[Associate Conference Minister,Vermont Conference at the United Church of Christ; reflection on an annual Clergy Conferences; September 24, 2014 – Vol. 7, Issue 38.]
Can anything separate us from the love of Christ? Can trouble, pain or persecution? Can lack of clothes and food, danger to life and limb, the threat of force of arms?
I have become absolutely convinced that neither death nor life…neither what happens today nor what may happen tomorrow…nor anything else in God’s whole world…neither Alzheimer’s or Dementia nor the process of dying…has any power to separate us from the love of God in Jesus Christ our Lord.
The past two and a half days I have been attending our annual Clergy Convocation. At any given time during these days some 25-50 clergy have been present. Some come every year no matter what we are talking about. Why? Because they enjoy the fellowship and collegiality of being with other pastors across the Conference that they see far too seldom. Others come because of the subject that is being explored, or who the presenter is. Others who plan on coming have those plans interrupted by an illness or death of a parishioner or some pre-planned event or trip in their personal lives.
This year the subject got personal. It gave some clergy pause. What is deeper than the grave? What would it be like to face our mortality? OUR mortality! We who spend so much of our work being with people who are ill. Who die. Whose families grieve. What would it be like to talk about death? Many of us have been bereaved ourselves in the past year. Would it too hard? Too depressing?
It had been a risk for the Convocation Committee to plan for this year’s gathering. Usually there is a presenter who presents in several sessions and the committee plans some worship and fellowship and it just flows. But in the past couple of years there has been a growing awareness in society and in our churches that a new and challenging need is arising and is worthy of our attention. A need that will continue to arise as the growing demographic of the population is over 65. Those who are aging. How do we age well and wisely? What happens when our aging confronts us with some form of dementia or disability? Who are we then? What happens when we receive – at any age – a diagnosis of a terminal disease?
And so we gathered. And now – at the end of our time together – I can honestly say that for myself – these days have been filled with sadness, joy, challenge, inspiration and exhaustion. These days have been filled with stories – deep, rich stories – arising out of our hearts and memories – our own stories – and the stories of those who have taught us about dying and about living.
We traveled from death to life – as we began by admitting that we will all die. At one time or another our bodies will cease to function on this earth. We said thank you for those in our lives who have died. We named their names. We remembered. And the God who comforts those who mourn came to meet us in that place of loss.
On Tuesday, Rev. Dr. Kathleen Rusnak spent the day with us – helping us recognize that there is no way we know what it is like to die – because we’ve never died before! We are creatures who always think that we have five more years – whether we’re 30 or 50 or 90. What does it mean to hear that we don’t have those five years anymore? We are creatures who live in a ‘to do list’ future. What does it mean to hear that there is ‘no more’ future in which ‘to do’? We are creatures who identify ourselves and others by the externals of what we do and have. Who are we when our external identity is gone?
What is the spiritual world of the dying? It is a place of remembering. Of wondering. Why was I here? Did I live well? Was I loved? Will I be remembered? What will I be leaving? What is unfinished? What or who do I need to make peace with?
And what does it mean to lose our memories? Who are we when our memories are gone? What is the definition of ‘personhood’? If God gives us our personhood then we will always be in relationship to God and under God’s protection. NOTHING can separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus. When someone looks at us and speaks to us – we are persons.
Persons who still need and recognize love and care – and some measure of sharing love and care in return. To hold hands. To say ‘thank you.’ To say ‘I love you.’
And so – if we are all dying – if we will all die – then how then shall we live in the now?
Nina Thompson from the ‘Wake Up to Dying Project’ came to share audio stories the Project has been collecting. Real people in their own voices told of how they woke up to LIFE when someone they loved died or when they received a difficult diagnosis. This project is encouraging people to think and to talk about dying, because they believe that if we pay more attention to the fact that we die, we will pay more attention to the way we choose to live.
So we gathered around tables yet again to remember those whose dying taught us to live – perhaps to make different choices or travel a different path or to pay more attention. This too is about how we love and care for ourselves, the others in our lives, the work we do, the world we live in, the people who live in it.
In worship we remembered who we are and whose we are. We remembered the God who created us, who called us out of slavery into freedom, who calls us to works of justice and mercy and love, who calls us to care for the least among us, who loves us so much that God sent Jesus to teach us a way of life that builds God’s reign among us – and reminded us that God is always bringing life out of death over and over again.
But the LOVE and CARE that brings LIFE takes time. It takes focus. It takes attention. In a culture that both creates and encourages busyness and efficiency – love and care are counter-cultural.
How then shall we live?
We have a choice.
It was a good Convocation. It was deep and rich and ripe with future opportunities to have important conversations with others back at home.