To remember and honor: Grandmother Casey

Ruth Edwards Casey, b. 7/14/1914, Denmark, AR

Grandmother Casey would have been 104 today.  The picture above was probably taken in Texas, perhaps when she was in her late 60s.  She was the last of my grandparents to live on this earth, and she was an unassuming, industrious, unselfish, worthy woman.  My grandparents’ house, also unassuming, was on Market Street in Searcy, just across from the sidewalk that split the student center and the American Heritage Building.  The house no longer exists, but memories do.

Two cars could park parallel to the street in front of the house.  I remember four cars my grandparents The 1963 Chevrolet Impala Sport Coupe had crisp and angular styling.owned from my early childhood through my 30s:  a ’53 Chevy that my grandfather drove to work in Judsonia, a white Chevy sedan that looked much like the one here; and two green Plymouth Furys from the 70s.  I drove one of those Furys myself, and I can remember how it sounded when it started.

There was a tiny storage barn “out yonder” on the north end of the property.  (I think it had once housed chickens.)  The large front porch featured a hanging bench swing.  I remember the unheated, fully enclosed “back porch” where one could always find aged 2-liter bottles of Dr. Pepper and Coke, old newspapers, a washer and dryer, and cleaning products.  A door went through to the 2nd bedroom, but that door was almost never opened.  Back in the back room (also unheated, and reached only through the 2nd bedroom), there was an 8-track player with two cassettes that Grandmother had won in a radio call-in contest.  I remember a box full of simple toys—for example, a nonfunctional camera and some empty, plastic, Avon bottles—that Grandmother or Granddaddy would get out when the grandkids came home for Christmas.  Grandmother would giggle and sometime even cackle.

Arkansas could be awfully hot, and there were two window air conditioners.  It could also get deceptively cold in winter, and Grandmother would stand near the “fire” (a large, vented gas heater in the corner of the living room) with her hands behind her, warming herself.  I remember her kitchen—dwarfed by a table that could seat eight if it had to—and the lack of counter space that she somehow worked with anyway.  She had a wooden stool with fold-out steps, and I would sometimes find her up on it, reaching for something in an upper cabinet.  We went out once a month or so to eat at Wendy’s or Pizza Inn.  She never had much money, but she had a few good friends; Laverne and Lavelle stand out in particular, but people all over who knew her had kind words for her.  She picked strawberries every spring with Laverne during the time I was aware of it.  She had younger friends, too—for instance, Patti, our family’s good friend from Delaware, attended Harding and was at Grandmother’s house regularly.  Patti has spoken glowingly of Grandmother to me, indicating how she “loved Ruth Casey.”  Marcella from next door considered her a friend, too.  The Latham sisters’ storm cellar, three doors down, was a haven during a tornado warning a time or two.

I had the benefit of Grandmother’s cooking on a daily basis during my 3.5 years as an undergraduate at Harding University.  She would serve lunch according to my chorus rehearsal schedule (11:45-12:35 one year, 1:00-1:50 the next, then back to 11:45).  Dinner came after band rehearsal, around 5:45.  I don’t think she left me without a meal once, although I barely took enough time to thank her.  (Yes, I gained weight during college!)  Grandmother once scolded me a little for not wanting her to spend time ironing my shirts.  She liked serving others and would sometimes also welcome my friends to her table–Kandy, Allen, Glenn, Jim, and Debbi, for instance.

Grandmother was a homemaker most of her life but had worked outside the home briefly.  She took up the piano in her late 50s or early 60s, acquiring a cast-off upright from the college.  That piano was in its only possible place in that house–the 8×8 hall with five doors, leading to bedrooms, the bathroom, the living room, and the front porch.  (The door to the porch was never opened after the piano was moved in.)

I sometimes left notes on the telephone table across from the piano, and I addressed them to “GMC,” but I called her “Grandmother.”  That might sound formal or distant if you called yours “Grandma” or “Nana,” but that doesn’t mean my grandmother herself was distant in any sense.  She was comfortable to be around, and I always liked being in her house.  My sisters also had the benefit of living with her for a year or two during college, and they then called her “Gram.”  These days, if she were around, and in view of one of my own developing interests, I might call her “Gramma(r).” ¹

Compared to my other grandmother, Grandmother Casey was less educated, more nurturing, and non-judgmental.  She attended the College Church pretty much every time the doors were open, sitting near the back, often with a friend.  She had only two Bibles:  a KJV and a Living Bible.  She read them at home but didn’t talk much about anything deep.  I’d say she was shy but was also a true believer.  On a few occasions, I tried to engage her about spiritual things, and she responded with faith, concern, and not too many words.

After Grandmother died in 1992, my uncle uncovered her checkbook and showed it to my dad.  She had done the math meticulously and apparently often was down around $1.00 before the next Social Security check came.  There was always room in her house and at her table for another, though.  I wish my son could have known her,² but she was gone nearly two decades before he was born.  Grandmother Casey was a good lady.  I miss you, Grandmother, and I wish you had met Karly and Jedd.


¹ Here is a short list of gramma(r) issues I’ve heard just in the past week or so, from three different people:

  • I need it broke down.
  • It was already ran.
  • I seen him.

My grandmother had fine grammar, especially for an uneducated woman.  I just felt like including the above.  🙂

² Jedd has what I consider a skewed sense of extended family, for two reasons.  (1) the generations are very spread apart, so more grands and greats have died, and (2), to say the least, there are some very unbecoming, non-familial people on both sides of our family.  I am thankful that Jedd knows well his great-grandmother Clara and a great aunt Marie on Karly’s side, and he knew/knows both of my parents.  A couple years ago, he had met a great-grandfather, John, and he’s been a round a few others.

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To edit and harmonize (opportunity for musicians)

If the publishers had only asked, I would have edited and re-harmonized this song for them in the children’s theater script!  First off, I would have researched whether the “Mexican polka” idiom is real.  Perhaps there is a better description.  Next, I would like to have known about the Spanish grammar in measures 1-2.  In context, it means “very clever/cunning, very devilish,” but, Spanish-speaking friends, isn’t “diablo” a noun, not an adjective?  Maybe this would be an idiomatic or slang expression?   Now to the stuff I know more about:

  • In the last line, “yip” is probably better as a staccato eighth than as a dotted quarter.  It’s impossible to sustain the “p” consonant, and a sustained vowel (“yiiiiiiip”) sounds dumb.  Practically speaking, a shorter notation would make the interpretation of those notes unmistakably clear to a less-than-confident, neophyte director.
  • I think I would have started it with a D (IV) chord through the whole first measure.  If so, maybe an Amaj7 in measure 2?  Better yet, how about this for the first 4 measures:

|  D ///  |  C#min ///  |   Bmin7 / E9 /  |  A /// |

  • Anyone for an F# minor (vi) chord in m. 6?  That would have helped to make it more of a real progression in measures 5 through 8 (whether or not one uses a secondary dominant in m. 7). One has to try things sometimes, and it looks like this tune benefited from precisely zero read-throughs before it was published.
  • Now, can you spot two outright errors (melody/harmony mismatches) in the last half of the song?

