“What is the work we are asked to do in the night world?…By keeping our vulnerability and mortality close, we learn to meet each moment with presence, even as we know it is passing away. We are invited into a … Continue reading
Tag Archives: Death
A Slow, Low Walk in Lent
(Reposted from 3.6.19 BC)
When the holes of self become seen and embraced, when the grief is given over to, and we split the bill of life, there lays the possibility for shalom wholeness.
I can see no way forward without looking at our pain; I can realize no greater integrity and fullness by denying the truth.
Ash Wednesday’s kick off of Lent is a great collective recommitment to making room for death and dying. Instead of passing time, we mark time, in a way that opens and reveals. It requires individual work and reflection, but it is not a solitary endeavor. It is an ancient rhythm, a group pilgrimage. We together face calvary before the empty tomb, a wide and long caravan, spanning over the ages, linked by the gravity of human suffering and depravity.
It is not too hard to detect this.
Ashes to ashes, dust to dust.
It is very easy to take ourselves too seriously, which is to say, we start denying ourselves of self-awareness and spiritual integrity. In our piety, we reject our feelings. On our pedestal, we let our fears drive us. Amongst our people, we sustain an image that wedges dynamite between the appearance and the person; a small situation, an innocuous question, and explosions occur.
It is also easy to take ourselves too lightly, particularly when we are accustomed to being dismissed. Our sadness is illegitimate, and so is our happiness. Our dreams are selfish; self help is a curse word. The abuse we have sustained is no big deal. Our gut is gagged. Our bodies are unknown and unloved.
Both of these are not the death and dying of Lent. Lent is shape and those are chaos. Lent is a trajectory, and those are a spiral. Lent is going to become liberation; those are isolation.
Which is a meandering way to get at the importance of the observance of lent as a part of a group, oriented in a faith tradition or family, stuck in a stream that is larger that one’s own vices and virtuous flat affect. Some of us are new in learning the church calendar; we only knew about 4th of July and Easter and Christmas Eve. We didn’t walk this lenten lowly walk as children, and so we are children today. Lucky for us, the Good News has always been for the least and littlest. The ones lacking inhibitions and who give thought and pause to lots of silly things and curiously consider their big toe. The least, who haven’t started collecting all the shoulds and trophies and filters.
If we follow in the footsteps of the suffering Christ, the weeping mother, the ancient way, we may just become reacquainted with our own brokenness. We can only hope. For on this path, initiated with ash, we find there is room to look at the somber truth of ourselves and the brokenness of our hearts. We find there is room to confess the dirtiest of sins and grieve the most hushed of abuses. We find there is room, in a faith featuring a long suffering Savior, to be our self–not too big, not to small–with others. Here we are reminded, the invitation is not to not be sad or tired, but to not be lonely and stuck.
On this joint pilgrimage of Lent, our broken pieces melt a little into one another and the whispered laments gain a little strength. The ash on my forehead seems similar to yours, and yours doesn’t make me love you less but more. Sorrow and grief turn out to not be the monsters we so long avoided, but the markers of a beloved humanity bursting with attachments and vulnerabilities…like a crying Jesus or collapsing Mary. Praise be.
Oh, here in the dust and dirt! Here in the honesty with one’s mess, here linked relentlessly to one another! Here grow the Easter lilies. Oh, here, here we must be again, because we forget this is where it begins.
Recommended hands to hold during your lenten journey:
Rachel Held Evans – Lent for Lamenting – a late biblical scholar and author of major lifelines for me (Inspired and Searching for Sunday), Evans posted throughout Lent her resources for guiding this time of lament, particularly for those of us who feel “on the outs” with our church history, our church, our extended family, our faith, or God Themselves. This is especially poignant since Rachel has died, and left behind a legacy of inclusion and justice.
Christena Cleveland – 7 Last Words of Christ our Black Mother – public theologian, social psychologist, and justice-oriented believer, she is de-centering the perceived male whiteness of the crucified Christ in her project. Focusing on the 7 last words of Christ, in black church tradition, she imaginatively reinvigorates our beliefs and perceptions of calvary and Easter. Introduction linked but full series available by becoming a patron of this change-maker (as little as $2/month).
