The Sadness of Change

2015-03-28 15.56.26I had my left ankle replaced in 2003. It finally wore completely out. Yes, even prosthetic technology wears out.

I was hoping for an update – what they call an arthroplasty revision or a new ankle replacement – but alas, I had too many other problems in what was left of my own ankle area to have another replacement. After 20 years of avoiding an ankle ankle fusion, it happened.

I’ve gotten quite used to these surgical procedures. But I was not prepared for all of the grief! It’s always been slightly under the surface with each major anatomical update, but this one was infused with much more sadness. My gait would permanently change. The kinds of shoe I could wear would permanently change. My activity options would permanently change. It would be a permanent right angle ankle. The only thing left to move would be my toes and a teensy part of my forefoot.

On top of the changes that would take place, the whole procedure was barbaric. The surgeons had to chisel out my ankle replacement hardware which was grown into my own bones. Cadaver bone (I am eternally grateful for those who had that donor sticker on your driver’s license) was ground up and added to bone they took from another leg bone of mine. All those bone chips were added to a special glue concoction to fill in all the empty cavities once the replacement hardware was removed. A very high tech suspension spike was driven into my tibia (main shin bone) through my heel. The bone goop was placed around the spike. Measurements and x-rays and adjustments were made to line everything up. The goal was to have everything aligned so that when I did walk with my special shoe, there would be a fluid rocking movement from my heal through my big toe. Screws were inserted from both sides of my “ankle” to keep everything in place. A boot/cast was the grand finale. Let the healing process begin.

Once the drapes were removed in the operating room, the surgeons knew immediately the alignment was off. I’m missing some key anatomical landmarks (like a patella and patellar tendon) and I have a knee replacement. Plus, I’d had some major reconstruction on my ankle before the ankle replacement. In one of their own words, “They failed to appreciate the complexity of my leg.” They made everything right two days later.

There are no words for the gratitude I have for the expertise and attention to detail and the considerations for my well-being that my ankle team has displayed. I am thankful for the Affordable Care Act because I now have insurance and access to world-class medical care. I have Saint Sam, my supportive family, and so many other holding me in a sacred place.

When Saint Sam and Janet, my sister the nurse (at the same hospital), came to see me, I found myself getting very emotional talking about what was changing. I’ve already adapted and changed about so much in my life, why was this any different? There was nothing life-threatening about any of this, why did I have such sadness?

No doubt I will be exploring and meditating on this. This sadness didn’t just surface because of this surgery. I have some other “grief” that I have been aware of, but reluctant to share.

My Eternal Scheme Daily Word was “Flexibility” the day I came home from the hospital. Here is the prayer I wrote for that focused inspiration was this:

As the tree bends in the storm or the reed is soaked and bent to weave a basket, so may I too be flexible in all that I encounter today. Because I am rooted and grounded in your Divine care, I am able to withstand whatever blows my way. I may sway and I may bend, but I will not be broken or uprooted. Amen.

Good Friday

The Storm ComethSometimes I think the only thing that’s good about Good Friday is the stark honesty and hard reality it represents. Good Friday is a time for truth-telling and there’s nothing trivial about the events of that day.

Maybe it’s been awhile since you’ve read the biblical account of that day. I invite you to reacquaint yourself with the story here. I’ve selected a modern translation alongside a traditional translation. It’s long, but well worth the read! (Don’t get so engrossed that you forget to come back here!)

There is nothing nice and neat and tidy about Good Friday, or even the Easter story. And it’s not meant to be because there is nothing nice and neat and tidy about life! There are plenty of moments of beauty and wonder and joy in life. But where we really struggle and have our questions are in the cracks where we encounter pain and grief and uncertainty. When we ready in-between the lines of this passage, those are some of the same questions we ourselves ask.

Why does Jesus let himself be tormented?

Which power group is more responsible for Jesus’ death – the religious leaders or the political leaders?

This same crowd that hailed him with palms on the first day of the week is the same crowd that is screaming for his execution. What’s with that?

Why does Pilate still sign off on Jesus’ execution even though he says Jesus is innocent?

A handful of women remain at the foot of the cross during those agonizing hours of dying. Where are his faithful friends?

And when we’re done asking questions about the passage, we start in on the deeper, hidden questions in our lives.

Whether unexpected or anticipated, how do I deal with the gaping loss of someone I love? 

Will my son self-destruct or will he accept his mental illness? How will I make peace with any of this?

How do I cope with the losses inherent in aging or illness or when I can no longer work?

Will I ever be accepted for who I really am? Will I be safe because of who I am?

What is so amazing about the Good-Friday-gone-devastating-Friday is the transformative work of God. God works in and through vulnerability and weakness through the door of new life. The truth of Good Friday is that suffering love has transformative powers that the “executioners” never suspected.

We know the outcome of Good Friday in Easter. But those who were there, did not know what would happen. And even then, they did not have a clue what it meant or what they were supposed to do. They lived through the mystery. And so do we.

God did not abandon Jesus in his greatest hour of suffering and need. And God will not abandon us in ours. When we feel as though we can go no further or endure anymore, when we are certain of being crushed by the weight and enormity of all that we face, God whispers “It is finished” in our ear. Simple. Honest. Good.

Uncle Gary

It’s Holy Week and my heart is still heavy with grief. My last, and favorite uncle, died suddenly on March 9, 2015. We celebrated his life in an intimate memorial service in Anacortes, Washington on March 28, the day before Holy Week began. What follows are few brief thoughts I had the privilege of sharing at the service. 

Uncle Gary and me at Paulina Lake, July 2013
Uncle Gary and me at Paulina Lake, July 2013

There are some people who just exude life. Hub, or Uncle Gary as I knew him, was one such person. He was out-going, talkative with an infectious laugh, and a presence wherever he was. He knew everyone and had a story for everything. His untimely death is leaving a gaping hole in his family, and among his friends and colleagues.

We’re here today to celebrate Uncle Gary’s life. I think of this as him holding court. His favorite throne was his lazy boy chair, but he held court on the golf course, in a fishing boat, at the bbq or store counter, even on the phone. He genuinely loved engaging with people and before you knew it he was off on a story and soon had everyone laughing so hard you couldn’t stand up.

Uncle Gary didn’t just tell a story, he told epic stories. He could take some mundane, inconsequential piece of information and weave it into a saga. Before you even knew what you were in for, you were hooked. I don’t think he ever told a story that didn’t have humor. Usually he’d start laughing and before you knew it, you all were laughing. You might not even remember what the story was about, but you could barely breathe because you were laughing so hard! He was a master at embellishing those epic stories as well. I think it was a male Hubbard trait; one he inherited from his father, my grandfather. They were legendary story-tellers.

Uncle Gary was a true, died-in-the-wool salesman. I think he could sell a Dairy Queen burger to a vegetarian. Today, we might refer to him as a serial entrepreneur, but in reality, he was a true salesman. Like his storytelling abilities, his sales abilities were also a gift. I think he loved having something to offer you that would really enjoy, want, or need. Sales was just another avenue he used to connect with others.

Uncle Gary had two main hobbies: golf and fishing. All those Dairy Queen conferences were just an excuse to play golf at yet another resort. Not only did he love playing golf, he loved engineering and crafting his own custom golf clubs! I know there are some who received some of his treasured, hand-crafted golf clubs. The same was true for fishing. His laid-back nature was perfect for fishing and he brought that same focused craftsmanship to making custom-fishing rods. No doubt Aunt Carol was relieved when he completed that golf club or fishing pole and the living room could be reclaimed! Uncle Gary saw it as his patriarchal responsibility to make sure every new family member was properly introduced to the fine art of fishing. His was a family of fishing fools.

I was almost eight when Uncle Gary married Carol. And it was a very good thing. Carol grounded Gary and gave him his most precious gift … his family. There was nothing on this earth more precious or important to Uncle Gary than his family. Every family has his challenges, but any challenge can be weathered and withstood when there is love that anchors you together. Gary and Carol have anchored their family with an unbounded love. Tom and Heidi, Kim, Brandon, Rachel, Ian, Tori, Gavin, Andrew, Hunter, Gabe and Camden – it is now up to you to anchor your Mom, “Bob” or Gram, and one another with the love your Dad and Papa left as his legacy to you.

Even though we know that death is a part of life, we are never prepared when it comes to someone we love. The loss of someone close to us is a bittersweet reminder of just how precious are our lives. It’s a reminder of what is important, like family and relationships, and treasuring all that we’ve been given. Whether you knew him as Hub or Gary or Papa or Uncle Gary, you know your life was enriched because he was a part of it. His legacy lives in the stories and memories and lessons he’s left behind. We honor him and the sacred gift of life given to each of us by our Creator by remembering and sharing and loving each other on this journey.

I want to close with one of my favorite Scriptures from the Psalms.

Lord, let me know my end,
and what is the measure of my days;
let me know how fleeting my life is.
You have made my days a few handbreadths,
and my lifetime is as nothing in your sight.
Surely everyone stands as a mere breath.
For I am your passing guest,
an alien, like all my forebears (Psalm 39:4-4, 12). Amen.

The 25th Anniversary of the Cleveland School Shooting

Cleveland SchoolJanuary 17 marks the 25th anniversary of the Cleveland School shooting. The gunman, who had a long criminal history, shot and killed five schoolchildren, and wounded 29 other children and one teacher, before killing himself. Some think it began the most recent cycle of school shootings.

On January 17, 1989, the gunman, a disturbed drifter and former Cleveland School student, began his attack by setting his van on fire with a Molotov Cocktail after parking it behind the school. The car later exploded. He then moved to the school playground and began firing his Type 56 Assault Rifle from behind a portable building. He fired 106 rounds in three minutes. All of the fatally shot victims and many of the wounded were Cambodian and Vietnamese immigrants. The gunman shot himself in the head with a pistol.

The multiple murders at the Cleveland School in Stockton received national news coverage, Michael Jackson came to the school, and it spurred calls for regulation of semi-automatic weapons. “Why could Purdy, an alcoholic who had been arrested for such offenses as selling weapons and attempted robbery, walk into a gun shop in Sandy, Oregon, and leave with an AK-47 under his arm?” Time magazine asked.

That was the beginning of California’s crusade defining and then banning assault weapons. Today, California has some of the nation’s toughest gun legislation, thanks in part to the teachers who were there that horrible day and whose students were among the victims. Others who were injured are also part of the gun debate, however on the side for gun rights. Twenty-five years later, it is still a difficult issue. One thing everyone does agree on is that their lives were forever altered.

January 14, 2014 – 25 years later and the third school shooting so far in January 2014 – a 12 year-old boy brought his modified shotgun to school, wounding two other students before putting down his firearm at the request of a teacher.

When will it stop?

 

photo: Recordnet.com

December 14 ~ What Does Tragedy Change?

two candlesLast year on December 14, my family was wrapped up in the memorial service for my brother, himself a victim of gun violence. Family from Oregon had arrived the day before. My youngest son and his family came in from Fresno. My parents had arrived the day they learned their son was gone. Sam and I arrived earlier in the week from Texas. We were all navigating the unchartered territory of grief and disbelief.

It was the next day before I even heard about what happened a continent away in a Connecticut elementary school. A tragedy occurred that no one should ever have to face. Lives forever changed by tragedy; citizens shocked that gun violence would once again claim the lives of children and teachers. An occurrence that, as unbelievable as it was, was becoming much too familiar.

While families and friends were frozen in shock, lawmakers immediately vowed to make the changes necessary to make our schools and neighborhoods safe. A year and over 35,000 gun deaths later, they have failed. In fact, more gun restrictions were loosened than tightened!

Advent Scripture

It was into this kind of darkness and because of this kind of darkness that God stepped into human history in the birth of Christ; to shine a new light and light a new path. In the meantime, we wait and listen and turn to God.

Hear my cry, O God;
    listen to my prayer.
From the end of the earth I call to you,
    when my heart is faint.

Lead me to the rock
    that is higher than I;
for you are my refuge,
    a strong tower against the enemy.

Let me abide in your tent forever,
    find refuge under the shelter of your wings. ~ Psalm 61:1-4

Advent Action

Guns are a public health issue like wearing a seatbelt and not driving when you’ve been drinking or text while driving. Keeping this relevant to commemorate lives lost because of gun violence: Do you really need a gun? If your answer is ‘Yes’, you must write out your response, including why, and post it on your refrigerator in order for it to count as your Advent Action.

Advent Prayer

While I wait in this season of Advent, help me to look into my heart’s recesses for motive and intention in the things I choose to do. May we be motivated to truly change our ways as a way of redeeming tragedy. Amen.

December 6 ~ One Year Anniversary

Dec2Today is the one year anniversary when we learned my brother, Vic,  had taken his own life. It’s been a rough year. Death is inevitable. Grief is necessary. Time tempers the pain. Deep reflection heals. Everything changes.

The coroner told my sister, Janet, when he arrived at my brother’s house that Vic most likely died on December 2. Janet, Sam and I had our own little memorial this December 2. We wanted to honor him and acknowledge the sacred place he chose. We burned some sage, scattered a few of his ashes, and shared some quiet thoughts under the stars. Janet and I were surprised that we remained dry-eyed! It hasn’t always been like that this past year. And then we laughed as we recalled some of our adult escapades, which is exactly what we’d be doing if Vic was physically present.

Grief is an interesting phenomena. The trauma of loss is so great that our psyche shuts down, something like going into shock – like the physical body does when traumatized – to give it time to absorb the impact and reality of death. It’s like realizing you’ve been holding your breath.

For me, Advent is like that. You’re settled in your seat. You’ve looked over the program. The concertmaster comes on stage signalling the musicians to tune to his violin. Then the conductor comes on stage to applause. Everything quiets as she turns to the orchestra and raises her baton. And then you realize you’ve been holding your breath. Advent is the name of that moment.

Advent Scripture

There’s a wonderful phrase tucked into only a few places in the Bible.

But when the fullness of time had come, God sent [God’s] Son, born of a woman.
~ Galatians 4:4

I believe there’s a fullness of time moment for each of us. One thing I’ve come to understand through the passage of this last year is that my brother had his own sense of his fullness of time. I don’t need to, or may not understand it. I don’t need to, or may not be able to make sense of why. It’s not even my place to make judgements or excuses or apologies. The fullness of his time had come.

Advent Action

We are never prepared for unexpected, horrifying, accidental, or much-too-soon death. Even when someone has had a long, full life, we’re not ready to let them go from us. And there are no shortcuts through grief. When going through your first anniversary of a loved one’s death, when do you realize you’ve been holding your breath?

Advent Prayer

Lord, let me know my end,
and what is the measure of my days;
let me know how fleeting my life is.
You have made my days a few handbreadths,
and my lifetime is as nothing in your sight.
Surely everyone stands as a mere breath.

For I am your passing guest,
an alien, like all my forebears. ~ Psalm 39:4-4, 12

Amen.

