Fingerprints of Grace

My friend Robynn sent me a gift today. It was a series of photos from a book, a lament and liturgy for the death of a dream.

We live in a world that loves to fill up space with stories of seemingly impossible dreams achieved. Our movies, books, and essays tell these stories in striking cinematography and poetic prose. We read these stories as people who are starving. Starving to believe that dreams do come true. Yet, for every dream achieved, there are many that die, even more that are broken.

Broken dreams don’t make for good cinema, but they are the cry of many in our world. The woman trying desperately to get pregnant; the young man dying of cancer, begging to be healed; the mom aching for her wandering child to come home; the asylum seeker desperate for safety; the child reaching out for love; and those of us with seemingly lesser dreams may watch those dreams die and are helpless to revive them. What we dream of, what we long for so deeply does not always come to pass.

What I so wanted has not come to pass…

I read the Liturgy that my friend sent me and I wept. I wept because I have witnessed lost dreams. I wept because I am a part of lost dreams. I wept because witnessing dreams die leaves you broken and vulnerable, unsure of yourself. You no longer trust your well-honed instincts, you question everything. And all too soon, you harden and what used to be dreams turns into apathy. You hate yourself for it, even as you understand how it happened.

But perhaps I wept the most because my dreams were and are too small.

I write this in the fading light of the evening. It is quiet, save the soft murmurs of voices in the next room. The sun reflects off a pine tree outside with an aching beauty.

I think about the hidden graves of broken and dead dreams. It was less than a year ago when I wrote about dreams becoming reality, when I told some of my story of longing and ultimately the fulfillment of a longing. Sadness spreads over me as I remember the joy and anticipation of last summer. Was it so recent? Can things change so quickly? Ask anyone who has watched a dream die and they will nod an emphatic “Yes!” Dreams can die in an instant.

So let me remain tender now to how you would teach me…..let me be tutored by this new disappointment. Let me listen to its holy whisper, that I might release at last these lesser dreams. That I might embrace the better dreams you dream for me, and for your people.

But this I have found in the past and now, in this present time: in the warehouse of lost dreams, in the graveyard of dead dreams, God does not abandon me. I feel his comfort all around, I see his “fingerprints of grace.”

“My history bears his fingerprints of grace…”

And I know that I can rest.

Here in the ruins of my wrecked expectation, let me make this best confession: Not my dreams O Lord, Not my dreams, but yours be done.*

Amen.

*All quotes are from A Liturgy for the Death of a Dream from Every Moment Holy.

The Life of a Good Man

The life of a good man who has died belongs to the people who cared about him, and ought to, and maybe itself is as much comfort as ought to be asked or offered. And surely the talk of a reunion in Heaven is thin comfort to people who need each other here as much as we do.“*

It was a year ago today that I knew my father would soon die. I had seen him just one weekend before, but even through phone calls I knew he was nearing the end of his life on earth. The last time I spoke with him was a year ago today.

Usually he said a few words and then passed me on to my mom. He was tired, and we all know that phone communication is not easy in the best of times. This time my mom was not around, and I am so grateful. We talked longer than usual. I don’t remember all we said – when the relationship is good, the communication between a Dad and his daughter is comfortable and significantly insignificant. But I do remember that he said this: “It’s a strange thing, this dying. You don’t know when the Lord will take you. You just have to be ready.” They are sweet words of a man who loved his Lord. They are sweet words to remember.

On October 24, just four days later, my dad died. I received a text in the morning on that day. I was at work. The text was from my mom. “It seems that Dad has left us.”

And he had. It was not a dramatic death. It was just a leaving. My brother was walking him to the breakfast table.

“Just seven more steps Dad.”

“I don’t think I can go on”

And just like that, he was gone.

There are so many things I want to tell him. So many things that have happened. I want him to know that Stef and Will are engaged. I want him to know that Annie and Ryan are having another baby. I want him to know that Lauren and Sheldon are having another baby. I want him to know that Tim and Kim are in Saudi Arabia, that their family has expanded to include Baby Alina – Allie. I want him to know that we moved to Kurdistan. I want him to know that Mom is doing so well; that she is amazing and though she misses him more than she would ever let us know, she continues to love and pray and care for this big family scattered across the globe.

I piously want to let him know that his many Bibles are with various grand children, that one is in Thailand with Lauren and seeing it in a recent picture made me cry. I wickedly want him to know that his desk is gone! That his wife carefully went through his things, shedding tears and nodding smiles, but that the desk itself that we jokingly called the family heirloom is gone.

It’s not all good news. There is plenty of heartache to go around, but he would want to know those things as well. Because he didn’t shun heartache – he took it in, and it troubled him. But he knew where to take it. He gave heartache and joy to God, one for the burden lifting, the other for the gratitude.

I have felt his presence deeply this past month, partially through a calendar of family pictures, partially through those memories that naturally emerge during anniversaries.

