Christmas, 2014, Over

It’s over.

Another Christmas in the books; 2014 is inching to a close, and the house is a mess and the kids are swirling all around me and I can’t keep up.

I’m exhausted.

We had a funeral this morning, the church peeling back the trappings of celebration and the holiday shine, making space to honor a woman of faith and integrity. Her family crowded into the room, spacious and dim, carrying one another’s grief, pushing through that cloud of days that hang between Christmas and New Year’s with a sad purpose.

I came in early. We stood together, the two pastors and me, also a pastor, in that oddly shaped place where we thrum just outside the circle of grief, but yet fully inhabit a deep sense of mourning and loss. My friend tells me that as a pastor, at most and at best, we represent the presence of God.

I was there to provide music, and so I made my way to the piano. Just last night my fingers had flown all over the keys, swilling and storming joy and praise and even the deep, resonant blue-tinged search for Emmylou’s Deeper Well. Surrounded by musicians of the highest caliber, last night’s offering was poured out in exuberant joy.

Just five nights ago, we’d spent the better part of a day taking thousands of people through a joyous, poignant exercise in faith and story and tradition. The Christmas Eve service wove its way through angels and Mary and Joseph and belief, settling down at the end with an emphatic O come let us adore Him! and the gentle, candle-lit harmonies of Silent Night.

And then today, I sat at the piano in a dimly-lit room of visceral silence. Flowers circled the casket. Empty chairs waited for the collection of family, friends, mourners.

In my head and my heart reside the text and scores of hymns, the songs we grow up with when we grow up in church. The old songs; the four verses, the refrain, the four-part structure.

I sat at the piano and resurrected those melodies, the ones filled with sorrow and hope, the ones that give us this definitive sense of place and space and time. The ones that remind us of what was, and what will be, and the many have gone before us, walking this well-worn road.

One of the pastors quoted the 23rd Psalm.

though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death
I will fear no evil

“Not that we do not fear death,” he said. “We fear no evil. We believe that although evil tries to snatch us and take us, even at that last moment, Jesus intervenes. Jesus claims us. We fear no evil.”

“But all of us have healthy fear of death.”

blessed assurance, Jesus is mine
o what a foretaste of glory divine

and when i think that God, his son not sparing
sent him to die, i scarce can take it in

come home, come home
ye who are weary, come home

We all sang Amazing Grace together, and their voices hardly carried; it was more a resignation, more silence than song. There is nothing that feels amazing about a funeral. There is grace, but that song requires energy, to save a wretch like ME, and it was difficult to find such this morning.

But we were there, together, and four verses later that song was sung. The family had asked for another, so that they could simply listen: The Old Rugged Cross, and I can’t manage that song without hearing my own grandmother’s reedy alto, so my own personal grief slipped into an empty cavern in the space of this morning. And there we were.

then he’ll call me some day to my home far away
where his glory forever i’ll share

so i’ll cherish the old rugged cross
till my trophies at last i lay down…

I cobbled together a key that my voice could manage and let the raw yearning take over and I sang, for me and for all of us in the room. For my grandmother and the empty days that hang over the end of December. For the futility, too often, of the bright lights and shiny paper that end up in a heap, in the corner, surrounded by dust and pine needles.

I began this week, one promised to be empty of work, with an offering of what is, really, all I have to give. I lay down my own trophies; I cling to the daily doings that keep me in motion.

I look around in wonder, stumbling in grace, grasping at what needs to be remembered.

It’s over, and things end and begin again and the seasons, they go round and round, until one day we exchange it all. I am soaking all this and more into my skin today, longing for rest and yet grateful that what I often believe I need most, eludes me; and so I sit and watch and wait and remember. I pray, thankfully, gratefully; nothing more than the simplest thing I can find.

Thank you.

I whisper, just under my breath.

Thank you.

I Squealed And Shrieked. Just A Little.

Timing is everything.

And I do believe that people play an incredible part in God’s plan for us to bless and encourage one another, mostly when we don’t even know the half of what’s going on.

Old wooden sign…anybody else
remember these?

