Wednesday, May 29, 2013

Help Prevent Suicide ~

. . .  photographer . . .  soccer player . . .  funny . . .  brother . . . canoe-er . . . computer programmer . . .  grandson . . .  camp counselor . . .  brilliant . . . writer . . .  kind . . .  nephew . . .  board game enthusiast . . .  fluent in French . . . cousin . . .   well-traveled . . .  beloved son . . .  lost to this world but never to our hearts . . .

From my FB page:

This September will mark the 5th anniversary of our loss of our Josh. Given that it's one of those significant anniversary years, I've set a higher than usual goal of $3,000 for fundraising for the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention.  [My daughter] Marissa is on the Walk Committee this year, and I'm on the Board of the soon-to-be chartered Northern Ohio Chapter of AFSP. We are strong and hopeful supporters of AFSP's work in research, advocacy and education. Please join us for the Walk if you're in Cleveland on October 19. And wherever you are, please make a donation. 300 x $10 = $3,000!
And, last year, with almost no notice and no "team" beyond ourselves, Ris and I raised over $1,000.  We're trusting all of our friends to help us do better this year.


Sunday, May 26, 2013

Hostility Toward Faith

I've been pastoring officially for only 1.66 years, but I've already experienced the compulsion people seem to feel to defend their faith positions, despite no challenge having been issued.  I suppose that means that my very presence constitutes an unspoken challenge, in their minds at least.

Typical example: Neighborhood gathering, at which a good friend introduces me to another of her friends, proudly identifying me as a pastor.  Her elderly friend looks me over and pronounces airily that she "doesn't believe in God."  As she waits expectantly for ~ well, for what, exactly? ~  I say, "It's so nice to meet you.  I heard that your granddaughter just graduated from college?"

I've been thinking about this seemingly instinctual hostility toward faith, and Christian faith in particular, since my two pieces have been published in the Huffington Post.  The first, a shortened version of a blog posted here, and directly primarily toward Christian pastors dealing with those who grieve, generated some negativity which I took to mean that neither intended audience nor word count had been understood.

Nevertheless, I was a bit startled.  And remorseful.    I think it would be difficult to find a pastor more open to other faith experiences and expressions than I am, but clearly I had failed to communicate that.

The second post, about faith responses to suicide ~ to those who are contemplating or have attempted suicide, and those who have survived their loved ones' completed suicides ~ was written with a more general audience in mind.  Nevertheless, one commenter noted that,

"I think it was you who had another article on HuffPo about helping people deal with the grief of a loved one's suicide and I was very glad to see someone approaching the topic (1 1/2 year since my father's and 7 years since my mother's last attempt). I was disheartened by the tone some of your talking points took in that earlier article seeming to push religion a little much for my comfort. I love the changes that were made it make it more inclusive of all peoples of every religious shading. This is a great guide to helping people talk about dealing with this kind of lose with others. Thank you very much."

I'm glad she found the second one helpful, but I wondered: What on earth had I said in the first one? 
As far as I can tell, it was the following:

"This is a chance for Christian pastors and friends to shine with resurrection hope and assurance.  Almost everyone, regardless of how tenuous or strong his or her connection with the church, regardless of whether he or she is a staunch atheist or a lifetime believer, has some sense or perhaps downright fear that the beloved friend or family member might be in hell, whatever he or she imagines hell to be. If ever there were a time in which people need to hear God's infinite grace and love proclaimed in a ringing public voice and in a quiet private whisper, this is it."

I can understand atheists taking issue with my statement about them if their experience differs; I can  only report what people have said to me.  (In 850 words or less, and without divulging confidences.)

But . . .  shining with resurrection hope?  God's infinite grace and love?  Proclaimed and whispered?

What have we done, we Christians, that people respond with such negativity?  

Of course, I know.  I hear it all that time.  And it's not just Pat Robertson and his ilk.

"You must . . . ".

"You have to . . . ".

"You'll go to hell if you don't . . . "

We pastors find ourselves in a calling filled with people who love to talk, love to preach, love to teach.  I know this, because I am one of those people. 

And we have sometimes proclaimed God's grace so loudly and emphatically and obnoxiously and invasively that people have come to associate it with words and acts they cannot stand to hear or watch.

