The Way: walking the pain changes us

He doesn’t expect to be making this trip.

He doesn’t expect to be joined by these people.

He certainly doesn’t expect to walk this road with his son’s ashes strapped to his back.

Thomas Avery didn’t expect life to turn like this. But it did. And when he finally opens himself to it, he’s changed. Isn’t that always the way?

On the first anniversary of my mom’s death, I snuck an order of sweet potato fries into the movie theater to see “The Way,” the 2010 film about Thomas Avery, a father who travels across the ocean to claim his son’s body after his tragic death, and then, chooses the unexpected: he walks the Camino de Santiago in his son’s stead. “The Way” was written, produced, and directed by Emilio Estevez, and stars his dad, Martin Sheen. Estevez appears in the movie as well. He’s Daniel, the son who dies, whose cremains the father carries, and sprinkles handfuls of along the Camino. Going to see that movie, on that day of all days, seemed like the thing to do because if my mom had been alive, we would’ve seen it together. My mom adored Martin Sheen. (Can’t Jeb Bartlett run for President?) And Emilio Estevez? Well, I’ve loved Two-Bit Mathews and Andrew Clark since I was a tween. (For those of you not up on your 80s teen flicks, those are characters Estevez played in “The Outsiders” and “The Breakfast Club,” respectively — two of my favorites.) That night, in 2010, the fries spilled all over my purse, the movie made me cry, and honestly, I didn’t understand entirely why.  (About Mom’s Death)

I decided to re-watch “The Way” a couple of weeks back. Like “It’s a Wonderful Life” at Christmas, this movie is a seasonal must-see. It’s a Lent movie that’s not about Lent itself, but what happens to us when we go where Lent invites us. Side road: Lent is the 40 day period – not including Sundays – that begins with the ancient ritual of donning our foreheads with ashes on Ash Wednesday and ends with the over-the-top, life-affirming, death-will-not-have-the-last-word celebration that is Easter. There’s something about the Lenten journey that changes us: new life is born out of pain when we really, truly walk through it. Think of it like that old camp song, “Going on a Bear Hunt”: can’t go around it, can’t go over it, can’t go under it, gotta go through it.  It’s the going through it that becomes transformational.

It’s the “gotta go through it” path that Thomas Avery chooses.  He could’ve just shipped his son’s body home, buried his son and all their father-son mess with him, and gone back to his routine, a routine that includes ignoring his grief about his wife’s death. But he wakes the coroner of a tiny French village in the in the middle of the night to say, “I want to cremate the body,” then he wastes no time. The next day, he begins the walk. As we watch him go, clumsily at first and far too fast, we see glimpses of our own journeys. I did, at least, and that’s when this movie started to make sense in a way it didn’t the first time round. We’re never prepared to dive into life’s pain. “The Way” calls to mind the unexpected trips we’ve made, how life can take sudden, sorrowful turns. In the faces of Avery’s companions, we recognize people we’ve met, and how sometimes, surprisingly, strangers become trusted sojourners. As we watch Avery haul his deceased son’s backpack down the Camino de Santiago, sprinkling handfuls of his ashes at this shrine and on that cairn of rocks, we see the baggage we carry through life and how we let go of it when we’re ready. It’s the transformational journey we take when we are willing to give suffering over to God be used as soil for growth, rather than allowing the suffering to bury us.

As Richard Rohr says, “One of the enlightened themes that develops in the Judeo-Christian scriptures and reaches its fullness in…Jesus is the recognition of the transformative significance of human pain and suffering…how to hold, make use of, and transform our suffering into a new kind of life instead of an old kind of death.” (Transforming our Pain) Perhaps, that’s what’s so powerful about this movie – we see ourselves in Thomas Avery and how we too have experienced “new life instead of an old kind of death”.

We didn’t expect to be making this trip.

We didn’t expect to be joined by these people.

We certainly didn’t expect to walk this road with the ashes of memories, misgivings, and missteps strapped to our backs.

We don’t expect life to turn out like this, but it did. It does. It will. And when we open ourselves to the journey, we’re changed by it.  That’s always the way.

Even if you don’t keep Lent as a practice of faith, watch “The Way” sometime before Easter, would you? “The Way” will give you a new way to walk through this life.

 

Blessings, y’all….

Pop Culture Preacher

 

P.S. A big thanks to Dr. Marcia McFee whose Worship Design Studio series, inspired by this movie, prompted this post.

P.P.S. You can catch “The Way” on Netflix. Do it.

