Ash Wednesday

My sister died of Sudden Infant Death Syndrome.

It’s a fact that has haunted these first few months of my own daughter’s life.

She died before I was born but the memory is alive. I wake to hear my little girl breathing. I check. I triple check. I am careful to keep every blanket or pillow as far away from her mouth as possible so that history will not repeat itself. She’s almost made it. My little girl is nearly four months old, which is how old my sister was when she stopped breathing. She was only four months old.

As with so many of those stories, I don’t know the specifics. I know now that there are many things that could have contributed to her death. My father was a smoker. She was probably lying on her tummy. There were definitely bumpers lining the crib in the hope of protecting this blessed child, but even with these facts, I don’t know much about that story. It reads from my family’s history as something that happened, but not something that wanders into conversation.

There’s not much to be said. She died. It was terrible. Of course it was terrible, but what else can be said about such things?

I’ve been thinking about it a lot. I was thinking about it today as the Gospel Lesson was read before ashes were placed upon my forehead. My daughter wiggled in my lap. Her little toes kicking, dancing to some distant beat. Alive. Unrepentantly so. Alive and kicking.

Here I was sitting with this squirming little reminder of life to hear it proclaimed again that we are dust, both she and I. We are dust and to dust we shall return. Life will end, even when it is so new. It will end. We do not know the day or hour, but life will end. It always does. Sometimes it happens far too soon.

It is always that way. It was that way in Florida today. While I sat in my pew, seventeen children were killed in a high school in Parkland. Seventeen children were killed. It bears repeating because it’s too terrible and the specifics are even more overwhelming.

It is the eighteenth school shooting this year. It seems impossible.

It doesn’t have to be this way. This doesn’t have to happen, but somehow we have failed. We have missed something. We have allowed this to happen and I can’t help but think that it has something to do with what happened in that tiny chapel this afternoon.

When it came time to receive the ashes and remember that we are dust, I stood in the aisle waiting with the other worshippers bouncing my baby girl in my arms. I heard the familiar refrain repeated again and again. Remember that you are dust and to dust you will return until I stood before the deacon and he pressed his thumb into the ashes. He took a breath, looked into my eyes and said again, Remember that you are dust and to dust you will return. And then, I turned so that he could offer this same mystery to my daughter peeking over my shoulder.

I heard him say the words, just as I heard her coo, but when we sat back down in the pew there were no ashes upon her forehead. Somehow we won’t allow ourselves to believe that children die.

 

Advertisements

Half-Baked Ideas for All Saints Day

On Sunday, I went to church.

I sat in the pews to worship. But, before worship even began, there was a wave of sadness that fell over that gathering of God’s people.

There were words of thanks offered, gratitude for the hospitality that had been offered earlier in the week in the midst of two funerals. The names of the deceased were mentioned but they were not names that I knew. As a first time visitor in worship, I could only feel the sadness that was left after these two saints have died.

It’s not just something that is felt in this one church I found myself on Sunday morning but something all too familiar. We are not sure what the future of the church might look like. We are trying to imagine it and prepare for it but our saints are dying. The people that gave their hearts and souls to the work of the gospel, the very people we all hope we’ll one day be like and the people that made the church what it is today are dying. We’re going to their funerals. We’re saying prayers over their bodies and what remains is this overwhelming sadness because it’s not just that one life, but the many. So many of our saints are dying. It seems to be happening all at once. Maybe it is always this way. Maybe it feels like this for every generation and it is just the way of things that we wonder how we might match their goodness. It may be normal to look around the sanctuary and wonder who will be the next Lee or the next Janet or who will always be there with a joke like Gordon always was. Maybe it never feels like there are enough new people wandering in through those doors and we never quite feel like we could be the ones to follow in the footsteps of those saints. We are instead always looking for someone else.

I don’t know but it sure feels to me like we are burying some amazing people. It feels like there is so much death of so many great people. So much so that I had to unsubscribe from my former church’s weekly email because the prayer list was just too much to bear. It’s that familiar feeling that I felt as worship began on Sunday. It hovered over us through the entire time we attempted to lift our praise. If this is something we are all feeling, in churches all over the place, how do we honor that sense of loss? How do we make a space for it? What might be different about this All Saints Day?

