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Bygones 

There was a time, fifteen or twenty years ago, when I took an average of 2000 photos a year. That might not be so impressive now, in the era of unlimited digital storage, but this was when we had to buy film, carry a camera, get it developed, and hope that the shot came out right. It was expensive, especially since I was paying for it with a minimum wage job while in high school and college. 

Since then, I have moved A LOT. Over and over, I’ve packed up albums and books and boxes of prints and taken them with me. All those boxes get heavy after a while, especially when those pictures don’t mean what they used to. 

They are a record of my life, and in that, they have value. I don’t think it’s accurate or fair to only keep the happy, or the current. But at what point do I stop carrying those photos with me? 

What do you do with photographs of family members who have chosen to no longer consider you family? Or of former best friends who betrayed that trust? Or of religious celebrations and milestones along the path towards what was eventually abuse and cruelty? These people and places are part of my story. I don’t think I need to memorialize them anymore. 

So, little by little, I toss them out. When I have a brave moment, I sift through them and, if I feel only loss, bitterness, or sorrow when I look at it, I put it in the garbage pile. I choose which parts of my story to carry with me to the next place. 

Today has been one of those days. As part of a larger effort to take charge of some projects I’m always meaning to do, I sorted another album today. I have another stack of photos to toss. It’s always a terribly complicated feeling. I’m sorrowful for the way things ended, for the hurt caused. 

This time, though, I’m also sorry for them because they missed out. Life is pretty good now, and they chose to step away, not knowing who I have become. They never saw me so thoroughly happy. They will never meet my fiance. They don’t get to be a part of the adventures ahead. 

That sounds a little arrogant, I guess, but at least it’s honest. Maybe a different person would be more comfortable keeping so many old pictures. Maybe some day, I will regret it. What is more likely, I’m pretty sure, is that I would continue to carry them around, to wince when I see them mixed in with happier memories, that some day, I will find myself having to explain who the stranger is. 
Today, I made more room for more photographs. Photos of my upcoming wedding, honeymoon, anniversaries, parties, graduations, Christmases, and cats. There is a lot to look forward to. Even if it requires taking a few painful moments to let old memories go. 

The trash pile

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Her Name is “Bitter.”

In the fall of 2010, I entered my second year of seminary and Mary entered her first. We had the same mentor and we sang in the vocal ensemble group together. She was one of the oldest cadets on campus, the mother of four, three of whom were with her and her husband on campus.

Galatians lists gentleness as “fruit of the Spirit,” but I hadn’t ever recognized it in anyone like did in Mary. Going back to school was intense, on top of raising her family, and what astounded me more than anything else was the gentleness she had throughout it all. It was a kindness and simplicity usually reserved for young or delicate children in literature, the sort of sweetness that never speaks ill of someone, bandages the broken wing of a song bird, etc. Until I met Mary, I wrote those characters off as being idealized and unrealistic.

That’s not to say Mary never had a bad or frustrating day, just that she handled it, and others, differently than I might have in the same circumstances. When my reaction would be to go to the mattresses, Mary responded with compassion and prayer. She worked for joy, even on bad days. When her heart was broken, it was often out of love for someone.

I haven’t seen Mary much since I finished seminary. Life pulls us in too many directions, but we stayed friends on Facebook. From afar, I saw pictures of her kids growing up, getting married, her first grandson, her youngest going off to school. We chatted now and then, but not as much as I wish.

I knew her health isn’t great, but one wretched day in December, she shared that she was moving to hospice care. It was the first thing I read that morning, and immediately, I sobbed. I don’t mean I got teary-eyed: I was almost heaving by the time I called my dad, who is the first one I call when the world cracks apart again.

“Mary” means “bitter,” but my dear friend has greeted this part of her journey with the same gentleness that she has always had. Her posts, though few, have been so full of the same grace that I saw years ago.

I miss my friend, am sorry I have not seen more of her, and I confess that I lack the gentleness she carries. The other day, during the Lutheran service in the activity room at work, they sang “The King of Love My Shepherd Is,” which is one of the songs Mary and I sang together in ensemble. At once, it broke my heart and made me smile to remember my friend:

1. The King of love my Shepherd is,
Whose goodness faileth never;
I nothing lack if I am His,
And He is mine forever.

2. Where streams of living water flow
My ransomed soul He leadeth,
And, where the verdant pastures grow,
With food celestial feedeth.

