We Are Risen: 10 Personal Easter Meanings

Every Sunday, I write a letter to our 20 year old son, Dalton. He’s serving for two years in England as a full time missionary for our faith.  Normally, because he has limited time to access, read, and respond to letters, I compress my messages to bullet points. (Hard when I want to spread my heart across the page with an industrial sized ladle .) 

Here is this week’s letter. You’ll forgive that I’d condense what’s most precious to me into a cheesy Top 10 List. And I know you’ll understand that this is only a fraction of a fraction of my reflections on what Easter means to me.

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With Dalton traveling in Poland at Easter time

Dearest Dalton-

With a russet colored puppy at my hip, and soft rain drizzling on the bright suede daffodil heads in the garden, with a gray morning splintered by streaks of platinum and blue over the spindled forest,  and with my scriptures and favorite sermons piled on the table in front of me, I’d say life is more than good. It’s reborn.
Christ rose so that we will rise too. But we rise in a manner more immediate and proximate than a distant, some-day promise of standing up in our graves. Yes, all humankind will walk with glorified bodies into Glory’s embrace. I don’t doubt that. But what does the resurrection mean for us in this moment? What does “He is Risen” say to my soul right now, right here, on my couch this Sunday morning ?
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10 Meanings of He is Risen
1) “He is risen” means that He descended below and rose above every pain, betrayal, indignity, alienation, misunderstanding, sin, hurt, illness, separation, mistake, plaited crown and pounded nail. He did this for me. He did this for you. He did it for the perpetrators and the preoccupied Roman guards. He rose for all creation.
2) In every instance he rose high above humankind’s pettiness, vulgarity, brutality, obliviousness, indifference, and self-obsessed numbness. He calls on us to do the same. We are to rise and not return shrug for shrug, evil eye for evil eye. He urges us to fight darkness with light, coldness with warmth, crassness with refinement, indifference with engagement, ignorance with enlightenment, fakery in all its forms with pellucid truth.
3) He is still risen. His resurrection wasn’t some quaint myth, some poetic concoction, but a reality in bone and sinew. If the women’s sighting at the tomb and breaking bread with apostles doesn’t prove it, the Book of Mormon account with its many detailed pages and its multitude of eyewitnesses (and all the visions given modern prophets, i.e., D&C 76), are proofs worth considering. He lives now. I know this.
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4)  I know this because I have my own, intimate proof. “He is risen” has been enacted in our little family life, after having been struck dead in July, 2007. You can say, as I can, that by some power outside of ourselves we have been brought back to life, to life in abundance. We are risen!  Honestly, I trusted his historic rising more than I believed possible our future rising from grief’s grave. But…here we are, my love. Who can deny that? Who can question something or someone hasn’t poured iron down our spines and molten force into our limbs once lined with death’s lead? Resurrection, wrote Reverend Laura Mendenhall, is for both sides of the tomb. We are proof of that.
5) “He is risen” means that he has conquered death. Not just death of the body. He conquered all death, including the death of hope, of dreams, of innocence, of union, of belief, of love. “He is risen” means that he can draw all of us upward from every iteration of death that we might have to experience. As I wrote in On Loss and Living Onward: “And so once again—raising us from either grave sin, grave sorrow, or from the grave itself—Christ has conquered death.
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 6) That he rose for us means we are called to help others rise. This requires an alertness and compassion few of us have naturally. As our egos swell, they eclipse the face of The Other. And what’s worse, with that swelling sense of self, we might sometimes feel others deserve to stay low, lying flat, suffering nose-in-the-dust for their sins or circumstances. I’m ashamed to say I’ve felt that indignation tighten my jaw more than once. (“She made her bed, she’s got to lie in it. And I’m not fluffing her pillows.”) But Christ asks us to do as he did: rise to help others rise. All others. No exceptions, no lepers.

7)“He is risen” points to a supernal communing act. It means the most concrete, physiological communing (the reunion of body and spirit, cells and fibers, tibia and fibula.) It also means reuniting anything lost and buried with the found and living. We’re given through him, I believe, the capacity to live with our heads and hearts united. Beyond that, HIs example tells us to unite with our marginalized, forgotten, lonely brothers and sisters. We’re charged to stretch our arms as far and wide as we can and pull those out on the rim close to our center, to our heart. We are one. Division is demonic.

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8) He rose through priesthood power. I’d not learned that truth until late in life, but the resurrection was a priesthood rite. This tells me something about the ultimate life-giving power God has allotted to mankind through priesthood. We are to use it not to elevate ourselves in any way, but to help others rise to greater life.

9) “He is risen” means that though we have no need to fear existentially, we have no excuse if we are complacent. Christ rose multiple times before he rose definitively, and by that I mean that he rose in response to those crushed by sickness, poverty, sin, evil, and death. He drew everything heavenward in his warm updraft. He knew everything would ultimately be renewed, but those timely losses –– of sight, hearing, health, sanity –– were worth his immediate attention anyway.

10) His resurrection was the vanishing point, the spot in time and timelessness where every agonizing question, loss, doubt, weakness and evil was absorbed and converted by some splendid alchemy into possibility and joy. All will be well, if not instantly, in time. And indeed. All is seen and known in his Eternal Now, all is taken into consideration as part of his creation, which is a continual re-creation.

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And you have risen, too, Dalton, as you’ve followed Him. I can tell. I can feel it in your letters. When we follow him, we’re promised that, even if we’re required to traverse dark and alien terrain in the interim –– and we will be asked to trust through unspeakably dark places –– we will rise at last.

In all love, forever!

Your Everluvin’ Mum

Could I Have Saved My Child?

It took years to forgive myself.

I’d been warned. I’d been shown what was coming. I could have intervened. I could have been there. I could have saved my child.

But I hadn’t. I didn’t. If I had just…

Real Dreams

In Global Mom: A Memoir, I wrote about a dream I’d had of our son Parker two months after he’d drowned. The dream was especially forceful and allowed me to see and feel the setting he was in after death – a vivid, bright realm beyond mortality – as well as what he was doing there and with whom.

When I’ve had a dream like that, (in my life I’ve only had a few), I immediately write it down and share it with one or two others so it’s fresh and they’re “witnesses” to what I’ve been taught.  Because they have a different resonance than my run-of-the-mill bad digestion dreams, I feel a certain stewardship over their content. The Japanese call these real dreams.  They are gifts. You treasure them. You don’t thoughtlessly parade or banalize them. That being true, it was a little risky to publish one in a book. But I don’t regret that I did.

Then in On Loss and Living Onward I devoted a chapter to a dream I’d had exactly one month prior to losing Parker. In that dream, I was chasing after a toddler version of Parker (wearing a small version of the blue swim trunks we’d bought together when he was 17), who was being swept away in a small river that passed under a bridge, a passage from whence his little body never emerged. The dream was strangely corporeal. I actually felt the sun beating on my head, the icy spray of the water flecking my forearms, gravel cutting my bare feet and wild grass scraping at my ankles as I ran along the shore. I was sweaty, agitated, shaking and breathless when I awoke.

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But that dream was not the only one I had about Parker’s accident before that accident happened. What I’ve never published is the following dream, a second one.  I used to call it God’s Final Warning.

The Second Dream

From my email to a confidant:

The second dream I had exactly the week before his accident. By then I’d managed the bulk of the move to Munich (at least our beds were set up in the apartment so we could sleep here) and Randge [Randall] had arrived from Paris to be here for legal document signing before I left on the 14th to Utah to be with the kids whom we’d sent on ahead of us, especially to get Parker into summer college.

In the dream I rush into an ICU alone to find the tall, muscular body of a beautiful young male lying face-down on a gurney, a sheet covering him up to his waist. He’s wearing a neck brace and there are tubes coming out of his nose and mouth and he’s hooked up to monitors. He has multiple head injuries and looks bruised and bludgeoned from what I can see looking at the back of his head.

I’m shocked and chilled. I reach for the body and somehow recognize it well. Reason tells me that, because of the head injuries, this is the victim of an automobile accident, so my dreaming but analytical self tells me this is Aaron, my brother,the only licensed driver I know of that would fit the form and height of the man I’m seeing on the table.

My whole chest feels kicked in and I’m keeping myself from wailing. Many people are passing in and out of the room, but I’m the one standing closest to the body whose shoulders I stroke. I speak to the body and groan. We’re that way for a while. Then the body is turned over and it’s not clear to me whose face it is as the swelling and bruising and discoloration are so severe. Blood cakes the hair. There are some facial wounds.

I conclude it’s Aaron and he’s had a terrible car accident on his commute to Salt Lake City for work. He is unconscious and it seems – I’m being told – he will not live. I am weeping and trying to find a hand to hold under the sheet draped over the body. I pray and try to understand. People are in the room at a distance, not people I know well.

Then Randge is brought into the room. He has come in a hurry from far away. He stands to my left then we lean onto each other, supporting a motionless shock. The line of onlookers is up against a far wall. We are ripped open with grief.

I awoke from this dream and was lightly crying to myself, my heart was thumping and I felt agitated – I felt warned –and sat right up in bed. (I was in our little makeshift room here in the apartment, Randge sleeping deeply to my left.)  As soon as I awoke him, I told Randge exactly what I had seen and said I needed to call Aaron right away to warn him to take no risks when driving and to at least go slowly. Then I convinced myself he’d think I’m nuts, some kind of clairvoyant or something, so I left it up to fate and to his good driving skills to avoid anything like what I had seen.

Looking Under the Bridge

Those dreams meant something important. I’d felt that while dreaming them. You know how that is? When you are dreaming and it’s as if something taps your subconscious on the shoulder, saying, “Pay attention. Pay close attention.”

Well, the “something important” came rushing at me several days later.

In full force it came rushing, but only after Thursday, July 19th when Parker, standing in his blue swim trunks on the gravelly and wild-grass-lined banks of an Idaho irrigation canal, dove back a second time into a whirlpool under a little bridge to try to rescue a drowning college classmate. It came after his death-grayed body floated a distance down the small river past the bridge and plummeted head first over a lava rock waterfall. After I had hurried to Pocatello in the middle of the night and entered alone in an ICU where Parker lay face-down on a gurney (neck brace, tubes, monitors, head injuries, under a white sheet), after he’d been turned over, after Randall had burst into the ICU from his flight from Munich, after the onlookers lined up against the other wall, after we turned off life support. After the funeral. After it was too late.

When my two dreams and their matching reality came together, a deep terror set in. It paralyzed me. All I could conclude was that I’d fatally ignored God’s  3-D cinematic warnings given an entire month and then a week ahead of time. Plenty of lead time to have yanked fate off its tracks. Plenty of time to have saved my own child.

Yet I hadn’t.

Why not? Why had I not? Why? Why?!

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The Eternal Now

For so long I wrestled with every psychological angle. Had I been worried what others would think if I told them I, some homemade visionary, had had a couple of disturbing dreams, so please no water activities this summer? And we’re going to be walking everywhere for a while, no cars? Would I make everyone too anxious to live if I said I’d foreseen a male loved one in his last moments in an ICU scene? Or was what kept me from using these dreams to prevent tragedy something worse, something far more sinister, a character flaw, like  a chink of sloppiness, selfishness, distraction, irresponsibility?

