Sunday, November 27, 2016

Help amidst grief

Rouault, Miserere series, plate 1.
It has been a hard year for my family.  First the sudden punch from nowhere of our child's death, and then the painful waiting and watching that comes with my diagnosis of incurable cancer.  We worship a Messiah who is a man of sorrows, acquainted with grief; yet we too have been made acquainted with grief this year, in a way that we had hoped not to know.

We are grateful to the many friends and family members who have reached out to us in our loss.   We've learned, though, that many people feel that they don't know how to speak to someone in a situation like ours.  The sentiments in the Hallmark cards just feel even more inadequate than usual.  You wonder if you'll make someone's pain worse by saying the "wrong thing".  Some well-intentioned folk are so paralyzed by this fear that they end up saying and doing exactly nothing.  As the recipients of many condolences and expressions of sympathy, we thought it might be helpful to share some thoughts about what has spoken to us, and the ideas we have noted for when we need to be the ones who console someone else. As in all human interactions, other people's experience may vary.  (Some more general advice can be found here and here, if you would like to look at this from other points of view.)

So, based on our own experience, what has been meaningful for us?
  • Say something!  In a moment, I'm going to give some suggestions about things that it might be better not to say, but those are secondary.  The primary thing that is meaningful is that you take the time and energy to reach out to the grieving person.  If you don't know how to express your thoughts, you can say "I don't know what to say" or "I can't imagine what this is like for you".  We heard both of those many times and they are a great deal more significant than silence.  There is no substitute for your showing up.
  • Don't be afraid to name the grief - to say the name of the one who has died, or to use the word "cancer" or "Alzheimer's".  When Eli/Miriam died, we wanted to hear people speak their name (and I think this is a common experience).  We wanted to hear your story about the fun time you had had with Eli, or about the moment when he had encouraged you to carry on when life seemed hard, or about the amazing murder mystery party that he had apparently created out of nothing.  
  • Stay in contact.  At first, everyone wants to express their sympathy or ask how they can "help" (more about that in a moment).  But, sooner or later, your life is going to slip back into normal; the shock you experienced in hearing of your friend's loss or bad news is going to fade away - for you.   Don't forget that it is not going to fade away for them.   We grieving ones need your long-term support, and I cannot tell you how heartwarming and meaningful it is when a friend keeps coming back and "checking in" - after three weeks, after six weeks, after two months - until you come to understand that they are there for you for as long as it takes. 
  • As far as help goes, make regular specific offers. It is hardly any use to say "If there is anything I can do..."; all you end up doing is burdening the grieving one with another job, that of thinking up a task for you to carry out.  Instead, anticipate specific needs: "I will bring a meal round next Tuesday evening"; "Can I come by tomorrow afternoon, and let's go for a short walk".  (A not-too-demanding activity, like a walk, that you can do together with the one who is grieving, can make a lot of difference.)
  •  Related to the previous one, if you promise to do something, follow through with it.  A corollary of this is - don't make vague promises (then neither you nor anybody else can tell whether you followed through or not).  It seems to me that people sometimes make unspecific promises to assuage their own need to feel useful - "We must have you guys round for a meal sometime".  This does not help the grieving one - it's like a hand reached out and then withdrawn.  Grief is a time to be specific.
  • Many sites (like the ones I linked above) will stress that it's not about you.  This isn't your chance to share the story of your own relative's cancer, or suggest a new miracle diet, or to talk about how upset you are, or  how confident you are that "God is in control".  No, this is about the grieving person, and helping them is going to be stressful for you.  Do you have your own support system in place? 
I hope that is not too long a list of do's and dont's - and, once again, Liane and I would like to share our sincere thanks to all those who have been there for us, and dared to name the grief, and shown up with help and comfort, again and again and again.  Blessings on you all.  

Thursday, November 17, 2016

Justin Lee's Visit to Campus

Justin speaking at the HUB

Before or after the election?

At one point we thought we had the choice of November 6th or 13th for Justin Lee's visit to speak on "Loving through our differences", so that was the question we asked ourselves.

Later it turned out that November 13th was the only date that worked for him.

We could hardly have guessed how appropriate this message after this election would be.

Justin gave a couple of talks - to an adult Sunday School class at State College Presbyterian as well as to the big audience (about 170) in the HUB - and he also attended the early Thanksgiving dinner which has been held in Centre County for a number of years now - an event especially for LGBTQ people who are not able to "go home for Thanksgiving" because of family rejection.

I'm excited that so many people heard his message and want to remind everyone that there is a series of these events coming up.  The next one, on February 1st, features Dr David Gushee, a noted evangelical writer on ethics, who will speak on “Changing our Hearts towards the LGBTQ Community: Moving from Bystander to Ally.” For the full program, see .

Original source for picture on Facebook here.

