Monday, April 29, 2013

Surviving a Child's Suicide - Some Truth at Four Years and Eight Months

I've noticed several visitors recently showing up via "child's suicide" searches, so I thought I'd give a brief report, in case it's of hope/help to anyone.  Of course, Josh's death has been much on my mind since it occurred while I was on retreat in September of 2008.  I am grateful for the days of silence and prayer, but they are not peaceful days for me.
In summary:
Overall, I feel pretty normal most of the time.  This is a fairly new and unexpected dedvelopment.  "Normal" encompasses some things it didn't used to, but I seem to have fairly typical reactions to most events and conversations, at least on the surface. I can work; I can engage in some fairly intense conversation and reading and writing; and I can sort through photographs and videos without trauma.
I still tire easily.  I still have trouble with short-term memory.  Much of the 2008-2010 period  is gone.  Some of that may, of course, be due to impending Birthday 60.  But I tend to think the majority of it is due to my mind being cluttered with things it should not contain. 
Flashbacks?  Oh, yeah.  If you are telling me about a recent trip to Chicago, or Yellowstone, or France, I am not seeing what you are seeing.  But I can live with it.  And I am trying  intentionally to replace the horrific memories with lovely, joyful substitutes.  
Some of the things I do for my work?  Let's just say the word: Dissociation.  I have a good time; I feel joy for the people who are getting married (by me), or whose baby is being baptized (by me), or who are receiving communion (from me).  I block out the rest.
Physical?  I'm pretty much a mess.  But I am back to walking three miles a day, which is a considerable help in many areas of life.  There are some weird bodily things going on that are probably grief-based.  Whatever.
Gratitude?  I'm feeling and expressing it these days.  I am grateful for my husband and surviving children, for their gifts and hard work, and for their incredible strength and resiliency, dramatically tested and well-honed in ways that most people in our world never have to know about.  I'm grateful for my home and my neighborhood and my brother and my friends, of whom I have far more than I could ever deserve.  I'm grateful to have staggered through seminary and spiritual direction training and to be able to serve God in some sort of direct way. 
God?  Well, I never write the full story.   We are doing better.  But we have a way to go.  I don't have the kind of confidence that a lot of my bereaved mom friends do in a reunion in the next life ~ whatever that means.  That's what it will take.  I preach my hope in the assured healing and restoration of all creation, which includes one person in particular, but I don't claim certainty.   Not privately.  (I guess this isn't so private.)  On many occasions, I still preach w-aaaa-y out there ahead of myself. 
I'm not a better person.  I am not wiser, I am not more compassionate, I am neither kinder nor gentler.  I might be more patient, but probably not.  I was enough of all those things Before, and the After has not created some  new Mother Goddess of Empathy.  I am mostly pretty pissed, you know?  But not always.
So.  That's one version.  It's not universal.  It's  mine.

Into the Silent Land Revisted

Martin Laird, O.S.A., journeyed to Wernersville last week-end to lead a two-day contemplative prayer retreat ~ for me, the retreat within a retreat.  Ninety people, probably all of them familiar with his books, Into the Silent Land and A Sunlit Absence, showed up to listen to his presentations and to spend time in silence with one another.
(Michelle and I spent some months awhile ago blogging back and forth about Into the Silent Land; those posts remain linked in my bar above.  I've read A Sunlit Absence as well and, to tell the truth, I couldn't make head nor tail of it.  I will probably give it another try soon.)
I thought I'd offer just a very few vignettes from the presentations, and explore them in more detail later, as I sort through my own prayer and reactions. I'm using quotation marks even though these are not verbatim quotations; they're close enough, and I want to indicate that the source is Martin Laird rather than myself.
"Inner silence constitutes inner spaciousness."
"In our spiritual lives, we are like someone fishing for minnows from the back of a whale ~ sitting on the greatest catch of all, and yet satisfied with something puny."
"You will know that you are in the countryside of prayer when you experience joy and reverence at the same time." (That one comes from Evagrius rather than from Marty Laird.)
"The purpose of the Christian life is to open the eye of the heart, where God may be known." (That was one of Augustine's contributions.)
"In the practice of contemplative prayer, we move away from the chatter of discursive prayer in our heads in which, no matter how dreadful the narrative, we always have the starring role."  (A Laird riff on Evagrius, which I found hilarious, and oh-so-true!)
As you might be able to tell, the presentations were divided roughly into material on the history of Christian contemplation and reflections on its actual practice.  Marty Laird is the master of metaphor, and listening to his measured, unhurried  observations is itself an exercise in contemplative prayer.
I've studied a lot of the material he presented and I'm somewhat familiar with the development of contemplative prayer in the Christian tradition.  (And even in my Presbyterian seminary, we were offered a tinge of an introduction to the desert fathers and mothers in the context of our church history sequence ~ a linear and factual introduction, not an invitation into the spirituality of the desert by someone who had himself delved deeply into its pathways.)  But to hear a master of the tradition, someone who has spent his life exploring its nooks and crannies, bring it to life is to be yourself immersed, however briefly, into that sea of prayer.
We do, in reality, mostly relax in our beach chairs on top of the whale.