3. Perverse and foolish oft I strayed,
But yet in love He sought me,
And on His shoulder gently laid,
And home rejoicing brought me.

4. In death’s dark vale I fear no ill
With Thee, dear Lord, beside me;
Thy rod and staff my comfort still,
Thy Cross before to guide me.

5. Thou spread’st a table in my sight;
Thy unction grace bestoweth;
And oh, what transport of delight
From Thy pure chalice floweth!

6. And so through all the length of days
Thy goodness faileth never;
Good Shepherd, may I sing Thy praise
Within Thy house forever.

I don’t know where my faith is these days, but nevertheless, the song is comforting, at least when it comes to Mary. Someone posted a picture of her the other day, and while she looked weary, I was stunned by the grace and gentleness that still radiates from her. Her name may mean “bitter,” according to the baby name books, but not to me. Mary will forever be associated with overwhelming gentleness. I am so very lucky to get to call her my friend.

Three Little Birds

A few years ago now, I was driving my niece somewhere. Beats me what the destination was, but it was the drive that made it memorable. At some point, Bob Marley’s Three Little Birds came on, and not being a particularly big Marley fan, I wouldn’t have turned it up, were it not for Sarahberry. The sweetness of her voice singing “don’t worry about a thing; every little thing is gonna be alright,” made me want to sing along. It turned a nothing moment into one I desperately tried to prolong.

Earlier this week, I was working on music trivia questions for work and I came across one for Bob Marley. The associating memory of my niece made me smile, so I opened a tab and found a stream of YouTube videos and listened while I worked. When Three Little Birds came on, I closed my eyes, smiled, and sang while I let the memory wash over me. A lot of life has been lived since that day, and I thought about how often it felt like I couldn’t make it anymore.

Last week, I talked to a former mentor, catching up on things. She was happy to hear that most of life is going well for me, or at least a lot better than it had for a few years. It feels strange to be on the other side of things, but I like it.

It was only three songs later in the playlist that I heard devastating news about a friend. A dear one, one who was unquestionably there for me during everything. Suddenly, the light hearted afternoon had betrayed me. I was stuck for words.

I got up and began my rounds of corralling people for the afternoon activity and as I walked up the stairs, I wanted to cry for my friend. “You have some explaining to do,” I arrogantly said to God as I stomped up the last few steps, knowing good and well that God doesn’t answer to me at all. God should have known that my friend doesn’t deserve this; I could have pointed God in the direction of a few people who are due for some retributive karma if I had known that this crapstorm was about to fall on someone.

I still don’t know what to say to my friend. I hate not being able to fix things. The line that keeps running through my head is what circled around me when my grandmother died: sometimes, the cruelest thing is that the world keeps spinning anyways.

Eventually, I think Marley is right. It has taken a long time to get to where I am, where more things feel right than wrong. The hard part is the “mean time,” when everything feels shattered and messy and irreparable. My friend was there for me, and all I can do is be there for my friend. Even if I don’t know how.

Double Starbucks

It’s been a long time since I’ve had a double Starbucks day, but today is one. In fact, today might be the first double Starbucks day I have had since I resigned from professional ministry. Last night, I worked until 11, and then had to be back at work at 6 a.m., which doesn’t sound all that awful until I factor in the half-hour drive each way, the fact that I am never actually out on time, and still had to eat dinner when I got home and shower when I got up, and, perhaps more significantly, my brain is more likely to misbehave when I’ve not slept well. My first cup was a venti dark roast I picked up on my way in to work. When I got to work, the place was full of customers. Men just standing there, talking about nothing and drinking their coffees. I think I may have grumbled a hello as I stalked through them to get to the office.

I did not feel very pastor-y today. I didn’t want to have to see or interact with people. I didn’t want to listen to anyone’s problems. And for the love of everything holy, I did not have it in me to be gracious to other crabby people.

As a pastor, I should have known better: people seem to know when I feel least pastor-y, and that’s when they demand it. 

My first shifter got a running start on pushing my buttons. She refuses to take on any responsibility, but wants to do all the management tasks that make her feel like she has authority. She has been in the store longer than anyone else, so she feels like she can do whatever she wants. She is forever telling me what she thinks I should be doing and is frequently disrespectful, particularly when she has an audience. It wasn’t even 7 a.m. when I was venting in my office, via my cell phone, to my sister.

