The Bell tolled 91 Times

The church bell tolled ninety-one times this afternoon as we brought her out to the cemetery.  The wind swept like a brush through the grass and picked up bits of dust, carrying it far off over the cedars and live oaks.  “Earth to earth, ashes to ashes, dust to dust,” I said and sprinkled the sand over her coffin.  I drew the indentation of a cross and watched granules slip into the grave below. I stepped aside as we silently observed the flag folded and presented.  She had been a Navy Nurse. The gun salute sounded.  The trumpet haunted in echo.

I thought of my mother and my father, their bones resting so far away.  I saw the man with the cane let his tears fall onto his jacket. We prayed an ancient prayer and headed back toward the church, still keeping watch over her dead all these years.

Ashes

It’s been over four years now since the first time that I went back to our home place over by Henning after the new owners had bought it and taken down all the old buildings that were the setting for most every memory from my childhood.  I knew it would be strange and hard to go and see the place but like a magnet it draws me -If I am anywhere near those green hills and oak trees of Folden township in Minnesota then I find myself winding down the country roads toward home.

It was late afternoon as I turned the corner off highway 65 onto Lost School Road.  That was the fancy name they gave our road sometime while I was growing up.  Before that it had no name, it was just the road that the Hetlands live on or the road past the Hendricks place.  There was an old school building just past our property.  It had been decades since it was used and then a couple from California bought it and renovated it into a beautiful home.  Anyway, that’s where our old road finally got its’ name.

As I turned the corner, I caught my breath.  Every time I had turned that corner my whole life the first thing I would see was the white building at the top of the hill, about a quarter mile in the distance.  It was where we parked our cars.  The house was next to it, cloaked in trees.  There was a light post next to it that mom would always make sure to leave on if we were coming home at night.

Now there was nothing there.  My car crept closer down the road and finally to the driveway, up the hill and came to a stop right in front of where the house would have been.

It was the oddest feeling.  Haunting and solemn and sad and empty.  The sidewalk where my brother and I had played marbles, gone.  The garage with the basketball hoop where I had played for hours, gone.  The clothes line where we hung our clothes, the chicken coop where I raised the hens, the house where we had been a family, gone, gone, gone.  I was struck by how small the clearing really was now – that space where all my memories had been – it had always seemed so much bigger.  How could it possibly be erased clean now of the life we had lived there?  I found myself thinking strange things, grasping at remote hopes – wondering if the trees would remember us at least, if it could even be remotely possible that if people lived and loved and shared life together in a place –if some essence of you did indeed live on there even after all physical evidence showed otherwise. 

I noticed that on the apple trees which had been behind our house – on one side of several of the trees, the leaves were shriveled and brown.  As I walked closer I realized it had been from intense heat – and I knew what had happened.  That’s how they took down the house.  They burned it, let the ashes of the place descend into the basement below and then they covered them up.  Voila. 

It had to be done, of course.  The house was falling apart.  The wiring was bad, there were bats and mice, all sorts of disrepair.  It had been a very old house.  It needed to be torn down.  My brother and I had known that, had talked about it many times when that property was still in our names.  But we both knew that we couldn’t be the ones to do it.  Those walls had not held a perfect family – there had probably been as much tears as laughter.  But it had been our family.  And then before we knew it time went on and we buried our father and then we buried our mother and all that had been left was an empty old house that we loved, but we knew it would not be our home again. 

So we signed some papers and now someone else would make the decisions about the buildings and the future of those eighty beautiful acres.  It was good really.  I knew that.  Someone else would build a home or a cabin there.  Someone else would make memories with children and grandchildren there now.  Someone else would go sit by the lake, watch the sunrise over the meadow, listen to the breeze through the branches of the poplars and see how the noontime sun could make their leaves glimmer like silver coins.  All those things were so good.  Life was going on.

So why did it feel so much like death?

