Sermon Podcast: Dec. 4, 2016 – The Second Sunday in Advent

A Sermon delivered by the Very Rev. Tracey Lind on the Second Sunday in Advent November 27, 2016.

The Very Rev. Tracey Lind
Dean of Trinity Cathedral, Cleveland

“In the middle of the journey of my life, I came to myself, in a dark wood, wherein the direct way was lost.  It is a hard thing to speak of, how wild, harsh and impenetrable that wood was, so that thinking of it recreates the fear.  It is scarcely less bitter than death: but, in order to tell of the good that I found there, I must tell of the other things I saw there.”  These are the opening words from Dante’s The Divine Comedy.  They best describe what is happening in my life.

About a year ago, I began to notice some changes inside of me.  At first, I thought it was just the normal aging process – periodically losing words, forgetting names, and getting tired.  I thought that perhaps I was one of the “worried well” that had lost a parent to Alzheimer’s disease.  Then, I began to realize that this was different.  Those closest to me at home and at work also began to notice changes. 

In April, Emily and I went to see a neurologist at the Cleveland Clinic.   Over the past seven months, I’ve had a battery of diagnostic tests.  In June, they ruled out early onset Alzheimer’s; but on Election Day – of all days – I was diagnosed with FTD (and I don’t mean Florist Transworld Delivery, Federal Tax Deposit or anything that has to do with a four-letter word that too many of us use too much of the time).

As I said in my letter to all of you, I have been diagnosed with Frontotemporal Degeneration.  FTD is a disease that results in progressive damage to the temporal and/or frontal lobes of the brain.  It used to be called Pick’s Disease.  FTD normally occurs in one’s 50’s and 60’s.  It is a gradual, progressive decline in language, mobility, behavior, and short-term memory.  The twists and turns of this form of dementia can be numerous and complicated, and the end-stage isn’t easy; but I’m not focusing on that right now.   The life expectancy is somewhere between two and twenty years, with an average of seven.  However, I’ve always been an outlier, so I’m hoping to be an outlier on the long side of twenty years.  You can learn more about my diagnosis at The Association for Frontotemporal Degeneration website.

Unfortunately, many people lose their jobs before their FTD is diagnosed.   I’m lucky that I came to understand what was causing me to feel lost in the dark wood before I embarrassed myself, or our beloved Trinity and the Episcopal Church.  While I hope (and think) I’m in the early stage of this disease, the executive functions required by my job have become increasingly difficult, and it is time for me to step down as your Dean.  Moreover, I want some quality time with Emily before she becomes a caregiver and I become a care recipient. 

I’ve worked full-time as a community organizer, planner or priest for nearly 44 years.  Though this is not how I had planned to retire, it is time for Emily and me to explore the world in a different way.   We hope to travel and check-off some of the aspirations on our bucket list.  I want to be a homemaker (arranging flowers, tending our garden, organizing closets, and learning to make pasta, cheese, and my mother’s fudge recipe).  And for as long as I am able, I also intend to discover new expressions of ministry that will include preaching, teaching, writing and photography.

I will finish my work here on Sunday, January 29, 2017.  I have met with the Bishop, Wardens, and Vestry to prepare for a timely and orderly transition.   Equipped with a very strong and dedicated team of leaders – lay and ordained, paid and volunteer – I am confident that this 200 year-old church is in good hands.   I am also confident that in due time, you will call a great dean to serve, love and grow this wonderful congregation and lead this amazing cathedral into its third century. 

Some of you have suggested that I should remain here, in spite of it all.  We will remain in Cleveland; it is our home.  You will see us around town.  Some of you will remain friends and social acquaintances.  However, while it is hard for me to say goodbye and nearly impossible to imagine worshipping in any other church, I must take my leave to that you can move on without me at the helm.  If, after a time of transition, it feels right and appropriate, Emily and I might join you for worship again.  We will allow God’s time, wisdom and spirit to be our guide.  As I begin my leave-taking, I have no doubt that Trinity Cathedral will go from strength to strength, if you all stay the course, and that includes finishing our bicentennial capital campaign.

Today, I want to tell you of the good I’ve found in this dark wood and talk with you about the faith, hope and love I’ve discovered or remembered in recent weeks.  Emily and I have been literally enveloped by love, or as Wendy Milano said in a recent Facebook post, we have truly seen and experienced “a glimpse of heaven on earth.”  The number of people who have expressed their love and affection through visits, phone calls, letters, emails and Facebook posts is almost overwhelming.  Learning to receive love, support and affection can be a challenge to someone who has spent her whole life as a doer and a giver.  FTD is fast-becoming a personal lesson in humility.

