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In all things??

My day started with a funeral. It was a tough one. A young man succumbed to cancer, never reaching the quarter-century mark. His was a rare form of cancer for a young person to contract: fewer than 300 cases in the United States annually for people his age. Typically laborers who have worked in coal mines or been exposed to asbestos for a career develop this lung disease. None of that fit the person whose life we were celebrating that morning. Stricken with abdominal pain one night, he awakened his father. When remedies from the medicine cabinet didn’t work, they headed to the hospital. That was the beginning of a nightmarish journey for the family. With a memorial service the goal is to celebrate a life that has been well-lived. But, when a studious college student is interrupted in their march toward graduation by an aggressive disease, it’s hard to summon up any cause for celebration.

This was a particularly difficult service for me because I had officiated at this young man’s mother’s funeral sixteen years earlier. She passed away suddenly in the night leaving behind her devoted husband and two elementary school-aged children. Our congregation was rocked. She had been with us in worship the day before. Her children had played at the house of other church children after the service. It had seemed a very normal Sabbath to everyone. But Monday morning she was gone. It was one of the most emotional memorial services I’ve ever done. I managed to keep my composure while processing with the coffin and family members out of the church. But then I had to slip away into my office to cry: for the young widower and two children whose memories of their mother were inevitably going to fade. No matter how deep the love of a parent, time erases memories when we lose someone at such a young age.

The funeral director reached me first to tell me of the death of this son. I was heartbroken. While I hadn’t kept up with the family, their great loss years earlier had stayed with me. How could they hold up in the face of another tragic death and still hang onto a shred of hope in God? I met with the grief-stricken father and sister of the deceased. It was an emotional reunion. I would never have imagined that this would be the occasion that would bring us together again. They caught me up briefly on their own lives then filled me in on the battle of the past months. Cancer showed up in his medical chart and never let up the chase. He had been wrapping up a college degree with internships promising a budding career. He had found the love of his life with whom he intended to spend the rest of a long life. Instead she courageously lived out the traditional marriage vows without having the chance to go through the ceremony of her dreams: “I give myself to you….in sickness and health…as long as we both shall live.” They considered getting married in the hospital but her fiancé was traditional. He wanted to get out of the hospital so that he could go to her father and ask for her hand in marriage. He assumed he had time. But he never left the care of doctors and nurses. He died, leaving behind a dad who thought he would one day be a grampa to his son’s children; a sister to whom he was particularly bonded because of the early loss of their mom; and a fiancée who would never walk down the aisle to a beaming groom.

I knew I would have to do some real preaching at this service. The pain was too great to ignore. The outcry of “Unfair” was too clearly warranted. So I selected Paul’s writing to the Romans in which he spoke of the groaning of creation, awaiting liberation from bondage to death and decay. Our world is in travail, like a woman in labor, and what seems so real and permanent to us is actually fleeting. The very best things in life will pass away and our hope is found in the promise that some glorious day all that is earthly will be swept up in newness of life. Eternal life.

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In the meantime, we carve out our lives. In the meantime, we groan under the weight of the losses we experience. When we realize that we don’t have the strength to navigate life on our own, the Holy Spirit surrounds us with tender care. When we can barely breathe, let alone put words together into a prayer, Paul assures us that the “very Spirit intercedes with sighs too deep for words.” (Romans 8:27)

The procession of cars to the gravesite was long. It interrupted the traffic flow of people caught up in the rush of daily demands. Even in today’s brash culture, people know to revere a caravan of cars on their way to the cemetery. It was a beautiful fall day with sunshine and a refreshing breeze. The Spirit was near but a gravesite is unavoidably lonely. The father was the first to grasp the coffin of his son as it came out of the back of the hearse. He told me he was with his son every day of his cancer battle—every day. On this last day with his son’s earthly body at hand, he stayed by his side. The sister survived this requiem by tightly hugging all the guests who had gathered. As I intoned the familiar words of the 23rd Psalm I heard voices quietly praying it along with me. “…Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life…” That’s a statement of faith! When all else seems to fail us, surely God is present.

