Saturday, December 5, 2009

Remembering "Saying Goodbye to Vicki"

This is going to be a long blog!!! In the middle of the hustle and bustle of a typical week teaching middle school kids and trying to think about and prepare for Christmas I had many thoughts about Vicki and what I might write about in this blog today! One year ago tonight at about 6:30, or one year ago tomorrow December 6th, which is the actual date, Vicki died! I knew the end was coming, as I watched how she was breathing, so I called her minister (James Lumsden whose memorial words will be the major portion of this post) maybe ten minutes before she died. I was with my father when he died from cancer and being with Vicki was sadly familiar and even more difficult. I have lots of images and feelings that I see and feel. I occasionally visit them and then put them away because they are too difficult to dwell on! But I do allow myself to remember and that is reality! I have known too many people who are capable of not dealing with reality through addiction, through their theology, religion or philosophy or by simply being too busy!

There are two more points I want to make in this blog....One is that today and for the last few weeks, I have felt two things, two gravitational forces. One is sadness, lonliness, the unfairness of it all and it feels pretty shitty at times. But, the other is hope, light, possiblitly, and the future! I feel a sense of gladness for having survived with Bailey for year. It is impossible to believe that much time has gone by. I am also grateful to those who have reached out and demonstrated their caring for Vicki, as well as Bailey and I. The chapters of my life that included Vicki were filled with all the stuff of life; laughter and tears, joy and sorrow, hope and defeat, closeness and distance, creation and destruction, and life and death. I would do it all again! Vicki is gone, but like the lyrics from one of the more powerful songs I have posted in the past, "Like sand on my feet, the smell of sweet perfume, you'll stick to me forever, baby!"

MY second point concerns my son, Bailey. No one, no matter how hard they sell any other notion no one has lost more than he has. For him, this is a powerful life changing detour in life. He has lost a vital and precious life force that would have influenced not just his present, but his future as well. Vicki of course is an still an influence in his life, but her parenting, her teachings, and her loving embraces are gone and cannot be replaced AND IF I COULD BE SO BOLD, this what many people have lost sight of! He has had to make so many adjustments that it is impossible to imagine completely. Irreplaceable things can only be approximated, never completely replaced. I want to post a video that I shot in 2001. Bailey was 5 years old and it captures the joy of Christmas like no other. He runs down the stairs and runs into the den where his little tree is and there are no presents under it and he thinks for a moment that he didn't get anything. Every Christmas after that we were sure to place one gift under HIS tree. Then he runs into the living room and sees his dream gift...a piano. He loved the organ at church and the way the organist played it. He soo wanted one to learn to play. He is so excited and his laugh so genuinely filled with joy! He even hits himself in the head! He is thrilled when Vicki finally finds the organ setting on the keyboard. Then you can hear him say, "I've got a long way to go!" meaning he realizes it will take lots of practice to be like Lou! He even worries that Vicki might change the setting when he leaves for second. No one memory makes me cry more tears of joy and sadness than this video. It captures the youthful joy of Christmas! This 3 minute clip makes it all worthwhile and proves my point about Bailey and Vicki! I treasure these memories and they sustain me!

Now I want to post Reverend Lumsden's sermon from that day. I could think of no other more appropriate tribute to her life and the way she lived. I heard these words that day and I knew that Rev. Lumsden was special and he knew that Vicki was too!

Saying good-bye to Vicki...
NOTE: these are my notes for today's memorial service for my friend and colleague, Vicki Forfa.

“Reality is the will of God,” said the German mystic preacher, Meister Eckhart. “Reality is the will of God – and while it can always be better – we have to start with what is real.” And from my perspective as Vicki’s pastor, friend and colleague, let me say what feels real for a lot of us today: I hate that she is dead. She died way too young, way too quick and in a way that was way too hard for such a genuinely loving and sweet woman.

I hate it… It makes me cry – it makes me angry – and it makes confused about the love of God. Now, I say all of this not only because I know many of you are thinking and feeling it, but because I am, too. It is only natural to feel hurt and empty and angry when someone like Vicki is taken before what we might think is her time. Not a lot of this death makes any sense, right?

And while some religious traditions try to make excuses for these hard times – talking about the mystery of God or even suggesting that God does these things for reasons we will never know – THIS tradition doesn’t go down that road. THIS tradition asks hard questions – feels hard feelings – and tries to make sense out of hard truths. And one of the hard truths about Vicki’s death is that… it doesn’t make sense. It isn’t fair… and it hurts like hell that she is gone.

