If there is anything better than a walk in the quiet woods on a warm spring morning, the scent of apple blossoms in the air, and listening to The Samples on my headphones, I do not know what that would be.
I haven’t listened to The Samples for a while – but since about 1991 they have never been far from me. In the mountains of Montana, I fell in love for the first time, and “Feel Us Shaking” was part of the soundtrack of that summer. When I was in West Africa, “Little Silver Ring” and “Everytime” played constantly – as I went running, as I journaled, as I daydreamed. The semester I studied in China during seminary I listened to their live album as I walked from the seminary up on the hill down to the city below. Something about their songs has always filled me full with the perfect amount of longing and hope at the same time.
Today, I was stopped dead in the middle of my walk when “Here and Somewhere Else” by the Samples was playing. It was partly the song itself, but also how it slammed me back in time to when I was listening to that song the most.
I traveled for a couple years with a band. During those two years, I started dating a fellow who I met along the way and we began a long-distance relationship as I kept traveling. I saw him whenever we were in the area where he lived, but mostly I was on the road. He was funny, sweet, and cute. I loved him. Sort of.
Also during that time, I began to spend more time with one of the guys in the band. It started very innocently – talking for hours about music and life. He had a girlfriend, I had a boyfriend. I began to realize over time that I was falling for him, but I never dreamed he would be interested in me. I kept writing my long letters to my boyfriend back home and telling myself I was happy.
Until the night the boy in the band kissed me…and the truth of what I really felt came spilling out and I couldn’t hold it in anymore. I never wanted him to stop kissing me. I closed my eyes and I didn’t care if I ever saw my boyfriend again. I felt like a terrible person, but sometimes there is just no going back when you realize what you truly want.
Oh, I tried. See, the boy in the band didn’t want a relationship with me. I realized that even as he was kissing me – so after what amounted to a weekend of making out with the boy in the band, I tried to go back to “normal” and force myself back into contentment with my boyfriend. I told myself it would be better once we were living in the same city. I told myself that my boyfriend was cute and funny and sweet and what more do I want? But my heart was off somewhere else – nowhere near my boyfriend. I could feel it in my bones. I didn’t want it to be true, but it was. I went for long walks asking myself “why why why!?” Why couldn’t I just be happy with the cute, funny, sweet boyfriend anymore? The only answer that came to me was the unsettling truth that if I had to choose between the two years I had spent in a real relationship with my boyfriend and that one weekend of kissing the boy in the band, I would take the weekend. No question.
But I never did break up with that boyfriend. I was sure that it wouldn’t be smart to do that. He was sweet and funny and cute, remember? What more did I want? It was silly, it was foolish to want more.
But I did want more.
In retrospect, while I couldn’t bring myself to break up with him, my behavior seemed to show I was trying to get him to break up with me. I told him about making out with the boy in the band. I got super drunk at his brother’s wedding. I moped around depressed and crying – morose about being off the road and away from my band. Within two months of my moving back to the city where he lived, he broke up with me.
And I was sad…but mostly indignant. I remember thinking, “You are breaking up with me? I was never even sure I wanted to be with you and you have the nerve to break up with me? I just spent the last many months trying to talk myself into staying with you, reminding myself over and over that you are sweet and funny and cute and telling myself to ignore the voice in my head telling me that it isn’t enough to just think someone is sweet and funny and cute…and now YOU are breaking up with ME?”
But thank God he did, because I could have spent who knows how long continuing to try to convince myself it was right, it was fine, it was a good enough relationship – even though deep in my heart, I knew I would trade every second with him for the few moments of real passion and head-over-heels joy I felt with that long-lost boy in the band.
I’ve been thinking about how often we settle. In some ways, my Christian upbringing is at the core of it. I was taught to not be too big for my britches, to be thankful for what I’ve got, to look for the good in everything. I knew my boyfriend was a good person, but what I couldn’t admit was that he wasn’t good for me.
It takes real strength to figure that stuff out. It can be so hard to let go of what is good and hold out for what is great, to believe we deserve the things that really bring us joy and light us up inside. And it can feel positively scandalous to see this quest as a holy task, but it is! Because it would have been terrible for me to end up with that boyfriend for the long run – he is a great guy and he deserved to be with someone who was thrilled about him all the time, not someone who was spending her life talking herself into being with him.
