Come in! Come in!

"If you are a dreamer, come in. If you are a dreamer, a wisher, a liar, a Hope-er, a Pray-er, a Magic Bean buyer; if you're a pretender, come sit by my fire. For we have some flax-golden tales to spin. Come in! Come in!" -- Shel Silverstein

Friday, October 31, 2014

The Joy of Funerals

Putting the words "joy" and "funeral" in the same sentence may sound a rather odd combination, even for All Hallow's Eve and All Souls and All Saint's Day.

One of our kids says about the work of Hospice: "You do death for a living."

I suppose that's the way some people see this work.  Some shake their heads with great sadness and say things like, "I don't know how you do it."

Others say with great solemnity, "I don't know how you keep from being depressed."

Still others are filled with a sense of awe and say, "If I did what you do, I think I'd want to go home from work every night and hug a tree."

And, my personal favorite: "Oh, I so admire people like you. You are living saints."

Clearly they don't know me, or many of us who are Hospice professionals. I do confess, however, that I neither try to dissuade or disabuse them of the thought of sainthood as applied to me, personally or any of my Hospice colleagues in general.

Because, you know, that's not the way I see Hospice work. At. All.

Then again, I'm an unrepentant, self-avowed Jesus freak. Which means I believe in life eternal. And, the communion of the saints. And resurrection.

Which means I believe in hope.

Hospice work is the most hopeful work I've ever done. Because, I keep learning, over and over again, that before there can be resurrection there must be death.

It's a simple truth, really, and simple truths are so easy to dismiss. Because most of us want to bypass the death and dying stuff and move right into resurrection.

Oh, and because I'm a total Jesus freak, I am absolutely passionate about full inclusion: believers, non believers, Jews, Muslims, Buddhists, atheists, secular humanists and, my personal favorite: Nones. AKA: SBNR (Spiritual but Not Religious)

One of the real joys of this work is that I am sometimes asked to preside at the funerals of my patients.  Well, no one has a "funeral" anymore. It's all about "Memorial Services" and "Celebrations of Life."

If you've been following religious trends and "The Rise of the Nones", it will probably come as no surprise to you when I tell you that I rarely do funerals or memorial services in churches.

I would say that, conservatively, ninety-nine percent of the services at which I officiate are in the chapel of funeral homes.  I've also officiated at a memorial service in the very large conference room of a public library as well as at a country club.

There are also the services I've conducted in a state park, by the lake, on the beach and in a boat, after which followed the scattering of ashes.

I've used excerpts from "The Fall of Freddie the Leaf, " "The Velveteen Rabbit", "The Little Prince," and "The Giving Tree," which speak the message of the reasons and purposes for life as well as that of death in a way that echos the gospel message but doesn't hit them over the head with the same gospel that, for many of them, has been used as a weapon of judgment, punishment, and intimidation.

I've also used readings from sacred writings of a wide variety of religions and cultures which bring people great solace in their grief - to know that their experience is shared by people across a wide variety of geographical locations and different times in history.

They've all been individual and unique and distinctive, with things I never would have had the liberty to do in the confines of a church sanctuary.

The picture above is from a Memorial Service I did for a "24K Parrot Head". That is, a "solid gold" fan of Jimmy Buffet. You know, "Cheeseburger in Paradise" and "Margaritaville".

As you can see, we set up the front of the chapel in the funeral home as a beach scene, complete with palm tree and beach chair and flip flops in the sand. Yes, we sang "Come Monday" but we also read some Alfred Lord Tennyson and there was a proper Commendation right from the BCP.

It was, at times, solemn and at other times, lively and funny. It was, in a word, wonderful. A real celebration of life which didn't pull any punches about the sting of death, but with real faith and hope in the eternal life which is the gift of the Resurrection.

No, we couldn't have sung . . . .
Come Monday It'll be all right,
Come Monday I'll be holding you tight.
I spent four lonely days in a brown L.A. haze
and I just want you back by my side.
...... in church - well, not in any Episcopal church I know - but that was how this family chose to express the tension of their grief and their belief in eternal life. 

You don't see that? Okay, well then here's a nickle's worth of unsolicited advice: Don't do Hospice Chaplaincy.  Or, a funeral outside a church.

Oh, and by the way, you should know that after this song and the proper Commendation came the playing of taps and the ceremony of the folding and presentation of the flag by a few young military men to the deceased's son. 

Buffet, flip flops, Tennyson, The Book of Common Prayer, a wee bit of scripture, Taps and the American flag. When you're 64 years old and your life has been cut short by cancer, you should have the service that expresses everything you believe because what you believe will be part of your legacy to your children and family and friends. It will also be a source of solace and comfort for them as they grieve your loss.

And, the church ought to be there, even if the service is not - can not be - held in an actual church. 

Which is why I'm there, and part of the reason funerals are such a joy to me. It really is some of the best evangelism the church has to offer. And, some of the best theology the church has. 

Think of me as your own private missionary, going out into the world to represent the church and do the work of its mission, as well as bringing people back into the church. 