I think of my father's quiet statement, as we left the funeral home after his wife's funeral.  "Those people are so well-meaning . . .  and so intrusive."

When I try to convey resurrection  hope, I'm talking about the hope that God is already re-creating and renewing the face of the earth.  (Frankly, I don't feel the need to say much.  If you know me and my life history, you know that the fact that I'm alive and in ministry bespeaks resurrection hope.)   When I try to reflect God's infinite grace and love, I'm trying to show that God is out and about, gently loving and caring and tending to all, whether they ever know or acknowledge it or not. 

It seems that we have mostly ourselves to overcome. 
I'm not going to write an article about how God doesn't matter, because I don't believe that to be true. 
But I wish I were better at conveying that I'm inviting people into a discovery of that God, not trying to pummel them into adopting a belief system they're assuming I want to further.  As has been said by many others besides me, I don't believe in that God whom they're rejecting either.

A Pentecost ~ Trinity Sermon

“Why are you Christians polytheists?”
That was a question my ninth graders often asked me, back when I taught in a Jewish school.  “Why are you Christians polytheists?”
Polytheism, the belief in many gods, was a standard ninth grade vocabulary word.  In ninth grade world history, we studied world religions, and so the students needed the vocabulary that would enable them to discuss the different ways in which people around the world experience faith.  The word "polytheism" most often came up in connection with Hinduism, since many Hindus believe in multiple gods – quite different from Buddhism, which for most Buddhists does not involve a belief in a god, a supreme being, as we understand God.
It’s the three Abrahamic religions – Judasim, Christianity, and Islam – the three religions which trace their ancestry to Abraham, which are monotheistic: religions of one God.  And yet, so often my Jewish students asked me, “Why are you Christians polytheists?”  And Muslims, who interpret our belief in Jesus as a belief in a “helping God,” think the same thing – that Christians do not believe in one God. 
That should give you some idea of how confusing the Christian concept of God as a Trinitarian God is.  The other monotheistic religions don’t understand it – and guess what, neither do we! 
We talk about the Trinity– we baptize, for instance, as Jesus instructed us to do, “in the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit.”  That’s why our Affirmation of Faith today comes from the Presbyterian “Brief Statement of Faith” – because that rather lengthy brief statement – we seldom use all of it, and today’s no different – affirms our faith in a Trinitarian formula.
We sing about the Trinity --  that’s why we sang “Holy, Holy, Holy” this morning.  “God in three persons, blessed Trinity.”  The naval hymn, “Eternal Father, Strong to Save,” Is a Trinitarian hymn.  “Eternal Father, O Savior, O Holy Spirit, O Trinity” – those are the first words of its four verses.
We pray with the Trinity.  Catholic Christians end their prayers with the words, “In the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit.”  We often address prayers to one or the other of the persons of the Trinity. 
So the concept of a Trinitarian God is one that we accept – but do we understand it?  Not so much. 
I tried explaining to my Jewish students that a God who is three-in-one resembles something that we understand about ourselves – that different facets of who we are appear in different situations.  You’re one person on the soccer field, I would tell them, and another in the classroom, and another at home with your parents.
Then I got to seminary and discovered that that was a totally wrong explanation.  It isn’t really true of humans, and it definitely isn’t true of God as Trinity.  My only solace lay in discovering that it’s the most frequent “totally wrong” explanation given by Christians.
I’ve heard others say that the Trinity is sort of a hierarchy of command:  God is in charge and gives orders to Jesus, who then transmits them to the Holy Spirit.   Nope.  That one’s also totally wrong.
It’s been popular in recent years to explain the Holy Spirit as a dance.  There’s a Greek word, perichoresisperichoresis, and one of its meaning is “dance.” Maybe.  Or maybe not.  Some of the earliest Christians described the Trinity as a perichoresis, as an eternal dance  of each of the two persons around the third, and many preachers have picked up on that description in the last decade or so.  I think it’s delightful – but my seminary professors didn’t like that one either.   I won’t ask you to struggle through the explanation of why not –  let’s just say it has something to do with the Greek language.
So what is the Trinity?   It might be wise to say, “It’s a mystery,” and leave it at that.  But one thing we do know: It’s about relationship.  From the very  beginning, from before the very beginning as we know it, God was about relationship.  And we can detect that relationship through the winding journey on which Scripture takes us.  There’s no textbook definition in Scripture.  There’s no book in the Bible entitled An Explanation of the Trinity.  But the hints run throughout the narratives and poems and teachings and events.  The hints run through the great conversation about God and God’s creatures that we call Scripture.
Episcopal bishop Charles Robertson tells us that “a[] twelfth-century scholar, Richard of St. Vincent  . . . spoke of God in terms of shared love, a community in which that love is expansive and generous. It is love that cannot be self-contained. It overflows from Parent to Child to Spirit and back again. The love of God, the love that IS God is like a divine Dance [there’s that dance language!], a dynamic and graceful and deeply intimate movement. In this movement, the God who is "I AM" is not alone, never alone, for the very essence of God is relationship. . . . [W]hat we see in the Trinity is a dance of Persons who are mutually affirming, mutually caring. For the very essence of God is relationship, community, unconditional love.

