An expected death, when it finally happens, is traumatic. Sudden death by accident is even more traumatic because it tears one out of the bounds of normal, it deletes any notion of security or control; it’s a rude awakening to the uncertainties of life. Death by any name is naturally unnatural if only because it’s generally not anticipated — even when it’s anticipated — and we prefer to remain unaware of its certainty. Death is the unwelcome expected visitor, we may run but we can’t hide; we may deny it but it doesn’t make it go away.
While I am not suggesting that one type of bereavement is worse than another, I am suggesting that in some types of bereavement other extraordinary factors and reactions impinge upon the survivors; this statement is true for survivors of murder and of suicide.
In both murder (and in suicide) outside factors such as the media, law enforcement, the judicial system add to the grief reaction and associated emotions. And then there’s the stigma that follows on the heels of murder and suicide.
Both types of traumatic deaths, murder and suicide, involve cognitive dissonance — the survivors simply cannot comprehend or get their arms around what’s happened —, in murder, the normal anger of grief morphs into rage and hostility; the survivor may have even have thoughts of violently destroying the murderer, and is confused and even ashamed by such thoughts; the survivor experiences anxiety, fearfulness, insecurity, and feels vulnerable to further psychological or physical trauma. This list is not intended to be exhaustive but merely to point out some of the extraordinary features of survivor grief in murder.
Say what you will about the Visitor who never leaves empty handed, no one really knows the pain like the survivors of murder. When another human being intentionally takes the life of another human being, death becomes the ultimate horrible paradox. When a human being takes the life of another human being not out of rage or loss of mental faculties but because of avarice, greed, simple materialism, that death conjures up thoughts, emotions, sentiments we’d rather not admit.
This homily was delivered at the funeral of a young man, just 38 years old, a father, a beloved. A young man who didn’t have it easy but transformed his life, went into a carpenter apprenticeship to learn a trade, did well, and was about to complete his training, when he was brutally beaten, robbed, and died of his injuries.
I was contacted by a distraught family needing answers where there were none. The saving grace of the situation was that they had faith and hope. In fact, the family was blended in many ways; the young man was drawn to Islam, his fiancée was Christian. The request was to honor both faith traditions, and drawing on the Holy Qur’an and the Holy Scriptures, I was able to inspire hope and comfort.
While it is a fact of life that must be accepted that there are misguided, even evil people in the world, who do misguided and evil things to good people, we cannot sustain a healthy frame of mind by pursuing such a reasoning. Only faith, compassion, and empathy can come to our rescue; only the mystery of Love — extending ourselves in the interest of the spiritual growth of the sufferers — was going to assuage the agony. After all, how do you give meaning to the senseless?
Officiant’s Words of Comfort
to the family and Friends of
∗October 22, 1976– †August 22, 2015
A Carpenter’s Tool Belt, Hip – Hop, Love — Transformation
Delivered by Chaplain Harold W. Vadney on September 12, 2015
Faced with the mystery of life, untimely tragic death, and the feelings of loss, confusion, anger, even despair, I was pondering Michael’s spirituality, his interest in the paths we take to God, to Allah, and the scripture verses that we would read today and the beautiful Islamic prayers Anjum offered today, and how I could incorporate in a few words of personal comfort I could share with you today. How was I to do justice to the many facets of this remarkable man, Michael.
There was just so much to Michael and so much of it was so complex. It appeared almost contradictory at first. But then I started to look at it all and I began to see the trees that make the forest. It all became clear what was going on in this man and his meaning in this life. It all came together when I looked more deeply at the transformation that took place in Michael’s short life among us. I thought of the caterpillar going into its cocoon, only to emerge as a beautiful butterfly for but a brief time in our world, and then to leave us with its tiny footprints, traces of its meaning in our garden. We can look at the same transformation in Jesus Christ when he embarked on his ministry, was put to death, when he was placed in the tomb, when he emerged resurrected and glorious. Or remembering the prophet Mohammad, Peace and Blessings be Upon Him, who according to the Holy Qur’an [Surah 17, verse 1], he was taken by night to the Holy Mount in Jerusalem to be shown some of the Signs of Allah. It is written that he was accompanied on this journey by the Angel Gabril (Jabril) mounted on a glistening white horse named Barak (Buraq), and with lightning speed was carried into the Seven Heavens to meet His Lord. Like those miraculous transfigurations, Michael, too, went through transformations as a believer, as a person of faith, and is promised a glorious resurrection and eternal life, now that he has seen God’s face.
Our first reading comes from that very same Isaiah who elsewhere prophesies that “every tear shall be wiped away” that we “will meet with joy and gladness, sorrow and mourning will flee.” (35:10; 51:11). But in our reading from Isaiah today (Is 55) we learn more about how different God is from us, his thoughts are not our thoughts; his ways are not our ways. Of course not! He’s God the Creator and we are his clay creatures! It is not for us to question divine Providence, our Destiny. Nevertheles, Isaiah goes on to preach that we are invited to seek the Lord, to be motivated by his love and mercy, and if we do that a banquet of joy and strength is waiting for us.
