Category Archives: Grief and Healing

The process of grieving, acceptance and healing.

Lessons from Pain

IMG_1513Right now I find myself in a deluge of tragic circumstances. Just a few days ago, a 29-year-old woman, a member of my congregation, died from an unknown staph infection leaving behind a bewildered, devastated family and scores of friends. A very good friend admitted his mother dying of cancer into hospice care, and then just a few hours later, she passed away. Another very good friend just told me that his mother is not doing well in her battle against cancer. I have a pretty high number of parishioners also battling cancer, grieving losses, and more.

As a pastor, I try very hard to be fully present with people in pain without shouldering their pain upon myself. I simply have too many people to care for and too many other leadership responsibilities to allow myself to be saddled with all the wounds and sorrows people carry. Yet that’s a fine line to walk, and after almost 20 years of ministry, I can’t always clearly see where that line is because it’s constantly moving. So if there’s a place to err, I’d rather be under the yoke of sorrow rather than hiding behind a shield of emotional distance.

That’s a choice I make, however, and sometimes it comes at a personal cost- one that I’m paying now. So, this post is just as cathartic for me as any chance it may have of being a blessing to someone else. Like most, I’ve had my own seasons of loss and pain along with the lessons I’ve learned. The following are some of my reflections and insights about the nature and redemption of pain.

1) Presence, not words.
When someone is in pain, the knee-jerk response is an urge to “say something to make it better.” That’s natural. We’re human beings. Made in God’s image, we’re creators, builders, and fixers. So when confronted with the inexplicable invasion of pain, our instinctual drives to create, build, and fix kick into high gear. Make the pain go away. Replace it with something else.

There’s one problem, however: pain can’t be undone or circumvented. For example, when someone dies and we’re filled with the pain of grief, no one’s words or any other attempt to fix it, manage it, or mask it can take away the pain from the unalterable fact that a loved one is permanently gone. Any attempt by others to fix, manage, or mask that reality can easily result in the unintended consequence of making the pain worse.
The true act of consolation is presence. When Job lost his children and all he owned, his friends Eliphaz, Bilbad, and Zophar came to visit. They wept with him and sat with him in silence for seven days. (This is the biblical precedence behind the Jewish custom of “sitting shiva”, a period of seven days when Jews in mourning welcome visitors to console them.) After losing my first fiancée Diane, the best consolers I had were those who just sat with me and listened. They said little. They held my hand, gave me hugs, and even shed tears with me. One church woman kept fresh flowers on my desk for several months after Diane’s death. I do remember getting lots of cards and notes from people, but I don’t remember anything the cards said. Their words did nothing to comfort me. But the act of remembering me and reaching out was the true gift of all those cards and notes.

2) There are no answers, only realities.
Why did this happen?
We human beings hunger for meaning and purpose, and pain is a deafeningly silent force that offers neither of those things. Sitting with the family and friends of the 29-year-old woman who died, so many have asked and will continue to ask, “How could this happen? Why did it have to happen? Why her? How could life (and God!) be so cruel?” I think we ask these questions as a way to gain some kind of power over a pain we did not ask for or deserve. Perhaps if we could understand the pain or explain it in some way, we could gain some mastery over it.

Try as we might, that struggle is an illusion. We’ve heard it said- and it’s very true- that many times we just don’t know. Yet all is not lost. I have learned that peace comes when we accept the wisdom that there are mysteries we do not know and do not need to know. We can find healing and meaning even with unanswered questions. I also came to a practical realization that even if I was able to find an answer to my questions of why?, those answers would not somehow lessen the pain or make it more bearable. That same pain would still be there, even if I possessed all omniscience into the rhyme and reason of my own circumstances.
Instead of answers, there are realities, and these realities bring about hope.

As a disciple of Jesus, I have the realities of God’s presence, God’s faithfulness, the cross, resurrection, healing, and abundant life in the here and now to stake my life on. The presence of pain invites me to claim these realities in a new way to fit a new circumstance. Like lighthouses in treacherous waters or guide rails in a dark hallway, they are there for me to claim as I muddle my way forward. These truths are not mystical antidotes to the pain I carry, but they shepherd me through pain to the healing I seek.

3) Grief is a friend, not an enemy.
Grief is the byproduct of a great loss. Like an unwelcome guest, grief shows up in the place of what or who went missing. During times of loss, I remember at first hating grief, avoiding it, and doing all I could to beat it back. My grief became the great enemy to my happiness, which I felt could only be had if my loss was restored. Yet the losses we suffer can never truly be restored. Once we come to terms with that, then grief becomes our guide to letting go of who or what we lost. Grief guides us through all the necessary places of anger, sorrow, guilt, shock, and denial. Eventually grief leads us into a place of living well even with the pain of loss.

Over time, I have found grief to be a trusted friend. I don’t have control over grief. Grief often arrives unannounced and with no pre-arranged agenda. When grief arrives, however, it takes me where I need to go, and the result is one step closer to wholeness. With grief, wounds become scars. Deep sadness becomes joy. The cross and tomb burst open to the limitless possibilities of resurrection.

4) We can choose what to do with our pain.
This is the most difficult lesson to write about because in no way do I want to suggest that there are definite things to do with pain, or that what one person decides to do with their pain is necessarily better or more admirable than another person’s choices. However, I think it’s safe to claim that we do have the power to decide how to navigate through pain and what we want the legacy of our pain to be.
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That said, I’d like to gently suggest one avenue of navigating through pain. We could choose a life in which our places of pain become the very places where others find comfort and healing. People have transformed their pain into advocacy movements, ministries, non-profit organizations, support groups, charitable foundations, books, seminars, music, poetry, and so much more. People have chosen to insert their own sense of meaning and purpose into their pain by using it as the very thing that would bring life and vitality to other people.

