Stressed backwards is Desserts?

During my first attempt at being a hospice chaplain, I was intrigued by a speaker coming to Kansas City named Darcie Sims. Her book title “Why Are Casseroles Always Tuna: A Loving Look at the Lighter Side of Grief” drew me in. I heard her speak on October 5, 2001—3 weeks after 9/11 when our whole nation was grieving. That was also two weeks after my brother died; I’m glad I wrote a lot of notes because I was too numb to hear it at the time.

One session was for caregivers and hospice workers called “Creative Coping: First Aid for Burnout and Compassion Fatigue.” She talked about stress. Darcie said, “stress isn’t a thing or a person; it’s our response to a thing or a person.” Guess who’s responsible for how we respond? She said, “Expectations are the major source of our stress. Stress is the distance between what you expect and what you experience.” How realistic are you about your expectations? How many of your expectations come from the voice of another who “shoulds all over you”? How much do you have compassion for yourself as you care for others?

An experiment you might try is this. First thing in the morning write down what you’re worried about. Write all your worries, but put each worry on one index card or slip of paper. Put them all face down; then pick one. That’s what you get to worry about today; carry it with you, and give it the worry it deserves; act on it. The rest you can let go today; some people email the rest to the best worrier they know; some read Matthew chapter 6; some put them aside until the next morning.

What do you find helpful in your life in these stress-full times? How do you seek healing from burn-out or compassion fatigue? To whom do you go for help in seeking your answers for “what is mine to do?”

William Sloane Coffin

During my final year of seminary, as 1983 began, I heard a taped sermon that transformed my life—an all-too-rare occurrence.

The sermon by William Sloane Coffin at the Riverside Church in NYC begins with words I would never forget: “As almost all of you know, a week ago last Monday night, driving in a terrible storm, my son Alexander – who to his friends was a real day-brightener, and to his family ‘fair as a star when only one is shining in the sky’ – my twenty-four-year-old Alexander, who enjoyed beating his old man at every game and in every race, beat his father to the grave.”

10 days after his son died in a wreck, the father preached this sermon to his church January 23, 1983. You can search the sermon online; you can download the audio through his archives site.

As a pastor and hospice chaplain for 35 years, Coffin’s words still ring true: “When a person dies, there are many things that can be said, and there is at least one thing that should never be said. The night after Alex died I was sitting in the living room of my sister’s house outside of Boston, when the front door opened and in came a nice-looking, middle-aged woman, carrying about eighteen quiches. When she saw me, she shook her head, then headed for the kitchen, saying sadly over her shoulder, ‘I just don’t understand the will of God.’ Instantly I was up and in hot pursuit, swarming all over her. ‘I’ll say you don’t, lady!’ I said.”

“For some reason, nothing so infuriates me as the incapacity of seemingly intelligent people to get it through their heads that God doesn’t go around this world with his fingers on triggers, his fists around knives, his hands on steering wheels. God is dead set against all unnatural deaths……. My own consolation lies in knowing that it was not the will of God that Alex die; that when the waves closed over the sinking car, God’s heart was the first of all our hearts to break.”

Since 1983, I have imagined being in hot pursuit, swarming all over many funeral consolers. With all the best intentions to protect God or insulate pain, I have overheard each of my top twenty list of deadly things to say to a grieving person. 

When you put your personal grief into words, what do you think, write, or say? Which cultural comments have not been helpful to your grief work and journey? What expressions and actions have brought you transformative comfort? 

No Guarantees

Like many towns in the 1980s, we provided an all-night party for all high school seniors the night of their graduation. Parents and community leaders organized a party of celebration, celibacy, and cheer (sans alcohol). A YMCA was transformed into a casino/nightclub/coffee house/activity center for 14 hours. As the preacher, I was assigned the roulette or craps table.

The sub-text was to guarantee the safety of the graduates on a dangerous night. One year I learned there are no guarantees no matter how hard you try.

Two hours after going home at 7 a.m., one graduate drove the two-lane thirty-mile highway to Columbia to buy something. He fell asleep at the wheel, and was killed in the car crash.

