Join in an Intimate Lenten Journey that leads us home

This entry is part 1 of 8 in the series Lenten Journeys

https://readthespirit.com/explore/wp-content/uploads/sites/16/2013/03/wpid-0211_Ash_Wednesday_aboard_a_US_Navy_vessel.jpgU.S. Navy men and women participate in an Ash Wednesday service aboard the USS Wasp in the Atlantic Ocean. Electronics Technician 3rd Class Leila Tardieu receives the sacramental ashes from a chaplain. (U.S. Navy photo by Brian May released for public use.)

https://readthespirit.com/explore/wp-content/uploads/sites/16/2013/03/wpid-0211_COVER_Our_Lent_2nd_edition.jpgCLICK THE COVER to learn more about this book and to read sample chapters.MILLIONS OF MEN and WOMEN around the world begin the journey of Lent this week with Ash Wednesday. When Eastern Orthodox Christians begin their Great Lent, starting a few weeks later this year, a total of more than 2 billion souls will share this journey toward new life.
THIS YEAR, ReadTheSpirit has two, inspiring offerings for Lent:

1.) DAVID CRUMM’S UPDATED
‘OUR LENT: THINGS WE CARRY’

Thousands of readers around the world have enjoyed ReadTheSpirit Editor David Crumm’s day-by-day book of Lenten stories, called Our Lent: Things We Carry. Small groups and even entire congregations have enjoyed “group reads” of the book, discussing it week by week. Now, you can enjoy this updated second edition. CLICK on the book cover, at right, to learn more about the stories in this book. On that book page, links in the left margin invite you to read the book’s Preface, Table of Contents, and Sample Chapter. Purchasing a copy of OurLent helps to support ReadTheSpirit’s ongoing work.

2.) COME ALONG! JOIN US IN THIS INTIMATE LENTEN JOURNEY …

One of our most popular columnists and authors is the Rev. Dr. Benjamin Pratt, a retired pastoral counselor who published books on wrestling with temptations (Ian Fleming’s Seven Deadlier Sins and 007’s Moral Compass) as well as helping others (Guide for Caregivers). His online columns are free for you to share with others (if you credit Dr. Pratt and readthespirit.com as the source). In addition, many of his columns are shared with the website of the Day1 radio network.
For Lent 2013, we are proud to publish Dr. Pratt’s once-a-week series …

Intimate Lenten Journey: Introduction …

By the Rev. Dr. Benjamin Pratt

https://readthespirit.com/explore/wp-content/uploads/sites/16/2013/03/wpid-0211_Early_Mosaic_of_Jesus_Christ.jpgOne of the earliest portraits of Jesus Christ still in existence. A Roman-era mosaic now in the British Museum. Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.HOLIDAYS ARE HISTORY. That’s the way most of us approach the ancient traditions and family customs that we love to repeat each year. But, the year-long cycle of Christian holidays are much more than that. These seasons are timeless, yet they also are very clear invitations to affirm our personal journey as God’s people.

In Advent, we start the yearly cycle by preparing to receive the Lord, coming into this world to accompany us. Jesus is born at Christmas, but it is also the season to celebrate our own birth into the faith. Epiphany is more than just a historical memory of three Magi bringing gifts to honor this babe. Epiphany is an invitation for each of us to affirm the gifts we bring to the table shared by all of God’s people. By the time we reach Lent each year, we have jumped through more than three decades of Jesus’ life and the world’s two billion Christians recall Jesus’ last journey to Jerusalem.

Lent is history, but it also is the most intimate invitation to men and women to journey in the Way of Jesus—the way of compassion, love, peace, hope, joy and forgiveness.

There is enormous loss and spectacular hope in Lent. And, each year, we all are invited to share our own losses and hopes as we journey together with each other and with Jesus toward the crescendo of Easter. That’s why these annual holidays and festivals have lasted for 2,000 years. That’s why, today, 1 in 3 people walking the Earth claims to be Christian and will in some way mark the Lenten journey. This is history, yes—but it also is an intimate invitation every year. “Intimacy is our capacity for closeness and tenderness in moments of risky self-disclosure,” says Father Richard Rohr, whom we just welcomed into the pages of this online magazine.

Each week during Lent, I will share some intimate stories—with an emphasis on that word “share.” I want you to feel free to share my stories with others. And I hope that my stories will prompt you to remember and share your own stories that are part of this journey. Perhaps you might carry these columns into your small group and invite people to discuss them. You will discover that the hallowed places I plan to take you in these six weeks are well-trod ground for many people. Perhaps they are hallowed ground you recognize.

