My Grandma Neanderthal

31 Mar

 

My Grandma Neanderthal

If you thought the previous version needs some gender-bending, you may prefer this one. In any case, I hope you find a mixture of seriousness and fun in it all. Stereotypes abound, of course–not only gender stereotypes, but also those that picture Neanderthals as brutes dragging women by the hair. Provocative that the stereotypes all end up being about us–who we are today. The Gee Whiz (which is how this all got started) brings with it a fundamental revision of stereotypes.

My Grandma, Neanderthal

Thanks to you
i survived god-knows-what
my lungs hollowed out
from outdoor living
sleeping
in the dank
and cold

In my ignorance
i knew not what
seeds to plant
nor what
herbs served as
prehistoric
meds

i surpassed you
to be sure
but when
great great great
grandpa met you
you held the cards

You had the genes
i lacked
to fight those
unseen bugs
that well may have
struck me down

You possessed
the knowledge
nay wisdom of
daily life
what to plant
how to hunt
and build

No one would say
you were the great
communicator
your group life
was well
primitive

We moderns
like to think we
were the cutting edge
most diggers
into the past
would agree

But you broke
the mold
god be praised
that night
in a cold
siberian cave

You caught
great great
great grandpa’s
eye
the rest is
prehistory

(C) Phil Hefner
3/31/2014 #1

 

My Grandpa Neanderthal

29 Mar

Those of you who have read my most recent blog installment will see the connection with this poem. Let me add that some researchers believe that the Neanderthals’ extinction has to do with their relatively poorer communication skills, which made it more difficult for them to form community and share with modern humans. (Note that Modern  Humans is a recent term that refers to the species that is also known as Cro-Magnon.)

Enjoy!

My Grandpa Neanderthal

Thanks to you
i survived god-knows-what
my lungs hollowed out
from outdoor living
sleeping
in the dank
and cold

In my ignorance
i knew not what
seeds to plant
nor what
herbs served as
prehistoric
meds

i surpassed you
to be sure
but when
great great great
grandma met you
you held the cards

You had the genes
i lacked
to fight those
unseen bugs
that  may well have
struck me down

You possessed
the knowledge
nay wisdom of
daily life
what to plant
how to hunt
and build

No one would say
you were the great
communicator
your group life
was well
primitive

We moderns
like to think we
were the cutting edge
most diggers
into the past
would agree

But you broke
the mold
god be praised
that night
in a cold
siberian cave

You caught
great great
great grandma’s
eye
the rest is
prehistory

(C) Phil Hefner
3/28/2014 #1

Gee Whiz–and more

27 Mar

 

Every so often, I get hit hard by the Gee Whiz. What’s the Gee Whiz? It’s some awareness that the world around me simply defies my understanding, blows apart my previous ways looking at things. In a piece of current slang, we say “It blows my mind!” Blows out some older ways of seeing things and blows in the new. Blowing one’s mind is a pretty violent image–it has to be. That slang is used so often, however, that it’s old hat; the blowing is no longer explosive dynamite, but more a gentle breeze. The name of my blog puts it another way: lift the screen to see what I may not have seen before.

Two mind-blowing items came together for me in the past weeks, in conversation and emailing with friends. Thanks to God, I have some pretty terrific conversation partners. It was with them–not from TV or in scholarly tomes–that our talk ranged into mind-blowing realms.

Number One–Interstellar. Seldom has there been so much in the news about the discovery of new planets, some of it stemming from the space probe Kepler. With the discovery of planets, there come careful studies of the factors that would allow life to flourish. Millions of these new planets in our universe seem to have shown up in recent probes. A new field of science–astrobiology–is emerging in response to these discoveries. Many questions arise, demanding attention: Is there actually life on any of these planets? Is it intelligent life? Is it sentient life? Sentience is a hot word these days. It goes beyond intelligence, including awareness of oneself as an individual with a past and a future, as well as the ability to behave as such a person. The decades ahead will unfold answers to these questions.

These are not new thoughts or questions. They are “Star Trek” ideas, circulating for millennia– in some respects these are shadowy areas; we wonder whether creatures on other planets would be like us and whether we can communicate with them. For those of us who believe in God, “What does God have in mind for these other worlds?” “What does it all have to do with us?”

Old or new, the idea of other worlds among the billions of stars in our universe stretches–even blows–our minds.

