Death: Beautiful, Sacred, and Painful As H-E-Double Hockey Sticks

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I watched a family lose a beloved matriarch last week.

She was a family friend, and here in the South, that means she was more family than friend. Which made her family my family, too. Like those relatives you love but get to see only on rare occasions. Like weddings. Or bedside vigils. Or lottery winnings.

As it so happened, I had gone to the hospice where she was living out her last remaining moments. I wanted to check in on her daughter, who is in my ragamuffin support group called a Sunday School class. Her granddaughter is the resident clown/leader-in-disguise in my youth group. And I went because I’ve been there and I get it. I know the sting of death all too well. That’s a blog post for another day. Or maybe a book.

When I got to the hospice, I made the rounds with family members, casually making jokes and trying to break the monotony of watching someone die. That’s another blog post, too. When someone is in hospice, you know the End is near, but only God knows how near the End actually is. With that framework in mind, I’d intended to stay a bit and encourage as I could. Offer my prayers. And my feet. Run to Cracker Barrel. Get tissues. More Diet Coke.

But then, as life often does, life happens. Or in this case dying happens.

Within an hour, I witnessed the Matriarch’s family standing around her bedside, tears of grief mixed with relief and joy as she took her last breaths. The agony of losing a part of yourself. The relief that suffering didn’t win out and her pain was gone. And joy knowing that she was meeting her Savior face-to-face at that very moment.

It was a sacred, holy experience.

And it still hurt like h-e-double hockey sticks. That’s the Southern way to say hell, in case you’re still working out the grammar.

Even in the visitation and funeral, I kept bouncing between the holy and sacred to “this really sucks.”

I envisioned the Matriarch meeting my father-in-law, who no doubt was planning a practical joke while she was in hospice. I envisioned her meeting my friend, Sara, who passed away all too recently. I thought about my mom, who died from cancer, too. But most of all, I kept wondering what the Matriarch was experiencing. Since none of us knows on this side of heaven what it’s really like on that side of heaven, we are all left wondering. I could only imagine. (Cue Mercy Me song here).

I wondered and I ached. I ached for the family who would no longer see her smiling face or curly hair. For the grandchildren who could only rely on pictures and stories to know her. For my friend who can no longer talk to her mom every day. I ached for myself and my own losses. Her death was a painful reminder of them, too.

Watching someone pass from this life to the next is a sacred, mysterious moment, when deep beauty dances with gut-wrenching, take-your-breath-away sadness. I have felt both in the last week. And I can say with certainty (most days) that when the music stops and the dance is over, even when the grief threatens to suffocate you, life still wins out.

Maybe not right now, but someday.

Until then, I grieve and I hope.

And I eat a lot of chocolate.

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When Us Versus Them Became We: My Dinner With a Gay Couple

tug of warI ate dinner with a gay couple recently.

I met them while on a trip to see a friend. She’s gay, too. Don’t judge. I know you’re tempted to.

In all candidness and transparency, I was nervous about meeting them. I created outlandish scenarios in my head of what the interaction would be like, all of which, I must confess, were of the worse-case variety. I live in a Southern, “religious” culture that has demonized people who do not conform to the expectations of acceptable belief and behavior. Labeled them as weird, sinful, abhorrent, liberal, militant, demanding, and destructive to society. I’m afraid to say that over time, this underlying current of prejudice and smugness has permeated my own thinking, like chemical runoff poisoning a stream.

When the couple first arrived, I tried to treat them as I would any heterosexual couple at a dinner with my husband. I asked questions about their careers (one was an teacher, just like my husband). I asked how they met. I asked about their families and their favorite meal at the place we were eating. I asked about their marriage (in California). While my questions were innocuous, my interest was more like investigating a culture I’d never encountered before, like a sociologist who discovers a previously hidden civilization. Nell meets Star Trek meets National Geographic. It was us (me, the conservative Christian [minister]) against them (the liberal gay). I’m not proud of my attitude. Not then, not now. But the lines were drawn by my assumptions and arrogance.

Then it happened. Us against them became we.

The shift was subtle and unexpected. One of my (seemingly) innocuous questions was “What plans do you have for the weekend?” I was not expecting the answer I got. One of the women had lost her brother just a few weeks before, and she and her partner were driving to a special place to spread his ashes.

In that moment, my dinner companions were no longer specimens in a jar to be observed (don’t tell me you don’t do the same thing); they became we—fellow human beings who are more like me than different.

I’ve lost a sibling. And her ashes have been spread in a special place.

