After receiving Communion my prayer partner and I stood at the foot of the altar, where rails might have been, had the building not been new and Protestant.
Facing the empty cross, we held hands gratefully, and I waited for the gluten-free rice cracker (jalapeno flavored, I think) to dissolve on my tongue. Silently I offered up the impossible situations in our lives—the loved ones suffering from cancers of the body and soul.
She rested her head against my shoulder and soon I could feel her shake. I hugged her and we held each other while the congregants filed past us back to their seats, bread and crackers dissolving on their tongues while the accompanist played “One Bread, One, Body.”
Soon, the new pastor, nine weeks on the job, joined us, slipping his arms over our shoulders, our hug becoming a team huddle, while he prayed for victory. His words—kind words, biblically sound words, spirit-inspired words, words directed at God and meant to uplift us—streamed forth in a strong Southern twang. The pastor prayed until he covered every possible angle and eventuality of my friend’s situation (he’d visited her ill husband the day before).
When he finally Amen-ed, and stepped back, sliding his hands to his sides as he made his way back to the lectern, my prayer partner and I opened our eyes, turned toward the pews, and blinked in surprise to find all the other congregants seated and looking at us. There was nothing to do but shrug, hold hands, and walk to our row, as if used to having all eyes on us in worship.
And we are—or were. At our old church in another state, she attended for 30 years and led praise music for a dozen of those. I was a member there for 25 years, and pastor the last 7 of those. I know what it’s like to place oneself in the position of spokesperson to God on behalf of the congregation.
I know what it’s like to take great care in designing an order of worship that leads people through song, Scripture, responsive readings, public and private prayer and an experience of the holy, while leaving room for spontaneity in response to the unexpected—two women hugging and crying at the front of the church, for example.
The spontaneity often manifests as pure verbosity: frenetic and boisterous greeting time (gone are the days when “Peace be with you,” and “Also with you,” sufficed), chatty announcements, liberal commentary on scripture, and sermons that follow the more-is-better maxim, I
It’s been six years since I pastored, and though God has been subject to my own abundance of words as a leader, the more I find myself in the pews as a worshipper, the more I tire of wordy worship.
My prayer partner and I haven’t lived in the same city since I left pastoral ministry. Since then, we’ve spent countless hours on the phone praying, much of it in increasing silence punctuated only by the buzzing of headsets and clicking of electronic relay signals. We speak, too, but it’s in the silence beyond our words, our hopes, and our fears, that we encounter the reassuring essence of God’s unconditional love. And unfailingly we emerge from that silence with gratitude and renewed inner peace.
When the caring new pastor encircled us with his arms and intoned his kind prayer, I found myself groaning inwardly at the blanket of words meant to comfort us. I lamented his current excess, and the many times I’d undoubtedly done the same. I wanted to say—as gently as possible—to him, to myself, to all of us who find ourselves reaching for words when we turn to prayer, “Please shut up…you’re interrupting God.”
Knowing what to say or do in difficult times when those we care about are suffering isn't easy, but our efforts—small and feeble as they might be—are greatly appreciated by those we offer them to.
Yesterday, in response to reading There Is No Good Card for This, I shared snippets from some of the emails my soul sisters and I exchanged during difficult times.
But that's only part of the story. In supporting others through difficulty, we deepen our relationships, and find ourselves filled with gratitude, even in the midst of our struggles, because of the gifts of encouragement we can offer one another.
Here then are some of our words of Thanksgiving (though many more have been spoken and remain in memory only):
I woke up on this first day of the New Year with renewed hope. I think 2017 was the most challenging year of my second half of life…. Thank you both for being my rock, my anchors, my companions. Honestly, I would not have made it without the strength of our bonds. I am so grateful…. I wish for us strength, courage, creativity, and hope for 2018.
Today I'm coming out of hibernation and the first thing I wanted to do was to write to my two soul sisters.
I am doing well and seem to have entered a new and unfamiliar stage in life—where I am challenged to accept my good fortune.
