The Sacrament of Waiting

“We must let go of the life we have planned, so as to accept the one that is waiting for us.” – Jospeph Campbell – 

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Traffic lights, coffee queues, airport security, hospitals … they have a common theme: waiting! And I am not very good at it. But these last 2 weeks, with a loved on in hospital, I have become reacquainted with this discipline and grace.

I was reminded of Macrina Wiederkehr’s beautiful poem, The Sacrament of Waiting. May it speak to you as it has to me – enjoy!

Slowly
she celebrated the sacrament of letting go.
First she surrendered her green,
then the orange, yellow, and red
finally she let go of her brown.
Shedding her last leaf
she stood empty and silent, stripped bare.
Leaning against the winter sky
she began her vigil of trust.

Shedding her last leaf
she watched its journey to the ground.
She stood in silence
wearing the color of emptiness,
her branches wondering;
How do you give shade with so much gone?

And then,
the sacrament of waiting began.
The sunrise and sunset watched with tenderness.
Clothing her with silhouettes
they kept her hope alive.

They helped her understand that
her vulnerability,
her dependence and need,
her emptiness,
her readiness to receive
were giving her a new kind of beauty.
Every morning and every evening they stood in silence
and celebrated together
the sacrament of waiting.

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Life’s Most Ignored Partner: Death

“It is hard to have patience with people who say, ‘There is no death’ or ‘Death doesn’t matter.’ There is death. And whatever it is matters. And whatever happens has consequences, and it and they are irrevocable and irreversible. You might as well say that birth doesn’t matter.”
– C.S. Lewis –

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My sprightly father has been researching the price of funerals in the Sunshine Coast. Or should I say, he has been exploring the cheapest possible way to dispose of his body when he dies. His Melbourne plan to donate his body to research at a local university was sabotaged when we moved to the Coast. Never fear, he just discovered that he can save a whopping $2,000 by using a funeral home near Brisbane and he reported his finding to me with a smug sense of satisfaction! As you can tell, I grew up in a home where we talked about death. It was as natural as talking about life. I only discovered that talking about death was a social taboo when I moved to Australia, and strangely enough, especially in church.

It remains somewhat of a mystery to me why people avoid this subject at all cost. Last time I checked, the death rate of Homo sapiens was pretty high – sitting very close to 100%. Death is inevitable. Considering this, why wouldn’t we ensure that we have a will in place (no matter what age) and clear instructions for end-of-life care? “DO NOT RESUSCITATE”, for example, has been emphasised to me by my father. If he could, he would have that clause tattooed on his forehead. I know it’s hard, but we need to talk about our mortality and death with our loved ones.

Our society’s strange avoidance of death is really quite insane. It seems like we fear death so much that we have convinced ourselves that by not talking about it we can dodge it. Anyone grieving the loss of a loved one in such a cultural “Truman Show” is normally met with awkward comments, a change of subject, or, a total lack of contact and care. By refusing to see life and death as part of the human existence we have created hell for those touched by death.

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One of the most famous historians of death, Philippe Ariès, claimed that death became a shameful scandal in modern society, that the dying were hidden away in hospitals and that grieving survivors were silenced to repress this scandal of death: “We ignore the existence of a scandal that we have been unable to prevent; we act as if it did not exist, and thus mercilessly force the bereaved to say nothing. A heavy silence has fallen over the subject of death.” Ariès is amongst a growing chorus of voices calling on society to stop this nutty denial and recognise and humanise death, “Death must simply become the discreet but dignified exit of a peaceful person from a helpful society that is not torn, not even overly upset by the idea of a biological transition without significance, without pain and suffering, and ultimately without fear.” Ignoring our mortality does not make death go away, rather, it creates even greater fear and hysteria about this unavoidable life event.

Looking back it also seems rather strange to me that for the many years I spent in church I only ever heard one whole sermon dedicated to death and preparation for dying. I know not all faith traditions avoid the subject, but in the Pentecostal/Charismatic scene a sound theology of suffering and death still remains fairly undeveloped. In fact, talking about death in these places is taboo. An almost superstitious-like fear hangs in the air, coupled with an often over-emphasis on healing (understood in the limited context of physical symptoms), miracles and positive confessions. The disappointment that an individual who had invested into this ideology encounters when touched by death or suffering cannot be understated. It can take someone years to recover from the toxic idea that God has let them down or they did not have enough ‘faith’ to avoid disaster.