Because of course it was that as well.  I bent down and scooped up some of the dirt beneath my feet that was mingled with the ashes of all that used to be.  I wept big sloppy tears for my mother and my father and the finality of death.  I wept for my childhood home, burned to the ground, and that I’d never again be just a little girl sitting in her pink bedroom daydreaming about the future without a care in the world.  I wept the big sloppy tears that I had to cry, and then I put down the dirt and ash and dusted off my hands. 

I took some pictures then before I left – pictures of the trees that mom and I had planted in the front yard and the lilac bush we had grown from a clipping taken from grandma’s yard.  I looked one more time down toward the valley where the deer pause to drink from the pond and up toward the hill where mom used to take us sledding.  Scores of memories every direction I turned.  It would always be this way here.  I sighed and slipped back into my car and drove away.

We all have our stories of ashes, don’t we?  Mine, I think of a home that once existed – now just a memory.  Yours might be the ash and ruin you found your life in after poor choices made.  They could be the ashes of dreams you had for a relationship or the ashes of the prayers you prayed that a cure would be found or the ashes of a loved one whose body finally gave up its spirit at the end of a long life.  Ashes are the sign of something that once was – but no more.  We sweep them up and toss them away, we bury them, scatter them, or store them away and try to forget about them. 

Yet today, we are marked with them.  We choose to be marked with this sign of death and endings.  Why in the world would we do such a thing?

We do it because it is only through death that there is the possibility of new life.  We do it because it is only through the repentance of Ash Wednesday, this season of lent, pondering the last days and words of our Lord Jesus, and remembering his last supper he shared with his disciples on Maundy Thursday and kneeling at the foot of the cross where he hung on Good Friday and then was shut in the tomb that we can truly experience the joy of the resurrection on Easter morning.

On Ash Wednesday I am always struck by the power of the ritual of this day.  There’s nothing quite as powerful as putting ash in the shape of a cross on the foreheads of the smallest children to the oldest adult in the church and speaking the words, “remember you are dust, and to dust you will return.”  The first time I marked a baby with that cross, the words were stuck in my throat and I had to push them out.  Ashes are a sign of endings and the blackness of sin and death, it felt so wrong to place them on the pale, smooth, perfect skin of an innocent baby – and yet, I knew that we are all born into the blackness of sin, and the only hope for any of us, from the youngest child, to the eldest matriarch or patriarch – our only hope is in Jesus Christ.

Without him, the ash places and the death places in our lives would be the end of all of our stories.  Without him, the cold tomb really is the end.  Without him, without grace, there no peace, no forgiveness, no second chances, no hope for our home beyond this one and life eternal with the ones we love.

And so we learn to love the ashes because they stand for far more than endings.  Because we find our home in the heart of a Savior who is making all things new.  Even you and me.

Blessing the Dust

A Blessing for Ash Wednesday

by Jan Richardson

All those days you felt like dust,

like dirt,

as if all you had to do

was turn your face toward the wind

and be scattered to the four corners

or swept away by the smallest breath as insubstantial-

Did you not know what the Holy One can do with dust?

This is the day we freely say we are scorched.

This is the hour we are marked by what has made it through the burning.

This is the moment we ask for the blessing

that lives within the ancient ashes,

that makes its home inside the soil of this sacred earth.

So let us be marked not for sorrow.

And let us be marked not for shame.

Let us be marked not for false humility

or for thinking we are less than we are

but for claiming what God can do within the dust,

within the dirt,

within the stuff of which the world is made,

and the stars that blaze in our bones, a

nd the galaxies that spiral inside the smudge we bear.

In Jesus’ name we pray.  Amen.

 

Losses

Today I led the funeral for a woman whom I hardly knew.  I had just met her in the last weeks of her life and was glad to bring her prayers and communion as her health steadily declined.  When I gathered with the family to pray before the service, I noted my heart wasn’t breaking like it was the last time I did a funeral.  Being relatively new here, I haven’t had time to fall in love with my new congregation yet.  I like them very much and I’m sure I will love them soon enough – but for now I’m still at the brief, easy stage of ministry in this congregation where it’s still kind of just my work.

