Thursday, September 12, 2013

Reflections on a Meaningful Life: Funeral Homily for Xavi Kiemde

Xavier Jean Kiemde, September 13, 2012
Written and delivered by Patty Stromen, Church of the Ascension, Minneapolis, MN

There are many ways that we describe what a meaningful life is. 

Some people say it is the length of life, some people say it is the possessions that we own, some people say it is the relationships that we form.

As Christians we have a very clear definition for a meaningful life, we believe our vocation, what gives greatest meaning to life, what we are born for, is to embrace God’s love and reflect it back to the world. That reflection of God’s love is at the heart of a meaningful life. To quote Fr. Greg Tolaas, “Let love meet love.”

Baby Xavier, baby Xavi,  during his life in the womb, and his brief time outside his mother’s womb, lived the most meaningful life any of us could ever hope for.  He experienced God’s love perfectly, and he reflected God’s love to each of us.

In the first reading from Isaiah, we are given an image of God never forgetting us, writing each of our names on the palms of God’s hand. 

We might hear this and think, could this really be true?  Could God really love me that deeply? God’s abiding love as described by Isaiah is more deeply embedded in each of us by witnessing Melissa and Francois’s love for  Xavi. 

From the moment he was conceived, when he was a twinkle in God’s eyes, he was loved deeply by Melissa and Francois.  When faced with impossible decisions, they chose to mirror God’s love for each of us, in their decision to honor, receive, and embrace Xavi’s life, however his life came to them.  Melissa and Francois celebrated the perfect conditions of love and warmth inside Melissa’s womb and parented Xavi before he was ever placed in their arms.

Could there be a clearer or deeper image of God’s love for each of us?

Lest we romanticize God’s love for us and our love for God, and lest we romanticize the challenges that you faced Melissa and Francois,  we are given the Gospel reading from Matthew that Fr. Michael just proclaimed.

I have to believe it isn’t by chance that we hear, “I give praise to you, Father, Lord of heaven and earth, for although you have hidden these things from the wise and the learned you have revealed them to the childlike”, and yet only two verses further, 

Even with the pure and simple faith of a child, believing that our ever-loving God, along with all the angels and saints are welcoming Xavi home to heaven with a huge party, and hopefully each of us some day, we know it is almost impossible to say good-bye to this beautiful little boy.
So how do we do this?  

We place our good-bye to Xavi’s body in the midst of our belief that his spirit is soaring in God’s hands. We do it by believing, as the poem that Francois and Fabio read says, (which by the way is a poem that was memorized by Francois when he was a young boy in school): 
“Those who have died have never left, they are in the shades that become clearer, they are in the water that runs."
Xavi is in our hearts forever.

Xavi has led the most meaningful life any of us could ever hope for – he has, and will continue, to live perfectly in God’s love, and to reflect God’s love back to us.  

In thanksgiving for this most precious gift you have given us God, we give the precious gift of this beautiful baby boy back to you.  We trust you continue to love him and cradle him in your arms.

May we trust that you cradle us in your arms in the joys and the and the sorrows that today brings.

Like a little child, in his father’s arms, my soul will rest in you,
My soul will rest in you.
Like a little child, in his mother’s arms, my soul will rest in you,
My soul will rest in you.

Thursday, June 27, 2013

On DOMA being struck down: One Baptist's Perspective

Pastor Amy Butler
Curious what a Baptist minister has to say about DOMA being struck down? Here's my friend Pastor Amy Butler, from DC, (who I met up at the Collegeville Institute) writing powerfully about her experience and thoughts after yesterday's Supreme Court ruling.

She's funny. And real. And makes my heart hurt - in a good way.

Click to read...

The Struggle is Real

Today, even after this historic and just Supreme Court ruling we get up and keep calling for justice, preaching a gospel of peace, sounding a prophetic cry.

Thursday, June 20, 2013

Laafi Bala: Koudougou Contemplations and Prayers

I keep seeing M'Po Augustine's feet in my mind. Her bare toes pointing up and thin legs crossed at the ankle, resting next to mine on the ground. This is where we spent ninety percent of our visiting: in the courtyard of her home in Koudougou, Burkina Faso, West Africa, seated on chairs and woven mats close to the paved earth. Brown, barefoot children, intent family gathered all around - with three year old Marguerite Kiemde tucked behind either her father or myself, sheepishly peering out at her newly proclaimed grandmother. "Yaaba." 

