Scary Conversations


Death and dying. Not the topic most people would choose to spend their Saturday discussing but that is precisely how I spent yesterday. I had the opportunity to attend a conference on palliative care at Sacred Heart University. Attendees including students and working professionals from across several disciplines including doctors, nurses, social workers, physical therapists, occupational therapists, speech pathologists, and hospital chaplains as well as caretakers and family members from the community. What struck me most was that one of the biggest obstacles to obtaining palliative care for patients is fear. In the medical community, there is fear that referring a patient for palliative care means giving up and that “it’s too soon” – an attitude which often means patients suffer needlessly. For families, there is a fear that the suggestion of palliative care means death is imminent, which is often not the case. While education can dispel the myth that palliative care is the same thing as hospice care (it’s not), I’m not quite so confident that it can easily dispel the fear.

In a breakout group that focused on the spiritual aspect of making end-of-life health care choices, the same theme came up over and over. Families are terrified by the prospect of talking about death, whether it’s at the beginning of a serious decline in health or when death is staring them in the face. In some cases, families will do anything to keep a patient alive, despite knowing that death is inevitable. Some families want to extend life as long as possible,  holding out for a full physical healing miracle to happen. Their prayer can become so frantic that it is less about a relationship with God and more of a magic ritual. In such cases, families cannot seem to accept that the miracle may come in the form of a peaceful death. People who believe so deeply in a God who heals seem to struggle when it comes to believing in a God who is waiting to welcome their loved ones who will be released from their illness through death.

After listening to the war stories told by several of the chaplains and social workers, each one of them questioning how we change a culture that is so hung up on death avoidance, one of the young nursing students spoke up. She said that she’s of Finnish descent and in their culture, death is accepted as a unique part of life. Death is talked about and embraced as part of life from childhood. No one tries to hide from it or avoid it. People talk about their final wishes with family, including young children. She went on to say that her grandmother had called her last year to let her know that she had taken a woodworking class with another family member. The grandmother had designed and built her own casket and she wanted to make sure everyone in the family knew where it was being stored so when the time came, she could be buried in it. This is clearly a lady who is at peace with the reality that she will die one day.

I have to admit, as I listened to that story, the image that popped into my head almost immediately was of the third brother in the Tale of the Three Brothers from Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows.  (If you’ve never seen it you can watch the short clip here.)

The third brother didn’t see death a power to be wielded or as something to be conquered. Rather, he lived his life well, knowing that death was inevitable, and when the time came, he greeted death as an old friend.

If we truly believe in the God we say we believe in, the God of everlasting life, isn’t that the way we should live? Let’s be honest here, death is inevitable for every single one of us. Wouldn’t it make more sense to talk about it? Rather than kicking and fighting death all the way to grave, wouldn’t it be better to acknowledge that death will come? Wouldn’t it simply be sensible to plan for the care we wish to receive to keep us comfortable and to maintain the best quality of life for as long as possible, while knowing that quality of life is not about extending life as long as medically possible. Admittedly, it’s much harder when illness strikes a young person, but knowing that death comes for every single one of us, why are we so afraid to accept it, to embrace it, and to talk about it?

As tends to happen with a really good conference, the questions asked raised more questions to take home and ponder for awhile. The biggest question on everyone’s mind was: How do we change the culture? One point that every professional and every speaker drove home was the same one: We need to start talking about these things. We need to help people understand what end-of-life care looks like before they get to that point. And in order to do that, we need to meet people where they are, which for many is stuck in a fear of death and dying. I think, for many, ultimately the fear of death is not so much a fear of the end of life as it is a fear of what comes next. And for Christians, what comes next is a face-to-face with God.

