The Weeds and Wheat Within

            Years ago, I was driving downtown to take my turn as a volunteer at the local soup kitchen.  On the way, I noticed the following thought appearing in my awareness: “You know, volunteering at the soup kitchen shows to you and everyone that you are a really good person.  People will notice and think highly of you.”

            Another voice spoke up, “What a tacky thing to think! You’re not going there today to show off.  You are going because you know in your heart this is simply the right thing to do.”

            Next thought: “What an amusing dialogue you are having, Steve.  Sounds like you got one voice that is selfish and another voice that might be decent.”

            I was tempted to think the second voice is the “real me” and the first is “not me.”  But, you know, I seem to have both voices within me all the time.  The first is always performing to impress my self with my self and hoping other people notice what a good guy I am. The second wants to just do the right thing for the right reason without any fanfare.

            41 years after being awarded a “Master of Divinity” degree, I am far from mastering the relentless and petty voice within.  

            I take heart from reading a recent “Daily Meditation” posting by Fr. Richard Rohr.[i]  He writes about the Gospel parable in which the field workers are concerned that weeds are growing in the same field as good grain.  The owner tells them not to worry – in the final harvest the weeds will be separated out, and the good grain will remain. Rohr says that, growing up, he felt the parable told him to be relentlessly looking for the “weeds” in his life and root them out.  But, over time, he sensed that was impossible and gave up. Then, as he matured, he saw the parable in a new way:

Jesus shows us an absolute realism. He says something that was never said to me when I was a young person: “Let the weeds and the wheat both grow together.” Wow! That’s risky. I can’t pretend to logically understand it, although I know it allows me to be compassionate with myself. After all, I’m also a field of weeds and wheat, just like you are, and just like everything is. Everything is a mixed bag, a combination of good and bad. We are not all weeds, but we are not all wheat, either. We have to learn, even now, to accept and forgive this mixed bag of reality in ourselves and in everybody else. If we don’t, we normally become very angry people. Our world is filled with a lot of angry people because they cannot accept their own weeds.

To accept this teaching doesn’t mean we can say, “It’s okay to be selfish, violent, and evil.” It simply means that we have some realism about ourselves and each other. We have to name the weed as a weed. We can’t just pretend it’s all wheat, all good, because it isn’t. We’re not perfect. Our countries are not perfect…. The project of learning how to love—which is our only life project—is quite simply learning to accept this. If you really love anybody, and I hope you all do, then you have learned to accept a person despite, and sometimes even because of, their faults.

            This has strong parallels with Buddhism, in which we avoid the folly of thinking we can block thoughts we don’t want to have. Instead, we learn to let them come into the open, and to observe and assess them. In that freedom, we become more compassionate with ourselves as “complicated” creatures, as well as more compassionate with our fellow human beings who live the same inner complexity.

            This perspective doesn’t mean we passively accept disappointing behavior in ourselves or others. But it does invite us to be realistic that to be human is to be a mixture of wheat and weeds. Constantly sorting out the inner voices is hard work and, like the peasants in the Brueghel painting, sometimes it’s OK to take a break. But it’s vital work, and I’m grateful to Father Richard for this liberating insight.

Image: The Harvesters, Brueghel, 1656


[i] https://cac.org/daily-meditations/the-weeds-and-the-wheat-2022-08-28/

How Vin Scully Endured Personal Tragedies

            Many people are writing tributes to the sports announcer Vin Scully, who died this week at 94.  He was the “voice of God” for me and many kids with transistor radios when we were growing up — he was omnipresent, trustworthy, forgiving and always positive. His endless tales of players’ backgrounds were told with reverence and affection.  He was a constant in my life over six decades.  Beyond the famous baseball moments he was part of, I have several other enduring memories.

In 2010, I was in Phoenix for spring training.  After the game, I was exiting behind the stands and happened to see him walking alone as he headed toward his car. He was dressed in a well-worn suit, and I remember thinking he looked older in person than he did on television. 

In 2016, my youngest daughter, her fiancé and I made a pilgrimage to “Vin Scully Day” at Dodger Stadium where we heard him sing “Wind Beneath My Wings” to his wife and 54,000 reverent and faithful fans.

            We all knew he was a very private man.  I vaguely knew his first wife had died and he had remarried, but I never heard him discuss it.

            The one exception came in 2008, when he was interviewed on KCET along with UCLA Coach John Wooden.  At one point, the interviewer changed the topic from sports to personal challenges. He noted that Scully’s first wife had died suddenly at age 35, leaving him with three children.  He’d remarried Sandra, a woman with two children of her own, and together they had one more child.  Later his oldest son died in a helicopter crash at age 32.  Vin was asked how he had gotten through it all.

He said creating a new family after the death of his wife while working full-time was very hard – not the amusing experience of blended families being portrayed on the “Brady Bunch” TV show at the time.  He didn’t go into the loss of his son.  But he concluded by saying the only way he got through it all was to “stop asking why.”

Asking “Why?” is a perennial human question.

