“Holy Weeping” A Devotion for Lent

“Rejoice with those who rejoice, weep with those who weep.”—Romans 12:15

One of the stranger symptoms resulting from the traumatic brain injury I got 17 years ago is my tendency to cry at odd times, such as while watching sappy jewelry commercials on TV or foolish pet videos on Facebook. Continue reading

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“Taking the Long View” Reflections of a Retired Pastor

Presiding(This is a talk I gave to “The Saints” which is the United Church of Christ retired clergy group in the Connecticut Conference of the UCC. The talk was in Cromwell, CT on May 14, 2015)

I’d like to thank you for inviting me to be with you today. I have great respect for ministry as a high and holy calling, and I enjoy the company of ministers. I am proud to be a minister, and this year is the 40th anniversary of my ordination. And it is good to be in the Connecticut Conference. I never served here, but my daughter, Rebecca Floyd Marshall, is an ordained minister here in CT, serving in Westport. If you bump into her at a Conference meeting introduce yourself.

My talk today is entitled “Taking the Long View” which was the title of a UCC STILL SPEAKING Daily Devotional I wrote for March 14 of last year. I see it was re-printed in your newsletter. I’m going to share with you some of my personal back-story behind the writing of this particular devotional.

I began the devotional with an anecdote about Ralph, a congregant of mine in my first church, who owned an apple orchard: “I drove over to see Ralph at his hilltop orchard a week after I had presided over his wife’s funeral and burial. He was well into his nineties and they had been married for seven decades. I was all of twenty-seven. It took me awhile to find him, because he was out planting apple trees. He seemed glad to see me and said, “You may wonder why I am planting trees that I will never live to see bear fruit. But it’s what I have always done, and I am not going to stop now. There were apple trees in this orchard when I came here that somebody else had planted, and there will be apple trees here after I’m gone.”

I’ve held onto Ralph’s words for forty years, and lately they have helped me as I think about what it means to be a retired minister. That hasn’t been easy for me. Because when I left my role as a pastor it seemed, at first, and for a long while, like the loss of my calling as a minister. Now I have come to realize that, although I am no longer a pastor of a congregation, I am still a minister. When I turned 65 the UCC Pension Boards mailed me a good little book by Paul Clayton entitled Called for Life (Perhaps you all got one, too). I love the play on words in the title, and I do believe we are “called for life” in both senses of the phrase.  Continue reading

Disability and Grace

Ten years ago tomorrow I went over the handlebars of my bicycle and landed on my head. I have written about that day elsewhere.  Since that time I have been grappling daily with being brain injured.  Of course, before that day I grappled daily with being human, an enterprise that continues, but brain injury complicates it considerably.

In fact, “a complication” has been a useful way for me to think about brain injury.  My injury is, of course, in common parlance, “a disability,” and the Social Security Administration has recognized mine as such. It is a credential I would have preferred not to have needed, but it makes me officially disabled.

Yet, I don’t really think of myself as a disabled person, any more than I think of myself primarily as a white person, an ordained person, or a male person. All these realities inform my identity but do not, even in the aggregate, constitute it.

I have always had an allergy to identity politics, and question whether it is helpful for one to think of oneself as primarily identified by race, gender, sexual orientation, or for that matter, disability. If pressed for an identity I would pick a really big one, such as “created in the image of God,” and its new creation correlate, baptism. I say this because I believe that any identity that ignores our relationship with God is bound to be too narrow, and lead to some form of self-deception.

But I understand why people with disabilities often choose to make their disability a primary identity, because other people certainly use disability as a social marker, just as they do for race and gender. If you are in a wheelchair or walk or speak differently that will be part of what defines you. And many people can’t look beyond the obvious. People have a fear of disability, that if that can happen to you, it could happen to them. I think there is also a tendency to distance oneself from the disabled by blaming them for their disabilities.  They must have brought it on themselves by bad behaviors. This helps us maintain the illusion that we can have control over protecting ourselves from becoming disabled by being careful. And sometimes it is true that persons acquire disabilities from poor life choices, but most times that is not true.