P.P.P.S. Four days after I re-watched “The Way” one of my congregants told me she is walking part of the Camino de Santiago this spring – crazy serendipity at work! She agreed to write a post about it when she returns.

Slice: the Work of Remembering & Being You

{Warning: this post contains mild spoilers for The Walking Dead, Season 6, Episode 9, No Way Out}

When my mom died, I thought I would break. I felt fractured, like her death fissured my soft middle into sharp pieces, which stayed held together by my skin. The brokenness rumbled, poking from the inside out. Stabbing. Slicing. That’s how grief felt: like the pain would kill me. I didn’t think the sadness would ever leave.

There’s no fast forward button on grief.

I hate that.

It’s completely inconvenient that we’re allotted mere days to mourn in this modern life before we’re expected to be back at work, back in full swing, back to life as usual. Body and soul, heart and mind – they move on when they are ready to move on and not a minute sooner.

Meanwhile, the brokenness inside keeps stabbing. Without warning – slice. Something you see or hear or smell or taste or touch — some something you were not expecting — bumps up against your life. One of those sharp edges from the broken contents of your inner self cuts through a thin place in your skin. Slice. That mask you maintain so well gets slashed, from inside, and suddenly, you’re vulnerable. Conspicuous. Anyone who’s looking can see the big gaping wound.

That’s what I saw in actress Katelyn Nacon’s character, Enid, during the mid-season-six premiere of The Walking Dead. When she read the inscription over the church’s door, “Faith without works is dead. – James 2:26,” it bumped her. Slice. Oh, Enid, babe. I see you. I see how those words, for some reason, broke open the thin skin.

Slice.

How do you survive in this life when the people you can’t live without are gone?

This is the question Enid struggles with every day. When her character was first introduced, I thought she was just another moody teenager, because surely teenagers are allowed to be moody in the zombie apocalypse. Especially teenage girls, right? (I mean, for real, y’all, can you imagine your 16-year-old self on your period in Alexandria – I would’ve taken people’s heads off.) But, seeing Enid’s backstory, we see she’s not moody; she’s grieving. She’s surviving, somehow. Enid is orphaned. All alone. Even in a room full of people, she’s by herself. How will she live life without the people she’s never lived without?

Something about that phrase over the back door of the church bumped her. Slice. Glenn, masterfully portrayed by Steven Yeun, sees. He responds. “People you love,” he says, “They made you who you are. They’re still part of you. You stop being you [and] that last bit of them that’s still around inside who you are — it’s gone.”

Glenn, where were you five and a half years ago when I needed to hear that?

I struggled so much after my mother died, which may come as a surprise to you since I’m a clergy person…aren’t pastors supposed to know the secrets to life’s deepest mysteries and sail through this existence with Zen-like peace and tranquility? Well, if that’s what we’re supposed to do, I missed that lecture in seminary. Somebody send it to me.

In the years after my mom’s death, I felt like I was losing her constantly. When her yellow Tupperware bowl got put in the dishwasher, erasing her signature from the “This dish belongs to…” sticker on its bottom, I cried for days. When the lone voicemail I saved from her got accidentally deleted, then permanently deleted, I did not think I could go on. When my kid got sick, and all I wanted to do was call my mom to ask, “What should I do?” even though I am an adult, who is quite skilled in adulting, who has been adulting, proficiently, every day for YEARS, I crumbled. I needed to talk to my mom. Each time I got reminded of her and felt like I’d lost her, the wound busted open from the inside out.

Each time – slice.

But, then, that pain started to change. I’d be talking to my girls and hear her voice echo in mine, her practical brand of wisdom winging in my words. Or, David, my husband, would make me laugh so hard I’d snort. The snort-laugh: it’s so unbecoming and absolutely perfect – the way my mom laughed when something really got her. See, she shows up in my life all the time. When I’m being creative, speaking the truth, noticing the little details other people skip over, and doing other things I inherited from her, she’s there. She shows up, too, when I’m doing things she never dreamed of doing herself, but would be awfully proud of me for trying and testing, even if I don’t succeed.

When I am who I am, it’s like my mom is alive.

When I forget who I am, I start to forget who she was, too.

“People you love,” Glenn says, “They made you who you are. They’re still part of you. You stop being you [and] that last bit of them that’s still around inside who you are — it’s gone.”