In all this, I would not want to bring him back. My understanding of God and eternity tells me that though we may have beautiful glimpses of eternity in this life, we see only dimly. When we see face to face we will be astonished at the beauty that awaits us. Physically he suffered, his body was hurting and he is free from a cough that was painful and debilitating. He, who was always so strong, was weak and tired. And now, he who did not dance is dancing with angels. My heart grows larger just thinking about it.

Loss is a strange thing, and the loss of one who is old and has led a life of service, love, and forgiveness is not mourned as a tragedy, but it is still mourned. Mourned for the missing of his smile and laugh, of his prayers and jokes, of his elephant dance and his place in our big, extended family. He is mourned for the father he was – steady, principled, rock solid, with a smile that went to his bones. Mourned that his laughter is no longer our benediction at family gatherings. He is also remembered as one who first loved God, then loved my mom, then loved his family.

So today, I remember. With a grateful heart and some tears I remember his life and his death. I remember the last time we spoke, and I am so grateful that of all the words that could have been said, my last words to him were “I love you Dad.”

“I don’t believe that grief passes away. It has its time and place forever. More time is added to it; it becomes a story within a story. But grief and griever alike endure.– Wendell Berry


*Wendell Berry A Place on Earth

The Holy Work of Grieving

Why must holy places be dark places?”*

Two days ago, my friend’s dad died. In twenty first century vernacular – she “lost” her dad. “Lost” is such a silly thing to say – like she needs to just go searching for him and she will find him; like it’s a child’s game of hide ‘n seek.

“Lois – just look for him! I’m sure you’ll find him.”

My dark humor comes through as I think about this. We humans delight in deceiving ourselves about death and loss by using words that are ambiguous and sweetly horrid.

As I heard the news, I immediately revisited my dad’s death and the resulting losses. The first picture taken of Lois and me together was on the banks of the Dead Sea. Each of us is holding hands with our dads. Our dads are so young and so alive. Two adventurers – as at home in Pakistan and Jordan as they were in the United States. They lived between worlds – learning languages with sounds that seemed impossible, deciphering a script that was completely foreign, and traveling to places that topped the U.S State Department watch list. They learned about Middle Eastern hospitality; about what it was to send their children to boarding schools; and about friendship in a Middle Eastern context. Most of all, they learned what it is to follow a faith until the end and to never give up.

Grief sets its own agenda, it cannot be controlled. You don’t know when it will flood over you and what the manifestation will be, but when I found out that Lois’ dad had died, the impact of death flooded over me and I found myself grieving.

I am grieving for Lois and I am grieving for myself. I am grieving because we will never again sit down with our dads, never again speak with them on the phone. I am grieving because when we spontaneously think “Oh, I should talk to Dad about that!” it won’t be possible.  I am grieving that two good men are gone and they are not lost – they have died.

All of the physical pieces of grief are present – the nervous stomach, the choking in my throat, the distraction…I realize no one ever talks about the taste of grief and yet there is a taste. It’s gritty and it makes my mouth dry, a bit like sand.

But I find as I grieve that grieving is holy work.

How have I never seen this before?

In C.S. Lewis beautiful but lesser known book ‘Til We Have Faces, the protagonist says “Why must holy places be dark places?”  I think about this and the holy work of grieving; the holy ache and the dark places of tragedy and pain that come across the lives of anyone who identifies as human.

When I stop analyzing grief and simply allow myself to grieve – this is when I know it is holy work, for it is in these times of greatest need that I am most aware of how much I need God.

The holy work of grieving is the place where holy tears fall. And as grief and tears come, so does comfort; sometimes through human arms or words, sometimes through God’s seeming silence, but obvious presence, sometimes through the Psalms.

The holy work of grieving is ever present in the Psalms. Written with full knowledge of the human condition, they speak with authority and complete understanding of how fragile we are. The Psalmist, a master poet, writes of grief and rage, of depression and sorrow. Softly, lyrically, with grace and great love these Psalms continue through generations. They were there for our dads; they are here for both Lois and me.

“He heals the broken hearted and binds up their wounds.” Psalm 147:3

And I know in my heart, my soul, and my body that these words are true.


*C.S. Lewis in ‘Til We Have Faces

Thanksgiving for the Broken-hearted

Robynn and I were recently texting about Thanksgiving. This year both of us will fill our houses and hearts with people who are hurting. These will be the tables of the broken-hearted, chairs of the grieving, glasses of the bewildered, and dessert plates of the deserted.

What do we do when our tables are filled with the broken-hearted?When comfort feels as elusive as sunshine in winter?

We raise glasses of gratitude, because gratitude precedes the miracle. And God knows, we need miracles.

As we texted back and forth, comfort and friendship were in every word. Though miles away, we were walking beside each other.

