Truth out of Balance

A  wise pastor I know made a profound statement that has stuck with me through the years: Heresy is truth out of balance.

I read my Bible.  I have been in church for most of my life.  I’ve heard sermons, participated in Sunday School lessons and listened to teaching on tapes and the radio from sound expositors of the Word. So it is unlikely that I would fall headlong into chasing after a wildly twisted theology that bore little resemblance to biblical truth.

But, I can be seduced into taking tiny baby steps away from the straight line of doctrine and look up one day only to realize that I am miles from where I thought I was headed.

The Pharisees clung tenaciously to the Law until they excluded grace.

In Paul’s letter to the Romans, he addressed the opposite extreme, answering the argument that if grace was so abundant, then perhaps one should sin more so that grace could be made more evident:

Now what is our response to be? Shall we sin to our heart’s content and see how far we can exploit the grace of God? What a ghastly thought!   ~Romans 6:1, 2a Phillips

Grieving the loss of a child, I am forced to face and balance questions that I thought I had once settled firmly in my mind:

  •  Is God good?
  • Is God in control?
  • Is there a heaven?
  • Is the blood of Christ sufficient to cover all sin?
  • Why does God save (physically) some people and not others?
  • Why do bad things happen to “good” people?
  • What, exactly, does God want from me?
  • Does God love me?

And if all I do is roll them around in my mind, depending on my own reasoning , I am at risk of answering my queries in a way that may seem right but which might actually be far from the truth.

There is a way which seems right to a man and appears straight before him, But its end is the way of death. ~Proverbs 14:12 AMP

Or if I look to other people and their lives, I am limited by what I see–which is never the whole picture.

So I must meditate on the Word and balance my interpretation in light of the whole counsel of Scripture as well as being honest about my own feelings and experience.  I must ask God through His Spirit to “lead me into all truth”.

And when I find it, I must cling to it with all my might and refused to be uprooted by the winds of sorrow and pain.

“Make them ready for your service [Sanctify them; Consecrate them; setting them apart for service] through your truth; your ·teaching [word] is truth.”

~John 17:17 EXB

 

 

 

A Daily Struggle

I despise the platitude plastered across social media memes:  “Hard times either make you bitter or better”.

It makes it sound so simple.

As if all I have to do is make a single choice between two equally available paths.

Enduring deep pain and unchangeable circumstances requires continued commitment to face the fork in the road over and over, and to choose well each time.

Every day I am forced to confront my heart’s tendency to turn inward and embrace loneliness and isolation in an attempt to protect myself from further and perhaps greater pain.

Each moment I have to choose whether I will lean into despair or hold onto hope.

And I just don’t agree that there are only two possible outcomes of a life that endures hardship or grief.

Bitterness is certainly an option.

If I allow myself to rehearse the reasons why my son should not have died, why my family doesn’t deserve this grief, why my life is so much harder than it should be–then the case for bitterness grows strong and becomes attractive.  I can pack my briefcase full of evidence and pull it out at every opportunity when confronted with yet another “happy moment” splashed on Facebook.

Bitterness is always a temptation, and I must refuse it everyday.

But “better” implies that I lacked something that I have now gained.

Better diminishes my grief and gives the impression that I’d do it all over again because my painful experience has wrought amazing results.

Losing my son, regardless of what I have learned, is not the same as sticking to a diet or working up to a marathon run or getting a master’s degree.

The subtle danger in declaring myself “better” is that I can decide I’m a measuring rod for others to judge their grief journey.  Or I can become like the reformed smoker who forgets how many tries it took to quit or how hard it was to finally stop smoking and instead mocks those who are still struggling.

I am not “better”.

I am broken.  

I am bankrupt of any illusion that I am the captain of my ship.  I understand by very, very painful experience that there are no earthly guarantees life will turn out according to plan. I embrace with both hands the notion that the most precious gift is people we love and no matter how long we have with them, it will never be enough.

I can’t claim a final victory of faith over doubt, of good out of bad, of lessons learned from effort expended.

Instead I extend my empty hands and hurting heart to be filled with grace and mercy.

I choose love and refuse hate.

I continue to engage this broken world from my broken perspective and offer compassion and understanding to those who are broken too.

