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Let me first make some things clear:
Jesus messed me up. Completely. In fact, he messed up my life. Before Jesus, I aspired to live a neatly packaged life, where you did “good” from a distance, like collecting canned goods for the food pantry. But I never imagined myself meeting the folks who needed the food, or if I did, it was with warm, easy smiles. My interior life was not going to be messy either, overwrought with competing emotions and endless questions. The equation was to be simple: Earnest Kindness = Contentedness. Instead, Jesus grabbed hold of me and I have been wrestling with him since.
I had an epic wrestling match with Jesus this August. It was unexpected. For seventeen summers now, I have spent a week volunteering in some capacity with the rural poor. I thought after seventeen summers of rehabbing homes for those who Jesus tells us will be first in the kingdom of God, I would at least resign myself to Jesus’ call. Nope.
Here is the story:
She is a mother of five children. Her verbally, emotionally, and physically abusive ex-husband held her captive in her home for 6 months. She and her children fled the husband and their home. In the meantime, family members moved into her abandoned home and destroyed it. Now she is back, her ex is in jail, and her home is in ruins. Amazingly, the mother never once raised her voice at her five children who were not easy. Instead, she was loving and patient. Her fortitude amazed me.
Our job was not heroic. It was simple. We fixed the bathroom floor, spruced up her bathroom, painted her living room/kitchen, replaced a few broken windows, and installed a working light. I have done similar work in similarly heartbreaking situations in the past. So why did this house, this story, these children, this mother, break me?
Was it because I knew they had no heat in the winter and slept huddled in the basement in one single room with electric heaters? Was it because the children all showed signs of emotional trauma? Was it because there seems no way out of the cycle of poverty in rural Maine?
My real answer is shameful and honest.
It was the cockroaches.
I am not high maintenance (at least I had never thought so before). I can change the grossest diapers, clean up vomit, shovel horse stalls, wade through cow soup-manure, and clean just about anything I’ve ever encountered. Who knew cockroaches would do me in?
I was painting above the kitchen cabinets because I have mad cutting in skills with a brush. When I positioned myself awkwardly over the cabinets, I soon discovered they were littered with hundreds of dead and living roaches. I wanted to quit, but onward I pressed. We had to paint behind the fridge to complete the job. I felt like a gladiator before she enters the ring. I psyched myself up, talked myself through what would be waiting behind the fridge, and dug in. I moved that fridge, broom in hand, ready. I had to leave and dry heave in the yard after watching hundreds of roaches crawl out from under the fridge and behind the cabinets.
I stood outside for perhaps ten minutes, an eternity when there are others still working. I composed myself, wiped my watering eyes, and tried to give myself a pep speech: This work has to be done. If not me, then who? I was called to it, damn it! Get your ass in gear Rev. Henrich. Suck it up.
My pep speech failed. I remembered the story of Mother Theresa tending the body of a man covered in maggots. When the other nuns, with whom she worked, asked her how she managed, she simply answered, “I knew he was Jesus.” I was not going to see Jesus in cockroaches, but I did decide I would rather deal with cockroaches than maggots. I went back in, did my best, and painted the wall behind the fridge. And then all that afternoon and evening I felt angry.
Every morning I wipe down my kitchen counters. I take out my garbage regularly. I wash clothes, fold, and put them away on a regular basis. I sort through my fridge and throw away fruit that has spoiled. I change my kids’ sheets even though they do not notice. I spend a ridiculous amount of time and energy managing our refrigerator to make sure we are not wasting food. I buy groceries on sale and we eat healthy. Why wasn’t this mother doing all those things?! She had cockroaches in her house because there was old food everywhere.
Angry. Nasty. Venomous.
I knew my rant was privileged. I knew I wasn’t struggling with PTSD. I knew that poverty is so complicated, so multifaceted that just grocery shopping is ten times more difficult than anything I face. But still, I was self-centeredly angry. No matter how much shame accompanied my anger I remained stuck. I felt utterly defeated.
Over the past three weeks, my anger has dissipated. Grief has taken its place. I no longer feel ashamed of my anger, but instead am aware that somehow I had reached a breaking point. I accept that I am imperfect and no Mother Theresa. I also believe the limited work we did offered some hope, some buoy to cling to for a struggling mother. It was good work: faithful, needed, blessed. Yet how am I, an imperfect disciple, to follow Jesus when the work seems so futile? When cockroaches still crawl from beneath refrigerators?
I have no answer. If I did, it would merely be a platitude. Instead, I have come to accept, once again, that the work Jesus calls us to is difficult. It is never neatly packaged and rarely does it offer simple satisfaction. Praise songs never play in the background. Nice, clean church clothes are unsuitable. Truly believing that the first shall be last, means encountering cockroaches and maggots. It means wrestling with Jesus.
I am sad. I am frustrated. I am worn out. But in my prayers, I try to remember that God knows when a sparrow falls (Matthew 10). And I do feel assured that God numbers each hair on the heads of five children and a mother struggling in Maine.
