Here Without You

…as we drive ever closer to home, I can feel my lungs beginning to seize a bit and the pain in the pit of my stomach begin to come back.

This weekend will be the first major family event for my husband’s family without both my husband and my mother-in-law. In this case, it is a wedding for one of Brad’s sisters. A joyful occasion, to be sure.

And we are ensuring that both of them are with us, not only in spirit, but also through small touches in all we are doing that will keep them close. From specific beverage choices to the bride wearing her some of her late mother’s jewelry to pink belts to my daughters and I all wearing necklaces given to me by my late husband, neither of them will be far away.

These days, most of the time, life is easier for me. I can breathe again. And move again. And smile. And laugh. And even acknowledge the wonder of life that Brad would have enjoyed without a knife stabbing through my heart.

But as we drive ever closer to home, I can feel my lungs beginning to seize a bit and the pain in the pit of my stomach begin to come back. (It probably isn’t helping that we haven’t been home to my in-laws since my husband’s funeral.) This weekend will be beautiful and wonderful and probably terribly difficult.

All of the preparations also take me back fourteen years to Brad’s and my wedding and all the craziness that went with that. Like all weddings, especially those first, big ones that some of us were unhinged enough to pursue, it was all the insanity you can probably imagine. Yet the beautiful details do remain captured forever in my mind.

And one in particular that sticks was Brad’s dance with his mother, or should I say, the song that they danced to. It is a country song that was relatively popular in the years around then entitled, I Hope You Dance. These days, it hits me harder than any of Brad’s supposed “songs,” because it is Barbara (my mother-in-law’s) song. It is all she ever wished for any of us who are her children. Some of those dreams were fulfilled. Some not.

The best part, though?

Both Mimi and Brad couldn’t walk at the end of their earthly lives. And this weekend, I know they will be dancing up in heaven, joining all of us as we celebrate Brad’s big sister’s new marriage here on earth.

So yes, life always finds a way. It’s just that sometimes it doesn’t look the way we expect. Sometimes, we find ourselves without the ones we hoped to have forever. Somehow, though, we are still surrounded by those loved ones God always intended to put into our lives. And then we dance. And then we begin to dream again.

Home

They are looking for a place where they can be themselves. Where they matter. Where the fearful and wonderful creation – the person God made them to be – is full loved and affirmed and empowered.

In her book, Searching for Sunday, the late Rachel Held Evans wrote, “The church is God saying, ‘Im throwing a banquet, and all the mismatched, messed-up people are invited. Here, have some wine.”

Many years ago now, when I was younger, my parents gave me the chance to choose where I would go to church. I was never baptized as an infant (another entertaining story altogether), because my parents had wanted me to pick a faith of my own when I was old enough.

At the end of the day, there was only one thing that made the decision: the church that felt like home.

The truth is that what most people are searching for is not the glitz or the glam, or even the easy answers.

They are looking for a place where they can be themselves. Where they matter. Where the fearful and wonderful creation – the person God made them to be – is full loved and affirmed and empowered.

They are looking for Jesus.

Not the one who has been coopted by the hateful forces that humanity has laid upon him over these last two millennia.

They are looking for the welcoming teacher who broke the world’s rules and welcomed all who came to him, especially those that society and the powerful cast out. The one who offered hope to the hopeless. Power to the powerless. Food to the hungry. And lifted up the overlooked.

They are looking for home. Real home. Something many are not even blessed to find in the houses they grow up in.

So, if you want to follow Christ, then #lifegoals means not only to work on your church looking like this, but even more importantly to make yourself and your own family into a place of welcome like this.

That’s your job.

Where to go from here…

All around us there are far too many stories of other lives lost. Of what is missing. Of opportunities missed. Of chances now gone…

Where to begin?

This last week has been one of the most difficult in recent memory. First with the six month anniversary of my husband’s death last week. Followed by his thirty-ninth birthday this week. A profound sense of what is missing has surrounded my waking hours. Of opportunities missed. Of chances that are now gone.

And yet, mine is a tale of the conventional parts of life. Yes, my husband was taken from me at too young an age. However, it was from illness. A terrible part of life that all humans must face, which makes it no easier. Yet, it does put some perspective on what else I have to say.

All around us there are far too many stories of other lives lost. Of what is missing. Of opportunities missed. Of chances now gone.

Unlike my late husband, they were not taken by nature. They were taken by something far more insidious. They were struck down by the rotting, putrefying malice of white supremacy that continues to reside, alive and well, within not only the hearts and minds of so many, but also inside the very systems of livelihood and governance that we have built. Day by day, this cantankerous virus does far more damage than even the global pandemic taking the world by storm these many months. And what is worse, many millions continuously bury their heads in the sand and refuse to even admit that there is a problem.