This year, proclaim to the world that Lent and Easter are history, sure enough—but they also are personal invitations to journey together. Come along with me?

An Intimate Lenten Journey, Part 1:
Generation Calls to Generation; Deep Calls to Deep

https://readthespirit.com/explore/wp-content/uploads/sites/16/2013/03/wpid-0211_Ancient_Roman_cremation_urn.jpgTHIS ROMAN-ERA CREMATORY URN, uncovered by archaeologists and dated to about 2,000 years ago was accompanied by a second smaller container to its right, apparently a vessel containing a gift of something precious to accompany the departed. Photo by Robert Valette, released for public use.‘TWAS A GRACIOUS OFFER we extended to the family—as so many grandparents do. We thought about it carefully, then waited for an appropriate gathering of the whole gang and announced: “We are getting old and will soon leave our home of many years. We want each of you grandchildren to choose some things to remind you of life with us.”

They stared at us for a moment, pondering this strange invitation. We could see them thinking through the meaning of what they had just heard. But, after questions, hugs, consoling grins and sighs—they took us at our word.

Finally, the respectful question came back to us: “What should we pick?” So, the walk began—all around our old house. What fun for my wife and me! I am known as “PopPop,” the patriarch over this gang of grandchildren. And soon PopPop was happily explaining the connections and personal history that oozes from every picture, pot, post and table—the collage of memories that drapes our home.

As the tales flowed, their pencils moved, making lists that included antique pictures where no one smiles back, a page from a 1611 Bible, Civil War bullet castings, pie-top and drop-leaf tables, rope beds—and even modern art. Clearly, they were excited by all of these offerings. We assured them that no request was out of bounds.

That is when a 9-year-old boy surprised us. He said: “I want PopPop’s ashes. That’s my first choice. That way, I can always have him close and talk with him.”

Nervous chuckles erupted from the others—uncertain what to say—and then gentle teasing and flat-out joking about how and where my ashes should, one day, be stored.

Soon, I could see that 9-year-old boy needed a hug to reassure him that his sincere question wasn’t being dismissed. I whispered in his ear: “I like your choice.”

I heard his question as he meant it: I don’t want to be without him; he doesn’t want to be without me. As in families around the world, we had cared for each other, laughed with each other, shared stories, comforted each other when sick. We had giggled, danced, read, laughed, played, wrestled, snuggled, talked about God and girls. He knows my love. I know his love.

And so this request: “I want PopPop’s ashes.”

And in that request was the truth so unvarnished and hard-edged: I shall leave him before he leaves me. It is in the nature of families. It is in the nature of relationships when the circle of friends realizes that one—perhaps even the leader of the whole big gang—is destined to leave first.

Just a 9-year-old boy, but the question was crystal clear.

Across the generations, his deep was calling to my deep.

AND FROM PSALM 42 …

AS A DEER longs for flowing streams,
so my soul longs for you, O God.
My soul thirsts for God,
for the living God.

 

When shall I come and behold
the face of God?

My soul is cast down within me …
Deep calls to deep
at the thunder of your cataracts;
all your waves and your billows
have gone over me.

 

By day the Lord commands his steadfast love,
and at night his song is with me,
a prayer to the God of my life.

Why are you cast down, O my soul,
and why are you disquieted within me?
Hope in God; for I shall again praise him,
my help and my God.

Originally published at readthespirit.com, an online magazine covering religion and cultural diversity.

Lenten Journey: Rituals, practices (and flowing water)

This entry is part 2 of 8 in the series Lenten Journeys

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CLICK THE COVER to learn more about this book and to read sample chapters.MILLIONS around the world are making the pilgrimage of Lent.
For Lent 2013, ReadTheSpirit has two offerings for you:

1.) DAVID CRUMM’S ‘OUR LENT’

Thousands of readers have enjoyed ReadTheSpirit Editor David Crumm’s day-by-day book of Lenten stories, called Our Lent: Things We Carry. Now, you can enjoy this updated second edition.

2.) JOIN OUR INTIMATE LENTEN JOURNEY

The Rev. Dr. Benjamin Pratt is the author of books on wrestling with temptations (Ian Fleming’s Seven Deadlier Sins and 007’s Moral Compass) and on helping others (Guide for Caregivers).
For Lent, we are publishing Dr. Pratt’s once-a-week series …

Part 1: Introduction and ‘Deep Calls to Deep’

Part 2, Rituals & Practices:
Because Water Always Flows …

By the Rev. Dr. Benjamin Pratt

https://readthespirit.com/explore/wp-content/uploads/sites/16/2013/03/wpid-0218_waters_of_Chesapeake_Bay.jpgWater Flowing West and East: The top photo today shows water flowing along a stream in southern California. This bottom photo shows water flowing through the marshes of Tangier Island in Chesapeake Bay.THEY LAUGHED AT ME. I didn’t like that at all—I didn’t think they understood. I had told the other kids at the baseball diamond that I was better as a batter and pitcher because I practiced certain rituals. I always held the bat with trade mark up, out in front of me, and stared at the mark for a moment before I tapped two corners of the plate with the bat. To prove the efficacy of this little ritual, I held a trophy for batting .500 as a switch hitter in Little League.

