There Comes a Time…. Then, What?

It is said that when Alfred Nobel’s brother died, media mistakenly reported that it was Alfred and printed his obituary by mistake.  We’ve all heard of people who write their own obituary. But, what would it be like to read your obituary written by the public media?

One apocryphal account should be true even if it is not. It holds that Alfred was so shaken by publicity surrounding his premature demise that he became determined to be known for something other than being the inventor of TNT.  Thus, after his death in 1896 his estate created the Nobel Prizes — of which the Peace Prize is the most prestigious.

Yesterday I spent the afternoon with a local Focolare community. This “domestic church” movement was founded by Italian Chiara Lubich from amid the devastation of World War II. With death an immanent possibility, Lubich came to a deep reverence for “Jesus forsaken.” She recognized the intimate connection between Jesus’s passion and death with the unspeakable human suffering she and others were enduring in 1943.

It was not the magnitude of Jesus’s suffering that mattered — his suffering does not save. The immensity of Jesus’s love — first for the one he spoke of as Abba and us by inclusion — is the source of our salvation! Lubich spent the rest of her life, until 2008, living and leading others in her simple but onerous spirituality of bringing great love to others, especially to people and situations seemingly forsaken.

With this as backdrop I have begun reading We Know How This Ends, Living While Dying by Bruce Kramer with Cathy Wurzer. This dangerously beautiful book tells the story of Kramer’s diagnosis in his early 50s of ALS, Lou Gehrig’s disease.  He died just last month.

As Susan Allen Toth expressed so well, “Kramer turns his diamond-hard diagnosis like a prism, reflecting light and joy in surprising places… invite[ing] us to consider how we live in the face of impending death or unwanted change.”

One turn of the prism is to the presumption with which we all live: “If only I could eat correctly, exercise enough, hold all things to moderation, devote myself in equal measure to my family and my job, I would have a great chance of living past ninety and looking back on a life well lived.” He recalls joking that he wanted his epitaph to be: “He died racing semis on his bike.”

Kramer writes: “I know what you are thinking — that you don’t need this right now, you don’t want to think about it, that you have plenty of time.” He acknowledges that we are “totally correct in thinking this way, until…” Call it the thief in the night or whatever you wish. That “until” will inevitably come!  Ultimately, we must accept that we cannot “fix” our lives.

Kramer had the inevitability of death foisted upon him. He was “pulled into the essence of what it means to be a living human being.” He reluctantly mustered the ability to recognize that he was “just aging exponentially faster than most… accept[ing] the fact that fixing is a lie.”

Like Alfred Nobel, Chiara Lubich and so many other noble saints among us, Bruce Kramer had the courage and fortitude to look death — his death — squarely in the eye and to ask, “How are we to live?” I am still in the very early pages of the book. However, I know already it is one that I hope you go out and read immediately.

Kramer frames our perennial human dilemma: “Out of the emptiness that was once the surety of my life came the question, what will you be from here to eternity?” He continues: “Therefore if I threw in my lot with trying to fix this, I would only be frustrated and bitter, and while I might glimpse the old normal Godhead from time to time, the person I wanted to become could not fix this.”

Again, the person Bruce Kramer wanted to become could not “fix” this!  Then, what?  How are we to live?

__________

We Know How This Ends, Living While Dying, Bruce H. Kramer with Cathy Wurzer.  University of Minnesota Press, Minneapolis, 2015.  Quoted material is from pages 17-21.  The quote by Susan Allen Toth is from the dust cover of the book.

At Long Last, Hope!

A 60-year-old woman battles a fourth recurrence of cancer and is told by her oncologist that the chemo she has been receiving for the past few months has been ineffective.

A 52-year-old man living in a Catholic Charities residence for chronic alcoholics asks, “Where’s God? I’ve pleaded… on my knees! Why won’t God take away the pain?”

With excruciating grief etched across his face, a father kneels aside his bloodied deceased son. They had gone to their masque in Yemen for Friday prayer when it became the target of a suicide bomber.

To such as these the cliché, “There is always hope!” easily sounds stupid and saccharine if not insulting!  Those who proffer such platitudes either don’t know what they are talking about or they live in huge denial of what this Holy Week is all about.

Many of you know that after twenty years of confronting anxiety and depression I went public in July 2014 with my story of sexual abuse and the compounding anguish of being dismissed by Jesuit leadership. Today I want all to know that a nasty, brutal chapter of my life has found healing and closure.