In the play, the college-student helper who played guitar did a great job, adjusting her rhythm to match the kids on stage, and her guitar stylings sounded pretty authentic to me.  Our son Jedd also did well as Puerco the porcupine.  He had quite a few lines at the beginning and the end, serving as the Master of Ceremonies at an animals’ fiesta.  And my TAMUK friends will be happy to know he pronounced “Armadillo” authentically!

You’ve got this (they say)

Image result for catching fly ballIn baseball, when there’s a fly ball near two players, one is supposed to call, “I’ve got it!” (if in fact he is sure he can catch it in the air).  If he turns up with the ball in his glove, well, then he did in fact get it.  The results are pretty clear.

In various life situations, it’s fashionable to assert “I’ve got this.”  Alternately, friends who wish to be supportive will sometimes say to someone facing an obstacle, “You’ve got this.”  The “___ got this” sometimes turns out to have been an overstatement at best.  I think immediately of two situations in which the result could be called into question.

  • A woman confidently asserted, “I’ve got this” and did in fact make a great stride, but it is only a temporary, limited victory.  Did she “have this”?  Time will tell, but I doubt it.
  • A dad encouraged his young son the pitcher with “You’ve got this!” but turned out to be incorrect.  More batters walked, the pitching form deteriorated further, the umpiring didn’t really help, and the game was lost.

I’ve begun to look the other way in sympathetic embarrassment, not wanting people who say “I’ve got this” or “you’ve got this” to be proven wrong.  When someone says one of those things, the reality of the result isn’t always as clear as with a fly ball to the outfield, but the situation can usually be sized up at some point.  I start to think “You’ve got this” is little more than an empty phrase.

In Christian circles, some are fond of saying, “God’s got this.”  As for me, I wonder how they Image result for God's got thiscan be so confident.  A Google image search brings up a whole caboodle of e-designs, most of which were probably originally on church signs or PowerPoint sermon slides, e.g., the one shown here.  I suppose God Himself could utter this pop-culture saying, and He would always be correct.  I mean, if He actually were to proclaim, “I’ve got this,” well, then, He does.  (Would He say “I got this” instead of “I’ve got this” in order to communicate well with English speakers who don’t use good grammar?  Maybe so.)

In one sense, it is an expression of faith to assert that God’s “got” something, but I still wonder how the reality, or lack of it, is ascertained in some situations.  Honestly, the saying sometimes seems more like shallow, nearsighted, human overconfidence than faith.

Fly balls may fall to the ground; pitching and personal business may go out of control.  Those are normal-life things, some of which we can control,¹ to an extent.  You or I might claim “I’ve got this” with limited implications.  The “God’s got this” thing, though, goes directly to the eye of faith:  how far, and how well, can I see?  And I’ll go further, out on a limb:  how can a “got-this” God who exists out of time be seen by those who are bound within time?

On this point, please take a few minutes to hear and ponder the late Rich Mullins’s words, from his song “Hard To Get” (YouTube link here).  I resonate with one of Mullins’s poignant prayer-thoughts:

You who live in radiance,
Hear the prayers of those of us who live in skin.


¹ Some would say that any sense of human control over events in our physical lives is an illusion.  I disagree.

To serve and contribute

Some time ago, I worked for a specified time time in a difficult role.  I worked hard, and I worked well.  I felt appreciated by subordinates and was commended by colleagues for my service.  However, I learned recently that my former supervisor spoke of me in a less-than-complimentary way, and I felt blindsided.

I notice that it is getting more and more difficult to spin things positively.  Mistreatment breeds insecurity, distrust, and disillusionment.  These can in turn lead to rash statements (of which I have been guilty).

I’ve had more than one difficult boss in my life.  (My current boss is just fine, and he seems to appreciate what I try to do, I hasten to point out!)  But not everyone has been like that.  One previous boss was embarrassing to be around at times.  He was called “a bull in a china shop” by a colleague.  Another one was called a “dud” by his boss.  Another looked like (and acted a bit like) Boris Yeltsin.  Yet another boss was a flash in the pan, coming on like gangbusters with unwise, early decisions and moving on pretty quickly.  That one seemed deliberately to mislead me on one occasion by diverting attention to a personal connection (instead of dealing with time-sensitive substance) for nearly an hour.  I’ve had a few benign bosses, and a few very good ones.  But one boss had done what he could to undercut his predecessor, forcing him out; then the guy promptly undercut the good I had been doing (which had been documented and strongly approved by said predecessor).  Aside from the boss element, more than one position I’ve held has turned out to be something other than what it was cracked up to be.  In one situation long past, it was my immaturity and a philosophical misfit that led to my decision to move on quickly.  In two others, I was treated dishonorably and even unethically.  I feel at this point that I have had more than my share of difficult situations.

I should also acknowledge that I have not always been the easiest employee for my bosses.  I’m relatively task-oriented but can become distracted and discouraged when barriers arise, one after another.  I’m communicative, honest, and helpful, but my manner of communication can be problematic for people who are less complex.  I’m creative, and a natural analyzer/challenger of the status quo, but also a proofreader—which is patently annoying to some people who don’t pay attention to those kinds of details.  Some of these qualities, while they are strengths, can also make me difficult to “manage.”  (Fortunately, I neither need nor want managing most of the time!)  I have made unwise decisions, and I have spoken too quickly on occasion, but I have never been unethical or misrepresented facts to hurt someone else, whereas those things have been perpetrated on me.  Thinking back . . . and I do think and remember too much of the past . . . I have an increasingly difficult time believing in people, processes, and institutions.  It can be hard for me to maintain a positive outlook.  Basically, in my better moments at the outset of a new endeavor, I see the good and am enthused over the potential, but when downturns occur, I can become cynical because of past experiences.

New opportunities
I think I’ve been a positive contributor to a startup arts school’s board during the last year or so, but my role is so far limited, and that school will be 60 miles away.  Now comes the opportunity also to serve in a nearby public school organization.  I would get nothing for this other than some potential fulfillment as I try to help the cause.  Can I ultimately be a positive contributor?  My answers to two application questions about this role led to some reflection, and it was not easy to probe certain situations mentally.  For the time being, here are two sentences through which I hope I presented myself and my potential contribution both honestly and in an upbeat manner:

“I would rather listen, share collaboratively, and attempt to bring collective wisdom to bear along with others than simply to wonder or listen to gossip.”  (I intended the “gossip” reference to speak to certain newspaper articles and a destructive, gossipy Facebook group that has made the school’s work more difficult.)