Saturday, April 27, 2013

Retreat Lunch

Dramatis personae:  Bill, S.J. - Jesuit of fifty-plus years who has journeyed with me for the past three, and Me - Presbyterian pastor of less than two years, on a road and traveling, traveling, traveling, looking for something; what can it be?  (Yes, Joni Mitchell.)
Setting: Dining room, last day.
Bill, munching on salad:

Aren't you Protestants the ones who are supposed to be all about grace?

Friday, April 26, 2013

This One's For Karen EAST (No Sense of Direction!)

A day at Wernersville:



Retreat Pondering

While I was on retreat, the following poem by Veronica A. Shoffstall popped up on People for Others.  I commented that it might well be re-titled "Retreat at Wernersville.
After a while you learn the subtle difference between
holding a hand and chaining a soul,
And you learn that love doesn't mean learning and
company doesn't mean security,
And you begin to learn that kisses aren't contracts
and presents aren't promises,
And you begin to accept your  defeat with your head
up and your eyes open, with the grace of an adult,
not the grief of a child,
And you learn to build all your roads on today
because tomorrow's ground is too uncertain for
After a while you learn that even sunshine burns if
you get too much.
So you plant your own garden and decorate your own
soul, instead of waiting for someone else to bring you
And you learn that you really can endure...
That you really are strong,
And you really do have worth.
I would say that there's a Part II in this for me, which I'll post in a couple of days.

Thursday, April 25, 2013

Retreat: Calm Before Storm

No desk at which I have ever worked looks anything like this five minutes after I've gotten started.   I took this photograph of my desk at Wernersville after I had cleaned up one evening ~  as false evidence of a clear and thoughtfully engaged mind.
Journal collage page on the right: I spent a lot of time over the first few days on Matthew 14:22-33.  You might like to try that sometime.


Wednesday, April 24, 2013

Spa Week at Wernersville . . . Not!

So here's what I did on retreat:

I walked 3-4 miles every day.  Unfortunately, the retreat center sits atop a hill, so every walk, no matter the route, proceeds down and then returns up.   

I sat in the Adirondack chairs in the sun as much as possible.

I cut out pictures and made collages, and colored in lots of Celtic patterns ~ a methodically and rhythmically prayerful way of spending time.  (I have been so very, very sick of words of late, and so I took a huge bag of art supplies with me.)

I went to daily mass. Since I was there during a "nonofficial" retreat time, there were only a few people at the liturgy each morning. Once I looked around and thought, Hmm, six Jesuits and me.  Interesting crowd.  (And then a few staff members showed up.)

I got to meet George Aschenbrenner, S.J.  "You're the guy who taught us all to pray the examen!" I exclaimed, when I stopped him in the hallway to introduce myself.  "Well, the Holy Spirit had something to do with that," he responded.  I told him that I am a Presbyterian pastor and an Ignatian spiritual director.  "There seem to be more and more of those," he reflected.