My life and the life of our family was irrevocably changed with the sudden death of my mother in 2007. She played a key role as a very loved matriarch in our family structure. Her absence is felt to this day. C.S. Lewis wrote a most poignant journal where he recorded the death of his beloved wife, Joy, in A Grief Observed. He writes, “Her absence is like the sky, spread over everything” and “The death of a loved one is like an amputation.” So I am not for a moment suggesting that talking about death is easy. The very idea of losing the people we love is too sad for words. Yet life requires us not to ignore its partner, death. If the consequences of someone’s absence are so monumental and devastating, we have to be able to talk about our mortality and the decisions that await us or another person in such a tragic event.

Friend, take courage. We do not have much say into life choosing death as its partner. We do have a choice about ensuring that we have things in place for our departure. We also have a choice to talk about death, to discover the wishes of loved ones, and discover the details surrounding wills, accounts, legacy plans, etc. The stories we hear of the distress of people left in chaos when this unpleasant topic has been neglected should be enough to convince us that it is time to defy this silly social taboo and become vocal about mortality. Life is a journey, so is death, and both need our attention.

 

“End? No, the journey doesn’t end here. Death is just another path, one that we all must take. The grey rain-curtain of this world rolls back, and all turns to silver glass, and then you see it.”
– J.R.R. Tolkien “Return of the King” –

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Congestions, Delays and Detours!

Odd, how life makes twists and turns. I never would have guessed that I’d end up where I am now, but I wouldn’t trade it for the world. I wouldn’t trade this path I’m on for the whole solar system, for that matter. If I’ve learned anything these last several months, it’s that sometimes the most scenic roads in life are the detours you didn’t mean to take.
– Angela Blount –

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I was meant to fly back home to the Sunshine Coast yesterday. The alarm went extra early to ensure that we could negotiate Melbourne’s traffic mayhem, and get to the airport in plenty of time for my 10am flight. But, alas, even at 6.30am the freeway had already ground to a standstill. My quick thinking partner took a detour, weaving in and out of tiny streets through sleepy suburbs. Then the phone went with a text message. My flight had been cancelled. I tried to call the airline to change to a different flight and was placed on ‘hold’. We listened to repetitive announcements and the jingle of ‘hold’ music for over an hour. By the time someone eventually picked up we had just arrived at the airport.

The person on the line was not helpful. Referring to the airline as ‘they’ it became obvious that the delicate job of dealing with irritated customers had been handed to some contract group. They showed no mercy. No, I cannot catch another flight that day as they were all fully booked! No, they won’t allow me to detour via another major city! No, they do not compensate in any way or form. You have to find your own accommodation. By the time I put the phone down I was in a frightful fury and we took the long trip home – stopping for strong coffee, as it was too early for wine!

After I managed to downgrade my feelings towards a rude airline encounter from ‘cold hatred’ to ‘loathe entirely’, it occurred to me how much of life was represented in those few frustrating hours. We plan our life journey: how we will travel, what we will do when we get there, and the people we will meet and greet … and then we wake up to life with all its detours, congestion and cancelled travel plans. Have you noticed that?

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Sometimes life feels so congested that we need to be reminded to breathe. We frantically look for a different way and venture on a random detour through uncharted territory. Our congested, helter-skelter life has flung us into some unknown suburbs that we have never heard of or thought we would visit – perhaps an oncology ward? Or an interview for a totally different career? Or surrounded by strange tribe of people that quickly become friends and people we love deeply.

There are times we are caught totally unaware. We thought we were bound for an exotic destination, only to have our dreams and hopes ‘cancelled’. We furiously dial the ‘God’ line – but it feels like God has placed us on hold and taken a liking to elevator music!! We desperately look around for a comforting word from the people around us, but they have been kidnapped and replaced with distant, look-alike cousins that mouth robotic, religious cliches that once held meaning.

Life is full of congestion, detours and delays. To expect anything else is to live with constant disappointment or frustration. It is not a matter of whether you will encounter these travelling companions but rather a matter of where and when. At any moment, life can grind to a total halt and we sit on the freeway and wonder whether it will ever go back to ‘normal’ – whatever ‘normal’ means. We cannot force things to start moving again, we just need to sit and wait. What a terrible dilemma for all of us addicted to our own adrenaline in a hurry-sick, congested world.

