Monday, June 11, 2012

Reflection for Kathleen's Day of Remembrance

"I am so happy to be back at this church," said Pastor Kathleen Ross, her voice quivering with emotion, "I can hardly hold back the tears." These words were spoken at Walteria United Methodist Church this Saturday afternoon three years after Kathleen's death at a special "Day of Remembrance" service. Around 50 people gathered for this special occasion, and many were moved to tears (I know I was) when they saw Kathleen's image projected above the pulpit and heard an audio recording of her spiritual journey--a sermon she gave 25 years ago at Orange United Methodist Church. (See

I decided to have this three-year memorial in part because it is a Greek orthodox tradition, and in part because this seemed like the right time to honor her memory and scatter her ashes. For the past three years, her ashes have been in an urn in my office. They needed to return to the earth from which they came so that Kathleen's spirit can soar free, and so I can move on with my new life and my new wife.

My new wife Jill was very understanding and was a huge help with this commemoration. She and I baked bread together for communion. It took us three tries because we had trouble with the yeast and the bread wouldn't rise, but we finally produced a beautiful and yummy loaf of white bread flavored with herbs from the garden. Kathleen's Greek orthodox cousin Karen said this was because of the trinity: everything spiritual has to happen in threes!  Jill also baked cookies for the reception afterwards.

During the service we sang some of Kathleen's favorite hymns, such as "Hymn of Promise" and "Let There Be Peace on Earth." Jill read Kathleen's favorite scripture passage, Roman's 8: 34-39:

"I am convinced that neither death nor life nor angels nor principalities nor things present nor things to come nor power nor height nor depth nor any other created thing will be able to separate us form the love of God, which is in Jesus Christ our Lord."
There was also a time of sharing in which those who knew Kathleen had a chance to share memories. I shared a reflection which is included here.

After the service and fellowship, Jill and I went down to nearby Riviera beach and walked down to the end of the cove where there are few people and many rocks. It was a gorgeous day, with the wind blowing briskly and the sky vibrantly blue and wind surfers skimming across the waves. When we finally arrived at the rocks,  I kneeled down, opened the urn and carefully scattered the ashes as Jill watched, her eyes brimming with tears. Soon the waves began to wash the ashes away and we both had a good cry. It was hard, but good, to share this experience together as a newly married couple.

I am grateful to Jill for appreciating Kathleen, and understanding why she continues to be important in my life. And  know that Katheen would be well pleased that I have chosen Jill to be my new wife and spiritual partner. Jill is an amazing woman, one I am glad I am going to spend the rest of my life getting to know and love.


    I am thrilled to be here with my friends at Walteria UMC. As Kathleen made abundantly clear in her moving spiritual journey, she loved the Methodist church, and so do I. Kathleen loved Walteria United Methodist Church, and so do I. She would be thrilled to learn that this church is thriving: its fledgling children's center is growing, its vacation bible school is flourishing, and its hotmeal program continues to be a place where God’s beloved community gathers each month, and where guests are treated like kings and queens.

    Kathleen would be pleased that this church continues to have a deep and ongoing commitment to the poor and to children—those for whom Christ felt a special love.
     I know that Kathleen would also be pleased that a special fund has been established in her name at Walteria United Methodist Church. Contributions to this fund will be used to help the homeless and the new Children's Center. Kathleen would be very happy to learn that this school is sharing with children the good news about God's love.
    When Jesus’ disciples tried to keep him from being distracted by a group of parents with their noisy kids, Jesus rebuked them, saying: “Let the kids come to me. You can’t enter the Kingdom of God unless you are like these kids.”
    I want to begin by sharing a story about Kathleen and children that she found embarrassing. As you know, Kathleen was always involved in starting children’s programs, and she was especially interested in reaching out to children who were unchurched. At the preschool at Del Rosa UMC, Kathleen started a chapel for these unchurched kids. She told Bible stories and taught them songs, with lots of gestures, and the kids loved it. Kathleen had a real gift with children.

