Thursday, November 28, 2013

Helping Hands

On this day of thanksgiving, I want to give thanks for my sister Lissa, for her family, for all of you who have been a part of her life, as well as for those who have read her blog and been touched by it.  We are so lucky to have known Lissa, and I hope she unites us in a determination to live our own lives as fully as Lissa did hers.

Lissa's legacy was captured beautifully in so many different ways during her memorial service last week.  For those of you who were unable to attend, I have included the remarkable homily delivered by her friend and pastor, Reverend Clover Beal.

Elizabeth “Lissa” Dorr McKinley           
Rev. Clover Reuter Beal, Assoc Pastor, Forest Hill Church, Presbyterian
Nov. 20, 2013          Memorial Service: “savinglissa”

On behalf of Forest Hill Church and my colleague John Lentz I want to thank the staff of Fairmount Church for hosting this worship service in celebration of Lissa’s life.

Lissa and I met at our friend, Pam’s, birthday dinner in March of 2010. We were seated next to each other because both our husbands were absent.  Lissa was in the midst of another chemo treatment so she was bald and beautiful. No hair and utterly gorgeous.

Although I’d not met Lissa personally before then, I had heard about her -- her journey, her strength, her achievements. Now don’t judge me, but I have to confess, I really did not want to like her.   So beautiful. So accomplished. So strong.     SO TALL.    “Please, please, please don’t be really nice too,” I quietly prayed.

But she was.  And really smart and cool and kind and selfless.  And, she loved the poet, Mary Oliver.

At the end of that evening after talking, eating, toasting and offering up poetry, Lissa said to me, “I’d like to visit your church.”   Sure, I said, assuming I would never see her -- because many people, when they find out you’re a minister, seem to feel like the polite thing to say is “I’ll visit your church sometime.”

But the next morning, there she was.  In a pew.  All by herself.  Beaming. Afterward, Lissa came up and said, “I LOVED this.”  And she kept coming back. She and Alice, her mom, joined Forest Hill a year later.

Lissa being Lissa, in her earnestness and courage to dive right into LIFE, asked if she could join the faith exploration group we offer annually. So, that September, she committed to walking with 12 complete strangers who would become companions on her spiritual journey for 28 weeks as they explored their relationships with God and their spiritual gifts.

At the opening weekend retreat, each participant was invited to share his or her hope and intention for the journey. Lissa started us out by saying, “I want to learn to die well,“ and she told us about her cancer.

As you can imagine, the whole tenor of the group was set in that moment. There would be no masquerading, no hiding from one another.   Her vulnerability cracked us open, allowing us to be more honest, more authentic, more ourselves.  Don’t we all want that-- to be seen and celebrated for who we are?   It starts with one person like Lissa who is willing to step out into uncomfortable terrain of vulnerability.

Lissa occasionally talked about her fears around dying, and her desire to be healed. She spoke honestly about her doubts about God but also about her growing faith in a compassionate God who walked with her in her illness.    Lissa had that rare ability to be transparent about each new obstacle she had to face, and yet not turn the attention upon herself. Remarkable.

To die well means to live well.   And living well means that when we depart this life, we leave behind something beautiful.

Living well means that with every experience we have, we open ourselves to change.

Whether it was traveling in the U.S. or Mexico, China or exploring Machu Pichu; being in Costa Rica with a group of cool women seeking inner healing, or going with a church group to Turkey and Greece -- Lissa did the things she did, not just for her own enjoyment nor to complete her bucket list.

Lissa allowed herself to be transformed by those places and people and encounters.  Her choice to live well and to diewell, opened her to personal transformation. Which allowed her to share more joy, more goodness,  more kindness with others.

God willing, what we each will leave behind when we die will be a lovely, lingering fragrance that surrounds those we love-- and in Lissa’s case, the thousands of people whom she never even met. And today, after NPR’s and the NY Time’s coverage of her, we celebrate that even more people will be impacted by her.

Countless people felt an intimacy with Lissa because she risked sharing her pain and her joys through her writing.

I never asked Lissa why she called her blog “savinglissa.”  In the Hebrew scripture the word to be saved (yasha) means liberation, deliverance, rescue -- being set free.

Lissa was not cured from cancer, but she was saved.   She claimed her cancer.
Some people choose to see their illness as the end of their life.
Lissa chose to see her illness as the start of her vocation.

In a profound sense we were all saved by Lissa’s life.   It was as if she and God had made a pact to offer up her illness to others    so that others could be saved too.

We were set free -- even if only for a few moments while we were reading a new blog entry.

Set free from our petty irritations and whining.
             from self pity,

Set free from ignoring the reality that death WILL come to us all.
             and set free from the denial of our own pain;

Set free from shallow theology that claims that if we only pray hard enough, God will take away illness.

