Blue Christmas (a sermon for the Longest Night)

Luke 2:1-20

2 Now it came to pass in those days, there went out a decree from Caesar Augustus, that all the world should be enrolled. This was the first enrollment made when Quirinius was governor of Syria. And all went to enroll themselves, everyone to his own city.

4 And Joseph also went up from Galilee, out of the city of Nazareth, into Judaea, to the city of David, which is called Bethlehem, because he was of the house and family of David;5 to enroll himself with Mary, who was betrothed to him, being great with child.

6 And it came to pass, while they were there, the days were fulfilled that she should be delivered. And she brought forth her firstborn son; and she wrapped him in swaddling clothes, and laid him in a manger, because there was no room for them in the inn. And there were shepherds in the same country abiding in the field, and keeping watch by night over their flock. And an angel of the Lord stood by them, and the glory of the Lord shone round about them: and they were sore afraid.

10 And the angel said unto them, Be not afraid; for behold, I bring you good tidings of great joy which shall be to all the people: for there is born to you this day in the city of David a Savior, who is Christ the Lord. And this is the sign unto you: Ye shall find a babe wrapped in swaddling clothes, and lying in a manger. And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host praising God, and saying,

14 Glory to God in the highest, And on earth peace among men in whom he is well pleased. And it came to pass, when the angels went away from them into heaven, the shepherds said one to another, Let us now go even unto Bethlehem, and see this thing that is come to pass, which the Lord hath made known unto us.

16 And they came with haste, and found both Mary and Joseph, and the babe lying in the manger. And when they saw it, they made known concerning the saying which was spoken to them about this child.

18 And all that heard it wondered at the things which were spoken unto them by the shepherds.

19 But Mary treasured all these sayings, pondering them in her heart.

20 And the shepherds returned, glorifying and praising God for all the things that they had heard and seen, even as it was spoken unto them.

 

 

Shortly after my mom died, some friends bought a nice wooden and iron bench for our yard in memory of her. It sits under the mulberry tree behind our house and I like to go sit out there in the evening sometimes.  It is quiet place and a place I’ve set apart for remembering and for prayer.  Lots of prayer.

I think of this Blue Christmas or Longest Night service in that way.  It is a time and place set apart for prayer and for remembering and for anyone who is having a hard time finding joy during the Christmas season.  This time of year brings many emotions stirring to the surface and the things that set apart this time of year are not only the joyful things but the poignant things…deep memories, hopes, and longings.  Many are the concerns and cares for our present situations and the world in which we live.

So it is good to have this time together and this place to just be.  We sing some songs, we are sung to, we reflect, we pray, and ask for God’s healing balm on the hurting places.  For us.  For all.

Last Sunday we had our Sunday School Christmas pageant at Our Savior’s.  It’s such a truly good time of the year.  There’s nothing quite like hearing that old, old story of our Savior’s birth being told by the youngest voices of the church.

We had our rehearsals and got the costumes ready to go.  The littlest children who had all been sheep and cows and chickens in the play in years past now wanted to have lines – so we had five angels and seven shepherds and a few extra wise men – but that’s okay.  We had a new baby born in our congregation this year so we were excited we even had someone to play the role of the baby Jesus.

It was a perfect evening with lovely weather, the excited children all showed up on time.  As we stood out on the steps before we processed in I thought about how it was one of those moments I wouldn’t forget as I ran my gaze over the children in their costumes laughing and talking in the twilight and then glanced at the parents inside, poised with their cameras, ready to take pictures with their hearts swelling with pride at their little shepherd, their little wise man, their little angel.  The kids did their parts wonderfully, they sang “Away in A Manger” so sweetly, the play went smoothly.  We really couldn’t have asked for a better evening.

But that evening at the very same time our church was full of all that sweetness and goodness, if you had looked over near the altar, burning silently the whole time was a long line of candles lighted since earlier that morning in memory of other beautiful children, twenty of them, and their teachers who died last week in violence.

Such horrible things, such blessed things, the sum of our days are knit together with both.