Could my old school Republican father vote a straight party ticket that includes Donald Trump, an outright misogynist? My father is not only the father of two feminist women—he is the grandfather of six girls. This question haunts me.
Over the past few weeks I have been writing my father a letter about Donald Trump. This letter will not stop writing itself in my head. The letter continues where I left off every time my mind has an opportunity to wander. This letter is edited internally as I brush my teeth. New words are added, paragraphs erased as I fall asleep at night. And why? Simply, my father has voted a straight Republican ticket as long as I can remember. My father has also raised three feminists.
I have never had any intention of sending this letter. And I have not sent it, yet. In fact, I'm hoping that, since my father is not Facebook savvy, he will never read this blog. If you know my father, please don't alert him.
So why would I publish this letter if I think my father is better off never reading it? Because I know I am not alone. Many people across America have been writing similar letters in their heads to their relatives, friends, co-workers. There is an entire group of citizens, not just liberal feminist writers, who are struggling with this current election. And when I say struggling, I mean deeply internally struggling with how anyone, especially those they love and respect, could vote for Trump. I hope this letter gives voice to some of us who feel isolated in our struggle.
Before you read my letter, there a few things you should know about my father. First, he is what I would describe as an “old school Republican.” He believes in small government and low taxes, and embraces the “pull yourself up by your own boot strap” philosophy. He is not an evangelical Christian. He's not even a social conservative. He is slower to accept social change, but he is never against it. Second, my father is exceptionally rational. He finds terrorism horrid, but also knows that driving a car is more dangerous. He doesn't think Muslims should be thrown out of the country because less than 1% are radicalized.
The last thing you should know about my father is that he reared me. I hold him solely responsible for my feminist views. He reared my sister and me to be independent, capable women: we could back up our family tractor, hook it up to heavy farm equipment, hay the field, then go home and french braid our hair for a date. He taught us how to balance our checkbooks, throw bails of hay to a second story loft, and throw a football. He watched approvingly as we would take on any man in verbal debate. He invested a great deal of hard-earned money in our education, and he is quite proud that his two daughters have master’s degrees.
Could my old school Republican father vote a straight party ticket that includes Donald Trump, an outright misogynist? My father is not only the father of two feminist women—he is the grandfather of six girls. This question haunts me.
This is a terribly difficult letter to write. I hope you know that the reason I am writing it is first and foremost is because I love and respect you.
Donald Trump is a misogynist. Ironically, if you look up “misogynist” in Webster’s dictionary online, I kid you not, a picture of Donald Trump appears. Others are in agreement. In my opinion, there is no question that he is a misogynist when you read the many things he has said about women and learn how he has treated the women in his life, from his wives to the beauty contestants he had affairs with—frequently while he was married. You can read more about what’s he’s said about women if you would like. You can start here.
You, on the other hand, John Henrich, are not a misogynist. As much as it will make you laugh to read this, you are actually a feminist. And yes dad, men can be feminists. Feminism simply defined is the belief that men and women should have equal rights and equal opportunities. Feminism has nothing to do with burning bras or hating men. I am convinced you are a feminist because of the way that you reared me. From an early age, I knew I was just as important to you as my brothers. You taught me that regardless of my gender I could do anything, from playing sports, to driving farm equipment, to achieving academically. I knew this because you expected as much from me as you expected from everyone. In fact, you put more money into my education than into my siblings’. And most importantly, you did not educate me in the hope that I would become a wife and mother; you educated me with the expectation that I would become a leader.
For this reason I ask you to seriously consider not voting for Donald Trump this November. In no way do I expect you to vote for Hillary Clinton. I like political diversity and reasoned disagreement; it strengthens our democracy. I do not wish for you to embrace my liberal politics. But I would ask you to reconsider your allegiance to the Republican Party this election cycle—or at least to its Presidential nominee. Voting for Donald Trump is a vote against the person I believe you are, a man who fully values women as much as men. I am positive that if Donald Trump were my next door neighbor, you would pay for a very tall fence to be erected between his house and mine, because you would not want your granddaughter Lydia to be exposed to such a degrading attitude toward women.
With much love, abby
As a minister, I am supposed to have something to say. That’s why ministers have pulpits, even if at Grace we don’t really have such a thing. Ministers have been called to make sense of tragedy throughout American history.
I’ve got nothing. No wise words, no new insight, nothing. There isn’t anything anyone could say that will make sense of 49 innocent people lying dead in a nightclub.
In moments like these, when there are no words, when rage fills my veins, I desire to fill the void by at least doing something. If you are restless like me, wondering just what you can do, here is the list of “the something, anything” I created for my community.
I would like to make a few things clear about this post:
1. This post is about being a working mother. I have no intention of alienating women who have chosen to stay at home. I am clueless about the challenges stay-at-home-parents face; I’ve never really done it.
