Saturday, November 25, 2017

While You're in the World

Today, a small circle of those who loved him best gathered at Sweet Gum Point to say goodbye to Doug Jester. Only a week before, most of the family had been in to celebrate an early Thanksgiving and my granddad's 90th birthday. I was too sick to go, but Uncle Doug, as always, added insight and laughter to the festivities. He died the next day of a heart attack, leaving behind a family bereaved and shaken.

My dad, long regarded as the 'designated religious person' of the family, met with my Aunt Binnie and Doug's sister Diane and led a sweet service that honored the man we all miss terribly. My cousins played a slideshow of wonderful old photos as Elton John's "Your Song" accompanied the memories flashing before us. We read from Wisdom and Matthew and were reminded how Doug's life was full of generosity and compassion. We shared stories - funny and heartbreaking - as we laughed through our tears. Doug's 3-year-old granddaughter Lily chimed in with her little voice now and then, giving everyone permission to smile.

Aunt Binnie, devoid of her soulmate, managed to speak beautifully of Doug's love for his family. Throughout the years, no matter what, he and Binnie would constantly tell one other, "You're my everything." They meant it and lived it. 

Binnie reminded her three sons how much Doug adored them. Brooks, Matt, and Sam carry so much of their sweet dad with them. They have the same handsome features and the same sense of humor. Those men love their mother with the same gorgeous blend of tenderness and fierceness. And they honor their significant others, Jaclyn and Jackie, the way their dad modeled so well. 

She spoke of Doug's absolute delight in being known as "Pappy" to Lily and her soon-to-be-born sister Molly. He was everything a grandfather should be: fun and funny, adventurous and caring, goofy and brilliant. It's unthinkable to imagine a world where my cousins' children grow up without the big hugs and sincere love of their Pappy.

My grandmother said, "He always loved us like we were his real parents. And we always loved him too." Indeed. Doug was a rock for them, driving them to one doctor's appointment after another. He was a natural caregiver, and his love for his parents-in-law was evident in everything he did.

After my cousins and brother shared stories of silly high jinks, Doug's brother-in-law ended with the lyrics from Grateful Dead's "And We Bid You Goodnight."

Even when a loved one knows they're dying, we often don't say everything we want as we offer our goodbyes. But when we lose someone so dear and vibrant without warning, the grief is mingled with another kind of loss. We all know Doug loved us, and we're all certain he knew we loved him. There really wasn't much left unsaid. Still, if I had been given the chance, I would have said something like this:

Doug, thank you. Thank you for being a real friend to my parents. I've grown up listening to stories of the fun and mischief you found yourselves in. In a world where true friends can be hard to find, you were always there for them. You were a source of encouragement and wisdom. You partied as carefree hippies together, learned how to raise families together, and grew up to be exceptional grandparents together. 

Doug, thank you. Thank you for loving my aunt with such openness and grace. You modeled a love I'm still looking for. I know it exists because you were proof. You were always generous with your love, sacrificial in your decisions, and true in your devotion. 

Doug, thank you. Thank you for being the kind of father that anyone would have been proud of. Your three sons are living testaments to your success as a dad. You loved them more than life itself. Anyone could see it. You reveled in parenthood. You taught your boys how to play, how to love their mom, how to live life to the fullest. And your fatherly love didn't stop with your own sons. It extended to countless young people over the years.

Doug, thank you. Thank you for being over the moon about being a grandfather. Your delight in Lily was precious. Your glee over the news of a new grandbaby filled our hearts. Your love for them inspired us to love better ourselves. Memories of your goofiness and silly magic tricks and little adventures will live on in the stories we tell your grandchildren.

Doug, thank you. Thank you for honoring your elders. My grandparents' lives are richer because you loved them and cared for them heroically. 

Doug, thank you. Thank you for embracing your daughter-in-law and soon-to-be daughter-in-law. You always made the circle wider, always made room for people. You loved Jaclyn and Jackie like your own. Seeing those sincere, sweet bonds gave me hope that the hard work of blending families and lives could actually be beautiful. You saw those young women as gifts, and you treated them that way.

Doug, thank you. Thank you for giving my brother a fine example. As a man, as a skilled artisan, as a father - you supplied him with extra motivation. He will honor your spirit all his days. Thank you for loving his little girl - for getting down on the ground and making her laugh. For being the same sweet uncle to her you always were to us.