I saw something last night that said we need to return to “Godly morals.” And yet, the poster is one whose head is in the sand along with the thousands and the millions.

For many have misunderstood that among the most defining qualities of our God, the God of Abraham and Isaac, the God who became flesh in Jesus Christ, is that our God is one who creates justice. Justice that lifts up the orphan and the widow. Justice that sides always, always with the oppressed and never the oppressor. Justice that aids the immigrant, alien, and refugee. Justice that is the necessary to make Love real, for without it, love is merely lip-service. I myself needed reminding of that only just last week by a wise professor.

So, where do we go from here?

Well, first, if any of us have sand in our mouth, we need to start spitting and repenting (which is probably most people who look like me at some point, if we’re honest with ourselves). Second, if we want to follow God and Christ, we must acknowledge the reality of what is really happening all around us. Hear voices. Name realities. Acknowledge accountability when it barely occurs. Then continue to seek real justice.

And last, we should seek Godly morals – ones that uphold the justice our God and our Lord Jesus Christ have already shown us. They are not an easy list. But that is the business about which we are meant to live.

It’s a new day. So let’s get to it.

A day of resurrection

As beautiful and perfect as we desire our Easter Sunday services to be, with their glorious music and gorgeous flowers, they do not reflect the candid reality of what actually occurred that first resurrection morning…

Easter is a strange time in the life of the church. We begin with a single day, when our Lord disappeared from the cold, shadow-filled tomb and went on walk-about throughout the land of his birth. The women who saw him slowly began to tell the tale, or quickly, depending on which version you’re reading. And people began to believe.

It is not a very clean story. In fact, it is quite messy. It is honest. And real. And you can feel the tingles in your bones if you let yourself.

Perhaps there is a gift in there.

As beautiful and perfect as we desire our Easter Sunday services to be, with their glorious music and gorgeous flowers, they do not reflect the candid reality of what actually occurred that first resurrection morning.

But you know what does?

Real life.

Because everyday life, when we have trouble getting ourselves out of bed, or can barely bring ourselves to face a given situation, or are unsure that what we are seeing is true – that is far more akin to what the original disciples faced. That is the true reality of Easter.

I don’t know about you all, but I find that a very big comfort. And not only on a professional level when we realize that we haven’t put together enough Communion packets.

I am far more comforted by these messy and complicated and honest visions of human disciples when the day after Easter I can barely move because the weight of the world is too much. My grief is still pressing me to my bed. And I have trouble breathing because of all the ridiculous, hate-filled lies I hear in our midst.

Those are the moments when the angels words come back to me: he is going ahead of you… Those are the moments when resurrection actually takes on real meaning for me.

The Power of the Cross

And yet, knowing all of it, Christ, our God, still chose to stretch out his arms. To show what true Love really looks like. To put on display for all the world to see – how far Love will go…

Holy Week.

My favorite week in the liturgical calendar. While the world around is focusing on hopping bunnies and brightly colored sweets (which is happening in my house, too), at church we are dealing with the raw, unbridled passion of God.

And no, I am not talking about suffering for sufferings sake. Nor am I a believer in the form of blood atonement that makes Christ the recipient of God the Father’s child abuse. Nor does this week somehow diminish all the pain that surrounds us in this world – the suffering of the hungry, the poor, the grieving, the dying, the oppressed, the abused, the lost, the forgotten, and all the other children of God that Christ consistently spent his life on earth lifting up.

On the contrary, it is the very power of God’s unconstrained and extravagant Love on display that brings everything else into focus.

How can we not listen to the silenced, especially those who have had their voices ripped away from them, as we hear leather whips rend flesh? How can we not open our eyes to the broken systems of our world when we see our Lord judged a common criminal and brutally murdered for calling out the systems of his day? How can we not hear the cries of the hungry and thirsty in our midst who are often given scraps and looked down upon when our Lord was given vinegar to drink? How can our hearts not break within us for all those forced apart, those intentionally forgotten, those deliberately lost by the community when we see all but a few of his closest friends flee in fear?

And yet, knowing all of it, Christ, our God, still chose to stretch out his arms. To show what true Love really looks like. To put on display for all the world to see – how far Love will go. To the cross. To the curse. To Hell.

There is such beauty in that Love. In our Crucified God.

Even when it forces us to see all the work we have yet to do, that Love will never… ever… ever let us go.

That is the power of the cross.

What’s the Point

It’s a wakeup call for all of us, especially those of us who would rather just comfortably stick our heads in the sand as the world around us falls apart. We are followers of the Crucified God. Such willful ignorance is Sin. And God will hold us liable.

Tragedy continues to strike in our world. Hard. People get hurt. People cause terror. Hatred runs rampant.

