13 All of these died in faith without having received the promises, but from a distance they saw and greeted them. They confessed that they were strangers and foreigners on the earth, 14 for people who speak in this way make it clear that they are seeking a homeland. 15 If they had been thinking of the land that they had left behind, they would have had opportunity to return. 16 But as it is, they desire a better country, that is, a heavenly one. Therefore God is not ashamed to be called their God; indeed, he has prepared a city for them.
Every year in the holiday season, we gather in the beauty and comfort, the holiness of this sweet space, to honor the pain, the sorrow, and the grief that come with life’s inevitable losses. We offer music, verse, thoughts and prayers in the hope and belief that, as Rabbi Earl Grollman wrote, “Grief shared is grief diminished.”
Our sorrow may stem from the loss of health, of work, of dreams, of purpose. Most often here we think about relationships that have ended in brokenness or in death.
Some who have died we remember with fondness and joy—like my father who had a good life, and a good death at 90 years of age. It was a blessing to be at his side when he passed imperceptibly from this life to the next. Ten years on, I still feel the surprising peace of that moment.
Even though we miss them, it is so much easier to entrust to God the souls of those who lived well, lived long, and died peacefully–to imagine them in the great cloud of witnesses, the communion of saints, unseen but somehow ever present among us.
Much more difficult for me has been the memory of beloved friends whose lives went awry: whom the tragedy of mental illness befell; who took their own lives; or who lost their way in addiction. My own remorse blocked me freely releasing them into God’s gracious care.
Sister Joyce Rupp’s wonderful book Praying our Goodbyes helped me see those souls in the liberating light of our faith, expressed in the passage from Hebrews.
Rupp notes the ancient Aztecs’ idea that we are only on loan to one another, and quotes their verse:
Oh, only for so short a while you have lent us to each other,
because we take form in your act of drawing us,
And we take life in your painting us,
and we breathe in your singing us.
But only for so short a while
have you lent us to one another.
“When we look at life as being on loan to us,” Rupp wrote, “we look at this loan for what it is—purely gift, given to us out of love. We reverence all that we have and take great joy in it, but we do not grasp, cling to or hoard our treasures.”
I want to close with a story that amazed and comforted me as I mourned the death by suicide of a dear friend in Austin.
Here in open studio at Northern Clay this fall, a classmate and I fell into conversation on a Saturday afternoon. Hearing that I was a priest she told me that she had been a militant atheist until the aftermath of her son’s death at the age of 15. She knew and lovingly accepted that her son was gay. But he struggled mightily, depressed at not fitting in. When his murdered body was found, he was wearing makeup. His mother had no doubt about the reason he was killed. Her son was an atheist, too. But one day he appeared to her—radiant, beautiful, and whole. He came to tell her that God was real. That he was happy. That all was well.
He was home in the heart of God.
May we all find comfort in trusting that the God of love receives each and every soul and welcomes them home.