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From the Rabbi: “Daughters, the doorway to a father’s heart”

Scholars tell us that over thirty percent of the Hebrew Scripture is poetry. 4-006_017Man’s first speech recorded in Genesis 2:23 is an exquisite poem of appreciation and praise, celebrating his wife’s equality.

This one at last, bone of my bones

and flesh of my flesh,

This one shall be called Woman

for from man was this one taken. (Gen 2:23[1])

Exuberant lines spill over with exultation. No other form of speech would do, which may suggest that poetry is our highest form of speech––that which elevates us, making us feel wholly human and alive. Stanley Kunitz writes,

Poetry is the most difficult, the most solitary, and the most life-enhancing thing that one can do in the world. The experience of love and the creative act are the supreme expressions of the life force. They do more than express it; they refresh and renew it and give it back, magnified.[2]

For David poetry was not only the vehicle of articulating and processing his lament, but it was also his primary expression of thanksgiving and praise, so much so that he mandated it for future generations in Israel’s liturgy.

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Becky and I getting acquainted.

“He (David) appointed some of the Levites as ministers before the ark of the Lord, even to celebrate (“to lament/petition”) and to thank and praise the Lord God of Israel.” (1 Chron 16:4)

In Israel it was a sin for the king not to offer public thanksgiving when God had answered his prayers. This is what David means by paying his “vows.” Though I did not discover the gift of poetry until I was thirty-seven, I have found to be a supreme delight in articulating my appreciation to God for the incredible gifts of daughters he gave to Emily and me after the death of our first two children, David and Jessica. After Jessica died on December 4, 1976, Emily and I wondered if we would ever experience the joy of being parents.

But the next day a strange sensation came over me. I felt as if God was doing something to intervene on our behalf. I said to Emily, “Let’s not put the baby furniture away like we did last year. Let’s just pray for a baby.” And that is just what we did. I asked Walt McCuistion, one of our pastors, to share the news of Jessica’s death with the congregation and to make our prayer request known. When I mentioned to him the feeling I had experienced, he indicated that he felt that same sensation of faith. Emily and I were too numb from grief to attend the service that night. After the service I received a call from Walt. He said that after he shared the news of Jessica’s death, his wife boldly asked God to intervene give us a baby by Christmas.

At the service was a young girl whose roommate was pregnant and due to deliver a baby the next day. Up to that point in her pregnancy, she had not told her doctor that she was interested in adoption. He had eighty people on a waiting list. After hearing our story, she said she wanted us to have her baby. Hearing the news, I felt an inconsolable stab of joy.

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Emily and Becky bonding.

The next evening we drove to an attorney’s house to make legal arrangements for the adoption. I’ll never forget Emily asking, “Do you think it is okay to pray that the baby might look like me?” After we arrived the attorney shared with us notes from the birth mother about her personal background and that of the father. As we listened to her personal profile, it was as if she was mirror image of Emily. We were caught in the amazement of something wonderful, much bigger than ourselves. Legal matters progressed quickly, but the birth was delayed two weeks. Finally, on December 18, one week before Christmas, Becky was born. As the attorney drove us to the hospital he asked us what we were going to name our new little girl. “Rebecca Louise” was our reply. He quickly responded, “Why don’t you name her Noelle, since she is your Christmas gift?” And so her name became Rebecca Noelle, our Christmas joy.

Becky entered our lives like a bundle of joy and dried our tears. As Becky grew, she became bold, audacious, daring to go anywhere, and to try anything. She possessed great social skills that made her comfortable with adults as well as her peers. She also exuded a self-confidence that stretched beyond her means, sometimes got her into trouble, but always kept life interesting. Whenever Becky was around, you were never bored. As parents, she always welcomed us into her world and I was honored to coach her softball team during her high school years. She had a keen love for music and would often play the piano after dinner. She was unashamed to sing. Some of my favorite memories are of her singing scores from Les Miserables and The Phantom of the Opera at the piano while I dried the dinner dishes. I miss her voice terribly as our piano lies mute since her departure. I dedicated the poem to her on her graduation from High School, June 8, 1995 and re-read it to her on her graduation from nursing school in June of 2013. She is married to Corey and has two daughters, Mary and Emily, and one son, Wesley.