It is no secret that this is one of my favorite observances in the church year. There are lots of wonderful moments of worship that use candles and ribbons and bells to remind us of these beloved people. There was a time when those bells were ringing to remind the living of the dead. It is not lack of memory that plagues us but how we might make sense of so much death in our time. Count those in your own congregation who have died. List the names of those that died in combat in a war most of our country doesn’t believe we are fighting or list every name that has died just this year because we refuse to believe that black lives matter. There are so many names that we could say. This year, let’s actually say the names.

I don’t have a full liturgy to offer you this week but two ideas to inspire your worship planning.

  • Say their names. It is a hashtag that is trending on Twitter. As violence and brutality increase, there is a cry that is being heard on social media to #saytheirnames. There is power in naming. We know this as we name and pray for people each time we worship. They stay on our prayer lists for a week or two until they disappear from our memories. We are too distracted or perhaps we’re just too upset to stick with the pain for too long. For All Saints Day, meet with the deacons or the worship committee and together make a list of names to be read during worship. You might go back over the prayer list and remember every saint who has died or other names that really need to be said. There has been a lot of death in the past year. Do not shy away from a long list. Decide how the names will be read and who will read which names. You might choose to ring a bell after the reading of each name, as is the ancient practice, or you might choose a piece of music to play softly under the reading of the names.
  • Write letters to the saints. I know that there are assigned readings for this particular feast day that don’t actually coincide with Proper 26 or Proper 27, but I really like the opening words to the church in Thessalonika from Proper 26. It reminds me of the letters I often write to my mom so that I wonder what would happen if we gave space for our church people to write to the saints of the church. Imagine that salutations and thanksgivings they would write to those they had admired and then what would be said next? What would they want to say about their church or their own discipleship to this saint now? It could be good sermon fodder but I’d want to find a way to have everyone write letters perhaps in place of the Prayers of the People. Maybe we’d find some way to send them. Fire? Big post box on cotton balls? I’m not sure… What do you think?

These are just ingredients that need a little more time in the kitchen. Good liturgy is the work of the people and every idea needs to have a little time to cook within a community. I would love to hear what might happen with these half-baked ideas within your church family. Please let me know and maybe I’ll even see you for more Ingredients for Worship next Tuesday!

 

Good Friday Came First

good-friday-300x200Before the alleluias get dug up from the ground, before anyone can look for the living among the dead, before Sunday can come, there will be a Friday.

It is the order of things. It is the way that the calendar pages turn. Before there can be a Sunday to praise, there must be a Friday to mourn.

There are people who sit in our pews every Sunday who say they can’t watch the news anymore. It’s too terrible, they tell me. It’s just so awful that they can’t watch. Like the disciples in the Gospel of Luke, they stand at a distance from the bad news.

Read the full article on New Sacred.

Letters to Heaven

clouds-1088472_1920

Every year, as January comes to a close and the calendar turns to February, I start to wonder about what I’ll say to her this year. I wonder about what I would want her to know about this year and who I am right now. Way up there in heaven, I wonder what I’ll tell my mother about my life.

Every year, I’ve written to her in the pages of my journal as if she is sitting beside me. Of course, she isn’t. Today is the anniversary of her death. She died twenty-nine years ago today. Twenty nine years ago, on this very day, I carefully prepared a package of stale marshmallows and the almond cookies we made in school that day to bring to her in the hospital. But, before I could leap off the bus, I could see my dad and I knew something was wrong. So much has happened since then. So much that she hasn’t been around to share with me. And this year, I will get married. I’ll marry a man that she never got to meet and begin to think about becoming a mom myself.

Maybe it’s because of those things that she feels so very far away today. Today it feels like I’ve spent the past twenty-nine years grieving something that never existed. I have photographs and other people’s stories that contradict this fact. They tell me what she was like and how wonderful she was, but I don’t have many of my own memories. When most people grieve, those normal people, they can tell you something about the person that they miss so very much. They can tell you about his laugh or her generosity. I’ve listened to so many of these stories. I love these stories so that I make it my business to seek them out. A glimmer will come into her eyes when I ask about their dearly departed before she tells me the most ridiculous story. A smile will creep across her face and she’ll sigh because that’s what she misses. She misses those little moments.

