Thankful for the memories

Memories 1

Memories of Paul are front and center these days.

Thanksgiving was one of his favorite holidays mostly because of the food. He could eat turkey and stuffing every day.

A hot turkey sandwich with mashed potatoes and gravy on the side was often his choice when eating out. Sometimes we made the traditional Thanksgiving Day fare long after the holiday had passed.

Early in our relationship, he made a full course Thanksgiving dinner for some of his friends and me. I can still see him sweating in his upper flat’s small kitchen: Slicing turkey, whipping up mashed potatoes, focused on getting everything to the table at the same time.

I was so impressed; I think I fell in love with him a little more than I already was that night.

I couldn’t help but think of him as I prepared the turkeys this week. I would have called on him to help me get the slippery birds — oiled and seasoned — into the cooking bags.

It’s his stuffing recipe that I use to make what has become a favorite at my family’s Thanksgiving Day gathering.

He would have been more than happy to sample the finished products before packing everything up to take to my sister’s house for dinner.

Though he wasn’t with me this year, he kind of was. Every memory of Thanksgivings past brought him closer.

When people say our loved ones now gone are still with us, I think this is what they mean: They come alive to us through our memories.

My mom is nearer to me on Thanksgiving, too.

She’s the one who taught me how to cook a turkey years ago while I was still living with my parents. She had wrenched her back a few days before Thanksgiving Day and was confined to bed. From her bedroom, she talked me through pulling out the neck and gizzards (see JoAnn gag!) and then how to season, stuff and bake it.

From that year on, I’ve been the one to make the Thanksgiving Day turkey for the family.

Last year Paul was too sick to enjoy his favorite feast.

The chemotherapy drugs that couldn’t stop the cancer had killed his appetite. I had to encourage him to at least taste the turkey. He wanted to enjoy it, but just couldn’t.

He was placed in hospice care one week later. In a few weeks, it will be a year that he’s been gone.

Now I interact with him through my memories of our everyday life together, and take comfort in the words of L. M. Montgomery in her book, The Story Girl:

“Nothing is ever really lost to us as long as we remember it.”

How could I forget?

________________________

Memories have the power to comfort us or cause us pain. How have memories of moments once shared with loved ones brought them closer to you now that they are gone? What new memories did you make this year on Thanksgiving? I’d love to hear from you.

Advertisements

Lord, we have a situation in Houston

lakewood church

The devotional I use for my reflection time in the morning (In Touch Ministries: Daily Readings for Devoted Living) had me reading James 2:14-17.

“What good is it, my brothers and sisters, if someone claims to have faith but has no deeds? Can such faith save them? Suppose a brother or a sister is without clothes and daily food. If one of you says to them, ‘Go in peace; keep warm and well fed,’ but does nothing about their physical needs, what good is it? In the same way, faith by itself, if it is not accompanied by action, is dead.”

In his reflection on this passage, the Rev. Charles Stanley says faith should flow out of us, and if it doesn’t, “then something has gone wrong and we need to seek God’s help.”

If this passage doesn’t speak to Joel Osteen and the backlash he’s getting for not opening his megachurch to Houston residents displaced by Hurricane Harvey, I don’t know what could say it better.

I knew Osteen’s Lakewood Church was big, but how big didn’t register until I saw a photo on Twitter of the filled sanctuary. It’s an arena, for God’s sake!

Of course opening the doors would be a huge administrative challenge — the need for supplies, a volunteer force, the logistics of hundreds of people moving through your beautiful facility. But what could be worse than failing to care for others in need?

I felt saddened for Jesus’ Church, puzzled as to why the pastor didn’t prove himself a better example to his congregation and embarrassed by Osteen’s blatant lack of obedience to the truth in James’ words.

Then the Holy Spirit turned the spotlight on me.

Looking in the mirror

Funny how that happens when you’re deflecting responsibility onto others for truth revealed to you!

I thought of how often I’ve talked up a storm about a social issue, an idea to create something good or useful, or even an action I felt God might be leading me to do, and then left it at that.

