Death doesn’t care if you have unfinished business
I wrote the following Blog post on 4/2/2021 (Good Friday), having no idea that my husband would pass away just fifteen days later. The words are now more poignant than ever. I have added my thoughts since his passing at the end.
Every death diminishes me
Every Good Friday, we are called to remember the brutal beating and crucifixion of Jesus. He walked in the midst of those deemed lesser and unimportant. They experienced his love and compassion for them. But he walked a lonely road to his death. Sure, a few dared to walk with him (ahem…the women!). But many, his disciples, in particular, scattered for their own safety, feeling powerless to stop it from happening.
Also, we are reliving the horrific facts of George Floyd’s death during Derek Chauvin’s trial. Hearing the witnesses’ testimony as they broke down and grieved over watching Floyd die has been excruciating for many. Most of the witnesses were strangers to him, yet they all spoke of feeling helpless and guilty that they didn’t try to help him. Even though they also knew they were powerless to do so.
Jesus was innocent of any crime. George Floyd was not. But the fact remains that neither deserved to die so violently at the hands of others.
So I sit and contemplate how their deaths have impacted me. As a professed Christian, I am called to emulate Jesus’ radical love in every aspect of my life. I mostly fail, but I keep trying and longing to be more like him in how I live my life.
And George Floyd? I didn’t know him and likely never would have, nor would most of us, if not for witnessing his horrifying death on the daily news.
In those beautiful and poignant words of John Donne, “No man is an island; entire of itself…any man’s death diminishes me because I am involved in mankind.”
That is a fact of God’s making. We are all interconnected – like it or not. The death of another, be it a loved one or a stranger, should call us to stop and take inventory of our own lives. Every funeral I attend does that for me and often shines a light on my failings to be Christ-like to others. Thankfully, every day is a new day – a day to begin again.
So, here’s what I will be contemplating and praying about today and hopefully be acting on daily. It doesn’t have to be Jesus who calls us to be better, kinder, softer, to live and love more fully. It can also be the death of a stranger we have never met that wakes us from sleepwalking through life.
Facing the realization that we will also die (sorry if that’s news to you) – maybe sooner than later (sorry again) – should cause us to ask ourselves if our houses are in order and, more importantly, what we are leaving behind because…
Death doesn’t care
Death does not care if we have left business unfinished, relationships broken, or children to be raised. It doesn’t matter if we are not ready or sit on promises to change. It will take the weak with the strong, the humble with the proud, the saint with the jerk.
Death doesn’t respect wedding plans, vacation plans, or unmet deadlines. It does not operate by a timetable we set and is no respecter of age. It does not discriminate between the most loved or most hated. It may not wait for the most brilliant to cure cancer, bring peace to a troubled nation, or receive a Nobel Prize.
Denying that death is a part of life doesn’t change its reality. We can’t rely on death to come when we are ready. But we can depend on it to teach those of us who are willing how to truly live.
Death can and should be a time of reflection
Have I lived well, loved well, forgiven — honestly – and sought forgiveness humbly?
For good or bad, I have touched the lives of family and friends, the mailman, and the grumpy receptionist at the doctor’s office. I may have amassed wealth and recognition and left a fortune to my loved ones. All things they can pack away, gamble away, or throw away. But, at the end of the day…what have I left in their hearts?
As I contemplate the reality that my life has changed drastically, my beliefs have not.
The suddenness of my husband’s death has not made me fearful or anxious, as I know God’s love and care for me have always been steady and unchanging, even when I have so often failed to appreciate it. But, at the same time, it drives home the fact that my own life is not guaranteed beyond this moment. So, what does that mean?
My life is filled with many moments of disbelief that my husband is actually gone. I’m sure that will continue for some time. But, in the midst of that, as I daily make decisions about how I am to “live and move and have my being” (Acts 17:28) – I am discovering my better self, my true self, not the self on display when others are watching.
I am asking critical questions that will surely determine my life’s direction, purpose, and focus for whatever time I have left here. How will/should I live my life moving forward? What do I want my loved ones to remember about me?
God longs for us to use the gifts he has given us to leave the world better than we found it. How will I do that? How will I serve in this time of such need and suffering? Every moment of every day allows us to grow in love and compassion for all those we encounter on this journey.
There truly are gifts in the midst of our goodbyes. What do I want mine to be? What do you want yours to be?
I think it’s fair to say that this Easter will be like no other, and I would like to think of that as a good thing – eventually – hopefully. God has stripped away all the non-essentials: new outfits, haircuts, a review of proper behavioral expectations for the kids at church, and “how to stay awake” for adults. Making up tiny sins suitable to hide the deeper embarrassing stuff for the annual confession – not needed.
Oh yeah, and the relatives you can’t stand that your mother always guilted you into including on the Easter dinner invites – not necessary, either. You’ll be dining alone (and you might want to work on that hate issue of yours).
You take a deep breath and realize what’s left. Ready? Jesus and you. AWKWARD! It’s okay. He doesn’t bite. No matter what your third-grade teacher told you.
So, how about we take a new look with fresh eyes at the events of this Easter week? It was a week that revealed humanity at its best and worst. What might that mean for us today?
We begin with Palm Sunday. Those crowds were lovin’ on Jesus the Prophet on his way to becoming their anticipated King who would finally save them. Christ was celebrated as the One who would bring his people out of captivity. They were enthralled with him. The cheering was almost deafening, sorta like opening day at Busch Stadium. But, remember, these were his faithful followers, and it was all palms and rose petals.
Then it all went sideways as he went to Jerusalem to encounter a not-so-supportive crowd. What a different picture, huh? Here he’s among the political elite, the leaders of the temple, who know enough about him by now to hate him.
Now he is stirring up more anger than a crowd rush for toilet paper on the opening day of coronavirus mania! So, the chief priests and elders meet to plot against him. They know they have to get him away from his faithful followers first. “But not during the Feast,” they said, “or there may be a riot among the people.” (Matthew 26: 3-5).
And how about those disciples who vowed never to leave him at the height of his ministry? We know James and John made it clear they wanted to have an honored place next to him when he came into his glory (Mark 10:35-37). Perhaps the rest thought they already had that favored position all sewn up. But then they all scattered and ran for cover when he was taken away to be crucified. “This is not what we signed up for!”