It's a real pontifical ministry. (Wiki: The English term derives through Old French pontif from Latin pontifex, a word commonly held to come from the Latin root words pons (bridge) + facere (to do, to make), and so to have the literal meaning of "bridge-builder".)

It builds bridges between personal faith and institutional religion and all sorts of estranged relationships on many levels, personal, familial and corporate.

Except, apparently, some don't get this. 

Awhile back, I admitted an 86 year old patient who died within 10 minutes of my arrival. His 84 year old, very-active-still-playing-golf wife described him as a 'lapsed Roman Catholic'. She was an Episcopalian and member of a local church.

"Well," she said sadly, "I'm pretty lapsed myself. These past three years since he had the stroke and confined to bed my life has really revolved around him."

"I haven't been to church," she said, "because I'm a solid eight o'clocker and I just can't get anyone to stay with him while I go to church. You know, like I can to play golf."

She looked at me sheepishly and said, "No, wait. I'm lying. I don't go to church because I can't. I'm just so angry with God right now, I can't go. This wasn't supposed to happen. Not this way. I was supposed to go first. He promised. What am I going to do without him? I'm so angry, I can't even listen to music. I can't. And, I love music. It's always fed my soul. And, I just can't. I know. I know. It's awful. But, I just can't. Not if I'm going to be able to keep it together and take care of him."

And then, her husband took a few deep breaths and died.

She wept and I held her and then I called the nurse to come and pronounce him.

While we were waiting, I gently encouraged her to consider what she might want to do in terms of a funeral. "Oh, no. She said. There won't be any funeral. He did not want anything to do with the Catholic Church and I haven't been to church in three years. So, there's that."

"Wait," I said, "I know your rector and he is a kind and generous man. He'll be wonderful."

"Oh, I know that," she said. "He always makes sure that I get the altar flowers at Christmas and Easter. And, I'm really grateful for that. It's just that ..  . well . . . I just can't."

"Look," I said, "If you aren't ready to go back into the church with all the music and everything, at least consider having a graveside service."

"Oh," she sighed, "why bother? No one will come!"

"Of course they will," I said. "You'd be surprised how many people will show up."

"I just . . . I just can't," she said.

"Okay," I said, "you don't have to. I'm just suggesting that you think about it. Your husband will be cremated, so you don't have to decide right away. You can do it months from now. When you're ready and able. And, when you're ready, call me. If it makes it easier for you, I'll do the service."

A look of relief came over her and she said, "Oh, would you? I don't want to hurt my rector's feelings. He's really a lovely man. I was on the search committee and he's exactly what we wanted. He's young and he has lots of energy. And, I'm ashamed to admit this, it's why I just can't . . . I just . . . I'm too sad and tired to have that much energy around me right now. You know?"

I chuckled and said, "Well, I've been waiting most of my life to be 'old enough' to be trusted with this sort of sacred task. I just didn't know being 'old enough' would come so soon."

We laughed and made a few 'old fart' jokes. I stayed a bit longer, let her and her family and friends who had come in some prayers, and left her with my contact information.

The next morning, on my way to my second patient visit of the day, I got a phone call. She and her daughter had decided to have a simple graveside service. Next week, if that's okay with you. Book of Common Prayer service. 1928 BCP? Well, no, it's okay. You can do Rite I or II, doesn't really matter. Oh, but please wear proper vestments. My husband would have liked that.

I asked if it would help if I called her rector to let him know about her husband's death and the planned graveside service. Again, she sounded greatly relieved. "Oh, would you? That would be really terrific. He's really a lovely young man and I just don't have the strength. I don't want to hurt his feelings, but I have to do this to take care of myself."

I told her I understood completely and reassure her that he would, too. I said my goodbyes, hung up and immediately called her rector.

I filled him in on all the details and could not have - not in a million years - predicted his response.

"Well, he said with a deep sigh of disappointment, "the church has failed her."

"What?" I said, convinced I hadn't heard him correctly.

"We've failed her. We haven't gotten out the message of our radical, inclusive welcome."

"Well," I said, "don't discount yourself like that. She knows she's welcome there. She still considers herself a member - a solid eight o'clocker. She was just so concerned not to hurt your feelings."

"This is just the way she's grieving. I mean, she told me that she hasn't even been able to listen to music for the past three years. That's how vulnerable she's felt and how well-defended she's been. So, the church hasn't failed. You haven't failed. No one has failed . . .  . . . . . ."

"Oh no," he said, cutting me off. "I've failed. The church has definitely failed. Her husband will not have a church service. That's a failure."

I could feel my Portuguese blood starting to get hot. So, I took a deep breath and gave it another go.

"You know, ______, it's not about the church. It's not about you. It's about her. This is the way she's handling the pain of her grief and her anger with God right now. She'll be back to church. Just give her some time to grieve, and she'll be back."

"No," he said firmly, "I've failed. We have failed. The church has failed. The church won't be there for her in her time of need."

That's when my Portuguese blood reached the boiling point. I really struggled to stay calm but I'm sure there was no missing the passion in my voice.

