Liturgies of Life and Death
“IN LIFE AND IN DEATH, WE BELONG TO GOD…”
We are called to share life with each other, so on a Wednesday evening a few weeks ago and one year and three days after we laid hands on Marty and commissioned him to a ministry of dying, we anointed Marty once again, and told him his baptism will soon be complete.
The sanctuary gradually filled up with church members, Marty’s family and his “bar friends,” most of whom sat together on one side of the sanctuary, like it was a wedding. I told the crowd we were here to tell stories, to celebrate Marty’s life and assert our presence with him as he moved closer to his death, and to affirm that in life and in death, he belongs to God.
And then service opened with his favorite song, What a wonderful world, and as our musician sang out in a clear, sweet voice, I felt the lump in my chest work its way up to my face and I began to cry. I looked at the rows of bar friends across from me also crying - these strangers, church members and me, this whole room full of people, brought together by our love for Marty and our fear that we were maybe not going to make it through this thing.
But I’ve learned that something incredible happens in these experiences of confronting life and death and sticking with the discomfort. It’s excruciating, but it only lasts a moment. Once we go through the death moment together we come out the other side a little bit invincible, a little bit able to face whatever all this is with joy and gratitude and sadness and love and most astounding of all, without fear.
So we all stuck with it and stayed put, crying into our kleenex and not leaving. And just as it has each time in a moment like this (like in Joanne’s service years ago), we made it through to the other side.
I rose to walked to the podium. I pointed out table near the door with the pile of markers and signs that said, “Marty is…” and the clothesline strung across the front of the sanctuary, reaching from one side of the room to the other, and I said, “As Marty prepares to join the cloud of witnesses, we here today get to witness to him his impact on our lives. Each one of us who wishes to share, will take turns holding up our sign and answering the question, “Marty is…” and then sharing whatever story or memory of Marty that we wish.”
And I went first, “Marty is… surprising.” I told people one of my favorite moments of the whole year was hearing Marty’s life story, and then I invited people to raise their hands if they had: Scuba-dived the wrecks in the Great Lakes? Been a well-known astrologer? Been Buddhist? (I got a couple hands there), Wikkin? Been a private detective? Trained as an acupuncturist? Lived for a couple of years in Columbia? Every time, Marty’s hand went up, and I watched people laugh in delight as this man we all love claimed his wild and wonderful life, his mystery and hidden depth, before our eyes.
Then, person after person stood and came to the center and shared. And I watched his bar friends, some of whom were decidedly not church people, and his church friends, some of whom were decidedly not bar people, bound together in our love for Marty, opened up in our view of him, deepened in our gratitude for him, and witnessing to the incredible impact of a single life that ripples through us and beyond.
Marty is… Kind. Brave. Gentle. A gift. A friend. Hopeful. Loving. Welcoming.
Children shared. Friends from kindergarten shared. People who hadn't planned to share shared. We glimpsed into seasons of his life before many of us knew him - Marty the hippy, Marty the one they were sure was an FBI agent, Marty who loves espresso martinis and holds the bartender accountable to making a good one. Marty who told me long ago that he believes we are here to take care of each other, and who is teaching us in this moment how to do that by letting us take care of him.
I preached to this group, but mostly to Marty. A short message.
Do not be afraid.
Life and love are where you come from and they are where you are going.
We will walk with you to the point where you go on alone. And you go on with Christ.
You have shaped us all so much; our lives, our world, has forever been altered by your presence.
You have embodied your life message well.
We love you.
And we gathered around him - those of us who are praying people - and laid our hands on him and prayed for him. And then we all left the sanctuary and filled the Gathering Room where Marty’s favorite foods awaited us: Lasagna, salad, garlic bread from Buca, with dozens of cherry pies and apple cobblers made by friends lining the counter.
The room was filled with laughter and ease, warmth and care, gentle conversation surrounding us all like music. Many of Marty's friends came up to me to thank me and to tell me they were pondering other stories, or they had ideas for ways to bless him, or they were so thankful for this special evening. The subtext of it all was, We are his people and we’re in this together now.
The days are getting harder. Moments are more frightening, more poignant, more sad, more awake.
And still, he said to me this week, "I said I would share it with you, and I intend to keep my promise."
And we said we'd walk this road with you, Marty, and we intend to keep our promise too.
Thank you for letting us share this journey with you, Marty.