Scary Conversations

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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.

Walls: Inside and Out

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There are popovers in the oven right now. Because somehow the smell of rolls baking is comforting and, to be honest, a hot popover drowned in butter and a hot cup of tea are probably as close as I’ll get to communion today. Yesterday was a tough day. Last night was a long series of disjointed dreams and I woke up just as exhausted as I was when I went to bed. My prayer on opening my eyes this morning was, “You know what God, I am not in the mood the deal with you today.”

Despite that, I drove to the beach as I do every morning to spend an hour or more with God, although it was more out of habit than desire this morning. The remnants of Harvey had waves crashing over the seawall and the air was full of salt spray and misty rain. My boots happened to be in the car and a walk in the storm seemed more fitting than the idea of going to church because being surrounded by love and joy and music and people was way more than I could handle.

It has been something of a theme of 2017 that life is too short, too precious, and too fragile to be wasted on fakery of any sort. We always think we have time and the fact is, we never have as much as we think. Part of my foul mood this morning was that I resented feeling like I needed to get up, be presentable enough and pleasant enough to show up in church to be around people who don’t even really know me. That they don’t know me because I intentionally haven’t put down roots anywhere is a post for another day, but suffice it to say, I wasn’t up to the shallow pleasantries this morning and God knew that.

God knows this black mood of mine quite well. It happens that sometimes that life gets to be more than I can handle and I pretend like I’m completely fine when I’m really not. And that goes really well until I suddenly find myself feeling about as social and lovable as a pissed off hedgehog with a bad attitude. But every time I sink into this toxic sludge of a space, God meets me there. Today was no different. I walked until I ran out of beach, which given the tides and the storm waves, wasn’t much of a walk. But standing with my face in the wind and the waves crashing at my feet, I felt the power and grace of the Creator who is so much bigger than the storm that was raging inside. That was enough to drive the darkness back to tolerable levels of gray.

So as it turns out, it’s not that I don’t feel up to dealing with God today. I didn’t feel up to dealing with church this morning. And that distinction is one I need to get better at making. God was the only one who was going to understand the tangled mess of emotions I was feeling today because even I don’t know what I’m feeling. God knew that too. Maybe what I needed today was outside the church walls because what I needed, more than anything else, was to meet God inside my own walls, in the spaces where no one else is allowed.

Love Is…

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Love is a cup of tea of the front porch.

Love is the hug you didn’t know you needed.

Love is the prayer you didn’t have to ask for.

Love is the laughter at an inside joke.

Love is the text message and the phone call that says, “Are you okay?” and Love stays on the line until you are.

Love is showing up.

It is the steadfastness of an old friend.

Love does not leave you in your darkness. Nor does it abandon you to your imagination.

When you would choose to withdraw from all around you, Love is the breeze that caresses your face and keeps you present.

When you would choose to be alone, it is the bird perched on the windowsill who keeps you company anyway.

Love is understanding. It is compassionate. It is empowering.

Love is healing.

Above all else, God is Love.

Big Ideas

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When I was a kid, my father once told me that I was too damn smart for my own damn good. It wasn’t a bad thing or a good thing really, more of a general observation. It was an observation I didn’t fully understand until my younger son Eugene was about three and gave me a detailed explanation of why God must be blue. God is in heaven. Heaven is in the sky. The sky is blue. We can’t see God, so God must be the same color as the sky. Ergo, God is blue.

I lectured the same child for acting up during Easter Mass when he was five. As I buckled him into his car seat, I gave him the standard lecture about how he was going to sit in his seat and think about what he’d done. He said nothing the whole time I was buckling him in but after I climbed into the driver’s seat, this very self-assured little voice piped up, “You can’t control my mind. Only I control my mind. I can sit back here and think about anything I want.”

At seven, he left me talking to a friend after Mass while he cornered one of the priests to debate of the existence and potential whereabouts of the Holy Grail for the next thirty minutes, much to the delight of a circle of adults who had gathered around to listen. I’ll never forget the seriousness of his little face as he challenged a Jesuit to “Define mythological.”

Over the years Eugene has been insulted that Jesus changed Simon’s name to Peter without asking him first. Maybe Simon was named after his grandfather and he really liked his name.  And then Eugene wanted to know what the apostles drank with dinner at the Last Supper because during Mass, the priest very clearly says “AFTER dinner he took the cup…” so what about during dinner? He insisted on having  “all of creation” on his First Communion stole because Noah’s ark was his favorite bible story. When I explained that a Jesus story would be more appropriate and that Jesus wasn’t on the ark, he stared me down and replied, “No, but God was and you can’t have one with the other two.” I gave up. I wasn’t debating Trinitarian doctrine with an eight year-old.