"Really?" I said, "Seriously? And, what do you think I am? Chopped liver? I'm the church, too, you know. Think of me as a missionary of the church, carrying out your mission of radical, inclusive welcome. So radical and so inclusive that we'll even meet her where she is and not insist that she come to where we are. Think of me as an evangelist, bringing the good news of God's unconditional love even to the grave. I'm the church, too, you know? The church will be there."

There was a long pause and he said, "Well, I appreciate your effort, but I still believe that the church has failed her. We've got to do a better job of getting the word out."

My "effort"?!? My "effort"? !?

I took a deep breath and said, "Okay. Fine. Whatever. Well, then, bless your heart. Just thought I'd let you know. Because, you know, it's what she wanted. Bye now. God Bless. Have a nice day."

On one level, I understand what this young man is saying. Unfortunately, his understanding of the church is much, much different than mine. Smaller. Much, much smaller. Less "catholic". More centered around the institution and business of being church.

The Church on the corner of Rector and Building.

I suppose when you are young (or, younger than me) and you (think you) have something to prove and you are trying to build up a congregation, your metrics of success and failure are different than, say, a Hospice Chaplain who doesn't have to worry about The Four Killer B's of parochial ministry:   Budgets, Buildings, Boilers, and Bishops.

So, at the graveside service, there were at least fifty people in attendance, many of them members of the Episcopal church.  Solid eight o'clockers. They were so appreciative of my presence there and thanked me profusely.

After the service, several people came up to me and said, "I'm so glad my church was here for her and her family to honor his life. Just like the Prayer Book says, 'Even at the grave, we make our song, Alleluia, alleluia. alleluia!'. Thank you."

Some people do get it.

There is great joy in funerals. All those things we say in the Prayer Book are true. Even in the midst of death, we celebrate life. Life is changed, not ended.

The greatest joy of funerals is that it grounds me, spiritually, in the rest of the Hospice work I do.

On this All Souls, All Saints weekend, I give thanks for all those souls who have entrusted their dying and their death and funerals to me.

They have been my best professors in pastoral care. They have taught me about the mystical sweet communion of saints and the church's role in it.

Not to control it, but to bless those who come into it in baptism and those who leave with a commendation to God.

And, to be fully present, as well, to those whose path to God has been different from the particular one I follow.  There are, in fact, many paths, but one way to God.

The church is there for them, too. Meeting them where they are. Creating a sanctuary - a safe space - where that which is holy and sacred for them. You know, just the way Jesus did.

As Mother Jones famously said, "Pray for the dead and fight like hell for the living."

And, as Nehemiah (8:10) says, "For the Joy of the Lord is my strength."

Tuesday, October 28, 2014

Let not your heart be troubled.

Have I mentioned that I have the best job in the world?

So, I recently admitted a 92 year old man, dying of cancer. Up until about three months ago, he was able to travel into the center of town on his motorized scooter, visiting local shops and restaurants and churches and, he says, "just spreading the love of God."

He's a retired, ordained minister in the church of the Assembly of God. He had worked for 20 years as a skilled laborer when, one day, he says, he "got the call". He retired from his job and went off to seminary and has pastored several small congregations, and, he says, "I always left the place better than I found it".

I have no doubt.

He's been failing this last month, and called for the chaplain today, "so I can get ready".

We chatted a bit and then I asked him what piece of scripture brings him the most comfort now. His face lit up and he began quoting Ecclesiastes 3:1-8. 

The whole entire passage. From his heart.

To every thing there is a season, and a time to every purpose under the heaven:
A time to be born, and a time to die; a time to plant, and a time to pluck up that which is planted;
A time to kill, and a time to heal; a time to break down, and a time to build up;
A time to weep, and a time to laugh; a time to mourn, and a time to dance;
A time to cast away stones, and a time to gather stones together; a time to embrace, and a time to refrain from embracing;
A time to get, and a time to lose; a time to keep, and a time to cast away;
A time to rend, and a time to sew; a time to keep silence, and a time to speak;
A time to love, and a time to hate; a time of war, and a time of peace.
"There's a time for everything," he said, "Now is the season for me to prepare to take my leave. I am not yet ready to go, but I'm at peace as I begin to hear my Lord calling me home. "

I wish you could have seen his face as he recited scripture to me. Serene only just begins to  describe it. And his energy was high. I could imagine him a fiery preacher in his youth, filled with passion for the Gospel of Jesus Christ.

So, I got a bit bold. I asked him if he had a Word of knowledge - a piece of Scriptural Truth - for me. And, if he did, would he favor me with it, please?

He bowed his head in solemn prayer for a few moments and then looked at me intently and said, "John 14, beginning at the first verse. Do you know it?"

"You mean, 'In my father's house there are many rooms . . . .'?"

"From the beginning," he said, "beginning at the first verse. 'Let not your heart be troubled: ye believe in God, believe also in me'." And then, he went on to recite the entire chapter, in proper King James version, which I confess that I had never heard.

Actually, I have really only read the first few verses - about there being "many mansions" in God's house. Oh, and of course, bits and pieces. But hearing the whole chapter in it's entirety was very different and in KJV - well, I guess that's one of the downsides of the lectionary. Or, perhaps, my over dependence on it. And, my own laziness in reading beyond it's parameters.

