A Living Hope — Remembering Lucille Peterson Johnston

I had the privilege of giving the homily and pastoral prayer at the Witness to the Resurrection Service for one of my dearest friends, amazing Lucille.  A mentor to me for 43 years, she lived a full, rich life, fully using her gifts of leadership, hospitality, generosity, inclusion, encouragement, creativity and joie de vivre. I thank God for her. I am posting this short piece here for anyone who loved her and was unable to travel to Santa Barbara today for the service. I wish I could give you the entire time — the memories, the singing, the piano music, the laughter. Maybe this will give you a tiny piece of the whole.


They’re all gone now — all of my mothers. My own mom, the one who birthed and raised me, died last year at the age of 95. My husband’s mom, the one who welcomed and included me, died in 2014 at the age of 98.

And Lucille, the mom who mentored me, who saw gifts in me I didn’t see in myself; the one who challenged me to begin the slow, steady work of becoming a pastor — now she is gone, too, at the amazing age of 102.

And I feel each loss profoundly.There are no substitutes for any of these remarkable women. None. Each one was a gift of God in my life — planting seeds, modeling courage, living a life of faith and faithfulness, fully and well.

So I join with Cindy and Curt and Jim and their families in grieving today. There is a huge hole in the universe that opened last weekend, one that will never be filled in exactly the same way. And it’s important to say so, to acknowledge and make room for the tears, to pause and let it sink in that someone with a larger-than-life presence is no longer touchable, no longer filling that unique and particular space in our lives and hearts. And that is painful.

But here is something else that is true, perhaps even more true than the pain: even in death, we have a living hope. That is why, as I stand here and you sit there, we can all link arms and give testimony to this truth:

          our gratitude is wider, deeper and greater than our grief.

And if Lucille were here with us, I’d offer to help her design a needlepoint purse that says exactly that!

            Our gratitude is greater than our grief.

All week long, I have been overwhelmed with the depth of my gratitude — to God for the gift of this woman in my life, to Lucille, for being who she was, and to all of you for sharing her so generously with all of us. There is no one like her — never has been, never will be.

Now we all know, she wasn’t perfect. Not one of us is. But I gotta say this — she came really, really close, didn’t she? She had strong opinions and she shared them. She liked to be in charge and she was scarily good at it. She never garnered a long list of degrees after her name, but her intelligence was through the roof. And she adored her family — every single member of her family — the ones she bore and the ones some of them married, and the kids they bore and the kids they married, and now the kids the kids had!

And then, there were all those cousins and aunts, her amazing sisters, the two remarkable husbands and an entire step-family. All of you were shining stars in her universe and I hope you know that, way down deep inside you. Because to be loved by Lucille Peterson Johnston — that is a rich gift, one with lasting impact and importance, one that changes you from the inside out.

In the midst of my own remembering, and on the rising tide of my gratitude, I’ve reflected on why that last point is true. Why is it that the love of a person like Lucille has the power to change us?

I think it’s this: Lucille was the embodiment of what it means to live firmly situated in the ‘living hope’ that Peter talks about in the first chapter of his first epistle. Lucille walked the talk. She knew God, up close and personally. She radiated energy and life and hope, which, if you think about it, is a pretty risky thing to do. Because when we allow ourselves to hope, we open ourselves to the strong possibility — maybe even the likelihood — of massive disappointment. Sometimes, living in hope can feel tenuous, uncertain, even frightening.

But here’s the thing about the kind of hope that Peter is talking about here, — this living hope is not your ordinary, run-of-the-mill, “oh, I hope, I hope, I hope I get what I want” kinda deal. No. Peter’s kind of hope — God’s kind of hope, Lucille’s kind of hope — is alive — it has wings and a beating heart and it can move us to do remarkable and world-changing things.

“By his great mercy,” Peter wrote to the church, “God has given us a new birth into a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead and into an inheritance that is imperishable, undefiled, and unfading, kept in heaven for you, who are being protected by the power of God through faith for a salvation ready to be revealed in the last time.” (NRSV)

It begins with the mercy of God, and it continues through a life lived in hope, and is brought to completion when we reach the moment of our inheritance. And that is where our dear Lucille is right now, friends. She is experiencing the completion of the living hope that was her life on planet earth. She is enjoying the company of God in ways we can only imagine, and she is surrounded by nothing but love. Nothing.

Harold and Roy are there, of course. And her mom, whom she moved across the country to care for so many years ago. And sweet Drake, who left us way too soon. And her sisters, Doris and Betty, and so many friends, too many to count. And before we know it, we will be there, too — some of us sooner than others.

But between now and then, we have work to do, don’t we? We have the remarkable task of carrying on her legacy, of letting that living hope empower us to be the truest, fullest, richest persons we can be. Because here’s the wonderful truth — Lucille knew herself. She knew who she was, what her gifts were, whom she loved. And she was the very best Lucille she could be, wasn’t she?

That’s what the mercy of God can do, you see. That’s what living in hope births in us — a growing awareness of who God is, yes, indeed. But also a growing awareness of who WE are, and a deepening desire to live these lives we’ve been given fully aware and fully awake.

So thank you, Lucille, for being you. For showing us the way to the good life, for calling out the best in us, for reminding us, with that ever-present twinkle, that there is always more to come.

And thank you, God, for giving her to us and for giving us to one another.

 

Will you pray with me, please?

 

Loving God, Risen Savior, Gentle Spirit,

How we thank you for the gift of Lucille. For her grace and beauty, for her warm hospitality, for her generous and thoughtful gifts of love and inclusion to so many people. We miss her. And this family misses her most of all. Enliven us with your presence, even as we sit together in grief. Remind us of that hope with wings that Jesus makes possible.

We pray especially today for all these ones in the front rows, the family Lucille loved so dearly. Will you bring the healing balm of tears and of laughter, the soothing comfort of memories, of photographs and family history, of things shared only by them?

