Tag Archives: Death

A WITNESS: THE HAITI EARTHQUAKE, A SONG, DEATH, AND RESURRECTION Book Review by WTS Professor Norma Cook Everist

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Renee Splichal Larson, A Witness: The Haiti Earthquake, A Song, Death, and Resurrection (Eugene. OR: Resource Publications, 2016), 264 pp.

This book could have been titled so many different ways: A Love Story; Tragedy in Haiti; Loss and Grief. But I think A Witness is just right. Renee Splichal Larson is a participant witness to the 2010 earthquake in Haiti that killed her husband, Ben, and left her a widow at age 27. A Witness is a very personal and also a very global book. In telling her painful yet hopeful story, Renee invites us to enter, from wherever we are; to see, to feel, to question, and to understand more deeply the power, grace, and love of God. This is a communal story. It is about accompaniment and relationship, about Ben, Renee, and Jon, all Wartburg Seminary seniors, who went to Haiti to be with the people there, and who became part of the shaking of the earth with them.

This book is about a few minutes in history and about the years that surround them. It is not a short book, but you won’t want to put it down. The book is intimate, deep, and profound, but not heavy.  We laugh as well as cry. We see people who go to amazing lengths to care for each other. Care across boundaries!

As the book begins, we meet these three young people and enjoy setting out on life’s journey with each of them. Ben and Jon are cousins who are closer than brothers. We hear Renee’s own story about her early years. I have witnessed in Renee an incredible woman. You will discover this, too, as you come to know her and see how she views life and the people whom she comes to cherish. We see Christ in people, because Renee is a witness to Christ in their lives and to Christ at work in the midst of tragedy, care, connection, and the renewal of resurrection.

The story’s focus is on one very gifted young man who died too soon. But the story is also about two people, and three, and about the families of Renee, Ben, and Jon. This is a book about family. Yet we also meet strangers, and we learn from them, and learn what it means to be served by them as much as serving among them. We see, really see, the people of Haiti: Bellinda, Livenson, Kez, Louis, Mytch, and more. Soon we are a witness to hundreds and yes, thousands. This story is about the global church. It is about faith and what it means to be church together in life and death, and in new life.

We see the Haitian people, who have suffered so much and continue to care for the outsider. We hear their faith and song in the midst of despair. We see their resilience, but dare not romanticize the complex issues. In our own ignorance and arrogance, we who live in affluent countries benefit from countries that remain poor and dependent. These are the causes and ramifications of poverty. The call of A Witness is to community and justice.

Poetry from fellow witnesses (friends and classmates) comforts us as well as the author as we walk and weep with each step from earthquake to resting place. This is a book for all who have suffered trauma, sudden tragedy, or the sadness of long suffering.

Renee is a theologian—of the best sort—who lives life fully, and is forever asking questions. (So the title could also have been A Theology.) Her reflections are existential and challenging, and she invites her readers to reflect theologically with her. She also knows that the resurrection of Jesus Christ is true, and that new life in Christ is real. But this new life comes only after lamentation and loneliness and deep grief.

Together with Renee, we become witnesses to the importance of pastoral care and of a worshipping and caring community. Friends carry a body out of Haiti, and all are carried by the body of Christ. This is a theology of grace, of the cross and resurrection, of Christ with people in their dying as much as with the living. This power of God, God’s own commitment to us, empowers us for commitments to all of God’s global family.

There are more ministry opportunities for this now-ordained pastor and for us all. Renee goes where God leads, including to the people of Heart River, North Dakota. I believe this work is and will be a blessing to all who read it, to all for whom she is a witness to Christ and to his cross and resurrection.

Renee

RENEE SPLICHAL LARSON

is a pastor in the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America. Born and raised in North Dakota, Renee is a graduate of Concordia College, Moorhead, Minnesota, and Wartburg Theological Seminary, Dubuque, Iowa. She is married to Jonathan Splichal Larson, who is also a pastor in the ELCA, and their son is named Gabriel. Renee and Jon are both survivors of the 2010 Haiti earthquake. A Witness is Renee’s first book.