“Why did that person have to die when they did?” we ask.  The answers people find are varied. Some attribute it to the intentional act of an inscrutable God.  Others theorize it must be “karma,” a kind of moral accounting system in which we inherit debits and credits from past lives that shape our personal fate.  In modern times, we may look to causes that can be objectively verified, such as family history or the actions of viruses, bacteria, and natural forces.  We may find fault in the way a car is designed or blame a toxin in our food supply. 

We are curious, intelligent creatures, and we yearn to find answers for personal losses and tragedies.  Sometimes we find them. Such answers may bring some peace, and we are reassured that the universe isn’t chaotic after all.

But satisfying answers don’t always come.

Vin’s first wife died of an accidental medical overdose. That’s explainable on one level – simple chemistry. But that doesn’t take away the heartbreak, sorrow, and unfathomable reality that one day a young wife and mother of three is alive and well and the next day she is gone.

His son died working as a helicopter pilot, which may be attributable to a simple error in judgment of a person up in the air at the helm of a large and complex machine.  But the harsh reality that a remarkable young man whom you’ve loved since birth is here one day and absent the next – that will always be a shock.

Vin did, at times, talk about the importance of faith and prayer. He was raised a devout Irish Catholic and remained one his entire life.  His immersion in that faith made a difference in how he endured and how he lived. But he never claimed that any of his prayers helped him find an answer to the question that apparently haunted him in the early days of his grief — why did death come to these two beloved people in such an untimely way?  Vin — the gracious, wise, humane, and compassionate observer of so many human encounters — said the key for him to going on with his life was to “stop asking why.”  I will remember that.  And I will also remember what a joy it was to turn on a radio and hear him invite us all to pull up a chair “wherever we may be” and listen to a master storyteller at work.

Photo credit: “Dodgersway”

Tasting the Magic Waters

            For more than a decade, I’ve been entranced by the great three-part medieval poem, Dante’s Divine Comedy.  There are many spiritual and psychological insights Dante shares in this work that speak to me. In this posting, I want to share his concept of two symbolic rivers we might sample in our life journey. The description occurs near the end of the second volume, Purgatorio.

By this point Dante’s been given a tour of hell (Inferno) and all its custom-made torments. It’s impressive to see how he imagines the bad guys “get what’s coming to them,” as they used to say in the Westerns.  But Inferno is not as meaningful to me as what follows.

In Purgatorio, he imagines hiking up a mountain to see how all kinds of people are completing their personal soul-work as they prepare for Paradiso.  (Does he – or anyone these days — really believe in a place like purgatory, you might ask? Don’t worry about it, dear reader; let’s just follow what he imagined.)

As he gets to the top of the mountain, he travels through an enchanted forest and, among other experiences, comes to two rivers.  He also encounters a guide, Mathilda.  The first river Mathilda leads him to is the Lethe, which was known in Greek mythology as the river of forgetfulness we pass through after we die.  Dante interprets it in a positive way:

“She plunged me, up to my throat, in the river

And, drawing me behind her, she now crossed

Light as a gondola, near the blessed shore, I heard

“Asperges me,” so sweetly sung that I

Cannot remember or, much less, describe it.” (Canto 31: 94-99)

“Asperges me” means “thou shalt sprinkle me.”  After guiding him across the river, she invites him to take a drink.   All the memories of the mistakes he’s made in life – the poor decisions, the times when he’s hurt someone else or disappointed himself – all are washed away in the Lethe. Think about your regrets in life – what would it feel like to have the painful memory of them disappear?

“The River Lethe,” John Flaxman, 1807

            After more encounters and reflections, he comes to the second river – one Dante created out of his own imagination — the Eunoe.  Matilda is joined by a group of guides and invites Dante and a fellow pilgrim to drink from it.  After he does, he says:

If, reader, I had ample space in which

To write, I’d sing – though incompletely – that

Sweet draft for which my thirst was limitless…(Canto 33: 136-138)

Where the effect of drinking from the Lethe was to allow him to forget all his failings, drinking from the Eunoe allows him to recall all the good deeds he’s done in life, both large and small.  (The word he created, eunoe, combines eu(new) – and noe(mind) – a new, fresh mind.)

The River Eunoë, John Flaxman, 1807

            Think about it. Sure, you’ve made mistakes in life. But you’ve also done many good things – small kindnesses, acts of love and duty, promises kept, hope given, and friendships honored. Imagine what it would be like towards the end of life to forget all the bad stuff you’ve done and remember all the good?

            From the first time I read about these two mythic rivers, I was entranced by imagining what such an experience would feel like.  In the years since, I’ve come to wonder if sometimes people actually experience something similar.

            My father outlived my mother by 19 years.  We knew they loved each other all the years they were married. But we also remember their life together was not free from the stresses and strains of many long-term relationships.  Yet in his last years, whenever dad reflected on their time together, all he talked about were the joys they’d shared — no mention of the hardships.  At first, I was tempted to kindly point out it wasn’t all milk and honey. But something told me to be quiet.  It was as if dad had dipped first into the Lethe, then the Eunoe, and the combination filled him with pure gratitude.

