Monday, November 30, 2015

A Eulogy For My Brother

*** Offered on November 19th in Frederick, Maryland. ***

Hello.  My name is Frank Guertin.  On behalf of my sister-in-law Charlotte and my mother Kathy, we thank you for joining us today to celebrate the life of my brother, David.  Your presence honors and comforts us during this difficult time.  It has been an extraordinary week.

In my family, we honor someone through the honest telling of their story.  We laugh together about the struggles we have had and cherish the joy we found as we tried to love one another in all of our imperfections.  So I want to spend our few moments together this afternoon doing that for my brother.
Will you pray with me please?

Heavenly Father, I give you praise for bringing us together this afternoon.  You are a gracious God, abounding in love and full of compassion.

We invite your Presence into our midst as we remember David.  Thank you for blessing us with his life.  Our hearts are heavy with his passing.  We need your comfort and peace now and in the days and months ahead.

We trust in your goodness and mercy.  Thank you for giving us one another in times like these.

In Jesus’s name, amen.

When I reflected on my brother’s life this week, it reminded me of a very familiar parable from Jesus called “The Prodigal Son.”

In Luke 15 it reads:

11 “There was a man who had two sons. 12 The younger one said to his father, ‘Father, give me my share of the estate.’ So he divided his property between them.

13 “Not long after that, the younger son got together all he had, set off for a distant country and there squandered his wealth in wild living. 14 After he had spent everything, there was a severe famine in that whole country, and he began to be in need. 15 So he went and hired himself out to a citizen of that country, who sent him to his fields to feed pigs. 16 He longed to fill his stomach with the pods that the pigs were eating, but no one gave him anything.

17 “When he came to his senses, he said, ‘How many of my father’s hired servants have food to spare, and here I am starving to death! 18 I will set out and go back to my father and say to him: Father, I have sinned against heaven and against you. 19 I am no longer worthy to be called your son; make me like one of your hired servants.’ 20 So he got up and went to his father.

“But while he was still a long way off, his father saw him and was filled with compassion for him; he ran to his son, threw his arms around him and kissed him.

21 “The son said to him, ‘Father, I have sinned against heaven and against you. I am no longer worthy to be called your son.’

22 “But the father said to his servants, ‘Quick! Bring the best robe and put it on him. Put a ring on his finger and sandals on his feet. 23 Bring the fattened calf and kill it. Let’s have a feast and celebrate. 24 For this son of mine was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found.’ So they began to celebrate.

When I think about my brother’s life, it’s OK to use the word ‘prodigal.’  But instead of one giant moment of coming back, David had many moments of celebration with his family and friends.  His disease of addiction would often take him into the pig’s pen, but he would soon fight his way back to loving relationships.  And we would kill the fattened calf every time because those were moments for rejoicing.

God is a generous God.  He loves beyond our human expectations.  He gives beyond our deepest desires.  And He restores the broken people of the world over and over again.  It’s part of what makes God marvelous.

My brother knew God well.  He was a deeply spiritual man who needed restoration again and again.  I like to think of my brother as a homeless Christian, someone who followed the ways of Jesus but could never live in the community of the faithful very long.  For David, it was hard to feel worthy enough to live in God’s house and to enjoy the love of others.  But I am confident God held my brother in His hands his entire life, especially when David couldn’t feel it.

In this past week, his prodigal journey came to an end.  As I sat with him and watched the breath leave his body, I kissed him on the forehead and closed his eyes.  I want you to know that there was no hint of the pig pen in his hair or on his skin.  And as I lifted my head from his, I smelled that final fattened calf being prepared in heaven for the son who had finally … finally come home. 

Song – Amazing Grace

  1. Amazing grace! How sweet the sound
    That saved a wretch like me!
    I once was lost, but now am found;
    Was blind, but now I see.
  2. ’Twas grace that taught my heart to fear,
    And grace my fears relieved;
    How precious did that grace appear
    The hour I first believed.
  3. Through many dangers, toils and snares,
    I have already come;
    ’Tis grace hath brought me safe thus far,
    And grace will lead me home.
  4. The Lord has promised good to me,
    His Word my hope secures;
    He will my Shield and Portion be,
    As long as life endures.
  5. Yea, when this flesh and heart shall fail,
    And mortal life shall cease,
    I shall possess, within the veil,
    A life of joy and peace.
  6. When we’ve been there ten thousand years,
    Bright shining as the sun,
    We’ve no less days to sing God’s praise
    Than when we’d first begun.
Now I want to share with you a few memories that capture the spirit of my brother.  If you knew him long, you saw the amazing good that was in him, even in the darkest moments of his life. 