Doug, thank you. Thank you for seeing me. You always took the time to relate beautifully with each person in a way that made them feel special. You always cared about what was going on, what I was trying to create, what I hoped to do and be. I can't remember a time when we were together that you didn't ask me to draw you a picture. I should have drawn you something every time you asked. You were always the family chronicler. Most of our photos and all of our videos were created by you. I'm thankful for those images of young Lindsay, shyly sharing a painting, your narrator voice cooing kind, encouraging words. I always imagined that if I ever fell in love, you'd take my beau for a boat ride, share some beer, and agree about most everything but politics. You'd come back laughing, having added him to our circle. You'd wink at me and give me one of your big bear hugs. You know, I'm going to miss all that was and all that could have been. But I'm also going to rejoice in the 34 years I had with you in my life. I will treasure the memories, and I will honor your gentle spirit all my days. We all will. I love you, Uncle Doug.

Thursday, August 31, 2017

The Reflection of Your Life's Kindness and Beauty

May your leave-taking be gracious,
Enabling you to hold dignity
Through awkwardness and illness.

May you see the reflection
Of your life's kindness and beauty

In all the tears that fall for you.

-from "For the Dying" by John O'Donohue in To Bless the Space Between Us

Last night, I attended a farewell party for a dear former colleague. For a few hours, I was surrounded by friends I hadn't seen in months and was overwhelmed with hugs and well wishes. I was swept up in waves of gratitude as teenagers gushed about new friends and schools, immediately taking me into their confidence once again. I beamed as beautiful old women held my face in their hands and told me how much they missed seeing my smile every week. For a short while, my soul found a safe spot to settle.

As the shindig was wrapping up, I got a text: Pray. This may be it.

And then I knew. All day, my heart had been heavy. I had woken up with John O'Donohue's poetic blessing "For the Dying" on my mind. My Aunt April, who had privately dealt with cancer since the winter, was moments from death. I told the last few lingering friends, all pastors. We stood together in a rag-tag circle, sharing in the gift of communal grief. None of them had met April, but they knew I adored her, and that was enough. I told stories of her passion, her goodness, her grace. We hugged and parted ways as they spoke words of love over my family.

As soon as I started driving away, I got the call. My dad didn't have to say anything. I told him how sorry I was. His love for his baby sister had always been so complete, so whole. I told him I would come over later.

Then I called my buddy Charlie. We already had plans to hang for a bit. I didn't realize I was crying so hard until he told me to pull over, that he would come and get me. That one thoughtful gesture - authentic and brotherly - eased the tension in my chest. I told him I could drive, and I'd see him soon.

Before I pulled in to Charlie's, I saw him and our best friend Thomas waiting for me by the curb. They were illuminated by street lights and shop windows. They looked to me like angelic sentinels - all at once divine and completely human. I wasn't two steps from my car before I was wrapped in a bear hug, embraced by strong arms and the true love of soul friends.

Upstairs, Charlie's wife met me with a hug just as powerful. For months, Susan had shed tears over a woman she would never know. A mother only nine years younger than April, she held such immense empathy. Understanding better than most, she realized how unfair it all was - leaving this earth with a grieving husband and young children behind.

We sat together up on the roof. They let me talk and cry. They made me laugh and poured me a drink. My friends gave me strength for the journey ahead. I left them, feeling fortified.

My dad was playing clips of "The Pride of West Virginia" - WVU's marching band - as I walked into my parents' home. April, a devoted alumnus, loved the Mountaineers. My mama regaled us with stories of college-aged April having too much fun at football games. Earlier in the evening, together with my brother and his daughter, they lit a candle for April. We spoke of the sensitivity of my eight-year-old niece. We cried for April's darling husband Tom. We mourned for my cousins, Olivia and Cameron. The depth of their pain must feel bottomless.

In the wee hours of the morning, I drove home. Then I dreamt of April, sitting in the wingback chair at my grandparents' house. For a brief moment, I was transported to a world that no longer exists.

The last time I saw April was a few weeks ago. Her husband and kids were home. We laughed at old photos and reminisced about days gone by. We prayed for a miracle.

Tonight, my dad said that a world without April is inconceivable. He's right. I cannot fathom an existence where I won't ever again feel her embrace or marvel at her wit or revel in her perfect laugh.

When I was a baby, April would spend part of her summer with my parents. I was ten when April had her first child. I started spending summers with April, Tom, and Olivia. Cameron joined the fun five years later. I spent every summer with them until my late teens.

