death

Another Week In 2021

So, last week was another week in 2021, which is shaping up to be even more of a bear than 2020. I’m soon going to be able to stop that sentence immediately after “last week was another week,” and we’ll all know what that means.

As you know, I lost a buddy I knew last week to a drug overdose. He left behind a wife and 2 small children. He struggled with addiction since high school, maybe earlier, and his was one of those stories that they say will end in a jail cell or a coffin. 2 days before his overdose, he posted a long grateful note of thanks to God on Facebook. It was his 7 months clean anniversary.

It’s common to wonder in situations like this, why? Why was he so sick? What was so bad that he would spend his life in the familiar pattern of detox and relapse? Or the question I asked of my own dad once he passed that will surely haunt his family, why weren’t we enough? Where did these demons even come from?

I know some of those answers in my buddy’s case, if all that he had shared over the past 4 years had been true. This is not a certainty, of course. His service was for a person I never knew and barely recognized. If there weren’t pictures, I would have questioned if I stepped into the wrong church. But with this, for some reason I believe him. Like so many, the damage inflicted upon him by his family of origin (broken, dysfunctional in every way) was crushing, ultimately leading to his death. They all dutifully carried on what are called generational curses. Midnight Oil, in the terrific song “Forgotten Years,” sing, “Few of the sins of the father, are visited upon the son.” In this case, it was significantly more than “few.” It was an avalanche to dig out of, too much in fact, and he simply could not.

Now. I have to be very careful when I get overwhelmed with the weight of loss and sadness, it can be pretty oppressive and increase my already hyper-sensitive soul. And there, on my dresser, was a borrowed copy of the movie Joker. I had good advice from the Angel to, under no circumstances, watch it while in this state. Very good advice that I ignored.

This movie was, essentially, a re-imagining of my buddy’s life. Abuse, neglect, illness, loneliness, depression, on and on – the Joker turned his violence outward and my buddy directed his mostly at himself. But other than that difference, it was the downward spiral of self-loathing that looked for all the world completely inevitable.

Was it?

One of the arguments against both is that, at some point, we have the choice and responsibility to build something new, something better. Maybe that’s simplistic ‘bootstrap’ psychology from those who have never been in that sort of darkness. (I happen to know that darkness, so total that the hope that there could ever be light again has faded and been replaced with emptiness.) But maybe it’s not.

We have the ability to choose life. I know it sometimes doesn’t feel like that, it feels more like there are footsteps marked out for us from which we are unable to deviate. That our lives are scripts where improvisation or rewrites are impossible. That we are powerless to our fate. That it is what it is. That I am what I am.

If you’re familiar with me or my work, you’d think this is the point where I start painting pictures of love conquering all, detailing pyramid schemes of love, how love drives out that fear, how a small perspective shift and a bit of imagination and a hug will break those chains. Maybe this is that part, probably it’s like that part in the Bible where Jesus asks Peter, “Are you going to leave me, too?” And Peter says, “Where else am I going to go?” It’s not exactly a rousing declaration of victory, it’s a cold, broken “Hallelujah.” It’s the acknowledgment of Truth in the face of suffering and discouragement, that Sunday is coming even though we cannot see it, that tombs can be empty because once, one was.

I totally believe those things I say, by the way. I have to. Otherwise, I’d have to resign myself to the robotic hopeless futures of those 2 sweet boys, and that is something I can not do, something I will not do.

Joker is a fictional character, but his story is real for so many of us. It’s a pretty good film (even if it isn’t the feel-good hit of the summer), but it’s a really bad story and one that we have to believe can change. The 4 minute mile was impossible until it wasn’t. It just has to start with one (or an army of us) who keeps running into the impossibility.

Funeral

There was a funeral last Friday for a lovely woman.

I’ll sometimes force my sons to attend funerals or memorial services with me, to which they usually respond, “I don’t want to,” because they’re teenagers and human. I usually ask, “why?” because I am their dad and horrible, to which they say, “I don’t like them.” Here, I lie and say, “nobody likes them.”

I tell them that lie because sometimes you have to do things you don’t like and it’s mostly better if everyone else is doing things they don’t like, too. Like eating vegetables or running.

