Friday, December 5, 2014

We Are The Hands of God


I went into the ministry looking for God. It wasn’t until I started working with a Catholic priest doing work with AIDS patients that I really understood God. I was in my first ministry in South Bend, IN. A Catholic town in the shadow of the University of Notre Dame. I had largely written off the Christian concept of God.  For much of my early adult life I believed that Christianity was mistaken in its insistence that we are all fallen and that only by believing in the saving power of Jesus Christ can we be saved. This redemptive theology struck me as self-serving at best; of course they would say that, I thought, it ensures more followers through no fault other than being human. It wasn’t until I worked closely with a Franciscan monk who was tending to the spiritual needs of AIDS patients in the early 1990’s that I realized I might be wrong. Brother Mike (I will call him) spent his days hearing the confessions and laying on hands of healing to those in the final days of their lives. This was in the early days of the epidemic when little was known about the causes and treatment of AIDS/HIV. The cultural condemnation of AIDS patients was based on the mistaken assumption that these gay men were being punished by God for the sins of sexual deviance. The fear was palatable and to minister to these men was considered risky. I was working with Brother Mike as part of my outreach as a new minister.
 
As we went from bed to bed, I would listen as Mike heard their confessions. Most of those confessions were heart wrenching. Some of these men told of sleeping with scores of other men.  Some told of using dirty needles for their drug addiction.  Some were monogamous and clean but their partners were not. Brother Mike offered no judgment. He heard their confession and he held their hands and he forgave them their sins, intentional or otherwise, that is such a part of human nature. As he did this, I watched waves of relief roll over these tortured men. I realized they were sacrificing their pride in confessing. I realized Mike was sacrificing his judgment and maybe his welfare in this ministry. I realized that together each was sacrificing the illusion of control before the inexorable march of fate, life and death. Sacrifice is part of our human religious project. There is power in letting go. There was power for me.
Suddenly, I saw in those men and in Brother Mike the suffering of humanity that we need to let go into the hands of God. I was freed from the illusion that Christianity was all a sham; I saw how a personal savior can actually save a life. I haven’t become a Christian but I understand the power of Christianity. I was willing to give up my antagonism for a new found respect. Not agreement but respect. By giving up my condemnation of Christianity, a condemnation that supported my liberal theology, I was adding to my faith in pluralistic theology that includes the redemptive impulse of Christianity. And it was here that I found my God: the force of love in our lives that becomes manifest in the hand of ours that serves.  I have come to the conclusion that we are then the hands of God.
 
With Grace and Grit, John

Friday, November 28, 2014

All at the Table


Many of us reacted with outrage at the verdict to not indict Darren Wilson for the shooting death of Michael Brown in Ferguson MO last week.  While that verdict may have been a foregone conclusion,  it still spoke to the outrage of racism in our country; not just in the outrage of African Americans who face the danger of being killed every day but of the white outrage of citizens who expect more from their government. The answer to this outrage is to hasten a change, not just in laws and policies but in the way we deal with others.  It’s not so much class warfare as it is a journey of the soul. The stories that were not shown from Ferguson teach us that there are many ways to get to the table together. Blacks and their white allies standing guard over businesses to prevent looting, and the scores of young people, black, white and brown who came in after the riots to clean the streets. You see, we can hasten what I believe is a coming change. Just as the immigration issue will be sorted out by a changing American population, so too will there be justice.

After the Ferguson verdict, there was a spate of people standing on Freeways and stopping traffic.  In Los Angeles, police arrested 131 people, after stopping up traffic for miles on the 101.  In San Diego a group of UCSD students stopped the I-5 for twenty miles before the police negotiated for them to get off (interesting that in LA they were arrested and in SD they were urged to move on).  I was interested in the commentary especially from young people, including people of color, Michael Brown’s age.  While they understood the outrage, and they understood that by only inconveniencing the status quo would change occur, they also believed it was na├»ve and hurtful to target innocent working people who were only going to work. “The people who make the laws” one young person explained “don’t drive on the freeways.”  “Besides” said another, “we are all going to get to the table someday. The rich white oligarchy will crash in the revolution of the coming generations. That is what the hunger games movies are telling us.”

