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Monday, July 23, 2012

The Proper Use of the Will

"Every day is a day when we must carry the vision of God's will into all of our activities.  'How can I best serve Thee, Thy will (not mine) be done.'  These are thoughts which must go with us constantly.  We can exercise our will power along this line all we wish.  It is the proper use of the will."--Alcoholics Anonymous (The Big Book).
I was at a meeting on Saturday when I heard these words read.  It was a brief but electric moment of recognition.  Surrender is the proper use of the will.

In this blog entitled "Choosing Hope," I've spent the majority of our time so far on the second word of the title.  Once in a while we have glimpsed the nature of choosing, but not often.  What does it mean to "choose" hope?  What does it mean to choose at all?

My theological formation and perspective are drenched in Lutheran categories and thinking.  When I heard the words at the meeting, I thought to myself, "What in the world is Martin Luther doing at this meeting today?"  

After all, Luther was one who had real theological issues with the notion of "free" will.  He lived in a context where the job of the believer was to elicit God's help in the believer's project of holiness.  It was up to the believer to open herself or himself to the wonderful effects of God's grace.  The task was to choose a path that would allow Grace to perfect human Nature.

Such nonsense, said Brother Martin.  The moment I think I can choose God on my own I will be plunged even deeper into despair.  That choice itself will be tainted with self-absorption.  And the choice to choose will be tainted with self-absorption.  And that choice to choose to choose will be tainted with self-absorption.

It is no wonder that our worship services often begin with the shattering confession that we are in bondage to sin and cannot free ourselves.  The proper use of the will is not to choose God unilaterally.  Surrender is the proper use of the will.  For that reason, Luther talked often about the "freed" will--our capacity for choosing that has been freed for its proper purpose.

We who are followers of Jesus believe that we are freed for precisely that purpose--to surrender to what Jesus is up in healing this broken world and to allow ourselves to be used as tools in that healing process.  I know you might see much of that sort of thing among some Jesus followers, and I'm sorry for that.

My friends in AA remind me and one another of this reality of the freed will over and over.  Now, it is not that we do nothing.  We can prepare and position ourselves for God to do what needs doing.  That is the journey of recovery and the walk of faith.  It's not about having the right intellectual contents in my brain.  It's all about being in the place where I can most fully surrender to what's wanting to happen in my life.

Brenda and I are in the process of moving.  We are both changing jobs.  We're not all that clear about the next six months, much less the next six years.  We do have a choice in all this.  We could be sleepless, anxious, irritable, and controlling.  That is, we could work so hard on choosing that we would descend into daily insanity.

I, for one, have my moments in that regard.

Or we can simply put ourselves in the place to do the next right thing, take the next small step, act in ways that make sense for now, and wait to see how things turn out.  That perspective produces a sense of adventure, a realistic perspective and some really wonderful surprises.  It also makes it possible to sleep much better at night.

I, for one, am so glad to have a partner who knows how to do this well.

Surrender is the proper use of the will.  And when we use our wills properly, the product is serenity.  There's lots to do in that serene journey.  Controlling how life turns out, however, is not on our to do list today.

Choosing hope--the choosing part--is all about surrendering to what needs to happen and working on hope during the course of the journey.  

Sunday, July 22, 2012

Talking Ourselves Forward.

We are moving on Saturday into an apartment for several months (Yes, we can use some help if you're free about 10 a.m. or so!).  

It's a long complicated story, but we've sold our house and aren't yet ready to purchase another.  So we are packing and sorting.  Some of the things will go into storage.  The necessities will go into the rental truck on Saturday.  It's another opportunity to identify what is most necessary for our daily life.  It's also another opportunity to sort through things that should go out the door in one fashion or another.

I have this odd reaction to the whole process.  In my brain, I know this is part of the adventure.  We are moving forward into another chapter--living closer to Brenda's new job and to family members.  It's another step toward having a house together--one that neither of us owned previously.  It is another step in my decade-long quest to live more simply, frugally, and with fewer things.  

That's all good.  And my brain is happy about all of that.

My guts are having a different experience.  I have moments of anxiety, sadness and distress.  I'm running across a few things from the past that might produce a bit of wistfulness.  But that hasn't happened much.  

I think I'm having an experience of sense-memory.  When I have cleaned and sorted and moved in the recent past, for the most part it hasn't been a happy set of experiences.  Instead, I have felt loss.  I have felt like a failure.  I have felt like I was abandoning important things and people.  It wasn't good.

I'm not doing any of those actions now.  But the cleaning and sorting and packing look and feel the same, no matter what the reason.  I have to keep telling myself--my insides--that this is all good.  I have to keep repeating to myself that this is a step forward and that we are accomplishing things that we have hoped for almost from the day we met.  I have to keep persuading myself that it's all good.

This makes me wonder how much sense memory plays into the flashes of grief that we all feel "out of nowhere."  

We are going along, minding our own business.  We do something and suddenly feel awful.  Was that something connected to a loss or trauma in the past?  Probably.  Our bodies remember things that our brains have worked hard to file away and put to sleep.  So I have to facilitate this negotiation between my neocortex and my guts.

Being aware that this is going on helps a great deal.  But it doesn't stop the process.  Brenda has asked me several times if I'm OK.  I am, but I have to keep reminding myself that I am.  I shared with her what I think is going on, and that helped a great deal.  That sharing put some distance between me and the experience of the moment.  It helps to do the packing in smaller doses, increasing in duration and frequency over a few days.  It helps to keep having the brain/bowels negotiation at a low level.  I think it will help to watch a good movie and get distracted a bit.

Most of all, I'm back to good old gratitude.  I know what it's like to lose a large part of my life.  I know what it's like to have to start over.  I know what it's like to feel terrible.  And this life now isn't any of those things.  It's an awesome life with amazing possibilities.  I tell myself that in great detail several times a day.  And I feel much better.

