Last weekend I had a terrifying experience with panic and water. I decided to swim a good distance out into the ocean where I thought there was a sandbar. I saw 4 kids pretty far out and I assumed they were standing on a sandbar. They were coming back in and I was swimming out past them and the water kept getting deeper. I would push myself down to see how deep it was and when I got to about 9 feet, I concluded there might not actually be a sandbar in the direction I was swimming.
Here was my problem, I was already exhausted. Normally, when I am in the ocean I have a board and fins so I can swim fast and I can float easily. This time I had neither and was very far from shore. My other problem was I began to panic so reality was distorted. My arms were burning my heart was racing and I was contemplating screaming for my life to my friends on shore. But honestly I was so far out I felt like they would not get to me in time.
I’m writing this so I didn’t drown. I kept swimming while praying and thinking about how this would be a terrible way to go. Occasionally I would check to see if I could touch the bottom. My depth perception also did not seem to allow me to believe I was getting any closer to shore. So I swam and treaded and panicked some more wondering if I was being carried further out. But then as I swam and swam I put my foot under and about a foot lower than my body was the ground and I realized I had made progress towards shore.
So I swam a little more and hyper ventillated while I stood on solid ground with my head above water. No waves, no wind just water and ground and my terrified mind.
I know someone who drowned once. It was a surreal terrifying tragic experience. It was surreal because I felt the Lord had woken me up one morning during college to urgently pray from Psalm 18 that He lifts me out of deep waters not knowing why. I got a call later that morning from my friend Gabe which I missed and the Lord told me to intercede so I prayed until I got a hold of him. As it would turn out, on a canoe trip one of their friends whom I did not know so well drowned in the cold water after the canoe tipped over. Gabe, my friend Anthony and his brother, all of which I knew for most of my childhood survived. We had planned to canoe to this island and camp there. I remember I was planning to join them when we talked about it when I was home on break.
Drowning is scary to think about. Nobody drowns without a fight. But also we don’t drown unless we are in over our heads.
The last two years have felt like this. I feel I am in over my head barely catching my breath. Teaching has felt like this, church has felt like this, relationships have felt like this, life and death has felt like this. Though I feel I have developed endurance. In some cruel and sick way, I feel like I can get used to feeling like I’m drowning, like I’m barely breathing at all times. Sometimes I foolishly believe that it will feel like a leisurely swim, Like I will be able to just enjoy myself on the water. Literally that has happened. I have enjoyed time on the water with my board.
Metaphorically, I feel like the water has lured me in time and time again, and the water itself can seem pretty calm and serene, but it gets deep or all of a sudden I feel like somebody has loaded me down with a ton of weight and said “hold this while you’re barely keeping yourself above the surface.”
And then panic sets in, every sunday at 3 pm, I feel anxiety. Every time I feel rejection from the same places, every time I hope things will get better. In addition, every lame aphorism or cheap optimism that suggests I should fake it until things get better or until I change has proved a vain help.
And the truth is, I don’t know what to do. I don’t know if there is a better alternative. I don’t even know what brings healing. It honestly often feels like the best that can be done is to accept that these broken things might never be fixed. Where is the God who lifts me out of deep waters?
Would you lift me? Please, I’m not trying to stay in this place where I cannot breathe anymore. I need a wide place, an open pasture, a place where my body and mind and soul can find a rest that woud be lasting, like a month to breathe, to work yes, but also rest, to love and be loved. To delight in something good.
I don’t want to drown or even fear the threat of drowning. I want a tangible hope and peace and joy that doesn’t come with feeling choked by thorns and thistles or pain and sorrow or emotional and mental trauma.
I want to be led beside still waters rather than in deep water with my head sunk, gasping for air.
“He reached down from on high and took hold of me; he drew me out of deep waters.”
If you came here looking for an answer or insight for how to deal with broken heartedness, I will state out the gate that I will make no such attempt at an answer. In fact, I’m not even certain if anything I write and share publicly today is real, true or right.
This is for the one, two or handful of people who have experienced a hope so adequately destroyed that their imagination, their very heart has suffered a deafening silence, a death and is left asking “is what has killed this part of me a result of love or a hatred confused as love? What has caused the death of my heart?”
Since this post will be mostly sad, I will offer at the outset a word of hope from Scripture paraphrased, “every seed must die in order to grow.” It is possible something can grow from death. It’s also possible something may not.
I should also mention: most deaths are not pretty. Maybe that’s not even right. All deaths are not pretty.
In order to demonstrate this I will describe what the death of a heart feels like:
It feels like spending a fair amount of time convulsing because there is a pain in the form of a straight line running seemingly down the center of your heart, like it has been perfectly impaled by something thin and small. Like the death itself was placed there gently, almost in stealth to where you can lie down to rest but can no longer dream. I had dreamed and imagined hundreds of things it seemed before the death only to now feel silence. In a way, the pain is not intolerable. It is not excruciating, in a sense it is not even pain because it is death, it is the absence of life; pain being an unfortunate or perhaps generous aspect of life is no longer present. It also feels like I have no energy to verbally speak, that audible words mean almost nothing during death, which is why it is strange that I feel I could write about this feeling and experience forever.
I am distinguishing here between heart death and heartbreak. It is moving past pain almost immediately to the nothing/numb that I think distinguishes the two. Heart death is categorized by its inability to dream.
