Memorial Day

On Monday, Memorial Day 2007, Vickie and I went to American Village to attend the Gold Star Memorial Service in the chapel for fallen servicemen and women who have died since the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq have begun.  I went because my friend Marynell Winslow, with whom I collaborated on a song about her fallen son Ryan (which many of you heard last November when she and George came to our church on a Wednesday evening around Veteran’s Day).  It was sung beautifully at the beginning of the service by 800px-US_Navy_040531-N-6371Q-223_Marines_and_Sailors_march_in_the_Little_Neck_Memorial_Day_Parade_in_Queens_N.Y._during_the_17th_Annual_Fleet_Week_2004a talented young soloist from Nashville.

Later, family members or representatives of the families walked one by one to the front and laid a single rose across a pair of combat boots as a symbol of the one whose full name was called.  As the roses piled higher and higher and you heard that list of names, one at a time, there was time to think about each family, each person, and who they were—what did they dream?  What was it like for them?

Memorial Day was originally called Decoration Day.  It is a day of remembrance for those who have died in the service of our nation. According to a website on its observance, how it began is mysterious.

There are many stories as to its actual beginnings, with over two dozen cities and towns laying claim to being the birthplace of Memorial Day. There is also evidence that Forgotten Memorialorganized women’s groups in the South were decorating graves before the end of the Civil War: a hymn published in 1867, “Kneel Where Our Loves are Sleeping” by Nella L. Sweet carried the dedication “To The Ladies of the South who are Decorating the Graves of the Confederate Dead.”

Memorial Day was officially proclaimed on 5 May 1868 by General John Logan, national commander of the Grand Army of the Republic, in his General Order No. 11, and was first observed on 30 May 1868, when flowers were placed on the graves of Union and Confederate soldiers at Arlington National Cemetery.

                                         — http://www.usmemorialday.org/

800px-bn3q09604_candle_lightTo a mother whose son has died, nothing can give complete comfort.  To know that he died for a good cause, as a patriot, as a loyal soldier, even with the gratitude of the nation, is meaningful.  But there is still that terrible void—the child she held in her arms, taught to walk and talk and pray and play, is gone.

I think about those families during this week. However their deaths came, for each family this was deeply personal, irreplaceable, terrible and relentless.

Remembering is a holy act.  Death is a doorway into that mystery called eternity—a door that opens only one way for us.  In the anguish of loss, we search for meaning, for hope, for comfort.  At the very least, to be remembered is a moment of relief.  It is good for us to place a hand on the parent of a son or daughter who died and say, “We remember.  And we are sad, too.”  Death is terrible enough, and grief is its horrid companion.  At the least we should not have to bear it alone or without a sense that our loved one’s life really mattered.

Memorial Day was a time for me to reflect, not just on this war, but on all wars we have endured.  The price is always enormous.  I miss my World War II veterans and Korean War veterans. If they had seen these angry people walking around our streets with guns, threatening one another when we should be pulling together.  They would have shaken their heads. They knew what it is really like.

The toll is deeper than we know.  It is good to pause and remember and count the cost.  It is good to understand that in all that we do, there are those from among us who cannot sit comfortably and do it.  They carry a heavy load.

I am reminded to pray a little harder for peaceful solutions, to be slow to anger and quick to forgive, to pray for safe returns, for just outcomes, for intelligence to prevail over impulse and rage against each other, for healing and effective grief, for a more thankful heart, for emotional restoration.  And to appreciate those who do the hard part of democracy.

But most of all, I have been pondering about widening out Memorial Day this year a little more to include a different war, against an invisible virus, taking some of our brightest and best and too many people who are loved from us. It makes no distinctions at all as we do with one another. And most of all I think of the soldiers in this war, doctors, nurses, dedicated researchers and healthcare professionals, farmers and ordinary truck drivers and workers and factory employees risking themselves to feed us, retail workers who have to ask us too much to abide by some simple courtesies, a little irritation and inconvenience, just for the privilege of shopping for what we need in a world where even now we have ten times what most others in the world could dream of.

