Thursday, September 3, 2015

"Still Grieving" --- AND "Moving on"

Three weeks ago - August 12th  - in a message titled Prayers, Please I shared the news of my sister's death, which had happened two days earlier.

Two weeks ago - August 19th - I wrote about the grieving process itself in Grief and the Upside Down Shovel, sharing with you the fact that in the past, I'd done a terrible job of grieving, and vowing to do better this time.

Using the symbol of the upside-down shovel used at Jewish burials, I tried reminding myself (and you) that burying our loved ones - grieving their death - isn't supposed to be an efficient or quick process. It's messy. It's exhausting work. And it takes time.

Last week, I started to write about grief again, but stopped myself, and wrote about something else.

A few days ago, I spoke to a trusted friend and counselor to get his advice: how often is too often, and how much is too much to share?

In response, he said something fascinating:

"John, your reluctance to write about grief is emblematic of the way our culture looks at it, which is basically 'okay, you wrote about it a couple times. Now move on.' Wisdom, however, says something very different. Wisdom - and any good mental health professional - would tell you that ironically, the best and fastest way to 'get over' your grief is to slow down and stay in it."

So - by way of "still grieving AND getting over it" (and trusting that you'll scroll on past this article if you don't find what I'm writing here useful to you, at least not now), and with thanks to my counselor friend, here are five lessons I've learned, or re-learned about grief:

1)      Grief is compounding, not additive. A new death or event that causes us to grieve is NOT simply its own event placed into an otherwise empty space called our heart and mind. Rather, the grief is added to the sum total of all past deaths and events that have caused us to grieve. The longer we live or the more things that have caused us to grieve, the greater any new grief event is. Grief is compounding, not merely additive.

2)      For that reason and more, grief is exhausting. It's humbling (and embarrassing and frustrating and even a bit infuriating) to recognize how physically exhausting grief is. I've managed to only miss one Sunday in all this - the Sunday of Kathy's actual funeral - and have generally kept up on emails, phone calls, and other work responsibilities during the day. But let me tell you: for something like five or six days in a row in late August after getting back from Indiana, I went to bed at 8:30 p.m. and woke up at 8:30 a.m. That's twelve hours of sleep a night verses my normal seven. And yet, after waking up, all I wanted to do was take a nap.

3)      Ironically, the best and fastest way through exhaustion - and grief - is to surrender to it. For a few days I refused to surrender to the tiredness, and tried to push through it. I'd drink a couple pots of coffee -- eight to ten cups, strong -- but they had ZERO effect. (At one point, I would have bet my savings account that some evil burglar was sneaking into our home at night and replacing all our coffee with decaf.) I would exercise. I would take cold showers. But when I realized that despite all those efforts, I was still just mostly staring at the wall, I did the wise thing, and surrendered. I took a full day off to give myself permission to nap when I wanted to nap (and that was about six times). Still, it was only after another light day and then my normal day off, and four or five more 12+ hour nights of sleep did things shift, and I got (am getting) my energy back.

4)      Everyone grieves in their own way, and the only way to do it wrong is not to do it: to minimize it, or to try to hurry it up. Everyone grieves in their own way, yes. But it is also true that there are phases that are normal to experience. The most famous of them are ones I never really liked, or found useful -- the Elizabeth Kubler-Ross "stages of grief" that have become popularized (you know: "denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance.") I don't like them not because they aren't true, but because they're so commonly oversimplified, misunderstood, and mis-applied. Rather, I find this summary (written shortly after 9-11 so excuse the dated references) much more useful and practical and encouraging, because in it she shares phases such as "shock, awareness of loss, conservation/withdrawal, healing, and renewal."

5)      Grief takes time - and our culture absolutely sucks at giving it to us. It says a lot that the news media would refer to Vice President Joe Biden as "still" grieving his son Beau's death. "Still"? Beau died on May 30th.  2015. They lost their son only three months ago. And yet our culture says they are "still" grieving. Used in that context, "still" is a judgement word. I'm as guilty as anyone for having said it in the past, but I will work hard not to say someone is "still" grieving.

They're grieving, period.

AND - by doing so - they are moving on.

