The Reminder

She was the cashier at Sam’s Club who checked us out last week.  When I gave her a check for our groceries she began talking to Gary and me about her grandfather, who was dying of cancer. She said there was no treatment that could help him anymore, he couldn’t stand up, and it was difficult for her to get a good night’s sleep.  I asked if she was especially close to her grandfather, and she replied, “I live with him.  I’m his caretaker.”

“I am so sorry for you and your grandfather.  God bless you during this difficult time,” I said.  Already suspecting the answer, I asked Gary on the way out, “Why do you suppose she shared this with total strangers?”  “Because the top of the check said Rev. Laurie Haller and Rev. Gary Haller.”  Those three letters, “Rev.” not only reminded the young woman of her pain but opened a door for her to seek a blessing.

This encounter sparked the memory of a seminary professor whose class forever changed my life.  In 1977 I was studying music at the Yale University Institute of Sacred Music but lived and also took some classes at Yale Divinity School.  I met my husband in this class where we were in the same small group, and we were married the following year.  Hmm.  Could Gary have somehow arranged to be in my small group?


Our professor was Henri Nouwen, and the class was Ministry and Spirituality, which Henri (as everyone called him) described this way, “This course will focus on the relationship between the practice of ministry and the spiritual life of the minister.”  At the time all I knew about “practice” was the two-plus hours I spent on the organ bench very day.

I was a twenty-two-year old with zero practice in ministry, and I had no clue what the spiritual life of a pastor was all about.  Therefore, when Henri talked about clergy being wounded healers it was a purely academic exercise.  I didn’t have the life experience for his words to move from my head to my heart.  Yet from the very first day I sensed that Henri Nouwen was a living reminder and that what I learned from listening to and watching Henri would last for a lifetime in ministry.

Nouwen focused on three unpublished papers which were typed on an electric typewriter and copied for the class, “The Healing Reminder,” “The Sustaining Reminder,” and “The Guiding Reminder.”  These papers, which I still have today, were published seven years later as The Living Reminder; Service and Prayer in Memory of Jesus Christ. 

Henri kept reminding our class that one of the ways in which humans suffer most deeply is through wounded memories that need healing.  Our painful memories are often deeply hidden but can cause much harm because they are often raw and ooze into consciousness at inopportune times.  Our challenge as clergy is not to avoid our own wounds but to recognize, acknowledge, and lift those wounds into the light of Christ’s love.  Once we seek and receive healing, we are able to connect our pain with the suffering of God, the world, and its people.  By becoming wounded healers for others, we prevent further wounds in the future.

I’d never heard anything like it, but neither had I ever suffered deeply in my short life, having grown up in a sheltered family without significant trauma.  Now I know.  As a pastor and parent I’ve experienced the horror of childhood sexual abuse, the tragedy of suicide, families torn apart by addiction, the humiliation of bankruptcy, homelessness, and hunger, and the hopelessness of incarceration.   It is the reminders of my own woundedness and healing that enable me to empower healing in others.

Not only did Henri Nouwen teach us about being healing reminders for others but he himself – by his words, actions, and demeanor – modeled what it meant to be a wounded healer.  It is the Christ in us who heals.  Who will be a healing reminder of wholeness?

In his second paper Nouwen explained that not only does the memory of past wounds lead to healing in others but the memory of love sustains us in the present.   In John 16:7 Jesus says to his disciples at the Last Supper, “Nevertheless I tell you the truth: it is to your advantage that I go away; for if I do not go away, the Advocate will not come to you; but if I go, I will send him to you.”

How many times in your life have you looked back and said, “Aha.  I never understood why that happened.  But now I can see how the puzzle pieces fit together.”  Although the disciples would grieve Jesus’ absence, only in death would they realize the full impact of Jesus’ life.

Our memory of love received and given helps to sharpen, clarify, and shape the present.  In my life leading up to graduate school and seminary I had little understanding of divine presence in the face of the darkness of God’s absence.  Yet now I can look back on months and even years of uncertainty and pain with no clear word from God and admit that it was precisely during those times that I experienced intense spiritual growth.  When all else was taken away it was the Jesus I experienced through the love of others who sustained me.  The heartache of God’s absence is just as formative as the joy of God’s presence.  Who will be a sustaining reminder of love?

In his third paper Nouwen writes, “The memory that heals the wounds of our past and sustains us in the present also guides us to the future and makes our lives continuously new.”  Jesus’ mission was to remind the people of God of their past, challenge their misunderstandings and narrowness, and renew the vision of God’s continuing care and presence.  So we minister to the wounds of others by not only reminding them of the One who lived, died, and rose from the dead for us, but by becoming a guiding reminder ourselves.  Even when we are weak we can inspire.  Even when we are down and out we can witness.  By the transparency of our own struggles others see God in us.  Who will be a guiding reminder of hope?

