Inconvenience of Death

My next four posts will pull from my day yesterday.  It was a different day, unlike most of my Sundays.  Granted, as a pastor, I meet with people on Sundays.  I pray with people.  I talk about God, squint my eyes, and answer questions people have.  But this Sunday was unique.

I left home, and by the time I was passing the perimeter of blue and white officers around the president’s house, I got a call in the car about the death of a member’s mother.  Then I headed to a meeting before worship where me and another member talked theology.  I officiated a wedding for a couple and then ended the day meeting with another couple who’s expecting their first son in 7 weeks.  Inside those movements were all the other details of the day.  I harassed a few men from church for not wearing helmets while bicycling.  I hugged and held people.  I picked up my son and we went to retrieve his grandmother who would sit with him while we were out.  It turned into a long day.  Most of my Sundays are not this full.

So today I want to think about yesterday.  First, the notice of death’s coming.

Death is hardly convenient when it comes.  I say this as a man who has done some thinking about the confusing event.  I go back and forth between considering death an enemy and grounding my view of it in faith.  My own faith rewrites the story of death.  Christianity has encouraging things to say about death.  And still, good words, strong words, feel weak when death comes.

As I thought about the shocking news on that call yesterday morning, I wondered like most people what was on God’s mind.  I wondered whether the deceased had power over her own exit, whether she was close enough with God herself to choose when to meet him on the other side of life.  I wondered about her daughter, her son, her husband, and her son-in-law.  I turned off my radio because the gospel music I was listening to crowded the long thoughts of nothing-but-wondering.

I ran over the conversations I’d had with our member.  I saw her two days before.  I wasn’t sure if she had traveled to see her mother.  I’d later learn that she was with her mother when she died.  In the car, I heard myself whispering things about grace in the midst of death.  I was talking to myself in the car, rehearsing truths, but the truths came too quickly to take root.  I turned the music on again, thinking that music was the best thing to hear when the inconvenient angel hovered.  I told myself that music was better than truth.  Music was better than an answer with fast feet.

I held that member in my mind all day.  I thought about her during the worship service.  I mentioned her to a few people.  The weight of her grief was on me as I went throughout the other parts of my day.  As much as I was present with everyone else, I was accompanied by the anguish of that member and friend.  I imagined the pain, the anticipation of it I had seen in her eyes during our talks about her mother’s cancer, her father’s disposition, and her brother’s long-term care.

It’s interesting to me, inexplicable too, how you can be somewhere fully and yet be somewhere else.  How you can be with people and have some other matter grab you by the ear or the stomach.  Have you ever said to someone something like, “I’m with you in spirit”?  Or “You’ve been on my mind”?  Those words get at the wonder of being in two places, being with two people, being split, I suppose you could say.  I was very much with the couple I was marrying yesterday, but I was also with the couple who was lingering over the last days they had with their now dead beloved.  I was with my son in the car, but as a pastor, I couldn’t help but recall the shadow of death that cloaked over the otherwise bright day.

I read these words last night in Gwendolyn Brooks’s poem, “truth”

The dark hangs heavily

Over the eyes.

Isn’t that an image of death?  Hanging dark.  Heavy dark.  Eye-covering dark.  And that darkness, that hanging drape is hardly ever truly welcome.

Gwendolyn Brooks Says Reaching Is His Rule

Life for my child is simple, and is good.

He knows his wish.  Yes, but that is not all.

Because I know mine too.

And we both want joy of undeep and unabiding things,

Like kicking over a chair or throwing blocks out of a window

Or tipping over an ice box pan

Or snatching down curtains or fingering an electric outlet

Or a journey or a friend or an illegal kiss.

No.  There is more to it than that.

It is that he has never been afraid.

Rather, he reaches out and lo the chair falls with a beautiful crash,

And the blocks fall, down on the people’s heads,

And the water comes slooshing sloppily out across the floor.

And so forth.

Not that success, for him, is sure, infallible.

But never has he been afraid to reach.

His lesions are legion.

But reaching is his rule.

Books I’m Reading

I just finished Will and Spirit by Gerald May, a commitment of careful reading.  I took a year and a half to read it slowly while reading other things.  Here’s a list of the ten books in my current pile.  I’m holding the ones with asterisks now:

  1. The Memory Palace by Mira Bartok
  2. Blacks by Gwendolyn Brooks*
  3. The Year of Magical Thinking by Joan Didion
  4. Exploring Prosperity Preaching by Debra Mumford*
  5. Lying Awake by Mark Salzman*
  6. Faith in the Fire by Gardner C. Taylor*
  7. Mothers and Sons by Colm Toibin
  8. An Altar In The World by Barbara Brown Taylor
  9. Allah: A Christian Response by Miroslav Volf
  10. A Happy Marriage by Rafael Yglesias

Any recommendations for me, particularly for novels, short story collections, memoirs, or psychology and theology?

And what are you reading?

Five Female Writers in Chicago Literary History

Thanks to David Swanson for pointing me to this fine article at in celebration of a few female writers who have contributed to Chicago and world literary history:

March is Women’s History Month; for 31 days we celebrate the women who have made our employment, the oration of our opinions, and our lifestyles possible.

When it comes to contemporary authors, there’s plenty of strong female voices in Chicago. This wasn’t always the case. Women have had to fight for their spot in society at the very least, and still are still presented with threats against their equal rights in today’s political mess. The Christine Sneeds and Audrey Niffeneggers of Chicago can thank plenty of individuals for their publications, but here are a list of five Chicago ladies who paved the way for their success.

Harriet Monroe (1860-1936)

Poets of Chicago and the world in general can thank Miss Harriet Monroe for the work championing the genre. Monroe was the founder and editor of Poetry: A Magazine of Verse. After gaining some popularity as poet and freelancer for The Tribune, she became increasingly agitated over the lack of recognition—and funding—for poets. And so, in 1912, Monroe reached out to 100 head honchos in Chicago to pay for a subscription to her new poetry magazine. With this money, Poetry was launched. Its success wascolossal in the genre: poets such as Ezra Pound, T.S. Elliot, and Carl Sandburg were all edited at one time or another by Monroe, and it was her support that ensured the longevity of their reputations.

Ida B. Wells (1862-1931)

Ida Wells is Chicago’s First Lady of Civil Rights, and a pivotal player in the the Women’s Suffrage Movement, Wells’ influence was cast through the power of journalism. She dove straight into investigation and exploitation of lynching in the U.S. with her pamphlets: Southern Horrors: Lynch Law in All Its Phases and A Red Record. In 1893 she and Frederick Douglass, among several others, organized a boycott against the World’s Columbian Exposition, arguing that the Exposition did not work with the black community to fairly display African American life. They distributed their pamphlet, Reasons Why the Colored American Is Not Like the Columbian Exposition, in protest. The list of Wells’ articles and documentation is endless, but the influence remains: she asserted herself within Chicago’s windy politics, and made it an easier place for the rest of us women to do so.

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