Well here we are, finally, at the end of June. It’s strawberry season in these parts. So I want to start with a strawberry story. But it starts out pretty bad:
A holy man is being chased by a tiger. He runs as fast as he can, but the tiger is hot on his heels. Ahead of him is a cliff, with a vine hanging down over the edge. He grasps the vine and begins to clamber down the face of the mountain, when down below …
He spots another tiger prowling on a ledge beneath him. A tiger above and a tiger below, he hangs there, clinging to the vine. Then, he notices …
Two little mice have scampered up and begun gnawing at the vine that is supporting him. He can’t seem to catch a break! It’s just getting worse! The writing is on the wall.
At that desperate moment, he sees right before him …
A ripe, red, wild strawberry, growing on the side of the mountain. He plucks and sinks his teeth into it—how sweet it tastes! (1)
In times of loss and grief, it often feels like all is lost. It feels like the disappointments only mount, and despair hounds relentlessly at the edges of our existence. It’s not just one tiger chasing you, there’s another one waiting for you ahead. And then the one thing you are hanging on to begins to disintegrate before your very eyes!
Planning for this funeral service has felt a little like this story, too. Shortly after Bill died several months ago now, we planned to have his celebration of life just after Easter, appropriately, when we hoped the pandemic wouldn’t be a factor keeping us from gathering. But it was! So, we postponed it to this day, months later, hoping this time of year would give others the opportunity to join us.
There are nuggets of wisdom and truth embedded in the strawberry story. And in the story of the raising of Lazarus, which you chose to accompany our reflection on this day when we celebrate the gift of life in your beloved Bill.
The story of Lazarus starts out pretty badly. It is a story mired in death and grief and failed expectations. Did you notice the extent to which the Gospel writer includes details about death and grief: Lazarus’ dear friend Jesus being “deeply disturbed in spirit and deeply moved” to the point of weeping. The smell of death, the “stench because [Lazarus] had been dead four days.” And Martha’s disappointment that it took so long for Jesus to get there. And, finally, the dead man coming out of the tomb, “his hands and feet bound with strips of cloth and his face wrapped in a cloth.” (2)
Death, and loss, and its sordid details feature prominently in a story about new life. Will someone notice the sweet, ripe, red, wild strawberry hanging on the side of a cliff? We don’t know what happened to the holy man eating that strawberry. We can guess, very likely he met his end. Just like with Lazarus. Even though Jesus raised him to live a few more years on earth, he still eventually died. Death comes to all of us.
What is more the question, especially for people of faith, is how we live and how we respond to the gifts of life given to us, however small, however unexpected and contrary to anyone’s expectations.
Indeed, we go where we are looking. We go in our hearts and minds and souls, where we set our sights. We veer in the direction of where we choose, intentionally, to look.
We can focus on the death part incessantly and all that’s disappointing and wrong in the world, and live the emotional consequences of that strategy for life. Or, without denying the challenges—the holy man still tried to get away from the tigers chasing him; he didn’t just give up—we can choose to see the life, the good, the gift, amidst all the turmoil. And that strategy will set us free from all that binds us.
One of Bill’s occupations was as a surveyor for the Ministry of Transportation in Ontario. Bill laid out most of the main highways on Manitoulin Island and also major highways in Timmins and Sudbury.
Now, to do this job especially on major highways you have to develop a certain kind of vision so that the turns can be navigated safely by drivers and the bends are not too sharp.
When I drive on major highways I need to keep my eyes far down the road in order to make the turns smoothly and stay in my lane. But I will sometimes get distracted. Something will catch my eye on the side of the road, or in the fields by the highway. And I will catch myself, thankfully, in time to avoid an accident. I will have noticed with alarm how the car started veering perilously in the direction of my gaze. I have to work at keeping my attention on the road.
It takes work, intention and yes discipline to see with the heart what is often right in front of us—a grace and gift from God that is good. And maybe that is what we are all called to practice in these challenging days.(3)
Jesus orders those attending by Lazarus’ grave side to “unbind him, and let him go.” In life as in death, we are called to “unbind, and let go.” This takes work and sometimes we catch ourselves running in every direction.
I sense, nevertheless, without having known Bill personally before his stroke, that he was one who didn’t give up when obstacles arose. In raising a family, in choosing his career, he saw the sweet, ripe, red, wild strawberry right before him. In choosing you […] to be his wife for over fifty years of marriage, he chose life and love.
And today God has chosen for Bill, life. Life eternal. God is the source of life, and all things good. We call this funeral service a celebration of life!
For us who as yet walk by faith, let us notice the moments of life right here and now: The beautiful weather that greeted us this day, the music and the singing, and the food which we will enjoy together following the service.
Let us acknowledge the joy and gratitude of those who are present with us to support you, dear family. These relationships are precious.
Even though obstacles creep up all the time, and it feels like all may be lost, there is always the surprise of finding a sweet, ripe, red, wild strawberry growing on the edge of the cliff. Would we see it? And enjoy the gift?
(1) Adapted from Ram Dass, “Conscious Living, Conscious Dying” in Polishing the Mirror: How to Live From your Spiritual Heart (Boulder Colorado: Sounds True Inc., 2014), p.91
(2) John 11:33-44
(3) Psalm 121