“The very essence of God is relationship, community, unconditional love.”   What does that mean for us?

Most of us probably focus on one person of the Trinity, although that focus may change from time to time during our loves.  I know that for many people here, God is encountered and understood most often as a loving Father.  There are many others throughout the Christian world for whom God is a tender Mother.  For others, Jesus, the revealed face of God, the one who walks with us, converses with us, challenges us and cares for us, is the person through whom we know God.  And, as I’ve recently learned, at least several Nankin folks turn first to the Spirit, or understand God through the workings of the Spirit. 

And yet all of us are talking about and engaging with the One God.  The God who is three distinct persons and yet one person.  One God  -- not many gods, but one God. One God in relationship with all of Godself.

Last week, we celebrated Pentecost, the pouring out of the Holy Spirit, one of the three persons of God/  I was over at Red Haw, and Pastor John was here,  and so I’m going to extend that celebration today so that we can ponder the Trinity, and especially the Holy Spirit, together.  Why?  Because I think that maybe we need to consider together God’s interruptions through the Spirit.
What happened at Pentecost? 
The disciples were waiting – waiting and waiting and waiting for they knew not what.  Jesus had promised to send the Spirit, but they had no idea what that was going to mean.  And then – woosh! Like the wind, and flames! of fire!  And suddenly, they could speak so that all could understand.  There it was, time for a big festival with people from all over the place pouring into Jerusalem, speaking all sorts of languages – and the Holy Spirit created new possibilities, made it possible for all to understand the words from God. 
All.  Everyone included. 
The Creator God who made all, the Son of God who came to redeem all, and now the Spirit of God who speaks to all.  In languages that each of them can understand. 
It’s a bit unsettling, isn’t it?  It’s one thing for the Trinitarian God to be in relationship among its own three persons, but it’s unsettling and distracting and downright troubling when the Spirit pulls all of us into the orbit of the Trinity.
Because we’re all different.  Each of us brings into the community of God who we are and who we are becoming.  We have different ideas.  We have different priorities.  We speak different languages.  And yet we are called to be in relationship.  In community.
One of the things in particular that I, and some of you, have learned is that we speak different languages about God.    We use different words for salvation.  We have different ideas about what’s important in the life of faith. 
And it’s not nearly as easy as it might seem, from the story of the first Pentecost, for us to deal with our varied points of view and our different jumping off spots and landing places, and to give one another the benefit of the doubt.  When the Holy Spirit interrupts – by bringing us together in challenging relationships, by introducing new ideas into our lives, by asking us to grow in ways we hadn’t been planning to grow – when God interrupts us through the wind and fire of the Holy Spirit, it can be mighty uncomfortable.
But let me tell you ~ there aren’t a whole lot of things I know for sure, to use a phrase that Oprah seems to have coined ~ but there is one: when life becomes challenging in unexpected ways, when people make surprising statements, when we find ourselves invited into places we had no intention of going: then the Holy Spirit is at work, just as it was on that first Pentecost morning.
On that first Pentecost morning, Jesus’ followers got their first taste of the Holy Spirit at work.  
It probably wasn’t what they were expecting.    It was probably a most unsettling experience.  Wind!  Fire! Speaking words they didn’t understand!  So dizzying in its effects that people watching them thought they were drunk.   And so dizzying in its message – this is for everyone!  This is what God’s grace looks like ~ extended to everyone  ~  that they must have been filled with questions and wondered how in the world their Christian faith was going to encompass all peoples.  All peoples, with our different languages and backgrounds and understandings.