Whatever the reasons behind not having advertised the dreams, what it came down to in my mind was that I was to blame. And that meant that beyond the gutting of grief, a boulder of guilt weighed on top of me. I shared that boulder with only a very, very few.

This is what a confidant wrote when I shared my boulder of guilt:

Warnings that you didn’t heed? No, no. Please do not torment yourself with such thoughts. These dreams were, rather, preparatory glimpses into what we mortals call “the future.” God, we know, is not bound or limited by our understanding of time and space. For God, all eternity is one Eternal Now. Somehow, through God’s great power and mercy and your own maternal in-tune-ness, you were permitted to see into the Eternal Now for two brief moments. You were a Seer. You are right to see these experiences, these dreams or visions, as evidence of God’s grace and as a testament to the fact that, for whatever terrible and holy reasons, this was taken into account in the cosmic scheme that includes your beautiful Parker.

What you hear from my friend’s message is that after much time packed with much spiritual work, (seeking God’s guidance through meditation, study, questioning and waiting for concrete answers, seeking to live close to Parker’s ongoing spirit, serving others as lovingly as I was able, gathering evidence of God’s loving kindness to our family and to me personally), I grew settled on this matter. I no longer felt I was solely responsible for his death. I accepted (and was not conquered by) death.

Could I have used those dreams as megaphone warnings to my family and circle of friends? Could I have forbidden all water activities for the summer? Forever? Could I have locked away every male I cared for who fit the description of the man I’d seen in my dream ICU? Kept them from cars? Cross walks? Random falling timber?

(You see how quickly love, grief, and longing wax irrational.)

I suppose so, yes. I could have done all of the above. But would having done so assured their survival? And as important, perhaps: Would having done so also have wrung out the very life from life, “killing” everyone another way? Never allowing them to live? Heaping on them fear, anxiety, foreboding?

Such questions.

But let me ask again: If my dreams were given not as forewarning, (knowing that even with such forewarnings I couldn’t have prevented my son’s accident), but were given as comforting communication to be recalled in the world of after, what does all this mean?

For starters, a conventional worldview that rejects any reality outside of the physical realm we inhabit cannot offer sufficient meaning in this riddle. A worldview that denies some kind of spiritual circuitry connecting my dreaming spirit with a much Higher Source of Light and Truth, (whom I call God), doesn’t offer meaning, either. Even quantum mechanics and parallel universes don’t account for these exquisitely personal communications and their broader, this-world (irrigation canal and ICU) context. And most especially, those theories are incapable of addressing the especially precious, abiding, and reciprocal relationship I have felt all along  with my guide, my God.

But my friend’s Eternal Now. That’s something I can sink into. As cosmos-bending and challenging to our puny minds as might seem a loving God caring for each of us from the middle of an Eternal Now, it does take it all in : Horror, holiness, time, relativity, space, us, something-far-beyond-us, everything.

In the end, (if there is an end), that notion of everything sits very, very well with me.

Sweet dreams to you all.

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(Evening spreads over the irrigation canal leading to Monkey Rock.)

My Christmas Sermon, given December 2014, in Frankfurt, Germany

The Nativity by Brian Kershisnik©

The Nativity by Brian Kershisnik©

Hanging prominently in the entryway of our home is a painting.

In its original, the painting is life-sized, as big as this entire podium. Off-center are three people: Joseph, Mary, and the Child. Joseph is shown on his knees on the ground, one hand draped on the shoulder of Mary, the other placed over half of his face, his eyes closed, mouth half-opened, as if caught mid-groan, mid-prayer, mid- revelation. Mary also sits on the ground, her legs stretched straight out before her, draped in a smooth white hand-spun cloth. Her one hand reaches up to gently clasp the hand of her Joseph. She looks tired but radiant — one strand of loose hair falls as she tips her head forward gazing down into her arms, which hold a small, reddish brown baby. The child is nuzzled up against her to nurse. That first taste of mortality.

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Kneeling also on the ground and leaning into the scene facing Mary are two women––midwives, we conclude, because they’re washing their bloodied hands in a basin. They complete the circle of family who’ve helped bring this baby into this world.

Then almost as an afterthought, there are the dog and two puppies, straining their looks upwards, aware of something else ––something bigger, something cosmic, even––going on right over their heads, all around them.

Most of the canvas is about what is unseen, this huge whoosh of beings––angels dressed in white robes––swooping from one side of then up and around and over the heads of the family––up out the top right corner of the painting, into and across and throughout the heavens. You might not see their faces from where you sit––some are stunned, some laughing, some singing with their heads thrown back, some shedding tears. Again the angels fill the biggest part of the canvas, well over half of it, and give the whole scene its swirling movement and surging energy.

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You know what this is. It’s the pictorial rendition of what I sang for you last week, “O Holy Night,” the night of our dear Savior’s birth. The holiest family and holiest night in all history, the most meaningful moment for all mankind and even to the entire creation, worlds without number, time without end.

It’s a Christmas painting, a holiday painting. But for me, it’s about far more than one Holy Night or Holy Family or holy day or holiday. It’s both a universal and intensely personal painting for me, and so it always hangs in our home, not just during this season, as a year-round reminder of our family’s most personal, most holy night.

What I want to share with you is personal, believing that the more personal a thing is, the more universal. But I know that I do so at certain risk. I ask that you will pray that what I’m going to share with you, you will receive with the Spirit. There is no way sacred things can be understood but by the power and translation of the Holy Spirit. I’m going to share sacred things about this son’s birth and our son’s death.

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Seven years ago, while vacationing at my parent’s home in Utah, I received a late night telephone call. A voice told me that our son Parker had been involved in a serious water accident. I was told Parker had been trying to save the life of a college classmate who had been drowning. That boy survived. But Parker, I was told, had been “underwater for a very long time, Mrs. Bradford.” He was, however, “stable.” I should nevertheless come as fast as I possibly could.

My husband Randall was still in Munich, overseeing details from our move that very week from Paris, where we’d lived for many years. I called him and told him to come––somehow come––to Idaho immediately.

  • As I drove alone 5 hours through total darkness from Utah into the rocky, dry desolation of southeastern Idaho, I wasn’t thinking of the Holy Family. I had no thought of Mary and Joseph’s long, arduous 8-10 day trek from Nazareth to Bethlehem.

Instead, I was praying aloud behind the steering wheel of a rental car. I was pleading with God to save my child. He would, I knew it. And after all, remember, I’d been told Parker was “stable.”

  • I wasn’t thinking of the stable in Bethlehem with its animals and smell, its straw, its dirt floor… as I walked into the hospital with its antiseptic smell, its white walls and fluorescent lights, its scrubbed medical personnel.

Instead, I was trying to take in what I saw: my son stretched out on a gurney, a white sheet covering his lower body, a ventilator shooshing air into his lungs. I clutched my scriptures in my arms, the first thing I’d put in my overnight bag. I’d planned to read them to my son while he recovered, while science and faith worked miracles, while my firstborn came out from a deep coma, came back to life. Now, instead, I whispered ancient prophets’ testimonies into his ear.

  • I wasn’t thinking of shepherds leaving their flocks or wise men traveling from the east as family and friends got word of Parker’s accident and called or came––by car, by plane––from the west coast and the east coast, western Europe, Asia, gathering literally with us as we labored against death.

No, I had no thoughts of shepherds and wise men, nor was I thinking of Mary’s possible midwives. Instead, I watched the two nurses who came frequently to check on my son and adjust his tubing.

  • And I wasn’t thinking of heavenly hosts. Well … at least not at first. Until I became aware of a presence and felt something happening in––filling up––that hospital room. I felt a gathering, a vibrating, warm, thick presence of spirits. While that gathering took place, the veil between the mortal and immortal realms grew thin. There was a palpable presence in that room. Those who came and went commented on it. Right there, in the face of unspeakable horror was an undeniable never-before-known holiness.

I waited the many painful hours until my dear husband, by a series of miracles, arrived. At 7:00 p.m. that next evening, pale and breathless, Randall burst through the doors. I watched every frame as it passed without soundtrack, feeling torn to pieces like a melting hulk of upheaval, as my boy’s best friend and father steadied himself against the scene that met his eyes. From one step to the next, he aged fifty years. “Parker, oh, sweet son. Sweet, sweet son.” Silence and awe. There are moments that cannot and should not be rendered in words.

  • And it was then and there, together, bent over the body of our gorgeous child that our thoughts did go instinctively to The Holy Family. With our child stretched out under a white sheet on what felt like an altar before us, with me wrapped in a blue polyester hospital blanket, my husband groaning, weeping, praying, seeking revelation, we thought about Mary’s and Joseph’s and our Heavenly Mother’s and Father’s exquisite and infinite agony. We felt the smallest, sharpest edge of their immeasurable sacrifice.

“For God so loved the world,” John wrote, “that he gave his only begotten son, that whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have everlasting life.”

—(John 3:16)

And then came these words: “Mr. and Mrs. Bradford, survival, any kind of survival? Percentage-wise, less than ten percent. Meaningful survival? Less than five percent.”

It took that whole holy night, that long labyrinth-like passage we spent wandering together through our minds and hearts, to come to terms with what this meant. And though “come to terms” would take not just one night but months and months into years of long nights of the soul, we did in fact feel a gradual enveloping. Enveloping. That is the best word I can find to describe it. Slowly, coming from all around us, Randall and I noted a sturdy-ing, something that stabilized us, that settled us down into deep assurance.

After walking outside of the emergency room past the landing pad where the very helicopter stood that had brought our son there only hours earlier, under the stars and the moon that seemed to hold their breath with us in terror, and after speaking aloud to God and to Parker, we made that walk back into his room.

There was such a weight of reverence in that room that the space itself felt denser and more illuminated than the hallway. Walking through the doorway was like moving through a plasma membrane. We brought all the waiting family and friends––you can call them shepherds, wise men and wise women, midwives––into Parker’s small room and gathered around the edge of his bed.

I was not consciously thinking of angelic choirs and had no spirit for “Glorias in Excelsis Deos.” But, in that stillness and through a ton of ruins that was my soul, my voice broke through. It shocked me. It pushed through without plan or my permission. In the shimmering stillness I began singing, “I know that my Redeemer lives . . . ” And by the end of that phrase, the whole room joined in. Heaven floated down, encompassing us like a great, weightless, sky-blue silk curtain.

And we––a normal, not-really-holy-at-all family, with a hospital room for a manger, nurses for midwives, and unseen angels for a chorus––stood there, encircling Parker’s form. And we sang harmony with angels. We sang to this child, we sang to heaven. We sang and sang. Souls sliced open, we sang our Parker into the next life. Then that sky-blue silk curtain wrapped us in silence.

We removed life support. His lungs released a final sigh of this earth’s air. And as his head tipped gracefully to one side, the earth fell off its axis and began spinning strangely, drunkenly, into unchartable and inaccessible regions out of which only a God can escape, or from which only a God can rescue.

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Now. … Why do I do this to myself, sharing all of that with you? And of all times, why now? Isn’t it Merry Christmas? Why such a mournfully tragic story for our Christmas message? Or you might ask, How, Melissa, can you even talk about this? Don’t you want to forget it? Wipe it out of your memory forever? Talk about lighter stuff? Tinsel? Jingle-jingle? Ding-dong? What happened to Jolly Old Saint Nick? Rudolph? Frosty … ?

