Wednesday, May 20, 2009

Limping Along in the Lord's Army: An Elegy for Megan Cope

Last Sunday, I listened to my friend Mike Cope preach the first of his last seven sermons at Highland Church in Abilene. His text was 2 Corinthians 4, where Paul talks about being a "jar of clay" containing the treasure of the Gospel. He told one of the "Megan Stories," and I found myself thinking of this piece I wrote in her honor a number of years ago, for a fundraiser to help The House that Kerry Built, a daycare center for medically fragile children. Here it is again...


Megan Diane Cope was born on August 26, 1984 and she died on November 21, 1994. Those are the bare facts. But they are not the truth: not all of it, at least; not by a long shot. Megan was so much more, even to those who didn't know her and will never know her, than anything that could be bracketed in the brief span of time she spent in this phase of her life.

Richard Adams, author of Watership Down, later wrote a novel, not so well known, called Shardik, named for a god of the imaginary world Adams constructed, a god who took the form of a bear. In the tale, a fisherman of a remote, backward island people--and not even a well-respected fisherman, by the way--catches a glimpse of a monstrous bear which, he thinks, can only be the incarnation of Shardik. Once he has seen the bear, this poor, solitary fisherman's life is never the same. He follows the bear and becomes, in turn, its tracker, its captor, its missionary, and its high priest. His life and the lives he touches are altered--sometimes in horrible ways--by their service to the bear, who seems brutishly and steadfastly ignorant of his role as a god and goes on his own beastly way, drawing after him in a disastrous, epic, tragic, heroic tangle all the humans whose lives have, for various reasons, been caught up by his presence among them.

And despite all the misplaced adoration, at the end, good results. Shardik dies, but his death imbues his life with a meaning it would never have had otherwise. And those who had followed in his wake are forever changed.

The Hindus have a term for the earthly manifestation of a god: "avatar". But an avatar can also refer to "a variant phase or version of a continuing basic entity:" something which exists now in one form, now in another, yet somehow retains its elemental identity and function. In that sense, Megan Cope was among us as an avatar. We no longer see her as she was when she was with us here, shifting our world about and modifying our perceptions and expectations. Still, she continues. And those of us who have in various ways and to various degrees been pulled into her wake have been transformed. Like Shardik, Megan was largely unaware of the way she drew us along behind her on her brief, higgledy-piggledy pilgrimage through this vale of laughter and tears. She caromed through life like a billiard ball, seeking no conscious path but instigating and participating in endless actions and reactions whose repercussions have not yet ceased, may not cease for generations. Megan was an unwitting catalyst, an involuntary agent of change. In her helplessness and her utter dependence, she was an avatar of the holy, and in our efforts to minister to her while she was with us, we received ministry.

In fact, one of our friends once characterized Megan as a minister of the Gospel of Jesus Christ, and, the more I reflect on that description, the more apt it becomes. Megan was a living proclamation; not, like her father, by means of artful words and powerful phrases nor, like her mother, in visions and a spirit of discernment and prayer. Rather, Megan proclaimed her message in her life. She was a walking icon of Christ's admonition to take no thought for tomorrow, but simply, in faith, to let each day unfold on its own. I doubt it ever ocurred to Megan to make long-range plans or to fear what the next five minutes might bring. Megan, like the birds of the air and the lilies of the field, trusted in the Creator, through his human agents, to supply whatever requirements she might have. She knew no other way to live. And in that respect, she sits in judgment on us all, and leads us toward a more primitive and perfect trust.

Megan was a flesh-and-blood display of the topsy-turvy economy of the kingdom of heaven. She was one of the least of us, yet she occupied the apex of our care, absorbing all the loving service we could offer, and able to absorb still more. Without any "thank you," without any false reticence, without even seeming to notice, she took all that we could give her, and still we were left with the sense that it was not enough. And yet, to anyone who held her down for a breathing treatment, or marched with her through the church parking lot, singing "I'm in the Lord's Ar-my, Yes, Sir!", or changed her soiled undergarments, or tried in vain to rescue some semi-edible artifact from her unbelievably quick hands, or held her as she gasped for breath--to anyone who ever poured a minute's worth of love down the bottomless pit that was Megan, the blessing which followed beggared any other reward. Megan taught us all the difference in value between receiving and giving. We only wished we could have done more: there was no question of doing less. And all the while, we were the ones being made over by her innocent carelessness and her shattering need into a closer imitation of the one who poured out his life as a ransom for many.

