Monday, August 27, 2012

Two Funerals and a Dog

Last week I officiated at two separate funerals (one for a dear co-worker) and I lost my beloved dog.  It’s been a week of feeling vulnerable, trying to wrap my mind around how fast life can change, and absorbing the permanence of death.  It’s been a long few days but they have not only been filled with heart-aching grief.  They have also been filled with support, love, and the promises of God.

The hardest part of this week was guiding my six-year-old son through his first experiences with profound grief.  He came with us to the funeral of his great-grandpa a few weeks ago.  It was his first exposure to death, to a body, and to the rituals surrounding grief.  Then the quick loss of our family dog (who was with us for eight years) left him in a tailspin as he tried to grasp what it meant.  We had to put our dog down late in the evening after a swift illness, and I couldn’t sleep at all that night knowing we would have to tell our son in the morning.  My fierce protective tendencies made it tough for me to share news that would cause him pain.  Later that day, when my best friend called to ask me how I was doing, I remember saying, “Grieving for a dog is difficult, but helping a six-year-old grieve is really, really hard.”

It may sound strange, but being present with other grieving adults (and children) gave me the comfort of community last week.  It reminded me I am not alone.  Grief feels like such an intrusive stranger—and throws us into such unfamiliar emotions—that it’s easy to feel isolated as others continue on with their lives.  At the funerals I was able to connect with others experiencing similar emotions and to witness parents struggling to comfort their children.  I saw kids dissolving into tears one minute and playing the next, which reminded me my son’s expressions of grief are universal and natural.

I often get asked if it is appropriate to bring children to a funeral or a visitation.  I always say yes—but don’t push them.  Children need ritual.  It’s important to take away any mystery and help them feel a part of a community.  They benefit immensely from watching us model how to grieve, process and express emotion.  At one of the funerals last week, children played around a casket filled with loving notes, bracelets and crafts they made for their grandma, whose body lay inside.  All the children sat on the floor together in the front during the service at the funeral home.  They cried, laughed and clung to each other as the adults did the same behind them.  When they remember their time of grief, they will remember being included, saying goodbye, and being surrounded by many arms willing to hold them.  

But oh, is it ever hard to walk with children through grief—and maybe some of that’s because they don’t let us look away from our own grief.  They teach us.  They need us to cry with them and to talk endlessly (at least in my son’s case) about death—yet I’m also able to give him the hope of God’s eternal promises.  My son’s reminders to grieve are such a gift.  Every morning my son greets our dog by name, and he says goodbye to her every night before he goes to sleep.  Even though I feel pain in my chest knowing he is missing her, it reminds me that I miss her too, and that it’s ok to make her a part of my life in a new way.  And there is always Good News.     

Thursday, August 9, 2012

Beginning and End

My Tuesday morning last week was one of the countless reasons I love being a pastor serving a small(ish) congregation:

At 10am, I officiated at the burial of a 97-year-old woman.  There were six people in attendance.  Four of them were part of a family who were her next door neighbors and took care of her for 23 years—10 of them in a nursing home.  It was one of those bright summer mornings when colors seem clearer than usual.  We gathered quietly in the cemetery, feeling as if we had the whole place to ourselves.  We placed our hands on the casket and prayed for her peace and rest.  A mischievous (and/or) angry squirrel dropped acorns on us from the oak tree branch bowing low over our heads.  To close the service, a smiling teenage girl played us out with “Goodnight, Irene” on the ukulele and we all sang along (we skipped the really sad lyrics).

An hour later, I was in a hospital room holding a day-old baby girl with a head full of black hair (and at least one cowlick).  I held her a little longer than I should have, then gave her to her mother before saying a blessing.  Her parents bowed over her and we prayed, alone in the hospital room, with the sunlight pouring in the window.  I placed my hand on her tiny head--a hand that only minutes before had been on a casket.

Alpha and Omega, Beginning and End.

Some days I have the best job EVER.   

Monday, August 6, 2012

Happy Church

I’ve been seeing the idea of gratitude everywhere for a few years (if not more).  We’re told naming three things we are grateful for each day will improve our blood pressure and mental well-being.  We’re told that positive people are more successful.  Looking at life from the perspective of gratefulness seems to be a big trend—and a good trend.  I believe living with gratitude in our hearts really does make a difference in how we live.

Why aren’t we doing this in the church?

I feel assailed by reports that the mainstream Protestant church is flailing.  Numbers are down.  Giving is down.  We’re losing the new generation.  New pastors are having trouble finding calls.  Internal struggles leave us discouraged.

I know there is truth to these reports.  I know we can’t ignore them.  I know we need to address what is happening with open eyes and be proactive about moving the church forward.  I get it.

But I can’t live this way every day.  I am so tired of feeling anxious and threatened and feeling like I’m hanging on by my fingertips.  I’m exhausted by watching the church down the road pull in members—without even trying, it seems—while the congregation I serve has to choose between what it wants and what it can afford.  I’m drained by hearing reports of job cuts and empty sanctuaries and dying Sunday Schools.

And I’m not just tired—I’m moving into an even more dangerous place—I’m getting bored.

We are encouraged to discover our strengths, to find gratitude each day, to live from a place of joy.

I want to do this with church too.

We waste so much energy thinking about what we are not, we forget what we are.  What if we started keeping church gratitude journals?  What if we celebrated all we do, instead of constantly looking at what we don’t do?  What if we noticed the ministry that is already happening instead of thinking, “We’ll be a successful church when…”?

We don’t get anywhere by hating ourselves.  Hate brings out competitiveness, pettiness, and belly button gazing—and it’s boring.

Joy and gratitude bring out generosity, acceptance, truth, hope, confidence—and they are energizing.

I feel when we as a church are so hard on ourselves, constantly comparing ourselves to other congregations and denominations, focusing on where we seemingly fail—we are teaching people to judge themselves, their families, their lives and even their bodies in the same way.

Let’s live as a gratitude-soaked church.  Let’s rejoice when one hurting young child feels accepted and loved by an adult in Sunday School.  Let’s celebrate when a few people quietly and faithfully serve at a local homeless shelter.  Let’s laugh at ourselves and have fun together and reach out with confidence in who (and Whose) we are.  Let’s get rid of all our insecurities so we can open our arms to those who bring in new ideas and perspectives.  Let's make mistakes and try scary things and enjoy being the church.

Let’s stop thinking—and worryingabout ourselves.

And most of all, let us be thankful to God for the countless blessings we receive—and for the blessed challenge of being God’s disciples.