The Terrible Beauty

Halloween is done, thank God.  I am so over that holiday.  This year we carved exactly one pumpkin, and I let the real spiders decorate inside and out.

Actually, Halloween was over for me after fifth grade.  That year, near Houston where I grew up, a father was found guilty of killing his son by lacing his Pixie Stix with cyanide.  The next year I broke my foot, and that was that.

Maybe part of the reason I’m glad Halloween is over is because I really, really, really love All Saints Day.  It’s right up there with Christmas and Easter for me, only better, because there are fewer expectations.

But this year, in the middle of the service – after I had preached but before we began to celebrate the Lord’s Supper, after we had sung “For All the Saints” and named our beloved dead – in the middle of the service as the choir sang an extraordinary anthem, I thought to myself

This is a terrible thing to do to people.

The choir was singing “Entreat Me Not to Leave You” by Dan Forrest.  (You can listen to a different choir sing it here.)  I was thinking about all the people I have loved who have left me in death, and I did not have the literal opportunity to tell them not to go, not to die, not to succumb to the cancer or the internal injuries or old age.  I got so sad, and had to do that pastor thing of disengaging emotionally so I could stand up and do the next thing.

Celebrating All Saints is a terrible beauty.  Terrible in that all that pain and grief and rage is unleashed again.  Terrible that it’s done publicly.  Terrible that we don’t all stand up and stomp around and insist that God stop all the tragic deaths.

But then it’s so God-damned beautiful too. The golden shining of those souls.  The memories.  Naming the names.  Affirming the hope that they are not gone forever.  Not being alone in our grief.  Really beautiful music.  Holy communion.

The best analogy I can find is wiggling a loose tooth.  It hurts, but it’s a good hurt. Today I think All Saints is that way, the worship service at any rate.  It hurts, remembering those people who have gone from us.  But it’s a good hurt, because we had them for a while, and now we have each other, and that will do.

 

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My husband and daughter, years ago, at Yellowstone, walking toward a wide sky.

On thoughtfulness and reunions

My friend told me a lovely story today.  Over the weekend she received a letter from a stranger, and the opening line read, “I hope this is not intrusive.”  The letter was from a person working with the state hospital; the hospital has hundreds of containers of people’s cremated remains, and they are attempting to return them to the family of the deceased.

My friend learned that the hospital had her great-grandmother’s remains; would she like them?  She said yes, and plans to take them to the cemetery where her mother and grandmother are buried.  She will go with her daughter and granddaughter to the graveside, and there will gather six generations of strong, beautiful women.

As my friend told me this story, I got a little teary.  Maybe it was the thoughtfulness of the gesture.  I think that’s part of it, but part of it too is this strange thing I have about reunions, even beyond the grave.  (Or at the grave, in this case.)

Now I don’t believe that those cremated remains or any decaying body of flesh and bone have any power in them.  There is no life there; they are going back to the dust from whence they came.  The souls that inhabited those bodies have gone on, I believe, and while the soul makes its home in skin and sinew, it is not confined there.  The souls of my friend’s mother and grandmother and great-grandmother have gone on.

And yet.  And yet there is a poignancy to reuniting these ashes with those of a daughter and granddaughter.  I have no idea what happens when we die.  Maybe this faith thing has been one big crap shoot and when it’s over, it’s over.  Or maybe we fall asleep for a while, and wake up when Gabriel blows that horn.  Or maybe we die and boom we go to heaven and the reunion is instantaneous.

If we die and sleep for an eon, imagine the waking up.  Imagine my friend’s great-grandmother waking up, and those ashes and pulverized bones coming together again, kneaded back into vibrant form; imagine her waking up and seeing her daughter and granddaughter with her.

Wouldn’t that be something.

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Many waters cannot quench love

A few days ago I asked my Facebook world what they were hankering to read a blog about; the answers were few.  But two friends both said they wanted to read something about love.  One of them, a former college professor of mine and a drama queen in the absolute best sense of the term, said this:  “The mystery of love is greater than the mystery of death.”  I don’t think my former professor is a religious sort of person, but her suggestion immediately took me to the Song of Songs.

