” Don’t be in debt to anyone, except for the obligation to love each other. Whoever loves another person has fulfilled the Law. The commandments, Don’t commit adultery, don’t murder, don’t steal, don’t desire what others have and any other commandments, are all summed up in one word: You must love your neighbor as yourself. Love doesn’t do anything wrong to a neighbor; therefore, love is what fulfills the Law.” – Romans 13:8-10, CEB
“ But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. There is no law against things like this.”
Galatians 5:21-22, CEB
Thinking about where I am in this process of rebuilding who I am and my life after the unexpected loss of my late wife, I couldn’t help but think of the texts of Scripture above, and the quote of Rumi below:
“When I see your face, the stones start spinning!
You appear; all studying wanders. I lose my place.
“Water turns pearly. Fires dies down and doesn’t destroy.
“In your presence I don’t know what I thought I wanted,
Those three little hanging lamps.
“Inside your face the ancient manuscripts seem like rusty mirrors.
You breathe; new shapes appear,
and the music of a desire as widespread as Spring begins to move like a great wagon.
“Drive slowly. Some us walking alongside are lame!
“Today, like every other day, we wake up empty and frightened.
Don’t open the door to the study and begin reading. Take down a musical instrument.
“Let the beauty we love be what we do. There are hundreds of ways to kneel and kiss the ground.
“Out beyond ideas of wrongdoing and rightdoing, there is a field. I’ll meet you there.
“When the soul lies down in that grass, the world is too full to talk about.
“Ideas, language, even the phrase each other doesn’t make any sense.
I told my therapist earlier this week that I no longer am living in crushing grief. Sadness, loneliness, fear, … they all rear that heads. But generally I’m a pretty happy guy again. I feel like myself. But when I look ahead, wow. The way ahead is uncertain.
There are so many things I could do.
I could, as I’ve said here already, seek to fulfill my dream of being a father. I could adopt or foster children. I think I will. But I worry if I go down that route, do I cut off the chance for love? And for trying the new things that will help me discover parts of myself my loss opens me to know?
I could try for love. I’m surprised at how quickly after my late wife passed I’ve begun to notice women in my life. There is even a certain woman who has been there for me that I find myself feeling things for which I could never have imagined even a few weeks ago I would feel. When this first happened, I was scared and ashamed. I told my therapist and a dear friend who in different ways was almost as close to Kat as I was about these feelings. They both had the same response: this is good. It means, if nothing else at all, you are alive. You no longer are lost in the fog of pain. You can see the world in its beauty. You can dream dreams again. You can hope. And who is to say even pursuing that is wrong?
I haven’t. If only because I find myself closer to 40 than 30, with grey hairs popping up on my beard, and overweight. I find myself awakening to myself as one no longer a young man. I find myself in a career, chaplaincy and ministry, in which assumptions about me will lead people to judge me. I’ve seen the women I see drawn to men like me – so often these good, dear earnest Christian women for whom finding a pastor or chaplain is a prize, but whose beliefs and values are so different than mine. Though a minister – perhaps because of being one – I hold my faith seriously but loosely. I cannot be one to speak as if my way is the only way. I cannot be one to sit in judgment of other’s choices. And the folks I see flocking to overweight, past their prime preachers are folks far more conservative and traditional than me, and definitely not the strong, independent, passionate, articulate women who share my values that I would call feminist, progressive, queer-affirmative, and social justice oriented. So I feel like a man with unmarketable goods even if it was the right time. I hear from my friends who have been also widowed or divorced this is a common feeling of those going through such losses as they try to retake their world, to return to life.
I feel I am damaged goods not just for that alone. Of course you all know my real issue: Anyone who has me, for a very long time, will have to deal with me sorting out who I am and having moments where sadness and anger hit me like the changing weather of summer. And can I fairly put people through that? Or can I trust that other people, too, can make their own choices of what is best for them and I don’t need to protect people from me but be open to what love and joy can be found in this fleeting breath we have in this world?
