Friday, May 28, 2010

Lessons I'm Learning on Death, Dying and Grief - Part Three - The spirit is willing, but the flesh is strong.

My daddy was always such a strong man.  He was 47 when I was born, so you would have thought he wouldn't have the energy required to keep up with a young and ornery child.  But he managed somehow.  He was the age of a grandpa, but his was a full time job, not just the weekend with the grandkids sort of thing.  That takes a great deal of energy, but he always seemed to manage to come up with it.  I did not, of course, realize until I had children at a reasonable age in my 20s that both of my parents having me later in life were probably tired a lot. 

When I was around six (so daddy would be 53), I was playing in the backyard with a Frisbee.  I had an older brother and sister who had moved out of the house by this time, so I was virtually an only child growing up.  I was playing with a Frisbee, but there was no one there to catch it for me, so on one particularly good throw, it went zinging over the fence into the neighbor's back yard.  I did what any child would do.  I went and told my father.  He dutifully went over to the neighbor's house to retrieve the wayward toy. 

There was a brick planter box I was standing on by the fence watching my father.  It was about three feet wide, and I was standing on the wall closest to the fence gripping the top railing of the chain link fence.  I was watching dad, but I was then, and I am now, rarely without motion going on of some sort.  I would make my body stiff and let go of the fence and fall back a bit and catch myself - just in the nick of time before I fell back completely.  Well, I'm sure you can imagine what happened - I missed once.  I fell back and my head hit just over the opposite wall of the planter box.  The brick wall cut the back of my neck, just below the base of my skull.  There was quite a bit of blood, and I screamed.  The next thing I know, I saw my father clear that fence and land right beside me.  He picked me up in his arms and carried me into the house, and later took me to the hospital for stitches. 

He could leap over chain link fences in a single bound.  He was my knight in shining armor (okay, plaint splattered overalls), and he would rescue me from wasps and bees and killer red ants.  If I were stung by a wasp, you would soon see dad marching purposefully toward their nest with a can of gasoline and a torch!  They better never hurt his little girl! 

My daddy was always strong, and had a strong heart.  He has traveled by foot over a good part of this country.  He has worked hard his entire life.  So, these recent years that he has been confined to a wheelchair has been difficult to watch.  His world was reduced to a very small apartment and a television set.  The last time he was in a nursing home for physical therapy after a fall we saw a bit of his strong spirit as he would routinely attempt to escape. 

As we have sat by his bedside these last few days, his heart is still pretty strong.  His body, as frail as it is, not without some strength.  He also has a strength of spirit that is undaunted by his circumstances.  This past week it is pretty obvious that he is living in two worlds.  He is having conversations with us, and remembers us with little prompting, but he is also including in our conversations other people only he can see.  His mother and brother who died sometime back are there.  There is also a child, who we assume is his sister Patsy who died when she was four. 

And of course, my father is speaking to someone he only refers to as "my Lord." I asked him if Jesus was there and he nodded his head yes.  I asked him if he (Jesus) was telling him something, again he nodded.  I asked him if he were telling him to come home.  He looked at me square in the eyes, surprised that I too could apparently see and hear what he could and said, "yes." 

It has been fascinating to watch the look of awe and wonder on his face as he gazes at the marvels of heaven only he can see.  There is an obvious desire to go to that wonderful and beautiful place, but even in his weakest moments where we think the end is close, if you lay your hand on his chest you will feel a strong and steady heartbeat.  The nurses are amazed that in spite of everything else indicating his transitioning through the stages of the end of life, his heart rate has maintained strength and steadiness.  So while his spirit is willing, his heart indeed is strong. 

We have prayed during some of the more laboring points for Jesus just to go ahead and take daddy on to this beautiful place where his loved ones are waiting.  As we were driving home my husband, daughter and I were comparing what God was telling us at this time.  My daughter was getting the word to wait, my husband was hearing, "it's not time."  I was hearing, "not in your time."  It simply wasn't time for him to go then.  His heart was strong. 

The time is approaching when Jesus will call to my father and my father will no longer be bound by the confines of an earthly body.  When that day comes, we will celebrate the completion of his journey and wait until it is time for our name to be called. 

Thursday, May 27, 2010

Lessons I'm Learning on Death, Dying and Grief - Part Two - Birth and Death

 As my family and I gathered around my father's bedside, I was reminded how similar the journey of birth and the journey of death really are.  I believe that death, like birth, is a holy and sacred moment. 