So, here’s the truth, y’all: God needs you to be you in this world. No one else is going to be you. Who you were made to be by the Divine, and molded to be by the people who love you throughout your life, no one else can ever be that. You have to work at it. It’s easy to get swayed, thinking you have to be someone else, or that you should be a better, shinier, more perfect version of who you already are. It takes faith to believe in yourself, and that’s work, but when you do, you come alive, and so do the people who you’ve lost. “People you love…they made you who you are. They’re still part of you….” You stop being you and you’ll disappear right along with them.

So, Love, believe me when I say this: don’t disappear, the world needs you too much.

Blessings, y’all,

Pop Culture Preacher

‘We ain’t ashes’: thoughts on Ash Wednesday

{Spoiler Alert – this post contains spoilers for The Walking Dead, Season 5, Episode 6, Consumed}

In a deserted office building overlooking a burned out Atlanta, after escaping human and undead threats alike in an attempt to locate one of their group, Carol Peletier and Daryl Dixon talk about how they’ve changed since the world fell apart. Actors Melissa McBride and Norman Reedus play these parts with such authenticity and woundedness. Their performances couple together vulnerability and strength in ways that are True with a capital “T”. It’s  no wonder that they are the most beloved of the TWD characters.

Carol and Daryl are survivors – and not just of the zombie apocalypse. As they talk between bites of stale vending machine snacks, Carol recounts the cycle of violence that trapped and isolated she and her daughter in their former life. Daryl listens. The scars on his back tell us he understands. “Who I was with him…” Carol confesses, “She got burned away…And at the prison I got to be who I always thought I should be, thought I should’ve been. And then she got burned away. Everything now just…consumes you.”

Daryl looks at her for only a moment, then offers, “Hey…we ain’t ashes.”

His words caught me off guard. “What do you mean, ‘We ain’t ashes?'”

See, I know a lot about ashes.

Tomorrow, I’ll take the dried, brittle palm branches from last year’s Palm Sunday celebration and burn them. Come Wednesday, Ash Wednesday in the liturgical year, at noon I’ll stand on the corner outside the church and at night I’ll stand in the sanctuary by candlelight, dipping my thumb into those ashes, smudging a delicate cross on the forehead of whomever stands before me. Face to face, close enough to feel each other’s breath, when I mark each person with the ash, I won’t look them in the eye and say, “We ain’t ashes,” but rather, “Remember you are dust and to dust you shall return.”

Daryl’s words appear opposed to what I will say. Yes, at first, they seem different. What’s really different is the context.

We live in a world where people avoid death, and anything, really, that hints at how fragile our human existence is. We insulate ourselves with miracle headlines promising perpetual youth. We use plastic surgery and hair dye. Viagra. We no longer wash the bodies of our loved ones after they’ve died in the same way mommas wash their newborn babies. No. We leave that to the professionals, gloved and gowned and paid to deal with death daily.

I know a lot about ashes – as a pastor, I get to wade in deep with people when firestorms lay waste to their lives. Freak accidents, debilitating illnesses, broken promises. Terminal diagnoses. Suffering of all kinds. Unexpected and anticipated deaths. Our best intentions gone awry. Our worst intentions acted upon. Life catches fire so easily. We get scorched. We get singed.  Who we are gets burned away. Things happen, each and every day, that remind us we are not as invincible, as young, or as perpetually happy as our Pinterest perfect profiles would suggest. And yet, we avoid death. In our context, we pretend like it’s not there, like we’re all not going to die someday. Maybe if we stopped pretending, we’d find the beauty that’s buried in the ashes, what gets refined in the fire, strengthened instead of destroyed.

In the context of The Walking Dead world, death cannot be avoided. They’re immersed in it daily. They see it. They smell it. They fear it. They fight it. Death is all around.

And so, when Daryl says to Carol, “We ain’t ashes,” what he’s really saying is, “We ain’t dead yet, don’t act like you are. You will be one day – but you’re not now. So live. Live fully in this life while you still have it.” And that is the essence of this Wednesday’s ritual reminder, just from a different perspective, a different context. When I say to folks this Ash Wednesday, “You are dust and to dust you shall return,” I’m really saying, “You aren’t dead yet, but you will be one day. So don’t act like you won’t be – instead, live. Live fully in this life while you still have it.”  It’s not the meaning that’s different. It’s the context in which it’s cast.

Carl Jung once wrote, “Life is a luminous pause between two mysteries that are yet one.” Both Daryl’s affirmation and the one I’ll whisper to folks on Ash Wednesday point to the luminous pause that this life is. This precious life that’s filled with love and loss, joy and heartache, hope and sorrow and everything in between: it’s all the luminous pause.