Blessed [be] the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of compassions, and God of all encouragement; who encourages us in all our tribulation, that we may be able to encourage those who are in any tribulation whatever, through the encouragement with which we ourselves are encouraged of God.

2 Corinthians 1:3-4 DARBY

 

 

 

 

 

Not Quite So Dry Bones: Learning to Dance Again

I wrote this post several months ago–when falling autumn leaves turned my mind to how every living thing dies.  When the thought of another holiday season without a complete family circle pressed hard against my eyeballs and threatened to undo me.

I felt so very tired.  Some days I still do.  Some days are “dry bone” days.  But there are days when I hear laughter–look around and realize it flows from my own mouth.

I believe God is healing me.  He is restoring life to my bones.  He is redeeming my pain and resurrecting my hope.

It is a process.  So if you have only recently begun a grief journey, don’t despair.  It is hard and it is long.  But there is hope.

Grief has sapped the strength from my body and the life from my bones.  It has turned this forward-thinking planner into someone who rarely ponders even an hour from now.

I was a visionary.  

Now I’m a survivor.

I understand why Naomi changed her name to Mara-“bitter”.

When I read her story in the book of Ruth, I’m tempted to challenge her across time to “look on the bright side” and to “think of the future”.  But she felt her hope and her future had died and been buried with her husband and sons.  She was old.  She was spent.  She couldn’t understand what God was doing or imagine life beyond this moment or this day.

She was dried up all the way down to the bone.  

The breath of the promise of God had left her heart and she was barely there.

But God brought joy back into her life, He breathed life into her dry bones.

The book of Ezekiel records an amazing vision.  God shows the prophet a valley of dry bones.

Very dry bones.

No-life-even-in-the-marrow bones.  

And He challenges Ezekiel to prophesy to them:

Then he said to me, “Prophesy to these bones and say to them, ‘Dry bones, hear the word of the Lord!  This is what the Sovereign Lord says to these bones: I will make breath enter you, and you will come to life.  I will attach tendons to you and make flesh come upon you and cover you with skin; I will put breath in you, and you will come to life. Then you will know that I am the Lord.’” (Ezekiel 37: 4-6 NIV)

I long to have the LORD make His breath enter once again into my own dry bones, so I read His word and prophesy to my dry bones.

He is the God of the resurrection, and He will redeem my sorrow and pain.  

He IS the breath of life.   

I am clinging to His promises and trusting His heart.

One day, these dry bones will dance!

Dropping the Mask

Despite my commitment to authenticity, I do have a plastic smile I can pull out of my pocket and slap across my face.

Sometimes I just don’t want to have to have to answer the question, “How are you?” with more than a nod and a wave.

I tell myself that it demonstrates maturity and self-control.

And I actually think that’s OK. I don’t always need to spill my guts to every unsuspecting stranger I meet.

But if I allow it to become a habit or use it as camouflage to keep my distance from my fellow man, it is unhelpful.  It gives the false impression that life is mostly smooth sailing, when that’s just not true so much of the time.

And it builds a wall between me and others.

Because if the people I meet think that I have it all together all the time, they are going to be much less likely to admit that they don’t.  And let’s be real, none of us have it all together.

We all have at least one place in our lives that hurts and that needs healing.

Everyone has scars.

Losing a child is teaching me many things.  One of the things I am learning is that I am not self-sufficient.  I am not capable of meeting my own needs or bearing my burdens alone.  I need companionship in this journey.

When I walk around with my mask on, I isolate myself from the very people that might help me heal.

It is humbling and sometimes frightening, to let others SEE my brokenness.

I might be inviting judgment and condemnation.  But I am also welcoming love and companionship.  I am opening my heart to the gift of friendship.

When I refuse to pretend, I give permission for others to take off their masks too.

Being real creates space for authentic healing.

It unlocks doors to sharing truth.

Jesus came as God in the flesh so that He could experience our trials, our temptations, our joys and our sorrows. He came to KNOW.

But He also came to make the Father KNOWN.

And He has left His followers to continue making the Father known in the world.

If I want to minister to the painful places in the lives of others, I have to let them see the painful places in my own. I have to drop the mask and reveal my face.  When I do, I invite them to let me help carry their load and to let them help me carry mine.

