Tag Archives: grief

Where Is the Light?

Here in the Northern Hemisphere we’re winding down to Sunday, the winter solstice, the shortest day of the year. Here in the DC area, the sun will rise that day at 7:23 a.m. and set at 4:50 p.m., giving us just 9 1/2 hours of light.

I know a good number of people who are having a tough time this year. There are family dramas and medical setbacks and stresses at work, not to mention the chronic struggles and annoyances that will always be with us. Those don’t take a break simply because Andy Williams calls it the most wonderful time of the year.

There’s the torture report, and the painfully raw conversations around #BlackLivesMatter. There’s a bungled Rolling Stone story that threatens to distract us from the disgraceful stats about sexual assault on college campuses.

There’s the two year anniversary of Newtown, which came and went with so little notice, and certainly no new laws regarding gun regulation, nor much of anything else, for that matter. (Where are all those people who claimed the guns weren’t to blame but rather the state of mental health services in this country? Have they been out there crusading without my knowledge for increased support for people with mental illnesses? Or is the death of 26 people and a school shooting every week the price we are willing to pay for “freedom”?)

Where is the light? This week, it is seeping away, a few minutes at a time on the margins of the day.

Many churches, Tiny Church included, have special gatherings for people who aren’t feeling the holly-jolliness. We have ours on a Sunday evening in December, and we’ve always called it “Blue Christmas.” This year, the solstice is on a Sunday, so we’ll be able to call it what it is: A Service of the Longest Night. It’s one of my favorite services of the year.

I must admit, though, as the darkness grows:

The light is absolutely beautiful this time of year.

Yes, there’s less of it than in the summer, with all its full blazes and its squat, sharp noon shadows. But what’s here right now is dynamic and textured. It’s brilliant and full and filtered through bare branches rather than blocked by leafy trees. Then it’s smudgy and silver when the clouds roll in.

And then it’s full of color. The sunrises and sunsets can be stunning. It feels strange liturgically to be preparing for a Service of the Longest Night when we are gifted with this:

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Many Decembers ago, I was awake before dawn with a teething Margaret. I was wishing I were back in my warm bed in my dark room instead of trying to entertain a cranky toddler when something caught my eye outside the east-facing window. At first I didn’t understand what I was seeing. There in the otherwise dark sky was a vertical streak of light, jagged like a bolt of lightning, but it hung there for the longest time, frozen like a still photo.

Finally something in the scene shifted enough so I could realize: there was a massive cloud taking up half the sky. The cloud was invisible in the pre-dawn sky, until the sun rose behind it. What I was seeing was the side of the cloud, tinged with light.

The winter light is surely less abundant. But it’s startling and strange and exquisitely beautiful. We dare not blink or we will miss it. And we need it; we crave it.

It feels sometimes like our world is in a season of diminishing light. It’s felt that way for too long a while. Part of the invitation is to see gifts in the darkness, as Barbara Brown Taylor argues in her book. But we also have to keep alert and awake to see the fleeting brilliance when it comes.

 

Choose your own confounding streaks of light. Here are some of mine: a lone senator still banging away at gun reform after Sandy Hook. The Richmond chief of police who marches with protestors affirming that #BlackLivesMatter. The wave of people in Australia offering to ride public transportation with frightened Muslims as the hostage situation inflames anti-Islamic sentiment. And—it must be said—the police officers who put their bodies on the line to end that terrible standoff not long ago.

And if people let you down, consider the creation—this world we are privileged to inhabit and make a tiny bit better.

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Where is the light?

Where is the light? Here is an answer I like, courtesy of Peter Mayer (who wrote the song) and LEA (who performs it).

 

Thanks to my friend David Ensign for giving me permission to use his photos.

“Grief” — for Ash Wednesday

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A couple of Sundays ago, in those restless moments before the alarm goes off but you know it’s about to, Robert and I heard a large thud and the power went out. It came on 30 minutes later.

We assumed that a transformer blew, but later we saw one of the entrances to our subdivision was blocked off. Beyond the barricade was a police cruiser, repair truck, and a car. Or half a car. The front was completely smashed.