How in the world indeed?  It’s an unsettling question, and the answer is unsettling as well.  Because the answer is that God, our creative, redeeming, and sustaining God, our Trinitarian God, is going to rush in like the wind to interrupt us in whatever we think we are doing and is going to light the place up with the fire of new questions, new possibilities, and new hope ~ always, always, always, with new hope that we will love God and that we will love one another across barriers that at first seem impossible to surmount. 

Remember  ~ it’s the sense of interruption, the sense of the unexpected, the sense of surprise ~~ and sometimes even the sense of confusion and dismay that everything won’t be exactly as it always was ~  which tell you that the Holy Spirit is at work.   And what is the Holy Spirit doing?

It’s telling us, egging us on, surprising us with the news that we, like our Trinitarian God, are designed for relationship.  That we are called to be in community.  That the very things with which we struggle are the things with which God works best.  That God creates unity ~ not sameness, not rigidity, not identical little automations, but unity in love ~ out of diversity, because God as Trinity is unity in diversity.  

So let the winds of the Spirit blow!  Let the flames of the Spirit burn!  And embrace the interruptions of our Three-in-One God!  Amen.

Saturday, May 25, 2013

Ten Years of Ignatius

Yesterday afternoon as I wandered through the O'Malley Building at John Carroll University, it occurred to me that it has been nearly ten years since I was a member of one of the small groups sitting in a lounge area there, deep in a class discussion on spirituality and narrative. 
I didn't know it then, but that class, taught by Howard Gray, S.J., which I was taking for a master's degree in Humanities (ultimately to be abandoned for an M.Div. instead), was my introduction to Ignatian spirituality.   I don't think that Ignatius was ever explicitly mentioned in that course, but now that I've known Howard for a decade, I know that we were soaking in Ignatian spirituality as we discussed Flannery O'Connor and William Shakespeare.  Howard is one of the world's foremost interpreters and teachers of all things Ignatian, and his love of literature is almost equally renowned.  I have a degree in English literature from an Ivy League university, but I don't think I've ever had a better course in that field than the one for which I had signed up quite by accident in 2003.
I was at John Carroll  yesterday to meet with someone who is just finishing up his year with the Ignatian Spiritual Exercises ~ a year of weekly meetings in which he tells me what's going on in his life of prayer and his relationship with God, and I offer some suggestions for the next week.  I guess it's been seven years since Howard was the director and I was the directee, and it was May, and I had decided to go to seminary, and there was a family of young foxes growing up in the cemetery where I walk, and life was shimmering with loveliness and possibility ~ and so what with my own directee coming to the end of his year, and my memories of those years past and all that has intervened, I was feeling rather melancholy, in a Romantic sort of way.
And then I sat down with my directee and was moved almost to tears as he began to reflect over the past year.  Sometimes it seems almost unbearably fragile and beautiful, those moments in which you brush against another's encounter with God. 
I was also struck by the unexpectedness of, well, all of it.  I've never lost the sense of wonder that I, a Protestant, should have encountered Ignatian spirituality through a Jesuit so devoted to his tradition and so gifted in sharing it.   And yesterday afternoon, that sense of wonder seemed to ripple a little further outward, as I, that Protestant, moved toward the final days of sharing the Exercises with a man whose faith is generally other than Christian.
For me, in particular, someone whose faith has been so sorely tried in the past few years, someone who has experienced God so much more in God's absence and silence than in any other form, someone who has had great reason to believe that she could never do this work ~ yes, it does cause me to wipe my eyes a bit, when another person entrusts me with the story of God in his life.
It looks so ordinary: two people sitting in an empty office in a university itself largely emptied of students, engaged in quiet conversation.
It's so wonderful. Wonder-filled with not a small bit of awe tossed in.


Thursday, May 23, 2013

When Our Children Die

Yesterday was the fifth anniversary of the death of Joey Johnson.  Joey died unexpectedly, in the night, of a complication of epilepsy which I think his parents didn't even know existed.  His mother Karen writes eloquently about what it's like, at five years ~ or, at least, something of what it was like yesterday.
Zachary Shuck died nearly a year ago of suicide.  His father John also writes eloquently of what it's like at that point ~ or, at least, something of what it was like at 3:00 this morning.
I generally feel both ways.  Usually at the same time. 

