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The Day of the Dead


"No one is an island, entire of itself; every one is a piece of the continent, a part of the main. If a clod be washed away by the sea, Europe is the less, as well as if a promontory were, as well as if a manor of thy friend's or of thine own were: any one's death diminishes me, because I am involved in humankind, and therefore never send to know for whom the bells tolls; it tolls for thee." John Donne, 1624

I remember it as a clear day in late fall. The fields outside the windows were golden to brown, the wheat already harvested, the corn still standing and shaking in the wind. The sky was blue with some hint of grey, probably from the dust that seemed to be forever borne on the winds. There were no clouds in the huge sky overhead. The light was long. A bit in the distance was the barn, and past that the line of trees, a windbreak. The sun came in slant through the window, and the curtains moved in the slight breeze. It was all so clear and so still.

I was maybe six or seven years old. My Mother would know but she died about three and a half years ago. My brother was there, wearing a tie at 10 years old; my sister was probably sitting on one of the old damask covered chairs with doilies on the arms. I don’t know if she would remember – she had a memory for those kinds of things, but she is dead as well, gone some dozen years ago now. My Dad would have stood with the other men, but he is dead too, now 30 plus years ago. My Uncle Harry and Aunt Isabelle would have been in the center of the low conversation; they also are no longer alive, and I am sure there were many cousins about. I do not remember them.

I remember the window and looking out from across the room, and the sky and the light, and just to the left of my view was the coffin, with my Grandmother in it. Her name was Karen Marie Wettested Jensen, but we knew her as Gaga. She was in her early 80s, and we were there for her funeral. She lived with us for part of each year – she was my Mom’s Mom and she spent a third of the year in Minneapolis with us, a third in St. James with Isabelle, and a third in Menahga with Sylvia.

She was the only grandparent I knew and I did not like her whole lot. She wore black too much and was crabby and I believed she liked my brother and my sister more than me. She had been a teacher and raised three teachers. She had come to the US as a child, an immigrant from Stavanger, Norway and she made a life in the US for her family. She was independent and treasured learning – imperious is how she was often described.

It was the first time I had experienced the death of another person. The casket had been open for a viewing – it was quiet but not silent, mournful but not somber. There were probably casseroles and jello salads – we were Lutherans, and maybe some fried chicken from my Uncle’s flock. I remember her being so still.

And I remember my Dad, thirty years later, lying in his last bed, that narrow wooden bed we call a coffin, and how still he was, how he was no more; he was gone from me. His skin was cool, his smell was gone, no more Old Spice and cigar smoke smell. My father was gone from me.

Shifting the Sun

When your father dies, say the Irish,
you lose your umbrella against bad weather.
May his sun be your light, say the Armenians.

When your father dies, say the Welsh,
you sink a foot deeper into the earth.
May you inherit his light, say the Armenians.

When your father dies, say the Canadians,
you run out of excuses.
May you inherit his sun, say the Armenians.

When your father dies, say the French,
you become your own father.
May you stand up in his light, say the Armenians.

When you father dies, say the Indians,
he comes back as the thunder.
May you inherit his light, say the Armenians.

When your father dies, say the Russians,
he takes your childhood with him.
May you inherit his light, say the Armenians.

When your father dies, say the English,
you join his club you vowed you wouldn't.
May you inherit his sun, say the Armenians.

When your father dies, say the Armenians,
your sun shifts forever.
And you walk in his light.

And then my sister, twenty years after that, and her sleeping that endless sleep in her final bed. How quiet she was, as she never was in life, how little there was of her even though she was nearly all there. Reduced, in some way, to memory and I felt the burden of her life, that I could keep her alive by remembering.

The Day of the Dead. El Dia de los Muertos. Its roots deep in history, reaching back to Aztec times. All Saints Day. Funerary customs the world over. Everyone in this room has been touched by the hand of death, I am sure. For some it is recent, for some more distant – but that cold hand has touched us all. It is in remembering that warmth returns and life continues.

Have you ever touched a person just when they died? The change is astonishing; the passage from life to death is radical. There is a stillness unlike anything else. It happens in an instance – alive, then not.

