First, the Tomb — SheLoves, February 2017

The silence at this blog has been rather deafening thus far in 2017. Part of the reason for that is the event described in this essay. I wrote it for SheLoves, that special place on the internet where I am privileged to write once each month. Please start here and then follow the links over there to join in the conversation.

IMG_2095

The rain falls steadily, beating against the translucent plastic of the skylight across the hall from where I write. A drumbeat that reminds me that fruitfulness requires dark, wet days. Lots and lots of dark, wet days.

Life continues to teach me that there is no resurrection without the darkness of death, there is no rising without first being down. Sometimes that down-ness is imposed on us — by life, by circumstance, by some kind of struggle, which we did not deserve or earn. Other times, we trip and fall, choosing unwisely or forgetting what we know to be true. No matter what has brought us low, however, the truth of it remains: there is nowhere to go but up.

 I am watching closely as my mother winds down for the last time in her long life. We moved her this week — again. Fifteen years ago, we moved her and my dad from their lovely retirement home in Orange County CA to a smaller, 2-bedroom apartment in a senior community nearer to family. Three years later, after my dad’s death, we moved my mother to a 1-bedroom unit in the same facility. Eight years after that, we moved her across the street, into an assisted living studio. One year later, we moved her 120 miles north, to a single room with bath, inside a dementia unit, minutes from our home.

Now, four years further down this journey toward death, she is in a still smaller room, one with a hospital bed and an RN down the hall. We moved mama into skilled nursing last week, sorting through the debris of her life one more time, parsing her existence into smaller and smaller pieces.

I hoped she would be oblivious to this change. So much of her cognition is gone, so many pieces missing from the beautiful puzzle that is my mother. But she knew. And she was frightened and confused, wondering why ‘her family’ wasn’t nearby. Though she couldn’t tell you a single name, she somehow knew the residents and the caregivers in her 16-bed assisted living wing. Now she is part of a much larger space, with many more people, many more wheelchairs, longer distances to travel from bedroom to activity center to dining room. . . 

IMG_2205

IMG_2222

Yes, it’s been a tough few weeks, friends. We’re at the last bend in the road. Please do come on over to SheLoves and read a bit more about this journey.

The Truest Advent

img_1381

I sit and watch the light play across the beautiful angles of her face. Even at 95, those cheekbones are breathtaking. She is tired today, battling a mild infection, with little to no appetite and even less energy. The sharp angle of the winter sun is unexpectedly flattering as it gently flickers through the window, and I draw a sharp breath as those too-familiar tears begin to form behind my eyelids. 

“Oh, Mama! I love you so. Please, Lord, let her go to sleep and wake up in the New Creation. Enough, okay? Enough.”

But who really knows how much is enough? I don’t have any special insights, only my own bedraggled emotions and growing fatigue. To me, it feels like it is time. Time to be released from this ‘body of dust,’ time to rest from the struggle, time to breathe in and never breathe out again.

We did not go out to lunch today; we barely made it from the dining room to her own sweet space, with its lounge chair in the corner, by the window. “My arms!” she cried softly as we walked. “They ache.”

Truth be told, everything aches. Every cell in her body.

As she slept in that chair, I moved my hand slightly, the one that she was clasping with both of hers. She roused a bit, turning to look in my direction.

“Oh, Mama! Thank you for being such a good, good mother,” I cried.

She didn’t understand me, so I said it again, more slowly, more loudly. She smiled slightly and said a simple, “Thank you.” Somehow her half-sleepy state made the usual questioning unnecessary. There were no confused looks, no puzzled frowns. None of this response: “I’m your mother?? Really??” 

None today. None at all.

One week ago, that’s all I heard. I came home shaking my head at my husband. “I don’t know how much more of this repetition I can navigate! We spent our entire 90 minutes together today asking and attempting to answer the same 5-6 questions — over and over and over again. Oh, Lord, give me patience!”

He and I were getting ready to leave town the next morning, our annual anniversary getaway to parts north. We both needed it — time and space to savor an ocean view, good food prepared by someone else, and quiet time together — no expectations, no obligations, no schedule. And it was good. Very, very good.

They called me from the dementia unit as we were driving home yesterday. “She has a UTI and a low-grade fever. Is it all right with you if we put her on antibiotics?” 

Yes, it was all right with me. UTIs make dementia much worse and increase confusion and disorientation. She doesn’t need any escalation of those symptoms and neither do I. But this time around, the infection plus the added medication led to extreme exhaustion — one more sign of decline, diminishment. 

And yet, as painful as it is to watch that happen, this time I will admit that my primary response is relief and gratitude. She is heading in one direction only; and today’s exhaustion underlined that truth for me. My mother is very old. She is very frail. She is extraordinarily confused.

She is also beautiful, grateful, loves people (even when she hasn’t a clue who they are), sings the old songs and hymns with a higher degree of accuracy than her illness might lead you to expect, and generally enjoys her life. It is not up to me when that life will end on this side of the mysterious veil that separates us from the eternal.

