Wednesday, October 26, 2011

The good death

I just found out that Al Lehman died on Monday. It’s been a long journey, this death.

Al and Lois have been part of North Valley Friends since before its founding.  I remember when Hal and I were newly married and began attending Springbrook Friends, one of the meetings that merged to form North Valley. Al was teacher of the adult Sunday school class. Newly graduated from college, as well as newly married, I was a bit of a rebel at the time, highly critical of anything to do with church. But I loved that class. More to the point, I loved Al and his gentle way of opening the Scriptures and of encouraging us to engage with them and with each other.

In the following years, each time Hal and I would return from Bolivia for our furlough year in Oregon, Al and Lois were a stabilizing factor for us in the church. They were like parents in the faith and never seemed to change, were always part of the life and health of the community we came home to.

I was with the elders visiting Al and Lois in their home on Sunday afternoon. Al never woke up during that time, and his labored breathing formed a sort of background music to our visit. We sat with Lois and Bev, sang some old hymns, with Hal’s harmonica accompaniment—songs like “Blessed Assurance,” “Great Is Thy Faithfulness,” “When the Roll Is Called up Yonder.” We then all talked about what Al had meant to us, and the strong testimony of a consistent, faithful, gentle life unfolded.

Lois shared that the day before God had given her an unexpected gift. Al woke up and was conscious for about an hour. During that time they again expressed their love to each other. Lois was smiling as she told us, “I didn’t think I get another chance to tell him I loved him.” Bev shared about how her father never wanted his last months to be like this, did not want to be so dependent on family for every need, but that as his condition gradually worsened, he just seemed to accept that this was how it was to be. He walked gently and submissively through the whole experience.

We prayed for Al and the family, sat around for a short while longer and left, not realizing this was his last day with us.

I’m remembering reading about the spiritual discipline of the “good death,” a practice in years gone by, not spoken of much anymore. For the life of me (interesting phrase), I can’t find the source of my reading. I’ve googled it and find thousands of references to a “good death,” all contemporary. Today the phrase pertains more to the medical profession than to Christianity, and is linked with practices such as hospice care. It basically means a death with as little physical and spiritual pain as possible. That’s good. Al and the family benefitted from hospice care during the last several months.

But the “good death” as a spiritual discipline has another sense entirely. Rather than something the dying person receives at the hand of others, it is a gift that person gives to others. It refers to letting one’s death be as full of Jesus and of the fruits of the Spirit as one’s life was. It means letting the way the person handles death become a ministry in itself, a blessing to the community. It results in a deep joy that mingles with sorrow as the person finally slips over the edge and into Life.

Of course, for that to even be possible, a person would have to have lived a consistently Spirit-filled life.  Over a long period of time.  Al Lehman was such a person, and while we will all miss him, I smile as I imagine him now in the presence of the One he loved. And I thank him for giving us the gift of a good death.

Wednesday, October 19, 2011

How it sometimes happens that i am reduced to writing

It starts in the middle of the night
--the witching hour
--the pull of the moon
i slip from sleep
drawn to the lip of chasm
bend in & begin to
spin down & down
i grow small small
as the cone of the vortex
whirls the colors & sounds
& senses of all i’ve ever known
fast fast so fast i forget my name
around & around the dark
shines twirling tumbling me
sucks out my words
my words my very
life until
it slows slows
& stops i
never know how or when
but the vortex vanishes
& i uncurl in the gentled night
hold in my hand
a small pile of words
a singular piece of

Tuesday, October 11, 2011

Secret sunshine

I watched a very disturbing movie last week, and it continues to prod me. I love foreign films, in part because of insights gained from looking at life from other cultural perspectives. This one was from South Korea, a prize winner in the 2007 Cannes Film Festival, so I ordered it.

Entitled Secret Sunshine, the film tells the story of a widow who, along with her young son, decides to honor her late husband by moving to his home town, a small city actually. (The translation of the town’s name is “Secret Sunshine.”) Shin-ae begins to make a few friends, finds a job and puts her son in the local grade school, but nothing comes easily. As she explores her new environment, in the background of several scenes Christian groups are singing choruses and testifying in the streets. The local pharmacist tells her earnestly that she needs God and invites her to church, an invitation Shin-ae shyly turns down.  But Christianity keeps poking its head around the corners of the film and I wonder, is this the “secret sunshine”?

Tragedy strikes and Shin-ae’s son is kidnapped, then brutally murdered.  The perpetrator is apprehended and turns out to be the school-van driver.  Shin-ae, overwhelmed by grief, finds herself one evening in a healing service of the very church to which her pharmacist had invited her. She breaks down in the service and people gather to lay hands on her and pray. The next scene shows her at peace, giving her testimony in a small group.  A Christian now, with a new “family,” she is learning to sing the songs, read the Scriptures, and submit to a theology that encourages her to accept her son’s brutal death as somehow “God’s will.”

It all breaks down when she goes to the prison, accompanied by church members, to tell the murderer that she forgives him. The criminal smiles tenderly at her from behind bars, informs her that he, too, has become a Christian, that God has completely forgiven him and he is at peace and praying for her.

Too much. She walks out of the prison in stunned silence, accompanied by the “hallelujahs” of the brethren, then collapses in the parking lot. The remainder of the film portrays her rejection of Christianity, psychotic breakdown, hospitalization, and subdued return home. Heavy stuff.

One of the most difficult aspects of the film for me was the portrayal of Christianity. It was fairly honest, not exaggerated.  I recognized the music, the forms, the types of relationships because I have heard and seen them all—throughout Latin American and in the United States, representing mainly the neo-charismatic movement, but corresponding to some denominational groups as well. I recognized all the songs, which included contemporary worship music, Bill Gaither (“Because He Lives”), traditional hymns (“Blessed Assurance”) and one song I couldn’t recognize which might actually have been Korean. The Christians were good people, wanting to be helpful.

But the overall impression was of a church that was not Korean in form or content, that was offering superficial answers to the deep struggles of life.

I know something of the large evangelical church in Korea through my Korean friends (including some of my students), through reading the history of the church in that country, and through reading some of her theologians.  I know that something good and real concerning the Kingdom of God is taking place in Korea.

But the questions the film poses need to be listened to deeply, not just in the context of Korea, but around the world where the church has taken root and sprung up in diverse cultural contexts.  Why, in so many of these places, do the forms and even the content of the gospel seem so similar to what we see in church movements around us? Where are the unique contributions that different cultural expressions of Christianity could offer the whole church?  Where is the profound grappling of gospel and culture producing a theology that touches the deep hurting places in life today?

Monday, October 3, 2011


It comes when least expected.
In the middle of the night
I awaken, dream pictures
drifting away,
and on the edge of consciousness,
"Follow me."
At my computer
pondering how to respond
to a difficult message,
the reminder,
"Follow me."
Walking to the post office,
head down, worrying
this task or the other,
a gentle nudge,
"Follow me."
At the moment of temptation
to irritation--the inappropriate
remark, the socially inept
gesture--he whispers,
"Follow me."
It's there at the unanticipated
turn, the interruption,
the sudden darkness.
Throughout the day
and into the night,
alone or in a crowd,
when I'm thinking about him
and when I'm not,
the offered hand,
the quiet word, "Come.
Follow me."

Ready or not, Lord,
here I come.

(From Mark 1 & 2)