Read the previous letters:
For five years now, I’ve written to you on Mother’s Day. For five years, I’ve lamented the tradition of Mother’s Day–not for some noble reason like protecting the emotions of those who’ve suffered a miscarriage or the countless women longing for children who’ve discovered that traditional motherhood just isn’t in the cards. Nope. It’s been for selfish reasons.
I write because I miss you, Mama.
I miss your laugh and your hair. I miss the way you wrote your Js in cursive and the waking up to the sound of our beagle, Cookie, sprinting up the steps and jumping into my bed to wake me up at your behest. I miss walking through greenhouses and down nursery paths looking at day lilies with you, pointing at the ones with the most vibrant colors. I liked the peach ones, you liked the burgundy ones. One year, we got one of each.
Since I last wrote, so much has happened. In June, I was asked to preach at the Connecticut Conference’s Annual Meeting. Later that month, Greg and I saw DOLLY STINKIN’ PARTON perform (Sorry, Mama. I still get excited about it.). In September, I dressed like a tomato for our local Tomato Festival parade. I know you’re proud!
My church has been in the middle of a giant capital campaign. It’s called Aspire. It’s been more than a decade in the making, but this summer, we had scaffolding installed around the entirety of our 160′ tall steeple, and we had began the restoration process. It was something to see!
This community is so generous. And heading into this restoration effort, we knew that we would need to raise more funding to reach our goal. So we decided, with the help of local radio station WINY 1350AM, to host a HUGE one day event called Steeple Stay. The idea was simple: I would climb the scaffolding around our historic church and not come down until we raised 10% of what we had left to raise in a single day: $32,500. Mama, we blew by that number by Noon. Early that morning, as I was washing my hair, I thought excitedly, “What if we raise $50,000 IN A DAY?!” Then I calmed down and assured myself that raising more than $30k in a day was a steep enough goal.
Mama. We raised more than $55,000. In a single day. It was incredible. It was a tremendous week in the life of our little church that could.
The next Sunday, after we finished our closing hymn, I announced to the church, “We don’t really do this at Westfield, but it strikes me that it’s been an remarkable week for us. Fifteen years ago, this congregation didn’t know if it could make it. But they made hard choices; they persevered. And this week, we did what they thought was next to impossible. Now, we don’t always get it right. Sometimes, we drop the ball. Sometimes, we totally blow it. But we’re sure as hell trying. And if you want to be part of this church that tries its darndest, if you want to be an official part of the Westfield family, then why don’t you come on up. I would love for you to join us now.”
I’ll confess that I knew at least two people would stand up and do it. I didn’t know those two would turn into 18 people.
One of my most lasting memories of you, Mama, is how you’d wake up early every day. You’d make coffee, then sit in your chair with your Bible and the latest Upper Room devotional. You’d flip to whatever scripture was assigned for that day and start to read. In the Spring and Summer, you’d have the sliding glass door open so you could listen to the birds wake.
I remember you telling me about teaching Sunday School for years before I was born. You loved it. Oh, and Vacation Bible School, too. You loved the old, felt board storytelling and the crafts. And the songs. One of my favorites was about Zacchaeus. Do you remember? Zacchaeus was a wee little man, and a wee little man was he! He climbed up in a Sycamore tree for the Lord he wanted to see. Mama, I saw the tree. I saw Zacchaeus’ tree.
Last February, Greg and I took a crew from our Quiet Corner of Connecticut (along with a few from Atlanta!) on a pilgrimage to the Holy Land–a journey I have no doubt you would’ve been on if you were still around. We left from JFK and flew straight to Tel Aviv. Then, for ten days, we saw it all–or a least a whole bunch of it. We sailed on the Sea of Galilee (one of my favorites!), touched the waters of the Jordan, and stood on the shores of Capernaum. We walked the Via Dolorosa and touched the rock tradition holds is Calvary. We looked down the Mount of Olives at the Old City and wondered which path Jesus took on Palm Sunday. We saw two (TWO!) places that claim to the tomb of Jesus. Good News! They’re both empty!
One of the most powerful places we visited in the supposed tomb of Lazarus, who Jesus raised. It’s my favorite story in the Bible, and the one I relate to most when it comes to your death. I don’t identify with Jesus (although we have the same initials–JC!), nor do I connect with Lazarus. Mostly, I think of myself as Martha and Mary who, when they hear Jesus has finally decided to show up, defy convention and run out to him. “If only you’d been here,” they rail, “my brother wouldn’t have died.” It was five days between when the doctors told us what was coming and when you finally died. And every one of those days, Mary and Martha’s words were my own: if only you were here, Jesus.