2. If I sound like a whiner, I am. Read my previous post.
3. This is a feminist (bordering on bitter) rage. If you need uplift, do not read.
4. The word balance does not appear in this blog. Balance is not a thing.
5. This post in no way addresses the issues that face low-income working mothers. I am deeply aware that my rage is a privileged one. I concluded recently, as I drove to an away lacrosse game, that low-income single working mother’s would be forced to pull their children out of sports unless someone else drove them. The time and financial resources alone would make it virtually impossible. How do we begin to support low-come single moms in our communities? If you have any suggestions, let me know. I would like to post them.
Sunday night I gathered my children together before bed. I wanted to praise them for their flexibility over the weekend. It was crammed with too many games, graduation parties (of people I deeply love and for whom I am over-joyed-proud), and pastoral work. Before I could really finish, my middle son broke into tears. “I hate it when Daddy is gone. You’re so grumpy!” I tried to muster up compassion. I tried, for a moment, to take note that I probably was grumpy, or if not grumpy, impatient because there was more expected of me that humanly possible.
“I know it’s hard, but there is nothing we can do about it,” I feebly responded.
“You work too much,” he cried.
“I have to work.”
“Couldn’t you work less? You don’t really have to do everything.”
Those words ignited a time bomb. I do not remember my response, but it was something I am sure I would not want to repeat. I walked out of the room, tucked my youngest into bed, picked up the house, cleaned the kitchen, transferred the wash to the drier, and then headed back upstairs. I kissed my boys and tucked them in out of duty, but my rage had no softened. In fact the next day, it was pulsing.
The expectations placed upon me by my family, by our 21st society, and by myself are unmanageable. I did what I was reared to do. I worked my tail off in college and graduate school. This privileged education gave me room to pursue the vocation I was and am passionate about. I married a good man and had children and have made sure they are fed nutritious food, tucked into bed on time, and read books. Is this not enough!?
I am told this is not enough. My house should be clean (says our new HGTV culture and my compulsive nature), I should stay in great shape, and my children should excel in at least one thing which means starting at a young age I need to drive them everywhere in a mini-van. Finally, I should be an unfailingly supportive spouse who always places (if I am aware of this or not) my husband’s work above my own.
I have fought normal societal conventions. My children only play one sport at a time. They attend alternative schools. I relay on “my village” to help me rear my beloved children. I *try* to talk myself down from my obsessive vacuuming. My husband and I are very much mutual partners. But none of these things have helped me resolve the ever competing demands on my energy and attention. My eldest loves lacrosse; I am pleased he is excelling in something he loves. Deep relationships feed me; I love a table filled with good friends eating together. I yearn for more children; three doesn’t feel like enough. I am passionate about my work and my family needs my income. So what should I give up?
Perhaps the question is not what should I give up, but when shall I be offered grace by society, and my son, as a working mother. I should have responded to my son’s tears, “Please offer me a little slack, kid. How about some grace for your mother?”
Yet sadly, if I am to be fully honest, my ticking time bomb was not just about the competing demands and expectations I face as a working mother, but the glaring feminist implications. My husband leaves every two years to take his students to India and no one has ever asked him if this is the best thing for his family. No one. Ever. Instead, he is praised for his worldly experiences and admired for his academic achievements. Further his own children never ask him to stop working too much or blame him for the three plus weeks their mother is grumpy while he is away. They never ask him why the laundry hasn’t been done or where their lacrosse stick is. Ever.
Truth be told if I left my family for three and half weeks, my husband would have to hire support staff. He could not manage balancing the demands of his children, the housework and his profession. To be fair his work is less flexible than mine, but even still, he couldn’t do it. When I have left for short trips, I spend the day’s prior writing detailed lists for him and creating a network of women to assist him. When he boards the plane bound for India there are no lists awaiting me at home; he knows I can handle everything just fine.
So why is my vocation less important than his? Why do my children complain if I work too much, but never notice if he does? Partially, I am to blame. I have helped create my children’s unreasonable expectations. My unsettling rage these past few days is in part because I am angry with myself for not advocated for my professional dreams. But this can’t just be my fault. And why do I know this? Because when I posted this story on Facebook, I received multiple responses from other working moms who understood my rage, my ache, and my frustration.
When, O God, when, will my children notice the demands of my work? When, O God, when will society not question my motherly commitment and instead praise my passion as a pastor? When, O God, when will I be able to step on a plane, leave no list behind, not wonder if I have done the right thing leaving my children behind, and pursue fully what You have called me to do?
My beloved left for a three and half week trip to India with his students yesterday. On Memorial Day. The coincidence was powerful.
Let me begin by making some things clear.
Now back to Memorial Day and Anxiety.