I left the family to bury their dead and was driven back to the funeral home in a 1950’s hearse. Conversation with the driver was light. We had witnessed something so difficult that we welcomed mundane topics. I had little time to reflect on the service. I headed home with just enough time to change out of my black dress into casual clothing bearing the insignia of the Detroit Tigers. We had made plans months earlier to take a family trip to Commerica Park before the season ended. So, like flipping a light switch, I journeyed from cemetery to Tigers’ Stadium. Time with our grown children is precious. It takes effort to coordinate adult schedules and arrive at one location all together. One daughter had unavoidable commitments but seven of us made it in time for the first pitch.

I offered to wait outside the park since my daughter and son-in-law hadn’t parked yet and I had their tickets. People-watching at a major sporting event is its own form of entertainment. Folks hawking tickets under false pretenses lurked. Children practically skipped, holding hands with doting parents. As I was waiting by the main gate I saw a bride and groom making their way toward the entrance. With orange as the feature color, they made a striking entrance!

Someone called out to the crowd to make way for the happy couple. Folks looked in his direction and began to clap for them. Everyone in line to have their picture taken under the enormous tiger statue ceded their rights to the couple of the day. They and their wedding party posed with much laughter. The crowd borrowed their joy. Their love represented hope—amazing hope that people still commit themselves into the care of another person for a lifetime! Who do we think we are to make such a pledge! “Surely our love will carry us through the ups and downs,” we exclaim. So we make vows of undying love and throw a party from which the whole world derives hope. At one point the photographer made a genius suggestion. Addressing the crowd that was in rapt attention he said, “Why don’t you all get in the picture?” That’s all it took! We became a flash mob that took their places haphazardly and screamed out with joy. The couple strolled back to their reception site and I settled into my upper deck seat with my family, enjoying variations on a theme of ballpark delicacies. My head was spinning with the events of the day. From tearful hugs at a gravesite to cheers for a couple at a ballgame.

In the memorial service I chose to end my reading from Romans 8 with verse 28: “We know that all things work together for good for those who love God, who are called according to his purpose.” Really? ALL things work together for good? When a college coed who has shaped such an inspirational life is taken? When a man has to say goodbye to his young son after losing his wife when he was in this 30’s? When a daughter becomes an only child and four grandparents find themselves sitting on folding chairs at the edge of an earthly chasm that will soon hold their grandson? ALL things work together for good for those who love God?

The father told me that his son felt peace in the last months of his struggle. His mother’s faith had stayed with him all those years in spite of her physical absence. He had battled cancer with a courageous determination that came from relentless hope. Even as he breathed his last, leaving a heartbroken fiancée behind with unfulfilled wedding dreams, his mother reached across our green earth to a place where the Spirit blows the freshness of eternal life. As painful as the funeral was for the family, across the state another couple was blessed into a lifetime commitment of love. A struggling ball team won the game and our family rejoiced in precious time spent together.

Faith in God is not for the faint of heart. There will be unanswered questions and dark nights of the soul. There will be losses you can’t imagine surviving. But there will be joys far greater than anything you could have dreamt. The gifts of the faith are there for the taking. It takes a Relationship to claim them. A dying young man offered his loved ones hope. A couple brought a bunch of Tiger’s fans joy. God, who holds our world tenderly in balance, never leaves us, gives word to our prayers and LOVES us. Loves us. Loves.

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Running Late

I was running a bit late for an 8AM meeting. I was pushing the speed limit on a back road, hoping to minimize my tardiness. Then a school bus pulled onto the road about a quarter of a mile ahead. Argh! Now I would be late for sure. Predictably the bus lights started flashing and it slowed to a stop near a side street. I could see a mother waiting by her car. As the bus halted I saw one small hand waving happily to greet the driver. When the way was cleared and the STOP sign on the side of the bus was in place, the mother moved two small girls from the side of their car across the street to the bus. They were no more than a year apart in age, maybe even twins. Their backpacks were half the length of their petite bodies. I watched as this mother entrusted her precious cargo to a mass transportation operator and a public school system for another day. The bus lights extinguished and it lurched forward in pursuit of the next student.