    Well, one day Kathleen decided to put up pictures of Jesus in the room where the kids met for chapel. When some of the kids arrived early, one of them asked their teacher, “Who is that man on the wall?” The teacher replied, “That’s Jesus.” The child responded with the kind of absolute certitude that only children can muster: “No, it isn’t.” The teacher was taken aback. “What do you mean it isn’t Jesus?” The child replied, “It doesn’t look anything like Pastor Kathleen!”
    Kathleen was embarrassed by this story. But for me, this story embodies a profound truth. Anyone who lovingly shares the message of Christ with children becomes Christ for that child. In fact, any of us who shares the message of Christ with anyone becomes Christ for that person. The child understood this deep truth, and I have never forgotten it.
     Kathleen loved the poor and homeless, and was always doing what she could to help them. Through her example I came to realize how important it is that we have friends who are poor, and to do what we can to help our friends.
       Kathleen also loved people of different ethnicities, and that’s one of the most appealing things about the Methodist church: it is truly a rainbow community, with people of all races and nationalities. Kathleen loved to support and nurture start-up ethnic congregations, like the Korean congregation here at Walteria.
      Kathleen was a contemplative. At one point in her life, she wanted to become a nun, until she found out the Methodists don’t have nuns! I’m sure glad she wasn’t born a Catholic! Kathleen was also interested in healing prayer. During our cancer journey, we both went to a class on something called “laughter yoga.” As you may know, laughter helps the immune system, as Norman Cousins helped to prove. Kathleen tried laughter yoga to help with her cancer treatment. It didn't cure the disease but it sure made us feel a lot better. I'd like to share with you a video of Kathleen practicing laughter yoga with her guru.

   I don't know who has the better laugh, Elmo or Kathleen!
    Kathleen was my teacher as well as my wife. She taught me how to live like a Christian, how to love like a Christian, and how to face life-threatening illness and death like a Christian. And after her death, she continues to provide me with guidance and inspiration.

There have been many times when I have felt her presence, but one stands out as particularly memorable. It occurred about six weeks after Kathleen passed. I had to go to the DMV to have the title changed on her car. Because I dislike crowds, I decided to go to the DMV early so I could be the first in line when it opened. When I entered the DMV, it was utterly quiet. Then I heard a woman singing. She was a large black woman and she was singing “This is the day the Lord has made, let us rejoice and be glad in it.”
     She was the woman who was supposed to wait on me.
     As she sang, I joined in and the two of us belted out this hymn with lots of gusto. It was as if we were in church.
     When we finished, she and I smiled at each other. Then I spoke:
     “You need to know something about why I am here. My wife passed away six weeks ago and I am here with her death certificate so I can have the title changed on her car. She died of cancer and this is the song we sang together every morning when we got up.”
      This black lady and I looked at each other and we knew that this was a holy moment and that Kathleen was present. This woman shared with me about her struggles to be a Christian at the DMV and how hard it was sometimes to be loving when people are mean and difficult. And I shared with her some of my struggles. It was a precious moment when we connected at a deep spiritual level.
     Kathleen's death changed my life in many positive ways. I became much more open to the pain and suffering of others. People with problems came to me, and I could listen with more empathy. I visited the sick as Kathleen used to do. And I became the clerk of Pastoral Care in my Quaker meeting.
     I came to understand better the meaning and the power of Jesus' resurrection. Like me, Jesus' disciples were very slow learners. They didn't get the power of Jesus' message of love until he died. It was only when he was no longer physically present that they become empowered with the Holy Spirit and were able to practice what Jesus preached and exemplified.
    Since Kathleen went home to God, I have learned that Love never dies, and that those we love can live on in our hearts, if we let them, and empower us to live more fully and deeply the life that God calls us to live. A life of love and service. A truly abundant life.
     When Kathleen was diagnosed with cancer, she didn't despair. She did everything she could to be cured, but she also prepared to die like a Christian. She even prepared for her memorial service. She choose the hymns, the order of worship, and even the pastor she wanted to lead the service.
She also made plans for me in case she wasn't around. She knew that I needed a wife, and thanks to her, I was a well-trained husband, so she told a close friend of hers that if she passed, it was okay for me to get remarried. A year after Kathleen died, this friend told me what Kathleen had said about remarrying. I am grateful for Kathleen's thoughtfulness. It made it a lot easier for me to move on with my life.
      I am deeply grateful to God for my new wife Jill who embodies many of the qualities I admired in Kathleen. Jill and I met at the Palm Sunday Peace Parade in Pasadena; and like Kathleen, Jill is passionate about peace and justice. Jill loves Jesus and expressed that love by loving the poor and children. Jill started a tutoring program for low-income kids in Pasadena, and works tirelessly to help provide affordable housing for those in need. I believe that God brought Jill and me together to continue the kind of ministry that Kathleen and I practiced in our marriage. Kathleen provided the chalice and Jill and I made the bread for the communion. And Jill also made the cookies you’ll be enjoying afterwards. This is the day the Lord has made. Let us remember Kathleen by rejoicing and being glad in it.

1 comment:

  1. What a lovely story, Anthony. <3

    Yours in God's love, Paula Deming