I could identify with her grief and her pain. I knew from experience how she was feeling, weeks after the death, when everyone else moves on with their lives and you just can’t seem to move. She wasn’t liberal, demanding, or destructive. She was hurting. And every human being, regardless of your political or religious views, can identify with that. At least I hope so.

Not long after that, I was listening to a sermon from a pastor in Colorado. The minister (or preacher or whatever the label in that denomination) made a statement that rocked my theology: Whenever we create an “us against them” scenario, we typically put ourselves in a superior position and the “them” in an inferior one. We’re wiser and holier. More enlightened and informed. “They” need to learn the truth, and we are just the people to tell them exactly what the truth is. Think through your “us versus them” labels; none of them makes you the one in need of change, right?

Conservative versus liberal.
Sinner versus saint.
Straight versus gay.
Stay at home versus working mom.
Homeschool versus public school.
Immigrant versus citizen.
SEC versus the rest of the world.

Whatever side we choose to identify with becomes the morally (or spiritually) superior role, and we in good conscious must enlighten and educate (judge) the other side.

Except that we as believers are not called to judge. We are called to love.

Remember when the expert in the Law (i.e., superior morally) asked Jesus which commandment trumped everything else? “Love the Lord your God…and, ‘Love your neighbor as yourself'” (Luke 10:27). Love Him. Love others.

When Jesus commanded the disciples to go into the world, He commanded them to make disciples, not to judge sinners. Nowhere in the New Testament does it say, “Make sure that people who disagree with your politics, theology, or lifestyle know just how much God will judge them for their sin. And it’s best to do that by making them feel like crap.”

I’m not saying that homosexuality is ok. What I am saying is this: There is no “us vs. them” at the foot of the cross. We are all the same. I have no stone to throw. I have no right to play judge and jury when I am one of the guilty. The gospel is for all of us fallen creatures, and I am not in the position to determine whether my brand of sin is morally superior to someone else’s.

I have long wondered what would happen if the Christian community would rise up and love others with the same intensity and ferociousness that we’ve used in judging them. The addict. The man who beats his wife. The homeless. The Wall Street swindler. The slacker who skips Sunday night church to watch the Superbowl.

James said that mercy triumphs over judgment (Jas. 2:13).

Maybe, hopefully, one day I’ll be able to see it in action. In my own life.

Does the voice in your head sound like this?

whisperThe conversation in my head went like this:

Voice: Why are you writing a blog?

Me: Because I know  people struggle with their relationship with God and I want to help.

Voice: Yeah, I get that. But why you? What makes you think you can write? I mean, who would want to read what you have to say?

Me: Well, I’ve gotten some positive feedback on the early posts I wrote.

Voice: Yeah, and those are your friends. People who would feel obligated to read your stuff. They would naturally tell you what you want to hear. Would anybody REALLY want to hear from you?

Me: I have written  books and they were received well.

Voice: But those were books for students. You’re in the big leagues now. You’re writing for adults. You know, people who can actually tell the difference between excellence and crap. They have the choice to read ANYONE. Given the choice between you and them, who would want to listen to you?

Me: Them?

Voice:  You know them. Real writers. Women whose faces are in bookstore windows and whose names stay at the top of best-seller lists. Them. You know you’re a nobody, right? You don’t have a huge following on Twitter. You don’t have a thousand people reading your blog. You don’t even have a thousand people who like you on Facebook. You. Are. Nobody.

Me: You’re right.

And for the past two months, this blog has remained stagnant. 

It’s amazing how powerful the voices in your head can be.  I don’t think I’m alone. If you were to be honest, you’d admit that you have your own particular voice, whispering lies that if listened to for too long, will threaten to undo you, discourage you, and ultimately destroy you. 

The voice is easy to recognize if you’ll listen closely. The voice sounds like this:

“She’s such a good mom. If only you could be like her.”

“You can’t teach that class.”

“How could God love you after what you’ve done?”

“Why try to study the Bible? You know you don’t understand half of it.”

You know that voice—the words of discouragement, defeat, despair. The words that say “I can’t” and “God won’t” and “you’ll never” and “nobody cares” and “you’re all alone.” Words of desolation. 

When you hear words like this, you can be sure of one thing: they come straight from the pit of hell. The enemy has been whispering those words since Genesis (“Did God really say….”) and he will continue to spout them until he is finally vanquished in the Revelation days.

Until then, remember this one thing:

Don’t believe everything you hear—especially in your thoughts. 