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By now I knew I would be unavoidably five minutes late to my meeting. But I was no longer thinking about that. Seeing that snapshot of morning ritual reminded me of what really matters. I was able to slow down mentally and take in the world around me rather than rush to a destination. I noticed the changing color of the landscape. I observed a V-formation of geese flying overhead. I saw a field of corn drying as feed for livestock in the winter ahead. Two little girls vulnerably crossing the road under the protective vigil of a mom and a bus driver focused my thoughts on what matters.

The demands placed on us each day are great. It would be easy to put our heads down and plow ahead, never looking up at the scenery God has given us. But the beauty around us is breathtaking and God’s hand is always ready to lead us. So look up, breathe in the crisp air and say a prayer of thanks!

 

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Of Fascinators and Follies

My roots exploration in Europe this summer extended far beyond genetics and hometowns. I learned the egotistical ways of my British ancestors. The Debbie-Downer of a preacher in Ecclesiastes cries out, “Vanity of vanities, says the Preacher, the son of David, king in Jerusalem. Vanity of vanities, says the Preacher, vanity of vanities! All is vanity!” (I think he might lose some points in an English class for repetition!) My people, it turns out are vain. Because I’m an outsider, I find their flaunting to be fascinating. Foreign eccentricity is amusing! Just don’t laugh at my efforts at self-promotion. That’s serious business!

The first discovery about British vanity is found in a fashion statement for which they are known: the women’s headpieces. At any grand English occasion, the women parade all forms of hats that put the Who’s in Whoville to shame. One sister had her mind set on super-special sister pics with ancestral headgear augmenting our otherwise bland features. She let us in on this dream one morning when we awakened in Leeds, England. We were to use our morning to shop for fascinators. “For what?” I queried. The hats our English lady-friends wear that so fascinate us are, precisely that, fascinators. Since there was an impressive shopping area nearby we set out—four unadorned American sisters—to find the perfect statement for our…heads!

Fascinators of two women

It turns out that fashion isn’t cheap across the pond any more than it is here. We found a grand selection of fascinators pretty quickly but discovered that one sister’s whimsy was going to cost us each about $30. We tried another department store—more like a T.J.Maxx of Britain. Less selection and similar prices. At this point we had each tried on several different styles and bought into the fascinator vision of my sister. When paying for mine the woman asked me if I had a special occasion coming up for which I would debut my purchase. “No, it’s just for frivolity!” I responded. “We love frivolity,” she replied enthusiastically. Clearly. When a nation of women park feathers and flowers atop their coiffed hair, frivolity is at play. Or, to phrase it as our dour forebear in the faith intoned, “I said to myself, ‘Come now, I will make a test of pleasure; enjoy yourself.’ But again, this also was vanity.” Nice way to kill the party.

We did, by the way, get a lot of mileage out of these luxury items. Not only did we get some great photographs of four silly sisters claiming their roots in England. We wore them in several places which gave some light-hearted pleasure to our ancestral people. For the people who birthed Monty Python, it is no small credit to make them laugh! Both in London and Edinburgh, while we were there, the Queen held her annual tea. At these grand occasions that host thousands, she thanked ordinary citizens for their selfless contributions to the wellbeing of their communities. We were at the right place at the right time and had an opportunity to see a vast array of netting, feathers, twirlies and sparkles accenting hats the women wore to those ceremonies. In Edinburgh we were having a late lunch at a pub on the main drag of old-town Edinburgh when a throng of lovely ladies, accompanied by their handsome kilt-wearing princes, came in for a celebratory drink. We had front-row seats to a fantastic British fashion show!

We discovered a variation to the vanity theme of our kin in Scotland. We hired a chauffeur to drive us through the Highlands, from Edinburgh to Oban, on a beautiful day. He was a retired police officer and knew his history and the back roads. Our efforts at driving ourselves through England on the wrong side of the road were met with fear and trembling. So it was great to be able to look out the windows of his comfortable van at the breath-taking scenery. Many of the hills in Scotland are “smooth”, lacking trees. I understand this is because of the high winds and rocky soil. So we noticed several times that there were interesting towers or monuments atop some of the hills. We commented to each other on how striking they were and wondered aloud what purpose they served. That was enough for our driver to offer a spontaneous editorial.

