Waves of Grief after Waves of Nausea

Grief is my constant companion. It is there every day and every moment even when there is a smile plastered to my face. Sometimes I choose not to acknowledge it. I don’t want it to dominate and there are still other times when it rides along in the sidecar of my whole existence.

For the first three months of my pregnancy, it stayed there. It didn’t hop into the driver seat but stayed somewhere in the background. I noticed it only enough to order a copy of Hope Edelman’s Motherless Mothers, but then the swell of nausea would hit and I would speed down the hall praying that I’d make it to the toilet this time. Waves of nausea is too gentle for what I had been feeling those first few weeks of my pregnancy. I felt sick. I felt so sick that I can’t even consider an apt metaphor.

I could barely pull myself off the couch. I binged on television and hid behind my hands every time food appeared on the screen. The odor of that food would waft through the television screen and my stomach would turn. Back down the hall to the bathroom I would race muttering prayers of disgust.

When I finally started to feel better, it was Mother’s Day and the New York Times published this popular essay on The Birth of a Mother. It was posted and retweeted though all of my friends and family at the same time that I got a sweet text message from my sister wishing me a happy mother’s day for the very first time. It is no secret that I have complicated feelings about this observance. I’ve blogged about it in the past. So it may come to you as no surprise that I couldn’t bring myself to read this poignant essay. It remained an open tab on my browser for weeks, but I never read a word.

I never read a word until today.

I read only the first paragraph before the swells of grief rose in my chest. Tears began to roll down my cheeks not because of the overflow of hormones in my body, but for the fact that I am still a motherless daughter and so as careful as Alexandra Sacks is to include the wide variety of emotions that pregnant women experience, she still left me out. My family dynamics changed long ago when my mother died. Ever since, I have been creating my own style. I’ve borrowed from lots of amazing women — including my beloved stepmother — in parenting myself so that I still quite imagine what will emerge when I first hold my daughter in my arms.

Ambivalence is not the right word for me. Ambivalence doesn’t even describe the years before I met my husband when I knew that I couldn’t be a single parent. I couldn’t imagine doing it alone. I didn’t want to raise a child with all of my grief leading the way, but I hoped that there would be someone else to ride that wave with me. I didn’t want to be a parent if it wasn’t a partnership.

Is that my own version of guilt and shame? I don’t know. I do know that when I met my husband and first watched him interact with the little girl who would become my godchild, something inside me shifted. It changed. I could see something that I hadn’t let myself see before. Parenting no longer seemed impossible, at least not with this man by my side.

This is something we talk a lot about these days. It might be the sappy talk that every couple has in the midst of a pregnancy but every time it comes up, it feels revelatory. He chose me to be his partner because he saw that I’d be a great mom. There were other reasons, I’m sure, though those aren’t highlighted quite as often as this particular fact. And even though I tell him the exact same thing, I can’t help but wonder what kind of mother I will be.

My mother did not work. She put all of those moms that worry about being good enough on edge. In my memory, if not in real life, it was what she wanted most. She wanted to be a mom. She relished in every bit of it. I don’t know if I will be like her though I’ll probably spend a lot of time wondering what she would do. Let’s be honest, I’m already doing that because that it is how it is with grief.

Grief raises questions. It makes me wonder about things that I can never know no matter how many times I ask those that knew her. What is left is just a hole where there was once a person. She is gone and all of that wisdom that I might have once gleaned from her is now gone. It is lost. It will never be retrieved and so many of my questions will go unanswered. I’ll never really know if what I’m remembering is a fantasy or some complicated illusion I created to survive her loss. Those that knew her will tell me, but it will always be what they saw or what they wanted to believe. I’ll never really know how she would have chosen to define herself as a mother or as a woman.

It’s these questions that rise from the depths — once again — as I wonder about the kind of mother I will become. I can only hope that my children know how much I love them, for this is what I’ll never forget about my own mother.