I recall the warm touch of my mother-in-law’s hands on mine while she spoke softly to me in More', offering a blessing, or more loudly with new phrases she's asking me to repeat. “Laafi be me;  Laafi bala."How is your health? We are in good health.  

These memories bring me back to my post in her home on the outskirts of Burkina’s third largest city. M'Po's eyes smile and I recognize their joy as that which she passed on to her son. I think to myself, "Who could ever mistake this woman for my husband's birth mom?" Their eyes dance with delight and a simultaneous darkness. As she holds my hands and whispers, I wonder, “How much has she seen in her life?” As one of fifteen of Regma’s wives; a bearer of 8 children; mother and grandmother to countless babes; mourner of two deceased sons. My imagination races with what her eyes, heart, mind have taken in and known.

We sat daily in shaded spaces - under mango trees, under tin canopies, under thatched roofs, under the roofs of cars -- to protect ourselves from the intensity of the sun's rays. 110 degrees fahrenheidt is something to endure...Our consumption of liquids was seemingly never-ending to replenish all that was perspired through our pores. Bottled water. Brakina Beer. Milk. Water. Orange Fanta. Sugared Nescafe. Tea. Brakina beer. 

Our first Sunday in my husband's homeland included mass at the Ouagadougou Cathedral, followed by a meal in the shade of pink flowering trees and a thatched covered dining area. French fries, fish, rice and spicy soup served up next to a swimming pool – and then a trip to visit Armelle, Francois' niece, in the hospital. It was an especially poignant trip for me, as Armelle was the first one to really "introduce" me to my husband's home through a series of photographs she'd taken and sent back with Francois on a previous visit. Armelle with the broad cheeks and smile. Armelle with the curly hair. Armelle with the bold request and vision for her own hair salon. Armelle, the middle child in an orphaned sibling set. 

As we approached the mental health facility in our car where Armelle was being treated, a young man emerged from the crowd outside our vehicle. Was he en route home? Was he looking for us? Where was he going? How did we see one another?

Suddenly, More and French words were being exchanged enthusiastically; the car door opened to invite in this child, and I realized that Francois was greeting someone special.

 It was outside the gates of his sister's hospital room, that I met Cedric Kiemde for the first time. This 14 –year-old-looking 17-and-a- half-year-old son of Francois' deceased brother Raphael. And something shifted inside my heart. Cedric was the very first official Kiemde child I met in the daylight, and my heart felt like it might burst inside my chest. Big eyes, dark skin, broad smile. Sweetness incarnate.

"Enchante'" I repeated, squeezing his hand, when we got out of the car. "Enchante."
 "No, that's too formal," my husband chided. But I didn't care. I was beyond delighted to make his acquaintance. Enchante. Enchanted I was, and still am. 

Georgette, Zio, Victor, Roger, Wally, Lucy, Mark, Pauline, Delphine, Kaillou, are all central figures from Francois' large and extended family and network of friends that I can still name, beyond Yaaba, Cedric and Armelle. At every corner would appear someone else my husband would claim as a brother or sister, a friend or elder who had known him his whole life. At the pharmacy counter. In the lobby of our hotel. Stopping to retrace the boundaries of his childhood home. Visiting his father’s gravesite. Kiemdes everywhere. And conversations ensued. Words of joy, passion, sorrow, humor uttered almost ceaselessly in French and More'. While my mind never processed literally what was being said, I know on the deepest levels of my spirit and psyche that this visit and the stories are stored in my being. Pain. Poverty. Blessings. Need. Hope.

Can you pay this electric bill?
You have a beautiful family!
Your brother has a new job.
Would you make me a loan for my peanut and t-shirt cart?
Here now it rains!
She will recover!
It makes me so happy to see you.

I wept when I met Georgette and Roger. These two siblings of Francois' in particular who have held my prayers and attention. I keep them close still as I write. Older sister responsible for sending Francois to the States. Younger brother who my husband helped get grounded in work. 

We birthed and buried our own son Xavi last September. And that experience gave way on many levels for this trek to my husband's homeland. With our child’s brief life and the ache present in our home as we grieve him, there is this amazing open space in our hearts that begs God for direction in receiving anew. Our time in Koudougou provided us with real glimpses of God's goodness, and possible ways that our family may expand in welcoming a new member. 

The invitation to reframe Xavi’s life and death is constant. We didn’t just lose a son, we broke open a way to grieve our family’s deepest sorrows, and make way for new life.  With our hollowing out, has come a greater capacity to receive and claim.