For months, I ignored the voice in my heart telling me the relationship wasn’t right, that I had to let him go. I treated that still, small voice in my heart like she didn’t really know what she was talking about, what she wanted.
I’ve learned over time, over many years, that when I don’t listen to that voice in my heart, I forsake my deepest self. I forsake what is truest and most holy within me if I don’t pay attention to what my own life is trying to tell me. I spent decades listening first to the advice of others, the best practices of professionals, tradition, mentors, but a while ago I made an important promise – a promise to myself that for the rest of the years I have left, I will listen to me and my heart and wisdom first. I will listen to the way the Holy Spirit is singing in my own life first. I won’t treat myself and the Spirit’s motion as if they don’t matter, or as though they are merely some lesser voices to be crammed in the crevices of bigger, more scheduled, more sensible plans.
No, my Spirit-filled self first. She matters to me.
“Listen to your life. See it for the fathomless mystery it is. In the boredom and pain of it, no less than in the excitement and gladness: touch, taste, smell your way to the holy and hidden heart of it, because in the last analysis all moments are key moments, and life itself is grace.” – Frederick Buechner
This week I received a unique invitation through facebook. Some of you don’t use facebook or computers – but those of you who do probably know that facebook is a fun way to share pictures and updates with friends instantly. Anyway, I received the invitation through my friend, Tami, whose friend Rosey is having her fortieth birthday soon. She said that as her birthday approached she was going to attempt to do one kind deed for another person every day for the next forty days and she invited all her friends to join her. She called it 40 days of nice. What Rosey didn’t expect was that her friends would pass on the idea to their friends and then those friends would pass it on to their friends and now there are over 1000 people in this facebook group who are intentionally every day looking for ways to extend a special kindness to someone else each day. And oftentimes, members of the group will take a moment to write a post on the page for others to see what they did that day. From shoveling their neighbors driveways to buying coffee for strangers, from Nebraska to Minnesota to the UK, a tiny groundswell of Nice began.
At first when I received the invitation I didn’t think I’d join. I don’t know Rosey personally and although it was a fine idea, I figured I had enough going on. But as I thought about it, the idea captivated me. I liked the idea of being part of a movement of people not just doing good things when the opportunity happened to come our way, but taking it a step farther and looking for those opportunities. There’s good energy in it. And in a world full of brokenhearted people, a little nice, a little good energy goes a very long way. A kind word, a thoughtful deed can provide shelter in the storm of life for others in ways that are magnified far beyond the action itself. You know what I mean. A cup of coffee and an hour of time shared with that friend whose husband just left is more than some caffeine and 60 minutes of the day. It is a lifeline, a glimpse of hope, a safe place where strength is gathered to go on. That mother with an infant whose driveway you just shoveled after the big snowfall – for her that probably didn’t just save her a few minutes, it very well could have helped save her mood for the entire day. No, the more I thought about it, I realized that 40 days of Nice was sounding better and better.
And as I read our Scriptures for this week, it was the words about God being our shelter and comfort that spoke deeply to my heart. The image from our Gospel of God desiring to gather to gather all God’s children as a hen gathers her brood under her wings, and the verse from the psalm where the psalmist sings that “even if my father and mother abandon me, the Lord will take me in.” In the old testament reading, the Lord appears to Abram in a vision. Abram, afraid of never having a child, and the Lord lifts Abram’s eyes to the stars and gives him the news that God isn’t done yet. Do you think there are a lot of stars in the sky? Well, Abram, that’s how many descendants you will have. God is not done yet. What feels like a barren place, Abram, it’s more fruitful than you can even imagine.
In a world of brokenhearted people, the news that God is not nearly done yet, the news that our God is able to comfort you and you and you even and especially when things seem the worst, the news that for the orphan, the widow, the lonely, the lost, the sick, the frustrated, of every age there is a shelter under God’s wings, a home you have right in God’s own heart – well, that is good news. That is some very good news.
