Thanatopsis: A consideration of death (and life)

I can’t begin to estimate how many times I’ve quoted part of a poem called “Thanatopsis” at funerals. It was written by William Cullen Bryant in the early 19th century. I’m embarrassed to admit that I’ve never taken the time before to look up the meaning of thanatopsis. According to Wikipedia it is derived from the Greek ‘thanatos’ (death) and ‘opsis’ (view, sight) and means “a consideration of death. Bryant was still a young adult when he wrote the poem, and the depth of his understanding of human mortality for one at any age is remarkable. The poem is much more than the title word can define; it is really a consideration of death and life because they are two sides of the same inseparable coin. One cannot die a good death without first living a good life.

The poem came to mind today because my father, who is 96, is very ill and likely nearing his own demise. As I wrestle with my emotions and thoughts nothing quite expresses my feelings than these closing words of “Thanatopsis.” They are wise words that always remind me that the key to being at peace with one’s mortality is living every day with integrity and gratitude. Thank you Mr. Bryant for wisdom far beyond your years. His poem ends with these words:

“So live, that when thy summons comes to join
The innumerable caravan, which moves
To that mysterious realm, where each shall take
His chamber in the silent halls of death,
Thou go not, like the quarry-slave at night,
Scourged to his dungeon, but, sustained and soothed
By an unfaltering trust, approach thy grave,
Like one who wraps the drapery of his couch
About him, and lies down to pleasant dreams.”

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Like a Woman

Bertha Hemmert was my surrogate grandma when I was growing up on Murray Street in Wapakoneta, Ohio. Not that I needed another grandma—I had two very loving ones already; but a little kid can never get too much of that special love that grandmas are so good at. And Mrs. Hemmert as I knew her then had one big advantage over my “real” grandmothers—she was just across the alley no more than 50 feet from our back door. She was probably younger than I am now, but to my 7 year-old self she seemed ancient. I don’t remember how she first befriended me. It was likely one of the many times I hit a stray baseball into her yard and had to go fetch it.

Two things I remember very well—I enjoyed hanging out at her house and “helping” her with chores like cleaning green beans from her garden. I’m sure I was often more trouble than help but I always felt welcome to drop in whenever I wanted. The other thing I remember – because my family has never let me forget it – is that one day while helping Mrs. Hemmert in the kitchen I announced to her that “I think I want to be a woman when I grow up.”
No, that was not some confusion over my sexual identity. As I reflect back on that memory and my childhood I have come to believe it meant I just felt loved being in her company and wanted to enjoy that feeling as much as I could. And it was not just Mrs. Hemmert who represented that unconditional love and acceptance for me. The most important people in my early life who gave me that kind of affirmation were all women—my grandmothers, my mom and my Aunt Ruth.

My reflection on those childhood relationships have been inspired by all of the events in our society in the past year that have raised awareness of female power and courage in spite of oppression and abuse–and by the guilt and remorse I feel that in spite of my life-long appreciation for women I have been part of the male dominated power structure that I could not be insulated from growing up in the 1950’s. Mrs. H. was typical of all of my female role models as I grew up. They were all stay-at-home mothers and homemakers, and they lived out that vocation proudly and well.

Proverbs 31 and has been used and misused to praise and eulogize many women like those. It says in part “A capable wife who can find? She is far more precious than jewels. The heart of her husband trusts in her, and he will have no lack of gain. She does him good, and not harm, all the days of her life. She seeks wool and flax, and works with willing hands. She is like the ships of the merchant, she brings her food from far away. She rises while it is still night and provides food for her household and tasks for her servant-girls. (Proverbs 31:10-15 NRSV) Of course the women in my life were the “servant-girls” for their families rather than having any, but that proverb is attributed to King Lemuel’s mother giving her son advice; and he could relate to that particular reference.

The misuse part of that Proverb has been on the hard-working from before dawn to after dark woman who is subservient to her husband. But listen to what other parts of that proverb say about women of strength as entrepreneurs and teachers of wisdom: “She considers a field and buys it; with the fruit of her hands she plants a vineyard. She girds herself with strength, and makes her arms strong. She perceives that her merchandise is profitable. Her lamp does not go out at night. She puts her hands to the distaff, and her hands hold the spindle. She makes linen garments and sells them; she supplies the merchant with sashes. Strength and dignity are her clothing, and she laughs at the time to come. She opens her mouth with wisdom, and the teaching of kindness is on her tongue. She looks well to the ways of her household, and does not eat the bread of idleness. Her children rise up and call her happy; her husband too, and he praises her: “Many women have done excellently, but you surpass them all.” (Vss.16-19, 24-29)

That part of this proverb reminds us that to limit women, or anyone, to a particular role or station in life is not only foolish but absolutely wrong. To respect or pay women less for the same work men do is unjust. To treat women as sex-objects in blatant, abusive or even subtle or unintended ways is wrong and must stop.
I was proud of Mrs. Hemmert and wanted to be like her – because “the teaching of kindness was on her tongue” and she treated me as someone of value and worth. Women today are demanding the same kind of respect and dignity and unconditional love that the wonderful women in my life gave me. Did they raise a perfect son or grandson or nephew? Of course not. There we too many sexist forces in my life in the way I was taught what it meant to be a man; in the ways all of the heroes of American history were portrayed as powerful white men; in the male-dominated leadership of the churches I was nurtured in; in the movies and television shows I watched; in the literature I read; and the list goes on and on.