And will you bring to all of our hearts and minds our own special and sweet remembrances of Lucille’s endless gifts — rich gifts of creativity and hospitality and leadership. And empower each of us, by the work of your Spirit within us, to live our lives as fully as possible. To know ourselves, to deepen our walk with you, to reach out to others with the kind of welcome that Lucille modeled for all of us, the kind of welcome that she experienced because she knew you so very well.

No, there will never be another one like her, Lord. And that is exactly as it should be. Thank you for your loving design, O God, your careful and invigorating breath of life, that Spirit that is uniquely breathed into each and every one of your human creatures. Thank you especially that the Wind you breathed into Lucille blew our way for so many years.

It is all gift.

In the name of Jesus, the one who loves us and walks with us, we pray today. Amen.

 

 

 

 

Out Here, on the Brink — SheLoves, September 2018, “Edge”

It’s lonelier than I imagined, this aging thing. I remember being impatient with my dad when we pushed my parents to move from their much-loved last home, built 15 years earlier, into a retirement community a little bit closer to us. He was suffering from Parkinson’s and atherosclerosis and my mom was wearing herself out as primary care giver. We thought the move would provide extra help for her, a bit of respite care. At that point in time they were 85 and 81. As I tried to help my mom get herself organized for the move, Daddy slipped into a quiet much deeper than his usual taciturnity, muttering, “Those places are where you go to die.” I tried to reassure him they were places you go to live before you die. He was having none of it.

I get it now. I’m still a decade behind where they were then, but I can smell the 80s coming at me and I’m not a big fan of that scent, to be completely honest. This is not a culture that values elders, generally preferring those past 75 or 80 to stay out of the spotlight and keep quiet. Part of me is keenly aware of the reasons for that truth: I discover, on an almost daily basis, that the inevitable effects of time and life are sometimes painful and humiliating and not particularly fun to watch. And I get that, too. But still . . . it feels lonely from time to time, out here on the doorstep of eternity.

Don’t get me wrong — there are definite benefits to being ‘retired.’ Opportunities to travel, to read more, to binge on Netflix as needed, and to serve in capacities suited to advancing years and garnered wisdom — these are gifts of this season. But let’s face it, I am on the edge — the edge of the end — and everybody knows it. Maybe I’ll live past my 100th birthday like my maternal grandmother. Maybe I’ll be gone next month. Who knows? And which is preferable? That, too, is open to debate!

In the meantime, I am trying to practice saying ‘yes’ to whatever life remains to me. My father’s choices shut him off from us. Part of that was disease driven, but part of it was his lifelong pattern of choosing isolation when things got difficult. I don’t want to do that. I’d like to dance myself off the cliff, if at all possible, so I’m trying to figure out what that might look like in this aging body, with this aging brain.

 

Please join the conversation (and the conclusion of this reflection!) over at SheLoves by clicking here. 

4:38 p.m.

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They tell me there was snow on our mountains for about five minutes this morning. I never saw it, but I believe it was there.

I know in my head that my mother has been gone for exactly one year today, but my heart does not yet fully comprehend this truth.. It seems I am able to believe in the snow without ever seeing it, but unable to wrap my head around tangible things right in front of my face, like a clock or a calendar. 

Even though it is the way of things, even though death comes to every one of us at some point along the journey, even though my mother’s death was, in many ways, the very best way for death to happen, this losing a much-loved mother is hard and it is painful. At times, it still feels strange, unnatural and weirdly disorienting. Tears spring at the oddest times. Some small piece of decor or clothing will catch  my eye and I realize I am smiling sadly, even nodding slightly, as if offering a brief moment of homage to the force of nature who was my mom.

One year today.

We walked her last journey together, she and I, and it was not an easy one. I remember lovely sunlit moments along the way — sitting by the pool at her residential facility, each of us in a large sunhat, drinking in the ocean air, bird sound, and bright blooming vines that surrounded us. I remember laughter, her wonderful, rich laughter. I remember a smile as big as whatever room she was in, welcoming one and all. I remember how beautiful she was, even as age and disease slowly ravaged her.

I also remember deep confusion, the devastation when she no longer knew I was her daughter, her tears of frustration and of fear when she tried to make sense of something that was no longer within the sphere of her cognitive ability. I remember trips to the emergency room, her terror and embarrassment when strapped to a gurney she did not want or need. I remember deep bruises from falls, and the firm conviction that, ‘this is not my room, I’ve never been here before in my life.’ I remember a growing disconnection from things like seasons, days, time itself. 

I also remember her leading my Brownie meetings, teaching my 11th grade Sunday School class, bending over her beautiful stitcheries, and I remember with glee her bawdy sense of humor. I was deeply aware of how thirsty she was to learn, to read, to discuss, to ponder and wonder and observe. I remember how feisty she could be — and how volatile!

I remember how much she worried over me. Oh, my, how she could worry!

Now, at this late stage of my own life, I know all of that was because of her deep love and concern for me, but then? Then, it felt suffocating, limiting, inhibiting. She worried over my height, my weight, the way I walked, the fact that I might be “too smart to ever catch a good man.” She dragged me to multiple dermatology clinics because of my dry and sensitive skin,  she always wanted me to be ‘more social,’ and regularly encouraged me to invite classmates over to hang out. She also wanted me to enjoy athletics, something she was good at and I most definitely was not.

We found our way together, yes, we did. I was her first child — longed for and loved and cherished. As does every first-born, I bore the brunt of her inexperience and the leftover wounds of her own, sometimes chaotic, upbringing. But she was smart, my mom. And she was good. She learned from her mistakes, she apologized easily, she loved deeply and well. We found our way to one another during my adolescence by reading books together and writing each other notes about them. And we laughed. A lot. 

We also shared a deep love of beauty, in all its permutations. Today, on this anniversary, and as my computer clock tells me it is now exactly 4:38 — the moment of her death, one year ago — I want to remember and reflect on that most of all. She was the embodiment of beauty in so many ways — in her face, surely. But even more so, in her spirit. Yes, she could be ugly, too. Aren’t we all? But the beauty of her is what I cling to now.