The first shall be last, and the last shall be first, proclaimed Jesus. Jesus, the apocalyptic Jewish peasant who invited everyone to his table at thanksgiving realized the inevitability of balance in the cosmos.  Change occurs because empires must fall. It is in the nature of empires to topple, wrote Howard Thurman, and so it is with us here:  The Table For ALL is coming.  Maybe not in our lifetimes but it is coming.
Blessing to you this advent season,  John

Thursday, November 13, 2014

Called to Tranformation



I hesitated stepping through the door of the old temple in Mysore India.  I was twelve years old at the time, the air was hot and humid, the smell of dung and incense thick enough to almost see. I hesitated as if some unknown force was holding my shoulder; there was something very powerful beyond this door, something perhaps I did not want to see. It was so overwhelming I can feel it still.  I swallowed my fear and stepped in.  It took a few moments to adjust to the darkness of the unlit ruin.  No longer home to Brahmins and bulls but monkeys and mangrove leaves.  The carvings of Shiva, Ganesh, Sita, Rama all stared down at me.  I walk into the next room and knew before I stepped in what I would see there, and then the next, and the next, each time knowing before seeing what was beyond the corner.  I started to race through the rooms, feelings of joy and sadness, knowing each corner before I turned to it.  And then I knew it was time to get out of there.  Breathless, I stepped back into the bright sun.  I ran to find my mother.  She was outside. I tried to explain to her that I had been in this temple before, not as this boy but before.  She smiled and silently thought I needed psychiatric help. 
Perhaps I did.  Crossing that threshold moved me in several ways; the first was to confirm for me later my belief in re-incarnation.  The foreknowledge was so strong that I had to have been there before.  But my personal belief in re-incarnation is a post for another day.  Perhaps even more importantly, that earliest religious experience led me eventually to enter our ministry.  I have been following a calling to the religious life ever since; the worn wooden threshold of my first business, the oak transoms of our first house, the worn marble of my first church, the bright finish of a new door in our new church building in Frederick, MD, the familiar chalice mats of our own sacred ground here at Pacific Unitarian Church.  Crossing any threshold is an act of transformation in courage and hope.  And I am so deeply blessed to have been transformed by so many.  And I invite you into that transformation today.

My entire ministry can be summed up in that one word:  Transformation.  My calling as a minister is to transform congregations into beloved communities of hope and action.  My calling is simple.  It’s the work that takes a bit more time.  Because transformation is something we all think we need but few really want.  It’s scary and hard and dangerous. And its some of the most important work we will ever do.  How are you called to transformation?

With Grace and Grit, John

Sunday, November 9, 2014

The Grace of Place

Last week I testified before the Los Angeles Port Commissioners in support of the independent port truck drivers on behalf of Clergy and Laity United for Economic Justice (C.L.U.E.).  These drivers almost all of whom are immigrants are required to lease their trucks from the trucking firms, pay all the expenses and are paid on miles driven regardless of how long they have to wait in the port to be loaded.  The result is that they often work for less than $80 for a 12 hour day, and if "their truck" suffers a breakdown, the truckers can end up owing the trucking company money.  I testified that this is not only illegal but immoral, amounting to indentured servitude.

As I sat there in that large and well appointed council chamber, I heard trucker after trucker testify to this injustice.  And then, I heard the people of the port community testify on their behalf as well.  Everyone of them would preface their remarks with a lineage: "I am a fifth generation San Pederian, my ancestors came from Italy, Bosnia, Croatia, Greece."  It was as if those who ancestors immigrated to the port, were standing in solidarity with the next generation of immigrants who came to work hard and make a living.

I was unsure of where the Port Commissioners stood on this issue.  Finally, after the public comment period closed, the commissoners spoke.  Three of the five echoed their concern for the drivers; a bold move given that the shipping and trucking companies paid for much of the infrastructure that these commissoners depended on.

