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February
26
2021

February 26, 2021: The Podcast

Many who followed Dawn's voyage  continue to hold Violet and me in your hearts. We are both blessed and grateful. We're traversing the pandemic seas with everyone, thinking often how it would have been with Dawn on board. The picture we humorously envision is one of Dawn wrapping our house in plastic to ward off the virus. She was intense like that.

As part of the ongoing voyage, I've been working on a podcast about grief with Clarissa Moll, a writer and mom of four who lost her husband, tragically and traumatically, to a hiking accident. Today, she and I launch Surprised by Grief, produced by CT (Christianity Today). Give it a listen and share it with others. And thank you again for all of your kindness. It's meant the world.

Show your love and support for Dawn.

Make a donation to CaringBridge to keep Dawn’s site up and running.

August
21
2020

August 21, 2020 The PanCAN Purple Ride

Sixteen months might as well be a lifetime in these pandemic times. Like you, I've lost track of days. And yet, somehow life moves forward. I'm continuing to learn and lead as Editor in Chief at Christianity Today. I work with a fabulous team of talented writers and editors and designers as you can read. Violet blossoms like a flower. We got a new cat, named Salem, but because Violet's allergic, there's a lot of sneezing and wheezing. Minnesota has experienced a lovely summer, the lakes a welcome respite from COVID's limits.

I post here mostly to let you know I'm riding 30 miles or so again in support of the Pancreatic Cancer Advocacy Network in Dawn's memory. By myself with others by theirselves, together across the country we will help fund a truly excellent organization striving to eradicate the dire outcomes of this dreaded cancer. The five year survival rate improved last year from 9% to 10%, meaning pancreas cancer remains basically a death sentence. The hope is for early detection and better treatment someday soon.  If you'd like to join my support of PanCAN, you can click here.

Thank you again for reading this journal during Dawn's dying and my grieving. Your prayers and concern carried me. As the Puritans encourage, "Cast cords of love around my heart,  then hold me and never let me go. May the Savior’s wounds sway me more than the scepter of princes. Let me love thee in a love that covers and swallows up all."

April
21
2020

April 21, 2020: One Year

My beloved Batgirl,

How has it been a whole year? I sit surrounded by my memories of you—your blue eyes and smile shine from your photos and your daughter’s face, your story-telling passion fills the room where I sit and edit at your desk, your clothes that hang in the hallway, your flair, our bed, our life that was so thick and rich and, for me, unfinished.

Your absence no longer overwhelms like it did, but it abides, sadness lingers and waits. The hardest part is the ache of never seeing you again: Never getting to converse again over coffee or wine, never having you press against my evasiveness and fears again, never staring into your steely blue eyes and being seen, never holding you close and hearing you note how we fit, never hearing you speak truth so effortlessly. You were so unashamedly honest. You never flinched as long as you knew the truth. You craved everything be brought to the light. Truth was your sacred ground.

I miss your ferocious passion for all things: for life, for love, for writing, for parenting, for attentive and tender gift-giving (I still can't believe I lost those prayer beads), for a possible future and new adventures, for the few people you deeply cherished, for the unjustly treated, for the weak and the innocent, for the ocean and chocolate and for God and for Scripture, and even for the despair and the dragons that tormented you. I miss your anger and often feel it. Fuck cancer. You died too soon.

Among your very last words were how sorry you were to be leaving me. But you also said you were ready to go--that you’d prepared to die your whole life. How was this possible? I marveled at your tenacity once you knew your doom, your refusal to feed darkness even as you welcomed it, your fearlessness and even your acknowledgement of God’s own awful grace in it. We all must die. So we might as well die well. How can we receive good from the hand of the Lord and not trouble?

I was honored to hold your hand when you breathed your last breath, honored to hold that same gorgeous hand when you gave birth to Violet, those same fingers, entwined, when we promised with tears to love and adore one another “in sickness and in health, in prosperity and want, for better or worse.” We experienced it all. So much happiness, so much sorrow, so much we hoped for, so much lost, so much gained, so much to remember, so much. You feared you were too much. But you were never too much. And now that you’re gone I wish I had more.

There remain words to write, but not here. Our deeper secrets and intimacies we store in our hearts and take to our graves and bury, along with the deeper joys that were ours alone too. We lived under "the threat of resurrection," and now you know whatever there is to know on your shore. I find comfort in imagining your joy complete and your new life incomparable to this life; you forget all I remember because for you it's not worth comparing. The light you enjoy is delightfully warm on your face and at an idyllic slant, the coffee is flawless, your heart full, your sword sheathed and all your dragons slain by that immeasurable love we could only border.

