Posts Tagged With: death

Sestina for Dad

Today is your birthday–
or was. I don’t know
what it is now that you
are dead–just a shadow
to remind us that last year
we gave you tickets

to a KU game–tickets
for you and Matt to celebrate the day;
a festive end to a pretty good year.
We didn’t know
how near to valley of the shadow
we were. “Happy birthday to you!”

Without a hint of foreboding we sang: “Happy birthday to you!”
and were proud of the tickets
we presented. Oblivious to the shadows
gathering. I was the sick one that day,
and I let everyone know
how unfair it was that I had to start the new year

with the stomach flu–give up my once-a-year
romantic getaway reservations to you
and Mom. “Who knows,”
I moaned, “when I will ever get away.” So KU tickets
and a little vacation–not a bad birthday.
Please know that the shadow

of resentment I felt then–that shadow
of disappointment at missing a yearly
pleasure–burst into light and tears the day
I realized that you
and Matt would not use any tickets,
you and Mom would not visit any bed and breakfasts together again. I know

this realization was as cliche as it was heartbreaking. I know
this day–your birthday–will always be shadow:
like Christmas, anniversaries, KU basketball tickets,
like every New Year–
just three days from the day you
were born; just seventy days from the day

you–well, you know–
from the day you quit caring about any tickets,
from the day that began these years of glorious shadow.

IMG_4902

Categories: Poetry | Tags: , , , , , , | 4 Comments

Holy Communion

8885024392My family shared communion bread in my father’s hospice room before he died. We blessed it, broke it, and ate it. My mom caught a few medical professionals off guard by holding the loaf out to them when they came into the room to check Dad’s blood pressure or give him his medications.

But all awkwardness aside, it was a beautiful thing to share this ritual with my dad one last time. . . . Except that Dad was past eating, even something as small and perfect as a piece of holy bread. So my mom tore off a piece for him and laid it on the pillow near his mouth.

As he took his final breaths–those breaths that are ragged and uneven, those breaths that make you count the seconds between them–I imagined that small piece of Jesus’ body filtering the air. As Dad drew air into his failing body, as his lungs struggled to push air out, it flowed through the blessed and broken bread.

That bread remained there when Dad died, on the pillow next to his beloved face–small and white and still.

This final image of my father is a painful blessing. It comes unbidden each time I speak the words, “This is my body,” each time I offer the loaf to those who can still take and eat.

For me, the phrase “communion of saints” used to conjure up vague images of sparkling lights scattered out there, somewhere–kind of like stars, but less specific, less real. Now the “communion of saints” is that hospice room. Too specific. Too real.

It is the gummy bread in my mouth, the labored chewing, the effort of my tongue and throat muscles as I swallow. It is holding hands with my brother and my husband, scrunching down and twisting my head to wipe the tears on the sleeve of my sweatshirt. It is watching my mom lead this ritual as both faithful pastor and grieving wife, somehow standing strong and collapsing all at once.

It’s a painful blessing–every time there is a loaf of communion bread, I am in the hospice room with my father again. I realize that I never saw anyone take that torn-off piece of bread away. And so it will always be there, on the pillow, next to Dad. It will always be there, holy and broken and unconsumed.

Categories: Ponderings, Practices | Tags: , , , , | 1 Comment

Fatherless Fathers’ Day

May 2004 013A few weeks ago, my Facebook pages and blog feed were abuzz with discussions about impending Mothers’ Day worship services. Most of the posts said essentially the same thing: Remember that Mothers’ Day is hard for many people. It’s hard for women who have chosen not to be mothers and women who want to be mothers but aren’t; it’s hard for people who have difficult relationships with their mothers and for people whose mothers have died. People were posting personal essays and sensitive Mothers’ Day prayers. Post after post after post about motherhood.

And now, this week before Fathers’ Day–nothing. My virtual world is surprisingly silent on the topic. But my physical world, inside my own head, it’s quite noisy.

This will be my first fatherless Fathers’ Day. That’s how I’ve been thinking of it. The first Fathers’ Day since my dad died on March 7. The first Fathers’ Day that I can’t mail a card to wherever it is he is living now. (Not to say it will be the first that I haven’t mailed a card.)

There will be no plotting with my brother about a gift. No Sunday afternoon phone call so all the kids can shout “Happy Fathers’ Day” across the line. Just silence. Or, more likely, a much less exuberant phone call to my mom.

My first fatherless Fathers’ Day.

Except it’s not. Because I have had and always will have a father. Actually, a dad. (I NEVER referred to him as “my father” until he died. What’s up with that?)