And what do we do?

Well…

“It’s not my responsibility, right?” “I never caused any harm.” “I have a [insert token] friend, so I can’t possibly be this kind of hateful…”

Sure. Keep running with that.

Next week is Holy Week. And though that does not affect any but the Christian world, allow me to remind those who would follow Christ about its most central tenant.

At the heart of everything else that will occur is a cross. On the place of the Skull – outside the city where normal people live. Calvary was a place considered cursed and damned by God and humans.

And that cross holds together an ultimate paradox, one that we cannot shy away from:

On the one hand, the arms stretched out on that cross represent a Love that will go to any and every length to serve another. Which means that for anyone who has ever been degraded, subjugated, oppressed, trampled, broken, destroyed – that cross is beautiful good news of how well you are loved in the face of all the hatred that the world consistently bombards you with.

On the other hand, the planks of wood represent the very worst of humanity and what we can do to one another. Our complicity. Our hatred. Our degradation. For make no mistake – it is we, it is I who crucified our Lord. We – every single follower of Christ – we are all complicit. Every single time we ignore malice, enmity, persecution, abuse, subjugation, suppression, tyranny, repression, exploitation, humiliation, shame, indignity, debasement, death, and so many other things. Not only when we commit these crimes, but when we ignore them and allow them to be accomplished on our watch – we are just as guilty as those who perpetrate them. And then we have hit the nail in a bit further.

So what’s the point of Holy Week?

It’s a wakeup call for all of us, especially those of us who would rather just comfortably stick our heads in the sand as the world around us falls apart. We are followers of the Crucified God. Such willful ignorance is Sin. And God will hold us liable.

My best advice is to come to the cross. Come and die to all that the world may offer. Come and learn what it means to really live – live as followers of Love crucified.

Family Ties

So, perhaps there is one lesson we should all take from this ridiculous and fun holiday today: we do have a bit of the same in us. And that is something to celebrate…

So, today is St. Patrick’s Day. A strange day in the American liturgy, as it were. Perhaps it is our love of cheering for the underdog, but today is the day when our country comes together to celebrate a group of people that for decades, if not at least a century, was considered one of the worst banes of our nation’s existence.

We eat traditional foods (not precisely Irish ones). We wear green (even though Patrick’s color was actually blue). And we do everything in our power, at least the grown ups, to get Irish (what my family calls rip-roaring drunk). Oh, and in non-Covid years we have some really awesome parades, too.

Now, my heritage is actually partially Irish. And I love holidays. So I’m all in. The Leprechauns visited my house last night leaving a trail of gold coins and foot prints for my sons along with green toilet water and milk (thank you Mimi for those ideas). And we will be having real Irish food for dinner – lamb shepherd’s pie.

Yet, I cannot help but pause a moment to consider some of the ironies that today holds. For all of us.

It is a fun day, to be sure. But perhaps it would be worth learning a bit of the history of the Irish in this country alongside our study of how Guiness and Smithwicks make their brews and how to make “Irish Car Bombs.”

It is a remarkable day to have so many people come together to claim a tie to one of our country’s historical “underdogs,” yet should we also consider why we do not have the same excitement for other holidays that celebrate other peoples who have had even worse experiences in our nation’s history (e.g. Juneteenth)?

This is a hard day for me personally because it was always a day my husband and I enjoyed together. And with so much of my family gone, including him, it now falls to me to figure out how to honor my ancestors who did come from the Emerald Isle, along with a whole lot of other places, while also honoring a far more important struggle within myself.

That struggle is my belief that we must always continue to do better. To be better. To honor the past while also celebrating the beauty of the present and embracing the opportunity to create a world where underdogs no longer exist.

My family came to this country looking for that better world. And though we have made so many, many, many missteps through the years, I still believe that there is a better world out there if we are all willing to put in the work – together.

So, perhaps there is one lesson we should all take from this ridiculous and fun holiday today: we do have a bit of the same in us. And that is something to celebrate.

And so it goes…

Looking back on my own life in this last year, if I stare too long, I find it hard to breathe… I am not a believer in God controlling all aspects of our fate – because if that is true, then God is responsible for some pretty horrendous things…

Almost a year has passed since our world changed forever.

Even now, those of us with social media are seeing memories of the early rumblings of the storm to come. And yet, none of us could know what all of us would be in for.

Looking back on my own life in this last year, if I stare too long, I find it hard to breathe. So much loss. Not just the half a million Americans lost to Covid. Not just the times and experiences we all had to cancel due to the dangers that the pandemic posed. But my father’s best friend. My last remaining grandparent. Mimi. Brad.

