Duffers and Death

Luke 9:51-62 – The 6th Sunday after Pentecost – for June 26, 2016

“Then Jesus said to someone else, ‘Follow me.’ He replied, ‘Lord, first let me go and bury my father.’” (Luke 9:59)

Blame it on Thomas Lynch, author of the laugh-out-loud, cry-at-the-next-page The Undertaking.

golfOn a recent walk I angled—probably illegally—across a golf course about fifteen minutes from home. When I wasn’t dodging the abundance of fowl (let’s be polite) crapola around a water hazard, I gazed at the lawn’s verdant, undulating expanse and the fake groves of trees planted to look natural, and thought two thoughts.

First, I pondered golfers on that sunny June day. Blue sky. Air clean enough to view the details of the Sierra Nevada Mountains forty miles to the east. But not one duffer strode, golf-carted or created divots on any of the six or seven holes I tromped near while trespassing for my morning exercise. Not one! Of course, the wind blew a steady twenty mph. Gusted to thirty. The colorful triangular flags marking the greens where hackers aimed their dimpled spheres bent like bows about to launch an arrow against the gale. Still, can’t a hardy fellow or gal with a thoughtful eye and steady swing compensate for a hurricane and still enjoy a brisk round of eighteen?

Wimps, I tell you.

Second, bring in Mr. Lynch. I recalled an idea he suggested in The Undertaking, his book about what he calls the dismal trade:

The ancient and ongoing duty of the land to receive the dead aligned with the burgeoning craze in the golf business led, by post-modern devolution, to my vision of a place where one could commemorate their Uncle Larry and work on their short game at the same time—two hundred acres devoted to memories and memorable holes; where tears wept over a missed birdie commingled with those wept over a parent’s grave. A Golfatorium!

A Golfatorium: combining a cemetery and golf fairway. How crass! How materialistic! Or brilliant? Lynch is an undertaker. And even though he besmirched the name “Larry” in his example, he’s a thoughtful mortician.

I’m sure Lynch wasn’t serious. Or was he?

But there I sauntered, encircled by well-kept grass, well-placed water hazards, and well-tended sand traps, contemplating death.

A third thought, as if carried on the wind, arrived. In Luke’s Gospel, Jesus invited others to join him as he headed for Jerusalem and danger.

“Lord, first let me go and bury my father.”

Jesus said to him, “Let the dead bury their own dead. But you go and spread the news of God’s kingdom.”

lynchUndertakingThomas Lynch, the undertaker, and Jesus of Nazareth, undertaking his journey, aren’t on the same page . . . are they? Using humor, the very twenty-first century Lynch bemoans our abandonment of respecting death. Our culture is youth obsessed. Our rites honoring the dead and helping the grieving have been reduced to cost-efficient graveside services. When I attended seminary the vice-president of Forest Lawn (a sprawling cemetery in southern California) gave a presentation. He noted the increase of cremations and remembered one deceased who’d requested the song, Smoke Gets In Your Eyes.

Reverence has become irreverence. Respect has been buried in the grave of consumerism and convenience.

But why shouldn’t it? Wasn’t the first-century Jesus saying that? Who cares about the dead? Let them bury themselves. Get on with life. Don’t dwell on family obligations or societal expectations. Proclaiming the good news means there’s no time to look back or linger for grief. Get a grip (and I don’t mean on a nine iron) and get going!

And yet I think Lynch’s mordant humor and Jesus’ brash demand share a common ground.

I always struggle to live in this moment. This. Moment.

I have trouble hearing you because of listening to myself. I wrestle with honesty because sometimes I don’t want to hurt your feelings. Or I only want to hurt you and therefore refuse to acknowledge your honesty or your anguish. I dwell on the past because it’s safer to rehash old mistakes. I imagine a pie-in-the-sky (or the sky-is-falling-down) future to avoid today’s responsibilities.

Lynch, of the dismal trade, has witnessed too many people ignore death and grieving. I also have, professionally in churches and in my hospice work. A loved one dies and we keep busy. We may have buried a body, but there’s no way to bury our anguish and loss.

