Sunday, May 27, 2012

Too Busy Being Grateful to Disapprove

I will admit to being something of a purist when it comes to religious and civic celebrations, preferring to keep them disentangled and at some remove.  Mother's Day and Father's Day, for example -- important observances for greeting card companies, florists and families, to be sure, but not so much the liturgy of the church.  Yes, I am aware of the mandate to "honor your father and your mother," but Moses was speaking of a lifestyle disposition not an annual recognition.  July 4th, to cite what is often a more controversial example, is, in the same way, an important anniversary for a citizenry to observe, but I haven't yet discerned its relevance to the church.  And while in my personal life I swing open the Christmas music vault on the day after Thanksgiving, at church I held to Advent hymns during that four-week period (much to the disapproving whines of our members) and reserved the Christmas carols for the Christmas Eve service and subsequent Sundays. 

For similar reasons I have tenaciously reserved remembrance of the beloved dead for All Saints Day -- November 1 -- that ancient designation in the liturgical calendar for precisely such attention, never mind that the rest of American culture is doing so Memorial Day weekend.  Memorial Day, again, is a significantly important discipline for a citizenry, created as it was to honor those relatives and neighbors and total strangers who gave their lives in service to their country.  As I have heard their sacrifice described, they are those who left the comfort of their home to serve their country and never returned.  All Saints Day represents the church's discipline of remembering its dead, and the place of those deceased in the larger gospel story.  Memorial Day is the country's day to honor its dead and to remember their sacrifice in the nation's larger story.  It isn't that those stories are necessarily in conflict with one another; it is simply to sustain the clarification that they are, after all, separate stories.

That said, it was somehow comforting that this particular Memorial Day inserted itself into our family's grieving a scant week after the death of Lori's father precipitated it.  We couldn't help but remember -- to "memorialize".  It was still more touching that the congregation with which we have been worshiping, opting for this day rather than November's, included Jim's name in their recitation of names to be remembered, solemnized in the blossom of a rose that, retrieved for home, now graces our mantel as a petaled personification of the beauty, elegance, and fragrant bloom we have lost.

To my liturgically fundamentalist way of ordering time, they did it wrong, but it's hard to be judgmental when you are too busy being grateful.

Friday, May 25, 2012

The Bittersweet Cocktail of Gratitude and Grief

It is, of course, a privilege to be welcomed into a family voluntarily.  It happens all the time, I know, but its commonality does not diminish the wonder of it.  While the lottery of genetics and birth is the first means of family expansion -- creating a non-discretionary bond of blood and obligation for which I am equally grateful -- there is something incredibly generous about this secondary benefit of marriage.  And I was blessed to be such a beneficiary.  In exchanging vows, it turns out that I not only married a wife, but in humbling ways, her family as well.  So it has been that for almost 15 years I have had the privilege of eating Thanksgiving turkeys, tearing off Christmas wrappings, singing "Happy Birthday" and sharing ordinary life with Lori's siblings and their parents.  They share, I have learned over the years, much in common with my family of origin -- albeit in larger numbers.  Married 62 years, the Alexanders not only raised 5 children of their own, they have willingly opened their arms to 4 spouses, 10 grandkids and 1 great-grandchild.  It hasn't been often that we have all been together, which is probably good.  The conversational animation of the assembled multitude routinely threatens the noise ordinance, and there are rarely openings into which to wedge a word of your own, but the parents love the chaos.

It was, however, quieter this weekend.  Grief had gathered us this time rather than celebration.  On Thursday evening, sitting in his Lazy Boy recliner, watching the Minnesota Twins beat the Detroit Lions, holding his beloved partner's hand, Lori's Dad passed away.  Our bodies, of course, aren't engineered to last forever, and he had had some health issues in recent years that reminded us all that life is fragile and precious.  But that said, this particular moment was a surprise.  The children by birth arrived first; the rest of us trailing to tend to our own details.  Eventually in each others' keeping we told stories, shared memories, made plans and, each in his or her own way, grieved. 

And gave thanks for more blessings derived from Jim than we could count, augmented in the ensuing days by neighbors, former colleagues, friends of long-standing and random community members who passed through our fellowship with their own stories of blessing.  He was, as was affirmed in the funeral, "an encourager...a mentor...a devoted and attentive friend, son and brother; a person of elegance, integrity, trustworthiness, professional excellence, and a great sense of humor."  Not a bad list.

Even though it didn't start out to be a celebrational gathering, in the end I suppose that's the way it turned out:  a celebration of a life well lived; a stone of grace tossed into a pool of relationships with ripples we are all still feeling and appreciating.

And now limping along, we get about the work of recalibrating our orbits in the absence of one of our orienting planets -- new work for most of us, and as always commenced under duress.  The celebration, however, mingles with the grief and the resulting emotional cocktail is, if not sweet, at least nourishing.  To have been known -- loved, embraced, and affirmed -- is a precious gift, indeed.  And simultaneous with our ache is our grateful,