In very short order, He was convicted and dragged before an angry crowd who screamed for his crucifixion, and they probably didn’t even know why. How many do you suppose just got caught up in the moment and didn’t realize until afterward what they had participated in – the torture and murder of an innocent man they would later discover was PRETTY SPECIAL?
Then at the Cross on Good Friday, we watch horrified as Jesus suffers an unspeakable death, and his mother suffers in silence.
On Saturday, the waiting begins as we are called to silently contemplate what has happened. But we already know that his glorious resurrection is coming, and peace on earth will prevail. At least, we used to believe that. But that truth seems to have been morphed by fear and the unknown this year. So, maybe this day will be spent like all the rest these past few weeks trying to numb ourselves to what we imagine is coming: watch TV (which only fuels that fear), take a nap, eat, drink, wash hands – repeat.
Where’s the peace in all that? We usually only have the capacity to think our hearts are at peace when everything is perfect: our relationships are perfect, our kids are perfect, and the mother-in-law moved away (oops, not nice). But even, or especially in these times when fear will try to overwhelm you, don’t let that happen! God is ready to prove to you that you are stronger, braver, and more resilient than you ever imagined! (Which will come in handy when your mother-in-law has to move back in with you).
As Alan Cohen tells us in his book, A Course in Miracles Made Easy, “No person, group, situation, or condition has the power to take away your happiness. NO ONE. NO THING. NEVER. The experience of joy is your God-given right. People can try to remove your happiness, but they cannot remove your peace unless you give them that power.”
So, there you go. Unlike the disciples, we don’t need to hide or be anxious about the future. Surely, they all sat with regret knowing they did the unthinkable by abandoning Jesus and running away. Aside from Peter and Judas, we don’t know what was going through their heads. Did they wish they could have a do-over? I would think they must have. That’s the beauty of second chances. After Jesus invited them to a fish fry, they were all on fire to serve the God they now knew as unfailing love and mercy, especially Peter, the hater, turned lover of Jesus, turned coward, turned forgiven, turned martyr for his now unshakable love of Christ. Whew!
I think I read somewhere that at that fish fry, Jesus recalled to them the Last Supper, “Hey guys remember the great time we had then?” – since they all seemed to have forgotten. “Remember how I washed your nasty feet?” Then he reiterated his call to them to love one another (John 13:34). “And just so we’re clear…that was not a suggestion.” I wonder if any of them choked on their food at that point.
Now, what about us? Here we are, kind of like the disciples, in the midst of what is surely one of the most uncertain times of our lives. And, funny thing, God is still here, still loving and merciful and compassionate. But where are we? Big question.
How many of us have been running from him all our lives? Oh sure, we have been going through the motions of being a “Christian,” mostly to impress others. But what have we done as Christ’s followers? How have we been Christ to others?
Today, maybe more than ever, we need to let the light of the Risen Christ shine in and through us for those who are lost and alone, not just in their homes but in the very depth of their hearts. That is God’s hope and greatest longing. “Look,” He says on Easter morning, “I never left you, and I never will. So, stop trying to hide from me. Let’s sit together and get to know each other. What else do you have to do? You’ve cleaned your house and straightened your sock drawer so many times you’ve lost count. Just sayin’.”
Galway Kinnell says, “Sometimes it’s necessary to reteach a thing its loveliness.” I think that’s what God is trying to do with us, so we can pass it on to others who have become frozen with fear. Living into the truth of our loveliness will allow others to do the same. Just imagine what beauty, joy, and peace would be created for this world’s future?!
THIS IS OUR TIME. THIS IS OUR CALL TO LOVE! AND WHO KNOWS BUT THAT WE WERE CREATED FOR SUCH A TIME AS THIS (Esther 4:14).
I have not posted since August. Not because I got bored with writing or died. (I hope you’re happy I didn’t die!) On August 18th, I was on the receiving end of a vaccination shot gone terribly wrong! That shot was the cause of four months of constant pain, an emergency room visit, failed treatments, and rotator cuff surgery.
For the first few weeks after surgery, my husband had to do almosteverything for me. God bless him he’s a trooper. My neighbor has come over several times to fix my hair when I actually cared about what I looked like.
I know I have been more miserable than necessary because I cannot take pain medications. They make me feel physically and mentally whacked. I have experienced more pain than ever in my life, including childbirth! Seriously. Besides, that pain is short-lived, and there’s a blessed little prize at the end – until they’re two, anyway!
But I am getting better. I am able to do more for myself. Occasionally I will muster up the energy to cook a meal and clean the house. But it takes everything I have to do it. My husband never complains, which I am eternally grateful for.
To be perfectly honest, sometimes I catch myself actually enjoying the sympathy from friends and family and even strangers. Of course, no one is going to feel sorry for me if I don’t complain, right? When someone asks how I’m doing, I jump feet first into my pit of misery and do my best to pull them in with me! I might begin by saying, “Oh, you’re probably tired of hearing about it it’s been going on for so long!” But then I don’t give them a chance to respond before, choking back tears, I give an update on my ongoing misery. Poor, poor pitiful me!
Then, one day, “Holy lesson-in-the-making Batman.” I received another of God’s proverbial admonishments. It’s never audible. It just hangs around me like a shroud until I acknowledge its presence, “Okay, Lord, there’s a lesson here I just know it! You’re not going to let me get away with this, are you?”
This was actually a lesson in process since December when I was thinking about the silly New Year’s Resolutions I usually end before they even begin. I’m going to lose weight right after this super-sized hot fudge sundae, or maybe the next, or maybe not at all. I don’t know. I’m not feelin’ it.
So, this time, in order to grow deeper in faith, I chose to focus on a virtue instead of giving up something. Nightly, I would meditate and journal on all I thought, said, and did that day (while eating my hot fudge sundae). Then, out from under that shroud, “Or, Linda, how about gratitude?” Hum. Gratitude. Okay, that’s a good one! At the end of each day, I could write in a Gratitude Journal all the things I was grateful for that day: a beautiful sunrise, the song of birds outside my window…
That’s lovely, Linda, and safe. But let’s go deeper. You are thankful for your good health, but how about the help you received from others while you recovered from your injury? You are grateful for friends who are low-maintenance, but what about the relationships that are difficult? You are grateful for all the things you have, but what about the things others have that you don’t, that you covet?”
