Spiritual but not religious, part the millionth.

In response to the whole “spiritual but not religious” conversation (links within my link), I just want to say exactly what Pam said.

That, and the funeral home in town sends all the grieving “spiritual but not religious” families to me for memorial services, and it’s all sacred to me.

On being mad at God

bartlet-2-cathedralsLast night I spent a little time with a family and lead a brief prayer service at the close of calling hours for a 27 year old son, fiance, and father of three. There was a lot of pain in that room. That, combined with a discussion at UMCommunities, has me thinking, yet again, about being mad at God.

My personal opinion is this: you know that best friend you have? a spouse? a family member? The one you can yell at and scream at even though it’s not their fault, venting until you’re hoarse and red in the face, and the person will *still* hold you and love you and carry on in relationship with you afterward?

God’s like that, but more.

Look at the Psalmists (before we even get to Jesus), who shook their fists at God, wailing, venting, confessing that they were so far removed from the place where they could say thank you and praise you and would much rather say far unkinder things to God. God takes it. If you’ll excuse my uncharacteristically gendered language, he’s a big boy. God weeps–and rages– with us, and understands the depth of our pain and anger because they flow from the depth of our love, love we have because we are first beloved. And the lament, the crying out to God, presupposes trust in a being who could somehow help, and as such is an act of faith (see [especially p. 27-33] Rachel’s Cry, a book from seminary I use all the time, for more on this theme).

There’s an episode* of “The West Wing” where Martin Sheen’s character (who was studying priesthood before he entered politics) paces the National Cathedral in his anger and pain, calling God a ‘sonofabitch’ and a ‘feckless thug,’ because of the senseless loss he has just suffered. In a most non-theological display, Bartlet vents the fear that he is somehow being punished or warned, and gives voice to the cry every person who has lost a child, or one like a child, or watched them suffer, has ever uttered: “That was my [child]! What did I ever do to yours but praise and glorify his name?” West Wing writer Aaron Sorkin was very proud of this scene and thought it would be controversial and shock people of faith everywhere. But no one was shocked. The pain of life is such that we have all called God a feckless thug or a big meanie or an unfair tyrant at some point, and we have all lived through it, and many of us come out the other side with a stronger and deeper relationship with the God who holds us in our pain. Not all of us. Some of us conclude that there is no God, or that God is a monster, and walk away, and I know in my heart of hearts that the God they once clung to clings to them still, even and especially in the depth of that pain.

Emotions, I believe,  just *are*, like the weather. Storms are not good or evil, right or wrong, although they can make life uncomfortable for a time. They are only the result of high and low pressure systems. Our emotions, even the ugly volatile ones like anger and jealousy and pain, are just our bodies’ and souls’ responses to the horrible, crappy, devastating stuff that happens around us, and they are part of how we work all that out and continue to live and function.

So be angry, and know that God is angry alongside you, and God will hold you while you yell, even if you’re yelling at God, even if you’re beating your fists against her chest, and love you until you can breathe again and beyond, until you find peace that passes all understanding.

Yes, no, maybeso?

*For those who (like me) don’t speak Latin, a rough translation of what Barlet says at the end: “Am I to believe that these are the acts of a loving God? A just God? A wise God? To hell with your punishments! I was your servent here on Earth. And I spread your word and I did your work. To hell with your punishments. To hell with you.”

In the midst of death, we also live.

I love my kid; she keeps life light.

I was in the shower this morning, working on my eulogy (because that’s where I always work on my sermons, don’t you?). Arianna was obviously playing hide-and-seek with my brother-in-law, because just as I was reaching the second transition in the eulogy (and the conditioner), the bathroom door opened.

“Unca Jim, where are you? You in dare?”

I barely paused.

“Honey, Uncle Jim is, I assure you, not in the shower with me.”

And amid the laghter of my family, I went back to writing eulogies in my head.

Life goes on.

