Love is always reaching for more

In his book, My Bright Abyss, Christian Wiman writes:

“In any true love—a mother’s for her child, a husband’s for his wife, a friend’s for a friend—there is an excess energy that always wants to be in motion. Moreover, it seems to move not simply from one person to another but through them, toward something else. This is why we can be so baffled and overwhelmed by such love: it wants to be more than it is; it cries out inside of us to make it more than it is. And what it is crying out for, finally, is its essence and origin: God.”

I don’t believe we, as humans, can get enough love. We certainly can’t offer each other enough of it, which is why we need God. I feel this need in my son when I lay down next to him in his twin bed after tucking him in for the night. We take each other in our arms and talk about the day and say things reserved for whispered conversations in the moonlight. He wants me to rub his back and sing to him “his song”—the simple tune I made up for him when he was a baby. I do as he asks and then move to pull away, feeling the call of my own bedtime ritual of time with my husband, a hot bath and a good book. But Isaac wants more. He always wants more. Even a child who is well-loved is insatiably hungry for more.

It is baffling and overwhelming, as Wiman states, to feel the way love is always reaching for more. As a mother who seeks to meet all her child’s needs, it is humbling as well. I turn to God, then, (if God is the essence and origin of love) as my only hope to ultimately and eternally satisfy.

 

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]

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…”

The Burden of Judgment

burden_of_memoryThomas Merton stood at the corner of Fourth and Walnut, in a busy shopping district of Louisville, Kentucky, when he was suddenly overwhelmed with the realization that he loved all those people. That they were his and he was theirs, that they could not be alien to one another even though they were total strangers.[1]

The evenings of my recent winter break were spent reading and contemplating Merton’s words.  More than any other spiritual writer, he makes me pause to survey my interior life.  During those quiet evenings I realized how burdened I had become by judgment rather than love.  Certain people had taken up residence in my mind—they had moved in, it seemed, just to spite me.

I recalled the smug face of the old, white, pastor who once invited me to sit down for a “get-to-know-each-other” chat.  Then he stretched out his legs, put his hands behind his head and talked about himself for the good part of an hour.  Perhaps this wouldn’t have angered me so much, if hours, months, even years of my life had not already been stolen by other men like him—arrogant wind bags who do nothing but talk about nothing, and yet believe they are something.

Next the freshman football player came to my mind—a handsome, strong young man, with an olive complexion and beautiful hair—who, last autumn, sat on the front row of the auditorium, smirking and whispering rudely to his friends while I gave a presentation on the heritage of our college (a subject I care deeply about.)  He disrupted and angered me, which helped him powerfully manipulate the space.  It was all I could do not to call him out and tell him he was behaving like a real ass.

Finally, a handful of young college women arose out of my quiet contemplation.  The ones who are growing bored with me and my style of religion because it is “too political.”  They are not interested in immigration issues or the conflict between Israel and Palestine.  Theirs is a personal Savior who calls them to an outreach of making disciples.  They want to travel the world, spread the Good News of the Gospel, and pose for Facebook with an African baby in their arms.

“The saints are what they are,” Merton writes, “not because their sanctity makes them admirable to others, but because the gift of sainthood makes it possible for them to admire everybody else.”[2] 

Okay, dear friend Merton, I asked, how do I love and admire these people?  Their behavior turns my mood black.  They trap me in obsessive recall as their words and faces tediously run through my mind—leaving us all in need of liberation.

“[The saints have] a clarity of compassion that can find good in the most terrible criminals.  It delivers them from the burden of judging others, condemning other men.”

Realizing the burden I carry, I finally took these people to the mat—the meditation mat, that is, where I go whenever I feel foul.  I held each one in my mind as I sought to create (like Merton did) a space of compassion.  They irritated me, at first, because here they were again, intruding on my life and my quiet.  But, in the light of compassion, these burdensome people slowly began to transform.

“A man becomes a saint not by the conviction that he is better than sinners but by the realization that he is one of them, and that all together need the mercy of God.”

I began to notice the deep need in the old, white pastor to be relevant in a world (“his” world) that was shrinking all around him.  And I noticed the demanding and tiresome nature of the freshman football player’s ego—an ego that expected this boy to constantly perform for others and control his space.  And I discovered the frailty and insecurity of the young, evangelical women, as well as their desire for a religion that might finally make them feel good about themselves.  And then I found myself in the midst of these bothersome people—each human like me—and I recognized their needs are mine as well.  I, too, desire to be relevant.  I, too, struggle with my ego.  I, too, am frail and insecure.

Which is, perhaps, good to know—but hard to live with.  I don’t want to be like these people.  I want to be better.  And in being better, I want to push them aside, rejecting them for my, more noble, path.

This, in turn, made me realize how I am reduced by judgment. I know I cannot be more than I am until I lay myself down with the wind bag, the pompous jock, the Facebook queens, and embrace them as I would my own frail heart.


[1] Thomas Merton, “Conjectures of a Guilty Bystander,” (Doubleday, New York, NY, 1965), pg. 156.

[2] All italicized quotes are from Thomas Merton’s, “New Seeds of Contemplation,” pg.