I was asked to post the sermon I preached today at Dena Hokom’s memorial service.  Here it is.

Dena Hokom

Dena Hokom

There is part of me that thinks I should be telling you a story, that I should have found some story that represents Dena’s values rather than attempting to weave my own thoughts together into some sort of sermon, for Dena was a masterful story teller.  But I will attempt to let her life be one of my texts today.  Her life is the story we should remember today, and I will attempt to use it to inform my words.

I wish I had one of those memories where you remember the first time you meet people.  I would love to remember what my first impression of Dena was.  I would love to compare that first impression to the lasting impression she has made on me.  Maybe that curiosity says something about Dena:  she was a woman of impact.  I think it is because she made such a lasting impression on me that I am curious about how it compares to those first impressions.

I suspect that one of the earliest things I learned about Dena was about her medical challenges.  It wasn’t long before I moved to Fremont that she was hospitalized and near death.  She spoke about being near death, about thinking she was going to die at least once during that extended hospitalization, and how that enabled her to stop fearing death.  Post hospitalization had its own challenges; there was a medicine cabinet she had to carry around.  I’m sure that was a bother at least, maybe a down right pain, but I sure got a giggle about sitting next to someone at a restaurant who pulled out a bottle of opium to took some quick before she ate.  I understand medically why she took it, but there was something surreal about it and the matter-of-fact-ness of how she did it added to the effect.

That matter-of-fact-ness is one of the things I treasure about Dena.  Honesty and integrity are two words that describe her.  I never had to wonder where she stood about something.  If she had an opinion about something that was happening or was proposed at church (and she often did), I knew she would share it.  I also like the fact that she didn’t always have an opinion.  There were times when whatever might be on the table was of such little consequence in Dena’s mind that she didn’t bother to put energy into it.

But more important than her participation in the decision-making and experimenting at church was her participation in relationships.  If I said something or did something that she found off-putting or offensive, she would tell me.  I never felt scolded (which can happen).  She was being honest and direct because she valued our relationship enough to tell me what was happening for her.  I am grateful that she valued our relationship so much that she felt she could be honest and direct when she needed to be.

I don’t remember how many years ago we started our “Care Team,” a group of members of the church trained to offer spiritual and emotional support to others in the church who have special needs.  Must typically, the Care Team reaches out to people dealing with a medical crisis or a chronic medical condition, but they also offer support to people who need some comfort or support or reassurance along the way because their lives are hard.  That happens.

So, we were putting together the Care Team and I was wondering who might be people to join and, clearly, Dena was someone to ask.  I did, and she said yes.  I think it was in the context of the Care Team training that I found out that Dena was a volunteer chaplain at Kaiser Hospital.  She’d been doing this work unbeknownst to me.  She wasn’t keeping her chaplaincy work a secret; it just hadn’t come up and she wasn’t going to toot her own horn about it.  One of the gifts she brought to the Care Team was teaching us how to pray with someone and (perhaps more importantly) how to make praying with someone an opportunity, a choice, not an imposition.

Dena was a natural teacher.  It wasn’t just her professional career.  “Teacher” was authentically part of who she was, a calling, a vocation, that lived on into retirement.  I think one of the reasons she was a teacher is that she was also a student.  Reading, discussing, wrestling with ideas and integrating experiences were part of Dena’s ongoing spiritual life.  Yes, some of her reading and discussing and her trips to the theatre were for the joy and appreciation of art (I admit to being a little envious when reading Pete’s comments on Facebook about the latest play they went to).  Literature, in one form or another, for the sake of the art, yes.  And literature (and scholarly works) for the sake of how they can inform and impact the spiritual journey.

Over the course of my tenure here in Fremont, I would say that Dena became less and less certain about who God is and of what comes next.  It may come as a bit of a surprise, but I take this to be a sign of a maturing of her faith journey.

Karl Barth, the famous German theologian of the first half of the 20th century, was once asked (or so the story goes), after all his decades of study and writing if he could sum up his theology in a simple sentence.  His response:  “Jesus loves me, this I know, for the Bible tells me so.”  Only he would have sung it in German.