Bear ye one another’s burdens, and so fulfil the law of Christ.

Galatians 6:2

 

 

Hopeful Waiting: Healing in Community

Since losing my son, I often feel like I’m in a holding pattern, circling life and unable to land.

I’m better at doing than waiting. 

I was prepared for the tears and the sorrow and the longing of grief.  But this lifetime of waiting took me by surprise.  

I am caught  between the here-and-now and the hereafter and I must give each a measure of my attention.

Waiting weighs me down and makes it so very difficult to move.

Because the one thing I want to DO is bring Dominic back.

But that is impossible.

And I groan in travail, desperate to birth into fullness what God has promised.

Paul wrote to the church in Rome, acknowledging the tension between our earthly experience and the glory of heaven:

It is plain to anyone with eyes to see that at the present time all created life groans in a sort of universal travail. And it is plain, too, that we who have a foretaste of the Spirit are in a state of painful tension, while we wait for that redemption of our bodies which will mean that at last we have realised our full sonship in him. We were saved by this hope, but in our moments of impatience let us remember that hope always means waiting for something that we haven’t yet got. But if we hope for something we cannot see, then we must settle down to wait for it in patience.

Romans 8: 24-26 Phillips

And these verses are the cornerstone of a ministry to those who have experienced child loss called “While We’re Waiting”.   (While We’re Waiting)

Founded by two bereaved mothers, it is a Christ-centered, supportive environment that provides a safe place to share with those who understand by experience what grieving parents are going through.

The Facebook page  (while we’re waiting ) is a way for bereaved parents to connect with and encourage one another.

In our mutual waiting, we are all learning that “hope always means waiting for something that we haven’t yet got.” Together we are spurring one another on to finish well.

This community has been so helpful as I continue my grief journey.

By example, I am learning how to keep living and wait for reunion at the same time.

I am learning to persevere.

I am learning to rest but also to work.

I am learning to bear the heaviness of sorrow and deferred hope while also walking confidently in the path God has laid before me.  

And when I am worn out in the waiting, overwhelmed with the prospect of a lifetime of longing, I am encouraged by the love and support of fellow travelers who remind me of God’s faithfulness and provision, even in the wilderness  of grief.

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 in the First Days After Loss

The death of any loved one opens a door and forces you to pass through.

You cannot procrastinate, cannot refuse, cannot ignore or pretend it away.

Suddenly, you find yourself where you absolutely do not want to be.  

And there is no going back.

Many bereaved parents describe the first hours, the first days after losing a child as a fog–we feel both horrified (I can’t believe this is happening!) and numb (Is this real? Am I dreaming?).

There are so many details, so many decisions that must be made immediately following a child’s death.  

And it is so hard to make them when consumed by overwhelming pain and loss.

This is when loving bereaved parents well is so very important.

After reading dozens of comments from bereaved parents in response to my question, “What one thing did people do for you when you lost your child that was especially helpful”, I found that the answers fell roughly into three main categories:  

  • compassionate care,
  • committed companionship, and
  • continued concern

So here they are.

Compassionate Care

The first few hours and the first days are when bereaved parents need immediate, continuous and committed help.  They need someone to step up, to take the burden of some of the  choices and chores off their shoulders and allow them to use the limited energy and focus that remains to take care of themselves, their surviving children and to prepare to say goodbye to the child they have lost.

“We were 1300 miles away when we received the call that our son would not survive.  A friend of my husband’s drove to the house, asked for a phone and credit card and made all the arrangements for us to travel to be with our son.  He contacted a local funeral home and made an appointment for us.  His fiance did our laundry.  The next morning he took us to the airport and was by our side the next three days.” ~a mom who had just had a lung biopsy earlier that day

I heard this over and over:  People showed up, they cleaned our home, they stocked our refrigerator, they mowed our grass, they answered the phone and opened the door to visitors.  They put plates of food and drinks by us, even if we weren’t eating–hoping to tempt us into at least staying hydrated.

“I wanted to gather things from my precious girl that represented LIFE to take to the funeral home.  Someone asked if they could take care of it for me and I relinquished the task.  A small army of mamas displayed everything so beautifully.  I walked in there and my daughter’s life was just bursting forth in a way I could never have imagined.”