I have often said that while I am not at all grateful for the pain I have endured, I am grateful that with God’s help, I could find some wisdom, empathy, faith, love and strength I did not have before. I have allowed God to redeem my pain by deepening me to become a more authentic person and pastor. For all of that, I am eternally grateful. Yet I had to make the choice to do this, and my choices along the way did not always manifest themselves in the most gracious or endearing ways. Working through pain is always a messy process- an intentional slog, at times murky and perilous- but always forward-looking and stubbornly hopeful.

This post is written in loving memory of Meredith Mahr-Edmunds (3/25/88-7/29/17) and Doris Rodbell (10/15/37-7/31/17) and in honor of their loved ones. May God shepherd them through the valley of the shadow of death to the green pastures of healing.

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Life in the New World, 20 Years after a Death

img_205020 years ago on this day, February 8, 1997, my fiancée Diane Michelle Thompson died in a car accident while driving to work. It was in the early morning, and the roads were icy. Diane lost control of her car when she slipped on a patch of black ice. Her car crossed the road and slammed into a telephone pole killing her instantly. She was just 22-years-old. I was a month away from my 23rd birthday.

Diane and I had been engaged for almost 2 years and were 4 months away from our wedding day. In fact, we were just about to start addressing our wedding invitations when she died. We had already purchased our wedding rings.

I distinctly remember that morning. At around 8 AM, Diane’s work called to see if I knew where she was. (She sometimes went to work from my house, and I was an emergency contact for her.) That call concerned me a little, but then again, Diane was never known for her promptness to much of anything. Still that was late, even for her. I told them I hadn’t heard from Diane, but to please have her check in with me when she got there.

A little while later, the phone rang again. It was Diane’s father.

“Chris,” he said. “It’s Mike. Listen, I’ve got some really bad news.”

“Really? What’s wrong?” I asked. Mike had a stoic, matter-of-fact way of talking about most things, but I could sense tension in his voice. This call was for something quite different.

“Chris, listen… Diane was on her way to work. Her car slipped on the ice and she got into an accident. She didn’t make it,” he said.

I paused a moment, not sure how to gauge what he just said. “Didn’t make it? Well, what do you mean? Is she alright?”

“No, no, you don’t understand,” he said. “She. Didn’t. Make it.” Suddenly the ominous weight of what Mike just said sunk right into my skull.

“You mean… She’s dead?” I asked. Those words fell out of my mouth lingering there in a vacuum of disembodied space.

“Yeah…” he mumbled. I closed my eyes. I don’t remember the rest of the conversation.

The life I had known up until that moment quickly vanished. When I opened my eyes again, it was like I found myself vaulted into an alternate universe. I had no idea where I was or what to do. The same people and surroundings were still there, but with Diane suddenly gone, it was all a mere shell of what used to be. I was scared, paralyzed, lost. Before me was a dark, murky future I didn’t know and didn’t want. I was taken captive into a whole New World, and at first, I did all I could to break free from it. It was a world without Diane, without all my hopes, dreams, and plans. It felt like a barren wasteland of vague memories and shattered expectations.
I wanted to wake up and go home.

†††††††

20 years later, I find myself in this same New World. I have since learned to embrace it and thrive in it, and I’ve received the unique gifts it has offered me, most especially its lessons about life and death. This New World reminds me how fragile our existence is and how uncertain our tomorrow is, if it even exists at all. This New World insists on doing whatever is most important Today, while it is still Today.

And like the cherubim who guard the way into Eden with flaming swords, my New World doesn’t let me enter the Old World gardens of What If, Should Have Been, and Could Have Been. Once in a while I find myself wandering over to see if I can catch a glimpse into those Old World gardens. I think about where Diane and I would be if she were still alive. What would she look like now? What would our children be like? What memories would we have made together?

But then the phone rings. I get a text. My wife or one of my children calls my name, and just as quickly, I find myself back in the New World where I belong. It’s certainly not perfect or ideal. (Then again, taking off my rosy lenses of reminiscence, the Old World with Diane wasn’t exactly perfection, either- far from it.) 20 years ago, I wanted nothing to do with this New World, but now, I can’t fathom my life without all that God has given me since. I have a beautiful wife, companion and partner named Blairlee. I have three beautiful children- Kathryn, Grace Elizabeth and Jacob, all gifts from God in this world into which God had a hand in bringing me.

With that said, I have a strange confession: in a way, I will always love and miss Diane. At first glance, that may seem scandalous, even pathetic. How could I love and miss a person who is dead while being a happily married husband and father?

The most powerful lesson this New World has graciously taught me is this: love, true love, never ends. Love adapts and changes, as it should. Love brings about different ties and obligations over time. For example, I will always love my children, and I’m imagining that I will miss them when they venture out on their own to begin their adult lives. Yet my love for them, properly evolved, cannot keep them from living as full-fledged adults. In a similar vein, that’s where I find myself with Diane. I still love her for the woman she was and for the enormous impact she has had on my life, before and after her death. I miss that she’s still not here among us, most especially with her parents, siblings, grandparents, aunts, uncles, and cousins. And while not teetering too far into Old World longing, I recognize the truth that if Diane were still alive, we would be married, our lives looking quite differently than they do today.

But that’s where New World love and grief meet a healthy conclusion. I do not long for a ghost to jettison me from the life I have inherited as a result of her tragic death 20 years ago. (She wouldn’t tolerate that foolishness anyway.) As we say, “Life goes on.”  At times, it is a stoic determination to keep one foot in front of the other, and at best, a grand celebration that death has been swallowed up in the victory of life. Either way, as Peter Gabriel once wisely sang, “life carries on, and on, and on.” Indeed it does.

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The Treasure of a Human Life: Lessons (Re)learned

As a pastor, I have conducted so many funerals for both older people and younger people. I’ve lost count of how many. People ask me how I manage to do that, especially for someone I don’t know. The answer to that is another story. But the one thing that continually compels me when I memorialize someone is the effort to capture the existential substance of their being, the worth and reason of their life. I look at each life as a stained glass window through which God can shine. The questions: how did God shine through this person? Who benefited from that light? How does this person reflect who I know God to be? The answer to those questions become the substance of what I share at a funeral.

