For The Someday Book

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Lose, Love, Live: The Spiritual Gifts of Loss and Change by Dan Moseley, Upper Room Books, 2010, 140 pp.

Lose Love LiveI am using this book to start a Grief & Loss Support Group at my church, and this resource came highly recommended by a friend for that purpose. It was a challenge for me, in some ways, to be reading a book about grief at a time in my life when I am (blessedly) not walking a grief-filled path. I feel inadequate to judge how helpful the book is for those in the midst of a grief journey, because my point of view is somewhat removed.

What I most appreciate about Dan Moseley’s approach to the journey of grief is his simultaneous ability to name that grief is not something that you “get over,” especially not in some predictable time frame, and his wisdom that new life and unexpected joy is still available after a life changed by grief. He handles the agony of pain, anger and loss without glossing over it, yet points to the promise and possibility available only through grief, the “spiritual gifts of loss and change.” It’s not simply a positive outlook or word of encouragement, it’s a deeper sense of hope in the resurrection. Moseley’s mantra is, “To live is to love. To love is to lose. To lose is to live.”

The book itself follows the journey of grief in its many twists and turns. There are chapters that attend to naming the loss, feeling pain, anger, remembering, guilt, forgiving, gratitude, play, practice and becoming new. Each chapter describes what it is like to journey through that particular aspect of grief, and includes stories of diverse people facing different kinds of losses. One of the best features of the book is the “Good Companions” section at the end of each chapter, which describes the kinds of friends and relationships that can best help you when you are experiencing each part of the journey. This book therefore makes an excellent resource for those wishing to offer support and care to loved ones who grieve.

One of the insights that spoke the most to me was about losing faith in the midst of grief. Moseley writes,

The guarantee that we will lose holds true for our faith as well. Faith is a human construct. We create an understanding of our lives in relationship to God. We use symbols and language to create that understanding. These symbols, while shaped by divine power and history, are constructs of the human mind. … Therefore, when we are faced with a crisis that results in losing whatever we have come to count on, the way we imagine God can also change and we may lose our faith. … Since we constructed it, we can lose it. (25)

While God does not change, our relationships and perceptions of God are nearly guaranteed to fall apart when we grieve. I take strange comfort in that truth-telling.

Another section I found especially insightful were his chapters on playing and practicing. Grief doesn’t just strip us of the one we loved, but of our identity in that relationship, forcing us to change who we are.

We play our way into new ways of being and living. … To grow spiritually involves imagining ourselves as different kinds of people, playing with different ways of being in the world. (94)

After we have explored a variety of options for living again, somewhere along the way we will discover that some of those options represent who we are more than others. When we come to that awareness, we begin practicing those options more than others. (103)

Moseley encourages the deep, transformative work of grief that invites a new way of living and being in response to the loss we experience in our lives. I have found the group discussions so far to be helpful and productive. This could be an excellent resource for a church group or therapy group, since the context is not specifically Christian, although Moseley himself served as a pastor for many years.

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Last week, a beloved member of my congregation died. He was a prominent businessman and philanthropist in the community, so his death prompted a front-page article in the community newspaper. The reporter called me, and I offered a few words of appreciation. The article that followed was lovely, but it referred to me as his “former pastor.” I suspect the reporter intended to indicate that since the man was “former,” then our relationship was “former” as well. I probably used the past tense in describing him, my regular practice to adjust to the reality of death. However, we were just entering into one of the deepest and most holy parts of the pastoral relationship.

Funeral (1)

It only looks like this in movies, never in real life.

As your pastor, I accompany you when you die. Unless your death is sudden, I will come and sit with you and invite you to talk about dying. What frightens you? What gives you peace, and what peace do you need to make? What have you left undone, unspoken, unacknowledged? Can I help you tend to those things, or let them go?  Together in prayer we will hold the grief and gratitude for your life, the fears you face and the confessions you make.

As you approach your last breath or immediately after it, your family will call me. I will come and sit with them and with your body. I might put a touch of scented oil on your forehead to bless your body one last time. We will touch you as you grow colder,  pray that God will deliver you to peace and that we might have strength to confront our grief at your absence. I will share with them, gently and without violating your confidence, what you told me about your own death. It helps your family to learn that we talked about these things.

