Saturday, September 6, 2008

The Requiem Eucharist for Susan Simonson

Susan Simonson
(August 21, 1925 -September 1, 2008)
Gethsemane Episcopal Cathedral
September 6, 2008

Psalm 100

Last week, the morning Susan left for Mayo, I went over to visit her and we shared Holy Communion together. Afterward, I shared a story with her that always I love to tell. It’s one of my favorite stories. It’s an old Jewish tale about King Nebuchadnezzar—the great Babylonian king we meet in the Book of Daniel.

The story goes like this: The King one day was dressed in his finest apparel and was out walking in his garden singing praises to God. As he was doing so, an angel appeared to the King. The King at first was amazed. What a beautiful angel! And he was so thankful that God sent him an angel. But then, the angel, without a word, slapped him hard across the face. The King was shocked and confused after the angel left him. He turned God and lamented. He prayed: “Why, O God, did you send an angel to slap me across the face just when I was singing beautiful praises to you?” God answered from above and said, “Of course you can sing praises dressed in your finest clothes, with a crown on your head, but try praising me after you’ve been slapped across the face.”

When I finished this story, I saw that little smile on Susan’s face. We all know the one. And you knew that understood what this story was and what it meant to her. Because, let’s face it, these past few years have been a year of “slaps” for her. A year ago last August, Susan’s brother, Clarke died. The next month her sister Harriet was diagnosed with cancer. And on June 2 of this year, Harriet died. From that time on, Susan experienced one set-back after another, and so did all of us who were journeying with her through it. That’s not even to mention the years she nursed Ed through his final illness and his passing in 2005.

There are of course were high points as well. She was so happy that day when I baptized her great-granddaughter Quinn.

But still, it was a difficult few years for her. Still, even despite the setbacks, there was a resiliency in Susan. She, unlike the king in the story, was not shocked or overwhelmed or despairing over the slaps she received in this life. Yes, she was sad. Yes, she would rather not have gone through what she did. But at no point did she ever stop praising God through this time. Even slapped, she was still able to sing praises to God. And let me tell you: I know. I was with her and I saw, for myself, that even through the hard times, she clung strongly and firmly to her faith despite everything that happened to her.

In the days after her initial diagnosis, our conversations turned more and more to her expectations of what was awaiting her in the next life. And I can tell you with all honesty that there was no doubt in her mind that something wonderful and glorious awaited her there. I believe fully that when she was recovering from her last surgery, she caught glimpses of that wonderful place. And she became so enraptured by what she saw, she really did want to go there. She shared with some of us what that other place was like. And she was content and accepting of what awaited her.

One week ago today, on Saturday August 30, after her last diagnosis, while she was in Mayo, I called her there and we talked briefly. I lamented a bit over the fact that this didn’t turn out the way we hoped it would. Susan, in that typical way of hers, was obviously disappointed and frustrated by the setbacks, but she made it very clear to me her belief that something better awaited her. I said to her as we were hanging up, “God really is with you right now, Susan.” “Yes, He really is,” she said. And God was with her and is with her now.

When we look at it all now, we might ask why. We might ask: why did this happen to someone like Susan, who really and truly was a good and gracious person? And we find no answers to those questions. But, in not finding answers, we are reminded that our perspective is not God’s perspective. And Susan understood that very well in her life and trusted deeply in it.

As some of you know, I teach at the University of Mary in Fargo. One of the courses I teach is called Suffering and Christian Healing. In one of the books that are required for the course, our perception versus God’s perception is explained this way: Think of a carpet. From above, the carpet looks perfect. It’s soft. It maybe has a beautiful design. It has a color that perfectly compliments the room. These are definitely images, Susan would appreciate. But from underneath the carpet, it looks awful. We see stray pieces of thread. We see the plastic underlining. We see the dried paste and nail holes. That’s what life is like sometimes.

We are on the underside of the carpet right now. That’s how we view life in this moment. We see the stray threads and the framework, but we don’t see the carpet as it is meant to be seen. We see the ugly things life has thrown at us and it frustrates us. It’s hard for us to imagine what’s on the other side of the carpet, if in fact there is even another side.

But, God is on the other side of the carpet. God sees the carpet as it should be seen. While we are here, on this side, we don’t understand why things happen the way they do. We don’t understand why someone like Susan had to experience the set-backs she did over these past few years. But we trust in the fact that one day, we will cross over to the other side—to God’s side. And when we do, it will all—somehow—make sense. It will all be the way it should be.

Susan is now looking at her life—and ours—from that other side. She is now looking at it all from God’s perspective. And that’s what she would want us to cling to as we go on from here.

Last Saturday, when she was planning this service, she made it very clear that this service should not be gloomy or depressing, but rather a true celebration of the wonderful and beautiful life she lived. She would not want us to despair over her death. Because Susan knew that, although we can’t fully understand things now, we will one day. And that when we do, it will be beautiful.

So, today, although we might be tempted to despair, we really cannot. When looking at these last few days from Susan’s perspective, this has been one great and glorious day without end for her. She has been relieved of her pain and suffering. The weariness and the strain she carried with her has been lifted from her. And she has now become fully and completely herself. Yes, we are sad for this temporary separation. But we are not despairing. Because we know that will all be well. It will all be well.

And today, although we are reeling from the slap of Susan’s death, we are also doing what she did when slapped by life. We are singing God’s praises. In our Psalm for today, that Dixie so beautifully sang for us, we find everything we need to know about what Susan held in her heart before God. This psalm, Psalm 100, is traditionally called in the Book of Common Prayer the Jubilate Deo. In and it, we find everything Susan held dear and important to her.

O be joyful in the Lord, all ye lands*
serve the Lord in gladness, and come before his presence with a song.

See, even in the face of everything,—even when we’ve been slapped, we can sing God’s praises. Even in those moments, when life on this underside of the carpet throws ugly things we don’t understand at us, we can still sing and cling to hope. Even then, we can, as Susan is right at this moment, in that place she longed for, we too can sing:

For the Lord is gracious, his mercy is everlasting*
and his truth endureth from generation to generation.

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