The Reverend Dr. Lillian Daniel
March 20, 2010
First Congregational Church,
At this service, we are gathered together, Susan’s family, her friends, her colleagues, those who admired her from a bit of a distance, and those who knew her intimately and well. And as uplifting as the stories have been, as much love as there obviously is in this room, surely there is not one of us here today who thinks that any of this is right. I stand before you today, as her minister, but also as one who counted this remarkable woman as my friend, and like you, I grieve at the unfairness of it all.
“But what is fair?” Susan used to say to me when we talked. And I remember she would often say something like this: “Just when I feel badly for myself, I’ll go to chemo and see a little child going through what I’m going through as an adult. Why would I ask “Why me?” Why that little kid? Why not me?”
Susan knew that God had not given her cancer. She knew that her physical illness was not related to her inner goodness. She was clear that cancer is a physical disease, and that her spirit was whole and in tact and always would be and her spirit is alive to this day.
Cancer attacks the body, but it is powerless against the unique and eternal spirit, as you will hear in this piece called “The Cancer Creed,” given to me by a colleague in the ministry. It reads:
“They’ve sentenced you with tiny cells, that secrete themselves. Can cancer conquer you? I doubt it. The strengths I see in you have nothing to do with cells, blood and muscle. For cancer is so limited:
“It cannot cripple love.
It cannot shatter hope.
It cannot corrode faith.
It cannot eat away at peace.
It cannot destroy friendship.
It cannot kill confidence.
It cannot shut out memories.
It cannot silence courage.
It cannot invade the soul.
It cannot reduce eternal life.
It cannot squelch the spirit.
It cannot lessen the power of the resurrection.”
Susan, because she was intelligent, because she had a deep faith that was also a mature and grown-up faith, nurtured by years of regular worship in communities where you didn’t have to leave your brain out on the sidewalk, Susan, because she knew God personally as a loving force, she knew that physical illness is not delivered from heaven but is simply a result of living here on earth as physical beings with bodies that do not live forever. So she could say things, in that New England way, like “Why not me?”
Susan and I bonded over our status as New England transplants in the positive, upbeat, and happy Midwest. How we both missed the bitterness, sarcasm and negativity of our people on the east coast, the rocky coast line that at first seems harsh and jagged, but later comes to be beautiful in its strength and toughness. And while her heart was never far from the rugged, beauties of Maine, she had found such loving community here, found and fostered it as evidenced by all of you from so many chapters in her life.
Susan always represented to me the best of New England, which is not the cynicism or negativity, but it’s the ability to be practical, blunt, tough and humble, all at the same time. It was the ability to have perspective on life and to say, as many of you heard her say, “I know I have my problems, but anybody else out there could get hit by a bus at any time. Life is just like that.”
But of course, life is not usually like that. Usually, people get to outlive their parents, watch their children grow up, and meet their grandkids. Usually life around here is like that and on this day, let’s just admit up front that this is all out of order. And when someone dies so young, and so out of order, we are often left wondering what we can possibly do or say to help those who are still here. Words and actions don’t come easy. Perhaps you have found that out already.
We try one thing, and then another, like a doctor who knows no cure so, in desperation, tries whatever medicine is close at hand. We over-reach for something to say, or we offer advice, or sometimes we try to explain why this happened. But please don’t do that. Because no one in history has ever been able to explain suffering, and many have tried. The timetable of our lives is not like a train schedule, where an early departure has its reasons. No, life’s timetable, and the suffering that goes with it, is an intractable mystery that has eluded the keenest minds and humbled the most faithful souls. So do not try to explain it with platitudes. To offer explanations is to say more than we know. Instead, be the kind of friend that Susan would be. Listen closely to each other. Susan would never leap to corny clichés or tidy explanations, so let’s not do that either.
So how do you show support to family and friends at this time? Trust your instincts to love, to be present, to listen and to just show up. And then lean into God. Because while God does not cause cancer, God is still doing a lot of heavy lifting in the midst of this, if we can see beyond the concrete and into the loving heart of the spirit.
