When Jesus Meets…A Grieving Parent

I started the When Jesus Meets series at the beginning of this year to highlight some examples from the Gospel accounts of how Jesus responded when He met different groups of people. I struggled with this post and almost did not share it, because I am unqualified to speak about this topic. There is some pain that will never go away. And I think Jesus’ responses to people teach us that that is okay.

Losing a child is unnatural. It is not supposed to happen. It causes pain; too much pain. We don’t even have a word for the parent who has lost a child. There is no “widow” or “orphan” or anything.

I have been to too many funerals with people who have lost children. I have too many friends who have suffered the pain of miscarriage.

I hate the pain the death of child causes.

I like to use words a lot. But too often I have been rendered speechless by witnessing the pain of a parent who is grieving the loss of their child.

And I still don’t have many words. In fact, I really only have four: Jesus hates it, too.

_________________________

There are two instances when Jesus meets a family whose child has died. Jairus approaches Jesus as his daughter was at home dying; while Jesus is on the way to Jairus’ house, the daughter dies. As Jesus traveled through the town called Nain, He noticed a funeral procession of a widow’s son.

Both times, He raises the child back to life.

The stories that are selected for the Gospel were chosen for a reason. There is a reason why we read the stories we do and are left to wonder about the other things Jesus said and did.

And in the case of Jairus: Matthew, Mark, and Luke all tell us his story. It was important enough for 3 of the 4 Gospel writers to tell their audience about that story. (And John is just weird.)

In these stories, we see the compassion of Jesus. We see Jesus respond to the pain and agony that only a parent can feel when their child has died. It hurts. It is wrong. It is not fair. It shouldn’t happen.

So Jesus steps in and changes it.

We see Jesus react to many things that are not “normal.” Jesus heals blind people. He heals lame people. He cures leprosy. He makes mute people speak again. When Jesus sees their pain, He responds.

But there is a difference: every single parent who has lost a child would gladly give up their sight if they could have their child back. Every single parent would gladly never walk again if it meant having another conversation with their child. Every single parent would even gladly (GLADLY) take on the sores, pain, and isolation of leprosy if it meant their child would live again.

Every. Single. One.

_________________________

Jesus was one of those children, too. His mother, Mary, was present at His crucifixion. She saw Him beaten, mocked, spat upon, and killed. She watched as her son died one of the most brutal deaths imaginable.

When Mary and Joseph presented Jesus to Simeon in the temple, the old man told Mary a sword would pierce her soul.

Do you think Mary felt as if she was stabbed on the day her son died?

_________________________

So what does this mean for families today?

Unfortunately, not a whole lot. Like a friend of mine, whose son died very young, posted one Christmas morning: “The cradle is still empty. I know. I checked.”

That pain is not going to go away. That parent will always count the missing child among his children—as he should.

Jesus isn’t around to perform the miracle of resurrection. So what kind of hope do those miracle stories provide? What can I offer besides platitudes?

When Jesus meets a parent who has lost a child, Jesus does what He can to ease the pain. In the case of Jairus and the widow of Nain, that meant raising their child back to life.

But I think what following the way of Jesus today means is presence.

I remember standing on the porch of my parent’s house with my father the day of my brother’s funeral. My dad pointed out to me that people came to the funeral because they loved us. Friends from my high school years were present. People flew from Texas to Maryland to attend the funeral. Calls, emails, cards came in from all over the country. My church family in Abilene stood with hands raised in prayer the night before the funeral, even though I was not physically present with them.

I have attended too many funerals of children since we have moved to Abilene. Here is what I have seen at those funerals: people surrounding the parents with love and encouragement. Crowds of people coming together to honor the memory of a life well-lived, but definitely not lived long enough.

I hear people talk with grieving parents weeks, months, and years after their child has passed away. The parents are reminded that their children are not forgotten; that their pain and grief is not forgotten.

The cradle is still empty. The pain is still there. The parents would still trade anything for one more day with their child.