“I am honest and sincere to a fault, often governed by principle.  I am usually able to see various “shades of gray,” and I can intuit fairly well, but I am also rational.”

 

What do you think of those statements?  If you were forming a team of people to help a public school, would that sound terrific, or would any of it give you concern?

Christian groups
May I just say that it’s also difficult, given the paths I’ve traversed with churches and other Christian groups, to consider and speak of those possibilities in a positive light.  I have seen a bit too much and have become  disillusioned after successive experiences.  So many churches are little more than religion clubs, and Sundays can be humdrum at best.  Where are the believing analyzers, the dedicated disciples-in-training, the challengers and reformers with whom I could partner?  I don’t have much patience with the antics of ritual, but I do want to be in the midst of thoughtful, organic/simple approaches to Christian gatherings, earnest efforts to engage with scripture texts, and honest moves to honor God in word, thought, and deed.

General/civic engagement
I retain a longing to contribute to good things of various types, even if I’m not fully “on board.”  Last Sunday morning, I did something that I put in this category (although you might just as well place it in the above section).  On the previous two days, I did something else to help another group.  I don’t actually do very much at this point, mind you.  My wife is more interested and involved in certain aspects of “civic life,” but I do think about things and stay marginally informed on a local level.  Serving as an assistant coach on my son’s baseball team was terrific in terms of working relationships, and I’d say the three of us did something good for the community through the team . . . but I do have some suggestions for the league that might not make me popular with them.  Remember, I’m creative, analytical, and a proofreader by nature.  Plus, I actually have the gall to believe that umpires ought to be able to identify the strike zone before being inflicted on unsuspecting, young players!


For more on civic service, please see

Next in series: 

“To edit and harmonize (opportunity for musicians)”

“To explain and clarify,” an even less comfortable post that defies categorization as it covers some old personal ground.  This one may take a while to finalize.

To lead and serve (Houghton Philharmonia “officers”)

In thinking about some students of a decade ago, I came across a document that evidenced one of my somewhat creative approaches.  The orchestra at Houghton College was the “Philharmonia”—a bit of an aged designation, I thought, but it was what it was.  The two other “major ensembles” on campus were the Symphonic Winds and the College Choir,¹ and each of those had a slate of student officers, but the Philharmonia didn’t.  So I thought, I’ll get some student leadership going, but it needs to be special.  Not run-of-the-mill.  A new approach that melds the college’s Christian philosophies, my own scripture-moored take, and my penchant for heading off the beaten paths and ruts, making sure what was did was meaningful.

We would not have a president per se.  Nor would we call someone a VP.  A secretary of sorts was possibly indicated, but there was no need for a treasurer.  The very word “chaplain,” in use with the other groups, brought to mind the military, law enforcement organizations, and hospitals, and I wanted no association with those.  Further, and on the positive side, I did want to capitalize on connections to scripture and my own philosophy of leadership in groups (including church congregations), so I added the following as a footnote on the poster I prepared:

It is interesting to note that the single Koiné Greek (the New Testament language) word diakonos is alternately translated deacon, minister, and servant in our English versions of the New Testament scriptures.  Biblically, there is no conceptual distinction between deacons, ministers, and servants.  In all these word-concepts, service to the group is implied.  The British government terminology (Ministry of Defense, Ministry of Housing, etc.) might originally have had this fact in view, and we are following this nomenclature with the Philharmonia officer/servant roles.  You may also note the non-hierarchical order in which the offices are listed.  Ministry is service, and our officers will serve.

Below is a list of the roles I presented for student elections.  Each one was tied to another in partnership in at least one way.  These were not to be “offices” as such (note that they are not listed hierarchically) but would be roles for service:

Coordinator of Devotional Activities (replacing “chaplain”)

Ministers of Hospitality (plural, primarily to coordinate post-concert receptions and friendly interaction when prospective students visited)

Lead Organizational Minister (communication among orchestra members, problem solving with director, etc.)

Minister of Organizational Promotion (working closely with the LOM and giving special attention to development and growth)

Advisory Ministers (appointed, not elected, at the discretion of the Director)²

I note now that the only overtly “spiritual” role is the only one that didn’t have the word “minister” in it.  That was probably subconscious on my part, but perhaps not.  I might have intentionally avoided the perception that a devotional coordinator was an institutional staff minister-in-training.

As a student ensemble and college entity, the Philharmonia was hurting because of events that occurred during the prior two years.  It was depressed when I arrived; it had bought into a kind of step-child syndrome, playing third fiddle (to mix metaphors) to the Sym Winds and College Choir.  Those ensembles had little to no trouble gaining members and feeling good about their rehearsals and performances, but that was not the case in Philharmonia.  The ensemble needed promotion, energy, and a better self-image.  The group stayed depressed for a year and a half or so, but it began to experience growth in terms of musical achievement and esprit de corps after that.  I would not say that this particular approach to “officers” or student leadership had too much to do with the growth, but it might have contributed a little.  It did provide opportunities for students to lead and to serve—even as it showed my commitment to meaningful organizational roles and an egalitarian philosophy.


¹ Each of those appellations seemed somewhat uncommon, as well.  At Houghton, they did not seem old or “out of touch.”

² I tend to use the designation “Conductor” as opposed to “Director.”  The former goes to musical leadership.  “Director,” by contrast, while it can be used to refer to musical direction, tends to refer more often to organizational leadership.

Freedom reflections

“Freedom” is an English word which suggests a value held by most Americans—arguably, an innate value.  What, though, is the referent of “freedom”?  It depends on the context.  Are we talking about Scots in the feudal period (see my essay with a Braveheart connection here), 19th-century Africans-become-Americans on the move, Jews or Christians in the 1st-century Roman Empire, or “free speech” in the 21st century?¹

I presume that all thoughtful people, regardless of how (or if) they feel patriotic, or how they support (or do not support) military action, can agree on a few things—for instance, that the loss of human life is to be avoided when possible, and that all human enslavement in recent history is abhorrent.  I certainly consider freedom from such enslavement a worthy human cause.  I would like to spend a few clarifying minutes here, though—sharing an illuminating, distinguishing feature of “freedom” in the New Covenant writings.  There can yet be appropriate lessons for Christians to draw out on the occasion of a national holiday.  I hope this post turns out to impress readers as just such a lesson, refining and deepening our thinking.

