Dying a “Good” Death…

As a hospice chaplain, I’m privileged to encounter people from all walks of life with varying faith backgrounds. You might think, like I once did, that people who are very near death behave at their very worst. Nothing could be more false.

Death is the Great Equalizer. Each of us must die, but my experience as a hospice chaplain reveals the key difference in whether or not we die a “good” death.

When I insist that I’m here to help patients “die a good death,” I get a lot of strange looks, or people step back a bit, as if I’m crazy, or have a contagious disease.

What I mean by “dying a good death” is this: we must be as well prepared for death, in life, as we are well prepared to live our lives. We must discuss our preferences and wishes with trusted loved ones, write them down, then secure the necessary legal documents and signatures to ensure that those wishes and instructions can be fulfilled.

Our society denies death. Everywhere we look, we’re challenged to beat aging, extend our lives with some new fad diet, gadget, trend or philosophy. We lock our elderly and the infirm away where we can’t see them, so we don’t have to witness the body’s natural processes of aging and dying. And as a result, we have forgotten how to “die well.”

We have no idea when or how our lives will end. I see a great deal of sadness, conflict, anger and frustration when a person who dies has not made their last wishes or funeral preferences known. It can be a difficult burden for survivors to make end-of-life decisions on behalf of another person. Conversely, it’s a deep comfort to follow the wishes of the departed person because they took the time to plan and write them down.

My advice to you, and to your loved ones is simple:

1) Reconcile with loved ones. The pain of separation is, in my opinion and experience, the greatest and deepest wound we can inflict on one another. Forget the past, make a new start, forgive those who’ve hurt you, and recognize you’ve probably hurt them, so forgive yourself. Tell the people you love that how much you value, cherish and love them. Write them a letter if that’s easier, but forgive, forget and re-connect. Life’s too short to spend it in anger and isolation.

2) Name an Executor. Identify one or two in your life’s sphere whom you trust implicitly, and name them as Executor(s) with their permission. Write this down, sign and date it, and obtain the executor’s signature also. Store in a safe deposit box, and give a copy of the key to your executor, along with a copy of this document.

3) Make Your End-of-Life Decisions. Write down your end-of-life preferences on a piece of paper, sign it and date it. Better yet, find a trusted attorney and draw up a Will, Power of Attorney and Power of Healthcare Attorney. You don’t have to spend a lot of money on these documents, but you do need them. You should keep the documents in a safe deposit box, and alert your executor(s) where they may be found if you die. Discuss your preferences with someone close to you who will respect and carry out your wishes, and this includes whether or not you’d wish to be placed on life support. If you prefer not to be resuscitated, or “worked on” when your heart stops beating, sign a Do Not Resuscitate order (DNR) and tell your family/friends where they can find it. If you become critically ill, xerox the DNR and keep it readily available, in case an ambulance is called to your home, or in case you are hospitalized. Medical and emergency professionals are usually required by law to resuscitate you unless a signed DNR is present. Keep xerox copies of your legal documents at home, in case of an emergency.

4) Burial, Cremation, or Donation? Spend an hour reflecting about whether you’d prefer burial, cremation or donation of your body when you die. Your choices should be specified in the documents listed above, whether they are handwritten, typed or prepared by an attorney. If you’re an organ donor, make sure everyone close to you is aware of this, and if you are on home health or hospice care, alert these professionals as well.

5) Plan Your Funeral. Think about and write down the details for your funeral or memorial service: will the setting be a church, funeral home, a park, etc.? Will there be music, and if so, name the selections you wish to be played. Decide who will conduct the service, and select several readings to be read. These might include favorite poems, Scripture, humor, etc. Will there be flowers, or donations to a charity/organization in lieu of flowers? Determine a burial site, or if you opt to be cremated, name the site where you’d like your ashes to be cast. Make sure to specify in your Will what funds are to be used for your funeral/memorial, as well as any celebrations afterward, and who is to be “in charge.”

6) Give Away Your Stuff. Make a list of the people in your life who mean the most to you, and write down the property or personal belongings you’d like each to receive after your death. Some terminally ill people give away their most precious possessions before they die, as a meaningful way to create a new memory attached to the possession. Even the simplest trinket can become a treasured legacy of the person who has crossed over.

7)  Don’t avoid “death talk.” Death isn’t contagious, and talking about death isn’t disrespectful, either. Everyone dies, and every person has a choice about how “good” his/her death can be, as far as we can control it.  Will your death be chaotic, full of conflict and resentment? Or will your death be a “good death” that truly celebrates your unique personality, your preferences and the span of your life?

This new year spend a few moments planning for your “good” death. There are many online tools to assist you in this process, from creating a simple will to how to plan your own funeral. Dying a “good” death can be one of the best gifts you give to your loved ones, because they will know, and can carry out, your wishes.

Peace to all here.

Silent Speech

Glastonbury Abbey Meadow, UK. Copyright 2014 ML Weber

All my life, I’ve been quite the chat artist. Frequent corner-standing due to non-stop kindergarten eloquence led to report card notes (“Good student, talks too much”), followed by trips to the principal’s office after using the high school newspaper to broadcast my blunt opinions. I’m no stranger to conflict as a result of my penchant to speak out. In fairness to myself, at the age of 5, I became the proud owner of a Chatty Cathy doll, and so my fantasies have always run more to emulating Chatty Cathy’s verbal talents than Barbie’s 20″ waist.

I’m the subject of frequent eye-rolls as the first to offer my take on any discussion topic or share a relevant experience. I can’t help myself…or maybe it’s that I don’t want to. In any case, my mom’s wise words from childhood still ring true: “Your mouth will get you into trouble.”

Mom, unfortunately, has been right more times than I can count, and you’d think I’d learn to put a plug in it. At last, a combination of middle-age, the practice of centering prayer, and the intense pursuit of learning to listen like a pastor has taught me the need to keep my mouth shut on most critical occasions. I’ve seen the fruits of listening and being present, instead of trying to fix others with what I think they need. Because in truth, they only need, and want, me to listen.

In divinity school, my over-anxious verbal expressiveness often made me a living example of how personal humility serves as the cornerstone for effective pastoral ministry. Humble yourself, shut up, and you might learn something. You might also discern what God is trying to tell you. Truth be told (and I’m compelled to tell it), I’ve been fairly proud of myself for learning humility and shut-up-ness as well as I could expect to, given my Über-Talker genetic makeup and lifelong expertise (my dad received the same “Good student, talks too much” notes in school…apples & trees…).