After they meet with the funeral director to tend to the details, I will gather with your spouse or children or grandchildren or closest friends. They are exhausted from the things of death—caskets and cemeteries, death certificates and disposal of property, phone calls and insurance. Often we sit around your kitchen table, or in your living room. I think about times I visited with you during your life, and I ask them to do the same.  As the stories flow, it’s like you are there with us. We smile and laugh, and we all cry together, too. I take notes. They tell me secrets you probably wish they didn’t, and I promise not to repeat them. Sometimes, if I knew you well, I get to reveal stories about you, too. Together we put aside the things of death to pick up the things of life again–your sense of humor, your pet peeves, your passions, your work, your love. If you were not always a nice person, we talk about that too. Honesty is important.

We talk about how to place your life in the context of God’s wider story of love. How was God revealed in your life? What faith did you practice? We read scriptures and listen to music together until we find just the right verses to connect your spirit to God’s Spirit. Before I go, I pray with your family, and we call your name, giving thanks to God for you.

Over the next few days or hours, I think about you all the time—washing dishes, praying, driving around town, listening to music, looking in the bathroom mirror. I almost always dream about you, and sometimes I think you speak to me in dreams. I read through the notes and scriptures again, and contemplate how to talk about your life and God’s place in it. When you are alive, you are dynamic, changing, conflicted, plural. Suddenly, the story is closed, the ending known.  I take a scattered mix of memories and images and senses and feelings and string them together to make sense of your unique, complex self—and of the presence of God. I pray that I can give your family back the words they shared with me, to replace the things of death with the things of life again.

At the funeral, my body accompanies yours from beginning to end. I enter with you, leading the casket into the chapel or sanctuary. When the service concludes, I stand a few feet from you while everyone pauses to say their last good-byes. I try to stand slightly apart, so that people don’t feel like they need to shake my hand. I don’t eavesdrop on their private farewells, but I see them touch your hand, call your pet name, kiss you on the cheek. I always fight tears.

When everyone else has left, I stay. I pray with your body one last time, just the two of us, before watching the funeral director close your casket for the last time. I walk with you to the hearse, stand by while the pallbearers lift you inside, then climb in the front seat to ride with you to the cemetery. When we arrive, I lead you and the pallbearers to the graveside, offering final words and prayers before you are laid to rest. The family often comes forward to touch the casket, to take a rose, to say one more goodbye. They drive away, but I stay behind with the funeral director. I watch until you are lowered into the ground. Only then do I leave your side. Only then might I be considered your “former” pastor.

But the truth is that I will always carry you with me. The threshold between life and death is a thin place, and when we have stood there together, we are forever linked. The holiness of accompanying you through the rites of death leaves a mark on my soul, even if I never met you in life. I may speak in the past tense and say, “I was your pastor,” but as I accompanied you in death, you accompany me in life. I remember you on All Saints Day, on the next visit to the same funeral home, hospital room, cemetery. I remember you when I hear that hymn or read that scripture or drive by your old house. And I still think of myself as your pastor.

Photo of tornado that hit Henryville, from crabbyhousewife.com.

Exactly ten days ago, deadly tornadoes rolled through our region. Since noon that Friday, when my son’s school announced an early closing, every plan, task and to-do list has been tossed aside. Our town is just a few miles from Henryville, Indiana, which took a direct hit from an EF4 tornado. Our congregation has families that live in Henryville, Pekin, Borden and New Washington. One family has lost their entire home, another family has sustained major damage. Two of our church’s youth attend Henryville High School, and they have lost their school building and the accompanying social events that give shape to their lives. Almost everyone has suffered emotional and spiritual trauma, as they feared for their own lives and worried over friends and loved ones in the hours after the storm.

Henryville High School, devastated by the tornado.

Last Sunday, less than 36 hours after the storm, our community gathered for the first time. For most of us, it was the first chance we had to talk about our experiences. I groped for something to say to my congregation in the wake of such devastation. In prayer, I realized we needed to do three things in that hour of worship: to acknowledge our feelings, to find our hope in God, and to organize our service.

We began the sermon by simply inviting people to share words that described what they had been feeling. Scared. Fear. Anger. Sadness. Helplessness. Anxiety. Grief. Questioning. Gratitude. Relief. Questioning “why?”. While one occasion of worship was not enough to process all these feelings, there was a palpable sense of connection in the room as we realized that we were all feeling the same way. We could acknowledge that we were not alone in our struggles, and giving voice to our shared experiences gave us encouragement.

The scripture that I had originally planned for that day was from the Lenten lectionary, Jesus’ admonition to “take up your cross and follow me.” I had planned to talk about Jesus’ confrontation with the evils of empire, and in my weekly video I had even asked people to ponder the question, “What would you be willing to die for?” After the storms, we all knew in a deeper way that we were not willing to die for our stuff. But many of our community also knew in a way that they never understood before how much they were willing to risk their own lives to protect family, friends and neighbors.