My rituals for pitching were even more elaborate. To ensure my accuracy with the ball, I would grasp it firmly and walk in one direction around the mound—touching my cap twice as I walked. The other kids laughed and said I was just superstitious, but I knew this was my secret to success in the game.

You may be smiling yourself, but I think we live in a ritual-starved society. As an adult, some of my carefully observed customs keep me focused, grateful, connected, pulled into the moment, hopeful for the future. They add to my capacity to be a presence to my wife, my family and friends, and, especially, to strangers. Rituals give rhythm and familiarity to an otherwise chaotic day. They help me be a better player in life.

What are your rituals?

Here are a few of mine: I cover my heart during our National Anthem. It grounds me. Every morning, I always sing a song of gratitude—regardless of the weather—as I walk down my driveway to retrieve the morning newspaper. I have expanded that ritual and now hum a tune of thanks any time I stroll down our driveway.

I begin each day with some portion of the prayer of St. Francis—expressing my heart-felt yearning that I shall be made an instrument of peace, hope, love or comfort. If I hear an emergency siren, at any point during my day, I pause in silence to ask for compassion and healing for the responder and the one in need.

Sometimes, I add to this diet of rituals and practices that enrich my life. I just picked up a new one, when my wife and I visited Turkey to tour some of the world’s most important sacred sites. I came home with a ritual so simple that many of our companions missed it.

For our last three nights in Turkey, we stayed in a glitzy boutique hotel with a modern gloss that stood in stark contrast to the sites we had traveled so far to see. But, as we departed, something happened in stark contrast to the hotel’s décor. The hour was 3:30 a.m., when most of us were not inclined to pay attention to the young man lugging our suitcases onto a bus bound for the airport—and home.

After packing the bus, the young man took a minute to draw a pitcher of water from a tap in the hotel. As we prepared to depart in many directions, he poured out the water onto our roadway. It splashed on the pavement.

Why had he done this? I learned that it was a common ritual in that part of the world, bidding us auspicious travels wherever we were destined—because water always flows where it needs to go.

Originally published at readthespirit.com, an online magazine covering religion and cultural diversity.

This column has also been posted at the website for the Day1 radio network.

Lenten Journey: Surprised? Or, an invitation to blessing?

This entry is part 3 of 8 in the series Lenten Journeys

https://readthespirit.com/explore/wp-content/uploads/sites/16/2013/03/wpid-0211_COVER_Our_Lent_2nd_edition1.jpgMILLIONS around the world are making the pilgrimage of Lent.
For Lent 2013, ReadTheSpirit has two offerings for you:

1.) DAVID CRUMM’S ‘OUR LENT’ Thousands of readers have enjoyed ReadTheSpirit Editor David Crumm’s day-by-day book of Lenten stories, called Our Lent: Things We Carry.

2.) OUR INTIMATE LENTEN JOURNEY The Rev. Dr. Benjamin Pratt has written books on wrestling with temptations (Ian Fleming’s Seven Deadlier Sins) and on helping others (Guide for Caregivers).
For Lent, we are publishing Dr. Pratt’s once-a-week series …

Part 1: Introduction and ‘Deep Calls to Deep’
Part 2: ‘Rituals & Practices (and Flowing Water)’

3: Surprised? Of course.
Or, is this an invitation to blessing?

By the Rev. Dr. Benjamin Pratt

IT WAS 7 A.M. I had just taken the first sip of coffee when the phone rang. She said, “My father died during the night. The hospice nurse called me about an hour ago. My rabbi has very young children and I don’t want to disturb them by calling his house this early. I knew you would be up. Will you say the Lord’s Prayer with me and the 23rd Psalm?”

https://readthespirit.com/explore/wp-content/uploads/sites/16/2013/03/wpid-0225_1465_painting_of_Christ_Blessing.jpgSurprised! But, I understood what she was asking. I knew that Jewish and Muslim prayer both have parallels to what we Christians call the Lord’s Prayer. She was graciously asking for prayer in my terms. I managed to say, “I am sorry to hear that your father died. I am honored that you have asked me to pray with you.”