I thank God for every moment of you. Violet and I press forward, together and each in our own way, resolutely with clear eyes and full hearts. But we miss you. As for me, I will parent Violet as best I can by myself, I will edit and write (your own callings), I will drink joy and I will love. I will embrace what I have because this is all I have: this life, this loss, this joy, this sorrow, these fears and failures, this redemption, this hope, this day—even this awful day—especially the awful days since the awful is where the grace appears. I assure Violet over and over how I love her and I love you, and that the more you love the more love you have to give. Love never fails.

We vowed “until we are parted by death,” and now we are. I told you as you were dying how you saved me, healed me and brought me to a wholeness I hardly hoped for. You told me to knock it off, that you weren’t Jesus, for Christ’s sake. But you smiled as you scolded. You gave just as you promised, “all that I am and all that I have.” You died as intensely and intentionally as you lived: your choices and whatever the consequences. Decisions not wishes, you'd say. 

As the poet Jack Gilbert put it, “the Lord gives everything and charges by taking it back. What a bargain.” So be it.

Some of the final words you wrote were inscribed to me in your book. You told me to remember “there is fire in the transitions.” May it burn and refine.

Rest in peace, my love.

Last time,

Your Daniel

March
21
2020

March 21, 2020: Eleven Months

Wasting Away in Coronaville.

There's no need to recap what we're all experiencing. In a strange sense, I remember back eleven months to the seclusion and isolation cancer caregiving entailed and a kind of deja vu inescapably emerges. The main difference, obviously: Dawn is gone.

Amidst a pandemic forecast to worsen before it gets better, we hope against hope to endure. The anxiety is in the anticipation. Hope has become an impoverished virtue, diminished too often as something more akin to wishful thinking. We diminish hope, I think, because it so often disappoints and embitters. Biblical hope by definition is “constantly and intensely vulnerable.” Author Marilyn Robinson writes how hope “implies a felt lack, an absence and yearning.” GK Chesterton added, “As long as matters are really hopeful, hope is mere flattery or platitude. It is only when everything is hopeless that hope begins to be a strength at all. Like all Christian virtues, hope is as unreasonable as it is indispensable.”

I'm now fully on board at Christianity Today--and today is all we're focused on. I've reflecting on God and viruses there, if you're interested. Tons of other good stuff on the site too. The CT editors and team are working tirelessly to inform and frame and encourage and resource during these dark days. We're eager to do what we do as best as we can do it. Thank you to all who write and contribute, especially as we're all now remote and Illinois has shut its doors to keep the coronavirus at bay.

As for me and Violet, we traveled to Chicagoland in search of a house, but our hearts weren't in it. I mentioned last month Violet's affection for Naperville, but in truth, we returned unsure. What we realized readily was how alone our lives would be in Chicagoland as we've no community there yet. If you're married you know how your strength is reinforced by your marriage and your love (its own community), and how together you can do things you could have never done by yourself. Having relied on that relationship, you're weakened when it ends, and then weakened more by the ensuing grief. Because we can't do life all by ourselves (or at least I can't), you learn to rely on the community that surrounds and supports through your grief and through life, totally taking them for granted until you step away and fathom how much you need.

Virtual tools notwithstanding (which have their own power as we're all learning now), to lose the physical presence of friends to lend an literal hand when you need it is an enormous loss in transition. Thus, after a lot of back-and-forthing, I decided to postpone our move another year. Of course now that we live in Coronaville, the decision has been made for us anyway. Still, I am glad we got to choose and am grateful for all the support and affirmation of the choice. 

We did make it to Disney World for the Inheritance of Hope CARES weekend. We joined six other families--widows with children--five of us dads and four with only daughters. We enjoyed off-the-chart generosity, staying in our own personally appointed Disney-themed house and then escorted is VIP fashion through the backlots of all four Disney parks where we entered the cast entrances, put on our best Disney smiles, and entered and experienced all the major attractions. We never waited more than ten minutes in line, which effectively ruined any future visit to Disney World. You can watch a slide show of our weekend here.