That First Christmas after we buried our Parker, I had no energy for a jingle, or a single, thumb-sized decoration. No energy to face the boxes of baubles and mementos Parker had helped me pack away while we laughed and joked so casually, so carelessly, just twelve months earlier. I couldn’t for the life of me generate enough energy to face Christmas at all.

As I considered the birth of the Christ child, the heralded grandeur, the coming of the King with glory roundabout and shepherds sore afraid and young innocent wide-eyed Mary cradling him, her splendid firstborn, I wanted to wail at the top of my lungs, “But you will lose him, Mary! You. Will. Lose. Him!!”

Because, you see, that birth in Bethlehem is inextricably linked to Gethsemane. The straw upon which Christ lay in a manger points to the cross from which he would hang. The infant cry that his father Joseph heard echoes forward to his adult cry that his Father Elohim heard, “My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?

Indeed, wrote Elder Jeffrey R. Holland:

“You can’t separate Bethlehem from Gethsemane or the hasty flight into Egypt from the slow journey to the summit of Calvary. It’s of one piece. It is a single plan. It considers ‘the fall and rising again of many in Israel,’ but always in that order. Christmas is joyful not because it is a season or decade or lifetime without pain or privation, but precisely because life does hold those moments for us. And that baby, my son, my own beloved and Only Begotten Son in the flesh, born ‘away in a manger, [with] no crib for his bed,” makes all the difference in the world, all the difference in time and eternity, all the difference everywhere, worlds without number, a lot farther than your eye can see.”

––”Shepherds, Why This Jubilee?” p.68

…Yes, I now knew something on a bone-deep level. Mary lost him. We will lose things. That is true. There are no guarantees that the person sitting next to us right now will be there tomorrow, or even the next hour, the next breath. No guarantees that what might lend our life much of its security and satisfaction in this moment will remain beyond today.

But what is guaranteed, and what is truer than Saint Nick, Rudolph, and Frosty is that, because of that Holy Family and that Firstborn Son no loss is designed or destined to be permanent. Because of His birth with its in-born death, because of Bethlehem that foreshadowed Gethsemane, because of the cave-like manger that links to the garden tomb ––because of Him, all of our individual and collective long nights of the soul are taken into account and born up with His rising.

But more than that, they are taken into the outstretched arms of an infinitely compassionate Savior whose love and mercy far surpass any and all mortal losses, any and all degrees of grief, any and every horrible holy night.

I believe that the Son so loved us that He descended from heaven to heaviness to meet every one of us in the dark and hollow places of our lives, our souls. And God so loved the world that he offered His Son, a sacrifice that transforms mortality with all its perils and deficits into the gift of immortality and life in His presence.

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O Holy Night. Your holy night. No, I never, ever want to forget mine. In fact, I think of our holy night every day. I think of it because I long to be there where I saw Things As They Really Are. And how are they, really? In the isolation and darkness of such a night you see and sense what is hardly visible or palpable in broad daylight. Somewhere there, as you wait on the Lord––as you lie flat, motionless, arms wrapped over your shredded heart, holding your breath or weeping aloud––you feel the hint and muted hum of light reverberating within your soul, a vibration coming from a source nearby. Of course, it was there all along, that lucent presence, that light-that-shineth-in-darkness. But you couldn’t comprehend it. In your agony and desperate disorientation, you couldn’t comprehend it.

In silence, in retreat, in your necessary entombment, your soul gradually reorients itself and, with a slow turn, you see the source of that soft vibration. You realize He was seated next to you in that darkness, quietly waiting, His eyes mellow and steadying, His hands resting calmly on your head, emitting real heat.

There, touched by God’s incandescent grace, a grave is transformed into a bed of rebirth. Your cold body is warmed to new life. Noiselessly, He stands. And you, drawn by ardor, follow as He rolls away the stone with an outstretched finger. Just one glance, and you understand that He is asking that you reenter the world with its sometimes-blinding sunlight and frequent neon facsimiles. He is asking that you follow Him from death to a new life, which you gratefully give back to Him.

So once again—raising us from either grave sin, grave sorrow, or from the grave itself—Christ has conquered death.

And that, my sisters, brothers, and friends everywhere, is true joy to the world.

Sin 201: The Diet Parable

My body’s been all over the map.

That’s not Global Mom talking about the places she’s lived. That’s Melissa talking about everywhere her weight has been.

(Make that had been.)

Eating at a hawker center in  Singapore.

Eating at a hawker center in Singapore. I enjoy really good food, anywhere, any time.

Note: I’ve been stable and healthy for decades. But the road to finally feeling free in my own skin was long, painful, erratic, exhausting, costly in every sense of that word, and even life-threatening. As a teenager I battled with eating disorders, which began at 13 with anorexia so severe, I lay in hospital for months and was even fed intravenously. That led to major weight swings, all tangled in the string of yo-yo dieting.  You name the diet, by the age of 19 I’d tried them all, including ludicrously long stretches of eating nothing but ice shavings with a dash of dust mites. (For protein.)

Eating again. Several courses at a traditional family table in Lombardy, Italy.

Eating again. Several courses at a traditional family table in Lombardy, Italy.

Where did all that extreme deprivation get me? As I said, it dragged me all over the map, including to a peak when I was 80 pounds (35 kilos or 6 stones) overweight. And this all happened within my teens. For cryin’ out loud!

Which I did. Often. I was one very stuck girl. No matter what I tried, I couldn’t figure out how to find equilibrium. My messed-up metabolism made what should have been the glorious gift of a human body more like a life sentence on a Tilt-a-Whirl.

First world problems, I know. But I share this whole history to explain why, 1) I sympathize from the floor of my gut with those who struggle with their bodies, and why, 2) extremes of all kinds scare me, and why, 3) I’m repelled by the word “diet.”

In fact, we don’t say or do that four-lettered word in my family.

I also share my history to show that people can find peace, freedom, balance. People can change their appetites. 

And now my husband wants to change. Here’s where our diet parable starts.

Eating with Claire. The fries were great.

Eating in St. Cergue, Switzerland with Claire. The fries were great.

Randall’s not been all that peppy. Worst health of his life, he says. My adorable husband, a natural athlete all his life with a wicked backhand and a speedy 10k, a man who’s always met life on the tips of his toes, has recently hit an all-time slump. He’s carrying some extra weight he doesn’t like. He’s winded by stairs. Achy after a flight. Sleepless. Sleepy.  And in last week’s executive physical (a day-long battery of tests administered at a major US hospital, where Randall’s overall health and fitness were assessed), he was advised that in order to return to the health and vigor he once enjoyed, he’d have to change his diet.

That word.

Those vulgar folks and their nasty white doctor frocks.

Problem is, over the last couple of years he’s tried everything to get his zip back. He’s cut down, cut out. Skipped meals. Tried to get infected with the Asian flu. But he’s still stuck.

“Okay, hon,” I told him while we jogged together this morning. “Trust me. I’ve got a plan. You’re going to absolutely love this. I made it up in my sleep, it’s that simple. This is it: we have to get you to eat much more. Much, much more.”

Eating. . . at the Mets Stadium in New York City.

Eating. . . at the Mets Stadium in New York City.

I explained my theory, which I happen to call the Pyramid Plan. (Because a little alliteration makes it marketable. And again, we don’t use the D––– word.)

The Pyramid simply means eating a lot of the foods that are the best for your body, what your cells really need for optimum nourishment and health, the most nutrient-packed, roughage-dense foods.

“Every day without fail you build your Pyramid by eating the most of those kinds of foods. The base of the Pyramid,” I made a triangle shape with my fingers, “is 6 large servings of vegetables. Then you add 5 servings of fruits.”

I watched him in my peripherals. So far, steady. We kept running, breezy-like. Then I added the next layer. “You eat 4 servings of whole grains. Along with 3 servings of lean protein. Then you need 2 servings of calcium/dairy, and to finish it off, you’ll need one generous serving of fat.

It was then that Randall noted what you’ve just noted. “You mean. . .no Krispy Kreme food group?”

We kept jogging.

Eating gulasch in Warsaw, Poland.

Eating gulasch in Warsaw, Poland.

“Right, yeah.” I ran straight ahead, acting clinical. “The Pyramid doesn’t include that sort of stuff because the aim is to get full on the best so that there’s not much room left for the. . . not-so-best. That way, we basically reeducate the palate. You’re not supposed to be aware of this, but we’re going to try to transform your taste buds.”

It so happens that those super foods at the base of the Pyramid also have the fewest calories per serving. The higher the Pyramid, generally the more calorie-dense the food group. What is wonderful, is that you eat well, it is sustainable, and you needn’t subject yourself or your thyroid to anything extreme. And we’re not into demonizing food. We’re learning to love the best of it.

Maybe you’re thinking of this family, who stopped eating sugar cold turkey for a year, and subsequently no longer desired what they’d craved earlier. But I reassured Randall that our focus is different. (It has to be. As you know, this jog we’re enjoying is in Switzerland. This is no time to rule out chocolate. I’m thinking of a way of working it into the Pyramid. Maybe as mortar.)

What I was suggesting to my husband isn’t first about what you can NOT eat, but what you CAN. And SHOULD. And MUST.

Eating my first birthday cake, Kansas.

Eating my first birthday cake, Kansas.

Experience has taught me something important. If we keep giving ourselves false fuel, we’re training our desires for just that: false fuel. We’ll crave empty calories that fill us up, but leave our cells screaming. When we fill our empty stomachs with empty calories, we remain forever hungry. Paradoxically, we can end up overeating, overfed, but ultimately undernourished. Left unchecked, this emptiness can lead to feeling imprisoned in our bodies, sluggish, even dead-ish.

It’s a difficult cycle to break. I know.

You already see this parable with sin taking shape.

Our spirits, like our bodies, crave true nourishment.  Truth. Meaning. Intimacy. Knowledge. Service. Hope. Freedom. Growth. Creation. Love. Problems arise when we become habituated to filling our spirits with “empty calories,” with tangible or intangible stuff (like the It Handbag or maybe Facebook fame,) which we’re fooled into thinking will satisfy us, but which in the end don’t. Because they cannot. “You can’t ever get enough of what you don’t need,” goes the adage, “because what you don’t need won’t satisfy you.”

Unsatisfied, famished, we keep scarfing down metaphorically “empty calories” in a passive stupor of addiction, mindlessly poisoning our systems with what will never ultimately satisfy our spirits. Shopaholics, workaholics, pornoholics. Liars, exploiters, thieves. We war, we dominate, we covet. We justify gossiping, cheating, condemning. We long for our neighbor’s salary, house, spouse. We allow drugs, binge drinking, insularity, promiscuity and bullying, every latest gadget, every designer trinket, every luxury leisure to fill the hallways of our schools,  starving our first world children spiritually, while third world children starve literally.

All the while, the sound of our innermost cells, screaming.

Eating more birthday cake, Alabama.

Eating more birthday cake, Mobile, Alabama.

Though I’m not Catholic, I appreciate this from Pope Francis:

“There’s the risk of passively accepting certain behaviors and to not be astonished by the sad situations around us . . .We get used to violence, as if it were everyday news taken for granted; we get used to our brothers and sisters who sleep on the streets, who don’t have a roof over their heads. We get used to refugees seeking freedom and dignity who aren’t welcomed as they should be…[We should fight ] this addiction to un-Christian and easy-way-out behaviors that drug our hearts.”