I needed to be gracious in how I dealt with her. But oh my God, why today? Couldn’t she have waited until tomorrow to be in such a spectacularly awful mood?

I spent more than an hour trying to deal with a vendor whose delivery was every kind of messed up you can imagine: wrong products, wrong quantities, wrong prices. We scanned and counted and crossed things off of lists, and still, we got nowhere. There was no combination of things that got us to the right ending.

I needed to be patient. Of all the days to demand patience, today was hardly the best choice, but there we stood, reviewing stacks of Monster energy drinks and trying to sort out $3000 worth of beverages clogging up the hallway.

As a pastor, I should have known better: the universe knows when I can’t handle one more thing, and that’s when it throws its best curve balls. 

My two favorite people to work with are Carol and Abby.* Abby works at the sandwich counter in the store, is barely nineteen, with a pixie face and her dark hair up in twin pom poms that look like Minnie Mouse ears. Last night, we were talking about tattoos, and I told her that the verse written in Hebrew on my right wrist reminds me that no matter what is happening, God’s character is constant. She told me about her tattoos, from the matching bow tattoos she shares with an aunt to the flower on her arm “just because it’s pretty.” Her grandmother, Carol, works on my side of the store. She’s in her mid-fifties, with bottle-blonde hair, pink iridescent lipstick, and a voice that tells you that she has had a wild life. She’s shamelessly herself, chatty, funny, caring, loud, and has the ability to make people feel like they are the light of her world, just by being on the other side of the counter. She’s always talking about her dream of owning a food truck, making good, reasonable food for people in an environment where she can cook, hang out, and live the life she loves. Sometimes, despite the fact that I know she doesn’t have much of an income, she will make a bunch of food and bring dinner for everyone at work just to let us know she cares. I adore her. Last night, I got to work with both Abby and Carol, and it was really great.

When Carol came in today, she looked at me and said “Honey, you look so tired, and a little depressed. Hard day? is everything OK?” I said that I was pretty tired, and that it had been a hard day, but that I was otherwise OK. She asked about how things are going with a guy that I’ve been seeing, and I filled her in on the latest. She was, as usual, glad to hear that things are going well.

“I’ve had a hard day, too,” she finally said. “You know I went to that [lung] specialist today, and that asbestos disease that they talk about on TV? Well, I don’t have that, but it’s almost the same thing. My lungs are all folded up and full of shit and there’s no treatment or anything. I’m gonna get a second opinion, but if it’s this disease, I didn’t do nothing to cause it, but then it’s like, six months and I’m gone.” She wiped under her eye. “Don’t tell nobody. I’m not saying anything until I get a second opinion, and if I talk about it, I’m gonna cry again. So don’t tell nobody, OK?”

Regardless of the work polo I was wearing, I was immediately in “pastor mode” again. I listened, and told her that I wouldn’t talk about it with anyone in the store (given the fact that none of you know her/where I work and names are changed, I figure this isn’t violating her privacy). I was stunned. She has been in and out of emergency rooms for her breathing, and her condition was generally overlooked by the staff at the income-dependent medical clinic that she went to for far too long.

She’s too young. Too nice.
She doesn’t deserve it. I mean, how many people do you know who, when given a six-month sentence, go to work a few hours later and are first concerned about how their raggedy boss is doing?

I’m glad she feels like she can tell me these things. She’s part of my little unofficial mini flock, now that I am in a different kind of ministry. I doubt she thinks of me as her pastor, but she does think of me as a friend, and that’s a privilege I don’t take lightly.

As her friend, I’m devastated, heartbroken. I am so very angry that it is happening to her.

I’m helpless. My years of pastoring taught me well that I cannot fix anything. I can guide, love, teach, pray. but I cannot fix things, and that is the cruelest reality for pastors. Every pastor I know wants to fix things, and not one of us can. I’m reminded, again, by the verse on my arm that God didn’t change from one minute to the next. God is still God, diagnosis or not. No matter how hard that is to comprehend today.

So I do what I can do: I can love. Listen. Grieve. Pray. Be a friend. And drink this tea at Starbucks while I brainstorm how to do those things better.

*Names are changed.

The Message without the Motto

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Digital art by Mary Ann Parks, Pennsylvania, 2/11/2015

My incomparable friend, Mary, shared this today. It wasn’t intended to, but it moves me.