But too often in my experience, cultivating the difficult habit of humility translates into harsh cautions to tone down my Type A personality traits. Don’t run over your future parishioners, professors advise. Who do you think you are, to impose your sense of organization to this task? Who made you Boss? I heard that a lot during my CPE experience: Clinical Pastoral Education, as a chaplain at Nashville’s VA Hospital. CPE revealed my constant daily entrenchment in Type A behaviors, which was a good thing, but as a result–being the excellent Type A that I am–I took it too far. Now, whenever those Type A tendencies threaten, I respond like Pavlov’s Dog to eliminate them, without considering how they might actually benefit a situation.  I’ve become a nervous observer, leery of acting in a way that betrays Type A arrogance or inflicts pain on someone I’m supposed to help.

That is, until last Monday, when I met with my new spiritual director, who pulled the rug out from under my revised Subdued Self with shocking fervor and unanticipated delight. When I explained to her that I’m a “Recovering Type A,” she stopped me, mid-stream. “God made you a Type A,” she said calmly. “There’s a reason for that, and while we never want to dominate others, those Type A gifts are needed in ministry. In your ministry. If you fail to be who God created you to be, then you’re not being authentic. Which is what you told me you set out to do in the first place: to answer God’s call, and be authentic to the Gospel.”

Ouch. You really can’t bullshit a spiritual director, or at least not this one. She hears everything I say. She listens. And she holds me accountable, but with compassion and understanding. My spiritual director is a living example of how Type A traits can coexist peacefully with humility: it’s possible to be organized, efficient and task-oriented, as long as you leave some space for unexpected God moments, and remain open to the ideas of others. Because I see in my spiritual director my own potential to live as a Humble Type A, I listen to her. Attentively.

And this month’s homework, she told me, is to Listen. Listen for how God speaks to me, every day. Listen to God’s silent speech, so that I might discern God’s will. So that I then might be equipped to help God’s people. Listen, and know that when I listen to others, I’m giving them an important message: I affirm you. I hear you. You matter. We are both God’s beloved children. “You’re looking for tangible results, to cross off something from your To-Do list,” my Spiritual Director said. “But listening is productivity, in spiritual life. Turn away from what the world defines as productivity, and embrace God’s silent speech.”

Listening isn’t new under the sun, especially after all the “Shut-Up” talk of divinity school and CPE. But by framing my assignment to listen in a beautiful way that doesn’t negate my Type A potential, for once, my spiritual director reinvigorated my capacity to learn, and more importantly, to make use of the gifts and talents God has given to me. Listening doesn’t mean I have to be something that I’m not.

“Be still then, and know that I am God,” says Psalm 46:10. Duh. It’s right there, isn’t it?

I wonder if that psalmist received notes: “Good poet, talks too much.”

Listening intently until next time,

Monica

 

 

Harley Hawgs or BBQ: Both Feed My Soul

 

Apart from a couple of teenage turns on a Yamaha 60cc around the pastures of my great uncle’s Oklahoma wheat farm, no one would ever mistake me for a “Biker Chick.”  I’ve always admired shiny motorcycles, however, particularly those infamous Indians, and admired the bikers who answer the call of the lonesome road, especially the ones who ride to raise money for a good cause. Such is one reason I found myself surrounded by bikers, lots of pink wristbands and leather, and BBQ yesterday, as I attended the annual Cancer Sucks picnic in my hometown.

This picnic, started by a handful of volunteers to honor cancer survivors and victims of this godawful disease, brings together people of all ages who are passionate about helping the local chapter of Gilda’s Club. Bikers embark on a scenic tour of our county for a couple of hours, then return to a lakeside park for a blessing, live music, BBQ, and door prizes including fake Willie Nelson braids (which I coveted, but alas, did not win). A close friend who survived cancer invited me to attend, and I accepted, intrigued by the opportunity to kick cancer’s ass in her honor, while hoping to greet and thank some bikers with generous hearts in the process. And the promise of BBQ didn’t hurt, either.

In fact, I’ve discovered, already in my pastoring career, that pastors get fed. A lot. I’ve had to get myself back to the gym as a result of all this feeding. I need to huddle with some older, wiser clergy-type pals to learn the tricks of the trade, with respect to polite refusals of parishioner hospitality that serves up banana pudding, warm gingerbread and delicious Southern meat-and-three home-cookin’ with a vengeance that won’t take no for an answer. But gathering around food is a significant aspect of human celebration and theological discussion, so who am I to judge, let alone miss out on fudge pie?

Here’s another surprising discovery I’ve made: pastoring is very lonely work, and that’s another reason I accepted my friend’s invitation to the Cancer Sucks picnic: I needed to be around some fun that wasn’t related to church. If you question whether a picnic for cancer survivors is fun, you’re an idiot: there is no more genuine sense of celebration, sincerity, friendliness and kindness than a cancer survivor event. It was my privilege and blessing to attend a party where, though I knew only one person upon arriving, I counted over two dozen new friends as I left. All was truly well with my soul, which has been desperately lonely, of late.

Despite being “in community” with parishioners day in, day out, pastors often find themselves stranded on an island of one, surrounded by a sea of friends and acquaintances who keep a safe distance from that clerical collar…at least, until there’s a crisis. Some invite us to and include us in the festivities, only to hold us at arm’s length, fearful we might judge what they say or do against a rigid, Victorian morality that few, including pastors, could attain. Or we’re not invited to the fun at all, for the same reason. Pastors are imagined to be at-the-ready, always-on-duty, held up as perfect specimens of God’s holy army. Not. I’m still the fun, sarcastic, wickedly humorous, imperfect, klutzy girl God made me to be. Go ahead, invite me, I double-dog dare ya…

I would say that many pastors counter their loneliness by spending time with their significant others and families, where they can take shelter in the sacred domestic relationships that feed them. For singleton pastors like me, that’s an epic fail right out of the gate, because when I’m alone, I’m really alone. My son is in school on my day off, so right now, I’m struggling a lot as I try to navigate ‘alone time’ by myself. I’m a person who enjoys solo time, so it’s surprising to me that after 6 days a week of giving myself to others, I suddenly crave deep conversation, social outlets and new friends who can remind me that I’m not alone (see ‘Bikers,’ above…).

You wouldn’t think friendship would be so tricky for pastors, but it can be. Our closest family and friends love us and include us, but they quickly tire of God-talk, and it can be difficult for them to distinguish when we’re wearing our clerical collars…and when we’re not. “Are you giving me your advice as my friend now, or as a pastor, because I hate it when you analyze me as the pastor!”

