Archive for the ‘Death’ Category

One Year Later

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Photos from various Pulse tributes in Orlando, including Pulse itself

A year ago today, I woke up, groggy. It was a Sunday morning and some friends and I had gone out for my birthday, ending the festivities at a local gay club. I leaned over and grabbed my phone to check things. That’s when I saw it. There had been a shooting at a nightclub in Orlando. Pulse. I immediately thought of friends in Orlando and reached out to make sure they were OK. I had only been to Pulse a couple of times while I lived in Orlando, but it was a lot of fun and I knew it was pretty popular. No one I knew was there that night. But as we would learn, so many others would forever be changed.

By many accounts, people in Central Florida came together since then in wonderful ways. The nation came together in some ways, too, though in other ways, certain divisions were only made clearer.

Other mass shootings were horrific to me, but none had hit this close to home. It could’ve been me or many of my friends. We were all OK, and yet I still felt so intimately devastated, so I can’t imagine what those who lost loved ones, those who were injured, or those who were there but managed to make it out physically unharmed have gone through. 

After Pulse, countless people realized they didn’t know much about our communities and they pledged to learn more. They offered “thoughts and prayers” and maybe helped in person or donated to the victims and their families. These are are wonderful things. But for lasting, tangible, positive change, there must be more.

Many of these people were conservative Christians. As I heard one Orlando-area pastor of an Evangelical megachurch put it, he didn’t really think much about the LGBTQ community before Pulse. He certainly wasn’t the only one. As a gay Christian who grew up in a conservative Evangelical environment, I’ve seen firsthand the actions and rhetoric that push LGBTQ people away and often lead them to become depressed and even to suicide.

So while I’m thankful for “thoughts and prayers,” even from those with whom I disagree, there’s a larger problem and I don’t think it’s being addressed nearly enough in the places that actually need to address it among the people who need to address it.

Transformation tends to begin from within. So for those folks who were offering “thoughts and prayers” and perhaps even pledged to learn more about us, I want you to ask yourself some questions:

What were my exact Pulse-related prayers like? From what perspective were they being offered? 

Were your prayers genuinely just about God providing comfort and peace to grieving people, all children of God created in God’s image? Or were they more about “sinners” turning away from their sin and toward God? Were you genuinely grieving along with us? Or were you just praying to change us?

What have you done since the Pulse tragedy to better understand the LGBTQ and Latinx communities? 

Many people pledged to get to know communities they did not know or understand. Did you? If so, have you followed through? I’m not saying you have to magically transform your theological understanding as it relates to the LGBTQ community (as much as I’d love that). I’m just saying you should get to know people who are not like you. Put faces to the “issues” you see in the world. Start there.

What have you done since the Pulse tragedy to help the LGBTQ and Latinx communities? 

Have you worked within your church to be more welcoming to these communities, particularly the LGBTQ community? Have you volunteered? Have you had conversations with people within these communities? Have you had conversations with your friends and family who don’t understand these communities and refuse to even try? Have you spoken up when someone uses a slur? Have you contemplated how you can better serve the marginalized?

Does your church and its members contribute to a narrative that demonizes LGBTQ people? 

Has your churched discussed this possibility? Has your congregation given thought to becoming more welcoming and affirming? Are LGBTQ people, even those who disagree with you, included in these conversations? Are you willing to do the hard work and operate within the questions and the tension instead of defaulting to what’s comfortable for you? Do you understand that it’s not the job of LGBTQ people to educate you, so when one of us is willing to walk with you on this journey, you should feel thankful and blessed?

Pulse was tragic. For many, it was life-changing. For some, it was life-ending. But we have a choice. We can choose to examine why events like Pulse happen and how we may, even indirectly, be contributing to a narrative that allows things like this to happen.

Moreover, the LGBTQ community, like other marginalized communities, faces a constant barrage of discrimination. And I know for a fact that many of the same people who said they were thinking of me and praying for me and people like me after Pulse were the same people that helped put Donald Trump in office. I struggle with that.

Actions speak louder than words.

