Wednesday, May 30, 2012

A Funeral, and Healing

Last Saturday, I conducted the most difficult funeral so far in my ministry. It was for Ron, a man who was a member of the Beechworth congregation, and lived with mental illness and intellectual disability. There was a very complex family dynamic, as he had been estranged from his sons for many years, although his eldest son had taken significant steps towards reconciliation in the past few years, and had a very significant conversation with Ron on his death bed, which was very special to them both.

I found it very difficult to prepare and find the words to say, as I was already emotionally fragile from other things happening in my life, and Ron was a very dear and well loved member of our congregation, so on this occasion I had a dual role, both as the minister, and also as a mourner. Many people were praying for me, that I would find the right words, and also that I would be able to hold myself together through the service.

The funeral went very well (and I only cracked up once, towards the end)
* The truth was told about the difficulties in Ron's life,
* The pain was acknowledged, and not glossed over
* Ron's life was honoured, and his sister gave a cracking eulogy
* the gospel was proclaimed
* and there were words of healing, which many people told me were helpful for them in the process of grieving and healing of past hurts.

Below is the sermon I preached, using Revelation 21:1-7 as my text (chosen by Ron's son and daughter-in-law).

Much has been said … much more could be said – each of you will have your own memories and stories about the life of Ron. Some of you knew him in his earlier years, and others knew him more recently, here in Beechworth, so I encourage you to continue sharing stories and memories over refreshments after the service.

I met Ron when I first moved up here to be minister in this parish, a little over three years ago, and he’s been a faithful member of this congregation during that time (and had been for some time before that too). I also have many stories I could tell about Ron, and pray your indulgence, as I tell a couple of them.

When I arrived here, there was a list posted on the church noticeboard. A list of Ron’s suggestions for making the church better. Ron loved this church, it truly was his spiritual home, and he thought we should be more proactive about promoting the church and our activities in the local community.

My favourite suggestion on his list was that the church should purchase a quad bike, for the minister (me) to use for pastoral visits around the town, which would also enable me to do letterbox drop of pamphlets advertising the church, between visits, going from one house to the next. I explained to him that I had a car, and would rather use that to get to pastoral visits. He grudgingly accepted that.

Another time, Ron and I were chatting at morning tea, about our respective health issues. When I mentioned the problems with my knees, he said quite earnestly, as only Ron could, “Don’t want to be rude or anything, but do you think it might help if you lost a bit of weight?”

That comment was so typical of Ron- very direct, not especially tactful, but it came from a place of genuine care and concern. Because underneath the sometimes gruff exterior, I believe Ron had an essentially good heart, but, as we heard from his sister in her tribute to Ron, stuff got in the way of people being able to see that a lot of the time.

The Bible reading that we heard today (Rev 21:1-7) speaks about new beginnings, which may seem a little strange, since we’re here today to mark an ending- the ending of Ron’s earthly life. But so often in life; in the world around us and in the Bible, beginnings and endings are closely related.

It’s so often the case that the new and fresh thing can’t begin to grow until the old has passed away and made room for the new to flourish. However, it’s important to realise, as we look at the imagery in this reading from Revelation, that the new heaven and new earth that are spoken of do not simply replace the old, as if God ‘starts all over’. No, there is a sense of continuity; of redemption rather than replacement.

This world, God’s good creation, is not replaced, but redeemed. God does not make ‘all new things’, but rather makes ‘all things new’ (v5). And the ultimate city, the new Jerusalem, bears the name and recognisable features of the original earthly city.

Ron’s life was not easy. The mental and physical limitations he lived with meant that his life wasn’t easy for him, or those around him. Sometimes it seemed like he lived in a cloud of confusion and fuzziness, but every now and then, like the day we had that conversation about my knees, the cloud would clear, and we could get a glimpse of the real Ron, as he was created to be.

One thing that was not fuzzy or confused about Ron’s life was his faith in God. Ron knew that he was loved by God, and he knew that when he died, he would walk straight into the arms of Jesus, the best place he could possibly be.

So now for Ron, the cloud of fuzziness and confusion has cleared forever; he has left behind the limitations of this earthly life, to be made new in Christ. He’s still Ron, but now is the real Ron, the whole Ron, without any of the impediments that prevented him from being fully the person God created him to be.

For, we are told, that in the new heaven and new earth,... 
God himself will be with them; he will wipe every tear from their eyes. Death will be no more; mourning and crying and pain will be no more, for the first things have passed away.’

For Ron, this is now his experience. Thanks be to God. 

Grief and Control

I had my second session with my therapist on Monday, and again, it was a good time, where she helped me to identify some of the things that are going on in my head, and gave some advice on how to move through it all. She also gave me some 'homework' that is proving to be very difficult to grapple with.

One of the things that my therapist has helped me to realise is that I am actually grieving in duplicate, or in tandem... There is the grief of the knowledge of Mum's health condition- that she has cancer that will eventually kill her, and the various uncertainties of how that will go, and walking the path of chemotherapy, scans, doctors' visits etc until this happens. In addition to this, I am also grieving the loss of a particular relationship, which I was hoping and expecting to be a source of support and nurture for me during Mum's declining health and eventual death. But it seems that this is now not to be. I discovered today that, in addition to all the other things I am feeling about the loss of this relationship, I am also quite angry about the sucky timing of it all (although I'm still not quite sure if I'm angry at God, or the person concerned, about the sucky timing... maybe it's both).