The pandemic was just beginning to eclipse while we were in the Sunshine State, the corona just starting to emerge. As the darkness becomes total, so many are going to get sick and die. Just like happens with every disease and infection for which there is no immunity, treatment or vaccine. Just like happens with stage 4 pancreas cancer. Try as we might, pray as hard as we will, we will none of us make it through this world unscathed. With grief you learn to live each day as it's given, and when you get overwhelmed, you just do today and leave tomorrow to worry about itself (Matthew 6:34). There's nothing else to do.

I've heard it said in the South, "Wash your hands and say your prayers, germs and Jesus are everywhere."

You may remember me writing how I've never considered myself an emotional man--especially compared to my beloved wife. The joke in our house was always my needing to ask Dawn, "how do I feel about...?" In the aftermath of her illness and dying and death and burial and funerals I was awash in so much raw emotion I could hardly breathe. Dawn found her shore but I remained adrift on the sea.

Grief is an ocean, but I am doing better. Like the sea, there are tempests that come, but they go and somehow the waters calm for a while and I sail on. I want to live and be present and embrace what every day brings however it comes. I know one day will be my last day, but I also know having voyaged with Dawn to her own farthest shore that I can travel there too and "all shal be well and all shall be well and all manner of things will be well" (Julian of Norwich). Life is beautiful and tragic, so joyous and so hard and so short. This is what we are given. So we do today.

From the Puritans: "Convince me that I cannot be my own God, or make myself happy, nor my own Christ to restore my joy, nor my own Spirit to teach, guide, rule me. Help me to see that grace does this by providential affliction, for when my credit is good thou dost cast me lower, when riches are my idol thou dost wing them away, when pleasure is my all thou dost turn it into bitterness. Take away my roving eye, curious ear, greedy appetite, lustful heart; show me that none of these things can heal a wounded conscience, or support a tottering frame, or uphold a departing spirit. Then take me to the cross and leave me there."

Such is this imposing season of Lent.

Thanks to Bob and Ann for another taste of Mondale chicken, the kind company and the precious angel Violet will treasure, to the Meyers' for a last pandemic brunch (with the Andersons and Williamsons), to Craig and Karin and Tori and Reggie for the early (and likely only) birthday celebration, to Shelley for the diverting and welcome cribbage game, to Tim and the entire community at CT for their understanding and support of our moving decision, to the Editorial Team for an excellent time together, to Neal for the pre-pandemic basketball night with Coby White, to Dave and Elizabeth for hanging out in Orlando, and of course the entire IOH Team who made Disney World a weekend we'll never forget. To all who are on the frontlines of this pandemic, health care workers and essential service providers and researchers and policy makers, all trying to make a way through this unprecedented season, and to all who will mourn that comfort will be felt from Jesus' whose own suffering clears our pathway for doing today.

As today is eleven months and we're stranded in our homes, should you like to join me with a wee dram in Dawn's memory tonight, I'll be pouring my own from 8:00-8:30 PM Central Time. Should you like, click this Zoom Link (https://us04web.zoom.us/j/5074691022) and raise your own glass with me.

February
21
2020

February 21, 2020- Ten Months

As hard as this is to believe: I almost forgot today.

Not that I will ever or could ever forget, but the weird thing about grief is how it recedes like the surf and goes calm for a while, only to return and crash on your soul, and yes, typically during a storm (just to keep consistent with the metaphor).

I'm greatly moved by my friend Clarissa Moll's blogging today. She lost her dear husband Rob, father of their four children, to a hiking accident last summer. Unlike Dawn, Rob was gone in the blink of an eye. I've wondered how I would have endured such sudden loss--Dawn and I had so much we were able to talk about and resolve, but Clarissa writes gorgeously about her nightly preemptive good-byes. You just never know.

"Hug your people," Dawn said.

I am so thankful she and I had the time that we had to talk and touch and remember and forget. The forgiveness she gave proved to be deep healing and gift. I'm in the dim season of "last year at this time:" the pain in the back, the grim discovery, the confirmation of diagnosis, the port that had to run across her neck like a noose, the onset of the nausea that beat her down until she died. Rereading these posts from last Lent, I'm doing it a day at a time, is like re-dreaming a nightmare.

From last February 21: "Dawn was feeling like crap, the Palliative Care Specialist suggested we wait to discuss advanced health care directives--you know, when to pull the plug. You want to feel better before talking about the end." and then, "Dawn's knocked out at the moment. Sleep well my love and awake to face the next challenge. You are so brave."

