Of Matriarchs and Elephant Love

It’s a beautiful moment when a family grants one access to the inner sanctum of the deceased’s world, a world shared intimately with special family members, and now shared with me in remembrance.

It’s these initial interviews that give a family an important opportunity to open up and recall, to remember and to re-member, and quite frequently, although we are discussing a dead loved one and the wound is fresh and the pain incisive, we do get to smile and to laugh.

JMP was a matriarch and powerfully loved. JMP collected elephants and when I learned that fact and how many she had collected — more than 2000 of them — and that she and her collection were featured in news articles and interviews, it became quite clear that elephants had great meaning to this family. But how do I work elephants into my homily?

Once you’ve read the homily, you’ll realize that at some point one will have an opportunity to work just about anything into a fitting memorial homily.

Memorial ParaLiturgy for
September 30, 1940
– †May 31, 2015

Of Elephants, Matriarchs and Memories

Memorial Homily Delivered by Chaplain Harold W. Vadney BA, [MA], MDiv

protecting elephant-calfWhat meaning can we find in a collection of 2000 elephants? Well, we should go beyond the “collection” and look towards the symbolism and meaning hidden under surface, and what it tells us about the life we are celebrating this evening.

Of course, the simplest of meanings is that Joyce liked elephants. But that’s way too simple, because Joyce added meaning to just about everything in her life, including collecting elephants. And her choice of elephants as her animal totem may tell us a lot about Joyce herself, her character, her spirituality.

What’s an animal totem? An animal totem is an important symbolic object used by a person to get in touch with specific qualities found within an animal which the person needs, connects with, or feels a deep affinity toward. Your guide will instruct and protect you as you learn how to navigate through your spiritual and physical life. When you find an animal that speaks strongly to you or feel you must draw more deeply into your life, you might fill your environment with images of the animal to let the animal know it’s welcome in your space. Animal guides can help you get back to your Earthly roots, and reconnect with nature by reminding you that we are all interconnected. Joyce chose the elephant to be her animal totem.

lord-ganeshaElephants are “human” animals, encompassed by an invisible aura that reaches deep into the human soul in a mysterious and mystifying way. Elephants are truly dignified, majestic creatures, and are very human in a great many respects. They represent, as I’ve mentioned, dignity, majesty, but also strength, patience, honor. And they’re renowned for their memory. But there’s more, much more. For example, in the Hindu tradition the elephant is represented by Lord Ganesha, an elephant – headed god, who is the god of luck, fortune, protection and is a blessing upon all new projects. Ganesha, in all his magnificently vibrant elephant glory, is intent on bulldozing obstacles on your behalf.

For the Chinese the elephant is a symbol of happiness, good luck, longevity — after all the elephant has a life span similar to human beings, about 70 years, and its development is similar to a human being’s. Some Asian cultures also believe the elephant is a cosmic creature, and carries the world upon it’s back.

evangelist animal symbolsAnimal symbols and totems are clearly present also in Christian symbolism: the evangelists are represented animal symbols: St Mark by the Lion, St Luke by the Ox, St John by the eagle. Christ is represented by the pelican and the lamb, for example. In Christian symbolism the elephant is an icon of temperance, patience, and loyalty.

When elephants come into our dreams it is a message that we are able to deal with any obstacle we are faced with at this time. Dream elephants represent power, sovereignty, stability, and stead-fastness. If you dream that you are riding an elephant this suggests you have a tendency to be the leader of the family, and others are heavily depending on you.

We gather more symbolic meaning of elephant by observing it in nature. Specifically, the elephant is considered a symbol of responsibility because it takes great care and responsibility of its offspring as well as their elders.

Elephants share with us a strong sense of family and death; they express many of the same emotions, in fact. Each one is a unique individual and has its own personality; They can be happy or sad, volatile or placid. They display envy, jealousy, throw tantrums and are fiercely competitive, and they can develop hang-ups which are reflected in behavior. Sound familiar?

Elephants have voices that communicate beyond human capabilities; their hearing is sensitive and sophisticated, and their memory is far better than ours; it’s legendary.

Elephants grieve for their loved ones, and even shed tears and show signs of depression. But they also have a sense of compassion that goes beyond their own family units, even beyond their own kind and extends to other living things.

Elephants are a matriarchal group. A senior female is the head of the clan and leads it. She is responsible for making the tough decisions in life and considers first and foremost the well – being of her family over and above the needs of anything else. The matriarch is the hub of a complex social network and plays a key role in the survival of the others.

Matriarchs possess a trove of crucial information and have a unique influence over the group. Good matriarch decisions balance the needs of the group, avoiding unnecessary travel while remembering when and where good resources are available. In other words, the matriarch provides a survival advantage for her extended family.

So that’s the here – and – now meaning I find in Joyce’s love of elephants. But let’s move on to a higher level of meaning, the spiritual meaning of Joyce’s elephants, and what it means to our futures.

Our reading from the Gospel of St John opens with the words: “Do not let your hearts be troubled.” And we have good reason to put our faith in that admonition. That Gospel assures us, whoever we are, that Christ has gone before us to prepare our place in the Father’s house. That house has many rooms, there’s a room for each of us, in all of our individuality and our uniqueness. Our room key is Christ; knowing Christ opens the door to our eternal home. Having a matriarch sure helps in knowing Christ, especially if she is a living example, and leaves us with the lessons of elephant love. Our other readings support this interpretation.

Our readings today describe much of what a matriarch is and does. For example, our reading from the prophet Isaiah teaches us that God’s love will never fail us and that love is “tenderness” and is “enduring”. Isaiah teaches us that God will not be angry with us but offers us peace and mercy. Love never fails us whether it’s God’s, Joyce’s or the love we have for each other. It’s elephant love: strong, compassionate, enduring, patient.

