Two years ago I started reading a Canadian murder mystery series written by Louise Penny. The stories revolve around the character development of people living in the fictional village of Three Pines, just north of the VT border, with Chief Inspector Armand Gamache investigating the murders of various people. Angie and I were lucky enough to hear Louise Penny speak in B’ham a year ago, when she talked a bit about her process of writing and she also talked about her beloved husband’s death and his journey with Alzheimer’s.
In the acknowledgments of the book she wrote in 2018, Kingdom of the Blind, Louise Penny wrote:
A funny thing happened on my way to NOT writing this book. I started writing. The truth is, I’ve known since I began writing my first book “Still Life”, that if my husband Michael died, I could not continue with the series. Not simply because he was the inspiration for Armand Gamache, and it would be too painful, but because he’s imbued every aspect of the books. The writing, the promotion, the conferences, the travel, the tours. He was the first to read a new book and the last to criticize. Always telling me it was great, even when the first draft was quite clearly garbage. We were truly partners. How could I go on when half of me was missing? I could barely get out of bed. I told my agent and publishers that I was taking a year off. That might have been a lie. In my heart I knew I could never write Gamache again. And sadly would have to give back the next advance. But then, a few months later I found myself sitting at the long pine dining table, where I always wrote, laptop open, and I wrote two words, Armand Gamache.
The next day I wrote another phrase. AND THE NEXT DAY I wrote a whole sentence. The 14th Gamache book of Three Pines was begun. Not with sadness. Not because I had to. But with joy. Because I wanted to. My heart was light. Even as I wrote about some very dark themes, my heart was filled with gladness. With relief. That I get to keep doing this. Far from leaving Michael behind, he became even more infused in the books. All the things we had together came together, in Three Pines. Love, companionship, friendship. His integrity. His courage. Laughter. I realized, too, that the books are far more than Michael. Far more than Gamache. They’re about kindness, acceptance. Gratitude. They’re not so much about death, as they are about life. And the consequences of the choices we make.
And so this book was born. It is the child that was never going to be. But happened. My love child.
I think many, if not most of us, have been in this place of debilitating grief, of wondering how we will ever be able to do the things that came to us so naturally before a loved one died. Wondering if we will ever turn the corner of being paralyzed by our grief to the place where grief and memory begin to fuel life-giving actions.
Louise Penny embodies what authors UMC clergy Gary Gunderson and UCC pastor Larry Pray would call one of their Leading Causes of Life, generativity & blessing. The ability to look outside of oneself and draw from the well of life’s experiences, including our losses and grief, and the gifts we have been given, to give back, to bless, to be apart of generative, productive processes that are bigger than our own lives.
Two weeks ago we started a sermon series based on this book “Leading Causes of Life”. Gunderson & Pray observed some common themes that helped some people live and thrive after facing difficult life situations. They realized that focusing energy and attention on what affirms life rather than what threatens or destroys it helps to create abundant, thriving life. They believe there are 5 leading causes of life: Connection, Coherence, Generativity, Agency & Hope. The premise may be a bit too simplistic, yet there may also be some merit to it. We can’t live in denial to the realities of life, to the pandemic of COVID19 or the pandemic of racism or racial injustice, of political unrest and our anxiety and uneasiness about the upcoming election, or to our own personal experiences. But refocusing our energy to notice all the life that is going on around us can have the power to shift our mindset. A few verses from scripture will be recurring themes throughout this series.
Dt 30:19 – I have set before you life and death, blessings and cursings;
therefore, choose life, that both you and your descendants may live.
Gospel of John 10:10 – I have come to give you Life and give it abundantly.
On this High Holy Day as we celebrate All Saints Day, as we remember those who have passed from this earthly life into the nearer presence of God, we can turn our minds to another scripture from Rev. 14:13:
“I heard a voice from heaven saying, “Blessed are the dead who die in the Lord. They will rest from their labors, for their deeds follow them.”
