Tuesday, March 15, 2016

My Mom, 12 Years On

I wrote this on the one year anniversary of my mom's death in 2004.

It has been 12 years, and I don't think there is a day that goes by that I don't miss her.

Crying Over Dog Poop

It has been rather sad around the Stochl household the last few weeks. Our two dogs, Sunny and June, have both passed away within a month of each other. First, we had to put June down at the end of January. She was really suffering, and there was no hope for recovery, even with expensive surgery. Her brother, Sunny, held out for a few more weeks, but he, too, was going downhill quickly. We took him to the vet towards the end of February, and they discovered he had a large mass on his lungs. He was having difficulty breathing, and even standing. So we made the decision to let him go. Beth and Rachel and I stood around Sunny in his final moments and shed a tear or two as we said "goodbye". I think he sensed us near, as he could neither see us nor hear us any longer.

We have quickly gone from a house with two dogs to a house with no dogs. And it has taken some getting used to. No more 5:00 a.m. wake up calls to go outside, and then the constant pacing until they were fed. No more snuffling at the door to the garage for Sunny when Beth is gone. No more loud snoring of the two dogs at night.

And the absence of the dogs is made all the more real by the reminders. Where Sunny snuffled at the door to the garage, he made the bottom of the door black with his licking and snuffling. It has been cleaned off.

The water dish which has stood by the back door for years is now gone.

The new bag of dog food has been given to some needy pet owner.

Our Petco gift cards are now quite useless to us.

And today, as I was working in the back yard, trying to beat back the sudden explosion of weeds brought about by the recent rains, I came across an old piece of dog poop. I used to hate going out to pick up the dog droppings in the yard. But I was taken aback to see it there, and a tear came to my eye.

Such is life when we grieve the loss of pets. Even the most unpleasant tasks when they were alive now appear small signs of lost joy.

When we got the dogs in 2003 (they would have been 13 a few days ago), we drove them home in our van. Each kid held a puppy in a towel because, well, puppies' systems are unpredictable. We had wanted dogs for a long time, but had never really been in a place we could have them, always in rental property. But with our first house, it was now OK. On the way home, Rachel kept saying over and over again, "This is the best day of my whole life!" Such love and affection! Such sweetness! And now, we are on the other end of the best day of our whole lives.

We will carry on. We will miss these dogs, as we miss the other dogs we have had in our lives.

I will miss Sunny's licks. He loved licking my face, especially the hair on my chin.

I will miss June's scampering after the red laser pointer, the "red bug".

I will miss walking them.

I will miss having them wag their stubby little tails when we come home, and scamper about like we had been gone forever, and we were the best thing that ever happened to them.

A few years ago, we almost lost them. We had just moved to Ceres, and were in a rental house with a huge backyard. Sunny was going blind, but could still see shapes, so he was dependent on June for directions. They loved exploring the yard, and June loved barking at the cats and the birds that would perch on our fence.

One morning, Beth had gone to some meeting, and I was alone with the dogs. They were usually sleeping soundly, but then woke and wanted to go outside. So I interrupted my reading and opened the back door, then went back to my reading. After about ten minutes, I thought, "It's awfully quiet out there." I went out to look for them, and couldn't see them at all. I wandered over to the north side of the house, only to discover to my horror that the garbage people had left the back gate open.

I rushed out of the house to find them. I walked around our block. Nothing. My heart sank, though it was pounding. I walked around the block again, calling to them. Nothing. I widened my search, and soon, I spotted them across a busy street (Blaker). I was so happy to see them! I called to them, but they couldn't tell which direction the voice had come from. So they started running. Away from me.

So I began to chase them. This was about a year after my two hip replacement surgeries, and I was really not in good walking nor running shape, but I tried. They ran over to Service Road, a major street with big rigs barreling up and down the street. I called to the dogs, they would stop, look around, and keep going. When I'd get within 10-20 yards, I'd call, and they would tear off again. June running, leading the way, Sunny following her closely, to guide him.

Finally, about a mile and a half from home, I caught them. I was so happy to see them! But frustrated that I had to chase them so far. I held them. They licked me. They were tired of all the running.

And then I wondered what to do. I had not thought of bringing their leashes nor collars. I couldn't carry them all the way home. There was no one around. We were by a church, and I noticed that the church had a little mesh gate enclosure around their trash. So I coaxed the dogs over there, opened the gate, removed the trash bin, put the dogs behind the gate, closed the gate, and put the bin against the gate.

So they were now "safe", but for how long? Would they force their way out again? Would they bark when I left, and someone would "rescue" them?

At that time, a young couple with a large dog came running by. I stopped them and told them the story briefly, and asked if they would watch the dogs for about half an hour until I got home, and drove back to get them. They said, "sure".