Every week at the end of the children’s sermon I say a prayer for the children – that God would guide them and guard them and this last Sunday as I said those same words I always say, the words felt so heavy and strange.  I’m certain Pastors and parents had prayed for those dear children in Connecticut, too, and yet they spend this Christmas grieving unspeakable loss, not getting to watch their child act in the pageant or sing “Away in a Manger.”

It’s times like this when we are forced to remember, in case we ever forgot, that faith in God is not a magic charm that keeps away bad things.  Trust and belief in Christ is not some sort of guarantee that harm will not come.

The steering wheel can still slip, the playground equipment can yet malfunction, the storm clouds could gather, the medicine can stop keeping the illness at bay at any time.  We cannot manage the future or predict what will meet us as we step into each minute.

So what do we do?

We cherish the now.  We do not know what will come, but we give thanks for the blessings there are.  I take a note from Mary, the mother of Jesus here.  One of my favorite verses from the Christmas story I just read is where all these things were happening the night that Jesus was born and Mary was taking it all in.  It reads, “But Mary treasured all these things, pondering them in her heart.”  The wisest and happiest people are the ones who notice their blessings, take time to treasure the moments while they are happening.

Pause over your coffee, go sit on the step when the breeze is just so, take the long way home, listen to your child’s breath – in and out, in and out – and whisper thanks to God.  These are the holiest moments there are, and when we really notice the loveliness of this world, that is greatest Hallelujah.

What else can we do?

We can trust that God is strong enough to hold the things we place in God’s hands.  It’s something my hometown pastor wrote to me when my mom was very sick and dying that brought me such comfort then and I know it will in my ministry and life for the rest of my days.  He wrote simply, “no matter what happens, Ruth, your mom is held in God’s hands.  And God’s hands are strong.”

Those simple words meant so much to me.  In her last months and days there was nothing we could control – it felt like everything – her life, our time together, our hopes for healing – all of it was just slipping right out of our grasp.  I knew I was losing her.  I knew the sadness of it all was going to be too much for me, I would disappear.  I always used to say that nothing was real until I told Mom about it – so then after she died, obviously, nothing would be real anymore.  The grief was crushing.  It filled me and then emptied me entirely.

But those few words her pastor wrote to me provided the one image of comfort during that time.  In life and in death, she was held safe in God’s hands forever.  She would never slip from his strong embrace.

And the old hymns ran through my brain all the time, their words of comfort and peace and assurance falling fresh on my ears as though I was really hearing them for the first time.        And while I knew that there was nothing I could do to get through that dark time and I knew that the sadness was going to be too much for me, I had a suspicion and a promise that it was not going to be too much for God.  God’s strong hands could hold me as well.

This is the message of hope that can carry us through this longest night and give us strength for seasons to come.  If it seems the illness has lasted too long and the healing will never come, remember you are held in God’s hands and God’s hands are strong.  When the worst thing has happened and so much is broken you are certain you will never be whole again, remember you are held in God’s hands, and God’s hands are strong.  When the diagnosis is grim, when the way is scary, when the promises have not been kept, when it seem darkness is all that will ever be – remember you are held in God’s hands, and God’s hands are strong.

(December 2012)

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

Don’t Leave Me Breathing

(I wrote this on September 26, 2012 – about ten months after my mom’s death. Everything I wrote then felt too personal to share, but now after time has gone by it feels good to look back at the healing that has happened and also to remember how raw the grief was for so long.)

I am so afraid of the grief leaving me.

The weather is starting to cool off a little bit here in Texas. Funny that it being in the eighties is cooling off, but that’s how it is here. September is nearing an end. Last year at this time mom and I were dancing together from the nursing home to the cardiologist to different hospital stays. It was like a terrible jig in which the steps got harder and the music got terribly unpleasant and we tried to stay together until ultimately, we collapsed in a heap of silence and stillness.

I miss her so deeply and fully. It’s the biggest feeling I can feel anymore – this grief and this emptiness. I can feel other things, surely – pride in my children and joy in the things they do. I feel love for them and Chad. I feel peace in my work and my church and I can feel annoyed when people disagree with me or if things don’t move at a pace I enjoy. But the only feeling that has really defined me for the last year is this grief.

