“We wish not to be unclothed but further clothed”

“We wish not to be unclothed but further clothed”

This time last week, our family was crowded in a hospice room watching as my mother-in-law lay dying.  She died in the early hours of Saturday morning, and we  celebrated her life at a funeral on Tuesday.  Here is the funeral homily I preached on the strange teaching from II Corinthians that in death “what is mortal may be swallowed up by life.”     For those of you who know our family and would like to read about Pat’s death, you can go to http://www.caringbridge.org/visit/patdelony  Now that we are back in Ft. Worth, I’ll be able to get back on track with my blog posting.

Funeral Homily for Patricia Reagan Delony, Trinity Episcopal Cathedral in Little Rock, Feb. 21, 2012

Last Friday I picked up our daughters early from their middle school, and we drove to Little Rock hoping to make it in time to say goodbye to their grandmother. In the evening, the family gathered around Pat’s hospice bed. 
As we kept watch, each of us – her husband Lawson, her sister, her children and her five grandchildren, went up close and talked to Pat, telling her how much we loved her.  She would open her eyes a little and lift her arm off the pillow as if to touch us.  She tried to talk but could make just one soft, little “o” sound.  We held hands in a circle around her bed and prayed. 

We sang a verse or two of old familiar hymns and then a few drinking songs that were favorites of her father. We told stories.  We laughed and cried.  A few hours later, in the middle of the night, Pat died with her daughter Diane there beside her. It was a beautiful death.

I’ve been thinking about deathbeds lately and not only Pat’s.  When my Great-Grandpa Miles was dying his last words came from our epistle reading for today.  He squeezed my Uncle Ivy’s hand and said, “Don’t worry about me son, I have a house not made with hands, eternal in the heavens.” Growing up with that story, I always thought he was talking about a house, like that “mansion just over the hilltop” that we sing about in the old song.  But really in this text the “house not made with hands” is not about a house but about our immortality. Our earthly bodies become clothed in a heavenly body, a heavenly dwelling.

The text that Abbey read for us earlier is very strange.  Let’s look at it more closely.  [II Corinthians 4 and 5]

“Even though our outer nature is wasting away, our inner nature is being renewed day by day. For this slight momentary affliction is preparing us for an eternal weight of glory beyond all measure.  [In other words, the difficulties and suffering in this life are getting us ready for something amazing, for glory, even the “eternal weight of glory.”]18because we look not at what can be seen but at what cannot be seen; for what can be seen is temporary, but what cannot be seen is eternal.

“For we know that if the earthly tent we live in [that is our body] is destroyed, we have a building from God, a house not made with hands, eternal in the heavens. 2  [The text is talking here not about a house like the ones we live in, but our heavenly body, an eternal body.] For in this tent we groan, longing to be clothed with our heavenly dwelling. For while we are still in this tent [this earthly body] we groan under our burden, because we wish not to be unclothed but to be further clothed, so that what is mortal may be swallowed up by life.  [Notice that our mortal bodies are not cast away here, but are clothed, swallowed by life, by immortality.]  He who has prepared us for this very thing is God, who has given us the Spirit as a guarantee.”

I teach theology for a living and spend much more time than is really healthy thinking about the teachings of the church.  And there are some doozies.  What does it mean that in death our mortal bodies are “swallowed up by life” and we are clothed with a heavenly dwelling?

Over the years, when I have thought about the contrast between our suffering in the flesh in this life and our new covering, this house not made with hands, I have most often thought of Pat.

Pat lived a life of tensions.  For almost 65 years, she suffered with chronic pain and with the distress that came in its wake.  And yet she was still filled with laughter.  In her final years, she experienced growing confusion and bewilderment but still there was that recurring laughter and joy.  For years it has pleased me to think about the restoration and health that Pat would have in eternity.

For Pat pain and joy were intermingled.  As a young girl, Pat got into mischief.  I would tell you a few stories of the things that she said and did, but it would just embarrass Lawson … not that that every stopped Pat!

She was a star basketball player in high school. She loved to jitterbug and go to parties.  She was and remained an enthusiastic supporter of her ball teams – the Razorbacks and the Danville Little Johns. She was a proud yellow dog Democrat. When she could no longer drive, she agreed to give her car to her grandson Nathan … on one condition – that he vote for Democrats in the next two presidential elections.  Pat was full of life and fun and love for her family and friends.

