Saints, souls and interwoven threads

woven

My sister was taking a nap after being up all night with her two sick boys. She quickly slipped into a vivid dream. My grandmother, who had died years earlier, showed up in the dream and told her she needed to go help our mom.

The dream had an unusual texture – different than others. My sister woke up, feeling unsettled. She called our mom, who didn’t answer the phone. That was unusual.

My sister called my brother, told her that Grams had showed up in the dream and delivered the message. The two of them went to our mom’s apartment to check on her. She was having a stroke.

If they hadn’t arrived when they did, it’s likely our mom would have died alone there on the couch in her apartment.

How do you explain all that?

I’ve shared the story, and many people have shared stories of similar dreams, ones that feel more like visions nudging them to do something. Often, someone who has died is the message bearer. (If you’ve had such a moment, feel free to share in the comment box below.)

How does all that work? We don’t know, exactly. But those moments remind us that there’s far, far more to life than we recognize or comprehend.

Never alone, not any of us

This past week, many faith communities celebrated All Saints Day and All Souls Day. The celebrations have spanned many centuries and taken various forms. Different religions have different ways of honoring those who have died.

They all come from the same core of faith: Those who die are still with us in ways we can’t fully understand or adequately explain. They’re never apart from our lives and our hearts.

Creation is like a giant blanket. When we die, we move from one thread to another, but all the threads are still woven together. We’re still wrapped tightly around one another, bound indivisibly to each other. Death doesn’t change it.

We’re reminded this week that death is not destruction, but resurrection and transformation. Love and life never end – how could they? We can never lose our bond with those whom we love. They are still leading us and loving us in their own ways.

As Nadia Bolz-Weber puts it:

“Apart from those who have fallen in combat, Americans tend to forget our ancestors, and we spend as little time as possible publicly mourning them. But in the church, we do the very odd thing of proclaiming that the dead are still part of us, a part of our lives, and are even an animating presence in the church.”

Live each day boldly, kindly and fully

I like the tradition of taking time this week to recognize and be thankful for the many dear people who are still part of our lives. Also, we renew our commitment to live as they have taught us. We resolve to be more like them – a saint – to the many souls that are part of our lives.

In that spirit, a saints-and-souls prayer:

Thank you, Giver of Life, for all of life. Yes, for all of it: The confusion, the unknowing, the joy, the surprises, the pain, the setbacks, the losses, the love that gets us through what comes next. Thank you so much! Help us to feel gratitude for this holy day, which is the most precious gift that any of us ever receives.

Thank you for those who remain such blessings in our lives, those who have taught us how to live and to laugh and to love with such faith. Remind us that they are always with us, still teaching us and loving us and guiding us in their own ways.

And help us to remember that you are here with us in each sacred moment. We’re never alone, not any of us. Please give us the faith and courage to live each day boldly and kindly and fully, right up to the day when we trade our heartbeat for a deeper place in your heart, which is love.

Amen.

Hashtags and prayers are only the beginning

Bullet

The achingly-familiar reaction started before we knew all that had happened. Posts on social media encouraged us to pray for Las Vegas. Tweets sent #prayers to the victims and their families.

It’s all so unacceptably familiar.

Columbine. Aurora. Fort Hood. Sandy Hook. Virginia Tech. San Bernardino. Orlando. Las Vegas. What place will be next?

We see the horrifying images that remind us of the horrifying images from the countless other shootings — different place, different massacre, same sick feeling. We dust off our “Pray for the people of (fill in the blank)” and hashtag a prayer their way.

And then we do nothing to prevent it from happening again. Which means we’re really not praying at all.

It’s not enough to mourn the victims of gun violence, say a prayer, and move on. That’s not how prayer works. Prayer always involves an openness to be God’s answer in changing the status quo.

Prayer always involves change

What are we going to do about it? Will we work to change our society’s embrace of guns and violence? Or will we do nothing and simply wait for the next, even worse massacre?

This is on you and me.

The words of a prayer are only a starting point. Those words can be empty, or they can become the most powerful thing in the world. It depends upon whether we’re willing to become the answer.

