A Rare Question, A Flight To Freedom, A Symbolic Ending

This past week there was a Mass said for Liz. It’s been six months since she passed away. Were they six short months or six long months? I can’t say for sure. She passed away on Valentine’s Day, which was also Ash Wednesday. I immediately recognized the sad poetry in her timing. We were together 49 years, Married for over 46 of them. We are the greatest of sweethearts. Valentine’s Day was symbolic.

Valentine’s Day this year was on Ash Wednesday. It’s the day that Catholics are asked to consider their own mortality. We are reminded on this day that we come from dust and are destined to return to the earth. Ash Wednesday was symbolic.

This was, needless to say, my worst Lenten season ever. I marked the end of Lent by getting a tattoo on Good Friday. It’s made from a photograph that I took of us holding hands while she was on life support.

Liz wasn’t Catholic. We went through RCIA together while moving toward conversion. I completed that path and was received into the Church. She decided not to pursue conversion but, instead, received the Church into herself. She accepted most Church teaching. She read about the saints. She loved Bishop Robert Baron. She lived the holiest of lives, something that she had done for forty years. She made a decision to follow Christ in 1976 and never did I know her to waver.

The Mass was arranged for by our RCIA facilitator, a man we’ve come to respect deeply. The Mass was at a parish we’d never attended, but the Pastor of that parish was the priest who’d presided over our RCIA program while he was at a different parish. Liz loved him. It was symbolic.

It’s very rare that someone I know from my Evangelical past asks me why I converted to Catholicism. They often tell me that they would like to sit and discuss my curious conversion, but that time never comes. I don’t know why. Perhaps it’s troubling to them. Perhaps it makes them nervous. I think they are afraid to hear the reasons.

I spent 38 years as an Evangelical Protestant. Most of that time was spent in a church that viewed the Catholic Church as a cult, as pagan, as deceived. I co-founded a Crisis Pregnancy Center in 1983 with my anti-catholic friend. we had a few Catholics wanting to volunteer but we were forced to turn them down because they were Catholic.

I served as a deacon in three separate protestant churches. I mention that in order to make it clear that I was a “serious” Christian, always supporting my church and pastor. I wasn’t a malcontent, miscreant, or troublemaker of any kind.

My issues in the church I attended arose shortly after my wife was asked to be the worship team leader. She was asked by the music minister but, before she could accept or reject, the pastor stepped in and blocked it. He told the music minister that Liz had issues to work through regarding a church we’d been members of ten years prior.

I set up a meeting with the pastor to get to the bottom of things. There were no lingering issues related to that previous church and I wanted to know why he thought there was. I also wanted to know why he felt the freedom to tell someone that my wife had issues with a previous church.

The pastor was very forthcoming when we met. He didn’t deny that he’d gossiped.  He told me that, despite Biblical prohibitions against gossip, pastors were exempt. After all, he reasoned, they had a duty to protect their flock from miscreants.

I asked him what he’d heard about Liz as well as who he’d heard it from. It became very clear, first to me, then to both of us, that he was remembering the gossip wrong. He had listened to gossip about a different woman but remembered it as being about Liz. It was not. Because he listened to gossip and did not go to Liz, he believed something for years that simply was not true.

If you are waiting to hear about his apology or about how he made things right, don’t bother. It never happened. Apparently, he felt that apologizing for wronging someone was also an area where pastors were exempt. That was just for the laity, I assume.

In recounting his story to me, this pastor named three pastors I was friendly with. He said he’d spoken to them about Liz and that they all regularly reviewed their congregation among each other. Now, we were presented with the daunting challenge of going to church on Sundays in any of our local churches and listening to a sermon by a man who very possibly had been talking about us behind our backs.

That was something we could not do. Where would we feel safe? Liz came up with the idea of attending a Catholic church. There would be no interaction with evangelical pastors there. We drove around our neighborhood and saw the Church of the Sacred Heart. Liz said that she loved that the big red door was always open. It was an invitation to come visit. We took the church up on that invitation.

It was our intention to worship there privately. We were not going to get sucked in. We’d been strongly warned about bad Catholic doctrine by our gossipy pastor friends. Yet, as we attended week after week, we began to see the truth about Catholicism. We were drawn to the beauty. We were seduced by the history. We fell in love with the Church. We were home!

