What happens when we die?

14316045313_d31106ab16_kA few years ago a student was referred to me because he was getting in a bit of trouble. He was drinking and partying too much and making some poor decisions. This behavior was out of character for this student and his professors thought it had something to do with the fact that his mother was dying of cancer.

When we sat down together in my office, the first thing this young man wanted to tell me was that he was not very “religious.” He wasn’t raised in the church. He didn’t know what he believed about God, and then, he quietly confessed, “I like to go out and have fun, I like to have a good time.”

“That’s okay with me,” I responded. “I’m just here to help.”

So we chatted for a while, broke the ice a bit, and then I asked about his mother. I had my counselor “hat” on at this point as I checked in with him about how he was dealing with things emotionally. All this was fine, but in the back of my mind I kept wondering why this student wanted to see me, the college chaplain? If he’s not “religious” why didn’t he make an appointment with our college’s counselor? He could have been having the same conversation with her.

Then it hit me. Right in the middle of our conversation, I interrupted him, and I said out loud: “Oh. You need to talk about death, don’t you?”

Hearing this, his eyes immediately swelled with tears. He lost control of his emotions and in between gasping sobs he nodded, yes, that’s what he needed to talk to me about. He’d never experienced death before, not like this. He didn’t know what to think or believe about what clearly was going to happen to his mother.

Then, this young man’s red, swollen eyes searched my own and he asked, “What do you think’s going to happen? What do you believe?”

And I paused for a breath–because in these kinds of conversations with students I don’t often share what I believe. I want to encourage them in their own journey. I want them to ask themselves the hard questions and come to their own answers. But this kid, he just needed some help.

So I told him that what I know about death comes from my own experience of it—from my experience as a pastor sitting beside the bed of Abbie, Flossie, Frank, Rock, Dot, Mirium, Blannie as they slipped from life into death.  I told him about those moments.  How sitting there, in the presence of death–every time–I felt this profound sense of love. To me, I told this young man, it was a sense of love that felt eternal. So, this, I said is what I believe is waiting for your mother and what I believe is waiting for us all.

I didn’t see that student again after our conversation. I don’t know how he’s doing now. I touched based with him a few times afterwards by phone and email. But in that moment, when I wanted so badly to offer him some help and some hope, it seemed that my answer was good enough.

[feature image: Carol Von Canon]

Preaching Death

048-XLAlthough I love to write, the sermons I post here on my blog are meant to be heard. So instead of posting the text for my most recent sermon, I decided to share the podcast. You can hear me preaching my Ash Wednesday sermon by following this link. The sermon is called “Choose Life” and it is based upon Deuteronomy 30:15-20.

The Practice of Doing Nothing: Sitting with my Suffering (Part 1)

AngryDo all funeral directors believe death takes precedence over life? Or just the ones I have to work with? I got “the call” from our local funeral director informing me that there had been a death in our community. The family (whom I did not know and do not serve as pastor) had requested that I do the service…that Saturday at 2:00pm. I was not available that Saturday at 2:00pm. When I told the funeral director this, he balked. Clearly I was not here “to serve the people” like he was. Clearly I did not understand that it was my duty as a pastor to drop everything in my life to serve the dead.

His attempt to shame me was infuriating. After I hung up the phone, the conversation clung to me like a wet spider web. I couldn’t get rid of his voice in my head, the words he used against me, and the anger roiling my insides. I hopped hyperactively around our house, unable to focus on my work and the looming deadline of my next writing project. This man had powerfully leapt into my day and threatened to monopolize my mind if I didn’t do something quick.

So I took the funeral director to the mat and meditated with my suffering. I breathed in, feeling my lungs expand, and breathed out, feeling my lungs contract. My shoulders rose and fell. My anger burned in my chest like a hot piece of coal as I sat for ten minutes, feeling the burn. In doing so, the funeral director’s hold on me began to break into tiny little pieces. When I finished, he wasn’t entirely gone, but my anger was diffused and I was able to get back to my work.

Typically, when I get this hot, I pass my emotions on to my husband in an angry, spiteful rant. My husband loves me so he receives my rant and oftentimes shoulders my anger in solidarity. This, I realize, isn’t particularly fair to my husband. Why should he bear the anger I can’t rid myself of? Also, sharing my anger with my husband just seems to make it grow and expand in the universe. We don’t need any more anger in the world. So before I rant or vent or allow any emotion to distract me from the present moment, I’m going to try to take it to the mat. I’m going to practice sitting with my suffering.

 

Remembering that we are Dust

Ash-Wednesday

“As a father has compassion for his children, so the Lord has compassion for those who fear him.  For he knows how we were made; he remembers that we are dust.” Psalm 103:13-14

Two years ago we received the tragic news that a young alum, Andrew Kuebrich, had been killed in an accident while bicycling the coast of Taiwan.  It always hits hard when someone young dies so tragically—mostly because it doesn’t make any sense.  Andrew graduated before I came to Monmouth, so I didn’t know him.  But after his death, story after story emerged about how encouraging he was of others, how contagious his energy, humor and optimism were, how his kindness touched many.  I learned how Andrew had taped a square box on the floor of his dorm room, named it the dance box, and required anyone who stepped in it to dance their stress away.  I learned how important the Relay for Life charity event was to him because both his grandmothers had died of cancer.

