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stone cross on ball with spiderwebs

We are Three

stone cross on ball with spiderwebs

The question of “how many siblings do you have” became complicated in French class: how do you say, “I have one living sibling” en français?

“But they are dead; those two are dead!
Their spirits are in heaven!”
’Twas throwing words away; for still
The little Maid would have her will,
And said, “Nay, we are seven!”

-from “We Are Seven” by William Wordsworth

 

This year, 2019, National Siblings Day occurred the week before Holy Week. National Siblings Day is, many suspect, a holiday completely made up by social media companies in order for people to get on whatever profile they use and post more photos of users who happen to be related. It’s like the 21st century equivalent of a “Hallmark Holiday” – made for the purpose of a company proliferating itself; some people find it meaningful or fun, others let it pass by unnoticed.

To be honest, I don’t take much notice of it. I see other people posting about it throughout the day, and I realize what’s being celebrated.

I live 1500 miles from my immediate family, in my first church call, which I share with my spouse. In this digital age, I have not been at my parents’ house long enough in the last few years to scan the thousands of pictures of me and my brother and sister when we were young: big glasses whose glare hides eyes from the camera, graphic T-shirts that are entirely too big, hair that is untidily coifed in strange hairdos from a bygone era.

For many the connection between Siblings Day and Holy Week are coincidental.
For me, they are building toward a painful, hopeful climax.
You see, we buried my brother on Good Friday.

As a theologically-minded person from a young age, I marked my springtime by Holy Week and Easter usually involving a huge church play each Holy Weekend. At college, there were different traditions, and I was looking forward to entering them.

When I was 20 years old, the Monday of Holy Week my brother was killed in a car accident. I wonder if Jesus felt like I did, going toward Good Friday: that it was simultaneously the longest and shortest week of my life. Everything was askew, my feelings dulled and heightened. I missed both Holy Week rituals: the Easter play at my childhood church, AND the Tenebrae that was taking place at my college. The question of “how many siblings do you have” became complicated in French class: how do you say, “I have one living sibling” en français? Read more

cemetery on a hill at sunrise

Talking to Young Children about Death

cemetery on a hill at sunrise

Dying and the afterlife are difficult concepts for many adults to grasp. If we struggle with articulating it for ourselves, how could kids possibly understand?

Recently a fellow young clergywoman shared a story* in which she was talking to her five-year-old daughter about death. Mom was preparing her daughter to visit the funeral home where the child’s great-grandmother was lying in wake. She was explaining what it means to have a body in a casket but reassured her daughter, “It’s only her body in there.”

Her daughter listened and, trying to understand, said, “Okay. So…not her head?”

As a pastor and a mom of a young child, I am frequently asked how to talk to children, especially young children, about death. Dying and the afterlife are difficult concepts for many adults to grasp. If we struggle with articulating it for ourselves, how could kids possibly understand?

Young children are concrete thinkers. They hear and understand things quite literally. In the story above, the mom was insinuating that the great-grandmother’s soul was with God, but her daughter interpreted her words to imagine a decapitated person. Because young children take everything literally, it is essential that we use terms such as “died”and “dead.” Euphemisms such as “passed away” are confusing and misleading for children. In a way that is appropriate and accessible for each child’s developmental stage, it is vital for them to know the finality of death.

When talking about death with children, it is also essential that they understand life. A good first step is to teach them how the body works. Talk about the vital organs and processes that keep it alive. Help them listen for a heartbeat, take big breaths, feel a pulse. Once this becomes part of the conversation, explaining death becomes slightly easier. Death happens when those organs and vital functions stop working: the dead person no longer eats, swallows, farts, breathes in and out, and so on.

Explaining physical death is a place to start, but the conversation cannot end there. Many more questions are bound to arise, and each must be addressed in order to help children process their grief. This is often where our role as clergy becomes important. We are called in not just to provide pastoral care in a time of crisis but also to help make sense of all that is happening. Read more

Facing Fear: A Review of Everything Happens for a Reason

The other day, after school pick-up, my daughter and I swung by the church I serve to quickly pick up something. Naturally, my daughter had to use the restroom. While washing our hands, she asked with an earnest curiosity, “Does God brush his teeth here?” I asked her, “What made you ask that?” She responded, “Well, this is God’s house, so this is his bathroom – he must brush his teeth here.”

