Posts Tagged ‘comfort

12
Jun
20

I Can’t Know

Grieving peopleBy my not-totally-rigorous estimate, I have officiated at close to 100 funerals during my career as a pastor. This total was boosted significantly by one memorable week in 2014 when there were three.

Every one of these formal church services was preceded by many hours sitting with and consoling grieving family members. In some of those situations, I was also privileged to spend time with the person as they slowly died.

I was taught this in seminary, but also learned by direct experience that there are things you say and things you DON’T say to people when someone close to them dies. And right at the very top of that “DON’T” list is the phrase, “I know exactly what you are going through.

Because you don’t.

Because you can’t.

Even if your father died of pancreatic cancer at the age of 79 after undergoing numerous surgeries and chemo therapies and you are talking to the son of a person whose father just died of pancreatic cancer at the age of 79 after undergoing numerous surgeries and chemo therapies, you still don’t KNOW what they are going through.

One journey of pain is utterly unlike any other journey of pain. Every journey of pain is unique and unrepeatable.

And yet, even though you stand entirely outside that person’s experience, there is still a “compassionate ally” role for you to fulfill in that journey.

First, you need to discover the role. Then you need to fulfill it.

In the wake of the horrific lynching (let’s call it what it was) of the black man named George Floyd by a group of white Minneapolis, MN police officers, a lot of pain has been brought to the surface. In most cases what we are seeing is a pain that had been bottled up for centuries that is finally exploding.

This crime provided a moment that has led to some long-overdue, national soul-searching.

In an eerie parallel of the scenes surrounding the death of a loved one, some folks are responding to the pain by releasing their own pent-up pain. Some are responding by trying to deny, dismiss, or rationalize the expressions of pain they’re witnessing. Still others are struggling to find a way to respond… knowing that this particular pain is not part of their lived experience, yet also aware that they dare not turn their backs on it.

Number me as a member of that last group.

I want to come alongside those who are now in pain. I want to minister to them. I want to do something more redemptive and more effective than clucking my tongue and saying, “Ain’t it a shame.” I want to figure out a way to somehow engage in the struggle without making the mistake of saying, “I know exactly how you feel.”

Because I don’t.

Because I can’t.

Because I’m white.

In his letter to the church folk in Galatia, Paul told them they were called to, “Carry each other’s burdens, and in this way, you will fulfill the law of Christ.” (Galatians 6:2, NRSV).

And as much a fan as I am of most of his work, I have to confess I am having a hard time getting with Paul on this one. The burden of systemic racism and oppression is not one I will ever be equipped to carry.

And yet somehow, despite my shortcomings, I know there has to be a “compassionate ally” role for me to play in this struggle.

Continuing to shine a light on it might be one option. Refusing to allow our national angst to be swallowed up by the next news cycle might help keep the dialogue going and the solutions flowing.

Educating myself about the depth and nature and duration of the pain might be another.

Standing up visibly with those who are hurting the most might be another ally role I can play.

Supporting the cause financially is certainly another.

What else?

 

I’d love to know what you think…

27
Apr
20

The Waiting Game

Waiting“Let’s put that off for a while,” said the doctor, regarding my possible need for shoulder surgery.

“Let’s wait a bit,” said the out-of-state family member about an upcoming visit.

“Nope. Not happening anytime soon,” said the travel company about our long-awaited 20th anniversary cruise.

“Sorry. That’s on the back burner for now,” said the concert promoter.

“Don’t think we’ll be doing that for a while,” say the organizers of community-wide festivals and celebrations.

“It’ll be back sometime, but we really can’t say when,” say the owners of major league sports teams.

“For the foreseeable future, we are going to have to continue operating remotely,” said the pastor.

“Let’s put a pin in that for now,” said the counselor.

“Yeah… maybe later,” says just about everybody about just about everything.

Welcome to the time of WAITING. Welcome to the Cosmic Pause.

As the time of global pandemic and quarantine drags into its third month, we are all getting a little “antsy,” as my mother used to say. We were more than willing to isolate, sanitize, and mask up at the beginning of this, but the patience of many is beginning to wear a bit thin.

“When can we stop all of this stuff?” we each silently wail… aware that these safety measures are good and necessary and that complaining too loudly about them would be childish and dangerous.

But for those of us who occasionally think the microwave is taking too long to heat our tea water, it is not a bad thing at all to learn how to WAIT… to SLOW DOWN… to cultivate a little PEACE and COMPOSURE in our souls.

Because to wait is to HOPE.

