Early in my ministry, nearly forty years ago, a young father in our congregation had a heart attack and died. He was a good man, with a loving wife and several school-age children, and his death hit everybody hard. The next morning, I was in my office early collecting my thoughts and planning for the funeral, when I heard soft footsteps in the hallway. A close friend of the young father’s wife peeked in and asked if I was busy. She was visibly unsettled. I said, “Come in. Whatever it is, let’s talk about it.”
What it was, is this: our dead friend had waked her up that night and spoken to her. “What did he say?” I asked. He said about what we might pray to hear from a dear, departed friend or loved one. “Wake up. It’s me! Tell my family that I love them.” That was the gist. If he had said it to me, I might have grabbed at his hand and started asking questions. But he made his appearance, said his piece, and then was gone.
My office visitor was confused by the encounter. Her question was, “Why me?” Instead of her, she felt a husband should have shown himself to his own wife or children. They were the ones who needed comfort. She worried they might feel resentful he had come to her, and if they did, she wouldn’t blame them. I could see her point, I said, but I encouraged her to tell them what she had seen and heard, just as he had asked. She could trust that she’d been chosen for a reason. I hope that my advice was good. In seminary, we hadn’t covered conversations with the dead.
In the field I would find that happenings like that are not as rare as people think. Most ministers I know, who have been at it for a while, have tales like that to share.
Like everyone my age, I’ve lost good friends and loved ones through the years. None, so far, has paid a call on me, post-mortem, that I’m aware of. I do have a story, personal to me, that I am going to share, of a dream that I had at a very painful moment in my ministry. It was thirteen years ago: 2008. I remember that as my year for bouncing back and forth between home, in Little Rock and Charlottesville, Virginia. In both towns, dear friends of mine had cancer and were dying. At home, it was Peggy Bosmyer, vicar of St. Margaret’s Church and a pioneer for women in the priesthood. In Virginia, it was Marion Milwee Kingdon, whose late father, Richard, had been my best friend. Marion’s son, my godson, was four years old. Every day for months I prayed for Marion and Peggy. God knows how many of their other friends did too. Marion died November 30. I preached for her service, December 4, at St. Paul’s Church in Charlottesville.
In that homily, I echoed a book with a backwards title: Not Every Spirit: A Dogmatics of Christian Disbelief. [Christopher Morse, Not Every Spirit: A Dogmatics of Christian Disbelief (Valley Forge, PA.: Trinity Press International, 1994) The author is Christopher Morse, who had been one of my better teachers in theology. His book teaches faith through its discovery of what we don’t believe about the world and God. That method sounds odd, but Thomas Aquinas had sometimes used a similar approach. Given human limitations, we can’t know what God is, Aquinas taught. But we can know what God is not. [Brian Davies calls this Aquinas’s “method of remotion.” See Brian Davies, The Thought of Thomas Aquinas (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1992), chapter 3, “What God is Not.”]
So, at Marion’s funeral I shared my disbelief.
Over the past four years I have rarely missed a day of asking God to make this cancer go away and not return. I know that you were praying too. God knows we did as much as anyone could do for Marion, but in the end, we couldn’t beat the odds. On Sunday evening, with fresh hugs and kisses from her loving son and husband, she lost the fight.
What are we going to disbelieve concerning this? I speak as a priest and as a Christian. We won’t believe we have to find the reason for her dying, or even suppose that there is one to find beyond simple laws of genetics, chemistry, and physics. Thomas Aquinas taught us that. God made these laws to do real work. They just do what they do, and it is a mistake to confuse their purposes with God’s.
We won’t believe that cancer isn’t evil. It is natural evil in the classic sense: “privatio boni” - the privation of the good. We have been deprived of Marion, a unique, delightful embodiment of the good. Her death is a heart-wrenching loss - its reach, incalculable.
We won’t believe we can or should attempt to gloss that over. But neither will we think that this adds up to so much sound and fury, signifying nothing. We know that line from school. It was said by Macbeth, whose plans had unraveled, and who was now caught out in conspiracy and murder. Those plans had been hatched in trust that nothing matters, bad or good, because life comes to nothing in the end.
We don’t believe that’s true. We disbelieve in the futility of life and finality of death. We set our hope on Christ and entrust Marion to him. He deserves that trust completely.
On the flight back to Little Rock, I tried not to cry and failed.
