Category Archives: Friends

Sitting

Facebook has opened up opportunity to connect with people’s grief in new ways and with greater scope. As news of my “friends” trickles past me at points throughout my day, there is almost always an update about someone’s loss, someone’s sickness, someone’s tragedy. And I have been drawn near to grief that, in reality, is quite relationally distant from me simply by reading posts or following links and facing the heartbreak of others from the very safe distance of my sofa.

Recently a friend posted a link to one of my favorite scenes from Lars and the Real Girl that shows the love of a community for someone who is grieving. As one of the women explains her presence (and casserole): “That’s what people do when tragedy strikes. They come over and sit.”

I remember stepping off an airplane in Portland, Oregon after a ministry trip to Chicago turned into a week-long stay mourning the tragic death of a young man I had loved dearly. My roommate and friends met me at the airport with words of kindness; they got my luggage and drove me home, and later that night I found myself alone in an empty house. I recall walking down the stairs from my bedroom and crumpling part-way, and there I sat for some time sobbing on a middle stair.

Later that evening there was a knock on my front door, and as I opened it, I was surprised to see Doug standing there alone. We were nothing close to romantically involved at this point, and I don’t remember what he said or if I spoke; what I do remember is the wet of his raincoat surrounding me as I sobbed like a child.

“After a tragedy, those of us on the outside often wonder what to say. We look for the escape hatch of a platitude or a verse. Or we are tempted to think we need to offer a reason, find a purpose, or defend God. We shouldn’t. A simple, “I’m sorry,” is appropriate. God doesn’t need us to be his PR reps, and people in midst of calamity aren’t asking questions, at least not yet. Usually they’re simply trying to keep going, take the next step, and figure out how to live this new, strange life.”

After a while, Doug asked if I had eaten anything and I answered that I had not. He asked me what a comfort food was, and I must have answered tomato soup and grilled cheese sandwiches, because I found myself walking the block to what was then the un-Safeway and going through the motions of buying groceries. We returned to my house, Doug fixed the food, and we sat and ate together.

“The ‘I’m sorry’ won’t feel like enough. There is a tension in suffering, a stress in its very existence, even if not our own. When something horrible happens to someone we know, for a moment, we realize this terrible thing is possible in our world too, and that’s scary. It’s the rare friend who is willing to hunker down with you in the mystery of deep sorrow—knowing full well it could be their own.”

I read this today at Scot McKnight’s blog, and when I think of the many faces of grief I encounter, I am reminded that while online words of encouragement are meaningful and good, it is the act of “sitting with” that moves us most from the death of grief into life.

“To remember someone in this way is to be a part of their healing. To respond to a person’s cry of lament, ‘Remember me!’, is to live in solidarity with that person in their struggle and pain; to tell someone that we will not forget them offers hope and reassurance in the midst of loneliness and despair. In pastoral ministry, not only do we remember who we are as God’s people, we also ‘re-member’ one another.”

“You eat. We came over to sit.”

Vacation to LA

I was preparing for an announcement I hoped to give during our worship service last week and found the following reflection written close to six years ago. I am now on the other end of this, planning and recruiting Seattle folks to join in a week of service and kinship with Church of the Redeemer. This was a good reminder for me of the many ways God uses outside groups to come alongside and bless an existing community.

On April 14, 2005 I wrote the following post, titled “My Burden Is Light”:

I love my baby. I love holding her, playing with her, talking to her, bathing her. I am one of those moms who simply cannot get enough of her little one.

With that said, when someone asks to hold her and I pass her into the arms of another, there is that moment where I straighten my back and shoulders and stretch my torso a bit. There is that feeling of release, relief, and the easing of a weight or burden, even if for only a few minutes. There is that sudden freedom to go to the bathroom by myself, or sit down and eat a plate of food unencumbered, or sit at the computer and read an email without her little hands grabbing at the mouse and shoving bills and papers onto the floor.