Psalm 121 sings of a God watching over us as if we were travelers on a dangerous journey. Again we can think of our matriarch Joyce and what we can remember of her watching over family and friends. As our spiritual help comes from a God, the maker of heaven and earth, on earth we remember the safety found in Joyce’s presence; we all have seen the images of the elephant mother cuddling her calf or the elephant family encircling a vulnerable member of the family against a threat. The Psalmist teaches that matriarchal protection never “slumbers or sleeps”, it’s our guardian, it guards us “from all evil, it guards “your soul”; it guards “our coming and going”. The Psalm is telling us about God but it also describes our matriarch, Joyce.

In his letter to the Romans, St Paul assures us that if we are led by the Spirit of God, we are children of God, and we can call Him “ABBA”, Father. St Paul teaches us that we are then heirs of God and a joint heir of Christ; as such, we may also be glorified with Him. The key to this reading is that nothing can separate us from God’s love. God’s love is elephant love: true, pure, steadfast, loyal, protecting, nurturing. Think of those words “neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor authorities, nor present or future things” will separate us from God’s love. Anguish, distress, grief, persecution, physical deprivation, or persecution will not separate us from God’s love. It’s elephant love in its power and strength. It’s the love Joyce offered to you all and it’s the kind of love you can offer to each other now in these challenging times and for ever. That’s a legacy Joyce leaves with you; it’s the meaning she gave to her life; it’s the lesson she lived for you to learn.

Yes, indeed, from this day forward, every time you pick up one of Joyce’s elephants, every time you see and elephant you should remember the power of God’s love for you, and the way Joyce, your Matriarch, lived that powerful divine love, and how she continues to live in each one of you in that lesson of elephant love that she taught so well by her example.

I hope that from this day forward you’ll never think of elephants in the simple way you did before; I hope that you’ll follow Joyce’s lead and become elephant lovers yourselves.


Click Memorial Homily_JMP to download a copy of this homily in pdf format.

Posted in Bereavement, Elephant Love, Elephants, Family Interview, Homiletics, Initial Interview, Matriarch, Memorial Service | Leave a comment

Choose Humility over Self-righteousness

As I mentioned in my introduction, the family interview plays a significant role in how the service is designed, which music is selected, what readings will be read. It sometimes happens that when reviewing an obituary, after having been briefed by the funeral director, and even after the initial family interview, later contacts with family members prior to the service can significantly change my approach to the homily.

In this particular case, I was convince that I had the perfect readings for the service…until I had further conversations with the family and out of the blue, a family member mentions two passages that change everything. Picking up on this, I changed course to include those readings in the service.

Listening carefully is a principal skill for any spiritual care provider but it is especially important to the bereavement chaplain. This is a case in point. While my readings would have served the purpose, listening to a family member provided information that would bring the homily and its message closer to home. The family member mentioned the passages only in passing but their mention had to come from somewhere deep. That’s point number one. Secondly, the fact that a family member could be brought into relation with the readings presented at the service made the readings even more special and their message in the homily even more relevant. Thirdly, but not by way of limitation or exhaustiveness, by including those readings in the service and by referring to them in the homily, the message was brought closer to the family than if I, a relative stranger, had chosen readings simply to get my points across.

In this situation, the family was very sharing and open. They were very hands-on and participated joyfully in the rituals. They took ownership of the service. That was perfectly fine and just the way it should have been.

wooden cross with flowersMemorial Liturgy for

˜ Homily
God loves humility over selfrighteousness
Delivered on May 3, 2015
Chaplain Harold W. Vadney BA, [MA], M.Div.


After having spoken with Victor on Thursday, I was certain I had the perfect Gospel reading for today: Luke 18, you know, the parable of the Pharisee and the publican. Why? Because what stuck in my head then was that Victor mentioned C. was Catholic but not really into the religion thing, she was more spiritual. And in the course of our conversation, I learned that she was a remarkably gifted but humble person. That made me think of Luke’s flashy hypocritical Pharisee in his fine Sabbath robes, in his prominent visible place in the temple, praying loudly and fervently so that the world would know he was righteous — more accurately self – righteous — so self – satisfied that he was not like the rest of the world. And then we have the ordinary publican, off the side, in dialogue with his God, knowing his sinfulness but knowing, in his humility, that God heard his prayers, and would be merciful. The ordinary becomes the extraordinary in the blink of the eye; “for every one that exalteth herself shall be humbled; but she that humbles herself shall be exalted.” [Luke 14:11]. Perfect, I thought.

But then, when I spoke with Linda, she happened to mention two texts: Psalm 121 and John 14. That was extraordinary, I thought, when I recalled the very first line of John 14: “Don’t let your hearts be troubled.” And the assurance of Ps 121 that “The Lord will guard you from all evil.” In other words, don’t look at each other with anxiety, concern, and sorrow. Christ in that Gospel promises to comfort the suffering, us. We are not deserted; in that Gospel, Christ promises to return for us and to take us home. Christ promises us that our Father’s house has many mansions, many rooms. There’s plenty of room for everyone in his or her individuality. All we have to do is trust in His promise, have faith. After all faith means trust. Christ tells us he is going ahead to prepare our place in the dwelling made for us with God’s own hands, just as Paul tells us in his letter to the Colossians: “While we are in this body we yearn to be clothed in our heavenly body, a dwelling not made with hands but eternal.”

The very message in John’s Gospel is foretold in our first reading from the prophet Isaiah, who teaches that the Lord has promised us that “My love shall never fall away from you nor my covenant of peace” depart from you. Again in Ps 121 we are promised that “The Lord will guard you from all evil…The Lord will guard your coming and going both now and forever.” If that doesn’t dispel our anxiety, our concern, our sorrow what will?