When we consider gratitude, if we consider it at all, we often stay within the realm of the warm squishy stuff. I remember the times at my son’s house when the kids were small. They would each take turns thanking God, mostly for “things” – a doll, a stuffed animal, a birthday present envied by their siblings. Unfortunately, as adults, we are still prone to thankfulness for adult “things” that make us happy.
Being grateful for our struggles in life just doesn’t make sense. It’s easier for us to see a beautiful sunrise, attribute it to God and thank him for it than to thank him for adversity. Are you old enough to remember this commercial?
I suppose we are in one of two camps when dealing with suffering: we either believe (a) God doesn’t cause suffering, but he allows it, think of Job, or (b) God is behind everything that happens to us. I’m going with (a). Either way, we are probably going to complain, and complain loudly! If we believe it’s the former, we cry out, “Lord, why don’t you stop this?” or the latter, “Lord, how could you do this to me?!” Either way, God is to blame for our suffering.
Philippians 2:14 tells us to “Do all things without grumbling or questioning.” But we just can’t, can we? Whining is in our nature, apparently. Look at the Israelites, for heaven’s sake. I can see why Moses tried to get out of God’s call on that fateful day! But he acquiesced and was drug into the Israelite’s unrelenting pity parties. He went to God and begged him to make it stop! I suppose the Israelites got it in their heads that because they were God’s chosen people (Exodus 6:7) life would be grand. Their suffering was over. Not so much.
When things don’t go as planned in my life, it’s usually a wake-up call. After all, when did I win the perfect life lottery? When was I promised immunity from suffering and pain? We can’t seem to watch the news or talk to a neighbor any day of the week and not hear of someone’s tragedy: A death, an illness, a cancer diagnosis, a divorce, a lost job. But when that’s my story, I scream NOT FAIR! I pout and complain and solicit sympathy from anyone who will listen, especially God – I think he plugged his ears long ago.
This 1978 song “I Will Survive” by Gloria Gaynor was turned into the “Alien Song”. It has made me laugh for years! Watch it, then come back. I’ll wait. https://vimeo.com/19071448
Are you laughing? Come on. That was hysterical! Now wipe that frown off your face, and let’s get to more funny business because we take life way too seriously.
Do you think God doesn’t have a sense of humor? Really? If he hadn’t had a sense of humor, Genesis might have read a bit differently, “And God made one robot with a whole bunch of clones”…. Then he decided to quit while he was ahead. “ My grand plan is for every creature to simply exist for my pure pleasure. I like it. I’m done. Why muddle it up?”
But then Spirit, observing it all, objected, “But, Lord, who will return your love then? Isn’t that what this is all about”? God replied, “Oh, please! Let’s think about this. If I want them to love me, I will have to give them all the free will to do it, and you know what that’s gonna make them don’t you? A royal pain!”
But, alas, God relented, “Okay, fine. But if we’re going to do this, we can’t have all drama and whining. If they can’t laugh at themselves or take a little ribbing occasionally, then we’re gonna replace them with more trees and rocks!”
So God made humankind in his image (Genesis 1:26), reluctantly giving everyone free will. And just as he foresaw, it went very badly! Okay, not totally. That’s why God gave us a sense of humor to help us over the rough spots. And to keep, at least some of us, from that incessant bellyaching, “Why me, Lord”? Waaa, waaa, waaa…
I truly believe that you cannot learn to really laugh – I mean laugh till you pee – laugh, until you have cried; cried from the deepest sorrow that life throws at you. If you know what I’m talking about, you know that getting through this life is like being pecked to death by a chicken. And you had better find the humor in it, or that chicken may just turn into a buzzard – and you? Roadkill!
I can’t tell you how often my screw-ups have turned into life lessons, followed by laughter. God has the uncanny ability to admonish me and then stick a mirror in front of me until I can no longer keep a straight face. It’s a beautiful thing to know that I am a deeply loved idiot, because as that famous saying goes:
I will end with one of my favorite poems, which prompted this post:
This was going to be the year I would recreate myself! Maybe I’ll try to be the first great-grandmother on The Titan Games! YEAH! That’s the ticket! I missed the opportunity to be the oldest great-grandmother bodybuilder in the Guinness Book of World Records. That coveted title went to Ernestine Shepherd, who recently celebrated her eightieth birthday! Okay. But I can still impress the masses with my stellar fitness! It will be epic!
I was off to a great start on January 1st! I got out my planner, dusted off my scale, bought some adorable running pants, ordered some new microgreen seeds & potting soil, found that meditation DVD I bought last year, and revamped my workout routine. BAM! Ready to go.
But NO! Two weeks into the new year, and I haven’t committed to anything! Statistically, I only have a few more weeks before I give up. According to U.S. News, “approximately 80% of resolutions fail by the second week of February.” so the odds are against me. But it’s not ALL my fault!
I am currently working with the homeless for St. Vincent DePaul. Since I am the only one in my parish doing it, I receive all the phone calls for assistance. (I have not given any personal information or used anyone’s real name here. I should have given myself an alias, as this is another embarrassing “tell on Linda” post.)
The phone rang—a message on our helpline. A homeless woman was at a motel. Could I call her?
Betty just completed her fourth chemo treatment for colon cancer and has COPD. In our conversation, she told me how she loved the nuns at St. Mary’s Academy, where she went to high school “a long time ago”. Smiling through broken and missing teeth, she wondered if any of the nuns that taught her were still there and could she visit them?
How did her life go so wrong? She and her husband had been homeless for years. Her husband could never seem to provide for them. They never owned a home. She never had her own gym in her basement (ahem). Her “workout routine” consisted of wrestling to get comfortable and stay warm in the car she and her husband slept in. And yet, this woman praised God. How is that possible?
I have always struggled to lose weight. I know what to do. I just choose not to. But no more! In preparation for my return to healthy eating, I have gotten rid of everything that tempts me to failure and replaced it with all things fresh, green, and organic! WOOT! WOOT!
The phone rang – a message on our helpline. Could we help a homeless family trying to get home to Kentucky?
