Praying in the Spirit

. . the Spirit helps us in our weakness; for we do not know how to pray as we ought but that very Spirit intercedes with sighs too deep for words. (Romans 8)

In October, 2011, my son Tobe was diagnosed with stage four bile duct cancer;  he was  33 years old.  He died in September, 2002 at the age of 34; he lived for eleven more months and one more birthday.  As he endured the therapies his oncologist tried, powerful chemotherapies that nevertheless failed to shrink the tumor and prevent its spread, it became clear that nothing was going to circumvent the inevitable: Tobe was going to die before, we thought, he had hardly had a chance to live.

But my brave son determined to live fully the last months of his life.

He had important conversations with his dad and sister.  He was visited by two high school “friends” who had enjoyed baiting him and making his life quite miserable, and they were reconciled.  He began writing about his disease in a blog before people were blogging (he had an invitation-only readers’ list), and de-mystified cancer for many in his generation.  He fell in love with a beautiful woman, who bravely moved in with him and lovingly cared for him, even to the day of his death.  And best of all (for me), he let me into his life and final journey, allowing me to be both his mom and his spiritual companion.

I was with him one evening in July when he said, hesitatingly, that he wondered how he was going to die, what would it be like?  I asked him if he had asked his oncologist that question.  He said he had not.

“Do you want me to ask?” I said.

“No, Mother; I will ask him myself,” Tobe replied.

“Then do you want me to go with you when you ask him?”

“Yes,” he said.

The next day being his usual chemo appointment, I accompanied him.  I was with him in the doctor’s examination room when Tobe asked Dr. White, “How am I going to die?  What will it look like?”

Dr. White said, “Well, there are two possibilities.  One is that the cancer will spread throughout the abdominal cavity, shutting down your organs. The second is that the cancer will metastasize to your brain, and your brain will shut down.  Either one will cause death.”

I saw tears falling from Tobe’s eyes as he took it in.  For once, I kept my mouth shut, but my heart was breaking.  He was quiet on the way home.  I offered to go in with him, but he refused.  I watched as he slowly made his way to his front door.  I realized that his ultimate walking away from me was going to be realized too soon, and that I would not go with him then, either.

In September, Tobe was in the hospital, his family were gathered around him.  Dr. White came in and said, “Well, Tobe, this is the day we anticipated.  Your organs are shutting down.  There is nothing more we can do for you.  I am sending you home with enough morphine to keep you comfortable.”

Three days later he died.

I cried all through his memorial service.   I was exhausted with crying.  I had been crying all autumn, winter, spring, and summer.

Now fast forward to January.  I was serving a church full-time and had just closed a bible study class.  One of the participants came up to me afterwards and said, “I am so sorry for the death of your son,” as if it had happened just a few days ago.  But it still hurt, and probably my face showed it.  Then, as if to offer me some comfort, she said, “I’ll bet you prayed every day for a miracle.”

Her comment startled me.  I had no words to reply.  I had not prayed every day for a miracle.

It had not even occurred to me that I might. 

My understanding of God is not that of a miracle-worker, but rather one who knows our griefs and offers comfort and a way forward towards acceptance.  However, her words sent me into a tailspin.  What if I had prayed for a miracle? Might Tobe then be still alive?

So I took myself to my spiritual director Roseanna, and explained my situation.  She was wonderful.  She said just the right thing.

She said, “Judy, you prayed the prayer God put in your heart.”

I believe she was right.

I had prayed that God would allow me to journey with Tobe until the end, to hold on to faith in God, and to be granted the power to accept what I could not control or change.  I had prayed that I could be a strong presence for Tobe throughout his struggle.  I prayed that I might encourage him to resist self-pity and frantic searching for blame or causation (while recognizing that these are normal responses to a diagnosis of cancer).  I prayed that he would die without dread and that, at the last, he could find peace.

Today I believe that God put those prayers into my heart.  Today I know I could never have done it alone.  And that I had not needed to.  Ever since, that passage from Paul’s letter to the Romans has had special meaning for me.  I know from personal experience how the Spirit prayed for me when I literally had nothing but tears and sighs too deep for words.  Thanks be to God.


Cathedral Dreams

While listening to Howard’s wonderful postlude, “Westminster Chimes,” on Sunday, I felt myself transported into a cathedral.  And I remembered back a few years when Ivan and I traveled to England and, one Sunday morning, worshipped in the Canterbury Cathedral.

We got there early because I wanted to get a good seat.  We needn’t have hurried; the church was scarcely full.  It was interesting being seated in one of four-rows of about eight seats  parallel to the long center aisle, with the organ at one end (far, far away), the raised altar at the other end (nearer to where we were seated), and the pulpit somewhere near the middle.  Across from us was another four rows of eight chairs.