I realized that at the end of the day, it is the grace of a place that has been home to some of these families for generations that inspired the commissioners to speak out on behalf of the truckers.  While it remains to be seen if anything will change, I could feel grace abounding in that room.  Hope abides.

With Grace and Grit,  John

Saturday, September 27, 2014

Beyond the Gates of Struggle


Struggles whether for a group of people or for us individually, is part of the human condition as the Buddha observed 3000 years ago.  Struggle born of not having enough, struggle born of worrying about the future, struggle born of disease and heartache.  Struggle is real but it is not the totality of our existence.  Struggle is the gate we pass through in order to make ourselves anew.  I think too often we see our future as the gate itself instead of what lies beyond it.

Anne LaMotte put it this way:  “Hope begins in the dark, the stubborn hope that if you just show up and try to do the right thing, the dawn will come. You wait and watch and work: you don't give up.”

You wait and you watch and you don’t give up.  That’s  what moving beyond the gate of struggle looks like.  Last week the Los Angeles City Council increased the minimum wage for hotel workers to $15.37 an hour, the highest in the country.  You think that just happened?  Nope.  That was the result of thousands of people storming the gates of struggle to get to the other side. 
There is always another side to struggle.  With a little stubborn hope we will get there.
With Grace and Grit,  John

Friday, September 12, 2014

Holding Up Astonishing Bridges


“Just as the winged energy of delight

 carried you over many chasms early on,

 now raise the daringly imagined arch

 holding up the astonishing bridges.”

The soaring imagery of Rilke’s poem might strike some of us as fanciful and unrealistic.  I would ask you to begin with me remembering what it was like to play as a child.  Imagination was and always will be our very best friend.  It was mine.  My younger brother didn’t arrive into our house until I was seven and so for the first years of my life, and many more beyond that, I kept company with an imaginary friend.  I called him Rocco.  I don’t know why I called him Rocco, except perhaps I knew such a friend in a previous life or I lived in a town inhabited by Italian and Irish immigrants who came to build the Hudson River rail line.  But Rocco was, and occasionally still is, my confidant and the wings of delight.  I speak to him out load still to this day.  And in those early years we imagined ourselves, building cities, saving families and soaring on imaginary wings over the chasms of reality that all too often weigh us down, certainly by the time we become adults.  In many ways my entire ministry has been about re-awakening in others those early winged energy of delights in simply living and being together that take us over the drab chasms of bills, children, parents, jobs and relationships.  The actions we are called to do, the company we enjoy are the wings that help us soar to deeper understanding over the chasms of barren reason and a world in such pain. 
And lest you think that this is just not the reasonable faith of Unitarian Universalism, let me remind you that Emily Dickenson, Buckminster Fuller and Kurt Vonnegut were all Unitarian Universalists. Count among you, poets and dancers and musicians and cooks and caretakers and story tellers along with engineers, and teachers and creators.  All of us have been holding up the most astonishing bridges.  While we might lose sight of how good we are at meaning making by what troubles us, I only ask that you look deeper; each of you is an original blessing of creation.  And we are not alone; indeed we ride in the wake of an emergent spiritual renewal.

With Grace and Grit, John

Friday, September 5, 2014

Love Beyond Belief!


It’s been a long and hot summer.  It’s been hard for many of us personally. as well.  And then there is the world theater, the Gaza strip, Ebola, Ukraine and the gruesome event in Iraq under ISIS.  One young person this week asked me if this is the world as it will be.  I answered I didn’t think so, but for now this is the world as it is.  Much of this heartache has been brought on by religion or politics masquerading as religion. 
It’s a challenging time to be a religious person these days.  Faced with fundamentalism on the right and the lack of relevancy on the left is it any wonder that so many see religion as the enemy of civilization.  A wonder perhaps but sadly so wrong.  The reality is that every day millions of good meaning people with nothing but their religious faith do all they can to make the world a better place.  These acts of justice, and so many more are done in the name of religion.  Our religion.