Set me as a seal upon your heart,
as a seal upon your arm;
for love is strong as death,
passion fierce as the grave.
Its flashes are flashes of fire,
a raging flame.
Many waters cannot quench love,
neither can floods drown it.

Death has been around more than usual of late, and I find little mysterious about the deaths nearest me.  A member of my extended family died after a long illness, and there may have been some small mercy that he died before the disease took a more humiliating and painful toll.  A young child in our congregation’s circle had a brain tumor removed and the family faces a very different future than the one they imagined for her; their original dreams have died.  Little disappointments add up to small deaths.  And all this in the midst of Eastertide.

Death has not felt mysterious lately, but I know that it does feel that way sometimes.  To be with someone in his last hours; to sit with a family as tears pour out when their 102-year-old aunt steps through the veil, tears of gratitude and relief; to walk a cemetery like a tourist, an unintentional voyeur of another’s grief: there is mystery in death.  It’s not the mystery of why lungs stop inflating and deflating or why a heart stops beating.  It’s the mystery of the silence after, the vacancy of a life.  It’s the void that some of us fill with hope that there is more.  It’s the moment after the conductor picks up the baton, before the music begins.

Love usually feels mysterious.  On any given day I would be hard-pressed to say why I love my spouse and child.  I could tell you what I love about them, but if you asked my why I love them, I’d likely stammer out, “Because I do.”  It’s a privilege to love others in the cloud of mystery – some bosom friends, a parent or two.  Some loves defy explanation.  I will not name their names in order to protect the innocent, but I have two relatives, married to each other, and for the life of me and everyone else in the family, we cannot figure out what ever got them together, but fifty years later, there they are, tending to each other and bickering and getting creaky together.

Maybe love is more of a mystery because unlike death, we cannot always point to its work.  We see the still, yellowing body and we know that death has come; mystery solved.  But we see a garden, or a child, or we stand in a field in the middle of nowhere and look up at the shimmery night sky, and wonder if love made those things come to be.  We watch the protests, and volunteers going through the rubble, and watch the watchers of the Supreme Court, and wonder if love is the force that weaves them together.

Would I say love is stronger than death? I would. I believe I have evidence to support the claim.  But I would rather join Oscar Wilde in saying that the mystery of love is greater than the mystery of death.  It is in the mystery where we find ourselves without answers or solutions or our usual bag of tricks. It is in the mystery where we have only ourselves, and those few friends who will stay with us in the uncertainty, and for some of us, the Divine.

It is the mystery of love where I find my greatest hope, because if I cannot explain it, then it must be true.

http://www.forestwander.com

For Jim and Zinnia, with love

Dream/Reality

A-dreaming-person-008Last night I had a weird dream.  It wasn’t a nightmare, but it wasn’t a good dream either.  I dreamt that all the oxygen was running out, and soon everyone in the world would die.  Neither my husband nor my child was in the dream (thank goodness) but our dog was.  I remember wanting him to be near me when I died.  In the dream I was a little frantic and very, very sad, not only because I was going to die but because everyone was going to die.  And soon.

I woke up from the dream around 4am and was able to fall asleep again.  In that time between waking and falling back asleep, I started thinking about what I would do if the oxygen really was running out of the world.  Would I panic?  Would I break into a hospital or doctor’s office or scuba shop and steal oxygen?  Would I try to get on the good side of some conspiracy theorist who had a bunker stocked with oxygen just in case this scenario played out?  I went back to sleep and this time dreamt about being in NYC with college friends, so evidently my subconscious wasn’t too scarred by the oxygen deprivation.

The dream has stuck with me today.  Where did it come from?  We recently were watching some procedural crime show in which the victim died from asphyxiation, but that was over a week ago.  The dog was curled up at my feet, which is probably why he made it.  But someone once advised me to pay attention to the emotions that stay with me after a strong dream, so I’ve been thinking about low-level frantic-ness and deep sadness.  My best guess is that this dream was about the world running out of something.