But sometimes now, and this is the scary thing: I feel like I might actually survive it. And if I survive it, then I will come out on the other side somehow. I feel like the strands of this darkness are getting more slippery and I know it is God healing me – but I am terrified of it.

“Don’t leave me breathing,

no, not alone,

There’s so much more I meant to tell you.

I went by with flowers just to see,

But the granite told me you’re still gone.” 

(from the song, “So It Goes” by Chris Pureka)

As long as I keep carrying this sadness I’ll know it was true that I loved her. The empty place inside me is proof that maybe it is possible I can slowly disappear, too. Sometimes I wish for that. Or I wish I wished for that. It’s just this beautiful life distracts me. It’s hard to wallow too much when there are little boys to love and blessings all around.

The part of me that died when she died is dear to me. I don’t want it to live again. I want that empty space to remain as a monument to her. I don’t want it to be filled. The ache of it reminds me of all I have lost – all that I had when I had a mom so beautiful.

 

Pastrgrrl – September 26, 2012

 

Closing of the Sanctuary

“With thanks to God for the work accomplished in this place, I declare this sanctuary to be vacated for the purposes of Good Shepherd Lutheran Church, in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit….”

Yesterday I attended the final service in the sanctuary where I went to church the whole time I was growing up. Soon, that sanctuary will be torn down and a new one will be built in its’ place.

I was happy to be invited back to participate in the service along with other pastors who had been raised there and served there. It was important for me to go for many reason – partly just because I love that place and I am very glad to be a daughter of that congregation, but for many other reasons: I wanted my kids to have another memory in that place aside from their memories of the funerals of their grandparents. I wanted to one more time look out into the sanctuary from up front and picture my mother there, where she always sat. I wanted to see the pastors who meant so much to me and my family.

I’ve never been a part of a service like that before.  To imagine that never again would we gather there – no more church bulletins would be assembled in the secretary’s office where my mom once worked, no more sermons written in the pastor’s office, no more children would run up to the balcony to peer down at the happenings below, not another hymn or scripture or prayer would be uttered there again – it was as strange a feeling as I imagined it would be. The pastor’s voice cracked as he did the closing rite. I was glad, because that’s how we all felt: trusting that in the end, all would be well, but for now – our hearts overflowing with retrospection and melancholy.

I was asked to give a brief reflection during the service. This was what I said:

“When I was asked if I might like to do a brief reflection today, I was glad – and I thought about how so often over the years I have already reflected in sermons at the churches I have served on what this church, this congregation means to me.

Like you, at a time like this, I can’t help but think about the memories cradled within these walls. Some of my very earliest memories are right here – sitting next to my grandmother – always in the middle on the right hand side.  She often teared up at some point during the service and she would pull a tissue out of her sleeve or out of her brassiere and dab at her eyes. She taught me about the beauty of preparedness as she always had a tissue on her somewhere. It was here I began to appreciate how fun and good it is to sing together as Mrs. Guse taught us songs; I received my first assertiveness training right there in the front row as Joni Jorud demonstrated how to talk back to older brothers and their friends; Confirmation day in 1985 – the day I heartily affirmed the promises made over me at my baptism and the day I wore brand new high heels with little bows…and I became versed in the truth that life is too short to wear painful shoes.

Pastor Vetter asked me to preach one summer Sunday when I was in college and he was going to be gone on vacation. I remember walking up to the front in my pale pink suit, petrified. I think my mom was even more nervous than I was – and I couldn’t understand that until I became a mom, too. I was ordained right here in 1999 and I’ll never forget how this congregation celebrated with me and prayed for me that day. I wore my brown suit with a tiger striped scarf. In 2007 we brought our son, Jesse here to be baptized. Pastor Johnson led the whole baptismal rite and let me put that Spirit-flooded water on my baby’s head in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Not long after that he let me sprinkle the sand on my dad’s casket at the graveside service…earth to earth, ashes to ashes, dust to dust…then at mom’s the next year. I wore my long black skirt and my red and black jacket with a black scarf. It was November.

