On July 19, 2011, my mother succumbed to the pancreatic cancer that she had been diagnosed with less than six months before. Less than a week later, I was again scheduled to be on a plane to St. Paul, Minnesota for my summer intensive class. The hope that I had hung onto during my week in February was gone. My heart was filled with grief as I tried to answer the questions that circled my brain. I had lost one of my best friends and had to make a decision as to whether or not I would leave my family and spend a week with fellow seminarians for a class entitled "Self in Community."
I had no idea what was in store for me. I did not know what to expect from the class, from my classmates, and from myself. Additional questions filled my head as I weighed out all of my options, finally deciding that Mom had always been proud of my seminary work and would have wanted me to continue it, even in her absence. The week that I spent with my fellow seminarians, my fellow Christian brothers and sisters, my fellow journeymen on the road to life was exactly what God had intended for me. The dark journey through the valley of the shadow of death, into the uncertainty of grief and remorse was not to be taken alone, but instead would be started as part of a community.
I jumped headlong into the assignments of this class with some annoyance over having just taken a class in the Gospels during the winter quarter prior. The thought of reading through each of the Gospels three times in a week and then writing a paper was not the most exciting thing that I could think of nor was it something that I felt would be the most beneficial to me. One of my top five strengths based upon the StrengthsFinders list is "learner." This usually means that I will do my best to walk into any situation attempting to get the most out of it that is possible for me. I did my best to enter these assignments on the Gospels with this attitude.
What themes emerged as I read through the Gospels? What did the Jesus that I saw through my own lens look like? How did that impact my overall view of God? As I began to take these assignments more seriously, I began to realize how much what I was seeing in Jesus was exactly what I needed to see of him at the time. C.S. Lewis wrote, "My idea of God is not a divine idea. It has to be shattered time after time. He shatters it himself." I wondered what image of God would emerge within my readings and how that would shatter what I had perceived about him before.
In Matthew, I saw Jesus as the fulfillment of everything that had been spoken of and foretold of him by the Old Testament prophets. He was the one who had been waited for, the one who had come to accomplish what humanity could never accomplish themselves. In the midst of his coming though, he did not look like anyone expected. His entrance was not grandiose, but humble and his rule, from the temporal perspective of the world, was hardly glorious.
As I struggled with the events in my life not looking like I had expected them to look, my mom not being healed in the way that I anticipated, I saw the way that those who saw Jesus on earth with their own eyes were disappointed. He was not what they expected, but exactly what God intended. God's way was not what I expected, but it was exactly what he had intended it to be all along, whether I liked it or not.
I journeyed into the Gospel of Mark. Here I found a rushed and almost frantically paced Jesus. Things moved quickly and Jesus amazed the people that were around him. Friends, enemies, supporters, and haters all were amazed at the things that Jesus did and said. They were not only amazed because of the miraculous nature of what he was doing, but also by the sheer audacity with which he took on those who thought themselves in control. He pulled no punches and did not deliver what he had to say with any kind of candy coating to help it go down. There was amazement in not only what Jesus did, but what he asked of those who followed him.
How that paralleled my own life. Was it possible that this healing, teaching, and loving Jesus would require so much of me? Would he really take my mother away from me just months after her retirement and moving down close to her grandchildren? I stood in awe and amazement, not because Jesus had done anything miraculous to me or for me, but because of what he was asking of me, my mom, and our family.
In the Gospel of Luke, I began to see an emergence of the community element of this class. As I read through the gospel, I saw that the Jesus presented there was one who cared for those who were outcasts and marginalized from society. He extended his hand to them, many times turning his face away from the very ones who felt that they were entitled to his full attention. He showed mercy and compassion and then spoke words of judgment on those who turned a blind eye toward them.
I was seeing myself and my problems and yet I was missing the big picture. I was taking myself out of the community and analyzing my own pain and hurt selfishly, not thinking about what others had been through, not considering that I was not the first person in the world or within the Christian community to have faced what I was facing. I am part of community and being part of that community means that if I expect something from others, I had better be extending that very thing to the ones from whom I am expecting it.
I began my journey into John's Gospel prior to my mom's death and finished it during my intensive week in St. Paul. In John's Gospel, I saw Jesus connected to the Father and to the Spirit. I witnessed the divine dance as the three cooperated with one another, dancing in rhythm and community. The Greek word used to describe it is perichoresis. As Majerus and Sandage describe it, there is a mutuality and an individuality taking place at the same time. I saw a picture of God as cooperative and collaborative rather than self-seeking. What would this look like in community? How would it manifest itself? Jesus was the incarnation of it, did it die when he was placed within the tomb?
These gospels were the basis for what we would do in our intensive week. They were the springboard for us to share with the communities in which we were put for this brief period. Although I consider myself a fairly open person, I was not sure that forced community would be right for me at this point in my grieving process. I abstained from an introduction during our initial class and kept relatively and uncharacteristically quiet. As I began to feel more comfortable in my surroundings, we were told that we would be breaking into smaller groups for the afternoons during the week. Guidelines were given to help the process of community and sharing along.