I’ve been holding my breath for one year. It’s time to breathe again.

The Last of the Holidays

The Five 2008Thanksgiving is the last of the holidays, marking a year of holidays and birthdays since my brother’s death, December 6, 2012. Last Thanksgiving, 2012, my parents, my sister, my oldest son, and my brother gathered to celebrate at my brother’s new house. He had a new job, a new living situation, and was embarking on a new life as his wife of twenty-two years decided to divorce. Sam and I could not make the trip from Texas and my other son and his family were spending Thanksgiving with his wife’s family. It was a small gathering at my brother’s, but considering we usually don’t get together for Thanksgiving, it was a perfect opportunity to get together and a new way of doing things.

As the family sat down to eat, my brother offered a toast, noting this was one of the happiest days of his life because his family was here. No one thought too much about it because he had had a rough several months with all of the changes. Things had come together and seemed to be moving forward.

That weekend was the last any of the family saw my brother. Oh, we all talked on the phone, almost daily, the following week. He’d post pictures, giving clues to family treasures he was unpacking, surprising all of us with the stuff he had from our grandparents and even our parents! Then he’d call and we’d stroll down memory lane. His memory was iron clad and I knew I would have to produce evidence if I was going to challenge him on a date or event. I constantly teased him that he alone was our family’s institutional memory.

It was a Sunday, the 49ers were playing, and we all talked to him at some point that afternoon. And then oddly I heard nothing. Even though all of us called to check in as was our custom, we figured he was busy when we didn’t get an answer. Then my parents became concerned and called my sister to check on him. That’s when she found him. A nightmare none of us were prepared for or ever imagined. It’s still hard knowing he was outside for several days before my sister found him. I still am sad he died alone as I believe everyone should have someone with them as they transition from this life to the next. Even a year later, it is difficult to accept that he chose to end his life. But he did, and I can honor that he did it on his own terms.

This year we are gathering at our house for Thanksgiving as we have for every birthday and holiday this entire year. It’s been a year of pilgrimages and moves, of sadness and joy, of questions and acceptance, of loss and emptiness and the slow process of healing from unspeakable grief. Grief changes you and sets a new normal, one that has an empty seat at the table or a pause texting or calling as you remember he isn’t at the other end of the phone.

The first year without my brother is almost to a close. And then we will begin another. But for now, we will gather for Thanksgiving. I give thanks for my family. I give thanks that we can still gather. I give thanks that we can be sad and still laugh as we always do. And most of all, I give thanks for my leetle brother whom I love and miss.

Saintly Sinners

Maui SunsetSaintly sinners. That’s who we are: people who have missed the mark (sinners) and still find ourselves the object of God’s transforming love (saints).

My brother loved shocking his friends saying that he, the redneck reprobate, had a minister sister, and he could probably get them a great deal on marrying and burying. He jokingly used to remind me that he was pretty sure he was “going to the other place”, if he was going anywhere at all. Then I would remind him that Jesus, in fact, was all about the loser, so he was covered any way you looked it.

Never, as we chided each other back and forth over the years, did I imagine I would be doing his memorial service and remembering him as part of my personal All Saint’s Day practice.

I think it’s appropriate that we stop and remember those we’ve known and loved who have gone before us. We have Veteran’s Day and Memorial Day as national days of remembrance for those who have served in the Armed Forces. We have World AIDS Day and International Women’s Day and a host of other days set aside for awareness and remembrance of people and causes.

Even though our loved ones who have died are never far from our thoughts, there’s something sacred about pausing and observing and remembering. I haven’t served in a church for a number of years, but I have created my own personal ritual for All Saint’s Day. I carve out a short period of time in my day. I light a candle, select a special hymn (This year I’ve selected Jesus, Lover of My Soul, a hymn I picked for a three year-old, my very first funeral in 1980) and read aloud the names of everyone I know or who has been brought to my attention, like the gun deaths since Newtown, who have died this past year. Often I name others that I have been remembering. Simple and sacred.

I hope you’ll take a wee bit of time today to remember those saints from your life who have died, but still left you gifts from their hearts.

This is my favorite version of Charles Wesley’s hymn Jesus, Lover of My Soul by Ken Medema. I’m not fond of the video, but you don’t need to view it in order to enjoy the music. Blessings.

 

A House, Hospitality, and Honor

Photo: Janet Peterson

My Daily Word for today is Hospitality. It’s also the one year anniversary of my parents buying this house for my brother as he was transitioning through a divorce. A year later, I’m contemplating hospitality in a house we purchased from my parents and all I’m left with from my brother are memories by which to honor him. It’s been a tough year full of transitions and lots of hospitality.

There’s a classic hospitality passage in the Bible:

Do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers, for by doing that some have entertained angels without knowing it. ~ Hebrews 12:2

Hospitality is an ancient cultural norm that has lost most of its heritage, at least in this country. Ironically, hospitality was an important part of the survival of the Mayflower newcomers, the pioneers of the frontier in the westward expansion, and those riding the rails looking for work during the Depression. Sharing food, providing shelter, taking in strangers while they healed was all a part of what was expected of any decent person.

Hospitality is also a central theme that runs from the very first book – Genesis -through the very last book – Revelation – in the Bible. A thorough study of hospitality is beyond the scope of this blog post, but suffice it to say it is right up there with loving your neighbor. In fact, it is wrapped up in, and as essential as, loving your neighbor because part of the Greek word for hospitality (philoxenia) is the word stranger (xenia; and where we get xenophobia). God has always been big on a stranger as a friend not yet met.

While modern day hospitality may look more like a social get together among friends, sometimes it is family just gathering together to heal. That’s what a lot of our hospitality has been this year: my family gathering together for birthdays and holidays, Mother’s Day and Father’s Day, and any other occasion that presents itself. Our house is the hub and my brother Vic has drawn us together, even though this is not longer his house and he is no longer with us.

Even though this was his house, he really didn’t have much of anything of his in it. My sister’s living room furniture is still here from when they moved it for him to use. Some of the cast off furniture his friends gave him is still here. The few items of his that he did have when he separated went back to the family home. He wasn’t here long enough to truly make it his own home.

Sam and I moved here from Texas and we didn’t bring much with us. We haven’t yet made this our home, partly for financial reasons and partly because of something deeper, I’m sure. Yet, we are glad to house and feed family who come. We’re really looking forward to the end of November when we’ll celebrate Thanksgiving, my son’s birthday, our granddaughter’s birthday, and my mother’s birthday.

And then we will face the anniversary of my brother’s death. My sister and I are already talking about it, but being aware of what’s coming never really prepares you for what will be. I’m sure we’ll all be wrecks as we go through it together.

The quote I selected for hospitality in the Daily Word is a Jewish proverb:

Hospitality is one form of worship.

Hospitality, like worship, gathers humanity together to be feed, to be sheltered, and to heal. When we do, we honor each other and the God whose love is poured out for all of us, bringing strangers together as family.

I’ll See You Again: A Memoir of Unspeakable Grief

amazon

I’ll See You Again by Jackie Hance and Janice Kaplan is not the kind of book I pick up to read. I’m very selective about the type of memoirs I read and I usually steer away from tragedy-to-triumph stories. I know that seems weird for someone who sees God’s redemptive work in the strangest of people and places. Consider it another one of my qwerks.

I was especially hesitant to read this particular memoir. The unthinkable tragedy was in the headlines when it occurred in July 2009. Often headline tragedies become sensationalized memoirs of shock and awe. I really dislike that kind of drama.

I’ll See You Again wasn’t like that at all. It is a raw, intimate account of how a mother encounters the unimaginable loss of all three of her daughters in a traffic accident caused by her sister-in-law. It is grief in all of its despair and disruption for Jackie, her husband, and their family. It is bears witness to the lifeline of support their friends commit to over a period of years. It exposes the flaws and vulnerabilities of people and acknowledges the tensions in the unknowable and unanswerable. It is heartfelt and heart-wrenching at the same time … just like grief.

What makes this book so powerful is its reminder of the depth and extent of the grief process. Grief is not the same for everyone. While there may be stages of grief, it is really more a process, and a messy process at that. Relationships are difficult under the best of circumstances and become extremely threatened or challenged during grief. This book reminds us that even the bonds of love fracture, and can still withstand, devastating grief.

I’ll See You Again is intense. But then so is grief. Sometimes by experiencing it through someone else’s story we can tuck away some insight that will be useful in our future.

Children and Guns

Flower Girl & Toy GunChildren and guns. Two words, when combined, are a family’s worst nightmare.

Gun deaths of children are like domestic violence. It is pervasive throughout every strata of society. Law enforcement and law violators. Close-knit families and fractured families. Urban houses and rural farms. Wealthy and poor. Law-abiding gun owners who have attempted to store their firearms safely and law-abiding gun owners who are negligent.

Gun deaths of children are more likely to be accidental and done by other children. The greatest tragedy is that all gun deaths of children by children could have been prevented. And now it is too late.

In case you missed it, the New York Times recently reported about the hidden toll of children and guns in their Bearing Arms series. The article goes into depth about how and why the numbers of accidental children gun deaths are so under-reported. It also tells the stories of parents who think they’ve safely stored their firearms, only to tragically find out otherwise. We get a glimpse behind the stories we read in the headlines about children and guns deaths.

There is no doubt gun violence takes more than the lives of those killed. We know there is unspeakable grief for families of those whose children die because of something so preventable. We don’t want to really think about the irreparable consequences of accidental gun deaths have on the child who accidentally shot their friend or sibling. The article also has a video taken while attorneys are interviewing a 14 year-old boy who accidentally shot his friend. It is heart-wrenching.

Children – those who are accidentally shot and those who accidentally shoot – are the truly innocent victims of preventable gun violence. It doesn’t matter which side of the gun debate you choose. We all must ask ourselves: Am I willing to do what it takes on an issue that can be prevented?

If not, be prepared for sadness upon sadness.

The Evil We Continue to Invite

Evil rimfireI wasn’t even finished reading a New York Times article on the growing divide in the gun debate when an alert came across my iPad about the Washington navy yard shootings. My outloud comment to no one but God was, “Another senseless massacre that won’t change anything. We continue to invite evil to dwell among us.”

We will never have a perfect society or a perfect anything this side of eternity. But inspite of that, we are still commanded to address and alleviate those things we can do something about. Jesus said, “For you always have the poor with you” (Matthew 26:11), and yet scripture is full of admonitions to feed the hungry, clothe the naked, care for the sick, and take care of “the least of these.” Our efforts won’t alleviate all poverty, hunger, or illness, but it will make things better for everyone over the long haul.

Reducing gun violence is one of those areas we can do something about. Universal background checks would help reduce gun violence. Removing assault weapons and the rapid loading/rapid firing capabilities would help reduce mass shooting capabilities and thus reduce gun violence. These are just common sense measures that don’t take away anyone’s right to legally own a firearm and still, with little effort, will reduce the amount of gun violence in the United States.

The more difficult issues that contribute to gun violence, but that aren’t so easy to address are mental illness, domestic violence, and substance abuse. Poverty and joblessness can also be added to that list. Usually there are a combination of these challenging factors that increase the possibility of escalating gun violence. Yet, just because they are more challenging does not absolve us from our responsibility to address underlying issues that contribute or exacerbate these issues – like poverty, access to mental health services, education, a living wage, and economic stability.

What price are we willing to incur by not addresses reducing gun violence and deflecting mental illness, domestic violence, and substance abuse from any substantive dialogue? We continue to invite evil to dwell among us when we don’t a serious effort to reduce gun violence or a serious effort to address issues that contribute to gun violence.

I was updating the list of Gun Deaths Since Newtown and I noticed the names of three year-old girl and five year-old sisters. Their 33 year-old mother was also listed. I was struck because I have two precious granddaughters who are 3 and 5 and my son, their father is 33. I decided to take a look and see how many gun deaths on that list were people who were the same ages as people in my immediate family.

Five hundred forty-four (544) names later, here is what I found. I only selected gender and ages that corresponded to the gender and age of my family member. For example, my Dad is 79. There were 10 names of 79 year-olds, but only 4 were male. I recorded only 4 for his age group, even though there were 6 more 79 year-olds who died from being shot by a firearm.

My Dad, 79 = 4 male gun deaths
My Mom, 78 = 3 female gun deaths
Me, 56 = 12 female gun deaths
My sister, 55 = 15 female gun deaths
My brother who was 52 when he died from self-inflicted gunshot = 105 male gun deaths
My husband, 48 = 67 male gun deaths
My son, 35 = 120 male gun deaths
My son, 33 = 171 male gun deaths
My daughter-in-law, 34 = 31 female gun deaths
My granddaughter, 8 = 5 female child gun deaths
My granddaughter, 5 = 6 female child gun deaths
My granddaughter, 3 = 5 female child gun deaths

Five hundred forty-four gun deaths – plus the twelve massacred at the navy yard and all the other gun deaths since December 14, 2014 – that we all bear responsibility for because we continue to invite evil to dwell among us.

For the Beauty of the Earth

Paulina

For the beauty of the earth,
for the beauty of the skies,
for the love which from our birth,
over and around us lies …

There’s something about being outside in beautiful, remote locale surrounded by water and trees, and open sky. No traffic noise. No electronic devices buzzing. No clocks. No to-do lists. Your only goal is to relax and reconnect with yourself, your family or friends, and creation.

I thought of this old hymn often when we were up at Paulina Lake in Oregon. This spring-fed lake in a volcanic crater surrounded by pine trees and lava flow remains is one of my most favorite places on the planet. It holds many happy memories of family fishing trips with my Mom’s side of the family. And it was a fitting place to gather as a family to spread my brother’s ashes.

I grew up playing outside, riding my bike everywhere, walking to school, and fishing, camping and backpacking. I was fortunate to live close enough to beaches and mountains in a state that valued state and national parks. Santa Clara Valley morphed into Silicon Valley, but the house I grew up in (and my parents still live) was nestled on a half-acre lot that was a rural-like oasis in a valley whose orchards were gradually replaced with corporate office campuses and high density housing.

Maybe that’s why the outdoors calls to me. Or maybe it’s because we are part of creation and it’s embedded in our DNA. Although I find places of beauty and serenity wherever I am, being able to truly get away to places like Paulina are necessary to refresh and restore my worn out soul.

So here are my few simple thoughts from Paulina:

Unplug and power-off. I confess. I am dependent on technology for an alarming amount of activity from waking up to working out. We may laugh when we say “there’s an app for that,” but there is a lot of truth in that statement! Unplugging removes distractions that keep us from being present with ourselves and engaging with others. We are more aware and attuned to see, hear, smell, taste, touch, and feel.

Be in the experience. I know. A little esoteric for most of us, but I’m not talking about tapping into your personal om channel so you can commune with the primal essence of the universe. I’m talking more about being invested in whatever you’re doing or whomever you’re with.

