A Homily for All Saints/Souls Day

John 11:32-44

When Mary came where Jesus was and saw him, she knelt at his feet and said to him, “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died.” When Jesus saw her weeping, and the Jews who came with her also weeping, he was greatly disturbed in spirit and deeply moved. He said, “Where have you laid him?” They said to him, “Lord, come and see.” Jesus began to weep. So the Jews said, “See how he loved him!” But some of them said, “Could not he who opened the eyes of the blind man have kept this man from dying?”

Then Jesus, again greatly disturbed, came to the tomb. It was a cave, and a stone was lying against it. Jesus said, “Take away the stone.” Martha, the sister of the dead man, said to him, “Lord, already there is a stench because he has been dead four days.” Jesus said to her, “Did I not tell you that if you believed, you would see the glory of God?” So they took away the stone. And Jesus looked upward and said, “Father, I thank you for having heard me. I knew that you always hear me, but I have said this for the sake of the crowd standing here, so that they may believe that you sent me.” When he had said this, he cried with a loud voice, “Lazarus, come out!” The dead man came out, his hands and feet bound with strips of cloth, and his face wrapped in a cloth. Jesus said to them, “Unbind him, and let him go.”

Good afternoon. Thank you for being here with us as we celebrate All Saints Day and All Souls Day. We have taken this opportunity to honor our lost loved ones as a way for you to enter into community with us, as I’m sure there are a few of you out there who are not part of the United Church of Christ or the Disciples of Christ. We’re glad you’re here. For many, this is a difficult day to celebrate. This service asks that we recall those who have impacted our lives, but are no longer with us. In this service, we celebrate death. That ominous, ever-present presence that we so try to ignore. That force that forces its way into our lives sooner or later, leaving specters in our memories that don’t always bring comfort or joy. Indeed, loss is hard. I know. I’m well-seasoned in it, being 28* and having lost (on average) a friend per year starting at age 13. Personally, this day comes with so much to remember. All those memories: good, bad, ambiguous, strange and frightening. All of them revealing those pieces of myself that have been formed by them. All those times I had to take a hard look at life and decide how to proceed upon news of their deaths. Loss doesn’t get easier the more you experience it. Each one brings its own set of questions and things left undone. Each one feels a little bit lonely. So, I’m glad you’re here.

Sometimes, it feels like life has been a collection of losses, and my task is to remember each one with poignancy and grace. I know that’s not true, but I often don’t realize it until I’m laughing my way through a memory. Continue reading “A Homily for All Saints/Souls Day”

A Letter to My Friends in Times of Loss

My dear friends,

I’m writing you this because many of you are grieving. Lost parents, lovers, friends, mentors, children, homelands, senses of self and assumed safety. You have lost, and now you are feeling some sort of response to that loss. This is my love letter to you. This is my way of saying I see you. Let this be the letter you keep under your pillow to keep nightmares at bay, or the one you carry with you for strength. Let the words sink into your grief and reduce you to tears. Let it outrage you and make you want to throw things because how dare I presume to write to a large group about something as particular as grief. However it works, let it work on you, because the thing about love letters is that they are true, even if that truth is a hard one to bear. Love is not easy nor is it always fun. It’s powerful though, and that power can be enough to propel you over mountains. I love you, and it pains me to know that I cannot personally comfort you all. We might not have reached that level of friendship, or we might live far from each other. Maybe you just prefer to spend those fresh, raw moments alone. Maybe you only want company when you’re at your best. Whatever the reason, I love you. I love you despite those reasons. In some cases, I love you because of those reasons. I love you, and I’m thinking of you as you adjust to your “new normal.”