David was a tender man.  I saw this with animals while we were growing up.  He loved them.  From our hamster Ichabod to the numerous cats (Luther, Dexter, Buttons) that shared our home over the years, he really connected with all creatures great and small.  Nature was a wondrous playground for him.  He loved to hike, fish, and share creation with those he cared about.  The Berkshires gave us so many places to explore and enjoy.

He was also tender with his fellow man.  I cannot count the number of times David cared for the outcast and the stranger.  He loved the marginalized, the downtrodden, and the forgotten.  He cared about people and tried to restore dignity to those who really needed it.  When David was doing well, he became one of the most generous people I have ever met.  He gave to people no one else could see, the invisible, silent ones that needed a loving touch in their lives.  He understood mercy and practiced it with others.

He was also tender towards Charlotte.  She was the great love of his life.  The hardest part of our journey this week was seeing that marriage end in this tragedy.  Charlotte and Dave fought for their relationship to be better.  They deserved to see fruit come out of that struggle.  But God called David home before they could experience that satisfaction.

David was a good kid.  That’s the phrase my mother said over and over growing up, no matter what trouble he was into at the moment.  I also remember another phrase, you little shit.  That was an equally good description.  When my mother was potty-training him, Dave used to hide his poo and expect her to find it.  It was like some sort of bizarre Easter egg hunt.  Obviously he obtained the skill, but mom was going to pay the price.  He was a free spirit in so many ways.  Mom also tells the story of being on the phone for a few minutes when we lived in an apartment of a triple decker.  David was two then.  By the time she finished her five minute conversation, David had crawled down all three flights of stairs and was playing with other kids out in the street.
David and I grew up fatherless.  So we had a series of stand-in dads that tried to love us in those gaps.  Looking back, it was a funny patchwork of people.  One was Charlie, or Ching as everyone called him.  He used to take us fishing a lot.  I’m not sure he really knew what he was doing honestly.  We never came home with fish.

Another was John, who was still living out his glory days as a high school athlete.  One time he took us up to the top of Pittsfield State Forest so we could cross country ski our way down the main road at break neck speeds.   It’s amazing Dave and I didn’t go flying off the ledge.  It was crazy dangerous.  And then there was Ron, who used to take Dave on motorcycle rides.  They had a special bond.  Ron passed away from a heart attack and I remember the sadness he felt knowing he couldn’t see him anymore.  And of course, we were blessed to have a large extended family.  Everyone chipped in a bit, helping to shape us into the people we are today.
Dave followed me around some after I left Massachusetts.  I couldn’t see it back then, but it was hard for him to lose me as I went on with my adult life.  I guess I should have known that though.  We were very close as children.  We shared the same bedroom for 10 years.  I can remember many stormy nights when I would hear his voice across the room.

“Are you awake?”
“I’m scared of the thunder.”
“Do you want to come over here and sleep with me?”

And we would share the bed until the storm passed.

You may not know this, but David was not the most organized person.  Our childhood bedroom was a little war zone between two personalities.  He had his side with everything strewn everywhere and I had my side, all situated and put away.  In some ways, that bedroom on Elm Street captured the nature of our relationship.  It was give and take, forgiveness and mercy, everything complementing everything else.  I wish I could have appreciated how beautiful that was back then.  It pretty much annoyed me though.
When my wife and I moved to Tennessee, he lived with us in a very small one bedroom apartment for a short while.  Our cat, Miccia, did not like the arrangement.  One day she chased him into the bathroom, standing guard at the door menacingly.  My brother had to escape out the bathroom window in terror.  But to Dave’s credit, Miccia was a pretty nasty cat we later put down.  In the same apartment, he offered to fix our washer, only to flood the entire living room floor soon after.  At that point, my wife Nikki made it clear that 3 Guertins in a one-bedroom apartment does not a happy life make.