            Recently I visited a former parishioner who had decided to stop receiving life-prolonging treatments. She’d been through many challenges in her life, including years of concern for her children and the obstacles they faced. But, she told me, they were both doing well now and didn’t need her as they had before.  She was tired of the complications her body was having to endure every day and she wanted to be free.  When I came, she was going through a box of old family photos.  After I sat down, she showed me some of her favorites. Each memory had become a delight.  Before I left, I asked her if there was anything she’d like me to pray for. She told me, “Somebody said, If the only prayer we ever offer is thank you, that would be enough.  Just say how grateful I am.’

            Remembering our mistakes helps us to stay humble and keep learning how to do better. Focusing only on the good we’ve done may seem selfish.  But maybe, once in a while, we can close our eyes and imagine sampling those waters – tasting what it’s like to have our regrets washed away, then savoring a pint of gratitude for the good things we’ve done.  Maybe we shouldn’t wait until late in life to see what these magic waters can teach us. 

Painting: “Along the River Lethe,” Kyle Thomas

Status and Community: A Tale of Two Lives

            Dr. Charity Dean lived in our neighborhood before she became famous, and I was looking forward to hearing her speak this week as part of the annual “Lead Where You Stand” conference at Westmont College. I was familiar with her amazing career and legendary grit but, until Wednesday, had never heard about a personal challenge she faced.

Born and raised in a low-income family in rural Oregon, at age 7 she felt a call to become a physician and tropical disease specialist. After earning her medical degrees, she became a resident at Cottage Hospital here in Santa Barbara.  She was brilliant at analyzing data. But she also received invaluable training from Dr. Stephen Hosea who taught her the importance of looking beyond the data and test results to see each patient as a unique person. He also emphasized the importance of physically touching them before making a diagnosis, encouraging her to trust her “sixth sense” to discover what was going on; “I sense and feel things,” she told us.

She became the Public Health Officer for Santa Barbara County, which had traditionally been a largely bureaucratic position.  But she didn’t stay in her office or wait for patients to be brought to her. Instead, she went out to see them wherever they were — homeless shelters, farm worker sites, parks, anywhere.  She observed them, listened to their stories, always using touch as part of her interactions.  She soon gained a reputation as a fearless and formidable public servant who wasn’t afraid of upsetting other officials in serving the public good.

In the summer of 2019, her training and “sixth sense” told her COVID was coming.  She began a relentless struggle to alert and prepare others.  By April 2020, she was Co-chair of the California COVID-19 testing task force in Sacramento and serving on the White House Coronavirus Task Force. She was featured on ABC News and 60 Minutes and is a central figure in Michael Lewis’ The Premonition: A Pandemic Story.

It was fascinating to hear an account of her professional ascent.  But I was impressed in another way when she talked about a personal issue.

Apparently, alcohol had been problematic for her. She did not drink daily, but when she did, she had a hard time stopping. She went to Oregon to visit her mother and asked about the family history.  She was told alcoholism had been pervasive, which she hadn’t know.  She returned home and decided she needed to go to an AA meeting.

When she walked in, she was surprised to see someone who knew her — one of her homeless patients.

“Hello, Dr. Dean,” he said. 

She became a regular.  A year later she received a pin marking her first “birthday” of sobriety.  As she came forward to receive it, the man who followed her was receiving his ten-year pin – another former homeless patient who was living with HIV and had become a friend and supporter.

            As a physician, she said it was humbling to go to that first meeting.  But she discovered everyone in the group had something to teach her about life.

            This brought to mind a story from my time at Hospice of Santa Barbara.

            HSB is a rare form of hospice – one which does not provide direct medical services, but instead offers psychological, social, and spiritual help to anyone facing a life-threatening illness or grieving the death of a loved one.  Thanks to a $40 million bequest we received and community support, we were able to have a staff of 30 skilled and compassionate professionals. Part of HSB’s charter is that all our services are free, with no reliance on government or insurance funding.  When I was there (2008-2013), we were serving hundreds of people of all ages and backgrounds.

            One staff member told me the following story.

A wealthy woman had come for grief counseling. When the first session was completed, she took out her checkbook and asked how much the fee was.  The therapist told her HSB did not accept payment; if she wished she could make a donation when her therapy was completed. She was flustered and uncomfortable at the thought of not being able to pay for the services.  But she kept coming to her appointments.

            Our staff knew that, for many people, being in a group of others who had suffered a similar loss can be helpful.  Our therapist told this client that she had gotten to a point where being part of such a group would be a good next step.  The woman was very resistant — she didn’t think she’d have much in common with a group of ordinary people.

But she agreed to try it. Soon she became a dedicated member.

            When she completed her time with us, she told the therapist that she had never realized how much she had in common with other people.  Sharing this difficult journey with others, she said, was one of the best experiences of her life.

            We seem wired to create and maintain identities for ourselves that can make us think some people are “better’ than others. But in my experience, beneath the facades, we are all human beings trying to find our way in life. On that journey, humility, friendship, and community are priceless gifts.

Blessing of the Feet

            “I want you to join me in a ritual for one of my patients,” M. said.

            M. was a smart, insightful, and creative social worker at Hospice of Santa Barbara.  My job there was largely administrative, and only rarely was I asked to participate in patient care.  But I trusted M.’s professional skill, her instincts, and her chutzpah, and told her I would do whatever she needed.

