Being Church

I get to this time of year, and I still can’t help but remember Angi’s last two weeks.

How brave she was. How much she endured. How quickly her faculties slipped away. How many people loved her.

Nine years ago.

I don’t want to forget. Ever. Not even if the last of my faculties slip away from me in the closing days of my life.

But I may not get that choice.

I also remember how those who loved us clustered around us — locally and virtually — and hoped/prayed for us and ministered to us. People who shared our faith. People who held other faiths. People who held no faith at all, except perhaps in other people.

They were our collective church.

And, ironically, in recent years that common desire of all those dear folks has contributed to the decline in my faith in church.

I’ve come to the conclusion that meeting as church and observing the sacraments and repeating the good words for an hour or three together one day a week has no value at all if we are not serving in the world the entire 24/7. None.

Yes, oddly enough I still have faith in the God who could have answered thousands of prayers and could have come through for Angi but didn’t. I don’t know His business, or how things work in eternity or what’s ultimately good as compared to what I want now. I know she didn’t suffer as long as she could have. I know that we all die; even His Son. I know that Angi was ready because she lived the life of the One she believed in, and served and loved others, often in selfless ways that humbled me.

It isn’t the Father, Son or Spirit I have trouble believing in.

It’s us folks who go to church, but aren’t the church any more or better than folks who don’t believe, but still live out a faith in others with love and compassion and grace.

So who’s lost and who’s not in this scenario? I’m glad I don’t have to sort it out, because I’m not qualified to judge. Just love.

Just love.

I haven’t been to church in a year now. That’s not an indictment of anyone there; they are among the most wonderful and dearly-loved people in the world. They are my family, fellow believers and siblings in Christ. But I have to recognize that they are not the only ones who are children of God, dearly loved by Him.

I’m just not comfortable being in church and saying and doing the right things there, knowing that I’m not saying and doing and being what I should when I am not there. It’s an indictment of me.

But it’s also a deeply profound questioning of how we do things as church. How our time and resources are spent. Whether worship is for God or us. Whether service is for others or ourselves. Whether we need to spend on big buildings for 1-3 hours a week, or homes for the homeless and meals for the hungry and clothes for the shivering. Whether we need to spend for staff, lighting, projections, music in order to worship … or live out our worthship in service to others and reflecting God’s grace.

I think He’s big enough for me to be able to ask where He was when Angi needed Him.

I also think He has every right to ask me where I was when one of my neighbors needed me.

So, at least for now, I have pretty much lost my religion.

But I still have my faith.

Except, maybe, some of my faith in myself.

Farewell, Old Friend

Well, dear ones: My companion of 16 years, Roadie, passed quietly this evening after a brief illness.

He did everything quietly, though. Unless he barked while visiting at the homes of his friends Jean or Tracellen while I was traveling, he had not done so for years.

About the only sounds he ever made were whimpers while dreaming of running in his sleep.

He had gone deaf over the last couple of years, and his eyesight was beginning to dim — after all, he was at least 18 years old. But he could sniff, and loved to do so on his morning and evening walks.

He had compression in his 5th-7th vertebrae, his vet in Sylva told me in 2015, and in his last few months I could tell that the walks — and especially the steps — were becoming more painful to him. His pace slowed. I closed off the staircases in the cottage so he wouldn’t try to follow me up- or downstairs and break a limb.

He was friendly to all creatures, from cats to other dogs to any person he ever met. He was fond of little ones, especially my grandson Kayson, and was happy to be a headrest and back pillow for him when he watched videos on my computer.

Many of you know that I often referred to him as Roadie, The World’s Sweetest Dog™️, and if any dog ever deserved that trademark, it was surely him.

Borrowing Wisdom

Angela BrentonThrough the past few weeks of ongoing grief at losing Angi one capability at a time, I’ve been blessed by words of wisdom from many people, when I could not muster any wisdom of my own.

First, from Craig Smith, a colleague and former supervisor, who may not even remember the exchange. When his father passed away many years ago and I was dumbstruck for words to comfort, I stupidly said to him: “I can’t even imagine losing my dad. How do you deal with it?” He shrugged matter-of-factly: “You just do.” Those may not seem like profound words, but through his delivery of them and the kind of person he is, they were. They helped me through the loss of my dad a few years later, and they have continued to help me. I decided even before losing Angi that you can deal with adversities well, or you can deal with things poorly — and it’s usually easier for your family and those you love if you deal with them well.

Second, from Mike Cope, a former minister at our church home in Abilene, who wrote “Megan’s Secrets” about the challenges faced by his indomitable young daughter and losing her at a tender age. Among those words were the advice to accept with grace the words and actions that others offer intending to comfort and encourage you when you are grieving … but only sting and hurt instead. You take them in with the spirit in which they are given, not necessarily the content of them. That is true grace. I’ve come to think of his advice as a corollary to the Golden Rule: “Receive from others as you would have them receive from you.”

Third, from Amy Ray, Angi’s chemo nurse who (in a very brief span of time) became a dear friend. As Angi lost more of her faculties, she could no longer speak but could still understand what was spoken to her; even smile when her cousin Roger said funny things to her. It was at this time, when Angi had been off chemo and in hospice care at home for almost a week, that Amy called me to ask about her. “Keith,” she said when I told her, “Have you given her permission to die?” I immediately (and thoughtlessly) answered, “Yes, of course!” but as we talked, I began to understand that Amy meant that I needed to tell Angi that. So as Carol, Roger’s wife, sat holding her hand, I went in to Angi’s little bedroom-made-hospital-chamber and told her.

“Sweetheart, this is going to be really hard for me to say. But these last few weeks while you’ve slept at night, you’ve been talking in your sleep, and the only word you’ve said has been ‘Huh-uh.’ I’ve wondered if you’ve been telling the Lord you’re not ready to go yet. I just want you to know that if He comes for you again, you don’t have to say ‘huh-uh’ anymore. You go with Him. You leave this suffering behind.

“You’ve made everything so easy for us. We’ve sold this house; it closes tomorrow! We’ve bought another one that will be perfect for us. You’ve done everything anyone could do to bless our lives more than anyone could have asked. I’ve talked to Matt and he understands how much you’re hurting, and that you may not be with us by the time he can get here, and he’s alright with that.”

About that time, Carol motioned our daughter Laura in and she sat on the bedside by her mom. “And this one is stronger than she has ever been! You’ve raised her strong and smart, and she can handle anything. So we all want you to know that if the Lord comes for you, and you have anything to say about it, you go home with Him. We’ll be alright. We will miss you like everything. But we’ll be alright.”

Angi had a restless night, beset by pain, and about 4:30 I gave her a couple of soda straw-fulls of water — all she could still swallow — and that seemed to calm her so she could sleep.

Sometime between then and 7:00 when I awakened next to her in the recliner, she went home.

There are words of wisdom that change your life. Some of them are in poetry, some hidden like treasure in scripture, and some come from the lips of those who love you.

But the words of wisdom that I borrow most often came from my friends (you know who you are) who learned that their second child, still in the womb, would only survive at best a few minutes into this world. That is exactly what came to pass. The minister of their small home church conveyed their words to him, at their request, during the memorial service for their little son:

“We don’t know why God took our sweet baby home so soon. We don’t know why these things have to happen. But we also don’t know why He has blessed us with each other, with a wonderful marriage, with a beautiful little daughter, and with a loving family and friends.”

As I mourn Angi, these words of wisdom put life in perspective for me.

And I will always be grateful to God for the people who were willing to let Him speak through them to me.