Being Present: Reflections

A Sunday celebration of lay chaplaincy and what it means to be present in times of transition from weddings, to child dedications to memorials, burials and funerals.  Reflections from Caroline Jondahl, Shoshanna Green and Rev. Diane Rollert, 16, February, 2014. Audio available.

Reflection: Caroline Jondahl

Before beginning my reflection, I want to share news of my son, Anthony will be home in 27 days.  His beloved, Sarah, and I can`t wait.

A year ago at this Lay Chaplain service, before been ratified to do the sacred work of a lay chaplain, I was called up to join the others.... and had not yet experienced the profoundly meaningful ‘business’ of this our calling.

One year later, while I’m still a neophyte in the (potential) 6-year term, I am changed.   In serving we transform. While I have performed a number of other rites of passage, I have only ‘worn the stole’ for one wedding, though there are four in the planning.  And that one was interesting from the moment I opened the door to welcome the couple.  John, the prospective 63 year old groom, fell to his knees on the cement landing – not in awe of meeting me.  His nervousness, and condition, submerged his natural confidence. Things could only ‘go up’ from there – and they did.

To return to change, I have.  A metamorphosis has taken place.  In the act of  `being there’  – be it for a wedding, a memorial, an interment, or child Dedication, my own delicate sense of Spirituality found wings - and IT IS an incredible feeling.
Before going further, I want to acknowledge the graciousness and presence of my colleagues, Rev. Diane Rollert, Shoshana, Nicoline, and Anne Beer, a ‘wise elder’ indeed.   These gifts are not only welcome – they are essential to every incoming Lay Chaplain.
We are all guided by the same set of liberal Unitarian beliefs, which recognize and respect diversity and choice. Thus the couple’s, or family’s values, experience and wishes are at the forefront.  And we are keenly aware of the honour of being invited to step into their lives.   Although, our personal touch, sense of creativity, and the desires of those seeking our Service varies - as it does in planning the reflection for today’s service.
Initially, ideas flooded in favouring a socio/ political/ legalistic treatment of wedding ceremonies – with humour!  Stay with me please…  I said `Whoa` to my initial instincts, and called my daughter in Toronto, a tax lawyer with different sensibilities.  This helped to ground me.  Though, the instinct for humour wasn’t abandoned completely, especially when seeing an article in The Gazette about the couple in Iowa – They timed their wedding to coincide with the Blue Ribbon Bacon Festival…...with the bride carrying a leafy bouquet – of rolled-up bacon closely resembling a bunch of red roses…..and the groom biting into this bouquet (looking very satisfied, the bride not).   Now let’s get serious, and back to the point. Would I – I asked myself, have been comfortable performing such a ceremony? – A reasonable question, as it echoes one posed in the interview.  

In fact, this couple might have had very for sound reasons their choice, consequently, I would challenge myself to consider it from their perspective.  However, if it felt to me that it would be a spectacle, I doubt that I could agree to ‘be present’ at such a ceremony.  Why?  It was their personal choice, corresponding to one of the tenets of serving as a Unitarian lay chaplain – we respect freedom of choice, which is inherent in our principles. Well, intentionally or not, if it appeared to mock something that, from my perspective, is meant to have a strong sense of the couple in honouring their commitment – in itself a profound and meaningful decision. 
They (often) write and say their vows in public in the presence of their family and community.   How beautiful, how joyful and poignant a moment is that! The moment I meet a couple, or a family, I feel the spirit in my being, and it lingers long after the last words are spoken, or the final note is played - a mysterious process, and part of an ancient tradition:   The term chapel, cappella in Latin, meant “to attend to the spiritual needs” of those seeking, or needing help, and in doing so, the space and air, and me turn, the metamorphosis takes hold – just a little.  

I am grateful for the opportunity to share in the joy and happiness of others as we seek to honour their unique, and often interfaith traditions, with heart.  And in so doing, this work becomes an act of selfless love.  In the words of Wm. Shakespeare: “Love looks not with the eyes, but with the mind.”  We, in this room, would add – and with the heart.

Reflection: Shoshanna Green

When I go to meet with a family who have just suffered a death, in my experience they're often reacting in one of two ways. Sometimes they're being terribly efficient, planning the funeral bing bang boom, I'll speak she'll speak they'll light candles this song will play we're getting stuff DONE. And sometimes they're almost paralyzed, quivering in place, knowing they should be doing something but unable to quite figure out what.

I think both of those reactions are perfectly reasonable and totally understandable. I think that when you'd had a blow like a death, especially a sudden or traumatic one, often your head is ringing like a gong, and it's hard to hear anything except that loss, tolling in your skull.

But at the same time there are all these things you have to do! When my father died in his sleep at home a year and a half ago, within a few hours my stepmother and some family friends and I had three phone lines going nonstop, trying to make arrangements. I left Diane a message saying what had happened and told her, "Please don't call!" There are things that have to be done, and often I think throwing ourselves into them, focusing really hard on the logistics and the legalities, is a way of getting through it all. It's a way of forcing ourselves to hear something else besides that agonized reverberation of loss, and a way of going on when it feels like time should have stopped.

And when I show up, as a lay chaplain, I'm another one of those things that has to be dealt with. Although I'd rather say that I'm there to help them deal with one of those things that has to be dealt with: the funeral or memorial service. It's really hard to deal with these things; it's one of the functions of a skilled and sympathetic funeral home, not just to provide a space for a funeral and handle some of the logistics, but to guide bereaved people through doing the dozens of things that need to be done. And sometimes the funeral home calls me in, and then I guide them through my part of the process. I guide them through creating the ceremony, and then through the ceremony itself.