I led off last February 21 with "WTF?" And then went on to playfully pretend I was meaning "Worship, Teaching and Fellowship." Writing as a church pastor I felt I should watch my mouth. Duke University Divinity Professor and author Kate Bowler wrote how she took up cursing for Lent. Rather than giving up indulgences or vices and try to be a better Christian, she decided to swear. She’d read an article about how people in grief cuss because they feel the English language has its limits in times of inarticulate sorrow. “Or at least that is what I tell people when I am casually dropping f-bombs over lunch.” It started on Ash Wednesday as she waited for the latest results from another set of scans. Kate has stage 4 colon cancer, and her waiting needed a grace only accessible through sorrow and ashes. 

I'm no longer a church pastor. So what the hell? Fuck cancer.

Life moves forward as fast as it stops. Violet and I were in Chicagoland last weekend looking at more houses and schools. She has a crush on Naperville. We spent Valentine's in the city where we stayed in a hotel with bunkbeds! and ate pasta in a classic 1950s checkered table cloth restaurant. I spent two days at the office and hung out with my new colleagues, enjoyed a great dinner with relocated Minnesota friends and joined them at church the next morning (where there were brownies for Violet, praise Jesus). At lunch we bumped into family-in-law, my brother's sister-in-law and her husband, who've lived in Naperville a long time and were kind to let us barge in on their lunch. Joyce fed us Sunday night (and listened to my recitation of woe--my joke of now being able to check off every marital status box. WTF?).

It's been appropriately cold in Minnesota and snowy for our final winter here. Colonial Church prepares to call longtime associate pastor, the amazing Jeff Lindsay, as their next Senior Minister on Sunday. Christianity Today provides a steep learning curve, ample distraction and rewarding work. The passion of the people who serve its mission for Christ's sake is exemplary. Violet and I head to Disney World next Friday for our Inheritance of Hope weekend--a chance to be with others who've lost alongside Mickey Mouse. We're actually staying in a Mickey-themed room which has Violet a little nervous.

If you need a great book in your grief, you'll not do better than the late Martha Hickman's Healing After Loss. It works like a daily devotional and I've read it every day. She quotes Scripture and poets and writers at the top of each day, and then offers her own reflections on loss, having lost a daughter too young. There's then a thought for the day, one of my recent favorites: "Grief comes from love and thus calls to love for its healing."

This morning's quote was from Frank Sinatra: "I'm for whatever gets you through the night."

Old blue eyes. Just like Dawn's.

From the Puritans: "It is the discovery of thy goodness alone that can banish my fear. Allure me into thy presence, help me to bewail and confess my sins. I can destroy but cannot save myself. Yet thou hast laid help on One that is mighty, for there is mercy with thee, and exceeding riches in thy kindness through Jesus. May I always feel my need of him. Let thy restored joy be my strength; may it keep me from lusting after the world, bear up heart and mind in loss of comforts, enliven me in the valley of death, work in me the image of the heavenly, and give me to enjoy the first fruits of spirituality, such as angels and departed saints know."

Thanks to John and Terri for the delicious dinner delivery, to the Westgates for the Super Bowl Party, to Courtney who helped me buy Violet a camera, to all who were able to make our Grand Marnier Dawn Dinner last month, to Jackie and Jerry for the lovely evening (sans Christmas tree), to Melissa and John and Annika for the ice cream maker for Violet, to Shell for the solidarity in parenting solo and for the willingness to try fencing with me, to Joyce and Dennis and Susan and Jasmine for all the kindnesses over last weekend in Chicago, to Dave and Elizabeth and John and Carmel and everyone else who remembered when I forgot. When grief is an ocean it's hard to recall every wave.

(My plan is to write two more times here. Thank you for walking alongside. Plenty more to read if you want at Christianity Today, and don't neglect to subscribe!)

January
21
2020

January 21, 2020- Nine Months

Our little family participated in the practice of making resolutions each new year, few of which we kept. Violet balked, predictably, resolving to "meet a giraffe named Fred" one year. I intended to bake Jacques Pépin's Grand Marnier Soufflé last year, but that never happened. Dawn resolved "consolidation" by which she meant "everything coming together." Her cancer symptoms surfaced a few weeks later. "More pain in my stomach," she wrote in her journal. From the onset, she was intensely focused on doing her death well. Death became her ultimate consolidation, forcing all things to come together at her final breath: her life, her loves, her faith, her passion.