Up to this point in my grief, I had grown fairly cynical and tired of people offering me the pat Christian responses at funerals and memorials. I was tired of hearing, "she's in a better place" and "she's no longer suffering." It's not that I didn't believe it, because I did, I just didn't want to hear it at the time. I had never been more struck with how awkwardly the Church handles grief until I was on the receiving end of people's sympathy and condolences.
There was a big difference within the community in my class: the guidelines. There were specific instructions given that we should not try to help or fix each other. We needed to be intentional in our questioning of each other and eliminate making statements through our own questions. Just these things alone were enough to strip away all of our pretentions. When people approached me and came alongside me, I knew that they were doing it because they cared. There were no attempts to "fix" me. There were no empty words being offered. I sensed a genuine concern from people for my and my family's well-being.
In the midst of the week, my father went to the hospital unexpectedly and had to have a procedure done while there. Everyone was incredibly sensitive to this when I returned to class. People were not surrounding me, overwhelming me with questions. Instead, they told me that they were praying and asked how everything was. I sensed that I was part of a true community, a community that was taking to heart the guidelines that had been given to us and living out the love of Christ to me as I made this dark journey.
I continued to meet with my small group and finally opened up to them. We were all coming from very different places in our lives. I could tell that this experience of not offering advice, embracing silence, and being introspective and vulnerable was very uncomfortable for some in my group. The discomfort was evident but not distracting because I felt that they were giving their best effort as uncomfortable as they felt. The tension in them was great, but their presence was just as valuable to me as they listened to my story.
As contrived as I had felt that our little community was, I realized how effective it had been. I thought back to the various people in small communities that I had already had set up back home in Virginia. I wondered how I could continue on through my grief process with the people that were already in place. More than anything else, as a pastor, I realized how this experience and process would prove formative for my future ministry. I would no longer be looking at those who grieve as an outsider, I was now one who had experienced grief and I felt as if I could bring a lot to others based upon my short experience. Not by offering advice, but by practicing being present and silent, joining them in their grief and simply being.
Throughout my intensive week, those two elements resounded in my being: being present and being silent. That was exactly what I needed. I needed people to listen to me talk about my feelings, about my questions, about my struggles, about my mom. I needed people to simply be in silence, offering nothing but their kindness and compassion, not through words, but through presence. I wondered again how many times I had been the very thing that I disdained, someone who did not honor presence and silence. I wondered how many times I had offered those who were grieving around me the same words that I had wanted so desperately to shove down other's throats.
Besides those key points, all week long the message that seemed to resound in my spirit was to honor the process. Mary brought forth a definition of formation as the process of or journey towards becoming whole and holy. We are all being formed all the time and this included me. My grief process was as formative, if not more so, than other areas of my life. There was no linearity to the process, it might spiral and twist, but the process was as important as the end, in fact, the process is what creates and forms the end.
As I spent time within the community of my small group, I wondered how I could take what I was experiencing there and bring it back with me. I came to the stark realization that the guidelines that were offered to us within the community were equally important to share with others in my communities back home. I understood that the journey through this process would require honesty and candidness on my part as well as a clear description for people of the guidelines under which I expect them to operate, not for the sake of taking charge but for the sake of my own formation through the process.
There is no script or roadmap through the grief process that fits everyone's journey. Honoring the process is important as is taking the time that I need. As I am honest with those around me, in community with me, they will honor the process as much as I have honored the process. Most people, it seems, will be taking their cues from me, deciding where I am based upon what they see in me. While I don't wish to walk around with a gloomy face, donning sackcloth and ashes, I feel that it is important to let people into my story, to help them understand the gravity of this loss to me. People can only respond to what they are aware of, if they are unaware because I have failed to bring an awareness to them, the blame lies solely with me.
This whole process and experience has been one of the most difficult experiences that I have faced in my life. I will continue to walk with my father and my brother through the process, although we all will journey at different paces and rhythms. My father's health is not good and that will make the process that much more volatile for me. I am, and will remain, human and am only capable of accomplishing things within my own limitations. It is crucial for me to find time for self-reflection and recharge, for the sake of me, my family and everyone around me. Since this process began, I have been given an inner premonition of oncoming emotions. I need to honor that premonition and allow the emotions to come, even to the point of inviting them in like a welcomed guest.
I will never be fully complete again as a part of me is gone. I will not fill that place in my heart but will continue to reserve it for the planting and flowering of the memories of my mom that I cherish and hold onto. I will instead learn to live with this piece missing within me, I will find out how to make it and live wholly although I am incomplete. I will honor the process. I will honor the silence. As I minister to others, I will see more clearly what it looks like from the other side. I will not undervalue the importance of my presence and my silence. If words cannot improve the situation, then the silence is better. May God continue to form me for his glory. As Isaiah prophesied to the nation of Israel, may the Lord bestow on me "a crown of beauty instead of ashes, the oil of joy instead of mourning, and a garment of praise instead of a spirit of despair." May I be called an oak of righteousness, "a planting of the Lord for the display of his splendor."