Alfred Tennyson once gave voice to the experience of grief when he wrote:
“Gone - flitted away,
Taken the stars from the night and the sun
From the day!
Gone, and a cloud in my heart.”
This Sunday our hearts feel the grief Tennyson named as we remember parents, spouses, friends, dear ones who have gone, flitted away. We feel the cloud in our hearts.
But even in grief, I find I remember more than sadness. My grandmother died this summer after a long, slow decline in which infirmity and Alzheimer's harried her along. But to think of her death causes me to remember her love, expressed in all the ways only a grandparent can spoil a child. I think of sleeping over at her house, snugged in my grandparents’ bed, watching tv late, drinking a chocolate milkshake, indulgence; or summer cookouts when she brought out her special green tomato relish; and the unlimited supply of grape soda. (My heart grieves but my belly remembers).
This Sunday when I light a candle, I’ll grieve my grandmother’s death but also remember her love. And yet, death prompts questions: questions about God, questions about ourselves, and questions about what’s next. To grieve is not just to feel sadness and to treasure memories; it is to wonder.
Recently, I came across an author who wondered deeply, if ironically, about the afterlife. David Eagleman teaches neuroscience at Baylor College in Texas. His work requires him to imagine lots of possibilities as a way to solve difficult questions. One day he turned his mind to imagining all sorts of possibilities for an afterlife. Creative, irreverent possibilities.
In one tale - which he called “Descent of Species” - begins like this, “In the afterlife, you are treated to a generous opportunity: you can choose whatever you would like to be in the next life. Would you like to be a member of the opposite sex? Born into royalty? A philosopher with bottomless profundity? A soldier facing triumphant battles?” After a difficult life with hard decisions, you ask to be reincarnated as a horse. It sounds like a life of contentment - grazing in the afternoon sun, a peaceful flicker of a tail, the graceful body, loping through fields dusted with snow. The transformation begins. “Suddenly, just for a moment, you are aware of the problem you overlooked. The more you become a horse, the more you forget the original wish. You forget what it was like to be a human wondering what it was like to be a horse.” Now you cannot appreciate the destination because you cannot remember the starting point. As humanity slips away, you realize the next time you come to the afterlife that you will not have enough brain power to request becoming a human again.
“And just before you lose your final human faculties, you painfully ponder what magnificent extraterrestrial creature, enthralled with the idea of finding a simpler life, chose in the last round to become a human.”
Eagleman’s forty tales of the afterlife imagine all sorts of possibilities. And his wide-ranging, comical options parallel the kind of imagining we all do in the name of religion, picturing everything from a divine court of justice to reincarnation to cosmic union to a land of shadows.
I know our own congregation varies tremendously in our thoughts about the next life. We humans wonder about eternity, reverently or ironically.
Undoubtedly we must each make our own peace with the question of what comes next. It’s a question we will each find our own answer to.
In my own wondering, I’ve drawn comfort from two very different sources, the dialogues of Socrates and the New Testament. Socrates, the famed philosopher of ancient Athens, got himself into trouble with the population of his city. They accused him of corrupting youth with too many questions. The elders of the city brought him into court, tried him, and found him guilty. Facing the court and jury, Socrates gave a final defence, his “apology.”
Socrates knew he faced a death sentence, in his case a deadly drink of hemlock. In the apology, he offered the reasons why death does not terrify him. He figured death offered two options - either the state of death brought nothingness or it brought us to another realm. In the first case, death could be a dreamless sleep in which the sleeper is not even conscious of sleeping. Socrates did not fear to sleep and therefore should not fear to die. In the second case, death would take us to another realm with all those who died before. There he could converse with people not fearing they would try to kill him for it.
I find Socrates’ apology comforting - at worst a sleep, and perhaps more. What if death was just a dreamless sleep? Would I live a different life? I don’t think so, because I don’t make my choices in life fearing some future judgment. I try to live a moral and meaningful life, not for the sake of some future heaven, but for the sake of now; not so that I can live in heaven, but so that I can live with myself now.
This life, even just this life, is still a gift and I thank God for it.
But could there be something more? Many passages of the New Testament speak to this hope. John’s brief comments in the letter we read this morning do so in a most helpful way. John wrote, “Beloved, we are God’s children now; what we will be has not yet been revealed.” I like the simplicity of what John said. We know something: we are God’s children. And then he cautioned: but we don’t know what will become of us.
We are God’s children. The parables and metaphors of Jesus turned to this truth again and again. God is like a father, scanning the horizon for his lost son and throwing a feast when he returns; God is like a mother hen, gathering in her chicks. The witness of the New Testament points to this one truth: God cherishes us.
What can we imagine on the basis of God’s love?
Often I hear people say at memorials: this person will live in our memories. I know it’s true. Pat Mercer belonged to our congregation for many years before her death in 2002. When Jay and I adopted, our own mothers lived far away, and so we often found ourselves calling Pat for advice. Her professional work as a pediatric sleep specialist came in handy as we lived through months of Tomas not sleeping well. Too many times to count, Pat sat in our kitchen offering support. I know she lives in my memory.
Not just Pat, but others too. Mary Behrens. Bill Edge. Betty Wheeler. Our dear ones go and a cloud fills our hearts. But not just a cloud of grief; it is a great cloud of witnesses. We carry a heaven full of people in our memories.
And yet, our memories are not heaven enough. Perhaps I feel this way because having two grandmothers with dementia makes memory seem too frail. And then this week I forgot plans I’d made with a friend to get together for coffee. But also because I realize the limits of my own memory. I can name my grandparents, but only some of my great-grandparents, and even less the further I go back. Our memories are too frail a heaven.
But God’s memory, it stretches wide, it runs deep, it holds us all. God once spoke to the Prophet Isaiah when Isaiah felt abandoned. God said, “Can a mother forget the baby at her breast and have no compassion on the child she has borne? Though she may forget, I will not forget you! See, I have engraved you on the palms of my hands; you are ever before me.” The God who cherishes us shall never forget us.
My grandmother once told of attending her father’s funeral. She lived on the east coast at that time and wasn’t able to get back to Texas before he died. Sitting in the pew, mourning her father, she suddenly smelled pipe smoke. No one around was smoking, but the smell of it was unmistakable. It reminded her of her father, an avid pipe smoker, as if he were right beside her; she felt the comfort of memories enveloping her like smoke.
Will God remember us by some characteristic quality - our smell, our smile? I think God will remember us completely, more completely than we even know ourselves, in all the wonder and trial that we are, in all the joy and shadow of our lives. For we are God’s children - beloved, cherished, treasured - and so God will not forget us. Our lives, our deaths, our eternity held in the memory of the God who cherishes us all.
Alleluia and Amen.