Just because my dad has died does not mean I don’t have him any more. I have him–sometimes more of him than I want, but usually just enough. The man he was has shaped who I am–who I continue to be. Changing circumstances don’t change our essence. Or, as Dad liked to say, “Wherever you go, there you are.”

So here I am. Facing this upcoming Fathers’ Day with dread and with gratitude.

Dread because I know that I will feel my grief deeply that day. I will be sad. Very sad.

Gratitude because I have a father that I miss. Not everyone can say that.

My friend’s father died several months before mine, and her grief is very different. She grieves because her father never overcame his alcoholism. Was never able to be the father or grandfather that she wanted him to be. She grieves because she never had a warm and loving relationship with him. And now that he has died, her hope for his healing–for their healing–has died with him.

And so, in the midst of mourning, I acknowledge that my particular grief–the grief of missing a wonderful father–is it’s own distinct blessing. Even as the tears flow, I continue to receive the gift of being my dad’s daughter.

New Years Eve 2003 029

Here are links to previous posts about my dad’s illness and death:

Psalm 63 Call to Worship–from the hospital
Why the Silence–includes the poem I wrote for Dad’s funeral
Praying through Grief–the doodle prayer from Dad’s hospital stay
On Living Close to Death–a Lenten sermon focusing on Jesus’ meal with Mary, Martha, and Lazarus
Holy Week–on why I am canceling Lent next year
Attending Death–my Good Friday post at Practicing Families
Living with “Desire”–and despair

 

Categories: Ponderings | Tags: , , , , , | 12 Comments

Living with “Desire”

IMG_2358On Epiphany, fellow pastor and blogger Marci Glass was giving out star words–words to hold and ponder and listen to in the coming year.

My word is desiring. And it has woven its way through these past five months with glitters and shimmers and quavers and shouts and sighs too deep for words.

The good Christian girl–the Mennonite–in me was suspicious of this word from the beginning. Isn’t desire something that just gets us in trouble? It leads to unplanned pregnancies and obesity and credit card debt and any number of other evils.

Yet as I wrote this word out on a sparkly yellow star and rolled it around in my mind and heart, it began to shine a little. To seem less scary. To feel a bit like permission.

If “desiring” is my star word, my spiritual guide for the coming months, then surely my desiring is of God. Surely my desires are not wicked, but are God-given, grace-filled. I began to think more about what I did desire, and how my desiring was part of God’s broader desires for the world.

And then, at the end of February, my dad went into the hospital. All of my lovely, spiritually enlightened ponderings about desire were overwhelmed by the one, intense, unbearable desire that my dad be made well.

At first, this was a desire for a diagnosis. I thought that if we could just name his disease, they could make Dad better.

I was wrong.

When I got what I desired, I didn’t want it after all. Because the diagnosis was aggressive killer cell leukemia/lymphoma. It was a death sentence. And my deepest desire was for my dad to not die. For him to not be in the hospital with oxygen flowing into his nose through tubes, barely able to talk, having to call in a nurse to help every time he had to urinate.

If you have ever desired something impossible, you know how it feels. Like your soul is banging itself against a brick wall. And the wall doesn’t give. And your soul won’t stop. Every time it flings itself it just hurts worse because it’s already so battered and bruised.

Despair–that’s probably what you’d call it. I assume that Marci didn’t give anyone “despair” as their star word. Because it’s not a star. It’s a shadow–the shadow side of desire. When desire sucks you into a black hole of hopelessness.

The tendency, I think, is to save ourselves from despair by moderating desire. By trying not to want anything too much. This is certainly not a way to live life to the fullest, but it can work in staving off despair–until it doesn’t.

We fall in love. We get sick. We watch someone we love waste away. And the desire sparks and burns into despair.

Then what?

In my dad’s hospice room, there was a moment . . . When he didn’t have the energy to speak. When his breathing was labored, hollow. When we knew the disease was poisoning his whole body. When his children, wife, grandchildren were gathered around him and the Hallelujah chorus was playing. There was a moment when my deep desire shifted and I desired, for him, his release from that broken, breaking body.

A shift in desire. To desire something we don’t really want–something painful in its goodness, heart-wrenching in its holiness. Is that a form of grace?

. . .

I have more to say about the twinkling of the desire star in my life this year. Those words will come later. I need to sit with these words for awhile.

Categories: Ponderings | Tags: , , , , , | 4 Comments

Thoughts on Revelation 21:1-6

'The Vision of the New Heaven and the New Earth...' photo (c) 2013, Sharon - license: http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-nd/2.0/[Below is an excerpt from a sermon I preached on All Saints’ Day a few years ago.]