Before, she'd also resolved to do what she could to address unjust policing practices in America. She helped lead a discussion at church on Christianity and racism the night before her diagnosis. She took to social media, listened to podcasts and looked for ways of direct advocacy. She recorded this quote from Friedrich Nietzsche in her journal, ""He who fights monsters might take care lest he thereby become a monster. And if you gaze for long into an abyss, the abyss gazes also into you." Dawn's energy to confront racial injustice stretched back to her days in Angola. Among her last lines written were "questions for the spiritual warrior: What do you consider sacred, larger than self? How do you cope with human destructiveness and suffering? What support mechanisms do you have?"

Dawn proved deeply emotional about almost everything. She chided me for trying to manage her emotion; attempts on my part to lessen my stress her ferocity elicited. For her, stress needed "to count; use it to fuel change." Emotional energy was a gift to be channeled for righteousness.

Today is nine months. The unavoidable analogy to human gestation leads to thoughts of new birth. Coming off of Christmas and New Year, everything starts afresh and we're all searching for giraffes we'll never find. As for newness: I'm a widower, an only parent and helping to captain a storied media enterprise into a new season. I'm no longer a parish minister or a husband or an in-law and soon, no longer a Minnesotan (if ever I was one--you have to have at least attended kindergarten here to qualify). I am profoundly acquainted with grief, relegated to hope and stepping out daily for toeholds of resurrection. In truth there are plenty: a new calling and a new community, lifelong friends and a loving family, a creative daughter and my own inner fortitude, crucified and raised already in Christ. My grief counselor remarked how having your spouse suffer and die and leave you too soon is as bad as it gets. Experience shapes perspective.

Dawn and I wrestled with becoming parents. She'd been single so long and I worried about parenting a teenager in my sixties. Still, we'd been married three years and loved making love and figured why not make way for a possibility of a child? As is often the case, it took longer than we planned, to the point we were ready to bail when I suggested we give it to my birthday, just three more cycles. Conception happened in January, a new year and a new birth to await. Nine months. You may remember me writing how Dawn's immensely hard labor and Violet's painful birth was a highlight of Dawn's life--it was the story I spoke at her death bed as she took her last breath, another kind of new birth. For Dawn, pain made anything worthwhile. To suffer for something meant it mattered. As Martin Luther King, Jr. put it, "If a man has not discovered something that he will die for, he isn't fit to live."

New Year's was spent in Vero Beach, Florida, the guests of kind friends. We were there for the wedding of longtime friends, in the company of even longer time friends, soaking up sunshine and seafood and doing our best to put the worst of 2019 behind us. Our last Minnesota Christmas was spent as we'd spent every Minnesota Christmas--fondue with a dear family, another large family dinner with Santa, Christmas Eve services, a final candlelight benediction, presents in the morning and a last gathering with the fondue family (for roast beef) Christmas night. I've started remotely with Christianity Today, am tremendously impressed with the talent on display there, and grateful for the chance, for a season, to contribute to their good work for the gospel.

Violet does well in school despite her dislike of all things institutional and organized, is occupied daily with creativity on TikTok (click on the video to watch). Worried she was spending too much time with her screens, she made me enter a secret code to lock her out after an hour for the sake of self-control. She's worried about moving to Chicagoland and finding new friends, and misses her mom. As an after-the-fact parent, I rely more than I should on her cues and clues, missing them most of the time. But we're living our new life, giving the other grace and at the end of each day can say "I love you" and recite our gratitiudes, knowing we're part of a human community for whom grief and loss are the last fruits of love.

Speaking of Grand Marnier Soufflés, I'm in the mood to cook. So in honor of Dawn, I'm inviting the first seven people who sign up for a French inspired dinner (roast chicken, mushroom bourguignon, and, of course, the soufflé) on Saturday night, February 1, at 6:00 PM at my house in Minneapolis. Kids are welcome to hang out with Violet and eat butter-inspired food (which, of course, is trés French). As at Dawn's birthday gathering, the price of admission is a memory of Dawn you're willing to share. So sign up.... uh, never mind. The table filled up. That was fast!

