I didn’t know what this month would hold
when I dreamt up the title and focus for today’s
worship service, “Journey Into Living and Dying.”
At the time, I didn’t know that the beautiful and struggling
15-year-old grandson of a member of our church
would die suddenly thirteen days ago, or that we,
as a community, would be invited to help hold space
for his family as they grieved such a senseless tragedy
while trying, too, to be brave and strong
and celebrate his life.
Hundreds of people came through this sanctuary Friday night
for public visiting hours. Dozens of teenagers among them who
otherwise might not have had a time or place to gather together
and remember their friend, or to be there for each other, or his family.
Some of you, I know, came to show your loving care for
this family that night, and several of you helped to make that
gathering possible at all—
you arranged flowers and volunteered with planning
and hosting the reception; a few of you were parking attendants
in the rain and damp and fog. Others greeted people at the door
and welcomed them into our building.
A handful of you showed up to help with cleaning up,
and some of you did it all over again the very next day
when a private memorial service and reception was held
here for that family. I love how so many people in our
church community make our commitment—
our mission—to be a “loving community” so real…
I didn’t know death would come so quickly,
or hit so close to home, in that devastating,
“take-your-breath-away” kind of way for people
we know and love, and today, this moment
with you, as we worship together, I remember
again that this is how life sometimes happens—
maybe too often happens: death can and does
come suddenly. It’s humbling, and startling,
and disorienting when it happens.
(I hold this awareness tenderly.)
Knowing that death can and does sometimes come suddenly,
and we’re better off living our lives, when and where we choose
more intentionally to be thankful, as the song we sang earlier
suggests, “thankful for this day, Spirit, thank you for this day.”
Again, I didn’t know, as none of us knew, that just three days ago,
on the other side of the world, fifty people who were practicing
their Muslim faith at Friday prayers in two mosques in Christchurch,
New Zealand would be die—their lives ended, and at least
the same number of people seriously injured, too;
all of their lives forever changed. The whole terrifying event,
we know now was a deliberate and skillfully executed act
of violence fueled by a person (or people) poisoned
by hate and fear, zenophobia and Islamaphobia, too…
When I was thinking about our journey into living and dying,
I hadn’t known that horrific event would happen
because we don’t ever know, yet some part of me,
maybe like some part of you, isn’t as shocked as I once
was about these kinds of horrendous acts of violence,
hateful acts carried out to terrorize particular people,
and heighten fear and further division in us all.
After church today, in the Community Room where
there’s coffee, at least one member from our Peace & Social
Action Committee, PASA, will have his laptop computer on
and open to be able to give anyone who wants to, a chance
to write and send a message or prayer of love and support
to the families and survivors of the shooting. The non-profit group
“Revolutionary Love” is making sure these (and hopefully
thousands of other prayers and messages)
get to these people and families.
I still remember the day, years ago now when I was a Chaplain
Intern doing my required unit of clinical pastoral education at
Central Maine Medical Center in Lewiston, Maine as part
of my seminary requirements for ministry.
That particular hot, blue-sky day in August, I’d traveled from
Lewiston to the Rumford Community Hospital to do my rounds
in that affiliated, small rural hospital. Shortly after I got there,
a nurse told me a patient on their Med. Surg. floor who’d been
doing well the day before had suddenly taken a turn for the worse.
His sister-in-law was in his room with him.
Would I please go and see him and sit with her
and do whatever I could to help?
After taking a deep breath and collecting my thoughts (and courage),
I went into the room and introduced myself. With permission,
I sat on one side of the bed and she, the patient’s sister-in-law,
sat on the other. Her brother-in-law’s eyes were closed and he
wasn’t responsive or much awake at all anymore.
This man’s sister-in-law wondered out loud with me what was going on?—he’d been fine the day before, and she was only there
to visit because his wife couldn’t make it in that day,
she’d had no idea to expect this…
Eventually, we both could tell that things were changing—
his breathing was becoming more halting and labored.
There were longer periods of time between each breath.
I remember holding his hand and noticing it was cooler
to touch than before. Within 20 minutes of having walked
into this room, this patient took his last breath and died.
I couldn’t think of much to say or do when it happened.
We both sat in there, in silence together a while.
This man’s sister-in-law shared tears of sadness
about his life being over, and about the heartbreak she
knew his death would cause her sister and his loved ones.
There was a sense of shock for her that that day
was the day the end of life came for him, after all.