It is in that spirit of generosity, courage and self-sacrifice that God is made known in these storms. It is not in the suffering, injury and death. We find our hope in God in the love and compassion we see from those around us, and we offer to one another. From my sermon:

People may try to tell you that suffering is good for you, or that God sent these terrible tornadoes as a cross for us to bear, that this is some kind of a test or blessing or way of making our faith stronger, but I’ll tell you right now—that’s just bad theology. I don’t believe it for a second, and neither should you. God doesn’t work like that—choosing to preserve a woodpile or a mailbox while destroying a home, saving one family when their neighbors across the street lose everything. God doesn’t use the winds to rip apart homes and lives and frighten us into submission. God doesn’t pick husbands over wives, grandparents over grandchildren, cats over dogs, non-Christians over Christians. God doesn’t send little children flying through the air to teach us a lesson. Any God who could be so cruel and fickle is not worthy of our worship.

The God of Jesus Christ is the God of the cross, the one who is willing to suffer and even die right alongside us, so that we know that we are never alone in our most painful moments.

The God of Jesus Christ and our God is the one who refuses to flee in the face of the storm, who huddles under mattresses and climbs into bathtubs, holding us tight in our most terrifying moments.

The God of Jesus Christ and our God is the one who hears our most fervent and frightened prayers and whispers calm and peace into our ears.

The God of Jesus Christ and our God is the one who searches every house and every ruin until the lost are found.

The God of Jesus Christ and our God is the one who shows up in food trucks and water bottles and chainsaws and offers of “whatever you need, we’re here for you.”

The God of Jesus Christ and our God picks up a hammer, a bucket, and work gloves and starts cleaning up and rebuilding—and sticks around until every last family, every last person is restored to wholeness again.

The God of Jesus Christ and our God uses Facebook and phone calls, e-mail and text messages to rally the family of Christians across the country to pray for this church and our two afflicted families by name this Sunday morning.

The God of Jesus Christ and our God sends the resources of the One Great Hour of Sharing and UCC Disaster Response Ministries to our aid, and extends offers of support and supplies from every corner as we help our community start again.

The God of Jesus Christ and our God does not delight in how much we suffer, but in our willingness, like God’s own Son, to go to the places of suffering in this world to shine the light, and hope, and love for all people.

So that’s what we are to do: we who follow God, we take up our cross by following God into these places of suffering and grief, so that our friends and neighbors are not alone and they know God’s love is with them even in these terrible circumstances.

For us as Christians, we don’t merely take care of our own—we will reach out to all those in need. This storm will be an even more devastating loss on those who were already living on the edge, and they will need our compassion and aid.

We aren’t just acting from heart-felt compassion. We are people of faith, and service is a discipline for us, not just something we do because it makes us feel good.  That means we’re making a long-term commitment, until every last person is restored to wholeness. That process will take many months, after the fear and the emotion and the passion have died down. The work will get tedious and much patience will be required—but you and I, this church, we have an opportunity in this moment to be for our community the light and the hope of God, and I know we will.

I know we will. That felt like such a statement of faith that morning, but I knew it to be true—that our congregation would rally and work and give and serve in ways far beyond our imagined capacity. And we have, already.

Volunteers in Henryville (AP photo by Michael Conroy)

Since the winds died down, everyone in our community has been working non-stop to clean up and care for one another. Crews from our church organized to remove debris for two families in our congregation, but then reached out to help other neighbors. A Volunteer Reception Center opened just a few blocks from our church to handle the hundreds of volunteers arriving in the region (nearly 3,000 already registered). Over 20 members of our congregation have already signed up to work at the Volunteer Center itself. This is not the “glamorous” work in storm-ravaged areas—this is filing papers, answering phones, handing out work gloves. Our folks have signed up for multiple shifts over the next four weeks already.  A dozen more have also been deployed to the affected areas with chainsaws and pick-up trucks and debris removal equipment. Our youth group has organized a spaghetti supper this Thursday night as a fundraiser for long-term recovery. When the Volunteer Center needed chaplains, I simply stated the need at a local clergy meeting, and every afternoon was covered for the next month. As one of the volunteers said to me, “We are God’s people. This is what we do—we help people.”