There are, however, some decisions that are up to me. When and how to treat illness, for one. I think I know what I will and will not allow — mom and I discussed it all, long before dementia took over — but until illness or accident happens, I suppose it’s all pretty hypothetical.

So, in addition to those prayers for patience, I also pray for wisdom, grace, kindness and insight as my mother moves ever closer to the end of her long and remarkable life. I will miss her presence in my life more than I can adequately put into words, more than language will allow.

 

Then again, I have been missing her for a very long time.

“Oh for grace to trust him more!”

The Last Word . . . and the First — A Sermon for Christ the King Sunday

dsc04956

The Last Word . . . and the First
Colossians 1:11-20
November 20, 2016
Montecito Covenant Church
Diana R.G. Trautwein

So. Here we are. The last Sunday of the church year, standing on the threshold of the holidays, which are barreling toward us with alarming speed. We’ve just come through — some of us, just barely! — one of the most difficult and vitriolic election campaigns in our national history.

Our pastor of eleven years has left us, heading for parts east. Many of us are reeling from personal pain and loss — illness, injury, surgery, difficult medical treatment, looming divorce, death. Some of us are dealing with school projects that feel overwhelming, or tricky relationships with friends or dorm-mates. Some of us are entertaining friends and family this next week; some of us are traveling to gather with others; some of us wonder how we’ll celebrate at all. By and large, I think it’s fair to say that many, if not most, of us in this room are carrying around multiple layers of sadness. Maybe even a sense of hopelessness,if we’re honest.

But . . . we’re here. Ready to worship, ready to listen, ready to sing, ready to pray. And, I think it is ALSO fair to say, very ready to hope.

The passage before us this morning is one that is assigned by the church lectionary, that revolving list of scriptures that takes us through most of the Bible over a 3-year span. It’s a text that beautifully expresses the theme of this day in our church calendar. And it is a passage that calls us to HOPE.

Many of the words in our sermon text today — the last six verses, in fact — actually come from what most scholars guess is an old song, a hymn of praise, something that was part of the liturgy used by the early community of Jesus followers when they gathered to worship God together.

It’s a song in two stanzas, with some lovely parallel lines and repeated words between them. And it’s a song that, in addition to its majestic, descriptive language, uses a long string of very small words. Small, but oh-so-important. Please listen for them as I read the passage for you this morning.Those little words are called prepositions. Remember those?

Hear the word of the Lord for this ‘Christ the King Sunday,’ as it comes to us from the letter to the Christians at Colossae, a smallish 1st century city which was moving steadily into the economic backwaters of its day. Somewhere in that town, a group of believers was learning what it means to live out the gospel in truth and love. This small letter was written to that small group sometime in the second half of the first century, so the words we have before us have been around for a long, long time.

They are beautiful and they are remarkable for how well they lay out a complex series of ideas about two central truths: who Jesus Christ is and who the church is. I will be reading from the New Revised Standard Version and I will actually begin with verse 11, which comes in the middle of an opening prayer for these believers.

These are the words of that continuing prayer:

May you be made strong with all the strength that comes from his glorious power, and may you be prepared to endure everything with patience, while joyfully giving thanks to the Father, who has enabled you to share in the inheritance of the saints in the light. He has rescued us from the power of darkness and transferred us into the kingdom of his beloved Son, in whom we have redemption, the forgiveness of sins.

 

And then, beginning with verse 15, we find that two stanza hymn — here it is:

He is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation; for in him all things in heaven and on earth were created, things visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or rulers or powers—all things have been created through him and for him. He himself is before all things, and in him all things hold together. 

He is the head of the body, the church; he is the beginning, the firstborn from the dead, so that he might come to have first place in everything. For in him all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell, and through him God was pleased to reconcile to himself all things, whether on earth or in heaven, by making peace through the blood of his cross.

The word of the Lord.
Thanks be to God.

 Whether it was the apostle Paul himself or a devoted disciple of his who penned the words of this lovely little letter, no one seems to be completely certain. Whoever it was — and for ease in understanding, I’m going to call him ‘Paul’ –I’m grateful we have this letter in our Bible, and I’m deeply grateful for the powerful truths it contains.

This is a pastoral letter, written out of deep concern for the spiritual health and well-being of a beloved group of people, people who have been visited by some ‘new’ teachers who are introducing some interesting and quite wrong-headed ideas.

Most of the letters in our New Testament were written to try and help a particular congregation through one kind of troubling situation or other, and Colossians is no exception. After the passage before us today, the letter spells out those troubling ideas a bit more clearly. Some of them seem to have Jewish roots, some of them Greek. ALL of them carry the weight of, ‘what you’ve got is not enough.’