The body remembers and reminds us.  But we don't have to get stuck in the remembering.  We can talk ourselves forward into life.  That's a "choosing hope" kind of skill.

Friday, July 20, 2012

The July Audience...It's a Small World!

Here are places where "Choosing Hope" has been read this month!


United States
Russia
United Kingdom
Germany
France
Brazil
China
South Korea
Malaysia
Poland


I'm astonished!  Thank you for looking in.


And for those of you who have clicked on an ad--thanks for buying us a gallon of gas so far in July!

Getting Close to God...and One Another

Do I hold God politely at arm's length?  Or do I get in close with God and risk a painful encounter?

The Old Testament character, Job, chooses the first option--at least in the first chapters of his story.  He has a polite, civil, business-like relationship with God.  Job makes every sacrifice prescribed in the ritual regulations.  He makes extra sacrifices in case his children wander off the path of propriety.  Job does his part.  And for a while, God does God's part.  Job is blessed with material prosperity, good public repute, and a serene personal existence.  Job stays on his side of the street and expects God to stay on God's side of the street.

Alert readers (in Hebrew, anyway) notice that Job's name really means "enemy."  I don't ever quite know what to make of that, but I know that it matters.  Who is the enemy here?  As I read Parker Palmer's book, Healing the Heart of Democracy, I think of one of his lines.  "As long as we equate the stranger with the enemy," Palmer writes, "there can be no civil society, let alone a democracy where much depends on holding the tension of our differences without fearing or demonizing the other" (page 96).

Can the God we hold at a polite distance turn into anything other than the ultimate Stranger and Demon?  This is, I think, fundamental to Job's wrestling.  "If this is how God treats [God's] friends," noted Mother Theresa with a bit of acid," it's no wonder [God] has so few of them."

The New Testament character, that unnamed widow in Luke 18:1-8, chooses the second option.  "Chooses" is not the right description.  She is down to her last option.  The unjust judge won't even give her the time of day.  She is, after all, of no real account to him.  So she makes it clear that either she gets a settlement or he gets a smack in the face just below the eyeballs.  Not only would the judge suffer physical pain, but he also would be rendered a laughingstock among his peers.

While the relationship between the widow and the judge is not cordial, it is certainly close.  There is none of the careful civility we find with Job, none of the dignified decorum, none of the nodding acquaintance that leaves everyone comfortable and no one fully engaged in life.  This widow forces a rough and tumble, full contact, in your face (literally) relationship.

And that is the kind of relationship Jesus commends to his followers--passionate, muscular, turbulent, in God's face, and fully engaged--with God and with one another.

What we Christians proclaim is that we know the God who refuses--repeatedly, resolutely, and radically--to be the Stranger and the Enemy.  The heart of the Gospel is that Jesus is Immanuel--God with us.  The Book of Revelation reaches its high point with these words: "Now is the dwelling place of God among human beings..."  The Apostle Paul builds our relationship with God in the midst of an enmity to be overcome--"while we were still enemies [of God], Christ died for us..."

The God who refuses to remain at a distance enters fully into our lives and into the human experience--even to the point of death on a cross.  Our God is desperate to be with us and to lead us to be with one another.

Now we will find ourselves once again afraid of the Other, the Stranger--the Anonymous enemy.  I don't know much about the shooting in Colorado.  I do know, however, that we will be tempted to withdraw further from one another.  We will long to lock the doors, draw the shades, arm the alarms and watch our movies in private.

And if we do, then we will have surrendered to the real enemies of fear, isolation, and despair.  Please, dear Lord, give us the courage to be friends with the Stranger, to risk the relationship that brings healing to the world.

Thursday, July 19, 2012

I Wish I'd Written That...

"The broken-open heart is not a rarity to be found only among saints but a common feature in the lives of ordinary people, including ourselves.  You suffer the death of someone who gave your life meaning. Then you go through a long underground passage of grief when life without that person barely seems worth living.  But one day you emerge and discover, to your surprise, that because of your devastating loss, your heart feels more grateful, alive, and loving.  The heart is an alchemical retort that can transform dross into gold."

--Parker Palmer, Healing the Heart of Democracy, page 60.

Our Community

"When we share the sources of our pain with each other instead of hurling our convictions at 'enemies,' we have a chance to open our hearts and connect across some of our great divides." --Parker Palmer, Healing the Heart of Democracy, page 6
I am just entering Parker Palmer's newest book, but I know it will be wonderful.  His lifelong struggles with clinical depression and his lifelong passion for peace with hope meet once again in this book.  Palmer lifts up what we know deep inside--that real empathy is the only hope for human community.

I was at a meeting where we talked about relief efforts on the other side of town.  We were supporting those efforts with dollars and volunteers and were benefiting hundreds of people, at least in the short run.  One person at the table said, "I hope we can learn how to do something like this in our community."

My heart sank into my shoes.  Somehow, the people less than ten miles away were not part of "our community."  

It is our natural tendency to regard those closer to us, more like us, and more likely to benefit us as more important to us than other people.  But one of the disciplines of being a compassionate grown up is to resist that tendency for all we're worth.  One of the disciplines of being a compassionate grown up is to extend our empathy to those who are farther away, less like us, and unlikely to benefit us in any way.

Experiences of grief and loss, vulnerability and weakness, pain and struggle--these experiences can deepen our capacities to connect with the lives of others.  These experiences can make us more empathetic if we will allow that to happen.  Of course, such experiences can also harden us to the needs of the world.  Such experiences can lead us to shut ourselves off to any further possibilities of pain.

Hopeful people choose to have healthy boundaries rather than solid walls.  One of our meditations  at the breakfast table this morning talked about that difference.  Walls shut us in and eventually kill, cutting us off from the real life of this world that exists outside of our own skins.  