I hope we’re up to it. But it may require, as Old Testament scholar Walter Brueggeman said, that we first grieve our losses before we can be sane about resuming life. I hope we don’t skip over the remembering, as painful as it might be. Because there is also joy in the remembering. And you don’t get the joy without the sorrow. If there are no parades this year, let it not keep us from remembering, honoring, mourning, and giving thanks. Be grateful for every act of sacrifice for the greater good, no matter how small.

The Grief Among Us

 

My daughter is an executive coach and a counselor and sent me an article this week in the Harvard Business Review titled, “That Discomfort You’re Feeling is Grief,” by Scott Berinato. It is well worth reading because it connects to something around the edges of this pandemic that we bypass in the adrenaline rush to survive and find answers. Meanwhile, fear and panic, the threats of economic ruin and the very real terror of possibly passing a disease on unwittingly to others has weighed on us all.

Business owners who were riding a wave of prosperity a short time ago now sit at a social distance, wondering how long they can hold on to see things going again. Doctors and nurses and hospital workers live under the constant strain of a new “abnormal.” The public at large is being asked not to touch, to hug, to embrace their newborns and grandchildren and one another. Rationally, we know we’ll get through this particular iteration, but something deep and irreversible has come one us. I think of my own grandchildren, wrenched away from classmates and the love of a teacher and suddenly, inexplicably, sent of spring break without end.

Berinato interviewed David Kessler, a colleague of the late Elisabeth Kubler-Ross who created the Stages of Grief framework for understanding what people go through as they’re dying. She and others extrapolated the five stages—denial, anger, depression Continue reading “The Grief Among Us”

Between Cross and Easter

Of late, not only in my ministry work, but through the connections of social media, I have been highly conscious of the processions of sorrow that go on around us in the midst of life. In my work, we are walking near every kind of brokenness and sorrow in the world every week, then trying hard to stand up and proclaim hope on Sunday.

Brokenness comes in so many different forms, but it all shares one truth–suddenly we are in a room with no walls to keep predators out, no roof to shield us from torrential storms, no floor to stop us from going down. WIth that comes temptation to panic, that we might absolutely burst from the heaviness of it all. It is here that faith matters most if it matters at all.

This prayer is from my 2015 book, Poems, Prayers and Unfinished Promises.  It was a prayer given originally as an invocation to a performance of the Requiem by John Rutter. If you are in that place, perhaps it would be of some encouragement today.

We came here tonight to wait and to hope

That tombs and sorrow and death and loss

Are only prelude

To seek the Living shepherd,

Beyond our doubts, beyond our fears,

From death into life.

We wait faithfully

Hoping that

You might meet us in our gardens of sorrow as you met Mary,

We wait for unexpected visions in the midst of our tears.

And for you to come to us

As you came to them behind the locked doors of fear

To wait tonight is enough

For tomorrow we will walk to the tomb again Continue reading “Between Cross and Easter”

Grief Work in the Basement Garden

This blog is drawn in part from some chapters I’m writing for a forthcoming book on prayer from Insight Press.  I’ll announce it when it is available for purchase on this site.

Moments of sensitivity to God’s presence happen in the oddest places—foxholes, pinned in a car wreck, hospital waiting rooms, lying in bed when you can’t sleep.  People report God’s presence when life is unraveling, but also sitting on the porch on a quiet afternoon.  Holding a baby.  Counting blessings.  Waking up and drinking coffee.  Chance encounters.  Prison cells, torture rooms, earthquakes and financial ruin.  A meal with friends, a good book, listening to a hymn in church and singing to yourself.  God can show up anywhere, unannounced.