Our third reading from Romans poses the rhetorical question “What will separate us from the love of God? Will anguish, distress, persecution, loss, grief? And we receive the assurance that “neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor principalities, nor present things, nor future things, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor any other creature will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.”

Even that touching poem, God’s Garden, read so sensitively by Corie is almost scriptural in its statements: God has a spot for us in his garden, when we’re tired and the going get’s too rough in this life. God wraps his loving arms around us and lifts us to rest because He knows our suffering, our pain. We are comforted when He closes our world-weary eyes and assures us that we will have peace. He calls us home, to the house he made for us with his Divine hands. That poem couldn’t have been a better fit for today. Don’t you hear John 14 calling out to you in that poem? Thank you, Corie, that was an inspired choice.

Corie’s poem tells us also that God’s garden is very beautiful because he takes only the best. So we have to wonder, “Who?, What’s the ‘best?’”

OOPS! Do I see some worried faces out there?

Simple Extraordinary Ordinariness

Look around yourself now at these rooms right here. Any other day they are ordinary rooms in an ordinary building. But how many times over the years have they been transformed into extraordinary sacred spaces when loved ones and mourners come together, as we have today, to celebrate the life of an ordinary person who has become in a flash extraordinary.

Yes, indeed, many of the persons who have been mourned and celebrated in this very room were ordinary people — and I regret to say many of you wouldn’t have noticed if you tripped over them — but for a day or two they were transformed into extraordinary people through the mystery of their lives and deaths. If you think about that it’s pretty ordinary but it’s actually really extraordinary.

But when you think about it, it seems that’s the way God likes us; God likes us to be ordinary, gives us the freedom to be extraordinary using the gifts God provides each and every one of us, if we choose to accept and not deny them.

And so our lives are like personal “advents” — times of preparation and expectation — during which we spend our time preparing in the expectation of becoming extraordinary — if everything goes well.

Back to our third reading today that teaches us that nothing can separate us from God’s love. In that reading St Paul teaches that all things work for the good for those who don’t deny God, those who are called and respond to serve His purpose. In other words, God set out from the very start to shape the lives of those who love Him, and He stays with them to the end, gloriously completing what He started. With God on our side like that how can we possibly lose? Absolutely nothing can get between us and God’s love because we are embraced by the extraordinary — Christ’s love for us.

But most people are hopelessly ordinary and won’t strive to go the extra mile to become extraordinary and accept the invitation God extends to us all. Some might be afraid of being pigeonholed by neighbors as bizarre or countercultural if they live a Christian life, if they dare to be “extraordinary.” Some just love themselves or their gadgets more than God. Some are simply confused by the world. But being “extraordinary” in a Gospel way simply ‘fits” with what it means to be simply, ordinarily human. It represents, in fact, the fulfillment of what human existence ought to be — simple extraordinary ordinariness. There’s a lot of content in those three words if you give them a moment of thought.

In today’s culture Christlike service may even be considered to be a bit odd. But service in and to the Church — not the institutional one—, I mean service to our brothers and sisters, the mystical body of Christ, means to have such self – esteem and self – respect, such humility as to be able accept family, friends and others as they are in their imperfection and on their own personal life pilgrimages. But first we have to accept our own imperfections. Any attitude of judgment or condescension is contrary to the spirit of the Gospel. If we take our Catholic, our Christian faith very seriously, simply by being who we are, by being our authentic selves, we become extraordinary.

It seems everything about being Christian today is, from the very outset, countercultural: Being authentic and available to others, being simple, non – judgmental in today’s world, is a bit odd, a bit bizarre, unless you have the self – respect, the courage, the simple goodness to be extraordinary as C. did. C. accepted the challenge of today and became extraordinary.

All of this means that we sometimes find ourselves walking a fine line. The effort to be faithful Christian disciples does not make us inherently “better” than anyone else. It does not give us license to judge the moral or spiritual condition of others or to assume an attitude of spiritual superiority. The Church teaches that the Holy Spirit is present and active in the life of every person — practicing and non – practicing, Christian and non–Christian — in ways known only to God (Gaudium et spes, n. 22). I must confess to you that I have met some individuals who don’t practice “religion” as such, they don’t go to church, but whose personal goodness and love for others has put me to shame. At the same time, the Gospel does summon us to allow the fire of the Holy Spirit to burn within us. Jesus challenges us to grow in our commitment to follow him in ways that make a real difference in the way we live. He reminds us that fidelity to the mission that He entrusts to us will not always be easy; we all know it was not made easy for Him.

Living the Paschal Mystery of Death & Life — An Extraordinary Promise

We’re still in the Easter season and will be for several more weeks; Holy Week and the suffering and death of our Lord was just a couple of weeks ago, the great feast of the Resurrection just barely two or three weeks ago. In this time between the Resurrection and the Pentecost the Christ still walks among us, but do we recognize Him? We read in Holy Scripture that those closest to him didn’t recognize him even when He was right in front of them. But He is and will always be among us if we make some space for Him.

He invites us to pray to the Holy Spirit for the gift of courage when we have to stand alone in order to be faithful to the Gospel. That gift of courage can take us from being ordinary to being extraordinary. Yes, it takes personal strength, courage, and self – awareness to be extraordinary in today’s world, as anyone who knew C. can confirm that fact.

It seems so appropriate that an extraordinary person like C. should have provided us with an extraordinary opportunity to reflect on what this extraordinary time of the year means to us as ordinary people.

