Some of you know that I officiate a lot of funerals. Certainly for members of the congregation I serve, but also sometimes for the seemingly random one who comes to a funeral home to plan a funeral, wanting a religious service, but having no religious community to call upon.
I spent time with such a family a few weeks ago, sorting through what they needed for the funeral of a beloved young person. Since I did not know them or him, they were trying to give me a window into who he was. To do so, they kept pulling up videos he had posted on Instagram, short clips which captured his voice, his exuberant personality, his joy in life.
- At his funeral one of his brothers spoke. In spite of my best advice, he did not write down his thoughts and he got up to speak and he spoke and he spoke and he spoke. It was almost as though should he quit speaking he might have to finally admit that his brother had died. That this part of his life was over too soon. As if by speaking he could keep him alive.
- One of my favorite artists died this week. Nanci Griffith was a masterful story teller in her music. I have been listening to her since I was a young adult, ever grateful for the ways in which she put into words and tied to melody images and stories which somehow helped me navigate what was before me, too. Since the news of her death was shared, thousands are sharing stories and YouTube clips on social media, reminding one another of the ways in which the gift never dies, not once it is shared, (and not once it is in digital form.) She has died. Her music has not.
- And this is true, isn’t it? There is some kind of ‘eternity’ in videos passed on, in music shared and shared, in stories remembered and repeated. The human chain itself carries us forward, even after we are gone. Indeed, I remember my dad saying this around a Thanksgiving table not long before he would die. He looked at the young grandchildren there and he said, “They will remember us long into the next century.” And they do. We do.
But surely there is something more than this pointed to now, isn’t there? These words of ‘eternal life’ which Simon Peter and the others for whom he speaks feel they have little choice but to embrace, are more than mere memory, aren’t they? More than just our oh-so-human efforts to ‘keep alive’ one we have loved if only by watching the videos, listening to the music, telling the stories?
For these are ‘words’ which so far in John’s Gospel:
- Turned water into wine, enabling the celebration to continue. John 2:1-11
- Were shared with a late night visitor in the person of Nicodemus, inviting him to turn his understanding of what God could do, what God does, on its head. John 3:1-21
- Gave hope and meaning in a chance encounter with a woman at a well, one for whom life had surely not held what she had hoped or intended. John 4:1-42
- And fed thousands in a grassy place, with an abundance left over. John 6:1-14
No, indeed, these words are surely not only meant for us as we contemplate a ‘next life’ for ourselves and those we love. These are words which bring joy, and understanding, challenge and hope right now today. These are words which lead to the feeding of the hungry in ways tangible and not so tangible, but which always satisfy our deepest needs.
Indeed, along with Simon Peter and the others who did not ‘go away,’ once we have gotten a taste of this? Where else would we go? And surely we sell this promise short if we only understand ‘eternity’ as what comes next in terms of length and not depth, as only the future and not right now. Surely we do. More than this, it is not nearly enough if I, if we only cling to our own often limited, limiting understandings, our own often too small sense sense of what matters most and not allow ourselves along with those wedding guests, Nicodemus late at night, a lone woman at a well, and a multitude sharing lunch, to hear and and understand and receive the deeper meaning of life, eternal life, beyond what perhaps we ever knew before.
With all of this, this is how these ‘words of eternal life’ make meaning for me of late:
Because for me, at least, it seems that in some ways my ‘world’ has shrunk to one ten by fourteen room at a local rehab center where my mother is now. She took a fall two weeks ago and broke a bone in her back. They could repair the bone, but her strength was depleted, and so for now she is no longer with me, dependent on strangers for her daily care, working to and hoping that she can regain what she needs to come home.
It has not been an easy transition for her, for us. And while no place is perfect, and this one certainly is not, again and again she still seems to find some delight in the kindness, the stories, the willing help of the parade of workers who make their way to her side. Truth be told, I have found my own hope for ‘what’s next’ growing smaller and smaller — praying only for comfort, for peace, for healing, for relief of pain, for cessation of anxiety for this beloved one. And yet, while my focus has grown smaller, hers seems to be expanding as she is often able to see in the faces (or at least in the eyes above the masks) people worth knowing and remembering. (Not always, of course, but often.)
And oh, for all of us, how hard these whole last many months have been, haven’t they, as we have navigated and keep on navigating this pandemic? How have we in much the same way, sometimes found our focus narrowing instead of expanding?
Indeed, how often have I felt myself yearning for ‘eternity’ in terms of just getting beyond this moment, this hour, this week, this month, this ongoing dilemma, to the other side?
Even so, I wonder what it will mean if I, if we, could just ‘go deep’ where we find ourselves now, exploring what it may just be that the Spirit is teaching us about ‘eternal life’ that is true even now for this moment?
- Again with those wedding guests, with Nicodemus, with the unnamed woman at the well, with all the thousands who ate with food left over, how is God expanding our understanding of the world and our place in it even now?
- How might we along with the disciples who witnessed all of this, receive these gifts as those meant to take us beyond where we are even now?
- How might we be called to understand ‘eternal life’ as so much more than what we cling to at a funeral? As more than a digital record or a memory or a story told?
- How might ‘eternal life’ be received as something so rich, so beautiful, so abundant even now that it has us living in this moment, taking in the beauty of the gifts of those right before us even today?
- What might it mean if we could begin to experience ‘eternal life’ as a gift which begins in this very moment, and then transforming this moment into so much more?
Like my almost 91 year old mother sometimes seems able to do even now.