Healthy boundaries allow us to maintain that sense of who we are and to connect with people who are not us.  

Healthy boundaries allow us to have perspective--to step back a bit in order to move forward.  

Healthy boundaries allow us to have empathy--to use our imaginations to enter into the pain and promise of another's life.  

Healthy boundaries allow us to embrace difference rather than having to screen others according to sameness and how they satisfy our self-interest.

Pain and loss can be pathways to such connections, if we can have the courage to let that happen.  Pain and loss can be pathways to such connections if we are willing, as Parker Palmer says, to let our hearts be open.  We Christians worship the God who sends Jesus to be God's open heart to us and to the world.  And Jesus is then the model for how we live our lives of hope.


"Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus, 
who, though he was in the form of God,
   did not regard equality with God
   as something to be exploited, 
but emptied himself,
   taking the form of a slave,
   being born in human likeness.
And being found in human form, 
   he humbled himself
   and became obedient to the point of death—
   even death on a cross."
Philippians 2:5-8

All communities are our community.  Pain and loss teach us that.

Wednesday, July 18, 2012

Funerals

The day of the funeral for our loved one is a day most of us meet with dread.  It is the day when our numbness and denial collide with indisputable reality.  

There our loved one lies in the casket or in the urn or already in the ground.  For a few days between the death and the funeral, we could wait and hope that she or he might stumble through the front door and declare that it had all been a mistake or a joke or a misunderstanding.  Now those fond delusions wither under the glare of death's relentless spotlight.

One after another the guests come and say things like, "I'm so sorry."  If our loved one is still alive, then such statements are absurd and even silly.  But those statements are not absurd or silly.  People say those things because our loved one is dead.  

When I was by myself I could ignore such voices.  I could choose to hear nothing at all.  Now I have to listen.  And I have to say thank you to people for reminding me over and over that my loved one is dead.

Perhaps a funeral service is, as much as anything, the public enforcement of reality upon the bereaved.  No one wants to do that or takes any pleasure in such an exercise.  It is, however, one of the unavoidable elements of a funeral.  

Is it any wonder that people insist these days on having "celebrations of life" in a continuing campaign to deny the reality of death?

If no one had died, a funeral would be a pretty poor excuse for a party or family gathering.  The fact that all those nice people showed up with tissues in their purses and pockets means that something terrible has happened.  We all know it.  We can't escape it.  The funeral happens.

Then it's over.  We move to the cemetery.  Or we go home with the cremains.  Or something.  

In any event, we find a way to enact the words that Christians use at the grave site: "we commend our loved one to the ground--earth to earth, ashes to ashes, dust to dust..."  When our loved one is a veteran we hear "Taps" being played and know that this is a salute to the final sunset of a life.  One moment she or he was here, alive and breathing.  The next moment she or he was gone, silent and cold.  There's no getting around it.

No escape.  No denial.  No illusions.  It's no wonder people dread that funeral day.

In the midst of that, we Christians do something quite remarkable.  We celebrate--not just the life of the deceased, but rather the Life that cannot die.  It isn't that we are without grief.  No, life is a sweet and precious gift from God.  We hurt deeply because we love deeply.  We who follow Jesus weep with those who weep as well as rejoicing with those who rejoice.

Then we do one more thing.  We make an announcement.  "For I am convinced," we quote the Apostle Paul in Romans 8, "that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord."

We are convinced.  That conviction carries us beyond the day of dread into a future with hope.

Tuesday, July 17, 2012

Tell Us A Story

As a Christian minister, I have the privilege of serving people in times of personal loss.  I pray with them as they watch and wait for death to come.  I help them to organize and live through funerals, burials, cremations and the aftermath of such public experiences.  I come back to them in the days and weeks and months after the loss to talk and remember, to process and plan for the future.

One of the things I have found most satisfying in this process is the writing of real obituaries and the composing of funeral sermons that really address the life of the deceased.  

There was a time when newspaper obituaries were comprehensive, sensitive, artful, and (most important) free.  That time is past for most print newspapers and for most online obituary services provided by funeral homes.  

Public obituaries these days include just the facts--written in artless sentence fragments because proper subject/verb combinations require to much print and too many bytes.  Those obituaries are polite and proper, but they do not begin to capture the beauty and drama of a human life now over.

When I studied creative writing in high school and college, the exercise I loved the most was the character sketch.  I'm not always great on plot.  I don't go in for lots of detail in describing surroundings or circumstances, context or color.  But I took great delight in creating the contours of a character, in uncovering the meaning of a lifetime.

What I have found in thirty years of doing funerals is that a good obituary performs the same function.  If I have the chance, I will compose a fairly extensive obituary to include with a worship or memorial folder for the family of the deceased.  

One of the comforting challenges of a funeral sermon is to identify and then to celebrate those elements of a person's life story that illustrate the human condition, celebrate the goodness of life, and open a window on to the power of the Christian gospel.

I don't have time in my ministry for mere eulogy or encomium.  People deserve far more than those superficial forms and offer.  Real human beings have warts and flaws as well as dignity and beauty.  Family members, more than anyone else, know this about their loved ones.  

The challenge in dealing with the less than flattering characteristics of anyone is to do so with humor and love.  That's how we deal with one another's irritating characteristics in a healthy life.  There is no need to change that strategy in a funeral sermon.

So one of my tasks during the grief guidance process and the planning of the funeral is to listen for the stories of a life.  Bereaved people are glad to tell those stories.  It is a joy to listen as a family shares the highs and lows, the good and bad, the sublime and the ridiculous from the life of a loved one.  It is a satisfying challenge to weave those stories into a healing and hopeful message on that very difficult funeral day.

All that being said, I want to issue an invitation to you, dear readers.  

I would be honored if this blog would be a place where you would consider telling stories about your loved ones.  I cannot tell you who reads these words.  I do know that we have a little community from some twenty countries now. And I do know that telling the stories of our loved ones is a source of healing and hope that no amount of counseling, coaching and guiding could provide.

