Lost But Not Forgotten

This image is of my daughter taking a bow after dancing to the song “I Will Follow Him” in a talent show at our church in October of 1995.  I pulled this from one frame of a shaky and out of focus video of the performance, shot by a very poor videographer (me), using a video camera that was old and tired even then. The video’s quality has not been helped by its later conversion from VHS to DVD and then (recently) to MP4.

Despite the faded and poor quality imagery, my memory of her performance that day is sharp and clear, and always will be.   She was only six years old at the time.  She selected the song by herself and used what she’d learned in her Ballet lessons to choreograph the dance on her own.  And, she selected her outfit for the performance – a red “twirly hoop dress” – all by herself, too.

She did a fabulous job, and kept her composure even when an excited toddler ran on to the stage during the dance.  The congregation let her know their appreciation with a rousing ovation and cheers.  She did great.  I was a very, very proud father that day.

But, it is also a memory tinged with sadness.  A few years later, our relationship was destroyed in the death of my first marriage: I was shut out of her life without any choice or voice in the matter, and know almost nothing of her life since.  I doubt that this rupture will ever be healed.

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Suicide: A Personal Point of View

I have many friends and parishioners who have tried to take their own lives; and/or who have had someone close to them try (and sometimes – sadly – succeed).  And, I’ve officiated at the funeral of a young man who took his own life.   (A couple of years ago, I wrote a blog post that reflects on what I learned from that experience.)

A friend and former co-worker (and fellow student in Seminary) Karen Leslie Hernandez, recently felt led to write of her own personal suicide attempt at age 19.  I reblog it here without further comment: I am a Suicide Attempt Survivor by Karen Leslie Hernandez.

Karen and I both want you to hear and believe this message: you are not alone, even though it feels like that is the truth.  There are many, many, people out there who have gone through what you are going through, and want to help.  All you need to do is ask – ask friends, ask clergy, ask school counsellors.  If you don’t find the help you need at first, keep on asking, and you will find a way back from the abyss.  There can be hope again, and you do have choices that will not afflict those you love with that deeply hidden and never-ending pain and sense of loss and guilt that you would be leaving behind.

If you don’t know where to begin in helping yourself or one whom you love, start with the suicide prevention hotline’s website (http://www.suicidepreventionlifeline.org), or call them at 1-800-273-TALK (8255).  Trained counsellors in your local area are available (through this phone number) 24 hours a day.

Choose life – most especially for you, but also for those you love.

– Pastor Allen

Sermon: Welcome to The Family

We are simultaneously part of many different families. Some of them endure for generations, others exist only for a particular moment in time. At their best, they give our lives shape, meaning and purpose; at their worst, they drag us down into a pit of despair.

JudeanDesert
The Judean Desert near the Dead Sea

My Grandpa loved life, loved his family, and loved making others laugh. I remember sitting with him in the kitchen: he’d smile a big broad smile, and then let his upper denture drop – “Clunk.” We kids would respond with peals of delighted laughter. Grandma, sitting across the table, would inevitably say: “O, Earl!” – Which only provoked more laughter. They were both lovely people, and were both quite strong and wonderful characters.

We all have such “characters” in our families: some eccentric, some difficult, some amusing or endearing, sometimes a combination of all three! They are people who don’t mind living life a bit off from the norm. In fact, at least in my own experience, these same relatives are often seen as embodying a set of qualities – or oddities – that “run in the family” – traits that are usually good (I hope), but sometimes not. They might include patterns of behavior; health issues; physical traits and gifts; ties to a particular place, time or nationality, or a particular legacy, among other things. But, they identify us as “us”: they help us see how and why our family came to be what it is, what it stands for, and why we are who we are.

We are simultaneously part of many different families: our family of origin, the family we marry into, the family we create with our spouse, our church family, our work and school families. Some of these families endure for generations, others exist only for a particular moment in time. But, they all provide us with an identity, and a reason for being who and what we are. At their best, they give our lives shape, meaning and purpose; at their worst, they drag us down into a pit of despair.

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Happy Birthday My Sweet Daughter

I came across this poem the other day, which I wrote and emailed to my daughter when I was on a business trip about 15 years ago.  The sentiments expressed within it are just as true and strongly felt now as they were then.  I thought that you, my readers, would appreciate it….

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Rejection

…Rejection is less about the person being rejected and more about the person who is doing the rejecting. Rejection occurs because you do not fit the mold that another has sought to place upon you. This does not mean they don’t love you, but it does mean they do not know how to love you.

You cannot change how they see you and love you. But, you can continue to love them in some fashion, perhaps distantly, and give them the time and space they need to confront themselves and to learn that they need to grow and change, just as you have grown and changed.

breakupThere was a young woman I recently encountered through an online forum who had “come out” to her parents, only to have them seemingly reject her in some unhealthy and painful ways.  She did not give much detail, but it was clear it was a painful experience for her (as many of my friends and readers have also experienced, or can imagine).