David was brilliant with machines.  If it didn’t work, Dave could fix it.  Sometimes he fixed things by the book, so to speak.  Sometimes, he understood a machine so well he could find a repair shortcut that wasn’t exactly what the manual recommended.  He was a maverick that way.  When he lived in Nashville, I ran with him on a few jobs.  It was like being in the whirlwind back then, running all over God’s green earth to fix hot water heaters and dishwashers and whatever else Dave could charge for.  His genius earned my respect.  I couldn’t do what he did.  I just wasn’t smart enough.

But there was something more when it came to his work.  He loved helping people, most of them anyway.  Some customers were worth billing double because of their attitudes!  But when David saw a genuine person in need, his heart softened almost instantaneously.  I loved watching that happen on a service call.  He would give his talents away because he wanted to bless some honest soul who needed a boost.  He was so compassionate in those moments.

He was also incredibly musical.  Music was a big part of his life from early on.  He played a mean guitar and was self-taught.  He could hear how music was put together and then strum it out just so.  I was very jealous of this, too.  I even gave him my 12-string Yamaha while I was in college once I realized Dave had a gift to play and all I had were sore fingers.

Dave liked living on the edge.  From bikes to hot rods to whatever else he could make go fast, he loved to race things.  And he paid the price a few times.  He spent months in traction after a motorcycle accident and suffered pain from that injury for the rest of his life.  He also bought a nice ’67 Camaro, which he promptly drove off the road into the woods.

Losing him yesterday brings all of these wonderful memories back to my mind.  I loved my brother and the whirlwind that often came with him.  He was hilarious, wise, kind, ridiculously intelligent, adventurous, and beautiful.  The disease of addiction clouded his light far too often and the world became a little smaller whenever that darkness set in.

Now I’d like to offer anyone who would like to an opportunity to share a short story about Dave that has stayed with them, especially ones that help us celebrate the life he lived.

(Stories from family and friends)

Thank you for sharing those memories.  As we draw this service to a close, I want to read a passage from the book of Isaiah. 

This comes from chapter 41:

Do you not know?  Have you not heard?
The Lord is the everlasting God, the Creator of the ends of the earth.
He will not grow tired or weary, and his understanding no one can fathom.
He gives strength to the weary and increases the power of the weak.
Even youths grow tired and weary, and young men stumble and fall;
but those who hope in the Lord will renew their strength.
They will soar on wings like eagles; they will run and not grow weary,
they will walk and not be faint.

I am glad David is soaring now, that there is rest for him, that he runs with the wind.  We will miss you, David.
On behalf of Charlotte, my mother, and myself, thank you again for sharing in our sorrow and joy. 

Let us pray:

Father, we commit this moment to you.  Thank you for the love that is here.  Be with each of us as we go out.  Tend to our hearts and help us find new paths of hope and healing away from this loss.  Thank you for letting us know David.  He was a blessing to our lives in more ways than we could ever know.

In Jesus name, amen.

Tuesday, October 6, 2015

Arming For The Great Confession

The Oregon shooting gives me pause, once again.  The tragedy, and others like it in recent years, quickly steal my sense of solace.  I ache when I contemplate the deep loss and legacy of trauma now woven into that community's identity.  I wonder at how things could change in the milieu of our tumultuous culture.

News like this also proliferates puzzling rhetoric.  People are tempted to use moments of heightened attention to energize peculiar political philosophies.  Case and point from my home state of Tennessee...  Lt. Gov. Ramsey called Christians "serious about their faith" to a level of weapon preparedness.  I confess I had to read this a few times to make sure I hadn't missed some context to the statement.  I don't think I have.

It is an anathema in the Christian tradition to associate might of this kind with preparedness.  The Christ story culminates on the very opposite stance, a crucifixion at the hands of the Powers.  Christians of the first century faced force with faith and wore a spiritual armor composed of things like truth, righteousness, and peace.  Swords are brandished too, but not of the metallic kind.

These confessions of identity in Oregon were offered to a powerful someone plagued with mental illness.  This attribute of the killer seems muted in some versions of the UCC telling.  And if all the victims had been armed as entreated by my political official, the outcome would have been a very different kind of tragedy.  This alternative ending also seems lost in the conversation.