To undrug our hearts we might need to retrain our desires/appetites/impulses. For that, it’s not enough to just stop scarfing the bad stuff for a while. That Quickie Miracle Cleansing Flush might drain something, but it won’t retrain much. Something draconian––ever eaten only Tic Tacs for three weeks?––might feel righteous, even holy, but it won’t rehabilitate us for good. We’ll be back to Twinkies before we know it. It’s not enough to remove evil, to tell my children to not spend so much time in a daze with a digital gadget, for instance. Remove the gadget, and what you have is an empty space. There must be a desirable and  truly “nourishing” replacement that fills up –– or even crowds out –– the vacuum that remains. There has to be “nutritionally dense” matter that will fill both mind and spirit and train the soul toward those things.

As this wise voice asserts:

“Evil in its raucous, impudent, and foul forms penetrates so strongly into the consciousness of our precious young people that they scarcely have freedom of choice. We cannot isolate our young from the influences of the world, but we can teach them to differentiate so that they can avoid everything that is unclean, unspiritual, and ugly.”

-Dr. Johann Wondra, (former head of Vienna’s Burg Theater) “Art: A Possibility for Love” in Arts and Inspiration, ed. Dr. Steven Sondrup

Eating...ice cubes in Springville, Utah.

Eating ice cubes in Springville, Utah.

By filling the body and mind with the best, you are educated to differentiate and free to choose between the empty and the excellent. Furthermore, you can arrive at that magical moment when you realize with a jolt that you’re actually craving raw red peppers. Not at all like what you used to crave, the Cheet-os, Doritos, Fritos, Tostitos, Ho-Hos or anything else that ends in a zero.

Just a Plain. Red. Pepper.

What’s happened is all those good things from the Pyramid base have waged a gentle revolution, and your body chemistry has been altered. It honestly wants what is best for it.  It desires what is good.  When we fill our bodies and our hearts with the real, the good, the highest quality of nutrition—literally or figuratively–– we begin craving the real, the good, the truly nutritious. We’re nourished. We find balance. We’re free.

That, I think, is a mighty change.

Those words remind of a passage of scripture I’ve always loved. It’s about an ancient people, once a tribe of ego- and appetite-driven types (like all of us), who, through disciplined living and mindful choices, retrain their spiritual taste buds. They experience such an internal revolution, in fact, the record states they’d “wrought a mighty change” in their hearts, and they had “no more disposition to do evil, but to do good continually.”  (Mosiah 5:2)

Impossible? No more disposition for Krispy Kremes?

In a few posts, I’ll be back to report on how the Pyramid stands.

 

Not letting any of my cousins eat my birthday cake, Bloomingotn, Indiana

Not letting ANYONE else eat MY birthday cake, Bloomington, Indiana

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Sin, 101: A Fifty-Cent Parable

In a comment thread elsewhere, a thoughtful reader asked me, “What is sin?”

Nothing like three little syllables–nine letters and a fishhook at the end–to get you right in the craw! For the last two weeks (if not for my whole adult life) I’ve asked myself this same question. That shouldn’t surprise anyone. Sin, in theory almost as much as in practice, has occupied both the minds and hearts––and even the best minds and hearts––for … oh, forever.

Who am I, though, to answer this kind of question? To define points of doctrine? In response, I’d rather describe than prescribe, would rather share what my life’s passage has been (and what sin has meant for me), than talking hamartiology, theology and philosophy. Besides, those -ologies can quickly get thick, inaccessible and even explosive––a mine field of semantics.

Instead of going the route of theoretical theology, I’ll break up our discussion on sin into a few simple parts, each post built on a parable taken from personal experience. Then I’ll try to offer a loose definition of some aspect of sin. I hope you’ll come back to leave a comment. I think the comment thread will be better than the posts. (Come back, at least, to hear some great stories.)

Age six

Age six, with ponytail

A 50-Cent Parable

I was six. Laura Nieminen, my friend upstairs in our apartment building, had a fifty-cent coin. It lay there, unattended, on a windowsill in her bedroom while we two sat on her floor playing dolls.

Trying to play dolls, that is. I couldn’t concentrate on a single one of her many Barbies, (I had none, by the way; she had a whole Rockette line-up, so I was feeling deprived,) I was too distracted by that flat silver disc glinting in my peripheral vision. It was magnificent. Magnetic. 

So much so, that when Laura left to go to the bathroom, I couldn’t resist. And why should I resist? I thought. I’ll never really take it. I’ll just touch it for a second, feel its weight, its slick surface, its shininess.

I took it in my hand. It was warm, having lain in the sun by the window.  The heat made it more magical. There it was, solid and glossy in my palm, with that impeccably chiseled JFK profile.

And something in me gave in, stopped resisting, took a step. Quickly, I wrapped the piece in a teeny yellow Barbie doll rain slicker Laura had told me I could have, (“Oh, I’ve got lots others,” she’d said. And that, I said to myself, meant she wouldn’t miss some stupid coin, either. She had more of everything. I had less. Taking it would be justified.)

I slipped the hot wad in my pocket, and took off.

In a dead sprint, I ran out of Laura’s room, out of her apartment, down the hallway, down a lightless stairway, down another hallway, into our apartment, and straight to my bedroom at the end on the right. I shut the door behind me. Panting, and swallowing a surge of something new and electric, I stashed the coin in its shiny yellow packaging way back in a drawer under some cotton underwear. Then I flopped on my bottom bunk, sweaty-palmed and a bit queasy. I was stiff but shaky as I closed my eyes to stare into the dark, swirling pit of what I’d just gotten away with.

Age six, contemplating a bigger heist

Contemplating a bigger heist

Weeks and months went by.  Laura never asked for her coin. This was a relief, because that meant she hadn’t noticed, and if she had noticed, she hadn’t cared. I thought. In my mind, if she didn’t missed it, and no one caught me, then I was off the hook. I’d really not done anyone any harm. I wasn’t bad.I of course never gave the coin back to her. But I never spent it, either. Honestly, I’m not even sure of whatever became of the fifty-cents.

But I know what happened to me. At first, I could think of little else but that coin. That little disc of metal clouded—or better, eclipsed—my other thoughts. And I felt not only less light in terms of luminosity, but I felt less light in terms of weight. I was heavier in spirit—my spindly little six-year-old self—no matter how much I tried to whistle in the dark or how much I smiled as I skipped on the playground.

Skipped, by the way, right past Laura. Because besides taking away my lightness of mind and lightness of spirit, my dishonesty eventually distanced me from my friend. In fact, although I got her yellow Barbie slicker back to her somehow (probably confecting some fib for why I’d run home that day, so stacking another untruth on top of the deceit of stealing) I never went back to her apartment. Never played with her again, in fact.

What’s more, I felt awkward—ill at ease—just looking into the eyes of my parents, my sisters.  Could they see into my eyes? Know what I was hiding in my room, in the back of a drawer, in my thoughts?

This preoccupation meant I was also ill at ease with myself. Because when I did look into my own eyes, (I climbed up onto the cool white enamel bathroom sink to get a good look of myself in the medicine chest mirror rimmed in metal) I thought my eyes looked. . . different? My act split me from myself. I felt regret. Worry. Guilt. I became redefined in my own mind: A girl capable of that.

In so many ways, still that little girl

In so many ways, still that little girl

And over 40 years later, you see it’s still there, that stupid coin, lodged in my memory like a token jammed in the slot of a vending machine. It never bought me what I thought I wanted.  Instead, it cost me, and it still does.

***

Sin, for me, is any deliberate action (and I’ll include thought patterns as actions) that is in opposition to what our most vibrant conscience tells us is right, good and true.  Sin is also stepping over divinely ordained guidelines. Sin leads us away from light, wholeness, peace, and joy. Sin, unresolved, impedes our growth. It is real, omnipresent, and causes misery and death. Avoiding sin eases life. Abandoning sin can be the hardest thing you’ve ever done. But doing so gives life, and that life is both more abundant and freer than any life we’d ever imagined possible.

***

What about this 50-cent Parable rings true or familiar to you? What doesn’t?

What from the concluding “definition” of sin works for you? What does not?

How would you describe or define sin?

Holy Friday Procession, Warsaw

My last post from Easter Week in Poland.

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Why was I determined to bring my family to Poland during Easter? From a previous post, you know we’d considered going to a warmer, closer place for that week. Italy, for instance. Just across the fence from where we live in Switzerland. Or Spain, only an eight hour drive. Southern France, four hours even with a couple of rest stops. There were clearly options.

But I was set on Poland. Colder, farther, reputedly austere, and expecting an unseasonably late squall.

If you’re new to this blog, you might think I wanted to visit Poland because it’s overwhelmingly Catholic, and given my dozens upon dozens of cathedral photos – Oh. You noticed all the cathedrals? – you think I must be Catholic, too.

I’m not.

(Devoted Christian and by nature something my close friends call “spiritual.” But not Catholic.)

Complete cathedral carved by hand and out of rock salt hundreds of meters below the earth's surface.

Complete cathedral carved by hand and out of rock salt hundreds of meters below the earth’s surface. Largest salt mines on earth lie outside of Krakow.

Neither am I Jewish. Although you’d think from all the posts on my fascination with things Jewish that I must have been bat mitzvahed. I’ve spent much of my adult life studying Jewish history and literature, particularly literature born of the Holocaust, (and yes, I’ve sung at my share of bat mitzvahs), but no, I’m not Jewish. I didn’t go to Poland only because of its once considerable Jewish population.

Warsaw's Monument to the Ghetto Uprising. On Palm Sunday, dozens of busloads of Israeli youth gathered here for a memorial service.

Warsaw’s Monument to the Ghetto Uprising. On Palm Sunday, dozens of busloads of Israeli youth gathered here for a memorial service.

Next morning, we went there again with the boys.

Next morning, we went there again with the boys.

Umschlagplatz, where over 300,000 Jews were herded into crowded freight cars, which took them to Treblinka and other camps

Umschlagplatz, where over 300,000 Jews were herded into freight cars, which took them to Treblinka and other death camps

Common Jewish names, memorialized on the Umschalgplatz monument

Common Jewish names, memorialized on the Umschalgplatz monument

My youngest two, entering Auschwitz

My youngest two, entering Auschwitz

I went to Poland because my spirit feels drawn to the history – both devoutly Christian and devoutly Jewish – and the energetic culture that has arisen from that complex, contrapuntal foundation. Through the week spent traveling, I revisited my archives of Polish and eastern European writings associated with the Holocaust. Late on Holy Friday evening in Warsaw, in fact, I was sitting in my pajamas in bed in our hotel room reading some of these poems. The boys were over there, listening to iTunes; Randall was over there, working on his lap top. And I was in the middle of this especially sparse verse:

Crucifixion
Anna Akhmatova
Translated from the Russian by Stanley Kunitz and Max Hayward
1940-1943

I
A choir of angels glorified the hour,
the vault of heaven was dissolved in fire.
“Father, why hast Thou forsaken me?
Mother, I beg you, do not weep for me. . .”

II
Mary Magdalene beat her breasts and sobbed,
His dear disciple, stone-faced, stared.
His mother stood apart. No other looked
into her secret eyes. Nobody dared.

**

. . .And right about there from somewhere behind or above or outside, I heard (I thought) an angelic chorus.