So while we are here at home, studying our jigsaw puzzle pieces and cleaning our kitchen floors with our toothbrushes, I would like to present here a list of some things we DON’T have to wait for;

  • We don’t have to wait to reach out to someone in need.
  • We don’t have to wait to tell someone we love them.
  • We don’t have to wait to be grateful.
  • We don’t have to wait to re-connect with someone we haven’t seen for a while.
  • We don’t have to wait to learn something new.
  • We don’t have to wait to forgive someone.
  • We don’t have to wait to encounter a new idea.
  • We don’t have to wait to see the situation a different way.
  • We don’t have to wait to pray.
  • We don’t have to wait to discover beauty.
  • We don’t have to wait to “… be still and know that I am God.” (Psalm 46:10, NRSV)

We can do each of those things RIGHT NOW!

And who knows… when all is said and done, we just might find we had reserves of patience that we never knew we had.

Abundant blessings;

02
Apr
20

Something from Nothing, Part 2

One man counseling another(In yesterday’s installment, I recounted one of my most abysmal performances as a pastoral counselor. Troy, a congregant, had come to see me with an incredible mountain of problems including job loss, cancer, his wife’s infidelity, and parenting challenges, all raining down on him at once.

When we left our story, the pastor was wringing his hands in despair, searching and praying for the right word for Troy’s situation…)

Not wanting too many more silent seconds to pass between us, I gave Troy my most sincere, pastoral look, reached out and confidently placed my hand on his left shoulder and said – with an air of authority that was manufactured out of thin air – “Troy… the thing to remember at times like this is just what it says in the Bible: ‘This too shall pass.’”

And then, to add an extra measure of sincerity to the drivel I had just dispensed, I clapped him on the shoulder and nodded.

The reaction I fully expected to receive (and probably should have received) from Troy was something like, “What? Are you seriously kidding me? ‘This too shall pass??’ I could have pulled a random fortune cookie out of a jar and gotten something better than that drivel!”

But, to his everlasting credit, Troy just nodded, thanked me for my time, and stood up to leave.

After that it took me several minutes to compose myself. I was stunned at the level of absolute ineptitude I had displayed in my conversation with Troy. I honestly pondered the possibility of searching for a new line of work… on the spot. Clearly that “call to ministry” I thought I had heard was a wrong number.

Fast-forward six months. I have not heard from Troy or heard about him. I had maybe seen him at church one time in passing since our meeting. And I may or may not have pretended to drop something on the floor when he passed… just to avoid making eye contact.

And then one night it happened… there was an event at church for parents and their children. I was on duty to greet folks as they came in and help them find their way around. And here came Troy… with his two children in tow.

“OK,” I said to myself. “Nothing to do but to step up, look him in the eye and face the music. It might even be that he has wiped any memory of my face and name from his mind… if I’m lucky.”

So, I bucked up… walked up to Troy… stuck out my hand and said, “Hi there, Troy. It’s been a while since we talked. How are things with you anyway?” I tried not to telegraph the fact that I was positioning myself to deflect a punch from his right hand I was reaching out to shake it.

“Pastor Brown!” he said… in a loud, overly enthusiastic voice. (Drat! He recognized me!) And then he went on, “Hey, do you remember that time last fall when we met in your office? You know, when I was in such a messed-up situation and I came to see you?”

“Yeah… sure,” I said… playing along. “I’ve been wondering how things are going for you now. That sure was a bad time for you, wasn’t it?”

He said, “Boy, it sure was. Hey… do you remember the advice you gave me? When you told me ‘this too shall pass’?”

I was getting ready to defend myself, explaining I had been engaged in a spiritual fast the day we met and was clearly delirious from hunger when he interrupted me, grabbed my hand and pumped it vigorously saying,“Man, I can’t thank you enough. That was EXACTLY what I needed to hear at that moment. It helped me take a step back from the funk I was in and just take a breath.

“And you know what? Things are really getting better. I got a new job, so we changed schools and got my daughter away from those bullies… my wife married her boyfriend and I am getting good treatments for my melanoma.”

“But I just really wanted to thank you for helping me get through that. I don’t know what I would have done without you.”

And so, we shook hands, I thanked Troy for his kind words, and we went our separate ways.

At the time I offered it, “This too shall pass,” was a trite, unthinking response that was thoroughly unresponsive to the depth of Troy’s dilemma. I have since checked and found it is also advice that can be found nowhere in the Bible.

What I saw though in that six-month reunion was the power of the Holy Spirit to take the very worst of my efforts and transform it into something powerful and healing.