At the end of the day, I went home and, in classic introvert fashion, changed into pajamas, brewed a good strong cup of tea, and curled up with a new book. Eleven pages in, I came across this:

“I was afraid to make decisions for my life that would lead to greater happiness because I was afraid I’d get it wrong and end up on the wrong end of God’s wrath…

For those of us who get stuck in fear, we reach a point where indecision is no longer a plausible option if we want to truly live. The months and years of running from fear and abdication our full engagement with faith and life have a way of catching up to us. Eventually the walls close in. The trail ends. The sun dips below the horizon. We reach a point where we either have to close our eyes and spend the rest of our lives pretending we’re not dying or we need to embrace a bold authenticity about who we are and what we believe. We need to embrace life itself.”  [Benjamin Corey, Unafraid]

And it struck me that if we’re really going to meet people where they are when it comes to end-of-life care, we need to start talking about fear. Fear of illness. Fear of weakness. Fear of pain. Fear of dying. Fear of death itself. And especially, fear of what comes next. Because as Christians, we say we believe that God is love. And if we truly believe that, and if we truly believe that God walks with us through any illness, pain, suffering, and even dying, then we can trust that God will help us overcome our fear of talking about death. We can help our families to overcome their fears by talking about our own. And if we find that the fears people have are not just fears of dying but of God’s wrath, of hellfire and brimstone, then we need to start talking about that too. Because all of this fear is keeping people from living well and from dying well.

Imago Dei

imageo dei

In the hours after the Paris attacks, I had an exchange with a certain priest online. I had challenged him, as a man of God, to tell me what God had to say about this evil rather than posting articles about dangerous refugees written by some opinionated member of the media. It was surprising, and rather disconcerting, that a man who can usually rattle off God’s opinion on everything had no certain answers but rather a question.

His question: I have conflicted ideas on what God says about this evil. Is this just plain evil or is this a purification? What do you think?

My answer: I don’t believe God is ever cruel and for events like this to be a purification would be cruel. So that leaves evil, which we know thrives on rage, hatred, fear, and cruelty. How many times has humanity faced horrors brought about by these things and sworn by all that is holy that it will never happen again? But within a generation, two at the most, we forget. We go back to feeding fear, anger, rage and hatred and then sit back, shocked that evil rises again in the world. God weeps not for us, but with us. And like a parent, God will continue to show us the way over and over and over until we learn it. All of humanity is made in the image and likeness of God. And until all of humanity learns this lesson, we will repeat the cycle.

I could go on to write volumes about the outpouring of support and prayers for Paris, or on the rising xenophobia across the Western world, or on the way history has a terrifying way of resembling the future. But instead I ask the question: Do you remember Aylan?

So many of you told me two months ago that you would never forget him. I hope you do remember and I hope you remember this about him: his family was fleeing the very same violent monsters that unleashed hell in Paris on Friday night.

What do you think God says of this evil? What will it take for us to learn the lesson of imago dei? And once we do, how do we teach it to others? 

Unexpected Answers

Unexpected Answers

accidental saints

I read a lot of books. I recommend books to friends I know would enjoy them. But I don’t write about books on this blog. Unless of course, I run across something that so rocks my world that I have to write about it. Last time that happened, it was The Shack. This time it was Accidental Saints: Finding God in All The Wrong People.

Ever read a book that you can’t put down? I’ve read a lot of those. A few years ago, I called out sick because I had quite literally stayed up all night to finish the Girl Who Kicked The Hornet’s Nest and still had 100 pages left when the sun came up. I couldn’t go anywhere until I knew what happened to Lisbeth Salander.

But now let me ask the question another way: Did you ever read a book that wouldn’t let go of you? Because in the last ten days I read one that pulled me in and wouldn’t let go. It wasn’t that long of a book but it took me ten days to read because, crazy as it sounds, I swear to you that book told me when to pick it up and when to put it down.

I mentioned in a previous post that I had read Pastor Nadia Bolz-Weber’s Pastrix during the Week of Guided Prayer over the summer. That book beat me up. It challenged me into a profession of faith that I felt not quite ready to make. Add the scripture readings into the mix and well, I came away from that week feeling very bruised. The image of a rosebush being pruned (or run over by a lawnmower, depending on your perspective) was the image of the week.

So maybe given how that week went, pre-ordering Pastor Nadia’s next book Accidental Saints was probably a little crazy. But it was okay because I wasn’t going to read it right away. I figured I’d save it for the long Thanksgiving weekend. I lasted all of about 2 hours after UPS dropped it off. Then I randomly read all of Chapter 8 in the laundromat and cried my eyes out. (Don’t worry – no spoilers here.)  But even reading a random chapter was enough. It grabbed me and pulled me in. As I read, I found myself facing all those things that had come up during the Week of Guided Prayer: trust, surrender, pruning and deeper healing. I read about “forgiving some jackass who I really want punch in the throat” and how much love and grace can sting. Being loved well stings – that is a perfect description of something that I’ve felt so deeply but could never manage to find the words for and to see it there in black and white in my hands dissolved me entirely.  For the second time in ten days I was sitting in the laundromat with a book in one hand and wiping away a stubbornly steady flood of tears with the other. The regulars there are probably beginning to wonder if I’m coming unhinged.

