Heaven

My grandmother’s spirit left her body one year ago today.

I was there with her when it happened, and despite the steady stream of visitors she had most hours of most days during the final week of her life, it happened shortly after 2AM, and I was the only person in the room with her at the time.

Around 1AM, I fell asleep on a hospital cot that had been pulled up next to her hospice bed. Before lying down and closing my eyes, I said out loud, “wake me up if you need anything”.

She had been unconscious and unresponsive for a week.

Shortly after 2AM I had a dream of a glass cookie jar with nothing in it. When I reached my hand out towards it, it shattered into thousands of pieces. It hurt me to watch the jar shatter, but the glass shards themselves were beautiful and did not injure my skin as they passed through my hand.

Suddenly I was awake.

I looked over at my grandma, and listened for the sounds of her breathing. I didn’t hear anything for a long moment, and bolted right out of bed.

The moment I got my face near hers, she exhaled.

And then did not inhale ever again.

I walked into the hallway to tell the hospice nurse that my grandma was gone. She followed me back into the room and put her stethoscope on the soft, bare skin of my grandmother’s back.

“Her heart is still fluttering a little bit”, she said to me. “I’ll give you another minute alone together”.

And then she walked out of the room.

I held my grandmother’s hand, and looked at her for signs of life.

Her face was still so soft and sweet as if she were peacefully sleeping, but her hands felt a bit colder than they had a few hours before. I didn’t know what to say or do, or how to be with someone while their heart was still fluttering, but their breath had already left their body.

My grandma was one of the greatest loves of my life, and my own heart felt like it was breaking.

Just as I was about to let myself surrender into the mess of feelings I had been holding back since I first learned of her stroke 7 days before, I felt something I can only now describe as a shimmering, sparkling, tingling, pulsing wave of the most exquisite joy and tenderness move from her, and fill the whole room, including my own body.

I’ve never felt anything like this before or since.

It was like those luminous glass shards from my dream had turned into the finest dust, and I could feel both their luminosity and their former sharpness all at once. It hurt in the way it hurts to feel something so gorgeous that you can’t believe it’s true.

I would try to compare it to something like seeing the sunset over cliffs and water, or looking at your baby’s face for the first time, or falling in love, or reconciling with an estranged friend, as all of those things remind me of this feeling a little bit. But all of those experiences pale in comparison, truthfully.

This feeling was so stunning and impossible, that it was very hard for me to breathe while it was happening.

As the intensity of that tenderness began to subside a little, I told myself I should stay in the room and linger in it’s fading presence, but I couldn’t. I felt like I needed to step outside of the room in order to catch my breath and slow my heart down to a functional rhythm again.

I walked outside the room and told the nurse that she was indeed gone now.

The nurse came in, listened for my grandmother’s now silent heartbeat, looked at her watch, and then turned her attention on me.

“Are you alright?”, she asked.

“My chest hurts, and it’s very hard for me to take a full breath. I’m going to call my family, and then I think I need to be outdoors for a bit”.

“Do you need medical attention?”, she seemed really concerned for moment.

“No, no. It’s not like that. I don’t know. I’m okay”.

I called my family then, and when I did, I wanted to say, “I’m so sorry you weren’t here for this. I wish I had woken up 20 minutes before and called each of you then. Being here at the end, it was like receiving a holy blessing. I will never be the same”.

But I didn’t say that. Who can say that? I was so disoriented.

Then I stepped outside into the courtyard of the hospice center. There was a light breeze, and a hundred twinkling stars in the sky. The plants were swaying softly, and there was a sweet smell in the air. For a brief moment, I felt that luminous glass dust in everything all around me.

“I’m everywhere now”, she whispered. It was her voice, but it was coming from my own heart.

The Kingdom of Heaven is in your midst. (Luke 17:21).

For the first time in my whole life, I stopped worrying about what happens to us when we die.

I haven’t worried about it ever since.

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Nothing is wrong with you: an Easter message.

Earlier this week, I had the opportunity to hear Anne Lamott speak about her new book, “Hallelujah Anyway”. The conversation was so honest, and soul-stirring that I followed it up with a couple days of binge-listening to several different interviews Anne has done in the last few years. During one of these interviews, she mentioned something a Jesuit priest once said to her about what he called the “5 rules on how to be a Good American”, which we are all forced to learn as early as possible.

