“I Ain’t Afraid of No Ghosts” by Jolie Olivetti – October 30, 2016

OPENING WORDS

“Are you a monster? Like Ursula Monkton?”

Lettie threw a pebble into the pond. “I don’t think so,” she said. “Monsters come in all shapes and sizes. Some of them are things people are scared of. Some of them are things that look like things that people used to be scared of a long time ago. Sometimes monsters are things people should be scared of, but they aren’t.”

I said, “People should be scared of Ursula Monkton.”

“P’raps. What do you think Ursula Monkton is scared of?”

“Dunno. Why do you think she’s scared of anything? She’s a grown-up, isn’t she? Grown-ups and monsters aren’t scared of things.”

“Oh, monsters are scared,” Said Lettie. “That’s why they’re monsters. And as for grown-ups…” She stopped talking, rubbed her freckled nose with a finger. Then, “I’m going to tell you something important. Grown-ups don’t look like grown-ups on the inside either. Outside, they’re big and thoughtless and they always know what they’re doing. Inside, they look just like they always have. Like they did when they were your age. The truth is, there aren’t any grown-ups. Not one, in the whole wide world.”

-Neil Gaiman, The Ocean at the End of the Lane

 

READING

“For the Anniversary of My Death” by W.S. Merwin

Every year without knowing it I have passed the day

When the last fires will wave to me

And the silence will set out

Tireless traveller

Like the beam of a lightless star

 

Then I will no longer

Find myself in life as in a strange garment

Surprised at the earth

And the love of one woman

And the shamelessness of men

As today writing after three days of rain

Hearing the wren sing and the falling cease

And bowing not knowing to what

 

SERMON: “I Ain’t Afraid of No Ghosts” by Jolie Olivetti

My sermon title is a lie. I am definitely afraid of some ghosts. I even had to brace myself for the Ghostbusters remake that came out this summer. Parts of this campy, goofy movie totally spooked me, especially in the beginning when they find a terrible ghost haunting a mansion. I was proud of myself for resisting the temptation to hide behind my friend’s shoulder during that part. The scariest part for me is the anticipation of something horrid or unhinged happening – the soundtrack building up the tension while someone walks around the corner of an old house… during these movies, I’m barely actually watching, maybe just peeking through my fingers every few minutes. I might as well stay home. Skipping all the scary movies means I miss out on a lot of fun, especially this time of year, but I just can’t handle the spook.

What about real-life scary things? I used to not be able to read the poem, “For The Anniversary of my Death.” It’s in a Poem A Day book that my mom gave me, which I actually read quite dutifully, almost daily. But I used to skip this poem because I didn’t want to consider that I will die on an actual day, someday, and that day comes around each year. I couldn’t read beyond the title and the first line, “Every year without knowing it, I have passed the day…” This idea made death too close. I felt like it tainted my whole calendar with death. Considering my death anniversary was too much, so I’d shut the book and shudder, poem-less for a day.

I was a hospital chaplain this past summer. In the hours leading up to my first few overnight on-call shifts, I would be out of my mind with fear. The anxious feeling began somewhere in my belly, made my limbs weak, and worried me to distraction. The sound of pagers going off throughout the day that day made my heart race.

Gradually all of my colleagues would head home, until about 8 pm when I was the only chaplain serving the entire 900-bed hospital. The on-call chaplain has to visit pre-operative patients during the evening, and respond to any urgent pages throughout the night. I had a very complicated relationship with my beeper. Especially towards the beginning of the summer, I willed it to stay silent, but I also dreaded its silence as a sign that it could go off at any time.

Even though I would be a jittery mess on my way to meet with a patient, as soon as I knocked on a door, entered a room, and began talking to people, I would be completely present and calm. As for the pager, as soon as it beeped its unbelievably loud beeps, I became purposeful and focused, calling the nurse or whoever had paged me to find out what was needed, and taking it from there.

