Somebody Fired The Starting Gun

So let me tell you a bit about the beginning of my week last week.

Sunday night: a close friend reached out to me about his relationship with one of his adult children. Things had been awkward lately, with unspoken feelings piling up and spilling into behaviors that finally came to a head, and text messages started flying. I spent time helping him craft messages that conveyed love in the midst of the hurt, and helping him think through how to approach the topic so his own feelings are heard, but which preserves the underlying relationship.

Monday: another brother in Christ shared that he has been “down the deep dark hole that leads to nowhere,” in a black depression lately, such that he hasn’t seen seen in years. A familiar tale of trying to keep all the plates spinning at work, at home, with family, with friends, with everybody, and not being able to do so. Marriage, kids, job…sometimes all the facets of our lives collide at once.

Tuesday: a family member has started on a new life opportunity that has her away from home for the first time in awhile, and her start of the program was marred by anxiety attacks. She was quite upset with herself, because if she can’t get them under control she can’t finish her program and take the next step she wants to take. And so the texts I received were panicked: “Help me!”

startinggun

By Wednesday, it felt like someone had blown the whistle to start the race of my pastoral time, and I was still back at the bench getting my laces tied. All of a sudden, out of the woodwork came these people I love experiencing their own crises. I know enough to know that my role is not to solve the problems: I know I can’t do that. Instead, my role is to walk alongside, to encourage, to pray for, to connect them with resources that are trained to do more than I can. And in each of the cases last week, that’s how I tried to act: the ministry of presence, of sharing genuine concern and love. And in each of the cases, I felt inadequate, unsure, a little floundering myself. I can only pray they received each some sort of peace, some sort of help, despite my inadequacies.

Nonetheless, this is the path I’m called to follow. This is the world I will inhabit: sudden panicked texts and painful situations needing help, and more. I know I don’t know enough yet about pastoral counseling, and for the missteps I know I’m going to make in my early pastoral career, right up front, let me beg forgiveness.

And at the same time, let me declare the love that’s out there and available. If, as one mentor put it, “as you go deeper into this, the world will respond to that call [that I’ve been given],” then I celebrate this as affirming what God is already at work and doing. And I know I can’t do this…but He can. So come, Holy Spirit. Fill me, use me, let your words and Christ’s love be what people hear and see, not my own shortcomings.

Let’s go.

A Morning Spent in the Back Office

This morning I got to spend in “the back office” for the first time in forever. And it was excellent!

As a fourth-string drummer, I rarely get called upon to fill in in worship and praise bands, especially since our own church’s praise service disbanded about four years ago. But Jerry was desperate, clearly, for he had reached out to see if I could sit in with the band at Old Bridge Church for their 11:11 worship service today. And what made it even sweeter was he also invited my daughter Sarah to play and sing along. The picture above is from rehearsal; Sarah is the guitarist off my left crash cymbal.

It was challenging: none of the songs were ones I knew by heart, and several I hadn’t heard before. (I clearly need to broaden my playlists.) But we made it through, God was praised, and no one threw rotten fruit. So I call that a win.

I truly love drumming in praise worship. I love being a part of bringing praise to the Lord, in perhaps inspiring those in the service to experience God’s presence, and generally to be able to share the experience while helping be a part of creating it, if that makes any sense.  And so when I was invited to be the drummer for this spring’s Emmaus men’s walk, I was thrilled.

It has certainly occurred to me that there is a significant risk that once I join the pastorate this summer, occasions like this one will be even rarer than they are today. And there’s a piece of me that mourns that. Oh, sure, it’s still possible I’ll get to play in worship. Who knows. But as any regular activity, as something part of my ministry? I have a harder time seeing that happen.

Drumming isn’t the only thing that will change, and perhaps disappear, once I am licensed this summer. It is an entire season of change that I will be coming into, and doubtless other facets of my life and ministry to date will change, will fade, will even go away entirely. And yet I take comfort in knowing that despite it, God will be praised. Maybe I won’t be the one behind the kit anymore. But it’s never been about me–or at least, it shouldn’t have been. It’s about the four hardest words in English: Thy will be done.

Love Letters

OK, right up front I have to confess to being a bit of a pack rat. This is important to the story because part of what I’ve been doing, while a furloughed Government employee this week, has been cleaning out my basement from decades of accumulated junk. I’m also going through the boxes of mementos, trying to simplify those; for instance, my parents had saved a box of my elementary school work. I don’t think my kids or grandkids are going to find my fifth grade spelling test to be as fascinating.