Gasping at a glorious sunset, tenderly arranging flowers for the dinner table, creating a cake or a sketch, looking for and finding the beauty of others, even eventually encouraging me to reach out past the boundaries she herself had always drawn around me, as a female child. She didn’t fully understand my call to ministry at midlife, but she supported it. She wept when I told her — through my own tears — that I never could have considered going to seminary if my husband didn’t make enough money for its cost to have no impact on any other person in our family. She wept because she knew that wacky belief came directly from her own fears and prejudices, her own false picture of what it means to be female in this world. 

My mother learned. And she kept on learning, right up until dementia moved in to stay. And while she learned, she continued to love us all so very well. I thank God for her every day of my life. And I thank you, my dearest Mom. I miss you more than words can say.

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A Prayer for the Table — Second Sunday in Lent, 2018

IMG_0684A Prayer for the Table
offered on the Second Sunday in Lent, March 4, 2018
Montecito Covenant Church
coming out of a powerful sermon from Jeremiah 29,
preached by Pastor Jon Lemmond

Lord Almighty, you are our God in the midst of life —
in good times and in hard times,
in beauty and in disarray,
in success and in failure,
in life and in death.
Thank you.

Thank you that you know our names,
that you care about our story,
and that you invite us to make our home in you.
Thank you most of all, on this day, on this Lenten Sunday,
that you take the broken pieces of our hearts
and weave them together to make art,
in ways we cannot now imagine.

Even so, Lord, empower our imaginations —
give us glimpses of the possible,
even when everything around us feels decidedly the opposite.
And help us to begin . . . always, to begin . . . with gratitude.

Thank you for today,
for safety through the storm,
for comfort in grief,
for inspiration from the Word.
Thank you for friends,
for beautiful spaces in which to sit,
for music that stirs our hearts and lifts our spirits.

Thank you for faithful leaders who try to listen well
to the movement of your Spirit and who hang onto you
when it gets murky out there.

Thank you for gray heads, and newborn baby heads,
for the laughter of children, and the tears of caring adults,
for the sturdy curiosity of adolescents,
some of whom are traveling back from winter camp today,
and for the burgeoning maturity of college students.
Thank you for the community we enjoy today,
in the here and now, and for the communion of saints,
all those who have moved ahead of us to life eternal.

Special thanks today for the multiple beauties of divine and human creation
all around us in this beat-up-but-not-defeated town we call home.

Thank you most of all on this day, for the table — this tangible reminder 
that even the most horrific event is not beyond the redemptive power of your love. Thank you for the beauty of broken bread and poured out grapes,
for the grace of saying and hearing the words, for the way you,
O God of the Broken Beautiful,
can take the most common, ordinary things and transform them
into nourishment for body and soul.

Thank you for feeding us well.

We began with gratitude, Lord, but we need to also make space for lament today.
Our hearts are broken for the Gross family,
in the loss of Jordan this past week. 

Surround them with your love, help them to find peace
in the midst of their pain,

to find their way to a completely new definition of life
as they have known it for the past 22 years.
Lord, have mercy.

There are others of us in the throes of grief, too, Almighty One. 
We are people who always hold some kind of pain, even as we smile and nod. 
For some of us, the pain comes from the loss of loved ones; 
for some, it comes from dealing with our own illness.
Others are dealing with job loss, or with financial insecurity,
or troubled relationships.

Many of us wrestle with hard questions about faith or about the future.

Hear us now, as we offer names to you,
names that represent some kind of story of need and uncertainty.
Help us to trust that you hear and answer as we lift them to you:

Prepare us now, O God, to receive you anew.
Help us to rest in your healing power and in your forgiveness.
Teach us the truth of Jeremiah — that there is life to be lived,
there is beauty to be found, 
even though we may feel overwhelmed, defeated or abandoned.
Even in exile, you are here, the God who can be found.
Help us, dear God, to make our home in you.

Amen.

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Flickers in the Dark: SheLoves — January 2018

Our writing theme for this January is, “A Little Light, Please.” Looking for it in he midst of a horrific tragedy in our central coast community. Follow the link at the bottom to get to the rest of this reflection:

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We taught Confirmation again this morning, my husband, Anna, our student ministries director, and I. We have done this every Sunday since September of last year and it is a task we love. On the attendance roster this year are 17 middle school students, full of energy, kind-hearted, generous, funny and smart.

Today, however was different. There were only eight students around the table at 8:45 this morning, much quieter than usual. I brought homemade granola, fresh berries, coffee cake and OJ, which they gratefully inhaled, and today, we sat together and talked. No lesson this week — at least, no lesson from the binder that contains our two-year course of study. The topic for today was, “Resurrection, Jesus Lives!” and we did reference that powerful part of our shared story during our time together. But a lesson plan, with discussion questions, art projects, readers’ theater or any of the other rich resources that are available to us each week? No, there was none of that.

Instead, we shared stories. We began with stories of devastation, loss, terror and sorrow. In the early morning hours of the previous Tuesday, our community was hit by a deadly combination of events. A rainstorm of record-breaking intensity fell on mountainous landscape that had just been scraped and seared by the largest wildfire in the history of our state.

And the mountain came down.

Boulders larger than small houses, century-old trees, automobiles, even entire homes, were swept downstream toward the ocean, taking twenty human lives away forever and injuring scores of others. Four of those killed were children. One of those rescued from a six-hour burial in thick, viscous mud, was a member of our youth group — the same age as the students around that table. Her father died, her brother is still missing, her mom is in the hospital with multiple injuries, expected to recover.

All of this happened in the dead of night, in a pouring rainstorm, on narrow, windy roads with limited access in the best of times. Swiftly moving debris caused a gas main to explode, destroying one home, scorching parts of several others. That blazing torch provided an eerie light in the midst of all the destruction.

In every other way, it was very, very dark. . .

To read more, please click here.

