Thursday, December 6, 2012


“There was another life I might have had, but I am having this one.”
Kazuo Ishiguro - Never Let Me Go

It’s been nearly five years since Rachel was killed. Shortly afterwards, Jill and I had dinner with a couple who had lost their son nearly ten years earlier. I knew they knew how we felt because already the man had asked me questions I hadn’t told anybody were on my mind. The burning question, I think, for both me and Jill the night we had dinner was: “Will we ever get over this?”

From my current vantage point, I can see the foolishness of the question. Then, we hadn’t yet fully absorbed the reality of what we were facing: the rest of our lives without our daughter. We were desperate for hope from someone who had walked the road ahead of us. The couple answered our question as compassionately and honestly as they could. Ten years after his death, they told us, they still weren’t over the loss of their son. For as long as they walked this earth, they never expected they would be. The going get easier, but it never gets easy; the hurt gets better, but it never goes away. We should have known. They had learned to live without him, as harsh as that may sound. In Life of Pi, Yann Martel says, “You can get used to anything...isn’t that what all survivors say?” And while getting accustomed to the loss of a child seems at first unimaginable, undesirable, heartless even, it ends up, after all, to be sadly, horrifically...possible. Perhaps even necessary. Our hearts sank there at the table as we imagined the road ahead. We didn’t want to drink this cup, but drink it we would, together. A bitter communion. 

The man we had dinner with occasionally attended and preached at our church. He had formerly been an elder. I took his place on the board. The couple had ceased attending before Jill and I began. I don’t think we had met the woman before the night of our dinner. Though I never knew exactly why she quit going to church with her husband, it is reasonable to assume she had spiritual difficulties in the aftermath of her son’s death that made it impossible for her. They may have had some understandable and all too common marital problems. I detected some uncharitable attitudes about her and the choices they had made... 

In the days before Rachel’s death I thought of the man as a tragic and somewhat heroic figure. I admired him, but, of course, I did not envy him. I remember being always aware of his loss, even when it wasn’t explicitly mentioned or acknowledged. Like talking to someone behind glass. You can have a normal enough conversation, but there’s always that between you. Content to just admire and pity him from a distance, I never wanted to know how this man had managed to survive. Like most, I didn’t think I could. I recognized it could have been me in his shoes, but I was so shamefully relieved I didn’t have to wear them that I never wanted to tempt fate by getting too close.

I recently heard a radio broadcast of a Jewish mother who had lost her son to a Palestinian sniper. She said that those who manage to survive the loss of a child must choose to live. Is that what happened? Did I choose to survive? I don’t remember, not consciously, anyway. Many nights I would have been content to close my eyes on this world and wake up in the next… But there is always something that must be done in the morning.

Predictably, Jill and I quit attending church. We made a valiant attempt to hang in there; we really did. But after some developments that required further commitment and demanded more involvement, we finally had a long talk in the hot tub and confessed to each other that we simply no longer had the heart for it. Though I still cannot articulate why, church had become more hurtful than helpful for both of us, and we couldn't stand pretending otherwise any more. We realized that we weren’t serving anyone, least of all ourselves, by staying there when we lacked any true desire. We haven’t been back to the last church we attended as an intact family since the end of last December. It turned out to be almost like an unintentional New Year’s resolution - except that we have uncharacteristically nearly perfectly kept it.  Our year without Jesus…

After writing that last sentence, I Googled it to see if anyone had written on that topic, and I found this blog post: The author speculates about the antithesis of a popular book from a few years back called, My Jesus Year. He qualifies his blog entry as merely “a thought experiment”, confesses how easy it would be to fall into the (bad, selfish, lazy) habits of “pretend atheism” and cautions people against actually trying the experiment for themselves at home. I have to admit, it’s scary how easy it is has been to drop the routine of a lifetime.

