Friday, November 16, 2012

The Gospel at a time of death

The following is what I shared with my family at the time of my Aunt Peggy's death.

Aunt Peggy
January 4, 1918--November 10, 2012

Family and friends gather at times like this and we gain strength from one another as we commend our beloved to God’s keeping. This year mark’s my 40th anniversary as a priest of the church. I have read the burial office about 1000 times for a thousand loved ones. It is never easy to do so and especially when it comes to my own family. 

Mums asked me to bury her when the time came. I was much younger and a strict trinitarian. Mums was a Unitarian Universalist, and I felt obligated to tell Mums that if I read the burial office for her I would have to use the Trinitarian formula. Mums looked severely at me and yet with eyes filled with laughter; “You go ahead and bury me by any formula that makes you happy!” 

I buried my mother and uncle, uncle Jim and also officiated at the wedding of Jon and Jen Moulton, participated at the wedding of Jay & Julie Kersting.

Sad times and happy times. This is what it is to be family.

My happiest memories though were the many Thanksgiving dinners at the old homestead at Uncle Jim & Aunt Martha’s home and also with Alan and Joanna. We have had some wonderful times. More than once I brought a tag along friend with me to feast with the family and they were dazzled by what was set before them, as I was.

Whatever the situation, there was always a warm welcome here and the embrace of human warmth that made our hearts fill with love. I do love you all very much.

And I remember Karl and Aunt Peggy and Carolyn. Each of you, each of us very special in our own way. A crazy quilt of charachters we are, God love us all. Peggy’s love for my uncle and her fierce care for his diabetes, as well as her love fierce care and love for you to Carolyn are to be treasured. It is a kind of love that was and continues to be ever close.

But the spread on those many Thanksgiving days. What a spread! Especially the pies! I really liked those pies. No one could make a pie taste better except maybe my maternal grandmother, Ma....

So then there is this; a vision of heaven if you will. Much like the Messianic Banquet that I read about a few minutes ago from the Prophet Isaiah. He saw a vision of heaven much like a gathering of a throng no one could number from all the tribes of earth gathered at God’s Banquet Table.  There God removes the shroud that covers all humanity and even more mercifully and lovingly he wipes the tears from every eye.

I remember clearly the tears that filled my eyes as a child when my father died on December 27th 1953. It was a Sunday, and when I came home from church, my mother told me the news. I went out to play ball with my friends. It was an unusually warm day as I recall. I just didn’t understand that the word death meant I would never see him again. In fact, I can remember running to the window to see if he would drive up in his wonderful white 1951 Chevrolet. O what a time we had, dad and me. Sometimes we went to the race track, or to Howard Johnson’s for an ice cream or drive all the way to Beverly from Somerville to see Mums and Daddy Bill and all the aunts and uncles and cousins up in this neck of the woods. I loved it.

But he never came again to see me. At church I would say that prayer; “Our father who art in heaven.” And when I said those words I would look up to the clerestory of that beautiful church and I could not see either father, and I wondered long and hard where they were. Many’s the night I’d cry myself to sleep and listen to squeal of trolly cars on iron rails and the bells from St. John’s church call out to the night.

Otherwise there was only silence in answer to my prayer. 

Then one summer Sunday on the way home from church, I pulled a leaf from an old hedge along a rusty old chain link fence. As I pressed my thumb into the life blood of that leaf, I heard something speak in my voice...just a sense...and I gave it a voice. Because whatever it was that spoke in my heart, spoke clearly. It said; “Don’t you know there’s a special place in my heart for your dad?” I stopped dead in my tracks. I said it again and then I said it right out loud; “Don’t you know there’s a special place in my heart for your dad?

There were those who said my dad couldn’t go to heaven because he didn’t go to church. And in fact the only time I heard him use our Lord’s Name was when he lost a bet at Suffolk Downs.

But now this something spoke in my heart and I ran home as fast as I could and Ma was standing at the stove presiding over her favorite cast iron skillet, and she was peppering some delectable to taste.

I tugged at her apron string and asked her if there really is a God.
“Yes” she said, “of course there is!”

So then, I said, 
“Is there a heaven?”
“Yes” she said, “of course there is”...somewhat irritably now. After all this was not a good time to do theology. There were mouths to be fed.

But I had to know. And I pressed the issue;
“Is my daddy there?”
She did hesitate I must tell you in all candor. After all, more than once she said that it was the Irish that ruined Boston. That will tell you what she thought of my dad, the separation and divorce from my mother. She did hesitate. After all, the prospect of a Yankee from Maine spending an eternity with an Irishman must have given her some pause.

But what she did then, I will never forget. She got down on her knee, held me close and it is as if I can still smell her hair as she held me close in the nape of her neck.

“Of course he is”

That night my heart was filled with joy and it was as if that Silence now became a Presence and it wiped my tears away with the Love that only God can give.

Carolyn, family and friends; for me heaven is a wonderful banquet. Just as the Scripture says it is. And on that day God will remove that shroud that covers all nations, and God will wipe the tears from all our eyes”. 

Is there a God? 
Of course there is.

Is there a heaven?
Of course there is.

Is Aunt Peg there?
This I can tell you without hesitation; of course she is!

It is because of this that I became a priest. So that I could spend a lifetime bringing this news to the bereaved, the poor and to all who are in any need whatsoever.

In a curious kind of way, it was because of my dad’s death that I became a priest. It was all that fun and all that love that led me to Jesus. And it is a vision of heaven that I have in my heart: Mums and Ma and Daddy Bill, Martha & Jim, Karl and Peg, Dad...and then there will be my mom, feisty as ever, and all the rest, cousins, uncles and aunts countless in number all of us gathered at the mountain of God, around God’s banquet table.

Is it so?
Of course it is!

By the way, I was ordained on June 24th, the feast day of John the Baptist...come to find out; that was my dad’s birthday! 
OMG! Maybe, just maybe, it really is all true!

In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

Blessings on us one and all,
Fr. Paul


JoAnn Lumley said...

A teary AMEN

Yossi said...

Fr Paul,

Thank you so much for that beautiful post. It touched me deeply--my Dad died 19 yrs ago, Nov 22; my Mom died two-and-a-half years ago, July 18. I miss them both a lot.

They always loved and accepted for who I am, and for that I am grateful. May they, and all our beloved dead, dance in the Light.


"Fr. Paul" Bresnahan said...

Thank you, "Yossi" and JoAnne. This Gospel given to us is a precious and living thing. It is a privilege to take it and tend it and thus to commend it to those, who, like us, hunger and thirst for Good News, in the midst of all our joys and sorrows. Peace to you. Fr Paul