1. Don’t have anything wrong with you.
2. If there is something wrong with you, fix it immediately.
3. If you can’t fix it, hide it.
4. If you can’t hide it, stay home—just don’t show up or you’ll make other people uncomfortable.
5. If you insist on showing up anyway, at least have the decency to feel ashamed.

Some of my earliest, earliest memories involve a growing, nagging, sweat-inducing certainty that something was terribly wrong with me. One of the primary reasons I fell so completely head-over-heels into the psychological refuge of Christianity was that it seemed to possess the answer to this precise problem.

“Yes”, Christianity said to me, “there is indeed something very wrong with you. Of course, this will continue to be painful for you and everyone who knows you for as long as you live. But, BUT: if you believe in exactly precisely this one thing, in exactly precisely this one way, and try your best to imitate exactly precisely the attitudes and actions prescribed by this one thing, your reward will be this: immediately AFTER you DIE, you will then finally become perfect”.

What a relief.

So, naturally, I swan-dove into this ideology at 12 years old, and really didn’t start to look underneath the hood of any of it until I was about 22 years old.

Eleven whole years of messy, beautiful, clumsy, miraculous, painful, healing, mentally ill, and spiritually sublime moments later, I have decided that this is not at all what Jesus tried to teach us. In fact, I now believe that to the degree with which we have confused his actual message with the nonsense described above is the degree to which we will wind up abusing ourselves and everyone around us.

So then, if not that painful personal pretzeling our way to salvation, what do I think Jesus did try to teach us?

Well, when I read the gospels now, I hear – over and over – a message that sounds more like this: “Oh, you beloved over-anxious, grasping, clinging children. I need you to try really hard to put your listening ears on for a whole minute while I explain this to you again. Heaven is not somewhere else, it’s right here. Communion with God is not later, it’s now. The Holy Spirit is not behind a curtain in the temple, it’s in your own body”. (Paraphrasing, hi).

Don’t believe me? Read it all over again for yourself. Start with Matthew, finish with the first part of Acts. Consider setting aside your preconceived or previously conceived interpretations, and going very slowly through the story again. Because it’s all right there – every beautiful, relieving, grace-soaked word – hidden in plain-sight.

For my grandma.

Evelyn Olga Peterson | 2.14.1926 – 6.6.2016

[The following words were shared in remembrance of her life on 6.11.16 at Atonement Lutheran Church]:

If you knew my grandmother, Evelyn Peterson, even a little bit well, you knew that she loved to tell stories. If you had the good fortune to spend a lot of time with her, or to know her really well, you may have even heard some of her stories more than once.

I want to honor her today, in part, by sharing with you some of these stories, and what it was she taught me through the telling of them.

Born on Valentine’s Day to Scandinavian farmers in a small town in Iowa, her father published a birth announcement in the local paper that read: “Ben Erickson reports that a new daughter showed up at his home on St. Valentine’s day“.

Over time, this story somehow morphed a bit, and by the time I heard about this birth announcement from my grandmother, she told me that he had written “a little sweetheart showed up at his home on St. Valentine’s day”.

The point of this re-telling of the birth announcement, however, is that it was true: a sweeter heart there never was.

My grandmother’s most defining characteristic was the sincerity with which she loved other people. Her love was lifelong and enduring, relentlessly forgiving, and unconditional. She saw goodness in people where others could not, and delighted in any opportunity to make someone she loved feel special and important. And if you were really listening to all of her stories, it became clear that almost all of the stories she told reflected this deep love she had for others.

She spoke of her own parents with such pride and affection. The way she talked about her father’s playfulness, her mother’s humility, both of their hard-working spirits, and their commitment to their faith, you could hear the love and adoration for them in her voice.

This always made a big impression on me when she spoke of them because I experienced her as embodiment of those same qualities. I once told her this, saying, “I think you are a lot like your parents”, and she replied “well, we grew up working alongside them on the farm”. Even as a young child, I understood what she meant by this. They taught her about virtue and about values through their example, rather than their words.

And what wonderful things she must have been taught through their example, because when she walked off the farm, and out into the world – as the first person in her family to attend college – she was ready to embrace this big, new world she would find herself living in with all the love, humility and faithfulness she had learned at home.

