If I Were Preaching, Matthew 14:13-21, Reflectionary

On Empty

Now when Jesus heard this, he withdrew from there in a boat to a deserted place by himself. But when the crowds heard it, they followed him on foot from the towns. When he went ashore, he saw a great crowd; and he had compassion for them and cured their sick.

Matthew 14:13-14, NRSV

It’s hard to read this week’s gospel lesson without referring to the preceding verses that set the scene. John, who prepared the way for Jesus, had been murdered as part of a palace plot, beheaded as the prize requested by a young girl at her mother’s instigation. King Herod let it happen because he felt ashamed and embarrassed by his life and the truth John told him about it. This summer I’ve heard many stories about violent losses, not just on the news but from friends I wish I could comfort. Sometimes we can only sit with the trauma of the incomprehensible and allow ourselves to grieve.

Jesus heard this terrible news about a barbaric death, and he needed to get away. Mark’s gospel established the idea of Jesus taking time apart to pray and renew himself, only to be followed by the searching disciples or roused by them from a much-needed nap. Here he tries but is followed not only by his friends but also by crowds of people. I imagine him feeling depleted and shocked, bound to be considering his own mortality. 

Consider the context of the times, in which an oppressive regime wielded control over their lives and threatened their community values. I wonder how many people who followed Jesus that day felt the same way: empty, grieving, even a little desperate, willing to trust a teacher who had come out of nowhere to attract so much attention. 

And I wonder about Jesus, emptied out by shock and sadness, yet moved by compassion to help those who needed what he could give. I think of him, moving through grief to heal others.* I think of him, touching people who needed filling, not just with fish and bread, but with hope. Writing about this passage years ago, I said, “It is the hope we receive when we share the broken bread and the outpoured cup. That tank is never on empty.”

For those of us still worshiping online, or in person but at a distance complicated by safety protocols, finding that hope can be complicated. We are without the common elements and practices that restored us so regularly we may not have realized their sustaining power. We may well identify with the disciples, reporting to Jesus that the crowd is hungry.

Photo by Priscilla Du Preez on Unsplash

Jesus said to them, “They need not go away; you give them something to eat.” They replied, “We have nothing here but five loaves and two fish.”

Matthew 14:16-17

We have nothing here, they said. How relatable! Pastors and church leaders, businesses and schools systems and families, people with jobs and those without have been looking around for months now to figure out how to manage in untenable circumstances. We have experienced the literal emptiness of grocery store shelves and the existential emptiness of lost plans and experiences.

We feel empty now, but we know what happened next. Jesus made more than enough out of what seemed like nothing. He did not call down bread from heaven like manna in the wilderness. He made more out of what was already available.

If I were preaching this week, I would acknowledge some of the ways we are running on empty. I encourage you – as I am encouraging myself – to name the grief we all feel as part of the story, just as it was part of Jesus’ story. Then turn toward identifying what might fill both us and others. What bread and fish do we have to share? What resources are available in our community of faith that God might multiply?

Jesus had compassion for the people. May we be moved to acts of compassion in his name.


*The Greek in verse 14 indicates a visceral response to the needs of others.

I will be taking time for professional development and vacation in August.
My weekly Reflectionary email (subscribe here) will move to Tuesdays when it returns on September 8, and these blog posts will push later in the week.

#amwriting, A Dog's Life, Animals, Bearnaise Sauce Dogs, Dogs, Grief, Labra-doo-dad, The Inner Landscape

I am terrible at grieving, or an armored heart

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.

Molly was brilliant at eye contact.
Molly was brilliant at eye contact.

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.

Hoagie, my last Berner
Hoagie, my last Berner

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.

Teddy at 3 months
Teddy at 3 months

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.

********

*Aric Clark, Doug Hagler, and Nick Larson. Never Pray Again (St. Louis, MO: Chalice Press, 2014), p. 110. Check out their blog, Two Friars and a Fool.

**Becca Stevens. Letters from the Farm: A Simple Path for a Deeper Spiritual Life (New York: Morehouse Publishing, 2015), p. 32. I received a copy from her publicist, and an advance copy, too. If you’ve read this far, and are interested in the book, leave a comment and I will send you the extra book.

Cats, Grief

PussPuss

Our Puss Puss 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. 

Puss dirt bath 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.