Tag Archives | grief

“Retirement” and this thing called ministry

I’ve been using the word “retirement” for the last few years mainly as a joke, as though it were some distant possibility, certainly not something that I needed to worry about any time soon.

And then, last week, what had seemed so distant and unlikely suddenly became a reality. I am planning to retire early next year, six months from now. Continue Reading →

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Pierre Spoerri, 1926 – 2017

Pierre Spoerri was born in 1926. He died in late February after climbing into the backseat of a taxi in front of the Convita Bethanien, where he lived with his wife Fulvia. His memorial service was held at the French Reformed Church in Zürich on March 9, 2017. Continue Reading →

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A dry and desiccated spirit

Something has happened to me over the last several months. I seem to have lost my voice.

The campaign, the election, the painful period between election and inauguration, and now the first stumbling weeks of a new administration – in it all, I seem to have lost my ability to speak. I still preach most Sundays at my church in Zurich, so it’s not that voice that seems to have gone away. It’s something else. Continue Reading →

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Your words need more melody

index (28)

It’s funny, isn’t it, how certain comments will stay with us and gnaw at us and maybe grow more irritating the longer we think about them?

Or maybe it’s just me. I work in the world of words, after all, and I like to string them together in what I hope are interesting ways. And so when I hear a curious comment, or a word that hits my ear at an odd angle, I think about what it might mean. Continue Reading →

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History walk

lancaster theological seminary

(Stephens G. Lytch, who wrote the following post, is a seminary classmate and friend. He and I first met at Princeton Theological Seminary in the fall of 1975 – on the third floor of Alexander Hall, for those of you who know the campus and still like to argue about the best residence halls. His path and mine have crossed often over the years, and the friendship has deepened. Since he mentions my wife and one of her previous careers in this guest post, I should mention that his wife is a Presbyterian pastor and is now president of Lancaster Theological Seminary in Lancaster, Pennsylvania. I could not have imagined nearly 40 years ago that Steve and I would one day be commenting on the many losses in life we’ve experienced and our mutual hope in the resurrection. Thanks for the thoughtful – and hopeful – response, Steve.)  

On Saturday my wife and I took a History Walk sponsored by the local historical society. The theme was repurposing. We went to 20 buildings that had been repurposed and renovated for new uses. Many of the sites were old tobacco warehouses. One had been repurposed into an architect’s office. One is now the Lancaster Arts Hotel. Another is the costume repository for the Fulton Theater. One is condos and a candy factory. A brewery and tavern have been converted into a French restaurant. A carriage house has become an office that houses a travel agency.

The day before taking this tour Doug posted a blog lamenting the losses that come with turning 60. His greatest grief is losing the immersion in the life of his girls who are now accomplished young women. They have grown into everything he wanted them to be, but they are no longer the intimate part of his life they were when they lived at home.

Maybe the task of this time in life is repurposing the old structures – something Doug’s wife Susan must know about, having done a stint as a house flipper during the boom. Granted, part of the charm of those old buildings is that they still have quirky traits. Several of them have preserved quaint features, like freight elevators operated by rope pulleys, which are now interesting but useless. But others have taken the essence of why they were built and given it new life. An old dry goods warehouse is perfect for its new occupant, an open space office for independent contractors and entrepreneurs who thrive on the interactions that workplaces without walls provide. The ballroom on the top floor of the former girls’ school where young ladies were prepared for their debut will be a perfect venue for elegant receptions with its intricate plaster molding and stunning cityscapes.

The joy of being a grandfather doesn’t remove the ache to have my own children woven into my daily life. The death of parents and even friends reveals undiscovered layers of sadness. But those layers of sadness sometimes give shading to the more intense joy I now experience in things like noticing the blood moon, Psalm 139, and catnaps. Proverbs touts wisdom as more precious than gold, but sometimes the price of wisdom is knowledge – you know more and that is sometimes depressing.

I’m not sure I have enough confidence in humanity or the world that I could see much value in those changes without the resurrection. Knowing that we will be raised (repurposed?) gives hope that there is more than one use in a house (even one not made with hands) that has good bones.

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The best decade

going home

A friend once told me that when he reached his 60s he enjoyed the best decade of his life.

His 60s, he said, felt like a reward for years of raising children, building a career, and working hard. His boys were married, having children of their own and enjoying successful careers. His long-term marrige was stable – and, though you can never be absolutely sure about these things, seemingly happy. His career was at the point where he could slow down a bit and work fewer hours, while still enjoying his role as the founder of his professional practice. With all of that, his health was good too.

And – I almost forgot – he had a nice place at the lake to which he and his wife retreated most weekends for reading, walking, and quiet evenings by the fireplace.

So, good for him, right?

As I enter my 60s – reluctantly, but without much choice in the matter – I find that I am enjoying a few of those same things. Not all, but some. (Going away for the weekend has, in my line of work, never been part of my life.)