So if you truly want to remember and pray for the people who were injured or died at Pulse, and their family and friends, great. Pray away. And then get to work. Honor them with action. Be bold. Be brave. Be courageous. Step out of your comfort zone. Re-examine your beliefs and your preconceived notions. Do the hard work. Because that’s what we need.

Welp, I’m 30.

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20-year-old Kyle takes a birthday photo!

Today, I turn 30. I’m not sure it’s hit me yet. Maybe it won’t. I mean it’s just a number, right?

I find myself trying to think about all the life lessons I’ve learned over the last decade. What I have yet to learn. Where my 20s started. Where they ended. How much has happened. How much has remained the same. How much will change over the next decade.

Sometimes, I feel like I’m in some sort of hyperdrive, where people decades older than me are recounting some life lesson they just learned and I’m thinking, “Um. Yeah. Of course that’s the case.” Typical know-it-all millennial, right? But other times, I’ve felt like I’m stopped or even in reverse, watching people my age pass by me. In some way, they’ve moved on and I haven’t.

But then I remember those lovely words of wisdom everyone loves to impart but not actually listen to themselves: We shouldn’t judge ourselves based on what others are doing. We shouldn’t care what they think, either.

As I think about things I’ve “lost” over the last decade, by far, my mother is the first thing that comes to mind. My immediate next thought is that 20-year-old Kyle would’ve been like, “It’s not like she was ever around in any meaningful way anyway.” Maybe not, 20-year-old Kyle. But the option was there. The chance that things might change was there, even if there was little hope they ever would. Now, it’s not possible. She’s gone.

As I think about what I’ve gained, the first thing that comes to mind is a fiancé. Like, what?! I mean 20-year-old Kyle may have expected to be at least engaged by 30, maybe, but I don’t know. I also find it fascinating that the first loss that comes to mind intersects with the first big “gain” that comes to mind. I would’ve loved for my mom to be able to meet him. I have to wonder if that would’ve been the same case if she were living. Would I have really cared?

I then of course think about how all of it — what I’ve lost and what I’ve gained — translates into growth, or at least change. And I think I’ve changed so much. I’m not even sure I can list the ways. It might be easiest to just say I’ve matured. Priorities have shifted. Thoughts and actions, words and deeds, have shifted. I’ve started paying attention more. Listening more. Being silent more. (Stop shaking your head in disbelief. I have!) Loving more, or trying to.

When I started this decade, I was still in college at the University of Florida. Since then, I’ve changed cities, changed careers, gained friends and lost friends. I spent most of the first year of my 20s single and ended my 20s engaged. Hell, I couldn’t have even gotten legally married back then had I wanted to! All anyone needs to do is just take a quick, contemplative look back to see the ebb and flow of life.

Society has changed so much, too. I mentioned marriage equality above, but it’s so much more than that. Technology has changed. Politics has changed. People have changed. Society has changed. And, honestly, it’s all kind of flown by, especially over the last few years. And yet there’s still so much more to do in the world. I suspect there always will be.

I’m a big fan of trying to be forward-thinking, so here’s what I hope for the next 10 years:

I hope to love more. 

I don’t just mean romantic love. I mean love in general. And love, for me, isn’t just something you feel. It’s something you do. I hope to do more for others. I hope to get to know them. I hope to better understand them. I hope to listen more. I hope to be a better servant leader.

I hope to listen more. 

Everyone knows I’m a talker. I always will be. But that doesn’t mean I can’t listen more. Like, actually listen. I find I enjoy listening and getting to know people. But also, I hope to listen to nature more. I hope to sit in silence more and just listen to what’s going on around me. There’s such serenity and peace in just listening in silence sometimes. Plus, it can help you think.

I hope to learn more.

I’m naturally a lifelong learner and I swear by it, so I definitely plan to keep that up. There’s just so much to learn that my challenge is often narrowing things down enough to focus on one thing at a time. Which reminds me — I should probably try to be more patient, too!

I hope to say “YES!” and get out of my comfort zone more. 

