The Obituary for Hillary can be found here.
A sermon preached by the Reverend Michael Anderson Bullock
at Grace Church, Camden, SC., on 10 February 2012,
on the occasion of the Memorial Requiem of Hillary Brooks
In last Sunday’s sermon here at Grace Church, I raised a pointed question with the congregation. I asked: How would you faithfully, with compassion and respect, help someone face their death? What would you say? What would you do?
I can now say that the reason such a question was on my mind and pounding in my heart was that for the last six weeks, Hillary Brooks and I had been in conversation about such things. In fact, Hillary and I had scheduled another meeting for this past Tuesday afternoon to continue the conversation. But of course, the Monday morning before we were to meet, Hillary quietly died in her bed. Thankfully, she has been delivered, but this only reduces somewhat the hurt and sadness of losing her.
Meeting with Hillary was a humbling honor. She wanted to talk to me about a number of things that were troubling her, not the least of which was her sense that God had abandoned her in her battle for life. Confronting her third bout with cancer and enduring yet another attempt chemically to fight the insurgent disease, Hillary’s battered body began to affect her sense of being with God. She felt as if God was abandoning her, and this disturbed her greatly. She even wondered what she might have done to chase God away.
I inwardly groaned both at Hillary’s physical and spiritual pain, not sure whether the chemo or the question about God was causing more agony. It seemed to me both were unnecessarily hurtful. Nonetheless, I was taken by her honesty, her openness to confront painful things, and in this Hillary showed great courage and integrity. I admired her very much for this. I was also aware that she was inviting me to join her in that sacred space, where her life intersected with what truly matters.
Hillary’s questions were weighty questions, augmented by her sense of urgency. With regard to her questions about God, her sense of her spiritual relationship was (like most of us) clouded by her experiences with family and others, the incompleteness of which tends to rub the soul raw.
We all walk around with a terrible wound deep within. None of us seems to trust that we can be loved adequately. Some of us seem to adjust to this distorting pain and call it “normal.” Others refuse to surrender to such warping and call it faith. Hillary had absorbed her share of abandonment in her life, but as a faithful woman, she simply could not tolerate feeling so separate from God. She wanted to deal with this.
In an attempt to clear the air that she had done something wrong, we reflected together on Psalm 42 (which we have just read). We tried to plumb its depths as a way to place her experience into some kind of constructive and new perspective.
My soul is athirst for God, athirst for the living God; when shall I come to appear before the presence of God?
My tears have been my food day and night, while all day long they say to me, “Where now is your God?”
Why are you so full of heaviness, O my soul? And why are you so disquieted within me?
Psalm 42:2-3, 6
The voice of the psalmist named her own feelings and also gave Hillary permission to be honest with herself and with God. I t was not faithlessness to express such anger and despair. It was honest, as if God (“from whom no secrets are hid”) didn’t already know Hillary’s sentiments. But she didn’t like the feeling. I said no one does, but as with all mature and healthy relationships, feelings must not be the primary indicator of the relationship’s reality or status. Beyond feelings lies the domain of faith, trust: trust that there is more to our life than we can control or even understand.
Put your trust in God; for I will yet give thanks to him who is the help of my countenance, and my God.
The climax of our discussions (at least for me) came when I asked Hillary another question. I posed this situation to her. What if your doctor was absolutely certain that you had three months to live, what would you want from your life?
I was stunned by her answer. It came immediately, without hesitation; and I will never forget it as long as I live. Hillary said: “I want to finish well.”
Whether Hillary realized it or not, her response to my question was the answer her soul needed. God had not abandoned her; nor was her suffering due to offending God. What her feelings could not realize concerned her need to “finish well.”
Hillary’s amazing response caused me immediately to think of St. Paul’s writing to the Corinthians, when he speaks to those hard-headed, new and spiritually immature Christians about running the race. As you heard from our first reading, Paul offers the metaphor of a long-distance runner’s engagement with the race, and it doesn’t take a PhD in theology to figure out that the race is our life, and the finish line entails the reality of death. Yet, the full sense of what Paul means in this metaphor comes by implication. The imagery of running the race speaks directly to our wounded human condition and the difference the healing and redeeming news of Jesus Christ can make in our lives.
In terms of the deep wound humanity carries, one way to think about it is to say that this would stems from (or is caused by) our realization that the race is rigged. Try as we might (and God knows that humanity has tried from the very beginning), we cannot win the race. Death prevents us, and there are no shortcuts around the reality of death, not even for those who trust God. This reality, when we wish to face it, is deeply wounding to us. It is so painful that it causes some of us to turn away from God before the rest of the God-story gets a chance to be told.
The full God-story is that there is someone who has won race, who has unmasked fear and death as the frauds they actually are. Jesus (the Christ of God) has revealed that there is more to life than what we can make of it. With God, death is real, but it is not the end. With God, there is always more than death.
And so, St. Paul reminds his charges that Jesus’ victory breaks the barrier, but there is more even than this. Rather than keep the victory to himself, God-in-Christ invites us to join him on the victor’s stand to share in this triumph, to live in this triumph. However, there is a catch – always a catch.
The catch is that we must cross the finish line, if we are to have the victory. Or in Hillary’s words, we need to “finish well.”
Some, I suppose, will be spiritually mature enough to run across the finish line. Some will walk. I suspect that I and others like me will be crawling on our hands and knees. No matter: Just finish. Cross the finish line. Embrace the victory. Claim it as the gift it is. With God there is always more, but the race has to be finished.
The will of God is Communion. (And Communion is not just what happens at the altar rail.) When we realize, when we trust God’s Communion with him and among us, the race and its pace become more humane, more gracious, more freeing. And in those times when we lose heart – and there are always those times for us – being in Communion means that we are not on our own. We don’t run alone – ever. This is a truth that I hope all of you will take from this requiem.
Hillary finished well, much better than perhaps she herself could appreciate; and so can we finish well – starting now.