“Well, yes, of course,” these teachers are saying. “It’s good that you’re following in the way of Jesus. But you know that’s not enough, don’t you? You need to add a few things — there are some foods which should be avoided, there are some holidays which should be observed, you’re being much too contaminated by the things of this earth and you need to live a far more rigorous lifestyle, and you should definitely be worshipping and placating the angels and the powerful astral powers all around us. You see, Jesus just isn’t enough.”

“Oh yeah,” says Paul. “I don’t think so.”

And this hymn, these lovely, strong words about the supremacy and the sufficiency of Christ alone, they are the answer to all of the “Jesus AND” kind of teaching being thrown at the Colossian church. Christ is enough. Christ is MORE than enough. Christ is . . . Well . . . let’s look at what Christ is for a minute, shall we?

The piece of that pastoral prayer that we read at the beginning of our passage today tells us that because of Jesus Christ, we are transferred from darkness into light, that we have the strength we need to endure anything that life may throw at us because we now belong to that light-filled kingdom, where sins are forgiven and we are redeemed.

Then, stanza one of this exquisitely crafted hymn tells us that Christ is the very image of the invisible God, in whom, through whom, and for whom everything was created. Not only that, but Christ came first — before any of what we see around us ever came into being — and he still — right now, this instant — holds it all together.

Digging back into the opening words in the book of Genesis, picking up imagery from the book of Exodus, borrowing from the wisdom tradition in Proverbs and the Psalms, this bold hymn threads all of it together in ways that also resonate with the glorious prologue in the gospel of John. This song is about as powerful as a song could ever be, declaring that Jesus Christ is pre-existent, pre-eminent, and supreme over the entire created order.

So . . . what was that about Jesus and . . .?

As if that wasn’t enough, stanza two adds these ideas: in addition to being the ‘firstborn of all creation, ‘Christ is the firstborn from the dead,’ indicating that by his resurrection, Christ has now ushered in a new creation, called the church, of which he is head, by which he inaugurates a new Age of Redemption and Reconciliation.

As the hymn builds to its conclusion, it begins to answer this question: what is the instrument, the means by which this new creation is made available to us? Where is that place where Old and New meet, where the First Word and the Last Word come together in one weary, beat-up, itinerant preacher? Where is the throne for this grand Cosmic Christ, this King of ALL Creation, old and new?

It’s at the top of a hill, just outside the city gates of 1st Century Jerusalem where the One in whom, “all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell,” died the death of a criminal, uttering the words, “Father, forgive them.” “Father, forgive them.”  

That dying man on the tree is the very one that Paul is describing in this passage, the very one sung about in this ancient hymn from the early church. Christ, you see, is not the last name of a man named Jesus. Christ IS Jesus. Jesus IS Christ, the King of Creation, the Head of the Church, the one whose blood was shed for you and for me.

And Jesus Christ is more than enough, my friends. MORE than enough.

You know, the world we live in today — the world right here in Santa Barbara — our world no longer believes in astral powers. And it doesn’t put a lot of credence in angelology, either. Most of us aren’t bothered by anyone telling us we need to eat differently, or celebrate different religious holidays or practice some kind of strange ritual in order to be truly safe, truly saved.

But you know what? We all do battle with that same “Jesus and . . .” mentality. That scarcity mindset that subtly or not so subtly tells us we haven’t quite got it right, that there is more we need to do, more we need to know, more we need to become, more.

For some of us, that might mean that we put way too much of our trust and our hope in systems — political and economic systems. Maybe we try to maximize the benefits of those systems in some way. Maybe we believe that if we vote for one candidate or another, the world will change . . . or not change.

Maybe it’s right belief — if we just get a really good handle on this fine point of doctrine — and if we make sure that no one else deviates from it, not even a little bit, then everything will work out well, we will be safe and saved.

Maybe it’s knowledge — if we learn more, if we master this or that technique, if we put our trust in science or psychology or the arts, then we’ll know enough, we’ll understand enough to be okay.

Maybe it’s about spiritual practices and disciplines, adding another arrow to the quiver of techniques to make us holy. If we just add in a little of this or a little of that, then we’ll get it, then we’ll be really saved.

Now not one of these things is a bad thing, in and of itself. It’s what we believe about these possible add-ons that can bring us to the same kind of wrongheadedness that the Colossian Christians were battling. It’s what we believe about these things that can cause us to live as though it’s really about Jesus AND . . . something else, anything else.

And when we find ourselves in that place, there is somewhere else we need to go, somewhere else we need to sit for a while. We need to go back to our baptism. We need to remember that we are buried with Christ in that water, that we are raised up to new life in him as we emerge.

And we need a baptized view of reality, one in which we KNOW that Jesus Christ has redeemed creation and is always in the process of reconciliation — reconciling the world to God and us to our right and true selves.

And then, we need to remember that since the time of the ascension, since the day of Pentecost, WE are now the transforming power of God at work in this world. That is who we are, because that is who Christ calls and empowers us to be. Seven verses after the close of the passage before us this morning, we find these life-changing words: “Christ in you, the hope of glory!”