Justin Kurlychek

Justin Kurlychek

Admittedly, all this can come to be routine until I’m smacked in the face with the death of a friend like Justin Kurlychek. Justin died early Tuesday morning. We were just 7 months apart in age. We graduated from high school together. We sang and acted together. We shared a wild and crazy senior beach week together. (Tales untold!) We spent many hours on the phone together in recent years. He left behind two beautiful daughters. As I mentioned in a tribute I wrote, he was a beautiful, creative soul, even with all his troubles and demons.

As many times as I’ve gone through grief like this- I’ve lost several good friends to death including a fiancée almost 20 years ago- I’m always awed at how one person deeply affects the world around them. My tribute for Justin went viral in a matter of hours by hundreds and hundreds of people who were grieving Justin’s death. On top of my own grief, I felt both honored and inundated by the number of people who reached out to me in the last couple of days. But the sheer magnitude of the response to Justin’s death was something I had not anticipated. It has affirmed how many people loved Justin, how many people he loved, and the ways he sincerely impacted us all with his presence and his gifts.

I only wish Justin knew how valuable his life was and how people would respond to his untimely death. That’s the value and power of one life. Just one.

During times like these, it’s only natural and necessary to mourn our loss. It is a horribly painful thing to lose a person like Justin Kurlychek. Many have said that he is finally at peace. That may be so, but I mourn the fact that he knew so little of it while he was alive. I mourn the terrible time Justin had valuing himself for the beautiful gift he was. And I mourn the unfulfilled wish of having spent more time with him in the last few years of his life.

But if there is a gift to pick up from the ashes of our grief and regrets, it’s the reaffirmation that each of our lives is a sacred gift to be lived, treasured, and shared. Since that is true, what will we do in the aftermath of Justin’s memorials and tributes? Will we return to life as usual? Or will we make more of a concerted effort to value each life in our network, love them, spend time with them, and at the same time, give away the best of what God has made us to be as a blessing to them?

How many times have we said, “Yeah, we need to get together and hang out!” only to find that months later, nothing has happened? Or how many times have we held back from giving our very best to the ones we love out of fear, pride, misplaced priorities, or even shame? For me, Justin’s death has brought those questions into a much brighter spotlight.

I think that it’s a wonderfully divine irony that the shadow of death can invite us into the endless treasure of life. I hope you and I can discover and claim this treasure for ourselves.

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My Tribute to Justin: a Beautiful, Troubled Life

Justin Kurlychek (10/15/74-8/23/16)

When I was in high school, there was this guy, Justin, who always seemed larger than life to me. He was incredibly creative, offbeat, funny, musical, dramatic. He was not a part of the super “in” crowd, but nevertheless, everyone- and I mean everyone!-  liked and appreciated Justin. And I’ll never forget the moment I realized that Justin liked me, too, and considered me a friend. I was very humbled by that, and I still am today.

I met Justin Kurlychek in South River High School’s drama club. For two years I played in the spring musical pit band, supporting people like Justin up on the stage, but then encouraged on by some friends I auditioned and got parts in the fall play and spring musical right alongside Justin. There wasn’t anything he couldn’t do. He could act, sing, and dance. And no matter what he did, he knew how to own an audience’s attention. Justin took the stage and kept it. All eyes were on him.

Justin also played in bands and was a natural front man singer and guitarist. He wrote and performed his own music. After high school, I participated in a local battle of the bands. The band I was in lost to his band by a landslide. I wouldn’t say they were more talented than we were, but Justin was the magic ingredient. He could gather and keep a crowd on their feet. That alone won the day.

In our senior year of high school, I began to get to know Justin better. I began to see that underneath all of his wacky charisma and charm were troubled waters. I never knew how troubled or the causes of his turmoil, but something always haunted him and never stopped. This darker part of Justin gave him the capacity to love anyone, to be compassionate, and to remain completely non-judgmental. I had just hoped that somehow he would extend this troubled beauty to himself, but I don’t think he ever did.

After high school, decades went by and I had always wondered what happened to Justin. No one seemed to know. And then Facebook came along. A few years after that, there was Justin on Facebook. Precious little about him had changed. He was still the same Justin I knew in high school.

Life, however, had taken its toll on him.

Justin became a father, married, divorced, and also suffered a few strokes that debilitated him. Even with all of that, his same humor, passion, love, and crazy creative talent were still there. And so were his demons. I spent hours talking to Justin, especially during his times of crisis. My heart would break at the depth of his pain and his inability to forgive himself, love himself and to think that God could do anything else than torture him.

Eventually though, through time, the love of others, and yes, the love of God who loved him more than Justin would ever know, he was able to get his strength back, get back to playing music, and have meaningful relationships. Things were always tipsy turvy for Justin, but I could see that he was getting better, and above all, becoming more happy with himself.

And then this morning, I heard the devastating news that Justin had died from a heroin overdose. I had no idea that Justin had a drug problem. If he had, he seemed to be getting stronger. It was the end of a beautiful, tumultuous life that ended much too soon leaving wonderful memories and tragedy in its wake.

It’s far too easy to look at Justin Kurlychek’s life and make our judgments. “If only he had done [this], he would be happy and alive.” “If he had not done [that], he could have had a better life. What a screw up.”
When I reflect on my friend Justin’s life, I’m reminded again that life is hard. Life is hard for everyone.

For reasons I don’t understand, some people have it a lot harder than others and suffer through a lot more. Whether that’s due to things that have happened beyond a person’s control, decisions a person has made, or both, I’ve come to see that it doesn’t really matter as much as we think it does. What matters is doing the most good and being the greatest blessing to others with the gifts and opportunities we’ve been given. In that respect, each of us are both accomplished and guilty, productive and wasteful.