Jesuit leadership really “stepped up to the plate” and I feel validated, vindicated and reconciled. My deep respect and affection for the Society of Jesus has been affirmed. They eventually responded with the best of what I know them to be capable.

In the often nightmarish ordeal I came to learn something about hope. Just weeks before my twenty-year struggle found resolution, a good friend said to me, “Give it up, the Jesuits aren’t going to do anything.” She of all people should know better — and so should the rest of us!

A woman with cancer, a man with chronic alcoholism, a parent grieving the senseless death of a child, victims of sexual abuse… we need more than pious platitudes or cheap grace. That’s what Holy Week is all about.

At some point or another we will all be bought to a place where optimism crumbles, expectation for easy solutions shatters. We are left with raw, stark, desperate hope! We discover nothing more than a fire-tempered conviction — discovered by a frantic clinging to life — coming from a source other than ourselves.

During my twenty-year ordeal wrestling with the demon of sexual abuse I was never optimistic. In fact, quite the opposite! There was too much pain, too many brick walls, blind denials, freaked-out stares and others battening down their defenses.

As with the dejected friends returning home to Emmaus, I too was tempted, “Just give it up! They’re not going to do anything.”  Yet over time, and wholly separate from my best effort, I ran up against a deep source of energy and conviction from a place certainly other than myself.

Today I would describe this as an insistent gift, a tenacious pulse
that I did not always welcome or experience as consoling. It was
beyond me and, frankly, sometimes a burden I did not wish to carry, a thorn in my side, even a royal pain in the ass. Yet it recurred — despite my impermeability, resistance, fatigue or resignation.

Today I call this involuntary impulse, Hope! We do not profess Faith, Optimism and Love! Each of the theological virtues comes as a pain in the ass from time to time. In that, we learn they are not of our own creation but truly gift.

Recurring cancer, chronic alcoholism, terrorist fanaticism, sexual abuse bring us face-to-face with our abject poverty, structures that defend — even enshrine — personal sin or an impervious culture that seems down right hostile.

Yes, we desperately need and await a savior — not of our own conjuring, not even of our own capacity to imagine. Very much from within our creation, though not of our making. Hope makes its tentative appearance when we — even reluctantly, even wishing it were otherwise or according to our plans — hazard to trust that what we really need will all be given.

Appearing amid the brokenness of our personal and collective lives, hope appears in a way and at a time not of our choosing. It is most assuredly not anything we can provide ourselves. Despite my protestations of personal autonomy, even to say “I accept” the gift sounds increasingly dissonant and much too volitional.

Ultimately, we are brought to our knees. At some time or other we are brought low by the death-dealing that life throws at us. We are invited to our knees during Holy Week because this is the truth of our lives — despite our best efforts, ALL is gift. But, ALL will be given.

This is what we are urged to encounter this week — God giving ALL in Jesus. We are invited to accept our radical inability to save ourselves, or even our ability to protect those we love from life’s death-dealing. We are compelled to recognize the inadequacy of easy optimism and pious platitudes. The very most we can muster is to receive God’s gift — always given as a gift of self!

Our eyes are opened.  We like others before us recognize this in telling our stories, in bread blessed, broken, shared — amid the dejection, the real stuff of our lives, where we most need to be saved.

As We Would Want It

“Make a fist! That’s right… a big, tight fist! Now, put it in front of your face… right up there near the bridge of your nose …right between your eyes. What do you see?”

With this simple exercise, Jeanne Bishop’s pastor helped her deal with the excruciating grief associated with the tragic death of her sister, brother-in-law and their unborn child.

“What do you see?”

“I see a fist.” Jeanne replied.

“Good.” the pastor said. “Now slowly, slowly take that fist and move it down to your side. … What do you see now?”

“I can see everything, the whole world.”

“Do you see that fist, the one that once blocked out everything else? … It hasn’t change size or shape. It’s just as big as it was before. It’s just not here” — the pastor raised his fist back to his face — “anymore.”

With this very simple and accessible routine, Pastor John Boyle assisted a bereft woman to see that she could move ahead with painful memories, enduring love, the truth of her loss as “companions” by her side.

The pastor assured her, “You have had a loss. You will never get over it. But you will get out from under it.”