I came across one set of boxes, though, that contained about ten shoeboxes, each crammed with all the letters from various friends I’d received and then saved from the early 1980s through today. (Although the number of letters saved dropped off d-r-a-m-a-t-i-c-a-l-l-y in the mid-1990s, about the time email came along. Go figure.) I had completely forgotten that I had saved them all!

I went through the boxes of letters, and decided to have almost all of them shredded. I pulled out the stack of love letters that Mary had sent me when we were still dating and just becoming affianced; those I’m definitely saving. But all the rest: they’re going. Ones from my mom and dad, included. And in so doing, I get to say goodbye to a lot of other love letters and ghosts in my past.

Laura, the first real romance I had (if you can count 8th grade as romance, but hey, we exchanged letters about another 7 years). Then Cynthia. Heidi. Dawn. And Julie, my first true long-term relationship. All were some stage of relationship I had, each in some way preparing me to be who I am.

I will confess to a quick peek through some of them before I tossed them in the shred box. They speak of life in a simpler time, when letters were the only way to share (because long distance phone calls were SO EXPENSIVE) and when all of us were young, oh so young, with raw emotions and little experience in dealing with them. The awkwardness, the daring, the vulnerability–the whole range of emotions.

To be honest, it’s with mixed emotions I let these letters go. Of course, I’m not in love with these women anymore, and I certainly don’t need to have these around. I mean, looking at the letters today was the first time in decades that I’d seen them. Some of these young women were more into me than I was into them. Others, I know I hurt when we broke up. All of them, I would apologize to for any hurt I would have caused. All of them, I truly wish well, and hope they’re doing well. One, I know, is a thriving wife and mother. Others, I’m not so sure. But I’m not about to go find out. And yet, they’re just letters, just relics of a time gone by that will never come again, will never amount to anything.

In exorcising those ghosts of my past, it also occurs to me that they each pointed to what I have today. My wife is the total package, if you will, of all I had pieces of over my life. Laura’s smile and (frankly) sauciness is Mary’s. Cynthia’s sense of humor and small-town genuineness is Mary’s. Dawn’s faith is Mary’s. Heidi’s vulnerability is Mary’s. And Julie’s warmth and dedication is Mary’s.

I remember aching for one of my early romances at the time, and wondering if she were the one God had in mind for me. Little did I know he would have many others in store for me, before unveiling the grand prize, the one who brought everything together for me, the one without whom I couldn’t imagine the last nearly 29 years. And as I prepare to put my trust in him one more time, for one more big step, it seems right to let go of all the past, all that’s extraneous, all that isn’t what I have now and need to have in the future.

God bless you all. Forgive me my shortcomings, and allow some fond thought instead. I truly wish you every blessing. And now I’m off with Mary to our next adventure.

Contrasts

Two very different scenes this week that nonetheless come together.

Scene One: It snowed over the weekend, starting Saturday night and through Sunday evening, with about five inches of snow here at the house. (See the picture from the dining room into the back yard.) Roads were pretty slick Sunday night, but by Monday enough plows had been through that roads were better, and I headed out to do some errands.

As I drove, I noticed how postcard-perfect the roadside scenes were. The sky was a soft shade of light blue that contrasted beautifully against the snow-covered landscape. The trees themselves were frosted with caps of snow on the branches; a string of evergreens looked like a Christmas tree forest, glistening under the winter sun. Nearby our house is a great set of sledding hills, and we can hear the shrieks of delighted children. But yet, muffled: I love walking in the snow, as it dampens sound and makes everything quieter, hushed, more peaceful. It truly was a magnificent scene, and gave my heart cause to praise God the Creator for this tremendous gift.

Scene Two: Heartbreak. Our daughter had been pursuing a course of action academically that was not working out for her. It had been her hope to succeed at this new school, and yet her health is not such that she can achieve what she needs to achieve. And so she had to come to the point of deciding what to do: to try to push on, or to step out.

Every parent fiercely wants the best for their child, and every parent’s heart breaks when their child can’t get what they want. I’m no different, and so I ache for her to have to make a difficult decision.

