Although I love to write, the sermons I post here on my blog are meant to be heard. So instead of posting the text for my most recent sermon, I decided to share the podcast. You can hear me preaching my Ash Wednesday sermon by following this link. The sermon is called “Choose Life” and it is based upon Deuteronomy 30:15-20.
Do all funeral directors believe death takes precedence over life? Or just the ones I have to work with? I got “the call” from our local funeral director informing me that there had been a death in our community. The family (whom I did not know and do not serve as pastor) had requested that I do the service…that Saturday at 2:00pm. I was not available that Saturday at 2:00pm. When I told the funeral director this, he balked. Clearly I was not here “to serve the people” like he was. Clearly I did not understand that it was my duty as a pastor to drop everything in my life to serve the dead.
His attempt to shame me was infuriating. After I hung up the phone, the conversation clung to me like a wet spider web. I couldn’t get rid of his voice in my head, the words he used against me, and the anger roiling my insides. I hopped hyperactively around our house, unable to focus on my work and the looming deadline of my next writing project. This man had powerfully leapt into my day and threatened to monopolize my mind if I didn’t do something quick.
So I took the funeral director to the mat and meditated with my suffering. I breathed in, feeling my lungs expand, and breathed out, feeling my lungs contract. My shoulders rose and fell. My anger burned in my chest like a hot piece of coal as I sat for ten minutes, feeling the burn. In doing so, the funeral director’s hold on me began to break into tiny little pieces. When I finished, he wasn’t entirely gone, but my anger was diffused and I was able to get back to my work.
Typically, when I get this hot, I pass my emotions on to my husband in an angry, spiteful rant. My husband loves me so he receives my rant and oftentimes shoulders my anger in solidarity. This, I realize, isn’t particularly fair to my husband. Why should he bear the anger I can’t rid myself of? Also, sharing my anger with my husband just seems to make it grow and expand in the universe. We don’t need any more anger in the world. So before I rant or vent or allow any emotion to distract me from the present moment, I’m going to try to take it to the mat. I’m going to practice sitting with my suffering.
“As a father has compassion for his children, so the Lord has compassion for those who fear him. For he knows how we were made; he remembers that we are dust.” Psalm 103:13-14
Two years ago we received the tragic news that a young alum, Andrew Kuebrich, had been killed in an accident while bicycling the coast of Taiwan. It always hits hard when someone young dies so tragically—mostly because it doesn’t make any sense. Andrew graduated before I came to Monmouth, so I didn’t know him. But after his death, story after story emerged about how encouraging he was of others, how contagious his energy, humor and optimism were, how his kindness touched many. I learned how Andrew had taped a square box on the floor of his dorm room, named it the dance box, and required anyone who stepped in it to dance their stress away. I learned how important the Relay for Life charity event was to him because both his grandmothers had died of cancer.
During one of these events, Andrew raised money for his charity by running 45 miles—in one night! Andrew spent his college summers working with disabled children. He participated in alternative spring break trips building homes for Habitat for Humanity. He traveled to Taiwan after graduation to teach English to Taiwanese children and discover the world. A picture surfaced of Andrew crowd-surfing on the hands of a mob of celebratory college students. I don’t know what they were celebrating, but it certainly seemed like Andrew Kuebrich was a big part of it. He was known here as the Chief of Good Times.
I imagine you know someone like Andrew, someone full of life and charisma and joy. These are the kind of people you imagine living forever—people who are absolutely unstoppable—invincible. Never in our wildest dreams would we believe a young man so full of life could die at 24.
But human life is fragile—a fact we don’t often consider. A parent knows, though. Moms and Dads learn this when their babies are born. Our advances in medicine and technology lead us to believe a healthy birth is a sure thing…until complications arise…. the baby’s heart rate drops unexpectedly, or the chord wraps around her neck…the nurses grow tense, ring the doctor on call, and the parent gets the impression that these risks are par for the course for those who work in labor and delivery. Babies are tiny, fragile, vulnerable little people.