In our second reading from Psalm 127 we learn that God establishes families and that the prosperity we enjoy is not the work of human beings but is a gift from God. The Psalmist points out that the gift of children to a man is like a quiver full of arrows; they make him strong against adversity and adversaries. A man’s strength, in other words, is in his children. In fact, the People of the Book, Jews, Christians, Muslims believe that taking care of family is a priority, and if you did not have children and many of them you were cursed, and you would be condemned to be forgotten; you would literally never have existed, there would be no memory of you. That’s scary stuff and it sounds like something from weird science fiction. So according to Isaiah, “Certainly children are a gift from the Lord,” they’re a sign of the Lord’s favor. And Michael was certainly blessed with 6 beautiful children: his oldest son Marquise, and four beautiful daughters: Alexis, Mikaela, Olivia, Mary Ellen, and young son Kaleb. Keep those children close and talk to them often about Michael.
Our third reading today warns us not to conform this age, these bizarre materialistic, confused times, the weird and crazy world we live in where bad things happen to good people. St Paul teaches us to allow ourselves to be transformed — there’s that word again — by “clothing ourselves with incorruptibility, in immortality” in order to be able to receive perfect victory form God through Jesus Christ, that victory is over death itself. Our victory is our triumph over the sting of death, it is our transformation from the corruptible to the incorruptible, from the mortal to the immortal. I think St Paul is also warning us not to get big heads but to be humble and grateful; in other words, not to think too much of ourselves but to get a grip on who we really are; sinful creatures made of clay, who will someday return to the clay. Sin gives death its sting; and sin is distancing ourselves from God and His law: To love God with all our hearts and souls, and to love our neighbor as we love ourselves. I’d take that a step further and say that we are to love our neighbor as we’d like to be loved ourselves. I our prayers today the Our Father, we’ll ask God to forgive us just as we forgive others. Can you do that? Well that’s the challenge.
We are all different according to our gifts, and we should use those gifts properly. We are to love sincerely and honestly, to hold on to what is good, to love one another, to respect one another. To rejoice with those who rejoice and to weep with those who weep. To live at peace with all, and to conquer evil with good. By doing that, we live God’s law, are delivered from sin, and are rewarded with victory. I believe that was Michael’s outlook, too, you can read it in his kind face, his beautiful smile; you can find it in his transformations through his life. Look there and you’ll find great meaning for your own lives.
The Holy Quran teaches a very similar lesson at Sura 41:30 where we read: “[For] those who proclaim ‘Our Lord is God,” and then lead a righteous life, the angels descend upon them: “You shall have no fear, nor shall you grieve. Rejoice in the good news that Paradise has been reserved for you.” “You shall have no fear, nor shall you grieve,” these words echo our reading from Isaiah today, “For you shall go out in joy, and be led back in peace; the mountains and the hills before you shall burst into song and all the trees of the field shall clap their hands.”
Our Gospel wraps all of this up in its message that invites the burdened and the suffering among us to approach the Lord, who promises that the righteous will find the burden easy and the yoke light. St John, in another place (Jn 14) tells us not to let our hearts “be troubled”, that in the Father’s house there is a place for everyone, and that it is being prepared for us. And Matthew (Mt 25:31 – 46), again, teaches that those who ease suffering, those who discern what is God’s plan, what is pleasing and perfect, will be astonished to learn that in caring for the needs of those suffering among us they were ministering to the Lord himself; the self – centered, the wicked, the evil should not be surprised that their neglect of sufferers was neglect of the Lord. The Holy Quran teaches an almost identical lesson, almost word for word.
But, you’ll try to remind me, Michael wasn’t a religious man. He didn’t attend church regularly, so what’s all this about keeping the faith and righteousness? Well, here’s my take on all of that.
We’ve gathered here today to celebrate the life that Michael lived and to pray together and ask our Heavenly Father to help us discern the legacy and meaning that Michael left behind.
Michael understood the value of stuff, and of his fellow human beings. He also understood that things have little value in the timelessness and spacelessness of the eternity that awaits us all. I believe that in the end, Michael was ushered into paradise with applause because he was a good steward, gave generously, and truly understood the value of stuff—and of others.
Michael was always ready to tinker or to fix. Never too busy to help out. Generous and loyal. We have only to think of his love for his children, his “discipline”, The carpenter’s tool belt should be seen as a symbol of Michael’s readiness to tinker, to repair, to help. To build. It’s also there in his response, “I build America. I build skyscrapers for a living.”
We talked about a butterfly earlier but now think of a can of spray paint. Holding a can of spray paint means you have a vision of what could be. Transformation. There’s something miraculous about paint. Did you ever drive by a shabby old house and then a couple of weeks later drive by and hardly recognize it once it was patched and painted. Carpenters and painters have been there!
