My mom approached looking agitated, crying. The rented sprayer was too loud to hear her and my dad and I were preoccupied with getting coating applied to the roof. “What’s wrong?” I asked. “Jacob’s dead,” she replied, breaking into tears again. Jacob is my nephew, aged 24. He died of a pulmonary thrombosis March 11, 2010. Heart attacks are not age specific. Like a thief in the night, one took his life.
King Arthur had lost everything, and he was alone. Suddenly the silence of the night is broken by rustling outside his tent. “Who is there?” he says. “Come out,” I say. It is a young boy named Tom, he is frightened. “Forgive me your Majesty, I was searching for the Sergeant of Arms, I didn’t intend to disturb you.” King Arthur says, “Who are you, my boy? Where do you come from? You ought to be in bed. Are you a page?” “Oh no, my Lord, I stowed away in one of the boats, your Majesty. I came to fight for the Round Table. I’m very good with the bow.” King Arthur answers, “And do you think you will kill with that bow of yours?” Tom says, “Oh yes me lord, a great many I hope.” King Arthur replies, “Suppose they kill you?” Tom says, “Then I shall be dead, me Lord. But I don’t intend to die; I intend to be a knight.”
Jacob did not intend to die, but some things remain out of our control. When the unexpected death occurs to someone close to us, we face our own mortality; we look for ways to make sense of things. We ponder our priorities and our spiritual life.
“A knight!” King Arthur says. “When did you decide on this non-existent career? Was your village protected by knights? Was your mother saved by a knight? Did you ever serve a knight?” Tom replies, “Oh, no one Lord, I have never seen a knight. I only know of them from the stories people tell.”
The obituary written by my brother and his wife for Jacob began, “How does one define their first born in a few paragraphs...” We are storytellers. Ironically, we seem to tell the best stories when the person has died. The best part of every funeral for me is the remembering (re-member: to put the deceased back together in our consciousness). In telling stories we take the virtues we are reminded of and remember them with gratitude and love. Death is a robber because it steals our loved one. But death is a liar because it says “I took away what you value most about the one you lost.” While it is true that the temporal manifestation (Jacob) is gone, the eternal qualities of his life (love, friendship, companionship) are values not lost to death. Death does not steal them, they are eternal. While the temporal experience (Jacob’s hugs) is no longer present, I can imagine them with fondness, and experience now their eternal value (love and assurance).
The Hebrew understanding of remembering is intended to bring all the power and truth of the initial experience to the present moment. At the Last Supper, Jesus broke the bread and gave the wine to his closest friends to remember him by. The way in which we remember (the stories we tell) is more important than the events themselves. In the face of tragedy, exile, and the finality of death, something pulls us closer together. Something whispers the dawning message of hope in eternal life. The deep down things of our hearts are stirred up. We long for something holy, something transcendent. We want to know what is beyond our control. Religion is said to have come into existence when humanity became conscious of itself and became aware of time. Life has a beginning and an end. At its worst, religion is a story offering a ticket to eternity (heaven); at its best it is a story offering to make the eternal (hope, faith, love, joy, peace…) present now.
Rev. Kerry C. Neuhardt is the priest in charge of St. James the Apostle Episcopal Church in Tempe. He has served congregations in Arizona since 1984. He lived in Australia working in a congregation on the Gold Coast. He has been an Episcopal priest for 25 years.