Prayer For Winston

It’s probably around the time that Winston is standing near the casket of his aunt, saying things about her and saying things about you.  Will you be with him in the midst of a long day of many feelings?

While you know the joy that comes at the entrance of one of yours into bliss, you know the mixed feelings of grief and sorrow and pain as well.  Will you accompany him in the fragile experience of all these emotions and grant him a strong sense of your nearness.

You know the deep feelings of love, the memories, the jokes, the stories.  Enable him to remember with truth and humor and affection.

You know all the things that make us love animals, all the things that make us good and bad at loving.  Redeem every moment that he’s spent, and that his relatives have spent, combining those times into full experiences that help them support each other now.

You see those memories coming back when we see our loved ones, the remains of them, the last pictures of them.  Give Winston and his family and their friends a host of things to see during this day.

May they see you in the midst of their tears and their prayers and their songs and their presence.  May you be in the midst, drawing them all into your embrace.

Give them joy and praise  and kindness.  Let them eat well and restore each other through loving touches and long laughs.

And when the days pass, after others have stopped mentioning their relative, after they themselves have forgotten or begun to forget their loved one, make every spontaneous memory that arrives unbidden an occasion for gratitude and peace and anticipation for that last family gathering.

In the name of the One who conquered death.  Amen.

Reflection on Resurrection & Mardell Culley, Sr.

I think that sermons are oral documents, best heard and not read, but as a memory for myself and an invitation to you, I’m posting the notes of my eulogy for my father.  I preached it yesterday, and while it doesn’t include necessary spontaneous elements which come from being in the preaching moment, I did stay close to my notes.

I often say in situations like this that there are, at least, two aspects to a eulogy: one that looks backward and one that looks ahead.  The backward part turns our vision to yesterday, and we remember what we’ve lived and felt and experienced from the deceased.  We reflect on things.  We laugh at jokes.  We tear up because of tender moments that nobody else shared but us and the dead person.

Alexander Maclaren, a late 19th century preacher, said, “Most men have to die before their true beauty is discerned.”  That true beauty is often seen and reflected in the stories we tell about those men.  Perhaps also in the stories we don’t tell.  There are things worth saying about my father, Mardell Culley, Sr.  Some of them have been said, some only considered.  I’ve thought of my time with pop.  You’ve probably thought of your time with him, as a friend, a brother, a neighbor.  Like me, you know him as an usher in the church, as a relative, as a man who drank a beer occasionally—as a man who drank too many beers occasionally.  But as helpful as it may be, I don’t want to dwell in that backward glance today.  I want to sit with that second part of the eulogy, the part that turns our gaze ahead.  And to focus our collective vision, I want to do what anchors me as a Christian: to see scripture.

The passage in John is about Jesus after he’s been told of his friend Lazarus’s death.  Jesus was with his disciples when he received the news.  He delayed their leaving to go and see about Lazarus’s remains and the sister friends, Mary and Martha who were grieving.  The passage has Jesus turning his soul inward before he travels on the road to Bethany.  The Bible says that Jesus did what all of us do when we love, wept for a friend.  Have you ever wept?  Maybe you didn’t shed tears but your heart ached in your own way—you wept.  Over your children, at a loved one’s descent into addiction, while confused, or something else…  If you love, you will weep.

JOHN 11:44 says, The man who had died came out, his hands and feet bound with linen strips, and his face wrapped with a cloth. Jesus said to them, “Unbind him, and let him go.”

There is more detail before this ministry of Jesus.  There are questions raised, answers given, prayers offered.  And then Jesus calls for the dead man.  I read that this passage about what Jesus does for Lazarus is a confirmation and a promise.  Jesus miraculously resuscitates Lazarus.  He comes out of the grave and is unwrapped so that he lives, so that he has more time on this side of eternity.  In doing this, the Lord shows us a picture of his own future.  We get a slice of what Jesus himself will experience—death and power over death.  Now, Lazarus eventually dies again.  Jesus, though, readies us as readers and listeners for what is to come: resurrected life.  Jesus will rise from the grave by God’s own power, and this passage readies us for such an event.  It prepares us for our own deaths in light of the resurrection.  It is a confirmation and a promise.  When Lazarus rises in this passage, we hear scripture telling us that what happened to him, in preliminary form, is a foretaste of what will come for all people in complete form.

