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.

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It’s Not Goodbye, Mom

My mom, Sandy Stoddert, 76, passed into eternity Saturday night.

Mom had struggled valiantly against the effects of Parkinson’s Disease since 1985…yes, for 33 years, and since she was 43, she’s been dealing with it. She fought to keep her independence as long as she could, taking in home-based aides for the last five years she lived in her home in Vermont. Then in 2011 she admitted it was time for more help, and she chose to move to Virginia into an assisted living home in Woodbridge. But the disease kept after her, and in parallel she began developing a series of infections that later would weaken her kidneys to the point they couldn’t cope. Just before Christmas 2016, she moved into her nursing home, and it’s there, surrounded by those who have cared for her, that she died.

I’d seen this coming for awhile, although the actual end was a little faster than I’d expected. She developed her final infection in mid September, and this time her kidneys didn’t respond. Her brother, and my sister, each came down to say what they needed to say to her last weekend.

Then it was my turn.

You see, when my dad passed ten years ago, the decline from his surgery to his passing was only six weeks, and much of it was spent in hope of recovery. But when it became obvious that his story wouldn’t end well, I wasn’t prepared to say goodbye. It was more about me, more about asking forgiveness for my own shortcomings, than about him and what was about to happen.

Enter God: he got my attention in one of the class lectures last week. The professor had in someone to talk about her call, and what she does (she’s a chaplain at a hospital in Kentucky). And when she started talking about the four things she wished everyone had the chance to say to a loved one who’s dying, I really sat up and paid attention.

I used that, then, as the basis for my own talk with mom last Wednesday.

  1. One, I forgive you. I forgive you your role in my parents’ divorce and what that meant to me at the time, I let all that go.
  2. Two, please forgive me. Forgive me for all the times I didn’t show you love, when I put myself first.
  3. Three, here’s what you meant to me. You gave me your love of reading and books, your love of history and government, and you were the one to make sure I got to church. And so here I am, a senior executive in the government and trying to follow Christ as he leads into this new adventure…and yeah, I wrote a book too.
  4. Four, I love you, and it’s OK to go. The last words I heard her say to me were on Monday, when she said she was tired. And so I told her it’s OK, we’ll be fine. My sister and I are doing OK, and all the grandkids are launching into their own lives just as you’d want them to. Go ahead and rest. Go find your beloved dog Kep, and play with her again. And take hold of the healing that we just can’t get for you here. Oh, and by the way: I love you.

Three nights later, she passed away. Go in peace, mom, and savor all the restoration that’s available now in Christ. I’ll see you again soon enough.

(PS: Here’s her obituary.)

Mom’s Ailing

I’m having to come to terms with the fact that my mother perhaps has very little time left among us.

About ten days ago, she developed an infection that affected her kidneys, causing them to be ineffective at metabolizing sodium, among other things. This is at least the third such infection in the last 14 months, and it got to the point this week that my sister and I have put her on a do-not-resuscitate, or DNR, order. She’s eating less, and at one point this week refused her medicines. The palliative care nurse practitioner noticed she looked a little sad Tuesday, and asked if Mom felt she was beginning to transition home. She nodded.

Large parts of this, of course, feel like when my dad was ailing ten autumns ago. He went in for open heart surgery, came out of that, developed complications, and slowly sank over the next six weeks: in mid September, he had surgery, and by November 6, he was gone. What feels the same is the slow-motion horror of the train wreck you can see developing and are powerless to stop.

It’s so much different from when Mary’s dad passed this summer, largely unexpectedly. And what feels different from my dad to my mom is that we’ve had 32 years to see this coming. Mom’s Parkinson’s Disease has reached a pretty advanced level, and so it’s entirely foreseen that some complicating factor will start to work on her. Still, it’s not easy seeing her drift away, unable to communicate well, weakening.

And yet, I have to confess to a certain peace about this. Perhaps because it’s been developing for so long, but also perhaps because of what I know. I know, for instance, that I’ve done all I can for mom, and so I really don’t think whether she knows I love her is in question. And all the more, I know there is a restoration of all things that awaits her. There is newness, wholeness, beyond anything we can imagine. Mom will be restored, not only to how she was before the PD afflicted her, but also to what she was always intended to be, in a resurrected body free from everything. This is the promise in Christ: this is the fruit of his resurrection, opening the way for us to follow him into glory. We don’t follow Christ because we get eternal life: we get eternal life because we follow Christ. Makes all the difference in the world.

