Blog Posts

Joy and the Abundant Life

“Joy comes in the morning” (Psalm 30).

When I say that joy is central to abundant living, I do not mean to imply that la-de-da happiness or frivolity is essential to the good life.  Joy refers not so much to a feeling, or even an attitude, as to a deep conviction that life has value and meaning. Joy is often accompanied by energy and overt delight, but I know far too many people (including myself) for whom joy has been a hard-won property to gloss over the challenges that may block its evidence.

As a conviction, joy exists as a possibility for us despite our circumstances.  I don’t want to imply that it is something we can achieve with ease, or to shame anyone for whom it remains elusive.  I’ve been hurt and offended by far too many Facebook pull-yourself-up and change-your-attitude quotes for that.  But my experience at this point is that we can open ourselves to an orientation toward joy and that, gradually and sometimes only in fragments, it will direct itself our way after that Psalm 30 long night of weeping.

Insofar as the church goes, joy is foundational to vital congregational life.   Once again, it is only tangentially related to happiness, and largely a function of conviction.  “Behold, I bring you great joy” ~ if we as a church believe that good news, then membership, attendance, budget, building condition, programming ~ all those things we like to measure ~ are essentially irrelevant.  A small congregation whose building has just burned to the ground can evince far more authentic joy than a 3,000 member church with the latest in décor and technology.  Not that I recommend disaster or a lapsed insurance policy as signposts on the road to joyful living.  But when it comes to joy, faith in God’s love for the world trumps a balanced budget.

Abundant Life

What does it mean to have abundant life?

That’s the preliminary question posed to a small group of us attending a retreat for our Presbytery Vitality Committee tomorrow.  It’s been a long time since I’ve blogged, and I’ve made a bit of a promise to myself to write a few times a week ~ and the topic of abundant life seems a good one with which to start.

When you take a look at dictionary definitions of the word “abundance,” you immediately see a focus on quantity.  Abundance means “a great many” or “a large supply” or “a plentiful amount.”  At this point in life, however, I am inclined to understand abundance in terms of quality, rather than quantity.  When Jesus says “I came that you might have abundant life,” the quote (more or less) on which our discussion question is based, I don’t think he was speaking in terms of numbers of years or quantities of financial wealth.

Three things come to mind when I think of abundant living.  Preeminent among them is joy ~ a deep and abiding joy, gladness, gratefulness, in and for life, regardless of one’s circumstances.

The second is care for or service to others.  The richest depths of life are mined when we care about others and act for them ~ whether that care and action involves taking a plate of home-baked cookies to a homebound neighbor, or heading to Congress to advocate for legislation, or something in between.

And finally, abundant living is found when our individual gifts are engaged to the fullest.  It’s not possible to live abundantly, no matter the size of your stock portfolio, if you are miserable in the work you do, or a poor fit for the environment in which you find yourself.

I am pretty sure that these three things apply to abundant life for an individual or an entity, such as a family or a business . . .  or a church.  I think I’ll try to follow through on my writing resolution by exploring them one at a time over the next couple of weeks.

What Will We Say?

A Sermon on Suicide Loss and Prevention for Faith Hope & Life Sunday

What will we say – to ourselves and to others – in times of disaster, of catastrophic loss?  This morning, our readings invite us to consider what we say.  Do we speak for ill or for good, James asks?  We can use our tongues to destroy, he reminds us, but the reverse, of course, is that we can use them for great good.  Who do you say that I am, Jesus asks?  If we say that he is the Messiah, what does that mean for our daily lives?  When we tell the WORST stories of our lives, what do we say as a people of hope?

Here’s my worst story. It’s been ten years since my husband and I, in separate locales that day, received the phone calls that informed us that our lives had been altered forever: That our son Josh had died of suicide the night before.  Our tall, blonde and blue-eyed, brilliant, creative, athletic, and witty son, our beloved son Josh, was gone. I was standing in a small room, cell phone to my ear, and I could literally feel the floor beneath my feet tilting in some new direction I didn’t know existed.

Sometimes, when a person dies of suicide, family and friends perhaps don’t expect it, but they know it’s a possibility lurking out there.  There have been clear indications of mental illness, perhaps years — of suffering, psychiatrists, medications, hospitalizations, perhaps even attempts.  We were in the other broad category of survivors: We had no idea that death was just around the corner.  Later we would learn that our son had probably been struggling with a deep, and deadly, clinical depression for at least a few years.  Sadly, people of great ability and experiencing what appears to be solid progress in life often successfully conceal the despair of mental illness.  People can feel shamed by the discovery that there are challenges in life that they cannot seem to overcome, and fail to seek the help that would be so gladly given.

