Didn't mean to, of course. But here's the sermon I preached this morning that did it. Turns out, it's hard to keep preaching a difficult sermon when you can see your parents crying at it, but somehow I managed to preach this sermon three times this morning. Now, I'm going to bed.
I remember the first time I heard the Indigo Girls’ music. It was a Tuesday night when I was 11 years old, and I was sitting around a campfire at Girl Scout Camp listening to one of our counselors sing songs with her guitar. And she started this one:
I’m trying to tell you something about my life
Maybe give me insight between black and white
And the best thing you’ve ever done for me
Is to help me take my life less seriously
It’s only life, after all
And I was hooked. Partly because I thought that counselor was about the coolest person ever, partly because I liked the song itself. We sang that song every night that week during our unit campfire, and when it came time to go home, I determined to find the song and buy the cassette. I had no idea then that the song, “Closer to Fine,” was the definitive Indigo Girls song, nor did I know what a major role the Indigo Girls’ music would play in my life over the next fifteen years.
And I also didn’t know, that week at camp, that as I was sitting around a campfire learning that song, that same night my grandfather was dying of a heart attack. I didn’t know that he had died until my parents came and picked me up from camp on Friday.
I didn’t have much experience with death at age 11. No one in my family had died within my memory, and I’d never been to a funeral. It was hard for me to wrap my head around my grandfather’s death, hard for me to know how to let go. But I remember standing upstairs with my family and Nick White,* before the funeral began, and I remember Nick saying to us that this service was not to say goodbye, but to say thank you – but then acknowledging, “Some thank-yous are harder to say than others.” I knew what he said was true, but it didn’t help me feel any less sad about it. I missed my grandfather fiercely for a long time.
Of course, I’ve never had an easy time letting go. So it’s a little strange in a way to think that “Closer to Fine” became my greatest musical refuge through middle school, and remains deeply significant to me. Maybe I’m just thick-headed, but you wouldn’t know to look at me that I’ve been listening intently to the message of “it’s only life, after all” for fifteen years. But while I’ll be the first to admit that I still tend to hold onto life with a vice grip, I think it’s made some inroads. And I think there’s something to this message.
Now, maybe this seems like the wrong week to suggest that we need to hold life lightly. 5 people have been confirmed dead so far, with more missing, after Wednesday’s bridge collapse in Minnesota. And while it doesn’t take the rug out from under us the same way that the tragedies of Katrina or September 11 did, it’s still shaken us. Its very ordinariness calls to our attention how fragile and temporary are the things we take for granted – from bridges to homes to our very lives. And while five is not a particularly high body count, each of those five people still had friends and family and acquaintances who must now mourn that death.
So yeah, maybe it’s not the best week for this conversation. But when is it ever the best week? We ought to talk about these things on bright sunny days, when there’s not a cloud of trouble in sight and we can talk dispassionately, prepare ourselves, think objectively about life. But those days are so few that it seems a shame to darken them with such topics.
And even if best weeks came around, or came around more often, I think today’s Gospel warns us that we can’t afford to wait for those best weeks. If we wait until we’ve planned and scraped and taken care of everything else on our to-do lists, we will find that we have run out of time. Today, now, we must begin to loosen our grasp on life.
Now, don’t misunderstand me here. Several years after the Indigo Girls released “Closer to Fine,” Indigo Girl Amy Ray said in an interview that when she first heard the song, the line "it's only life, after all" struck her as being incredibly blasé about something that she felt was so sacred. It took her awhile to see the truth of that line in the context of the rest of the song, but in stepping back and listening to the whole, eventually she learned to sing that line along with her bandmate. I think that’s what we need to do with this idea. It’s not that life is not sacred. I think if we read the rest of the Gospels, the rest of the Bible, that’s clear. Life is incredibly sacred. But precisely because it is so sacred, we need to treat it with respect by holding it lightly. There’s a Madeleine L’Engle character who says “The only way to deal with something deadly serious is to try to treat it a little lightly.”
I hold my friends’ lives pretty tightly. But if I have to be willing to die myself in order to be fully Christ’s, then I also have to be willing to trust that even the death of those I love most will not separate me from the love of God – or, perhaps harder, that it will not ultimately separate me from the love of those people. I have to learn to trust that I can indeed hold life lightly – others’ as well as my own – because this life is not our last chance. Our earthly life is not all there is to life.
We know that our earthly relationships can draw us either closer to or farther from God. Yet it never occurred to me until this year that even our healthy, loving, relationships might be among the possessions that can possess us – that when Jesus says “one’s life does not consist in the abundance of possessions” that might include people. Of course, we can never truly possess another human being, but we talk all the time as though we can – “Be mine” “He’s taken” “She belongs to him.” Indeed, the world around us often encourages us to tighten our grip on the people we care about, as though we could control either them or the relationship that way. I’m thinking, for instance, of the Eagles song that says
Lying here in the darkness
I hear the sirens wail
Somebody’s going to emergency,
Somebody’s going to jail
You find somebody to love in this world
You better hang on tooth and nail
But hanging on tooth and nail won’t keep the person you love from going to emergency, or for that matter from going to jail. And it has some serious repercussions for the relationship. If you’re hanging on tooth and nail, it doesn’t leave much room for things like gentleness or perspective. It makes it difficult to step back and ask what’s best for either person; to savor the time spent together; in short, to spend that time loving each other. In other words, holding life too tightly not only gets between us and God, it gets between us and those we love.
And really, that seems like just a stupid waste of life. If anything, I’ve probably tried to hold onto my friends’ lives even tighter as an adult than I did at age 11. But earlier this year, in a moment of weakness, I agreed to let a seminary friend watch the video from when St. Paul’s Youth did Godspell the first time around. Some of you know that Emily, a friend of mine who played the Jesus character, has since died. I still miss her terribly. After we watched the last scene, where Jesus returns to his friends after they’ve carried his body offstage, I told my friend, “I just want her to walk back in for real.” And he looked at me and said “It may take an unfair amount of time. But she’s going to.” And for just a moment, by trusting the friend who was in front of me, I was able to loosen my grasp and trust God to hold onto life for me – not only mine but Emily’s and my grandfather’s as well.