As I prepared for today, I wanted to tell you something about my father, something from my experience of him, which is different from my brothers, from my aunts, from Mr. Robert Bell.  I’ve made lists in my head of things that I’ve recalled about daddy.

I’ve thought about things that he told me, things I’ve seen him do, lessons I believe I’m learning from him.  But rather than go into that, I thought of something more meaningful, at least, in my opinion, and the most meaningful thing I can tell you about my father is that he is loved by God.  That’s a deceptively simple thing to say, but I think it’s the most important thing I can tell you about Mardell Culley, Sr.: He is loved by God.  He is loved by God.  He is loved by God.  He is loved by God.  He is loved by God.

There are surely other things to say, and then again, there really isn’t more beyond this in my mind, perhaps other than the fact that my father knew he was so loved.  Yes, pop was a man with pain and memory and hurt and disease.  Yes, pop was wrestled in the mind by slow, ravaging dementia, unsettled by strokes and a failing brain.  Pop was angry from a loss of independence, from not being able to drive where he wanted, when he wanted.  Yes, pop was a stubborn man, a man spoiled by people, chiefly his sisters as far as I can tell; a man with a grin so infectious it could make you grin whether you wanted to or not.  There are other things to say, but atop that list for me today is that pop is loved by God.  Not some version of my father but him.  The man who got angrier as his frustrations grew.  That man is loved by God.  The man who couldn’t remember that you had been there moments after you left his room.  That man is loved by God.  The man who yelled and didn’t take his medicine even though he was usually mild-mannered.  That man is loved by God.  The man who wasn’t a perfect father to any of his sons, who wasn’t a perfect brother or a perfect friend.  That man is loved by God.

I tell you that like Lazarus in the gospel and like Mardell Culley who lived his last days in a nursing home completely against his best will—like these men who are loved by God—you and I are also loved.  Lazarus and my father, men who reflect a truth that is so large it’s incredible, are mirrors for us today: we, as we are, sit loved by God.  We, imperfect as we are, are perfectly acceptable to God.  We, with our bruises and our egos and our faults, are wanted and desired so by God that Jesus comes to us and offers a splendid future where resurrection is normal.

Resurrected life, in part, means life where God is immediately present.  I cannot imagine all that it means, but living on that other side of breath has to mean living in response to the limitless freedom that comes with no pain and only love.  What would that be for you?  Would it be a meeting with some family member who has died?  Would your resurrected life look like lowered blood pressure or stronger legs so that you could walk or run or leap as long as you want?  Would resurrected life mean courage and the absence of fear?  Would it mean that you could rest without having so many things to do?  These words in John’s gospel pull us to embody what it means for God to be immediate and present.  That’s our invitation today.

Among my last words to my father was a prayer.  I asked him at the acute care hospital in Searcy whether I could pray with him.  He bowed his head, tipping the white rain cap he was wearing.  He was fond of those hats—hats in general.  He had a large leather hat that was probably as old as me, but in this case, he wore a white hat with a thin blue stripe.  When he turned to bow, I took his thin, frail arm and bowed my head.  He prayed with me, for what I think was the first time, if I don’t get count thanksgiving for a meal.

When I last spoke with pop, it was days later, Monday, Christmas Eve.  Aunt Lynnie called while she at the nursing home and gave daddy the phone.  We talked briefly—him asking about Bryce and Dawn, me asking about him and if he’d gotten adjusted to being back at Robinson Nursing Home.  Aunt Mose was coming into the room while we were on the phone.  There was a lift in my father’s voice.  He wasn’t moaning or whispering.  He wasn’t muttering the way he often had when he was upset or ready for you to leave his company.  I thought he was getting better.  I didn’t know he was leaving.  I didn’t know at the time that his was the tone of a man getting ready to respond to the immediate presence of God.  I’d like to think that my father’s favorite holidays were the ones where he bought some of us gifts.  But Daddy would celebrate Christmas thinking of Jesus who he would soon see.  My father had his best Christmas ever this year.  Even with the lack of an appetite.  Even with the chest pains which caused our final alarms.  Daddy knew Tuesday and Wednesday that he was going the way his brothers had gone, the way Lazarus had gone.  He would see the Lord, the giver of Life.  Mardell Culley got the confirmation and the promise.