No matter where life has brought me or how many years have gone by, the story of my history feels knit into this place.  My home church, you, my home congregation – a place and people of strength and hope and constancy. No matter what was happening or what was on my mind or what I chose to wear, here I was just clothed with the love of Jesus, gifted in his grace again and again. Of all the things I learned here, this is the blessed sum of it. I am so glad – glad for all that God has done here and all that God is yet to do here. In Jesus’ name.”

Perhaps after a morning of thinking about endings it was especially cool that in the afternoon, my boys and I picked up my mom’s friend, Norma, and we went out to the place where I grew up. Years ago, after my parents died, my brother and I sold that property to her son and his wife.  Ever since, they have been busy tearing down the old, shabby buildings and building a beautiful new home and landscaping and gorgeous trails throughout the woods we loved to explore when we were kids. They had invited us to come out long ago and finally we went. No longer is it just painful to be out there and think of all that has been lost from our childhood and how we miss our parents. Now, I can look at how beautiful they have made the place and I think, “Mom and Dad would have thought this was pretty great.” It is so good to see new life there and new memories being made.  Only one of the old apple trees behind our house remains, but new ones have sprung up all around the property. The lilac bush mom planted from clippings from Grandma’s lilac bush still blooms. They have planted lovely wildflowers in the fields and oodles of new trees, but the evergreens mom and I planted still tower over the lawn, healthy and strong. So much is new there, but traces of me and my family remain.

A pastor friend told me a story about a burial service she presided at where at the end, the family released balloons into the air. They were white balloons with white strings. As they floated up, up, up, in one large group, bending and twisting with the wind, she said, “they looked like a large group of sperm heading toward the sky.” We laughed hard, and then only half-jokingly I said, “But it’s totally symbolic, isn’t it? New life happens all the time! Right there, at the end of the graveside service, little swimmers still making their way.”  We laughed some more.

But new life happens all the time. God makes it so. Most of the time it just has to happen through endings first, that’s the hard part.

Slippery Strands of Faith

Faith is a funny thing.

For some faith is just a lifelong journey beginning with the waters of baptism. It is a beloved relationship. Spirituality may not be something completely understood, but there is nowhere else we are likely to be found on a Sunday morning than right here with our eyes fixed on the cross.

For others, faith is like a wrestling match – trying to reconcile all the pain and suffering in the world with the belief in a loving God. Worship and time spent with the Scriptures is equal parts soothing for the spirit and fuel for the flames of our questioning as faith is both loved and something with which one struggles.

For others, faith is a lot like a love story. At some point or another, this person falls deeply in love with the Gospel – perhaps through some life-changing experience. But like all love stories, after the initial swooning and falling and deep, sweeping emotion, and after all the fire of first passion has burned away, hopefully there is still enough heat left in the embers to keep the flame alive over the years.

Faith is different for each of us. There are different reasons that bring you and I to this place each week to think about God and thank God and show our devotion to God and wrestle with God.


Many famous words have been written about faith to try to convey the many different facets and understandings of faith.

Martin Luther wrote: God our Father has made all things depend on faith so that whoever has faith will have everything, and whoever does not have faith will have nothing.

Oswald Chambers wrote: Faith for my deliverance is not faith in God. Faith means, whether I am visibly delivered or not, I will stick to my belief that God is love. There are some things only learned in a fiery furnace.

And my favorite is from E. Stanley Jones: Faith is not merely your holding on to God–it is God holding on to you. He will not let you go!

I really like Nicodemus, the Pharisee leader of the Jews central to our Gospel for today. Here was a man who was publicly a religious leader, kind of supposed to have matters of a religious nature figured out. So when you think about it that way, perhaps it is no surprise that he comes to Jesus by night to ask him questions. He has seen the amazing things Jesus can do, he has seen his miracles and he wants to know more. He is drawn to Jesus.

To tell you the truth, I’m so jealous of Nicodemus. I covet what he gets to do here – because he gets to share this quiet moment with Jesus and ask him the deepest questions of his heart. Just he and Jesus, alone together, sharing in conversation about the kingdom.

