Thursday, July 29, 2010

Sushi, Fellowship and Sunflowers

I’m discovering that there is a second tier of loss in journeys like mine—things you lose as a result of the primary loss. I want to tell you about a wonderful church I said good-bye to this past Sunday.

First, the back story. I’ve been serving part-time as the lead pastor of Centerville Christian Fellowship (Centerville, Ohio) along with a full-time assistant Wes Duff. Wes is a good friend who was part of Dana’s and my college-age ministry many years ago. He and I have seamlessly morphed into mutually discipling each other over the past few years. Our ministry partnership with Centerville has been happening since January of 2008, covering most of the time that Dana and I had been battling her recurrence. Wes recently accepted a position at Salem Church of God in Dayton. While this obviously changed the dynamics of the situation, I had every intention to continue on with CCF. But as the mental mud has thickened, and has shown every sign of getting thicker, I made the difficult decision to step down as pastor. It just seems best for the church in the long run.

CCF is a special place with special people. After it was planted just over 15 years ago I became the “go to” fill in guy when their pastor was away. At the time I could teach Sunday school at my church in Middletown and high-tail it to the church in Centerville (but not without a little nervousness on the part of the sound guy). We enjoyed a special "fill in go to guy" relationship. Then I became their “go to” interim for two stints, the second morphing into the pastoral situation with Wes. Dana and I have loved these folks and I have certainly received more than I gave. During the hospital and hospice months this past fall they formed a literal food brigade. Believe it or not, the one component I was most nervous about duplicating from hospital to home was food---it was nice to simply call food service (you get to order your own meals at Atrium; very nice touch) and everything you need showed up on the tray. But between the church’s diligent food prep/delivery and Mama Sue’s food prep presentation, food was the least of my worries and actually became a positive force in the experience…for nearly three months! That’s long-term meal supply!

About the second week into the hospital stay I came home one night for some supplies and as I pulled into the driveway my headlights beamed over the nemesis of my yard: wild violets. I had a whole fall strategy to eradicate these things. But now, looking at them was another ripping reminder that life was turned upside down and the violets were just another of many tasks I won’t get to. Next scene: 15-ish folks from the church descending like commandos on my neighborhood-sized front yard and pulling every last violet. What a gift. For the remainder of the fall whenever my headlights scanned the front yard, I saw nothing but love. And along those lines, the church descended with the same force on my backyard to rake leaves throughout the fall.

And there’s more. They visited us in the hospital. They relayed rainbow reminders. They walked prayer laps (in the rain!) around the hospital. They sang Christmas carols to us on December 22, the last earthly music Dane would hear in that she was hearing angels the next morning (she laughed at Wes singing the words of one carol to the tune of another---sorry Wes, I had to out you).

They reminded me of the sunflower. And they served sushi.

First, the sunflower. There’s a sunflower patch I would pass on my route to the church. One week a couple years ago the flowers were in their brilliance. I noticed many people had pulled over to snap some pictures and I decided to get in on the action. We were in the middle of a series on fellowship (and launching a new small-group effort). In the series we looked at four things with which we have fellowship: the Father, the Son, the Holy Spirit, and each other. A recurring point in the series was that when these four elements overlap (picture four interlocking circles), a sweet spot of fellowship is created that is irresistible. As I watched people come and go to take pictures of this beautiful sunflower field, I was struck with a gripping analogy: this is what “sweet spot” fellowship looks like. It’s naturally attractive and irresistible. As I developed that point for a sermon I decided to see if I could find further information about the sunflower that might shed more light on comparing irresistible fellowship to beautiful sunflowers. After about two webpage clicks I was struck by the arrangement in the middle of a sunflower, where I saw the logo we had created for the series. The picture sequence below tells it all.

The first weekend Dana and I were in the hospital Jeff and Steve from the church’s leadership board (aptly named, Servant Board) stopped by…with a vase of sunflowers.

Now the sushi. When I shared in Dana’s celebration service I read one of her writings…the one that started all the deer God stamps. At one point in the writing Dana shared her frustration on how the church (in general, not CCF) so easily slides into the same ol’, same ol’ and exhorted the church to do better. As an example, rather than the same predictable missions banquet, why not have a missions salsa dance and serve sushi! Well, at the dinner following the celebration service, we had sushi. Our youth leaders Amy and Matt bought it between the service and the dinner. It’s a church that serves sushi…and I hope it will always be.

This wonderful group of people prayed for us, held us, fed us, ministered to us, cried with us. No matter how despairing and dark I felt in those hard days last fall and winter, I always felt supported and connected. They were patient and generous in giving me leave time to be a caregiver.

Stepping down from this position is another loss in this journey. For now, though, I am confident that God is with me and He is with the CCF congregation. I leave you with the Scripture prayer that we read together as we closed out our service this past Sunday; and it's a prayer I'll be praying every Sunday morning for a long time on behalf of a special group of people meeting at that time in Centerville, Ohio. (This passage was also the benediction that closed out my and Dane's wedding ceremony; for those who were there, you'll hear Don Finto's voice as you read. It ministers to me in SO many ways.)

Ephesians 3:16-21 (TNIV)
16 I pray that out of his glorious riches he may strengthen you with power through his Spirit in your inner being, 17 so that Christ may dwell in your hearts through faith. And I pray that you, being rooted and established in love, 18 may have power, together with all the Lord's people, to grasp how wide and long and high and deep is the love of Christ, 19 and to know this love that surpasses knowledge—that you may be filled to the measure of all the fullness of God.

20 Now to him who is able to do immeasurably more than all we ask or imagine, according to his power that is at work within us, 21 to him be glory in the church and in Christ Jesus throughout all generations, for ever and ever! Amen.

