Saturday, February 4, 2017

Gretchen Carlson Kost

 (July 1, 1974-January 30, 2017)

Gethsemane Episcopal Cathedral
Fargo, ND

Revelation 7.9-17

+ For those of you who do not know me, I am Gretchen’s priest. For almost 13 years, I have very gratefully served in that capacity. Now, I know that on the surface that sounds so nice. It sounds so…holy. If you didn’t know Gretchen or me, you would think, just by my saying that, that we were nice, sweet, clean-cut, cookie cutter Episcopalians.

But…sadly, no. The reason our relationship worked so well is that there was nothing sweet or clean-cut in either of us. Well, she was sweet at times. But, we were boisterous, outspoken, unabashed liberal Christians, who shared very clear and vocal opinions on almost every issue, whether it be women’s right, or GLBTQ rights, or just basic equal rights. We were pretty much outraged about all the same things.  We talked politics and social issues.

And music. We shared a very deep love of music and many of the same bands, especially from the 1980s and early 1990s. It was not, as you can guess, the typical priest/parishioner relationship

I first got to know Gretchen and Rob in that fortuitous hot summer of 2004. Weirdly enough, Gretchen and I shared many friends for years before that. We knew many of the same people. But somehow we never really knew each other, outside greetings here at Gethsemane Cathedral on Sunday mornings.

Gretchen was diagnosed in May of 2004. The following month, in June, I was ordained a priest. And the following month after that, in July, the Dean of this Cathedral at that time, Steve Easterday, called me into his office (I was serving here at the time as a priest at that time). He asked me if I would be willing to pay a visit to Gretchen and Rob. There were two reasons he asked me, I think:  the first reason was that there was only four years difference between us in age. And the second reason was that two years before, in 2002, I also was diagnosed with cancer, which, let me tell you, was a very traumatic in my life.  So I knew in a unique way where Gretchen and Rob were in their lives in the aftermath of that diagnosis.  So the Dean no doubt thought I would be the perfect one to visit her.  

But as I drove over to their house in Moorhead that hot summer afternoon, I really didn’t know what I was going to say or do.  I wasn’t certain what Gretchen would want from me. And I wasn’t certain where she would be emotionally in the whole process.

Well, I didn’t need to fret that much. Although Gretchen was scared, although the future was unknown, the person I came to know that day was a strong woman filled with life. And she was a fighter! And we very quickly bonded, as did Rob and I, and Gretchen’s parent’s Kathy and Bruce.

Slowly, as time went on, she was healed.  It was truly a miracle! We were all were amazed and thankful. Life went on. I visited first of all, every week, then every month. In fact, in those almost 13 years, I don’t think there was a month I didn’t visit.

Gretchen fought back, became stronger than ever, lived her life fully and completely. And soon, there was Hattie and then Beck. I got to baptize each of them.

Now, again, it all sounds idyllic. But, there were issues sometimes. We didn’t always see things face to face.  The biggest issue we had in this time was my becoming vegan. Oh, poor Gretchen—and especially Gretchen’s mom, Kathy—it was a decision that was not met well. It became too hard to feed this crazy, insane vegan priest a meal. So, we would have dessert instead whenever I visited. But, Kathy, I’m just letting you know: I really missed those meals. And it’s really the only time I’ve ever actually regretted being vegan.

Those visits were wonderful though. Every time I visited Gretchen, she always wanted me to do one thing: She always wanted me to anoint her for healing, even when I thought: why are we still doing this? You’re healed, Gretchen. We don’t need to be doing this anymore.

But there was always a bit of fear in the back of her mind. It’s a fear I know well—that any of us who have had cancer knows well—that fear that it will come back.
Now, as I’ve shared this story with people, I hear again and again: “everyone should be so thankful for those 12, almost 13 years.” And, trust me, I am. But…
I am also really angry today. I am selfish. Maybe I’m ungrateful. But...there should’ve been more. It should’ve been more than 13 years. It should’ve 30 years. Gretchen should’ve seen those children grow. She should’ve grown old with Rob. There was so much life ahead of her.

And in this last month, and especially last few weeks and days, let me tell you: my most common prayer has been a fist shaken at the sky. Now, mind you I love God. Anyone who knows me knows I love God. But I am angry today at God too. (We know we can be angry at someone we love). And it’s all right to be angry about this.
Maybe I’m not really angry at God. But I really am angry at death, and I’m angry at that damn tumor, and I am angry at the unfairness of this all. It’s unfair. This should not have happened to someone like Gretchen. This should not have happened to Rob and Hattie and Beck and Kathy and Bruce and Greg and Grady and their families. And to all of us, who loved her.