Number Two–Interspecies. For a year or more, the research of Svante Paabo (at Germany’s Max Planck Institute) on the genetic intermixing of Neanderthals and Modern Humans (sometimes called Cro-Magnon) has captured headlines. DNA taken from bones found in a Siberian cave indicates such intermixing. It is estimated that perhaps five per cent of the human genome of non-Africans is Neanderthal. That is the equivalent of having a Neanderthal as a great-great-great grandparent.

A bit of pre-history is in order here. Neanderthals arrived in Asia and Europe about 150,000 years earlier than Modern Humans, who migrated from Africa. Paabo’s hypothesis is that about 50,000 years ago, a group of moderns left Africa and interbred with Neanderthals in the Middle East. Since they had lived in the area, a significantly longer time, Neanderthals were more fully adapted to their environment than the Moderns, including their immune systems that were adapted to resist disease. One of the most significant aspects of our intermixing is that the five percent DNA we share with Neanderthals includes immune system material–very important material that definitely could make pre-historical moderns more viable than we otherwise would have been.

In other words, what we inherited from the Neanderthals is fundamental to our continued existence up to this moment.

My initial response to all this was “Gee whiz!” But there is more to it–it prods us to deeper reflection. First all, all of this is about us, about who we are as human beings, about who we are as children of God. We are part of the life that may also exist on hundreds of other planets; the nurturing of our species that brought us to where we are today includes sharing the very Iife-stuff of species that came before us–including Neanderthals.

These reflections raise the question, “Who Am I?”, from quite a different angle than I did in my blog with that title a month ago. For me, they add immeasurable mystery to the human story. And since I believe that God created me, that mystery is deepened–Why did God do it this way? Why life on hundreds of planets–how are they all connected?Why through our evolutionary companions, the Neanderthals–and many other predecessors in the chain of evolution?

That prefix, “inter,” says a lot. The dictionary says it can mean “among,” ” between,” or “together.” As humans, we are the creatures of inter, creatures of among, between, and together. Among the stars, together with other species. We were not solitary in our beginnings, nor are we such in our everyday living. This all adds wonder to Psalm 138, as I contemplate that God knitted together every part of me, watched every bone take shape. This is not my grandma’s knitting!

I will let it go at this for the moment: the wonder, the mystery of it all–just in being human! In the words of Psalm 8, “what are mere mortals that you should think about them, human beings that you should care for them?”

Phil Hefner (c)

 

The Calling of the Non-Achievers

14 Mar

The Calling of the Non-Achievers

This installment consists of a talk I gave last evening at a Lenten midweek service. A few of you have already seen this. I’ve added a poem that was inspired by a heavy, wet snow we had earlier this week. The poem might be related to Calling, if you agree with one reader who responded that she thinks we grow more sensitive to beauty as we age. If you don’t agree, just enjoy it for what it’s worth. Some of you have seen the Montgomery Place cafe that has inspired several poems in recent years. It’s a magic place for me–when the screen us lifted!  (See my first blog installment)

Augustana Lutheran Church–3/13/2014–Lenten Vespers

For the sake of clarity, I’m using the term, “calling,” rather than “vocation.” Vocation is both a secular and a traditional Christian term. In our common parlance, the secular prevails, meaning “occupation,” or profession. Hence we speak of vocational training or vocational counselors, who help people find jobs. In Christian terms, it is used by Roman Catholics to refer to the call that priests, monks, and nuns receive. Luther reacted against this traditional usage, saying that it “clergified” the church. He insisted that every Christian has a vocation or calling, simply by virtue of being a child of God. This calling is to live out the Gospel of Jesus Christ in the world. It’s a call to live out Jesus’s life of ministry to all, carrying the cross in our daily living, and sharing in Christ’s resurrection. This is far larger than any clergy calling–in fact, clergy have to try extra hard to live in the world as Jesus did.

Every child of God – everyone of us has a calling from God and from our fellow human beings. This is basic Christian faith, and it is emphasized especially in Lutheran theology. This is no doubt easier to understand when we think of younger people: children, youth, and adults in the working prime of their lives. But what of the older people, those we call “senior citizens,” as well as the downright elderly and those who are in the waning years of their lives? Do they no longer have a calling? No longer share the dream that God has given us all? Do their lives no longer point to the meaning and vision of life? And make a witness to the mandate and calling that God gives us all?

I have been thinking about these questions more intensely in the last year, and particularly in the past few months, when I have become more handicapped even than I was before. My comments this evening will be very personal, out of my own experience.

