The Burial of Michael Dean
July 20, 2013
The will of God. That is what our Gospel today is about, the will of God. This short passage from St. John’s gospel is one of the passages specifically indicated for this occasion, a funeral Mass. It is a complicated scriptural selection for a funeral, particularly when we are gathered to bury someone who died as young and as rapidly as Michael did. It is complicated because this scripture begs us to ask ourselves, was this the will of God?
I did not know Michael well. Actually, I did not know him at all before he got sick at Easter. As the cancer progressed, Michael found himself thinking a lot about his childhood religious home in the Roman Catholic church. He found himself thinking a lot about unresolved anger and confusion about things religious. He found himself asking, wanting to ask about unresolved questions that he began to suspect only had religious answers. Or, a more accurate way to put it is that Michael began to realize that religion, that a spiritual lens was the only way to even approach the questions that were coming up for him as his end arose on a near horizon. So a friend, a dear friend, a sister-like friend of Karen’s, Jodie, a member here, put us in touch.
As a priest, we often meet people in very complicated moments in their lives: birth, marriage, divorce, all shades of tragedy and suffering, and most importantly, death. In training, we learned to be very careful entering a hospital room or knocking unexpectedly on someone’s door, because when the priest shows up, it is always bad news, right? Well, Karen and Michael already knew how bad the news was when I showed up on their beautiful doorstep in Coburg.
I encountered Michael in a very short, traumatic phase of his life. But in just the two months that I knew him, I know why so many people are here. What a spirit. What passion. What creativity and intelligence. What joie de vivre. What a wicked, wicked sense of humor. Laughter often comes easily at a deathbed, but at Michael’s, good Lord. A few days before he died I went to give his last rights. His condition had declined so quickly. We said the prayers, I anointed him with holy oils. He knew very well how close the end was. And when we had finished, he looked up at me… what do you say when you have just been given last rights? I had laughed so much with him in our few visits, all I could say was, “well, your passport to heaven is officially stamped.” Goodness, did he laugh.
So was this the will of God? Was this death, the untimely death of such a man as Michael Dean the will of God? I don’t know. Who are we to know such things? But when such a thing like this happens, when someone dies before it seems they ought to be dying, we have to ask a more important question: What is the will of God?
My understanding of the will of God has nothing to do with decisions being made on high, fates being completed, my understanding does not put a lot of conscious activity in the category of the will of god. Rather, I sense that the will of God is revealed most clearly in the very will to live, in the pulse of life itself. The force that through the green fuse drives the flower; that is the will of God. The Doug firs stretching, stretching, stretching with every fiber of their being up into the Oregon sky; that is the will of God. The love of two people building a life together; that is the will of God. The impulse to sobriety, to encountering life as it actually is as it actually happens; that is the will of God. Michael know about all of these things. Michael knew the will of God.
The will of God is not revealed in Michael’s death. Death happens. It is part of the natural order, part of true nature of things, it is part of the cycle we will all complete, eventually. Rather, the will of God is revealed in Technicolor in the life Michael lived. In the love Michael gave and received. In the children he brought into this world and in the children he shared a life with. The will of God is revealed in the service Michael offered to his community, the knowledge and skills he imparted to his students, in the mentoring and companionship he offered to others in recovery from addiction, in the life he built with Karen. The will of God is revealed in the memories we all bear of Michael’s life and now, of his death. That is an understanding of the will of God that I can believe in, that I can raise my children in, that I can dedicate my life to. Michael surely did. Give to the departed eternal rest, and may light perpetual shine upon him. That too, is the will of God. AMEN.