“We demolish arguments and every pretension that sets itself up against the knowledge of God, and we take captive every thought to make it obedient to Christ” (2 Cor. 10:5).

 

What negative voice do you hear in your head?

Dear [older] women: We [younger] women need you!

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Dear {older} women:

I speak for myself but my plea echoes the thoughts of others my {age}:

We need you.

My mom passed away eight years ago this week, and her absence has left a void that can never be filled. But her absence can be lessened by other women being willing to pour into my life. And I think my female contemporaries would say the same thing, even if they still have a relationship (close or not) with their own moms.

Why do we need you? Because we are unsure as moms ourselves. Just like you, we don’t have a manual for how to raise our children. You have what we lack—experience. Wisdom gained from the added years.

We need you because being a godly woman in an ungodly world is even harder than ever, and we’re not sure what that looks like. Culture is constantly in our face, telling us what we’re supposed look like, what corporate ladder we’re supposed to be climbing, what accolades to achieve, what fame to seek (even if it’s just on Facebook or Pinterest), what trendy pursuit to chase. And nobody else is speaking loud enough for us to hear anything else.

Please, speak up. Take us out for coffee. Let us ask you questions. Listen to our hearts, because they are burdened and confused and in need of your shaping, even though we’re no longer children. We are still eager to learn. It just takes a while for our walls to come down because we’ve spent a lot of time constructing them so that others won’t see the mess of our lives.

Please don’t think that we have it all together. We don’t. Please don’t assume that our overbooked schedules and frenzied appearance means we are confident, under control, or at peace. Often, our frenetic lifestyle just mirrors the unsettled state of our souls.

Please don’t check out on us. Don’t think you don’t have anything to offer, because you do. We need your encouragement. Your wisdom. Your advice. Your example. Your guidance. Your humor. Your perspective.

We are waiting for you to make the first move, because asking you upfront for help seems intrusive. Unspiritual. Awkward. Demanding. But if you’d just ask us out to lunch and open the door, we’d rush in and drink deeply from the well of intergenerational friendship —for we are parched.

Where are you, [older] women? We need you.

Why I am not crazy in love with being radical

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I have a confession to make. I’m not a huge fan of the book Radical.

Now before you stone me, brand me a heretic, or excommunicate me from the church, let me explain.

I live in a small town. Only two traffic signals. The local gas station also offers minnows and take-out pizza (which is good). And in my town is a really small church. No more than 50 people or so. They’ve recently been going through the study Radical, and one of its members recently commented to me, “I can’t go sell my home. Then you’d have one more homeless person in need of ministry.”

I know the comment was tongue-in-cheek, but it does highlight a major problem in the Christian community today: the exaltation of “celebrity” ministry.

Please don’t get me wrong. I’ve met the author of Radical, sat on a panel discussion with his wife. They’re great people. They would never put themselves on a pedestal as more important than others. But their popularity–fueled by the resonance of their message–has created the faulty idea that unless you sell your home, adopt orphans, or create a social enterprise, you’re not fulfilling the call of God to care for others.

We as a Christian community have focused so much on major movers and social shakers that we’ve forgotten that the church was founded by a bunch of uneducated fishermen who didn’t really know what they were doing. The history of Christianity has been propelled forward by millions of anonymous people who were just doing their small thing where they could, however they could. They saw needs and met them.

Take my mother-in-law, for example (she’s going to kill me when she reads this, so this may be my last post). She’s never been highlighted in a magazine, her story never told at a conference or on a Webcast. You wouldn’t recognize her in the airport.

Unless you’re one of the people she’s helped.

She volunteers at my daughter’s school and takes her octogenarian neighbor to the doctor. She fixes meals for underprivileged kids who need to eat on the weekend. She sings in the church choir and changes out the wreaths in the fellowship hall when the seasons change.

Yet, by the standards of our Christian culture, she’s not doing enough. She’s not radical enough, not crazy in love with Jesus enough. She doesn’t qualify for the top ten list of most influential Christians (yes, that list exists).

We’ve replaced anonymous, do-what-you-can-right-where-you-are servanthood with banners and headlines and awards and book deals, making people like my mother-in-law (and me and you) wondering if her small acts of service really matter.

If you’ve ever asked that question, the answer is a resounding yes.

Just ask the kid who will get to eat this weekend because of one anonymous woman.

To quote a not-so-anonymous woman, “We cannot all do great things, but we can do small things with great love.” (Mother Teresa)

So go and love. Love deeply. Care for others right where you are, even though you’ll never make the front page. You are Jesus with skin on. And every small act of love matters.

You matter.