Parents know this as their babies grow, too. I remember negotiating with my parents over a spring break trip to Florida that I really wanted to take with my college roommate. It was our senior year and we planned to drive the whole trip by ourselves, from Michigan to Ft. Lauderdale, without stopping. My parents didn’t want me to go. They asked a lot of questions. To which I responded, “Mom, Dad, why are you so worried? I’m 21! I’m an adult!” As if that meant that nothing at all bad could happen.
Now that I am a parent, though, I know why they were concerned. They were worried because they remember the day I was born. And they remember the day they lost track of me in that giant department store. And the day I fell on the skating rink, cutting my chin open. And they remembered that boy (or those boys) who broke my heart leaving me a sobbing, mush of a mess. They knew (better than I) how tiny, and fragile, and vulnerable I am.
Today, God, too, speaks to us from the parent’s perspective. “As a father has compassion for his children,” Psalm 103 reads, “so the Lord has compassion for those who fear him.” “God knows how we were made,” the scripture says. God knows because God was there. From the moment of your birth, God was there. And because God was there at our beginning, God remembers that we are dust. We were created out of the dust of the earth and one day to dust we shall return. In other words, to God we are tiny, fragile, vulnerable little creatures.
The stark honesty of Ash Wednesday’s message—that we can so quickly return to ash—always makes me stop to consider how I have been living my life. This year the word “reckless” comes to my mind. Not that I’ve been bungee jumping, or sky diving, or drag racing through the streets of Monmouth. But reckless in the sense of not paying attention to my life. My life is often such a blur—one long frenetic streak of activity from the moment I wake up at 6:00am to the moment I crash, exhausted, in bed at 10:00pm. If it were not for all my smartly synced calendars, I wouldn’t even know what day it is.
I feel reckless living this way because I, of all people, should remember how close we live to the edge of death. I’ve been around death as a pastor. I’ve stood at the bedside of those who were taking their final, shallow breaths. I’ve laid my hands on cool foreheads to bless those who have just slipped away. I’ve stood in the circle of family members, the holy ground of love, as they said their final goodbyes. Why, then, in light of these experiences and this knowledge, why do I not pay more attention to life? Why do I allow myself to become so frenzied and frantic? Why do I not hug my children more and whisper words that matter to the husband I love dearly? Why don’t I stop more to listen to my own breath and be grateful for the beating of my own heart? Why don’t I, Teri McDowell Ott, remember that I am dust and to dust I shall return?
In the midst of writing this sermon and thinking these thoughts, the voice of Jill Kuebrich, Andrew’s mother, found its way to me. Jill read a sermon of mine on my blog after Andrew’s death and we wrote each other briefly about Andrew and his life, and the impact he had on others. Jill directed me to a blog she had started, a place where she could remember her son and write about her grief. I found myself reading it again this week.
I was moved in particular by a post she wrote for another grieving mother. To this mother Jill writes:
“When you asked me at your son’s wake if it gets easier I truthfully and tearfully told you NO! I regret not lying to you to give you some comfort. You will never miss him less and when you think of what has happened it will be like a sock to the gut every time. But you will see signs of your son everywhere! Take each one and let it put a smile on your face. Try not to let what has happened define and ruin your life. The best tribute I think we can give our sons is to live and love more fully than ever before led by their example!”
Jill’s words resonate with me as a mother of an extraordinary son, and as a child of God trying to make sense of tragedy and the fragility of human life. Jill’s words to me this week felt like the Psalmist’s words. As I read I felt as if she were smearing my forehead with ash….waking me up to the gift that is my life.
After Andrew’s death, Jill and her husband, Matt, discovered a journal he had written full of writings and containing a list of 152 things he wanted to accomplish in his life. He started this list by writing, “Ever since I was a little boy I would always hear older people say I wish I would have. They were looking back and wishing they had the courage to follow through with their dreams. NOT ME. I am creating a list. This is not a bucket list,” Andrew wrote, “this is a TO DO list. This is not a wish I would have done it list. This is a I DID IT list and it was amazing. The main reason I am creating this list is because I feel like most people wander aimlessly through life like a zombie, never breaking through and experiencing life.”