Pray with me: Oh, God who gives resurrected life, thank you for the chance to know my father, the opportunities to love him and be loved by him.  Thank you for every person who showed him kindness, who aided him in recovering and healing.  Thank you for his sisters, these beautiful women who have suffered all these times in closing the coffins of their brothers and for how you have sustained them under such grief.  Thank you for my brothers and our relatives who have all had our own unique relationships with my father and for how you have blessed us with memories to cherish.  Now, Lord, give us unwavering faith, as we leave this place, even if that faith is thin or frail or hardly visible.  Grant that we may see the true beauty of this beloved man, and grant that we may discern the true beauty of his savior.  Open our eyes to the wonder of every possibility that comes with life in you.  Keep company with us from this day on so that we might live as if death will, indeed, come for us.  Convince us of your promises to us and confirm your love for us as people who can only accept your unconditional love.  We ask these things in the name of the One who beat death and whose victory changed everything, Jesus.  Amen.

My Dad with his sister, auntie Lynnie a few years ago

My Dad with his sister, auntie Lynnie a few years ago

I Didn’t Realize He Was Leaving

On Wednesday evening, December 26, I was sitting next to Dawn and in front of Bryce in the B concourse of Midway airport.  We had successfully pressed through the security checkpoint, rearranged our clothes and shoes, and walked to our gate to wait for an hour before boarding a plane.  Bryce was eyeing some passenger’s ice cream, whispering to me about wanting some.  I told him to wait, to let me get settled.  I told him I had just sat down.  I told him to stop looking at the woman’s ice cream like that because he was scaring me and probably scaring her.

We were heading to Charlotte, North Carolina ultimately to complete our annual time with Grammie Joseph.  It would be a week where we would see the Gant museum, walk through the botanical gardens in Belmont, eat at Captain Steve’s, talk a lot, catch up, do nothing.  My aunt, Lynnie, called me while we were waiting to board.  I have a rule when certain people call my phone: I always answer.  I do not observe this rule for most people.  I’m a pastor so I cannot.  I meet with people and they say things to me, and when they say these things, it makes a lot of sense for me to stop the rest of the world as those people present their worlds to me.  So I’m “present” with them as they talk.  I ignore the phone.  I don’t hear rings in those moments.  But I make exceptions.  When my aunt calls, because my father has been in the nursing home in her city, I take her call, even if I need to ask if I can call right back.

As she always does, she asked me how I was.  There was static in the line.  Perhaps it wasn’t static.  Do cell towers allow for static?  It was choppy.  Whatever the interference, I couldn’t quite hear her clearly.  Some voice was droning about a passenger whose flight was leaving or some gate change.  There was Bryce switching to his mother and asking her for ice cream.  He’s been doing that more and more: shifting to her when I don’t answer the way he thinks I should.

Aunt Lynnie asked if I had gotten her message.  I pulled my phone from my ear and looked at it as if to ask it if it had rung without my hearing it.  Perhaps it sang while we were in the cab with the preacher cab driver who I talked theology with on the way to the airport.  “No,” I told her, “I didn’t.”  Then I thought—as she let out a long “Well,”—perhaps she called the house.  I heard her “Welling” and I had a flash of some indication of what was to come.  It was something spiritual, like and unlike the Welling in the black church, when people sometimes rock while they hear the preacher.  They say “Well” as they listen, and something about the “Well” makes what they hear stick.  My aunt’s well was different; she was stalling just for a moment, and auntie, in my experience, didn’t stall.  She breathed and she said it, quickly and clearly, without interference from cell towers or airport clutter.  My dad had passed an hour or so before that moment.

