Precious in the sight of the Lord
is the death of his faithful ones.
--Psalm 116:15 NRSV
We’ve passed into autumn and my heart’s been tender lately. I keep thinking about my mother who died two year’s ago this November. Two years ago on Labor Day weekend my mother fell and hit her head. The scans of her head revealed she had a brain tumor and two months later it killed her. The months of September and October 2018 were filled with frantic trips to see the oncologist to discuss the biopsy and radiation treatments just to give my mother a few more weeks or months. All of that was fruitless, because my mother didn’t have more time. She died slowly but painlessly under the care of the great people at KC Hospice’s Hospice House in south KC.
I know I’m not done grieving my mother, because I tear up at the strangest times. The Hunger Games young adult books keep making me cry. My younger son and I have been reading The Hunger Games series together. It’s a powerful series that raises questions about government manipulation, violence as entertainment and even compassion for one’s enemies. When death comes in these books, it often comes suddenly. Yet, the deaths in these books are not gratuitous and those who die are often mourned. The main character and narrator finds time to grieve companions and loved ones in ways that are all the more tender because their context seems so uncaring. I keep choking up every time it happens, and I think of sitting by my mother’s bedside as she moved from this life into the next. If I’m crying while reading The Hunger Games something must really be going on inside of me!
I subscribe to a daily devotional that arrives in my email inbox each morning offered by The United Church of Christ. A recent one written by UCC minister Quinn Caldwell made me think about death in a completely different way. I haven’t seen the musical Hamilton but Caldwell describes what happens at its conclusion. (SPOILER ALERT—skip ahead if you don’t want to read what happens at the end of Hamilton)
At the very end of the musical Hamilton, the newly deceased Eliza Hamilton, having been reunited with her son and husband, faces the audience. Her eyes grow wide, she gasps loudly in delight, and the house goes dark. Curtain.
Much has been made of that gasp, especially in the days since those of us who couldn’t afford to see the show in person watched it streaming online. What did she see, or understand? Was it God? Did she break the fourth wall and see the audience sitting there and realize the work she’d done to preserve her husband’s legacy had come to new fruition? Something else? Lin Manuel Miranda’s not telling, and of course that’s part of the point.
I had never considered the moment of death resulting in a gasp of surprise by the one who has died. I’ve always thought about the light people report seeing who have had near-death experiences. I’ve thought of the one who dies experiencing peace or joy when they show up in heaven—whatever heaven is like. I have never thought that a surprise great enough to make one gasp was waiting for each of us.
Images that come to mind when I ponder that kind of surprise are the reaction of folks when the Publisher’s Clearinghouse people show up with a giant check or the reaction of the audience when Oprah gave each of them a new car or maybe one of those America’s Funniest Videos where the kids are told they are headed on a surprise trip to Disney World. Yet, since this is God we are talking about, the surprise waiting for us is even greater than any of those!
As if I haven’t had enough unexpected tears lately, Quinn Caldwell goes on in his devotional to quote the hymn that always makes me cry when its sung in church.
There’s a line in the hymn “I Was There to Hear Your Borning Cry” that regularly makes me weep. At the end, after the hymn has taken us through a human lifetime marked by God’s constant presence, it says,
“As the evening gently closes in
and you shut your weary eyes,
I’ll be there as I have always been,
with just one more surprise.”
It's good to know I’m not alone in crying over this hymn. I guess I’ve been too teary to ponder that final line “just one more surprise.’ Again, of all things I’ve considered dying would be like, I had never thought of the dying person receiving such a joyful surprise after their body exhales its last breath. What an amazing thought.
If you see me over the next few weeks, you might find me getting teary-eyed at strange moments. I keep marveling at whatever the latest weird thing is to make me cry and think of my mom. Now, I’m imagining my mother’s gasp at the surprise God had waiting for her. I wonder what amazing thing made her gasp so?
Grace and Peace,
Rev. Chase Peeples
6601 Northwest 72nd Street, Kansas City, MO 64151 | 816-741-1851