I didn’t act on my words, didn’t open the doors of my heart to exercise some faith to follow God’s lead. Instead, I quietly built a dam to head off the flood of inspired passion and to calm the rising fear that gets in the way of divine opportunities.

How many times?

I think of the idea I had to call a group of Christian brothers and sisters together to pray for healing for our friend, Steve, when he was battling cancer, and later for my husband, Paul, when it was clear his cancer was getting the best of him. I wrote about it in my journal and envisioned how the meeting might go. I even had the hint of faith that it was God’s idea given to me and that, if acted upon, it would result in a healing miracle.

Obviously, I didn’t act on my faith because they’re both dead.

Stanley says, “… when the faith-building process results in action — no matter how simple — then we truly begin to see the power of the Lord displayed.”

Instead of the possibility of seeing God’s power to heal or to experience his presence in the midst of loved ones gathered together in prayer, I regret  not stepping out in faith on Steve and Paul’s behalf. I don’t blame myself for their deaths, I just wonder what might have been.

Sad, very sad. And humbling to think of now as I want to point the finger at Joel Osteen for what looks like his egregious sin.

Too much water under the bridge?

While writing this, I overheard a TV news report in which Osteen said Lakewood Church is helping evacuees with baby food and formula and other shelter supplies and is prepared to shelter people.

“Lakewood’s doors are open and we are receiving anyone who needs shelter,” he tweeted Tuesday.

Good for Osteen; good for the people of Houston.

What is regrettable, though, is the stain left on the larger Christian church from what appeared to be Lakewood’s unwillingness to let its prosperity brand of faith flow sooner rather than later and the loss of potential to see the power of Love unleashed.

What stories could have been told? What good may have come from Lakewood reaching out to stem the tide of loss and sorrow among the people of Houston before being shamed into action?

And how might the Christian church have benefited from seeing the light of Christ shining out through good deeds done willingly for the glorify of God in heaven? (Matthew 5:16)

Lord, something is wrong with our faith, and we need your help to act on the measure of it you have given to us. Forgive us, change us. Heal your people. For your Name’s sake, Amen.

The dream that consoled me

woman sleeps

Here’s one for those who enjoy finding hidden meanings in dreams.

A few weeks ago, I had a dream about my mom. She came in through the back door of my house and stood on the landing leading to the kitchen. I was doing something at the sink — maybe preparing something for a family gathering. I was conscious of other people in the house — my kids, Paul, my dad — but they were not involved in the moment.

mom

My mom, Rose Amicangelo, in her 20s.

I kept doing what I was doing as I turned to look at her. She was young and beautiful, clothed in a 1950’s style red dress — fitted waistline, flared at the bottom. Her black hair was short, framing her face with soft wavy curls. A broad smile made her face almost glow.

She moved toward me to kiss me, but I stopped her cold.

Don’t kiss me, Mom. I’ve been sick, and I wouldn’t want you to get sick, too, I said in the dream.

She moved toward me anyway and wrapped her arms around me, hugging me for a long time. I could see her face (which, in reality, would have been behind me). Her eyes were closed. She was smiling, and I could hear her saying how good it felt to hold me in her arms again.

It was then that I remembered she had died years ago. I wondered how she could be in my kitchen, holding me in such an intimate way.

She walked back to the landing and turned around to face me. With a full-on smile and eyes that radiated love and sparkled with joy, she waved goodbye and walked out.

I think that’s when I woke up.

The dream stayed with me as the day went on. I could still see her face looking into mine and could feel her emotion as she hugged me. I marveled at the radiance of her smile, the sense of peace that emanated from her.

My mother in the dream was a very different woman than the one I’d known. My mom had always expressed her love for me verbally, but hugs were awkward (at least as I remember them as an adult). If I wrapped my arms around her, she would not reciprocate; her arms remained safely at her side and came up only to signal she wanted out of my embrace. In this life, she wasn’t a free spirit; she stayed pretty close to home, preferring safety and security over adventure.

The woman I encountered in my dream was free, unencumbered by self-doubt, fear, anger and all the other baggage my mother dealt with here on earth. There was a spring in her step, an emotional energy I don’t remember seeing in my mom. She seemed just as happy to have been with me as she was to get back to the place from where she came from.