I’m a safe zone kind of guy. Sometimes, I’ll do enough to appear as if I’m going out of my comfort zone, but actually doing so is more rare than I think people think. I certainly talk more about it than I do it. I’d like to change that. I’d like to say “yes” more often to things that might prove to be fun or worthwhile in some way, even when they sound scary. Especially then, perhaps.

I hope to care for me more. 

I’ve worked pretty hard on this over the last few years, but I can certainly do more to improve self-care — mind, body and spirit. Again, I go back to just relaxing and sitting in silence to quiet the mind. Hopefully, I can meditate more and finally go to a damn yoga class. As for my body, well, that’s an easy solution — just start exercising and being more active. Sounds so simple. Ha! For my spirit, I think I’m doing pretty great at that lately, if I’m honest, but I hope to focus more on this in the future. I’m looking forward to it.

I hope to act more. 

Self-care is definitely important, but so is action. I want to sit on the sidelines less and do more. Whether it’s helping people in need, advocating for the rights of other people — I want to be there. I want to do more.

It’s been a great decade and I’m really looking forward to the next one. Even for all the shitty stuff I can think of that happened in my 20s, I can think of ways I learned from those experiences. While it’s admittedly a little weird to be 30, I don’t see it as “old” or anything like that. It does feel like a chapter has closed and a new one has opened, which is probably kind of silly because it’s just a number, right?

I think I’d be missing an opportunity, though, if I didn’t take this moment to think about the past and how it can help me be better in the future. I’m thankful that I have such wonderful loved ones to help me along the way and I look forward to helping them, too. So here’s to my 30s and beyond!

I Love You This Much

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When I was little, my mom would ask me how much I loved her. I’d stretch out my arms as far as I could and say, “Thiiiiiis much!” She’d ask again. I’d stretch out my arms again and say the words again and she’d tickle me and I’d just laugh and laugh.

She was a great cook. On some weekend mornings, she’d make some of the best grits. Never early, as I recall — usually at around 10 or 11 — making sure to make enough for the neighborhood girl who’d sometimes come over. She always wanted to be the “cool mom.”

Some of my first driving experiences were with her, out on a dirt road in the country while visiting her family, most likely before I was 15. That’s where I learned about Alanis. And thanks to some of her lyrics, which Mom was happy to explain when I asked, I learned about a lot more than driving in that truck.

When my parents split for the final time, I recall spending time with my mom at her job, in a bar on Jacksonville’s Westside. Men would flirt with her and give me quarters for what I called the “claw grabby machine” and I’d go play. I got a lot of new toys that night. And I remember helping her clean the place up when the night was over.

As I got older, Mom was rarely what I would consider “appropriate.” She sometimes put me in precarious positions when I’d visit her house. She’d ask me questions that would make nearly anyone blush. At one point, she told me she and her second husband had taken bets on whether I’d lost my virginity. She thought I was a good Christian boy. He thought I was a growing teenager. Neither were completely wrong.

After my parents divorced, here’s what I recall most, though: Missed events. Showing up late or not at all. Missed calls. Not listening when we did talk. Trying to convince her to not listen to her sister because she was a good mom, all while believing her sister more right than wrong. Trying to connect with her, time after time, failure after failure. Weirdness. Awkwardness. Drunkenness. Death.

I learned that you can grow up thinking your mom is going to die prematurely and yet it can still surprise you. You can spend time thinking about what that might be like and it still won’t prepare you. You can think about what you could’ve done differently, but it still won’t console you. You can think about how much you know she loved you, but it still won’t fulfill you.

So why am I telling you this on what would have been her 52nd birthday?

Despite the negative, she was one of my biggest defenders and fiercest supporters. She would’ve moved a mountain for me, if she could’ve. Growing up, if anyone messed with me, she always told me she’d “kick their ass.” I’m sure she’d still do the same today.