They were just arriving to the nursing home; the snow had prevented them from getting there sooner.  I knew Little Rock didn’t get snow.  I imagined my three Little Rock aunts, wrapped in coats, looking as lovely as always, dressed in care and concern and love and something familiar.  They were there, three of my father’s sisters, a group of faithful friends to him, and he was dead.  I asked her to repeat herself.  Actually, I said, “What?” I had heard her, but something in me got very cliche in that moment.  Or something in me needed to hear again.  Dawn heard me and she knew.  She had been down a path like this one when her father was snatched over six months after his stroke two years ago.  I felt Dawn turn to me.  I saw her take Bryce by the hand.  I was really surprised at that simple sentence from my aunt.  I wanted to turn to Dawn; I wanted to turn away.

I had just seen him.  This was my first thought: I had just seen him.  One week ago at the hospital in Searcy.  He hugged me twice.  I held him, walked with him.  I showed him pictures, something, I realize now, I did often on my trips to see him.  My second thought was: I just talked to him.  It was on Christmas Eve, two days before.  His voice was bright, brighter than usual even.  he talked to Bryce, asked about Dawn.  I thought he was getting better.  I didn’t realize he was leaving.

Dancing with Death

When I started blogging, my friend David told me to blog about the things that I think about, the things that matter to me.  Lately I’ve been thinking about the decline of my father’s health.  That’s why I’m posting this on both blogs.  I’ve not had much free mental space over the last few months because my dad has been there taking it up with a thousand questions of varying sizes and shapes.

My dad is demented, meaning, he has dementia.  What is the appropriate form for that sentence?  Is my father demented?  It feels like a misuse of language to have to write that way: my father has dementia.  It’s one word or two too long.  Plus, it isn’t true.  Particularly since it feels most days like dementia has my father, like the synapses in his brain are freezing over or cracking or deteriorating or doing anything but firing in the way all my college classes suggested synapses do.  I paid a lot of attention to those classes at U of I.  I got mostly good grades, though I hated statistics and could have done better in Don Dulany’s course, especially if I hadn’t been devoting all that time talking to schizophrenics at strange hours through the night.  But these days I’m thinking that I could have paid more attention.

Anyway, my father’s dementia and the accompanying decline in his condition is essentially unsettling.  My experience of him and his health feels like all the sturdy things in my history with him are getting up, spinning around, and landing in a different place from before.  It feels like every conversation with him, each road trip to Little Rock, leaves me tired from the passing lane and sweating after a long dance with this disease.

And I’m not the one doing the real dancing.  I catch myself to say this.  Over the last six months, since we found out about the strokes and since we’ve started to confuse (i.e., not be able to tell) the stroke’s grip for the dementia’s, I’ve remembered consciously that it’s my father who is suffering.  And that’s the worse part.  Not our collective suffering as we watch or join in as a family responding to our loss and grief.  His suffering is the basic problem here.  I can recover.  Can he?

And I wonder to myself if there is a little grace in my dad not knowing how much he’s suffering.  And I check myself again at the hint of such arrogance.  Can my father, complex man that he is, be written off by my saying, “Well, he doesn’t realize what’s happening to him?”  How can I trust that?  How can I take comfort in the corrosive way the disease is handling him so that his head is all messed up, his memories following?  How can I be encouraged that his brain, eating or sucking or dropping away all the memories which make him him, is so distorting his reality that he is in some way spared?

I ask these questions because I want to be spared.  My father isn’t spared.  We aren’t either.  And these instances of death, these suspensions of time, when I’m not sure if my dad is “there” or “somewhere else,” are not healing.  They are small deaths, and they are upsetting, unsettling, and disturbing.  He is as pained as anyone in this.  He didn’t wish for this end.  And he can’t find the ways to express that any more.  Not on most days.  He’s the one really dancing.

Even though his feet are inching into a straddle some days and stepping normally on other days, it is my dad’s feet that I’m watching.  It is his pair of legs that my eyes fell to the other day as he walked to me on the arm of that nurse.  I had been buzzed into the acute care facility in Searcy, the place where they specialize in treating elderly men and women with psychiatric problems stemming from the disease I keep thinking looks like Skeletor.