            One of our guiding principles was, “The family is the unit of care.” Was it a cohesive and caring family unit?  Or would long-standing tensions come to the fore as they were about to lose a loved one?  The family dynamics would play a large role in the experience of the patient in the dying process and how that family would evolve after the death has occurred.

            M. gave me the background.  The patient was a woman in her 80s whose husband had died some years before. Two adult daughters were caring for her.  There had been some issues between them, and M. wanted to do something that might bring them together. The mother was not responsive at this point, but “still here.” M. felt she could create a simple ritual to bless the mother as she came close to dying.  She introduced the idea to the daughters. They would dress mom up in nice clothes, fix her hair, put make-up on, and give her a pedicure and a manicure, talking to her as they worked.  At the appointed time, M. and I would come to the house. M. would stand at the head of mom’s bed and lead us with a daughter on each side, and me at the feet.

            M. and I met at the house at 7 PM. M. introduced me, noting I was a pastor as well as Hospice Director.  Mom’s bed was in the living room, and had been elevated enough that we could each standby it.  M. praised the daughters for how classy mom looked.  Lights in the room were dimmed and candles lit.  She told us each to take our position and explained what would unfold. 

            After a moment of silence, M. began with words of affirmation to the mother, reminding her of all she had accomplished in her life, telling her who was present in the room and what we would be doing.  Each daughter then took a turn, holding one of mom’s hands and telling her how much she had meant to them.

            I remember thinking, “I have no idea what I’m going to say. They didn’t teach how to do this in seminary.”

            When the second daughter finished, I looked at the woman’s bare feet visible past the bottom edge of the blanket. The nail polish was bright red.

            I placed my hands under her feet and raised them a few inches.

            My mind began imagining what these feet had experienced.

            “These feet were part of you when you were a toddler learning how to walk. They were with you in childhood, running out the door at your command to play in the neighborhood and rush to school.  They grew with you as you became a teenager, then a young woman. They enabled you to have your first dance, to walk next to the man you fell in love with, to process down the aisle at your wedding.  After you gave birth to your daughters, it was these feet that carried you as you carried them, pacing back and forth at night comforting them.  In all the years that followed, these feet did as you wished, faithfully supporting you through your challenges and joys. They have been loyal and faithful servants.  We give gratitude to God for them, for you, for your family, for your many years, and for all the love that is in this room with you now.”

            I lowered the feet back on the bed.

            M. spoke to mom, summarizing what each of us had said and closed with a final blessing for her and her daughters.

            I felt Presence in the room.

            Mom’s eyes remained closed, her breathing steady.

            We began to bring our awareness back to “ordinary time.” I thanked the daughters and the mother for the gift of being with them and said good night. M. remained, explaining what would be occurring as their mother approached her last hours.

            The next day, M. called to tell me the mother had died later that night in the living room.  She felt what we had done was already helping the daughters heal past hurts and come together.

            Two days later I realized this had happened on a day known in the Christian tradition as “Maundy Thursday,” when many communities re-enact Jesus washing his disciples’ feet the night before he died.

            The experience left a profound impact on me. This was partly due to the privilege I felt participating in such a sacred moment with this family.  But, for the first time, I realized how extraordinary it is for us to have what we call “feet” that are truly with us throughout all our days, enabling us to do so many things through every stage of life.  Maybe we notice them when we accidently drop something on them, or any time they are a source of discomfort.  But most of the time we take them for granted.  Hour by hour, day by day, year by year, they are our silent servants.

            Feet are the point of contact between our living presence and the solid earth.

            Thich Nhat Hanh, who died two months ago at age 95, famously taught, “People say walking on water is a miracle, but to me walking peacefully on earth is the real miracle. The earth is a miracle, each step is a miracle.”

            May we all be aware of the blessing our humble feet are for us, now, when we have breath to do so.

Art work: Feet, Vincent Van Gogh, 1885, Van Gogh Museum, Amsterdam

Postscript: Preparing a body for burial is a common practice in many traditions (e.g., chesed shel emet in Judaism) and has been reemerging in contemporary times, including in secular health care settings.  One study at our local hospital found it not only gave families a significant sense of closure, but also helped with morale and burn-out among nursing staffs.  Blessing the body when the person is close to death, as described in this story, can also be a powerful and positive experience.  There are many ways of doing it that can be customized to fit a family’s values.

“You Never Know”

If there’s one phrase I’ve come to rely on over the years, it’s “You never know.”  Like a Swiss Army knife, it’s handy in many situations.

         Rachel Naomi Reimen is Professor of Family and Community Medicine at UCSF and creator of a widely used medical school course, “The Healer’s Art.”  I’ve appreciated her books, seen her speak several times, and had a chance to meet her personally. Her grandfather was an Orthodox rabbi and master storyteller. In her medical practice, she learned the importance of listening to patients’ stories and being open to mystery, spirituality and the unknown, while still employing the best medical care. A patient would come to her and report that an oncologist had given them six months to live.  She sensed the patient assumed the doctor was all-knowing. She knew better.  She would offer a different, more open perspective.   “Let’s put it another way.  This diagnosis means you’ve started a new chapter in your life. But no one knows yet how the story will unfold.” This didn’t change the medical facts, but it more accurately describes what happens in life: you never know where things will lead.