Yet, the death of my heart is still being grieved by the rest of my body. The rest of my body is aware that the seat of my imagination (the heart) and the place where love was professed is no longer in operation. It is quiet, and somehow that makes sense since scripture declares that out of the abundance of the heart the mouth speaks. When it was alive, love could declare itself; in death one can’t articulate verbally what to even think or do or be or how it all exactly happened.
Also, heart death is impossible to anticipate when there is still lingering hope.
What makes heart death even more deceptive and harmful is that the memory is still active. I still have my thoughts and now those are left unguarded by the heart who at least when it was alive could color the thoughts hopefully or reframe them in love. The heart is the thing that scripture tells us to guard, “Guard your heart with all diligence for from it flows the springs of life.” Another potential translation of that verse could be: the reason to guard the heart is that from it can escape all that is living. In other words if you don’t guard the heart diligently, life, who you are, your grasp over your identity will escape you and you’ll succumb to death. So be careful how you share it.
I will admit I was not careful. I knew to be careful. My mind knew, but I chose not to be. And in choosing not to be, death came, which brings me to my next interesting tidbit.
The last 4 years I have encountered much external death. It almost feels I invited it when I decided to do a residency as a chaplain. It was as if I literally said to myself, you know what I should begin to experience in my 30’s that will help my pastoral ministry pursuit: death. So I encountered it, and ironically enough I was so unfamiliar with it or what to do with it that the first time I was called into a room where a patient was dying I assumed they were already dead and attempted to console the family even though the patient was barely alive. Now I feel so familiar with it, when it has come I have resolved that there is nothing left to do. Nothing carries the same meaning after someone or something dies. Everything that you do without the person you’ve lost is somehow different, less interesting.
It was helpful though, because you can choose to prepare for facing death or you can choose not to, and I can honestly say, whichever you choose I am not certain it helps much either way. That’s confusing though isn’t it. The preparation can’t prepare you so why prepare? The preparation we do is in allowing ourselves to feel, and in allowing ourselves to feel, we find we are carried through. I don’t think anyone can really know how they will respond to loss, and I don’t know if we ever actually accept loss before the loss occurs. Now we can decide how we will grieve loss, but when we are the ones dying, once death comes you no longer grieve, which is why again I don’t think my heart is grieving. I think it is dead, and my body may be grieving its loss and some of my body is angry, some of it sad, and some of it doesn’t know what happened.
My body is feeling feelings, yet my heart is numb or more accurately not alive. It is now buried like a seed waiting again to grow. In a sense it has arrived at a place it is most comfortable. It has been granted a reset, yet my body and my memory remembers. And in that memory and the way my body responds comes with a new opportunity to guard.
Think Groot in the Guardians of Galaxy. He becomes replanted. The fear in that is one wonders: what does a new heart actually entail? Do I have to mature my love all over again? Do I trust my heart or my body with someone else in the future? Or do I sit in death and continue to live life absent of imagination? If you sit with a dead heart, you have less work to do but perhaps less life to live. Unfortunately, you can’t escape your memory, you can hope it doesn’t color your future, but your memory may cause pain in the rest of your body and you may be confronted with how to then cope.
For me, the temptation becomes replace pain with more pain and the desire to cause more pain as a form of vengeance. (What is vengeance? Not violence in this case, but emotionally tearing someone down to the point in which their entirely reality and perception of themselves is blurred) But “vengeance is mine” says the Lord. All we can really do is hope the Lord exposes the darkness and that He will grant light to help what is dead.
And this is where perhaps the last reminder I have is helpful, though equally as sad. There are things worse than death. When suffering is prolonged, when you can no longer eat, your body stops healing itself, and you become no longer recognizable, when the cancer takes its toll and all your energy is sapped and you can no longer find help or comfort, I do believe death becomes a mercy for all involved. Eventually the body agrees with everything else and says to itself I can no longer handle this and the burden on others is too heavy to bear the extent of suffering it is enduring, and then death becomes a release.
This also is heart death. At some point, the only way forward through the persistent choices and emotional harm, distortion of reality and condemnation from those around you has to be death even if it is not your choice. It may feel like murder, but if that is what people want, if that is what the crowd demands and there is no intercessor, the only way forward is death.
(I should emphasize here since all this talk of death could be triggering and concerning and since we are coming off of national suicide prevention week, the utmost importance is that you find the courage, support, and self-love in order to endeavor to keep on living in the most literal sense, to not un-life ourselves even it feels like it has been done to us)
And the way through death must be more life or at least, the hope for life on the other side. But where does the hope come from if not from the heart. It resides in the heart but it always comes from the one Who creates it. God in Christ, the author of Hope, finisher of Faith, entirely encompassed as Love. And God Himself can do it because God Himself incarnated Himself in flesh to die so that we all may live even though we suffer.
You might find it intriguing. God did not prevent the death of my heart. Even though He was asked to protect it, asked to change it, to transform it, to redirect all love and affection, He still watched the death happen, the crushing and by people who the very heart that was crushed, formerly loved. God, the Father allowed, stood by and watched and seemingly turned His face away, perhaps not in disgust of the person suffering but turned His face away from the affliction as it also grieved His very heart. As it was too painful for you, it was painful for Him to watch, and while He let it happen, He also being God must have had a way to make it work together for good in love otherwise He would just be cruel and as disconnected from His creation as His creation is disconnected from themselves and inflicts harm and hatred on each other. But He cannot be cruel or disconnected based on what He says about Himself.
While I can describe a theological prescription as to how God deals with heart death and death itself, we might still ask, well what are we to do? What is my part in dealing with a dead heart?
And here is my solution:
At least do nothing differently.
