Loving Well: Meaningful Ministry to Grieving Parents

Our journeys begin in different ways.

Just as every birth story is unique, so, too, is every parent’s story of loss.

It may be a phone call or an officer at the front door.  It may be a lingering illness or a sudden one. Our children may have lived days or decades.

Their death may be anticipated, but it is never expected.

And it is always devastating.

No one is prepared to bury their child.

But some of us have to.

In the best circumstances, loving well is a challenge.  It requires commitment and energy when many of us feel like we are already running on empty. The challenges are magnified in the face of child loss.

Yet as members of the Body of Christ, our calling is to minister to, encourage, care for and walk with those among us who are grieving.  And it is a daunting task.

If, as W.H. Auden said, “Death is the sound of distant thunder at a picnic”, then the death of a child is the sound of a tornado.

Compassion compels friends and family to reach out, but fear can constrain them.

“What do I say?”  “What can I do?”

Unsure of the answer, they may say and do nothing.

Yet some friends and family dive in bravely and do everything they can to help parents face this awful reality.  And I am certain so many more would come alongside, speaking courage and offering help if they knew more about what DOES help and what IS encouraging.

I have three goals for these next posts:

  • To share the way many bereaved parents have been loved well by those they know.
  • To encourage the members of the Body of Christ to reach out to anyone who has suffered loss and to give concrete ideas of how they can do that.
  • To exhort pastors and other ministry leaders NOT to set up a PROGRAM but to create a NETWORK of individuals, gifted in mercy and willing to serve, who can be responsible for shepherding the members of a local body who have experienced the loss of a child.

I hope you will join me as I share from my own experience and the experience of other bereaved parents how the Body of Christ can minister to members who bear the pain of grief and loss.

Please don’t think that these suggestions are appropriate only for those who have lost a child or even only for those who have experienced grief associated with death.

Grief enters our lives in many forms: the end of a marriage, chronic disease, job loss, and any number of unexpected and often undesired life transitions.

Ministry begins with awareness.  When we learn to see with the eyes of Jesus, we can become vessels through which His grace and compassion are poured out to others.

Then Jesus made a circuit of all the towns and villages. He taught in their meeting places, reported kingdom news, and healed their diseased bodies, healed their bruised and hurt lives. When he looked out over the crowds, his heart broke. So confused and aimless they were, like sheep with no shepherd. “What a huge harvest!” he said to his disciples. “How few workers! On your knees and pray for harvest hands!”

Matthew 9:35-38

Tomorrow:  Loving Well in the First Days

 

 

 

 

 

 

Well With My Soul?

If you have been in a church that sings hymns, I’m pretty certain you’ve heard the backstory to the hymn, “It is Well With My Soul”.

Or at least the most popular version–Horatio Spafford lost four daughters in a tragic accident.  Only his wife survived the sinking ship on its way to England.   Once there, she sent a heart-rending telegram, “Saved alone” to Spafford who had not accompanied them on the voyage.

As the story goes, Spafford, upon crossing the Atlantic to meet his wife, passed over the spot of the sinking and the words to the famous hymn came to mind:

When peace, like a river, attendeth my way,
when sorrows like sea billows roll;
whatever my lot, thou hast taught me to say,
It is well, it is well with my soul.
Refrain:
It is well with my soul,
it is well, it is well with my soul.

But, as Paul Harvey was famous for saying, here’s “The rest of the story”.

Spafford belonged to a congregation that staunchly believed difficulty and tragedy were divine chastening for sin or lack of faith.

Apparently, in the minds of at least some of his friends, the awful things that happened to Horatio and his wife were their own fault. Eventually, Spafford and his family removed themselves from the church and created their own fellowship.

Tragically, it seems that Spafford died confused, dismayed and perhaps, disbelieving.

Why is this important?