But what then?

When I was a chaplain at St. Elizabeths Psychiatric Hospital in Washington DC, a chaplain would always go and sit with a person when they were near death. Our hope was that they might not die alone – these people who so often lived alone. Many of them had no family, and some were unable to maintain relationships. So we sat with them. And again, I remember looking out a window into a clear sky. It was quiet in the room; I was reading. Her breathing was so still; I could not hear her. And then, something – I don’t know what, but something in the room changed, and she had died. A presence was lost; something left.

Death and dying. It all comes down to this, doesn’t it? Death, the great democratizer – rich, poor, happy, sad, success, failure, men, women, gay, straight, liberal, conservative, - we all come to the very same end. Poets and philosophers, theologians and scientists - all have tried to understand just what our death means. Scientists don’t know, finally, why we die, just that we do; theologians have crafted all kinds of images unto death to suggest that death is not an end by a doorway; poets have written again and again and again about what death is, what it is like, how to think of it.

Max Coots writes this:

It is the little deaths before the final time I fear.
The blasé shrug that quietly replaces excited curiosity.
The cynic sneer that takes the place of innocence,
The soft-sweet odor of success that overcomes the sense of sympathy,
The self-betrayals that rob us of our will to trust,
The ridicule of vision, the barren blindness to what was once our sense of beauty,
These are the deaths that come so quietly that we do not know when it was we died.

And this by the poet Jane Kenyon; this was written, by the way, as she was dying from cancer:

I got out of bed on two strong legs.
It might have been
Otherwise. I ate
Cereal, sweet
Milk, ripe, flawless
Peach. It might
Have been otherwise.

I took the dog uphill
To the birch wood.
All morning I did
The work I love.

At noon I lay down
With my mate. It might
Have been otherwise.
We ate dinner together
At a table with silver
Candlesticks. It might
Have been otherwise.
I slept in a bed
In a room with paintings
On the walls, and
Planned another day
Just like this day.
But, one day, I know
It will be otherwise.

Do not ask for whom the bell tolls, it tolls for thee, and by each death we are diminished.

My colleague Forrester Church has defined religion as the dual response to our being alive and having to die, suggesting that it is the fact of death that gives our life meaning, or makes the question of meaning so important. Because we die, we need to decide how we are to live. The final question here is not whether there is life after death but whether there is life before death.

Here is a Billy Collins poem called ‘The Dead’

The dead are always looking down on us they say,
While we are putting on our shoes or making a sandwich,
They are looking down through the glass bottom boats of heaven
As they row themselves slowly through eternity.

They watch the tops of our heads moving below on earth,
And when we lie down in a field or on a couch,
Drugged perhaps by the hum of a warm afternoon,
They think we are looking back at them,

Which makes them lift their oars and fall silent
And wait, like parents, for us to close our eyes.

Christians and Muslims believe in a heaven of some sort after life; Jews believe in the immortality of the soul; Buddhists both believe that there are heavens or that death is just the end, like the blowing out of a candle; Hindus believe in a great and unending cycle of birth and death and rebirth, of re-incarnation.

In Wendell Berry’s novel A Place on Earth, a father mourns the death of his oldest son in World War 2. For some years, he cannot reconcile his grief with the necessity of moving forward. But at some point, he is able to and he does this by understanding that his son’s death is not something separate from his son’s life, that his life is whole, and just has one more thing in it than before – his death.

I always liked that understanding. My Dad’s life was full, and his death is just one part of his life, not the whole of it. His life was more than his death. Same with my sister, same with my Mom. And the same, too, for all those you think of today – their life was more than their death, and what we remember and keep alive, is their living.

So this is what matters – the living. Their lives, our lives – death comes to us all but so does life, so does life.

As Mary Oliver has written:

When death comes
Like the hungry bear in autumn;
When death comes and takes all the bright coins from his purse
To buy me, and snaps the purse shut;
When death comes
Like the measle-pox
When death comes
Like an iceberg between the shoulder blades,

I want to step through the door full of curiosity, wondering:
What is it going to be like, that cottage of darkness?
And therefore, I look upon everything
As a brotherhood and a sisterhood,
And I look upon time as no more than an idea,
And I consider eternity another possibility,

And I think of each life as a flower, as common
As a field daisy, and as singular,
And each name a comfortable music in the mouth,
Tending, as all music does, toward silence,
And each body a lion of courage, and something
Precious to the earth.