I don’t have too many of those stories. The only clear memory I have from when she was healthy was from one cold winter morning when we went ice skating on a nearby pond. My brother took off skating with lightning speed. The running joke in my family was that he was born with skates on his little feet. This day, that seemed to be true. I had never been skating on a pond so I wobbled down the wooden plank, fighting against the layers of warmth that encased me, until I hit the ice. I pushed off and made a clear, graceful arc straight into a snowbank. That’s when my mother started laughing. She couldn’t stop laughing even as she tried to pull me back to my feet. I really, really hope that this doesn’t reveal my mother’s character. It doesn’t fit with what I’ve been told but it’s the only memory I have stashed away. If my mom was alive, I’m sure we’d laugh about this. Or I really want to believe that we’d laugh about this ridiculous moment from my childhood. But, I don’t know what would make my mom laugh uncontrollably. I don’t know what would bring tears to her eyes out of sheer delight anymore than I know what would really break her heart. And that’s what makes anniversaries so hard.

My dear friend Teri, who lost her mother ten years ago, is much more frank about it. As she said by text message today, “anniversaries are shitty.” I can’t argue. Anniversaries are the cruel reminder that so many years have passed. Every year, I hope I will feel differently but it always feels the same. It is one of those days where everything feels thin. Just as the ancient Celts imagined it, it feels like the walls between heaven and earth collapse and it feels as if something should happen. Every year, I’m confronted with this terrible indecisiveness about how to spend the day. Sometimes that means spending the days with others whether that’s taking a ferry to a quiet island in the middle of Casco Bay to quietly walk with a friend or building a fairy house in the woods on another island with another friend. I’ve thrown ice cream parties where we heaped mounds of chocolate ice cream into bowls as I told the story of the last time I saw my mom but most years, I don’t know what to do. I feel that I should do something but I struggle with what do with the strange cosmic energy that comes each and every year.

And then, with frustrated tears running down my cheeks, I feel guilty. It happens every single year. I am overwhelmed and overcome by this terrible guilt. This is something I will never understand. I don’t know why I feel guilty but it’s something that Teri tells me happens. She calls it survivor guilt. It’s a real thing, she argues because she knows that I am going to disagree. I don’t want to see myself as survivor. It’s not like I survived a plane crash or the collapse of the twin towers. My mom died from a disease that I have yet to contract. Though I live in that fear, it remains only a possibility. That doesn’t change the fact that I always feel guilty on the anniversary of her death.

I feel as if I should feel something or do something but I can never figure out what that is. I have tried time and time again for twenty-nine years. Still, the guilt hangs out mixed up with this sense of wonder that everything feels thin. All the hairs stand up on the back of my neck. There is a feeling like something might happen. Something could happen. Or maybe I just really want something to happen so that the only constant from year to year is that I sit down  with my journal to write letters to heaven. On the anniversary of the day she died, I take a pen in my hand to try to collapse the walls between heaven and earth.

This year, it doesn’t feel thin. That feeling is still there. I still feel like anything could happen. I really want something to happen but it’s not a thin feeling. It’s a thick feeling that hangs in the air today. Today, I’m aware of the distance between heaven and earth.

I feel the distance in the years that I have lived without her. I feel the distance in the huge events that are about to take place this year that she won’t get to share. I feel the distance that comes from not knowing what would make her laugh or cry. And yet, no matter how far the distance might be, I still want to collapse those walls that separate us. I want to believe she’s right here beside me.

That’s how small I want the distance to be. I want to believe that she is standing beside me. I try to convince myself that she always has been. She’s right here on earth and hasn’t really left my side, except that on this anniversary, on the day that she died, the calendar turns and I can only feel her absence.

It doesn’t feel like she is here. She is anything but here so she must be out there somewhere because she hasn’t been here for so very long. She died twenty-nine years ago and I still can’t quite believe it. She has to be up there in some other realm that I cannot reach, no matter how hard I try. It’s only on this dreadful day that I let myself believe that I have any power to cross the divide and reach toward that place where she dwells. On other days, I don’t believe such things. I remain unconvinced that heaven is somewhere else. I refuse to believe it most of the time. Except that on her anniversary, especially on this anniversary, my faith isn’t quite so resolute because the distance seems so vast and I want nothing more than to bring her close and tell her everything about my life that she needs to know. (She’s still my mom. No matter how much I want this sweet communion, there are still things she doesn’t need to know.)

Part of me believes that she knows it all already. I don’t need to tell her because she’s already seen it. She’s been busy watching me all year long from her cloud just over my head. There’s no need for me to reach through the veil between heaven and earth with my pen and paper because she already knows. She knows it all. She hasn’t missed on anything. She’s done all that she could to be there even if I never knew that she was standing beside me but I can’t quite convince myself of that today. So today, just as I have so many anniversaries before, I’m writing my mom a letter. I’m sending it out to the far reaches of the heavens.

