Tuesday, January 26, 2016

More than a year since they're gone

It has been more than a year since our fathers died. The other day when I was in town I met a friend who said final goodbyes to both of her parents within a couple of weeks last year. This has been her first holiday season without them. Talking together in the back of the local store was healing for me, as much as it can be. I guess I don’t really know what healing is or what it should look like.

We talked about the things we tell ourselves and the things people tell us. Sentences that start out with “at least…” or “we can be glad…” are sentences we have heard, and sometimes used ourselves. They are expressions of trying to find blessing in our grief, and they are true. We did not want our parents to suffer longer. We did not wish for them to linger in a state of confusion or pain or disability that diminished their ability to enjoy their lives. Those things are true.

But those things are also beside the point.

We miss them.

We miss the conversations we wanted to have with them, and we wish for their companionship...not their confusion or their pain or their limitations from being older, but we wish for them at their best. We miss their essence, the goodness of their humor, the quiet sense of having parents who had been there for us and would still be there for us. We miss being children, in a sense.

I told my friend that even though it is true that I did not want for my dad to live longer with cancer and the other health issues that made life impossible, that does not change that I wish I still had a dad to talk to and joke with and hang out with. I wish I had my daddy back.

But the year has gone by and the sharpness of that longing has eased. It is confusing now, because there is a sense that I should hold on to it. Losing the pain also seems like a loss. I don’t really want to stop missing our dads. Crazy, isn’t it? Letting go of it somehow makes the reality of our dads' lives seem less. Is that possible? Now that I don’t cry often anymore, does that mean something?

I’m holding on to eternity, I think. I want the significance of our dad’s lives to last. I want the memory of them to last. But even I know that is impossible. Someday they, and I, will be part of that host of those who lived before. So many people.

Recently I enjoyed a concert of music written by J. Harold Moyer. He was the father of my sister-in-law, and was one of my profs at Bethel College. His name will be in hymnbooks for a very long time, but the singers won’t know his smile or quiet dry humor. It doesn’t matter. His contribution will stand, and so will the contributions of all who have gone before.

Wanting loved ones to be remembered is normal, a manifestation of wanting our own lives to have made a difference in the world somehow. But it is also impossible. Future generations must live their own lives, love the persons who fill them, make their own differences, rather than be encumbered with keeping alive the memories of all who have lived before them. Carrie Newcomer has a phrase in a song that I often ponder, “the curious promise of limited time”. Our time is limited. And that is good. It is also good that I don’t have to keep in my mind and heart every single person who has gone before me. And it is good that there are people I have loved who will always be in my heart and mind.

We carry our loved ones with us and they become part of who we are, and that is passed on to those who know us whether they have memories of those loved ones or not. Maybe Dad’s jokes will be retold by people who have no idea where they got them. Maybe Edwin's love for music will be passed on to people who have no idea who Edwin ever was. Maybe both of their values will be held by people who would never have had an opportunity to meet them. And maybe they got those jokes and that music and those values from the nameless people in their pasts as well.

I’m guessing that this is just another normal step along the way. 

Friday, January 01, 2016


Matthew 3:1-12 was one of the advent readings in the devotional book I'm using. This is the story of John the Baptist and his ministry before Jesus came to him for baptism. When I read it this year several things caught my attention.

John's main message was repentance in preparation for coming judgement.

Separating wheat from chaff is one of the ways John describes judgement.

John also uses the imagery of unquenchable fire.

The last two verses read like this:
"I baptize you with water for repentance, but one who is more powerful than I is coming after me; I am not worthy to carry his sandals. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire. His winnowing fork is in his hand, and he will clear his threshing floor and will gather his wheat into the granary; but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire."

On first reading, I saw the separating of wheat from chaff as analogous to separating good people from bad. I know that image is in other places in scripture, and it is even in the verses right before these ones I quoted. I fight with that image of some being good and others being bad, and with the idea that God is eager to throw the bad into an unquenchable fire. That sense of eagerness to get rid of bad people is abhorrent to me, perhaps because I've been forced to see my own failures. I don't want God to be eager to send me into that fire. 