In that context, I wasn't even disturbed as I usually am by the "no man cometh unto the Father, but by me". I was too busy listening to the presence of Thomas and Philip and Judas (not Iscariot) and their conversation with Jesus as interpreted by this amazing 92 year old man.

If you haven't read the whole of John 14 in a while, here it is. In proper King James version (with apologies for the exclusive language).
"In my Father's house are many mansions: if it were not so, I would have told you. I go to prepare a place for you.
And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come again, and receive you unto myself; that where I am, there ye may be also.
And whither I go ye know, and the way ye know.
Thomas saith unto him, Lord, we know not whither thou goest; and how can we know the way?
Jesus saith unto him, I am the way, the truth, and the life: no man cometh unto the Father, but by me.
If ye had known me, ye should have known my Father also: and from henceforth ye know him, and have seen him.
Philip saith unto him, Lord, show us the Father, and it sufficeth us.
Jesus saith unto him, Have I been so long time with you, and yet hast thou not known me, Philip? he that hath seen me hath seen the Father; and how sayest thou then, Show us the Father?
Believest thou not that I am in the Father, and the Father in me? the words that I speak unto you I speak not of myself: but the Father that dwelleth in me, he doeth the works.
Believe me that I am in the Father, and the Father in me: or else believe me for the very works' sake.
Verily, verily, I say unto you, He that believeth on me, the works that I do shall he do also; and greater works than these shall he do; because I go unto my Father.
And whatsoever ye shall ask in my name, that will I do, that the Father may be glorified in the Son.
If ye shall ask any thing in my name, I will do it.
If ye love me, keep my commandments.
And I will pray the Father, and he shall give you another Comforter, that he may abide with you for ever;
Even the Spirit of truth; whom the world cannot receive, because it seeth him not, neither knoweth him: but ye know him; for he dwelleth with you, and shall be in you.
I will not leave you comfortless: I will come to you.
Yet a little while, and the world seeth me no more; but ye see me: because I live, ye shall live also.
At that day ye shall know that I am in my Father, and ye in me, and I in you.
He that hath my commandments, and keepeth them, he it is that loveth me: and he that loveth me shall be loved of my Father, and I will love him, and will manifest myself to him.
Judas saith unto him, not Iscariot, Lord, how is it that thou wilt manifest thyself unto us, and not unto the world?
Jesus answered and said unto him, If a man love me, he will keep my words: and my Father will love him, and we will come unto him, and make our abode with him.
He that loveth me not keepeth not my sayings: and the word which ye hear is not mine, but the Father's which sent me.
These things have I spoken unto you, being yet present with you. But the Comforter, which is the Holy Ghost, whom the Father will send in my name, he shall teach you all things, and bring all things to your remembrance, whatsoever I have said unto you.
Peace I leave with you, my peace I give unto you: not as the world giveth, give I unto you. Let not your heart be troubled, neither let it be afraid.
Ye have heard how I said unto you, I go away, and come again unto you. If ye loved me, ye would rejoice, because I said, I go unto the Father: for my Father is greater than I.
And now I have told you before it come to pass, that, when it is come to pass, ye might believe.
Hereafter I will not talk much with you: for the prince of this world cometh, and hath nothing in me.
But that the world may know that I love the Father; and as the Father gave me commandment, even so I do. Arise, let us go hence.
After he finished reciting the chapter to me, he leaned back in his bed, closed his eyes, and took a few deep breaths. Then, he opened his eyes, looked at me and asked, "Do you understand?"

"Yes," I said, "I believe I do."

"This is what I want you to know," he said, looking at me intently and with more energy than I thought he could muster. "You may think you are alone. But you are not. You're never alone. God was with you before your beginning. God was with you as you were beginning. God is with you even when you don't think God is with you. And, God will be with you as you begin your new life in heaven with him forever."

He leaned forward in his bed and said, "So, let not your heart be troubled. You don't do this alone. You can't do this alone. You couldn't do this alone. Not without God being with you every step of the way."

"Do you understand?" he asked again, with intensity.

"Yes," I said, "I believe I do."

"Well, then," he said. "Alright. It's alright. So," he said, sitting back in his hospital bed, "next week you will come back and see me. We will have communion together. You will serve me. I will serve you. And, Jesus will be present. Because . . . what?"

"Because I'm not alone," I said softly.

He nodded his head like a teacher pleased with his student and he said, "We are not alone. Not ever. So," he said again, "Let not your heart be troubled. To everything there is a season, and a time for every purpose under heaven."

He lowered his head and said, "Come, let us pray together. I'll start and then you follow."

I'm not really sure what happened next. All I know is that it was a moment of intense prayer.

And then, I said my goodbyes and I left, not knowing why, exactly, he had chosen that particular passage for me, or thought of that particular message, but I knew, without a shadow of a doubt, that I had just been on holy ground.

Like one of his congregations, he left me better than when he first found me.

Have I mentioned that I have the best job in the world?

