Archive for life

The Church at the End of the World

Posted in Thoughts about the Next Plane with tags , , , on February 16, 2016 by onlookerslowdown

As a teacher, there are few things you can hear that are sadder than that a student of yours has passed away. I’m also a dad, and the idea that one of my children would ever pass away before I do is unthinkable. But as a teacher, I’ve always taken pride in the idea that the students I have worked with are now out in the world, bringing change and hope and excitement and passion to whatever they have decided to do. Now that I teach seniors, I give each of them my home e-mail on the last day of school, ask them to reach out if they need a recommendation for a scholarship, if they need advice about school, or just to let me know how college and life are treating them.

Last week I heard about the passing of a student who just graduated in the spring of 2015. Her name is Karla. She had missed some time during her senior year with some health issues, but she had worked hard, a lot harder than some of her classmates who missed no time at all, to make sure that she stayed up with her work. When she came back, she took a lot of pride in the progress that she had made — and she should have.

You never want to speak ill of the dead, but I don’t have to make up any platitudes to tell you that Karla was a very cool kid. She worked hard to improve her writing. She had a sweet disposition — not the sort of sweet that becomes a pushover, but the gentleness that you only see in people who are secure in themselves, who have already decided what kind of person they are and what they want to be. She did not have as many friends as some, but the ones that she had were clearly close friends to her.

But then another illness came and took her with it. And so I found myself heading to her funeral on a Monday morning, a time when churches are only open for sad occasions. No one gets married on a Monday morning. We only say good-bye to loved ones on a Monday morning.

The church is a little to the west of where I live, in a perplexing suburb of Dallas that sits less than 10 miles from the city center, called Cockrell Hill. The streets here are narrow, worn, cracked. The water tower could have been brought in from a tiny town in West Texas. When I finally found the turn-in for the church, which sits at the end of a bluff, the trees stretched off to the west, the February-brown branches blowing in that strange wind that, once you get west of the Trinity River in Texas, never really stops blowing. And so not 10 minutes from the downtown skyline of Dallas, I really was at a church in the middle of nowhere.

The yellow church and the patio before it told me that I was getting even further away from Dallas. When we go to say good-bye to our loved ones who have passed, I can see why the Greeks thought that there was a ferryman who would meet them, collect the souls, and then row away into a mist. I felt not four miles from my house, but hundreds, even thousands, and I felt that inimitable hourglass turn on its side as I went in for the ceremony.

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Karla grew up in a family where everyone spoke Spanish; her funeral Mass was conducted in Spanish. I don’t speak very much Spanish at all, but the service reminded me of what going to church must have been like back in the era when the priests only spoke in Latin, so none of the people in the congregation had any idea what was going on. I prayed for Karla and for her family, but I was also taken by the priest’s occasional burst into song, which the congregation would follow, swelling into hymns that brought comfort in minor keys.

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The apse of the church faces west, and on the day when I was at this funeral, each of those cubes you see was a vibrant blue, giving the etched-glass triptych the look of a gateway into the beyond, into the presence of whatever plane you think comes after this one. I believe in the gospel of Christ’s grace, but I have a feeling that the afterlife is going to be a bit different than what the legion generations of ministers have told us to expect.

On this day, I was sad, mourning Karla’s passing at such a young point in her life, sorrowful for the grief that clearly shook her friends and had her family weeping. There are some who like to step in at this point and talk about the beneficence of God’s plan and the greater glory that awaits her in God’s Kingdom, but for those of us who are still on this side of the door, losing someone hurts in a way that this sort of salve makes us want to punch, at least until the pain eases.

As the service progressed, though, in a tongue alien to me but so familiar to the rest in the church, I was struck by the way that, even though Karla is (the way I see it) home with her Father, there is still so much of her here. Her image — on the T-shirts that her family and friends had made and wearing. But most of all the mark that her spirit had made on all of us. So even if you envision (as I did) her spirit passing through that blue apse that looked less like the end of a church than the gateway to what is next, I could also see that so much of her was still here, will always be here, as long as we are here, and will be even after.

So when I left the service, I knew that for her family, and for those of her closest friends, grieving would continue. When I returned to school, I would notice the chair where she had sat last year, the table where she had done her writing, and where she had sat in thought before making those infrequent but insightful comments about what we were reading in class, what we were discussing, sometimes about nothing much at all, but still interesting to hear.

So I drove away from the middle of nowhere and slipped back into the city, those February-brown branches replaced more quickly than you would expect with the leafy green trees that live in that dark, rich soil on the other side of the Trinity.