         I remember a parishioner named Doug.  When I first came to serve the Goleta congregation, I was told he was facing terminal cancer and I should visit him soon.  I remember meeting Doug and his wife Marge in their mobile home park and thinking, “What a nice older couple.” As they were telling me about their background, they mentioned that when Doug retired, they did something they always wanted to do.  I thought, “They probably went on an Alaskan cruise.” But when I asked, they said they’d gone to Europe, bought a Volkswagen bus and traveled there for two years living each day as it came.  I had totally misjudged them. 

         You never know who a person is or what they’ve experienced until you listen to their stories.

         I asked Doug about his cancer. He told me he’d been through a series of chemo treatments and found them quite debilitating.  Doctors said he would need another round, or his time would be very short.  But he had decided it wasn’t worth it.  He decided to stop treatment so he could spend his remaining time enjoying life as best he could, even if it was just a matter of weeks.  

         Doug did not do any more treatments. He lived two more years.  You never know.

         And then there are the people that are heathy and fit and doing all the right things. They have a heart attack and then they’re gone.  You never know.       

         This certainly applies to politics.  In the 2008 Iowa caucuses, Joe Biden finished fifth with 4% of the vote.  In 2020 he was fourth. Now he is president. You never know.

         I’m a Dodger fan.  The most important game of the year was game 5 in the do-or-die playoff series against the Giants. With the score tied in the 9th inning and a runner at third base, the batter who came to the plate, Cody Bellinger, had the worst batting average on the team.  My fan-heart sank.  But he poked a single into right field and the Dodgers won.  You never know.

         By the 1850s, the philosopher Soren Kierkegaard had become well known in his native Denmark. People approached him asking to write his biography. He refused to cooperate. He believed biographies don’t tell the true story of someone’s life. Everyone knows how the story ends, so everything that happens will be seen in that light. But when we are living day by day, we have no idea how our life will turn out.  “Life can only be understood backward, but it has to be lived forward.”[i] 

         Think of decisions you regret.  Weren’t you making your best judgement at the time?

         Or think of blessings in your life you did not anticipate.  Who could have predicted they’d appear?

         If we draw on a particular spiritual tradition, it certainly helps to reflect on core principles and spend time in prayer and contemplation.  But even then, at some point, we must set a course and hope we made a good choice.[ii]

         In real life, we often must make decisions using the available facts and truest feelings we have at the time.  How will it turn out?  You never know. We just do our best and see what happens.


[i] There is, of course, a long tradition in Western philosophy focusing on the question of what we can really know.  I took three quarters of philosophy in college, working from Plato to Aristotle to Descartes to Hume to Kant and into the modern age.  In the end, I think you never know. Life is too complicated.

[ii] In Buddhism, a core emphasis is becoming aware of how susceptible we are to becoming attached to ideas and expectations about life that are more illusory than certain.  Jesus promises the Spirit can be always present with us, and Paul believes that nothing can separate us from the love of God. These are wonderful reminders, which I live by.  But it still leaves us with the inescapable burden of making decisions about our life with limited knowledge.

Art Work: “Two Dancers,” Matisse, 1937

A Gift To Give the People You Love

There’s a precious gift for your loved ones that’s easy to give and doesn’t cost a nickel.

            I’ll start with two personal stories.

            We always thought my dad would die before my mom, as he had ongoing health issues. But on a Saturday morning in 1993, my mom had a massive cerebral hemorrhage. She lingered for ten days, and, as far as we could tell, may not have been able to understand anything we were saying to her.  Suddenly she was gone.   We were left with the decision many families face: what do we do for a memorial service?  Luckily, we all remembered something she said many times: “When I die, I want to go out to ‘When The Saints Go Marching In.'”

            We focused on creating a service that would honor mom’s spirit.  We were all willing to speak and, working with the pastor, chose some hymns and readings. We gladly accepted an offer from a family friend to play a medley of Gershwin songs that mom loved.  But the most important act was to honor her request for “All the Saints.” 

            The church organist found a trumpeter in town who could play “When the Saints” Dixieland style.  The pastor gave the closing blessing. From the back of the church the trumpeter began playing very quietly and slowly as Dixieland musicians do. Then he picked up the tempo.  The organist joined in.  Soon the sanctuary was rocking.  We walked down the aisle with smiles and tears.  This is what mom wanted.

            Mom told us one thing she wanted to have at her memorial service.  That one thing was an anchor in a confusing time.  It didn’t take away our shock or grief. But the memory of it still brings us joy.

            Here’s the second story.

            When I was a pastor in Goleta, a woman named Lela came to my office.  She wanted to transfer her membership to my congregation and have me lead her memorial service.  Two years later, she died of cancer.  When I met with her family, they gave me a complete script Lela had created. She’d been a musician herself and knew exactly what she wanted at each point in the service, including readings and specific recordings of favorite classical pieces.  Knowing “this is what Lela wanted” allowed us to honor her wishes to the letter. 