Sunday, October 26, 2014


A Sermon preached at St. Paul's, Georgetown
Pentecost XX - Proper 25A - October 26, 2014
(the Rev. Dr.) Elizabeth Kaeton

Track 1

Deuteronomy 34:1-12
Psalm 90:1-6, 13-17
1 Thessalonians 2:1-8
Matthew 22:34-46
Note: I love the little congregation of St. Paul's, Georgetown, and I am so grateful to their rector for allowing me to preach and preside there when he needs some time off. The people are kind and generous and allow me to experiment with "preaching from a prepared heart". No notes. Just standing in the center aisle, "leaning on the everlasting arms". So, here's basically what I said.

I'm so grateful to our visiting organist, Ms. Janice, for that prelude.  You may not have recognized it, but it's a staple in the Methodist Hymnal. "God will take care of you," 
Refrain:  God will take care of you,
Through every day, o’er all the way;
(S/)he will take care of you,
God will take care of you.
It is a great theme song for this morning's scripture lessons.

At the 8 o'clock service, someone asked whether Moses, like Jesus, was born to the task. Was it his destiny to liberate the Hebrew Nation from bondage in Egypt and  lead them to the Promised Land? Just as it was the destiny of Jesus to lead us from the bondage of sin into the promise of Eternal Life?

That led to a wonderful, rich discussion about destiny vs. free will. What if Moses had said 'no' to God? What if Jesus had 'let this cup pass' from him?

Certainly, they had lots of obstacles in their path. What if they had just stopped there?

What if Jesus had allowed the "trick questions" of the Sadducees (which we heard last week) and now the Pharisees to stop him? Instead, he took their trick question and turned it around. Where the intent had been to stop Jesus, he stopped them in their tracks.

And then, there's Moses. When we meet him this morning, he has been allowed to see the Promised Land, but not to live in it. He dies at the ripe old age of 120. 

Do you know why it took forty years of wandering around in the desert before they got to their destination? I wondered that, too, and then I remembered learning about that, way back when, in seminary. I remember reading in Numbers 13:1-33 how Moses sent out 12 scouts to check out the land of Canaan, but 10 of them thought it was too dangerous to inhabit because, they thought, it was inhabited by giants.

You can almost see Moses having a 'face palm moment', sighing, and saying, "Oy!" He figured out right quick that these people - his people, the people God had called him to serve - had lived in slavery for so long they were afraid of freedom.

So, he figured he'd wander around the desert with them until the 'slave generation' died and then the new generation, those who had never felt the sting of the whip or suffered the pain of hunger to be able to fully embrace life in the Promised Land.

As my dear friend, Louie Clay says, "Where there's death, there's hope."

Jesus turned the tables on the wall. Moses followed it for awhile.

Which reminded me of a story my father told me.

My father was not an educated man. He was pulled out of school in the sixth grade to work on his father's farm during the Depression. Then, when he was 18, he was drafted into the Army during WWII and fought on the Pacific Front.

One of the top three things I remember about my father was the nightmares he would have about his experiences in war. My father was also an alcoholic. I believe my father suffered from post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and used alcohol to 'medicate' himself from the pain he felt.

Life with Father was never easy, but I treasure this story as one of the few but precious gifts he gave me.

He said he was in the Philippines during WWII and, at one point, he and about four or five of his buddies got separated from their battalion. Before they knew it, night fell and, he said, in the jungle the sky was so dark he couldn't see his hand in front of him, much less figure out their location by looking at the compass.

Suddenly, a wall appeared before them. They couldn't tell how high it was. They couldn't tell how long it was. It seemed to go on forever. 

So, they walked along it, feeling their way in the dark.

They did this all night. In the pitch black night. No knowing where they were. No knowing where they were going. Cursing the wall until exhaustion took over and they fell asleep at the wall.

When they awoke, the morning light was filtering through the trees and, over the wall, they could hear the sound of men's voices. One of the men lifted another man up so he could peer over the wall. When he came down, he was as pale as a sheet. He said, 'Guys! It's the Japanese. The enemy!"

As they all let that truth sink in, they also realized that the very wall they had been cursing all night was also the same wall that had been protecting them all night. That, in fact, without that wall, they might all be dead.

And, my father said, "Elizabeth, never curse a wall. It might be there to protect you."

There are times, in life, when we are on the path we believe God has called us to follow and suddenly, an obstacle appears. And, in those moments, we have a choice.

Actually, we have a few choices. We can stop and turn around and end our journey.

Or, like Jesus, we can turn the tables on the obstacle and stop it rather than have it stop us.

Or, like Moses, we can just walk along it for a while, until the time is right to make your move.

Either way, when a wall appears, it's not the end of the story. You have some choices. Your destiny is dependent upon your free will, your ability to choose how you will deal with the walls life sometimes puts in our path.

And, either way, no matter what you decide, God will take care of you.


Saturday, October 11, 2014

Pain touches pain

Sometimes, you know, the phone rings and you just never know what's going to be set into motion.