This vision John gives us is a beautiful vision. A necessary vision. It is a vision that Christians have clung to through persecution and war and slavery and untold numbers of personal sorrows and tragedies.

“And I saw the holy city, the new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God.”

We tend to think of eternal life with God as completely other than what we experience now. That when we die our souls somehow fly away . . . up there . . . to another place, another mode of time, another reality. That our flawed earthly existence will be erased, replaced with heavenly life.

But that is not John’s vision in the book of Revelation. John’s vision is of the new earth and new heaven. If we believe John’s revelation, we believe that this earth—God’s magnificent creation, our bittersweet home—does not need to be removed. It needs to be redeemed and transformed.

People are not whisked up into some other place in the sky. The new Jerusalem comes down. This Jerusalem is not the same violent, greed-filled place that it had been. But it is still Jerusalem.

As I’ve been reading this passage, I’ve been thinking about this idea of a transformed reality as opposed to a removed and replaced reality. And I’ve been thinking that what we believe about the end times, about the afterlife, may have more bearing on our call to follow Jesus than I had previously thought.

Transformation versus removal.

We see the tendency toward removal in our penal system: the continued use of the death penalty; the scarcity of programs that work toward transforming the lives of the prisoners. But there are people of faith stepping in and offering the alternative of redemption and transformation.

Transformation versus removal.

Watch these ideas battle in our foreign policy and our national security efforts. Our efforts to remove terrorism seem basically to have increased animosity toward the United States. What would happen if, instead of trying to defeat terrorists, we worked to redeem and transform them? I don’t know. Most people would probably dismiss the suggestion as naïve.

Transformation versus removal.

A friend passed on a great article to me about a woman whose husband tried to leave her. He told her that he didn’t love her anymore and he wanted a divorce. She told him that she didn’t believe him and wouldn’t give him a divorce. He wanted to remove himself from the life he had. She insisted on transforming it. The transformation wasn’t easy. But eventually the husband came back to the family. And the marriage was transformed.

Of course, it might not have been. The husband could have decided to move to Cancun and never see his wife or children again.

And I think that is the crux of why we—as a society—seem to favor removal over transformation. We can control the removal. It might not give us the best result, but we can control it. We can abandon the relationship. We can administer the lethal injection. We can drop the bombs.

Transformation, on the other hand, is ultimately the work of God. We can work towards it. We can facilitate it. But we cannot make it happen.

Sometimes our efforts will succeed. Sometimes our efforts will fail.

Always we have God’s promise of a new heaven and a new earth. We can rest in the knowledge that God is the Alpha and the Omega. God was at the beginning. God will be at the end. And God is with us now. God’s home is among mortals. God dwells with us as our God, and we can live joyfully as God’s people.

God’s promises are for this life. And God’s promises of transformation are also for the life to come. Thanks be to God.

*Also, for folks working on services for Easter 5C, I posted some family worship ideas based around Psalm 148 over at Practicing Families earlier this week.

Categories: Bible Study, Preaching | Tags: , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Good Friday Reflection

Today I have a post up over at Practicing Families. As many of you know, the texture of Good Friday is different in the shadow of a loved one’s death.

May the God of darkness and deserts and whispers be known to you in the emptiness and grief of this day.

 

Categories: Lent/Easter | Tags: , , | Leave a comment

Holy Week

This is a palm leaf paper collage I created last year.

This is a palm leaf paper collage I created last year.

I’ve decided to cancel Lent next year. I’m pretty sure, as a (still) ordained part-time Mennonite pastor, I have that kind of power. I mean, I have a card in my wallet signed by the conference minister. So be looking for the headlines: No Lent Next Year.

Last year a dear church member and friend went into the hospital on Good Friday. It was the beginning of her final round with cancer. Before worship on Easter morning several of us sang and read scripture with her in her hospital room.

This year, it was during Lent when my dad went into the hospital. A week and a half after my mom had smeared ashes on his forehead and told him: “From dust you have come and to dust you shall return.” We buried his ashes last week.

I’m done with Lent. I am going to close my eyes and hold on tight and just ride out this last heavy surge of darkness until I can open my eyes on Easter morning to a shining sun and singing birds–to light and life and no more Lent. (Ever. Because I’m cancelling it next year, remember.)

Of course, Lola will still not be here to sing Praise God from Whom with us as our Easter benediction. My dad will still not call me on the phone later that day to say “Rock Chalk Jayhawk” when KU wins their game. (Just let me live my fantasy for now.)

But still, I want Easter. I want it desperately. I want the flowers and the music and the stories and The Story. And, yes, the chocolate.

