Thursday, January 31, 2013

Reflections on Chelsea

I haven't written much on this blog and I find myself nervous about that. Monday was seven months. Daughter and I attended our local Suicide Survivors Support Group. Lovely was busy at school as she will be every night this week.

Monday night was the first night the support group met in two months because the last meeting would have been scheduled for Christmas Eve. It was the first time in a long time, perhaps since the last meeting, that I told the story of what happened on June 28th.   I realized I needed to tell that story.  I don't want life to just continue as if nothing happened. I don't want to erase him but that is what it feels like I am doing.

Each day in my e-mail inbox I receive the Daily Grief Support from Chelsea.  I have no idea who Chelsea is.  It is a service the Funeral Home offers.   I like to receive them even when I don't read them.  Chelsea has been a bit too chipper for me these last couple of weeks.  On Day 179, Chelsea wrote:
"When you turn around negative thoughts, the new thoughts may seem foreign, but continue to work on filling your mind with thoughts of where you want to be."
Chelsea has been schooled in CBT.    My issue with using CBT with grief is that grief is not a disorder really.  If I want to swim in negative thoughts, I will.  That's grief.

That's OK.  I am glad Chelsea writes me an email everyday.  She is trying.  Of course, Chelsea has no idea who I am.   She is in reality a computer program.   The nice thing about computer-generated e-mail services is that they keep in touch and they don't require a response.

Life goes on.  People need me to do stuff.  But Chelsea realizes that I am at day 179 of 365.  I am still on her grief calendar.  Actually, I am a bit farther along than day 179.  I didn't subscribe to the service until at least a month after Zach's death.   I dread day 365 when I no longer will hear from Chelsea.    My grief may outlast even her.

Sunday, January 13, 2013


I do not believe that our bodies, souls, or consciousnesses survive our deaths.   I do not believe in an "afterlife."  In my own eight points of belief, I wrote

"that human consciousness is the result of natural selection. Human beings do not have immortal souls nor will consciousness survive death. Thus there is no afterlife. There is no heaven, no hell, and no need for salvation from one realm to another."

Can I prove this?  Of course not.  I have no desire to try to do so or to convince anyone.  I simply am being honest about me.  It is what I believe.  It is what I be-love.  I give my heart to that reality.   It is a religious and spiritual belief.    It is also consistent with what I have observed about life and death.

I am not personally comforted by thoughts of heaven.   For me, afterlife seems to make this life less valuable.   It seems like a wish-fulfillment dream.  But again, that is just me.   I don't insist.  I don't particularly care if people believe that their loved ones have survived their deaths and that they will meet with them someday.   If it works for some people, that is great.   In fact, as a minister, I often use the traditional liturgy at funerals that affirms resurrection.    Some people likely find comfort in it.   I do, too, in a way.  For me, it is like singing old hymns about God.  They are poetic.  They reflect a yearning and a feeling that seeks to affirm the sacredness of life.  But I don't take any of it literally.    I sometimes wish that there were more hymns and prayers that affirmed this life.  I often turn to contemporary poets for that.   Mary Oliver is one of my favorites.

This is not merely academic for me.   My son died nearly seven months ago.   I don't think he is in heaven.  It isn't because I don't think he completed the requirements for admission; it is because I don't think such a place exists.   The same is true for hell and for any other possible place or state.   I don't think I'll see Zach again.   It doesn't bring me sadness that I won't see him in heaven.  What is devastating is that I won't see, touch, hear, and smell him on Earth.   That is devastating every single day.  No amount of "heaven" would ever substitute for that.     Theistic forms of comfort or afterlife affirming forms of comfort don't do anything for me.   My boy is gone.  His memory will remain as I cultivate it.   And that is life. 

What I find in my grief for my son is that when I say what I really think, it truly disturbs some people.   That is sad for me as it makes my grief even harder.   They really want me to believe that he is somewhere out there or is communicating with me.   I don't say anything as I don't want to offend them or upset their faith.  I don't write this post to disturb.  I write it because it is true for me and I know I am not alone.   I grieve without the hope of afterlife.     There are people who grieve without God and need to be encouraged and comforted in their grief.  

Many people think that isn't possible.  The Apostle Paul famously wrote in 1 Thessalonians:

"But we do not want you to be uninformed, brothers and sisters, about those who have died, so that you may not grieve as others do who have no hope."

He goes on to say how both the living and the dead will be caught up in the clouds to meet the Lord on that great day.    I don't believe that.   So I guess I grieve as "others do who have no hope."  If that is the only definition for "hope" then I have none.  

You know what?   I think I have earned the right to this honesty.  I have been through hell.  Not a day goes by, not an hour goes by, when I don't miss my son.  From what I have been reading on the topic of the manner of my son's death, my grief will likely get worse before it "gets better."   I really don't appreciate the smugness of the opinionated such as Dennis Prager, who writes of "the intellectual and emotional emptiness at the heart of atheism" in his piece,The Atheist Response to Sandy Hook.  I mean, really?

Those of us who are not theists are not intellectually bereft or emotionally empty.   We simply don't believe in God or in afterlife.   For us, if there is such a thing as "hope" it is something to be found this side of the grave.   We can comfort one another with our hearts and minds.  We can care for one another with our words, deeds, and silence.  We can share tears.   We can acknowledge new shoots of green.    Some of us don't even mind singing the old hymns and using "God" language.   I happen to think that language about God is really about us and what we are and can be.  I think I might be a post-atheist, for what it is worth.  That simply means that I like religion and seek to bring its language and accomplishments to further the cause of human well-being and the well-being of Earth.

