Vigil & Vocation: My Grandfather’s Death & My Life


Two weekends ago was the birthday of my late grandfather, who died a decade ago. I just finished a social work class on end-of-life issues, and that class had me thinking a lot about him, the impact of his death, my own life and legacy, and how that has all changed and morphed over these past ten years.

So I’m going to spend a few posts reflecting on this. Today I wanted to share how the experience of his death shaped my life personally and professionally.

But first, a little about him. Due to a mispronunciation by the first grandchild, we called my grandfather “Peep”; and Peep and Mammaw’s house was where the entire family came for weekly dinners and holidays. He was the quintessential man of his age: the quiet, stoic, Texas man’s man. He was my mother’s father, the patriarch of the family, and exerted a great centrifugal force in the system. His death left a large hole which I don’t know we’ve recovered from, honestly.

Continue reading

Systematizing the “Right” Way to Grieve


When I watched my grandfather die, the weirdest thing to me was that I had no idea what to feel or how to respond. Humans have been dealing with death for hundreds of thousands of years and we still are paralyzed by it. We click into any number of different responses ranging from shutting down to explosively acting out.

For my current class on caring for those at the end of their life, we went over some theoretical models for grieving and bereavement. Going through the history, it was fascinating just how desperately humans have wanted a framework for how we respond to death and dying.

Part of the problem is this: how do you define “successful” or “healthy” grief? Moving on with life while living a joyful, grateful existence full of robust social connections? I think most would agree that’s a good picture of it. But the real difficulty when you’re sitting in front of a grieving person (or are going through it yourself) is: how do we get to that place?

I think many of us believe that you really need to feel the sadness, stare it in the face, deal with it, process it, sit in it for a time. But why? My gut thinks that’s the way it should go, but the research says otherwise.

Plenty of people go through a huge loss, feel a twinge of sadness, and then get up the next morning and move on with life, with no discernible negative impact on the rest of their life or relationships. When people aren’t actively in emotional distress, there is little evidence that forcing someone to do “grief work” is actually helpful.

Continue reading

When Death and I have met


I’m currently in a class on caring for those at the End-of-Life. At the beginning of this course, we were given an assignment (which you can do yourself) to give us a baseline as to our feelings and experiences around death and dying, and begin cultivating an awareness of how we cope with it.

I thought I had a good sense of my relation to death in my life, but this really clarified and confronted me in some profound ways. I saw just how unacquainted I am with death, and struggled to recall times it had entered my life.

The first death I knew of was my great-grandmother, with whom I had an oddly strong connection. But I was 10 or 11 at the time and heard about it from my mom, I think, while we sat in the car in our driveway. I remember numbness and confusion, not really knowing how I was supposed to feel. I felt solace in how religious she was, and I felt a responsibility to carry on her “legacy”.

But still, we did not return from Virginia to Texas for her funeral. This meant that my first funeral for a little boy at my church who had drowned. I was maybe 14 at the time. I did not know him, nor his family, and had no connection with them other than we went to the same large church. I went more out of curiosity and was confused at how detached I felt.

My biggest acquaintance with death was that of my grandfather. It was the first dead body I saw, and I was present for the hospice care and process of dying and grief over the course of a couple of weeks or so. But I will have more to say about this death another time.

Continue reading

Lent, Accompanied by Death


I am back in school. After having received my Masters of Divinity several years ago, I am now completing the other half of training for my desired career path: a Masters of Social Work.

I’ve been working in the social work field for over a decade and have known that I’ve wanted to move towards more clinical therapy-type work. All along, I have imagined this would be your run-of-the-mill outpatient counseling with adults dealing with addiction, marital issues, mental health concerns, etc. I have respected those that work in inpatient settings, with kids, with the elderly, and such–but I have not imagined that would be my route. And I still don’t.

However, here in my second semester, just as the Christian Church is in the season of Lent, I am taking a course on End-of-Life Care, and it’s shaping up to be one of those courses that will profoundly affect me in the long run.