It uses the colors and vague layout of our former denomination’s flag. For those who don’t know, it may not mean much. But for those who can see through the distress, the message of the gospel is there. The motto is gone – the trappings of the denomination are gone – but no matter how bruised, the message is still there. The gospel hasn’t gone anywhere.

Grief, and the Impermanence of Everything Else.

Some days split your life into pieces. There is a before and an after.

January 23 is one of those days.

I was a senior in high school and had left my part-time job at the video store for the day to go to my friend Diane’s so that we could work on an English project. The weather was wretched and I wasn’t looking forward to the long, inevitably nasty trek to her house. We stopped back in the store to get a movie to watch and one of my coworkers asked if I had heard about Chris.

“No,” I said. “Why?”

“Because he died,” said the punk little 16-year-old behind the counter.

“What? No he didn’t,” I said, not finding him at all amusing.

“Yeah, he did,” he said, and I turned to look at the store manager, who silently nodded.

It seemed impossible. He was only 18. We worked together.

I went to Diane’s, and the night was a blur. The next day, I went to work. When I came home, I crossed the street to my grandmother’s house where my dad and uncle were working on a car. I had no words, so I just walked up to my dad, put my arms around him, and sobbed. Great big heaving sobs, and he didn’t say anything at first. My uncle must have given him a look, because between my sobs, I heard him explain that my friend Chris had been killed in the icy weather the day before, T-boned by a Toronado. When I was done, I went inside, got three cups of coffee, and stood in the garage while we froze and they worked.

He was not my first friend to die, but was the closest, up to that point in my life. In some ways, I feel like my childhood ended that day. The months that followed were not kind: five more friends would die in car accidents, during surgeries, and of health concerns.

Every year since then, January 23 has been hard.

Today, it became even harder. This January 23, a seminary friend passed away.

Admittedly, shamefully, I had lost touch with him and his wife over the years. Had I moved up to Minnesota last June like I “should” have, I would have been near them again. Despite the distance in time and geography, I’m grieving again.

It seems like I am always grieving anymore. I am far too familiar with how almost nothing is permanent. I’ve buried too many friends. Moved away from too many people. Left the church in which I grew up. But the hardest, of course, is grieving the loss of friends who died too young. Peggy, Chris, Rob, Tommy, Becca, Matt, Dan… I could keep going, but it won’t help to list them all.

Of all the papers I wrote in college, one of my favorites was a paper I wrote on the evolution of grief in western civilizations during the Industrial Revolution. To sum it up, when people moved away from their agrarian communities and into cities, the social allowance for grief was practically eliminated. When people lived in small towns and societies where everyone knew everyone, the death of a member of that community was felt by nearly everyone. It was expected that the grieving process would be more than a few days, or weeks, depending on one’s proximity to the deceased. In the cities, however, people came and went, lived and died, without too many others noticing. Those who grieved were expected to do so privately, on their own time, and not let grief get in the way of work.

Today, I was at work when I heard about his death. I was already kind of wigged out trying to learn a massive amount of things in such a short span of time, and then I saw the message from Linda. Just then, my boss entered the office. She wasn’t happy to see my cellphone in my hand, and I just looked up at her, stunned, and said “I just found out a friend died.”

She hardly said anything in return. In fact, despite the fact that I was honestly doing my best, she seemed frustrated that I was a little distracted the rest of my shift. I was trying, honestly… But all I could see was his son’s face. My memories of him are usually of his smile, his laughter. Even though it has been a few years, I felt like I’d just stepped onto a Tilt-a-Whirl, unsteady and discombobulated, and I was expected to act like nothing has happened.

I’ve learned, over the course of too many opportunities, to figure out a grieving process that usually works for me. I have also learned that grief doesn’t go away. It shifts and changes, lessens (and sometimes flares up again), but doesn’t disappear. January 23 will happen every year. Some years, it is sort of a speed bump, when I wrote the date on something and suddenly realize that it has been X years since Chris, and other years, like today, I find myself grieving more deeply. Now, it is for the loss of two, instead of one.

Cherry-picked Memories

It was sunny and I was on the way to the bank when I met her under the tree that had such beautiful leaves. She was smaller than I expected, shier than I expected, and dressed in flannel, despite it being August. She was smiling and polite and didn’t fit with the tough, attitude-filled brat image that I’d gotten from people.