If you feel like you loved well at one point, now, in the absence of your heart, keep doing what you were doing before. Don’t change your routine, or start thinking the worst of yourself, blaming or embracing a condemnation that wasn’t true. Little can hurt you anymore, so don’t begin to hurt yourself. Now you are free again to love who you are becoming. Do nothing but tolerate love as it comes. You don’t need to force something to happen.
You can’t hard work yourself back to life.
I don’t know if your heart has ever died, but if you’re reading this, you are still alive and something worth loving is still left.
I’ve lost my keys for what feels like every day for a month except it’s not my keys I’ve lost.
I don’t know what your pattern in dealing with grief is, but my seemingly unavoidable pattern is to delay it until the last possible moment. It is hard for me to accept that things are gone. My theology feeds this thought in its claim that no person is definitely gone if they confess Christ. Absence in theory is temporary.
Humanity does not do well with accepting the permanence of death, and the leap that we cease to exist seems to run contrary to the hope instilled in us by the Spirit and breath of God. How could God’s breath be anything less than eternal?
But the nature of missing things does not suggest that things evaporate or lose their mass or matter. Though, I don’t know how the concept of life as vapor jives with the thought of object permanence, things don’t cease to exist when they are not seen or heard.
But if things or people did cease to exist wouldn’t we just adapt to life through the lens that nothing lasts unless it is present? Would that spare us or cause us more pain? Is it more painful to accept each time someone leaves or dies that they might never come back?
But that is not how life is. When we lose, we still wish we had or had won. We still want who we want to be here. We would rather have what we have been looking for than lose it for good or even for a little while. Because when all we are left with is memory, it can feel like our memories are taunting us as reminders of what we had but have no longer. They exist as if to say, “good luck going on without.”
Then we are left with the choice to forget or leave behind or move on. We are left to give up clinging to the past, and in a sense, it feels like we are asked to give up hope for the future. We become confronted with the reality that this person is not there in quite the same capacity or potentially any capacity for what we still hope to do or achieve or find encouragement for along the way. Everything becomes a matter of faith or fiction or fairy tale. Am I carried by the memory of the one lost or some mystical coexisting presence and intercessor?
And what of the other disappearances? What about the one who leaves not life itself but just your or my life. They exit from you and you alone. What about that person, who very much alive decides, “I want little or nothing to do with you? How do we navigate that rejection or hatred?” Because if we carry that, what we carry could be catastrophic at most and confining at least.
The finality of death or seeming finality is not fooled by the question of “how can I fix this?” I simply cannot. The relationship has seen its end. They are gone. Most or maybe all regrets have no help.
But the lack of finality of relational abandonment, neglect, or disconnection is a much different challenge. There is more forgiveness required due to the risk of continual hurt, the risk of unanswered questions that still beg an answer, the deception and misperception of peoples opinions and thoughts. All these and the seeming fruitlessness of trying to restore a relationship that lacks mutual desire can be wraught with distress. Even more, when the fruitless attempts don’t seem to be grounded in any tangible, rational reason, we can be tempted to fight for the familiar.
But love holds loosely. I don’t know if that is truth, but it seems true. My favorite blogger said it was true a decade ago, and it has felt true. In other words, all any of us can really do in any of our relationships is to let go, not with the thought that we or the person we hold will fall off a cliff or into a deep cold ocean after our ship has wrecked on an inceberg, but to let go with both our feet on solid ground and hope that whether this person is standing across from us or next to us that they will choose to stay when we let go.
And if they don’t, then it is their loss. And that at the end of the day, maybe that person was not who you thought they were, or maybe that person or persons was not worthy of your space, and maybe they aren’t as familiar or necessary as you thought. And we will accept, with some measure of difficulty, in some strange, cruel or even unimaginable way, that their disappearance at least now, is for the best.
James Passaro has been blogging for the better part of a deacade around themes pertaining to Christian theology, love and loss, coming of age, coming to death, poetry, vocational identity or lack there of. He still belongs to Jesus, still steady in pursuit of a meaningful calling, a desire to be of use to the Church, still finding ways to genuinely love, still faithful to His Lord, still willing to listen to your story. He still thanks you for reading.
My dad Anthony (Tony) Louis Passaro Jr. was born on August 23, 1950 over a month premature. He was the only child of my grandmother Mary and grandfather Anthony L Passaro Sr. My grandma had several prior miscarriages before the birth of her only child. From the little I know of his birth, I know he was small. I don’t know if there were any additional complications or considerations. What I do know from his stories is his childhood did not get easier.
He always spoke fondly of his friendships with the guys he played baseball with growing up. Myron and Louie were friends for life growing up together in Jersey City. They remained close throughout my own childhood as my family frequented the Jersey Shore and spent time with their families as well as with my Godfaher Jimi Beam and his wife Bernie.
My dad loved telling stories of his childhood on Poplar Street and remembering good times in Jersey City. I also remember the other stories, of a very difficult childhood, one in which he was physically abused by his father, an alcoholic, for being left-handed, seeing the way my grandfather harshly treated my grandmother, and my dads own difficulty with how the nuns treated him growing up in Catholic School.
Sometimes it is hard to know if it was this environment that shaped his personality as an adult or if he was already a mischievous child in Catholic school that warranted being hit with rulers and kneeling on rice. The stories from his Catholic schooling to me never sounded awful in comparison to my father’s home life, yet his journey within the context of Catholocism seems to be one that was not filled with thoughts of God as a loving Father and forgiving advocate. It could just be that a place meant to be full of solace and salvation brought more confused pain to my dad who as a child was probably just scared. My grandmother though, found a sense of peace and purpose serving the Catholic Church despite them not approving her eventual divorce from my grandfather when my father was well into adulthood.