I grieve alongside UCC and I wonder if it is time for some Christian communities to offer some sort of Great Confession.  It need follow the course of an apology, a request for immense forgiveness.  We have become so afraid of what is that we no longer dream of what could be.  We neglect the neglected because we fear the commitments those relationships bring.  We leave the isolated on their islands and build our own to further buttress our ideas of gospel.  We convince ourselves, regularly, that killing our enemies is in service to the greater love we espouse.

For these toxicities and more we deeply apologize and solicit forgiveness from our others, wherever they may be.

Friday, July 24, 2015

New and the Now

Christianity shines most vibrant when time and circumstance intersect in a meaningful way. 

Christians testify to a certain Reality about life.  Believers are rooted in that resurrected imagination.  Present events are consequently interpreted paradoxically.  What seems dead and discarded can also present a shimmer of strength and vitality.  Things fallen by the wayside are picked up and tended to.  The least of these, in the hands of disciples, is lifted high by a love infused with Divine intention. 

Thus Christian meaning is felt when claims of hope speak into the objects of daily existence.  If faith only embraces the rhetoric of historical affirmation and future heavenly satisfaction, then today is ripped of its treasures in the field.  Christians are commanded to search their domains, in the Now, and proclaim the New to those around and to themselves.  This goes well beyond morality edicts.  It is properly a living risk that the Easter tomb still means something.  Followers eagerly enter those dark and empty places in order to nurture transformation.

Monday, May 5, 2014

Spirituality Is ...

I am closing in on a second year of research for my dissertation at Durham.  It has been a challenging path to walk, requiring some discipline I didn't necessarily have at the onset.  For the most part I have been receptive to that intrusion.  Some days not so much.

One question I have wrestled with for a long time is 'What is spirituality?'  I suppose I had my own organic definition of this all along.  But it has only been in the past couple of years that I have willingly put some scrutiny to it.  I search Scripture for queues.  I read source literature from many Christian voices.  I follow philosophical/theological scholarship on the discussion.  I listen to friends, co-workers, members of my faith community, and those who have little interest in anything Christian.  And there's some ongoing personal reflection mixed in.

Like most things, no one word emerges from all that listening.  It is more like an ongoing conversation in a mall food court, snippets here and there, rising up together in an uneven cacophony of perspectives.  The listening has brought me to a few conclusions though.

The first is that spirituality is thinking.  Or to put it differently, when I am being spiritual, I am actively thinking about the world and my place in it.  It's common for people involved in spiritual formation to say things like 'shut off your brain' or 'use your heart, not your head'.  I understand the sentiment behind that, but in truth whenever I am conscious (or even unconscious I bet), I am thinking.  To give spirituality a free pass, to say it's not a thinking process, is to short change the experience on the physical and metaphysical levels.  It's like turning wine back into water. 

Spirituality is also both/and, not an either/or.  It may feel helpful to place the experiential focus on the intuitive/non-verbal spectrum of personhood, especially for those immersed in hyper-rational religious systems.  But in the end, a communal vocabulary should also arise that explains things.  I should be able to talk about my spirituality and to correct concepts about it with others traveling my path.  Spirituality needs refinement, not privatization.  Even more so, I actualize my spiritual life when I find ways to integrate it into my daily comings and goings, including my forms of public speech.  To interact with God only in the retreat setting (whatever that might look like), is to short-change the transformative power Christian spirituality espouses.  I am not interesting in retreating to the ineffable.  I would rather restore the creative tension within my spiritual life that acknowledges the mystery in the midst of texts I live in with others.

Wednesday, January 15, 2014

Aging Annie

My dog is getter older.  She's somewhere around 10 years.  I forget the math.  When she had a bout with distemper, the vet said it would likely shorten her life.  I find myself counting time now.

Annie is the first dog I've owned, one that came to our house from the woods.  She is some sort of mix between blue healer and miscellaneous mutt.  Very smart, very unruly, and very loyal.  She dutifully follows me around the property, protecting me from some unseen danger, always happy to put a nose into what I'm working on (this past weekend it was a brake job on the Nissan).  She leads our cars down the driveway and waits patiently for their return.   

