Finish Line

Reflections on Shuffle-Play (the thing where I write a reflection each day on a song from that morning’s run)

My husband’s parents died in 2007 – his father, Butch, in January and his mother, Dottie, in August.  Our eldest, Owen, was just one year old then and our baby, Jesse, was born in June of that year.  The last time we saw Dottie was at Jesse’s baptism on August 5th.

It was a warm afternoon when Chad got a frantic call from his sister that their mother had died suddenly.  In the days to come it was surmised that her death had occurred from an accidental overdose.  There had been some leftover medication in the house from when Butch was on hospice care and apparently Dottie had told a neighbor she wasn’t feeling well and was going to take something to help her sleep. A tiny bit of liquid morphine and she just never woke up again.  One tiny sip of an incorrect dosage and she left behind her children and a whole bunch of grandchildren who had planned on a lot more time with her.  She never had to suffer as she slipped peacefully into death, but she left behind a family to suffer – a family who still just can’t quite believe she’s gone.  Forever wondering why she was so careless, or if there was something we missed?  Was she sadder than we thought after Butch’s death?  Was there a part of her that wanted to sleep eternally or was it truly just a horrible error?  Then, finally realizing that every question will always remain unanswered.

We went down to New Mexico to help clean out their house and Chad and his brothers and sister hobbled around the house in shock making piles and going through papers while I tried to chase Owen and hush Jesse.  I led the funeral service and wanted to do such a good job but I didn’t.  I didn’t know the perfect words to say for a loss like that.  I know better what to say for strangers than for my own family.  I have found this to be true again and again over the years.  I am unable to blur the lines in my roles.  The same thing happened when Butch was dying and Dottie called to say he wanted to have communion one last time and could I bring it to him?  We were coming down to see them in a few days.  I was happy if I could do something for him but I felt sick at the thought of how in the world to do this?  How could I knit together words to pray a prayer out loud for my beloved’s father in his last hours?  I felt like I just barely knew how to be a daughter-in-law – I had no idea how to be pastor to him, too.  Butch was family, real family to me – I loved him.  That was the problem.  I knew I would weep sharing the sacrament with him.  I knew I couldn’t put on my ‘pastor face’ for him and be any sort of calm and comforting presence because I would just keep thinking about how sad I was for me and for Chad and for our boys and just everyone that we wouldn’t have him around anymore.  It would be too real, too close, too deep, too much.  I called the hospice chaplain at the facility where he was hospitalized and asked her to bring him the sacrament.  I told Dottie that I was worried we wouldn’t get there in time.  She said she understood.

My pattern of wanting someone else to be the pastor when it comes to my family continued.  Right before my mother had her final heart surgery just weeks before her death, I spotted a hospital chaplain in the hallway and dragged him into her room in ICU.  There was a good chance mom might not survive the surgery. I demanded he pray for her right then.  I bowed my head while hot tears flowed down my face and onto her bedspread.

All the prayers I have said by hundreds of hospital beds but I could not pray aloud for her.  I knew the silent prayers I kept lobbing toward heaven were incessant, but to speak those words aloud, if she were to hear them – I would have been undone.  Not that I was very composed as it was – but I knew I was only capable of being her daughter, not her pastor.

When my children were baptized I put the water on their heads but had pastor friends do the rest of the service.  I only said the words, “I baptize you in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit” and it was all I could do to squeak those words out.

I can’t even think about what their confirmation day will be like.

Their weddings?  Oh dear God.

It’s not that I think pastors shouldn’t cry.  Ask anyone in any of the congregations I have served and they’ll tell you I am a crier.  I’ve cried with widows on the anniversaries of their husbands’ deaths.  Tears usually slip out at every baptism and it isn’t strange for my voice to be choked when I’m blessing the confirmation students at the altar rail along with their parents on confirmation day.  In fourteen years as a pastor I have openly wept three times during sermons – during my final sermon at both my first two calls and when I preached at the nursing home on what would have been my mother’s 80th birthday.

I’m not ashamed of any of those tears.  I’m grateful to have work that moves me deeply.  But even so – there are parts of my life when I cannot be the pastor because I need a pastor.  There are times I need someone else to be saying the prayers and administering the sacraments.  There are times I just need to hear someone else speaking the holy and precious words of God to my grief, my joy, my life.

I remember in seminary when I worked at a hospital in the Twin Cities and a priest who worked there as well was recalling his mother’s funeral.  He had done the entire thing himself.  Back then I thought to myself how brave and wonderful it was to be able to do such a thing.  How great that he could do that final thing for his mother.  However, now I see a different perspective.  I feel sad for him that he couldn’t just be a son grieving his mother.  I feel angry for him that probably every significant moment in his family’s life together he couldn’t just be there to enjoy it but rather he probably was expected to say the prayer, do the wedding, speak at the wake, give the last rites.

It’s a blessing to be with people during the most significant moments of their lives – it’s one of the best parts about being a pastor – but we can’t do that for ourselves or for the people we love the most.  We cheat ourselves out of feeling everything that must be felt and being fully the many roles God gives us to fulfill.  I’m so thankful at my parents’ funerals I simply sat down and listened to the preacher speak.  And when my children get married, I want to just be the mother of the groom, slipping the pastor a nice honorarium.

Finish Line

by Train

I thought I knew it all
I’ve been through the highs, said all my goodbyes
Learned to run before I learned to crawl
It’s not worth fighting for if one of us is sure
And one of us is dying, trying to find loves cure

I have waited all my life to paint these cities red
Thoughts I’ve always had here are stuck inside my head
It’s not worth waiting for if one of us wants more
And one of us is dying, trying to find love’s door

When we learn how to fly
We forget to how walk
When we learn how to sing
We don’t wanna hear each other talk

Here we are at the finish line, ah
Here we are at the finish line

And you, you really thought you knew
Everything to do
With holding onto me and holding on
This time is making me slip right through your hands
And now you don’t understand
Trying to find love all yourself

When we learn how to fly,
We forget to how walk
When we learn how to sing
We don’t wanna hear each other talk
When we know what we want
We forget what we need
When you find who you are
You forget about me

Here we are at the finish line, ah
Here we are at the finish line, ah
Here we are at the finish line

Ah, ah, ah


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