My disabilities are largely hidden, since I am able to walk and speak. Nonetheless, enough people in my community know about my accident and its aftermath that I find myself in awkward social situations where people aren’t sure how to approach me. My memory is largely unimpaired (and was good to begin with), but the assumption is that brain injury is largely about memory loss, so I find myself in these painful (and sometimes comical) encounters in the supermarket where people are trying to tell me a story but filling in huge amounts of unnecessary back-story (like the names of their kids that I baptized and have known for over twenty years.) Others talk really slowly and enunciate carefully, and I must resist the temptation to say, “I’m brain injured, not stupid.”

Many people just want me to recover and be better, though I will always have a brain injury. “How are you doing?” they ask empathically and I really want to say fine, but, of course, I am not fine, so I resort to something like, “I am doing OK.” Sometimes I say, “For a man in my condition, I’m in great condition.”

A lot of dealing with injury is self-care, and it is frustrating how much of my time and energy goes into just keeping healthy. There are many things I could once do but now cannot. One of the reasons I resist disability as a primary identity is the temptation to use it as an excuse to do less than I can. For I can still do many things, and need to do them, even when it is hard. The daily challenge is to find the sweet spot between too much and too little activity, and of course, when you live with others, this balance is not always completely under your control. Sometimes I choose to overdo just because the thing I choose is important enough to me to pay a price for several days. But I can only do so much of that or I risk my health, which is easier to protect than to restore.

There is also a level of dependency involved with disability that is very hard for me. I rely on my wife and children and family for love and support and a great deal of care-giving. So in some very real sense my injury is a family affair, something that has to be factored in to all our interactions. I want to be strong and brave and independent, but have to face my reliance on others. The positive part of this is that I often experience their care for me as grace, that is, as something freely given though undeserved. And I am often in awe of their patience and forbearance with me, for I am not always the easiest person to be around, especially when I am tired, which is much of the time.

Even before the accident I was powerfully moved by the pathos at the heart of the Christian story: how God’s power is made manifest in the weakness of the cross of Jesus Christ. I have recounted often before that my mother died when I was 18, and that my return to Christian faith as a young adult was the result of a struggle to make sense of a world where such losses (and others) take place.  It shouldn’t be a surprise that I became a theologian of the cross, which I see, not as a symbol of violence and brutality, but as the place where God’s reconciling love encountered human sin and overcame it.

These last ten years have made me more acutely aware that faith lives in the midst of weakness. Disability has sharpened that awareness for me, but one doesn’t have to be disabled to experience human weakness. As a pastor for over thirty years I learned that people undergoing a crisis of loss or humiliation could often hear the good news of the Gospel in  fresh new ways, or even for the first time. In such moments God speaks. Perhaps only when enough of us is cleared out of the way to silence our own voices can there be the space for us to hear God.

My injury and its deficits also complicate my spiritual life, and that too, has made me aware of faith as a gift that I can’t create in myself. “Grace,” I once heard James Forbes say, “is where you find love in full bloom in a climate where it is too cold to grow.” I’m not very good at faith anymore, so it seems even more of a grace when it is there at all.

During my long ministry I was privileged to spend many hours with the aging and dying. They have been my teachers, helping me prepare for my own aging and dying, and also for disability, which shares many of the same features of limitation and loss. In all these challenges of living one relinquishes features of your previous experience of living. This is painful, but faith can enable us to exercise “a holy relinquishing,” that is literally “graceful.” I have been blessed to witness this again and again among those who retain a wonderful dignity in the face of the indignities visited upon the old, the sick and the dying.

Ultimately, grappling with the complications of disability (or just humanity through its life stages) exists within a horizon of hope. This too, is a gift of faith. I have stood at hundreds of funerals and proclaimed, “‘I am the resurrection and the life,’ said the Lord,” and that promise gives me hope.

I don’t know what that new reality will be like, but I cling to bits of Scripture that give us hints and clues. Paul says, “For now we see through a glass, darkly; but then face to face: now I know in part; but then shall I know even as also I am known. ”(1 Corinthians 13:12)

The scripture that speaks to me most about disability comes from the vision of John the Divine as reported in the 21st chapter of Revelation. John looks up and sees a new heaven and a new earth, and a New Jerusalem coming down from God out of heaven. He says, “God shall wipe away all tears from their eyes; and there shall be no more death, neither sorrow, nor crying, neither shall there be any more pain: for the former things are passed away.”

