In a death-denying culture, how do we learn to accompany the dying and the grieving?
Editor's Note: The following is an excerpt from Joy Carroll Wallis' chapter of the book Faith Forward: A Dialogue on Children, Youth and a New Kind of Christianity.
“Offering your child to God is a way of offering yourself to God again, and it felt that way to me. For the religious and not, there is a powerful spirituality in the birth of a child. Already, we’re learning a little about the unconditional love of God for us in the way we feel about our own child. Through one of the most universal human experiences, parent after parent is taught the lessons of love and life. And all is grace.” – Jim Wallis, following the birth of his son, Luke
Jim and I grew up in Christian families, which brought with it both advantages and disadvantages. My father was a clergyman in the Church of England in the inner city of South London. Jim’s parents were the founders and leaders of a Plymouth Brethren congregation in Detroit. We both rebelled and returned and our stories are well documented in the books we have written.
One of the best gifts that we experienced as the children of Christian leaders was that of an open home. Exposure to family, and friends from many different cultures and walks of life helped shape us. But, more importantly, it allowed us to grow up participating in the ministry of hospitality – and that has stuck. The Wallis home is known to be an “open house.” Our guest room belongs to many people: from a professor teaching a course in town, to a church leader participating in a fellowship program or conference; from a patient recovering from major surgery or illness, to a summer intern visiting from a far-flung part of the world. To add to this, the basement and boys’ rooms are often filled with teenagers or most of a baseball team, and our dining table is full to capacity on a regular basis.
One day when just the members of our family were sitting down to eat dinner, Jim asked who would like to say grace. Jack, who was about four at the time, looked around and said, “But we don’t have enough people!”
The only way to win the “war on poverty” is for liberals and conservatives to make peace — for the sake of the poor. That would be the best way to mark the 50th anniversary of the war on poverty, declared by President Lyndon Johnson in his January 1964 State of the Union address. Making peace means replacing ideologies with solutions that actually solve the problems of poverty. With both Republicans and Democrats speaking out on poverty this week, and the recession slowly receding this should be an opportunity to find the focus, commitment, and strategies that could effectively reduce and ultimately eliminate the shameful facts of poverty in the world’s richest nation.
For any proposal, the basic question must be whether it helps more people and families rise out of poverty and realize their dreams. This means setting aside political self-interest and thinking beyond our too often inflexible ideologies.
Sister Churches: American Congregations and Their Partners Abroad by Janel Kragt Bakker / The State of Arizona by Catherine Tambini and Carlos Sandoval / Walking the Disciple's Path: Eight Steps That Will Change Your Life and the World by Linda Perrone Rooney / Being Both: Embracing Two Religions in One Interfaith Family by Susan Katz Miller
For some months now, I have been ruminating on the writer John Podhoretz’s eulogy in Commentary magazine for his sister Rachel Abrams upon her death, from stomach cancer, at age 62. Commentary effectively being the Podhoretz family house organ, and the Podhoretzes effectively being the mythological family of the origin of neoconservatism, the essay would be of interest to anyone interested in cultural and religious sociology — or at least to me.
I, too, come from a family that has also tended to think of itself in somewhat mythological, contrarian terms — This is what Langstons are like — so a meditation from the heart of another large, bustling family is an immediate and natural draw for me.
But lay that all aside. The eulogy wins, and haunts, because it is the passionate remembrance of a sister by her brother. Despite their being part of a prominent East Coast family, its focus is relentlessly on the small acts of family and home that transfigure quotidian existence. Podhoretz dwells lovingly on Rachel as a housewife, a lifetime foul-mouth, an exuberant and dedicated mother, an artist, and finally a writer who let loose with political commentary in her late fifties as online blogs began gathering steam.
“I loved you, Rachel,” he concludes poignantly, in words I could read over and over. “I liked you. And oh, oh, oh, how I admired you.”
So much of that poignancy is derived from direct address to his sister, who is no longer there to receive it. Having just hit 45, Dante comes to mind: midway-through-the-journey-of-our-life-I found myself within a dark wood for the right way had been lost. Who can know how our days are numbered? The lesson for me is that I should tell of how I love my brother John, even as he lives.
Until recently, I had always been in the majority. I am Caucasian, middle-class, healthy, and always did well in school. I had never had a personal label others would speak carefully about so as not to offend me. I had never been hurt by words people tossed around ignorantly to describe me. When taught appropriate ways to refer to a racial or ethnic group, I did not exactly understand why some words were preferable over others. Still, because I generally did as I was told, I followed the social rules. It certainly did not make much difference to me. In my preparation to become a teacher, learning “person-first” language (such as, “a child with a learning disability” rather than, “a learning disabled child”) was easy enough, even if I could not identify with the reason behind it.
