What Will It Take to Change the World?

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Recently, I stood among a gathered group of people, most of whom I did not know.  I was there for a memorial service.  A few short months ago, a fellow colleague received the kind of news that no one wants to hear.  In a matter of weeks, she was gone.  Not every funeral I attend (or even officiate) is beautiful.  This one was.  And I’ll state from the outset why I believe it was: the collective experience of both joy and sorrow.

I walked away from my friend’s remembrance with a clear conviction – one that had been percolating and forming within me for quite some time.  This conviction might seem exaggerated, yet it by no means is meant to be.  It’s just what I have come to believe about the universal human experience.  It comes from the confidence and experience of a lifetime of observation and ministry.  It is neither merely a heartfelt sentiment nor a passing feeling.  No, it really is a conviction, a firm principle or persuasion.  It is this:

Crying with strangers in person has the power to change the world.

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I think I’ve always known this.  It just crystallized for me through this experience.  After all, I have watched with awe the privilege I have to walk into a dying patient’s room, full of tearful family, and enter with them into their pain.  The sharing of stories is powerful, eliciting both great joy, reminiscent laughter, and profound gratitude; as well as tremendous sorrow, grinding grief, and sad lament.  Tears and celebration mix in a sacred alchemy producing a kind of care which transcends description.

It’s one thing to observe other’s joy and sorrow on the news, or even from afar.  It is altogether a different reality to participate up close and personal.  It’s something akin to watching a travel documentary on Yellowstone Park versus visiting the place in person; there’s just no comparison.  Shared human experiences of grief will nearly always translate into new and emerging capacities for empathy.  And where empathy exists, there is hope for all humanity.  Being with another person or group of people in their suffering creates a Grinch-like transformation in which our hearts suddenly enlarge.  A single tear from a singular small little Who in Whoville had the power to penetrate years of hardness of heart and change what everyone thought was a shriveled soul full of garlic and gunk.

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If I need to say this a different way, I’ll do it: The spiritual and emotional heart of a human being is able to shrink or expand.  It shrinks from spending far too much time alone and/or holding others at bay, at arms-length, while playing the armchair critic to those whom are out rubbing shoulders with real flesh and blood people.  Conversely, the heart can grow and expand.  The Grinch never went back to his isolation.  Instead, he did what Whoville thought was the unbelievable: The Grinch fully participated in the joy of the community, up close and personal.  It was full-bore holding of hands, singing, and eating – which illustrates a conviction I’ve held for a long time:

Hospitality, that is, showing love to outright strangers through celebration and participation with food and drink has the power to change the world.

And if I need to be demonstrative, I will: Hospitality cannot happen from afar; sitting around the table with strangers and interacting with them is needed; it alters our perspectives so that we live our shared humanity.  It is rather difficult to hate someone when you get to know them and discover their loves and joys, hurts and wounds.

This all leads toward asking one of the most fundamental and basic biblical questions that must be asked by every generation and considered by everyone who respects God and/or the Christian Scriptures:

Am I able to see the image of God in someone very different from myself?

The Christian doesn’t have to go very far to answer this one, at least from an objective cerebral perspective.  Jesus saw the humanity in everyone he encountered, from Jew to Gentile, from sinner to saint.  In fact, Jesus saw this image so deeply within another that he sat around the table and ate with people whom others saw as not worthy to eat with.  Jesus’ willingness to participate in the hospitality of strangers was downright scandalous.  It isn’t a stretch to say that it got him killed.

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What’s more, Jesus wept.  He cried in public with strangers.  For followers of Christ who seek to emulate him in his practical ministry, that point ought to be noticed.  After all, we choose to remember and participate in the life of Christ through the elements of bread and wine at the Table.  God’s radical hospitality toward us is truly meant to translate to an open heart toward those who look and act differently than me.

Public policy and even public theology are necessary and important.  Yet, unless policies and theologies and philosophies are buttressed with a foundation of basic human respect and dignity that has been borne of lived experience with strangers, those policies, philosophies, and even theologies have the power to denigrate and destroy rather than build-up and support.

The great fourteenth century mystic, Julian of Norwich, a female devotee of Christ and an influential theologian in her own right among a world of men who tended to see the image of God in women as flawed, understood what it would take to reawaken image-bearing humanity.  She stated, “All that is contrary to peace and love — is in us and not in God. God’s saving work in Jesus of Nazareth and in the gift of God’s spirit, is to slake [lessen] our wrath in the power of his merciful and compassionate love.”