And that means that the first thing I need to do is be open to where they are now, and be there with them. Are they being hyper-efficient, focusing in like a laser on who will speak and where the flowers will be and who will look after the little kids and what order everyone will walk out in? Or are they reeling and at sea, not knowing what to do? My first job is to meet them there, and just be present with them in that emotional space.

And in a way my next job is to gently urge them a little toward whichever path they're not taking. When I meet with a family who are very task-focused, who are planning the funeral like it's a D-Day landing, I go with that for a while, because it needs to be done, and it's what they need to do. But I'll also ask, "Tell me about the person who died. Slow down a minute. Tell me about what you've lost." Because I don't want the ceremony to be just about the ceremony, you know? It's meant to represent and enact how they feel, and that means being in touch with how they feel. In the conversations I have with families that I think go really well, plenty of things come up that never make it into the actual funeral. And I think that the conversations that go really well are helpful in themselves to people who are bereaved; they're more than just instrumental to creating the ceremony.

And when I meet with a family who are struck dumb and senseless by their loss, who are sort of fibrillating in place, knowing that they want to be moving forward with the funeral but not knowing how, my job is to be there with them, in that terrible paralysis of grief, and then to gently get them focused on moving forward with those practical steps. Would you like to light a candle for her? You played me his favorite song; would you like to have it played in the ceremony. You've told me how close she was to her grandson; would he like to speak about her. I take a lot of notes, and in the back of my head I'm always keeping a running outline of what we've covered and what still needs to be done, so that by the end of our conversation I can say, "So here's the ceremony as we've laid it out. Does this feel good to you? Here are the decisions you haven't made yet; are you feeling any more clarity around them?" Often they don't even realize that we did that work; because each thing we talked about bowled them over like a cold ocean wave of grief, they haven't been able to keep track and see the ceremony as a whole, the way I've been doing. That's work that I do for them, and then I can say, "Look what you've planned and created for him, without even realizing."

Sometimes people are very confident; they know what they want, they know what they want me to do, and I can do it for them. Sometimes they're really uncertain and hesitant, and they need me to reassure them that what they want to do is okay. Sometimes they don't know what they want to do until they've talked it out with me for a while.

I'm not a therapist or a pastoral counselor. But a funeral ceremony is a time of transition, a watershed; it's a liminal space between that person's life and their death, between our life with them and our life without them. And it's appropriate, in that liminal space, to look both behind and ahead. I always try to structure the ceremony so that it moves us from past to future, from love to grief to going on.

The title we chose for this ceremony is "Being Present." When I'm serving a family who are mourning a death, my first job is to be present with them. And my next is to help them mark this transition: to help them commemorate the past, and to see their way into the future.

Reflection: Rev. Diane Rollert

Is there really anything I need to add here? As I studied to be a minister, I dreamed of the day when I’d finally be able to celebrate rites of passage.  Unlike here in Canada, we didn’t have a lay chaplaincy program.  To become an officiant meant being a ministerial intern or an ordained minister.  So, when that day finally came, it was a major milestone.

I will never forget the first wedding I did, the magic of that moment waiting for the bride who it turns out was having a technical problem with her dress.  Having been given the go ahead too soon, the groom, and the groomsmen and I stood waiting in the front of the chapel for a good 10 minutes, smiling nervously.  We stood there feeling a bit foolish, until the bride finally arrived.  Suddenly the room was glowing with sunlight despite the rain that had cancelled what should have been a beach wedding. 

I will never forget the first child dedication I did: A beautiful infant in my arms gurgling and mouthing the white rose that had just been used to touch his brow, his eyes, his heart and his hands, while his parents and big brother laughed joyously.

I will never forget the first memorial service I prepared, sitting with a family in the salon of a funeral home as the children and grandchildren of the deceased poured out tears and stories of the mother who had filled their lives with love.  In those moments, you listen, you hold hands, you offer boxes of tissue.  You gather everything that is said into notes, because there is nothing more fleetingly precious. You offer back what you have heard.  Perhaps the eulogy you share feels like a gift to the recipients, but you know that you are the one who has received more than you could ever possibly give in return.

You fall in love with those first families, those first couples.  Honestly, I think you fall in love almost always with the people you serve because of their generosity to let you into their lives for a brief but intense moment; into those moments that feel so unique yet universal.

Here in Canada and Quebec, we have this unique program that makes it possible for lay chaplains to take on the roles that are almost exclusively performed by ministers elsewhere.  Here we open the door to share these rites, to encourage lay leaders to deepen spiritually by serving others in this most profound way.  For me this means that I get to be witness to the transformation of our lay chaplains as they do this work.  What a privilege it is for me to walk with them as they grow and develop. In these services, you get to see our polished sides.  But lay chaplaincy demands a kind of stretching and opening up to others that is hard to quantify.  I am amazed as I watch our lay chaplains learn to fully embody this role.  It is a privilege for me to share this ministry with them.

As a community, we are always facing transitions. Our lives are like flowing rivers.  Everything is always changing.  There are days of peace, when we float with grace, and there are days when we must cross the rapids or when the storm waters rise and overflow the banks.  Wherever we are on this flowing course of life, may we grant each other witness, affirming the moments of joy, of sorrow, of I don’t know, of anger, of frustration, of in completion and completion.

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