Two series of phone calls. Neither one was wholly expected, in fact both were completely out of the blue but they were both illustrative of the how the words of Isaiah can play out in the lives, and deaths, of the people we know and love.
You should all know by now and if not, I apologize for the shock, but Joanne Lantz died this past week. I was at work, minding my own business, (don’t you love how people say that as if that means nobody should disturb them while they are minding their own business?) and the phone rings and it is Ken Lantz. He is choking up a little, he is clearly emotional, and he tells me that his grandmother has died and that now would be a good time to start thinking about a service for her. He declines the offer of company in this troubling time and Katherine calls from the outer office that Janet Hammond is on the phone and she “sounds upset.”
I finish with Ken and start on Janet, same reason, different answer on the issue of visiting; I stop by later that day. But within the space of two or three minutes, I receive two phone calls telling me of the death of one of our members, a beloved presence in the pews, a fondly remembered voice from the songs of the congregation, a passionate believer and most excellent friend.
Even more so, later that day I receive another phone call, this time from Joanne’s caregiver. Apparently, there was a list of people who needed to be called and Joanne thought to have me on that list. It didn’t matter if I was at the top of the list, there wasn’t anything I could do per se, but simply that someone let the church know, the family she had in Christ.
It was oddly about nothing more than honoring Joanne, who she was and what she wanted. I couldn’t fix things, I could not demand that God send our beloved sister back to us, no laying-on of hands I am capable of would do the trick. But church was deeply a part of who Joanne was and so including the church into the orbit of her death and dying was a testament to who she was.
Ken and Janet I understand, they understood deeply Joanne’s faith and her devotion to church and the fact that she died was not the only salient fact in the conversation, it was the way she had lived and the fact that so many people understood, and embraced that on her behalf, when she could no longer embrace it for herself. It was her caregiver, the woman I had never met, who knew Joanne and clearly loved Joanne from the sound of her voice, and wanted Joanne’s life to go on through her church family, who could remember and cherish her and commend her to her Lord.
It was in so many ways a departure from the way we are taught to deal with these things. We are taught by the industries involved, by the society we live in, by the wisdom of the world outside of us that we are to simply think of the dead as dead and focus on what it is we need to get through, what we need to get by.
People do not even die anymore, they pass away, they move on, they are the departed, like they took a train back to Galesburg or something. We no longer have funerals we have memorial services or we have celebrations of life as if hiding from the word dead would make our pain go away, as if in denial we could find the peace that eludes us when we lose someone.
Joanne is even having a viewing, an old-school habit of having the body be available in the flesh to allow people to say goodbye. But when was the last time you remember having the body present in the funeral service itself? Not an urn, but the body? It hardly ever happens anymore, we push that part aside for the sake of convenience, of being able to get our extended family all in the same town for a funeral, or memorial or celebration. We schedule funerals instead of just having them; we put the whole thing off as if a little distance would make it better, as if the raw emotions would be too much.
I like being able to say goodbye to the flesh because it was the flesh that I will remember. It was the flesh who hugged me at the end of each service, who clapped when the singers were particularly on point that morning; it was the flesh whose eyes crinkled when she smiled.
It is also another reflection of who she was as a Christian.
Honoring the flesh in which Jesus became incarnate, which Jesus redeemed from its sinfulness, the world around us that Jesus loved so much that He might die in order to save it, that is not something in the abstract, that is a work of the flesh.
Those three phone calls, telling me the sad news of Joanne Lantz’s death, were about Joanne, and the church, and faith and hope and salvation. Even in the midst of profound sadness and loss, the calls were about someone else.
And all of that was from the non-church-going side of the family.
The fast that Isaiah speaks of, the fast that will please the Lord, that the Lord will see and love is not the fasting from food, the fasting from worship, the showy self-denial, the martyrdom and belief that God will give special graces to the fast-iest believer of all. The Lord says “to loose the bonds of injustice, to undo the thongs of the yoke, to let the oppressed go free, and to break every yoke? Is it not to share your bread with the hungry, and bring the homeless poor into your house; when you see the naked, to cover them, and not to hide yourself from your own kin?” in other words, fast from yourself now and again, fast from inward-looking and self-serving from time to time.
Fast from your own needs and see the needs of another.
Call the pastor and let him know. Call the family, honor the dead, love the living, celebrate; not the life, but the salvation finally achieved.
I’m not much for hagiography, which is ascribing saint-like attributes or even conferring sainthood on a person or group but I was impressed at how much the family embraced who Joanne was, even in the midst of their grief, how much they put themselves aside enough to honor their mother, grandmother, aunt, friend.
