Tuesday, December 07, 2004

Feeling Like Job: A Meditation on Mortality

By: UnrepentantNewDealer

"Naked I came from my mother's womb, and naked I shall return there; the Lord gave and the Lord has taken away; blessed be the name of the Lord."
--Job 1:21

Two Funerals

Well, this has been a stressful two weeks. I went home for Thanksgiving break a day early to go to my grandmother's funeral and I stayed a week late to go to my father's funeral. I apologize in advance if my writing lacks its usual eloquence or elan, if perhaps I ramble more than is my custom or cannot produce a witty turn of phrase, if the structure of my argument seems muddled and disjointed. Please bear with me, for it is very painful and difficult enough for me right now to formulate what I want to write, much less determine the best way to write it.

Where to begin? My grandmother on my father's side passed away on Saturday, November 20 at about 2:15 pm. She was 72 years old and had been battling lung cancer for several years. Her death, sad though it was, had been expected for sometime. Everyone got to see her and say what they needed to say. She died at peace with herself and the world. Her funeral, on the day before Thanksgiving, at the church she and her son and daughter attended, Muirs Chapel United Methodist Church in Greensboro, was truly a celebration of a life well-lived.

After the funeral, my aunt treated all the out-of-town relatives to a meal at the Revival Grill. I had no idea, when I said goodbye to my father that night, that I would not see him in the flesh again.

I had planned on coming back with my girlfriend on that next Sunday, as classes started back up the next day. I had packed up everything and was waiting for my ride, when Craig, my stepfather, called to tell me to stay where I was and not leave town. I assumed it was some doctor's appointment or something of that nature that I had forgotten about.

Craig got back about 2:00 pm and told my sister and I the news. There's really no way to cushion news like that. My father, William Kennard Smith, Jr., just "Bill" to everyone who knew him, had died in a house fire about 11:00 that morning, only 8 days after his mom.

Be Thou My Vision

The next week was rough. The arrangements for the funeral had to be made, and as I am 19 and his next of kin, I had to make many of the ultimate decisions. My father had wanted to be cremated like his mother. I decided on burying the urn at Muirs Chapel UMC so I would have a place for me to someday take my children to, to point to a gravestone and tell them about their grandfather.

The funeral was last Thursday. The sanctuary hall was full of people whose lives he had touched, old friends of his I didn't even know existed. It was emotionally draining. I rarely cry, but when they started playing the hymn I had "Be Thou My Vision ", I almost broke down. I had chosen the hymn by opening a Methodist hymnal at random, yet this simple ancient 8th century Irish melody resonated with my soul in my time of despair:

"Be Thou my Vision, O Lord of my heart;
Naught be all else to me, save that Thou art
Thou my best Thought, by day or by night,
Waking or sleeping, Thy presence my light.

Be Thou my Wisdom, and Thou my true Word;
I ever with Thee and Thou with me, Lord;
Thou my great Father, I Thy true son;
Thou in me dwelling, and I with Thee one.

Thou my battle Shield, Sword for the fight;
Be Thou my Dignity, Thou my Delight;
Thou my soul's Shelter Thou my high Tower:
Raise Thou me heavenward, O Power of my power.

Riches I heed not, nor man's empty praise,
Thou mine Inheritance, now and always:
Thou and Thou only, first in my heart,
High King of heaven, my Treasure Thou art.

High King of heaven, my victory won,
May I reach heaven's joys, O bright Heaven's Sun!
Heart of my own heart, whatever befall,
Still be my Vision, O Ruler of all."

My father served in the army for about 8 years in Alaska, the Pacific, and in northern Virginia. He was entitled to a military burial, and I was sure would have wanted it, as that was the accomplishment he had always been proudest of. So after the funeral, we made the treck across the street to the gravesite, where 3 aged World War II veterans from the local VFW chapter played taps from a mechanical bugle and presented my sister and I with a flag folded military style and a letter from the President.

Friday was the roughest day of all. Craig, my mom, my aunt, and myself had to go into the now-condemned house to salvage what we could. It was the hardest thing I've ever done. To sift through my father's possessions, charred pictures of our family, was an emotional roller coaster.

Fire is a strange creature. The kitchen was scorched with flame and the plastic containers were melted, yet the roll of paper towels immediately adjacent was not even touched. It was like this throughout the house, even in the living room, where the fire started. On one bookshelf, the contents of the top shelves had been destroyed, but on the very bottom shelf we found, completely intact sheathed in plastic bags, Christmas presents for my sister Catherine and myself that he had already wrapped and labeled. All in all, much of what he had, antiques and family heirlooms, we were able to salvage, and for that I am thankful.

This has been a bad year for this sort of thing in my family. My 101-year old great-grandmother died in March. My grandmother and father followed in November. It's been that kind of a year.

I can't dwell on the negatives though. For my entire childhood and adolescence I never once had to deal with a close relative dying. I have lived my entire life geographically close to most of my relatives. And I have had 2 great-grandmothers in my memory, one of whom lived to be 101. How many other people are lucky enough to be blessed with all those things? I've truly been blessed.

The Lesson of Job

Job was a good, pious man. Misfortune struck him nonetheless. In the course of a single day, his oxen and donkeys were carried off by one group of desert raiders, his camels by another group, his sheep and shepherds were killed by "the fire of God", and all his sons and daughters were killed when a gust of wind knocked down the house they were in. Job felt all the things people feel after a devastating loss: denial, fear, confusion, sorrow, even anger. But rather than curse the Lord, as everyone around him urged him to do, he continued to praise the name of the Lord. As Job 1:22 records, "In all this Job did not sin or charge the Lord with wrongdoing."

But he did demand an accounting from God, challenging God for at least an explanation as to why He had allowed all these misfortunes to happen to him. God didn't answer the question, but instead launched into a sarcastic tirade, posing questions of His own:

"I will question you and you shall declare to me.
Where were you when I laid the foundation of the earth?
Tell me, if you have understanding?
Who determined its measurements--surely you know!
Or who stretched the line upon it?
On what were its bases sunk,
Or who laid its cornerstone
When the morning stars sang together
And all the heavenly beings shouted for joy?
"Have you entered into the springs of the sea,
Or walked in the recesses of the deep?
Have the gates of death been revealed to you,
Or have you seen the gates of deep darkness?
Have you comprehended the expanse of the earth?
Declare, if you know all this."

--Job 38:3-7,16-18

The message is clear. We may want an answer, but since we are not omnipresent and cannot comprehend the true grandeur of the Lord's creation, neither can we question, or even understand, his motives. "The Lord gave and the Lord has taken away." It is certainly not satisfying from an intellectual standpoint. My inner Socrates continually pushes me to boldly challenge every assertion and skeptically examine every aspect of the world around me. But, for today, that answer is enough.