Watching April, I learned how to be an aunt, a sister, a friend. Her love for her family and friends knew no limit. Her home was always a haven for the weary. Her light empowered all of us, even during the darkest of times.

This weekend, I'll go to Virginia and say goodbye to the woman I was sure would outlast us all. My cousins and I will somehow manage to laugh through our tears. I'll hug my sweet uncle and tell him that there has never been a more sparkling example of a devoted husband. Our far-flung family will gather once again for a funeral as we cling to the ties that bind. We'll offer prayers of thanksgiving, grateful that for a while, we were loved by a woman of grace and valor.
April, delighting in her family, at Cameron's last high school play.

Monday, June 13, 2016

This Unity of Ancient Belonging

May the light of your soul guide you.
May the light of your soul bless the work you do with the 
   secret love and warmth of your heart.
May you see in what you do the beauty of your own soul.
May the sacredness of your work bring healing, light, and 
   renewal to those who work with you and to those who see
   and receive your work.

- from Anam Cara: A Book of Celtic Wisdom by John O'Donohue

On a day when so many of us wept in the wake of yet another horrific mass shooting, I found myself spending hours with two men who have become kindred spirits. On a day when consolation was needed, my soul friends supplied real comfort.

I met Mark five years ago when he became a pastor at the church I serve. I liked him immediately. His humility and humor were refreshing. I didn't realize it at the time, but I was in need of healing when he entered my life. I was getting over years of church-inflicted trauma. Of powerful voices dismissing the calling and capabilities of women. Of disappointment and disillusionment amplified by religious-based bigotry.

Mark and Denise
Mark ably weaves grace and love as easily in one-on-one chats as he does in his sermons. Between hearty laughs and meaningful moments of silence, he practices holy listening and authentic presence. Over the years, my friends and I have challenged ourselves to embody such goodness.

Yesterday, amid prayers for those who grieve this latest act of evil, our church bid farewell to our beloved pastor and his dear wife Denise. Mark was recently reassigned, and so they will begin a new chapter apart from us. As the choir sang one last song, Mark and Denise held one another at the altar. My roommate Abigail, a bearer of light and love, came up beside me and rested her delicate hand on my shoulder. We stood in the balcony together, mirroring our friends, and shed tears. We cried over the loss of Mark and Denise. We cried over our slaughtered brothers and sisters. We cried for the hatred that seems all too prevalent.

Later, standing in the empty parking lot, Mark and Denise and I hugged. As we said tearful goodbyes, he reminded me that we were soul friends: one last gift of healing. 

The late Irish poet, John O'Donohue, dedicated an entire book to the concept of soul friends (anam cara in Gaelic). In Anam Cara: A Book of Celtic Wisdom, the philosopher offers:

In the Celtic tradition, there is a beautiful understanding of love and friendship... This friendship was an act of recognition and belonging. When you had an anam cara, your friendship cut across all convention, morality, and category. You were joined in an ancient and eternal way with the “friend of your soul.”

When dozens of vibrant lives are cut short, when power-thirsty charlatans heap hate and ignorance on top of the initial violence, when our collective hope is once again dashed, our souls need their cherished friends.

Yesterday evening, as the oppressive heat gave way to a light breeze, I enjoyed the presence of my other soul friend, Thomas. My soul must have something of a split personality. Mark is devout; Thomas doubts. Mark is as wholesome as John Denver or Mister Rogers. Thomas is more of a rock star. Both men epitomize the truth behind O'Donohue's words:

"The one you love, your anam cara, your soul friend, is the truest mirror to reflect your soul. The honesty and clarity of true friendship also brings out the real contour of your spirit." 
Thomas in his studio - the scene of many of our conversations.
I've never enjoyed looking in the mirror. I'm quick to scrutinize and inflate any perceived flaw. But somehow, in the presence of my soul friends, the mirror doesn't seem quite as harsh. The reflection, whole and still full of imperfections, is softened by overwhelming, genuine love.

With an abundance of grace, Mark points out the inconsistencies in my life. His gentle questions bring me to a place of self candor. I am a better person because of Mark.

And I'm a better person because of Thomas. Though staring down the ugly and hard is difficult, I'd often rather do that than explore the good and beautiful parts of me. Thomas is the one who casts light on what is almost too hard to see. As an artist always ready for the next critique, it's uncomfortable to sit in the brightness.