Because the support (or lack of support) bereaved parents receive from their fellow Christians can make all the difference between losing sight of Jesus and finishing well, with our eyes fixed on the “Author and Perfector of our faith”

We love the shortened version of the Horatio Spafford story because it ends with a triumph of faith, a crescendo of hope and a tidy finish to a messy story.

But the same reason the broad sweep of Spafford’s life is rarely brought to our attention is the same reason many find it difficult to walk beside grieving parents in their journey–even sincere, committed Christians can have doubts.

Even those who have read and believe the Bible can take longer than anyone would like to settle firmly on trusting God again after tragedy.

And even when we who struggle because of deep grief reach the place where our hearts can again rest in the sovereignty and goodness of God, we may always have unanswered questions.

Believers in Christ are called to minister to the members of His Body.  We are commissioned to encourage, uplift, care for and help each other.

It often involves more energy, time and effort than we are willing to give.

But if we believe, as Paul said, that every single member is called by God to serve a specific purpose then can we afford to ignore even one of them?

The way God designed our bodies is a model for understanding our lives together as a church: every part dependent on every other part, the parts we mention and the parts we don’t, the parts we see and the parts we don’t. If one part hurts, every other part is involved in the hurt, and in the healing. If one part flourishes, every other part enters into the exuberance.

I Corinthians 12:25-26

 

 

Life at the Intersection of Desire and Self-Control

Maybe you can relate:  It is easier to do without if what I want isn’t close enough to tempt me. 

I don’t shop if I don’t want to spend.  I don’t get donuts if I don’t want to eat sugar.  I don’t have soda in the house if I don’t want to drink carbonated soft drinks.

It’s much harder to deny my desires when what I long for is within reach.

I have practiced the spiritual discipline of fasting on and off for over a decade.  And I have learned a great deal about myself, about desire and about how very weak I am, in my own strength, to continue long on a path of self-denial.  Who can resist chocolate when it’s right there in front of you???

When I perceive that God is calling me to give up food or something else for a span of time to focus on Him and on spiritual growth, I can prepare myself.

I can pick a date.  I can arrange my home and schedule and commitments to accommodate what I know will be the challenges associated with the battle that is to ensue.

But there is a difference between choosing to fast and being forced to starve.

For those who live in parts of the world overrun by famine, choice has been removed. They don’t go without food because they desire to exercise personal or spiritual discipline–it has been decided for them. And many times, there is not one thing they can do about it except to hang on and try to survive.

Grieving my son feels like an odd and uncomfortable mix of both scenarios.

I certainly had no choice in the matter–I was not consulted, prepared or given any warning.  And he is gone. Gone, gone, gone.

Yet I am surrounded by memories, physical connections and constant reminders of the one I miss.

I must live everyday at precisely the intersection of desire and self-control.

No, I cannot “have” him back.  When I am thinking correctly, I don’t want him back here in this broken world with broken people.  If what Scripture says is true (and I preach to myself that it is) then he is experiencing joy and beauty that fills his heart so full there’s no room for missing me.

But the heart wants what the heart wants.

And my heart wants my family circle whole again.  My heart wants to see how Dominic would use his gifts and talents to impact the world.  My heart wants my surviving children and my husband and my extended family not to have to carry this heavy grief load and to be free to live life without the intimate knowledge of the darkness of death and loss.

Every day I am forced to acknowledge my heart’s desire and then exert the self-control necessary to get out of bed and participate in daily life.

It takes so much energy.  I am often tempted to give up and give in.

This fast is the most strenous ever thrust upon me.

I know in my head my desires will never be fulfilled this side of heaven.  This passionate longing won’t end until I am reunited with Dominic and ultimately, all my loved ones in the Presence of Jesus.  And I have no idea when that might be.

So I must focus my thoughts and fix my heart’s affection on the promise of God in Christ: that He will redeem every broken thing, that He will restore every lost treasure and that resurrection will rule.

Energize the limp hands,
    strengthen the rubbery knees.
Tell fearful souls,
    “Courage! Take heart!
God is here, right here,
    on his way to put things right
And redress all wrongs.
    He’s on his way! He’ll save you!”