It would be an exaggeration, though, to say that Jill and I have lived like atheists for the last year. Practical agnostics, maybe. The truth is, God is still a central figure in our lives, even though we are less certain than we have ever been about who He is, what He is like, and what we can expect from a relationship with Him.

God and church are two distinctly different things. The Bible asserts that nothing can separate us from the love of God. Jesus, Immanuel - God with us - made an unqualified promise that he would never leave us nor forsake us. I learned from Oswald Chambers that because we lose our old idea of God does not mean we have thereby lost God, and the loss of our former form of belief and the birth of a realization more closely approximating the truth is perhaps always and necessarily painful and traumatic. Did we really believe the truth could be cheaply and painlessly acquired? Doubt is as undeniable and inevitable in this life as pain, loss, confusion, and disappointment. Christ felt abandoned on the cross, but I don’t believe even he ever really lost God. I don’t think that is possible. I hope not. When walk out of church, God inhabits the world we encounter outside the door. I really believe God is always with us, as near to and indistinguishable from our very breath and being. 

Dan Haseltine, the lead singer of Jars of Clay, recently blogged about his break with the traditional evangelical church. He said, “I have to believe that God is in our story.” It isn’t good enough for him or for me anymore to be told what to believe about God. We each have our own experience that has brought us to the place where we now find, or have lost, ourselves. Through no fault of our own we have fallen out of step with the rest of the parade. It wasn’t our plan. I was content teaching Sunday School every Sunday, preaching, serving as an elder. I would happily have remained in that place if I hadn’t been removed by forces beyond my control. Sometimes, surrender is the only viable course of action. Maya Angelou said, “ me undeniably that surrender, in its place, (is) as honorable as resistance, especially if one (has) no choice.” 

If God is in our story, and our story takes where we do not want to go, then it is an act of faith to surrender and trust that God has something vital to teach us along the way. Nothing else makes any sense to me. Right now it’s the only faith I have. In Life of Pi, the main character tells the inquiring writer that he will tell him a story that will make him believe in God. It is his story, of course. How else could he know? Martin Luther, the original Reformer, said, “God writes the Gospel not in the Bible alone, but also in the trees, and in the flowers and clouds and stars.” I would add, he also writes it in our hearts and with our lives. How else could we believe?

Sunday, April 22, 2012

"How Could You?"