I can’t swim (I know. California girl who doesn’t swim.) so being out in the middle of a deep lake in a small boat where you can see the deeps is a bit unnerving for me. But the experience of being on a crater lake, surrounded by ancient lava flows and towering pines, soothed by the sun while helping my granddaughter catch her first fish was more powerful than my fear of water and a memory gift I will always have.

Grandpa Sam and I experienced a different hike with our eight, five, and three-year old granddaughters than we would have by ourselves. Being able to belly-laugh about “fishing with Vic” (literally) and then watch your husband pull in (literally) his first fish is stuff you just can’t make up. Epic stories come from epic experiences.

Give thanks. There was a bittersweetness about this trip to Paulina. It was a much more emotional trip than I anticipated. My brother would have loved everything about this trip and he was never far from most of our thoughts. Being able to give thanks for his life and honor him in a simple tribute might have been the impetus for all of us getting together, but it wasn’t the only thing.

My grandparents brought their kids to fish at Paulina, who brought their kids, who brought their kids, who are now bringing their kids. Families who have had their share of tragedies and triumphs and differences, and are still able to be blessed by the ties that bind us together … in one of my most favorite places on the planet.

Lord of all to Thee we raise,
this our hymn of grateful praise.

 

Farewell

PaulinaLakeFamilies

Lord, let me know my end,
and what is the measure of my days;
let me know how fleeting my life is.
You have made my days a few handbreadths,
and my lifetime is as nothing in your sight.
Surely everyone stands as a mere breath.

For I am your passing guest,
an alien, like all my forebears (Psalm 39:4-4, 12).

Before he died, my brother talked to my cousin Heidi about getting together for an all-family fishing trip to Paulina Lake in Oregon. You know how that goes. You usually talk about it and then when it gets down to finding a date that works for everyone, it doesn’t materialize.

We lived in California and the rest of my parents’ families lived in Oregon. Every summer, we’d go to Oregon for a two week family vacation. One week was devoted to seeing relatives. The other week was devoted to fishing either in Pacific City or Paulina Lake with my Mom’s side of the family.

It was an annual tradition my grandparents, my Uncle Gary’s family and our family looked forward to every year while I was growing up. Even after my cousins and I started having children, we’d still meet at Paulina every few years. If I wasn’t able to come, Grandma would bring my two sons up with her. Gradually, our individual families made their own plans as it became impossible to coordinate so many schedules.

When Heidi, my other cousin Tom and Uncle Gary were here for Vic’s memorial service in December, Heidi brought Paulina up again. We weren’t sure we’d be given any ashes to scatter, but regardless it would be a fitting final tribute to Vic to gather the family together for a fishing trip. By the end of January, we had the dates set, the cabins booked, and everyone cleared for vacation. Four generations of our family were going fishing at Paulina Lake in honor of Vic.

Vic would have loved everything about the week. He loved to fish, he loved a good time, and he loved family. He was unabashedly emotional, usually being the first to tear up, and there was plenty of that from the rest of us. I felt like I was channeling him helping my granddaughters reel in their first fish or seeing the cigars light up on our boats as anchors were dropped or one of our boats trolled by. He was an epic storyteller, and now his nephew and second cousins have taken up the mantle. We laughed so hard we cried. Everyone (except me) caught fish. The third and fourth generations beat the first and second generations in our fishing derby by a long shot. We taught them well (smile).

Vic used to tell people I married and buried people and he got the free family rate. I did officiate his wedding (which he, Tom, my sister and I cried through), but never thought I’d be officiating his memorial services. As with Grandma, Vic’s was a privilege even though it was very difficult.

Death is a part of life. We often don’t think enough of our life and even less of death. The loss of someone close to you is a bittersweet reminder of just how precious are our lives. It’s a reminder of what is important, like relationships and family, and treasuring all that we’ve been given.

Our last full day together was selected as our time for Vic’s celebration. It was a beyond-gorgeous day, the lake as smooth as glass. We loaded up in our five boats, forming a flotilla as we crossed the lake. Dad’s boat led our procession, each of us with our own thoughts. We beached and walked a short distance to a small beach just large enough for us to gather. Vic would have been so touched that we did this, honoring him and all that he meant to us.

My son Luke played Gershwin’s Summertime on his trumpet as we scattered Vic’s ashes. A monarch butterfly fluttered among us, starting with Dad, as we were concluding. A poignant reminder of God’s transforming love and that nothing, absolutely nothing can ever separate us from God’s eternal love.

And so we said farewell to Vic for now. No doubt he will be waiting for each of us, in our own time, with a string of fish, a cigar, and a welcoming hug.

Unto God’s gracious mercy and protection we commit you, Vic. The Lord bless you and keep you. The Lord make his face to shine upon you, and be gracious unto you. The Lord lift his countenance upon you, and give you peace, both now and evermore. Amen.

VicFlowerTrail_Fotor

Family, Fishing, and Farewell

Paulina LakeThe trip we began talking about in December is happening. All four generations of my uncle’s family will be present from Washington and Oregon. Most of my parents’ four generations, all of us in California now, will be represented. We gathering at Paulina Lake, Oregon as a family to fish and celebrate. We have a wedding anniversary, a birthday, and a farewell as we scatter my brother’s ashes.

It will be a wonderful, bittersweet time. I haven’t even met some of these people! And some of my uncle’s clan hasn’t met some of mine. My brother’s daughters won’t be there and I’m very sad my other son won’t be joining us. This will be the first large family gathering ever and we’re going to be at a place that hold many wonderful family memories initiated by my grandparents many moons ago.

My brother would love that we’re all getting together, especially to fish,  and would remind us that this was all his idea in the first place. No doubt he’ll be among us.

It’s remote and I’m pretty sure I won’t have any WiFi, so I won’t be able to post blogs the week we’ll be gone. Please keep my family in your prayers as we travel, welcome new family members, have fun, and say farewell.

Lord, let me know my end, and what is the measure of my days; let me know how fleeting my life is.

You have made my days a few handbreadths, and my lifetime is as nothing in your sight. Surely everyone stands as a mere breath.

Hear my prayer, O Lord, and give ear to my cry; do not hold your peace at my tears. For I am your passing guest, an alien, like all my forebears (Psalm 39:4-5, 12).

Mid-Year Highlights

My Fenway perpetual calendarThe summer solstice has passed. We are officially in summer, verified by today’s temperature of 108! The calendar year has passed it’s halfway mark. Sam and I have been back in California six months. I just entered the the 865th name from gun deaths for June alone. My family will be be making a pilgrimage to Paulina Lake in Oregon to scatter my brother’s ashes in two weeks.

It’s been an intense six months. I thought I’d share some interesting highlights from my blog that might give some insight into these last six months.

Most Viewed Post: As with most things in life, we find ourselves serendipitously drawn to certain things because of experiences or circumstances we encounter in the normal course of living. That’s what happened for me with gun deaths. As we were leaving  the church where I officiated my brother’s memorial service, the horrific mass shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School was happening. Two events on two coasts bookended by gun violence.

I started Gun Deaths Since Newtown at the end of April as a way to honor the thousands of children, women, and men who died from gun violence. Congress had shamelessly failed to pass responsible, common sense legislation proven to reduce gun violence. This post alone had nearly 500 unique views! I update the list every day and there are over 5,000 gun deaths since January 1, 2013!

Most Dramatic Post: Grief exposes the cracks or chasms in families. I’ve explored some of those tensions in a couple of posts, but Made for TV Family Drama has exceeded all the other grief posts put together. It seems that many people have similar family issues.

Most Difficult Post: My brother’s death shocked all of us. Suicide always does. I shared my homily from my brother’s service in When Your Brother DiesWords are always inadequate, but it’s all we have when we gather to celebrate a life. Several hundred people were at his service, but I think this post was shared with many who were not able to attend or who found out about his death later.

Most Surprising Post: Sometimes I write posts knowing the topic is not something many people will read. I still write it because someone needs to say these things and I might be the only person in someone’s circle who will say something. Asking Saves Kids was one of those topics. I was truly shocked when the number of views kept increasing! Apparently it hit a nerve.

Testing Trends: I have been working on a really exciting project that we hope to launch around September 1. It’s been a HUGE undertaking. We’re calling it Daily Word and you’ll see some sneak peeks in due time. In the meantime, I thank my testing team because they’re testing is a trend for Eternal Scheme!

Made for TV Family Drama

Image 1Every family has drama. I know I’ve certainly contributed my share with my two divorces and three marriages. Even the Bible doesn’t spare us the intrigue of family drama. In Genesis alone we have deception, incest, rape, adultery, and jealousy. Real lives with real life issues.

My parents came up for a few days so we could celebrate my Dad’s birthday and an early Father’s Day. We’re gradually making our way through the first year of my brother’s death and try to gather together on birthdays and significant days as we move through our grief. We’ll be scattering some of his ashes this summer with the rest of my extended family and wanted to finalize the last of the details for that trip. I’ve always lived away from my family so I’ve really been enjoying living closer and being able to participate in more family gatherings.

Death is difficult. Oftentimes there is an opportunity to get things in order and say good-bye as chronic illness or cancer is wrecking its final havoc. Family and friends left behind will still be sad and grieve, but hopefully they’ve had an opportunity to have a certain amount of closure through the dying process. Of course, not everyone has an ideal situation and often a family member’s death spotlights the problems that were already there.

Untimely and unexpected deaths have an additional messiness to them. That is the situation with my brother. His suicide completely ambushed us. We knew there were some parts of his life that were in chaos, but none of us foresaw suicide. And his death has highlighted a strained family relationship that was always there, but is now fully exposed because he isn’t here to be the buffer.

Here’s the thing. This isn’t unique to my family. I have witnessed this time and again over the course of my ministry. Every family has something and whatever IT is, it will surface during a crisis.

My brother’s divorce was not quite finalized at the time of his death. Most divorces are ugly, but his was particularly ugly. Community property had been divided, the divorce paperwork filed, and visitation with his three teen daughters, whom he was very close to, wasn’t going well. And then he died.

My husband and I bought the house from my parents that my brother was living in. My brother didn’t have much, but we invited his daughters to select anything they wanted from what was in his house before we moved in. The only thing we got rid of were his guns. Since he used a gun to kill himself, and the coroner had cautioned about having guns around because it’s very common for another family to also commit suicide, we disposed of the guns immediately. My sister later found another gun that she took to her house because she didn’t want it in the house when Vic’s daughters came to get what they wanted.

Years ago my brother bought a classic car from my Dad. The car had custom license plates, which my Dad had asked for in the event the car was sold. The car sold and arrangements were made for the license plates to be returned to my parents.

In our lighter moments we refer to my sister’s house as Switzerland. It’s considered neutral territory; not the house where my brother died or the house he vacated in the separation. It was to be the place where the license plates and remaining gun, were exchanged. When my sister arrived at my house for dinner, she had only one license plate.

These things happened when my brother was alive, but we overlooked them because in the eternal scheme of things, our relationships with Vic and his family was our focus. He was the reason we would put up with demands and conditions placed on us. Because of him, we could have contact and connection with his family. Now that he’s not here, that is frayed and fragile.

My sister-in-law never had any intention of returning both license plates and she purposely deceived her daughters’ grandparents, including the girls in the deception. The other aspect of the sad reality is the one-sided filter his daughters are receiving about their father from their mother. The reality is their parents’ marriage was in shambles for years. Now he is not here to provide another perspective to balance the bias.

My brother was many things, but he was not “a very sick man.” The drama that is now unfolding doesn’t include the greater story of his incredible and rich life. These are the stories from those who raised him, who grew up with him, who were always a part of his life, and who he knew would never forsake him.

In a few weeks, twenty-four family members will spend a week together doing what my brother loved to do most in his favorite place: fish at Paulina Lake in Oregon. We’ll fish, tell stories, and scatter his ashes. His nephews have inherited his talent as epic storytellers, so he will be well-honored.

It’s too bad his daughters won’t be there.

 

 

Six Months Later

crosses-symbolizing-grave-markers-sit-on-the-national-mall-in-april-as-part-of-a-24-hour-vigil-toIt’s been six months since the gun deaths of 20 children and six adults in Newtown, Connecticut. Twenty-two other people also lost their lives to gun death and my brother’s memorial service, also a gun death, was that day.

Since December 14, 2012, there have been close to 6,000 gun deaths according to Slate magazine and the Twitter feed @Gun Deaths. There have been 14 mass shootings since Newtown. That’s more than one mass shooting per month since December! It’s an average of 28 shooting per day.

The shootings tell a familiar story that is becoming a trend in our county. Besides suicides, domestic violence is the most common reason for shootings. The gunman begins by shooting his spouse, partner, or another family member. Often the gunman has a history of violence or a criminal record.

December 20, 2012, Blair County, PA: Jeffrey Lee Michael, 44, went on a shooting rampage that ended in a church, killing three and injuring three state troopers. Police confiscated an arsenal of ammunition and guns from his house. He had his girlfriend purchase the guns and ammunition because a restraining order was out against him.

crosses-symbolizing-grave-markers-sit-on-the-national-mall-in-april-as-part-of-a-24-hour-vigil-toDecember 24, 2012, Webster, NY: Ex-con, William Spengler, 64, killed two and shot three. He had previously murdered his grandmother with a hammer. 

January 21, 2013, Albuquerque, NM: Teen Nehemiah Griego, 15, shot and killed his parents and three siblings with his parents’ .22 caliber rifle and another semi-automatic rifle. He intended to shoot up a WalMart, but changed his mind. He confessed to the shooting and explained he had “anger issues.”

January 30, 2013, Phoenix, AZ: Known to be extremely paranoid with anger issues, Arthur Douglas Harmon, 70, shot into an office building. Two people were killed and a bystander was injured. He later killed himself.

February 19, 2013, Orange County, CA: Twenty-year-old college student, Ali Syed, shot and killed four people during the morning commute. He had sought help for ADHD, panic disorder and anxiety from the student health department. He left a suicide note explaining how he planned the massacre.

March 13, 2013, Herkimer, NY: Kurt Myers, 64, opened fire on a barbershop and car wash, killing four and injuring two. He had 50 rounds of ammunition on him and another 45 round in his car when he was killed in a shoot out with police.

April 18, 2013, Akron, OH: Two men and two women were shot execution style in a townhouse where students were having a post-production party. Two felons have been charged with aggravated murder, kidnapping, robbery, and illegal possession of firearms.

April 21, 2013, Seattle, WA: Dennis Clark, III shot his girlfriend Justine Baez before killing three other random people. Clark had a concealed handgun license, but had previous clashes with police over domestic violence.

April 24, 2013, Manchester, IL: Rick O. Smith, 43, had a criminal history of homicide, drugs, and writing bad checks. He shot and killed a family of five. One six-year old girl survived.