In the first weeks and months and years, as we tried to figure out how to live again, there didn’t seem to be any reason for us to address suicide as an issue.  As I said, we were in the group of survivors who has no idea that it was coming.  I recall saying to my husband one night, “It’s as if a locomotive came out of nowhere and ran him down.”  We didn’t know much about recent and hopeful strides in mental health care; we didn’t even know that there WAS anything to know.  And certainly most of the people in our circles of friends and colleagues did not go around talking about suicide.

But then, three years later, I was diagnosed with breast cancer.  And I made an interesting discovery.  I had already found that I could clear a room by stating that I had lost a child to suicide.  Seriously, people became silent and moved out of my orbit as fast as they could when they heard that news.  But breast cancer?  People surrounded me with concern and support and information.  All kinds of information and offers of help.

Hmmm, I thought.  I remembered being a little girl and learning about breast cancer via my grandmother’s ladies magazines, and hushed conversations among women as I eavesdropped on the other side of the wall.  Breast cancer was something shameful, and its consequences so horrible that women DIED rather than speaking up or going to the doctor.

Today, two generations later, much has changed.  There’s money, lots of money, available for study and treatment, and lots of research being done on breast cancer.  It’s no longer stigmatized – even football players wear pink jerseys in October.  Public service announcements about mammograms appear everywhere.    Lives are being saved, and a lot of attention these days is being directed to the stubborn cancers that have resisted cure thus far.

All because women dropped the hushed tones, and started speaking out.

Could this happen with suicide, I wondered?  And so I spent some of my cancer recovery time learning new things, and became, in my own very small way, a suicide prevention activist.  Today I volunteer with a couple of national organizations, work which has taken me to Columbus and to DC to meet with legislators and their aides and to speak up for suicide prevention legislation and funding.  Like thousands of others, I participate in walks to raise funds for education, research and advocacy.   Last summer at GA, I presented a suicide prevention resolution that’s been adopted by our national church

But what does this all have to do with faith? Why bring suicide up in the church?  I think that the answer might be summed up in words I heard spoken many years ago by Unitarian pastor Forrest Church in a sermon at Chautauqua: We live, and we die, and our life of faith helps us make sense of those two realities.

Church, the community in which we worship and serve God, is also for many of us the most significant community in which we articulate and absorb realities about life and death.  It’s one of the main communities, sometimes THE main community, in which we meet and share loss.  All kinds of losses, but especially loss as a consequence of death.  We may be people of faith, and we may believe in an afterlife, but those realities don’t prevent us from suffering deeply, or from experiencing anger and bewilderment, in the face of death, and needing a place to go and be with those feelings.

Just last week-end, I conducted a funeral in Euclid for one of my former parishoners from our now closed BPC.  I spent some time there talking with one of her dearest friends, whom I had met years ago at OSC.  She has experienced three suicides in her family, and another recent loss, and is a mental health activist not to be crossed.  She told me that church is the place in which people have checked up on her, asked her how she is, and formed community around her.

It was in church, in a confirmation class a couple of years ago, that an eighth grader asked me, “Do people who die of suicide go to hell?”  He had pulled together various conversations he’d overheard after the death of a beloved uncle, and brought his confusion to his church.

Of course, church is no different from other communities in that we often struggle to discuss or respond to suicide.  It’s such a devastating, traumatic loss.  It so violates everything else we learn in church.  “Choose life!”  says God in the Bible.    How do we even begin address a topic, or a loss in our own small communities of faith, that collides so profoundly with all that we have absorbed and taught together?

That’s why we have days like this: To learn how to do it.  In some ways, it’s like any other horrible loss – but then sometimes we need to learn to respond to those, too.  In other ways, it’s very different.  I’m going to offer you three things today, because maybe three are enough to hang onto:

First, learn the language.  We try not to say anymore that someone “committed suicide.”  Why not?  Because that makes suicide sound like a crime rather than a consequence of mental illness, which science tells us that 90% of suicides are.  We would never say that someone “committed a heart attack,” or “committed cancer.”  We don’t stigmatize physical illness by calling it a crime.  Same with suicide.