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The Apostle John put it this way: “We love because he [Christ] first loved us.” (1 John 4:19)

Don’t think for a minute that crying with strangers is an easy thing for me.  Truth is, crying is not something I typically do, or even like to do.  Yet, constrained by the love of God in Christ, and putting myself in a position to feel with the emotions of others in front of me, I have come to allow and embrace those tears.

We now know that the act of crying produces endorphins which is the body’s way of bringing emotional comfort.  When we apply that understanding to a collective group of people sharing tears together, we end up with a communal sense of solidarity and succor.

Yes, collective experiences of emotion have the power to change the world.  Yet, this occurs only if we show up.  Perhaps this is the reason for the Christian doctrine of the incarnation: Jesus is our Immanuel, God with us, the One who is present.  He showed up, and salvation happened.

The Need for Lament

“I remember my affliction and my wandering, the bitterness and the gall.  I well remember them, and my soul is downcast within me.  Yet this I call to mind and therefore I have hope:  Because of the LORD’s great love we are not consumed, for his compassions never fail.  They are new every morning; great is your faithfulness.  I say to myself, ‘The LORD is my portion; therefore, I will wait for him.’” (Lamentations 3:19-24, NIV)

Lament is painful and lonely, yet, necessary and the only true agent of healing.

Every single one of us face situations at some point in our lives which cause us to grieve.  In fact, grief can and does attach itself to any significant change or loss.  Bereavement, divorce, major surgery, losing a job, bankruptcy, terminal diagnoses, missed expectations, bitter disappointments, and a host of adverse circumstances are all, understandably, events that bring grief to our lives.  They are all cruel episodes we would rather not face.

What’s more, grief can also attach itself to the positive changes of life:  moving to a new house in a new area; the empty nest; getting married; having children; a beloved pastor leaving a congregation; or, beginning a new job.  These all result through some sort of loss, even if that loss were chosen and necessary.

The worst possible way to approach any of these kinds of situations, for good or for ill, is to ignore them, minimize them, say they are simply in the past, and just move on.  It is, believe it or not, unbiblical to take such an attitude because Holy Scripture discerns that we need to lament our losses.  In fact, we have an entire book of the Bible given to lamenting a grievous loss: The Old Testament book of Lamentations, written by the prophet Jeremiah.

Jeremiah was called by God to pronounce judgment against Jerusalem.  And not only was Jeremiah to proclaim a very unpopular message, he was given the promise that the people would not listen to him and that Jerusalem would be destroyed with the people being sent into exile.  The prophecy of Jeremiah is a long and extended message of a melancholy messenger preaching exactly what the Lord wanted him to preach.  God’s words came true.  The people did not repent of their empty worship and wayward lifestyles.  They persecuted Jeremiah for speaking words of judgment.  The Babylonians came and tore down the walls of Jerusalem, decimated the city and the temple, and carried off the people into exile.

Jeremiah, in his grief over the ruined city of Jerusalem, wept and lamented the loss of this once great city with its grand temple.  It’s only after an extended lamentation that Jeremiah turned his attention toward the love of God, his compassions becoming new every morning, and the hope of a new existence without Jerusalem at the center of Jewish life.  Jeremiah (much like the biblical character of Job) lost everything but his own life.  He had much to grieve over.

Without exception, none of us can have the hope of love, compassion, and new life apart from the need to first lament our losses.  There is a popular phrase in our culture that I would caution us to use very sparingly in our conversations with others who have experienced loss: “Get over it!” is often used much too quickly and can short circuit the grief process and put grieving people in the awkward position of not seeing the power of lament through to its end of acceptance, resolution, and fresh hope.

Far too many people in both the world and even the church remain stuck in some stage or level of grief, unable to effectively move on because others expect them to be joyful and triumphant when they really feel downright awful and now guilty on top of it for being sad.

I would like you to hear me loud and clear on this:  embracing lament is the only pathway to knowing compassion and becoming a compassionate person like Jesus.  Wallpapering over our losses without lamenting them is at the root of many if not most of the emotional problems in the church and the world today.

