Glimpses of Healing and Hope

January 8, 2018
By Jane Bishop Halteman

The year in review: resisting, welcoming, refueling

Congregational area groups met Sunday during formation hour after worship to renew acquaintances with others who live nearby in the church family. Pastor Janice’s sermon on what fuels hope in the new year served as a launch pad for our sharing New Year’s intentions, hopes, dreams, plans, as we wondered together where 2018 might take us as individuals and a congregation, in our city, our state, our country, and our world.

A few of us agreed that we name objectives at the start of the new year (not unlike resolutions), but most claimed not to participate in resolution-setting; several offered that they become aware at the start of a new year of finding a guiding word or re-upping exercise targets and revamping eating habits. Some, who have lived in their houses a long time, mentioned sorting and clearing as priorities, while others, who have just purchased homes in the neighborhood, said they are organizing contents they brought with them. 

As one who documents and reports, I tend to look back on activities of the last year (or in this blog post the congregation’s past year) to see how what lies behind may project ahead to the coming year. The nine photos at the top of this entry highlight Glimpses of Healing and Hope posts from the last year, some from my own life, but most with a connection to life at Kern Road. The photos depict not only the year's challenges, but some of my favorite pictures from 2017 exemplifying how nature renews and offers hope in the midst of chaos.  

I was surprised to find as I created our Christmas video greeting back in December how much of our family's activism in the last year took root in Kern Road reminders and announcements: participation in the Women’s March on Washington with my sister-in-law and a number of Kern Road women (see that story as told here and here), planting a We’re Glad You’re Our Neighbor sign in our front yard (see story here), participating in South Bend’s “No Ban No Wall Rally” (photo in KRMC women’s story mentioned above), taking the local grandkids to the Islamic Society of Michiana’s mosque open house (see story here), attending the moderated town hall on the Affordable Care Act (see mention here), joining the local Solidarity with Charlottesville event, and more recently finding opportunities to get involved in resisting the ICE detention center being considered by Elkhart County Planning Commissioners. Thanks to KRMCers Mark and Danile for keeping us updated on how to stay involved with these ongoing challenges and opportunities.

Photos of the Metro escalator at L’Enfant Plaza, Washington, DC, and the words familiarized by our Statue of Liberty brought back these memories: “We will not soon forget the women, men, and children who gathered from all across the country, who spent time and money to assemble peacefully on behalf of justice and equity for all. They marched for many reasons as illustrated by the array of signs they carried:  to stop white silence, to manage global warming, to unite against hate, to promise we will never go back, to announce love always wins, to declare themselves proud to be Muslims, to assert that our grandkids need a stable climate, to affirm that Black lives matter, to proclaim that our daughters are still watching, to acknowledge that we’re glad you’re our neighbor, to suggest we make diversity great again, to remind us that when others go low we go high.

Dishing up a serving of beauty posted in mid-September reflects on John O’Donohue’s comments: “All through your life, the most precious experiences seem to vanish. Transience turns everything to air. You look behind and see no sign even of a yesterday that was so intense. Yet in truth, nothing ever disappears, nothing is lost. Everything that happens to us in the world passes into us. It all becomes part of the inner temple of the soul and it can never be lost. This is the art of the soul: to harvest your deeper life from all the seasons of your experience…” Reminders from authors like O’Donohue keep us hopeful and alive to what's yet to come if/when the present threatens to swamp us. In the words of Pastor Janice as she prayed her congregation into the new year on Sunday: “Make us wise to your ways.” Same goes for taking note of the flowers of the field and the birds of the air... 

Death is disorienting…transitioning from this life to the next’ (featuring the bright fall colors outside my friend’s cozy living room window where I spent the nights while my dad was dying) offers a bird’s-eye view of what it was like for my mom and me to wait with my dad for his passage from this life to the next, a scenario not unlike that of a number of KRMCers who suffered loss this last year…loss of family and friends, health, relationships, jobs, dreams. One of Parker Palmer’s most recent Facebook posts speaks of the disorientation of loss: “Finding meaning in hard experience is one of the most vital challenges we face….Who hasn’t known heartbreak? There’s the child who suffers from bullying, the young adult who suffers from unrequited love, the man or woman in midlife who sees a marriage or a career fail, the elder who endures the deaths of loved ones, the citizen who sees democracy’s values under assault.” See the poem he quotes here by Gregory Orr about beauty coming from loss. 