You will never be the same person you were before, but like a river cutting through a canyon this wound will carve you anew, revealing sides of yourself that you never knew were there. You might redefine your sense of self. You might reach a new depth in your strength. Hell, you might even decide to shirk your current life path to pursue that passion you abandoned or reduced to a hobby because your grief is teaching you that life is short. Indeed, life is short. We are given small amounts of time on this planet to love a lot of people. It might seem like there isn’t enough time, but I hope that doesn’t stop you from continuing to love. I hope it lights a fire within you to love more fiercely because you see that every life is a death waiting to happen. That each moment we have together is precious. If anything, I hope you continue to love because life will be harder after this. You might need that love to get you through to the next day. Continue reading “A Letter to My Friends in Times of Loss”

A Sermon: With You in the Dark

This is the sermon I gave at First Church Cambridge on January 4th, 2015. I will give this a trigger warning for talk of suicide and depression. Please read with care:

Verve Coffee Roasters sits on the corner that separates the two streets with the heaviest foot traffic in Santa Cruz, CA. I began writing this sermon while there, sipping my afternoon coffee, nestled into my favorite window seat watching the people pass by on the Front Street side of the cafe. I can recall the early years of Verve, before it opened the Santa Cruz location, when I had to go the seven miles to Capitola to treat myself to a coffee better than what I could brew at home. Being the coffee snob that I am, it’s hard for me to find something I’m willing to go out of my way for, but that cafe was special. I met my friend Britt there. Continue reading “A Sermon: With You in the Dark”

Naked and Not Ashamed: Lessons in Vulnerability From Adam and Eve

Each death brings up the last one and the one before.  When it happens, I have to let the names reverberate in my soul like residual sound waves from the repeated crashing of cymbals.  I can brace myself, but each vibration is stronger than the last, emanating from my chest until I’m on my back.  At that point, I am drained.  Nothing is real except the patterns on the ceiling and the disdain for all foods that are not pizza delivery.

I’ve admittedly been uninspired.  I have seven blog entries that I’ve started, each of which went no where.  It’s not that I haven’t known what to write, but that I couldn’t.  I would latch on to an idea and in the few minutes it would take for me to hammer out the first few sentences, I’d be through with it.  The words would disappear.  My mind would be blank leaving only distorted faces and traces of names.

What do you do in the aftermath of loss?  How do you cope?

I draw in.  I keep to myself.  I hide.

I write, of course, but not publicly.  I write everything down in my leather-bound journal to be viewed only by me.  I feel less vulnerable that way.  Everything written in the journal is protected by its secure location and the indecipherable code that is my handwriting.  I am free to be as candid as I please.  The walls can come down, and emotions can flow. Of course, I’m expected to be vulnerable here too, but there is a difference between expected vulnerability and unexpected nakedness.  When I am expected to be vulnerable, I get the feeling that I can prepare.  Not all of my secrets have to be shared, and I get to pick and choose which ones I air.  Unexpected nakedness leaves nothing hidden.  All of my faults and insecurities are open to scrutiny.  The world chooses what to do with the information as if it was never mine.

The Bible speaks quite a bit about nakedness, usually in regard to sex and sexuality. However, I think there is something be said for reading some of those passages with vulnerability in mind.  The last line of Genesis 2 is particularly interesting: “And the man and his wife were naked, and not ashamed.”  Usually, you will hear this line discussed in terms of sex.  To be naked is to be sexual, and to be not ashamed of it is a sort of ignorant bliss in which Adam and Eve lived before “waking up”.  This line, though, admits a sort of vulnerability that I think needs to be examined.

They were two naked folks without the shame that we so often feel surrounding bodies.  They showed their whole selves to each other with no reservations.  They lived without worry as to what the other would think, or whether they should be ashamed of revealing so much to the other.   It’s not just the act of creation that bonds them, but the vulnerability of their relationship that links them together.

Maybe applying Genesis to my situation is a bit of a stretch.  Perhaps the sexual implications of the text are too hard to ignore.  More exegesis of the story would bring up some interesting social teachings regarding gender, not to mention the whole thing about homosexuality, but this one-line verse is packed with so much beauty and innocence that I needed to look at it in terms of all that nakedness suggests.  The act of being naked is not inherently sexual; our reading of this text is what makes it so.  There is more to nakedness than just physicality.  Nakedness is also a feeling.  Being naked does not necessarily depend on whether one has on clothes.  I can feel naked while fully clothed.