A Shout of Joy Comes in the Morning
 
Clothed in darkness
shrouded with pain
my soul poured out like water
drenched by heaven’s rain.
 
Was it not enough to journey to Moriah
to leave our first born, days from his birth
that he might reign above
an angel not destined for earth?
 
But now death’s dark shadow crushed my chest
to steal again the light of day and with it, dreams
and to stand before an empty crib, silence screams
no daughter to place upon a breast.
 
Would our home never hear an infant’s cry,
or see a mother’s gaze enfold a child
for whom she feeds,
would I never ever be a dad on earth.
 
But God,
bent the heavens and came down,
he heard the cry of this poor couple
and considered our low estate.
 
And did He delay?  Not even for a day!
Before Jessica found her place of rest,
he sent a messenger to pray,
“By Christmas Lord, and do not delay!”
 
With such strange inward stirrings
we knew, we knew a baby was on the way.
and while we waited expecting you,
he turned our darkness into day.
 
 
He bent the heavens and came down
he rode upon a cherub and flew,
he sped upon the wings of wind.
Oh, how my anticipation grew.
 
This is Rebecca Noelle,
heaven’s gift, Christmas JOY,
first carried, then caressed,
at last one to be laid upon breast.
 
A gift of grace from God alone,
who delights to repair a broken heart,
by breaking in from without
a New Creation to impart.
 
O Rebecca, will I ever forget that Day,
when I learned what it means to pray,
and see him touch our lives,
and turn our darkness into day.
 
And from that day
the void that grew,
that gaping ache,
he has filled with you.
 
Your vivacious smile,
your spirit bold,
unthwarted, undaunted
living life in ways untold,
 
To shatter walls,
fearing no place and no one,
but gathering all,
Priceless. 
 
What you have been to me,
from those dark days,
so long ago yet so near,
words cannot tell, except to say,
 
“Tears may come to stay the night,
But a shout of joy comes in the morning.”
 
You have brought me more joy
laughter and song,
than ten sons.
 
How can I ever forget memories
etched upon the heart, playing ball,
being a dad, a coach, a friend,
even a Swiss comedian.
 
But what I’ll miss the most,
is that sweet angelic voice
which lighted among us
unashamed to sing and praise.
 
And now Rebecca, leave our nest,
take off and fly amidst the clouds
touch the sky, see his face,
but most of all, feel his grace.
 
But as you leave, glance back, and know
that though we shall never be the same,
it will be enough for me, your Dad,
if you take thought from whence you came.
 
Yes, these were the days
when words of the Ancients came true,
he bent the heavens and came down,
and dried our tears with you. 

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Our three daughters, Katie, Jenny & Becky.

 

[1] Robert Alter, Genesis, Translation and Commentary (New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 1996), 10.

[2] Gary Pacernick, Meaning and Memory, Interviews with Fourteen Jewish Poets (Columbus: The Ohio State University Press, 2001), 38.


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From the Rabbi, on Mother’s Day: From “Tears in the Night” to “Wiping Away Every Tear”

Having ended my last blog with my poem, “Tears in the Night,” I thought I should recap God’s grace over the last 38 years to “wipe away every tear.” My grief for Jessica was not only due to the shortness of her life, but also the fact that I was not able to connect with her for her short six days of life or in the days that followed her death. With both our children the hospital offered to take care of their bodies to spare us the agony of having to make funeral arrangements. Little did I know then how much I would regret this “gift.” As a pastor, I am called to bury other people’s children. I stand beside them as they silently place their children in the ground and say their painful goodbyes. The grave of their son or daughter is forever marked with a stone. That stone becomes a sacred place of memory to which they return on a regular basis to remember, to mourn, to worship, to cry and to laugh. For years Emily and I had no place to go.