We should be aware, first off, that concepts and practicalities around freedom and slavery have changed through the ages.  What felt like freedom to an ancient, freed Hebrew who had lived in Egypt would surely still feel like bondage to me, a person of some privilege.  We know more of the life of a bondservant in New Testament times, but assumptions must still be made.  One conclusion we might draw is that, whatever Paul thought about about Roman-era slavery, he didn’t consider it inherently evil, or he wouldn’t have sent the “slave” Onesimus back to Philemon, and he wouldn’t have told “slaves” to obey their masters.  The point here is that one must learn something of the reality of the situation—the context of the “freedom”—before he can make apt assessments.  Moreover, the human enslavement that occurs today is of a different stripe from that of the 17th, 18th, and 19th centuries in western Africa (and they’ve all been awful, on the whole).

The first three “freedom” definitions given in one e-source all focus attention on liberty from something—from restraint, from despotic government, or from enslavement.  Those definitions and references do summon images and historical education for many of us.  But these are not necessarily directly related to “freedom” in the NT writings.

In 2015, Dr. Larry Hurtado, an influential, reputable scholar retired from the University of Edinburgh, wrote a paper entitled “Freed by Love and for Love:  Freedom in the New Testament.”  Hurtado first treated NT references to freedom in the historical context of Roman slavery, which again deserves consideration in its historical context.  He proceeds to emphasize that, in the NT, freedom is “for a certain direction in life” (Hurtado p. 1) and is to be seen in (positive) connection to other people.  This freedom for something is to be seen in contrast to mere freedom from something—even something as dehumanizingly evil as the kind of slavery we typically think of.  On the contrary, the secular view of freedom in the Roman world—and, we daresay, throughout the West today—is often seen to be “at the expense of others, their labor and service enabling one to enjoy a freedom from labor and service.” (p. 25)  This assertion at first sounds overdone, but I consider it justifiable.  In other words, the freedom I enjoy as a U.S. citizen does not on the surface seem to be at the expense of others, yet when it is analyzed, a good part of it turns up wanting.  Hurtado’s point seems valid.

I don’t share all of Hurtado’s perspectives or concerns, and I wouldn’t claim any more than 10% of his intellectual capacity and insight, but I surely do appreciate the whole of his “Concluding Reflections,” which I reproduce below, with bold emphases of my own.  Again, the stress is not on what one is free for, but on what she is freed to do.

Anyone may find Hurtado’s paper freely available in its entirety here.

– B. Casey, 5/20/18 – 6/30/18

Those who require an explicit scriptural text to authorize any thought or action will find the absence of NT statements on political liberation either frustrating or a (dubious) justification for conservatism.  Those whose vision of liberation is essentially a hastily baptized version of Greek traditions of autarchy will find the NT vision of freedom incomprehensible and repugnant.  I suggest, however, that both responses reflect shallow thinking.  In any case, neither represents an adequate engagement with the NT.

As we have noted earlier, the NT does not teach about political liberation, largely because the sorts of actions open today (especially political organization) were not available or even conceived then.  But the strong affirmation and enhancement of personal moral agency in the NT are most compatible with social and political environments that make ample room for freedom of conscience and action.  The agapē urged in the NT requires a real measure of personal freedom in order to be exercised authentically.  It is not possible to render the love advocated in the NT under compulsion and coercion.  So, e.g., freedom of religion and conscience, and freedom from intimidation and oppressive social relationships are essential for the cultivation of opportunities for true faith and loving freedom to be exercised.

The eschatological vision that fuels NT teaching on freedom and other matters has been effectively lost in most versions of Christianity, along with the concomitant radical view of evil, with unfortunate results.  Conservative Christianity has tended to identify too readily the Kingdom of God with this or that political regime (from Constantine onward), whereas liberal Christianity has tended to under-estimate the depth of evil and in its own ways has tended to assume that radical change for the better can be achieved by well-intentioned people.  But the eschatological outlook of the NT reflects a profound, if jarring, view of the human predicament, which, in view of daily news reports, at least seems more realistic.  Moreover, that same eschatological hope also requires a stubborn refusal to confuse any human regime with God’s Kingdom, which should allow scope for critique of all regimes, even those established in the name of freedom.

The NT emphasis on freedom for the love of others may be instructive as well.  There are plenty of indications that modern liberal democracies are good at promoting individualism, and a culture of self-attainment.  But these societies are not very successful in promoting a productive and free social cohesion, and common values, or in getting individuals to use their wealth and other advantages for the good of other people.  Perhaps, then, the remarkable version of freedom in the NT is worth a second look.  One implication of the NT treatment of freedom is that a “free” society cannot be measured simply in the degree of autocracy exercised by individuals.  In today’s political climate, choice is a major commodity offered by politicians to a public coached to prize enjoyment of maximum personal opportunities.  But the NT idea of freedom rejects acquisitive choice in favour of serious and productive inter-personal involvement.  This dynamic freedom involves a greater realization of one’s own moral agency and an enlargement of one’s vision to take in others.  The expression of this sort of freedom promotes inter-personal relationships that nurture and enhance others, freely loving others in the power of God’s freely given redemptive love.

– from Dr. Larry Hurtado, “Freed by Love and for Love:  Freedom in the New Testament” (2010)


For the benefit of both sets of readers, this is also posted on my Kingdom blog.

For more (roughly) seasonal reading:

Nations—a probing of the ideas and concepts in the word(s)

The Babylon Bee can step on toes—and be rather probing with its stingers.  Enjoy this year-old satire on one of the U.S.’s special days:

Former enlisted man now a CO  (about what happened to change a “soldier’s” philosophy and allegiance)


¹ I don’t list here the countless Christian songs that rhyme with “set free.”  Some of them might have something theologically sound in the background, but others seem rather glib and gratuitous, with no particular reference.

Solemnity and sleep

When I see my dad’s sleeping body in a picture now, I feel more of an emotional pull than I did during the initial days of heightened activity and responsibility that came immediately after his death.

Around the casket, clockwise from bottom right: Greta, Mom, (Jedd), Bailey, Karly, Hannah, Rebecca

Although the picture gives me an uncomfortable feeling, I remind myself that it is only his body.  My dad’s soul rests, but I take that part of him to be very much alive.

Asleep in Jesus (Margaret Mackay, 1832)

Asleep in Jesus! Blessed sleep,
From which none ever wakes to weep;
A calm and undisturbed repose,
Unbroken by the last of foes.

Asleep in Jesus!  Oh, how sweet,
To be for such a slumber meet,
With holy confidence to sing
That death has lost his venomed sting!

A living, undisturbed repose sounds good, doesn’t it?  Would you even go with “sweet”?  “One Sweetly Solemn Thought” is a rarely used, death-aware song; it has the distinction of being the only hymnal song I’ve ever seen that has a stanza that ends with a dash, strongly connecting it to the next stanza.  The first stanza expresses a sweet reality:  “today I’m nearer to my home than e’er I’ve been before.”  The final two stanzas are below.