My biggest fear is being separated from my children by death. To miss moments like that one, or the feel of her hot breath on my neck as she naps on my shoulder. To no longer feel the weight of my son as he barrels at me as fast as he can with joy and excitement when I come home from work. The feared absence strikes without warning: in moments of utter bliss as I watch them sleep or moments of the unforgettable mundane as we prepare for school in the morning.

There is something (to borrow from Glennon Doyle Melton) “brutiful” about watching your worst fear played out in print. Brutal and beautiful: this is Kate Bowler’s book Everything Happens for a Reason: And Other Lies I’ve Loved. Bowler captures the reader with honesty, humor, and raw emotion as she dives into her story: how to live life in the midst of dying; how to love others when you’re about to say goodbye.

None of us are strangers to loss, but Bowler’s vulnerability brings the intimacy of fear and love and longing right into our very lives. I tend to anxiously avoid facing my fears of “what if” the very worst happens. This book brought me face to face with those fears, while at the same time I was comforted and held in the structure of Bowler’s story. A difficult but important read, I discovered that as a priest and as a mother, my life needed this book. Read more

Just Ask A Hillbilly

It’s nothing special. Just an old photograph—the focus is a little fuzzy and it’s certainly not the best angle. There are eleven of us gathered around a Sunday school table, and if I had to guess, the oldest is no more than five. I am the youngest. It might seem like nothing, really, but for me, it is a portal into another time—1988, another life ago when I was a little girl in a small town in the mountains.

I don’t live there anymore, but when I visit my parents, I still run into the oldest two children in that photo. Out of the five children that I still recognize in the photo, three are married. Two of them have kids. When I see her, the mother of the one who doesn’t is happy to complain about the fact she has grand-dogs instead of grandchildren. My own father loves telling stories about the kids of one of the others.

And then there’s the fourth child in that old photograph. She died in a car wreck after our freshman year of college. The roads of eastern Kentucky are unforgiving, so it took a long time to find her car. She had left her boyfriend’s house in anger, and, in these hills, running off the road meant that her car ended up down, down, down—all the way down to where the creek runs. The road she was riding on bears the same name as the creek where her car was found: Crane Creek. It’s the same road the school bus travelled as it wound its way between our homes and the little school I attended as a child.

I’ve been reflecting a lot about my early years in eastern Kentucky lately. I recently read Hillbilly Elegy, J.D. Vance’s memoir, set in Breathitt County, Kentucky and Middletown, Ohio, not far from Greenup County where I grew up. I know the world he writes of, which is why I also know that the beauty of that world has been nearly erased from his story.

I think of this as I look at that old photograph. The death of the young woman from that photo was my first encounter with the death of someone my own age. And it has never fully left me. Read more

note at Manchester bombing memorial

Death in the Family

note at Manchester bombing memorial

Manchester victim memorials

There has been a death in the family. As I write this, less than twenty four hours have passed since the bomb at Ariana Grande’s concert at the Manchester Arena. Twenty-two people have been confirmed dead, and an unknown number of people are injured. Social media is awash with connected stories. How a homeless man cradled a woman as she died. Ariana Grande herself tweeting a sense of feeling broken. Grande is twenty four years old; much of her following consists of young girls and women. Another article suggests that this was an attack specifically targeted at girls and women. There has been a death in the family.

There has been a death in the family. As I write this I am attending the General Assembly of the Church of Scotland. For the Church of Scotland, and for the United Reformed Church, their respective General Assemblies are the highest and final decision making bodies for their denominations. In some respects, for those Churches, it is these Assemblies who are the bishop or the archbishop rather than any individual person. This morning the Assembly received the report and debated the deliverances (this is the term the CoS use for what other bodies would call a motion or a resolution) from their Church and Society Council. The pain of the world was held before us as we reflected on what happened in Manchester along with many other national, U.K., European, and global, social and political issues. I have lived through too many of these tragic events. As I remember other bombs in other cities, in other countries, and on other continents, the creeping feeling of numbness and disbelief that humanity could treat its own so dreadfully touches me yet again. There has been a death in the family.