I was in bed, not very successfully trying to sleep with a fever from a sudden flu, while Jill edited a California Scholarship Federation speech Rachel gave when she was a senior graduating from high school. Jill was preparing for an Every 15 Minutes presentation dedicated to the memory of Rachel in Madison, New Jersey. I heard Rachel’s sweet voice, and felt Jill’s grief through the wall of what used to be Rachel’s room.
I was not actively thinking, or praying, but as I lay there listening these words formed in my mind: “How could you?” Of course, I was addressing God. It was an honest question as much as a reproach. As distressing as such an utterance may be to many devout, I know that God encourages honesty more than false decorum. I did not recant.
I feel like so many of my half-assed prayers never make it past the ceiling, but as I lay on my side looking through the bedroom door into the dimly illumined hallway, I could visualize the words slipping through the whole-house fan grill, into the attic, out the screened vent at the ridge of the roof, and into the night sky. I waited for an answer, but I received none. I only heard Rachel’s voice...and the enormous silence.
Along with the awareness of the violent, untimely, and senseless death of my precious daughter, what continues to torment me is the pain it continues to inflict on my beloved wife, Jill. I call her Angel, because she is a miraculous emissary of God. To me, she IS, very literally, the embodiment of God’s love. A life of being loved by this woman is more than I could ever hope to deserve. It is pure grace, and I know it. I can only be grateful. 
If I were God, things would be different for Jill… She has suffered too much. And if God can’t even be as good as I can imagine God should be, what kind of God do I claim?...
The answer came a few days later. Not out of the sky, but out of a book, the 
Bible as it so often happens, though God undoubtedly speaks in many other ways I habitually fail to perceive. 
I came across this verse, again: 
2 Corinthians 1:3-5
“Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of mercies and God of all comfort, who comforts us in all our tribulation, that we may be able to comfort those who are in any trouble, with the comfort with which we ourselves are comforted by God. For as the sufferings of Christ abound in us, so our consolation also abounds through Christ.”
What struck me as I read the passage this time is that God is progenitor of mercy and comfort. Good things. Good things that come as a response to bad things. Mercy is a restorative response to a justifiably punishable infraction of the moral order. Comfort is a compassionate, therapeutic response to pain. The passage doesn’t address the origin of evil or suffering, it only describes God as the source of the remedy for it.
Our modern western rational minds can’t help but draw the conclusion that the God who created everything out of nothing must ultimately be responsible for whatever is wrong with the world as we know it. The buck finally stops at God. Maybe it is a flaw, but this passage simply doesn’t go there. God is presented as the creator of comfort, not of suffering; God is the originator of mercy, not of the evil or the injustice that make it necessary. God is present in the cure not the disease. Wherever we discover healing in progress, we witness God in action.
For some questions, even good questions, there simply are no good answers. Not here and now, at least. 
“...we also discovered how important it was not to superimpose theological truths onto hearts that are broken. To do so simply missed the mark...The need we had to somehow refer this all to God and make sense of it was amazing. The only problem was it made no sense at all.”
Gregory Floyd - A Grief Unveiled
God didn’t respond to my accusation, gave no explanation. Instead, I was challenged to entertain the possibility that my presence in Jill’s life may be the very God I questioned, comforting Jill in her suffering and grief. Just as I recognize and receive from her the love of God for me, I must admit in myself the presence of God, comforting Jill. Maybe it is just a matter of simple human kindness. Maybe such things in such a world are never quite so simple… 
At the same time, as so often happens when we dare to talk to God, I also felt my own question turn on me: How could I? - as I confess I so often have - to love, to comfort her as I could, as I should? I felt the shame of my own selfish betrayals.
I am convinced that in the mundane operation of common decencies we join God at work. When we feel the pull of compassion, sense the inclination to comfort, it is the compulsion of God to act, because the response of a loving God to the hurt of the world is to make it better. God feels it and wants to fix it. How do I know? Because I feel it. That doesn’t make me God, but does mean God is in and through me. The Love of God. The Body of Christ. 

Sunday, March 18, 2012


I lay with my eyes closed in the darkness, awake.


The day before I carried the obvious truth like a hidden wound, acting as if I could live with it, as if anybody could. We had lunch with family in my sister’s restaurant, Farwood Bar & Grill. Unless you already knew the story, you could not have guessed. And I did enjoy our time together, because I realize more than ever that every moment with those we love is precious. But I am living a double life: living with gratitude while carrying this grief. Maybe life is never simple, but always double, triple, multiple. I walked around all day, thinking, “Four years ago today, this was the last day Rachel walked this earth. What was she doing at this moment four years ago? What was she thinking? What was I?” Blissfully ignorant. Thinking it would go on like this forever, or something approaching it. That there would always be more time…

I had a dream or a vision, what ever you would call it. Rachel pulled up to the curb in her Honda. Jill and I were out working in the yard. I put down whatever was in my hand and walked toward her with wonder. Jill too. Rachel jumped out of her car and ran across the yard to meet us, beaming, delighted, I think, to surprise us. She had been gone a long time, and we weren’t expecting her. There was this beautiful moment of joy before the realization that she was really dead and I was only dreaming...

