Tag Archives: reacting to death

Sermon at Eliana’s Funeral

IMG_0086On Sunday afternoon, we held the service to commend Eliana to God’s care. It was a hard and beautiful time. The church was packed beyond capacity; so many family and friends came to help us sing Eliana across the river: family from all over, friends, neighbors,  members from Faith Lutheran Church where I am the pastor, members from Acacia Park Lutheran Church where Chris is pastor, pastoral colleagues from across the Chicago area, colleagues and partners in our community work. It was a glorious gathering. Todd Carrico, our music director did a fabulous job of leading the song, and did the assembly ever sing! They sang for us when the words were stuck in our throats or held back by tears. 

I don’t usually publish my sermons as part of this blog. Sermons are contextual and best heard in the assembly as they are preached. This one is no exception. However, in some ways, this sermon is a continuation of what I have written in the past few posts I’ve shared here, thoughts about promises and resurrection and what all that could mean as we grieve Eliana’s death, a life too short and in which there was too much pain. 

The sermon was based on the lessons Chris and Liz chose for the service: Isaiah 43:1-3a, 4-7, 18-19, Psalm 139:1-17, Romans 8:26-27, and John 4:1-15. Often in the sermon, I use what in the printed word seems to be an ambiguous “you.” In most cases, I’m addressing Eliana’s parents, Chris and Liz Honig.

Eliana Frances Honig. Eliana. God hears. What a beautiful name for a beautiful little girl. Eliana’s world was pretty small and pretty limited. Nearly her entire life was spent in the confines of a small room on the Neo-Natal Intensive Care Unit of Lurie Children’s Hospital in downtown Chicago. Yet, she was Eliana. There is both joy and a deep sense of sadness today. Only in her death do you get to introduce her to the world. When you penned her obituary, you told us about a beautiful, brave little girl who was a fighter, who sparred with her nurses and had her own unique way of curling up her feet and touching her bandaged hand to her cheek, who in spite of her near constant pain tried to soothe herself, and was responsive to the gentle sound of your voice and touch, even when there were so few places you could touch her.  I think she must have been the most well-read 8 week old on the planet.

What you have described is Eliana, a girl with her own personality in spite of her EB, a unique human being who was not defined by her disease. God created Eliana. God created her in God’s image. From the very beginning God knew her and God loved her. While her skin disorder made her life difficult and painful, she was formed wonderfully, and you, her parents, were able to see how extraordinarily she was knit together, how remarkable and complex she was. She was, in spite of her disease, in spite of her short life, a precious human life with consciousness and will and the ability to connect with those few people who were able to come to know her.

And she was loved. Oh, was she loved. She was loved by mama and papa, Grampa Frank and and Gramma Luann, Grampa Jim and Gramma Sheryl, Aunt Shannon, Uncle Tim and Aunt Stacey, nurses Kate and Ursula and Sara and Stephanie, Dr. Henna, Dr. Mancini, Dr. Chamlin. Oh, that child was loved. And not because she was any of those amazing things that appear in her obituary. She was loved because of her life. Your love for Eliana allowed you to see those amazing things in her. The mutual love of child to parent and back again brought joy to you and to everyone who got to know Eliana.

That joy is muted today because the sad truth is we are not intended to bury our babies. I have no words to make sense of why we have to do that. For all of my faith and all of my theology, I have never been able to put together a cogent explanation for the kind of suffering that Eliana experienced, and the suffering of parents who lose their children.

At first glance, the gospel lesson has little to say to those who are grieving the death of a child. Jesus is enjoying a little verbal sparring with a woman from the wrong side of the tracks. They happen to be at the old well of Jacob in the middle of the day. Neither Jesus nor the Samaritan woman should be talking to each other. Yet the conversation goes on and in response to the woman’s questions and yearnings, Jesus talks about water and thirst and the possibility of never being thirsty again and about how one’s deep thirst can be slaked by a water that brings eternal life.

On April 7, on the morning before she went to surgery to have a feeding tube inserted, Eliana was baptized into Christ’s death and resurrection. Though it wasn’t an abundance of water, it was water with the Word that brought to your precious daughter the gushing springs of life. It wasn’t exactly the baptism that you had imagined. It was not at church, and beautiful Eliana traded a lacy white baptismal dress for Aqua-phor soaked dressings that wrapped her wounds. Still, in the application of water of from a tiny plastic vial along with the words of the gospel, it was living water; it was water that gave her springs of life with God.