Just like in a scary movie, the anticipation of the scary thing can be worse than the scary thing itself. And unlike watching scary movies, we often rise to the occasion of the real scary things in our lives, not hiding under a blanket but taking a deep breath and facing it head-on.

As a chaplain, I quickly went from fearful and nervous to calm and collected. Of course, patients and families were also going through their own rollercoasters of emotions. I had some of the most transformative experiences with patients who were not in the least bit afraid of death. One woman with very advanced cancer explained that she was ready to die, that she was fully at peace with her death, whenever it would come. She told me she was not struggling with the end of her life, but rather with what her husband was going through. He would become angry and refused to talk whenever she tried to bring up what was coming.

This was not uncommon. I met several people who were not afraid to die, but who had turned their attention to the difficult matter of how their families’ were dealing with impending loss. I sat with a man who had declined further treatment for his cancer. He was ready for hospice. When I entered the room he was too upset to talk to me, so I stood by him and spooned ice chips into his mouth, since he was unable to do this himself. I inquired gently about his sighs, and eventually, I learned his distress was not about the move to hospice, but rather about the strife among his family members, who fought bitterly over the situation. Almost all of them were desperate to continue the treatment and felt he was not in his right mind to make this decision. One daughter was up against the rest of the family, trying her best to support his wishes. We talked about his anguish over what she was going through to advocate for him, and how everyone in his family must love him very much, and were dealing with it in very different ways.

I first entered his room gingerly, fearful of what it would be like to spend time with someone so close to death. Prior to this summer, I had been at the bedside of very few dying people. This man taught me a great lesson: that it is perfectly human to die. When I went to see him, it was just about an hour before his scheduled move from hospital to hospice. We watched the clock together. He was not just waiting for transport; he was also waiting to be formally released from this stage of his life, to be done with “treatment,” and to have permission to let go. Though it was unfamiliar to be a chaplain to someone so close to death, somehow it was also familiar. This man was simply weary, somewhat impatient, and waiting. Suddenly I had the impression that death wasn’t only frightening and otherworldly, it was also as everyday as worrying about family drama while watching a clock for the minutes to pass.

I want to take a moment to acknowledge something that’s perhaps unsettling about this narrative. I know there are many people here who have accompanied loved ones on their deathbeds. I hope it is not hard to hear that this was a relatively new experience for me. In some ways, it’s a matter of random chance that I have lost few family members and close friends. I recognize that it’s also related to my age. And, it’s a particularly painful way that race and class advantage play out in our society, with fatal illnesses, violence, and barriers to health care access disproportionately impacting poor people and people of color. So it’s all the more important for me to learn something about death, since I have been relatively sheltered from it in my lifetime.

I’ve gained a new appreciation for how artificial and strange it is that this society attempts to cordon off death from the rest of life. My initial rejection of that poem is a great example. I felt this poem about death was an intrusion in the poetry of my life, rather than a poignant acknowledgement of the way death truly is a part of life.

Earlier in the service, Asher read to us from Neil Gaiman’s The Ocean at the End of the Lane. In this book, the narrator recalls his boyhood battle with a nanny who turns out to be a terrible monster. The story includes his friendship with a mysterious and magical girl named Lettie, who helps save him from the monster. Lettie sets him straight when he claims grown-ups are not afraid of anything:

“I’m going to tell you something important,” she says. “Grown-ups don’t look like grown-ups on the inside either. Outside, they’re big and thoughtless and they always know what they’re doing. Inside, they look just like they always have. Like they did when they were your age. The truth is, there aren’t any grown-ups. Not one, in the whole wide world.”

I’m fully in agreement with Lettie here. I don’t know about you, but I often feel just as confused and uncertain now as I did when I was a kid, or maybe more so. Part of the deal with adulthood is not that we have everything under control, but that we often have to act like everything is under control. We have to keep going, even when we are afraid.