I wasn’t fully awake; I stumbled more than she did. But, we prayed the prayer and recited the Psalm together. Then we were quiet for a few moments.

“I am very grateful,” she said. “I feel much quieter now—comforted. Thank you.”

I learned much in my training as a hospital chaplain, then in my years as a pastor and pastoral counselor. I learned that each of us yearns for respectful presence and hospitality from another person. We deeply hunger to be seen and valued with dignity. When a person is in need, their race, gender, ethnicity and religious creed are not foremost—he or she wants person-to-person caring presence.

The truth for all of us: We may be called upon at any time, especially at times we least expect it. We should aspire to be ready to welcome people as they are—wherever we are—and then to find the blessing in that encounter.

Once, in a foreign country, my wife and I were dining in a sidewalk café. The food was excellent and each table was filled. Judith commented on her delicious dish when the woman next to her, having overheard, chimed in with similar enthusiasm for her tasty dinner. Before long Judith and the woman were chatting and comparing recipes while the man and I were talking. He is a long haul trucker who was visiting his girl friend. We talked about the differences in our countries, and I was inquisitive about the life of a trucker. He was quite willing to share the hardships and pleasures of his work. He asked about my work. I told him I am a retired minister and he looked startled.

Then he asked: “Will you please bless me?”

Startled—but I said, “Yes.” He closed his eyes and I crafted a brief blessing based on what he had shared about his life over the last half hour. When finished, I looked in his face. He kept his eyes shut and he was quiet. A tear suddenly formed and ran down his cheek.

“Thank you,” he said as he opened his eyes. “I really needed that. I think I must have been lead to meet you tonight.”

I said, “You have blessed me also. Thank you.”

We may be surprised anywhere. One day, my wife and I were grocery shopping. She had the list, and we were checking it twice. At one point, she said, “I need olives,” and I responded that I would go find them. I turned.

“I need olives, too,” said a nicely dressed older gentleman who had overheard us. We stepped off in the same direction and searched for the right aisle.

Then, yes, he surprised me. “You take good care of that woman, young man,” he said. “My wife of 56 years died two weeks ago and I’m shopping here for the first time alone.”

Ten minutes later we still hadn’t found the olives when my wife found us. But that didn’t matter because I had learned all about his wonderful wife and him. He needed someone to listen and be present. I was the one who found an unexpected blessing that day.

This week, my prayer for you is simple:

May God surprise you, too.

.

Originally published at readthespirit.com, an online magazine covering religion and cultural diversity.

This column also has been posted via the website for the Day1 radio network.

Lenton Journey 4: Legacy of Imperfection and Grace

This entry is part 3 of 8 in the series Lenten Journeys

https://readthespirit.com/explore/wp-content/uploads/sites/16/2013/03/wpid-0304_COVER_Our_Lent_2nd_edition.jpgFOR LENT 2013, ReadTheSpirit has two offerings for you:

1.) DAVID CRUMM’S ‘Our Lent’ Thousands of readers have enjoyed the day-by-day book of inspiring stories, Our Lent: Things We Carry.

2.) LENTEN JOURNEY The Rev. Dr. Benjamin Pratt, author of Ian Fleming’s Seven Deadlier Sins & Guide for Caregivers is publishing a new Lenten series:
Part 1: Introduction and ‘Deep Calls to Deep’

Part 2: ‘Rituals & Practices (and Flowing Water)’
Part 3: Surprised? Or, is this an invitation to a blessing?

4: You can sense it in the wood—
Imperfection and Grace

Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.
Matthew 5:48

By the Rev. Dr. Benjamin Pratt

https://readthespirit.com/explore/wp-content/uploads/sites/16/2013/03/wpid-Benjamin_Pratt_wood_shop_photos.jpgMY FATHER DIED IN MAY 1985. Within a month of his death I announced to my wife that I wanted to learn fine woodworking. My father had worked with his hands as an auto mechanic, but he had never worked in wood. I was puzzled. Death often confronts us with the anxious tension of despair and creativity. A month later, I met a surrogate father. Howard, an artist with wood, spent every morning in his woodshop and every afternoon reading Scientific American. He also was a jokester: The first thing he said as I entered his shop was that we needed to get a bucket of water—for my fingers when I cut them off.

Howard had served as a squadron commander in the South Pacific during WWII; he was a head of research in the U.S. Navy after the war. He built, flew—and crashed—his own plane; he survived with a broken leg. He built his house; crafted ninety classic period pieces of walnut and cherry over decades. The last years of his life he went twice a day to be with his wife whom he had lost to Alzheimer’s. Among his many life legacies were ones that blessed me—his presence as a caregiver and an artist with wood.