Every stage of life is distinctive and has its own unique character and meaning. It is equally true that every stage of life can learn from the distinctiveness of the other stages. Young people can learn from older people, just as the older ones have much to learn from the younger. Perhaps the most important thing we can learn from each other about our calling, our vocation under God, is that our lives should witness to the larger reality, the larger truth of life that God has revealed to us, particularly in Jesus Christ.

We are called upon to develop ourselves more fully to allow ourselves to be educated and become more skilled especially when we are young. We have purposes to work on, goals to attain, and accomplishments to make – particularly when we are in the prime of life and at the top of our strength. These elements make up our calling from God, and we live out the gospel as we follow this calling. However there is another element that is perhaps more at home in old age, as we become elderly. And this is to show forth how our days are to be lived even when we are not making accomplishments. This element includes witnessing to the underlying principles that undergird the life lived in God, quite apart from accomplishment.

When we are not accomplishing–that is an idea worth pondering. In America, and in many other societies, we are accomplishment-oriented. One of our concerns with our children’s education and life-style, is that we want them to be achievers–sometimes that becomes our chief concern. “Job-creating,” “job creators”–these terms have become almost sacred in the past few years. Colleges and universities are losing students if they can’t connect their education to “job creation.” The arts and humanities are withering in many colleges, because they seem to be irrelevant to getting a job and achieving something in today’s terms.

The elderly and the handicapped elderly–and I am now fitting into both those categories–can have no calling, if it is tied to achievement or “job.” There is no question that living out the life of Jesus Christ in the world today must include living it out in the world of the job-creators–in fact, that is a critical issue of Christian Discipleship. But we might also say that the foundation of our calling lies beyond the achievement-orientation. After all, for a huge number of people, we are non-achievers for the first 20 years of our lives, and if we retire in our 60s, we are non-achievers for the last 15 or 20–that’s 30 to 40 years of life.

The elderly and the handicapped are in a particularly good position to probe the non-achieving life, because we are not expected to achieve, nor to prepare for the life in the world of the job creators. In fact, our entire lives depend on our discerning God’s call to the non-achievers.

What does God call us to beyond the world of job-achieving? What’s your answer to that question? What do our lives under God’s calling look like?

I invite you to think along with me as I reflect on these questions. I would welcome discussion on these points.

1–Care for others–Jesus’ great commandment and others.

2–Care for poor and suffering–one of the most persisting themes in the Psalms and the Prophets.
In the last two days I have read Psalms 106 and 13: “you may mock the poor, but the Lord keeps them safe.” “God will lift up the poor, shepherding them like flocks.” In The Magnificat,” we read “God scatters the proud and pulls tyrants from their thrones, and raises up the humble. The Lord fills the starving and lets the rich go hungry.” These put care for the poor and suffering as a necessity, not an option.

3–Living that reflects the Kingdom of God–what would that be? Some of our prayers speak of the family unit as the microcosm of the kingdom.

4–”Unnecessary kindness”–last week, I spoke with another resident at Montgomery Place, the retirement community where I live. We spoke of the relatively high level of anxiety that we observe around us. She responded with this statement so crystalline that it can serve as an aphorism: “I try to live my daily life aware that everyone I meet is fighting some sort of struggle, and I am called to show them even unnecessary kindness.” Those words have stuck with me, “unnecessary kindness.” What would that mean? And what are the ways that I can show such kindness?

You might say that we’re asking what is the template of the life lived under God’s Calling? A template that applies alike to achieving and non-achieving.

Let the discussion flow–

White Lollipops

White lollipops
topping bushes’ pruned back
upright branches

Snowy woolly
caterpillars crawling
along the horizontal twigs

Holding on
in the still still air
they almost touch
my cafe window

Glazed in white
bright as diamonds
trees lord their arms
arching toward me

They feel a tender
breeze they sway
their crystals
holding firm

A blue sky dome
descending in the distance
to a greenish sea

Beauty–aching my heart
calls the spirit forth
to a communion

After all Jesus
said of the lily’s glory
behold–mere looking
is too little–
a shame no less

Phil Hefner
3/12/2014

Who Am I?

3 Mar

 

 

Who Am I?

A team of doctors did me a big favor last week–I didn’t realize it at the time, but it dawned on me gradually. I have been under examination for almost three months now, in an attempt to figure out why my right hip and my hands have been deteriorating so much in the past few months. I underwent six scans and tests; four doctors studied my situation. Finally, they came up with a diagnosis–exotically named: Charcot’s disease. If you Google it, you won’t find a whole lot. Jean-Martin Charcot is credited with observing/inventing the ailment in the second half of the nineteenth century.