The medical team hastens to say that the new antibiotics are working better, her numbers are improving, and in any case, it could be some time still, months even, before the end. But for the first time we are talking about an end, which in turn gives me hope for a new beginning. Alleluia...come, Lord Jesus.

 

One More Step

This past Thursday night I took another step along the road towards the pastorate. One of the requirements in the United Methodist Church is for the local church, at its annual business meeting, to certify a candidate for ordination that it wishes to sponsor. This week, I had the rare privilege of being in that situation.

The District Superintendent, Jeff, was there for the annual charge conference, which is what it’s called, and he ran the meeting, including the time to ratify me. When that came, he explained the uniqueness of this proceeding, before supervising a written ballot vote whether to put me forward. I am humbled and honored to have had the support of all 44 church members present and voting that night. (Yes, apparently, Mary voted for me too.)

When the vote was announced, Jeff called me forward and everyone had a chance to lay hands on me and he led a blessing. I was touched, and moved, by the love and support of the congregation, and the unanimous vote really affirmed for me how much people are behind me, and apparently how much of a “duh!” this is to everyone.

There’s a few steps more to go before certification this winter. I have to complete my mentoring cycle, which will take me to January I expect; I have to review the results of my psychological testing, which will probably be next month sometime. And I have some essays to write about fundamental theological questions. But I’m thinking I will have achieved certified status by spring.

Then what?

This. I Wanna Do THIS.

I’ve started readings for one of my fall classes, CD 501 Vocation of Ministry–which looks like it will be a chance for us to push into what being in full-time ministry will be all about. (“You sure you wanna do this?”) One of the books is Stephen Seamands’ Ministry in the Image of God, and I just have to quote from his Chapter 4, on “Glad Surrender.” In it, Seamands himself quotes from Hannah Hurnard’s Hinds’ Feet on High Places. Check this out.

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In the story, Much-Afraid is puzzled when she learns that she is ascending to the High Places not to remain there forever but so she can descend back into the Valley of Humiliation from which she has fled. At the beginning of her journey with the Shepherd, as they cross a swift stream running through the valley, he bids her listen to the words being sung by the rushing water: “Come, oh come! Let us away–Lower, lower, every day…From the heights we leap and flow, To the valleys sown below, Sweetest urge and sweetest will, To go lower, lower still.”

The water sings joyfully as it hurries down to the lowest place, yet the Shepherd is calling Much-Afraid to ascend to the High Places. It seems contradictory, so Much-Afraid asks what it means. “The High Places,” the Shepherd explains, “are the starting places for the journey down to the lowest place in the world. When you have hinds’ feet and can go ‘leaping on the mountains and skipping on the hills,’ you will be able, as I am, to run down from the heights in gladdest self-giving and then go up to the mountains again […] for it is only on the High Places of Love that anyone can receive the power to pour themselves in an utter abandonment of self-giving.” At this point in the journey, however, Much-Afraid is perplexed by the Shepherd’s answer.

Later, though, when they arrive at the borderland of the High Places, she begins to understand. Standing before the towering cliffs still to be scaled, the Shepherd has Much-Afraid look up at the mighty waterfall flowing down from the High Places. When she does, she is awed by the tremendous height of the rocky lip over which the water cascades down and the deafening noise as it crashes down onto the rocks at the foot of the fall. Never has she seen anything so majestic or terrifyingly lovely. Once again, as in the valley, she hears the waters singing, “From the heights we leap and go, To the valleys down below, Always answering to the call, To the lowest place of all.”

To Much-Afraid the fall of the mighty waters is both beautiful and terrible. She can hardly bear to watch the water cast itself down from the heights above only to be shattered on the rocks beneath. Sensing her apprehension, the Shepherd urges her to look more closely. “Let your eye follow just one part of the water from the moment when it leaps over the edge until it reaches the bottom.”

As she does, she gasps in wonder. Once over the edge, the waters were like winged things, alive with joy, so utterly abandoned to the ecstasy of giving themselves that she could have almost supposed that she was looking at a host of angels floating down on rainbow wings, singing with rapture as they went. To the water this was the loveliest, most glorious movement in the world. And its joy didn’t end when it broke upon the rocks below. In fact, the lower the water went, the lighter and more exuberant it became. A rushing torrent, it swirled triumphantly around the rocks and then flowed downward, lower and lower, around and over every obstacle in its way.