And it is a great comfort. And a promise. But I don’t think it stops there – unless this were a funeral sermon – and then it would be fine if we ended with God’s action and God’s blessing and God’s promise and comfort. But this is no funeral. No, it’s morning worship on a typical Sunday. Today is today – or as Frederick Buechner liked to talk about it – today is the only day there is. Yesterday is gone, tomorrow is but a hope, all we have for sure is today. When we think about these 24 hours in that light it gives them a hint of urgency – and that’s good – because then perhaps we will take to heart the truth that we get to share, each of us, in imparting God’s shelter, God’s comfort, and God’s good news to one another. What begins and ends with God, includes us somewhere in the middle. God has made it so. God has made us necessary in being shelter, in being comfort, in being hope to one another. Our words about God’s love are important but they begin to sound quite hollow to others and feel even more hollow to us if our hands and feet aren’t out in God’s world living that love.
This place, these pews, this pulpit, that altar rail – all of it is just a starting place, a launching pad sending us into the week ahead. It’s a place to get our heads on straight, get our vision focused in the right place and then go on out, down the driveway and back into our lives to be God’s people there. Speaking God’s peace there. Sharing bits of kindness and moments of grace there. Bringing things like hope and mercy and justice along with us into stores and gyms and workplaces and hospitals and nursing homes and the pot o’ gold and school and wherever our paths lead us in the days to come. We don’t leave this gospel of Jesus Christ here – no we put it in our pockets, place it in our purses, carry it in our hearts out there. Everywhere.
And of course, it’s more than just being nice – but isn’t kindness a good place to start? We may not know how to share all that the Gospel of Jesus Christ means to us with friend or stranger – but we remember Jesus did say something about loving each other – so yeah, let’s start there – and then see where it takes us. A journey of a thousand miles begins with that first step – and so we take it in faith – trusting God guides us the rest of the way.
Sometimes I get so disheartened, brothers and sisters. Sometimes my heart gets so heavy it feels hard to carry it. I take note of all the bad things happening in the world, or good people getting sick or suffering. I start to feel small and so powerless to share a good word in the midst of it. And about right then the devil starts to whisper in my ear the statistics – the hard and cold numbers to prove his point – the Lutheran church is shrinking, the Christian church has slipped quite far from the center of family and community life it once was. And then if I’m not careful I’ll slip easily into a few too many nights when my brain is too full to sleep, a few too many times I’ll give in to the temptation to wallow in worry.
And I’d be terrified to tell you that sometimes I feel that way except that I think each of you might understand in your own way. Life can get awfully big, far too unwieldy.
But every time my mind brings me to that place, it is never me that gets me out of it. Left to my own devices I’d stay stuck in my head, or stuck in my worry. No, it’s always been a word or action from someone else that jars me loose and sets me on the right track again. Most of the time they haven’t meant to do it, in fact, most of the time they probably have no idea how their kind word or thoughtful action set me back on my feet, but they did. God working right through them. Angels with skin on, each one.
God gives us the power to be that for each other. The devil uses subtle things to distract us from that power – making us too busy or too distracted or too whatever to really see each other most of the time – but if we pay attention, if we have our eyes open and our listening ears on – there is a world of healing and goodness we can bring.
Catharine Brandt tells a story in a poem she wrote about in the months after her husband died how she experienced profound loneliness. One particularly difficult morning she called a friend and they talked for quite some time about old times, their children and grandchildren. She said she began to feel lighter and better as they talked, like she had taken some medicine that was slowly working its way into her system and bringing healing.
Finally Catherine said, “I hope I’m not interrupting your day. You probably have much to do.”
Her friend said, “You should receive a special blessing today. Before I started work I asked God to bless my interruptions.”
She writes. “God did bless me – blessed me with a friend who listened, who didn’t make me feel like an interruption.”
God has done great things for us – and by God’s grace – allows us to do great things for one another. Be looking for ways to be kind. Be looking for ways to show kindness to neighbors, to strangers, even to people you don’t like – imagine that! It’s all a good thing – it’s all a God thing! If we start today during this season of Lent I can’t help but think that when it comes, on Easter morning, the sun will rise a little brighter because we will have honored the One who first showed us such great kindness.