I still cannot pretend to understand what it feels like to be the subject of the examples I described above. However, I have come to a point in life where I am in the minority and the language people choose to use stings and isolates. I am 27, single, and my father has passed away. It seems everywhere I turn in the Christian world — churches, organizations, politicians — I am excluded, because I am not part of a family.
I have multiple online identities, the result of subconsciously trying to be a better version of myself — a better follower of Christ. But these various personalities that I portray among social media sites are fabrications. Here are a few examples why:
The single verse I post on Twitter is the only Scripture I read all day — even though my Facebook profile claims that the Bible is one of my favorite books.
C.S. Lewis, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Donald Miller, and Francine Rivers are also listed, but only to prove my Evangelical IQ.
I’m #prayingforSandyHook and #prayingforBoston and #prayingforOklahoma, but I rarely pray.
I repost memes about global poverty, loving the poor, reconciliation and promoting peace, but I spend all of my spare time watching Netflix. ...
On a summer night in a Western town of flat fields and hazy sunsets, a young woman stood outside a Greyhound bus with a ticket in her hand and a backpack over her shoulder. Boarding the bus, she said later, would be the hardest thing she had done in her 18 years.
Harder than saying a last goodbye to her mother, father, and five siblings that morning. Harder than the two years since as she tried to make a new life, alone, in a strange city.
Now 20, she asked to go by the name Samya. If her true identity were known, Samya believes, her family would seek her out and possibly kill her. They would certainly try to persuade her — if not force her — to come home.
Her parents, she said, think she is guilty of two serious crimes: She rejected a marriage arranged by her father, who came to the U.S. from the Middle East when Samya was an infant. And perhaps more serious to her parents: She has become an atheist.
“After the first exile, there is no other.”
—Rosellen Brown, The Autobiography of My Mother, 1976
The great wheel of the year has turned once more, and I find myself back at the beginning again. Not at the start of a brand new year, but rather, at the anniversary of my father’s death.
I was eight years old when he died, on January 8, 1977, after six long months of decline from lung cancer. In the family’s last-minute midnight scramble to the King’s Daughters Hospital to offer a final farewell, I was adjudged too young and too asleep to wake up for the ride.
I found out that he had died when I crawled from bed at dawn the next morning, yawning and jonesing for cartoons, only to find a bath robed neighbor stoking the fireplace, and my father disappeared into ether.
That singular fact has been the still point of my turning world in the decades since.
In a classic 1960 children's book, a baby bird toddles up to one critter after another asking, "Are you my mother?"
For some babies today, there's no simple answer — biologically or legally.
Advances in artificial reproductive technologies mean a baby could have three "mothers" — the genetic mother, the birth mother and the intended parent, who may be a woman or a man.
Statutes on surrogacy, adoption, divorce and inheritance vary state by state, court by court, decision by decision. For nontraditional couples, the patchwork of laws makes it even more complex. New York allows gay marriage but forbids surrogacy, for example, while Utah permits surrogacy but bans gay marriage.
NEW YORK — The "October trifecta" that touched my life — my father's death, surgery the next day, and the unprecedented destruction of Hurricane Sandy around New York — did what traumatic events often do.
They left me emotionally fatigued and ready for some fresh clarity, fresh perspective, and fresh prioritizing.
When life seems fragile, it's clear some things matter more than others. It reminds us that attention must be paid to family, friends, and the differences we make in our work and our faith. Lesser concerns — like the tablet computer I have been angling to acquire — quickly fall away.
Minnesota, famously, has just rejected a proposed constitutional amendment which would have barred same-sex marriage. The battle raged for a year, with Christians on both sides. The Catholic diocese was a primary proponent of the amendment, but many Catholics posted “Another Catholic Voting No” signs on their lawn. Episcopalians, Lutherans, and Methodists were also found on both sides of the battle, in leadership roles and at phone banks. Rarely did the discussion of the amendment stray too far from a discussion of faith issues, because it was faith that drove so many to either reject same-sex marriage or move to embrace it as a part of our larger community.
There were bruises and scars, of course, within congregations, families, and neighbors. To some, on both sides, it was a deeply personal fight.
Now, though, it is done. The amendment failed. Though my side won, the divisions created trouble me. As an Episcopalian working within a Catholic law school, I saw the pain of those on both sides.