Here is the counsel I gave her (with some minor edits), which I hope may be of help for others who are also experiencing rejection.  (…Though we must also recognize that there are many out there, especially those who are the survivors of abuse, for whom such an approach will only promote or increase the pain they are experiencing, rather than bringing the healing they are looking for.)


 

…From the tiny bit you’ve said it sounds to me like your parents are going through an identity crisis. They see you as an extension of themselves. (And we are all extensions of our parents in many different ways, aren’t we?)  So, they are confused and distraught because their daughter has suddenly turned out to be someone entirely different (in their minds) from the person they thought she was.

This has shaken their own self image to the core, and they are probably reacting in all sorts of unhealthy ways because of it. I suspect they love you deeply, but are realizing – at some deep and probably unconscious level – that to love this person who is their daughter as deeply as they do means some major readjustments in their own life, with their relationships with you, and even with their relationship with each other and with their God, all of which is scary. They are no longer the parents they thought they were, but something else, some other kind of parent.

Speaking as the parent of an adult child myself, it’s a hard adjustment. Your parents have to learn to accept you as an adult, someone who has their own life to live.  They raised you to be such a person, but didn’t really realize until now that raising you to be a strong and independent person resulted in you becoming a strong and independent person!

In a way, your roles have been reversed: you are now the adult, and they are the ones who need to grow up a bit more.  They’ll need time and space to come to that place of acceptance, so don’t give up on them, but also don’t try to “make” them see and accept the truth of who you are, it is best to let that happen when the time is right.

Show them how to love you as you are, that you are a wonderful person in large part because of who they are – just as they hoped you would be.  And, let the Spirit of the God you share with them give all of you peace as you weather the storms and adjustments that are taking place as they adjust to this new reality in their lives.

My prayers are with you all.


 

In my experience, rejection is less about the person being rejected and more about the person who is doing the rejecting.  Rejection occurs because you do not fit the mold that another has sought to place upon you.  This does not mean they don’t love you, but it does mean they do not know how to love you.  

You cannot change how they see you and love you.  But, you can continue to love those who reject you in some fashion, perhaps distantly, and give them the time and space they need to confront themselves and to learn that they need to grow and change, just as you have grown and changed.

Peace,

Pastor Allen


 

Copyright (c) 2015, Allen Vander Meulen III, all rights reserved.  I’m happy to share my writings with you, as long as proper credit for my authorship is given. (e.g., via a credit that gives my full name and/or provides a link back to this site – or just email me and ask!)

Sermon: Family

The challenge then is not who should be part of our family – that choice is not ours. Nor is the challenge to decide if we are to love them – because the Bible says love all, no exceptions. The challenge is how to love them, because they’re going to be climbing up that same ladder we’re on no matter what we do, Jesus made it so.

Hunter Family, ca1900; (c) 2015 Dorothy Vander Meulen
The Hunter Family of Waterbury, CT, ca 1900;
(c) 2015 Dorothy Vander Meulen

Jesus says “Who is my mother, and who are my brothers? … Here are my mother and my brothers! For whoever does the will of my Father in heaven is my brother and sister and mother.”

How does this relate to us, and why does it matter?

Please join me in prayer…

Lord God, we lift up this morning’s message.  May it touch our hearts, may it speak clearly to our souls, that we may come to more fully comprehend your eternal and undying love for us and for all of the Family of God. Amen.

I lived in the Tidewater area of Virginia about 20 years ago. Many of my co-workers, friends and neighbors were part of military families, mostly Navy. One September, a friend who served on board the Aircraft Carrier U.S.S. Enterprise invited me to be his guest for the ship’s “Friends and Family Day Cruise”. Now, how could I refuse such an invitation to see the Enterprise? I accepted!

USSEnterprise CVN65This was an event where the ship’s officers and crew could invite those close to them to come on board for a short cruise that included tours, a picnic, and some presentations and demonstrations. Towards the end of that afternoon we ran into a co-worker of mine: a wonderful and godly black woman named Veronica. She told us her husband was an officer on the ship.

While there, we really wanted to check out the ship’s control tower, that big “Island” on one side of the flight deck where the bridge is. But, one of the rules was that only officers and their families were allowed up there. Veronica assured us that going up would be no problem…

Wondering how she could do this (since we clearly weren’t family), Sean and I timidly followed her up the ladders. Almost immediately, we were confronted by two very stern guards, holding their rifles at the ready. They said, “Sorry Ma’m, only officers and their families are allowed above Deck O-3.”

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The Pain of Father’s Day

Fathers Day is a day that is both joyful and painful for me, as it is for many.