I was a student when I met Thomas a dozen years ago. I was in the adjacent pottery class, and I would work almost exclusively at the hand building table so I could overhear his art appreciation lectures. The next semester, I registered for his drawing class. My love of visual art, somehow abandoned in my late teens, returned with a new energy. 

Over time, Thomas became a trusted confidant. His search for and appreciation of grace, along with his passionate approach to living, imbue our late night conversations with meaning. We see the best in one another, and we make a point of reminding each other that we both have something worthwhile to give.

It's been less than two days since the news of the Orlando massacre broke. Already, the loudest and most obnoxious voices are heard above those calling for love. In times like these, what are we to do?

I am reminded that there are alternatives to hiding away or despairing of life. Mark is a pastor; Thomas is an artist. Through their vocations, they offer healing and beauty to a world desperate for both. I feel called to minister through acts of compassion and justice. And I feel called to create and teach art. Because of the influence of my soul friends, I am empowered to work for a better world, using the gifts I have. O'Donohue bids in Anam Cara

"may the sacredness of your work bring healing, light, and renewal to those who work with you and to those who see and receive your work."

Tonight, my friends and family stood shoulder to shoulder with members of our community. Words of mourning and resilience were shared. Candles were lit. A song was sung, and a bell was struck once for each victim of the Orlando shooting. It was a humble affair, quickly arranged on a downtown square. But in that assembly, the first embers of healing, light, and renewal were sparked.

We have work to do. I hope we find soul friends who remind us of our connection to all of humanity, who urge us to truly see ourselves, who bring out the real contour of our spirits, who share the burden and gift of life together. Perhaps then we'll be reminded of our shared work of pursuing peace and seeking justice and choosing love. 

"If you realize how vital to your whole spirit - and being and character and mind and health - friendship actually is, you will take time for it… [But] for so many of us… we have to be in trouble before we remember what’s essential."

May we take time to nourish real, soul-deep friendship. May we seek and be soul friends. May we meditate on what we learn. May we urge one another on in love.

Sunday, January 10, 2016

'Til I Reach You

Been talkin' 'bout the way things change
And my family lives in a different state...

-from "Rivers and Roads" on The Head and the Heart's self-titled album

In this morning's wee hours, my friend Daniel lost his grandmother. I found out right before the bidding prayer during a service that celebrated the Baptism of the Lord. Calling out Daniel's name, I recalled similar prayers of comfort lifted for my own family last January 10.

A year ago today, my dad's family grieved the death of Pop, my 88-year-old grandfather. My parents had been keeping vigil for a long time. On my Aunt April's birthday, Pop breathed his last.

This afternoon, in the midst of chaotic funeral arranging, Daniel and his wife Monica took a little time to attend their young son's first art show. Daniel, proud Papa that he is, texted me an image of a whimsical collage, pointing out that the brightest component - a colorful bird - was created by his son.

I grieve with my friends. Daniel, Monica, and their clan will miss their Granny something fierce. But, as affirmed by an unexpected, happy paper bird, life goes on. Those left facing a new day without their loved one can find that fact almost unbearable at first. Even after a year, I know what it is to occasionally wake with a surprising sense of loss.

Pop and I were always great buddies. I had the good fortune of living close to my grandparents as a baby. And after he was sure I was too sturdy to break when he held me, Pop and I shared a bond that lasted the rest of his life. If I'm being honest, I still believe there's a tie that binds.

Pop and Lindsay on the deck of Pop and Sparky's home.

Pop was a complicated man, born and raised in a hard time. One of my cousins once described him as a "happy-on-the-inside kind of guy." And I suppose that sentiment was fairly accurate. I don't think he ever quite got over the death of his beloved brother in the Korean War. That heartache left him wounded and a bit hard around the edges. Even so, Pop sure was lovable.

In his own little ways, he made us all feel special. There's about a decade gap between the cousins in our family. Amanda, my brother Allyn, and I came first. Pop would make us giggle by randomly popping out his fake teeth. He spent hours regaling us with stories of his and Uncle George's shenanigans in Depression-era West Virginia. When Olivia and Cameron came along, Pop developed a game just for them. Every time he said goodbye to his youngest grandchildren, he would let out a huge sneeze. Dozens of quarters and dimes would magically land on the floor. Their delighted squeals always made his eyes soft.

Not the most demonstrative man outside of those childlike moments, he could seem gruff. But we all knew the truth: Mike Barrick loved his family and friends. He even knew our pals and regularly asked after them. If he met someone once, he remembered them. 