When grief is fresh it feels raw and all-consuming. This in testimony to the depth of the relationship lost. It appears to block out the rest of our world, like the fist in front of our nose. With time it subsides — in its own time and as it serves its good purpose. The chasm created by the loss never leaves but moves to another place, always by our side.

Memory, love and loss — our ever-present companions. Over time, life becomes as we would want it. As it should be!
___________
References and quotes are from pages 44-45 of Change of Heart: Justice, Mercy and Making Peace with My Sister’s Killer by Jeanne Bishop. Westminster John Know Press, 2015.

Boundless Grief, Boundless Love

Lisa was the apple of her father’s eye. It was a bitter blessing, therefore, that she could be at his bedside when my brother died. My own experiences of loss prompt me to remember her often during this past month. Grief is damn hard!

As we took our inevitable leave on the afternoon of the funeral, Lisa and I embraced to express our grief, enduring affection and mutual need for consolation. Experience reminded me of what was in store for her — the seeming finality of what feels like an ultimate goodbye, the bottomless pit that would likely open as she drove the fifty miles to her home in Sioux City, how those miles committed to memory from so many happy occasions could now appear foreign, inhospitable, estranged.

I felt compelled to say something profound, at least avuncular. But there are no words! Yet, I mumbled something, fumbling to say what Dietrich Bonhoeffer expressed so well:

Nothing can make up for the absence of someone we love…
it is nonsense to say that God fills the gap; God doesn’t fill it,
but on the contrary, God keeps it empty
and so helps us keep alive our former communion with each other,
even at the cost of pain…
the dearer and richer the memories,
the more difficult the separation.

That’s been my experience. Perhaps it will be Lisa’s. The challenge for me has been to leave the emptiness empty, open, raw as it is! I know the futility of trying to anesthetize the pain with alcohol. We are prone to fill the void with consumption or consumerism of all sorts. We easily seek diversion and distraction aplenty. Yet, what’s buried alive stays alive. If in our desperation we attempt to deaden our irreplaceable loss, our profound and personal “emptiness”, the void remains only a vacuous insatiable hole.

The unimaginable, the painful bitter route of grief unencumbered, becomes our source of blessing if we can remain open, embracing loss as life’s ultimate assurance of love. Bonhoeffer wisely concludes:

But gratitude changes the pangs of memory into tranquil joy.
The beauties of the past are borne, not as a thorn in the flesh,
but as a precious gift in themselves.

Of this I am certain… Lisa remains the apple of her father’s eye!

Love you, Bro!

My hero, my mentor, my big brother died one year ago today.  Yes, I miss him daily and would give anything for just one more “Villa Run.”  Yet, in stark contrast to other deaths I have grieved, I am consoled by Jerry’s enduring presence every day.  This presence transcends fond memories prompted by photos in the TV room.

Sixteen years my elder, I traversed that stage of rejecting whatever anyone tried to tell me about how to live my life.  Now, one year after Jerry’s death I spontaneously depend on his wisdom to show me what my life, what human growth and maturity — life fully lived — should look like.

Life on life’s terms!

Let go!

Thank you, thank you, thank you!

I could do no better than to put into practice what Jerry lived.  I can do no better than to again share the eulogy I offered one year ago…

My brother’s life can be explained in three words. …just three words: Jerry loved Marilyn! She was his best friend, trusted confidant, spiritual soulmate, …his beloved. I know, I was there at the beginning! Some of you knew Gert, our dear mother! She believed this too. More than once Gert is known to have said: “You know, Marilyn is the best thing that ever happened to Jerry!” And that’s a mother speaking!

Yes, my brother’s life can be explained in three words – and the mirror of these three words is the other side of the equation: Marilyn loved Jerry. Marilyn has a tremendous capacity for love! Yet everyone in this room who holds Marilyn so dear … in our many unique and special ways … knows without question that Marilyn’s love for Jerry was always first, singular and unqualified.

And I’m here to tell you that loving my brother like that is no easy feat. Burbachs come with a double dose of certain character defects – especially Burbach males. All of you know, probably better than we who are in it up to our eyeballs, that we tend to be hard-charging, opinionated, stubborn and can boast of a good dose of unbridled pride to bout. Jerry was no exception – yet we love him. We love him.

