On each of the past two days, it's been my great privilege to spend time with a young woman from my children's circle of friends. Both girls are in the process of returning to school after times of considerable difficulty, and each of them had asked to meet with me for some support and encouragement and advice on how to handle the challenges of the next few weeks. They are, both of them, beautiful, gifted, and generous young women with, I hope and imagine, brilliant futures ahead of them.
As I drove home from one of these meetings at a local coffee shop tonight, I was at first astounded to realize that I have become a mentor to young women, and that I actually have knowledge and wisdom to impart. When did that happen?
And then I was very much touched, that they would seek me out. I imagined what it would have been like for me, at their ages -- a graduating law student when I was twenty-five, a lawyer when I was thirty -- to have had a woman a generation older than I from whom to seek advice and reassurance. There was no such person.
And so: Something missing entirely from my own life now presents itself as a lovely opportunity from the other side. Exactly what my experience of mothering has always been.
And, a Mystery: The young ladies at church, the few of them we have, never approach me in this way. That's been a disappointment and a conundrum to me, as I've always had great relationships with my middle school and high school students.
"Mom, you can be an extremely intimidating person," says my son.
I seriously doubt that very much. But maybe it helps that these young women knew me when they were little girls and I was a mom in jeans and flip-flops, making them PB&J sandwiches and rummaging in the freezer for popsicles. Something to consider.
Here's the testimony I presented this morning to the Ohio Senate Education Committee in support of legislation that would mandate suicide prevention education for Ohio school teachers, counselors, and administrators. (I have some more pictures but they are on the phone of my brother, who came up to Columbus to surprise and support me, and I'm waiting . . . ). My small contribution to a large group effort:
Madam Chairwoman and Committee Members:
I want to thank you for this
opportunity to speak in support of House Bill 543, the Jason Flatt Act.I am a
Volunteer Field Advocate for the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention,
which is working with the Jason Foundation to support this legislation in Ohio.My husband, son Matt, and I are residents of
Cleveland Heights in Cuyahoga County; I serve as the pastor of Nankin Federated
Church in Ashland County; and my daughter lives and works in Warren, in
Mahoning County.My father and my brother
and his family are residents of Warren County; my niece is a teacher in the
Little Miami School District in Warren County.I share those “family facts” with you as an indication of how the
consequences of one suicide, that of my son Josh, reverberate across our
I hope that the statistics presented
to you in connection with this proposed legislation are shocking to you.They are shocking to me, and I have now lived
with the reality of suicide as a devastating and life-altering experience for
over four years.
Why am I here today?I am here for both professional and personal
a professional standpoint, in the years before I was ordained to ministry, I
was an attorney, practicing family law, and an educator, in a Jewish day school
for six years, and on and off as an adjunct instructor at the college
level.Never in all of those years,
years in which I met all of my continuing education requirements in my fields,
some of it in child and adolescent development and psychology, did I receive or
know to seek training in suicide prevention.As a family lawyer, I often served as a guardian ad litem, charged with representing the best interests of children in juvenile
and family court.As you can imagine, many
of the children and adolescents whom I served lived difficult and troubled
lives. But had one of them attempted or died of suicide, I would have been
dumbfounded, as I surely would have recognized no advance warning signs.
an educator, I have worked primarily with middle and high school students and
young adults.Again: no training, no
knowledge regarding the signs of suicidal thoughts or plans.Today I know that treatable mental illness,
the leading cause of suicide, knows no boundaries: students across the spectrum
in terms of gifts, achievement, income brackets, and family background are
victims of what has become a mental health catastrophe.
friend Jean Reinhold, a gifted enrichment educator with twenty-five years of
experience in the Shaker Heights school system in Cuyahoga County, tells me
that she has“seen/heard/known of
increasing numbers of students facing insurmountable stresses without coping
mechanisms [and that that situation], tied with any propensity toward mental
illness, is scary.”Indeed it is.
niece, Bethany Beebe, teaches language arts to eighth-graders.She wrote the following to me last week: “I
can't say that any other teacher I with whom have spoken about the issue of
suicide and prevention of such has any real idea of how to 'deal' with it. It
is something that is always on my mind when I see a student who is going
through a hard time. I know I may be more sensitive to it because of Josh, but
I could not imagine how I would feel if it were to happen to one of our
students. Having the tools to know how to identify the symptoms (for lack of a
better word) is crucial.”