Sunday, May 19, 2013

Learn Law. Live Justice.

Today's post title comes from the motto of the Cleveland-Marshall College of Law.  We heard it repeatedly yesterday as our Matt was graduated cum laude.  It gave me tremendous cause to think about my own life.  But . . .
For now, I'm celebrating Matt, and our family.  If you've been a reader of this blog, then you know a little about what it has taken for all of us to reach this milestone.  I suppose that this particular graduation has a little extra significance for me.  When I went to law school, it simply seemed "the next thing" to do.  High school - check.  A.B. - check.  J.D. - check.  Now that I've observed the process from the outside, I have more appreciation for what it entails. 
And this particular process?  Matt came home that day we learned that his twin brother died and hasn't left.  He went to work as a server at Aladdin's for two years, pulling himself together and pondering the future.  (The legal job market being what it is, he's back there a couple of nights a week while he studies for the bar exam.)
And then: law school on a full merit scholarship, a summer studying international law in Russia, a summer clerking for a judge in Seychelles, and externships with the offices of the U.S. Attorney  and the County Public Defender. 
He's soaked up every aspect of legal education he could possibly have fit into the past three years, and he's done it well.   I am one very proud mother.


Saturday, May 18, 2013

Question for the Day

In the almost-five years since we came face-to-face with catastrophe, our family has produced a B.A., an M.Div., an M.S.S.A., another J.D., and a potter.
(The latter is the quiet husband, who earned his M.S. many years ago, has worked hard ever since, and now may make the best contribution of any of us, in the form of art.)
So I'm wondering: if we could achieve all of that under the circumstances we've endured, what else might we be able to pull off?

Friday, May 17, 2013

Almost J.D.

As I said on FB, it's been a long time since a robe and hood like these hung in my hallway, newly pressed and awaiting the next day's law school graduation.  1979, to be exact.
Tomorrow Matt joins three generations of Craig law school graduates.  In order: my uncle, me, my cousin, and my half-brother.  Matt's the one named Williams, and I'm the one who went on to something else. 
I haven't practiced law since 2000, but as a pastor I use those lawyer skills every day: reading, analyzing, writing writing writing and, oh yeah, talking, in one form or another.  For the past two days, I've been preparing to lead the Ohio delegation to the annual American Foundation for Suicide Prevention D.C. Advocacy Forum ~ more lawyer skills at work.
Sometimes I wonder whether I will be called to use both sets of skills ~ ministerial and lawyerly ~ in service to the church.  Who knows?
I'm feeling a bit nostalgic today for the practice of law. 
But mostly, I'm very proud and excited, and looking not back, but ahead.
Yay, Matt!  Well done!

Thursday, May 16, 2013

Sorting Hat: Ministry 1.75

We all know about the sorting hat, right?  The Harry Potter hat that lingers over the heads of the students at Hogwarts, sorting them into houses, offering each of them a first taste of identity and assigning to them a place in community?

Now that I've been pastoring for all of 1.75 years, I'm beginning to sense the process of sorting in my own life.  I confess, however, that it has felt more like that illustrated in the photo above:  blinding, confusing, baffling, and altogether too big for me.

When I hopped into my little red car (ok, so it's a Corolla, not a Fiat) and sped off to seminary nearly six years ago, I felt confident and energetic and brimming with hope.  And, indeed, despite that towering and utterly un-transfigured mountain named Greek, all worked out.  I made friends, did well academically, and found what looked to be my place in student life. 