It always feels like a betrayal to be able to go on living. Those who know better will say that is unhealthy thinking. It is, I know. I turned 50 on February 6. Jill and I spent the weekend in the Anderson Valley to celebrate our 24th anniversary. We took the long way home, touring the wine country just waking into spring, and stopped at a couple of unique places to eat we had seen on Diners, Drive-Ins, and Dives. It was a beautiful weekend in every way. But I couldn’t shake the feeling that I was taking my leave, saying goodbye, likely never to pass this way again. I was painfully conscious that I was just passing through, that this strange and beautiful world...this life...doesn’t belong to me anymore, if it ever did. Though we mostly don’t behave like guests, but rather like we own the place and are trying our best to use it up, the truth is that we are only visiting here. But I suspect it is a dangerous mistake to let that keep us from forming attachments…

So, my birthday, February 6, was a Monday. We were stepping back into our routine after our extraordinary weekend. I wanted to be big about it, so I got out of bed as usual, made the coffee while Jill took her shower, and then sat in bed to read to her from the Daily Bible. As I read, a horrible awareness crept upon me: This was the passage we had read the morning Rachel was killed. I tried to read as if nothing was wrong, like I didn’t notice, but Jill stopped me to confirm the realization that was dawning on her, too. It was 5:00 a.m. and, after that, my day was already over...

Of course, I wonder about such coincidence. The day before, while driving through the wine country, different renditions of Amazing Grace had played back-to-back on the iPhone we were playing on shuffle through the car stereo. I asked Jill if she thought my smart phone was smart enough to know it was Sunday. Or maybe it was a sign?

We are haunted by the presentiment that maybe there is more to this life than the surface suggests. And tortured by the misgiving that maybe there isn’t.

The passage from Proverbs for that same day says, “The Lord directs a person’s steps. Why should we fret to understand every step along the way?” It’s true, I don’t know where I am going, so it is impossible for me to judge whether I am taking one true step in the right direction. Wiser souls would counsel me to let it go and simply let it be what it is. I’m not there yet.

Jill and I are reading Joan Chittister’s spiritual memoir, “Called to Question.” I am surely contorting the passage to fit my own interpretation, but she says, “Life is not about getting God. Life is about growing in God.” Presumably, we are all always in God, because there is no outside. She goes on to say, “We ripen. We learn. We hurt. We survive one thing after another. And we go the end, we gain what we came to get...One way or another life batters us until we get the unavoidable. Sometimes we get it with glory; sometimes we get it in disgrace…” The God who is life inexorably teaches us. We learn what we need to know. We are not our own. We do not know who or what we are to become. We simply trust the process, and the God of life whom we can only hope controls it.

What kind of terrible faith is this?

The morning I woke up to that passage, I took it as a cruel cosmic joke.

That is the human problem, older than Job, with which those who suffer struggle: Is the God who guides the process loving, indifferent, or malevolent? Does God torture us for amusement? What are we to make of this mess?

The problem with my interpretation of events is that it flies in the face of the message of the passage. It is the passage in Ezra that affirms, “God is good. His faithful love endures forever.”

In spite of overwhelming evidence to the contrary, does love really guide the universe?

I have come to the conclusion that I over-reacted. I don’t blame myself. One emotional law I have learned is that in the absence of convincing proof to the contrary (and, really, what is proof?), the most loving explanation is correct. I guess you could call it the benefit of the doubt theorem...or the benefit of faith. If God really is good, as I have heard and still, tremulously, believe, and really does love me with a love that endures forever and transcends time and circumstance, then it is just possible that reading that passage on my 50th birthday was God’s way of telling me I am loved - in spite of everything.

As Theodore Roethke said, “I learn by going where I have to go.”


This morning, February 21, 2012, I awoke and kept my eyes closed in the darkness. When I finally opened them and looked at the clock it was 3:31 a.m. One minute after Rachel was pronounced dead four years ago. The beginning of the rest of my life…

“I wake to sleep, and take my waking slow.

I learn by going where I have to go.”

Theodore Roethke - “The Waking”

Sunday, February 26, 2012


I’ve had this feeling my whole life but increasingly lately: Claustrophobia.

