Long Days and Short Years

just trying to pay attention so I don't miss my life


5 Comments

A Funeral Introduction

Today I went to a funeral for I man I’ve never met.

Not only have I never met him, but I had never even heard his name before Monday night of this week.  A friend posted on FB that a professor at the seminary I attended had died of a heart attack while playing frisbee with students.  “Strange,” I thought, “I have no idea who that is.”  I highlighted the name, Jannie Swart, and pasted it into my browser bar.

Links filled the screen about Jannie Swart, also known as the Rev. Dr. Johannes Swart.  He was South African, a white South African pastor, who led one of the largest congregations in Johannesburg during the earliest years of the post-apartheid transition.  Under his leadership and example, the church labored to repent for the sins of apartheid, and to become multilingual, multiracial, and multicultural.  He left Johannesburg in 2005 to do his doctoral work, and ended up at the Pittsburgh Theological Seminary in 2012.

As I read the articles I was filled with regret.  What I might have learned in one conversation or one audited class with this man!  How could we have been so close, but yet never met?

His funeral was held at the seminary, a fifteen-minute walk from my house.

I went to the funeral because I felt that I ought to have met this man, and, in some sense, this was my last chance.  Hearing his friends and colleagues talk about him would certainly give me some sense of who he was, something beyond a list of degrees or church appointments.  I wanted to know why the people I loved and respected had loved and respected this man so much.

And, if I am honest, I wanted to know one more thing.  I wanted to know how the seminary community would process such a senseless death, the death a beloved professor taken on the very first day of classes.  How could they deal with the loss of such a wise man who still had so much to teach the students (and the whole community)?  How could he be gone?

Really, God?  He was playing frisbee with students.

I was not the only person in the sanctuary with this question, and I was relieved to hear it spoken from the pulpit.  “I’m angry,” the president of the seminary said, “and I want to ask God, ‘Why this one?  I’ve got a whole list of people you could have taken.'”  We all laughed nervously, but we knew exactly what he meant.  Someone else said that she felt like she had been robbed, and as I looked out over the crowd I could see his college-age daughter and teenage son sitting with their mother.

There is no sense in a moment like this, and so we did not attempt to understand.

Instead we sang, over and over again:

Wait for the Lord, whose day is near.

Wait for the Lord;  be strong, take heart.

Instead we listened to verses that had been spoken at their wedding:

For now we see in a mirror dimly, but then face to face.  Now I know in part; then I shall know fully, even as I have been fully known.  So now faith, hope and love abide, these three; but the greatest of these is love. 

And instead we were reminded what a well-lived human life can look like.

One person said that Jannie was “like Mandela, a man of uncommon grace.”  A professor told the story of his many trips to South Africa, and how after thirty years of making these trips, he met Jannie and made his first authentic friendship across racial lines.  Someone else recited one of Jannie’s favorite phrases, “We must strive to be hospitable to one another,” and many others gave examples of how Jannie had embodied this charge.  This was a man who loved life, and who lived it to the full.

And finally we were asked,

“How can we go back after Jannie has changed our lives?”

And although I met him at his funeral, I include myself in this challenge.

Advertisements


1 Comment

When Christmas Hurts

I began this poem in the margins of my church bulletin last Sunday.  Our prayer request time had been (not unusually) raw and real, with brave people daring to admit that they weren’t doing “fine, thank you.”  It’s amazing how this honesty spreads across the sanctuary.  After we cried together, prayed together, and stood together to sing; something changed.  I don’t know how to describe it exactly, but the closest I can come is to say that Joy seeped in through our cracked walls.

*

As words came, so did tears.

Tears like rivers, slowly cutting through bedrock.

Rivers carving out channels where there weren’t channels before.

And

we were swept downstream

together.

*

There in a jumbled heap

we looked at one another again, no,

we looked for the first time that morning

and saw the eyes of grown-ups

who were barely hanging on.

*

What do you do,

we whispered to someone listening,

when you are counting for Christmas to be over?

What if the missing is just too much

and each twinkling light stings?

What do you do if this was not the plan?

*

Tissue boxes arrived,

we passed them around,

but still we sat, breathing together.

Now we were waiting,

hands resting on the backs of our neighbors,

we were waiting for hope to come.

*

Hope does not come with happiness.

We knew it.  Happiness is too thin.

Hope needs friction, not fa la la la la.

Tensile strength, not tinsel.

We needed a Christmas strong enough

to bear this sorrow.

*

And it was given.

It was given the moment we stopped grasping, and

with hands on backs and true words spoken aloud,

we received it.

We were surprised.

The hope came through joy.

*

We stood to sing.

Joy to the world.

Joy to the messed up real world.

Joy, which is not candy,

but medicine.

*

*

I am indebted to the author and anti-sex-trafficking advocate Christine Caine for this metaphor: “Joy is not ‘imitation happiness’.  If happiness is like candy, then Joy is medicine.”  I have been thinking about this phrase since I read it in her painful and hopeful book, Undaunted, and I am grateful for her hard-won wisdom.