So I walked/ran back home as fast as I could. Got in the car, and drove back to get the dogs. I tried to pay the couple for watching the dogs, but they wouldn't take any money. I placed the dogs in the car, drove home, and then got them in the house. (Making sure the back gate was closed!)

I think they slept for about three days straight. They were tuckered out! And I was emotionally and physically exhausted!

While looking for them, I remember praying for their safety, and that I could find them. I remember praying while I was chasing them, that I could catch them. When they were home, I uttered a prayer of relief and sincere gratitude.

Well, they are both safe at home now, as all dogs go to heaven. (I am unsure about cats, though!) I am grateful for their presence in our lives, for the joy they brought us, for the lessons we learned from them, for the chance to care for some of God's creatures.

I am grateful. Really. But the next piece of dog poop I find in our back yard, I just might shed another tear or two.

Wednesday, May 07, 2014

The Great Mother's Day Muddle

As a pastor, I have borderline dread of non-liturgical holidays like Mother's Day. It is a minefield of conflicting expectations and also hurt feelings. I mean, Mother's Day is not Christmas nor Easter, nor Pentecost, nor Lent. But it is a huge cultural event.

According to this website, Americans spend some $671 million just on Mother's Day cards! The total average amount of money the average person will spend on gifts of their mom on Mother’s Day is $126.90. Mother's Day flowers will set us back $1.9 billion, that's right, BILLION with a "B", even with coupons from FTD.com and ProFlowers.com. The grand total of Mother's Day expenditures? $14.6 billion. We tend to take this holiday seriously.

But what am I to say on Mother's Day as a pastor? I read blog posts like this one, What I Wish My Pastor Would Say About Mothers, and I wonder whether I can say anything. Then I read posts like this one, and feel I am getting a handle on things. They are trying to be helpful, but I wind up feeling almost paralyzed.

Even in a small congregation like the one I serve, there are multiple expressions of motherhood. Widows. Mothers who outlived their children. Women who are married who never had children. Women who never married and who had a child or two. Women who never married and who never had children. Women with step-children. Young women looking forward to whatever God has for them, with ideas implanted in their hearts by family, tradition, culture, and Uncle Walt.

Many years ago, while serving a church in Hacienda Heights, I was a new father. I was deeply engrossed in the new experience of parenthood. I began a newsletter article with something like this: "Most people have children, but pastors have sermon illustrations." I was trying to be humorous, and light-hearted about how pastors always talk about their kids in sermons.

A few days after the newsletter went out, snail mail, I received a bunch of letters than handed me my hat, and deeply humbled me. All of them took exception to the opening phrase, "Most people have children." I read letter after letter from people who wanted children, and yet could not, or people who had lost children to miscarriage or to a premature death. I had no idea.

So here's the thing. I love mothers. I love my own mom, who passed on to her reward now ten years ago. I love my wife, the mother of our two children. I love the sacrifices that mothers make for children. As egalitarian as I had hoped to be as a young parent, my wife, Beth, got up in the middle of the night to feed and quiet our two infants, oh, 98% of the time. Once a month, I would boast to my colleagues that I got up last night to care for the kids. I wanted to impress them, and hoped they wouldn't ask anything like, "So when was the last time you did that?"

Women who are mothers juggle the conflicting demands of career and family, giving time to children and spouse. The feminists want women to forsake motherhood and pursue the career track. The traditionalists want women to stay in the home, just like their mothers and grandmothers had done. And somehow, women who are mothers make this work.

Childbirth is painful, and while I have not experienced the pain, I have seen it up close and personal, twice. If men were the ones who bore children, the human race would be in dire trouble. And yet, I very rarely hear a mother complain about the pain of childbearing.

So there is something deeply and wonderfully commendable, even spiritual about Mother's Day, in all the forms that motherhood takes.

And yet, we pastors and leaders don't want to offend anyone. So we try and make Mother's Day about Women in general. I sure don't want to leave anyone out of the party, as Jesus welcomes everybody. But there is something that is not quite satisfying about turning Mother's Day into a generic Women's Day. It seems to me to be falsely honoring women in general, and shortchanges the honor due women who are mothers.

But the practices mentioned in many blog posts, having mothers stand during the worship service, can seem, well, awkward. I can see that. But I need help understanding this, really.

I hope what is not implied is that only women with children are acceptable to God, or to us. The great hero, Esther, whom I will preach about on Sunday as part of "The Story", had no children as far as the biblical story goes. If I have ever implied this, I apologize.

I hope what is not implied is that a woman's highest goal is to be married and have children. If I have ever implied this, I apologize.

Nor do I hope what is implied is that honoring women who are mothers is somehow a bad thing, because it will hurt some feelings. I think honor and praise of people is far too rare in our churches, and even more rare in our culture.