One Sweetly Solemn Thought (Phoebe Cary, 1852)

4. Savior, confirm my trust. Complete my faith in Thee,
And let me feel as if I stood close to eternity—

5. Feel as if now my feet were slipping o’er the brink,
For I may now be nearer home, much nearer than I think.

I think I will always be able to quote those words from memory.  What a splendid, solemn thought—to be secure in “slipping over the brink” into restful sleep in Jesus.

Finally along these specific lines, I am reposting some commentary and the words to “Still, Still With Thee,” which will probably always be a go-to death-and-new-life song for me.¹

So, what will the first day be like — that first “day” after Jesus’ return? ²  What might we imagine in terms of our own presence in that moment of all moments, that event to end all earthly events?  How will it be for me?  I have no idea, really, but I know, by faith, that my spirit’s awareness of God will eclipse all else.

Still, Still With Thee (Harriet Beecher Stowe, 1855)

Still, still with Thee, when purple morning breaketh,
When the bird waketh, and the shadows flee;
Fairer than morning, lovelier than daylight,
Dawns the sweet consciousness, I am with Thee.

Alone with Thee, amid the mystic shadows,
The solemn hush of nature newly born;
Alone with Thee in breathless adoration,
In the calm dew and freshness of the morn.

When sinks the soul, subdued by toil, to slumber,
Its closing eye looks up to Thee in prayer;
Sweet the repose beneath the wings o’ershading,
But sweeter still to wake and find Thee there.

So shall it be at last, in that bright morning,
When the soul waketh and life’s shadows flee;
O in that hour, fairer than daylight dawning,
Shall rise the glorious thought, I am with Thee.

Stanzas one and two:  The first two stanzas, unified, poetically express the encounter of the eternal in terms of a resplendent, earthly daybreak.  All the beauties of the dawning of a new day while in a natural surroundings are, however, eclipsed by the breathless adoration of our stunningly brilliant God.

Stanza three: As death appears imminent, and even potentially in the actual experience of dying, the believing soul casts his eyes in faith toward God.  As a foreshadowing of the final rest, for the human who experiences the Lord’s protective peace, a certain rest may come.  Yet a humanly experienced peace is neither satisfying nor absolute.  The waking—the arising to a consciousness of a Presence like no other—this is the completion.

Stanza four:  There is no more lofty, no more finally fulfilling thought than to be with God forever.  Come, Lord Jesus, and take Your bride home.

It is happenstance that all three of these poems were written during roughly the same period in American history.  Perhaps I have simply not been looking for death-related poetry written more recently.  Or perhaps there are other reasons for an uncommonly rich focus on death in the Lord during the middle 1800s.


Find other posts on death and dying here, beginning with my father’s death notice here and a tribute to his caregivers here.


¹ I learned “Still, Still With Thee” as an arrhythmic chant for male quartet.  Unlike “Crossing the Bar,” featured here, I have never come across a better musical match for the “Still” words than the male quartet music.

² Then, days may not exist, as such, but they might not have existed during the creation of the world, either.

Memories, poetry, and music

Last fall, the Benedictine College bands presented a program of instrumental music with a Veterans Day theme.

As it happened, the concert occurred shortly after the death of Karen Soyland, the wife of another member of the Brass Band, which is the ensemble in which I perform.  The memorial focus of the concert was therefore expanded to include not only deceased soldiers, but also, one known more personally.  I became inspired, and I offered, and the conductor of the ensemble (Director of Instrumental Studies Ted Hanman) graciously interjected my trio arrangement within the published brass arrangement—complete with the suggested oral reading of Tennyson’s poem, which may be seen here.

The Parry tune was new to me, and I find it a better marriage of music and words than the male quartet music I had learned as a youth.  There is a plethora of tunes and arrangements available, and apparently no one knows or sings the quartet arrangement I’ve known for decades, because it’s available nowhere on YouTube.  At any rate, regardless of the music, my favorite line in the poem—both the culmination and the closing—is this:  “I hope to see my Pilot face to face when I have crossed the bar.”  The imagery, which I don’t claim to comprehend fully, is nonetheless rich, and the members of the Brass Band knew personally this one who had “crossed the bar” very recently.

Below is my arrangement.  (I started to retake the photo when I saw the light streams, but they struck me as a potentially inspirational symbol, so I left them in.)  I chose three instruments/players that could carry this off in little rehearsal time.  Each instrument has at least a few measures with the melody, and the counterpoint and harmony are somewhat more complex than in the full-band arrangement.  All the instruments in my arrangement are Bb instruments, meaning the written pitches you see below actually sound a whole step lower.  Note that the euphonium part is written in treble clef, as per convention in British brass band music.  The euphonium part sounds a major 9th lower than it appears here.

You may access the live performance sound file here.  The above “trio” portion, with oral reading, begins at 1:16.  The reader did not rehearse with us and did not read especially effectively, but the balance at least makes both elements audible.

 

It was my hope that this musical tribute to the dear, believing spouse of a believing friend would be meaningful and eventually be a good memory for him, for the deceased’s family, and also for others.


Find other posts on death and dying here, beginning with my father’s death notice here, a tribute to caregivers here, and a mention of the exceptionally poignant funeral for Karen Soyland here.

Mourning and music

From time to time I hear funereal music I wish I had come across during my graduate research.  (Although my cumulative list of funeral marches and lament music was marginally impressive, it was anecdotally developed and limited in scope.)  Once in a while, I also come across others’ related writings.  Below are extracts from an interesting article on mourning practices and singing.  This research may deal only directly with practices in the United Kingdom, but it would seem applicable for most Western countries.

I will now discuss funeral music in some detail because it was the one occasion on which mourners in Britain used to be actively involved in musical performance, but — at least among the majority white population — this is now being rapidly replaced by music consumption.  Funerals in many Western countries have recently become more personal (Garces-Foley and Holcomb, 2005) and/or secular (Walter, 1997), and in the UK one major way this is achieved is by listening to two or three of the deceased’s favourite CD tracks or to a piece of music that in some way captures the deceased’s personality.  This is replacing communal hymn singing.  Singing hymns was once the norm, but recent surveys in the city of Hull (Adamson and Holloway, 2012) and at one London crematorium (Parsons, 2012) indicate hymns now being sung at only a quarter of funerals.  9 (orig. 81)

Religious singing together is being steadily replaced by listening to secular (and occasionally religious) CDs, driven by personalisation and secularisation, but also reflecting the general decline of communal singing in England.  9-10 (orig. 81-82)

Singing together was once the main way in which the whole body of mourners participated in the funeral, engaging together in one of the performing arts to perform words of sorrow and hope.  According to Davies (but he may possibly here be influenced by being Welsh), “Singing is, fundamentally, a community activity which sets group hopes and power over those of the individual.” (Davies, 1997, p. 58)  But with the decline in church attendance and the familiarity with hymns that goes with it, and with the small numbers at many elderly people’s funerals in Britain, many people report finding singing hymns at a funeral to be excruciating, embarrassing and/or tedious (Caswell, 2012).  

