John Morris, Carolyn D. Shields and Tiffany Montavon: On Death

John Morris, Carolyn D. Shields and Tiffany Montavon
Sermon 6/6/99

On Death

[For this sermon, members of a SCL class on Death and Dying read some of their writings for the class, here are three.]

John Morris

According to Luke, when Jesus suffered on the cross, he said to one of his fellow sufferers, "I tell you the truth, today you will be with me in paradise." And when his moment came to die, he said — "in a loud voice" — "Father, into your hands I commend my spirit."

With these sayings, we’re offered a courage and a clarity about the meaning of death: As Christians, we place our faith in Jesus and choose to believe that death is not the end, that when we die we will indeed be with God in paradise.

So much for death.

But dying is a different matter. Jesus died hard, at the hands of torturers. This may happen to me as well, though, living as I do in a position of extraordinary privilege, my torturers are more likely to be viruses or cancer cells. But even microscopic, anonymous killers have this much in common with the Romans: They know not what they do. And they will hurt like hell.

So my challenge is to summon spirit and creativity to confront, not death, but dying. And my experience in the Death and Dying class helped me continue to grope toward a way to do this. I’d begun to glimpse that way several years ago, as I was part of a group of friends helping a man we cared about die of AIDS.

I’m talking about community. Throughout the Death and Dying class, an insight kept bubbling to the surface that I hardly knew how to express. It was phrased as a question: If I were dying this week, who would stand by me? Who would sit at the bedside and ease the journey? My wife, my friends, yes, but could it also be these people, whom I scarcely knew? Strangely, the answer was yes: The temporary community we had formed — and it was a community, because it was honest and open and invoked in the name of Christ — this community would, I believed, with little hesitation make it their business to help me die, if my time to die had come during those 12 weeks.

Well, this didn’t happen, for which I’m on the whole quite grateful. But, as they say in the Alcoholics Anonymous program: Put a "yet" on that — it hasn’t happened yet. So the experience leaves me even clearer about what I can do to bring the Holy Spirit to, not my death, but my dying. I can do it in community. I’m in God’s hands once I’m dead, but my dying demands, like everything else in my life, that I put myself into the hands of my sisters and brothers.

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Carolyn D. Shields

One of our assignments in the class was to plan our own funerals. So, the title of this essay is called, A Seekers Funeral.

If I died tomorrow, I suspect that my family in Philadelphia would hold a funeral for me there. In addition to that, this is what I would like Seekers to do for my funeral.

I would like for my funeral to be simple but beautiful (kind of like how I would like my life to be). I would like to be cremated beforehand and for my ashes to already have been sprinkled somewhere pretty, like under the Cherry Blossom trees.

The funeral should be held in a plain room with a simple, plain wooden altar with a single, beautiful bouquet of vibrantly colored flowers. I envision maybe 20 people or so sitting in a circle on the floor, on cushions if they want them, no shoes if they don’t want them. I would like for someone gentle, like Kate, to open with a few sentences about why you’re all there, and for a lovely type of "call to worship," Seekers-style, to be read, original and poetic.

I would then like for you to remember me, to talk about me, to share into the circle as you feel like it. You should tell each other what you liked, didn’t like, and thought about me. I hope that you will laugh and be silly sometimes, but be serious and contemplative sometimes, too. You should touch each other as you’re sharing into that circle…lean against each other, stoke each other’s hair and hold hands if you feel like it. I don’t know if you would, but I would like for you to say that I was a gentle, loving, enthusiastic spirit who enjoyed living, and who brought pleasure to your lives.

Some of you might want to cry, but if you do, I hope that through your tears you know that being in community with you was the best thing that ever happened to me, and that words cannot describe how important you all were to me or how much I loved you.

Then Glen and Jesse would get out the guitars, and I hope you would sing together for a while — gentle songs, listening to each other, striving for beautiful harmony.

The service should end with a few minutes of silence. Make sure that everyone is touching someone else. Tell each other that you love each other. Leave the room quietly.

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Tiffany Montavon

Week One

Dear Kate,

Outside my work window are the remains of a huge tree. It is dismembered, with branches cut off and piled up and 30 feet of trunk lying next to the stump. This huge dead tree was like sculpture to me: the stark brown branches providing framework for a new young, wild vine. I’ve watched the squirrels scamper up and down the tree, and the birds fly in and out of the vine for the past 6 months. Then one day they cut it down, and now I watch it lay there.

Trees are my symbol of life and death. The dismemberment of this tree seems especially sad because it still was providing life for the vine — and me.

The paradox of death is this: there can be something about death that gives life. I picture the northwest nurse logs; huge trees that have fallen and become covered in moss, then seedlings, and then young trees. It’s a vivid image to me: a fallen giant of strong wood and bark and sap that lived 150 years — and now other living things in the forest gain sustenance through its death.

So that’s a little of what death means to me: passing on the energy. Levine says: "When we die we leave our life behind. In death, whatever wisdom we have garnered from the life just past continues to light the way for the next appropriate step." I like that. It says that what I do now matters, but not in a heaven/ hell sense, but in a wisdom sense.

Week Two

Dear Kate,

They dragged the dead tree away, and chewed up the stump. Wouldn’t it be great if they planted a new tree there this spring? Then I could have all sorts of fun watching it grow! But maybe there needs to just be space for death. Space left empty. That wouldn’t work either, would it? Something would grow — grass, flowers, and an orchard over 100 years — something always grows from death.

Week Five

Dear Kate,

My soul was fertile soil for working with the fear exercise this week. Think of a thing that fills you with fear. Sit still with it. Hold that fear, and soften the body. Soften the tongue, the eyes, the throat, and the hands. Soften the belly. Think of that fear and breathe deep. There. My fear is being under dark deep water. When I softened my body to the thought of that water, I actually softened my mind and heart to my fear, and hence it lost some of its power. I had thought that softening would take away my power as a woman. Not so: as I soften to fear, I open up; I become a conduit of life. I do not lose my womanpower; I become like a tree instead — able to bend softly in the face of fear.

Week Eight

Dear Kate,

The summer that Mom died I spent some time at the McMackins’ house. It was a time of solace, respite, and images. I had a reoccurring dream of Mother trees: huge old gnarled oaks, strong trees with dark bark. In my dream these mother trees died. In death they became darker and darker. Yet somewhere deep inside their trunk the sap still flowed. Inside the rich brown was a pulsating, glowing red. As the life –sap flowed out of the dead mother tree, it became my lifeblood. This is true. I live more vibrantly because of my mother’s death.

Levine: "It was time to sit by my corpse covered in sacred fire and sing the song that frees the enormous heart from so small a life."

My life is very small right now — I am longing for a sacred fire that frees my enormous heart. Wouldn’t that be wonderful?

Week Eleven

So, what about my own funeral? If I die young with family and community around, I want a celebration of life service. I will throw a party and bring everybody together so I can celebrate the life I am leaving. What comes up in this class is that I must — must — be about living, now — hence, I find the time for my yoga and dance classes, as I search for my next call.

And, if I die after all my friends and family have gone, I hope to be in some kind of community, even still. Perhaps as an old, old woman I could make it to the hospital and rock little babies who need it, or adopt some family from the nursing home where I would live — something like that. In either case, I want to be cremated with my ashes spread on the ocean, that deep, dark place. The funeral music will be Vivaldi’s "Four Seasons" and the service will be full of silence, color and space.

Space for death, and space for growth.

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