We have tremendous expectations of our
teachers.We expect them to teach our
children how to write and how to understand algebra.We expect them to prepare our young people
for a fast-paced, multi-cultural, globalized society.We expect them to grade papers and manage
lunchrooms and recess.Can we also
expect them to be mental health gatekeepers?
We already do.Many of our young people see more of their
teachers and school coaches and advisors than they do of other adults in their
lives, including their parents.Young
people write papers and create art that reflect their deepest feelings.Young people often behave in ways that offer
clues to what they may be experiencing in the form of sadness, of frustration,
of drug and alcohol use, of relationship challenges, of family situations, and
of depression and other disorders and illnesses.
How critical it is that we offer their
educators and administrators and counselors the tools they need to respond
appropriately and effectively to what they, and often they alone, observe!
Now, a personal note: Our son, Josh
Williams, died in 2008, the day after his 24th birthday.At the time, we, his family and friends,
believed that there had been no warning signs. We were in a state of complete
shock for months, and often likened his death to his having been run down by a
the years have passed, however, and we have learned more about Josh and more
about mental illness, it has become apparent that the signs were there.Many of them were extremely subtle, and many
would have remained unknown to us had we not found writings and journals of his
that indicate that he had suffered from depression for at least two years
before his death, and perhaps much longer.
may ask, “How could you not have known?”You may want to believe that anyone who takes such a drastic measure to
relieve his suffering would surely have been broadcasting his feelings and his
intentions loud and clear – but in fact, people often conceal depression and
its associated thoughts, believing them to be signs of failure.Young people in particular, not wanting to
disappoint their parents, or feeling alone and misunderstood, may fail to reach
out to the people who would do anything to help them and to save their lives.
people contemplating suicide do, in fact, frequently shed clues, leaving them
behind like faint and mysterious footprints in the paths of lives unnecessarily
destroyed. Clues that might be recognized by a teacher, a counselor, an
administrator, a coach, a parent – if any of us but understood what we were
seeing.Clues that might result in
action, if those who see or hear them are trained to respond with compassion,
knowledge, and courage.
I believe that the passage of the
Jason Flatt Act will offer school personnel an indispensable tool in saving students’
lives.Thank you for your time this
I've been here at my church for a year now. Earlier this fall, I decided that it was about time to act on some of the specific reasons for which I had at one time believed that I had been called to ministry, and to offer some possibilities for small group spiritual formation.
As I looked out over the congregation week after week, I saw a need for some support of the many widows among us. Eventually that thought broadened to include all those who had suffered major losses, which is everyone, including our few young people. I've put together a short (four weeks), erratically meeting group called "Contending with Loss." It's an opportunity for people to share their own stories in light of that of Naomi and her daughters-in-law.
As it turns out, six women have shown up: four of them widows, and two who are caretakers for husbands with devastating disabilities. The first week, we talked about the basics: what happened to Naomi and family, and what has happened to each of them.
Yesterday, we got a bit further into the story, trying to imagine all the realities of life which the Bible narrative leaves out. The question I then posed to our little group was: What are all the other losses associated with the big ones in your own lives, all of the related visible and especially the invisible losses?
I'm not sharing my own story in this group; I'm trying to pose questions and listen and keep us on track (a challenge!). I'm not sure which I'm learning more about: the universality of the invisible losses, or the challenges of what is essentially group spiritual direction.
In a few weeks, we'll meet again to review some of the adventures of Naomi and Ruth, and to talk about the surprising ways in which other people show up and help us contend with the challenges of new lives. I want to offer some possibilities for optimism to a group of women for whom the holidays are decidedly not a time of joyous anticipation.
I'm not unrealistic. It's taken me four years of intentionality with respect to prayer and spiritual direction to glimpse God working through the people who surround me. But I hope that these ladies I love will begin to see bits and pieces of their own stories through the prism of Scripture, and to recognize themselves as sisters to these women of long ago.