Who are the people in your life who lived life, who gave back, whose deeds follow them still today in our living memory, who created a legacy that would live beyond the living of their days? The ones who blessed, who healed, who gave? One of the hymns that some congregations sing for All Saints worship capture this:
I sing a song of the saints of God, Patient and brave and true,
Who toiled & fought & lived & died For the Lord they loved & knew.
One was a doctor, One was a queen, One was a shepherdess on the green: They were all of them saints of God –
and I mean, God helping, to be one too.
Because these saints focused on one of what Gunderson & Pray call the Leading Causes of Life – their generativity continues to live beyond the number of years they actually lived on this earth.
Carl Jung said that the 1st half of one’s life appropriately focuses on primal family responsibilities and securing basic needs. The 2nd half we tend to focus more on generativity, making investments, giving ourselves to more than just our biological relationships. It’s common for us to give our life to something greater. The human species wouldn’t survive if people had not given their lives to the work of generativity.
When you think about institutions or foundations or scholarships or churches, any vehicle that supports and serves the common good, it is a time to give thanks like the words of a hymn that come to my mind & heart:
“What Gift Can we Give, what present, what token, what words can convey it the joy of this day, when grateful we come, remembering rejoicing, what song can we offer in honor and praise. Give thanks for the past, for those who had vision, who planted and watered so dreams could come true.”
The reason we have a church community today called United Church in University Place is because of those who gave of themselves, their lives, their faith in God, their gifts, and generated and birthed not just a physical building, but a community of faith, who through God’s grace will continue the legacy of offering the good news of Christ to future generations.
The life of the community depends on the social structures that outlive any of us. Community assets, such as churches, have longer lives than any of their members. There is a saying that acknowledges and affirms people whose selfless actions are designed to benefit future generations.
Blessed are those who plant trees knowing that they shall never sit in their shade. Those who plant trees, knowing that only others will enjoy the shade, are public benefactors.
Author and healer Dr. Rachel Naomi Remen wrote a book called “My Grandfather’s Blessings”. Her grandfather was an orthodox rabbi who died when she was seven years old, but his blessings for her continued to live on in her life. Her mother had a complex relationship with Rachel’s grandfather and she turned away from the Jewish faith; she had a complex relationship with Rachel herself. Rachel felt she could never do enough to earn her mother’s approval. But Rachel writes in the the book that
“One time, in old age, my mother surprisingly began to light candles and talk to God herself. I told her about My Grandfather’s blessings when I was a child and what they had meant to me and how they still live on within me. My mother smiled at me sadly and said:
“I have blessed you every day of your life, Rachel. I just never had the wisdom to do it out loud.”
You may be in a place like Louise Penny was when her husband died, overcome and overwhelmed by grief – or you may feel so much anxiety in your spirit. If you are in a place like that, one of the things you can do is simply offer your heart to God and trust that one day, like Louise Penny, you might pick up a pen to write again. Or like Rachel’s mother Naomi, you may find a blessing deep in your being to that you have rarely spoken, but can offer a word of blessing to another. Or you might reread the scriptures from today to live a generous life and be the one to offer blessing to others; to be empathetic, loving, compassionate, humble. You’ll be a blessing and also receive a blessing. Be determined to run the race that is ahead of us, holding on to the leading causes of life, even when you are discouraged and frustrated and anxious, keeping our eyes on Jesus, who leads us and makes our faith complete.
For we are surrounded by such a great Cloud of witnesses all around us. We can tap into their generativity and blessing to focus our energy and attention on what affirms life rather than what threatens or destroys it, to live generous and abundant lives of blessing. Thanks be to God. Let us run the race set before us.
Prior to Hymn of Promise: Last year after our All Saints Worship, people in the congregation went out and planted 300 daffodil bulbs in honor and memory of those who have gone before us, planting bulbs that may well continue to flower year after year after we are gone from this earthly life. Unrevealed until its season, something God alone can see. As we sing with Neva & Jeff, listen for Roxanne’s flute as well.