This past Sunday evening, one of my patients ended his own life. A WWII combat vet, a devoted father and grandfather, a gifted craftsman and avid outdoorsman, “Tim” spent his last months struggling under the burden of congestive heart failure. He gave no indication to anyone that he was planning to take his life. When he did, Tim’s loved ones were horribly shocked and heartbroken.
I was called to the scene of Tim’s death and spent over seven hours with his immediate family as they attempted to face their grief, answer police questions, and try to make some semblance of sense of the tragedy that had just unfolded. For me it was one of those nights during which I found words to be utterly useless as a means of consolation or support. All I could do was to make myself available and pray that somehow I could be an instrument of God’s merciful and abiding Presence.
What follows is my meditation at Tim’s funeral yesterday. Truly, it was one of the most beautiful funerals I have attended because of the tributes paid to him by his sons, daughters-in-laws, and grandchildren. One of Tim’s sons left not a dry eye in the chapel when he concluded, “If love could have saved dad, he would still be with us.”
Humanly speaking this is might be true. Why Tim took his life when he was surrounded by such a loving family will always be a mystery.
At the same time, however, in my heart of hearts, I believe that Love DOES “save” Tim – and the rest of us – from the fate of being separated from God. The words of theologian Jurgen Moltmann have served as a kind of mantra for me this week:
“With God, nothing is at all lost. Everything remains in God. We experience our life as temporal and mortal. But as God experiences it, our life is eternally immortal. Nothing is lost to God, not the moments of happiness, not the times of pain. ‘All live to him (Luke 20.38).’”
Amen and amen.
Funeral meditation for Tim
David Hottinger, December 2009
We just heard read one of the most classic passages in Christian spirituality, the 23rd Psalm. I would like to share with you a contemporary rendering of the Psalm – one that captures, I think, the intimate Love that God has for us, God’s sons and daughters.
O my Beloved, You are my shepherd,
I shall not want;
You bring me to green pastures for rest
and lead me beside still waters renewing my spirit;
You restore my soul.
You lead in the path of goodness to follow Love’s way.
Even though I walk through
The valley of the shadow of death,
I am not afraid;
For You are ever with me;
Your rod and your staff they guide me,
They give me strength and comfort.
You prepare a table before me
in the presence of all my fears;
you bless me with oil, my cup overflows.
Surely goodness and mercy will
follow me all the days of my life;
and I shall dwell in the heart
of the Beloved forever.
Amen – (Psalms for Praying, Nan Merrill)
At its essence, the Christian story is one big love story. It is the story of God creating the world, taking flesh as a human being in Jesus, laying down God’s life freely in love, and then conquering death so that we might have love and life and joy in God forever.
God is a lover. In fact God is THE Lover – perfect and ravishing and complete and passionate in love for us – no matter how far we stray or badly we screw up or run away from that love.
There is a passage in the New Testament that captures this truth with great beauty. In the 8th chapter of the Book of Romans it is written,
The One who died for us—who was raised to life for us!—is in the presence of God at this very moment sticking up for us. Do you think anyone is going to be able to drive a wedge between us and Christ’s love for us? There is no way! Not trouble, not hard times, not hatred, not hunger, not homelessness, not bullying threats, not backstabbing, not even the worst sins listed in Scripture… None of this fazes us because Jesus loves us. I’m absolutely convinced that nothing—nothing living or dead, angelic or demonic, today or tomorrow, high or low, thinkable or unthinkable—absolutely nothing can get between us and God’s love because of the way that Jesus has embraced us. (The Message translation)
In other words, we are born in God’s love, we live in God’s love, we die in God’s love, and we are raised to new life in God’s love.
Just like the rest of us, Tim was part of God’s love story. Tim may not have been a “religious” man in the way religion is often defined. But he was a deeply spiritual man with a real connection to the God who is Love – the Love in which we live, and move, and have our being. As one of his sons told me, Tim took particular joy in communing with God in God’s gift of creation, especially during long trips into the Boundary Waters with family.
Jesus said that by their fruit we will know his followers – not by their words but by their fruit. After spending only a few hours the other evening with you, Tim’s family, under very traumatic circumstances, it is clear to me that Tim’s life bore much fruit, which, if passed on, will continue bearing fruit for generations to come.
These are truths of which we must be mindful today as we remember Tim, a man who brought great love, wisdom, passion, and joy to many, especially his beloved family. It is apparent that he was a man full of passion, creativity, humor, integrity, fidelity, and zest for life.