Sunday, August 23, 2015

Is God Good? Choose This Day Whom You Shall Serve

A sermon preached August 23, 2015
The Rev. John Ohmer, Rector, 
The Falls Church Episcopal

Joshua 24:1-2a,14-18
Joshua gathered all the tribes of Israel to Shechem, and summoned the elders, the heads, the judges, and the officers of Israel; and they presented themselves before God. And Joshua said to all the people, "Thus says the LORD, the God of Israel:
"Now therefore revere the LORD, and serve him in sincerity and in faithfulness; put away the gods that your ancestors served beyond the River, and in Egypt, and serve the LORD. Now if you are unwilling to serve the LORD, choose this day whom you will serve, whether the gods your ancestors served in the region beyond the River, or the gods of the Amorites in whose land you are living; but as for me and my household, we will serve the LORD."
Then the people answered, "Far be it from us that we should forsake the LORD to serve other gods; for it is the LORD our God who brought us and our ancestors up from the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery, and who did those great signs in our sight. He protected us along all the way that we went, and among all the peoples through whom we passed; and the LORD drove out before us all the peoples, the Amorites who lived in the land. Therefore we also will serve the LORD, for he is our God."

Is God good?

I don’t just mean “is God good” in the sense of “is God virtuous, or right?” like when we say someone is a “good person…”

…but “is God good?” in the sense of “is God kind? benevolent – is God filled with goodness?”

If you don’t know whether or not you believe God is filled with goodness, here’s a little test you can give yourself: 

Think of coming into God's presence. 

What’s the first and primary emotion or reaction you have to that?

Is it fear? Cowering?

(If someone were to come up to you and say, “Hey, God wants to see you,” what’s your reaction? Is it “Uh-oh, I’m in trouble!” ?)

If the veil between heaven and earth were lifted right now would you first and primary posture be apologetic, repentance?

Now of course there’s nothing wrong, per se, with fear or repentance, but as this passage from Joshua demonstrates, in scripture those emotions are not first and primary; they are subsequent and secondary to first and primary feelings of awe and gratitude.

I’m going to ask you to think of coming into God’s presence again, but this time I want to preface it by asking you to use your imagination for a minute and think of several other things.

I want you to imagine the most gorgeous sunset or mountain range you’ve ever seen.

Picture yourself standing there taking it in, one of those times when your breath has been taken away by nature’s beauty.

Now as you’re standing there taking it in imagine someone approaches you, someone you’re acquainted with, and admire, but don’t know well, and this person stands next to you for a while, admiring the scene with alongside you. 

And then this person smiles at you and says

“Some time ago, I won 25 million dollars in the lottery and ever since then I’ve been paying attention to you and your dreams, and when you get back home you’ll discover all your debts have been paid off, I’ve done that for you, and I’ve established college trust funds for your children and grandchildren.

“And also, I’ve deposited 750,000 dollars in your checking account; I want you to have some fun with that, and be a philanthropist with the rest. No strings attached, I’ve long admired you; I think you have a beautiful heart and I want to do this for you.”

Let me ask: What would your reaction be?

Now turn your attention back to the sunset or mountain range, drinking in the beauty, and combine with it that feeling (of gratitude).

THAT is a correct, Biblical image of God.

And if that is not your first and primary image of God then face the fact that you have been worshiping an idol, a false god, a graven image, an angry golden calf of your own imagination, reinforced, perhaps, by decades of bad religion.

In scripture, allegiance -- repentance, obedience, dedication –these things follow awe and gratitude.

Now to the Old Testament  lesson: 

Under the leadership of Joshua, the successor to Moses, the people of Israel have invaded and inhabited the land of Canaan.  Joshua is giving his farewell speech. He gathers the tribes of Israel to Shechem. 

Then Joshua gathered all the tribes of Israel to Shechem, and summoned the elders, the heads, the judges, and the officers of Israel; and they presented themselves before God. 2And Joshua said to all the people, ‘Thus says the Lord, the God of Israel,”

What’s the first thing he says?

(“Now therefore revere the Lord, and serve him?”)

No, that’s not the first thing he says.

Sure, that’s what’s printed in the leaflet, that’s what assigned by the lectionary, but “revere and serve the Lord” is NOT the first and primary thing Joshua said.