He was shuffling slowly, arm wrapped in a sturdy nurse who introduced himself as Billy.  Daddy recognized me and that recognition was a gift even if I was struck by my dad’s gait.  It was an interior compromise, thankful for the recognition and willingness to overlook the pulchritude.

I could overlook that daddy looked bad, really bad.  Bad the way he was when he had the stroke in July.  Bad like when I first saw him in July, my brother Mark at my side, I was wondering where my father’s weight went.  Bad like I saw him for the first time as a truly different figure, no longer the man with muscles and a bench press in his basement with weights I’d never be able to lift.

My father’s arm was attached to his nurse, straddling, dancing, and I met him the rest of the way, took the other arm, and listened to the music of his experience and started dancing with him.  We walked slowly, really slowly.  And instead of going to the designated room, we sat in the closest chairs.  I suggested them because the distance to the room was too far for daddy after the stint from his room and too far for me after driving those eleven hours.

Inconvenience of Death

My next four posts will pull from my day yesterday.  It was a different day, unlike most of my Sundays.  Granted, as a pastor, I meet with people on Sundays.  I pray with people.  I talk about God, squint my eyes, and answer questions people have.  But this Sunday was unique.

I left home, and by the time I was passing the perimeter of blue and white officers around the president’s house, I got a call in the car about the death of a member’s mother.  Then I headed to a meeting before worship where me and another member talked theology.  I officiated a wedding for a couple and then ended the day meeting with another couple who’s expecting their first son in 7 weeks.  Inside those movements were all the other details of the day.  I harassed a few men from church for not wearing helmets while bicycling.  I hugged and held people.  I picked up my son and we went to retrieve his grandmother who would sit with him while we were out.  It turned into a long day.  Most of my Sundays are not this full.

So today I want to think about yesterday.  First, the notice of death’s coming.

Death is hardly convenient when it comes.  I say this as a man who has done some thinking about the confusing event.  I go back and forth between considering death an enemy and grounding my view of it in faith.  My own faith rewrites the story of death.  Christianity has encouraging things to say about death.  And still, good words, strong words, feel weak when death comes.

As I thought about the shocking news on that call yesterday morning, I wondered like most people what was on God’s mind.  I wondered whether the deceased had power over her own exit, whether she was close enough with God herself to choose when to meet him on the other side of life.  I wondered about her daughter, her son, her husband, and her son-in-law.  I turned off my radio because the gospel music I was listening to crowded the long thoughts of nothing-but-wondering.

I ran over the conversations I’d had with our member.  I saw her two days before.  I wasn’t sure if she had traveled to see her mother.  I’d later learn that she was with her mother when she died.  In the car, I heard myself whispering things about grace in the midst of death.  I was talking to myself in the car, rehearsing truths, but the truths came too quickly to take root.  I turned the music on again, thinking that music was the best thing to hear when the inconvenient angel hovered.  I told myself that music was better than truth.  Music was better than an answer with fast feet.

I held that member in my mind all day.  I thought about her during the worship service.  I mentioned her to a few people.  The weight of her grief was on me as I went throughout the other parts of my day.  As much as I was present with everyone else, I was accompanied by the anguish of that member and friend.  I imagined the pain, the anticipation of it I had seen in her eyes during our talks about her mother’s cancer, her father’s disposition, and her brother’s long-term care.

It’s interesting to me, inexplicable too, how you can be somewhere fully and yet be somewhere else.  How you can be with people and have some other matter grab you by the ear or the stomach.  Have you ever said to someone something like, “I’m with you in spirit”?  Or “You’ve been on my mind”?  Those words get at the wonder of being in two places, being with two people, being split, I suppose you could say.  I was very much with the couple I was marrying yesterday, but I was also with the couple who was lingering over the last days they had with their now dead beloved.  I was with my son in the car, but as a pastor, I couldn’t help but recall the shadow of death that cloaked over the otherwise bright day.

I read these words last night in Gwendolyn Brooks’s poem, “truth”

The dark hangs heavily

Over the eyes.

Isn’t that an image of death?  Hanging dark.  Heavy dark.  Eye-covering dark.  And that darkness, that hanging drape is hardly ever truly welcome.