Over the weekend, I was very aware of the above, but it didn’t matter. The three day weekend seemed longer than any other holiday. It dragged out as my anxiety increased. The pit in my stomach climbed into my throat until finally my pulse quickened. I understand clinically what was happening. I was experiencing anxiety sprinkled with a few minor panic attacks (I know they were minor, because I have had a full blown anxiety attack before).
Anxiety, according to the DSM4 and Miriam Webster is defined as a feeling of worry, nervousness or unease, typically about an imminent event of uncertain outcome. More seriously, it can be a chronic state in which many find themselves trapped. Anxiety can spill into someone’s life in a way that excessive uneasiness and apprehension are a way of life, coupled with disabling panic attacks.
As someone who struggles with anxiety, my non-clinical description is this: it sucks! It invades every moment. It is utterly exhausting.
Thankfully with the help of therapy, life style changes, and medication, I have learned to successfully cope with my anxiety. I am fortunate. (Let me be clear again—I am fortunate. The mostly successful treatment of my anxiety is not because I am some mental health warrior. I am simply lucky.) But still I can’t keep a lid on my anxiety during certain moments—like the weekend before my husband leaves for India.
I am the sort of person who rarely sits down. Yesterday, I could barely muster the energy to fold laundry. Midday, I laid down on my bed, eyes open, unable to figure out what to do next even though I had a long to-do list. My anxiety was debilitating and all because my husband was leaving for India with his students. I knew my anxiety was unwarranted, but it didn’t matter. I couldn’t control it.
Sadly, throughout American history, mostly women, but all sorts of loved ones, have spent weekends and months and years living with the anxiety I dappled in this past weekend. Their anxiety, however, was rational. They were sending off their beloved husbands, sons, brothers, life-long friends to war. They knew many did not return.
It’s hard for me to imagine there was a woman in history whose pride was greater than her fear. Too often in the movies we watch proud mother’s give teary-eyed kisses to their sons at train stations or stricken wives give one last passionate kiss to their husbands before they board the bus. These goodbyes have almost become sanitized in their painful beauty. The movies never show a mother whose sobs are so overwhelming she can’t even walk with her son to the tracks. They never portray a wife clutching her husband, begging him not to go as he boards the bus (that’s what I would have done). And they never tell the true story of the wife who clutched a baseball bat in her hands as she waited for her husband to fall asleep; she planned to break his knees before he left for Vietnam. In the end he stopped her.
And how about the many patriotic images of the women left behind, proudly displaying stars in their front windows, knitting socks to be sent to keep her son’s feet warm, or organizing sales to support the troops? I wonder if these women’s daily anxiety was so overwhelming that it took the joy out of everything. I wonder how much effort it took them to tape the star to their window, to cast the yarn on the needles, to bake for the sale. I wonder what it would have been like to spend day after day waiting for news, one small piece of news that one’s beloved was still alive.
I spent three days trying to contain my anxiety. It took all of my energy. My husband was leaving for a three week trip to India as a college professor. He was not going to war. So two days after Memorial Day, now as I write, I not only give thanks to the veterans and those who lost their lives, but I am remember the many left behind who were brave enough to keep living.
Being a christian has not made me a better person. My temper still rages inside me like a ready kettle and my self-righteous opinions dominate my internal monologue. Not to mention, I am snarky! (For those of you who know me and think I’m not that bad, really, you don’t live inside my head. It’s that bad).
In the late 1700’s through the mid 1800’s, the religious movement Perfectionism swept through American churches. Religious historians often refer to this new Christian thought and practice as the “Holiness” movement. Perfectionism’s chief founder was John Wesley, an Anglican minister and theologian, who is credited with the founding of Methodism. He, along with other fellow religious “enthusiasts” at Oxford, desired to not only cultivate an outward piety, but also a sincere inner holiness. John Wesley argued that Christians could achieve a state of perfection, where God’s love reigned supreme in their hearts. This Christian ideology was later named Methodism and as its name indicates, gave rise to the Methodist Church. Although the word “Perfectionism” is rarely used any longer, the legacy of the Holiness Movement and Methodism are still present in American religiosity today. Many individuals and churches still proclaim that practicing Christians can be “born-again” into a state of holiness in which believers are set free from sin.
I was raised in the Methodist tradition and wrote my undergraduate thesis on a small perfectionist community in Oneida, New York. Like John Wesley, I too have desired to be completely transformed by my faith. I am drawn to the teachings of Jesus because they require real and difficult change. I do not think Jesus was just answering the rich young ruler in jest when he said, “Sell all you have and follow me (Matthew 19).” Such a radical invitation has stirred within me a deep longing since I was an earnest 16 year old.
But I am almost 40 now. I am a mother and a spouse and a minister and I am far from reaching perfection. Ask my children. Ask my husband. Ask the folks at Grace Community. My self-proclaimed identity as a christian has not “saved me from my sinful ways.” I am still utterly broken and I face this brokenness day in and day out not just in my snarky internal monologue, but in my relationships with those I love most dearly. Yet my desire to follow Jesus and my practice within faithful community has offered me a new vision. Jesus has entirely changed the way I see and experience the world.
