It is my stated purpose here, in part, to “eulogize.” When that sentence was written I meant it in an intellectual sense, but as the years pass it becomes evident that it should also apply in a more literal sense as well.
The passage of time brings with it great change and loss, and too often those suffering those losses and changes are confronted with pithy, social-media-ready sayings that really say nothing, and offer little comfort beyond the millisecond they are read, being incapable of standing up to a modicum of critical thought. Nonsense is ascendant and wisdom is elusive. A person is unmoored and bereft of life’s true center, seduced by the cult of positive thinking and psycho-babble that promises that profound self-indulgence and relativistic thinking (as well as justifying and embracing one’s own mediocrity rather than encouraging one to actually improve oneself) can replace that which was fundamental for millenia; a misguided conviction that a prioritizing and centering of one’s own self as the fulcrum of one’s universe will ultimately lead to happiness. Comfort is groped for that can never be obtained, and the souls of men and women alike are left empty, pitiful, and meaningless – incomplete, adrift and lost. Many will smile and proudly trumpet their fulfillment on the outside, but on the inside they are revealed to be nothing but whitewashed tombs full of dead and dying things – foremost among those things being a wraith-like version of themselves or who they once were. In a world and time such as this, where does one find comfort, guidance, and wisdom?
Perhaps from where past generations have always found them.
The community of which I am a part has recently suffered a triptych of passings – longtime friends and family who delighted and enriched us. It was my undeserved privilege to have been invited to speak on behalf of one of these beautiful women, and I made a poor attempt to do so. In choosing the words I would speak I made an attempt to synthesize 26 years of reflection and experience with the lessons these people taught me, and the result is rather poor. But regardless of its mediocrity, in the aftermath of that opportunity I have been inundated with requests to make those words available. Knowing full well that my blog traffic plummets when I tackle a spiritual subject, I am nevertheless unashamed to present this to my readers – regular and passing alike. They are perhaps foolish words, but they are words that are truly meant. It also being All Souls’ Day, perhaps they may be considered timely as well.
Reflection for Margaret O’Neill
Good morning. All of us carry memories and stories of Margaret O’Neill – a testament to the goodness of her heart and the priceless gifts she brought to us through her friendship. So fruitful and meaningful was her life on this Earth that no single litany could hope to encompass it, and it is perhaps presumptuous to attempt to do so. Indeed, her perennial humility would encourage us to extend the credit for her wisdom, her generosity, and her accomplishments, to someone else. But we, her friends, know better. It was always Maggie.
Maggie lived each day in the light of her faith. So inextricably was her identity intertwined with faith that this community, in which we stand today, was home. A home, indeed, she made possible when she and her husband bestowed the cornerstone donation that made this place happen. But even beyond that, through the decades she was a loyal minister, volunteer, and friend – breathing spiritual life into this community as surely as she brought it into physical being. A living witness of her faith in every facet of life. This place is home, and we – each of us – are her family. And her faith was her rock and her identity – a selfless, humble person who all of us loved very, very dearly.
I had the honor of spending many afternoons with her in her final months – always, at her insistence, with ONE glass of Irish whiskey… and ONLY one – and throughout that time she gave me much to think about; lessons hard and easy alike. But, more than anything else, she dwelt on her faith. I have been asked to share that faith with you, insofar as my poor ability to do so can be reconciled with the profundity and sincerity of her faith. It is with a fair amount of trepidation that I now share a message to us all from Maggie, as I hope and pray she would want it to be shared. But whether it hits close to the mark or not, somewhere in here is intended to rest the legacy she would want us to remember. For this is what made her proudest and brought her the most happiness. This is Maggie’s faith.
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A good and dear lady has passed from our sight, but not from our midst. Her passing leaves each one of us who loved her with important business of the heart that we must attend to without delay. The first part of that business is confronting the reality and the extent of our loss.
Margaret O’Neill played a big part in one way or another in the life of every person in this church. For some, it can be counted in years, for others in decades, for others, pretty much a lifetime. If we want to plumb the full extent of what has happened, and what our loss is, there’s a little device that scholars and academics sometimes use to check their reality – it’s called the Hypothetical Alternative. We can do that quite quickly; very simply, imagine for a moment that Maggie simply never arrived in your life. No spots where she was, we’ll just wipe them out for just a moment. It’s mind-boggling, that huge empty space that would have been there had she not come and been part of our lives. There’s no doubting it.
