Tuesday, October 28, 2014

A Sweet-Severe Duty

Among the most sacred duties of pastoral service is that of ministering to those who are near death and honoring them after they have passed into eternity.  This week it has been my honor to be engaged in this sweet and severe duty for two members of the congregation I serve. One dear member, full of years, passed suddenly in his wife’s arms, crossing the River after a life characterized by service, selflessness, kindness and love.  The other, passed away after a determined 5-year battle with pancreatic cancer, still praising her God to the end, voicing her love for Him, her family and those of us who visited her in her last hours with all the vigor she could muster – a warrior of love to the very end.
By this stage in my ministry life, I do not know how many sacred scenarios like this I have been honored to witness, but I do know that my heart continues to be moved in every case and that I remember details of most of the end of life scenarios of which I’ve been a part.  I can recall my first ministry involvement for a funeral as a very young lay-leader in ministry, serving as a soloist and Bible reader for a fallen soldier who had been killed in an airplane crash in Gander, Newfoundland that claimed his life and the lives of over 250 other Peacekeepers from the 101st Airborne Division in December of 1985.   I remember the first death of a congregation member I experienced as a pastor on a night of record snowfall in Cleveland, OH, when I drove a very rickety Yugo vehicle in impossible conditions to be with the family of this precious member and then burying her a few days later in record below zero conditions.  I also remember the first funeral performed in our newly formed congregation in Detroit, Michigan, when our tiny congregation, my family and I buried our daughter – Samantha-Luz Bautista Jackson on a painful, cold, barren winter Day, as my mind reeled and I wasn’t sure if I’d ever smile from my heart again.
The solemnity of a human being’s death smashes through the callouses of familiarity – if one allows it to – and has the power to link souls together in an experience that can never be precisely duplicated.  An openness to experience the reality of the pain, rather than hide it, can potentially give one the capacity to actually feel more alive than one might feel without ever having experienced the pain of loss. The special and hallowed nature of being with a person and their family in those last moments or in the days after their traverse to “The Other Side” has the ability to yank one’s soul from complacency and has the power to stir one’s spirit to take advantage of every opportunity to engage life, as the brevity and limitations of one’s lifespan are made evident in the passing of another. 
All of these thoughts occupy my mind as I carry out my most solemn pastoral duty.  I do not consider my duty or these accompanying thoughts as a burden or bother – I consider them a blessing and an indication that the Lord has kept my heart tender enough to make a difference in serving others. I challenge you to engage those who are hurting and to risk the pain of suffering by getting close to those who are in the midst of experiencing pain.  You will not emerge unscathed and you will be wounded and scarred. Yet, you will find that the most painful experiences can also shape you with your scars to emerge with a deeper appreciation for the gift of life and a deeper compassion for those who struggle as they live it.

Sunday, October 19, 2014

A Series of Hard Goodbyes

Bidding Dad farewell was as difficult as saying hello. We did a conference call and Luz and the girls greeted him and sang for him. He didn't say anything but I was fortunate in being present so that I could watch his facial expressions show his enjoyment. It's now the key to knowing whether or not he's engaged with a situation and he was indeed engaged in their greetings and songs. It has been a blessing to see him, but this visit has made it clear to me that my heart must find fulfillment in the giving not in the receiving. It's only right as I recount years of his modeling fatherhood, manhood and humanity in front of my eyes and provided for us while he served the nation at great personal cost: the sacrifice of his body and mind. My mom also shaped by her sacrifices for me as she modeled an amazing faith literally to her last breath. Unfortunately, I never really got the chance to express thanks, say goodbye or to serve her as she served me. Therefore, I count this time with Dad as a precious opportunity to quietly do for him what he has done for me and countless others, knowing I can never receive in return what I give. That's the way Jesus calls us to serve - because of love; because we're his; Especially when it seems to be a one way enterprise. What a blessing it is to love not because you'll feel the love but just because. Keeping Dad close to my heart until I see him again!

Friday, October 17, 2014

Identity Matters

Identity Matters.  My friend and Brother in the faith, Omar Reyes, tagged me in an article in which an African –American mother became shocked to learn that after a lifetime of solid teaching and living geared to raise her biracial children as racially secure young Christians, she discovered that her son had a situation arise at school where his identity was questioned and he felt compelled to deny any ties at all to his African heritage. It’s amazing that the steps our society has taken to defang racism and racialization seem to have instead given it a new bite. In one sense, when the generation to which I belong lived our childhood years, ethnic identification was much easier - the one drop rule was in full swing. It mattered not which parent was black or how far back one's blackness could be traced. If one had ANY discernable black heritage, one was black - period! Then the Tiger Wood generation began to make rather reasonable stands related to its desire to embrace all of the heritages that might be found in their respective DNA. "Caublinasian" was the term Mr. Woods employed. Such attempts at self-identity work well, as long as one tows the line of expectations regarding thought, inclinations, behaviors and success. When one steps out of line in one of these regards, one's self-identity options become limited. Tiger Woods may have been Caublinasian to himself and the majority culture at the apex of his success, but he became unquestionably Black after the revelation of his failures. And so it goes. The unshakeable stigma of failures and anomalies somehow stand immoveable as conspicuous identifiers of blackness. These identifiers are never spoken of publicly and are not acceptable, but somewhere, they're being discussed and they are amazingly understood by most of us – especially “old school” blacks, and youngsters. Some are so acutely aware of the persistent stigmas associated with blackness, that there are almost no limits to what means will be employed to gain acceptance by others, including self-denial. This is not a new phenomenon. People have attempted to "pass" for being non-black for as long as there have been interactions between Europeans and Africans. It is simply stunning and disheartening to think that stigmas related to blackness would exist after 50 years of civil rights legislation and change – yet they do. Somehow, people are countering all of the public resources, all the teaching and all of the preparation towards better relations, and perpetuating fear, stereotypes and racial exclusivity. The result is, those individuals who are just not strong enough to stand in the reality of who they are, cave under the pressure to be accepted to the point of denying a significant part of who they are. There have been plenty of indicators via high profile court cases that much work towards racial understanding remains to be done. Many had hoped the next generation was ready to live out a new reality in a new day. Unfortunately, it seems that today’s reality is simply a recycled version of yesterday’s and our troubles remain.

