In May, 2019 Ted Brelsford joined with us as Transitional Pastor. He and his wife, Leslie, are living in the church parsonage and have quickly become part of our Faith community. Ted is a graduate of Slippery Rock State University (BA), Princeton Theological Seminary (MDiv), and Emory University (PhD). Prior to coming to Boston Ted and Leslie were on a 7 month sabbatical at Green Bough House of Prayer in Scott, GA. Before that Ted was pastor of a church in Orchard Park, NY from 2008 to 2018. From 1999 to 2008 he was on faculty at Candler School of Theology, Emory University in Atlanta, where he continues to teach occasional online or short on-campus courses in the areas of Religious Education and Practical Theology. Leslie is also a graduate of Slippery Rock State University. She teaches at the Montessori School in East Aurora. Ted has 2 adult daughters and 2 grandchildren in Georgia. Leslie's adult son and daughter live in Western NY. We are delighted to have them with us!
My father is dying. I thought I really ought to write about something else here, something less personal and more church related. But in times like these it can be difficult to think beyond your own immediate grief, your own immediate crisis. We all go through it. The death of a spouse, or a sibling, a parent, a child, a close friend. There is something about such losses that rocks at the core and the foundations of life. Most days most of us cruise along more or less on autopilot living our various lives, carrying out our various tasks, keeping up our various habits as if this is just how things are and will be. Underneath, we know it is not so. We know things change, nothing is permanent or stable. And we know there are big losses in life. But death slaps us awake with this truth. Our life, the life of others, all life is temporary and shockingly fragile. There is also a lot of pain.
Our life is a mere seventy years,
eighty with good health,
and all it gives us
is toil and distress;
then the thread breaks
and we are gone. (Psalm 90:10)
My dad is 80 years old. Not all that old in this day and age. But old enough for a body to be worn down. Cancer has set in, taken over, and he is surrendering to it. It happens. Cancer, heart failure, a freak accident, a killing disease. Everyone dies. Some die very young, after only a few years, or even a few days or hours, and some die very old, after many years and many, many days. Death comes to all. But first there is life. Death comes only at the end of life, becauseof life. The whole of life is a miraculous gift. And death is very much a natural and expected part of life, part of the deal, somehow part of the gift.
My father is thankful for his life. Very thankful. His eyes fill and glisten with gratitude nearly every time I talk with him now. He keeps telling me how lucky he has been, how good life is, how much love he feels. It’s a good way to die, filled with gratitude for life. Not everyone gets the chance to know death is approaching and have the time to ease into it. My father is easing into death gracefully, with full confidence in his destiny with God. This is a great comfort to all of us. He is grateful for the gift of his life and looks forward to the eternal blessings of heavenly rest after a good and full life of faith.
But, you know, it’s still disturbing and distressing and life-disrupting for me and others who love him. It “rocks my boat,” as the saying goes. I’m struggling for balance. Adrenaline surges as if I might be pitched overboard; the moorings are breaking.
What is it about death, I wonder? What makes it so… disturbing, and disorienting, and often unspeakably painful? Partly, I think, it is that slap of reality and the realization of our vulnerability and our temporality. And partly it is this: in large degree we are our relationships and the loss of a relationship is a loss of part of oneself.
The relationships we have been put into and that we have formed in our lives have formed us. Those relationships make us who we are. In a sense, those relationships are parts of our “self.” This is why people feel as though a part of them has died when someone close to them dies. A part of them has died. That relationship is gone. And that relationship was a part of them. And this is why people can grieve someone they hated, or someone with whom they had a very troubled relationship. For better and for worse that relationship was part of who they were, and now that part of them is gone. It leaves a hole, it is a wound, a piece of the self has been removed, cut off, gouged out. Of course it is painful, even dangerous. How much of the self can be cut off and the self still remain the self? Sometimes elderly spouses die one right after the other, or close twins.
My father’s death will not be a mortal wound for me. Just a kind of natural loss along life’s way. I am blessed to have had a good and faithful father. And I am blessed to have a caring community of Christian compassion around me. Friends, family, and a community of sharing and support are important in our times of difficulty and crisis. We help each other get through. We remind each other of God’s love and grace, we share together in one another’s pains and sorrows, and we celebrate each week the miraculous gift of resurrection life over and over again. Amen.