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THE PACE OF DEATH, THE FACE OF THE SAVIOR By Nathan Wicks, 1st Year MDiv

You may find yourself driving,
Impelled by some invisible fire,
Some dark explosion inches from your body
And feel that you are not and never have been
The one driving.
You may say, raging at this dark leashing,
This implacable master,
Screaming at the invisible grasping inertia,
“This is not who I am, show your face!”
And you may only hear the joyless laughter,
As the weight bears down on you
And you imagine crossing the yellow line
As the semi-truck passes mere inches away
In this world
That calls
This normal.
This, life.
This, real.

And you may see the crosses
Lined up on the side of the road,
Treated so that the earth’s rot
Will not touch them,
Strung together with lines of power,
Carrying the flame overhead,
Vast distance traversed instantly
Into the closeness of every hearth,
The flickering light in the rapt gaze of those
Screens staring without seeing
Any of this fire carried beyond
Any horizon you can imagine,
An endless procession of synapse,
Bearing the mind of the greatest
Thought that man can conjure,
The harnessed power of
Who-created-whom
Onto the creation with pain inflicted.

And you may commence the lament
Of this rite run rife with fire
Hiding, afraid of its own opposite,
Unwilling to stoop into quenching weakness,
Purifying the dross of some metallic world
As its spew mars this one,
Feigning invisibility, its face blazing everywhere,
Ripping holes in the air itself as
The suffering of each creosoted cross
With that flame turned tar black
Replaces the trees very being,
Bears the poison into your own body
Whose task now is only to bear this mind,
A husk quivering under the nerves hung in midair
As the hammered nail scalds the pain
Across the breach between appendages
Back to some distant source,
The destruction which created the world
In which your life means
The death of all things
That are in your way.

And it says to you:
“You were merely born,
You have no choice into which world.
And there is only this road, and
There is only one way to go.
My mind is your mind,
These lines are your bloodlines,
This wound is all you have of flesh.”

And you might find yourself asking,
“But if you are all,
Tell me where the hope
Lies that bears the world?
This is not gravity, but hatred,
And you, if you don’t love me,
Let me go!”

But it will not let go.
You are crying out into the places
Where no one is listening,
Silent and alone in the hurtling madness
Of this car as you sit passively, unmovable,
Driven on to the endless horizon
More biding than inevitable,
Slouching onward
At 70 miles per hour.

LEVY L. LARSEN By Elan Hacker, WTS TEEM Intern, Louisburg, Nassau and Marrietta, MN and East Highland, SD.

Levy Larsen

On the outskirts of Billingham, MN, there is a beautiful cemetery. The graves are lined up in neat rows with different types of markers and stones. If you look in the north east corner, far from the other graves is a single stone monument. It is hard to read; the letters and dates are weathered. Levy L. Larsen. Born on August 22 1896. Died February 27, 1906. That is all the story the stone will tell us. A child, a boy, ten years old, is buried there. The words tell the who, but not the why.

In the days when Levy lived there were a few reasons why his grave would not be included with the rest. Why would anyone have chosen to bury a child at a safe distance from the other graves? None of the reasons are kind.

If Levy had not been baptized, if he was a different race, or if he had been born into a world where his parents were not married, he would not have been welcome to lie with the communities’ beloved dead. Several people had heard stories through the years; there are two versions. One is that his parents were not married, that Levy was born and died in a world that ostracized a child, and the mother of a child, born outside of a marriage covenant. The other story has more detail: Levy died of some plague or disease and was buried away from the other graves to protect the dead from contamination. The story goes that people had to walk along the outside of the fence, not even being allowed to step foot on the sacred ground, as though one could die of a disease so repugnant that the fear of it would necessitate the guarding of the other dead, as if they could die again. The only evidence of the truth is the reality shouted by the deliberate placement of his grave: the 10-year-old body of Levy L. Larsen was unwanted and unwelcomed in his death. We can only pray he was loved during his life.

In John 11:32-44 Jesus Christ demanded that the grave clothes be removed from Lazarus. As they were, the stench of his death, evaporated into the wind, replaced by life and laughter and love. God promises to make all things new. When we confront the things in our world that are permeated with the stench of death, and in the name of Jesus, remove the covering of death, new life springs forth. There are situations today that cry out to us and touch our hearts. Our sighs stretch up to heaven, and they are answered.