Unless you’ve been off the grid with your head in the sand lately, it’s hard not to notice that there is a lot of bad stuff going on right now.  Those Nigerian schoolgirls are still missing, and since they’ve been gone, eleven of their parents have died.  Seven were killed in a Boko Haram attack; four died from health-related issues.  We lament the disappearance of these girls half way across the globe while we wring out hands over what to do with the refugee children flooding into Texas from Central America.  An airliner was shot down, killing hundreds of people, many of whom were involved in the vital work of AIDS research.  More planes have crashed.  ISIS is now requiring that all women and girls in Mosul undergo genital mutilation.

And I have no words about the violence in Israel and Palestine.

Maybe my dream was about the world’s loss of capacity to breathe in something – peace, maybe, or patience, or reason.  Or maybe I’m a little frantic and very, very sad because it feels right now, at both the conscious and subconscious level, as though we are running out of hope.  And we will all die without hope.

May we catch our breath soon.hopeless

Haunted

Door-AjarToday, after lunch after worship, I went to one of our senior living communities to preside over our monthly communion there.  I love doing that – extending the morning’s table to a group of our saints who can’t make it to the church in the morning.  For some, it’s too hard to physically get into the van that brings them to church, and then too hard to climb even a few stairs.  For others, one hour-ish is just too long to sit in a less than comfortable pew with restrooms too far away.

So we take church to them, gladly.  Two retired clergy who live in this place, and who worship with us regularly, organize the whole thing and I appreciate that.  These two guys could easily play Statler and Waldorf – the old Muppets commentating in the balcony. They love to make cranky observations about church, but I’ve learned as I watch them minister to the saints at communion that you only have to dust off that fine powder of curmudgeon to discover some sweet and compassionate men.

When I arrived at our communion place, which is also where people gather to watch movies and assemble jigsaw puzzles, one of the deacons told me that a regular wasn’t feeling well enough to join the group; could we take communion to her?  Of course.  As we went to her room, we passed one room where a church member recently died.  Farther down the hall, we passed the room where that woman’s husband died a year or so earlier.  Other people now live in those rooms.

It was odd passing those rooms where I spent a few very intense hours as they lay dying.  It’s odd that other people live there now.  It’s odd that those place which were so holy during those dying days are now rooms for another purpose.  Is the holinesss still there?  Or did it leave with the soul of the departed?

After communion I stopped by the hospital to visit another member who has been unconscious in the intensive care unit for ten days now.  She’s another saint of the church.  At 93, she’s been taking French lesson.  As I entered the ICU, I passed by the room where a member was recovering from a stroke.  She has since passed, but I remember the conversations she and I had in that room, and the prayers shared there with family and friends.

So I’m feeling a bit haunted today; haunted by the memory of people who have died, haunted in spaces they inhabited, haunted not so much by their death but by their absence.  It’s odd to feel haunted on the first day of Advent.  Of all the things this season is about, mourning loss or even just remembering it doesn’t quite fit the bill.  It’s a season of light and dark, of portents and hope, of God breaking into the world.  It’s not about our breaking out of the world, or about emptiness.

But maybe it is.  Maybe Advent is about loss, in a way – the loss of the old way of doing things, the loss of the old understanding of how God does things. And maybe it’s a little okay to be haunted by that.

My Favorite Sunday

ray of lightThe celebration of All Saints is, hands down, my favorite Sunday of the year.  Not the Sunday before Christmas, not Easter, not Epiphany or any other, but All Saints.  As the preacher of the day, I always want to capture this elusive feeling/image/sense I have of the day – something glowing, radiant; Ralph Vaughan Williams, gold and white, a packed house with nary a dry eye.  Rarely does it come together that way, but we can have our aspirations.

The church I grew up in didn’t celebrate All Saints; few Protestant churches did in the ’70s and ’80s.  My first experience of the holy day was at seminary, when in the chapel service a list of the dead was read and in the Latin American tradition, after each name was pronounced we all shouted, “Presente!”  They are present.  The saints have left, and haven’t.