In my head?

(Okay.  I’m not that spiritual.)

“Hon?” I spoke lowly. “Are you hearing – ?”

My husband looked up from his work. “Whuh?”

“You hearing. . .? Okay seriously. Are you…? Hearing. . .Is it just me?”

Then I heard a full musical phrase. Randall, however, did not.

So I swung my legs out of bed, and ran to the window. I waved to Randall to come quickly.  Bring his iPhone. We saw this:

Dalton rushed out the door pulling on his coat and slinging a camera around his neck. He arrived at ground level just as this happened:

From the street, he was able to capture these images:

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In the context of all we were ingesting, with the backdrop of all I have shared in the last posts – Final Solutions, genocide, death marches, gas chambers, freight trains and firing walls, toppled statues and draped Swastika banners – against that incomprehensibly murderous epoch, what can we make of this street scene?

What meaning or relative value is there in a procession where hundreds of people, strangers to one another mostly, simply drop to their knees and worship? On the icy asphalt, in some odd splotch of street lamp, a child in the arms or crutches under the arms – what practical, verifiable, enduring, elevating purpose is there in getting down on one’s knees? In bowing one’s head? In submitting oneself to something as “insubstantial”  (again, considering the immeasurable loss and the evil engendered by the Holocaust) something as impractical, one might say, as is faith?

I will not answer that here.

But I’ll leave you with this poem. First, the poet’s notes:

In 1945, during the big resettlements of population at the end of World War II, my family left Lithuania and was assigned quarters near Danzig (Gdansk [in northern Poland]) in a house belonging to a German peasant family. Only one old German woman remained in the house. She fell ill with typhus and there was nobody to take care of her. In spite of admonitions motivated partly by universal hatred for the Germans, my mother nursed her, became ill herself, and died.

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With Her
Czeslaw Milosz
translated from the Polish by Robert Hass and Czeslaw Milosz

Those poor, arthritically swollen knees
Of my mother in an absent country.
I think of them on my seventy-fourth birthday
As I attend early Mass at St. Mary Magdalen in Berkeley.
A reading this Sunday from the Book of Wisdom
About how God has not made death
And does not rejoice in the annihilation of the living.
A reading from the Gospel according to Mark
About a little girl to whom He said: “Talitha cumi!”
This is for me. To make me rise from the dead
And repeat the hope of those who lived before me,
in a fearful unity with her, with her pain of dying,
In a village near Danzig, in a dark November,
When both the mournful Germans, old men and women,
And the evacuees from Lithuania would fall ill with typhus.
Be with me, I say to her, my time has been short.
Your words are now mine, deep inside me:
“It all seems now to have been a dream.”

Besieging God

© Melissa Dalton-Bradford and melissadaltonbradford.wordpress.com, 2013. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Melissa Dalton-Bradford and melissadaltonbradford.wordpress.com with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

© Melissa Dalton-Bradford and melissadaltonbradford.wordpress.com, 2013. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Melissa Dalton-Bradford and melissadaltonbradford.wordpress.com with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

In the scripture story I read aloud to my nine-year-olds in Sunday school class two weeks ago, a man had prayed all through the day and into the night, and into the next day. “Look right here,” I pointed to the page for the kids, “he even says he ‘wrestled’ in prayer. Sounds like it must have been pretty urgent, don’t you think? Sounds as if he really beseeched God.”

Beseeched?” Camille asked, wriggling between Annie and Claire. Nothing gets past these kids, even if sometimes their feet can’t reach the floor when they’re in the grownup chairs. Claire’s eyebrows sloped and pinched together; “What’s beseeched?” “Yeah, what’s that?” Annie asked, curling her lip.

I rattled off a few synonyms: supplicated, pled, importuned.

(More wriggling, sloped brows, curling lips.)

William, wise beyond his nine years, patted his hand on the table, calling everyone to order.

“Besieged,” William said. “What she said was he besieged God.”

That was last Sunday, and this Saturday morning I was still replaying that moment – that word – in my head. Besiege. William had hit on a brilliant thing. In fact, John Donne and Tertullian would have agreed:

Earnest prayer has the nature of importunity. . .We press, we importune God. . .Prayer has the nature of impudence and more. Prayer has the nature of violence; in the public prayers of the congregation, we besiege God, says Tertullian, and we take God prisoner, and bring God to our conditions, and God is glad to be straitened by us in that siege.

-John Donne, in The Complete English Poems of George Herbert, ed. J. Tobin. 347

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With that excerpt scrolling through my thoughts, I moved in and around the clusters of visitors in the Cologne cathedral – Cologne, which in World War II had been a Militärbereichshauptkommandoquartier, one of those confounding German compound words which means a central command station for military purposes.

Prayer as besieging. Cologne as a siege center. The Cologne cathedral as a symbol for besieging prayer.

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When I was a child like Annie, Camille, Claire and William, life was fresh and uncomplicated, my heart was unscathed, my mind all chirpy canary yellow with splashes of robin’s egg blue and the floating fluff of clouds. I realize now I was lucky, as are these four. At nine, I knew nothing of what far too many nine-year-olds in this world do; that life can be harsh, even hostile, often brutal. And in that innocent world it was sufficient to “say my prayers.”

I was taught to say my prayers as soon as I was taught to recite the alphabet. These weren’t rote prayers, but were the simple expressions of a little girl: “Hemly Fader, we sank dee fow dis day. . .”

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I was taught that prayers were heard, and that they were answered. I could trust that God was a loving Father, who would respond with blessings, even if sometimes those blessings might not necessarily come, as I began to learn in my teens, when, how, or in the form I might expect them. But He would hear. And He would respond. This is what God was there for. To keep things under control by answering my prayers.

I was taught to pray both in English and in German, since my parents, who weren’t German but loved things German, wanted us to speak that language. With my head bowed and arms folded reverently across my chest, I would say, “Lieber Vater im Himmel. . .”And our family, at the dinner table after the amen of the prayer over the food, would all hold hands and sort of tug up and down on each other’s hands, chanting, “Guten Appetit-teet-teet, let’s eat!”

God, went my logic, provided for our material needs, including every meal. And He was German.

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At the start of the day with my family next to our dining room table, we often knelt. And I knelt alone, mostly at my bedside at night. When there was an exceptional or acute concern – someone was in trouble, there was a war in a foreign country, a president was being impeached, a church leader was sick, the boy down the street was hit by a train in the night, or Mom was having life-threatening surgery – we circled, knelt, and prayed.

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It’s no exaggeration that I can’t imagine my life up until five and a half years ago void of prayer, which had always been a vital enough element of my intimate connection with my Father in Heaven. Prayer, I experienced as I matured, had consistently opened up channels of strength and understanding that were beyond my natural capacities. Prayer had guided me, had guided things to me, had helped me even have specific things: my husband, for instance, our four incredible children, employment, a place to live every time we moved, health, sanity, answers, wisdom,forgiveness, words for writing, lost keys, lost cameras, lost credit cards and even my lost youngest who’d toddled away in a public park in a seedy part of Paris.

You might call that personal revelation. I do, too.

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Prayer also softened things. The bite of stinging betrayal, self-doubt, loneliness, homesickness, disappointment, anger, rage, indignance.

And it sharpened things. It alerted me to physical and spiritual danger, made me a lot smarter than I actually am in those many moments of dire brain need, and helped me on many occasions discern truth from fraud.

Prayer recharged me. It generated some remarkable healings in other’s lives as well as in my own. My life was literally saved at 14, as a matter of fact, and while doctors and medication and treatment and family support were absolutely central, I believe prayer (and God) facilitated them being so.

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Prayer broke me down. It opened me up for inspection, corrected me, blowtorched some real crusty grime and grit from my moldings, blew the wool clean off of my own sight of myself.

And then prayer hid me. In prayer, I found I was understood, and experienced that I was already known to a caring God, who is (this should be no surprise given that he’s God) always an eternal step ahead of me. He knew my needs long before they even became my needs.

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Many years ago, lying flat on my stomach, face smushed to one side, I’d explained my feelings about prayer to a massage therapist, Vickie. She pummeled me regularly over my childbearing and child-on-the-hip-carrying years, trying to treat the debilitating lower back spasms that used to hit without warning and landed me many times on a stretcher, in a hospital, and always in bed and on mega muscle relaxants for a couple of weeks each time.

“Vickie, it’s like this,” I said. “I petition the Lord, and the response is immediate, almost, as if he’d been anticipating my question. The answers and blessings come so freely. All these wonderful, undeserved blessings. They’ve really built my faith.”

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Vickie, who could not have known that in a few weeks from that hour she was going to be diagnosed with advanced stage ovarian cancer, kept kneading my muscles. She sighed at my comment. Lately, she’d been feeling much more tired than usual.

“Yeah,” she said, planting her palms on either side of my lumbar vertebrae, sending heat. “I guess so, Melissa. But that’s not where it ends. I think it’s when you don’t get the FedEx online-shopping-cart answer to your prayers when you really find out what you know.” She lifted her hands to sweep her hair from her face. “It’s when you don’t get your wish list that you see God really, really clearly.”

Massage therapists. They’ve got some special thing.

Vickie’s words came back to me in full timbre when I heard of her diagnosis.

Was prayer going to whonk this one for Vickie, steamroll it? I prayed for major whonking. I trusted in prayer-as-steamroller. Last I heard, Vickie’s still in remission.

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Then Vickie’s words came back again in July of 2007. The summer of implosion. It was through implosion that I relearned prayer, much like I relearned breathing. In fact, prayer became my essential breath. It was also then I started seeing things, including God, much more clearly.

Saying my prayers wasn’t going to get me anywhere. Neither was mere beseeching.

This was the besieging season.

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“Kids,” I said last Sunday in our little church class, “I know what it’s like to be this man in the scriptures.” I reported this with studied dispassion, like a journalist. No need to frighten the kids. No need to share sacred emotion. “I know what it’s like to go somewhere and stay there praying all day, all night, all day again. Did you know, friends, you can pray without words? Mm-hum. You can even fall on your face and cry and, ta-da!, it’s a prayer! Or you can groan, pound your fists, and maybe even yell up into the sky. All prayer.”

Annie’s large blue eyes grew larger, bluer.

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“So. . . what was it?” Claire asked, “What made you pray like that?” She looked like someone from the New York Times perched in the front row of the press corps.

Camille popped up on her knees on her chair and shook her light brown hair around her shoulders, singing, “Didn’t you have a son who died?”

I looked at William, inches to my left, his soft smile unchanged. Exquisite. When I dream of Parker, strangely enough, I so often dream of him at age nine.

“I still have a son,” I corrected her, smiling, “And yes, he died.”

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Those words felt unnatural – spiky and metallic – in my mouth. I could still tongue and taste them nearly a week later while meandering through Cologne’s cathedral.

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Besieging God with prayer. I know the taste of that, too. Broken capillaries in my eyes. Bruises on my palms from pounding on the tiled kitchen floor at 3:00 a.m. Scuffling through Munich’s English Garden in a downpour, talking to the wretched leafless branches. Behind the steering wheel for hours and hours in a loop on the Autobahn. Head tucked into my sternum to avoid banal contact with the public, draining tears and whispers into my lap in the back pew at church.

And head thrown back, staring at the highest point I can focus on, way above the mountains, out there where hope lies. . .

