The Things They Carried

Just the other day, I heard a story on National Public Radio about the objects that are being collected and preserved after September 11, 2001.

Though I am a New Yorker, I wasn’t even in the country on that terrible day. I had planned to fly home that day. It was the day that I was supposed to return from my post-college summer dog sitting in London. But, it had dawned on me just a month before that I was in Europe and I should really travel more. So, I extended my stay two more weeks so that I could venture back to Italy where I had spent the previous spring studying aboard. Instead of trying to make my way back to the city I call home, I was gripped in front of the television watching the towers fall in the middle of the afternoon. I spent the next hour trying to find my stepmother who works in the city but the phone lines were all down. I would finally locate her later through my cousin who worked at a big time newspaper in the city. He found her. He told me she was OK. I wouldn’t know that until later that evening. Just before dinner, it was time to walk the dog. I remember walking through that park and noticing every woman in a hijab like I never had before. I remember trying to make eye contact with each of them. Searching their faces and begging with tear-filled eyes, trying to say to these women: Please don’t believe that every American blames you. I don’t. But, it’s not something you can say with your eyes alone.

Two weeks later, I was back in New York City stepping over flowers and candles and teddy bears piled together on the streets. These piles were in front of every fire house and every police station, a constant reminder that this city was in mourning. It’s been so many years and I had forgotten about these sidewalk memorials until I was reminded of them on the radio. In that same story, they talked about how the every day there are objects placed on the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington DC and every day the National Park Service comes along in white gloves to gather up these objects to be catalogued and archived. Each object is part of the memorial. Each object is part of that grief that still lingers in our present.

The story on the radio was about how one man — or maybe it was a team of people — are trying to catalog and archive the objects from when the towers fell.

kidnapping-474027_1280Today, there was another story on The Huffington Post about the objects left behind by the refugees fleeing Syria, Iraq and Afghanistan. It is the story of these refugees in twelve images as told by the photographer Chris McGonigal. There are the remnants of so many trying to tend to their health. Scattered pill bottles and medicine sleeves seem to be in every picture. Three of these images focus on abandoned toys: a toy airplane, a teddy bear and a doll. Nothing is so chilling as seeing a child’s playthings abandoned. The first image is a discarded flipflop printed with with Germany into its sole which I can only imagine is pointing toward that place that the refugee longs to be.

Tim O’Brien wrote a series of short stories entitled The Things They Carried. They are not stories so much about objects but about ideas and possibilities. The very things that we carry in our hearts and minds: hope, freedom, peace. The things that the refugees are surely carrying with them on the way. As O’Brien puts it: “They carried all they could bear, and then some, including a silent awe for the terrible power of the things they carried.”

I have been writing a lot recently about the power of grief. (It’s a project I hope to share sometime soon, but not yet.) Grief has its own terrible power. It has the power to cripple you and dismember you as much as any weapon that O’Brien and his fellow soldiers carried. And yet, I want to believe that each and every one of those refugees making their way through Hungary right now aren’t crippled by that kind of power. Instead, that same grief for their war-torn home is giving them courage to take another step, to face another day, to imagine another ending.

This is my prayer.

A word about the picture: I use a free crowdsourced image database for all of my blog images. This image is not part of the photo essay I mention from NPR and is merely further proof that abandoned toys only leave us with questions. May there be answers.

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Hang on to Each Other

I can’t quite stop myself from watching this video of the Vice President exposing his grief so tenderly and so honestly. I’ve watched it again and again and again. He’s talking to people who know grief. You can hear it in their laughter when the Vice President talks about those people who say they know how he feels. You can hear it in their attentive silence. They are bonded together in this common experience of grief.

It’s an old speech — from way back in 2012 — but it’s making the rounds again after the news that Beau died. The Vice President’s son has died. After his deployment to Iraq, Beau came home to fight a battle that he couldn’t win. Brain cancer won. So that the Vice President finds himself fighting with his grief again. As a young man, newly elected to office, he got a phone call to say that his wife and daughter had been tragically killed in car accident while they were out Christmas shopping. His boys survived. His wife and daughter did not.