What’s omitted from our assigned reading, what’s between verses 2a and 14:

Thus says the Lord, the God of Israel: Long ago your ancestors—Terah and his sons Abraham and Nahor—lived beyond the Euphrates and served other gods. 3Then I took your father Abraham from beyond the River and led him through all the land of Canaan and made his offspring many.

I gave him Isaac; 4and to Isaac I gave Jacob and Esau. I gave Esau the hill country of Seir to possess, [and] Jacob and his children went down to Egypt. 5Then I sent Moses and Aaron, and I plagued Egypt with what I did in its midst; and afterwards I brought you out.

6When I brought your ancestors out of Egypt, you came to the sea; and the Egyptians pursued your ancestors with chariots and horsemen to the Red Sea. 7When they cried out to the Lord, he put darkness between you and the Egyptians, and made the sea come upon them and cover them; and your eyes saw what I did to Egypt. Afterwards you lived in the wilderness for a long time. 8Then I brought you to the land of the Amorites, who lived on the other side of the Jordan; they fought with you, and I handed them over to you, and you took possession of their land, and I destroyed them before you.

9Then King Balak…set out to fight against Israel. …I rescued you out of his hand. 11When you went over the Jordan and came to Jericho, the citizens of Jericho fought against you, and also the Amorites, the Perizzites, the Canaanites, the Hittites, the Girgashites, the Hivites, and the Jebusites; and I handed them over to you.

12 I sent the hornet ahead of you, which drove out before you the two kings of the Amorites; it was not by your sword or by your bow.
13I gave you a land on which you had not labored, and towns that you had not built, and you live in them; you eat the fruit of vineyards and olive groves that you did not plant.

(And THEN…and only then, do we get)

14 ‘Now therefore revere the Lord, and serve him in sincerity and in faithfulness; put away the gods that your ancestors served beyond the River and in Egypt, and serve the Lord.

You see?!?

Obedience, service, faithfulness, repentance, a call to put away the false gods that don’t love us back  – they all follow a long list of things that God has done, out of gift, out of goodness, because God loves us.

And that recollection: the recollection that God is good…filled with kindness and benevolence…fills the people with gratitude, and out of that sense of gratitude everything else follows.

Now…why is this so important?

Let me try to answer that by telling you, again, one of my favorite stories:

An elderly farmer was working in the field outside a small village when a stranger comes up to him.

"Good morning sir.  I am looking for a new village to live in and would like to know what the people are like here?"
"What were the people like in your last village?", asked the elder.
"Awful! They were dishonest and mean.  I was always being treated unfairly."

"I see. You’ll find the people in this village to be like that, too."

The stranger continued on to the next village.  A while later, someone else, another stranger, comes up to the farmer.

"Good morning sir.  I am looking for a new village to live in and would like to know what the people are like in this village?"
"What were the people like in your last village?", the old man said.
"Fabulous! They were the kindest, most generous people you would ever want to meet."
"I see.  You’ll find the people in this village to be like that, too."

We receive what we perceive: we get what we look for.

We are made in the image and likeness of God.  So…I ask you again…

Is God mean?  Or good? 

Is God holding out on you? Or generous beyond comprehension? 

Is God distant and formal? Or close, and intimate?

Choose this day whom you will serve; receive whom you perceive.


Wednesday, August 19, 2015

Grief and the Upside-Down Shovel

Thank you, all, for your cards and notes and calls the last week as Mary and I dropped off our daughter Elizabeth last Friday for her first year in college and then immediately drove to Indiana for my sister Kathy's funeral on Saturday.

Between Wednesday of last week and Sunday night, we drove just under 2,000 miles, crossing nine different state lines. We went through at least as many states of mind, from "pride and joy" to "heartache goodbye at bittersweet parting" to "grief-for-the-dying" to "appreciation for, and celebration of, life." Not to mention all the inherent joys and stresses of a de facto family reunion - I was able to catch up not only with my three older brothers and my sisters-in-law, but with nieces and nephews I haven't seen in years, and was able to visit with - in some cases for the first time -- their spouses/girlfriends/boyfriends and children.

Just as was the case at my dad's funeral in 2001, and my niece's funeral in 2007 and my mom's funeral in 2008, I helped coordinate and even preached at my sister's funeral.