. . .Trying to sing a hymn to myself, but finding sound log-jammed below my heart.

All through the night. The day, The night again. And weeks, months. These years.

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Besieging prayer isn’t about external drama. God can see through hypocritical audience-targeted theatrics. Let’s face it: those prayers have their mortal hearers. The prayer I’m talking about can happen entirely within the ribcage, even while sitting in a public space like, say, a cathedral.

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In that case, it might not bear a single toolmark of outward pathos. But the inward soundtrack could shatter glass.

This prayer wants to pierce and penetrate what might sometimes feel like an opaque canopy stretched over our earth and our minds, keeping us from the big – biggest – picture. That kind of prayer isn’t tidy and toothless, in fact it hardly has anything to do with “saying one’s prayers”, but is jagged-edged in its raw and dynamic vertical groping and yes, it’s not a one-off stab at “the prayer thing.”

If rendered in stone, that prayer would probably look something like the Cologne cathedral, and might take a long time to reach its point.

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This cathedral? A mere 600 years.

All those spires. Aspiring. Besieging for inspiration.

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From pastor and author Dennis Lennon, who describes in Turning The Diamond George Herbert’s sonnet, “Prayer”:

We pray because prayer works, and because it changes things. It changes the world and it is able to penetrate the hearts of men to change their ways. . .[It] even ‘changes’ God, in the sense that a captor ‘changes’ his prisoner. This hair-raising, staggeringly risky picture takes up the idea of the old military engineer’s construction for siege and assault, his ‘engine’ to batter the enemy’s defenses, tunnel under his trenches and blow open the gates of this fortress.

–Lennon, 44-45

You find intimations of this from John Donne, both soldier and poet:

Batter my heart, three-personed God; for you
As yet but knock, breathe, shine, and seek to mend;
That I may rise, and stand, o’erthrow me, and bend
Your force, to break, blow, burn and make me new.

– Divine Meditations, 14

In a verse like that from Donne, as Lennon writes, there’s no trace of “over-familiarity with the Lord” (like the guy who chuckles, saying, “Hey, when I get to those pearly gates, boy I’ll tell you am I ever going to give the Boss a piece of my mind!”) Instead, there’s a “healthy and realistic awareness of [our] frailty, of life hanging by a thread. . .It suggests a mountaineer pressed up against a rock-face, holding on, just, by the tips of his fingers.”

Or the tips of her fingers.

The man from the scripture story and my Sunday school class experience was not Jacob of the Old Testament. But he resembled him. Jacob, as you probably know, “wrestled” with an angel. His is the story I’ll end with here, because it resonates – it booms – throughout the whole cathedral of my soul.

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Jacob was in a desperate life-or-death situation, in “great fear and distress”, but was hanging on to a promise God had given him long ago, and was ready – in the middle of the night, all alone, with death breathing down his neck– to “wrestle” for that blessing. “So Jacob was left alone, and a man wrestled with him till daybreak.” (Genesis 32:24)

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Lennon describes this:

We know ‘the man’ was a theophany, God incognito, for next day Jacob named the place Peniel, meaning, ‘I saw God face to face’ and lived to tell his story. . .What passed through Jacob’s mind as he grappled with his opponent, crashing around on the bank of the river? At some point the realization dawned (or was it a lightning flash of revelation?) that he was fighting with a God-man, a man representing God: God-as-man. . . .At some point Jacob said to himself, “O my God! It’s God!! I don’t know what’s going on here but now that I have him I’ll show him, how desperately I need him for myself, my family, and my future people. If this is God, I’ll prove to him that I believe him with every scrap of energy within me. Everything I have known about God – those amazing stories, the traditions, the prayers, the history (all words, words, words) are now in my embrace and I will not let go until I have the blessing’–something along those lines? – 49,50

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Jacob, in the throes of besieging prayer, had a life-changing experience. How life-changing, you ask? Well, God changed his name to Israel, which means “he is ruled.”

From that point on and forever more, the man ruled by God walked with a limp.

Could God have chosen a more unambiguous way to indicate his pleasure at Jacob’s tenacious, tough-minded, audacious faith? The new name tells the world this man wrestled with God and over-came. The limps tells the world – look at the weakness of this man’s strength. – 51

When I finished taking all these photographs, I slung my bulky camera bag on one shoulder and made my way up the nave toward the massive cathedral doors. Before pushing out into the glittering drizzle, I hoisted the weight one last time, thrusting a hip out to one side for balance, which made me list. Or even limp.

upright rain image

Not Your Father’s Cologne

Image: wikicommons

Image: wikicommons

Like blades puncturing a gray tarp, the spires of the Cologne (Köln) cathedral (Dom) shoot with sanguine self-assertion into an upperworld, an otherworld. Audacious, virile, epic – the Kölner Dom’s pitch is stratospheric, almost enough to make you veer off the road as you swing into town at night, as we did last Friday.

“Whoah. Can you see that?” Twelve-year-old Luc, reading in the back seat, dropped his book and pressed his face against the window. “Whoah. Whoah-ho. Okay, that’s cool.”

The medieval architects of Europe sought to create an on-your-tippy-toes, to-the-very-finger-tips skyscraping of celestial proportions. Their aim? To scratch heaven’s underbelly with stone. Or better, to replicate heaven with it.

Today, this church is a spiny anomaly in a landscape of squatty or swirly modernity. But centuries ago when it was built, the Dom was seen as a meeting place of spheres. God descending to men. Men ascending to God. Heaven as down-to-earth and earth as up-to-heaven. People all over the then-known world made their pilgrimages just to arrive at its doors, touch its walls, fall on their knees, and crawl up to its altar.

And now we were cruising through Friday night rush hour traffic to get our peek.

“So, imagine this one, guys: in World War II, this whole town was completely flattened. Two-hundred-something air raids. About 1,500 tons of explosives, of which 1,000 of those were incendiary. Remember Dresden?”

“Of course. Yeah, we remember Dresden,” Dalton said quietly.

Image: wodumedia

Image: wodumedia

“By the end of the war. . .let’s see.. .yes, by the end of the war less than 5% of the inhabitants were still here. Many had been killed; most had been evacuated from the ruins. I also read that virtually all of Köln’s 11,000 Jews had been deported to concentration camps or murdered on the spot. All six synagogues had been destroyed. Only one has since been rebuilt.”

Silence.

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We were within a few streets from the cathedral. We had to hang our heads out our windows to try to see the whole structure, it was that tall. Built over the span of six-hundred years by the hands of mostly nameless artisans, and without as much as a forklift or a power saw, the cathedral dominated the whole night sky.

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“What else, Mel?” Randall was navigating the inner city’s labyrinth of one-ways. Our GPS spoke to us in German, like a Lufthansa flight attendant murmuring politely from our glove box.

“Well, the urban planner responsible for rebuilding the city after 1945 called Köln ‘the world’s greatest heap of rubble.’ Except –” I opened my window to try to get a photo as we came around a corner, “except this cathedral.”

We parked, bumper to curbside, in front of a blackened Emerald City.

“Seriously?” Dalton asked, stepping out of the back and into light rain. We walked right to the front doors, my camera at the ready.

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door handles, main entrance

door handles, main entrance

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“Yeah, I’d say seriously. She was hit I don’t know how many times by allied bombs – seventy-something, I think – and she never collapsed, if you can believe it.”

I shielded my lens from the rain.

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“And that’s gotta be thanks to her flying buttresses, right?” Luc cracked a smile and lifted his brows to Dalton.

(I’ve decided twelve-year-old boys, like some twenty-year-old boys I taught in college, just can’t get enough of flying buttresses.)

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“Dude, check out the flying buttresses,” Luc elbowed his brother, snorting and giggling, pointing to the cathedral’s exterior stone arches that support the weight of so much wall with windows.

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Lovely sons, these, who can correctly identify parts of a building’s anatomy.

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The following morning, knowing I had only a few hours before we would leave town, I made my way back through her doors. By my third hour there, hundreds of other visitors had joined me.

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In the next two posts, I’d first like to share with you what I saw and thought as I looked not only at this magnificent tribute to faith, but also at all the people there with me, looking, too. The post is called, “Beseiging God.”

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Then, I’ll explain the reason for our family’s trip to Germany in a post entitled, “Praying Like a Good Sport.”

Hope you’ll be there.

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This work is licensed under aCreative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 3.0 United States License. . . which means, as long you’re not selling it, you’re welcome to share, but please remember to give me a link and mention my name.

Distraction (and Avelut)

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In my last post where I walked through a small segment of the Book of Job, I mentioned shiva. Shiva, as you probably already knew but I’ll explain just in case, describes the first seven days of mourning within the Jewish tradition. The strict rites of shiva make for a formal, communal focus on the experience of grief. Among other guidelines, one of these traditions requires that visitors to the house of the bereaved sit in silence on low mourning benches. They, as we saw in Job’s three friends, do not speak out of awe at the loss and respect for the sorrow. Their responsibility is to wait until the bereaved himself initiates – or does not initiate – conversation, and then quietly follow suit.

And when [Job’s three friends] lifted up their eyes afar off, and knew him not, they lifted up their voice, and wept; and they rent everyone his mantle. And sprinkled dust upon their heads toward heaven. So they sat down with him upon the ground seven days and seven nights, and none spake a word unto him: for they saw that his grief was very great.
—Job 2:12, 13

I like shiva.

But I don’t expect everyone to, including everyone who is bereaved.

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Although we knew little if anything about shiva before we knew about traumatic loss ourselves, we as a couple followed some of the rites by instinct in that week after the zero point. And I have to say that if I were to revisit that holy week, I’d follow more of the rites and politely ask others to follow them with me. That week, and that general stretch early on after the death of your beloved can be a powerfully charged period for learning things of a spiritual nature. The last thing one would want is to miss out on such tutoring by being somehow distracted or having the world crowd in and crowd out the Spirit.

What follows shiva in Jewish tradition is avelut. I knew absolutely nothing of this stage of ancient mourning practices until well into that woeful first year. Quite accidentally, I stumbled upon this Hebrew word while researching different cultures’ responses to death, and was surprised to find that without having known I was doing so, I’d already been holding strict avelut for several months.

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What is avelut? It is, as a Jew would explain it, the year-long period of private and social behavior outlined for the bereaved, especially children who lose parents and parents who lose children. In keeping avelut, the avel (or the bereaved) does not run from his grief through any number of common escape routes which research and history prove are our favorites; alcohol, drugs, obsessive work, excessive sleep, infidelity, angry rampages, gambling, shopping sprees, you-can-fill-in-the-blank.

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Instead, the avel retreats from the world and from worldly things. This is, however, no passive shutting down. No dark mood, no passing funk. Neither is this depression. And it’s certainly not some kind of pathological anti-social behavior.

This is a measured, deliberate choice to neither flee grief nor be passively detroyed by it. Here’s the logic: Ancient wisdom suggests that in this raw, skinless state, an avel is highly receptive – maybe more than any other time in his life – to learning the fine-particulate matter, the things of the spirit. Those spiritual things will give understanding and with that understanding will come strength, comfort. This period of such exceptional receptivity is brief. If one runs from it, one has lost a rare opportunity to be tutored.

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I’d like to share with you what avelut meant to me and my family.