You have heard bits and pieces of Anne's story as we have gone along.  I will try to share more of that story in the days to come.  But now I encourage you to take a more active role in this conversation.  

Use the "comment" function to share a memory, a laugh, a tender moment, or even a conflict, that marked the life of a loved one lost.

We will do our best to listen.  And we will all be strengthened by the stories.

Saturday, July 14, 2012

Course Corrections

In mediation practice, we are always seeking to help people adopt a larger and more inclusive perspective.  In this way, the participants can begin to see one another's interests.  Then the participants can make the empathic move toward a resolution that addresses as many of those common and multiple interests as possible.

I can adopt the same strategy in negotiating with myself during challenging times.  If I can place my life and my problems in a larger context, they appear more manageable.  It becomes easier to see possible pathways to the future.  I can better appreciate the possible meaning and significance of what I am experiencing.  I can connect my life more fully to God, the Universe, the All or however else you would like to name the Framework of Transcendence.

I am asking myself lately what I hope my life will include fifteen years from now.  That's a good conflict resolution question for people locked into intractable struggles.  It is also exceedingly challenging, I think, for all of us who have lost someone dear.

In fifteen years, I will be seventy (Wow!).  How in the world can I think about fifteen years from now when the very next moment could be my last?  That is one of the impacts of losing someone--that deepened sense of mortality, finitude, limits and threat.  It is a challenge to see a larger perspective when one is deeply and daily conscious of such realities.

I need to remind myself often that the world itself has not changed.  Having someone die is not a recent innovation in the human experience.  That reality is not what has changed.  What has changed is my experiential awareness of what has always been true.  We are mortal and finite.  We have limited time in this life.  We don't really know when that time will be over.  The world has not changed.  I have.  Now, what will I do with that change?

There is no news in the preceding paragraph.  I need to remember that often.

So, thinking about where I want to be fifteen years from now (more important--where God calls me to be on the journey) is really the same exercise it was five years ago.  The difference is in focus for me.  Loss changes priorities and perceptions.  Loss sorts out what is really important from the merely urgent.  Knowing in my bones that time is limited and every second is precious--that knowledge turns out to be a gift that deepens the joy and love in this life and sharpens my focus on the future.

We are given the gift of limits so we can savor the joy and beauty of this life.

I struggle these days to know where we might be headed in the next few months.  I can fixate on the issues that this uncertainty presents.  I have done that several times in the last few weeks.  That fixation is depressing and debilitating.

Far more productive to imagine that fifteen year time frame, and then to make plans to get to that destination.  I hold those plans loosely and am always ready to adopt a new course in response to what God offers.  It is a privilege and a challenge to take life on God's terms rather than mine.  But the blessings of the larger perspective far outweigh the disappointments of having to make course corrections.  In the larger perspective those course corrections are always small.

So what are those hopes?  The plan is always a work in progress, but...

--I hope to be in good enough health to be with family often, serve Jesus well, and take ten days each year with Brenda on St. Pete's Beach.  That hope requires certain self-care disciplines every day.
--I hope to be able to offer coaching, consulting and mediation services for free to those who could not otherwise afford them.  That hope requires certain work, fiscal and educational disciplines every day.
--I hope to be able to offer my gifts in volunteer ways to innovative ministries to and with the poor either here or in another country.
--I hope to be able to go fishing once a week for four months every summer.
--I hope to write one book a year, whether anyone reads it or not.
--I hope to have more friends than I could imagine.

Sorry--no "bucket list" of things to do and places to see.  Those things will take care of themselves one way or another.  I just hope to be able to love, serve and give from the fullness of joy that we have.  Now, to work out the details...

Thursday, July 12, 2012

What Is "Acceptance"?

What is "acceptance"?  It is not, for most of us, an immediate and instantaneous embrace of the notion that the whole world has changed for us when someone dies.  That rarely happens for anyone.  Sometimes we can perhaps confuse our initial numbness and shock with a kind of immediate acceptance.  When the shock goes away (sort of like an initial swelling goes down), then we begin to experience our loss more fully.

Nor is it some sort of intellectual affirmation that a death has taken place and the loved one will not return.  We can make that sort of conscious affirmation, but that choice does not assure us that the pain will go away as well.

Acceptance is not merely a move from disbelief to belief in a particular state of affairs.  Rather, acceptance is the process of moving from a fairly constant and frequent yearning for the loved one toward an episodic and rather infrequent sense of that yearning.  Acceptance is more about living with a loss rather than existing after a loss.

That yearning for the loved one is, in fact, "the most frequently endorse initial reaction" to loss, as reported by bereaved people in studies (Handbook of Bereavement Research and Practice, page 168).  The sense of shock and disbelief may have more pronounced in the first two months after loss. The study picks up reports from folks two to twenty-four months after loss, after the sense of shock and disbelief typically has subsided somewhat.

There is an inverse relationship between yearning for the loved one and acceptance of the loved one's death.  As that yearning wanes in both strength and frequency, acceptance of the loss becomes more common and stable.  It is clear from personal experience as well as research studies that particular episodes of yearning and sadness may be just as intense some time after our losses.  Those episodes are not signs of "failure" or dysfunction.  Those episodes typically don't last as long and are not as frequent over time.

We've noted before how the pain of loss is a kind of neural starvation.  Those familiar pathways in our brains and in our lives that we associated with our loved ones are no longer being used.  It hurts as those pathways fade from lack of use and are gradually recycled back into the generally available brain resources we have.  It takes six months or so for most of us to come to a level of comfort with the yearning/acceptance process.
"...by 6 months postloss, most bereaved individuals reach some sense of acceptance, see the future as holding some potential for satisfying relationships and endeavors, are able to engage in productive work, and enjoy leisure activities...By 6 months postloss, the majority of bereaved individuals are capable of finding some meaning and purpose in their lives, maintaining connections with others, and developing new relationships. (Handbook of Bereavement Research and Practice, page 170).
Those who may have steady or even increasing yearning more than six months after loss might be suffering from a form of prolonged grief and should certainly seek professional outside help to deal with these struggles.  

