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Thursday, July 31, 2014

What Not to Say at a Funeral, and Why I Still Believe

You're so vulnerable when someone dies. Looking for a glimmer of hope in the midst of abject fear and hostility. And then somebody takes the Cross and shoves it down your throat upside down.

I feel like this often at funerals. Turns out I'm not the only one. Here's what others remembered:

" ... Heard a Catholic priest go on about purgatory after the suicide of one of my good friends"

"... the pastor son damned his father to hell in the sermon"

At the funeral of a 14-month-old twin: "God decided to reach down and pluck the most beautiful rose from his garden to take to himself."

"... he recruited a random middle-school boy from the audience to come forward and lie down on a table, covered in a sheet. He proceeded to take the kid's shoes and socks off, anointing his feet with oil while telling (a story from the Bible). The preacher then invites the immediate family of the deceased to stand around the sheet-covered teen while he lifts the boy up saying: 'Jesus made the young man live again. This is what Jesus will do to your loved one."

"____ committed a lot of sins in his lifetime. We cannot be assured that ____'s soul is in heaven. If you are concerned about ____, you have the opportunity to help his eternal soul. In the juniper year (2000) you have the opportunity to make pilgrimage and to purchase indulgence for the redemption of ____'s soul.

At the funeral of a 12-year-old: "God and Jesus needed help to get more people into the church, so they took ____."

You're vulnerable when you go to a funeral, right? And then that happens. And whatever message of Jesus, of resurrection, of hope, of heaven - might have gotten through -- it screeches to a halt. And you block out your ears from all the noise and listen only to the deafening silence in your head, thinking maybe therapy or alcohol might help.

I posted about awkward funeral moments on Facebook and I got 85 comments and in the midst of it someone, a Pastor at a church, said: "Why do we do this to ourselves?"

Why do we bother? Why funerals at all? Why not just a cremation and a nice box and a dinner at a restaurant with an open bar?

Why bring Jesus or God into it at all if all they do is steal tenors and babies and torture anyone who didn't pray the right sinner's prayer when a gunshot tore into their body at a bus stop?

That Jesus is not the Jesus of the Cross.

Jesus doesn't pluck little babies like roses and he doesn't take away loving husbands so that God has a fishing partner in heaven. 

During the funeral of your father or your mother or your sister or your child: God is not fishing with Dad or having tea with Mom or watching Friends with your sister or skipping rope with your child.

God is crying with you, weeping with you.

And through the deceptively weak power of tears and sadness, God is transforming death into life. So that the ugliness of death is transformed into the beauty of everlasting life, just as the ugliness of the Cross of Christ was transformed into the beauty of the resurrection.

There is a biblical precedent for what to say at a funeral. 

As the Roman centurion and those with him looked on to Jesus dead on the cross, they were frightened and said: "Truly this man was the Son of God."

Even in his death, they saw life. They saw God bringing new life out of death.

That's what Jesus enables us to do. That's why we have funerals. So that in the midst of death, we might see life. 

That's why I still believe. Because underneath the shouting for a Jesus who takes children and makes us accept him or burn forever, there is the still small voice of a God who brings light out of darkness, hope out of fear, and life out of death.

You don't always hear God in the words of a funeral eulogy. But sometimes God speaks anyway.

This week I went to a funeral and the pastor said that Jesus was his ticket to ride.

And I thought: what does that even mean? I never thought of Jesus as a ticket. It sounded trite, like something I could buy.

Later that week, I still wondered. A ticket to ride? Jesus? I chalked it up as something else not to say at a funeral.

Then I ran into the man who had died's daughter. She started telling me about how her dad was himself right up to the last hours of his 92 years. How their special relationship had lasted her whole life. How the man who loved to kiss on the cheek everyone he met in church was kissing the hands of his nurses on the last day of his life; making a silly face for the camera.

In those last hours, her dad had whispered something to her:

"I need my ticket."

He was reaching up, for something, perhaps remembering his need for a ticket when he rode the trains in Europe while he was in the Navy.