We climbed down an uneven, rock-hewn staircase through centuries of sediment and foundations. And at the bottom, we found a window into what was clearly a tomb–the tomb tradition tells us was Lazarus’. We pulled up John 11 on a phone (yay, technology!), and we read the whole thing–from the first message sent to Jesus about his friend’s illness to Jesus’ final words: “Unbind him and let him go.” As we stood in the cool of that tomb, I thought of Jesus’ call to unbind Lazarus and to let him go. And I couldn’t help but think of how much your death, as unfair and unjust as it is, has bound me.
I think this might be my last letter to you, Mama–at least in this format. For the last five years, I’ve written to you of the goings on in my life–of my job search and marriage and new life in the North. I know you don’t log onto the internet. I’m sure you don’t refresh your browser waiting for me to post this letter every Mother’s Day. But still, it’s brought me comfort to remind myself of who you are to me, of the memories I hold dear because of you. But the truth is that since 2008, I’ve let your death bind me. I’ve defined who I am as someone who lost a parent too soon. I’ve sung sometimes I feel like a motherless child with the tears of a child who has lost his mother.
Over the last 9 years, more and more of my friends have joined this secret club no one thinks they’ll join until it happens to them–the club of kids who’ve lost parents. More and more are facing their own firsts–first meals without ones they love, first holidays. I read their posts on Social Media, and I feel their pain.
And I realize that’s not where I am anymore, that the bonds of your illness and death aren’t as strong as they once were. They say time heals all wounds. I’m not sure I’d go that far, but time sure as hell helps.
Do you remember reading to me? I remember how you’d climb into my bed early each morning, and gently wake me. You’d read to me for a while from Little House on the Prairie or Dinotopia. And when I was little, you’d sing me to sleep. One of my favorite lullabies has this line in it: “God bless Mommy and matchbox cars, God bless Dad and thanks for the stars. God hears amen wherever we are. And I love you.” So often, you sang songs to me. Let me sing this one for you:
You’ve taught me so much, Mama. How to love and how to pray. How to cook and laugh and maybe cuss a little. And that God really does hear Amen wherever we are. I love you, Mama. I hope I make you proud. You know you’ll always be in my heart. And I know I don’t need to write a letter to prove it.
Read the previous letters:
I last wrote to you a few months ago when we were deep into dark winter months. It was just after New Year’s Day, and, if you recall, it seemed like we just couldn’t catch a break. There was one student death. Then another. Then a teacher and another student. I wrote about how Killingly was one of the kindest, most generous places I had ever encountered, and I told you how inspiring it was to witness you caring for each other–holding each other in the face of such sadness.
One of the funerals during that awful month was held at my church. They weren’t members of our congregation. The family just needed a place to grieve. And a place to name who their child was to them and the world. I called one of our church ladies and asked her if she’d mind doing a reception after the service. She didn’t miss a beat. “I’ll take care of it,” she replied. “You take care of the family.” And take are of it, she did.
Actually, you took care of it–this community took care of it. The afternoon of that funeral, person after person stopped by Westfield to drop off food. Businesses, restaurants, families–some connected to our congregation, the majority not–understood that when a child dies in our community it’s not just one family’s responsibility to take action, nor is it one church’s. We understand that it’s all of ours–that each of us is called to care and to hold, to love and to lift up.
And here’s the thing: no one had to remind anyone to do that. In Killingly, caring for each other isn’t the exception to the rule. It is the rule.
For the last month or two, we’ve been working to figure out how to live with loss. It’s no secret that loss is part of life, but for so many of our kids the kind of loss they encountered during those hard, cold, dark weeks was unimaginable. But the weather started to warm and the trees started to bud. And the days are getting longer and people are happier. There’s something about the return of the sun in the Spring that does that up here.
And yet, even in the midst of this annual reminder of new life, we come face to face with loss again. And I find myself writing to you again, two times too many.
Last night, one of my congregants messaged me. She had been at a middle school softball game between Killingly and Woodstock Recreational teams, when one of Killingly’s players, a student at Killingly Intermediate School, died on the field. I don’t know her. I don’t know her family. I don’t know the details of what happened last night. I don’t know how the coaches or other team members responded.
There’s a lot that I don’t know; that we don’t know.
I imagine that’s a common theme in Killingly homes these days: I don’t know. When kids ask, “why my friend?”; or teachers wonder, “why my student?”; or parents lament, “why my child?” it seems like the answer to each of those is the same: I don’t know. And that’s hard because you something? Parent’s are supposed to know the answers. Teachers are supposed to know the answers.
Pastors are supposed to know the answers.
And still, the fact remains that there are some things we just don’t know.
But the truth is that there are some things we do know.
We know that we are in this together, that if ever there was a community that has, over just a few months, witnessed to the love they have for each other, it is Killingly.