Some of the “To-Do’s” on Andrew’s list included:
- Make a million dollars just to give it away
- Milk a cow
- Make a huge difference in at least three people’s lives
- Read the entire Bible
- See Professor McMillan’s sheep
- Mow the lawn in cut offs
“I am Andrew Kuebrich,” he concluded, “and this is my journey…”
Do you believe life is a choice? It doesn’t feel like a choice. Life feels more like something that just happens—something you can’t control. Life propels you forward and you just swim along, doing the very best you can. Then sometimes life is too much—too hard. Someone close to you asks, “What’s wrong?” and you can’t tell them—because it’s nothing and everything—and because you don’t know. All you know is that life is too much and you can’t deal with it. You just want to make a little nest for yourself and crawl in, lie down, and go to sleep for a day, or a week, or a month. But you can’t, because you have kids and responsibilities—because life just keeps pushing you forward.
Kathleen Norris, the poet and memoirist, writes that this state of lethargy, or weariness of life, is what the desert monks might have called, “acedia” (a word that can be translated as “indifference”) and in the Middle Ages it was considered sloth, but these days is most often named, “depression.” Kathleen Norris knows this state herself. She writes, “I had thought that I was merely tired and in need of rest at year’s end, but it drags on, becoming the death-in-life that I know all too well, when my capacity for joy shrivels up and, like drought-stricken grass, I die down to the roots to wait it out. The simplest acts demand a herculean effort, the pleasure I normally take in people and the world itself is lost to me. I can be with people I love, and know that I love them, but feel nothing at all. I am observing my life more than living it.”
Norris’ words resonated with me because I’ve suffered from depression off and on my whole life. If I don’t take care of myself, especially during times of extreme stress, it can get pretty bad. For a long time, I thought I was alone on this island of depression. But I’ve become increasingly aware of how prevalent “acedia” has become in our society. I counsel college students suffering from it all the time. Sometimes their depression is situational—they are extremely stressed about their classes or their future and the stress just takes them down. Other times the depression comes as if out of thin air. It’s something chemical—an imbalance that they may have inherited—and for which they need to get some help. I’ve known farmers who suffer with it, affected by the winter’s lack of light, prompted by the stress of trying to predict Mother Nature’s whims, or just trying to survive their general daily grind. Older adults know it too, those who are alone for a majority of their day with little to occupy their minds and their time.
So, in our text for today, when I read of God laying out a buffet of choices for the Israelites who are about to enter the Promised Land saying to them, “I have set before you today life and death, blessings and curses” and then implores them to choose life—I wasn’t sure I quite understood (or agreed). Is life a choice? Certainly we have the power to choose death over life because we have the power to end our own lives and the lives of others (through acts of violence.) On the other hand, though, life can be a form of death, we can be alive physically, but dead spiritually, emotionally, psychologically—the depressed person knows this well. And this state of death-in-life isn’t always a choice. Sometimes it just happens.
But I do understand why God would implore God’s people to choose life, because the temptations to escape to a state of death are everywhere. Philip Seymour Hoffman’s death led a group of us at the college into an interesting conversation about addiction and temptation. Hoffman apparently died because of an addiction to heroin—which, I learned in this conversation, is a drug that offers a high like no other. Heroin is one of the most addictive drugs because its effects are so euphoric. As I sat there listening to heroin’s euphoric high described, I remember thinking—wow, that does sound pretty good. To just escape life for a little while—go on a little euphoric trip and leave all your worries and responsibilities behind. Of course I never would do heroin because it is clearly a choice of death. But I might sit down with a glass of wine to melt my worries away…or hit the mall for a little retail therapy….or (as I found myself doing last week) raid the refrigerator way too late, dipping spoonfuls of frozen yogurt into a container of vanilla frosting and then slapping it on a cookie to eat. These temptations don’t rival the evil of heroin, but they could still lead me to a physical, spiritual, emotional state of death if I excessively indulged…and kept indulging. The temptation to escape life is huge—especially when you are tired, or stressed, or—depressed.