Of course, not every pastor on our tiny island was a gossip. We were fortunate that a grace filled pastor helped us through this topsy turvy time. And, in the end, We were blessed  to have that great friend, Glenn Blossom to send Liz on her home going. He’s been a constant example of grace before us and he has taught us so much about being kind. For him to preach at her memorial service was a blessing. It was symbolic.

When Liz suffered her cardiac episode, we’d been watching Robert Baron videos together on the couch. Symbolic. At the hospital my priest came and gave her Last Rites. And, on Valentine’s Day, Ash Wednesday, all the loose ends were tied. She went home with Ash Wednesday ashes on her forehead.

It was symbolic.

 

Dudley’s Perch, Watching a Video, A Run in the Park

My wife passed away on Valentine’s Day. We had been sitting together on our couch six days earlier. Spanky, our beloved Chihuahua wedged himself lengthwise between us and we rested our clasped hands on him. We were watching videos on YouTube when she straightened up suddenly. Her head tilted back and her eyes went dull. My first impulse was to call out to her. She didn’t respond. Seconds passed before I began CPR. My grandson, living upstairs, called 911. The paramedics arrived in four minutes. They worked on her furiously, trying to restore her heartbeat. Time expands at moments like these, but I’m sure she was without a heartbeat for a minimum of fifteen minutes. They got her heart beating, it stopped again, and they restored it a second time. I rode to the hospital while the ambulance driver tried to give me hope. She held my hand. She did her very best. But, I knew there was no hope. I knew my wife was gone.

I take care of my late father-in-law’s cockatiel. It isn’t something I’m obsessed with. Unlike how I relate to my chihuahua, I don’t assign much human emotions to the bird. He must have some thoughts, though. Maybe he doesn’t think them. Maybe he feels his thoughts instead.

When my father-in-law was alive he would take Dudley out of the cage every day. Dudley had a tabletop playground. He would climb the ladders, ring the bell and flirt with the gorgeous bird in the metal mirror. It was a great, fulfilling life for the little guy.

I never take him out of his cage. I say all the time that I want to but I never take him out. I feed him. I keep his water bowl full. I give him spray millet every other day. But, I don’t relate to him in the way that he needs. I don’t take him out to play. That’s all in the past now, a memory perhaps. Some sort of physical familiarity for sure. His body must remember even if his mine cannot.

Running is that for me. Running is my tabletop playground. I used to run quite a lot. I often strung together 80 mile weeks. It was exhilarating. There was a time when I would change from my business suit on the ferry after a full day of work and run the 14.5 miles home from the ferry. It was effortless. It was freeing. It gave me wings. It allowed me to flirt with the runner I saw in the metal mirror.

Today, I almost tried some slow motion version of running. I’m looking for a way to be free. I need to fly again. But, I can’t. Age, weight gain and an artificial hip have made running a memory for me. I live so close to the beautiful Clove Lake Park that I find myself looking at all the runners passing by. I hear their chatter. I want to join them but I’m stuck on my perch.

I need to run again and feel the emotional release that running gives. I need to escape the cage of despair and depression that has closed its wire doors on me. I want more than just the flight. I want to hurt myself. I want to put down stride after stride and run deeper into pain. I want to run hills so hard that my breath is stolen from me and I have to gasp to breathe. I want to taste the bloody taste of adrenalin in my mouth. The copper penny beneath my tongue taste. I want to flop face first onto the Clove Lake lawn and sweat into the grass. I want to nourish the grass with the pain that drips out as I perspire. I want to sweat the sweat of pain.

I want to forget my sadness and listen to my footfalls as I run deeper into the park, farther from my home. I want to run to some place. I want to run to that place that allowed me to hope and believe. I want to escape to that place I’ve been before. Before death consumed my life.  Before unanswered prayer made me a cynic.

 

 

Come Sit Beside Me

 

 

Come sit beside me.
There’s so much I want to tell you.
None of it is special.
None of it is important.
I just want to say it to you.

