A sermon by Cathy Seggel & James Ishmael Ford for the First Unitarian Church of Providence, RI, given on November 2, 2008
DAYS OF THE DEAD
An All Hallows Reflection
Readings by Peacebang
As a pastor, you spend a lot of time passing around the chewing gum in the parking lot with the Grim Reaper, having that “meeting after the meeting” that all church folk are familiar with. I have actually had dreams where I am dancing with him, waltzing beautifully in a large, silent ballroom and feeling romanced and loved by this hooded, faceless Presence. Sometimes I see Death as the Spider Woman, sexy like Chita Rivera in that webbed gown she wore in “Kiss of the Spider Woman,” and I can tell when she’s hanging around a hospital room or bed. She wears heady perfume and smokes thin little cigars, and you can faintly detect their odor under all the other human smells.
And sometimes Death is a stern presence, tall, gaunt and impatient, dressed in a Puritan clergyman’s vestments and tapping his toe, pursing his lips and wanting to quote some more from the Bible — injecting the Word of God into your heretical 21st century nonsense. I always stare him down until he backs against the wall and promises to remain quiet. “This isn’t your gig, Reverend.” He nods and sighs his acquiescence, but his perfect posture never flags.
I’ve always liked costumes. Maybe that’s a reason I ended up a minister. As a kid at different times I was a doctor, a pirate, a cowboy, superman, or was it batman, I don’t really remember for sure. And once I was a skeleton. There’s something magical about pretend. No doubt.
In our imagination we can be just about anything at all. When you’re a kid that’s particularly good, because at that time of life, where everything lies as a possibility, its good to just try it on. See how it fits. Play with it. What we think about might well lead to what we become. Today I can’t help but think of a half Kenyan boy in a Hawaiian school imagining he could become president of the United States.
Of course this particular season, Halloween, is a time where all the possibilities are presented for our consideration. I think it also true of that other festival in the Western Christian tradition, the one that follows right after, the feast All Saints. It suggests one of the options in particular, how we can become something better.
But, I find myself more thinking about All Hallows. And the possibilities we particularly find at that time, where the worlds are joined, where goblins and fairies and monsters and super heroes march around. I love our new neighborhood, a very kid friendly place, where we saw our fair share of such wondrous creatures come to our door demanding treats. Auntie opined three hundred. I believe that an exaggeration, but it was quite the parade. Glorious costumes. Weird costumes. Dreaming costumes.
For the grown up part of all this, Cathy & I have been thinking of Halloween’s images of death, and particularly death’s various costumes. That’s why our reading running through this part of the service by Peacebang, a UU minister who mused at her blog not long ago about those various costumes death wears.
Today, particularly we want to hold up death as transformation, as change.
And what that might mean for us as we live our lives.
Now and then Death is a grandmother Jesus, rocking and knitting, looking up and glancing at the suffering one and humming a soft little song to help her baby along. She is calm while everyone else is frantic. She smiles with ultimate understanding but never rises from her chair. This isn’t her work, it is ours, and she is content to be a supportive witness while we attend to it. Even when the last exhalation has occurred and the dying one is finally still, she still doesn’t get up, just tilts her head and checks to see everything is alright, and goes back to her knitting and her humming. She will be the last one out of the room, and she will draw the curtains when everyone is gone.
As James just shared, this morning we shine the light on being alive, fully and authentically, while learning, sometimes reluctantly, that dying is the steady, non-anxious presence that travels with us. Today, we gather to remember who we are by honoring memories of those souls who came before; some from our congregation, some, your family or friends. We needn’t look far to find strong, wise mentors
Have any of you paid attention to the trees lately? I sure have. Right outside my bedroom there’s a huge one that grows so close to the window that it feels like living in a tree house. This time of year it has branches loaded with drooping golden berries and some green leaves, yellowed around the edges. We have noticed that it is one of the last in the neighborhood to loose its blanket of foliage. It is a grand old tree that I have known since it was transplanted as a tiny sapling, barely alive. At the time, I was convinced that it would not make it, planted so close to the house.
Apparently, I was wrong. That tree must have deep roots into the earth and I can see for myself that it’s branch arms reach high up into the sky. Once the leaves drop, the berries, change to a burgundy color and cling for weeks and weeks. Then, on a crisp winter morning, a huge flock of big black birds swoop down, perch all over branches and, in what seems like a minute, any signs of their juicy meal have vanished.