 Blind eyes will be opened,
    deaf ears unstopped,
Lame men and women will leap like deer,
    the voiceless break into song.
Springs of water will burst out in the wilderness,
    streams flow in the desert.
Hot sands will become a cool oasis,
    thirsty ground a splashing fountain.
Even lowly jackals will have water to drink,
    and barren grasslands flourish richly.

Isaiah 35:1-7 MSG

 

 

 

Debate and Faith

There are those who say faith means you never doubt.  Those who live by the creed, “Don’t ask questions!”

But I say faith is exactly what you cling to in the margins of doubt–when you have exhausted all the possibilities that exist in the physical, you-can-touch-it world and yet you KNOW there is MORE.

Now faith is the assurance (title deed, confirmation) of things hoped for (divinely guaranteed), and the evidence of things not seen [the conviction of their reality—faith comprehends as fact what cannot be experienced by the physical senses].

Hebrews 11:1 AMP

Questions are how you mark the borders of what you know and find the edges of what you don’t.

This week I judged a high school debate.  It took me back over a decade to the time and place my own children were competing in tournaments.  As I watched the eager and earnest faces of these young adults, I remembered the equally eager and earnest face of Dominic.

He was always passionate about a debate.

Not so much the formal ones–he was on the tail-end of our family’s participation in that scene–but the kind you have around the dinner table and the campfire.  He did not like to lose.  But more importantly, he would not tolerate sloppy thinking or lousy logic.

And I hear his voice in these months after his death challenging me to think critically and work carefully through my doubts and my feelings about life, about death, about grief and about eternity.

When we discussed Scripture, or politics, or lifestyle, or the intersection of all three, Dominic would often be the one digging deeper, looking longer at the hand-me-down Bible verses used to proclaim and prop up popular points of view.  He asked, “Why?” and “Why not?” The six of us spent hours talking (sometimes arguing)–passionately defending our own understanding and interpretations.

All of my children are critical thinkers.  And I am grateful for this.

I don’t want to raise a generation that accepts without comment the thoughts and actions of the generation before.

Isn’t that part of what blinded the Pharisees and Saducees to the Presence of Messiah in their midst?  They clung desperately to what they thought they knew, all the time missing the very revelation of God they craved.

So, in honor of Dominic, I will allow myself the time, the energy and the space to wrestle with my questions.  I will search the Scriptures.  I will ask God for insight.  I will push back against the knee-jerk reactions and answers that come too easily and offer a false sense of closure.

God is not threatened by my wondering.  His throne is in no danger due to my queries.

It is most often other believers who find the questions unsettling.

I don’t want or expect to have the last word.  I believe that belongs to the Creator of the Universe.  But I think He will hear my plea.

In my trouble I called to the Lord. I cried out to my God for help. From his temple he heard my voice. My call for help reached his ears.

Psalm 18:6 ICB

 

 

 

Perspective is Everything

NOTE:  I’m including links to another blog and an old post of my own.  You’ll see that I am unskilled at inserting them smoothly. Yet another in the list of losses–Dominic was my tech advisor…

When my husband and I visited the Sequoia National Forest, we were overwhelmed by the enormity and beauty of the trees.  Even standing beside them, it is hard to realize how very huge they are.  But when you are able to drive your car through one of them, that gives you  some perspective.

Losing a child changes your perspective.  Some things look bigger than they did before and some much smaller.

And some things I thought I understood, I find I don’t understand at all.

Lately I have been challenged to re-read Bible stories I once blazed through like a novel and pay more attention to the people in them and their feelings and lives.

I was reminded of the story of Hagar by fellow blogger Janet Boxx [Boxxbanter.wordpress.com] when she commented on my recent post Sparrows Do Fall:

(https://thelifeididntchoose.com/2016/01/12/sparrows-do-fall/)

And I am ashamed to realize that until now, I saw Hagar’s story as a kind of minor corollary to the over-arching and “more important” story of Abraham.