ADVENT: COME, LORD JESUS by Aleese Baldwin, Final Year MDiv Student

As families gather around meal tables, I’ve often heard a common meal prayer recited from memory: “Come, Lord Jesus, be our guest, and let these gifts to us be blessed.” But when was the last time that we actually stopped to think about just what we are asking God in this little prayer before our meal?  “Come, Lord Jesus”? Are we really asking, really ready, and really open to Jesus sitting down at our tables with us? Are we really asking, really ready, and really open to Jesus coming into the messiness of the world?  “Come, Lord Jesus”? Here? Now? Really?

Looking around the world it isn’t hard to spot instances of injustice, suffering, corruption, pain and fear. Indeed some days, we – along with all those who suffer – can only manage to cry out to God, “How long, O LORD? Will you forget me forever? How long will you hide your face from me?” (Psalm 13:1)  And yet it is in the midst of this reality that we continue to pray, “Come, Lord Jesus”? Do we really believe that God has anything to do with this world anymore?  Based on what hope or promise do we have to boldly ask God to come to us?

As December begins, the church shifts in its liturgical cycle to the season of Advent: a season of waiting, of watching, of longing.  Last year, while serving an internship at both St. Luke’s Hospital and St. Stephen’s Lutheran Church in Cedar Rapids, IA, I found myself in this season of Advent throughout the year.  I found myself sitting, waiting and longing with…

a teenager admitted for the fourth time to an inpatient behavioral health unit after attempting suicide with no outside help or support,
a husband of a patient in the Critical Care Unit who held his now deceased wife
with all that he had left in him,
and parents as they held their stillborn twins in their arms.

As a committed theologian of the cross, I wanted so desperately to proclaim the good news that God was present with them even in the midst of their pain. And to some extent I believe that I did. And yet at the same time, I could not help but wait, watch, and long with each of these groups of people for the hope of new life…a hope of a reality free from pain, suffering and injustice.  As people of the cross and resurrection, we boldly confess that God is present with us in every moment of our lives.  And yet we can’t help but wait, watch and long for the presence of hope of God that has yet to be fully revealed to us.

Looking at the brokenness of our world, we cannot boldly proclaim that God’s kingdom is fully among us; it just can’t be.  Justice has not come to all people.  Peace has not been obtained.  The kingdom has not dawned. Christ has not returned.  And in the season of Advent, this little Lord Jesus has not yet come.

So daring to believe that God still cares for all that God has created and that God desires to give life to all people, we boldly pray, “Come, Lord Jesus.”  Come, Lord Jesus, into a world that desperately needs your life, your love…your hope. We need your peace, Lord Jesus. We can’t do it on our own.  Come, Lord Jesus, into our hearts, into our lives, into our communities…into this broken world.
As we pray this Advent season, we all come from our own journeys, marked with our joys, sorrows, successes and challenges. But from wherever we come, we join with all the saints, waiting with eager longing while we watch for the fulfillment of God’s kingdom in our midst. But just maybe…maybe the waiting, watching and longing for Christ to come has just as much hope, promise and good news as the knowledge that God is present with us now. Maybe…just maybe, in the waiting, we have hope that one day, the world will no longer experience pain, injustice, violence and suffering.  In the waiting, we hold onto the Gospel promise that something better is really yet to come.

And that…that sounds like a promise worth holding onto.  A promise that is worth our continued prayers of “Come, Lord Jesus…”

THRESHOLD OF LIVING By Tami Groth, final year MA Diaconal Ministry

Standing in front of the strips of paper I read the directions again: write the names of the saints in your life. The names of the saints that have died and gone before us on the white paper. Use the strips of colored paper to write the names of the saints in your life that are still with us. I began writing.

I wanted it to be something I did quickly before the next thing on my growing “to-do” list that day. I could not. Here in the space between Chapel and the refectory, and on my hurried way to the library, this request moved me outside of the carefully accounted for and scheduled moments of my day. I lost track of the slips. Name after name. Moment after moment.