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“We call those ‘follies’” he stated. “That one up there was erected by the family that owns the surrounding property. They do it to bring attention to themselves.” In case we weren’t picking up on his derogatory drift, he stated that they served no purpose and were an expression of conceit. Our admiration, of necessity, drained but we watched for other follies along the way. The most impressive one we saw was in Oban, the hometown of our MacDougall clan. It is perched on the highest point in the city, a virtual coliseum that commands attention. It was the mother of all follies and we were entitled to take some ownership of it as proud Oban clanspeople!

oban and folly

It was built by John Stuart McCaig, a wealthy banker, at an estimated half million dollars in today’s value. He had a vision for it, designed it and spent five years building it right up until his death in 1902. An admirer of Roman and Greek architecture, he wanted to leave a lasting monument to his family. His death cut short his grandiose plans for the full development of the site. He had intended to erect a tower in the center of the coliseum—what says ego more than a prominent and useless tower? Even better, he intended to use his substantial financial means to commission statues of himself, his siblings and their parents to populate the interior of the monument. His death at age 78 left the project incomplete, with simply the outer walls in place. There is a bit of nobility to this effort: he hired stonemasons to do the construction so that they would have work in the winter. Even vanity has room for benevolence.

Our melancholic preacher from Ecclesiastes would stand unimpressed before McCaig’s tower and other follies around Scotland. In his usual cheery way he preaches, “Is there anything of which one can say,’Look! This is something new’? It was here already, long ago; it was here before our time. No one remembers the former generations, and even those yet to come will not be remembered by those who follow them.” Take that, John McCaig! My sisters and I actually enjoyed walking up a steep hill through a neighborhood of homes to investigate the folly. A young couple sat at a bench within the stone walls, enjoying the scenery as a host site for their amorous expressions. Other tourists walked around the impressive structure and appreciated the grand vista of Oban-on-the-Sea afforded by the aerial view McCaig obviously appreciated.

McCAigs tower

So we stumble onto the timeless truth that what is fashion to one is folly to another. A monument built of egotistical desire can nonetheless be a source of inspiration to generations yet to come. The reality is we all greet each day with a narrow view from our own subjective window. We find ways to enhance the gifts that God has given us and to conceal the blemishes that cause us shame. Folly to one is beauty to another. The sooner we admit that we’re all in this egotistical mess together, the sooner we will appreciate the fascinating gifts that the other has to offer–not with judgment but with pleasure. Acknowledging our own tendency toward self-promotion, we turn to the God of our preacher friend in Ecclesiastes and affirm: “I know that whatever God does endures forever; nothing can be added to it, nor anything taken from it; God has done this, so that all should stand in awe before him.” Amen!

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Norrine

When Norrine was in her 80’s her grandkids had a request of her when they visited. “Will you stand on your head,” they asked their favorite octogenarian. Preposterous! Or maybe not! Those of us in her fan base know that nothing was impossible with her! So Norrine would give them what they wanted, getting down on her knees—which would count quite a few of us out right there! She put her head on the floor then her feet went up, straight up! And she stayed in that balanced position long enough to please her impressed grandkids.

Today we said goodbye to one of the most fit members of our congregation. Norrine was athletic. As recently as the week before she died she walked down the halls of her care facility upright and without any assistance. Whether on her head or on her feet she was straight as an arrow! Years of teaching swimming lessons to Rockford boys and girls kept her in fine form for decades to come. Recently she showed her son, Dan, one of the exercises that her doctor suggested she do: she bent over and placed her hands flat on the floor, legs straight and strong. She didn’t ask Dan if he was able to do the same exercise—a good thing, since he (and most of us!) couldn’t! Did I mention Norrine was 102? She was not impressed with herself. She just kept moving because there was always something worthwhile up ahead.