During the prelude, a woman in a wheel chair arrived and positioned her chair on the floor near our cluster of seats.  She then began to talk in a rather loud voice to the woman on her right, whom she apparently knew.  Neither woman was young; I just assumed they were regular attenders, like many of my generation  of church-raised and church-attending people.  Everyone there was terribly British – meaning no one greeted Ivan or me or tried to hug us. They seemed to take it for granted that we were tourists (although we did not have cameras hanging around our necks, or wearing shorts and motto-bearing American tee shirts).  We were dressed for church, and I, for one, was taking it seriously.

Very seriously,  in fact. For not only were we in church on Sunday morning, we were in The Canterbury Cathedral, of which (as an English major) I had had dreams of seeing.  And here I was.  And in down front of  where we were sitting was a woman in her wheel chair, annoying the heck out of me.  What happened to old-fashioned reverence, I wondered.

At the opening of the service, the procession was quite to my liking – grand and splendid.  And, gilding the lily, The Rev. Rowan Williams, the Archbishop himself  was present.  I have read some of Williams’ books and like them; he has a subtle mind and a quiet eloquence.  I sat in awe of him.  And I almost forgot about the noises coming from three empty rows in front of us.

The service began. The hymns were sung, the creed recited, the sermon preached by presumably the dean of the cathedral (during which time the woman continued to comment to her friend), and then it was time for Holy Communion.  The Archbishop himself presided.

After saying the holy words, it was time for the distribution of bread and wine (this is the Church of England, after all; they use wine).  As the congregation got ready to line up to receive the holy gifts, I got the surprise of my life:  the Archbishop himself came down from his elevated platform, knelt before the woman in the wheel chair, and served her.

Boy, did I feel icky!  Small.  Petty.  Embarrassed.

When I received the elements (from the same Archbishop himself), I was humbled.  It was a moment!

I have no memory whatsoever of what the sermon was about, but I will never forget how Rowan Williams exemplified the life of Jesus in coming to serve the woman in the wheelchair.  When it was my turn to receive from his hands, I felt doubly blessed.

Reindeer Games


They never let poor Rudolph join in any reindeer games.

You know the story, or the song.  Poor Rudolph.  He was born different from “all of the other reindeer.”  His nose was so bright, one “could even say it glows.”  And just because he was different, he was shunned (on a good day) or mocked (on one of the usual days).  Reindeer, like children, can be cruel.

The picture above shows a little plastic Rudolph that can hang on the Christmas tree.  When I was a child, I had one just like it.  I can remember when the song came out, and how I loved to sing it.  It comforted me with the story of the misfit (with whom I identified) who became popular (something I always yearned to be).  When I sang the words, Then how the reindeer loved him, I would kind of choke up, imagining what that might feel like.

I rather suspect that the feeling of wanting to be loved by others is universal.  At a certain point in one’s growing up, the love of parents is not enough.  You want the esteem of your friends or colleagues, fellow students or fellow workers.  It’s the human need to belong.  To be accepted.  To be included.

This is what the church is all about.  Accepting others, without condition.  Including everyone within the circle of the beloved of God.  Church is the community of those who belong to God, because God has chosen them.

In the story of Rudolph, however, it takes a kind of miracle for Rudolph to be accepted at last.  The foggy night comes, and Santa needs the beam of Rudolph’s nose to drive his sleigh so that he can distribute gifts to all the world’s children.  It is the great reversal, that the one who had been kept outside is made the center; his defining characteristic, the red nose, has become Santa’s salvation.  Do you hear echoes of the scripture about the stone that the builders rejected becoming the cornerstone?

And yet.  Does one need to have a special gift to be accepted?  Rudolph was ostracized because of his red nose, but what if he had come from a poor stock of reindeer, or if his mother had died giving him birth and he was a  poor orphan?  Would he still have been accepted?

Do I have to have a special gift for God to accept me?  If so, I think I personally am in trouble.  Do I really believe that God loves even the ordinary ones?  Like me?

But, wait!  No one is ordinary.  TV’s Mr. Rogers taught me that.  Everyone is special.  Everyone has a gift, everyone has something to offer that others can benefit by.  Everyone has a gift to share that doesn’t come from the Internet or the store.  Christmas is about sharing that gift, as Rudolph was willing to come to the aid of the Big Man in the Red Suit, and willing to join the other reindeer.  Sure, as their leader.  As the now Numero Uno reindeer.

The story of universal longing for acceptance has changed into a fantasy of being Queen (or Chief Reindeer) for a Day.  Then all the reindeer loved him.  Maybe.  But don’t you think some of them might have been resentful?  Maybe that’s the real surprise in the story: that when Santa called on Rudolph for help, the others were not jealous.  They welcomed him and his gift.  And Rudolph was forgiving.  He was delighted (pun intended) to share his gift and help Santa.

