PAULA MEHMEL: Shoot the Rapids — In Memory Of Joshua Birchem

This is different from my usual blogs. This is the sermon I preached at the funeral for my nephew, Joshua, who lost his battle with depression on Sept 30, 2019. He was 20 years old and a sophomore at Gustavus Adolphus. He was a beloved son, brother, cousin, nephew and friend. His loss left a hole and I am sharing this sermon with his parents’ permission so others might hear the words of hope and seek help. 

I used I Corinthians 13, John 1:1-6, Revelations 22:1-6, Romans 8:31-39 and Ephesians 3:20-21 as texts.

Joshua, in the last will and testament that he left, asked that I speak for him today, in the manner of speaking for the dead that Orson Scott Card popularized in the novels of his Ender’s Game series. I was not familiar with the novels, so I spoke to a few people and did a bit of research, and I believe that meant that Josh wanted me to speak honestly about him.

He wrote in his will that he wanted  a gathering for closure. He said he wanted to keep it as small as possible. He didn’t want to turn anyone away but he wanted to trouble the least amount of people possible. He wrote that in my role, he wanted me to help people “understand the real me, or at least the parts I let my close family see.” Josh wanted me to be straightforward, direct, and he didn’t want me to get stuck in platitudes. He also said it was OK if I wanted to make it spiritual, for which I am grateful because there is no way I could do this without the support of God and the ability to speak about God in the midst of this pain.

As I thought about that, I tried to come  up with an image, something I could use as a way to speak honestly and faithfully about Josh without reducing this to banalities or cliches, which he would have hated. And as I did, I thought about Josh’s love of the universe  As a child he wrote poetry about it and in his college essay, he wrote about staring at the stars at Norris Camp and  talked about how every night he could see “the bleeding rainbow that is the disk of the Milky Way.  Like the cliche of every kid who has ever looked at the sky, space has always fascinated me.”

He focused his college essay on the speed of light and I think the best way for me to speak about Joshua is to compare him to a quasar. Now, I am a theologian, not an astronomer, so I am on shaky ground here and I ask the forgiveness of those of you who are more versed in astrophysics. However, as I understand it, a quasar is a massive and extremely remote pulsation of light that radiates energy, the brightest and the most distant object in the known universe, that is surrounded by a black hole.

Quasars are still very mysterious and we don’t know a lot about them, but they emit light that looks like a star. And I think in a lot of ways, that was Josh.

Josh was very distant and  private — he didn’t want to let a lot of people see what was going on inside of him, but he was deep and thoughtful. I suspect I am not alone in reflecting on conversations I’ve had with him over the years, where he had a unique way of looking at the world or a different insight. He was also a complicated person. And not organized in a way that is easy to understand, like a quasar. He was not a social person — he would often disappear at gathering to go off to read, which he loved to do — very remote. But when you sat down and talked to him, he emanated light. That was apparent in his passion for caring for others as an EMT, but his strict code of ethics kept him from ever talking about what he did.

I had a great conversation with Josh this summer at the folk fest and as we talked, he was describing a person he knew whose behavior I would have described as odd, but Josh was very careful not to speak ill of the person. He had a sense of honor.

Josh was bright — that was evident from the get-go. He loved to talk about whatever it was that fascinated him with depth. My sons and I had the honor of working with him on his college essays, and that revealed to us just how deep and complicated and thoughtful he was.

And Josh was considerate — even in the process of planning the last act of his life, he wanted to make sure that no one felt like it was their fault. He wrote that he was raised in the most loving and supportive environment a child could ask for, cherished in every way possible and that Gustavus had done what they promised to do. He thought of others in a way that was astounding, given the depth of his pain — showing the bright light within his tortured soul.

But he was remote and distant and truly surrounded by the black hole of depression that overwhelmed him. Josh, in his letter, talked about his depression and how he felt that he was falling in a chasm for eight years, but he never let anyone in. He never let anyone see how deep the abyss was — how all consuming the black hole had become. He hid its depth from everyone. He never gave medicine or therapy a real chance because he didn’t want to open up. He didn’t want to let others see what was really inside him. That is honest and how one who is a speaker for the dead should portray the disease that consumed Josh, that lead to such self-loathing.

However, a speaker for the dead is also to speak the truth as they honestly see someone, not just as the dead see themselves, and Josh was surrounded by the black hole of depression. He was too remote to deal with his depression in a way that may have changed the outcome, too isolated in how he faced it, not because of the failure of others to try, but because of his own inability to let others in.

Josh was unable to see the pulse of energy and goodness that emanated from him that provided light. He could not see the qualities of light that this quasar-like man showed because he was overwhelmed by the black hole. The darkness that consumed him did not let the light shine in, but that does not mean the light was not there, radiating energy and light  no matter how remote. He just couldn’t see it.