The truth is that I love them. I know how that sounds, but it’s not to be confused with loving death, dying or anything weird like that. I’m not a psycho. They’re thin spaces, and I find thin spaces – where, according to Eric Weiner in The NY Times, the “distance between heaven and earth collapses and we’re able to catch glimpses of the divine” – absolutely inspiring and beautiful.

When you stare out of the car window, flowers, grass, guardrails, and other cars blur into one undefined smudge. Nothing is clear. You can’t even tell where the flowers start and the Honda ends. This is like my life. I have a full schedule, see a lot of people, go a lot of places, drop off and pick up from practices, grocery stores, and on and on. Too often, I hurry, don’t stop to listen, don’t pay attention.

Last March when the world stopped turning, I dreamed of a new normal where we would find that we quite liked the slower pace. Instead, almost a year later, the new normal is just the old normal with more Zoom meetings and Amazon deliveries. It’s still a blurry smudge if we’re not careful.

Funerals operate like isolated March 2020’s. They stop us where we are, open our eyes, heaven and earth collapse, and we are invited to see these divine glimpses. Now, maybe we don’t accept the invitation. Maybe we stuff our emotions and check the boxes on what “has to be done,” work like crazy until we can finally get back to work (because who knows if the company will actually be standing if we’re not there to hold it together.) Maybe we numb and check out. Maybe we pretend we’re SuperSpiritual and read from the list of cliches while we convince ourselves that it’s somehow selfish to acknowledge the honesty of the loss and stifle anything that looks like tears and feels like grief.

But, baby, if we do accept the invitation… The clean lines of the Honda, blades of grass and bright colors of the flowers come into focus and we can actually see the beauty all around us that we’re too busy to notice any other time. We cry our eyes out when we need to and often find those tears surprisingly becoming laughter and smiles at the wonder of our tremendous gratitude.

[There is a pink elephant in this room. What if the tears are of sadness but also anger or rage or bitterness or resentment? Then, there is no laughter and gratitude is in short supply. This sort of situation is even more important that we accept the invitation into presence. There’s a character in the movie Magnolia who says, “we may be done with the past, but the past isn’t done with us.” The longer we run from the fact that there are chains around our necks, the longer those chains stay around our necks, strangling us slowly, perhaps imperceptibly, just taking our lives a breath at a time. I know it’s horrible, but we face what comes, dump it on the ground, look at it, and then we maybe pick it up and do it all again next week, but at some point, we leave a little on the ground, we pick up a little less, until the tears feel less like acid and more like peace. It’s not quick and it’s not easy, but we have to believe it’s possible. If the tomb was empty once, nothing is impossible ever again.]

So, all of this mourning, grief, celebration, gratitude, looking at an empty place at the table or in the chair… well, it hurts like crazy when our hearts break. But we are awake. Our eyes are wide open to the blessings of today, and open to the blessings of yesterday, when they were here (It was awesome when they were here) and what a gift it was that, of all the people in the world, they were here with us and it was great.

Mourning.

In my message on Sunday morning, I was overcome with sadness and I want to tell you why.

A few minutes after 10am, I discovered that a man who was my neighbor had passed away from a prolonged battle with pancreatic cancer. Immediately upon reading, I broke and could not contain the tears that flowed and the grief that racked my body.

To be honest, the pain was a little surprising. I loved him, but hadn’t seen him in many years, like more than 30. (I know not seeing someone for 30+ years makes me VERY old, but we’re not discussing my age. I still look 18 in just the right light from the right angle and distance, and while the running I did this morning makes me feel 144, I usually feel better than I did in college.) It just came so quickly, without time to think or process. I was just crying. Hard.

They were my neighbors when I was a young child, almost a mirror of my own family. The boy was my age, the girl was my sister’s age, their mom was my mom – and almost as awesome, which is high praise indeed – and their dad, my dad. Our dads didn’t hang out, they both liked their time in their own homes, but we all saw each other everyday.  

He passed last Thursday during the COVID-19 global shutdown, which means that there will be no service and that this wonderful family will mourn together alone. Without lines of people waiting to love them and without eloquent eulogies and without Psalm 23. I know God is there with them, we’re loving them from here, and Psalm 23 is always there about 1/3 into the Bible. But it feels totally wrong and I hate COVID-19 for it right about now.