I still have all my fingers, and I always chuckle with gratitude as I turn on the saw. I’m more cautious around power tools than computers. They both scare me. When I enter my small shop I always think of my friend—I miss the ornery ol’ curmudgeon. I see and feel his skill, his talent, his life in my own hands as I choose planks of wood to “glue up” for the sides, bottom or lid of a chest. The perfume of each plank is unique to my nose: walnut is sweet; cedar is spicy. I caress the planks and align the grains of the wood, seeking to put their best face forward. It is a slow, intimate fondling of the wood, arranging and realigning, to achieve the best possible assembly. Then Howard’s words remind me, “You are not building a watch.”

I can’t make it perfect, but I still measure twice and cut once. Ah, the joinery—dovetails, foxtails, mortise and tenon—numerous hours of patience with routers and chisels—fitting and refitting. My grandchildren ask, “How many hours did it take you to build this, PopPop?”

“Oh, it only took all the hours necessary to make it beautiful enough for you.”

When is it ever finished? When it is good enough! There are always blemishes, slight seam gaps, chips and imperfections that remain—much like the imperfections of this woodworker. And yet, these boxes are not only storage. They are warm, solid, visually inviting gifts of hope, crafted with patience from flawed wood by a flawed man.

When finished, they call out for a hand to skim across the smooth surface that was once rough-cut lumber. Perhaps, one day, in a pensive mood, my grandchildren will let their hands glide slowly across the surface and, for a moment, their hands and hearts will pick up the flawed spirits that came before and shaped their lives.

Now, like my mentor in wood, I have become a caregiver as well. I have cared for my wife, sometimes more or less intensively, over the past nine years. I now understand more about my caregiver’s lessons—how he held the anxious, daily tension between despair and creativity. Almost every day in my life, creativity wins the struggle. Usually, my projects involve a promise of legacy for our grandchildren.

When my two older granddaughters turned ‘sweet sixteen’, I gave them each hand-crafted jewelry chests. When they graduated from high school I presented them with walnut and cedar hope chests, their monograms inlaid. My hands are not as steady now, my eyes not as discerning, so I have already begun crafting gifts for the younger grandchildren who will graduate five and seven years hence.

I am facing my mortality. But, God willing, I shall pass on gifts to them, as well.

And here is the greatest lesson I have learned: These gifts cannot be perfect. They are gifts of love, patience, persistence, devotion, practical beauty and intimate creativity. Fine woodworking always has imperfections if we look closely enough. And such is life.

Perfect is beyond my imagination, at least in this life. So, I practice a spirituality of imperfection, working to be as creative as possible under a blanket of loving grace.

.

Originally published at readthespirit.com, an online magazine covering religion and cultural diversity.

This column also has been posted via the website for the Day1 radio network.

Lenten Journey 5: In death … is life.

This entry is part 4 of 8 in the series Lenten Journeys

FOR LENT 2013, ReadTheSpirit has two offerings for you:

1.) DAVID CRUMM’S ‘Our Lent’ Thousands of readers have enjoyed the day-by-day book of inspiring stories, Our Lent: Things We Carry.

2.) LENTEN JOURNEY The Rev. Dr. Benjamin Pratt, author of Ian Fleming’s Seven Deadlier Sins & Guide for Caregivers is publishing a new Lenten series:
Part 1: Introduction and ‘Deep Calls to Deep’

Part 2: ‘Rituals & Practices (and Flowing Water)’

Part 3: Surprised? Or, is this an invitation to a blessing?
Part 4: Legacy of imperfection and grace.

5: In death … is life.

By the Rev. Dr. Benjamin Pratt

https://readthespirit.com/explore/wp-content/uploads/sites/16/2013/03/wpid-0311_Buteo_jamaicensis_Redtailed_hawk.jpg

THIS MORNING I WITNESSED IT—and I cannot keep it to myself. As often as we may see this in the natural world, the experience is riveting. Some truths we do not face easily.

Something must die for us to live.

That’s a fact. An axiom. A truth of nature: In death is life. This process unfolds all around us all the time, as simple as arising each day and eating breakfast—even our cereal was once a green and thriving plant.

So, there I stand, looking out the window, pondering the new day, enjoying a squirrel grazing beneath our feeders. Plumping himself against the winter chill; munching on grains as I had. Chickadees, Sparrows, Cardinals, Wrens peck at these kernels of life that we provide in our backyard buffet. As they crowd our feeders, they scatter an overflow on the squirrel’s head. Even a Downy Woodpcker’s sweet suet bits cascade over this fortunate grazer. Bounty showering all around him, he munches in fat contentment.

Then, a flash.