So who are we to be the ultimate arbiters of another person’s life? Each of us has our own to life to live with our share of victories, defeats, broken relationships, bridges burned, moments of grace, gifts of magnificence and decisions for good or ill that will determine how each of us will die one day. Ultimately we will all stand before God our creator and redeemer, and he will make the final evaluation. And God has far more capacity for mercy, justice, and truth than you or I have.

My friend Justin blessed my life with his love, his respect, and his loyalty. I’m a better person and a happier person for having loved and been loved by Justin. Many of us could say the same. I am devastated that this blessing has died far too soon. But I cherish the times I did have with Justin, and I pray for God’s peace and healing to embrace Justin’s loved ones, his children, his family and each of us.

Justin used to say to me, “Owens, I love you buddy.” So I say to my friend and brother, “Kurlychek, I love you back and always.”

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Living Terminally

(This post is written in honor of my dear friend and brother in Christ Alvin Dickerson who is in his last stages of terminal brain cancer. Brother Alvin, you have shown me the truth of what I’ve only begun to understand in the words that follow…)

Once in a while I pick up one of those books that is impossible to put down until I’ve plowed through the whole thing at once. In this case, it was Ed Dobson’s Seeing through the Fog: Hope When Your World Falls ApartFar from a moralistic treatise on how to find hope, the impetus of Dobson’s book is his deeply personal story of being diagnosed and living with ALS (Lou Gehrig’s Disease). It was a stunning, captivating story right from the beginning.
Seeing through the FogA healthy, successful 50-year-old pastor is diagnosed with ALS and effectively given a hideous death sentence of slowly dying to a witheringly painful disease. How does one truly live in the shadow of death? Where is God and what is God up to? How can we honestly pray for healing when we’re all but certain of the inevitable outcome? How can we discover hope and gratitude when each day brings about a further symptom that pushes us closer to death?

Ed Dobson struggles through each of these questions in a humbly convincing way that left me both haunted and closer to the God of life and healing. I want to share and briefly reflect upon a few of my favorite quotes from the book. I hope they are also a blessing to you, too.

…I find there is a vast difference in being grateful for something and being grateful in something. In the midst of my struggle I can still be grateful.

I loved Dobson’s honesty and realism concerning thankfulness. We don’t have to be thankful for crap. Thank God for that!

I once pastored a faithful, godly woman who often said of her terminal cancer, “This really sucks.” It certainly did. Cancer still sucks. (I’ve since found other choice words to describe it, which I’ll withhold from sharing here.) And at the same time, we could laugh and smile over the good things she still enjoyed. Sometimes, that’s enough.

There is nothing noble, high or holy about giving thanks for bad things. But, there is always cause to give thanks in those bad things for the gifts and blessings we do have. That perspective keeps us real about our pain while rescuing us from being victimized by it.

I needed to shift my focus from myself to my creator. And I shouldn’t focus on God’s power to heal me, either; I should focus on the all-around wonder of God and spend more time with Him each day without the goal of receiving healing for my good behavior. I needed to trust Him with my life not because I was sick but because I should trust Him that way always.

Dobson addressed a dangerous strain of unchristian thought that says if I have faith enough and am good enough, God will deliver what I want. Conversely, if I don’t have what I want, it’s because I’m not faithful or good enough. This is theological travesty at its worst. The reality is that the Bible is filled with stories of God blessing people whose faith was lacking at best and in the same breath saying “no” to the most holy, faithful people- the prime example of the later being Jesus.

So rather than egocentric prayers, Dobson learned to focus himself and then fully immerse himself within God’s wonder. That led to trust, assurance, and an affirmed identity of being God’s beloved child, no matter the outcome of his life or death. All of this reminded me that above all other things, you and I were created to be loved by God and to love God with our worship.

On healing:

The Bible seems to indicate that there is a vast difference between being cured of a disease and being healed of it. It is possible to be cured, but not healed. And it is possible to be healed, but not cured.

The difference between healing and curing may seem like a clever game of Christian semantics. It’s not at all. The Bible describes healing as wholeness, peace, and reconciliation. So yes, a person could be cured of a disease but still need true healing. And a person may never be physically cured of a disease but could die, having been fully healed.

Lastly, here is Dobson’s beautiful definition of healing:

So we see healing is made up of finding peace in three areas of life: with God, with others, and with yourself and your circumstances. This is very similar to the definition of the Hebrew word shalom, which would substitute the word wholeness for peace. Shalom is wholeness with God, with others, and with yourself.

More compelling than Dobson’s definition was his personal story of how he found this healing- between God, between himself and others, with himself and with his painful circumstances. It’s one thing to offer a definition of healing. It’s quite another to illustrate it with his arduous journey into healing.

It’s often been said that the best sermons are stories. I agree. I know I’m not always in the mood to be preached to, most especially when I’m feeling beat up and bedraggled. But an authentic story is always good preaching. For these reasons, I highly recommend Ed Dobson’s book, no matter the season in which you find yourself. There is always more room to live, most especially since we are all effectively terminal. Perhaps it takes a story like this one to encourage us to live, love, persist, and worship more passionately and intentionally.

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Thank You and Goodbye, Brennan Manning

Brennan ManningI just learned that yesterday, April 12, 2013, Christian author, speaker and evangelist Brennan Manning died. He was 78-years-old. He had been in severely declining health these past few years, so in one sense, his death isn’t a shock. But on the other hand, I’ve been in state of saddened joy today, pained at his parting but so thankful for Brennan’s life, his witness, and the huge impact he has had on me.

I first encountered Brennan Manning’s writing when a dear, sweet lady from the church I was serving gave me a copy of The Ragamuffin Gospel. She enthusiastically told me that this book had changed her life, and as a part of her ministry, she gave away copies to people she knew would appreciate it. Well, when someone gives a book with the preface this changed my life, I’m going to read it. And read it I did. I consumed it. It was a tremendously healing, landscape-opening book for me that invited me into the depth and power of God’s grace, the gospel of Jesus Christ, in a way I had never seen before. It was rugged and gentle, uplifting and earthy, orthodox and un-orthodox all at the same time. The essential message is simple: Jesus came for ragamuffins, and we are all ragamuffins, tenderly and furiously loved by God, no matter the degree of our fallenness, self-loathing, doubt, or the damage done to us by the Pharisees from without and within.