Prayer always involves change — change in us and in our world. It always involves taking a risk, which is why prayer is such radical stuff at its core.

Prayer is more than a request; it’s a commitment. If we’re not willing to engage ourselves and our world in a challenge to do better, then we’re the ones falling down on the job.  Saying a prayer and moving on is never sufficient.

Prayer is powerful and personal and always involves a response on our part.

That’s how prayer works

We pray for the person who is hungry, and then we feed them. We pray for the person who is bleeding by the side of the road, and then we help them. We work to change our systems so that we have fewer people hungry and fewer people bleeding in our streets and in our schools and in our churches and in our nightclubs and in our music festivals.

Look, we have a pretty good idea of what God is waiting on us to do. What parent wants their children murdering each other daily? It’s up to us to change it.

We don’t do that by accepting violence and clinging to our weapons. Nor do we do it by defending the status quo. Or by being indifferent. Or by throwing up our hands and saying the problem is too big.

And it sure doesn’t mean waiting for God to wave some magic wand to make it all go away. That’s not the way it works. We created the problem; God has already given us all that we need to fix it.

You’ve prayed for peace and healing? Good! Now start working for it.

This is on you and me.

Instruments of change

Yes, advocating for peace is exasperating and makes us vulnerable, but that’s how it works. We have to be patient and persistent. Love is patient and persistent. We have to have the audacity to respond to hatred and fear with an unflinching love that heals and shows a different way.

All of those prayers in the past two days? We’ve already received our answer: God wants to use us as instruments of change.

We make the guns. We glorify the violence. We accept the status quo. It’s on us to fix this. God is with us and has given us all that we need. The rest is up to you and me.

Time to get off our butts and do it. Time to get off our hashtags and start praying for real.

A hug and a party

Hand holding sun

If you’re familiar with my blog, you know about Jean, one of the people I’ve gotten to know through my work as a hospice volunteer. I’ve written about her a few times.

Jean’s always been one my favorites. She grew up in Maine, swooned over a 6-foot-4 Navy man – love at first sight – got married and raised two children. She loved the Kennedys and asked me to read her books about JFK – her eyesight wasn’t so good anymore.

Her eyes and her heart were failing, but Jean’s mind was sharp. And her kindness was always intact. I’d knock on her door, walk into her nursing home room, and she’d smile and invite me – in her Northeastern accent – to sit down and catch her up on things.

“Give me the good stuff,” she’d say. “I want details!”

Jean was in her 90s. On her birthday, she’d say: “I never thought I’d live this long.” When I turned 60 and had trouble wrapping my head around that number, she started calling me “Mr. Chicken,” as in a spring chicken.

I liked that a lot. I enjoyed walking into her room and hearing her say, “Oh, it’s Mr. Chicken!”

During one of our many rambling conversations, Jean turned very serious and asked me something totally out of the blue: Do I believe in hell?

How do you answer that question? I went with honesty.

No, Jean, I don’t believe in hell — not the way it’s portrayed, anyway. I don’t believe in the Santa Claus version – God’s watching like a peeping Tom, ready to punish us with a lump of everlasting coal if we eat a hot dog on Friday or break some other rule concocted by religious leaders.

No loving parent would do that

I told Jean that I don’t believe in any of that. No loving parent would ever torture their child. And besides, all that hellish stuff we hear isn’t even Biblical. It’s totally un-Jesus-y. He told us that God is a loving parent who wants nothing other than to give us a big hug and an amazing party.

Jean said she didn’t believe in that version of hell, either. As a parent, she didn’t see how any loving parent could ever hurt their child.

So, why was hell on her mind?

Jean came from a strict church background and was taught that if you’re gay, you’re doomed to hell. Her daughter is gay and had recently married her longtime partner. Jean loved them both very deeply. They’re a good match, and it’s obvious that there’s much love between them. Jean was glad her daughter had someone who loved her and made her happy.

So, what’s the issue?

Given her “religious” upbringing, Jean was unsure how God would feel about it. She didn’t think God would hurt her child, but she wasn’t sure. She was losing sleep over it.