I’m taking the class not only because my desire in clinical work is to try and bring some greater sense of wholeness, health, and dignity to the hardest parts of human existence, but because death is an aspect of human life I’ve not had a lot of experience with. I’ve had some family members, a few acquaintances, and plenty of clients die over the years; and I’ve walked with others in their grief over the loss of others. But still, I’ve had relatively little training and direct experience with it.

Also, while religious faith can provide a structure and a sense of resilience, coping, and meaning in the face of death–that’s certainly been true for me–it can also sometimes serve as a distraction from our mortality. It can be used to minimize death, prevent us from taking it seriously, or keep us from really grappling, internalizing, or accepting it.

Continue reading

holy saturday // readings & silence {2018)


Holy Saturday: a day between the ages; a day of mystery, of unspeaking, of undoing, of unknowing.

Scripture Reading:
everything the gospels say was happening on this day

Matthew 27.62-66

The next day, that is, after the day of Preparation, the chief priests and the Pharisees gathered before Pilate and said, “Sir, we remember what that impostor said while he was still alive, ‘After three days I will rise again.’ Therefore command the tomb to be made secure until the third day; otherwise his disciples may go and steal him away, and tell the people, ‘He has been raised from the dead,’ and the last deception would be worse than the first.” Pilate said to them, “You have a guard of soldiers; go, make it as secure as you can.” So they went with the guard and made the tomb secure by sealing the stone.

Luke 23:56b

On the sabbath they rested according to the commandment.

-silence-

Continue reading

“Teach Us to Number Our Days” (Psalm 90) [a Lent sermon]


I had the privilege of preaching the Ash Wednesday service at one of my church’s campuses a few weeks ago. As is appropriate to that Holy Day and this Lenten season itself, we sat with words that drew us into a meditation on our mortality and death.

(I also talk about my grandfather’s death. For more about that, you can read my reflections.)

I help lead a Bible Study and sometimes, when I’m feeling artsy, to help us start a discussion on a certain text from Scripture, I’ll ask my group a question: what color is this text? As in, what’s the emotional tone? When you close your eyes, and let its words sit in you, what color are the images that come to mind? For me, sitting with this Psalm before preaching it, I felt it was a dull, pale blue–or maybe more like a burlap grey. And I have found that “hue” marking much of my time this Lent.

So even now, a few weeks in to season, I find myself returning to the themes of this Scripture text. I hope it might lead you to engage all the more deeply into this Holy Lent. The text is Psalm 90.1-12, and here’s the sermon audio. Feel free to send me any thoughts, questions or concerns:

You can also download it here, or subscribe to our podcast. If reading is more your style, here is my manuscript for your perusal. Continue reading

My Grandfather’s Passing (Hope in Death?)


peep-paul-dance-2Today is the sixth anniversary of my Grandfather’s death. I am reposting this reflection I wrote at the time.

This past Sunday, the day after Christmas, I watched my grandfather die. This is the first death I’ve experienced of someone very close to me. I’ve known people who had died, sure, but no one as close as this.

This man walked with me and I with him for my entire life. I sat on his knee and was tickled by his hands. I grew up hearing legends about him, and I walked in a general sense of awe and disbelief when in his presence.

His name was (is?) Lester Travis Williamson, or as I knew him for most my life: Peep (a mispronunciation due to the first grandchild’s toddler lisp).

Peep represented for me a tenacity and determinedness of love that great stories of tragedy and triumph are built upon. As their old pastor said during the funeral, he was a man that if you asked for a crumb would give you the entire loaf and then chase you out the door to give you another loaf for the road.

But this is not to be confused with the contemporary pictures of the sentimental, gratuitously giving man–cheerful, talkative, jocular, and always-optimistic. If Peep was anything, he was the quintessential man of his generation–America’s vision of a “real man”–quiet, determined, and strong. He spoke with intention in every syllable, meaning what he said and saying what he meant.