When it’s over, I want to say: all my life
I was a bride married to amazement.

I was the bridegroom, taking the world into my arms,
When it’s over, I don’t want to wonder
If I have made of my life something particular, and real.
I don’t want to find myself sighing and frightened,
Or full of argument.

I don’t want to end up simply having visited this world

So, death and dying. It all comes down to this. From dust we came and to dust we shall return, earth to earth and shadow to shadow. But until then, as Denise Levertov says “weave real connections” and your life may become full, a life worth dying for, and one remembered.

For all the saints, on this day, who from their labors rest, we give our thanks. For their lives – that’s what we remember and honor – the lives they lived. We do that and death shall have no dominion.

In the rising of the sun and in its going down,
We remember them.
In the blowing of the wind and in the chill of winter
We remember them.
In the opening of the buds and in the rebirth of spring,
We remember them.
In the blueness of the sky and in the warmth of summer,
We remember them.
In the rustling of the leaves and in the beauty of autumn,
We remember them.
In the beginning of the year and when it ends,
We remember them.
When we are weary and in need of strength,
We remember them.
When we are lost and sick at heart,
We remember them.
When we have joys we yearn to share,
We remember them.
So long as we live, they too shall live,
For they are now a part of us,
As we remember them.

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Recommended for You

Text by Rabbis Sylvan Kamens and Jack Riemer from Gates of Prayer, R.B. Gittelsohn

One of the oldest spiritual practices is the pilgrimage, traveling to some place as a religious journey, going to a holy site and in doing so, symbolizing the journey of the spirit through life. There are famous ones – the route across northern Spain, the Camino, ending in Santiago de Compostola where, supposedly, the bones of St James are buried. My daughter walked that some years ago and it has been in my thoughts often.

In Buddhism, there are sites connected with the Buddha – last year I loved Colin Thubron’s book To a Mountain in Tibet about Mount Kailas, a destination for both Buddhists and Hindus. There are Buddhist pilgrimages in China and in Japan.

The Khumb Mela is a Hindu pilgrimage to the river Ganges – over 100 million went on this pilgrimage this year [that ’s about the combined population of CA, NY, TX and FL or the whole of the Philippines, or 300 Icelands]. Jews go to Jerusalem and the Temple Mount. Unitarians go to Boston [or Fenway Park or Chavez Ravine, depending].

Maybe the Pacific Crest Trail or John Muir Trail, or the Lost Coast. You may have your own sacred spots – maybe it is a pilgrimage to a childhood home, or to a cemetery, or a place in the natural world. Maybe Trader Joes.

One the most famous pilgrimages is the Hajj, the Muslim pilgrimage to Mecca – just ending now. It is one of the pillars of Islam, an expectation that every healthy Muslim will take once in their lifetime. It is as important as prayer and giving charity. It remembers events from the life of the prophet Muhammad, and its roots go even further back to the life of Abraham.

You know the story? Abraham and his wife Sarah are around 80+ years old and have no children. God appears to them and tells them that he will make of their descendants a great nation. Sarah offers her handmaiden, Hagar, to Abraham and they have a child, Ishmael. But Sarah becomes jealous and drives Hagar and Ishmael out into the desert. They survive and Ishmael is considered to be the father of the Arabs – and hence of Islam. [Puts an interesting twist on that famous phrase ‘Call me Ishmael,’ doesn’t it?]

When God then tells the 90-year-old Sarah she will have a son, she laughs. Isaac is born – in Hebrew the name suggests he who laughs! Oh that Bible – it is filled with surprises. And so Sarah and Abraham leave their home and wander, until finally they come to Palestine and settle. The rest is history.

The story, though, does not end there. God tells Abraham to take his only son Isaac up onto a mountain, and there, he tells Abraham to build an altar, lay fire wood on it, then take his son Isaac and sacrifice him. As they have traveled up the mountain, Isaac keeps asking his father where the ram for sacrifice is. Abraham says that God will provide the sacrifice.