Recently, my family spent a long weekend in northern California celebrating my beloved college roommate’s wedding. The event was so joyful and so much fun that on Sunday morning I felt like a little kid on Christmas morning after all the presents have been unwrapped. The wonder of the weekend was over and I had to say goodbye to my dear friend and her new husband. We packed the rented minivan full of wrinkled and stained clothes and our perfect weekend ended.
On the drive back to San Francisco we rallied our exhausted children for a walk in Muir Woods, a national park that has preserved a rare old-growth coast redwood forest. As we walked among the massive redwood trees, I watched my children run from tree to tree. Their awe was palpable as all three tried to squeeze in tree hollow after tree hollow. I felt time slow down as we wandered among God’s giants. It was a perfect memory in the making.
Not long after our walk, back in the minivan, we searched for a place to eat. My daughter, sick from the winding ride, threw up all over the parking lot. Time no longer stood still. Our perfect walk was over. Yet we are veteran parents. We headed to dinner, satiating our growing boys’ appetites, sure our daughter would be fine. After dinner, we returned to our rental car to find the car window shattered. My purse and our back packs were stolen. Everything expensive we own was taken: computers, iPads, wallets, and more.
For the next few hours we negotiated police reports, TSA (how would I return to Boston with no identification?), credit card companies, and more. I was exhausted and frustrated, selfishly wondering why us now, 10 hours before we would board a flight back home? My daughter, terrified and responding to her mother’s evident anger, began to cry. I assured her everything was okay. Then my husband, whose faith seems to have made an impact on him, gathered my children around and reminded them of what mattered most; being robbed is a big inconvenience, but we were fine. In fact we were more than fine. We were all safe, we were rich (to which my children, never getting all their material desires, objected until we reminded them of our wealth in a global perspective), and we were loved. Nothing else mattered. Computers could be replaced. In a moment my perspective changed. My frustration was replaced with a deep and abiding gratitude which lasted well into the night and the flight home.
Life is far from perfect although at times we may glimpse perfection, especially as we walk among God’s giants in Muir Woods. And I, myself, an ordained minister, am far from perfect, although at times I can feel the shifting of my heart from my broken ways to a new place of gratitude and love. I disagree with John Wesley. I do not believe perfection can be reached this side of the kingdom of God. Yet I do believe, my christian faith has entirely changed the way I see and experience the world, even if it hasn’t transformed me into a reborn, perfect person. Jesus has offered me a new set of glasses through which to view life.
I’ve been wondering lately if our “Christian nation” celebrated the same holiday I did a few weeks ago. I can’t make sense of the hateful talk on Facebook and cable news from self-proclaimed American Christians. Did they really celebrate the resurrection of Jesus Christ on Easter Sunday?
My faith rests in the bookends of Jesus’ life: his incarnation (Christmas) and his resurrection (Easter). That God, in the form of the person of Jesus, was born to us and lived among us gives me hope for our broken humanity. That God defeated death and raised Jesus from the dead gives me hope that suffering is not the final word. Both the incarnation and resurrection are the trees between which my hammock of hope swings. And I often rest on this hammock when my burdens are heavy.
This hope has transformed my life with an expectant joy I never anticipated. In the three days
surrounding Easter I married a young and earnest couple, was present at a 92 year old’s death bed, and held a brand new, long-desired baby. Each of these beautiful life events was ripe with hope, even in a world where relationships end in courtrooms, where grief and loss are part of life, and where children die unexpectedly in their cribs. As I invited the young couple to kiss, as I stood by the deathbed, as I held the perfectly fragile infant, I was filled with an expectant hope—not empty, not wishful, but boundless. This hope was defined by a baby in Bethlehem visited by shepherds. This hope was defined by a tortured prophet who rose from the dead. This is a hope beyond reason, beyond optimism, beyond anything we should hope for. It is hope for what we cannot imagine ourselves. It is hope for God’s transformational presence in our world.
I will never understand the resurrection, just as I will never understand the incarnation. Yet the
palpable hope I get from each story has opened me to limitless possibilities in my own life, in my community—and in my nation.
An America filled with hope has no room for fear—not of immigrants or Muslims or feminists or blacks or whites or Hispanics or gays or anybody or anything. Hope only has room for love and curiosity, welcome and exploration. I pray that America—and the world—will be blessed with hope, for we have had too much of fear.
Together, may we embrace the message of Resurrection Sunday. For Jesus’ sake, for the sake of the gospel, for the sake of the empty tomb, let us trust that God’s transformational love is beyond our imagining. Hope reigns. Even in America.
He was not sad that his adult son was gone; he was relieved. But his grief was palpable when he spoke of his young boy, bright-eyed, curious, and affectionate.
Last Sunday I preached on grief and the book of Ruth. It was not one of my better sermons, but I can’t shake the simple idea: there are two kinds of grief. There is the grief for one who has died and the grief for that which is not.