There were a few chores I really enjoyed while growing up. Feeding the chickens and ducks was always fun, and hanging up the laundry on the clothesline was also something I never minded doing – but the one chore that my brother and I actually fought over getting to do was to carry the trash up to the big old burn barrel at the top of the hill, dump it in, and light the stuff on fire. I liked burning stuff. I liked creating that little spot of warmth on a dead cold winter day. I liked watching the sparks rising into the evening sky. I liked the smell of the smoke that would hang on my old wool coat for days afterward. And as I got older I remember the ritual of tossing things into that old burn barrel as a rite of passage of sorts…a bad exam or two that I felt my parents didn’t need to see, some of the tattered magazines that we cleaned out of grandma’s house when she died, old clothes and dolls, and as the years of high school and college unfolded, even some old love letters met their fate on top of that hill. There was something ceremonial about throwing things in that burn barrel and tossing a match on top. Sometimes they had to be coaxed into catching fire – but then they would burn brightly until finally all that was left was just glowing cinder and ash. Of course the leftover ash wasn’t nearly as fun as the blazing fire. A chore we didn’t like was emptying out that burn barrel when it was full of ashes…we had to shovel it into a big wheelbarrow and wheel it to a specific spot that my dad had designated as the place where the ashes and other remains of the burn barrel went. It is in that spot where still today you can see the unburnable bits of the our history – the metal zipper from my favorite 2nd grade jacket, the nails that held together an old picture frame, parts of my brother’s toy fire engine. No, the place where the ashes went wasn’t the fun place. It wasn’t warm and light-giving like the fire on top of the hill. The ashes were cold and grimy. The ash place was full of forgotten, dead, and unwanted things. Of course I have been thinking a lot about ashes as this Ash Wednesday approached. “Remember you are dust and to dust you will return” are the words we each hear spoken to us when we have ashes placed on our foreheads. This is a day that we choose to think about the dead and unwanted things in our own lives – the things we need to repent. The broken parts of our lives that require God’s grace and mercy.
This is a reflective day in our church year – the scripture uses words that promote that idea of quiet – in fact, the word secret is used 6 times just in the nine verses of our Gospel reading. Jesus uses it to express how our giving and praying and fasting should be done – and also to express God’s presence even in the parts of our lives that we think are most secret. Do you have any secrets? Oh, I think most of us have a few. There are many kinds of secrets.
Some secrets people keep are wonderful secrets – I think of couples I have known who didn’t want to share what they were going to name their baby that was on the way because they just wanted to treasure that information for themselves and not be getting everyone’s opinion on the name beforehand. Secrets can be sweet – an engagement ring being hidden away until just the right time, a surprise birthday party. Those kinds of secrets are fun.
Another kind of secret is the one we keep just because we don’t know how others will react if they find out the truth. Until we know if others are Republican or Democrat, Liberal or Conservative, mean or nice, we often keep our true feelings about certain things to ourselves.
At the first church I served in New York, I had been there a few years when one of the older gentlemen in the church invited me over for coffee. I had spent a lot of time with him over the years I had been there – sitting in the hospital room with him and his wife, Evie, as she was dying; and later as he was helping out with different projects at church. I felt I knew him pretty well. But this particular day as we had coffee he was telling me stories – amazing, stories – and not all of the stories were about good church-going sorts of behavior. They were the sorts of stories you tell a friend…not necessarily your minister. And at the end of the afternoon before I left I said to him, “Pete, thank you for telling me stories about your past. I’ve known you three years and you never mentioned any of this before. I had no idea what a colorful life you have led.” And he smiled and said simply, “Well, now enough time has gone by that I know I can trust you with my secrets.” It’s true, isn’t it – we don’t share our secrets with people unless we know they will treasure those secrets, keep them safe like we do. It is a privilege when you are entrusted with someone’s secrets.
