Sunday, November 4, 2012

Famous First Lines

See if you can spot these famous first lines:

·  “Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.” Anna Karenina by Leo Tolstoy.
·  “It was a bright cold day in April, and the clocks were striking thirteen.”  George Orwell’s 1984. 
·  “In the great green room, there was a telephone and a red balloon.”  I didn’t grow up reading Margaret Wise Brown’s Goodnight Moon, but my girls sure did.
·  “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times…”  A Tale of Two Cities by Charles Dickens.
·  Do you remember how Dante’s Inferno begins?  “Midway in our life’s journey, I went astray from the straight road and woke to find myself alone in a dark wood.”
·  And finally, here is a line I heard my sisters read aloud often: “In an old house in Paris that was covered with vines lived twelve little girls in two straight lines.”  Madeline by Ludwig Bemelmans

In a sense All Saints’ Sunday is all about famous first lines – not the kind we read in novels and children’s books, but the kind we write with our own lives.  There are famous saints we remember today whose life was a first line that shaped the entire Christian story.  There are other saints known only to us – dear saints – whose first line helped to shape our Christian story.  And it is a day when we gather to welcome through baptism a new saint into the Christian faith and life and promise to help her as she sets out to write the first line of her young life. 

Why do I keep talking about life as if it is the process of writing a first line in a novel?  Well, because in many ways that is exactly what life is all about.  It is about setting a direction and a tone that will carry on long after the first line is complete; a line that somehow sets the stage for a long and glorious novel.  You see, on All Saints’ Day we affirm that this life is just the beginning; an important beginning to be sure, but a beginning.  It shapes who we are and what we are to be like.  And just like the first line of a novel launches the reader into the rest of the story, our earthly lives launch us into a new and more glorious reality where we are somehow consistent with how we begin but open to becoming so much more. 

On this day we celebrate life and reaffirm that in this life we set a course for a journey that will take us well beyond our earthly days.  Our readings from Scripture acknowledge the reality of death and the terrible emotional pain we experience every time we lose someone dear to us while holding up the hope and the promise that a time is coming when death will be no more.  They point to the belief that the ‘.’ at the end of the opening line is nothing more than the completion of the first sentence.  Much more that follows after that that first sentence ends.  And similar to Ernest Vincent Wright’s novel Gadsby, which is a book of some 50,000 words none of which contains the letter ‘e’, the Christian faith holds that the ‘.’ at the end of our first sentence, the ‘.’ marking our death, will never appear again in our story.

So pain and promise, lose and hope are present every time we gather for the burial office.  For me, it becomes even more poignant when a burial takes place during the season of Lent – that time we so rigorously avoid saying the word ‘Alleluia.’  But every burial is a Easter liturgy, so deep in the throes of Lent we change the hangings from Lenten purple to Easter white and as I stand before the body for the commendation, I look up to our triptych depiction of Christ rising from the grave and I say, “All we go down to the dust; yet even at the grave we make our song: Alleluia, alleluia, alleluia.”  These words always put in my mind that the Christian faith faces death with a hopeful defiance.  Saying them in Lent drives home that every burial becomes an Easter moment leading to the celebration of new life.  It marks the acceptance of the one and only ‘.’ in a Christian soul will experience first hand.

Wendell Berry has captured this sense of hopeful defiance in her poem Testament.  Berry is a writer, an educator, and a fifth-generation farmer in central Kentucky.  Her poems have an earthy quality to them; a feel that he has been turning over some soil while he composed them in his mind.  Berry is a Christian who comes at the faith from the inside out.  Typically her writing is free of churchy terms and ideas, which only helps to make her writing insightful and fresh.  Listen to Berry’s four-part poem and ponder what it says to us on this All Saints’ Sunday: 

Dear relatives and friends, when my last breath
grows large and free in air, don’t call it death --
a word to enrich the undertaker and inspire
his surly art of imitating life; conspire
against him.  Say that my body cannot now
be improved upon; it has no fault to show
to the sly cosmetician.  Say that my flesh
has a perfect compliance with the grass
truer than any it could have striven for.
You will recognize the earth in me, as before
I wished to know it in myself: my earth
that has been my care and faithful charge from birth,
and toward which all my sorrows were surely bound,
and all my hopes.  Say that I have found
a good solution, and am on my way
to the roots.  And say I have left my native clay
at last, to be a traveler; that too will be so.
Traveler to where?  Say you don’t know.

   But do not let your ignorance
of my spirit’s whereabouts dismay
you, or overwhelm your thoughts.
Be careful not to say
anything too final.  Whatever
is unsure is possible, and life is bigger
than flesh.  Beyond reach of thought
let imagination figure
your hope.  That will be generous
to me and to yourselves.  Why settle
for some know-it-all’s despair
when the dead may dance to the fiddle
hereafter, for all anybody knows?
And remember that the Heavenly soil
need not be too rich to please
one who was happy in Port Royal.
I may be already heading back,
a new and better man, toward
that town.  The thought’s unreasonable,
but so is life, thank the Lord!

   So treat me, even dead,
as a man who has a place
to go, and something to do.
Don’t muck up my face
with wax and powder and rouge
as one would prettify
an unalterable fact
to give bitterness the lie.
Admit the native earth
my body is and will be,
admit its freedom and
its changeability.
Dress me in the clothes
I wore in the day’s round.
Lay me in a wooden box.
Put the box in the ground.

   Beneath this stone a Berry is planted
in his home land, as he wanted.
He has come to the gathering of his kin,
among whom some were worthy men,
Farmers mostly, who lived by hand,
but one was a cobbler from Ireland,
another played the eternal fool
by riding on a circus mule
to be remembered in grateful laughter
longer than the rest.  After
doing that they had to do
they are at ease here.  Let all of you
who yet for pain find force and voice
look on their peace, and rejoice.

And there you have the first line of All Saints Day:  life lived well here, an acceptance of its end, even an embrace of its finality, and a defiant hopefulness in what might follow!  This day let us celebrate life and as we remember the first lines of those lives that touched ours and let us continue to hone the opening sentence of our eternal story.