On Friday morning, July 4th, I woke up with tears in my eyes.
I was in Asheville staying with my best friend Annalee when it hit me, in my bones, that one of the beloved residents at Moore Place was dying.
I knew Mark from a series of four conversations in the past several weeks – and each one served as a pivotal point of learning in my summer. Mark was a teacher for me, and he carried a message about God and honesty. He shared with me the pain that he felt in his body worn by his struggle with liver cancer. At the edge of death, Mark was restless and in pain, struggling between holding on and letting go.
Saturday, I took a walk in the Asheville hills to sit in the forest and just be with the quietness of trees. A few minutes after sitting in a dirt path, I was found by a lone doe. Her eyes had a similar presence as Mark’s – poignant, unfiltered, raw. I felt God speaking through our wordless exchange. It was a saving grace moment, when I could pray for Mark and know his soul would be unified with God in time. The famous line of poetry “I know why the caged bird sings” kept coming to mind as I prayed for him.
I know why the caged bird sings, ah me,
When his wing is bruised and his bosom sore,
When he beats his bars and would be free;
It is not a carol of joy or glee,
But a prayer that he sends from his heart’s deep core,
But a plea, that upward to Heaven he flings –
I know why the caged bird sings.
This morning, I attended worship at Covenant when my mentor, Carla, informed me that Mark passed away yesterday morning. Immediately, tears filled my eyes. We began to sing Amazing Grace and I felt his spirit with us in the room. I debated whether it would be better to leave the service before choir practice to have time to process. I decided to stay.
A few minutes later, the congregation stood together to witness a baptism. The little girl, Allison Elizabeth, had a bewildered look of amazement on her face as her parents held her before the seemingly infinite pews of people. Her parents affirmed that they believed in Jesus Christ as their Savior, and that they promised to raise Allison according to Christ’s teachings. The community then stood as witnesses and committed to showing the love of God to her. The congregation transformed into a familial body welcoming another member who will walk along the path of service and love to God. It was a sweet moment to hear the jazz pianist play “Jesus Loves You,” as the congregation giggled to see Allison’s wide-eyed innocence with water sprinkled on her wispy head.
I left the service shortly after to weep on the steps in gratitude for both moments. Mark’s death and Allison’s baptism, held in conjunction, held together the truth of our human vulnerability. In birth and death and everything in between, we need human community. Even if he could not imagine being in contact with them, Mark has family. They are the members of Covenant that are grieving with him and holding him in prayer. And as she entered the church, Allison was held by her parents and grandfather while surrounded by cousins, aunts, uncles, and a community that will support her and encourage her to give her life in service to others.
I learned in worship this morning that the early church had baptismal pools in the shape of a cross. The shape and depth of the water pool signify the death of the self and re-emergence from the tomb. At each encounter with death, we are faced with a critical decision. Do we stay enchained to the ways of egotism, or do we cry out for Christ’s mercy? Do we hold on to ourselves out of self-preservation or let go? Will we let ourselves be vulnerable, wholly dependent on the Other to lead us to resurrection? Where do we place our hope?
This weekend, in mourning and in celebration, I found a sort of interdependence day. Perhaps Mark’s death and Allison’s baptism share the essence of God’s covenant: our lives are bound to Christ and to others, where we find the essence of freedom.
When we live by the baptismal waters of God’s grace, we tap into a source of eternal life. This wellspring flows in the world when we allow our lives to be bound to the liberation of others. We find freedom in the struggle for all peoples’ dignity – no exclusions. We find freedom in following the call to share God’s love with everyone – no exceptions. We are reborn when we depend on Jesus as our liberator and take upon his vision for the world. This vision transforms us to become the bread for others – one body, living, dying, and rising together.
I thank God for the life of Mark, and for the yeast that he was to leaven the love of the Covenant community.
An excerpt from a journal entry, June 22:
I saw Mark standing alone outside of Covenant today. He wore a plaid shirt and was carrying a cane. I was surprised to see him because the nurses gave him morphine last night. I’m humiliated by how much he appreciates the pillows I brought. We walked over to the church sanctuary together, one momentous step at a time, to his usual seat in an inconspicuous place. I told him that I was tired because I slept on the floor of a friend’s house last night. He said he remembered sleeping on the concrete streets for years because he didn’t like to sleep in the overcrowded shelters. I told him that his sensitivity made him the spiritual soul that he was. I asked him if he had family, and at first he said no. “I take that back, that’s a lie, Elizabeth. I have eleven siblings,” he responded. That certainly makes a difference. He decided to write a letter to his brother to tell him that he was dying. We talked about death – how he is both less afraid and wants answers. We talked about hell. He said we better take seriously Jesus’ words in the Bible, if nothing else. He shared his desire for rest, and his vision of bowing down to worship God for eternity. He shared his love for dogs and his compassion for ones tied to chain link fences in the summer heat. He says a woman at Covenant was his first friend when he started attending worship and lived at a homeless camp nearby. She threw him a birthday party that was “the first in a long while.” It made him feel special. Sometimes I say something that makes him pat me on the shoulder, and I go speechless for a moment. There’s something intangible about the connection. It amazes me when he smiles from time to time, knowing he’s still in pain. We talked about animals giving their bodies to the Earth, about cremation and living wills and how he wants his ashes to be scattered in North Carolina hills. If nothing else, I felt that I was placed at my internship to have this conversation with him.
I’m going to sob if Mark passes away. He knows he has no control over when that will be, and all that he could do today was show up to praise God. He said he wondered if he’d be sent back down here to learn another lesson, but that doesn’t mix well with his Southern Christian worldview. He said children and young people have no filters – they just speak truth. Mark is honest with me. He tells me when he’s skeptical, and grateful, and in pain. He says when he needs to sit down and does not apologize for it. He has no fear of his own vulnerability. And I thank God, that through his struggle with dying, he’s teaching me what it means to really live.