May 12, 2013, New Orleans, LA: Akein Scott, 19, injured 19 people ata Mother’s Day parade. He had recently made bail for charges for illegal gun and herion possession. He had two recent prior arrests for possession of stolen guns and extended clips.

May 25, 2013, Hampton, VA: Two teens, 15 and 17, have been charged with the shooting death of 16-year-old Ralphael Davis and injuring several other teens at a carnival.

May 26, 2013, Concho County, TX: Active duty Marine, Esteban Smith, shot and killed his wife in a motel room before going on a shooting spree that killed another woman and wounded five others. He was in possession of an assault rifle, handgun, and hundreds of rounds of ammunition.

June 7, 2013, Santa Monica, CA: John Zawahri shot and killed his father and brother before burning down his house and indiscriminately shooting several other people. He had a history of mental illness and enough ammunition to kill more than 100 people.

June 13, 2013, St. Louis, MO: Two men and two women died in a murder-suicide in an office building. There was a semi-automatic gun at the scene.

We hear about mass shootings, but there are countless children, teens, women, and men who are shot and killed everyday who never make the national news. Neighborhoods and communities, schools and churches, homes and offices are all witnesses to the devastation, destruction, and disruption of gun deaths.

Heather Johnson is a regular person like you and me who is paying attention and offered names that didn’t make my list. You can see her album honoring those who died by gun death in Cincinnati, OH.

Gun Deaths Since Newtown is updated daily to reflect those who died while Congress dithered on the gun issue.

 

Photo: Crosses symbolizing grave markers sit on the National Mall in April as part of a 24-hour vigil to “remind Congress action is needed on gun violence prevention.”

Life Goes On – Help

the wind does not touch meThe resiliency of the human spirit is awe-inspiring. We have an incredible capacity to function in the midst of less-than-ideal circumstances. Somehow we pull it together and keep plodding until we emerge from the mists of disaster.

That’s not to say we don’t have our moments and wonder exactly how we will survive. Death, illness, divorce, parenting, chemical and emotional dependencies, unemployment, failed plans, accidents, natural disaster, loneliness, war – the list is as endless as we are unique – are common to all of us. Even though we know there are others who have experienced and survived similar experiences, it’s common to feel alone and isolated. It’s a fine line between setting ourself apart for healing and reaching out or coming alongside someone for help.

Writing blog posts about gun deaths has brought me into contact with some really incredible people. These are parents, friends, spouses, children, colleagues, neighbors, and grandparents of people you have lost loved ones in murder/suicides, drive-by shootings, suicide, accidents, even homicides. Most of us don’t anticipate having to say goodbye to someone we love killed by a firearm. Yet, most of these courageous people look for and find something meaningful as a way to honor the one they love, motivated by the fact they don’t want their loved one’s death to have been in vain.

Receiving help and finding ways to help others when the time is right brings both closure and meaning to something difficult. I’m the first to acknowledge that many people who want to be helpful aren’t helpful at all. When you’re in the abyss, the last thing you want to do is deal with unhelpful people. However, there usually are a tiny handful of trusted confidants who will listen and be truly helpful with practical things while you heal.

In my post, Life Goes OnI mentioned a passage of scripture that speaks to the unique position someone who’s “been there”.

Blessed be … the God of all consolation, who consoles us in all our affliction, so that we may be able to console those who are in any affliction with the consolation with which we ourselves are consoled by God (II Corinthians 1:3-4).

Sometimes something gets lost in translation and that’s what happens in this passage. This letter to the church in Corinth was written in the vernacular language, Koine Greek. Paraklesis is the Koine Greek word we translate for console. The literal translation is called alongside. In other words, God comes alongside us to comfort us in our distress. We, in turn, are then called to come alongside another to bring comfort to someone else in their distress.

I’ve always said that God’s choicest counselors are those “who have been there”. Someone who’s gone through something similar as you knows what was helpful and what wasn’t. You, in turn, will be able to share your insights and practical tips to someone else. Heartfelt support or help is a precious gift both to receive and to give.

It would be nice if the resiliency of our human spirit didn’t have to be so tested, leaving us to wonder if we really will be able to go one with our life. But alas, that’s not to be this side of eternity. Instead, in those time, may we lean into the strong arms of God and others who come alongside to comfort us. And may we take our own turn to come alongside another when they are in need of a caring soul.

Amen.

When a Search Doesn’t Give Us Answers

The New ExploreI discovered something interesting when reviewing the analytics for my blog. There are several things I review, but since posting the names of gun deaths since Newtown I have had a huge increase in traffic. I had an idea why but decided to delve further into the search data to see if my hunch was confirmed. It was.

Gun violence falls into six categories:

  1. Accidents
  2. Drive-by shooting
  3. Homicide
  4. Murder/suicide
  5. Police shooting
  6. Suicide

Every death by gun falls into one of these categories. Every death is a senseless, heart-breaking loss. Families and friends gather as much information as they can to try and make sense of such a tragic loss.

Why would a 13-year old boy shoot himself in the woods behind the middle school just before class was to begin?

Why would a brother murder his brother’s girlfriend in the house where his brother had committed suicide the day before, and then take his own life?

Who would indiscriminately open fire on a group of girls as they are walking to a friend’s house for an end-of-school-year sleep-over?

We are so stunned when we hear such terrible news that we ask questions and search for information to find out why. We want to believe that if we knew why, we would then understand, and maybe if we understood, we’d somehow be able to compartmentalize this tragedy or separate ourselves. We never want to be faced with, “That could have been me!” or “What did I miss?”

I’ve searched on most of the names of the more than 5,000 gun deaths since Newtown trying to make sense of such tragedy … and I don’t even know these souls. The information is brief and there is very little follow up.

It’s been six months since my brother’s death and I’m still asking questions and trying to make sense of something that will never make sense. It’s probably much the same with those searching online to see if there are any clues as to why something so awful happened to someone they know and love.

Unfortunately, there rarely are answers for the whys of life. We can gather information, pour over the data, surmise possibilities, even construct some theories, but we will never fully know or understand. We may never stop asking why, but at some point we will accept it’s harsh reality, move through our grief, and learn to live with the emptiness left by our loss.

Eternal Scheme may not have any information as to why, but I do know that each name represents a sacred life lost to gun violence. My prayers are with all who grieve.

Life Goes On – Healing

the golden dreamHealing is an interesting concept. If healing is defined as “the process of becoming whole,” then once we’re through (healed of) whatever suffering we’re undergoing, we will be whole again. In the case of a common cold, once we’re healed, we don’t have any lingering effects and we feel like our old selves again.

A physical injury is a little different. When you tear your ACL, for example, surgery is usually required to regain full mobility and reduce pain. After an agonizing surgery and grueling physical therapy you are pronounced healed. You can probably do most of what you were able to do before the tear, but you’re not quite 100 percent all of the time. There may be residual discomfort or minor limitations. You’re better, but it’s different. You’re healed, but you aren’t where you were before the injury.

Emotional or psychological injury and chronic illness present another aspect to healing. Sometimes, no matter what you do or want, you will never be the same. Instead you learn how to move differently in your new world.

If you’re diagnosed with diabetes, for example, you must learn to manage your health and activities in a different way. Maybe you are also dependent on medication and that now you must be diligent in taking it correctly. You will never be cured from diabetes, but you can be healed. When you take responsibility for managing your diabetes and changing your lifestyle to optimize your health; you transform the your experience. Instead of the disease having control over you, you now have control over your disease. Many even find meaning in their illness.

Loss and grief also offer lessons in healing. Sometimes I think the essence of life is learning to negotiate loss and live with grief. We lose lots of things in the course of life: our childhood, relationships, jobs, health, and people. Loss precipitates grief and some griefs are easier to heal from than others. Just as deep wound takes time because it must heal from the inside out, so it is with healing from a deep loss. Our hearts will heal, but the emotional scar tissue that remains is a reminder to us of our loss.

Just as recuperating from an illness or injury is no fun, there can be some really unpleasant aspects to healing. There are no shortcuts to healing. Healing takes its own time and has its own process. It’s different for every one.

You will heal. There is hope. Your life will go on. And you will be in an unique position to help others … to be continued.

God heals the broken-hearted,
   and binds up their wounds (Psalm 147:3).

Life Goes On – Hope

PLANT BASED LIFEFORMSI’m reading Isabel Allende’s latest work of fiction, Maya’s Notebook. Maya is being raised by her grandmother, Nini, and grandfather, Popo. When Popo dies, Maya’s life completely unravels and she’s caught in the crosshairs of a gang of assassins, the police, the FBI, and Interpol. Nini sends her to a remote island off the coast of Chile with a notebook. It’s here and in the pages of her notebook, she tries to piece together the truth of her life.

She writes this in her notebook not long after she arrives in Chile:

My grandmother would say I’m giving my soul time to catch up to me in Chiloé. She thinks jet travel is not advisable because the soul travels more slowly than the body, falls behind, and sometimes gets lost along the way; that must be the reason why pilots, like my dad, are never entirely present: they’re waiting for their soul, which ends up in the clouds.

Sometimes that’s how I feel about life. Some devastating or unexpected event or experience sideswipes us and completely disorients us. It’s like our life is suspended or we’re watching from afar, waiting for us to catch up to ourselves once again. Hope keeps us from getting lost altogether.

Hope, along with healing and help, are lifelines that tether us so we don’t get lost in the great void of awfulness. Hope promises that the extended outcome will change; that we’re not abandoned in the temporary abyss where we feel swallowed up; that things will get better.

There are two maxims that have served me throughout the innumerable unexpected happenings of my life: (1) It’s temporary; (2) Something good will come of it.

Nothing, absolutely nothing this side of eternity, stays the same. Everything changes either in it’s own time or when acted upon by outside forces. The weather is a constant reminder of the fickleness of forecasts. If I get caught in an unexpected storm of awfulness, I know it’s just a matter of time before the clouds part and I will see the sun again. Sometimes I play little games with myself and embark on an daily treasure hunt of something that’s changed. Maybe I notice a spider’s web that wasn’t there earlier or a new  blossoms on a plant on my walk route. Even the awfulness I’m now experiencing is temporary and it will change.

I’ve had the privilege of listening in as people share (it’s more like wailing and railing) the awfulnesses of their lives. Many came back later and shared what blessings they discovered once they got some distance from and had moved through the awfulness. Although they would have rather bypassed the awfulness, they discovered that their character had been deepened or something positive was added to their life as a result of the awfulness. They reported now having a deeper understanding and new wisdom as a result of surviving the temporary awfulness.

The resiliency of the human spirit is awe-inspiring. Hope makes it possible for life to go on. Healing is next … to be continued.

I would be remiss if I didn’t share one of my favorite scriptures on hope:

But this I call to mind,
   and therefore I have hope: 

The steadfast love of the Lord never ceases,
   his mercies never come to an end; 
they are new every morning;
   great is your faithfulness (Lamentations 3:21-23).

 

Life Goes On

Me Fish!Devastating tornados. A ten-year old killed and her parents injured when her house was riddled with bullets. A soldier is hacked to death with a cleaver in front of witnesses on a city street. Most of us are less than six-degrees of separation from the endless stream of violence, death, and destruction engulfing our globe.

A newer, more graphic story replaces the previous tragedy so quickly that a completely new array of headlines surfaces each time you refresh your screen. The names, locations, and details may change, but the drama continues. We’re aware, but not observant unless a particular tragedy swirls within our purview. We’re affected, but don’t have time to deconstruct each tragedy’s damage, before the next wave comes along.

Life goes on, but it’s not the same. There’s a shift in us and a new experience threads itself in the tapestry of our lives.

It’s been almost six months since my brother’s death. I have experienced grief and all of its nuanced forms hundreds of times, but my brother’s self-inflicted gun shot pierced my heart in a new place. I may appear to be as I was before his death, but I’m not the same. Yes, my life has gone on, but it is different. It must be different because someone who was an integral part of who I am is now no longer a vital part of my life. His death, in addition to his life, is now woven into the new narrative of my life.

That’s how it is for every single person who is impacted by violence, death, illness, suffering, and destruction. Life temporarily stops with The Event. Family and friends rally around. The Event and it’s aftermath run their course. Family and friends resume their lives. Eventually you resume your changed life.

While it’s not the same for everyone, I believe there are three attributes that can sustain us as we merge back into the current of life: hope, healing, and help. Consider this post the introduction and I will explore each in more depth in subsequent blog posts.

In the meantime, cogitate on this:

Blessed be … the God of all consolation, who consoles us in all our affliction, so that we may be able to console those who are in any affliction with the consolation with which we ourselves are consoled by God (II Corinthians 1:3-4).

And this:

Carve out a few minutes every day to pray for – meditate on, be thoughtful or mindful of – others who are going through something similar to you. (As news of my brother’s death circulated, so many people I knew had a family member, spouse or partner, or close friend who died by suicide.) You don’t need to know them. Maybe you saw a headline or heard about someone. Write down their name and pray for them.

Life goes on. And there is hope … to be continued.

Three Things to Help You Cope

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAThis has been an emotional week. The week started out with my brother’s birthday. He would have been 53. My family circled the wagons, most of us gathering to share a meal and celebrate him. My uncle from Washington called and talked to all of us. My youngest son and I texted throughout the day and his family had their own birthday dinner celebration. The only ones missing were my brother’s daughters.

I’ve received some emails in response to my post Gun Deaths Since Newtown. I am touched by the outpouring of grief and sadness shared with me, a total stranger. I am also overwhelmed with their trust to share their struggles with their faith and God. Often it is safer to share your doubts and questions with someone who doesn’t know you and who (hopefully) won’t come back with trite platitudes that don’t help.

I though I’d share a few things I’ve learned in the crucible of life that have equipped me to cope with the ever-changing landscape.

1. You are not alone. You may feel alone. You may want to be alone. But, you are not alone. Someone somewhere has gone through something very similar and survived. You may not know of anyone who has dealt with what you are now dealing, and even if you do know someone, you aren’t interested in hearing their version of your situation. You may not know it, but you have now become an elite member of The [whatever the horribleness is] Horribleness Club. Other members will find you. You’ll be surprised.

2. You will be unhinged. The body and psyche have their own ways of coping with trauma. It’s temporary, it’s unpredictable, and it’s unnerving. It will pass. You’re sleep may be disrupted. You may not remember much. You may find yourself crying in the produce section of the grocery store. It’s not the same for everyone and everyone has their own timetable toward a new normal. You may find your faith is shaken and you have a lot of unanswered questions. That’s good. Self-care is important because you need time, safe places, and safe people to recover from the full-on assault of the horribleness.