I took this diagnosis back to the doctor who had started me on this medical quest. His first reaction: “I’m skeptical, it doesn’t figure.” That started the reflective juices flowing.

Now I realize that I had put myself in the situation in which I believed that the doctors and the tests and the imaging could define me, and I have been anxiously waiting for their definition. After all, for twelve weeks I considered myself to be in a no-man’s land, in limbo, I said; I said the doctors were deciding my future.

All that was shattered when a doctor whom I respect said that the judgment of four other doctors, whom I also respect, didn’t figure for him. “Back to limbo,” some friends said; “that must feel terrible,” others told me. Yes, it did–for a couple of days. Then things began to clear–I was looking for my definition in the wrong places; in a strange way, the words “it doesn’t figure” became words of liberation.

That got me to thinking. Just what is it that defines me? And how do I let myself be defined? How do I come in clarity to a self-definition that can work for me? In the poem below, I suggest that I have to put the pieces of the puzzle together myself; I have to do the self defining. I believe that is true, but there is more to it than the poem encompasses.

There are many forces and people that not only propose my definition, but also work very hard to impose their definitions upon me. I certainly reject some of them–the images proposed by the TV commercials, for example, but there are others that I gladly have accepted, even before I thought about them–images of belonging and love from my family and friends.

For me, the Christian proposals are decisive: that I am a child of God, that I have a destiny that transcends my life span on this earth, that I have a calling that transcends the circumstances of my life. Much of it is, I have lately recognized, bound up with my belief that I am part of a narrative, a story that God has written. The life and preaching of Jesus is the pivotal segment of that story. I am written into the story, and that matters. Being “written in” gives foundational meaning to my life.

It is true that I have to accept this way of defining myself–the poem has that right. This proposal has been preached to me in thousands of sermons that I have heard over the years, and I studied it and even taught it for several decades in seminary and graduate school; I have pondered it intellectually–in the abstract, it makes sense to me. That alone doesn’t make it my own at a personal level, however. I have to reach out and choose it for myself.

Being written in does not answer a lot of the questions, least of all those that the doctors are puzzling over. Who knows? Charcot’s name may return, since there will be more examinations. But being written into Jesus’ story configures the stage on which the doctors’ work takes place. I am not waiting to be defined in an ultimate way. Rather, I am waiting to discover an important next episode in that story–or, to follow up the theater image, the next set of stage directions for my life’s script.

How do you define yourself? Who are you?

Who Am I?

The doctors lay out
all these possibilities
scans and x-rays
tests of blood
and other
bodily liquids
they recall certain
of your symptoms

You see they say
it all points to this–
a classic case
the next doctor
skeptical
starts you on another quest
cranks up the circus calliope
for another spin around

The spin doctors
who grace [the]
tv [screen]
cry out day and night
you are this
you want this–
the comforts
the impressive objects
the glitzy gadgets
of the good life
put that last
in inverted commas
On the couch
counselor across
from me
listens
queries
nods
elicits
from my
recollections
feelings
desires
the who I am and
who I want to be

In the pew
I am God’s child
the priest forgives me
in God’s name
sends me home in
benediction
fallen but lifted up
destined
for blessing

Finally who I am
where I’m going
only I can say
I form the image
draw the map
paint the picture
from the scraps
and puzzle bits
that surround me
no one can put them
together for me

Phil Hefner
2/28/2014

When the Angel Kneads Harshly

18 Jan

When the Angel Kneads Harshly

What we choose to engage is so tiny!

What engages us is so great!

If only we would let ourselves be dominated

as things do by some immense storm,

we would become strong too, and not need names.

When we win it’s with small things,

and the triumph itself makes us small.

What is extraordinary and eternal

does not want to be bent by us.

I mean the Angel who appeared

to the wrestlers of the Old Testament:

when the wrestler’s sinews

grew like long like metal strings,

he felt them under his fingers

like chords of deep music.

Whoever was beaten by this Angel

(who often simply declined the fight)

went away proud and strengthened

and great from that harsh hand,

that kneaded him as if to change his shape.

Winning does not tempt that man.

This is how he grows: by being defeated, decisively,

by constantly greater beings.

(Rainer Maria Rilke, “The Man Beholding,” translated by Robert Bly, revised by Philip Hefner)

This poem by Rilke speaks to me particularly, because at the present moment I am wrestling with health issues that are complex and make diagnosis difficult. When the diagnosis is arrived at, the treatment will very likely be comparably complex. The diagnostic processes will contribute new knowledge to my understanding of myself.  My experience reinforces the sense I have had for some years that we are always being revealed anew to ourselves, in both our bodies and our spirits.