From the introduction to Grief and Grace: Collected Voices on Loss and Living Onward:

“Resurrection is for those on both sides of the tomb,” writes Presbyterian pastor and theologian, Laura Mendenhall, in an Easter sermon given shortly after the death of an infant girl from her congregation. Of that truth, I am living proof. When your most beloved dies, when your profoundly bonded flesh and blood dies, you die too. It seems the inviolable law of nature. My “death” manifested itself physically: the heart palpitations, the anvil crushing my chest for months on end, the weakness, the fatigue, the overwhelming longing for blue-black drifts of oceanic sleep.

Resurrection, at least a metaphorical one, takes both a staggering amount of effort and a continuance of God’s life-giving grace over a very long period of time. That, I might add, means much more work and far more grace and many more years than anyone uninitiated in traumatic loss seems to ever fully realize at the start.

Like a literal resurrection, ours began from what felt like underground, while buried in sorrow, entombed in grief. Our souls instinctively needed solitude and retreat, a wilderness place apart, a certain protection from the glaring and blaring invasion of the world at large. This meant holing up. As a result, that first year was about as close to monastic living as a nice married Mormon couple with children could fashion. In case I make the refuge or us sound a bit too holy, I want to make it perfectly clear that nothing felt holy enough. But Randall was obliged, after only a few days back in Munich, to return immediately to the necessarily worldly atmosphere and incessant demands of his career. Given the teleconferences on marketing strategies, unavoidable business dinners, and a major structural reorganization taking place right then in his company, the holiness he’d felt for days on end, as much as he longed for it every hour, could not be his daily habitat. If he removed himself entirely from his work at just this moment, many of his colleagues’ jobs would be at high risk. He couldn’t abandon them. So in just that sense, the human one, his work held some meaning. But the professional competition now felt meaningless, even hollow, and his soul hungered to stay close to the nourishing reverence we’d experienced those first few days after impact, close to where we always felt the Spirit and Parker, where their strength and light were accessible. We did all we could both together and individually to hold onto that holiness.

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As I withdrew from the outer world, (no music, no shopping, no television, no movies, and very little if any social contact), I entered an intense journey of meditation and prayerful study. This meant that for more than a year, every morning after the children left for school and Randall for the office or for the airport, I turned to my daily pattern of digging amid piles of books spread about me in a circular mountain range. I sat cross-legged on the floor with sometimes twenty books open at once: the Bible; poetry anthologies; the Book of Mormon; a modern French novel; the Doctrine and Covenants; a German lyric; a prophet’s personal journal; a Norwegian memoir; the Pearl of Great Price; a commentary on the Book of Job; a stack of professional journals on parental grief; collected talks from prophets and apostles past and present; discourses from Plutarch and Plato; my Riverside Shakespeare; accounts of the Mormon pioneers; accounts of Holocaust survivors; accounts of 9/11 survivors; accounts of tsunami survivors; and Parker’s own words, captured in his journals, poetry, school essays, letters, and lyrics.

For hours to days to weeks to months on end, I hunkered down in profound concentration, spelunking and pick axing through others’ writings. Why, of all things, was this my response to grief? For one thing, I was hunting for community, or better, for communion. I knew no one in Munich and no one knew me. As important, no one knew Parker. I had no community to validate my feelings or give me a control group against which to check my sanity at a time when I feared I might be losing my mind from sheer pain. In the thousands of pages I read, I held out hope that I might find someone who would understand something of the state of acute confusion and alienation we were living in. Perhaps, too, I would find someone to sit quietly and weep with me.
I was also looking for words, literally. From the earliest minutes of arriving at the ICU and throughout the months that followed, I realized that there was no existing vocabulary for either the horror or the holiness we were experiencing. Never had I needed so desperately to be understood, yet never had I felt so misunderstood. Would this tragedy drive me to permanent silence, me, a woman whose whole education, profession and delight had been tethered to words? Maybe, just maybe, I thought, somewhere in the hundreds of thousands of words I was raking through, I would find one passage that would give voice to the devastation I could otherwise find no words for.

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But above all, I was searching for knowledge. I ached for meaning, yearned for truth. I was mining for wisdom, for enlightenment, mining like a tenacious scientist on the trail of The Great Cure of the century, but instead of a cure or a release from the constant pain we were now experiencing, I yearned for knowledge and understanding of it. Though I’d always been a student of the gospel, I now sought more than ever a greater knowledge and understanding of God. It would be God who would offer true communion, I knew that. And it would be God who would understand my several questions for which I had no language. And it would be God who would reveal meaning and truth. It would be God, ultimately, who would provide an answer to the question that now consumed my life: How could I live on with the death of my son?

When in my research someone’s words hit the bedrock of Spirit, I knew it in half a breath. There were revelatory moments when an insight stunned me to immediate tears, or, more often, head-to-toe stillness. At times my heart would leap a hurdle or my eyes would stretch wide open; other times I would hold my breath or exhale audibly in gratitude. Whatever my physical and intellectual response, every time a writer got it, I’d quickly type the words into my growing laptop files.

**

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That mining for light, as I’ve just described in that substantial quote from the introduction toGrief and Grace, gave me hundreds of pages of quotes that have been edited into something I pray might be of help to others facing the abyss of great loss.

Beyond that, however, and what I consider a far more precious result of that once-in-a-lifetime concentrated retreat, avelut revealed many essential and practical truths about our son’s accident, details unknowable unless someone was guided spiritually to certain sources and people with specialized knowledge. Thanks to the searching we did during that first year of our unwitting avelut, we also learned things of a spiritual nature I choose not to speak about but on rare occasion and in special circumstances, and though I have written it all down, that is material I do not share openly. But they are concrete realities and have offered to me and my family testimony after testimony of the truth that life is eternal and loving, familial bonds endure beyond this sphere.

For Unto Us A Child Is Born

For Unto Us A Child Is Born

So what if instead of choosing to face and enter my grief, I had chosen, instead, to distract myself from it, to run from it? To dance a fake jollity jig? To amuse myself away from my son’s death?

Or what if I’d been in a community that had insisted, all with the best intentions, of course, on distracting me from my grief? Cheerleading me away from it? Coaxing me into a mall? Or a bar? Or a spa? All the time moving me away from that time of fleeting receptivity and all that could have been learned only there and then?

Would distraction have provided a quicker healing? Strengthening? Fortifying? A faster way through? Or would it have been a feverish detour, maybe, the kind you’ve driven before that brings you right back to that same main road with all the messy construction anyway, back to that same bleak stretch, back to the only way through?

To some, I imagine avelut might sound, I’m not sure, masochistic, draconian or even just an unnecessary drag. But because of my small but potent experience during that time of sacred retreat, I believe that avelut was above all things a rare and precious blessing. It taught me about holding onto holiness, how vital yet how hard it is, and about the importance of creating the necessary climate where personal revelation is as essential as air and where God’s merciful presence is real, real in its fiery power, real in its muscular grace.

**

From Grief and Grace:

The world in which we live lies in the power of the Evil One, and the Evil One would prefer to distract us and fill every little space with things to do, people to meet, business to accomplish, products to be made. He does not allow any space for genuine grief and mourning. . . .
The voice of evil also tries to tempt us to put on an invincible front. . . . Someone once said to me, “Never show your weakness, for you will be used; never be vulnerable, for you will get hurt; never depend on others, for you will lose your freedom.” This might sound very wise, but it does not echo the voice of wisdom. It mimics a world that wants us to respect without question the social boundaries and compulsions that our society has defined for us.

–Henri Nouwen, Turn My Mourning Into Dancing, 8, 9

In the end denial, bargaining, binges, and anger are mere attempts to deflect what will eventually conquer us all. Pain will have its day because loss is undeniably, devastatingly real.
—G. Sittser, A Grace Disguised, 59

I was a character from an opera who might at any moment let loose with an aria, and generally people tried to cover it up with conversational ragtime. People changed the subject. They smiled uncomfortably. Some tried extraordinary juggling acts, with flung torches of chitchat and spinning scimitars of small talk.
They didn’t mention it. They did not say, I am so sorry or How are you?
I felt in those first weeks, meeting people I knew, like the most terrifying object on earth.
Who knows what people think? Not me, and especially not then. Still it surprised me, every time I saw someone who didn’t mention it. . . . I am trying to remember what I have thought when I’ve done the same thing, all those times I didn’t mention some great sadness upon seeing someone for the first time. Did I really think that by not saying words of consolation aloud, I was doing people a favor? As though to mention sadness I was “reminding” them of the terrible thing?
As though the grieving have forgotten their grief?

—Elizabeth McCracken, An Exact Replica of A Figment of My Imagination, 92–93

When people outside the immediate family are encountered who do not allow. . expression of emotions and thoughts about the deceased children, it creates a resentment that is difficult to control. Subsequently, the time comes when parents begin to separate themselves from insensitive and uncaring people in their environments who insist on keeping channels of communication closed.

Many times a wedge is driven between those suffering the loss and very dear and close friends. We can refer to this as a “wedge of ignorance”—ignorance about the great importance of open . . . communication.
—Ronald Knapp, Beyond Endurance, 31–32

While grief is fresh, every attempt to divert only irritates.
—Samuel Johnson, quoted in James Boswell, The Life of Samuel Johnson, 21

Across the years I have met countless men and women who have used drugs, alcohol, sex, food, gambling, work, hobbies, or shopping to drown out the painful scenes [of the death of a loved one] in their minds. My drug of choice was work. My hectic schedule was a convenient distraction, and it was something I used in my attempt to outrun the pain. . . .
Along my grief journey I have met countless men who, like me, have tried to outrun their pain by replacing it with something else. . . . For grievers, the message is clear: if we try to stifle, ignore, outrun our sadness, and not talk about the pain we feel inside, there will be serious consequences down the road.

—D. Apple, Life After the Death of My Son, 32–33

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Why Dispensing Dogma Doesn’t Help Another’s Grief

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(These photos I took in Paris while celebrating the 850 yrs. anniversary of the cathedral of Notre Dame. Notre Dame, like my faith, like yours, should be a sanctuary in this world of pain.)

It sounds like a paradox, but the same religion that can be at the very heart of the greatest peace and sweetest solidarity during one’s journey with grief can also be at the root of some significant pain and even alienation.

My experience in this regard is not unique.  In researching and hearing firsthand the stories of the bereaved, I’ve come upon the same phenomenon time and time again.  For many grief-stricken, additional and sometimes permanent injury results when the co-mourner, instead of consoling the sorrowing person, counsels her by dispensing religious clichés or platitudes or authoritatively delivering personal opinion disguised as doctrine. This means figuratively standing at a pulpit and preaching down to the person curled up on the ground in pain.

Sadly, the story is as old as the Bible.

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You know about Job. He’s what we’d call today a total rock.  He’s been a missionary, he’s held bumper-to-bumper leadership positions in his church community, he could have been a minister, a pastor, a priest, a seminary teacher, a bishop, any member of your local or regional clergy. “Stalwart” begins to describe Job. But the Bible goes even further: Job is “perfect.”

He’s also doing quite well: the career, the property, the house, the big family. Which could easily make Job the object of envy for small minds looking on. Except that Job’s good. Good and generous with his time and means, kind and charitable in word and action. We read that he’s genuinely humble and doesn’t consider himself invulnerable; he’s always checking his back, harboring an inward fear that he (or his children) might do something to offend God, something to displease Divinity, something to shatter the magic.