Jim and his wife, their three kids, and her mentally disabled brother lost their home in a fire in Nebraska. Friends in Louisville offered them a place to stay and jobs there. But they ran out of money and gas and had a flat tire. Mom & dad hadn’t eaten for two days to provide for the kids, but now they were out of food. So we provided them with a room for the night and gave them money for gas, tire repairs, and bags of food. All items with pop-top lids they could eat cold while they traveled. These were fill-a-void-in-the-stomach foods. NOT A SINGLE GREEN THING in those bags. And yet, Jim’s eyes fill with tears of gratitude.
He told me they felt they had lived in a good community. Their neighbor’s kids were always at their home. They called him “Uncle Jim”. But, after the fire, not one neighbor reached out to help them. He and his wife could not believe the love and support they received here from strangers.
Their hearts ached for their kids and her brother because of what they were going through. But I could see something else: Their love for God, each other, and their kids. Somehow I knew they would prevail over their struggles. Their kids were learning tough but powerful life lessons. They were actually the happiest kids I have ever seen! Can you imagine?
Cold spagettios would not be the choice of a health snob like me. After having met such a beautiful family, it made me wonder how strong my faith would be; how well I would survive in their circumstances. I’ve never been tested like that. Nor do I want to be! Truth be told, I’m probably not as strong or resilient as I would like to believe.
Okay, this was it! It was SO COLD, but I was determined to pull on my new running pants, jacket, and hat I bought when we went to the French Alps over the holidays – and go! I usually don’t like running in the cold, but this is the new me. Bring it on!
Then the phone rang—a message on our helpline. A young dad, his wife, and a two-year-old were staying at the motel. The manager was trying to overlook the fact that they were falling further and further behind. Could we help them?
Jason rode a bike to work from the motel to a new job ten miles away. His two-year-old son was ill and had seizures. All their income went to the motel bill. They had no family or support.
The difference between Jason and me should be obvious. He doesn’t ride his bike in the winter because he is obsessed with the benefits of exercise and loves the challenge. And I don’t have to be out in bad weather if I don’t want to. Instead, I can go back to bed or down to my basement and jump on the treadmill.
For years, I was able to maintain a healthy weight. I ran half-marathons for seven years. In 2010 I ran two! That was the year after I had a kidney removed. Basically, I ROCKED it! Now, I beat myself up for failing to get my act together. And I don’t believe age has anything to do with it. (So, get that thought out of your head.) I’M JUST LAZY. There, I said it! But I need to get over it and realize that I am not happy where I’m at and the only one who can change that is me.
Then the phone rang—a message on our helpline. A homeless couple staying at the motel ran out of money. She was disabled, and he was out of work. Could we help them?
When I met with Rick and Amy, I held the door to the room we used to fill out intake paperwork. Rick had to help Amy walk. Every step seemed labored. She had been in a motorcycle accident and broke her back. At the time, she was a nurse. Now, she was on total disability. Her constant pain was more than I could imagine or bear to watch. They had never been homeless before. He always had a good job and worked hard to provide for his family. Then, due to circumstances involving his ex-wife, a shady lawyer, and back child support, he ended up in jail for three days, which awarded him a police record. They also took his driver’s license away, so he lost his job.
When they first became homeless, he lived in his car for two months, and she went to live with a friend. They tried to get into a shelter before calling us, but the only bed available was an upper bunk, which she couldn’t manage. Yet they expressed gratitude to God even when their lives were turned upside down. So why weren’t they shaking their fists at God?
I could go on and on with the stories of pain and struggle we encountered almost daily. But, somehow, right now, at the beginning of this new year, God has been shining a bright light on the contrast between my “personal” resolutions and his focus on my transformation. I’m sure he has no problem with my wanting to be healthy. But I’m betting he thinks I take it too far, focusing too much on myself. Our transformation is what he desires. It is what we were made for, not simply a lifestyle change.
Marcus Borg ends his most profound book, Speaking Christian, with these words, “Christianity…at its best, is about truth, goodness, and beauty. And it addresses the two great yearnings – our longing for personal transformation and our desire that the world be a better place.”
The Christian message reduced to its essentials is: love God (as known in Jesus) and love everyone.” Okay. My first and foremost resolution will hopefully endure every day I wake up until I take my last breath: Love God above all things, and find ways to touch others with that love every day. And, please God, may I have left this world a little bit better for having been here.
Sweatpants optional – with one caveat: 1 Corinthians 6:19 – “Do you not know that your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit?” This “temple” is meant to be healthy as God created it, so we can physically do his work. You can decipher that however you like.
The church has been made safe, comfortable, and non-threatening. We leave our messy and damaged selves outside, freeing us up for Worship Aerobics. We greet, bow, kneel, sit, stand, sing, bow, kneel, recite, pray, hug, sit, stand, stare, judge, wiggle, squirm, and daydream – then go home for a nap.
Rev. Gretta Vosper shared these thoughts with a reader who left her church and felt disconnected, “It is so hard to realize that you are no longer drawn to a community of faith by the faith of the community.” Vosper offered opportunities to consider for community and service outside the church, like food banks, women’s shelters, and many others. “Any one of them would lift your heart and connect you to that great power of love by which so many needs in the world are filled.”
I, too, walked away from the church, which seemed impossible to imagine for a long time.
THE PROBLEM WITH DONUTS AND LATTES:
How about you?
If, as a youth, going to church was nothing more than an obligation and the only time you didn’t drag your feet and complain was Donut Sunday – that’s a problem.
If the only thing that set your heart on fire at Youth Group were the cute girls/boys – that’s a problem.
If you quit attending church the minute you came of age because it was never your “thing,” whose failure is that? The Churches’? Your parents? Yours?
STUCK IN ORDINARY:
The Catholic tradition has what is called “Ordinary Time” – basically the times before and after Easter and Christmas. I would imagine that resembles other traditions even if it isn’t named as such.
Perhaps the word “ordinary” is a problem. “Hey, I live ordinary, monotonous, boring every day of my life! So why on earth would I want to get up early, dress up, squeeze into a pew full of strangers and listen to irrelevant “stuff” that puts me back to sleep and causes me to snore and drool out the side of my mouth? Why?