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So I was stranded yesterday. I treated myself to a pedicure and read my ‘Slow‘ magazine. Sitting in the corner of that bustling little store I remembered to be grateful. It was a begrudging sort of gratitude at first, but gratitude nonetheless. As I leant into breathing, being mindful and grateful, I reflected on my life. My whole life has been a set of detours, congestion and delays. I have walked paths I never dreamt of walking, I have met people I never thought I would have the privilege of meeting, I have been in spaces that were thin places – and so many of these encounters happened because of … you guessed it – detours, congestion and delays.

Most of the time we do not know why life can get so awfully complicated. We feel helpless and vulnerable when circumstances come into our lives that we have no control over. But there are a few things we can do. We can remember to breathe. We can practice mindfulness. And we can be grateful. May your delayed, congested and detour-filled life also be filled with unexpected joy, a sense of purpose, wonder and gratitude, dear Pilgrim.

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In the Path of the Storm

“We live in a world that is beyond our control, and life is in a constant flux of change. So we have a decision to make: keep trying to control a storm that is not going to go away or start learning how to live within the rain.” 
– Glenn Pemberton
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Ten days ago we had a huge wind storm here in Melbourne. The effect of this storm was felt for days afterwards as trees came crashing down, blocking roads and cutting of power supply to hundreds of homes. Bushwalking with my fur children this morning, the pug became very engrossed in inspecting the huge root system of a massive gum tree that stood in the path of the storm and now lay smitten across our regular walking track. There is a whole separate, tiny ecosystem that lives under these wooden giants.

The storm that came brought winds of over 100 kilometres per hour. It seemed to come out of nowhere. No one could predict its path accurately. Storms come when they want to, how they want to, and where they want to. Even our most modern societies stand little chance when Mother Nature thunders with terrifying magnificence.

Every year we witness all sorts of storms which beat up a part of our planet. Somewhere, someone will be in its path and the result is never pleasant. Superstition and extreme religious views often fuel the misery. Storms have been considered as God punishing innocent people for hundreds of years. The marginalised and oppressed people groups, according to some, are always to blame for the heartache that storms bring. And people, afraid of disasters, buy the complete voodoo spiel!

Perhaps it is easier to blame someone for storms than to face the fact that storms are part of life? Perhaps, when people buy into a religion that tells them that no bad things will ever happen to them and that their God always protects them from storms, the natural reaction to disaster is to look for a cause? How easily we revert to karma; the idea of some angry, retributive ‘god’ that needs appeasing. It is very uncomfortable to think that just like my gum tree friend, now lying by my feet and being inspected by the pug, we too will find ourselves in the path of storms not of our own making but simply because storms come when they want to, how they want to, and where they want to. Storms, dear friend, are a part of life.

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There will be days, months, years, when it will feel like your life is directly in the path of an unyielding, merciless storm. Most of the time we don’t have a clue why this is so. Guard your heart against the ‘counsellors’ that will attempt to pontificate from their perceived moral high ground or soap box into your life. You don’t need to take their rhetoric board. You see, friend, storms come when they want to, how they want to, and where they want to. They come into the lives of the just and the unjust, they will rage in palaces and the poorest hovels, they will find a path through the most modern city and the deepest jungle. Storms are what storms are … and now and then we will find ourselves in the path of a storm.

Faith does not guarantee the ceasing of storms in your life. Storms come and go. Trying to create a religious ideology that ‘storm proofs’ our lives will only bring deep disappointment and resentment. Faith recognises that the Divine walks with us ‘through’ the storms. You are not anymore loved, holy or special because you have not experienced many storms. Neither is there anything ‘wrong’ with you if you happen to find yourself in the path of a storm.

Storms, after all, come when they want to, how they want to, and where they want to … and you, dear friend, are still loved.

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An uninvited Guest: Reflections on Grief

A Repost from last year:

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It was November 2007. My 11 year old German Shepherd staggered into the kitchen and collapsed. His heart had failed. We called a mobile vet and it was on this day we said goodbye to Simba. I grieved that dog. Those who love their animal friends will understand the pain of losing a fur child. A couple of weeks later, after I had come back from a retreat, the phone rang. It was my dad, informing me that my mum had been taken to hospital. She died three weeks later. It was just before Christmas. Mum had been undergoing treatment for a thyroid condition, which turned out to be a misdiagnosis. My world stopped. Just a week after we said goodbye to mum, early on New Years’ morning, we received another phone call. That type of phone call that any parent who has ever received one, never really recovers from. All our three children and two of their friends had been involved in a horrific car crash. All were injured and the next few days became a nightmare of emergency and intensive care wards. It was all a blur and it felt like somewhere in November I had opened my front door and Grief walked in, uninvited.

