This morning as I had my usual cup of coffee on the front porch, I cried. I had been watching videos earlier in the morning, and had come across a video about a German shepherd who was a service dog for a veteran. The service dog was taking his last flight home after being diagnosed with an incurable disease, and the flight crew was honoring him on his last flight. Just thinking about it as I sipped my coffee and looked out over the fresh new day before me was almost too much to bear.
I’ve had a lot of these moments lately–instances when a song, some writing on a piece of paper, or something that someone says will remind me of someone I’ve loved and lost, or will transport me back to a time that I lived, loved, and have had to let go. Almost without warning, the tears will come. and, along with them, so will the judgment and the apologies.
I’m not sure when I and so many of us developed such a posture toward tears–a kind of ritual that begins with droplets of grief or joy or remembrance leaking from our eyes and ends with either self-judgment or an apology. All I know is that is what so often happens. We cry–for a reason known to us or a reason completely hidden from us, and immediately we think ourselves weak. We tell ourselves that whatever has caused us to cry is something that “happens everyday” and something we should “just get over already.” We make some binary, gendered comments like “boys don’t cry” or “girls cry over everything.” Or, we scan the group around us and decide that an apology is more appropriate. As if we are inconveniencing others with the discomfort they might feel from bearing witness to our pain. As if tears were somehow a crime against the polite company we so often try to keep.
But what if I told you that tears weren’t always seen this way? Our spiritual ancestors, the Desert Mothers and Fathers, viewed tears as a gift. Something cleansing, sure, but something far deeper than “just a good cry.” In his book “Soulmaking,” author Alan M. Jones explains, “The desert tradition claims a great deal for the power of tears. Tears are agents of resurrection and transformation. It may be difficult for us to grasp the association between weeping and the bursting forth of new life. Something positive is released when tears flow. The common expression 'to have a good cry,' comes close to what is meant by the 'gift of tears;' at least it is a way of beginning to understand their liberating and cathartic effect. The 'gift of tears,' however, is concerned with something much more radical, threatening, and life-bearing than the occasional and necessary release from tension that 'having a good cry' affords. The tears of which the desert bears witness are not tears of rage, self-pity, or frustration. They are a gift, and their fruit is always joy."
What if, in shutting down our tears with judgment or apologies, we are shutting down the transformation and resurrection that they can lead to? What if, out of fear of being vulnerable for a moment, we are robbing ourselves of the joy that can burst forth from our tears? What if crying is one of the ways we become more fully human, and allow those around us to do the same? What if tears aren’t weakness and grief isn’t something that we just need to get over? What if tears are the vessels that help bring us to new life? Might we then see them as something as sacramental as bread and cup? I imagine we would.
So dear friends, when you need to, let the tears fall. And as they do, try to let them happen without judgment and without apology. Practice welcoming them as the gift that they are: Outward and visible signs of an internal grace that are cutting path in our hearts, our minds, and our very lives toward healing, wholeness, and new life.
Learning to see the gift of tears with you,
As many of you know, after 3 years of pandemic living without a positive COVID-19 test, the coronavirus officially hit our house 2 weeks ago. Since the day my spouse and I got our positive test results we have been quarantined, rarely leaving the house except to go outside with our dogs or to get groceries via contactless pickup. We worked from home, (what a privilege, I know!) and we cooked at home. We read books that we had at home, and even watched ridiculous television on streaming services–all at home. And then, just like that, the symptoms decreased and we tested negative.
As quickly as we had been thrust into quarantine life, we were thrust back out. We had crossed a threshold into illness and all that it required of us, and now, we have crossed a threshold again. All without the heavens ever stopping to ask us if we were actually ready to cross that threshold. All without our permission or consent for the universe to change our lives.
Thresholds are like this though. John O’Donohue says that “To acknowledge and cross a new threshold is always a challenge. It demands courage and also a sense of trust in whatever is emerging. This becomes essential when a threshold opens in front of you, one for which you had no preparation.” In other words, thresholds will take us from here to there, whether we are ready for the change or not, but such changes are not a cause to panic.
Which, I know, is a thing that is easier to talk about than it is to live out. Because change isn’t always about emerging from an illness or a quarantine or a separation. Sometimes the thresholds we cross take us to a place of uncertainty, of loss, of loneliness, of dis-ease. John O’Donohue puts it this way, “Think for a moment how, across the world, someone’s life has just changed–irrevocably, permanently, and not necessarily for the better–and everything that was once so steady, so reliable, must now find a new way of unfolding.”