Dominique Gilliard and Erina Kim-Eubanks – Lenten Lamentations – an incredible resource meant to help guide those of us wanting to remember rightly and allow for disruption along their lenten journey. If truth is the only actual way forward, and we know Easter is ahead, perhaps we will have the courage to be truthful about our past. This series brings to light pieces of our country’s broken racial history that require deep, collective lament; looking at them to remember rightly will only further attach us to our need for the Divine and our connection to one another—sounds holy. There is also a congregational liturgy to use in conjunction with this sobering, truthful guide.
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It was fitting that I was cooking with a fair amount of bacon grease when the call came. Grandpa Pruitt, Bobby, had passed on to the next life. Suffering no more, he was gone. And like that, as my dad said, the oldest generation was departed, leaving behind deep roots and so many branches in this family of faith.
I remember as a little girl, wrapping presents with Grandpa in our guest room in a split level house in Oregon. They had come for Christmas again, and we were busy downstairs, just me and him, somewhere between the DOS computer and patchwork quilt. He used the scissors with a constant up and down motion, snipping each 4 inch segment of the wrapping paper at its appointed time. I showed him what I liked to do: hold those scissors at a steady angle and ZIIPPP, that new line was slightly curled in the wake of my linear efficiency. “Well, I’ll be,” he beamed, sputtering something about the thought of ME (who he commonly referred to as “ugly”) being able to teach HIM something. He wasn’t one for pretending so I believed that I had introduced this technique.
It’s hard to explain a man who called his young granddaughter ugly without once causing her to question how much he loved her and thought otherwise. He was the Zeke Braverman of the family, with less Berkeley and more suspenders. He got away with too many things, and was my first teacher in the well-meaning, if not downright inappropriate, insult. He wasn’t too proud to tear up when noticing the significance of a moment, or laugh that high, vacuum-sounding pleasure at his own mistake.
Proverbs 13:20 Become wise by walking with the wise; hang out with fools and watch you life fall to pieces.
I give thanks for this man, this legend of the river and woods, of missions and letter writing, romance and brusque ways both. For the life he and Grandma built. Thank you, God, for the son they raised in my father. For this undying legacy my siblings and I are swept up in. Thank you that he is no longer lonesome, no longer limited. Be with us, the crowds of Pruitts and beyond, grieving this loss, the passed generation of scaffolding, stability and faith, which not one of us has ever lived without. Our ankle twists in the hole left behind the removed pillar. Our eyes squint at the absent shade. Their hands, their hearts, their foibles, all so big. All such a gift.
He found mansions of glory here, on this earth—in his garden and around the fire, on the water, in the kitchen and beside his bride. His eyes twinkled with endless delight at innumerable grandbabies, the piano, a pie, a bad joke, and always, always, at the sight of any of his six children. But now, the mansions of glory, and endless delight that do not end are his—the ones needing no repair, that do not age and move away. All his senses restored, reunited with Grandma, with his youngest daughter, with so many of his friends who went before him. I don’t think that Rush Limbaugh is turned on in every room up there, but who could hear it over Grandpa’s storytelling anyway. The hymns have taken over, the berries are ripe, the river glass.
I love you Grandpa and miss you already. Thank you for loving this life, and us, so well.
Wherein I Say Nothing About Any of the Things
I went to high school in East Africa. Nairobi in fact. Sometimes I forget this. Sometimes it’s like a dream. Because, in many ways, it was.
While in said high school, I had the opportunity to fly back to the US and attend a youth leadership conference in Washington, D.C. It was one of those programs made to look very prestigious, bringing young leaders from near and far. Eager to build college admittance resumes, we were attending our first overpriced conference, strategically and suggestively set in the nation’s capital. We dressed up in professional garb as though we were not sixteen years old, wore lanyards, and stayed in a college dorm. Not a parent in sight. I was very fortunate to go, with people sponsoring my trip and registration. The theme for the week? Medical Ethics.