It seems that it is our ordinariness that especially appeals to God. The meaning and legacy C. leaves in her life is also the message of the Paschal mystery of death and life eternal, of Resurrection; it is a message that tells us that God wants to be loved by us in all of our ordinariness with all its frailties and vulnerabilities. Ours is the story of ordinary people who become extraordinary, and the mystery of Easter gives special meaning to what is ordinary and unspectacular — a simple, ordinary preacher from Nazareth is persecuted, betrayed, condemned, executed, dies and is buried; BIG DEAL! — and then the extraordinary happens, the empty tomb is discovered, the promise fulfilled. It’s the mystery of transformation, transfiguration where the ordinary and non-spectacular becomes Spielberg extraordinary! What makes it meaningful and special is that this is our story too but we have to accept the gift of courage to live in communion with God, with and in the Divine love that is offered to us, and not in communion with the false self, the ego, with and in ourselves and our gadgets and illusions. This is exactly what C. did in living, not flashing, her inner spirituality; she became simply, ordinarily, extraordinary.

Living the Cross

We often think of “a cross to bear” meaning a burden, suffering. We sometimes forget the meaning of the Cross because the Church in its preaching is constantly driving home the point of suffering, of bearing suffering, that this world is just constant suffering. That’s so wrong!

This world is an awesome thing. God created it out of love and made it a gift to share with us, not a place to be shunned and demeaned for the sake of another world we know absolutely nothing about. This world is the product of Divine Love shared with us.

heart cross

The metaphor, the lesson, the meaning of the Cross as a symbol, as a sacrament must be thought of in more positive terms, terms we can relate to in our daily lives. Relationship and the love that cements that relationship.

  1. was not ashamed of living the way of the cross: The Cross must in fact be firmly planted in good solid ground, in the clay from which we were fashioned and to which we must some day return. The Cross points down and up, up and down; down to humility and up to transcendence; up from humankind to the Divine. But the Cross also represents the Divine reaching down to us. It’s a two – way trip. The Cross has arms that point away from its center, from its center it points to the others, to you and to me, including us to relationship. Those arms, once we’re embraced by them, relate us in a [perichoretic] embrace of love, security, trust, community. It’s a cross of relationship.

Yes, it’s a C.–cross, if you’d like to stretch the metaphor a little. C. was humble and unafraid to show compassion and courageous enough not to judge; C., in her inner, personal religion, her spirituality, transcended, rose above so much of what is ego, and she did it with a unique flair for pure love, pure joy.

C.’s ordinariness, her imperfection, her humility made her into a safe harbor for many, incarnating the Gospel of Matthew [Mt 25], “Amen, I say to you, whatever you did for one of these least brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me.”

And so we can imagine that C.–cross, her arms extending from her heart her spiritual core, out of herself to you, to others, in relationship and, those others were gently, compassionately, nonjudgmentally embraced by those gentle arms. If we reflect on what the Gospels teach us and what the Cross should mean to us as a sacrament, as a symbol, C. was and continues to be that embracing Cross.

So brothers and sisters, Easter and the symbol of the Cross indeed celebrate the meeting of the ordinary human and the extraordinary Divine, it is the reaching down of heaven touching earth, of God embracing us and we, reaching up, embracing God. The Christ child born in the manger brings us a message of great hope and joy, and the Resurrected Christ and the symbol of His Cross is the realization, the perfection of that great hope and joy. He came to heal the broken hearted, to feed the hungry, to find the lost, to bring light to the darkened world and to bring hope and love in our hearts. But didn’t C. do that as well? If the Christ-child born in the stable is not born in our manger hearts, and our lives remain empty tombs and we wander as lost souls in the vast cemetery we call the world, the extraordinary becomes meaningless, and our hope of becoming extraordinary is shattered. We don’t need to die; we’re already dead. We really should strive to become C.–crosses.

It’s All So Awesome

It’s the ego – ordinary in us that tends to make us feel secure if we have a new gadget, plenty of fun, a few moments of happy love, a merry meeting with friends, a flash – in – in – the – pan titillation but to the extraordinary person all that is illusion; she accepts her suffering, vulnerability, imperfection as meaningful opportunities to learn, to teach, to share, to live fully. Indeed, God gives us moments of security and ecstasy, some transient some real; or as C.S. Lewis notes “our Father in heaven refreshes us on the journey through life with some pleasant bed-and–breakfast stops, but he will not encourage us to mistake those bed – and – breakfasts for our true home.” (C.S. Lewis, The Problem of Pain)

Finally, our readings today were quite short but their shared message is very deep and clear: They urge us not to deny God and not to deny each other but to love in and with God and in and with the other, just as C. did.

This is an invitation by none other than the God – man Himself, our Lord Jesus Christ, the ordinary man of Nazareth who became extraordinary in teaching the ordinary among us that we shall never be separated from God’s love, the Beatitudes confirm this. In plain language, Jesus is telling us: “Are you tired? Worn out? Burned out on sterile, life-denying religion? Come to me. Get away with me and you’ll recover real life, your true self. I’ll show you how to take a refreshing rest from the illusory world. Walk with me and work with me—watch how I do it. Learn the unforced rhythms of grace. I won’t lay anything too heavy or ill-fitting on you. Keep company with me and you’ll learn to live freely and lightly, even cheerfully.”

On your way to becoming extraordinary recall that Psalm 19 teaches us to “[b]eware the ordinariness of life and its subconscious numbness, and take time to acknowledge and give the extraordinariness of God’s creation its due wonder. It declares His glory”. And no less a figure than John Calvin paraphrased those words when he wrote, “There is not one blade of grass, there is no color in this world that is not intended to make us rejoice.” If we take those words to heart in our lives, just as I believe C. did in her life, we too can experience the awe of love and be truly extraordinary in our ordinariness.

Now let’s take a few moments to meditate on those thoughts and on how C. lived them.

cross flowers simple

May her memory be eternal!

Please click Homily for CAB to download a pdf copy of this homily.