Over at People for Others, a Week of Gratitude based on the five senses has begun. Be sure to take a look at ALL the photos in Jane Knuth's entry today, and read Paul Campbell's on great art and nature as well.
My grandmother lost most of her sight to cataracts and macular degeneration in the last decade of her life. I'm not sure how much of any of us she could see by the time we celebrated her 100th birthday. Since she had also lost most of her hearing, it was almost as if she and her radiant mind were entombed in a world of darkness and silence.
My grandmother taught me to see things both small and large.
Small: We spent time birding together, here in Ohio and along the eastern coast of Florida. As she began to lose her hearing in her seventies, she had to rely increasingly upon her eyesight. One of the more bizarre effects of her loss of hearing was that birds often materialized in her field of vision far from where she expected to see them, based upon the seeming origin of song.
Large: She took me to Europe and made sure that I saw great cathedrals and great works of art and great plays. She took me out west, where she learned to ride a horse so that we could see the wilderness from within and the mountains from the trails.
Hand-held: My grandmother was a voracious reader, a trait that is apparently genetic. And she raised huge beds of glorious flowers, a skill that is apparently not.
Ironic: My grandmother was a beautiful woman and created a comfortable and inviting home, but she had little interest in self or home décor, and no flair for either. She dressed plainly, wore her gray hair in a simple bun, and commented once that the house would probably fall down around her if my grandfather did not point out its needs from time to time. Almost all of her visual attention was directed outward: to her family, to her reading, to nature, to grand buildings and art and drama, to the whole wide world.
And so, when I ponder gratitude for sight, I am most grateful for the grandmother who shared her vision with me. And for the Atlantic coast we so enjoyed together:
At my church these days, the stained-glass windows on one side are out for cleaning and restoration (the work on the other side has been completed), so for this brief period in time, one can look through clear windows to colored ones.
There are a couple of big things trying to surface in my life these days. Should they happen to shake out their wings and emerge, I'll write about them. In the meantime . . .
The holidays are coming. I realized in the midst of an online discussion a couple of days ago about Christmas that my preference would still be to go straight from early November into January. I am so not looking forward to that upcoming six-week period of dissociation.
I don't feel like commenting upon it, however. I think that over the past four years I've exhausted what I've had to say.
So: some posts about small things. A look back at each day for something small and good.
This evening at sunset found me walking around Lower Lake and through the Nature Center's boardwalk trails. I stopped to watch several chickadees and a couple of white-breasted nuthatches at a feeder.
Yesterday's newspaper birding column mentioned an influx of red-breasted nuthatches. One of them spent several days at our feeders at home before the hurricane came through, along with white-breasted friends who are still here.
It was delightful to recall our unexpected visitor as I wandered around in the early evening light.
This evening I changed our bed and thought, as I shook the colors of autumn leaves across the mattress, I love flannel sheets.
I'm about caught up on the laundry. We had hot water last week but, without power, we were the only clean things around the house. Cold, damp towels draped themselves all over the bathroom and hallway, and clothes worn all day and then slept in piled up in corners. Fleece socks migrated all over the house.
In a couple of weeks, I will be speaking to a small group at a Suicide Survivors Day. As I've been pondering what I might say ("Tell them how you survived." "I have no idea."), the thought that occurred to me was, I love flannel sheets.
I haven't really enjoyed much of anything for four years. I delighted in my daughter's two graduations, college and master's programs, and cried each time as she walked forward to receive her diploma ~ but that was because I knew what the cost had been, and what extraordinary triumphs those moments were. My little girl, so brilliant and so very brave. I was in awe at my friend's ordination last night, watching the Holy Spirit sparkle through the sanctuary and the crowd afterward, several of whom played a role in my own path to ordination. My friend, so determined and so accomplished.
But simple enjoyment has been elusive.
I think I will tell them: Don't underestimate the trauma. There is nothing else like it. You will stagger through a shattered world for years. That doesn't mean that you can't do things ~ as some people might think, because they haven't had to. It doesn't mean that you can't learn and work and care for others. You can, and you might as well, because if you don't you'll be sorry later.