Right now, “This too shall pass” feels like a trite, almost cruel platitude in the midst of the current pandemic. Sure, it will pass, but who knows when it will pass? Who knows how many lives will be lost in the process? Who knows the long-lasting damage that will be done to our economy by this extended shut-down?

“This too shall pass” is not particularly biblical or earth-shaking as advice goes. But it is true. There WILL be a day in the future when sports resume, when there are stories on the news besides the daily COVID-19 death toll, when kids are back in school, when concerts happen again, and when folks – maybe more than before the pandemic – gather again in church.

No, “This too shall pass” may not be particularly profound.

But somehow my anxious heart – like Troy’s – finds great peace and comfort in knowing it is true.

 

Praise God!

25
Mar
20

These Dogs

46AF9FD8-B711-4765-BF2E-A4A1EC6CF51BThese dogs.

They don’t do much, in the grand scheme of things.

Sleeping seems to be very high on their list of “Things to do” every day. (A little too much of it, if you ask me).

There is also eating… barking at any sound, inside or outside the house… wrestling with each other… occasionally cuddling with Joan and I… and, hiding under the table when they hear the garbage truck drive into the cul-de-sac.

They track mud into the dining room.

They (well, the female in particular) steal paper napkins from the table and shred them on the living room floor.

They demand a walk not once, but at least twice a day.

Their breath is a little funky and they seem somehow unable to bathe themselves.

Sometimes they need shots or other expensive medicine from the vet.

Sometimes, when they are not around and when I don’t think Joan will overhear me, I mutter, “What a pain,” under my breath.

And then came the pandemic…

… the time of uncertainty, and of staying inside all day every day.

Then came the time of reading for hours in the middle of the day. The time of searching for new projects around the home. The time of long silences. The time of frayed nerves. The time of rationing our consumption of national news in order to keep our spirits up. The time of checking in by FaceTime and FaceBook. The time of fitful sleep. The time of hand-washing, hand-sanitizing, face masks, and rubber gloves. The time of wondering when things will ever return to “normal.” The time of wondering what “normal” might look like.

And there, in the middle of it all, are these dogs.

These dogs let us scratch and pat and cuddle them for comfort.

These dogs allow us to take them for walks on a day – like today – when the sun is out and the air is warm and springy.

These dogs look at us and somehow sense that things are not quite right… and then lean on us as if to say, “Hey, at least you’ve got me. It’s all going to be OK.”

These dogs provide us with a routine of feeding them and cleaning them.

These dogs bring a smile to our faces while we watch them chase and wrestle and play with gusto in the back yard.

These dogs somehow bring peace and healing to our hearts… radiating, as they do, an unconditional love and assurance.

And sometimes, when they are not around and I don’t think Joan will overhear me, I mutter, “What a blessing,” under my breath.

These dogs…

20
Dec
19

freedom-meme-2

I’m not sure Jesus could have hit the nail any more squarely on the head than when he said this.

But here is the question that keeps me awake at night:

Do you and I really want to be set free?

Or are we instead content to stay nestled in the security of a world view that comforts us, that doesn’t challenge or push us, that reinforces our stereotypes, and always puts us on the right side of every question?

23
Oct
19

GLOW

support groupMy wife GLOWs.

Every fourth Thursday of the month.

From 5:30 to 7:00.

And because she GLOWs, we glow (and grow) together as a family.

You see, GLOW is the name of the women’s cancer support group Joan attends at a nearby church. In an amazingly providential stroke, it turned out that there was a GLOW meeting last year on the exact same day she received her cancer diagnosis.

She has been going (and GLOWing) ever since.

GLOW is not necessarily a reference to the fact that many of the group’s members have undergone radiation therapy for their cancer. It is an acronym. It stands for God Loves Outrageous Women.

The GLOW Girls are indeed outrageous. Outrageously optimistic. They are also fierce. They are funny. They laugh together and they cry together. Sometimes they go to lunch together.

They also pray together. A LOT.

When the GLOW Girls gather on the fourth Thursday of the month, they share information with each other. For example, one woman got a lot of relief for the neuropathy in her feet from acupuncture. So she shared the name and phone number of her acupuncturist.

They share their joys, and much too regularly they share their sorrows.

I have never personally found myself on the receiving end of devastating news like a cancer diagnosis like Joan has. I have, however, gone through the devastation of a divorce. I have felt the anguish and soul-searching and the sting of a hundred “what ifs” that are all part of that terrible journey.