A child. Our marriage. Our family. Our callings.

On a very practical level then, Francois and I have been prayerfully discerning our next steps. In the quiet of each of our hearts, and in our spoken prayers and reflections, we both know we would like Cedric to come and live with us. We have investigated adoption, as a permanent response to this calling to receive him, but have learned that that window is closed, given his age. So: we are simply inviting Cedric to come and visit. We hope this might happen as quickly as August. We shall see.

The Visitation Sisters have a prayer that they say with most everyone who knocks on their door in need or want of something. As I recognize my own incredible need and want at this juncture, I request your prayers. I invite you to join me and Francois as we contemplate these words by St. Francis de Sales:

Do not fear what may happen tomorrow;
the same everlasting Father who cares for you today will take care of you then and everyday.
He will either shield you from suffering,
or will give you unfailing strength to bear it.
Be at peace, and put aside all anxious thoughts and imagination.

May we be at peace. May we know God’s embrace. May we take our next best steps.


To see pictures from our journey: Africa Photos Online

Thursday, February 14, 2013


"The Jewish people have a beautiful prayer form, a kind of litany to which the response is always "Dayenu!" (It would have been enough!). ...They list, one by one, the mirabilia Dei, the wonderful works of God for their people and themselves, and after each one, shout out DAYENU! As if to say, "How much is it going to take for us to know that God is with us?!" It builds satisfaction instead of feeding dissatisfaction." - Fr. Richard Rohr, OFM

Day 2 of Lent.

I was struck this morning, driving through our neighborhood, by the beauty of the snow covered trees.

As Francois and I practice making our litanies of satisfaction -- combing our lives for evidence of Love, Beauty, God's presence this Lenten season, this image seems a perfect example of something that might inspire us to exclaim: "Dayenu!" - or as Fr. Rohr translates, "How much is it  going to take for us to know that God is with us?"

What say you?

Happy Lenten Journeys!

Tuesday, February 12, 2013

Lenten Prayer: "Mirabilia Dei" - "Dayenu!"

On this blessed Mardi Gras, I'm contemplating ways that I might prayerfully journey through this Lenten season.

En route to Centering Prayer this morning,  feeling joyfully rooted in our life together and calm in the face of our morning routine, I called my husband and asked him what we might do as a family to move through Lent together. I posed the question as a prayerful invitation, trusting some prayer practice or intentional action would surface. Et voila! The following writing from one of my favorite Franciscans gives me an idea:

"Let us compose litanies of satisfaction! Of abundance! Of enoughness! Let us start each day mindful of how much we have and how great is our God."

Will you join me?
A Prayer to Avoid Entitlement
by Richard Rohr
The Jewish people have a beautiful prayer form, a kind of litany to which the response is always "Dayenu!" (It would have been enough!).
They list, one by one, the mirabilia Dei, the wonderful works of God for their people and themselves, and after each one, shout out DAYENU! As if to say, "How much is it going to take for us to know that God is with us?!" It builds satisfaction instead of feeding dissatisfaction.
If we begin our day with any notion of scarcity, not-enoughness, victimhood, or "I deserve," I promise you the day will not be good--for you or for those around you. Nor will God be glorified.
Maybe we all should begin our days with a litany of satisfaction, abundance, and enoughness. God, you have given me another day of totally gratuitous life: my health, my eyes, my ears, my mind, my taste, my family, my freedom, my education, clean water, more than enough food, a roof over my head, a warm bed and blanket, friends, sunshine, a beating heart, and your eternal love and guidance.
To any one of these we must say, "And this is more than enough!"
(Adapted from a post to Fr. Richard's blog, Unpacking Paradoxes, on January 30, 2012) 
* * *
In his annual Lenten letter, Fr. Richard shares some of the blessings he celebrates this season, including the tremendous support of CAC donors. Thank you for sharing your gifts of God's abundance with CAC, allowing us to share Fr. Richard's teachings.
Read Fr. Richard's Lenten letter and participate in alms-giving out of joyous "enoughness"!

Saturday, January 12, 2013

Recommending Dorianne Laux, the Poet

Why do I like Dorianne Laux?

I've read two poems by her in my life, (only two? yes, only two) but each gave me pause. (Titles: The Shipfitter's Wife and Dark Charms.) And each tickled something in me. I appreciate another writer's ability to hone in on a subject and reveal something about it that resonates or sheds light or gives it words that inspire awe, a sigh, a giggle. Right? This is true for the people we recommend -  the work they do - they inspire us?

