Archives For Grief

Here’s a piece I wrote recently for the United Methodist ‘Rethinking Church’ website. Here’s the original link.

I was in the emergency room, standing behind the paper curtain, holding a mother who wasn’t much older than me as she held her dead little boy, who wasn’t much older than my boys.

What do we do in these moments?

She wasn’t crying so much as gasping like you do when you’ve sunk all the way to the bottom of the deep end of the pool and have just come up for air. She was smoothing her boy’s cowlick with her hand. Every so often she would shush him, perhaps believing that if she could just calm him down then she might convince him to come back.

It was Opening Day. That afternoon my boys and I had played hooky to go to see the Nationals beat the Marlins. I still wore my Curly W Nats hat and had popcorn crumbs in my sweater and mustard stains on my pants. I didn’t look like a pastor or a priest.

The mother got up and went into the hallway to try and get hold of her husband. She left me with her boy — and when the chaplain stepped in to the room and saw the hat on my head and the mustard stains on my clothes and the tears in my eyes, she didn’t think I was a pastor or a priest. She just thought I was part of the boy’s family.

She put her hand on my shoulder and, after a few moments, she said to me: “It’s going to be all right.”

“What the hell did you say?” I asked, stunned.

I’ve been a pastor for 16 years.

And in that time I can’t tell you how many ERs and funeral homes I’ve been in, how many hospital bedsides and gravesides I’ve stood at and heard well-meaning Christians say things they thought were comforting but were actually the opposite.

Even destructive.

I know people in my congregation who’ve been told — by other people in my congregation — that God must’ve given them cancer as punishment or to bring them closer to God.

I know peoplewho’ve been told by well-intentioned Christians that a spouse’s or child’s death must be part of God’s plan.

I know people who’ve written God off entirely because when their life got sucky some Christian tried to console them with talk of “God’s will.”

Most of us don’t know what to say when there’s nothing to say. We don’t know where God is when life sucks or suffering comes, so we say ignorant things or offer empty platitudes.

There’s a long folk tale in the Old Testament in which a character named Job loses every one of his children. He loses his health, his last dime and maybe even his marriage. Worse, he loses it all at once. His life disintegrates faster than a dream.

For days, Job is mute with disbelief. His friends show up — no small gesture — and sit with him in silence.

Until Job finally does speak. Then, his friends discover, they aren’t ready for the pain he voices. They can’t go there.

Anyone who’s been with someone whose grief is raw and immediate, whose despair seems to open onto an abyss, anyone who’s been in that situation knows the temptation to put a lid on it. And very often our speech about God is the way we put a lid on it.

Questions like “Where is God…?” or “Why is God doing this…?” can become the means by which we silence a vulnerability too harrowing to bear.

Sometimes the vulnerability we wish to quiet with questions is our own.

So we resort to clichés. But just like one-size-fits-all clothes, one-size-fits-all platitudes never fit.

For Job’s friends there’s disconnect between what they think they know about God and how Job describes his experience. So they feel the need to correct Job’s experience, to explain and give answers for it. They offer platitudes.

But if love, as Jesus says, is laying down your life for another, then that also means love is a willingness to lay down your assumptions for a friend — to care more about them than your understanding of how God or the world works.

What do you say when there’s nothing to say?

Instead of saying, “God must be teaching you a lesson,” how about saying, “Tell me what you’re going through. There’s nothing you could say that will frighten or offend me. I’m here. I’m listening.”

We don’t need to protect God from our feelings. From the cross Jesus, the Son of God, screams at God, “Why have you forsaken me!?” And God responds to that cross, which we built, with an empty tomb. God doesn’t need protecting, especially not from our candor or feelings of forsakenness.

As much as anything, faith entails the knowledge that you do not need to protect God. We don’t need to protect God because God is not to blame.

Platitudes and reasons suggest God is behind the suffering and the suck in our lives. They suggest a world without randomness, a world where everything is the outworking of God’s will. But that is not the world as scripture sees it. As St. Paul describes it, the world is groaning against God’s good intentions for it (Romans 8:22). In the language of scripture, suffering is a symptom of our world’s rebellion against God; it’s not a sign of God’s plan for our lives.

Maybe we conjure a different world, a world of tight causality, because the opposite is too frightening.

Maybe it’s frightening to think that our lives are every bit as vulnerable and fragile as they can sometimes feel. They are.

Maybe it’s too frightening to think that the question “Why?” has no answer. It often does not.

Maybe it’s too scary to admit that things can happen to us without warning, for no reason, and from which no good will ever come. They can and they do.

It’s understandable that we’d want there to be a plan for each of us, a reason behind every pitfall in our lives, but think about it: The logical outcome to that way of thinking makes God a monster. Such a god is certainly in charge kind of god, but such a god is not worthy of our worship.

Truth is, God doesn’t use or deploy suffering. God is present with us in suffering. In fact, in Jesus’ cross we witness that God, too, suffers in the brokenness of the world.

