On honest uncertainty at a funeral

Between the stirrup

James Boswell attributes this near quotation of William Camden (originally “Betwixt the stirrup and the ground, Mercy I ask’d; mercy I found.”) to Samuel Johnson, and goes on to report that Johnson said “Sir, we are not to judge [with certainty] the state in which a man leaves this life. He may in a moment have repented effectually, and it is possible may have been accepted of God.” James Boswell, The Life of Samuel Johnson 543 (1830) [link].*

We can never know the depth of God’s grace or the end of his persistent pursuit of each human heart. Let us resolve to speak the gospel of grace whenever we can.


*In the novel Brighton Rock (1938), Graham Greene has his character Pinkie rely on this quotation as a basis for rejecting grace on the assumption that he will be able to repent at the last moment. But in a moment in which his death seems imminent, he finds that he has hardened himself against repentance.

A gentleman and a novelist

Walter_Sullivan_FSWI just had the experience of reading a novel written by one of my professors at Vanderbilt University.

Walter Sullivan (1924-2006) introduced me to many of my favorite books, including Brideshead Revisited, The End of the Affair, War in Heaven, and “The Four Quartets” in a class he called “Angelic and Demonic Themes in 20th Century Literature.”  We also read The Spire and, I feel certain, some Flannery O’Connor. He was a marvelous teacher who started by teaching the basics of the Bible so that the class had a common language to discuss the modern works.  I have often wished I had spent more time working on “The Four Quartets” while I had opportunity to draw on his wisdom.*

Long Long Love

It turns out he wrote three novels and last night I read The Long, Long Love [link].**

It is the story of Horatio Adams, a man strangely incapable of accepting what happiness comes his way because of the pain and fear which distracts him.

It is a moving and lyrical book:

“I wondered about that, Horatio. What happened to us? Why did things work out the way they did?”

“Why?” I said. “Nobody ever really knows why. There are a thousand reasons for every turn of every day.” I pondered this a while, knowing it was true. Thinking that not only did God know about the fall of the sparrow, but that only the mind of God could know all the reasons why the sparrow fell.

Recommended (don’t expect any tank battles).

*Thomas Howard’s The Dove Descending (2006) [link] is the best substitute I know of.

**Sullivan had written it about twenty years before I met him.  How sad that I did not read it until more than twenty years after he died.  It is still in print.

“Cremains”

This was one of those “Yes, exactly!” moments.ScreenShot164

For those not previously enlightened:

Cremains, pl. n., the ashes of a cremated body (either a portmanteau or shortened form of “cremated” and “remains”)

The “Yes, exactly!” moment came when a friend gave me Lydia Davis’ short piece “Letter to a Funeral Parlor”:

Dear Sir,

I am writing to you to object to the word cremains, which was used by your representative when he met with my mother and me two days after my father’s death.

*   *   *

Then we were sitting there in our chairs in the living room trying not to weep in front of your representative, who was opposite us on the sofa, and we were very tired first from sitting up with my father, and then from worrying about whether he was comfortable as he was dying, and then from worrying about where he might be now that he was dead, and your representative referred to him as “the cremains.”

At first we did not even know what he meant. Then, when we realized, we were frankly upset. Cremains sounds like something invented as a milk substitute in coffee, like Cremora, or Coffee-mate. Or it sounds like some kind of a chipped beef dish.

Lydia Davis, “Letter to a Funeral Parlor,” in The Collected Stories of Lydia Davis (2009).

The full piece is reproduced on the NPR website [link].