And in the midst of it, the Father’s heart is breaking as well, I am sure. Two thoughts come to mind. First is the beauty of the snowy scene, and how it shows the magnificence of God. Look, he is saying: you’re right to feel for your child. But look around you, and see how much I love you too. I love you enough to give you this entire creation to enjoy, and it’s beautiful. And I love you enough to give you this gift even though you don’t deserve it. Receive my gift; lift your head, stop focusing on your own troubles and look at the magnificence I have for you.

And second: Remember the promises God makes throughout history.

Have I not commanded you? Be strong and courageous. Do not be afraid, do not be discouraged, for the Lord your God will be with you wherever you go. (Joshua 1:9)

So do not fear, for I am with you; do not be dismayed, for I am your God. I will strengthen you and help you; I will uphold you with my righteous right hand. (Isaiah 41:10)

I can do all things through Christ, who gives me strength. (Philippians 4:13)

Our daughter’s troubles will pass. There is hope. And we see that hope in the love of God, reflected in the beauty of his creation on a snowy January day. Come, Lord Jesus, fill the hearts of your faithful, and wrap us in your love.

Merry Christmas, 2018

This Christmas was different, of course. The head of the dining room table was empty this year, with Mom passing in October. And the call to Vermont was missing a voice, with Mary’s dad passing in June. I made it through the day pretty well, but for hearing that silly “Christmas Shoes” song, and immediately thinking of Mom.  And yeah, crying.

And yet, there was brightness to the day. We were allowed to sleep in until well past nine; in fact, I was the first up, to start the coffee cake. Sarah was in much better spirits this year than in some past years, which gave me joy to see her happy and engaged. (Are the teen years ending?!?) We exchanged gifts and some very creative ones came out (I have a dozen new pairs of silly socks to wear to work, for example), and of all it, only two duplicates that we have to take care of.

In so many ways, this was a better Christmas than I expected, or have any right to deserve. I know so many others didn’t have a fire in the fireplace, or a turkey dinner, or the luxury of dozing by the first after the second. And as the years go by, the pile of presents gets a little smaller, and that’s okay: I don’t have anything to prove by great hordes of presents. In fact, quite the opposite: it truly isn’t the getting. The day is about much more.

The day is about love. The day is about the most tremendous love, far beyond anything we can imagine, breaking in and disrupting our lives. It’s about all the contradictions inherent in the fact of the Author of the Universe coming to us as a tiny, defenseless, utterly dependent baby in an insignificant backwater town two millennia ago. It’s not about the loss of our parents, it’s about love–the love they had for us, surely, but all the more, the love that wraps them now, the same love that pulls me in and won’t let go. It’s a much, much fuller Christmas than ever before. And that’s what Christmas is all about, Charlie Brown.

Merry Christmas!

Saying “So Long”

The memorial service for Mom was last weekend, November 10, 2018. While not extensively attended, it was widely attended–people there from all aspects of our lives, and it was so heartening to see them all there. As part of the service, Joel, Deb and I each read a passage that Mom had wanted read, then offered our reflections on her. She had asked me to read 1 Corinthians 13 (the “love chapter”), and here’s what I said.

* * * * *

Love. A mother’s love.

I want to share with you some of the stories I have about my mother, and in the process, you can see what she loved, and how she loved.

One of her first memories was being taken at age three to the center square of her hometown of Easton, Pennsylvania, with the throngs of people celebrating V-E day. This began a lifelong love of history for her, and patriotism, and love of everything having to do with America and the Fourth of July, which was always a special day to her. Her love of history and government lives on in my own work for the Federal Government, as well as her grandson’s love of history and his career in archaeology, finding new history.

Her passion was teaching elementary age kids. Her first classroom was a first grade class in Allentown, PA, where she taught for a couple of years while earning her Master’s. Then after being a stay-at-home mom to us, teaching us as we grew up, she returned to teaching, and became the media center director–never just librarian–for Chamberlin Elementary School. She was the first to bring computers, including an Apple Lisa, into the school for the students to use and learn. And she took an old claw-foot tub, painted it, filled it with blankets and pillows, and set it by the check-out desk for kids to curl up in and read. All to enhance kids’ abilities to learn in a fun way.

The mother’s love extended to keeping us out of trouble. In third grade, we moved from Vermont to El Paso, Texas, and I got in trouble in my first day in Miss Escobar’s class. She had asked me a question, and I answered, “Yes.” She said, “Yes what?” I honestly didn’t know there was more to be said! My mom had to be the one to call the school and explain to the principal that “he wasn’t being disrespectful, that’s just not how teachers are addressed up north.”

