It’s What I Do. 

When one of our beloved flock are nearing death, we live in dread of the next phone call or text. That’s the way it is for clergy.

When the call comes, our carefully planned day or day-off drops to the bottom of the priority list. The dreaded communiqué and our response disrupts schedules and family time. Yet, we don’t complain. This is the job. We respond in love without resentment. That’s how it is when you’re called by the divine. Though I don’t exactly find joy in this aspect of my work, I have a sense of satisfaction and peace in being with families.

I also feel a private sense of grief. Always.

My grief can be simple and straightforward: I feel sad for others. If it is someone with whom I’ve had a deep or longterm relationship my sadness can take awhile to process. Nonetheless, out of love I set my feelings aside to be God’s presence for the deceased’s family and friends. That’s the job. That’s the calling. It’s what I do.

Sometimes, however, the death triggers a personal emotion. That’s what happened recently. Both clergy, my wife and I minister 165-miles apart. We manage the distance well. I feel as called to my rural congregation as she does to the suburban hospital where she is chaplain. Still, I don’t like it.

Dealing with unwanted separation in my own marriage I am sensitive to the grief of departures and time apart. The death of a parishioner’s spouse is prone to trigger my own feelings. This can especially be true when an aspect of the couple reminds me of my own relationship.

***

When the text came recently, I was over a hundred miles away. When the text came recently, I didn’t question where and with whom I must be. This is the job. This is the calling. It is where I needed to be.

This time the triggered emotion, coupled as it was with a tragic death the week prior, and the too soon departure from my own wife, I found myself sobbing as I drove the freeway to be with the widow.

I thought about the grieving family. A family I love has been struggling for far too long. I sobbed and prayed for them. Without the drive, my emotions would have remained in check until the quiet of the evening or days later.

I didn’t just sob for the family, however. I sobbed for myself. My personal feelings had been triggered. This is the job. This is the calling. It is what I do in my alone time surrounding a death.

My own overly sensitive feelings about detaching from my wife cascaded down my face. I thought about the choices we make for our jobs, our God. I thought about quitting outright and becoming a househusband. I fantasized about living with my beloved full-time. This is what I do when we must part. These were familiar thoughts, not enough to cause sobbing.

And, so, I prayed for my own relationship. I did not pray for our circumstance to change. I know that, at least for now, this is the job. This is our calling.

I thought about our deaths with eyes open. One day, one of us will die and leave the other. The widow with whom I would soon sit, was not an aberration. This is the nature of life, death will come.

I thought about the depth of aloneness one of us will one day feel. I prayed that when the time comes, my wife should die first. I hate the constant separations of our present, dread going on alone after her death, but I do not want my beloved to have to feel that pain. I will gladly take it upon myself, I told the loving spirit that connects all of creation.

This is the marriage. This is a calling. This is love.

Am I Wasting What Time I Have?

It can be extremely rewarding and gratifying but this month, it is hard. Ministry is hard.

We spend half our time 165-miles apart and I’m done with it. Done, done, done. I ache. We’ve been at this for over three years. Before that we dealt with 350-miles for the three years while I was in seminary. There was a brief period between in which we lived together, in which we slept in the same bed every night.

I shouldn’t be surprised that we’re challenged by separation and distance. In my focused meditative Bible reading leading up to my seminary years, I perceived the Holy Spirit speaking to me about the cost of my call. Following God can sometimes involve leaving family behind, at least for a time.

Large crowds were traveling with Jesus. Turning to them, he said,  “Whoever comes to me and doesn’t hate father and mother, spouse and children, and brothers and sisters—yes, even one’s own life—cannot be my disciple. Whoever doesn’t carry their own cross and follow me cannot be my disciple. Luke 14:25-27 CEB

No, I don’t think God is trying to break us up.  The still speaking God, however, hinted to me about the very kind of challenges we’re enduring. I naively thought they would end once we finished my seminary years.

I’ve grown weary about what it means for a clergy couple to respond to our individual calls from God and remain true to our marriage vows. We both work hard in our respective ministries. We also remain strongly committed to one another and make good use of texting, phoning, and Facetime to maintain our relationship.

But it is hard.

Ministry can be lonely work under the best of circumstances. When you are faced with personal struggles of loneliness, there is often no one to whom you can turn. The role of the pastor (me) and the chaplain (my wife) is to listen to others rather than talk about our own problems.