24 hours after their graduation, I hosted 24 youth with our mutual shock, silence, sobs, stories, and unanswerable questions. One life lesson we learned was that you can’t guarantee safety, no matter how many safety steps you take. The lesson was not worth the cost.

The next year, after another annual all-night sober celebration, we told the participants to sleep it off.

How have you learned that you can’t guarantee someone’s safety? Given that there are no guarantees, what steps do you take to seek safety for yourself and others? How might this reflection affect your response to this week’s guns and graduations?

What Must I Do to be Saved?

The day after Tuesday’s most recent “massacre of the innocents” (Matthew 2:16-18), I opened my mailbox to find the above propaganda from Congresswoman Vicki Hartzler (or her opponent trying to smear her? — one never knows). One of the many images idolizing violent weapons manufactured to kill people looked like Patty Hearst robbing a bank in 1974. Timing is everything.

Acts 16 is one lectionary passage for this Sunday (timing again?). Paul and Silas are put in chains and in jail, because they healed a slave-girl fortune-teller. They interfered with the business of those who profited from her. It seems you suffer if you lovingly interfere with business profits — however abusive that business is. Times haven’t changed much.

An earthquake frees Paul & Silas from their cells of inaction and chains of silence. Their jailer figures the empire will kill him for allowing prisoners to escape. The jailer asks them, “What must I do to be saved?” He was NOT asking, how to get a ticket to heaven when I die; he was asking how to be saved from this empire of violence and vengeance, domination and hate all around him.

He asks what he must DO and the two tell him what to do. Believe, follow, live the life of Jesus and you and your household will be saved. Practice the life of love, sharing, community, equality, justice, peace, non-violent, active resistance to evil, and you will be saved from this system — you and your household. Find ways to participate in grace and peace everyday.

That is the question I keep hearing this week. After another arsenal annihilation, what must I do? What actions am I called to take in response? What must I do to be saved from violence, vengeance, weapons, war, autocrats, businesses profiteers who silence any dissent? What are you called to do? How might you grow in love and non-violent resistance to bring any hope of salvation to this household of our nation and world?

Mother’s Day

In early 2020 BC (Before Covid) I began to work with the church deacons and worship committee to plan a Mother’s Day evening service for our community. It was to be a service of healing and wholeness for those for whom Mother’s Day is a complicated day.

For decades I have listened to various voices crying out how painful Mother’s Day is for them.   Some women knew they would never give birth due to infertility or circumstance.  Some grieved miscarriages. Some grieved the death of a child. Some grieved the death of their mother. Some said their relationship with their mother or their child had been complicated.

While these women and men encouraged the church to celebrate Mother’s Day in worship and honor and give thanks for all our mothers do for us, some chose to avoid their pain by not attending themselves. Therefore our church planned to provide a special evening service to gather together for worship with prayer stations, lament, song, Scripture readings, and meditation in order to receive the comfort and healing our faith provides. We wanted people to know they are not alone as they experience empathy during a difficult time. “Bear each other burdens and so fulfill the law of Christ” – Galatians 6:2.

For all of us in 2020, Mother’s Day was complicated. We couldn’t physically gather together in community to worship in the morning or evening. Out of love we didn’t gather for a meal.  We worried about every mothers’ health, as we electronically honored and thanked mothers whose roles were changing in so many ways.

If I understand the text, Hosea 11:1–11 speaks of the motherhood of God. I invite you to read Hosea 11:1-11 and ask yourself what you need to hear during this week after Mother’s Day 2022. 

Who is one person with whom you could connect who had a complicated mother’s day?

Table-Threat to Empire

We started Lent imagining with Diana Butler Bass that the Table is the central image of Holy Week. A community was celebrating deliverance from bondage to Pharaoh’s Empire at the joyful Jewish Passover meal. Their rabbi, Jesus, says, “Love one another as I have loved you” as he washes feet. The abundant life is expressed in a communal table where everyone, everyone, everyone is welcome to eat bread and drink wine in peace and mutuality with each other and God.