I spent so much time refusing to accept that I had been influenced by her in any way. Yet here I am. Short. Brown eyes. Brown hair. A pretty consistent smile. I talk a lot. I talk with my hands. I tell stories. I repeat myself. I try to help others. I care. I’m sometimes quick to anger, but I also sometimes fume silently when I’m angry. I love Alanis (old Alanis). And Celine. I’m a fan of beer. And how can I ever forget, as she always told me, I have her butt.

Truth be told, I never thought I’d miss her as much as I do. I never truly considered what it would be like to not have her available to me at all. Period. Did I need her to make it through life? No. But that’s partially because of her. Goodness knows she was independent.

You know what sucks? Plenty of people don’t call their mom, even on their birthdays. They don’t see them. They don’t get them a card. Nothing. Maybe they rarely talk to them at all. I understand that some moms are truly terrible moms. But, for the most part, they aren’t so terrible that you can’t at least reach out to them every now and then.

Your mom could die tomorrow. You could die tomorrow. Consider that when planning for today. Make it count while you can. 

Oh, and Happy Birthday, Mom. I love you thiiiiiiiis much! 

What Would Jacksonville Do?

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As I’ve watched the outpouring of support in Orlando, I can’t help but wonder what that support would look like had this tragedy happened in Jacksonville.

Would our mayor even acknowledge that it was an attack on the LGBT and Hispanic communities? Or would he just speak in generalities?

Would our churches do more than just “pray”? And, if so, would they do it without qualifying their charity in some way? Or would they only say they’d love and pray for us, making sure to mention that it’s in spite of our sin?

Would our city council representatives be out in the community, sharing in the collective pain of such an event? Comforting people, even LGBT ones? Would we even WANT some of them to do so after some of the things that have been said about us? Or would they go radio silent or only gravitate to the reporters for their next quote or sound bite?

Would city leaders be working to help get victims and their families visas if need be? Or would they be worried about where these people are from?

And if — IF — all of these answers are the best answers we could hope for, would we believe any of it is true and honest and good, given how our community has been treated? Given how we can’t even pass basic protections for our community? Given that, on the Monday after 49 people were murdered, people had to go to a school board meeting to defend a bathroom policy that has been in effect since 2008 with seemingly no issues? Would our community treat us better in death than it does in life?

Will our community now consider treating us better in life by treating us like everyone else? We’ll see.

Struggle & Strength

Ten years ago, I sat my dad down at the dining room table before heading off to college and came out to him. The realization was all still very new to me, but I knew I definitely wasn’t straight and had finally come to terms with it.

He had lots of things to say, all understandable and none bad. Naturally, there was some confusion, but more importantly, there was unwavering support and love. But there’s one thing that currently stands out in my mind more than anything else.

Dad told me he was worried because my life would be more difficult and dangerous as an openly gay man.

It was a reality I was already aware of and I’m sure I agreed with him, while maintaining my truth. But it’s a reality that I don’t think I fully grasped until Sunday.

Sure, I’ve dealt with my unfair share of haters. I’ve heard all the names and the rhetoric. I’ve been an “issue to be dealt with” and not a person to be loved. Every day, it seems like there’s a new version of “coming out” we have to encounter. And you know what? Some days, in some fleeting moments, it’s easier to say “roommate” than deal with the potential fallout of saying “boyfriend.” Perhaps that’s a terrible thing to admit, but it’s true.

But this — this is different. This is life and death, literally life and death. And sure, we all deal with life and death and our own issues. But this is people wanting to kill us for simply existing or showing any form of affection to someone we love.

Over the last few days, I’ve read and heard more times than I care to count that there will always be people with hate or evil in their hearts. Maybe that’s true. But should we not at least try to erase the hate and replace it with love? Should we not at least try to eliminate the evil and replace it with good? Is it not worth at least an attempt?

My dad was right. Our lives are filled with different and sometimes greater challenges for being different. But I wouldn’t trade this for the world because I am also stronger and smarter because of it. I have met some of the kindest, most beautiful people I have ever known, and will ever know, because of who I am. And I have learned from them.

We are fighters. We are fierce. We love because we all too often feel the sting of hate as a result of fear. We understand the importance and value of diversity and celebrate it. We support each other because sometimes it feels like no one else will.