Tuesday, July 13, 2010

Speaking of Stars...and Rainbows...and Deer...and a Wonderful Lake

I didn’t plan to go such a long stretch since the last post. In fact, I had an “addendum” I intended to add within a day or two of the last post and….well….here I am, several weeks later. I’ve hit a different stretch in the journey. Everything (whether grief related or not) has been difficult. The mental mud has been thicker.

And the God stamp reminders have been scarce. God has seemed far.

Until last week.

But back to scarce. In fact, I even had an “opposite God stamp” day, as in: 1) I was standing in a parking lot looking for a rainbow (conditions were right) and, with eyes looking skyward, I stepped into an ankle-deep puddle; 2) As I drove out of that parking lot with a wet foot I saw a deer, dead on the side of the road, freshly hit. Eyes still open. I felt like I was in the middle of a cosmic joke.

Not only were the God stamps scarce, I was now in a God-stamp deficit.

And then last week happened.

Over the Fourth of July I had a chance to take a 3-day vacation on Torch Lake near Traverse City, Michigan. I joined a “family vacation in progress” with the Burns family of Bruce, Amy, their daughter Kelsey and her two friends Mary and Bridgette (and Willie and Coal, the dogs). Amy, Kelsey and friends left after my first day. My and Bruce’s good friends Bob and Scott then joined Bruce and me. Now, before you picture too irreverent of a “guy” trip, you need to know that one of our quests for the week was the making of “Bananas Foster.” A local Cajun restaurant teased us with “we’re out of a lot of things tonight but we do have Bananas Foster”…until it came time for us to order Bananas Foster. They were out. Quest on. And it was good.

I came to realize that this trip also represented a new phase in the journey: going to a place that Dana and I had never experienced, but a place I knew she’d love and that we would have enjoyed experiencing together. This sense started trickling in when I saw the Caribbean-esque water (yes, turquoise, on a lake, in Michigan) and the fishing (Dane was the fisherperson of the family). But the sense flooded over me when I saw Coal the dog (black lab-ish) leap off the edge of the dock for his toy, dive to the shallow lake bottom to get it (knowing not to breathe in), leaving his butt and tail in the air like a duck. Dane would have howled at that sight---we’ve always loved that famous duck move, but then to see it on one of our favorite animals, or any animal besides a duck? Priceless. I laughed a laughter that seamlessly morphed into a little cry. That’s when I became painfully aware of the new phase in the journey.

I had been hoping to do some stargazing on this trip (northern Michigan has a great night sky view) and yes, have a moment with Dane at “our” star (see previous post.) The first two nights were cloudy and by the last night stargazing seemed out of the picture. After I went to bed and got a bit dozy it suddenly hit me that it had been a clear evening, and was probably a clear night. I threw on some clothes, grabbed my flashlight, and headed across the street to the dock where Coal had displayed his skills.

I laid down on the dock, looked up at the sky, and said hello to our star in the Big Dipper. And within the 20-ish minutes I was out there, I saw two shooting stars. That, was a nice touch, and for me, seemed to lock in my moment with Dane at “our star.” It was also the beginning of the God-stamp barrage.

The next day was my last day at the lake, and our third day of golf. As we drove around a corner to the t-box on about hole 15, I looked over to a nearby hillside and saw two fawns. Bruce had already seen them and debated about whether to point them out. (Would this be joyous or sad? Would it destroy Barry’s golf game or enhance it?) My cart partner Bob and I then pointed them out to Bruce and Scott, to which Bruce said semi-jokingly “no crying”…to which I said, “too late.” We all had a nice Dana moment. And then I proceeded to self-destruct on the course. Oh well.

When I got home that night I received an e-mail from my folks that while on their way home from Hueston Woods (a nice state park near them) that day they decided to stop by the cemetery (I trust that I can say “stop by the cemetery” and you know exactly what I mean---proper/possessive nouns make it too heavy). As they drove through the cemetery gateway they saw…two deer, romping around the cemetery, and obviously visiting.

And it continues.

The next day, Thursday, we had “conditions are right” for a rainbow. I’ve been shut out lately in seeing rainbows…just stepping in puddles while looking for them. This evening I was getting drenched while looking. First front yard. Then backyard. Then back to front yard. I felt like a dog in the back of a moving pickup truck going from side to side. And I felt I was on another empty rainbow chase. And then, there it was, rather faint, but there. And “there” in the same position as the first rainbow that got all these God stamps started. I snapped some pictures and then plopped down on our porch swing and cried.

Then yesterday I received an e-mail from my cousins Jim and Stacey who live in Hawaii. They had just seen a rainbow, snapped a picture, and sent it.

I’ve been humbled by friends and family telling me how they think of Dana and me and God when they see a rainbow, or deer, or the dim star in the big dipper.

And now to the “addendum” I’ve been wanting to add since the last post. Two things.

First: I wanted to share with you the tribute that the Atrium Medical Center Foundation included in the program booklet the night of the gala (see previous post). It’s beautiful. You’ll see it below. And I might suggest that if you’re looking for a health cause to donate to, I’d suggest this wonderful foundation.

Second: Speaking of stars, shortly after Dana passed away, my good friends Bonnie and Eric came by the house with a gift. They had named a star with the International Star Registry in memory of Dane. The name of the star? The Deer. It’s in the Virgo constellation (both my and Dana’s birth constellation). Its telescopic coordinates, for any star enthusiasts out there, are: RA14h40m27.63s D-5[degrees]37’25.50”

Maybe you noticed how this barrage of God-stamp reminders came in twos? Two shooting stars. Two fawns. Two deer. Two rainbows. And then to top it off, when I mowed my lawn this afternoon, I saw my second pile of deer dung. I’m not sure what to make of that. Maybe I’ll have that figured out by the next post.

In any event: Rainbows. Deer. Stars. And a star named The Deer.

God seems near.