So what are we going to do with this loss of ours? We have multiple options. The first is to brush it aside, “Well where she’s gone, we’re all going to follow, it’s simply a matter of ‘it was her turn.’” That will get us nowhere except into deep trouble; this is very, very heavy-duty business.
The second option is to surrender to bitterness; “Why do these things have to happen, so far out of due season?” And that, too, will simply poison our hearts.
But there’s a third option, and that is the option Maggie would want us to choose: to tell the truth, and the truth is that our friend Maggie was a gift from God that we didn’t earn, and whom we had here in our lives for much longer than we had a right to expect. Now when we get clear about that, despite the fact that our hearts are saying, “Well, couldn’t we have had just a little bit longer? Maybe a lot longer?” Of course we’re saying that inside, but at the same time as we see so clearly she was a gift that we did not earn. If we get that truth clear, we know what we have to do, and that is, give thanks! Thank you God for your good and dear gift! Once will not do it, spoken simply from the lips won’t do it, it has to come from deep inside, over and over as the weeks and the months pass, but I promise you that if you speak that truth deep in your heart, as the days and months pass, that ache in our hearts will begin to heal.
There’s a second matter that we have to address this morning. That’s the matter of regrets, because in every friendship, in every love, no matter how perfect, there are always at least a few regrets, on both sides. That’s reality. We find ourselves saying, about ourselves, ‘I wish I’d said or done that! Why did I forget to do that, last time we talked on the phone?’ All the things that we forgot, we’re too busy for. And then there’s the other side of things, ‘I surely would like to take that back, delete that word, or that action, whatever, from the record!’ Would that life were a computer with convenient insert and delete buttons, so that we could clean it all up! But it’s not, so we’re stuck with our record. What are we going to do?
Well, Maggie has an answer for us this morning, and it’s a very good one! She says, “I can now see myself and all of you through God’s eyes. All the illusions are gone, all the masks, all the makeup even. As I look into myself, into my heart, I see my own mistakes, my own regrets, and I tell you first of all that I’m sorry when I was wrong. But then I look deep into your hearts and what I see astounds me. What I see is how much you really have loved and continue to love me, right down to this very morning, you do. And I cannot tell you how grateful I am for that love. It makes all the difference.
“So, now I have it all, now. I am at peace. So be done with any regrets, and if there happen to be just a few still lurking around, you take the energy that you would have wasted on them, and you direct it toward taking better care of one another. That is the best possible gift you could give me.”
There’s one last thing we need to attend to this morning, and that is confronting our own mortality, for where our sister Maggie has gone, we will all follow, the only thing we do not know is in what order and at what time, and as often as not, that’s a surprise. We just found that out. And we heard Jesus’ words in the Gospel, when he said, “I am the resurrection and the life, and whoever believes in me, even though he die, will live.” It’s a wonderful promise, there is just one difficulty with it, and Jesus knew the problem, because even in Jesus’ day, talk was cheap. And so Jesus gave us a sign and a guarantee that his words to us can be trusted. He did nothing less, than die himself, and be buried. And then, rise from the dead, into eternal life. His rising is our guarantee that his promise can be trusted.
We human beings are pretty fragile creatures. We have our good days and our bad days, up days and down days, sometimes we’re not all that dependable or predictable. God is not like that. God’s like this (Stretch out arms). Like this. Through all eternity, God’s stance toward his human creatures is one of open, extended arms, waiting to embrace, calling by name. This is the wonderful Father who just a few days ago welcomed into his embrace our dear friend. He said to her, “Welcome home, Maggie, my girl! Welcome home, my daughter. Like all my all my children, you had your sadnesses, and your down days, but they are now at an end. Welcome home.”
If we listen carefully, we can hear Maggie’s words to us, very softly. “I have just come face to face with the one person in all the universe who loves me even more than you do. I am at peace. I have everything that I can hope for. And I thank you, with all my heart, for being my friends, and for loving me so deeply.”
Let us be quiet for a moment, with our own thoughts and memories, and speak to God our thanks – thanks that are surely owed.
Abundant thanks, from deep in the heart.