When we mention this promise of eternal life, though, I hope we won’t immediately and automatically fall into the pious platitudes that offer little help when our grief is so raw. “Well, she’s in a better place,” some are quick to say.  I say that being held in her parents arms would be a fine place. There is truth in the promise of eternal life. We don’t have to speak of Eliana as if she has disappeared, disintegrated into nothing. She lives, having passed through the gateway of death into life in God’s nearer presence. God has welcomed her with the loving arms of one who says, “Fear not, precious little girl. I have called you, Eliana, and you are mine.” The pain that was so much a part of her life her on this side of the river is over. She has been made whole. Her baptismal promises she has received in all their fullness.

Those promises, true though they may be, seem small consolation in the face of Eliana’s death. Her death came way too soon and it leaves us feeling empty and cheated. I’m not ready to hear words that tie it all together in a nice clean bow so that now we are expected to make sense of it all and move on.

So many people were praying for a miracle. Frankly, I would have settled for less than a miracle. I would have settled for a little luck and a little time.  Those gifts were not given. And I can’t for the life of me imagine why. If asking God for healing is something we are allowed to do, then why are some prayers answered and others not? Another theological conundrum for which I have no answer.

Is that why you chose the passage from Romans? Because words for prayers have run dry after the one thing you so desperately prayed for has been denied?

The Spirit will hold you up. The Spirit will gather your sighs and your cries, your bone-deep sobs and your anger and the sadness and take them to God and God will hold them in God’s heart, loving you in the midst of what is inexplicable. The promise that the Spirit will hold you is nearly identical to the strong and gentle words of the prophet: “when you pass through the waters, I will be with you; and through the rivers, they shall not overwhelm you; when you walk through fire you shall not be burned, and the flame shall not consume you.”

Somehow God was with Eliana through her ordeal and she has had her homecoming. Somehow God is with you in the midst of facing her loss. And here’s what gives those promises their teeth, what makes them more than nice, empty words.  When God chose to come among us in Christ, God risked becoming vulnerable to all that this broken and fallen word might have to offer. In the last days of his life, Jesus experienced the worst that a broken and fallen world could throw at him: abuse, and beating and mockery and finally a cruel, torturous death. There is no place we can go where God has not already been; there is no horror we can experience that God has not already endured. In Eliana’s cries of pain, God was not distant but by her side. In your grief and sorrow, God has not abandoned you, but is in fact carrying you. When you pass through such unspeakable loss, God says, I will be with you, I will carry you.

Look around you Chris and Liz. Look around you at the community that has carried you and promises to carry you into the future. When you can’t believe, they will believe for you; when you can’t pray, they will pray for you. When you don’t feel like taking even one step, they will be here to walk with you. The loving arms of God hold you fast through the people of Acacia Park Lutheran Church, Faith Lutheran Church, your family, your friends and all the others gathered here today. We are holding you today.

In a few moments, you will be invited to this table to receive the fruit of Jesus’ death and resurrection. We will sing. With saints and angels we will sing. We sing because that’s what we do when there is nothing else that we can do. For a brief moment, the curtain that separates us from those who have already crossed over is opened and we join the saints and angels in their song. Eliana is singing that song, and we sing with her. She is enjoying that feast of victory at the banquet table of the Lamb. When we receive our morsel of bread and taste of wine, we join her at table, she eating the feast of victory, and we a meal in which God promises to sustain us for the journey that for us is not yet over. In the bread and wine comes the promise one more time: when you pass through the waters, I will be with you.

That Thing Like Taxes

or a long introductory essay and a short review of William Kent Krueger’s novel, Ordinary Grace

ordinary grace coverI didn’t have an up close and personal brush with death until I was out of the seminary and in the parish for a couple of years. As a young adult, my parents, siblings, aunts and uncles, even all but one of my my grandparents were still living and he died when I was an infant.