The birds explode from the feeders—gone—which is what I chiefly notice, at first. Until I realize the squirrel is gone as well. Where? I did see it unfold, I realize. The hawk shot down with talons and beak poised for the strike.

Now, I see that hawk lifting him almost softly—softly to my eyes. The squirrel utters one, short, sharp, final squeak. Soaring to a broad tree limb—50 feet above the fray. I witness a meal that will steel this regal hawk against the winter chill.

The danger past, the other birds return to the feeders one by one. Soon that colorful community is restored. But I cannot turn my eyes from the tree branch. I cannot help but watch—like catching a glimpse in my mind’s eye of myself in a coffin.

We say: In death is life. We know it. But, this is a hard truth, isn’t it? I sit down and jot this prayer, which I share with you today:

O Lord, I eat flesh and I eat grains.
All die that I may live.
This is not a prayer of guilty confession;
I pray in humble thanksgiving today.
Grant me awareness to undergird my choices:
Turn my competition and violence,
Toward stewardship and compassion,
Toward justice, kindness, mercy
And thanks for the promise of life.

.

Originally published at readthespirit.com, an online magazine covering religion and cultural diversity.

This column also has been posted to the website of the Day1 radio network.

Lenten Journey 6: ‘Look into it.’ And, ‘Wonder.’

This entry is part 5 of 8 in the series Lenten Journeys

FOR LENT 2013, ReadTheSpirit has two offerings for you:

1.) DAVID CRUMM’S ‘Our Lent’ Thousands of readers have enjoyed the day-by-day book of inspiring stories, Our Lent: Things We Carry.

2.) LENTEN JOURNEY The Rev. Dr. Benjamin Pratt, author of Ian Fleming’s Seven Deadlier Sins & Guide for Caregivers is publishing a new Lenten series:
Part 1: Introduction and ‘Deep Calls to Deep’

Part 2: ‘Rituals & Practices (and Flowing Water)’

Part 3: Surprised? Or, is this an invitation to a blessing?

Part 4: Legacy of imperfection and grace.
Part 5: In death … is life.

6: Intimate Departures—
‘Look into it.’ And, ‘Wonder.’

“When Pilate learned from the centurion that Jesus was dead, he granted the body to Joseph (of Arimathea). Then Joseph brought a linen cloth, and taking down the body, wrapped it in the cloth, and laid it in a tomb that had been hewn out of the rock.”
Mark 15: 45-6

By the Rev. Dr. Benjamin Pratt

https://readthespirit.com/explore/wp-content/uploads/sites/16/2013/03/wpid-Tree_outside_the_window_of_the_dinner_table.jpgPhotograph by David Crumm.I HELPED TO DRESS my father and mother—and place them in their caskets. It was an intimate and sacred way to express my gratitude to them for their gift of life and their care of me. It was also an aide in my grief journey with each parent.

My mother died at age 63 in 1980 from a stroke following hip surgery. My last act while she was conscious was feeding her. The funeral director was more resistant to my request to participate in the burial preparation than my brother. When we arrived to assist in the process, her body was in a private viewing parlor resting on a gurney. She was respectfully clad in undergarments and a full-length slip. Our task was to assist in dressing her in a skirt, blouse and jewelry. It was a tender and emotional time for me as I thought about how she had nurtured me into life, fed, clothed and bathed me; laughed with and cried with me. Numerous memories, painful and joyful, filtered through my mind and heart. My brother and I worked quietly, sharing brief images, and then lifted her gently into her casket.

A similar process was repeated five years later with my father. Again, one of my last memories was feeding him before he slipped away. At the funeral home it was different. The director said that he had honored many requests to assist in the preparation of a body for a funeral, especially among parents who had lost children and infants. They knew how important the intimacy of departure can be when saying goodbye.

For my father, the deed was not done in the fancy parlor. We were escorted directly to the staff’s preparation workroom. Our father, wearing only boxer shorts, was laid out on a stainless steel worktable. As we dressed him my mind flashed through a kaleidoscope of scenes from life with him. Again, my brother and I worked quietly and carefully we placed him in his casket.

What led me to risk this behavior was observing some Roman Catholic brothers prepare the body of one of their own to bury him. It felt so right, so respectful, and so sacred. I wanted to extend the same to my beloved. Dying and death are part of our lives. To extend our caregiving to our deceased by participating more intimately in their departure is a sacred gift that walks with our beloved on their journey to eternity.

Most of us have moved away from the intimacy of our grief and turned the process of care and burial over to professionals. Perhaps we need to reconsider the emotional and spiritual price we pay for that exchange. Robert Frost exposes the painful aloneness of parents who bury a child in “Home Burial.” The father who had dug his child’s grave pleads with his wife: “Let me into your grief.”