Obituaries

Such silly things, like you can describe a whole person in a few paragraphs.

fam-at-wedding1

The one in the paper/on the funeral home site isn’t bad, even if I do think that referring to my mom as Jon’s “long-time companion” makes her sound like either a live-in nurse or a canine. Is partner really so hard to say? Yes, they’re a heterosexual couple and yes, they never married or lived together (they each had been married before, and didn’t want to do *that* again). But partner’s the closest she got to identifying their relationship, although most of the time she called him “my farmer.” I suppose the obit would have read funny if it said Jon was survived by “his warden.”

Still, hard to express even part of who someone is in a handful of sentences.

My uncle described Jon even better, I think, in his email to the extended family:

Rebecca Clark has asked me to help her spread the word on behalf of Celeste Marie about the death this past weekend of Jon Choate due to congestive heart failure.  His passing was not entirely unexpected, as this past year sadly saw his condition decline after a long struggle with kidney failure and other issues.

I do not know how many of you had the opportunity to meet Jonathan – he had been Celeste’s partner for more than 19 years now.  While they continued to live 35 miles apart even after Rebecca and Sarah went off on their own, Celeste spent much of her time with Jon, his cows, and his family.  These past few years, Celeste was with Jon for his myriad dialysis and medical appointments, much as they shared chores on the farm and family celebrations.

Jonathan died while Celeste was away celebrating Christmas with her daughters, sons-in-law and granddaughter. I’m sure she was both comforted by being surrounded by family, and heartbroken to have been absent.

During this Christmas season, we are reminded of the light that Christ Incarnate brings to this world.  A light that shines through to our hearts to bring Joy, even during times of great sadness.  I pray that this Joy warms all your hearts and homes this holiday season and throughout the coming year, and ask you to keep Celeste,  Jonathan and their extended family in your prayers.

And, as many of you have asked, yes I am going to be officiating the memorial service. My relationship with Jon, while I call him my stepfather and I do love him, is through my mom, and she’s the one who needs me right now. I challenge anyone to look at a parent’s big weepy eyes and say no to *anything*. Yes, sometimes, the distance of infamiliarity is much easier, and sometimes we do the thing we know how to do to stand with the ones we love in pain.

Grieving Well

I deal a lot in the business of death and, more importantly, its aftermath, and the ability to hopefully mourn well. We do ourselves and our loved ones a great service when we are able to honor and say goodbye to them, and process the pain and the loss in our lives at the same time. We don’t, after all, mourn as those who have no hope.

I co-officiated at a funeral about a week and a half ago for a wonderful and spunky-sounding woman I never had the pleasure of meeting. In talking to her family and listening to the eulogy, she sounds like my kind of woman. More importantly, the crowd of family and friends who gathered to grieve well together and celebrate her life bear witness to the beauty of her spirit. Her husband and sons wept; there’s something powerfully freeing about men who are sensitive enough and passionate enough and comfortable enough to cry at funerals. Her friends and cousins, who were like sisters to her, shed many tears. But her loved ones also told incredible stories about her and the sort of person she was, and the laughter spread like wildfire in the room. Her ‘hookers’ (she taught rug hooking) and neighbors and cousins shared stories about her humor, her love of art and history, her ability to hide zucchini in her neighbor’s car or mailbox or porch if her crop was overlarge. Her younger son placed a well-loved Red Sox cap on top of her urn in the grave. Her neighbor left out the zucchini, but was sorely tempted.

It was a wonderful tribute to this woman, who, in her sixties, was still young enough to have given many more tears of joy and of sorrow, and who will be missed by her community, including those of us who never had the chance to meet her. I think we honored her well, and I think her loved ones were able to at least begin to say goodbye in a healthy way.

- – -

A friend of mine from high school, with whom I had kept contact over the years, took her own life this past Friday night in the woods behind her house. She leaves behind a devoted and devastated husband, two children ages 5 and 1, parents, sisters, nieces, nephews, dear friends, and not a single clue, hint, warning sign, note, or explanation.