We later learned more about the accident. Or at least, the two pertinent facts. There was alcohol involved, and a person died.

Someone was driving drunk at 6:00 in the morning.

A person died at the entrance to our subdivision.

The next day, when the street had opened, I was taking the girls to choir when I saw the crowd of people at the crash site, with flowers and stuffed animals and notes. And, I saw tonight after dark, electric candles.

I’ve long been fascinated with roadside memorials. And this new one, so close to where my kids walk to school and where I begin almost every one of my runs, reminded me of the following poem, which I wrote about a different roadside memorial many, many years ago.

It seems appropriate to share it before Ash Wednesday.

Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return.

To dust all things return.

“Grief”

I.
you are remarkably sober
as you assemble what you need,
a strange array of supplies:
glue, feathers, cardboard, flowers, wire;
and you fashion a set of wings
(yes wings),
and a funeral bouquet,
and a sign that says Rest in Peace
in black marker
in your best script,
and you take it to the tree
with the bark ripped off,
right there,
at the ruthless bend in the road.

you hang the wings
well above the tree’s white wound,
and nestle the bouquet
between two roots,
and as you affix the sign
a car speeds by,
slicing the air as it goes.
another car passes, and another,
and at first
the gusts knock you off balance,
but you learn to adjust,
to brace yourself,
to stand firm and lean in.

but still,
how dare these people
glide past,
floating on the waves of radio songs,
laughing into their phones?

II.
you think about the place often,
but you don’t return for some time.
you can’t, because
the busyness of your mourning has tipped over
into the business of your
getting back to
getting on with
moving forward with
living
life.
plus, well,
it’s embarrassing, all your grief on
crude display.
so you leave the site untended;
it’s just easier.

but
sooner or later you must return,
straighten the feathered wings,
remove the sign that bled black letters,
and clear out the wilted blooms,
or maybe just crush them into brown confetti
that trembles into the road.

fresh flowers were the right decision at first
(vibrant, real, momentary, like she was)
but now it’s time for practical silk, and you cry,
not because she deserves better than fakes, though she does,
but because silk lasts awhile, and you know now,
this is going to take much longer than you thought.
so you secure those wings even tighter,
and you plant those silk flowers
secure, for the long unchanging time.

III.
now’s the season
when nothing much happens.
you glide by the place, just like the others;
though you slow and breathe, you don’t stop.

as time goes on, you notice:
the bright, fake flowers grimace on, stupidly,
as if put there only yesterday,
but
the cardboard wings have aged:
the feathers are dulled,
the edges are worn,
the fringes are ragged;
despite all your hard work,
they are becoming more and more
an organic part of things.

it is the paradox of grief,
always fading,
always and ever new.

~

photo credit: MTSOfan via photopin cc

Remembering, A Year Later

medium_8282858452I wrote this a year ago. It was a few days after Newtown and amid people having fun with that supposed Maya prophecy about the end of the world. It’s been on my mind as we remember what happened on that terrible December 14.

As humorist Andy Borowitz ruefully put it recently: “We are approaching the one-year anniversary of doing nothing in response to Newtown.”

~

For the last few days it has felt a bit like the world is falling apart. It’s times like this, thinking about the people of Newtown, that I remember the line from “Good Christian Friends, Rejoice”:

Christ was born for this! Christ was born for this!

Only I walk around muttering it to myself in disbelief:

Christ was born for this?
For this?!??
Seriously, God:
THIS world?

*   *   *

It’s weird, what finally drives it home: I have a first grader in the house. For some reason, I didn’t make the connection right away. Maybe it didn’t happen until I was ready for it. Sunday night, at our church’s Blue Christmas service, I read the names of those who were killed at Sandy Hook. And their ages.

Six.
Six.
Six.

Then Monday I put together some notecards that Margaret designed, and typed on the back: “Artwork by Margaret Dana, age 6.”

Oh.

Today, I had a sheet of wallet-sized photos of her, the school picture, and I’m cutting out individual smiling shots. Margaret after Margaret after Margaret, perfect and dimpled and alive.

