Oh Well, Life Goes On

How do you tell your father that he is going to have to move out of the place he has called home for many years into the next level of care? How do you understand the role reversal when, for most of your life, your parents have been the ones to nurture, educate, teach, guide, provide for and protect you? When your father tells you every time you call, “Everything’s fine! Life goes on whether we like it or not,” how do you tell him, “Yes, life goes on, and you will be just fine, Dad.”

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This scenario plays out every day in our country as millions of baby boomers are now caring for their parents. To complicate matters, many adult children live far away from their parents and have to coordinate care from a distance. Last month my three siblings and I decided that my father was no longer able to care for himself in his “cottage” in a continuing care facility. A day was chosen when two social workers at Peter Becker Community and my three siblings would break the news to my father. I would participate by speakerphone.

I have a pit in my stomach. So do my siblings. I adore my father and don’t want to see him hurt. He loves his cottage so much. He has bird feeders outside and loves to watch the birds. He rides his bike around the facility. The sun room is a warm, cheery place for him to spend the day. What if he resists? What if he starts crying? What if he begs to stay, promising to take his meds and eat three meals a day when we all know he simply can’t do it anymore?

Kate (Social worker): Hi, Gerry. We’re all here this morning to talk to you because we think you need more care.

Dad: Uh oh.

Kate: Did you know that you are not always taking your meds?

Dad: I am not aware of not taking meds.

Kate: And you are not eating.

Dad: I do eat.

Gerry Jr. (son): I don’t think you are eating, Dad.

Jenny (daughter): Dad, you have not used cereal and milk for breakfast for many weeks now.

Dad: There is no food here.

Randy (son): We had to throw it out because it spoiled, Dad.

Kate: I am concerned, Gerry. Making sure you have three meals is important for your health.

Randy: Do you remember when you fainted three times at church over the past year and we had to take you to the hospital?

Dad: Was that what it was?

Laura (social worker): You did not eat or drink before you went to church, so you were dehydrated and your blood pressure dropped. You were also on your bike one day and did not know how to get home. It was dark, and you did not have a light. I have multiple reasons to be concerned.

Gerry: And we don’t want you riding your bike to the café when it’s zero degrees. I call you every day to make sure that you go there for lunch, but I worry when it’s snowy and cold. Unfortunately, that has been your only option for lunch.

Jenny: We all take turns taking you out for dinner, but we can’t be here all the time. Sometimes it’s very difficult to make sure that you are eating.

Kate: I’d like you to join me in the main building, Gerry. I have a two room apartment for you at Ridgewood. Your medications will be taken care of, all your meals will be provided and there are lots of activities. In addition, we have a closet right next to your apartment where you can store your bike. When it’s warm out, you can ride again.

Dad: Are you saying you would like me to move?

Kate: Yes, I would like you to move. It will be your own apartment in Ridgewood.

Dad: I thought this morning, “Something is going to happen today.”

Laughter all around.

Kate: Living in Ridgewood will assure your safety. Plus, you’ll still be able to have independence and do the things you enjoy. There’s even an exercise room down the hall. And your children won’t have to worry about you.

Jenny: And you can still have your TV. We’ll make sure CNN is always on!

A tear drops onto my phone.

Laura: You will be on the first floor, Gerry, close to the dining room.

Gerry: You can still come to our house on Tuesday night to see five of your great-grandchildren.

Randy: And I’ll still take you to church, only now I won’t have to worry anymore that you haven’t eaten beforehand.

Kate: We’re going to move you tomorrow because these apartments do not become available very often.

Dad: Well, I had already thought about moving.

Sigh of relief. Thank you, Jesus.

Laura: You keep your cards close to your chest!

Dad: I didn’t know if I would like it.

Kate: It will make your life so much easier, and you’ll have your own space. We still want you to be you.

YES! This is actually going to work!