To witness a person who chooses to live well and to die well    can set free     even the truest cynic.

Lissa’s illness became a kind of prayer.
It was not a saccharine sweet prayer though.

She was a real mom raising two remarkable kids. She was a real wife living out her marriage covenant to a wonderful husband for over 25 years.  She was a doctor and mentor bringing lessons of human compassion to students. She was a daughter, a sister, a friend to so, so many. She belonged to a church family.

How she did NOT lose heart --in the face of such challenges, meeting them instead with dignity and love and laughter-- is a beautiful mystery of grace.

Lissa chose this scripture for her service too; it’s from the Apostle Paul in 2 Corinthians:

So we do not lose heart. Even though our outer nature is wasting away, our inner nature is being renewed day by day. For this slight momentary affliction is preparing us for an eternal weight of glory beyond all measure, because we look not at what can be seen but at what cannot be seen; for what can be seen is temporary, but what cannot be seen is eternal. For we know that if the earthly tent we live in is destroyed, we have a building from God, a house not made with hands, eternal in the heavens.

Lissa was not cured from her illness. But by the grace of God in choosing to die well, Lissa was saved and made whole.

We give thanks for the 19, 398 days Lissa was a gift to the world and to each of us.

Like a beautiful fragrance, her life will linger on.

            Thanks be to God for Elizabeth Dorr McKinley.
So, friends, give thanks this Thanksgiving Day for Lissa, for your families, for your friends, for all that you hold dear, and for the life that you have been given.  Live it loud, live it with joy, live it creatively.  Live, laugh, love; share all that you are with as many people as you can and have fun doing it.

I close with the poem that Lissa asked to be read at her memorial service.  She found this poem helpful when she was tired, or afraid, or sad.  She read it often, and it helped her find peace. I believe she wanted to share this with each of you at this time to help you find healing, from the sadness of her death or from whatever is happening in your life right now that is causing you pain.  So, for Lissa, I challenge you to read this several more times, ponder it, explore it, and let it help you find healing peace.  And if this poem doesn’t work for you, find a poem that does—she’d like that.

Brent McKinley

The Peace of Wild Things
By Wendell Berry

When despair for the world grows in me
and I wake in the night at the least sound
in fear of what my life and my children’s lives may be,
I go and lie down where the wood drake
rests in his beauty on the water, and the great heron feeds.
I come into the peace of wild things
who do not tax their lives with forethought
of grief.  I come into the presence of still water.
And I feel above me the day-blind stars
waiting with their light.  For a time
I rest in the grace of the world, and am free.

Click to view the program from the memorial service after the jump.


Lisa Anllo said...

Very moving tribute--many useful words to live by & I'm glad she found a way to make her peace with her illness. I understand and relate to the idea of experiencing illness and awareness of death as transformational in one's own life--and without trying, how that can hopefully lead to inspiring others in their lives.

After reading her blog I'm imagining my own trip to that lovely place she stayed in near Machu Picchu and if I get there she will be in my thoughts!

I'm very grateful you chose to share so much with us Brent, this brings much comfort & closure. I love the selected poems and though I am not religious, loved the scripture as well. It must have been a very special & beautiful service. You Brent, are also a very talented writer--and a wonderful sister to Lissa, she must have been so grateful to have you by her side during her final days and hours, we should all be so lucky!

Best wishes to you,
Lisa Anllo

Lisa Kissinger Kaplan said...

I was so hoping to be able to "hear" the homily at Lissa's memorial and it was every bit as exceptional and emotional and inspirational as I expected it to be. Thank you, Brent, for shepherding Lissa's blog for us devoted friends and readers of it. I am so thankful for Lissa. And thank you for continuing to share her light.
Lisa Kissinger Kaplan

Trish Conway Rhoa said...

Absolutely beautiful

Eliza said...

This picture brings me to tears. I am guessing this is Lissa & her Mom?

Such a moving and inspirational tribute. xo

Jenny said...

I didn't know her at all, and only found my way to this blog from the NYT. But her beautiful mind has touched me, the way she ran at life full-bore inspires me, and her grace and humor in the face of illness astounds me. I'm so sorry for the loss of such a remarkable woman.

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Heather said...

Hi Lissa! My name is Heather and I wanted to know if you would be willing to answer a question about your blog! Please email me at Lifesabanquet1(at)gmail(dot)com :-)

Lisa Anllo said...

What an amazing coincidence that I happened to return to this site and I see that today is actually the anniversary of Lissa's passing. So glad it was left up as I wanted to print a copy, I find the pastor's tribute to Lissa so inspiring as well as the choice of poems and scripture.
Warmest wishes to her sister Brent and her entire family on this day of remembrance.
Lisa Anllo

Brett said...

Lissa was a classmate at Midd, and I wanted to share that her writings continue to inspire and educate in the most meaningful way.