And I think of the sheets of pictures of children who are no more.

It is unbearable.

*   *   *

Things have been ridiculously hectic lately. Pastoring and purchasing and shipping and baking and preaching and mothering. Sabbath moments have been hard to come by. And then I remember what I said again and again in the book:

Today is their childhood.

What does that mean? There are still dishes to be done. But the focus is different, the pace is slowed, the ears are open. Marjorie Williams writes about the experience of being a mother with a life-threatening illness:

Having found myself faced with that old bull-session question (What would you do if you found out you had a year to live?), I learned that a woman with children has the privilege or duty of bypassing the existential. What you do, if you have little kids, is lead as normal a life as possible, only with more pancakes.

That is our spiritual work, post-Newtown. Yes, we work for peace. We advocate for policies that curb our culture’s violent ways. We speak up for the vulnerable and care for the disturbed and the isolated.

But we also cup one another’s faces in our hands, sticky with maple syrup.

My last obligations went out by FedEx just a while ago. There is a small handful of loose ends left. I will tie those up, or not. But the rest of this week and next is for my loved ones and for me. Join me, in embracing and savoring those things that really matter. If this be the end of the world, let us toast to life and richness and delight.

~

photo credit: much0 via photopin cc

Don’t Just Accept… Over-accept

When life hands you lemons, make lemonade. Turns out there’s a deep theological principle at work there.

I’m reading Improvisation: The Drama of Christian Ethics by Samuel Wells in preparation for my presentations next week. Wells, the former dean of Duke University Chapel, uses the rules of improv as a lens for viewing God’s work in the world and our response to it. There’s a good summary here.

Wells calls the things that happen to us “gifts.” Of course, not every gift we’re offered is a happy thing. I think he means to use the word literally and neutrally: a gift is a thing that is given. But he’s also nudging us to try to see the potential in the gift—that there may be something positive that can be imagined from this unwelcome (and even downright crappy) circumstance.

Wells offers us three options when we are given gifts, and these come out of improv, and it turns out, the scripture story itself.

You can block the gift. You can simply refuse to receive what’s being offered. You could argue that the people of Israel do this in the wilderness when they construct the golden calf as an object of worship, rather than relying on the God who brought them out of Egypt in the first place. Blocking, it turns out, doesn’t work so well.

You can accept the gift. You can receive it, picking it up but doing very little with it. Think of Jonah after the big fish. He finally accepted the call to preach to Nineveh, but he didn’t exactly put his shoulder into it, did he? One sentence of prophecy and then he pouts when the wicked city repents of its sins.

Or you can over-accept. This is how Wells describes the experience of accepting a gift and then building on it. I don’t like the word, because it doesn’t connote its meaning well, but in any case, it’s a fancy way of saying “yes-and,” which is the basis of improv. There’s lots of yes-and in scripture, including the pivotal event for Christians, Jesus’ life, death and resurrection. Jesus’ message and his movement led to his execution by the powers and principalities. He did not block this outcome, nor did he merely accept it. Instead he over-accepted, proclaiming forgiveness and grace from the very cross that was meant to humiliate and defeat him. And of course, the resurrection story is the ultimate yes-and.

Our little church is witnessing a yes-and right now. An over-acceptance so beautiful, it hurts your eyes to look at.

I’ve written before about the family who lost not one, but two sons to the same terrible childhood illness. It is an awful, wrenching thing. I cannot call those losses “gifts” except in the most absolutely literal sense: a thing that is offered. Some “gifts” should be fought against. Some should be blocked, if they can be blocked. In fact, the family and the boys fought this illness fiercely and valiantly. But Eric died, and three years later, Jacob died as well.

To accept the circumstances is all anyone could ever ask or expect. To come to terms with the loss and to keep living. But the family is determined not to accept, but to over-accept. To yes-and.

Within the next several days, two little ones from the Ukraine will arrive in Newark, along with a couple dozen other children from that country. The brother and sister will travel on to Dulles Airport, where the family will meet them and host them for a few weeks. When the way be clear, hopefully within the year, they will become a forever family.