Robynn’s last text to me that day is the one I have posted below. May you who fellowship with the broken-hearted know that we are with you through this Thanksgiving weekend. We pray that your tables will be ones of grace and the deepest of peace.


Broken tables and backless chairs—- we gather with pain and imperfections and pray for the great grace of gratitude to accompany our mashed potatoes and gravy.

The whole world is grey. Even the geese have flown south. We sit abandoned and isolated surrounded by noise and green bean casserole.

Jesus come. Be our healing. Be our holy guest. Make house calls to the weary and worn down. Sit with us a spell. Turn our water into wine and our emptiness into something that can hold second helpings of hope. With whip cream perhaps… wouldn’t that be all kinds of yummy?!

With love,

Marilyn and Robynn

The Funeral Cocoon


November has come and the golden-red hope of Autumn is rapidly turning to bare trees and chilly winds. It is a cold time to lay a coffin in the ground.

We sat in a small chapel at the Massachusetts Veteran’s Cemetery in Winchendon, Massachusetts.  Winchendon is the town where I was born, where I took my first breath outside the womb. Now it is the town where my dad’s earthly body is buried. The chapel at the cemetery overlooks a sloping lawn going down to graves lined up like hundreds of large dominoes, representing many families and uncountable losses.

My dad’s gray casket dominated the front of the chapel, a cascade of bright red roses on its cover. The service was short and scripted, a fitting service for a burial. I smiled at the salutes my father received from those military men in the audience. He would have loved it! Though we never saw him as a military man, his two years of service after high school afforded him a free education, a burial spot, and military salutes.

After a reception at a nearby church, a couple of us headed back to the cemetery. The dirt was fresh and a small marker indicated where the headstone will stand when it is ready. The flowers from the casket had been placed at the head of the grave. We stood silent. This was our final goodbye.

I have been wrapped in the funeral cocoon, a cocoon of safety, where you are somehow aware that this is not the time to truly grieve. It is the time for memories, family, a celebration of life, and a funeral, but it is not the time to grieve.

This funeral cocoon wraps around my mom and we marvel at her strength. But that is what the funeral cocoon does: It wraps you in grace and strength.  Within the cocoon she can meet and greet countless people, respond to the constant ‘how are you doings’, eat and converse like she has a whole body instead of a body that she is supposed to live in even though it has been sliced in two.

Anyone who has experienced the loss that death brings knows well this cocoon; a swath of strange, numb comfort that envelopes the grieving.

The time will come when tears will fall until exhaustion takes over. The time will come to sit with the grief, to let it flow with abandon. The time will come to acknowledge the soul-deep ache of loss.

But for now – the funeral cocoon is enough.

In Memory:Ralph Edward Brown, June 7,1926 – October 24,2017


On June 7th, in 1926, a baby boy was born to a family in the city of Pittsfield, Massachusetts. He was fourth in the family, joining three sisters, a mom and a dad. Two years later his youngest sister was born and the family was complete. He was named Ralph Edward Brown and he is our father and grandfather. 

His mother–the original Annie Hall–struggled to nurse him. He seemed unable to take either breast milk or regular formula and almost died. It was the milk man, aware of the concern of the family, who suggested to Annie that she try sweetened condensed milk. Having nothing to lose, she diluted this in a bottle and to everyone’s astonishment and as though ordained by God, he survived and thrived. All his life he claimed that he owed his love for sweet things to his early diet.

At four years old, tragedy struck the family with the death of his father during a hospitalization for a broken leg. Annie, left with five children and a broken heart, raised the family with grit and grace during an era when life was not kind to a widow and her children. He recalled a community of friends and relatives, many from Morningside Baptist Church in Pittsfield, who walked alongside the family during this time.

Ralph grew into a young man with a personality and character as large as his smile. He entered the Air Force branch of the military on graduation from high school, but instead of flying planes and braving enemy combatants, by his own admission he spent his entire military experience in bureaucratic paperwork, filling out tedious forms in triplicate. Two years later thanks to the GI bill he was able to attend Gordon College, at the time a Bible college in the Fenway area of Boston, and it was there that he met his life-long love, Pauline. Pauline evidently stole his heart after a couple of “Joyces” and perhaps a “Ruthanne” – he has never been totally clear on this. They were married in 1951, sixty six years ago this year, amidst mountain laurel and a host of relatives and friends.

They welcomed their first-born on March 16th, 1953 – a boy, Edward Ralph and a year and a half later their lives dramatically changed. 1954 had them taking a 3-week journey by ship to a country that would become their home for the next 35 years, the country of Pakistan. Ralph became as comfortable sitting cross-legged on the floor in a Marwari village and eating onion curry as he was preaching from the pulpit at Morningside Baptist, followed by a pot-luck church supper. Over the next few years, they also added Stanley, Thomas, Marilyn and Daniel, followed by seventeen grandchildren and fifteen great-grandchildren — so far.  