Megachurches have tried to fill the gap with music, and light shows that could rival “Jesus Christ Superstar”. The problem is, while folks are swinging and swaying and belting out thirty minutes of music (albeit beautiful music), Jesus left the building, and no one noticed.
TRANSCENDING ORDINARY IS RISKY:
Is it the Church’s responsibility to turn “ordinary” into extraordinary? And what exactly is “extraordinary? Can we even define “church” in the context of what we do know about God?
God is: compassionate, merciful, and forgiving. His gratuitous love should spill out into the heart and soul of everyone. He cares deeply about the lost and forsaken. But is that what we experience in church? Is that what we hear from the pulpit? Is that what we base our actions and attitudes on?
From the daily news of the violence and hatred emanating from many “Christians” today, it doesn’t seem so. How many of us feel culpable if we stand by and watch but don’t actively participate in that violence? How many of us hate in silence?
Mary Collins shares the words of the British writer Monica Furlong, “It has been customary to talk as if the purpose of the Church has been to put people in touch with God, or to keep them in touch with God. Although, on the face of it, the church seems to exist to help its adherents into relationship with God. It equally, and perhaps essentially, plays the opposite role of trying to filter out an experience of transcendence which might be overwhelming.”
Collins continues with a striking question, “What did she (Furlong) judge to be one of the church’s key filters for helping people avoid too great an intimacy with God? Liturgy. Liturgy as ‘keeping in touch’ without getting too close. Yet the bravest among us allow ourselves to wonder. Dare we agree that liturgical practice itself, in whatever form, conceals truth about God that we are unable to bear?”
In my own faith, which has grown from non-existent to something beyond my imagining, God-filled AHA moments did not happen while I sat in the pew on Sunday. Don’t get me wrong. I loved certain aspects of being a part of a church community. What frustrated me was seeing the most central expression of our faith – communion –forgotten the minute we (myself included) walked out the door.
When we share communion, we are reminded of Jesus’ words at the Last Supper, “Take this bread and never forget me. Never forget how much I love you! But, we do forget. We stroll in late, then haul purses, coats, and kids through the communion line and straight out the door for the important stuff of the day: Soccer, brunch, bingo, whatever.
We forget that more must occur the other six days of the week. God’s call to take what we were just fed into a hurting world rings hollow in hearts that are not transformed. We refuse to accept that the problem has anything to do with us, and we certainly don’t want to get close enough to God to hear the truth. That’s too scary. It may expose us to the real God, and it’s that real God we go to great lengths to avoid.
The God we worship must meet our expectations and demands. The world is a mess – he must fix it. People are suffering – he must help them. I am a Christian – he must put me first. So our worship amounts to praise if things are going well and complaining if they’re not.
Those “bravest among us” Collins calls God-seekers who risk. She says, “Monica Furlong observed that god-seekers risk more than the ordinary. They risk their sanity – their healthy adjustment to conventional thinking – by opening themselves to powerful disclosures of the divine. The rest of us, less adventurous, go to church. But it is possible to be both.”
WOULD WE LAY DOWN OUR LIVES? (JOHN 15:13)
Saint Oscar Romero was a bishop in El Salvador. He was gunned down at the altar while celebrating Mass. He knew that was likely to happen when he pleaded on the radio the night before for the violence and murders to stop.
He called out the National Guard troops in particular. They had already killed six other priests, so he was sure he would also die at their hands. But he spoke out anyway, he celebrated Mass anyway, and the people came anyway! He passionately and fearlessly upheld the gospel mandates to care for all our brothers and sisters in Christ!
The purpose of the church is to comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable. We, as Christians and the preachers who are called to lead, should hear and ACT ON Romero’s powerful words or our profession of faith is empty and superficial.
Romero said, “Very nice, pious considerations that don’t bother anyone. That’s the way many would like preaching to be. Those preachers who avoid every thorny matter so as not to be harassed, so as not to have conflicts and difficulties, do not light up the world they live in. … The gospel is courageous.”
God wants us to know that every bit of pain and suffering we see or experience calls for our response. Without us, nothing will change. Nothing! Annie Dillard also presents a harsh reality, “There is no one but us. There is no one to send but only us. There never has been.”
“What is required of us but to do justly and to love mercy” (Micha 6:8). We are called to be the instruments of God’s justice and compassion in this world. We are to sing through our hurting, rejoice through our suffering, and be a beacon to others.
JUST WHO ARE YOU, GOD?
Can we ever be brave enough to accept the reality of a God we can’t imagine? Even though every theological method of putting a label on God has been tested through the ages, one fact remains, and it’s one we as human beings refuse to accept: We will never figure God out! And I am certain he rolls his eyes at our feeble attempts at it.
WHAT’S THAT SMELL?!
We can affect change in the world if we become bold enough. God is searching for people hot after his own heart, like David. Yes, that David, the adulterer, and murderer. He was a screw-up who hobbled through life, often missing the mark. But when he got it right and was on fire for God, there was no stopping him! And people took notice. They smelled something burning and came to check it out.
Many people use, and believe the expression, “the patience of Job”. Actually, Job was not a patient man. Perhaps a bit more patient than his lovely wife who told him to “Curse God and die!”– And his so-called friends who insisted God had exposed him for his wickedness. Their accusations had no limits:
Eliphaz, like most people in Jesus’ time, believed suffering was a direct result of sin; that suffering exposes you to God’s wrath – you’re busted! Sadly, many people still believe that.
Eliphax tells Job that he suffers at the hand of God because “those who plow iniquity and sow trouble reap the same”. (Job 4:7-8)
Bildad chimes in, “God has rejected you because you’re evil!” (8:20). Ouch!
And, of course, not to be outdone by the others, Zophar annihilates any sense of worth Job may be clinging to, “You’re a damn fool! Waxing poetic nonsense like you can dupe everyone, even God. Are you crazy?! We’re going to hang out here until God decides to give you a piece of his mind. And he will. You watch. If you weren’t such an idiot you would reach out to God while you still have breath in you!” (Job 11-14). Honestly, that’s all in there. Okay, I might have taken some license with it.