We have witnessed a remarkable transformation in Jerry over the years, especially over the last ten years. And it was not just – or even primarily – about Alzheimer’s! Hard-charging became more gentle. Opinionated softened into acceptance and inclusion. Stubbornness began to morph into patience. Pride began to show glimmers of genuine humility. Then there was gratitude – tremendous gratitude: “Thank you. Thank you. Thank you.” Yes, Jerry’s thirty years in AA working a 12 step program certainly contributed to his spiritual transformation in character defects. But that’s not the real explanation! Jerry loved Marilyn. And the other half of this truth is: Marilyn loved Jerry.

As spiritual soulmates, Jerry and Marilyn lived and experienced their very special love as deeply Sacramental – a living sign, a tangible expression – here and now – of how God loves… even unto death. We have experienced their love in hospitality, compassion; as generative, life-giving — most conspicuously we have them to thank for Matt and Chris! But, we are all richer because of the other-centeredness of Jerry and Marilyn’s love.

The explanation for my brother’s life, for his ability to let-go of all that ego-stuff with its bells and whistles, his ability to embrace life-on-life’s-terms, his willingness to step courageously, even if regrettably, into the mystery of Alzheimer’s; finds its source – and salvation – in the steadfast, singular love Jerry and Marilyn shared with each other. We are all witnesses to this truth. And, we are all the better for it!

Jerry you will always be my hero, my idol, my BIG brother! Thank you for teaching all of us how to live, how to love and how to die. We, all of us, “love you, bro!”

Good Grief

Grief softens, taunts us into familiarity, befriends us over time and — though uninvited — comes to settle in with us as a respected companion.

At least that’s my experience from the perspective of having lost five of nine siblings. Today is the third anniversary of my brother Art’s death.

You would have liked him — I honestly do not know a person who did not! Of the six brothers he clearly inherited our Dad’s gracious charm and ease with people. He was incorrigibly kind, generous, self-effacing, optimistic and happy. That was quite a feat given our genetic disposition and his ten-year battle with lung cancer.

Art loved cars as did our dad, his namesake. One of my most vivid childhood memories was his purchase of a sleek, white, 1959 Pontiac Star Chief sedan — it belongs in the Smithsonian! Just having it parked in our driveway gave this nine-year old immediate, and fully exploited, bragging rights.

Art’s fascination with cars endured but also signaled a fundamental shift. No longer needing to flash an icon of a financially flush bachelor, over time Art became quite skilled in car repair. He embraced a new focus, new goals. Modesty and frugality became his obsession as Joyce and their three kids became the locus of his pride and uncontested priority.

Always the financial wizard and astute investor, Art became as selfless as is constitutionally possible for a Burbach male. His many sacrifices and deep reservoir of faith in God and other people has been validated in terrific children with whom I am proud to share the family name.

One last, parting gift endures. Honored to be among my brother’s pallbearers, I was unprepared for what I was asked to carry.  Lumbering up a slight incline at Calvary cemetery proved more than I could manage. I buckled under the weight — others had to come to my rescue.  Thus, my brother’s legacy continues to work its way with me.

Being the youngest of a large family is a profound gift. Perhaps I learn from some of their mistakes, though plenty of evidence suggests the contrary. Certainly I profit from their example and wisdom.  I am growing more accustomed to not being the leader, content — perhaps blessed — to follow.

More than ever, I am coming to appreciate what T.S. Eliot expressed so well:

We shall not cease from exploration
And the end of all our exploring
Will be to arrive where we started
And know the place for the first time.
__________________
T.S. Eliot’s famous quote is from the conclusion of Little Gidding, the last of his Four Quartets.

Our Fathers

What are we to say of our fathers? Mine wasn’t perfect – none are, I suspect. When I turned 40, the age he was when I was born, I suddenly had a whole new appreciation for the man. What must it have been like to be the sole bread-winner for a wife and ten children? I buckled at the prospect. He did not.

Married in 1931, the Great Depression and WWII prevented him and my mother from “getting off the farm” until 1945. How they managed to “keep the farm” during those hard early years – when so many other good people had not – continues to amaze me.

We had our scrapes. What son or daughter doesn’t? I recall announcing at dinner that I was going to protest a Presidential campaign rally of George Wallace. He said, “No, you’re not.” I said, “Yes, I am!” Back and forth we went, horns locked.

Experienced parent that he was he announced, “This is what we are going to do… we will both go! We will sit in our seats. We won’t cheer or in any way express approval. However, we will not be part of an organized protest.” Together we went.