His daughter realized that her dad knew his death was coming. His faith in Jesus was central to him in that moment. He knew he was going. He went with his faith. 

When she heard the pastor say at the funeral: "Jesus was his ticket to ride," it all made sense. This was about her dad, about his unshakeable faith, about his belief that even though death was coming, Jesus was truly the Son of God and Jesus would bring him to eternal life. Jesus was his ticket, and it wasn't trite at all.

His daughter was moved by the service.

"I wouldn't want anything different. I'd want that exact service," she said.

I was humbled. God spoke. Words I heard as yet another thing not to say at a funeral were instead profound. God spoke anyway. Life happened anyway in the midst of death.

I guess the lesson here is what not to say at a funeral is anything that claims to explain why death happened, or how we can bring life out of death: by praying a prayer, or buying indulgences, or joining the church. 

What to say at a funeral is instead to witness to what already happened: Jesus brought life where there once was only death. And faith gives us a tiny glimpse - even a ticket, if you will - to see Jesus' life-giving power even before we die.

I guess the other lesson is a funeral is the last place you should condemn anybody at all; even the ill-advised pastor who put the kid on a table, draped a sheet over him, anointed his feet, and raised him into the air as part of the eulogy.

Seems like Jesus might be planning on redeeming him, too.

Thursday, July 17, 2014

Doubly Called: Accepting and Living Life as a Mom and a Pastor

It happens almost every day on the way to and from my son Jake's daycare.

We're pulling past the last street in the neighborhood, between the rows of parked cars, and these crazy thoughts run through my head:

"Maybe I should've been a teacher, because then, you know, I'd be home in the summers and he wouldn't have to go to daycare."

"Maybe I shouldn't have gone to seminary."

"Maybe if I just brought him to Bible Study sometimes and wrote my sermons during naps. Yeah, that might work."

And then I drop him off and he clings to me for a second until his teacher comes and he joins a group of smiling children at a pint-sized table.

I drive to church through the neighborhood again, passing moms or nannies - I'm not sure which - pushing strollers and tricycles, with babies strapped into front carriers.

"Maybe I should have taken him for a walk this morning. I could've gotten up sooner. We could've gone to the park."

Sometimes during the day, while I'm working at church or in the community, I'll run into someone from church.

"Where's Jake?" they'll say.

And I'll respond dumbly: "He's in daycare Monday - Thursday."

I wonder: "Should he not be in daycare? Should I be able to pull this all off at once?"

I've always been one who feels guilty easily, so being a mom and a pastor - and a Lutheran - comes naturally to me. It's silly really, but there are ample opportunities to feel guilty in two of the singularly most deified and diminished roles modern society has to offer.

Take motherhood. On one hand our society has almost deified it. No one works as hard as a mom, we're told. No one does as much, cares as much, is marketed to as much.

On the other hand though we diminish it. Some of the praise sounds almost patronizing, especially when it's coupled with fashion terms like "mom jeans" or "mom shoes" or "mom haircut."

We have "dance moms" and "hockey moms" and "pageant moms." There's the infamous TIME magazine cover article: "Are you mom enough?"

Underneath the deification and popularization of famous "moms," there is the underlying idea that somehow motherhood is not really hard because it all comes naturally to women. The argument is biological, and it so undergirds human society around the world that even I myself subscribe to it. I expect myself to be Jake's "ultimate" parent - the one who rescues him when hurt, comforts him when crying, spends the most time with him during the week, usually picks him up or takes him to daycare. This is because most of us still assume the most "natural" parent is the mom - even in my case, when Ben is a doting, dedicated, and entirely-capable-to-do-it-without-me-Dad (you should see him on Sunday mornings).

Meanwhile I am called, by God and by the church, to be Pastor of St. Philip Lutheran Church in Glenview, IL - a suburb north of Chicago.

Like being a mom, the role of pastor is both deified and diminished.

