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!

 

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.

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.