In the meantime, I keep breathing.

[You can read some thought-provoking monologues from characters inhabiting the stories of this Holy Week over on our church blog. I commend them to you.]

Categories: Lent/Easter, Ponderings | Tags: , , , , | 5 Comments

On Living Close to Death

“Six days before Passover.”
Probably a couple of months–though only one chapter–after Lazarus was dead, and then not dead.
Only seven days–and seven chapters–before the crucifixion.
“Six days before Passover.” Wedged between resurrection and death.

“Jesus came to Bethany.”
Just north of Bethlehem and that legendary manger.
Just east of Jerusalem and that infamous cross.
“Jesus came to Bethany.” Wedged between his birth and his death.

It must have been a tense time and a holy time around that table in Bethany, six days before Passover.
Because the Holy Presence hovers in these liminal spaces, these in-betweens, these thresholds separating life and death.

The morning my dad went into Hospice–the day before he died–he told me:
“I am with God. As long as you are with God, we are together.”
“I am with God.”
But he didn’t mean it that way. That easy way that we mean when we say, “God be with you.”
He meant that he was really, deeply, already–though not quite yet–fully with God.
I’ve had many holy experiences in my life, and I have never known God to be so thick and terrifying and real around me as in that moment.

I can only imagine that God was present around the table in the home of Mary and Martha and Lazarus that night. Present in this same intense and disorienting way.
Because like my dad’s bedside, that table was a place wedged between life and death.
A threshold where you want to linger. Unsatisfied with what has been. Afraid of what will be.
Yes, Lazarus is alive. But he has been dead. Wrapped, buried, stinking dead. And because he has been dead, Mary and Martha are acutely aware that he can and will be dead again. Ashes to ashes. Dust to dust. . . . Yes indeed.

And then Jesus shows up with his followers–only one and a half miles from Jerusalem,
where there is a warrant out for his arrest.
Where there are armed soldiers looking for him.
Where guards carry whips.
Where the vertical beams of crosses already rise from the ground of Golgotha–the “Place of the Skull”–waiting for the condemned who haul their own crossbeams.

Jesus certainly seems to know that his journey into Jerusalem will end (initially) with his death.
Mary and Martha and Lazarus must have a pretty good idea where this is headed–if they will let themselves know it.Their friend, their teacher, their Lord, Jesus, is, as they say, not long for this world. Ashes to ashes, dust to dust. Yes.

And so this meal becomes a sort of death bed scene. Infused with the energy of life, the energy of death.
Revealing the hearts of those who surround Jesus.
And it is beautiful.

We usually focus on Mary-the sharp scent of her nard, the caress of her long silky hair.
It’s easy to miss the second part of the second verse: “Martha served, while Lazarus was among those reclining at the table with Jesus.”
All three siblings are doing what should be done on that threshold between life and death.
Six days before Passover. A mile and a half from Jerusalem.
In serving, relaxing, anointing, each one is doing what needs done; they are being present in the moment. They are willing to stay right there with Jesus in that intense, God-thick, death-echoing, life-pulsing place.

It is only Judas who tries to get away. Judas who says, “Why didn’t Mary sell that expensive perfume so we could give the money to the poor?”
“Oh,” says Jesus, “You always have the poor with you, but you do not always have me.”

Even those who hadn’t yet accepted the fact of Jesus’ impending death could not escape the sharp, minty scent of the oil as Mary anointed Jesus for his burial.

Even my 8-year-old daughter knew the closeness of death as she clung to her grandfather’s hand in the hospice room.

Sometimes we know how close death is.
Because the warrant is out and the cross posts are set.
Because the tests have come back and diagnosis is in.

Sometimes we know, and in those moments–those frightening and holy moments, it can be easy to focus on the person in front of us.Easy to let other things go as we massage the feet, wipe the brow, of the person we love.

Sometimes, though, we don’t know.
God is more hidden. The smell of death is not in the air.

Yet still, we live always wedged between the temporal and the eternal.
Any moment could be a threshold between life and death.
Any moment could be that holy ground.
And because it could be, it is. Holy. Every moment. Amen.

- – – – – -

*This reflection is excerpted from the sermon I preached on John 12:1-11 last Sunday–the Sunday following my father’s funeral. Afterwards, the worship leader said that the whole sermon felt like a poem (which may be the best sermon compliment I’ve ever received). So I decided to pare it down and form it into a pseudo-poem for this space.

