We took Joan Taylor home two weekends ago.
The four remaining members of her family – her daughter, two grandchildren, and I, her husband – drove her ashes 500 km and five mountain passes back to Kootenay Lake, where she had grown up.
She had been clear, all through her leukemia, that she wanted to be cremated, not buried.
“What do you want done with your ashes,” we asked her, in her final months.
“I don’t care,” she said. “I won’t be there.”
Oddly enough, those were the same words my father used, when I asked him the same question. A few days later, he had second thoughts. He wanted his ashes scattered in his favourite fishing river.
In the same way, Joan had second thoughts. She wanted her ashes scattered in Crawford Bay on Kootenay Lake.
Joan’s father built a cottage on the shores of Crawford Bay in the 1950s. For Joan, her weekends at the cottage were probably the most carefree time of her life.
We also spent our honeymoon there.
So, in accord with her wishes, we packed up the box of her ashes, and drove to Crawford Bay.
Access to the beach is now through a resort. When we explained our purpose, the resort cheerfully allowed us through.
We found the cottage Joan’s father had built. It has passed through several owners, but was still recognizable. Other cottages had been expanded, modernized. But not this one: same screened-in porch, overhanging trees, woodshed beneath….
The beach, too, remained unchanged. No permanent docks. No boat lifts. No fancy patios.
We took turns wading into the lake and scattering handfuls of Joan’s ashes into the crystal-clear water as we said our last words to her. I don’t know what the others said. I said goodbye. And thank you. For everything.
I had found some words in Richard Wagamese’s book Embers that seemed suitable for the occasion. I thought of them as I watched Joan’s ashes sink: “I am the trees alive with singing. I am the sky everywhere at once. I am the snow and the wind bearing stories across geographies and generations. I am light everywhere descending. I am my heart evoking drum song. I am my spirit rising. I am my prayers and my meditation, and I am time fully captured in this now.”
The heavier grit sank instantly to the bottom. It was the last of Joan’s physical body. It covered the glacial gravel with a thin layer of lighter-coloured sediment. The next storm would wash it away forever.
It was there, and then it wouldn’t be -- as ephemeral as the psalmists’ images of grass withering in summer heat.
The lighter ash, though, didn’t sink. It remained suspended, floating like a cloud just below the surface. A tiny current swirled the cloud briefly around our bare legs, as if kissing us goodbye, and then moved it on along the shore.
The words of the unknown writer of the biblical Letter to the Hebrews came to mind, about “a cloud of witnesses.” Joan is gone. But the cloud of her witness lingers.
Richard Wagamese’s words caught the significance of the moment: “I am a traveller on a sacred journey in this one shining moment…”
Copyright © 2020 by Jim Taylor. Non-profit use in congregations and study groups, and links from other blogs, welcomed; all other rights reserved.
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Last week’s column about faith evolving was, I said, a true story. It was also not the story of a single character; the person was a composite of many I have talked with over 60 years of religious journalism. The composite included, to some extent, me.
But it was largely based on conversations with my friend Don Sawatzky over recent weeks.
Don wrote me, “After reading your article, I identify with being in the aggressive and rare cancer foxhole. I also grew up in a conservative pacifist denomination. From an early age my parents did not discourage me from questioning and exploring alternative ways of understanding the concept of God. Your article described much of my own experience, until I came to the last two paragraphs.
“In my experience when I found myself in the foxhole, it wasn’t a ‘God out there’ I yearned for. Where I found my strength, hope and comfort was not in abstract philosophical notions of God. Rather, it was in experiencing. Experiencing being embedded in and encircled by love. I felt the presence of a community of caring from my present, my past, and from those who love me and have died. For me this is the divine presence. It is experiencing the divine within and between myself and others and all of creation. It goes for me, from the individual cell in my body, to the community of which I am part, to the natural world which was represented in my daily visit of a hummingbird, to the cosmos where I imagine the spirit of my mother resides. This is the faith that sustains me and I expect will continue to evolve.”
I accept Don’s correction. And I agree. And yet… and yet…. I remember when I was a passenger in a car, skidding wildly across two lanes of oncoming traffic on a highway in Newfoundland, as what felt like a flood of cars hurtled towards at me at 100 km/hr, my primary thought was not about feeling unity with the universe. Or even with a community. It was “Help!”
Despite clichés, apparently there are atheists in foxholes. Jason Torpy wrote from Florida, where he is president, militaryatheists.org: “Sad to see Jim Taylor choosing to denigrate atheists and veterans in his column. There are atheists in foxholes, always have been. I'm one and I represent others in all branches, active duty and veteran, US, Canada, and elsewhere. Christians often like to fantasize about insincere atheists. If you want to hear from atheists instead of just letting Christians badmouth atheists, let me know.”
Don’s friend Bob Thompson wrote, “I could never imagine Don falling back on that ‘Interventionist God’ belief, even if he once held it. Today at church, he talked about experiencing God in the community which held him in our arms through his ordeal. He talked about the energy, the power that he felt the community giving him, which is one way of talking about an external God.
“I have certainly experienced an external God, a God of love and compassion, a God from which I felt an inner power and strength when I needed it. In my experience, that kind of God usually comes to me through community. I have certainly experienced that "God who is ground of our being" that you talked about in the article. But I have never experienced that interventionist God that seems to be who you are talking about in that last line -- the God who steps in to suddenly save us. I find that belief troubling in many ways, not the least of which is because I think that yearning for that kind of God closes our minds and our experience to all the other ways in which God could be and is experienced.”
Ted Spencer empathized: “Who among us doesn’t? It’s certainly on my yearning list along with childhood where pretty much every problem was some else’s to fix. Regrettably, what passes for (my) maturity kicked those out the window, and left me accepting that shit happens, and that ‘God Out There’ is those people who are, metaphorically or actually, holding my hand.”
Bob Rollwagen suggested, “This reads like a very common story. This is what happens as one grows and becomes aware of the reality of the human condition on our planet. ‘God’ is here, there, up, down and around, everywhere, if you make it so. Would it not be nice if everyone did make it so. for the benefit of the other and not the self. No magic, no rewards, just a caring realism that wants everyone to be healthy and safe first and let the rest of life evolve with confidence as it may.”
I recast Psalm 17 into a courtroom setting.
I plead not guilty, my lord; let me present my case.
Listen to what I have to say.
I tell the truth; my lips do not lie.
When you hear my story, you will know I am in the right;
You have the wisdom to see through any pretence.
Check up on me at any time, at any hour of the day or night.
Test me, and you will find me pure.
My words and my actions will prove my integrity.
As for what others do, well, do with them what you will!
But I have avoided their ways; I have walked the straight and narrow path.
I have not wandered away from the route you defined;
My feet have not strayed.
That's why I trust you to treat me justly.
Show me that I am right to depend on you.
You have a reputation for helping those who turn to you, who seek sanctuary from their enemies.
I rest my case.
I am satisfied that you will be fair.
You can find paraphrases of most of the psalms in the Revised Common Lectionary in my book Everyday Psalmsavailable from Wood Lake Publishing, email@example.com.
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ALVA WOOD’S ARCHIVE
I have acquired (don’t ask how) the complete archive of the late Alva Wood’s collection of satiric and sometimes wildly funny columns about a mythical village’s misadventures. I’ve put them on my website: http://quixotic.ca/Alva-Wood-Archive. You’re welcome to browse. No charge. (Although maybe if I charged a fee, more people would find the archive worth visiting.)