Thursday, September 17, 2015

Honoring and Remembering Our Beloved Dead - revisited

With the recent death of my father, it felt like an appropriate time to share this post from November 2014. I know this year the holidays around October 31 will be that much more poignant.  In this post, I talk about how we are separated from the reality of death.  During these last weeks, I have been confronted by the reality of the end of life on a very personal level as I participated in decisions, witnessed the end of my father's life and engaged in how to best honor my father's life. I am grateful that we spent time with my father in the hospital both before and after his passing to say good-bye. We had an open casket visitation and vigil where other friends and family could encounter his passing, share stories and mourn with us.
As a family, we witnessed my mom offer a prayer and the bishop bless my father followed by the closing of the casket for the final time the morning of the funeral and his services were concluded graveside with the lowering of the casket and each of us tossing a flower onto the casket.  These rituals make the death more real and allow the process of healing to begin even as those same rituals break us open with the loss.

As the season turns and summer turns to fall let us take time this year to remember those we love who have died. Let us think about how we can intentionally honor them.  Maybe it is a visit to their grave or place where their ashes have been scattered.  Maybe it is setting up an altar with pictures in your home.  Maybe it is preparing their favorite foods.  It doesn't have to be complicated or take a great deal of time, just something that will be meaningful to you.

We have a tendency in our society to fear death, even deny death ... the holidays of the fall remind us that death is a part of life ... while I mourn the loss of my father, the time I was with him and my family at the end of his life has reminded me how beautiful it can also be to witness the ending of a life well lived, to midwife a life on to what comes next. Perhaps this year we can honor our losses and find the beauty in endings.

May their memories be a blessing!

Honoring and Remembering Our Beloved Dead

On this weekend when we celebrate Halloween, Samhain, Dia de los Muertos, All Saints and All Souls Day, I am posting my reflections.

This was the reflection I offered at the Unitarian Universalist Congregation of the Outer Banks on Sunday October 26, 2014.

Story: A Gift for Abuelita - this is a wonderful video of this story created by Middle Schoolers.  We used the video in the service.
Reading:  "When Death Comes" by Mary Oliver

Today we remember and celebrate those people and pets who have died.  In our American culture we are not comfortable with death and in fact we do everything we can to avoid it.  In some circles it almost sounds like if we just eat the right foods, take care of ourselves somehow we can make death optional.  Also death has been removed from our consciousness through the professional nature of the business of death.  Most of us will die not at home but in a facility, our family will not prepare our bodies but rather professionals and more and more of us are opting for cremation.  I frequently hear discomfort with the idea of an open casket funeral or a vigil where the body is on display for a final goodbye.  The reality of death has been cleaned up and hidden away.

Yet death is something that will happen to each of us and each of us will lose those we love to death.  I know many of you have lost grandparents, parents, friends, pets and even children and grandchildren.  I worry that our cleaning up of death and hiding it away makes grief even harder since after the initial flurry of activity we act like life is supposed to go back to normal like nothing happened.  Too often people don't talk to family members about the person who has died for fear of upsetting them.  Yet we need to be upset, we need to cry and feel rage and fear.  That is all part of grief and grief is not pretty, it is not something we just get over.  Yes eventually life moves forward and we do heal but we never fully get over losing those we love. 

Ritual has been used for centuries by humans to help us grieve, to honor and remember those we have lost, to help us cope with the reality of death.  I don’t believe there is any religion or culture that does not have a way to honor and remember the dead.  Today we are lifting up the traditions of Samhain, Dia de los Muertos and the Christian holidays of All Souls and All Saints.  What is amazing is the amount of overlap in these traditions.  Both Samhain and Dia de los Muertos involve creating altars with pictures, mementos and favorite foods of the dead.  Dia de los Muertos includes visiting the graves of those lost, cleaning them and then sharing a meal at the graveyard.  This is not a morbid holiday but rather a joyous celebration of life, a celebration of storytelling, and favorite foods.  There are sugar skulls and vibrant colored flowers.  The Christian holidays were created to replace the pagan ones and also focus on ritual and story telling. All Saints lifts up those exemplars of the Christian faith and All Souls on all those who have died.  I remember in the fifth grade, dressing up as the saint I am named after, St. Margaret Mary, and going to other classes at my Catholic elementary school singing "When the Saints Come Marching In."  It is a very happy memory and I know there is a picture in my parent's house with me dressed up as a nun. 