Rilke’s point broke in as revelation to me. In the flash of a moment, I realized that I am caught up in a Jacob-like engagement not so much with ailments and medical problems as with forces that are larger and more foundational–birth defects, the degeneration that comes naturally to a body that has functioned at the top of its energies for four score years.  Hands-on, I am encountering my created nature, my body as the processes of nature have shaped it and passed it on to me. My engagement is with more than the sum of my body’s medicalized ailments. I am wrestling with my body as it was planted in the soil of evolutionary processes and shaped and circumscribed–kneaded–by those processes.  Nature–such an abstract term!–has become oncrete and specific in my-body-in-context which is me. Stream-of-consciousness as a writing style is perhaps the most fitting way to talk about the specificity of nature that makes me what I am at this moment in time.

I say this because my initial condition was spina bifida; and my life in one sense is story of how my body refused to succumb to the forces that selected against it and, through an amazing set of compensatory processes, carved its shape, sculpted me. Nature allowed and even supported that compensation while exacting the distinctive costs that were entailed. One leg can do the work of two, but not forever, and not without paying homage to the kneading (Rilke chose just the right word!) that it had to undergo. And there is more.

Specific medical issues may be the tiny antagonists that we choose to engage. My present wrestling is with the more fundamental realities of my bodily journey–much of the time, I have not even been aware that they were engaging/kneading me, but I am more aware of their presence now.

Winning is not the issue in this match, growth comes in the defeat. Hard words for us.  Fulfillment comes in being the object of the kneading process, not in some imagined triumph over the One who kneads. What could it possibly mean to triumph over the me-as-incarnated-in-the-chunk-of-nature? I do not yet understand how strengthening and greatness are bestowed by the harsh hand of the Angel–but I know that understanding will come one day. My identity is being formed. Who I am now throws light on who I have always been, even though I have been unaware of that identity until now.

Words take on new meanings in these days: winning and losing are not what  they were. I am seeing new depths in the words of the nineteenth century theologian’s insight that we meet God  when we experience utter dependency. I draw closer to that “utter” dependency when I grapple with Rilke’s Angel and when I feel that Angel’s kneading. Conceding-while-struggling is to become clear about who I am. Is that a loss or a win? Struggling grows out of the insistence that “human” nature has a hand in carving out existence–it is not the Angel alone who wields the sculpting tool. This may be co-creating, an idea I have thought and written about for many years. My self-creation continues, in a way that includes acknowledging the Angel, conceding to the Angel, while never ceasing the struggle. But it is not a struggle against the Angel; it is a struggle for the Angel to acknowledge something as well: that no matter how  overwhelmed I am, no matter how immeasurably greater the contesting forces are, this dough, this chunk of nature, will take its own shape, even in the face of the ungraspable kneading  powers that form my natural and spiritual world.

Saint Benedict interpreted Jacob’s wrestling ground as holy. Jacob himself, as he was kneaded and as he shaped himself was the point where heaven and earth met (“Jacob’s ladder”). Jacob-sculpted-in-the-grappling-with-the-Angel is the connection.

Grappling, wrestling are rendered in Rilke’s German in Ringen. Roll the “r”! The physicality of it all is so real–and so fundamentally spiritual. I do not wrestle alone, it is the Angel, along with nature as it expresses itself in me–in all that I have been and shall become–the me   that wrestles and is kneaded in the process.

Phil Hefner. 17 January 2014

Strange Gateway to Our Future

19 Sep

Strange Gateway to Our Future

 

“We are facets of a work whose finished form we cannot imagine.” These words of Christian Wiman occur in the midst of his reflection on his own death, as he struggled with cancer. 

 What has death to do with this beautiful understanding of ourselves as facets of a work whose finished form we cannot grasp even in our imagination?  I am certainly not the only octogenarian whose thoughts turn from time to time to reflection on death and dying.  This is especially true for me today, which began with a phone call with the word that an old friend and former student, Tom Knutson, died this morning in his struggle with pancreatic cancer.  Tom, with characteristic generosity, accepted Neva and me into his own life while he was a student in seminary.  I participated in the ordinations of Tom and Karen, who would join him in marriage.  I was part of the liturgy when they were wed in her home church, the Jesus Church in Copenhagen.  There followed baptisms (Tim is our godson), anniversaries, Elizabeth’s wedding (she called with the sad news this morning), and the good times that friends have.  That we had not seen them much for several years has not weakened our bonds.