It makes me happy knowing how fulfilling your life is.
Just wanted to let you know I’m thinking of you…still feeling a bit of the after-glow of being able to spend some very special moments together.
My heart swelled with gladness reading about you getting away for some spiritual renewal…. Thanks for taking me along in your heart and mind. I will be elevated all week with you there, laboring for love and worshipping. Hallelujah!
Thanks for being with me in spirit! Honestly, I always know that you are in my pocket or on my shoulder. What a comfort you are.
We will hold you in our circle with us with thanks for the flourishing of your gifts.
I can picture you driving through beauty, breathing fresh air, having a day of worship, peace and rejuvenation and deep emotion.
I’m so happy that there’s psychic space in your life again for creativity, social relationships, and romance!
It was wonderful to hear your "voice" tonight via email and to catch up a little on your life a little.
Wow, thank you for calling me into your labyrinth journey yesterday and for the virtual day together welcoming the new and unknown, doing the best we can (and then NOT worrying about it), raking leaves in the spring sunshine, and ascending and communing in prayer. Balm for the spirit indeed. It was lovely just reading about it.
I'm so excited for you. So glad to know there are friends nearby to receive and welcome you.
How rewarding for you to know you are making a profound difference in the lives of others. Life doesn’t get any better, in my opinion!
Thanks for your affirmations.
It’s such a blessing to share the highs as well as the lows, and all the in-betweens in our lives.
Thanks for “being” together with me last night, it was so meaningful to share my incredible day—I will always remember yesterday and how it came to a close with my sisters.
I'm so excited to be living into the fullness of my second half of life with so many enduring friendships … and two soul sisters. Feeling blessed.
Dear sisters of light and laughter, I’m appreciating our ongoing email exchange and the deep generosity of spirit flowing among us.
—And to you, dear friends and readers of this blog post: May you find light and laughter in your darkest circumstances and may your hearts be open to the gifts of recognition and encouragement, large and small, well executed or awkward, offered by strangers and friends alike on this journey through life.
I just listened to the book There Is No Good Card for This: What To Say and Do When Life Is Scary, Awful, and Unfair to People You Love by Kelsey Crowe and Emily McDowell. It’s a quick and helpful read (the print version is even illustrated) filled with both helpful and awkward foot-in-mouth conversations of people sharing difficult news.
The gist: avoid platitudes, trust your instincts, don’t make it all about you, and when in doubt reach out. For decades in my adult life I could not hold another’s suffering without succumbing to sorrow (even despair) myself. I was too wounded by my chaotic childhood and felt my own inadequacies so acutely, that in my desire to be compassionate I often ended up in a spiral of worry about the other person, terrified about their circumstances as I imagined myself unable to cope in similar circumstances.
It took most of my life to learn to hold another’s sorrow lightly: caring about them and their circumstances, but stepping away from my need to fix, heal, or remove their troubles so that I could be released from my own fears about their situations. Allowing others to live their own lives as they choose is difficult when those choices aren’t ones I’d make.
The authors of There Is No Good Card for This remind readers to be generous with ourselves, to forgive our unhelpful responses that arise from kind intentions, and to know that we have countless opportunities to practice what to say (and do) when life is hard for those we love.
Two dear friends and I, soul sisters, as we call each other, have developed a conscious practice of supporting each other in difficult times and celebrating the good, mostly via email given our geography. (Another dear one and I reach for the phone and prayer across the miles when things get rough). Here is some of what we’ve written to each other in the past eight months that inspires me, and will, I hope, inspire you, too:
A dear friend whose husband was in his final days with brain cancer said she would hold her husband's hand until Jesus came to hold his hand. And that's what I'm gonna do…
Cried when Carrie Newcomer sang the song, "You Can Do This Hard Thing," as I am doing this hard thing...
I appreciated your words about needing to identify your own emotions/process before talking; so helpful to understand “where we go” when stressed and own that part of it.