Jerry Sittser wrote an important book, A Grace Disguised: How the Soul Grows Through Loss.  Sittser tells of the time when he was driving his family’s minivan when a drunk driver crossed the road and hit them head on.  In an instant he watched three generations of his family die in front of his eyes:  his mother, his wife, and his daughter.  If anyone knows the need and the power of lament it is Jerry Sittser.  And here is what he says:

“Catastrophic loss, by definition, precludes recovery.  It will transform us or destroy us, but it will never leave us the same….  I did not get over my loved ones’ loss; rather I absorbed the loss into my life until it became part of who I am.  Sorrow took up permanent residence in my soul and enlarged it.”

Nicholas Wolterstorff is a Yale philosophy professor.  In his book, Lament for a Son, he talks about losing his twenty-five-year-old son to a mountain climbing accident.  He has no explanations – just grief.  At one point he had a profound insight:

“Through the prism of my tears I have seen a suffering God.  It is said of God that no one can behold his face and live.  I always thought this meant that no one can see his splendor and live.  But I have come to see that it more likely means that no one can see his sorrow and survive.”

We all accumulate an unwanted host of losses over the course of a lifetime.  Many of them are small losses; some of them are devastating losses.  The death of children, disability, rape, abuse, cancer, infertility, suicide, and betrayal are all examples of crushing loss – losses that need to experience lament.  All these losses are irreversible; we cannot return to how things once were.  We must push forward by grieving every loss as they come to us.  As we lurch ahead we cling to these words of Jeremiah:  Because of the LORD’s great love we are not consumed, for his compassions never fail.  They are new every morning; great is your faithfulness.

So, how do we lament our losses in a healthy way?  Here is what Jeremiah did:

  1. Jeremiah remembered his afflictions and his losses.  We need to avoid superficial repentance and forgiveness.  We must own and feel the pain of the loss before we can begin to offer a mature forgiveness.
  2. Jeremiah paid attention to faith, hope, and love.  This can only be done if we are alert to the process of grieving.  Elizabeth Kubler-Ross was the person who identified the famous five stages of grief:  denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and resolution/acceptance.  We rarely move neatly through each stage.  The important thing is that we get to the place of seeing God’s committed love for us – not only in-spite-of the suffering, but because of it.
  3. Jeremiah did not minimize his pain and suffering.  We must sit with our pain.  Do not sluff-off our loss by saying others have it worse, or that it is nothing.  Year after year many Christians do not confront the losses of life, minimizing their failures and disappointments.  The result is a profound inability to face pain, and it has led to shallow spirituality and an acute lack of compassion.
  4. Jeremiah prophesied about how Jesus grieved.  His message predicted what Jesus faced in his Passion.  The prophet Isaiah described Messiah as a man of sorrows and acquainted with grief.  At the tomb of Lazarus, Jesus did not say “Okay everyone, stop all this crying” but wept with the people.  When entering Jerusalem, Jesus did not say “too bad guys, I’m moving on without you” but lamented over the city, desiring to gather them as a hen does her chicks.  On the cross, Jesus did not say “Lighten up everyone; God is good; he will be victorious!”  But instead said, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”  Hebrews 5:8 tells us that Jesus “learned obedience from what he suffered.”

Grieving is an indispensable part of a full-orbed spirituality and emotional health.  Life does not always make sense.  There is deep mystery to the ways of God.  The Lord is doing patient and careful work inside of each one of us.  While he is busy within our souls, we will likely feel lost and disconnected, not seeing the full tapestry of what he is creating.  Weariness, loneliness, a sense that prayers are not being heard, and a feeling of helplessness are all common experiences of God’s reconstruction of a broken spirit.

John Milton’s classic piece of literature, Paradise Lost, compares the evil of history to a compost pile – a mixture of decaying food, animal manure, dead leaves, and whatever else you put on it.  Yet, if you cover the compost with dirt, after a long while it no longer smells.  The soil becomes a rich natural fertilizer and is ideal for growing a garden.  But you need to be willing to wait, in some cases, years.  Milton’s point was that the worst events of history and the evil we experience are compost in God’s overall plan.  Out of the greatest wrong ever done, the betrayal, crucifixion, and death of Jesus, came the greatest good – God transformed the stench of evil into good without diminishing the awfulness of that evil.

People who have truly lamented their losses are not hard to spot.  They have a greater capacity to wait on God and be patient toward others.  They are kinder and more compassionate.  They lack pretense and are liberated from trying to impress others.  They are comfortable with mystery, not having to be certain about every theological minutiae.  They are humble, gentle, and meek.  They possess and ability to see God not only in the glorious and victorious, but in the mundane, banal, and lowly.  They are more at home with themselves and with God.  People transformed through the power of lament are equipped to love others as Jesus did.