So while my dad’s point was right, it was not the full story. Thank God it wasn’t the full story.

One of my favorite quotes lately has been one from Elisabeth Kübler-Ross:

“The most beautiful people we have known are those who have known defeat, known suffering, known struggle, known loss, and have found their way out of the depths. These persons have an appreciation, a sensitivity, and an understanding of life that fills them with compassion, gentleness, and a deep loving concern. Beautiful people do not just happen.”

We. Are. Beautiful.

My Coming Out Monologue

As many of you know, I participated in this year’s Coming Out Monologues, benefitting JASMYN and PFLAG Jacksonville. I can’t really describe how amazing the experience was. I can’t wait to be a part of next year’s show in some way — either on stage or off. For those of you who don’t know, people write their “coming out” stories around a certain theme and either perform them or have someone else perform them. This year, we all performed our own stories. This can be liberating…and scary as hell. This year’s theme was ‘labels.’ I’m thankful for the hundreds of people who attended, but I realize not everyone could. I wish I could share every monologue with you because they are all insightful and worthwhile. But I can only tell you my story. With that in mind, here is my monologue:

Delivering my monologue at "Coming Out Monologues" over the weekend

Delivering my monologue at “Coming Out Monologues” over the weekend

I love to tell stories. I can’t tell you how many family members have told me I never shut up as a kid…or as an adult. But I love to tell stories. And I love to write. Over the years, I’ve been called a lot of things. Good and bad. It’s all about how you take what’s said to you. Wasn’t it a famous lesbian who said that no one could make you feel inferior without your consent? I don’t know. But it’s true! Being called something – being labeled something can be a good thing. It’s the stereotypes that go along with them that can be problematic.

An example: I’m gay. I own it. I’ve earned it. To those who would say, “Are you sure?!” I would say…yes…I’ve double-checked. And triple-checked. And…well, you get the point. Anyway. There is a whole community out there of people like me and people who support me.

The trouble comes when people try to tell you how you’re supposed to act because you’re gay. One of the first people I ever came out to was one of my best friends. She’s amazing. We’re still best friends. Closer than ever. I knew she was totally OK with “gay,” but it still took me two attempts to actually tell her. She basically knew and I still couldn’t say it out loud. Finally – over Chinese food and beer – I said the words. “Great! Now we can go shopping together,” she said! As you can probably tell by looking at me right now, shopping isn’t exactly my forte.

I knew coming out to another best friend at the time would be tougher. Like me, she grew up in a strongly conservative Christian environment. When I told her, she thought I was kidding. Side note: I have yet to hear anyone say that as a joke. So anyway, I say it again. Her hands go to her mouth and she starts to cry. A lot. It took her a week to formulate this response: “Love the sinner…hate the sin.” I eventually had to end the friendship entirely after she compared my “lifestyle choices” to getting a tattoo. I just can’t call somebody a “friend” if they believe I shouldn’t be allowed to marry someone I love. Or if they feel my love is somehow inferior. Or if they think I shouldn’t have equal legal protection.

A lot of people like to use “sinner” as an excuse to discriminate, which is funny because most of those people were taught that everyone is a sinner. Everyone needs forgiveness. But being gay — sorry — “homosexuality” – is different. Gays aren’t people who have sinned, we are sinners who happen to also be people. It’s funny – popular Christian evangelist Billy Graham himself once said:

“What really matters is how God sees me. He isn’t concerned with labels; he is concerned about the state of man’s soul.”

Guess not everybody got that memo.

Coming out to people really shows you their true colors. And yours. My best friend’s dad joked that I didn’t hide it very well. My Grandma, on the other hand, told me she would’ve preferred I said I was going to jail. I really wanted to say, “But Grandma…do you know what happens in jail?”