3. You will evolve. If it does nothing else, horribleness will change you. You will find out who are your real friends. You will learn what is truly helpful when going through rough waters and how to be helpful to others. You will discover good and not-so-good things about yourself that you will use as information in your evolution process. You may even learn to be thankful for the horrible experience (although it would surely be much nicer to not have to go through it) because you are wiser, more caring or understanding, a better listener, and a whole host of other commendable characteristics that have been added to your humanity repertoire.

Many people may be well-meaning, but still say unhelpful things, not want to hear what you have to say, and tell you how to get through it. You have permission to not listen to them or take their advice.

It takes courage, but your answers for yourself are within you. I believe that’s how God speaks to us. And if you’re not on speaking terms with God, pour it out in a journal. You may be surprised by your insights. And if that doesn’t work, I’ll listen.

It’s Here

ImageMy birthday alerts have been reminding me and now it’s here. My brother’s birthday. He would have been 53 years old.

It had only been a few weeks since his death when Christmas hit. We were still dazed and raw. Mother’s Day is next week and I know that will be hard for my mother. Both my sons have been asking me if we have plans for Vic’s birthday. My sister, parents, and I have also been talking about it. But, in all of our conversations, we haven’t settled on anything in particular. How do you get used to the finality of death?

I’m sure each of us will go through our own little ritual or remembrance. My youngest son has grown a moustache in honor of his Uncle. My parents aren’t able to join us, but my sister and older son will be joining Sam and I for a birthday dinner. We’re having Vic’s favorite BBQ meal: steak and corn on the cob. It’s a toss up between Lemon Meringue Pie or Boston Cream Pie. I’ve made a Boston Cream Pie (Sorry Vic, but it’s gluten-free). We will definitely have a toast.

I was never local enough to celebrate birthdays with my family, but it was the one time a year we all heard from each other. Birthday phone calls were sacred and never missed. Maybe our new family tradition will be to call each other on Vic’s birthday.

I’m incredibly sad and wish he were here for his special day. As I said to him every year: You are a unique, unrepeatable miracle of God. And he’d always reply, More like a pain in God’s ass. We’d laugh, trade barbs for awhile, before he signed off with Who loves you, honey?

Happy Birthday, Leetle Bro.

Ask Yourself This

gun?Kevin, a fellow cyclist of my sister in the NorCal AIDS Cycle, asked his friends these questions when he posted a link to my Gun Deaths Since Newtown blog. He asked his friends to read every single name on the list because so often we’re anesthetized by anonymous numbers. He then asked them this:

  • Look at each name, age, town.
  • Look at the number of young adults.
  • Look at the number of teens.
  • Look at the number of pre-teens.
  • Look at the number of children who have not even entered 1st grade.
  • How many are your age?
  • How many lived in your home state?
  • Your hometown?

I started out making this list of names because I wanted to show the sheer magnitude of gun deaths since Newtown. As I toiled away entering each name, age, city, and state (it took DAYS to initially get all of the information entered), I began to wonder about each person, their families and friends, the tragic situations they faced their final hours or minutes. I couldn’t help but wonder how different things would be for every single one of them if a gun was not involved. 

I started my professional career running support groups of parents of murdered children and suicide survivors. I was the chaplain at the scene of gun suicides and present when families identified murdered family members. I’ve also been questioned about parishioners who were gun violence perpetrators and called in for community programs after a gang-related drive-by shooting or other teen gun death. I’ve witnessed the shattering of families because a child died in a gun accident. The only thing that’s changed over the years is there are more gun death incidents.

Most of us have been impacted in some way by gun violence. Each name on The List represents someone who was a son, daughter, partner, husband, wife, father, mother, grandfather, grandmother, cousin, friend, colleague, neighbor, acquaintance to someone else. We may not even know the secret shame another may carry because they or someone they love was involved with a gun death.

It’s time to ask ourselves Kevin’s questions. At the very least, we can acknowledge each life represented and hold those grieving from this horrible loss in our thoughts and prayers.

By the way, I selected December 14, 2012 as a reference point because of the tragedy in Newtown. It was also the day I officiated my brother’s memorial service. His was also a gun death.

I Will Fear No Evil

Painted/brushed heart symbol ♥ abstract loveApril 4, 1968 – the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr.

April 9, 1993 – The end of the Waco siege and the death of 82 members of Branch Davidian.

April 19, 1995 – The bombing of the the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City that killed 168 children and adults.

April 20, 1999 – The Columbine High School shooting and the death of 15 people.

April 16, 2007 – The Virginia Tech shooting death of 32 people.

April 3, 2009 – The shooting death of fourteen people at the Binghamton, NY immigration center.

April 2, 2012 – Seven people died in the shooting spree at Oikos University in Oakland, CA.

April 6, 2012 – Three died in a racially motivated shooting in Tulsa, OK.

April 15, 2013 – Bombs planted near the finish of at the Boston Marathon resulting is three deaths and over one hundred injured.

April 19, 2013 – Two more deaths apprehending suspects in the Boston bombing.

As heinous as these violent events are, they are only a tiny part of gun-related injuries and deaths that occur daily in the United States alone. Over 1,000 people a day are directly affected by gun violence in the United States. This number does not even included families, friends, co-workers, and acquaintances who are also impacted.

  • 87 people a day killed in homicides, by suicide, or by an unintentional shooting
  • 201 people a day shot and injured
  • 732 people a day who are victims of armed robbery or aggravated assault with a gun

Of those 87 people killed each day, 9 are children and 46 are suicides!

What are people of faith to say in the aftermath of ongoing violence? How do we we remain life affirming in the midst of so much injury and death? How do we maintain grace in the midst of vengeance?

One of the scripture readings for today (the fourth Sunday after Easter) is the beloved Psalm 23. Because of it’s popularity at funerals and memorial services, even the non-religious are somewhat familiar with it. Many raised in church and Sunday School have it memorized.

The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want.

He makes me lie down in green pastures; he leads me beside still waters;

he restores my soul. He leads me in right paths for his name’s sake.

Even though I walk through the darkest valley, I fear no evil; for you are with me; your rod and your staff— they comfort me.

You prepare a table before me in the presence of my enemies; you anoint my head with oil; my cup overflows.

Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life, and I shall dwell in the house of the Lord my whole life long.

Sometimes when something is so familiar, we glance over it to make sure we remember its essence without stopping to ponder what new insight we might gain as a result of the changes in our own lives. I like to think of scripture as a living, breathing document that holds new treasures for me each time I revisit its pages. I was not disappointed as I looked at this psalm through the eyes of this past week.

The first phrase that jumped off the screen at me was I fear no evil for you are with me. The writer is realistic and pragmatic. He doesn’t deny the reality of evil nor does he downplay the capacity of evil to wreck havoc in our lives. Security isn’t found in governmental agencies like the FBI, CIA, or Homeland Security or in all the high-tech surveillance measures designed to track, trace, and tighten evil breaches. Security is found in the abiding presence of God who will not abandon us in the midst of whatever evil pervades.

The psalmist also reminds: You prepare a table before me in the presence of my enemies; you anoint my head with oil; my cup overflows. A natural reaction when we’ve been attacked or harmed is vengeance. We want to extract retribution and see that justice is served. True justice has nothing to do with vengeance or retribution and everything to do with grace. I know that’s a lot to wrap out heads around and is a worthy subject for further reflection. By taking a moment to reflect on the abundance and blessings I do have in the midst of whatever awfulness is going on, an opportunity to move from vengeance to grace opens up. You cannot maintain a vengeful spirit in the midst of being thankful.

Make no mistake; evil is present and real. Horrible things can and do happen. But God does not abandon us nor leave us without resources. As people of faith we cannot get caught up in or be held hostage by whatever current of sentiment emerges from our shared experience. We have an opportunity to speak words of grace and comfort when everyone else repeats the vengeful rhetoric that has not served us at all since 9/11. We have an opportunity to reframe the conversation and speak to the real reasons we have so much violence in our lives. Generations of faithful before us have risen to the challenge. It is time for the truly faithful to do so again.

Five Things I Miss About Texas

DSC_0016We’ve been back in California a little more than three months. Being a native Californian, I’m really enjoying being “home.” However, there are a few things I am missing about Texas.

#5: Diversity. I know. Texas isn’t exactly known for it’s diversity and the diverse voices are lost in the din of conservative whiteness. However, I would never have been exposed to the Tea Party (yes, I did not vote for Ted Cruz), Rick Perry, guns on campus, and abstinence only sex education. I was truly guilty of affiliating only with like-minded people prior to moving to Texas. Living in Texas reminded me that there are lots of people who don’t believe in the same causes and political processes as me. It did drive me nuts, but we still were neighbors.

#4: Bling and Boots. When I was in seminary, my sports med doctor tried to get me to wear cowboy boots. He was the Denver Broncos team doctor and he he wore only cowboy boots. He even wore them in the operating room! He told me they were the best footwear for those of us who had destroyed knees. Of course, I didn’t listen. In fact, I couldn’t believe grown men wore cowboy boots and cowboy hats as regular church attire, but I was a young, naive California girl who moved to a conservative Western state.

Now I lived in Texas and I gave cowboys boots a try. Actually, I was having a hard time finding any footwear for my replaced ankle and knees and tried cowboys boots as a last resort. Dr. Talbott was right! I am now a believer in cowboys boots. But to really maximize the fashion statement of boots, a well-dressed woman really does need a little bling. Personally, I don’t think you can ever have too much sparkle. California women would help ward off the granola effect if they wore a little more sparkle.

#3: Health Insurance. Texas has more uninsured people, 27.6%, than any other state, but I was not one of them! I paid an obscene health insurance premium to be included in the state’s risk pool (pre-existing conditions precluded me from receiving regular coverage), and I was eligible only because I moved to the state with health insurance. I was canceled from the Texas risk pool when I moved to California and I am not eligible for ANY health insurance in California for six months! When I have been without any coverage for six months, I can apply for a risk-pool-like program. The premiums are about $1,000 per month so it’s not exactly affordable. I am one who will benefit from Obamacare in 2014. In the meantime, I’m sure I’ll have some tales from the indigent, uninsured world!

#2: A Handful of Friends. We were blessed to have a handful of great friends in Texas. It’s harder making friends when you move when you’re older, self-employed, and don’t have children at home. But these handful of people have that famous Texas hospitality and welcomed us into their circles. One couple we’ve already seen here in California and we know they’ll be back because they’re often out visiting a longtime friend. We’re able to keep up with the others thanks to social media and technology. In our disconnected connected world, it’s more and more challenging developing truly precious friendships. Maintaining the ones you do develop is worth cultivating, even if from afar.

#1: My Brother. My brother wasn’t one to stand on ceremony, so when I told him we were moving to Texas in 2008, his comment was, “Why the f#!@ would you move to Texas?!?” I told him I that maybe living among his people (he said graduating from Cal turned him into a redneck), I’d come to understand his warped worldview. Living in Texas did give me much to banter about with him. Now he’s the reason we’re back in California. Every time we talked, he’d ask me when we were coming home. Now I’m home and he’s not here.

We don’t ever really know what’s in store for us this side of eternity. That’s why it’s so important to make the best of what we have to work with where we are and the people who are around us. If someone had told me that I’d live in Texas for almost five years, I would never have believed them. Once we moved to Texas, I put down roots and I did not intend to ever move again. Well, we know how that worked out. I may not have become a Texan, but some of Texas did get into me … and for that, I’m thankful.

A Week of Suffering, Day 7

IMG_1277There’s Good Friday and then there’s Easter. But what about that mysterious day in between? That day between the suffering and death on Friday, and resurrection and life on Easter. That liminal space between suffering and resurrection, death and life. The vast borderlands where we live most of our lives.

Holy Saturday invites us explore that space in-between. I don’t know about you, but I find that the essence of the human condition is letting go of people or securities and wondering what will emerge from the ashes of my life. It’s that delicate balance between loss and hope that much of our lives are lived.

When I was growing up, my grandparents had a small cabin on the ridge in Pacific City, Oregon. You could see the ocean, just a mile away, through the dense forest trees. The Big Nestucca and Little Nestucca Rivers are close to the ocean shoreline, making for great trout and salmon fishing. When we weren’t out fishing, us kids would spend our days exploring the trails between the forest and ocean. It was a magical area, two wild areas edging on one another.

Those trails between the ocean and the forest remind me of the wilderness spaces of life. Those wild areas where the dirt and needles give way to sand and driftwood, where the stable ground shifts to sifting sand. We run back and forth on the trails of life, between the edges of these two landscapes, trying to find or decide on a place to rest.

Sometimes I think we try to domesticate God, defining God’s role in our life and equating our spirituality with happiness and feeling good. We want everything neatly ordered or wrapped with a beautiful bow and sparkly ribbon.

The spiritual journey, like life, is none of these things. Instead, we’re invited to meet God in the vast, wild borderlands between ambiguity and mystery. It takes great courage to live in those uncertain edge-places. We are likely to have more questions than answers, but in asking those questions, we discover more than if we didn’t ask the questions at all.

Transformation happens in the border places. That mysterious day in-between Good Friday and Easter reminds us.

A Week of Suffering, Day 6

At the cross I bow my knee, where Your blood was shed for me.My great-grandfather was a farmer in South Dakota. I had no idea anything grew in South Dakota. Maybe that’s why he always put in his spring crops on Good Friday. It didn’t matter whether Good Friday was in late March, like it is this year, or late April. He planted on Good Friday. He wasn’t a religious man, so I don’t think he was hoping for an extra measure of planting grace by selecting such an important day on the Christian calendar. Maybe the Farmer’s Almanac predictions coincided with Good Friday.

I’m sure Jesus was trusting that the seeds he planted in the hearts and minds of his followers would take hold. Everything was out of his hands by this point of his life.

Jesus started out the week being hailed as a celebrity when he rode into Jerusalem for the week of Passover, but soon learned there was a price on his head. The week would end in betrayal, false accusations, a mock trial, torture, denial, abandonment, execution, and death.

It’s been a week of grief in slow motion. Even if the others didn’t know the outcome, Jesus did. Death, even for Jesus, is a certainty. Death is a certainty for all of us. It’s the way of all life. We just don’t know how or when.

Good Friday is especially poignant for me this year. My family has been grieving in slow motion ever since my sister found my brother dead by his own hand. None of us had any idea how much suffering he was experiencing and he was not thinking of how much suffering we would experience with his death. Although I have been around a lot of death, even close friends and some family, my brother’s death has pierced my heart in ways I did not imagine.

Good Friday, in all of its solemnity, reminds us that life, even in death, is sacred and has its purpose. We may want to shortcut the bleakness of Good Friday and get to the celebration of Easter, but Easter is nothing without Good Friday. Death is essential to the Easter message.

So today I sit with my grief. I miss my brother. Probably not much different than Mary’s overwhelming sadness watching her son die and Jesus’ shocked friends wondering what’s in store for them now that he’s gone. So we gather at the foot of that cross. Silent and sad.