Maybe we are always running, working, and playing because we are constantly trying to outrun the painful grief which resides within.  So, please, my friend, slow down and let it catch you.  Let it do its deep and powerful work within you.

Allowing Your Pain to Make a Difference

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There’s a reason I do what I do, and am what I am.  Through nearly 33 years of marriage my wife and I have been through a lot – more than I could ever share with you.  One of our big challenges came from the year 2014.  In the space of nine months, Mary had three spine surgeries.  I went from not only having the role of husband, but that of caregiver, as well.  It took months of daily physical and occupational therapy, not to mention the endless doctor visits, for my wife to learn to walk again and do simple tasks that most of us take for granted.

The good news is that Mary is upright and walking.  She can mostly get around and do things on her own.  The bad news is that she lives with chronic pain every single day.  Some days aren’t too bad, and Mary can accomplish a fair amount of what she wants to do.  But there are other days when she can’t get out of bed; days when taking a shower and getting dressed is all she can get done; and, days when the pain becomes so problematic that discouragement and depression sandwiches her like two evil slices of bread.

Yet, even on the worst of days Mary is an amazing wife.  She is tough and resilient, as well as compassionate and caring.  I’ve learned most of what I know about caring ministry from her.  I don’t talk a lot about her on this website.  Yet, Mary is behind each word I craft and every phrase I smith.  She is always on my mind and in my heart.  Mary has taught me how to care through the example of her own life, and given me the opportunity to show how much I care for her.

Mary maintains a Facebook page about her journey with pain called “Joy in the Mourning.”  Because she lives with chronic pain, her posts come neither regularly nor easily.  It is a labor of love, some days being a whole lot more labor than love.  Recently, Mary was able to return to a job.  By no means able to hold a full-time job, she has found meaningful work doing what she does best: caring for people as a companion to folks with dementia.

The following is her most recent post.  I hope you are encouraged in your own journey of faith.  Whether you face chronic physical or emotional pain, care for someone who does, or just want to live-out your faith in ways that make sense, I trust you find some joy in your life through whatever circumstances you may face today:

Friends, I’ve got great news!  I have completed the first 90 days at my job!  It’s been a long time since I have been able to say that.  I’m sore today from working. Usually, I say that I hurt today due to getting dressed or showering, walking the dog, or getting out of bed.  It has taken over 3 years, post-surgeries, to be able commit to a regular schedule of working.  

In my healing journey, I had to commit /submit myself to physical therapy, yoga stretching, strength training, biofeedback, acupuncture, massage therapy, weekly counseling with a pain psychologist, daily prayer, journaling, meditation, and even sought out healing through the laying on of hands from godly healers, as well as nutrition, essential oils and music therapy.  All very helpful, but…

I have to admit a foundational piece to getting to where I am today: I mourned. 

I gave myself permission to mourn my loss.  I admitted my anger… no, I wrestled with my anger is a better phrase; and, I embraced my sadness, and let myself feel the loneliness of disability. I asked the hard questions: WHY!? How long? I cried… a lot. In my darkest times a little spark of light invaded my space.  A gentle and soft comfort hugged my heart. A warm sprinkle of hope powdered my soul.  I began to discover a new kind of joy.

No matter what your specific suffering is, I believe that mourning your loss, and allowing yourself to walk through the valley of the shadow will lead you to a path where you can experience comfort, hope and even joy.  For me, this part of the journey has been life-giving. Christ understands suffering. He will walk with us through this experience.  

I never told you what I’m doing now. I am a companion for those who suffer – mostly Alzheimer’s patients, and those who are suffering life-altering afflictions.  I’m working 2-6 hours each day, sharing some of the comfort I received, and being real and open while allowing my pain to make a difference.  May you be blessed, my friends.

Learning to Grieve Well

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One day, years ago in a previous church experience, Frank (not his real name) came up to me concerned about a woman in the congregation.  The woman, Daphne (not her real name), had recently had a miscarriage when just beginning her third trimester.  Frank proceeded to tell me that it had been a few weeks since the terrible event of Daphne’s miscarriage, and he had never seen her cry.  Frank was uneasy with this and wanted to go tell her that something was wrong that she wasn’t bawling over her tragedy.