While her parents may have held a great place of honor in Evelyn’s big beautiful heart, she had room for everyone else too.

My grandmother adored her sisters and brothers, and often described them to me as her oldest and dearest friends. When Evelyn’s oldest sister, Irene, left the farm, she was so heartbroken by her absence that she begged her mother not to wash the bed sheets because they smelled like Irene’s perfume.

I could probably spend the rest of the afternoon recounting all of my grandmother’s beautiful stories about her siblings – the way her oldest brother helped her be able to afford college, and how devoted he was to her own children, the sacrifices her older sister made to help take care of the younger children on the farm, the courage and the depth of spirit she saw in her other brother, the closeness she shared with her sister nearest to her age, and the affection she had for her baby sister. She was proud of all of them – proud of who they were, and proud to belong to them.

What I learned from all of her stories about her beloved brothers and sisters was how important sibling love is, and how rewarding it could be. Often times, our siblings are our best allies, teachers and friends throughout much of our life, and if we take good care of these relationships, we can expect to be able to lean on each other well from the beginning of our lives until the very end. Well into their mid to late 90’s, my grandma was in regular contact with her living siblings — speaking with them on the phone weekly and even daily sometimes. They were each other’s greatest, most enduring support systems.

And while her brothers and sisters may have been her oldest and dearest friends, they were certainly not her only friends.

In fact, to be Evelyn’s friend, meant you were going to be her lifelong friend. She stayed in touch with people she had met while living all over the country, wrote them letters – or eventually emails – spoke to them as often as possible by phone, and prayed for their families regularly. My grandmother was always quite frugal with her money, yet I often noticed that she had a wonderful long-distance phone plan. Maybe one of her only real extravagances, but to her – it was money well spent.

She loved her husband, Bill, with a kind of devotion that I have rarely – if ever – seen from anyone else I’ve known. She supported his career and his creative ambitions, moving all over the country as his company directed, and never once complained about this. She simply rolled up her sleeves, made a new house into a home, found a church, befriended neighbors, and got involved in her children’s schools and activities.

Both of my grandparents lived far away from their parents, and my grandma decided early on in their marriage that every time she put a letter in the mail for her own parents, she would put one in the mail for my grandfather’s parents too. His family became her family; it was one of the many, may ways she showed her love for him.

She was also so proud of him – proud of his good looks, his brilliant mind, his beautiful singing voice, his commitment to God and to church, his service to his country, and his devotion to his family.

He was proud of her too.

He loved her cooking, and the way she took care of their home and their children. He would often invite people from work – colleagues and clients – over for dinner at their home without much notice, and while this is something that would drive most women completely crazy, my grandmother was so proud that my grandfather thought her kitchen and her hospitality would be the best way to impress someone in town.

As my grandfather became more and more incapacitated by Parkinson’s disease at the end of his life, she took care of him without argument. It was hard and it was painful for her most of the time, but she brought the same determination and devotion into that part of their marriage as she had to any other part before then. Her word was her bond, her promises were gold, and if she said she was going to do something, she was going to do it. When she said “for better or for worse” she meant it.

My grandmother taught me more about the determination of true love during these final years with my grandpa.

Of course, it may not surprise you to know that my grandmother’s children, grandchildren, and great grandchildren all benefited immeasurably from her love and devotion to them as well. My grandma talked about all four of her children – well into their adulthoods – with the kind of joy and affection in her voice that you usually only hear from new mother’s of tiny babies. She was completely smitten with each one of them.

While I was preparing for this eulogy, I asked my mom and her brothers if there was anything in particular they wanted me to include on their behalf today. And while they each had their own way of saying it, they all said the same thing: “I knew my mom would have done anything for me”.

And boy, was that true.

I only saw my grandmother as a mother to her adult children, but if any one of them needed something from her, she would drop everything, and go to them. I think every single one of her grandchildren would probably say that she helped raise them when they were tiny. And while she may have done that in part because she loved to be with us grandkids, she also did this because she wanted to help her own children manage the impossibly wonderful burden of good parenting.

And how lucky for us – because I know firsthand how much her grandchildren benefited from all of her loving attention.

Last Christmas, while we were all gathered at her house, I said that every single time I called her on the phone, she would say to me “well, isn’t that just the sweetest voice in all the world”. Several of my cousins immediately replied, “she says the same exact thing to me!” She made us all feel like the center of the whole universe, and I believe that her heart was big and deep enough for this to be true.