Thanks to the McClees and Westgate families for making our concluding Yuletide in Minnesota memorable, and likewise for the immeasurable kindness of Colonial Church. To our family for the Christmas presents for me and Violet, to Jim and Sarah for the generous stay and enjoyable conversation overlooking the Atlantic, to Dave and Elizabeth and Tim and Mimi for everything and more, to Lisa for helping me be a better mom, to Toni and Linda for contributions to World Relief and PanCan on Dawn's behalf, to Ellen for the greeting and nice night at the orchestra, to the CT staff for the warm welcome amidst the worry over this guy who knows nothing about journalism, for the good conversations with Barry and Kyle and the counseling with Nancy, for the sweet blessing of rocking Eilidh to sleep in my 200-year-old rocker (where Violet and me and my dad and my grandmother and great-grandmother and hers before her were all rocked to sleep), Hanneke and Mike for the Macallan, to Dave and Ann for taking care of Violet as I traveled, and for all I forget though I try to remember.

From the Puritans, "O God, Thou hast led me to place all my nature and happiness in oneness with Christ, in having heart and mind centered only on him, in being like him in communicating good to others; this is my heaven on earth. But I need the force, energy, impulses of thy Spirit to carry me on the way to my Jerusalem. Here, it is my duty to be as Christ in this world, to do what he would do, to live as he would live, to walk in love and meekness; then would he be known, then would I have peace in death."

December
21
2019

December 21, 2019- Eight Months, Yuletide

They say the holidays ignite a different kind of grief--tinseled tears so to speak--a grief garlanded with nostalgia and laden with traditions now tempered by loss. Christmas comes packaged with treasured sentimentality: trees to decorate, popcorn to pop, chestnuts to roast just like the songs sing (actually, no chestnuts and the popcorn's microwaved). With death, there's now pressure to recreate, or at least redesign, traditions to incorporate the loss. But how do you deck a hole with holly?

A kind widow suggested we hang an Advent Calendar and add a memory of Dawn each day until Christmas. I also thought we might hang up Dawn's stocking to acknowledge her presence. But Violet would have neither of these. Too much sadness. It was all we could do to get the ornaments on the tree--so many grief triggers, so much sorrow that Violet eventually had to descend to the basement and hide under her desk. 

To think of the Christmas story is to remember a young woman trapped and wanting to hide. "Blessed" by God with the oddest of blessings--scandalized as a mother to a royal son whose future on earth is doomed from the start. Because we know the end of the story we can recreate, or at least redesign, with cozy farm scenes and soft lights to outshine the loss. But as I'll preach for my last sermon on Christmas Eve (spoiler alert): "God with us means God with us in those rock-bottom hard depths where being human and sinful sinks us and buries us dead. God meets us in lowly mangers, in scandals and bad reputations, in trouble and hardship, in betrayal and denial, in unmet expectations and unjust executions, in abandonment and disbelief, in cancer and death—God goes down so far and so low that there’s nowhere else to go but up."

Christmas now that Dawn's dead feels like Julian Barnes describes, quoting the French critic Charles du Bos: le réveil mortel. "How best to translate it? The wake-up call to mortality sounds a bit like a hotel service. Death-knowledge, the deadly-awakening?—rather too Germanic. The awareness of death?—but that suggests a state rather than a particular cosmic strike. In some ways, the (first) bad translation of du Bos’s phrase is the good one: it is like being in an unfamiliar hotel room, where the alarm clock has been left on the previous occupant’s setting, and at some ungodly hour you are suddenly pitched from sleep into darkness, panic, and a vicious awareness that this is a rented world." [Barnes, Julian. Nothing to Be Frightened Of (p. 23).]

We live in a rented world.

In classic Advent apocalypse, Jesus would agree. Alluding to the prophet Isaiah:
“Immediately after the suffering of those days, the sun will be darkened, and the moon will not give its light; the stars will fall from heaven, and the powers of heaven will be shaken... and earth will pass away." (Matthew 24:29, 35).

I know, too bleak. Just reading the Bible here. And watching the weather. Grieving my loss.

Perhaps a bit of homiletical perspective from the Rev. Fleming Rutledge, in a sermon she preached at one of my old spiritual haunts, the Church of the Advent in Boston (and published by my new employer, Christianity Today): "After the Exile, the thinkers of Israel gave up on history as a reliable source for the future of humanity. Advent represents the great theological movement that turns its face toward the future of God, not man. The early part of Zechariah looks for historical vindication, but it does not come. After that, the whole Bible moves in the direction of the future: the coming Day of the Lord... Here we begin to hear the prophecies of a Messiah... pointing ahead, not to scientific data about human possibility, but to the promises of God in the midst of human impossibility. When human hope and human potential have failed, the prophet tells us of cosmic happenings, with mountains moving and valleys filling up—'Every valley shall be exalted, and every mountain and hill shall be made low'” (Isa. 40:4, RSV).