Linda was a church member, a colleague, a kind-hearted soul who appropriately mothered my wife and me as we left school and entered “the real world.” We first met her as our real estate agent. We didn’t have a lot of money and my salary wasn’t going to be great, but at the suggestion of the senior pastor, we asked Linda to show us around and see what might be possible. With a positive, hopeful, and eminently practical frame of mind, Linda set out to show us what we could afford, and within weeks helped us buy our first home.

After that, I knew her as Sunday School superintendent, organized to the hilt, yet so tuned into the needs of the kids and the teachers. She and her husband attended church every week, and over the course of that first year, we also got to meet several of her five grown children. They all adored her; what I saw of Linda’s marriage was a couple still starry-eyed in love.

When she was first diagnosed with lung cancer, she almost brushed it off; just a couple of spots, she said. The doctors weren’t worried. But over the course of the next year, the disease proved to be extraordinarily virile. None of the chemotherapy had any impact, and the cancer multiplied and spread.

What made it so inexplicable was that Linda had none of the risk factors. She was born and raised a teetotaling Baptist. She didn’t drink and had never smoked. She exercised, watched what she ate, and was the picture of health.

She was home when she died, under the care of hospice. Maybe because I had visited so often those last weeks, I got the call early one morning that she had died. “Could I come?” her husband asked. When I got there, Linda was still in bed, her family gathered around; her youngest son who had just graduated from college, sat in bed with his mother in his arms rocking her and sobbing.

It was the first time I grieved the death of someone with whom I had had such a close relationship. It was hard and it was eye-opening. It wasn’t just the sadness of loss. It was the first time I experienced so personally what felt like the injustice and arbitrariness of death. Linda still had years to live and much to contribute. She was one of those people who made her corner of the world a better place. Her death didn’t fit into my comfortable, rational categories of how things were supposed to work out.

In the parish I serve, we average a little more than funeral a month. Most of them are not tragic in the sense of unexpected or untimely. They are sad; they represent loss; they bring folks face to face with the reality most of us work hard at denying, that is, we are mortal. Over the years, I’ve witnessed firsthand the broad spectrum of the ways people deal with death. I remember one woman with cancer who up until the very end was convinced there would be a miraculous cure. She forbad her family from talking of any other outcome. That was pretty hard-core denial. Other times, I have experienced the calm peace that can accompany death, standing with family around the bedside of the dying, singing hymns, praying, telling stories, and laughing the loved one across the river.  Some people draw strength from their faith, from their relationship with God, and from the promises of life in the midst of death. Others find in the sometimes sudden intrusion and finality of death their faith shaken to it’s core and can do nothing other than shake their fist at God for what feels like abandonment and capriciousness.

William Kent Krueger’s novel, Ordinary Grace is a beautiful, poignant story of life and the reality of death. The narrator is a grown man who tells the story, looking back on the summer of his 13th year, “a summer in which death, in visitation, assumed many forms. . .You might think I remember that summer as tragic and I do but not completely so.”

That narrator, Frank, is the wild son of the local Methodist preacher. The story opens with the report of the death of a classmate of Frank’s; it isn’t long before the reader is in the sanctuary where Franks’s father is conducting the funeral service for Bobby Cole. That same church and that very sanctuary become an anchor for the unfolding of the story.

In a sense, the story reads like a who-done-it, except without a detective. Mystery surrounds many of the deaths, and it’s to Krueger’s credit that you never quite know exactly how the deaths happened; accident? murder? something in between? The small, fictional Minnesota town is populated with enough odd yet believable characters that the reader ends up speculating along with the narrator about the whos and the hows of the series of deaths.

Where I think Krueger’s writing borders on the brilliant is the believable way he paints the variety of reactions to death. He allows for each of the characters, the families, and indeed, the town itself, to grow through the experience of loss to emerge on the other side of grief as someone different and wiser than before.

The story is, in fact, a long illustration of the quotation from the ancient Greek playwright, Aeschylus, a quotation that bookends the novel:  “He who learns must suffer. And even in our sleep pain, which cannot forget, falls drop by drop upon our heart, until, in our own despair, against our will, comes wisdom through the awful grace of God.”

Awful isn’t a word I often associate with grace. But this story has been yet another invitation to reflect on my own losses, struggles, pains, troubles, and sorrows. What I have experienced has been verified in the experience of others, namely that those times of suffering and pain have been transformational. And yes, brother Aeschylus, the places from which spring the fountain of wisdom.