I actually told one person, that one whom I said I find feelings awakening for, though I love your company, perhaps you ought not be around me so much. You don’t deserve this.
They didn’t listen. Just as my friends don’t listen when I tell them that I don’t want to be such a drain on them. Just as they don’t live out the very real fear I have that they will grow tired of my messy tattered unraveled life and give up on me.
That fear came out of what happened when I left the denomination I was ordained by, now called Grace Communion International but having had many names before, over its treatment of women, gay men, lesbians, transgender folk, and other minorities. When I did that, I had people who told me they were my dear friends, they were family. They spoke as if they always had my back and were not just people in that denomination but in the wider evangelical world it was a part. And I found in that frightening moment and moments that followed, when all I needed anywhere in the wide world were friends, that everyone left. Being who I was, believing what I did, was too much for them. Many slid off to the sunset quietly. A number tried lovingly to convince me of the error of my ways and then threw up their hands at me. Oh so many told me how disappointed they were that I was turning my back on God, abandoning my faith, all while everything I did was because of that voice of truth deep in my heart that I still know is where God speaks. And I could tell you stories of the ones consigning me to hell in the most hateful of words, including not just religious friends but family.
And so I fear when the way is not clear, and my heart wavers as it always does now even when I am so much happier and so much better able to engage this world, that what comes out of this will push away what little support I have. That I will again find myself looking around in a dark moment, all alone.
And this is why the goodness of a life I now see so open, full of possibilities – I can love again! I can father, with our without a partner! I can travel the world! — terrifies me. I told my therapist this week that I feel like I have woken up from being lost in an impenetrable chilling fog of loss, in which I thought my world would end, into a brightly lit forest. A forest where I am still lost, but lost more like a man hiking in newly found woods, trying to find his way.
A part of the difference is beautifully pictured by this Regina Spektor song:
“Thought I’d cry for you forever
But I couldn’t so I didn’t
People’s children die and they don’t even cry forever
Thought I’d see your face in my mind for all time
But I don’t even remember what your ears looked like
And the clock still strikes midnight and noon
And the sun still rises and so does the moon
Birds still migrate south and people move on
Even though I’m no longer in your arms
Thought the mountain would crumble
And the rivers would bend
But I thought all wrong and the world did not end
Guess the maps will just have to stay the same for a while
Didn’t even need therapy to rehabilitate my smile
Rehabilitate my smile
Thought I’d cry for you forever
But I couldn’t so I didn’t… ”
A part of me feels in moments guilt that I can say, I thought the world would end and it hasn’t. But I also know she would not have wanted it to end.
I spoke with a dear friend at church some weeks ago, who told me of losing his first husband to AIDS. He shared how he had months he did not want to get out of bed, pulling the covers over his head. He felt so guilty to have survived and his late husband not.
Well, you know, I do have survivor’s guilt. I have moments I feel awful that I have breath and I woke up to see she didn’t – sometimes in those moments that I find myself smiling imagining a new future, dreaming of the children I will have or adventures I can have now because I am not caring for a dying woman that I love, or (hardest yet) finding myself with feelings for a woman in my life again.
But the real survivor guilt that hurt so much was when I found myself laying in my bed, wanting to cover my head in my sheets, and never get up again some months ago. And when that happened, I could almost hear my late wife’s voice saying “go, get up, live”. And I remembered – I remembered the day she was in horrible pain, her illness wracking her body, so my heart broke to see her move. I remember telling her “let’s not have the nephew come over, because playing with him will hurt you so”. And she gave me that look that said “you’ve lost this fight” which I did not know I was having, and said to me “Listen, I am in pain every single day of my life. If I have to give up the things I enjoy and the people I love, that stroke should have taken me”. She shared then her desire, her prayer, that if another event would make me have to ever be her nurse-maid again as I was those weeks after her first big neurological event, that God simply take her in her sleep, as God did. And she turned me and said, “I have to find my joy every day, and choose it, no matter the circumstances”. And she did that day, and every day until she died.