Nakedness suggests an openness with my vulnerability that requires trust.  In an emotional context, the willingness to reveal myself creates a bond between that person and myself that makes for a more intimate friendship.  In that type of friendship, I am able to be as open about my feelings as I need to be without fear or shame.  The friendship itself becomes a safe space in which all parties involved can explore the depths of their feelings while trusting that the others will not take advantage of those feelings or that situation.

I have felt a sort of raw vulnerability that makes it difficult to trust other with that vulnerability.  I have felt as if my words would give away too much to people I don’t know I can trust with that information, thus leaving me open to those undesirable feelings of unexpected nakedness.  I tell myself I’m totally OK with everything, then I go to the ‘new post’ screen and freeze.  Suddenly, I forget the boundaries between private and public information and feel naked in front of the screen, as if anything I type will reveal too much.  I don’t share anything to keep myself from sharing too much.

I’ve had it drilled into my head that there are certain things that are OK to talk about and others that are not.  Death is definitely in the camp of things that are not OK to talk about.  It’s private.  The feelings associated with it are private.  We don’t talk about it.  There are some for whom this approach works.  I am not one of those people.  I need to process my feelings with those who are experiencing the same thing.  I need to know that I am not alone, even if the only other person feeling the same thing is across the world somewhere.  I have to write about it.

It’s not a neat process.  It’s hard to tap into that space knowing that these words will be read by eyes other than mine.  I get uncomfortable and think that maybe it would be better if I kept it all to myself.  I start imagining my life without assigning words to the difficult things I experience.  My alternate world is one where I can only express happiness.  That world is the more terrifying than most of my nightmares.  In that world, I do not relate to others and I do not grow.

Someone once taught me that moving forward with life requires being able to sit with discomfort.  Things don’t have to be OK including myself.  I am not always in control.  I do need to be able to sit amidst the chaos and feel it permeating all aspects of my life– including my faith– to understand that I am vulnerable.  I am delicate and fragile.  This is not something that I must hide or control.  If I accept anything as truth in life, it will be this one thing.

Really though, what’s the use of writing if not to convey difficult emotions and experiences?  I want to write such that I am moved.  I want the words to take me on a journey that makes it impossible to get back to where I was previously.  Hopefully, whoever reads it will experience the same.

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After each death, I realize how large of a gift every person is to this world.  We are each other’s gifts, and that is all that matters.  Why focus on things other than the people around us?  The ones in whom I find great joy, comfort, and everlasting love–they deserve my focus.  Instead, I focus on all the things that I *think* will make me a better person.  I work myself raggedly until all I can think about is shutting myself away from the world.  This is wrong, and in this moment, as I ache, I resent the world that praises me for doing this.

I learned about death at the age of 14.  Some of my friends had lost grandparents; I lost a friend.  She was taken violently, and that experience has marked every experience I’ve had with death since.  Car crashes, illnesses, suicides, even murders–all of these are lessons in death that have taught me more about living than anything else.   I have learned to seek out what is good and beautiful in the world.  To hold it close, and then to let it go.  I have learned to take the time to praise small fortunes like the first patch of daisies in Spring, or an excellent cup of coffee.  I have learned about reconciliation, to say that I’m sorry and to mean it.  More importantly, I have learned to say “I love you” and to mean it.  To look into the eyes of a person and see the humanity coursing in their pupils telling me a sad, beautiful story.  In this, I have learned to appreciate my life for all of its wondrously chaotic splendor.  To love all of the mistakes I’ve made that have lead me to be exactly who I am in this moment.  Through all of it, I have learned to be, and to pray, and to cry.  These are all skills that I need.

As I write this, I can feel sobs welling up in my throat.  It’s far too soon to have lost someone else.  I get to go through relearning all of these lessons again.  I get to remember that I’m never done learning them, and that after each death comes its own unique process.  What will this one bring?

RIP Josh.  I will write you an excellent song, my friend.