But the presence of God and a community of faith reminds us that we do not grieve alone.

Your pain is what it should be. The fact that you will never recover fully is fine, because I don’t think God expects you to.

When Jesus meets a grieving parent, He doesn’t take the pain away. He grieves with you.

My Name Is Paul And I’m An Alcoholic…Continuing Family Story

I am continuing my monthly series on the 12 Steps, addiction, and recovery. I hope you will read, comment, and share! Let’s continue walking this journey together!

Now and then the family will be plagued by spectres from the past, for the drinking career of almost every alcoholic has been marked by escapades, funny, humiliating, shameful or tragic. The first impulse will be to bury these skeletons in a dark closet and padlock the door. The family may be possessed by the idea that future happiness can be based only upon forgetfulness of the past. We think that such a view is self-centered and in direct conflict with the new way of living….This painful past may be of infinite value to other families still struggling with their problem. We think each family who has been relieved owes something to those who have not, and when the occasion requires, each member of it should be only too willing to bring former mistakes, no matter how grievous, out of their hiding places. Showing others who suffer how we were given help is the very thing which makes life seem so worth while to us now (Alcoholics Anonymous, p. 123-124).

For the past year, my 12 Step posts have focused on the individual recovering from addiction. As I wrote last month, there are more people who suffer than just the addict: life is never the same for the family, either. Spouses or partners have been hurt. Children have been humiliated. Parents and siblings often feel betrayed.

And now the addict is getting better. Now things are the way families had wished they had always been. So the best thing to do is ignore the past, right?

Well, probably not. For a few reasons:

Forgetting the past robs us of our successes. “Rock bottom” is a phrase used a lot in 12 step recovery. If I try to forget or ignore my rock bottom, I run the risk of forgetting how hard I had to work to get to where I am. As a family, we need to remember that we walked through some dark times together and came out of it. This looks different for each family: some stay together, some break apart but find reconciliation, others break apart and all that can be found is peace and acceptance of the new reality. But whatever our family looks like afterward, it is different. In most cases, it is better. We should remember, and in some ways even celebrate, the journey we have walked—through all the muck and mire.

Ignoring our past robs us of the opportunity to help others. For most people, addiction is a condition that leads to suffering in silence. The drunkenness is often public, the suffering is usually private. The same is true for the family. If the addict’s behavior can be hidden, then the family can put on a collective smiley-face for the world to see.

This is especially, and unfortunately, true in churches. We hide our crap as best we can. So if a family that has overcome the issues caused by addiction will be open and freely share their struggles, trials, and triumphs, other families may gain the confidence needed to reach out for help.

Ignoring our past robs the individual family members of the opportunity to completely heal. It took a long time for my children to be able to hear my wife and I joke about my alcoholism and recovery. For my wife and me, humor is a salve. For my children, humor seemed to make light of a serious problem. As they grow older, that is changing. Their healing process is not the same as mine.

If we ignored as a family the fact that I am in recovery, they may not feel comfortable talking about the healing they still need to go through. Ignorance of the reality of my alcoholism covertly teaches my children they cannot talk about it anymore; they need to get over it. There are some days when I remember what it was like to drink and wonder if I could do it again and be safe. When that happens, I talk to somebody. Because I do not ignore that I had a problem. Some days, my children may remember friends they do not see anymore because we moved a couple of times after I was fired due to my alcoholism. They need to be able to talk to somebody. When we remember and discuss freely, it is easier for them to do so.

Finally, it is okay for you to ask families in recovery about their journey. For some reason, we often feel the need to tiptoe around these difficult memories. When a family has reached a place of healing and recovery, we are afraid to ever bring up the past again. But let me say this: I want families or individuals who have questions to come to me and ask them. A couple of years ago, my wife and I were asked to share our story as a communion thought. We agreed because, as my wife said, “If our journey can’t help other people, what was the use?” I caused a lot of pain. I did a lot of really stupid things. But my family has overcome all of that. And if we can play a small part in healing (or even preventing!), then we want to do that!

