Mourning John Lewis — Celebrating His Life

John Robert Lewis
Laid to Rest on July 30, 2020

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One might have been able to hear church bells ringing this morning, eighty times,
in cities and towns across America, to pay homage to his eighty years of life
.

Later, the headline read, “Three living presidents came together to honor Congressman John Lewis at his funeral today in Atlanta, Georgia.” Yes, three presidents spoke words of mourning, and celebration today — President George W. Bush, President William J Clinton, President Barak Obama. President Jimmy Carter sent his words to be read.
So four living United States Presidents honored John Lewis today. A fifth living United States President did not.

Eloquent words were spoken by so many today at Atlanta’s historic Ebenezer Baptist Church, which has been known best because of its most famous pastor, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. We heard stories, memories, words marked with laughter and tears from friends and family members of John Lewis — Rev. Dr. Bernice King, an activist and Martin Luther King Jr.‘s daughter, civil rights pioneer Xernona Clayton, James Lawson,   an activist, Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi, our three living presidents and many others.

Years later, when I was elected a U.S. Senator, I told him that I stood on his shoulders. When I was elected President of the United States, I hugged him on the inauguration stand before I was sworn in and told him I was only there because of the sacrifices he made. And through all those years, he never stopped providing wisdom and encouragement to me and Michelle and our family. We will miss him dearly.
— President Barak Obama


Americans live in a country that is better today because of John Lewis. John always looked outward, not inward. He always thought of others. He always believed in preaching the gospel, in word and in deed, insisting that hate and fear had to be answered with love and hope. John Lewis believed in the Lord. He believed in humanity, and he believed in America.
— President George W. Bush


John always kept walking to reach the beloved community. He got into a lot of good trouble along the way, but let’s not forget, he developed an absolutely uncanny ability to heal troubled waters. When he could have been angry and determined to cancel his adversaries, he tried to get converts instead. He thought the open hand was better than the clenched fist. He lived by the faith and promise of St. Paul: “Let us not grow weary in doing good, for in due season we will reap if we do not lose heart.” He never lost heart. He fought the good fight, he kept the faith, but we got our last letter from him today on the pages of the New York Times. Keep moving. It is so fitting on the day of his service, he leaves us our marching orders: Keep moving.

John Lewis was many things, but he was a man, a friend and sunshine in the storm, a friend who would walk the stony road that he asked you to walk, that would brave the chastening rods he asked you to be whipped by, always keeping his eyes on the prize, always believing none of us would be free until all of us are equal. I just loved him. I always will. And I’m so grateful that he stayed true to form. He’s gone up yonder and left us with marching orders. I suggest since he’s close enough to God to keep his eye on the sparrow and on us, we salute, suit up and march on.
— President Bill Clinton


We come with a flag flown over the Capitol the night that John passed. When this flag flew there, it said goodbye. It waved goodbye to John. Our friend, our mentor, our colleague. This beautiful man that we all had the privilege of serving with.
— Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi

That’s when I cried, as I did many times during the four hours I watched this morning, bearing witness to his life, holding vigil at his glag-draped casket I had watched all week. There is no doubt that moving words were uttered today in that holy place where Beloved Community gathered to mourn John Lewis, but none were more full of heart that the words of Ebenezer’s senior pastor, the Rev. Dr. Raphael G. Warnock:

We have come to say goodbye to our friend in these difficult days. Come on, let the nation celebrate, let the angels rejoice … John Lewis, the boy from Troy, the conscience of the Congress. His deeds etched into eternity, he loved America until America learned to love him back.

From 1 Corinthians 15:51-55
Behold, I show you a mystery; We shall not all sleep, but we shall all be changed, 
In a moment, in the twinkling of an eye, at the last trump: for the trumpet shall sound, and the dead shall be raised incorruptible, and we shall be changed. For this corruptible must put on incorruption, and this mortal must put on immortality.

So when this corruptible shall have put on incorruption, and this mortal shall have put on immortality, then shall be brought to pass the saying that is written, Death is swallowed up in victory. O death, where is thy sting? O grave, where is thy victory? 

From Revelation 14: 12-13
Here is a call for the endurance of the saints, those who keep the commandments of God and hold fast to the faith of Jesus. 
And I heard a voice from heaven saying, “Write this: Blessed are the dead who from now on die in the Lord.” “Yes,” says the Spirit, “they will rest from their labors, for their deeds will follow them.”

