Learning ~ GA (1)

The General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) meets every other year as a gathering of about 1,000 people made up evenly of commissioner pastors and congregational leaders (we call them teaching elders and ruling elders), advisory delegates (youth and seminarians), local and regional and national presbytery and synod and denominational agency officers, guests, observers, and I’m sure more people that I don’t know about yet. Overtures (sort of like motions, from presbyteries – our regional governing bodies) and resolutions about all manner of Presbyterian business are researched and prepared in advance, and then discussed and debated and voted upon, and returned to the presbyteries for approval (or not) before the next General Assembly.

What I don’t know about the PC(USA) as a whole could fill several volumes.  I serve my congregation, I serve on a Presbytery committee, I attend Presbytery meetings, I read some denominational publications sometimes, and that’s about it.  I’m interested in many of the issues which the church addresses, but I am quite well occupied, no one has ever tapped me to go beyond my local area, and I honestly haven’t given it much thought. So when I was invited to apply to serve as a presbytery teaching elder commissioner to GA, I figured that the chances of my going were minimal but that, if I did, it would be a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to experience and participate in the broader body of the church.

Tonight, those of us heading from our Presbytery to St. Louis in two weeks will be commissioned at our regular Presbytery meeting.  I’ve been trying to learn how GA works and what some of the overtures are all about — there are tons of materials available online —  but, truth to tell, I have understood very little.  I read and re-read, remembering my days as a teacher and the dictum that people have to be exposed to something seven times before they get it.  At least seven!  Yesterday, feeling increasingly overwhelmed and inadequate to the task ahead, I peppered the veterans in my weekly study group with questions.  The answers were so helpful! but one of our wise elders asked if we hadn’t already had some local orientation.  I guess that it didn’t sound from my questions as if we had but, as I explained, when you first get started, you don’t even know what questions to ask and, as info comes your way, you have no context in which to digest it.  It has become clear to me that we have people who have spent days and months and years on issues that I didn’t even know existed (more about that in my next GA post), and that what comes naturally to them is completely new to me.

I feel a good deal like Dorothy in Oz, turning this way and that on the yellow brick road as heretofore unimagined phenomena appear.  I can only hope to maintain Dorothy’s openness and good humor and courage as I slide with increasing speed toward the Emerald City . . . I mean, the Arch of St. Louis!

Risk Delight

A few days ago, I listened to this On Being podcast, in which Krista Tippett interviews Elizabeth Gilbert, who quotes a poet named Jack Gilbert (no relation, I presume, as none was mentioned), and a line of his about “risking delight.”  I haven’t found the poem, but the instruction to “risk delight” deems to me to be a good mantra for all of life, but perhaps especially for the third third.

In my personal life, delight is that which evaporated ten years ago, and the road toward its rediscovery is long and rugged and often treacherous.  The potential for deight is found in the small and the vast, of course, from the tiniest of blossoms bursting forth in the springtime woods to the vast canyons and mountains carved out of eons in the American west, and countless other natural  phenomena on this earth and in the universe, and it is the only goal which I can imagine might counter the devastation wrought by natural and human proclivity for disaster.

Too often in the life of the church, my work milieu, delight is precisely that which is missing.  I wonder increasingly, as I observe jaws set in resistance, eyelids drooping with boredom, postures indicative of resistance: Where is the delight?  Delight is a foundational component in every faith tradition of which I know anything.  Today, out for a hike, my daughter and I saw a scarlet tanager.  I am sure that the Creator delights in that bird, as Jesus delights in the play of children, and the Spirit in the dance of the wind.  How have we so reduced that delight to arguments over fire escapes and sound systems?

In our public life, delight seems to be the missing factor.  It’s no wonder that the western world breathed a sigh of relieved anticipation on the morning of the royal wedding — what with Brexit and American politics and Russian misadventures and chaos and violence in the Middle East, we are starved for delight.  I am not the first person to notice that nothing in the way of joy or humor or enchantment emanates from the White House these days ~ quite the opposite, in fact.

Would we not live more abundantly if we risked delight in place of all that we so consistently fall for in its stead?

Ten ~ 1

In a few months, it will be ten years since my son’s death by suicide.  I might have some things to say.

I have a good life; don’t get me wrong.  We live in a beautiful home in a wonderful neighborhood ~ historic houses, walking distance to almost anything you might want, lovely people.  I have work which, at least some of the time, is meaningful and deeply satisfying.  Our living children have done well in the aftermath of trauma. One can survive, and even thrive.

