There have been too many young parents in our circles of family and colleagues dying in recent weeks, all of the deaths coming with shocking swiftness.
Even one would seem like a lot.
We pray for them, for the spouses and parents and siblings left behind, people trying to figure out how to manage the unmanageable, to comprehend the incomprehensible. I think of those who are ill but still living. Collectively, we respond to these terrifying circumstances with action. To fend off helplessness, friends organize meals, rides, even donations of breast milk. (If that last won’t make you weep, well.)
Who wouldn’t want Jesus to come through town and reverse death? (Luke 7:1-17, CEB) To save the life of a beloved one, or restore the life of one gone too soon? The stories of the centurion’s faith and the raising of a young man from a bier being carried through the streets offer us two ways of seeing Jesus’ authority and God’s power, and they serve to escalate the tension in the gospel. If the earthly religious powers already disliked him, were already poised to do something to him, these stories would only further aggravate them.
Imagine, imagine, Jesus on the road near your house, getting word of the illness of someone you love and making him well without even having to come by and lay a hand on the patient. Imagine, just imagine, Jesus coming through the center of town to stop the funeral procession and tell your daughter, your cousin, your friend to sit up, be alive, be well!
Awestruck, everyone praised God. “A great prophet has appeared among us,” they said. “God has come to help his people.” (Luke 7:16, CEB)
Awestruck, of course, they were awestruck. They got what we wish for but rarely dare ask. They could stop asking, “Why is this happening to her?” They could stop saying, “Why him? Why not me, instead?”
Their hearts un-broke.
Dear Jesus, we could use a little of that healing right now. I wish you were here in body, O Great Physician, to make these mamas and daddies whole again, for their children, for the sake of goodness in the world.
I am terrible at grieving. I grew up in a family and an environment in which crying, generally, and grieving, specifically, were not only discouraged but practically anathema. When my Grandmother Spong died, my father, who was her only child and as close to her emotionally as he was to anyone, told me, “I’m all right if you’re all right,” which was his way of saying, “Don’t cry, or I might, too.”
As an adult, I faced three major losses in my thirties – first my mother, then a pregnancy at 21 weeks, then my father – and in each case, the circumstances made it difficult for me to grieve properly, at least as I came to understand proper grieving, ideas presented in classes at seminary, where I studied pastoral care through the life span and took a whole course on bereavement.
I’m not sure I got any better at grieving. Instead I learned to squeeze my eyes shut and keep the tears inside.
Crying, you see, frightens me. I associate it with a severe postpartum depression twenty years ago, a time when nothing seemed as if it would ever be right again, a time when everything seemed that mattered seemed poised to slip over the edge of an abyss. I said I had cried all my tears, but what I really meant was, I am not going to let things get that far out of my control again. If something threatens to hurt me, I will armor myself against it.
Just about the only exception to that armor was my first dog, Molly. She was charming, winsome, life-rearranging. I was 41 and had never lived with a dog before and had no idea how much it would feel like having a baby, another child to raise. A Bernese Mountain Dog, she had the terrible joints that some Berners do, and the crippling arthritis to go with them; that she lived to be almost 7 years old was a testimony to both my commitment to her and her incredible joie de vivre.
After her death, I did allow myself one good cry. (Emphasis on “allow,” which implies control, no?)
I always tell people who are afraid they will cry at a funeral that it’s exactly the right time for it, that their tears are a tribute to the person they loved and will miss, but I am confessing to you how poorly I do it. You may know what I mean. We hold ourselves together for the sake of others, because who doesn’t want to be a hero. And isn’t it a more secure feeling to be that hero than to let the feeling flow through and out of us? If we can only hold it all inside, we will never have to admit to vulnerability.
To mourn, to fully and consciously engage with the truth and pain of loss, is agonizing. It is something so difficult and frightening that incredibly successful people who are otherwise driven and aggressive risk-takers stereotypically shy away from grief.*
Grieve fully, feel Gratitude profoundly, and be humble enough to do the Grunt work!