From the works of William Shakespeare
When he shall die,
Take him and cut him out in little stars,
And he will make the face of heaven so fine
That all the world will be in love with night
And pay no worship to the garish sun.

 

I cried today, but I laughed a lot, too. I sang a little and — though I did not rise to my feet to dance in celebration of his life well-lived — I still celebrated more than I mourned, because that’s what John Lewis would do. In the end I laughed out loud at the image of mourners dancing their way out of the sanctuary, following the casket, and being glad that John Lewis loved dancing to the music of “Happy Feet!”

Why don’t we all dance our way to Beloved Community!

May God make it so!

Rest in Peace, John Lewis. Rest in Celebration. We got this!

“I Can Do This Hard Thing!”

I can do this hard thing, this recovery from a kidney transplant. But sometimes I need to shed some tears about it all. Tears do not come out of weakness. In fact, tears are the mark of power. Called “the soap of the soul,” tears can help diminish the angst my soul clings to so tightly. Unfortunately, I tend to fight back tears as if they will hurt as they slip down my cheeks. I also nurse the irrational desire to not let anyone see my tears. After all, someone might consider them a sign of my weakness.

Yet, God has another thought about our tears. God counts our tears, keeps up with them, gathers them up and stores them in a bottle. I can imagine the scene of a loving God gently catching every tear and preserving it as a precious elixir worth saving.

Still I avoid weeping at all costs, portraying a false, less-than-honest strength — especially if someone might see.

Today, I am so aware that if I could just cry, the hard time I am going through would feel easier. If I could cry, my tears would cleanse my heart and help minimize my physical, emotional and spiritual pain. If I could just let my tears fall, I would be reclaiming my power.

The truth is that I did not fully understand how hard it would be to endure a kidney transplant and the very, very difficult aftercare regimen. Nor could I have ever imagined the range of emotions I would experience. This is one of life’s hard things.

Last night though, a dear friend sent me a video of a song she chose just for me, just for this moment of my life. I had never heard the song before, but it was exactly what I needed to hear. A mesmerizing tune and simple lyrics written and performed by Carrie Newcomer, “You Can Do This Hard Thing” brought me to tears, tears that really needed to flow.

You can do this hard thing.
You can do this hard thing.
It’s not easy I know,
But I believe that its so.
You can do this hard thing.

My faith tells me that I really can do this hard thing, although most of the time I don’t feel that I can. The friends and family who surround me with love remind me that I can. My heart tells me I can do this, but my rational mind tries to convince me that I cannot. I am reminded by the hymn writer that grace for this hard thing comes from God . . .

God giveth more grace when the burdens grow greater;
He sendeth more strength when the labors increase;
To added afflictions He addeth His mercy,
To multiplied trials, His multiplied peace.

When we have exhausted our store of endurance,
When our strength has failed ere the day is half done,
When we reach the end of our hoarded resources
Our Father’s full giving is only begun.

So perhaps it does require our tears, our lament that humbles us before our God of grace. The writer of the Book of James seems to suggest that grieving and weeping brings God near and that our mourning actually strengthens us to live through hard things.

God gives all the more grace . . .
Submit yourselves therefore to God . . .
Draw near to God, and he will draw near to you . . .
Lament and mourn and weep.
Let your laughter be turned into mourning and your joy into dejection.

— From James 4 (NRSV)

It doesn’t make much sense that mourning is a good thing, that flowing tears actually cleanse the soul. But I need to see things this way: Life brings changes — hard changes sometimes. Along with the miracle of my kidney transplant comes the end of one season of life and the advent of a new season of life. While I do celebrate the transplant and the ways it will be life-giving for me, I must also grieve the loss of my previous life that had become so comfortable, so easy.

I will call out to my buried tears. I will open up my heart’s pain, grieve my losses and let my tears fall freely down my cheeks. It seems to be the best way to make sure I can do this hard thing.