The Death I have never met is the one who will be there for the person who, after a decade of heroic, exhausting and constant medical intervention to keep herself alive, has decided that she can no longer endure the pain and is stopping treatment. When she told me of her decision over the phone this afternoon, I felt this Death in the room behind me, a strong, young, taciturn farmer with some kind of big rake in his hand, wearing overalls and sturdy boots and a hat to shield his face from the still-strong October sun. He clomped through the house leaving bits of dirt on the floor, and the screen door slammed behind him as he went back outside to the fields. It is harvest time, after all, and there’s work to do.
At times, I worry about my tree, like an old friend or family member who naturally and most certainly will die. After all, don’t the leaves dry up and fall? Why can’t our skin and bones stay supple and strong? How about eating healthy food and exercising every day?
When trees have sunlight and water, they can live for a long, long time and seem to sit quietly, like old people, telling and retelling stories about times past. Trees have lifetimes, like people, animals and all creatures. They seem to practice dying and living, over and over, in a splendid way. Perhaps they understand and embrace the mystery of the life cycle that humans search to fathom.
Each winter, my tree house tree looks like a wise elder; a grandpa, an auntie, almost gone, but not yet. Dying well takes practice, I think.
Come spring, I know my tree will struggle toward the light and burst into a blush of bloom, then summer fruit. Then, the decay of autumn and the barren season again. Precious and fragile, my tree helps me to find peace and possibilities in death and in life.
I wanted to run after him, to shout that he should clean up after himself, that he had left dirt on my floor. More than that, I wanted to pick a fight with him, really, to land a good punch to his jaw. I wanted to pummel him right on the bib of his overalls, to stomp on his boots with my own. I wanted to tear off the sleeve of his worn cotton shirt and make a hankie for myself and for her — something we could hold in our hand and cling to — and leave him bruised and sorry for what he’s taking.
I know what he would say. “Don’t take it personal, ma’am. This isn’t anything you need to fight me about.” And then he would give me a kindly look and again leave the house, this time closing the screen door more carefully behind him.
Costumes, trees and death; imagination and dreams.
I know the taking death personally; the resisting, the wanting to fight; the just wanting death to hold off a little longer. My mother was living in our Arizona home when she died, the family coming and going, she sleeping and waking in her reclined Barcalounger, which had become her preferred bed. She waited for a time when we were all gone from the room for her meeting with death. I can’t ever lose the fact I’d not only not been in the room, but also out of the house running unnecessary errands. Whatever her preference, that timing was not mine. And now and for always that gap has a part in my dreams.
And I know all too intimately those who rush into death’s embrace way too early, and how they are part of my dreams. I think of my brother. I think of my son. Foolishness, addiction, loss and longing; wounds so deep we cannot even begin to give them meaning. But they live in our dreams.
And recalling dreams I find myself thinking of Cathy’s dream tree, such a lovely and powerful image. Trees are something humans have dreamed about from before the dawn of history. I think of Yggdrasil, the world tree. In the stories of the Norse people, it is a great Ash situated at the center of the universe, joining the nine worlds.
That image of a tree helps me to understand the how, the real connections between you and me, between life and death, and from there to dream into my true possibility. We are all a part, a branch, a bit of bark, one of ten million, million leaves, including those leaves and branches that have fallen and become mulch, now renewing, reconnecting, ever dying, ever renewing.
What is so powerful for me is how we are connected, how even our personal dreams inform each other. Of course this week we stand at the edge of a momentous decision for our people, the choice of our next president. Two people have put themselves forward and spoken their dreams to us. Their dreams have entered our sleep, perhaps. I know they have mine.
And that’s kind of how it works. I think of all the people who have been a part of my life, and of those who just by coming into this place, I’ve found so quickly so important to me. I think of the founders of this congregation. I think of those plaques of the dead recalled placed at the back of this Meeting House. I think of all of you, and the dreams you enter this place carrying. I think of our fears and hopes for this city and state and nation, and for the world itself.
And I think of that tree at the center of the universe, where everything is joined.
In this special time, the season of death’s feast, of a celebration of saints, and of this nation’s national election and I find myself thinking of children’s costumes. Try this on. Try that on. I think of hope and loss. I think of life and of death each in ten thousand guises, and in the shade of that tree how it all seeps together and becomes my dreams. And, maybe, yours?
And I think of where all this taken whole might lead us, you and me.