Divorce plunged me into moments of searing loneliness… a loneliness so deep I felt like I would never emerge from it.

And because of that experience, I also know what it feels like when someone extends a hand into that loneliness and says, “Hey there. I see you. I know what’s happening. I’ve been there.”

It felt a lot like what I imagine a drowning man might feel when grabbing hold of a life preserver.

At some point along the way, every one of us will have to travel through a dark valley. Those valleys will each be different and unique, but they will share some basic characteristics. They will frighten us, they will arouse anger, they will shake our faith to its core.

They will also try to isolate us and make us feel alone and defenseless.

When the time comes for your dark valley, I pray you will also be blessed by the gift of a supportive community… just like I found with my friend. Just like Joan has found with the GLOW Girls.

Honestly, though, communities can’t cure you. They can’t take your pain and fear away. They can’t magically change the dire nature of whatever it is you are facing.

But they can remind you that you are not alone. They can serve as a tangible, flesh-and-blood representation of the loving Creator who walks beside you through this dark moment.

They can help you laugh. They can help you cry. They can join you for lunch. They can recommend a good acupuncturist.

They can also help you carry your impossible burden, just like Paul tells us we are supposed to do: “Bear one another’s burdens, and in this way you will fulfill the law of Christ.” (Galatians 6:2, NRSV).

 

… and they just might help you glow a little when things get really dark.

09
Oct
19

One Funeral Too Many

Jesus began to weep. (John 11:35, NRSV)

Hugging menHere lately I have been going to entirely too many funerals.

OK, I suppose you could say this is just par for the course for people in that “certain” age bracket to which I now officially belong.

But it seems that since officially retiring from the ministry on July 1, I have gone to WAAAAY more funerals than in any similar three-month stretch in memory. And only one of these was for an elderly, 90+ year-old man who died of the legendary “natural causes.”

The funeral yesterday was the one that hit me hardest of all. It was a service for the 61-year-old spouse of one of my pastor colleagues who died from a particularly aggressive and fast-moving cancer.

I hadn’t even heard she was ill.

I know I reacted so strongly to Doreen’s service because of the cancer scare we had just a little over a year ago with Joan. As I sat in the sanctuary yesterday listening to the music, watching the slideshow of family photo memories and gazing into the grieving faces of friends and family, I nearly lost it.

It was a great service, as these things go. The pastor (not my friend, her husband) did one of the very best officiating jobs I have ever experienced. And I have seen/officiated at a LOT of funerals. She was tender at the appropriate moments, funny when that was called for, gave comfort and hope to all of us, and was theologically rock solid throughout.

I guess I responded the way I did because right there, in the middle of the whole thing, the utter fragility of life became a little too real for me. My mortality, Joan’s mortality, the mortality of everyone I care about suddenly stood up and slapped me in the face.

HARD!

And as it did, the absurdity of the service came into focus as well. I mean, what are we trying to do here, I asked myself? In a way I felt like a caveman, gathering with other cavepeople around a roaring fire, believing we were safe from evil as long as we stayed within the fire’s friendly yellow ring of light.

When asked to officiate at a funeral, I carry with me the belief that a thoughtful, compassionately conducted funeral service can go a long way toward kick-starting the healing process for a family. My goal has always been to leave folks with some kind of “spiritual lifeline” to grab hold of in the ensuing weeks after the rush of arrangement-making, hosting family and friends from out of town, and all of the administrative aftermath of a death dies down and the quiet finally sets in.

But regardless of how well any officiant does our job, we can’t carry your grief for you. Nothing we say can anesthetize or paper over the hole that has suddenly appeared in the middle of your life.

Funerals, even at their best, are always too brief, too superficial, and too impersonal to permanently stave off the darkness.

But maybe that is not even the outcome we should be shooting for.

Maybe we should ask something higher, better, and more realistic from these ceremonial post-mortem gatherings of ours.

Maybe we could come to see funerals as times to turn toward one another knowingly, and tenderly, and say, “My God this is precious. Forgive me, sister, for ever drawing one breath without exhaling gratitude. Pardon me, brother, for taking for granted any moment, any conversation, any laugh we have shared. Let’s use the holy moment of this dear one’s passing to renew our vow to wrap our arms tightly around each other and around our Creator and to DANCE through the rest of whatever limited time here we have.”

Wouldn’t that be something?

05
Mar
19

Confessions of a human punching bag

Boy cryingIf memory serves, sixth grade was the last time I was ever in a genuine fistfight.