I wonder, all the time, who he would be now.  I imagine whole lives for him.  That MBA from Chicago, a business career, a home in Hyde Park, a cottage on a lake.  The ballerina wife, the adopted Asian children.  Or the loans paid off, the desertion of the corporate world, the worldwide pursuit of photography, the life on the road.  Or the return to summer camp, the job with the farm and maintenance crew, the cabin in the North Carolina mountains, the wife and tow-headed children loving hikes and kayaking. Who knows?  None of it will ever be.

I loved being the mother of three small children.  I thought, at the time, that life could not possibly get better.  It turns out that I was right.  There will always be someone missing.

It hits me like the proverbial ton of bricks sometimes, usually inconvenient times.  A conversation, a glimpse into another life, a scene on the television, an article in the news.  I think I will die, but I never do.

Parts of me are missing.  I see friends losing parents; I see their lostness, their deep grief.  I don’t have access to those feelings anymore.  I have been saddened by my father’s death 18 months ago, and I often miss him, but his death from illness at the age of 85 was not for me an experience that in any way resembled the shock and horror and excruciating pain I felt in every nerve of my body after the death of my son.

I am not an easy person to be around, or to be.  I have no patience for the sentimentality that pervades so much of our culture of death.  I try not to mar others’ experiences of comfort, so a lot of the time I muster a meaningless smile and endure until a conversation or event passes.

I do hope, but it’s hard.




End of Life 3/3

breath air

Earlier this week, as a way of remembering Howard Gray immediately after his death, I flipped through a few of the emails I’ve received from him.  One of the first that popped up, written a couple of years ago, suggested that I read When Breath Becomes Air by Paul Kalanithi, M.D.  It looks as if I didn’t respond to the email, but I think that I had already read the book at that point.

Lucy Kalanithi, M.D. was the other main speaker at the Dayton conference a  few weeks ago.  The book (which I am not going to review here) details her husband’s experience with lung cancer; Lucy finished it after he died.  Paul Kalanithi was a brilliant young neurosurgeon when his diagnosis disrupted his life, and forced him to shift from physician delivering bad news to patient on the receiving end of a devastating report.  It’s a must-read for anyone whose life has jolted from one of ordinary dailiness (not that Paul Kalanithi was ever ordinary in the sense of the word which most of us understand) to the high drama of end-stage cancer.

Lucy spoke about the challenges she and Paul faced after his diagnosis, including

  • facing one’s own mortality
  • questions of identity ~ who am I now?
  • facing death and uncertainty
  • and the tension between living and dying.

That last one I remember so well from my stepmother’s stage 4 lung cancer diagnosis.  How do you deal with in-your-face issues of serious illness and likely imminent death and simultaneously forge a life among your family and friends?

Lucy left us with two poignant reflections, the latter emerging from the Q-and-A period and much discussed at out table.

The first had to do with Paul’s statement of desire: “I want everyone else to take care of Lucy so that she can take care of me.”  What a powerful recognition of, on the one hand, the needs of the primary caregiver, and on the other, the need of the patient for someone who can focus her life entirely on his need for care and support, to which everyone else can contribute by providing for the caregiver.

The second had to do with their conscious decision to have a child whose father would probably not live to see her grow up, whose father might not live to see her at all.  For the Kalanithis, their daughter was, and is, a life-giving source of joy and, while some shuddered at the thought of the courage required of her mother, most at our table could appreciate the powerful desire for love to break forth in the form of the birth of a child, even, or perhaps especially, in the heart of a sojourn toward death.

Please read this important book.  It illuminates an all-too-common experience, and may be the trigger you need to start a much-needed conversation with a loved one.


Rev. Howard Gray, S.J. (1930 – 2018)


As a middle and high school teacher (my second career) fifteen years ago, I was in need of a graduate course in literature or history, which I could not find.  Hmmmm . . .  Spirituality and Narrative sounded interesting.  “Who is this Gray professor?” I asked the department secretary.  “He’s new,” she responded.  “But people seem to like him.”  He was out of town for our first two classes, and a friend and I wondered distractedly about missing the date for a course refund.  What if we didn’t like him?

We did.  In fact,  I was mesmerized by the eloquent, well-read, humorous, and delightful 70-something Father Gray.  I took another course in literature from him.  And then a third, on Ignatian spirituality.  It was early in that semester that I asked him if he would serve as my spiritual director and help me make the Spiritual Exercises – a long adventure in prayer and one-on-one conversation.  I knew that my request would mean an hour of his time every week or so for months, so I was sure that he would turn me down.  But I so wanted whatever it was that filled this brilliant and elfin-like man with such an infectious joy.  “Oops,” I thought, when he said, “Sure,” and pulled out his calendar,  “Now I have to do this!”

