The Ultimate Word

"The ultimate Word is not a paragraph but a person. If Jesus is the Word of God incarnate, then the heart of proclamation is personal and relational, not propositional."

Marjorie Hewitt Suchocki * God, Christ, Church, page 135

Sunday, April 28, 2013

The long goodbye


Pa-paw & Grandmother
Easter 5C


In the name of God.  Amen.

I’ve been thinking a lot about my grandfather this week.  Pa-paw, we called him.  Not to be confused with Paw-paw on my mother’s side.  Pa-paw was my paternal grandfather.

He was a real character.  He had a pretty hard life.  He was born among the youngest of his nine siblings - there were five boys and five girls - all of the girls had been named after flowers.  Honestly, in this moment, I don’t even quite remember most of their real names - just about everyone in the family had nicknames - most memorably, “Uncle Brother,” the oldest among the boys.

While Pa-paw was still a young boy, his mother died, and his father never quite recovered from that grief.  For most of his youth in the 1920s and 30s, Pa-paw was raised by others, away from the family home.  Often he lived with his older sisters’ families, but for a time he even lived with an African American family in town who took pity on him and his younger brother, “Uncle Babe” - no small scandal, as you might imagine, in rural Louisiana in the 1920s.

When he was a young man, like most young men of his generation, he went away to fight in the Second World War.  He spent quite a lot of time in the South Pacific, until suffering a serious injury and returning home.  But he never liked to talk about it.  Even when presented with direct questions, (being the precocious child that I was, I could always be relied upon for direct questions on uncomfortable subjects), even then, he would evade the subject.  It was just a little too hard.

Throughout his adult life, Pa-paw was always trying to be an entrepreneur.  But he was never really successful at it, because he was a little too good-hearted and forgiving for the high finance world of mid-century Central Louisiana.  He was constantly providing goods and services without collecting the agreed upon payment, or forgiving debts, or investing a little too heavily with his heart, and, perhaps, not enough with his mind.

But even so, he left his mark.  He founded the cemetery in the little town where he and grandmother lived and raised our family.  He left behind a beautiful home and a family that still carries many of his traits - the good and the, well, less good.  He had instilled in us a deep sense of spirituality and faith.  He passed on to us his love of making music.  He gave us all a deep commitment to family and community - even in those times when that commitment might step in the way of the kinds of things the world might ask of us now and then.

He wasn’t a perfect man, but he was a good man.  His life may not have been the most successful according to the measures of the world, but it was a life well lived, nonetheless.

When Pa-paw died, he had Alzheimer’s disease - “The Long Goodbye”, as it’s often called.

I still remember my last lucid conversation with him.  His disease had been progressing, but he still had some good days.  In many ways, it may have been the hardest part of the disease for him, because he could still feel himself slipping away.

On the day of that last conversation, I had been staying with Grandmother and Pa-paw - so it must have been during the summer.  One of the things that happened for us grandkids when we stayed there was, we took walks with Pa-paw.  We might wander down to the pond in front of their house to feed the ducks, or to the “Haunted House” in the woods out back, or even just down the highway to the cemetery.  But we took these one-on-one walks with Pa-paw, and we told him about our lives and learned about our shared history.  It was the time when he made each of us feel special.

On our last walk, when I was in about the fourth or fifth grade, Pa-paw clearly had an agenda.  As we walked along the gravel road behind his house, he wanted to talk with me about his disease.  He knew he was in the midst of his own “long goodbye”, and he wanted to make sure it was a good goodbye.

He told me that he was sick.  I told him that, yes, I knew.  And he told me a little more about what that meant.  He told me that things would soon be different - that he was having trouble remembering things.  Not just little things, but big things - things that he loved and that meant a lot to him.  He warned me that sometime soon, he might not even remember me.  But he assured me that it wasn’t about me, it was just this disease that was somehow separating him from himself.  And he assured me that no matter what the future would hold - no matter how hard it might be - that he would love me.

He let me ask him all of my probing little precocious child questions, and he answered every one of them as honestly as he could.  I realize now how hard that must have been for him.  I realize now that we were saying goodbye, and he wanted give me everything I needed to make it good.

After every question was asked and answered, we stopped, he looked at me, and he gave me his parting advice.  He made me promise that I’d remember where I had come from.  He made me promise to remember how important our family is.  And finally, he made me promise that whatever might happen, that I would remember that he loved me.

I made those promises to him, and with that, the light went off.

We turned toward home, and it was as if he couldn’t even remember how to walk.  He stumbled along, barely lifting his feet, but somehow almost in a run.  After making it just a few feet, he stumbled more than he could step and fell to the ground, bloodied and weeping.

I ran back to the house to get help from Grandmother, and I would never see him lucid again.  He did have a few more “good days” after that, but that was my last one.

Today, as we draw nearer to the Feast of the Ascension just over a week away, and into the waning days of our Easter celebration, the stories of Jesus move into a kind of “long goodbye”.

We hear again the story of Maundy Thursday.  In the gospel structure, it’s the setup for what they call the “Farewell Discourses” in John: three chapters’ worth of Jesus’ “long goodbye” to the disciples.

At his last supper, Jesus gives his friends the new commandment, that they love one another.  But before that, he says his goodbyes.  He does his best to explain things to them, even though they couldn’t really understand.  Even so he tries: to the ones who had been following him these years he says, “Little children, I am with you only a little longer.  You will look for me; and as I said to the Jews, so now I saw to you, ‘Where I am going, you cannot come.’”

How hard it must have been for him to say goodbye.

How disconcerting it must have been for them to hear it.

We don’t always get goodbyes in the relationships in our lives.  When we do, they can be painful, but they can also be helpful.

Pa-paw gave me his parting commandment: “Remember where you’ve come from, remember how important this family is, and remember that I love you.”

It wasn’t that far from the new commandment of Jesus: “Love one another.  Just as I have love you, you should also love one another.”

Saying goodbye is hard, but when someone has really touched your life, it’s never really goodbye.

Pa-paw lives on in me - and in his children and in my cousins.  Even in my nephews who never knew him.  He lives on in the values he instilled.  In the love that he shared.  Even in the weaknesses that he struggled to overcome.

And Christ lives on in this church.  Even when we struggle to be the church that he left for us, Christ lives on in the love that still lives in Jesus’ name.  Christ lives on in our aspiration.  Christ lives in that new commandment - that we love even as we are loved.

The goodbye may be long, but even at the grave we make our song.  Because in Christ, goodbye is never the last word.  Alleluia!  Amen.

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