It was not until recently I heard more of the stories about my dad’s college years and his early to mid 20’s and his first marriage to Holly. Maybe it was because St. Peter’s made their run in the March Madness tournament, that I was reminded he could not pass an accounting class in his college in Massachusetts so he transferred to St. Peter’s and attended classes in the evening for several years while working during the day, I think for the Jonathan Logan.
My dad worked most of his life in government social services settings, the Hudson County Welfare Board and then The State Child Support Office of New Jersey. While I do believe it made him a diligent public servant, I don’t know how much bureacratic government work did for his perspective on humanity. My dad was not politically correct nor would waste an opportunity to make an inappropriate joke. It is good he retired when he did because while I have never felt my dad was a malicious person, I don’t think he would thrive in the current cultural climate.
I know little of my dad’s first marriage; I know there was a slight age gap and they enjoyed watching hockey. Until I was an adult I often did not comprehend that my dad had lived a life before me. I was not born until he was 37, only 3 years older than I am now. As far as his second marriage to my mother, there is both much and little I could write about that, but it hardly seems necessary now. I think my parents would agree that the best thing that came of their marriage was me and my brother (which is what I imagine even couples who are happily in love might also say of their children).
In many ways, my reflection of my dad as a father has much more substance in the years that he raised me and my brother alone beginning in a third floor, two bedroom apartment in Briarwood when I was in 5th grade, roughly 1999. I shared a room with my brother and at that time myself being 10/11, my brother 16/17; I have fond memories of that living arrangement.
Thankfully, we lived down the street from my grandmother who fed us twice a week and who I often spent time with on the weekends. As a single father, I cannot imagine what he thought or felt during that time. I remember distinctly the things that felt normal, our weekly routine of meals that consisted of either tuna and tomato soup or ramen noodles, our medley of pizza rolls, potato skins, taquitos, and other frozen delicacies, and a weekly order from Vito’s pizza of either pizza or subs, always paid for with a coupon.
What I remember most though in those years was going to his softball games behind Pullens, a gas station that was right down the street from Taco Bell. Sometimes I would watch my dad with admiration playing the outfield. Other times I would disinterestedly play with GI Joes in his van. Either way I remember often going to Taco Bell after those games which truth be told is where my love for Taco Bell began. That Taco Bell on Sloan avenue is probably the place I have eaten more meals at than many places I’ve lived.
Dad moved us into a condo still in Briarwood around the time when my brother went off to college at Penn State. Then, it was just me and my dad throughout my teenage years. Sure he had girlfriends during various seasons, Barbara, whose children were my great friends and who I spent much time backyard wrestling with, and then Linda who was quite eccentric but showed kindness to me and my friend Ben. But many days it was just me and dad with our routine, school/work (him smoking on my way to school always having to ride there with the window down no matter what season), being picked up from a baby sitters, homework or going to softball games, watching tv on the couch or going to sports practices. My dad was great about normalizing our home life and never making me feel like we were struggling to get by.
One of my fondest memories that I had as a child was a trip we took to visit my Godfather Jimi when we went to Manhattan. My Godfather made me and many others laugh harder than anyone I knew and I felt like the luckiest boy in the world going to the city with my dad and godfather and hanging out for the whole day. I remember driving home and telling my dad we have to do that again. That was the only time we ever did something like that, but I can still vividly remember standing between them laughing on some street in Manhattan completely delighted.
We always had a vacation, usually to Wildwood where I got to bring a friend or was with friends, Scott Francis or Ben to the Poconos, unless it was with Barbara and her kids Billy and Timmy. We had plenty of daytrips to Lavalette to see Louie and Nancy and Myron and Debbie and their families. I could write a blog just of all the memories I have from those daytrips to the beach. Holidays had routines; every thanksgiving we spent with Patty Ann, Aunt Francis and Joey. Christmas and birthdays always had a consisted of a ton of gifts. Well into adulthood, my dad was still buying me wrestling figures and DVD’s even as I was selling a lot of childhood toys and trying to declutter. Dad liked the idea of getting stuff.
Whether or not my dad was intentional about it, he provided me with so many opportunites for memories and enjoyment even though I have some lingering echo of hearing him say I was never satisfied. I think in part because there was an emotional disconnect with him throughout my teenager years. I think being a father was not easy for him in every aspect because of his own childhood. I don’t know if he ever desired or tried or felt like working through his own trauma with his father would be helpful. I know before I was born, there were several years in which my dad was having to come to the rescue of his own his father because of alcoholism and debt which eventually led to his death. I imagine it was very difficult for my father to balance caring for his own father who had caused him so much pain.
As such, I don’t know if he ever entirely knew how to help me process life with the strong degree of emotions I felt. I don’t recall any conversations as a teenager that were particularly filled with wise fatherly advice. He did not talk to me about girls or my hopes or dream or vocation aside from perhaps listening when I said I wanted to be a professional wrestler. He allowed me to be largely indpendent in the process of applying to colleges. He certainly took me to visit schools and as I have mentioned made sure I had no substantial debt after college, but I felt very lost throughout my teenage years.