This Friday we see that table shattered. John Dominic Crossan taught me to ask, “Why would Rome waste the cost of a garrison, cross, and nails if Jesus were not a threat to the Empire?” If Jesus was just talking about an afterlife, they wouldn’t care. An alternative Kingdom of God on earth was a threat to the Kingdom of Caesar on earth; there’s only room for one king at the top of the pyramid. Public execution of the leader would settle it, and deter anyone else from trying.

Every Empire before and after relies on domination by one group over others, making “the other/outsider/alien” an enemy to be controlled, systems that result in the few having the most while the vast majority possess little, using ever-increasing violence to maintain power and domination. 

Proclaiming a table for all, “each under their own vine and fig tree where no one shall make them afraid”, disarms the violence and fear that maintains the empire’s myth of scarcity. I wonder why people who follow the way of Jesus wear crosses instead of tables? Jesus never took the disciples to the cross after he died. He met them back in their last supper upper room, the Emmaus road table, the seashore breakfast table. 

What powers of domination and violence do you see crushing the table today? What causes you to despair and grieve on this Friday? Where do find your source for hope and strength?

So It Goes

books and lamp on bedside table in hotel room

I sat beside the bedside of a dying friend this week. We were not alone; he was never alone.

Years ago, I sat beside his father’s deathbed. Years ago, this man’s welcoming smile and comforting demeanor lifted me from my lowest. What else could I say but, “Thank you, I love you, Goodbye” in return?

Each bedside during 8 years of hospice chaplaincy was significant and meaning-full to me, but friendship transformed this covenant into a sacrament. I prayed for his loving wife, his children, his family and many friends as I trusted in God’s love and compassion.

When a song lyric entered my mind, I didn’t dare speak it. Billy Joel’s song “And So It Goes” contains the line “and so it goes, and so it goes, and so will you, soon, I suppose.”  All too soon.

All too soon, I heard more horrific news of slaughter in Ukraine. I thought of Kurt Vonnegut’s novel “Slaughterhouse-Five”…. “there is nothing intelligent to say about a massacre.” Then I recalled that each mention of death precedes the phrase “so it goes”—how Tralfamadorians view life and death. So it goes.

One man’s death and the impact on family, friends, and me touch my heart in profound ways. I can’t emotionally survive feeling the same about each death caused by a vicious war in Ukraine. So much is beyond my control. Maybe I can have genuine compassion for some as I pray for God’s comfort and peace for every other broken heart.

How have you experienced being with a dying loved one? What do you find helpful in working through your grief? How are you dealing with the international suffering you observe?

Chicken Soup – Too Funny Reflections & Questions

This episode is also available as a blog post: https://law-and-gospel.com/2022/04/19/chicken-soup-too-funny/
  1. Chicken Soup – Too Funny
  2. Table-Threat to Empire
  3. Chicken Chow Mein
  4. Kitchen Steward
  5. Second Mile

There’s a Light Beyond These Woods

acoustic guitar on brown brick wall

Thirty-five years ago my brother and I fell in love with the same woman.  She was between our ages, closer to mine, but he had seen her first.  My wife didn’t mind because I loved her “From a Distance” – as I first heard Nanci Griffith introduce Julie Gold’s song to the world.  

The songs Nanci wrote and those from other artists that she brought to our experience are the perfection of graceful simplicity.  As my wife Nancy & I shuffle through our ITunes library, any of Nanci’s songs are forbidden to be skipped.

Nanci died last Friday.  Twenty years ago, I inherited from my brother 4 VHS tapes of Nanci’s concerts or specials.  Wonder if I can dust off an old player as I grieve those who dance a little closer to me tonight.