            In my 40 years as a pastor, I’ve been involved in a great variety of memorial services. Some were in overflowing sanctuaries. Some were with two or three people at a graveside.  Every time, I did my best to create an experience reflecting the unique spirit and life of that person.  The variety is endless:

  • In my rural parish, I did a service for a ranch hand that ended with his favorite song, “Streets of Laredo.”
  • Several services ended with a bagpiper playing “Amazing Grace” and escorting us out – there’s something about those “pipes” that stirs the soul.
  • I led a service for a much-loved Hispanic man in Santa Paula who had been a Korean War vet.  When we got to the cemetery, a military honor guard carried his casket to the gravesite – followed by a mariachi band.
  • I attended a service at the Santa Barbara Mission for Richard Aberle, a long-time Hospice board member. Richard loved life and music and had specified what he wanted in his service.  As I walked into the sanctuary, instead of hearing a dreary organ, a string ensemble was in the balcony playing “The Blue Danube Waltz” by Strauss.  It was joyous, life-affirming music that expressed the way Richard lived his life.

            The common thread in these services was following the wishes of the person who had died in a way that expressed their unique character and spirit.

            Have you told anyone what you would want?          

            I’m just now updating notes for my service.  It includes readings (the 23rd Psalm, King James version), favorite hymns, Joe Cocker singing “A Little Help From My Friends” at Woodstock (a favorite memory from my youth) and the final scene in “The Natural,” when the aging Roy Hobbs (Robert Redford) hits his last home run and knocks out the lights.

            My dear friend Father Larry once said there’s a date on the calendar that will be the date of our death. Every year we pass that day not realizing the significance it will have.  We don’t know the day, but we do know there are simple things we can do to support those who will be faced with the task of honoring us with a service when that day comes.

            It can be as simple as telling someone one or two things you would like.  Do that today or in the next few days, in person or in writing.  My mom had one wish, and we are forever grateful we knew what it was.

            Or you can take some time and make a list of suggestions, like Lela did. Below is the checklist I’m using this week to update my plans.  When I complete it, I’ll put a copy where we keep other important documents.

            I’ve been doing memorial services for more than 40 years – I guarantee you anything that you do will be a gift to those you love.

            I encourage you to do it now.

Steve

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Suggestions for My Memorial Service

            Dear Family: These are suggestions for my service…use them if they seem fitting and practical at the time:

  1. The place:
  • Readings:
  • Music:
  • Speakers:
  • Images/video clips:
  • Food at the reception:
  • Where my body can be buried/ashes scattered:

Still Life with Twelve Sunflowers, Van Gogh

“Is Life All About How We ‘Finish?’”

            On January 20, 2006, at age 78, she made history by being the first popular singer to have a solo concert at the Metropolitan Opera in New York.  She was a sensation on Broadway when she was younger, winning many awards including an Emmy for her role in the original The Music Man.  She had the voice, looks, and acting skill of a star.  But after years of success, her career faded.  She withdrew from public performances as she struggled with alcohol, obesity, and depression.  In time, a close friend and collaborator convinced her she still had a great gift to share with audiences. She began performing in public again, which led to that night at the Met.

            When Barbara Cook walked on stage that night, she got a standing ovation.

            The second song she sang was particularly poignant given what she’d been through. It was from a 1973 Broadway musical, “Seesaw:”

            It’s not where you start, it’s where you finish.

            It’s not how you go, it’s how you land.

            A hundred to one shot, they call him a  klutz

            Can out-run the favorite, all he needs is the guts.

            Your final return will not diminish

            And you can be the cream of the crop;

            It’s not where you start, it’s where you finish,

            And you’re gonna finish on top.

            After reading a rave review of the concert album, I bought a copy and have grown to love this song.  It has that spunky, sassy, celebratory spirit of so many Broadway songs, and she is amazing.  “It’s Not Where You Start” begins playing in my head some days, and the spirit of it makes me smile and swagger.

            Barbara Cook died in 2017, beloved by her colleagues and fans not only for her many gifts but also for her comeback.  If life’s about “how you finish,” she finished her life “on top.”

            But I’ve been reflecting on the theme of the song.  I find myself thinking of all the people I’ve known over the years in my personal life, ministry, and hospice work, and ask myself:  Is it always true?  Is “where you finish” the most important measure of your life?

            Bob was a member of the first congregation I served in Santa Paula.  He was a big guy and full of life.  He was a proud Marine who had been in some of the most intense battles in the Pacific and achieved the rank of captain.  He’d then made a career in the fruit packing business and raised six children with his wife Jean.  We rented a house just one door away from Bob and Jean, and grew to be close friends, often sharing wine, crackers and cheese on our front porches and vacationing together.  He took delight in needling me. Sometimes when I’d call young people to come forward for a children’s sermon, he’d walk up with them and sit on the steps, staring at me with a deadpan gaze. After retirement he became a Hospice volunteer and told me it was the most meaningful thing he’d ever done.  I loved the man.