Kate: We have entertainment every Wednesday evening. Choirs and other musical groups come in. I know how much you love music, Gerry.

Dad: You know my wife and I were the first ones to build a cottage here at Peter Becker. We got in on the ground floor. We have always loved it here.

Randy: At that time you bought a long term care policy, which helped when Mom was in the Alzheimers unit. Now that policy will help pay for your care.

Dad: I feel better already! (Laughs) What can I say?

Kate: You can always say yes.

Dad: How can I say no? (Laughs)

Laura: Do you want to see your new apartment now? Put your shoes on and let’s go!

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I talk to my Dad alone before they leave.

Laurie: Dad, I love you. I am so glad you are going to move. You won’t regret it at all. You’ll have more interaction with people, you’ll love the meals and you can still ride your bike! Remember how you always say, “Life goes on?” Well, your new life is going to be awesome! My only regret is that when I come to visit, I won’t be sleeping in your spare room in my favorite sofa bed! I’ll miss your sun room, too, but I can’t wait to see your new digs!

Dad: When are you coming?

Laurie: Probably not till the summer. We’ll still go golfing, okay?

Dad: Yeah, sure!

I am too choked up to continue, so I say goodbye. It is so difficult to live hundreds of miles away. I thank God that my parents gave all they had to take care of me, keep me safe and give me a good education. Most of all, they told me about the love of Jesus, lived out their faith and instilled in me the habit of going to worship every week and being part of a community of faith.

I thank God for my siblings, who always demonstrated grace and never resented me because I could not pull my weight in caring for my parents. I thank God for my father, who knew in his heart that it was time to move. Every time I called he was cheerful, never complained and always found an occasion to say, “Oh well, life goes on.”

I also thank God for care communities all over the country like Peter Becker Community in Harleysville, Pennsylvania. I am especially grateful for faith-based retirement communities where our loved ones can continue to worship, be nurtured in a grace-filled, spiritual environment and continue to become all that God created them to be. Thank you, God, for always walking with us as life goes on.

Blessings,
Laurie

Penitence, Protest and Prayer

It was the first time we had ever attempted to take Ash Wednesday outside the church. Last week several of our clergy took to the streets of the Detroit suburb of Berkley between 7:30 a.m. and 9 a.m. At the stoplight right in front of the Berkley church building, one of our multisite campuses, they offered ashes as well as free doughnuts and coffee to passersby, whether driving or walking. Offering ashes on the street was a unique way of extending God’s blessings, sharing the gospel and reaching new people with the love of Jesus.

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At the same time as ashes were offered to commuters, the doors of hundreds of thousands of churches around the world were open to all who felt called to begin the Lenten season by hearing the words, “Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return.”

Ash Wednesday found me in a somber mood because the previous day I was part of a group that was lamenting the tragic events that seem to be daily occurrences in our world. A gunman kills two people in Copenhagen, Denmark at a free speech seminar and a synagogue, perhaps inspired by the terrorist attacks in Paris last month. ISIS fighters (Islamic State in Iraq and Syria) video a mass beheading of twenty-one Coptic Christians on a beach in Libya. Young girls and teenagers are routinely sold to ISIS soldiers, who subject them to repeated rape and physical abuse. Some prefer to use the name ISIL, Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant, because the Levant is a larger area of the Middle East.

“We feel so helpless to make a difference.” Unusual words from a group that will spring into action the moment they hear of a need. The discussion is far-ranging and intense. Is the religion of Islam to blame for these brutal murders, or are the ISIS fighters an extremist faction that does not represent mainstream Islam? Hasn’t Christianity also had dangerous fringe elements over the last two centuries? Is ISIS a threat to our country? How can we protect the rights of all people without racial profiling and making assumptions about others based on how they look, dress or speak? What responsibility does the United States have to take leadership in standing up to ISIS at the same time as we seek to work together with the rest of the world?