As the Shepherd explains, “At first sight the leap does look terrible […] but as you can see, the water itself finds no terror in it, no moment of hesitation or shrinking, only joy unspeakable and full of glory, because it is the movement natural to it. Self-giving is its life. It has only one desire, to go down and down and give itself with no reserve or holding back of any kind. You can see that as it obeys that glorious urge the obstacles which look so terrifying are perfectly harmless, and indeed only add to the joy and glory of the movement.”

Soon Much-Afraid discovers firsthand what this means. After she ascends to the High Places and is given a new name (Grace and Glory), compassion for those in the Valley of Humiliation wells up within her. They are so fearful and bound; she longs to tell them how the Bridegroom-King can free them as he freed her.

As she rises to go down into the Valley, she sees the great waterfall and hears the song again, “From the heights we leap and flow, To the valleys down below, Sweetest urge and sweetest will, To go lower, lower still.” Now she fully understands. She has been brought by the King to the High Places so that she too can pour herself out in joyful abandonment. The thought of being made one with the great fall of many waters filled her heart with ecstasy and with a rapturous joy beyond power to express. She, too, at last was to go down with them, pouring herself forth in love’s abandonment of self-giving. “He brought me to the heights just for this,” she whispered to herself, and then looked at him and nodded.

What Much-Afraid once considered terrible, love’s abandonment in self-giving, has become to her altogether lovely, a fountain of unspeakable joy. What she has shrunk away from for fear of losing herself, she now gladly embraces as the grand purpose of her existence.

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This is at least the third time I’ve read this, and it’s moved me deeply each time I do. In fact, this passage was part of one of the more powerful experiences of God that I’ve had in the past year. I read this for the first time over lunch in my office at work, tears streaming down my face. I felt two things at the same time. I felt the desire to join the water “to go lower, lower still.” And I felt more affirmed in my path than in practically anything else this year: that yes, this is what I am calling you to do; that it will be all right even though it might look scary sometimes; that this is “the grand purpose of [my] existence.”

I can’t say I’m ready to do this, and at the same time, I don’t think anyone ever can. But the rivulets are forming up. They are flowing into trickles, then into tiny streams, then on into a great river that rushes to the edge and off, abandoning all it knows for the ecstasy of the flight, and the privilege of going lower, lower still. Come along for the ride.

David’s First Accident

We interrupt this journey to ordination for a word from Real Life.

After two-plus years of really safe driving, including thousands of miles all alone in West Virginia last summer, David had his first accident last week.

The bottom line: He’s fine. The other guy (in the huge delivery truck) was absolutely fine. But as you can see, the nearly 12-year-old minivan has had better days.

He was turning right, out of a parking lot, and the left lane was blocked by a truck or something, so he couldn’t see. So he nosed out a little to see if it was clear, and wham, the truck tore the front bumper off before he could get to the brake.

It’s funny, we had just had the van in for its 165,000 mile service, and Chrissy told us the front end suspension was shot…the tires were beginning to go bad because of it…and (gulp) it’d be at least $3200 to redo the suspension. This is on a van that’s maybe worth $2000 at trade-in, if all the stars and planets aligned and the estimator was drunk that day. We were in the midst of discussing what to do about it, because we’d really like to get another year or two out of it for David, when oops. That decision kinda got made for us now. We’re in the process of donating the van, because it’s just not worth it to fix up or to do anything else with it. But it did point up some lessons.

One, David was really calm and handled himself very well. The truck driver didn’t want to exchange insurance information with David and called the police, who came and took everyone’s information; David didn’t get a ticket, but the officer did comment on how calmly he was handling everything. So I’m proud of him for dealing with the ugliness of the whole incident without losing it.

Two, it really did remind us that our treasure isn’t in our cars or in our stuff. I reminded David of what I had told him years ago when he first started driving: accidents where metal gets bent but nobody gets hurt are lessons. Learn them the first time and you’ll be fine. And I think he’ll approach every blind corner a whole lot more carefully now, for the rest of his life, and he’ll be telling his kids about this when he’s teaching them to drive someday.