. . . the CD capturing the essence of the deceased individual becomes the funeral’s emotional powerhouse.  . . .

In the months and years after the funeral, recorded music can continue to retain powerful associations with the deceased.  I am doubtless not alone in going happily about my business when a track comes on  the radio that reduces me to tears, reminding me of someone I care for who has died, years or even decades ago.  10  (orig. 82)

– Tony Walter, “How People Who Are Dying or Mourning Engage with the Arts, ” © Music and Arts in Action/Tony Walter 2012 | ISSN: 1754-7105 | Page 87. http://musicandartsinaction.net/index.php/maia/article/view/dyingmourning

Various cultures and ethnicities will naturally have various traditions and expectations concerning bereavement, funereal engagement, and mourning.  At my own father’s memorial, I know there were tears, but no wailing occurred, for instance.  Perhaps that is good (we grieved as those with hope), or bad (we were busy and distracted), or indifferent.

There were hymns, however—hymns in the lyrical sense and also a couple in the strictly musical sense.  I had kept my vest-pocket copy of this program in sight in my office for a time (see here) in order to remind me of the life and of the death event.  On the reverse side appears the program order itself.  Here are the titles that feature hymn lyrics (addressed to God in worship/adoration):

God Himself Is With Us *
On Zion’s Glorious Summit *
Jesus, Wonderful Thou Art
I Behold You
Still, Still With Thee
* In both these cases, the initial lyrics are not addressed to Got but rather set the stage for direct worship in the latter part of the song: “O Thou Fount of Blessing . . . may I ceaselessly adore Thee” and “Holy, holy, holy Lord! God of hosts, on high adored,” respectively.

There were comments and a prayer of adoration led by three friends of nearly six decades, and the 95-year-old former president of Harding University made comments, as well.  Dad’s brother read Psalm 121.  Songs were led by Dad’s nephew, a brother-in-law, the son of one of the above-mentioned friends, and me.  Recordings were played of my hymn “I Behold You” and my mother’s beautiful song “Silence,” which is about finding God.  In all, six songs were sung congregationally, including “It May Be at Morn,” which I recall that Dad introduced to the Cedars congregation in Delaware when I was young.  This song is not musically a hymn, and the stanzas are introspective, not directly worshipful.  However, in my estimation, the chorus includes one of the top ten expressions of worship in that hymnal:  “O Lord Jesus, how long? . . . Christ returneth!  Hallelujah!  Hallelujah!  Amen.”  This is not the material of mourning.  None of this particularly invites sadness, yet there were mixed emotions, remembering my dad as a man who worshipped God with all his heart, and who as a leader encouraged others to do the same for decades.

On the matter of reminiscing through a dead person’s favorite music:  my mother recently found the CDs that Dad had chosen to take on their last trip together.  I will probably always associate Pavarotti’s famed rendition of Puccini’s “Nessun Dorma” with Dad.  That music brought tears to his eyes many times.  He was also very fond of a championship barbershop quartet’s song “I Still Can’t Say Goodbye.”  (Here is a YouTube recording of the same rendition.)  I suppose one could say this is a song of mourning, but perhaps more, a song of tender memory.  It will bring emotion to just about anyone!  Dad had asked both my sister and me to play that for him during his hospitalization.  Other music Dad chose includes Pachelbel, John Denver, western/pop songs of yesteryear by Sons of the Pioneers, and Beethoven’s Symphony No. 6, which he had loved for more than a half-century.  My mom will always associate many of these selections with her husband of nearly 58 years.

Dad’s Travel CD Choices, Summer 2017

Find other posts on death and dying here, beginning with my father’s death notice here and a tribute to caregivers here.

 

Kansas in New York

Once upon a storm, Kansas blew into Western New York,¹ and it created some “Dust in the Wind.”  The event was part of the Kansas (rock band) Collegiate Symphony Tour, and it was huge fun.  Below is the program cover, in which Kansas fans will recognize the icon from the Leftoverture album cover.

Now that I think about it, the cover there was a brilliant stroke:  it used imagery from the album that had catapulted the heartland band into fame; Leftoverture, true to its classically influenced name, had used more orchestral instruments than before.  Still, Mr. Composer there on the cover looks baffled, and it’s no wonder.  An aging rock band with college orchestras on stages across the country?

Because of some issues Kansas and I worked through together, this particular concert event was problematic for them, but it certainly was a win for my college orchestra.  At one point during the planning conversations, mostly with Chad and then with Phil, I summoned my courage, drew on the relationship we had begun to establish, and asked really nicely . . . and eventually, Kansas let me conduct “Dust in the Wind” in the concert.  Using the collegiate conductor in performance was unprecedented, so I initially did not feel I should share the pic below, but now that the Collegiate Symphony Tour has been history for a few years, here it is.

That’s me between the keyboards and the plexiglass shield.  Most of the orchestra is hidden in this shot, but it was about 45 strong.  Also visible, from left, are Steve Walsh, lead vocalist and here, on keyboard; David Ragsdale, violin, guitars, vocals; and Phil Ehart’s massive drum set.  (There are no drums in “Dust in the Wind.”)

Below is the post-show pic with some undergrad and grad students, some of which have remained friends.

Kansas personnel at the autograph table (L to R): Phil Ehart, the cleanest-cut rock drummer you’ll ever meet; Larry Baird, conductor; David Ragsdale, violin and front man; Steve Walsh, vocals; Rich Williams, who with Ehart is one of the founding members of the band; and Billy Greer, bass.   2nd row college personnel:  J. Helsel-Raymond, H. Yanega, S. Stabley, K. Casey, B. Casey, D. Woodard, and E. Hall.

About the experience
I get annoyed when every routine business matter is labeled an “experience.”  I suppose one wants something of an experience in a pricey restaurant, but don’t ask me about my “experience” in Burger King or after a phone call or a web transaction.  On the contrary, let me tell you, this Kansas Symphony Tour thing was an experience.  There were a couple of relatively minor downsides, such as hoops we had to jump through, and the clueless, irresponsible promotional agency out of Buffalo.²  I never sensed anything but a commitment from the band, though:  the communications with Phil Ehart and his front engineer/manager Chad Singer were entirely pleasant and agreeable; the rehearsing, musically rewarding; and the concert, just what it was cracked up to be—an exciting, fun experience.