In 91 years of life there are many stories. Some are known by your children, while others remain untold. If we wrote all our stories and memories, this memorial service would be tediously long instead of a loving tribute. But there are three things that our dad and grandpa has held to in his life. His love of God, his love of family and his love for fun. From his legendary ability to swish a basketball through the hoop from the midway point on the court to his absolute consistency in an alcohol-free lifestyle; from discussing ordination of women to discussing infant baptism; from his first granddaughter Melanie to his last grandson, Jonathan, he has remained a steady, Godly example and force in a world that often shifts with the wind.  

In his years since moving to Rochester, he has settled in here, made many friends, and treasured and valued many friendships that he found here. The whole family is so thankful to the people at Ridgeland community church, for giving them a church home, and for Browncroft Community church for giving them a second church home. 

During the nine months of struggle with the illness to which he finally succumbed, Ralph continued to treasure the friends, family, and all of the fellow believers who together have made a home for Mom and Dad here in Rochester.  

While his last months were a struggle, he got to see his youngest grandson graduate from college, his granddaughter get married, and to see two great grandchildren that he hadn’t yet met. 

Every night, his good night began with words of thanksgiving. And, while his last words were ’Tom, I don’t think I can make it’ (meaning to the breakfast table), we know that in those last steps and last breaths of his life, he was carried to eternity in the arms of his Lord. He lived out the words of one of his favorite hymns:


In Christ alone my hope is found;

He is my light, my strength, my song;

This cornerstone, this solid ground,

Firm through the fiercest drought and storm.

What heights of love, what depths of peace,

When fears are stilled, when strivings cease!

My comforter, my all in all–

Here in the love of Christ I stand.

“Just Your Presence”

church-2140714_1280

A beautiful article in the Boston Globe today tells the story of a woman who is dying. She invited her friends over for a luncheon, a chance to celebrate while she still had life. One of the friends verbalized her feelings of awkwardness and helplessness in the face of her friend’s suffering. As she did so, the woman who was dying looked up at her and said this:

“There’s only one thing we really want,” she said gently. “We just want for you to be here with us. Just your presence.”*

Through the years, I have thought a lot about a theology of suffering, and the ‘fellowship’ of suffering.

Most of us struggle awkwardly in the face of pain and suffering. We don’t know what to do. We are afraid to say the wrong thing. We feel embarassed, don’t want to make the situation worse. And so we avoid suffering; and when we avoid suffering, we avoid those who suffer. Because there are many things that cause suffering, we sometimes end up avoiding the poor, the sick, the homeless, and the displaced.

We subconsciously reason that we can’t do anything anyway. We can’t change the situation, and we don’t want people to feel worse, so we avoid them all together. C.S. Lewis in his classic and beautiful book A Grief Observed talks about becoming an embarassment to his friends.

“An odd by-product of my loss is that I’m aware of being an embarrassment to everyone I meet. At work, at the club, in the street, I see people, as they approach me, trying to make up their minds whether they’ll ‘say something about it’ or not. I hate it if they do, and if they don’t.”

A few years ago, as I was thinking about suffering and a theology of suffering, I wrote the following:

it’s too much for you to bear, but I will sit with you, I won’t leave you alone.

There is something about suffering that longs for someone to sit with us, to sit with us through the pain. It’s the fellowship of suffering. It’s the words ‘you are not alone’ put into action. The sitting bears witness to our pain. More than a card or a casserole the familiar, patient presence of another says to us “it’s too much for you to bear, but I will sit with you, I won’t leave you alone.”

So often we want to move people through the process of pain, suffering, and healing at our own pace, on our own terms. We want to impose our own schedule on the process of pain in another. We want to make pain and suffering controllable, manageable. Why is that?

Perhaps we feel helpless in the presence of the pain of others. We are not in control. We would do anything we can to make it all okay. But we can’t. We can’t make the pain okay. We can’t explain away suffering, and when we try, we tend to make up reasons for suffering. We end up forcing bad theology on people. A theology of suffering that has to have answers, instead of a fellowship of suffering that simply needs the presence of another. We speak too soon and our words are the salt in an already terrible wound.

Like the doctor or midwife that walks a woman through labor, not hurrying it along, aware that the body has to move through each stage to have a successful outcome, so it is with suffering.

The fullness of our presence can offer hope and comfort, and so we must not leave people alone. This is the fellowship of suffering. 

“If your friend is sick and dying, the most important thing he wants is not an explanation; he wants you to sit with him. He is terrified of being alone more than anything else. So God has not left us alone. And for that, I love him”**


If you are interested in reading a post that speaks to what not to say to people who are suffering, take a look at Stupid Phrases for People in Crisis. 

*Cancer Brings it Home

**from interview of Lee Strobel with Peter Kreeft, Boston College