So, a week ago I got a call from a local business man - someone I know only from occasional pleasant conversations over the counter. His wife died suddenly and unexpectedly and he asked if I would preside at the funeral. He said he had called his former church - an Episcopal Church in the NE Corridor (not saying which diocese - it doesn't matter) - but found that it had closed 5 years ago.

This was the church where he and his wife had gotten married. It was where all three of their kids were baptized and confirmed and one was married. His wife had chaired the hospitality committee and both had taught in the Church School and organized and lead girl and boy scout troops. His wife had served on the Altar Guild and he had served on the Vestry, including two terms as a Warden, one during a capital fund drive as well as a time on the Search Committee. 

It was also the place where he practiced "sacrificial giving" and pledged - no matter what. Indeed, he's continued to send a check at the end of every year, for the 10 years since he moved here.

He said he knows that all the checks he's sent for the past ten years have been cashed. No one sent him a thank you note - which he didn't expect nor want - but neither did anyone send him a note telling him that the church had been closed. He wistfully and sadly wondered what had happened to those five checks and hoped they went to some good.

But, he wondered if I would be willing to preside at the Celebration of Life ("That's what they're calling it these days," he said, sounding confounded) and Memorial Service at the funeral home chapel - the service directly from the Book of Common Prayer, please, but no communion, thank you - and that I would kindly understand if he was really, really angry at the church and would probably be for a very, very long time.

In my pastoral work, we have a saying: Pain touches pain.

It was very clear that the pain of the sudden, unexpected death of his wife was touching the pain of his sudden, unexpected learning of the death of his beloved church.

The intensity of all that pain was almost too much for him to bear. 

So, when I went to the house the next day to plan the service with him and his daughter, we talked a bit about the closed church and the checks.

He was grieving too deeply to be concerned about the money. But the daughter? Well, she was furious.

No, wait. She passed the Exit for Furious about 10 minutes after she heard the story from her father and was on the road to Heads Will Roll.

So, while I was there, she called the diocesan office. She put the speaker phone on so everyone would be able to hear.

To my surprise and delight, the person who answered the phone at the diocesan office did exactly what was needed: 
Offered sincere condolences.
Assumed the veracity of the complaint and didn't challenge it or get defensive. 
Apologized, profusely.

Listened, actively.

Empathized, warmly.

Assured the caller that, "I, personally, will get to the bottom of this and get back to you."
There are lots of possibilities I can imagine about what happened to that money - everything from theft by an individual to incompetence of a bookkeeper to an overwhelmed diocesan staff to the indifference or arrogance or the "hands off" leadership style of the diocesan bishop.

And, I'm sure there are things I can't possibly imagine. 

It's important to know what really happened so that, yes, if there was any wrong doing, there can be accountability and appropriate consequences, but especially so that procedures and policies can be put in place so it never happens again.

The daughter's response was equally surprising and delightful.

She said, "Look, bottom line, we don't want the money back. We want it to be put into a fund that provides pastorally for the congregation after a church is closed."

"You can use it to pay someone, if necessary, to search the parish records and books and make sure letters go out to everyone to notify them of the church's closing. I don't care if half of the letters come back marked 'undeliverable'. The cost would be worth it to make the good faith effort to make sure everyone knows what happened to their church."

I cringed at the use of the term "good faith effort" which seemed poignant in the circumstance. 

"The only thing I ask is that it not be used to pay some or part of diocesan staff position," she said.

"My mother would want to help the bishop be the bishop: The Chief Pastor. I want to help the bishop and the diocese to be pastoral. Is that too much to ask?" she asked, her voice trembling with emotion.

Again, the person at the diocese who answered the phone was very pastoral and said quietly, "Of course not. That is not an unreasonable request. It's a perfectly reasonable expectation."

She again apologized profusely, offered sincere condolences, promised again to "get to the bottom of this" and get back to her. "I will call you no less than a week from today to give you an update of where I am," she said as they exchanged pleasantries and hung up.

A few days later, I presided at the funeral. It was in the chapel of the funeral home and it was lovely. I was in cassock, surplice, tippet and hood. The service was directly out of the Book of Common Prayer. The music was piped in over a Really Good sound system. It was solemn and respectful with moments of poignant humor and absolutely infused with a sense of celebrating this woman's life.

It was everything the Burial Rite in the Book of Common Prayer promises: A belief in the resurrection so deep and so profound that it creates a safe place where people can grieve and mourn while also rejoicing in the precious gifts of faith and life.  In that moment of communal worship, God's people can weep and laugh, all without concern for judgement.

It was not in "A" church but the church was there in that funeral home chapel. It was an honor and a privilege, as it always is no matter where I am, to be the church's representative at a moment of intense individual family loss and pain and grief and emotion.

I don't yet know if the diocese has gotten back to the daughter. I pray for the best possible outcome.

That's not why I'm writing this blog. The money is not the important thing here. It's just money. It's gone and the family doesn't want it back.

It's the relationships we have in Christ that are more valuable that fine gold. The breach of trust in that relationship may have caused irreparable harm to an entire family.

I'm writing this blog because, after I posted this story on my FaceBook page, it became clear that this is not an isolated incident. One person wrote that, after her church was closed, she drove by and noticed that "someone" had thrown out the parish registers in the dumpster.