Posted in Arrangements, Bereavement, Family Interview, Follow-up, Holy Scripture, Homiletics, Initial Interview, Memorial Service | Leave a comment

“And Jesus Wept.” (Jn 11:35)

There are times when, at the family’s specific request, the service must be kept “simple.” With experience that simple word “simple” takes on a special meaning for the officiant, and may indicate that the family is very modest in their religious beliefs or tradition, unsure of what their religious beliefs or tradition might be, or truly uncomplicated and simple. Far from saying that there should be no service or no religious or spiritual component, “simple” means uncomplicated.

In this homily, I was teaching on the occasion of a tragic, unexpected death. The family of the deceased were generally unable to grasp anything too profound or too lofty; after all, the deceased was a simple person, loved, loving, and uncomplicated.

So the family’s request was that the service be kept simple. As officiant, one of my principal objectives is to provide the survivors with hope and with some meaning to take home with them. That’s why the homily on these occasions is, in my opinion, of central importance. By keeping the ritual elements to a minimum and prayers brief and down-to-earth, I could make the homily the central point of the service.

My theme, taken from a powerful line in the Gospel of John, ch. 11, “And Jesus wept.” couldn’t have been more simple nor more powerful.

Order of Memorial Rites
Delivered on October 25, 2015
jesus-weptAnd Jesus Wept.
John 11:3245

In our gospel today, the Evangelist John tells us about Jesus’ reaction to the death of his beloved friend, Lazarus. He seemed composed as he approached the town, and when the sisters of his dead friend met him outside town. He consoled them with truth and grace. But then he saw the one sister, Mary, distraught and emotional, Jesus responded with tears.

“Jesus wept.” Just two simple words, and yet they carry a world of meaning for us here today. John 11:35 may well be the shortest verse in the entire Bible, but it’s one of the most powerful, and insightful. Rightly so because it is here that we find a remarkable glimpse into the humanness of the Lord of the universe.

man of sorrowsJesus had His human emotions just like the rest of us. He was “a man of sorrows,” the prophet Isaiah foretold, and he was “acquainted with grief” (Isaiah 53:3[1]). Yes, he was a man of sorrows, but not his own. “Surely he has borne our griefs and carried our sorrows” (Isaiah 53:4[2]). Because his love is great, he makes our pains his own. But isn’t that what love is all about?

It’s not all that impressive to have a king who weeps. But it is a great comfort to have a sovereign who not only assumed our human frame (Psalm 103:14) and knows what is in us (John 2:25), but also shares in our flesh and blood sufferings (Hebrews 2:14).

We are made in the image of God himself and that same God took on our frail humanity in this God – man, Jesus. And with that, God shares our feelings. And with them, even our sorrows. We are mortal and frail. But God gave us mighty emotions. We celebrate. We grieve. We rejoice. We weep. And we do so like Jesus did as one of us.

“Christ has put on our feelings along with our flesh,” writes John Calvin. Throughout the Gospels, Jesus clearly shows human emotions. When he heard the centurion’s words of faith, “he marveled” (Matthew 8:10[3]). And he says in Gethsemane that his “soul is very sorrowful, even to death” (Matthew 26:38[4]). Hebrews 5:7[5] says he prayed “with loud cries and tears.”

But no one shows us the truly human emotions of Christ like his beloved disciple John — whether it’s love or anger.

Jesus, like us here today, was moved from love to tears. That he loved dead Lazarus and his two sisters, Martha and Mary, could not be any more clear than in John 11. In verse 5: “Now Jesus loved[6] Martha and her sister and Lazarus.” Verse 36: Even the crowds say, in response to Jesus’s weeping, “See how he loved him!”[7]

Jesus, like those of us with faith, wept. Jesus wept not because he lacked faith, but because he was full of love. He weeps with you, with us, with all who suffer and grieve. In love, he weeps with those who weep. “When Jesus saw Mary weeping, and the Jews who had come with her also weeping, he was deeply moved in his spirit and greatly troubled” (John 11:33[8]).

Jesus, like those of us with faith, wept even though he knew that Lazarus would rise. Earlier in John He had said to his disciples, “This illness,” meaning suffering and dying, “does not lead to death. It is for the glory of God, so that the Son of God may be glorified through it” (John 11:4[9]). And again, “Our friend Lazarus has fallen asleep, but I go to awaken him” (John 11:11[10]). And yet, Jesus wept. Think how often we, too, fall asleep and need Jesus to wake us up.

And Jesus, like some of us here today, moves from anger to tears. But his tears are not only from his love. He has righteous anger at death and unbelief. Why? Because the living are so deeply wounded by the mystery of death; they are wounded because their faith is weak. John says he is “deeply moved in his spirit and greatly troubled” — literally he is outraged and unsettled. He is indignant and disturbed.

The same word used here, “deeply moved”, is a stern warning elsewhere (Matthew 9:30[11]; Mark 1:43[12]), even a scolding (Mark 14:5[13]).[14] “ Deeply moved” in the Greek of St John’s day can refer to the angry snorting of horses, and when used applied to human beings, it often suggests anger, outrage or emotional indignation. . . . It is wrong to reduce this emotional upset only to the effects of empathy, grief, pain or the like” (D.A. Carson, John 415–416[15]). And Jesus is thus “deeply moved again,” when he comes to Lazarus’s tomb in verse 38.

lazarus come forthBut he is also “greatly troubled.” Even Jesus is shaken up, unsettled. As he stands face to face with the death of a loved one, he knows what it will take to conquer this foe. This time he will snatch Lazarus from Death’s jaws; next time he will lay down his own life. Both times he wakes us up to the truth — we, too, will rise again!