As if I can separate my training and theological education from myself. Why would I want to compartmentalize what has been the most challenging, eye-opening, difficult but fulfilling work of my life, from who I am now? Who I am now represents the product of creation by God, the influence of my divinity school professors and ministry mentors, my own failures and successes, and my past life experience. I have to own all of this together, and speak from that truth, versus dole out advice wearing blinders that block out the ‘pastor’ aspect of my vocation, apart from my other identities as mom/sister/friend/daughter/advocate/volunteer. So if you ask me for my opinion, you get the bonus of receiving all of these perspectives, together in one nice cake. And if you ask me for the specific theological chapter-and-verse icing on top, then I’m prepared to give you that, too. But you have to ask, unless you’re my parishioner. Then you get the icing first.

I asked my spiritual director, who is a profound blessing to me, what I should do about the crushing loneliness I feel. She pointed out that I’m probably still grieving the loss of my Divinity school community, and the loss of my summer Greek squad from seminary, as horrific as that condensed learning experience was. You don’t spend nearly four years in close conversational quarters and depart suddenly, without experiencing loss. Hmmm…

Then she completely pulled the theological rug out from under me by saying that my loneliness could be a gift from God, who intends for me to put that loneliness to use, to create new community, blending together the gifts and skills I’ve honed during theological education and formation. Where I see loneliness as a haunting, negative side effect of a vocation that chose me and refuses to leave me alone, my spiritual director revealed to me that I’ve been given a rare opportunity to bless others through my loneliness. To find others who are lonely, and make friends. Duh. It’s the Gospel, at work. Create community. Reach out, take hands, and have fun. Ride a Harley for cancer. Eat some BBQ and some fudge pie. Make new friends for a good cause, and then stay connected to those friends as you work together to invite others to join. Have fork, will travel…on a Vespa, perhaps?

Peace until next time,

Monica

 

What I Now Love About Mondays…

Roman Bricked Door and Medieval Archway, St Augustine Abbey, Canterbury UK copyright ML Weber 2014

Mondays get a really bad rap, at least in the Western world, because it’s the beginning of a new work and/or school week for most people. Monday’s ugly reality often begins on Sunday evening, when a sense of impending loss at an almost-ended weekend whispers the return to responsibility. Mondays really carry no inherent excitement, at least, not that I’ve ever discovered. Until now.

As a pastoral intern, working 50+ hours a week doing pastor stuff, Mondays are now my day off, which means I’ve developed an entirely new appreciation for this misbegotten, ill-treated day of the week. Mondays now equate to 24 precious hours to do exactly as I please, with or without accompaniment. I can unplug, de-tox, de-stress and pursue adventure that feeds my soul. Or I can do laundry. I have choices, but I”m trying really hard not to fill my one day off a week with mundane tasks and errands and must-do’s. It’s difficult, but I’m determined.

Being mindful about how I spend a precious day off has led me to reflect on what it is I enjoy doing with my ‘spare’ time. There is really never any spare time in today’s frenzied existence, so we must carve out time for ourselves. They preached ‘self-care’ to us in seminary, which is hilarious, because graduate students and pastoral interns have very little time for ‘self-care,’ let alone sleep. And pastors have greater responsibility than graduate students or interns. So this once-a-week opportunity to indulge in real self-care holds great allure, great potential and huge expectations. All of which could be immediately dashed to pieces, should a pastoral or family crisis occur…but I proceed onward, list of adventures in hand. Mosaic-making, Tolstoy-reading, film-watching, road trip-taking, here I come.

So far, I’ve observed that it’s easier to be intentional about relaxing and self-care when you only have 24 hours of time to dedicate to it, versus the usual 48. There’s something about knowing that I only have one full day that forces me to observe it well. The flip side is that I’m pressuring myself to ‘be intentional,’ when some days I may just need to sleep late, be lazy and watch Netflix…that hasn’t happened yet, but I think it’s around the corner, when the top-down weather ends and the flannel PJs get hauled out of the cedar chest.

There’s also a fun aspect to taking Mondays off: the rest of the world is busy, frantic and grumbly, so having a free day on Monday is like skipping school or calling in sick, except that you can hide in broad daylight and stare everybody down in the knowledge that you’re legit. It’s thrilling, this Monday freedom. Release the hounds!

Milestones & Muck…Getting Old Sucks!

 

As of today I’ve been on this earth for an amount of time that officially places me in the demographic of Advanced Middle Age, squarely on the Cusp of Elderly. I know this because I was once a media buyer for an ad agency, and I’ve crossed into the No Person’s Land where I can no longer be called “young” by any stretch of the imagination. The fact that I still feel 18, and behave accordingly at times despite arthritic joints, belies the sordid, inescapable truth: I have to face reality, admit my age, and make peace with it. This doesn’t bode well. I live to defy all odds.

I’ve never been one to lie about my age or dread birthdays, because I never really cared how old I was, or thought that anybody else did, either, apart from those Savage Marketing People (of whom I used to claim membership). To be honest, it still doesn’t really bother me, except that society now views me differently, as if I’m a dried-up, old hag whose ability to contribute to said society has evaporated along with my youthful glow. I for one know and believe that age is wisdom and power, because I’ve been privileged to have been mentored and shepherded by older folks who told me the truth whether or not I wanted to hear it. I benefited from their candor, their humor, their refusal to roll over and play dead, and I learned that life at any age is only as rewarding as you make it, despite circumstances. Being “older” affords one a certain type of liberation, the ability to speak one’s mind and be heard, if not always respected. Well, sometimes not heard, either.

But I can attest that being more mature as a result of numerous decades spent making mistakes means that I no longer get really pissed off about stuff I can’t control, and old age is right up there with the big zero control items. Case in point: tonight, after months of planning and anticipation wherein I resolved to spend this numerally significant birthday with a flair, I trudged in a downpour to see a sold-out play, gleeful that my Uber-planner gene had kicked in early enough to procure tickets.

Haha, The Universe strikes again: as I arrived at the theater and noticed the lead actor walking AWAY from it, I experienced that dreaded “oh, shit” feeling that I’ve come to know all too well… apparently rain and leaky roof tiles forced the play to cancel tonight. The immature, much-younger me would have cursed, stomped around, vilified the house manager and caused a horrible scene. Thankfully my age did get the better of me, which resulted in my best behavior and acceptance of the circumstances out of my control. The free drink from the house didn’t hurt, either, but I realized as I sipped that good, free Chianti that I’d arrived: maturity does have benefits, and for me that translates into an ability to at long-last control my emotions, quick temper and impatience. I’m still a work in progress, but perhaps there’s hope for me, yet.

That lack of control over the rest of the universe is often what sends us into a fiery rant. And I’m not saying that I “get it” or have all the answers. For those of us at the lower end of the Old Scale, we can still shrug off impending old age and infirmity, as if we’ve got our lives right where we want them, scripted outcomes and all. But my chaplaincy work revealed, painfully, that there’s an age and illness threshold that once crossed, spirals the participant into a complete lack of control over his or her own affairs, and that invisibility, as far as society, and family, is concerned, is tragic.