I met with my spiritual director every day, and pondered and wondered and prayed with the observations he made.  Those are the times when it becomes most apparent that a silent retreat is not for the faint-of-heart, or for those dreaming of a relaxing spa day.  (In the summertime, I often sit in the Adirondack chairs in the afternoon sun and paint my toenails, but even then: tough stuff going on.)

I did follow the Boston Marathon case to some extent.  More than I should have ( iPhones represent a terrible temptation), but far, far less than I would have had I been home.

I was struck, as our small group gathered for mass the day after the marathon, by the awesome faithfulness of quiet Christian witness: a few people who considered that the most important thing they could do in the face of mind-bending violence and horror would be to spend half an hour celebrating a liturgy.

More on the week-end retreat-within-a-retreat later.


Friday, April 12, 2013

Just Ahead

Tomorrow morning:

The Monthly Pancake Breakfast at my church.  A lot of people from the surrounding area come.   It will be busy and crowded and noisy.

Tomorrow evening:

The Tenth Anniversary Celebration of the Ignatian Spirituality Institute, where I did my spiritual direction training.  In a moment of weakness some months ago, I agreed to host the speech-ifying part.  Since someone from each of the ten classes will be saying something, I'm going to talk about Ignatian repetition in prayer.  I also have one joke, because I was instructed to be funny.  Jokes are not my thing; usually I cannot remember them for more than about a second.  But this one made me laugh.  Let's hope I can remember it for another twenty-four hours.


A complete and total day off.  With some laundry and packing.  Because . . .

Monday morning:

A drive to Pittsburgh for the seminary Taize' service and visits and lunch with professors and

Monday afternoon:

Keep driving until I reach Wernersville for dinner, a meeting with the lovely man who's been my director there for now the fourth time, and

Silence begins.

In my head, I am already there!

Image: Wernersville Jesuit Center, October 2010

Seven Stanzas at Easter

Make no mistake: if he rose at all
It was as His body;
If the cell’s dissolution did not reverse, the molecule reknit,
 The amino acids rekindle,
 The Church will fall.

 It was not as the flowers,
Each soft spring recurrent;
It was not as His Spirit in the mouths and fuddled eyes of the
 Eleven apostles;
It was as His flesh; ours.

 The same hinged thumbs and toes
 The same valved heart
That-pierced-died, withered, paused, and then regathered
 Out of enduring Might
 New strength to enclose.

 Let us not mock God with metaphor,
Analogy, sidestepping, transcendence,
Making of the event a parable, a sign painted in the faded
Credulity of earlier ages:
Let us walk through the door.

 The stone is rolled back, not papier-mache,
 Not a stone in a story,
 But the vast rock of materiality that in the slow grinding of
Time will eclipse for each of us
 The wide light of day.

 And if we have an angel at the tomb,
Make it a real angel,
Weighty with Max Planck’s quanta, vivid with hair, opaque in
 The dawn light, robed in real linen
 Spun on a definite loom.

 Let us not seek to make it less monstrous,
For our own convenience, our own sense of beauty,
Lest, awakened in one unthinkable hour, we are embarrassed
 By the miracle,
And crushed by remonstrance.



~ John Updike


Thursday, April 11, 2013

Huff Po

Over at The Huffington Post tonight, with an adapted version of the RevGals post ~ thanks to the RevGals themselves!

Wednesday, April 10, 2013

Suicide Survivors

I'm over at RevGals today, talking about pastoral care for suicide survivors.
Please come on over and read and comment.
And then come back later this afternoon for the Wednesday Festival!


Monday, April 8, 2013


I went to college in Providence, Rhode Island, but I can't recall having ever given the city's name much thought.

I think I memorized some material about the word "Providence" as I prepared for my ordination exams, but it wasn't a word I'd heard utilized much, and so that particularly arena of studying fell into one of those "memorize without meaning" categories.  Like Greek.

But I find myself today placing the word "Providence" at the top of my list for prayer and study and exploration and wondering.

I used to care a lot about whether God suffered with us.  It seemed obvious to me that the answer was "yes" ~ as Jesus, betrayed by his friends and followers and executed on a cross; as God, a loving parent watching a child suffer; and as the Spirit, seeking to wend its way throughout the experience of human life.  Then I got to seminary and discovered a wide range of viewpoints on this topic, and I read a lot about it after Josh died, and I wondered a LOT.