I know what lies behind the door of Room 101. Being trapped in a tight place is my worst fear. As a kid, a friend locked me in a refrigerator as a prank. He had no intention of leaving me in there, and I knew that. Nevertheless, I freaked out. While in college I went spelunking with friends in the mountains above U.C. Santa Cruz. I only reluctantly followed them into the barren dark and barely contained my growing panic as we squeezed ourselves into places I imagined any number of ways to be inextricable. As part of my job as an electrician I must often crawl into attics and under floors. Sometimes I have to close my eyes, imagine myself somewhere else, take a deep breath. I don’t know why I watched the movie Buried. It was a nightmare. I don’t want to be buried, even when I’m dead.

My best dreams are flying dreams. I still think it is big mistake that human beings were not made to fly. I know we can, with machines. But I mean really fly. I am haunted by the line from T.S.Eliot’s poem, The Lovesong of J. Alfred Prufrock:

I should have been a pair of ragged claws

scuttling across the floors of silent seas.

All that space above, and here I am stuck to the floor of the earth, crawling around like a bottom feeder. Flying feels so right and natural in my dreams…

I’ve been experiencing a growing anxiety, a rising sense of panic. I feel trapped on this earth, imprisoned in this flesh. Rachel is unreachable, and that evokes a feeling of helpless, inescapable confinement. I rise in the middle of the night, get out of bed, and walk around to shake off the chains. I look at the stars. But even all that space seems only an elaborate cage. Make it as large as you can, I still feel imprisoned.

Jill’s sister Lindsay and her family came up to visit us to ease the difficulty of the 4-year anniversary of Rachel’s death. We did something we had been wanting to do for years. Lindsay and Rachel shared a love of large cats. We took Lindsay to the Barry R. Kirshner Wildlife Sanctuary, which houses an amazing collection of large, exotic cats. They are kept for their own good. For one reason or another, they could not survive in the wild. But that truth cannot be impressed upon them. When they are not sleeping, they restlessly pace the confines of their cage. It reminded me of the poem by Rainer Maria Rilke, called, The Panther:

His vision, from the constantly passing bars,

Has grown so weary that it cannot hold

Anything else. It seem to him there are

A thousand bars; and behind the bars, no world…

Rationally, I know that physical limitations define the terms of our freedom. We have five senses with which to perceive. But this feeling nips constantly at the back of my mind: what do they exclude? Perhaps they permit me only to perceive the prison, but not the real world beyond this captivity for which my heart yearns...

That night I had a dream: I was told that I would live to be 100 years old. The longevity that to most people may have been welcome news, seemed to me a cruel, intolerable sentence. 50 more years without Rachel. Another lifetime. In a reverse Hezekiah (2 Kings 20) I turned to the wall and wept inconsolably. I cried in anguish, “God, it’s too much… I cannot do it…” .

Sometimes you feel like you live too long.

Days drip slowly on the page.

You catch yourself

Pacing the cage.

Bruce Cockburn, “Pacing the Cage”

"Deep down I can't manage to become attached to this monkey-cage frenzy people so dramatically call life."

Rene Daumal, "Mount Analogue"

Life, just life is never

miracle enough no matter

how we try to church ourselves

Samuel Hazo, "For Anna Catherine On Thanksgiving"

This is not a death wish, but the acknowledgement of a restless, holy longing I think we all feel sometimes. I will wait. There is so much more to the story...

Monday, January 2, 2012

Snapshots Along The Way

Here are few snapshots of the past few months:

Jill and I went Christmas shopping, and had a pleasant enough experience. We decided to have lunch at Chili’s. At a table near us, a family was having a birthday celebration for their college age daughter. They sang happy birthday. Her name was Rachel. Of course it was…

When we traveled to southern California for Christmas we passed a car with a bumpersticker that read: “Freedom Isn’t Free. My grandson died for it!” In a way, Rachel, too, died for the sake of freedom: The freedom to drink and drive. No one celebrates her heroism, though. True, she did not choose her sacrifice or volunteer to put herself in harm’s way. With no greater protection than her blind faith in the goodwill of her fellow drivers, she took her chance, as we all do, every day. Now look at us. God bless America...

