Thursday, June 12, 2008

The Requiem Eucharist for Harriet Bassett Price

Harriet Bassett Price

(March 20, 1930 - June 3, 2008)
Friday June 13, 2008
Gethsemane Cathedral

John 14.1-6

Occasionally, in our lives, we make connections with people that simply amaze us. These connections happen on a level different than the one on which we’re used to living. They happen at a spiritual level. They happen deep within. These connections are hard to articulate. Whenever we examine them, they sort of wiggle away from us. Whenever we try to pin them down, they just sort of disappear.

I have no doubt that these connections are truly “grace moments” in our lives. “Grace moments” are those moments we don’t ask for—we don’t even really know how to ask for them—and we can’t make them happen on our own. They simply happen when God moves and God works. They happen on God’s time and in God’s own way.

It had one of these grace moments, one of these deep, spiritual connections, when I first met Harriet. And I, like most everyone here this morning, am grateful for the presence of Harriet Price in my life.

Over the last nine months, there hasn’t been a day that has gone by that I haven’t thought about Harriet. Every day, at least twice a day—at Morning and Evening Prayer—I have prayed for Harriet. And every day I thought about the dignity and the personal strength and faith she had when she was diagnosed last September.

The fact is, Harriet has taught all of us well. She has taught us to be strong in the face of overwhelming odds. She has taught us to have dignity and grace, even when life deals us something devastating. And more than anything else, she taught us that, in the face of all of this, that strength, that grace comes from a deep, sustaining faith.

Harriet’s faith is what held her up these last months. Her faith is what she held onto and it was her faith that made bearable what, under any other circumstances, would no doubt frighten the rest of us.

Not long ago, Harriet had went to her doctor to ask him what the end was going to be like. The doctor was honest with her. He told her that she would go on fairly normally for a period of time then slowly, she would gradually fail. It would be gradual descent. She would become bed ridden. She would get sicker and, eventually, she would fail.

That was not what Harriet wanted to hear. Harriet made it clear that day that this was not the way she wanted it to happen.

“Why can’t it’s just be quick?” she said. “Why can’t I go along normally and the, just…go?”

The doctor again was honest with her. He said, “Harriet, in twenty-five years of dealing with pancreatic cancer, I can say it never happens that way.”

Well, Harriet proved him wrong. As we know, they gave Harriet six months. She lived for nine. And, for the better part of those nine months, she did very well. She had very little pain medication. Her life was fairly normal for the better part of those nine months. And, in the end, it was just as she wanted it. She went quickly and painlessly. And she went with a strong sense that something more and greater was awaiting her.

Before Harriet went to sleep the night before she died, she said, “Let the kids know. Ed is coming to pick me up at 6:30.” And sure enough, her husband Ed did just that. The next morning, at 6:00, Harriet died.

When I talked with the family the other day to plan this service and they told me this story, we also talked about the lesson it teaches us. The lesson Harriet teaches us is that death is not something to fear. And Harriet did not fear death.

A Christian knows better than to fear death or anything else Christians have no right to despair. We have no right to fear anything. And this is probably the greatest lesson Harriet can teach us.

When I look back, nine months ago, to when Harriet was diagnosed, I realized that, as difficult as that time was—we had just had the memorial service for Harriet’s brother Clarke a few weeks before—still, even in that sad moment, her spiritual strength could still be maintained. The day nine months ago today, on September 13, when she was diagnosed, Harriet, her son Lysle, her sister Sue and I celebrated Holy Communion together. Afterward, we talked about fear. She made it very clear to me that day that she didn’t fear death. The diagnosis was difficult. It was inconvenient. It was something she didn’t want to deal with. But there was no fear in her that day. Because of her faith, she knew where she was going. And she spent those nine months of her life without fear.

Every so often, I like to ask this question of people: “What is the most commonly repeated commandment in the Bible?” Now we no doubt instantly think of the Ten Commandment. We think of all those “Thou shalt nots.” We think of all the rules and obligations we find in the Bible. But the most commonly repeated commandment in scripture is none of these. The actual most repeated commandment in scriptures is the best one.

It is: “Do not fear.”

Over and over again in the Gospels, we find Jesus saying to the people he encountered, “Do not fear.” This is a commandment that Harriet lived out fully in her life. She did not fear. She knew that it is unbecoming of a good Episcopalian Christian to fear anything. Fear, after all, shows lack of faith in the God who gives us all we need. Fear shows that we do not have real faith. Fear not, we hear in the scriptures and in the life of Harriet Price. And as Harriet would no doubt say: “Why fear? What is there to fear?’

In today’s Gospel we find Jesus giving us just a glimpse of the place that is prepared for us in the next world. He says, “In my Father’s house there are many dwellings.” Immediately after giving this vision of what awaits us, we find Thomas saying, “Lord, we don’t know where you are going, so how can we know the way?” Those are words, essentially, of fear. Thomas is afraid. He has no clue what has happened and he has no clue what is about to happen.

But Jesus sets all fear to rest with those beautiful and deceptively simple words, “I am the way and the truth and the life.” We have heard those words so often over the years that we might not even pay at attention to them anymore. But those words of Jesus effectively destroy any fear we might have.

When Jesus says he is the Way, the Truth and the Life, he is saying this: Why fear about where you are going? If you look to me, you will find the Way to go. Why fear about what is true or not? I am Truth. Why worry about death? I am Life. Jesus says to us, If you look to me, if you trust in me, if you keep your eyes and your heart on me, there is no room for fear. I will take care of you. And you will be taken care of.

Harriet believed in these words. Harriet held these words firmly to herself and found in these words the source of her faith and strength. And because she believed in these words, she felt no fear over the future or of death. And this is what we can take away with us today.

This is the lesson Harriet is teaching all of us today. We must live our life much as Harriet lived hers—fearlessly. Without fear. We must live our lives strengthened and sustained by a deep and abiding faith in God. And if we take Harriet’s example to heart, if we, like her, heed the words of Jesus, if we look to him to take away our fear, we too will be with Harriet again. We will find our fears falling from us forever and we will find our lives—like Harriet’s—renewed without ending.

I am thankful for the life and teaching of Harriet Price. I am thankful that I got to know her and I am thankful that I was with her on that day she was diagnosed. I am thankful for the connection I made with her. I know that that connection hasn’t been severed. Our friendship hasn’t ended.

Just as I prayed for her every day for these last nine months, I know that Harriet is in that placed that was prepared for her by her Father in heaven, that place her beloved Ed led her to, and that she is there right now praying for all of us from now on. And I have no doubt that when we close our eyes to this world, when we open them to the next, Harriet will be there with all of our loved ones, awaiting us and saying to us, in that way Harriet did, “do not fear. What is there to fear?” And there, together, we will have found the Way, we will have discovered the Truth and we will have gained the Life that will never end.

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