It's an odd and difficult honor to play several different roles at the same time: grieving brother or son, funeral service officiant and preacher, husband, younger brother. Not to mention, last week, Dad-Who-Is-Trying-To-Be-Really-Okay-About-Letting-Go-Of-His-Little-Girl.

As one of you so kindly wrote in a card, "I'm sure you were able to give your sister a great deal of comfort in her final weeks and days. But for you, there have been a lot of stressful events in recent days: moving, Mary's job change, Elizabeth leaving the nest, and of course being the strong, spiritual family member during your sister's illness and death. We hope you are taking time to care for yourself as well."

What a kind and wise thing to notice, and say.

But I'll be honest with you: in the past - in the aftermath of my niece and mom's nearly back-to-back deaths - I might have done a good job at giving comfort to others, but I did a terrible job of taking care of myself. I stuffed my grief. I yielded to the temptation to jump right back into work. I spoke and wrote almost nothing about what I saw at the time as "personal, family stuff."

Well, the emotions of grief are like weeds in your yard: you can busily mow over them, and by doing so, not see any evidence for a while. But if you don't address the roots, they just spread. And multiply.

And eventually take over. The grief I tried to ignore in 2007 and 2008 popped up in noxious forms all over my life and ministry not long after.

To switch analogies, one of the lessons I learned from that time frame was that when Life Events knock you off balance, don't pretend you're still on race pace. Take a minute to dust yourself off; check yourself over for wounds; ice things down. Then, when you resume -- unless you want lasting, even life-long injury -- don't start right back up at full speed. Start slowly, build gradually back up to race speed.

You'll go a lot further that way. You'll cause much less damage to yourself and others.

At Jewish burials - and at Kathy's, and at all the ones I officiate at, if the family agrees - mourners participate in burying, actually burying, their loved ones. The body is lowered into the earth, and then family and friends symbolically participate in burying by putting a shovel-full of earth into the final resting place.

Except the shovel is used upside-down.

The upside-down shovel is a reminder that burying your loved ones - grieving their death - isn't an efficient or quick's messy, it's inefficient. It takes time.

Grieving your loved ones and celebrating their lives is not about efficiency. It's about addressing roots; it's about allowing the tincture of time to do its healing work.

As author Glennon Doyle Melton writes about her own journey: "I used to numb my feelings, and hide. Now I feel my feelings, and share. And that has made all the difference."


Thursday, August 13, 2015

Prayers, please...

Today, something a bit unusual - I ask for your prayers. My sister Kathy was diagnosed with cancer about nine months ago, and things took a turn for the worse about a month ago.

On Saturday, I talked to my sister's hospice nurse, who told us she had "hours or days" instead of "weeks or months" as we'd all been thinking, and thankfully, I was able, due to the generosity of a parishioner who gave me a companion ticket, to quickly fly out to Indianapolis Sunday almost immediately after church. I was able to spend good time with her Sunday evening and Monday afternoon, and even have some conversations with her, and even to pray "last rites" over her/with her.

Kathy died late Monday night/early yesterday morning, peacefully, with her husband Doug and my nephews and my niece by her side.

She (the oldest of my four siblings) was only 65, so there is an element of shock and tragedy in this - especially since this is the same family who lost their oldest daughter/my niece, Susan, to murder in 2007, just weeks before she was to be married. It will be painful to return to my hometown church again this Saturday, a place of joy growing up, but where too many of our recent memories are sad ones.

For my wife Mary and me, this week is an especially poignant one, because today we drive to Boone, North Carolina to drop Elizabeth - our third and last child -- off at Appalachian State on Friday morning to start her freshman year of college. Mary and I will then drive directly up to Indiana for the funeral.

One thing I know for sure: "God's power working in us can do infinitely more than we can ask or imagine."

The way we power through such life events is not on our own power or strength or internal resources, but by leaning heavily on our family, our friends, and our faith.

Regarding our faith: people often say, "I ask your prayers," and in response, people often say, "you're in my prayers." Well, please know that I really do ask, right now, for prayers. I sense prayers. I feel buoyed by prayers. That's always true, but it's especially true in times like this.

