Random Thoughts on Mortality

For some reason I’ve been thinking a lot about death lately. I don’t know why, exactly. Maybe it’s the constant reminders around me that people die each day. It seems that when I attend funerals, they come in clumps. Sometimes I think I just can’t handle going to one more visitation, hugging the family members of the deceased, sitting through another memorial service.

But I go anyway. It’s my way of honoring the person who died, or if I didn’t know the person, of showing my concern for a friend. I often learn things about the person who died and wish I’d known him or her better.

Long ago I was faced with the possibility of my own demise. At age 30, I was diagnosed with an autoimmune disorder. At the time, I felt fear wash over me. I stayed awake nights wondering what would become of my 18-month-old son and my sweet husband. I had a minor faith crisis, asking God why he would let something like this happen to me. Then I thought about all the innocent people killed by war and other circumstances, and the thought “Why not?” occurred to me. My pastor introduced me to a young woman about my age who needed a heart and lung transplant. We chatted a bit at a church picnic. Our discussion was mainly commiseration over circumstances we could not control, but it ended on a hopeful note. She died not long afterward.

Two Sundays ago as our choir was returning to the choir room following the worship service, I commented to someone, “I want that hymn at my funeral.” I was referring to “I’ll Praise My Maker While I’ve Breath.” My comment was met with a strange look, but people have become accustomed to my random thinking, so they probably didn’t give it a second thought.

The next day I sat down and planned the hymns I want at my funeral.

“I’ll Praise My Maker While I’ve Breath”–I like this hymn because of its text (naturally) and its glorious tune.

“I’ll praise my Maker while I’ve breath, and when my soul is lost in death, praise shall employ my nobler powers.
My days of praise shall ne’er be past,
while life, and thought, and being last,
or immortality endures.”

I haven’t been Methodist long enough to remember the rest of the text, only that I resonate with its words (Isaac Watts, 1737; altered by John Wesley, can’t remember the year, though I just checked…John, how dare you edit Isaac? :D).

“I Stand Amazed in the Presence” … of Jesus the Nazarene, and wonder how he could love me, a sinner condemned, unclean. How marvelous, how wonderful, and my song shall ever be, How marvelous, how wonderful is my Savior’s love to me! (st. 4) When with the ransomed in glory his face I at last shall see, ‘Twill be my joy through the ages to sing of his love for me. How marvelous….” (Charles H. Gabriel, 1956-1932)

Blessed Assurance, Jesus Is Mine, oh what a foretaste of glory divine, heir of salvation, purchase of God, born of his Spirit, washed in his blood. This is my story, this is my song, praising my Savior all the day long! This is my story, this is my song, praising my Savior all the day long. (Fanny J. Crosby, 1820-1915)

If a choir is available, I want one (preferably the choir from Belmont UMC, with a few of my Baptist friends thrown in just to make things interesting) to sing at my funeral. Just because I’ve spent so many years warbling (I do mean warbling…my voice is getting weaker and lower the older I get, but I still love to try to sing my love and praise to God.) Some of my favorite choral anthems:

“The Majesty and Glory of Your Name” by Tom Fettke–This ethereal song captured my imagination the first time I first heard it, and it leads me into worship every time I hear or sing it.

Some Latin arrangement, though I can’t remember one at the moment. I’ve come to appreciate Latin after struggling with it for a while when I first joined our choir. “Jubilate Deo” or “Adoramus Te”…probably the latter. Can’t remember the title, but Gayle Sullivan will know, if she’s still around when I die. She has the discretion to know which alto parts are the most fun to sing.

“Savior, Like a Shepherd Lead Us”–Joseph Martin arrangement

Back to other hymns I’d like sung at my funeral:

“Be Thou My Vision, O Lord of my heart, naught be all else to me save that thou art, thou my best thought, by day or by night, waking or sleeping, thy presence my light. … Riches I heed not nor man’s empty praise, thou mine inheritance now and always, thou and thou only, first in my heart, high King of heaven, my treasure thou art.” (Words: Ancient Irish, translated by Mary E. Byrne, 1880-1931; “versified” by Eleanor H. Hull, 1960-1935)

And we need to work a little Ralph Vaughan Williams in there…“For All the Saints who from their labors rest…”

And while I’m being rolled out the door (wait, I plan to be cremated), I’d want the hymn “God Will Take Care of You” either played or sung. This is a tribute to my grandfather, who sang that hymn over and over…and to my Baptist heritage (words by Civilla D. Martin, 1969-1948; music: W. Stillman Martin, 1862-1935):

Be not dismayed what’er betide, God will take care of you, beneath his wings of love abide, God will take care of you. God will take care of you through all your days, o’er all your ways, [words altered by moi] God will take care of you, God will take care of you.