I wondered why I dreamed such a dream. Yes, I reminisced with my sister about my mom the day before, but I sensed there was more.

My pondering led me to an evening back in the 1980’s when I prayed with my mom after attending a class at my church. She wanted to lay down the notion that she had to earn her way into heaven and, instead, accept the reconciliation God offers us by grace through faith in the sacrificial death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. She wanted the peace and assurance she’d been reading and hearing about in the class.

I’m not sure why I hadn’t remembered that moment at the time of her death or when I wrote her eulogy. But remembering it then reassured me that she was most definitely a citizen of God’s kingdom in heaven and, like the woman in my dream, more alive than she’d ever been.

Since all thoughts lead to Paul these days, I wondered how he would have interpreted my dream as he so often did. I wondered what the dream was saying to me about him.
All I know is that somehow the dream woman’s behavior bolstered my trust that Paul was also free and happy in the presence of God. It allowed me to imagine his one-of-a-kind smile reflecting his joy in being so alive in the company of the saints. It lifted my spirit to think of him transformed into his best self on the other side.

I was happy for him and happy to have had the dream.

More than that, I was grateful to God, who cares so deeply for me, that he would use my dreams to console me and give me the courage to carry on until it’s my turn to experience the fullness of eternal life that Paul and my mom already have.

_____________________

Paul was my dream interpreter; so, in his absence, I’d love to hear what you have to say about my dream. Feel free to share your insights in the comments below. I’d also love to hear about the dreams you’ve had that spoke to you or changed your outlook on things.

Main photo credit unknown

 

International Widows Day is no laughing matter

widows and orphans with credit

“Pure and genuine religion in the sight of God the Father means caring for orphans and widows in their distress …” (James 1:27, NLT)

Mom, I don’t want to make you sad, and it sounds kind of weird, but it’s International Widows Day today.

That was the text message I received last Friday from my daughter, Emilie, while I was at the hair salon. I burst out laughing.

“Why do we need a day to acknowledge widows?” I said to my stylist.

“It’s not enough you have to deal with all the firsts and anniversaries, and now this?” he said.

“So what do you do on International Widows Day?” I wondered aloud. “Do you celebrate with a party, as if being a widow is a good thing? Do you say ‘Happy Widows Day’ to the widows in your life? Or do you gather the widows and orphans and have a good cry together?”

I was a little incredulous – and curious.

So I went home and researched what it was all about. Turns out International Widows Day (IWD) is no laughing matter.

The day was introduced by the Loomba Foundation in 2005 to “address the poverty and injustice faced by widows and their children in many countries,” and officially recognized by the United Nations in 2010. It is observed annually on June 23 – the date in 1954 that Lord Raj Loomba’s mother became a widow with seven children at the age of 37.

In the Looma Foundation’s “World’s Widow Report” released in 2016, Lord Loomba said, ““Widowhood is a hidden calamity. When an earthquake, tsunami or any other natural calamity happens, the world takes notice. We can measure the number of people who are killed and the financial consequences. The calamity of widowhood is far greater, affecting almost one seventh of humanity, yet it is largely invisible.”

This story from CNN by Alexandra King and Masuma Ahujad and the UN’s report here made me realize that widows in other parts of the world have a lot more to deal with than just the grief of losing a spouse.

For starters, loss of income reduces widows – often with no marketable skills – and their children to extreme poverty levels. Discrimination from family and community members – due to cultural perceptions in some countries of widows being cursed or evil – torments the women, leaving them isolated, lonely, fearful, confused and overwhelmed as they struggle to provide for their children.

Some are forced to marry their husband’s brother. Others are subjected to degrading and life-threatening mourning and burial rites and other forms of widow abuse. They lose not only their husbands and often everything they have, but also their position in society and basic human rights; many suffer violence – and even death – at the hands of their own family members.