("How can I help others?" a widowed friend asked me yesterday. "I can't, not when I can't accept my own situation." "Of course you can!" I snapped. Meaning, don't bother waiting until you're all healed and ready, because you won't ever be that.)
Just don't underestimate how difficult it is. You don't have to tell. No one will believe you anyway. But know it yourself, so you remember to give yourself time and space when you need them.
And someday you may be able to shake soft bedding out in November and say to yourself, I love flannel sheets.
Not a great picture, but whatever. It's of my friend, newly THE REVEREND Cassie Wolfe, and me at her ordination tonight. It was my privilege to lead the reaffirmation of baptismal vows and to anoint Cassie, who has spent ten years getting to this wonderful evening.
Cassie and I met during our summer clinical chaplaincy education at The Cleveland Clinic, and spent the next summer together in Pittsburgh taking intensive Hebrew. We've spent a lot of late evenings engaged in the sort of deep conversation that you think you left behind in college. It's incredible that new such friendships built upon deep commitments to unexpected calls remain available to us in midlife. (OK, so maybe I'm stretching the definition of midlife.)
(And just to be clear, we also spent a lot of time singing silly Hebrew alphabet songs and making up ridiculous mnemonic devices designed to help us remember vocabulary words.)
Anyway, it was a wonderful evening. I'm so proud to call this gifted, determined, beautiful woman my friend and sister.
No, that’s not true.I’ve really never been able to stand the ending of Job.
The first part, and the first part of our reading this
morning -- that’s ok.You recall that
three weeks ago, we embarked upon a journey with Job, a journey in which he
became subject and victim of God’s wager with the Satan, the accuser.Satan was sure that he could demonstrate that
Job, broken and injured and grieved, would turn away from God.God, who wanted Job’s love only if freely
given, only if it were not a response to all the privilege and prosperity which
had come Job’s way in life, was willing to risk finding out which way Job would
go.The initial result of their bet? Job
lost pretty much everything.
Two weeks ago, we listened to Job, who had had it with pious
mutterings about God’s will and with the so-called friends who told him that it
was all his own fault.Job began to pour
out to God his rage and pain and grief, becoming an example to us for the
reality that whatever it is that we have to say to God, God is here to
And then last week, we delved into God’s response, the God
of all creation, who reminded Job, and reminds us, that there is much more to
this universe than we can know or understand, and that we are part of a much
grander scheme: God’s entire self-gift, self-donation, which God is laboring to
In the first part of our reading today, we hear Job’s
rejoinder to God, Job reflecting on his conversation with God:
I know that you can do all things,
and that no purpose of yours can be thwarted [ says Job, remembering God’s
question,] ”Who is this that hides counsel without knowledge?” [Job acknowledges,]
Therefore I have uttered what I did not understand, things too wonderful for
me, which I did not know. [He thinks of God’s words,]“Hear, and I will speak; I
will question you, and you declare to me.” [and concludes,]I had heard of you
by the hearing of the ear, but now my eye sees you; therefore I despise myself,
and repent in dust and ashes.
This little passage presents some translation challenges
that will have to await another day; suffice it for us to say that Job’s words
echo God’s of the preceding chapters.“Things too wonderful for me, which I did not know” – that’s what Job
sees now.Job has heard and seen God, God
in a voice of sovereignty and power, God in the vision of stars and thunder and
rains and animals and plants.
Has that ever happened to you?I remember a day, many years ago, on which a
devastating situation had presented itself in our family.I had to get up very early for a meeting that
morning, and I drove off in the dark, dejected and bewildered, not sure what to
do about all the problems that had suddenly landed on my doorstep.The meeting was on the top floor of an office
building of several stories, and when I got off the elevator into the reception
area and looked out the windows, there was one of the most astonishing sunrises
I had ever seen: all sorts of reds and roses and oranges and purples beginning
to break over the horizon.A sunrise which
was going to occur no matter what I was doing or how I felt; a sunrise that
would proceed with no involvement whatever from me.“Things too wonderful for me, which I did not
We should note that while Job repents, when he sees, he
repents – he turns, for that’s what the word “repent” means – to turn – he
turns from his lack of knowledge, from his failed vision, to something
new.There’s no evidence that he regrets
having sought to engage God, nor that God wants him to regret it. Job wanted to
see God, and God becomes present to Job.