And then Josh died.  The tsunami effect of a child's death by suicide is beyond description.  My efforts to articulate the consequences raging through my life can themselves be described only as a monumental failure.  But those aftereffects do include the tumultuous destruction of self-confidence and the bulldozing of energy and hope. 
And yet . . . je suis ici.  And thriving, in spite of myself.  Who would have ever guessed?
And beginning to sort through my successes and failures of the last 1.75 years, both personal and professional.
We have a brilliant general presbyter at the helm of our Presbytery, and one of the things to which she has committed herself is the development of first-call pastors.  The trickle-down effect is making itself felt, which means that I am settling more comfortably into the "strength-based leadership" she emphasizes.  (I wish someone had shared this with me when I was a young attorney all those centuries ago.  My son graduates from law school day after tomorrow, and I hope he listens!) 
Interestingly, my successes and failures run the gamut.  Surprising moments of triumph and equally surprising moments of defeat manifest themselves across the board.  It doesn't seem to matter whether I'm operating out of a momentary strength or a dash of weakness.
The difference seems to come to light in terms of how I feel about what's happened. (Ignatius would identify these movements as those of consolation and desolation.)  Especially in response to situations in which I know I could have done better.    If I'm functioning in an area in which my gifts are fairly limited, I tend to feel something along the lines of "whatever ~ thank God it's over."  If I'm roaming around a venue of strength, however, I find myself perking up, energized, wondering how I might improve upon what just went down, whether I might approach it differently next time, who else I might drag invite into the conversation.
My sorting hat is lifting itself into place, I do believe.  I'm going to be much more cognizant of my strengths and weaknesses, and begin to focus my efforts, unapologetically, on the former.
In the meantime, I "see" that as I ponder these brilliant thoughts, I have misplaced my glasses again.  I think that my strengths would be greatly enhanced by moving to a one-room house.

Wednesday, May 15, 2013

Unknown Soldier

This afternoon I presided over the funeral service of a woman whose name I had never heard until after she died, when a funeral director unknown to me gave me a call. 

She was in her late eighties, and she and her husband, who died last winter without any subsequent notice to their church (that would be my church), had apparently become estranged from everyone on their lives.  No children, but a few surviving siblings, their families, and an assisted living facility filled with people, with none of whom they maintained relationships.

In addition to my own congregants, I have visited with several people who live, or lived, in various forms of institutional care here, and who have at most a tangential relationship to our church.  They come to my attention one way or another, and I go to see them.  Sometimes I simply sit with them for awhile, sometimes several times over the course of weeks or months, because I believe that the dying should have companions, even ~ or perhaps especially ~ if they have no way of knowing who, or whether anyone, is present to them.

But this elderly couple did not come to my attention, which means that neither of them was ever even mentioned in a passing conversation.

How does this happen?

How can someone live into her eighties, become widowed, and slowly slip away, without anyone at all remarking upon her existence?
As it turned out, about twenty people did show up for her service, including two nurses who have cared for her for the past two years.  None of them were able to shed much light on her life.  In talking to everyone before the service, I learned that she had effectively severed all family ties, and that no one knows why.
The others who materialized were from a military veterans' group and from the United States Navy.  The lady in question had served in the WAVES during World War II.
Thank God for the gift of imagination.  My homily emerged from Psalm 139 ~ the God who accompanies us everywhere, the God to whom even the darkness ~ in this case, the darkness of the human heart and mind ~ is as light ~ and from my imaginings about her life.  She had once been an adventuresome girl who joined the Navy, she had had colleagues at a number of jobs,  and she has a large extended family.
The general consensus of those who spoke to me afterward was, in the words of one relative through another, "That gal did a great job, especially with nothing to work with."
But I did have a lot to work with.  Things happen. God loves, anyway.  God heals and restores.  It's a mystery.
That's the story.

Tuesday, May 14, 2013

St. Mary Star of the Sea

Christmas, 2008.
Stunned, dazed, bereft, the four of us staggered around Key West in a fog.
We had opted for the "change everything" holiday advice to the bereaved.
Instead of hosting forty friends in our home for the most traditional of Christmas festivities, our tiny family barbecued seafood on the deck in Key West.  (When we called our friends at home, dear Lynda, whose husband had also died that year, and who had chosen the "everything the same" alternative, and I spoke, and we agreed that there was no solace to be had in either case.)
Instead of a Christmas Eve service in the Gothic sanctuary in which we had spent almost all of the previous twenty-five Christmas Eves, we went to the Episcopal church on Duval Street, but ended up on the front steps in tears long before the liturgy concluded.  There we were confronted with a band across the street playing music with obscene lyrics, a direct finger-in-your face gesture to those in the candlelit church.  The Worst Christmas Eve Ever.
Instead of the wide expanse of the St. Augustine oceanfront, we tracked sand in from the narrow beaches of the Keys.  Florida magic, Florida birds, Florida skies ~ but in a place we had not shared with Josh.
One of my discoveries during my many expeditions near Mile 0 was the Basilica of St. Mary Star of the Sea.  My photo of its chancel window appears on Picturing God today!  The website for the basilica is filled with information, including a description of the window ~ scroll down on this page.
I was reminded of that Key West day when another Picturing God contributor offered an image of the spires of the church some time ago. I was sure that somewhere in my messy mass of completely disorganized photos was a picture of the window. 
2008.  It was to be more than a year before I encountered any sense of God again, and nearly two years before I was to make friends with Mary at Wernersville, and to find a miniscule of a bit more. 
But despite the elusive and silent God who was to dominate my seminary experience, I found this window to be beautifully powerful.  I would love to see it again someday, someday now that the warmth of the Florida  sun is perceptible again.


