Rector's Blog: Better Not Easier
We were standing at the graveside of a man who had recently died. The casket had not been lowered down into its resting place yet. In fact, the family had not yet arrived. There were three of us priests in attendance – two too many, honestly, for the work that needed to be done. But only one of us knew what he was doing, and it wasn’t me. Two of us were rookies, and we were accompanying our boss, who had been at this work for a couple decades now. We all worked together at an Episcopal Church and School and that year had been brutal: Several unexpected deaths in the community that shook us all to the core and made us wonder a lot about where God was in everything.
I remember thinking to myself at some point this has to get easier. Unprompted, my boss Rob spoke up as if directly answering my silent question: “This never gets easier, y’know. It gets harder.”
“It gets harder?” I asked.
“Yep. Every time.”
The common knowledge in any profession is that the more you do something the easier it gets. Things become automatic. And in priesthood, that is certainly true in some ways: Prayers get memorized, how you hold your hands during various parts of the service becomes rote, which vestments you wear to which situations, the rhythms of the seasons with their accompanying programing and rise and fall of engagement – these things just become normal for us. But burying people? We know the boxes we need to check, the things we’re supposed to do, but the deep, intentional engagement with death and grief and sorrow never feels normal. It always takes a chunk out of you.
I should say, I don’t think this is something exclusive to clergy: Our interactions with death take a chunk out of all of us regardless of our occupation, our faith tradition, our culture, or any other factor. We all know death will reckon with us whether we reckon with death or not. Every glimpse into that reality has an effect.
Earlier this week, I looked dozens of people in the eyes and told them they were going to die. And nobody got mad at me for it. Some of them even said Amen. It’s a day in the life of the church we call Ash Wednesday. It marks the beginning of Lent – a Christian season of fasting and penitence that leads up to Easter. The whole focus of the day is our mortality, and we spend our time together reflecting on the part death plays in our understanding of life.
Halfway through the service, people come forward and kneel at the altar rail. This is the place where we usually give them communion – that spiritual food and drink that connects them to their eternal life with God. But on this strange day, as they kneel at that same rail, I dip my thumb into a little jar and coat it with ashes, then smudge those ashes in the sign of a cross in the middle of their foreheads. While I do it, I say directly to them, “Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return.” I do it over and over again. I get good at it – good at getting the right amount of ash on my thumb, on not getting ash all over my vestments, on saying the words as if I mean them, on making eye contact with those who want it. It becomes automatic. But one thing I am realizing each year I do this: It is not getting easier.
Every year I find it gets harder and harder to tell them. Not because I’m lying to them – I'm not. I’m telling them the truth. They are going to die. Not because I’m losing my faith: I believe in eternal life. I believe that each of us in the frailty of our flesh will die and then will be raised up again and live with God forever. But still, it gets harder.
Way back in the year 2010, a group of videos called “It Gets Better” went viral. These videos were created for LGBTQ+ youth, with the purpose of encouraging them. Various people, some celebrities, shared their own stories of growing up LGBTQ+, of the struggles therein, of their acceptance of themselves, and of the beautiful lives they had built. Each video ended with them reassuring their audience, “It gets better.” In other words, hold on, stay with us, love yourself, find a way forward. It will not always be impossible. It gets better.
In the parlance of our times, I’m a straight White guy. A cishet. So, I knew I was not the target audience for “It Gets Better”. But I loved these videos. And I, a person who cries often, cried consistently through each. I watched them all, and I cried and felt like my heart was broken down and put back together. And, as I was watching, I remember thinking, “I hope it does get better. I hope that’s true.” Because looking around this world, it certainly doesn’t seem like it gets any easier to be LGBTQ+, regardless of your age.
And then I think of the faces I saw on Ash Wednesday, the eyes that looked into mine, the foreheads I marked with the dark ash of the burned palm leaves, the ears that heard the words, “Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return,” the tears that were shed, the hearts that knew it was true, and in that moment I think I understand. It doesn’t get easier. But it gets better.
Now, I don’t want to cheaply co-opt that phrase from a movement that doesn’t belong to me. I think I just want to say I finally understand the truth of it in my own little way: Getting better does not mean getting easier, and vice versa.
The longer I live, the more deeply I love.
I told these people they’re going to die, and I love them. I love them more this year than last year, and they’re closer to death this year than they were last year. My old boss Rob, that’s what he was getting at. We keep loving these people, and in fact we love them more and more – and not just the ones we know better each year. Somehow, we even love the people who are new to our lives more deeply than we could have a few years ago. We believe in eternity, and also, we know death more and more. And it takes its chunk.
But it’s worth it.
Loving people makes nothing easier and everything better.
It’s worth it. It’s worth it to love. My God, in the face of death, maybe it’s the only thing worth doing.
Between services, I shuffled over to my kids’ school to pick them up. As we walked back to the car, my almost-six-year-old asked me why there was church on a Wednesday. And I told him about Ash Wednesday. And when he asked for more details, I told him that it was a day we reminded people they were going to die. First, he was flabbergasted, and then almost immediately indignant. This was a scandal. “Why would you tell them they’re going to die?”
“Well, because It's true,” I said, “and we all try to hide from it, or ignore it, or pretend it’s not true.” Imagine being a priest’s son. Poor kid. But he’s used to me, and he wasn’t having it. He didn’t buy it one bit. “You just tell them they’re going to die, even though they don’t want to hear it?” Yes, I said, and he was done talking to me. He’d had enough.
Later that night, I was sitting back against the wall at the foot of his bed as he drifted off to sleep. We’d said our prayers and I’d put on the same bedtime music I put on every night. Automatic. I was absent-mindedly squeezing one of his feet while looking at my phone. Two different people I love very much had texted me that evening, each with some of their own bits of sad news. My son was quiet now and had mostly stopped shuffling. And then I heard him: “Dad?”
“Did you really tell people they were going to die even though they’re trying to hide from it?”
I smiled to myself at the words he’d remembered. “Yeah, I did.”
He wasn’t upset this time, just curious when he asked again, “Why?”
And I’d like to tell you about my lovely, wise response and how I’m raising this boy right. But I have no memory of what I said. None. I was so tired. All that death and love and work and friendship and family all in one day. Whatever my response was, it was good enough for now. Or maybe he was too tired too and didn’t feel like pressing the issue. I could hear his breath get deeper and slower as his body stilled into sleep. And my love swelled for this magnificent boy who never gets easier but keeps getting better.
Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return.
Tags: Rector's Blog