And I imagine God knows this—which is why this scripture feels more like an imperative than a statement. “Choose life” God implores, “so that you and your descendants may live.” There’s passion in these words. There’s love in these words. There’s almost a sense of desperation in these words because God knows that life can be hard and that the temptations to escape life are so strong.
I come to understand God’s sentiment even better when I started to think about these words from the perspective of a parent. I wouldn’t say these words to myself so much….I wouldn’t implore myself to choose life over death (especially if I was feeling depressed) but I certainly would my child. I can picture my children, Isaac and Ella, going through life, encountering its hardships, struggling with defeat and stress, even tragedy. And I can see the temptations to escape looming around them. Perhaps they will be tempted by drugs or alcohol or wild nights out. Perhaps they will be tempted to overindulge, to drown their sorrows in Happy Meals and chocolate milk shakes. Perhaps they will turn away from God and the church and from the community that cares for them in search of something else.
The parent knows the value of her child’s life because the parent knows how much that child is loved. The one who created you, labored over you, and bore you into this world knows how much you are loved and knows how valuable your life is.
And as my own children face all this I imagine myself saying to them, with the same passion and the same authority as the God who made all of us, Choose life, Isaac and Ella. Choose life over all that is dark, and death-like, and tempting. Choose life, Isaac and Ella, because you are extraordinary and you are valuable and your life is a gift—even when it is hard. So don’t give up. Always push on. Choose life.
 Kathleen Norris, The Cloister Walk, pg. 130-131.
My husband was the first to disturb Her. He loped around the house, snored in great huffs at night, captured me in conversation at the dinner table. As my marriage unfolded, She sulked in the corner of my life, moody and listless, still catching snatches of time over a morning cup of coffee or after he had gone to bed. She and I used to dance all the time, bodies pressed together in ecstasy, the feel of her made my mind explode with ideas, dreams, fantasy places. I could go anywhere in her hush.
When my first child was pulled, wet and bloody, from the womb She looked on in horror. After the mucus was sucked from his mouth and nose he screamed and She walked out. I’d look for her, late at night, as I woke every few hours to put the baby to my breast. I’d listen for her in the wind of the trees as my husband and I pushed the stroller around the cul-de-sac. But the reality of my life kept her away.
My second child stayed in my womb as long as she could, refusing to come (as she still does) when the doctor called. Perhaps she sensed the noise of my life and preferred to dance with her Quiet in the security of my womb. So they put me to sleep, a mask over my nose and mouth, a needle in my spine, and I drifted away. I dreamed I was with Quiet again, sitting on the porch as the sun went down, watching the sky turn orange, blush rose, blue, and then black. We snacked on almond slivers, the crunch between my teeth the only sound breaking our reverie. Slipping between the cool sheets of the bed, my legs kick out wide, glorifying in the freedom of all that space.
When I awoke, another mouth to feed lay swaddled in her crib beside my bed. I leaned forward to catch a glimpse of baby girl, my stomach shrieking in protest. Her eyes bobbed beneath her closed eyelids and the tiny holes in her nose widened with each breath. She sucked on her lower lip as if chewing on a good dream. I imagined she was dreaming of the Quiet she knew once too. Filled with new love I whispered over her head, “Don’t worry, baby girl, you’ll find Her again one day.”
I lay back down to contemplate the noise of my now-crowded life. I couldn’t ask for more, yet I wanted less. I was fully alive, yet dead tired.
I would learn to dance with the riches of my new life. I would come to treasure the cacophony of giggles that filled my house. I would never live in regret. But Quiet is my home, my peace, my muse. I shall stalk Her like a madman. I shall pursue Her like the one lost sheep. I shall fret over Her like the mother whose baby has wandered away. And I will find Her…as we all do…in the end.