CHRIST IN US, THE HOPE OF GLORY.

There is nothing to add to that, my friends. Not one thing.

Some of you know that a big part of my own journey these days is centered around my aging mother’s struggle with dementia. I’ve written about it quite a bit and have been stunned to discover just how many people are walking this difficult, confusing, sometimes frightening, and very lonely road. Those of you who are on our church email prayer chain will see at the bottom of each week’s prayer list an item called “Ongoing Concerns.” My mom is on that short list.

Her name is Ruth Gold.

She is now 95 years old, severely limited by macular degeneration, hearing loss and physical frailty, which too often results in falling down. About eight or nine years ago, she began to show some alarming signs of deep confusion and she herself wanted a neurological work-up. Those findings resulted in her move to assisted living a little over five years ago, in a sweet little 2-room unit across the street from her original apartment at the retirement community in which she lived in southern California. That move happened soon after we celebrated her 90th birthday in our backyard with about 40 of her friends and family. I am so glad we did that!

Almost four years ago, the director of that unit told me they could no longer manage her care, and my mother was able to agree that moving closer to us was a good idea. So my husband and I began to research different kinds of memory care facilities near us. She chose to go to Heritage Court at the Samarkand and it is a good, good place for her to be.

During that year before we moved her up here at the beginning of 2013, I was completing my training in spiritual direction under the teaching of some fine Benedictine Charismatic Catholics at the Mission Retreat center here in town. One of our lectures that year was on the doctrine of the Cosmic Christ — the very topic of our passage this morning. We did a theological reflection exercise using some teaching from Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, a priest who was also a scientist, and who lived and wrote in the middle of the 20th century. His background in the French Catholic church included an idea called the Sacred Heart of Christ, something that was totally foreign to me as a Protestant pastor!

But as I prayerfully tried to think about how the ideas of the Cosmic Christ and the Sacred Heart might have something to say to my own life, the image that God gave me was a picture, a mental picture, of my small, confused mama SAFE in the great, sacred heart of the Cosmic Christ. Safe though her memory is almost completely gone. Safe though she no longer knows who I am. Safe though she no longer knows who she is. She is SAFE.

And that picture, that image, has made all the difference these past four years.

Because here is what I have borne witness to in these years since she moved to Santa Barbara; here is the truth that she teaches me, every time we are together.

Even in the midst of her mental and physical debility, my mother gives evidence to the transforming power of God at work in this world. My mother lives the truth of Colossians 1. Let me tell you how.

She has known Jesus personally since she was a teenager. That’s a long time.When I lived in her home, she read deeply and widely in the Christian classics, and, among other acts of service, taught Sunday school to girls who were juniors in high school for over a decade. I remember seeing her in prayer for them and for our family every morning when I got up. She taught me everything I know about speaking in front of large groups of people, was one of the funniest women I ever met, and she loved her life. She was not perfect, of course, but she was good. And kind, probably one of the very best things any of us can ever be. Her faith in Jesus Christ is a part of her DNA and her relationship to our Triune God is the center of everything.

If you were to see her, you would think she is lovely. And she is. Why?

Because she smiles at everyone she sees. She reaches out and asks, “How are you today?” She says, “My, but you look lovely!” She laughs readily and often. She tells everyone that she loves them. Occasionally, she is even capable of making a wry remark, usually at her own expense. EVERYONE who works in Smith Health Center knows who she is. And they all light up with a huge smile whenever they see her coming in her walker as we go out to lunch twice each week. I even had an administrator tell me that she went by Heritage Court regularly to get her “Ruth fix,” something that helped her get through some of the more difficult parts of her job.

Mom literally sheds light wherever she goes.

My mother has been transferred to the kingdom of light, you see. She has been rescued from the powers of darkness, even when her mind seems dark to me. And she is an agent of light in this world. She is.

Am I?
Are you?

Because that is THE question we need to be asking ourselves as we take in the powerful words of Colossians, chapter one. What kind of a difference do these truths make in the way we choose to life our lives? If Christ is indeed supreme, if Christ is indeed sufficient, if Christ alone is all that we need, how shall we then live?

When our candidate loses the election, do we lament? Yes, of course, we do. When our spouse walks out on us, do we mourn? Oh, yes, we mourn. When we get a diagnosis that terrifies us, do we say so and weep? Yes, we weep and we worry. When we don’t get the grade we were hoping for, when a friend says an unkind thing, when we are misunderstood and feel undervalued, yes, we admit the pain that comes with all of those things. After all, the work of the kingdom is always a work in process, isn’t it?

So yes, we admit the struggle. Our text reminds us to ‘be prepared to endure everything with patience’ – so yes, there is going to be a whole lot of enduring in this life, that is for certain sure.

But then. But then, we live as the light we are.