I played golf yesterday morning with my husband and son. I literally cannot remember the last time I golfed. We will be playing in a fundraiser golf tournament this Friday so my fear of extreme humiliation is what got me out on the links. I started out flailing but began to figure out some pointers. First off, give up on the hole in one! Just let go of that goal as fodder for someone else’s dream—like someone who can actually remember when they last swung a golf club! I needed to simplify my expectations. “Focus on form,” I told myself. “Distance will follow.”

Form first. Distance follows. Right.

As I thrashed my way through nine holes, I thought of Norrine whose memorial service I would be leading the next day. She played golf into her 80’s. She took walks through her beloved hometown into her 90’s. She marched along the halls of her retirement home, passing up wheelchairs and walkers. Focus on form. Distance will follow. In a humble, matter-of-fact manner, Norrine made sure the form to her life was good. This propelled her almost to her 103rd year!

The Apostle Paul lived amidst the Greeks who were a competitive people. Races were a form of entertainment in the first century. So Paul borrows the language of fitness to connect with the worldly folks in Corinth. He wrote to them: “Do you not know that in a race all the runners run, but only one receives the prize? So run that you may obtain it. Every athlete exercises self-control in all things. They do it to receive a perishable wreath, but we an imperishable. So I do not run aimlessly; I do not box as one beating the air. But I discipline my body and keep it under control, lest after preaching to others I myself should be disqualified.” (1 Cor. 9:24-27)

Norrine’s family and community didn’t gather at her funeral today because she was an impressive specimen of physical fitness—even though she was! We grieve her death because Norrine knew the kind of race she was running for over a century. It wasn’t pointless, like air boxing. It wasn’t out of vain ambition that she stood on her head for her grandkids or touched her toes with her 102-year old arms! She lived every aspect to her life with gratitude to God for the good gifts she had received. With a strong body she could better serve her family, her church, and her community. That’s what mattered most. Just five years ago Norrine was one of the faithful church ladies who trotted into our church basement with a cake she had baked for the funeral luncheon. Then she would set to the task of cutting the many cakes into even squares that could be set out on plates for the guests following the service. Quite often the person in the coffin was 20-30 years younger than Norrine but I don’t think she ever reflected on that. All she knew was that bringing a cake was an important contribution she could make in the life of her church and that her efficient efforts were needed in the kitchen.

She knew her way around the kitchen! After a 25-year long career, Norrine retired as the kitchen manager at the Rockford High School. The lunches for all the schools in the district came out of that kitchen so it was a great responsibility! Her husband was the custodian for the high school so, between the two of them, they tended to the needs of Rockford kids. Her son said it was comforting to have his parents in the same building where he attended classes on a daily basis. Whenever I called to set up a time to visit her, she insisted that I come during the lunch hour and she always served me a meal that came hot out of the oven. Hospitality mattered to this woman who was born in her grandfather’s farmhouse in 1915—hospitality whether it be around her table at home or served up on a tray to hundreds of hungry students. Form mattered and service to others was a gift she embraced for the whole of her long life.

Norrine loved her sons. She and her husband encouraged them from the sidelines of their games. They imparted Christian morals to them from involvement in my congregation for more than seven decades. Birthdays were a cause for celebration. She had a hand-written, carefully organized calendar of birthdays and anniversaries. As grandbabies and great grandbabies were born, she added their names to the family log. She proudly shared photographs of her great grandchildren with visitors. She traveled with family members to check out their new home or went out with her friends in the Women’s Fellowship to enjoy lunch in a new restaurant. But more than anything, she loved the companionship of her three sons.

For 45 years Norrine was a single parent. She lost her husband in 1973 but she didn’t complain that it wasn’t fair. She made sure to meet the needs of her sons in his absence. She lost her oldest son in 1996 and her youngest son just six years ago. She deeply grieved losing them but I never heard her cry out, “Why me?” Her faith offered a solid foundation from which she continued to reach out to others. Grief sent her on a different sort of race, however, urging her to move forward with her sadness in tow. The writer to the Hebrews reminds us that we continue to journey with our departed loved ones in this beautiful passage from the twelfth chapter: “Therefore, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us also lay aside every weight, and sin which clings so closely, and let us run with endurance the race that is set before us, looking to Jesus, the founder and perfecter of our faith, who for the joy that was set before him endured the cross, despising the shame, and is seated at the right hand of the throne of God.” (Hebrews 12:1-2)

Form matters. Distance follows.