But she also had chronic pain that began in high school and grew over time.  And as the pain increased, so did her anxiety and distress.  For Pat the joy and celebration and love always went alongside distress and pain.

In the last week of Pat’s life, she was very ill.  We soon realized that she would likely die.  I was in a melancholy mood and went around the house muttering that line from Isaiah 40: “All flesh is like the grass. The grass withers and fades away.”

Our 11 year old Katherine finally stopped me, “Mom, that may be true for you, but my flesh is not like the grass. It is not withering and fading away.”  I was tempted to say, “You just wait, sweetheart.” But then I realized that she was right.  Of course, on the one hand, our flesh is like the grass in the sense that it is short-lived. But, if this II Corinthians text is to be believed, our flesh also matters.  In this text mortality is taken up into immortality, our flesh is clothed in an eternal covering.  In this transient life of the flesh, including its suffering and distress, we are being prepared for the eternal weight of glory.

Our daughters are 11 and 13, so they’ve known their grandmother only in these last difficult years.  I have been talking with them about what their grandmother was like in earlier years and about the life that has been restored to her in death.  She has a house not made with hands, eternal in the heavens.

A few days ago I found Anna drawing a picture of her grandmother playing basketball.  She was airborne and flying through the air with her legs tucked and her hand raised high slam-dunking the ball.  This image has stayed with me, as I think about the life Pat takes on after death, about the form that her immortal body might take.

Paintings of the physical resurrection will often reflect what was thought of at the time as the ideal body.  Some medieval paintings of the resurrection show whole fields of young, good-looking men rising from the ground.  In that era, this was considered the ideal form that, in the resurrection, would clothe the believers – male or female, young or old.  (I feel compelled to add this is sexist, of course. And almost as bad, for most of the men in the congregation, coming to life on resurrection morning and finding yourself surrounded only by other men could prove to be a great disappointment!)

What is this ideal form into which we are raised?  What might that be for Pat?

Might the ideal form be the basketball star, airborne and slam dunking the ball?  Might it be the young bride leaving the church on the arm of her new husband?  Might it be the young mother bringing her children for baptism at this very altar?  Might it be the grandmother sitting on her back porch with her grandchildren talking about everything and nothing?

What is the ideal form of beauty?  In what form might Pat’s new body appear?

St Augustine of Hippo talked about the resurrected body of the martyrs.  Perhaps the scars left from their wounds might be considered beautiful in eternity.  Perhaps their wounds were their adornment and their honor.

Maybe for Pat the ideal form would include the wounds she took in this life.  Our pain and suffering does not continue in eternity, but perhaps we still bear, as Augustine wrote, “the marks of our wounds.”

Might the ideal form for Pat include the ways that she was shaped by chronic pain, by the emotional wounds she took as she watched her teenage son suffer from cancer, and by the grief she felt at the loss of her parents and sisters?  Might the ideal form for Pat include even that frail woman in a hospice bed who could barely raise her arm from the pillow and could make only one small, soft sound?

Friday night, as Anna and I were leaving St Vincent’s hospital, I was telling her that the last time I was there was the night my grandmother died 22 years ago. I talked about Lawson and his sister Irene caring for their father at St. Vincent’s on his last night more than three decades ago. And now her father and her Aunt Diane were watching their mother die.  I talked my way through several other deaths, including my mother’s death three years ago, and then, still brooding, I said something to Anna that was perhaps not the wisest thing to say to any 13 year old:  “Well, sweetheart, that’s what it comes to. One generation after the next, we watch each other die.”

Anna looked at me for a long time and finally said, “Well, mom, that was awkward.”  Then we both started laughing and couldn’t stop.

At one level, I was right. That’s what it comes to; one generation to the next, we watch each other die.

But if this II Corinthians text is to be believed, there is more to it.  This, also, is what it comes to; one generation to the next, we take on new life.  One generation to the next, we are prepared for an eternal weight of glory.  One generation to the next, we are clothed with a heavenly dwelling, a house not made with hands, eternal in the heavens.

In the face of this truth and this hope, what can we say, we who love the Lord, but glory be to the Father and to the Son and to the Holy Spirit; as it was in the beginning is now and ever shall be, world without end. Amen.

2 responses to this post.

  1. Posted by Christine Jones on February 25, 2012 at 4:27 pm

    Just beautiful.


  2. Posted by Nan Nelson on February 25, 2012 at 7:02 pm

    Beautiful, heart-wrenching, and so full of truth. Thank you for sharing.


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