And then I didn't care anymore.

In last night's episode of Call the Midwife, Dr. Turner says to one of the midwife sisters after the inexplicable death of a newborn, "These are the times when I wish I had your faith."  The young Sister Bernadette looks calmly at him and responds, "These are the times when I wish it made a difference." He looks rather startled, and it occurred to me that that exchange must mark the beginning of the love story I know is coming. 

I suppose that's the point I've reached.  Whether or not God suffers, as we do or in some other God kind of way, makes no difference to our lives here.

On the other hand, whether God cares and provides for us, here and later ~ that might be making a difference.

I have discovered recently that a number of people in my congregation share a cut-and-dried and, to my way of thinking, brutally limited, understanding of who God is and what God is up to.  You accept Jesus into your life and you're going to heaven.  You don't, and you aren't.  I've also discovered that when I try to respond to them by conveying (in a most paltry way, apparently) the abundant and infinite nature of God's love, they respond to me by saying, "No."

I have no idea what to do about this. 

I thought that eventually I might invited to schedule my departure over the issues of gay marriage and ordination. 

Now I think that it might be over something far more fundamental.

So . . . Providence.  God's care and provision for us.  That's what I'm wondering about these days.  And how I communicate that God is way more interested in all those "re" words ~ renewal, restoration, reconciliation, re-creation ~ that in the "de" ones ~ destruction, demolition, devastation.

Or.  I guess I could be wrong.

Sunday, April 7, 2013

What I Did on Sunday

I got up and looked at my computer screen and sent the following email:
Dear Mr. Kaleem,
For the past day, I have been staring at headlines claiming that "Pastor Rick Warren's son committed suicide," including one above your own article.
You are in a position to have an effect on the usage of that horrific phrase, "committed suicide."
Most people who die of suicide, especially those who die due to acute or prolonged mental illness (which is, indeed, the vast majority of people who so die) do not "commit" suicide, any more than someone "commits" a heart attack, or cancer, or diabetes.
Death by suicide is not a crime.
It only adds to the anguish of survivors to hear and read a phrase that implies that their loved one intended to leave them, as you or I would understand the meaning of the phrase, or engaged in criminal activity.
You and the Huffington Post wield the power of the media, and are in a position to influence the language we use to describe mental illness and one of its possible consequences.
Please consider altering yours to terms such as "died of suicide" or "died by suicide," words that you might use to describe other means of death.
I am a suicide survivor and a pastor, and I thank you for your consideration.
I had a serious discussion with someone whose (self-described) black-and-white theology leaves no room for my multi-hued and shaded version.
And then, for the first time, I baptized a beautiful little baby.  And proclaimed as loud and as long and as emphatically as I could that God's love is abundant and limitless and will not be subverted.
Because if I did not believe that, I would not be a suicide survivor, and I would not be baptizing any babies.

Friday, April 5, 2013

Kicking Back (Friday Five)

Pat is way out west in one of my favorite places, the Tetons, asking about our plans for Easter Sabbaths.  Only ten more days! . . .  and I am off to the Wernersville Jesuit Center west of Philly for a week-plus silent retreat.  This will be a bit different than the past few times I've been there; I'll be between regularly scheduled retreats, so there won't be the usual forty or so people eating in silence and wandering around in solitude together.  I have no idea who will be there, but people do pop in and out for a day or a few days at a time.  Given this year's cold, I don't suppose that the grounds will have burst into bloom yet (I took the photo last April), but it will still be wonderful to settle into my small room in a massive building in which silence is the first language.
Another difference: I'll be making a retreat within a retreat, as Marty Laird, O.S.A, will be presenting a retreat over the week-end.  Here's the description:
INTO A SILENT LAND: A Contemplative Prayer Intensive
April 19-21, 2013
Martin Laird, O.S.A.
This silent retreat will feature sitting in silent prayer together as a way to affirm and deepen the life of contemplative prayer which most of us practice alone in the course of our daily lives.   Apart from times dedicated to sitting in silence together, Martin Laird will focus his conferences on some of the noble failures and encouraging defeats that we all face, like all the saints and sages, as we release into the God who is already shining out our eyes.  While praying and eating together in silence will keynote this retreat, there will also be time for solitary prayer and walks in nature.
Martin Laird, O.S.A., Ph.D., has studied Early Church thought and spirituality in Rome, London, and Oxford.  Since 1998 he has taught at Villanova University.  He is the translator or author of numerous books and articles, including two highly acclaimed books on the practice of contemplation:  Into the Silent Land and A Sunlit Absence: Silence, Awareness and Contemplation (each from Oxford University Press). For many years he has lectured and led retreats throughout the United States, Ireland, and Great Britain.
Michelle and I spent some time awhile ago writing back and forth about Into the Silent Land (the posts are linked in the bar above).  I am SO excited for this opportunity to sink into even deeper silence and to learn and pray with a group of similarly-inclined folks.
Now, if everything at church remains on an even keel for the next ten days . . .       . 