A few weeks ago, my friend and coworker Karen posted a photo on Facebook, showing off a cool piece of home decor that she’d put on her wall. I was instantly intrigued; it was a brilliant combination of the power of nostalgia and the appeal of contemporary worship music. I recognized the format – an old wooden church attendance sign, just like the ones I have seen in Franklin, Pennsylvania, and in Grand Prairie, and in Tolar, and Hico, Texas. The numbers are compelling; they tell of smaller, more intimate gatherings than the ones I’m accustomed to these days. It makes me thing wistfully of ‘good old days’ (that were probably not all good); it’s a nice memory.

You know how sometimes you see something and it just feels right? That’s how my heart beat when I saw that sign in the photo Karen posted. It just fit me, so perfectly, in ways that I cannot name. History and memory and nostalgia and my love for the church and where it all started. The blonde wood of Nicklin United Methodist Church. The deep burgundy and dark, rich stained pews and walls of First United Methodist. The tiny Baptist churches, and the baby grand that sat underneath a sign just like this one.

I thought this wall hanging thing was brilliant!

I got excited and checked out the online catalog Karen referenced. I got REALLY excited when I noted that it was only EIGHTEEN DOLLARS!!! 

Then I looked again and realized that $18 would buy the song lyric boards; the sign itself required a more substantial investment. It was more than I could part with at the moment. However, I directed my husband to check out the catalog, sharing with as much persuasion that I could muster that he could definitely find my Christmas gift inside. On that specific page.

Then I let it go, fairly certain that I’d probably never have one of those old-style church attendance boards on the wall of my house…but that would be okay. There are more important things to invest in, and that’s okay. I’ve got three kids in college, and that’s our substantial investment. Home decor can come later.

Cut to this afternoon, when I arrived at the office after several hours of meetings and a nagging sense of loss that I still hadn’t quite shaken. A box sat by my desk; an envelope with my name on the front rested on my chair.

I blew by them both and headed down the hallway for a few more meetings. When I finally returned to my office, I opened the envelope. Written inside of the card were several phrases of encouragement; words that meant a great deal, indicating that someone really sees me. They were affirming and kind.

The card was not signed; there was simply a small heart sketched out after the last sentence.

I opened the box, perplexed.

I found the lyrics to In Christ Alone on boards slipped inside the notches of an old-style church attendance board.

I squealed and shrieked just a little and ran out in the hall asking, “Who did this? Who brought this in? Did you see who was here?” Apparently nobody saw anything, or if they did, they’re not telling. I was left to gaze in awe and wonder at this incredibly extravagant gift.

To you, whose kindness prompted this generosity: Thank you. I’m not sure I have words to express how deep and wide you impacted me with this gift. Thank you for surprising me. Thank you for being anonymous, leaving me in child-like wonder. Thank you for giving me a gift that will remind me, daily, of the great grace of God and the people who follow his lead. Thank you for naming my presence and affirming it. Thank you for caring.

My step is lighter, my attitude is better, my soul is stilled. I have done my best, in the three hours since I discovered this gift, to pay it forward. I will continue to do so.

Go do something nice for someone today. It matters.

Grief

If you read this blog regularly, or you’re a friend in real life, you know that my primary job is at my church. I have a new role there, one that has me finding my footing from a bird’s-eye view of the weekend experiences at all three physical campuses. It’s Big Picture stuff, and it’s vision and long-range thinking as well as environments and all sorts of stuff I can’t even remember right now.

Plus, I still get to play music. Which I did today, at the Powhatan Campus, as Elijah led the band. It’s a funny thing, this leading / managing / mentoring.  Eight years ago, Elijah was a kid with obvious talent, running around in ketchup t-shirts, honing his musical chops in the percussion section of the band. He went off, grew up, got an education and further developed those skills, and then came home. We promptly hired him, and he effectively has taken on the mantle of worship and musical leadership at this campus.

I’ve let it go.

So today, I played in the band behind Elijah as we kicked off our Christmas season with worship music and a few fun songs. During planning we decided we should start the series with a silly medley of common Christmas songs, and Elijah took that idea and ran hard with it. We all donned goofy hats and sang our silly hearts out, in the midst of several more meaningful songs. He did very well, and I am extremely proud of him.