That “Sure” changed my life.

As it tuned out, that was a year of relative peace and lack of drama for me, a leader in my local PC(USA) congregation, a teacher in a Jewish school, and the mother of three college students.  A perfect time to spend hours on a practice of prayer devised by a Catholic saint nearly 500 years earlier.  A couple of months in, it occurred to me to google Howard’s name and I discovered, to my astonishment, that this gentle and unassuming man was known across the globe as one of the foremost scholars and teachers of Ignatian spirituality.  Oops again.  What should I do?  How could I continue to take up so much of his time?  Eventually I concluded that, since he didn’t seem to mind, I would press on.  A few months later, I threw all caution to the wind and announced that I was going to seminary.  Howard, who was not supposed to say much of anything beyond a few suggestions as I made my way through the Exercises, exclaimed, “Will you get going?!”

Months later, I finally made it to seminary in Pittsburgh, and also started a program here in Cleveland for would-be spiritual directors.  Howard moved on to Georgetown, but we stayed in touch via email — I mostly complained about my courses in Greek, and he offered encouragement and witty commentary.

My darling Josh, my tall and blonde and blue-eyed and funny and brilliant son, died of suicide just before the beginning of my second year of seminary.  Howard was one of the first people I emailed, and he became one of what would eventually be a group of three Jesuits who encircled me with listening hearts and occasional words and hours and hours of presence.  It’s no exaggeration to say that I would not have survived those early years without Howard and his brother Jesuits, my personal lifesavers.

As I’ve written on FB, some months, maybe a couple of years, after Josh died, I was  ready to give up on everything – quit seminary, quit ministry, go live in Greenland or someplace. “Well, of course you can quit,” said Howard. “Or you can keep going for what may turn out to be the most productive years of your life.” I don’t know yet whether or not he was right. But he inspired me to try.

That’s the thing about those Jesuits.  They seem to be under the impression that one can do impossible things where God is concerned, and they don’t make a big deal about it.  Most especially, they don’t tell you that you can’t move forward just because your life is a mess.  They think that you can.

It’s been nearly 15 years since that first class with Howard, nearly ten years since Josh died, seven and one-half years since I was ordained in the PC(USA).   I have a stack of emails, most of them offering counsel and encouragement after my son died, but many others filled with humor and recommendations for poetry and other reading.  I often preach and teach things I learned from Howard, and I hope that when I am with people who are suffering or dying, I remember what he taught me, mostly through example, about presence.

I know that, with his death two days ago from injuries sustained in a car accident on Friday, the accolades will pour in.  He held positions of enormous responsibility and influenced thousands of people.  But to me, Howard Gray is that white-haired man with the gleam in his eye, the wicked sense of humor, and the capacity to be present to any experience of faith, from the highest mountaintop of exuberance to the most vast desert of desolation.

I will miss him very much.


Image:  Georgetown University, 2014.

End of Life 2/3

Steve Pantilat, M.D. was the keynote speaker for the conference entitled Soul Work on Living and Dying that friends and I attended a few weeks ago.  Dr. Pantilat is a renowned expert on palliative care — care which he describes as “focused on improving the quality of life for people with serious medical illness.”

I’m going to offer a few highlights of his presentation (any errors are mine, straight from my notes), and suggest that you read his book, Life After the Diagnosis.

life after cover

One: We tend to think that we must choose between quality and quantity of life: we must choose either every treatment offered us to prolong life, or refuse treatment and die. This is a false and damaging dichotomy, as much care is available to make life in the face of illness more palatable — and often longer.  Dr. Pantilat advocates for everyone receiving palliative care from a team of caregivers within six weeks of a diagnosis of metastatic cancer.

Two: A terrible question: “Would you like us to do everything possible?”  Of course; who is going to sat “no” to  question like that?  I have been with both parishoners and family when that question has been asked, and it has been very difficult to walk the conversation back with what is always my next question: “Could you please explain the likely consequences of a ‘yes’ answer?”

A good question: “How are you hoping we might help?”  People may have very specific goals related to pain management, surviving until a family event takes place, travel plans, where they want to be when they die — but an open-ended question is needed for those hopes to surface.  My own commentary: People are often too intimidated by the presence of a physician at a hospital beside, or too frightened by the death they have not discussed with anyone, to say, “I know I’m going to die soon, so I think I’ll skip the clinical trial, and go home to be with my family instead.”  We have to ask, not assume, what someone’s priorities are.