After her youngest son’s death in 2012, Norrine struggled. She was 96 and still living on her own. Everything became more difficult because, emotionally, she had had the wind knocked out of her. During this time she made the move to a lovely local care facility. She did so reluctantly but knew that it was necessary. Her family, her faith and her community revived her hope and slowly her strength returned. She could echo Paul’s words to the believers in Philippi: “I can do all things through him who strengthens me.” In her rejuvenated state, she confided in me that she had moved out of her home too soon! She was the only one who could walk to the dining room with ease to enjoy a meal. Others pushed walkers or were wheeled in. Conversation around those tables, she whispered, was not really happening! Folks were old! She could walk and eat and talk! She wondered what she was doing there. I would remind her that the grief journey had knocked her pretty low. She had needed to get out of her home and into a place that would serve her meals and minimize her responsibilities. She nodded but wasn’t really buying it! The saving grace was that her sister lived at the same facility when she first moved in. Imagine two sisters in their 90’s ending up as neighbors down the hall from each other in a retirement home! Unfortunately her sister’s health was fragile and she died not too long after Norrine moved in. But then her brother took up residence a couple of years later and kept her in good company right up until the day Norrine died. She had an amazing capacity to rise up from some of the most rigorous trials, her faith in a loving God intact and her eyes set on a bright horizon. Every leg of her journey, form mattered and distance followed.

Last winter this beloved church member struggled with pneumonia from which she never fully recovered. She was genuinely mystified that she would feel so weakened. She was accustomed to bouncing back. If there were exercises she could do to regain strength, she would do them! She voiced her intention to recapture her energy and some days she did. But, this time, her strong body was not able to fight the effects of her advanced age. She seemed to know her time was drawing to a close. In typical fashion, she took matters into her own hands. She crafted her own obituary with the help of a trusted family member. She still had a list going but the focus of that list changed. When Dan called her last week, she asked him when he was going to come visit her again. The way she asked was different. She loved her boys and only he was left. She wanted to close out her life with her son nearby. Dan and his wife changed their plans and flew in to accompany her for the very last leg of her journey. At the end of his difficult life, Paul wrote to Timothy: “I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith.”

These words could have been carved into Norrine’s tombstone. True to her good form, our sister-in-Christ was able to travel a great distance in her earthly life before she breathed her last. We’re all having trouble believing that she’s gone. After a certain age you begin to think that someone is truly going to escape death’s grip. We had a big party for Norrine in worship almost three years ago when she turned 100. She sat up front surrounded by more than 20 young children who asked her questions about her long life. She was very clear-minded and her smile won everyone over. We would have celebrated her 103rd birthday this November 16.

But instead I celebrate a different rite of passage. Norrine was so good at living that I don’t think she knew how to let go of the visible to embrace God’s gifts on the other side. Her instinct was to fight frailty, rise up after loss and take God’s guiding hand as she faced each new day. Retreating from her battles was never an option. So today I celebrate that Norrine made it to the other side! She let go of the fight long enough to, perhaps, get a glimpse of who awaited her on the other side. Though her smile faded on our side of heaven I suspect she began to direct her joy toward a husband who had supported her from behind the spiritual veil for 45 years. I am certain that the sight of two beloved sons who were ready to show her how to use her strength in a celestial setting was enough to convince her to let go of the earthly life to which she had so fiercely clung and slip into the joy of serving her Master! Perhaps the beloved prophet, Isaiah, could be heard welcoming her with these words:

“Have you not known? Have you not heard? The Lord is the everlasting God, the Creator of the ends of the earth. He does not faint or grow weary; his understanding is unsearchable. He gives power to the faint and strengthens the powerless. Even youths will faint and be weary, and the young will fall exhausted; but those who wait for the Lord shall renew their strength, they shall mount up with wings like eagles, they shall run and not be weary, they shall walk and not faint.” (Isaiah 40:28-31)

Keep running the race, Norrine. I will miss you.