During one of these events, Andrew raised money for his charity by running 45 miles—in one night!  Andrew spent his college summers working with disabled children.  He participated in alternative spring break trips building homes for Habitat for Humanity.  He traveled to Taiwan after graduation to teach English to Taiwanese children and discover the world.  A picture surfaced of Andrew crowd-surfing on the hands of a mob of celebratory college students.  I don’t know what they were celebrating, but it certainly seemed like Andrew Kuebrich was a big part of it.  He was known here as the Chief of Good Times.

I imagine you know someone like Andrew, someone full of life and charisma and joy. These are the kind of people you imagine living forever—people who are absolutely unstoppable—invincible.  Never in our wildest dreams would we believe a young man so full of life could die at 24.

But human life is fragile—a fact we don’t often consider.  A parent knows, though.  Moms and Dads learn this when their babies are born.  Our advances in medicine and technology lead us to believe a healthy birth is a sure thing…until complications arise…. the baby’s heart rate drops unexpectedly, or the chord wraps around her neck…the nurses grow tense, ring the doctor on call, and the parent gets the impression that these risks are par for the course for those who work in labor and delivery.  Babies are tiny, fragile, vulnerable little people.

Parents know this as their babies grow, too. I remember negotiating with my parents over a spring break trip to Florida that I really wanted to take with my college roommate.  It was our senior year and we planned to drive the whole trip by ourselves, from Michigan to Ft. Lauderdale, without stopping. My parents didn’t want me to go.  They asked a lot of questions.  To which I responded, “Mom, Dad, why are you so worried?  I’m 21!  I’m an adult!”  As if that meant that nothing at all bad could happen.

Now that I am a parent, though, I know why they were concerned.  They were worried because they remember the day I was born.  And they remember the day they lost track of me in that giant department store. And the day I fell on the skating rink, cutting my chin open.  And they remembered that boy (or those boys) who broke my heart leaving me a sobbing, mush of a mess.  They knew (better than I) how tiny, and fragile, and vulnerable I am.

Today, God, too, speaks to us from the parent’s perspective.  “As a father has compassion for his children,” Psalm 103 reads, “so the Lord has compassion for those who fear him.”  “God knows how we were made,” the scripture says.  God knows because God was there.  From the moment of your birth, God was there. And because God was there at our beginning, God remembers that we are dust.  We were created out of the dust of the earth and one day to dust we shall return.  In other words, to God we are tiny, fragile, vulnerable little creatures.

The stark honesty of Ash Wednesday’s message—that we can so quickly return to ash—always makes me stop to consider how I have been living my life.  This year the word “reckless” comes to my mind.  Not that I’ve been bungee jumping, or sky diving, or drag racing through the streets of Monmouth.  But reckless in the sense of not paying attention to my life.  My life is often such a blur—one long frenetic streak of activity from the moment I wake up at 6:00am to the moment I crash, exhausted, in bed at 10:00pm.  If it were not for all my smartly synced calendars, I wouldn’t even know what day it is.

I feel reckless living this way because I, of all people, should remember how close we live to the edge of death.  I’ve been around death as a pastor.  I’ve stood at the bedside of those who were taking their final, shallow breaths.  I’ve laid my hands on cool foreheads to bless those who have just slipped away.  I’ve stood in the circle of family members, the holy ground of love, as they said their final goodbyes.  Why, then, in light of these experiences and this knowledge, why do I not pay more attention to life?  Why do I allow myself to become so frenzied and frantic?  Why do I not hug my children more and whisper words that matter to the husband I love dearly?  Why don’t I stop more to listen to my own breath and be grateful for the beating of my own heart?  Why don’t I, Teri McDowell Ott, remember that I am dust and to dust I shall return?

In the midst of writing this sermon and thinking these thoughts, the voice of Jill Kuebrich, Andrew’s mother, found its way to me.  Jill read a sermon of mine on my blog after Andrew’s death and we wrote each other briefly about Andrew and his life, and the impact he had on others.  Jill directed me to a blog she had started, a place where she could remember her son and write about her grief.  I found myself reading it again this week.

I was moved in particular by a post she wrote for another grieving mother.  To this mother Jill writes:

“When you asked me at your son’s wake if it gets easier I truthfully and tearfully told you NO! I regret not lying to you to give you some comfort. You will never miss him less and when you think of what has happened it will be like a sock to the gut every time. But you will see signs of your son everywhere! Take each one and let it put a smile on your face.  Try not to let what has happened define and ruin your life. The best tribute I think we can give our sons is to live and love more fully than ever before led by their example!”

Jill’s words resonate with me as a mother of an extraordinary son, and as a child of God trying to make sense of tragedy and the fragility of human life. Jill’s words to me this week felt like the Psalmist’s words. As I read I felt as if she were smearing my forehead with ash….waking me up to the gift that is my life.