AJCardFathersDay2015Father’s Day is meant to be a happy time, and so it is for me – in part: a time where my wife and son conspire to present Daddy with some nice little momento, usually (at this point) a card with artwork, to tell Daddy how much he is loved by his youngest child.  And I love it: he and I do the same thing for Mom on Mother’s Day.  All such things speak of the love and care that is within this home and our life.  It also speaks of the importance we attach to family, and modeling for our son that it is important to tell those closest to us how much we love them, in many ways, all the time.

Unfortunately, Father’s Day is also a day of sadness for me, as it is for many.  In my case, it is a stark and painful reminder of the long separation between my daughter (who is now 26 years old) and myself.  July 12th of this summer will mark ten years since the last time I spoke to her, or had any idea of how her life was going, where she was living, or anything else about her.

Now, I could dwell on the events surrounding my divorce from my first wife, which began with our separation on July 10th of that year (2005), but that would be doing her a disservice, since she is not here to defend herself.  So, I will merely say that my separation from our daughter is the outcome of a great deal of dysfunction in that relationship, magnified by a legal system that grants custody to the mother as the default, on the assumption that doing so is in the best interest of the child; and made worse in turn through my own ignorance of how to navigate that same system.

Now, assuming the mother (and children) are the ones who need more (and immediate) protection when accusations of abuse are being made is not a bad thing.  In fact, it should be that way, since they are (generally) much more likely to be the ones at risk in a dysfunctional relationship.

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Suicide

Robin Williams
Robin Williams

I’ve long promised that I would eventually post here on the issue of suicide, and this seems to be the moment, as much as I dread doing so: it is a difficult challenge, one that must be approached with great care and compassion.

What impelled me to do so at this time is the death of Robin Williams, and my feelings with regards to a post about Williams’ suicide by Matt Walsh – another screed of his that I once again (almost) agree with.

Walsh emphasizes in his recent post – “Robin Williams didn’t die from a disease, he died from his choice” – that suicide is a choice, and there is always an alternative, you can choose life.  I [almost] agree – he is right, to some extent.

In his post, Walsh discusses at length how painful suicide is, in so many ways, for those we leave behind: whether we realize it or not.  As he and I both know all too well, there are always those who love you dearly, and who will always be haunted and who will always carry a deep, hidden hurt from the suicide of someone they love.  He calls suicide a “selfish choice” and again – he is right, to some extent.

Frankly, there are far more survivors than you can possibly suspect of their own suicide attempt(s) or the suicide of someone close to them.  I am certain that there are many people you know who carry this hidden pain, and who will move heaven and earth to keep another from experiencing what they’ve gone through – which means they will do everything they can to help you, once they know that you see your own death as the only way out of the deep pain and darkness that you feel you cannot escape.

But, Walsh is also wrong – suicide seems like a choice to those looking on from outside, but for those mired in making that choice, it is not a choice: it is an escape when one becomes convinced there are no other choices.  It is a disease that deludes one into thinking that the only way out is to choose oblivion.  It leads you to believe that no one else cares, or that no one else can help you.

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Relate Unconditionally?

Conditional LoveBased on the thoughts I surfaced in a recent post (and elsewhere) regarding what I see as God’s call to Unconditional Love, I’ve had several folks ask me questions along the lines of “Does that mean I have to love the person who [abused or hurt or seeks to control] me?

Let’s answer this one carefully.

Love them?  Yes.

Have a relationship with them?  Well, that question requires a nuanced answer…

To begin with, let’s make one thing clear: Love and Relationship are not the same thing.  We can choose to love another, even if the relationship we have with them is nonexistent (or nearly so).  Loving another means building a bridge between another and you, opening a door to a better future, a better relationship.  But just because that bridge exists does not mean you have to cross it, or that they will cross it, and you certainly should not cross it all the way to the other side!

Relationship is a two-way street.  A relationship will exist in some form – after all, relationship is part of the very fabric of our existence.  So, you do have relationships with others, all others.  However, the extent and quality of that relationship is attenuated by the limitations we bring to the table.  Love makes it possible to have a better quality and more balanced relationship with another, but only if they are willing and able to return that love.  Love enables you to get to the midpoint of the bridge, but it is up to the other as to whether they’ll meet you halfway, or not.

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Homelessness

image courtesy of Wikimedia commons
image courtesy of Wikimedia commons

Most Thursday mornings you can find me at a local shelter for homeless families, working as a volunteer chaplain.  I’m not as useful as I’d like to be, since I am male – and many of those needing the services of this facility (and similar shelters) are there because of domestic abuse – meaning that men are to be feared and avoided, not trusted.  So, it can take a great deal of time to get past that hurdle before communication (and trust) can grow.  And, many of the residents move on to other shelters, or (hopefully) a home, before such a bond can develop.