At home, Peggy’s days were numbered. She asked me to visit for, I quote, “a theological discussion.” That was nothing new. We’d had hundreds of them through the years, on topics big and small. Almost any time we talked, we’d go there. And why not? Karl Barth called theology the most beautiful of sciences, with music, laughter, and imagination as prerequisites. “Sulky faces, morose thoughts and boring ways of speaking are intolerable,” Barth said. [Karl Barth, CD II.1, ed. G.W. Bromiley and T.F. Torrance, trans. T.H.L. Parker, et al. (Edinburgh: T&T Clark, 1957), 656.] Peggy named the topic for discussion on my visit: “Resurrection.” Peggy’s husband, Dennis Campbell, would sit in. “Come Tuesday at 10:00,” she said. “We’ll see you then.” That Tuesday conversation would be, except for bedside prayers, the last time Peggy and I ever talked.
That Monday night I had my dream.
It is Easter Sunday morning. I find myself in church - an old, large, Anglo-Catholic looking parish, which is not normally my style. People in Easter dress are milling about before the service. I am glad to know that I am here to worship, not to lead. I see priests in cassocks walking to and fro, hands folded in front, solemn, but not fussy. They seem happy. The church looks well-kept with everything in place and good repair. Clusters of women wearing flowered hats are gathered at baptismal fonts. They too look happy.
I wander outside into the courtyard. From here, the procession will begin, I’m told. The grass out here is fresh and green, but most of it is covered by a pool of water. “It must have been a rainy spring,” I think. In a corner, I see a group of prancing girls practicing their steps, just like back in high school. I smile at that. Then I see a ripple in the water, stirring up from somewhere. I watch, as from the water there emerges, from below, a bishop, robed in blue - a happy, youthful bishop, strong and handsome, staff in hand, and dripping wet from head to toe. After the bishop I see more movement in the water. Out rises, row by row, a choir - a large, wet, smiling, ever-growing chorus, who are, for the moment, silent. Then suddenly they let loose a string of sharp, piercing alleluias. And these alleluias begin to gloriously reverberate around the yard. And the choir in procession continues to emerge, rank after rank, no end in sight, singing alleluia.
Then I see one singer looking briefly back and down into the pool. She says, to no one in particular, “I’m glad I’m out of there and done with that. There were dead deer down there all over. Anywhere you looked, you’d see them.” Then I looked down and see one at my feet: a doe lying still, beautiful but lifeless, on the grass beside me.
I wake up and it is Tuesday morning.
My two dear friends were dying, and now one of them was gone. Within a week, the other one would join her: beautiful but lifeless.
And today we would have that heart to heart about the resurrection. It was as though God didn’t want to send me in to such a conversation empty-handed. Instead of quoting theologians, I could just tell Peggy what I’d dreamt. Come ten o’clock, that’s what I did.
What good are dreams as ground for theological discussion? That is a very good question. Brain chemistry is famously creative, and easily disrupted, as Scrooge objected to the Ghost of Jacob Marley:
“You don’t believe in me,” observed the Ghost. “I don’t,” said Scrooge…. “Why do you doubt your senses?” “Because,” said Scrooge, “a little thing affects them. A slight disorder of the stomach makes them cheats. You may be an undigested bit of beef, a blob of mustard, a crumb of cheese, a fragment of an underdone potato.” [Charles Dickens, A Christmas Carol (London: Paradine, 1978), 27.]
We might infer my vivid dream was nothing but the spasm of a riven heart, trying on its own to wring some comfort from its anguish. Grief does more to someone’s brain, I have to think, than undercooked potato, so I will grant that theory’s plausibility.
But not its truth - because it doesn’t reckon with the presence of that other Ghost, the Holy one. In grief we pray for consolations of the Holy Spirit. My sleep that night was teeming with them.
So, I have a different theory of the dream. Listen with me, slowly, to St. Paul’s prayer for all followers of Christ in his Epistle to the Ephesians.
I pray that the God of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of glory, may give you a spirit of wisdom and revelation as you come to know him, so that with the eyes of your heart enlightened …
“The eyes of your heart enlightened.” That is my favorite image in the Bible.
So that with the eyes of your heart enlightened, you may know what is the hope to which he has called you, what are the riches of his glorious inheritance in the saints. [Ephesians 1:17-18, NRSV.]
My theory is that in my dream Paul’s prayer was answered, yes.
Jeremy Taylor called death “the middle point between two lives.” There is more we don’t know than we do about our hope in Christ, and the riches of that glorious inheritance. All we know, or need to know, about that second life is this: it begins with “Alleluia.”
Let us pray.
Almighty God, you have knit together your faithful people in one communion and fellowship in the mystical body of your Son, Christ our Lord. Grant that all who have been baptized into Christ’s death and resurrection may die to sin and rise to newness of life. And that through the grave and gate of death we may pass with him to our joyful resurrection. Amen.
[My thanks to former Presiding Bishop Frank Griswold for the Jeremy Taylor reference.]