As my brother became a teenager, Pop would 'sell' him something - like an old TV or some forgotten toy - for a dollar bill now and then. When Allyn's best friend AJ would come along to visit, Pop extended the same deal to him. And when AJ died before his 23rd birthday, Pop grieved right alongside us. He knew the pain of a broken heart better than most, and when my dad and I both lost our best friends, Pop's heart broke again with ours.

I'm a keeper of letters and a firm believer in the beauty of handwritten notes. Pop prided himself on having perfect penmanship and a keen ability to choose just the right card for any occasion. I saved the ones he sent over the years: lovely words of sympathy, funny postcards sent from Florida vacations, cheerful cards filled with birthday wishes. In these treasured pieces of paper, I am reminded of his big heart.

My family and friends remember Pop and his love for us in different ways. We think of him when an old Dean Martin song is played. Or when we recreate his famous chocolate chip cookies. Others recall rooting for the Mountaineers with a young, debonair Pop, when dressing up was the fashion on game day. For me, he is inextricably linked to West Virginia and my abiding passion for my home state.

My grandparents' home was always the gathering place for holidays and summer vacations. The happiest moments of my life were spent in north central West Virginia, playing with my cousins and whispering late into the night with my grandmother Sparky or one of my aunts or uncles. We're all scattered from Texas and Indiana to North Carolina and Virginia. And Pop and Sparky's house is now someone else's home. This past Christmas was the first time none of us made the long drive out of state. We didn't exchange gifts around the tree or attend midnight mass or eat gobs of the best Italian food this side of Calabria.

Nothing is as it has been. And I miss the faces of my sweet cousins, aunts, and uncles. I miss the faces of our West Virginia neighbors, priests, and old friends. I certainly miss looking my grandparents in the eyes and kissing their cheeks. But, in the newness of life without Pop and Sparky, our hearts are softened. We can share the gift of empathy. We appreciate rambling stories and the gnarled hands of the aged. We don't take for granted opportunities to gather with loved ones.

On this feast day, at my Aunt Mickey's parish, mass was offered for Mike "Pop" Barrick. I give thanks for the life of the man that did so much to shape mine and honor the ways he demonstrated his love for us.

Thursday, June 11, 2015

Around the Bend: A Meditation on Death and Life

We had gathered all together / We had come to say goodbye
To the heart of an old soul / Who was far too young to die
And in the still you could hear the angels cry

Davey runs through the roses / And Davey danced through my life
I can see him up there with Moses / Right next to Jesus Christ
While I'm standin' at the crossroads / Wonderin’ what's around the bend
He's miles from here / Beyond the atmosphere / Just ashes in the wind

- from "Ashes in the Wind" on Kathy Mattea's album Roses

I was serving as a worship leader. Right before the band walked on stage, someone pulled me from the wing and pointed to a group of teenage girls, huddled together in the front row.

"We need someone to offer a prayer. You've been through this. Will you please say something?"

Nine years ago this week, my brother's best friend lost his little sister in a car wreck. Karson was sixteen. She was full of life and laughter. She was smart, athletic, pretty. Everyone knew she had a bright future. In a moment, she was gone.

I took a breath and dared to look at the young girls gathered in the darkened sanctuary, and my heart broke for them. Karson's teammates and friends cried as they held one another up in a tangle of hugs.

I knew that kind of pain. Six years earlier, I had lost my best friend. Amanda had just graduated from high school. She was the most outspoken, loving, silly, wise person. A few days after she donned her cap and gown, my closest confidant died in her sleep. 

As the praise team assembled, I took the microphone and addressed the teenagers. I told them how sorry we all were. How it didn't make sense. That it was okay to be sad. And angry. And then I said something that, at the time, I thought was helpful.

"Someday, the pain won't be as bad as it is now."

As soon as those words escaped my mouth, I locked eyes with Casey. She shook her head and didn't look back up for the rest of the service. Casey was Karson's friend. She was also Amanda's sister. Casey and her grieving friends didn't need anyone telling them that time would heal their pain. Nobody in the throes of such trauma needs anything but the space and permission to grieve alongside sincere friends who will cry with them.

I'm not a worship leader anymore. I serve as a director of programs for a congregation I love. On Sunday mornings, I stay behind the scenes as part of the tech team. A couple weeks ago, the church recognized our graduates. It happened to coincide with the 15th anniversary of Amanda's death. 