I can’t even begin to imagine, much less comprehend, the kind of pain she must have been experiencing, a pain that no one– not her husband, not her sisters, not her closest friends, all of whom are well aware of the warning signs of suicide– had any knowledge of. She had plans for Saturday morning, and Sunday afternoon. She never so much as hinted that she had a hangnail, let alone a tremendous pain that somehow drove her to a place from which she couldn’t come back. She suffered, and none of us know how long, in her own silence, leaving us to wonder if there’s anything anyone could have said or asked or offered to give her the space she needed to say what was hurting her. Perhaps not.

And how does one say goodbye in such a context? How does one grieve well? How does a community, a family, begin the process of healing when there are so many unknowns, so many questions we wish we could ask of her, or had asked of her, or could somehow still discover? How do we let go of a person who let go of herself and her hope and her joy, when we wish we could hold on to all of that for her?

I’m nervous about the funeral service, which will be a Catholic Mass. Given that church’s historical stance on suicide, given the obituary’s wording that she ‘passed away suddenly after a brief illness’ (did they in fact discover a history of depression or mental illness since last I heard on Sunday afternoon?), I worry that there is no way to grieve well, to say what we want to say, that we’re hurt by what has happened, by what she did, and by the fact that she didn’t tell someone–anyone!–about what she was feeling; that we’re a little pissed off at her that she would do this to her family and friends; that we’re so sorry for the agony she must have been in and wish we could go back and take it all away; that we want more than anything to help her five year old daughter (her son is thankfully so young he won’t remember this) somehow grasp joy and hope in her life, want to give her husband a place to rage and cry and despair so that he can begin to come through the other side; that most of all, we want to believe that whatever pain was there is gone now for her, and she is at peace in a way we always thought and hoped she was, a peace that, like the pain and grief she once knew and we must now bear, passes all understanding.

Be at peace at last, M, and may we in time know peace as well. May that be our tribute to you.

Just Say It.

If there’s a pastor in town who doesn’t have a funeral this week, I want to know who it is (because s/he must have some magic protection on the congregation, and I want it). It’s a bad week, especially for unexpected deaths. Especially for young men. And the funeral director’s own father, the former funeral home director and a pillar of the community, also passed away.

Tomorrow I am celebrating the life of a young man who died of massive heart failure at 39 (so this is my reminder to all of you to practice good health and see your doctor regularly). The night before his death, he spoke to his mother on the phone and told her he loved her.

A simple, from the gut reminder: got a friend? a parent? a child? Take a moment today and give a call, stop by, send a flower, give a hug. Tell them you love them. Don’t wait. Don’t dally.

Just say it.

Where two or three are gathered…

I was asked to officiate an odd funeral today.

I didn’t know the woman who had died, or her friend who had made the arrangements. That’s not odd. What was odd was that the man who made the arrangements ended up being the only person who came.

The deceased had been born, lived most of her life, and passed away in Georgia, but had told her family and her friends (including the friend who made the arrangements) that she wanted her ashes buried in here in Schodack. She passed away nearly a year ago, and there were memorial services for her down South with her many relatives. At this time, the family was ready to have her final requests honored, and so her dear friend brought her ashes to Schodack. And we did a burial service (me attired, of course, in my funeral suit, which, as I’ve said earlier, makes me look a little like a character from The Matrix).

Just him. And the funeral director. And me.

And a gentle breeze through the still-damp grass, and the birds chirping pleasantly in a counterpoint to the prayers, and a view of the Hudson, meandering its way south.

It may have been one of the sweetest, most Spirit-filled memorial services I’ve been privileged to do. There was something so honest and gentle about it.

When was the last time you were surprised by a quiet moment of grace?

Prayers with the dying

I’ve only watched a few people pass away, but it’s always hard and not in the ways I expected.

It takes a long time. Much longer, usually, than we expect. It’s like childbirth in that way, and there’s something amazing in the fact that for a lot of people we leave this life as slowly as we enter it.

