07.30.2021 – A Fence-Sitting Episcopalian Teaches us About Dying

Our hydrangeas in their summer bloom

Jack Thomas is a retired Boston Globe reporter. At 82 years old, he knows he is going to die. He knows he is going to die in a matter of months.

“After a week of injections, blood tests, X-rays, and a CAT scan, I have been diagnosed with cancer. It’s inoperable. Doctors say it will kill me within a time they measure not in years, but months,” Thomas writes in an essay published in the Globe last week.

In the essay, Thomas seeks to answer his own question, “How does a person spend what he knows are his final months of life?”

The preacher in me found three points in the text of his essay.  How does one spend his final months of life? Celebrating, remembering, and wondering.

Jack Thomas ends his essay this way: “I had a loving family. I had a great job at the newspaper. I met fascinating people, and I saw myriad worldwide wonders.  It’s been full of fun and laughter, too, a really good time. I just wish I could stay a little longer.”

He writes of the love of his wife, “the greatest blessing of my life,” and the laughter of his three adult children.  He thinks of his rose bushes and his house on Cape Cod, sad that he will “never again see the sun rise over the marsh off Vineyard Sound, never again see that little, yellow goldfinch that perched atop a hemlock outside my window from time to time so that both of us could watch the tide rise to cover the wetland.”

“Does the intensity of a fatal illness clarify anything?” he asks.  “Every day, I look at my wife’s beautiful face more admiringly, and in the garden, I do stare at the long row of blue hydrangeas with more appreciation than before. And the hundreds and hundreds of roses that bloomed this year were a greater joy than usual, not merely in their massive sprays of color, but also in their deep green foliage, the soft petals, the deep colors and the aromas that remind me of boyhood.”

He celebrates the life he has lived.

Beginning with delivering newspapers as a 14-year old boy, he remembers his long life in journalism and the joy it brought him.

Celebration and remembrance.

“All of us who, like me, are blessed with a pause before death, spend some time reliving the better moments,” Jack Thomas writes wisely.

Some of us receive notice of our impending deaths. For others of us, death will find us with no warning, no time to think about what was or what is to come.

Jack Thomas has shared just a bit of his pause before death. In so many ways the work of celebrating and remembering is work that can be done only when one is given such a pause. But all of us, young and old, healthy and infirm, would do well to read what Thomas has to say and allow ourselves to pause with him.

A pause to celebrate and to remember. And to wonder. Thomas writes, “I was raised Episcopalian, though I didn’t turn out to be a very good one. Unlike Roman Catholics, Jews, and atheists, we Episcopalians are very good at fence-sitting. We embrace all viewpoints, and as a result, we are as confused as the Unitarians.” His humor is well taken except for an offended Unitarian in the Globe’s comments section.

Jack Thomas knows that he faces not only dying, but death, and he wonders about death and what may happen after death. A fence-sitting Episcopalian, confused as a Unitarian, his thoughts are more wishful than hopeful. The not very good Episcopalian returns at several points in his essay to wondering about what comes next.

“I wish the afterlife were arranged so that I could hear Beethoven’s Symphony No. 7 again and Bach’s Brandenburg Concertos, especially the one in D for two violins and cello,” he writes.

And then, “The final months would be a lot easier if I could be assured that, after death, we’d get a chance to see people who have died already. I’d like to shake hands with my best friend, my father, who died in 1972 and whom I’ve missed every day since.”

Having lived a good life, he wonders how a next life could possibly measure up. “I know that after I die, I probably ought to forget all the treats of this life, like Lobster Savannah dinners on an expense account at an Elysium such as Locke-Ober, and with my luck, there’s probably some rule against chilled Hendrick’s martinis with a lemon twist. There will be no more nights of winnowing the hours away listening to Bob Winter’s piano at the Four Seasons. There’ll be no more lazy afternoons on Boston Harbor aboard my little sailboat, The Butterfly, and no more surprise telephone calls from buddies like Dave Manzo in Boston, Alan Pergament in Buffalo, and Jim Coppersmith in Marblehead, who never hang up without saying, ‘love you, Jack.’”

Jack Thomas ends his essay about dying by celebrating and remembering the good life he has lived. His final thought is, “I just wish I could stay a little longer.”

Christians need not despise the wish to stay a little longer. Life is a good gift from God.

We may wonder about music and friendships in the world to come. The Bible does not offer much by way of detail. We need not be confused, however. We have something more than a wish, a certain and steadfast hope that at the end we shall meet the one who will wipe away every tear from our eyes, and death shall be no more, neither shall there be mourning, nor crying, nor pain anymore, for the former things shall have passed away. (Revelation 21:4)

Celebrate. Remember. And hope.