I put down the marker, and held time still with my breath as I remembered standing in deafening silence surrounded by life and yet alone with death — unable to move out of the between and back into time.

I am standing in front of her fresh grave. We buried her exactly a week after I birthed her still body. In all respects it was a glorious sunny mild November day. I was told later that an eagle flew overhead right as the silence fell. The silence that deepened my numbness.

The moments I had not been able to imagine had come to pass  — the awful processional out into the world Emily wouldn’t know. First she was carried by her father in that tiny casket step-by-step down the church aisle, then the drive to the cemetery. We survived watching that tiny pink casket go into the ground next to her great-grandparents. We listened numbly to prayers.

In the first second of quiet we put single roses on top of that casket before it was1117_close buried in earth. Emily’s older sister, Megan, gave me the gift of being her 4-year-old self when nobody could convince her to give up the rose she was holding. In that moment I wanted to take her and gather her in my arms and twirl her around and around until we were both dizzy. I wanted to be in her moment of joy in the beauty of the rose.

Instead I continued to stare at her sister’s fresh grave–the still green grass, the black dirt, and pink. An eternity of quiet; holding my breath on the threshold of living into a reality of “forever changed.”

Just mere hours ago I had been encouraging the stream of people entering the church to look at her: “she’s so beautiful.” My heart ached to hold onto that beauty like a 4-year-old with her hands on a rose stem.

“I can’t do this anymore” I said not realizing my thoughts had broken the silence.

“Then don’t,” my mom said as she took my arm and gently guided me across that threshold.

I wiped my wet eyes and gulped in deep breaths of fresh air as I made my way from one Wartburg building to the next attempting to return to place and time — 13 years of living later — on my way to the library and the life of to-do lists. A glance at my watch claimed the moments connected in minutes.

The next week in chapel names were read, candles were lit, Gospel was spoken, and those slips of paper — white and colored — hung together in sunlit windows and air stirred them as if with the dance of eternal life.

ALL SAINTS DAY REMEMBERED by Josh Johnson, final year M.Div.

Homily given at Wartburg Seminary Chapel November 3, 2014

Today is All Saints Day, a day in which we remember and honor the saints of our lives. Saints are far and near, and both living and dead. As part of preparing for today’s message, I reflected upon experiences of this day since coming to Wartburg.

My first All Saints day here at the castle was the type of day that I had grown accustomed to. We celebrated those who had gone before us with familiar hymns, the reading of the names of the recently deceased, and the lighting of candles. It was a celebration of all those who had touched us throughout the years.

The following year was quite the opposite. As some of you know, my second year here on campus was marked by the death of our son Josiah. Shannon and I found out 2 weeks prior to school starting that his heart had stopped beating. Josiah was stillborn at 37 weeks.

All Saints took on a much different meaning for me. I remember yearning to hear his name read with the other saints.

This wasn’t the planned path; baby’s names are to be read at baptisms and other celebrations, but this was it for me.

Death gave us this one the last milestone.

This past All Saints service was also marked with a death in my life. Last summer my grandfather died at 80 years of age. He lived a long, fruitful life and was very special to me.

All Saints Day was a day of fond memories as I remembered my special relationship with him.

This is how I imagined All Saints Day to go, a sad, yet joyous commemoration.

Today’s gospel lesson comes from Jesus’ familiar teaching from the Sermon on the Mount, the Beatitudes. I don’t know about you, but there’s something about these blessings that doesn’t settle with me.

Blessed are the poor in spirit, the mourning, the meek, the hungry, and so on. How are the people who experience these blessed?

There’s no way Jesus is telling us that some of the most challenging and miserable situations in life are blessings. It has to be a problem in translation.

So let’s try out some alternative meanings for this Greek word:

How about, favored are the poor in spirit… no that’s not it.

Oh, fortunate are those who mourn… that’s not any better, fortunate is the last word that comes to mind when I think about the death of a loved one.

Ok, how about this one: privileged are the meek, or happy are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness… no, those don’t work either

So, if blessed is the right word here, what is Jesus trying to tell his disciples?

The next question that begs to be asked from the text, is about the “wills” in the second half of the statement. They will be comforted; they will inherit the earth; they will be filled; and so on. So, when will this take place? When will those who mourn be comforted?