Saturday, May 11, 2013

Mother's Day

I have always thought of Florida as a magical place.  A place where mothers and children practically live on the beach together.  The top photo, of my mother and youngest brother, was taken at the house on Eugenia Lane in Vero Beach, shortly before my parents finished the house on Azalea Lane, the one designed to become our someday permanent home.  We did move in that May -- and I acquired my first room of my own, the one my mother and I planned to decorate with beach paraphernalia.  Those conversations are among the last with her that I remember.  We returned to Ohio for the summer and fall, and then in October she and baby Dudley were gone.
I took the bottom photo on the beach at St. Augustine, our last family trip of probably twenty spent there.  Nighttime -- I wonder whether we were saying good-bye?  We always went out to say hello and good-bye to the ocean, first and last thing.  But the kids' college and job schedules became increasingly complicated, and then Josh was gone.
I can't say that I hate Mothers' Day. We gave it short shrift, growing up  . . . It wasn't a day I wanted to celebrate with my stepmothers, and no one pushed it. I suppose my various steps-siblings felt much the same about Fathers' Day, although they were all in possession of actual fathers in other places, so the complexities varied.   When I was a young mother myself, we all celebrated joyfully.    These days, Mothers' Day is not much different from Christmas, or Thanksgiving, or Easter, or all the other holidays, really; difficult to endure, but no longer terrible. And I do have two beautiful living children, whose strength and resilience astonish me every day, and whom I will delight in seeing tonight.
Other people have already said all the eloquent things: about lost mothers, and lost children, and women who for one reason or another have not had children, or not been able to raise their children, and the whole messy idea of a day to celebrate mothers. I'll just say this:  the young church secretary dashed into a meeting this past week to show me the "Happy Mothers' Day!" cover she had made for Sunday's bulletin and to ask if it was all right.  I guess the look on my face said it all, because someone else offered, "I guess NOT."  (We decided to go with it.  Everyone else seemed to like it, and my prayer for Sunday covers the rest.)
Mothers and children.  The greatest anguish ever.  The greatest joy ever.  That's pretty much my life story.

Wednesday, May 8, 2013

What Shall I Write About?

Let's see . . .  there was the National Day of Prayer breakfast.  I was reminded, as I sat in a banquet room with 450 people and listened to prayers that were 100% Christian and essentially included an altar call (in words, not acts) and a rousing singing of "God Bless America," that two years ago I served on my home city's committee for an interfaith commemoration of the 10th anniversary of the September 11 attacks.   These were very different experiences and events.  I could write about those.  Or not.
Monday I went to an outstanding program on suicide prevention for clergy and mental health professionals.  I learned some things that were immediately helpful, and heard some viewpoints that were disturbing.  I could write about that.  Or not.
This afternoon I am co-officiating at a funeral with a Church of the Brethren pastor.  We have some, uh, differences.  I could write about that.  Or not.
Last night I was told that if I were a more experienced pastor, I would know when to remain silent.  I could write about that.  Or not.
I am having some trouble here.  In general.  Last week someone who knows about these things said to me, in a good kind of way (I think), that I am an extremely self-actualized person.  I don't really understand what that means, but I think it explains why I am having some trouble.  In general.
I think what I'll write about is this: On my walk this morning, I saw a red-headed woodpecker.  Made my day.  And it wasn't even 8:00.