Three: People are fearful that talking about these issues will destroy hope.  In fact, talking about the questions increases hope.  Other good questions include, “What are you hoping for in your future?” “What worries you most about what lies ahead?”

Four: A most unfortunate statement: “There’s nothing more we can do.”  In fact, there is always something that we can do in terms of helping someone address their concerns, companioning them, and alleviating their feelings of abandonment.

Five: It’s a myth that the goal is to have a “good death.” I would take issue with his statement that “grief is not mitigated by age and a ‘good death,” but his overall point is a good one:  The goal is to live a good life.

Next post: Another of our speakers.

End of Life 1/3

I suppose that I’ve always been intrigued by end-of-life issues.  So many early deaths in my family.  I volunteered for hospice decades ago, as a follow-up bereavement counselor — something that I thought was important for post-loss health, and something that I could do on my own schedule, on my phone, when my children were small.

I became much more interested in the realm of end-of-life care when my step-mother Jewel was dying of lung cancer.  It was a brutal experience for everyone involved.  If there was something that an oncologist could do wrong in treating someone with cancer far advanced at diagnosis, hers did — and refused to discuss other options with me.  My niece had also been a hospice volunteer and drove around for those four months with a box of materials in her car, my brother reached out to a social services agency, and I visited every few week-ends.  All of our efforts to provide my father with help and to offer both of them with a more humane experience were for naught.  Jewel was convinced that to decline aggressive treatment would be “to give up.”

A few years later, when I was a chaplain intern over the summer as part of my training for ministry, I saw much of the same on the medical intensive care unit of the hospital in which I trained.  So many tubes and machines, so many aggressive efforts, so many patients and family members unwilling to let go.  Of course, none of us can predict our reaction in similar circumstances — but I used to come home at night (or early in the morning), collapse, and say, “If anyone ever utters my name in the same sentence as the a phrase which includes that particular floor, being me home immediately!”

As a pastor, I have seen many people seek hospice care only a day or two before death is likely to come, and skip any form whatsoever of palliative care.    While there is much assistance available to ease the passage from this life to the next, physically and emotionally and spiritually and mentally, few people are aware of the options, and many share Jewel’s view: “Can’t give up!”

A few weeks ago, I was privileged to attend an outstanding conference on end-of-life care, and to share it with good friends: one a trained chaplain and two of them nurses — one of them now caring for her 90+ year-old father at home.  In the next few days, I’ll share some of what we learned.

Back to Birds

It’s been a long time.

I’ve been studying up on migrating warblers and their friends — sparrows, shorebirds, waterfowl — for the last week or so.   I’m keeping a running chart, adding a photo of a bird, or two or three, each day, as I try to re-learn identifying features and colors.


I used to know a lot of birds.  I got into birds when I was in law school, and for years they provided a respite from an intense and competitive professional life.  I had many wonderful opportunities ~ teaching as a volunteer at The Museum of Natural History, hanging out with photographers and eagle researchers, participating in field trips in Ohio and Ontario.

We kept up with birds as a family for a few years when the kids were small, but then . . . soccer, and school, and life in general intervened.  For many years, I’ve gone out once or twice in the spring to look for the migrants, but I haven’t had the energy or interest to take them more seriously.

This year, I’m suddenly inspired.  And so I am making these charts, and remembering.  Some of the birds I could identify immediately; others are taking some work.  But what I’m finding to be really fun is re-discovering memories of the people with whom I’ve spent serious bird time.

  • Prothonotary warbler: BW, pausing on a dike in Ottawa NWR, to take a look at that shimmering golden-orange creature and saying, “Look at that sweet thing.”
  • Ovenbird: A herd of birders at Crane Creek, determined to get a look at one small fellow scuffling in and out of the underbrush.
  • Spotted sandpiper: HW, guiding us along a marsh somewhere, and explaining a flight pattern that I recognize instantly, 40 years later.
  • Scarlet tanager: A young teacher, who would die in a car accident shortly thereafter, standing in the rain amidst a migrating wave of birds and exclaiming, “Black-winged redbirds!”

I saw a post a couple of days ago from a birder in Central Park, who had a nice long list of sightings from earlier in the day.  My list from this past week is pretty short.  But I feel alive and connected to the natural world in a way that has eluded me for a long time.


Image: Common yellowthroat, from Wikipedia.

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