We know how to cry. And how to sing. And how to feed. And how to eat. We know how to sit beside those suffering and hold their pain. We know how to open our hearts to those longing for their child back. We know how play games with their siblings. And whisper of how this isn’t the end. And tell stories of the one we’ve lost, of the joy and light and hope they brought into the world.
We know how to love. And the truth is, Killingly, you love well. You’re good at it. God knows, you’ve had practice. So when you’re unsure of what to say or don’t know what to do next, I hope that you will follow your heart because deep inside, you do. You know.
But in case you need a little help, here’s what I’ve got:
(1) Don’t say “God took her home.” Or “God needed another angel.” Or “God decided it was time.” We say those things to try to answer that pesky question of why. But here’s something I believe to my core (sorry to get a little Jesus-y, I am a pastor!): God doesn’t choose for us to die. God didn’t want Morgan to die. God doesn’t want any of us to die. In fact, in our scriptures Jesus tells us that he came that we might have abundant life. And the last time I checked, the opposite of abundant life is death. All of that to say, phrases like “God took them home” or “God needed another angel” or “God decided it was time” are our human attempts at describing the indescribable. And they always fall short. God doesn’t need another angel. We’re just devastated to have lost one we’ve loved so much and are desperate to find any reason for why they’re gone. We search for answers because without them, we have to live with an unknown why. And that’s hard.
So what should you say? Start with “I’m sorry” or “I’m here” or “I love you.”
(2) Parents: Your child will say, “It’s not fair.” And they’re right. And you know they’re right. You don’t have to make it fair. You don’t have to explain it or make sense of it or understand it yourself. Also, you have permission to cry–even cry in front of your children. It’s sad. Maybe cry, then find a way to help? And get your kids involved in helping, too. I’m not a parent, but I suspect that for a lot of children, there might be fear associated with this situation. My favorite Theologian, Mister Rodgers, was fond of recalling, “When I was a boy and I would see scary things in the news, my mother would say to me, ‘Look for the helpers. You will always find people who are helping.” So, go help.
(3) This is one I mentioned in my last letter, but it bears repeating: God doesn’t make shitty things happen. But God can make really beautiful things come out of really shitty situations. I’m not saying bad things happen so God can make beautiful things. That’s not it at all. Just that the brokenness of this world–the suffering, the loss, the uncertainty, the sadness isn’t the end of the story. Just this January, you, dear Killingly, bore witness to that. You showed up in the most beautiful and unexpected ways. You were generous and gracious. You were loving and kind. And we grew closer because of it. Now God didn’t make those weeks so shitty. But God certainly showed us beauty in the midst of them.
And you know, sometimes that beauty takes years to blossom. For those with tears in their eyes, it might be nearly impossible to see. So for those of you with blurry vision, let me show you where I can already see that beauty budding: I see it in the countless messages I received when word of Morgan’s passing first came out. I see it in the ways people who don’t even know her family want to know if we’re doing something. I see it in the ways you have supported each other in online communities like Facebook. I see it in you.
I’ve said it before: It’s never easy. It won’t ever be easy. But caring for one another, loving one another, holding one another is our only choice–the only one that works. So let’s do that. Let’s care and love and hold.
You are loved, Killingly. You are loved by God, by each other, by me. And, despite what we don’t know, we’ll make it through this tragedy the same way we always have: side by side.
I’m sorry. I’m here. I love you.
Here is this morning’s sermon after being verbally accosted in Westfield’s 1923 Ladies’ Parlor by a member of another church. The scripture was John 3:1-17.
Do you believe people can change? Perennial parental advice says no. Can’t you hear your mama saying, “Oh honey, people don’t change”–I can. And I feel like I’ve echoed that advice in my more desperate moments of disappointment in people. “Ugh,” I think to myself. “People don’t change.”
Nicodemus thought the same. You see, Nicodemus, Nicky for short, was a Pharisee. Pharisees were leaders of the Jews and it was their job to know things. They knew the law and the prophets. And they knew, or at least were supposed to know, about people. And one of the things Pharisees knew about people was that they didn’t change.
Rumors of Jesus’ teachings had made their way to Nicky, who was intrigued. In his entire life, he’d never heard such curious and inspiring teachings, teachings that somehow turned the law and the prophets on their head. He just had to know more, so he stole away to visit Jesus during the night, that is, in secret. And said to him, “Rabbi.”
Now, that’s interesting. This Pharisee, this one who’s a leader of the Jews, who’s supposed to know everything, is calling Jesus Rabbi, or teacher—which means Nicky is a student. And students don’t know everything, or they wouldn’t be students, right?
And Nicodemus does more than just call him Rabbi, teacher. He says Jesus’ teachings are from God. He says, “We know that you are a teacher who has come from God; for no one can do these signs that you do apart from the presence of God.” To which Jesus’ doesn’t say “Thanks” or “Wow, you think so?,” Nope. In typical Jesus fashion, he replies “Very truly, I tell you, no one can see the kingdom of God without being born from above.”
