Saturday, December 31, 2011

On Death

As we prepare to say goodbye to 2011, images of Old Man 2011 passing the torch to Diaper Dandy 2012 abound. It's a hint at our own mortality - something that is all too rare in our culture that is often preoccupied with immortality of various kinds, or at least in seeming denial about death as a fact of life.

Though in my three years as pastor I have buried many people, I have been relatively insulated from death myself. Until the death of my grandfather last week, at age 92 1/2, between my husband and me, all of our grandparents were alive and doing relatively well, ranging in age from 81 to 92 1/2. All eight were at our wedding four years ago - something a number of people commented on at the time.

Longevity runs in my family, on both sides. My grandfather probably would have lived at least a few years longer, but 10 years ago he was diagnosed with prostate cancer and they decided not to treat it. In the end, the cancer spread, but up to the end he said he wasn't in pain - a real miracle. If they had treated the cancer, I wouldn't have been surprised to see him hit 100. Even so, he was ready to go. He felt that he had lived a nice, long life. He had recently seen most of his children, grandchildren, and great-grandchildren, and he was ready to go home and be with his Creator.

He was ready to go, and that made it so much easier for the family to accept his death, with grief offset by overwhelming gratitude for his life to the end. Not everyone is ready. A church member stopped by to give his condolences, and he teared up as he said, "I just can't imagine what I'll do when my mom dies. I don't know if I'll ever be ready." His mom will be 96 next week, and I don't think she is any more "ready" to die than he is ready for her to go. As opposed to my grandfather, who opted against life-extending treatments, both would opt to do everything possible to extend her life. She also hasn't wanted to talk about funeral arrangements or her wishes in the event of her death. She doesn't want to think about it or talk about it. And I think that makes it harder for both her and her son.

Of course everyone deals with death differently, and there is no one size fits all way to look at it. But it seems to me that one way to help our loved ones in the event of our death is to be as ready as we can be for it ourselves. This includes making plans - wills, advanced directives, medical directives, and such - and letting family members know about one's wishes and desires. In times of medical crisis or loss, decision making is particularly difficult, both cognitively and emotionally. I have seen much more peace with families who are able to make decisions knowing that it was what their loved one wanted.

We all know that death is coming, sooner or later. Some know that it will be sooner, and in those cases, preparing for the inevitable is a gift to loved ones. But we never really know when death will come, and though we may never be "ready," there are things we can do at any age to prepare for it. Make sure your house and finances are in order. Create living wills or advanced directives. Communicate with your family now what your wishes would be in the event of a medical emergency or death. And talk about it. Not morbidly, but openly.

Churches can do more in this respect. In a culture in which death is almost a taboo subject, in which it is treated like an illness to be cured, the church can speak. Death is part of life as we know it. In the service of witness to the resurrection (the Presbyterian name for the funeral or memorial service), we acknowledge that death is as much a part of life as birth, and that in death, our baptisms are complete. Though we worship an eternally living God, we also follow a savior who willingly gave himself up to die. Even as he spoke, "It is finished," and gave up his last breath, that was not the end of the story. One day we will each breathe a last breath, but that will not be the end of the story. It is a completion of one story and the start of another - of this we are assured through Jesus Christ.

I don't know what that new story looks like. I don't know when or how this story will end, but I know that it will. And I know that the ending of this story is written as surely as it began. I don't know if I will ever be "ready" - for my death or the death of loved ones - but I want to try to be, as much as is possible.  So as the chubby baby ushers in 2012, as we think about new beginnings, maybe we can also think about ending things well. That, in and of itself, feels like a new beginning to me.

Wednesday, December 14, 2011

Advent Waiting

I am looking forward to our Blue Christmas service tomorrow night. It is a service (also called "Longest Night") that recognizes that this time of year is not always merry and bright. It's almost always frenetically busy, filled with good things that are accompanied by stress. For some people, this is the most depressing time of the year, for many different reasons. For those who have experienced loss around Christmas, the grief is accentuated in contrast to the joy of the season. For many people, societal and self-expectations of how we "should" be feeling at this time just leave us feeling more empty if we don't. I think for many people, to a degree, this is a very complicated season - one in which joy breaks through and sometimes bombards the spirit, and one in which the fullness sometimes leaves us feeling empty.