There are indications that reductions in yearning experiences are somewhat gender-based. Overall, men may have fewer long-term yearning/acceptance problems than women.  None of us, however, is truly "average."  All of our very individual experiences combine to create a typical picture, but that picture will not capture any one of us completely.

"Acceptance" is not so much a matter of belief as it is a matter of integration.  I gradually take in as part of my identity the fact that I have lost a particular loved one.  Can I embrace that revised identity and live out of that identity in healthy and productive ways?  Can I continue (as Freud would say)  to "live and work" in the light of my loss?  

It would seem that most of us can do that after a time.

Wednesday, July 11, 2012

Seven and a Half Minutes of Extra Life

Worth the time to watch and ponder....

http://www.ted.com/talks/jane_mcgonigal_the_game_that_can_give_you_10_extra_years_of_life.html

Advance Preparation for Loss

I am intrigued to listen to the ongoing shouting match in professional circles regarding the efficacy of grief counseling.  I know that my personal experience is of no use in this regard.  I have no idea whether grief counseling is effective in general, since I never really entertained the possibility for myself.  I wouldn't recommend my path to anyone else, although I found real avenues for personal growth by trying to build my own road forward.

It is clear that the Kubler-Ross five stage model has not received clinical validation.  It was derived from the experiences of people facing terminal diagnoses.  The model was then extended to all sorts of loss experiences--most of which have no similarity to facing a terminal diagnosis.  Now that model is part of the Culture of Bereavement Orthodoxy.  The five stage model has vociferous defenders in the community of practictioners.  It has few defenders left in the research community.

It is also clear that the Freudian notions of "grief work" and "cathexis" have no real basis in the research.  Nonetheless, these concepts are part, as well, of the Culture of Bereavement Orthodoxy.  In fact, a focus on getting out the feelings related to grief has been demonstrated to do more harm than good in many test cases.  This idea of "grief work" was at best a footnote in Freud's one article on grief--a footnote that was built into a whole discipline by a few of Freud's early followers.

It does not appear, on the other hand, that claims about the inefficacy and even damaging potential of grief counseling are based in real research either.  Several articles dispute what is becoming another piece of unproven orthodoxy in the psychology of grief community.  It does not appear that anyone has conclusively demonstrated that grief counseling is no better than a placebo and/or damaging in a number of cases.

Those assertions, however, have become the basis for a number of arguments against the use of grief counseling in all but the most complicated grief cases.  It is not clear that those arguments stand on solid research ground.

What is clear is that how we were wired before the loss is highly determinative of how we will respond to the loss in the longer term.  So, in fact, we might all be well-served to focus on our psychological hygiene in preparation for the losses we will experience in life.

Everyone loses loved ones at some point.  Everyone dies.  In other cultures and other times, people have spent important time and energy preparing for loss and death.  There is great wisdom in pursuing that personal discipline.

What are the traits that empower us to grief well?
--have I developed resilience in the face of adversity?
--can I choose optimism in the face of difficulty?
--do I know how to take care of myself physically when I am under stress?
--do I have good social support systems in place?
--have I developed a sense of myself that is not completely dependent on another person's existence?
--do I have a sense of humor?
--do I have a sense of perspective, the ability to step back and then move forward?

Perhaps the most effective response to loss would be the proactive one--working on one's personal psychological hygiene day in and day out.  We know that grieving will come, just as we know that cavities come if we don't brush our teeth.  Perhaps we need to apply the same energies to our psyches that we do to our gums.

So we might benefit from "grief guides"--those who have been there and learned the skills to survive.  Perhaps we need to teach these skills to our children in order to make their lives better now and to prepare them for the real losses of later life.

Perhaps we all need more training in choosing hope.

Thank You, I Think

"Having a loss in one's background could certainly be an asset to a grief counselor, but it also inevitably colors one's interpretations and recommendations.  Not only have many grief counselors experienced traumatic loss but so has almost every prominent grief expert out there...Almost every person who has written a book on grief has experienced the sudden, unexpected, and often violent death of a loved one, so that extraordinarily difficult circumstances have formed the filter through which we have come to understand loss in general."--Ruth Davis Konigsberg, The Truth About Grief, pages 120-121.
I read Konigsberg's book with interest and appreciation.  Her section on the grief experiences of grief counselors and grief experts was a useful set of cautions.  More than that, her thoughts highlight the tension that I feel as both a recipient of bereavement support and a dispenser of that support.

When I tried to find counseling help and support, I certainly wanted to know if the "expert" before  me had any experiences of loss matching the depth and frequency of my own.  

In fairness, early on I was convinced that no one had a loss like mine.  So that inquiry was a no-win proposition for the "expert."  That being said, I did hear a great deal that seemed to come much more from books and pamphlets than from personal struggle and insight.  I listened much more closely to people who had experienced loss.  I also knew that I received genuine listening in return from those folks.

Now, I find myself in that position--that of a grief counselor--on a number of occasions.  

It takes tremendous energy for me to monitor myself and my reactions.  I find that people ask me for more advice about specifics now--how many death certificates, burial arrangements, wills and estates, dealing with children, what to do with clothes and personal items.  I have specific experiences to share and that is helpful.

What is not helpful is when I am tempted to make the conversation about my experiences.  This is different than a modest reliance on my own experiences to offer possibilities or encouragement.  It is an ongoing task of self-monitoring and self-management to make sure that I stay focused on the person in front of me.  It is so easy to move from that empathetic connection I feel and fall face first into memories of my own stuff.