Resurrection People

C1D1BB39-1AD2-4D57-8ED7-8464718B35D8On Resurrection Sunday, I cry joy-tears — every time, without fail. For me, holding on to my emotions on Resurrection Sunday is impossible. After going through Lent, after hearing again of the betrayal Jesus experienced, after witnessing the suffering and execution of Christ, after acknowledging anew that Christ’s sacrifice was for the whole world and for me, I celebrate Christ’s resurrection. And when I do, I just cry.

But on Resurrection Sunday 2018, I wept with a heavy heart and a flood of memories. I thought of Easters past and the people of God with whom I celebrated. All of those precious friends now live miles away, others live in heaven. I was their pastor, and that is as holy a relationship as I can describe.

I walked with them through joy and tragedy, through days of health and days of illness, through crushing family problems, through death and divorce. But through every devastation, we celebrated Resurrection Sundays in our beautiful monastery chapel, in our little country church in small town Arkansas, at an altar on a lakeside, in the baptismal waters. We celebrated our covenant, our deep friendship, and gave thanks for the grace that gifted us with those relationships.

We were a fun and creative group. With some of them, I cut and stitched and glued and appliqued huge banners proclaiming, “Christ Is Risen!” With others, I burned palm branches for Ash Wednesday. With others, I lifted up the wooden cross onto thevaltar of the church sanctuary. And with others, I wandered through the woods searching for dogwood blossoms to adorn the wooden cross. I most fondly remember a circuitous and hilarious trek through the forest with Ethel.

Ethel was a true jewel, one of a kind. Never would you find a more loyal and loving parishioner than Ethel, who will always be known as the persevering founder of our church. She refused to let it fail. She was persistent and feisty and determined. And because of her, the church still stands firm, even now that she is gone.

But getting back to our trek in the forest, I have to say that Ethel was one of those unstoppable “elderly” people. She could barely walk at times because she suffered with a muscle disease that weakened her legs. But she pushed her way through the forest that day, leading me, pushing aside the limbs, vines and thorns, and dauntlessly creating our path over rocks and depressions in the ground. We were looking for a thorn tree . . . you guessed it . . . to use in making a crown of thorns.

Eventually we found a perfect thorn vine with angry-looking three-inch thorns on it. We carefully hauled it through the woods, trying to avoid getting stabbed by one of those sharp thorns. Then we put it in a bathtub full of water to soften it. When we began to bend it into a crown shape, we both sustained painful thorn wounds. Never to be deterred, Ethel managed to shape and finally fasten the two ends together, and the prickly vine became the crown of thorns that we used for many years.

When we placed it for the first time on the Good Friday cross during the church service, I wept. Many of us wept. We were like that because we remembered the words of the prophet Isaiah.

He is despised and rejected by men,
A Man of sorrows and acquainted with grief.
And we hid, as it were, our faces from Him;
He was despised, and we did not esteem Him.

Surely He has borne our griefs
And carried our sorrows;
Yet we esteemed Him stricken,
Smitten by God, and afflicted.

But He was wounded for our transgressions,
He was bruised for our iniquities;
The chastisement for our peace was upon Him,
And by His stripes we are healed.

All we like sheep have gone astray;
We have turned, every one, to his own way;
And the Lord has laid on Him the iniquity of us all.

He was oppressed and He was afflicted,
Yet He opened not His mouth . . .

— Isaiah 53:3-7, KJV

We knew that after the suffering, the resurrection would most surely come. Through the passion and emotion of Good Friday, we wept. But we wept even more when the stark cross flowered on Easter morning, when we lit the Christ candle, when the black shroud was removed, and when we draped the cross in glistening white cloth.

So on Resurrection Sunday 2018, while singing “Christ the Lord Is Risen Today,”I wept with tears of gratitude, gratitude for the people of God through the years who made my Easters such sacred experiences of worship.

Ethel, Barbara, Johnnie, April, Bo, Michael, Stan, Dianna, Eric and Emily, Ann, Sister Bernadette, Gail, Noah, Wendell, Pat, Joyce, Suzette, Deborah, Cindy, Barbara Fay, Regina, Tonya, Vallory, Leroy, Mary, LaVante, Shirley, Ken, Steve, Jenna . . .

So many names! So many others. My memories of them brought me to tears on Easter Sunday. I saw them in my mind and remembered our shared times of worship. They are Resurrection people all, people who know how to proclaim Christ’s resurrection with passion, devotion and celebration. For all of them, today I give thanks.