This year, it’s a ten-day celebration of saints for me.  It began last Saturday with a memorial service-ish for someone I’d never met, a woman who was not particularly Christian any more, whose friends filled just about every nook and cranny in our sanctuary (which seats around 500.)  Last night, I led our evening worship service, borrowing elements from the Day of the Dead tradition.  People were invited to bring photos of their beloveds who had died, or to write their names on a card, and to take the photos and cards to the communion table and decorate them with flowers and candles and chocolate and other things.  Last night was no glowing, white and gold majestic thing.  It was colorful, vivid, as down-to-earth as you can be while singing accompanied by guitar and accordion.

This coming Saturday I’ll preside over another memorial service, for a young woman who was a member of our congregation whom I knew a little.  She was murdered a few weeks ago, having fallen in with the wrong sort.  Shot in the head after a night at a strip club, she died alone in the middle of the night.  I want to throw up, and scream, and go back in time to save her.  But I can’t.  What I can do is offer a place for her varied group of friends to come and remember her, to testify to the good and to the mess of her life, to build a community so that, at least for a few hours, some light will shine in the darkness that surrounds her death.

And then there’s this Sunday, my favorite, golden and gleaming (maybe).  Good hymns, good liturgy, the roll of the deceased read and the opportunity to name loved ones who are gone.  Communion, too.  I love it, and hope to do it justice but know that really, that’s not up to me but the Spirit who usually does show up when She’s invited, and often shows up when She’s not.

Why do I love it, this day that can be so sad?  I can’t get through “For All the Saints” when we sing that line, “through gates of pearl stream in the countless host.”  Why do I love it? I think because it’s a thin place, All Saints Day.  Earth and heaven breathe on each other like a mother and child snuggling at bedtime.  It’s a thin line between the living and the dying, because all of us who are alive still face the mystery of death, and because those who have died linger among us in their gifts and legacies, and their eerie presence that we still feel at unexpected times.

All Saints Sunday is coming, and I am glad for that.  In the meantime, there is a memorial service to plan and, I just learned, another one after that.  There are committee meetings to prep for, and a poetry class that starts this Sunday.  There’s a newsletter article to write, and one last pumpkin to carve at home.  I might even put up a few cobwebs for Halloween, and I still need to buy candy.

In the meantime, life happens as it happened for all the saints.  We feebly struggle, they in glory shine.  That’s what I’m counting on, when my meantime ends and that thin line is crossed.

Too Soon

There are certain things that are not supposed to happen while on vacation.  It is not supposed to rain (which it did.)  When visiting a quaint beach town, one is not supposed to encounter protesters at the local post office who want to impeach the president and make their point by drawing a Hitler mustache on the leader of the free world (which also happened.)  And young adults whom you once knew as teenagers aren’t supposed to kill themselves.

As much as we might pretend to vacate the world or our own little realities from time to time, life presses on.  Good things happen while we’re away, and tragic things too.  I shouldn’t be surprised.  I am not Queen of the Universe; the world doesn’t stop because I have set aside a little sabbath time.  But some things are hard no matter when they happen, like the death of a person you still remember as a bright, crazy-talented, slightly pimply teenager in your church’s youth group.

I served that church ten years ago, and have since lost touch with so many of the folks there.  I was a bit of a tertiary staff person to the youth program, but when the youth went on a retreat and they needed a pastor to celebrate communion, I was on deck, so I got to know these kids.  “These kids” – they are now adults, holding down jobs, finishing grad school, getting married and starting families and starting careers.  When I hear about them through the ecclesiastical grapevine, or one of them friends me on Facebook, I am so glad and so proud.  I have no reason to be proud, but I am.  They are on their way, and doing great, or at least doing as well as any of us might hope to, given our flaws and foibles and the general human condition.

But this kid.  This kid.  My heart aches for his parents and his sister.  For his friends, too, because I know that particular class from the youth group was tight.  Maybe they knew what I did not, that mental illness was a burden he carried, along with his talent and friendship and handsome gawkiness.   I picture his parents – devout, faithful, loving, possessing a patience and concern I never realized.  I picture his friends – the one who worked at Starbucks and made me a latte at 7:00 on a Sunday morning as I made my way to church.  The woman who was smarter and more beautiful than she ever realized.  The guy with the crazy hair who got ordained and now wears tabs on Sunday mornings.  The one who went into the Peace Corps.  The one who’s a doctor. All of them, tonight, grieving.  Grieving the death of a peer, a friend, maybe someone they would even call beloved.