Deacon Ron always tells me to look for the recurring themes in my writings. Trust and surrender are not my strong points. Patience is a virtue. It isn’t one of mine. Read any three random posts on this blog and you’ll see those things pop up. What you might not find so easily are the themes I don’t write about as much. Being vulnerable.  Letting people love me. More specifically, not letting anyone close enough to love me.  It’s taken a long time to learn to open up again and even longer to accept that I had walled myself off from being hurt because I had been deeply hurt – actually I believe the term most often used by my therapist was brutalized, although try as he did, he could never get me to say that word out loud.

It was hard to type that sentence and if this seems a bit disjointed here it’s because I had to walk away to make a cup of tea and sit in the sunshine for awhile until all the ugly feelings that word brings up – weakness, powerlessness, shame, fear, embarrassment – had dissolved again.

For years there had been a lingering pain that I could never quite explain. I know why I flinch if someone touches me unexpectedly or why I get panicky if I hear someone yelling and angry. But I could never find the way to express how much it hurt, and sometimes still does, to hear, “I love you” or to have someone do something kind for me. And it sounds pretty batshit crazy to tell someone, “I’m so glad you hugged me (said you loved me, repaired my car, drove me to a doctor) today. I needed that. And by the way it feels like you ripped my heart out of my chest in the process.”  No. I kept that level of crazy to myself in hopes that sooner or later it would make sense. I don’t know how I expected that answer to come but I can promise you I never expected it to come all at once in the middle of the spin cycle.

Grace stings because it is so undeserved.

Love stings because we believe ourselves to be so unworthy.

Trusting God is scary as hell because it means first accepting that we are so

Surrender requires working through the other three.

candleAnd this is why grace is like water. It slips under the walls, through the cracks in the mortar, drips in through the ceiling. Not only is it impossible to hang on to, it’s impossible to keep out. Except it’s more like rubbing alcohol than water. It stings but it cleans and once you’ve been soaked in it, you can be set on fire.

Are you ok?

I spent yesterday afternoon with a houseful of good friends celebrating St. Patrick’s day with good food, good whiskey and lots of laughter. I was chided for having not posted recently. I had promised my friend Frank that I would post 2 weeks ago and well… life got in the way. So in answer to the question that I was asked repeatedly yesterday: Yes. I’m okay. Really truly okay.

I’m not really in a church at the moment and yesterday’s party was full of people I’ve gotten to know through my parish over the years. It was a gentle reminder that I can’t stay without a community for too long. Do I miss it? Not yet. Will I? Yes, eventually. Probably sooner rather than later. But right now, I’m where I’m supposed to be. Where is that exactly? I suppose this is my desert, my time and space to be alone with God.

If you’ve been reading my scribbling long enough, you know I have my share of issues with God as well as my issues with Mother Church. Trying to separate the two finally became impossible to juggle. It filtered through my thick skull that trying to figure out where I stand as far church without understanding where I stand with God is quite simply a waste of time.

Life always comes down to the same question. Where am I with God right now? In a very strange new place. I’m not entirely sure that I like it but I haven’t run screaming either so I suppose there’s something to be said for that. I’ve spent so many years locked into a fight-or-flight stance with God that giving it up, is well…. a little terrifying. I’ve made my disquiet about it very well known, probably a hundred times a day. That level of honesty is something new for me.

It’s not like I’ve never let Him know when I’m afraid. Many a night I stayed up all night when the marriage went to hell, when Eugene was sick, when my eyes went haywire and I was afraid that one morning I’d just wake up blind. He’s heard about all of it. Not that I would dare to think He was going to step in to fix it but He was the only one awake and listening at 3 in the morning.