On one hand, a Pastor should still be a moral teacher and in some sense moral example. Pastors are expected to be emotionally available but not overly emotional. To always have time for whatever anyone needs. To conduct oneself according to the image of God; following the example of Jesus.

There's the old joke that's not really a joke: "I thought you only worked on Sundays!"

We are archaically important but sometimes contemporarily ignored. Like moms, we're put on a pedestal - but what we say isn't always heard: "Oh, that's just something moms say."

"Oh, that's just something pastors say."

Both roles are considered to be difficult but also seemingly "natural," not "work" in the sense we normally think of work.

And each role requires by its nature that it must consume you. Children are children 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. Sometimes as moms we lose ourselves in our children, if only for a moment, and there's nothing wrong with that. They're absorbing, consuming: from inspecting their first diapers to deciphering their first words and holding out your arms gingerly for their first steps.

Pastors enter into a role that is best served when we lose ourselves in order to be filled entirely by the Holy Spirit of Jesus Christ. Women have to be careful with that theological rhetoric, as sometimes we are easily encouraged to lose ourselves altogether, to be filled with something entirely other than the Holy Spirit of Jesus Christ.

But being a Pastor is not done unless it is consuming. I'm not complaining because the Church of Jesus Christ is an incredible calling to be consumed with. This week I was able to work through the Parable of the Tenants in the Gospel of Matthew, and as I read it, it was revealed to me that this Parable is not just an ancient foretelling of the Crucifixion but a modern depiction of what is happening this week as thousands of unaccompanied children languish in a neverland between life in America and destruction in a forceful return to Central America. In the parable God anoints those whom we reject. Jesus' story and his subsequent crucifixion warn us today against our sinful impulse to reject those whom God may be sending.

This morning I began rereading Enrique's Journey, Sonia Nazario's Pulitzer Prize-winning account of a young man who took that treacherous journey from Tegucigalpa, Honduras, to the U.S. border.

Compared with the plight of young working mothers in Honduras, who must weigh leaving on their own to go to America to give their children a better life, or sending their children off to ride atop El Tren de la Muerte and find America themselves -- the entire post I've written above could easily get the hashtag: #firstworldproblems

And they are. But I wanted to write this anyway because I believe we can only live where we live. I think other moms: moms who work outside the home and moms who don't - confront and struggle with these very issues. And these questions we ask ourselves are taking away from the jobs we do - from the places God has called us to, for me especially when it comes to ministry.

Women - and mothers - are often our own harshest judges. But Jesus came not to condemn the world, but so that the world might be saved through him.

Here's how Jesus saves me - from my own self-doubt, self-questioning, waste-of-time worry.

See sometimes I like to pretend to myself that I can do it all. I can work full-time AND attend stay-at-home mom events.

I took Jake this morning to Flick Park in Glenview for a mom's group park playtime meet-up. It's an online group I'd been a part of for awhile, but I hadn't been able to attend any of the other events, because usually I was working or doing something for church.

This one was right near church though, and I had a Bible Study tonight, so I figured I could go in to church a little late.

I can be kind of shy at that sort of thing, and most of the other moms already knew each other, but I did manage to at least start conversation with one or two of them. Invariably, though, something is just off. It's different than last year, when I was finishing seminary classes but not working and home with Jake all the time. I'm not available for playdates anymore during the week, and as much as I want to talk and make friends - sometimes it's hard to find common ground and feel like part of the group.

I'm not, to tell the truth. Things have changed. I have been called twice: by Jake and by St. Philip. I am 100 percent committed to both, however God makes that possible, and my commitment to both changes the way I live out two callings: as a mom and as a pastor.

So as the group dwindled down, and Jake and I thoroughly enjoyed our time together, it was time to leave. The rest of the kids had played together in the sand while Jake risked his life trying to play on the "big boy" playground, and I had spent the same time saving his life; so we hadn't made too many connections with other moms and kids.

My attempt at "stay-at-home mom for a morning" hadn't gone as well as I'd hoped. Things were different now. I had been doubly called.