One of the great unknowns of our very human existence is when and how change will come. The only thing we know for sure is that it will. And when it does–no matter how earth-shattering, or life-altering or mundane it is–as we step across the threshold from what was to what will be, we have at our fingertips both an opportunity and a promise. The opportunity to trust–even if our hearts are breaking or our will is tattered and our spirits shake. And the promise, as John O’Donohue says, “That whatever comes, the great sacrament of life will remain faithful to us, blessing us always with visible signs of invisible grace.”
So maybe that is our task, dear friends: To look for those visible signs of invisible grace that are holding us as we cross life’s thresholds. Perhaps our work is not to fight the winds of change or to try with everything we’ve got to side-step the throughways of our lives, but instead to open our eyes, our hearts, and our minds as we step into them and see how and where and in whom grace is present. I don’t know, but I think it’s worth a shot.
Looking for visible signs of invisible grace with you,
I recently spent a day with my dad in his garage replacing the nearly opaque headlights on my truck with brand new headlight units. Sounds easy enough, right? Truly, it was anything but.
As it turns out, the process of replacing the headlight units in vehicles has changed quite a bit since I last did so in my early twenties. Back then, the process was something I was confident tackling on my own due to the simplicity of the task. Now, a person has to nearly remove the entire front bumper in order to replace the headlights units.
We started slowly, removing the plastic fasteners and several of the 10mm bolts that required removal to access the units. Since my truck is a 2008 vehicle, even this task required extra time, attention, and steps due to some of the bolts being rusted into place. At one point, a few of the bolts even broke off during removal, further complicating the process.
Minutes, then hours ticked by. This project truly felt as if it was going to take forever. Dad and I took turns troubleshooting. At one point, we both found ourselves lying on the garage floor under the truck, staring up at a problem area, discussing what on earth we were going to do to get this done. We got frustrated, we got determined. We got tired and achy–always in waves. But finally, about 9+ hours later, we placed the last plastic snap back into place, completing the project.
The truth is, none of us can foresee the challenges a particular project or journey will hold when we are standing at the beginning. We can research, plan, plot, and prepare all we want. We can try to control every variable imaginable. But what many of us find is that once we are elbow deep in a project, or far enough down the road of the journey on which we have embarked, the plans must often be thrown out of the proverbial window. We discover that all of the research, all of the preparation, all of the control we thought would insulate us from feeling frustration, disappointment, and even pain have fallen short.
What we find along the way is that there are circumstances that challenge us to reach beyond what we already know to do. There are people in our midst who just won’t budge. There are ideas with which we have fused our entire identities so much so that separating them feels like being broken apart. During these times we often feel like the place we are in is the place we will be in forever. We can’t imagine what lies beyond the limits of our knowing. We don’t see a way that some of the people in our lives will ever move, will ever change, will ever evolve. We cannot comprehend who or what we are without the idea we have clung to for so long.
And then–sometimes in moments, in hours, or in lifetimes–we realize that the waves of frustration, determination, exhaustion, and pain that have been coming in and going out have finally led us someplace new. And while we couldn’t control or reason or plan our way out of those waves, we have somehow managed to move through them. One move at a time. One step at a time. One failed solution at a time. And what we come to find is that the point was never to avoid the waves, but to experience them. Knowing that when we do, we will not be crushed and we will not drown–we will bob, we will float, and we will crash our way forward. Perhaps not gracefully and without breaking a few things along the way (including our own hearts), but we can trust that some way, somehow, by some means, we will move forward.
Learning to move through the waves of life’s journeys with you,
The other day I had the opportunity to speak with a man who is an avid fisherman. He has what is (to me at least) a “fancy” fishing boat. He has all of the “right gear.” And, he is just plain good at fishing. This man spends the spring and the summer actually fishing in competitions all over the region, and is even part of a local bass club. Honestly, I didn’t even know there was a local bass club.
As I spoke with this man, we talked about the weather–as Iowans so often do. And we spoke about the changing of the seasons–the warm, long, summer days coming to an end, giving way to the colors, the breezes, and the shorter days of autumn. He said to me, “I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t at least a little sad that fall is here,” then went on to recount how the fishing competitions have come to an end, and how his boat will be winterized soon.
The man and I sat in silence for a bit, staring out across grassy hills with dots of orange and golden leaves that had already fallen. Finally, the man said to me, “It’s probably a good thing, though. I’ve been going all over for competitions since spring…it’ll be nice to have a rest.”