My mom was always one of my fiercest supporters. As a kid, if I ever had trouble with other kids, she’d tell me she’d kick their ass. Her words. That didn’t change when I came out. She unexpectedly died a couple years ago. I can’t remember the last time my mom set foot in a church, but my grandmother – not the one who said the jail thing – decided to have a memorial service. I spoke at it and I was honest, emotional and unfiltered. After I finished, the pastor, who had never even met my mom, launched into this sermon about how “America has gone down the drain, especially with things like gay marriage.” I thought about just sitting there, like a proper lady might. But then I thought about what Mom would do and knew she wouldn’t tolerate it. And I thought, “She’s my mom. Fuck this.” So I walked out. As I walked down the center aisle, with eyes turning toward me from every direction, the pastor shouted something about how “the Lord can hit moving targets.” I really thought about swerving right about then.

I can’t remember a time when I was angrier. I threw my iPad down and I don’t throw Apple products down on the ground. Ever. I like to think I made my mom proud by walking out of that place. Fortunately, I know many more wonderful Christ followers who were just as appalled as I was at how that so-called “pastor” behaved. He misrepresented his faith in some of the most egregious ways.

A few months ago, I was at the wedding of my boyfriend’s best friend. He’s a great guy. Clearly, my boyfriend really knows how to pick ’em. Anyway, the groom and his now wife are also both from conservative Christian backgrounds. While they knew my boyfriend and I were more than just friends, few others likely did. I was watching the rehearsal when the wife of another groomsman walked over and sat down near the rest of us, saying something about how it was lonely where she was sitting. I said, “Welcome.” As she sat behind me, she said something like, “Yeah, I figured I’d come and sit with the other significant…” and then she trailed off before she said, “significant others.” I definitely thought of finishing her sentence for her. The next day, one of the groomsmen asked my boyfriend if I was his brother. I’m not.

Some people freak out when they don’t have a definition or answer for something. And they try to mentally sort it out by playing a game of 20 questions. They want to put a name with something so they can wrap their minds around it, even if what they’re thinking is inaccurate. I want people to know me as, “Kyle, the awesome guy who happens to be gay” and not, “Kyle, the gay guy who happens to be awesome.” Regardless, I hope to teach others that “gay” is OK. And we’re not all the same just like not every Christian is the same.

It’s not as much about the label as it is how you let it define you — confine you — relegate you to something lesser than what you deserve. Labels — even bad ones — can motivate you to be better. To change. To break the mold. To be bold. They can be transformative. They can make you a part of something. Someone asked me a while back why gay people always seem to want to hang out with each other. She asked if it was a sex thing. I told her – for many of us, at least – it’s about community. Shared experiences. Labels help us connect – to better understand our world and ourselves. But placing too much of an emphasis on them can be devastating. Everything in moderation.

My favorite label these days is probably “significant other.” Boyfriend. I look at him and I can’t help but think about how lucky I am. And how lucky he is. In all seriousness, I had kind of started to think that my standards were just too high. I was looking for a needle in a haystack…someone who didn’t let only one thing define him. Someone who wasn’t afraid to be himself, but someone who also wasn’t afraid to change. Someone with a smile that could make me melt. Someone who was hot.

I had given up on all that. Turns out, he was in front of me like the whole time. He just didn’t know he wanted me at first. Or that he wanted boys, for that matter. Safe to say, he knows now. And while I may not understand why, he doesn’t just want any man. He wants ME. Obviously, I have better taste than he does. A few months ago, my Grandma – the one who made the jail comment in 2008 – finally met my boyfriend at a family wedding. As she was getting in the car to leave, she pulled me in and said, “I like your friend.” To which I replied, “Good! So do I!”

And that’s what all of this really boils down to: Love. Community. Transcending that which confines us. Learning from each other. All I want in my life is love and equality. And someone to walk through life with me, every step of the way, through the good and the bad. Willing to learn from me and from others. Willing to love me and love others with me.

It’s interesting and perhaps ironic that – when it comes to how important love is — I’m reminded of First Corinthians, Chapter 13, verses one through three:

“If I speak with human eloquence and angelic ecstasy but don’t love, I’m nothing but the creaking of a rusty gate. If I speak God’s Word with power, revealing all his mysteries and making everything plain as day, and if I have faith to say to a mountain, ‘Jump,’ and it jumps, but I don’t love, I’m nothing. If I give all I own to the poor and even go to the stake to be burned as a martyr, but I don’t love, I’ve gotten nowhere. So, no matter what I say, what I believe, and what I do, I’m bankrupt without love.”