This is about all I know tonight:  that he left the world a little more beautiful because of the talent he shared.   That he left the world a little more fragile because of that cusp of anxiety and depression that he teetered on.  That he woke us all up to the present, to the gift of right now, the gift of old friendships,  and the gift of community.

My prayers are with that community tonight.  Rest in peace, all.saugatuck

The Sympathy Card

sympathy cardEveryone knows that the best place to buy greeting cards is at the car wash.  Don’t ask me why, but as I stand there waiting for Sherwood Forester to get all sparkly and clean, I browse the card carousel like there’s no tomorrow.

Here’s the thing: the car wash has birthday cards, thank you cards, you’re a great friend cards, wedding cards, engagement cards, thinking of you cards, congratulations on your divorce cards, but no sympathy cards.  And that’s a problem, because I am in need of some good sympathy cards.

Only once in my life have a found a great sympathy card, at an independent bookstore in Wauwatosa, Wisconsin.  The wife of a work colleague had been diagnosed with a brain tumor, and we found a card with a magnet attached that read “Oh sh*t” (except there was an “i” where the “*” is.)  Evidently she loved it, and kept the magnet on her fridge until the day she succumbed to that cancer.

I have sympathy cards to send – to the family I never met of the friend who died; to the best friend of the friend who died; to my husband’s sister-in-law who lost her dad; to the widow of a former minister colleague in Milwaukee.  Now some of those folks will be happy and comforted by a card with a beach sunset, or a bird flying against the sun, or a weeping willow.  But in my own grief, I want to find a card with a Jolly Roger flag that reads “I am so sorry you are going through hell right now, and I wish I could be with you but I think you have to get through this hell without me because, to be truthful, the thought of experiencing a loss like that terrifies me.  I’d rather walk the plank.”  I might even throw in a good “aarrrrrrr.”

But Hallmark doesn’t make those cards.

And even once I find the card, then I have to figure out what to write.  You have my deepest sympathy.  You and your family are in my prayers.  For the non-religious, I hold you in my heart.  And here’s the other thing: there are words we’re not supposed to use in our notes, so “It totally sucks that your beloved died” becomes “The passing of your loved one is a grief beyond comprehension” or something else poorly written like that.  Euphemisms play a big part in the sympathy card.

In seminary and in hospital chaplaincy training we were taught to use the words “die”, “death”, “dead”, and neither to beat around the bush nor hem and haw at the gates of the underworld.  As a pastor, I feel differently about that, and sort of decide in the moment which word I am going to use – “died”, or “went to God”?  “It sucks”, or “I can’t imagine your pain”?

Part of the problem is that I am a word person, and sometimes words don’t work.  Sometimes they do – Mary Oliver’s poem “When Death Comes” comes to mind, as do the lyrics to that great old hymn “I’ll Fly Away.”  But the words that I grasp for, in talking with someone or in writing the card, don’t come.  I am not a poet, nor a lyricist.  I’m a human being who will herself die one day, who is terrified of losing the people she loves, who really can’t make a 100% claim about the afterlife.

I guess, in the end, I’ll look for some blank cards with a beautiful picture, hoping the beauty might ease the soul.  I’ll write something truthful and gentle, and I’ll keep it brief.  I’ll put a stamp on the envelopes and put them in the mailbox.   Then I’ll tell my beloveds that it’s time for dinner, and in making dinner, and saying grace, and telling stories about our day, I’ll  let go of the worry of losing them for just a little bit, and hold fast to them in the time that I have.

jolly roger

Desperately Seeking Martha

No, not Stewart.

