Death disrupts life. A truism, perhaps, one that we all know in our heads and some of us have encountered more closely, grieving the unexpected loss of a loved one.
Sometimes death comes more gently. John's Uncle Lee died last week, and this weekend we set aside our usual schedule and traveled down to Ft Wayne to join the family gathered there. Lee was 87 and suffering in his later years from dementia, accelerated by the death of his wife nearly six years ago, in a car accident.
Family came from California and Virginia and various points in between, gathering to celebrate Lee's life and to say good bye. It was good to be with this mix of cousins, aunts, uncles and in-laws, catching up on each others' lives, and helping to "tuck in" Lee with a flower or a shovelful of dirt.
And as Lee's six year old grandson said, after being told that his grandpa was with grandma in heaven. "Now Grandpa remembers me."
Yesterday evening, on June 24, Heidi Siemens-Rhodes' 38th birthday, just a little before 7:00, friends and fellow church members began gathering for a short song vigil and farewell to Heidi. Nine months ago we reeled at the news that Heidi, one of our co-pastors at Assembly Mennonite, had stage IV cancer and probably only months to live.
She has lived richly and eloquently, sharing her zest for life and her struggles with cancer and unsuccessful treatments. She, husband Mitch, mother Jan, and boys Theo, Adam and Ira, have generously, gracefully, and courageously shared their journey with the congregation and other friends, "daring to stare death in the face," as one friend admiringly put it.
As we gathered, we knew that this day of Heidi's birth was most likely also to be the day of her death, and her birth into a new life.
There were vases and jars for gathering the flowers people brought from their gardens, and a basket for cards.
We lit candles and passed around song sheets:
Let there be light
O Thou in whose presence
The Lord bless you and keep you
There were smiles and tears, and candle flames that danced wildly in the breeze.
People kept streaming in, on bike, on foot, and the small front yard filled and overflowed. Family members gathered on the front porch and watched from the upstairs window. Little ones ran to and fro.
And we sang Happy Birthday, and the three hymns, and stood together in silence, holding Heidi and Mitch and the boys in prayer. Someone began singing a slow, thoughtful Alleluia, alleluia, and we joined in softly.
There were hugs and tears, and people slowly dispersed. About the time most of the crowd was gone, Heidi began taking her last breaths. The family gathered around for that last fare-thee-well, and (from Mitch's message to the congregation and the CaringBridge community) they remained around her bed for some time, crying, laughing, reminiscing and offering words of blessing for Heidi’s new life with God.
Farewell, Heidi, as you rest in God's ocean of light and love. And God's peace to you, Mitch, Jan, Theo, Adam, Ira and to all who will mourn for Heidi, as we continue the journey here.
A rose "candle" for Heidi. Today is her birthday -- and perhaps also the day of her birth into a new life. They have told us that the end of this life is imminent. Every time I check email, I wonder if there will be a message from the Assembly office.
The rose with raindrops comes from the first set of photos I took, back in September, soon after hearing that Heidi had stage IV cancer, when the light caught by raindrops on my rose leaves somehow also caught the mix of sorrow and hope our congregation was experiencing.
And below is a mix of the bright colors of early summer, for a rainbow in celebration of Heidi's birthday, and for the gift of beauty in the midst of sadness.
Our congregation had its annual retreat at Camp Friedenswald this weekend. The trees in southern Michigan were at their peak of color and I spent much of the weekend wandering around taking photos of light shining through leaves. I’ll save some of that light and color for posting on the next rainy day – memories are a good source for sparks of light in the midst of dreariness, thank Heaven.
John and I went back to Goshen last night for a gathering with friends and returned just before sunrise this morning, in time to spend a peaceful hour watching the gradually increasing light in the fen, and listening to the calls of killdeer, geese, and redwing blackbirds.
Looking over the fen, just before sunrise
About an hour later, when the sun has risen far enough over the hills behind us for the light to reach the fen.
It was a restful gift of slowly increasing light and birds singing praise, a good base for learning soon afterwards that tragedy has again touched the congregation. The father of one of our members, and a colleague of the many members who work at Goshen College, Jim Miller, was stabbed and killed by an intruder in the early morning hours. His wife was also injured and is in the hospital.
Darkness and light. Death and life. How can this be?
During the worship service, after the children left for Sunday School and the details we knew were shared, after one of the pastors led in prayer and we sat together in silence holding the family in God’s Light and wrestling with the chaos, the worship leader stood and in heartfelt Hebrew cried, “Eli, eli, lema sabachthani?"
"My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?" he translated, drawing on Jesus’ words from the cross. “How can this be?“
And yet, he went on, it is. And so is the bright sunshine, and the colorful leaves, and this group of people gathered together, giving thanks to God.
Life and death. Lament and praise.
Back home again, I found this prayer from Philip Newell’s Celtic Treasure:
O God of light,
from whom all life flows,
may we glimpse the shinings of your presence in all things.
In the darknesses of our world,
in places of fear and terrible wrong,
and in the darknesses of our own lives,
in times of confusion and doubt,
may we glimpse the shinings of your life-giving presence.
Amen and amen.
My approach to contemplative photography --
Tell about it."
Mary Oliver in "Sometimes"