Many of us have experienced hurt and heartache. Many of us are still in the midst of those painful times and many of us have reached a place of healing, comfort, and rest. The best way to make it through this life is by doing it together.

Reach out and talk.

Ask questions and share stories.

Recognize hurt exists and healing is still taking place.

Just don’t ignore the past. Learn from it. Celebrate the victories over it. And let’s do it all together.

Overcoming Loneliness?

Sometimes, I am a really bad person.

Especially when it comes to dates: birthdays, anniversaries, special occasions. Now, there are some I always remember. My wife’s birthday, our wedding anniversary, our children’s birthdays are among those dates I always remember and do something special.

But I have four older brothers. I know all of their birthdays. But I often forget to call and rarely send a card. I know that my Mom’s birthday is one of two days in October; I can just never remember which one. My Dad’s birthday is so close to Father’s Day that I always just say, “Happy Birthday,” on that Sunday in June and figure I am covered.

My nieces, nephews, cousins, and other relatives all have birthdays. One every year. I think my wife remembers them. If I am friends with them on facebook I get the reminder on the actual date.

Now, my ability to remember special days for my family members is in no way related to the amount of time I spend thinking about them. I think of them often. When I see certain pictures or hear certain phrases or smell certain aromas memories come flooding back. I think about and love my family and my friends.

But I suck when it comes to actually telling them that.

_________________________

This past weekend, I was among a group of adults who spent some time with 18 high school students. We gave them the opportunity to share some of their struggles as well as important milestones in their lives. When it came to the struggles, one word popped up in almost everyone’s story: lonely.

As a parent, I observe the groups my children spend time with. At church, we are involved with the youth group. I am constantly amazed at the intelligence, wisdom, service, and maturity of this group. They are not perfect, but they are probably the greatest group of teenagers I have ever been around.

And some of them are more popular than others. Some always have a smile on their face. Some are always involved in all the activities and always have friends around them doing the same things.

And these were the ones who were saying they felt lonely.

_________________________

Loneliness is hard because it causes us to isolate from the very people who can help us the most because they relate to us so well.

Lonely people need to know other people are experiencing loneliness, too. Lonely people need to know they are not, well, alone.

Lonely has nothing to do with popularity.

Lonely can’t be overcome by continually asking, “Is everything okay?”

Lonely is not remedied with a formula; a one-size-fits-all cure; a uniform procedure.

Overcoming lonely starts with the admission, “I am lonely.” And it’s a long road from that admission to feeling better. But every journey, no matter how long, has a starting point.

_________________________

So what does my shortcoming as a relative have to do with loneliness?

How often am I around people I care for deeply but fail to say something?

How often do I look at somebody in the same room as me but do not take time to check in with them because I figure I will see them next week?

How often do I see someone with a smile on their face and just assume that everything is okay?

How often do I see someone in a crowd and assume they are doing all right since they have so many friends?

I have experienced loneliness before. I know that it is a jumbled mix of wanting to be left alone and wanting everyone to care enough to notice and say something. I know that people who are lonely want to find that one person they can talk to but they are afraid to speak up to anybody. I know that lonely people can find themselves in the midst of a large group of people and hide how they are feeling on the inside.

And I know that in my darkest moments of loneliness, I can approach the one or two people who have consistently expressed care and concern without seeming pushy.

So maybe, just maybe, if I want to be that type of person who can help others overcome their loneliness, I need to show some care and concern and interest in their lives.

It’s great that I think about how much I love my brothers. Maybe it would be better if I told them.

It’s great that when I look at people in the church auditorium I say a prayer for them. Maybe it would be better if voiced the prayer over them so they heard it.

It’s great that I genuinely care for people. Maybe it would be better if I showed it by remembering the things that are important to them.

As I said, the remedy for loneliness is not going to be the same for everyone. And in large part, the lonely person has to make a huge first step in reaching out and asking for help. But there must be people available to hear that call. We must make ourselves available to people so they will know who they can turn to when life is at its darkest.