I had one of those moments in a basement laundry room in a retreat center just before worship.  I had spent a great deal of time alone that day, thinking, praying, and resting.  That evening, we were scheduled to have communion in the chapel before dinner.By the SS

During free time that afternoon I took some laundry to the basement and sat there, alone, except for my old twelve

Grandpa and me, February 1956. I was the same age that my Granddaughter is now, 18 months.

string guitar, which I had owned since the age of sixteen.  I took along a hymnal to play and sing some songs to pass the time, and did a wide variety of songs.  After a while, I stumbled upon an old favorite, “In the Garden.”  Theologically sophisticated people do not generally like this hymn—it has no sense of the social or community, no ethics, no grand sweep of history or lofty notion of God.  It is all personal and private.

The words “I, me and my” occur twenty times by the time you sing it all the way through, most notably as, “And he walks with me and he talks with me and he tells me I am his own.”  It can be seen as a rather undeveloped view of faith, infantile and self-absorbed.

But as I sang it, something remarkable happened.  I began to think about my grandfather, a self-taught worship leader in Baptist churches in NC who taught shaped-note singing schools.  We moved from there when I has only seven.  Until then, my grandfather was nearby and always present in my life.

I am from the old school.  Because I am of Welsh ancestry, I am musical, emotional and mood-swingy passionate.  But because I am an American man, I am half Marlboro cowboy.  I only cried at the acceptable times—maybe once per grief, or, like my father in law, who said the only time he ever cried was getting kicked in the groin in football.

The only time American men can cry acceptably like little children is when their chosen sports team loses.  Then they perform tantrums.  They also cry watching certain movies and shows, but it always seems to be about something else.

Now, I sat in a windowless basement in California, singing “In the Garden,” when suddenly a vision of my dead grandfather came to my imagination, but now he was alive, singing with the hosts of heaven, and I felt the tears welling up.  It was twenty-five years after I got the news.

Not that I had failed to grieve at all.  The very first song I wrote, “The Last Freight Train,”(CLICK to listen) is where I put my loss.  I wrote it around age fifteen, and the lyrics sound like a fifteen year old, but I made it the first cut on my first CD, “permanent world of pretend,” because it was my “starting place” in songwriting.

Grief can make you crazy, or, if you handle it halfway right, it can make you well.  Up to you.  Ignore it, and you can destroy everything around you without a clue why.  Move through it and you can live for the first time like you were supposed to live.  Running away is pretty common, of course, except this is more like running away to escape a terrible tattoo.

Music is a wonderful tool to put in your “grief box.”  Since my grandfather, and my families on both sides, were singers and players, music helps me.  But if you can’t play anything except a radio, music can help.

At our church, we are blessed to have an incredible musician, Dr. Terre Johnson, who leads our music.  He is an amazing musician and minister, worked at Carnegie Hall for several years with a choral company there.  He is a terrific arranger and composer of

choral music.  He has written some astounding pieces for grief and out of grief.  One, after a tornado hit a school in Alabama years ago, has been performed at the White House, an arrangement of “Come, Ye Disconsolate.” (LISTEN-click)  He knows that the right music at the right moment can do more than soothe—it can elevate the moment above hopelessness and sorrow.

I say all of this because as a songwriter, I am always dealing with feelings of one kind or another—happiness, sadness, hope, fear, you name it.  You want to feel something in a good song, not just talk about it.  I write out of those wells of feeling.  Disconnect from them and the song never happens.

You can drown in them, of course, but that’s another blog.  The point isn’t to get stuck in sorrow, but to “man up” and stay in the room until the door opens into peace and acceptance.

I’ve met more than my share of crazy people in my line of work, and I’ve got to say many of them have some kind of terrible grief that they flounder around.  And instead of moving into it, they run the other way and make themselves and the rest of us miserable with their determination to will it out of the picture.  Too bad.  A good cry on a regular basis or a healthy helpin’ of blues, hymns, an adagio or two, and they might climb out of the tarpit.

Next time I’ll share a list of my own favorite “grieving songs” over the years.  Usually their significance has more to do with the synchronicity of occasion and song and not merely with the song itself.

Until then, don’t wait for a kick in the groin.  Grief is a powerful secret that you can’t keep down in the basement forever.  You don’t have to carry it around on your sleeve or talk to everyone.  But find your way to sit with it, feel it, and draw on your faith to outwait it.