life whole.

I bring that absence home with me.

Or rather, like a nurse who comes home wearing a uniform with blood stains on it, that absence follows me home and there it gestates into something else: my own fear of absence.

Theirs.

And while if you caught me in a different mood I might say I’d prefer not to bring this part of my work home with me, it’s more true to admit that this near constant dread of their absence has woken me to something else, their presence in my life.

The sheer- as in flimsy– grace- as in unwarranted gift– of it.

Just like someone who doesn’t realize the pain of unbelief until they begin to believe, the fear of losing my boys calls out the greater joy of having them. 

Life is frageelay.

It wouldn’t be worth it otherwise. 

What’s Heaven Like?

Jason Micheli —  October 9, 2014 — 5 Comments

In the last few years, thanks largely to the work of NT Wright, the Church has recovered the understanding that going to heaven when we die is not the point of believing in Jesus nor is it, even, a primary concern of scripture and seldom do our notions of heaven resemble anything in our scripture or tradition.

However, to say that Christianity is not about going to heaven when we die is not to say that reflection on and belief in eternity is inappropriate.

lightstock_98305_xsmall_user_2741517

When I worked as a hospital chaplain at UVA, one of my responsibilities was to accompany shocked and freshly grieved strangers to identify the bodies of their loved ones. I didn’t need hindsight to know it was a task for which I was wholly inadequate.

One winter night, in the middle of an overnight shift, I was paged to go and meet a mother who’d arrived to see her daughter.

She was waiting at the security desk when I found her- on occasions like that they’re easy to spot. She didn’t look any older than my mom.

Her mascara had already streaked down her cheeks and dried in the lines of her face. Her hair was matted from where her pillow had been just hours before. I noticed she hadn’t put any socks on and she’d put her sweater on backwards.

When I walked up to her, she had her arms crossed- like she was cold or like she was holding herself. ‘I don’t know what she was doing out this time of night’ she kept whispering to herself.

A resident doctor, a med student no older than me, accompanied us. She’d been the one who’d attended her daughter when the rescue squad brought her in from the accident.

The three of us walked soberly to a tiny, antiseptic room.

A nurse or an orderly pulled a little chain string to draw the paper curtain open, and when the mother saw her daughter she immediately lost her footing.

And then she lost her breath.

And then after a long, stretched-out moment, somewhere between an inhale and an exhale, she let out a bone-racking sob.

I had my arm around her to comfort her and keep her from falling, but I didn’t say anything. I’ve always been wary of anyone who knows what to say in comfortless moments.

The med student, though, was clearly unnerved by the rawness of the mother’s grief and by the absence of any words.

She kept looking at me, urging me with her eyes to say something. I ignored her, and the mother kept sobbing just as loudly as she’d begun.

But maybe I should’ve said something, because when I refused the doctor put her hand on the mother’s shoulder and looked over at the teenage girl lying on the metal bed with flecks of dried blood not all the way wiped from her hair and forehead and said:

That’s alright. She’s not here. That’s just a shell…’ 

I’d known instantly it was the wrong thing to say, that it rang tinny and false and was completely inadequate for the moment.

Nonetheless, it surprised me when she pushed the doctor away and slapped her hard across the face and cried:

‘It’s not alright. That’s my daughter.

She’s not just anything. She’s Amanda. Until I say otherwise, that’s my daughter.’ 

Chastened, the doctor said I’m sorry and slunk away.

I stayed with her a long while after that, my arm around her, listening as she stroked her daughter’s hand and hair and softly recounted memories.

In all that time, she hadn’t really acknowledged my presence until she turned and looked at me and asked me:

What’s heaven like? I want to be able to picture her there. 

I need to be able to picture her there.’

I fumbled it.

I didn’t describe streets of gold exactly, or pearly gates and billowy clouds, but I didn’t do much better than that either.

I’ve been around death enough to know that almost every one of you is as prone to cliche as that terrified med student, and only a few of you would handle that mother’s question about heaven any better than I did.

I’ve buried something like 80 people and stood vigil at I don’t know how many bedsides.

But Amanda’s mother with the sweater on backwards, who’d just been kicked in the teeth by grief, she’s the only person who’s ever put the question to me straight:

What’s heaven like?

Given my line of work, you might expect that question to come up all the time, but she’s the only one who’s ever asked.

