This week, I remembered Tim Horton’s breakfast sandwiches and it made my heart break and swell with happiness all at the same time.
Let me explain.
When my sister, Roxanne, died in 2013 I worried about something that almost every grieving person I have known also worries about: if I would forget things. Would I forget her voice? Would I forget her laugh? Would I forget the random little memories that so easily slip away? Sometimes, when a memory would come to me, I would rush to write it down, anxious that it would disappear forever from my consciousness if I didn’t record it. Memories had become so precious – how could I risk the chance of losing even just one of them?
It took me a few years to realize a comforting (and sometimes painful) truth: You don’t forget. You may not remember every incident you shared with the one you loved, but no – you cannot forget them. They are too much a part of who you were and who you are. They stay with you. You remember. You remember all kinds of things – including breakfast sandwiches.
The two springs before Roxanne died, my two sisters came to visit me in Ontario for the May 24th weekend. My other sister lives in British Columbia and Roxanne lived in Newfoundland, so they had decided that meeting at my place was halfway-ish. We had two wonderful weekends. We decided they would become a lifelong tradition. We didn’t know that “lifelong” for us would only mean two years.
And still, every May 24th weekend, I think of those visits. We had so much fun. We went out to eat, we went shopping, we went to the theatre. And we ate breakfast sandwiches. Both years, Roxanne woke up on her first day declaring: “Now, this is a vacation, so give me your Tim’s order.” And she’d bring us all breakfast sandwiches and coffee, which we would eat in the backyard.
This weekend, I thought constantly about those May 24th breakfasts – which is funny, because I don’t even like breakfast sandwiches anymore. But on Saturday, I would have done anything to relive those breakfasts again. I didn’t need a fancy trip. I didn’t need a dramatic memory. I needed “Now, what do you want for breakfast?” and eating eggs squished in a limp English muffin with my dear sister.
I never would have guessed that May 24th weekend would be the time I would miss my sister the most each year. But it is. Because of memories like breakfast sandwiches, and the longing they make me feel to see her again. It is hard – and it is good. It is good because it reminds me that I won’t forget. If I can’t forget breakfast sandwiches, how can I forget how she made me feel? I remember her voice because I can hear it asking for my order. I remember her laugh because I can still hear it’s echo in my backyard. How could she ever be forgotten?
If you are grieving today, maybe you have lived in fear of forgetfulness. Let me give you a promise: you won’t forget. You’ll have so many of your own “breakfast sandwich” memories. They will show up on holidays or birthdays or Tuesdays when you’re walking through a grocery store. They may sometimes be hard – and they will be good.
Today, I wish you a “breakfast-sandwich memory,” a glimpse of what made you love your dear one the most. May it make you smile, and may it remind you: You will NOT forget. You’ll remember.
I never prayed this prayer until this year, until the weeks and months of lockdowns started to bleed into one another. My prayers have changed since 2020.
Last year this time I prayed: “‘Stop this!”
Last year, I prayed: “Please let this be done after six weeks!”
Last year, I prayed: “Please let the schools open in June!”
And when I was talking to you, God, I so often told you: “I can’t do this God. I just need it to end.” I only knew how to pray for one version of deliverance. Nothing else felt like hope.
A few months ago, my prayers changed. I still wanted this season to be over, God, so much, but to my prayers for the end of covid, I added another: A prayer that I could endure, however long this season lasted . A prayer to be able to keep going, by Your strength, because I wasn’t going to get through otherwise.
There are more weeks ahead, God, and I need you to help me endure. I have grown weary of saying “perhaps the end is in sight” and “maybe we’ll be allowed bubbles again soon.” I have grown weary of my kids asking when the shutdown will lift, their sad sighs when I tell them I don’t know. I have grown weary with trying to stay positive, with trying to muster up some semblance of optimism that the tide is turning.
Help me endure, God. I ask for the endurance to stay the course, to continue with the task to which we have been called. I ask for enough endurance to get out of bed each day, enough endurance to fall asleep peacefully at night. I ask for enough endurance to take one day at a time. One sermon at a time. One virtual church service at a time. One day of online learning at a time. One day of isolation at a time.