Our tears puncture the hard shell of the heart, they can pierce our core, reminding us of who we are in our inmost, deepest place. Tears are a “gift” and reveal to us our misguided perfectionism, the illusion that we are in control, the games we play, and the manipulations our egos struggle to achieve: tears tell us the deepest stories we tell about ourselves. Tears fall when we are awakened to realities that had been, until now, hidden beneath our denial and conscious awareness, realities like the mystery of death. We discover something deeply true and meaningful about ourselves when our grief is unleashed; that something comes from our own open–heartedness and from God’s grace. As St Benedict writes, “We must know that God regards our purity of heart and tears, not our many words.”

Tears are like a great cleansing river running through the heart of the desert, releasing our sorrow and grief, so that we may return to each other and to God free of burdens; these tears are agents of resurrection, ushering us into new life, just as the river flood does in the desert wasteland.

Your world has been changed and will never be the same again. You’ve had a loss and that has probably changed you forever. But somehow in the midst of the pain, the confusion, the anger, the rage, your grief will remap the world, you’ll have to in order for you to heal and to survive, you’ll reorient the landscape that now seems dramatically, tragically changed, bizarrely strange for you. But you’ll discover God at work in the midst of your suffering. Trust me. You’ll open your hearts to change. You’ll see God at work in your lasting memories and love. You’ll learn that Jesus blends his own tears with our own. Those tears of pain, anger, and trouble will become tears of healing.

Naturally, at times you may feel alone in your grief. As you long for connection, consider that the loss you have experienced has likely caused sorrow to others as well. There is power for healing and love in the vulnerability and pain that you are sharing today and will share in the days, weeks, and months to come. Reach out to those around you who are grieving. Cry with each other, remember with each other; ask for a listening ear and offer one as well.

May our lives be filled to overflowing by reaching out to others.



Please click Memorial Message_LAO to download a pdf of this complete homily.


[1] “He was despised and rejected by mankind, a man of suffering, and familiar with pain.”
[2] “Surely he took up our pain and bore our suffering …”
[3] ἐθαύμασεν (ethaumasen); “Jesus marveled and said…”
[4] περίλυπός (perilypos); “he says to them Very sorrowful”
[5] κραυγῆς (kraugēs); θανάτου μετὰ κραυγῆς ἰσχυρᾶς καὶ δακρύων; “” with loud crying and tears”
[6] ἠγάπα (ēgapa); “Now Jesus loved Martha and her sister…”
[7] Ἴδε πῶς ἐφίλει αὐτόν!; ἐφίλει (ephilei); “Behold how he loved him!”
[8] “When Jesus saw her weeping, and the Jews who had come along with her also weeping, he was deeply moved in spirit and troubled.”
[9] “…3So the sisters sent word to Him, saying, “Lord, behold, he whom You love is sick.” 4But when Jesus heard this, He said, “This sickness is not to end in death, but for the glory of God, so that the Son of God may be glorified by it.”
[10] “After he had said this, he went on to tell them, “Our friend Lazarus has fallen asleep; but I am going there to wake him up.”
[11] “Jesus sternly warned them, “Don’t tell anyone about this.”
[12] “Jesus sent him away at once with a strong warning…”
[13] “It could have been sold for more than a year’s wages and the money given to the poor.” And they rebuked her harshly.”
[14] ἐμβριμάομαι, I snort (with the notion of coercion springing out of displeasure, anger, indignation, antagonism), express indignant displeasure with some one; I charge sternly; Strong 1690 embrimáomai (from 1722 /en, “engaged in” and brimaomai, “to snort”) – properly, snort like an angry horse; (literally) “snort (roar) with rage” (BAGD) which expresses strong indignation, i.e. deep feeling that is moved to sternly admonish (A-S).
[15] The Gospel according to John (The Pillar New Testament Commentary (PNTC)), ISBN-13: 978-0802836830)


Posted in Death, Funeral Service, Grief, Holy Scripture, Homiletics, Simplicity, Traumatic Death | Leave a comment

Alzheimer’s Death: Reframing for Meaning

Alzheimer’s Death: Reframing for Positive Meaning

The ego is the great comparer. It’s what frequently separates us from the Other, from others, and frequently from our true selves.

The ego is a hardliner for self-preservation and will do practically anything to ensure that it survives over and against even that, which might ensure or even enhance the existence of the physical or spiritual being. Primeval emotions ensured survival in an primitive world of threats. Take anger, for instance, which recognizes a threat and responds with opposition to that threat. In the primeval era that anger involved a physical response, a fight or flight response. Today, that anger cannot be defused by a good fight and there’s nowhere to really hide in the modern world; consequently, it becomes uncontrolled anger, rage, or repeatedly relived anger, resentment. Or it simply becomes denial when the threat cannot be embraced by them mind or is simply too overwhelming.

ballof griefThese statements, while perhaps oversimplified for the purposes of this article, are excellent introductions to a discussion of afflictions of the mind or body, and ultimately of death. The ego, the relentless comparer, views afflictions and death as threats, but cannot make sense of them. The ego perceives these through the five senses it uses to view the world and doesn’t like what it finds, it cannot get its arms around it, it cannot control it. The response is a whole spectrum of emotions like anger, rage, confusion, depression, loneliness, anxiety, etc. that especially in bereavement and grief aren’t experienced as discrete, controllable emotions but as a tangled, unmanageable mass. To avoid that extremely uncomfortable experience of bereavement and grief, the ego generally chooses denial over humility and reality. After all, it’s happening to someone else, and it’s terrifying nonetheless.

As a spiritual care provider, I frequently have to reframe the experience for the observer of the suffering, frequently after the suffering is done and the sufferer has died. I reframe the experience by bracketing the overwhelming negative impressions by exposing the experience in a positive light, defining the meaning of the experience, and describing how the survivors can nurture spiritual growth from the experience and transform it into spiritual growth factor in their continuing lives.