            After we left Santa Paula for Washington state in 1985, we stayed close.  Moving back to Santa Barbara in 1992 meant we were only an hour away from Santa Paula, which enabled us to spend time together once again.

            Bob became ill in 2005. In his last months he was in a nursing home with dementia.  The dementia released some of the long-suppressed traumatic memories of the war, and Bob’s anger and confusion was a serious challenge for staff and guests. He died early in 2006.

            I think of the life of my dear friend Bob, and ask: Is it always about how we “finish”?

            My answer: No.  Bob’s life was full of hard work, responsibilities, sacrifice, service, joy, and love.  What he went through in the last few months does not define him or take away all he did.

            I can think of many people I’ve known who have died in nursing homes and car accidents, from heart attacks and strokes.  They did not have a chance to complete their journey as they would have liked. But their end doesn’t define their life.

            We long for perfect, inspiring endings in movies, television series, musical pieces, novels, careers, and personal stories. But real life doesn’t always supply them.

            I am going to keep on listening to Barbara Cook sing “It’s not how you start, it’s how you finish.”  I will always be inspired by her story and legacy. I am also continually inspired by the life of my friend Bob.

            I want to live with “guts” and “grit.” Yet I know I cannot be guaranteed an ideal conclusion to my life. What I do know is that I can trust the grace of God, which is far greater than my expectations.

Steve

Barbara Cook singing “It’s Not Where You Start”  in Melbourne.  The picture quality is grainy, but her spirit shines:

The Art of “Living in the Tragic Gap”

         There are two stages of life: the first is when we are aspiring to perfection, the second is when that is no longer viable, and we begin to look within.  — David Brooks

         Commencement speakers often encourage young people to dream big.  I don’t remember who spoke when I graduated from UCSB years ago, but I had big dreams.  My plan was to work six months and save enough money to travel in Europe, where I had a connection for a job.  After a year I’d come back and begin law school.  By age 40 I was going to be a millionaire — then retire and travel more.

         I knew it was possible.  I’d heard stories about people who had done things like that.  If it happens for some people, why not me?

         It didn’t work out that way.

         It took me a year to earn the money I needed. My time in Europe was cut short when I was denied a work permit.  I completed one year of law school and then withdrew, got married and became a father.

         I thought marriage and parenting would be easy.

         It didn’t work out that way.

         Marriage, it turns out, is a lot of work.  Parenting as well.  “Perfection” turned out to be elusive.

         By my late 30s I was depressed. My net worth was zero and my professional path seemed empty. I had friends who seemed to be thriving, which made it worse. I’d been living with unrealistic expectations and was now painfully coming to terms with the harsh facts of life.        

This polarity is something the writer Parker Palmer knows well.  Having gone through his own journey, he learned how to live with the tension between high hopes and hard realities.  It’s a life skill he calls, “Living in the Tragic Gap.” Here’s how it works.

       Many of us start out with lofty hopes and naïve expectations, but eventually encounter disappointments and dead ends. 

         When this happens, we can be faced with two temptations.

         One temptation is to keep chasing those hopes at all costs.

         “Look at that guy making a lot of money – he seems happy. I am going to keep pushing to succeed, no matter the cost.”

         “I deserve to be happy and satisfied every day.  If I’m not, it’s clearly somebody else’s fault, not mine.”

         “As a parent, I’m going to read all the books and do the right things. If I do that, my kids – and I – will live a worry-free life.”

         “Aging will never happen to me. I’ll find a program, a surgery, a diet or a guru that will keep me looking and feeling young.”

         We can become completely absorbed by unrealistic ideals of how life “should” be. Parker Palmer calls this, “irrelevant idealism.”

         The second temptation goes to the other extreme. 

         When the realities of work, marriage, and family life fall short of what we thought we deserved, we can become bitter. We lash out at other people, society, God or ourselves.  Or we feel broken and ashamed and withdraw into depression and resentment.  This is the temptation Palmer calls “corrosive cynicism.”

         But there is a third path, one that avoids the two temptations: “Living in the Tragic Gap.” The “gap” can feel “tragic,” as we must accept the fact our ideals may be impossible to fully realize.  But accepting the gap and negotiating life within it is the beginning of wisdom.  We don’t give up hopes and ideals but begin to balance them in the context of life’s realities.  As David Brooks said, once we are done “aspiring for perfection,” we “begin to look within.”

         Little is really known of Jesus’ life before he was 30.  But it was probably after a long period of looking within that he emerged with his compelling vision of the kingdom of God.  He encountered ordinary people struggling with life. Through him they experienced a new, grace-based way of seeing themselves and the world. This was not an escape from the realities of life but instead gave clarity and meaning to life as it is.

         The classic story of Buddha’s life is similar.  He was rich and healthy. He was carefully protected from suffering, living the first part of his life in the equivalent of a privileged, gated community. But he sensed something was missing.  He went out to see the real world and found the harsh realities of sickness, aging, and death.  But he kept pressing for a realistic way to make sense of it all.  In time, he experienced enlightenment and passed his insights on to countless others; “problems” will never stop arising in life, but we can develop an awareness that keeps us from being absorbed by them and instead find a boundless source of compassion within.