We are to live as Jesus lived — we reach to the edges, we see those who are unseen, we speak up for those who are not heard, we bring dinner to the park, we write our representatives, we take care of the world that our Cosmic Christ created for us to enjoy and to steward, we work for inclusion, we call out racism, we refuse to tolerate bullying, we seek justice for all, we offer hope to the hopeless, beginning with ourselves.

WE SHED LIGHT WHEREVER WE GO.

And we do it because at the bottom of it all — whatever pain and sadness we are carrying, whatever fear we are battling, whatever difficult life situation may present itself — at the bottom of it all, we are people who hope. We are the new creation, Christ’s very body at work in this world. We are the CHURCH.

 And that is a good, good gift.

Are you ready to shed light, wherever you go? Are you willing to be the church?

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

31 Days of Paying Attention — Day Sixteen

img_0663

 

IMG_7990

We have a small fishing industry here in Santa Barbara. I love to see their small boats sitting just off shore during the various seasons of the year — lobster, crab, salmon. halibut, even sea cucumbers!

img_0980

They look tiny against the horizon, don’t they?

img_0981

This one was checking traps last week — you can see the trap markers to the left of the picture.
img_0514
Working boats and pleasure craft share our marina space and each type brings its own unique kind of beauty to our waterfront. I love to watch a graceful sloop or a sturdy looking catamaran sail by. But it is the working boats my eye is drawn to most often. Some of those boats have been part of the story of our town for decades, holding deliciousness in their freezers and hard working men and women at their helm.

Fishing is work. Yes, it is often pleasurable. But it is work, first and foremost. And somehow the phrasing of today’s quote from St. Paul of the Cross stirs in me a deep reminder of that truth. To fish in the sea of Christ’s sorrow is work, plain and not-so-simple. It does not come naturally to us to reflect on sad things, to step into another’s suffering and see what nourishment we might find there. But oh! It is good work. And necessary work.

Once again, the key word in this quote is ‘love.’ If we can firmly hold onto that powerful truth, everything changes. Christ willingly stepped into that sea of suffering because of divine love — divine love for human persons. This is the kind of ‘atonement theory’ that resonates with me at the deepest level: for God so loved the world. This is the bedrock truth of our faith and taking time to fish in these good waters is one of the healthiest and most life-giving things we can do.

paying-attention-300

Battle Fatigue

IMG_0459You know, it’s just lunch. Simple, right? I get in the car, I drive over to Mom’s care facility, I punch in the magic code to open the door, I gather her up, confused and beautiful as she is, I open the door so we can both go out into the sunshine.

She says, “Do you really want to bring this old thing?” pointing to her walker.

Every time, she asks me this question.

EVERY TIME.

“Yes, Mom. You can’t really walk well without it and it fits right into the back of my car.”

I settle her into the front seat, lock the seat belt around her, nudge her gently to move her feet completely inside the car. I load the walker in the back and come around to the driver’s door, belt myself in and begin to drive out of the residence area.

“What a good driver you are. What a nice car this is — so smooth!”

“Thank  you, Mom.”

I hear these two sentences EVERY SINGLE TIME WE GO OUT, which is every 3 to 4 days. But 3 to 4 days is an eternity to someone whose brain is full of holes. 3 to 4 minutes is an eternity. Somedays, 3 to 4 seconds.

“Now tell me your name again and why you came over to get me today?”

And we’re off. The litany begins.

Again.

And again.

“Do you have children?”
“Do you live nearby?”
“What do you do?”

“Where are we going?”
“Why are you being kind to me?”
“Now tell me your name, please.”
“Do you know my family?”

Round and round we go, the same set of questions, the same set of answers.

Today we went to a place we have not visited often. She is, however, convinced that she has been here, “many years ago.” Often, this is at least partially true. Not today. We’ve been here exactly twice in the last 3 3/4 years.

The sun is warm, but the restaurant, located directly on the sands of Ledbetter Beach, acts as a wind tunnel for the ocean breeze. She is immediately shivering, despite being fully covered with two layers of clothing.

So I return to the car, get my wool shawl and my wide-brimmed black hat with the droop-down brim and wrap her up as much as I can. She continues to hold down the brim of the hat or to place her hand over her ear during the entire meal, despite the fact that she is no longer in direct contact with any kind of air movement whatsoever. Once cold, always cold, I guess.

I order her a diet Coke and get a glass of water for myself. We sip quietly as we wait for our lunches to be delivered — a kid’s sized grilled cheese with fries for her, a salad with grilled salmon for me. 

IMG_0506

“Here, don’t you want some of this?” she asks.

And she asks.

And she asks.

AND SHE ASKS.

“No, Mom, ” I tell her each time. “That is your drink. See, I have one of my own. I don’t need yours.”

When lunch arrives, she relishes each bite. But begins immediately with the same, recurring question/statement: “Oh  my, this is delicious! I am so happy, so happy, so happy! Here, take some of this. It is really good.”