And we can’t wait until people are in the grips of loneliness and despair before we begin to act. We help overcome (and prevent) loneliness by being people who genuinely care for and are interested in other people. We help lonely people by our willingness to consistently speak truth and encouragement into the lives of others.

It makes me sad to think that people I care for deeply may experience loneliness and ask themselves if anyone actually cares. It also makes me sad to acknowledge that I have not done enough to speak my love and care into their lives.

But that can change. I will do my part. I hope you will, too.

Open Letter of Apology to Teenagers

I shared this last year after a weekend retreat with the male high school students. I learned a lot that weekend. Mostly, I learned that we as adults are not doing a good job of listening to our kids. Let’s make a commitment to listen. And change.

Dear teenagers,

On behalf of adults everywhere, I want to apologize.

We have made your lives too busy. We remember our high school experience and the experiences of all of our friends and family members. And we want you to live all of it. We want you to be involved in sports, theater, afterschool programs, volunteer projects, church groups, and get certified in CPR. We have pushed and pushed and pushed until your schedules are way too full. We have made you feel like failures when you cannot keep up. We have encouraged you to choose activities over your spiritual life. We think your commitment to your sports team is more important than your commitment to your spiritual development.

We have made you so busy, you are not sleeping well and you are not eating well. We encourage you to eat quickly so you microwave a dinner or grab a value meal from a fast food restaurant. If you eat at all. You are tired and unhealthy and we push you even harder. We are pushing too hard and we are sorry.

We are also sorry that we have cared more about test scores and college admission than we have about education. We have grown up and become teachers and administrators. We have looked for more bottom line results to show that we are doing an effective job. We have been emphasizing the importance of getting high scores on achievement tests, SATs, and ACTs. We have failed to realize how stressed out you are about taking these tests.

We are in the position of voting people in, campaigning for what is important, and being involved in your education. We have become lazy and done little more than complain. And as we have stood by you have been falling deeper and deeper into your anxiety. We are sorry.

We are sorry that we have underestimated you. You are intelligent, caring, and passionate for justice in the world. But we treat you like you are little more than wound up balls of hormones. Yes, you are struggling with temptation and yes, you are struggling with physical, mental, and emotional development. But you also know that you want people to be treated fairly. You want people to be treated with respect and equality.

You may face the temptation to look at pornography, but deep down you know how terrible it is for people, especially women, to be degraded that way. And you feel you cannot talk to us about it because we have hidden all of our struggles from you. We pretend we have it all together and we hold you to such unimaginably high expectations that we have left no space for you to feel like you can ask for help.

You have been fighting and fighting and fighting to do the right things, but we have not supported you the way we should have. Now, you are self-harming, using drugs, and being medicated for anxiety or depression in astronomical numbers.

And it is our fault.

We are sorry. We want to start listening. We want to start helping. So please keep talking. Please talk to us even when it seems like we aren’t listening. Because we probably aren’t. But we need to. So talk to us until we listen.

Tell us how tired you are. Tell us how committed you are to fighting for justice. Tell us how much you thirst for knowledge. Tell us how much you want to explore and question spirituality.

Tell us what we need to hear.

Tell us until we listen.

Because listening is the best way we can show you we are sorry.

Signed,

Adults

We Don’t Do Death Well. And That’s Okay.

The following is an adapted version of what I shared at Freedom Fellowship this week. I have been teaching a series on the Gospel of John. John’s story is written to a group of people 2 or 3 generations after Jesus died. They have never seen Him and now all those people who were eyewitnesses are dying. John’s Gospel is written to tell the story of Jesus in a way that new generations of people could learn who Jesus was and is—much like we tell family stories of our grandparents to our children. For example, though I never met my grandfather physically, I know him because of the stories. I think that is in part what John is trying to do with his Gospel.