But the most compelling aspect of Brennan Manning’s message was the reality that he, himself was the poster boy par excellence for the gospel of grace he preached. Of all the authors I have read and respected, Brennan’s life is one of the most enigmatic and scandalous. As a young man, he became a Franciscan priest and scholar. Then he succumbed to alcoholism. After entering into treatment, he left his ordination and got married. 25 years later he divorced, his life riddled before, during, and after by alcohol, depression, and deception. He was always a Roman Catholic, and yet preached an evangelical gospel of grace by faith. He was a priest with and without the cloth, a vagabond preacher, saintly, a desperate sinner, an outcast, yet loved and admired, a failure, and still an astounding picture of a life saved and kept by grace. That’s why I will always love and admire Brennan Manning.

Through all of this, Brennan struggled to affirm and preach that yes, God loves and embraces us ragamuffins just as we are, not as we should be. If anyone’s life was a testimony of radically clinging to this grace of God in the midst of pain, shame, victory and defeat it was Brennan Manning.
Brennan and meWell, the story continues for me. In March of 2004, just a few months after reading The Ragamuffin Gospel, I had the chance to hear and meet Brennan Manning. I took a group of youth from my church to a youth conference in Ocean City, MD. Brennan just happened to be the keynote speaker for the adult leaders. I soaked in every word he spoke, surprised at the sheer intensity of his demeanor. He spoke of God’s tenderness with such forceful resolve, hoping to crack through our calloused fortresses of an intellectualized version God’s love to the near total exclusion of truly knowing this awesome love for ourselves. He spoke of the tender, furious love of God. As he spoke, his voice captured the very essence of it, too.

Still, Brennan was a quiet, shy, yet open man. He took time to talk to me, sign my books, and even posed for a picture with me. I was so very grateful that God had led our paths together at that time, little knowing what was to come just days later.

Three days after getting home from that retreat, my wife Rebekah left me, taking our daughter Grace with her. That precipitated two of the darkest, most uncertain years of my life. If you’ve been through a divorce, you know the personal damage: a shattered self-esteem, self-loathing, guilt, anger, loneliness, regret, fear, and for me, depression. Through that hellish ordeal, I learned in the barest of terms that indeed I am also a ragamuffin loved and embraced by my Father God, whom I learned to trust as Abba.

Years later, I still turn to Brennan’s words. It’s funny. All of his books preach the same basic message, and yet he fills page after page trying to express it. If you’ve read one Brennan Manning book, you’ve read them all. Still, my bookshelf holds almost all of them.

In closing, I’d like to share some words found near the end of Brennan Manning’s last book All Is Grace: a Ragamuffin Memoir. These are some of the last words he penned:

     My life is a witness to vulgar grace– a grace that amazes as it offends. A grace that pays the eager beaver who works all day long the same wages as the grinning drunk who shows up at ten till five. A grace that hikes up the robe and runs breakneck toward the prodigal reeking of sin and wraps him up and decides to throw a party no ifsands, or buts. A grace that raises bloodshot eyes to a dying thief’s request– “Please, remember me”– and assures him, “You bet!” A grace that is the pleasure of the Father, fleshed out in the carpenter Messiah, Jesus the Christ, who left His Father’s side not for heaven’s sake but for our sakes, yours and mine. This vulgar grace is indiscriminate compassion. It works without asking anything of us. It’s not cheap. It’s free, and as such will always be a banana peel for the orthodox foot and a fairy tale for the grown-up sensibility. Grace is sufficient even though we huff and puff with all our might to try to find something or someone it cannot cover. Grace is enough. He is enough. Jesus is enough.

Amen, Brennan. May you rest in the arms of our Abba, enjoying for all times the embrace you shared with the world and with me, a fellow ragamuffin.

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Lots of Funerals and Good Lessons Learned

Please don’t let the title deter you. This is not a depressing post, no matter how darkly ominous the word “funeral” may sound to you. Going to a funeral is akin to going to the dentist for most of us. We shudder at even the mention of going, and yet, when it comes up you have to go. It’s an essential part of life, albeit a somber part.

Lately, my ministry has been saturated with funerals. It’s not always that way. Ministry, like life, happens in seasons. Last spring and summer, I swam through a sea of weddings. Since December, it seems I’ve had at least one funeral a week. (Oddly enough, there are several striking similarities between weddings and funerals that make both pretty arduous, but that’s banter for another post!)
I can’t say that I relish the thought of officiating a funeral. Yes, it’s a fundamentally necessary part of what I do as a pastor, and I’ve done many of them and could write a book about my experiences. But every time I get a call from a funeral home or a family that someone has died and needs my help for a funeral, I do a sigh and swallow. “Here we go again…”

It’s not death per se that I dread. I’m a disciple of Jesus Christ and have built my life on his resurrection. As a raised believer, I don’t fear death. It’s the grief of death that humbles me to the task. Grief is a mysteriously unpredictable creature that demands to fairly addressed with a solid reckoning. Grief cannot be tamed or sanitized.

Unfortunately, I have seen too many ill-fated attempts by well-wishing friends, family, and pastors to do just that. People either try to ignore the enormity of grief. Or in an attempt to be helpful, they toss flimsy Hallmark card religious sentiments at a bereaving person’s grief. “God needed another angel in heaven…” I wish I could permanently whitewash that out of our mouths.

People often remark to me that it must be so hard to lead a funeral, especially for someone I don’t know. Well, as you can expect, there is standard way I encounter any funeral situation. And then there are those variables I can’t reliably gauge that do make a funeral a difficult thing.
There are consistent things I rely on when working with a grieving family before and during a funeral. I have some standard liturgy and prayers I use. That provides a faithful foundation. They are time tested, and I make every effort to feel, own and personalize those familiar words when I use them.

