I've realized lately that my patience with bureaucracy and hypocrisy and politics has nearly reached its limit, which is unusual for me. I like to think that as a student of organizations I have more patience with them. But as I lay in bed yesterday morning, wishing it was Saturday instead of Thursday, pondering the immediately relevant portion of Adam's curse (By the sweat of your face you will eat bread), I remembered that I needed to put on my charcoal suit and dark tie. I remembered that I would be leaving work that afternoon to go to a funeral. I remembered that for all my self-pity, it wasn't me burying my daughter that day.
The funeral was filled with beautiful young people, a testimony to the widespread admiration for the departed young woman, as well as to the shock of death when it intrudes so early in life. We all watched the coffin carried in, followed by the family, and it struck me how a funeral is arranged much like a wedding. Indeed, her mother had prepared a wedding cake for her, to be served at the reception afterward, since there is to be no wedding for this girl on earth.
We stared, until her father left the group and walked slowly to her coffin, perhaps to whisper something to her, or to pray; I don't think any of us know, because all of us or perhaps just the fathers averted our eyes. Some things are too terrible and sacred to witness.
Her cousin played the piano and sang two songs so sweetly that I don't think I'll ever listen to them again, because the professionals who recorded them never sang them as well, can't impart to them the immediate meaning that he did, glancing at his cousin's coffin as he cried and sang the words.
I don't remember anything either of the presiding pastors said, except that the grieving were exhorted to rejoice. I think if I ever preside over a funeral, I will begin with John 11:33:
When Jesus therefore saw her weeping, and the Jews who came with her also weeping, He was deeply moved in spirit and was troubled, and said, "Where have you laid him?" They said to Him, "Lord, come and see."
The head trained in theology tells us the one we love is in heaven, but our heart and flesh cry out because she is gone. The heart learns the mysteries of God at a slow pace. Do you want to know what Jesus would do at a funeral, were he again on this side of Heaven's veil with us? Jesus wept.
Perhaps I didn't forget what the pastors had to say but simply ignored them, much as I admire each. It was the father I wanted to hear, and for whom I prayed as he made his way to the altar to give the eulogy for his child. He honored her memory and name greatly. I was ashamed, listening to him speak out of a place of heartbreak and courage, to recall that only hours before I had wallowed in my bedsheets and my self-pity, bemoaning my miserable lot in life. Any day we do not bury someone we love is a good day. This is what I was reminded of yesterday.
As we got the boys packed up yesterday evening for our run to the E.R., the wife's sickly pallor only slightly less frightening than her 104 temperature, I realized that I haven't had a day this bad in quite a while. It's comforting, in a way, to realize it's on you, kind of like when you throw up, and realize that at the very least you don't have to worry about when you'll next throw up, because you're actually doing it.
Or maybe I have a very sour view of the world. Don't worry, she's much better now. Friends in our neighborhood rushed over and took care of the boys, alleviating my fear that they would catch Ebola in the waiting room. They even bathed them. It's almost enough to make us want to stay in our neighborhood, if not for our increasing conviction that we need a smaller mortgage and more land. Our friends were even kind enough to direct us to a small nearby hospital, saving us a miserable time downtown.
The wife was seen immediately; the only other patient a quiet little girl of maybe five or six. She was with people I assumed were her parents. The odd thing is that she was in an O.B.-type room, sitting on a table with stirrups. There were regular exam rooms available. Why would a girl that young need that kind of exam?
Later, the Wife's problem diagnosed, and a nuclear-bomb level of antibiotics coursing through her bloodstream, I stepped outside to make a call. On the way out I passed the doctor at her desk. She was talking to someone on the telephone, explaining that she found or suspected a sexually-transmitted disease. I want to believe there had been another patient, and that she wasn't talking about that little girl. I wish we lived in a world where the alternative wasn't even a possibility.
I realized, as I lay in bed at 2:30 a.m., my head splitting, wondering if I needed to take my feverish wife to the hospital, that I haggle with God. I don't know if God haggles back. This makes me a bad Presbyterian, that I don't hurry past those passages in the Bible about Moses convincing God not to slaughter everyone, or Hezekiah weeping until God agreed to let him live longer, with my highlighter poised to illuminate any verse that appears to imply predestination.