I hugged her and waited for her to call family, and for
them to arrive. Driving home that late August afternoon,
I remember rolling down my car window and letting
the warmth of the sun in. I remember feeling like every
single thing I looked at outside my windows, the fields and trees
I was driving by, were in sharper focus somehow, more beautiful,
more alive than I’d noticed on any of the other days I drove those
same roads home from that hospital. Looking back, these many years,
on that day and that moment, it’s clear to me that witnessing that
patient’s death made my heart open up, my consciousness sharpen;
I was more acutely aware of the beauty and the sanctity
of life because the reality of death was so real.
That awareness, I’m afraid lessens over time.
A week or so later, I remember reading this man’s obituary
in the paper, and smiling and laughing out loud when I
came across the sentence the family so thoughtfully
included about me. “Blank’s family wishes to thank,
hospital chaplain, Sara Hogman, for her kindness
and loving presence the day he died.”
It’s important (and appropriate) to be humble about these things…
Any one of us is capable of being present,
which is ministering with another, with our
loved ones when the end of life comes or is near.
If we prepare ourselves, the end of life can be a powerful,
life-shaping, life-giving experience; one that can remind us
to see and celebrate the very gift and privilege of being alive.
That heightened awareness of the sanctity and sacredness of life
can, and we hope will, compel and call us to live our lives
out of a more grateful and generous places…
with more caring and a greater felt-sense responsibility
at work in us, for the well-being of all others, and all of life as a whole.
I love that Eileen Brennan, whose living a long life,
is willing to share her wisdom with us. She knows, she
told us this morning, that reflection is the name of the game
in her life at this time. With humility and courage, she dares
to look, as she says, “at the mountains she has not climbed
straight in the face, tempered by a sense of fullness
about the overall living she has carved.”
Eileen Brennan wants to “arrive in time,” as she says it,
to [able to] live open-eyed near the end. Her work now,
like all of our work, “is to pay attention.”
Last Saturday morning, I was invited by Lori Johnson
to lead a workshop organized for hospice volunteers
participating in an Enrichment Day program hosted for
them by Hospice Volunteers of Hancock County. My assignment
that day was to talk about spirituality and end of life care,
how each person who provides hospice care has the chance
to become a more confident and skillful spiritual care provider—
someone whose working at being more present
with another human being;
someone whose committed to practicing deep listening
and intentionally making room in their relationship
and time with another to listen to the life stories
that person would choose to share, as they wrestle
with making sense of what their life means now,
particularly as the reality of their death becomes more and more real…
I opened my talk by singing the second of the two songs
our choir sang today…I’ve been singing it to myself,
on and off again since then. It looks like it might be a hard road,
but I’m gonna walk it with you. And I know it might
have a heavy load, but I can carry some, too.
I will lift you up, when they push you down,
raise my voice and stand my ground, well
it looks like it’s might be a hard road,
but I’m gonna walk it with you…”
A few weeks ago, in preparation for last week’s second
NEW TO UU class Amy facilitated about theology—
the how and why of our living and understanding and
relating to god, or the holy, as we define that—
Amy gave us an article to read by the now late Rev.
Forrest Church, a UU minister who served our
All Souls Church in New York City for more than two
decades, and wrote about his experience (and making sense)
of living and dying of cancer, which happened for him in 2008.
In this article, Church makes the claim that “religion
is our “human response” to the dual reality of being alive
and having to die…that because we know we are going to die,
we question what life means.” He goes on to say this: that “If religion
is our response to the dual reality of being alive and having to die,
the purpose of life is to live in such a way that our lives
will prove worthy of dying for.” Awe and humility
are what we are called to cultivate and live out of in
our lives, as the miracles of birth and death are the
sacraments that unite all of us in a shared mystery.”
In others of her poems, and lines of poetry that will always
live with me, Mary Oliver asks us this question and invites
us into this awareness of what life and living calls us to:
Tell me, what do you plan to do with your
one wild and precious life?
To live in this world, you must be able to do three things:
To love what is mortal, to hold it against your chest knowing
your own life depends on it, and when the time comes,
To let it go, to let it go…
May we walk each to the other side,
with love and compassion as our guides.
May we turn toward, rather than turn away
from the sacred and life changing, love transforming
experience of being and feeling alive, while knowing, too,
that we will die. May we be gentle with those who are
grieving significant and still tender losses.
Let us be together now, a few moments, in silence,
with awe and humility at work in us as we ponder
all that love calls us to…