Where did the Sower plant the seed?
I long to know,
but it is hidden from me.

Years passed and then my friend Jim Zeigler, a counselor at Alta Mesa Cemetery, discovered that Jessica’s ashes had been scattered at his cemetery. He called me to get all the information about our children, and then had a gravestone specially made for them. Slide05Their names and dates are now etched in stone in our backyard. Underneath their names is the verse from David’s psalm:

Weeping my lodge for the night,
but a shout of joy comes in the morning.
Psalm 30:5

How do you thank someone who goes to such lengths to carve your children’s names in stone? One tear wiped away.

After we had been restored with sacred space, God gave me the gift of my daughter’s voice. Whenever I teach the Psalms, I always have my students share their personal psalms at the end of the quarter. It is the highlight of the class. On one occasion at Western Seminary, a young woman named Jessica stood to read her poem. Before she began I asked, “What is your middle name?”

She smiled and said, “Lynne” (my daughter’s middle name).

“What year were you born?”

“1976.”

“What month?”

jess

Jessica Lynne Morgan

“November.”

Now I can feel my gut tightening and my tears beginning to swell.

“What day?”

“November 30” – the exact day my daughter had been born.

As Jessica read her poem, I was in speechless wonder that, for just this one day, I was able to hear my daughter’s voice. There may be joys that equal it, but for this father none surpass the elation of hearing a daughter’s voice. One more tear wiped away.

Time would fail me if I were to recount the scores of conferences, retreats and schools where I have had the joy of teaching the Psalms and the power of the poem––locally, Southern California, Texas, Colorado, Canada, Oregon, Washington, Romania, Albania, Croatia––and on each and every occasion, after teaching on David’s lament for Jonathan, I offer my poem to Jessica. Funny thing about poetry, the words never get old, worn out or banal. The metaphors remain as rich and carry as much emotion as the first time they were uttered. And the love that I experience for my daughter is enriched and deepened in the presence of God’s people in ways I couldn’t have imagined. The key is you have to be free to cry. Many more tears wiped away.

God’s grace was still not done. In the spring of 2011 my dear friend Jim Zeigler died of ALS. Jim was deeply loved by our church and community, so much so that we had to move his memorial service to a church that could accommodate over 1000 people. The service was one of those rare times where time stood still, the worship was dense with a palpable presence that released our tears, and every word was as heart spoken and tender as our beloved Jim. A residue of God’s presence from Jim’s memorial carried me into the pulpit the next day. My text I had planned that week was 2 Samuel 1, to be concluded with Jessica’s poem. However, after Jim’s passing I wasn’t sure it was appropriate to do my daughter’s poem. But Karen (the one you all know) encouraged me and said, “When you read her poem, make sure you breathe in between the lines to let her in.” I took her advice and it worked. A special tear wiped away.

The next day our pastoral staff left for a retreat at Lake Tahoe. We were led by Jim Gaderlund, a fellow pastor and gifted spiritual director. The first night he led us in a reflective communion time. Before we took the elements he told us to take stock of where we have been. If we were hurting, we cold select a rock from a selection he had arranged on the table and place it on the altar. If we were rejoicing, we could select a flower from a large bouquet he had bought and place it on the altar. When my turn came, I decided I wanted to express my appreciation to Jesus for incredible gift of healing he had granted to me since the death of my daughter, Jessica. From the bouquet I selected a large yellow daisy and just before I set it on the altar I kissed it. Immediately after I kissed it I had the strange sensation that I had just kissed my daughter––Jessica’s presence was palpable. I couldn’t hold back my tears and felt compelled to tell someone, but I thought, “Who can I tell who won’t think I’m crazy?” When communion ended, I grabbed my friend and co-pastor, James, and said, “I just kissed my daughter!” Now more tears, but these are ones I don’t want to wipe away.

