This past year the equilibrium in our church was off-kilter, at least from where I stand. There was a group of women looking down the barrel of 90+ years, who all sat in the same pew together. They were sometimes a bit noisy, visiting at different times, including during the sermon. We all sort of got used to it. However, those seats are no longer occupied by them. Marie Kelton is in a nursing home along with Peggy Jacobson; Sandy Labate died early last year, just ahead of her close friend Claire Finelli. I presided at the funerals for Sandy and later for Claire. All of these women have left their mark on my life and ministry.
A number of months after Claire’s funeral I received a box with lots of tiles from the Armenian quarter of Jerusalem, where Claire and I had walked many times, including the walls of Jerusalem, in the days when there were no guard rails – it was scary at times. Along with these items there was a jar filled with Claire’s ashes and the request that they be spread in the Holy Land.
It’s interesting how time has a way of putting things in perspective. I knew Claire from the first week I showed up at St. John’s to be the new pastor. I buried her father and visited her mother in a nursing home many times. Apart from our trips to the Holy Land, our relationship also extended to trips to Germany, Belgium and Switzerland. There was lots of laughter, and Claire enjoyed Scotch as much as I did – not to mention the many hours of tea and coffee in her kitchen and, of course, swimming in her pool with my children when they were young.
Claire was adventurous, opinionated, interested in travel, and could be found most Sunday mornings at St. John’s. She could be feisty if she didn’t like the hymns or particular opinions voiced at Adult Forum. As she approached the end of her life, she could be a bit negative as she was going blind. It was discouraging for me to listen to her, but I hung in and what followed were some pretty touching conversations just before she died.
Now I am holding what was left of this woman in my hand, just outside the old city of Jerusalem in what is known today as “the garden of Gethsemane”. This is the place where I finally decide to scatter her ashes among the old olive trees that go back more than 1000 years. The place, where history says Jesus was betrayed. The place, where the Bible records Jesus praying to have the cup of suffering removed.
Here I find myself, scattering these ashes. Suddenly it dawns on me as I say, “Into your hands, O Lord, I commend this your servant Claire. Ashes to ashes, dust to dust, in the sure and certain hope onto the resurrection of eternal life”, that at some point someone will be saying this about me, as I am given over from this world to the next. It is a movement from one life to another; on the other hand, it is going back to from where you began. This moment I find chilling because the truth is palpable as Claire’s ashes fall to the ground upon the soil that she loved to visit on the edge of the Mount of Olives.
I am back now and facing the 40 days of Lent, which begins with Ash Wednesday. I will be there, not just because I am paid to, but because I want to; and more than that, because I need to. I need the reminder that tells me that I am not the center of the universe; I am mortal; my life is finite; my existence is short. I need to get serious about my life and what needs to be done and about my soul that needs to be fed.
Holding Claire reminded me how short life really is and how deeply it needs to be lived in the grace of our Lord.