Although I think Frank’s heart was mostly in the right place to have concern, there were a couple of things off about his thoughts.  These few things I’m going to highlight are important to keep in mind.  Whether you are grieving yourself because of some trauma or hard situation, or whether you want to be there to encourage and help another person going through trouble, there are two realities to keep in mind through the hard road of grief.  The first reality is this:

Grief is personal.  No two people grieve in exactly the same way.

Part of Frank’s concern was that he himself had gone through the death of a child, and he had cried much over it.  In fact, he had tears in his eyes just talking to me about something that happened many years ago.  Frank had found that his crying and emotional expressions were a central part of coming to terms with his own child’s death.  So, when Daphne was not responding in the same way as he had, he quickly assumed she was in denial and was not grieving.

The truth was that I was close to Daphne and her family enough to know that she and her husband were very much in grief, and were certainly working through their awful ordeal.  Daphne had never been much of an emotional person, and she found that lots of talking with girlfriends and other women was an important path of healing; and, that having her pastor pray for her and her family and just be around in a spiritual presence reassured her that God was with her.

A few weeks after Daphne’s miscarriage, she was clearly still in the throes of grieving.  I knew her well enough to know that eventually she would have that big cry session.  Daphne was a more reflective person, and her grief was buckets-load more cerebral than Frank, who tended to wear his feelings on his sleeve.  As it turns out, sure enough, two months down-the-road, Daphne’s emotions caught up with her and she had her own very personal big cry session.  This brings me to my second important reality that we must keep in mind….

You cannot put a timetable on grief, especially someone else’s.

Another part of Frank’s concern was actually his own anxiety coming through.  He knew firsthand how hard it is to go through something that you never saw coming and forever changes you.  Through Daphne’s tragedy, Frank was reliving his own nightmare.  If Daphne could get through her grief, hopefully by having a good cry and getting over it, then Frank could move on and not feel so damned uncomfortable himself.  This was, of course, not a conscious reality for Frank.  But that’s what makes grief so complicated.  Other people’s grief really does affect our own lives.  If we are not in touch with our own emotions and the deep hurts within that can be triggered at a moment’s notice, then we project our anxiety and our desire for tidy resolutions onto others who are not ready to be done with their bereavement or their grief.

When we put timetables on others’ grief, it says much more about us than the person grieving.  Statements like, “It’s been two weeks, and she should be over it,” and “When is he going to stop being so depressed?” come from a place inside of the statement-maker that cannot live with other people’s pain and would like it all to be better.  My bet is that such statements belie unresolved grief and hurt from the person making them.

Wise people sit with the emotions of others, and let them feel the full brunt of their feelings.  They don’t try to push emotions off, make the grief-stricken person better, or fix them so that they aren’t unhappy anymore.  The sage person knows that you cannot hurry grief along any more than you can make a turtle do a 4.6 second 40 meter race.  Besides, last I checked, the turtle ends up winning with his slow, yet deliberate pace.

When his good friend, Lazarus, was sick Jesus waited three days before he went to him.  In the meantime, Lazarus died.  Jesus was pressured to get there immediately, to take the fast track, to stop any sort of bereavement that might take place.  But Jesus didn’t let the anxiety of others dictate his Father’s agenda.  Because he operated on his own timetable, a miracle of resurrection proportions occurred (John 11:1-44).  And even when Jesus knew what was going to happen by raising Lazarus, that didn’t stop him from slowing down even more by taking the time to grieve and sit with others’ in their grief.  “Jesus wept,” was a genuine heartfelt response to the folks around him, as well as an authentic display of his own personal grieving over his friend’s passing.

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What’s more, Lazarus’ sisters, Mary and Martha, never responded the same way to circumstances.  Whereas Mary wanted to be close to Jesus, Martha chose to work-out her frustrations in the kitchen.  Trying to pigeon-hole someone into a nice-and-neat grief to-do list never ends well for anyone.

So, how are we to grieve well when tragedy or trauma happens?  I’ve already hinted at it, but I’ll now give it to you plainly with two more realities….

You need to sit with your emotions.