 

When Twitter Inspires a Story that You Haven’t Told in a Long While

It was only two days ago that #imnotgoingtochurchbecause was trending on Twitter. I read through the whole feed. Or, at least, I read through some of it. It was hard not to noticed the number of hurts that the church has caused and paid attention to the opposing 140 characters that beseeched the powers that be at Twitter do something about this trending topic.

I understand that discomfort all too well. It would be hard for it not to resonate. I am, after all, a pastor. This is what I do for a living. I make church happen and I want it to be great. I want it to be so great. I want it to be amazing because that’s what church was for me.

It got me thinking about that story. I got to thinking about how often I actually tell that story from what feels like long ago. And I don’t. I don’t talk about it. I really don’t which means those other stories, the really terrible stories of abuse and bad theology, loom that much larger. Those other stories are so big that I have somehow convinced myself that my story doesn’t matter.

It’s just a silly little story. It’s just something that happened. It’s not universal story. It’s not true for everyone but it is true for me. Even so, I’ve convinced myself that it doesn’t matter. It doesn’t matter as much as all of those other hurts and pains. In her new book Healing Spiritual Wounds, my friend Carol Howard Merritt freely admits that

Yes, Christianity is part of the problem, the cause of my suffering, anxiety and pain in life; but Christianity is also my cure, my solace, my center.

Carol grew up in one of those churches that said all of the wrong things. It was a theology that she challenged and ultimately one that she could not accept so she sidestepped into a more progressive faith where she could find solace and even centering. That story feels important because it’s so damn common. There are so many people hurt by the very human part of the church that doesn’t fully know who or what God is but insists upon God’s ways anyhow. There are lots of people with that story — including my friend Carol — but it’s not my story.

My story begins with some writing I was doing on that very same afternoon. I had plopped myself down and attempted to write about how my mom first ended up in church. She was raised a Christian. Her family walked to the neighborhood Episcopal church. I was astonished when I learned this because I had always thought my family — on both sides — was Presbyterian. Lo and behold, my mom’s family was not. They were these other kinds of Christians who mostly went to church because that’s what good people did. There were no deep roots to their faith; they went because it was the right thing to do. It didn’t change anything but their routine and so when my mom grew up, she had little interest in the church. It had never challenged her. It wasn’t inspiring and so she went looking for other inspirations.

What she found instead was cancer and it was that that plopped her back in a church pew. (That particular pew was a Presbyterian church, by the way.) I will never know the full extent of that transformation. I have no idea other than the fact that I’ve been told that she was an atheist. Before she was diagnosed with that disease, she was an atheist. Then, she believed.

She believed and she took us along with us. My dad stayed home but my brother and I were dragged along and plopped in that pew beside her. That was when I first started going to church but if that was my only story, I liekly wouldn’t still be attending. I still go to church because of what happened after I was first plopped in that pew.

What happened was she died. The cancer beat her but not without teaching me something about how to live. While she was sick, she kept going back to church. She kept sitting in that pew until it was impossible for her to get out of bed. When the cancer had almost destroyed her body, but not her spirit, the pastor came to her bedside. The members showed up with casseroles and somehow in all of that I learned that the church — the very people that gather together in God’s name — can listen to anything. They can put up with everything. They will listen, even when it hurts.

This is the story that scrolling through Twitter reminded me to tell. There are thousands upon thousands of stories of pain and hurt. There are stories of rejection and judgment and abuse. There are scars and wounds that are still trying to heal but those people that caused that pain did not sit in the pews of my childhood.

Seated beside me on those hard oak benches were other broken people. I was eight years old when I started to go to church by myself. Mom had died and I held on to this hope that there really was a group of people that could listen to my sorrow. They’d say more than she was in a better place. They’d do more than tell me to smile because they couldn’t quite stand my pain. They’d actually listen and that’s exactly what I found. In the church my childhood, which was not the same church that had been Mom’s sanctuary, there were people that “knew how to face death.”