People keep asking both Emily and me how we’re doing and what are we feeling.  Both of us keep responding: we’ve spinning through Kubler Ross’ five stages of grief:  denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance – over and over again – like a washing machine.  But here’s the good news for both of us.  Each time the dark side gets less dark, and the light at the end of the tunnel gets brighter.  It’s like a slinky that goes round and round, but never really ends up in the same place.

This disease is another stage in a long journey of what Jesus, in the Book of Thomas the Contender said, “knowing oneself and coming to know the depth of all things.”  I had been starting to imagine retirement or the third chapter of life; it’s just that I hadn’t envisioned it beginning this way.

I now have to figure out what to put in my backpack for this new adventure.  I’ve never been very good about traveling light.  If you don’t believe me, you should see our car when we leave for Cape Cod each summer.  So it will be a challenge to find a bag big enough to hold my camera, guitar, computer, bike, garden trowel, hiking boots, some books, and photographs of all of you and others whom I love.  I also will need a toolbox filled with all those practices that I’ve learned, or still need to learn, for spiritual, physical and emotional health as I build this new life.

When asked if I’m scared about what the future holds, my answer is “not really” (at least not right this moment).  I’m anxious about not working – what I will do with my days, who I will be without my title, how I will continue to feel useful in this world; but all of us face those questions when we step down from long and satisfying careers.  With God’s help (and the wisdom of those who have gone before me), I’ll find my way.

Am I frightened of the disease?  Sure.  I’m afraid of becoming a burden to Emily, and when I allow myself to go there, I’m afraid of not being able to live and die with dignity.  However, my prayer right now is to have a clean heart and a right spirit so that I might live and die with grace.  Interesting, that’s been my daily morning prayer for a long time, and now it’s even more important to my wellbeing and to those around me.

Am I afraid of the end?  Naturally, I don’t want to suffer or waste away as I die, but I’m not afraid of death.  I really do believe that death is the gateway to eternal life – or as The Rev. Barbara Crafton, our Advent retreat leader has written, the door to the “alsolife.”  Frankly, though I don’t want to rush it, I’m curious about eternity. 

I often imagine life with God as being enveloped in a great, big, very elastic, balloon – like the red balloon in that wonderful movie of my childhood.   If you poked the balloon with a pin, I can feel the pinprick.  If you struck it with a knife, I can be hurt.  If you hit it hard enough, I can even be killed.  But no matter what was done to the balloon, it will not break.  The elasticity of the balloon simply will not give out.  Thus, nothing can separate me from the unexplainable source of energy that gives me life and will be with me – even to the grave. 

Like the apostle Paul, I am really convinced that “neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate [me] from the love of God.” (Romans 8:38-39)

For most of my life, I’ve had an intentional, ongoing, and somewhat intimate relationship with God.  While I’ve never believed that my prayer life or my spiritual practice was good enough – that is, routine and by the book, I’ve come to realize that my faithful, lifelong conversation with God is my spiritual practice.   And now, I’m counting it; actually, I’m holding onto it, like a life raft.   I am convinced that out of brokenness comes wholeness, out of pain comes joy, out of fear comes courage, and out of death comes new life.   That is God’s promise made known to us in Jesus, and I believe it. 

Friends – this God-thing is real.  Don’t let anyone try to talk you out of it.  As many great spiritual guides from various traditions have taught, develop your own spiritual practice now, so that it’s there for when you really need it.

Many years ago on a cold winter day, I met God in a McDonald’s.  It was an interruption that changed my life.  And here I am today.  Another interruption is once again changing my life – and by association – yours as well.  None of us know what the future holds, or as we say in this season of Advent, nobody knows what time it really is, but this I know – God is with us in all the stuff of life.  As the Nazi guard said to the old Jewish man who was digging out the latrine in a concentration camp, “Now where is your God?”  The old man looked up at the guard and said, “Right here in the muck with me.” 

Dame Julian once said, “ All will be well, and all manner of things will be well.”  I believe it to be true.

Yes, a few weeks ago, like Dante, “I came to myself in a dark wood wherein the direct way was lost.”  But now, I can see a path.  It’s stony and rough; it’s not straight, nor is it very clear, but it’s there, and I’m ready to walk it.  I’ve got a wonderful spouse to walk with me, a boatload of memories, a bucket of dreams, a backpack for the road, a toolbox for the building of this new life, a team of cheerleaders, angels and archangels watching from above, and most importantly, the Risen Christ walking before me, behind me and beside me, pointing the way. 

There’s more that I want to say to you, but this is enough for one day.   So for now, let’s enjoy our time together as we live into the mystery, majesty and miracle of God in our lives.

 

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