How can Christians respond to evil in our world? As we travel through Lent, the ashes we received last week may provide clues. First, we can respond with penitence. In the Bible, ashes are a symbol of our utter dependence upon God for life itself. As ashes are placed on our forehead, we confess our sins and recognize our mortality in order to prepare ourselves and our community to live out resurrection in the face of death. The ashes demand something of us: the free gift of ourselves, our assent to God’s grace, our submission and our willingness to change. In the end, the only one we can change is ourselves.

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Pope Francis wrote last week in his annual Lenten message, “Indifference to our neighbor and to God also represents a real temptation for us Christians. Each year during Lent we need to hear once more the voice of the prophets who cry out and trouble our conscience… Whenever our interior life becomes caught up in its own interests and concerns, there is no longer room for others, no place for the poor. God’s voice is no longer heard, the quiet joy of his love is no longer felt, and the desire to do good fades… We end up being incapable of feeling compassion at the outcry of the poor, weeping for other people’s pain, and feeling a need to help them, as though all this were someone else’s responsibility and not our own.”

Christians respond to evil in our world through a personal and corporate penitence that results in action. As our pastors stood on one of the busiest corners of Berkley during rush hour, they waved doughnuts in zip-lock bags, inviting drivers to use parking spaces along the street.

A mother with three young daughters pulled over in her minivan. She was an Armenian Orthodox Christian and said that she would have no opportunity to attend a worship service that day. Pastor Chad administered the ashes and the three girls received doughnuts. An Episcopal priest pulled over and said that his church in a nearby town was also offering drive-by ashes. He wished our pastors well. One person drove by and gave a thumbs-up. Another texted Pastor Lindsey and said, “I was so excited to drive by and see that you are offering ashes!” In the name of Jesus we humbly said “yes” to penitence and “no” to indifference by administering ashes, serving coffee and doughnuts and smiling and waving to hundreds on their way to work.

How can Christians respond to the tragic events in our world? By the ashes of protest. In the Bible, ashes not only symbolize sorrow over our personal sin, but they are also a sign of protest over the presence of evil in our world: individual, corporate, and systemic evil. In 2 Samuel chapter 13, after Tamar is raped by her half-brother Amnon, she puts ashes on her head, tears her long robe, puts her hand on her head and goes away crying. Tamar wears ashes in protest of an evil done to an individual.

In Esther chapter 4, Haman, the top official of King Ahasuerus of Persia, issues a decree that all Jews are to be killed on a certain day. Mordecai, the cousin of Queen Esther, both of whom were Jews, was so distraught with the decree of death that he tore his clothes, put on sackcloth and ashes and went through the city, wailing with a loud and bitter cry. His fellow Jews followed suit. In this case, the Jews wore ashes in protest of a systemic evil about to be inflicted upon an entire group of people.

It is our responsibility as Christians not only to protest the actions of ISIS but to name injustice and oppression wherever people in our world are rejected, dissed, dehumanized or terrorized. President Obama’s request that Congress authorize military action against ISIS earlier this month was met with some skepticism from both parties. On the evening of Ash Wednesday, former New York City mayor Rudy Guiliani attended a private group dinner for Governor of Scott Walker in New York City. In remarks related to the President’s ISIS response Guiliani said, “I do not believe, and I know this is a horrible thing to say, but I do not believe that the president loves America. He doesn’t love you. And he doesn’t love me. He wasn’t brought up the way you were brought up and I was brought up through love of this country.”

Now I know why I had to redo my ashes on Wednesday evening. Any time people make accusatory statements, express negative opinions based solely on assumptions or denigrate the integrity of others, no matter who they are, we are called to speak truth. We are also called to continually examine our own life, including our thoughts as well as actions. The ashes of protest represent the radical love, acceptance and reconciliation that undergirded the life and ministry of Jesus, the one who never returned evil with evil.