That’s my favorite line from Elaine Pagel’s Beyond Belief. It’s a book about the Gospel of Thomas but it begins with a narrative of her own grief. She stands on the threshold of a church and observes, “this is a family that knows how to face death.” Indeed, that’s what I found in my home church. There were old people with greying hair and papery, leathery skin that peered down at me over their coffee cups and saucers. They would have knelt right down next to me if it were not for their bad knees, but it didn’t matter. They listened. They didn’t tell me what to think or how to feel. They listened and it saved me.

There are plenty of terrible stories about the church. I’ve heard more than a few as a pastor. I’ve fumbled over my words in apology, but I still go to church because there is a family that knows how to face death and they will listen. Or, at least, they listened to me.

If your read my previous post There’s No Place Like Home or if you follow me on Facebook, you may know that I accepted a challenge to write an essay each week this year inspired by Vanessa Martir’s in her challenge #52essays2017. I’m mostly blogging over my Medium so be sure to follow along with the adventure over there.

How Grief Works

Since the news early Wednesday morning, a collective cry has arisen from my fellow Americans. Many have said that it feels like someone they have loved has died. In these first few days after the news hit, they feel numb. They are in shock. They can’t believe that this has happened. It feels just like when their dad died.

When that news hit that Donald Trump would be our next president, they couldn’t believe it. They had been in shock. They were numb and they wondered what the world would look like without him.

It has been a few years since that happened though. The grief they remember has changed. It has become something else. It’s not as overwhelming as it once was. They still miss their dad. Of course, they still miss him but those years without him have made grief different. It’s not better or worse. It’s just different.

Whether or not we are able to connect it to that loss before, it is grief that is on everyone’s lips. It was the first thing that arrived in my email on Wednesday. With only a few hours of fitful rest after that acceptance speech at 2 a.m., there was an email telling me to grieve quickly.

Others have joined that chorus echoing that refrain from the Psalmist, “Weeping may linger for the night, but joy comes with the morning.” They do not speak of joy, of course, but of the work that must be done. Still, there is urgency to grieve quickly.

This is not how grief works. It does not come in a flash only to disappear. It does more than linger when it feels like the world has been ripped apart. This is how it feels when your father dies. This is how it feels right now to a whole lot of Americans. I’m told that it has felt that way to others before this election and that this has been ignored by people like you and me. Michael Lerner wrote in the New York Times yesterday,

“Many religious people are drawn by the teachings of their tradition to humane values and caring about the oppressed. Yet they often find that liberal culture is hostile to religion of any sort, believing it is irrational and filled with hate. People on the left rarely open themselves to the possibility that there could be a spiritual crisis in society that plays a role in the lives of many who feel misunderstood and denigrated by the fancy intellectuals and radical activists.

The left needs to stop ignoring people’s inner pain and fear.”

That last line arrests me. For it is not just their inner pain and fear that has gone ignored, it is our own.

This is how grief works. Something terrible happens. The worst thing that you ever could have imagined has now happened. You would not have dared to believe it before and now that it has and still you can’t believe it. You are in shock. You are scared. You are not sure how you’ll ever pick up and move on — though you know that you must. Your kids need you. Your friends need you. There are people that are counting on you and so you can’t stay with the pain and fear forever. And you don’t want to. You don’t want to go on feeling like this forever but grief does not allow you to ignore the fact that everything has changed. It won’t let you insist upon joy. It forces you to deal with all of that inner pain and fear.

This, dear friends, is not something that you can do quickly. It is not a momentary blip but the pain and the fear lingers for much more than just a night. It does no good to try to dismiss it or ignore it. It will hurt that much more if we try to move past it too quickly for this is how grief works.

Do not let yourself get overly consumed with why your neighbor or your brother or the person sitting next to you in worship isn’t as deeply grieved. Their grief is their own. Not everyone experiences grief in quite the same way. Try to remember this because while you might not be able to stop crying, not everyone cries on the outside. There is no right way to grieve and no possible way to push another through it, so don’t try. Tend to your own inner pain and fear before you spend too much time worrying about theirs.