You’re the one I’ve always shared my thoughts with.
And you always share your thoughts with me.
Let’s do that now.
Let’s talk.
Let’s share the thoughts of two lovers.
Come sit beside me.

Come sit beside me and hold my hand.
Hold it like you always do.
Our little Spanky can wedge himself between us.
He always presses his warm furry body against our legs.
We’ll hold hands together and rest them on him.
He never complains.
Come sit beside me.

We’ll snuggle together, the three of us.
It will be just like we did every night.
Just like we did on that night.
We’ll hold hands.
We’ll talk.
We’ll fall in love over and over.
Come sit beside me.

Come sit beside me, my darling.
Tell me your thoughts about God’s love for us.
Tell me about His grace.
Remind me of His mercy.
You’ve always understood it so well.

I need to hear about it now.
I need to believe it.
Would you help me believe it?
Come sit beside me.

 

What’s The Hurry (Part One)

“What’s the hurry?  What’s the hurry?  If you’re both born again Christians and love the Lord, if you’ve kept yourself sexually pure, If you have harmony with both sets of parents and they say okay, what’s the hurry? At least wait for the approval of authorities in your life. Besides your parents, how about your friends? How about your grandparents? Get your grandparents’ approval, would you please?They want to give approval too. By the way, not too, not too off to say to you…It might be wise if some of you would pass it by your pastor. Remember, he’s the marriage doctor”   The Father
Wow! There’s so much to unpack here that I have to divide this into two parts.
The father/son family business cult that posed as a church had some strange views about the role of a pastor in your personal life. The dad often  stepped over the line, seeking to limit your ability to make your own decisions. He also had a habit of telling people’s personal business, confided to either him or one of his “counselors”, in his sermon illustrations.
He did this with our family, commenting on the way my son and daughter-in-law chose to get married.
My son and my daughter-in-law are about to celebrate their 17th wedding anniversary this month. They have two great kids as well as two fantastic cats. Whenever I listen with my ear against their wall, I hear nothing but bliss. Their marriage has always been a success. They’ve weathered no relationship storms.
The two of them followed all the dad-made church rules. First, they were adults. My son had his own apartment. Nevertheless, he came to Liz and I to ask our blessing in marrying Catherine. Our advice was to do it before she could change her mind. She was then, and still is today, about the most perfect woman he could ever find.
They were both “born again” Christians. That’s a term I no longer use, but it describes them accurately in that Christian world. Ross Jr’s grandfather was crazy about Catherine. He certainly approved. Their friends felt the same.
Ross and Catherine took the expected church counseling and got no “red flags.” They were never once counselled to delay. They told the counselor that they thought they would like to, one day, hop on a flight to Las Vegas and get married. No family, no friends, just them and God. So, that’s what they did.
We knew they were going. We fully supported this marital adventure. The moment they left the chapel, Catherine called us. “Woo Hoo, we’re married,” she yelled into the phone.
And. of course, that’s when the dad got silly. We told the church secretary and she wanted to put it into the bulletin. But the dad/pastor wouldn’t allow it. Why? Ross had not told him. So, he wasn’t sure it was true! Then, Catherine and Ross came back from their honeymoon and he still wouldn’t announce it in the bulletin. Instead, with a smile, he slapped Ross in the face. He pretended it was a joke but the real intention was clear.
The thing that ultimately allowed him to acknowledge the wedding was when we had a reception at a local restaurant. We rented a private room and allowed him to perform a mock wedding. Now he felt better. He put the announcement in the bulletin without the real wedding date and he spoke from the pulpit as though the re-enactment was the real wedding. So, in his tight mind, he got his way. Nothing happened until he said it did.
A few Sundays after, he snuck in his true feelings as he asked, “What’s The Hurry?”