Every one of my conversations this week has seemed to be about the heavy grief of things hoped for and dreamed of that never came to fruition.
Death epitomizes loss, but there is a cultural protocol for death. We ask the widow stories about her late husband. We inquire about the parents of the bereft adult child. We surround the devastated parents of deceased children with constant love and support. We raise funds for the child whose parents die tragically.
But what of the silent grief of which no one speaks? What of the parent whose child is a drug addict? Long ago, that child, like all children, played in a sandbox. What of the spouse who meant the vows spoken, whose beloved left without a word? What of the adult who dreamed of children but ever had any of their own? What of the grown child who no longer speaks to their family of origin, who chooses instead to spend holidays with friends? We hold no memorial services for such broken relationships, such hopes shattered, such dreams vanished.
Lent is a time of inward reflection, a time for discovering what is between us and God—what blocks us from a deep and connected relationship with the one who forever seeks us out and numbers the very hairs on our heads. For many this relationship is obstructed by years of unspoken, heart breaking grief which has had no formal memorial service, no outward recognition.
The deepest healing in my life has come through story: speaking my story, hearing the stories of others, reading the Biblical story. I have long believed that it is in telling our stories that we come to recognize God’s story within our own story and the story of others. (Whatever that telling looks like is not relevant. Some tell their stories without words, others in a therapist’s office, and still others around a camp fire. I often tell my story through the written word.) Grief is a part of this story. Unspoken grief must be told, even if it is uncomfortable.
The stories I have heard this week have deepened my compassion. My eyes have filled with tears and my view of God has expanded. I hope that those who have been brave enough to share their stories of broken relationships, loveless families, lost childhoods, and shattered hopes have discovered God’s presence in their heart aching stories.
There is one story I have been privileged to hear this week that must be told. It is a story that everyone should hear, if only to deepen our compassion and broaden our understanding of grief. I have changed particulars about this story to protect the identity of the story teller.
John’s mother and brother both died of alcoholism. By the time John’s son was a teenager, he was already struggling with alcoholism and depression. By the time he was in his early twenties, he had been in and out of nearly every rehab center in the area. Soon after, John and his wife began attending Al-Anon (groups for families and friends of problem drinkers*). There, through the loving support of others, they decided they could no longer allow their son to live with them unless he was working on his sobriety. “He tried for a while,” John explained, “But then my wife noticed things like her vanilla extract missing. He just couldn’t do it.”
Their son, who they brought back to their home as a newborn years before, left. Soon they learned he was living out in the woods behind a shopping plaza. He had bought a sleeping bag and nothing more. Months passed, then their son called. Could he come home to get a new pair of socks? While their son was in his bedroom changing socks, John heard a blood curdling scream. Then he saw the unimaginable: his son’s feet, black with frostbite and the beginning of gangrene. Months later his son returned home from the hospital an amputee. John and his wife left for a weekend. When they returned home their son was lying on the floor, which was not unusual. Without concern they hauled their son to his bed, assuming he would sleep it off. He never woke.
There was a memorial service for their 35 year old child, but it was small. Few knew their son any longer. Little was spoken about his black toes, his months sleeping behind a shopping plaza. Little was said about how once he had been a delightful child, bright, curious, and filled with affection. No one spoke of his dimpled knees when he was a toddler or his shy arrival into adolescence. And no one spoke of his parents’ dreams for him.
John is over 90 years old. He buried his son over 30 years ago. The grief is overwhelming and ever-present. He admitted that he has to consciously tell people that he had two children, not just his living daughter. When my eyesfilled with tears at his story he said, “Few people know. I decided you were safe.” I knew that the sermon he had heard a few days before somehow gave him the permission to tell me of his unspoken grief. He was not sad that his adult son was gone; he was relieved. But his grief was palpable when he spoke of his young boy, bright-eyed, curious, and affectionate. His long ago dreams for his son still haunt him.
We must speak our grief. Grief is not only associated with bodily death, but also with the death of our hopes. When we are honest about such grief, we allow others to be honest as well. And when we are brave enough to speak our grief, we make room for God to enter, to share the story, and to be with us as we seek after new dreams and act on new hopes.
*Learn more about Al-Anon http://ma-al-anon-alateen.org/ or http://www.al-anon.org/
I’m a bicentennial baby. 1976. As a child I would tell my mom I wanted to live to see the tercentennial. I had images of my 100 year spry-self walking in a red, white, and blue parade. Of course, I was a bit naïve about the challenges of aging. These days I don’t want to live a moment past eighty. And I mean it . . . at least I mean it right now.
Before you dismiss my statement, hear me out.