I used one such reframing in a homily I recently gave when officiating a funeral for a woman, who died of the complications of Alzheimer’s disease. Here’s the homily.

Be Like a Child

What the Awesome Witnessing of Alzheimer’s Disease Teaches Us.
A Funeral Homily Delivered on December 5, 2015, for PMS.
May she be of memory Eternal!

duality masks

We tend to think and live in dualities; black or white. On the one hand we claim that death should be a joyous event, a homecoming, a necessity for salvation and glorification, and on the other hand we tend not to speak of it, to deny it, to abhor it. We do the same thing when it comes to our views on our human frailty and weakness, both physical and spiritual.

blue flower wave

Today, as we assemble here to remember the life of a loved one, we are faced with the real – life fact of death as well as the circumstances of that death, advanced age and Alzheimer’s disease. We live in denial of death and terror of terminal frailty but here we are today.

Death, like life itself, is radical mystery. In death, we leave everything behind; in dementia, Alzheimer’s, we appear to leave everything behind. It would seem that in our culture of anxiety, egos, individualism and independence, all we have is our stuff and our past. And we live in abject fear of losing our “stuff.”

For example, when a person comes to me for counseling, it is as if they come carrying a bag with two handles filled with memories. paperbag_brownAs their stories or memories are shared, it is as if they give one handle of the bag to me, the listener. Normally, when the dialogue ends, I give that handle back to the person to carry alone. However, in the case of the person with dementia, in the beginning they can share their bag filled with stories, but as the condition progresses, not only do they give one handle over to the listener, they then give the other one as well. A spiritual crisis then is more for the observer than for persons with dementia: “Who will carry my story, when I am no longer able to do so?” But just like a person who has had an amputation is challenged to live without or with substitutions for the missing limb, a person with dementia must have help from her community and loved ones to continue to be the person that she has always been for as long as possible, and and then given permission to become the person she is becoming.

You see, the role of memory in the nature of who we are seems to reflect the capacity to contain the history of the person. Memory is all the stuff, the baggage of life that the ego contains; it’s all that stuff that the ego uses to define what we call a person. But if we recall the origin of our word “person” we’ll remember it comes directly from the Latin “persona,” the mask an actor wears on stage. So if memory defines a personal history and that history defines the person, it defines a mask, a false self. We tend to think that where there is no memory, there is no person. Perhaps that’s so to the observer. But that applies only to this world, in which time seems to matter. Perhaps when that bag of stuff becomes empty, we find the pure true self, the soul, the self that was ours before the Fall, and not the person, the mask.

Book of WisdomIn the text selected for us and read by F. from the Book of Wisdom, we learn that the “righteous are in the hand of God,” and “no torment shall touch them.” We also learn that only the “foolish” see death as a “passing away,” as an “affliction,” and when someone appears to die, physically or mentally, the foolish view this as “utter destruction.” But those are the views of the “foolish”, not the faithful.

In the dementia of advanced age or in Alzheimer’s, we see a “passing away” or a fading away of a familiar personality and her history and stand by in terror as if it were indeed an “affliction” or “utter destruction,” but viewed in another way, perhaps it is a preparation, a “sacrificial offering”, indeed a lesson full of meaning for us. The cycle of child-to-adult-to-child is full of meaning and we find that meaning in the Gospels and elsewhere in Holy Scripture.

Scripture teaches us: “He will stand and shepherd his flock in the strength of the Lord, in the majesty of the Lord her God. And they (His flock of believers) will live securely, for then his greatness will reach to the ends of the earth. And he will be her peace” (Micah 5:4, 5). We have security and peace through Jesus, our Good Shepherd. This same assurance from our Good Shepherd is given in the familiar and truly comforting twenty-third Psalm. In verse 4 we read: “Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil, for you are with me; your rod and your staff (the power of God’s Word) they comfort me.” King David trusted in the Lord’s promises and so can we!

In Matthew 11 (28 – 30) Jesus invites us: “Come to me, all you who labor and are burdened, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am meek and humble of heart; and you will find rest for your selves. For my yoke is easy, and my burden light.”

But How? How do we get to that point? P. showed us how.

children in sandHow many of us have watched a young child play on the beach or in a sandbox? We become absorbed in the child’s pure enjoyment of the sunshine, her simple understanding of the world around her, and her utmost delight in the sand flowing between her fingers and squishing between her toes. We wonder how we could become more like the little child, careless and free. Purity, simplicity, delight, carelessness, freedom. Those are the qualities of a child and the qualities we tend to yearn for.

It is infinitely difficult for some of us to become like weak, dependent, trusting children and so to gain entry to the heavenly kingdom. But with God’s help and seeing beyond our own needs, it can still be possible.

Interestingly, at several points in the Gospels Jesus focuses his attention and teaching on children, children being more of a metaphor than actual children. There are at least three themes: Jesus’ blessing of the children in Mark 10:13 – 16. The second instance is where Jesus invites adults to become like little children in Matthew 18:1 – 6. And the third instance is in the context of the Sermon on the Mount in Matthew 5, 6, and 7. And it is the characteristic of Christ to defend those who cannot defend themselves, to lift up those who have been humbled.

The kingdom of God belongs to the childlike. The Kingdom belongs to those who are like children, those who are the sick, the suffering, the dependent, those without rights, and without the esteem of those around them. The Kingdom belongs to those who, though not literally children, have the characteristics of children like trust and receptiveness.