Nick Cave, Thoughts, Bill Gothard

Into My Arms

I don’t believe in an interventionist God
But I know, darling, that you do
But if I did I would kneel down and ask Him
Not to intervene when it came to you
Not to touch a hair on your head
To leave you as you are
And if He felt He had to direct you
Then direct you into my arms

Into my arms, O Lord
Into my arms, O Lord
Into my arms, O Lord
Into my arms

And I don’t believe in the existence of angels
But looking at you I wonder if that’s true
But if I did I would summon them together
And ask them to watch over you
To each burn a candle for you
To make bright and clear your path
And to walk, like Christ, in grace and love
And guide you into my arms

Into my arms, O Lord
Into my arms, O Lord
Into my arms, O Lord
Into my arms

But I believe in love
And I know that you do too
And I believe in some kind of path
That we can walk down, me and you
So keep your candles burning
And make her journey bright and pure
That she will keep returning
Always and evermore

This Nick Cave song has not left me alone for a minute during the last few months. I first became aware of it when it was used in the funeral scene in my favorite movie, About Time.

The opening line goes straight for the jugular. He doesn’t believe in an interventionist god. I wondered if I did. And then, I was amazed that I dared to wonder at all.

When I first heard the song, I googled Nick Cave. I’d only known him from Red Right Hand, the theme for Peaky Blinders. I pegged Cave for a cult act, an underground independent artist. Well, what a surprise! Cave has a long, successful music career of about thirty years. Thirty years and I’d not heard of him. He just wasn’t on my radar. Nick Cave had begun and built his career during the same time I was completely trapped inside a religious cult.

I spent a good part of my religious formative years in that family owned cult of a church where the most important thing you could do, the most spirituality you could demonstrate, was to not think. You were to learn the dad/pastor viewpoint and be able to parrot it whenever needed. Of course, the dad never said not to think. In fact, he told us often that, if we agreed with him, it proved that we didn’t “leave our brains in the parking lot” when we entered the building. But, we did. And the people I see on Facebook who are still in the cult, still parrot the party line, whether spoken by father or son.

Add that to the cult’s devotion to a sexual deviant named Bill Gothard and it’s a wonder any escapees can think at all. Gothard is the man whose “cause and effect” teachings about an interventionist God were credited often by dad as being foundational to the success of the family business.

http://www.christianitytoday.com/gleanings/2016/january/more-women-sue-bill-gothard-iblp-alleging-sexual-abuse.html

Do I believe in an interventionist God? I did. I believed in a God who chastised you for every wrong decision you made. I knew of a God who punished you for sin committed by family members. I believed in a monkey’s paw God who would give your loved ones cancer if you played their birthdates in the lottery.

But, out of the cult and free to think on my own, I now know it’s permissible, even right, to wrestle with God and angels.  So, like Nick Cave, I don’t believe in an interventionist God. I believe in a God who is good and kind. I believe in a God who is the Good Shepherd. I believe in a God who will shield and comfort me.

Does God intervene in my life? Only for good. Only in love. Especially as He presents Himself to me constantly during my day, offering Himself to be chosen by me.

So, I’ve learned to think. And. I’ve learned that thinking doesn’t make me a disloyal Christian. I’ve learned that, even in American Evangelicalism there are different from those the dad held. And, looking back, I can see how strongly feared new ideas. He would not let a Christian book be put up for sale in his Book Shoppe without his approval. He judged the live and ministry of each author looking as he said, “for cracks” that would disqualify he author’s opinion. And, even though the dad would not let the church bookstore manager order a book that held a different but nonetheless valid viewpoint, the truth finds a way.

And the truth sets us free.