Our young people sat up front, sporting their graduation robes. A couple of them shared words of thanks and their plans for the future. Our graduating violinist played a gorgeous farewell. Blinking back tears, I played a slideshow of our graduates' baby pictures and school photos. I couldn't help but think of my friends who find it hard to celebrate on such occasions.

Just two years after Karson died, her big brother AJ passed away a couple days shy of turning 23. My brother Allyn, who had been AJ's rock through the loss of Karson, suddenly experienced that sort of torturous pain first-hand. 

I have witnessed powerful moments of grace in my life. None more meaningful than when my brother embraced AJ's mama Margo and sister Taylor as his own family. Through the years, Margo and Taylor and Allyn have loved one another with more urgency and understanding than any blood ties could compel. Allyn's daughter carries AJ's initials - a living testimony to an eternal bond of brotherhood.

Allyn, a gifted athlete, coaches basketball for underprivileged children. I lead drama for middle schoolers and high schoolers in Crossflame Youth Choir. It's a healing and humbling thing - pouring yourself into others. Somehow, working with young people, we feel a connection to our old friends, lost too early. Taylor and Casey - and Amanda's other siblings Sara and Jason - have all entered vocations where they get to serve the most vulnerable in their communities. I often think it is their early experiences with pain that help enable them to extend such great compassion.

My Crossflame kiddos light up my life. When I hear giggles echoing from the rehearsal space, I'm often transported to Amanda's house and hear her rolling laugh again. And when a brave teen attempts a solo for the first time, my mind drifts back to our high school choir room, and I relive the beauty that was AJ's singing voice.

This week, a few of our youth choir kids became unwitting members of that painful fellowship of young survivors of loss. A local boy - a rising senior - was killed in a car crash. As I read the remarks by some of my young friends on Facebook, I prayed for their tender hearts. I pray still.

I want to tell them that it gets better. And it does I suppose. The pain never really lessens, but the physical manifestations change and become bearable. Eventually, breathing returns to its unnoticeable, natural state. The actual heart ache becomes more of a memory than an every-moment sensation. The pain begins to lie dormant. Sometimes, seemingly out of nowhere, it comes roaring back to the surface for a few hours, a couple days, some weeks. 

But what's to be done? We press on. We're left here to wonder what's around the next bend. We start planning and dreaming again. We take some risks. We make mistakes. New relationships are forged. And before too long, we realize we're living again.

There's nothing to replace the ones we've loved and lost. Margo and Taylor won't ever feel the same joy about the month of June as everyone else who welcomes the fun of summertime. Amanda's family will always feel her absence. Weddings, birthdays, and holiday gatherings will always feel incomplete. But they all continue to live and love and even laugh and celebrate.

I miss Amanda. I've never been so empowered to think critically as I was when we would sit around her kitchen table and debate everything from unfair school policies to patriarchy and feminism. And I miss AJ. I've never been hugged like I was by that big teddybear of a man. I've never quite experienced the feeling of home I had when we would all gather around the table as a family with AJ and Allyn racing to see who could put away the most corn pudding. 

Sparky, Allyn, Jeddy, Daddy, Pop, and AJ goofing around in West Virginia in 2002.
Other than my brother and daddy, all these dear people have passed.

I will always miss them. Allyn will always miss his brother. And my Crossflame students will always miss their friend. 

But I'm thankful. In the midst of tragedy, beauty can still be found. I know what it is to love and be loved. And so I'm more intentional about sharing love and grace and joy in my own life. I know what it is to miss the presence of someone special. And so I strive to see the remarkable in everyone and revel in simply spending time with them.

In a few days, Crossflame will begin our summer tour. We'll play with orphans, refurbish old buildings, hold hands with lonely octogenarians, sing songs of hope and justice. We'll laugh and cry and work together. And the first of a lifetime of healing moments will begin to ease the ache in my young friends' hearts. And I will remember Amanda. And AJ. And the other saints in my life who helped teach me how to love, how to grieve, and how to hope again.

We'll return home. I'll hug my niece tight. My brother and I will trade jokes. My parents and I will talk late into the night. I'll make music with my talented roommate. I'll see glimpses of dearly departed friends in the smiles of new ones. And, when the inevitable waves of grief crash over one of us, I'll know the tide will turn. And I'll give thanks.