Thursday, April 4, 2013

End of Life Conversations Which Don't Happen

I am finding that one of the most challenging aspects of ministry for me is engaging in conversations with people whose lives are ending. 
Not because I'm hesitant or apprehensive.  Not because I don't know how to ask open-ended and evocative questions.  Not because I have nothing to offer in response, whether to wonderment or fear or acceptance.
But because people really don't want to go there. Either bodily or in conversation.
Neither the people who are dying nor their family and friends who accompany them.
I am baffled by this.

Wednesday, April 3, 2013

How Did You Happen to Go (Come) to Church?

My husband and I began to attend a large United Methodist church as we approached our thirties. He had grown up in a small Methodist church, and I had grown up in boarding schools where attendance at services were required, but neither of us had been inside a church building, except for the occasional wedding or funeral, in over a decade.  We were a pretty typical Yuppie couple ~ a corporate lawyer, a corporate computer guy, living in our first home, traveling as extensively as our paltry vacation time permitted, and wedded to late breakfasts and the Times on Sunday mornings. No children in sight, although we were thinking that we would like some.

It went something like this:

I woke up one morning and said, "We should find a church."

I don't really know why I said that.  I think I felt that our lives had become kind of money-driven and materialistic-oriented, and that there were other things we cared about ~ the environment, poverty, education ~ but weren't doing anything to address.  And that maybe in a church we would find other people who wanted to live in ways that were more balanced than ours was and more attentive to motives and concerns beyond the bottom line. 

A few days later, my husband said, "We should try that Methodist church down the road.  You'll like it; it looks like a cathedral.  And we can watch the services on cable first, so we don't have to go there without any idea what we might be getting into."

So we watched some of the services on the local cable station.  The preacher seemed brilliant and articulate and in possession of an impressive array of knowledge.  Not that we knew anything much about preachers ~ but he sounded like what I expected a preacher to sound like, based on my boarding school experience.  The music was spectacular ~ that I did know a little about.   

Off we went, usually walking the mile or so down a bicycle path through our neighborhood.  That's how we happened to go to church.

In my own little church, the one which I serve as pastor, most of the people come because they have always come to church.  Their parents brought them when they were children ~ most of them, to this particular church ~ and here they have stayed.  Or they were married here because one partner or the other was a member, and this is where they landed as a couple.  Most of those who came in the later years of their lives had always been church members in one place or another; some have moved, while others became dissatisfied with a former pastor or community.  One young man told me the other day that he had gone through a rough patch in his life for several years, and came to think that he "needed to get back with the church."  There is a sort of general sense, which folks occasionally articulate if pressed to do so, that church "is where you should be on Sunday morning."
My point?  There are a lot of people in church ~ most? nearly all? ~ myself included, who did not come to church in the first place out of an expressed desire for relationship with God.  I'm not saying that God isn't seeking relationship with us; in fact, I believe that that's exactly what's going on.  But most of us seem to arrive out of a vague sense that there's something more to life, something grander, than our ordinary, day-to-day concerns.  Something that imbues the ordinary with meaning.  Even the simplest of statements ~ "All we do is work," or "I needed to get back with the  church," or "The week just wouldn't feel right without church on Sunday" ~  indicate a need and a desire to connect with something beyond the mundane.
Karl Rahner says that the essence of grace is found in the self-communication of God to the transcendent human spirit ~ the "this-ness" of God reaching out to us whether we recognize it or not.  I think that God's reach is the explanation for how and why we happen to arrive in the doorway of a church, although it seems entirely possible that almost none of us know that.
And then what?