I have no memories of being disciplined by my dad. I never was punished, never had a curfew, would often stay out past midnight on the weekends before I could drive. He often would say, “He’s never given me a reason not to trust him.” And for the most part I believe that holds entirely true. I believe there was a grace on my life that kept me entirely disinterested in drugs, alcohol, being promiscuous or anything that could have led to getting into serious trouble. But I don’t know if he saw or recognized the things that actually troubled me because of maybe his own emotional threshold. I talked to a teddy bear into my teenage years. I played with GI Joes for hours some weekend nights up until I was 18, and I don’t think my dad saw or noticed that as being worrisome.
Largely because my dad liked to tinker with toys, his pinball machine, his records, his collectibles, his stuff. If anyone knows my dad, they know that his basement is enshrined with collectibles and things that entertained himself. Every night for over a decade he would lie on the basement floor listening to one of his 13,000 album. When we had cats, our cat Dwarf would sit on my dads back resting with him as they listened together to classic rock albums. My dad was good about routine and ritual and actually was pretty easily contented in some areas. Maybe that was how he coped.
In other areas, usually in regards to his health he could be stubborn. He never really quit smoking. He kept active playing softball all the way up to the day after his leukemia diagnosis. He loved softball. He has a shrine of softballs with his batting averages from each season written on them dating back to 70’s. He enjoyed inuendo and cursing which I shared with him up until the end of high school.
My senior year, which was an emotionally dark time, gave way to a season in college when my faith grew and potentially changed the way me and my dad related. I became immersed in my faith and dad might have found it hard to reconcile it with the Catholicism he endured growing up. It probably was even more of a challenge when I began pursuing ministry as a vocation. I remember trying to bridge the gap post college. I would regularly have him edit things I was writing, because he majored in English in college, a fiction story about a cheese delivery boy modeled after the life of King David and a nonfiction autobiography of my pastor hoping we would have points of reference for my faith.
At some point in time, probably when I started wrestling in New Jersey, our relationship began to form into something more simple and familiar. I think we both accepted the people we each were. By this point my dad was retired and married to Lorraine, still loving the beach still playing softball and now that I was living in the same state working and wrestling, I think our visits and time together did not diverge much. I loved seeing him at my wrestling events and playing pool in the basement and catching up.
Life in general for him was more routine until August of 2018. About a week before I was about to move to Charleston to work as a hospital chaplain in my first full time job in a ministry context, dad was diagnosed with acute myleoid leukemia. And for the 3 days before I was about to move and work in a hospital every day, I spent it with him in the hospital preparing to get his first round of chemo.
Truth be told I can’t describe his experience in detail because I don’t entirely know it because I was not there. I know his wife Lorraine was there every step of the way, and my brother saw the effects of the chemo. We did not tell my grandmother while she was living of dads condition so as not to distress her. I was spared of some of that distress by living far away for 13 months. He was in remission for a bit and then it came back and so did I, moving back to New Jersey, hoping I could be helpful. But a delayed bone marrow transplant in the midst of a pandemic, eventually led to him having to be in the hospital for 6 weeks without a visitor. I have no idea how he had the mental capacity to endure that.
But my dad did endure a very hard almost 4 years with leukemia. He sought aggressive treatment and it gave him what I hope was meaningful extra time, but it was a fight the whole way. When he went into remission again after the bone marrow transplant I moved again, back to Charleston perhaps naive or just perhaps hopeful that dad would have a lot more time. Though he managed to never get Covid, he had a couple of other complications before the lieukemia came back this past April.
Even with the diagnosis my dad remained hopeful and optimistic and felt he had no choice but to prepare for more aggressive treatment. Another round of chemo that did nothing other than leading to 4 lengthy hospital stays over the course of 7 weeks eventually led to the decision to stop pursuing treatment and come home with hospice. I will not write about those details but I will say, it was difficult to see my dad suffer but not difficult to care for him in the stritctest sense of dealing with him or his body failing. The difficulty lay in seeing my once and at times still vibrant aspects of his personality become dimmer.
That is the difficulty, the choice between the end of suffering and the hope for more out of life and how little power over that choice it actually ends up feeling like we have, like he had. And now as a I write this he is gone. It hits me in waves; I will not hear him again, hear him tell me he loves me, except for his voicemails that I have saved, to visit, to play pool with, to talk about the Rangers with, to listen to music with. I won’t hear is laugh or see his wide smile or the big nose we share.
If I had not at this point been clear because this reflection is too somber, my dad did enjoy laughter and having a good time. He was not a particularly serious person, though he felt things strongly. My large emotions likely come from him, my temper, my humor, my love for storytelling. He did not travel much, largely remaing in Jersey, never lived elsewhere, never waivered in his accent, always found a way to be inappropriate. He was always a breath or two away from a sex joke. Again if you knew my grandmother, it would hardly seem like they could have been mother and son. But I don’t know how much each person is exactly like there parents.
There is much I don’t know. I know I love him, and I will miss him and I know in a lot of ways I am the spitting image of my dad. I know that today. and I will know that tomorrow, and in the days to come, as the grief continues to come. I know it will be hard to think about the things he will have missed or rather I will have missed to share with him.
Our second to last phone conversation on Saturday July 9th, he was more awake and alert for over an hour and half, talking to my brother, and then to me on the phone where he kept commenting on the birds he heard coming through my end of the phone. I was reminded again that our last name Passaro means little bird, particularly a sparrow.
I’m reminded now of this verse from Matthew 10:29-31
Are not two sparrows sold for a penny? Yet not one of them will fall to the ground outside your Father’s care.And even the very hairs of your head are all numbered.So don’t be afraid; you are worth more than many sparrows.