How do you begin to describe this uninvited guest? Maybe by the way it affects us. Sadness, so overwhelming that you can’t even cry. Illogical anger and rage. Guilt, resentfulness, regret, panic, depression and fear. It was C.S. Lewis who wrote about this in ‘A Grief Observed’: “No one ever told me that grief felt so like fear.” Lewis’ wife, Joy, had passed away from cancer and he had kept a journal observing his grief. This journal was later published. I have found it to be one of the most helpful books on this topic. Grief feels so much like fear because when we have lost a loved one we stare into a future where someone has turned off the light switch and it is utter darkness. Nothing brings back who we have lost. We live in a constant dread that life will never be the same.

“The reality is that you will grieve forever. You will not ‘get over’ the loss of a loved one; you will learn to live with it. You will heal and you will rebuild yourself around the loss you have suffered. You will be whole again, but you will never be the same. Nor should you be the same, nor would you want to.”
~ Elizabeth Kubler-Ross and John Kessler

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In a haze of shock and numbness, I recall friends and family doing their best to help make this journey through the valley of tears a bit easier. Please don’t ever underestimate the importance of your actions and words towards someone who is grieving. Your kindness through this time brings a tiny bit of warmth into someone’s world. A world that has not only gone dark, but has frozen over in pain. “The death of a beloved is an amputation,” observes Lewis. I would add it feels like an amputation of the heart.

Grief calls on all of us throughout our lives. This unwelcome visitor does not knock. It just walks right in and for the next few weeks, months or years, you are left to entertain it, as you struggle through the various stages. Grief, that suddenly rushes at you, even years down the track. Grief, that makes you feel so alone in your chronic pain. “In my distress I groan out loud and am reduced to skin and bones,” laments the Psalmist (Psalm 102). Grief, that plays out its visit on every life in a different manner. Grief, that does not stick to any rules. “Grief is like a long valley, a winding valley where any bend may reveal a totally new landscape,” writes Lewis. Our grief, just like our life, is a unique journey.

Grief bombards us with every emotion. We cry to the point that we are convinced we will never shed another tear. We may feel guilty as we look at a hurting world around us. “There are so many people worse off than me,” we tell ourselves to try and downplay our reality. Comparing grief is not helpful. It is what it is. Our loss, whatever it may be, is real and hurts like hell. We need to accept it. As we journey, let us try and surround ourselves with loving people. Friends who come, who sit, who talk about our loss, who listen, who are not absent. Don’t do this alone. “The friend who can be silent with us in a moment of confusion or despair, who can stay with us in an hour of grief and bereavement, who can tolerate not knowing … not healing … not curing … that is a friend indeed.” – Henri Nouwen

During grief, you are dealing with a muddled mind. If you can, avoid making any major decisions at this time. Be kind to yourself: remember to eat and sleep. It’s bizarre how we forget basic human needs and rhythm in times of trauma. Cry when you feel to and find a place of solitude where you can yell if you want to – or howl at the moon, as a friend of mine recommended. Be patient with yourself. “Grief is not a disorder, a disease or sign of weakness. It is an emotional, physical and spiritual necessity, the price you pay for love. The only cure for grief is to grieve.” (Rabbi Earl Grollman)

Grief changes us. It changes how we look at things and how we relate to people. Grief, armed with a fiery torch, burns compassion into our souls. In the darkest night our ego dies, and we look at things we once held as so important and wonder what we were thinking. Like Harry Potter, we all of a sudden notice that our carriage is pulled by Thestrals. We are quite sure that we are going nuts because others don’t seem to notice. Thank God for the Luna Lovegoods of this world, who remind us: “You are not mad, Harry. They can only be seen by people who’ve seen death.” Grief, this uninvited guest, it turns out is also an eye surgeon … and one day, however long it takes, the tears will slowly subside and you, my friend, will look at the world with a whole new set of eyes. Life will never be the same again – but peace, and even joy, do return like the prodigal.

The thought of my suffering and homelessness is bitter beyond words. I will never forget this awful time, as I grieve over my loss. 

Yet I still dare to hope when I remember this:

The faithful love of the Lord never ends. His mercies never cease.

Lamentations 3:19-22

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