This week our church is hosting a group of kids and adults from my home church in Seattle, Washington. They are here this week to serve our church and our community through morning service projects at our tutoring center and at homes of church members, and through afternoon sports and dance camps for neighborhood children. It is an amazing group of people who chose to spend their spring break, many of them as families, not in Cancun or at Disneyland, but in the gritty streets of South Central.

I have been close to tears many times this week:

-leaving the home of one of our church members who is widowed, wheelchair bound, and the primary caregiver for her elderly mother with Alzheimer’s disease where four members of the mission team were scrubbing walls, priming rooms for painting, scouring behind toilets, picking dropped pills up off the floor, and helping to organize the contents of a kitchen so that things could be accessed from a wheelchair;

-standing in the middle of the street talking to a neighborhood woman and her son who had nothing to do with any of our camps or events but who had driven by our gathering time of singing with the kids in the park and had stopped their minivan to find out who we were and why we were doing what we were doing;

-sitting in the auditorium of our local grade school watching a beautiful high school senior who is an accomplished dancer in Seattle teach dance to more than forty little girls—and remembering holding that young woman when she was the same age that my own little girl is now;

-walking into the back classroom of the tutoring center I have directed for the past three years and having someone flip the light switch to reveal a brand new ceiling filled with new recessed light fixtures that fill the room with bright, warm light–no longer will young children and their tutors squint to learn new words on book pages that are barely illumined by a lone fluorescent light.

I love my life here in South Central. I love my church and the people I call neighbor and friend. I love the opportunities I have daily to wrestle with Jesus’ call to love mercy and to walk justly. There is nothing else that I would rather be doing.

But it is not always easy. And it can sometimes feel lonely. And so this week I am feeling that deep sense of a weight lifted, of responsibility shared; of partnership, companionship, and relief. I have stood on the sidelines of camp programs, free to chat with the watching moms. I have stood in the back of the group of kids singing, free to engage stopped minivans and curious neighbors in conversation. I have stood in the middle of a newly painted tutoring center, and watched others bend and sweat and cover themselves with paint so that children I love can be welcomed by cleanliness and beauty.

This week, twenty-nine people have come into our life here and humbly asked: “Can we hold your baby?”

Crucible

A few weeks back I posted a quotation from Joanne Heim, a woman I have never met in person, but whose blog I have enjoyed reading this past year. She and her husband attended Whitworth while Doug was there, and I found her blog because of a profile in Whitworth’s alumni magazine that featured her writing. Last week, Joanne suffered a major stroke and I join the thousands who are lifting her and her family up in prayer. Her husband, Toben, has been writing updates and reflections on her blog, and he said something last night that I found very much worth repeating:

Audrey came to visit her mom and we were walking down the hall at the ICU she said “Dad, this sort of feels normal.” And she’s right, but it’s also so bizarre. How can something so messed up feel normal? I have only one answer that makes sense to me: a peace that comes from God that passes all understanding.  That’s all it can be. This may seem like over-spiritualization to some. I’ve had one conversation in which I articulated these thoughts only to have that person say, “But how are you really?” Like somehow these are just words that as a believer I am supposed to say, but that I don’t really mean.

But Joanne’s stroke is the crucible in which what I have articulated all my life as a believer is tested. Do I believe in a peace that passes all understanding? Do I believe that God’s provision is enough for today? Do I believe that God’s glory can shine through in the darkest of times? Do I trust? Do I have faith? Is God really even there?

October 22nd

Ten years ago they took you
Past the place where any of us could reach you,
We could not pull you back to where you belonged
With us

I never saw the blood-covered seats
Or met the girl they murdered beside you
But I saw your shoes
And paid for the flowers
And sat for hours in that funeral hall

I kissed your tight cheek
As cold as your smile was warm
before they took it
Thieves and killers wearing courage
like a bad Halloween costume

My kids know your name
They know stories about you
You smile down on them from our refrigerator
My Elijah William, he’s three
His smile and charm remind me of yours

Ten years later
My heart’s hands still hold you
Tightly, fiercely like a mother
Grieving, like a mother
Who should never have to bury her child

Jamar, you knew the Jesus I preached about
And I know that same Jesus loved you
My son, Aaron, caught me crying today
And said with confidence:
“But Mommy, he will be alive again on the New Earth”

May it be so.