What God does not do is give people cancer, what God does not do is call people home because he wants their company, what God does not do is decide to devastate one family with an early death and arrange for someone else to meet their great grand kids. God does not do all that.
What God does in all this is give strength to the living.
What God does is assure us that one day we will be reunited, in the heavenly place where all people gather in peace.
What God does is greet Susan Radon when she crossed the threshold from this world we know to another world we can only see dimly from here. For now we see through a mirror dimly, but then we will see face to face.
What God does is leave us promises like that from scripture, and other words of assurance like these of Jesus, who said to his disciples, “I will not leave you orphaned.”
Paige, Drew, Kyle, you will always have a mother, and Bill, you will always have a soul mate, and you will all see her again, this I believe with all my heart. And you know what, she believed it too, so if you ever have a doubt, don’t worry, she’s believing it for all of us, as a constant spiritual presence in our earthly lives, one whose light can not be snuffed out, as Paige said, still lighting up the world.
So in the meantime, how do we honor her best? I think we do that in how we live our lives.
When someone you admire dies, the greatest tribute does not come from eloquent words spoken at times like this. The greatest tribute comes in how we live our lives, and whether Susan influenced us enough to make a difference.
The greatest tribute comes when we understand that she’s not here physically right now, so we need to take the piece of her that meant the most to us, and try to be more like that, to live more like that, to bring some of that Susan spirit back into the world. What piece of her is going to change your life from this point forward?
I know what it’s going to be for me. For me, I most admired Susan’s sense of perspective and her wisdom. She always had those qualities, but they grew and flourished within her during her illness.
When people have a serious disease, one that is life threatening, they come to life in an in between place, a liminal place, particularly as time passes. With one foot in this world and one in the next, they can come to have a wisdom that clearly comes from a place outside themselves, if they open themselves up to it. And anyone who knew Susan during this time, knows she was operating on a power greater than herself.
And on the last night of her life, when we spoke in the hospital, after praying with her and for her, I asked her if she would like me to pray for other people. By that question, I meant her family, other friends who would be struggling with the potential of what lay ahead. But she heard my question differently, in that particularly Susan way.
“Of course you should pray for other people, Lillian. It’s not like I’m not the only one with problems in the world!”
And that reminded me of how she had carried herself with such dignity, but also such down to earth wisdom in the course of her struggle.
A few years back, during a time when she had been pretty fatigued, she talked about how she had started listening to people differently. You know that Susan was very generous with people, and not judgmental, but she did have a keen eye for human nature. And she once said to me, “You know Lillian, these days it strikes me that people talk about the most trivial things. They worry, they get upset, they get so worked up over things that now strike me as very small. And I listen to them and I think to myself, those are really not very big problems.”
This week I have been walking through the week with the Bible passage for Sunday morning’s sermons, and it’s reminded me all week of what Susan might say to us all if she were here, from the gospel of Matthew chapter 6.
And why do you worry about clothing? Consider the lilies of the field, how they grow; they neither toil nor spin, yet I tell you, even Solomon in all his glory was not clothed like one of these. But if God so clothes the grass of the field, which is alive today and tomorrow is thrown into the oven, will he not much more clothe you—you of little faith? Therefore do not worry, saying, “What will we eat?” or “What will we drink?” or “What will we wear?” But strive first for the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well. So do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will bring worries of its own. Today’s trouble is enough for today.
With her amazing ability to laugh, to enjoy life, to be strong and to live with uncertainty, I think she’s be telling us to learn from her example. She trusted in God to take care of her, and in the meantime she lived life in the moment, asking the deep questions, loving passionately and always laughing at herself and life.
None of that has to end now. It’s just that now, we have to do more of it ourselves.
And in that, we will offer Susan, mother, wife, daughter, sister, friend and colleague, by living differently ourselves, we will offer Susan her greatest tribute. Let’s try to make the world a better place because each of us knew her, leaning on God and leaning on each other. Amen.