In his book Telling Secrets Frederick Buechner writes about a difficult secret in his own life and the relief he found when he finally began to share a story he had kept secret for a very long time. He says, “One November morning in 1936 when I was ten years old, my father got up early, put on a pair of gray slacks and a maroon sweater, opened the door to look in briefly on my younger brother and me, who were playing a game in our room, and then went down into the garage where he turned on the engine of the family Chevy and sat down on the running board to wait for the exhaust to kill him.” Buechner continues, “Except for a memorial service for his Princeton class the next spring, by which time we had moved away to another part of the world altogether, there was no funeral. He was cremated, his ashes buried in a cemetery in Brooklyn, and I have no idea who if anybody was present. I know only that my mother, brother, and I were not. As far as I can remember, once he had died we rarely talked about him much ever again, either to each other or anybody else. We didn’t trust the world with our secret, we hardly even trusted each other with it”
In the years that have passed, Buechner has since written many times about his father’s death. He says that for him, carrying the burden of that secret was too much. He needed to share it – and that he found that each time he shared it – it somehow gave permission to others to share their secrets as well. And the surprising thing was that once those terrible things that people kept inside were spoken out loud, admitted, looked at directly, they weren’t so frightening anymore. When they were brought out into the light of day those secrets lost their power.
Ash Wednesday, the season of Lent – we spend time in confession. We dare to take a look at our secrets – those things we have done or have left undone and by offering these things up to God along with our heartfelt repentance, they lose their power over us. The darkest sins, the blackest stains on our hearts – they will never be as strong as the light and love of Christ.
God knows who you are. God knows what you need. Don’t bother to bring anything with you to receive the ashes on your head tonight except your real self and your repentant heart.
Tonight the ashes that will be put on our foreheads will remind us that we have fallen short, that we have failed in much, that all dies – even us. But thank God, there is one who can take ash and dust and make something new. That is what our journey over the next forty days is all about.
Among the scores of articles written this week about the pope’s visit, one that particularly caught my eye was an article about some of the disciplines the pope has in his life. The article says he hasn’t watched television since 1990, he takes regular naps each day, goes to bed early, and each day he wakes at 4:00 a.m. and spends the first two hours of his day in prayer and meditation.
We may think that’s nice and that sounds like a great thing for a pope to do, but prayer is a spiritual discipline accessible to all of us and the benefits of prayer extend farther than most of us realize.
In fact, prayer may be one of the very best practices to benefit our health and well-being. Science backs this up.
The relationship between prayer and health has been the subject of scores of double-blind studies over the past four decades. Dr. Herbert Benson, a cardiovascular specialist at Harvard Medical School and a pioneer in the field of mind/ body medicine discovered what he calls “the relaxation response,” which occurs during periods of prayer and meditation. At such times, the body’s metabolism decreases, the heart rate slows, blood pressure goes down, and our breath becomes calmer and more regular.
This physiological state is correlated with slower brain waves, and feelings of control, tranquil alertness and peace of mind. This is significant because Benson estimates that over half of all doctor visits in the U.S. today are prompted by illnesses like depression, high blood pressure, ulcers and migraine headaches, that are caused at least in part by elevated levels of stress and anxiety.
A study of Tibetan Buddhists in meditation and Franciscan nuns in prayer showed prayer and meditation increase levels of dopamine, which is associated with states of well-being and joy.
So, while perhaps our first impulse when we think about the Pope getting up at 4:00 a.m. each morning to pray is to think about his selflessness to pray for others and the concerns of the world, but another way to look at this practice is that for him it is one of radical self care.
A Vatican spokesperson confirms this when he said, “Morning prayer is where he meditates and really connects to God. His deep relationship to God is what allows him the freedom he has, what sustains him through the day, Before anyone comes in, before the (Vatican) secretary of state tells of him of any crisis, he connects with the Lord.”
So if prayer is good for our health, gives us a greater sense of well-being and joy, and helps us deal with the stresses of our day with increased ease, why wouldn’t we do it?
Well, perhaps prayer is one of those things that we feel we should do and even want to do but we aren’t quite sure how to go about it in ways that feel natural or meaningful or even necessarily spiritual. We know how to pray the Lord’s prayer and we hear the prayers being said in church, and participate in the prayer chain but maybe we never thought much about praying on our own or as prayer being anything other than a last resort when we really need something. It reminds me of a quote by Oswald Chambers when he wrote: “We tend to use prayer as a last resort, but God wants it to be our first line of defense. We pray when there’s nothing else we can do, but God wants us to pray before we do anything at all.”
