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.


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


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?