More about work

Illustration from original article
Here is a link to another article about work and dignity which seems to me to tie up with the earlier "Why Work" posts that I made.  It's by Sherrod Brown, a Democratic senator from Ohio who ran a successful "populist" campaign.  He begins: "To create wealth in America, we make it, we grow it or we mine it."   I suppose the word "make" is pretty wide, but from the article it seems pretty clear that he is thinking about industrial production.  One can question this limited definition of "creating wealth" - and later on, Brown affirms the value of jobs that don't fit his definition, like teaching or healthcare work - and still hear his central assertion: "When we devalue work, we threaten the pride and dignity that come from it."

Here is the link to the full article:

Wednesday, November 9, 2016

First thoughts on President Trump

Thanksgiving 2014: John, Eli, Liane
I imagine there will be quite a few musings on this blog about the upset that has overtaken the US with the election of Donald Trump.  Just as with Brexit, nobody believed it could happen until it did.  There is something strange in the water this season.  Here are some very quick thoughts, perhaps as much to help my spinning mind as to share with my friends.

1. "John, do you regret becoming a US citizen now?" No, a thousand times no. The US needs loyal but skeptical citizens now more than ever. This is my home, and I am duty bound to "seek its welfare".  To do so effectively requires citizenship and its rights and responsibilities - the full range, not just to vote now and again.  So far as it lies within me, I am ready.  If I had not been ready to vote this time, I would have felt in some strange way that I had betrayed my friends (even though that one vote could not possibly have made a difference.)

2. "What will you miss?"  Well, I think we will all soon be missing the grace, thoughtfulness and poise of Barack Obama.  But, on a more personal note, I miss Eli - God, I miss him today.  Even though today would have been an awful day for him, he would have turned it into intelligent, dry, humorous thought, helped me see it differently - and maybe would have helped me push through to a reason for hope (or maybe I would have helped him).  Eli made me look at the world upside down, to understand some of what the word "privilege" means and how it can be to live without it.  That is a lesson that, I hope, I will never forget.

3. "What danger are you in?"   I am in no danger.  I am a child of privilege: white, educated, straight, cisgender, articulate, and wealthy enough to be safe (at least for a while) in Trumpland.  I am also privileged by incurable cancer: a decision to deny the problems of climate change (which seems like a decision that a Trump administration will surely make) is a decision to privilege those presently alive over against future generations - and my diagnosis means that the problems of future generations will not, in a direct sense, be my problems.  Yes, I'm all right.  But if I allow that thought to undermine my commitment to fight for LGBTQ people or sustainable energy policies or environmental justice or policing as though black lives matter - well, let Eli be the first but not the last who is on my case if that should happen.  "If I forget thee, O Jerusalem, let my right hand forget its cunning." (Psalm 137:5)

4. "Can you see any good in this?" It yells to the church to be an alternative community, one embodying the values of the Kingdom.  These values are not those of Trump, nor of his elite opponents.  Never was an alternative community more needed.  Are we too compromised to enact it?  "With man it is impossible; but with God all things are possible." (Matthew 19:26)

Sunday, November 6, 2016

Memories X: All Saints Day Homily

[This is the message that I delivered for the All Saint's Day service of Receiving with Thanksgiving, the ministry that our child Eli (Miriam) helped to start. 

Therefore, since so great a cloud of witnesses is set around us, let us lay aside every weight, and sin which clings so closely, and let us run with endurance the race that is set before us, [2] looking away to Jesus the pioneer and perfecter of faith – Jesus who, for the joy that was set before him, endured the cross and despised its shame, and is now seated at the right hand of God. [Hebrews 12: 1,2, ESV, altd]

The question I want to get at is, Why remember?  What good does it do, to put it bluntly, to bring back to mind those who are now dead?  If they are long gone, isn’t it just fakery to pretend that we can remember anything significant about them?  And if they have only recently passed, won’t it just hurt to bring them back to mind, and to know that that particular smile or that particular gesture of love are ones we will never see again?  I promise you, it hurts like hell.  So why do it?

Friday, November 4, 2016

Why Work (part III)

So, this is a follow-up from my last "Why Work" post, but it isn't written by me.  It's a New York Times op-ed from the unlikely combination of the Dalai Lama and Arthur Brooks from the American Enterprise Institute, which I felt took up some of the same ideas.   Here's how it starts:

In many ways, there has never been a better time to be alive. Violence plagues some corners of the world, and too many still live under the grip of tyrannical regimes. And although all the world’s major faiths teach love, compassion and tolerance, unthinkable violence is being perpetrated in the name of religion.

And yet, fewer among us are poor, fewer are hungry, fewer children are dying, and more men and women can read than ever before. In many countries, recognition of women’s and minority rights is now the norm. There is still much work to do, of course, but there is hope and there is progress.

How strange, then, to see such anger and great discontent in some of the world’s richest nations. In the United States, Britain and across the European Continent, people are convulsed with political frustration and anxiety about the future. Refugees and migrants clamor for the chance to live in these safe, prosperous countries, but those who already live in those promised lands report great uneasiness about their own futures that seems to border on hopelessness.


A small hint comes from interesting research about how people thrive. In one shocking experiment, researchers found that senior citizens who didn’t feel useful to others were nearly three times as likely to die prematurely as those who did feel useful. This speaks to a broader human truth: We all need to be needed.

(Read the full article here.)