I take comfort from this promise that God’s ultimate intention for us is a community where we don’t suffer pain or death or loss.  That would have to include disability. No more sleepless nights, no more depression, no more chronic pain, no more anxiety and fear, no more shame. No more of all the things that beset us in this earthly life. Quite a vision!

This horizon of hope often allows me to bounce back from my set-backs, to experience forgiveness for my failings, to face the challenges and complications of each new day, and to enjoy the quotidian little (and sometimes not so little) graces that visit me unbidden and unexpected.

I have a brain injury

I have a brain injury. It is one of the bald facts of my life like being tall or having brown hair. Unlike those facts though, I was not born with a brain injury, but acquired it on August 5, 2000 (see “I Lost My Marbles on the Mohawk Trail”). In my life story that day is a dividing marker. There is the time before my injury and the time after my injury, just as ancient Israel divided its life into before and after the fall of Jerusalem and the Babylonian Exile.

The great thinkers and writers of Israel who gave us some of the best parts of the Bible were preoccupied with why their exile happened. Or more precisely, they asked “What had they done wrong to cause the exile?” Why had God done this to them? As Rabbi Kushner asked in the title of his best-selling book: “Why do bad things happen to good people?”

I honestly don’t ask that question about my accident. I don’t feel guilty about my brain injury. Some things in life just happen that we are powerless to do anything about, and I believe this was one of those things. I don’t believe God throws people off bicycles. And I’m not ashamed about my brain injury, although it has taken me awhile to deal with the strange reactions of many people to my disability.

I bump into people in the grocery store, and they ask me if I am feeling better, and I smile and say I am doing OK, which I am. But the real answer in regard to my brain injury is “no.” I’m not better and, like Humpty Dumpty, I’m not going to be put together again. The task for me is to take care of myself and adjust to my disability from day to day as best I can with a lot of help from my family and my professional caregivers.

So it is what it is. I sometimes grieve for the life I expected to have. I am sometimes sad because I miss my ministry and the purpose and meaning that came with it. But I am unable to do it anymore and that is that. I am grateful for the thirty years I had to do it. I am grateful for my wife and children and family and friends. I am grateful I still have speech and memory, and the cognitive capacities to write and imagine.

And I am one of the lucky ones. Of the roughly 1.4 million who sustain a Traumatic Brain Injury (TBI) each year in the United States 50,000 will die. One of the reason I choose to speak openly about my TBI is there are many of our neighbors out there who have TBI and they are struggling. The CDC estimates over 3 million Americans have a long-term or lifelong need for help to perform their daily activities because of a TBI.

And there will be more. Many returning veterans have TBI from concussive injuries. Many of these heroes will daily struggle to manage stress, control their tempers, solve problems, and deal with life’s emotional issues. Many will have difficulty finding and keeping a job. Many will be unable to work. I am glad that Gary Trudeau has created a sympathetic character with TBI for his Doonesbury comic strip. The more people know about TBI the better.

One of the reasons for better education is that many people with TBI go undiagnosed. Many of these will self-medicate with drugs and alcohol. Untreated and unsupported such people with TBI will have very tough lives, and so will their family and friends.

So I choose to talk and write about brain injury so that more people can know about it, and can seek the support they need. There is support and services for people with TBI. I have been helped by the Massachusetts State Head Injury Program (SHIP). Massachusetts has an active Brain Injury Association, as do other states, and there is a National Brain Injury Association with a good website.

I was recently driving on the highway and saw a billboard from the Brain Injury Association. It pictured a camouflaged helmet, the kind our troops wear in Iraq and Afghanistan. The sign said: “You can’t camouflage a brain injury!” It’s really time we stopped trying to do that.