Leslie is a wonderful, honest, thoughtful writer, and has started a blog about this process. (If you want to read their story thus far, there are links to the CaringBridge sites. Yes, that’s plural.)

The title of the blog, Invincible Summer, comes from Albert Camus:

In the middle of winter I at last discovered that there was in me an invincible summer.

Yes there is. There is.

~

Image: KL Bailey

When Bad Theology Happens to Good People

The news from Moore Oklahoma is almost unfathomable.

I lived in Tornado Alley during my teenage years, but they were quiet years for tornadoes. Honestly, I never took them seriously. Teenagers are invincible, after all. Whenever the subject came up we’d make jokes about trailer parks. It was classist privilege—I know that now, wrapped in a candy coating of “it couldn’t happen to me.”

It could. It certainly could.

I don’t know if crazy stuff is happening more frequently or if it just seems like it because I’ve been on this earth long enough for stuff to accumulate. Not to mention the effect of cable news and Twitter. But it’s tiring. It’s not even happening to me and it’s tiring. I’m tired of telling my kids to find the helpers. I’ve included the Presbyterian Disaster Assistance donation info so many times in emails to Tiny Church that I might as well incorporate it into the template on MailChimp.

But this post isn’t about parenting or logistics. It’s about bad theology that creeps in, even among those who studiously try to avoid it. My cousin lives in Moore, OK. For a little while folks didn’t know if he was OK. He is. In his message he said that they’d recently moved to a new house. The new house is fine, but the old house is destroyed. Whoa.

And there it was, like a flash: Man. Someone’s livin’ right, I said to myself.

No.

No no no.

This is a good call for greater compassion on my part toward people who blurt out bromides in the wake of disaster, illness or suffering: God needed another angel in heaven. Everything happens for a reason. We’re being punished for our sin. (Really. It’s only a matter of time.) 

Linda Holmes, writing in a completely different context today, talked about the difference between a reaction, and a thought, and a conclusion. A reaction is just that—an initial response, easily tweeted but not much of substance, unless we examine it, test it, develop it into a thought, and maybe in time, a conclusion. If our reaction doesn’t survive that scrutiny, we should let it go.

The trouble with a lot of our public discourse, whether we’re talking about Sunday night’s episode of Mad Men (I gather something bizarro went down?) or dozens of people perishing in an F5 tornado, is that we don’t get past the reaction stage. “Someone’s living right” is a reaction. It’s an understandable one—even though I don’t see this cousin much, I don’t want to see him suffer—but it’s ultimately false. It’s a product of the lizard brain.

So what do we do with our reptilian reactions? We hold them under the microscope. No, maybe they are the microscope, or the telescope, and we peer through to see if they bring other parts of our lives into sharper view. If they do, maybe they are worth keeping.

And if we’re religious, we also press them like flowers between the pages of our sacred texts, and see what happens. Sometimes they crumble from the pressure. And sometimes they hang together.

But “someone’s livin’ right” doesn’t hold together. Neither does “it’s because of gay marriage.” (Because seriously. In Oklahoma?)

The trouble is, when it comes to suffering, the more we work with our reactions and our thoughts, the less conclusive we become. Christian Wiman’s latest book, written about his struggles with faith in the midst of cancer, is an elegantly devastating case in point. He writes in My Bright Abyss:

If God is a salve applied to unbearable psychic wounds, or a dream figure conjured out of memory and mortal terror, or an escape from a life that has become either too appalling or too banal to bear, then I have to admit: it is not working for me.

I laughed out loud when I read that. Yes: Who is this God who makes it all better? Who punishes the wicked and rewards the good with uncanny precision? Tell me, New Atheists, about the God you don’t believe in. I don’t believe in that God either.

And yet, like Wiman, I continue to wrestle in faith, even though conclusions are increasingly hard to come by. I continue because there is heart-wrenching beauty happening in Oklahoma tonight—it’s in the caring efficiency of hospitals and shelters; it’s in the scrabbling through the rubble; it’s in embraces between neighbors. That beauty is not the work of God. That beauty is God. That’s all I can say for certain… and even that’s not very certain at all.