After Andrew’s death, Jill and her husband, Matt, discovered a journal he had written full of writings and containing a list of 152 things he wanted to accomplish in his life.   He started this list by writing, “Ever since I was a little boy I would always hear older people say I wish I would have.  They were looking back and wishing they had the courage to follow through with their dreams.  NOT ME.  I am creating a list. This is not a bucket list,” Andrew wrote, “this is a TO DO list.  This is not a wish I would have done it list.  This is a I DID IT list and it was amazing.  The main reason I am creating this list is because I feel like most people wander aimlessly through life like a zombie, never breaking through and experiencing life.”

Some of the “To-Do’s” on Andrew’s list included:

  • Make a million dollars just to give it away
  • Milk a cow
  • Make a huge difference in at least three people’s lives
  • Read the entire Bible
  • See Professor McMillan’s sheep
  • Mow the lawn in cut offs

“I am Andrew Kuebrich,” he concluded, “and this is my journey…”

Death of a Preacher

Plenert_CJ-Funeral-1aThe grandson’s voice was hesitant on the phone.  He was calling on behalf of his grandmother who expected her preacher husband to be buried in the quiet cemetery behind the first church he had served decades ago.  I was the pastor now.

Perhaps the widow assumed I was younger and less experienced than I looked.  Perhaps it was the pain of her grief that led her to condescend when she informed me I was not to preach at her husband’s funeral, just read the scriptures (which had already been chosen, she said.)  She must be so sad, I thought to myself.  I said nothing of the disrespect.

So the church gathered on a Saturday to surround the widow with love.  She sat in the front pew, a tiny mite of a woman with sharp, steely eyes, in a dark blue dress. As I read her required scriptures I tried to read her face.  She did not look at me once.  Did she know what was happening?  Did she know he was gone?  I prayed for her and her family then raised my hands for the benediction.

Into your hands, O merciful Savior, we commend your servant Ralph. Acknowledge, we humbly pray, a sheep of your own fold, a lamb of your own flock, a sinner of your own redeeming.  Receive him into the arms of your mercy, into the blessed rest of everlasting peace, and into the glorious company of the saints in light.

Then her eyes were on me.  I couldn’t interpret her stare, so I kept reading.

May the peace of God, which passes all understanding, keep your hearts and minds in the knowledge and love of God, and of God’s Son, Jesus Christ our Lord; and the blessing of God almighty, the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit, remain with you always.  Amen.

The organ piped in the postlude and we processed to the cemetery where I buried her husband beneath the shade of our church’s giant oaks.  Afterwards, the church members served a meal to the family of their old preacher, whom they barely remembered.  I lingered to eat and chat in spite of the sermon for Sunday that still lay unfinished in a messy pile on my desk.

Anxious to leave, I crouched next to the chair of the old widow, in a gesture of respect for her loss, and squeezed her hand before saying a few words of goodbye.  She turned and said something that got lost in the din of conversations echoing against the cinder blocks of the church’s fellowship hall.  So I leaned in to listen.  What I expected were words of gratitude for the kindness shown, words of apology for pulling me away from my family on a warm, sunny, Saturday afternoon, or words of explanation as to why I had yet to receive a check.  The widow leaned in too, her finger raised. Her eyes clearly fixed on my own.

“Next time,” she said, “you memorize that benediction.”

 

 

about Marie Howe

tumblr_m11rrgvwUL1r13ilso1_500I was introduced to the poetry of Marie Howe this summer.  Last week, on a whim, I ordered all three of her books.  When they arrived in the mail I stayed up late to read each book cover to cover.  I highly recommend each to you:  The Good Thief, What the Living Do, The Kingdom of Ordinary Time.  I don’t usually read poetry three books at a time.  But reading Howe’s poetry was like reading her autobiography.  She has known horrific suffering—a terribly abusive father, a younger brother who died of AIDS, and sexual violence no human being should ever know, let alone a child.  Sometimes I read her poetry in horror.  She is fearless in her writing.  (I cannot begin to tell you how I admire her for that.)  The horror would have been too much for me, I couldn’t have kept reading, had it not been for her faith.  It amazed me that a person who had known such tragedy and violence also knew that she was loved by an ultimate and abiding Love.

Sometimes we preachers wonder if what we have given our lives to makes any difference at all.  Sometimes we wonder if God is real or has any power to heal the horrific suffering of this world.  If we are honest, we wonder these things out loud.  Marie Howe’s poetry brutally unveils the trauma this world can inflict.  Her writing also unveils faith as a saving grace in the midst of trauma, a faith that heals when nothing else can.  For this message and for this extraordinary poetry, I am deeply grateful to Marie Howe.

From her book The Kingdom of Ordinary Time here is a Marie Howe poem:

Annunciation

Even if I don’t see it again—nor ever feel it

I know it is—and that if once it hailed me

it ever does—

And so it is myself I want to turn in that direction

not as towards a place, but it was a tilting

within myself,

As one turns a mirror to flash the light to where

it isn’t—I was blinded like that—and swam

in what shone at me

only able to endure it by being no one and so

specifically myself I thought I’d die

from being loved like that.