Wednesday, October 15, 2014

Fighting the Fog

I walked in where Dad couldn't see me and stole a kiss from behind. He looked at me. He just looked. No greeting. No widening eyes. Just a look. My heart sank, yet I tried to maintain my composure. I couldn't prevent myself from asking a question no son wants to ask his father: "Dad, do you know me?" It's amazing what one sees when one strains with all one's capacity to discern exactly what a loved one is feeling. There was a change in his expresion. He seemed to want to say something, but it almost seemed that he was too tired to say it, or that something unseen was preventing it. He smiled slightly and simply stroked my face. I wouldn't trade that touch for any monetary prize or temporal honor. My father touched my face and I felt as if I had won an Olympic Medal. That's the path that one must walk with a loved one suffring from dementia. It is a sad yet tender journey - brutal but interspersed with priceless and sweet moments. It is a hard, steady journey that one friend who is traveling this difficult road refers to as "the long goodbye." Today marked another painful step along the path, as I witnessed this turn in Dad. His nurses are deeply touched because he refuses to complain. They say that many of his comrades grow angrier and more agitated with each passing day and won't stop complaining. It seems that Dad refuses to start complaining, rather suffering in silence in a world known but to him. Dementia is like that too. One's deepest convictions tend to linger in strange but pronounced ways. It seems the dirt poor country boy who was overwhelmed by the abundance he found in the Army and equally struck by the contrast of the suffering he witnessed in far-flung lands, remains grateful even as he endures his most difficult war. Yet, though Dad is making this noble inner stand, it's terribly hard for me to witness Dad's declinebecause I have very clear memories of a young, 27 year-old Dad - a combat tested paratrooper who could run all day, fight all night yet maintained his winsomeness, cheerfulness and humble wisdom. Those clear memories seem to mock the frail man that I saw today. Yet it is that man that remains- the glimmer of who he truly is that I saw when he stroked my face - it is that inner man that somehow in the midst of a great and growing fog manages to find a meaningful way to communicate a deep love that he seems to fight to maintain. I'll drink in that love to the last drop - even when it seems that the well has run dry because I know that the love is there - it's really just obscured by that deep and hideous fog that it is my duty to see beyond - no matter how much it hurts to look into it and no matter how long it takes for me to see it. The fog is there, but Dad and I will face it and fight it together - forever - even when only one of us remembers what we're fighting for.

Saturday, October 11, 2014

Be The Friend Who Heals

Are you the kind of friend people can approach when they need wisdom and guidance from a heart filled with love and concern? Do you have friends you can approach in like manner when you really need somewhere to turn? Proverbs 27:9 says, "Oil and perfume make the heart glad, and the sweetness of a friend comes from his earnest counsel!" I have been blessed over the past cople of days by friends who offered me the sweet aroma of a listening ear and the soothing ointment of wise counsel. I am fortunate to have such friends and I hope I am consistently such a friend myself! Be a blessing for a friend today by listening to their stories, and encouraging them in their distress. Regardless of your appearance, this will make you as welcome as fragrant a bouquet and as comforting as the most precious healing ointment!

Try A Little Kindness

Galatians 6:10 begins by challenging us, "...as we have opportunity, let us do good to everyone..." Our daughter J Maris Bautista-Jackson Wallag shared how blessed she was by someone's kindness in the store when upon receiving change from their purchase, they passed on the change to help pay her bill. Maris was so touched, she did the same and hoped that might set off a "chain reaction" of kindness. Maybe you haven't encountered that type of kindness today, or anytime in your life. To paraphrase a friend who responded to Maris' story with warm zeal, "If you can't find a nice person, be one!" If Maris' experience is an indicator, the kindness you show just might prove to be contagious! With that in mind, here's a Flashback Friday oldie but goodie from Glen Campbell, "Try A Little Kindness! " Glen Campbell ~ 'Try A Little Kindness'. (Live): http://youtu.be/slhXhfIVUII

The Woes of Dementia

Oh dementia! I long for the day when you, like death, shall die! Come Lord Jesus and on this hard day, bless my father in a special way!