Forest Lawn Cemetery
Forest Lawn Cemetery

Jesus knew how easily people avoided here-and-now life. I know about avoidance also, in personal ways. Procrastination is always (at least for me) more seductive than seeking or receiving forgiveness. Nearly every time the Nazarene mentioned the “Kingdom of God,” he talked of finding a treasure already in your grasp, sharing a coat, table fellowship, or comforting the stranger right in front of you who is hurt. Here and . . . now.

I leave the golf course and return to the sidewalk. Was I on sacred ground? Could it be so?

Isn’t every step we take on holy turf?

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  1. I have now invested 2 morning pages sessions on this subject and am still not through the list of topics you triggered for me.
    Being in the moment. Have you ever lived with someone who is mostly in the moment? It is not as peaceful and joyous as it is sounds in poetry and prose.
    Jesus asking us to step up.
    Youth culture, consumerism and procrastination.
    Golf course uses that I know several people, no matter what the rules were, would sign up for, when their time comes to get that space at their favorite course. I smiled all day yesterday about that thread of thought.
    Reverence for tradition that came to be over time to help us work through our grief.
    There were more juicy bits, but these were the topics that jumped out at me. Thank you!

    1. Cherrie . . . I would qualify “living in the moment . . .” by adding “. . . as I live with and serve others.” Or some similar variation! I think I understand what you’re saying, since the “living in the moment” can have lots of selfish downsides. But I believe Jesus longed for people to be relational (with God and neighbor) in the present experience. Hey, thanks for reading!

  2. Your comments reminded me of a poem I wrote.

    I Dipped My Hands into the Stars

    In the Boundary Waters, between Canada and the USA,
    The holy dwells.
    All earthly beauty is reflected in the mirror of fresh water:
    Tall green pines rooted deeply against the storms,
    Large gray rocks etched with ancient life,
    Shrubs of tiny blueberries, delicious in morning pancakes,
    And the bluest of blue skies.

    All is silence.
    There are no motor boats, no cars, not even airplanes.
    No harsh sounds to break the quiet.
    Only the soft sounds of nature:
    The lap of water gently kissing the rocky shores,
    A cool breeze playing in the pines,
    And the occasional haunting cry of the loon.
    With no calendar to keep,
    Each moment is awake,
    Alert to life
    And her beauty.

    One night I stumbled through the dark
    Looking for a place to rinse my hands.
    Having camped on a small island in this watery world,
    I could find the lake in any direction.
    When I found a dark patch of water
    I looked out across the lake’s great expanse.
    The distant trees etched black shapes against the starry sky.
    For a moment, I just stood in awe.

    Then I knelt to wash my hands.
    My eyes focused on the stars scattered before me.
    The watery mirror brought them right to my feet!
    I caught my breath.
    It was a holy moment
    When I dipped my hands into the stars.

    But we all live
    in Boundary Waters,
    Where the holy fills the mundane.
    When I run water to wash my dishes,
    Am I aware
    that once again
    I dip my hands into the stars?
    – by Kathryn Pfaltzgraff

    1. Whoa, Kathryn, thanks for sharing. I read your work aloud. Reading and hearing: twice blessed. I’ll keep my feeble eyes open for stars today . . .

      1. Larry,

        Thanks for the profound and life-enhancing thought of living in the moment. Too often I find myself saying “someday soon I’ll…” when all I/we ever have is now. Only now can I can act mercifully, patiently, and lovingly to another. Later may never come. And Kathyrn, having paddled the Boundary Watters myself a few years ago, please let accept my gratitude for taking me there once again. Your words reminded me to cherish the memory of those star-filled, sacred moments.

        1. Thanks for responding, Tom. And I obviously agree with your gratitude for Kathryn sharing her poem. It was a real bonus!

  3. Larry, was simone Weil that the gift of attention is the highest form of generosity…? I am always amazed at your gift for making connections and helping us to see, consider and edge towards generosity. Thank you for sharing your hints and clues. May we consider the lilies….
    Cheers, from Marc, Kelly and girls

    1. Thanks, Marc. I think Ms. Weil did say that . . . and also: “Human existence is so fragile a thing and exposed to such dangers that I cannot love without trembling.” So, I tremble and write. And you tremble and preach. Even more, my friend, you tremble and love your lovely wife and children. Blessings!

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