I get Google alerts for “DUI Homicide”. I don’t read them anymore. It is the same sad, maddening story every day. Nothing has changed. Rachel is dead. The world wasn’t impressed enough to change. How many more Rachel’s it will take until it does, I am too sick to reckon…

Two days before his 21st birthday, our son, Erik, and his friend, Amanda (whose boyfriend Aaron was killed in a drunk driving incident), were rear-ended at an intersection by a 17 year old girl. The impact propelled his car into middle of the intersection. Fortunately, nobody was crossing at the time. His car was totaled, though. The driver’s mother, who carried the insurance, is underinsured and will not cover the cost of replacement. Happy Birthday! Jill and I were in Chico that night, going to see the movie, The Way, by Emilio Estevez, about a man who carries his son’s ashes as he finishes his son’s pilgrimage to Santiago de Compostela. Erik didn’t have the heart to call us that night. He waited to call us in the morning until he knew we would be home from church. Another phone call. Another reminder of the fragility of life, of how slim the thread by which all our hopes hang...

No Christmas tree. No holiday music. A pile of cards stacked on the dining room buffet were the only evidence of the season inside our house. We didn’t have the heart for it, and because we were going to be in southern California, we had a good enough excuse not to make the effort. We put up a wreath and lights outside. Any casual observer would never know there was a completely dispirited couple making a show of life inside. True, it wasn’t as dreadful as it has been. I don’t know if we are showing signs of improvement, though. We were numb, indifferent, going through the motions. Merry Christmas!...

Dispirited. I received an email invitation from the Abbey of the Arts to consider seeking out a word that would guide my spiritual direction for the coming year. The word that was given to me is: “dispirited.” Hardly encouraging. But true. I recognized the truth of it the instant I heard it, and, as I lay on my bed listening, I heard it all night long. So there was no mistake. It’s not as bad as it sounds, though. It’s necessary first to acknowledge the problem, to find the starting point, before we can take a step in the right direction toward wholeness. Jill and I have already begun to do that. I don’t know where it will end. By the grace of God, the grace of God…

Some of Rachel and Erik’s friends visited us while we were down south. There was a moment when two of Rachel’s friends were sitting on the sofa with a space between them, and I had the distinct thought: Rachel should be sitting right there in that spot, laughing with her friends, discussing her job, her school (no, she would be finished with school by now), her boyfriend (or husband, or child…)with them. I let it go. I tried to be thankful for the gift of the presence of those who were there in the moment. A step in the right direction. Still: How much more beautiful the world would be if only Rachel were here…

I had to get out of the house, so I revisited Mt. Rubidoux. I walked to the cross at the top of the mountain to watch the sun rise. I went seeking something, but I did not know what I wanted. Though I did not receive anything tangible, I did come away with the conviction that many other seekers have walked the same path up the mountain with a heavy heart. I found signs along the way...

The cross is a holy emblem that reminds us of a noble act and a sacred idea. But as I observed the birds, the coyotes, the people on the mountain that morning, I had to acknowledge that they were no less holy than the cross I had made the goal of my pilgrimage.

I am reading Charles Frazier’s Thirteen Moons. The protagonist describes a Native American he knew, called Bear: “Bear loved all the tangible manifestations of Creation as fervently as Baptists do King Jesus. It was not the spirit of winds, rivers, mountains, trees that he worshiped, it was the living things themselves.” The living things themselves... The phrase resonates. One of the things I have come to appreciate more painfully than I ever thought possible is just that: the unique and irreplaceable precious life of each individual. The holiness of life expressed in every particular. Rachel is just one of the billions of humans that have ever lived. There has never been and there will never be another. How is it possible to live with the loss of something so uniquely precious? That is what I am dying to find out…