But in this life as a pastor, I have found that this stage passes quickly.  Soon I will feel at funerals here like I did at my last funeral in Texas – when I walked up the stairs to the church with 92 year-old Olee as we were about the begin the memorial service for his wife of 65 years, Maxine.  The tears were right behind my eyes and my throat was thick and I wasn’t sure I was going to be able to get the words out when the time came. Or just as hard was a few months before that when I made that same trek up those stairs with Joe as we got ready for his wife’s service.  His wife, Audrey, had been one of my favorite parishioners of all time – so wise and kind and altogether lovely.  I didn’t want to commend her to God’s keeping at all – I wanted her to stay alive and well so I could keep visiting with her and absorbing all the good things that one felt whenever you were around her.  I felt the same with Estella, the queen of all quilters, who died three days before Christmas, and Maurine, who died shortly before that of a quick and brutal cancer.  Right around the same time Mickey died, a husband and father and active parishioner, whose death kicked the stuffing out of all of us as he left behind his beautiful wife and two high school-aged daughters.  The pain of all these deaths in the months before I left was so hard on our congregation – and harder on me than I can even still understand.  None of these people were my family and of course it was my job to visit them and then preside at their memorials…but when the funerals were over, and all the crowds were gone, I would walk out to the cemetery and watch the Texas wind whip up the dust and occasionally some flowers left behind, and I would cry like a forlorn child.

Most of my career I have felt very lucky to care deeply about the work I do.  But sometimes, especially my last year at Norse, I knew I cared too much.  I loved them so much and I knew they loved me, too.  But I think a pastor has to be able to keep some distance – if only so that when one needs to push a congregation toward change, he or she is able to do that and not be crushed by the resistance.

Yet I knew I could be too easily hurt if I stayed at Norse.  I no longer had any kind of professional distance in my heart – I just loved them to pieces.  I knew that for their sake and for mine, I had to go.  I needed to go so that my work was just my work again and not every all-encompassing moment of my life.  They needed me to go so that someone new could come in and see them with fresh eyes and challenge them in ways that I couldn’t anymore.

I’m thankful for my new church and all the new life that there is here.  I’m reading all sorts of good books about keeping myself healthy and how to be connected but not entirely enmeshed in my new congregation.  It’s good.

But today after doing this funeral, my mind and heart have decidedly taken a detour to Texas for the day.  I’m thinking of hot breezes blowing through the cedars, a red brick steeple rising high into the sky, a limestone fence surrounding an old Norwegian cemetery, and so many friends buried there.

All Saints

Henry Scott Holland wrote, “Why should I be out of mind because I am out of sight? I am but waiting for you, for an interval, somewhere very near, just around the corner. All is well. Nothing is hurt. Nothing is lost. One brief moment and all will be as it was before. How we shall laugh at the trouble of parting when we meet again!”

It was three years ago this past Sunday that I woke up on the couch of room 379 of Providence Hospital and noticed I couldn’t hear my mother breathing in the darkness anymore. A few hours before I had set down my book I was reading, “Water for Elephants,” glanced over at her lying there, and thought for the thousandth time how I didn’t know what to pray for anymore. I couldn’t bear for her to leave me. I couldn’t bear for her to be so sick anymore. And so my prayer in those days just had kind of become, “Please…God.” And I understood God would just have to fill in what I didn’t know how to say. I had turned off the light and fallen asleep to the sound of her breathing. And at some point while I slept, she slipped away. Went on to the next place.

I’ll keep telling that story as long as I live. The story of her loss is now such a big part of my own story because now I’m not just Ruth, Betty’s daughter, but I’m Ruth, whose mom is no longer here. Ruth, the forty-something orphan. Ruth, who was overjoyed a few months ago when I was back home in Minnesota and I ran into my hometown pastor who is nearly blind now – and I went up to him to say “hello” and he said even though he couldn’t see me, he knew me by my voice, because I sounded just like my mother.