Friday, May 3, 2013

Pondering the Aging Experience

Most of the people I know in my own age bracket ~ say, 55-65 ~ are moving into that time of life in which our parents are thinking about their final decades, or are already in or beyond the thick of it, with surviving parents needing or no longer able to make care  and end-of-life decisions.
My dad is 81, and I'm trying to encourage him to consider the alternatives that might be available to him, should he no longer be able to live on his own or with his partner ~ in his two-story house in the woods, two miles from town.  He tells me that his preference, should he become ill or disabled,  is for a quick death. 
Well, yes.  His hope is hardly a unique one. 
As one of my friends says, all of those people confusedly wandering the halls of Alzheimer's units did not exactly aspire to that particular destiny.
Most of the congregants in my small church are in their seventies and eighties, and several are in their nineties.  I spend much of my pastoral care time visiting with them.  I pepper them with questions about life from 75-95, as I wonder what matters to them now, how they prefer to spend their time, and what they think about where and with whom they live. 
With all of the above in mind, as well as the details of the countless stories  that come my way, I suggested to my group of women friends that we gather to discuss some of the things that our parents let slide ~ at least insofar as we know.  We've decided on three topics:
Where and how would we like to live if we become unable to live on our own?
What are our end-of-life preferences in the event of impending death?
What are our wishes for our funerals?
Oh, those are uplifting topics, you may be saying. 
But I see among the members of my congregation how seldom they are discussed, how stymied adult children are when backed into a corner in which decision-making is required, and how almost no one is able to suggest music or readings for a parent's funeral. 
My friends and I, most of us, have known one another for 25 years, and we are going to be counting on each other to take care of these things ~ but we don't know enough about these matters in general, let alone what we think about them.
We met this past week to begin to discuss the first question.  We quickly realized that the options seem limitless until they don't, that those of us who still have husbands are not necessarily in agreement with them about where to live as we age, and that money is an enormous factor.   
We talked more seriously than we have in the past about what my son calls our "commune" -- our somewhat serious desire to live together, or even nearer to one another than we do now, and hire someone to provide care if we need it, as an alternative to institutional living.
We talked over the huge issue of moving either directly in with children, or to assisted living care near them ~ only to have to confront the possibility of another move if those children decide to move elsewhere for new jobs.
A couple of us are going to make some visits ~ to a nearby apartment building which caters to the elderly, and is practically on top of shopping and dining possibilities - no driving required, and to one or two of the crème-de-la-crème retirement communities.
[Me?  I don't have a great need for independence (as opposed to solitude), I hate to cook, and I have a constant craving for stimulating conversation and engagement, at least at the level of observation, with respect to arts and politics and knowledge in general.  So to me, the retirement community connected with Oberlin College, about an hour away, or the one right here at Case Western and inhabited by many of Cleveland's movers and shakers, sounds ideal.  My husband isn't nearly at interested (i.e., not at all interested), and they are probably both out of our price range anyway.]
Our little group didn't get very far, but at least we are talking and asking questions.

Thursday, May 2, 2013

What the Bible Says About Suicide

Someone asked me this question a few weeks ago.  I think I remember who it was, but I'm not entirely sure. 

There are some people who in the Bible who die of suicide.  I don't think it says anything of much significance about them.  The events are recorded; actions and a few words.  That's it.

Here's what I understand from the Bible about suicide:

"I call heaven and earth to witness against you today that I have set before you life and death, blessings and curses. Choose life so that you and your descendants may live" (Deuteronomy 30:19).

This choice might be more difficult than you know.  And if it slips from your fingers . . .

"Where can I go from your spirit? Or where can I flee from your presence? If I ascend to heaven, you are there; if I make my bed in Sheol, you are there. If I take the wings of the morning and settle at the farthest limits of the sea, even there your hand shall lead me, and your right hand shall hold me fast. If I say, 'Surely the darkness shall cover me, and the light around me become night,' even the darkness is not dark to you; the night is as bright as the day, for darkness is as light to you" (Psalm 139:7-12).

Jesus instructs:

"Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted" (Matthew 5:3-4).

Have you known someone more impoverished in spirit than the one who has so lost sight of his or her belovedness that death seems preferable to life?  And if you know his or her survivors, you surely know that we mourn.

Paul insists:

"I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord" (Romans 8:38-39).

And, in the end and in the beginning, when there is a new heaven and a new earth:

"God will wipe every tear from their eyes. Death will be no more; mourning and crying and pain will be no more" (Revelation 21:4).

That's what I think the Bible says about suicide.