So much has changed in ten short days. Sabbatical seems like such a long time ago. My calendar has been filled with shifts at the Volunteer Center, clean-up days with church work groups, and pastoral care for our church families who are most affected. My e-mail inbox and Facebook news feed are full of storm-related communications coordinating needs and responses, including inquiries from church groups about summer mission trips. I find myself a part of a coalition for long-term recovery, and I anticipate dedicating many hours in the months ahead to organizing spiritual care for those who have suffered so much trauma.

And yet, so much remains the same. For our congregation, this response to disaster is no different than what we do every day. When someone dies, when accidents happen, when lives fall apart, we are there for each other and provide for one another. When people in our community are hungry or homeless or lost, we provide food and shelter and care. When trauma and spiritual crisis arise, we offer space for seekers, room for questions, and reassurances of God’s grace and love. The intensity and the need have multiplied around us, but we have been committed to these faith practices for a long time already. We will sustain and increase that effort in the days, months and even years to come, as our community recovers, because we know God is with us, beckoning us into the suffering places to be light, and hope, and love.

Photo by Kylene Lloyd, The Courier-Journal

Mindful Resilience: Navigating the Labyrinth of Change in Times of Challenge by Pamela Cotton, Mindful Resilience Press, 2010, 148 pp.

It is a pleasure to tell you about Mindful Resilience, since it is a book you might not have heard of before. Pamela Cotton is a member of my congregation, and this book represents a coming together of her professional skills as a therapist, her spiritual life in contemplative practices, and her personal journey through a tumultuous time of change and loss in her life. Mindful Resilience offers concrete strategies, personal storytelling and Spirit wisdom for anyone seeking to be present and open to growing through life’s most difficult challenges.

Mindful Resilience is grounded in the belief that our ability to remain resilient in tough situations is connected to and improved by the practice of giving sustained, “non-judgmental attention”  and presence to the situation. Pamela tells the story of her own journey through a major move to a new and unfamiliar location; the death of her father; her mother’s diagnosis of ALS and subsequent need for care, and eventually her mother’s death. She describes the techniques of mindfulness that she practiced during this time, and how they enabled her to relish the beauty of these holy moments, in spite of their pain and her own natural resistance to the events that were unfolding. It was my privilege to serve as Pamela’s pastor during much of the journey she describes in the book. I can testify to that she practiced what she preaches, and that those practices kept her present to the moment and gave her strength to not only endure but grow and even find joy in the midst of the struggle.

As a pastor, I connected most deeply with her descriptions of being present to the moment. We clergy journey alongside people in some of the most difficult moments of their lives—the death of a spouse or child, a medical crisis, a divorce, a job loss, family violence and more. Sometimes, we can help in concrete and meaningful ways. Most of the time, however, all we have to offer is our presence and a few words of prayer or scripture. Pastoral care literature has long taught us that clergy can help in crisis situations by serving as a “non-anxious presence” available to those involved, remaining calm and open and attentive as those around us are in crisis. This is both impossibly difficult and the easiest thing to do. It is impossible to be present and not to also feel the intensity of pain and grief in a situation. It is easy to differentiate and remain calm, because it is not your pain or your crisis or your family.

Mindful Resilience suggests that even those in the middle of the crisis themselves can practice the same non-anxious presence by learning to be present to the situation, to their emotions in it, and to the possibilities of the power of the Spirit within them. That mindfulness practice enables everyone to be more resilient in crisis, more open to life-affirming change, more able to support family members and more attuned to the workings of the Spirit. Using the metaphor of traveling a labyrinth, each chapter of the book recounts Pamela’s own story, and introduces a new turn on the path of mindfulness, such as Mindful Presence, Mindful Commitment-to Transformation, Mindful Embracing, Mindful Embodiment, and Mindful Awareness-to-Balance. She strikes just the right balance between allowing the concept of mindfulness to remain mystical and teaching concrete techniques about how to practice it.

I think this book could be helpful to anyone who feels overwhelmed by life, crisis, change or emotion. After all, this book is about resilience.  I would also recommend it for caregivers (professional and non-professional) seeking to help those in crisis. The techniques of mindfulness she describes can help sort through the chaos. Being mindfully present to the emotions and the events helps overcome the feeling of  being out of control, of being a victim of your life rather than centered in it. Practicing Mindful Resilience opens us to the Spirit within our lives, no matter how tumultuous, and builds our resilience.


About Me

I am a full-time pastor in the United Church of Christ, mother of a young child (B.), married to an aspiring academic and curmudgeon (J.). I live by faith, intuition and intellect. I follow politics, football and the Boston Red Sox. I like to talk about progressive issues, theological concerns, church life, the impact of technology and media, pop culture and books.

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