My time is more valuable than this…

“Life’s too short to clean your own home.”

The words on the brochure accompanied a sweet, domestic shot of a mother and daughter cuddled on the couch in front of a laptop and a father and son playing together. Inside the shiny brochure were package and pricing options for hiring a national company to come and do your dirty work.

It was ironic that I found this while doing a major sort/clean of stacks of papers that had accumulated in and around our kitchen and eating area. We spent our holiday weekend in deep cleaning mode: we are preparing to welcome a new addition to our family and needed to reconfigure our downstairs rooms. If anyone could read this brochure as gospel, good news, it would be us.

Life is too short…that declaration screams a set of assumptions about what is “worth” our time, nowadays.

I was reminded of two things I read recently that I think address some of these assumptions about our time. The first was from a minister discussing how well members of the clergy take care of themselves, and she wrote quite pointedly about how the basic acts of preparing and eating food have become expendable in our daily schedule: “And you know what you’re supposed to do for self-care, but you just don’t have time to do it because your schedule is so stupid that it’s a big special deal to do something like cook a meal…”

The second was from a college professor who has small children who wrote a great reflection on how what is right before us, our real life, can be the last thing we want to embrace, choosing instead whatever set of ideals and distractions seem so much more appealing:

The breakfast dishes (the ones that have to be done by hand) gave me opportunity to practice awareness – when you’re doing the dishes, just do the dishes. But, many of us say, it’s impossible with young children (“it” being growth, progress, enlightenment, meditation, awareness, focus, and so on)! I spent nine minutes washing the dishes and was interrupted at least six times to settle a conflict, wipe a bum, admire what someone did in the potty, find a battery, comfort an owie, and help get a shirt on. I saw anger arise – “Hey kids – get the hell out of my way so I can practice serenity!!”

But it wasn’t the kids that were interrupting – it was my mental formations. On top of all I already have to do, how do I manage to add worries (I’m mismanaging my career), ruminations (I should have picked a different major years ago), plans (need to buy steel cut oats and milk), regrets (I’ve doomed the children by not signing them up for swimming lessons this summer), and judgments (what kind of human being wants applause for going in the potty?).

I was trying to do the ideal dishes – the ones that need to be done in a sunny kitchen in a quiet house.  It’s true, I can’t do those dishes, but I can do the dishes I have – the ones in this messy, loud house where there’s always a child’s needs squeezed between the bowl I’m washing now and the knife I reach for next.

Both of these women speak of a gospel that differs from the good news announced by the national housecleaning company. As I gently unpacked the remaining pieces of my Grandma’s everyday dishes this past weekend and set them out on the dining room table, I thought: is life not sometimes found exactly in the act of sifting flour, spooning ingredients together, setting a pretty table, and scrubbing the dishes after it’s all over? What does it say about us when those acts become obsolete or a luxury or something to be “free of” in our daily lives?

Last night I clicked on a friend’s blog and read a gripping entry where she described how a beautiful, laid-back day with friends turned into her worst-case scenario with her special-needs son involving extensive poop clean-up and later a bed full of vomit. I was struck by a realization: when we believe that life is too short for time-consuming tasks, mundane chores, and messes, this has consequences that reach for beyond our housekeeping. The “life is too short for this task” list can become a “life is too short for this person and the work it requires to love and welcome and care for them” list, and woe to us when that becomes our ideal. Because there will always be someone to hire to spare us from doing it ourselves.