Making Room for Lament: SheLoves — September 2017

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In the months from April to August of this year, we have attended five funerals and sent a eulogy to be read at a sixth. These were services of worship and remembrance, held in honor of people we loved, people whose lives intersected with ours regularly, even when those lives were very short.

It began with my mom’s death on the 19th of April after a 7-year journey through dementia. At the end of May, we dealt with the shock of an accidental drowning — a 2-year-old grandson in our extended congregational family. That death was followed about five weeks later by the loss of a dear woman friend and leader in our community. She died only 7 months after an abrupt diagnosis of stage 4 cancer.

The week we came back from vacation in early August, we attended an emotional farewell for a dear 8-year-old boy who was born with only half a heart, and whose life had a lasting impact on our entire city. At the end of that same week, we listened to parts of a life story we had never heard, as we said good-bye to a faithful woman in our congregation who passed away at the age of 105. In the middle of last month, I received news of the anticipated death of a former colleague and partner in ministry who had a heart attack and a brain bleed while in the physical therapist’s clinic. We traveled 100 miles south to be there for his stunned widow and adult children.

I suppose I should not be surprised that the most self-descriptive word I can come up with these days is, ‘weary.’ Although I ‘do not grieve as those who have no hope,’ I grieve nonetheless. I don’t think I have begun to fully internalize all the facets of my mom’s death, what it means to be an orphan in this world. That truth tells me that there is even less space inside to grieve well for each of the other losses which have left such huge holes in our lives.

So the words I want to amplify in this particular season are the beautiful and necessary words of lament. Those words that speak the pain in us out into the atmosphere, those words that call us to be fully human, acknowledging that it sometimes hurts to be alive when others are no longer breathing beside us. I want to make space inside — and outside — for the tears that bring healing, tears that tell stories, tears that say, “I loved them and I can no longer whisper that truth into their ears.”

So let me say this as loudly and as clearly as written space in an e-magazine will allow: lament is required when we walk through the valley. Imagine that I am using my big-girl, outdoor voice when you read those words, will you? Because this is important: there is no such thing as loss without pain and suffering. The bromides and clichés that are too often bandied about at such times are less than useless. In fact, they can be harmful. People do not want to hear about “God’s plan” when they are in shock, when they are completely exhausted and empty, when they don’t know how they are going to get through the next hour, much less the next year. . . 

Please click here to read the remainder of this reflection and to join the conversation at one of the finest magazines on the interweb.

My Favorite Kind of Story

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Two years ago, I wrote the following review of a book written by a friend of mine named Shawn Smucker. I loved it then and even helped to kick-start his self-publishing journey. Now, a major publishing house has brought out a new edition, with a stunning new cover, but the same wondrous story. It’s a keeper and a repeater, friends, and I encourage you to order yourself a copy — and get one for a friend, while you’re at it!

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It all started with a tree, didn’t it? And that theme of trees winds its way throughout scripture and throughout our lives, unfolding in myriad ways — as metaphor, sustenance, shade, comfort, even horror. The tree.

Shawn Smucker has woven a fantastic and beautiful story about a particular tree, a re-imagining of the story of the tree of life. The story begins unpretentiously, maybe even a little slowly, but if you’ll settle in, let the beauty of his words flow in and around you, I will guarantee you that you’ll be hooked.

Hooked, I tell you!

This is masterful story-telling — intriguing idea, fascinating characters, great conflict and an empathetic look at how very difficult it is for us to lose someone we love. This is, in many ways, a story about death. But do not be deceived: the book is definitely not a downer. It’s a grab-you-by-the-throat, make-you-think-as-well-as-feel, turn-our-ordinary-ideas-on-their-heads kind of book and I highly recommend it to you. Highly.

Samuel is both an old man and a 12 year old boy in this story, an old man looking back at a pivotal summer in his life. A hot, drippy, menacing summer in the valley between two mountain ranges in central Pennsylvania. He has a good friend, a girl named Abra (which happens to be the name of one of Smucker’s daughters, as Samuel is the name of one of his sons). And there is a mysterious neighbor, an even more mysterious stranger, a grieving father, and the memories of a beautiful and loving mom. There is also a carnival, three very strange old women and an antique store, to say nothing of thunder and lightning and ancient, broken trees here and there.

And there is a search here, too, a search that reveals the true hero of this piece. There is also an epic battle between good and evil, and like all good fantasies, some dang good, nail-biting, cliff-hanging scenes sprinkled throughout.

I LOVED this book. And there is just a hint, at the very end, that there might be more of them in the future. Oh, glory!

Get thee to a bookstore or over to Amazon and order this one ASAP. And carve out some weekend time to devour it. Because I’m here to tell you – it’s a tough one to put down!

The Land of Tears — SheLoves, June 2017

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            From The Little Prince: “It is such a secret place, the land of tears.”
                                                                     — Antoine de Saint-Exupéry

This land is a place I’ve visited many times over my life, a strange and secret country, indeed.

I could say it feels familiar, except that it doesn’t. Not quite. Each visit is unique, bringing its own sadness, regret, emptiness, and eventually, fullness and replenishment as I wend my way back to the familiar terra firma of ‘regular’ life, whatever the heck that is.

After a winding journey of several years, my mama died from Alzheimer’s disease in April of this year. There have been tears all along the highway of this Thief of Time and Remembering, of course. Oodles of them. But none quite like the ones that spilled that Wednesday afternoon in April, standing by her hospital bed. I saw her leave us — an open-eyed gaze, two loud gasps, followed by the strangest silence I’ve ever experienced. I will be forever grateful that I was able to say good-bye . . . thank you . . . I love you.

Or the tears that sprang to my cheeks as I drove out of a doctor’s parking lot one week later, remembering how I have always planned my medical appointments around mom’s schedule these last few years, and wishing fiercely that she could be next to me in my car just one more time. I know there are many tears that have not yet worked their way into the air that surrounds me, tears I carry in this body, waiting behind my eyelids, behind my heart. Each one, shed or yet to be, remind me that grief is a land of secrets, of strange and sudden surprise.

