All Hallows

I’m finally starting to get Halloween.

For most of my life, I’ve been mystified by this quasi-holiday, in large part because I’m not naturally wired for it. I don’t believe in ghosts or vampires or immortal killers without faces. I don’t like scary movies or gore. I’ve never looked good in orange, and I detest the smell of pumpkins. Tell me, then, exactly what is there for me in Halloween?

Not much, truth be told. While every year brings some bright spots–fall cookouts, gatherings with friends, free candy–I still have to duck my head and grit my teeth. In a few days, all the ghoulishness will be gone. Even those who love Halloween don’t seem excited to let it linger.

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My children playing in the leaf pile. Although parenting teenagers is indeed terrifying, their version of Halloween fun is one I can live with.

Among the litany of baffling things about Halloween is how little we think of what’s on the other side of it. Its name–contracted from Hallows Evening–suggests that we are on the edge of something, but not there yet. Christmas Eve isn’t Christmas. New Year’s Eve isn’t the new year. Hallows Eve isn’t…what?

I’ve known for some time that the real answer is All Saints Day (formerly referred to as All Hallows), a Christian celebration of those who have died and, as the saying goes, joined the church triumphant. Many Christian tribes–including my own– take the first Sunday of November to read the names of those who have died since the last All Saints’ Day and to remember loved ones we have lost at any point in the past. For most of my career, this seemed like a nice and pastorly thing to do.

My feelings have changed since I came to at Dakota Wesleyan. On our first All Saints Day together, my new congregation and I were grieving along parallel paths–I for my friend Jason and they for their associate pastor Brian, both of whom had died far to young the year before. In the coming months, we would hold three more funerals–Hali and Beau, two freshmen students who died nine months apart, and Pam, a beloved professor.

Wisdom may come with age, but so does loss. I’ve talked with countless people in recent years about the deaths of grandparents and siblings, uncles and friends, classmates and neighbors. My father died in February and was incapacitated long before his heart stopped beating. I have friends with cancer, with diabetes, with dementia. I found out last night that the mother of two of my college classmates–a delightful woman who treated Susan and Nancy’s friends as her own kids–is preparing to enter hospice care.

I’ve decided that I’ll never quite get over most of these losses–that most of us don’t, and that’s okay. They remain part of my life’s canvas, and even though they take up less of the picture as the years go by, they will never quite go away.

All Saints Day gives me a chance–more than that, a mandate–to remember. It reminds me of my faith’s hope that a person who dies is not lost, but welcomed into the hands of God. It allows me to grieve, but leaves no room for despair.

So today I am in full Halloween-be-damned mode. The fascination with ghosts and monsters and unrequited suffering misses the point. Today I’m living in remembrance, and in anticipation. The two are not so far apart as I once supposed.

 

Looking Over Loss

When my wife and I decided in April to move to Dakota Wesleyan University, we were too numb to feel much beyond relief. After months of grief and uncertainty, it just felt good to know what was going to happen, to be able to exercise some sort of control over our situation—something sorely lacking among ARUMC campus ministers of late.

The last two weeks, however, remind me of waking up after getting my wisdom teeth removed. Once the anesthetic fog began to clear, I realized just how painful this whole endeavor was going to be.

I had prepared myself for the calls and e-mails from colleagues that I started receiving once the news hit the clergy gossip circles. I had even thought through the last few weeks of school and inevitable goodbyes with my students at Arkansas State. No surprise to anyone that I shed my share of tears, particularly at our last A-State worship service.

Denise's sunflowers are something we will miss from our current house, but also something we might take with us to the new one.

Denise’s sunflowers are something we will miss from our current house, but also something we might take with us to the new one.

But neither Denise nor I were quite ready for the emotions that came with putting our home on the market. The little white house has been our dream home, and the land and woods our boys’ playground. For five years, I’ve written in the same office—everything from book reviews to blog posts to a fairly credible novel. For five years, Denise and Jonathan have worried over the garden, and Zachary and I have played baseball in the field.