It was dark and cool in the late fall evening when I dropped her off at her house and she said “Cindy, I like you a lot. I hope you’re our minister for a long time.” I don’t even remember what activity we’d been doing that night to prompt such flattery, but her grandmother assured me that she hadn’t liked a minister in a long time, so if she said it, she meant it.

It was miserably hot out without a cloud anywhere as I drove her and the younger girls to camp, singing pop songs at the tops of our lungs, laughing when someone got the words wrong. No one wanted to admit to why we all knew the words to the One Direction song and blamed it on it being overplayed and annoying instead of the fact that it was really stinkin’ catchy.

It was any given Sunday, but especially in the fall, when she and I teamed up against her grandpa in our football rivalry. He was a huge Packers fan but we had much better taste, finding every excuse to stick Bears logos on anything that would sit still long enough.

It was just the two of us and her sister in the van when we left the Starbucks parking lot. She liked Strawberry Frappuccinos, and I had a vanilla latte, and we talked about boys the whole way to Iowa. I tried to get her to see that she deserved someone who loved her like every girl should be loved.

She wasn’t just a kid in my congregation. She was Becca. She is someone I loved. She is someone I still miss every single day.

These are the memories I am choosing to remember. Not the hospitals, court dates, police reports, or case workers. Not the green organ donation bracelet I wore for months after her death. I can’t forget these things. They are as seared into me as anything I can possibly imagine. I’ve decided that I can choose which things I remember, though. That I can choose which memories flash first in my mind when I think of her. Yeah, she had more tragedy and heartache than any kid should, but she was still a kid. She lived more in her seventeen years than most people do in seventy, but she was still a kid.

I need to remember her that way.

Besides, she’d kick my butt if she thought that I didn’t.

Fallen Rocket

My feet are freezing as I sit in the coffee shop with my coat over my lap, wearing a black t-shirt and green hoodie, wishing I had chosen the black CuddlDuds to wear under the hoodie instead of the t-shirt. Normally, what I wear isn’t all that important, but today, it is. Today is the day when the residents of my small Midwestern town are wearing the local high school’s colors in memory of a kid named Matt.

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Matt turned 15 years old less than two weeks ago. Skinny and blond in pictures of him with his teammates, he would have fit right in on my nephew’s baseball team. On Saturday, Matt was at a friend’s house. The details of what happened aren’t public, but somewhere, things went horribly wrong and Matt was fatally, accidentally shot.

Matt is the sixth teenager who has died since I moved to this tiny town less than three years ago. The first were two young girls who were electrocuted while detasseling corn. The third, another young boy who was killed in an accident involving farm equipment at his family’s place. The fourth was a girl in my congregation, followed just a few weeks later by her friend, who committed suicide. Now Matt. I only knew one of the kids, but my heart is still heavy.

I struggle to know what to do with this. I don’t have answers, and that is a hard place to be.

I am heartbroken for the kids who have lost their friend. I am sorrowful for the families who are never going to be the same.

Being the practical, Midwestern, Peter-like minister, my inclination is to DO SOMETHING about it. For all his mistakes, Peter, the disciple known best for denying Jesus right before his death, was someone who didn’t like to just sit and wait. He was a fixer. He asked a lot of questions that would have bugged most teachers. He stuck his foot in his mouth more often than he would have liked.  He was a lot like me. He would have been right at home amongst my maternal side of the family.

In this case, though, there is not much I can do, few (if any) answers to find. I don’t know the family, and it would be presumptuous of me to step into their lives without invitation. Though I would be happy to do whatever was asked, I am out of my element on this one. The only scripture that seems to be at all helpful is scattered in the Psalms, bits of lamentation and anguish thrown out into the ether by the authors, often left unanswered, except for the acknowledgment that despite the sorrow, God is still God, and will be praised.

It is hard to praise in times like this. Truthfully, my heart doesn’t feel inclined to praise.

However, I’m choosing to think of praise as one of the things I can do. Wearing green and black while I am drinking my coffee is a way to take my stand with my community. It was an unspoken act of solidarity with the six other people at the gym today who were wearing it as well. In this time of grief for others, I can choose to be a voice of praise. However small, however seemingly insignificant, it is my act of defiance. The action that stands in the face of sorrow and hurt and says “you don’t get the last word here.”