But to Hagar and Ishmael, this was THE story–it was THEIR story and it was as important as any other story that was happening at the same time.

Perspective is everything.

Eye-witness testimony is often touted as the most solid proof when presenting a criminal case.  But those who study eye-witness accounts know that there can be as many versions of a story as there are people who see it.

What stands out to one person will be ignored or misremembered by another. Different witnesses focus on different aspects of the same scene because their individual experiences make them vulnerable to having their attention turned to various details.

I know that before I lost a child, I was more likely to focus on the “good” that came from the child’s death:  testimonies of lives changed, people coming to Christ, community activism on behalf of a cause or a condition that contributed to the death.

But now, I’m consumed by thoughts of the child’s parents.  I think about the siblings left behind.  I know by experience that they are just beginning a life-long journey that will be so very hard.

When others view the lives of bereaved parents, it is easier for them to place the narrative that consumes the attention, energy and passion of the parents within the larger story of “what God is doing in the world” because they (the non-bereaved) can see the panorama while we (the bereaved) are looking through a keyhole.

And no matter how you twist and turn to try to expand your view when it is limited by physical facts that defy alteration, you just can’t do it.

Hagar called the LORD, Jehovah-Roi,” The God Who Sees”.  

As a slave, no doubt Hagar was often overlooked and undervalued.  But the God of the Universe, SAW HER.

I know in my bones that God does see.

I don’t know or understand what He’s doing, but I know He sees. It is both comforting and disturbing–part of my ongoing wrestling.

Being seen is powerful.  When another comes alongside as witness to my journey, it is helpful.  It speaks courage to my heart to keep on walking and to continue to trust.

 

 

 

 

 

Things I’m Learning

The way things are supposed to be isn’t always the way things are.

I can experience joy and sorrow in the same breath.

The capacity to love and extend grace is enlarged by suffering if I submit to it and don’t fight it.

Never, never, NEVER underestimate the power of presence or texts or the random, “thinking of you” card.

Encouragement comes from unexpected sources.

Truth is the best defense against lies.

I was not nearly as grace-filled or kind as I thought I was before Dominic died. I’m trying to do better.

Hard things are hard.

Sad things are sad.

There’s no use pretending to be stronger than I am, God knows already and no one else is served by my pretending.

Questions are o.k.

My faith is a gift from God, is kept by God and I cannot “lose” it.

Grief is exhausting.

Life is exhausting.

Doing both at the same time is REALLY exhausting.

There is no limit to the pain you may have to endure this side of heaven.

Lightning can strike twice in the same place, and fear of what you know by experience trumps fear of the unknown by miles.

I can decide where to focus my thoughts.

Feeding fear is a choice. feeling fear is not.

 

 

Reminded to Rest

I was reminded in the past few days that I am oh, so vulnerable to attack when I am already wounded.  And that even when I see it coming, I am often unable to fend it off successfully.

The enemy taunts me and encourages me to compare my life with the lives of others.  He stands on the sidelines and calls out, “Your Father loves others better than you!”  He accuses in the shadows, “You are a failure.  Your faith is pitiful.  You will not persevere to the end.”

But he is a liar and the father of lies and deception and untruth are his native tongue.

I have to go back, again and again and again, to the Truth and recite it, write it, declare it and hold fast to it.

I must remember that every promise of God in Christ is “yes” and “amen”.

I must remind myself daily that victory has already been declared even when I can’t see it or feel it.

And when I am too tired to fight, I must allow myself to withdraw and catch my breath-extending the same grace to me that I would extend to another in my place.

It is o.k. to draw boundaries and to create safe places where I can recuperate and regain my strength.

I am not in competition with anyone else.  God has marked my course and He will lead me home.

 

But I stand silently before the Lord, waiting for him to rescue me. For salvation comes from him alone.

Psalm 62:TLB