I ask for endurance for others that need it. Give the teachers endurance for one more day of virtual classrooms. Give the healthcare workers endurance for another day of exhausting work. Give the parents endurance for one more day of negotiating learning and emotions and snack time. Give all the weary endurance for all the “one more days” that still lie ahead. God, give me endurance. By your mercy, give me a hope that endures no matter what our restrictions.
Protect me from despair. Protect me from discouragement. Help me not to throw in the towel, give into the melancholy or ignore the by-laws. God, bring an end to covid. And give me the endurance to wait, to serve, and to hope until that day comes.
Today, I am so overwhelmed with worry for our healthcare workers. I hear them on the news, pleading for more understanding, more support, more awareness – begging us to take things more seriously. Trying to help us see what they see, when they ask us to please stay home, please be careful, please get the vaccine.
I see them on Twitter, petitioning the powers that be to hear their cry. They ask for paid sick days. They ask for stricter policies. They ask to be heard. I see them on Facebook and Instagram. I see the pictures posted at the end of weary days. I read the stories of who they saw die today, or who they had to admit to ICU today, or who they fear will not have a bed in the weeks to come. I see the silly memes they share to make light of their agony- trying to find humor in the darkness, trying to keep smiling so they don’t fall apart.
I hear the workers in my life and hear that they are scared. They cannot believe we are here. They cannot believe we are setting up field hospitals and discussing protocol for who will get a ventilator and who will be turned away. They despair that it has come to this, when they have worked so hard for so long.
I see them God, but only in glimpses. Only online. Only on the news. Only over a Zoom call with a friend or congregant here and there. But, You, God, see them every long day. Every exhausting minute.
And so to You, who sees them, I pray.
I pray for their aching bodies…
Their feet, tired from standing.
Their hands, sore from constant washing.
Their ears, rubbed raw from face masks.
Their bodies that need rest after too long a year, after vacations sacrificed and days off ignored, with no reprieve in sight.
I pray for their hurting hearts…
Comfort them in their grief, for those they have lost, and are losing.
Comfort them as they process the pain.
Comfort them as they seek to make sense of the senseless.
I pray for their peace…
Calm those who are afraid.
Soothe those who are angry.
Support those who are lonely.
Give them strength to endure God. Give them energy to sustain them. Give them wisdom. Give them grace.
And, by your power, God, protect them. Protect every doctor, making life and death decisions. Every nurse nurturing the sick. Every aide and orderly and physiotherapist and occupational therapist helping people get well. Every therapist and support worker caring for the vulnerable. Every radiologist. Every PSW. Every pharmacist. Every caregiver. Protect those who are protecting us.
In your mercy, Lord, we pray for our healthcare workers. For their faithfulness, we thank you. For their lives, we pray.
May I never again take the ability to gather with others in the same space to worship for granted.
I did in the past.
There were Sundays when leisurely breakfasts, long walks or sleeping in seemed better or more needed. There were baseball tournaments and swim practices. There were schedule conflicts. And it seemed easiest, so often, to pick those things over gathering with my church family, over sitting in an over-hot sanctuary, over rushing to get out the door. Church would be there next week, right? It would be there when I didn’t need to get groceries or when the sports season was done or when I had slept better the night before. I could sing next week. I could sip the mediocre coffee next week. I could gather next week.
There were Sundays that I resented the routine. Sundays I wanted what others had – the ability to choose. There were Sundays when people got on my nerves, when I didn’t want to let the worship team in early to practice, when I didn’t want to see the faces react to my sermons, when I didn’t want to deal with someone asking if I “had a few minutes after the service to talk.”
I took for granted the freedom to be in a building with others. I took for granted the hugs and the smiles. I took for granted the music leaders and the readers and the Sunday School teachers. I took for granted the idea that these things would always be there, when I wanted and needed them. I took for granted church chairs and powerpoint slides and sticky hands wet from communion juice. I took for granted the gift of sitting shoulder to shoulder with people trying to figure out faith together, Facebook friends live in person, holy saints singing off key beside me.