But we are often fearful, distrusting, and unreceptive to each other. What’s worse we teach our children to be the same way. But it is the trust and simplicity of the child that allow the childlike to enter the Kingdom of Heaven. erasing memory alzheimerYoung children, like persons in advanced age, the demented, those with Alzheimer’s in their simple trust are dependent on others for food, shelter and protection; just as we are dependent on God for the necessities of survival. That’s the lesson, the meaning we learn from those with Alzheimer’s: If we remember P’s final episode in a positive light, we must recognize our radical dependence on God for all that we have and all that we are, and that we must give up all claims to the things and stuff of this world; we must even give up our personal history and even our memories that bind us to this world. It is these attributes of trust, dependence and simplicity that allow children, the childlike to receive gifts without guilt or the anxiety of indebtedness just as we must accept the gift of grace without guilt and anxiety.

Children allow others to give them gifts without troubling themselves with whether they deserve it or must compensate for them; it is in this childlike attitude that we can appropriate the blessedness of the Kingdom of Heaven. With the fading of memory there is a fading of guilt, anxiety, indebtedness. This is the return to childlikeness that we see in those preparing for death, for going home to God without fear or guilt. It’s what we see in those with dementia and Alzheimer’s; they have shed everything of this world, including the false self, the ego, and all attachments. Salvation cannot be received with an attitude of guilt and debt.

In the Gospels, then, “children” is used figuratively to mean the simply faithful, those trusting in God; those who have lived a life of discipleship, of caring for others, P’s life.

Jesus invites adults to become like children and, when asked the question, “Who is the greatest in heaven?” He calls to his side a child and places himself on a par with the child. (Mt 18:3 – 5)

“At that time the disciples came to Jesus, saying, “Who is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven?” And calling to Him a child He put him in the midst of them and said, “Truly, I say to you, unless you turn and become like children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven. Whoever humbles herself like this child is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven. Whoever receives one such child in My name receives Me” (18:3-5)

Over and against all conventional notions of value and importance Jesus offers us the model of the child, the least important in society. Just like the old, the demented, the terminally ill in our society. No status or position; subject to the control of others, dependent and powerless. But in the Beatitudes, the Sermon on the Mount, we read that Christ considers the weak to be strong and the humble to be powerful. This is not natural, it’s a radical change! But those who want to get into heaven have to somehow make this radical transformation. P. presented us with a teaching moment par excellence, to be remembered especially when we encounter suffering and powerlessness. The old, demented, the terminally ill teach us that we must humble ourselves until we are like a little child. It’s a hard idea to grasp and even harder to put into practice. That is, until we are in the unique situation of the awesomeness of witnessing and being present to those with Alzheimer’s and similar conditions.

In Matthew 18:5 we read, “Whoever receives one such child in My name, receives Me,” and the gospel of Mark records a very similar verse in chapter 9 verse 37, except that it adds “and whoever receives Me, receives not Me, but Him who sent Me.” What an amazing thought! That we can receive Jesus, God himself, by receiving a simple, dependent, childlike person.

Jesus turns the earthly order topsy-turvy; turns the natural order on its head. “Blessed are the poor in spirit.” (Mt. 5:4) means blessed are the meek and humble. “Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God.” (Mt 5:5) this extols the virtue of purity and guilelessness. It is the heavenly order not the earthly order that Jesus emphasized when he blesses the children in Mark 10 and when he points out a child when asked who is the greatest in heaven.

We have only to remember Luke 16:19 – 22, the parable of the beggar Lazarus the beggar and the rich man. Rich_Man_LazarusOld Lazarus gets the scraps from the rich man’s table, and stray dogs nurse his sores. But in death, the beggar Lazarus is given a seat of honor at Abraham’s side; the rich man is condemned to suffer thirst and agonies in a hell. When he begs Abraham to send Lazarus with a bit of water to cool his thirst, Abraham rebuffs him for his thoughtlessness in life. In desperation, the rich man begs Abraham to send someone back from the dead to warn his brothers of the consequences of their materialism. Abraham replies that in life they have the opportunity to live by the Gospels and if they choose not to, they won’t even heed a messenger returning from death to warn them. The conclusion is simple: Clinging to the things of this world, including ego, is foolish since none of it lasts; Jesus presented us with “children” as an example to “adults” because the childlike are unattached to materialistic concerns. The childlike are the greatest in heaven.

So, dear friends, while we mourn the loss of a truly dear and righteous person, and while we may be horrified by the changes in her brought about by Alzheimer’s, perhaps we should rather be in awe of the lesson and meaning granted to us by P., because there is Divine meaning in her last days among us if we can take the moment to see it.

The child is not afraid to ask for help, the child is unashamed of being needy, because they realize that they are dependent on a parent for their needs; the basis of the child’s confidence and the cure for the adult’s anxieties lies in recognizing God’s presence among us, and accepting God as our heavenly father, putting God first and trusting him for our practical needs.

blessed -pure heart mat 5_8

Please click Homily-Become like a Child-PMS to download a pdf copy of this homily.

Special thanks to Sharon Ely Pearson for her insights shared in “Ministry to those with Alzheimer’s disease,” posted on August 16, 2011, at http://www.buildfaith.org/2011/08/16/ministry-to-those-with-alzheimers-disease/ last accessed on November 27, 2015; Maryana Misula, for her discussion of “Jesus and Children in the Gospels,” available at http://fisherpub.sjfc.edu/verbum/vol6/iss1/10, last accessed on November 27, 2015, and to James W. Ellor, “God Never Forgets: Senior Ministry and Dementia,” at http://www.baylor.edu/content/services/document.php?id=47151, last accessed on November 27, 2015. Kenneth S. Pope has put together a good list of resources on Alheimer’s disease for clinicians and caregivers, “Resources for People with Alzheimer’s, Family, & Clinicians,” which we will gladly provide on request.



Posted in Alzheimer's Disease, Bereavement, Death, Dementia, Funeral Service, Grief, Holy Scripture, Homiletics, Memory | Leave a comment