We have entered Holy Week.  With each successive year I feel more deeply the passion of Jesus, the pain of my own wounds, and the suffering of our world.  I don’t want to follow all the way to the cross, but I am compelled because Jesus is not only a healing, sustaining, and guiding reminder of God’s love, he is also a passionate reminder of the victory of grace.

The word “passion” comes from the Latin verb patiov, which means “to undergo or suffer or submit.”  It’s the same root from which we get our English word “passive.”    I don’t know about you, but I need to see and experience Jesus on the cross.  The empty cross is not enough.  Skipping Maundy Thursday and Good Friday is way too convenient … because it’s too difficult.  But it’s in the gutsy agony of life that resurrection occurs.



It was in a later book Adam that Henri Nouwen writes about passion.  “Jesus’ passion came after much action.  For three years he went from village to village, town to town, preaching, teaching, responding to people’s questions, healing the sick, confronting hypocrites, consoling the sorrowing, calling the dead back to life.  Wherever he went, there were large crowds of people admiring him, listening to him, asking him for help.  During those intense, nearly hectic years, Jesus was in control.  He came and went as he felt it was right.  His disciples accepted his leadership and followed him wherever he went.”

But in the Garden of Gethsemane all of that ended.  There Jesus was handed over to others to undergo suffering.  From that moment on, Jesus could not do anything.  Everything was done for him.  He was arrested, put into prison, whipped, had a crown of thorns put on him, was ridiculed and given a cross to carry.  He could no longer act.  He was acted upon.  Jesus was totally given into the hands of others, and he did it willingly.  It was pure passion.

“The great mystery of Jesus’ life is that he finally fulfilled his mission not by action but by passion, not by what he did but by what others did to him, not by his decisions but by decisions others made concerning him,” not by his will but by God’s will.  So Jesus’ passion is a radical call for us to accept the truth of our lives and choose to be healing, sustaining, guiding, and passionate reminders of God’s work in our world.

To the young woman at the Sam’s Club register, “Thank you for sharing your burden with Gary and me.  I hope that we inadvertently reminded you of the power of God’s love to heal, sustain, and guide you and your grandfather during this Holy Week of the Passion of your Savior.  God bless you.”

To whom will you be a reminder this week?



It’s Always Something

“It’s always something,” I sigh as I sit on a chair in a little hallway at Butterworth Hospital in Grand Rapids. I intend to see a parishioner who is having surgery that morning, but when I ask the receptionist at the desk for his room number, she says, “I am sorry, but I cannot give you any information about Joe Smith.”

“I know Joe’s here because I talked with him 2 days ago, and he asked me to pray with him.”

“Listen carefully. I said that I’m sorry, but there is no information available about a man named Joe Smith.”

Is this a new policy? I’ve been coming here for 19 years, and I’ve never been told this before.”

“I’m sorry.”

“How can I find Joe Smith and pray with him? Can I talk with a hospital chaplain?”

“Why don’t you have a seat over there? I’ll call security.”

Wondering whether security would be my ally or a thorn in the flesh and fearful that Joe would go into surgery before I could see him, I finally let it go, acknowledging that my days hardly ever go as planned. Interruptions, unexpected pastoral needs, traffic jams, children needing counsel, overdue bills, flat tires, broken dishwashers, and buttons falling off as I’m heading out the door seem to be the norm.

For 25 minutes I sit in a busy hospital corridor quietly watching hundreds of people go by: doctors, nurses, technicians, executives, visitors, family members, and patients. Some are crying, some laughing, some talking on cellphones, some looking worried, and some preoccupied with their own thoughts. It’s always something with them, too. Life is difficult.

I remember a conversation I had with my father the previous day. He had been volunteering for a church relief organization for a few years but hurt his back lifting boxes of clothing headed for other countries. Sessions with a chiropractor did not relieve the pain, so my father’s physician gave him stronger pain meds and ordered him not to go to the gym, ride his bike, or play golf for the time being. We commiserate over the phone.

“It’s always something, isn’t it, Dad?”

“Yes, it is. But there’s no use getting upset about it. You just have to keep on.” That stoic yet faithful attitude enabled my father to care for my mother for many years before she died last November from Alzheimer’s.

Of course, the phrase, “It’s always something” brings up far different memories for me than for my father. I remember Roseanne Roseannadanna, an annoying, wild, black-haired woman played by Gilda Radner on Saturday Night Live in the late 1970’s and early 1980’s. Local network news icon Roseanne Roseannadanna often closed her monologues/tirades with, “It’s always something. If it’s not one thing, it’s another.”

Gilda Radner was one of the great comedians of her day, playing other characters as well, such as Baba Wawa (a spoof of Barbara Walters); hyper Girl Scout, Judy Miller; and Emily Litella, an older, hearing-impaired woman who gave misinformed editorials and when corrected would mutter, “Never mind!” For anyone in my generation, the first image that comes to mind when we hear, “It’s always something” or “Never mind” is Gilda Radner.