And as much as our society still may lift up the "natural" life of a stay-at-home mom, I know through a deep and abiding faith that both calls God has given me are genuine. That's the beauty of being Lutheran, in a way, because Martin Luther was one of the first to write about vocation, about the priesthood of all believers: that whatever God calls us to is holy indeed, a calling, and we can be called to more vocations than one.

I drove to daycare, passing the stay-at-home moms or nannies pushing their strollers. We walked in, Jake played with the ducks, he wanted me to hold him for a minute as we walked into his classroom and his friends from his age group were sitting down to lunch.

He was sad for a second, but this was his routine. It was comfortable and familiar for him. And I had to admit, he had done well in daycare. He was learning, and making friends his age. It hadn't been bad or detrimental for him at all.

At the end of most days, when I pick him up, before we leave he has to show me his friends and all the toys he's played with that day. He's proud of himself, of what he calls "ssscool"

As I drove away, passing again the strollers and babies, I felt something other than guilt or regret. I was proud, too, if only for a moment. We were making it work, both of us, this new life of daycare and work and two callings, and the God who makes the impossible possible.

Thursday, July 10, 2014

I Bought a Globe at Costco

A few days ago I bought a globe at Costco.

Which, when you think about it, is a ridiculous purchase.

Yeah, I just came here to get some giant containers of yogurt, butter, three gallons of milk, a massive box of oranges -- oh, and what's this here -- I think I'll buy the world. That is all.

I walked into my suburban Midwestern store wearing my suburban Midwestern shoes driving my suburban Midwestern SUV. I had a list on my bourgeois iPhone; I carried my keys on a utilitarian loop. Nothing about me said: "Globetrotter."

I walked into this massive warehouse, surrounded by consumers consuming as much as we could for as little money as possible; I showed off my membership card in the ultimate club of consumption; I pushed my cart through an avalanche of abundance and artificial air-conditioned air, and before I veered to grab an 18-pack of frozen, aesthetically wrapped chicken breasts; I noted a display to my left.


It looked just like the one I had as a kid; except for Greenland was smaller. Apparently in the past white privilege, or something, had extended to mapping, making North America and Europe larger than they actually were, and distorting Greenland's size to be larger than Australia.

Size can be deceiving.

One of the things I love about globes is that when you hold this tiny world in your arms, and spin it around on its axis, you realize how small you really are. The crazy and maybe scary but really awesome thing about this world is that in the course of a few hours, you can be someplace entirely new.

You can jump on a plane and end up somewhere the opposite of Cheers!, where Nobody Knows Your Name. Where everything is different than you knew and somehow people were almost the same.

A globe is all about wonder. About spinning it, as I did when I was a kid, closing your eyes, and then stopping it with your finger to say: "All right, Jakarta, Indonesia."





"Buenos Aires."

Or, the all-too-common: Middle of the Ocean.

It's so unbelievably ironic and emblematic of the world we live in today that I would buy a globe at Costco, a place that showcases both the smallness and largeness of our world, the benefits and negatives of globalization.

I can get a huge bunch of bananas anytime of the year at Costco, but I'll never feel the damp warmth of the plantation where they grow in Costa Rica, where the sea breeze blows across the leaves and rhythmic pulsing Central American beats echo across the mountains and the hills from Costa Rica to South American Colombia.

I can buy Jasmine Rice grown in Vietnam, but never wade in the rice paddies in the haunting backdrop of terraced mountains and swampy rivers, listening to old stories of Viet Cong and governments come and gone.

I can purchase Irish Dubliner cheese, grown in the shadows of mossy bogs, homes with thatched roofs once heated by peat (oh, the peat!), rocky cliffs and the damp, always the damp richness of Ireland matched only by the taste of a Guinness pint.

The world is so much richer, so much more incredible than we often give it credit for.

Yesterday I ventured into the city with Jake and saw the impossibly white clouds drift across a placid blue sky above a backdropped city skyline that seemed made for a day in July and lingering at the park, at the fountain, with a teeming Lake Michigan to our left.