On the eve of Mother’s Day I thought it appropriate to include one more Jessica moment. Emily and I never had celebrated Jessica’s birthday until 2011. Two of our grandchildren were coming for dinner, and being that it was Jessica’s birthday, she thought it would be fun to celebrate her birthday. Since God had allowed me to hear Jessica’s voice, I thought Emily should as well. So I composed a letter from Jessica to her mother. I called my daughter, Jenny, and asked if she would come join us for dinner and give her sister a voice to her mother, which she did.

November 30th, 2011

Dear Mom,

Today is my 35th birthday and I heard you will be celebrating with dad and my little sister, Jenny, along with my nieces, Mary and Emmy, and my nephew Wesley. So I asked papa to get you some yellow roses to remember me by. Yellow is my favorite color, because it matches my blonde hair, but most of all, because it reminds me of you. You probably wonder what I look like. It’s hard to describe my glorious, new body – but I look a lot like Jenny, but with Katie’s curls. Lucky for me I didn’t get daddy’s nose, but like all your children, my eyes are blue.

As you celebrate my birthday I want you to know what a blessing you are to me.

Though I was tragically taken out of your arms to be by my brother’s side, my little life was shaped and sheltered solely by a mother’s love. For nine months as I bonded with you i n the sweet shelter of your womb, my delicate frame was knitted together by God’s loving hands. I was wondrously made, and all my days ordained for me, were written in His book, before even one of them came to be. You took such good care of me, even though you could not see my face. I know you and dad worked hard to prepare a special place for my arrival, with new wallpaper, a refurbished crib and a changing table.

When I arrived, you held me with an indescribable love and tenderness. For three wonderful days I had the privilege of gazing into your eyes as I nursed. The feeling of security and well-being you provided was so compelling, I quickly learned to trust God in the trouble that lay ahead.

Those were painful days, I know more for you than me. You wanted to see me grow up, to crawl, to walk, to sing, to play soccer, to date, to give me away, and to see my children. But, as daddy wrote, it ended much too quickly:

            My eyes could not gaze on your little tent,
            which would all too soon
            be broken down and laid to rest
            in the earth, rather than upon a breast.

As you and daddy were engulfed in sorrow, I lay down to sleep and awoke in a new world where heaven fills the very air you breathe. I began to grow and explore its never-ending beauty with my brother, David. Like him, I never experienced the pains of sin or any of the cruelty that happens on earth. I only knew a mother’s love.

But there is more. I got to see another side of things, that perhaps you could not see. When you prayed for me, heaven became silent for about half an hour. Then I heard the deepest groaning and sighs that were beyond compassion, followed by a sudden burst of energy and commotion. Angels were summoned and sent with an urgency I have rarely seen. Out of the death of dreams, seeds of hope were planted in human hearts and corporate prayers were offered in faith. A baby born by Christmas, who would have thought? The gift of another daughter for my broken-hearted mother.

As I peer into your world 35 years later, I can see the fruit of a mother’s prayers. Did you ever dream of being entrusted with so many gifts? One son and four daughters, three granddaughters and two grandsons! Not to mention the scores of preschoolers who found shelter under your wings.

In Hebrew your name means “mother.” And I, Jessica Lynne Morgan, am forever privileged to be known as your daughter.

Love,

Jess


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From the Rabbi: Tears in the Night

by Brian Morgan

Slide01Though Paul tells us that “all Scripture is  inspired by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, for  training in righteousness” (2 Tim 3:16), I’ve discovered that some texts are revolutionary. They are what I call “signature texts,” ones that speak right into our broken hearts and lift us up out of the miry clay, set our feet upon the rock and put a new song in our mouth (Ps 40:2-3). After experiencing the poem’s power in Romania in 1988, it was David’s lament over Jonathan (2 Sam 1:17-27) that began to answer many of my questions as to how and why the poem is such an effective tool to process grief. Embracing this poem became a touchstone for my soul, coalescing countless channels of Divine love and sacred memories from divergent lands and distant ages.