We witnessed those I would have been with taking folding chairs over their backs. The violence made national news. Though it took years to temper my impetuous zeal and admit his more mature wisdom, I never again doubted whether he would “be there” for me.

Who among us would not like to relive, perhaps re-script, certain episodes with our dads. Today, I am still in search of a hamburger to rival those I shared with him as an 8-year-old in cafes of small Nebraska towns when I accompanied him as a sales rep for a farm implement company. Oh, the conversation we’d have!

About a year before he died we shared another meal. I took the risk of asking what he wanted me to say about him at his funeral. His eyes shot up, “What?” “Look,” I said, “I’m going to be there and will probably have something to say. Most people don’t get the chance to say what they want said about them. What do you want me to say?”

Composing himself, he thought for a moment. “First of all, you better be there!” Then he said, “Tell them I wasn’t perfect… I made my mistakes. Tell them I’m sorry. But, tell them I tried my best and have loved them more than they will ever know.”

Dads aren’t perfect. But, then, who’d want to be the daughter or son of a perfect parent! We honor them best by growing into the woman or man we were born to be. In this we become more like them.

Dad has been gone more than 21 years now. Fathers Day without him never gets any easier – just different. There are times I am certain of his attentive presence. At other times I would give the world to share an experience or tap his wisdom.

This year I am especially grateful for the way he taught me to pray: “Our Father, who art in heaven, hallowed be thy name…”

In Memoriam

Our hearts are full with love and loss this weekend. In Minnesota we are heavy with the lush beauty of a long-awaited Spring. Yet, our evening barbecue with friends will be preceded by a visit to Resurrection Cemetery.

We don’t get to live long before we know the loss of loved ones. I have lost five of nine siblings in addition to my parents. We are of that generation which now attends many more funerals than weddings — we find they are increasingly for our contemporaries. Still, we have come to that unexpected vista where we recognize grief but equally cherish love and a life well lived.

Among the many losses, the one I hold closest to my heart this Memorial Day is that of Visitation Sister Peronne Marie Tibert, VHM. Peronne was my Elizabeth – that elder wise woman I would run to in moments of exhilaration and brokenness. We consistently shared such intimacy with poetry and over tea. Our common passion for gardening and bread baking waned as we aged.

Peronne died in September twelve days after marking her 90th birthday. In our last conversation on her birthday she said, “It’s time!”

In her memory, and remembering the many we have loved and lost, I share a sonnet Peronne wrote in 1959:

I shall remember gentle April rain

When only crumbling dust is to be found;

I shall remember fields of sun-filled grain

When hallow husks lie scattered on the ground;

When storms shall rage against the rocks I’ll hear

The lapping of soft waves upon the strand;

When stinging winds shall break the bough and sear

I’ll blow a milkweed seed across my hand.

 

No shrieking hawk will still the skylark’s song

Nor blot the memory of the bluebird’s wing,

For even when all loveliness is gone

I shall recall each tender, trembling thing.

Today I enfold love within my heart

To keep against the day when we must part.

Lest We Ever Forget

Again, we remember!

Yom Hashoah is observed from sundown this evening through sundown tomorrow, April 28. Although it is a Jewish holiday it is both appropriate and salutary that we all pause to mark this occasion. We commemorate a great horror but also celebrate tremendous heroism.

Yom Hashoah remembers the six million Jews – and millions of others as well – who perished in the Holocaust as a result of the actions carried out by Nazi Germany. May we never forget!

Since Yom Hashoah is a relatively new holiday, there are no fixed rules or rituals. Often, Yom Hashoah is observed with candle lighting, speakers, poems, prayers, and singing. This evening at sundown, or anytime before sundown tomorrow, pause…  light a candle… remember!

In the rising of the sun and in its going down,
we remember them.

In the blowing of the wind and in the chill of winter,
we remember them.

In the opening of buds and in the rebirth of spring,
we remember them.

In the blueness of the sky and in the warmth of summer,
we remember them.

In the rustling of leaves and in the beauty of autumn,
we remember them.

In the beginning of the year and when it ends,
we remember them.

When we are weary and in need of strength,
we remember them.

When we are lost and sick at heart,
we remember them.

When we have joys we yearn to share,
we remember them.

So long as we live, they too shall live, for they are now a part of us, as we remember them.

— from the Rabbi’s Manual 1988