Christmas is always about being surprised – Mary was certainly surprised by the angel Gabriel, the shepherds out there on the cold hills outside Bethlehem had their sandals blown off (in a manner of speaking) when the angel appeared to them.  And, to bring it home to today, the gifts we share at Christmas are wrapped to disguise them so that when we open them, we’ll be surprised.

This year, entertain the notion that YOU are the gift the world needs.  Share yourself.  You just might surprise yourself.



This Photo by Unknown Author is licensed under CC BY-SA

This Photo by Unknown Author is licensed under CC BY-NC-ND

The Minister of Levity Rides – no, Writes! – Again

There has been much in the news lately about the harassment or exploitation of women by the men who employ or supervise or in some way have power over them.  While many are coming forward – saying or texting “me, too! – others, fearing reprisals– i.e., loss of job, disbelief, personal attacks – still remain silent.

I have always had a hard time taking “guff” from anyone, especially men.  When my son and daughter were growing up, I tried to teach them to respect others, my son especially to respect girls and women and my daughter to expect and demand respect from boys and men.  The following narrative will demonstrate how seriously my son Tobe took my instruction.

When Tobe was in his mid-twenties, he had a medical condition commonly known as kidney stones; treatment required him to submit to ultrasound somethings bombarding his kidneys and breaking up the stones so that he could pass them.  On the day of the scheduled procedure, he asked me if I would drive him to and from the hospital, and I readily agreed.

After we got checked in, I waited while Tobe changed out of his street clothes and into a charming hospital gown.  When he was ready, I went into his room, and together we waited for the urologist to come in and talk to us.  It was not a long wait.  The doctor who entered was a tall man with a handle-bar mustache; he looked out of place at a hospital.  I could imagine him swaggering through the double swinging doors of an old-tyme western saloon.

Tobe introduced his doctor to me, and after a quick, dismissive glance in my direction, the doctor turned his attention to my son.  “Do you have any questions about the procedure?”  he asked.

Tobe said he did:  “Will it hurt?  Will I have any anesthetic?”

“That’s two questions, and both of them are yes.  If you didn’t get any anesthetic, you’d cry like a mother.”

Tobe looked at me.  His mother.

I looked at him.

I had heard the doctor.  Should I respond?  Yes, I should.

I turned to him and said quietly only one word:  “Dickhead.”

The doctor made no reply. There was a brief silence.

“Well then!” the doctor said enthusiastically.  “Shall we be off, Tobe?”

Tobe said yes, and we all left the room, with me heading toward the coffee shop.

Later, when Tobe and I were on our way back to his apartment, he said, “While we were in the elevator, the doctor said, ‘I can’t believe your mother called me a dickhead.’”

“Uh huh,” I said.

Tobe continued:  “And then I said to him, ‘And she’s  a Methodist minister!’”

On Making One’s Bed

I read somewhere recently that the habit of making one’s bed every morning is the sign of a mature person.  “Huh,” I thought;  “I am less mature than I thought.”

Not that I am a slob, mind you.  I smooth out the comforter over the pillows I have straightened, so that the bed looks decently presentable.  But I do not go all the way to pulling up the spread and tucking it neatly under and then over the pillows, arranging more pillows on top so as to look like those bedroom furniture advertisements I get too many of in the mail.  Okay, so maybe I am rationalizing my own laziness.  But the way I figure it, it is hard enough for me to crawl out of my warm, snuggy bed without the added burden (burden, yet!) of   trying to make the bedroom look pristine and presentable in case there are any news photographers in the neighborhood looking for a house to feature in the Sunday magazine.  No one will see my unmade bed but me (and maybe LouLu).

The world seems full of people who want to tell you how to be something:  mature, successful, rich, pain-free, cancer-free, thin, and – as if this were not bad enough, the world is also populated by folks who want to tell you how to be good.  For me, the word good has religious and ethical overtones.  More than once I have asked myself, when facing a decision, “What would Jesus do?”

I am not so sure Jesus would set a priority on making his bed every morning.  I am pretty sure Jesus had more urgent things to do, and woke up morning after morning prayerfully ready to let God lead him to them.

So, how about me (and you)?  What gets you up in the morning?  No, I am not talking about the alarm clock!  What sends you out into the world every day? Or what sets your daily agendas?  Retirement means you get to set your own agenda, and since I am retired, I just might not put making the bed very high on my list.  Who is helped by a neat bedroom?

Okay, each of us has to set his/her own priorities.  And perhaps high on my list is trying to live without unreflectively following someone else’s advice or trying to live up to someone else’s expectations of me.  I am of an age when I can set my own priorities for how I use my time, and the only rule I try to follow is that of faithfulness.  As the song says, “I’m gonna live so God can use me.”  I think about that every day, and try to live into it.

That said, I do make my husband’s hospital bed every day.  It’s an act of love.

