Mortal, after all

Yesterday I led a memorial service, a celebration of life, for a two-day old.  It was excruciating, as you might imagine.  It was also stunning and beautiful, as you might not imagine.  Pain was real and evident, but more present was the love that surrounded these two parents and these three grandparents.

That service came on the tail of four other deaths in our congregation, all women in their 90’s.  Those deaths were sad, but not unexpected, and really, not tragic. My colleague’s husband finally succumbed to the cancer he fought bravely and vehemently.  That was awful, too.

A long-time friend of mine – would I call him a friend? – lost his battle to ALS.  We went to junior high and high school and college together, but we didn’t run in the same circles and we never really hung out, except for long drives across Texas to out-of-town debate tournaments.  Still, his death has hit me hard.  Maybe I’m facing my own mortality.  Maybe I’m owning up to the fact that we are mortal, after all.

Add to that the violent deaths in St. Paul and Baton Rouge and Dallas, and Baghdad and Nice; aging parents and more cancer and random car accidents and plane crashes: mortality is announcing itself, loudly and proudly, and I want none of it.

My daughter is fed up too, maybe not with death but with the professional call of her parents to deal with death and dying.  It feels like all the time to her.  Evidently there is some sound I make, some short expulsion of air, and a way I say “oh no” that makes her look up from her book or computer screen and ask me, “Who died this time?”

That’s a question I never asked my parents when I was ten.  My grandparents were alive and healthy, as were my friends and their parents.  No one I knew had cancer; no one I knew got shot.  A cousin I didn’t know died in a motorcycle accident, but that’s it.

Why do we have to die?  I know the answer to that, and I don’t know the answer to that.  I also know that getting each other through the grief of death while we’re still this side of the grave is one of the highest callings we have, which doesn’t mean that it’s all pretty and lovely and tied up neatly with a sweet little bow.  Grieving and sitting with the grieving is most often awkward and inconvenient, messy, full of swear words and uncomfortable silence and wadded-up tissues and casseroles that will be reheated for the week.

But then sometimes the light breaks in, through the stained glass window of a sanctuary, or across the row of crosses at a cemetery, or glistening on the water where ashes are scattered.  Sometimes laughter sneaks in, in gallows humor or a hilarious memory. Sometimes some a minuscule thing happens, and the grief is eased an iota, and the future shimmers for a moment with hope – a mirage in the desert of sadness while we wait for the real oasis.

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Christmas Eve at the cemetery

Arlington-without-Christmas-wreathsIt was such a brief scene as I drove by: a man pulled over on the side of the road, standing on a hillside that was dotted with in-ground gravestones, standing in front of one that was decorated with some red and white flowers – carnations, maybe.  I saw him for only a few seconds, and I wondered why he was there, standing on the muddy ground in the rain.

Was that his mother, his wife, his best friend, his brother?  Why that moment?

The chiaroscuro of the season always gets to me: life’s way of creating shadows so that the candlelight seems all the more bright; life’s way of creating drama about everyday things, like visiting a cemetery, or pulling over on the side of the road in the rain.

In my first six years of ministry, I conducted a funeral or memorial service every year on December 23rd, or 24th, or 26th.  Ruth, age 84.  Jean, age 81.  Gene, age 78.  Faith, age 85. Maybelle, age 79.  Bob, age 89.  I would often use the texts about Simeon and Anna for those service, old people who died knowing the full consolation of Israel and the promised savior.

But still.  Standing at the cemetery on Christmas Eve – it makes your heart break a little, when you get back into your car and “Grandma Got Run Over by a Reindeer” is the first thing that comes on the radio, and then some idiot passes you by with a loud blare of his horn because you’ve slowed down, because you can’t really drive very well with the tears flooding your eyes.

A friend of mine let me know I won’t see her on Christmas Eve; it’s a hard time right now, and she didn’t think everyone around her would appreciate her tears.  It is bleak, this midwinter, and for us in Portland is has been gray and sodden.  There are other  people I won’t see at church on Christmas Eve.  Some leave town to be with whatever family is still left.  Some will be full with a feast and wine, sleeping through our carols and candlelight.  And some will just stay home, because all the songs and all the twinkling trees cannot fill the well of sadness that’s taken squatter’s rights in the heart these days.  But there are many I will see, there because they have joy to share, or questions they seek answers for, or because they love to sing in the candlelight, or because their Mom made them come, or because this is their community, and of course they’ll be there on Christmas Eve.

A church I used to be a part of has Easter sunrise services at the cemetery every year.  I wonder what it would be like to have a Christmas Eve service at the cemetery – too Dickensian, waiting for the ghosts of Christmas past, present, and future to show up?  Too morbid, like the Zombie Nativity that’s made a few headlines?  Or too real – the presence of death even as we celebrate birth?

The mind goes to T.S. Eliot, who often gets the last word with me.  From “The Journey of the Magi”

All this was a long time ago, I remember,
And I would do it again, but set down
This set down
This: were we led all that way for
Birth or Death? There was a Birth, certainly
We had evidence and no doubt. I had seen birth and death,
But had thought they were different; this Birth was
Hard and bitter agony for us, like Death, our death.
We returned to our places, these Kingdoms,
But no longer at ease here, in the old dispensation,
With an alien people clutching their gods.
I should be glad of another death.

And still:  a warm Christmas to you, whatever that may mean.easter-candle

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.

Some things take a long time to heal

Some things take a long time to heal

hip_labral_tear_avulsionWe were talking about health and mental health the other day in staff meeting, and I asked why mental health issues couldn’t just be called health  issues.  After all, many of the diseases that affect one’s emotional life are caused by a chemical imbalance in the brain, a physical thing.   And then I commented that physical health issues take their mental toll too, and confessed, I think for the first time, that I have been in pain every day for the last year.  That takes a toll.  I get down about it, I get frustrated and angry and discouraged.