Which is the hardest of the three g’s for you to practice to keep your faith simple? Grief, gratitude or grunt work?**
Books, darn it, sometimes make me think about things I would rather not, make me feel things I would just as soon compress into the components of more armor. Not long after reading both the quotes above and confessing to my journal that I am terrible at grieving, I opened Facebook on my iPhone and clicked on the daily memories they now provide whether I want them or not, and there I found this picture.
Now, he may not prove to be my final Berner, but Hoagie was the last of the Berners I had in Maine, a rescue who came to us at a time when my daughter and I really needed him even more than he needed us. He would have come with me to Pennsylvania, but he developed cancer and did not live long enough to embark on the new chapter of life with us.
“Oh, Hoagie,” I said to my iPhone, to Facebook, to no one in particular, as I sat in bed in the early morning half light. I blinked, because if you blink hard enough, or scrinch up your eyes just right, the tears will go away. Except that they don’t. Something calcifies. After kathrynzj’s Old Man Dog died last fall, we started talking about when and whether to look for a new dog, and where, and whether to get a puppy, and although my loss was further in the past, I could not say I was ready. I didn’t really grieve, I realized. I set my eyes toward the horizon, and I hardly stopped to let myself be sad, to grieve for the dog, the dogs, the life I thought I had, because of course the future looked favorable and many good things lay ahead.
I looked at the picture again, and I remembered the words I scrawled in my journal the early morning of the day before, and I looked at the picture again, and I cried.
At my house there is a new dog, this crazy puppy Teddy, a lab mix who loves my slippers, who is not a Berner, who is mouthy and likes hard pets and peeled carrots, and whose short coat feels different but good to the touch.
He likes to stand on his back legs to see what’s on the table or the counter, just like Molly.
He does this at the storm door when we leave the house, front paws up like a child, sending his heart with us in little cries of love and longing.
An armored heart cannot love that way. An armored heart cannot move into joy.
Long, long ago, when Jesus was living on the Earth, he had three very good friends, who were two sisters and a brother. The sisters were named Mary and Martha, and the brother was named Lazarus. Now, Lazarus got very, very sick. He was so sick that his sisters were afraid he might die. They sent word to Jesus, but by the time he got to their town, Lazarus had already died. His sister Mary was crying. His sister Martha had been crying, too. They were both very sad, because they loved their brother very much. When Jesus saw them, he cried, too. Crying is a good thing to do when we’re sad. If we didn’t cry, we would still be holding onto the feelings that come out with our tears.
Jesus and his friend cried. But they didn’t just cry. Mary and Martha felt all kinds of upset. Martha even yelled at Jesus! Sometimes when someone we love dies, we feel sad *and* angry. Jesus still loved Martha even after she raised her voice, because that’s how it is between friends. When our friends are sad because someone has died, one of the best things we can do is just listen to how they are feeling.
And I want you to know it’s okay to be angry, just like it’s okay to be sad. When you feel angry, you can tell someone you trust. Just remember you’re not angry with them! Sometimes when we’re angry – well, almost every time – we can feel it all over our bodies. That’s a good time to go for a walk or a run, or to ride your bike really fast (just be sure you put on your helmet…) or to punch a pillow, or even to ask a grown-up if you can hammer something.
Just be sure to talk to somebody. Even if you can’t tell them too much about why you’re angry, the people who love you will want to help.
You can talk to them, too, if you don’t understand why a sad thing happened. When someone we love dies, we all wonder why it had to happen. We understand that people’s bodies sometimes get sick and don’t get better, but it feels especially bad when it happens to someone we love. After someone dies, people like to tell stories about them, about the things they did and the people they loved. Those stories might make us cry a little at first, but the next time we tell them, we may start to feel like smiling when we remember. And that’s okay, too.
God sent Jesus to be with people and help them because God loves us so much and wanted to be closer to us. And God understands how we feel when we’re sad, because God remembers what it was like the day Jesus cried about his friend.