My faithful God, I am grateful that you have given us ways to still be together. Thank you for virtual worship. Thank you for Facebook live, YouTube and Zoom. Thank you for comment threads and recorded worship from people’s homes. Thank you that “where two or three are gathered” is still true, even if the gathering is around computer screens. Keep me grateful, God, until we can meet in person again.
And when “in person” is no longer impossible, help me to never take it for granted. It will be easy to do God. The routine will return, God, as hard as it is to see right now. And when Sundays come many good things will once again tug me away from the very good thing you have for me every week. Many days I will long to stay in bed or stay at home. Many weeks the gift will seem like a burden. When that happens, help me remember the longing I feel today. Help me to never again take this thing we call “going to church” for granted.
May my new normal include gratitude for what was available all along. May I receive it, with joy. Amen.
Create in me a clean heart, oh God and renew a right spirit within me.
Relieve me of my resentment.
Release me from resenting those who post pictures of family gatherings and no-longer-allowed “social bubbles.” Release me from resenting the people “not taking things as seriously” as I think they should. Release me from resenting the people who had Easter dinners anyway. Release me from resenting people I love, simply because they live in a part of the world with less restrictions than I have, or have access to vaccines that we don’t.
Rescue me from my rage.
Remove the anger I feel when people say they “just have” to see their loved ones, or travel, or have a birthday party . Take away my anger at conspiracy theorists, anti-vaxxers and politicians that I long to blame for my own exhaustion. Remove the anger I feel at the pastors insisting on gathering their churches as they claim persecution. Father, forgive them – and forgive me.
Keep me from comparisons.
Save me from the sanctimonious naming of why things are harder for me than other people. Help me remember we are all hurting, including the people whose families live closer, whose jobs seem easier, whose regions are opening up instead of shutting down. Remind me that I do not need to say “I haven’t seen my family in almost two years.” Remind that I do not need to say “At least you weren’t shut down over Christmas.”
Save me from self righteousness. Give me the humility to remember the times I have done what I should not, for the masks I failed to wear or the distance I didn’t keep. Upturn my indignation. Remind me of the times my bubble was too big or I said “Oh it’s fine” when the lawn chairs were too close during garage visits.
Restore my hope in humanity. Help me assume people’s good intentions. Give me a heart of love for those who are suffering. Give me grace for the people who succumb to covid-fatigue. Help me discern when my anger is weariness disguised as rage. Help me know when I need to rest, go outside, drink a glass of water, get off social media, or stop checking the latest covid numbers.
Restore onto me the joy of your perseverance. And renew a right spirit in me.
Today is International Women’s Day, and there is so much that I could say, but I think I will sum up my thoughts with a story of something that happened to me in my first month as a pastor.
I began my job as a lead pastor in my church when I was 27. I was an unconventional choice in lots of ways – I was young, I was a woman, and I would be the lead pastor while my husband would serve in the associate role. I was really excited to have this unusual opportunity, but I was also freaked out. Like lots of people starting in their career, I wasn’t sure I knew what I was doing. And I was self conscious of all the things that made me different, especially that I was a woman in a field still dominated by men.
But each week I would meet with a mentor, named Joyce. This woman had been my very favourite professor when I studied in Seminary, and it turned out that she attended the church where I would now pastor (this also added to me being a bit freaked out….). She offered early on to meet with me each week and help me negotiate my way in our new church, and I gratefully accepted.
I well remember our first meeting. I had been at the church just a couple of weeks. I had only led a few services and the week before I had led communion, for only the second time in my life (which also freaked me out). As I sat in Joyce’s cozy kitchen, she looked at me with a firm stare behind her tortoise-shell glasses: “Leanne,” she said, “Do you realize where you stood when you led communion this week?”
“No,” I answered.
“The whole time you stood behind your husband. You literally hid behind him. You held back.”
“Do not do that again,” she said. “You are our pastor. Step forward.”
“Okay,” I agreed sheepishly.
Then she went on. “And I want you to do something else,” she said. “Each week when we start the service, I want you to go to the mic and say clearly: “My name is Leanne and I am your pastor.” I want you to say it every week, until you believe it.”
I felt my body tense up. “I don’t know if I can do that,” I told her.
And it was true.