Gilda Radner, the person, understood Roseanne Roseannadanna very well because she, too, lived a life where it was always something. Radner’s autobiography, which she aptly titled It’s Always Something, contains this confession, “I coped with stress by having every possible eating disorder from the time I was nine years old. I have weighed as much as 160 pounds and as little as 93. When I was a kid, I overate constantly. My weight distressed my mother, and she took me to a doctor who put me on Dexedrine diet pills when I was ten years old.” Radner suffered from bulimia even as a star on Saturday Night Live and once told a reporter that she had thrown up in every toilet in Rockefeller Center.

In 1986, at the height of her career, Radner began experiencing physical problems which were misdiagnosed for 10 months until it was discovered that she had ovarian cancer. After a long and painful struggle, Gilda died in May of 1989 at age 42, a few months after It’s Always Something was published.

Gilda Radner called cancer “the most unfunny thing in the world,” yet her cancer support group inspired her to live with courage, hope, and humor. Even during her 3 years living with cancer, Radner left a legacy by creating another character, “The Invisible Cancer Woman,” in “The Adventures of the Independent Baldheaded Chemo Patient.”

After Radner’s death, her cancer therapist and her husband, Gene Wilder, remembered Gilda’s words, “Having cancer gave me membership in an elite club I’d rather not belong to.” They started Gilda’s Club, a free cancer support community for children, adults, families, and friends. The first Gilda’s Club opened in New York City in 1995. A Gilda’s Club opened in Grand Rapids, Michigan in 2001 and has raised tens of thousands of dollars the last several years through LaughFest. In 2012, attendance at 323 LaughFest events was 56,294 people, with 1,468 volunteers and millions of laughs.

Have you ever noticed how “it’s always something” in the Bible? The consequence of God’s decision to create human beings with free will is that we are truly free to exercise that will in ways that simultaneously please, disappoint, delight, infuriate, and test the limits of God’s patience and steadfast mercy. It’s all right there in the Old Testament, as the Israelites alternate between valiant efforts to act like God’s people and deliberate attempts to go their own way.

When God finally sent God’s own son to earth to teach and model for us a life of faith, Jesus must have said every day, “It’s always something!” From the stubbornness of the scribes and Pharisees, to the bullheadedness of Peter, to the lack of comprehension of his own disciples, I can imagine Jesus continually throwing up his hands, lamenting with a chuckle, “If it’s not one thing, it’s another.”

In the midst of her battle with cancer, Gilda Radner wrote, “I wanted a perfect ending. Now I’ve learned, the hard way, that some poems don’t rhyme, and some stories don’t have a clear beginning, middle, and end. Life is about not knowing, having to change, taking the moment and making the best of it, without having to know what’s going to happen next.”

How, then, do we live, never knowing from one moment to the next what’s going to happen, how we’re going to pay the bills, or how long our health is going to hold out? And how has the Christian Church persisted for almost 2,000 years in the midst of persecution, doctrinal battles, power struggles, internal conflict, and fighting injustice and oppression in whatever forms they present themselves? Can the Church even do more than just survive when “It’s always something?”

Ten Ways to Live When It’s Always Something

1. Carpe Diem: Seize the day. Savor and enjoy the gift of each new morning, no matter what the day may bring.

2. Learn to say “no” to what is not important. With God’s help, set priorities in your life and stick with them.

3. Lighten up! Choose to be flexible, laugh, and “roll with the punches,” acknowledging that life can be incredibly interesting when it’s always something.

4. Claim your power to change the world, at the same time accepting that the things we cannot change will make us stronger and more tenacious.

5. Stay connected with family, friends, and those who offer support and unconditional love.

6. Do your part to create a church that offers community, grace, hope, service, and connection with a God who is much larger than we are.

7. When faced with challenges beyond your control, embrace the reality of your disillusionment, anger, whining, and despair and then allow God to teach you and transform your pain and negative energy into the joy of living freely and lightly.

8. Don’t take yourself too seriously. Say often, “Never mind. It wasn’t that important.”

9. Do not die while you are alive. “While we have the gift of life, it seems to me that the only tragedy is to allow part of us to die – whether it is our spirit, our creativity, or our glorious uniqueness.” (Gilda Radner)

10. “Walk with me and work with me – watch how I do it. Learn the unforced rhythms of grace.” (Matthew 11:29, Eugene Peterson, The Message)

A security man finally escorts me to see Joe Smith, and we have a wonderful visit. Despite his physical problems and some burdensome family issues, Joe says, “It’s always something. If it’s not one thing, it’s another. But I choose to be positive. I’ve had a good life, and I am not afraid to die. I’ve had wonderful parents, an amazing life, lots of great friends, and a very special church. God has blessed me richly.”

I gratefully thank the receptionist on my way out and wait to hear that Joe came through surgery just fine. Oh, and thank you, Gilda.