And you know what happens next. Shatter.  This total rock of faith and paragon of life-long devotion to God experiences cataclysmic tragedy.

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Make that tragedies.  Cataclysm after cataclysm, tragedy after tragedy.  Out of the clear powder blue he loses his home, his property, his career, his employees, every possible investment and any hope of a pension plan.  Materially, this man is more than leveled; he’s pulverized.

Then he loses his children, every last one of them, in one freak stroke of fate. And he contracts a gruesome illness, so that beyond losing the flesh of his flesh, he loses his very own flesh. Which drives his wife to telling him to give up on God. That would be right before she gives up on Job. Away we see her drive, away over the knoll, away with her bags in the trunk, all this meaningless misery a smudge of dust in her rearview.

The man, our rock, responds as rocks do. He falls to the earth. And there, even with his rent mantle spread in the dirt and his shaved head beating the gravel, his well-trained heart responds righteously: He worships God. He blesses the name of the Lord, doesn’t blame Him foolishly, holds fast to his integrity, and swears through the mouthful of mud he sucks through in his rotting teeth that he will trust in His God forever.

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Enter Job’s three good friends.

Here is where we should all take copious notes. Why? Because more of us will find ourselves in the role of Job’s friends than we will Job’s. More of us will be called to look into the face of another’s tragedy than will face tragedy of our own. But one thing is certain: All of us will find ourselves at one time or another – or many times – taking part in this scenario.  We are destined and we are covenanted to mourn with those that mourn.

So let’s pay attention to this story together.

What happens?

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After fulfilling their Jewish duty by coming and sitting Shiva’s requisite seven days of solidarity in silence, Job’s friends watch in astonishment as their friend  – good, rock-solid Job – erupts, his anguish roiling and gushing over the page.

Job, like many who are mourning, is feverishly reconstructing his universe.  He’s volatile. His pleading and confusion are not pretty or predictable.  He’s prickly in some verses, maybe even frightening in others, and surely foreign to his friends. And he’s erupting with questions only God can answer.

Here is where Job’s friends make their fatal move.  They stand right up (they remove themselves from solidarity with Job, who is figuratively and literally broken and splayed on the ground), and they begin preaching. They have all the answers, typical of those who have not quite yet understood the questions.

You can picture them: Arms folded across chests or fingering their earlocks, scratching their beards, circling dust-encrusted Job, raising one brow, sizing him up, talking.  Can they talk.  Bless their Mesopotamian hearts, but their talk is not inquisitive; it is inquisitorial.  The more they talk the less they seem to care about Job’s pain, and they don’t seem to grasp God’s purposes with him, although they speak as if they do.  The more they do this, the more injury they inflict on their already-injured friend.

At first, they imply that Job probably had it coming to him anyway.  Next, they reason that Job would not be feeling so torn up if he’d had more faith – like themselves, no doubt.  Then they sniff around for Job’s sins and his children’s sins, which they assume must be multiple, given how severely God is punishing him.  Not only stripped to the bone with tragedy, Job’s faith and his rightness with God are doubted by friends, friends who fail him spectacularly.

As anyone wrestling with bone-liquefying pain will attest to, it is not comforting to be preached to, nor to have one’s faith questioned by spectators.  Come to think of it, it’s no fun to have wide-eyed spectators when wet-eyed comforters are what you need. No wonder Job blurts out, “miserable comforters, all of you!” (Job 16:1-2)

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While his friends do little to comfort Job, we can be thankful for them. Because in them we have an excellent template for how not to comfort those in need.

The following list of clichés, platitudes and trite phrases is culled from the experience from many aggrieved from my own circle of friends or from the research from authors noted at the foot of the list.

You might wonder, as some have, what’s wrong with some of these statements.  Aren’t some of them at least partially true?  

Yes, some of them might be true and might align with your values.  But the nature of clichés and platitudes is that whether they are entirely or partially true or not true at all, they are overly simplistic and when dispensed too easily, show no hint of co-mourning.  What’s worse, in the case of some statements in this list, the speaker assumes to understand the will of God in another’s life.  What is critical to remember is that the bereaved must come to this sacred understanding on her own, and doesn’t need someone who has no experience in the matter to sum up her grief or God’s will for her. Any attempt to do such will alienate the grief-stricken from friends and maybe, in the worst case, from her faith.

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It’s God’s will

God took him (or her)

God needed your son (your spouse, your brother, your father) more than you did

Don’t cry. You’ll see him again

He lived a good life. He was ready to go

He has just begun his mission a little early

God gave you this trial to make you stronger

You need to be strong. Don’t cry

If you’d had enough faith, she’d have survived (been healed)

She is much better off in heaven. She will be happier there

Because your child took his own life, you will never be together in the eternities

Count your blessings. Things could be worse

Your loved one is freed from this terrible world

You have an angel in heaven

God needed another angel

God doesn’t give us more than we can bear

Keep the faith

Rejoice in all things, including this

There are fates worse than death

She’s gone on and busy in heaven. Don’t distract her with your sorrow

God has selected you for this elite trial

—See Ashton, Jesus Wept, 126–27, 234

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© Melissa Dalton-Bradford and melissadaltonbradford.wordpress.com, 2012. This work (text and images) is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 3.0 United States License. . . which means, as long you’re not selling it, you’re welcome to share, but please remember to give me a link and mention my name.

(Several of the following quotes appear in my book, On Loss and Living Onward, available through Amazon and other online or conventional retail book sellers.)

Nothing is more barren, to one in agony, than pat answers which seem the unfeeling evasions of a distant spectator who “never felt a wound.”

—Truman Madsen, Eternal Man, 55

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In those early days of my grief journey, I had several minister friends, as well as members of the church, who seemed very uncomfortable with my grief and sadness.  Looking back, I’m quite certain it was an awful experience for them to be around me or my wife. It seemed to us they often used scriptures to try and cheer us up. . .They would tell us to be joyful and give thanks for [our son’s] death and to praise God in all circumstances. Some of my minister friends told me, “Christians with a strong faith will come through this faster.”.. .I listened to them and secretly wished they would finish what they had to say and move on—out of my presence.  The people who said these things were never people who had lost children.  Those who had lost a child knew better.

–Minister and bereaved father Dennis Apple, Life After The Death of my Son, p 122-123

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Please, don’t ask me if I’m over it yet
I’ll never be over it.
Please, don’t tell me she’s in a better place.
She isn’t with me.
Please, don’t say at least she isn’t suffering.
I haven’t come to terms with why she had to suffer at all.
Please, don’t tell me you know how I feel
Unless you have lost a child.
Please, don’t ask me if I feel better.
Bereavement isn’t a condition that clears up.
Please, don’t tell me at least you had her for so many years.
What year would you choose for your child to die?
Please, don’t tell me God never gives us more than we can bear.
Please, just tell me you are sorry.
Please, just say you remember my child, if you do.
Please, just let me talk about my child.
Please, mention my child’s name.
Please, just let me cry.

–”Rita Moran: Please, don’t ask me if I’m over it yet,” Consolatio online

I was sitting, torn by grief. Someone came and talked to me of God’s dealings, of why it happened, of why my loved one had died, of hope beyond the grave. He talked constantly. He said things I knew were true…

I was unmoved, except to wish he’d go away. He finally did.

Another came and sat beside me. He didn’t talk. He didn’t ask me leading questions. He just sat beside me for an hour and more, listening when I said something, answered briefly, prayed simply, left.

I was moved. I was comforted. I hated to see him go.

—Ashton, Jesus Wept, 231

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The posture of grief is on your knees.  Sooner or later, each of us finds himself playing one of the roles in the story of Job, whether a victim of tragedy, as a member of the family, or as a friend-comforter. The questions never change; the search for a satisfying answer continues.

—Harold Kushner, When Bad Things Happen to Good People, 157

. . . Immediately after such tragedy people must come to your rescue, people who only want to hold your hand, not to quote anybody or even say anything, people who simply bring food and flowers—the basics of beauty and life—people who sign letters simply, “Your brokenhearted sister.” In other words, in my intense grief I felt some of my fellow reverends—not many, and none of you, thank God—were using comforting words of Scripture for self-protection, to pretty up a situation whose bleakness they simply couldn’t face. But like God . . . Scripture is not around for anyone’s protection, just for everyone’s unending support.

And that’s what [you] understood so beautifully. You gave me what God gives all of us—minimum protection, maximum support. I swear to you, I wouldn’t be standing here were I not upheld.

—William Sloane Coffin Jr, quoted in This Incomplete One, ed. Bush, 58; William, a reverend, standing before and addressing his congregation after losing his own child.

Attempting to console those who have lost loved ones . . . by saying it will be better in the next life tends to minimize their immediate pain: “It’s like you’re on a desert island and you are dying of thirst, and someone says, “Yes, you can have a drink, but not for thirty years!”

—Ashton, Jesus Wept, 131

Many bereaved parents do find solace in their faith, but it is also normal for parents to experience a spiritual crisis and question their beliefs. They may find it hard to pray or too painful to attend church. As [one reverend] said, “I tell religious leaders that all of their inactive members are missing because of a loss of some kind.”. . . Sometimes parents don’t return to church because of comments made to them about their child’s death. . . .

Parents are often surprised by comments from others who presume to know what part God played in their child’s death. Responding to such comments can be too painful and parents may choose not to attend church, at least for a while.

—Talbot, What Forever Means After the Death of a Child, 132

There is already enough theological difficulty for those who believe that their activity in the church should somehow protect them from tragedy and sorrow.  Our understanding of the Atonement is hardly a shield against sorrow; rather, it is a rich source of strength to deal productively with the disappointments and heartbreaks that form the deliberate fabric of mortal life.  The gospel was given us to heal our pain, not to prevent it.

–Elder Bruce C. Hafen, The Broken Heart

 

For God to foresee is not to cause or even to desire a particular occurrence–but it is to take that occurrence into account beforehand, so that divine reckoning folds it into the unfolding purposes of God. . .God has foreseen what we will do and has taken our decision into account (in composite with all others), so that his purposes are not frustrated.

–Neal A. Maxwell in “All These Things Shall Give Thee Experience” 8, 12

My heart goes out to each individual who bears the burden of mourning.  I share my feelings of empathy and sympathy.  The separation imposed by the departure of a loved one evokes pangs of sorrow and shock among those left behind.  The hurt is real.  Only the intensity varies.  Even though we understand the doctrine—even though we dearly love God had His eternal plan—mourning remains.  It is not only normal; it is a healthy reaction.  Mourning is one of the purest expressions of deep love.  It is a perfectly natural response—in complete accord with divine commanded: “Thou shalt live together in love, insomuch that thou shalt weep for the loss of them that die.” (D&C 42:45). . .Mourning is neither a sign of weakness nor is it to be avoided.  It, too, is an important part of God’s great plan of happiness. . . Mourning is the lubricant of love at the gateway.

-Elder Russel M Nelson, The Gateway We Call Death p. 22, 33

The one thing that should never be said when someone dies is, “It was the will of God.” Never do we know enough to say that. My only consolation lies in knowing that it was not the will of God that Alex die; that when the waves closed in over the sinking car, God’s heart was the first of all our hearts to break.

—William Sloane Coffin, “Alex’s Death,” in This Incomplete One, ed. Bush, 57

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