Continue reading

New Seminary Post: Holy Week Music & Readings on Death


Jesus & The Cross

I have a new post on the site Going to Seminary. I am putting up occasional posts giving different things to read around the interwebs, and this week focuses on Holy Week and its theme of death–Christ’s Death, Our Death, and Death conquered. I also give some classical music suggestions for this week (more Lent music suggestions here). I link to articles about a sister in Christ who recently died well, a New York Times piece about watching family die, and some writings by non-Christians about death. It ends with one of my favorite quotes ever. May these writings help you press into this time and our Savior all the more deeply.

Read the full post:
“Around the Web: Holy Week Edition

Check out the rest of my Going To Seminary posts.

Some emotional outbursts at Esther. I don’t like this book. | Esther 9


Now in the twelfth month, which is the month of Adar, on the thirteenth day, when the king’s command and edict were about to be executed, on the very day when the enemies of the Jews hoped to gain power over them, but which had been changed to a day when the Jews would gain power over their foes, the Jews gathered in their cities throughout all the provinces of King Ahasuerus to lay hands on those who had sought their ruin; and no one could withstand them, because the fear of them had fallen upon all peoples. All the officials of the provinces, the satraps and the governors, and the royal officials were supporting the Jews, because the fear of Mordecai had fallen upon them. For Mordecai was powerful in the king’s house, and his fame spread throughout all the provinces as the man Mordecai grew more and more powerful. So the Jews struck down all their enemies with the sword, slaughtering, and destroying them, and did as they pleased to those who hated them. In the citadel of Susa the Jews killed and destroyed five hundred people. They killed Parshandatha, Dalphon, Aspatha, Poratha, Adalia, Aridatha, Parmashta, Arisai, Aridai, Vaizatha, the ten sons of Haman son of Hammedatha, the enemy of the Jews; but they did not touch the plunder.
Esther 9.1-10

What on earth? No gonna lie, this is maybe the first real deep reading I’ve given to Esther. I never internalized that this part was here. This is always skipped in popular retellings of this story. And I can see why. What was the point of this stuff? Save the Jews just to kill an even greater number of people? I can see why this book was so despised by many Jews. Once again, Esther is no model to follow after. I genuinely have no idea why this book is in the Bible. What little research I’ve done has said that there’s no evidence that this meant to be taken historically, so what purpose would this book have played in the community? Anti-imperialist wish fulfillment? A giant cathartic “what if?”

That very day the number of those killed in the citadel of Susa was reported to the king. The king said to Queen Esther, “In the citadel of Susa the Jews have killed five hundred people and also the ten sons of Haman. What have they done in the rest of the king’s provinces? Now what is your petition? It shall be granted you. And what further is your request? It shall be fulfilled.” Esther said, “If it pleases the king, let the Jews who are in Susa be allowed tomorrow also to do according to this day’s edict, and let the ten sons of Haman be hanged on the gallows.” So the king commanded this to be done; a decree was issued in Susa, and the ten sons of Haman were hanged. The Jews who were in Susa gathered also on the fourteenth day of the month of Adar and they killed three hundred persons in Susa; but they did not touch the plunder.

Now the other Jews who were in the king’s provinces also gathered to defend their lives, and gained relief from their enemies, and killed seventy-five thousand of those who hated them; but they laid no hands on the plunder. This was on the thirteenth day of the month of Adar, and on the fourteenth day they rested and made that a day of feasting and gladness.

Esther 9.11-17

What? Oh, and 75,000 people killed? Yeah right. This is a despicable book.

See other Marginalia here. Read more about the series here.