This has been a very complicated season in my life, too. A month ago, I announced my intention to dissolve my pastoral relationship with the congregation that my husband and I have been serving for the past three years. Leaving a call is difficult, and as this has been our first call, it is particularly so. That difficulty is further complicated by the fact that my husband is staying in this position, and will be moving up to full time. I am leaving, but I am not moving. I will continue to live in the same, small town, and now find myself in a new position - that of Pastor's wife. I never wanted to be a "Pastor's Wife" - my call has been to be a pastor! And to further complicate things, though some church expectations are that I will now be the "Pastor's Wife," as soon-to-be-former pastor, I will need to step away from the church entirely, allowing for the necessary transition for Andy and for the congregation.

I have been in a bit of a lame duck period, still actively engaged in the work that I do here, while also having to hold back, to initiate transitions. I still catch myself saying "Next year we can..." and things like that. I have had people ask what I can and can't do after I leave, and when I can be back in worship. I don't know the answers to those things, in part because I need to feel it out, to discern and exercise discretion, and to play it by ear, case by case.

I also can't answer those questions because I don't know what the future holds for me. I have said that I definitely won't be in worship between Jan. 1 and Easter, but by March I could have a new call. I hope to continue preaching on a regular basis, and as a member of the Committee on Ministry I will also be visiting the churches to whom I am a liaison. I already have a number of things scheduled for January and February, and with three committees that I am serving on (two Presbytery, one General Assembly), my plate is and will continue to be full. I am also looking into contract work options that I could do from home, or mostly from home, but I don't have anything definite lined up yet.

In other words, I am waiting. And this waiting stuff isn't easy. There is grieving over my leaving the congregation - on their part and on mine - but there is also some anger. I suppose that is normal. In the midst of this there has been another difficult personnel change - difficult for us, difficult for the person involved, and difficult for the church - and there are complicated feelings about that, too.

I am waiting, and waiting is not easy. But what better time of year to be in a season of waiting than Advent? And so I wait. I wait for revelation of where God is calling me to be. I wait for better days, and trust that they are ahead. I wait. What more can be done? That's the point, I guess - the waiting is the doing, or at least what must be done. Doing otherwise is just a distraction when what is called for is waiting. And so I wait.

Friday, December 2, 2011

Really. Really?

Three news stories I've seen this week that have prompted me to say, "Really. Really?"

First, in a story that is close to home but made news ripples around the country and even across the ocean, a Pike County, KY church voted in favor of a statement disapproving of interracial couples, banning them from joining as members and leading worship. The outcry prompted an official from the National Association of Freewill Baptists to speak out, and it appears that the congregation might overturn the vote. But seriously. Really. Really?

In other news, apparently as various states are racing to out-anti-immigrant each other, Florida has quietly been enforcing a law that charges out of state tuition rates to the children of immigrants - Florida residents who are US Citizens - if they cannot prove that their parents came to this country legally. Apparently the law, which is currently target of lawsuits, has been on the book since 2005. Really. Really?

Finally, in an article published on the Presbyterian Layman website, there is news of additional churches in Virginia and Florida who have petitioned their respective presbyteries for dismissal. Unfortunately, that doesn't come as much of a surprise to anyone who has been following denominational issues in the PC(USA). But what was curious to me was the opening line of the article: "As the Christmas holiday approaches, an increasing number of Presbyterian churches have one thing at the top of their wish list – a gracious departure from the Presbyterian Church (USA)."
Really. Really? I find it quite puzzling that this publication that has taken such great joy in labeling the PC(USA) as a church that has "severed itself from 'the faith once delivered to the saints,'" has elevated schism in the church to the level of joy of the celebration of the birth of Jesus Christ. Really. Really? 

Really, nothing more needs to be said.