 

Shortly after my brother, Robert, passed away, my cousin and her husband, Gretchen and Jeremy, finalized the adoption of three wonderful sons. When an adoption becomes final, the family has the option of changing the children’s names. Gretchen and Jeremy decided not to do that. At least, they chose not to change their first names, but they did change the middle names.

For years, Jeremy had been saying he wanted a son named Joe Bob. For years, Gretchen said they would never have a son named Joe Bob.

When the time came to select middle names for their children, Gretchen asked Jeremy if “Robert” could be their oldest son’s middle name. She wanted to honor my brother by using his name. It just so happens their oldest son’s first name is Joseph. So Jeremy gladly agreed for his middle name to be Robert. Jeremy and Gretchen now have a son named Joe Bob. (It’s actually Joseph Robert, but it counts!)

And my brother would love that! That is exactly the kind of thing that would make him smile ear to ear and laugh non-stop.

We pass on the memory of previous generations through stories and names and talking about them. It is how we can remember those we no longer get to see. It is how we teach future generations about the people they have never been able to see face to face.

_________________________

We don’t do death well. I think, nationwide, we are getting better at it. I appreciate what Hospice care has brought to families who are suffering. But overall, we don’t die well. We adjust our diets, we exercise like crazy, we buy creams and ointments, we have created an entire field of medicine dedicated to making us look younger, we tan every way possible—from sunning, to sitting in lamps, to spraying it on.

Or we don’t do any of those things. We smoke, drink, eat whatever we want whenever we want, and scoff at the idea of exercising. And then we avoid the doctor because we are afraid of what she or he might say.

We don’t do death well.

And I have to be honest, I don’t know how. I don’t have the answers. I could try to make some up. I could come up with three points that all begin with the same letter, or I could use “death” as an acronym to spell out the five steps to dying well.

But that would not be honest. Because I don’t know how to do death well.

In fact, the reason I started this post with a story that involved my brother, Robert’s memory is because his death is the one that still shows me I don’t know how to do death well.

But his death has done something else for me, too: it has given me an ability to sit with other people who also don’t know how to handle death.

In John Chapter 11, Jesus goes to the village of Bethany 4 days after Lazarus has died. When Martha comes to Jesus, He tells her something incredible. It is one of the “I Am” statements found in John’s Gospel:

I Am the Resurrection and the Life.

Jesus is saying two things to Martha but she is only hearing one. The thing Martha is not hearing is that Jesus came to do a miracle. Jesus is asking her if she believes He is the resurrection, partly meaning now, and she is answering that she believes, but in the future. And that really is okay.

Martha believed Jesus, mostly. But she saw death the way we all see death: as final.

And that leads to the second thing Jesus is saying: in Him, there will be life forever. But resurrection requires death. At the Highland Church of Christ this past Sunday, Nika Maples said, “If you want to follow Jesus out of the tomb, you first have to follow Him into the tomb.”

Physically speaking, as humans we can do nothing to avoid death. We can push it off. We can stretch out the average life span. We can, and should, keep looking for cures to terminal illnesses. But ultimately, death will come to us all.

But that is not the end of the story.

_________________________

This is Holy Week. Today is Good Friday. The day the Savior of the world died. Tomorrow, Holy Saturday, is the day of waiting, darkness, maybe even despair.

But Resurrection Sunday tells us that the story does not end of Friday or Saturday. We will face death. We will face loss. We will wonder and doubt and ponder and sit in disturbed silence.

But one day, we will realize that pain is not the end of the story. And we will celebrate.

_________________________

I want to point out something else about the story of Jesus with Martha and her sister, Mary: even knowing what the end of the story is going to be (Lazarus being raised back to life), Jesus still wept. Jesus knew what He was about to do. He also knew that physical death was not the end of the story. But still He wept.

Because death is hard. It always has been. It always will be.

So we will grieve. We will mourn. But we will have hope because the I Am is the resurrection and the life.

We don’t do death well, but that’s okay.

Because we have been called to life.