I loved the movie, "The Incredibles", with the tag line, "If everyone is special, then no one is special." I cringed when my kids were in elementary school (Arroyo Vista Wildcats!!), and once a month children were honored. It seemed as the goal was to honor every child during the year. While I appreciated the desire to recognize each child's unique gifts and abilities, there were some children who seemed to be honored simply for showing up to school once in a while.

So is there a way to celebrate mothers without making others feel left out? I'm not sure, but I hope so.

Te Apostle Paul writes in Philippians 2:29 concerning Epahroditus, "Welcome him then in the Lord with all joy, and honor such people." Such people are those who lay down their lives for the sake of others. Christians are to do that as a lifestyle. Mothers do this every day, setting aside their own agendas for those of their children. 

It seems to me that being a mother is an expression of the gospel, but it is not the only one! It is a vital role, an essential role for the human race. And we do well to honor mothers, and pray for them each and every day.

But we also do well to honor others who express the gospel in other ways, and pray for them each day.

Some wise words from Romans 12:15- "Rejoice with those who rejoice, weep with those who weep." Rejoicing and weeping are opposites, and yet we are called to do both, when appropriate. Those who rejoice should rejoice wholeheartedly, but also be mindful that there are those who do not rejoice. Also, those who weep need to weep wholeheartedly, but also be mindful not to rob the joy of those who rejoice.

So, yeah, I am still wrestling with this. I appreciate all my friends who have pointed out various perspectives on this. While it is overwhelming, sometimes life is like that, and under the guidance of God's Spirit, we do the best we can.

BTW, here's what I wrote about my mom on the first anniversary of her death, in 2005. So my own experience of Mother's Day is quite mixed between joy and sorrow.

And hey, let me know what you think.

Monday, May 21, 2012

The Power of Story- Ken Burns

An interview in The Atlantic with Ken Burns on the power of story. Also included is a short five minute video. Here.

Much to ponder here. Especially Goddard's quote, "Cinema is truth 24 frames per second, but every edit is a lie." Burns confesses that film is manipulative, either in a good way or a harmful way. It addresses the human condition, and good stories (what I gather him saying), move people not just to be entertained, but to do something. 

Burns went on to describe the story of Jackie Robinson in his series on Baseball. When a racist in 1942 was confronted with Robinson's playing baseball for Brooklyn, they were forced to either give up baseball, switch loyalty to another team, or to embrace an African-American playing for their favorite team. Such is the power of story.

Implications for pastors, like me, who get the opportunity to share God's Story every week?

Tuesday, March 13, 2012

A Captain Go Bart Wordle

A Word Cloud from my blog. Cool, right?

Friday, October 07, 2011

Tim Keller- King's Cross

I have been reading through Tim Keller's latest book, "King's Cross: The Story of the World in the Life of Jesus". Fascinating look at Mark's gospel, which I know well. Or at least I thought I knew it well. Keller has an amazing way of stripping away some of the cultural veneer of our modern understanding of Jesus, and goes back to the source in a very clear and cogent way.

I ran across this interview on MSNBC's Morning Joe from April 2011. It is only six minutes long, but I loved it.

Sunday, April 03, 2011

Lessons from Hip Replacement - Part Two

My right hip continues to improve, as it continues to gain strength and flexibility. It has gone so well, that the left hip is now scheduled to be replaced on April 12th, just nine days from today!

One of the joys of having a new hip is a return to walking. For most of our married lives, Beth and I have walked. We have walked to the store. We have walked the dogs. We have walked to friends' houses. We have walked in silence. We have often walked to resolve some issues, or to talk over something. We have never been good at sitting down for a face-to-face chat about disagreements, but have found walking to be a productive and healthy way to engage with one another.

So walking again has been a joy. And doing it pain free has been even better. The other day, we walked for two miles. I had been unable to walk that much for a long time. How I walked so much in Minneapolis this summer is a great mystery to me. Perhaps the healing waters of Minnehaha helped? Or perhaps the healing aura of the Presbyterian Church's General Assembly?

In order to walk that two miles, I had to relearn how to walk. With no cartilage in my right hip before surgery, it was very painful. And so, to compensate, I learned how to walk without putting too much weight on my right leg. I would take a long stride with my left leg, and then do almost a quick step with my right leg. I would spend much more time and weight on my left leg than on my right. I also did not pick up my right foot, but rather shuffled it.

But after surgery, my physical therapist forced me to put more weight on my right leg, and to spend more time in my walking stride. It was rather awkward at first to trust a leg that I had learned not to trust for so long. And I was initially reluctant to do so! As I practiced walking in the dining room, to the kitchen, to the bathroom, I had to not just walk, I had to think about walking!

One morning at church, I was observing little Lana walking about as only a 13 month old can. She, too, had discovered the joys of walking, and was intent on exploring this suddenly larger world! As I watched her, I thought to myself, "She's only 13 months old, and she walks better than I do!" And it was true.