07.23.2021 – The view was great. The eggs were lousy

Room with a view, but not perfect,

Becky and I have been road tripping. Sixteen states in the past four months.  All of our children and grandchildren plus some very good friends.  Along the way, we have stayed at a few hotels. Our most recent hotel stay was during our weekend in Menominee, Michigan, on the Upper Peninsula.  Between the two hotels in town, we picked the place Trip Advisor told us would be the best.  It was a good place to stay. Our room had a view of the Green Bay of Lake Michigan. The bed was comfortable, the sheets were clean, and the shower worked.  All we needed.

The first morning of our stay, we had breakfast at what had been one of our favorite restaurants when we lived in Menominee 25 years ago.  We were not disappointed. The omelets were wonderful and the view of the yacht harbor beautiful. Getting ready for church the next morning, we decided to opt for the hotel’s breakfast, and were disappointed.  Even by hotel breakfast standards, it was not good. The rehydrated scrambled eggs were soggy and the reheated bacon was limp.  I should have gone for the Raisin Bran. The third morning we hit the road early for our trip home and ate on the way. Continue reading

07.16.2021 – On Jesus, Gitchee Gumee, and Mixed Metaphors

Rambling thoughts after a weekend ramble.

Poetry is not my thing. Maybe it is my inherent lack of rhythm. Perhaps I am too practical a person. For whatever reason, I don’t get poetry and, frankly, I don’t care all that much for poetry. If ever I were to aspire to be a man of letters, I would need much remedial work in the poet’s art.

I thought well of myself, then, this past Monday as Becky and I were making our way across Michigan’s Upper Peninsula. We had spend a glorious weekend with friends in our old stomping grounds around Menominee at the furthest southwest point of the U.P. Our route along U.S. 2 on the south side of the peninsula and the shore of Lake Michigan was partly through the Hiawatha National Forest.

I turned to Becky and asked, “So other than Longfellow and the shore of Gitchee Gumee?” what did Hiawatha do to have a National Forest named after her? We had enough of a cell signal for a quick Google search. It turned out I would have scored some Trivial Pursuit points, but maybe not a pie slice worth.  “The Song of Hiawatha” is a Henry Wadsworth Longfellow poem, and it is known for the line “By the shore of Gitchee Gumee…” (In fact, you don’t get to Gitchee Gumee until Part 22 of a way too long epic poem). But Hiawatha was not the princess I thought she was; he was an Ojibwe warrior in love with Minnehaha, a Dakota maiden. Continue reading

07.09.2021 – My car is smart, but not that smart

In March we bought a new car. A Honda CR-V, it is our retirement-grandparent-road trip car.  We like it a lot. The Honda is a smart car, and smarter than any car we’ve owned before.  In addition to telling us when to change the oil and informing us of our current fuel consumption rate, the car keeps us in our lane, slows down when we’re too close to the car in front of us, and flashes a warning when there’s a car or truck in our blind spots.  One of the features allows us to round curves with our hands off the steering wheel (though the owner’s manual advises us not to take our hands off the steering wheel – ever).

The car can be a bit of a nag, telling us we’ve been a bit inattentive and that it’s time to stop for a cup of coffee.
The Honda is usually right. I did wander across the center line or forgot to use the turn signal on that lane change.  But it is not always right. It gets upset in some construction zones when its cameras and its algorithms cannot determine the lane lines in order to remind me to stay within them. Back in April we were driving through Montana when we hit a mini-blizzard and a few minutes of close-to-whiteout conditions.  Without a word of apology, the car told me its radar was obstructed and that I was on my own to make it through.  Continue reading

07.02.2021 – For Purple Mountain Majesties

This coming Sunday is July 4.  How shall we celebrate the Lord’s Day when it falls on Independence Day?  And how shall we celebrate Independence Day when it falls on the Lord’s Day?

I’ve just entered my second year of retirement, so the question of Lord’s Day worship on July 4 takes on more of an academic tint than it had when I was planning worship week by week.  For sure, my musings are more for me than for our church here in Auburn or the church we will attend this Sunday in Memphis during a visit to our daughter and her family.

The question of July 4 worship (or first Sunday in July worship) has been a question since maybe 1776, but perhaps it takes on a new urgency in a time when a malignant nationalism has badly infected too many American churches.

Some churches will drape the flag over their crosses, recite the Pledge of Allegiance, sing God Bless America, and, if their tech team is up to it, explode indoor fireworks during the worship hour. A few pastors may find opportunity to curse the country, while still others will faithfully preach the texts given for the Fourteenth Sunday in Ordinary Time. Continue reading