I had been HIRED in this job. The entire church had voted me into my role. They wanted me. But still, something held me back. I didn’t know if I could say “I am your pastor.” I didn’t know if I believed it. I was still not sure I could step up. Even thinking about saying those words made me nervous. Wasn’t it too pretentious? Too presumptuous? Too much?
But she told me I had to, and she told me she would be watching. And so for the next little while, on a Sunday morning, I would nervously say: “Hi, I’m Leanne and I’m your pastor.” And every Sunday I would wait for something to happen – someone to laugh, or to say “that can’t be right” or to tell me I was overstepping. But no one ever did. Of course they didn’t! I was their pastor. I was doing what I had been called to do. I was able to do it and I was ready to do it. I just needed my head to catch up to my life.
I know I’m not the only woman to feel this way. Many of us find it hard to step forward. Many of us find it hard to own and name the very thing that we know that we can do. We’ve been taught to stand behind, taught to keep quiet, taught to not push “too much.” We don’t want to be pushy or demanding or one of “those” women whose voices are like “nails on a chalkboard,” right?
But thank God when we are given people like Joyce, who tell us to knock it off. Thank God for the voices who say: “Don’t stand behind.” Thank God for the ones who will tell us to step up and say who we are, without apology. Thank God for the women who will say “I am watching you – and I am waiting for you to be everything you are made to be.”
Now, it seems almost laughable to remember a time that I felt self conscious simply saying who I was. I no longer doubt that it is okay for me to introduce myself as a pastor. I am deeply grateful for the woman who got me to say it until I believed it.
On this International Women’s Day, my sisters. I wish for you to hear the same message that I heard from a woman when I needed it most: Step forward. Say, with confidence, “This is who I am and what I can do.” Say it until you believe it.
And know that you have women everywhere watching you and cheering you on.
If you read my post last week, you’ll know that I decided not to give up a specific material item for lent this year. Today I have a lent update. I have decided that, this year, I have a lent necklace.
This necklace has a story. At my 35th birthday supper, my husband nervously handed me a gift bag as my 5 year old son looked on bursting with excitement. He explained that he had taken Josiah to the mall to help him pick out a gift for me, and Josiah had immediately chosen the gift I was about to open. “He insisted it was the gift he wanted to get you,” Dallas explained. “He wouldn’t even look at anything else once he saw this.” I could tell Dallas was giving me a little bit of warning: “This might suck,” he was saying. “But your kid chose it, so BE COOL.”
But I didn’t have to “be cool.” I loved it right away. It was a brass necklace, not expensive and not fancy, with two pendants hanging from two different chains. One was a bird cage, and the other was a bird.
That birthday was a complicated one for me. Two months before my sister, Roxanne, had been told that she no longer had any options for treatments after seven years of cancer. She was still doing well when I opened that necklace, but the reality that the 35th year of my life would be the last year of my sister’s life was heavy on me that birthday. I knew neither Dallas or Josiah had been thinking about that when they bought the necklace. But in that simple image – a bird and an empty cage – I felt hope. I thought that my sister’s life would soon be like that bird’s – free from the cage of cancer. Free to new life. It was perfect.
This Sunday as I got ready to head into a very-lonely worship service, 11 months into online church and 10 and half months into me being totally over it, I ran my hands over my jewelry to select something to wear with my outfit. I paused at my “bird necklace,” and thought “This works.”
For this lent, I am preaching about freedom. My sermon this past Sunday asked “Is this book a chain?” and I would be holding a Bible and a heavy chain up together, asking again and again what the Bible was really meant to be. Spoiler: It isn’t a chain. It’s a lot more like a bird free from a cage.
I didn’t think anyone would notice my subtle sermon illustration in my necklace, but I knew why I was wearing it. I knew that this lenten season I needed all the reminders that I could get about God giving freedom. I need reminders that God’s story is not one meant to oppress us, but one that is meant to set us free. I need reminders that the cages I live in won’t trap me forever. I need reminders that God has freedom and new life for me as much today as he did back when I turned 35. And I need reminders that I am called to help open the cage doors for others. Once again, it was the perfect necklace.