I have found healthy ways to cope. I exercise regularly. I maintain friendships of mutuality outside of my tiny community to the extent I’m able. I sit with my feelings and accept them without judgement. (Well, sometimes.)

But it is hard, especially in weeks like the last few.

Having survived Holy Week with its extra pressures and services, I looked forward to some downtime with my wife. As is prone to happen, death comes on its own schedule rather than on mine. Word reached me that a beloved member of our church was nearing his final breath. I kissed my wife and traveled 165-miles to be with the dying saint of the church. I did not get to pray with him the one last time I’d hoped. He died while I was en route.

The time apart from my wife has been more emotionally difficult since this death. I’ve been weepy. I’ve been clingy. I’ve been a bit on the controlling side.

This is what sometimes happen when standing and praying with a widow as she bids the body of her husband of six and a half decades goodbye. Her emotions mingle with my own and I wonder if I’m wasting the little time I have with my own beloved to minister to others.

Ministry is hard, especially when my emotions get all tangled with others.

I don’t know whether I’m wasting the little time I have with my own spouse. At the end of the day being a non-anxious presence for others, I just don’t know. All I can do is sit as quiet tears fall down my face.

Her Birthday

Her Birthday
Photo by Al Graves
Photo by Al Graves

A calendar,
brings to consciousness.

A song,
reminds my heart.

An action,
reflects her love.

A response,
brings a burst of tears.

I remember,
the feel of her hands,
on my childhood back.

I remember the joy,
and the love that enveloped me.

I remember,
the Ma Bell caused redness of my ear,
after long adult conversations with her.

After fourteen years,
I remember, I feel, & I can still touch her soul.

After a decade and four,
on this day so far away,
from the start, from the middle,
& from the despair & emptiness of the end…

…her presence is palpable.

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Arms that Ache

“Touch has a memory.” –John Keats

After his death, my mother described her grief in physical terms, "my arms ache to hold him." Photo by Al Graves
After his death, my mother described her grief physically, “my arms ache to hold him.” Photo by Al Graves

After my 5-month-old nephew died, my mother described her grief physically, “My arms ache to hold him.” That was thirty years ago. And still sometimes I  remember the feel of Darren in my arms. I recall his ravenous appetite and his eyes. Darren’s bright, curious eyes would move about the room absorbing all there was to learn.

I saw Darren today.

At an adjacent table I spied the bald baby with the round face. His eyes moved about the fast food restaurant watching. I imagined how he would feel in my arms; I pictured his wise eyes looking at me as I fed him a bottle.

Though I am a professional baby-watcher, my emotional reaction to this child of strangers was more intense than my typical delight. Initially, I thought that I was so drawn to this particular child because of his physical similarities to my own children. Both my daughter and son came into this world quite round-faced and bald.

Darren saw me today.

That’s when he and I connected visually. As not-really-Darren surveyed the room, his eyes met mine. In a moment, Darren was still with us. In a flash, my brother and sister-in-law still had a five-month-old child who was beloved and filled with their hopes and dreams. Their intense grief and pain never happened.

Photo by Al Graves
In a moment, Darren was still with us. In a flash, my brother and sister-in-law still had a five-month-old child who was beloved and filled with their hopes and dreams. Their intense grief and pain never happened. Photo by Al Graves

I even imagined fond memories of placing my newborn daughter in the arms of her toddler cousin when my brother’s family came to welcome my firstborn home. When toddler Darren’s eyes met hers, they locked and a bond of friendship began.

But that is not how it happened. Darren did not live to be six months and my firstborn never knew her cousin.

Still, Darren’s influence within my family far exceeds his short five and one-half months.

Darren Michael Graves
From the backside of the photos included in this post.

Though I do not believe in a god that would ever intentionally bring this kind of grief on anyone, though the God I perceive is never arbitrary nor “needed Darren” more than his parents, the One still moves through grief, growing love. Despite and through the heartache of a tiny casket, God advanced love.

Not-really Darren reminded me that love is like that. The five-month-old infant of strangers reminded me that love can move through loss, grief, and even death if we respond to the whisper in our ear.

The extravagant love that undergirds and moves throughout our existence does not accept “no” as a final answer. The Divine spirit will use a rock, a twig, a sparrow, me or you, or even the infant of a stranger if we are open to the loving prompt.

Not-really Darren, the child of strangers, opened himself to that loving prompt today. At a mere five months a round faced cherub touched me. He reminded me that neither death nor three-decades of aching arms can thwart love.