I understand that losing my last parent at the age of 72 is a rare thing. I am grateful for that truth, grateful for her long life, and for my own, glad that we could be together more closely these last few years. Nevertheless, this feeling of loss is real. It winds its tendrils around me in ways that surprise and perplex me, showing up in simple things — like driving down a particular street or watching a television series we used to enjoy together. It stings when I see the bags of clothing waiting for the Goodwill truck or when I pick up a photograph. Though I’ve been here before, this trip feels particularly treacherous and very, very lonely.

We held her memorial service a full month after her death. It was a lovely afternoon, full of memories, scripture, and sweet, old songs. There were digitized home movies, good Mexican food in our backyard after the service, and lots and lots of shared stories. She would have loved every minute of it. In fact, I’m quite sure she did.

The next morning, life moved on. It was time to be ‘the pastor’ for a while, six years into retirement. I led in worship, preached a charge to our fine new confirmand, then went home and collapsed, eager for some space to weep and rest.

But it was not to be. Why?

To find out why it was not to be, please click on this link and read the rest of this piece over at SheLoves today. Join the conversation!

Let Love Overflow — Transition Sunday 2017

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It’s been a heckuva coupla months. I promised this post almost one month ago and have just today found space to sort it out and edit it for this space. I took a month off from my commitment at SheLoves and my next post there will go live on Saturday of this week — I’ll be back here to set up a linking post later in the week.

But I wanted to get this one done first because that crazy weekend in May was a rich and important one. We said farewell to my mother on that Saturday, with a service, a reception and a dinner at our home, which I wrote about here. The next morning, I led in worship and preached for the first time in a while, although the sermon was more of a homily due to the demands of that particular Sunday in the ongoing life of our community.

We call it Promotion Sunday now — it used to be called Confirmation Sunday, but we added in recognition of all children and young adults making transitions over the summer to a new grade/stage of life. It was rich and wonderful and L O N G, so the sermon, by necessity, was short. The picture above shows off our single confirmand this year, Tyler H, 3rd from the left. And that is our Director of Student Ministries, Anna Beebe on the far left. She has been a spectacular partner to Dick and me as we stepped in to teach 9 students this year. Such a joy that has been for us in a year of change and tumult; we are humbled and grateful to have had this opportunity.

Our Rite of Confirmation includes the reading of a paper by the confirmand(s) on any of the 26 “Building Blocks” in their workbooks. These are the traditional Q & A from the Luther Catechism and Tyler chose to respond to the question: Who is God? He did a wonderful job! Then the confirmand replies to three questions about their faith, kneels to receive a blessing as his family surrounds him. He/she is given a taste of salt and a lit candle as a reminder that they are called to be the salt of the earth, the light of the world. Then a very personal prayer is prayed over them before the charge/homily is given to the entire class. It has long been one of my favorite Sundays of the church year.

There is a video for the song I mention in the opening paragraph of this homily at the bottom of this inset and the lyrics are posted above it. It’s a wonderful and unusual hymn, absolutely perfect for this Sunday or for any baptism or infant dedication service.

“I Was There to Hear Your Borning Cry”
— written by John Ylsvikar

I was there to hear your borning cry,
I’ll be there when you are old.
I rejoiced the day you were baptized,
to see your life unfold.

I was there when you were but a child,
with a faith to suit you well;
In a blaze of light you wandered off
to find where demons dwell.

When you heard the wonder of the Word
I was there to cheer you on;
You were raised to praise the living Lord,
to whom you now belong.

If you find someone to share your time
and you join your hearts as one,
I’ll be there to make your verses rhyme
from dusk ’till rising sun.

In the middle ages of your life,
not too old, no longer young,
I’ll be there to guide you through the night,
complete what I’ve begun.

When the evening gently closes in,
and you shut your weary eyes,
I’ll be there as I have always been
with just one more surprise.

I was there to hear your borning cry,
I’ll be there when you are old.
I rejoiced the day you were baptized,
to see your life unfold.

This video was produced by a fellow Covenant pastor and worship leader and reflects his mostly white congregation. It is beautifully done — I wish it were a bit more ethnically/racially balanced, but it is lovely, nonetheless.

Let Love Overflow
Philippians 1:1-11
A Homily for the Confirmation Class
May 20, 2017
Diana R.G. Trautwein
Montecito Covenant Church

That’s a really unusual song we’ve just sung, isn’t it? It’s one I happen to like a lot and so I requested it for this morning’s service. Why? Because this is a special day in the life of our community and somehow, the words of this song touch on some of the reasons why.

Promotion Sunday is a day when we celebrate who it is God is forming us to be — all of us, from little to young adult to mid-life to old age. We’re in this thing together and today is a day for remembering that and celebrating it! We belong to God and we belong to one another.

That’s one of the reasons we include the Rite of Confirmation in a Sunday morning service of worship rather than doing it in someone’s backyard after dinner – because it’s important for the community of faith to celebrate together. It’s a good thing for all of us to affirm the work these young people have done in beginning and in completing this two-year course, this intentional time of learning more about what we believe as followers of Jesus Christ.

Rituals, with set words and actions help us to mark out special events, to set them aside and say, “This is important and we want to remember it.” We mark lots of life’s important moments with rites and rituals, don’t we? Baptism, marriage, ordination, death.

Yesterday, we held a special service called A Witness to the Resurrection, a memorial service for a Christian who has died. This one was for my mother, who left this earth last month. These young people right here in front — there were 8 of them for most of the year — they have walked with me on this journey. They have prayed for her and for me, they have asked me how she was doing, how I am doing, they have shown me understanding and grace in so many ways. Teaching them in this class all year has turned out to be one of the greatest gifts during a difficult time in my own life and I am deeply grateful to each and every one of them.