But here’s the thing, and if you’ve read this far, you must have anticipated something like this: It’s not all good.

Please don’t misunderstand me. I am more grateful than I can say for everything I have. I am blessed in ways I could not have imagined. I am in the rare position right now of being able to live a lifelong dream. But – how do I say this without seeming ungrateful? –  it’s not all good.

In fact, I am beginning to wonder about that idyllic picture of this stage of life that my friend once painted for me. I don’t think he was telling me everything.

I had a moment yesterday that I should have ignored, but I couldn’t. It was a moment of grief and sadness. More than a twinge, it was more like a wave that washed over me and left me feeling unexpectedly low.

My girls who for 20 years were pretty much my whole life are now gone. They are doing all the things I dreamed for them – and more – so that’s not the problem. I am prouder, as a matter of fact, than anyone can possibly imagine. The problem is that chapter of my life is now closed, and I miss it terribly. I miss them. If I could, I would do it all over again, including the worries and sleepless nights that are inevitably a part of raising children.

But I realize that those times are now gone. They are not coming back. And I know that I’m terribly selfish for wanting them back.

I try to live in the present. I want to be grateful for this moment and all of its wonder and potential. And mostly I am.

I am beginning to see, though, that at this stage of life the losses become more apparent. They add up and accumulate. The little ones, the big ones, they can’t be ignored.

They don’t diminish the joy, but they certainly balance it.

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When a friend betrays you

lake michigan shore

I should have seen it coming, but that must mean I’m to blame.

And maybe I am, a little.

What I did wrong was to trust someone I should not have trusted, never, not a million years. But I did. I acted in good faith. I sometimes had a queasy feeling as I did it, but I trusted anyway, because that’s what you do, right? You put yourself out there. Relationships require it.

But deep down I knew. I always knew. I should not have trusted this person.

Betrayal is what happens when you act in good faith, become vulnerable, extend yourself for someone else, and then that person turns out not to be a friend after all, not to have your best interests in mind, not to care about you at all, as a matter of fact.

What is it about betrayal that hurts so much? The coldness of it? The calculation? No, I’m convinced that it’s the evil of it.

I woke up this morning thinking about what happened. And not just thinking about it, but being mad about it. After all these months, after fooling myself into thinking that I was finally over it, after working so hard to get on with life, I still feel the hurt of it, the teeth-clenching anger of it.

And I realized of course, as I lay there in the early morning light, that I needed to get rid of it, to let it go.

For my sake, if for no one else’s.

But the truth is, I’m not quite there yet. It’s as though I can’t let go until I acknowledge to myself the sheer awfulness of it, the extent to which this other person betrayed me, all the sorry details of it. I can’t forgive, much less forget, it seems, until I remember every bit of it.

It’s not the first time something like this has happened. You can’t get to my age without having been betrayed once or twice. I remember an event from some years ago that felt like a kick to the gut. I felt at the time as though the wind had been knocked out of me. I nearly picked up the phone to call a lawyer. I was sure I had a case. I would sue. That would make things right.

But someone who heard my story, someone who knows me well, said to me, ‘Doug, let it go.’

And I don’t remember anymore how I did it, but I did. It actually happened quickly. I started to breathe again, I put down the phone, I deleted the angry letter I had written. It was over. Finished. I haven’t thought about it in years – not until this latest betrayal, in fact. And then, surprisingly, there it was.

Betrayal and grief have that much in common. Every loss reminds you of every other loss you have ever had. Every betrayal is a reason not to trust anymore, not to be vulnerable, not put yourself out there.

But it’s time to let this one go. It has a kind of power over me, and I’m sick and tired of that, as much as anything. I need to unclench my fists and go on. I want to live. And be free.

And if my faith means nothing else, it means this: Forgiving others as I have been forgiven. And God knows that I have needed forgiveness.

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Holy Saturday

Holy Saturday

This is the second post from a year ago that I am re-posting this week. Interestingly, thanks to the magic of search engines it’s already the most viewed post of the day, with more than 180 unique views – and it’s still morning in the states. “Holy Saturday” originally appeared March 30, 2013. The last line still gives me chills.

It’s Saturday, the day before.  And I just came in from the Easter egg hunt.

For some reason it happens every year on this day, the day before Easter.  Every church I’ve ever served has done it exactly this way.

Right now the park across the street from the church is teeming with happy children, watchful parents, and even a few smiling (“isn’t this wonderful!”) grandparents.  I talked with just about everyone, and everyone I talked to seemed to be having a good time, even a few of the older children who have aged out of the actual hunt and are being asked this year for the first time to hide the eggs, instead of hunting for them.

But there’s something odd about this day too – and something odd about having an Easter egg hunt on this day.  I can’t quite put my finger on it, but hearing people say “Happy Easter!” on Saturday feels strange.

I keep thinking, “No, no, no, not yet.”