And so for me my survivor grief propels me into life. I cannot sit around and let despair consume me, though I must sit a spell every day and deal with the unravelling and reravelling of who I am this process leads me through, at times with laughter and often with tears.
But the scary thing is all the choices before me are so foreign to me, that they each look wrong. To foster children, oh how great! But are my friends right that I cannot do that as a single man, that I won’t have what it takes to be a father? And I cannot bear to mess up a child’s life.
But to wait – good God, 40 is right around the corner! And there is only so much time I will have the energy a child deserves to devote to them.
And love? Should I be open to it, when I feel its flames begin to glow in the embers of my soul?
A part of me feels, no. You are too messed up, and offer too little. It’s not worth it.
But then I can almost hear her voice in my mind about both issues saying – “No, go. Live. Embrace. I would not want you to choose loneliness and despair”.
This is why the words of Paul and of Rumi today so give me strength.
Paul tells me there is not a right or wrong answer to the questions before me. Any number of paths I take can be good, life-giving, and holy even though every one of them has risks, and I know people who will judge me cruelly any path I take. But if I choose them to embrace life, to live with love in the creation of God in which God has placed me, loving myself as worth something to this world and loving God, let alone the people God sends my way, how can it be wrong? For it is from love we come and to love we all return. It is the love of the One who births us into life that gives me strength to stand with feebly trembling knees both in moments of overwhelming joy that shock me almost to my knees and moments of crushing despair before which the world seems to splinter to a thousand pieces. And it is that love which carries me on those days, like the days immediately after losing my wife, in which I cannot stand, walk, or speak.
And so if I move forward in love, I can move beyond the place of right and wrong, into the field beyond such doings, a place where possibilities are endless.
This approach reminds me of a positive spin on one of the most helpful teachings of Deitrich Bonhoeffer’s I have ever read. Bonhoeffer was a Lutheran pastor in Germany in the days of Hitler. He stood courageously against Hitler’s attempt to transform the church into a NAZI propaganda tool. He helped organize a counter-movement of underground churches that taught the pure Gospel of Christ, not empire and Christ, not race. He also spoke out against abuses to Jews, those with disabilities, and minorities. Yet he faced a dilemma. His faith taught him to obey the law, respect the government, and to oppose all violence. On the face of it, much he chose to do went against the letter of this law. He later wrote that they lived in days like those spoken of in the prophets when it seemed as if the world was about to fall and in such times you did not face the choice between right and wrong, but between different types of wrong. Do I disobey the law or protect the innocent? Do I live nonviolently or support people trying to execute the madmen that wreak havoc on the vulnerable? Anything he did, including sitting on his hands, seemed to be becoming an accomplice to some law-breaking. And then he remembered the words of Martin Luther – “Sin boldly”
Sin boldly to Bonhoeffer meant, embrace the fact you are not called here to choose between right and wrong. You are called to do the best you can, to choose to find that choice where, in following it, you plant an apple tree though it looks as if the world will end at sunset. Where you choose life, goodness, compassion, even if to live that choice out you must become accomplice to something objectionable. You can only do the best you can, which always ever includes the risk of being wrong. But do it you must. And do it you can for it is not by works, but by grace, that the Almighty God moves our lives forward. We must trust, Bonhoeffer recommends, that God’s grace can guide us in these liminal spaces in which right and wrong fade away to be big enough to guide us through the maze and, even though we will do wrong, be able to lift us up, to set it right, to turn that to good.
That gives me hope and courage. For who said to make mistakes was wrong? After all, is not that how children grow, how they learn and evolve? And is not like a constant process of evolution until we are ready, as my wife became, to shed the cocoon of this mortal life and spread the wings of immortality so we soar into the butterfly fields that lie beyond these lands?
May you find and discover the courage and faith to embrace walking in the fields beyond rightdoing and wrongdoing, where you can choose to trust and embrace life without judgment.
Your progressive redneck preacher,