It changed his entire life. It changed his career. It changed his parenting. Those that know grief know this moment. It’s when everything changes and you realize life will never be the same. Someone you love has died and nothing will ever be the same. It doesn’t mean that nothing good will ever happen again. As many times as I’ve preached about grief, it feels like this truth is never quite heard. The world creeps in with its own assumptions and conclusions. The power of the gospel gets squashed by it. There is part of me that will never get over the fact that my mother died when I was seven years old. Because that loss has changed me. Nothing will ever be quite the same because my mother died. But, I will not get over it. I can’t get over it. I can’t go back to being that seven year old little girl. I can’t change what has happened because each and everything that has happened since then has changed who and what I am.

holding-hands-752878_1280My grief is always there. It is a part of who I am. It’s something that I can’t remove or take off. It’s a truth I preached a few months ago only to be prayed over in the prayers. I tried not to wince when a woman in the congregation bowed her head and prayed that I might get over this grief. Maybe it’s just too hard to speak to the depth and length of grief while still saying, as the Vice President says in this speech, “it can and will get better.” I know both of these truths. My grief is always there but it does get better. It doesn’t hurt as much as it did 20 years ago. It is better — but it is still there. It will not disappear.

This is what I love about the church. It’s something that Elaine Pagels observes so well in her book Beyond Belief: The Secret Gospel of Thomas. She stumbles out of Central Park after an early morning run away from her grief into the Church of Heavenly Rest. She crossed the threshold to receive the mystery: Here is a family who knows how to face death. It’s a truth I know. It’s one that I have lived. It’s why I am so easily frustrated when someone voices a prayer of the world. The world tells you to get over it. The church offers a different message. Like the Vice President, the church tells us to hang on to each other. It can and it will get better but hang on to each other.

Don’t worry so much about it getting better. Don’t insist upon happiness. That’s the world’s job. Let the gospel have its power. That’s the mystery. That’s all it is. It’s the power of hanging on. We don’t always do it well. Sometimes we totally screw it up. But, sometimes, we really get it. When we let the power of the gospel really stand. Then, then, we can really say to each other: Here is a family who knows how to face death. Here is a group of people that knows how to hang on and never give up. It’s this that makes everything better.

Normal People Don’t Talk about Death So Much

Does anyone really have that many stories about funerals? That’s what I was thinking as she told the third story. Was it really the third funeral story? I tried to retrace the steps of our conversation seated there in the convalescent ward. She’d said something about both her son and her husband. That was one and two. Both were funeral stories.

And now, it seemed she was telling a third.

adult-675338_1280Was it really a third funeral story? Could it be? I shook my head in disbelief as I tried to connect the dots but I was missing something. I hate when this happens. I hate when I’m visiting a sweet old lady and my mind starts to wander so much so that I lose the conversation. And I have. I’ve completely lost it which means that I missed something rather important. What she’s saying now no longer makes sense — and it surely would if I had been paying attention. But, I wasn’t paying attention. I was thinking about my own funeral stories.

When my mother died, there were two funeral services in two different churches with two different pastors with two different sets of mourners. I remember sitting in the front pew. I remember how one of those pastors — the one who had been at my mother’s bedside as she died — spoke directly to me. He told me that God loved me. I remember that but not as much as I remember the stuff that those two separate groups of mourners gave me. This is what I learned about death when my mother died. No one knew what to say so they gave gifts. Every day after my mother died, I was given new selection of trinkets from my second grade classmates. They gave me stuffed animals and chocolates and fashion accessories that would make any child of the 80’s proud. If they were really brave, they hugged me and said they were sorry as I imagine their mothers told them to do. I have heard it said that children couldn’t understand death. Maybe so. But, the children in my class didn’t behave any different from the grown up mourners at those two funeral services. They too hugged me and said they were sorry and handed me something that might make the pain go away. For grown ups, that something was always a picture book with black and white photographs illustrating how some kid’s pet died. I didn’t lose a pet. I lost my mother. For the life of me, I couldn’t understand why these grown ups didn’t understand the difference any more than I couldn’t understand why no one wanted to see me cry.

The other children looked away when I cried in school while my teacher and the other grown ups tussled my hair into a rat’s nest without saying a word. Rat’s nest is something that my grandmother would say. So many years after she died, I’m still saying silly phrases that I used to hear her say. Yes, there have been a lot of funerals. I have plenty of stories from funeral services I’ve led and those I’ve attended, but this always seemed strange.

Normal people don’t think about death as much as I do. Maybe they have fewer stories than I do or maybe what makes you normal is that you actually overcome grief. I never have. It was expected that I would pull myself off the floor, brush off my hands and my knees and shake it off. But, I never did. I couldn’t get over it. No matter how many times they told me my mom wouldn’t want me to be so sad. I am still sad. I still miss her. And it’s not just my mother but my grandmother, my childhood friend Missy, the beautiful 94-year-old woman that came to Leisurely Lectionary every week in the last church I served and too many others to name. There have been a lot of funerals.