Categories: Bible Study, Poetry | Tags: , , , , , , , | 7 Comments

Why the Silence

IMG_0040As some of you know from Facebook, as some of you may have guessed through my recent silence, my dad passed away last week. On Thursday, March 7. In a hospice room at St. Francis hospital in Wichita. With the sun shining and the Hallelujah Chorus playing on my brother’s ipad. Facing his bride of 42 years. (They celebrated their anniversary in the hospital on February 27); holding the hands of his granddaughters; being touched and loved into the next world by his son, his daughter, his son-in-law, his daughter-in-law.

We found out just last Tuesday that he had aggressive natural killer cell leukemia/lymphoma. (In case you can’t tell by the name, you do not want to get this disease.) As a former hospice chaplain, my dad weighed his treatment options (horrifying and ultimately unsuccessful) with the care he knew he would receive on the hospice floor. He could not wait to get up to his hospice room.

If he had been 98 instead of 68, I would say it was a perfect death. Peaceful. Mercifully quick. Full of love. Infused with the holy.

But he wasn’t 98, he was 68. And he wasn’t done being a grandpa–or a dad–or a husband. And so his death wasn’t perfect. It was, and is, agonizing.

It’s too soon for me to draw out profound insights on life and death and God as related to Dad’s death. I just want you to know about this bit of my life.

And I want to share with you the poem I wrote for Dad’s funeral. (When your dad asks you, on his deathbed, to write a poem for his funeral, the answer is “yes.”) My dad was so peace-filled throughout his entire hospitalization (11 days), I couldn’t help but think of the contrast with the sentiment in Dylan Thomas’ poem for his dying father,”Do Not Go Gentle into that Good Night.” Ultimately, I needed a strict form like the villanelle to help me start the poem–and to help me stop. The cycling, the repetition of this form echoes the swimming timelessness of these past two weeks.

 

Villanelle for Dad

You died the way you lived, with love and grace,
The Hallelujah chorus in the air,
Our gazes fixed intently on your face.

Disease so sudden we could scarcely brace,
Yet you accepted, took the load to bear.
You died the way you lived, with love and grace.

Unhinged we cried and questioned, wept and paced;
Sustained somehow by holy words and prayer,
Our gazes fixed intently on your face.

They say that slow and steady wins the race.
We wish you’d gone more slowly toward death’s glare.
You died the way you lived, with love and grace.

A pastor to the end, you made your case:
You said, “If you’re in God, know I am there.”
Our gazes fixed intently on your face.

And you, my dad, whose sacred life I trace,
I thank you for this final gift you share:
You died the way you lived, with love and grace,
Our gazes fixed intently on your face.

Categories: Poetry | Tags: , , , , , , , , | 23 Comments

A Few Thoughts on All Souls Day

I had a lot of fun trick-or-treating with Grace downtown on Halloween. We were harmless aliens. Nothing scary.

But there were plenty of fierce werewolves and bloody vampires and creepy ghosts wandering around. Plenty of costumes to remind me that Halloween is not really about candy; it’s about death–it’s particularly about our fear of death.

In many ways, watching horror movies and dressing up as frightening creatures is a way that we confront our fears. By placing ourselves in the story–even in these imaginary ways–we hope to gain some control over these forces of death that are really uncontrollable.

I know not all Christians choose to celebrate Halloween, but I believe it can be a fun celebration. (Who doesn’t love dressing up and getting free candy?) But as Christians, we do not try to fight death with death. We do not meet violence with violence. We do not try to overcome our fear of the uncontrollable forces of destruction by participating in the broad story of death.

As Christians, we may enjoy the Halloween festivities, but we truly celebrate the next two days–All Saints and All Souls. We may enjoy the pageantry and the candy, but we live into the promise of eternal life through Jesus Christ.

As Christians, we do not face our fear of death by participating in the death story; we face our fear of death by participating in the Jesus story. In the story of a God who loves us deeply–so deeply that “the Word became flesh and dwelt among us.” In the story of how Jesus overcame the forces of death and violence through the power of the resurrection.

As Christians, we participate in a counter-story. A life-giving story. We seek to live our lives within the power of Christ’s life. And we seek to understand death in the context of the broader story, the bigger story, of eternal life in Christ.

I encourage you to take some time on this All Soul’s day to honor those you love who have lived and died in the reality of God’s Divine Life. Say a prayer. Light a candle. Tell a story. Type their names into the comments section below. And give thanks that “neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons, neither the present nor the future nor any powers, neither height nor depth nor anything else in all creation will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord.”

In memory of Lola Lohrentz. Lover. Laugher. Worker. Quilter. Saint of the church.

Categories: Ponderings, Uncategorized | Tags: , , , , , | 4 Comments

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