Too damn smart for your own damn good. Oh yeah, I get it now Dad. Boy, do I get it. I have no doubts that my father is on the other side watching this all unfold with a great deal of amusement.

Eugene is now fifteen and he’s as likely to challenge what I’m learning in my theology classes as my professors are. This past week, I was supposed to be reading parts of St. Augustine’s Confessions for homework. But at the same time, I was also reading Henri Nouwen’s Discernment just because it crossed my path and a page or two was enough to pull me in entirely.  Anyone who has ever been in my car can tell you getting into the passenger seat usually means waiting for me to move a notebook, a journal and a book or  maybe three. So my son wasn’t surprised to have to move Discernment out his way when we went out to run errands earlier this week, which resulted in the following conversation:

Eugene: It’s a God book isn’t it? No wait – don’t tell me – it’s a ‘find-yourself-but-in-a-spiritual-way” kind of book.

Me: Yeah kind of. Like who you are in relationship to God and understanding what God wants in your life.

Eugene: Soooo yeah it’s a ‘find-yourself-in-a-spiritual-way’ book. Why are all religion books like that?! I mean why can’t they just be – you know – straightforward. Like the Bible. That’s not a “find yourself” book. That’s more like a history book – but with … with… spice!

Me: Spice???

Eugene: He’s raising people from the dead! I’d call that some spice! And not that stupid Starbucks pumpkin spice stuff either.

This comes on the heels of a conversation earlier in the week on the Greek mythological themes in the new Wonder Woman movie. He told me he couldn’t understand the recent fascination with humans vs. gods movies when the humans always won. “Who wants to worship a god they can beat?”

Nouwen talks about hearing God in the people around us and cultivating spiritual friendships. I have been blessed all my life to have people around me who were comfortable with big questions about life, about truth, and about faith. Usually those people have been friends who are older and wiser than myself. But then, just to mess with me, God also dropped into my life this little bombshell of an old soul in a young body. Sometimes this kid, who is not so little anymore, with his big questions and his own very distinct ideas on God and the world, has more to teach me than anyone else. If nothing else, I have learned that there are times as a parent when my job is to simply shut up and let my son talk through his big ideas and questions and leave it to him and God to figure out the answers.

Separation Anxiety

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After a semester that involved a lot of theological and philosophical reading, I finally had three weeks to read anything I wanted before diving into my summer classes: Catholic Intellectual Tradition I & II . So naturally a novel about a suicidal theologian who spends three days on Patmos with the Apostle John would be high on my list of fun reads. Because, of course, my idea of a light and fluffy summer book involves a sarcastic Saint John picking apart every theologian from Polycarp, Irenaeus, Origen, and Tertullian to Luther, Calvin, Barth, and MacDonald. I realized the absolute hopeless depths of my church nerdiness when I started giggling out loud about Augustine being described as leading the West to exhaustion. It all came down to the same question: union or separation? Well now, that’s a fine way to distill the last three years of my studies.

But one line especially knocked me for a loop.

“The gospel is not the news that we can receive Jesus into our lives. The gospel is the news that Jesus has received us into his.”  

– Patmos, C. Baxter Kruger

Have you accepted Jesus as your personal savior? That question has always irked me for reasons I couldn’t quite name. It became a foundation for my Salvation Cupcake Theory. There have always been things that never rang true for me, things I could not learn or absorb (not for lack of trying). As I read this book, all of of the sudden it clicked that every single one of those things I could not take in taught some idea of separation from God. Every one implicitly or explicitly taught that some how, some way I had to find, make, discover, earn, repair, or rebuild a way back to God. But here’s the thing – there is no way back. There is no need for a way back. God never left. Deep breath. Say that again. God. Never. Left. And I don’t have the power to leave God. Somewhere along the line, I simply closed my eyes to what was right in front of me. He was already there! And I couldn’t see it because I closed my eyes to it like a three-year old with my eyes shut tight – if I can’t see you, you can’t see me. I’m not here and neither are you.

