Brian’s Song

When I was fourteen I watched an ABC movie of the week called “Brian’s Song”. I was moved by the music as I was drawn to the interracial bonds Gale Sayers and Brian Piccolo shared, the vast differences in their personas, and the struggles and griefs that were surmounted. The narration opens with Coach Halas saying, “Earnest Hemingway once said, ‘Every true story ends in death.’ Well…. this is a true story.” His closing narration is: “When they think of him, it’s not how he died that they remember, but rather how he lived…. how he did live!!!!”

When I heard the movie was going to be re-broadcast (you couldn’t choose when to watch something then), I grabbed my new Craig “T-stop” cassette tape recorder, held the microphone to the TV mono speaker, and made an audio tape of the music, and some of my favorite speeches that I listened to many times. “To Sir With Love” and “Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner” were the only other movie music and speeches I recorded on audio while they re-played on TV.

I once was too ashamed to share that about myself, but I learned during classes with Suzanne Stabile that a “2” on the Enneagram feels other people’s feelings, while having no sense of their own feelings. She also told me that my embarrassment was because male “2s” have a hard time in our culture — at least it’s not as difficult as what female “8s” face.

Maybe I was being prepared by a loving guiding hand in my life-long vocation — the times I’ve spoken out for and worked for racial justice, visited those recovering in hospitals and rehab centers, led youth groups, and the years I spent as a hospice chaplain and minister to grieving families. I’ve appreciated a variety of personas, orientations, views from points, rather than homogeneity. I’ve worked with media across cassettes, 8-tracks, slide/tape shows, video, CDs, DVDs, digital, powerpoint, and streaming. My spirituality has been transformed alongside changes in technology.

On July 6, the actor who played Brian Piccolo, James Caan, died — every true story ends in death. I will remember knowing him through his many magnificent roles throughout my life for which I am grateful. 

What movies had an impact on your life in your youth? How has technology changes affected your way of living? What do you appreciate about James Caan’s lifetime of work on stage and screen?

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?

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