Right now I can console myself with the fact that I have a bionic foot and can once again walk unassisted, when my knees-that-need-replacing cooperate. But at some point in my inevitable future, my mobility or independence may come to a screeching, altered halt, and I know from my own post-op experience that if you can’t drive, climb stairs, run your own errands or find the means to get cheerful and willing assistance, life can become rude, harsh and desolate. Elderly people are routinely abused, abandoned and forgotten like yesterday’s Twitter feed, and we should be ashamed of ourselves for allowing that to happen.

Wow, this quickly descended into a downer, didn’t it! Happy freaking birthday to me!  What I’m trying to say is that what I’ve really crossed with this birth anniversary is my Threshold of Inevitability. The Fantasy Train on which I’ve been riding, if even in my own mind, is about to come to the last stop, at a point in time that looms much more threatening than it ever did before.  I can continue to limp along with my titanium orthopedic rods and try to stave off Old Age, but there’s only so much I can control, and that’s what we really hate about ageing.

So I’m not giving up, but I’m ready to embrace what my future may or may not entail with a sense of honesty borne of experience. Ok, maybe I can’t embrace loneliness, infirmity or abandonment, but I can wrap my arms around reality, and start assessing what I need to do in order to live the rest of my life in a fruitful, responsible manner. Therein lies the wisdom of ageing: it’s not just shoring up the bank account or the life insurance policies, readying the legal documents and downsizing one’s footprint and belongings…the real task is staring down that late model motorized scooter and plying it with streamers and glitter, so that we can still sparkle.

Peace, to my soul friends of all ages.

 

Letting Go of Dreams to Face Reality…

Glastonbury Abbey Meadow, UK. Copyright 2014 ML Weber all rights reserved.

I’ve been away for many weeks, studying Koine Greek and other sundry theological subjects while attending ELCA Lutheran seminary this summer. Today, or yesterday, according to the clock that measures chronological time, I was faced with a very shocking, harsh reality. Suffice it to say that a dream I’d carried around for the last six years was dashed on the rocks of unexpected truth, right before my eyes and out of the blue. I’m feeling bereft, lost and bewildered.  I’m trying to be thankful that I can realistically assess my new reality, and carry on. I think.

I can’t really go into details: if you’ve ever carried around a precious dream, untold and sheltered safe in your heart as you wait and hope for it to unfold so you can share it with the world, you understand what I’m talking about. If you don’t, well, you may as well stop reading because this will all sound like drivel, and there’s a good chance that it is anyway. But since it’s my blog, I can and will indulge myself.

This dream, if I’m completely honest, took over my existence, humming along beside me and inside me as an undercurrent to everything I’ve been doing for a long time. It was always present, comforting me with its promise of excitement and its tentacles of hope, especially during times when I felt despair due to the stresses of graduate school, parenting as a single divorced person, or during medical challenges which seem to become ever more frequent as I age, not-so-gracefully.

No worries to all my career cheerleaders out there, I’m still on track for pastoral ordination, God willing and if I don’t fail Koine, which will be only by the complete grace of an all-powerful, generous and benevolent God.

But this now-evaporated dream has been a very concrete part of my life, my routine and future plans, my hoped-for-one-day which propelled me on days when I thought I couldn’t take one more step or study one more theological concept. This dream has died a very nasty, ugly death, without any possibility of resuscitation, and I am now faced with the prospect of finding something new to hope for, to fill that gap in my heart which right now screams in pain. The real problem isn’t the death of the dream: it’s the emptiness within my soul that the dream’s absence creates. There is a big, black hole there, threatening to suck all of me inside for consumption. I need a tangible lifeline to grasp, something new and shiny to insert neatly into my hoped-for future and fill that lonely void. But I don’t have a clue how, or where, to begin.

As I meandered home this evening from 4 hours spent doing Koine homework very badly at a local coffee shop, feeling miserably, deeply sorry for myself (“…and to top it off, I’ll miss my son’s birthday…”), I pondered my new reality, with all the objectivity and dispassion I could muster. Thinking of missing my son’s birthday this week brought to mind words I’d spoken to my son, several years ago: “This situation sucks. It truly does. But you have a choice. You can allow this fact to shape who you are and become either a victim, or a catalyst of change toward the authentic you.” Ahhh. Bold, courageous words, but perhaps much more easily said, than done. Sorry, kid. I’d want to smack me, too. Please don’t grow up to hate me, you know I’m nothing if not blunt.

If I take a deep breath and shake off the shreds of the lost dream, to honestly assess my situation, there is no escaping another blunt fact: I have been given many opportunities, many adventures, and have received blessings too numerous to count, too magnificent to be deserved.  So complaining seems not only ridiculous, but also selfish and ungrateful. If divinity school and seminary have taught me anything, it is that I am truly grateful for my life, for every second of the good and for every bad choice and glaring error of it. No regrets. No changes. Lots of lessons learned. But loss is painful. Pain may bring transformation and growth, but crikey, it still hurts. A lot.

As I walked along this evening, sidestepping large black ants to instead crunch the first dried, dead leaves of the autumn that hovers threateningly around the corner, I detailed a mental laundry list of tangible blessings in the here-and-now aspect of my being. The “have” column is much longer than the “have not” side, if I completely discount the sucking chest wound which I am now faced. The facts are undeniable and undesirable, but reality is not: I have life. I have being, and worth, and friends and family. I can walk again, albeit wobbly compared to pre-foot surgery, and I’m about to begin a pastoral internship on a day that I thought would never arrive, 4 years ago. Reality sometimes bites, but I’m going to take my own advice, and bite back.

I want to resist the temptation to makeover my dream by labeling it as a mere fantasy…as something that I knew in my heart-of-hearts would never, ever be possible. We often soft-pedal our dreams as if to suggest that we never take them seriously, or as if they hold no meaning. That would be a lie:  my dream was tangible and solid and delightful to ponder. It was part of me. It sustained and energized me. But the long night of my blissful, dream-filled sleep is over, and now it’s time for me to wake up. Hard. With lots of caffeine.

I will survive this, not by any action of my own doing, but because I place all my faith and trust in God, in whom all things are possible. I will bounce back, because Christ Jesus renews me daily through my baptism. All I have to do is believe, recalling God’s good actions in my life and throughout history. When I trace the baptismal cross embedded into my being, right there on my forehead, I’m reminded that God’s Holy Spirit walks with me, every moment of every day, whether my dreams ever do come true, or not. It may sound corny, but I realize that I’m living the ultimate dream: in my baptism, Jesus has promised me eternal life with my God, forever. My dream may not come true, but God’s promise will. Suddenly everything else pales by comparison, including lost dreams.