What is broken for me, and the vision I see for our future, is not religion but the beliefs that invade our religions.  Here I am not talking about restrictive teachings about homosexuality and abortion so much as the myopia that keeps people of different beliefs from talking with one another.  I remember keenly when I was trying to enlist the help of one fundamentalist church in building with Habitat for Humanity.  The associate pastor told  me that not only would they not associate with me, a heathen and atheist (neither of which is true, well… at least I am not an atheist, a heathen I might be) he would not allow his people to support an organization which believes there are many paths to God, quoting the Gospel of John 14:6  “I am the way, the truth, and the life: no man cometh unto the Father, but by me.”
As the president of the UUA Peter Morales claims:  “Belief is the enemy of religion… Religion is not about what you or I or Baptists or Catholics or Jews or Muslims or Hindus believe… We are so immersed in a culture that views religion as a matter of what people believe that we think this the way it has always been. It isn’t. As Karen Armstrong wrote …all of this emphasis on what someone believes is actually very modern and very western.” ("Beyond Belief", preached UU Church of Arlington VA, Feb. 2014)

We get so lost in our beliefs.  We get lost in our doctrines or even our cherished principles. This is not what religion is for.  Religion is for living out our faith of what is right and good in the world.  And more importantly, to do it with people who are not like you.  Because here is the brutal fact:  If we don’t start working aside other religious people to change the world, we will die in our little ghettos of belief.  We like being around people who are “like us”.  But young people who may even share our values aren’t coming here to be around people who go to church.  They are out in the world making a difference.  One of the organizations I work with, the Chalice Oak Foundation, a social justice group recently advertised for a new Executive Director, we got over 10 applications, all of them young people under forty, all changing the world and all but two having no religious affiliation at all.  Being around people just like us is killing us and our world.  We have to get beyond belief, and get into relationships with Jews and Muslims and Baptists and Buddhists and yes, even Mormons. On 9/11 many of us good meaning religious people will be out working for the common good; showing the world that we can love beyond belief.  Will you join us?
With Grace and Grit, John

Friday, August 1, 2014

Becoming Courage

Two Sundays ago, while the congregation of the First Unitarian Church of New Orleans was in worship, during that most sacred time of prayer and meditation, visitors who had come in wearing jackets and button up shirts, tore off their shirts revealing that they were part of the anti-abortion fundamentalist group Operation Save America.  Out of the sacred silence, they began yelling about how our church was a place of Satan, a church of murderers.  For you see, just a few weeks ago, the only planned parenthood clinic in New Orleans had used the church for its ground breaking ceremony since their building site was flooded by recent rains.
As the Rev. Deanna Vandiver, the church’s community minister who was leading worship that day told Rachel Maddow, the most amazing thing happened.  In the midst of that violation, the youth, who had just spent the week being trained in leadership, made a circle around the congregation with their backs to the protesters and started singing.  Over their voices, Rev. Deanna, asked the protesters to either join in singing or take their malice outside across the threshold of the church.

The protesters left and took their signs and went over to the religious education building a pushed their signs up against the glass windows of the nursery.  Again, our young adults who were caring for the smallest ones acted with courage, simply picking up the kids and moving them to an interior classroom.
Operation Save America decried the invasion publicly but on its onsite congratulated the protesters for their ‘dynamic witness’.  In the interview Rev. Deanna, said she was so grateful that her people were not willing to live in fear but were willing to stand on the side of love.  They acted from a place of compassion and respect even though that was not what they were feeling.  She went on to say that regardless of anyone’s belief about abortion to invade a church service was deny the fundamental right of our democracy, the right to peacefully practice our religion.

I want us to become courage.  Listen carefully to what Rev. Deanna said, which she spoke so calmly.  "Despite what they were feeling they acted out of compassion and respect."

