Tuesday, December 9, 2014

What if?

What if?

As a pastor, death has been no stranger to me, but two experiences stand out. I watched one friend break out in a radiant smile, lift her arms as if to reach for someone and died, leaving the room filled with the most incredible "presence." Another friend's husband pointed to the ceiling. "Look. There she goes!"

I suspect we fear death because we rarely have the chance to share that final experience with the ones we love since many die in the hospital away from us rather than at home. Because we fear the unknown, we seek to prolong life regardless of the human, emotional or financial costs. In the old days the family cared for the sick, held them as they died, "laid out the body," made the casket, dug the grave. This gave the families tangible ways to say "good bye."

Thanks to Hospice, I got to share in both of my sisters' deaths. Both times, (one local and the other in Indiana), I found Hospice to be incredibly kind, supportive, helpful, and grounded. They helped us realize the difference between medical treatment which is designed to prolong life, and hospice care that is designed to keep the terminal person pain free and comfortable. Both of my sisters came home with less than 2 weeks to live. Both lived several months, with good quality, in large part due to the ways Hospice managed their pain and care. Hospice provided all of the equipment and medication. They were on call 24/7. They helped us recognize the stages of grief and impending death so we could let go and allow my sisters to die gracefully and peacefully.

In Final Gifts, a book written by Hospice nurses, the authors spoke of a conscious state that dying people often experience, an alternate reality. My one sister described it as "being in a story that's being acted out in another place" or "being caught between two worlds without knowing where I belong." At times she'd ask, "Is someone here? Who just came into the room?" I'd see no one. Once she said, "there are three people sitting at the foot of my bed." Another time, "someone standing by my left shoulder." One afternoon when she was very weak she told us, "I was going down this long hallway, but when I got to the end there wasn't a knob on the door so I came back." Hospice helped us understand that these were not hallucinations but experiences that were very real to her.

For those who can't care for their loved ones at home, hospice provides similar services in nursing homes and hospitals. As with most experiences in life, the one who helps gets as much or more out of the experience as the one who is helped.

In spite of being a pastor, I have my doubts about an afterlife. The world is very much with me. I used to watch "Touched by an Angel" and snicker, thinking it pretty far fetched that angels took the dying "home." Having shared my sisters' experiences, I now find myself wondering. What if that actually is true? What if we do entertain angels unawares?


Wednesday, December 3, 2014

All I want for Christmas

All I want for Christmas is a grateful heart. Not something that occasionally spills out in spontaneous feelings, a thank you note or an act of generosity, but a day in, day out ethic of gratitude. An ethic that leads me to intentionally seek the best in every situation or person, an ethic that allows room for “the other,” an ethic where the God of my understanding is not something or someone out there waiting to trip you or me up, but that divine source that creates everything and everyone for good, that source which loves everything and everyone, unifies everything and everyone, whose creative impulse is not to divide choosing some and rejecting others, but whose ultimate design is to bring us together as a unified whole.

All I want for Christmas is a grateful heart, each beat reminding me that our lives are not our own and that life is a precious gift, that the driving goal of life is being gratefully aware of all that is given to us lies outside of our ability to create or control, or even deserve. Gratitude feeds gratitude thus creating this wonderful spiral of abundance and joy.

An ethic of gratitude increases my awareness of all that lies outside my control allowing me to exist and be: the trees that give me the oxygen I breath, the streams and rivers providing the water I drink, the plants and animals that feed me. An ethic of gratitude allows me to care about all those hidden people whose work allows me to be relatively safe, secure, and comfortable, who create the clothes I wear, the cars I drive, the food I eat, the energy I consume, the protections I enjoy. All those who both past and present, living and non-living, remembered or forgotten have gone before. For me, Advent and Christmas is not about shopping or parties or baking or decorations, it's about being intentionally grateful, of using less so that others might have more. The shortened days and longer nights remind me that each of us is born with the same promise and potential as the Christ child who did not come to validate shopping sprees or greed but to bring peace on earth, good will to men. We are each born to love and be loved, to give and forgive, to live lives of quiet, profound grateful integrity.

It's easy to lose sight of the many gifts each day brings, especially when things don't go the way we've planned. But when one intentionally seeks the good in life, each day brings multiple reminders of what is transcendent and positive allowing us to see the reality of a wider world and our connection to everything, so that we become aware that not only is something better possible, but we are each called to help make it so. Fortunately we don't have to understand this mystery we call God, life, hope, gratitude. We need only embrace it. So this Advent season, liturgically a time of waiting for the hope to come, I already have everything I need; I have a heart opening to gratitude.

Joyce Shutt is pastor emeritus of the Fairfield Mennonite Church. You can read her blogs by going to 606 thanksliving.blogspot.com


Over the years I've learned to be grateful in and for all things, even though it sometimes takes me years to get to that point. For instance, out of the wreckage of my father's tragic death in an automobile accident came a closer relationship with my mother. A daughter's refusal to participate in traditional holidays at first caused a lot of family tension. Then out of support for her we were tempted to throw away all of the trimmings and trappings but instead, like the Grinch, we puzzled and puzzled until our puzzlers got sore, discovering that Christmas “doesn't come from a store. Maybe Christmas, perhaps, means a little bit more.”

It's no wonder people get depressed at Christmas. We have such unrealistic expectations of the holidays. But remember, expectations are resentments and heart break just waiting to happen! All the holiday hype promises us that we can magically heal our broken families and hearts with frenetic activity, over eating, drinking too much, elaborate decorations, and gift giving which few of us can afford! Like the Grinch we've discovered that the secret to a happier Christmas is keeping things in perspective which (like the Grinch) allows our small hearts to grow three sizes bigger. Because, and this is a big because, when our hearts don't feel quite so tight we are freed to be grateful for what we already have. And being grateful, we can let go of old resentments, fears, family competitions. We can forgive past or present disappointments, slights, and hurts and approach each day as God's open future.

There is so much beauty and wisdom encapsulated in our Christmas traditions that we'd do well to spread that good stuff throughout the entire year rather than trying to cram everything into several compulsory weeks. After all, the essence of Christmas is not about the obligatory giving of things we don't need or want, the essence of Christmas is about making the world a better place for everyone. Literally everyone; friend and enemy, legal or illegal. And not just with stuff. Christmas is about gratitude, sharing, peace making, civility, kindness, acceptance, empathy, justice. “Peace on earth, good will to all.”

Happily, no longer caught up in Christmas expectations and shopping, my better half and I now give gifts to those we love and and the causes we care about throughout the year...when we discover a need or when impulse strikes us. Consequently, along with enjoying the holiday music, putting up a few decorations, doing a little baking, sending cards and letters (because I love to receive them), I have been counting down the 25 days of Advent with a new gratitude journal. In it I am acknowledging the blessings I receive each day, reflecting on who and what nourishes me, the people or experiences bringing me joy, the people or experiences teaching me needed life lessons, and especially noting the random acts of kindness I witness others doing. In the process I am discovering that gratitude is indeed the gift that keeps on giving.

Joyce Shutt is pastor emeritus of the Fairfield Mennonite Church. You can read her blog on thanksliving.blogspot.com.