Kevin, our custodian, was expected to be at our Ash Wednesday evening church service. An hour before it was to start, I learned of his death and did not mention it to those in attendance because it had not yet been confirmed and I did not want to spread unfounded, sordid rumors. Kevin’s death lay heavy upon me, especially as we read the words, “ashes to ashes, dust to dust.” Three days later, I attended the funeral service at his childhood church and stood before an urn of ashes, his only earthly remain.
His death occurred in the season of Lent that comes between Ash Wednesday and Easter; a time when we are summoned to soul-searching, truth-telling, and making an assessment of our personal role in the situations in which we find ourselves; a time to get honest about ourselves and the way we act in relation to others.
In his homily, the priest said that Kevin was a sweet, loving man who was also “radically self-destructive.” The priest gave voice to what everyone probably already knew, but were too polite or afraid to mention. He said that both parts of Kevin were equally true: he was incredibly sweet and incredibly self-destructive. The priest made no attempt to act like the “unsavory” part of Kevin didn’t exist when, in fact, it was that unsavory part that killed him.
Kevin died of an overdose.
Kevin’s mother spoke lovingly of her son in a short, sweet, and painful eulogy. She spoke about the day of his birth and what a wonderful child he was. And she also openly admitted that he had struggled with addiction for 25 of his 39 year life. She spoke of how so many people had tried so hard to help him but that no one could save him. And she spoke of how she hoped that he had found the peace in death that he never found in life.
As we filed out of the church, I paused to speak with the priest. I thanked him for the honesty in his homily. He said that he had spoken earlier with the parents and had encouraged them to be open and honest about all parts of Keith’s life and death. In so doing, the priest had taken the shame, dishonesty and hiding out of this tragic story and thus allowed other people suffering in a similar fashion to come forward and to make their peace with themselves, with God, and with each other.
In the Bible, Peter rebuked Jesus because Jesus spoke the truth about what was coming down (Jesus’ death), and Peter didn’t want to hear it; didn’t want to believe it; and didn’t want others to know it. Truth is often not good for the charade, the persona, the illusions and delusions we often prefer to reality. But sometimes things work out poorly and we die an ugly death. Jesus was not going to be “shushed.” Jesus rebuked Peter as Peter had rebuked him, saying, “You set your mind not on divine things, but on human things…”After being spoken to like that by Peter ~ Jesus called for the crowd to come and join the disciples. Jesus wanted it out in the open. Jesus wanted everybody to hear what he had to say. Jesus told them that if anyone wanted follow him, they must deny themselves and take up “their’ cross. They need to pick up the cross they bear and stop the lying, the illusions and the pretenses and then follow Jesus to the site of the crucifixion of truth and goodness.
But we want to do the opposite ~ we want to deny the reality of the crucifixions in life and take up denial of what is really happening. We want to act like fear and indifference are perfectly fine and normal ~ even at a church funeral where we deny that an urn of ashes is yet further evidence of a raging epidemic of heroin addiction in our country. We want to skip over the suffering and torture of the Good Fridays of life and skip over to Easter Fun Day with chocolate eggs and happy children. Some of us do this until we too are reduced to a pile of ashes in a pretty urn, surrounded by people dressed in black, saying goodbye.
Between now and the day when we too are returned to the ash from which we came ~ all the things we say and do in this life to bolster our ego and deny what we are really like will ultimately fail us. Trying to find meaning by saving money, saving face, and holding on to what we’ve got can only take us so far until Jesus pulls us aside and asks, “What good is it for you to gain the whole world, and lose your soul?”
Lent reminds us that our very soul is at stake. You want to save your life? Then let go of it. Have you ever done that faith exercise when you close your eyes and fall backward, trusting that someone is there and will catch you as you fall? That is what God does for those who trust. Jesus said that whoever wants to save their life will lose it, but whoever loses their life for him and the gospel will save it. Lose fear. Find faith.
As we approach the cross on which love was crucified but did not perish ~ let us freely admit to all that lies within and between us. Let us identify and accept the reality of the parts of ourselves and others that we do not like. Let us take a spiritual inventory of ourselves, lay our burdens down, and let God do for us what we could never do for ourselves.
Kevin is dead. He could not save himself. Drugs could not save him either. But his life, his lesson and his spirit live on in me and now in you. All the snares, flares and affairs of the world will not save me either. But thanks to the supposedly disgraced and deceased ones like Jesus and Kevin ~ I have caught a glimpse of what is eternal. And that is what I now choose to turn and face.
Dwight Lee Wolter is the author of several books and the pastor of the Congregational Church of Patchogue on Long Island, New York. He blogs at dwightleewolter.com
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