So it is with joy and an extra measure of satisfaction that I offer a few words to them this morning. A charge, if you will, a brief homily that is directed primarily to this small band in the front of the center section. The rest of you are warmly invited to listen in, of course, but these words are for them.

Dylan read a passage for us just a few minutes ago, way back before we acknowledged the graduates and before Tyler was confirmed. It’s from a small letter in the New Testament called Philippians. Eleven verses only, but eleven verses that contain pretty much EXACTLY THE WORDS I would like to say to each of you today.

One of the loveliest things about this small letter is the overall spirit of it. Those of you who have done the New Testament year in Confirmation might remember that there are a bunch of letters in the that part of the Bible, many of them written by a man named Paul. Some of those letters sound a bit angry at times; some of them are intent on working through some of the more complicated parts of what the newly formed church was coming to understand about who Jesus really was and what he came to do on this earth.

But this letter is gentle, encouraging, marked by the deep love that Paul felt for these people who lived in a busy, very diverse city, in a place called Macedonia, which is now a part of the country of Greece in southern Europe. In this letter, Paul uses the word ‘joy’ more times than anywhere else in all his writing – 11 different times. He also uses the name of Jesus a whole lot, something you’ll hear as we walk through it. Joy and Jesus — they go together well and they’re at the heart of what Paul has to say and what I want to say, too.

We start with a word of greeting. Now letters written 2000 years ago sounded a bit more formal than the emails or texts you guys are used to these days. Listen and you’ll see what I mean:

Paul and Timothy, servants of Christ Jesus, To all God’s holy people in Christ Jesus at Philippi, together with the overseers and deacons :

Grace and peace to you from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.

 One sentence — a single L O N G sentence — tells us who’s writing the letter, who’s getting the letter and then offers a special word of blessing, a very specific greeting of grace and peace — and not just any grace and peace, but grace and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.

 Those of you who have been taking sermon notes here during your time as a confirmation student may remember that our former pastor — and your former teacher — Don Johnson, always began his sermons with exactly those words, didn’t he? “Grace and peace to you from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.” It’s a grand greeting, don’t you think?

Then Paul goes on to tell these friends how he really feels about them!

I thank my God every time I remember you. In all my prayers for all of you, I always pray with joy because of your partnership in the gospel from the first day until now, being confident of this, that he who began a good work in you will carry it on to completion until the day of Christ Jesus.

 It is right for me to feel this way about all of you, since I have you in my heart and, whether I am in chains or defending and confirming the gospel, all of you share in God’s grace with me. God can testify how I long for all of you with the affection of Christ Jesus.

 I hope you have some people in your life for whom you thank God every time you think about them! I hope there are those for whom you pray with joy. As we’ve grown together this year, you have become those people for me. I thank God for each one of you and I pray for you with joy.

Paul calls his friends ‘partners in the gospel,’ because of how well they worked together, how tightly knit they were to one another, and how they were caring for one another. This was a church that was really clicking, and learning how to be generous. We know this because they sent money to help the big church in Jerusalem and they sent help to Paul when he was in jail.

But you know the line I really love in this part of the passage is the one that talks about confidence. Did you catch that? “. . . being confident of this, that he who began a good work in you will carry it on to completion until the day of Christ Jesus.”

 Now this church in Philippi wasn’t perfect — no church is! God chooses human beings to be the church, right? And we humans have this tendency to mess things up from time to time, don’t we? And these folks were no exception to that rule.

But . . . BUT . . . Paul has confidence in them. More accurately, Paul has confidence in God, who is at work within them. Even when they make mistakes, even when they trip and stumble, God is alive in them, completing the work that the Holy Spirit began at the moment they first said ‘yes’ to the gospel of Jesus.

Paul believes in them because Paul believes in the God who is in them.

In his oh-so-good paper, Tyler talked about his experience of being saved at winter camp this year — that’s when Tyler said ‘yes’ to the gospel of Jesus.

Each of you already has or will soon, I hope and pray, say that ‘yes’ yourself. And like Paul, I believe in the God who hears the ‘yes’ you offer, so I believe in you.

The work that begins in you at that moment of ‘yes’ will continue your whole life long and it will be a beautiful thing to see someday. In fact, it already is.

Yesterday, I celebrated with my family and my friends the good work that God did in my mom over her long, long life. Even in her last years, when her mind was so very damaged and her body so frail . . . even then. God was completing the work that had begun in her when she was a teenager, just like you.

God is in the business of finishing what God starts, believe me when I tell you this. And I am confident that the good work God is doing in you, my young friends . . . that work will continue your whole life long, until that day when you see Jesus face to face. Which is exactly where my mom is now. 

Finally, we come to the last few verses of this scripture passage, which get to the heart of it all, and they offer the main point of my charge to each of you today.

Listen to Paul’s words:

And this is my prayer: that your love may abound — may overflow — more and more in knowledge and depth of insight, so that you may be able to discern what is best and may be pure and blameless for the day of Christ, filled with the fruit of righteousness that comes through Jesus Christ—to the glory and praise of God.

 That is all one sentences, friends and it is a jam-packed one, too.

It all begins with LOVE. The kind of love that comes only from God, the kind of love that changes hearts and minds, the kind of love that changes churches and cities, the kind of love that can change the world, if we let it loose, if we live it, if we grab hold of it and hang on for dear life.

So the most important thing I can say to you this morning, the most important thing I can ever say to you is this:

GOD LOVES YOU.

Not in spite of all the ways you mess up, not even because you need God’s forgiveness and grace. God loves you because you are YOU, a totally unique person created in God’s image, gifted with the ability to choose to follow in God’s way and the basic equipment to receive the power of the Holy Spirit right now.

Yes, you need God’s forgiveness. We all do. But even more basic than that need in you is the truth that God loves you — first, last and always.

It is that love which will make it possible for you to make good choices going forward in your life. It is that love that will gradually — sometimes gently and sometimes not so much — begin to shape you more and more into the image of Jesus himself. It is that love that will work its wondrous way in you, helping you to really learn the difference between right and wrong, good and evil.