Never once did I consider a medical profession, mind you. But nonetheless, that was the option that fit best with ticket fares and summer travels and so why not. There I was surrounded by high school students who had set their pubescent sights on med school, or at least their parents had. I was headed towards an English Department somewhere, glad to have finished my high school (and lifetime) science credits with Environmental Studies.
The Thai food in D.C. was incredible. But one other thing was especially impacting (…other than the Korean guys who were interested in me, yes me, the nerdy girl in the permanent friend zone back at home in Kenya…). We all watched a movie one night, as a part of this Medical Ethics Conference: Wit, starring Emma Thompson. I was moved deeply by the film, but very soon after couldn’t quite describe why. It was obscure and no one had seen it apparently, except that select group of lanyard-clad young leaders, that I knew of. Its title stayed with me all these years and I finally watched it again yesterday, a mere 15 years later.
Wit still touched my soul, the first taste nostalgia, the rest merited profundity about the human condition, life and death. I had forgotten the strong elements of poetry, language and academia which would have been intriguing that week, way back when. I had forgotten the nurse, who always cared and rubbed lotion on the hands of the lonely patient. I had forgotten the pretentious rigor of the researchers and attending doctor. I had forgotten the main character’s journey towards both death and kindness, by way of suffering.
Wit likely watered my love for writing and studying poetry and Donne. It probably loosened some fears of the hospital, 7 years before I would work in one for a summer, and it probably planted a seed about bedside manner that made rubbing lotion on a dying woman’s back when she asked not that strange, but rather, a privilege. It tickled my appetite for academics, words, and the deep respect for women who become experts. It still speaks today to the value and pain of suffering and the great equalizing force of health and illness and endings.
Endings, health, ethics, and maintaining people’s humanity are themes that weigh on my mind these days. Also, always the thoughts and feelings about identity, my work, my worth, my gender…how I am changing and how I am not. These mazes are human and however difficult they are, whatever conflicts they may rise, and cloudiness they waft…they show life. The awareness of my own fragility, mortality even, however upsetting, is also an indicator light that my heart is beating and compassion is still kicking.
And maybe 15 years later, something will make sense. Or maybe along the way there will be a connection that leads you to give thanks, or a theme you recognize as directive, definitive, and distinctively tender. A theme God’s been showing you, patiently, relentlessly. We are alive, and yes, we are struggling, but the long game is still afoot. Our kindness, our attention to people’s humanity, our memory—these are of utmost importance now and our hurt may be the best indicator that these things are indeed on the rise. I must remind myself: the illness isn’t the story. It is the filter. Refining. Focusing.
Continue, sister and brother: forward.
It’s hard to breathe sometimes, isn’t it?
I can name 4 major crises my small circle is facing right now. This morning, in the midst of doing something very inconsequential, scrubbing the neglected corners of my kitchen floor, I found myself on my knees, which is not very inconsequential.
I cannot do much for these loved ones. I can give strong hugs, I can suggest ideas from my finite mind, I can feel–oh, I can feel–their sorrow and grief. But I cannot abbreviate their grief, end the illness, free the captive, raise the lifeless or infuse identity.
As I bent low, making a difference in the dirt, I used a basin older than me. It was my grandmother’s. A woman who is going to welcome her daughter soon in the heavenlies. A woman of faith and gentleness, servanthood and humility, that I rarely resemble. As I considered the hours she spent scrubbing, the moments she must have used this bowl, the small, calloused hands I remember that gripped so many young children’s palms in her own and cleaned so many spills, I felt connected to a lineage of people who endured, who believed, who saw the best in people.
The prayers of my grandmother live on, much like this enamel basin. It helped me to pray on the floor this morning, for the sorrow and trauma my loved ones are suffering, for the milieu of danger and suspicion and blame in our nation, for the strength to wait and be loving.
I don’t know how God endures the grief He must feel over His lost and hurting people. Over our refusal to reach out, our rejection of His citizenship, and our constant evaluation of one other in self-defense when all He has done has been for our belonging and to grow our grace. I don’t know how He faced this earth and said He would stay with us Always.