THAT, as they used to say on the TV show “Dragnet,” is just the facts ma’am. This is a hard person to lose. Think of what she meant to those who knew and loved her: She was a loving mom who adored Bailey – and raised him to be a sensitive young man of integrity. She was a wife who made a beautiful home and filled it with all the love she could. She was a daughter and sister who cared deeply for her family. She was a teacher who gave over 20 years of her life bringing stability and hope to some of this town’s most troubled children. And she was a Sunday School teacher – and servant of God – who showed the world the loving face of Christ in tender, gentle and compassionate ways.

And it just hurts – hurts deeply – that Vicki is gone. As someone in church said on Sunday, “It feels surreal – it happened way too fast – and really stings!” I agree – and that is the first truth I want to claim today. If reality is the will of God then our reality is that we feel the emptiness in a ton of hard and painful ways since Vicki died. And as some of you know, she felt this emptiness, too. She didn’t really dwell on it – and she didn’t wallow in self-pity – but as Vicki told me last week: “I had some hard questions for God – I had some real doubts in my faith – this is soooo unfair.”

And after shedding a few tears – which she almost NEVER did in public – then she said, “That
fear and doubt lasted for about… a whole week. Then I got a sense that it would be alright so I moved on.” I’m not kidding: that’s what she told me. She was angry and confused by the will of God for a whole… week – then she found a way to embrace and accept the reality of her life. "A week?" I told her. "I've been freaking angry and confused with God since February when you got this miserable diagnoses." But that was Vicki...

And that’s the second really important thing I want to share with you today: if reality is the will of God then acceptance is the way into God’s peace. And more than many people I know, Vicki both embodied and shared God’s peace with real depth and integrity. She wasn’t faking it, was she? She knew that peace that passes understanding – that real comfort that God promises – from the inside out. And she gave it away with such grace and ease – one of the great scholars and preachers of our tradition here at First Church, Reinhold Niebuhr, wrote a prayer we now know as the Serenity Prayer – wrote it not too far from here actually one summer in the 1940s – and it says:

God grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change; courage to change the things I can;and wisdom to know the difference. Living one day at a time; Enjoying one moment at a time; Accepting hardships as the pathway to peace; Taking, as He did, this sinful world as it is, not as I would have it; Trusting that He will make all things right if I surrender to His Will;That I may be reasonably happy in this life and supremely happy with Him forever in the next. Amen.

Acceptance – facing the truth of our condition in life with honesty and trust – surrendering to the reality all around us as the will of God is how Vicki found a way into God’s peace. She did this BEFORE her illness and she did it through her sickness, too. And I have to tell you: it is the KEY to serenity – peace – living within the very peace of God. Think about what a GREAT spring and summer she had knowing that she was fighting pancreatic cancer. She picked blueberries, lived a full and loving life and was at peace within herself and among us all. And man did she keep her sense of humor: even last week when it was clear that there was less time for her than more she kept making me laugh.

For example, last Monday, when it was clear that her kidneys were failing and I asked her, “Do you want to have any visitors from church?” she said no… not really… she wanted to save her time and energy for those in her family. Then she looked me straight in the eyes and said, “Except for maybe… you. It’d be ok if you came around!"

A few days later when the jaundice had set in and she was really starting to fade she took my hand – and fell asleep briefly. And when she woke up she said, “There’s just one more thing I want to tell you.” And I was thinking it was going to be something profound or deep – something for this memorial service. So holding my hand she looked me in the eyes again and said, “No robe or pulpit, ok?” She knew that I would think of this as an important and formal time and would probably want to wear my robe, but she said “NO robe or pulpit, ok?” Because Vicki wanted to give me permission to be fully me – just as she was fully herself. “No robe or pulpit…” Then she faded away for a minute and when she woke up she said, “It’s going to be ok, now, I know that… so it’s time for you to go!” And we laughed as my eyes filled with tears and she waved me away.

Acceptance – surrender – and trust: they were key to how Vicki lived and shared her faith. They were essential in equipping her with the strength to face this miserable cancer. And they are one of the very important gifts she offers to you and me if we’re willing to pay attention.

The prophet Isaiah told the people of Israel living in exile that God would send them angels to bring them comfort and peace – Vicki was one of those angels, I think, she certainly was to me. And I think she was to her school and her family and her church. She knew how important it was to quietly and consistently bring comfort to those who needed it the most – and her testimony has a lot to teach us who remain about how the words of God become flesh.