There has been a death in the family. Much has been written and said about how human communities and how Christian churches deal with death and tragedy. Among the most well known writing about bereavement comes from Elizabeth Kübler-Ross and her theory of five stages of grief. As a Christian minister I have presided over countless funerals where I have proclaimed the Gospel Good News of hope and resurrection trying to enable those left behind to make sense of the gap now present in their family or community. There has been a death in the family.

There has been a death in the family. The question that I am left with, again, is about why this happened? On one level, the answer is simple, someone – and someone that I choose not to hate, or label with insults – walked into the Manchester Arena and detonated an explosive device. The group styled as ‘ISIS’ have claimed responsibility. But where is God? And if there is a God, why do these things happen, and happen to children and young people who had their whole lives ahead of them?

While studying theology at university I was introduced to the biblical genre of lament. Read more

Cemetery with flowers

Circling Around Grief, Celebrity and Otherwise, in 2016

Cemetery with flowers

Cemetery with flowers

2017 will be a year without Carrie Fisher. I am not sure what to make of that. Whatever changes and transitions have come and gone in my life, Carrie Fisher is one of those public figures who has always been around. Like most children of the 80s, I grew up on Star Wars. Princess Leia was my princess (even if my hair was, alas, far too thin to pull off any of her iconic looks).

Beyond Star Wars, though, Carrie Fisher was … Carrie Fisher! My college roommate and I went through a phase when nearly watched When Harry Met Sally on an infinite loop. Who else could make a line like “I promise you, I will never want that wagon wheel coffee table” into a touching expression of true love? And there was Fisher’s defiance of the patriarchy just by her public existence as a self-possessed, opinionated, middle-aged woman who was open about her mental health struggles. The audacity! Our world will be less without Fisher’s voice and presence in it (even if we do have one posthumous performance to anticipate in Star Wars: Episode VIII).

Fisher’s death late in December (followed by the almost immediate death of her mother Debbie Reynolds) marked the end of litany of celebrity death that felt endless. Beginning with David Bowie on January 10, there was speculation that an abnormal number of prominent public figures passed away in 2016. No doubt the false intimacy of online communities feeds into the collective cries of grief when we hear news of yet another celebrity passing. For good or ill the internet allows us to feel a connection with other human beings who would not ordinarily be part of our lives, giving us a connection to prominent public figures that would have been unthinkable even a decade ago. In our collective expressions of grief or loss, however, social media also holds up what would otherwise be private feelings for public scrutiny. Read more

Dear Celebrity

writing-1209121_640Dear Celebrity,

The first time I met you was a very memorable occasion. I’d met celebrities of your stature before, but they’d all been a meet-and-greet sort of thing or strictly business—the kind of official interactions where it didn’t matter at all who I was. Honestly, I haven’t liked many of them. So when I saw you, at the end of a long day that had started twelve hours before, I wasn’t exactly giddy. You were there, at church, with your kids, having just moved into the neighborhood a few months before. You were looking for an Episcopal church with kids’ programs, because apparently not everyone in Hollywood is either atheist or crazy, right-wing, born-again Christian. I found that hopeful. You were also there on the most somber of holy days: Ash Wednesday, that day when we smear ashes on our foreheads with the reminder that we are dust, and to dust we shall return. I thought, “Good Lord, what an introduction. Welcome to our church. Remember, you’re all going to die.”