Ugh!!! I hate to see people tormented and tortured by all this twisted, warped theology of divine hate and retribution. You want my definition of hell? It’s people spreading that crappy theology.

I asked Jean if she thinks that God is love, and she said yes. I asked if she thinks that God loves her daughter as much as she does, and Jean said even more than she ever could.

So, do you think God blesses their relationship, too? Jean smiled and nodded. It was settled. She decided it was “silly” to even doubt God’s love.

And we never spoke of hell again.

We spoke of other things, of course. We talked about JFK’s affairs. We talked about getting snowed in by Nor’easters in Maine. One time, we got into another “religious” topic – how did people in Jesus’ time trim their fingernails?

We never spoke of hell again

She said it was a “silly” question, but she wanted to know. So, we Googled it on my phone, right there in her room, and got a suitable answer. (If you want to know, you’ll have to Google it for yourself.)

Jean died last month. I was on vacation. I didn’t get to tell her goodbye. At first, that bothered me. Then I realized I was being silly, to use Jean’s word.

An improper sendoff? The God of unending life and unlimited love would never permit such a thing. No goodbye was necessary. Someday there will be a reunion of me and Jean. And I have an idea of how it will go.

She’ll give Mr. Chicken a hug and invite me to join the amazing party. And she’ll want to catch up on things – all the good stuff, you know. In detail, of course. She’ll want all the details.

Stitches, hot chocolate, and lessons from a mom

hot-chocolate

Many churches use the same readings each Sunday as a sign of unity. The one chosen for Mother’s Day is unintentionally perfect. It’s from John, the part where Jesus is praying for his dear friends at the last supper.

What does he pray for them to be? Great preachers? Saintly saints? Perfect people? Nope. He prays that they will be one – one with each other, one with God.

Sounds like something my mother used to say, although she used different words for it.

Mom didn’t want anyone thinking of her as a saint, though that’s just a matter of definition. She did her best to love four kids and teach us lessons that would get us through life, which is pretty saintly in my book.

One lesson: Life is difficult at times, and you just have to get through it by leaning on Got and those who love you. That approach got her through a lot.

It got her through raising four kids and making another trip to the emergency room for stitches because one of us had done something stupid yet again. It got her through my dad’s drinking – thank God for AA. It got her through the multiple sclerosis that started crippling her legs in her 40s. It got her through her stroke at age 73 and her nine months in a nursing home before her death.

It got me through all of that and more.

Another lesson from mom is that we need to always be kind and looking for ways to give to others. She drove that lesson home during her nine months in the nursing home.

The stroke paralyzed her right side, yet she still found creative ways to give. She ordered a packet of hot chocolate with every meal even though she didn’t drink it – coffee was her thing. Instead, she gave the hot chocolate packets to my sister as a gift from grandma to her two young boys.

That’s really sweet, isn’t it? Also, very generous. Do the math. Three packets of hot chocolate a day, seven days a week, nine months in the nursing home – that’s a lot of hot chocolate. It quickly overran my sister’s food pantry. She farmed it out to the rest of us.

When my mom died, I gave the eulogy and told the pallbearers that if the casket felt a lot heavier on one side, it was because we gave some of the hot chocolate back. (Just kidding!)

The following December, a lady who cut my mom’s hair had two kids who were participating in an outdoor nativity scene at their school. It was cold and they asked for donations of hot chocolate. Perfect! Mom would approve.

There’s another lesson from mom that ties in with the assigned reading for Sunday. In the gospel passage, Jesus prays that his dear friends would live as one. Mom taught us the same thing, though she put it a different way. Her words were: Knock it off!

She said that a lot – more than she wanted. She’d say it when my brothers and I were poking each other in the back seat of the car. She’d say it when we’d pass the food around the table and one of us would fill our plate to overflowing before others got their portion. She’d say it when we acted like we mattered more than someone else. When we developed an attitude of privilege. When we refused to share.

Knock. It. Off. Act like you are part of this family!

Interestingly, we hear Jesus saying something like that, too. Remember the stories of when he’d come upon the disciples and they’d be arguing over who was the most important in God’s kingdom? And Jesus would say: That’s not how it works. There is no greater or least. Knock it off!