And “lover” is a label I’m willing to accept.

The "Coming Out Monologues" cast and crew at the end of the show

The “Coming Out Monologues” cast and crew at the end of a performance

All money made from Coming Out Monologues ticket sales benefits JASMYN and PFLAG Jax. If you’d like to support the Coming Out Monologues mission, there is a GoFundMe page set up, as well. Or you can of course donate directly to JASMYN and PFLAG. We are already kicking around some amazing ideas for next year and beyond and I’m excited to be a part of such a wonderful movement in Jacksonville.

My ‘Aunt Sister’

Today, I spoke at my great-aunt’s funeral. It was tough, but was definitely something I needed to do. I wanted to share what I wrote with you. Perhaps, in some way, it can be helpful to others:

In 1922, the cost of a first-class stamp was two cents. In January of that year, doctors first used insulin to treat diabetes. The U.S. Geological Survey said America’s oil supply would run out in 20 years. With February came a new pope and radio technology to the White House. The Supreme Court upheld women’s right to vote, too. In March, the Navy’s first aircraft carrier was commissioned and an airplane landed at the U.S. Capitol for the first time ever. In April, Annie Oakley set a women’s record by shooting and breaking 100 clay targets in a row. In May, the Lincoln Memorial was dedicated and some guy named Walt Disney incorporated his first film company.

But we are here today because of something that happened in September. In fact, many of you are quite literally here today — on this Earth today — because of something that happened on a Saturday in 1922. On September 16th, my Aunt Sister was born. I call her “Aunt Sister” NOT because our family got a little too…friendly… with each other back then, but because she is my grandma’s sister and my grandma always called her “sister.” So I grew up calling her “Aunt Sister.”

And she is in good company. Charles Schulz, creator of the Peanuts comic strip was born the same year. So were Betty White, Judy Garland, Bea Arthur and even Doris Day…depending on who you ask. If you don’t count the year, she shares a birthday with BB King, Nick Jonas and — my personal favorite — J.C. Penney.

When Aunt Sister was a child, she was sick all the time. In fact, doctors told her family on three separate occasions that she wouldn’t survive the night. She lived to be 92. I think this is a good time to mention that Aunt Sister was stubborn. She knew what she liked and what she didn’t. She wasn’t a huge fan of pets or pizza. Yes to okra. No to Chinese food. Yes to squash, but only if you put about a pound of butter in it. No wonder she was always so overweight. Green and brown weren’t her colors, but pink…that hit the spot. She liked her water as cold as possible and when she’d make her coffee, she’d brew it, pour it out of the coffee pot and into a cup and put it into the microwave to heat it up. And I longed to see her wear jeans — just once. That never happened.

Aunt Sister also knew what she loved. And this is where I should mention the love of her life — my Uncle Elmer. I believe they were married for…uh…like 226 years or something like that. Anyway, one of my favorite photos of the two of them is from a few years ago. Uncle Elmer is in his typical white t-shirt and khaki pants in his recliner. And Aunt Sister is in her typical blouse and skirt, sitting on his lap. His arm is around her waist. A slight grin on Aunt Sister’s face. Remove the color — and a few of the wrinkles — and maybe add some hair to Uncle Elmer — and you’d think the photo was taken decades ago.

When Uncle Elmer took a turn for the worst a couple years ago, Aunt Sister barely left his side. In fact, one of the most heartbreaking photos I’ve seen was of them — in his hospice room — she was holding his hand as he slept on what would end up being the last night they’d spend together — here, at least. When I entered the room, shortly after Uncle Elmer had passed, I walked to Aunt Sister and hugged her. She continued to cry and repeatedly said things like, “how am I going to live without him” and “I just keep praying to God to take me, too.” That was more than two years ago. Did I mention Aunt Sister was also strong — and brave?