My friends, I hope you can hold your own dreams close, but if they escape your frail clutches, reach out and embrace new ones, always mindful that in our baptism, we are truly living the dream.

Be at peace.

 

 

I’m officially ‘commenced’…1…2…3…LAUNCH

Monica Weber, Master of Divinity, Vanderbilt Divinity School, with Dean Emilie Townes, 5.9.14

WHEW. I’m physically and emotionally exhausted, but my entire being still grins from ear to ear after 4 days of celebrating my long-awaited, worked-hard-for graduation from Vanderbilt Divinity School with a Master of Divinity degree. After 7 academic semesters plus the odd occasion or two of summer school grind, CPE chaplaincy at the VA, 2 years of field work in my home congregation, and too many theological reflection papers and academic essays to count, it’s DONE. At least, it’s done at Vandy…I’m still attending Lutheran seminary, but the proverbial light at the end of the ordination tunnel gets brighter, every day.

Commencement” (what the academy folks who wear those squishy colorful hats call graduation) means “beginning, start, launch…” (Apple online dictionary, 2011). Huh. I thought I was finished…I done done it…my diploma arrived in December, and I’ve moved on to the next round of studies and internship. Commenced? Really? And here I’ve been thinking of graduation as the end of an ordeal, the waking from a terrifying dream, but certainly not as open door to the future. Graduation day has been on my task-oriented radar for so long, it became an end unto itself, I suppose. My professors would not be proud of me with dualistic thinking like this, not one bit…

I’ll admit that the main reason I walked, 5 months after I officially completed my Mdiv studies, was to celebrate my response to God’s call to vocational ministry with my teenage son, who is now in that ‘beginning to investigate college’ phase. At least, that’s what I told myself back in December, when all I cared about was turning in that final thesis, getting my grades and sleeping late. I wanted my son to experience the colorful regalia of academia, the pomp and circumstance that reward the stick-to-itiveness achieved through college and graduate studies. Ever mindful that children watch every move their parents make, even if they comment on our actions or admit to witnessing them less and less as they grow up, I wanted my teenager to know a) it’s never too late to pursue your true calling, and b) everybody looks officially hip and smart in caps and gowns, including your mother.

As graduation day dawned, I grew increasingly apprehensive about participating, concerned about the money required to rent the attire, send announcements and host a big party…it’s been 5 months, I mused…this isn’t really my class…they graduated last year…I’m an outlander, an after-thought, a problem child who has to be inserted into the mix, handed a fake diploma so she’ll go away and move on

But like the pursuit of the Mdiv itself, I persevered toward commencement, enjoyed it immensely, and whooped it up with my son, my sister and brother-in-law and my very best friends. It dawned on me that just as the 3-1/2 years of my Mdiv journey peaked and valleyed, graduation week is also full of ups and downs, but mostly ups. I experienced frustration: hello, it’s ridiculous to pay $200 to rent a master’s hood and gown for 36 hours that literally falls apart, refuses to smooth out with a steam iron and has to be returned scant moments after the shouting ends. If anyone had seen the number of safety pins under my gown and master’s hood, which refused to ‘drape as illustrated,’ or the number of bobby pins it took to keep my too-large hat from falling off, there would have been ginormous peals of laughter ringing in Benton Chapel. There was also bittersweetness in the realization that I may never see some of these people again; I felt excitement and wonder, and anxiety: would I be able to walk up and down those stone steps with a cane, 4-1/2 months after total foot reconstruction?

You betcha I did! But what I wasn’t prepared for was the shocking announcement that I’d won an award: the John Olin Knott Award for scholarly writing in Biblical studies. My family and friends apparently knew, having had 2 hours of waiting to peruse the program and read my name…but my pew-mate had to tap me on the shoulder and point it out to me, and then my first thought was, “How in the hell did I win that? And how in the hell am I gonna go up those steps twice?”

I needn’t have worried or lapsed into momentary panic, because as usual, God had my back. The sea of black robes parted so I could pass, it took me a little longer than most to walk my cane to the podium, but the Dean, bless her, strode down the steps to meet me, big smile washing over her beautiful face. “I wanted you to save your good footing for the next one,” she whispered, referring to the diploma ceremony, “because we don’t fall well in these big robes.”

That graduation experience reflects the peaks inherent in my entire Mdiv career: seeing my name in print, whether on an admissions letter, a scholarship or grant notification, a dean’s list letter, an award certificate, a list of endorsed ELCA ordination candidates or on a beautifully written card from my son defies all doubts I ever had that I “could do it.” I am blessed with acceptance: by peers, friends and family; professors and mentors; by my congregation and fellow pastors who encourage and pray for me; by my Lutheran seminary, and especially by my son, who has been my greatest cheerleader. We all walked this path together.

But mostly, I’m accepted by God, just as I am. You’d think I might have known and believed that before I ever took one step on this uphill journey to ordination, and perhaps, in my heart of hearts, I did. Yet now I can articulate the specific hows and whys of that grace-filled acceptance, without claiming to have all the answers (or even any of them), but totally convinced that my saying ‘yes’ to God has transformed me from an imperfect control freak who craved attention, authority and power, into an imperfect person who humbly recognizes her own junk while opening her heart and her hands to serve God and neighbor. Not to co-opt the Alcoholics Anonymous saying, but I truly did ‘let go, and let God,’ and it was absolutely the single best decision I never made…God made it for me, and thankfully, at last, I responded, accepting my acceptance.

So to all you peeps out there, known and unknown to me: if you’re miserable in your career, your personal life, or your circumstances, get off your duff, put your brain and imagination to work, take a risk and work to change whatever it is that ails you, because life’s too short to wallow in despair or regret.

Life’s a gift from a loving God, and yes, we make many mistakes in the actual living of it, but the Gospel reminds us that we get as many do-overs as we need, while we navigate safely within the baptismal covenant that God makes with us. It’s never too late, too difficult or impossible to become what God designed you to be…all it takes is to say ‘yes,’ really believe it in your heart, and everything else will fall into place. It may not be easy, brief or lucrative, but it will be joyful, and I believe that you will discover a lightness in your heart because you are truly happy, freed by God’s love to give love of your own to others in the world.

And isn’t that what our lives are for, anyway?

Until next time, peace be with you.

 

 

 

Cruel to be Kind: The World is an Unfriendly Place for the Mobility-Impaired

Post-Surgery Week 17, at Vandy Baseball!