  In his reflection, Wiman disparages the preaching that speaks of life after death in terms of this life and as a perfecting of our experience in this world and a healing of all that has gone wrong in our earthly lives.  “Death is here to teach us something, or make us fit for something,” he writes, and one thing it should teach us is that our ideas of an afterlife cannot begin to uncover the strange and radical future that our lives enter into as we journey toward the form into which God will shape us.  “Refusing heaven (and by this, he refers to our conventional ideas of heaven) can be a form of faith if it’s done to give God his true and terrible scope.”  Denying conventional ideas of heaven and the afterlife are not blasphemy; they can be a way of honoring the deep mystery of our lives and of what they can become.

 This is heavy, and such serious and open-ended thinking about death is not welcome in many quarters of our society today.  Ernest Becker, years ago, spoke of the “denial of death” as a defining characteristic of our culture.  He has not been proven wrong in the years since he said that.  Three years ago, I moved into a very pleasant and amazingly well outfitted “retirement community.”  I recommend it.  In these years I have become better acquainted with what one might call, a “retirement community ideology” or perhaps an “AARP ideology.”  I exaggerate a bit, to make the point.  If one can judge from marketing strategies, this ideology is predicated on the assumption that death is something that will never happen; retirement years are an opportunity for a new life, a rich and vibrant life—a life re-defined, so to speak.  Let me be clear, I am all for rich and vibrant years.  I do not favor morbid obsession with death—“death” may sell cemetery plots, columbarium niches, and life insurance—but little else.  Nevertheless, death does approach—the older one is, the fewer years remain—and even younger people may fall to it much earlier than we would hope.  Tom was in his mid-sixties; friend Steve Kerschner was overcome by lung cancer in his forties—a man who never smoked.  And there are others—in my own nuclear family who have been where Wiman was.

 Realism is not on my mind right now, however.  Rather, death as gateway to our unimaginable future—God’s future for us—is foremost.  To deny death is to be distracted from the fact that we have such a future, to deny our destiny as facets of a work whose completion is more than we can imagine.  You say: “Many people have lost any faith that their lives are facets of such a work.”  Even those who believe that they will simply lie, as the song, “John Brown’s Body,” says, “a-moldering in the grave,” should know that they have a future.  Every atom and molecule of the body that lies a-moldering (or has been cremated) has a future—atoms and molecules do not cease their behavior.  I recall two things:  (1) That God has created me out of the stuff of the earth (and that includes my brain and mind and personality—see my July 20 blog, “Can Spirit be a Verb?”) and (2) that God took more than 7 billion (that’s nine zeros!) years to create planet earth and more than 11 billion years to let us humans emerge from the dust of the earth.  Even those “moldering” atoms and molecules have quite a future ahead of them!  And what about our spirit? 

 All of these thoughts are but pale speculations—they do not begin to pierce the mystery of who we are and what our future is.  Tomorrow, I will attend a meeting of the group “Compassion and Choices.”  A glance at their web site predisposes me favorably toward this group—they speak of “good” and “bad” deaths, and offer “end-of-life consultations.”  They call for choices as we approach death and a certain amount of control over our dying.  Several medical students from the University of Chicago have interviewed me about my views of the “end of life.”  Living wills lay out our “advanced directives” for how we want to be treated in our last days.  All of these can be salutary, but we may be so focused on “good” and “bad” and “the decision to die” that we miss the mystery.  Above all, we may miss that death is the gateway to the unimaginable richness of what we are becoming.  It’s hardly possible to share all this to an end-of-life counselor or doctor, but we should try.  Francis Collins, former director of the Human Genome Project and now director of the National Institutes of Health, told an interviewer that it was precisely in such situations as a doctor that he came to faith in God.

 I tried—however inadequately—to hint at this in a poem that came to me during the funeral service for another friend Dick Luecke, just seventeen months ago. I dedicate it anew to Tom and Steve and all those other brothers and sisters I hold in my heart.

 Trail of Ashes

 “ashes to ashes

dust to dust”

grave dust, earth dust

stardust, big bang dust

on a journey

we are the journey

journey passing through us

the bang echoes still

in our bones

what pulls us forward

does it matter

 the journey is in company

earthy companions

a galactic trail

we commend our brother

to that trail

and in the act

mime our

own

being handed over

 we say it matters

 we say it is

God’s trail

 Written in the night of September 18-19, 2013

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