Death and loss squeeze meaning out of time. Time doesn't fly as much as it vaporizes, like mist in a bright sun. With darkness, the mist descends and bogs down and time slows such that every moment is savored and seen for its significance. A sense of urgency builds--fueled by Advent's conviction that Jesus could show up any moment--like a thief in the night--one way or another.

It was late last Christmas when Dawn first noticed the abdominal pain that would eventually radiate to her back. Telltale pancreas cancer--a thief in the night.

But we live in a rented world. Let the thief take what he wants. "Do not fear those who can kill the body but cannot kill the soul. Save your fear for God who holds your whole self in his hands." (Jesus again, Matthew 10:28, with a little help from Eugene Peterson's The Message.)

Thanksgiving was spent in the sunny confines of Vero Beach, Florida, with best friend Dave while the snows flew in Minnesota (9 inches or so). Dave's soon-to-be-bride Elizabeth--a NC Southerner herself--whipped up the vittles and we ate in a new enough way that Violet remarked it didn't feel like Thanksgiving so she'd didn't miss Mom so much. That's one way to handle the holidays. For Christmas, we'll do one last Minnesota yuletide as we've done it these years (kids love traditions too): fondue with friends, Christmas Eve pickled herring and Santa, a fun family service and then the candlelight service, Christmas night with the fondue friends at their house. Doing the traditional triggers the grief, but grief must be honored. No grief no love.

"What is there to do when people die--people so dear and rare--but bring them back by remembering?" -May Sarton

In January we turn our eyes toward Chicagoland, stepping toward a new season, holding to "the promises of God in the midst of human impossibility": new job (made more daunting now that the President's tweeting), new house, new school, new friends, new traditions, new life. It amazes me still, eight months on, how life goes on.

Thanks to Dave and Elizabeth for Thanksgiving and to Community Church of Vero Beach, to my dear Colonial Church for the "Decade of Daniel" send off and the ever-generous cards and gifts and love and memories we'll always treasure, to the continued support from friends and family everywhere--the Facebook love, the Christmas cards, the notes and texts and calls, for a good physical (from my doc this week) and decent health for a man my age even though I must now age without the woman I'd hoped to age with, and for this persistent season of dawning light.

From the Puritans: "O God, thou dost show thy power by my frailty, so that the more feeble I am, the more fit to be used, for thou dost pitch a tent of grace in my weakness. Help me to rejoice in my infirmities and give thee praise, to acknowledge my deficiencies before others and not be discouraged by them, that they may see thy glory more clearly. Teach me that I must act by a power supernatural, whereby I can attempt things above my strength, and bear evils beyond my strength, acting for Christ in all, and have his superior power to help me."

November
21
2019

November 21, 2019: Seven Months

As Dawn was dying, she and I discussed where she wanted to be buried. Where was less important to her than how. Though cremated, she did not want to be scattered to the wind, but returned to the dirt from whence she came—ashes to ashes, dust to dust. A year prior we’d planted a new apple tree in our Minneapolis yard to replace a crabapple that had died. Violet likes apples and living in Minnesota you learn about the varieties developed here: Sweet Tango, Honey Crisp and the most recent, First Kiss. We selected a Zestar dwarf. It sounded exotic. Violet named it Martin.

Dawn decided agreed to half her ashes buried under that new tree (how does one ever discuss such things?), the other half at the home of dear friends off Buzzards Bay, Massachusetts. Here in Minneapolis, we held a small burial service before her funeral surrounded by family and friends. Then later this past spring, to our delight, Martin the Dwarf burst forth with blossoms and a few apples, a whole year ahead of schedule. We chose, amidst the sentimentality and grief, to attribute the fruitfulness to Dawn being down in the dirt.

In a day when it seems everything gets reduced down into binary simplicity for the sake of a fight-- left/right, rich/poor, urban/rural, Prius/pickup--Jesus’ solution is to reduce down even further. “I tell you the truth,” he said to the adults in the room, “unless you change and become like little children, you will never enter the kingdom of God.” And then further down still, “sell your possessions and give to the poor and you will have treasure in heaven, then come follow me.” And then all the way to the bottom, “Whoever loses their life for my sake will save it.” Ashes to ashes. Dust to dust. Such is the way of the cross.

It can be extremely hard to be a Christian.