God the Son bent low and washed feet. It didn’t end cancer. It didn’t fix the betrayer’s heart. It didn’t save them from martyrdom.
All that is wrapped up in Christ’s basin and kneeling eludes me but today this occurs to me: He is with us at the lowest and messiest. This is my God–the One who serves, weeps, and gave up His breath so that even when it is so hard, we breathe on and we have someone to pray to who knows this pain.
I don’t feel any obligation to remain poised in the midst of today’s hurt. But I must stay prayerful. I must stay knelt at a humble basin, facing the dirt, remembering that though the air is thin, this is not the end. We come from a tradition and a Lord who embraced those margins. We are not unfamiliar with the dark corners of life and fallenness. And we are not conquered or calloused under their persistence. I reach deep into the water of faith at these times, and stay low to listen and to love. It is all there is to do.
It is a time of digging deep and bearing down; a time to look at the dust on our arms, the bruises to our vision and pray, however we can, for saving. The cumulative laments and brokenness have their welcome here; bring your ashes and rags–it is a brutal fight for faith.
Today we begin with a renewed collective spirit to join hands across the graves of our lives. We reach out knowing that the suffering has changed us and we carry it, and we look forward to a time, a resurrection, when that suffering will have improved us. We are not too hurting to know that we have caused sorrow ourselves, and this too drives us forward, discontent and restless.
This year, when I read with many other saints Matthew 6, these words make me wonder:
But when you pray, go into your room and shut the door and pray to your Father who is in secret. And your Father who sees in secret will reward you.
The secrets of the year leading up to this Lenten season are too many, many unspoken. We are dizzy with all the unknowing. It seems cracked and hurting to look at some of those secrets–to see the destruction, the disappointments, and the lonely, stranded places.
Here, in this verse, the secret is holy. The secret place is a refuge, a reward–something where the Unseen is interacting with the seen, the Infinite with the finite. Here, the quiet darkness and solitude–what was looked down on by the religious–is esteemed. The chapter suggests that only when morality and virtue comes out of a secret place, a deeply transformed character, is it the light that shines that Jesus spoke of in the chapter before. Only when the behaviors are unknown and unnoticeable to the disciple herself can the security of the birds of the air, the confidence of the lilies of the field, be hers. So accepting of and accepted by God’s Kingdom is she that she has lost her insecure false self and gained an orientation of abundance rooted in faith. Scarcity and self-protection have been replaced and she is free to be spiritually formed by quiet disciplines and spiritually active in unobserved ways.
Could I find Him in the secret questions, doubts and fears that still haunt us? That rear up when I receive an unexpected phone call, recounting more lies about our story? That make me pause in the middle of some songs, some readings, because I don’t know those things any more and I’m not sure if they are true? Those ashes, the debris of a busted up world, that we each bring with us, from the news, from our marriages, from our hurting churches, to this strange Ash Wednesday? Could we find Him here, in the secrets–in those experiences and tragedies that have been as, if not more, transcendent and impacting on us than anything else?
You who have made me see many troubles and calamities will revive me again; from the depths of the earth you will bring me up again. Psalm 71:20
The beginnings of this season are humble. And they are wide. All are invited to bring their mess, to bring the death that has happened, into the sanctuary. Ash Wednesday and Matthew 6 and being a disciple are all about not doing things right, not having things figured out, and still finding ourselves welcomed on a journey of death becoming life. We are best prepared when we have been put in touch with our own depravity and fragility. When all that is seen is not rescue enough for what is unseen.
Today we take the first step in an awkward dance of self-forgetfulness, which is to say, freedom. A mysterious and secret, yet collective and traditional, meeting. My laments, my failures, my pride, and all the shaky ways I prop up my self-image and facades of safety are accepted and loved and gently, secretly, replaced. In exchange I am freed to take part in a character, a light and a love that calls to the margins and calms my true self that remains. A economy of abundance that I cannot understand with the previous coverings.
Again, I am headed to the steeple of love, the cross, and every time it is a disarming, mysterious journey.