Within Unitarian Universalism we hold a variety of beliefs about what happens after death.  Some of us hold that there is nothing after death.  Some may believe in reincarnation or a traditional heaven. Some of us are not sure and we think there might be or must be something.  Our Universalist tradition rejected that a loving God would damn anyone, no matter what they had done in life, to eternal torture and damnation. Universalism held that a loving God would reconcile all to God's self. All would be saved.  Today we are not the only UU congregation honoring and remembering the dead.  We affirm that those we love are never truly gone as we hold them in our hearts, tell their stories, make their favorite foods. They live on in our memories and in the stories we share with our children and grandchildren.  The dead may be gone but they are not forgotten.

So today we join with our ancestors who for thousands of years have been honoring those we have loved and lost.  We come together, share their pictures, their stories, their favorite foods.  We may shed some tears and we may laugh as we remember stories. It is a holy moment when through the tears of grief we also find ourselves smiling and laughing at a memory or story.

So I now invite you to stand as you are able and take a moment in silence to think about who you would like to remember this morning.  In a moment we will call out their names into the space. 

Silence -  I now invite you to call out the names of those you would like us to remember and honor this morning.

May their memory be a blessing!  May the love we share never die.  Blessed be!

Monday, September 14, 2015

Eulogy for My Father

I share this story knowing that I am sharing it as I saw it but the story is shared by others as well who may tell it differently ... all of the ways that people talk about their stories of loss are true for them so I offer you my truth.

Two weeks ago Saturday I got a call that no one wants to receive.  My sister called me in tears to say that my father had stopped breathing and he was at the hospital.  I started making arrangements to fly to California (thankfully my sister was able to pay fly my daughter and I out).  She would tell me later that night as we were continuing to make plans that the nurses were not sure he would make it through the night.  I have never willed a plane to carry my daughter and I faster.  Each time we stopped I expected to have a text or phone message that my father had died.  When I arrived and got to the hospital, my father was in the ICU, on a ventilator and enough IV lines to make him look like a cyborg.  Over the next five days we sat by my father's bed side searching for signs of awareness, signs that he was getting stronger and meeting with doctors to find out what was going on.  Each day there were decisions to be made. He did make physical progress for a brief time - breathing on his own, maintaining his blood pressure etc but while he had periods of waking up, he never seemed to really be there as much as my family and I hoped he would be.  Finally, as his physical health began to decline, we had to admit that he would not return to us and we made the difficult decision to stop life support and hours later, he slipped away peacefully early Friday morning.

I asked my mother that I be allowed to speak as his funeral.  My sister and I offered the only two eulogies during his funeral Mass in addition to a priest friend's homily.  The night before other family friends had a chance to share memories during the vigil service.  This was one of the hardest things I have written and delivered.  I am very grateful to my wife Donna, always my trusted editor, for her great work on this particular piece.  My father and I had a very complicated relationship, which over time I will need to process and work through.  In this eulogy, I sought a balance of honoring his wonderful qualities and his challenging ones - one often the shadow of the other. I loved my father and I am glad that I can remember him in his fullness.

I am grateful for the incredible outpouring of love and support my family and I have received over the past two weeks.  I saw friends and family I have not seen in decades.  While we were fortunate to have so much love around us, it was so hard to not have my wife Donna there with me, to hold me, for her to participate in the public mourning of my father.

While the public mourning is finished, the work has only begun to live life without him physically here in it.  I share this with all of you as my public remembrance of my father.

My parents and I at my graduation from the Jesuit School of Theology at Berkeley in 2008!