If you are familiar with the Netflix production of The Crown, you will recognize the sense of loss portrayed in the moment when Winston Churchill announces his retirement to Queen Elizabeth and walks away from his last audience with her. Yes, doors will open, doors will close in 2018. We can only imagine the surprises the new year will bring (including the hope of 50 degrees mentioned as likely this Thursday in Sunday's nightly news after our recent cold and snow)! May we be wise to the ways of the Divine as we enter the unknowns of 2018. 

And if you need a dose of hope right now, check out Oprah’s acceptance speech of the Cecil B. de Mille award at last night's Golden Globes.  I didn’t watch, but a couple of Facebook friends suggested that I should have...

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December 18, 2017
By Jane Bishop Halteman

The lectionary readings for Advent 3, Year B, where we find ourselves now on the liturgical calendar, include verses from Isaiah 61 which speak of bestowing crowns of beauty instead of ashes, the oil of joy instead of mourning, and a garment of praise instead of a spirit of despair.

In her sermon yesterday, Pastor Janice called us to notice the joy lacing readings for the third Sunday of Advent. As she closed her sermon, she extended an invitation to come forward for anointing with the oil of joy, even in the midst of sorrow.

In recent years Kern Road has offered the opportunity during our longest night service to take time together to recognize our sadness and yearning to know the Divine's presence in the midst of pain, whether suffered recently or long ago. All are invited to join us in the sanctuary at 7 p.m. Thursday, December 21, on the longest night of the year to declare that we experience darkness in many ways, even (or perhaps especially) during our culture’s long holiday celebration encompassing Thanksgiving, Christmas, and New Year’s Day.  At this time of the year, when daylight diminishes to barely nine and one half hours, it can be difficult to imagine our lives six months from now when daylight will prevail once again for 15 to 16 hours.

Called a Blue Christmas service in some circles, the longest night observance offers space away from the constant December refrain which screams incessantly that this is the season to be jolly. For some, this Christmas may be the first year without a loved one or a job or perhaps the first year with new knowledge of a serious health issue. For many, the season becomes a particularly difficult time of balancing painful losses as others are celebrating their joy with family and friends.

As we move through the darkness of the winter solstice and begin the return to longer days and shorter nights, we pause during the longest night service to remember the dark times in our own lives and the lives of others. We will witness the lighting of our Advent wreath candles, with the first candle representing our own grief, the second our courage, the third our memories, and the fourth our love. Participants also will be offered the opportunity to light candles and plant them in sand to recognize burdens, griefs, sorrows, or whatever makes Christmas a “blue” time for themselves, others, and our world. 

Join us to proclaim that, even in our despair, the Divine promises to walk with us as we experience insecurity, grief, and isolation. We will seek solace together in this hope, with prayer, scripture reading, music, and quiet time as we look toward the dawn on the other side of the longest night. You will be invited to listen, to pray, to sing, to sit with whatever pain or anguish or loss you bring with you. May you find comfort in knowing that you are not alone, in knowing that the Divine comes to those who mourn, those who grieve, those who struggle. This service points us toward the hope that on the other side of even the darkest night, dawn will come.

Whether your heartache involves the physical loss of a loved one or the anguish of broken relationships, the insecurity of unemployment, the weariness of ill health, the pain of isolation, the aches of poverty, violence, injustice, or, in the last few years, fear for the marginalized in our country and the endless cycle of seemingly depressing news, you are invited to acknowledge with others that Christmas can be a bittersweet time for those experiencing grief and loss.  

Having lost my father six weeks ago, I take solace in these words from spirituality writer Jan Richardson: “Grief is not something that we can figure out; it’s not a problem to be solved with intellect and reasoning, or with platitudes. When we are sorrowing, when our losses have pushed us to that painful wall, the invitation is to be present, to let ourselves lean, just lean against that wall and press our ears against that wall until we can sense and hear and know something of those presences that abide, that continue, that linger on the other side—those presences that live.”