I do not intend to wag my finger at you or your pain. In fact, that’s the last thing that I would want to do because I know that it will not work. Grief is what I know best. To borrow a line from Hope Edelman, it is “the most determining, most profound, the most influential event of my life.” My mother died when I was just a little girl and it has forever shaped how I see the world. And so, I know that you cannot shame another into feeling what they do not feel nor can you cannot compel anyone into grief. That’s not how it works. Grief, instead, is paying attention to that inner pain and fear. It’s a practice of noticing what hurts and how it hurts.

It is not so simple as charting through five stages until it is over and done. Grief will seize each of us at different times. Some are feeling it now. It is already real for them while others will need more time. Some will not feel the weight of this news until January when the inauguration when this president-elect will take the oath of office. Some might not even feel it then. Let’s not worry too much about what that might mean but instead let’s try to practice paying attention. Don’t grieve quickly. That’s really bad advice that comes from a culture that believes that the only way to survive is to get over your pain and your fear.

Grief is not something to overcome or achieve, but something to go through. It’s not wise to try to hurdle over it. It’s best to take the risk and allow yourself to mourn. Mourn it all. Mourn every hope and dream that feels dashed. Mourn the idea of America that feels like its dissolved and disappeared. Mourn the safety of your neighbor and yourself. Mourn every bit of it. Pay attention to it. Notice what you are feeling and when you feel it because that will be what teaches you. That will be what leads you to be the change that your kids and your friends need. That will be what allows you to take all of this pain and fear and make it into something beautiful that this country needs. But for now, dear ones, allow the grief to linger. Joy will come soon enough.

 

 

Everything is New

Last week, I had an interview with a church seeking an interim pastor. I knew what would happen even before that meeting. I knew it because it’s what always happens. As I sat there talking to these faith-filled, hopeful people, I came to love them. It wasn’t even a slow progression. It basically walloped me from the moment I said “hello” on the church’s steps.

Love is where ministry starts. It has to start with love because there is no way that we can say and do hard things without love. So I’m glad it’s there and I’m grateful for the people who have shown me this love both as a pastor and a fellow disciple. So it happened again. They told me their story and I loved them even more. My smile broadened. My cheeks hurt as I got in my car to drive home. But, it was then that I was able to admit something to myself that I hadn’t allowed myself to believe yet.

I couldn’t believe it because I could only hear that question that I didn’t know how to answer: So, what are you doing with yourself now? It’s a question that has been asked all summer by friends and family. Ever since people found out that my husband and I were moving to Kansas, they’ve wanted to know what church I’ll be serving and where. And then, when I told them that it wasn’t likely that I would get to serve a church in the very short time that we’d be here, they’ve furrowed their brows and asked: So what are you going to do then?

I haven’t felt like I had an answer to this question. I have really, really wanted an answer to this question but I haven’t had one. I wasn’t sure.

And then, I met with this church to talk about their past and present. I dared to imagine how I could be their interim pastor and realize that I couldn’t do it. I didn’t want to do it. They are lovely people and I really wanted to help them. I knew I could help them but sitting in my car on the drive home was the first time I asked myself what I wanted from these four months. What was it that I wanted? What was it that I needed?

The first thought was honestly that this summer sucked. It was a good time with my dear friend Corey and I’m so glad to have strengthen our bond these many years after college, but it was also the first three months of my married life. And I was in Pennsylvania while he was in Kansas. I’m not going to sugarcoat this. It sucked. We’ve done long distance and the military will probably require us to do it again but we chose it this time. I chose it because I wanted to have something on my resume for a year. That sounds callous, but it’s true. Just as callous and true as it felt to withdraw my name from this lovely congregation’s search for an interim pastor, but that is what I did yesterday. And it is right. It is good.

Over a year ago, I blogged about starting over again. I’ve started and restarted and tried to understand what God is calling me to now when everything is so new. I’ve been at this a year and still everything feels so new.