She seems to be unable to see that I am already eating from a very full plate. I tell her exactly that, every single time she invites me to eat her lunch. “No, thank you, Mom. I have my own lunch. I don’t need to eat yours. Please enjoy your meal and stop worrying about me — I am doing just fine.”

“Well,” she says timidly, “I surely do not want to ever seem to be selfish.”

“You are not being selfish, Mom. You’re enjoying your lunch, which is yours, all  yours. Please enjoy it!”

After I finish my salad — which I always do, LONG before she is halfway through her own plate — I begin to take a French fry or two from her plate. And she is ecstatic!

“Oh, here! Have some more!”

IMG_0508

I cannot even begin to put into words how deeply enervating I find these outings. I love that she loves to go. I love that she finds happiness in simple things. I love her. But being with her is the most exhausting thing I do these days.  

And there is no end in sight.

I heard a bit of a cough today and, God help me, I found myself wondering if this might possibly progress into something serious, something that might help her transition to that place where she will once again be able to think and remember. 

That is not likely. She is 95 years old, can’t see, can’t hear, can’t remember, can walk short distances only. But otherwise, her health is excellent. Her mother lived to be 101. Her mother’s sister to 102. So chances are, she’ll be with us physically long past the time when what remains of her mind has completely left the building.

I give thanks daily for her life. I see the beauty shining out of her face, the unceasingly cheerful spirit that is indomitable and gracious. I enjoy her occasional attempts at humor and the increasingly rare flashes of that mom-that-used-to-be insight and self-deprecating trash talk. (Today for example: “I imagine those children I hear are looking over here and wondering what strange sort of woman is sitting there under that hat!”)

But I am tired. I am tired of continually telling myself to keep my ever-present impatience at bay, to respond with kindness to the 20th version of the same comment/question, to smile, to hug, to touch, to encourage. I do it, yes, I do it. But sometimes it feels forced, even phony, and I don’t like that part. No, I don’t like it at all.

So I am weary at times. Today is one of those times. I returned her to her room a bit earlier than usual, settled her into that recliner chair in the corner, the one by the window that looks out onto the patio with bright red geraniums. I kiss her and tell her I love her and that I’ll see her next week. I find someone on the care team to tell them she is back in her room.

And I exit the building as fast as these aging legs of mine will carry me, willing myself not to cry out, “How long, O Lord!! How long?”


IMG_0461

A Love Story — for SheLoves

Theirs is a love story that not many remember these days. One of them has been gone from this plane for 10 years; the other has no memory of ever being married, despite their 63 years together. So it’s my story to tell now . . . you can start this sweet tale here and click over to SheLoves to continue it. It’s a good one for Valentine’s Day weekend, don’t you think?

IMG_0166

Celebrating 50 years on the island of Kauai in 1991

On paper, they were seriously mismatched. He, the brilliant, favored son of a well-educated southern family, she the hard-scrapple middle child of working class Canadians, each family migrating to the Los Angeles area before their kids were old enough to remember anyplace else.

Ben’s family was firmly ensconced in a downtown Methodist church, teaching Sunday school, singing in the choir, providing leadership in a multitude of ways. Ruth was a church orphan, whose parents dropped her at the front door each Sunday.

They came up through the youth group separately — he, four years ahead of her — but each knew of the other. She had a steady boyfriend by the time she was in high school and dated him for four years, most of their life together centered around that old brownstone church.

Ben was gifted musically and intellectually, but very reserved, even shy. Ruth was vivacious, smart, mischievous, funny and a natural leader. He stood on the sidelines of her life for a while, becoming increasingly smitten. After Ruth’s early relationship ended, they gravitated toward each other, each of them happy to discover the ways their differences were complementary.

The rest, as they say, is history. They ‘went together’ for several years, as he earned bachelor’s and master’s degrees from UCLA; she matriculated there, but dropped out when family funds evaporated. By then, they were committed to marriage, the US had entered WWII, and her folks saw no reason for her to get a degree. She regretted it the rest of her life.

He failed to pass the physical for the draft, so began to teach in San Diego at a small military academy. In 1941, they married in a friend’s garden, honeymooned in Laguna Beach, and settled into community life at the school.

Their love for one another grew deep and sturdy, but it was never particularly easy, especially during those early years. His family didn’t really approve of her — his mother took to her bed for a full week when they announced their engagement and wore black to their wedding. Each of their families of origin had their own unique dysfunctions and patterns and, as is true for all of us, the wounds of childhood were real and lasting.

He was the ‘show-kid,’ his skill at the piano and in the classroom regularly put on display by a pushy mother. She was the caretaker, intervening at a very young age when her dad came home drunk and became verbally and even physically abusive to everyone in the family.

He kept things in, she let them out, often in a big and dramatic way. Learning to communicate, to deal with anger issues, to build their own individual self-confidence — these were issues that didn’t go away.

Hop on over to SheLoves to finish this story and to share with all of us a love story that’s important in your own life.