May our longest night service equip us with small tokens of comfort we might carry to others as we arm ourselves to bear the griefs and losses which come our way.  Hear these words of reassurance from Richardson, who suggests we “lean against that wall until we can hear their beating hearts—those hearts that continue to beat on the other side of that wall—that, as it turns out, might not be a wall at all; might not even be a veil. It might be something more like a threshold that we will never fully cross in this life, but across which something can still happen: a conversation, a communion.”

Richardson proclaims that “it matters that we hold the light for one another. It matters that we bear witness to the Light that holds us all, that we testify to this Light that shines its infinite love and mercy on us across oceans, across borders, across time. Who holds the light for you? In this season, who might need you to hold the light for them in acts of love and grace?”

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December 11, 2017
By Jane Bishop Halteman

 Watching, waiting, listening…our KRMC manger scene awaiting the baby against the starry night backdrop created at our hanging of the greens service

We prepared our hearts and minds for the wilderness journey of Advent yesterday as Nancy and three young boys led our waiting in the silence during the lighting of Kern Road’s second Advent candle.  More often than not found scooting around the building after formation hour in a game of hide and seek, these three (including my own grandson) sat in complete silence while we quieted ourselves in order to prepare for this season of watching, waiting, listening.

Preacher Andre described stilling ourselves as a way to bring peace and comfort into our fear, a way to slow down to make space in our lives during the season of Advent. “Watch, wait, prepare, listen are key Advent words,” he said, comparing the posture of quiet attentiveness to “letting your eyes focus in a too-dim room” in order to accommodate the change that is coming. If you haven’t trained your imagination, you might miss the change.”  

The news for which we are watching and waiting, Andre said, will be “news that makes a difference for everyone, world-changing news. Something big is about to happen.” Prepare to change your whole way of thinking because God’s new order is breaking in,” he advised.

Noting that the wilderness experience appeared in the Isaiah 40 (the grass withers and the flower fades) and Mark 1 (John the Baptist prepares the way) scriptures read prior to his message, Andre suggested that “if you want to be open to something new, you’ll likely need to travel through wilderness. It might be an inner wilderness, or an outer wilderness, disorientation where nothing makes sense anymore.”

Perhaps it will be the wilderness of illness or aging, a parent dies, a partner gets involved in an affair…all unbidden, but time to pay attention, no more business as usual, he said. And we have been involved too long in the wilderness of suicides, #metoo, harm to the earth and its creatures, police brutality, he added.

“We need to spend serious time unlearning and relearning; odds are we will find the new vision in the wilderness” rather than in structures of stained glass and padded pews. And he warned that we should not be “too quick to know what the new thing is. When we finally stop to open ourselves to the disruption of the wilderness, perhaps we will hear the words of John the Baptist saying, ‘The one who comes will baptize you with the Holy Spirit.’” 

Pastor Janice’s congregational prayer observed that “we see wilderness everywhere…in looming nuclear war, in newly stoked stresses in the Middle East, in personal violations of women and men, in the California fires.”

We wait on the world front and in our congregation with those who find themselves in distress and wilderness, even as we rejoice with those whose waiting has turned to gladness, including Josh and Becky who received word of a tentative travel date to meet their daughter in Thailand and Mabel and Dario who have finally been awarded a restaurant permit after a long period of waiting.

“Definitely God has plans for us,” Mabel said of their wait for the permit to come through, “and, like my dad (a Mennonite pastor) used to tell me, “God has God’s times, which always are different from ours.”

While waiting, we “go through many emotions: first hope/excitement, energetic to get things done quickly; then anxious, as we keep waiting and questioning ‘why’ and starting to feel depressed; then passive, a feeling of NOT being in control of the situation” just as we struggle not to lose hope, she acknowledged, adding that “I think God is teaching us to leave our burdens 100% in God’s hands.”

Elaine and I went to Lessons and Carols at Church of Our Lady of Loretto on the Saint Mary’s campus Sunday night where the sights and sounds and fragrances of Advent swirled around us…the building’s stunning interior and gentle candlelight, the soft gurgling of the baptistry nearby and beautiful choirs and congregational music with bell choir and organ, the smell of soft, melting wax followed by extinguished flames during the candle-lighting…all of which drew us into the watching, waiting, listening of the season.  