The apostle imagines this is a blessing to the church in Corinth, saying unto them, “So then, if anyone is in Christ, that person is part of the new creation. The old things have gone away, and look, new things have arrived!” (2 Corinthians 5:17, CEB). I am a bit uncertain about the blessing bit but new things have arrived. That much is true. New things continue to surprise me. I am not choosing a pulpit but I am choosing my marriage.

I don’t know if I’ll get this time again but if we can swing it, I want to be around on weekends. I don’t want to be away from him in his downtime. I want to be here. I’m choosing  that, but I’m choosing much more than that as anyone that has ever asked me “So what are you doing now?” knows well. I am trying to be a new creation in this new season of life. I  am choosing my marriage but not just my marriage.

img_1648I’m choosing writing. I’m trying to carve out time for the writing process even daring to wade into the National Novel Writing Month tomorrow. I won’t be writing a novel. I’ll be continuing to write this memoir of my own grief and loss that keeps changing every time I sit down to write it. There are other things I’m writing too and much more that I would like to write.

I’m choosing a new path in spiritual direction. I am honored to have been accepted just last month to the San Francisco Theological Seminary to delve into their certificate program in spiritual direction. I start in January. The check is in the mail.  I’m nervous and excited but that is how it is with new things. And right now, everything feels new.

I’m choosing new things — wonderful things — but everything is so very new.

 

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!

 

Premonitions of Grief

Yesterday, another United Church of Christ pastor dared to ask a group of her colleagues and friends if we share in her experience of receiving premonitions. Stories bubbled up from within this trusted circle as much as they bubbled up in me.

I have had writer’s block. I have struggled every day this week to try to get words down on the page. Nothing has come. Or, at least, nothing has come easily. Last week, I turned my attention to this particular memory from my young adulthood. It is a story of a premonition.

The details are sketchy but I remember the feeling. I always remember the feeling. I’m sitting on my bed. I’m doing my homework. There are mounds of books and looseleaf binders surrounding me so much so that I can’t really see the pink bedspread I know lies beneath. I am tired and I really want to shake the books and binders off the bed and crawl into bed. But, I have a math test. (Or maybe that’s a detail I’m making up. Maybe it’s just because I always did my homework. I tried so hard to be the good student.) It’s not late. I shouldn’t be so tired or bored, but I am. I think I am.

The phone rings. But, ever the good girl, I do not rush down the hall. I don’t go answer the phone. I follow the rules and wait until someone calls up the stairs to say it’s for me. Of course, I know it is for me. I’m certain of it. I have no words for it but I know exactly who it was. I know it’s for me.

Finally, the call comes up the stairs confirming what I already know. My feet pad down the hall bouncing off the plush carpet. I pick up the receiver and I hear her say, “Hi!”

It is Lauren. She has some question about math, something she thinks I can help answer but I can’t say anything. I’m gasping for air. I’m sputtering tears until Lauren asks, “Elsa, what’s the matter?… Elsa, are you there?”

“I thought you were my mom. I thought my mom was calling.”

She is quiet as my sobs only get louder. “Do you need to go?” she asks.

I apologize. I say I’ll talk to her tomorrow. I say something about how stupid it is to think that my mom would be calling. She’d died ten years before. Of course, she could not call. She would not call but it felt so clear. I was so certain.

It wouldn’t be long before the phone would ring again. That same familiar feeling would wake me up from my slumber. It is Good Friday. The red numbers on my alarm clock indicate that it is very early. It is still dark. Still, the phone rings.

I hear the gruff barking of my Dad down the hall. He does not say much, grunts more than speaks. Maybe because he is so tired. Maybe because he does not know what to say. It is finished. I hear the phone return to its receiver. The hall light flashes on and I hear Dad’s heavy steps weigh down the plush carpet in the hall.

I know what he will say even before he opens the door. It had been in my dreams. She had died. Gam had died. It didn’t matter how long she’d battled cancer or how weak she had become. I wouldn’t be able to tell those signs for many years. But before Dad opened the door to whisper the news, before light flooded my bedroom, I knew Gam had died.