God wants prayer to be our steering wheel and not just a spare tire – at least scripture surely seems to lift up the importance of prayer to us over and over. In our reading from James today it reads, “Are you hurting? Pray. The prayer of a person living right with God is something powerful to be reckoned with.”
1 Thessalonians 5:17 Pray without ceasing
Philippians 4:6-7 do not be anxious about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God. And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.
These are beautiful Bible verses – and I think we all want to be people of prayer and have that peace that passes all understanding.
So it’s important to remember that prayer takes many shapes and there are a multitude of ways we can incorporate it into our lives, receive its’ benefits, and bless the world with our prayers.
One way is to get up early and pray just like his holiness. Lots of books have been written about the benefits of getting up early to take care of the most important things first. In the book Miracle Morning, it reads, “It’s been said that the first hour is the rudder of the day. If I am lazy or haphazard in my actions during the first hour after I wake up, I tend to have a fairly lazy and unfocused day. But if I strive to make that first hour optimally productive, the rest of the day tends to follow suit.”
My mornings have rarely been a good example of how to start the day. I love to sleep, I generally sleep as long as possible and then wake up, drink coffee, check e-mail and then bark at the kids to get ready.
Just in the last few weeks I’ve been trying this idea of getting up early and starting the day more intentionally. I haven’t gotten up as early as the pope but early for me and the practice has been very satisfying.
But if you can’t imagine the early morning thing, there are so many other places and ways to fit prayer into life.
One of my favorite has been during exercise – to walk and pray. At my church in Texas, the cemetery was huge and it was right out the front doors of the church, just like here and I would walk the perimeter of it and pray. There was a trail worn into the ground from how many times I had walked and prayed there and that became a very precious place and practice for me – especially as more and more people I loved were buried there and I would stop and visit their graves. Or if I was stuck on a sermon and I didn’t know what to write, usually if I walked a few times around the cemetery and prayed about it, my mind would start working again.
Some people pray in the car – many of us spend a lot of time alone in the car. Why not pray? It may be important to note here that what prayer is – is a conversation with God. We can do that with our eyes closed and our hands folded, but we can do it also with our eyes wide open and while we are doing anything.
I like how Frederick Buechner puts it, he writes, We all pray whether we think of it as praying or not. The odd silence we fall into when something very beautiful is happening, or something very good or very bad. The “Ah-h-h-h!” that sometimes floats up out of us as out of a Fourth of July crowd when the skyrocket bursts over the water. The stammer of pain at somebody else’s pain. The stammer of joy at somebody else’s joy. Whatever words or sounds we use for sighing with over our own lives. These are all prayers in their way.”
So the most important thing to remember is to find a place and a way to pray –not how we do it. We pray and we keep at it. Be persistent in prayer.
And be open to the surprising ways that prayer will work in our lives. Miracles do happen every day, but prayer is not a magic charm. We can pray and pray and pray for rain but that doesn’t mean we won’t still go through months of drought. We can pray and pray and pray for healing to come but that doesn’t mean the healing will come when we want it to, or even on this side of the grave. We can pray and pray and pray for an answer but sometimes all we feel for seemingly far too long is deafening silence and confusion.
And when this happens – which it does – this confusing business of prayer can leave even the most faithful feeling disillusioned with the practice and wondering what good it does, wondering if it is really much different than hoping or wishing.
This is when we remember as John Heuss said, “Prayer is neither black magic nor is it a form of demand note. Prayer is a relationship.”
Keep praying. Keep praying because the world needs it. Keep praying because God wants to hear from you. Keep praying because you need it. Keep praying not because we will ever understand all its benefits but because of how the spirit can work in the beautiful mystery of prayer.
I felt that mystery this week when my son, Jesse, was having ear surgery. It was just a small surgery and he was fine – but as we sat in the recovery room afterward, a pastor friend stopped by to say hello, and before she left, she prayed for him, for us. It was so wonderful – I forget too often how precious it is to hear someone pray for me. To know that someone is lifting up my concerns, my hopes, my cares, my worries to God – it’s the most beautiful thing.
Keep praying for each other and for me, sisters and brothers. And know that each day, I pray for you. In Jesus’ name. Amen.
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.”