What uplifting thoughts for a Monday morning! Now I must go and do a good day’s work.

Life Lessons from Yoga

Many of you know that I am a big fan of yoga. I started taking yoga classes at West End United Methodist Church at the invitation of my friend Jeannie in January 2010. I was a little apprehensive at first but soon became fascinated with the practice and attended classes every chance I could (we met on Tuesdays and Thursdays at 5:30 p.m.; West End UMC is about 5 minutes from my workplace, and this suited my schedule perfectly).

Our West End yoga class was special. Abigail Redman is a super teacher who has the gift of breaking challenging poses into small, achievable steps. Our class was made up of a variety of people, from dancers to klutzes like me (although I think I rank as the klutziest person in my class). We laughed, sweated, and wobbled together through new and sometimes awkward poses. We’ve done silly things like lion’s breath, where you inhale deeply through your nose and then exhale loudly, sticking out your tongue and making a “haaaaaaa” sound.

Alas, the first lesson I learned is that sometimes classes come to an end. In September 2011 the West End yoga class was cancelled because Abigail had an injury that was first misdiagnosed and then took a long time to heal, even with physical therapy. She needed some time off to let her body heal, and she didn’t want to give up teaching yoga completely, so this was the easiest class to cut from her busy schedule. (She is also a grad student at Vanderbilt Divinity School who is working on her dissertation. )

Lesson 2: Life goes on. I got busy and didn’t do any yoga for about 4 months. By January I could tell a huge difference in my stress level (it had increased), and I decided that I really missed yoga. I don’t have the discipline to practice daily, and besides, it’s just more fun to take a yoga class.

So I found out when Abigail was teaching at her other place, The Yoga Room of Nashville. It took me a little while to work up the courage to go to a new class. You see, I’m a little shy about my ability or lack thereof to do some of the basic postures in yoga.

According to what I’ve heard from the 4 teachers I’ve enjoyed, the philosophy of yoga is to do what your body feels comfortable doing. Try to learn new postures, but do them gradually as your body is able. Abigail says if you can’t smile while doing a posture, you are trying too hard. This is completely antithetical to my overachiever personality, but I embrace this concept. I like to smile. It makes me feel happier, and sometimes doing it while holding an asana is just goofy enough to make my day.

Some other things I’ve learned from yoga include:

* Sometimes we all fall. I fell once when I was in a low lunge…just toppled right over as if I’d been shot. Not long after that, a guy in my class (who has improved so much and become a yoga fanatic) fell while he was in another pose. That made me feel a little better. The other time I fell, I was attempting to do a forward bend without distributing my weight evenly between my feet, and I rushed to scooch my feet up into my palms, which were resting on the floor. I learned DO NOT RUSH…because I immediately wiped out! My center of gravity shifted forward and suddenly I was on the mat. I didn’t even have time to be scared when I fell. Usually, I feel a fall coming, and it is as if I see it happening in slow motion. No slow motion in this case. Bam! I hit the floor. But all was well. I laughed it off, and though my shoulder was sore for a couple of days afterward, I was none too worse for the fall.

* Deep breathing and meditation are good for your soul. I’m not by nature a meditative person (very often), so the practice of breathing from my diaphragm and feeling the air come up slowly and expand my rib cage and then holding that breath for just a bit before exhaling slowly helps me relax. I know my heart rate goes down when I do this. I have learned to start taking slow, deep breaths when I get stressed at work or when I start having anxious thoughts.

I absolutely love my teachers’ admonishment to “let go of your thoughts.”  “Focus on your breathing. Feel the breath as it comes in through your nostrils and out through your mouth.” “If you are thinking of something right now, just let those thoughts float away.” This sounds a whole lot like the practice of centering prayer, in which you dismiss your thoughts as if they were clouds and say one or a few words to yourself to center your mind on God.

* It is invigorating to try new things. It is vital to one’s growth to stretch oneself both physically and mentally. When I do yoga, I feel younger. My doctor has encouraged me to continue doing yoga as long as I can. She says she never discourages anyone from practicing yoga.

*I am doing something that integrates my mind, body, and spirit. When we put our hands in prayer position, I send a brief prayer of gratitude for this time to slow down and calm myself. After a yoga class, I feel very mellow. My husband says I am nicer to be around after yoga, so he gladly cooks dinner on the nights I go to yoga. Yoga is as relaxing as a glass of wine.

Well, these are just a few things I’ve learned through yoga. I am participating in a 90-day fitness challenge right now, and one goal is to get 20 minutes of stretching into each day. That has helped me be more intentional about practicing yoga at home or taking a brief midafternoon break to stretch out all the kinks I’ve gotten from sitting at the computer all day.

I hope that you will take time to become aware of your body and exercise it in a way that is both kind and challenging to you.  Namaste!