As a chaplain, I would say to patients and their families, “You must be very strong to be going through this,” or, “you must be very brave to be going through this.” And they would say, simply, “nope.” It was out of necessity that people faced the hard things they faced. No one was an expert; no one was a perfect “grown-up” about the messy and difficult processes of sickness and recovery, healing and death. Even nurses, doctors, personal care attendants… even they were perfectly imperfect humans, applying their skills and knowledge in the best way they could, and still being scared sometimes, or worried, or upset. Still doubting, still learning.

Is it only adults who can face hard stuff like that? The epigraph of the Neil Gaiman book is a quote by the children’s author Maurice Sendak; it reads, “I remember my own childhood vividly… I knew terrible things. But I knew I musn’t let adults know I knew. It would scare them.” Right. Kids are no strangers to terrible things. Remember how downright disturbing some of the old school fairy tales can be? I used to read from this series, The Red Fairy Book, The Green Fairy Book… these weren’t all princesses and puppies and happy endings. These stories featured gloomy forests and wicked spirits, tales of betrayal and revenge. And I got it; I knew that death and fear are parts of life, and not just for grown-ups. Grown-ups and kids alike know that life can be terrible and scary sometimes. And both grown-ups and kids can be brave out of necessity.

I tasked myself with developing my own theology of death this summer. What I came up with is not groundbreaking, but it is an honest and personal belief that comes from what I experienced. It is now more important than ever for me to recognize that our exit from this world is as mysterious as our arrival into it. And, one simple fact is now charged with holy meaning for me: before we die, we are alive.

Neil Gaiman wrote a series of comic books called The Sandman. One plot line bestows immortality on a man named Hob Gadling, and then follows him over hundreds of years. At first he seems smug and unstoppable, but through the centuries his existence is a rollercoaster of success and failure, evil-doings and better-doings. He keeps outliving loved ones, family members… everyone around him, generation after generation. In his final appearance in the comic book series, Hob Gadling is still unwilling to die, even after six hundred years of life. I don’t buy it. Perhaps few of us really want to die. But can you imagine the alternative? Maybe the fact that it will end one day is what makes life so unbelievably sweet. Before we die, we live a precious life, however long or however short. There is no death without life. There is no life without death.

Of course death is scary. But when we move past the fear, we learn from the other emotions that this sacred process might bring up: like grief and anger. I can imagine hollering in protest, disbelief and indignation if I was told my time was coming real soon. I am not ready to die. But I am trying not to be afraid to know that I one day will.

If we can move past the fear, we can focus on other things. We can tell our loved ones how much they mean to us, we can relish every moment with them. We may find that the fact that we’ll die one day doesn’t ruin the calendar, like I thought that poem did, but rather that it enriches our days with a sense of the preciousness of something that will someday end.

I’d like to end this sermon by reading the poem once more, because once I am no longer afraid of it, I can be moved by its beauty. I can recognize the feeling of simple astonishment at being alive amidst rain, and birdsong, and holy mystery.

“For the Anniversary of My Death”

Every year without knowing it I have passed the day

When the last fires will wave to me

And the silence will set out

Tireless traveller

Like the beam of a lightless star

 

Then I will no longer

Find myself in life as in a strange garment

Surprised at the earth

And the love of one woman

And the shamelessness of men

As today writing after three days of rain

Hearing the wren sing and the falling cease

And bowing not knowing to what

 

CLOSING WORDS

I have learned that a single human life is the most precious entity in all of God’s creation, not to be bartered for a wish or a king’s fortune.

I have learned that our mysterious existence on earth is too much filled with petty thoughts, with trivial concerns, and with meanness toward our fellow creatures.

I have learned that it is good to live with a knowledge of our own finitude, to live as if each moment is our last, so that what we do is a new kind of doing.

I have learned that the fear of death, which arises largely from our personal fantasies and cultural anxieties, is more to be dreaded than death itself.

And I have learned that the human being is a marvelous construction, with the strength, and the courage, and the faith to confront any power in the universe – even the Reaper, whose name is Death.

-David O. Rankin, from his book chapter “Is the Reaper Really Grim?”