I don’t know how to start this blog post. Two people in our church passed away in the last two weeks and I am currently writing their memorial services. I suppose I could ponder the rudeness of saying good-bye to two loved ones too soon. I could get all Act-Three-of-Our-Town and remind everyone that life is over in a blink so we’d better love now, while we can.
Instead, I think I’ll tell a love story about Judy Rodgers, one of our congregants who passed.
I can’t tell this at story at her memorial. It’s just too weird. But I can tell it here. And I tell it because it’s a nice snapshot of Judy. Plus, it captures the essence of my outgoing message. Today and every day, I use my words to stand for our freaky frailty illumined by grace.
A Touch of Cancer:
About five years ago, I came down with what I like to call a touch of cancer. It was stage one breast cancer, relatively easy to treat with a lumpectomy and a short course of radiation. I coped pretty well. I am German after all, a tank with occasional tears.
One aspect of the experience that worried me though, was the idea of having cancer in public. I knew I was going to have to tell my congregation. They are the nicest people in the world, and still I was scared. I had never done this before. I didn’t know if I could cope with an onslaught of anxiety on my behalf. I wanted to handle this in the best way possible and I wasn’t sure I had the skills.
But the day came and I had to tell. It was Sunday morning, a few days post-op. Armed with a shiny shawl, bling over bandages, I arrived at church in a state of anxiety.
The leaders knew already. As usual, we met for our pre-service prayer.
It was strangely quiet in Annette’s office. Normally we tell jokes and play with a remote control fart-machine. We joke about tongue-kissing as a preamble to prayer. Instead, the leaders circled me like bomb-sniffing dogs, wondering what to say to me, wondering who I would be and what the church would become, now that I had the cancer and everything.
We prayed. That felt better. Then Annette started her usual routine of determining Sunday service assignments — who will greet congregants, who will work in the bookstore, etc. Annette reminded everyone I had requested a hug-free-zone. “No hugs that might press on sutures and rip out radiation catheters,” she said.
Our leaders slowly, gently, started to joke, revving their comedy engines in an accelerando of goodwill. They imitated football blocks and wrestling strategies to protect me from over-zealous huggers in the congregation. It was almost starting to feel like our church again.
Then Judy Rodgers delivered the punch line:
“I know!” she said. “Why don’t you put one of those plastic dog-head-cones on your breast?”
I laughed out loud and something relaxed. The bomb sniffing dogs stopped circling and I knew I would find the words to tell the congregation. I knew everything would be alright. All it took was a simple visualization of me leading a church service with a dog cone-of-shame strapped to my chest. Go figure.
Why a Story About a Dog-Cone?
I know many stories about our friend Judy – how she prevailed over physical challenges, how she served with great heart and abundance, how she loved our church and the people in it. Why would I choose to tell this one crazy story about a dog-cone gone wild?
To me, it is a perfect slice of Reality.
I showed up that Sunday, flawed and fearful, wishing I could affirm it all away. Our leaders showed up poignant and tender, doing their best to white-cane-tap their way through our shared predicament. Judy showed up with wit and wisdom – saying something ultimately healing but mildly inappropriate. (When’s the last time you told your minister to strap a dog-head-cone to her breast?).
But what she said made a perfect moment. The pieces of the morning snapped together like a Rubik’s cube. The puzzle was solved and I saw that it wasn’t really a puzzle after all. It was simply an opportunity to awaken to the tarnished joy of being present to life in all its frailties. I don’t totally understand why it was so meaningful to me, but I suspect that I don’t understand much, because much of life is simply too beautiful to understand.
Three years or so, after the cancer-cone incident, I summoned Judy to my office. She had that deer-in-the-headlights look of “Oh crap, what did I do now?”
I said, “Judy, I’ve been meaning to tell you this for years. Remember the time when I had cancer and I was so scared about telling the congregation? Remember how I was concerned that people might hug me too hard? Do you remember what you said to me?”
“Yeah,” she said. “I told you that you should strap a dog-cone to your boob. Am I in trouble?”
“Absolutely not,” I said. “Your words helped me know there was nothing wrong about having cancer and nothing wrong with being a little afraid. And most of all, you showed me that I was still me, right where I belonged in my true church, the church of ridiculous grace.”
We laughed and cried a little. We hugged. Then I asked her to serve on the board, where she applied herself nobly for several years. Now she has passed on. And even though I trust that she too has found her true church, the church of infinite wholeness, I will still miss her.
A Living Love Story:
Okay, so maybe I will get a little “Our-Town” on you, because for me, the teaching of death is always Act Three of this mystical play.
In Our Town, Emily returns from the grave to earth, to re-live one ordinary day in her life, a life that was over too soon. She can’t bear the beauty of it. She is overwhelmed by the ordinary magnificence of everyday living.
She begins to sob and asks to go back to her grave. “It goes so fast,” she says. “We don’t have time to look at one another….Oh, earth, you’re too wonderful for anybody to realize you. Do any human beings ever realize life while they live it – every, every minute?”
The Stage Manager (AKA God) answers her. “No,” he says. “Saints and poets maybe…they do some….”
I am grateful that I took the time to connect with Judy, to say that her crazy dog-cone comment made a difference in my life. I wish I had connected and shared more, not only with Judy but with everyone who has filled me with tiny bytes of beauty and meaning.
Maybe that can change today.
Maybe my wish can become our reality. Perhaps we can start this minute, to connect and share, to realize life while we live it. And maybe then, when we take that last, loving look at the world, as we let go to move beyond the beyond – we can say to God, ourselves and everyone else – “I lived like the saints and poets. I was a living love story.” Godspeed, Judy.
**Featured Image by James Scolari