I was in Eugene, OR, to preside and preach at the funeral of my dear friend, Patricia Mees Armstrong, who died just before Thanksgiving after a long struggle with cancer. I chose as the Gospel the beginning of the Gospel of John, which seemed to fit her so well, since she loved both the Word and words. With all my travels and preaching, I haven't had time to blog, so I thought I'd post my homily for Pat's funeral, along with the Gospel that was read.
In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. All things came to be through him, and without him nothing came to be. What came to be through him was life, and this life was the light of the human race; the light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it. And the Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us, and we saw his glory, the glory as of the Father's only Son, full of grace and truth." John 1:1-5, 14
Patricia Mees Armstrong was a woman of few words.
You don’t believe me? Just listen to her poem, When One's Soul is Green.
Before they came to see me
from across the pond
& then some,
they packed up my memories
from the sands of a coast
I once walked
from green gaps
I had hiked. They stored
my songs in their throats
to unpack, tune
after tune, no tin
whistle or bodhrán,
my tears for chorus.
One brought me soil
from her Wicklow garden,
smiles from pubs
where tourists never go
& prayers from a wee
church that once
befriended my knees.
Into a small green
unbreakable jar, they
let me breathe
Irish air, enough
to last my lifetime.
See! A woman of few words.
Her poetry’s often spare, bare bones;
Mere verbal sketches, allusions, hints of memories you could have had if you weren’t so attached to a life of safe respectability.
Her poems are scattered morsels of Pat.
But if you had read all her words but never met her - well, you know it’s not the same.
Words can be misunderstood, misinterpreted; or we can mistakenly skim along the surface, and think we’re completely immersed.
If you’d read all her works and then met her for the first time, you would have had to say, “ah, yes… yes… you’re something like what I imagined – but in other ways… well, I just never could have known…”
And even when you knew her, words couldn’t quite describe her as well as images could.
Her long-time friend, Bob Welch, created “Mrs. H,” - an imaginary muse who was a thinly veiled Pat – who was described as “equal parts Maude, Mother Teresa, Emily Dickinson and Rod Serling.”
This literary Mrs. H described herself at their introduction, and it might as well have been Pat herself; "Who am I? I'm the roar of a McKenzie River rapid, the whistle of a Florence wind. I'm 14 Country Fair parking passes on the bumper of a '69 Volkswagen.”
Pat was like a certain unnamed woman in the New Testament, who sought to touch Jesus for healing.
You see, Pat suffered almost all her life from a hemorrhage that began at age 10, if not before.
A hemorrhage of words, that turned her inside out; a flow not of blood but of ink; never clotting.
She didn’t want the words to dry up, but sought healing of childhood wounds through which so many of those words flowed.
If you know her poetry and short stories, you know Pat is Birch and Siobhan; Pat is, in some ways, her poetry – her flesh become words.
I must apologize - a funeral homily is not a eulogy (eulogy, meaning, good word, or speaking well).
Rather, a funeral homily should be about a Good Word – the Word made flesh.
The Word that was in the beginning, and was with God and was – and is – God.
This Word remained hidden, even to the Hebrews whom God fashioned from the offspring of Abraham, and called out of slavery in Egypt, and formed into a people in the wasteland of Sinai.
Their scriptures are sacred words extracted from divine threads of triumph, mercy, and loving kindness - and human threads of disaster, ego and desertion – all carefully woven into divinely inspired poetry, laments, praise, wisdom, laws and prophetic hopes.
Written by time-bound mortals, they are the self-disclosure of our Creator in much the same way Pat’s poetry revealed her.
But words about God are easily misunderstood, misinterpreted; too often we content ourselves with skimming across their surface, twisting them to our advantage, rather than allowing them the sharpness meant to separate flesh from bone.
And so the Word became flesh; and came to his own, and his own did not know him.
“Ah, yes… yes… there’s something familiar, but in other ways not at all what we expected – or wanted.”
God’s self-expression, God’s eternal Word and beloved Son, became flesh to reveal the heart of God more completely.
