Loving Well: How the Church Can Serve Grieving Parents and Other Hurting People

I am a shepherd.  My goats and sheep depend on me for food, for guidance and for their security.

And every day I am reminded that a shepherd’s heart is revealed by the way he or she cares for the weakest and most vulnerable of the flock.

But most of us are far removed from the daily reminder of pastoral life that was commonly accessible to the authors and readers of the Bible thousands of years ago.  So it’s no surprise that we tend to forget the connection between a shepherd’s life and a pastor’s calling.

Jesus called Himself, “the Good Shepherd” and He told Peter to “feed My sheep”. The relationship of shepherd to sheep is important if we are to understand how God wants His church to function.

Many churches serve more people than the number of animals in my care. And a pastor is only one person.  He (or she) cannot personally meet every need of every member of the congregation.

Still, a pastor is in a unique position to demonstrate priorities to a church and lead by example in ministering to the weakest and most vulnerable among them.

So how can a pastor lead the church to love the grieving and other hurting people well?

Cultivate a Culture of Compassion:

Does your local body welcome the wounded?  

Like those carrying the pain of burying a child.  Or the burden of chronic physical disability. Or the unceasing struggle of overcoming addiction.

Pain is a reminder that this world is broken. It’s uncomfortable to feel it, to be near to someone who is feeling it. We try so hard to “fix” our own and other people’s pain.  And sometimes if we don’t feel like we can fix it, we ignore it.

A cold shoulder wounds as much as hurtful words. Acknowledgement is as great a blessing as an extended hand.

Compassion means “to suffer alongside”.  It requires getting to know someone and listening to their story.  It means inviting others into your life, not only your pew.

Is your congregation too busy to truly SEE? The business of the church is people.

If we are to minister to the broken, we must reach out to them.  The first step is to welcome them in.  Then show them that you care.

Come alongside, bear witness to the tears, lay a hand on an arm, reach out with only love-often in silence. This is compassion, it touches the soul of one who hurts and reminds them that pain is not all there is.

No one should leave a church service ungreeted.  No one should leave feeling more alone than when they entered the building.

Communicate the Cost of Compassionate Response:

God is the God of inexhaustible resources, yet sometimes we act as if we are in a zero-sum community.  If we give too much over here, there won’t be enough over there.  But God has promised to supply every need according to His riches in glory.  

If we are to live in true fellowship with one another, loving one another through thick and thin, then it will be costly.  Ministry requires giving of resources, energy and time.

I have written elsewhere that, “There is no substitute for walking with the wounded.  It is costly, it is painful, it is hard.”

But it is what we are called to do.

God Himself stepped into His creation to feel the pain of brokenness, to bear the price of sin and to open a Way for restoration and redemption.

We shouldn’t set a time limit or a resource cap when we minister to those He has placed in our midst.

Commit to Continue:

Compassion says, “I see your pain.  I hurt with you.  Let me stay with you until you feel better.  And if you never feel better, I’ll still be here.”

Compassion requires conscious commitment to push back against our tendency to forget those who live with ongoing challenges.

Ministering to hurting people rarely leads to a tidy final chapter that wraps loose ends into a comfortable narrative.We need to be honest about this.  A weekly program is not going to be enough.

Pastors can help a congregation remain focused on compassionate response so that members do not abandon the broken to sit alone with their pain.

True ministry involves RELATIONSHIP.  And relationship is time-consuming.

But relationship is at the center of the Gospel of Jesus Christ.  No longer separated from God by our sin, we are invited to His table–welcomed into His family.

We are all broken.  And without the compassionate love of our Savior, we are all without hope.

When we welcome the wounded, we are living the Good News.

Watch what God does, and then you do it, like children who learn proper behavior from their parents. Mostly what God does is love you. Keep company with him and learn a life of love. Observe how Christ loved us. His love was not cautious but extravagant. He didn’t love in order to get something from us but to give everything of himself to us. Love like that.

Ephesians 5:1-2 MSG

 

 

 

 

 

 

Loving well: Understanding “Acceptance”

Sometimes those that walk alongside the bereaved are biding time, waiting for that “final” stage of grief: Acceptance.

And some therapists, counselors and armchair psychiatrists are certain that if the grieving mother can simply accept the death of her child, she can move on–that she can get back to a more “normal” life.

But this notion is as ridiculous as imagining that welcoming a new baby into a household doesn’t change everything.

And new parents have months to prepare.

I had the brief millisecond between the words leaving the deputy’s mouth and my ears hearing them for my mind to comprehend.   

And I admit, there were moments in the day, even a few months afterwards, that I found myself saying out loud, “How can Dominic be dead?”

But those have mostly passed.

I accept that my son is dead.  He will not return to me in the land of the living.  He will not walk through my front door and he will not grow older, marry and have children of his own.

Every now and then, I do see a shape in a crowd, the shoulders set just so and for a moment my heart leaps.  But my mind quickly remembers that Dominic is not here.

So, acceptance means that I understand that things are the way they are.

Acceptance does not mean that I have to like it or that I don’t wish some things were different.

Acceptance means that I comprehend the future will not include new memories with Dominic as part of our family circle here on earth.

Acceptance does not mean that I never look back fondly and with yearning for the years we spent together.  It does not mean that I don’t grieve the years we won’t have.

I accept that I have a life to live even though part of my heart is no longer with me.

But acceptance does not mean that the life I live going forward is not impacted by my loss or that it isn’t framed at the edges by grief.

I am now what losing a child has made me.  

Acceptance means that I will offer up this new me, just as I have offered up every new me in the past, to the God Who made me, to use me according to His plan and for His glory.

The people of Israel were shaped as much by what they lost as by what they gained:

A group of Israelites, led by Ezra the scribe, returned to Jerusalem from Babylon, and were charged with rebuilding the Temple that had been destroyed many years earlier.

A few among them had seen with their own eyes the glory and majesty of Solomon’s Temple, but most of those returning had been born in captivity.  To the older men, this new temple paled in comparison to what they had lost.  But to the younger, it represented a new beginning and a brighter future.

Many of the older priests and Levites and the heads of families cried aloud because they remembered seeing the first temple years before. But others were so happy that they celebrated with joyful shouts.Their shouting and crying were so noisy that it all sounded alike and could be heard a long way off.

Ezra 3:12-13 CEV

The grieving were sad, but they worked anyway.

Acceptance acknowledges loss, but is not immobilized by it.

So how to love me and others well in this phase of our grief journey?

Understand that acceptance involves both of us:  while I must accept the fact that my child is dead and that my life is different than the one I would have chosen for myself–others must accept that I am who I am and I will never be the other me–the one before losing a child, again.

My life as a bereaved mother is always going to be a mixture of sorrow and joy.

It will always include looking back and looking forward.

It can’t be anything else.