I am comforted that in my dad raising me, and for the brief time I was able to care for him that ultimately, there is a Heavenly Father responsible for all of our ultimate care. I’m thankful for the dad I was given to enjoy and love even if it has too short of a time.
It is not arbitrary when Jesus says this in Matthew 7. It comes as a result of a series of statements that imply the independence of individuals who are motivated by the pursuit of glory and honor and superiority at the expense of relationships.
And in a way Jesus is describing a type of journey toward an obscurity that has sought recognition from all the wrong places or at least the wrong reasons to the neglect of being known by God.
Yet, there is another type of obscurity, a voluntary kind that Jesus seemingly lives out and another kind that is thrust upon us as a gift or an opportuntiy to be humbled.
Both require humility, one is certainly easier and met with much less resistance. The challenge of willingly becoming obscure is in part due to the fear of being forgotten or the fear of loss or becoming lost to one’s self. We don’t volunteer our hiddenness because we are afraid someone else will surpass us. John the Baptist knew well the difficulty, but knew the greater difficulty of staying in the place of prominence when it was time to move on.
But “if you lose your life… for my sake.”
This is the echo and refrain and invitation that I am having to remind myself. Am I willing to become lost in Christ which ultimately will find me found?
Am I willing to give up the little I have accumulated even the little in which I feel adequately known to have eternal riches and an identity formed by the Father of all good things?
I have been unwilling. I have fought to establish independence and sought my own justification. I have cried out and reached out to largely be ignored and I have been unwilling to be forgotten.
So I have functioned as a ghost. Scaring, maybe even intimidating the ones who have ignored and disregarded me only to find that ghosts can’t receive healing.
Returning to the places and people that have wounded you without regard for restituion does no one any good by reappearing. This I think is also the point of the resurrection. There is no evidence that Jesus reappears to his murderers.
He shows up for the ones who actually want Him.
That, I think is an important way to live. Showing up for those who want you. By want you, I mean those willing to spend time with you in reciprocation and love not the ones who want to use you.
I think this is Peter Parker’s dilemma to a degree. Can I do more good by being unknown than known? I don’t know if it was adequately worked out in this most recent movie because he chooses to be completely unknown not as Spiderman but as Peter Parker and that seems strange. Spiderman does not become obscured, meaning people still know Spiderman exists, and he does good. But the identity of Spiderman is obscured. This carries over into Peter Parker being forgotten which I think sends the wrong message to a generation already consumed with putting forth an idealized version of their identity.
I don’t know if it is actually worth laying down who you are for a heroic masked or plastic version of ourselves. I think just about everyone is already doing that. This is part of the nuance of obscurity.
It allows us to find out who actually wants us around not for our heroics or even for our mistakes but for who wants to love us well because we exist and are capable of reciprocating genuine love and affection. We obscure the mask in an attempt to have a genuine expression of our identity and being known. We lay aside pretension in order to discover the gift of the person that is a free and true version of themselves even amidst their own wounds and ongoing healing.
In a way we have to separate ourselves from our masks, which in itself is a version of obscurity usually hiding the genuine and often messy, but somehow also allows us to give off an idealized version of what we are capable of. The mask allows us to say, look how beautiful, picturesque and rich my life and your life can be often neglecting the beauty of contentedness.
If we were content would we feel the need to boast, or waiver in indecision, or desperately try to garner a following?
In obscurity, we learn how to be content, how to be known to the ones that matter and are willing to reciprocate love and we are free enough to continue to walk when we are wounded by our enemies.
“Blessed are the pure in heart for they shall see God.”
I don’t think I’ve met anyone who has seen God and lived to talk about it. Yet I know plenty of people who perceive God in other individuals and simultaneously embody what it looks like to live and love like Jesus.
Being able to recognize the power of a life set apart and yielded to the Spirit of God, in a measure, is the experience of seeing God. But how does catching that glimpse affect or change us? Or another question I’ve been thinking about: how does my heart become or perhaps stay pure?
I’ve narrowly missed preaching on mercy 2 times this year, and this week I will be preaching on the pure in heart, and I’m not certain why I agreed.
If I were to judge myself, which the Epistles suggest, might be a total waste of my time, I would not describe myself as particularly pure.
Like if purity had a spectrum: from ages to 0-14 I’d rate myself a 9, from ages 14-18, I’d rate myself a 4, from 18-22 I’d rate myself a 7 1/2, from ages 23-27 I’d rate myself a 3. From ages 27-32 I’d fall on any given day between a 5-9.
I offer you this perhaps as a condemnation of myself, but also as an absurd example of how I sometimes and many people probably define purity. Because here is the deal, if I told you just a speck of poop mixed into your bottle of water, you would not drink it (unless perhaps if the money was right) but you wouldn’t drink it with glee, and you certainly wouldn’t call it pure. It could be Fiji water or purified through osmosis, but once the fecies hits the water it is no longer potable.
And this in part is the reason I feel inept at preaching on purity of heart. I know my dark, my motives, my thoughts, my desires and no amount of desire to be completely blameless seems to keep me pure.
Maybe you can relate, maybe you can’t, maybe I just finally need to take myself up on the suggestion of cognitive behavioral therapy and I will be decidedly fixed.
But I can talk about something I do know and have experienced: cleansing.
Psalm 51:2 Wash me clean of my iniquity, and cleanse me from my sin.
51:6 “Create in me a pure heart, O God, and renew a steadfast spirit within me.