At the moment of birth there is much rejoicing.  I remember 30 years ago when my sister was laboring with my niece, there was a period of long and agonizing labor.  There were pains and strivings, and even in spite of such unpleasantness, the moment my niece entered this world there was great rejoicing!  A celebration! We were shouting in the halls announcing that "it's a girl!"  What excitement was generated simply by our excitement, even among those who had nothing to do with the family.  I remember my own journeys of laboring with my children.  It was the same thing.  Pain, yes.  Rejoicing?  Oh yes! 

At the time of death, there also  is much rejoicing, like the moment of birth.  That may sound strange because of course death is also a time to mourn.  We grieve the loss of our loved one.  We miss their presence in our lives, so it is difficult to think of death as a time of rejoicing or celebration, but I believe it is.  In the case of my father those of us on this side of the journey are celebrating a life well-lived.  For those who are awaiting him on the other side of the journey, it is a celebration of seeing their loved one again.

It is work.  There is laboring, like birth.  It is a process.  It is like working so hard for one moment, such as training for a marathon.  You work so hard, first in training and then in the race.  You work so hard for one moment, the time you cross the finish line.  It is a brief second.  When that moment finally arrives, you can't help but feel elated.  Win or lose, you are thrilled when that moment is finished. 

It is like watching a hard fought contest, cheering your contender on to the bitter end, and when the final point is scored and your team is the victor, you have great joy and great relief all at the same time.  You literally shout for joy!  You celebrate.  While death is a sobering moment, one in which we contemplate life and the purpose of our existence, it is still at time of great celebration. 

There are other similarities of birth and death.  Death, like birth, is messy.  There is a mid-wife concept of death, we call it hospice.  I don't know if you have thought of death as the reversal of birth, but I'm sure there are many other similarities. 

There will be more lessons I am learning on death, dying and grief in the days to come.

Wednesday, May 26, 2010

Lessons I'm Learning in Death, Dying, and Grief - Part One

Before I begin my musings on the lessons I am learning at my father's bedside, I would like to say that I'm am positive these lessons aren't helpful for everyone.  If you are reading this and the lessons do not pertain to you, or mesh with your understanding of death, dying, and grief, then let us agree that there are different perspectives and that one person's point of view does not have to be wrong so that another person can be right, nor am I by saying these things, suggesting I have all the answers.  There are as many different understandings of death as there are ways of dying and people who are dying. These are simply my perspectives based on my experience, both from a daughter's point of view, and as a pastor who has set at the bedside of those who are dying. I'm sure I do not understand them all.  I will say that these musings are from a strictly Protestant Christian perspective, so if that's not you, then there may be similarities but there will be many differences as well.

I, like most mortals it seems, am curious about what happens after we depart the existence we know in this world.  There are many ideas of what happens, some are mentioned in the Bible.  There are descriptions of heaven complete with the pearly gates and streets of gold, where there are no tears and we will have different bodies.  We have understandings based solely on family folklore, such as there is fishing in heaven.  You might wonder what theological premise do I base this on?  Well, the theological understanding in which we are talking about Daddy finding a fishing hole and goin' fishing of course.  There are beliefs held in agreement with others, such as there are angelic choirs that our loved ones who enjoy such things can join, and (in the case of a friend of mine and I) that there is a kitchen basement where we will surely spend eternity peeling potatoes. 

The truth is, unless we have gone through the process, we don't know with any certainty what happens.  I have been asked what it is like to die or what awaits us after we die and I answer honestly - I don't know.  I haven't died yet.  Now, many people may think that this is a flippant answer that isn't very pastoral, but in mothering my children, I have determined that an honest "I don't know" is worth a thousand words of supposition.  And the principle carries over to congregations.  I have not been through the process of dying myself, but I have been with people as they have died.  I have studied the Scriptures that tell us of the life after the one we currently live.  I have come to the conclusion that there are a few constants for Christians, but they still seem to be vague as to the exact process that happens at the moment of death, except when we are apart from the body we are present with the Lord, (2 Cor 5:8) and this seems to be true from my observation.

My father is on a journey right now.  This is no surprise that I would use a journey metaphor, it applies to his entire life.  My father's family was always on a journey and when he was on his own he journeyed a great deal also.  He traveled from Texas to California in the depression.  As a (almost) grown man he 'truck farmed' and traveled around selling produce from the back of a truck.  He used to hitchhike across the country visiting relatives, and it was traveling by foot and hitchhiking from California back to Texas that he met my mother. They married and journeyed together moving from Texas to California, back to Texas, then to Oklahoma where they (mostly) settled down and raised a family.  He is on a journey right now from this life to the next.  From the community of faith, the body of Christ, the church on earth, to the church eternal.  While my journey with my father is mostly as an observer, I am, as I always have, am a learner sitting at my father's feet.  These are a few of the things my father is teaching me.  I will post a few more lessons in the coming days. 