And it’s not like I’ve never let God know when I’m pissed off. I’ve cussed Him a blue streak. In several languages. But instead of hanging around for an answer, I’d usually end up screaming, “Go away and leave me alone!” I was so furious with Him, I kicked the door shut between us and slammed and threw things and broke things. Like a kid who had a really bad day, I threw a full scale temper tantrum.

And when I got tired of running, tired of fighting and tired of yelling, I sat there in the middle of the broken mess that I’d made of my life and realized that He was standing there at the door.
I don’t know what I expected exactly. Anger? Annoyance? Disappointment?Impatience at the very least. Compassion and gentleness weren’t exactly at the top of the list.

So for the last couple years, I may have opened the door but I’ve been pacing in circles. Watching Him. Waiting for even a flicker of trouble. Little by little the conversation became less one-sided. The anger, the impatience, the disappointment that I expected from Him never materialized.

Now, I’ve stopped pacing. I can say what I think. I can say what I feel. I still flinch. But at least I can say it. I could finally say the one thing I never would. “I’m afraid of You.”

There was no argument to the contrary. No attempt at persuasion. His response was simply, “I know.”

So here we are, in this strange new place where blatant honesty is not only acceptable but expected. It’s a little unnerving. But it’s okay. We’re okay.

See I have a thing about doors. I know where they are. Always. I know if they’re closed or not. I know if they’re locked or not. I know how many steps are between me and the door. Most importantly, when anyone is between me and the door, I how much I trust them.

He’s in the room.
We’re talking.
And I’ve quit counting the steps to the door.

Stop Bugging Me!

Dear Reader: Warning, I’m in a bad mood. This is a grudge post. I don’t want to write it. I have to write it. I don’t know why but since God has this ricocheting around endlessly inside me, it’s either write it or go stark raving mad. Yeah, I know, that’s really freaking inspiring isn’t it? Well, I never promised inspiration. I promised honesty.

A lot has happened since my last post. “Come hell or high water, I’m celebrating 40!” And Hell said, “Challenge accepted, Sweetheart. Let’s dance!” 24 hours after I published that post, I got the call that my mom had fallen and broken her arm. That turned into a saga and I’ll spare you all the details. The Cliff’s Notes version is she needed a total reverse shoulder replacement because my dog yanked her off the back porch onto the pavement. Insert two weeks of hospital, doctors, and drama. She had surgery the week before I was scheduled to leave for four days of solitude on Cape Cod. The day she came home from the hospital, Eugene spiked 104 fever. In the end, it all worked out. Eugene’s second attempt at antibiotics worked. My ex took the dog for visitation along with the boys. My sisters took care of my mom. I had some time alone to recharge. I’d never been to the Cape before and when I came over the crest of the hill at Coast Guard Beach and saw the Atlantic for the first time in six years, I finally quit swearing at God. I soaked up as much sunshine and salt water as I possibly could. I came home to celebrate Holy Week, my birthday and an Easter Vigil that was absolutely on fire.

But that was a month ago. Life hasn’t slowed down any. Mom gets better every day but she still needs help with stuff and she doesn’t like to ask so I constantly try to anticipate what she needs. There are physical therapy visits twice a week and follow-up appointments with the doctors. My kids have had stuff going on, as kids always do. I’m exhausted all the time but instead of doing less, I’m doing more. It was only a matter of time and finally, the stress caught up with me. My RA flared up. Right now my body’s message is loud and clear: if it bends, it hurts. My eyes are acting up again. The headaches are back with a vengeance. The feeling of scraping the bottom of the barrel is there every day. I’m getting through my days, but just barely.

That’s when God decided to mess with me. That image of scraping bottom wouldn’t go away. In one of those 1:30 AM sit-bolt-upright-in-bed moments, I remembered the story of the widow with her flour and oil that never ran out. I really didn’t appreciate it since I was awake the rest of the night and if I’m awake, I hurt. But every day for last two weeks, that image keeps coming back me. I knew I’d heard it at Mass at some point but it had been months ago. I even remembered it in the lector’s voice. So this morning I finally threw up my hands. ‘Alright already God! I’ll find it. Just to get you off my case!’ So I Googled it and found the passage.