Still, after now eleven weeks of relearning to walk, I am walking properly with my right leg, and with some speed. The other day, Beth commented that we were walking quite quickly, which has always been my norm. Being a Meyers-Briggs type "J", my goal is to get somewhere, not to enjoy the process.

Alas, the recovery has not been without cost. Whatever cartilage remained in my left hip has all but disappeared, hence the April 12th surgery date.

I have wondered about this learning to walk in spiritual terms. In my woundedness, have I compensated? Have I learned how to get by? What does it mean to live a healthy spiritual life? So as I am relearning to walk, I am also reexamining my spiritual attitudes and practices, and trying to discern which are healthy and which need to be overhauled.

It is difficult to abandon practices which have become habits, and to learn to do things "the right way." This is true for walking, but also for attitudes and behaviors in life. While I thank God for Dr. Dietrick and his team at both Congress Medical and Huntington Memorial Hospital, I am also thankful for the Great Physician, Jesus Christ. Only He can operate on the soul, and repair broken hearts, and heal old wounds, and make the lame walk, and set the prisoner free.

Some of what I am learning as I continue to recover from hip surgery. [SDG - JS]

Wednesday, January 26, 2011

Lessons from Hip Replacement

Two weeks ago, I had my right hip replaced. In some ways, this has been a long journey, as I have needed something like this for literally years. The cartilage wore out in my right hip, and it has been bone on bone for some time. I compensated by limping, hopping, dragging my right leg around, sitting whenever possible rather than the excruciating pain of standing. It had gotten so bad that I could not climb the stairs in our house without tremendous exertion. And yet, I refused to do anything about it.

On the other hand, this process feels to me to be a whirlwind. I finally succumbed to common sense and the urging of my peers and family and friends, and went to see a doctor in September. This led to seeing a physiatrist (like a Physical Therapist with an MD degree). And finally, I saw an orthopedic surgeon in early December. He recommended I have my right hip replaced, as it was the most painful and in the worst shape. So I was set up for four weeks of visits to a cardiologist (to see if my heart would allow me to endure surgery), a blood donation center (gave my own blood for my own surgery), the xray place, and numerous visits to my regular doctor. All during the hectic Christmas season.

I was nervous about surgery, as I dislike needles and blood, especially my own, at least my own outside my body, I really like my blood inside my body! I had not been in a hospital since I was 12 years old, when I had a hernia operation.

But the surgery was easy. The good folks at Huntington Memorial Hospital were very kind, and very good at their jobs. From the admitting nurse, to the nurse who prepped my for my IV line, to the anesthesiologist, to the surgeon, to the nurses and PA's who helped me in the days after the surgery. The surgery was easy in that my body was there, but I wasn't. I was put to sleep, and woke up a few hours later with a new titanium and ceramic hip. The recovery has been a breeze as well. Day to day, it has been a struggle. But Physical Therapy has really helped, and I have seen progress from week to week.

Early in my recovery, I lay on the couch or sat in the recliner and watched a ton of movies. I watched almost the entire "World at War" series from the mid-1970's. My mind was not focused enough to read and write much, as some of the pain medication was quite potent.

My wife, Beth, has been a real helper. She has tried to serve my needs, has driven me where I need to go, encouraged me to take my medicine and get some rest, and has put up with my belligerence in opposing all things that would dare imply any weakness on my part. My children, Mark and Rachel, have also been very attentive and kind. Rachel came back from school at SLO for the long MLK weekend, and Mark has been back from UCLA the last two weekends. Their love and encouragement has helped as well.

I have also been greatly blessed by my church community. Several people took the time to stop by and see my in the hospital, Rex and Rich and Kimo and Drew and Frank and Rich. Many more have mailed "get well" cards. And dozens of people have commented on my Facebook posts. Thank you!

I would not have gotten this far without the support and encouragement of the community. Self-care is not one of my strengths, and so I needed extra motivation, or nagging, to get me to do the right thing. The seeds of this surgery were planted by Janis Shannon, a dear saint and pastor's wife who kept pleading with me to do something, and kept on praying for me when I did not do anything. Many, many others have also added their weight to nudge me in the right direction.

So, one of the lessons I have learned, again, is the importance of community. I am an unworthy recipient of love and grace, but that's just the point. My worthiness has nothing to do with it. The community of the saints, my extended family, has come through for my own welfare. How long did my family and friends cringe as they watched my painfully hobble around? And they never seemed to lose hope that someday, something would click in my life and I would take care of this.

I will try and reflect on more lessons in the coming days, now that I am walking and my head is cleared of the pain medications.

Suffice it to say that I am deeply grateful to the love and support of my dear family and my church community, and to those who have extended a hand of comfort and blessing to me in the South Pasadena community. (That means people like you, Mr. Dinosaur Farm, lover of puppies!) I am deeply moved and humbled that you would take the time and make the effort. I am a fortunate man. And now, I can walk again!

[SDG - JS]