I find myself watching her more now, enjoying her idiosyncrasies.  I give her an extra pat on the head and a kinder greeting on the porch.  She's getting a few more table scraps.  I take time to wrestle with her in the grass most weekends.  The list goes on.

Feeling imminent loss changes my understanding of time.  It's a mystery to me why that is.  I can reason things enough, see the benefits of time well spent, etc.  But it doesn't compare to the way I act under the shadow of loss.  Time becomes palatable.  When the sun sets, I subtract.  When the morning comes, my desire for connection has increased.  There's a focus at work in me, one deeply in tune with transience.   

Annie is surely not conscious of this, though at times I wonder.     

Sunday, August 18, 2013

The Cul de Sac of Grace

In the past month or so I've felt a little more attuned to discussions on grace.  I don't know why exactly.  One phrase, which is probably more familiar to those in traditions with legalistic tendencies, has caught my attention:  when our church discovered grace.  This person was sharing something about a shift from works mentality to grace orientation.  The change sounded like a crossing over into the promised land, a new way to understand faith, discipleship, and a community that didn't previously function in that congregation.  It was a clear historical moment to identify.

I understand this description even though I can't remember traveling the same road in congregations I've been a part of.  I've also heard people use the same language for their own spirituality, that they embraced grace as an act of liberation.  These personal narratives sounded like a second conversion to me, sort of like they were dead in Christianity until grace entered the picture in a distinct fashion.

I confess that grace is a theological concept too large for me to nail down.  It's historically significant in Christian thought, both because of its use in Scripture and its parsing by different traditions (ironically ending in contentious divisions).  Coming to grips with grace and its effect on self-conceptualization is a important threshold faithful disciples need cross.

Grace is not a cul de sac for me.  It's not the place I arrive in conclusion.  It is rather an ongoing transformative contact with God, a participative knowledge that reality is defined by the salvific work of Christ.

Grace has the power to reshape memory and imagination.  The past is enlightened by forgiveness and the shaking off of death.  I no longer see myself as I once did.  The future, likewise, opens up to the consequences of grace.  The mission of God in creation sits not as accomplished fact but rather open invitation to imagine.  I work the ground in front of me, able to see the possibilities for transformation by grace's light in the soul.  And I move accordingly.

To reduce grace to the static, to claim constant irresponsibility because I am overshadowed by Supreme grace, misses the opportunities inherent in the Beautiful Life.  It is akin to hiding the talent in the sand.  While participation will always carry the risk of failure and shame, the parable guides me to action, to partnership, to co-creation in the Day that has been freely given.       

Monday, August 5, 2013

Theology Still Matters

I remember reading about a seminar at Durham a few months ago named "Nothing Really Matters:
A Bohemian Rhapsody for a Dead Queen ‐ A Thomist‐Lacanian Reflection on the Future of Theology in the Academy".  Here's a related upcoming book from the professor that gave the lecture. 

It makes me think ... what good is theological education these days?  It's a fair question to raise.  All things humanities are taking a hit, showing themselves to be 'unprofitable' for college graduates racked with onerous debt.  Why would anyone invest in a discipline that doesn't usually pay out vocationally?  The pragmatic commercialization of academia, especially in our free market culture, seems to be winning the narrative right now.  That's not a good thing. 

In my own Christian heritage, there's another complication.  The word theology can have a negative connotation.  I've honestly never been sure why.  Applying one's mind to a deeper understanding of God, Scripture, and historical Christian thought, especially with eyes of faith, seems like a good use of time and energy.  Yet the stigma shows itself every now and then, discouraging some potentially bright students and nullifying the contributions each could have made if he/she had taken up the task.

When I study major transitions in Western culture, Christian theology is perceptibly present at the big intersections.  It is engaging the shift underway, navigating amongst the other impulses at work that cause societal change.  It doesn't always stand on the ideological high ground, but it's there for sure.

When I think about contemporary anxiety about what truth is, I'm afraid faith-affirming theology has lost some of its confidence to live in the public arena.  We seem to be looking far too much in the rear view mirror, trying to preserve our sense of self rather than risk potential reformulation.  It's a very human thing to do.

Humble thoughtful theological engagement is so very needed right now.  And I suspect that the careful theologian might be surprised at the reception he/she could have as we collectively look down the road at the big questions on the horizon.