Once again, some people are initiating home funerals as a way of assisting their grief process and making the life/death experience more intimate. Conversations are beginning to take place in Death Cafés, perhaps an off-putting name but certainly an idea that has enticed many to engage in conversations about end of life issues across our nation. These venues date to 2004, when sociologist Bernard Crettaz began hosting such cafés in Switzerland. Generally coordinated by hospice workers, these cafés have been spawned from California to Maine.

Not long ago, I was deeply moved when I attended a showing of the tender, respectful Japanese film, Departures, which tells the story of a cellist who loses his job when an orchestra disbands. He retreats to his hometown and winds up taking a job as an undertaker, performing the elaborate preparations of bodies after death. At first, his family is horrified. Later—well, watch the film unfold and you will appreciate the stirring conclusion.

Many cultures around the world follow such intimate traditions to this day. In American Muslim communities, among the men and women who attend prayers at each mosque there often are a handful trained in the sacred preparation of the dead for the simplicity of Muslim burial. This places an extra reminder in the gathering of a Muslim community: Someone praying next to you, shoulder to shoulder, may be the person who one day will bathe and wrap your lifeless body.

These are wonderments—profound, ancient stirrings of our faith—that we have tried so hard to hermetically seal away. America’s most famous undertaker, poet and essayist Thomas Lynch, won the American Book Award for The Undertaking: Life Studies from the Dismal Trade. He argues that our desire for up-beat memorial services, often with the loved one invisibly reduced to an attractive little container of ashes, rob us of one of life’s deepest spiritual truths.

In the final pages of his book, Lynch writes: “You should see it till the very end. Avoid the temptation of tidy leavetaking in a room, a cemetery chapel, at the foot of the altar. None of that. Don’t dodge it because of the weather. We’ve fished and watched football in worse conditions. It won’t take long. Go to the hole in the ground. Stand over it. Look into it. Wonder. And be cold. But stay until it’s over. Until it is done.”

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Originally published at readthespirit.com, an online magazine covering religion and cultural diversity.

This column also has been published at the website for the Day1 radio network.

Lenten Journey 7: Sacred doors into Fridays, Saturdays & Sundays

This entry is part 6 of 8 in the series Lenten Journeys

By the Rev. Dr. Benjamin Pratt

“YOU ARE HERE!”

Maps, paths and doorways collage.

Maps, paths and doorways from photos in Wikimedia Commons and from Benjamin Pratt.

We’ve all read the signs. They remind us of our current pinpoint on Earth—and, if we prayerfully reflect, we realize that these are sacred truths:
We are here.
We are among the living.
We stand on a tiny spot of God’s Creation—ready to take a step.

For Christians around the world this week, that next step carries us into the three most important days of the year. So, let’s pause in our Lenten Journey. Remember where we started? I wrote these words: “Holidays are history. That’s the way most of us approach the ancient traditions and family customs that we love to repeat each year. But, the yearlong cycle of Christian holidays are much more than that. These seasons are timeless, yet they also are very clear invitations to affirm our personal journey as God’s people.”

Remember how far we have come? You may want to review the earlier parts in this series.

Now, in Holy Week, everything we have summoned in this Lenten Journey rises and converges in a kaleidoscope of life and death, hope and tragedy, community and isolation. In these final days before Easter, we pass through enormous sorrow and abandonment as we move toward the spectacular joy we proclaim as Christians. On Good Friday, Jesus was tacked to a tree—his spirit broken. Holy Saturday is a long period of waiting when, some Christian traditions say, Jesus descended into Hell. Easter brings—resurrection.

We might think of Friday as the day of “NO!” As we experience Good Fridays, life throws us against a rock, tacks us to a tree, devastates our innocence and dreams for our marriage, our country, our children, our lives. That “NO!” breaks our spirit and almost destroys our faith in the goodness of God. On such Fridays, the pain is excruciating, and it is appropriate to be angry, enraged and in deep grief.

Saturday is “I DON’T KNOW.” We move—as Jesus’s followers did 2,000 years ago—into a soft cynicism or despair. We can’t stay in Friday’s intense pain, but we haven’t reached Easter’s joy. Saturday is the janitorial day. We can’t mourn; we can’t celebrate. So, we get up and start moving through our many tasks. Grief and anger from Friday evolves into a flat, soft, lazy, cynical bitterness, a spiritual deadness. This is life without any spice, vitality or vigor. This is spiritual accidie—a term I describe in my books on Ian Fleming and on coping with the challenges of caregiving.

