Death- a reality of life. As it says in the burial office “In the midst of life we are in death” Every parent will at some time hear their child ask “am I going to die someday?” I can remember graphically the occasion when I posed that question to an adult. And received a response I did not want to hear. “Yes, you will.” “Oh my, but I am so young.” “It doesn’t matter,” she said, “it will happen.” “But honey child the Lord will on that day take you up into heaven and keep you safe forever, so stop your worrying.” The voice giving those comforting words was for me one of a wonderful, loving, black woman who took care of me in my fledgling years and became like a surrogate mother. May God rest her soul. She has remained for me a true icon of Christian virtue throughout my life. She is the main reason that to this day I continue to believe that any form of discrimination, or assignment of worth, based on skin color is wrong, plain and simple.
Always one to bring joy and comfort she quickly followed that devastating news with a story about the apple thieves and the grumpy old man in a wheelchair, his friend the clergyman, and his attendant. It seems these three unlikely companions were passing by a cemetery one evening and as they passed the main gate they heard voices coming from the main burial area. “One for you and one for me” went the voices. As he heard this the clergyman’s mind began to whirl as he heard what sounded to him was obviously a division of souls. Who else could it be but God and the Devil parceling out those who had passed on. “One for you, one for me”. It seemed perfectly logical and theologically correct. The clergyman could not contain himself and he related his thoughts to his companions. Now the old man in the wheelchair was a sort of Donald Trump type who owned much of the town and refused to be cowed by a group of unidentified voices. But upon hearing the clergyman’s thoughts he paused and listened intently bringing his hearing aid up to his ear so he could hear the voices plainly. And he heard quite plainly “One for you, one for me”. Well, it was a very dark night and at such times our logic and reason begin to slip and that primeval nocturnal instinct suppressed by thousands of years of evolution begins to reassert itself. The old man’s mind started to churn and he could just see the great Jehovah and Beelzebub greedily diving up the souls of the dead buried in that cemetery. But arrogance has no bounds for some and the old man refused to budge from the Gate. Until; the voices said “what about those three down at the gate?” At that moment terror held no boundaries and the clergyman and the attendant found themselves running at flank speed and entering the old man’s mansion only to find the old man waiting for them sans wheelchair. It seems the experience at the gate had wrought a great healing of the old man’s crippling illness.
Meanwhile back at the cemetery the thieves who had stolen a large number of apples from a local farmer stopped their division of the spoils long enough to retrieve the three apples that had rolled down the hill and stopped near the front gate of the cemetery .
Now I am not sure what theological value this story has but when related to me by my caregiver I found it very comforting. Perhaps there is a Trinitarian reference or maybe it’s just a good story? What I see in it now is a confirmation of the hope of the resurrection and rebirth. The old man was restored not by modern medical treatments but rather by his faith. His faith both in God and in the Devil caused him to experience a form of rebirth. I think it was that thought that turned me from fearing death into an almost joyful acceptance of it as a process of change and not just a process of destruction. And again this came not from a bishop or learned theologian but rather from a very poor black woman whose economic circumstances held her in bondage very much in the same way as her ancestors had been by dogs, and whips, and patrollers. But she escaped her boundaries and found a rebirth through the message of love and hope she conveyed to two children not her own and whose parents were a part of the very system whose oppression she sought to escape. She could easily have resorted to the conveyance of a harsh fear but rather she chose love and compassion. By her example she illustrated what would happen in death and resurrection. She transmitted the message of hope.
May God rest her soul, Amen.