the penultimate WORD
Series 2006 -
The Irvine Tartan • My monthly column in The New Brunswick Anglican
Now October’s growing thin / And November’s coming home…” Turning towards the morning
Leaves rehearsing the early snows of winter bid adieu to a passing summer. Memories of sand and sun are muffled in a blanket of maple and oak and consigned to archival records. For some of us these records reach back over decades. My reach covers nearly six decades.
A fond summer memory recalls the Sunday afternoons my Dad and I would spend together. Before he purchased a car, we would walk. My legs being shorter and tiring sooner, we would catch a bus. On Sundays we caught a bus by the City Market and take the “Tour to No Where”, a popular opportunity among pedestrians. Beaches of the area – Mispec, Dominion Park, Gondola Point and New River Beach saw families delivered with picnic baskets and beach blankets for an afternoon’s outing.
Waiting for the return home, we looked out over the Bay of Fundy from the benches perched above Mispec Beach. The picnic basket had been lightened of its contents of sandwiches and pop and while my Dad drew on his pipe I swung my short legs as I balanced on the edge of the seat warmed by the sun and scared with initials of older adolescent sweethearts. A young boy walking along the path, having just ascended the stairs from the sandy floor, paused as he approached our bench.
“How old are you?” he asked, looking at me and ignoring the normal exchange of greeting.
“Six,” I said, swinging my feet back and forth, looking at him.
“Huh!” he replied, “I’m five years old.” And then he went on to add, “You’re older than me… you’re going to die first.”
My feet stopped swinging. The boy passed by.
And for 55 years mortality has been more than an abstraction for me. My death has been a weight on my shoulders since that summer late afternoon a young boy asked me how old I was.
For a long time I silently harboured the thought that people die chronologically. The older people are, the more likely they are to die. Those that have traveled the furthest come to the edge of the precipice first, and like lemmings, tumble over.
Later I discovered that this hypothesis was faulty. I was to learn of younger people who have lived a life and have drawn that life to an end. Not all leaves fall at once; and not all trees burgeon together. I came across a popular pattern demonstrated by the Fourth Estate: people die alphabetically! The obituary record adhered to by all reputable newspapers demonstrates that people whose name is Adams or Andrews are listed first. Greatly relieved that my family name begins with the ninth letter, I immediately recognize that the only person I know whose name begins with “Z” lives in Prince George. Peter Zimmer may never die! He will rival Methuselah!
But that hypothesis is equally wanting. Experience informs me of its inherent error.
What is popular, I have discovered, is that most folks I have found greet the fall of the year and mortality with a blasphemous fatality. “When your number is up…” we hear people say. It is the closest we get to overt gambling as Anglicans. The lottery suggests that when you win, you lose.
We ignore the purposeful presence of Jesus in the midst of the very lives we live and end with such a view. Golgotha becomes a failure of a fatalism that cannot see redemption for the darkness that embraces us in our fear. The Gospel gives us another perspective. John records Jesus’ words in the fifth chapter of his Gospel: “Very truly, I tell you, anyone who hears my word and believes him who sent me has eternal life, and does not come under judgment, but has passed from death to life.” As a community of faith we hold on to eternal life with confidence.
That confidence is expressed in the lyrics of Gordon Bok’s “Turning Toward the Morning.” The Camden, Maine balladeer reminds us that “the world is always turning toward the morning” and urges us to try to do the same. The autumn turns towards the dawn of a new year. The dark night of the soul turns towards the resurrection light of a new day. The song is frank but tender and moving, and it brims with hope.
It’s a pity we don’t know
What the little flowers know.
They can’t face the cold November
They can’t take the wind and snow:
They put their glories all behind them,
Bow their heads and let it go,
But you know they’ll be there shining
In the morning.
requiescat in pace
Copyright © 2006 James T. Irvine