As of three years and a few hours ago, I cannot tell the story of me without telling the story of her loss. I think you probably understand that because this is just how it is once we have known great loss. Our stories are knit together and when we experience the death of someone closest to us, we don’t expect the empty spot they left behind to ever really be filled again. We may grow accustomed to the empty spot, we may get used to the ache, we certainly go on and live and love again, but we would not wish the echo of their loss to ever disappear, because we know there are just some things in life that are irreplaceable. It’s like Dietrich Bonhoeffer wrote, “Nothing can make up for the absence of someone we love, and it would be wrong to try to find a substitute; we simply hold out and see it through. That sounds very hard at first, but at the same time, it is a great consolation, for the gap, as long as it remains unfilled, preserves the bond between us. It is nonsense to say God fills the gap; God does not fill it, but on the contrary, God keeps it empty, and so helps us to keep alive our former communion with each other even at the cost of pain.”

And yet, it’s not just the pain and the emptiness that remain with us after our loved ones die. In a mystical, yet very true way, they are a part of us. In countless ways we feel their presence. Think about it, how the scent of a particular gum brings back memories of the fellow who used to always share a piece of it with you before church. Or how when you hear a certain hymn you remember how your grandma would tear up whenever she sang that song. Or how when you look at the smile of your grandson you can so clearly see the same grin your father had. And these things feel like small miracles because they bring back dear memories and glimpses of loved ones long since gone.

But it goes even farther than that. Here in the church we believe that those who have gone before us are not just with us in those memories. Rather, the communion of the saints is a fellowship we continue to share as the body of Christ – regardless of time and space, life or death. I was told a fascinating thing this week – something I don’t know if I had heard before, but if I had, I had forgotten it. That there is a very intentional reason for the half moon shaped altar rails in the Scandinavian churches. The current congregation gathers around the visible half circle rail, while the circle is completed beyond time and space by those who have already died. The altar rail may look like an incomplete circle, but when we gather there we can know that those who have died in the faith are kneeling with us at and complete the circle.

So the tradition of All Saints Sunday that is celebrated in many churches is a powerful time – to not only take time to remember the people from our congregation who have died in the last year, but also to remember all our loved ones who have died, and to remember that while we miss them so much, we are still knit together in the mystical communion of saints. When we sing together, they sing with us. When we share in communion, they share in that meal as well – and it is a thin veil that separates us.

Frederick Buechner wrote, “They live on, those giants of our childhood. They manage to even take death in their stride. Death may take them, but it can never take our relationship with them. However else they still live on, they still live on in us. Memory is more than looking back to a time gone by; it is looking into another kind of time altogether. A time where everything that was continues to be – and grows and changes with the life that is in us.

The people we loved and who loved us; for good or for ill, taught us things. Dead though they may be, as we come to understand them in new ways, it is though they come to understand us – and we come to understand ourselves – in new ways too.

Who knows what “the communion of saints” means, but surely it means that these people we once knew are not just voices that have ceased to speak. They are saints because though them the power and richness of life not only touched us once, but continues to touch us still.”

Benediction

They sang the closing hymn and gathered in the fellowship hall. One last potluck together. One last time they sang grace gathered around those embroidered table-cloths made by their mothers and grandmothers. One last time they were together under the roof built by their fathers and grandfathers.

After one-hundred twenty-five years of ministry, the doors of their little church were closing. Their prairie town had shrunk to only a few houses. The school was closed. The stores were gone. Their zip code was taken away last year.

When the meal was over they gathered outside in the summer evening air and read some scripture. The bell tolled a final time and the benediction was given.

They lingered a long time on the church lawn and shared memories from when their families were young and their children laughed and played in this place. They remembered the weddings, the funerals, and the pastors that had come and gone.
Tears were shed. Hugs were shared. They could hardly believe they would be worshipping somewhere else next Sunday.

But there was joy, too. Not only in thankfulness for all that had been – but for the promise that hung in the air as the last car drove off. “The grass withers, the flower fades; but the word of our God will stand forever.”

