Frances

I found out yesterday that a friend of mine in Texas died. It wasn’t a surprise – she was ninety-five years old and pneumonia had set in a few days ago. Her name was Frances and she was a member of my church in Texas. Her husband had been a pastor, and together they had been missionaries in Japan for decades. She was a person who had lived in many places and parsonages and we were kindred spirits in many ways, regardless of our age difference. When my mom died, Frances was a comforting, mothering presence in my life over the years that followed. I loved to sit with her in her nursing home room and we would work on crossword puzzles together or just talk. My boys would bring her handfuls of flowers they picked for her, and she grand-mothered them – exclaiming over them and making them feel special and loved, as children ought to feel.

It was agonizing for us to say “goodbye” to her when we left Texas, but she understood how we longed to be back in our homeland. After all, she and her husband had done the same thing – served churches in different places but their roots called them home to Texas.  When we left a year ago, I knew I would likely never see her again here on earth, and now I know this is true.

So, while I’m physically here in my office in Minnesota, admittedly my mind is drifting back to our church in Texas today, and thinking about how her memorial service will be. Some other pastor will commit her body to its’ resting place later this week. Someone will climb up the steep stairs into the old balcony and ring the bell 95 times as she is brought from the church out to the quiet cemetery where her husband is buried. The church ladies will make a lunch for the family. Then, one by one, the parking lot will empty out.

I know exactly how that place and that day will feel because I buried so many friends at that little church in Texas. I know how my heart would ache and how the dirt would feel in my hand as I placed it on the coffin and said, “Earth to earth, ashes to ashes, dust to dust.”  Each time I would think about how it all felt like sadness and endings, even though the words coming out of my mouth, the words from Scripture, were all about joy and resurrection.

This is the contrast we live in as people who believe in Jesus Christ, people who know there are no final goodbyes for those who trust in a resurrected Lord. It’s always so hard to let go, to realize a chapter has truly ended, to know there will never again be those talks, those crossword puzzles, but even so – we hold fast to God’s promises. There’s a glory, a healing, a wholeness, a hope that we can only catch glimpses of here – but someday it will all be revealed when we are all reunited in the presence of the One who made us. Jesus has made this possible and this is the promise of Easter.

 

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.

 

All Saints (a sermon)

(Written on the eve of All Saints, 2013)
Last night some of the youth from Our Savior’s and Trinity and St. Olaf’s met here for a cemetery walk.  We had done this before a couple years ago – it’s an opportunity to come together and learn more about the cemeteries here in this area and since it was right before All Saints Sunday we talked about the significance of that day.

Pastor Joan from Cranfills Gap shared a clip of the movie ‘Places in the Heart’.  It takes place in Waxahachie, Texas and tells the story of a group of people during the 1930’s.  The movie starts out with the hymn “Blessed Assurance” being sung and we see people going about their daily lives on a Sunday morning.  Many coming out of church after the service.  A family sits down to a noontime meal and while they are saying grace we hear shots ringing out.  Within moments, there is a knock at the door and the men at the door are asking for the husband of the family to come with them.  Turns out he is the sheriff in town and there is trouble down by the railroad.  A young black man – looks to be a teenager – he is drunk and throwing bottles up into the air and shooting at them.

There is a brief, good-natured exchange between the police and the young man.  They tell him to come on now – he needs to come with them, get sobered up.  The feel of the scene is that these are just two good policemen who know a youthful indiscretion when they see it  – they are chuckling as he throws one last bottle up into the air and the gun clicks – out of bullets. And the young man turns to go with them.  He’s been swaying a lot this whole time – you can tell he’s had a lot to drink – but there’s no worries now, the gun is out of bullets.  But as he turns, his finger hits the trigger again and there was another bullet.  It hits the sheriff in the chest and kills him.

In a heartbeat everything changes – for the family of the sheriff, for the young man – the young black man is actually killed by local folks enraged at what he has done.

The whole movie shares hardships of the people during this time –what the widow does to get by, how many need to move away from that town to find work, how more folks die.  It tells the story of the difficulties and challenges that many communities face over time. And the closing scene is back in the church.  The pews are probably only about half full now.  We know why – so many have died, so many have had to move away.