Here is a “behind-the-scenes” video look at another one of these Collegiate Symphony Tour concerts.

For any Kansas “Wheatheads” who might click in here but not be familiar with the Collegiate Symphony Tour repertoire, it involved orchestral arrangements of these:

  1. Magnum Opus (instrumental)
  2. Musicatto
  3. Point of Know Return
  4. The Wall
  5. On the Other Side
  6. Hold On
  7. Dust in the Wind
  8. Song for America
  9. Cheyenne Anthem
  10. Icarus
  11. Miracles out of Nowhere
  12. Fight Fire with Fire
  13. Carry On Wayward Son

#s 1, 4, 9, 11, and 13 were from the aforementioned album Leftoverture; the other songs, from albums that followed in the late 70s and 80s.

Monetarily, this project was terrific for the college orchestras.  All the college/university provided was the performance space, with air conditioning/heating and building staff.  On the other side of the equation, the college was given 100 free tickets to sell or give away at its discretion.  A $2000 scholarship was awarded to a string student, and about $1,000 of free products, to the college—all compliments of the D’Addario company.

Musically:  A student player was given the opportunity to improvise opposite David Ragsdale on stage, and the orchestra gained the experience of playing inventive, rhythmically challenging, classic/progressive rock music that most orchestras never touch.  I had falsely assumed that the orchestral parts would consist of lots of whole notes—you know, easy stuff, just to add texture and give the college players something to do.  Boy, was I wrong!  It was challenging music.  For rehearsal, I assigned a few pieces to each graduate conductor to prepare, taking the others myself (“divide and conquer”).  Tooting my own horn—which I took the opportunity to play in the orchestra, too (who could resist?)—I’ll say here that I was complimented for the preparation of my orchestra.  I don’t remember the exact words, but it was clear to me that Larry Baird (performance conductor) and members of the band were pleased by the fact that this little college in the middle of nowhere had taken the music seriously and was better prepared than some orchestras from major universities.

Spiritually:  There were some new connections, such as a sense of mission communicated by Kevin, then the college’s eminently knowledgeable, experienced recording engineer.  I had hoped to engage founding member Kerry Livgren in a pre-concert Skype dialogue, even though he was not part of this project, having had a stroke.  (Things became busy, and I didn’t follow through on that plan.)  I had read Kerry’s autobiography Seeds of Change, in which he describes philosophical and spiritual searching that came to rest with Christian belief.  He is now a committed Christian believer, teaches a Bible class in his church, and publishes through his own label Kergyma Records—a reference to the word used in the Greek NT for the proclaimed message.

In addition, former bass player Dave Hope was an Anglican priest and now works with that denomination in another capacity.  Phil Ehart mentioned church attendance and assured me that even the roadies of the band wouldn’t cuss backstage on our Christian campus.  That was nice.  Beyond that baseline, I did feel the ethical commitment and entirely above-board dealings throughout the project—which in turn fed my spirit through an uphill battle at points.

Finally:  Only a few students knew much about Kansas’ music, but some of their parents did—and traveled to hear the concert.  Some of us will never forget the experience of being on the stage of Wesley Chapel at Houghton College in New York—with Kansas.


¹ I refer not to the “Upper West Side” (which is probably six hours away) or to “Upstate” per se.  This is not the Finger Lakes area, either.  This part of western New York is between the Buffalo-Rochester industrial-technological corridor and the “Southern Tier” which runs roughly (I-86 ran very roughly in spots, until about 2013!) from Jamestown to Binghamton.  Western New York is beautiful in the fall, wet and gray much of the year, and often snowy between November and March.  Some counties in this region are home to many who live below the poverty line.

² Although this particular concert was in an isolated area, and although it was not well supported by the college faculty and students, I blame the agency for most of the monetary loss Kansas doubtless incurred.

 

Funeral music research

My broadest, deepest graduate research dealt with funeral music.  (I always feel funny when mentioning that, figuring I need to apologize for it, but perhaps not.)  Funeral music can be very rewarding, actually, and I periodically come across funeral or lament music I wish I had known in 2005-07.  One soul actually wrote to me in the context of her own research, purchasing a complete e-copy of mine.  Previously, a student asked to read (and actually read!) the entire thing, but these levels of interest are rare.

Despite the tendency to avoid talking about death, it has obviously been part of the cycle of things, ever since the first humans.  My personal cycle of life has involved a return to a town where I knew people in the past.  Two of those folks have recently lost relatives, and I attended the memorial events.  Last month, the family of another spiritually minded friend marked the anniversary of the death of their son/brother, and I was again reminded of the protracted nature of life-and-death memories.

Here is a passage from the introduction to my dissertation:

Although funerals and related ceremonies take different forms—depending on ethnicity, affiliation, preference, and other factors—death is universally experienced.  We most often perceive death as a time for reflection, for reverence, and for sobriety, if not gloom.  Yet death events are more emotionally varied than is frequently presumed by a casual observer. ¹

When someone dies, it is often possible to learn something valuable and/or inspirational, and the personal growth may come in different shapes and hues.  I first became interested in funeral music after having been introduced to a remarkable musical work written after the death of a friend of 19C Norwegian composer Edvard Grieg.  Perceiving the genuine pathos and artful composition of that funeral march led me to investigate other works, in pursuit of a thesis (that I ended up essentially disproving).

An abstract is generally a crystallized summary of a research article or paper and can aid a reader in grasping the paper’s purpose.  Below is the abstract from my dissertation.  Please ponder with me the implications, both human and musical.

The universal experience of death has for millennia been associated with music.  Wind instruments, in particular, have been the media of choice for many funeral music genres.

A proper historical outlook on funeral music begins prior to biblical history and continues through the Middle Ages, Renaissance, and Baroque, stylistically culminating in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries.  The Classical-to-Romantic transition years ultimately became a defining period for the Funeral March genre as the musical language was crystallized.

Funeral music types include both processional music and graveside subtypes—functional categories that intersect with two super-genres, the Funeral March and the Lament.  The Funeral March class includes the Dead March, the Pompe Funèbre, and the Equale; the Lament includes a broader range of genres such as the Planctus, the Déploration, the Dump, the Elegy, the Tombeau, the Threnody, and the Nanie.

The slate of musical topoi (topics) common in the Classical period includes the Funeral March, which in its purest form may be clearly defined in terms of rhythmic, melodic, and other musical characteristics.  Although the Funeral March is readily described and delineated, such music was not confined to functional, independent works; it was also found re-appropriated in many other genres—including opera, keyboard sonatas, and symphonies—that were intended primarily for the concert hall.

It is because the funeral musical codes were distilled into a style—and ultimately became a set of funeral genres—that most listeners can recognize funeral music, apprehending the Funeral March genre, in particular, without uncertainty.  Many funeral pieces are emotionally evocative and worthwhile, deserving of study and performance.