And, Sunday? “YES!” We yearn for Easter, when we are reborn with new directions, new possibilities. It is the day of a clean and restored heart. We are able to sing praises and live with purpose, compassion and gratitude. The Psalmist writes: “Create in me a clean heart, O God, and put a new and right spirit within me. The sacrifice acceptable to God is a broken spirit, not a cynical spirit, not a bitter spirit. You will not reject a humble and repentant heart, O God.” (Psalm 51)

LINKS IN THIS TRIDUUM

Perhaps you can see, already, that this Lenten journey really is a cycle through which we live, over and over again, throughout our lives. The Catholic Church calls this the Easter Triduum—three inextricably linked days packed in Catholic tradition with more sacred firepower than Christmas. Bishops around the world bless all the holy oils that priests will use for 365 days until the next Triduum. The church’s mighty leaders wash the feet of the powerless, including at the central altar in the Vatican. Good Friday becomes the only day of the year without a Mass. And the liturgies for Easter? The Eastern Orthodox prayers go on for hours and hours—and hours.

In some Easter vigils, outdoor fires are lit and carried in processions. Such powerful images in these three days! My own prayers in recent years begin with images. I crave the clarity of images that reflect awe, gratitude, hospitality, compassion, fear, anxiety and hope—a vast array of feelings. These images may turn into words, some of which I record, but often I stay in the meditative clarity of the images. I often carry a camera and sometimes, I simply capture an image whole and wordless. I have given you lots of words, so let me turn to images for this most important of all periods in our journey.

PAUSE A MOMENT AT THESE THREE DOORWAYS

You may want to set aside a few minutes to read these next three paragraphs. You may want to gather up a notebook or journal to record your reflections.

A FRIDAY IMAGE: Remember the Sandy Hook Elementary School massacre? Some images are burned into our collective memories: that single-file row of fleeing students and, later, the tears in President Obama’s eyes as he spoke to the nation. But, now, turn your mind’s eye toward another detail—one we all missed. As the tragedy unfolded, parents were told to report to a local fire station to pick up their children. Officials tried to bring all of the surviving students to that fire station to send them home in an orderly way. Envision a doorway—the doorway to that fire station. You are among the parents coming to take your children home. Then, you realize that all of the surviving children have been hugged and taken home. People are staring at each other, now. Weeping. Some parents are left standing. Some can no longer stand. The truth is: No more children will go home. A shocking image, isn’t it? Yet, that is what happened on Friday, December 14, 2012.

A SATURDAY IMAGE: On Saturday, January 8, 2011, U.S. Rep. Gabriel “Gabby” Giffords was shot numerous times in a Tucson shopping center. Initial news reports declared her dead, but an intern in her office, Daniel Hernandez, Jr., ministered so effectively to the severely wounded congresswoman that she was alive when she reached the hospital. During and after surgery, she was placed in a medically induced coma. She did not open her eyes for days. Imagine the doorway of her hospital room on that Saturday night: a white-wrapped body all but lifeless. It was a Saturday in which the whole nation could say only: “I don’t know.”

A SUNDAY IMAGE: Gabby Giffords has had many spectacular Easter moments over the past two years. Sunday June 22, 2011, we all saw her again—for the first time since the shooting—in two photographs she and her family released to newspapers and TV news that day. But think of another Sunday, July 31, 2011, when we all heard the news that Giffords would return to Congress the next morning! Hearts stirred in Washington and nationwide as each of us heard this news and prepared for what would unfold on that morning of Monday August 1. Focus your mind’s eye on the doorway into the U.S. House of Representatives as Giffords approached that portal. Inside, hundreds were poised to leap to their feet and applaud. In that moment at the doorway, envision the radiance of joy and purpose on her beautiful face—the resurrected image of a woman who will always live with the marks of her Friday but who lives with courage, purpose and faith in the future.

Wondering where you are this Lenten season? These three days take hold of us from that despair we all feel when we are utterly lost and scream: “No!” We have no choice but to move through those first stumbling Saturday steps—without much hope at all—admitting: “I don’t know.” And then, our faith says, we reach the “Yes!” of Easter. The Good News comes to us with that sign so clearly in our eyes again—pinpointing our sacred spot in God’s great Creation and allowing us to live again:

“YOU ARE HERE!”

May the One who called you unto life and who will call you unto death—the One who holds you Beloved and yearns that you know Eternal Life now, Bless you so that you may be an instrument of Peace, Love, Hope, Compassion and Forgiveness to all whom you encounter.
Amen.

Originally published at readthespirit.com, an online magazine covering religion and cultural diversity.

This column also was posted to the website for the Day1 radio network.