I find that I am able to maintain that boundary for the most part.  And for the most part, I find that task--of using some energy to maintain health and intentional boundaries--to be a helpful part of the process.  

I have to focus much more clearly on the needs of the bereaved person in front of me in order to maintain the healthy distance that genuine empathy requires.  I can be connected to my own memories and feelings, but I also need to stand apart from those memories and feelings if they are to be tools rather than burdens in the conversation.

So those conversations in hospital rooms, hospice units and homes take far more energy form me than they once did.  I am still adjusting to that greater energy requirement.  Those conversations, however, have a depth, immediacy and impact--both for the other and for me--that I have not known previously.  It's harder work, but it is also better work.  And for that I am grateful, I think.

As with all other things now, autopilot is not an option for me.  I'm not suggesting that somehow I did pastoral care ministry on automatic before Anne's death.  I am suggesting that I didn't have quite so many things to manage with intentionality in order to do the work.  The real gift is that the more intention that is required for self-management, the more present I feel myself to the person and to the conversation.

Thank you , I think, for this deeper set of challenges and opportunities to help another and grow in my own being.

Tuesday, July 10, 2012

Feeling Our Way Along

"In general, the more emotionally demanding the work, the more empathic and supportive the leader needs to be.  Leaders drive the service climate and thus the predisposition of employees to satisfy customers."  Goleman, Boyatzis, and McKee, Primal Leadership, page 17.
I have been reflecting on the need for self-empathy in the grieving experience.  That self-empathy is the primary path toward "help" in the grieving experience.  

If I cannot have some measure of empathy for myself, I will not seek the help I need to move forward.  I will see myself as weak, worthless and wanting in every way.  I will continue to punish myself and descend deeper into the darkness of despair.

If I cannot have some measure of empathy for myself, I will be unable to give any help to others who are suffering, because I won't be able to imaginatively enter the emotional world of that other.  If I cannot offer help, I will deprive myself of a primary source of healing.  And I will deprive the other of a primary source of support.

Grieving is the most emotionally demanding work I can imagine.  So the words from Primal Leadership take on, for me, a meaning the authors certainly did not intend.  They are, however, quite right in their description.  The deeper my grief, the more I need to find ways to step back in order to move forward--to develop some caring distance in order to embrace my grieving more fully.

For me, the secret was to find people who didn't limit my identity to my loss.  I needed to see something in the face in front of me that went beyond the "you poor man" look.  My emotional system was so open and vulnerable that I simply absorbed whatever I saw--at least in the early days.  When I could find those few people who interacted with me as "me," then I felt somewhat better.  That meant not spending as much time with people who knew me well.  And that was very confusing for everyone.

I imagine that for others, going right back to work might fulfill some of that function.  I wonder sometimes if I would have done much better had I done that.  I have troubling imagining that I would have functioned at all--as broken as I was.  But perhaps the input of others working on a common task with importance beyond any individual would have been good medicine.

This reminds me that as I write I am not recommending the path I took to anyone else who has lost someone.  My journey has been mine, not yours.  I am so glad to be at the place I am.  So I wouldn't ask for a different path than the one I took.  But I do know that doing different things produces different results.  We all need to do what will work best for our real healing and hope.

Friday, July 6, 2012

Let It Begin with Me

What are the factors that lead to breakdowns in care for those who are suffering?  If you have been one of those people, you know what I mean.  Just when you think you will be on the receiving end of huge amounts of care, compassion and company, what you discover is a deafening silence, an empty room, and no light at the end of the tunnel.

How does that happen?

First, I think we as sufferers must own our parts in that breakdown.  

  • I told people to stay away.  It wasn't any more complicated than that in most cases.  
  • I wasn't much fun to be around, understandable as that is.  Research has shown repeatedly that people will consciously or unconsciously move away from people who are sad and depressed. 
  • I wanted what other people could not give--a reversal of my loss.  
  • The people who most wanted to help also provided the clearest reminders of my loss.  So I found myself running away from them just when I needed them the most.
Few people were willing to point out my own part in my experiences of rejection and abandonment.  I don't know if I would have listened to them had they taken the risk of telling me.  I imagine that I would not have done so.  I probably would have chewed them out in no uncertain terms.  In retrospect, I might have benefited had someone tried.  But I'm not surprised that they didn't.  I don't think I would have tried very hard to help me either.


I know now that I was far too lacking in graciousness for my own good and in response to the love of those around me.  I hope I do better the next time.  And chances are very good there will be a next time--for me and for all of us.

Second, there are things that happen in any crisis that cause empathy vacuums, compassion failures and lapses of personal support.

One of those realities is the "bystander effect."  We know this phenomenon from social psychology.  It is the group effect that leads individuals to stand by as something bad happens.  One of the reasons for this is the assumption that someone else closer to the situation, more qualified, with more access, will respond.  When everyone makes that assumption, the result is the bystander effect.  The sufferer remains alone even though the observers are awash in compassion waiting to be released.

A number of studies have shown that in the great majority of cases, so-called "grief therapy" is no more effective in facilitating recovery than life without that therapy.  In cases of complicated and long-term bereavement (about fifteen percent of all cases) such therapy is useful.  However, the availability of professional resources--at least in theory--for grieving persons may exacerbate the bystander effect.  There are, after all, professionals who will provide support.  Since that is true, I don't have to take the risk of saying something wrong or foolish to my bereaved loved one or friend.

Another reality is the crowd effect.  The more people who witness a crisis event, the less likely it is that any one individual will respond.  Darley and Latane created a study that allowed them to discriminate between the helping responses people offered by themselves or in groups of varying sizes.  The larger group, the lower the percentage of individuals who tried to help.  This isn't just a mathematical accident.  Controls were built into the study to smooth out the problems of averaging.