I’ve survived, and 18 weeks out from foot reconstruction surgery on December 23, I can begin to believe that I’m actually thriving. Minimal foot pain…really only mild discomfort at this point after certain activities or if I overdo it. Big toe and center of my foot are still ‘tingly’ and numb, but the Doc says those nerves will regenerate, with time, and the numbness will lessen. I’ve been walking in the indoor pool at the Y wearing my fashionable neoprene fly-fishing sock for extra confidence, and I’m amazed at the miracle of modern medicine to rebuild my broken, dysfunctional foot not only good as new, but truly better than it ever was from birth! I have an arch now, which is weird, but it’s all good, except for the unknown when I actually wear real shoes, and try to walk with one arched foot and my other foot that’s been flat-as-a-pancake since birth.  This prolonged period of inactivity has enabled me to rest, read many books, watch a bunch of great movies, reconnect with long-lost friends, and appreciate how to accept help from people. I’ve reflected a great deal about my life and my final steps on the path toward ELCA ordination, and I’m ready to get back ‘on my feet’ literally and resume normal activities. This will include 9 weeks of summer school at ELCA seminary, then a full-time pastoral internship beginning in September…my new foot will soon be called into service, and I pray it will serve me well.

So I’m thriving now, versus simply surviving isolation and immobility, but along this journey I’ve noticed many things surrounding my restricted circumstances that made me aware of this Ol’ World’s harsh attitude for people who face daily mobility challenges. I have a completely new respect for those in wheelchairs, those dependent upon canes and walkers, knee scooters and those who can never regain the skills necessary to walk unaided, let alone walk at all.

Before my surgery, I remember (in horror) complaining about “all those empty handicapped parking spots” in various places where I shopped, etc. It seemed to me, (oh, what an idiot I was) that there existed a disproportionate amount of disabled parking spots, compared to the number of people who actually needed them. I heartily apologize to the mobility-impaired world for ever thinking that I had a clue about this issue: during the past 3-1/2 months, the reality for me was that often, when I sought to use my temporary disability parking tag, all the spots were full. I reflect, after many visits to the doctor, that our aging population of Baby Boomers justifies the number of disabled parking spots, and in truth, could use more! It’s virtually impossible to open your car door wide enough to stick out your cast-enclosed foot and set up a walker in a regular parking space: I will never complain about disabled parking spots again, and a pox on all those people who park in them for convenience when they have zero mobility issues!

I’ve also observed that the world is not very flat, even in supposed flat spaces: ramps for disabled parking spaces, as well as many ADA ramps into buildings are often so steep that they pose a challenge, if not a serious risk to those in wheelchairs, using walkers or canes. I know those little rubber bumps on ramps are intended for safety, but they wreak havoc with walkers and canes: I’ve nearly tripped on these colorful bumps, trying to maneuver my mobility device du jour in my struggle to be independent.

I have a very good friend, a former Tennessee State Senator, who is elderly and wheelchair-bound, but whose wisdom and positive outlook on life exceeds that of anyone else I know. I’ve often joked with him that we could race: him in his wheelchair, me on my knee scooter or using my walker, but I know he’d whip me soundly. He would always laugh at my challenges and say, “I’d love to race, we just have to do it when my wife’s not watching.”

In serious conversations with this friend, I  commented that it was fascinating to me to see who would come to my rescue, holding doors open for me, or helping me carry shopping bags to my car or returning my shopping cart to the store, or simply smiling at me with comments like, “Gee, I hope the other guy looks worse!” or “Wow, what’d you have done?” On the extreme flip side were those people whom totally ignored me, perhaps in some preoccupation with their own difficulties. One man, impatient as I struggled to hold open a heavy door while trying to navigate my walker through it, huffed and puffed and then slipped past me through the door without saying a word, leaving the door to slam on my walker! That took some ginormous cajones…I also became quite annoyed on many occasions with handicapped toilet facilities: hello, why do they build them at the far end of the bathroom?

My friend John listened patiently to all these observations about my dealings with mobility impairment, and then he looked me in the eye and said, “Did you know that when you’re in a wheelchair, no one speaks to you? It’s as if you don’t exist. You’re not at eye-level, and you become invisible.” I was stunned at his words, and I was once again humbled at the realization that my temporary mobility issues were neither permanent, nor that severe. I resolve to speak, smile and look into the eyes of those in wheelchairs: to avoid acknowledging another human being is to deny that person his or her esteem as one of God’s beloved creatures.

Most of my post-surgery experiences in public, especially in the past 5 weeks when I could resume driving, walker in tow, have proven to me that this world, while perhaps physically unkind despite its few structural aids for the disabled, is still a place of empathy and compassion. I was amazed at how my hard casts, with their multi-colored fiberglass shells, or my air cast, could prompt sharing conversations with total strangers: many people suffer from arthritis or other medical issues which required foot surgery similar to mine. Most all of the people who made conversation with me while holding open a door  compared their own injuries and experiences to mine, and were among those who offered me the greatest assistance.  I also resolve to pay it forward, as I was helped along my path to healing.

Two other key lessons I learned during this recovery period: I learned to have patience, which has never been a trait that anyone would accuse me of possessing. We rush around too much and too often in a frenzy, and what we all need to do is to stop, rest, listen to our bodies and realize that some things on our proverbial To-Do List can wait until tomorrow. Learning patience is about maintaining boundaries, with our bodies and our endless busy-ness. For recovering Taskmasters like me, this means acceptance of my new physical limitations, as well as patience with myself and others. The world won’t end if I can’t accomplish everything on that list right now, or if I have to wait until Friday to venture out for some must-have gadget or grocery item.

The second lesson I learned is that I have to come to terms with the reality of aging. I may feel 18 inside, but I’m a mid-50-something woman with severe arthritis and a host of other age-related stuff, and this body is probably not going to get any better. But I’m better for realizing this fact and openly admitting it, because when we admit our limitations, we deal with them in a positive way, which makes us wiser.

I have learned to stop being so critical of myself and others, and to embrace where I am in each moment. I am who I am, and that is how God made me.  Some days, I’m in a sweat pants/ratty tee shirt moment, and some days I slap on decent clothes and makeup. But I’ve stopped beating myself up about appearances for fear of being judged by others, because my behavior reflects the Light of Christ into this dark world, not my clothing choices or personal grooming skills, Life in the Spirit is how we treat one another, and in my recent experience, a smile and a kind word go a lot farther than the latest fashion and hairstyle trends. It’s about connecting to other people in relationships, even if they only last five minutes in a grocery store parking lot.