I'm writing this blog because I hope a few folk read it and call their diocesan offices and ask if there is a diocesan policy for pastoral care for congregations of closed churches. And, if there isn't one, to insist that one be developed.

If necessary, write a resolution for your next diocesan convention as an opportunity to educate the diocese on this issue, and get everyone on board with the policy.

I also hope some seminary faculty or seminarians read this and begin to ask what kind of pastoral care might be required for a congregation when their church closes. There are going to be more - not less - of these pastoral challenges in the years ahead. 

I understand that the Episcopal Diocese of Connecticut has such a policy. You can find it here.

I especially like the Pastoral Care section but I don't see a specific area that deals with making an attempt to reach out to parishioners who have moved away. 

There may be others. If your diocese has such a policy, please do share a link to it in the comment section. 

I think it's incredibly important that dioceses take responsibility to insure the pastoral care of all parishioners of all closed congregations.

Even the ones that have moved away.

Especially the ones that keep contributing.

Because, you know, sometimes the unexpected and unthinkable happens.

And then, the phone rings.

I don't think, for a clergy person anyway, not answering the phone is an option.

UPDATE:  A note from Joan Gundersen, Archivist from the Diocese of Pittsburgh
A number of dioceses do not have an archivist. Every diocese should.  The position doesn't need to be full time, depending on the circumstances.   There is an organization for individuals serving a parish or diocesan archivists and they offer training at their annual meetings.   It is NEHA (National Episcopal Historians and Archivists).  If your diocese does not have someone designated to handle these responsibilities, it is not meeting its pastoral obligations or serving as good stewards.

Sunday, October 05, 2014

Stewardship of Community

The Vocation of Community
Brooklyn, NY – October 5, 2014
(the Rev’d Dr.) Elizabeth Kaeton

Good evening. Before I begin my sermon, I’d like to claim a few moments of personal privilege. I’ve known your rector since he was a seminarian at Drew. That wasn’t all that long ago, but, oh, my, my, my we have come a long way, baby.

I am so proud of this man, I could simply burst. I can’t tell you what an absolute delight and honor and privilege and joy it is to be invited into his pulpit, to have earned a share of his trust.

So, I’m going to stop now before I break into tears like a proud woman who is honored to be known as one of his mentors.  Please pray with me.

Holy God, take my mouth and speak through it, take my spirit and breathe through it, take my heart and set it on fire with a passion for your Gospel. Amen.

So, as I understand it, this Evensong kicks off for you at St. Luke and St. Matthew, the Season of Stewardship – a time when you, as a community of faith, will be looking at all the different aspects of the vocation of stewardship.

Tonight, we’ll be looking at the Stewardship of Community. Which is why I chose this passage (John 19:25-27) from John’s Gospel when Jesus, from the cross, is heard to say, “Woman, behold your son.” And, turning to the beloved disciple, he said, “Behold your mother.”

You may recognize this passage as part of the “Seven Last Words” of Jesus – seven moments during the three hours Jesus reportedly hung from the cross when Jesus said some deeply profound things. You may have heard some of these “Seven Last Words” preached by various people in a Good Friday Service.

It is of great significant that Jesus spoke of caring for his mother from the cross. Now, this is a detail he could have taken care of any time. He had been talking about his death for weeks – maybe even months. He could have whispered something to someone at any time – even leaned over to the Beloved Disciple over the table at The Last Supper.

But, he waited until he was in agony, naked and hanging from the cross, to say something about caring for his mother. Which, of course, raises a question about the larger context of his words. Many scholars agree that what Jesus was saying was something much deeper, much more significant, than, “Take care of my mother.”

I believe that, with those words, Jesus was calling us into deeper intimacy of relationships. Some people call that “the family of God”. Or, make reference to our being “brothers and sisters in Christ”. And call us a “church family”. Indeed, some of you may call your rector, “Father Michael” and you might refer to me as “Mother Elizabeth”.

Whenever I hear those kinds of descriptions of church, I confess to feeling a cold chill run up and down my spine. It’s sort of like that New Yorker cartoon I once saw. It’s a large auditorium with three or four people sitting in various chairs around the otherwise empty room. There is a person at the podium on stage. And, above the podium is a banner which reads, “Annual meeting of adult children of functional families.”

Hi, my name is Elizabeth and I’m a member of a dysfunctional family. Gold star level. 

Can I see a show of hands? How many here are members of what we lovingly refer to as “dysfunctional families”? Right! Just as I thought.

So, why in heavens name do we want to recreate that mess in our church? The Body of Christ? The New Jerusalem? The Community of Faith?  Why would we recreate our dysfunctional families as our “church family”? Because, you know, that’s often what we do. We don’t mean to, or intend to, but we do it anyway. And, the impact can be devastating.

I’m a Hospice Chaplain and I can tell you that a clear 85-90% of my patients do not have a “church home”.  Some of it is due to the fact that, as people age, they are unable to get back to church. We pray for those people every week but the euphemism “the shut ins.”