I believe that in order to live a fuller spiritual life – and let me say that by spiritual life, I mean any practice that leads us to peace and greater understanding – we must act in a way that goes beyond our feelings.  Fear is the great Satan here.  Fear drives people to kill, fear drives them to abandon their families, their principles, their communities, even this one.  Courage rests in moving beyond fear and feelings towards the guiding principles of our free religion; compassion, trust and hope.
Courage is not the absence of fear, courage is reason over fear.  That is what was happening in that church when our youth led the way.  They took seriously what we teach them.  They stood on the side of love.
By calming our fears of what will happen to us, and trusting a little more in the good will of people, we are able to open ourselves up to the Spirit of Life and Love.  


We are not alone.  We are not alone here.  Not alone in our families. Not alone in our faith.  Rev. Deanna had a congregation, a youth group was there.  Courage rests in not being alone.  Either in the face of injustice or in the face of uncertainty and change.  

With Grace and Grit,  John

Friday, April 4, 2014

Fools and Heroes


Across the world millions of people play the lottery every day.  I have often wondered why this is, since the chance of winning the lottery are about the same whether you play or not.  So why do we play?  The easy answer is that we dream of a better life and it’s a cheap ticket, indeed what I often call “cheap hope”. 

 
What I have come to understand is that playing the lottery is wise fool’s errand.  With that playing our imagination soars.  Contrary to what many people think, those who play the lottery don’t just have their own welfare in mind.  How many times have I heard that the first thing someone would do if they won the lottery would be to help their church?  Hundreds of time.  In fact a recent Gallup poll showed that people would continue to work at their jobs, support their family and support community charities.  Is that so foolish?   I have nothing against playing the lottery.  In fact, I play it all the time - my kid’s birthdays - hoping for a little bit of return on the incredible investment each of them represents in my time and the rest of my working career.  I have actually won a few times but after you subtract what I had to play to win, I think I am only in the hole for about $500 over the last ten years.  Still I play the fool.

 
Fools are not stupid.  Historically a fool was someone who defied convention (even made a career at it) in order to show the hidden wisdom beneath conventionality.  In San Francisco one of our most important ministries is the Wise Fools, who dress in costumes and make fun of serious people on the street, pointing out the pomposity of business men and the reality of homelessness.  They come to brighten the day of those for whom the street is their home.  Foolishness is more akin to abandon.  More akin to the power to move beyond fear of embarrassment and embrace the possibilities of change whether it be on the street or in your church.

We have been celebrating the life of Pete Seeger these past few weeks.  There was a holy fool if ever one walked the earth.  He stood up to Joe McCarthy and sang songs against convention.  Pete kept to his principles and his fool’s errand singing for kids before he would bend to convention.

 
Perhaps foolishness is the currency of a hero’s quest.  A way to win the lottery of a better life for those we love and those in need.

 
With Grace and Grit, John

 

Saturday, March 29, 2014

Jesus Saves

Just what is the spirit of life?  And why would I want it to come to me?  

While the hymn was written as a prayer I don’t think the spirit of life is code for God.  I don’t think this hymn is about getting something from a big daddy god in the sky.  Our appeal to the spirit is more subtle than that.  This reminds me of a story my catholic friend told me about the boy who kept praying to God for a bike. “Dear God, if you give me a bike, I will be good for two weeks”.  His mother scolded him that God doesn’t answer prayers like that.  So the next day the boy tried harder, “OK God, here’s the deal, if you give that bike I will be good for the entire month”.  His mother, once again chided him, “you can’t negotiate with God that way”.  A few days later his mother, a very devout catholic noticed that her statue of the Virgin Mary was missing, in its place was a sealed note in her son’s handwriting.  Wondering why he would have taken the statue and left a note, she opened it up.  It read “Dear God, if you ever want to see your mother again, deliver the bike by 9 pm or else”.

The spirit of life is not a bike or a statue or a god, but a power that is in us and among us.