When hard times come, our natural human reflexive response is to want to get away from the grief.  Feeling hard stuff hurts.  No one likes pain.  But feel we must.  Ignoring how we feel only puts emotions on hold – it doesn’t take them away.  Emotions must be felt deeply, usually over a long period of time for most people.  No one ever just “gets over” the death of a child or any other trauma.  It forever changes you.  Feeling angry, out-of-control, powerless, depressed, mentally and/or physically pained, and a whole host of other emotions can come flying at you like razor-blade arrows aimed at your heart.  Go ahead and feel them, feel them all.

Also, let others feel them, as well.  It isn’t anybody’s job to fix another person in grief.  You and I don’t heal people – that’s God’s job.

Your emotions will make a comeback in the future.

Just like the example of Frank, your emotions can get triggered by another’s grief, or even when you least expect it with seeing, hearing, or smelling something that reminds you of what you have lost.  Just because you grieved, and even grieved well, back there in the past doesn’t mean that it is a one-and-done affair.  Nope.  Not even close.  The feelings associated with that hard thing in your past can come back at the drop of a hat.  It’s okay.  Go ahead and feel them again.  Don’t short-circuit the emotions.  Coming to grips with trauma and hurt takes a lifetime of dealing with.  That’s not a popular message today; but it is certainly a true one.

I myself have had to learn the hard way that having a detached Mr. Spock-like approach to trauma only compounds the trouble.  I might not always be in touch with my emotions, but that doesn’t mean I don’t feel deeply.  Sometimes I need to slow down and stop long enough to feel, instead of running away from my heart.

Trauma, tragedy, and hard circumstances forever change us.  We can never go back to the way things were.  But, over time, we can learn to pay attention to our emotions, acknowledge them, and live with them as guides and friends rather than as unwanted guests.

Crisis Caring

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Here are just a few of the people I’ve encountered in the past week….

A man who went for a routine doctor’s visit was examined, then rushed to the hospital where he had his left leg amputated….

A woman who witnessed her son attempt to kill his wife by stabbing her multiple times….

A pastor’s wife who is overwhelmed with the depth of human need and emotional trauma she sees every Sunday in her urban congregation….

A man who is bitter and hard-hearted, refusing any sort of spiritual care or assistance in the face of death….

A family who watches on, while their beloved mother and grandmother is slowly slipping into eternity….

A pregnant mother who is on total bed rest, downright frightened by not knowing what will happen, and if her baby will live or die….

We live in a fundamentally broken world.  Everything is askew and awry, with people feeling the brunt of the things which are neither right, nor fair.  The examples are all of good people who have found themselves in the crosshairs of circumstances beyond their control.  Their situations left them feeling a range of emotions: abject horror, terrible sorrow and sadness, shocking denial, sheer panic, and crippling shame.  The sense of confusion, fragility, and powerlessness are palpable.

So, what in God’s name do we do when we are faced with trauma, either in ourselves or in people we care about?

A crisis or trauma turns our world upside-down.  It is a turning point.  Things will never be the same again.  Yet, it’s a unique opportunity for healing and growth.  Whether you care for someone, or need care yourself, there are three questions that have arisen for me as I have gone through my own crises and talk with folks facing trauma.

Who are you?

A crisis situation turns everything on its head.  It’s only human to question who we are.  Who is a man if he doesn’t have a literal leg to stand on?  Who is a mother when her son commits an atrocity?  Who is the pastor’s wife when she seems unable to meet needs?  Who is the bitter man when his expectations are not met?  Who is the family when their matriarch is gone?  Who is a mother if she doesn’t have a child?

It’s not a simple question.  It can’t be quickly answered.  Trauma throws doubt on who we thought we were before the crisis.  It can expose the shadowy parts of our lives we didn’t know were there, or bring light to the reality that our lives were built on things which don’t last.

Suppose you are a caregiver, trying to offer help.  If you’re goal is to make the person feel better, you’ll quickly find out you are not God.  You don’t fix people’s pain.  Who are you if you can’t repair broken people and solve their problems?  More than once I’ve felt like I’m in a Star Wars movie saying, “The compulsion is strong in this one.”  Until we learn to let go of trying to “force” others to feel better, we shall not be offering anything of genuine spiritual care.

What do I do?

Indeed, what do you do?  If you are a caregiver, you take action – not by changing feelings – but through attending to the basic needs of the one in trauma.  A crisis situation isn’t the time to explore emotions; it’s the time to feel them.  While a person is experiencing grief on a monumental scale, offering thoughtful assistance with decision-making, organizing the mundane things of life, and handling necessary details for them can be a loving way of bringing care and concern.