Isn’t it interesting that our reading of Job today is paired
with Mark’s story of Bartimaeus? To start with, in the version I read, Bartimaeus
tells Jesus that he wants to see AGAIN. “Let me see again,” he says. Evidently,
he could see, he did have his eyesight, at some time in the past. And he wants his sight back – again.Once wasn’t enough.
We could leave it at that.We could say that of course, it’s not enough, to have seen in the past. While
there are some people who tell us that blindness has made them who they are,
and that they would not trade themselves and their own lives for someone else
and his or hers, for most people, as a
purely practical matter, life without eyesight is challenging at best, and
often completely debilitating.It’s not
enough to know what things look like; most of us want to see and navigate our
way around the world for ourselves.We
could say that that’s all that Bartimaeus wants.An ordinary, sighted life.
But where Jesus, and encounters with Jesus are concerned,
the words “I want to see again” always mean so much more, whether the speaker
knows it or not.“I want to see anew.”“I want to see differently.”“I want to see things I have not seen before.”“I want vision, and not just sight.”Whether we expect it or not, when we tell
Jesus, or God, that we want to see – we WILL see, anew and differently.
So Job and Bartimaeus – they both want to see.To see what they have not seen before. And see they do.
We can understand from that one parallel why these two
stories have been placed together for us. But there’s another interesting connection
between the stories, and it’s what tells us that God is not angry – that God
delights, in fact – in those who turn to God.In Job, it comes in a short passage that’s not part of today’s official
reading, so I’ll read it a sentence of itto you now: “[The Lord said to one of Job’s friends, ““My wrath is
kindled against you and against your two friends; for you have not spoken of me
what is right, as my servant Job has. . .”.
God is not happy with those three friends, who have spent so
much of their time with Job engaged in commentary.They’ve told him what God is like, and
they’ve told him that he must have deserved what he got.But not once have those friends talked to
God.Not once have they prayed for
Job.Not once have they prayed with
Job.Not once have they even attempted
to dwell in the stillness of God, to listen to God, to seek God for themselves
or on behalf of Job.And they are the
ones – not Job – whose conduct God condemns.
Let’s look at the gospel story again.Bartimaeus is calling out through a large
crowd on the edge of Jericho, calling for Jesus’ attention.And how does the crowd respond?Do they help him, support him, make way for
him?No, the gospel tells us that they
“sternly” order him to be quiet, until Jesus asks that he be brought
forward.Sternly.The pew Bible translation says that they
“rebuked” him.Here is Bartimaeus,
recognizing in Jesus’ voice and presence someone who changes lives, and longing
to reach him, and his friends do everything they can to stop him.Do you suppose that his friends are direct
descendants of Job’s friends?
Now these are the two sections of Job’s ending that have
seemed to me to make some sense.Job
understands that his vision has been limited and has now been expanded.And we are assured that Job, in all his
questioning, has had it right, and that his friends, in their smug
self-righteousness, have not.I think
we’re good so far.
The problem for me, and I would guess for many of you, lies
in the third section, the end of our reading today and the end of the Book of
The Lord blessed the latter days of
Job more than his beginning; and he had fourteen thousand sheep, six thousand
camels, a thousand yoke of oxen, and a thousand donkeys. He also had seven sons
and three daughters.
Suddenly, the story seems to have switched course.Suddenly it seems that maybe the friends were
right – perhaps Job did deserve for bad things to happen to him, and now that
he has properly repented, good things come his way.
What has happened here?Do we throw out all the genuine, unanswerable questions raised by the
lengthy poem in the middle of the book in favor of a pat and easy ending?A prosperity gospel ending?An ending that says, “Turn to God, and life is
guaranteed to be good again.”
Do we just live with the likelihood that the ending and
beginning, the prose sections, were written long before the poem of depth and
mystery, and eventually were made into a sort of framework for the poetry?That we have before us nothing more than
aproblem of literary history?