Last Thursday I walked into a hospital room and I was sure death was waiting.  Two nurses stood over Mary holding her hands.  I introduced myself and they told me that she was near the end.  They had been unable to reach her family, although I knew her son Evan had been with her all night.  Marian was barely conscious, one eye staring off into the distance, already leaving her body and seeing the light beckoning beyond.  The nurses left and sat down beside her and held her hand as her breathing slowed.  She was not anxious or in pain, simply slowing down.  I prayed a pray of peace and release, remembering what a Franciscan monk had once to told me about prayer; it’s not praying to God, its praying for God to be present.  And then I stroked her head and told her it was ok to go.  I told her that Don, her husband who had died five years ago, was waiting for her on the other side, all dapper and handsome.  She of course could not answer me.  But I went on, recounting her amazing life; one of the first female social workers to work with abused kids in Los Angeles, one of the founders of Toberman Neighborhood Center, which awarded her a lifetime achievement award two years ago for her 40 years of support and fundraising.  I spoke the words of honor and release that were hers to hear.  I watched her breathing slowing further.  15 seconds, 20 seconds, thirty seconds, and then she stopped.  I waited for that last breath in, like the very first she took as a baby 87 years ago, but only her very last exhale remained.  The nurse came in, she had been following her on the monitor.  “She is gone” she told me.  I said “her body is gone, but her spirit lives on”.  “Did you know her?”  “I was her minister” I said, “she was a real hero, this little lady” and I recounted her work as a social worker, a fundraiser and a mother. 

All of that took 13 minutes from the time I walked into the room until her spirit passed over.  I had, by luck or fate, arrived just before her departure.  Perhaps she needed me to give her permission to leave.  I know Evan, her son, was upset at not being there, but this is very normal, especially with the strong of will.  We wait until our loved ones are gone to leave our bodies.

I tell you this not to sensationalize a tender moment but to talk about the Spirit of Life, that curious phrase named for our prayer before worship.  I believe, as did Carolyn McDade, the author of this little song that the spirit of life, is like the third person of the Trinity, the holy spirit of the divine sent into us at birth, enhanced by grace, and departed at death.  I have held the hands and bodies of over a dozen people who have died.  And I can always feel the spirit of life passing out of a body.  It’s not measurable to the touch but to the soul of those left behind.  The Spirit of Life, comes and goes and we are the richer for it.


With Grace and Grit,  John

Wednesday, February 12, 2014

Spirit of Life, Coming and Going

Just what is the spirit of life?  And why would I want it to come to me?  

While the hymn was written as a prayer I don’t think the spirit of life is code for God.  I don’t think this hymn is about getting something from a big daddy god in the sky.  Our appeal to the spirit is more subtle than that.  This reminds me of a story my catholic friend told me about the boy who kept praying to God for a bike. “Dear God, if you give me a bike, I will be good for two weeks”.  His mother scolded him that God doesn’t answer prayers like that.  So the next day the boy tried harder, “OK God, here’s the deal, if you give that bike I will be good for the entire month”.  His mother, once again chided him, “you can’t negotiate with God that way”.  A few days later his mother, a very devout catholic noticed that her statue of the Virgin Mary was missing, in its place was a sealed note in her son’s handwriting.  Wondering why he would have taken the statue and left a note, she opened it up.  It read “Dear God, if you ever want to see your mother again, deliver the bike by 9 pm or else”.

The spirit of life is not a bike or a statue or a god, but a power that is in us and among us.

Last Thursday I walked into a hospital room and I was sure death was waiting.  Two nurses stood over Mary holding her hands.  I introduced myself and they told me that she was near the end.  They had been unable to reach her family, although I knew her son Evan had been with her all night.  Marian was barely conscious, one eye staring off into the distance, already leaving her body and seeing the light beckoning beyond.  The nurses left and sat down beside her and held her hand as her breathing slowed.  She was not anxious or in pain, simply slowing down.  I prayed a pray of peace and release, remembering what a Franciscan monk had once to told me about prayer; it’s not praying to God, its praying for God to be present.  And then I stroked her head and told her it was ok to go.  I told her that Don, her husband who had died five years ago, was waiting for her on the other side, all dapper and handsome.  She of course could not answer me.  But I went on, recounting her amazing life; one of the first female social workers to work with abused kids in Los Angeles, one of the founders of Toberman Neighborhood Center, which awarded her a lifetime achievement award two years ago for her 40 years of support and fundraising.  I spoke the words of honor and release that were hers to hear.  I watched her breathing slowing further.  15 seconds, 20 seconds, thirty seconds, and then she stopped.  I waited for that last breath in, like the very first she took as a baby 87 years ago, but only her very last exhale remained.  The nurse came in, she had been following her on the monitor.  “She is gone” she told me.  I said “her body is gone, but her spirit lives on”.  “Did you know her?”  “I was her minister” I said, “she was a real hero, this little lady” and I recounted her work as a social worker, a fundraiser and a mother. 