I put it on, and I preached a sermon to a video camera and I talked about the freedom I believe God has for all of us. I felt the heaviness not only of the ways the Bible is often used to oppress others, but I also felt the heaviness of how trapped I felt in ways of doing ministry I never wanted to do. When the day ended, and it was time to take the necklace off, I paused as I hung it up. Maybe….maybe this was something I should keep wearing. Maybe I need these reminders every day this lent. I need to remember that the story of God will always set me free. I need to remember that I am called to seek freedom for others.
So this lent, instead of giving something up, I’m putting something on. I’m putting on a necklace. I’m putting on a reminder that captivity is not where the story ends – not for me, and not for anyone else. May I be a freedom fighter. Even as many doors stay closed, may I keep working to keep the cage doors open.
I’m a lent latecomer, full disclosure. I knew people who practiced lent growing up, but my tradition didn’t. I only came to appreciate lent – the season leading up to Good Friday and Easter in the Church calendar – in recent years.
I especially value the practice of fasting that accompanies lent. I have found it meaningful to intentionally refrain from certain things in order to make space to reflect on Jesus’ death and my own mortality. Through the years I’ve given up red meat, pop, Twitter and even wearing jewelry for lent. I learned a lot each time.
But this year, I laughed at the idea of giving up something for lent. I joked to my husband: “For lent this year, I’m giving up going to parties and eating in restaurants and social gatherings!” For most of us, it feels like we’ve had a year-long lent. We have given up a lot, and we are still in a season of letting things go. “What else could we possibly deny ourselves?” is a question you may join me in asking. We’ve had nearly a year of missing out on many things that bring us joy and, quite frankly, if you need chocolate to get you through the next six weeks, I say: Go for it. Jesus will understand, I promise.
When lent started yesterday, it was cold and snowy. Technically, we had just moved into the “Red Zone” in our city so some stuff is opening up. But at the same time every news story was yelling at us about a third wave and how we should still stay home. Vaccines have been a debacle. And I think we all know that we’ve got a lot more than six weeks of covid-lent-like conditions ahead of us.
In a grumpy moment, I said to a friend: “This year for lent, I’m giving up hope.”
That’s how I felt. I was tired of hoping that “the end is in sight.” I was tired of hoping that things would “be better soon.” I was tired of saying “we got this!” Most days, I do not have this. Most days, all I can think about is how much I just want to go to my friend’s house and sit on her couch and let our kids play. I ache for those simple pleasures to return.
Of course, I was joking when I said I would give up hope. I love Jesus, so I’m in the hope business. And I do have hope for the future – not just a future beyond covid, but a future that extends into eternity.
But the more I thought about it, the more I thought I may have hit on what I need to give up this year for lent when I made that statement: “This year, I’m giving up hope.”
Lent is a time that reminds us of our limitations. It is a time to be present to the sorrow in the world. It is time to name the reality of death and our own fallibility.
For a year I’ve been talking about when things “get back to normal.” For a year I’ve looked to “when the bubbles start” or “when the pools open” or “when we can sing in a church.” For a year, I have longed and waited. For a year, my hope has been in what will come.
But I think that for this lent, I can let go of that hope for a while. Not because I am hopeless. But because, for now, I can sit with my limitations. I can let the sorrow of this last year, and this very day, be what it is. I can say “This is hard.” I can say “I lament this.” I can say “I wish things were different.” I can let those things be true without adding “But when things get back to normal…..” I can let the hurt be real without adding “But the vaccine is coming!” I can grieve for the deaths and the sickness and the lost jobs and the strained relationships and the way the whole world feels a little less safe without telling myself I need to cheer up.
This may be the lentiest lent that ever lented for me – the lent where there has been so much to give up that I feel I can’t give up anything else – except my desire to skip to resurrection.
This year during lent I’m going to eat chocolate. And drink pop. And go on Twitter. But I am not avoiding lent. I’m making space for the darkness, before the light comes again.