Deckers, Kennedys, and The Glory of God

With Memorial Day upon us I find myself reflecting upon a Memorial Day the Decker/Olsen family had a few years ago. It was a fairly laid back day. There were some friends over, the family was together and we enjoyed the relaxed time we spent. It was the type of day I’m learning to love more than I ever had.
I had often been told that grandchildren were special. They represented the culmination of one’s life. The pinnacle. They defined fulfillment. Grandchildren, I was told, gave you a special sense of love. Love both received and given. I didn’t hear that from my side of the family, of course. It was my father-in-law, Paul, who gushed about how much he loved his grandchildren. He had four grandchildren and three great grandchildren when he passed. He has five great grandchildren now. Grandchildren were the greatest, he said. And he was right.
The Kennedy family came to mind that Memorial Day. I grew up in the sixties to pictures of that clan playing touch football on their vast expanse of lawn at the Hyannis Port compound on holidays. For my generation, they were the picture of family. Cousins, sisters, brothers all come together to relate to one another in love. And, to fulfill the American Dream, they were phenomenally rich.
On this particular Memorial day we gathered at the Decker compound. It’s a somewhat smaller version of the Kennedy property. There would be no football on the front lawn for us. Most obviously because we have no front lawn. Try as we might, the giant tree in front of our house casts so much shade that, for a long time,  we couldn’t get a blade of anything other than weeds to grow. But, lately we’ve had some good success with a spreading ivy groundcover.
We do have a backyard deck that my son built. The deck perimeter is lined with plantings. Tomato plants and fresh herbs cast their scent into the air and when the foul NYC air isn’t crushing my sinuses, the fragrance around the deck is delightful.  That Memorial Day my daughter’s children were playing so sweetly on that deck. One year old Ryan was splashing at a water play table and Lily slid down a small slide. Bethany and  Kat Kat, my son’s delightful child bride,  sat on the covered swing watching the two cherubs.
We are not the Kennedys, for sure. But we are working on our compound. We’ve been adding pieces every summer. Ross Jr. and I live in a two family house. He’s upstairs, I’m down. When Paul was alive, we built him a basement apartment. The staircase in the back of the house goes from the basement apartment to the attic. So, my son’s children used to go up and down that staircase at will, visiting their grandparents and their great grandfather. When we couldn’t find Eric it was always because he was on Gramps’ couch, snuggling and sharing Oreos.
The apartment next door became available and my daughter moved in with her family. Now there are ten of us living in two adjacent houses. The closeness is delightful. The two houses were built in the 1950’s by the same contractor and used the same blueprints. So now, on warm spring and summer evenings my two granddaughters speak to each other from their front rooms, just about ten feet apart.
Two summers ago we extended our patio. We bought a large table which is happily getting too small. Summer days see the table crowded with food. Most of that food, thanks to my Kat Kat, is actually healthy to eat. All of it is delicious. The chairs around it and throughout the yard are filled with family and friends. This Memorial Day I sat at that table and watched my grandson splash around in our pool. From the time the water warms up until he goes back to school, the place you will likely find him is in that pool. Now, it isn’t an Olympic sized pool. It doesn’t have varying depths. At four foot deep, it’s a round, above ground pool that you can pretty much just dunk yourself as you hop up and down. It isn’t Kennedy-like by any standards. But it makes us happy. Especially Eric.
Eric is at home in the water. Once in, he doesn’t come out. He’s a sweet guy, love just emanates from him. He’s witty and funny, does great at school. But his territory is the pool. That’s where he lives all the summer.
Later in the day I went into our backyard hot tub. It’s a small one, of course.. We bought it used and found several spots where it leaked. It had to be drained, set on end, and patched several times before it was finally nearly leak free. I’m pretty sure there aren’t a bunch of patches on the Kennedy hot tub. Neither, I think, do they purchase them used off of Craigslist.  But, we do. And the leaks were actually a benefit. We needed help in turning it on end, And, help means friends in the yard. And, while we grow tomatoes in our backyard our most precious crop, our money crop, is friends. We learned that from my father-in-law Paul. His home always echoed with the laughter of good friends. Everyone was welcome in his house. 
 Because it was recently drained and refilled, the water temperature of the hot tub was in the low eighties. This made it possible for my granddaughter Lily to come in with me. We had a great time. She chatted away as I smiled and pretended to hear her over the bubbles. At one point she asked me about my Crucifix. Why did I wear it? I told her that I wore it because it made me think of Jesus. She reached over and moved the chain so that the crucifix hung down my back. She told me, “Don’t think about Jesus. Think about Lily”
I know that Charles Spurgeon once said that he could smoke a cigar to the glory of God. I’d known people who posted memes with that quote. It apparently meant something to them. But that never really resonated with me. I didn’t ever really understand it. What did mean something to me on this Memorial Day were the words attributed to Saint Irenaus. “The glory of God is man fully alive.”
The Decker family doesn’t have the money or the compound the Kennedy family has. Heck, we don’t have a backyard as large as most of our neighbors. But we are a family. And there’s a great deal of love in that family. And acceptance. We like to be together.  That is what makes this old man feel fully alive. 
We are a family to the glory of God.