When preaching, I gather as much information as I can about the deceased person and try to put all those pieces together like a jigsaw puzzle to summarize the character of that person’s life and the ways in which we can affirm the image of God in them. I do that so that their ones can hold onto both their beloved’s memory and God himself.

Emotionally, I have to walk a careful tightrope between engagement and detachment. I cannot own and embody everyone’s grief. That would render me drained and unable to be a shepherd. At the same time, I need to be present enough to understand and empathize with a family’s grief, as best as I can. Even then, as I try to walk this careful emotional tightrope, funerals do tire me more than other things.

And funerals do not leave me unaffected, either. That’s really the focal point of this post. Funerals have their own lessons to tell that have deepened my life and my ability to teach and preach about meaningful life in the here and now and in the world to come.

Lesson # 1: My legacy is what people will celebrate at my funeral. So live it now.

I’ve often told my congregations (and myself) that one day we will die, and someone, perhaps me, will have to step in and do your funeral. What will there be for me say? What would you want me to say? How well are you living that now?

This is not so much an attempt to pre-frame some grandiose legacy that people will write in their history books. This has more to do with values. What are my core, fundamental values? What are my priorities? How well do I embody them? If I were to die today, how enthusiastically would my wife, my children, my family, my friends, and my congregations describe those values? God help me from leaving people in a predicament of having to fabricate or exaggerate reality in order to describe my life in excellent terms.

Lesson #2: Funerals remind me of what’s truly important and that the great majority of things people fuss over have no ultimate importance.

I have never, ever celebrated someone’s 80-hour work week or the size of their home or the number of cars they have in the driveway. I don’t make much over their hobbies or toys. Somehow, “He was a guitar and gadget collector” rings really shallow compared to, “He was a loving, passionately dedicated father.”

Funerals have shown me what a sham the things people spend the majority of their waking hours pursuing really is. We fuss over money and possessions. We fuss over petty crap and petty people. But in the wake of death, all those things vanish. There is good reason why Jesus taught us to pursue treasure in heaven where vermin and rust will not destroy it and thieves won’t steal it (Matthew 6:20).

Lesson #3: There is a difference between grieving in faith vs. grieving in agnosticism.

I can’t quite capture the difference in words, but there is a marked difference between people of faith and people of no faith at a funeral. Don’t get me wrong. Everyone grieves. There are always tears and difficult goodbyes.

But people who don’t have faith seem to carry a shadow of fear and anxiety around death. Theirs is much more of a stabbing, leveling pain. There tends to be much more frantic tears and crying, even at the death of someone old, who has lived a long, meaningful life.

People of faith on the other hand, carry a serenity and sense of conviction with them in their grief. They mourn and cry, yes. But that is not because they feel betrayed, cheated, or attacked by death. Their grief is not panic stricken. Their grief has more to do with grappling with their own sense of loss, not that of their departed beloved.

Now, the only other people I have not mentioned specifically mentioned here are atheists. They indeed have a faith of their own: that there is no God. (I firmly believe this lens of reality devoid of God takes us much faith to hold as a belief in God.) They tend to behave much like people who trust in God because they have their own atheistic convictions about the nature of life and death. Interestingly enough, in my own times of grief, atheists have done as much to comfort me as believers. They just don’t mention God or prayer. But they can give hugs, offer their condolences, listen, and hold hands as well as anyone else. One special note: one of my atheist friends offered to say a prayer for me once, not because he believed in it, but because he knew it meant something to me. Talk about a selfless graciousness…

Lesson #4: Carpe diem, baby.

I recently conducted a funeral for a beautiful 25-year-old woman who had a 6-year-old son and a boyfriend she would probably end up marrying. One day, her son found her dead in her room. She was healthy. It was a freak death. We still don’t know the cause.

Like any other young person, she had plans, dreams, and aspirations. Suddenly all of that was gone. She left behind grieving parents, siblings, a boyfriend, and her son who actually had the courage to speak during the funeral. (I thought the funeral home chapel would fall to pieces after he spoke. It was a little while before I could break in again!)

Her life and death affirmed for me once again that tomorrow is not a guarantee. Life is terribly fragile. It begs the question, if I were die today, would there be anything left undone that I could be doing right now?
People joke about bucket lists, and those lists are good things to have, I suppose. The only problem is never knowing when that bucket is finally going to get kicked. So, either make the bucket list a bit shorter and more reasonable, or seize the day– carpe diem!– and do it now, most especially if it concerns a relationship with a loved one. I’d hate to die with a loved one questioning what they mean to me.

Lesson #5: For everyone’s sake, plan your funeral.

I know, I know… This sounds so morbid. But as a pastor, let me tell you that communicating your wishes to your loved ones about your funeral and burial is essential. It really does help your grieving family and those working with them. There have been to many times I have sat in guesswork with a family about what kinds of arrangements they want and what would best honor their loved one. Do everyone left behind a huge favor and demystify as much of this as possible.

One important caveat, however: Please, please remember that funerals are for the living. I always hate it when a deceased person willed that they didn’t want any viewings or a funeral of any kind or make outlandish requests their family could not afford. Think of those you might leave behind and their needs. One of those great needs is to properly say goodbye in a discreet, meaningful way with the support of others who love them and you.

That’s the best way to put all of this together: funerals are for the living, not the dead. They celebrate love and life, both of the deceased and of our own. And, done well, funerals put us in touch with the reality of death, not masking us from it, as so many try to do now. That reality is not depressing. In fact, a proper respect for the reality of death helps us live more meaningfully in life. And who wouldn’t want that?