The first time I met Walt Collins I was 27 years old and sitting around a table with six people who were interviewing me for the role of Lead Pastor at Mount Hamilton Baptist Church. In his late seventies, it was clear Walt was there to represent the seniors of the church. In particular I remember Walt asking me a question about my theology of creation. “This guy means business,” I remember thinking. In hindsight, I think he was reading from a list of questions the whole group had agreed to work through with me. I don’t ever remember him asking me a question like that for the rest of the time I knew him. Walt, I realized, was not hugely interested in me giving a set of “right” answers to theological questions.
But, when I started at the church a few months later, he was hugely interested in supporting me and my husband in our new roles as Lead and Associate Pastors of Mount Hamilton Baptist Church.
This came out in a lot of ways. When we decided to buy a house just a couple of months after starting at the church, Walt set us up with a trusted real estate agent, and went on the home inspection with us. We didn’t have family in the city and he stepped into a traditional parental role, helping us negotiate this huge transition.
Soon we also got to know Walt’s wife, Gloria. Together, they invited us to their home for meals and coffee times, beautifully prepared by Gloria (who was truly the consummate host). We would hear their stories of how they met, the five years they had lived in Korea, and, of course, the many stories of the church where we now served. These helped us get our bearings and start to feel at home in our new community.
Eventually, it became tradition that nearly every Friday Walt would treat us to a coffee at Tim Horton’s. Often, I would be sitting in my office and see Walt walk down the path in front of my window and think: “Score! It’s coffee time!” I was always ready for that break. Dallas and I would get in Walt’s car for a quick Tim Horton’s run while Gloria was off getting her hair set. (Gloria had amazing hair, and sometimes, I still think: “Dear Lord, If my hair MUST turn grey, please let me look like Gloria Collins…”). Sometimes they would come after her appointment so Gloria would join us. Coffee for Walt and Gloria, French vanilla for me, Fruit explosion muffin for Dallas. It got to the point that Walt would insist we sit down while he got our order for us. We’d eat the same food, hear the same stories.
“Did I ever tell you that the rowing team I was on went to the Olympics?” Walt would ask.
“Maybe?” we would answer. “Tell us again, just in case.” (This one was one of our favourites).
“Well, I ended up stepping down from the team to get married, one year before they went to the Olympics, so I missed my chance,” Walt would tell us.
And Gloria would roll her eyes, knowing what was coming next.
“There was another man on our team who also missed the Olympics though. He went to jail for murder.”
“My goodness!” we would gasp, every time.
“Yeah, but the thing is he got out in 30 years, and I’m still here,” Walt would say, twinkle in his eye, coffee in his hand.
“Oh, Walter,” Gloria would laugh, lightly smacking his arm, perfect hair not moving an inch.
And Walt would get a big smile and say “Best decision I ever made.”
“Oh, stop,” Gloria would laugh, beaming.
For the 15 years we knew them, we watched them love each other so well. We celebrated a 60th, a 65th and then a 70th anniversary with them at our church. We oohed and aaahed at Gloria’s fantastic dresses for each occasion. We saw the joy in their eyes at being together. Of course, we always had to celebrate them one week after their actual anniversary, because the Sunday nearest their anniversary they always attended Wentworth Baptist Church, where they had gotten married. It was ridiculously romantic, just like they were. They were just as romantic on our Fridays together as they were at any anniversary, as they talked about first dates and shared memories and always paused to wait for the other so they could walk side by side.
The coffees were always a nice break and a good treat. But, looking back, they also became a time that sustained us in other ways. Walt and Gloria were, as they say, “pillars” of our church community. I have been thinking about what this expression means a lot this week. Pillars go deep in a foundation, and they hold up a building. Walt and Gloria had a deep foundation in God, and they helped “hold up” Mount Hamilton for decades. Gloria hosted, encouraged, supported. Walt was part of starting many ministries. He was part of the group that led the task of rebuilding our church when it was destroyed by fire in the nineties. In his late seventies, he was still sitting on hiring committees.
And then he was part of hiring this 27 and 28 year old couple, and there were definitely growing pains that came with that in this traditional church community.
There had already been an intentional shift in the church when we started to become more “missional,” as the term goes. The church had started a second service with a more contemporary style, which people felt was the right fit to engage our community. The “main” service, however, was still very traditional. This was Walt and Gloria’s service.