Autumn–perhaps more than any other season–offers us eternal lessons. Chief among those lessons, for me, is that there is a right time for holding and a right time for letting go. There is a right time for hurrying from here to there and doing all of the things, and there is a right time for all of the things to come to an end. There is a right time for connection and spending hours on end with others, and there is a right time to retreat into quieter moments spent alone.
Ecclesiastes 3:1 reminds us that “For everything there is a season and a time for every matter under heaven.” And while that’s true, I know that it is often hard to remember–at least for me. It’s hard to remember that the only certainty I have is not in holding on to some fixed point in time that never changes, but rather is found in the ever unfolding process of living. Knowing this doesn’t make changing seasons any less sad or any less lonely or any less frightening. It doesn’t make the changes we aren’t necessarily ready for hurt any less. It just reminds us that even those sad, lonely, and frightening times don’t last forever–even when it feels like they will.
So as the leaves change and begin to let go from the trees they have clung to since spring, may we consider the changing seasons of our lives. What needs letting go of in our relationships? What damaging story that we keep telling ourselves about ourselves or others needs to be allowed to fall to the earth? What in our work lives, in our recreational lives, in our communal lives needs to be given a rest–even if for just a little while? What changes are happening now that are causing us panic or causing us to be ill at ease?
For everything there is a season, to be sure, and sometimes those seasons hurt like hell. And sometimes they feel SO GOOD we want them to last forever. Either way, they always change. That, friends, we can count on.
Learning to weather the changing seasons with you,
The other day my spouse and I took the dogs to Diamond Lake County Park to do a little hiking. When we finished our hike, we decided to drive around the lake to take in the entirety of the park and its sights. As we neared the boat ramp and kayak launch area, we saw a beautiful Great Blue Heron near the shoreline, and slowed down to take a few pictures.
As we pulled away, my spouse and I began to exchange past kayaking stories of times when Blue Herons had seemed to guide us down the river. The herons would go before us, wait for us to catch up, then fly to a new spot downstream only to repeat this process all over again. I commented to my spouse that because of this guidance, I have always viewed blue herons as a sign that things were going to be alright, and seeing them has always brought me a great deal of comfort.
Signs are a part of our Christian tradition, and we needn’t look any further than the gospel of John to see evidence of this. In John’s gospel, there are a number of signs. Those signs are miraculous, (water turned to wine; a man born blind made to see; a man dead for four days raised, to name a few), but they aren’t there to knock our socks off with awe and wonder. Signs aren’t about the event or the thing or the person involved. Signs are meant to point us toward something else–beyond whatever it is we might see in front of us toward a meaning that cannot always so easily be brought into words.
Whenever I see a Great Blue Heron, it points me beyond the uncertainty of the present moment toward a deep assurance that, in the words of Mystic Julian of Norwich, “all shall be well, and all shall be well, and all manner of thing shall be well.” It points me beyond the despair of the present moment toward the hope of the next. This sign points me beyond what seems impossible in the here and now toward the possibilities of tomorrow. For me, the Great Blue Heron is a sign that leads me forward even when I cannot imagine that anything lies beyond the river bend.
Take a look around. What signs are present in your midst? What is something that you can see or touch that is pointing you beyond yourself and toward something not so easily named? Maybe it’s a song that comes on the radio, leading you to remember the love you share with your partner. Maybe it’s the rainfall that is pointing you toward refreshment and renewal in another part of your life. Maybe it’s a phone call from a friend, pointing you beyond your isolation or your grief toward the community and the love available to you. I’m not sure what it is for you, but I believe that God is in it–always pointing us beyond wherever we may find ourselves toward healing, wholeness, and life.
So watch for those signs this week, Beloved. They’re here–all around us–just waiting for us to notice and to hear that deep truth for ourselves: That “all shall be well, and all shall be well, and all manner of thing shall be well.”
Watching for signs with you,
Rev. Melissa Sternhagen
Rev. Melissa Sternhagen was called as the pastor of St. Paul Congregational UCC in June of 2020. Prior to her call to St. Paul, Pr. Melissa worked as a hospice chaplain in the Ames, IA area, following pastorates at rural churches in Central Iowa and Southern Illinois. Pr. Melissa is a second-career pastor with a background in agribusiness and production & supply operations. She received her M.Div. from Eden Theological Seminary in St. Louis, MO, and holds a MA Ed. in Adult Education and Training, and a BA in Organizational Communications.