Reflections on loss and life.

The price we pay for love is grief. The death of a long-term friend raises lots of questions and challenges.

Although I am now in the “My Aged Care” generation, I like to think of myself as being in midlife, provided I live to be 140!  As I enter my seventies, I’ve been catching up with friends I’ve known for more than 50 years. Oh my, we ‘Boomers’ have changed quite a bit since 1973. ‘Baby boomers’ are also discovering our mortality. For a while, we were “Forever young”, never expecting to grow old. We hoped that good health would continue, supplemented by medications and joint replacements. We have moved from “Living in the Seventies” to living in our seventies!

Life is beautiful, but often too short. A Jewish saying advises that each person should have a note in each pocket. In one pocket, the note should say, “For you the universe was created.” The note in the other pocket should say “You are dust.” These days, I am aware, every day, of the dustiness of life in my own body and in the lives of dear friends.

We are made for relationships. That’s the way God made us. We need and seek connections with others. Sometimes it is superficial and short-lived. I am fortunate that many of my relationships have depth and have been long-lasting. I think what makes these relationships close-knit is the mutual giving, one to another. While such a notion is usually thought of as happening between family members, I think it can include close friendships.

These reflections may sound strange, coming from a man, especially one who grew up in a reserved, monosyllabic family. Fortunately, though, just as my faith has developed to the place where I can talk freely about God, so too my friends and I have matured in our relationships. We hug each other when we meet, and we have reached the place of being comfortable telling each other that we love each other.

Over the past few years, several of my friends have been diagnosed with life-threatening cancers. Recently, one of my close friends and a ministerial colleague, with whom I had journeyed for many years, died of cancer.  She was only 62 years old.

I measure my days against the lifespan of celebrity rock-stars, sports people and well-known former politicians. Funerals and memorial services characterise my work as minister of Waranga Uniting Churches. I live with the burden of knowing that I shall mourn and bury many of the people who sit before me each Sunday. As a pastor, neighbour, and friend, I don’t need anyone to remind me of the fragility and uncertainty of life.

If I give of myself to another, when they die, I not only lose our companionship and connectedness, I also lose some of myself. I think that is one reason why the death of another can be experienced as such loss. But on the other hand, that person in turn, has given me a piece of themselves, which I can continually carry with me. It’s one reason to have things that remind us of those that have died. It rekindles our sense of what they gave us.

My ministerial colleague was never ready to die. She knew she was dying, and we talked about it at some length. We speculated about the nature of the After-life. We struggled with what it might be. We could not embrace simplistic and dated popular images of clouds and angels and white robes. Children of the modern age, we did hold fast to the eternity of God’s love and the resilience of the human essence.

What survives, and in what form? Is it our love, our emotions, our concern, our “essence”, our human loyalty and trust?  I don’t have an answer, but I do know that, besides the sense of loss within me when a friend passes on, there is also a sense of hope about their continuing presence.

The salvation promised and hoped for in our youth required turning our backs on the joys of embodiment and the beauties of the earth. Faithful Christians trained their eyes on heaven, forsaking the present time for eternity, and embodiment for legalism and self-denial. Yes, life is serious and risky, and no-one gets out alive, but my friend and colleague and I no longer viewed salvation as an escape from this world. We wanted to celebrate everlasting beauty in each passing moment. We decided to be “citizens of heaven”, while joyfully living here on earth.

So as I enjoy a short break from work, I am considering the “lilies of the field” and the “birds of the air.” I will enjoy the beauty of the windswept beach on my morning walk. I will live more in the moment, appreciating God’s grandeur, and believing the good news – the embodied, yet everlasting, Gospel of beauty, wonder, and grace – the good news of walking with beauty all around me. For “This is the day that God has made. I will rejoice and be glad in it!

This is the gospel, and it’s good news!

Brian Spencer, Minister, Waranga Uniting Churches.