For those of you facing trauma and/or crisis, please hear me when I say:  Your task is to grieve, period.  Let compassionate people do things for you. You have no need of offering an apologetic for your emotion, tears, and trouble.  If you have been the kind of person that has been there for others, let them now be there for you.

How can I move on?

We move on through hope.  We continue the journey of life with the confident expectation that it can be good again, even though it might not look like it now.

“Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth; for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away, and the sea was no more. And I saw the holy city, the new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband. And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying,

“See, the home of God is among mortals.
He will dwell
with them;
they will be his peoples,
and God himself will be with them;
he will wipe every tear from their eyes.
Death will be no more;
mourning and crying and pain will be no more,
for the first things have passed away.”

And the one who was seated on the throne said, “See, I am making all things new.” Also he said, “Write this, for these words are trustworthy and true.” Then he said to me, “It is done! I am the Alpha and the Omega, the beginning and the end. To the thirsty I will give water as a gift from the spring of the water of life. Those who conquer will inherit these things, and I will be their God and they will be my children. (Revelation 21:1-7, NRSV)

We offer hope.  And it must come from a place of genuine care and not from the posture of trying to hurry a person along in their emotions because we are unsettled with their grinding grief.

Some people are very uncomfortable with seeing their loved one or friend in a state of extreme vulnerability.  So they withdraw, or try and get them to short-circuit their grief and get over it sooner than they really should be doing.  There is strength in weakness, and power in vulnerability.  True love is a mystery.  Sometimes we must all give up our analysis of events and people, and simply appreciate what is right in front of us.  Letting go of control can open to us a whole new world of possibility, creativity, and hope.

Faith is the ability to look ahead and see hope on the horizon.  When a community of people strengthen faith in one another through the spiritual means of listening, prayer, active compassion, thoughtful words, and healing presence, then that group of persons has discovered what it means to share the human condition.

From Grieving to Thriving

Mary

Barely any week goes by where I am not face-to-face with someone dealing with some sort of grief.  Whether it is unwanted circumstances like divorce, unemployment, or death; or, chosen situations like moving to a new house and area, having a child, or changing jobs; grief attaches itself to any significant loss or change in life.

You are likely somewhat familiar or aware of Elizabeth Kubler-Ross’s famous 5 stages of grief:  denial; anger; bargaining; depression; and, acceptance.  I think this is a very helpful model of understanding that people do not immediately “get over it” when there is upheaval in their lives.  There is a process that grieving people move through which is common to others, yet, unique to each individual person.

It is natural and understandable for a traumatic event to immediately trigger some sort of denial that this madness is even happening.  Trying to make deals with God or others to get the old status quo back often happens.  Depression and/or anger are logical stages of occurrence when it is understood that there is a point of no return.  Acceptance, ideally, occurs when the person in grief comes to grip with the new reality that this is now the way things are.  This grief process is necessary, but never a clean discerning movement, and always a rather herky-jerky, up-and-down, three-steps-forward-two-steps-backward kind of circuitous route to get to that acceptance.

But there is another consideration to this process of grief.  Acceptance is usually believed to be the end of the grief.  The person comes to acceptance and can now move on.  I want you to consider and think about grief, whether wanted or unwanted, that acceptance is not the end, but only the beginning.

When a parent loses a child, that Mom and Dad can come to the point of acceptance, it can take months even years to do so, but now they have a big reality to face:  How in the world do I now live?  How do I cope with not putting this child to bed at night anymore?  How do I transcend this new reality without my child in it?  How do I live my life in a way that I can thrive and flourish as a healthy well-adjusted person again?

Kubler-Ross’s process is an important part, but it isn’t everything.  That’s because a significant change or loss can be with you forever – and you need to learn how to be not only a survivor, but a person who grows and blossoms.

This doesn’t mean that you forget and do not remember.  Rather, it means you can hold the memory of what once was with fondness, while at the same time progressing into the next day with hope and anticipation of what will come.  Biblical characters in history had to do this – from Abraham leaving his home country behind, to Mary becoming pregnant as a virgin – people have always had to do more than just accept what is.  They have had to discover ways to cope with their new situation and transcend it to thrive inside their newfound reality.