So, would “patient” be the appropriate verb for Job? After all, he admits, “I am not at ease, nor am I quiet; I have no rest; but trouble comes” (Job 3:26). I do, however, believe Job endured more hardships than most of us could possibly imagine. So, let’s give him that.
Then, there was God, who was eerily quiet until he came storming out of the whirlwind (38:1-40:2) into Job’s broken heart, revealing his power and majesty. And what was Job’s response? How could it have been anything other than “what shall I answer You? I lay my hand over my mouth” (40:4). And later, “Therefore I have uttered what I did not understand, things too wonderful for me, which I did not know” (42:3). So, I think we could also give Job credit for finally surrendering to God even in the midst of his suffering; even though he still had no idea why God allowed him to suffer such pain and loss. God owed him no explanation and Job no longer questioned him.
As for me? How long have I been questioning God? Forever, I think. Questioning often grew into whining and whining into mistrust until I felt I would never know the deep faith I so longed for. I was too afraid and too busy trying to control my own destiny. I talked about surrender and wrote about surrender, but felt my hypocrisy would one day be exposed because I wasn’t living it. Easy enough for me to tell you to surrender your life to God! Go on now. You’ll be fine. Honest.
In all fairness to my fragile ego, in two of the major events in my life: writing a book and going to graduate school, I did get the first part of God’s calling right, “Go”. The problem was my need to second-guess him; to run ahead of him. But, let’s go back to where it all began.
God said to me one day, out of the clear blue, “Write a book.” Long story short, it was a work in progress for ten years: written, rewritten, and self-published twice. Writing the book was the part of God’s call I listened to and accepted.
The part I added later went something like this: “I’ve just written a book! Since this came from you, Lord, I can only assume it’s going to be on the New York Times best-seller list! WOW! I can’t wait!” When that didn’t happen, I began to grow weary of God failing to meet my expectations and started to whine and complain, again, “God, why did you have me write this book? There have been so many mistakes made in the process. You knew I didn’t know what I was doing. So, why? Why? Why? Why?” Those incessant questions were born out of my feeble attempt to control the process and the outcome.
The next chapter begins with a friend asking me to speak at her church. I muttered a few words in God’s direction, “Lord, if you are now calling me to speak, even though this is also something I never would have imagined doing, then I will do it.” I enrolled in a Speakers Training Workshop, had promotional DVDs made and mailed to everyone I could imagine would care. I was offered a few opportunities to speak, and although I was extremely nervous – actually scared to death – they went well and the feedback was positive.
Wait, don’t leave! There’s more! In 2006, I was approached by my pastor to consider a program that would entail studies for a graduate degree in Pastoral Care (I still have the laugh lines from that one!). Seriously, I was nine credit hours short of an Associate’s Degree from a community college, and this was a graduate program! Right! To appease my pastor, I completed the application forms certain they would not accept me.
When the letter came I confidently opened it. My assumed rejection began with “We are pleased to inform you…” Wait, that’s not nice! You are pleased to tell me what I already know – I’m a loser? However, the letter went on to say they had accepted me.
“Oh shit!” That’s what I said. Those two words usually only come out in extreme circumstances like a car coming at me head-on, being stuck in a burning building, or having Robert Redford knock on my door and I’m in my bathrobe and curlers. (Yes, I’m that old!).
An impossible and immutable reality was staring me in the face and, again, I was scared to death! But I went, frightened and uncertain, and graduated in 2009. Glory be to God – well, and to Linda, who, after one semester of preaching classes, and a head full of myself, determined that I would probably become the female Billy Graham on the preacher’s circuit. But, alas, more dashed dreams of fame.
I was supposed to move right from graduation to a position as a Pastoral Associate in my comfortable little church. Yep, you guessed it, that’s not what happened. After three grueling years of studies, I was told that the position was not available due to a lack of funding. So, there I sat in my pile of poopy dreams and unfulfilled aspirations as an imminent writer, speaker, preacher, and/or Pastoral Associate faded into oblivion.
For three years, I have been bellyaching to God just like Job. And then it happened. God’s preferred method of attention-getting for me is a 2×4. While driving down the highway, minding my own business – from out of nowhere – WHACK!
God: “Are you paying attention, Linda?”
Me: “I am now!”
Suddenly, I was pummeled by God, or at least that’s how it felt, with a review of the course of events that had transpired. Here’s a chronology of those events:
My book is the story of how God reached into my pain and suffering at the hands of others, and my own sinfulness, and spoke healing into my brokenness. He used the process of writing the book and the opportunities I had to speak to continue that healing, which in turn, has helped others who have shared their own experiences with me.
Graduate school was really, really, REALLY a struggle for me. Writing graduate-level papers and reading the works of theologians like Thomas Aquinas and Bernard Lonergan, made my head explode! I was anxious for most of those three years. I felt inadequate at best and downright stupid at worst.
Academically, I felt I was not on the level of most of the other students – always looking over my shoulder and waiting for someone to show me the door. I got some of it, forgot most of it, yet, somehow, in the process, I grew spiritually in ways I could never have imagined.
One of my last classes dealt with the foundations of ministry. I remember my professor telling me at the end of the semester that I had a simple way of approaching ministry that would serve me well. He was telling me that I didn’t need to feel incompetent because I couldn’t put together a string of theological thoughts that would rival the best in the field. But I didn’t understand or appreciate his words at the time.
Just before graduation, I asked my pastor, “Do I still have a job when I get out of here?” He replied matter-of-factly, “No.” I was shocked! He stated that because of the economy they could not afford to hire an associate. I was devastated and shaken to my foundation. Fear got the best of me. If I was going to apply for a position in a different church, how would I fair in the interview process? Even though I had a 3.7 GPA, I had little confidence in my abilities, especially since I knew there would be lots of applicants and very few positions available. Oh yeah, and I was old.
Do you see how God has moved in my life over all these years? I didn’t until that fateful trip in my car last week, when all of these events and situations came flooding into my head – then my heart. And, just as with Job, God spoke:
Linda, Linda, Linda, what am I going to do with you?! I called you to write a book, to do some speaking, and to go to graduate school. Who told you you were going to be a famous writer, speaker, or preacher?! Much of the time you ran off on your own without waiting on me; without even consulting me. You had it all figured out and then when it didn’t happen the way you planned it, you came complaining to me. My time is not your time, my ways are not your ways. It’s about obedience and trust, Linda. I think you are finally ready to hear that.