         In my work, I’ve met many people who became aware that perfection was no longer an option and were hungry for an alternative. I met them in my role as a pastor over the years. I met many when I was Director at La Casa de Maria Retreat Center. People were looking for something more, some way to stand between high hopes and hard realities. And when they’d find their footing, it was as if real life began.  They became humble, but also caring.  They took responsibility for their life choices and learned from their losses.  They found a certain kind of quiet courage to go on.

         Hospice of Santa Barbara has a long history of supporting people of all ages in the grief process.  When I was serving there, I was particularly struck by the work with children and teenagers who’d lost a parent.  One group support session ended with a time for the participants to create a work of art that expressed how they felt and what they’d learned.  A 15-year-old boy painted a picture of a heart broken open with blotches of red coming out of the broken space, growing larger as they emerged.  He wrote: “Death is like a broken heart.  It hurts and is sad, but you get through it.  Your heart is twice as strong.”

“Six Things That Matter Most” — A List for All Seasons

            There often comes a time when a family is told their loved one has just a few hours or days left before dying.  It can be an agonizing time of not knowing what to do other than wait.   The loved one may still be able to communicate or, more often, is sleeping much of time.  What do you do when “there’s nothing more to be done”?

            Ira Byock, a leading physician in contemporary hospice and palliative medicine, came up with a helpful resource for such times.  He would take his prescription notepad and write four phrases: “Please forgive me. I forgive you. I love you. Thank you.” He would give that to a family member and invite them to consider if any of those statements would be appropriate to say.  He wrote an influential book on the transformative and healing experiences he witnessed arising from people using these simple statements.  As the book became popular, two more were added: “Goodbye” and “I am proud of you.”

            The values represented in these statements — forgiveness, love, gratitude, and acknowledging the cycles of life — are universally present in the great spiritual traditions.

            When I was at Hospice of Santa Barbara, we took those six statements and had them printed on business cards.  Our staff and volunteers could then give them to families when appropriate.  I began to carry some in my wallet, a practice I’ve continued for more than a decade.

            I was grateful to have the card when my father was dying.

            He was in his last days at a nursing home. My two sisters and I used the list as a prompt for talking to him. He was no longer responsive, but it felt like the right thing to do. Maybe he heard us or maybe not.  Maybe he could sense what we meant through tone or feeling. Or maybe it was just for us.  

            “Dad, please forgive me for the sleepless nights I gave you as a teenager.”

            “There were times when I was growing up I was afraid of your anger.  I knew you were under a lot of pressure and loved us, but it was still scary. I forgive you.”

            “Thank you for providing for us, encouraging us and believing in us.”

            “For the way you worked so hard to honor mom and provide for us, for the integrity and honesty with which you lived your life, and for your service to our country during the war – we are proud of you.” 

            Dad wasn’t from a generation when many men would say “I love you.”  But we knew he loved us.  It was easy to say, “I love you, Dad.”

            The “Goodbye” statement can be tricky.  It can be tempting to say it to have some closure, but it may be too early.  (I remember one family had asked a harpist to play in the room; the patient woke up and said, “Get that music out of here…I’m not ready for the angels yet!”) But if, say, a family member is leaving town or death is clearly imminent, then “Goodbye” can be fitting.

            As I did presentations on hospice in the community, I would pass these cards out.  People would later tell me how helpful they were.

            But I also knew what everyone who works in hospice knows…the work is not just about the dying, but also about the living.  Whether dad was fully aware of what we were saying, it gave us closure. 

            The list can also be helpful after a death when we didn’t have an opportunity to speak the words in person. We can write a letter to the person using the list as possible prompts.  We can then save the letter just for ourselves. Or we can take it to a place we associate with the person, including a gravesite, and read it.  When it’s served its purpose, we can keep it or create a simple ritual and burn it.

            “Six Things” can also be valuable when death is not on the horizon. Roughly half of Americans die with some form of hospice care, which means there may be time for meaningful bedside moments.  It also means the other half of us will die without such an opportunity – heart attacks, strokes, accidents, etc.  If these are the six things that matter most, why wait for a moment that we may never have?  Why not use them when we are alive and well?

            Once, I was doing a daylong retreat on this theme. I gave the background and handed out the cards. Then I said, “But let’s not wait. I encourage us all to think if there is anyone we want to say any of these statements to now.”  I gave everyone 45 minutes. I’d brought stationery and envelopes if people wanted to write letters, and also encouraged people to make a phone call, send an email or text a message.  

            When we regathered, I asked for people to share experiences. One woman said she had called her daughter.  The call went to voicemail and mom left a message, “I just want to say I love you!” The daughter called back a few minutes later sounding frantic: “What’s wrong mom?! Are you OK??”  Mom laughed and reassured her she was fine, but was doing this as part of a retreat.  So, giving a little background can help when we are conveying such deep feelings.

            As time went on, I’ve found the “Six Things” a good way to take inventory from time to time in my own life on occasions like anniversaries and birthdays. Is there someone I want to say these words to now, since there’s no guarantee I’ll have a chance in the future?  Why not just do it? Once we do, there is a sense of freedom.

            Six simple statements, loaded with healing power.