As I pondered the wheat and chaff and the winnowing and the fire, I began to see this passage as one of mercy and hope more than a passage of condemnation.

I have a vase of cut wheat decorating my home. The wheat still looks the same as it did in the field. It is beautiful, but cannot be planted or used for food in its current form. It must be threshed, the chaff disposed of, and the wheat gathered.

Every kernel on every stalk is surrounded by chaff. The wheat is the essential wholesome part, the part that holds life and hope and promise. Only as the chaff falls away does the life and hope and promise find expression. 

Even though I collected this wheat years ago, none of the chaff has fallen off the wheat on its own. Without some process of separation, the wheat remains in the chaff.

Like the wheat, each of us is a creation of God with the potential for life and growth and nourishment. The wheat is our essence, our truest self, which is hidden by chaff. Like wheat, we must be freed from chaff in order to be gathered to be used for planting or for food. John says that the one who comes after him will gather his wheat into the barn, and the chaff he will burn.

I chose this single head of wheat to see what it would take to separate the chaff from the wheat. Rubbing it gently between my hands caused the head to release all of the chaff and grain. Most of the grain was now freed of chaff, and I pulled it away to one side. Then I sorted through the chaff, pressing each hull to see if it was empty. Some still held on to grain and I used more force, even prying some chaff off with my fingernails.  Now I had an empty stalk, a pile of loose chaff, and twenty-eight grains of wheat.

Chaff may symbolize many things. Chaff is whatever clings to us and keeps us from being life and hope and nourishment to the world. So many things can do that. 

Certainly our ability to be or do wrong is one of them.  Things as small as unwarranted harshness to things as great as racism all hinder the hope and promise of the grain. 

Then there are the hurts we carry. Some of us carry the pain and anxiety we live with as a result of traumas we've lived through. 

We may have addictions which have become more entrenched from being shrouded in shame. 

We have attitudes and biases we don't even recognize. 

All of this and more is the chaff, from which we desire release. None of us wants to continue to be bound by these things. We want to be free and whole.  John says the one who comes after him will release us from the chaff and gather us into the granary.

There is still more imagery that I wonder about.

When looking at the beauty of a ripe wheat field it is the chaff that draws my eyes. The vase of wheat is much more beautiful than a bowl full of grain. The chaff has a vital role in protecting the grain while it forms and matures. Is there any lesson here? Is there chaff in our lives that once served an essential purpose but now must be left behind?

Most of the chaff on my stalk of wheat fell away easily but some required firm pressure and persistent agitation to loosen it. So with my life some things seem relatively easy to change while others stubbornly cling.

The wheat does not choose the time of the threshing. 

Sometimes our threshing is hard. Maybe we are unaware of what needs to be released, or maybe we are too ashamed, or maybe unwilling. We can deny that we have chaff, pretend we have things together, fear letting people in to the truth that we do have messes in our lives. We can hide that truth even from ourselves.

It isn't coincidental that John preached repentance, or that the people who came to be baptized also offered confession. The more we hide our failures, the more powerful and devastating they become. Truth telling and turning away from our chaff toward God is essential in freeing the life and hope that God has placed within us.

The wheat is not threshed grain by grain, but together. The threshing stone rolls over all of it.  So often as one person is honest about the parts of their lives that feel most lonely or vulnerable, others hear themselves in the story. The wholeness can be found as we discover we are not alone. As we are released from our chaff, it also releases others from theirs. There is a relief in being understood, in knowing that others carry hurt too, that healing is found in working through it together. Maybe confession is less about shame and sin and more about truth telling and wholeness. Because it is the truth that sets us free, isn't it?

Won't it be grand to be released from those things, released as completely as the wheat is freed from chaff that has been burned in unquenchable fire!