And finally, speaking of prayers, I want to express my own prayers of gratitude, for my colleagues in ministry on staff and on The Falls Church vestry for their support, their patience, and their understanding. What an honor and blessing it is to be part of that marvelous faith community.

Saturday, August 1, 2015

Zen and the Art of Traffic

Yesterday, we moved to the city of Falls Church. That means that last week, my three years of driving 40+ miles each way (8,000+ miles a year just in getting back and forth from Leesburg to Falls Church!) have ENDED. I'm grateful to the vestry (church governing board) and my work colleagues who have been flexible and understanding the past three years.

To celebrate the end of commuting -- with apologies to Robert Persig, and to real Zen practitioners, and to people who have even longer and worse commutes which they are still doing -- today I thought I'd offer a lighthearted list of...

My Top Insights Gained from Commuting, or...

Zen and the Art of Traffic:  

Insight #1) Just Like in Politics, if you Want Peace of Mind, Avoid the Far Right and the Far Left.  If you're driving on a multi-lane highway, avoid the far right and the far left lanes -- that's where most of the crazy, unpredictable, and even dangerous stuff happens. In traffic (and politics) I prefer to stick to the middle lane(s). But...

2) There's Nothing Like Traffic to Test the Limits of Patience and a Non-Judgmental Attitude.
Some days -- particularly when it's snowing, or raining, or there's construction, or it's sunny, or it's early in the morning or it's late at night, or it's a long weekend, or you're running late, or maybe you haven't had that second cup of coffee and you're tiny, teeniest bit irritable -- there seem to be a LOT of jerks and idiot drivers out there. Clearly, YOU are not one of them. It's them. Well, let me tell you about the day I got my comeuppance: I was describing a particularly horrendous commute to someone and he said, "yeah, a 'jerk' is someone driving faster than you are, and an 'idiot' is someone driving slower than you are." Ouch. There is no "them" and "us," there is only "us." 

3) To Avoid Road Rage, Use Judo.
Road rage -- a hijack of the brain stem that turns decent gentlemen and ladies into frothing lunatics -- is real. It's triggered on the roads, and in life, when anger (which can be good) erupts in hostility (which is bad). To avoid it, try to use Judo. In Judo, you use an opponent's size and strength against them. So if someone cuts you off, wave them, and the next person, in. If someone is tailgating you, instead of obsessing about what is literally behind you, look further ahead and speed up, and keep speeding up until you yourself are about to tailgate someone or you get to a point where can change lanes let the person pass you. In other words, use rudeness as a prompt to engage in an act of kindness.

4) Stereotypes...
Boston practically prides itself on having the worst traffic -- I heard someone from Boston say that when his dad was teaching him to drive, he said, "Don't use your turn signal! That sends valuable information to the enemy!" -- but I think D.C. is giving them stiff competition. Which brings me to speculate...

5) Why Washington D.C. might be a Tougher Place to Live -- and Drive -- than Los Angeles or New York City: 
Arguably, each of those three cities has a primary "currency." In L.A. the currency is fame ("how famous are you?); in New York the currency is money ("how rich are you?") and in D.C. the currency is power (who do you work for/how powerful are you?"). The thing is, there can be greater and greater amounts of fame and wealth -- more and more people can become famous and wealthy, not necessarily at the expense of people who already have fame or wealth. But power is perceived as more of a zero-sum game: if there's a winner, there's a loser. If that's true -- if there's a fundamental shortage mentality in our city -- I think it affects the overall "psyche" of the community, and spills over into traffic where people protect "their" space (and time) from perceived encroachment.  

6) Pod casts and 106.7 The Fan are a God-send.
You can turn a long commute into lovely "found time" simply by downloading some podcasts, or by listening to sports radio. Long commute = abundant time to listen, be enriched, informed.

7) My Favorite Spiritual/Prayer Podcast... "Pray as You Go" by the Jesuits.  Each day, you get a minute or two of gorgeous music, a short scripture reading, a wonderful, short reflection on that reading, and some more music. It all takes about 8 to 10 minutes. But it is transforming, to both your drive and your day. It's impossible to overstate the Peace of Mind that podcast brought to me.  

Okay, I gotta get back to helping with the move. 

But what about YOU? What'd I leave out? What would you add? Let me know in the comments.