I talked to your kids about Sunday School, about how long the class is and what they’d learn. I couldn’t believe I was having this conversation, that you had entered my world. I’ve entered into your world—worlds you’ve created—many times. I’ve loved everything I’ve seen you in. You’re really one of my favorites. And there I was, talking to you in real life, like you’re regular folk. I mean, of course you are a person like anyone else, but let’s be honest, in many ways you’re not. You and I live in the same neighborhood but not in the same world. Yet there you were, in this church, on my turf, interested in things that are my responsibility. All I could think was, “I really hope I don’t make an idiot of myself.” I’m pretty sure I did, even though I was trying very hard to act normally and not geek out. Most importantly, I was trying to make it about the kids, because that’s why you were there. You were not there as a famous actress. You were there as a mom, and I wanted so much to make sure that’s how I treated you. I’m sorry I let it slip that I was a huge fan of your hit show while your son was talking about being friends with your co-star. It was a natural segue, but I hope it wasn’t unprofessional.

None of that is why your first visit was memorable, though. Read more

Walter’s Cigarettes

When I was a teenager, I promised myself that I would never buy cigarettes. A few of my friends smoked, and occasionally someone would offer me a cigarette and I would accept. Fearful of addiction, I came up with what I thought was a fool-proof strategy: if I never bought cigarettes, I could only ever smoke when I was bumming cigarettes, and since I couldn’t return the favor, politeness would prevent me from smoking too often. Ten years later, I walked into a corner store sporting a clerical collar and a small baby bump and, for the very first time, bought a pack of Newports.

My beloved congregant Walter was diagnosed with cancer in 2013. An African-American man who worked as a diversity trainer (among other things), he connected easily with people from all kinds of backgrounds, and constantly, lovingly encouraged the congregation to be a model of a community overcoming racism, classism, ageism, and more. He laughed and cried unreservedly. He spoke at length about “Ubuntu” theology, the African theology that emphasizes interconnectedness. As the president of our church’s board, he led the committee that interviewed me and called me as the associate pastor; when I told him with some trepidation, only a few months later, that I was expecting a baby and would need to take maternity leave, he rejoiced. Shortly after my baby Abel was born, we got word that what Walter had thought was a dental issue was in fact a bone tumor forming in his jaw. His diagnosis took us all by surprise – a vibrant man in his early 60s whose father still lived independently, we had all assumed we would have him with us for decades to come, even if we did nag him to quit smoking. They gave him six months to live.

Months passed, and Walter responded positively to treatment, but the doctors were clear that there was no cure for this kind of cancer, only temporary reprieve. When we baptized Abel, I asked Walter to be his godfather, knowing that Abel would probably never remember Walter. Read more

black and white image of a winter night - snowy road, tree and house

While It Was Still Dark

black and white image of a winter night - snowy road, tree and houseEarly in the morning, on the first day of the week, while it was still dark, Mary Magdalene came to the tomb.

My father died of pancreatic cancer a few years ago. He was relatively young, only 58. The night before he died, I kept watch with him. His body started shutting down. I had sat at the bedside of enough dying people to know that when people die after a long illness, their feet and lower legs seem like they’re dying first. His feet turned purple and cold. It would not be long. I sat with my dad in the dark of the night. The rest of the house was quiet. So quiet. I could hear every gasp, every rattle.

It was the middle of January, and a blizzard raged outside. My husband drove through the night to be with me, but the snow piled up along the shore of Lake Michigan, delaying his arrival. Pain wracked my dad’s body. The hospice nurse couldn’t make it out in the storm, and I had already given all of the narcotics in the emergency comfort pack that she had left earlier that day. My dad was anxious, not about dying, but about what was happening to his body, and about the pain.

I could do so little to make him comfortable. Read more

A Sacred Window

OnesWeLoveImageNothing can really prepare you for the death of a friend. It doesn’t matter how many pastoral care classes you took in seminary. It makes no difference how many funeral services you prepare and lead on a regular basis. The books on your shelves and the articles in your files do not mean a thing when it comes to losing someone you hold dear.

When I first met my friend (I’ll call her “D”), I was interviewing with the churches I now serve. D was serving as a Committee On Ministry liaison to the search committee. She was fun and feisty and full of energy. She was a strong woman with a clear, strong voice. She was, perhaps, one of the most dedicated Elders I had ever met. She spoke fluent sarcasm and had a wicked sense of humor that matched well with my own. We were fast friends and colleagues.

Read more