Ultimately the disease that took Josh’s life, and make no mistake about it, Josh died of a disease, no different than someone who dies of diabetes or cancer dies of a disease, that disease shrouded him in such darkness that he could not see a way forward. He was unable to see the light. His death was the result of actions that clouded his judgment and were directly related to this disease, the black hole that consumed him.

But it is important, as we celebrate Josh and his life today, that we don’t confuse his struggle with this disease and its subsequent result with who he was — a quasar — a bursting but distant spark of light, a child of God named and claimed by God. And that we remember that though in the end Josh may have been powerless over the reign this disease had in his life, even as each one of us is powerless over our own brokenness, that God is more powerful than any brokenness that we experience here on Earth. That Josh was defined not by the power of depression and where it led but rather by the brightness of his light as he sought answers and pondered mysteries and thought about the vastness of the universe.

In one iteration of his college essay, he ended it with this paragraph. “Stephen Hawking has proposed that black holes actually emit a small amount of particles, meaning that over long periods of time black holes will evaporate. Scientists have also theorized that protons, the very building blocks of matter as we know it, will eventually decay into subatomic particles. Assuming these two theories are true, the universe will be nothing but subatomic particles and ironically, for the dark era, light. This means that if you went to the right spot and had a strong enough telescope, you could see the ghost of what was. In the beginning. God said let there be light, and in the end, that’s all that was left.”

As I read that, and fulfill Josh’s wish of being his speaker for the dead, I find incredible hope in what he wrote because even there, he saw that the black hole would evaporate, and there would be light. The light of God that surrounded him. Because his struggles didn’t separate him from God or the love of Christ.

Jesus came to heal the sick, and, “to bind up the broken hearted.” Jesus Christ came to take all of our brokenness upon him, to heal our infirmities and afflictions and to make us whole and to put us in our right mind. And Jesus Christ promised receive all of his children. That promise is given to each of us and that promise was given to Josh. And now, with his judgment clear and unclouded, I know he has heard that promise again, and that he is rejoicing now in the grace of a healing, loving God.

In death, he has been able to find the complete peace and light that so eluded him when he struggled with depression. His life has been given over to a God whose light is more powerful than the darkness that encircled him in a black hole. For we know that our God never left Josh or abandoned him and that Jesus remains true to his promise to be with Josh always, a promise made when I baptized him as a baby and brought to fulfillment in his rebirth in the city where there is no darkness, only God’s light, drawn from the love of God.

In the passage I read earlier from 1 Corinthians 13, Paul writes profound words about what love is. He talks of love being patient and kind, not being jealous, conceited, or proud, and love never giving up. And Gretchen, Jeff and Johanna, and all of you faithful friends and relatives, over the past years I know that kind of love has been manifest in you. You were selfless, supportive and perseverent. As parents, Gretchen and Jeff, I know that you have done everything you could for Josh. If you could have you would have taken all of the pain that Josh faced and born it yourself.

Josh knew this. His roommate found a note  a few days after his death that Gretchen has sent him with a package where she wrote, “Joshua, love you! Mom” And he had written on it, “I know, and I love you more than you can imagine. Not your fault and I’m sorry. I am in a better place. Josh.”

If love could have healed him, he would have been healed. What happened to Josh wasn’t because of what you, or anyone else, did or didn’t do for him or to him. Your love for him was indeed profound and faithful. But ultimately, it was limited because you couldn’t keep your child, brother, and friend from this disease or this journey he has taken from life to death.

Yes, your love was limited and you were powerless. But the Good News we hold on to today is that God’s love is more powerful and unlimited than our love. Because God, our heavenly parent, is able to do what we earthly parents cannot do, to save God’s children, from  darkness and brokenness and death. God’s love transcends our own because God’s power transcends our power, and God is able to take the brokenness of this life and redeem death and the grave, and through Christ, make death our final entry into eternal life. God is more powerful than we are and God’s infinite love can accomplish what our finite love cannot. God can light the way in the darkness of our souls.

Now I need to be perfectly honest. As much as I know about the struggles depression, I really can’t understand the depths of Josh’s pain. But this I do know — Josh’s death is not God’s will, anymore than this struggle was what Josh wanted for his life. And that God, through his power, through his love and through grace, has not given death the final word. We would be adrift and lost if we give that kind of power to death.

But we need not be lost. For God has not given that power to death because God’s will is ultimately accomplished in life — the life Jesus won for us on the Cross by defeating dearth and through his Resurrection, turning that place of abandonment and loneliness, that place of the depths of despair into a place of hope. Turning death into life. For the Cross, the place of death, became the gateway into a world without pain and death, a world where Josh now dwells with God.