It is truly all that God asks of us, the fast that will make our “light break forth like the dawn” and make our bones strong, the Lord shall go before us and the glory of the Lord shall be our rear guard, there will be nothing that we fear because we believe this all to be true and can set ourselves aside for a moment and assume the skin, the concerns, the pains, the hopes of another and let their voice speak through our throats.
Not just when they die. It isn’t any easier then, it isn’t any simpler to set ourselves aside at the time when a loved one passes, in fact it is terribly, awesomely more difficult at such times to set ourselves aside and we often fail, taking the easier road of letting the professionals take care of things, where do you think funeral parlors came from?
It is easier to simply nod to the wisdom of the world and say “we will allow no sadness in here, we will only have happiness and funny stories and we will celebrate the life of (insert name here)” little suspecting that we are sabotaging our own happiness, failing to let the awesome power of God’s grace to heal us.
Us. This happens more and more in churches and among church families. From a people who have been chosen, who have been saved, to whom the word of god has been made known and upon whom the Holy Spirit has bestowed the gift of faith and salvation through that faith, is we are not the beacons, the carriers of this awesome disease of caring for others, this salt, then who do we expect to pick up the banner for us? Who do we think will fulfill Isaiah’s prophecy and show to the world the grace and love of God?
Well, let me state here and now that in this house, in this place on the earth we will not pander, not compromise our beliefs, we will stand fast upon the confession that binds us, that our faith lies not in our own accomplishments but by the grace of God alone and that has delivered us from the pains of sin and death and when one of us dies, one of our family. We will not let their death go unmarked; we will not allow them to simply fade as if the life they led meant nothing to them, or to us.
We will set ourselves aside and embrace them, one final embrace before we commend them to our God and theirs. We will take the time to set aside our own concerns and lift them up, for all that they brought to our fellowship, for all that they gave to us along their walk of faith.
We will show the world our saltiness, is it any wonder that the word has come to mean brazenness, boldness, even a slightly naughty daring?
We will be naughty, and tell the truth in the face of a worldly wisdom that says keep that kind of stuff to yourself, in the face of our own shyness and fear, in the face of it all we – will – be – salty.
Which bring us to the second phone call. As it turns out, Joan Barber, a member of this church for many years, attendee of Bible Studies, Bridge player, constant smile in the back row, died.
Three weeks ago.
She’s on my list of people to call on if I didn’t see here again this morning, the phone in the directory was out of order so I’d have to go and see her at home in person. I guess I don’t have to now.
Apparently she had a stroke and died in a hospital in San Francisco, unvisited by her pastor, un-prayed-for by her community as she neared death.
You didn’t know because there was no obituary. I got the call yesterday. No service is planned.
I don’t know about you, but I feel cheated. I feel like I have all this salt and have nowhere to put it, sprinkle it or pour it on.
There is no chance to chuckle over some of her idiosyncrasies, especially as her mind began to wander away. There is no chance to memorialize her love for her late husband, who she worried about, was he saved, was he forgiven, was she?
Bridge players would have some things to say, and the folks who attended Bible study with her over the years. We could share in the delights of her life and then remember what it was that brought her to us.
What was the central anchor for her in this world for the past few years.
This church. This faith. This salt.
When we all began to worry about her driving, still she came to church. When she finally gave up the car and depended on others for rides, one of those rides each week was to church, to the house of God where she would join us all, her extended family, in worship.
It is not that those who cared for her didn’t know how much she loved the church, or God or any of those things. It seems that they were more wrapped up in their own business and couldn’t spare the effort to reach out and at least touch base with the community she belonged to.
Unable to set that aside, they called me: three weeks late.
But that is the ordinary thing, that is the wisdom of the world, you deserve a break today; don’t worry, be happy; everyone for themselves. So bland, so ordinary.
Be bolder than that. Be saltier than that. Embrace the calling of God for you and for the world; that we reach outside of ourselves, that we see outside of ourselves and yes, that we live, from time to time, for the sake of others so that they might know God’s love the way that we do, taste the saltiness of faith and truly come alive.
If we who have tasted the salty and the sweet, the love and the calling of salvation in Christ cannot be bothered, if we cannot be salty, who then? What is left but bland and ordinary?
Two deaths, four phone calls. Three calls made me sad, made me hop to it and get to work, made me reflect and made me remember a lifetime of love.
The other? Well, not so much. It left me craving salt.