……..I was a child in the sixties
Dreams could be held through TV
With Disney, and Cronkite, and Martin Luther
Oh, I believed, I believed, I believed
Now, I am the backseat driver from America
I am not at the wheel of control
I am guilty, I am war, I am the root of all evil
Lord, and I can’t drive on the left side of the road

It’s a hard life 
It’s a hard life 
It’s a very hard life 
It’s a hard life wherever you go 
If we poison our children with hatred 
Then, the hard life is all that they’ll know……

“It’s a Hard Life Wherever You Go” by Nanci Griffith, 1989 

Preaching to the Choir

Our children’s choir practiced and performed a Christmas Cantata with our adult choir at church.   I still can sing a song or two from “Lo! A Star” (1962) although I resisted the impulse to get the one copy on eBay this morning.  During weekly worship I would observe the choir as they sat and sang before us and behind the preachers.  Their expressions often changed but their faces remained steadfast.

In the decades to come pastors moved, the message was reformed, but the same faithful faces remained in the choir.  While some new singers took the place of a few, and while all of them aged over the decades, the constant choir was a reassuring testament to an enduring faith in God’s love, justice, and purpose for the creation in every church I served.  

When Lynn Turnage led 6000 Triennium youth in singing, moving, and miming the Nylon’s song “Face in the Crowd” I would internally sing a face in the “choir”.  

The Moberly choir was “a fellowship group that sings.”  That was a way of practicing hospitality to anyone who wanted to join us, but it had a deeper meaning.  Like other choirs, ours was a small, supportive, and sensitive community who were committed to the church and to each other in weekday rehearsal and Sunday worship.

In various churches I’ve felt the year-long grief of life-long choir members seeking new ways to worship and support each other from a distance after we learned that “singing is like a 5-minute cough.”  (And that was not just a critique of my singing).  As with all grieving, we “grieve with hope” for something better to come that is waiting to be born.

I’ve often heard the phrase, “she was just preaching to the choir” – a preacher who invites people to be faithful followers of God when the only listeners are already faithfully leading worship each Sunday.  It seems to me that a lot of media proclaims opinions by preaching to their own choir — reinforcing beliefs and biases already held on the full spectrum of points of view.  

If one purpose of the church is to “comfort the afflicted and to afflict the comfortable” how are you supported by or challenged by those you watch and hear?  What refrains are being repeated to you?  Are they helpful or harmful?  How do you sing your songs of Zion in a strange land? (Psalm 137)

Lowered and Lifted

person in the middle of a building

One of my earliest memories of Sunday School was gluing popsicle sticks together to make a walled home, a roof, and a stretcher.  We tied strings to the popsicle stick stretcher to lower it through a hole in the popsicle stick roof over the popsicle stick home.   It probably took a month of Sundays for the lesson to “stick”.  We were learning about the miracle from the gospel of Mark, chapter 2 — Jesus returning home and forgiving and healing a paralyzed person.  

Mark relates to us that because of the hometown crowds gathered in and around the house where Jesus was, four friends of a paralytic tie him to a stretcher, climb to the roof of the house, dig a hole, and lower the man down by ropes so Jesus could see, touch, and heal him. 

When Jesus tells the lowered man that his sins are forgiven, the scribes — basically the religious lawyers of that day — hold court about the legality of a human forgiving sins.  Jesus gives them an object lesson that a human can forgive sins plus even more amazingly say to a paralyzed man, “Stand up, pick up your mat, and walk home.”

In childhood Sunday School, I didn’t get all the religious legalese…. guess I still don’t.  I wondered what the man would do with the mat that he would carry that was no longer needed to carry him.  I fantasized he could hang it on the wall as a memory, use it as a hospitality mat, or donate it to another paralytic.  Mostly, due to the myriad of popsicle sticks and my role of lowering the stretcher we made through the roof we made, I identified with the four faithful friends who brought the one they knew into the loving and healing presence of Jesus.

Nobel laureate Seamus Heaney published a poem “Miracle” in his final collection of poems.  He said he could only have written the poems in “The Human Chain” due to suffering a stroke in 2005.  He too focused on the friends who had known him all along and he brought to light the image of “paid out ropes” — which would come to fruition three years later when friends lowered the ropes of his coffin in faith and hope in the funeral tradition of Heaney’s Ireland.

As you support those who labor and remember those who “from their labors rest”, I  invite you to read Mark 2 and the poem “Miracle” by Seamus Heaney.