 I’m here to tell you that they are not so much “shut in” as they are “shut out”.  No one comes to re-member them into the community of which they were once a vibrant, integral part.

Then, there’s the majority of that 85-90% who are “homeless” because they left their church due to some conflict in the church. Sometimes, it was over theology or philosophy, but, more often than not, it was over something stupid like how the linens were folded, or the color chosen to replace the carpet in the narthex. Hand to Jesus! As I listen to the story, it has all the markings of a stupid family squabble. That’s because, you know, it is.

Maybe it’s just me, but I’m hearing Jesus saying more than just “Take care of my mom after I’m gone.” I’m hearing Jesus calling us, from the cross, to deeper, more intimate relationships – relationships that are beyond blood and DNA, kith and kin, clan and tribe.

I’m hearing Jesus calling us to look beyond the blood we might share and into the blood he shed for us. I’m hearing Jesus calling us out of the placental water from which we were born and into baptismal water to be born again. I’m hearing Jesus calling us to separate out the strands of familial DNA and dive deeply into the intricate matrix of being a new creation in Christ.

And that’s it, you see. It’s about calling. Vocation. I hear Jesus calling us into the vocation of community. Community is a vocation.  Just let that thought sink in for just a moment. Let your brain wrap itself around that thought: The vocation of community.

I do believe that communities of faith are not as haphazard a thing as it might first appear, at least on the surface. I think there is an amazing grace to the ways in which we are called into specific communities at specific times in our lives – and, at specific times in the life cycle of a community of faith.

It’s like chaos theory, you know? As author Mark Helprin writes in A Winter’s Tale:
“Nothing is random, nor will anything ever be, whether a long string of perfectly blue days that begin and end in golden dimness, the most seemingly chaotic political acts, the rise of a great city, the crystalline structure of a gem that has never seen the light, the distributions of fortune, what time the milkman gets up, the position of the electron, or the occurrence of one astonishing frigid winter after another. Even electrons, supposedly the paragons of unpredictability, are tame and obsequious little creatures that rush around at the speed of light, going precisely where they are supposed to go. They make faint whistling sounds that when apprehended in varying combinations are as pleasant as the wind flying through a forest, and they do exactly as they are told. Of this, one is certain.”

“If nothing is random, and everything is predetermined, how can there be free will? The answer to that is simple. Nothing is predetermined; it is determined, or was determined, or will be determined.”
You see, we may think we “just happened” to find this amazing place, or that Michael’s coming here was chance or an amazing piece of good luck. Oh, we can talk about “God’s will” but I’d rather talk about God’s call to us to be together and live together in the intimacy of being part of the body – the very sinews and muscle, the red and white blood cells, the bones and teeth and hair – of Christ.

I don’t think it is so much God’s “will” as it is God’s “call.” We have a choice in whether or not – or even how – we answer that call. We have the gift of free will. Community is a vocation. A calling from God to be the incarnate, resurrected  Body of Christ. And, we are called into intimacy which takes us beyond social constructs of “mother/father” “sister/brother”. We are beyond mere “family” and into what the Hawaiians call “o’hana’. O’hana are not people of the same family blood. O’hana are people of the same land.

Christians are not necessarily people of the same family blood. Christians are people of the same blood of Christ which makes us the family of God.

There is no prescribed way to be a Christian community. There is only your way. Each part of the Body of Christ will have its own, distinctive quality, based on its own unique vocation. For many of us, it’s a wonderful merger of cultures and difference in beliefs, reflecting how we come to faith from a variety of multicultural perspectives and pluraform truths.

Here’s what I know to be true: An authentic community of faith is one that is strong enough to be risk being vulnerable to each other. It is one that is willing to surrender the cherished part for the sake of the even more precious whole. It is to enter into conversation with the intent of conversion. To risk personal transformation for the sake of the revolution of the Gospel.

That is why we must be good stewards of community. Because it is a precious, divine gift. It needs tending and watering so that it might blossom and flower and bear fruit.

We have a shot at redemption here, you know: To redeem the dysfunction of our families of origin by living more fully as a new creature in the new creation of the family of God.
We don’t have to treat each other like our biological sisters and brothers or mothers and fathers – God forbid! – especially if you are bearing a grudge or carrying around some unfinished business.  To be a good steward of community is to let that stuff go – prune the branches, cut out the weed or clear out the underbrush that is stunting growth – and allow yourself to grow, as St. Paul says, into the full stature of Christ.

That hard work is also part of the Stewardship of Community.

So, church, when you look at each other, please see in each other not a dollar sign, but the sign of the cross. Look at each other and allow the Christ in to  behold the Christ in the other. 

See Christ alive and living in this place, not just in the Sacraments of the church but in your everyday, ordinary sacramental lives of faith in which we are broken and poured out and consumed in the name of Christ so we can be the true presence of Christ in the world.

Take each other into the very heart of your hearts – where truth and love, honesty and authenticity abide and make a dwelling place– to live together in peace. And, love one another, as God loves you.



Beyond boundaries of reason and respectability.

And the peace of God, which passes all human understanding, will be in your hearts and in your minds and in your community of faith.