 

A Week of Suffering, Day 5

20/365 - My Heart Will Lead Me To YouI am really intrigued by the new pope, Pope Francis. First, it’s hard to believe that no previous pope has used the name Francis. Saint Francis of Assisi is one of the most beloved and recognizable religious figures. But then he chose to not be ordained into the Catholic priesthood, brought the message of Jesus to ordinary people although not licensed to do so, and devoted himself to a life of poverty. Even when he was still a Cardinal in Argentina, Jorge Bergoglio lived in a simple apartment, cooked his own meals, and paid his own way when in Rome. He has not moved into the papal suite, worships with regular people, and doesn’t wear red shoes. It makes me wonder how off-balancing this must be to those rooted in the rigid structures and power circles of the Vatican.

This day is the beginning of the Big Three Days (Triduum, for those who like Latin) before Easter: Maundy Thursday, Good Friday, and Holy Saturday. They mark the climactic events of Jesus’ life central to the Christian faith. In the midst of the religious and political drama, it’s ironic that our biblical guide John tells of Jesus doing something not religious at all. In fact, it is ordinary, secular, and scandalous. In the honor shame culture of first century Palestine, no self-respecting rabbi would ever consider performing a task reserved for the lowest servant.

Jesus washes the feet of his friends. This non-religious, humble service, and act of love by Jesus for his friends offered an alternate encounter with God. Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another (John 13:34). Jesus’ entire purpose was about demonstrated God’s love and offering a new way to access God.

As its very best, religious practice is a means to encounter God. Worship, prayer, scripture, music, art are all opportunities to experience God in and through one another. Religion breaks down when the practices and systems become a means to an end and we substitute a real relationship with God with religiosity.

Jesus demonstrated an intimacy that made even his friends uncomfortable when he knelt to wash their feet. His time left with them was drawing to a close. And then what?

Jesus came to be with us, among us, and for us. He showed us how to make space for those we might otherwise overlook – the last, the lost, the little, the least, and the lifeless. And he invites us to a new journey. You can be certain that it will be full of the ordinary and often messy stuff of life and relationships. Be sure to watch for the exposed religious roots that you don’t get tripped up on the real journey.

In case you’re not familiar with the story, here is John’s account:

Now before the festival of the Passover, Jesus knew that his hour had come to depart from this world and go to the Father. Having loved his own who were in the world, he loved them to the end. The devil had already put it into the heart of Judas son of Simon Iscariot to betray him.

And during supper Jesus, knowing that the Father had given all things into his hands, and that he had come from God and was going to God, got up from the table, took off his outer robe, and tied a towel around himself. Then he poured water into a basin and began to wash the disciples’ feet and to wipe them with the towel that was tied around him.

He came to Simon Peter, who said to him, “Lord, are you going to wash my feet?” Jesus answered, “You do not know now what I am doing, but later you will understand.” Peter said to him, “You will never wash my feet.” Jesus answered, “Unless I wash you, you have no share with me.”

Simon Peter said to him, “Lord, not my feet only but also my hands and my head!” Jesus said to him, “One who has bathed does not need to wash, except for the feet, but is entirely clean. And you are clean, though not all of you.” For he knew who was to betray him; for this reason he said, “Not all of you are clean.”

After he had washed their feet, had put on his robe, and had returned to the table, he said to them, “Do you know what I have done to you? You call me Teacher and Lord—and you are right, for that is what I am. So if I, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also ought to wash one another’s feet. For I have set you an example, that you also should do as I have done to you. Very truly, I tell you, servants are not greater than their master, nor are messengers greater than the one who sent them. If you know these things, you are blessed if you do them (John 13:1-17).

A Week of Suffering, Day 4

clive_christianYou’re at your friend’s house, hanging out. There are several people there. You’ve just finished dinner, but are still sitting at the table finishing the wine and having a lively discussion about the marriage equality issue before the Supreme Court. Your hostess cleared the table and when she returns, she kneels before you, pours Clive Christian No. 1 on your feet, and begins massaging your feet with the most expensive perfume in the world!

Let’s be realistic. This is weird!

This is exactly what happened to Jesus (well, maybe not the part about marriage equality and the Supreme Court, but Jesus didn’t shy away from controversy) while at Martha, Mary, and Lazarus’ house in Bethany, trying to stay off the radar of the religious leaders.  Here’s what insider John had to say:

Six days before the Passover Jesus came to Bethany, the home of Lazarus, whom he had raised from the dead. There they gave a dinner for him. Martha served, and Lazarus was one of those at the table with him. Mary took a pound of costly perfume made of pure nard, anointed Jesus’ feet, and wiped them* with her hair. The house was filled with the fragrance of the perfume.

But Judas Iscariot, one of his disciples (the one who was about to betray him), said, ‘Why was this perfume not sold for three hundred denarii* and the money given to the poor?’ (He said this not because he cared about the poor, but because he was a thief; he kept the common purse and used to steal what was put into it.)

Jesus said, ‘Leave her alone. She bought it* so that she might keep it for the day of my burial. You always have the poor with you, but you do not always have me’ (John 12:1-8).

Did you catch John’s little aside about Judas Iscariot? John wrote this account decades after the event and he’s still miffed with Judas!

Because we live in the 21st century and this happened in 1st century Palestine, we may not know exactly how awkward this really was for Jesus and those around him. We also might miss Mary’s act of love.

A couple of things stand out. Women never appeared in public with their hair unbound. It was a sign of an immoral woman. So for Mary to have her hair down and to touch Jesus at all, much less with her hair, was an enormous risk! Mary loved Jesus and knew there were limits to what her relationship with him could be. That didn’t stop her, however, from sharing with him something of immense value to her with no thought to what others might think. And Jesus honors her publicly by allowing her act of love for him, framing it in a context that shows the purity of her heart and a larger purpose of which we are not yet aware.

We know how John feels about Judas, but we also get a glimpse at how miserable Judas really was. Judas had the position of the tribe’s treasurer because he had an aptitude for money and budgeting. Jesus suspected early on that Judas had the potential to go one way or the other (‘Did I not choose you, the twelve? Yet one of you is a devil’ John 6:70), and yet he still allowed Judas a position of responsibility. Judas’ ungracious and insincere comment about Mary and the poor indicates how bitter he had become. Whether it was his bitterness or temptation, money was his downfall. The law of temptation held true for Judas. Temptation often comes through that which we are naturally suited.

An interesting dinner party: Jesus, the outlaw. Mary, the woman who cast aside propriety to show her love for a man who would never be her husband. Judas, whose borderline life is about to get much worse. As my Dad used to always say when we asked him what he did at work: A day like all days; filled with the events that make history.

By the way, Clive Christian No. 1 retails for $865.00/1.6 oz. Demand is so high at Saks Fifth Avenue that customers are limited to no more than 6 units of this items every 30 days!

 

A Week of Suffering, Day 3

Christmas #2Jesus, and every other devout Jew, was in Jerusalem for Passover. Jerusalem was a prosperous, cosmopolitan metropolis and the lavishly restored Temple was a world-renowned wonder. Jews were obligated to make sacrifices at the Temple during the festivals of Passover, Succoth, and Shavouth. The population of Jerusalem swelled to an additional 100,000 to 250,000 during these religious festivals.

While many pilgrims camped on the hillsides of Bethany and Bethphage, Jesus always stayed with his very close friends who lived in Bethany. Martha, Mary, and Lazarus (yes, of raised from the dead fame) were siblings that were early followers of Jesus. Their home became a place where he could rest and be refreshed after long days with crowds.

Jesus was popular…or not…everywhere he went. He drew crowds wherever he went. His message of a God who cared, illustrating theological principles through stories got through when rules and laws seemed remote, and just being among them spoke to people’s hearts. Many of the pilgrims in Jerusalem for Passover were seeking him out as it might be the only opportunity they had to hear and be in the presence of this man whose fame had spread throughout the region.

No doubt Jesus knew the authorities were keeping a close watch on him. John, who was with Jesus later wrote this:

Many of the Jews therefore, who had come with Mary and had seen what Jesus did, believed in him. But some of them went to the Pharisees and told them what he had done.

So the chief priests and the Pharisees called a meeting of the council, and said, “What are we to do? This man is performing many signs. If we let him go on like this, everyone will believe in him, and the Romans will come and destroy both our holy place and our nation.”

But one of them, Caiaphas, who was high priest that year, said to them, “You know nothing at all! You do not understand that it is better for you to have one man die for the people than to have the whole nation destroyed.”

He did not say this on his own, but being high priest that year he prophesied that Jesus was about to die for the nation, and not for the nation only, but to gather into one the dispersed children of God. So from that day on they planned to put him to death (John 11:45-53).

Most of us have some inkling of how miserable it is when people are after us. Maybe it’s a boss or colleague at work. Maybe it’s someone in your family! There are brothers and sisters all around the world whose lives are in daily danger because of their convictions that are threatening to those in power. The Arab Spring wasn’t anything new.

John added this:

Now the Passover of the Jews was near, and many went up from the country to Jerusalem before the Passover to purify themselves. They were looking for Jesus and were asking one another as they stood in the temple, “What do you think? Surely he will not come to the festival, will he?” Now the chief priests and the Pharisees had given orders that anyone who knew where Jesus was should let them know, so that they might arrest him (John 11:55-57).

I think we can pretty much guess what the topic of conversation was at Martha, Mary, and Lazarus’ dinner table! News would have been brought back from anyone who ventured into Jerusalem. Jesus’ friends would want to protect him and there was probably no shortage of advice.

But what was Jesus thinking? How did he cope with the stress knowing he was being hunted and that the leaders of his own faith wanted him dead? What about the stress of those around him? How did he deal with that? What’s his responsibility to those truly seeking him out? His own obligations for Passover against the backdrop of the unrest being stirred up against him?

Suffering comes in many ways and often we’re not fully aware of how we are impacted by peripheral events and people in our lives. If it’s something concrete that we can easily identify, we have a head start. But what if it’s illusive and you’re not sure where it’s coming from or what it is? Then what? Who are your Martha, Mary, and Lazarus?

A Week of Suffering, Day 2

Optimus Primes - PrimeapaloozaI have this image in my head I can’t quite shake: Jesus as action hero. Besides Legos, my sons had two other favorite toys: Transformers and Masters of the Universe. I could never keep up with the names and their special super hero powers, but they certainly provided hours of imaginative play. That’s the image I have of Jesus, a blend of Masters of the Universe and Transformers, when he walked into the temple in Jerusalem.

Jesus wasted no time when he arrived in Jerusalem for what was to be his final week. His first stop was to the temple. The temple was the center of Hebrew life in Jerusalem. I imagine it being the original mega-church vying to have a say in all things community and specialty “ministries” for whatever will bring people in the doors. Because Jerusalem was under Roman occupation, there was a complicated, cozy relationship between the religious leaders and the politicians. Hmm. Seems that not much has changed in 21 centuries.

Purchasing animals for sacrifice was part of temple commerce. However, Roman and Greek money needed to be changed into money acceptable for temple purchases. What Jesus saw, however, were the rich and powerful taking advantage and exploiting the poor.  It demonstrated a forgetfulness of the proper purpose of the temple. Meek and mild Jesus became Rambo Jesus on a “cleaning” spree of the religious and economic practices in the temple. I think it’s fair to say he was a wee bit agitated by what he saw going on in a place designed to be a house of prayer:

[Jesus] said to them, “It is written, ‘My house shall be called a house of prayer, but you are making it a den of robbers’ (Matthew 21:13).

Jesus may have been angry, but underneath the anger was sadness. I’m thinking Jesus must have been incredibly sad to see what temple life had become. Instead places of sanctuary and worship, the temple had become a place of exploitation and business. Those who had nowhere else to go now had nowhere. Those who came to pray and worship were turned away because they didn’t move in certain economic circles. Those called to lead and watch out for those in the margins were wheeling and dealing with  political powers in order to maintain their status and keep their doors open. If the religious weren’t going to advocate or care for the poor, the sick, the orphaned, the widow, who was?

Everyone needs an advocate. Nothing gives greater hope than knowing someone else understands and cares about what you’re going through. Those who are beaten down from being down-sized out of a job, struggling to make ends meet, finding a safe neighborhood for their children, and a whole slew of other life realities especially need to know they are not alone. Sometimes a caring human is the closest someone may feel to a caring God.

Jesus understood this. We aren’t masters of our own universe, but we can be transformers. The question I’m asking myself to day is: How can I be transformed in order to become an agent of transformation for someone else?


A Week of Suffering, Day 1

Palm FrondsI wonder what really was going through Jesus’ head as he looked over Jerusalem, waiting for his friends to come back with the donkey he requested. Certainly he knew the popularity tide had turned long ago among the religious and political leaders. In fact, shortly after his birth when King Herod heard, from foreigners no less, that they were looking to pay homage to the one born king of the Jews, Herod was frightened, and all Jerusalem with him (Matthew 2:2). Yep. He had been a festering thorn in their sides since his birth.

As he saw the crowd growing in anticipation of his arrival, what was he anticipating?There’s the ongoing debate between Jesus being fully God, and therefore omniscient, and fully man, suspending his God-ness and not really knowing The Plan for him. Did he know what this week had in store for him?

I imagine it being more like having cancer or AIDS and being aware that your death is more imminent than before finding out you have cancer or AIDS. You’ve been given a potentially life-threatening diagnosis, but don’t really know when that final event will occur. It’s now blatantly in your consciousness that it’s sooner than you thought! You’re reminded that you have limited time this side of eternity (we all do, but certain things, like diagnoses, remind us), and you endeavor to be fully engaged, savoring what remaining time you have on this planet, while making what’s left of your life count for something.

You also begin to anticipate the suffering. Most people I’ve talked to about their diagnosis are most worried about suffering, for themselves and those they love. We wonder if we truly can endure horrible pain and the ravages of the disease process. We don’t really know how we will cope with the incredible suffering we anticipate. We also have no idea how others will respond when they’re confronted with someone else’s suffering. We’d like to think we’d be there for those we love in their hours of greatest need, but most of us have enough difficulty handling our own powerlessness in circumstances. Most of us are untested or lacking when it comes to bearing witness to another’s suffering.

Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem (aka Palm Sunday in Christian tradition) is often emphasized as triumphant. The crowds are singing praises and cheering as he makes his way, riding the donkey, along the palm-lined trail. While the crowd is anticipating Jesus as the conquering hero, Jesus is anticipating something else.

Unbeknownst to everyone, it’s going to be an intense week. It’s a week of immense challenge, suffering and uncertainty. I find that incredibly comforting.

My goal is to take each day of Holy Week and look at it with a new lens. Jesus didn’t come to live his life on earth, make a mess of things, and move back to heaven, although that did happen. Jesus disrupts. Jesus suffers. Jesus triumphs.

Let’s find out what that means for us. I’ll “see” you on Day 2.