One of the ways we can feel closer to God when we’re sad, or we’re angry, is to pray. We close our eyes and make our minds quiet, and then we talk to God. It’s okay to pray out loud or to pray quietly, so that only God can hear. Let’s pray together.
O God, we thank you for loving us, even when we are angry. We thank you for loving us, especially when we are sad. Help us to talk to you and to talk to each other about the way we are feeling. We ask in Jesus’ name. Amen.
(Adapted from a children’s message shared at the memorial service of a much-loved wife, mother and school volunteer, where many children were in attendance.)
Her picture is on the mantelpiece at my house, taken at an age younger than I ever knew her, but the eyes and the smile are the same.
A short, vivid woman who taught first graders for decades before becoming an elementary school principal, Maggie was my grandmother’s best friend. One a single school teacher and the other a widowed church worker, they went everywhere together. Although she needed a cushion to see over the dashboard, Maggie drove.
And when my grandmother became a grandmother, which is to say when my parents adopted me, Maggie felt excitement just as great as anyone who was legally part of the family. For the first few years, she struggled to claim an identity in relationship to me. She wanted to be a grandmother, too, to be that connected. There are cards in the scrapbook my mother kept; she signed them:
Somewhere along the way, someone called her my godmother, and that’s what stuck.
When my mother came to see me at college, to tell me Maggie had died, I remember it felt like a physical injury. I didn’t know a life without her. Even after I outgrew sitting on her lap and playing with the gold chain she so often wore, Maggie was the person who I could run to when the rest of the world was unfair. Diminished by a hazily diagnosed medical condition, she became a ridiculously tiny figure in a nursing home bed. Disease took her, and I am 50 now, and 71 seems too young to die, even if she didn’t seem young to me then.
When I say she haunted me, I don’t mean to suggest that I believe in ghosts, or that she appeared in a supernatural fashion.
What I mean is that she remained uncannily close to me for many years after her death. I dreamed her, often, and woke feeling I had been with her again. I thought of what she would have done or said on a holiday or a birthday. I missed her. I wished she could have seen my children. She only needed five more years to meet the first one. But it wasn’t like that. It wasn’t like that.
Now, because she was not only a first grade teacher but also a Methodist Sunday School teacher from the time she was a young girl, Maggie would have been the first to assure me that this life is not the end. I believe that Maggie is part of the cloud of witnesses, the gathering of the saints beyond our sight. But she is also part of me, the part I feared had broken when the bad news crashed into my heart on a cold, grey day long ago.
Her love for me, shown with kindness and humor for the twenty years we shared our lives, became part of my love for my children. Her passion for sharing the word of God with children informed my realization of a calling to ministry. And the winsome twinkle in her eye, the thing she lost at the end, comes back to me in memory and reminds me that you can be faithful without being self-righteous.
My internal injury healed. It took time, but it got better. It took time, and remembering Maggie.
(I’m using this reflection at an annual Service of Remembrance at a local funeral home tonight.)
I talked with a friend today about this week’s gospel lesson, the story of the death and raising of Lazarus. At my church we’ll see it presented as a drama. My friend mentioned that the story is about grief, which it is, but then we began to think of other things it’s about, which is funny work to be doing when I’m not preaching at all.
It’s about a family’s terrible loss.
It’s about the fears of the disciples.
It’s about the future “Doubting” Thomas offering to go anywhere with Jesus.
It’s about Martha, and more to the point, someone other than Peter saying who Jesus is: the Messiah, the Son of God.
It’s about friendship.
It’s about politics, in the sense that there will be repercussions with the authorities, for Jesus *and* Lazarus.
It’s about a miracle, a thing that cannot possibly true, but is.
And, yes, it’s about grief, God’s human grief, but it never lets us forget he’s not just human, does it? Most of us can’t change things just because we’re sad.