So when I get an email from the daughter of a congregant saying that she and her brother are rushing to their mother’s side to spend her last days with her, I don’t panic. In fact, by the time I arrive at the nursing home, my congregant looks pretty good to me. I’m no doctor, but she doesn’t look like she is dying. She’s hooked up to the oxygen tank, propped up on her pillow, and breathing shallowly. But her color is pretty good for 91, and she is speaking in full sentences, and knows who she is and who I am and where we are and that her husband, of whom she speaks with wistful tears, is neither alive nor in the room with us.

Her son, looking worried as he clutches her hand, tells her not to ‘go’ yet– not before his sister can arrive. I don’t have the heart to tell him my prediction: that it will be a while yet before she goes anywhere, that this will get longer and worse before it ever gets better. But I’ve sat with my congregant through increasingly frequent visits, and I know how tired she is, how frustrated and unhappy, how trapped she feels in her body. I know what she’s rasping, trying to tell him now: that she wants–has wanted to for a long time–to die. She tells him not to be sad but to let her go when it’s time, and he nods, and she relaxes a bit, but my stomach clenches because I’m no doctor, but I’ve seen this part and her wish isn’t about to be granted. Not yet.

And then, after conversations about the weather and the news and the great-grandkids, it’s time for me to go, and before I do, I face the hardest part. The prayer. As I take each of their hands, I’m weighed down again by the frightening responsibility of this moment, this line-straddling ministry to two people with deep and different needs. The one wants me to offer a prayer of healing, physical healing, to help his mother be strong and vibrant and see her great-grandbaby take his first steps. The other wants a prayer of release, a sending forth, a request for God’s angels to gather her up before she suffers further, to take her home now, to her husband and her Jesus and her blessed rest. I tend to side with my congregant, but the distance of being her pastor and not her child affords me this.

And here I sit with a theology that says I can’t really request that God make anything happen. Still I pray:

Loving God, thank you for R and for the wonderful gift of her time with us. Thank you for the joy she brings to our lives and the lives of everyone who loves her. Thank you also for the people who give her joy, those who love her, past and present. We pray today for strength for R in her body and in her spirit. Strength to find whatever healing there is in this time and place, strength as she waits to come home to you when she’s ready. We pray for courage for her family as they support her and love her and surround her in care. Mostly, God, we pray for peace. Peace for R in her body as the pain fades away, peace for her family in their hearts as they wait with her, and peace for R in her spirit as she finds her true peace in you. As in all places, help us know that you are here with us, granting your peace. Your peace. Amen.

I left my cell number with the family and the nursing home and the funeral home, telling them that I will be back in town early next week. But truthfully, I expect the vigil will still be going on Tuesday when I return. I expect there will be many more times to offer a prayer like that. I expect her children may even come to a place where they too can openly and honestly pray for their mom’s release, and I know what that means. Tremendous pain. Tremendous peace. Never one without the other. Until then, rest easy, grandma. You’ll see your beloved soon.

The mission field

I evangelized in Starbucks today.

Yep.

First, I had a funeral this morning, under very difficult circumstances. As in the family was estranged from one another and rather than sharing bittersweet memories of the deceased took the opportunity to air some grievances that probably really needed to be aired. I hope I brought a little opportunity for healing to the situation, but boy was it awkward and painful, and more about God’s grace being able to intercede in broken family systems as people work through life transitions than about God’s grace bringing departed loved ones home.

Then I had two hours before Spanish class and no desire to drive in circles. Attired in my funeral suit, which either makes it very clear that I’m a pastor or makes one assume I’m auditioning for a role in The Matrix, I went to a Starbucks. As I’ve said earlier, I wear my clerical out and about because it is a form of evangelizing, but this time it actually did a little more than make people look at me funny.

I was sitting in a comfy chair by the fireplace when a middle-aged woman approached and asked if the seat next to me was taken. I told her she was free to sit down, noting at the same time that a. there were lots of empty seats around the cafe, and b. she was carrying a book on Centering Prayer. My acute pastoral skills tell me she’s recognized The Collar.

“I see you’re reading about centering prayer,” I say, turning my attention from my laptop to my companion. “You’ve picked a great chair.”