Paul prays for his friends that Love will help them to grow in knowledge and in depth of insight. That means head knowledge and heart knowledge, because both are so important if we are to be the kind of people we were designed to be in the first place.

Living life is a process of refinement, like precious metals are refined by fire, like gorgeous gems are carved out of rocks. And when we say yes to God’s love, yes to the gospel, yes to Jesus — that process of refinement leads us to a deeper understanding of ourselves and of other people, it helps us to make good choices, it empowers us to extend grace and peace to the people we live with, those we sit in class with, even to those we work with, when you’re old enough to have jobs.

Love and knowledge and insight go together, but that order is crucial. Start with love. Always, always start with love.

Don’t be afraid of your tenderness, don’t be embarrassed by your concern for those who are on the edges, who are being bullied, who are left out. When you feel their pain, you are letting love win. When your heart is open to God, to yourself and to others, that’s when the ‘fruit of righteousness’ Paul talks about in this sentence becomes obvious.

That big word ‘righteousness’ actually means ‘right relationship’ as much as it does ‘right behavior.’ They go together, you see? When you live in a relationship of love with the God who made you, then you’ll find it easier and easier to do what is right and good to do. You won’t do it perfectly — because, once again — ain’t none of us perfect, right?? But you will do it more and more.

My prayer for you, dear Confirmation Class of 2017, is that one day, someone will say of you what I said of my mother yesterday afternoon:

“What rises to the top is her goodness. Her generosity. Her great good humor, her searching intelligence, her love for us. Give me the choice of all the mothers in this world, I’d choose the one I had. In a heartbeat.’”

Let love abound, my friends. Let it overflow.

Let’s pray together:

Gracious and loving God,

How I thank you for the gift of this morning. For each child and young adult moving forward in life. For each Confirmation student in this year’s class, and especially today, for Tyler, whose kindness and sweet spirit have made our Tuesday afternoons such a lovely experience for all of us.

Will you help these friends — and their parents, and fellow believers around this room — to really take in the power and beauty of Paul’s words this morning?

Open our hearts to receive your love anew, remind us when we step outside of that love, and point us again in the direction of righteousness, of right relationship and right behavior.

Help us to look to Jesus, the one who calls us, who names us as his own, who goes before us and who receives us when we pass from this life to the next.

Amen.

Honoring the Body — Remembering Ruth Gold: July 6, 1921 – April 19, 2017

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Beautiful Mom, about 1948.

For most of my life, my mother was my best friend. As she began to leave us, almost a decade ago now, the inexorable blade of dementia sliced her memory into ever smaller pieces. During these years of decline, I often wondered how I would endure, who I would become without her richly textured presence in my life. What I witnessed was remarkable: the very essence of who she was became ever more finely distilled, until only a small but brilliant shard of light remained. Slowly, I began to understand — it was enough. Even though I no longer had access to all the pieces of my mother, the stories and memories I had come to know over the decades, what I did have was lovely. In truth, it was a strange and beautiful gift. Not a gift that either of us would have chosen, but a gift nonetheless.

Not every dementia story unfolds the way my mother’s did, a truth which makes me grateful on multiple levels for this particular and exquisite experience. For the last five years, I have wandered through grief, shed copious tears, railed at God for the cruelty of this growing epidemic in our land and across the world. I have also fallen to my knees in gratitude for the shining core of her, that glorious flame that blazed up and out and into the core of every single person she encountered. As the limits of her world grew larger and darker, as she lost the desire to eat, to drink, to walk — even then, she found a smile, a sweet word of gratitude, an exclamation of complimentary joy. “You look so beautiful today!” she would say. “Thank you so much for your help.” Not one other syllable made sense toward the end, but those words of kindness remained.

Ruth was born in Duncan, a small logging town on Vancouver Island in British Columbia, Canada, the second child and first-born daughter of Harry and Elsie Hobson. They gave her a long, cumbersome name, which included the names of some female relatives who eventually left mom two small diamonds. She gave those to me — and I managed to lose them both. Mom’s full name was Edith Lemody Ruth Hobson and she was a beautiful baby. They called her Ruthie.

Two years later, the Hobsons gathered up their little family and boarded a train, with siblings and cousins, and emigrated to southern California. Two little boys, my little mom, a second daughter ‘in the oven,’ two parents, three maiden aunts, a cousin or two, and an elderly grandfather arrived in 1923 and settled into a variety of Los Angeles neighborhoods. Mom rode the street car, roller-skated or walked all over what is now Hollywood and graduated from Hollywood High School in 1938. She went to UCLA for two years, and then quit when her family ran out of money; she always regretted never finishing her college career.

Mom’s father was a difficult man, and her mother worked. My mom became a surrogate mom to her siblings and found safe harbor in a local Methodist church. She met my dad there and they married in 1941 when mom was 20. I was born four years later, while they lived in San Diego. My dad taught math and physics at a military academy in that town during WWII — he was deemed entirely too spindly to join the army. In 1947, my brother Tom was born in a tiny town in central California where dad had an in-between teaching job while he waited for an opening at Los Angeles City College. When that job opened, we moved back to Los Angeles and bought our first house — a small, post-war tract home in North Hollywood. I was four years old.

All four of us attended that old Methodist church in downtown LA for the next eight years. I loved that place. My dad was the pianist, my mom sang in the choir, my brother and I went to Sunday School. It was at Trinity Methodist that I began to love choral singing — at the tender age of six. My mom made lifelong friends in that community and was the last one left from the old gang when she died last Wednesday afternoon.

Everywhere we lived, everywhere we worshipped, my mother made friends. Fast friends. I described her to the caregivers where she lived as, “The most flaming extrovert I have ever known.” Her gregarious and compassionate nature made her an excellent neighbor, an even better friend. In the earliest days of her dementia, I discovered that she regularly purchased small boxes of candy to take to her neighbors, to let them know she was thinking about them, to tell them they were loved.