But this I know, the seeds of love and compassion were sown in my heart and soul by people like Mrs. Hemmert. I have often been embarrassed when my family tells that story about my wanting to be a woman; but today I am proud to proclaim that I am still striving to be like her; to offer everyone the kind of affirmation and hospitality she gave to me. I want to be like the women who have had the courage to speak their truth to power in the past few months. I want to be like the men that Oprah included in her great speech at last night’s Golden Globes when she said:
“So I want all the girls watching here, now, to know that a new day is on the horizon! And when that new day finally dawns, it will be because of a lot of magnificent women, many of whom are right here in this room tonight, and some pretty phenomenal men, fighting hard to make sure that they become the leaders who take us to the time when nobody ever has to say ‘Me too’ again.”

New Year’s Prayer

O eternal God, as we prepare to turn the calendar from one year to the next we pray in the words of the psalmist that you will teach us to number our days so we may gain hearts of wisdom. Help us learn from the mistakes we have made in the past so we can lead better lives in the future. Forgive us for the times we have disobeyed your will so we can live free from the burden of regret and guilt.

Help us to forgive those who have wronged us either on purpose or accidentally so we can live free from anger or feelings of being a victim.

As we pray for all those in need this day – those forced to live or work in frigid conditions, those enslaved by addictions, those suffering from illness, grief or chronic pain, help us find ways to comfort and empower them.
The New Year is a wonderful time to reflect on the past, to review our life goals and find the true purpose you have for us. Like Simeon and Anna, we pray that we can be faithful in worship and so focused on seeking your will that when our days are over we will be satisfied. Help us renew our vows of allegiance to you and your kingdom so that walking with you is not just a new year’s resolution or an item on our bucket list. Give us courage to make our faith and service to you the all-encompassing purpose of our lives, not just at Christmas but every day of the year.

Remind us again that to be followers of Christ means to devote our lives to making disciples; to witnessing to the Gospel by the way we live our lives. We are not here to accumulate wealth or possessions. We are here to do justice, love mercy and to walk humbly with you, O God. Our prayer is to do that with all of our being – at home, at school, at work or wherever we are – to share the peace and joy of Christmas with all the world. The Christmas story doesn’t end today or on Epiphany – it continues whenever we as the modern supporting cast live into the wonder and mystery of your love.

We ask these things in the name of Emmanuel, God with us, as we offer the prayer he taught us to pray.

Christmas Eve Prayer

O God, as we celebrate again this holy night, remind us that Christmas is so much more than just retelling a sentimental tale. We give thanks that Christmas is a time of fellowship and fine food, a time to put aside just for a while, the things that divide us. But let us not forget how marvelous and how expensive a gift Christmas really is. Remind us that the manger of Bethlehem and the cross of Calvary are both made of the same wood; that this small child, this incarnation of your love, was not sent to be a decoration for us to display for a season, but came to show us what real love looks like on a daily basis– a love that is willing to die for us, a love that came, as the angels said, to save us from all fear and give us eternal peace.

Remind us again tonight, God, why we tell the Christmas story– because of who Jesus became, what he taught, how he lived, and how he died but lives eternally. This cold winter night, we bring our gifts of thanks because though we are undeserving we are once more offered the greatest gift ever given—a free gift, with no strings attached—a helpless peasant baby who slipped quietly and unexpectedly into a world full of oppression and fear. He came to be a gift and to show us that we are also gifts, all of us, no matter how insignificant we feel we are all members of your human family.

Remind us that to be human is a gift, because it means that God’s own heart beats within us. Inspire us with stories of angels and shepherds to show us that we can all love as Jesus loves. That is truly a most precious gift. But Jesus showed us that it is also a costly gift – it will cost us our very lives, all that we are, to be the kind of gift Jesus is.

We praise you O God for the one true Christmas gift. Give us meek hearts to receive him, trusting hearts of children who dare to believe, and through the magic of Christmas let us allow ourselves to be transformed into gifts – gifts to one another of peace and love and joy to be shared with all the world.

In the name of the Christ child who is our Lord and Savior forever we pray. Amen.