 

Life in the Cracks

cottage creviceSequesters, Syria, and suicides. Financial setbacks, family fights, and fickle friends. Current events, much like our lives, leave us fearful, hopeless, and uncertain. Whether external or internal, sometimes we feel caught in the crossfires of forces beyond our control. Spiritual faith doesn’t whitewash away these realities. Instead, faith helps us perceive God in the midst of life’s hardships.

I was reading my favorite Gospel this week and something jumped off the page. No doubt I’ve read it hundreds of times because it’s right before the very familiar fig tree passage. Nevertheless, it caught me by surprise.

Repent or Perish

At that very time there were some present who told him about the Galileans whose blood Pilate had mingled with their sacrifices. He asked them, ‘Do you think that because these Galileans suffered in this way they were worse sinners than all other Galileans? No, I tell you; but unless you repent, you will all perish as they did. Or those eighteen who were killed when the tower of Siloam fell on them—do you think that they were worse offenders than all the others living in Jerusalem? No, I tell you; but unless you repent, you will all perish just as they did.’

The Parable of the Barren Fig Tree

Then he told this parable: ‘A man had a fig tree planted in his vineyard; and he came looking for fruit on it and found none. So he said to the gardener, “See here! For three years I have come looking for fruit on this fig tree, and still I find none. Cut it down! Why should it be wasting the soil?” He replied, “Sir, let it alone for one more year, until I dig round it and put manure on it. If it bears fruit next year, well and good; but if not, you can cut it down.” ’ (Luke 13:1-9)

Once again, Jesus is getting pulled into a conversation about a recent news cycle. Apparently the Roman forces had slaughtered a group of religious pilgrims … again. Everyone is waiting to see how he’ll react.

In typical fashion, Jesus responds by saying what everyone is thinking, but won’t say out loud: Do you think this happened to them because they’re bad people? It’s called “blame the victim” mentality and is often used to explain horrific situations. Unfortunately, tragedies don’t usually follow any moral logic. They just happen.

Jesus rejects that line of reasoning, no matter if the violence is perpetuated by an oppressive political system or a random accident that he cites about the tower falling on eighteen people. He also refuses to use this incident to speculate on the deep mysteries of the universe or why a loving and just God doesn’t magically intervene.

Jesus’ response isn’t comforting. Instead of giving sympathy to these poor people, he says, it could have been you! Jesus doesn’t downplay life’s harshness. He’s essentially asking, Why should any of you survivors sleep any easier tonight? To top it all off he adds, if you don’t repent, you’ll perish too!

Jesus follows up this cheery thought with the story of the unproductive fig tree that’s given one last chance – helped by some horticulture – to realize its purpose. The parable clarifies Jesus’ motivations for previously exhorting people to “repent.” It’s not that repenting will extend our lives or offer a miraculous shield against tyrants, superstorms, computer hackers, and disease. Rather, our repentance will lead, figuratively, to our bearing fruit. True living is about fruition, coming to the place of experiencing God’s intentions for us even in the midst of a sometimes menacing universe.

I know most people cringe when they hear the word repent. Most people erroneously associate repentance with behavior and guilt, as if Jesus’ goal is to reform personal morality.

The word translated for repent, is at it’s root, about thinking and perception. It refers to the wholesale change of how a person understands things. It implies an utter reconfiguration of your perspective on reality and meaning, including a reorientation yourself toward God. Your behavior might change as a result of this new perception, certainly; but repentance first involves seeing things differently and coming to a new understanding of what God makes possible.

Jesus, then, is promising an alternate perspective on the cycles of violence, pain, and meaninglessness. To miss out on this way of seeing — to neglect to “repent” — is to miss out on other dimensions of our existence. It is to pass by one’s purpose.

Jesus’ summons to repent is not escapism or a minimization of life’s hardships. It means coming to discover God as the source of sustenance, belonging, meaning, and hope in this difficult life and into future existence. Repentance names the change that occurs within us when God meets us and reshapes our understanding. Repentance results from an encounter with God.

What are the things you’d like to be different than what they currently are? What are the things that erode hope and make it difficult to see through the mist?

Jesus doesn’t promise to change the world by providing instant relief. His coming did not put an end to tyrants or stop buildings and meteorites from falling upon random passers-by. But he does offer a new perspective on what’s possible for us and for our world. He insists God can be encountered, even within this fragile human existence.

Elsewhere the New Testament makes it clear: this new perspective is not about passivity or resigning oneself to life’s afflictions. Nor is repentance a tool for seizing control over the universe to tame its vicious streak. It is a way of aligning ourselves with the God who cares for all the world and wishes to enlist our help in ushering in newness, relief, and justice.

Repenting entails trust. It entails trust in God, yes, but also trust that, because of God’s commitment to us, what we read in the news – or what we experience in life – does not capture the full extent of any story. Every disappointing news item and every sad life event includes a summons to look and work for God’s grace, mercy, and justice, even if those things fall in the cracks.

Thin Place Strongholds

Tibet's ChinaThere are places where the distance between heaven and earth collapse and we catch a glimmer of the Divine. Sometimes it’s not so much a physical place, but a spiritual place  – a place of awakening where God is especially close. Mystical and magical, we encounter something we weren’t quite expecting, like a special delivery gift from God just for us. These are known as thin places.

Thin places can happen anywhere and what may be a thin place for you may be a thick place for someone else. Maybe a walk on a certain beach is a thin place for you, but for your friend it’s a bustling airport in Hong Kong. Digging in your garden may be a thin place for you, but sorting through donated food at the food bank may be a thin place for someone else.

Sometimes you find yourself in a thin place quite by accident. You may be on your daily walk through the neighborhood and suddenly notice a flower pushing it’s way up through the weeds. Maybe you’re looking out the window as you mindlessly fold clothes and the sunlight on a spider web catches your eye. Small, seemingly insignificant details show up and break into the ordinary and mundane. These are the thin places I love the most, little gems we might otherwise miss because we’re moving through our days unconscious.

Grief is an interesting thin place. Whether we’re grieving the loss of someone or something in our life, we find memories and remembrances surfacing that we hadn’t thought about for years. Maybe you hear a song and it transports us to a bittersweet time and place. Maybe you’re dusting a handmade gift and realize the person who crafted that gift for you is no longer a child but the father of your granddaughter who is the same age he was when he made that gift for you. For me, those thin places invite me to experience emotions and memories the someones and the somethings that are part of the larger tapestry of my life.

The season of Lent can also be a thin place if we’re open to what God might have for us. Sadly, Lent is often seen as a time of self-denial, as if giving up caffeine or wine or entertainment for forty days is going to make us more cognizant of God in our lives. Instead Lent, the word which comes from spring, as in the season of lengthening of days, can be rich in thin places because we’re opening ourselves to the new life of a new season with all of the possibilities it holds for us. I relish finding God’s hidden treasure for me each day, something new for me and some message from or awareness that speaks directly to my heart from God’s heart.

Psalm 27 speaks to me of thin places.

The Lord is my light and my salvation;
whom shall I fear?
The Lord is the stronghold* of my life;
of whom shall I be afraid?

When evildoers assail me
to devour my flesh—
my adversaries and foes—
they shall stumble and fall.

Though an army encamp against me,
my heart shall not fear;
though war rise up against me,
yet I will be confident.

One thing I asked of the Lord,
that will I seek after:
to live in the house of the Lord
all the days of my life,
to behold the beauty of the Lord,
and to inquire in his temple.

For he will hide me in his shelter
in the day of trouble;
he will conceal me under the cover of his tent;
he will set me high on a rock.

Now my head is lifted up
above my enemies all around me,
and I will offer in his tent
sacrifices with shouts of joy;
I will sing and make melody to the Lord.

Hear, O Lord, when I cry aloud,
be gracious to me and answer me!
‘Come,’ my heart says, ‘seek his face!’
Your face, Lord, do I seek.
Do not hide your face from me.

Do not turn your servant away in anger,
you who have been my help.
Do not cast me off, do not forsake me,
O God of my salvation!
If my father and mother forsake me,
the Lord will take me up.

Teach me your way, O Lord,
and lead me on a level path
because of my enemies.
Do not give me up to the will of my adversaries,
for false witnesses have risen against me,
and they are breathing out violence.

I believe that I shall see the goodness of the Lord
in the land of the living.
Wait for the Lord;
be strong, and let your heart take courage;
wait for the Lord!

This psalm gives us a peak into the intimate relationship the writer has with God. The psalm voices the thin places of meeting God in the full spectrum of ordinary human experience – tender and trusting, and shrill and despairing. The psalm is a reminder that  the thin places where we encounter God are all around us. Our discovery of these thin places depends on how open we are to God’s ordinary presence in our lives: clinic corridors, the light rail, classrooms, the dinner table.

What I’m learning is that these thin places are strongholds. Strongholds provide survival and refuge. As I encounter God in the ordinary places and events of my life, I enter a stronghold that shelters and protects me. Thin place strongholds allow our hearts to find rest and comfort, and prepare us for the new season ahead.

Gun Violence We’re Not Talking About

Business EndBefore President Obama gave his 2013 State of the Union address, faith leaders and others were already rallying to get a national conversation going about gun violence. It seems that every horrific mass shooting or senseless gun death becomes an opportunity to revisit the gun issue. Anytime any life is lost to violence only reminds us that we have yet to deal with the issues surrounding violence in our culture.

Personally, I think the conversation about gun violence is long overdue. What surprises me is we’re not even talking about the gun violence that kills most Americans. While most think murder is the leading cause of gun death, the reality is that the majority of gun deaths are self-inflicted. What we really need to include in the conversation about gun violence is suicide prevention.

Here are a few startling facts from the National Center for Health Statistics:

  • Every 15 minutes someone dies by suicide in the Unites States.
  • For every person who dies, many more think about, plan, or attempt suicide.
  • More people kill themselves with guns than with every other method combined.

Suicide is complex and determined by a combination of factors. One very close friend of mine made three attempts in a short period. She was well-educated, happily married with two young daughters, and a professor at a prestigious university. An elderly parishioner received news he had cancer and shot himself without ever telling his family of his diagnosis. Sometimes we can piece together mitigating circumstances and risk factors and other times we’re taken completely by surprise.

What Cathy Barber, a researcher at the Harvard School of Public Health discovered is that the notion of how a person commits suicide is as important as why and that making it harder for suicidal people to have access to guns is a relatively simple way to save their lives. The assumption is that if someone is suicidal, they will remain suicidal. The overwhelming evidence, including interviews with suicide survivors, is that most suicidal acts come during a surprisingly brief period when someone is experiencing an acute crisis.

I was having a conversation about gun violence with someone and was told that “suicides don’t count.” I understand that most people would rather think that the possibility of themselves or someone they love dying by suicide is more remote than if they were to be shot by an armed robber or mass shooter. I might have also thought that before my brother died from a self-inflicted gunshot.

Either way, innocent people are dying. It seems that these are people who could be helped.

Abiding in the Shadow

NASA's Cassini spacecraft has delivered a glorious view of Saturn, taken while the spacecraft was in Saturn's shadow. Shadows are such a natural part of life, we don’t think much about them. Where there is light, there are shadows. Maybe you remember the science experiments in school when you’d put an object in the line of light and observe how that object blocked the light, creating a shadow of the object.

Shadows create interest and dimension in art. I’m not an artist, but I certainly notice how one dimensional a painting is without shadows. Shadowing creates depth and definition in a picture.

Although shadows are a natural phenomenon, we sometimes depict shadows as something sinister (as a dark place where evil resides) or the undesirable side of someone’s personality (as in Jungian psychology).

The psalmist offers another yet another perspective for shadows; a place of security, safety, and reprieve from the life’s penetrating rays. This psalm has been a source of great comfort for me many times, under a variety of circumstances throughout my life. It is also fitting that this psalm surfaces during Lent which also corresponds with my period of grief.

You who live in the shelter of the Most High,
who abide in the shadow of the Almighty,*
will say to the Lord, ‘My refuge and my fortress;
my God, in whom I trust.’
For he will deliver you from the snare of the fowler
and from the deadly pestilence;
he will cover you with his pinions,
and under his wings you will find refuge;
his faithfulness is a shield and buckler.
You will not fear the terror of the night,
or the arrow that flies by day,
or the pestilence that stalks in darkness,
or the destruction that wastes at noonday.

A thousand may fall at your side,
ten thousand at your right hand,
but it will not come near you.
You will only look with your eyes
and see the punishment of the wicked.

Because you have made the Lord your refuge,*
the Most High your dwelling-place,
no evil shall befall you,
no scourge come near your tent.

For he will command his angels concerning you
to guard you in all your ways.
On their hands they will bear you up,
so that you will not dash your foot against a stone.
You will tread on the lion and the adder,
the young lion and the serpent you will trample under foot.

Those who love me, I will deliver;
I will protect those who know my name.
When they call to me, I will answer them;
I will be with them in trouble,
I will rescue them and honour them.
With long life I will satisfy them,
and show them my salvation (Psalm 91).

This passage does NOT say is that those who are faithful and who are ardent believers will be delivered from all the trouble and trauma that may assault us side of eternity. None of us are immune from challenges, conflict, or even change. Our faith may help equip us in coping, but it will not remove us from the crucible. This psalm reminds us that the safest place is to abide in the shadow of the Almighty. 

I’ve been thinking a lot about my brother this week. I can only surmise what led to his decision to ultimately take his life. Was there no more shadow, but only opaqueness? I don’t know and catch myself trying to make sense of something that just is. Shadows, by nature, must have light, but opaqueness is the absence of all light. It makes me incredibly sad to think that he saw no light whatsoever in his circumstances. But there’s also a part of me that completely understands.

Being deep in the shadows can feel like opaqueness. But if I can learn to abide in the shadow – seeking refuge and shelter in the shadow of the Almighty – as I move through my grief or whatever assails me, I know the light will shift and I will no longer be in the shadow.

Lent is an old word for spring, as the daylight lengthens and the shadows shorten. Just as we move from night to day in our daily journey, so we move from shadow to light in our life journey. What I’m learning in the midst of grief is that shadows are places of refuge and strongholds of safety … especially when I abide in the shadow of the Almighty.

Photo: NASA’s Cassini spacecraft has delivered a glorious view of Saturn, taken while the spacecraft was in Saturn’s shadow.

Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Space Science Institute

Dust and Ashes

Orion Nebula - new image from Hubble & SpitzerHousework became a whole lot easier when we moved from Texas to California. We don’t have any where near the concentration of dust and dirt in California. Then again, we had more native landscaping in rural Texas. It was nearly impossible to stay on top of the dust and dirt that got tracked into our Texas house. All that dust would remind me of words I’d say during Ash Wednesday services as I was placing ashes on foreheads: Remember you are dust and to dust you shall return. 