In 1955, when I was almost 11 and Tom was almost 9, our youngest brother Ken was born. One month later, we moved across town to a different valley, from San Fernando to San Gabriel, buying an English Tudor style home in Glendale, CA. I endured (and enjoyed) adolescence in that home, learned to drive on the curvy hills of Forest Lawn Memorial Park, and drove off to UCLA at the age of 17. Wanting to get my youngest brother into what they thought was a better school district, my parents moved to north Glendale while I was in college. That house was never my home in the same way that the previous two had been. I married a year later, graduated six months after that, and then my husband and I sailed off for two years of living and working in Africa.

While they lived in Glendale, my parents were active members of Glendale Presbyterian Church. Each of them served on Session, my mom on at least one pastoral search committee. They thoroughly enjoyed the Sunday school teaching of Paul Jewett, then a theology professor at nearby Fuller Seminary. My mother read widely, with a lively sense of curiosity and a commitment to growing in her faith. She read everything ever written by C.S. Lewis, Catherine Marshall, and Paul Tillich along with a long list of fiction writers. She instilled her love of language, reading, writing and beauty into the core of me at a very young age. 

She was also a ton of fun. She had an earthy sense of humor, loved to laugh, introduced us kids to British humor early on (anyone remember the “Carry On” movies??), and threw grand parties. She also decorated our homes on very little money, made most of my clothes and baked great birthday cakes. One of my daughters said to me last week, “One of my strongest memories of Momma was that she was always, ALWAYS, so happy to see me.” And that was real — she took delight in her family. De-light. Yes, she worried about us (especially Ken, whose life was difficult at many points and who died eight years ago.) But she loved us all and we knew it. Deep down, we knew we were loved. It was like oxygen — something that surrounded us always, something that gave us energy and life.

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Five generations – from lower left – Elsie Hobson, Ruth Gold, Diana Trautwein,
Lisa Fischinger, 
Ben Fischinger — taken in Orange County, 1991

My parents worked hard to create a good home for the three of us. There was one salary in our home, and that one a teacher’s salary, so we didn’t do fancy things. But we listened to all kinds of music on my dad’s home-built hi-fi set (or from his fingers at the keyboard), we camped all over California, and we enjoyed extended family gatherings on both sides, especially gatherings at some of the beaches along the southern California coast.

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Mom, doing what she loved more than almost anything else: boogey-boarding, Huntington Beach,
sometime in the 1980s, I think. She would have been in her early 60s.

Toward the end of his career as a professor and administrator at the junior college level, my dad had some serious health issues that required them to move out of the valley and closer to the sea. They lived in Oceanside for two years, then settled into a lovely town home in Mission Viejo, in Orange County. They loved that community and lived there for about fifteen years. In 2002, we moved them to a retirement community in LaVerne CA. My father died two and a half years later in February of 2005. My mom lived there independently until 2012, when Alzheimer’s put her into assisted living. The next year, we moved her to The Samarkand dementia unit, just ten minutes from our home here in Santa Barbara. 

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My parents, when they lived in Orange County

While they were in Orange County, I took the train south once each month for a long midweek visit. After they moved to LaVerne, I drove south monthly, then twice monthly, and stayed with our daughter, who lived about 30 minutes from there. All of those visits were an attempt to be as present as I could be with the two of them, and then with my mom, while their bodies breathed earth’s air.

Those bodies of theirs were holy to me, often in ways I didn’t fully understand. They had birthed me, loved me, tended me when mildly wounded or critically ill, clothed me, fed me and gave me away to my husband. (Yes, that is an outdated term, one that I no longer use, but it’s the truth of my lived experience in that season of my life.) I was with my father three days before his death, praying the blessing of Aaron over his unconscious, frail frame, telling him how much I loved him and how grateful I was for his care for me. When my brother called to tell me he had died, I asked that his body remain in the room until I could get there. Our bodies are supremely important collections of cosmic dust; they bear the image of an invisible God, they carry our stories, our selves. I wanted to honor him by honoring what remained.

Last week, I had the privilege of doing the same thing for my mama. Her journey took eight days, and every one of those days, I was by her side. Most of the time, I sat in front of a window, using only natural light. I put Pandora onto a hymn station and played it for hours. I finished a large crochet project. I called for more meds, as needed. I got up and blessed her face, stroked her shoulders. I ate the lunches I packed, I took occasional walks. I thanked every one of the Hospice team who came and cared for her so lovingly. One woman offered sponge baths, one offered quiet company, another brought her guitar and sang. The nurses were supremely skilled and compassionate, as were the caregivers at the facility. My pastor came twice, my friend Sherry, Samarkand chaplain for over twenty years, came daily.

Room 62 became holy ground during those long days.

At 4:32 p.m. on Wednesday, Sherry and I stood beside her and my friend said, “Look! Her eyes are open!” Those eyes had been closed for most of the previous five days. Her breathing was quite labored at this point, but as her eyes flew open, the noise stopped. She gasped twice and looked right into my eyes as I blessed her, thanked her, loved her. And she flew. I mean she flew to Jesus in those moments. I had been visualizing my father, my brother, her siblings, her parents and so many of her friends all around that room for days. And I do believe that in that moment, she saw them. And she was not afraid.  

All those dear ones welcomed her home — with love, joy and laughter. This I know, in the deepest part of me, this I know.

We will bury her on Tuesday morning, dropping her earthly remains into the grave plot she will share with my dad. We will hold a special service of worship to celebrate her life on May 20th at 2:00 p.m. in The Chapel at the Samarkand, the place that she called, ‘my church.’

Over and around the fatigue that I feel at this end of the journey, the strongest emotion in my heart is gratitude. It absolutely overwhelms me at some moments. There is sadness, yes, there is sadness. But over and around and in between everything else, there is thanksgiving. For 95 years, she graced this earth, 72 of them with me in the center of that grace. 

Thank you, Mama. And thank you, God.

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November, 2015, last formal portrait

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April 7, 2017