Second, remember Jesus.  What does Jesus do when confronted with ill or heartbroken or grieving people?  He doesn’t turn away.  He doesn’t try to pretend he hasn’t seen them.  Jesus always wades right in, walks toward, reaches out.  Jesus is fearless! Jesus is always healing, with hands, and spit, and mud, and food, and drink, and words.  Jesus models for us what to do.  Walk toward, not away.  Listen. Offer help, and then actually give help.  Listen. Write notes.  Show up.  Listen.   You wonder whether people who die by suicide are excluded from eternal joy?  Look at Jesus.  He never condemns those who are in need of healing.  Listen, and then share the good news of hope: We are always, always, surrounded by loved.

Third, learn a little about suicide.  Learn about mental illness. Learn about help and prevention.

Learn, for instance, that suicide is preventable.  You will still hear people say that there’s nothing that can be done; that when a person makes up their mind to end their life, nothing can stop them.  NOT TRUE.  Research and experience continue to show us that when properly treated, people with serious illnesses such as depression and bipolar disorder, and people who have suicidal thoughts, can emerge from the darkness and move into productive and joyful lives.  Nearly everyone who has attempted suicide and lived to tell the story is grateful for whatever interventions restored them to life.  Don’t let yourself be fooled by platitudes which are downright wrong and even dangerous.

Learn the signs of mental illness and of the possibility of suicide.  Learn how to pay attention, and what to notice.  Learn how to respond.  Learn what to ask and what to do.

Church is a place we can do that.  Tonight, in fact, at the Methodist church across the street, there’s a program by a representative from Life Act, the organization I mentioned last week that does the walks at the Zoo and provides extensive education on suicide prevention in the schools.  Go across the street and learn!    Invite trainers in mental health and in suicide prevention to do programs in the church.  There is Mental Health First Aid Training, just as there is Red Cross training for dealing with injuries and for performing CPR.  There are programs specially focused on suicide prevention training. There’s even one  for congregations called Soul Shop, in which I was trained last spring.

Why do all this in church?  Why not leave it to schools, or community groups, or hospital classes?

Because we live, and we die, and the faith community is where we make some sense of those things – and we need to help each other do that in a context of God’s love, taught and practiced.

And because we in the church practice a faith marked by baptism and resurrection.

Do we speak for ill or for good, James asks?  Who do you say that I am, Jesus asks?

What DO we say?  What do we say when confronted by a catastrophic loss of life?  What do we say, and how do we live, when everything in our world is shaken, when the ground tilts beneath us, when nothing will ever be the same?  What are we saying, what are we believing, what are we enacting, when we respond to death by suicide, and when we take it upon ourselves to prevent future deaths?

This is what we say, and believe, and embody:

You, whoever you are, whether “officially” baptized in the church or not, you are a beloved child of God.  That is the name we say at baptism, and it is the name that is irrevocably yours.  Beloved child of God. You have been a beloved child of God since the very beginning of your life and nothing, neither death nor life, nor anything in all creation, can separate you from the love of God in Christ Jesus. (Romans 8:38)  NOTHING.

And you, whoever you are, beloved child of God, your hope lies in the love and resurrection of Jesus Christ, and in the new creation toward which he is leading us, the new creation in which there is no more death or mourning or crying or pain, in which every tear is wiped away.

We live by faith and hope and love.  We have to do a lot of gritty work in between our birth as beloved children of God and our resurrection as beloved participants in God’s new creation.  We do a lot of living, and it isn’t all la-de-da.  Some of it is hard and life-altering and requires way more courage and perseverance than we ever had in mind to practice.

But we are a beloved people of the resurrection.  We are a people who speak out and live out the lives to which God calls us by faith and in hope and for love.  We are called as God’s representatives of a love so recklessly abundant and complete that it embraces us in all circumstances.  And so listen, and share your stories, and learn, and act – out of faith and hope and love. Amen.