It is better to go to a house of mourning
than to go to a house of feasting,
for death is the destiny of everyone;
the living should take this to heart. (Ecclesiastes 7:2)

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End of the Summer Update: Music, Depression, and New Focus

It’s been a while since I last ventured into the blogosphere, over four months in fact. In the world of blogging, a four month absence is often the equivalent of  a four year absence anywhere else and thus a quick recipe for irrelevancy. (Keeping a blog is much like “feeding the beast” as a friend of mine once put it.) But life happens in seasons, and some seasons nurture more fruitful conditions for blogging than others, at least in my life. It just happened that this past life season, which loosely corresponded with summer, was one that demanded me to unplug from social networking. I needed that. If I hadn’t, you would have eventually demanded it, I’m sure!
As the title suggests, it was a painful but grace-filled summer. Music. A clinical depression. Hopes for new focus.

A Musical Renaissance
Almost two years ago, the band I played with during my college years got together for a reunion show, and that deeply satisfying experience reawakened the “playing bug” in me. I sing and play a variety of instruments, but my love for playing the bass and singing in a band took on a whole new life. Eight months after that, I started playing in a rock trio that has played a handful of times.

But then in the late spring of this year, it occurred to me that I have had an unspoken yet desperate need to do more things outside of church life. Any pastor will tell you that ministry can be all-encompassing and smothering unless there are invigorating activities we can enjoy that have nothing whatsoever to do with church. Given  my lifelong passion for music, that translated into playing in a band that could gig out.

So, I sold some things I had to get a better bass amplifier and then began thinking about my bass. I have had a bass guitar I bought from a guy I knew when I first started seriously playing. It’s the equivalent of a Ford Fiesta in the bass world– nothing fancy or special, but a good, reliable instrument. I bought it for next to nothing and made some modifications that made it even better.

But then a neighbor of mine lent me his Fender Jazz bass. I had always heard of the Fender Jazz and knew of many prominent bass players who have sworn lifelong allegiances to them, but I had never tried one. Well let me tell you, after adjusting my neighbor’s Fender Jazz a little bit and putting it through its paces, I fell hopelessly in love with it. I would have thought Leo Fender himself had personally designed the shape, tone, and feel of that bass exclusively for me. I won’t inundate you with all the frilly details because it would bore 95% of you non-bassists, but let me just say, it was like the experience of meeting someone and realizing you’ve found your soul mate. (Blech! Sorry, only a musician would not gag over that last sentence.)
After months of research and playing several models, I discovered the one– a Geddy Lee Fender Jazz. So I talked it over with Blairlee, sold a few more things and went out to get my treasure! With a great amp and a killer bass guitar, it was time to get out there and do some more playing. Through Craigslist and a musician’s website, I advertised myself and contacted prospective bands. To my surprise, I got bombarded by the number of bands looking for a bassist, especially one who can sing.

Stepping into established bands was an entirely different musical experience for me. I had a hand in conceiving every other band I’ve played in. So, conveniently, there was never anything I had to prove. This time, however, I had to step into existing bands and audition. Fewer words will curdle the blood of a musician more than audition. (You’re too loud is a close second.) Indeed, auditioning was a nerve-racking  prospect, but it was good, hard medicine. Being forced to work extra hard in practice and preparation for an audition notched up my professionalism quite a bit. And it more than paid off. Thankfully, every band I auditioned for offered me a job!

As of now, I’m playing in a trio that plays classic and modern rock and in a second band, a foursome, that plays harder modern rock. Once in a while I get calls to step in and play in other projects, too. I have been blessed to find and play alongside band mates who are solid musicians and decent family guys who love music as much as I do.

That itch to get out and play is getting plentifully scratched…

A Clinical Depression
Most of you probably know that on January 26 of this year God gave me the incredible opportunity to donate my left kidney to a woman from my congregation. It’s almost impossible to put into words how powerful an experience this has been for me. But I had also taken for granted how physically and mentally challenging it was, too. From the time I began the tests and evaluations to become a donor until a week after surgery, I lost about 70 lbs. The weight loss combined with the rigors of major surgery, the loss of an organ, and recovery, put my body through taxing, heavy changes.

All of that physical trauma infused into the demanding life of pastoral ministry that requires nothing less than my absolute best, even when I’m fully healthy, created the perfect storm for a personal melt down.
Well, the perfect storm found me. It took the shape of a clinical depression. I have suffered depression only once before during a time in which my personal circumstances were far worse than now. This depression, however, made that one seem like a skip through Candy Land. I went through some very dark weeks. And I’m not yet at a place where I would have the heart to elaborate on them now.

I am just so thankful to have been continually surrounded by such a patiently loving wife, family, and church family who have been more than able to nurse me through the worst of it. They did not give up on me, even when I had gotten to the point of wanting to give up on myself. Through their encouragement, I took the necessary steps of getting diagnosed and receiving medication which I’m still taking today. About two months ago I started getting some therapy, too.

Working through depression has reminded me again how inept we are at understanding and relating to people who struggle with any kind of mental condition, whether it be dementia, ADHD, bipolar disorder, or depression. They are medical conditions that are diagnosed and treated just like any other part of the body. And yet, the rampantly running misunderstandings and ill-formed attitudes people hold about conditions and illnesses of the mind are mind-boggling (no pun intended) given the age of information in which we live and the number of people who struggle with conditions like depression, dementia, and ADHD.

By its very nature depression is isolating enough, let alone the additional barriers of isolation created by fear, shame, and ignorance. But it is what it is. Thankfully, I have had an understanding web of people to support and hold me accountable.

At the same time, I have found depression to be a gift. Far from a being a demon to cast out so that I can “get back to normal”, depression can lead to healing, growth, and clarity through the hurts and difficulties that might have been lingering just below the surface far down enough that I could conveniently ignore them. Depression strips away this veneer. It completely exposes those old open wounds. With its awful, deafening silence in the rawest parts of my soul, depression insists I do the hard work of healing, discernment, growth, and change. That takes time. It also requires firm intention. But I’m getting there, one day at a time with the help of this shadowy gift.