John E. Sequeira
delivered Wednesday September 9, 2015

John Sequeira was many things - husband, father, brother, uncle, grandfather, friend, deacon, colleague. I know he would love the gatherings yesterday and today - except that he would want to join in the fun.  He would love seeing all of you, from so many times and places in his life. He would truly not know where to begin with saying hello and hugging you, asking how you are and about your kids and grandkids.  He was the person that if you popped into his mind, he would pick up the phone and call you.  It didn't matter how long it had been, you would pick up where you left off.  In many ways he was also a person that never met a stranger, just someone he didn't know yet. It is a testament to who he was that so many of you who were once strangers mourn his loss today with us.

I could talk with you today about all of his professional accomplishments, his commitment to the Church, his active participation in social justice, the overcoming of his own struggles in life or what a great friend he was. To be honest, it is an impossible to task to tell you all that I might in just a short period … after all, like my father, I am a preacher. What I hope to do is to talk with you about how my father most impacted my life.

I am sure it surprises those that knew us best, for me to tell you that my dad and I often had passionate and heated conversations … we sometimes had a hard time agreeing especially around politics.You see all of my life I have heard how like my father I am - whether how I look or how similar we are in character and temperament … most of the time it was about our temperament.  Both of us liked things the way WE liked them; believed what we believed intensely and loved what we loved passionately; we both struggled with our perfectionism and we each let little things really get to us. Our families saw those times when we were at our worst. Yet much of the time, including today, I am honored to be ‘just like John’ because along with those qualities that are challenging, I share his best qualities.  I also have friends in my life that I have known for decades,we both had a passion for justice and we both shared a deep love of theology and ethics.

One of my favorite theologians from the 20th Century, James Luther Adams said “An unexamined faith is not worth having, for it can be true only by accident.” Both of my parents taught me to examine my faith, but it was with my father, for the most part, that I engaged in theological discussions with, even when I was young. My father was a faithful servant of the Church, but he also showed me by example how to disagree with it conscientiously. That examination of faith has lead me into amazing encounters with people of all faiths and enabled me to develop a rich and deep spiritual life. While I am sure he was sad that I could no longer find a home in the Catholic Church, I always knew he respected my spiritual journey and the person of faith that I am.  I was proud of his work with the American Institute of Ethics and even prouder when he asked me to serve on the Board. It was amazing to work with my dad at something we shared. In recent years, we were able to share a love of multifaith engagement and dialogue.  I hope that he knew he gave me the gift of constantly seeking God in my own life.

Of course for as much as we could find common ground in our faith journeys, our shared passion for politics could lead to some serious differences in opinion.  Most of our family found it hard to be around us when politics came up.  He considered me an over the top liberal and I could not believe he wasn't.  Let's just say that political debate over the phone or the dinner table might get a tad loud and just a little heated.  Yet at the core of all this was a shared passion to make justice - we just disagreed sometimes in how we might best get there. Others might not miss those debates but I will.

The greatest gift he gave me was love and acceptance.  From her visit to meet the family, my dad knew that Donna would be around for a long time to come so over time he shared his love of golf and San Francisco with Donna.  He took her to hit a golf ball for the first time and as luck would have it, she impressed him by hitting a great first shot … Donna would say ‘she was in like Flynn’ after that.  I never had to worry that my dad would turn his back on me or not love the person I chose to love. It just happened that both my dad and Donna loved storytelling, history and he taught her to love golf. He had a gift for sharing what he loved with others.

Perhaps his most important gift was his ability to show up with gentleness and care. He was present in the hospital the day Mollie our daughter was born.  I hate needles so while they put in the IV, Dad stood there telling me it would be ok. My Dad would sometimes get frustrated with me over the small things, but when it came to the big moments he was calm, patient and loving. He, my mom and sister were waiting in the hallway when Donna brought Mollie down to meet them, Donna remembers him beaming and laughing in that way he had so you could feel his joy. Mollie is named after his grandmother, who I grew up hearing stories about all my life and I know how much that naming meant to him. He dearly loved all three of his grandchildren and he lives on in them.

I hope you will continue to share stories of my dad. I am grateful for the teacher, conversation partner, storyteller, thinker and gentle, loving man but most importantly I am glad that he was able to show me that the story of any human being is a complicated one, complete with amazing goodness and love, moments of weakness and mistakes, times of pain and joy … and worth living and examining in all its messiness.

Thank you, Dad, for showing me how to live and love with passion.