While she was being taken care of in hospice last week, I spoke with a good family friend of ours on the phone who told me that until she had met my grandmother, she had never known a grandmother could be so involved, so devoted, and so in love with her grandkids. This friend then told me that my grandma’s example of grand-mothering had made a huge impression on the way she herself wanted to be a grandparent. It brings me so much joy to think that in some way other peoples’ grandchildren too are the beneficiaries of my grandma’s beautiful example of love.

You might think she would have just about exhausted her ability to love other people by the time her great-grandchildren were being born, but it’s almost as if she became even more enchanted with the people in her life the older she got. She spent a month of every winter visiting her two great-grandsons in Louisiana, and looked forward to it all year. Last year, my older sister and I had babies 6 weeks apart and it nearly broke my grandma’s heart that she couldn’t be in the delivery rooms with us, she wanted to meet them so badly.

And just in case you thought my grandma’s love for others only extended to her friends and family, it was available in nearly equal measure for people she barely knew, and oftentimes people she had never even met. Just a few weeks ago, she was telling me a story about a little boy in her Sunday school class from the 1960’s that she often still thought about, and hoped he was well. This past week, I attended her prayer circle here at the church and learned she was still actively promoting various mission and charity opportunities, and faithfully collecting donations for people in need all over the world.

….

In these last couple of weeks, while reflecting on her life I have asked myself, how is it possible that one woman loved this well, this much, and this steadfastly? I believe she loved this well because she believed that God first loved her this well.

She never missed an opportunity to remind me about how great, and how big the love of God is. And she never doubted that the love of God was sincere towards every single one of His creations. She simply shared in that abundance of Love, and gave freely from it’s overflow.

As some of you may know, ever since I was a little tiny toddler, I have always called my grandmother “Mana”. It’s an affectionate name I gave her before I could say the word “grandma”. I have two sisters, Leslie and Bailey, who then also called her Mana. When we were growing up, we had a little saying in our house that went like this: “Leslie is a Mommy’s girl, Bailey is a daddy’s girl, and Whitney is a Mana’s girl”.

She was my angel right from the beginning. The sweetness of her spirit and the radiance of her love made me want to be near her. Until I met my own daughter, whom I named Evelyn after her, I don’t think I’ve ever loved someone as purely, immediately, and tenderly as I have loved my grandmother.

As soon I understood that her time on earth would be coming to a close, I knew I wanted to spend as much of those last days, hours and minutes with her as I could. I kept telling my family and the hospices nurses that she didn’t like to be alone, but really I think I was sitting by her bedside for my sake most of all.

By some miracle of grace or timing or both, I was with her when she took her last breath, and when her heart sweet, sweet heart beat it’s last note.

And in that last moment, her final letting go, I felt a wave of the most exquisite tenderness roll right into my own body and fill my whole heart with joy. I knew then – in a way I have been unable to explain, nor deny – that she was happy, and that she was HOME.

Reunited now with so many of the greatest loves of her life, and most importantly reunited with the One that made her, I know that her love has been made perfect and her joy is complete.

 

Mana, we will all miss you terribly every single day. But, I also know that the best way for us to honor you now is to love each other well… just as Christ Jesus first loved us.

Goddess

“We need Goddess consciousness to reveal earth’s holiness. Divine feminine imagery opens up the notion that the earth is the body of the Divine, and when that happens, the Divine cannot be contained solely in a book, church, dogma, liturgy, theological system, or transcendent spirituality. The earth is no longer a mere backdrop until we get to heaven, something secondary and expendable. Mat[t]er becomes inspirited; it breathes divinity.” — Sue Monk Kidd

I admit it. The word “Goddess” is a leap for me sometimes.

It’s so hard to redefine the concept of God we inherited in our youth. In fact, I think it’s often easier to simply reject God outright, rather than allow God to become truly expanded in our hearts and minds.

Nevertheless, this is what I am trying to do.

I am trying to discover all of the things that got left on the “cutting room floor” when my own religious tradition became canonized and organized. So, I pay attention to words like these because they confront me.

Reading this, I hear myself thinking “Ah, yes, that must be true. But, oh my, how uncomfortable too. I don’t know how to get there genuinely yet”.

…That’s all.