Sunday, December 21, 2014

Love With Urgency - An Advent Meditation

*Author's note: Lindsay's grandfather Mike Barrick passed away on January 10, 2015.

"And I will love with urgency but not with haste."

- from "Not With Haste" on Mumford & Sons' Babel

After days of gray skies, the sun is finally shining in north central West Virginia. Feeling that warmth - strong even as the temperature remains in the low thirties - is enough to remind me of the promise of summer. The winter solstice brings the hope of warmer days ahead while offering us the gift of the longest night.

Tonight, churches the world over - including mine - will hold special services for those trying to reconcile their sadness with the joy of Advent and Christmastime. Hurting, broken people will be met with grace and understanding as they acknowledge their pain during this longest night.

I can't think of another service that better embodies the gospel. After all, Emmanuel - God With Us - enters into a world of pain and meets us all where we are. 

And really, who among us isn't experiencing some sort of ache? Who doesn't long for acceptance and love?

A week ago, my grandfather fell. Pop sustained serious injuries and has been confined to a hospital bed ever since. My family and I continue to wait. We're preparing. For what, we're not quite sure. As we keep vigil, we honor the spirit of Advent.

Last night, my dad and I went to Mass at my grandfather's parish. We offered a prayer and were met with warm embraces. Beautiful old Italian women hugged me out of love for my parents and grandparents. Don, a faithful friend of Pop's, served as cantor for the communion song. We joined in the refrain: "For you, O Lord, my soul in stillness waits; truly my hope is in you."

Don is in his eighties, but his voice is as pure and sturdy as a man's half his age. Before he sang, as the parishioners shared the peace of Christ, I saw him walk over to his wife. Alzheimer's has done its best to keep her away from most services. With the tenderest smile, he stroked her hair and gave her the sweetest kiss I've ever witnessed.  

After Mass, Father Larry met us in Pop's hospital room. Father Larry became the church's priest in 1980 and retired sixteen years later. I've known him my entire life. Always eager to laugh and trade stories, he's told me time after time that loving people is the most important thing.

His love for people is so authentic and catching. In the dim glow of hospital lights, he recounted his first Christmas as an ordained priest. He was asked to hold Mass on an Army base on the Czech border in 1953. He had grand plans of saving the entire world with his sermon. But when only a dozen people showed up, he was sensitive enough to adapt. He realized these worn out men and women missed their families so he spoke about the loneliness of the manger. In the short time he spent on the snow-covered, isolated base, he made friends with the Baptist chaplain and an African-American couple. 

"That's when it started. That's when I realized it's all about people. They're the best. And that's what Christmas is all about - people."

In an act that echoed his words, he led us in anointing Pop. As equals, we prayed. Father Larry made the sign of the cross on Pop's forehead and hands. He read the gospel account of Jesus forgiving and healing the paralytic. 

"I love this story. You see, Jesus is more concerned about healing our hearts. Offering us peace. He eases the burden inside of us."

Father Larry and I share a laugh after a sweet blessing

Pop's body is certainly in need of healing. But more than that, his heart needed the comfort that forgiveness brings. Through the gentle ministrations of a kind old man devoted to God, Pop received a blessing. My dad and I, weary from worry, experienced holy consolation.

As he left to minister to another friend, Father Larry gave us one more smile. With his eyes twinkling with delight, he whispered as if sharing a favorite secret, "You know, I've come to find that God's love is as unnoticeable as breathing. It's just here. Always."

Christmas really is all about people. When we celebrate the Incarnation, we remember that God chose to become one of us. And when we choose to love people, we honor the Incarnation of Christ within all of us. God is present in each simple act of love: a tender kiss between old lovers; a humble prayer offered for a friend; a gentle hug shared in a hospital room; an uneasy vigil kept day after day. 

May we learn to love with urgency but not with haste. May we rejoice in the promise of warmer days to come even as we experience these present long nights.

Saturday, August 16, 2014

If We Have No Peace

The secret of love is in opening up your heart
It's okay to feel afraid
But don't let it stand in your way
'Cause everyone knows that love is the only road

from "Secret O' Life" on James Taylor's album JT 

Tonight, someone I hardly know accused me of trying to make Michael Brown into a hero. According to this on-line acquaintance, I was attempting to garner popularity and entrance into the in-crowd by sharing a couple blog posts that asked hard questions in the wake of the Ferguson shooting. In this person's view, the recently slain teenager was a 'thug.'