How can Christians make a difference in a world filled with sadness? By the ashes of prayer. It was noon when the fourth of eight Ash Wednesday services took place on the main campus. Shortly after the service began, two mothers came into the back with three and four young children respectively. My heart was especially heavy that morning as I found myself praying for children around the world who are traumatized by the violence of terrorism. I attempted to engage the children during the service, and when they came forward for the imposition of ashes, I just about lost it.

I thanked the children for being a sign of hope for the world and prayed that one day our world’s children will finally teach us adults how to love one another. I also said that the penitence, protest and prayers of millions of Christians who are wearing ashes on Ash Wednesday, including theirs, will make a difference in the world.

I remembered again the conversation of the previous day. Some in the group compared ISIS with Nazi Germany and wondered what might have happened if the U.S. had entered World War 2 sooner, that too many Americans simply ignored the horrific evil inflicted by the Nazis on the Jews rather than protested.

Then one woman quietly said, “I was born in Germany and was a little girl during the war. Despite your regret over not entering the war sooner, I want you to know that it was the Americans who saved our lives after the war was over. When we Germans had nothing and were existing in the midst of the ashes of destruction, you were not indifferent. You were there with food, clothing, shelter, prayers and hope. Thank you for saving my life.”

May the ashes of penitence, protest and prayer change your heart, guide your Lenten journey and be a sign of hope for our world.

Blessings,
Laurie

Sitting in My Cell

It crept up on me for several months, but when it happened, it was startling and very clear. It was time to heed the words of the 4th century desert fathers and mothers, “Go sit in your cell, and your cell will teach you everything.”

Saturday
I’d struggled with a cold since the beginning of the year, which was only exacerbated by significant air travel, major flight disruption and a crazy schedule. In addition to congestion and a cough, I start getting chills and throw up most of the afternoon. It soon becomes clear. No preaching for me on Sunday. I sleep all day in my cell.

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Sunday
I know I am really sick when I don’t even agonize about whether to be in church or not. I pray in my bed for all those around the world who are leading worship this morning. I also thank God for the good news of the gospel of Jesus Christ, which saves even the most stubborn and resistant among us, especially a wretch like me.

I recognize that even though I haven’t seen a doctor yet I am likely going to need to sit in my cell for a while to heal. As a sign of moving beyond resistance to accept my illness, I decide to celebrate the 100th birthday of Thomas Merton by reading his autobiography, The Seven Story Mountain, published in 1948. It’s four hundred pages long and the type is small. How can I possibly finish the book before life returns to normal and time evaporates? Not to worry.

Thomas Merton, a Trappist monk, has always been one of my heroes of the spiritual life. I read with hope, a little bit at a time, cocooned in my cell. I suspect Merton will have much to teach me.

“This, then, is our desert: to live facing despair, but not to consent. To trample it down under hope in the cross.” (All quotes from Thomas Merton, Thoughts in Solitude)

Monday
I call the doctor first thing in the morning. She takes a chest x-ray and announces that I have pneumonia.

“You’ve got to take it easy.”

“Can I run? I’m training for a marathon.”

“Not for a few days.”

“Can I work?”

“You need to give your body a rest. Why are you even asking these questions? Go sit in your cell and chill out.”

“We can be glad of our helplessness when we really believe that God’s power is made perfect in our infirmity… But we cannot have true compassion on others unless we are willing to accept pity and receive forgiveness for our own sins.”

Tuesday
I can’t just go cold turkey, so I decide to teach my Tuesday women’s book study. The antibiotics and cough medicine are working, but I wake up, realizing that it is silly to even think I am able to be out and about. I send my class outline in to the church with Gary, and a volunteer very capably leads the class.

In the chapter we are studying from Robert J. Wicks’ Riding the Dragon, he quotes Henri Nouwen’s lament in The Genesee Diary, “While teaching, lecturing, and writing about the importance of solitude, inner freedom, and peace of mind, I kept stumbling over my own compulsions and illusions. What was driving me from one book to another, one project to another? … What was turning my vocation to be a witness to God’s love into a tiring job?”