Why, according to your timing, has it taken so long?It was important for you to feel the pain of the loss and suffering of your past and to go through your own healing process before you could enter the sacred space of others who suffer. This is Holy Ground that I am asking you to step into. You were not ready before.
Somehow you have managed to move in the direction I have called you. You’ve made it an uphill climb, but you have been falling forward, so that’s progress! I placed the desires in you before you were born, and I have set in place my plan for you and long to bring it to completion. If you will just get out of my way!
A few days after the Holy Whacking in my car, I received a Daily Meditation from Richard Rohr. Quite appropriate I think, “All of Jesus’ guidance for ministry…are very concrete and interpersonal. They are all about putting people in touch with specific people, especially with people’s pain. Person-to-person is the way the Gospel was originally communicated. Person-in-love-with-person, person-respecting-person, person-forgiving-person, person-touching-person, person-crying-with-person, person-hugging-person: that’s where the Divine Presence is so beautifully revealed.“
What a dunce I was, “Therefore I have uttered what I did not understand, things too wonderful for me, which I did not know” (Job 42:3). I pray I have finally learned to wait on God and know his plan for me is perfect; to trust his infinite wisdom more than my finite and feeble efforts to do things my own way.
And the saga continues…
I would like to conclude with a quote from Glennon Doyle that sums up where I’m at right now and where I hope to stay till the end.
No. It’s merely a perception that we have the power to change.
The age of seventy-four is magical for me. I can’t contain myself when I consider all the experiences I have grown through. Fierce rejections, false truths, exquisite God-moments, giggly grandkids, and cherished relationships that have endured my messiness and painful childhood memories, all washed over by grace.
I have embraced a calling that gives meaning and purpose to it all. I can barely believe this is my life! My once insignificant story has blossomed into something holy and beautiful that makes me want to sing! If only I could sing.
Many, at this point, feel they have made an irreparable mess of their lives. Yet, it seems easier to continue the incessant navel-gazing than to allow God to gaze into their hardened hearts and change their lives.
And if we weren’t beating ourselves up enough, the world also tells us that we have outlived our usefulness. We are sucking valuable air and resources that would better serve the younger and more “productive.” We should simply lie down and die already.
But for others, grace has led us through much self-reflection, releasing a false self we so easily embraced, finally leading us to the necessary letting go. We have stopped fighting against it. With new found courage, we have sought out forgiveness from those we have hurt and offer forgiveness to our offenders.
We have no one to impress and no status to protect. Our once false reliance on all that is worldly has been exposed. It pales in comparison to the treasure of relationships, beginning with God. As long as we are still breathing (you are still breathing, aren’t you?), we can leave a legacy of love in the hearts of those we share this journey with.
But wait. Look around you. Are you reveling in that grace-filled stage of your life alone? If so, someone is missing. If you are here and those who continue to suffer are over there, you have probably forgotten your purpose! (Mark 12:30-31). Every day brings a new opportunity for us to step onto the path of someone else’s journey to wholeness and healing. And please do it with great joy and enthusiasm!
1 Peter 3:15 tells us, “… always be ready to give a defense to everyone who asks you a reason for the hope that is in you….” News flash! No one is even going to ask if we are not living differently than the rest of the world if we spew cynicism from every pore of our wrinkled and aging bodies.
Joy is loving out loud!
I believe young people, in particular, need to hear that there really is Good News! But they don’t want to hear it from a bunch of grumpy old people.
You may ask, “With the world in such a mess, why shouldn’t we be cynical?” Well, I’ll tell you why. Cynicism is the devil’s tool for keeping non-believers away from salvation’s door. “Look,” says the non-believer, “those Christians are just as miserable as we are – maybe more so with all those thou-shalt-nots to contend with. If we’re going to be miserable, we’ll do it on our terms. Thank you very much.”
The quality that draws people to Christianity isn’t gloom and doom. Instead, it’s deep-down joy, even in the midst of trials and struggles. Joy causes the lonely and suffering to peer up from their pit of despair and ask, “Why are you so cheerful? What do you know that we don’t?”
Here are a couple of frightening statistics to consider: 1) seventy percent of Christian youths abandon their faith during college years and never return to it (LifeWay Research), and 2) suicide is the third-leading cause of death among ten to twenty-four-year-olds (CDC). In both instances, we need to ask ourselves why. And more importantly, what have we done to convince these young people that Christ isn’t worth following, that joy isn’t worth seeking, that life isn’t worth living? When they look at us, what do they see?
Do they see this? I can’t imagine anyone skipping joyously into the second half of life if this was all we had to offer; aches and pains and life’s dreadful stains. Just shoot me!
Or do they see this?
Now, this is a different story! No, that picture was not photoshopped. That was my husband, who loved being silly with the grandkids. Okay, maybe it’s a bit extreme for some folks, but I think it’s hysterical, and our grandkids LOVED it. Since his passing, they now have beautiful memories of him. I kind of wish I would have done it now. But I don’t think it would have been as funny. Anyway, my claim to fame was “the running game” and the “tickle monster” – and I participated in them with great gusto!
“What this country needs are radicals who will stay that way regardless of the creeping years.” ~John Fischer
So go find someone to love on. Maybe even a teenager. Really! From many years of being a Youth Minister, I can tell you that teens are not as scary as you might think. I decided to “retire” from that ministry because I thought I was too old. Someone younger would be better suited to the job and relate better to them.
On the contrary, I found that being able to care about teens is not determined by age; it’s determined by how much we care. That’s all they want, someone to care and offer them hope and encouragement. They long for someone to help them reach within themselves to find that child who may have been lost to society but is NEVER lost to the God who created them. I know. I’ve been there. What about you?
Here are some things I have learned about life. Some the hard way:
Failure is never final, and love is never wasted.
Forgiveness is giving up my right to hurt you the way you have hurt me.
Eat dessert first.
I would look stupid in skinny jeans even if I could fit into them – which I can’t.
Pride is overrated – laugh at yourself – often.
That jerk in your day-to-day life is trying to teach you something – pay attention.