“Oh, yes, I didn’t want to interrupt you, but can I ask you a couple questions?”

And just like that, we’re off, and I’m describing my church and my denomination and she’s telling me that she’s a Catholic laywoman but feels called to ministry (boy is that familiar territory!), and we’re exchanging names and business cards and laughter. Look at that.

Off to the Community College, where the students who didn’t recognize my dorky tab collar can’t miss the power of the Funeral Suit, and ask me all kinds of questions (wait, you can have a kid? you can be married? is it fun? you had to go to *school* for that?).

So, today I utterly failed to complete any of the worship services for my annual conference and I didn’t come up with any ideas of something creative I could do for Pentecost (despite a Facebook chat with an old friend that covered salad, Andrew Lloyd Webber, Clue, children’s board books, and Greek frescoes, in no particular order). I did a pretty poor job at officiating at a funeral (or I did a good job but the situation was so difficult it was hard to see that), and I made no progress on a bulletin. But I was clearly where I needed to be. The rest, well that’s detail work.

One of Those Days

I mean that in a good way.

Last week at church may have been one of my best services, but today was one of those days that reminds me why I’m a *pastor* and not just a preacher/worship leader.

It is Heritage Sunday, and my sermon (unrecorded) focused on “coming together”– our denomination coming together 40 years ago as the Evangelical United Brethren and the Methodist Episcopal Church (both themselves results of previous mergers) merged into a new denomination, The United Methodist Church; our global church coming together as we do once every four years for General Conference (which I showed some of, streaming live from Texas as people were gathering for worship); our youth coming together with the youths from three other conferences, which are planning to merge, to lead the way in fellowship, worship and relationship building. I said that unity is not uniformity, and that the process of being one is courageous, counter-cultural, and miraculous. I spoke about some of the divisions in our church, particularly with respect to the denomination’s stance on homosexuality, and that our commitment to remaining one body in the face of those differences is staggering.

After church, I was approached by the two women from the family involved in last fall’s murder-suicide. They asked me if I was allowed to express personal beliefs in a sermon, or if I had to tread softly or walk a party line. I replied that I was allowed to say anything I wanted, short of outright telling people who to vote for (but I can tell them which issues I think should sway their votes), but that I remained a little more neutral because I wanted people to still be able to come to me in a moment of need and not feel that I’m unapproachable because I’ve been so disrespectful of their position. “That said, I hope I’m pretty clear about my support for homosexual people and their inclusion in the church.”

“Loud and clear,” my congregant said, “and that’s what I think too.”

We talked for a long time about the church’s position on human sexuality, and the harm that position does to people inside and outside the church. I told them about my dear friend Annie losing her preaching license, and it was a great conversation. The younger woman told me that she thought I’d get along really well with her son (who is my age, and who I’ve met, only once, under pretty sad circumstances). Then she said, “In fact, he asked me to tell you– I guess I just never got around to it. He was one of the pallbearers at… the funeral. He was so impressed by what you said, and he wanted me to pass that on to you, that even though he’s not a church person, he really respects you and was impressed by you.”

“In fact,” her mother in law chimed in, “I don’t know if we’ve ever properly said it, but, well, thank you. You gave so many people hope and comfort that day. It was a really tough job, and you did it so well. I can’t tell you what it meant to our family, and I’ve never really been feeling good enough about it to bring it up before, but thank you so much.”

Our conversation continued for a little while, and we even shared some laughs about the letters I received from the Jehovah’s Witness church in town following the press attention the funeral received and the quotes from my message, including that it was okay to be angry at God, who out of all of us, could take it. I said something along the lines of, “hey, it was what I believe and if it helped one person feel a little bit more at peace in a terrible moment, it was worth ten letters from the Jehovah’s Witnesses.”

“It did more than that, pastor. *You* did more than that.” And that folks, is why I do what I do. It’s that final line in Ralph Waldo Emerson’s “What is Success?”: To know that one life has breathed easier because you have lived, this is to have succeeded.

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