Tuesday, December 6, 2011

Hey, Michael: Death and the Ukulele

Death is a subject that frequently rises to the surface these days.  Partly this is because of my job.  Clergy are often perceived as experts on death--or at least the "afterlife"--though we have never been dead ourselves.  However, we have and do spend time dealing with many of the issues that surround death.  We accompany people on journeys of suffering and grief.  We console the loved ones of the departed.  We answer questions about life when death lurks--as it does for most of us--right outside our vision.  Still, that isn't the whole story.  This year death has been keeping pretty close to home.

Last winter, for example, my son (the one also known here as "Norm") and I were in a car accident.  We were hit on the side by a much larger car.  We didn't see it coming, but in that instant between when we were hit behind the driver's seat and when we settled into the snowbank the only fear I had was for the boy sitting right behind me.  As it turned out, he was OK, if somewhat exasperated.  He asked me what we were going to do next, and we got to it.  Sitting next to him in the ambulance (he had some back pain that went away) I thought again about what had happened.  What if we weren't fine?  What if I couldn't make it better?  The car, it should be noted, was totalled and has not been fully replaced. 

Later that winter our dog died.  We had gotten her as a puppy to be a sort of "practice child" before the birth of our eldest.  That son is now 13 years old so our dog (a husky) was pretty old, too.  There wasn't the same sort of panic as in the accident, of course, but her absence from our lives is still felt today.  Who, after all, will drink all the water out of the tree stand?  We have not replaced her and I am not sure we will.

Then in the spring, my wife's father died after a long struggle with a series of illnesses.  For a while it felt like the bottom had fallen out of our family.  We went down to Maryland to be with her mom.  We started our own work of grief and remembering.  That work isn't finished.  I am not sure it will ever be.  Craig's birthday is always on or near Thanksgiving.  We have been thinking about him a great deal this holiday season.

Oh...and I turned 40 and had my first brush with prolonged chronic conditions.  Nothing life threatening but, again, a moment of frailty not entirely unexpected and not at all welcome.  Of course, work continues.  Life continues.  Yet things have changed quite a bit for me this year and not all of it has been bad.  As I told my congregation recently, we all have secret pains and that pain can either separate us or unite us in our humanity.  I find it easier to reach out, to be patient, to be tolerant of others because this year I have been reminded that I do not always know what others are going through.  When I do know, I find that I can connect better than I have been able to do in the past.  So much of the ministry is about caring for others.  It comes more easily sometimes if you are also grateful for the care you have received.

Of course, there are resources, both traditional and contemporary, for folks who are struggling.  There are rituals and prayers that remind us of the inevitability of death and help us to come to terms with it in a language that we can understand.  I use a lot of these and tend, personally, to lean toward the more intuitive and artistic elements of working through the "valley of the shadow".  Pilgrim's Progress still means more to me than those stages of grief, for example.  I also find little or no solace or support in some of the more "pie in the sky" descriptions of the afterlife.

What does work for me--as always--is the uke.  In the morning, before the kids get up and my wife returns from exercising, I have time to play two songs.  Lately one of them has been Michael Row the Boat Ashore.  It is an African-American spiritual that most of you know.  There are many, many verses addressing a variety of topics, but the version that most of us know is about death.  The Archangel Michael serves as a sort of boatman to the afterlife.  I like it.  The song is about boats, something I know a bit about.  It is also about the journey.

I suspect you have heard the song and have probably played or sang it, too.  The chord progression is simple C-F-C-Em-F-C-G-C.  Some folks make that second F a Dm.  That's your business.  The words are well known and you can look them up.  When we sing it in church, we don't use printed words but instead call out the verses by their names "sister help to trim the sail", "the river is deep and the river is wide", "the River Jordan is chilly and cold".  After each verse we appeal to Michael to give us a hand.  We all need help sometimes after all...

 Maybe, even, the song isn't so much about death as it is about a life of crossing the river.  We trim the sails, we row, or paddle, or portage, or tow as we pass through the rapids and the calms, the sandbars and spits of rock that get in our way.  This living is hard work.  I, at least, am happy to get the chance to do it.

Here is a link to the Wikipedia article about the song.

Here is a link to Bobby Darin

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