And Nicodemus says what we’re all thinking: WHAT?!
Actually, he asks the obvious question: “How can anyone be born after having grown old? Can one enter a second time into the mother’s womb and be born?”
Nicodemus, in true Pharisee-know-it-all style, tries to catch Jesus. He phrases it as a question, but he’s really trying to prove one of those inalienable truths: death, taxes, people don’t change and you can only be born once.
Jesus replies, “No one can enter the kingdom of God without being born of water and the spirit.” This floors Nicodemus. “How can this be?” he asks. Because, you see, you can’t be born again and people don’t change.
But Jesus does a curious thing: he says they can and they do.
Which is great, right? That’s good news! People can be born again. People can change! Except when they can’t. Or don’t.
And this is where we encounter one of the great barriers in modern day Christianity. This story from John has launched whole theological movements around the ability not just for change, but to be born again. In some traditions, there are very particular conditions about what it means to have been “born again,” a checklist of sorts that verifies the veracity of the claim of being born again. There are others who would say, “Oh, that’s just Jesus talking” and they group it with the other hippy-dippy nonsense Jesus tends to spout off.
It seems to me, that we’re somewhere in the middle: not quite willing to be the gate keepers of someone else’s salvation; Not quite willing to write Jesus’ teachings off.
So what is it people like us, middle of the road people, take from this passage? Our first gleaning is that people can change, and that they do. Some might call that Salvation—that our brokenness, that the things that separate us from others, those barriers, can be removed.
Our second brings us to one of the most famous, if not the single most famous verse in the entire Bible. It’s been held up on poster board at baseball games across the country. It’s been memorized by countless kids in Sunday School and Vacation Bible School. I bet you know it: “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, that whosoever believes in him may not perish but have eternal life.”
Man, this is GREAT! This is Good News! That the change we are longing for in ourselves and in other people, that our brokenness is something that can be changed, is something that we can be saved from.
And here’s the best part of the entire passage–it’s a single word: whosoever. Not some people, not if you are the right color or love the right person or are the right nationality or voted for the winning candidate. None of that matters—whosoever can be born anew, whosoever can change, can start again. Whosoever.
We like that—we, as a congregation, as a community of people committed to welcome—like whosoever. We like saying everyone, everyone, EVERYONE, don’t we? As long as that everyone fits into our tidy little Sesame Street definition of sunshine, rainbows and getting along. But I know and you know that it’s never that easy.
Last night, Westfield hosted the Killingly-Brooklyn Interfaith Council’s annual Warm Hearts, Warm Homes Concert. Now if I’m honest, I didn’t want to be there. Just laying my cards on the table, sharing my own humanity. Sometimes we do things we don’t want to do, right? That’s called being a grown up, being an adult. I had been running around setting up the sound system and getting this and that together—whatever the organizers of the event needed. On one of my jaunts up our back stairs, I was confronted by a member of another church: “You need to unlock the front door.”
Now let me hit pause here to confess: I was tired, I didn’t want to be there, and I had just checked the door to be sure it was unlocked—which it was.
“It is unlocked,” I said. “No, it’s not,” she snapped, standing in the doorway to our ladies’ parlor.
You know those moments in time when you clearly see a decision before you: you can just let it go, take the high road. Or you can dig your heels in and prove your point. Usually, I’m pretty good at taking the highroad, at letting it go. But every once it a while, I miss my turn, and before I know it, I’m on the low road, digging my heels into the muck and mire of being right.
“Yes, it is,” I retorted incredulously, rolling my eyes. Then I walked away.
“Fag!” she shouted after me.
I stopped in my tracks, heart racing.
I walked back to the ladies’ parlor and stuck my head. “I’m sorry. What did you say?”
“Fag” she spat again. “You give us a bad name!”
I looked at her in disbelief. I felt like I was four years old: “That’s not a kind thing to say,” I replied. “Well,” she stammered, “I can say it because I am one. It’s like how black people can say the n word.”
I turned and left.
Listen, this person clearly has issues. And I’m not telling you this story for your sympathy.
But rather, to make this point: this is where Jesus’ whosoever pisses me off. Because, if I’m honest, I don’t want her, the woman who called me a fag in my own church, to be part of that whosoever. I don’t want her to be part of our everyone, everyone, everyone. And let’s be clear: her behavior doesn’t have a place here; her behavior is NOT welcome here.
But when Jesus said we could be born again, that we could change, that salvation could belong to all of us, he meant it. When Jesus said “whosoever,” he included broken people acting like assholes, too.
And you know, that is Good News. Because last night, it was her. But it could’ve been me. Or any of you.
Your mama might’ve told you that people don’t change. But Jesus says they can. And that’s the hope I’m going to hold onto.