Let’s return to Mary.  She became pregnant – not her choice, but God’s.  It was a good thing, but, this was light years beyond unconventional. It was scandalous, and Mary had to come to grasp this reality in her small Jewish world.  Consider what she did: went to visit her Aunt Elizabeth and gained lots of godly counsel and help; and, crafted a praise to God that we now call the “Magnificat.”  Moving from one reality to another will need to include some combination of wise input and well-considered praise to the Lord.

But also consider the other end of Mary’s reality of sharing her son with the heavenly Father: Mary watched her boy die a horrible death.  If a death of a child is one of the worst realities you can think of, imagine that death being a long and drawn-out torture with you having a front row seat to it all.  Jesus, her son, ever the mindful person even in death, was aware enough to put his Mom’s life in his beloved disciple’s hands, John.  Here is another way to negotiate learning to thrive again, to allow space in your heart for another person.

Accept your circumstances you must.  But this is not the end of it, only the beginning.  To move beyond survival, you must find ways to thrive.  These will typically include such things as not being isolated from others, but seeking out a wise person; crafting and writing and saying out loud a praise to God; and, opening your heart again and taking the risk of love.

The Gift of Tears

the gift of tears

“Jesus began to cry.” (John 10:35, CEB)

I believe that one of the tragedies of our contemporary Western society is that far too many people cry alone.  Their tears go unnoticed by others.  They cry in secret.  The fact that people tend to apologize for their tears in public testifies that we are uncomfortable with weeping.  Maybe it’s awkward because we can’t explain the science of crying – it’s just so darned subjective and based in emotions and feelings.  Maybe it’s ignored and denigrated because crying is viewed as some sign of weakness.  After all, real men don’t cry; and, women who cry are just irrational (so says much of the culture).  But I think there is a more sinister reason for such a paucity of tears in our society:  We are more and more lacking the ability to empathize with others.

We see natural disasters destroy people’s lives, and we don’t cry.  We see terrible human carnage in mass shootings, and we don’t cry.  We see statistics on the staggering numbers of sexual abuse and assault, and we don’t cry.  We see war across the planet with both soldiers and innocents killed, and we don’t cry.  Instead, we use these very real human calamities and catastrophes to advance our own political agenda.  We opine and drone on about how things should be, all the while adding to the carnage with unfeeling words and calloused hearts.

I submit to you that a significant reason a person like Jesus was not racially bigoted, constantly grumpy, blindingly selfish, and aloof toward the needs of others is that he had the ability to cry on behalf of others.  Perhaps we have a crisis of virtue, bravery, truth, and concern for the common good today because we are not in touch with the need to cry on behalf of others.  Jesus said, “Blessed are those mourn” (Matthew 5:4) because he knew the power of tears.  Crying not only cleanses our own souls but also the griefs of others. It connects us with people’s pain, and does not let us remain detached to the brokenness of the world.  God’s stamp of approval is on those who are able to cry, to weep, to mourn for others.  Godliness is not found among the opinionated arm-chair politician.  Instead, heartfelt weeping and wailing over the hurts of humanity is next to godliness.

Prayer, then, becomes not a means of presenting my wish list to God but the vehicle whereby I mourn the sins of the nation; intercede for my enemies; offer petitions for those who mistreat and persecute me; and, flat-out cry for the many people who are now experiencing the pain of living in a broken and fallen world (Matthew 5:44).  A lack of civility and gracious discourse betrays a terribly sad lack of prayer for others.  One of the greatest gifts we can give to other people, whether we like them or not, is to cry for them, especially if they cannot cry for themselves.

We are told in Holy Scripture that the Spirit himself intercedes in prayer for us with groans that words cannot express (Romans 8:26-27).  If the Blessed Holy Trinity of Father, Son, and Spirit cry over the world and its inhabitants, then we have all the theological reason necessary to be about the business of weeping.  It is tears, and not so much words or social action that will cleanse, purge, and wash away the ills and evils of our current moral dilemmas.  One of the beautiful things about this is that without exception every single person has the biological equipment and the image of God within to cry.

If we find ourselves unable to do this important activity of crying, then this is where we need to allow another person to cry on our behalf.  And that takes sharing your story with another person.  Is there a trusted person for whom you can share your story?  Have you ever shared your story with God?  Can you imagine God crying over you and groaning over the wrongs done to you by others?  Are you willing to listen without judgment to another’s story?  Will you allow yourself to stop biting your lower lip and let the tears flow?  Will you see tears as a gift from God?