Isaiah 40:1-11
“… the word of our God will stand forever.” (v.8)

The Jewelry Box

The other night I remembered the jewelry box played music – the tinny notes it played had been part of its’ “magic” to me when I would admire it as a young girl.  The box has been sitting in my bathroom since I brought it home from Minnesota a few months ago – Jesse likes to open it and look at Grandma’s bits of jewelry.  He calls them her “shineys.”  I turned the key to see if it still worked and there was only silence.  I wish I could remember what song it used to play.

My mom did not have a lot of fancy things.  She and dad lived very simply – partly out of necessity – money was tight since Dad couldn’t work for most of his adult life due to his disabilities, but also because of a fierce thriftiness they both held.  If they could make something keep working, keep serving its’ purpose, no matter how bad it looked or how many times it had to be taped together to keep functioning, they kept using it.

Every penny mattered.  They didn’t say things like “it’s just twenty bucks, why not get it?” – they said things like, “waste not, want not.”

There were times I felt my dad took this to the extreme – like when the window in my upstairs bedroom (which had a beautiful view of the hills and woods in the distance) broke and rather than get a new window, he just told my brother to nail a board over it – first stuffing the window frame with insulation so that it could now keep the cold air out more efficiently.  The fact that my room was now a dark tomb with no natural light was not a consideration.

Or there was the car we had when my brother and I were small – it needed a screwdriver stuck somewhere in the engine in order to get it started.  Rather than fix whatever was causing this, mom and dad just dealt with it and drove it that way for years.

And particularly unforgettable were the years when there was something wrong with our well and we used the outhouse out back and washed clothes at the Laundromat in town and filled jugs of water at grandma’s house to use for drinking and bathing.

Some people had more than us and some people had less.  Us kids might have thought our inconveniences were terribly lame, but we knew we weren’t deprived. We had no frills, but we had enough.  Mom and Dad would always figure out a way to make do.

There’s so much of this I admire.  I imagine I would have all my student loans paid off by now if I managed my money and “made do” half as well as my parents did.  As it is, I lean toward the frivolous more often than I should.  Particularly with my children – I like to buy them things.  I think it shocked my mom when she came to stay with us how much stuff we bought for the kids.  I remember admitting to her, “They are spoiled.”  She did not deny it, she said simply, “Yes.  But they are cute.”

For however little material possessions mom wanted or needed during her life, it became even more extremely this way the last year of her life.  When she came to live with us, I ached to be able to ease sadness that she was carrying.  Since I didn’t know what else to do – I would try to bring her little “treats” – things that she would normally have enjoyed – some nice soap or a pretty cup, some fresh stationery or even a tall, cold bottle of diet coke.  She would politely thank me and bring them into her room where she would place them carefully in her bedside drawer or closet.  She did not need them or want them or even barely consider them for longer than it took to store them away.

Sometimes I think, whether she realized it or not, her vision was already set on the Next place.  Her whole life she had needed so little but for where her journey was leading her now, there was absolutely nothing she needed or wanted.

After mom died, my brother and I went through her house in Minnesota and took care of what was left behind. There was nothing of great value – but much that was precious, of course, including that jewelry box.  It is pink with pink satin and velveteen on the inside.  I remember as a child creeping into my parents’ room to open that pretty box and look at her treasures.  When I came across it after her death it still contained many of the same things I had remembered she kept in there – some earrings she used to wear when she was right out of college and worked in Minneapolis, her high school Letter, a locket with a picture of dad, and dad’s wedding ring.

I took dad’s ring and slipped it onto my thumb.  It was just a few days earlier that I had put on mom’s wedding ring.  When she was in ICU they had to take it off her since her fingers were swelling so badly.  I put it into a plastic bag along with the only other piece of jewelry she wore, a black hills silver ring I had given her some years before.  I told her I would hold onto them until she got out of the hospital.  The night she died, while I was still in the hospital room trying to gather the strength to stand and leave and go home, I kept looking at her hands and seeing the indentation on her ring finger. I remembered the rings still in my purse.  I took them out and slipped both those rings on my finger.  I had planned to just bring them back to Minnesota and give them to the funeral director to have them buried with her – but when I got there, I couldn’t do it.  I felt guilty about that because her thin gold wedding band had been on her hand her whole life.  She had held us as babies while wearing that ring.  She had cared for my father wearing that ring.  It rightfully belonged buried on her finger, but I couldn’t part with it.  Mom would have to forgive me for that – because I knew I somehow needed it to help me get through the rest of my life without her.