I have little time to catch up on email replies. I do read as much as I can; when I do, I don't feel so isolated.
It was a bittersweet visit, thinking of memories of our life there in the past, and inability to travel now…
To let go I need to do a little whining, thanks.
I was so freaked out I didn’t know what to do…. I hope your week has been less dramatic than mine.
The affirmation card said, “I do the best I can, and then I don’t worry about it.” Well, I’ve been doing the best I can and then worrying constantly about it… I’ve definitely got some healing to do from old wounds around the need to be perfect.
Praying for light along your pathway.
As you walk in the dark, may you know that God is present to and with you, even when it may feel otherwise.
Even though I've been rather self-absorbed, you have been on my mind and in my heart. I think of you daily and try to imagine what your day is like.
Thank you for your wonderful words of support and encouragement. I must admit that there are times when humor escapes me and I get down in the dumps discouraged. But I think I have my dad to thank for the humor that returns to me when I remember to keep focused on the light and lightness within.
You are incredible! With serious illness all around, you manage to hold on to humor.
Honestly, I am grateful for sharing each of your life's challenges. Your friendship and deep sharing gives me hope, grace, companionship, for the long days and sometimes sleepless nights.
Hoping you are receiving the soul nourishment needed to sustain you…
I’m just a bit tired and punchy, and mentally more-than-ready for life to move forward and onto the next right place and bright season.
I am learning to see my faux pas, to apologize, and respond more appropriately. So I celebrate that growth in my life. It wasn't expected, but it opens me to another dimension of honoring the dead by honoring her beloved living ones.
It’s such a long process of loving detachment, and it’s so hard to do. I’m hopeful that time and distance will help you to come to a feeling of peace, knowing that you’ve done you’re part in the relationship, and to, as you say, move on with your life.
I’m holding you in my heart as we wait in the darkness of the solstice and of wondering what is next for each of us. In the meantime, may you find moments of joy in the coming holidays.
Thank you for bearing witness to the struggles our family is faced with. No words are necessary although knowing that I can share this darkness with you lightens my burden greatly.
It’s my birthday and I’m spending it at Teen Writing Camp with a dozen 12-to-18-year-olds who’ve voluntarily chosen to sit in a stuffy library meeting room at the Port Orchard Library each afternoon this week to write and learn about writing. We’re opening our last session with thirty minutes of silent writing time before the conversation will range wildly (and may include zombies) and it’ll take all my quick thinking to keep up with their questions and stories.
These dozen are full of enthusiasm and ideas and a penchant for the absurd. Half of them are writing novels, some are writing trilogies. They live close to their creativity.
It’s been twenty years since I began creative writing for “fun” though I’d had the impulse for at least a decade and had squashed it thanks to my inner critic—a rule following responsible adult who told me my time and imagination were better spent taking care of my family. (Though I did make up elaborate bedtime stories for my children many nights, I never wrote any of them down.) And now, I have the privilege of helping a crop of young writers claim their gifts of creative genius.
What I love about being with these teens is that no one has yet convinced them that their imaginations need to be reined in, that creating fantasy worlds and inventing characters is a waste of time, or that they lack the talent to be “real writers.”
A writer is someone who writes, and these teens write—in their heads, on paper, on devices. They invest scads of time and brainpower inventing characters, world building, and crafting elaborate plots.
On my birthday, my husband often asks me what wisdom I have to impart now that I’m a year older. Usually I don’t have much. But, this year, inspired by interacting with these teens, I’ll share a few words of wisdom gleaned from them that apply to writing and life:
Our writing time is winding down and soon we’ll be eating birthday cupcakes (mine’s gluten-free), listening to the stories that have been woven in this half-hour, and discussing how to stay motivated for the long haul. I can’t think of a better way to celebrate the gift of another year well lived.
The view from the Port Orchard library parking lot!
I am a writer who, in December 2011, fortified by a new MFA, empty nest, and changes in my husband's employment, relocated from my native California to Washington state to see what would unfold next.