How do we talk about our Christian faith in a way that connects with the spiritual but not religious? The scientific mind? The unbeliever? How might we use the normal course of events in church life to open up conversation and connection with people who think and believe differently from us?
Yesterday I officiated at a funeral for a beloved husband and son who died of cancer in his 50’s. He was a scientist—an engineer who worked in the area of national defense, and while raised Catholic, did not believe in God or any ultimate being. I suspected that many who attended his service felt the same way—yet his wife and much of his family are all Christians. In the last part of the funeral, I attempted to blend faith and science together, speaking both to the believer and unbeliever and to bring the truth of both experiences into one narrative. This service did not follow a traditional order of Scripture readings, Sermon, Prayers, but rather wove each of these into three sections that moved people emotionally from grief and lament to thanksgiving for the person’s life, and finally to hope and guidance in moving forward (I’m indebted to my father-in-law, The Rev. G. Daniel Little for this brilliant way of doing funeral and memorial services). What follows is the last section of seeking hope anew. I have changed the names to maintain the privacy of the family (and you can tell from the last line that he loved Star Trek!).
Finally, this afternoon, we come together to receive hope anew, and begin to move forward with the life God has given us. Moving forward is a process, much like life in the rest of the natural world: the moon waxes and wanes, the tide ebbs and flows—we inch forward, then we recede into grief before we can inch forward again.
We would like our life, our emotions, and our growth, to take off and go straight up, like an FA-18, but in truth, moving forward is more like the take-off of a butterfly. A butterfly begins by stretching and fluttering its wings; then later, it flies a little and lands again; then flies a little more and rests again. When it is ready for a longer flight, it never flies in a straight line—it goes up and down, and around and down and up again. Perhaps that’s why the butterfly is the international symbol of grief. It takes time to travel this unpredictable path, yet we still embody beauty, and love, and possibility.
Those are the very qualities that make it hard to say goodbye to John—qualities he had even on his last day. Mary and you, Jane, talked about how hard it would be for his mom to see him in this much pain again. You would normally leave the hospital at 10 or 10:30 pm, but that night, you both were getting set up with pillows and blankets to stay the night with him since the time was near.
But John courteously took his last breath at 10:30 that night, so his mom would no longer suffer from his suffering, and Mary and Jane, you would not have to spend the night in the hospital. It’s a humbling and awe-inspiring realization—to behold what can only be seen after death—that he was loving you, and taking care of all of you through his last breath. Even in pain, he didn’t complain, or engage in self-pity, but always reached out in compassion and love.
Sound familiar? John’s behavior reminds us of someone we talk about often—whose care and compassion and love is evident to his dying breath—Jesus. Similar to the pattern of Jesus’s death and resurrection, we see in John, a sacrifice that is life-giving and expands love.
And isn’t that the very pattern of Creation and the whole cosmos—that all of the stuff of creation is constantly moving through this pattern of dying, recycling, transforming, and creating anew to expand life and love?
We live in an age when science and spirituality are coming together; for the whole pattern of creation is that we end where we began; we are star-dust and to star-dust we shall return. God could have remained an infinite, unfathomable ball of energy and light 13.7 billion years ago, but instead, God’s whole being was broken open and undone to create the universe. God exploded out into trillions of galaxies with billions of stars—a self-sacrificing birth in a continuous and evolutionary process of dying and rising, of recreating life and love anew, of recycling the stuff of creation over and over and over again.
So, we are all connected, no matter where we are in the circle of life or the cycle of grief or the spectrum of belief. I think that’s why, the day after he died, when you couldn’t sleep-in, Mary, some odd things happened:
1. One fire alarm chirped, even though, through John’s technological genius, all of them were connected. If one chirped, they all should have chirped, but it was only one;
2. An FA-18 flew overhead, when you’re corner of St. Louis has never been in the flight-path of any FA-18s. And then,
3. When you looked outside, you didn’t see one butterfly, but 20 butterflies, all carrying beauty, love and possibility in their erratic little flight patterns.
Even after death, John is taking care of you as part of the sacred cycle of creation and recreation that keeps us all connected regardless of what language or faith we use to describe it. John’s spirit is here, and in the great mystery of God, we will all be re-united with him and all of our loved ones, and all of creation.
The Song of Solomon says it this way:
My beloved has gone down to his garden,
to the beds of spices,
to pasture his flock in the gardens,
and to gather lilies….
I am my beloved’s and my beloved is mine; (6:2-3)
Mary, your beloved has gone down to his garden, and there he will wait for you. For you are John’s beloved and John is your beloved, and death cannot break your bond, nor your connection beyond the grave. John made sure you received this message, not once, not twice, but three times: a chirping smoke detector, an FA-18, and 20 butterflies hanging out in your backyard.
That’s hope. That’s the hope we all need to take the next step, to live one more day, to flutter our wings and take flight, to embrace the beauty, the wonder, the science, the spirit, and the love of this wonderful world, embracing it all with the gusto of Captain Kirk.