Transformation! Michael had a remarkable attribute: he had the ability to see what could be and not just what was. Michael was remarkably capable of seeing beyond what was, the messes, the problems, the disillusionment, and Michael had hope and could bring hope to people, and to things, which the rest of us might call hopeless; Michael, I believe, saw hope there, in the apparent darkness of the forest, Michael saw the delicate rays of sunlight filtering through the treetops, bringing gifts of warmth and light to the life on the forest floor.
But Michael loved Hip – hop and there’s an important spiritual connection between spray paint and Hip – Hop culture as I’ll soon point out.
But while a can of spray paint can be a powerful symbol of transformational power and communication of vision, it changes only the outside of the thing. Michael knew that a more profound change had to take place: an inner change. This was Michael’s heartbeat, it was his intimacy with his God, his transformation. God wants us all to experience transformation not just on the outside, but from the inside out too. But that’s why that can of spray point is so symbolic to us today: it’s a powerful symbol of Michael’s life, that the old has gone and the new has come. But the change, the transformation in Michael was from within, and so it should be for us.
A roll of duct tape. A roll of duct tape can sure hold things together if you know how to use it. That’s another symbol of Michael’s life: he held things together. He was one big roll of duct tape. And that’s what I think St Paul was teaching when he preaches, “He teaches us to love sincerely and honestly, to hold on to what is good, to love one another, to respect one another.” That’s what the Evangelist Matthew was telling us when Jesus tells us “what you did to the least one of my brothers and sisters you did to me.” Our Psalm teaches us that families are a gift from God; that children are gifts. All of this points to the simple fact that if we are motivated by the duct tape of love, respect, and doing what is good, we will have community, relationships, and prosperity. We are then truly blessed.
Michael loved Hip – Hop but how am I going to get Hip – Hop into this memorial service, you might well ask. Listen up!
Hip-Hop is an artistic culture birthed out of the American inner – city culture. The main artistic elements of the culture are deejaying, rapping, graffiti — spray-paint, an art form, really, communicating, transforming —, and break dancing. But if we were not to look deeper, we’d be doing ourselves an injustice because we’d be missing the creative soul force at the heart of hip-hop that it always seeking freedom. This creative soul force moves in all realms whether a church revival or block party on a summer day. This same spirit that we observed as being organic, holistic, communal, cognitive, affective, rhythmic and transformational exists in and helped to birth the Hip-Hop culture because it exists in the people who defined the culture. Hip-hop itself is a transformational medium. Maybe that’s why Michael liked it so much.
We can explore the power of call and response. In the Hip – Hop community call and response is known for inciting mutual dialogue between the leader and the audience, and it serves as a catalyst for establishing community and solidarity. Again both the black church and the Hip-Hop culture share another characteristic. During a church service or a hip-hop concert the words of the speaker are affirmed by the audience. In the church you may hear someone shot out “PREACH” or “AMEN” or if reciting a verse from a hymn the preacher will say the first part and the congregants will say the next. That’s mutual affirmation. And don’t we look for mutual affirmation from God in our prayers? We address God and we ask God to answer.
As for those living in the Hip-Hop community, those of us living outside the Hip – Hop community might suggest that their souls are often influenced by things not of God. So what is Hip-Hop spirituality? It is the creative force that exists in us as a people, as human beings in relationship, in community that links us to God regardless of the bondage we are in, whether the chains are visible or invisible, or appearances. This liberation spirituality is also tapping into that same creativity to make something out of nothing just as God did when forming the earth. The human soul birthed the Hip-Hop culture because we lost our identity when we were removed from our fundamental values, from our native communities. Thus the Hip-Hop culture should never be removed from the church, from spirituality or from worship, it should remain a part of it, because it is an expression of the soul crying out. It is spirituality because it is seeking the path to the divine, to an ultimate truth, to an original soul, to freedom of the human spirit.
But where is all of this coming from? How can we say this about Michael and his relationship with God, about knowing God and transforming from deep within? The answers will come to us in good time. We must be patient.
But for starters, I’d like to read some of the lyrics of Mr Al Green’s song, “A Change is Gonna Come,” which you’ll hear later in this service:
There’ve been times that I thought
I thought that I wouldn’t last for long.
But somehow right now
I believe that I’m able, I’m able to carry on.
I tell you that it’s been a long
And oh it’s been an uphill journey, all the way.
But I know, I know, I know.
I know my change is gonna come
I had to cry all night long. Yes I did
I had to give up right, for what I knew was wrong.
Yes it’s been an uphill journey.
It’s sure’s been a long way comin’. Yes it has.
It’s been real hard every step of the way.
But I believe, I believe.
Those are words many of us are actually experiencing now and they’re very wise words, too.
But I’ll close with a different thought for you to reflect on: Now if God had a can of spray paint, a roll of duct tape, and Michael singing Hip – Hop in his ear, what do you think they would come up with?
Assalaamu ‘alaykum wa rahmatu-Allah
Peace and blessings of God be unto you
Please click Homily_Presentation Text_MAB to download a pdf copy of this homily.