David was in Ziklag when he first received the news that Saul and Jonathan were killed on Mt. Gilboa. The poem that David wrote was so significant that the editors of the canon, rather than placing it in the collection of the psalms, left it in the narrative portion of Samuel so that future generations would take time to pause from the story and enter into David’s grief. Perhaps this was in obedience to David’s instructions.Slide02

And David lamented with this lamentation over Saul and Jonathan his son, and he said it should be taught to the people of Judah; behold, it is written in the Book of Jashar. (2 Sam 1:17-18 ESV)

It is a holy act to stand with someone in his or her grief. David didn’t deny his grief, ignore it or bury it. He faced it and embraced it. It was unthinkable to David to continue his journey to the throne until he hewed out deep channels to act as conduits for his tears. David had incredible freedom before God to be honest about all the tensions in his soul. And in the careful selection of each image, he has given his grief a name. David gives voice to everything we have ever felt, but did not feel we had permission to speak. Yet David says it with a bold honesty, in full view of the public, and in the sacred presence of God.

The greatest gift that David’s lament gave me came at the end of the poem, where a national lament for a dead king takes a very personal turn, and David speaks in the first person.

I am distressed for you, my brother Jonathan;

      very pleasant have you been to me;

your love to me was extraordinary,

      surpassing the love of women. (v. 26)

This is the final destination David has been driving towards throughout the poem–– the chance to speak a final word to his friend. It is always a moving moment at a funeral when the living speak directly to the dead. Years of buried feelings surface and saturate a few well-chosen words with a lifetime of emotion.

What stunned me was that David was able to go back to a past time and place where he was once painfully absent, and now relive the event as if being fully present. Before the poem––Jonathan is dead, David was absent, God was distant, and Gilboa was desecrated. After the poem, Jonathan is alive (in the recitation of the poem), David is present, God is intimately present between the two and Gilboa is sanctified. Once the poem is constructed, it creates a window into heaven that transcends time. And this holy window remains open forever, inviting all to freely relive the event in all the holiness of sacred memory. Every time the poem is read, that transcendence of heaven uniting with earth, of friends embracing, of love bursting the breast, breaks in upon us again and again.Slide15

Through those intensifying cadences of the poet we were mysteriously drawn to a place and time where we did not want to go, to a forbidden place and foreboding time when memories were marred by the tragic and lacerated by loss. But now the tragic has been transformed into the sacred. And those poetic cadences and rhymes we once dreaded now fill us with hope and anticipation of life, beautiful life, holy life that we can relive again and again. The poem creates a window into the sacred that transcends time, a widow that remains open…forever.

Where does David’s poem leave us? We are left to contemplate a love David describes as “more wonderful than the love of women.” When David comes to the depths of his sorrow he somehow embraces an indescribable love. The term David uses to describe Jonathan’s love is from the Hebrew root pala’ that describes something so extraordinary and miraculous that only God could have authored such a reality. The kind of love that sacrifices career and family relationships for another person, and finally gives his life’s blood that someone else might succeed is a love that describes the character of God. As Jesus said, “Greater love has no one than this, that he lay down his life for his friends” (John 15:13).

One of the most painful moments of my life came on Friday, December 2nd, 1976. I had just gotten a call from the hospital to say that Jessica, my newborn daughter, was very sick. One medical test told the whole story. She had the same enzyme deficiency my son David had died from a year earlier. I knew Jessica was destined to die. Accompanied by one of our elders, I made my way to the hospital to see her for the last time. I could only look at her for a short time before I turned away. I could not bear the pain. As I left the hospital waves of grief came crashing over me. I wanted to weep, but was too embarrassed in front of my friend. I was not there when Jessica died. She died alone, abandoned by her father. When the hospital graciously offered to take care of her body, I welcomed that. I could not bear the thought of laying her little body in the ground. How could we endure another memorial service? The thought was morbid to me.