 

 

Getting Real ~ GA (2)

At our Wednesday night bi-monthly Presbytery meeting, at which those representing our churches gather for worship and the business of the Presbytery, those of us headed to General Assembly were commissioned in a lovely prayer service.  I wish that I had a copy of what was said; those who have attended previous GAs and our Presbytery surrounded us in prayer for the work of the Holy Spirit, and for our energy and discernment.  We also received goody bags — inflatable seat cushions, fleece blankies, journals, and chocolate! — and assurance that our Presbytery staff would take good care of us in St. Louis.

commissioning

The pressures of travel and registration logistics, as well as making arrangements for the care of our churches in our absence, and the anxiety about the unknown Emerald City and the myriad tasks toward which we are heading, fell away as we began to grasp what deep work of the Spirit we are called to share.  I still feel as if I have been handed a bite way bigger than my capacity for chewing, but we are held up in community!

The Americans – 2

I have never been a fan fiction writer.  But I am so unsettled by the ending to The Americans that I have been driven to imagine the future, twenty years down the road, in 2007.

martha

 

Elizabeth and Philip: Now in their 60s, they went to work for the KGB and then its successor agency in Russia, the FSB, training intelligence agents in American culture and daily life.  They have been able to keep track of Henry and Paige, but neither child has ever reached out to them, and they have not pushed for contact.  For them, it’s as if their life in America was a dream, and the reality of their lost children is too painful to contemplate.

Paige: After a month or so in the shadows of homeless life, Paige contacted Pastor Tim, and eventually joined him and his family in Buenos Aires.  She never engaged with religion again, but he helped her start over as a college student  Now nearing 40, she is a successful international journalist with a focus on Russian affairs and a string of unsuccessful relationships behind her.  She refuses to contact her parents, even when she visits Moscow.

Henry:  Almost immediately, he became Stan’s foster son.  Stan, who divorced Renee, without ever ascertaining whether or not she was KGB, and left the FBI, ensured that Henry finished college.  Henry became a Ph.D. research psychologist, focusing on childhood trauma, and in his late thirties has been married and divorced twice.  He has a couple of kids, but struggles to sustain his relationship with them.  Like Paige, he refuses to contact his parents.

Oleg: With the thawing of relations between Russia and the U.S., Arkady was able to convince the real Americans to release him, thanks to his participation in the plan to save Gorbachev, and he eventually returned to his parents and wife and son.

Martha: She settled into an uncomfortable but somewhat satisfactory life in Russia with her daughter, now a university student.  The Russians have been unsuccessful in arranging a legitimate return to the U.S. for her, but they have brought her aging and devastated parents to visit her and meet their granddaughter a few times.  Martha has come to understand what happened, and when she unexpectedly sees “Clark” across the street in Moscow one day, she observes him for a few minutes with little interest.  She is most sorry about Agent Gaad’s death, and has corresponded with Stan a few times, but recognizes that her future is limited to a life in Russia.

Now.  Having created fictional futures for fictional characters, I feel a bit better.

The Americans – 1

PaigeYou can read a long stream of articles on the series finale of The Americans.  I won’t attempt to review them here.  Suffice it to say that I have found the suspense of this last season nearly unbearable.  I’m the one who always reads the end first, but with a non-bingeable television show, I had to wait with everyone else.

I posted here and there on FB as the show wound down, trying to be sensitive to spoilers and those who haven’t reached the end yet.  Like others, I’ve been fascinated by the spycraft (not part of my usual fiction reading), horrified by the violence, and intrigued by the family dynamics.

In the end, my personal contribution to the conversation has to do with the long shadow cast by childhood trauma across the remainder of human lives.  There’s been a lot of publicity lately about the study of childhood trauma and how to counteract its effects or, at least, how to incorporate those effects into productive and contended adult lives.  (The fact that I wonder whether there is such a thing as contented adult life may tell you something about my own experience as a child and adolescent.)

Some notes from The Americans:

Many of the lead Russian characters emerged as children (quite literally, in some cases, from under buildings and rubble) out of WWII into a country devastated by physical destruction, starvation, and loss of life.  In the series, they are beautiful, elegantly dressed, intelligent, sophisticated, and articulate people dedicated to the preservation of a country beloved and yet marred — by corruption, repression, and poverty — and willing to do anything to further its triumph.

Paige and Henry: What happens to children who grow up in an affluent American suburb, involved in church and sports, to discover that nothing is as it seems, that their parents are monsters, and that their own lives are collateral casualties of parental commitments to something which they can never understand nor be part of (Elizabeth’s efforts with Paige notwithstanding)?

This story, The Americans, will haunt me for a long time.

Next post: My own predictions!

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.

 

 

 

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