A decade after the original dissertation, I self-published the lion’s share of the prose, minus the actual musical transcriptions and minus the paper-waste required by graduate publishing conventions.  The paperback book is now available here

In reconsidering utilizing the material above, I am reminded anew of the historical association of funerals and mourning with wind instruments, and of the developmental connection between style and genre.  Musical coding—with such components as triplet rhythms, the sospiri (essentially a melodic sigh), and the subconscious or intentional utilization of keys such as D minor and C minor—continue to interest me.  Still, it is the authenticity aspect that draws me most:  when funeral or lament music draws from genuine human emotion in the face of death, the result can be evocative and compelling.


¹ Brian Casey, Funeral Music:  Historical Perspective, Genres and Styles, Semiotics and Musical Lexicography, and Exposition of Transcriptions (2nd ed., © 2015), 1.

Dying and death

When I was in my twenties, a random adult Bible class ended up on a rabbit trail¹ about death.  I commented that I was not afraid of death but was afraid of dying.  An intelligent, hardened woman in her early 50s looked at me cross-ways across the table, apparently annoyed by the distinction I drew. 

My thoughts were not changed by the woman’s glare, and they have not really been altered since.  I still do not fear the death state, and I’m still afraid of dying . . . yet it depends on how the dying occurs and how long it lasts. 

Will there be long-term pain?  Morphine? 
Will there be aloneness or memories shared with friends?
Will there be recovery through the miracles of modern medicine, followed by worsening conditions? 

I hear about intense pain, and I have my own sporadic pain.  When I see stories on Netflix that involve physical pain,² I sometimes wonder how I will die.  Despite impressive storytelling and videographic techniques, though, a certain distance exists between TV/movies and real life.  Last fall, when my father was hospitalized for a month and then died, I thought with new intensity about pain and “palliative care,” hospice care, dying, and death.  I haven’t spent enough time with medical ethics and philosophy to gain the right to delve too deeply here, but I might just delve anyway.

Since the first humans, death has been a part of life on this terrestrial ball.

Both mystery and science are involved in death.

Some may fear (or be “spooked” by) death, whereas others may take death almost stoically in the course of medical duty.

Some may irrationally live as though death will never occur, and others may rationally long for it.

I take death as not-final, but, clearly, there is a final aspect to it.

Often, when I leaf through a local newspaper, I notice the death announcements.  Is there anyone I know, or a relative or friend of someone I know?  Whose funeral is going to take a coworker out of the office?  Funerals and other memorial events help the living to acknowledge and process the passing of those they have known and loved.  Here, in a brief post, I shared a thank-you note from a family acquaintance after my mother and I attended a funeral for his mother.  This is but one indication of the meaning that funerals can have.  Funerals, of course, are not for the dead but for the living.  Funerals are a common feature of existence, but they do not always have the same “personality” or viable connection to God and the eternal.

I’ve been to some really good funerals in my days, and I’ve seen programs from others that were probably just as good.  During my college days, significant funerals included Lou’s and my grandfather’s.³  Years later, a funeral in SE Tennessee honored Kathryn, who was something of a mentor to my parents; another memorialized the father of Carolyn, an even closer friend for more years.  I distinctly remember the casketed bodies of good people like Sybil, Bob, and Henry.  I’ve had the honor of contributing to funeral music in song (leading and/or singing) for probably three or four dozen funerals.  All told, for three+ decades or so, I figure I gained a pretty good sense of one type of church funeral.  Among the top ten funerals of my life (an odd phrase, I know) occurred last fall, effectively beginning a new focus on death for me.  Among the best elements of this memorial time was the minister’s message.4  He apologized only briefly for reading the entire raising-Lazarus pericope (John 11), following that with “but it’s worth it” . . . and proceeding to show not only effective oral reading but also good insight.

The oh-so-human narrative of John 11 is quite provocative and “real.”  The minister made mention of multiple, real-life aspects that might be ignored by the casual reader.  For instance, the grave did stink, just as Martha predicted it would.  (Such facts can escape those of us who are more comfortable with theology and/or churchianity than with living in the shadow of the Rabbi.)  It was doubtless a horrible odor.  It was death inside that tomb—a tomb I have supposedly seen personally, according to the tourist-targeted sign (but I don’t hang my hat on the sign’s veracity).  Imagination and thoughts about the story run wild.  This was a very special relationship, and it shows not only Jesus’ human connections but the Son of God’s divine power.  For my money, the Lazarus5 story is more apropos of funerals and memorials than Psalm 23 or the notion of “many mansions.”  In John 11 the reader finds a belief in resurrection and life that meets even the deepest, most personal grief where it sighs.  Actually, such belief does better than meeting grief.  It ascends from human grieving with hope.

I am always, always stimulated and enriched by spending even the tiniest amount of focused time in any one of the gospels.  I know a good deal more about Mark and Matthew than Luke, but not nearly enough about any of the gospels.  There will always be more riches to mine!  John seems more philosophical to me than the others, even as it simply encourages belief in the incarnate One.  It makes sense, then, that John’s thoughts of life and death would draw me in.  I note that Mark’s gospel uses the word “life” 4x; Matthew, 7x, and Luke, 5x.  By way of comparison, John’s gospel uses ζωή | zoe—the word typically translated “life”—36 times (spread throughout, in 11 different chapters, from 1 to 20).  This word count alone suggest at least a motivic, if not thematic, focus within John’s particular gospel portrait.  (The word “death” is used almost the same number of times in each of the four canonical gospels.)  Surely, along with an appropriate consciousness of death can also come a deeper awareness of eternal life.

During the next few weeks, I want to offer various thoughts about death and dying.  My thoughts range from the preeminence of the Kingdom of God to the Hippocratic oath, and from euthanasia to the Passion of Jesus, and from life insurance to music.  I would be honored to hear from readers on this topic, as well.

Find other posts on death and dying here, beginning with my father’s death notice here and a tribute to caregivers here.


¹ Such meanderings can be rewarding, instructive, and memorable, but they occur too often when the stated goal is “Bible study.” 

² I do avoid “action” films built around gratuitous violence.

³ It was reported, in connection with my grandfather’s death, that his last words were “Lord Jesus, be merciful.”  Such a statement strikes me as an entirely appropriate utterance.  I imagine the words as something of a humble reflex born out of lifelong devotion, not a desperate prayer.  If nothing else, an appeal to Jesus shows faith.

This is a remarkable statement me to make, really, given my general aversion to formalized ministerial roles.

5 Lazarus, by the way, is one very strong candidate for the title of “the one Jesus loved,” and also a candidate for having written at least portions of this gospel we know as “John.”