The psychologists identified what they call a "diffusion of responsibility" effect.  When people thought there were other witnesses (potential helpers) they felt less personal responsibility to do something to intervene.  "The end result is altruistic inertia" writes Dacher Keltner in The Compassionate Instinct (page 182).  I was surrounded by helpers.  I was crabby and unapproachable. "Certainly," people around me thought, "someone will be able to get through--but not me."

An additional reality may be what researchers call "pluralistic ignorance"--"the tendency to mistake another's calm demeanor as a sign that no emergency is actually taking place."  I don't know if this was part of my experience.  I do tend to get calmer as things get worse.  That's a great thing when others are in crisis around me.  You can count on me to keep my head most of the time.  When I'm in crisis, however, I tend not to look like I'm in crisis--at least not at first.  In fact, my outward appearance of calm doesn't look a lot different sometimes from my appearance of depression or calamity.  

The fact that I was calm and collected at Anne's funeral probably didn't do much to produce caring responses for me downstream. And of course, I didn't do much to let people help me in that regard.

So, my fellow sufferers, let us first of all own our responses that may keep people away, misinform them, or relieve them of opportunities to help us.  And we who are seeking to be helpful and supportive to those who suffer around us--let us find ways to take personal responsibility and check in a gentle way whether we can truly be helpful or not.  An AA slogan is so helpful here: "Let it begin with me!"

Self-Empathy

"Empathy is second nature to us, so much so that anyone devoid of it strikes us as dangerous or mentally ill." --Franz de Waal in The Compassionate Instinct
What are the skills we can employ to practice self-empathy?  They are the same as we might use to increase our empathy towards others.

The most important skill is to "step back to move forward."  Psychologists refer to this as the practice of "perspective taking."  This practice involves two elements.  The first is to move back far enough from the other person (in this case myself) in order to see the larger picture.  The second element is to use my imagination to see the world and the problem at hand through that larger picture.

We know how to do this for other people.  Someone I love says something that hurts my feelings.  I take a few breaths before I react and I think to myself, "I wonder how in the world those words arrived in the conversation?"  I step back in order to move forward.  I step back from the immediate pain and distress I feel in order to move forward in the relationship.  I use my imagination to see myself in the role of the other.

That empathetic response keeps me from reacting in anger.  It changes my physiology from fight/flight/freeze to reflective appreciation--lowered heart and respiration rates, moderated blood pressure, and different hormonal responses.  It allows me to "stop and think" (as our friends in AA would say to us over and over).  Empathy is the path toward a deeper relationship through conflict rather than the path toward a broken relationship because of conflict.

Now, how can I use that skill for myself?  Here's a scenario familiar to all.  In a hurry I reach for the glass water pitcher in the refrigerator.  It's hot out and I've been working in the yard.  In my sweaty hands, the pitcher slips, hits the floor and shatters.  After I recover from the momentary shock, I think to myself, "You stupid idiot!  Now look what you've done!"  I am now primed to beat myself in a variety of ways.  If anyone else is in the emotional blast radius, they will get a nearly equal dose of my angry reaction.

How about a little self-empathy?  Well now, that wasn't a very good thing, was it, to lose that pitcher?  But let's first make sure that no one was hurt.  Then let's get on to the important task of cleaning up that broken glass.  These things happen, you know.  It's just a water pitcher--not something over which you ought to ruin your day or even your hour.  Focus on what needs doing now and be a little nicer to yourself, Hennigs!

That's not a really big deal when it comes to a broken water pitcher.  But what if the issue is that I should have done more, I think to myself, to save my dying wife?  Or I should have done more to care more my grieving children?  Or I should have done a better job of managing the money or selling the house or doing my job or making plans for the future or....or...or...

Without the skill of self-empathy, the remainder is going to be self-recrimination.  That is one powerful path toward post-loss depression, at least in my experience.

Developing the skill of empathy toward others does improve our capacity for self-empathy.  So that's one thing we can do to make ourselves more resilient in the face of potential loss.  We can also simply do a better job of having real empathy for ourselves in the small things so that we are well-practiced in that skill when the big stuff comes along.

Grieving is an experience that follows emotional paths of least resistance.  The best way to prepare for the unavoidable losses in this life is to create healthy response pathways in our daily experiences.

Wednesday, July 4, 2012

Re-Storied

I was talking with someone who has gotten to know Brenda and me over the past several months.  The fact that I had been previously married came up in our conversation.  So she asked me about Anne, her life and her dying.  I shared a bit about that chapter in my life.  Our friend said, "I know that's all true about you.  But it's hard for me to imagine you married to someone else.  All I know is you and Brenda.  And that just seems like how it's always been."

For her that was indeed true.  That is how it's always been--for as long as she has known us.  For all that time, for her, it's been Brenda and me.  That other chapter of life is more like fiction for our friend than reality.  And that must be how it is for many people in our lives now.  They know we've had these other chapters in our lives, but those years were not part of their history.  So those years seem more like story than history to them.

I have been thinking about this dynamic.  For those of us who knew and loved Anne, those memories are hooked to an indelible reality.  For others, it all seems like a novel or a movie.  But even for me the memories begin to take on that historical quality as life continues forward.

If you read my weekend sermon posted in earlier blogs here, you might have noticed that I described some of our story in the third person rather than in the first person.  I did that intentionally for several reasons.  

First, the time is past when I can really stand much stranger sympathy.  I'm not describing what other people do.  I'm grateful for their care.  But I don't get much out of those "I'm so sorry" expressions anymore.  Rather, I start to feel like I'm using a sad story to just manipulate people's feelings for effect.  I don't want to be that guy any longer.

Second, that history does feel more and more like a story that happened to someone else.  I think that's part of the impact of time passing.  I have to discipline myself not to feel guilty about that natural and normal change in perception.  I am not forgetting Anne and our thirty-one years together. However, I am getting some distance from that life.  And I have a full, joyful, blessed and challenging life with Brenda here and now.