I haven't spent much time with poems lately, but I hear them in my head, and my daughter's speech comes tumbling out of her in a poetic manner at times.
Last night....
2.5 year old: the ocean wants to wear a birthday hat.
Me: The ocean, Mags? What do you mean?
M: The ocean. The big water. It's going to the party and needs a birthday hat.
Back story: We were going to a monthly gathering of my friends, which she thinks of as a party,  which she associates with birthdays, which she associates with party hats, which always means everyone needs to have a birthday hat on.... But the ocean? She was waking from a nap when she said it, snuggling with her blanket. I know this precious bundle of yarn has taken on many identities. --It's often a horsey she rides or a baby who is crying and needs its mommy, and at least once, I've heard her refer to it as "the ocean." And so, of course: the ocean wanted to wear a birthday hat. *sigh* *smile* A poetic line from my daughter. It tickled me.

Anyway. I like this latest poem, "Dark Charms"  though I don't really know what it's all about. I was just struck by how she plays with the idea of the future  -- its advancements manifest and reveal our aging... ultimately, it takes the poet (and us) to her (our) past...?
We continue to speak, if only in whispers,
to something inside us that longs to be named.
For me, this thing whispering, wanting to be named, is my childhood, is my history, is my growing up and fashioning me into Melissa Borgmann-Kiemde. Question: What inside you wants to be named? What inside any of us desires language?
We name it the past and drag it behind us,
bag like a lung filled with shadow and song,
dreams of running, the keys to lost names.
If there was any phrase in this whole poem that made me think it might appeal to you, I guess its the idea of dragging the past around like a bag, like a lung. Whew.

This is a sweet exercise for me this morning. I hope you enjoyed this, or are inspired to pick up a Dorianne Laux poem!

Peace! Happy New Year! Read on!

Monday, October 15, 2012

A month into this grief business: Finding gifts

Welcoming Xavier Jean Kiemde -- September 13, 2012
I woke up last Thursday morning and had this thought, "It was four weeks ago today that we met Xavi." My day, really my entire week, has been marked by this month anniversary of his arrival.

"I had a son..."

These words have the ability to break open my heart all over again...
"The mind, in such pain and turmoil, is seeking comfort and meaning. In Victor Krankl's book "Man's Search for Meaning" he tells us that in the worst circumstances humans face, the ones who survive are those who can find meaning in their suffering."
I see Xavi's tiny body, smell his newborn skin, think of the ways that Francois and I marked his very brief time with us;  I cry and I laugh recalling it all. His squeaks-- taking in air; his warm skin next to mine; his 3 pound 9 oz frame that struck me with its perfections. Hello toes. Hi fingers. Hi little nose and dark hair. Even his omphalocele felt perfect -- like an extension of umbilical cord that we dressed with his diaper -- not at all daunting or scary, as I had envisioned it might be. His 29 week old body that we bathed, anointed in oil, baptized and loved completely: all God's; so Melissa's and Francois'.

In the time that has passed since we met Xavi, I have marveled at the graces afforded us in this grieving process. (The family and faith friends showing up at the hospital, our amazing neighbors showering us with food and flowers and support; the concentric circles of  blessed beings enveloping us at Xavi's funeral; all a demonstration of community, of love, of people to be with in grief and in our next steps of joy, recovery, hope.)

I should maybe back up -- I need to say that I marvel at the graces afforded us since the start of this journey conceiving and bringing Baby Boy Kiemde to the earth! In hindsight, it is all gift, all love and mystery wrapped in this tiny, precious being who lived for one hour inside the walls of United Hospital, after he blessed me for 29 weeks growing in my belly -- and lives on in our hearts, minds, and the blessed realm of angels.
I believe that with our son's brief life has come a transformational opportunity to heal wounds that have been debilitating for both me and my husband.  
How long did I dream of a son? For how many years has Francois imagined himself a father to a boy? And for this desire to come to pass in such a fashion? It is both a cruelty coupled with an unfathomable gift of fate, methinks...

I say "gift" over and over these days, when I think of Xavi's brief life, because I think of all the ways that I have known love and calling coupled with sorrow and loss in my life. I can make a list of ways that I have felt, beyond reason and without a doubt, called to love and be present in specific ways that have ultimately not played out in a manner that I had hoped or desired. (Do you remember when I taught high school? Do you recall the non-profit I started and folded? Who remembers the early days of me crashing vehicle after vehicle? Shall we reflect on the way I have loved tequila in my life? How about men?)

