We have had two large funerals this week at our church. The church was packed on both occasions. As I have listened to members of the parish speak of the two wonderful women whose funerals they attended, I was impressed by how difficult this week has been on us as a parish. We are painfully aware of how important it is for all of us to learn to face death, both our own and that of others about whom we care.
Both of these women took time with family and friends to talk about their own mortality. They encouraged everyone around them to deal with their feelings. They discussed their burial plans. And they sorted through their own feelings about the experience before them.
In the Episcopal Church, one of our Eucharistic prayers speaks of our conviction that in death, “Life is changed, not ended.” In my conversation with one of these women, I suggested that in some ways, the transition we know as death is similar to the transition we know as birth. I shared a story that I thought might be helpful in illustrating my point. Henri Nouwen related this story or one similar to it in his book Our Greatest Gift. Following her death, her husband told me that she had appreciated the story. Here it is:
Once upon a time, twin boys were conceived in the same womb. Weeks passed and the twins developed. As their awareness grew, they laughed for joy: “Isn’t it great that we were conceived? Isn’t it great to be alive?”
Together, the twins explored their world. When they found their mother’s cord that gave them life, they sang for joy: “How great is our mother’s love, that she shares her own life with us!”
As weeks stretched into months, the twins noticed how much each was changing. “What does it mean?” asked the one, “It means that our stay in this world is drawing to an end,” said the other. “But I don’t want to go,” said the other one. “I want to stay here always.”
“We have no choice,” said the other. “But maybe there is life after birth!”
“But how can there be?” responded the one. “We will shed our life cord, and how is life possible without it? Besides, we have seen evidence that others were here before us, and none of them have returned to tell us that there is a life after birth. No, this is the end.”
And so the one fell into deep despair, saying, “If conception ends in birth, what is the purpose of life in the womb? It’s meaningless! Maybe there is no mother after all?”
“But there has to be,” protested the other. “How else did we get here? How do we remain alive?”
“Have you ever seen our mother?” said the one. “Maybe she lives only in our minds. Maybe we made her up, because the idea made us feel good?”
And so the last days in the womb were filled with deep questioning and fear. Finally, the moment of birth arrived. When the twins had passed from their world, they opened they eyes. They cried. For what they saw exceeded their fondest dreams.
But, as it is written,
‘What no eye has seen, nor ear heard,
nor the human heart conceived,
what God has prepared for those who love him’
Like birth and death, all transitions involve mysteries of the unknown. We incorectly assume that the status quo insulates us from the necessity of change with its uncertainties. That is why we fear and resist change. Yet our inheritance as people of faith is a bountiful reservoir of wisdom that assures us that God has wonderful things in store for us just around the next corner. Let us live our lives day by day in that kind of hope. Our two parishioners did and the hopefulness of their lives in their last days and in their passing brought hope to their families and to their friends.