This house has not been the place we happened to live. It’s the place in which we’ve built our lives for half a decade. Goodbye is not coming easy. Goodbye never does.

To live is to lose. Sometimes that’s a controlled loss, as with our move. Sometimes it’s a gut-punch, like the death of a friend or, as is now the case with Central Arkansas, a brutal natural disaster. Regardless of how loss comes to us, however, it brings a terrifying reality: we cannot hold anything worth holding without knowing we could lose it.

Of course, that’s not the whole story.

Lately I’ve been reading Margaret Heffernan’s Willful Blindness, a fascinating exploration of why we (humans, families, churches, etc) cannot see things that are right before our eyes. She notes that, “as the behavioral economists Kahneman and Tversky found, losses loom very much larger than corresponding gains.” (p. 25). We feel loss more acutely because it brings the absence of something known, something comfortable. It’s harder to take solace in a resultant gain, especially when it is not yet realized.

Heffernan’s point is not that we are powerless in the face of loss. Rather, she argues that when we understand what causes our blindness, we can address it. We can gain power over it. We can release what has been taken from us so that we can accept what is given.

To put it so simply does not imply that such perspective is easy. As excited as we are about the new chapter of our lives, we feel the coming loss of our friends, our jobs, and our home acutely.

But we are Easter people at heart, and we know this move is right. We will empty this house with tears, but also with prayers for whoever the next owners turn out to be.

And we will start over in a new world that’s not defined by loss, but by hope.

Joy for Time

Time is not the enemy.

As I settle into my fourth decade of life, I’ve more or less come to terms with the fact that time only moves one direction, and that this movement necessarily means loss. I will never get back the hair I’ve lost, the wonder of childhood, or my best time in a 5K.

Then again, I will also never get back the shames of adolescence, the agonizing search for an adult identity, or the misery of the 1990 Cardinals. I suppose it’s a fair trade.

I don’t always think that way, no matter how hard I try. Some losses are irrevocable and cannot be offset. And billion-dollar industries have sprouted up around our fear of further loss. One commercial break on my XM radio yesterday featured ads for a testosterone booster, an anti-aging cream, and a “can’t miss” investment in gold. We fear what time may steal from us, and we guard ourselves against it.

Blayne and I celebrated opening day with several other Wesley students. Today, at least, every team has hope.

Blayne and I celebrated opening day with several other Wesley students. Today, at least, every team has hope.

But it seems we rarely stop to think about what time gives us–opportunity, maturity, direction, awe. We cannot see the vista without scaling the mountain. We cannot get back to our warm bed without leaving the vista. Moving through time doesn’t allow us to keep much, but neither does it leave us empty.

For most teams, today is the opening day of the Major League baseball season. Whether teams are recovering from a lousy 2013 or, like my team, to build on a successful campaign, everybody gets to start the year fresh. And no matter how 2014 goes, we will all get to start new in late March 2015 also.

I think, in their hearts, most baseball fans are optimists. We keep cheering in the hopes that something good will happen, regardless of what horrors befell us the previous day. Time washes away our trophies and keeps us humble. Time washes away our sorrows and gives us hope.

So for today, anyway, I have a healthier perspective on time. It lets us start new. And God knows we need that.

Struggling Through–Alone and Otherwise

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It’s been a bad news kind of week for a lot of people I care about. I’ve listened to stories of depression, discouragement, family squabbles, marital woes, financial troubles, and addictions.

IMG_1539Of course, I have my own parenting/vocational/early mid-life awkwardness issues that, while perfectly normal, still require more energy than I would like. For now, my struggles aren’t quite so dramatic as many of my friends’ problems, but they are mine and so I feel them acutely.

As I’ve listened to the stories—both from my friends and from my internal dialogue—I’ve rediscovered something most of us know instinctually: as stress and disorder increase, so does our sense of isolation.