All of that took 13 minutes from the time I walked into the room until her spirit passed over.  I had, by luck or fate, arrived just before her departure.  Perhaps she needed me to give her permission to leave.  I know Evan, her son, was upset at not being there, but this is very normal, especially with the strong of will.  We wait until our loved ones are gone to leave our bodies.

I tell you this not to sensationalize a tender moment but to talk about the Spirit of Life, that curious phrase named for our prayer before worship.  I believe, as did Carolyn McDade, the author of this little song that the spirit of life, is like the third person of the Trinity, the holy spirit of the divine sent into us at birth, enhanced by grace, and departed at death.  I have held the hands and bodies of over a dozen people who have died.  And I can always feel the spirit of life passing out of a body.  It’s not measurable to the touch but to the soul of those left behind.  The Spirit of Life, comes and goes and we are the richer for it.


With Grace and Grit,  John

Sunday, January 5, 2014

Grace Comes In Many Ways

Grace comes unbidden in so many ways.  It can come as a gift or unexpected part we are asked to play.  Grace can also come to us through pain and struggle. Some years ago I was called to conduct a funeral for a teenager who had killed himself.  I don’t need to tell some of you here that this is an unimaginable pain.  

Where could we go after the death of a child?  Where do any of us go, where do you go my dear people, when someone you love is gone?  When life deals you a blow beyond words?  

More than two hundred people filled the church.  Friends of the family but more importantly friends of the boy; boys and girls themselves who were suffering the pangs of adolescence. I had told the family that the only way I knew to deal with this was to be open about what had happened, to be honest about the agony of his life and then allow for healing to occur.  His mother agreed but his father was not willing.  He was angry, hurt and afraid.  I threatened not to come.

As the mourners filed in I watched for the father.  I knew that he and his son had deep struggles.  I knew that the father blamed himself in part for his son’s suicide.  We waited.  The congregation was restless.  Finally, the mother said we would have to start without him.  The service lasted over two hours, it’s not so important what I said, although I did speak the truth of his death and the struggle he and his family had gone through.  I did remind everyone that this is an invitation for healing and dialogue.  As the mourners came up one after another, I noticed that the father had slipped into the back of the church.  Other parents, relatives and his friends began talking about what this boy had meant to them, how he was gentle, and kind and helpful and sensitive.  They talked about his smile and his laugh and about all those attributes that made his life such a gift.  Some told funny stories, we all managed to laugh in the midst of this tragedy.  And then his best friend got up.  He stood there for a few minutes, tears streaming down his face.  He spoke of his friend’s love for him and for his family.  He spoke of his struggle with his father, but also about how much he loved and admired his father. 

As the friend sat down, I noticed the father coming forward to speak.  He moved slowly and painfully.  He climbed the steps into the chancel and stood behind the pulpit.  I stood up to be beside him.  The silence was profound.  He spoke almost in a whisper about how sorry he was for pushing his son so far from him.  He apologized to his family and his wife for his part in this tragic struggle.  He said he hadn’t realized the man his son was becoming, and now he could see.  He was blind and now he could see.  And then he started to sob.  I held him there in front of two hundred people as the grief opened its mighty iron gates.  All his own pain from his father’s struggle, and his father before him. Generations of pain, flooded out of this one man.  After he sat down, I spoke about grace.  I said that this boy had not died in vain, we were all being invited to change our world, our relationships, our very way of being here today, right now.  I have used that language of invitation in every memorial service I have ever done since then.  In memory of that boy and his father.

With Grace and Grit, John