It was a beautiful thing, both in the sense of the musical expression and for me personally, as well. I spent the morning playing music, watching this organization unfold and execute a plan designed for those who would be walking through the doors in search of a wide variety of things; comfort, hope, assurance, friendships, community.

Jesus.

We plan and we communicate and we fuss at ourselves for all the ways in which we fall short. We evaluate each day’s work and determine how we can do better. We celebrate the wins and are thrilled when people draw closer to God because they’ve found space to do so through our work.

It’s a beautiful thing.

And yet, sometimes, it’s a hard thing, too.

And I’m not sure this post is really about my job.

/ / /

I was grumpy, all morning. I didn’t feel prepared, and a last minute change left me with a bigger role than I envisioned, and I was a little bit stressed. I wasn’t feeling completely well, either. And it showed. I wrote it off to stress, but when the morning was over, I didn’t feel any better. We shared lunch with two of my daughters and headed back for the evening service; we arrive at church at 6:30AM, so by the 4PM call to set up chairs, it’s already been a long day. I was tired.

Someone said, “How do you feel?” and I said, “Better…” They replied, “It’s a good thing you don’t play poker.”

I agreed. I was still grumpy.

I chewed on it, after the singing ended and we settled down to hear an excellent message. I worried it, this discontent, this heavy feeling.

This grief.

There is a hole in me, a jagged, broken piece.

My nephew died.

And it begins there, the torn edges of confusion.  Do I say, “former” nephew, since he is my ex-husband’s brother’s son, part of an extended family that no longer claims me? He was a Brawley, and my kids are Brawleys, and I was a Brawley until I traded that name for another, but he’s part of the tattered fabric of those early years; also a son of divorce, a brilliant life of promise that rose up out of the ashes of abuse and denial and dysfunction and the curse of general human brokenness that besets us all. He is in our photos and wrapped within our memories, and so I claim him, still; I have refused to jettison any of those family members up to this point, so I will not start now. My nephew died in a tragic car accident that was just that – an accident – and it cracked open vulnerable places in my heart in unexpected ways.

My nephew died, and there is grief for the road his father must walk now; always my favorite, the softest spot in my heart tender for the wildest child of the bunch, and now he owns that awful thing that no parent ever wants to claim for his own. His boy died.

There is grief for my nephew’s mom, divorced from the family but clear and crisp in my memory, because she became my sister-in-law for a time but she was first my student at the local high school, and she was a young mom blessed with strong sons and a good life.

There is such deep sorrow for so many, for the parents and grandparents and brothers and sisters and friends and those who knew much more of Michael than I ever did.

And I think the grief settled in me in a deep, dark place, winnowing down below the awful awareness that I cannot protect my children from the fear that grips us when we lose one of our own. Their cousin is gone, and they will not know him any better than they did but by the stories they hear and the history they read and see in snapshots and Facebook statuses. The grief rests in a place that reminds me, again, of the awful trauma of divorce, because where family would draw in close to mourn this loss, we are separated and struggle to find footing, and I am in a place once removed, where I must find a place to weep for the death of a young man I hardly knew, who belonged to a family I left behind. A funeral I did not attend, surrounded by strangers I would hardly know.

And yet I feel so connected.

I am not sure what to make of this, except to acknowledge, again, that divorce rips and tears and wounds, and while all things are made new again and mercies renew what our sin and stubbornness destroys, we are not so easily torn apart.

/ / /

I am making way, in my job, for Elijah to move ahead; he will find his own voice and his calling and his leadership. My job is to guide him; to coach and encourage, steer and direct.

And to get out of the way. And in this movement, there is something I leave behind when I move aside; the slight yearning to wear the banner of ‘leader’, the privilege of making the decisions. Sometimes just the simple thing of playing the music, singing the songs. I leave all these things behind, and press on, knowing that no new life can come while the old refuses to make room for growth. We change and move and adjust. The light is different on this side of the room.

But the grief is real, whether for small matters we leave behind, or for a death that still seems like a certain mistake, a bad dream, a Thing That Cannot Be.

And when we must, we grieve, no matter where we stand.

Sarah and Michael, circa 1994