Breathe in

I do see the good, too. The creativity. The beauty. The wonder and awesome power of the human spirit in the face of such insurmountable challenges. We truly are a marvel.

I see my sons, born two and a half months premature, now the size of six and seven year olds at the age of four. Healthy. Strong. Smart. Full of joy. Full of so much of my late husband.

Breathe out

I am not a believer in God controlling all aspects of our fate – because if that is true, then God is responsible for some pretty horrendous things (i.e. genocide, disease, famine, etc.). Instead, much like in the book of Job, I do believe that God often allows things to occur as they will. Sometimes at the hands of those with evil intentions. But far more often life simply happens. It is neither good nor evil. It just is. It may be hard, like my husband’s death and my mother-in-law’s death and my grandfather’s death. However, none of those deaths were either good or evil. They simply were part of life. Part of what we experience. And so it goes…

What I find, when I look deep into the scriptures and God’s heart, is a different form of providence than control. Instead, there is a much more important promise: a promise that God will be with us. No matter what may happen. Come Hell or high water. Come fire or famine. God will be with us. Walking with us and offering the grace we need to not only survive whatever may come, but to find the new life that is always waiting in the wings. That is the providence that Love offers. And our God is certainly Love above all else. Well, Love and Life itself.

Breathe deeply

So here is my takeaway from this ridiculously difficult and yet somehow remarkably triumphant year: life is going to keep going. Yet, God is still with us wherever we go and working as much as possible for good. So keep breathing until you can do more. Then do more. Then live life as beautifully and as long as you are able. And love every chance that you get.

A Moment of Pause

I cannot let so many lives pass without acknowledging what we have lost. All of those lost were loved and did love. All of them were part of a family and a community. All of them had value. All of them mattered.

In recent days we have surpassed the 500,000 mark in our nation. That is over half a million people who have died from the novel Corona virus in the last year, for we have not even hit the anniversary of when the real shut downs in our country began. That is as many people as those who died in both world wars combined with our war in Vietnam. It is only 120,000 less than died in the Civil War. That number is beyond staggering.

And such a moment deserves a moment of pause to consider some things.

Maybe it is because I have lost four of my own family members in the same time frame, and granted from things unrelated to this virus, but I cannot let so many lives pass without acknowledging what we have lost. All of those lost were loved and did love. All of them were part of a family and a community. All of them had value. All of them mattered.

The Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. once wrote that all life is inextricably intertwined, woven together in one single garment of destiny. He may have been speaking of racial injustice, nevertheless, the paradigm still resonates. The lives of those lost impact us. Far more importantly, the choices we make now impact every single life that still exists.

This weekend, the lectionary passage talks about taking up our cross, which means something far different than what most people think. The key thing in its meaning is this: taking up our cross is always about serving someone else. Christ’s cross was not for himself, but for the world. Our lives, for those of us who would follow him, are meant to be about service of others.

So, for all of us still living on this side of the grass, still breathing, behind a mask or not, we should consider this: it is our job to care about every life that is connected with our own. And that is every life.

Be kind. Be thoughtful. Do your part until this storm finally abates.

Ashes to Ashes

God could care less how little soda your are drinking if you refuse to offer your hungry neighbor some food. God does not care how many verses of scripture you have memorized if you never go out of your way to learn a stranger’s name…

Ash Wednesday is a day meant to bring us into deep contact with our mortality. Remember you are dust and to dust you shall return. You will die. Life is fleeting. In the end, only the eternal will last.

For many of us, this is not really a reminder. Death is an ever-present reality. Whether we are dealing with the recent loss of a loved one or our own personal life-threatening diagnosis, we get it. Life is but breath and then you’re gone. Thanks, but not thanks. We’ve already got that depressing reality down.

However, I am not really sure that is what this day is meant to be about.

Perhaps the better thought to consider is how are you going to spend the time you have here on earth?

Lenten practices range from the silly to the absolutely ridiculous, with everything in between. And I am the last person to tell you how you should observe a holy Lent, because I do not know where you relationship with God is.

What I do know is this: God could care less how little soda your are drinking if you refuse to offer your hungry neighbor some food. God does not care how many verses of scripture you have memorized if you never go out of your way to learn a stranger’s name. God will not count the number of chocolates you skip, but God will keep track of the people you ignore in your path who are hurting, especially if you have the ability to help. And though God appreciates quiet times spent together, no length of time in the world will matter if you remain cruel to your family and neighbors.

Getting the picture yet?

Christ cares far more about how you love than anything else. God has shown a love for you that is beyond any measure the human mind can fathom. All that God asks in return is that you pass that love on, out into the world.

The ashes on your body are a mark of just how loved you are, but they are also a reminder that all of us have limited time to share that love with the world. So, what will you be doing to observe this Lent?