One of the women featured in CNN’s story is a 52-year-old widow from Kenya who lost her husband 10 years ago when he was murdered in tribal clashes. She says, “… To be a widow in my country, you will be neglected by relatives, isolated by people, oppressed and denied your rights by family members, society and local government officials.”

A 75-year-old widow from India says that after her second husband’s death, “his children and my only daughter started beating and abusing me, threatened me with dire consequences, and forced me to sign property papers.”

Definitely puts my own situation in perspective. It’s true, I’ve suffered a significant loss of income since losing Paul (as do the majority of widows in the United States), but my family and I are not in poverty. And though I continue to feel the emotional roller coaster of emotions as I navigate the grief process, I haven’t lost my status as a human being with dignity and basic human rights. Sure, I feel overwhelmed at times trying to manage the demands of being the head of household, but I have tons of support from family and loving friends who are all too happy to respond to my requests for help.

Though I dislike the real and painful effects I’m experiencing as a widow, I have much to be thankful for – and many sisters in widowhood to pray for.

Thanks to Emilie, I’ll know what to do when International Widows Day roles around next year. Instead of cracking up in disbelief, I’ll turn my attention, and that of those around me, to the plight of the estimated 259 million widows worldwide who suffer prejudice and discrimination. And I’ll thank God for those who work so tirelessly to care for us in our distress.

Cut me some slack

woman alone

(Written one night while wrestling with the anger that finds its way into the process of grief, either on its own or provoked by something someone said. Shared in an effort to help others better understand the grieving soul.)

Cut me some slack.

Don’t take it personally if I turn down your invitation to dinner or if I don’t seem enthused by your offer to spend the day together. Forgive me if I don’t return your phone call for a few days — okay, weeks.

I’m not breaking up with you.

I’m suffering with grief.

No, I’m not curled up in the fetal position, wiping away tears with the same tissue that I just used to blow my nose … or maybe I am.  I’m not wallowing in self-pity either, at least not every day.

I’m just learning to live with loss, and that takes time.

So, excuse me from my usual interest in your life. It doesn’t mean I don’t care about you. In fact, I think of you often. I’ve just had to narrow my world considerably, increase my margins, choose more carefully how and with whom I spend my time.

Those who are compelled to rescue others, please don’t go all co-dependent on me. Sure, I may be a little depressed from time to time, but no more than the average person visited by grief.

If it helps to understand, I am in full introvert mode. It drains me more than ever to be interacting with people. I require more solitude these days, so don’t expect too much from me.

Give me your patience. Be okay with the space between us.

Those of you prone to worry and drama, resist the urge to let your imagination run wild picturing me on a ledge looking down. After all, I live in a one-story home!

I’ll call for help if I need it. I promise.

I haven’t lost my faith, either. I still have hope. So don’t waste your time preaching to me about focusing on my many blessings or how grateful I should be that Paul is in heaven with Jesus. You mean well, I know, but it doesn’t sit well with me. Not now.

The truth is, you can’t shorten my time of grief. I won’t let you. This is a very personal walk that I must make on my own, in my own way and time.

If you want to help, cut me some slack and have faith that this, too, shall pass.

I’ll come around at some point.

Trust me. I will.

I am a literary worm!

book stack

I am not brilliant; not a genius.

I’ve not read all the classics of literature; not even close.

I couldn’t quote one sentence, let alone a lengthy passage from any of the ones I have read. 

How can I possibly think I could be a successful writer?

I am a literary worm!

Those were my thoughts as I walked away from one of the workshops I attended last month at the Writing for Your Life Conference in Holland, Michigan.

I spent the next hour talking myself off the ledge.

Don’t get me wrong. This was an excellent conference for spiritual writers.

writers conference attendees

From the intimately sized Advanced Writers Retreat held on Monday at Western Theological Seminary to the larger conference at Hope College with a dozen or so presenters on Tuesday and Wednesday, it was equal parts empowering and challenging.

At the advanced retreat, Sarah Arthur helped me to nail down my mission and vision as a writer and gave me tools to help with setting goals toward that end. Brian Allain talked to us about of the importance of building an online platform and gave me ideas for promoting my work.