We were talking about health because a member of our congregation – a beloved, vivacious woman – committed suicide a few weeks ago, and we are all pretty wrecked about it.  She lived for years with a bi-polar disorder that she chose to hide from many who knew her, and so her choice to end her life came as a shock to most of the congregation.

To say she was vivacious only begins to describe her: vivacious, hilarious, organized, fun, friendly, kind, thoughtful of so many.  That was what she chose to show the world, and that was her authentic self.  But I want to honor the fullness of who she was, and say that the withdrawn, sad parts were her authentic self too, but a part that she chose not to show most of the world.  When she went into the valley of the shadow, she stayed home and hunkered down.  A few of us knew that, and tried to support her as best we could.  She left a note – organized person that she was, of course she left a note – and her sister read part of it at the memorial service.  She assured us that there was nothing any of us could have done to stop her, that her decision had been made, that she knew how much we loved her and how much her death would hurt us.

Some things take a long time to heal.  I still have moments of utter disbelief that she is gone, that next year on July 3 we won’t celebrate our birthdays which were exactly two weeks apart.  I keep expecting to walk into the office and hear her ask what we have for her to organize.  But deeper, I am still so very bereaved that she took her own life.  I do wonder what I could have done.  I do doubt that I told her often enough how much I loved her.  There is a hurt there, a wound of sorrow and guilt and profound loss, and the scar that is left some day will not be subtle.

Sometime about eighteen months ago, I tore the labrum tissue in my right hip – it’s the tissue that lines the hip and is like the meniscus of the hip.  It’s been eighteen months of pain, x-rays, an MRI (aided by lots of Valium), conversations with surgeons who tell me surgery is not an option for me, physical therapy, chiropractic help, and exercises.  I limp and I cannot hide the limp.  On Sunday mornings when I walk down the aisle, everyone sees me limp.  They comment that I’m still limping, a year later, and I say yes I am.  They ask if it’s getting better, and I say yes, it is healing and it is healing slowly.

People like to hear that I’m healing, but they don’t like the slowly part.  Maybe it’s hard for them to see me in pain, although I try to hide it.  Maybe it reminds them that their pastor is not a spry thirty-year-old.  Maybe they’re being empathetic, because I’m not the only one around church who walks with a little wobble.

It has been an interesting journey these last eighteen months, one of the body-mind-soul journeys that contains lessons about patience and honesty and good humor, about frustration and hope, about pain and tiredness.  In the last two months I have made peace with the fact that this will take a long time to heal, that some wounds – however invisible to the naked eye – are not easily mended.

Broken hearts and spirits don’t mend easily or quickly.  It is possible that some never mend.  But some will, over time, over months and years and decades.

May we be patient with each other in the mending.

 

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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.

The gathering

angel weepingHaving just led my third memorial service in three weeks, and with All Saints still fresh in my mind, and with one of our members in her last few days, I’ve been thinking a lot about death and grief and community.  I’ve also had a lot of stiffness in my “angel wing spots” – that place just inside the shoulder blades that get tense and knotty.  I’m thinking it’s accumulated grief, having witnessed a lot of tears and soggy tissues lately.

I’m one of those who often says, “I don’t know what people who don’t have a church do when someone they love dies,” except now I do, because I’ve been a witness to that, too.  The first of the recent memorials was for a woman whose husband described her as “a very lapsed Catholic.”  Church is not his thing, and was not hers, but they needed a place to have a memorial for this woman who was an extraordinary advocate for justice in many ways.  The church, full of faithed and non-faithed people, was packed, like Christmas Eve packed. People wept, and sang, and gave testimony to her life.  I offered a prayer and a blessing.

The second memorial was for a woman who was a person of faith, but who had so many different communities of which she was a part – 12 Step, running, partying, engineers.  Again the people gathered, some have nothing to do with God, some relying on their Higher Power, at least one who follows the path of Buddhism.  God didn’t matter to so many of them, but gathering in community mattered very, very much.

So to my own question of “what do people who don’t have a church do when someone they  love dies?” I now answer: they gather.

And sometimes they gather in a church, because (at least for me) churches still offer the witness of hospitality, opening our doors to those who grieve. We don’t ask for proof of baptism at the door; we don’t preach that those who don’t believe in Jesus will go to hell when they die.  We open our doors. Because they – whatever they believe – need to gather, we do what we can – offer pews and organs and pianos and chairs, and tea and coffee and cookies.  We have projectors and screens for their slide shows, and tables for photographs and flowers. We have deacons who pass out programs and hosts and hostesses who refresh the bowls of nuts.

I think people are surprised that churches do this sort of thing, at least in this neck of the woods.  “You would let us have your service there?  But my loved one wasn’t a member/ didn’t go to church/ maybe didn’t believe in God.”  Yes, we would.  That’s what we do.  We witness to the hospitality of God by offering hospitality to the community.

In my All Saints sermon, I said “I imagine sometimes that the walls of the sanctuary have a patina, invisible layers of our songs and our prayers and the tears shed in this space.”  And here’s the thing: some of those songs and tears have come from people who don’t believe in God, who are shocked to find themselves inside a church, amazed that they are even welcome in a church.  But their tears and songs and silences are part of the patina too. They don’t have to believe in God in order to grieve the death of this person they loved.

There is a holiness in grief, and a privilege in witnessing it.  But I would like a little less of it, please.

Alas.

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.