Psalm 19:12 “Who can discern his own errors? Cleanse me from my hidden faults.”
If it were not for the tangible experience of forgiveness cleansing and the means in which the Spirit employs to convict me and hopefully mold my heart I’d be without hope.
Which is why I think being pure in heart comes with the implication that I will continue to take a bath. I will eagerly subject myself to perpetual pruning, purging, purification, no matter how painful.
I will, in the light, be confronted with the areas and motives I have concealed or manipulated in order to serve myself alone. I will mourn over behavior and repent of thoughts before they even lead to poor conduct. I submit to consequence and wounds on my reputation as ownership of my brokenness while equally holding steafast to forgiveneess upon confession.
And in the positive vain, I set my mind on things above. I think about whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable–if anything is excellent or praiseworthy–think about such things. Whatever I have learned or received or heard, or seen in Christ and those who follow Him– I put it into practice. (Phil. 4:8)
And as I think about those things, and anything else, I put it to the light to see if its real and enduring and loving and if it is not I must do the work to discard it. I do not tolerate the sin in my own life before I claim to have any authority or power to speak into someone else’s.
There is a difference between sharing your struggle, story or victory and trying to use said struggle, story or victory to bring healing to someone else.
But hopefully until then, we allow our heart (the seat of our intentions, imaginations and affections) be continually cleansed by the Truth and reality of a relationship with a good God who offered His Son’s blood. Imagine that.
It is better to go to a house of mourning than to go to a house of feasting.
I don’t know how prepared you are to give of your tears or how familiar you might be with what that entails. I’m going to write a bit about mourning this morning. Grief, loss, and death, I know are not necessarily fun topics to read about. I don’t know a lot about pandemics, the spread of viruses or the long term effects of these things, but I am fairly confident that if political leaders and people are willing to show any hint of prioritizing stimulating the economy and bailing out large financially irresponsible big businesses at the risk of spreading a deadly virus, it’s safe to say that some compassionate folks may have to take up the business of empathy and grieving.
*Scroll to the bottom if you just like practicals*
And that person might be you or me. So here’s how:
Tears are beautiful. One day, in the Kingdom of Heaven there will be no more use for them. But here, now, tears of the emotional variety are a visual display of our pain and our stress and our empathy. As they are released chemicals are typically released in our body that calm our mind and relieve us of physical pain. In this way they are chemically associated with doing good for the inside.
It is important to keep in mind that the capacity for tears or crying is more important than volume. So like anything crying too much or persistent crying amidst a depressive episode could yield little to no benefit. It’s important to discern and distinguish between the two.
Yesterday, my mom put her cat Tabitha down who was 19 years old and had kidney failure. I cried a bit on my drive to her house thinking about my mom during this season of quarantine, thinking a little about Tabitha and how interesting of a cat she was. Those tears were in some ways helpful because I was prepared to empathize with my mom and imagined what it was like to lose a pet but also adjust in a season when being home a lot and perhaps for a extended season is necessary.
Later on that evening, I cried again while being exceedingly frustrated and uncertain even scared about what decisions to make, feeling like life is still out of my control and being frustrated and double-minded about how to live out what I feel called to in the midst of my current vocation after a season where I already felt isolated for the previous 5 months. These tears were less helpful, but still helpful. In part because these tears were more a response to an unclear uncertain emotional framework that had me stuck on myself. If I was still crying those same tears now they would not be helpful and perhaps self-indulgent.
Let’s return to loss and grief and death though for a moment. Some of you may have experienced the loss of a loved one. It was a deep loss that you may have not been prepared for and suffered or may suffer still as you learn to adapt to a new rhythm without that individual. Sometimes their loss might still illicit tears or sadness but hopefully, that loss has not kept you unable to find fullness in life.
Hopefully, you found a helpful ritual or prayer or found ways to accept the loss and have been given new eyes of appreciation for others. Hopefully, also, you will be presented with the opportunity to help others walk through their own grief and loss.
My hope is that this will not be a season that you will be called upon to do that, but there is a chance in the coming weeks even months you might know several people who lose something or someone due to this virus.
Not all loss is death, but death feels the most permanent. And in seasons where isolation is already becoming the norm if someone were to die while others are isolated and may not be able to mourn as easily communally, we will need to be diligent in helping to heal those who suffer loss.
We have power to minister and bring healing to others when we stay alert and aware in the midst of our own loss, to not checkout and isolate, but to remain available. To be reminded that others too will suffer the loss of spouse or grandparent or parent or child, that while our grief and loss is unique in the individual or thing lost, the experience of losing is not unique to us.
So a couple of practicals:
-Imagine you are in their position, in the coming weeks it might not take that much imagining (we’ll see)
-Listen more than spouting advice or cliche phrases of optimism (Scripture written in an encouraging note or a timely word spoken gently might be helpful but listen first)
-Pray for them
-Make sure they are fed and checked in on
-Affirm that they are loved, again gently
-Maybe not a reminder for the one suffering, but death is not the end of everything and it is a part of life; death might become more normalized, but Jesus has promised us eternity with Him for those who believe. So yes, a priority on the restoration to or perseverance in their most important relationship.
-Remember God is with us in our tears
You have kept count of my tossings; put my tears in your bottle. Are they not in your book?
You may have heard about this movie coming out called Avengers: Endgame. It’s one of those low budget independent films, trying to win some film festival awards. I bought tickets to it for the first showing at 5 pm tomorrow. I’m pretty excited about it. You’re probably not going to see it or hear about it much, but I’m hoping to enjoy it.