[Written for Northwest UMC, Columbus, OH]

A Shepherd Lights the Christ Candle

Good evening. As you can see I make my living as a shepherd and my home is in the fields. Sheep are my business and our lives are pretty routine, even boring at times. But there was one night, much like this one, that I will never forget.

It started out as a normal night. I was watching the stars, one of my favorite pastimes. When suddenly, a light shone all around us, and we felt a, well…a presence. We turned, and there stood an angel! Frankly, it scared us out of our wits!

But the calmness in the angel’s voice quieted our fears as he told us of an incredible event that had just happened over in Bethlehem. The angel told us that our savior had just been born! Christ the Lord! Then he said a very strange thing. He said that we would find the messiah in a cattle stall, lying in, of all things, a manger. Then the sky filled with angels, all of them praising god for this marvelous gift. [Pause] and then they were gone and it was very quiet again.

Our people had been waiting for the messiah for a very long time, and we’ve had a lot of false alarms. But after talking it over, we decided we had to go check this out for ourselves. And, believe it or not, when we got to Bethlehem we found a little family in the stall and quietly approached them. We didn’t want to wake the baby. And there he was…the sweet little baby who would become our King of Kings, our Lord of Lords. The hope of all creation.

After a little while we returned to the fields full of hope and praising god for what we had heard and witnessed firsthand. We had seen the good shepherd who will always lead us back to god when we get off the path. [pause]

And so tonight, I light the Christ candle, to celebrate the gift of God’s son, the light of the world.

[Christmas Eve, Northwest UMC, Columbus, OH, concluding a series on the “Supporting Cast of Christmas.”

Mary: 4th Advent Candle

Pastor: On this 4th and final Sunday of Advent we continue our journey toward Christmas. And today’s supporting cast member in the marvelous Christmas story is a woman of tremendous Faith, Mary the mother of Jesus.

[Mary enters in contemporary dress]

Mary: Words cannot describe how I felt when I first learned you were to be the mother of God’s Son.

Mary: I was totally shocked when an angel showed up out of nowhere and told me I was to be the mother of the Messiah! Me! A poor young woman engaged to a carpenter. Why would God choose us to raise his son? I was scared to death!

Joseph and I were engaged but not married yet. You can’t imagine what my family and the townspeople would say about that. And what could I tell Joseph? He’d never believe God was the father of my baby! Nobody would. Joseph would assume I had been unfaithful to him. That was considered adultery, and the punishment for that was death by stoning! I was really scared!

But the angel told me that God was with me. He said, “Nothing is impossible with God,” and being a devout Jewish girl, I knew this was true. Faith came over me and calmed my fear. I suddenly just knew that I could trust God completely. And from a place deep inside me I said, “I am the Lord’s servant. May it be to me as you have said.”

Then the angel told me about Elizabeth’s miraculous pregnancy, and I went to visit her so we could share our joy and excitement. But the joy I felt with Elizabeth couldn’t compare with what came later in that stable in Bethlehem. When Jesus was born and the soft moonlight gently fell on the one who was to be the light of the world, then we knew what real Joy was.

[Goes to Advent Wreath]

I hope my story reminds all of us that we are called to be faithful servants who know that with God all things are possible. As we light the fourth Candle of Advent may it light the way on our journey from fear to faith.

[4th in a series of Advent dramas by supporting characters in the Christmas Story, Northwest UMC, Columbus, Ohio]

Prayer for 4th Sunday in Advent

Dec. 24, 2017
O God of our lives every day of the year, we just want to thank you for this special day. Like expectant parents we can’t wait to celebrate this special birth again. But even in our anticipation some of us are worn out from preparing for Christmas. Some of us are not joyful because of losses we have suffered in the last year. Help us all to be sensitive and caring for those who are feeling grief or loneliness that is multiplied by this season’s festivities.

For some of us life is a struggle. We lack adequate resources to sustain life and strength to care for loved ones. Or we are separated from family by circumstances beyond our control. As this Christmas approaches closer and closer in different time zones all around the world help us to feel the ties that bind us together by the universal love that Christmas represents. The angels proclaim good news for all people, Mary reminds us that the poor and oppressed among us have a special place in your heart, O Lord, and therefore in ours.

May the humble simplicity of Jesus’ birth remind us to examine our own lives and priorities. Touch us with your grace so we can truly put our trust in you and not in material idols or worldly power. Help us to experience the miracle of Christmas this year with fresh eyes and ears so we feel the power of how unique and revolutionary Christ’s birth was and is for those who place their total faith in him. Let us kneel with the shepherds at the manger with renewed amazement and commitment to share the wonderful news of Christ far beyond Christmas Day.
Fill us with such hope by your willingness to become one of us, sharing our humanity with all its brokenness that we not only ponder this miracle in our hearts, but witness to those who need you most by paying forward the gift of Christmas in grace and kindness, mercy and love to everyone our lives touch.

We ask these things in the name of our Lord and Savior who taught us this prayer….