This year, Ash Wednesday gives me more to personally ponder. I’ve had more brushes with death than anyone else in my family, yet my younger brother is the first in my immediate family to die. Aging may remind me of my mortality, but my brother’s untimely death is a constant reminder that we are all a breath away from death.

Just like the dirt that would get tracked into our Texas house, we all leave a dusty trail of footprints on our life’s path. Sometimes the footprints are more muddy than dusty, but each of us leaves prints of our own limitations and imperfections. Dust reminds us of the messes we may make in life and messes we may make of life.

God, however, doesn’t leave us in the dust. God takes us when we’re a lump of dirt and breathes new life into us. This side of eternity we are still imperfect beings, both saint and sinner as Martin Luther of Reformation fame liked to say. But no matter how imperfect we are, we are still created in God’s image with God’s spirit breathed into us.

The journey beginning with Ash Wednesday and ending with Easter is the journey between dust and dust, with a resurrection twist.

So today I remember that I am dust. And today I remember that to dust I shall return. Amen.

Transfiguring Grief

000_0013There’s a story in the bible that takes place just before Jesus enters his final weeks of life. Jesus takes his closest friends up to a mountain to pray. His friends were used to him going off to pray, but this time he invited them to go with him. For some reason, I don’t imagine them being very excited about going off to any prayer meeting. I wouldn’t be! But, I’m sure the opportunity to be alone with him was what really enticed them to go off to pray.

A surprising thing happened on that mountain. Here’s how the scripture describes it:

Now about eight days after these sayings Jesus took with him Peter and John and James, and went up on the mountain to pray. And while he was praying, the appearance of his face changed, and his clothes became dazzling white. Suddenly they saw two men, Moses and Elijah, talking to him. They appeared in glory and were speaking of his departure, which he was about to accomplish at Jerusalem. Now Peter and his companions were weighed down with sleep; but since they had stayed awake, they saw his glory and the two men who stood with him. Just as they were leaving him, Peter said to Jesus, ‘Master, it is good for us to be here; let us make three dwellings, one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah’—not knowing what he said. While he was saying this, a cloud came and overshadowed them; and they were terrified as they entered the cloud. Then from the cloud came a voice that said, ‘This is my Son, my Chosen; listen to him!’ When the voice had spoken, Jesus was found alone. And they kept silent and in those days told no one any of the things they had seen (Luke 9:28-36).

Something interesting happened on that mountain. What actually happened is not available to us. Obsessing about what happened or what could have happened or explaining the physics behind what could or couldn’t have happened is a compete waste of time.

What is important is that something happened. This wasn’t an event just made up. What is remembered is usually filtered through hindsight and experience. And there’s nothing wrong with that. There is a relationship between history remembered  and history metaphorized. Stories are powerful for the truths and principles they illustrate. The question we really want to ask ourselves is: What does this teach us about God, ourselves, and our faith?

One obvious principle we notice from this passage is that spiritual peaks come and go. We don’t know when they will happen, but they will happen. We can never predict them. We can never create them. We can’t repeat them. They happen when they happen.

Luke chronicles five previous times Jesus goes off to pray. Nothing out of the usual or disruptive (unless you count his friends interrupting him to tell him someone was looking for him) occurred each of those times he prayed. Jesus goes off and prays. That’s it. In fact, the first time Luke records Jesus going off to pray was when he went into the wilderness to pray for forty days. Hardly a peak experience! And that’s the point. Most of Jesus’ life and ministry was long periods of ordinariness with occasional highlight events.

I’ve lived in two states that didn’t have mountains: Massachusetts and Texas. It took me awhile to get used to only having hills for perspective. When I lived in California and Colorado, the mountains provided my sense of direction. I used the mountains as a guide for direction. It was the only way I could determine which way was north, south, east, or west. Hills gave me a limited perspective beyond the horizon, but the mountains also gave me a sense of direction.

God is constantly present in our lives. Our awareness of that presence is mostly a matter of perception and trust, whether we’re in the valley, the flatlands, the hills, or the mountains of life. It’s a matter of paying attention to God speaking to us in and through the ordinary as well as the momentous. Jesus’ friends were weighed down with sleep, I think because praying was so boring. Thankfully, they managed to stay awake. Otherwise, they would have missed the incredible experience they witnessed with Jesus, Moses, Elijah, and God.

This story known to us as the Transfiguration marks the Sunday before Ash Wednesday. Ash Wednesday kicks off the season of Lent as preparation for Easter. We move through the seasons as we move through life, a continuous cycle of beginnings and endings, new life and death. Ordinary, seemingly mundane until something disrupts us, jolting us awake to pay attention differently to what is going on around us.

Something transfiguring is happening in my grief. I’m still shrouded in the cloud, but I am not alone … and I am listening.

The Underbelly of Grief

the underbelly of the overpassDisclaimer: This was a very difficult post to write. My intent is not to cast blame, but to present a reality of struggle for me.

Talking about death is awkward. Even for those of us who have spent much of our professional lives dealing with death, it still has its conversational challenges. We were opening a bank account and the person assisting us asked what brought us to the area. Of course, she’s just making polite conversation but there isn’t an easy, polite answer for why we moved to the area. What am I going to say? My brother died. He took his own life. Yes, he has children. I have no idea how things are going for them.

My brother was in the midst of a very messy divorce when he died. His marriage had been in trouble for years and we all knew it. We knew, not because he talked about it (because he didn’t), but because we saw the dynamics. I didn’t get dragged in by his wife like my parents and sister, but enough passing comments were made to me by her when I was around for family events to know he was considered the sole problem for everything in their life.

The family was never in any denial about my brother’s personal demons. But, as I was always reminding him, he also wasn’t solely to blame for their marriage’s demise. It takes two to build a marriage, two to maintain a marriage, two to grow a marriage, and two to destroy a marriage. Each must bear their share of the burden when a marriage dies.

Children, however, should never be put in the middle of their parents’ messy lives. Unfortunately, children are always part of the collateral fallout when a marriage ends. That’s why it is imperative to make sure kids get professional support to help them navigate their parents’ divorce. Sadly, most parents don’t get help themselves and often only get help for the kids after aberrant behavior surfaces or something drastic happens.

My nieces weren’t receiving any professional support during the separation of their parents and now, even after their father’s death – complicated by the fact it was suicide -are still not receiving any professional support. I only emphasize the need for professional support because I am concerned for them.

Grief manifests itself in different ways for each person. Grief is a process, a series of varying stages that each of us must journey in our own way and in our own timing. Grief is not the same for everyone and we must refrain from judging others on how they grieve. Of course, there are unhealthy ways to grieve (self-medicating through alcohol and drugs) and there is even pathological grief, but most of us make our way through grief as best we can.

I have no doubt my brother’s wife is grieving in her own way. There was the loss of her marriage, now complicated by the loss of the father of her children. My nieces heard it all before he died. What are they hearing now that he’s dead? How is their memory of their father being colored by what they now hear from their mother? How are they navigating the complicated emotional aspects of their own life when they don’t have any neutral source of support? How do we, their father’s family, breach the chasm to have our own relationship with his children?

The underbelly of grief is the truth; the truth about ourselves and the truth about our relationships. The truth that we all must face reality without our loved one and the buffer (and glue) they represented with the other people in their lives. When they’re gone, so is the relationship. I do want a relationship with his children, my nieces. I don’t, however, have a viable relationship with their mother at this time.

Another aspect of grief to keep in prayer.

I’m Back

cosmic rough riders:to be someoneAfter a whirlwind two months, I feel like I’m re-entering humanity. I haven’t been in hibernation or isolation or immobilized by life. My life, however, since December 6, 2012 has been turned upside-down and my heart broken open. Oh, and we’ve relocated from Texas to California.

I’m back, but I’m also changed. My brother’s death has been a profound tragedy for my family. The mystery, violence, and tragedy of his death has had extensive repercussions for all of us. Writing has always been part of my life, part of my passion and calling in life, a way for me to process and find direction during transitions. It’s not that this has been difficult to put into words. There have been no words.

Silence, like grief, is a sacred gift. The key to experiencing the sacred in silence and grief is to move with it. This goes against our very natures. How often do you find yourself filling the uncomfortable lull in conversation? There’s a fine line when a conversational lull becomes eye-avoiding silence. Most of us don’t want it to get to silence so we inanely blabber on to fill the void silence creates.

And in that inane moment, we miss the sacred gift.

Silence is both sacred and a gift because it’s essential for us to hear the inner voice that guides us. When we fill the silence we begin striving and we begin striving, we stop moving with the silence and start orchestrating the things and thoughts we’re placing in the silence. We’re no longer flowing with the silence, but trying to control it. The more we try to control, the more out of control we feel. Before we know it we’re in more of a confused mess than before we noticed the silence.

A lot of things need to be in alignment in order to hear the inner voice that guides us. Be still and know I am God (Isaiah 46:10) is a verse that anchors and reminds me of silence’s sacred gift.

One thing I’ve come to know during this time of silence is that grief is essential to our humanity. Grief is an interesting teacher and there have been some surprising lessons. I’ll be sharing some of my thoughts and insights and I hope you’ll share some of yours with me. Instead of shying away from the pain and discomfort of grief – our own and each other’s – I trust we will move with it and uncover its sacred gifts for each of us.

When Your Brother Dies

vic

I feel like I’ve been in a two week time warp. My oldest son called me on a Thursday. My sister had just found my brother, dead from a self-inflicted gunshot wound. My parents were enroute from the San Francisco Bay Area to his house in Fair Oaks. I called my other son in Fresno. Sam and I started making our arrangements for California.

That’s how grief begins. Calls. Arrangements. People. A service.

I wish I could also share the the heartfelt outpouring of love and remembrances from the hundreds of people who came to celebrate his life. Instead, I’ll share my message.

In Celebration of Vic Peterson

I don’t think any of us ever expected to gather together under these circumstances. We are never prepared for death, even when we know there’s been a long illness. But when someone’s life is tragically cut short – especially when it’s of their own hand – we’re thrown into a quagmire of emotion and questions.

That’s why it is good that we are here today. Even under these awful circumstances, we want to celebrate Vic and comfort one another.

Where to start. It’s impossible to sum up someone’s life and especially Vic’s. Vic lived life to the fullest and then some. His family, especially his daughters – McKenna, Cassidy, and Riley – were his most precious relationships. But as evidenced by the sharing of memories today and the outpouring through social media, we know he connected with people far and wide throughout his life.

Vic’s life wasn’t about his accomplishments. Nor was he a one dimensional person. He had a different and unique relationship with each one of us that doesn’t fit into any concrete category or period of his life. So I’m not going to recount his life. But I do want to share a few qualities he possessed for us to take as his parting gifts to us.

Vic collected people. No one was a stranger to Vic and it didn’t take long before he knew your name and all sorts of interesting tidbits he extracted from you. He could work a room like no one else. He was the one telling the epic stories and instigating the mischief. He’d forego the polite conversation and just say what he thought, which was most often never politically correct. And he could get away with it! Differences in opinion and viewpoint never interfered with his relationship with you. In fact, he was notorious for calling you up out of the blue, after many years since the last contact, picking up right where he left off with you.

People were important to Vic. It didn’t matter whether you were family or a friend or a co-worker. He was not going to forget you and he did not end relationships. Once you were in his circle, you remained in his circle.

Vic had a remarkable memory. Vic was certainly brilliant intellectually, but he had a phenomenal memory about everything. He could recall all the words to songs, as well as the artist and album recorded. He’d burst into song for whatever was appropriate – or not – for the moment.

Vic was the institutional memory of family stories and lore. It didn’t matter that some of the stories he remembered were before his time; he had all the details and characters and he was usually right! He remembered all of the houses he lived, including the houses we lived in before he was born. And, not only did he remember the houses, he remembered the addresses and the telephone numbers as well.

Vic got his degree from UC Berkeley in Industrial Psychology, but his professional career was in computer technology. Completely self-taught, he started out repairing video games at Marriott’s Great America when he was in high school. He morphed with the technology industry eventually designing and implementing networks for the government, and major companies and organizations.

I’m sure many of you heard his stories about going in to Napa State Hospital or one of California’s fine penal institutions – no, not as a guest – but as a network engineer. In May he called me from Atascadero State Hospital, where he was working, saying, “Guess where I am? [Of course, I had no idea.] I’m in your old stomping grounds, where you’re on your own if something goes down. [And you just listen because he’s launched into an epic story that he’s woven you into, and you can’t get a word in edgewise.]

He was excited about his latest job. Although he knew networks inside and out, he didn’t have the formal credentials. He told us that he was going to have to dazzle them with his brilliance and charm. He was already talking about how he could improve their operations – something he might just take on.

Vic was generous with his time and talent. He was there to lend a helping hand or help out on a project. He wasn’t haphazard about what he did, but meticulous and thorough. It didn’t matter if it was a neighbor or the local food bank, family or something for the girls. He was there.

He was the Dad who showed up at dance team car washes and fundraisers, as well as games and dance recitals. He was incredibly proud of his daughters for who they are, as well as all of their accomplishments.

He was there for those odds things, like being dropped off at the airport, sitting while someone was having surgery, hauling stuff or building something, or manning the BBQ. You knew when he arrived and could always find him in the middle of whatever was going on.

Vic lived in the present. Well, Vic lived in the present unless it was his annual fishing trip or any other fishing trip. He loved to fish and really looked forward to his fishing trips.

I know Vic worried as most of us do and being a good provider for his family was very important to him. But he never shared that stuff with most of us, instead focusing on what was going on in your life in his usual irreverent and humorous way.

Underneath it all, however, was a sensitive, sentimental soul. He was a proud person who didn’t gossip or talk bad others. He couldn’t be bothered with regrets or missed opportunities, making the best with what he was presented.

He also had his own personal challenges, as we all do. None of us ever really knows what another is going through or the pain they carry within. We only see what we want to see, and that’s often filtered through our own judgment and perceptions. Vic’s life reminds us that we each are much more complex than what is visible to others.

God endows each of us with invaluable and unfathomable worth. We each are a unique, unrepeatable miracle of God. I used to tell Vic that I wasn’t exactly sure what God was thinking when God created him, but it sure made for some interesting experiences!

This side of eternity it’s not about the answers or understanding why … although that’s the place where we want to go to make sense of this tragedy and our loss. I truly believe that nothing is ever wasted in God’s economy. Vic, and his lived-out-loud life, is a touchstone for our shared humanity and our real-life experiences.

The Christmas season is a reminder that God breaks into our lives and meets us in the in between places of life and death. God wants to be part of the conversation of our lives as we move through our grief. God is present to heal our broken hearts and bind up our wounds (Psalm 147:3).

Vic had a special way he always ended our conversations. I used to think he just said it to me, but I’m finding out he said it to a lot of people! He’d say, “Who loves you the most?” And he’d wait until you answered.

He gave until he could give no more. Now we entrust him to God’s eternal and loving care.