In my first decade at MHBC, all of that changed. A couple of years into our time there, the church felt God leading us to focus on one service that was mostly contemporary in nature. This was a big change for our older population, including Walt and Gloria.
So often on those coffee times, I think of how we talked things through with Walt and Gloria. There were a lot of changes: to music, to style, to the ways we did so many things. Walt and Gloria watched their whole church community shift around them (three quarters of our church have joined in the last decade). But on those coffee times, they never complained. They never used it as a time to “make a point.” They never took advantage of the opportunity to sway us or push us to keep things the way that made them comfortable.
Instead, Walt would ask how we were doing. He would encourage us. He would comment on the ways he was grateful for our ministry. Lots of times he gave us gentle advice and much needed wisdom. He helped us negotiate a lot of hard things. But he was always gentle. Sometimes I would end up in that place on Friday feeling nothing but frazzled – and Walt was like calm in the midst of my own internal storm.
Yesterday someone told me a story that perfectly describes Walt. She said that one day she was in the lobby of the church and the service had already started. The music was loud and upbeat. Walt, then in his late eighties, commented to this woman: “You know this isn’t my cup of tea at all, but oh – it does my heart so good to see this church full of people, and full of young people. That’s what matters. We won’t be here forever. It’s not about us. It’s about what will come after us.”
And there was a twinkle in his eye.
I cried when I heard that story because it describes Walt and Gloria perfectly. They were not about themselves. Walt and Gloria were deeply invested in the generation to come after them. Even into their late eighties, they were one of our biggest youth group supporters. For years, Walt and Gloria brought snacks to our youth group every Friday night. Often, they would have the youth group over at their home. The youth would look through photo albums, hear the same great stories, eat more snacks. I’m told they often didn’t want to leave. And Walt and Gloria loved it, too. They loved seeing glimpses of the church’s bright future – that was already right in front of them.
Last week, Walt and Gloria died, five days apart. They were both in a long term care home, but on different wards as Gloria had spent two years with severe dementia from Alzheimer’s Disease. Not being able to visit his sweetheart due to covid restrictions was devastating for Walt. Thankfully, two days before Gloria died, Walt was able to visit and say good bye. Sadly, it was not known that Gloria had covid. In that last visit, Walt got covid, and died a few days later.
It is, again, so ridiculously romantic that it is almost too much to take in. But it is also heart breaking, and I ache every time I think about it.
I also feel angry. I am angry that because of covid we can’t do a proper funeral for this amazing couple. How can our church not be able to gather to farewell Walt and Gloria as they deserved? How can we not celebrate the legacy they have left us, not name the years of faithful service and sacrificial giving with a packed church and reception with lovingly made triangle sandwiches? How can I not give the eulogy I have so often pictured sharing for them in my mind, after fifteen years of serving alongside them in this community, and being so well loved by them?
It may look different than how I would have wanted to do it, but I’m not willing to let covid take away my chance to say what I want to say about Walt and Gloria Collins. So here I am. And this is what I want to say. This week I have a prayer, and it is this: “Lord, make me like Walt and Gloria.”
Let me be like Gloria with her quick wit and elegant presence. Let me be hospitable. Let me create spaces of beauty. Let me remember a younger generation all the days of my life, even if it is by making cookies every Friday night for people six decades younger than me. (Also, while I’m asking, I may as well ask again for such gorgeous white hair, thanks).
And, Lord, make me like Walt, who thought more about the future of the Church than his own comfort. Let me be like Walt who looked at what was ahead and found joy in what could be. Let me be open to You working in new ways. Let me make space for new life.
I need this reminder this week in a special way. These days I find it so easy to mourn all that has been lost in the last year of change in our church due to this pandemic. I often ask: What will our future look like? So much of me wants to figure out how we can keep everything as it always was. But I also see that isn’t possible.
And so I ask: Lord, can I be like Walt, and see the future with hope and joy? Can I see the new things you are doing, and have a twinkle in my eye and a lift in my heart? When I am scared of the future and overwhelmed with change, let me be like Walt, God. Let me see hope in new life.