It was a hot summer day. As usual, I was at the community swimming pool with my friends splashing, diving, and horsing around. When suddenly, out of the clear blue sky another kid started dunking me. A total stranger, no less! And yet somehow this kid seemed to conclude that it would be a lot of fun to start pushing MY head underwater.

I was not particularly big in the sixth grade, but I was definitely wiry. As I recall, I eluded the bully pretty well and managed to slip in a couple of devious dunks of my own.

Like many bullies, he did not appreciate my guile at all. After yet another successful (and embarrassing) dunk I heard him grunt and say, “Let’s take this outside.”

Meaning outside the gate of the swimming pool.

Meaning into the parking lot.

Meaning to engage in an honest-to-goodness fistfight in front of crowds of our friends.

Of course, I took him up on it… despite having absolutely no clue how to fight and being five inches shorter and – probably – 20 pounds lighter than this guy.

And yes, it was exactly as bad as you might be imagining. The guy apparently knew what he was doing because I took a beating. The only thing that stopped him from continuing to pound the snot out of me was when one of the lifeguards saw the fight (if you can call it that) and came out and broke it up.

Since that day I have successfully avoided all opportunities to serve as anyone’s human punching bag…

…that is until this past week.

Or at least that is how I am choosing to describe my experience of recent events in my life.

The unusually cold and snowy winter here has dealt me a few vicious body shots. And just when it seems we might have turned the corner on winter, new snowfalls and single-digit temperatures arrive.

I’ll never trust Punxatawney Phil again!

My wife’s current round of chemotherapy has come with a much more punishing set of side-effects this time… which sort of knocks the wind out of me, too.

Last week, my denomination made the decision to turn its official, worldwide policy in the direction of harsh judgment and exclusion rather than Christ-like love (which you can read about here). That connected with me like a powerful right cross to the jaw.

And then, to top it all off, on Wednesday I was jolted by the jarring uppercut of a massive head cold.

Waaaaa!

I really wanted to respond to this past week by doing exactly what I did in the sixth grade; I wanted to run home to my mom, have her wash the blood off my lip, hold me in her arms, and say, “There, there… you’re OK. Everything’s going to be alright.”

But then I heard Kassem’s story. On a radio program called Snap Judgment, Kassem told what it was like to live inside the country of Syria. He talked about living with the hourly reality of falling bombs, scrounging for any kind of food – delighted to find a handful of grass to eat – and hearing the wails of starving children wherever he went.

His story went into excruciating detail about barely surviving a Sarin gas attack but having to watch friends and neighbors suffocate and die right in front of him.

And as I drove along and listened, I wept for Kassem. And I realized I had no clue what it means to be truly beaten up by the world. And I wondered to whom he turns for comfort and solace in the middle of that kind of hell on earth?

Next year it will be 50 years since my mother has been physically available to embrace me, dry my tears, and tell me not to worry… and assure me that everything is going to be OK.

But before she left us, she helped me figure out the best way to gain comfort during those times when it feels like the punches are coming from every direction.

She pointed me to the words of Jesus and his reminder of life’s reciprocity principle: “… give, and it will be given to you…. for the measure you give will be the measure you get back.”(Luke 6:38, NRSV).

Need soothing? Dish up a little soothing to a troubled friend.

Need reassurance? Find somebody that needs it and give them some.

Need peace? Give peace.

Thanks, mom. I really needed that.

21
Dec
18

The Empty Chair

Empty Chair pictureIt is hard to miss… sitting there over on the left side of the family dining table.

The empty chair.

A silent witness to a place that will never again be filled… a testimony to the part of our story that will remain untold except in our hearts.

How is it possible to so desperately miss the predictable comebacks and cornpone comments that once came from over there?

What I wouldn’t give to be able to roll my eyes in mock anguish…

One. More. Time.

Of course, the empty chair is there every day. But it somehow looms larger this time of year… the time when traditions are unpacked and festive gatherings abound.

My eyes search that place, aching to see the face that once sat there,

Yet seeing only the emptiness.

Today I pray the empty chair might coax me into stillness,

Might encourage a silent conversation with a realm too often ignored,

Might help me see the bridge that stands between my solitary island of grief and yours,

Might somehow weave us invisibly together.

Will the day ever come – I wonder

When I am able to see and give thanks for the strange gift

Of the empty chair?

May God’s peace enfold and surround each of you who approach the Christmas season with an empty chair in your lives… whether it is for the first or the 50thtime.

“Come to me, all you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest.”                        (Matthew 11:28, NRSV)




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