The two posts I shared - one from Rachel Held Evans and another by Sarah Bessey - were written with humility. Both young bloggers admitted that as white women, they felt hesitant to comment. They wondered whether their sincere questions and sadness would be met with derision.

I share their unease. As a white woman who feels unqualified to speak to such horror. As someone whose only interactions with police have been respectful and pleasant. As a friend to half a dozen great law enforcement agents. 

All I can say to my accuser - and to anyone who would care about my inconsequential opinion - is that I believe we are meant to weep with those who mourn. And we are supposed to do justice, love mercy, and walk humbly with our God.

Michael Brown, by all accounts, was surrendering when he was shot dead. His family's lawyer has admitted that Michael stole a pack of cigars prior to the confrontation. I have to ask myself - would any 18-year-old white boy I know meet his death for such a crime?  The obvious answer is as crushing as it is unfair.

I am no race-relations expert. Heck, I don't claim to be an expert on much of anything. But I know it is a tragedy and travesty when any young person dies - especially in such a violent manner. 

I don't have any interest in trying to promote anyone as a hero. Or a villain. But I do have a sincere passion for gaining understanding in the aftermath of such a sad, disturbing event.

It's been a challenging few weeks, friends. Likely for all of us. Our nation is reeling from Michael Brown's death, from the refugee children held in limbo at our southern border, from the escalating violence in the Middle East, from the unexpected suicide of the effervescent Robin Williams, from the day-to-day busyness our culture demands. The Avett Brothers' "Winter in My Heart" has been in constant rotation in my head. 

What makes us so eager to choose to think the worst of one another? Why must we suspect ego? Why pull a gun when hands are raised in surrender? Why preemptively strike and perpetuate war? Why assume cowardice in a life-ending act? 

In "Secret O' Life," James Taylor croons, "everyone knows that love is the only road." When given a choice to love or hate - and we are always given a choice - why do we do our best to create our own rocky path that leads to mistrust, meanness, and violence?

I am tired. My soul is worn out, friends. 

So what now? As a curfew and state of emergency are implemented in Ferguson? As pundits and their devotees argue politics while both Israelis and Palestinians die? As refugee children still wait as they're forgotten in the crush of a fresh news cycle? As bombs continue to maim and kill the innocent in so many parts of our hurting world? As insensitive insults are hurled at those dealing with mental illness? What now?

I'm out of answers. Except this: We can't give up, and we can't give in. 

We can't give up on working towards peace. We can't give up on the fight for justice. We can't give up on extending grace and love. We can't give up on ourselves. And we can't give in to the lazy temptation of treating someone as our enemy. We can't give in to the louder voices that advocate violence. 

How? I think sometimes the 'not giving up' and the 'not giving in' are done through the difficult, remarkable act of choosing to live. Really live. 

On August 7, about 140 of my friends - an astonishing number - came out for an hour or so to offer their support at my first solo show. And others who couldn't attend sent sweet notes, flowers, and reminders of their love. I can't remember when I felt so overwhelmed. 

I was excited to show my newest body of work, but I soon discovered that whether or not it was received the way I hoped, I was accepted beyond any expectation. It was an intensely powerful moment for this woman who often feels like an outsider and ragamuffin. My parents, brother, niece, roommate, friends near and faraway - those I cherish most in this world - ministered to my soul with their presence. 
Tie That Binds 4x2.5" intaglio monoprint from my show Fractured Sanctuary

A few days later, I attended a house concert. Quiles and Cloud filled my friends' basement with their groovy, California-based folk music. Then I went to a poetry reading. My friend Bud Caywood shared new poems on the beauty of nature. 

After the workweek, I laughed and laughed with kindred spirits in a friend's back yard. We spent hours talking about justice and our responsibility to work for positive change in the world.

And last night, I enjoyed a perfect, leisurely dinner with inspiring artists. As we lingered over roasted Brussels sprouts and friend green tomatoes, we shared our hopes and frustrations. We parted in a downpour, promising we would all collaborate soon as we embraced with soggy hugs. 

With everything that's going wrong with the world, such pursuits and pastimes seem trivial, even meaningless. But it's precisely those tender moments that remind us of our shared humanity and our need for one another.

My faith teaches me that Jesus came to give us life - abundant life. And that has nothing to do with houses, careers, or cars. Life is only truly rich when we acknowledge our interdependence and universal need for love. I believe Mother Teresa had it right when she said, "If we have no peace, it is because we have forgotten that we belong to each other."