I can count the ways that I have felt myself to be a kind of failure, or to have failed in my work or role or relational stance. To conceive a child and then learn of his many fetal anomalies resulting in literal death is of course the biggest doozy of fathomable failing -- at least in my book. But is any of this thinking really helpful? No. Not if you want to live happy and upright...

Xavi's birth and death has been gift because it has helped me grieve --quite publicly, transparently, with all of you --all that I haven't been able to fully grieve in my 43 years. (Shoot, the way I live and believe and process -- weeping and simultaneously laughing -- I imagine I might be grieving for a whole host of family members whose stories are stored somewhere in my bones!)  I think of all that is encoded in the cells of my being; I believe that with our son's brief life has come a transformational opportunity to heal wounds that have been debilitating for both me and my husband.

Xavi was born at 8:03 am on Thursday, September 13, 2012. He died at 9:03am.  At around 5:30pm on Friday, September 14, I handed his body over to the mortician who came personally to my room to receive him. During the hours in between, I got to hold his precious body against my own. Breathe him in. Bond as any mother and child do beyond the embrace of womb. And in that time, I got to sigh, laugh, smile, weep, and utter sounds of grief that only feel possible in a primal loss sort of way.  I released sorrow from the very bottom of my soul that I believe could have been stored there for centuries.
Dead child.
Open mouth.

In those hours of holding Xavi's body, I couldn't fathom letting him go to be buried. I had just gotten him; there was no possible way in my mind that anyone could take him from me. I believe with all my heart, this side of the experience, that each hour I held him was akin to a year of my life where I had known loss (shame even?) unprocessed. In all of his precious body was the promise I had clinged to of a career; a new life, a love, a way of leading and inspiring change that I didn't get to see fully realized -- at least not according to my own visions.

Taking Xavier to the hospital chapel and presenting him to God in that formal space was a key point in letting him go. While his spirit was released hours before in his literal death, it took me - as his mom - more than a day to catch up and embrace the way his body could simultaneously go...

With special permission of hospital nurses and security, my friends Brigid and Marianna accompanied me with Xavi in my arms, under a blanket, from the 2nd to the 4th floor. They wheeled us into the chapel and placed me with my son beneath an icon of Mary and Jesus. There, for maybe twenty minutes, a half hour, hour? -  I listened. I sat, cried, giggled, and tuned into the way that I heard Xavi speaking to me, alongside God, reassuring me of a presence beyond this physical realm, experiencing a joy possible only, in my mind, beyond the limitation of our human selves.  I got instructions from my son and God as to what to do next.

In that space, I knew Xavi's spirit beyond the room. I could "see" him as a toddler; then as a four or five year old curly headed wonder, all rough and tumble boy. He was wearing jeans and red sneakers, a striped shirt with numbers. All around him were happy, licking puppies and non-threatening bouncing balls. He was laughing and told me, "Mom, Heaven rocks."  I giggled with these sacred images of son; I still cling to them as inspired, transformational memories that communicate happiness and inform a deep peace in my heart.

When I looked back down at his anointed body resting in my lap, I felt his limbs cool to my touch, and saw his omphalocele pulling back from his skin. His physical self was giving way; and I knew that I didn't have to cling to him in this form.

"I'm here mom, in your heart, in your mind. I do not live in that body. You don't have to let me go, ever, because I'm here."

With that, I knew I could hand over his physical form.

And a month later, I can see that most difficult moment as a graced one guiding me in all of my grief. We receive, we let go. Xavi's life was not to be defined by me, or contained in my human hopes or maternal longings. He came as a gift, not unlike every other gift of Love we have received in our lives. Francois and I had this privilege of conceiving him, of bearing his life, his gentleness, his imperfect perfection -- into this realm. And we are transformed because of the journey.

On the anniversary morning that all these thoughts started to take shape, I was giving our two year old daughter a bath. Instead of our ritual wrapped-in-a-duck-towel-snuggling post suds, Marguerite stepped out of the tub and put her hands on my head in a blessing fashion.  Did she hear all of these reflections tumbling around in my heart and mind? Did she sense my desire to honor her brother Xavi with some kind of contemplative prose? Who knows. But Thursday morning, four weeks after her brother's birth and baptism, in all of her own naked wonder, Mags placed her still wet palms on my forehead and said, "Bless you, mamma."

Indeed. I am blessed. We all are. We know such fierce love.