Hello from my kitchen island,
To say I have spent significant time here at my kitchen island since returning from our Christmas adventure would be a profound understatement; it is after 10:00 p.m. on a Saturday evening, and here I am. I have been diligently working on both the current Winter Term class and preparing for a semester that begins on Monday, albeit online for the first week. It changes some things, but it is manageable, though it is a pain for some situations, but the need to be cautious in our current world makes the inconvenience bearable, at least for me. It is an amazing thing to get ready for a semester. It seems not matter how hard I work at it, I never feel as prepared as I would like. It reminds me of something I wrote in a recent blog about working and never feeling like it is enough or that it will get easier. I am not sure whether or not that is a good thing or not, but it seems it is the reality of things. Maybe that is why people hope for retirement, work toward retirement, consider retirement a victory of sorts. I am not sure.
When I was a parish pastor, there were different elements of the liturgy that spoke to me and to my soul in a way that was different than all the other scriptural things that are tied to the propers and ordinaries of each week. It is the phrase that is the title for this blog. It is a phrase that is used for a number of instances and settings within the church, but the time it is most poignant is when someone passes from this life. This past week, such an occurrence happened; it happened unexpectedly and tragically. And yet, it happened. Life is something precious, and there are few who would argue that sentiment. Life is something miraculous, and again, few will disagree. And yet, life is fragile and fleeting, and too often we fail to consider that reality. I think about those who passed when I was a parish pastor. Certainly, there were those who lived a long and incredible life (those around them even used such phrases). On the other hand, there were those who left this worldly existence long before we were ready to let them go. In those instances, we feel cheated; we feel disillusioned, and we might feel as if it is all senseless. And yet, who are we to question?
This evening, Georg and I attended the dramatic and stunning The Mountaintop, by the playwright Katori Hall, who is from Memphis, so her decision to develop this incredible piece about the last two days of Martin Luther King Jr.’s life at the Lorraine Motel in Memphis was perhaps a labor of love in a very different manner. If you have not experienced this profound dramatic interpretation of Dr. King’s last moments, you should. It will leave you with some profound questions. While there were several things that caused me pause, the specific issue which affected me the most was Dr. King’s struggle with what his role on earth was and how he understood his life. There were other elements, but I do not want to be a spoiler. Suffice it to say, there were elements (many quite unexpected) that relate to the title of this blog. How do we understand these profound words? What does it mean that lives can be understood in their totality as well done? I ponder this idea more often than not. It was something that struck me every time I officiated a funeral or committal service. It is something I still ponder when someone I know (or even someone I might hear about) passes from this life to beyond.
What allows for the profundity of that statement to be a truthful one? How is that decided, or by whom? Undoubtedly, those who know us have opinions or beliefs about the life we have led. Most assuredly, there is some sense of what we have done as well as what we have left behind. And yet, who really knows or is capable of deciding either our goodness or faithfulness, and to what or whom? One of the things I was very careful about when I worked with end of life situations was to avoid any statement that projected some sense of what happened after life. Some might argue I was waffling or being unfair. I would argue that I am not God, nor do I wish to be. And of course, then there are those who believe there is no such thing. And yet there is the finality that occurs when someone leaves this world. Is it that we will never again interact with them? Is that all there is? If so, the idea of “well done” seems to be merely a human evaluation and the second element of the statement seems much more temporal. It loses the need to ponder, at least in my eyes.
This week I reacquainted with a young amazing person I have known for about 7 years or so, perhaps more, but I am unsure. She was a server at a local restaurant, and incredibly kind. She ironically lives close to my old Wisconsin stomping grounds, and we ran into each other three times in a week. It was an unexpected blessing to be able to speak with her and hear more about her life now. She also told me some of her own faith story, which I found fascinating. She is a profoundly talented and exceptionally good person. I told her that she gives me hope in a world where there is so much difficulty. It was a time that made me smile. On the other hand, it was a week of mourning and a profound sense of loss. The tragic passing of an amazingly talented, dedicated, and profoundly kind and thoughtful colleague has our campus community reeling and trying to figure out what next. There are so many questions for many, but it seems unlikely there will ever be sufficient answers. That is the very nature of loss. Rational and irrational questions, rational and seemingly irrational emotions sweep over us in a tsunamic manner, often taking away our breath and leaving us feeling disillusioned or frightened.
For me this is precisely the time, much like the Psalmist lament that I realize I am incapable of making sense of the nonsensical. It is indubitably the moment when discernment pushes me to believe in something much larger than myself. It pushes me back to those times when I was a seminarian sitting in Dr. Fred Gaiser’s class and he reminded us of how dependent we were on the mercy of a loving God to find some sense in our pain and anguish. It reminds me now of how Dr. Gerhard Forde wrote in his book, Justification: A Matter of Death and Life (It was reprinted in 2012, but I read it in the seminary in the mid-1980s), “theologically, the answer to the question what must [we] do to be saved is nothing. Shut up and listen for once in your life.” While I do not have the page number, I have this passage memorized since I first read it as a student, and in his Confessions class. It profoundly affected my theology and what I would call now my pedagogy or practice as a pastor. I think it is a particularly significant statement when we find ourselves feeling overwhelmed, despairing with no sense of help, or managing such pain that is appears it can never end.
This week I looked at pictures of my colleague from earlier in their life. I listened to stories of their ability to see both the big picture and realize the minute consequences of an action. I recounted my own experiences with them and how they made a difference for a student, allowing them to travel and experience things that I imagine changed that student’s life. I watched, and my heart ached, as people I respect and admire were brought to tears because of the gargantuan change this loss brings to their daily lives, perhaps more profoundly on a personal level, albeit professional as well. My mind races and my soul yearns for a do-over if one could allow such a thing, but much like the drama of the play I watched this evening, death allows no do-overs. In it we have a closure, and simultaneously we are torn open by the loss of one loved. There is a ripple effect of this loss that is, at present, too overwhelming to realize, and yet, we have no options to stop the work, ignore the realities of the change, or dismiss whatever our own lives require us to manage. This reality forces us to face our own fragility and realize we do not live in isolation. We affect each other more profoundly than we often imagine. If we can see the positive in that mutuality, perhaps we would be more able to help each other with the words of this title. Perhaps the idea of being understood as a good and faithful servant is something for this life as much as the next. Perhaps the words or kindness of telling someone well done could make the difference needed.
We are mutually dependent, profoundly delicate, and intrinsically flawed in our humanity. If there was anything I was reminded of this week it is that. The play tonight that focused on the last days of Dr. King’s life; the loss of an exceptional person, who was first human and then a spouse, a parent, an offspring, and a colleague has left me shaken and hurting. It pushed me to reconsider my journey in this world and reminds me that there is nothing guaranteed. There are no certainties in my world. It is up to me to live in a way that I hope others might believe is well done, that I have been good and faithful, and yes, that I have served others. I am grateful for the interactions I was blessed to have with my colleague. It is profoundly evident that they loved the university and were excellent in their work. All accounts spoke about the importance of the two sons and how much they were adored. And yet, we are fragile and life is terminally tenuous. There is so little I am assured of as I write this, but in my own fragile faith, I want to reach out in my own individual way and offer this: Well done, good and faithful servant. May you be at peace.
Thanks for reading.