Don’t store up treasures here on earth, where moths eat them and rust destroys them, and where thieves break in and steal. Store your treasures in heaven, where moths and rust cannot destroy, and thieves do not break in and steal. Wherever your treasure is, there the desires of your heart will also be. (Matthew 6:20-22)

He’s back at college now (stories about that another time), and car-less for the time being. Fortunately his roommate has a car; fortunately or unfortunately, that car’s a standard, and David has yet to learn on a stick. (Maybe Nathan will take him for a lesson.) But life does go on, even without the bumper attached.

Here I Am, Lord. Send Me.

Here I am, Lord / Is it I, Lord? / I have heard you calling in the night / I will go, Lord / Where you lead me / I will hold your people in my heart.

Starting almost a year ago, I’ve been on a path of discernment. I’ve been trying to figure out what God is calling me to in the next chapter of my life, with an eye towards whether I am being called into a path towards ordination in the United Methodist Church. In this blog I’ve talked about discernment, about finding the breadcrumbs here and there and everywhere along the trail, about the times the Holy Spirit pokes me to get my attention, or gives me experiences of affirmation, and even the first steps along the path towards ordination.

This past weekend I took another. Publicly, I have declared myself to be a candidate for ordination as an Elder in the UMC.

If after about 15 months of signals I’m still feeling led in this direction, I think it’s time to make a decision and say, Yep, that’s probably right. In fact, I’ve spent prayer time over the past couple of months reflecting on all the green lights I’ve been seeing, and asking Jesus instead for disconfirming evidence: if this isn’t right, show me now! (And then crickets chirped, and tumbleweeds drifted through…nothing happened.)

In the spring, I was accepted into Asbury Theological Seminary–another piece of doors being opened for me, in fact. Asbury requires four reference letters; one of my four letter-writers told me he was slammed at work and couldn’t get to it for a couple of weeks. But then days later, I got the email saying I had been accepted. I assumed he had found the time and sent it in–but no, come to find out, he hadn’t…Asbury accepted me with only three letters, and apparently, a big enough nudge from the Spirit. I am humbled by that.

My brother Glenn had sage advice, as always: “Go take a class. You’ll know soon enough if you’re supposed to be doing this.” In May I started my first two seminary classes, one online, and one “intensive” in-person class that met at the end of June. I met some wonderful people and had a great experience, including more affirmation…I texted Glenn, “I hate it when you’re right.”

In early July I attended a discernment weekend sponsored by the Virginia Conference. At one point in the weekend we reflected on Matthew 4. We did a lectio divina exercise, in which we read the scripture several times, pausing to listen for what word or phrase God draws to us, or what else we hear. On reading the story of Jesus calling his disciples to go and become fishers of men, what I heard was, “Let’s go fishing.”

On Saturday, I transmitted my Statement of Call to our congregation’s Staff-Parish Relations Committee, which is the first time all this has been public within the church. On Sunday, as the 11am service was wrapping up, Pastor Don called me up front and announced that I had put my name forward…so yeah, it’s a thing now.

I’ve begun to be more public in telling people about this, and almost unanimously, the reaction has been some form of, “Yeah? That doesn’t surprise me. What took you so long?” Why am I always the last to figure things out??

To be perfectly honest I’m a little…nervous? Scared? Intimidated by the prospect of all that’s ahead of me? And I was certainly a little bit of that standing with Don Sunday morning. Oddly enough, the people called “Methodists” have a very methodical process that this will entail. This is a long road ahead: on my current pace, it’ll be about six years to get my M.Div. But I’m also taking steps to make myself available if called sooner: I’ve completed my first interview with the local Alexandria District Committee on Ministry, and they passed me on to the next stage, mentoring with another pastor. In seeking our church’s SPRC recommendation, I put myself in a position to be approved at the charge conference next month, and in line to become a certified candidate this winter…and eligible for assignment as a part-time student pastor thereafter. Yes, while working full-time. Yes, while taking five graduate courses a year.

Pray for me. But all the more, pray for Mary: she’s entering into this wonderfully supportively, but also (like me) with very, very little idea of what we’re getting into. This really is a step in faith for us both. 

For I know the plans I have for you, says the Lord. They are plans for good, and not for disaster, to give you a future and a hope.  (Jeremiah 29:11)