Sixteen years later, God called me back to the same hospital. Again, it was in December and, just as when both my children died, it was raining. There a precious boy of one of our church families was fighting for his life. I did not want to go, but I was mysteriously yet powerfully drawn to watch as a dear couple loved their son and refused to turn away from the face of death. As he lay dying, we began singing hymns and psalms. When we sang the words of the second verse of the hymn, “It Is Well With My Soul,” heaven united with earth and love burst forth from our breasts. There came a transcendent sense of peace, of power and victory over death that I will never forget.

God was gracious to call me back to my Gilboa to see what I did not want to see. Slide22I discovered that even when I left my daughter, he was there all along, caring and loving. Following David’s example, I wrote a poem for Jessica. Through the power of its images I was able to reconnect with her: to tell her I loved her, to experience holy love and the power of God that transcends death. I have gone back to that time and place many times. It has become a sacred memory. Now I tell my friends who are engulfed in pain, “Do not wait sixteen years to write your poem. Write it now, and turn the tragic into the sacred.”

Let it Rain
In appreciation for my daughter, Jessica Lynne
November 30, 1976 – December 4, 1976
 
O Jessica, nine months we waited
for your precious hidden frame
to break through the darkness
and turn our souls into day.
 
Unto us it was given,
morning came, its dawn so bright,
it loosed our sackcloth,
and girded us with light.
 
Your form so pure,
yours the sweetest gaze
a mother’s dream,
a father’s praise.
 
Then on the third night
while I slept, you cried;
your mother held you tight,
she knew, but it was hidden from me.
 
All through the darkness
she cared for you…
then gently laid you upon the altar;
she knelt beside those well-hewn
stones and wept.
 
Then I heard
the shophar’s ringing cry…
 
Terror struck, “Impossible!” I cried,
“Could it be to walk this way again–
conception to pain, never to regain,
when the first born, has already paid?”
 
I pulled back, withdrew,
traumatized by the pain I already knew.
I could not stay and watch,
for now I knew.
 
My eyes could not gaze on your little tent,
which would all too soon,
be broken down and laid to rest,
in the earth, rather than upon a breast.
 
Waves of grief came crashing down,
heaven was calling through the rain,
“Pour out your heart like water,”
but I turned and left, numb from pain.
 
O Jessica, nine months we had waited
for your precious hidden frame
to break through the darkness
and turn our souls into day.
 
O Jessica, O Jessica, where are you now?
Where did the Sower plant the seed?
I long to know,
but it is hidden from me.
 
O could I now go back,
and that dark hour relive,
when you lay limp and still,
I would be your papa and give.
 
I wanted to forget,
it is easy to forget,
but I could not forget you,
my first precious daughter,
Jessica Lynne.
 
Sixteen years past,
and in my wanderings here,
I came across that valley again–
it was raining.
 
This time I did not turn away,
but obeying heaven’s command,
I knelt beside the stones
and stayed until dawn’s early light.
 
O Holy night, angels sang,
The grip of night grew limp,
he appeared
and each soul felt its worth.
 
He did not turn away
traumatized by pain,
but stretched out his hand
and placed it into the flame.
 
Beyond his hand I saw
the wrist, impaled by my spear,
pierced so deep with wounds,
yet draws me near.
 
Beyond the wrist, his gaze,
O that gaze ablaze
with such love it burst my breast,
evoking deepest praise.
 
O death where is your victory,
O grave where is your sting?
 
Captured with awe, I stared
and stared, and then I knew,
that when I left,
he had cared for you.
 
O Jessica,
“Hardly your life clear forth of heaven was sent,
Ere it broke out into a smile and went.
So swift your days, a gift to us was lent
You, now a daughter and saint inextricably blent,
Will one day teach your father in some heavenly tent.”[1]
 
****
[1]Adapted from George MacDonald’s, Diary of an Old Soul, (Minneapolis: Augsburg, 1975), 131. MacDonald also lost a son and a daughter.