I resonated with these words from the dismissal:  “Our spirits quiver between trust and terror” as we continue on this Advent journey, each facing our own wilderness.  Can you identify your times of wilderness?  How has the Divine met you in your personal wilderness experience?  

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December 4, 2017
By Jane Bishop Halteman

Rescue open the heavens

The pastor I heard preach the Advent 1 service at my mother’s retirement community Sunday called Isaiah 64:1-9 a “rant for rescue.”  Whether the passage begins with “O that you would rip open the heavens and descend” in The Message or “Oh that you would tear open the heavens and come down” in the New Revised Standard Version, the implication of desperation is clear.

“The author of this portion of Isaiah most likely wrote these words during the time following the Israelites’ return from their exile in Babylon. Having made their way home, they were wrestling with questions of what their life, their community, their relationship with God would look like now. Isaiah 64 gives voice to their longing for a God who seems absent, even as they grapple with guilt over their own brokenness,” according to Jan Richardson’s post at The Advent Door back in 2008.

As Pastor Ray at the retirement community explained to his listeners, the people in this text are yearning for release from their exile: the opportunity to return home to a life as they had once known it, yearning to go back to the vineyards, to the relationships left behind.

A fog of despair settles over them when they realize Jerusalem has been destroyed and their own neighbors no longer want them to come home.  Isaiah speaks into this darkness, repeating the cry of the people, reminding them of their wandering in the wilderness for 40 years, reminding them that the Divine can heal the hopelessness of their lives.

“If we are honest, we will identify with the exiles,” Pastor Ray asserted.  In our darkness we cry out, too, yearning for a sense of God’s presence.  Advent, this season of hope, begins by inviting us to own our darkness, he observed. 

Richardson suggests from personal experience that “at the heart of my resistant longing for God is the knowledge that to call upon the living God, to ask the Creator to tear open and rip into my universe, means giving myself to the prospect, the surety, that God will draw me out to places from which I can never return....I cannot control the direction this will go.”

A somewhat scary proposition, then, “this business of asking God to come close, to tear through the separateness in order to reach us: that’s not how it really works, of course. The tearing doesn’t go in that direction, as if God needed to punch a hole in some far-off heaven in order to come down to us. The incarnation, which we anticipate and celebrate in this season, reminds us that God is ever present, immanent, closer than our breathing.”

Richardson aptly calls our attention to  English mystic Julian of Norwich, who said, “Betwixt us and God, there is no between.” And further, Richardson offers, “If God pervades all creation, pervades us, then the barrier that needs to be torn away isn’t outside us; it’s within. In our own interior universe, in the cosmos we carry inside us, God lives, moves, breathes. What do we need to tear away, to tear through, to tear down, in order to receive this? What do we balk at tearing because we think it is too precious to us or because we fear to lose control over the direction it will go?”

The retirement community service closed with communion yesterday, as the pastor served bread and wine as symbols that the darkness will not always reign.  “We gather to celebrate that the darkness will not put out the light.”

What does your personal darkness look like this Advent season?  In response to your rant for rescue, imagine the Divine penetrating your darkness and welcoming home the parts of yourself that live in exile.  Make it an Advent practice this year to claim the light that overcomes your personal darkness.

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November 27, 2017
By Jane Bishop Halteman

Gratitude board…thankful for family and friends and food and warm houses and the glories of nature and so much more!

A proliferation of gratitude stories is lighting up the internet this Thanksgiving season with news that gratitude is beneficial to your health.

The University of California San Diego’s School of Medicine has discovered that more grateful people enjoy better health than less grateful folks—specifically less inflammation and healthier heart rhythms, according to Sacred Science writer Nick Polizzi who quotes the study’s author, Paul J. Mills:  The grateful people revealed “a better well-being, a less depressed mood, less fatigue, and they slept better. We found that those patients who kept gratitude journals for eight weeks showed reductions in circulating levels of several important inflammatory biomarkers, as well as an increase in heart rate variability while they wrote. Improved heart rate variability is considered a measure of reduced cardiac risk.”

Author Polizzi suggests that it is “almost impossible to be upset and grateful at the same time,” adding that “being thankful flips a switch inside of you that clears out any negative feelings you were experiencing a few moments before.”

Polizzi offers “three easy ways to bring more gratitude into your life” including offering thanks for each new day, breathing a daily gratitude prayer one meal a day, and keeping track for the next 10 days of one thing for which you are grateful.