It’s a common thing to ask “why?” in this situation, and maybe I will, maybe they are, but I just want to wrap my arms around each of them and tell them how much he mattered to me, even though for 30 years I didn’t recognize it. And tell them how thankful I am that he was in my life.

So, why did he matter to me? After the choked up Sunday sermon on Ruth was over, I mostly just sat in a prayer without words, and when Gisy asked me later, “Do you know why you’re surprised? If it’s that painful, there must have been something special about him,” I had an answer. There WAS something special about him. 

He was a man.

In a world where boys grow up into bigger boys, irresponsible, inconsistent, chasing something – who knows what??? Maybe past glory, addictions, pleasure, power, money, status. Maybe they chase to remember, maybe to forget. Maybe to feel or to numb. Who knows? What I know for a fact is that there is a disheartening lack of authentic masculinity. I was always looking to be inspired by the example and leadership of men.

Of course it’s an old-fashioned idea, but that doesn’t make it wrong. Incidentally, I was also looking to be inspired by the example and leadership of smart, strong, courageous women, but there were SO MANY more of those. I had 2 in my own home growing up. Men were much harder to come by, and as a boy, perhaps I couldn’t have named it, but I was looking for someone to show me how to do it; how to grow into one who loved Jesus, his wife and family well, who was consistently genuine, merciful, faithful, trustworthy, loyal, kind and strong, a peaceful warrior, open, safe, and passionate. How was I supposed to know?

He was a man, and there are too few of those in the world, and now that he’s gone, there are less. That was what I mourned, I think. I mourn for his wife and children and friends, that he is now gone and they are without him. But I really liked living in a world with him in it, there was something comforting to know he was here. I guess I mourn for all of us, that a beautiful man is gone and we are without him.

George Heath

Tuesday I attended a funeral service for a man I had never met. He was 97 years old and had lived an active, full life – factors that tend to shift the familiar mix of grief and hope, sadness and relief, toward the celebratory. I was there because he was also the father of one of the finest women I have ever had the pleasure of calling a friend. She called him “Daddy” and loved him dearly. The effects of his illness and inevitable end settled on her face and shoulders, making the answer to the weekly question, “How is your dad?” redundant. We all knew, and each of us struggled with what exactly we were praying for. The impossible battle with the government agencies for aid/military benefits which everyone agreed he deserved but which no one could actually manage to procure weighed heavily. (I’ll just leave that there – I’ve been wrestling with what all to say about that, have written and erased words for far too long. Maybe that means it’s not my story to tell. What I will say is that it is often very difficult to find help for people who desperately need it. —— )

When I began to lead small groups in my previous church, I started to notice a too-rare occurrence was any reference to a father as hero or positive role model. Usually, a father provides an obstacle to healthy relationships, more often absent than engaged. One of the first questions I ask is “how was your relationship with your dad?” and the answers are depressingly similar. But my friend Cathy had a unicorn, those lovely, mythical creatures we have all heard of but haven’t really seen. 

She (and her sisters) remained devoted to him, giving care and money and prayers and time and energy to him every day of his life. She loved him without limit, as he had loved her. (I know he must have had faults, as we all do, but those faults were buried deeply under all of the love and honor they shared.) Who she is is the ideal eulogy for a life well lived, and I wish I could’ve told him so.

I wish I could’ve thanked him while he was still here.

I love her dad, I love my dad, I love all dads. I used the word unicorn to describe those engaged, compassionate, generous, beautiful men in our midst, but that was a poor choice. Unicorns don’t exist. These men are everywhere, we just need to open our eyes to see and appreciate them for what they do and who they’re are. This funeral was inspiring and completely hopeful, (for what was possible when a man lives with purpose, wisdom, strength and a heart that loves passionately), as was his life.

My friend’s Daddy doesn’t make me want to be more like him, it’s much better than that. He makes me want to be more like me, more like the me I was created to be.

He wrote songs, and the service ended with all of us standing, singing his ‘Words for the  Closing Chorus:’

May the Lord who reigns above

Bring to you His peace and love

Give us strength to carry on

Light to show us the way

Walking ever in His grace

Lift your eyes and see His face

And live in His love evermore