Today I learned that my friend Martha, one of my college roommates, died.  She was hit by a car in Brooklyn just yesterday, and I don’t know more than that and am not sure I will choose to find out more than that.  It is shocking, of course, when a friend from your youth dies.  She’s too young to go, and by that, I also mean that I’m too young to go.

We lived together in a suite of ten our sophomore year.  With Martha, hilarity ensued, and often.  We roomed together that one year, but not after that, and after college we lost touch.  We reconnected a few years ago at our 25th college reunion, and then on Facebook.  She blogged – “Desperately Seeking Jon Stewart” – and it was smart and funny, just like her.  She had written kind and encouraging things to me about this blog, which pales next to hers.  I was utterly delighted to discover how my college friend had grown into such a magnificent, talented, generous person.

So it’s death again, knocking at the door, IM’ing me at a most inconvenient moment.  Another untimely death at that, and the usual response: messages to other roommates around the country, missing the waste basket as I throw my soggy kleenex away, and  wishing I could take her family some tuna noodle casserole or a Hefty bag of tortilla chips to get them through when the shock wears off.  Grieving is such a patchwork – moments of utter loss, next to moments of the mundane.

I shared the news with my husband, and got about to the rest of the day.  Then dinner, then playing, then a family dance party.  Katy Perry’s “Firework” came on, and I was belted out with the divine Ms. P, and suddenly was so overwhelmed I just put my face in my hands and wept.  Yes, at Katy Perry.

I was taken back to our 15th college reunion, when two of our other roommates, Anne and Emily, and I stood out in the athletic fields watching this incredible firework show accompanied by a live band.  I remember standing there with my two dear friends, both of whom had married and had children, grateful for the blessing all these friends were to me.  As I watched the fireworks, I thought about friends who had died, their lights had burst and delighted and illumined, and then they were gone.  And now Martha is too.

We’ve started sharing memories, of course, to ward off the blow.  That might be the only good way to deal with grief – to tell the stories, the funny ones and the painful ones and the hilariously awkward ones.  For reasons I can’t remember, Martha was on crutches for a while our sophomore year, and one night sang out her lungs (for all her talents, singing was not one of them)  to “Total Eclipse of the Heart.”  One Friday night, as we thoroughly disregarded the law about the drinking age, we were walking along Nassau Street when a case carrying a Resusci-Baby fell out of an ambulance. Let just say that what unfolded was like what would happen if Eloise (the city child who lives at the Plaza) grew up and went to Princeton and found a Resusci-baby after having drunk a bit.  (We did eventually return the baby, much worse for the wear, but I swear there was a smile on its face that hadn’t been there before.  Martha had that effect on people and inanimate objects.)

After college Martha was a producer for the PBS show “Clifford the Big Red Dog.”  None of us who knew Martha was surprised by that.  She won an Emmy for writing for the PBS show “WordWorld.”  We weren’t surprised by that, either.  She married, had kids, wrote, laughed, and made orange juice come out of our noses, we laughed so hard.

So in her memory, I’m turning up the Bonnie Tyler.  And I plan to do something hilarious and outlandish this week.  I’ll keep you posted on that.  I hope it will make someone laugh, if only myself, because a little too much has hit the fan this time.

(Turn around) every now and then I get a little bit lonely and you’re never coming round

(Turn around) every now and then I get a little bit tired of listening to the sound of my tears

(Turn around) every now and then I get a little bit nervous that the best of all the years have gone by

(Turn around) every now and then I get a little bit terrified and then I see the look in your eyes

(Turn around, bright eyes) Every now and then I fall apart (Turn around, bright eyes)

Every now and then I fall apart And I need you now tonight

and I need you more than ever

And if you only hold me tight

We’ll be holding on forever

And we’ll only be making it right ’cause we’ll never be wrong

Together we can take it to the end of the line

Your love is like a shadow on me all of the time (all of the time)

I don’t know what to do and I’m always in the dark

We’re living in a powder keg and giving off sparks

I really need you tonight,

forever’s gonna start tonight

Forever’s gonna start tonight

Once upon a time I was falling in love, but now I’m only falling apart

There’s nothing I can do… a total eclipse of the heart

Rest in peace, dear friend.