I close my eyes when I’m scared, when I’m hurt, when I’m tired, when I’m overwhelmed, when I want to be left alone or when I don’t want anyone to see me cry. I close my eyes when I start to panic and the whole world has suddenly become too loud and too close. I close my eyes when something triggers a flashback. I close my eyes to stop and think when I know I’m about to say something I may regret. I close my eyes to protect myself and somewhere along the way, I felt a need to protect myself from a made-up version of a distant, angry-parent God that never existed and to hide a made-up version of myself that was, at best, a horrible caricature of who I really am. That has been a lot to let go of and little by little, I have been and still am letting go of it. For the last three years, as the worst of that mess has settled, I’ve found myself having the same conversation with Jesus over and over. He asks me to look with his eyes and see what he sees. And my best answer is, “Show me.” But to do that I have to open my eyes. Some days I start to wonder if I really want to see want to see what he sees. But then some days, one line on one page of a book I picked up for just for fun makes a third of my life suddenly make sense and I’m blown away by the sheer simplicity of it.

 

Book Recommendation: Patmos by C. Baxter Kruger

A Soul Rekindled

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In the same way, the Spirit helps us in our weakness. We do not know what we ought to pray for, but the Spirit intercedes for us through wordless groans. And God who searches our hearts knows the mind of the Spirit, because the Spirit intercedes for God’s people in accordance with the will of God.   (Romans 8:26-27)

In what often feels like another life, I used to take my boys camping. Now it should be noted that my very loose definition of camping involved a 35- by 8-foot trailer with a screened-in porch, electricity, running water and WiFi. But it was the woods – okay so it is was in a campground with dirt roads, lots of trees and real woods around the borders – but there were chipmunks, bugs, and frogs aplenty. And dirt – there was lots of dirt – everywhere. In those days, I got very good at building fires and making s’mores and I taught my two little boys how to use the hose to make a giant mud puddle for their trucks. That trailer was a safe haven for me at a time when home was not a safe place to be. I had a freedom there to just be me. Many nights, I would tuck my boys into the queen-sized bunk and set them up with bedtime snacks and Scooby-Doo cartoons on my laptop. I would go sit outside and watch the fire burn down to embers. In those days, most of the time it felt like God and I were on very shaky ground. But at night, sitting in the quiet darkness, watching the fire dance in the embers, it was different. Gradually, I would realize that there was a gentle and familiar presence there that didn’t require fancy words or proper rubrics. Had you sat down beside me then and asked me if I was praying, I would have said no. I was at a point where I was all out of prayers and I wasn’t so sure God had been listening to them anyway. But I would sit and watch the fire play in the embers and feel the presence that was all around me, never realizing that just sitting by the fire was a prayer in its own right.

To say that life has changed drastically since then would be something of an understatement. Those little boys are almost grown now. Mud puddles and toy cars have been replaced by a driver’s ed classes and an old Bonneville parked in my driveway, waiting to be driven. Scooby-Doo has given way to Lord of the Rings and The Fast and the Furious. The trailer is long gone and it’s been over a decade since the last time I got down on my knees and built a fire, coaxing flames to burn ever higher. And what about God and I? I know the ground I’m standing on is solid and I know God is standing right there with me and that’s a very good place to be – most of the time. I still have my moments when things feel a little wobbly and I suppose I always will.  I’ve come to accept that it’s all part of this whole learning how to trust thing.

When I went to Gettysburg, I had some time alone in a quiet prayer space and when I first entered that space, I walked right into the gentle and familiar presence that I had known so well around the campfire. Except this time, instead of gradually becoming aware of God all around me, God was already there, fully present and waiting for me. It was so startling, I instinctively turned on my heel and walked right back out of the room and sat down in a chair in the hall. The brief inner monologue went something like this: That’s God in there! Well, duh, what did you expect?!  It took a minute or two before shock gave way to wonder and I was drawn into that space where God was waiting for me to come and sit and just be for awhile. I was invited to come in and sit down and know the presence that surrounded me. I didn’t need words, which was a good thing because words completely failed me.

A little later that day, about three hours into the drive home, I suddenly realized that for the first time since I was child, I was seriously making long-term plans for my life. I had spent so many years in survival mode that I had forgotten what it was to have dreams and plans for a future. I was so stunned by that realization that I started to cry and I ended up having to stop for awhile until the tears stopped. I found myself sitting in a noisy crowded McDonald’s, looking out at the blue sky stretched over the mountains of Pennsylvania and being aware of the presence of God, even there amidst the mundane and noisy chaos of a fast food joint on the side of the highway.