Josh was quasar, a bright and distant light in the darkness and he was a child of God and nothing, not powers, nor principalities, nor height, nor depths, nor things present, nor things to come, not life, nor death, nor the deepest depths of depression and where it led could keep Josh from the love of God. And it is that love that transcends our own that gives us confidence in Josh’s eternal life of peace, even as we mourn his death.

But what of us? How, then, do we go on. Josh has been offered a place in the light of God’s paradise where God dwells, but what of us? How do we deal with a whole host of feelings and emotions — how are we able to go on, living this side of Paradise? How are we able to deal with our regret over our last words to Josh, or our guilt about not reaching out when we thought we should have, and our own confusion.

St. Paul wrote, in the words I read earlier from I Corinthians, “now, we see through a glass dimly, but then we shall see face to face. What we know now is only partial, but then it will be complete.”

It is because of that dimness, the questions and cloud that surrounds us, that comprehending Josh’s death is so hard.  How do we find the light to take the dimness of our soul away.  How are we able to go on?

Well, we aren’t able. None of us are able. But we don’t have to be. Because as I read earlier from Ephesians, God is able. Jesus Christ is able. He is, the Scripture say, he is able to do immeasurably more than all we ask or imagine, according to his power that is at work within us. On our own, none of us can cope with the pain and despair of life. On our own, we will fall down repeatedly, we will fail repeatedly. On our own we will be shrouded by a black hole. None of us who loved Josh will be able to make sense of his death or deal with our questions, our hurt, our anger, our guilt, our regrets, or our pain on your own. It is impossible. We won’t be able to make sense of this senseless tragedy. But Jesus Christ is able to help us cope and to carry us when we stumble and fall. He can be the crutch upon which we lean. He is the light of the world that no darkness can overcome.  We simply need to turn to him, to ask God to guide and sustain us.

Some folks say that God never gives you more than you can handle. I don’t think that is true because I don’t think God is the cause of anything bad. God is light in a dark world. God’s love only wants us to have joy and life. But I do believe that God is able to give us the strength to handle whatever the world, in its brokenness, gives us. God didn’t cause this but God  promises to light our way in the black hole.

As you deal with Josh’s death, you have a choice, you can remain in that dimness, or even shroud yourselves with darkness and let the gloom of death and pain surround you and define us. You can wallow in the hurt and rage. Or you turn to God to help us deal with your sense of powerlessness and brokenness in a wounded world.

Don’t turn to external things, things of this world, like alcohol or chemicals, to keep you going or to numb your pain. That will only lead to more desperation and more despair. Turn to Jesus. And trust in Jesus, say yes to a relationship with him and know that even as his light never let go of Josh in the darkness, he will light your way. And use the tools that Josh avoided to get help if you need it. As a speaker for the dead I need to say that.

Josh refused to get help, but we can. Medicine and therapy make a difference. This story may have ended differently if Josh had let others see his pain, sought help and gotten the right meds. Don’t let that happen to you if you are depressed. That is one way we can find redemption in this pain. To encourage others to find HOPE — Hold On. Pain Ends. Closing yourself off to pain can end in tragedy, but opening yourself up to God and the tools our God gave us can lead us to light. We aren’t able to face the changes and chances of life on our own. But God alone is able to light the way and gives us people to support us on the journey. Because we are sustained by a God whose love will not let go. And in the midst of all of this darkness, that is the one piece of Good News to which we can cling.

Josh closed his letter by writing, “This morning I got up early to go and look at the sunrise (shocking, I know) and of course it was  heavily overcast and I couldn’t see anything. But as I was about to go inside, I saw the barest glinting of gold peeking through the clouds. And for the millionth time in my life, I was struck by how beautiful the world is, from the glittering spires of New York to the majesty of the Grand Canyon this world is beautiful.” Even in death, he was clinging to the light and the beauty of the world.

He also gave to Johanna his dearest and most meaningful possession, his bear, so that she could give it to her children to comfort them. He wrote that if they ever have nightmares, “just tell them to hug bear close and imagine a massive pulse of energy emanating from him that banishes all the terrors of the universe.”

As we mourn Joshua, I invite you to do the same — clinging to that image of Josh as a quasar, a massive pulse of energy encircled by a black hole, held in the energy and light of a God who never let him go and who holds you in that light, too, for eternity. Because as Josh himself wrote, “In the beginning God said let there be light,” and in the end, that’s all that was left.  Amen.

One thought on “PAULA MEHMEL: Shoot the Rapids — In Memory Of Joshua Birchem”

  • Cindy Hoag December 11, 2019 at 8:14 am

    This was a powerful and comforting memorial, Paula. Thank you!


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