In the late 1970s she rode the wave of emerging political activism, helping to found a newspaper in South Burlington, VT, and leading the League of Women Voters. She loved her music and arts: when she was at the assisted living home, she loved going with us to see Ben Cook in one of his productions, and telling everyone about it. We had to reassure the staff that yes, she really did know someone on Broadway!

She was a woman of strength. She was diagnosed with Parkinson’s Disease in 1985, and after her second husband passed in 1987, she fought to stay independent and live in their home until 2006, when the PD began to expect more of her than she could do alone.

She had her own style. When we were making plans to move her to her assisted living apartment in 2011, and discussing what furniture to take and what to leave, she noticed in the lease agreement that she was allowed to paint the walls in her room. And so it came to be that she moved in with walls I’d painted for her, of colors she’d chosen: slate gray on most walls, and two bright red accent walls. Staff were forever popping in just to see it, a room that wasn’t in institutional white. She was really disappointed she couldn’t do that in her nursing home room. You know, Jesus promised us that “in my father’s house, there are many rooms.” I know one of them right now is painted in slate gray and red, and decorated in Early American antiques.

There were two things she really loved: one was the music of Barry Manilow. I have no idea how she found out, after moving to Virginia in 2011, that in 2012 Barry Manilow would be at Wolf Trap, but she did, and insisted on going. So I took her, in her wheelchair, to the special seating at the back of the arena. There was a comedian who came out first, and he was OK, then the lights went down, they rearranged the stage…and a single spotlight came on, shining on a single man in a white suit as the music started…and my mother started squealing like a 16-year-old at Shea Stadium for the Beatles! I was horrified!

The other thing she loved most was the works of Beatrix Potter, and Peter Rabbit, as anyone watching her PTRABIT license plate around town would see. The last movie she went to was this spring, when Peter Rabbit came out. I took her, and we were easily the oldest people in the theatre, with dozens of five- and six-year-olds there. I would just watch her, enthralled as she was with seeing her favorite character on the big screen. At one point, the action is very slapstick, and the five-year-olds behind us are squealing with joy. Mom leaned over and said, “I’ve missed that sound.”

But what she loved most of all was her grandkids. Nothing would outdo her love of hearing stories of what they were up to.

And so what am I going to miss about my mom being gone? I’m going to miss not being able to take her to her grandkids’ college or high school graduations. I’m going to miss having her over for family dinners, or the times she would make a big production of her own family dinners. I’m going to miss Christmas: mom always made it special, always decorated so much, that this Christmas is going to be hard.

And I’m going to miss a mother’s love. I’m gonna miss my mom.

Ten Days On

Today is ten days since Mom passed away.

It’s been an uneven road. For the most part, I think, I’m doing OK. There are moments, though, and there are days that are better than others.

For instance, the other day I saw a trailer on TV for the new Disney movie, The Nutcracker. Oh good, I thought! Mom loves Disney, and she certainly loves The Nutcracker–she always used to collect nutcrackers, in fact. She’d love this, I should…take…her…oh yeah. Huh.

It’s little reminders like that that keep cropping up. Mary and I went to the funeral home to pick up Mom’s cremated remains, and we were stuck in the traffic created by the construction on Route 29 out by the nursing home. Boy, I’ll be glad when this construction is over, I thought…then it occurred to me, I won’t have to drive over here anymore. Oh yeah. Huh.

In these moments of sadness, though, it’s still been possible to find joy. Remember, joy isn’t happiness: there’s not much to be happy about in this at all. But joy is a product of God: it is the security, serenity, and yes, joy, of knowing God and knowing his grace. I can still find joy, in the absolute conviction that Mom has attained the healing that escaped her here. She has a glorified body now, one that works when she wants it to, one that won’t cause her to fall or develop infections, one that’s free of every trace of Parkinson’s Disease. She can run and play with her dog, Kep, in ways that she never could here. And she has claimed the prize of faith.

joy

There is much to be done, administratively, that will be tiresome. There are the dark moments when I wish I could just hear her voice again, or know that hopeful look she would give when I visited. Or take her down to the fish pond one more time. But I also know, she is experiencing the restoration of all things. And in that, despite the darkness, I can take joy.