And he has compiled a list of potential gratitude “inspiration” ideas as you ponder those things for which you are grateful…consider what you like about yourself, what you are learning from challenges, your favorite people, the good things about your job or your location, what you are looking forward to, the state of today’s sky. Certainly there is no end to the things for which one might muster up gratitude, even at the close of a year which may have seemed more trying for many Americans than usual.

A USA Today article advises that feeling gratitude, keeping track of why you are grateful, seeking out things for which to be grateful even in difficult times, and expressing gratitude to one another are sure-fire ways to develop “appreciation for what is valuable and meaningful in life.”

The article cites Shilagh Mirgain, a health psychologist with University of Wisconsin Health, as saying, “Research suggests that individuals who feel grateful experience lower blood pressure, improved immune functions, recover more quickly from illness, and can more effectively cope with stress.”

And “a sense of gratitude can reduce the lifetime risk for depression, anxiety, and even substance abuse disorders,” according to the article, which reports that “gratitude has one of the strongest links to mental health, more so than even optimism.”

This Los Angeles Times story details “10 reasons why it’s beneficial to cultivate an attitude of gratitude” that extends beyond Thanksgiving: gratitude empowers you, helps fight addiction, combats the Facebook blues, boosts self-control, helps you sleep better, fosters a sense of community, aids in fending off depression, facilitates your becoming a better spouse, makes you an improved boss/manager, increases life satisfaction for kids.

Joan Chittister in The Breath of the Soul: Reflections on Prayer says that “Gratitude is not only the posture of praise but it is also the basic element of real belief in God. When we bow our heads in gratitude, we acknowledge that the works of God are good. We recognize that we cannot, of ourselves, save ourselves. We proclaim that our existence and all its goods come not from our own devices but are part of the works of God. Gratitude is the alleluia to existence, the praise that thunders through the universe as tribute to the ongoing presence of God with us even now.”

Chittister speaks of “coming to prayer with an alleluia heart.”  Her gratitude prayer goes like this:
“Thank you for the new day.
Thank you for this work.
Thank you for this family.
Thank you for our daily bread.
Thank you for this storm and the moisture it brings to a parched earth.
Thank you for the corrections that bring me to growth.
Thank you for the bank of crown vetch that brings color to the hillside.
Thank you for pets that bind us to nature.
Thank you for the necessities that keep me aware of your bounty in my life.”

How are you expressing gratitude to the Divine and those around you? 

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November 20, 2017
By Jane Bishop Halteman

Soaring with music to the dizzying heights of St. Monica’s vaulted ceilings

A good friend from Kern Road offered to take me to Vesper Chorale’s performance of Brahms’ Requiem, perceiving that it might play a role in my navigating the grief journey of losing a parent.

The chorale, which rehearses at Kern Road Mennonite Church, is conducted by KRMCer Wishart, and for this past weekend’s concert included Kern Road singers Mary, Brenda, Vic, and Nevin, among other personal friends and acquaintances from the surrounding area.  I had no trouble imagining losing myself in this performance, to be staged in the beautiful St. Monica Catholic Church, Mishawaka. For this opening concert of the chorale’s 25th anniversary season, KRMCer Murray played tympani, and many others who identify with the congregation were among appreciative listeners.

Having sung the requiem twice more than 20 years ago, I was already acquainted with the music’s soaring, surging power and both the English and German words, but I became particularly attracted to the possibility of basking in the piece as part of the journey of loss after reading Rhonda Miska’s post, Grieving with Brahms’ Requiem, at the U.S. Catholic website in preparation for the concert. 

“After a death we often struggle to integrate the reality that our loved one is gone and yet somehow mysteriously not totally gone. I had been with my grandmother when the veil was thin, during her final hours when it felt as though my role was to be a midwife for her departure from this world. After being at that precipice, in that intensely powerful space between life and death, being back in the world of making hotel reservations for the funeral, organizing photographs for the wake, and tracking down the email addresses of second cousins was disorienting,” Miska wrote.