It makes no sense that a thin gold band should help me feel near to my mom who cared so little for material things.  Yet perhaps it does.  This ring was one thing that did matter to her.  It stood for a promise she made that mattered to her more than any other in her life.  I look at it and I can see her hands still.  Truthfully, I would give away every single possession I have before I would get rid of this ring.  It rests on my finger just below my own wedding band.  Like a firm and gentle reminder from my mom about the things that matter most: persistence, promises kept, and love.  Always love.

Waffles and Coffee

No one knows what heaven will be like, but I know what I hope will happen first thing when I get there.  I will sit down at my mom’s kitchen table and eat waffles that she is making for me on grandma’s waffle iron.  When she’s used up all the batter and all the golden brown waffles are all stacked on a plate, she’ll sit at the table with me and we’ll drink coffee and eat waffles with peanut butter and syrup.  We’ll talk and it will seem as though not a moment has passed since we saw each other.  We’ll have the blessed ease of just being mother and daughter again – how we were when we were at our best.  It won’t be how it was when I was a teenager and blaming her for everything that went wrong.  It won’t be how it was at the end when I was trying to take care of her and so desperate to keep death away.  Those memories will still be a part of us for they are a part of our story, but the sting and the pain will be gone.  All that will remain is the love and the goodness and the wholeness there was to existence when I had a mom, a friend, so wonderful.

Soon it will be two years since she died.  Grief is still my companion, but she doesn’t smother me as much these days.  She’s always around, sometimes just quietly lingering in the background and yet at other times, just when I begin notice how she’s beginning to fade, she’ll come and slap my face hard.  And I’m glad for the tears she brings with her and the ways she twists and hurts my heart.  I welcome the darkness she brings to an otherwise beautiful day.  Her presence reminds me of the blessing I had for so long.  I don’t mind Grief tagging along with me for the rest of my days, because she helps to fill part of the emptiness in my life that mom left behind.  I don’t expect or want that empty spot to ever be completely filled with joy or sweetness or calm or peace again.  I know God is bringing me all those things and I am so grateful for that.  However, there’s a space reserved for the Grief as long as she will stay.

I’ve been thinking I know something more now than I ever could before about the origin of the deep sighs, eyes that hold wisdom of the ages, stooped backs, the wakeful hours in the middle of the night, and the color of weary gray.  There is so much loss this world has to hold.  Grief needs so much space here so she seeps in where she will –  she dries up the creekbeds and starves the crops and steals into every one of our homes to take up residence there.  She’ll take up as much room as we give her.  She can be the queen of everything or a shadow in the corner.  Give her too much power and she’ll gladly ruin the rest of your days.  Give her a spot in the corner and she’ll be just the reminder you need that life is both beauty and sadness, love and loss.  Walk gently.  Really see each other and help each other along the journey.  Cry, laugh, be real.

No, I don’t mind the Grief.  I hope a bit of her always stays.  Her presence is what keeps my eyes looking toward the stars and dreaming about what is yet to come.  She keeps me thinking about the Place where my mother and my grandmothers and friends have already gone and where I hope to join them someday.  At the end of this life.  Waffles and coffee, conversation at a kitchen table.  Home.

John 14:2 – “Don’t let this throw you. You trust God, don’t you? Trust me. There is plenty of room for you in my Father’s home. If that weren’t so, would I have told you that I’m on my way to get a room ready for you? And if I’m on my way to get your room ready, I’ll come back and get you so you can live where I live. “ (The Message)

waffles