Aunt Sister was also cold. Like, literally cold. As strong as her relationship was to Uncle Elmer, I think she also had a pretty great relationship with her sweater collection. She always had a sweater. The night before she passed, we were looking at cruise photos from 10 years ago. In one of the photos sits Aunt Sister — outside in the caribbean in June…in a sweater. I’m pretty sure she had backup sweaters for her backup sweater.

At least as much as her sweaters, Aunt Sister loved the rest of her family. Ok, maybe more than her sweaters. In all seriousness, she adored her brothers and sister, her kids, her grandkids, her great-grandkids. Especially in the last two years, I never saw her smile more than when there were little kids running around, occasionally stopping to sit in her lap or hug or kiss her and say “I love you.” She loved fully and she was loved fully.

Aunt Sister was like another grandma to me. In fact, in many ways, she and my Grandma were the best mother figures I could ever ask for. And Grandma still is. If I had to pick one thing that Aunt Sister taught me over the years, it’s how to love and love fully. I’m reminded of First Corinthians 13, verses one through three:

“If I speak with human eloquence and angelic ecstasy but don’t love, I’m nothing but the creaking of a rusty gate. If I speak God’s Word with power, revealing all his mysteries and making everything plain as day, and if I have faith to say to a mountain, ‘Jump,’ and it jumps, but I don’t love, I’m nothing. If I give all I own to the poor and even go to the stake to be burned as a martyr, but I don’t love, I’ve gotten nowhere. So, no matter what I say, what I believe, and what I do, I’m bankrupt without love.”

At about 9:45 the night before she passed away, I said my goodbyes for the night. We said we loved each other. I told her I’d see her tomorrow, put my hand on hers and said something about her being a pretty lady. And I left. At 6:15 the next morning, so did she.

Those of us who have had to stare death in the face, whether directly indirectly…we know the miracle that is life. Without death, we can’t fully appreciate life. And still — even with it — it can be tough to consistently and fully appreciate life.

The night before that, I sat with Aunt Sister as she cried, longing to be reunited with Uncle Elmer. She said she’s cried herself to sleep each night since he died. Whenever she would come home from anywhere, all she wanted to do was tell him about her day. And she couldn’t. Now, she can.

With a few exceptions, today’s service is just like Uncle Elmer’s. In fact, Aunt Sandra, Aunt Gail and Aunt Cheryl even picked the same verse to be printed on the programs — and it was totally coincidental. So — as it should be — until the very end — Aunt Sister showed me — showed us all — how to love. And that’s why — while she may not be physically with us anymore — I will always have her here with me. That’s the beauty of the heart.

So don’t let yours break for too long. Because Aunt Sister is no longer in pain. And she’s with so many of her loved ones that have gone before her, including Uncle Elmer. I know I’ll see her again. And when that time comes, I know exactly how to find her — she’ll be the one in the sweater.

Will you pray with me?

God, our life is a fleeting shadow that does not endure. Our years pass quickly and our days are few and full of trouble. We thank you that Aunt Sister no longer has to suffer pain or fear — grappling with death, fighting for life; and that — for her — limitations are ended, weakness is overcome, and death itself is conquered.

We thank you for the 92 amazing years we had with Aunt Sister. And while we feel pain right now, we rejoice in the faith that she has gone to be with you, for in your presence is the fullness of joy and at your right hand are pleasures forevermore. Bless those who cared for Aunt Sister, especially our family, doctors, nurses and technicians. Guide physicians and researchers in their search to discover the way of health and healing. Grant that by their vision and courage we may understand the world better — and better be able to help those in need.

Father — you pursue us with untiring love and dispel the shadow of death with the bright dawn of life. Give us courage. Be our refuge and strength. Reassure us of your continuing love and lift us from the depths of grief into the peace and light of your presence. Your Son — our Lord Jesus Christ — by dying has destroyed our death, and by rising, restored our life. Come alongside your people now, remind us of your eternal presence and give us your comfort and strength.

Amen.
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