31 Days of Aging Gracefully: Day 30 — Facing Death

Even to your old age I will be the same,
and even to your graying years I will bear you!
I have done it, and I will carry you;
and I will bear you and I will deliver you.
Job 12:12

This verse is a great source of comfort and assurance for me as I walk this journey toward the end of life. You know it’s there, don’t you? And you knew I’d have to talk about it at some point. The end of the road, on this side of glory, is the same for each and every one of us: d e a t h. The last breath, the transition from this life to the next, however and whenever that happens. I don’t begin to understand it, but I choose to belief that our last conscious thought on this side of the veil is of God, and our first conscious thought on the other side is not only of God, but in God — in a way we cannot now begin to imagine. 

That means that somehow, my body will be there, too, and that it will be at least partially recognizable by others who have known me here. Timing is irrelevant, whether immediate or at some distant date, as the scriptures seem to imply in all that talk about the end of time. NO clue what that all means, only that Paul assures us that we will be one moment here, one moment there. Of course, the whole concept of ‘moment’ doesn’t really fit into eternity very well, does it?

So rather than spin my wheels deliberating about when and how, I have chosen to rest in the promise of reunion, of transformation, of a familiar but intrinsically different way of being and living. And this photograph, taken almost six months ago, speaks volumes to me about what the writer of Job means in that verse up there. “I will bear you. . .”

IMG_5133

This is our Lilly, in rapturous delight at her new cousin, Matteo, holding him tenderly and carefully and rhapsodizing over his deliciousness. I’ve written before about the revelation I received at the beginning of my training in pastoral work, that sense that dying is about being born, born into a new kind of living. So I relish this picture because that adorable infant reminds me of myself, and of each one of us, when we move from here to there.

And because Jesus himself told us to delight in little ones, to welcome them . . . indeed — to become like them, I have NO trouble imagining our loving and almighty God taking on the joyful demeanor of a young child, looking at me with the same kind of joy that Lilly looks at Matteo.

Can you see it? Oh, I hope so!

Imagine tenderness, delight, gratitude, acceptance, welcome. Because that’s who God is, that’s what God’s about, that’s what dying means. Glory be.

31 Days of Aging Gracefully: Day 14 — Valuing the Old

IMG_5955

Of course today’s topic is one close to my heart. I am graced to have my 94-year-old mama still living. I myself am now 70. I am personally familiar with old things. And old people.

But you know what? We are not a society that particularly values old anything, maybe most especially people. That is painting with far too broad a brush, I own that. But there are times when it surely feels that way. I’m not sure it’s entirely intentional. We get busy, our lives are full, there is more energy to be found in the company of younger folk. I get it, I’m guilty of it, I know it.

But.

The sixteen people who live in my mother’s Alzheimer’s unit were once thriving, contributing members of society, living lives rich in friendship and family. Now, many of them seldom see any young face other than that of their closest caregiver — the one who is paid to be there.

I myself am deeply, DEEPLY grateful for those paid friends. My mother’s life is incredibly richer and safer because of the place where she lives. And for a long list of reasons — most of them to do with my own emotional and physical limits — I see my mom only about every five or six days. For years, I called her nightly on the telephone. Now, that is too confusing for her, so I stopped doing that this summer. It was both a relief and an opening for yet another kind of grief, deep within me.

I love my mother very much. I miss my mother very much.

Yet she is still here.

And the pieces of her that remain have been lovely to see for the last two years or so. Just in the past two weeks, however, I have seen a deepening level of confusion and ‘lostness,’ which come yoked with an exponentially deeper sense of panic that permeates almost all of our ‘conversation’ of late. Three days ago, she was frightened to use the bathroom before we left for lunch, sure that someone was going to get her wet (she now hates the shower.) And she insisted that she had never been to the Cafe before, though we have been there at least once each week for the last six months.

“Are you sure it was me you took here?”

“Yes, Mom. I know you. It was you. You are Ruth Gold, right?”

“Yes, I am. But there must be another Ruth Gold because I’ve never been here before,” she said in a frightened, trembling voice.

I patted her arm, told her I was going inside to order our lunch and left her, sitting at the counter, peering at the view with a troubled look on her face.

Seven or eight minutes later, I returned with her diet coke in hand and told her the cheeseburger would be coming soon. She turned and looked at me, much calmer, and said with conviction, “I think that other woman must have left.”

Clearly, she had been thinking about our earlier conversation, something she is generally unable to do. Something about it hit her deep inside, requiring her to ponder and try and figure out how she could be so lost. Her conclusion was unbearably sad to hear.

Yet something deep within me resonated strongly with that so-sad sentence, that oh-so -carefully prepared sentence. Because she was right, you see. That other woman has indeed left, never to return this side of heaven.

And oh, I miss her so.