In the Islamic version, Ishmael is the one to be sacrificed and he is aware of what is going on – and tells his father to go ahead. This is what the holiday Eid al Adha, at the end of the hajj, commemorates.

In both versions, Abraham’s hand is stayed and a ram is found nearby and the sacrifice is completed.

Bob Dylan starts his great song Highway 61 Revisited with these words:

Oh God said to Abraham, “Kill me a son”
Abe says, “Man, you must be puttin’ me on”
God say, “No.” Abe say, “What?”
God say, “You can do what you want Abe, but
The next time you see me comin’ you better run”
Well Abe says, “Where do you want this killin’ done?”
God says, “Out on Highway 61”

Soren Kierkegaard wrote a book about this incident, Fear and Trembling, in which he imagines four differing scenarios, from Abraham refusing to actually sacrificing Isaac.

It is meant to be a story about obedience, of course, and it is taught as an example of faith, that somehow Abraham is to be admired. I never really understood the lesson here, and I remember this as one of the first cracks in the armor of my childhood faith, wondering what kind of God would set up such a test, and what kind of perverted faith would be willing to condone something so heinous. It always bothered me. I thought of my father, gentle and kind, but a man of deep faith, and what torture it would have been for him to have something such demanded of him.

It made me think of the demands of faith and the nature of obedience, and just what constitutes the religious life; it made me begin to think about what is spiritually healthy and what now, or where, do we – or at least I – find strength and comfort? It leads me to ask: To what am I loyal, to what do I surrender?

Or, more precisely: what am I willing to sacrifice? I still wonder about that. What am I willing to sacrifice?

Probably not a lot, if truth be known. Probably not a whole lot. I don’t think sacrifice is at the top of most of our desires. Is it? I mean the sacrifice of something that matters.

What would you be willing to sacrifice for your faith? Your son, your daughter, your best friend? How about your house or your car? What about your sofa or your stove? How about 10% of your income? Maybe just that book on the nightstand? Or a table lamp? Your smart phone or iPad? How about? … well, you chose. Maybe your privilege?

When I was little, we used to take vacations every year in Northern Minnesota. My Mom’s sister and her husband lived in a small town, Menahga, MN, a bit south of Bemidji [wonderful names up there] and somewhat west of Highway 61 of Bob Dylan fame. Bemidji was famous for a huge statue of Paul Bunyan and Babe the blue ox, and we would be sure to go over and visit each year. [The statues appear in the movie Fargo and it was startling to see them – and in winter].

It was lake country, and we rented a little cabin at a camp on a lake. We fished and picked blueberries, swatted mosquitoes, went swimming – vacation stuff. I shared a bed with my brother, a rolled up blanket between us so we wouldn’t – well whatever it was we shouldn’t we wouldn’t do at night or in our sleep.

I insisted always on bringing my own pillow from home. My brother was one of those who just always fell asleep and never woke up. I was a fidgety sleeper and would turn and turn until I finally feel asleep. I remember – in those warm summer evenings – always looking for the cool side of the pillow, and when I found it, there was a sense of satisfaction; there was hope and almost a feeling of salvation. Tension would leave and for a moment there would be peace in the world.

That is still true. Know what I mean? The cool side of the pillow, that place when you cannot settle, you find comfort and hope?

I’ll come back to this.

One of the highlights of our trips to northern Minnesota was seeing moose. They are huge animals and often were seen on the shores across the lake from our cabin. I would row over and watch them when I could. Ever see one up close? They are really huge animals.

They are dying off. One Minnesota population has declined from 4000 to 100 in the last 20 years, and the cause is most likely global warming – their habitat is dwindling and there are too many ticks around and they weaken the moose, resulting in their inability to survive the harsh winter.

Well, if you have been listening closely, so far, in this service, we have Islam, various pilgrimages, the population of Iceland, Abraham and Isaac and Ishmael, northern Minnesota, pillows and moose, the Hokey Pokey, climate change and Bill McKibben.

How does this all tie together, you might ask?

