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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

New Art and Poetry

This month we are pleased to offer visual art and poetry together from two different artists, Mary Allison Cates (who created a series we featured in Advent) and Heidi Koschzec.

by Mary Allison Cates

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