And where do you suppose he learned that from? From his mom, of course. Mary taught him about love and getting along and being family. It’s from her that he learned about our divine Mom.

A Mom who gives us grace and love so generously each day that it overflows our pantries and needs to be shared. A Mom who wants nothing more than to snatch us up in her arms, cuddle us, giggle with us, run her fingers through our hair, hum us a song, and reassure us that everything is going to be OK because she is with us.

A Mom who says that if you know just one thing about me, know this: I love you, just as you are. Always have, always will. And I’m always here for you. Trust me on that.

And now, go play with your brothers and sisters. All of them. Make sure everyone is treated as an equal. Have fun. And take care of each other.

Be as one. Because that’s what we are.

Peanuts, macaroni salad, and a eulogy

Mac

I’ve got a small scar on the back of the pinkie knuckle on my left hand. It’s been there since I was about 4 years old.

At that time, my parents both worked at the West Side Market in Cleveland, so my grandmother – a.k.a. Grams – watched me during the day at her house. One day, my aunt Jean visited and brought a can of peanuts and offered me some.

Safety lids hadn’t been invented yet.  You had to use a key-like implement attached to the can to peel off a strip of metal and free the lid. That would leave a sharp edge by the opening — people often cut themselves on it. (I don’t know how any of us survived those days!)

As Jean opened the can and held it toward me, I reached up with my left hand and – SLASH! – cut a flap of skin off the back of the knuckle. It hung there as I cried. Jean is a very kind, sensitive person, and I think she was more upset than me. Grams came out of the house and did what Grams does – she comforted me and Jean, got a bandage and put the flap of skin back in place. It healed nicely, but left a small, narrow scar.

That scar has been with me every moment since that day. It was there on that scary first day of kindergarten, and on the proud day of graduation. It was there the first time I held hands with a girl – yes, awkward moment – and the first time I held both of my children in my hands – truly divine and holy moments. The scar was there when I held a notebook and interviewed Desmond Tutu and Dr. Seuss. In a sense, it’s been a reminder of Jean and my whole family and that they’re always with me. I’m never alone.

And the scar was there yesterday, when I gave the eulogy at Jean’s funeral in Cleveland.

I held up my hand and pointed to the scar and told everyone that although they may not have a scar like that one, Jean has left deep imprints on each of us with her gentleness, her kindness, her hopefulness, her love of life and laughter. And that’s true for all of us – the ones whom we love always shape us and leave imprints on our hearts, beautiful and holy marks that never go away.

And neither do they.

One of my favorite theological constructs is that we’re all part of a “communion of saints.” In other words, we’re all in this together, even with those who have moved on. We tend to think that whatever comes next – call it heaven or whatever you wish – is somewhere way over there, while we’re way over here. But that’s not really the case. There’s only here. And us. We’re all still seated at the table enjoying a communion meal in some ways.

Or, in Jean’s case, a meal with macaroni salad.

Her family asked me to include a mention of how in her final weeks, Jean wanted to make sure some important things got passed along, including her recipe for the macaroni salad that she made for every family get-together. She recited it from memory while lying in her hospital bed, and her recollection went like this: Macaroni. Celery. Hellmann’s salad dressing. Celery. Chopped egg. Celery. A little pickle relish. Celery. Celery. Celery. She kept coming back to the celery. It made everybody laugh.

It’s good to laugh at such times. It helps us get through them. They’re so damn hard. We miss the one we love. As one of my cousins put it: It just really sucks.

Yeah, it does.

In those moments, maybe it’s a little comforting to remember that they’re really still with us – the whole communion of saints thing. Creation is all one thing, like a giant blanket with many threads. Someone may have passed on to an adjoining thread, but we’re still pulled tightly together. Even now, they’re wrapped securely, snugly around us, and we around them.

And we know this because we know the Weaver of Life. One who is so passionate about us, about life, about holding tightly to one another in unconditional love. One who insists that life will always endure – theirs and ours – and love will always prevail.