I have been considerably blessed by this opportunity to heal and rejuvenate, to reflect and ponder my actions and behaviors past and future. I have also been blessed by a team of skilled, excellent physicians who took my concerns seriously and challenged me to ‘suck it up’ and do what had to be done. Bless all the people in this world who face mobility challenges each day, and bless all of us as we try to come to their aid, that we may look them in the eye, offer a smile and a kind word, hold open a door, and make a friend.

Peace until next time!

Isolation in Company

Yesterday I was privileged, through the miracle of wireless technology, to attend a Lutheran seminary class that I was supposed to have taken in person this semester…the professor has shown me great compassion by allowing me to participate in the class through the meeting software Adobe Connect.

It’s a simple sign-on procedure, and to my surprise, there were no initial technical glitches. I could see the professor and the A/V screen behind him, on which he projected various course materials. Good sound quality was a surprise, and while the professor and my classmates could not see or hear me, thankfully, as fastidious personal grooming has kind of flown out the window lately, I could participate by typing comments just like any other online chat. I could also click on an ‘I have a question’ icon: a little person with a raised hand, when I wanted clarification on an item.

So for two hours each Monday, I will sit at my computer and hear lectures for this class. I will submit my work electronically, and even for the memory recitation component (Creeds, Confessional statements) I can Skype or FaceTime my teaching assistant. This truly is a miracle, and another proof of human ingenuity. Especially because it prevents me from delaying my ELCA internship by an entire year, as this class is a pre-internship requirement…God is indeed very, very good.

This miraculous connectivity really speaks to me as I enter my 8th week of recovery from foot surgery. I’ve enjoyed my ‘alone time’ spent in the house by myself 4 days a week, because I didn’t realize just how exhausted I was: not only from the surgery, but also from the stress and frenzy of three and a half years of graduate school. I’ve been able to reduce the size of the stack of ‘must read books’ by half. I’ve caught up on movies I missed via Netflix, and feel that I can now participate in conversations about a few really good TV series that I enjoy. But with the healing of body and soul comes increasing frustration at my isolation and inability to step outside, to drive myself where I want to go for no apparent reason, and that old longing is back–at heart, I’m a very sociable person, and I crave conversation. Even with strangers, to the frustration of my poor son.

So I really looked forward to connecting to the Seminary class yesterday, in the way that many of us become excited about the “first day of school.” I could be part of a community without leaving the house–there would be conversation again, learning and sharing.

Yet having never taken an online class, and certainly having never taken a class via webcam, my excitement was quickly dampened: five minutes into the introduction to the class by the professor, the host computer crashed, and I could neither see what was happening, nor hear what was being said. There I sat, furiously typing “I HAVE NO AUDIO OR VIDEO…”  No reply. Still no reply. Four minutes passed. Was I missing some critical explanation about assignment due dates? Did the professor realize what had happened, and that I was relegated to Castaway Status on my Virtual Classroom Island?

FLASH. The professor’s face reappeared, and shortly thereafter I could hear him speaking. The Tech Guy typed me a ‘sorry, computer crashed’ message in the online chat box, and we continued. He also responded that the session was being recorded, so I could access missed content at a future time…whew.

Everything worked quite well for about 90 minutes. Syllabus review, check. Clarification of the professor’s vision and focus, check. Review of assignment deadlines, check & deep sigh of relief at not having missed anything. Time for the other 15 students to stand in front of the camera and introduce themselves to me: very strange, because many of them were camera-wary and their faces were cut off, but a nice gesture which I appreciated. I heard the professor say, “Now let’s turn the camera on Monica…”

Blank screen. No sound. I couldn’t even type anything into the chat line. A black box appeared on my computer screen: “WARNING! Your host has disconnected from this meeting. You will be removed from this site in 2 minutes.”

Well, not only did I apparently break the camera with my lack of personal grooming, but there must also be a time limit on how long we physically undesirable humans are allowed to participate. In the silence I waited…surely the Tech Guy will reconnect me…surely I will get a message indicating that they are furiously working to reinstate me into the conversation…

Awkward silence continued…awkward only because I was unclear whether I should exit the software, or continue to sit there for another ten minutes until the class officially ended. Not wishing to be rude by signing off early, I waited, albeit impatiently, in the hope that I would be reconnected and thus affirmed in my belief that I, as a fellow seminarian, mattered.

That did not happen. At the official class end time, I clicked out of Connect and sighed in frustration at having been stranded again by a technological shipwreck. About an hour later, the Tech Guy emailed me apologetically to explain that the computer crashed again, and that I hadn’t “missed much of import.” Later, the class TA emailed me to apologize, and to assure me that in future, he will participate in the Connect chat via his iPad during class, so he will ‘see what I see’ and be able to advise the professor of any technical problems that arise. He also invited me to post my bio in the class chat room, so everyone can ‘meet’ me. I had not been forgotten, at all…even in my perceived electronic isolation.

This entire incident brings to mind that isolation pervades our lives: we inadvertently or intentionally cut each other off at the pass through our anger, resentment, guilt or failure to relieve human suffering. We isolate ourselves from one another, and from God, even in the midst of the madding crowd, and by this crowd, I mean the Holy Trinity.

God our Creator, Christ our Redeemer, and Holy Spirit our Guide and Comforter are always with us. Always. Every single second. We are never alone. Yet how many times have we behaved as if we are indeed alone, cut off, abandoned and forgotten?

We substitute the world’s values and definition of ‘company’ for God’s. In the isolation of our actions or inaction, it is purely our choice: we can either succumb to self-pity and give in to feelings of sadness and abandonment, or we can choose to remember that God, Christ and Spirit envelope us, constantly. The world may dash our hopes and trample our bodies, crushing the joy out of our lives and dreams, but only if we allow this to happen. The God of Infinite Possibility does not fail us, nor abandon us, period.

Jesus reminds us that we are isolated only by our own choice, saying in Matthew 7:7-8, “Ask, and it will be given to you; search, and you will find; knock, and the door will be opened for you. For everyone who asks receives, and everyone who searches finds, and for everyone who knocks, the door will be opened.” 

The technological door of WiFi connectivity was briefly closed to me, and I failed to knock again, preferring to use the worlds definition of abandonment to believe that I had been forgotten. Yet our good and merciful God revealed God’s grace through emails from the Tech Guy and the TA, who reached out to reassure me that I am neither estranged, nor a stranger. I am loved. I belong. I am a valuable member of God’s Holy Community, whether or not the computer crashes and the signal fades.

The trick for us is to remember the cross of baptism marked on our foreheads: invisible, but tangible nonetheless. Next time you feel abandoned, or disappointed, or isolated by the world and its false promises, trace the mark of your baptismal cross on your forehead, and trust that God, Christ and Spirit wrap you in their great embrace of holy love.