So, what do you say when there’s nothing to say?

For God’s sake, don’t say, “God has a reason.” Try saying, “There’s no way God wants this for you any more than I do.”

The chaplain in the ER lifted her hand from my shoulder when I glared at her and said: “What?”

She blushed and apologized. “I’m sorry. I didn’t know what to say,” she said. But I wasn’t in the mood for sorry. I wiped my eyes and said, “When his mother comes back in here, don’t. Say. Anything.”

At first Job’s friends do the exact right thing. They just sit in silence with their friend and grieve with him. The trouble starts when they open their mouths.

And the scary thing for us?

What’s scary is that at the end of the Book of Job, 38 long chapters later, after Job has cursed the day he was born, cursed God, questioned God’s justice, complained about God’s absence, accused God of abuse and indicted God for being no better than a criminal on trial — at the end of the book, when God finally shows up and speaks, Job isn’t the one God condemns.

It’s Job’s well-meaning, religious friends.

I’ve stood at enough bedsides and gravesides to know that in our attempts to comfort and answer and explain we sometimes make God an anathema, an entity of distrust and spite.

In trying to locate where God is in the midst of the suffering and the suck, we can push people away from him.

For the last two years, I’ve battled my own incurable cancer. I know of what I speak: The only thing worse than suffering with no reason, no explanation, would be to suffer without God, for God is with us in our suffering, just as we are called to be with others in their suffering.

As both pastor and patient, then, my advice: When there’s nothing to say, say nothing. Or, do as the Psalms so often do.

Lament.
Rage.
At God.

If faith entails knowing you do not need to protect God, then faith is also a kind of protest against God, who still has not yet made good on his promise to redeem all of creation.

“Where is God in the midst of this suffering?” is a question best turned around and posed to God, defiantly so. “What’s taking you so long, God?!”

Only a God whose power is suffering love could appreciate the irony: faith that looks to any outsider like doubt or, sometimes, even despair.

This past weekend my muse visited my congregation as our guest preacher.

Thomas Lynch, readers of the blog will already know, is a poet and writer who also happens to be an undertaker in Milford, Michigan. His prose has inspired my own, his writing on the funeral trade has informed how I conduct them as a clergyman and his hopeful gallows humor has given me cheer these initial weeks in my struggle with cancer.

Here’s his sermon from the Saturday evening service. It’s worth your time. If you subscribe to the blog by email, you may need to click over for the sermon.

The Seamus Heaney poem Lynch references is ‘Miracle’ based on Jesus’ healing of the paralytic in Mark 2.

Not the one who takes up his bed and walks

But the ones who have known him all alongAnd carry him in –

Their shoulders numb, the ache and stoop deeplockedIn their backs, the stretcher handles

Slippery with sweat. And no let up

Until he’s strapped on tight, made tiltableand raised to the tiled roof, then lowered for healing.

Be mindful of them as they stand and wait

For the burn of the paid out ropes to cool,

Their slight lightheadedness and incredulity

To pass, those ones who had known him all along.

(HUMAN CHAIN, Poems, Seamus Heaney, 2010, FSG)

“…the meaning of life is connected, inextricably, to the meaning of death; mourning is a romance in reverse, and if you love, you grieve and there are no exceptions—only those who do it well and those who don’t.”

– The Undertaking LynchHat

For our third installment of the podcast, we’ve got a heavyweight of the literary world: Thomas Lynch.

Thomas Lynch is quite simply and without exaggeration one of the best damn writers in the English language. And, it turns out, he’s a delightful human being too.

A renowned poet, essayist, and fiction writer Lynch is something of an oddity in the book world for also being a full-time undertaker. Lynch is the inspiration behind the television series, Six Feet Under, as well as the subject of a PBS Frontline Documentary.

the_undertaking.largeI first encountered Lynch’s work at Princeton when I was assigned his book of essays, The Undertaking; Life Studies from the Dismal Trade. It’s elegantly written and achingly beautiful and was a finalist for the National Book Award. You should stop and buy it right now.

His poetry is likewise beautiful and frequently takes up the same themes of death and life and holiness.

His most recent book is co-authored with theologian Tom Long on grief and death.

Why Mr Lynch accepted my invitation for an interview I have no idea but I’m glad he did. He’s on my Mt Rushmore of writers so I make no attempt to hide my adoration. You’ll have to suffer through my fanboy conversation about Seamus Heaney’s poetry.

Near the end Thomas Lynch answers my theological twist on James Lipton’s 10 Questions, which will have to become a podcast tradition (least favorite theological word: ‘Shalt’). He closes out our conversation by sharing a new, unpublished poem.

thomas-lynch-480Oh, I almost forgot: I’m now on his Christmas Card list.

Be on the lookout for the next installments of the podcast.

We’ve got Stanley Hauerwas, Scot McKnight and Brian Blount in the queue.

