hearse thief

Medical schools starting two centuries ago faced a continuing need: corpses.  They needed recently healthy corpses.  They needed the pregnant, children, old or diseased and mostly: fresh corpses.

Dying as a pauper in London or New York made a fair wager — your corpse passed to a dissection class before a grave.  Medical schools harvested no corpses. Needing plausible deniability, there arose a trade providing corpses, and these men were bizarrely titled Resurrection Men, spitting on Christians’ hope of resurrection.

If caught, they faced grave robbing charges.  Or worse, if police suspected he hurried anyone from this life to help doctors-in-training learn surgery — he faced death — and of course, a final turn ‘through’ medical school.

Grave robbers.  Hearse thieves.  Everyone — murderers, thieves, prostitutes — looked down on them and feared, desperately feared passing through their hands.

Christians were offended at such a title for these men.  This ‘resurrection’ horrifically twisted hope in Christ.

But God has, if anything, a profound sense of humor, and a deep, deep sense of irony.

So Jesus hiked from the north country through valleys southward.  At evening, He climbed up from the road to tiny Nain.  Maybe Nain was built on Shunem’s ruins or nearby.  And in tiny Nain where birth and death were bookends for few surprises, everyone could recite a time when God let a town woman push the great Prophet Elisha to attempt, to ask the impossible.  All these centuries later, every child and agnostic knew the story.  Elisha promised her a son.  She bore him, and on a hot day in harvest he died.  She rode hellbent for leather straight to Mt. Carmel where prophets commune with God.

And she answered the Prophet’s servant pointedly asking, “Is all well with you?”

“Yes!”

“Is all well with your husband?”

“Yes.”

“Is all well with your child?”

And she lied, or she believed more than a cooling corpse waiting in the Prophet’s room she built for him.  “All is well!”

It shook him.  Such faith.  Such hope.  Elisha rushed from the mountain to spend an afternoon begging God to relent and resurrect the child.  God gave him back.

Centuries ago.  Where legends live.

So, Jesus walking into Shunem/Nain stopped a funeral for an only son: a widow’s final hope.  And disregarding all civility Jesus touched the hearse to talk to — the dead boy.

Who responded.  Jesus helped him from the hearse, gave him back to his mother, and everyone paraded back into town, leaving a bewildered hearse driver scratching his head.  The first victim of The Hearse Thief, doing a dress rehearsal for Himself soon enough, and all of us soon enough.

If Jesus wept at a later funeral, He surely smiled at this one, and God, as usual, had a laugh on any who call hearse thieves by such an exalted, holy title as Resurrection Man.

Decanting Souls

Jan asked, “Will we decant mom on Sunday, then?”

The week was full of boxes crammed with scrapbooks, photos, and correspondences — scattered through the house, the storage building, the pool house and workshop: detritus of Barbara K. Johnson’s life.

We laughed hard to hear little Jill write her mother in the hospital, that she neither believed her brother that mom was in the hospital, or worse, was having a baby and it was another boy.  It was funniest when Jan read, “And please do NOT call him Douglas” to the youngest, Doug.  So my dearest Jill held strong opinions at age nine and could articulately express them.

We each mutely read the neatly typed letter wherein Philip, their dad, said he had not had sexual relations with the woman he had run off with over the weekend, and he would return as pastor if all could be forgiven.

Steve quietly sorted the box with all of the bills that Phil returned unpaid to the hospital, pharmacy, and utility company after he left for good with the woman and emptied all of the accounts.

And I was struck by the probability that all great fiction, all award winning plays are barely recognizable shadows of authors’ families, or the shattered family of friends, or the shattering family at home.

And all these years later, the siblings taking cues from the astounding woman of God they had as mother, these siblings who had visited the man of unpaid bills in the nursing home as he wept and laughed with them, were choosing what will go to flame tonight in a bonfire of vanities, joys, and deep realities.  And they cho0se what to give to children and grandchildren.

Doug, who happens to be an award winning woodcarver has carried out one last wish from Nana, Barbara, and carved a final resting box for her ashes, kept safe in the plastic bag in which they were delivered over a year ago.  And on Sunday we will decant her ashes, as reverently as the siblings decanted the correspondences, savored them, laughed and wept over them.  We will decant them into Doug’s box preparing them for February when these four proud children of Barbara K Johnson will head to a windswept cemetery in South Dakot to send her ashes on a slow journey of becoming one with the dust of Alcester from whence she came.

And that will be the end of it, unless you know anything about Jesus and final banquets at the juncture of time and eternity, where we will decant life in the limited way we know it here, as an aperitif toward heaven.

I am doing Mike’s funeral

When Keith, one of the pastors at LifeChurch, called to tell me that Sharon had asked for me to help at Mike’s  funeral on Tuesday, I did not hesitate.

I said yes.  Without having to think about it. Mike and I never went hunting, fishing, movies or bowling together.  He loved all of those and did them often.  He cooked on a local TV show, and he cooked for me once, on a retreat for 60  university students.  He didn’t drop by the house or my office at the university.  He never intruded where he wasn’t asked.  He came to our open houses, and was funny.  He possessed that sarcastic-tinged, pithy humor I treasure in others.

I said yes because it will be an honor.  And I owed him.  When I first became a pastor, I had some men running sound in the service who loved that church, loved the worship, and might miss a switch or two in the service.  Feedback or silence when you are speaking or preaching is SO distracting.  I wanted to add visuals in the worship, and that made the job more dicey.

Mike told me that he “noticed” that problem.  Now, in church work, many people notice everything that goes wrong or goes against their grain according to color, sound, whatever.  Some smile.  Some not so much, and then they walk away having served notice that I could do something about that, now that I had been enlightened.

When Mike “noticed” the sound challenges, he was saying something radically different.

He was saying, “I noticed your sound challenges.  You need something more consistent, and — I can do something about that.”  And he did.  For years.  When we added a second service and needed sound there as well.

When some products became available and the church needed to buy them, or they might just show up in the sound booth.

Equally important, Mike served notice when he was taking his boys hunting and fishing.  Hunting/fishing/sons was one term, and mike prioritized for them.  As a father, I took notes.

He never volunteered to teach or do a host of other jobs, but what he “noticed” he followed up to make it work. That also showed up in his wife and daughter.  They are amazing and accomplished in what they set their hands to do.  That showed up in his sons, they do very different jobs, but they approach those jobs with excellence — with consistency.  What they notice, they do well.

And all of them, like Mike, think that living out the gospel, living out your faith, serving when you “notice” something needs to be done, IS being a Christian.

So, when someone helped me “notice” that someone else might speak at Mike’s funeral, I smiled to myself, told the pastor “Absolutely” and swung by the house to see the family, because I can do something about that.