Mom,

There are so many things that I want to ask you. There are so many things that I don’t know about you and so very many things that I want to know. Years ago, I used to ask those that knew you and loved you.

Maybe they were trying to convince themselves that you lived as much as I am trying to do now, because they wanted me to know how human you were. They told me that you were so damn stubborn and that you had a mean streak of anger. They wanted me to know that you were not perfect even when I wanted so much to believe that you were. I never got to be a teenager with you. I never got to rebel and slam doors in your face or whatever it is that teenagers do. Instead, my rebellion took me to church. I plopped down in a pew and wanted the answers to everything that didn’t make sense. Because I didn’t understand — I still don’t understand — why you had to die.

I feel like a child writing that to you, but I”m your child. So I can still be a kid, right? I can tell you that this still doesn’t make sense to me no matter how much I want to make sense of it.

I’ll never understand it just as I’ll never get to know you. It’ll always be someone else’s story or someone else’s anecdote. I won’t get to have those stories with you because you died before we ever got the chance. Just as I won’t have the chance to see you beam with pride and delight on my wedding day in just a few months. You weren’t there to watch me try on my wedding dress and I won’t get to have some frustratingly special moment on that special day where you try to give me advice and I shirk it off, but that doesn’t change the fact that I want those things. I want you to be a part of that special day just as much as I want you to know my beloved and my future children. Oh, it hurts to even imagine that. How can I be a wife and a mom without you? How will I learn my own rhythms without your support?

But I will. I’ll somehow manage this just as I’ve managed every other event without you by my side. You can’t be there. I know, I know. We will never have that but that doesn’t stop me from wanting it. I will always want you to be a part of my life. I will always want to know what you think. I will always want to hear your advice. I will always wonder what you would say to any of the bizarre and wonderful things that this life has already offered me.

Mom, there are so few things that I remember about you. I can’t remember your laugh or the sound of your voice. I don’t have many stories about you. In most of my memories, you were sick. You were as pale as the sheets on your bed. You didn’t say much but you were there and I guess I want you to be here now. I guess I’ll never give up on that hope that I’ll get to know you better… I love you.

Yours, Elsa

 

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.

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.

Hope Within Me

hopeFrom far too many pulpits, there isn’t a word said about how long and how hard grief can be. I don’t know why this is. I don’t know if it’s a hallmark of our society or the stubbornness of a particular kind of Christianity that denies the depth of agony that begins on cross and continues in the darkness of the tomb. Perhaps it’s neither of these things. Perhaps it’s both. I don’t really care. Because it doesn’t really matter.

What does matter is the tears that glisten on the faces of those special and rare people. What does matter is that they heard the good news that didn’t insist on the challenges of Easter Sunday. They heard it from their own story. They heard that their pain, their grief and their inexpressible groaning isn’t something to just get over already — but a way for them to see the promise of resurrection.

There is resurrection in those “sighs too deep for words.” Resurrection comes in the story of our faith after betrayal and doubt. It comes after piercing and suffocating death before it waits in the tomb. Resurrection, as someone famous once said, doesn’t come without Good Friday. It is not resurrection unless there has been some pretty horrible inexpressible groaning first. Because that always comes first. There wouldn’t be a story without the death. There wouldn’t be anything remarkable or heroic. It wouldn’t have caused anyone to wonder if Jesus hadn’t been dead and buried. Sounds like a downer, I guess. Maybe it is for those who have never felt that sting. But, my mom died when I was seven years old. This still stings. I am not over it. I may never be over it even though it seems that there is always someone who believes I should be.

Grief is what I know best so that when I sat down to write my morning pages this morning and read 1 Peter 3:8-18a, this verse leaped off of the page of my Bible:

Always be ready to make your defense to anyone who demands from you an accounting for the hope that is in you; yet do it with gentleness and reverence.

Because I believe I do have such an account. There is hope that is in me. There is hope in each of these rare and special people — even if doesn’t sound like triumphant joy. There is hope. I won’t get over my grief. It won’t vanish with the resurrections I might experience. It will always be part of the story. It will always be what happened first. It will always be the hope that is in me. It will always be what allows me to believe that there is resurrection. I’ll defend this hope. It is the hope that is within me.