After internal wrestling about letting people down and not fulfilling my obligations, I decide to accept my fate and give in to my illness. The pneumonia is a gift to lead me into deeper awareness of God’s working in my life. I go into myself.

What exactly is my sickness, anyway? Is it overwork, imbalance or giving in to my need to be needed? Or is it my compulsion to make a difference in the world, to bring in God’s kingdom of radical love and justice? Saying “no” has never been one of my strengths.

“The more we are content with our own poverty, the closer we are to God. For then we accept our poverty in peace, expecting nothing from ourselves and everything from God.” (Merton quote)

Wednesday
Everything slows down. Sitting in my cell, I continue to read Thomas Merton but also begin to pay attention to the world.

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  • NBC news anchor Brian Williams has been suspended for six months because of inaccuracies in reporting. We are all liars, I think to myself. Everyone exaggerates or misrepresents themselves on occasion. If our God were not a God of second chances, I don’t know where I would be.
  • It has been revealed that Kayla Mueller, the last American hostage held by ISIS, has died. What an inspiration she has been to the world. In her last letter to her family, smuggled out of her cell, Kayla writes, “I have been shown in darkness, light + have learned that even in prison, one can be free. I am grateful. I have come to see that there is good in every situation, sometimes we just have to look for it.”
  • Little League World Series officials strip Chicago’s Jackie Robertson West Little League of their regional and national titles because they fielded players from outside Chicago. My heart aches for the children.

“What is the use of praying if at the very moment of prayer, we have so little confidence in God that we are busy planning our own kind of answer to our prayer?”

Thursday
The Powerball Jackpot of $564 million, the fifth largest lottery prize in history, was won by individuals in Puerto Rico, Texas and North Carolina. I had no idea that Powerball is an interstate lottery designed to make money for small states by offering jackpots larger than their lotteries alone could advance. Is this what normal people do in our country? I’ll never get it.

The nation is gripped by the execution style murder of three young Muslims in North Carolina over what appeared to be a dispute about parking spaces but may have been a hate crime. A recent poll shows that young Muslims are seen in a more negative light than any other minority in our country. God, forgive our inability to love and respect those who are different.

I go to the church for two important meetings, but it would have been better if I could have just stayed home and been quiet. Healing and solitude complement each other.

“Prayer is then not just a formula of words or a series of desires springing up from the heart – it is the orientation of our whole body, mind and spirit to God in silence, attention, and adoration.”

Friday
What’s the fascination with Fifty Shades of Grey? The book has sold over 100 million copies worldwide, and the movie was released today. I am boycotting Fifty Shades of Grey because its cultural impact romanticizes sexual violence and excuses domestic abuse. Shame on us if the movie prompts further sexual exploitation in our world.

I pray for clergy today. I believe that a significant number of pastors are so stressed and burned out that they regularly consider leaving the ministry. Conflict, depression, loneliness, the burden of expectations of their local churches, few signs of success, the relentless nature of Sunday coming every week, the neglect of their families, worrying about budget issues, dealing with complaints, having little time for personal spiritual disciplines: it all takes a toll.

Ministry is dying of a thousand paper cuts. And eventually we get sick. We clergy are not a healthy lot. That’s why our health insurance is so high. We take care of everyone else first. We are not good models.

“A person who truly responds to the goodness of God and acknowledges all that he/she has received, cannot possibly be a half-hearted Christian.”

Saturday
What has my cell taught me? How can I recover and keep God’s love first in my life? Taking time to cultivate solitude and my own spiritual life is not optional. Maintaining balance will always be a struggle.

“The spiritual life is, then, first of all, a matter of keeping awake… It requires unending courage and perseverance and those who are not willing to work at it patiently will finally end in compromise.”

God, give me courage and save me from ever being a half-hearted Christian.

Blessings,
Laurie