Surrender is a daily act of courage, risk, and trust.
Be silly! We don’t have enough silliness in this world.
Leave your little corner of the world better than you found it.
Words of wisdom from Richard Rohr: “The Jesus way is to embrace our wounds and accept them as the price of the journey. We can choose to carry our wounds with dignity until the time comes when we forget why they were so important or debilitating, to begin with. I think we carry our wounds until the end; they do not fully go away but keep us humble, patient, and more open to trust and intimacy. The healing lies in the fact that those same wounds no longer defeat us or cause us to harm ourselves or others.”
And finally, a quote that should conjure up an “oh crap” moment for all of us:
“Hell begins on the day when God grants us a clear vision of all that we might have achieved, of all the gifts which we have wasted, of all that we might have done which we did not do” Gian Carlo Menotti
Well, I’m still here in case you were wondering – or even if you couldn’t care less (in which case, I don’t suppose you’d be reading this). Regardless, here we go…
For over a year, I went kicking and screaming into a new and uncertain reality. In the process, I have slowly, often unwillingly, been discovering who I am in the midst of loss, pain, and sorrow. The world I thought would never change – changed – without any warning.
As I packed up my former self, one box, one picture, one memory at a time, I suddenly realized the uncertainty I had been trying to suppress with superficial words and inadequate certitudes, “I’m fine. Really!”
Many “experts” encourage us to act “as if” _________(fill in the blank) until it becomes our truth. So, I did – or at least I tried. But, in pretending I was already there, I believe I also denied the necessary process of change. So, does acting “as if” my life is often a total shitstorm count? Because it is – no acting required.
Jen Hatmaker beautifully describes the inevitable change of seasons in life:
“It can be difficult to envision a new start but impossible to deny one. This is your work. No one can do it for you. Something doesn’t have to be bad to be over. That season has possibly given you everything it had to offer; it shaped and developed you, and it stretched and inspired you. We are not entirely rebranded with each new season; we simply build the next layer. Throughout transitions, we embody permanent virtues and become deeply shaped. As a testament to our design, we are capable of preserving the best of each season while rejecting the worst. The human heart is shockingly resilient. We need to get better at permission and grace.”
The pictures are packed up, leaving bare walls. It has now become clear that I have been stuck in the past. God tells us to stay out of there and move on, trusting him every step of the way. The past certainly formed my identity to this point. I am grateful for all of its lessons, but that’s not the end of my story or my journey. Hatmaker says: “You can care about new things and new beginnings and new people. Carry on, sister!”
God wants me, wants all of us to boldly step into each new day, believing each life experience, good or bad, will influence how we impact our world. Our loving God has created our most outlandishly gifted, magnificently designed selves for that very purpose.
It’s time to grab onto that desire of my heart that has been sitting too long and aching to be acknowledged, that one passion refusing to fade away no matter how much I have tried to ignore it.
It may seem crazy to imagine Satan having any defining joy in his life. Seriously! Does he countdown days to special holidays? Review photos of favorite vacations with the family? Post pics of him and his buds at a hockey game? Laugh hysterically at anything remotely comical?!
Well…there is one thing – and only one thing – that does get him all giddy in the midst of his miserableness, and we stupid humans seem to love indulging him. It happens when we judge others and refuse to forgive. That is what Satan thrives on, and we seem so eager to comply, even those of us who profess to be Christians. I would go so far as to say “especially” Christians, get sucked into that ego-driven sense of superiority over others. To be honest, I have to confess that I am just as guilty, though I’d like to believe I’m better than I used to be. I suppose it depends on who you ask.
Nearly twenty years ago, I thought the “revelation” that came to me about forgiveness when I was in Kentucky (which I wrote about in my book) was my most profound life-changing moment ever! Until it wasn’t. Even though I came away from that experience proclaiming the magical, mystical healing power of God!
Oh, for sure, I played the game. The “I’m fine. Great actually. No, really! I’m totally healed of all my past shit” game! The game God reveals when, for a split second, I get out of his way. That moment when I let my guard down and leave just a crack in the door of my hardened heart and he shoves his foot in before I can slam it shut again. I hate when that happens!
Recently, I was confronted again by the call of God to forgive. The two people that caused me the most suffering and hurt – my mother, and the relative I have never named publicly, have both passed away. The funeral services were unremarkable and sparsely attended. The realization of that struck me profoundly! Two people that caused me so much hurt, I believe now, suffered more than I did. I never considered that possibility.
I was given the gift of grace when I was able to see the brokenness of their lives and truly feel empathy for them. Yes, they both made messes in my life, but I have also experienced healing, and as a result, have, for the most part, lived a rich and fulfilled life.
I have been blessed with a loving family and friends and have so much to be thankful for. Most importantly, a God who never gives up on me, never keeps count of my sinfulness, and loves me unconditionally often in spite of my foolishness and forgetfulness of his mercy and love. The profound truth of God’s love gets so lost when we prefer to live on the periphery where it is safer and Satan tries his best to keep us there.
A life of faith has always been about transformation; our dying to self and being renewed. It takes place when we step outside our theology of reward and punishment; when we decide we are bone-tired of suffering and causing the suffering of others. It happens when we step into the terror as well as the awesomeness of being human. In that place, God does his best work and can awaken the creation of something new within us. (2 Corinthians 5:17)
Father Richard Rohr tells us, “For many of us, suffering is a cycle. We go back and forth, holding on and letting go, healing, hurting anew, and healing again. Suffering, of course, can lead us in either of two directions: (1) it can make us very bitter and cause us to shut down, or (2) it can make us wise, compassionate, and utterly open, because our hearts have been softened.
We’re not perfect. The project of learning how to love—which is our only life project—is quite simply learning to accept this….If you really love anybody then you have learned to accept a person despite, and sometimes even because of, their faults.
Also consider these thoughts of Desmond Tutu on what he calls, “Essential Humility”, “We are able to forgive because we are able to recognize our shared humanity. We are able to recognize that we are all fragile, vulnerable, flawed human beings capable of thoughtlessness and cruelty. We also recognize that no one is born evil and that we are all more than the worst thing we have done in our lives. A human life is a great mixture of goodness, beauty, cruelty, heartbreak, indifference, love, and so much more.“