Which tells me that before trying to answer what heaven is, maybe I should’ve said what heaven is not.

I wish I’d had the wisdom to lay my hand on her daughter’s head, and find the right way to tell her no matter what anyone said Amanda’s body was more than just a shell because heaven is not the continuation of a person’s eternal soul.

No doubt that would surprise her.

After all for centuries people have taken comfort in the belief that you have an eternal, spiritual soul apart from your physical, embodied self.

But that isn’t a belief rooted in scripture.

God makes us embodied creatures, I wish I’d found a way to say.

We’re one in life, body and soul, and we’re one in death, body and soul.

When we say things like ‘Death’s nothing at all…her body’s just a shell…her soul’s just slipped away’ we may be offering words of comfort but we’re not proclaiming the Gospel.

I think she would’ve understood.

She would’ve known you couldn’t look at her little girl- at the scar on her right hand that she could tell you Amanda got when she was nine, helping in the kitchen- and say her body doesn’t matter.

Death is real, I wish I’d said.

But then she already knew that.

Just like it was for Jesus from noon on Friday to Easter Eve, our death is the end of us.

Our hope lies not in pretending otherwise, not in speculating about a detachable part of us Socrates called the soul.

Our hope lies in knowing that God promises to raise us to life everlasting and, just as he did with Jesus, God is determined not to leave any part of us behind.

And I wish I’d warned her about funeral homes- that the funeral home would most likely want to distribute memorial cards with Amanda’s name and dates on one side, and- odds were- the other side would have a terrible poem on it that said:

“Do not stand by my grave and weep. I am not here. I am a thousand winds that blow, I am the diamond glints on snow, I am the sun on ripened grain, I am the gentle autumn rain.” I wish I’d warned her to refuse a poem like that because heaven is not our becoming one with the infinite. We don’t disappear into the ether.

I should’ve warned her the funeral home would tell her that people found those to be comforting words, but that, for Amanda’s sake, she should care not just that the words are comforting, she should care that they’re true.

Her reaction to the lie the doctor tried to offer as comfort tells me Amanda’s mom already knew that.

She already knew our platitudes about heaven can’t do the heavy lifting because they offer an understanding of heaven in which God is completely absent or, worse, unnecessary. Jesus’ work on the Cross and victory on Easter don’t seem to have achieved anything.

Before I tried to tell her what heaven is, I wish I’d given her advice about Amanda’s funeral.

I wish I’d advised her not to allow any family member or friend or preacher to stand before a congregation and say something like: ‘I’m sure Amanda’s up there now playing field hockey just like she loved to do down here.’

Maybe that sounds obvious, but I hear it enough to make it worth pointing out.

When we say things like that, we’re assuming heaven is basically a continuation of our present physical lives in all their ordinariness.

Heaven is a physical existence; the Risen Jesus is tactile.

But heaven’s also somehow altogether different and more mysterious than our lives now.

Heaven is not simply the continuation of our earthly lives.

For her sake, I wish I’d been clear about what heaven is not.

What’s heaven like? I want to be able to picture her there. I need to be able to picture her there.’

She let go of Amanda’s hand when she asked me. And squeezed my hand.

She squeezed it hard.

 

For a mother having to come claim her daughter- being able to distinguish between what the bible promises and what Hallmark cards promise really is a matter of life and death.

I’ve replayed that night a thousand times in my head. Instead of fumbling with images of billowy clouds and streets of gold, I wish I’d found the right way to tell her that the first thing heaven is is worship.

I wish I’d told her that when scripture pictures heaven it imagines a choir- not because heaven is all harps, organ music and polyester robes or even literally filled with music and praise.

I wish I’d told her to picture a choir because a choir is the perfect image for what it means for her little girl to have a body of her own but find her true self as part of a much greater body, a body where her unique voice sings most truly in harmony with the voices of others, where she rejoices at the gifts of others which only enhance the gifts that are hers alone.

I could’ve told her that the reason Christians put so much care and attention into the way we worship is because the way we worship is the clearest way we depict and anticipate the life of heaven.

So I wish I’d told her to picture Amanda enjoying what we hope for here in worship: that every ounce of her energy and passion is focused on the God, that every part of her that was is now lost in wonder, love and praise – that’s what heaven’s like.

And I wish I’d asked about Amanda’s friends.