And I love how Nicodemus peppers him with questions and Jesus is trying to explain his answers and Nicodemus says, “How can these things be?” And Jesus says, “Are you a teacher of Israel, and yet you do not understand these things?” Because I know that if I were ever to have a quiet evening conversation with Jesus, I would be asking Jesus questions like this and many others and eventually he would say to me something like that, too – “Ruth, are you a pastor at Saint Peter’s Lutheran Church, and yet you do not understand these things?”

But I am certain he would say it with a twinkle in his eye – because he would know already how desperately little I understand. He would know already how slippery the strands of faith can feel on my fingertips some days. He would already know that every day I long to feel closer to him and my only comfort is the knowledge that he is closer to me than my own heartbeat – whether I feel him near or not.

There’s an old story that illustrates this thought pretty well. I’m sure you may have heard it before. One night a house caught fire and a young boy was forced to flee to the roof. The father stood on the ground below with outstretched arms, calling to his son, “Jump! I’ll catch you.” He knew the boy had to jump to save his life. All the boy could see, however, was flame, smoke, and blackness. As can be imagined, he was afraid to leave the roof. His father kept yelling: “Jump! I will catch you.” But the boy protested, “Daddy, I can’t see you.” The father replied, “But I can see you and that’s all that matters.”

Our vision is small and we can only see so far. This life is such that we are oftentimes only given glimpses of the glory of God. We spot him in those moments of grace or deep truth or mercy, when we witness true, selfless love, the perfection of sunlight rippling on the water or the scent of a baby’s cheek next to our face. We catch glimpses of God all the time. And yet, for those countless times when we do not, there is something else – and it is quite something. It is a promise.

Jesus and Nicodemus, I don’t know how long they were able to speak that evening, but we know that after spending a great deal of time talking about the questions in Nicodemus’ heart, Jesus finally tells him what it all comes down to.

It’s a verse we all can probably quote by heart, John 3:16 – For God so loved the world that he gave his only son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life.

But it doesn’t stop there – praise God it doesn’t stop there. Verse 17 reads, “Indeed, God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him.”

When I think about the context of this conversation, it is so particularly beautiful. Nicodemus, a man coming to Jesus in secret at night, because he doesn’t want everyone to know how he questions and how he feels a desperate need to know Jesus more deeply – and Jesus tries to explain all these inexplicable things to him patiently and with care – but finally he sums up everything for Nicodemus and for us saying, “I didn’t come to condemn you, I came to save you.”

Jesus doesn’t condemn us for our questions, or for our lack of faith. He came to love us and save us in spite of those things. Although faith may feel like wandering in the dark much of the time, may we never doubt that Jesus is right there in the darkness beside us, closer than we could ever know.

When my mother was dying back in 2011, I was surprised the moments of comfort that would come. Of course, none of them could take away the pain that I was going to lose her, but they helped me catch glimpses that even though I had to travel this road of her death and the grief to come, I was not forsaken. I would be okay. Mom would be okay. I wouldn’t know how until I journeyed into that unknown – but we would be okay.

And out of nowhere, the lyrics of old hymns that my family used to sing together when my brother and I were children, those lyrics would run through my mind over and over. “When peace like a river attendeth my way. When sorrows like sea billows roll. Whatever my lot, thou hast taught me to say It is well, it is well with my soul.”

I took those moments of peace and comfort as the gifts from God I know they were. I held tight to them and hold them close still. There have been times in life when God has seemed remote to me – but that was not one of those times. And I know that peace wasn’t given to me because I am good but because God is good.

Brothers and sisters, the good news for today is that no matter how you feel about your faith or how near or far God seems to you, he is here. God is journeying with you and holding you close – and God will not fail to remind you of that just when you need it most.

At Two Years

(Written November 1, 2013)

For the last two years I have not preached on All Saints Sunday so being in the pulpit this coming Sunday feels like a big deal. Two years ago on All Saints my mother had just died – I was in Minnesota preparing for her funeral the next day. Then, last year at this time I took a trip to Nebraska to see friends because I knew I could not lead worship or preach on the first anniversary of her death. Instead, my friends and I stayed up late drinking wine and talking, we got some new tattoos, took the kiddos to a movie, bought shoes, and ate good food. That time together with them was good medicine for me.