I don't know if God haggles back because I never live the counterfactual. Last night, for example, I was praying that we didn't both have meningitis (because this is what I do, I take the symptoms and attach them in my mind to the worst possible disease, and then I get a stomachache worrying about it). I was also praying that the children, especially the baby, wouldn't get sick. Then I remembered how I've often prayed if someone has to get sick (because in my mind bad things are hot potatoes in God's hands, and they have to be dropped on someone, somewhere), that it be me and not our children.
So there we lay, sick, all of our children sound asleep and healthy, and it struck me that maybe the haggling had worked. Then I thought that can't be right, because I'm a Presbyterian, after all, and if Presbyterians are nothing else, we are absolutely right about all the small and large points of theology, which is why it will be especially surprising when most of us are on the back row in Heaven, having been so excited about our theology that we forgot to evangelize and give up our wealth to the poor. And that will be really awkward for some Presbyterians I know, let me tell you, though not for me, because I know that in my case just to get past the gates will require a great deal of luck providential blessing, and quite possibly a clerical error predestined divine intervention.
But the point is that as I lay there in misery and fear, I realized that I only ever thank God when things are really good. This seems akin to only thanking your wife for the meal she cooked when it's a nine-course French dinner. Not, of course, that I think of God as a woman, because as a good Presbyterian I know that God is a white Republican man who opposes immigration and will condemn you to the lowest plane of Hell if you vote for Hillary. But don't let that defeat the analogy; I think you see my point: I don't often thank God, not really, for most things that are blessings. This is because I am caught up in my personal vision of extreme satisfaction and comfort.
How humbling, then, to read this by Oswald Chambers after my healthy and happy children dragged my carcass out of bed this morning:
We utilize God for the sake of getting peace and joy, that is, we do not want to realize Jesus Christ, but only our enjoyment of him.
I suppose God doesn't need to haggle. I suppose I take that view when I center myself in the universe, with him as my recalcitrant Sugar Daddy. What a miserable universe it would be, if that were all it amounted to.
We finally fell asleep for a little while, somewhere around 4 a.m. We're both still miserable, but the children all seem fine, so we'll go ahead and count it all joy, as the good book says, the sickness and the health, and remember that other glorious passage in the Bible, the one we often overlook: It came to pass. . .
The word home has a connotation both immediate and distant. A home is intimate, that place where we belong, where they let us in the door whether we deserve it or not. As something one does, home has traditionally been distant, implying that one is going to it, or that one is being remotely guided to it.
Pigeons, I have read, find home even when they don't know where they are, by relying on magnetic fields, and the sun. Some of us have a sense of not belonging in this place where we find ourselves, and of home being somewhere else, such that we can feel it though we don't know the way. We hold out hope that, like those pigeons, some mysterious force will draw us home. The pigeon has the sun, and the Christian has the Son, and I think a great many other people who don't know where they fall on the pigeon-Christian axis hold a quiet hope that something will emerge for them too, guiding them to a place that is not here, because in the old ways of using that word home, the verb implied the absence of the noun.
The verb form of house, meanwhile, is immediate and impersonal. When we say something is housed, we mean that it is sheltered now. There is no seeking in relation to house, and no intimacy either. The house is where we keep our things, including our tired skin and bones. It is what we settle for when we can't go home.
I recently learned that home has the same root, in the old pathways from which our languages emerged, dusted themselves off, and were immediately slaughtered for the sake of newspapers and corporate annual reports, as haunt. This is fitting, I think, because our home that place we are tuned to seek haunts us. Home is the place we yearn for even when we have never seen it, or perhaps have only seen it in glimpses or dreams.
It is best not to get too comfortable with this place, for eventually we will be called home, and how sad would it be, do you think, to cling to here for fear of there? Home is where, for some of us at least, people we have loved wait for us, which is perhaps why it haunts us. We have grown accustomed to the use of haunting as something dreadful, but it can also be something lovely and melancholy, especially when one is haunted by visions of home.
We weep for ourselves, when the people we love go home. We weep with sadness that we are left here for a time longer, and with joy that, for those we have lost, home is no longer what is sought, but what has been found.