Sunday, May 23, 2010

Friday, May 21, 2010

A Tale of Two Identities

I was reading a friend's blog on clergy who have two personas (or faces) online.  You can read the article, "Having Two Identities is a Lack of Integrity," here.  I wanted to comment on that, so I started and realized it was my own musings and ramblings rather than a comment on his, so I just briefly posted and came on over here to my own blog.

Around twelve years ago when I was in the candidacy process, but before I was appointed to a church, I was at a friend's house.  We went to church together and we had been buddies in high school.  She knew everything about me (even where the skeletons are buried).  Her husband had purchased a music video and I wanted to watch it so we could dance around her living room.  She told me, "you can't act that way anymore." 

It made me sad, and for a few years a bit confused as to how I was suppose to behave as clergy, even around friends.  I realize now there is nothing wrong with breaking out into spontaneous dance, except the bad dancing.  But people look to clergy about how to act as Christians, and I think the problem we [clergy] get into is that we buy into the lie that we must have two appearances. 

Jesus warned against being like the hypocrites.  There are numerous scriptures I could cite, but I'm just going to tell you to read Matthew, specifically, Matthew 6.  Of course, there are a few quotes about them in Mark and Luke, but not nearly as many as Matthew.  The term hypocrite comes from a Greek theatrical term which is an actor that plays more than one character.  They would wear masks and change the masks for the different roles.  The recognized symbol for theater or drama are representations of these masks.
So Jesus was warning against putting on masks, not letting people see your real face.  It is where we get the term "two faced." 

My personality is such that keeping up with the face I have is all my ADHD riddled brain can handle.  After the incident with my friend, I tried to morph into some prescribed persona, and I am not even sure exactly who prescribed it.  It was very difficult for me because I was trying to be something I was not.  I wasn't trying to act one way as a pastor, and another way with family and friends.  I was trying to be someone's idea of what a pastor should act like.  I wasn't doing very well.  Fortunately, it was pretty early in my ministry when I realized that I wasn't cut out to pretend. 

I believe my best ministry has come since then.  I try to the best of my ability to live transparently.  Of course, we are going to have different 'hats' that we wear, but our faces should all be the same.  With my congregation, with my friends and family, with my children, with my husband, I am still me. I may not shout from the pulpit that I am a geek who dances spontaneously in my living room, but if you are around me very long you will know that it is a possibility (or danger, however you look at it.)  Yes, there are intimate sides you share only with those closest to you, but they shouldn't be such that you couldn't catch a glimpse of that side even if you are only close acquaintances.  

I believe laity (non-clergy) struggle with this duplicity as well.  Christians have been taught how they are supposed to act, and sometimes that teaching has been or gets distorted.  Society has used this as training for proper social behavior, which is why my friend felt that as a clergy, I couldn't dance like a geek in her living room.  But that same geek was the one whom God called to be in ministry - geeky dancing and all.  

Of course, as a pastor I must be sensitive to not be the cause of damage to someone else's faith.  Some things may need to be disclosed carefully and only with a very prayerful spirit in which you give plenty of room for the Holy Spirit to work.  Sometimes it doesn't matter, if people want to perceive you the wrong way, they will, whether or not there is anything wrong to perceive.  It is important to pray without ceasing, to stay in tune with God, and to apologize if you mess up, but over all I have learned to be myself. 

St. Francis of Assissi said, "preach the gospel at all times, and if necessary use words."  Our lives, both lay and clergy, should be lived transparently and openly...for Christ.  If there is something that is incongruous with how you are behaving and how you think you are supposed to behave as a Christian, then you need to work through that, whether with Christ alone, or with the help of a spiritual adviser.  Maybe your idea of how you are supposed to behave isn't really who God is calling you to be. Maybe your actions and behaviors are inconsistent with the teachings of Christ.  Either way, you need to figure it out to live an authentic Christian life.  
We are all ministers by our baptism.  We should all live as transparent disciples of Christ who witness to God's love and authority in the world.  I hope that by my example I can encourage someone to live for Christ and to be themselves while doing so.