But the last thing is this: it shows the congregation having communion – and this is one of those churches where the sacrament is passed up and down the pews – and as the tray of wine is being passed from person to person, suddenly we see the pews are not half empty.  All the people who have left or died are there.  All of them passing the sacrament to each other and saying “the peace of God” to each other as they do it – even that sheriff and the young man who had killed him.

The communion of the saints.  I thought this movie painted a picture so perfectly of what we mean when we talk about that “communion of the saints” in church.  About how our life together and our faith in Christ connects us to each other in ways that time, distance, or even death cannot break.  How when we gather here, we gather not just as the people of God in 2013, but as God’s people throughout time.

Well, after we watched those couple clips from the movie we walked outside into the cool evening air.  We started out in the new cemetery shelter and I shared what I had read about in our history here regarding old funeral traditions and our cemetery.  As we moved out into the cemetery and walked among the stones in the increasing darkness, I told some stories I had collected about the cemetery and when we were nearly done and walking toward the gate, I heard one of the young girls say to her friend, “I hate cemeteries.  They give me the creeps.” She continued.  “Cemeteries and nursing homes.”

Please don’t think less of me when I say my first inclination was to turn around and slap her – because I didn’t.  Instead, I prayed that God could help her see in time, and I’m certain God will, that the sacred that is present everywhere – in every season of life and even in death.  I prayed that someday, when someone she loves is in the nursing home, that she will be faithful to visit and begin to see and understand that it is a place full of beautiful people with lifetimes of stories we are blessed if we get to hear.  And that even if they aren’t able to tell those stories anymore, that they are still the saints of God in that place, with worth and beauty and dignity. I hope she’ll begin to realize that what she hates is not nursing homes but the fear they stir up within her of her own mortality – that yes, someday, all of us – if we get the blessing of living a long time, someday all of us will need help.  Someday all of us will have hands that may tremble a little too much to take our own medications.  Someday, all of us will have minds that may not quite be able to remember the way home or be able to go for a simple walk alone.  And yes, that is not fun information to think about, but there it is.  And we don’t do ourselves or the world any good if we spend our lives doing things like casually dismissing an entire group of people and saying things like “oh, I just don’t like nursing homes.” And that if we are held in God’s hands, then there is nothing to fear – that somehow God will help all of us through the last seasons of our lives just as God helped us through the first ones and the middle ones.

And I hope that someday, when someone she loves dies, she’ll go to the funeral and then she’ll walk along with the casket, with her heart frozen inside her, out to the cemetery for the burial.  And she’ll feel the awful emptiness that comes with knowing her loved one will be sleeping in that ground that night and that’s all there is to it.  And it will feel like the period at the end of a sentence – final.  But then I pray she’ll listen to the words of scripture that the preacher reads. Words about a home prepared for all of us in God’s house – and that even through her grief – as the breeze floats over the cemetery she hear God’s whisper that this isn’t the end of the story.  That the one she loves dearly who is being buried that day is not simply being shut up in a tomb and that the ground upon which she is walking is not just a pile of bones and tears – but that it is a holy place where we linger over a promise.  It is a place full of stories of a thousand saints who lived, and yes, died, but even then God had a plan for them.  A plan we can only just glimpse – but one they have now seen face to face – and that if you really listen in that place, you’ll hear a song not of death but of hope – a hope in which we can rest, and rejoice.  I pray she’ll realize in that moment, that what she hates is not cemeteries, but her fear of the unknown. And that in time she’ll remember that she, and all of us, are held in God’s hands, and there is nothing to fear.

Living and loving God, the generations rise and pass away before you.  You are the strength of those who labor; you are the rest of the blessed dead. We rejoice in the company of your saints.  We remember all who have lived in faith, all who have peacefully died, and especially those most dear to us who rest in you.  Give us in time our portion with those who have trusted in you and have striven to do your holy will. To your name, with the Church on earth and the Church in heaven, we ascribe all honor and glory, now and forever.  Amen.

Joe

I was not surprised when I heard Joe’s heart stopped beating.  We all knew that his heart beat in time with Audrey’s heart and when she died a few months earlier, it seemed so had the spark of his own life.  He spent the last few months journeying through the motions of his days.  He sat in church as usual, but without her by his side he always looked a bit lost.  He welcomed us into his home to sing Christmas carols but he wept as we did so – everything reminded him of her.