Tuesday, April 2, 2013


This afternoon, someone said something to me along the lines of, "After everything that's happened, you're still standing, you're still faithful, you're healed . . . ".
"I'm not any of those things," I interrupted.
And then I gave those words some thought.  I gave them some thought as I worked on a writing project and taught a Bible study class (still faithful), went for a walk (still standing), sent the friends of this morning some information that might (or might not) be helpful (healed? no - but knowledgeable about needs and  resources? absolutely).
There are still days when, if I am able to indulge myself, I don't get up.  Sundays can't be those days, and most days needn't be but, yes, there are days when I brush my teeth and sigh to myself, "I can't do my life today," and I crawl back into bed with a book.  I'm not apologizing, either.  It may not look like it, but it takes a lot of concealed energy to be me.  Every time another 90-year-old lady tells me stories about her wonderful children, all of them alive and well, I feel some of that energy dribbling onto the floor and seeping into the hallway as I will myself to smile and encourage her to tell me more.
But on the whole, most days, I do get up and do the things I'm called upon to do.   Whatever it is I'm saying about my inner feelings, on the outside, I'm doing.
And so I also considered the words of my guy Ignatius, without whose 16th century Catholic self I would not be a 21st century Protestant minister:
"Love is shown more in deeds than in words."
And so, hey!  I may think of myself as the person who's immobilized by grief and confusion, but ~ actually, I'm not.  I am plenty mobilized, except on the days when I'm not.
This is an intriguing little revelation for me.
And so (yeah, there are a lot of "and sos" tonight)  . . . Look for some posts about ministry.  I guess I'll start writing some more about these things I'm doing.  And maybe even on occasion what I think about them.
Let's see . . .  Extremely liberal city girl who loves pomp and circumstance serves low-key rural church in one of the most conservative counties in the state.  Krista Tippett, meet Moody Bible Radio.  Cleveland Orchestra on the ipod, County Fair on the sneakers.  Guess what?  There are homeless people and hungry people and lost people and open-minded people and close-minded people and sick people and sad people and content people and PO'd people in both places.
There should be something to write about.


Honestly, I promise, I wasn't going to write here about suicide or grief for awhile.  Enough, already.  I know that Lent and Easter, like Advent and Christmas and like the end of summer, when all my children's birthdays are, make me just a little crazy with sorrow.  And Holy Week sends me right over the top, what with the reliving, over and over, the grief of a mother while at the same time preparing to proclaim resurrection.  But, really, who cares?
There are plenty of other things I could write about.  Ministry supplies an endless variety of intriguing topics, if one can but figure out how to disguise people and events adequately so as to explore the dilemmas without revealing identities or inadvertently hurting congregations.

But over the week-end, three people known to friends died of suicide: a young man about the age my son was, and a youngish-couple, parents of young adult children.
Or do I even feel like yelling? 
I feel . . .  depleted.  Deflated. 
I have learned so much about suicide in the past four years that I automatically begin to contemplate the final minutes in the lives of each of these individuals, all of them unknown to me, but each of whose pain was searing and then, ultimately, numbing.  My friends and I who have lost children, we have discussed their final minutes with one another in considerable detail.  After such knowledge, what forgiveness?
And I also imagine the days and months and years ahead to which the surviving loved ones have been consigned.  There will be no resurrection morning at an empty tomb, not in this lifetime.  And who knows about the next?
I remember what my friend Lisa once said: You think you cannot survive for another minute, and then one day you look back and it's been years.
What would I say to all these new survivors? 
Minute by minute. 
They could not do this, but you can.
For now, just hang on to the minutes.