I don't grieve as one without hope.  I hope to integrate my son's life and death into my life.   I hope to become a better person.   I hope to be able to listen deeply to others.  I hope to be joyful on occasion.   I hope to do meaningful work.  I hope that all assault weapons will one day turn into garden hoes.   I hope that we can learn more about suicide and help others through their pain so that they can make different choices.   I hope that those who survive the suicide of a loved one will be able to relieve their burden of guilt.   I hope those who have lost children will find their courage.  I hope for a lot actually.

I also hope that Dennis Prager stops picking on atheists.   Some of us are grieving here.

Thursday, January 3, 2013

A Happy Dream

Last night I dreamed again about Zach.   I understand dreams to be stories created in my unconscious mind.   This happens to be my world-view and it works for me.  In my dreams, Zach is quite vivid.   I feel close to him.  Through these stories my dreams tell, his tone of voice and mannerisms are how I remember him.   Apparently, I needed to tell myself a happy story.

Zach and I were in a busy town, I don't know where.   It was some kind of festival.   We were talking and chatting.  Zach was happy and talking a mile a minute.   He was about ten or eleven, I suppose.   He was asking me questions about church and different religions.  He made a joke suitable for a ten year old, although I can't remember it now.   He was interested in participating in the confirmation class.  He wanted me to buy a fancy pencil and have the name of my congregation engraved on it, First Presbyterian of Elizabethton.   It was a happy day together.  

This could be a wish-fulfillment dream.  But the difference between this dream and others I have had that include Zach is that I woke up happy.  I didn't cling to him or anything or cry.   As I thought about it throughout the day and even as the dream faded, I felt the possibility that I may be able one day to see pictures of him and tell stories about him and have it not be so painful.   It isn't that I won't experience pain, but this dream was a green shoot of hope that one day I may integrate his life into my memory and that he will be present with me and that feeling will include joy as well as sorrow. 

Wednesday, January 2, 2013

The Via Creativa

The worship guide for Winter 2013 is on my congregation's website.   I have decided during this series of sermons to take a shot at constructing my own "theology" based on my beliefs about God, Jesus, the Bible, Evolution, Life, and the Universe.   During Winter we honor the via creativa, one of the four paths illuminated by theologian, Matthew Fox, in his book, Original Blessing.   This season accompanies some interesting Sundays:  Epiphany, Baptism of Jesus, Martin Luther King, Evolution, and the five Sundays in Lent.   I am also drawing from the wisdom of all the creative people I have been fortunate to interview on Religion For Life.  This should be fun.   You will find sermon texts and podcasts here.   This is from the worship guide:

The path of creativity and imagination is the result of the dance between awe and sorrow. From the darkness ignited by wonder comes creativity. We know two truths.  It is amazing to be alive and life is painful. We know that we are and that we are not.  Life is here. Life is temporary. What words can we find, what language can we borrow that can express what it means to be alive? How do we both cheer and grieve?  Religion is designed to help give us language. What of our religions and their symbols?  What are their limits? What do we do when the language we have inherited has become stale? What permission do we need to challenge what we thought was absolute?  After we deconstruct and let go of images that have become cracked idols, what will we create? Welcome to the via creativa.

Moving beyond religion, what about life? What about your life if I may ask? What will you make of the awe and the pain? What are you creating or what is being created in you? Can you give yourself permission to read an old text in a new way? Can you allow yourself to make an error? Are you afraid you might get God wrong? What would happen then? What energizes you?  What is important? For what or for whom do you live? Are you on an adventure? If not, why not? Can you create your own life? The via creativa says you can.

During the Winter as the days get longer, we will acknowledge creativity and imagination.  We are in a time of societal creativity. Historian of religion, Phyllis Tickle, calls it the great emergence. Every five hundred years the church has a big rummage sale. We get rid of what no longer works, find old treasures we forgot (or never knew we had), and discover new things altogether! It is a time to risk “getting God wrong!” We give ourselves permission to doubt, to create, to mix and match, and to create our own unique spiritual path.
We don't have to start from scratch.   We go encouraged by wise ones from the past and present who poke, prod, and nudge us to explore the depths of our own creativity.   The point is not for folks to get hung up on what I believe or don't believe or whatever.  My goal in this season of worship services is to encourage others to create their own theology.  I am doing it with you.   Also, the exercise is not simply intellectual or esoteric.   We are talking about unleashing creativity to transform our communities and our individual lives toward beauty, justice, and peace.    Join us!

Tuesday, January 1, 2013

New Year

New Year's Eve/Day has proven to be more sad than Christmas.   Michelle, Tom, and Cooper came for Christmas.  It was low-key and that was good.   Don Steele helped out with the services, putting together the whole Tidings of Comfort service.   We had five youth and young adults provide music for Christmas Eve.   It was really nice, especially as I have been privileged to watch all of them grow up in the church during my seven years here.   I put the liturgy together and Don preached.  I hid behind the tree.  

Lovely and I spent New Year's Eve together alone.  We did not want to do anything with anyone.  We did parallel play.  She put together this cabinet she ordered and I watched football.  We watched the ball drop and cried at midnight.  

The television flashed pictures of famous people who died in 2012.  Zach wasn't one of them.  He won't be remembered in lists.  No big accomplishments will be credited to him.  But he was the most important person in my life who has died this past year, or in any year.     Zach will not see any of 2013 or any year hereafter and that is heartbreaking.  Unbearable to imagine.  It is such a waste. 

If I could do anything to change this past year, I would.   But I can't.

I love you, buddy.