You can listen to the Lynch interview here below or in the ‘Listen’ widget on the sidebar.

You can also download it in iTunes here or on the app here.

 

IMG_1411One of the happy accidents of this blog is that I know have ‘friends’ whom I’ve never met save this space here.

One of the downsides of making such friends- the same downside that comes with working for or belonging to any congregation- is that I find myself mourning with or for such friends.

A friend of this blog recently lost her young son in a car accident. Her brother is a real-life, flesh-and-blood friend of mine, whose faith I admire- though his character is such he’d insist it should be the other way ’round.

Her brother, my friend, ‘Ben’s Uncle,’ wrote this reflection about his nephew’s funeral service. It’s a beautiful (made me weep) testimony to grace and our ultimate hope.

Mike had the grace to share it with me and the trust to let me share it with you. If you do me any favors in the back end of ’13, let it be this:

Read…

Although most of the many people who came from Ephraim, Manasseh, Issachar and Zebulun had not purified themselves, yet they ate the Passover, contrary to what was written.  But Hezekiah prayed for them, saying, “May the Lord, who is good, pardon everyone who sets their heart on seeking God—the Lord, the God of their ancestors—even if they are not clean according to the rules of the sanctuary.”  And the Lord heard Hezekiah and healed the people.  2 Chronicles 30:18-20

The Gathering Place in the church was bright—lots of windows.  There was a beautiful arrangement of flowers prominently displayed, sent from out of town, and bearing the condolences of family in a distant location.  The mood was subdued—not somber—just subdued.  The immediate family had gathered, and then the friends began to arrive—two groups of friends.  The friends of the family tended to be older—though not exclusively so.  Many had known Ben as he was growing up.

Many were members of the church where Ben’s parents were long-time members.  Some were members at the church where Ben’s grandparents were members and where Ben had participated in youth activities.  The other group—Ben’s friends—seemed youngish to me.  But then most people seem youngish to me these days.

My sense was that they were vaguely ill at ease, worried about being out of place in an unfamiliar environment, wondering, perhaps, how the Ben they knew fit in with these family friends who were right at home in church.  As you would expect, the two groups tended to cluster with their own in the large, open room: the respectable, pillar-of-the-community folks in small groups; and small groups of 21st century James Dean types, both men and women.  They were all well dressed for this memorial service for someone they all knew and loved.  But peeking out from under the sleeves or above the necklines of the young friends was a moving gallery of art.  And some of the ink wasn’t peeking; it was right out there, expansive, striking even.

I have to admit that I find tattoos off-putting.  A long-engrained prejudice.  I tried hard not to judge but could hardly help it.  As I was standing in the receiving line, a young woman held out her hand to me, and my eyes were immediately drawn to the extensive tattoo on her upper arm and shoulder.  But as she said her name—Elise—my eyes snapped to hers.  I knew the name, but not the person.

Just a few days earlier, Elise had gone to the place where her friend, Ben had been killed.  She went looking—looking for a license plate that she hoped had survived the crash.  She knew that little piece of metal had special meaning for Ben—and for Ben’s grandfather.  After a long search, and as she was about to give up, she looked down at her feet, and there it was.  She took it away with her, framed it, and gave it to Ben’s grandfather.  The awkwardness of the moment, there in the line, faded.  We hugged each other, and she moved down the line.

We spent an hour and a half in the Gathering Place, but it was that few seconds with Elise that I was thinking of when the doors of the sanctuary opened up, and the family went in to take our seats.  Those few seconds are prominent in my thinking now, weeks later.  The sanctuary was packed—about evenly split between the two groups.

We sat and listened to a wonderful service—beautiful music, readings from scripture, words of comfort and assurance from the pastors.  All the while, the two groups sat behind us—each person, no doubt, with their own thoughts of Ben.  With their own thoughts of what it meant to be in that place—a place of worship.

Looking back now, I marvel at these two groups, mingled in the pews.  The “good” people and the “maybe not so good” people.  The establishment people, easy to spot in their manicured neatness.  And the renegades, a little rough around the edges and sporting a bunch of body art.  But every one of them was there to remember Ben.

And Elise has become something of an emblem of that day for me.

I don’t know her.

I don’t know what kind of life she lives.

I do know that I judged her when I saw her in that receiving line—once in the negative, and seconds later, very differently.

What a heart!  What a sense of kindness and love!

I very nearly didn’t see that.  It was hidden to my eyes, hidden behind some ink.

And if her goodness was hidden to me, surely everyone in that room—including me—was concealed by some form of camouflage.

But we serve a God who sees through it all—the first time.  A God who knows full well who he created us to be.  And a God who has promised to finish the good work he started in us.  My prayer is that every time we open our eyes, we will see people though his eyes.

That’s our best hope.

For Ben, who was at home with everyone in those pews….

“Because I don’t have to be the old man inside of me;
His day is long dead and gone….” 
Redeemed