A few years ago I cooked down a pot of bolognese sauce during worship to illustrate how the best sauce only happens by way of reduction. With heat and time, with Christ as the cook and the Spirit his spoon, we reduce down for the sake of flavor, intensifying into aromatic disciples, fragrant with the savor of love. Granted, just because something is flavorful doesn’t mean you’ll like how it tastes. My congregation liked the sauce, not so much the sermon. Who would? What kind of twisted religion boasts of humility and loss? Indignity and defeat? Who’s ever heard of a Savior who saves by getting killed on a cross? To early church detractors, the whole thing smelled fishy. And yet the apostle Paul called it the fragrance of life, “the aroma of Christ to God,” the scent of sacrifice, the essence of love.

With Violet and I moving to Chicagoland, somebody else will live in our house, or even tear it down. A member of Colonial planted a seed about moving Dawn's ashes to the church's Scatter Garden (but without the scattering). Then I got to thinking about what it might take to transplant the whole tree. I checked with the arborist who first planted Martin. A transplant, while possible, proved a bit prohibitive due to time, cost and encroaching frost. Knowing Dawn isn't literally in the ground, and because she loved our house here, Violet and I settled with the idea of leaving her where she was, her work of fertilization complete. You can tell a tree by its fruit.

But the then the fabulous Colonial Church staff, to our complete surprise, offered as a going-away gift to arrange for the tree transplant. So this past weekend, we got everything scheduled, and then up and out and over and in went Martin with Dawn in its roots. After worship this past Sunday, the Colonial congregation filed out to bless Dawn and her tree with their love and a sure commitment to care for her remains and her legacy tenderly after we’ve moved. It gives us another happy reason to visit.

A couple of my neighbors—a blue state artist from California and a retired red-state Navy lieutenant—gathered to watch the tree guys dig up Dawn for the move. I explained how she’d died of cancer and wanted to be buried in the dirt and we picked this tree but are moving and our church lovingly offered to have her exhumed with the tree and transplanted at the church because Dawn loved going to church and now her remains wouldn’t have to remain among strangers. The artist said that had to be the most bizarre and beautiful thing she had ever heard. The Navy man agreed and said he thought it was wonderful.

Violet, on the other hand, thought the dedication service and the whole praying for a tree a bit too bizarre. I explained how we we weren't necessarily praying for the tree, but dedicating the ground as a special place and committing her mom to her rest. Of course that made no sense to her 12-year-old mind, or maybe it did, since her response was a bit of umbrage that nobody else was extended such favoritism when they died.

"Is it just because you're the pastor?"

"Well, partly, but everybody loved your Mom too."

"Don't they love the other people who die enough to plant them a tree?"

"Yes, of course."

"Then how come we don't plant a tree for everybody?"

"How would you like a chocolate truffle?"

"Sure, thanks Dad."

Today is World Pancreatic Cancer Day. I forgot to wear purple. Pancreas cancer almost always shows symptoms too late to treat--for Dawn is was as if hers came out of nowhere though she was likely sick for many years. It's important to know risk factors and telltale symptoms. There are no early detection tests, so pay attention to your body.

Thanks to Sue and the Search Committee who brought me to Colonial for the sweet time this morning, to Karlynn for the cookies, to the Colonial Staff for the kindness in transplanting Dawn and her tree, to Victoria and Peter for the lovely evening together in Altadena, to Pam for the conversation and coffee in Pasadena, for the kindness from the Christianity Today Board and staff at the Board of Directors Meeting in Pasadena, to Melissa and Steve and Mirabelle for hosting Violet while I was gone, to Craig for shuttling Violet to her orthodontist and school, to Deb and George for helping me rake, to Marie and Rhoda for taking Violet out for her birthday, to my Walter Hines Page High School Class of 1979 (Greensboro, NC) for the wonderful blanket symbolic of all their love and support during this season, and to everyone else who's checked in and prayed for and come alongside in this ongoing odyssey.

From the Puritans: “O my Savior, May thy cross be to me as the tree that sweetens my bitterness, as the rod that blossoms with life and beauty, as the brazen serpent that calls forth the look of faith. By thy cross crucify my every sin; Use it to increase my intimacy with thyself; Make it the ground of all my comfort, the liveliness of all my duties, the sum of all thy gospel promises, the comfort of all my afflictions, the vigor of my love, thankfulness, graces, the very essence of my religion; And by it give me that rest without rest, the rest of ceaseless praise.” Amen.