I didn’t reach a certain age — sitting in a convalescent home chatting with my new pastor — when I suddenly had so many funeral stories to tell. I didn’t have grey hair or grow up in a war-torn country but I have plenty of funeral stories to share. But, it wasn’t these stories that began this visit. I didn’t talk about Missy or Charlott or anyone else. This is where she began our conversation. Awkwardly lying in bed propped up on a single pillow, with the blue glow of MSNBC revealing the deep shadows on her face, she had started this visit with not one, not two but three stories about funerals. How did we get here? How had this become the topic of conversation after saying hello?

Or is it always the topic? Are we all just waiting for someone to bring it up? To ask us how it is now? To make us feel like we’re not totally crazy for still lamenting over all of these years? Or is it just me?

Because it’s always on my mind.

My grief is always there. I carry it with me with the memory of every funeral — and there are days that that weight is so heavy that I would just love for someone to ask how it is. There is a moment in the 2014 film St. Vincent. Just after the main character’s wife dies, he’s told what any grieving person has heard so many times: “I’m sorry for your loss.” I hate this phrase. He hates this phrase and he says so. “Why do people always so that?” he asks before he demands, “What about, ‘What was she like?’ or ‘Do you miss her?’ or ‘What are you going to do now?’” But, no one asks those questions. They say that they are sorry for something for which they never had any responsibility. They never ask anything more. The conversation is over because they don’t know what else to say. Perhaps there is nothing to say except that I do still miss these people. And I want to talk about them. As in the movie, I want to share how much I miss these people and what I’m trying to do now which is why I ended up sitting in the convalescent ward in the first place.

So I ask the question that I would want to be asked. After the third story about funerals, I ask this dear lady if she’s been thinking about funerals lately. Because when someone talks about death that much, it seems like they must be thinking about it a whole lot but they can’t find a way to talk about it. She just needed someone to ask. So I did. I asked her if she’d been thinking a lot about funerals. Her mouth puckered and her brow furrowed. No, she hadn’t. She didn’t want to talk about it. She hadn’t been thinking about it.

It was just me.

The visit ended rather abruptly after that. I had said the wrong thing. I had obviously said the wrong thing. It was time for me to leave. I had to go. I raced out of there so fast that I forgot my sunglasses. In the heat of my car in the parking lot, I debated going back in but I was so mad at myself for assuming her question was my question. But, it wasn’t. It wasn’t what she wanted to talk about even after three stories about funerals. Because normal people don’t talk about death so much.

I don’t know what normal people talk about. The weather, I guess. Or maybe what they did on their summer vacation. Maybe all of those essays we wrote in second grade were simply practice for normal conversation. I should have learned these topics then — but I was busy sharpening the tip of my pencil to such a fine point that whatever came from the tip would finally make sense of what didn’t make sense. Those essays became poems and the poems became sermons. It’s what brought me into faith and what called me into ministry. It’s this conversation I want to keep having. It’s this question that I can’t quite answer. It’s this reality that there have been so many funerals and not enough space to talk about how much I miss these people and what I’m trying to do now.

6 Ways for Congregations to Care for Grieving Families

Last week clergy did all that they could to proclaim the greatest mystery of Christian faith. They preached with all that they had in them. They led beautiful, inspiring liturgies throughout the weekend — some did so all week long. They proclaimed a faith that they might not have been feeling themselves, but they did it anyway. They dared to make the impossible feel possible for their congregations and themselves.

angels-458341_1280This week, after the brunches, egg hunts and brass, they are tired. They are so very tired because it’s hard to practice self care during Holy Week. It’s hard to find that perfect balance where every ordinary detail gets covered as well as the extra demands of Holy Week. And this week is no better. Easter is over but the busyness hasn’t yet subsided. Pastors are tired. So tired. They would like nothing better than to binge watch episodes of Call the Midwife or the last few episodes of Mad Men. They would love to lounge on the couch all afternoon but members of their church are dying. My Facebook feed is full of clergy expressing their grief over the recent deaths in their congregations. There is some dismay in those posts on social media too. Because it isn’t just one member of the congregation that has died. There are two or three.

It’s hard for the church. It’s hard for the pastor. It’s just hard. Recognizing this, here are a few things that congregations can do to support each other when death comes.