I’m done pandering…
I don’t mean to spoil the previous movie Infinity War, but it basically ended with a whole bunch of characters ceasing to exist, and lest we think the concept or conclusion is unique, the world, or humanity or a day of reckoning is a fairly played out blockbuster movie trope.
Everyone is trying to save the world. Recently corporations who previously were less pretentious about wanting to make money off its consumers have found ways to leverage ads to toot their own horns about being heroes. And I know why they do it. Western culture buys into a desire to appear to be as good of people as possible whilst still satisfying self as our chief end.
We still market our perception of “goodness” with statements or rather visual expressions of “sex sells.” Now advertises are testing the waters of whether or not “service sells” which leads to a new end which I believe we’ll see play itself out more in the political arena in the statement suggestive of “salvation sells.”
I don’t think people will necessarily peddle the word salvation (in the Orthodox Christian paradoxical sense) but the hope of redeeming and righting of the wrongs of the other side/enemy through politics or human effort is the platform on which humanity is destroying each other.
But then there is God’s Endgame.
On His (Jesus’) shoulders rests a Kingdom that is not passing away. In this Kingdom is the Intercessor who is coming to reign.
Jesus’ Endgame started on the Cross declaring “It is finished,” paying off a seemingly infinite death with His blood. The end of His life leading to the His Resurrection marked the victory over death the grave and the principalities and powers of the age though they still seem to have a pretty significant foothold.
But to what end does this game continue. What are we or rather what is God waiting for. God is clearly patient, God has not destroyed this place, nor I believe God will.
Let me share with you a passage to chew on from Matthew 24:13-14:
But the one who endures to the end will be saved.And this gospel of the kingdom will be proclaimed throughout the whole world as a testimony to all nations, and then the end will come.
Two marks of genuine faith are endurance and proclamation. Announcing goodness (Advertising) and Endurance (Quality Assurance). I likely should apologize comparing a life of faith to a Product but in part that is what we are. We are products, creations, children, seed of Heavenly Father because we were purchased through the blood of the Son.
I could write a long explanation through the rest of this blog, poetic, reflective, but God caught me dead in my tracks with this:
You are God’s Endgame.
Jesus reconciling humanity (you and I very much included) to God through Himself no matter how long it takes for us to accept, receive or walk in daily.
I was the joy set before Him and Christ is my exceedingly great reward.
It’s taking a lot longer than 3 hours on a Big Screen to play out, but it’s worth it if the End is my heart fully given over to the Alpha and Omega, Captain of our Faith, Avenger of Heaven, Perfecter of our Faith, Yahweh’s Son, Iron sharpening Iron Godman, child of the Marveling Mary, Lord of the Universe, Jesus Christ.
I’ve often reflected how I tend to be doing the best when I’m writing the most. This is typically true of anyone when they are expressing themselves creatively. We usually are feeling our best when we are fruitful and multiplying, freely expressing our identity through our gifting’s as we believe those gifts to be blessings.
Rarely do we feel our best when we are being pruned (losing part of what we thought was ourselves) or refined (having our edges or unclean parts exposed and burned away) or disciplined (being taught how to navigate away from wrong into the right)
As I’ve been reading through Genesis and coming up on 5 months in chaplaincy, I find myself still wrestling, perhaps still restless. But in the midst of wrestling with myself and God, I’m faced with my choice. And it’s not so much a choice for vocation or for status as much as choice for disposition. I must choose joy and happiness. Admittedly, that has been historically challenging for me.
I often pin myself under the weight of sadness and introspection and often find the confused muddy version of Jimmy or James or Jim, whichever name they are calling me nowadays, trying to hear what name God is calling me nowadays. Still beloved, I hope?
How did I become so fragile?
How did I become so stubborn?
I ask myself as I’m coming up on a ford (see story of Jacob) and the Angel of the Lord has challenged me to fight awaiting to see if I will ask for a blessing. The Lord doesn’t punch or slap. God doesn’t seek the knockout blow for his children. But God does test endurance awaiting our appeal for mercy or victory or surrender.
Here’s the thing though: I’ve asked. I’ve asked for blessing, yelled for the cursing to go away, persisted for healing. I still feel my wounds and am tempted to inflict the worst ones on myself, and I can’t do it anymore. I can’t be my own affliction and expect to make it through, wrestling day in and day out hoping the blessing actually sticks. For those of us that are guilty of fighting with ourselves, there is a need to learn the rhythm of grace and self-compassion.
I have this assignment I earned myself: To write about my dreams, which is ironic because some of my friends recently told me they are making dream boards. When I think of the word dream, my gut reaction is anger, then sadness, then stuck.
I don’t know how to stop my nightmares, so how does anyone expect me to make my dreams come true?
I’ve had so many dreams, believed so many promises, flooded pages with hopes lost:
lost the hopes, lost the pages, lost parts of myself, let go of the dreams.
But not God, God’s not lost in the wrestling. God is there in it, and God has overcome me, and I admittedly can do nothing without the Father. Nor do I really want to.
I also want to dream even if it’s daunting. I want to serve Jesus even if the next step is un-seeable. I want to be able find romantic love even if right now it’s latent. I want to be confident in Christ even if I capsize. I only want to wrestle with God if we both win. What I find in the love of God is: the dreams that come from the Lord are the ones that have staying power and are vivid. As a team we dream. I think God knew how much I’d like wrestling so God has incorporated it into my walk of faith. I find God won’t let go until He knows I am blessed and beloved.