There’s probably a third story in there somewhere. Probably a fourth and fifth too, but these are the first premonitions of my grief. The first phone call marked a moment in time. When I retreated under my pink bedspread, it was then that I realized that I wouldn’t even recognize the sound of her voice. It had been ten years since I had heard her or seen her. It had been ten years since I had taken in her smell. I had forgotten her and I still don’t know how to make sense of that.

I don’t know how to talk about the shift that happened in the moment. How much I tried to find her. How I searched for those cassette tapes of bedtimes stories she had recorded while she was in the hospital. How I lamented ever doing laundry so that her clothes now smelled more like me than her. How much I couldn’t stand the stories that were told to me about my mom. I had forgotten her and no one else could fill in the blanks. I still missed her. I still wished for another ending, for any alternative to cancer’s victory. But, I no longer grieved her but the idea of her. I don’t want that to be true. I’m trying to write some thing else but it seems like this is the truth.

Still, there’s something strange there. It’s what my colleague in ministry wondered yesterday. We get these premonitions that someone is sick or someone needs a visit. We send notes in the mail and through cyberspace to say we’re just thinking of you. It’s something that love does. I don’t mean for it to sound trite. It’s why I am struggling to type the words into my manuscript. It’s sounds like drivel, except that I don’t believe that it is. There’s something about that connection we share that extends beyond the grave. Something about love changes us. It puts us into greater communion. It orients us toward each other’s wants and needs. It connects us even when it doesn’t make any logical sense.

A Blasphemous Question Just For You

Before I officially became Mrs. Cook, I went to a writing conference. This is, of course, what everyone does in the last few days before they get married, right? They go to a four-day conference. Well, it’s what I did.

Before we hopped on a plane and flew off to get hitched, I went to the Frederick Buechner Writer’s Workshop at Princeton Theological Seminary where I got all kinds of wonderful insight and advice from Philip Yancey, Jonathan Merritt, Jeff Chu and Kathleen Norris. As you may know, I’ve been writing a book. I’ve been staring at a blinking cursor for a really long time and let’s just say it’s a slow process.

It’s a really slow process. And then, on the very last day of this conference I heard Kathleen Norris say, “people of faith are afraid to encounter what they presume to be blasphemous — and so we are quick to cut down what makes us uncomfortable.” I may be misquoting her but that’s what I have written in my notebook. And it hit me like a ton of bricks. She just described my whole writing process. I have been afraid to put down the words because I’m afraid that I’ll be labeled a heretic. I don’t want that label. I might be one but I don’t really want the label stamped on my forehead. Or worse, on whatever published work I might offer the world.

Jeff Chu said something the day before that I was still thinking about. He said, and again I might be misquoting, “we are never ever telling one narrative, but it is always a weaving of different stories.” It was then that I realized that I’m writing a memoir. I’m weaving my stories with other stories in a first person narrative of my own grief. They say to write what you know. Well, this is what I know.

I am writing every day. I put my butt in the chair and try to get down 1,000 new words every day. Or almost every day. But, I have a terrible time with editing. I want to reread what I’ve written and I get lost in my edits. This is made worse by the fact that I have realized that it’s a memoir. And so, the whole voice has changed. Everything needs to be rewritten! Ah!

What I want to share with you is a snippet of this work in progress but I learned at said writing conference that blog posts really shouldn’t be that long. Blog posts should only be 750 words. So perhaps I’ll save that for another day. Today, instead, I want to ask you something. I want to ask you about something I heard Krista Tippett say yesterday. On my way home from a meeting, I listened to OnBeing and heard Krista say this:

There is this great puzzle about life that things go wrong, right? Perfection can be a goal, but it’s never a destination. And this has given rise across history to the whole theodicy debate. If there — how could there be a good God, or how could the universe, the balance of the universe be good when there’s so much suffering? And so that question is there and it’s real, and reasonable.

