Thursday, February 9, 2017

Alleluia in a time of fear

This year I have missed the snow; there is something about how it shifts perspective just enough to see things anew. I live across the street from a cemetery, and in the winter when the trees have lost their leaves you can see it in a way you can’t in the summer.   Usually the gravestones blend in to frozen winter mud, but today they stand in stark relief against the white ground.

I will miss “our” cemetery when we move to Pittsburgh—it’s where our kids learned to ride their bikes without training wheels and where we go to find puddles to jump in after rain storms. And I’ll miss the daily reminder of death: not an absence of life, but as a marker of transition, life beyond life. Each stone is its own warren of stories of heartbreak and loss and love and hope. As a priest, I love Sunday Eucharists, but funerals will always hold my sacramental heart most firmly. As we commend the dead to God, we declare against all odds and evidence to the contrary, “Even at the grave, we make our song, alleluia, alleluia, alleluia.” Each of the stones across the street from my house carries its own alleluias.

As it is our job to hold our alleluias high in times of death, so it is in times of fear, and we’ve got plenty of fear now. I don’t really think of myself as particularly patriotic.  My mother is Swedish and even after almost 50 years in this country still hasn’t chosen to become an American citizen, so I was raised with a certain degree of skepticism at the exceptionalist narrative that is sometimes taken for granted. But complicated times bring out complicated feelings, and over the last months I’ve felt more American, not less.

I had this sense most powerfully a few weeks ago at the funeral for a parishioner when military representatives came to present the flag to his widow. I often have mixed feelings about this. In addition to my sometime-ambivalence about patriotism, I’m a pacifist; I believe that war is contrary to Christian practice. Service and sacrifice, of course, have their own beauty, in any form.  The folding of the flag, the saluting, the playing of Taps—it’s as liturgical as anything we do on Sunday.  There was something so lovely about it as two young men of different races (one white, one Latino), stepped into this ritual beyond politics or ethnicity or any other identity.   I had such a sense that our country is bigger than the fear and prejudice that seems to now to be holding the day.  The American ideals of equality and justice are betrayed—all the time. But they are still our ideals. They are still what every  veteran offered themselves for and remember during that same ritual with the flag.  We might all disagree with any particular detail of how to accomplish our ideals, but there they are. My other teary-eyed flag moment came shortly after the end of “Don’t Ask Don’t Tell”, when for the first time I saw a flag handed to the same gender partner of the person I was burying. George and Frank were in their eighties and had lived together as “friends” for many, many years when George died.

So continued gratitude for this strange country, for love, for justice. Even in the midst of all the graves and all the contradictions and all the sorrow and anger and confusion, we make our song. Alleluia.

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