Spills

In August 2000 I had a catastrophic bicycle accident (see I Lost My Marbles on the Mohawk Trail). I was months later diagnosed with Traumatic Brain Injury (TBI) that eventually led to my early retirement on disability. I was rummaging around in the files and found this piece I wrote for Colleague after the crash. It’s called Spills:

In the movie Regarding Henry, the main character, Henry, who is played by Harrison Ford, is a cutthroat New York lawyer and general all–around stinker. He’s cheating on his wife with someone at work, his business ethics are shaky at best, and he’s a merciless martinet with his young daughter. When she spills her juice at the table he flies off the handle at her. But Henry’s life changes when he goes out for cigarettes to the corner store and interrupts a robbery. The nervous robber shoots him in the head with a Saturday Night Special and Henry fights for life and later, for recovery to his old life. He’s also lost his memory and had a personality change. At his first meal at home after his discharge from rehab his daughter again spills her juice, and she immediately recoils in anticipation of his outburst. “That’s alright, honey,” her father tells her, “I do it all the time.” Whereupon Henry knocks over his own glass: “See!”
When my kids were toddlers such spills were commonplace at our table, and we did our best to be patient. “Don’t cry over spilled milk” is part of every parent’s lexicon. The word spill means “to cause or allow (a substance) to run or fall out of a container.” By extension it came to mean to fall. Last summer I had a spill and went over the handlebars of my road bicycle. As a result of that spill, I separated my right shoulder, broke a rib, and sustained a traumatic brain injury that left my wits addled for a number of months. Because of my separated shoulder the first few times I tried to pour juice or put milk on my cereal I spilled it all over the kitchen counter. It gave me new empathy with what my children were facing as toddlers.
Life is a series of spills. Like Henry, we do it all the time. We run or fall out of our container, and it makes a mess that we then have to clean up or fix. The conventional wisdom is to not cry over spilled milk, and to pick yourself up after a spill, and I think from a human point of view that is exactly what one should do. So I plan to get back on my bicycle as soon as it, and I, are ready, whenever that is.
But from another point of view perhaps we should cry over our spills, if we can see in them the larger spilled-ness of our lives. The Christian faith knows that we humans are never quite what God intended us to be. To carry our earlier image of the spilled life, we have fallen outside our containers. We may not be empty, but we are not as full as God wants us to be. Ironically, in Christian theology we call this “the fall” and it is not just about our ancestral relatives in the Garden of Eden, but a truth about human life in general. We are perennially and constitutionally estranged from God, from one another, and from our natural surroundings. As one of our prayers says, “we worship ourselves and the things we have made.”
And so human life is a series of spills and perhaps God does cry over our spills, not over spilled milk, but the kind of wasteful spills that we know, relationships gone sour, talent squandered, potential wasted and the fearsome losses of war. The Christian answer is not then just to pick yourself up, because the truth is we can’t pick ourselves up. There are spills you can fix, be they milk on the counter, or the bruises and fractures of a fall from a bike, but there are spills from which we never recover.
The fixing must come from God’s side. And the good news we preach is that God does this. God not only cries over our spills, he wants to fill us so that we are whole again. At baptism we pour water into the font and the child is washed and cleansed as a sign and seal of the new life that God promises to pour out to us. And one of the things we are demonstrating when we participate in that symbolic action is this: that although the child is herself a miracle, a gift of God, she will need the gifts God gives to have the new life God wants for her. At the Lord’s Supper we take the cup and fill it and recite the words of our Lord Jesus Christ, “Drink this all of you, it is my blood poured out for you for the forgiveness of sins.”
We are close to the heart of things in these gestures, when we can realize that in Christ God pours out his own life, that we might have life, and have it fully. That’s a great paradox: human life spills, but God fills, spilling his life so that we might have life and have it in abundance; giving us his life-giving Spirit even as we fall out of our containers and face the potential and sometimes very real emptiness of being human.
We can’t fill our own containers, only God can do that. He’s made us to be filled, and “our hearts are restless until we find rest in Thee,” until we realize we cannot do it ourselves, only God can. Henry only becomes lovable when he accepts his newfound vulnerability. It’s a hard lesson. Some of us must learn it again and again. And it goes clean contrary to the conventional wisdom of the world, which is that to win you must be strong and tough and self-sufficient, needing nothing or no one. But in fact we do need others and we do need God. Because life is a series of spills, and in them God gives us opportunity to come to terms with our need for him, and to accept the life he gives us as a gift, when we stop trying to manufacture life for ourselves without him. So don’t worry so much about your everyday spills. They are part of life. Hey, I do it all the time.