Thursday, February 9, 2017

A wonderful life. . .

If you are a regular reader of this blog, you need to know that I am no saint (at least by any reasonable human estimation).  I brood and gripe and lament too much.  I am too absorbed in myself and in the pastoral vocation (and my wife and family have certainly suffered more than me from this affliction).  I am proud and arrogant and too quick to judge.  I am hard to live with and hard on the people who work with me and for me.  I use that pronoun I too much.  I could go on but I suspect you get the picture.

One of the privileges of the pastoral office is that I meet people in the unlikely places of their best and worst moments -- from weddings to baptisms to funerals and everything in between.  Like every pastor, I have witnessed those who curse the darkness while refusing the Light.  I have met those who find a dark cloud around every silver lining.  The whining regularly bend my ear and I have learned to bristle when someone assures me that he or she is a Christian, but. . .  Yet there are those whom God has sent to shame my sinful heart and instruct me in the ways of peace and contentment.

Like Blanche Devareaux said in A Streetcar Named Desire, "Whoever you are, I have always depended on the kindness of strangers."  Unlike the Tennessee Williams iconic character, the kindness upon which I have depended came not from strangers but from those who have lived near to me -- whose words and lives have regularly intersected my own.  They stand like beacons of sense amid my senseless complaints, like towers of grace amid my bumbling bitterness, and like refuges of mercy for unworthy and undeserving sinners like me.

My maternal grandmother lived a very hard life.  Her mother died when she had just entered her teenage years and left her to care for a grieving husband and father and a little girl who would never know another mother.  She married a good man who came from a hard home in which the father regularly intimidated his children -- even well into adulthood!  She lived through the dust bowl years and the Great Depression.  She cared for her father to the end of his life, sharing her home and time with him without question.  She suffered breast cancer and a heart attack before succumbing to death.  I could go on.  You get the picture.  You might expect her to be bitter but she was nothing like that.  She was just the opposite.  She was ever grateful for the joys she knew in life, cherished the best moments and forgot and forgave the worst of times.  She was a godly woman of faith who seldom dared to speak anything but good about others and about whom no one could speak badly.  She believed that life was wonderful, made wonderful in every circumstance by the gracious God who had delivered up His only Son.  She filled her day with hymns hummed, sang, played on her old upright piano, or prayed in her mind.

When her heart gave out, she was at the hospital with my mom and my brother.  I was thirty hours away serving as a pastor in the Catskills of New York.  When the call came I wanted to be with her, to soak in just one more little bit of her courage and kindness, compassion and grace.  I did not make it.  She prayed the Our Father with my mom and my brother and whispered that she had enjoyed a wonderful life and then she feel asleep in the arms of her Savior -- to awaken in blest reunion with her own mother, her husband (my grandpa), and a host of those whom she had buried along the way.  

Her words were a lie from every human estimation of such sentiment -- it was NOT a wonderful life.  But her faithful heart saw beyond circumstance, disappointment, and sorrow and she spoke truthfully when she said "I had a wonderful life..."  There is not a day in my life I do not pray for her faith and disposition to color my own black and white and gray.  She was one of the five smooth stones I carried to battle my own demons and darkness.  Though she has been dead for many years, she is still with me.

My mother-in-law was cut from the same cloth as my grandmother.  She grew up in hard times and was left a widow with four young children when her husband died suddenly.  She made do when things were scarce, when money was tight, and when sorrows tested her faith.  She married a man with five children of his own whose grief and loss of their own mother to breast cancer was still tender and hurting.  It was a trial by fire to unite these two families with their wounds and grief, their anger and hurt, but she was patient and she persevered.  She married my father-in-law the same year my wife and I married.  Now my wife has known her longer than she knew her own mother and she has been the only mother-in-law I have known, the only grandmother on that side of the family that my kids have known.  When things were supposed to be golden and retirement filled with time for what you wanted, my father-in-law began his journey with Alzheimers (one he shared with his brothers).  They watched together as one by one the memories left them strangers to the people closest to them -- all the while knowing what they witnessed would happen to them.  When my father-in-law was buried, we looked down a row and over a stone or two to see the tombstone of her first husband and remembered the circle of her grief.  She has watched her siblings suffer and die and just turned 90.  While she was with us, she saw a trinket in a store where my daughter works.  It said "It's a wonderful life."  She picked it up and smiled.  "And it IS!"

It was not a wonderful life by our judgment but this woman saw through the pain and into the heart of God.  It was a wonderful life.  It is a wonderful life.  She had made it wonderful by forgetting and forgiving the pain and the people who caused it and the hurts caused by no one and she was content with her family, her memories, her hope, and her faith.  I marvel at her kindness and wish I had some of it.  I am amazed at her grace under pressure and her hopeful heart and wish I could be more like that.  She has lived a long life with much pain and many sorrows and yet she chooses still to live each day in confidence of a gracious future in the arms of God -- one so strong that it has softened and rounded the rough edges of her yesterdays so that she can remember the good better than the bad.

I am not my grandmother and I am not my mother-in-law.  But their gracious lives have intersected my own to teach me to aspire to the faith and kindness I have known through them.  I hope that there are people like these two women in your life.  Maybe we cannot be like them, but that should not keep us from trying.  In hope, in love, and in faith. . . it is a wonderful life.  We talk about the moment when she saw that line (obvious reference to the movie) and we smile.  Lord, teach me to have this kind of heart and this kind of faith.


ErnestO said...

Life is like coffee

John Joseph Flanagan said...

I can relate to your comments here, as I share similar traits in my life. There is my religious side devoted to Our Lord and His word, and then there is the cantankerous and salty individual who too often forgets to live in obedience to Jesus. It can be frustrating, because the best of us have a dual nature in continual conflict. I stopped writing and posting lately, as it is my desire to spend less time talking and more time just reading and listening, and definitely more time in the word. It is a challenge for me, an outgoing, opinionated and indulgent political junkie and talker to resolve to talk less, reflect more, pray more, and get away from social media. I dropped Facebook, stopped reading some other Lutheran sites which are usually controversial by design and purpose, and decided as 2017 began that maybe the internet is not the place I want to spend so much time. It can be addicting, and it can sap your time away. It seems to me some pastors use it constructively, but the human tendency is for us to start enjoying the sound of our own voice too much, and spiritual pride makes inroads into our lives. Anyway, you will hear less from me in the future, but I still read this site. It is the only Lutheran site I am reading these days, and I am weaning myself away from the computer and back to the Bible. Blessings. JF

John Joseph Flanagan said...

In the last sentences of the above remarks, I inadvertently made reference to pastors, but maybe implied I am one. No, I am not a pastor, just an ordinary Lutheran. I think pastors have a very challenging calling, especially these days, and we in the pews must keep them all in our prayers.