As a result, I spend a great deal of my time observing those who are there in the shelter, mostly Moms (and some Dads) getting their kids to the school bus, preparing to go to work.  Often they are also preparing for a new round in the endless struggle with the Social Services bureaucracy and various other agencies and organizations: a struggle dedicated to providing enough food for their family, finding a new home, a new job, and perhaps medical or other care.

It’s an interesting place.  I usually see kids reading schoolbooks, watching TV, talking with their parents and playing with friends.  Both parents and kids will be eating from the continental breakfast buffet that the hotel puts out for them.  (The State of Massachusetts contracts with a number of hotels around the state, such as the one I work at, to provide shelter for the several thousand homeless families that cannot be housed within state-owned and run homes.)

The kids are dressed just like any kid would be on a school morning – jeans or (for the younger set) some sort of themed clothing – (perhaps a superhero, Barbie, Hello Kitty, and so on…)   Backpacks full, sometimes with Mom (as all Mom’s do) doing her best to make their hair and outfits presentable before they have to run out to the school bus.

When I drive up on those mornings, I sometimes see parents running from the hotel to the commuter bus stop nearby with plates of food – perhaps two or three bagels or toast, and (usually) coffee.  Moms might be pushing a stroller, or shepherding a young child or two, while the dads might have a backpack or briefcase.

These are people, people like you and me.

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Remembering My Daughter

My daughter in late 2004

February 12th is both a happy and a sad day for me, happy in that it is the day I celebrate the birth of my daughter, but sad in remembering that our relationship has been sundered for well over 7-1/2 years now.  She has now been lost to me for nearly a third of her life.

Every parent constantly worries about their child – are they healthy, will they succeed in school, can they make the team…  I do too, but sadly, there is no feedback.  I have no way of knowing anything about the state of my daughter – where she is, what she’s doing, whether she’s healthy, happy, sad … anything.  All I know is that for some reason, a couple days after her mother and I split, all communication stopped.

Without communication, there cannot be relationship.  Without communication, there cannot be reconciliation.  Without communication, there cannot be healing.  And, in my case, without communication, I do not even know what caused this break, nor what I can do to resolve it.  It is a position of powerlessness.

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Christmas Treats!

Cookies! Breads! Treats of every kind! As a member of the Pastoral Staff, my inbox and desk were flooded with all sorts of goodies this Holiday Season. The oh so steady but slow gains in my battle against the beltline all went out the window in just a few hours as I chomped down on all of the treats thoughtfully baked and prepared by our parishioners.

We often groan at the thought of being flooded with toothsome goodies every Holiday Season, but I have learned that everyone has a story to go with such gifts.

One man I’ll call Ed had received his recipe for a sweetbread from a friend of his family, who had in turn received it from Ed’s father years earlier. When Ed’s father died, this friend felt moved to give Ed the recipe that Christmas, saying that he knew Ed’s father would have wanted him to have it. So, every Christmas since then, Ed has baked that recipe, always cooking from the same tired, stained, ripped old piece of paper that his friend gave him all those years ago, with the recipe on it in his Father’s handwriting.

Another women I’ll call Nina gave me a loaf of bread, and on her note she wrote, simply, “This is my Grandmother’s Sweet Nut Bread.” I can just imagine the wonderful memories the aroma of this bread must have created for Nina, smelling it now must bring her back to those times as a child when her grandmother was baking it for the Holidays.

Miriam gave me a plate of cookies, and told me how grateful she was to have had so many good years since a life-threatening bout of illness. For her, life is to be enjoyed, every day is relished, because for her, every day is a gift. These cookies are a way for her to share that goodness of life with others.

All of these people were expanding my waistline, it is true, but more importantly they were sharing the good times, poignant memories, wonderful smells and wonderful meals that meant so much to them. They were sharing a part of themselves with me, taking the time to give me – literally – a portion of the fruit of their labors. They were inviting me into their lives, giving me a glimpse of what is important to them, what is deeply meaningful to them. I am being asked to become a part of their family, in a way, I am being invited into the story of their lives.

And this is the way it is with Jesus. God shared Jesus with us. In so doing, God has invited us to be a part of his life, to be part of his family, to become part of His story.

Sharing food is a very intimate, precious thing – sharing one’s time, sustenance and story with another. Gifts like this also have such strong echoes with the Breaking of Bread at Communion, potluck suppers on Sundays after church, and even the sharing of the temple sacrifices with the priests in Ancient Israel. All of these are statements of togetherness, of being a family, of being one with each other.

So, as I sit down and sample these wonderful gifts, I will share them with my own family and be thankful for these wonderful people who have given of themselves to make this happen. And, I will be thankful that I am part of The Story.

Copyright (c) 2011, Allen Vander Meulen III, all rights reserved.  I’m happy to share my writings with you, as long as you are not seeking (or getting) financial benefit for doing so, and as long as proper credit for my authorship is given (via a credit that mentions my name or provides a link back to this site).