Under The Collar Experiment

Wednesday, August 20, 2014

Meeting the Dead in Love

More than preaching, more than weddings, more than child dedications, I love memorial services.  I feel I was knit together in my mother's womb and molded throughout the course of my life to serve in this way. Robin Williams’ recent passing had me thinking about the memorial services I have done for those who have taken their own lives.

Not that long ago I led a service for a woman who committed suicide after years of struggling with mental illness.  She would not have wanted to be defined only by the way she died. It was such a small piece of who she was.  She was also diligent, a hard worker, blunt, loving, and compassionate. As I listened to her family, one story stood out to me that seemed to slip past the family and under the door of the room where we were gathered piecing together the fragments of her life.  Once, the deceased and her sister found a bird that a cat had tortured. Its wings were broken. Its feathers were missing, ripped out in chunks. It was barely alive. Seeing this once-beautiful bird struggling for life broke their hearts. It was the deceased’s sister who told me this story. She couldn’t look at the bird—she had to turn away. Her sister—the hero of my eulogy—asked for a bucket of water. In an act of compassion of which very few of us are capable, the deceased dipped the bird beneath the surface of the water and held it there until it drowned.

This story created an opportunity for forgiveness of this final act that took her away from her family. It held the suffering and the strength. A single story from her life offered healing in a way that scripture could not. The joy of our lives is richer when the pain is not neglected, not ignored but held up to the light. When we do this everyone walks away inspired, renewed, and reminded that this life is worth living even in the face of suicide.

People often ask how ministers can write a eulogy for someone we have never met.  It is not as difficult as it may seem.  I am just a vessel for the stories told by those who knew them.  And so I meet them through the eyes of their family and friends.  The formula for doing this well is simple: First, I fall in love with humanity. Then, I fall in love with those who loved the deceased as well as with those who may have struggled to love him.  Finally, I have to fall in love with the one who is gone. After my heart is cracked open for all those involved, I then have an opportunity to meet the dead in the thick of that love, even though our earthly paths did not cross. Knowing the deceased really only adds one more story to the mix, the personal impact of their earthly life on mine.

Death is an opportunity for the truth in a way like no other.  I have the incredible opportunity to paint— using the stories from the living— pictures of the dead.  Although you may not think it so, this is not a lament. A eulogy is meant to praise. It is a final act of gratitude for a life lived. That gratitude, expressed in the context of a life’s struggle, allows us to learn about our own lives by hearing about someone else’s.
In hearing and telling your stories, they in turn, become ours.

Friday, August 1, 2014

Proud as A Peacock

I have had two tattoos on my ankles since my late teens early twenties.  I have always liked one more than the other… so they have also served as a reminder that all people-- judges, therapists, ministers, even tattoo artists have bad days.  Some bad days have more permanent consequences than others.  Both of my tattoos are from an era in my life that involved a lot of feeling like I had missed the 60's and even more Grateful Dead. One tattoo is of the word peace in rainbow colors with flowers all around and the other a peace symbol that is supposed to look like it is covered in foliage.  It instead looks a bit like a failed attempt at coloring inside the lines. Because of my chosen professions of teaching and ministry, I have spent most of my time covering them.  In the Oklahoma summers most of my wardrobe has revolved around what I could wear with black opaque tights.  

Just before my wife and I had our commitment ceremony in Tulsa in July of 2009, I decided to invest in covering up the one I liked the least with another tattoo.  I found an artist whose work I liked, scheduled an appointment, and made sure he was in a good mood.  The cover up tattoo is of a tree of life in all four seasons with delicate leaves that move through the seasonal colors until winter where there are no leaves at all.  In the section that represents the spring, there is a tiny acorn that represented my hope of bringing our daughter into the world. At the commitment ceremony, I walked bare-legged in a summer dress for the first time in many years and am proud to remember this phase in my life.

In January, I found myself on a new precipice.  I had been invited to participate in a new business venture and was at the beginning of redefining my ministerial role as the church began to restructure. I knew that I wanted to cover up the other ankle tattoo from my youth, and I knew it was time to mark a new chapter in my life yet again. Knowing what I wanted and the style of artist I was after, I found someone extremely talented.  So now on my left calf, with her tail wrapped around my ankle to cover the peace and flowers is a beautiful peacock.

My mother was Christian and my father was a Buddhist Christian and so the peacock is a symbol that reminds me from where I have come. And it represents what I aspire to be. I have always been fascinated by peacocks: their beauty and mystique, the way they use their voice.  They nest on the ground but root in the trees. Even though their beauty is often translated into vanity, early Christians adopted the ancient Greek myth about the peacock that they do not decay after death.  So the peacock is the Easter bird and often depicted next to the tree of life (which I didn’t know until after the fact). Peacocks symbolize transformation and immortality. The feathers mimicking eyes remind me of the multiple ways to see any situation. In Buddhism, they are a symbol of openness, acceptance and wisdom, synonymous with bodhisattvas. Just as Peacocks are capable of eating many poisonous plants without being affected, bodhisattvas are believed to transform the poisonous mind of ignorance, desire and hatred into the thought of enlightenment, to take delusions as the path toward liberation opening up colourfully like the peacocks' tail.  

And so to mark this new phase and only weeks after launching this new blog project, I got a new tattoo in my collar.