Gretchen did not deserve this. And that makes me very angry! I’m really angry that there wasn’t more time.

But, for those of us who have faith—faith like Gretchen—and let me tell you, Gretchen had faith—a fierce, strong faith in Christ—for us, even in the face of this gut-wrenching pain we feel today, even in the face of our frustration and anger and sadness, we know…

We know that the God of love in which Gretchen believed so strongly, really was with her. The fact is, she was spared so much of what she feared. She was spared a nursing home. She was spared paralysis. She left this world surrounded by those who loved her. She left here knowing she was loved and cherished. She left here hearing all those wonderful, amazing comments people were texting and leaving on Facebook and on her CaringBridge site. She heard them.

For those of us who have faith, we know: This is not the end. In that beautiful reading we just heard from Revelation, we heard:

These are they who have come out of the great ordeal; they have washed their robes and made them white in the blood of the Lamb. 
For this reason they are before the throne of God,
   and worship him day and night within his temple,
   and the one who is seated on the throne will shelter them. 
They will hunger no more, and thirst no more;
   the sun will not strike them,
   nor any scorching heat; 
for the Lamb at the centre of the throne will be their shepherd,
   and he will guide them to springs of the water of life,
and God will wipe away every tear from their eyes.

God has wiped away every tear from Gretchen’s eyes. She will never cry another tear. We…well, we are not so lucky. At least right now. We have not yet emerged from our great ordeal. But we do know that, one day, our tears will be wiped away for good. These tears we cry today will be wiped away. And it will be a great day.

All this reminds us that our goodbye today is only a temporary goodbye.  All that we knew and loved about Gretchen is not gone for good. It is not ashes, in that beautiful urn. It is not lost forever from us. All we loved, all that was good and gracious and beautiful in Gretchen—all that was fierce and strong and amazing in her—all of that dwells now in a place of light and beauty and life unending. And we will see that dimpled face again. And we will hear that wonderful, incredible laugh again. We will see her again.  And it will be beautiful.

Anyone who knew Gretchen well knew there was one book that meant everything to her—To Kill a Mockingbird. A few days ago, after she passed, I got out my well-worn copy of the book, and found a passage I underlined many, many years ago. In so many ways, it captured Gretchen. And I think these words speaking loudly to who she was and to how we can respond to so many things in our world at this time (which weighed heavily on Gretchen in these few months). Harper Lee writes:

“I wanted you to see what real courage is, instead of getting the idea that courage is a man with a gun in his hand. It's when you know you're licked before you begin, but you begin anyway and see it through no matter what.”

Gretchen saw it through, even when she knew was licked. She showed us all true courage, true strength, true determination. She showed us what real courage was. And we should be grateful for that.

We will all miss her so much. I want to say I will miss her, but I know that if I make that statement as a statement, I will start crying. And I’m going to try real hard to not cry right now. We will all miss her.

But I can tell you we will not forget her.  Gretchen Kost is not someone who will be easily forgotten. She is not someone who passes quietly into the mists. Her fierce determination lives on in us. Her strength, her dignity lives on Hattie, in Beck, in Rob and Kathy and Bruce and Grady and Greg and in all of us who knew her and loved her.

At the end of this service, we will all stand and I will lead us in something called the Commendation. The commendation is an incredible piece of liturgy. As a poet, I can say it’s an incredible piece of poetry. But it’s more than poetry. In those words, we will say,

Give rest, O Christ, to your servant with your saints,
where sorrow and pain are no more,
neither sighing, but life everlasting.

And it will end with those very powerful words:

All of us go down
to the dust; yet even at the grave we make our song: Alleluia,
alleluia, alleluia.

That alleluia in the face of death is a defiant alleluia. It is fist shaken not at God, but it is a fist shaken at death. It is the fist Gretchen shook at death. Not even you, death, not even you will defeat me, Gretchen seems to say. I will not fear you. And I will not let you win.

Let me tell you, death has not defeated Gretchen Kost. Even at the grave, she makes her song—and we with her:

Alleluia, Alleluia, Alleluia.

It is a defiant alleluia we make today with her.

So let us be defiant. Let us shake our fists at death today. Let us say our Alleluia today in the same way Gretchen would. Let face this day and the days to come with gratitude for this incredible person God let us know.  Let us be grateful. Let us be sad, yes. But let’s remind ourselves: death has not defeated her. Or us. Let us be defiant to death. Let us sing loudly. Let us live boldly. Let us stand up defiantly. That is what Gretchen would want us to do today, and in the future.

Into paradise may the angels lead you, Gretchen. At your coming may the martyrs receive you. And may they bring you with joy and gladness into the holy city Jerusalem.

Oh, Gretchen, how I will miss you!


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