Following her grandmother’s death, she said, “I craved a lodestar to orient myself amid the waves of grief, a channel for my prayers I couldn’t begin to put into words. I wondered how to do this—for my grandmother, for my family, for God, for myself. Beyond the many practical logistics that come with a death in the family, how was I to chart the way?....I found an answer to my questions and to my wordless prayers in 19th-century composer Johannes Brahms’ Ein deutsches Requiem (A German Requiem)—a great work of art that became a trusted roadmap as I traversed the grief at the passing of our family matriarch.”

According to conductor Wishart’s program notes, “No one is quite certain why Brahms undertook to compose a requiem in his own language to a libretto that he assembled himself from Luther’s translation of scripture.  His sorrow over the death of his mother in 1865 as well as his continuing grief over Schumann’s untimely death nine years earlier certainly impacted this decision.”

And, the conductor continued, “Uncertainty also surrounds his motivation for the theme and choice of lyrics.  Why quote so much scripture when his belief system no longer supported it?  We know from his comments that he hoped to write a requiem for the living—to imbue the music with comfort for the sorrowing.” Unlike a typical mass for the dead in Catholic liturgy, this requiem offers consolation to the mourners, in the words of author James R. Oestreich in a New York Times article posted in May 2017: “Rather than dwelling on the judgment of the deceased, (Brahms) seemed intent on consoling those left behind.” Oestreich adds that the piece “has become something of an anthem for our time, with grand social and political reverberations” about which you can read more at this link

I enjoyed learning more about the requiem at this Harrisburg Symphony Blog post, which includes details about each movement (and a no-longer-available recording of a performance of the requiem at the Vienna Musikverein). In his introduction to the work prior to its performance, conductor Wishart suggested that one way to experience the music might be “to close your eyes and let the music wash over you. The more often you hear it, the more meaningful the music becomes,” he added, noting that features many renditions.   

“What good art can do for us is offer a container for universal human experiences—like grief—which are at once common and deeply personal. While the many tiny particularities of our departed loved ones—the precise way he laughed, the specific way she brewed her coffee or folded the laundry—are what we most remember and miss, the grief journey is common and fundamental to our existence. Artists like Brahms extend an enduring hand across space and time to accompany us and offer the consolation that while our particular loss is unique, the human experience of grief is shared,” Miska concluded in her article on grieving with the requiem.

In Singing, A Mennonite Voice, authors Marlene Kropf and Kenneth Nafziger propose the theory that “music gives us (Mennonites) a faith with flesh and blood and breath and ushers us into realms of glory and grace.” They are speaking of congregational singing when they say, “We will know that the Lord is still our Shepherd because our songs will set the truth quivering in our bodies, minds, and souls.  Singing will bring us into the presence of the Shepherd who leads into green pastures and beside still waters to the eternal feast of God’s presence.” For a similar reason, I suggest listening to Brahms bursting in air (quote from the conductor’s introductory comments) offers solace to the grieving soul.

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November 13, 2017
By Jane Bishop Halteman


Transitioning from this life to the next

Pastor Janice spoke two Sundays ago, as we observed All Saints Day at Kern Road, of the recent loss of her aunt. In the last year of walking with her father’s sister before her death, Janice said she saw her aunt give up possessions and her apartment, her strength and independence. 

Whether our sorrow at the loss of loved ones manifests as “crying, weeping, wailing, silence, pondering, wondering,” Janice suggested “our grief means that our love is strong, not that we don’t trust God.” Of those who have gone before us, she said, “We honor them because we love them, we miss them; ordinary things become extraordinary because they remind us of those we love…smells, sights, sounds we shared.”

Though my 96-year-old father had fractured his hip a week earlier in a fall, I could not have known that I would be looking back on Janice’s words of wisdom so soon, as I left church after that All Saints worship service for the drive to eastern PA. Daddy had eaten a hearty meal of pureed food soon after surgery that morning to repair his hip, according to my mother and brother who visited him, but, by the following day when I arrived, my dad did not recognize any of us. 

I had not waited with a loved one seemingly in the act of dying since I was 12 years old, when my great grandfather passed away at his home on the fainting couch as my mom and I and my six-year-old brother visited. This time I waited again with my mom, who carried on with grace, caressing the forehead of her partner of 72 years while the room filled and emptied as med techs from my mother and father’s personal care apartment, a long-time friend of mine, some of my parents’ church friends, women who lovingly serve meals in the personal care dining room, nursing and hospice staff floated in and out to the tune of Daddy’s slightly labored breathing and a CD of old hymns playing quietly on a boom box in the background. 