1. Recognize that every family has different needs. Every family has a different experience of death and loss. Each person within that family responds different than the next. Some will want to talk about their loved one and their feelings. Others will want to hide. You may or may not think that the family is doing it the “right way” but please do everything you can to recognize that there is no right way. What honors the grief of one family will not work for the next.

2. Get busy in the kitchen. It is only natural after recognizing that each family has different needs to ask what they need. It seems like the right thing to do. But most families haven’t a clue what they need or want — so it’s best not to ask. Instead, get busy in the kitchen making something that can be easily stowed in the freezer for the family to enjoy in the days to come. My last congregation loved to hand deliver lasagna purchased from Costco. It works if you’re short on time — but I still think that there is something special about something homemade. Deliver it to their home, but don’t expect to talk much to the grieving.

If you have a knack for reception style catering or have been blessed with baking skills, call your pastor to inquire about the family’s plans for the reception following the memorial service. Some churches have women’s groups (and rarely men’s groups) that provide this particular hospitality. But, as those groups are disappearing, this very special care for grieving families falls to a local catering company. This is wonderful for supporting local businesses but we can do better. The early Christians were known for how they took care of each other in the most difficult times — and food is one of the best ways to do that. So, get busy making those veggie platters and finger foods. Bake some cookies filled with chocolatey morsels of love. Bring them on the day of the memorial service to the church — and maybe even offer to host. The family will be so moved by the love of your church family by this gesture alone.

3. Comfort the mourning. There was a widow in my last congregation who reminded me nearly every week how much and how long grief lingers. As a child of grief myself, it was something I knew and should have been more conscious of in my ministry. And my own life. But, I wasn’t. It was she that made me realize this because she wasn’t afraid to say that it still hurts. Her husband died two years ago — and for most members of the congregation, it was old news. She had received the message from more than one person that she should “just get over it already.” Of course, no one had ever been so blunt. It was something they said by omission. They had stopped asking how she was. It only took six months for this to happen — and she still isn’t over it. She is still hurting.

When someone dies in your congregation, make a special effort to comfort the mourning. Look around and be aware of those that have lost a spouse, a child or a sibling. Blessed are those who mourn, Jesus tells us. Be part of their comfort by sending a card like one of these or simply saying in coffee hour, “I’ve been thinking about you. How are you?”

4. Proclaim the good news. Christ is risen! You proclaimed this truth on Easter Sunday. Now it’s Friday again and it seems like Barbara Johnson is right: we are Easter people living in a Good Friday world. Death has come to your church family so that it seems that it’s just back to normal.

Don’t believe it. When Mary and the disciples went to the tomb, they were told to tell everyone what they had seen. You might not see those signs so clearly — but you have probably seen something amazing in this person that has died. Tell that story. Keep telling that story to everyone in your church and beyond. In this storytelling, Mary and the disciples saw the Risen Lord. They saw what work needed to be continued by their own hearts and hands. They started baptizing and healing. They taught and preached. They made disciples as they allowed themselves to be taught by the stories they told. Proclaim the good news.

5. Pray for your church familySomeone in your family has died. It may not have been someone that you knew very well or it may have been someone that everyone knew because he served on every committee there was. This person was a part of your church family. Offer prayers for his family and friends — but offer prayers especially for your church. Because there is no “right way” to grieve for any one person or a whole community. As it says in the United Church of Christ liturgy,

We humbly acknowledge that death is no stranger to your people, for it comes to us all, the strong and the ill, rich and poor, the proud and the humble. But to us, death may come as an intruder or a welcome friend, leaving us with confused and mixed feelings.

Help us to see in this ending, new beginnings as well, and remind us that you are always bringing light out of our darkness, and new life even out of death.

Only God knows where that beginning will emerge. It’s not for any of us to predict — but as people of the resurrection, as Easter people living in a Good Friday world, we believe that there will be new life and light. As you wait to see it, pray for your church family’s confused and mixed feelings.

6. Pray for your pastor. My favorite part of ministry is this particular work. I love walking with families through the grief process and writing liturgy for memorial services and funerals, but few pastors love it as much as I do. Your pastor may be carrying her own grief. She may be among the mourning and be struggling to write the liturgy for this memorial service. Or she might just be tired after all of the stuff surrounding Easter. Pray for her strength, her wisdom and her compassion.

Good Friday Reads

Last night, in a darkened sanctuary, I was called to worship with these words: On this day Christ the Lamb of God gave himself into the hand of those who would slay him.