And here, by way of explaining more fully, I must pause and tell my personal "Megan story." Cheryl and I were privileged to spend a Sunday morning with Megan while her mom went to church, about two or three weeks before she died. At this point, the trick was to keep Megan within a short enough radius of her oxygen tank to permit the tubes to stay in her nostrils and simultaneously remain connected to the hose. She was also prone to seizures then, but I didn't know that. At one point, I remember having her in my lap on the floor of the living room, and I may have even been singing to her. For a few moments, the ceaseless thrashing stopped, the grasping fingers were still, and she stared up into my face with what appeared to me as a beatific half-smile. Then, after a minute or two, we resumed the Greco-Roman wrestling match. "What a wonderful, peaceful, very brief interlude," I thought, as I put her oxygen tubes back in place for the 5,357th time, "no doubt, made possible by my instinctive gentleness and boundless patience. Surely, even Megan is not immune to my gifts."

Later, over lunch, I was relating to the Copes and Cheryl my moment of epiphany with Megan, there on the living room floor. Diane got a slightly embarrassed look as I described the scene. Cheryl leaned over to me and whispered, "Thom, she wasn't listening to you sing; she was having a seizure."

Classic Megan: if ever your sense of "Christian duty" became self-congratulatory or the least bit inflated by a sense of its own worth, Megan would simply leave you holding the punctured bag, and allow you to deal with your own deflated ego. Megan, how could we ever repay all that you taught us?

It's a strange regiment, this "Lord's Ar-my" of which she loved to sing. Its recruits, rank upon rank, are, every one of them, hurt and defective in some way. It's an army of the walking wounded, commanded by a general with punctured hands and feet and a gash in his side; a general who leads his host not to attack, but to surrender. And with this, we may be coming close to the center of Megan's meaning for us: her infirmity, her heroic, dogged struggle and her eventual defeat reminded us, her comrades-in-arms, of our own concealed injuries. As we watched her die, as we gathered around her grave, we all peered into ourselves and saw our own mortality, knowing ours was far more well-deserved. Having given her into the hands of the angels, we turned again to the fray, more acutely conscious of our own liabilities for the cause, our own poor choices, our own inherited blemishes, our own private defeats. In some way, I think we all thought, "It should have been me, not Megan." Perhaps her death, so obviously undeserved, brought us hard up against another reluctant admission that this is not, in fact, the most perfect of all worlds; perhaps it forced us to see again the dreadful damage sustained by each of us in this battle zone where we live. Perhaps this evident tragedy stirred the cauldron of our emotions, bringing up from the hidden, murky bottom some of those secrets we all carry; secrets we would prefer to keep safely out of sight. But for whatever reason, her death has caused many of us to become more familiar with ourselves than we wanted to be. And even for that, we must confess that we owe her a debt of gratitude, for only by knowing the self can we learn to transcend it; to leave the shadows and come into the true light of day; to move from semblance toward reality.

Of course, as the velveteen rabbit learned, becoming real always hurts. Only the artificial is painless, and that is why it is by far the preferred option for most of us. Few are brave enough or faithful enough to voluntarily begin the journey toward realness. Megan's life and death somehow impelled many of us--even those of us who kicked frantically against the goads--down the road to Damascus. It's a pilgrimage our culture teaches us to avoid, because once we are trapped in that awful illumination, we can no longer ignore the darkness, either in ourselves or in our world. You can no longer pretend that such things as pain, injustice, and undeserved suffering don't exist. Once you've been down that road, even part way, you can never again view the world with benign indifference. Once you begin to become real, you are vulnerable to all sorts of injuries. You are susceptible to being despised and rejected; a person of sorrows, and acquainted with grief. You begin to realize that the only joy which survives is that joy which, rather than fleeing pain, embraces it, drinks it to the dregs, and transforms it. It dawns on you that there can be no resurrection until there is a crucifixion. And, most fearful of all, you come to know that somewhere out there is a cross with your name on it.

There was a time when children like Megan were kept out of sight and, to the degree possible, out of mind. But tonight, I'd like to ask each of you to fix a face clearly in your mind; Megan's face, perhaps, if you knew her. Or maybe Drew's face; or Steffany's. . . or Crockett's. . . or Emily's. . . or Coleman's. . . or Garrett's. What are these young, infirm heroes teaching us? What can we learn from these fragile avatars of innocence and anguish? For we must never forget that there is a kind of wisdom which arises only out of suffering, just as surely as deep joy only blooms from the ash heap of loss. Perhaps this is what Ecclesiasticus means when he says, "It is better to go to a house of mourning than to go to a house of feasting. . . Sorrow is better than laughter, because a sad face is good for the heart. . . The heart of the wise is in the house of mourning, but the heart of fools is in the house of pleasure." It seems that to be truly aware and alive in this fallen world is to recognize the reality of pain. And, somehow, this very pain becomes the key to our enlightenment, becomes our admission ticket to the only joy that will abide.

Think again of the faces. What can these little ones show us? Might we learn from them what it means to become real? Could even the least of these guide us toward the path to authentic living? Perhaps that is the best monument we can erect to their honor: that through participation in their suffering and permitting ourselves access to their affliction, we were perfected and became more truly human.

Megan Diane Cope was born on August 26, 1984 and she died on November 21, 1994. But there is so much more we should remember. There is so much that we dare not forget.