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‘Nothing can separate us from God’s love’

A year after his mother’s death, the United Church moderator finds new meaning in Easter

By Gary Paterson

My mother died last year. It seems painfully apt that the anniversary of her death, April 19, falls this year on Holy Saturday, that in-between day when death has come but the promises of Easter remain shrouded. For despite my faith, despite the truth that we live as a post-Easter, resurrection people, my heart is sad. I miss my mom.

Mind you, hers was a good death, a palliative-care ending, deliberately chosen as a better alternative to the amputation of a gangrenous foot. She had 12 final days where family and friends gathered, saying whatever needed to be said. Our last words, the night before she died: “I love you, Mom.” She whispered back, “I love you too.” So no regrets. And yet, this year has held many Holy Saturday moments, with tears.

Romans 8:38-39 says, “For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor power, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.” I believe that to be true, but my imagination keeps asking questions, not always content with mystery. What is the promise of Easter?

“I am the resurrection and the life,” says Jesus, clearly speaking about the here and now, this life, where we can experience the eternity of each moment. And yet, surely he is promising more, pointing to life that continues, in some new way, beyond the grave. That’s a statement of hope we humans need, with our ever-present fear of death — especially in a culture that avoids as much as possible any real engagement with mortality. People are hungry for conversation about death and the afterlife, even, perhaps, a word of reassurance. Witness the popularity of “near death” narratives, filled with images of tunnels, beckoning light and warm welcome, or the surveys that suggest that while we may doubt the existence of hell, heaven remains a floating hope.

But it’s difficult to talk about, to describe. Many times, I’ve sidestepped the question, “Will I see my loved ones again when I die?” by responding, “Trust God; whatever awaits us will be good.” In the light of Easter, I wonder if I might say more.

For instance, the Apostle Paul talks about the resurrection of the dead: “What is sown is perishable, what is raised is imperishable. . . . It is sown a physical body, it is raised a spiritual body” (1 Corinthians 15:42-44). Such metaphor brings sweet memories of my mother planting her garden bulbs every fall (“They must be in before December 1,” she would remind me) — crocus, daffodil, tulip, full of the promises of next spring.

Now, I know Paul is pointing to something much greater than the natural turning of the seasons, but his image of a “spiritual body” is so full of contradiction and oxymoron that it simply emphasizes how difficult it is to talk about this new reality. I wonder, with some flippancy, which Marjorie will be raised: the young farm girl; the woman who fell in love with my father; the mother of two sons; or the old woman who lay dying in hospital, wise in spirit, crippled in body?

All of the above, of course, or none. I am reminded of the Japanese film After Life, in which the recently deceased must choose one memory that embodies the essence of their lives and then live that moment eternally. I find myself wondering what memory my mother might have chosen; I wonder what moment I would choose. On the other hand, maybe we don’t have to choose just one. Process theologians suggest that we are held in the memory of God, all of us, all of Creation, and every moment, every choice made by every cell, every person, is known to and remembered by God. Talk about complexity!

Another Easter metaphor lies in Orthodox Christianity’s emphasis on our divinization (“God became human so that humans might become divine”). Although this sometimes strikes me as too hopeful, nevertheless I believe the Spirit keeps working with and upon the spirit in each one of us — God’s work of sanctification never ceases. I think of my mother, who lived her entire life within the church and yet was always full of questions — a seeker, struggling not just to understand but to be transformed: from gestalt therapy to contemplative prayer; from teaching Bible study to starting a chapter of PFLAG (Parents, Families and Friends of Lesbians and Gays) in Victoria. She embraced the human task of “soul-making,” as the poet John Keats called it, and this was the gift she returned to God: a thread for the resurrection tapestry that God is weaving; a voice singing its note in the harmony of a holy chorus; one small cell in the body of God.

Yet, not her work, but the Spirit’s! And as Paul would say, there will come a moment when, through the power and promise of the Risen Christ, we will all be raised. In a twinkling of an eye, as it was in the Big Bang beginning, we and all of Creation will be changed.

I remember many of the conversations with my mother in her final week. One day, I couldn’t help being her minister as well as her son. We were softly singing an old hymn, The King of Love My Shepherd Is (sung at her mother’s funeral, and my mother’s choice for her own service). I spoke the words of Romans 8:38-39, and then dared to ask, “You do believe, don’t you, Mom, that nothing can separate you from God’s love, not even death?” And she replied, “I do trust God, but I don’t always know who or what I’m trusting in.” And that was it; we held hands in the quiet.

My mother died last year on April 19; this year, on April 20, I will remember her and celebrate Easter.

Rt. Rev. Gary Paterson is the 41st moderator of The United Church of Canada.

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