Renewed Focus
As gratifying and agonizing as this summer has been, there are still some budding seeds of hope. I can’t think of too many other things as hopeful as a renewed sense of focus and purpose. Somewhere in the thick of this year’s happenings and in the time leading up to it, I began to lose my focus, my purpose and indeed myself. In order to keep the masses happy and my home at peace, I had fallen headlong into the trap of giving so much away to satisfy the needs and demands of others that my life became enslaved to the tyranny of the phone, the clock, and the constant barrage of “I need you to do _____.”
The phone will always ring. The clock will keep ticking. I’ll always be needed, but now I’m beginning to rediscover a truth I have known but forgotten. That is, God has given me unique gifts, strengths, abilities, and talents, and it is time for me to intentionally operate solely out of these things. That will be my gift to the world around me.

There will always be things I can’t do or don’t do well. There will always be things that despite my best efforts will drive my wife and kids crazy. But I don’t have to be nearly as burdened by all this when I’m living from the fountain of my personal strengths and gifts, realistically aware of my liabilities, yes, but not worrying about that so much. As for growth, why not grow where I’m already strong instead of trying to grow where I know I’m weak only to find myself frustrated time and time again?

Part of the renewed focus means writing, writing, and more writing, discovering and probing in ways that get myself and others to think and grow while laying new paths for more authentic, sincere spirituality through a vital connection with Jesus Christ. The blog will undoubtedly be a part of that and far less neglected than it has been of late.

In the meantime, I want you to know how much I appreciate our exchange of ideas and the ways you enhance my thinking and writing by your comments and conversation. Let’s keep at it together…

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Is There No Room for Grief in Christmas?

Let’s face it: for many of us, Christmas is (or has been) one downright lousy time of year that can’t be over soon enough. If you resonate with that, chances are you have experienced significant grief during the holiday season and were not given any meaningful way of acknowledging and expressing your grief during this “most wonderful time of the year.”

It’s difficult enough to meaningfully grieve in a culture that is too disconnected to recognize sorrow and loss, choosing instead to dilute our most precious feelings into a flaccid “fine” and “okay.” But couple that with a time of year all about peace, joy, faith, family, and abundance, it can leave us in a state of bewildered detachment. It’s terribly lonely. We feel cheated and wronged.

The problem is that all too often, Christmas leaves grieving people no place to grieve. There seems to be nowhere to latch our grief. Mistletoe, presents under the tree, mirth, gaiety, and sing-songy Christmas tunes don’t apply to a broken heart.

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In Memory of Diane Michelle Thompson

Yet last night, I shared in a special Christmas worship service that was designed for people grieving through the holidays. It was called a Blue Christmas service. Maybe you’ve heard of them. It’s a quiet, reflective time of prayer, sharing, and singing meaningful songs of faith that are not loud and rapturous but tender and soothing. I shared a very short reflection. And at the end, everyone was invited to light a candle in memory or honor of a lost or hurting loved one, or even for themselves. They were given an opportunity, if they wished, to share why they lit their candle and to know that we were there to listen and grieve with them, sharing our own grief, too. I could see the weight of unacknowledged grief coming off of our shoulders and peoples’ tears flowing steadily and unhindered. You could sense the release and freedom in that time of worship.

Personally, I got to do something I had never done before. I got to light a candle in memory of my first fiancée Diane Michelle Thompson, who died at the age of 22, just four months shy of our wedding. She died years ago and I’ve since then happily married and have children, but for the first time I could publicly acknowledge her death as a moment of worship during Christmas and allow yet another layer of grief pass. I also remembered the Christmases I spent after my last marriage ended and I found myself alone, without my daughter Grace there with me. That too, I could share and remember as a moment of worship during Christmas.

But how is this possible? Where is the joy? How does one worship and praise God during Christmas when in the midst of grief?

In the lowest points during my worst Christmas seasons, I would dig more deeply into Scripture to see if there was something of the Christmas story that could speak to my grief. Sure enough, there is. Last night I shared my discovery with my fellow worshippers:

How did the Son of God choose to make his entrance into the world? Was it in a stately palace among throngs of royal admirers? No. Was it in the Holy of Holies within the great temple in Jerusalem to be adored by the priests? No. And while we’re at it, forget the cuddly, cute images of manger scenes.

Mary and Joseph were poor peasants who were forced, probably at the final minute, to have Jesus born in the last possible place to duck in. There was no more room left at Bethlehem’s inn. So I imagine they hurried into the first thing they could find. It was a smelly, dirty stable stall. Mary delivered Jesus, and then spotted a feeding trough to lay him,  wrapped with whatever rags they could find to swaddle him. They were alone. They had nothing. They were unwanted. There was no joyful procession of choirs and orchestras. It was a quiet, unnoticed beginning for the Word made flesh. It was a painful way for the Son of God to begin his life.
Jesus’ life began and ended much the same way. Over thirty years later, Jesus would once again find himself alone, rejected, and unwanted– God’s ultimate gift to humankind thrown in the dumpster heap of Golgotha, despised by the whole world. It’s no wonder one of the ancient prophesies describing Messiah said,

He is despised and rejected of men; a man of sorrows, and acquainted with grief: and we hid as it were our faces from him; he was despised, and we esteemed him not. (Isaiah 53:3, KJV)

In my times of deepest grief, especially during the Christmas season, this is the Jesus I hold onto. He is the Jesus who is no stranger to grief. He is the Jesus who understands and embraces my pain as his own. He is the Jesus of whom the angels sing their songs of glory and praise.

From this particular shared embrace between Jesus and myself comes joy– not tinsel joy!– but honest to goodness joy that comes from the love and embrace of Jesus Christ, Jesus of the manger stall and the cross. I find hope again. And that, my friends, is a joy to the world which I can truly sing about today and always, whether I’m mired in grief or dancing in the dawn of new Christmas morning.

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Filed under Christmas and Holidays, Grief and Healing, Spiritual Growth and Practice