Camp Casey

campsite1

We just got back from a three-day camping trip with a number of families from our church. This is an annual event for our congregation, and while my family did not attend when I was growing up here, I completely understand why this event is such a hit! Most people spent the better part of last week up at the campground at Camp Casey together; we opted for the three-day version. In Doug’s words: “Let’s want to go back next year.”

A number of people hooked us up with all of the gear we needed, and we enjoyed three days of dirt-covered, s’more-slimed bliss together. Favorite memories from the trip include:

Elijah’s fearless swimming, and his mastering how to swim the entire width of the pool unassisted.

Elijah closing the shallow pool due to swallowing too much water during said fearless swimming and throwing up a bunch of watermelon.

Triple-decker s’mores, roasted Twinkies, and Elijah’s indignant response: “It’s not a SNACK, mommy, it’s a S’MORE!”

Mercy and Aaron’s first night sleeping in a tent. “It’s not even as dark as our bedroom!”

Mercy washing my grandparent’s old orange patio dishes in green basins just like I remembered doing as a little girl.

Elijah and I doing a three-legged gunny-sack race.

Mercy running wild with her “pack” of other kids, making forts, going on hikes, and building streams.

Elijah sneaking candy bars and eating them under the picnic table.

Daddy’s “Plercy” story in the tent (there are Plaaron, Pelijah, Plommy and Pladdy and Plingrid stories as well).

Elijah’s speculations about what wildlife we might encounter.

Aero Press coffee every morning!

The Kyllos’s sharing their crepe breakfast with us our first morning there.

Fog, sun, dew, and rain!

Afternoon swimming with fighter-jets overhead, much to Aaron’s (and Daddy’s) delight!

The mama and baby deer that visited often.

Singing by the campfire with people I love, and watching my kids learn the words to songs from my childhood.

Watching older kids take care of younger kids.

Hearing, “It gets better every year,” from knowing moms after Elijah threw a giant temper tantrum during Sunday morning worship.

Doug’s pancakes.

Already looking forward to going back!

Giving thanks

My church had planned to celebrate my recent ordination this past Sunday, however a trip to the ER Saturday evening with a sudden illness meant that I had to spend the day at home in bed. I wrote this letter to be read in my absence.

Dear SCC Family,

Well, this is not at all how I had imagined this day would go. As I sat in the ER last night, and as it became more and more clear that I would not only not be preaching today but I would not even be there with all of you, I was overcome with sadness and had to fight back tears a number of times. It meant a lot to me that I would have a chance to celebrate my ordination with all of you, and I am so sad to miss the festivities planned for today. I want to thank Pastor Dennis and my mom, Vicki, especially for all of their hard work and planning in preparation for today. It means a great deal to me that you went to all the trouble you did to make this a special day for my family and me.

I asked Doug to read this letter on my behalf so that you might at least have this opportunity to receive my personal thank you for all of the ways you have, as individuals and as a body, supported me and my family through this long and involved process of becoming an ordained minister in the Evangelical Covenant denomination.

So, thank you.

Thank you for being my Sunday School teachers.

Thank you for helping to send me to camp to learn how to ride horses and become a disciple of Jesus.

Thank you for teaching me to share my faith through music and drama.

Thank you for teaching me to study the Bible.

Thank you for Confirmation, CHIC, mission trips, and service projects.

Thank you for being my mentors, teachers, and friends.

Thank you for loving my family: the one I was born with and the one I have now been given.

Thank you for inviting me to preach when I was young and didn’t know what I was doing.

Thank you for supporting my mission work in Chicago and Los Angeles.

Thank you for publishing things I had written, in the Pacesettter, and inviting me to come and teach at adult Sunday School and retreats.

Thank you for calling Doug and I to serve as pastors here, and allowing us to lead you.