And now, in just hours, it will be two whole years since mom died. Even now there is a part of me that would happily never talk or write about anything other than her and how bad I feel without her. No one tells you that grief makes you terribly boring and interested in little aside from what you have lost.

I suppose I am getting better. I imagine with every day that goes by I am still gaining some strength, some perspective. But there is a part of me that hates that. The feverish little mess I was in the first months after her death was my proof that no one else loved their mother as much as I loved mine! I was the winner in the loss category.

But the sun keeps rising and setting and rising again. I can either keep adding onto my monument of pain and loss or I can live. I’ve always known I would choose to live –and yet I have been surprised at how comfortable I have grown with grieving. The sorrow has very nearly become a pillow I rest on, a familiar place for my heart to go. I know what to expect there – a canvas painted with pictures of how she looked and the things that filled her last days and months: pale arms resting on a prayer shawl, a fingertip with a heart monitor clipped to it, a spider web of tubes connected to her veins, sad-blue hospital gowns, and her weary visage. She was so deeply and truly tired at the end. Her heart had been sliced open and stitched back together twice, her liver mostly useless – I shouldn’t have been surprised she could die and yet her death was the great surprise of my life.

I’ve written so much about her these last couple years. I’ve filled notebooks and journals, countless status updates on Facebook, church newsletter articles and sermons, I keep spewing out volumes about how I felt then and how I feel now and documenting every move we made in those final months – as if I think that if I write it all down clearly and with enough depth I might be able to rewrite how it ended. I keep lining up words, stacking sentences one on top of another thinking perhaps if there are enough of them I can fill in the empty part of my heart. But there just aren’t enough words. That is what I have found in two years of missing my mother. There will never be enough words to describe how it is.

I have lost her. Surely I will always have things that will connect me to her – her wedding ring I will never take off, her china closet filled with the cups and dishes she loved, even looking in the mirror I see a bit of her staring back at me. And my voice – the sound of her voice has always come out of my own throat, too.

But she is gone. And there are no words. It’s taken me two trips around the sun to realize it.

I write sermons a lot and a good rule of thumb in writing a sermon is that it needs to end with the gospel, not the law. Even if the rest of the sermon is entirely depressing with talk about our sinful natures and the multitude of ways we have failed in life – at the end, the Christian sermon always points back to what Jesus has done for us and that there is hope. It’s what Christians believe – the end of the story is always one of hope.

However, what my mother’s death has taught me is that even though I have great hope and joy in God’s promise that I will see her again someday, there is still a sorrow I’ll carry now as long as I live. Grief is not an event but a journey. It is exhausting and ongoing and travels a path that makes no sense whatsoever. It sucks.

And I’ve also learned I have a lot of company on this path. At my church, the cemetery is filled with stories of loss. I’ve presided at some of those funerals as we said “goodbye” to the parent, spouse, friend, sibling, or child. So many tears have soaked into that ground. Over the years my parishioners have stood together over the graves of the people they loved, over and over again. They have become well-seasoned at grieving and at helping one another to weather the seasons of loss. They help their pastor, too. When my voice cracks, when the tears well, even if I’m all the way up in the pulpit, they look at me only with compassion and understanding. They know this path I’m on, they have walked it, too – and now we’ll journey it together.

So, anyway. Two years. An eternity. A moment. She was pretty great. Her name was Betty and I will not forget her. She liked to sit outside and enjoy the quiet. She loved sweets. She kept a little notebook where she wrote down every penny she spent. She always wore a scarf (or “kerchief” as she called it) on her head when she left the house. She was tall, like me. She was kind and loved a good Hallmark channel movie or a game of Scrabble. She took care of my dad even when he became very sick and not very nice. She always had time to talk to me when I called. I think I miss that the most – just hearing her say “hello” when I dialed her number from wherever I was.

Blessed be the memory of all the saints in light.

Amen.