Maybe the luminosity shines brightest when we realize that out of ashes, phoenixes rise.

So, you – whoever you are – just remember that. Out of ashes, you will rise, too.

 

Blessings y’all…..

PopCulturePreacher

Lori’s Light

{TWD Spoiler Alert}

A confession: I think about who should be shipping who on TWD because, y’all — for real, there is *not* enough sex in the zombie apocalypse. But, because I am the PopCulturePreacher, I also spend plenty of time wondering, “What was Maggie saying during the prayer in Alexandria’s garage chapel?” and “Why is Father Gabriel such a crappy priest?” and so on.  That’s why I’m launching this mini-series, “Faith Journeys: TWD Characters” here on the blog.

It’s fan-fiction for churchnerds.

Each installment will explore what I imagine to be the religious history of a TWD character based on my professional experience as a clergyperson and personal experience as a progressive Christian. You may have another take.  Do comment!  Let’s talk.  (Don’t be a troll. Jesus loves you, but if you are a jackass, I’ll ban you.)

Lori Grimes…complicated, conflicted Lori Grimes. Sarah Wayne Callies plays her with such conviction. Just watch her eyes when Rick confesses to killing Shane (S 2, Ep 16). Masterful.

Lots of clues pop up in Lori’s story line about her religious history. Here’s what we know: Rick, Lori, and Shane grew up together in 1970s/80s small town Georgia. According to Gallup, only 7% of Americans claimed no religious preference in 1978 (Gallup Poll: Religion). Odds are, Lori grew up in a religious household. Currently, residents of the Peach Tree State claim some brand of Baptist (hello, Jimmy Carter), followed by Methodists, followed by the ambiguous category of “other Christian,” followed by Roman Catholics.  So which might she be? Lori never struck me as Catholic. I grew up Protestant in a Catholic town. Catholicism is as much about religion as it is about culture. When the zombie apocalypse hits, even if you haven’t been a practicing Catholic for most of adulthood, the rote nature of the liturgy still lives in your bones; it would rise to the surface. We see none of that in Lori, nor do we see any Baptist leanings.

Odds are Lori grew up in a big Methodist church where, I imagine, her daddy was a deacon and her momma headed up mission projects for United Methodist Women because Lori comes across as the kind of person who grew up in a house where “being someone” in the community mattered. Participation mattered and so did appearance. Think about what she’s wearing to pick Carl up from school (S 2, Ep 2). Fancy! I just want to pull her aside and say, “Really, it’s ok to just wear yoga pants, Lori. Be lazy like the rest of us. Dial it down…” But I digress.

In this vein of keeping up appearances, I imagine she and Rick had a big church wedding and her daddy walked her down the aisle. Perhaps her colors, like another Georgia girl we know, were also “blush and bashful.” Lori would have been content to continue to go to church, following in her momma’s footsteps: to see and be seen on Sunday morning, and to serve, too. But, at Rick’s prompting, I do believe, they stopped going – we’ll explore that in the next post.  And so, they became “the kind of family that had pancakes on Sunday morning.”

Lori ceased participating in organized religion, but continued her private practice of faith. At the CDC, she sends Carl off to bed and tells him to say his prayers.  She sits with Carol as Carol prays for her lost little girl. I suspect Lori is praying, too. The world fell apart long before the dead started roaming the streets: her marriage was a mess, then her husband was shot in the line of duty. Rick’s dead, then he’s not dead. She’s with Shane, then she’s not with Shane.  Rick’s back, then he’s gone. They’re together, but they’re not really together.  Geez, I hope she’s praying.  Because even without the zombies, Lori’s life is one whiplash inducing disaster after another.

Remarkably, though, she leaves this world filled with light. Lori had every reason to rain verbal garbage down on Carl in her last soliloquy, but she imbues him with love. Perhaps that’s the greatest clue to the faith journey of Lori Grimes. We can see that her life has been built on hope, because in in end, that’s what she passes on.  She says, “…You are smart, and you are strong, and you are brave. And I love you.  You gotta do what’s right….It’s so easy to do the wrong thing…don’t let the world spoil you…” I love it — it’s like the line from the Gospel of John, “…you do not belong to the world…” and the line from Romans 12, “Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind…” all rolled into one. Lori knows that life is beautiful and ugly, filled with moments that make your heart sing and moments that wreck your soul – she’s lived both. And yet, in the end, she lays her life down with conviction and courage, love and light, help and hope.