Mom and I wondered, quietly to ourselves and aloud to my dad, who would greet him on the other side of this transition…might it be his son Greg, who died 43 years ago, or his parents, or some of his father’s large family of aunts and uncles and cousins who would welcome him at the close of his nearly 97 years here on earth?  Whatever one believes about the past, present, or future, these passages are difficult, perhaps most difficult for those who do not easily imagine a life after this one, where the joys of reuniting with family and friends suggest memories of failing bodies, failing minds, and the general absurdities of life could melt away.

“Death is disorienting,” a good friend texted, and so it was, in a new way each time we passed another milestone: upon first learning Daddy had broken his right hip, realizing he likely had had a stroke after surgery, discovering he no longer recognized us, watching him begin hospice, seeing him propped up in the sunshine in a wheel chair, being there as he took his last breath (which we recognized as his last breath only because another never came), IDing him for the undertaker, seeing his obit at the funeral home’s website, viewing a photo of the newspaper death notice.

My two brothers and I are grateful for cousins who helped transport our mother to the hospital to see our father in our absence the week after his fall; for medical personnel who took care of our father and supported us in our exploration of what to do next; for social workers from inside and outside our family who helped us comprehend hospice and when to begin using it; for retirement community caregivers, other staff, administrators, residents who lovingly inquired about our parents and lifted us up in the midst of a difficult time; for the hospice nurse who visited on Sunday to pray with my mom and my dad and me; for the gift of pre-paid funeral arrangements made nearly two years ago and the minimal funeral home follow-up necessary in the moment of loss; for local PA friends who made visits to our mother on occasion, some with flowers and another with a Ten Thousand Villages “strength” stone.

And what helped us carry on in the short run? Chuckling together with family and friends and caregivers, not only at Daddy’s foibles but at all the ways he made us laugh, brought comfort. Debriefing nightly and eating ground cherry pie with the local friend who housed me was invaluable. As the one of my dad’s three children most likely to post on social media photos and shout-outs for accompaniment on the journey of waiting together, I took consolation from my Facebook friends, including a high school classmate who reminded me of Daddy’s living on through his children, grandchildren, and great grandchildren. I loved the many-colored heart emoticons and expressions of caring left by friends and family and acquaintances.

A friend from Jim’s earliest days of teaching college in Upland, IN, wrote:  “Oddly, it seems to me, one of my favorite memories was being with my father when he passed. I hope you will have the same experience. Our love to you and your family during this difficult time.” Countless family and friends wished us peace and blessing, love and prayers, light and strength, grace, hugs, and the comfort of memories.  One shared that he was leaning my way, another that she was crying with us, yet another said, “May God hold you all in your grief and breathe comfort and joy over you.” I am grateful for each and every sentiment that came our way.   

My mother’s youngest sister fondly recalled via email the pastel pink, blue, yellow, and green glass tea set my dad gave her when she was a child.  My uncle happily agreed to share at an early December service a tribute to my father, with whom he worked as a research chemist in the early years of their professional lives. 

When I arrived back home, the KRMC senior breakfast folks offered a warm space Thursday morning to share semi-publicly for the first time about my dad’s death, more KRMCers spoke condolences and came along side on the journey of loss Sunday morning, some with heartfelt hugs and tears in their eyes. Another invited me next weekend to hear a performance of Brahms’ Requiem, a wonderful piece I have sung several times but never in the midst of personal loss.  It opens with these words,  “Blessed are those who mourn.” 

The Open Fifths and Notable Women provided solace through their Saturday night concert at Goshen College, where songs like Abide with Me (which I already had chosen to be included at my dad's memorial service), along with Wanting Memories, Will the Circle Be Unbroken, and Angel Band opened the floodgates and spoke to my personal grief in myriad ways. 

How we confront crisis and find comfort will look different for each of us…combing through old photos, writing, listening to good music, and connecting with family and friends console me. How have you accompanied others on the grief journey?  How would you want to be accompanied?

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October 30, 2017
By Jane Bishop Halteman 

Lighting candles for those we have loved and lost...