Death is an unavoidable reality of our world. Death sneaks in and takes away a loved one out of nowhere; death also comes for those for whom we expect it to come.

Nevertheless, death separates us from those we love. It stings. It hurts. It’s unfair. You know this. I know this.

When Josiah died and every hope and dream was dashed away in an instant, I was beyond crushed. I had nothing.

Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted.

Sisters and brothers, I am here today to tell you that Jesus’ words are true. No, it’s not because Shannon and I were the “lucky” recipients ofa new angel baby watching over us in heaven.” Moreover, it’s definitely not because we were young enough to try to have more children. I love Noah beyond measure, but he is not God’s comforting answer.

God’s comfort came to us by other means.

God’s comfort came to us through two friends that showed up at a moment’s notice when we found out this dreadful news.

God’s comfort came to us through a supportive community that was present in our time of need.

God’s comfort came through the ones who finally treated us as a human beings rather than as a pity case.

God’s comfort continues to come through supportive friends who continues to be there.

In our time of desperation, we were blessed by the loving presence of those that God sent to comfort us. In our deep grief, in our most vulnerable state, we were blessed because all we had was God, and God was there.

The hurt and pain did not go away, and its memory still resides. Nevertheless, it is not to be borne alone.

We bear it in one another and we bear it in the one who experienced great agony on the cross.

This is the promise of our text today. No matter how crappy life feels, and no matter how far life beats you down.

God promises stand the test of time.

Christ is there when you are stripped of everything else.

The Spirit surrounds you with a witness of saints.

God is with you. Amen

A PRESENT PARTICIPLE (“ing”) POEM By Rev. Dr. Ralph Quere, WTS faculty em.

A Present Participle (“ing”) Poem
Telos
How goes this conversing with death?
Is death at the end to be befriended or upended
By a dreaded enemy’s defeating by the spirit’s working
Often when in helplessness, hopelessness or pain’s distress
Death comes as respited releasing, awaited with eagerness
Tempting us to euthanasia or suicide: both rob God’s hands!
Scripture is clear: human life is enslaved by fear of death1
But there is an antidote, not a medicine, but a person
Called Resurrection and Life2 who killed killer-death

By dying—like many soldiers—dying to win a battle
And saving others, like Christ dying & sharing His kingdom
With others. Like the dying thief and offering it to all!
For many baptizings that begin it in God giving pardon,
New birth into new living that is lasting into the ages of ages
Linking us with Christ’s dying and living, kept by the spirit
Working faith & love toward the living word named Jesus.
St. Paul admits desiring departing and being with Christ!
A suicidal death wish? No, a longing for consummating Faith,
Hope and Love through the victory won by Jesus, swallowing
Death & defanging evil! This gift just keeps on coming
From the Father’s on-going so loving the world—

Rooting in the Son’s once-for-all-self-sacrificing and,
The undercover working of the creating spirit
Bringing the redeeming power of love3 & liberating truth
Of the triune deity’s trialogue displacing death’s dialogue
With the triune deity’s trialogue of
Christ, Grace & Faith!

The Dialogue with Death recommends that the dying “befriend” death. I agree that it is important to accept death when it is clearly approaching. The “Death and Dying” movement followed the literature about the “American Way of Death” the way the funeral industry helped in physical and psychological tools to mask and in effect deny death. Many psychologists recommend that funeral services should be “grief management.” The current fad in the “celebration of life” – a half step in the right direction. However that is understood and usually performed as celebration of the life of the deceased and paints plaster saint out of one whom the family and friends knew was quite the opposite. Even the best of the saints need to be remembered as “a sinner of (Christ’s) own reddeming (ELW p. 283).

So the one whose life should be celebrated at funerals is Jesus whose death and resurrection are our new life and sure hope for eternal life. Handel’s Messiah draws from Revelations 5:9-14 for the final chorale: “Worthy is the Lamb who was slain.”

Scripture makes it clear that death is a defeated enemy – it’s not a warm fuzzy friend (see the notes in the poem).

1Heb. 2:15
2John 11:24
32 Cor. 5:19-21