To hear keynote speakers Barbara Brown Taylor and Rachel Held Evans at the main conference was worth the entrance fee alone.

In different ways, they both spoke about the importance of knowing who we are — and who we are not — and then, following the Spirit’s lead, writing truthfully from that perspective. I resonated with Taylor’s description of her writing as being her “primary spiritual practice,” and “a sacred art — work that is aimed at giving life and more freedom” to her readers, and I liked Held’s perspective that spiritual writing is an “inherently incarnational work,” the process of putting ‘flesh on the truth.'”

Then there were the workshops led by experienced editors and writers who offered practical tools to make me a better writer and underscored that keeping one’s “butt in chair” is the only way to get the work done.

You tend to fly high after these writers’ meccas. You can’t wait to get alone with your computer and start page one of your next, or first, book.

But it seems there’s always the one workshop that makes you doubt your potential for finding an audience. You wonder why you ever thought you were qualified to sit among the few, the chosen, the published.

It was the second from the last workshop that did it for me. My choice, I know, to fall to the floor and slither out of the classroom like a worm trying to find its way back into familiar dirt, but it’s not easy to keep the critical demons at bay when you’ve just sat under the tutelage of a brilliant writer and spell-binding teacher.

His name -dropping of literary classics and essays he knew well made my own reading list seem pathetically shallow, and his ability to quote long passages of said classics while I struggled to remember what he’d said just a few minutes before, pulled me down like quicksand into a sense of inadequacy.

“If you were legit, JoAnn, you’d know who the hell Mary Karr is and why she is a must-read author,” I wrote in my journal.” You’d be able to nod in agreement about the wisdom of John Sullivan and be familiar with the work of all the great poets he named.”

As I continued to journal, I knew my near-fatal thinking was the result of comparing my average self to the presenter’s extraordinary mind. And more than that, I was forgetting that at the heart of spiritual writing is a dependence on the One who compels us to offer our take on the sacred texts and invites us to capture holy moments as we see them so that others can see them, too.

One of the hardest things about writing — besides keeping my butt in the chair — is being okay with my voice, telling my truth as honestly as I can, just like the workshop presenter did for his audience.

I may not be as well-read as a literature professor or have the memory of a genius, but I am an accomplished writer who, by God’s grace, has persisted in my craft. My pilgrimage as a writer will not look like yours, and that’s okay, because it is a God-paved road to self-discovery that each of us must make on our own.

______

How about you, friends? What comparisons derail you from being the unique human God made you to be? How do you pull yourself out of the muck of self-doubt? I’d love to know.

Remembering Paul on his birthday

A photo by frank mckenna. unsplash.com/photos/OD9EOzfSOh0

Paul would have turned 70 today.

I’d like to think we would have thrown him a party with family and friends, showering him with gifts and messages of love.

Instead, I write through the reality that he isn’t numbering his years anymore. He is on the other side, in the presence of God, where time isn’t marked and his often-troubled spirit is finally free. No more pain, sorrow or tears.

——-

Last year on his birthday, he was about six months into his battle against the cancer that, after more than two years of hibernation, had awakened famished and hell-bent on taking over more of his body. Uncontrolled pain in his side was a constant companion, interrupting his sleep night after night. The chemotherapy was taking its toll, zapping his strength and, sometimes, his will to fight.

My journal entry for that day reads: “Paul’s 69th birthday. I am praying for five more years. I figure I can ask for an extension after the first five. He is praying for 11 years. May God meet us in the middle.”

Our celebrations began the night before his birthday. We’d shared a meal with his son’s family and, though his physical energy was spent after they left, he noted how happy it made him to have them with us.

He awoke that morning to find messages written by our daughters on post-it notes left in the places they knew he would go. On the bathroom mirror: “Happy Birthday, Dad.” On the coffee pot: “Thanks for making coffee every morning.” On his Kindle: “Thanks for teaching us to read.” On the chair that he sat in most of the day: “Thanks for always being there for us.” In all, ten messages of gratitude that visibly moved him, but I was the one who cried.

I cried writing in his birthday card. I cried when he read the girls’ birthday card out loud.