Let me go to back to Bill McKibben.

He is one of our modern heroes – along with people like Wes Jackson and Wendell Berry, David Brower and Edward Abbey, Rachel Carson and Aldo Leopold – who have alerted us to the declining health of the natural world and at the same time portrayed our deep dependence and spiritual kinship with the natural world.

McKibben's first book was called The End of Nature in which he argued that, for all intents and purposes, there is no more true nature left – the entire planet has been affected by human activity. He does not say this is necessarily bad – just a fact we should accept. His latest book is about energy and energy companies. McKibben founded the group in 2007 named from the supposedly safe level of hydrocarbons in the atmosphere – 350 parts per million. We are now at 400 ppm and there is no sign of it slowing down. 350 is just a dream now.

We have gone past the tipping point – we have changed the earth’s atmosphere too much and we will not go back. Can you realistically imagine Congress adopting meaningful environmental policies?

When I was little, I believed in a loving God, a god like my Dad, who was kind and gentle and on my side. If God made awful demands, like in the story of Abraham and Isaac, I believed that it would turn out all right – that God would provide; things would be well.

But I slowly learned that is not the case. I lost my faith, and, as Klinkenborg says, losing your faith is not all that hard. It is hard at first, but pretty easy soon enough. Before long, it’s like nothing was lost at all. You just don’t miss it. People do it all the time. But, Klinkenborg goes on – ‘What’s hard is losing your residual faith, the desire to believe that the system is working – the desire to believe after belief itself has gone.’

Perhaps that is why you are here – the desire to believe after belief itself has gone. There is the desire – this is true for McKibben; it is true for me, the desire to believe that we can change our ways, even though all the evidence suggests otherwise.

So what should we do? Just turn the pillow over and look for the cool side and go back to sleep? Say we are willing to sacrifice something precious with the expectation that God will intrude so we don’t really have to sacrifice anything at all? Go on a pilgrimage so that our hearts are turned? Stick our heads in the sand? Eat, drink and be merry because we who live with such privilege will be the very last to suffer?

Is it enough to drive a Prius [we should line all of them up some Sunday out here] or maybe we should ride a bike more often? How about switching out all our light bulbs to LEDs and composting all our organic waste? Are backyard chickens part of the answer? Do we stop eating red meat?

Does any of that make a real difference anymore? The answer is probably ‘no’ but if it helps us feel better about how we live, then those are the right things to do. They are certainly not wrong. It is better not to add to a problem even if we cannot solve it.

Is there anything we do that matters or that can make a difference? McKibben says this: Live in places with strong communities, and strong communities come about because people make them. Build strong communities. Not communities of privilege – we have plenty of those – just look around you – but communities of opportunity, communities of inclusion. This is our

residual faith, that in spite of it all, we can make a difference, if we are together.

For much of my life, I thought that the cool side of the pillow would be found in how I thought – whether there was a god or goddess or not, whether there was life after death or whether the soul was immortal. I thought that maybe the cool side of the pillow would be found in my inward journey – whether psychological, emotional or spiritual – that writing prayers or seeing a therapist or doing yoga, running or walking would give me relief from the weariness of the world. That maybe I should go on a pilgrimage, walk the Camino, do the Pacific Crest Trail. Do a journey.

All of those are good things – they can be very good things – but McKibben is right – the cool side, the side that gives me rest, that comforts, that gives me hope, that brings rest so that I can begin again, is in community. It is in community that we dive deep, in community we find our whole selves, in a community we can throw our whole selves in and dance.

But very bluntly, my question for you today is this: what are you willing to sacrifice so that the world might be more of what we hope it could be? And, as you look to call a new senior minister and have a conversation with Tony Robinson today, what are you willing to sacrifice to help this congregation, this beloved community be what it could be?

In community we can believe. We have no other choice.


So tonight, or any night, when worry about the world keeps you awake, and you turn your pillow, seeking the cool side of the pillow; remember this place here, this community, and understand that here, right here, in this place, is the salvation of the world.

Sweet dreams

Rev. Dr. Jim Nelson
Neighborhood Church

Friday, 8 November 2013