So, why is Jesus crying? He knows he’s going to bring Lazarus back, right? Is it because he had to put his friend through death to prove his power? Are they tears of regret? Or is it a sadness that he can’t bring things to a head without a move so drastic and dramatic?
I love this story, for Martha’s bluntness and Mary’s emotion, and the turmoil of the disciples. I also love it for the astonishment of a dead person rising to answer the call of Jesus. I’m not a literalist about anything in the Bible, but usually by the time the Fifth Sunday of Lent rolls around in Year A, I’m willing to believe Lazarus died and Jesus called him out of the tomb to live again. Maybe it calls to things that have been entombed in me, waiting to come out like Lazarus. I can’t explain it rationally. I simply feel it, perhaps because the family feels so real to me that I could weep with them, too. Like Jesus.
It’s 9 o’clock on Saturday morning, and I’m thinking of Sam. In the waning weeks of his life, we spent Saturday mornings tucked up on my couch together, while I worked on a sermon. He was at the TV end of things, with his head on the arm of the couch, and after the Today Show ended, he gave me a baleful look when some show about car-racing dogs began.
I changed the channel. He preferred that PBS show about dinosaurs on trains, I kid you not. He watched it peacefully while I got some work done, and then we went to the Farmer’s Market.
I miss him.
I’m learning new routines for Saturday mornings. I hope someday I’ll have a sermon-writing partner again. And I’m clear that any new dog to come along, of any age, will be different. But I’m thinking of Sam, and how he licked the oatmeal bowl and encouraged me at a very difficult time in his life and mine, turning his soft eyes toward me with love.
In a stack of cages at the Animal Refuge League, on the second row from the bottom, which was just about eye level for a five-and-a-half-year-old boy, there was a little cat. She had white legs and a white face and undercarriage, but the top of her head and her back and her tail were brown tiger-colored. Little Snowman, on a hunt for the right cat, picked her out after serious deliberations. We brought her home the next day, along with an older grey cat chosen by Young #1 Son.
And so we began our lives at the beginning of my single motherhood, a young mom, with three kids and two cats, the grey man cat Nicky and frail little PussPuss, who required several weeks of antibiotics and hand-feeding, deep care from Snowman and his mama. Very Little Light Princess, the same age as the little kitty, somehow got the idea that you made a cat meow by pulling on her tail. As soon as Puss felt better, VLLP learned otherwise.
We've been together for a long time. PussPuss was the pilot cat, the one following us up and down the block when we went for a walk, waiting for us at the corner if we went to the 7-11 or walked the children to elementary school, willing to sit on a neighbor's front steps while we sold Girl Scout cookies or wrapping paper or stopped in for a short visit.
She loved to be outside, and for many years had a regular route around the neighborhood, one that made her well-known. She left enough collars under neighbors' shrubs that we gave up trying to make her wear one. It was only in the past few winters that she decided snow was too much for her and spent the winter almost entirely inside.
She found the dogs worrisome as a duo, but came to love Sam after Molly's death.
She maintained a meticulous appearance, all that white fur shining, and a big part of that was rolling in the dirt, something we could never understand.
After we got her strong and healthy back in 1996, she was never sick a day in her life, though she clearly grieved for other animals who passed through our household. When she seemed low after Sam's death, I did not immediately suspect physical illness, but a couple of weeks ago at her check-up, the vet found a mass. A couple of days ago, she really sank, and yesterday we had to bid her farewell.
15-and-a-half is young for a person and oldish for a cat, especially a cat who started life as a sickly stray. It's a hard loss for us because it's one more on top of others, and because Puss had a sort of independent character that gave way to being more affectionate in the last couple of years. She sat in laps and slept with LP. And on her last visit to the vet, even though we didn't realize it would be the last, she came out of the carrier and nuzzled me lovingly.
My only consolation, after having our last old cat wander off never to be found, is in knowing we gave her a quiet end.
Farewell, PussPuss, faithful pilot cat. We love you.