31 Days of Aging Gracefully: Day 6 — Facing Fear

IMG_5754

If I am being honest — and I want to be, to use this space to speak my own truth, as I am experiencing it — I have to admit that this past year has been laced with fear. Falling flat on my face, spending time in the hospital as a result, suffering through a torn abdominal muscle and the resulting nerf-football-sized hematoma plus low blood counts and a medicare form that read, ‘life-threatening treatment’ — all of the above has brought bouts of anxiety the likes of which I’ve never experienced before.

It’s a very scary thing to face into your own frailty, to face into the possibility of life forever changed. I’ve had some small panic attacks and flashbacks that have stopped me in my tracks in the past few months, and I’ve uttered the Jesus Prayer more times than I can possibly count.

If I let it, fear could pretty much rule my life these days. That picture at the top of the page is of a sunset we enjoyed the third week in our new home. Stunning, isn’t it? Yet, still. A sunset, right? The end of the light. The end. That’s what I could choose to focus on as a result of the anxiety level rising to code red proportions. I could so easily be a real Chicken Little type, friends. SO easily.

But I don’t want to do that. Truly, I do not. Yes, I want to be increasingly realistic about the truth that my days on this planet are stretching less far out into the future than ever before. Duh. This is true for all of us, every day, right? But do we focus on that truth?

Or do we choose to enjoy the diminishing light for as long as we possibly can? Have you ever noticed that sunsets tend to be longer than sunrises? It takes a while for that light to leave the sky. And as it fades, it can be exquisitely beautiful, sending beams of color across the sky and the landscape below. I want to be a lovely sunset, don’t you?

And I want to remember that the sun also rises. Every single day. Rain or shine. There it is, sending its beams out to nourish and sustain us, shining down on us, even through the foggiest, grayest day. For every sunset, there is a sunrise.

And there will be one for me, too. 

IMG_5768

This picture, taken on one of my morning walks, deep into our new neighborhood, reminds me of that truth in a powerful way. As the sin was rising this day, I could see a cruise ship come into view. A big ole boat, filled with tourists, happy to be taking in the sights and enjoying the water. Reflecting on this photo helps me to breathe out the fear, to breathe in the hope, to lean into the promised future that is mine as a child of God. Don’t know if there will be a cruise ship to ferry me there, but I’m bound and determined I’m going to enjoy the ride.

Just Wondering

The Surprising Nature of Grief

He was in his late 50’s, I’m guessing. Salt and pepper hair and mustache, thick black shoes, Bermuda shorts and the usual bright red apron. I was at Home Depot, purchasing something or other for the work we’re doing on our new home, and I noticed him, cheerfully helping customers through the checkout process.

He was kind, with a peaceful, even happy expression on his face. I could see him from where I stood waiting in line, and I remember thinking, “That guy is one of the good ones. Yeah, the shoes with the shorts are a tad nerdy, but what a sweet man!”

I dug into my cart, laid my wares on the conveyor belt and he quickly moved to the end of the island, getting ready to put my purchases into a bag for me. I handed over my credit card, signed my name and turned to thank him as I got ready to exit the store. And that’s when I saw his name tag:

                                                               “KENNETH”

Big black letters, larger than life. And as I saw them, I was startled to hear a great gasping sob erupt from my mouth. The next minute, tears were streaming down beneath my sunglasses as I made my way back to the car.

I had been blindsided by grief, deep and wide.

Kenneth was my youngest brother’s name. The one who died in 2009. A man I’d never met called me early in the morning of October 2nd; he was the manager of Ken’s sober living residence. He’d found my number in my brother’s cell phone and told me tearfully that Ken passed away in his sleep. He was 53 years old.

Oh my, such a sweet man. Troubled, broken, sick and tired, but such a sweet man. I’ve written about him elsewhere, detailing his life of struggle and pain. But that day — that instant in the Home Depot — my thoughts were these:

This could have been my brother.

He would have been so good at a job like this.

Oh, how I miss him! Oh, how sorry I am for all the turmoil he endured! Oh, how I wish I could change it somehow.

But I cannot. I cannot go back in time, much as I might wish to do so. I cannot change one second of his life.

This much, though . . . this much, I can do:

I can acknowledge my own sadness about him.

I can make space for the grief to surprise me, again and again.

I can thank God for Ken every day.

I can pray for his sons and daughter-in-law.

I can remember the best pieces of his story.

I can pay attention to those I meet who remind me of him in some way — size, demeanor, struggle.

I can not be ashamed of the sobs, the tears, the sadness or him. Instead, I can remember him with love and gratitude, accepting him for who he was, warts and all, and rejoice that his suffering is over.

Grief comes in waves, they say. Who knew the tide would still roll after this many years? Sometimes I think I’m ‘used’ to all the death and dying we’ve experienced in our family circle. But I’m not, and — thank God — I never will be. Though it often comes disguised as blessing, especially after a long, difficult illness, death is always our last enemy, a reminder that our time in this sphere is limited and finite. Ah, Lord, I thank you that Ken’s dying was gentle, though his living was harsh.

I miss you, sweet brother of mine. I truly do.