If I’d had the presence of mind to ask about Amanda’s friends, then I could’ve told her that in scripture heaven is about friendship- that the heart of God is three persons in perfect community, and that heaven is being invited to the table of friendship of  Father, Son and Holy Spirit.

I wish I’d asked about her daughter’s friends, about the joy and fulfillment they gave her because, in scripture, heaven is about friendship, not just the friendship between you and God but friendship between you and me.

That’s what Isaiah sees when he envisions Jerusalem the new city, coming down from heaven.

The life we live here and now, as friends and neighbors- its not just for the time being.

It won’t be transcended by the coming of heaven.

There will always be community.

There will always be friendship.

That’s why we work so hard as Christians to be engaged in service in our community and around the world- because learning to live together as friends is at the heart of preparing to live in heaven.

Picture Amanda as she was with her best friends, I wish I’d said.

Because that’s what heaven is.

Instead of fumbling with streets of gold and pearly gates, I wish I’d told her to picture Amanda at a party, at a wedding maybe.

I wish I’d asked her to picture Amanda with food and wine and music and dancing because heaven is about feasting together.

Maybe the most common picture of all in scripture is that of heaven as a wedding banquet, where God the Father celebrates the union of the Son with God’s children.

Just imagine, I wish I’d said, a fabulous meal where there were no allergies, no eating disorders, no inequalities in world trade, no fatty foods, no gluttony, and no price tag.

That’s why John Wesley told Christians to share in the Eucharist as constantly as possible- not because the Eucharist grimly recalls Christ’s last meal but because when we gather together as two or three or twenty or two thousand and we eat together as friends we’re a little icon of the Trinity, we’re a little glimpse of heaven.

Heaven is where where food, friendship and worship all come together, I wish I’d said when she squeezed my hand.

Of course, there are questions that answer still doesn’t answer. It doesn’t answer whether heaven comes to us on the day we die or whether we lie at rest, awaiting our resurrection on the last day.It doesn’t answer how God will raise us or in what way we’ll be physical creatures.

It doesn’t answer whether only Christians or only Christians of a particular stripe get into heaven. It doesn’t answer those questions, but I don’t think Amanda’s mom would’ve cared all that much about those questions.

Like the cliches we so often use, those questions are all about us. 

And heaven is all about God.

Heaven is coming face to face with the only thing greater than the fear of death- the overwhelming love of God. That’s all Amanda’s mom wanted to know.

 

 

 

 

 

“…the meaning of life is connected, inextricably, to the meaning of death; mourning is a romance in reverse, and if you love, you grieve and there are no exceptions—only those who do it well and those who don’t.”

– The Undertaking LynchHat

For our third installment of the podcast, we’ve got a heavyweight of the literary world: Thomas Lynch.

Thomas Lynch is quite simply and without exaggeration one of the best damn writers in the English language. And, it turns out, he’s a delightful human being too.

A renowned poet, essayist, and fiction writer Lynch is something of an oddity in the book world for also being a full-time undertaker. Lynch is the inspiration behind the television series, Six Feet Under, as well as the subject of a PBS Frontline Documentary.

the_undertaking.largeI first encountered Lynch’s work at Princeton when I was assigned his book of essays, The Undertaking; Life Studies from the Dismal Trade. It’s elegantly written and achingly beautiful and was a finalist for the National Book Award. You should stop and buy it right now.

His poetry is likewise beautiful and frequently takes up the same themes of death and life and holiness.

His most recent book is co-authored with theologian Tom Long on grief and death.

Why Mr Lynch accepted my invitation for an interview I have no idea but I’m glad he did. He’s on my Mt Rushmore of writers so I make no attempt to hide my adoration. You’ll have to suffer through my fanboy conversation about Seamus Heaney’s poetry.

Near the end Thomas Lynch answers my theological twist on James Lipton’s 10 Questions, which will have to become a podcast tradition (least favorite theological word: ‘Shalt’). He closes out our conversation by sharing a new, unpublished poem.

thomas-lynch-480Oh, I almost forgot: I’m now on his Christmas Card list.

Be on the lookout for the next installments of the podcast.

We’ve got Stanley Hauerwas, Scot McKnight and Brian Blount in the queue.

You can listen to the Lynch interview here below or in the ‘Listen’ widget on the sidebar.

You can also download it in iTunes here or on the app here.