Sometimes it seems our decisions are so weighty, so fraught with meaning. Oh, no! I forgot to turn on the potatoes in the crock pot again. Five loads of laundry. Mortgage payments. Committee meetings.

You collapse into bed at night only to worry about minutia. Did I turn on the dishwasher? Shut the garage door? Send that email? Fill out that form?

Meanwhile the world spins. It spins on its axis as my globe I bought at Costco spins in my living room. Unabated by my dirty bathroom or unwashed floors, that unread manual, this unpaid bill.

It spins, across the Serengeti in Africa, the Wailing Wall in Jerusalem, the Great Wall in China, the tottering penguins in Antarctica.

I took it home with me, along with my 5-pound bag of potatoes, two pints of raspberries, and 50 rolls of toilet paper.

I set it on the ground in the living room next to the power strip and a pile of children's books and miniature race cars.

When I look at my globe I feel it awaken within me a sense of unfathomable wonder. A gasp. A sigh. A quickened pulse.

Oslo, Norway.
Moscow, Russia.
The Black Sea.
The Adriatic.

You read stories and hear tales about the dreamers among us, right? Jack Kerouac describes them this way:

“the only people for me are the mad ones, the ones who are mad to live, mad to talk, mad to be saved, desirous of everything at the same time, the ones who never yawn or say a commonplace thing, but burn, burn, burn like fabulous yellow roman candles exploding like spiders across the stars and in the middle you see the blue centerlight pop and everybody goes "Awww”

Ernest Hemingway talks about passion, about aficion, and how he idolized it in the bullfighter, Pedro Romero:

"Montoya could forgive anything of a bull-fighter who had aficion. He could forgive attacks of nerves, panic, bad unexplainable actions, all sorts of lapses. For one who had aficion he could forgive anything."

I've always felt this way. Aficion, passion, it is my weakness. A last-minute dash to fly to Florida on New Year's Day and drive to Key West two weeks later. A passion to climb to the edge of Iceberg Canyon, not just to the edge even but to the very top frozen waterfall, on a cold December afternoon outside Las Vegas, in the stillness a moment of uncompromised, costly love.

Of course someday you have to grow up and get jobs and pay bills and change diapers for your new greatest aficion of all - and life changes.

I was talking with my friend Alex the other week about those dreamers among us, and how unlike in Hemingway or Kerouac's stories, sometimes in our world the dreamers get lost. They drift from town to town to apartment to apartment from one love to another. The beauty they make: in music, in art - is unparalleled -- and yet they always seem one month away from losing it all.

I said sometimes I think I am a little bit like that and she was surprised because I was always so driven.

Underneath the drive for the American dream, beneath the good grades and the coupon-clipping and bed-making -- I believe there is in each one of us a dreamer. Who wants to spin the globe and end up in the Middle of the Ocean and spin it again and end up in Saudi Arabia and maybe someday go there even if it makes no sense.

In each one of us a desire to lose ourselves in the vast fabric of an impossible world: just far enough from the sun to survive, just close enough to melt ice into lifegiving water.

There are the Dreamers, the Drifters and there are the Religious Folk who go to church on Sundays.

Sometimes people think there is no connection, no line from the nice lady in the church pew to the artist in the coffee shop with the tattooed sleeves.

I think there is more to both of us than meets the eye.

On this spinning globe, from New York to North Dakota; from Honolulu to Hanoi ... a feathery thread of a dream captivates us from time to time and we do silly, stupid things because of it but we are forgiven because in one who has aficion, He could forgive anything.

This week I bought a globe at Costco.

And as I walked away sheepishly, its blue ocean and multicolored countries beckoning in my industrial sized shopping cart, I looked across the aisle and saw a comrade.

He was middle-aged, maybe in his 40s, with blonde hair and a golf polo.

His cart was filled with charcoal, potato chips, milk, and a globe.

We made eye contact. It may have been my imagination but I think we nodded conspiratorially at each other. I was no longer ashamed but now united in my aficion.

The dream is alive.