That was how I spent Palm Sunday. Holy Week and Easter have now come and gone. My younger boy was confirmed last Friday night. My classes have ended for the semester. Finals week is upon me. My older boy’s graduation is coming up quickly. Summer classes will be starting soon. Life, in all of its glorious and messy chaos, goes on. And yet, in all of this, that gentle and familiar presence is still there, in the space between breaths, if I but stop to notice. I came home from Gettysburg very much changed and yet very much the same. I am far more aware not only of God’s presence but also that I am completely at home with who I am in God’s presence.

Friday evening, after coming home from a visit with Deacon Ron, I went out for a burger with my older son. On the ride home, we opened the car windows, enjoying the first warm spring evening we’ve had thus far. Someone in the area had a backyard fire pit going. The smell of a campfire brought all those memories of my nights at the trailer roaring back. And it occurred to me that all those times I had spent silently watching the embers, I had been seeing a reflection of my soul. The fire had been burning deep inside all along, waiting for the breath that would rekindle the embers to flame at precisely the right moment. It would happen in God’s time and not mine, and it would happen regardless of my ability, or lack thereof, to express it in words.

Again Jesus said, “Peace be with you! As the Father has sent me, I am sending you.” And with that he breathed on them and said, “Receive the Holy Spirit.                                                                                                                                 (John 20:21-22)

Unicorn Convention

gettysburgAt the beginning of Lent, I found myself reading through my past Lenten journeys and trying to get some sense of where this year was headed. Nothing really solidified for me and I sat down the day after Ash Wednesday and wrote Jesus a letter. While most of that is between me and him, I can tell you I wrote this: Show me a way to get closer. I’m not good at trusting but I’m learning. Help me get closer. Teach me a new way to trust. Then I closed the notebook and purposely left it alone until Palm Sunday.

They say never pray for patience or you will be given opportunities to be patient. Well, trust me on this one, asking for a new way to trust works pretty much the same way. I discovered that on Thursday as I drove from my home in Connecticut to the Lutheran Theological Seminary at Gettysburg in Pennsylvania. What should have been a five-hour drive turned into more than eight hours of driving in the rain with limited visibility through the Pennsylvania mountains while being surrounded by more trucks than I have ever seen on any road trip ever. To add to the fun, I couldn’t take the route I had planned to take because the bridge I needed to cross has been closed indefinitely. I’m sure there’s a metaphor for my life in there somewhere but that’s another post entirely. I prayed all the way for the rain to stop. And it did. Right when I crossed the town line into Gettysburg. God has such a sense of humor.

I was there to spend the weekend talking about church and God and life. It is something of a running joke on the Sacred Heart campus that being a religion major is quite a bit like being a unicorn – a rare mythical creature that most people have heard about but no one has ever actually seen one. I spent this past weekend in the company of unicorns. It was such an amazing experience to be surrounded by people with similar passions and questions. As one person put it, “For every question I find an answer to, thirty more questions come up.” And every head in the room was nodding in understanding and agreement. Conversations over breakfast started with things like, “So who’s your favorite theologian?” or “Have you ever read…” There were more formal discussions and small group gatherings. There was time to gather in prayer with my fellow unicorns.

While I kept my usual journal the entire weekend, on Sunday morning I opened the notebook I bring with me on retreats and reread that letter I’d written at the start of Lent and laughed. Okay, really Lord, there had to be a better way to teach me to trust than eight hours of hellacious driving conditions. But then, before us unicorns gathered for the last time, I spent some time alone in the quiet prayer space. I realized that for the first time I can remember I was openly standing still with God. I wasn’t running away from God. I wasn’t chasing after God. I was standing still in God’s presence and had been the entire weekend. And as if that wasn’t huge enough, I wasn’t hiding anything. And as if all of that wasn’t shocking enough, I realized I had done the same thing the entire weekend with people I didn’t even know. Me, the quiet introvert, who loves the back left corner of any classroom, was openly engaged in deeply personal conversations with more than forty people I had never laid eyes on before in a place I had never been to. And I had never felt more at home – physically in that space, emotionally in my own skin, and spiritually at home with God. And none of those things freaked me out. All the way home, on a lovely sunny, almost truck-free Sunday, the realizations kept coming. For every one thing I came to understand led to thirty more.

So there’s a lesson here. Be careful what you pray for. Because God answers prayers and God has a sense of humor.