So Elijah asks the widow for bread. She was at the bottom of the jar of flour and the same with the oil. Why did she do what he asked? Fear? If I feed him, he’ll go away? Compliance? This is what women are supposed to do? Trust? Something about Elijah seemed safe? Some combination of the three? She didn’t starve to death. Neither did Elijah or her son. They never ran out. They got by until the rains came and the famine ended. It was a long time but how long? But was the flour jar ever full? Was it always scraping the last of it to get by, day after day after day? Was she confident that the flour and oil wouldn’t run out or did she go to sleep every night wondering if today’s bread would be the last? Elijah was sure of it but what about her?

Well, that’s all I’ve got. Wonderful. I have more questions than answers. ‘That’s very helpful. Thank you, Lord.’ Yes, I’m living proof that God doesn’t smite people for sarcasm.

Out of Answers


Hey Mom:

“Where’s heaven?”

“Did God make houses?”

“Why do we have to go to church?”

“Why do people argue about the Holy Grail? We know there was a cup. They say at Mass, ‘He took the cup…’, so what happened to it?”

“Who took over as the angel of light, you know, after Lucifer fell?”

“Why did Jesus and the apostles wait until after supper to drink the wine? You know how they say, ‘After supper, he took the cup…’ What did they drink with dinner?”

As my kids have grown, so have their questions. I’ve gotten some questions over the past year that are way, way over my head. They’re asking me the kind of questions that have sent me looking for answers from people with far greater theological knowledge than my own. Okay, so that’s not really saying much. My point being, I’ve never had a problem admitting to the boys when I don’t something. I don’t want them to think I know everything because, quite frankly, I don’t. Sometimes, the most important thing is just knowing where to look for the answers.

Last Tuesday, Andrew was sitting in his Language Arts class at the middle school, having a fairly typical day when the PA clicked on, “LOCKDOWN. LOCKDOWN. LOCKDOWN.”

He spent the next 45 minutes huddled quietly in a corner away from the door to the classroom, waiting. Waiting for what, he didn’t know. All he knew was that this was not a drill. He and two friends worked out a plan using sign language and lip reading to take out anyone who made it through the locked classroom door. All I knew was what sparse information I could find online. A fellow mom had tipped me off. She went to the school to scope out the situation while I scoured the internet. Police were at the school. Four people were arrested with weapons in an incident at the school. No one was hurt.

No one was hurt. That was all I cared. As soon as the lockdown was lifted, Andrew was able to text me. We compared what limited information we had so far. Four men with handguns and rifles were found in the woods next to the school and were arrested on the spot. It turned out they were carrying high-powered pellet rifles and pellet guns. A fair number of parents rushed to the school to pick up their kids as soon as the story broke. I offered to do the same but Andrew wanted to stay and finish out the day. I had to tell Eugene what had happened when I picked him up from the elementary school. He already knew something had happened and I’d rather he get his information from me than the news or his friends.

Enter the new round of questions.

“What were they thinking when they built that cafeteria? Two walls of floor-to-ceiling windows? Are they trying to get us all killed?”

“If someone’s breaking in the school or is already in the school, it’s already too late to call lockdown. They’re just telling the bad guy exactly where to find us. Everybody knows we’ll be hiding in the corners. What good is it going to do?”

It didn’t help that one of the men arrested outside the middle school rather blithely told the police, “If I was going to hurt kids, I would’ve done it already.”

I tried to answer my kids’ questions. The best answers I could give were that the windows were supposed to let in sunshine, light and fresh air. The locked classroom doors were to stall for time, so the cops could show up to stop the bad guy. Both were met with incredulity.

“Great. Sunshine, light and nowhere to hide.”

“Sure Mom, like the bad guy’s just gonna look at the locked door and be like, ‘Oh darn, it’s locked. I guess I’ll have to go back to my truck for the tools to take the doorknob off.'”

I don’t have better answers. I don’t even know where to look to find them this time. This isn’t the way I grew up. Classrooms were for learning, not hiding. Windows were for daydreaming, not avoiding. I’m trying so hard to teach my sons to look for the beauty and goodness in the world but society is telling them to be afraid. Be very, very afraid. Schools are beefing up security. More lockdown drills. More cops around the schools. More guns. Protect yourself. Defend yourself. HIDE!

Lord, give me something to work with here, because I got nothing. Not a damn thing. Zip. Zilch. Nada.

Not totally true. Nightmares. I have nightmares. A little help here….