Just as a bonus, one of my favorite movie scenes with masks is in Shall We Dance with Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers.  Many women are wearing masks pretending to be Ginger Rogers, even Ginger who is pretending to be herself. 

Tuesday, May 18, 2010

Days Like These

Friends, this week my youngest child graduates from high school.  She is a very beautiful, bright, smart, capable, competent, young woman who will go far and do "small things with great love" of which Mother Theresa speaks.  I am excited for her accomplishments, not just the honors and accolades she has gathered in high school, but also the college years to come, and how God will use her in her lifetime.  I'm sure I am not the only parent standing at such a place in time that it seems you are able to see a panoramic view of the child's life from the time she was born all the way through into adulthood.  It seems I can see vignettes of her graduating from college, her wedding day, beginning her first job, pregnant, a mother with a daughter of her own...

Of course, I cannot really see the future with any kind of clarity.  I cannot know what God has planned for her, or the choices and decisions she will make in her life.  But what I know of my child casts a vision on the future and it seems superimposed over the blank slate that is her tomorrows.  I know who she is, and even if I cannot tell what will happen in the future, I am confident that she will have God to guide her.  Who she is allows her to listen and follow God.  Isnt' that an awesome thing?  I will miss my child as she leaves for college, but I know she will always include me in her life in some way, and I know that she will bless those she meets.

In the midst of this excitement, we are living in the chaos and mess of preparing to move.  There are boxes everywhere.  Cleaning has taken on the importance of tending to ingrown toenails.  You know, something you really NEED to do, but not something you really WANT to do.  And I wont even mention how futile it seems. (Guess I just did.)  I keep packing and discovering, I really needed what I just packed.  I haven't been this sore, tired, and in an overall state of AARRRGGGHHHH!!!!! in about...welll...4 years, which was the last time I moved and graduated a child at the same time. 

My father is 92, and is in failing health.  He has not been feeling good this week, and I am feeling a bit of tension in the middle of the excitement of graduation this week, and worry over my father.  I know he wants to go to be with God, and I would never begrudge him that joy, but I just want to scream, "I'm too busy!"  How can so many things; happy, sad, exciting, worrisome, chaotic, messy, all happen at one time.  It seems that the stress is beginning to get to me.  I had someone ask me yesterday if I needed a nap!  Maybe I do.

The Bible tells us that there will be days (even weeks) like these. Romans 8;26-28 tells us:
Likewise the Spirit helps us in our weakness; for we do not know how to pray as we ought, but that very Spirit intercedes with sighs too deep for words. And God, who searches the heart, knows what is the mind of the Spirit, because the Spirit intercedes for the saints according to the will of God. We know that all things work together for good for those who love God, who are called according to his purpose.

Often, we only focus on the last verse, all things work together for good for those who love God, who are called according to his purpose.  It has been taken out of context in a prosperity-type way of saying, "if you love God, then everything in your life will be great."  Which has an unspoken counter sentiment of "if you want things to go great in your life, then you should love God," or worse "if things aren't going great in your life, you must not love God."  Of course, most people will say that these are incorrect assumptions, but the fact remains that I have counseled with people who have picked up on these exact counter-sentiments however incorrect they may be.

I like looking at it in the verses I have listed above.  It is obviously written to those who are weak.  In our weakness...  It is in our weakness that God is strong.  It is in our groaning the spirit intercedes.  It is in these circumstances that we can be assured that even in the midst of our failures, we have been called according to God's purpose.  Often, I feel I must do everything, that I am indispensable, that if I can't do things, they wont get done.  But you know what, regardless of what I am able to do or not do, everything will work out okay.  I may not be able to see the road ahead, but I know God can.  So I just trust and have faith.

In the writing of this post, I have received another phone call from my mom.  I need to go see my father, and I need to not procrastinate.  I have agonized over the time that I do not have, but I am aware of the need to take this time. So, I will go visit my father, and trust God with the rest. 

Many blessings to you all.

Sunday, May 16, 2010

Sunday, May 9, 2010

Women Making a Difference

Sermon May 9, 2010 on Acts 16:9-15.  Who are the women in your life who have made a difference?  What has inspired you to be a more godly woman?

Sunday, May 2, 2010

On Earth as in Heaven

Sermon May 2, 2010 on the Scripture text Revelation 21:1-6. Do we truly believe the words we pray of Jesus' prayer, "thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven?"  Or do we pray, and wait for heaven, not expecting God to answer our prayer, much less use us to make it come true. 

Today we celebrated the sacraments of baptism and holy communion.