I think the arc of the spiritual journey moves through the complexities of theologies to come down to the something central and simple.  For Dena, this kernel was love.  When I asked her what scripture she would like read today, she very quickly said, the love chapter from 1 Corinthians.  And then she said something that I wish I had written down so I could quote her directly.  It was something like, “Love.  That’s what it’s about.”

And it is, ultimately.  “If I speak like I know everything, like the world revolves around me, but I don’t love, I am nothing but a fool at a microphone.  If I can talk about The Scriptures, and preach better than all the other preachers, and get everybody and their sister coming back to church, but I don’t embrace love, then I’m just a silly dude in a robe.  If I give away all my best stuff, and have all the ‘Rev. Dr. This and That’s’ in front of my name, but I can’t recognize love, then I haven’t learned a thing.

“Because love, she is amazing.  Love is relentless.  Love is extra-generous.  Love looks out for the interests of other people, not just one’s own self.[…]  Love doesn’t hurt people.  And love never leaves people out.

“No … Love goes all the way.  Love removes every obstacle.[…]  Love gets up really early in the morning, after having stayed up really late the night before.  That’s how love is.  Love always does the right thing, even when it’s hard.  Love is fair and just, extravagant and wasteful.  Love can never be depleted.[…]

“We have a lot of things to sustain us in this life.  There’s that quirky optimism that, with God, all things work together for good.  And there’s always hope, and hope never disappoints.  And that’s all nice.  But most importantly, we’ve got this big, expansive, inclusive love.  Love!  And isn’t that the greatest thing?  Isn’t it?”[1]

Or, as the writer of the first epistle of John says, “let us love one another, because love is from God; everyone who loves is born of God and knows God.  [… F]or God is love.”

In the few days since Dena died, I have had two people contact me to tell me how loving Dena was, how she reached out to them in times of deep hurt, knowing that she couldn’t do anything to stop the hurting, but knowing what a difference being with them in their hurt can make.  Love in action; love is God with flesh on.

Dena believed, and I have to agree with her, that being a Christian was much more about how we live now than it is about what happens after this life is over.  Do we “do onto others as we would have them do onto us” here and now, or do we worry about making sure we have the right afterlife insurance policy?  She would say that the first is more important (as would l).

In fact, in all honesty, Dena began to wonder if there was a “what comes next” and decided that if there isn’t it doesn’t really matter.  I believe there is, and I also believe that we cannot explain what it will be like.  There is a prayer in the United Church of Christ’s Book of Worship that includes this line:  “Through the veil of our tears and the silence of our emptiness, assure us again that ear has not heard, nor eye seen, nor human imagination envisioned, what you have prepared for those who love you.”

Marcus Borg once wrote about the afterlife.  He said, “So, is there an afterlife, and if so, what will it be like?  I don’t have a clue.  But I am confident that the one who has buoyed us up in life will also buoy us up through death.  We die into God.  What more that means, I do not know.  But that is all I need to know.”[2]

We give thanks for the life of Dena Hokom, and I trust that she now rests in the enternal love that is God, the God who walked before her and us in all the trials and tribulations of life.  Amen.

[1] J. Bennett Guess, “Love Goes All the Way,” United Church of Christ, http://www.ucc.org/stillspeaking_weekly_love_goes_all_the_way (posted on 29 April 2015; accessed 9 May 2015).  Ben describes this as, “The following “Love Offering for Marriage Equality” is a prayer I shared two years ago on March 26, the day when oral arguments were held for U.S. v. Windsor, a pivotal landmark case in the movement toward equal marriage rights. This paraphrase of 1 Corinthians 13:1-13 was offered early that morning at the Interfaith Service of Love and Justice at the Church of the Reformation in Washington, D.C.

[2] Marcus J. Borg, Speaking Christian: Why Christian Words Have Lost Their Meaning and Power – And How They Can Be Restored, quoted on “Marcus J. Borg Quotes,” PorgressiveChristianity.org, http://progressivechristianity.org/resources/marcus-j-borg-quotes/ (accessed 9 May 2015).