The King’s Authority: more Christian lessons from Esther | Esther 8.7-8


hen King Ahasuerus said to Queen Esther and to the Jew Mordecai, “See, I have given Esther the house of Haman, and they have hanged him on the gallows, because he plotted to lay hands on the Jews. You may write as you please with regard to the Jews, in the name of the king, and seal it with the king’s ring; for an edict written in the name of the king and sealed with the king’s ring cannot be revoked.”
Esther 8.7-8

Oh the beauty here. Look at this. This is the king who had conquered the enemy of God’s people, sitting down and lending his authority to the very people that he was previously in a contract of anger and condemnation towards. He lends them his very authority and gives them the responsibility and freedom–based on what they know of the world and culture around them–to proclaim the good news to their people with the king’s authority. Sound familiar? This is what we do as Christians, and we strive to do that faithfully.

See other Marginalia here. Read more about the series here.

Death as home; Death as gift | Esther 8.1


On that day King Ahasuerus gave to Queen Esther the house of Haman, the enemy of the Jews; and Mordecai came before the king, for Esther had told what he was to her.
Esther 8:1

Continuing the theme from an earlier note which compared Haman, the enemy of the Jews, to our enemy, sin and death. Here, we see that after the King has conquered our enemy, we’re then given the house of the enemy. In our case, the house of sin and evil is death itself. But because of the Resurrection and God’s victory over death, death is now given to us as a gift. A place of rest, and the doorway to help.

See other Marginalia here. Read more about the series here.

Why was Obamacare necessary? Christians, it seems.


nyt-flowers-medicine-bw{abstract: My point in this post is pretty simple. Christians seek radical end-of-life care dramatically more than non-religious people, and this accounts for a huge portion of American Health Care cost. In this piece, I ask if this drove prices up, therefore creating the situation where, ironically, Obamacare (a policy Evangelicals widely despise) was necessary.}

I wrote a while ago about my own current preoccupation with my fear of death. It caused me to read several related things, including the amazing book, The Art of Dying. In it, Rob Moll carefully helps guide Christians back toward embracing death for what it is: our greatest enemy, yes, but an enemy whose sting has been turned into a doorway to Glory Itself.

And so, as the horror-turned-beauty that Death is, the book encourages us to spend our energy preparing for Death more than avoiding it. He encourages Christians to recapture the doctrine of the “good death”.

And yet, it seems that American Christians are prone to do everything but that.

Moll talks of a study published in the Journal of the American Medical Association that found that Christians were three times more likely than those without religious faith to pursue aggressive end-of-life care, even though they fully understood they were dying and that the treatments would most likely not add any time to their lives.

One researcher told Moll, “patients who received outside clergy visits had worse quality of death scores than those who did not.” And if you have problems with this particular study, know that the book is full of research, studies, and interviews that lay out the pretty clear case that American Evangelicalism widely avoids preparing for death.

Now, we can talk about why this is and whether or not this is a sound Christianly posture another day (I happen to think it is not). Hopefully I’ll write a full review of the book in the weeks ahead. Today, though, I wanted to point out a huge irony this made me think of.
Continue reading

Diving into Death


books-death

It’s always difficult to talk about one’s own fear of one’s own death. It usually comes across as a little melodramatic and seems to carry with it the appearance that somehow your fear of your death is somehow felt more deeply, analyzed more fully, or experienced more truly.

In short, when people start whining about their fear of death. It can be annoying. I acknowledge this. And yet, here I am, telling you all that I am really, really scared of death.

When I mention this to people that know me as the guy who writes a lot about faith and seems to believe these things pretty deeply, people are (for some reason) shocked to hear me explain just how deep my fear of death goes. I know it’s not logical, but I somehow find the past works of God more easily believable than the future acts of God. I know you can’t have one without the other, but the human heart is a storm of contradiction and paradox.

And for some reason, Death has occupied my thoughts of late. Sure, I’ve wrestle with it’s reality, thought through it’s theological origin, seen it in the faces of the hurting, wrote about how to live in spite of it, and even engaged it in poetry and in song, but something has really captured me recently. I’ve been sitting in the presence of this fear.
Continue reading