Last year’s blog post for All Saints’  Day began like this: “How do you keep alive the memory of those lost to you, sometimes much too soon, sometimes after long, meaningful connections?  When do you take time to recall those who have gone before you…perhaps on their birthdays or the days of their deaths?  All Saints’ Day, observed on November 1 on the liturgical calendar of the church year, offers another occasion to reminisce about family and friends we have loved and lost.”

Twelve more months have passed; new input from my favorite spirituality writers and my own experiences add robust material to a burgeoning file on All Saints’ Day and coming to terms with new ways of interacting with those we have loved and lost. I am intrigued by the questions Jan Richardson raised in her keynote address at the Leadership Conference of Women Religious in Orlando this past August.  “When absence erupts in our lives, how do we call upon the presence of love that goes deeper than our loss? How do we open ourselves anew to the presence that endures far, far beyond death?”

Speaking of the recent loss of her husband of several years, Richardson explained to her listeners, “I will tell you there have been nights when the only prayer I could muster has been to simply listen to the beating of the heart inside me and to trust that Gary’s heart was in mine and mine was still in his, and that both our hearts are held in the heart of God, who encompasses us, and holds us, and is present to us in a love beyond imagining.”

Richardson went on to make this fascinating observation: “The mystery in all this is that when our hearts break, they can become bigger.  If we can stay with the sorrow and, more important, if we can stay with the love that goes deeper even than the sorrow, that is more fierce than our fiercest grief, our hearts become more open than we ever imagined they could.”

Claiming in no way to understand her meaning completely, I remain awash in memories of a few weeks back, memories of two young men long gone from this physical world who resurfaced unexpectedly in new ways this month. Just days before observing the 43rd anniversary of the death of my 18-year-old brother on October 15, his best friend from high school sent me a series of journal entries made during their senior year. Shedding light on my brother's jams with his band in my parents' basement followed by my mom's lasagne for supper, summer double dates, Dairy Queen runs, college farewells, and finally the pain of my brother's death and memorial service, the notes gave me a window into the life of the brother I did not get to know during his growing up years from eight to 18 while I was off to college, getting married, and occupied as a young reporter and eventually with our first child.

On the heels of reading those intriguing journal entries, I discovered more good news from another friend, the younger brother of my boyfriend who died just after I turned 16 the summer following our sophomore year of high school; my friend had just learned from their sister that their long-deceased brother planted a tiny weeping willow not long before his death. Seeing that flourishing tree these 55 years later was both astounding and grounding.  Who might have imagined that more about this one, who left us so long ago, could be unearthed even yet?

It is my hope that all who suffer losses would find ways to be in touch with those they have loved and lost. My spiritual director’s comment when I shared these stories gives me continued hope: It’s almost like these two souls are aware of your openness to continue to experience them in a variety of ways.” Another pastor friend commented: these stories remind me of the need to honor the dead and be open to what they bring to life.” I understand that these experiences are not something everyone seeks; neither will science validate or verify such occurrences. And events like these do not become available at our beck and call; we do well to notice them when they cross our paths. I find them sustaining.

Richardson’s sharing with leaders of congregations of Catholic women religious in the United States further noted that grief is not something that we can figure out; it’s not a problem to be solved with intellect and reasoning, or with platitudes. When we are sorrowing, when our losses have pushed us to that painful wall, the invitation is to be present, to let ourselves lean, just lean against that wall and press our ears against that wall until we can sense and hear and know something of those presences that abide, that continue, that linger on the other side—those presences that live. To lean against that wall until we can hear their beating hearts—those hearts that continue to beat on the other side of that wall—that, as it turns out, might not be a wall at all; might not even be a veil. It might be something more like a threshold that we will never fully cross in this life, but across which something can still happen: a conversation, a communion.

Here’s another good word from Joan Chittister about All Saints Day: This feast was introduced to show us the kind of people we ought to be imitating if we ourselves wanted to live life well. Death did not silence them. Who are your saints now? Who are the people you look back on with respect and awe? Live in a way that the memory of you lives on in the people left behind.

May you find thresholds of conversation and communion with lost loved ones during this season of All Saints’ Day observance and beyond as you seek what those now gone continue to bring to life and as you live in a way that others will remember well when you are gone. 

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