In the midst of all of this emotional turmoil, I have felt quite strongly the need to take, or regain, control of a number of things in my life. These things are not all necessarily connected to the emotional issues I'm facing, (although some are, in an oblique kind of way) but I think the emotional stuff has acted as a trigger for me to make some changes that I really need to make in my life.

One of these is to reclaim control over my home. Those of you who know me, will know that I am not a tidy person (so much so, that my mother often questions whether we really ARE related, or if I was switched with her real child at birth). I am not good at doing housework, or keeping my house tidy, so I am enlisting the aid of one of my lovely parishioners, who made the mistake of offering to help me around the house, to do a bit of a blitz, to clear all the debris from the floor, and every other horizontal surface in my house, to clean the house, get rid of all the cobwebs (in more ways than one) and make my living space functional (especially in the study!), clear of clutter, and a welcoming and hospitable space for me and others to be in.

I have also decided to take my health more seriously, and lose some weight. This will have two-pronged benefits, in that I know that losing weight will be good for my general health, my blood pressure, cholesterol, and my knees, but it will also help me to feel better about myself in how I look, which will help the whole self-esteem thing that is part of my emotional struggle at the moment.

When I was at Theological College, I embarked on the Tony Ferguson weightloss plan, and lost close to 20kg in just over a year. But when I moved to Myrtleford, and so many other routines in my life changed, I went off the program (always promising that I'd get back on it eventually, but never quite did), and put on all of the weight I had lost, and then some. As my GP has struggled to keep my blood pressure under control in recent months, changing my meds, and of course weighing me to calculate BMI... I noted with great sadness how much 'interest' I had accumulated in my weight... 

So, I am getting back on track. Yesterday I weighed myself at home, to give a starting baseline, and was rather surprised (and a little delighted) to discover that my current weight is only 2kg more than my original starting weight the last time I went on the Tony Ferguson program. This means I must have already lost a few kg in recent weeks, when I was in Sydney with Mum, so I guess that's a good start.

I'm writing all this, because I know that if I'm going to actually extract the digit and do something about this, I need to be accountable to someone. I hate the whole 'personal consultant' thing that many of these weightloss programs have (they always seem so smarmy and sickly sweet about everything, which makes me want to just smack them), so I much rather do my own thing and follow the program in the privacy of my own home. It's just a matter of getting to the point of being bloody-minded enough to JUST DO IT. I think I'm at that point now, so put this out to you, as my friends who can help me to be accountable for what I have said I will do.

So here I go...

Monday, May 07, 2012

Living in 'Interesting Times'

It's been a while since I last posted here, and much has happened in the last few months. Last Tuesday I returned from an extended trip (just over 6 weeks) to Sydney. The reason for this trip was to support Mum through some medical stuff.

After many months of vague symptoms, weight loss, myriad tests, scans and doctor visits, Mum was (finally) diagnosed with pancreatic cancer (although it’s a slower-growing type of cancer than the aggressive, fast-growing type that is usually associated with the term ‘pancreatic cancer’).

I went to Sydney to be with Mum through the final stages of tests, biopsies, scans etc, (initially expecting to be there to support her through major surgery to remove the tumour), but when metastases were detected in both lungs, the oncologist told us that surgery would no longer be an option, and that she would be managed with chemotherapy. He told us that the chemo would not get rid of the cancer completely, but just slow down its progress, and hopefully give her longer to live, and a better quality of life during that time. When asked about the prognosis, he hedged a bit and said the average is ‘numerous months’, but because Mum is otherwise quite healthy and fit for her age, and hasn’t yet started manifesting any significant symptoms of the cancer, she will most likely survive longer than the average. (so what this means, we’re still not sure... could be six months, six years or anything in between).

It all came as quite a shock, and many tears have been shed since that meeting with the oncologist. But Mum is doing quite well on her chemotherapy regimen (which is a drug with very few side effects- so she won’t lose her hair, and has not experienced any nausea or vomiting, just weariness). She’s had one full cycle of three weeks on, one week off, and on Friday had the second treatment of her second cycle, and continues to do well (and enjoy the 'dex high' from the anti-nausea steroid drug). She is determined to remain positive, is not afraid of dying, as she says she has lived a good life, and has no intention of sitting in a corner crying for whatever time she has left.

I was very glad to have the space to spend such an extended time with her as we both went through this experience. I'm very grateful to the Presbytery, and my parishes for being flexible and generous in allowing me (actually, I think it was more of a case of ordering me) to take compassionate leave to be with Mum during this time.

Since I've been home, the hugeness of what all this means has hit me in a new way, and the confluence of this delayed grief response with a couple of other things that have been emotionally difficult in the last couple of weeks, has made me rather emotionally fragile. 

I'm very grateful to have many good friends who have been amazingly supportive through this whole long and exhausting journey with Mum's health. However, sometimes it's necessary to take an extra step. Things came to a bit of a head this last weekend, and I decided, as a self-care strategy, to seek out a psychologist who was very helpful to me in working through my grief after Dad died a few years ago.

As I expected, it was good to talk through some of the issues, and I received some helpful insights. The psychologist has encouraged me to engage with her in a longer-term process of therapy, to help me explore some deeper things from my past that are feeding into my current situation. I remember reading, in The Road Less Travelled, M. Scott Peck's insistence that everyone can benefit from therapy. I guess I'll get to see how true this is from personal experience.

So it looks like I'll be making more regular trips to Melbourne for the rest of the year.