In Jesus, every story, parable, command, reveals our Father who speaks the Word in eternity.
Jesus tells us God is like a good shepherd seeking the lost sheep, a shameless Semitic paterfamilias who sprints to embrace and welcome home a reprobate son.
He withholds nothing from us: “I have told you everything I have heard from my Father” (Jn 15:15)
Not only does Jesus tell us what His Father is like, he shows us His Father, in a way we can comprehend.
He claims, “whoever has seen me has seen the Father.” (Jn 14:9)
Actions speak louder than words, and the New Testament reveals in Jesus the God who heals, forgives, drives out our demons, and unveils our hypocrisy.
Jesus, the Word made flesh, is love made flesh, goodness made flesh, truth made flesh.
But love, goodness and truth have no lasting home in a disobedient and fallen world.
In the end, we had to silence the Word.
From the cross comes his last and only wish, “Father, forgive them, they know not what they do.”
In his humanity, Jesus does what none of us can do.
He is obedient to His Father – even though the consequence of that love is the cross.
He is a single eternal word –a ‘yes’ that overcomes each and every ‘no’ we utter.
His Father attributes that obedience to each one of us – even though we cannot deserve it.
This is the heart of mercy.
We are made adopted sons and daughters of the Father, and brothers and sisters of Jesus and each other.
The love for humanity Jesus demonstrates is also Our Father’s love for us.
And validating all that Jesus said and did, the Father raises him from the dead – the firstfruits of the resurrection we may share because of our adoption.
Jesus is the Redeemer for whom poor Job longed; the New Adam whose cross is the tree of life denied the first Adam; his broken body, the fruit of that tree which Pat ate.
St. Paul, so well-versed in the Hebrew scriptures, saw the ramifications of all this.
Who will bring a charge against God's chosen ones? It is God who acquits us. Who will condemn? It is Christ (Jesus) who died, rather, was raised, who also is at the right hand of God, who indeed intercedes for us. What will separate us from the love of Christ?
Apparently, nothing, in St. Paul’s mind.
Thus we believe that Pat is – or will be - in heaven, inseparable from Christ’s love.
Not because she was good at words; certainly not because she was good, but because of her trust in Christ’s death for her and each of us.
Now, Pat did good things – she was an inspiring teacher, an indefatigable encourager, a trusted confidante, a mother with high expectations and a passionately grateful spouse.
But hers was a borrowed goodness – as is all human goodness, thanks be to God.
You see, Jesus invites each of us to be a disciple – one who learns from a Master.
And in Jesus’ culture, one didn’t learn simply by listening to the Master’s words and by observing what he does, but also through imitation.
According to the Gospels, after spending some months or more with Jesus, he sends his disciples to “do what he does,” to teach, to proclaim the Good News, to expel demons and cure the sick.
The good any of us manage is his good, done through the Holy Spirit bestowed on us by the resurrected Christ – we are not good on our own.
When it comes to love and goodness, we're all plagiarists.
The genuine love, that is truly for the good of the other, is His love.
And this is a great gift.
It means that when we meet him, as we all surely will when our life’s cord is cut, we can hope to meet not a stranger, but an intimate.
Because our love, our goodness comes from him, we will recognize him as the one who has always loved us – and often through others.
I believe, Rich, that when Pat met the Lord, she gasped for joy, because she discovered that your love that was poured out upon her was his.
And the love from her sons was his.
And our devotion, admiration, patience, love, and delight in her presence was his.
She knew Jesus in this life, so perhaps she wasn’t so surprised, after all, to discover that she already knew Him as he is.
And I believe that when the Lord met her, he saw a family resemblance; flesh knows its own.
God, too, is a poet.
I can imagine him touching her face, healing her deep wounds that only he knew.
In that touch, the flow of words stopped, because words were no longer sufficient.
Words are never adequate to express a love so broad, so deep that neither the present, nor the future, nothing as trivial as life, or death, can overcome.