We Protestants don’t have a well-developed theology of Holy Saturday.  Our Catholic friends could probably tell us a thing or two about this day and what it means.  And yet, maybe there’s something we could say about today, the day before.

I’m sitting at my desk now about to put the finishing touches on my sermon for tomorrow.  I’m hoping it’s a good one too, because there are few things worse than having to preach a sermon three times that you know (after the first time around) is a turkey.

So, I’m feeling a sense of anticipation and a twinge of nervousness and a pinch of fear.  And that, I suspect, is what this day is really for – getting ready for what’s going to happen tomorrow, living with the nervous excitement, knowing (but not knowing) that Easter will be better than anything we can imagine right now.

In just a few hours the stone will be rolled away.

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The Promise of Easter – Again

Candle

I posted the following on April 3, 2013. It’s not “throwback Thursday” or anything, but this week I plan to re-post one or two posts from Holy Week last year. Unlike sermons I’ve preached previously, which I generally don’t like at all, I often like my older posts.

Since the start of the new year, my congregation has lost 29 people to death – either members of the church or close family members.

I can’t remember ever having gone through a stretch quite like this.

During this week following Easter, a week when I ordinarily catch my breath after a busy Lenten season, we will have four funerals or memorials services, every day Tuesday through Friday.  Two of them may involve overflow crowds.  One of the larger ones is for a physician who is said to have delivered more than 9,000 babies during his career in this community.  (One of his nurses in the ICU tearfully told me that he had delivered her.)

Yes, death is a part of life.  Yes, we are not people who grieve as those who have no hope (to paraphrase the Apostle Paul).  And yes, as I’ve written before, I actually feel more like a pastor at a funeral than I do with many other pastoral responsibilities.

But still.

On Easter morning I said in my sermon that Easter worship is not a time for reasons or explanations.  I’ve never preached an Easter sermon titled “Thirteen Incontrovertible Proofs for the Resurrection” – and don’t plan to any time soon.  I don’t think anyone really wants to hear on Easter morning why it’s reasonable to believe that Jesus rose from the dead.

What I said was, “This is a day to believe if there ever was one, to open ourselves to the possibility that it’s true, that death is not the last word that will be spoken about us.”

I’m glad I believe that.  I’m glad I came to that conviction early in my ministry.  During my first year following ordination, I officiated at something like 60 funeral services.  A great deal of my job description at that first church right out of seminary was focused on pastoral care.  I called on homebound people and naturally was the first person to be asked to officiate at the funeral.

At the time, the pace of funerals seemed like a lot, especially for someone so new to ministry.  My mentor said, “You’d better figure out what you believe – and do it quickly.”  I did.  I believe in the promise of Easter.

And haven’t wavered in that belief

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The problem with Palm Sunday

Palm Sunday palms

The problem with Palm Sunday is that it’s hard to face up to the truth about the day.

You should know that your pastor is struggling mightily right about now, getting ready for tomorrow, because the truth about Palm Sunday turns out to be very different from our expectations. Your pastor is wondering how honest to be.

Here’s the thing: most people love Palm Sunday. And who can blame them? It’s fun to see our children waving palm branches and singing. And it’s fun for adults to sing, “All Glory Laud and Honor.” I saw a YouTube video this week of an American gospel choir singing “Ride On King Jesus,” and I found myself wanting to go to that church tomorrow to sing and dance and shout along with them. (Unfortunately, that church is a few thousand miles from here.)

As I child I loved going to church on Palm Sunday. Not only was it a welcome break from the tedium of Lent, but people seemed genuinely happy, even joyful, which you didn’t see very often in the church where I grew up. I thought then that Palm Sunday worship was a dress rehearsal for Easter, the mother of all happy church celebrations.

So, what’s a pastor to do? Preach about the dark truths of the day? Only the brave (or the ones nearing retirement) would do that. Mention that Jesus had come to Jerusalem for one purpose only – to die? That would bring everybody down. Remind listeners that Jesus may have been the only person that day who wasn’t enjoying himself? I’ve done that, and there was no applause.

If, as Luke tells us, Jesus wept over Jerusalem in the minutes before mounting that donkey, then his eyes would have been puffy and red. If he smiled, it was a forced smile, the smile of someone who doesn’t want to take the fun out of the day for other people.

But surely the people closest to Jesus could see his growing sadness, apprehension, and determination to see the mission through. They at least knew the truth.

Palm Sunday is a mixed bag of emotions – kind of like life as we live it. I find that even my best days, even my happiest moments, have at least a small twinge of regret or sadness or pain. You don’t get to be my age and not accumulate a few scars.

Speaking of scars, when Jesus emerged from the tomb on Easter morning, having triumphed over death, having destroyed sin once and for all, his hands and feet and side still bore the signs of his crucifixion. I suspect that he wore those scars proudly – and did nothing to hide them.

I think that’s honesty.

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