She also knew how to bring people together, yes? People who needed one another but might be too afraid or shy or whatever to make a connection. There is a powerful image from the Hebrew Bible in Psalm 85 about how God’s will is done within and among us and it has to do with mercy and justice embracing. A reworking of this song of praise reminded me of Vicki… for it says:

Love and Truth meet in the street,
Right Living and Whole Living embrace and kiss!
Truth sprouts green from the ground,
Right Living pours down from the skies!
Oh yes! God gives Goodness and Beauty;
our land responds with Bounty and Blessing.
Right Living strides out before him,
and clears a path for his passage.

Two little girls in this church – who are not so little anymore – told their momma that they wanted to come back and be a part of this church NOT because of the organ music or the classical music program… And NOT because the preacher… and certainly NOT because the people knew how to be all that friendly. No, the reason why they wanted to come back and be a part of this congregation is because VICKI was there… and she knew how to reach out beyond her comfort zone and embrace them. Make them feel welcome… love them just as they were – if I were to say Vicki knew how to bring compassion and hope together would you say: AMEN!??!

In our tradition of Christianity we sometimes say that the authentic follower of Jesus is NOT the person with all the answers – or all the degrees – or even the best words. No, the real follower of Jesus is the one who knows how to feed his sheep.

To feed the sheep of our world demands compassion – and patience – and tenderness. It requires being true and real and humble. One person said that if you are going to feed the sheep of this world you can’t be too full of yourself. Like communion bread you have to be taken – and blessed – and broken and shared. And man, does that ever describe our sister, Vicki! Taken – by God to be a servant – blessed by God with love and trust – broken by God so that you can feel the wounds of another – and then shared in God’s name so that others might know they aren’t alone.

Vicki did all of that: she knew God’s love from the inside out – she was so humble in EVERYTHING that she did – and it was all so that someone else might shine.. or be loved… or find hope. She had the voice of an angel – that’s what brought her to this church – singing in Lou’s oratorio choir: and she loved music. But what kept her here – and what kept her going – was not music or choirs or official church programs: it was God’s love. A love that had taken her and filled her and blessed her – broken and transformed her – so that she could share that deep peace in life… in death… in life beyond life.

When she was first diagnosed with cancer I asked her what story from scripture this made her think of – and at first she squished up her face in concentration – and then she said she wasn’t sure but that she remembered that I asked her that when she was on the search committee that brought me from Tucson, AZ to this cold, wonderful New England town. We waited for a bit and then I said, you know what story comes to my mind? That story at the end of John’s gospel where the resurrected Lord comes back to have breakfast with Peter on the beach…

It is a story of great tenderness that has two important truths: after talking and loving and healing Peter back into wholeness Jesus asks him, “Peter, do you love me? Then feed my sheep…” He asks this question three times just to make sure Peter got it.. and then he said this and it became true for Vicki over this past year.

Jesus said, “When you were young, you went wherever you wanted to go, but now that you are older you must let someone else gird your loins and lead you into those places you do NOT want to go.”

Vicki did not want to die – she had too much to live for – and you are part of that evidence. And more than many I know, she fought the good fight and made the most out of the time she was given. But when it became clear that life in this realm was coming to an end, she let the Master gird her loins and lead her into those places she did not want to go. And she did it with depth and integrity and faith…

Vicki was a tender and loving teacher until the end… she showed us the blessings of acceptance and surrender – the power of trust and love – and the wisdom of compassion and honor. I have been blessed by her ministry among us and I miss her sooooooo deeply. But I am able to give thanks this day for her life – her life, her death and her life beyond death. Thanks be to God for Vicki Forfa. May she be with her Lord now and forever.
I just feel this need to end this blog today with one song.........this is what I felt........


  1. Man... all those words and pictures and memories. Thank you for putting it all out there. Still hurts like hell and feels like U2's walk on, too all at once. Thank you for wrestling with the hard stuff and sharing it with us.

  2. anaversaries of things like this seem always bring back the same feelings as the day it happened, no matter the event. Whether it be my wedding or the death of a friend or the birth of one of my children, happy, joyous or sad, all extreme feelings. This is no different, in my case shock, sadness and anger all together. Nowhere near what those closest to her felt I'm sure, but each in their own way. Just wanted you to know others feel this too. (Paul Durwin)

  3. Thanks for posting all the memories. It has been a very difficult season...yet our God is GOOD! James's words help bring focus back to that.