To this, the people were meant to reply:

We walk with his family, his friends and disciples
who gathered in the upper room
and watched him die for our salvation.

But, I couldn’t speak these words. I couldn’t find it within myself to voice this prayer because that’s not what brought me to that darkened sanctuary. I wasn’t there to memorialize his death. I was there to remember his love — to remember that commandment that gave us. To take into my body with bread and juice. Maybe even get down on my hands and knees and wash a stranger’s feet. But, love wasn’t the focus. Instead of talking about love, instead of taking that love into our bodies, there was talk of sacrifice. For some, I know, it is the same.

Sacrifice is what Christ does. It’s what happens on the cross. He gives his life for the love of this world. His sacrifice is the ultimate way Christ reveals his love. I’ve heard this said many times — but I am not so sure I understand how and why Christ died.

I’m not sure that I ever will.

Because I don’t understand death. I’ll never understand death. I’ve spent the better part of 30 years trying to understand how my mother died and I still don’t know. I have no idea why she died. Explanations have been offered to me. There’s no shortage of that. I’ve been told all sorts of things to make sense of what doesn’t make sense. But, there is no answer. There is no way to explain someone so young and so loved could die.

And I believe the same is true for my Lord and Savior.

So, I won’t go to worship today. I didn’t go. I had planned to attend the traditional three-hour thing at a nearby church with the last words and meditations. But, instead, I chose my coffee and a book. This Good Friday, I decided to read Tony Jones’ A Better Atonement: Beyond the Depraved Doctrine of Original Sin.

Though I’m still not sure exactly what atonement theory the author has chosen as “better” amid all of the theological possibilities he outlines, I appreciated his certain faith that “God cannot be bound by a law, a moral code, a universal sense of justice, or a ‘deep magic from the dawn of time.'” There is a clear sense that there must be something better than our human arguments.  I like that. Because I want my God to be bigger than whatever humanity is defining as sin.

What I found most helpful in my Good Friday reading meditation was found in his caveat, where the author asserts:

It must be noted, and noted in bold, that the atonement is not, nor ever has been a topic of Christian orthodoxy. That is to say, no historic creed of the church deals with the atonement, and none of the seven ecumenical councils took up the question of the atonement.

The early church never bothered with this topic. It became a concern. Things changed. Time went on. People bothered with atonement. Some time in the Middle Ages — at least according to this author — it became a matter of concern as the people of God tried to understand divine justice. And we’ve never stopped taking up this question. We are still trying to understand how and why death comes.

And we may never know.

For All the Saints

There are two days on the church calendar when I simply cannot preach. There are two days when I know that my emotions will get the better of me — and I will likely not be able to proclaim the resurrection that I so need to hear. One of these days is not liturgical. It’s Groundhog Day and the day my mother died. It doesn’t matter how much time has passed since she died. I still need this day to be honest with myself and my God that it still hurts. So I do not preach. The celebration of All Saints is no different.

I did not grow up with this tradition but discovered its lush wonder in James Chapel at Union Theological Seminary. Seated upon those green chairs, I was permitted a sacred space for my grief — and I claimed that space with my tears. And it’s that sacred space that I want for everyone.

So, every year, I attempt to create that space where others can feel what I have found so healing and so affirming. In a church culture that insists on an effusive joy all of the time, I long for a place where I can be honest about how heartbroken I still am. This year, this space was centered upon these words from the Gospel of Matthew with familiar words to those that have been attending church for years and years. For those saints, the wisdom that Jesus has never quite felt like good news. Or so I heard it discussed in our study earlier this week. This doesn’t feel quite so good: “All who exalt themselves will be humbled, and all who humble themselves will be exalted.” So I used it as a way to talk about ourselves as saints, including this prayer of confession that truly seemed to say it all as we prayed together:

Good God, we have heard you say so many times:all who exalt themselves will be humbled, and all who humble themselves will be exalted.But, we are so humble that we hesitate to call ourselves your saints.Forgive us. Exalt us a little. So that we might see ourselvesso honored, so respected and so loved that we might be called your saint.In your mercy, we pray.

But, I did not preach. I could not. I choked up even mentioning my mother in the prayers of the people so instead I told a series of stories of the saints of God. I told the story of an old saint (one that is actually canonized), a child of color (who you might not expect) and one of the pillars of this church (who just deserves it). We shared these stories amid our prayers, those wonderful hymns that mark this day and sharing in the feast of God. It was a truly wonderful time of worship.