One sweet friend who had recently lost her husband came first to cry with me and came back a little later with a car full of toilet paper, paper plates, kleenex and paper towels.

Many of us received prayer shawls–our pastor’s wife brought one for me and my daughter. I wrapped it around me and wore it every day, everywhere until several weeks after we buried Dominic.  It became my security blanket, my “God hug” that reminded me He was still with me.

“On the day of the burial, friends put bottles of cold water and granola bars in our car for us to find after the service was over.”

“Look for little things that both make life easier and that we might forget to take care of in our grief.”

Committed Companionship

It is hard to sit with the grieving.  Hard to watch them, especially in the first hours, the first days.

But our lives have been turned upside down, we need a hand to hold so we are assured we aren’t falling down a bottomless pit.

Some longtime friends showed up at my door just a couple hours after we got the news and stayed all day and late into the night until my husband arrived from California and a son drove home from West Virginia.  An “adopted” son came even sooner. By the afternoon, our home and yard were filled with people who loved our son and love us.

“When my son died, we were waiting to donate his organs.  His pastor stayed with us all night and all the next day until things were finished.  I will forever be grateful to him and his wife for the support they gave my daughter-in-law.”

“My son died very unexpectedly.  My aunt began the hymn, ‘Surely the Presence of the Lord is in this Place’ and everyone joined in singing as family and friends piled into the hospital waiting room.”

“I love my friends that just let me ramble and vent and didn’t tell me, ‘You can’t think like that’ and told me, ‘You did everything right’.”

“One of our good friends came, he put his forehead to mine and said, ‘Think on the good things.  He’s OK.  Remember the love.’  He just kept reassuring me,  I actually felt my spirit calm.”

“We had some missionary friends come sit with us for a couple hours each day until our family was able to get here.  Pretty sure they’d brushed up on some grief books before coming over.  They asked a few questions, but mostly just sat with us.”

Continued Concern

Because our son was killed in a motorcycle accident and because his death occurred on the Saturday before Palm Sunday, there was a delay in holding the funeral.  So it was nine long days between his death and burial.  It felt unusual to me, but I have since realized that there can be many reasons for delay.

Our friends and family stayed with us.  They continued to minister to us.  Food kept pouring in.  Cards piled up on the foyer table (many parents just can’t read them right away–but they are a source of comfort when they can).

“My son’s friends, many of whom I’d never met, came out of the woodwork to offer comfort.  They often text or message me.  When I need to reach out to a young person just to hold and hug because I can’t hug my son anymore, any one of them is willing to do that for me and I appreciate that.”

“Offer to get the other kids out of the house and do fun activities with them.  One of the hardest aspects of losing a child with other kids in the house is helping them deal with their grief….it’s difficult for the parents to get the time and space they need to process their grief whne they are also trying to help their other kids work through their grief.”

“One mom and her sons came and worked in our yard a couple of months after our daughter died.  It was so nice to pull in our driveway and see a tidy yard and flower beds.”

Texts, cards, phone calls (even if we don’t pick up) that tell us you are thinking about us, praying for us and care are so encouraging (speak courage to our hearts) as we transition from “saying good-bye” to living with the absence of our child.

When Dominic died, I felt like I was set adrift in a giant ocean, no land in sight.

The familiar markers I had always used to navigate life were gone-POOF!  And the little boat I was clinging to had holes in the bottom, threatening to sink any minute.  I was baling as fast as I could, but my feverish activity was barely keeping me afloat.  The compassionate care, committed companionship and continued concern of friends and family gave me the courage to carry on.

Love expressed through the Body of Christ lifted my heart so that eventually I could lift my head.

How we serve the grieving in our midst makes all the difference in whether they lose sight of their Hope or whether they finish the race set before them, with their eyes fixed on the Author and Perfector of their faith.

God didn’t set us up for an angry rejection but for salvation by our Master, Jesus Christ. He died for us, a death that triggered life. Whether we’re awake with the living or asleep with the dead, we’re alive with him! So speak encouraging words to one another. Build up hope so you’ll all be together in this, no one left out, no one left behind. I know you’re already doing this; just keep on doing it.

I Thessalonians 5:9-11 MSG