I cried as I wrote a Facebook post for him: “Happy Birthday to the love of my life, the man who makes me laugh, gives me hope, cares for my soul, enriches my faith, reminds me I’m loved, listens to my heart, and offers the grace of Christ when I need it most …”

“I cry just thinking about losing him,” I wrote in my journal.

I wanted to be confident that God would answer our prayers for more years, but doubts would seep through the cracks in my faith. After all, God didn’t answer our urgent request for healing for our dear friend, Steve. And, I certainly wasn’t alone in facing the loss of my husband; every day, it seemed, I became aware of others who were walking the very same path that we were.

“Who am I to think I should be spared this grief,” I wrote that day. “God has blessed us beyond belief all these years together. It almost feels greedy to want more.”

But I did want more, and so did he.

———

In April last year, he wrote: “Death is part of the life cycle. We become so entrenched in this temporal life that we forget about the life to come. I think it’s because we don’t see ourselves as spiritual beings in a physical body. Though our bodies fail, the spirit within us goes on. We are not annihilated. We will continue “living” either in the direct presence of God or without him. Death, therefore, is a door to our second chapter of life. I do not fear that door because I know – am convinced – Jesus is waiting for me on the other side of that door.”

He knew where and to whom he was going, but he didn’t want to make that transition anytime soon. He clung to the feeling that God still had “work” for him to do in Jesus’ name. He was resolute that this latest rematch with cancer would end in healing, a testimony to the greatness and power of God.

Still, on those days when he struggled to catch his breath and the weakness and fatigue prohibited him from getting around, his written prayers turned to desperate pleas for God to save him.

Just before his birthday last year, he wrote: “What good can come from having cancer? What good can come from the troubles in life we all have?

He looked for answers in what had become an important passage of scripture for him: Mark 4:35-41. The story goes that while Jesus and his disciples are in a boat crossing over the lake, a furious storm stirs up violent waves that crash over and into the boat, threatening the disciples’ lives.

Believe it or not, Jesus remains sleeping in the stern. The disciples wake him and ask why he isn’t concerned that they might drown. After calming the storm, he says to them, “Why are you afraid? Where is your faith?”

Paul wrote, “I have faced many storms in my 69 years, but nothing compares with the storm of cancer. My faith says, ‘Go to Jesus in the storm.’ I am not sure how to measure faith, but I know my faith is stronger than it has ever been. I am more confident in God’s love for me and his desire for my best. I am convinced that every storm I’ve been through has had the purpose of drawing me closer to God, becoming more dependent on him.”

I don’t know how one measures faith either, but I had the privilege of watching it grow in him during our life together. As he continued to seek God through the scriptures and prayer, I watched him surrender more and more of his life to God. There was a visible difference in the way he related to the people and events in his life, a confidence that only God could have formed. Despite the back and forth from belief to doubt and back again, I could see his heart and mind were guarded by “the peace of God that passes all understanding.” (Philippians 4:7).

_________

Last year on his birthday we spent the morning as we loved to do – sitting together in our pajamas on the back porch, coffee cups in hand, talking about whatever came to mind as we read scripture and journaled.

We gave him gifts – new pants to accommodate his ever-shrinking body, books to bolster his faith, notebooks and pens to record his days. He’d been awake since two that morning, so our plans to celebrate that night never happened.

Today, though he is not here next to me as I write this, I can hear his strong voice through his written words. He doesn’t feel so far away. Ironically, on the day that I would be bringing him gifts, he has given me this gift of remembering.

———

It has been a little more than five months since he passed through the thin veil that separates heaven and earth. It hasn’t been easy, and in some ways, the storm of grief rages even stronger the longer he is gone.

All I know to do is to follow in his footsteps and “go to Jesus in the storm.” With just three words – “Quiet! Be still.” – Jesus not only calmed the storm; he got the disciples to dry ground on the other side. I trust that, in time, he will do the same for me.

May the same peace that gave Paul the courage to press on, fill me and all those who loved him. And may we have the faith to believe that we will see him again in second chapter of our lives.