First of all, yes I am well aware that saying such a thing is much easier when you are my age. I know I might feel differently when I am 75. When I was in my early 20s I knew I wanted to fully pursue my dual vocation: motherhood and the pastorate. It was much easier to envision this life in my early twenties before actually living the balancing act. Still, my naïve hope to fulfill two vocations guided me through the exhausting years of packing diaper bags while managing a pastoral crisis on the phone. It is deeply important to imagine our lives long before we live them. I want my forty year old self to be in dialogue with my eighty year old self, and I want my eighty year old self to remember the 40 year old that I am today.
Second, my four parents are headed toward their 80s. I am not eager to lose them. I am not eager to watch my husband mourn, watch my children experience death for the first time, pack up my mother’s clothes, her scent still lingering. Yet, this is a part of life. When it happens is not up to me. I simply pray my grief over them will be as true as my affection for them.
Finally, I know many 80 and 90 years olds living full and beautiful lives. I do not think life stops at 80. One 90+ year old man I buried walked to church well into his 90s. He was a delight, our conversations filled with history, faith, and laughter. I recently visited a dying 90 year old who continues to bring much love and life to her family, even though she is dependent on their care. She can’t believe she has lived this long, but hers has been a good and full life. Her end is near, but her life is still abundant.
So why do I not want to live a day after 80?
Part of my job is to walk families through the final days, months, and sometimes years of a person’s life. I have been present at many deaths. I have listened to the utterly exhausted children of the dying admit they prayed for their parent’s death. I have helped families find assisted living for parents with dementia and in-home aids for the incapacitated. I have helped pack up the family home and distribute treasured memorabilia. I have visited shut-ins and the hospitalized. Growing old is hard work, but it can also be pregnant with grace.
Unfortunately, so often these days growing old has become more about delaying death than living life. Medical technology has slowed the process of dying. Growing old is natural, but a painfully slow, dragged out, artificially prolonged process of dying sucks the life right out of everyone. As those dying await the final gift of death, life seems to stop for everyone around them. To make matters worse our cultures’ fear and denial of death distorts the natural process of dying. I have seen people with congestive heart failure kept alive, to lie in a hospital bed for months. I have seen bodies destroyed by cancer and chemo and radiation, yet more treatment is sought because the children were expecting their parents to live into their 80s. I have seen the elderly robbed of all dignity as family and doctors kept their bodies alive long after death would have been a blessing. I have counseled exhausted caregivers, mediated disputes about medical interventions, and—at their request—prayed with the elderly and their loved ones for God to take them.
I might be a healthy spry 85 year old. I might die at 70. I pray not earlier. I am not in control. If I have to hedge my bets, I’ll take 80. I would like to live fully up until my 80th year. I want hands able enough to fold laundry for my neighbor who might be exhausted from rearing her brood of kids. I want to be strong enough to hold babies and rock them to sleep. I want to be with it enough to preach on occasion. I want someone else, however, to do my cleaning, especially organizing my basement. I also want to eat pie for breakfast every day. But more than anything else, I want to enjoy my friends and family fully. And I want them to enjoy me. I don’t want their lives to stop for months or years because medical technology has kept me alive long after I have ceased to really live.
I want to live fully. I seek the abundant life I have been promised by my faith. But abundant doesn’t mean long, it means full—full of love, full of hope, full of activity. I don’t want years spent waiting for death—or running from death or denying death. I have no interest in seeing our countries tercentennial, let alone living forever. Instead, I hope that I will accept death as a natural order of things. Death, like life, is a gift. I plan to trust death is a gift from God when it comes, and that in embracing death, I will fully experience God as I fully experienced God in life.
Last weekend, I attended the BEST wedding. EVER. No joke.
I was dressed up and feeling pretty. My husband thought I was gorgeous. I had two drinks. My kids were at family friends, spoiled rotten, not missing us. The venue overlooked the Boston harbor. The bride and groom are power-house, brilliant, extroverts; they’re friends with fabulous people. The band was a ten. No one could stay off the dance floor. Did I mention I ate three pieces of cake? I helped myself to the uneaten slices at other tables. What a party!
The above reasons made this wedding outstandingly fun. They are why I have not been able to stop thinking about the wedding all week, but they are not the reason this wedding was the best ever. This wedding was the BEST ever because it was a holy celebration. Joy could not be contained. The spirit was present, palpable, as the gathered friends and family of the bride and groom danced, ate, laughed, cried, talked, and even shouted happily over the music. We were bound together in some holy moment, made sacred by the unbridled love the couple declared as they committed their lives to one another.
At one moment the bride and groom left the dance floor to enjoy a well-deserved drink. In the room’s back corner, tucked away, as they awaited their cocktails, they began to dance again, the music calling to them. They had their own dance party. They danced because their joy was too large, too overpowering, to be contained by the dance floor.
The Bible refers to God’s people as dancing in worship. That might be hard to imagine for stiff New Englanders who bristle when there is clapping in church. Yet the Bible records again and again how the Hebrew people would dance around God’s altar. It makes no reference to planned, orderly, coordinated liturgical dance. No, their dancing is spontaneous and joyful, as they “Praise God with dancing and music” (Psalm 149).