As we moved through the ordination process, the one thing that we were always reminded of was that taking the vows of Ordination is a recognition of God’s call in our lives as seen and affirmed by a multiplicity of voices in our life and our ministry. We cannot alone decide to “become” ordained. A Seminary education does not entitle us to ordination. Our local church cannot ordain us apart from the broader consensus of the conference and the entire denomination.

That moment in St. Paul where I took my vows and received the laying on of hands from those who have gone before me, represented the agreement of a great many people that God has indeed been at work to call and gift me for this ministry. It was very much a “it seems good to the Holy Spirit and to us” kind of moment and I felt your presence there with me in a profound way.

That is what I want to bear witness to today through this letter: that you, as a community, were faithful partners in my call to ministry. And also, to encourage us all to continue to pay attention to the Holy Spirit at work in our midst as we affirm what we see God doing in people’s lives here at SCC. Let us not tire of teaching Sunday school and sending kids to camp and leading mission trips and mentoring our young people. Let us not grow weary of helping people go to seminary. Let us not stop taking risks by inviting people to preach and teach and lead even when they don’t totally know what they are doing. I am sure we have future ministers in our midst. We just don’t know yet who they are. Let’s make sure we pay attention, together.

With my gratitude and love, and for God’s glory.

Pastor Erika

Jesus for Joshua

This question was posed on a friend’s blog recently:

The other day, a friend of mine, who is also a mother of an autistic child, asked the question, “When should my son get baptized?” I’ve been thinking about this and other related questions a lot these days. Specifically, I am wondering, “What does spiritual growth and connection with God look like for a neuro-atypical person like Joshua?”

I so appreciate her honest pastoral, personal, and maternal response, and I am posting an excerpt here:

He [Joshua] understands tangible explanations like “First we are going to go potty then we will go for a ride in the car.” but there is no way that he is going to understand anything close to “Jesus died for your sins” or “You can trust God to give you peace in your heart”. Not even close.

So a verbal, conceptual link to God is out of the question for this kid. Unfortunately, this wipes out a lot of how I have come to know God and the spiritual life. Both of Joshua’s parents are English majors who have spent a heck of a lot of our lives teaching the Bible and conversing with people about our personal spiritual journeys. If talking and concepts are out, then how am I to understand how God is going to reach this child?

Does Josh have a spiritual journey too? Does he have choices that he will make to chose God? Is there a witness in his world that speaks to Josh of the love, grandeur, wonder, mystery and delightfulness of God? I’m pretty sure that the answer is “yes” but I’m at a loss to imagine how that works.

She concludes with this:

…I think that the question of Joshua and the spiritual journey is one that I, as a mother, will have to “ponder in my heart” for a long time. As the person who has the most up close seat to the drama of Joshua’s life, what will I come to see about how God reaches this amazing and precious person? I think that this is a parable that I will have for my whole life.

Thank you, Susan, for sharing yours and Joshua’s journey with us.

Where it belongs

Mercy and Aaron both decided to stay with me for “big church” this morning. I gave them little activity handouts and pencils, and Mercy had a bottle of water my Mom had given to her. They spent the beginning of worship waving frantically at Deb who was on stage playing bass with the worship team and at Candace who was leading the singing. They were moderately squirmy and needed frequent reminders about when they needed to stay quiet and that staying quiet actually meant not talking. My mom was on the other side of the two of them and she spent a fair amount of time wrangling and shushing and containing their energy as well.

At one point, Mercy knocked over the water bottle that was sitting on her chair with her, and I had not realized that it was open. I turned and watched as at least half of the bottle emptied out on the floor behind me, and I made a quick trip to the kitchen to get some towels to soak it up. At another point, and it was of course during one of the quieter times, Mercy decided to put her paper down on the floor and furiously poke holes in it with her pencil, relishing every “pop”. Again, lots of shushing and reminding were required.

As much as I value having my kids with me in Sunday worship, I breathed a sigh of relief when it was time for them to be invited to Children’s Church.