Love always wins. Over everything, including what we call death.

So maybe when we’re missing someone, we could take our fingertips and trace the imprint they have left on us – on our hands, in our hearts. Be reminded that they are still with us.

And maybe celebrate our never-ending life and love with them once again by making some macaroni salad and having a meal. But make sure not to skimp on the celery, for heaven’s sake.

A hospital chair, a pain pump, and Christmas

Hospital

I was in the coffee aisle at the grocery store the other night, looking for the best bargain. Christmas carols were playing. Shoppers were stocking up for holiday parties.

While I scanned the price tags to see which brand had the best sale, I noticed a lady pushing her cart down the aisle toward me, dabbing at her eyes. She was crying.

“Hi,” I said. “You OK?”

She nodded while dabbing at her eyes.

“Just this time of year,” she said. And on she went.

I can identify, especially this year. Divorce turns your life upside-down and leaves you feeling like a stranger in a land where it gets awfully dark at times. And I know I have a lot of company.

Some of my friends have lost parents and siblings and are going through the holidays without them for the first time, feeling that vacuum and that sting every time they hear a memory-filled carol.

I know people fighting seasonal mood disorders. Others who are in-between chemo treatments and, truth be told, are so seared by the toxic chemicals in their bodies and their souls that they’re not all that sure whether they want to keep going to another Christmas.

For those who grew up in highly dysfunctional families, just seeing a lighted tree can bring back awful memories of what happened around the tree when they were young. Those in nursing homes no longer have a sense of holidays; every day is just like the last one and the next one in their other-worldly existence.

Then we see images of the thousands of refugee children who have nothing. We hear about the latest shooting somewhere that has left holes in more bodies and more communities.

And it’s no wonder that those powerful and pretty words about seeing a light in the great darkness can feel as contrived and phony as the ending to a Hallmark movie where all the characters get their wish on Christmas Eve at the stroke of midnight.

We feel like saying: That’s not my life! In my life right now, everything seems bleak and hurts too damn much. And by the way, where the hell is God in all of this?

I experienced an answer to that question in a hospital room last October.

A friend needed surgery and didn’t have any family in town to be with her, so I volunteered to become her family. After the operation, they wheeled her into her room and supplied her with a hand-held remote that controlled the flow of painkiller in her IV. Every 15 minutes, a little green light at the top of the remote would come on, meaning the dose of painkiller was finished. If she wanted more, she had to push a button.

This is NOT a good system. Every time she started to fall asleep, the dose would run out, the pain would intensify, and she’d open her eyes to see if the green light was lit. Pain welled in her eyes and oozed from her forehead in beads of sweat.

So awful, right?

I grabbed the available wooden chair – one with no padding for your butt or your lower back — and pulled it alongside the bed. I wrapped my left hand around her left hand, the one clinging so tightly to that pain pump, and told her she could relax and sleep – I’ll watch for the light and push the button. I won’t leave your side. We’ll get through this together, I promise. You’re not alone.

I brushed the fingertips of my other hand across her sweat-covered forehead and matted hair, helping her to relax and sleep. After a short nap, she opened her eyes, saw I was still there and smiled.

She wasn’t alone in her pain – which was literally true, because the gawdful wooden chair was killing my butt and my lower back. But as I sat there holding her hand, I sensed the divine presence. I could feel God’s hands on top of mine and hers, squeezing tightly. There with us, and through us.

And maybe that’s what Christmas is about, Charlie Brown.

God doesn’t take away the pain. Once creation was set in motion and we received free will as the greatest gift – the ingredient that makes love possible – we were all sent on a journey of light and darkness, joy and pain.

And when things get bad, God is sitting right there next to us on a gawdawful chair with a painful butt and lower back. Running those divine fingertips so sweetly through our matted hair. Pushing that button every time the light shines, making sure we get what we need.

And telling us it’s OK to go ahead and close our eyes and take a few deep breaths and rest for a little while. Because God will hold our hand through all of it, and be the first one we see when we open our eyes.

A sight that can make us smile for a moment. Before the pain returns. And God pushes the button again. Through us.