Until next time, be at peace,

Monica

Just Eat the Cake…

Unlike Blanche du Bois in A Street Car Named Desire, I have not always depended upon the kindness of strangers, because I understood my purpose in life to be the stranger who performed the kindness. I was raised to mind my manners, ask for nothing special, and give from the heart with no expectation of reward, reimbursement or recognition. When you’re programmed from an early age to behave this way, you make a gift of your time, talents and treasures, for the most part, learning about generosity in its various forms. Generosity is a very good and meaningful habit. It’s what Christians are called to live out, daily. But in our daily wrestle to practice generosity, how many of us have also failed to learn to accept gifts gracefully, including God’s Grace? Learning to be generous to a fault leaves us incapable of accepting…anything.

Part of “Christian indoctrination,” at least according to the way I was raised in Luther Land in the 1960s-70s, was to instill in little Lutherans a strong sense of mission, selfless giving and neighborly outreach. We Lutherans are the “love people”: we love everyone, called by Jesus to love as God loves us, unconditionally, remembering that humanity is saved from eternal separation from God only by God’s grace. Like many Christians, we have not always loved everyone equally, or without judgment, or without placing restrictions and stipulations on others…we, too, are imperfect human beings. Which is why we Lutherans perhaps celebrate and assert God’s unconditional grace more than some denominations, because good ol’ Martin Luther never failed to remind us of our human failings, and the gift of God’s grace to eternally erase those failings.

Unfortunately, this particular Lutheran takes her human failings much too much to heart, and after 50-odd years of trying to practice selfless humility and constant charity, I have found it almost impossible to accept any type of gift, favor or kindness without immediately calculating its value, in order to reciprocate. I dash off thank-you notes almost before the gift-giver is out the door. I make a mental note when a friend does me a favor, pays me a compliment, or buys me a meal…never to be outdone, I can’t rest until I’ve returned the gesture in kind…usually with an extra flourish. Generosity takes on a one-upmanship that escalates until I’ve lost sight of both the gift, and the giver.

In truth I never really learned about unconditional giving until I became a parent: there is a huge distinction between giving of one’s self because one has been told one ought to do so, versus the authentic generosity of giving out of true, deep love that seeks nothing in return. In the past 16 years of motherhood, I have reflected a lot on giving, which has made me reconsider the real meaning of charity and generosity. I think I can safely say that I get it, 99% of the time.

But I still struggle with acceptance: not in literally taking anything, mind you, because we all love surprises, treats and gifties. Yet I find it so difficult to accept without keeping score, obsessively. Looking back, I realize that much of my inability to accept a gift in true grace has been linked to my own depression and low self-esteem: why would anyone want to give me anything? Including a God whom I could never, ever, repay?

My first real lesson in learning to simply receive without reciprocity came to me as sage wisdom from a very loving elderly woman in my church, a woman whom I’ve known since childhood. My mom and I stood in the church kitchen, helping to clean up after a reception, and my mom announced that she would like to take me to lunch when our work was finished. I mentally tallied that she had taken me to lunch nearly half a dozen times in as many weeks, probably as an excuse to see her baby grandson. I told my mom that the only way I would accompany her is if she allowed me to pay for us both. A little turf war ensued and my temper flared: Mom, it’s my turn to pay you back!

The wise woman who overheard my ridiculous outburst set down her dish cloth and took my wrinkly, wet, dish-pan hands in hers. “Listen to me, please,” she said quietly as her kind blue eyes bore into mine. “Your mother will not always be here with you. She wants to do something for you out of love, and she expects nothing in return. The best gift you can give her is to simply smile, and say ‘thank-you.’ Can you do that?”

I remember blushing and stammering through teary eyes, nodding my silent assent to this great friend and then to my mother, who hugged us both. I learned that day that accepting a gift is perhaps as important as giving one, but only if the acceptance is genuine, without the mental gymnastics that rush to calculate the cost of the receipt, and the future payback.

It was an important lesson that I continued to wrestle with as I tried to be a gracious recipient across the stream of days. 9 out of 10 times I’d feel that pang of unspoken guilt or obligation in my chest when presented with a kindness or a gift, but slowly, surprisingly, I learned to focus on the giver and his or her intentions, and gradually I was able to uncouple my car from the obligation train, and just enjoy receiving.

Yet still I could not, or perhaps didn’t take the time, to fathom my acceptance of God’s great gift in Christ. The mystery of Jesus’ salvation on my behalf was simply something I professed, but didn’t truly accept without Ugly Guilt or Low Self-Esteem rearing their heads. Until my first semester at divinity school.

One afternoon in the “Skill & Practice of Theological Conversation” class, we were trying to decipher and interpret Martin Luther’s essay, The Freedom of a Christian, in which Herr Doktor Professor Luther expounds on the real meaning of God’s grace within a Christian life. We are freed unconditionally from separation from God, that Augustinian definition of sin, through God’s grace in claiming us by baptism. But with this freedom comes great responsibility: not out of obligation for what God has done, but in gratitude and love for God who claims us regardless of our imperfections. Christian freedom means the responsibility to love others, not as the world would define love, but as God first loves us, without condition.

Many of my non-Lutheran student peers wanted to bash Luther over the head, in part for his archaic language, and in part for his masterful, circuitous arguments. After twenty minutes of futility, my wise professor raised his hands for silence. “Look,” he said, “it’s so simple. Luther points out that God baked this big cake, and just cut you a piece. God is handing you the cake plate, and all you have to do is take it, and enjoy. Just take the cake! It’s good! He made it for you, out of love! The cake is Jesus, and all you have to do is take it!”

We sat there, stunned. Such a simple concept, and who doesn’t love cake?

I sometimes still rush to calculate a suitable gesture of gratitude when presented with a gift or a favor, but that pang in my chest has been replaced by a feeling of enormous joy and acceptance borne from a new understanding of what God intends for me. At last, I think I understand…the God who creates us for relationship laughs when we smile and take the cake, whether it’s the grace of Christ, or a loaf of homemade bread made by loving hands.  As the poem by Alfred, Lord Tennyson suggests, “Ours is not to reason why…ours is but to do and die.”

Jesus has already done the hard work of death for us, so scratch Tennyson’s last line. Jesus’ death on the cross for every human being in God’s creation brings life eternal when we believe: when we accept Jesus as God’s Son. So why do we question it? It’s like refusing the cake plate to ask God, “Is this gluten-free?”

Jesus reminds us in Matthew 7:7, ‘Ask, and it will be given to you; search, and you will find; knock, and the door will be opened for you.’ So whether it’s God’s grace, or a loaf of bread, next time you are faced with the astonishing offer of a gift, open the door, hold out your hands and smile. Believe, and take the cake!

Peace be with you until next time.