When I would come to pray with Joe, I told him how when I lost my mom it helped to write down my thoughts about her.  Joe was raised to believe his pastors had wisdom and so he listened to me.  He poured his time and tears into writing down their love story.  With his failing eyesight he recorded the treasured sum of his days with her – his words spoke of true love, pure and sweet. They were married sixty years.

Joe had always known Audrey was the one.  Joe told his friend, Earl, that he was going to marry Audrey shortly before he even asked her out on their first date.  Sure enough, by September of that year they were married.

What followed was a good life – not an easy life, but a good life made beautiful by two people who knew how to be thankful for all they had, to see the blessings all around them, and to pour out generosity and positivity to all who knew them.

I was Joe and Audrey’s pastor the last five years.  I visited Audrey in the hospital and at home many times as her health failed. I presided at her funeral where her grandchildren sang beautiful songs to honor her memory. My sons and I visited her grave often and picked wildflowers to adorn her resting place.

I moved away to a new call at a church in Minnesota just a few weeks before Joe died.  He had been hospitalized with a heart condition and I came to see him in the hospital up until it was time for the moving van to come.  The last time I spoke with Joe it was right before he had a major surgery.  I told him I loved him and I would see him later.  I meant after the surgery was over but he never woke up again while I was still in Texas.

Nobody tells you when you become a pastor how your heart will break for your congregation.  Nobody tells you how you will love them like family and no matter how much you might like to treat your work like it is just a job, it is never just a job.

Today some other pastor gets to commend Joe to God’s care and keeping.  Today some other pastor gets to gather with this family I grew to love and remind them of God’s eternal promises.  While I am certain God has called me to be right where I am, it doesn’t change how hard this is for me.  I want to be counted among those who grieve.  Because I do.  So much.

Earth to earth, ashes to ashes, dust to dust.  The Lord bless him and keep him, the Lord make his face shine upon him and be gracious unto him.  The Lord look upon him with favor and give him peace.  In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.  Amen.

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.”

I Didn’t Know

stroller boys

 

 

You have me still

You have me

You have me

You have my heart completely.

            – Gungor

Jesse was sick last night.  It was the awful throwing-up-every-half-hour kind of sickness.  He cried because his stomach hurt so badly and he hated the vomiting.  Sweet child.  I kept thinking back to when he had RSV as a baby and how helpless I felt and how scared I was for him , but then also feeling like I am so dang lucky because these kids have been so healthy overall.  I am deeply thankful for that.  Please keep them safe, dear Lord…all of them, not just mine.

A power ranger sits on my desk.  It was probably Jesse who left it here the last time he played games on my office computer. I hardly pay any attention anymore to the toys left scattered around my church and my home, they have become the background of my life.

I remember visiting a friend with two young children before I had any of my own and I was startled by the assault to my senses while I was there – the house was rarely quiet, there was the faint smell of diapers always drifting through the air, and I was dismayed at the inconveniences: of having to pluck toys out of the bathtub before I could take a shower, of needing to wait for my friend to breastfeed her youngest before we could take off and go shopping and exploring, of how the needs of her children were so obviously greater than her need to visit with me and catch up on the things that we used to spend hours discussing.  Her world had shifted and I knew she was very content with those shifts.

I couldn’t imagine wanting any of those changes.  I loved my quiet house and life.  I loved my little challenges I gave myself – training for a marathon, writing some articles, working on my Doctor of Ministry degree.  I liked things in my time and I had a sense that children would blow up the world as I knew it.

Of course, they have.  Entirely.

I read an article recently that a mother carries cells of her children within her forever and also cells of the mother who gave birth to her.  There’s something so deeply comforting about knowing that physically my dear mother is knit into the fabric of me.  And just as I suspected, there is some very real part of me that is buried with her in the cold Minnesota ground.   No wonder we feel losses so completely.  A part of us is not figuratively dying when a loved one dies, rather a part of us has actually died.

It’s a vast thought…and sad enough to leave me huddled under a blanket in the corner forever.

Until I remember there is a living part of me, still.  And these beautiful sons are here – children I did not expect nor even have the wisdom to wish for very long yet God blessed me in spite of myself.  God saw fit to let me be their mom and to let me understand joy and true love in the best way possible.

I didn’t know, my dear boys, I didn’t know!  I would have been searching for you from the moment I began breathing if I had known how you would cast the world into the loveliest light of all.  I promise you, I live for what is still living – in me and in you.  I do not live for this grief although it covers much of me still.

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.