Siddhartha Mukherjee’s The Emperor of All Maladies brought this home to me over the weekend. The author, an oncologist, tells the story of his patient Carla, whose brave fight against cancer began with friends and family around her. As the treatment progressed, however, even her most loyal friend stopped accompanying her to her appointments. When Mukherjee asked why, Carla waved away the question. “We had a falling out. She needed to be needed, and I could no longer provide that.”

I think that most of those who suffer do so without such overt rejection. We have people who stand beside us, and we cling desperately to the narrative of their unwavering support. But somewhere, buried within us at varying depths, is a cruel feeling.

I am alone in this.

The preacher in me wants to immediately refute those feelings, to offer words of comfort that surely God is with us and nothing can separate us and so forth. And I still believe those words to be true, on some basic level.

But now that I am older and I hope wiser, I try to resist such glib assurances. We who are Christians strive to be like Jesus, after all. And in the end, Jesus suffered alone.

So where is the good news? I’m asking that a lot these days, mostly on behalf of people I care about very much. I’ve asked it on my own behalf in times past, and I know I will eventually do so again. Is there any solace to be had in the face of life’s struggles? If so, what is it?

I think our hope, at least in part, lies in realizing that suffering is an inescapable part of human experience. Everyone crawls through it, everyone feels alone. So did Jesus. In this strange way, I think the isolation itself is a comfort. It tells us we are in well-mapped territory. We may be feel alone in the moment, and in fact we may truly be alone. But we are on a road that leads to somewhere. Or, better said, to someone.

I cling to the belief that no suffering—not my friends’, not mine, not even suffering that leads to death—lasts forever. It ends in the compassionate, loving embrace of Jesus, who gathers us together and holds us and understands.

The danger of hope

Hope can be a river. It can also be a dam.
I think of these things as I wait for tonight’s game at Wrigley Field in Chicago, home of the famously hapless Chicago Cubs. Unlike a lot of my fellow Cardinals fans, I take no particular pleasure in their perpetual dysfunction. But there’s no denying that the Cubs have been, as one wry fan recently said to me, rebuilding for the future since 1906.
This recognition of inevitable failure makes me respect Cubs fans all the more. Deprived of actual World Series titles these 100-plus years, they have learned to live on nothing but hope.
But when is enough enough?
When it comes to baseball, the answer is probably never. And why should fans give up? Our hearts may be with our teams, but in the big scheme of things we don’t have that much to gain or lose by their performance.
Not so in other areas of life. This morning my wife told me about a documentary on the Dust Bowl she’s been watching. She talked about the danger if hope for those farmers, the need to overcome hope that the High Plains would ever get enough rain to be truly fertile for farming. The only sensible thing for those early farmers to do was to leave. But hope told them–lied to them–that next year would be the year, that the rains were coming and all would be well. The results if hope were countless deaths and bankruptcies, not to mention one of history’s greatest ecological disasters.
Lately I’ve found myself asking questions about hope, when its appropriate and when it’s misplaced. I often ask if the hope I have both in my own local ministry and in the larger United Methodist Church is based on devotion or delusion. I can’t say that I have yet found a clear answer.
It seems to me that two virtues are at war here. On one hand, the stubborn resolve to never give up hope keeps us going through the toughest of times. But on the other hand, wisdom and trust tell us that death–even of something we love–is not the end of hope. It is rather a redirection of our larger hopes.
So what should I do in the face of such uncertainty? Give up on Wesley foundation or the UMC? Bury my fears and put on a happy face? Again the answer isn’t clear. The course I’ve chosen for now is inspired by Cubs fans.
You don’t just give up on your team, they remind me. You love them when they are unlovable, and you keep trusting that next year is the year.
So I’m clinging stubbornly to hope right now. It’s the water that keeps me from withering. Perhaps it’s also the dam that holds back greater blessing. My vision doesn’t extend that far. All I can do is what I think is right based on the information I have. That will just have to be good enough for God until he decides to reveal more.