I thought about the ways it can feel tempting to have Sunday worship be this time where we present the best of ourselves. We dress up. We comb our kids’ hair. We sit close to our spouse. And inside we can be falling apart, but somehow feel the pull to put on shiny, happy faces with one another. In some ways, worshiping with my kids keeps me honest. They broadcast that my life is not tidy and manicured; their wiggles and spills reek of humanness.

As I walked out with my kids this morning mid-service, I saw a dear friend rush out of the sanctuary in tears. He was a mess inside: a mess of grief and emotion, and like me he struggled with how to manage the messiness of that in the midst of our worship.

I have a friend who struggles with a wide range of challenges that range from the financial to the physical, and recently she confided in me through her tears that the para-church Bible study program she has been involved with for years recently asked her to stop coming. “Your needs are just too overwhelming for some of our women,” she was told. I seethed inside imagining the new wounds my friend had received with those words, and I marveled at the ability of this leader to steward this ministry with such a mentality of scarcity: to protect and ration just how much compassion or kindness a bunch of women studying the Bible together could “handle”.

A few months ago I went to a reading and book signing with Heather Armstrong, author of the popular website “dooce”. And she read an old blog post she had written about visiting Seattle years ago, and in this post she tells the story of being in a public bathroom when someone passes gas quite dramatically in a nearby stall and a few women in other stalls start to laugh uncontrollably. And she writes this: “I fart, you fart, we fart, they fart. People in bathrooms fart. If there’s a place on earth where you should be able to fart, where it’s wholly legal to fart, it’s a bathroom, for crying out loud.”

I remember thinking about the church when she read that line aloud. If there is a place on earth where we should be able to share the messiness of our lives, it’s the church, for crying out loud. Yet for how many of us is church the place where we feel the need to put on more pretense or where we most fear being judged?

A few years ago, I lost someone dear to me to a very heinous crime, and I remember going to worship at my home church in Portland the following weekend after helping bury my friend. I am not sure I made it through the Call to Worship before I started to sob. I left the sanctuary and went into the Women’s bathroom to cry and find Kleenex and cry some more. My friend Maria saw me leave and came and found me in the bathroom, weeping. She put her arm around me and told me that I didn’t need to stay and we could go somewhere, wherever I wanted to go. And I remember telling her that I wanted, maybe I said needed, to be there. I needed to be with my family.

We went back into the sanctuary and I stayed through the service, crying throughout. Those around me offered comfort, and honestly I was oblivious to whether or not I was a spectacle. One of the people who sat with me that morning was a girl from our youth group, and I remember thinking later that it was good that she saw that it was okay to be a mess at church, and that being a mess didn’t mean you had to leave until you could get your act together. The mess was welcome. The mess belongs.

Dispensers of grace

I remember moving toward the counter in a daze. Surrounded by the noise and elbows and roller bags of the Southwest ticket counter at Midway, I felt out of body, suspended above the chaos. I think it was a Sunday.

A warm smile greeted me as I slid my paper confirmation printout toward the woman at the counter. Her smile turned a bit as she looked over my reservation: “Your flight was on Wednesday,” she said, looking confused but not unkind.

“I know,” I said as the tears started falling. I don’t remember what I said or how I explained my circumstances, but I remember offering no excuse for the fact that I never called to change the reservation. I stood there in front of her, uncertain and uncaring, even, of whether or how I could find a plane to take me home.

She started piling Kleenex on the counter in front of me. Suddenly she was a woman filled with compassion, no longer a chaos-managing airline employee. I don’t think I even got through much of my story, but she did not need much after “shot and killed” and “funeral” for her heart to swell with kindness and care.

Kleenex, a new flight reservation and a pile of candy were all she could offer and she offered them freely. As I gathered these lifelines, she touched my hand and told me that she was sorry.

She was my angel that afternoon. I never knew her name and I don’t know her story but she touched me in my grief and acted with mercy. Reading this article this morning reminded me of her. Thanks, Tim.