Loulu and The Holy Spirit Come to Laurelhurst Park

One summer afternoon I took LouLu the Wonder Dog to the park/playground to chase the ball.  We stayed on the lawn somewhat adjacent to the outdoor play equipment; it was a sunny day and lots of kids were playing.

After retrieving the ball about a hundred times, LouLu got distracted by the children playing on the playground, specifically by the fragrance of cookie and cracker crumbs.  She dropped the ball and entered the forbidden area, found a small boy holding about half a cookie, grabbed it out of his hand, and ran off, leaving him screaming in terror of her big mouth and sharp teeth.  I quickly hurried over to get her and pull her away, leaving the mother to take care of her child.

Months later, LouLu and I were again at the park, throwing and receiving balls, each of us doing the thing we do best.  From a fair distance down the lawn I heard a woman’s voice calling to me:  “Hey, you!  You who own LouLu!”

At this point, LouLu had forgotten the ball and was sniffing in the bushes, at the other end of the grassy field from where the woman was calling.  I turned around to see what she wanted, and she began walking towards me.

She said in an angry voice, “I recognize the name of the dog.  She was the one who stole the cookie out of my son’s hands.  He was so scared, he wouldn’t come back to the park until today!  And who do we see?  You again!  If you don’t leash your dog, I am going to report you to the police!”

She was right.  There is a leash law in Seattle parks, and I was in violation of it.  So are a lot of people who take their dogs to the park, but that was beside the point.  I apologized profusely for my lack and  for LouLu’s eagerness, but the woman was having none of it.  She was mad as hell and she wasn’t going to take it anymore.

Out of the corner of my eye I noticed a little boy standing about where the woman had been when she first called to me.  “Is that your son?” I asked.  She said it was, and the little boy began hesitantly to come towards us.

By this time LouLu was almost through sniffing and was beginning to walk back towards me.  As the little boy came near his mom, and while I was still apologizing, I suddenly found myself asking the boy, “Would you like to pet LouLu?” He nodded.  I clamped the leash on her.  He walked slowly towards her, then  reached out his hand and stroked her furry head.  Then he looked at her face (by this time she was nice and mellow from all that retrieving) and said, “I forgive you.”

Out of the blue.

“I forgive you.”

I looked at the  mother.

The mother looked at me.

We both looked at the boy, still petting LouLu.

Something important just happened.  The Holy Spirit was at work, uniting us around a dog who just acted like a dog, not meaning harm, just a dog who loved cookies.

And the little boy had blessed and forgiven her.

It was a moment.

A moment filled with the Holy Spirit.

Easter 2017

We all know we will die.  And all of us, in different ways, know the deep grief we experience when someone we love dies.  Their absence rends a hole in the fabric of our lives. And into this hole comes the darkness of doubts. Do I really believe in the resurrection? Do I really believe that this life is not all there is?

I know something about those doubts.

My son Tobe (pronounced “Tobey”) died of cancer when he was 34 years old.  The cancer was stage four when it was discovered.  Although he died well – living intensely and courageously the last eleven months of his life – when he died, I grieved. He had invited me in to be with him on his last journey, and I was with him in the hospital when his oncologist said to him,  “Tobe, there is nothing more we can do for you.  We are going to send you home with enough pain relievers to keep you comfortable for the next three or four days of your life.”

The doctor left the room, and my former husband, his wife, my daughter, and Tobe’s girlfriend all went into the hallway, to sob and to comfort one another.  This was the day we were expecting but did not want to come.

I stayed at Tobe’s bedside and took his hand.  “Are you afraid?” I asked him.

He gestured with his fingers that he was about half  an inch afraid.

And then I heard myself say to him, “Tobe, you have absolutely nothing to be afraid of.”  I wondered where those words came from, and then I knew.

He died at his home, three days later, in the arms of the woman who loved him.

After the memorial service I was left with silence and a deep ache in my heart.

One night, just before falling asleep, I thought about Tobe.

And in my mind I said, “Tobe, where are you? Are you okay?”

And then it was that I heard his voice, his very familiar voice, answering me, saying, “Mother, what did you tell me?

“Tobe,” I said, “I know what I told you.  But I just want to know.  Are you okay?”

And the voice of Tobe came again, saying only one chiding word: “Mother….”

And I knew in my heart he was okay.

I don’t know what “okay” means, but I know how it felt to hear it.  He was alive in some way, and he was okay!

And is!

If I did not know the Easter story, I never would have believed that dream – or whatever it was.  But because of God raising Jesus, I believe that death is not the end for us.  As the hymn written by the Gaithers says, “Because he lives, I can face tomorrow.”  Because I believe Jesus lives, I believe all whom God loves will live also – and that God loves all of us, no matter what!

May your Easter be blessed with joy and blessed assurance.