And someday, God, when I am retired and have a free Friday morning, show me if my pastor needs a coffee. Let me remember the love that can be found in a fruit explosion muffin. Let me encourage them, and be a peaceful place in the midst of their storm.
Let me be like Walt and Gloria, God. Let me serve. Let me give. Let me care for others. Let me trust YOU for the future.
Two year ago, my children and I read “The Long Winter,” by Laura Ingalls Wilder. This book is part of the famous “Little House on the Prairie” series, and features the adventures of a family settling the American frontier in the nineteenth century. We had read all the other books in the series and were pretty used to marveling at the trials this family experienced as they settled the west – but nothing prepared me for “The Long Winter.”
In this book, the Ingalls family finds themselves stranded in a small frontier town during an exceptionally horrific winter. There are snowstorms constantly, and the snow creeps up higher than their windows. No trains can get into the area, and by February they run out of almost all their supplies. They begin to starve. They have to resort to making logs out of twisted straw to keep themselves warm and they nearly freeze to death.
So often as I read that book I would say out loud: “When will this ever end for them?” The Long Winter seemed like a never ending season of suffering for this little family.
Sometimes during this winter of 2021, I think of “The Long Winter.” Sometimes I think: “I am whining so much when I’m shut in my house and we have heat and internet and grocery delivery. What is wrong with me?” I have wished for the tenacity of Ma Ingalls, who seemed to cope better with two books to read and straw logs than I do with remote schooling and a hot tub. It’s hard not to compare our Long Winters and feel I come up short. Yet, even as I do, I remind myself: Long Winters are hard.
During Long Winters we long for the light days of spring, and despair that they may never come. During Long Winters, we feel boxed in, restrained, and isolated. During Long Winters, we feel that the hard days will never end.
Winter 2021 is not my first Long Winter. I have had two other Long Winters in my life, one in 2007 and one in 2010 – when I was pregnant with my two children.
Pregnancy was not kind to me. I had a condition called hyperemesis which made me very sick for nine months straight. Each of my babies came in the summer, so the winters of my pregnancy were the times that my illness was at its very worst.
I spent some days in hospitals. I spent some days in bed. I spent some days lying on a bathroom floor. The rest I spent lying on my couch, cut off from the world. I could so rarely go outside. I could not engage with other people. I could do few of the things I was once able to do. I felt so desperately lonely. Even in times when I was with other people, I was so not-myself that I still felt disconnected.
All of that was hard. But worst of all was wondering if it would ever end. When you’re in a Long Winter, you start to forget what spring can be like. It starts to feel like what we are living is all there is. We see only the cloudy skies, the dreary days and the shut doors.
There were so many days when I was pregnant that I would say out loud: “I don’t think I’m going to make it.” In January, I didn’t see how I could make it to February. In February, I didn’t see how I would make it to March. Most days, I didn’t see how I would get to the next week. I was so sick. The days were so long. And things never changed. I woke up feeling one day the way I had the day before. I forgot what normal felt like.
Long Winters, for whatever reason they come – be it snow storms or surgeries, pandemics or pregnancies, grief or grievances – are a lot to manage. (Sometimes, Long Winters don’t even come in the winter).
This Long Winter has also been hard. I feel isolated -again. I am tired of being stuck in my house – again. I despair that this winter will never end – again.
Which is why I need to regularly remind myself what I learned my other Long Winters:
Long Winters End.
I know it seems obvious, but it is easy to forget. No matter how hard they are, Long Winters do not last forever. One day, even the Ingalls family saw the snow melt. One day they left their house. One day they ate the Christmas dinner that finally arrived on the train for which they had waited for six months. And one day, I had my babies, and my Long Winters were over.
That is what got me through the long winters before – I knew, deep down, that the months were passing. I knew the season of pregnancy did not last forever. I knew that when summer came, things would be different.
Of course, I would not return to normal. My life would never look the same when My Long Winters of pregnancy ended. After the Long Winter, I would be a mother. I was never going back to the life I lived before. It would not be easy – but it would not be Winter.
This is what I remember now, and may you remember it, too. Spring comes. Summer comes. Things will look different on the other side. But on the other side there is also new life. It’s coming. It always does.