You will share some of the stories of Tim’s love – and the ways in which that love shaped you – in a few moments. All one needs to do is look around this room today, see the pictures on display or view the video made for his 50th wedding anniversary to see the great fruit born by Tim’s life of 85 years.
In all respects, his was a life well lived – not perfect by any stretch of the imagination, not without its share of flaws and brokenness – but a life lived well. A life that has made the world more whole by having him in it. The task of celebrating and giving thanks for Tim is one that will – and should – continue far into the future.
There is no escaping the fact, however, that gratitude and celebration co-mingle this day with sadness in the wake of Tim’s death on Sunday evening and shock at the way in which he died.
The path that was Tim’s to trod recently was not a smooth one. There were the years of providing painstaking care to his beloved wife of 60 years she walked into her own valley of the shadow that is Alzheimer’s disease.
His last year was one of bad news, major transition, doctor visits, medical treatments, physical decline, and more bad news. And yet Tim tried to make the best with what he had and continued to share of himself with his family. It sounds to me like he gave you and you gave him precious gifts during these recent months, gifts that might never had been shared otherwise.
One thing that I am certain Tim had was an outpouring of love from all of you. You cared for Tim in these last months with great compassion, competence, and courage. When those of us from the hospice team came to visit, we were struck by the fact that you were a family who would be loyal and steadfast to the end. And you were.
One of Tim’s most dreaded fears was dying in a nursing home. You prevented that from happening by bringing him into your home and providing him such outstanding nurture.
Your whole family fought the good fight alongside Tim. You journeyed with him as far as you could go. Then on Sunday evening – sooner and not in the way anyone expected – you were forced to bid farewell to your father, grandfather, great-grandfather, and friend – as he made his final journey from this life unto the next.
Yes, Sunday night there was a tragic end. But in the grand scheme of Tim’s rich and fruitful life, the end is far from being the defining moment. And most certainly, in God’s great love story, in God’s tender mercy, death – no matter how sad, tragic, or disruptive – is NEVER the end.
Having God as our Lover doesn’t mean our path will be without trials or tears. In the same chapter in Romans from which I just read, St. Paul says that the whole creation is going through a process of redemption that looks and feels a lot like childbirth.
There is moaning and pain and blood and the yelling out of questions like, “when will this ever end?” Above all, there is waiting…and waiting…and waiting. Paul writes that this waiting becomes viscerally real through our bodies as they wear out, get sick, and die. He says, “These sterile and barren bodies of ours are yearning for full deliverance.”
Life can be tough, particularly at moments like these in which we are forced to say goodbye to someone we love: someone, who, it seems, died tragically. Life hurts, especially when we endure pain, loss, sickness, despair, and injustice. Our natural instinct is to cry out, “Why?” and then we feel lonelier than ever when we don’t seem to hear an answer.
Here is where the Love story gets interesting. Even from the mire and muck of these things, God’s love and beauty can spring forth and transform everything.
It is at times like these – when we face the reality of death and admit the failure of all of our efforts to avoid pain – that God is made known most powerfully. That’s what the cosmic Love story of Christ is about – God’s overflowing love for us in the middle of this funny, broken, tragic, painful, and beautiful thing we call life.
The heart of Jesus’ message is this: We are loved. In life and unto death and beyond death, we belong to God who made us, forgives us, and desires us to share in God’s light and joy forever.
And there is NOTHING in all of creation – death, disease, depression, despair, broken relationships, loneliness, – NOTHING – smashed dreams, unfulfilled expectations, regrets, rejection, shame, trauma – NOTHING – can separate us from the love made known through Jesus the Christ.
As our Lover, God takes our deepest woes, our most anguished cries, our most shameful failures and uses them to bring us into God’s heart, which is Love Itself.
Ours is a God who brings light from the bleakest darkness; hope from the deepest depression; joy from the bitterest pain; healing from the worst brokenness; peace from the most violent struggle; and life and resurrection from the very pit of death.
As we give thanks for Tim’s life and mourn his death today, let us remember all of the ways in which God became present in our lives and world through him. And may we be mindful as well that God is present here and now, even in the face of such grief.
Jesus is, indeed, our good shepherd. and there is nothing that can separate us from God’s Love.
Even though we walk through
The valley of the shadow of death,
We are not afraid;
For You are ever with us;
Your rod and your staff they guide us,
They give us strength and comfort.
You prepare a table before us
in the presence of all our fears;
You bless us with oil, our cups overflow.
Surely goodness and mercy will
follow us all the days of our lives;
and we shall dwell in the heart
of the Beloved forever.
May the heart of the Beloved Christ heal, comfort, and strengthen you on this day and in the days to come. Amen.