Apparently, the Hebrew people of old were so connected to God that they could not sit still in her presence. They danced before him because they could not contain their joy. They danced because their hearts’ overflowed. They danced because gratitude pulsed through them. They danced because . . . why not? Dance is just as appropriate a response to God as falling on our knees.
I went to the BEST wedding ever this weekend because the couple shared their love abundantly, with each other and with their guests. Because their joy could not be contained, so it spread like wild fire on the dance floor. Because their gratitude for life, love, friends, and family was so palpable that everyone’s heart expanded. It was the BEST wedding ever because the couple, although reared as New Englanders, reject creaky formality and embrace exuberance. They embrace joy. They dance.
Joy need not be limited to weddings. It can appear at any moment in our lives. Maybe right now? Can you hear joy knocking on your door? Invite her in, turn up the music and dance. Let loose your gratitude, your joy, your love as you move to the pulse of the universe. Dance like a newly married couple at a wedding, dance like the Hebrews around the altar of God, dance as if the universe was made for joy—because it is.
Oh and by the way . . .
Abby’s Top Ten Joyful Wedding Tips
1) It’s not about you. Yep, that’s right. It’s not about you. It’s not “your” wedding. If you disagree, please have some private part y for yourself. Your wedding is about love. It’s about the abiding and deep blessing love and life-long companionship bring to life. And if you believe, like I do, that God is love, then ultimately weddings are about the mystery of God’s love. If you still don’t believe me please read the above blog again or just stop reading this list.
2) Forget perfection. BORING! No one ever remembers the flowers or the cake or the gift bags or the anything! They remember the way the couple looked at each other. They remember the gathered community. They remember the laughter and tears. Don’t care too much about all the other stuff, especially your makeup.
3) Dance! Read above blog. Dance a lot. Dance without caring how you look. Dance until you’re breathless with laughter.
4) Invite people who love you. As for the rest of the guest list of must invites, do what is best for the least amount of conflict. But make sure on your wedding day you are surrounded by people who love you, who celebrate who you are, and are as committed to your marriage as you are.
5) Money has nothing to do with a fabulous wedding. (But do make sure, if you can, to hire a DJ. See #3) I’ve presided over numerous weddings; some have been lavish, others modest. The joy palpable at a wedding reception I attended in a park sitting on picnic benches was just as abiding as the scenic wedding at an estate I performed for a good friend. Money might make things easier, but it cannot buy love, and only love nurtures joy.
6) Pay just as much attention to your ceremony as your reception. It doesn’t need to be a traditional religious ceremony. Yet it should be an authentic celebration of the love you have discovered in one another. I am always shocked how “officiants” are the last thing on people’s minds. I have the power to make a wedding awful! I have never had any intention of doing such a thing, but it’s funny to me how engaged couples taste wedding cakes, visit venues, but rarely think about their officiant. And one more thing, hire the officiant right for you, not the religious leader your grandmother wants. Your wedding should be an authentic celebration of your decision to spend your life with another.
7) Ignore tradition. IGNORE! If you don’t want a veil, don’t wear one! If you think it’s downright awful that the groom’s parents play no role in the ceremony, have them play a part. Don’t wear a tux. Don’t wear something borrowed, new or blue. Don’t register for gifts. Embrace the traditions you value and create your own. This evidently applies to same gendered couples, who have blown the “traditional” wedding celebration out the water. May I pause and say, thank you! You are re-creating traditions for all of us.
8) If you have money to burn hire The Lisa Love Experience band. And pay your officiant well. I am serious about both, but you’ll still have a joyful wedding if you don’t do either.
9) Have someone take pictures. Really. This would seem like it has nothing to do with joy, but it does. In my mind, pictures, much more than videos, have some rare and mysterious way of capturing a moment for future generations. When I look at my grandmother’s familiar smile in her wedding photo, I know from where I came from. When I look at my father being kissed by his god-mother at his wedding, I know the boy my father was and the man he became. This continuity roots us in love, and as I have said again and again, there can be no joy without love.
10) Above all, remember, there are many more joyful celebrations to come. Your wedding day should not, and cannot be, the only great day of your life. There are more magnificent, joy-filled celebrations to come! More unexpected moments that will leave your heart overflowing with gratitude. More life events that will call you to dance! Enjoy your wedding, but remember, it is just a wedding. There is more life to come!
Rev. Abigail A Henrich (ehm!) is an ordained minister who earned her stripes at Princeton Theological Seminary and Colgate University. That said, Abby is really a mother-pastor-spouse who lives in a kinetic state of chaos as she moves from her many vocations: folding laundry, preaching, returning phone calls, sorting lunch boxes, answering e-mails, and occasionally thinking deep thoughts in the shower. Unabashedly she is a progressive Christian who believes some shaking up has got to happen in the church.