Do we just accept something completely unacceptable to us sophisticated
21st century folks, that a new life obliterates the trauma of the
old, and worst of all, that ten new children easily replace those who were
Try telling that to the woman on Staten Island whose little
sons were swept away from her in the hurricane flooding this past week.Try telling it to the parents of the young
police officer who died trying to help his father to safety above the waters
engulfing their neighborhood.
No.We all know that
children are irreplaceable. People are irreplaceable, and whether we have lost
spouses, or parents, or siblings, or children, we know: New ones do not
substitute for those who are gone.
That’s why I’ve never had much use for this ending of
Job.It did not seem to me to speak to
real life.There was no way to make it
But in preparing these sermons, I read some material that
offered me a slightly different take on matters.I am much indebted to a couple of
who suggest that we think about what would have been involved for Job in
And so that’s what I have, indeed, been thinking about this
month.What does it cost Job to start
over?Job knows now, better than most of
us may be required to, the price of love.The risk of love.The potential
for great suffering inherent in love.And yet he accepts new children and new opportunity from God.
I expect that it took him a long time.The Bible, you know, often describes in a few
words something that takes years to unfold.“Job had seven sons and three daughters” – that’s all it says – and as
sort of an afterthought.But if we
ponder that sentence for even a couple of minutes, we know:Ten years, at least.Maybe twenty. That’s how long it takes to have ten children,A decade or two of recovery time.And surely as long to rebuild the flocks and
herds of animals. And with each stage of recovery: anticipation, apprehension,
memories of past loss.This is not an
easy fix for Job and his wife.This is
not a fix that you would casually suggest as a possibility to someone who has
just suffered great loss.This takes time.Lots of time.
And yet, it happens.Not the same as before.Not the
same children, whom Job no doubt mourned for the rest of his life. Not the same
servants, many of whom must have been his friends and close companions.Not the same animals, not the same appearance
to his land and property.When we look
at the pictures of the hurricane devastation in New York and New Jersey, we comprehend,
a little bit: Not the same.Never the
But resurrection can happen.We are offered new vision.New
possibilities.New ways forward.God took a great risk with Job.Way back at the beginning of our tale, God
took a chance on the Satan’s wager.God
took a chance that Job would rise above the conventionalities of his friends;
God took a chance that Job would stick with God.God’s love for us is so great that God is
willing to risk disappointment on our behalf.As it turns out, God is even willing to risk the life of God’s own son
on our behalf.
By the end of both of our readings today, we see that genuine
entanglement with God demands an acceptance of risk on our part as well.Job says that “now my eye sees you,” and he
risks a new future, one upon which he embarks with the sure knowledge that all
that he holds dear, all except one thing – the presence of God – can be taken
from him.Bartimaeus, who regains his
sight, acquires new vision and becomes a follower of Jesus – and if you know
your Bible at all, you know that following Jesus is not a risk-free
Risk – and love.That’s why Job is a great work of literature.That’s why Job is a great book of
Scripture.All great books, and all great
lives, are about the same thing: Risk, and love.All great lives emerge from the willingness
to risk seeing God, and God’s love, in all things.In all circumstances.At all times.
What do you see?If
you are Job today, if you are struggling with tragedy and loss, perhaps you see
God in the whirlwind of all creation, in a force far beyond your comprehension.
Perhaps even in the hurricane. If you are Bartimaeus today, if you are
longing for a chance at seeing anew, perhaps you see God in the lone figure at
the side of the road from whom you seek healing, and whom you begin to follow in
the ordinary life given you each day.The
one you follow when you are in your kitchen, missing someone you love.The one you follow when you are at school or
work, trying to meet challenges that seem beyond you.
God says to Job, See my love in all grand things, and risk
life anew.Jesus says to Bartimaeus, See
me standing before you on this ordinary day, and risk life anew.
No matter who you are, no matter where you are
in life, you are called to risk encounter with God, and to risk the new life
God sets before you.Thanks be, and Amen.
Kathryn Shifferdecker, who mentions Ellen Davis in workingpreacher.org.