But then there is also this paradox that we are so often made by what would break us. And I think this is where our spiritual traditions, where spiritual life is so redemptive and necessary, because this is the place in life that says — that honors the fact that there’s darkness — but also says “And you can find meaning right there,” right? Not — it’s not overcoming it. It’s not beyond it. It’s not in spite of it. What goes wrong doesn’t have to define us but, I mean, again, to come back to what wisdom is, as I’ve seen it, it’s people who walk through whatever darkness, whatever hardship, whatever imperfection and unexpected catastrophes or the like, the huge and the ordinary losses of any life, who walk through those and integrate them into wholeness on the other side. That you’re whole and healed, not fixed. Not in spite of those things, but because of how you have let them be part of you.

What do you think? Is that true? That’s the big blasphemous question because I’m realizing I need to hear your story as much as I need to write my own. Jeff Chu is right. It’s never just one story. Moreover, right there — in hearing those words — that is where my imposter syndrome shows up. There it is announcing that I am not actually whole and healed. I have so long defined myself by this hard thing, this grief. I’ve felt it was who I was, who I am. So, I want to know: does your grief define you? Or are you wise enough to have integrated this grief as Krista suggests? I hope you’ll share your wisdom with me.

 

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

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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 Warmth of God’s Saints

33c93-img_2784All Saints is one of my very, very favorite liturgical celebrations. It is a ritual that was introduced to me in the liturgical laboratory of my seminary. Sitting in James Memorial Chapel, I experienced for the very first time what it means to call upon such a great cloud of witnesses. Tears rolled down my cheeks each and every time in this holy celebration when we were invited this mystical union. Because there just isn’t another time or place in the Christian calendar that we make a space for grief. We reserve that sweet communion for funerals and memorial services but neglect to include it in the rest of our preaching and proclamation.

It is the day I want to sit in the back of the church. I want to light candles and sing and quietly mourn for the loss of such amazing saints of God like my mother and my grandmother. I want to sit in awe and wonder that there is something that connects us — all of us — to the divine and to each other. No one is left out. We all share in this great heritage. But, I am called to to the front of the sanctuary. I’m called to lead the prayers. It’s my task to stand in the pulpit and share the good news. Except that grief doesn’t feel like good news.

So more often than not, when All Saints Day rolls around, I spend hours upon hours preparing liturgies that allow for that sacred space. I do not preach but I find readings and poetry that will say what I can’t find the words to say to intermingle with chanted prayers from Iona and Taize. But, not this year.

This year I’m serving a small little country church in Pennsylvania. I am the interim pastor in this church that believes this might just be a title to begin many years of ministry. They’ve had pastors that have stayed and an interim music director who had been there for forty years. Theirs is a church that claims tradition as if it is just one thing. Their worship reflects this so that I didn’t feel I could play too much. I had written no more than a call to worship as I tried as hard as I could to stick with what is familiar for this congregation. Still, I was restless and uncomfortable.

I was restless and uncomfortable until we came to the table. I stepped before that holy ground and invited the congregation to take a deep breath before we shared in reciting the Statement of Faith. We took a deep breath because these are bold words. These are important words and we need to recognize how much power these words hold. But, more than that, I need to catch my breath. I had just preached a hard sermon and I could see the tears rolling down each face. I could feel them about to come from my own eyes. I needed to catch my breath before sharing in this proclamation of who we are as God’s saints.

And then, before the invitation, I did something I wasn’t planning on doing. I invited the congregation to call out the names of those saints — alive or dead — that we wanted to invite to the table. I invited everyone to call out the names of those that they would like to dine with us. My own mind raced with people who know more about faith than I do and the people I miss so very much. I thought of famous people and the many, many people who don’t have a seminary degree but have taught me more about faith than my seminary professors because it would be so amazing to have all of those people in one place seated at one table. That was the image in my head as names were being called out from the congregation. For all of the liturgy that I have so carefully planned, there was this work of people that came with a simple invitation. Call out the names of those you wish to be here and the names kept coming — name after name after name. All of the saints were gathered in that sanctuary. All of them were there. We felt the warmth in the room as we broke bread together. We felt so much warmth.