Events That Require Attention

My spiritual director told me, among many other precious things, that there are some events in life that require our attention.  She said that those events don’t necessarily care when they get attention just as long as they get what they deserve.  They interrupt us, sometimes an inconvenient times.  They vie for a spot in our field of vision.

We were discussing my father’s health and my recent visits to see him.  She had mentioned that her mother was ill for years before she died and that she too had some dementia.  Then, she said the most appropriate thing.  These things are in our peripheral vision.  They’re always present, though not always in front of us.  Whatever we do, they are present, waiting, and, often, off to the sides of our lives.

There are other things to pay attention to.  There is the work of ministry, work that seems to flow against common boundaries.  There is the immediate family, in my case a rambunctious two-year old and a wife who studies part-time in grad school.  There is the rest of me.

And the normal events trade places with the peripheral ones, and the pieces of my life dance around until I see what I need to see.  There are moments when what we’ve been changes because of who’s around us.  There are similar moments when we change because who isn’t.

And the event of my father’s health.  The series of moments I’m holding regarding what can only be seen as tentative progress and expected deterioration.  These moments are changing me.

I’ve never been the sporadic type.  I’ve never been impulsive.  I’m comfortable with slower rhythms, with taking care, with intention.  But the slow movement in front of me, and in front of my father, scratches at who I am.  And I’m left with a deepening knowing that, sometimes, attending to the needed things is dreadful.

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.