Third, that sort of third-person perspective is actually more healing in some ways than the white-hot intensity of first-person descriptions.  Those psychologists who engage in narrative bereavement therapy encourage their clients to write things in the third person sometimes as a way to get some helpful distance.  

There is a great deal to be said for stepping back in order to move forward, for stepping away in order to get a clearer view of the larger picture.  Third-person descriptions of first-person experiences can allow us to take those steps.

In fact, getting some critical distance from my own story is a way to engage in deeper self-empathy.  One of the chief characteristics of empathy is the ability to get the perspective of another.  If I am too close to another's pain, I will be stuck with sympathy--a far less useful emotion.  If I can step back from my self and my own story, then I can indeed do a better job of really caring for myself.

It is a story from another time--another life.  But it's still a really good story.  I am doubly blessed to have been part of that amazing first story, and now to be writing a magnificent new story with my beloved Brenda.  Thank you, God!

Monday, July 2, 2012

Sympathy Versus Empathy

I can only speak from my own experience when it comes to grieving.  Empathy helped me.  Sympathy just irritated me down to my toenails.  I must chart some of that irritation as my general disagreeableness when I'm stressed.  So that's no one's issue but mine.

Sympathy, however (even from the nicest folks), does not help very much.  Why is that?  What is the difference between sympathy and empathy?  Let me take a whack at that.

"Sympathy" describes my emotional experience when I hear about your pain and loss.  Let me give you a recent example.

I briefly described my changes in marital status over the last two years the other day to someone.  I was in a conversation about certain financial matters, and that brief history was necessary to the conversation.  As I shared my description, the other person made the kind of face you'd make after biting into a very tart lemon.  It wasn't a helpful response, but it was honest.  The description of my painful experiences produced several moments of physical revulsion for the other person.

Then that person said, "That's awful."  Yes, indeed it was.  And, no, that response didn't do me any good.  That's sympathy.  The other person had an emotional response to the report of my pain and loss.  I've gotten a lot of that over the last few years.  I'm used to it now.  I note it, but it doesn't bother me (at least not nearly as much as it used to damage me).

"Empathy" describes how I use my emotional experience when I hear about your pain and loss.  I use my emotional experience to come to a deeper understanding of you and your situation.  That doesn't mean I "know how you feel."  I don't and I won't.  I know how I feel, and I use that as a tool and template to engage in deeper and more authentic compassion for you.

Sympathy leads at some point to separation from the sufferer.  Empathy leads to deeper connection with the sufferer.  Dacher Keltner writes about psychological studies of these differences in his book, Born to be Good. He writes, "These findings make a clarifying point: It is an active concern for others, and not a simple mirroring of others' suffering, that is the fount of compassion and that leads to altruistic ends."

Sympathy is the simple mirroring of other's suffering.  Empathy is the active concern of which Keltner writes.  These two states expresses themselves quite differently in physiological terms.  Empathy can be measured in the resting tone of the vagus nerve and the MRI activity of the left frontal lobe of the brain.  And empathy engages us not only in the pain process of the other but in the conscious desire to act selflessly for the good of the other.  Keltner writes,
"Compassion does not render people tearful idlers, moral weaklings, or passive onlookers, but individuals who will take on the pain of others, even when given the chance to skip out on such difficult action or in anonymous conditions."
We can judge the difference between sympathy and empathy by sheer directionality.  Sympathy will take me away from the sufferer sooner or later.  Empathy will draw me closer to the sufferer and deepen my compassion for and connection with both the sufferer and my own experiences of pain, vulnerability and hope.

So when you seek to give comfort, examine your real motives.  Examine your physical responses.  And examine the direction your heart is taking you.  Do your best to move toward the pain of others.  Life will be better for all of us. 

The Crying Bars

My long-time friend, Jim Latham, sent this link to me today.  The article is entitled "Is There Such a Thing as Good Mourning?"  You can read that brief article at:


The article describes "cry bars" in Asia--places now where people can sit and cry for six dollars an hour.  For their money they can know that this will be a safe place for their tears of grief (or at least a place where they won't be challenged about their weeping).  The author wonders if bars in the U.S. serve much of the same function for bereaved folks.

Why would such places be necessary?  I suspect that a number of issues are in play for grieving people here.  Paying for time reduces the risk of rejection.  This is why some of us go to counselors, after all, rather than sharing with people close to us.  If I pay for someone to listen to me, I can be confident that they will follow through on that contract for listening or terminate it without emotional drama.

I can tell the same stories and cry the same tears a dozen times to a coach, counselor, therapist or pastor over without someone sighing and walking away.  The coach, counselor, therapist or pastor may encourage me to move on at some point, but that mild rebuke will not sting in the way it would if it comes from a family member or close friend.

As rituals in other cultures give way to the social formlessness of radical individualism Western-style, I suspect that people in those cultures will need ritual replacement therapy.  The cry bars probably serve some of that function as well.  

In our culture we have engaged funeral homes for much of that ritual replacement therapy now that more and more folks have taken their mourning out of churches and synagogues.  Those secular rituals tend to emphasize happiness and celebration, however.  More and more they are not safe spaces for people to weep.

Perhaps we will see cry bars catching on in the West as well.

I'm fascinated by one sentence in the article: "Mourning—the deliberate grieving, crying, processing, and sharing of shame, pain, and loss—is the means by which we curiously take on the strength of that which we overcome."  So the writer is headed in the proper direction.  

This is not about mere expression for the sake of expression.  Mourning is not completed by catharsis.  The opportunity we have is to make our grief productive--an opportunity to grow and deepen and flourish in the life we still have.  Tears of grief can facilitate entry into that process.  But those tears are not ends in themselves.


The writer concludes with an ambiguous prescription.  "Tears might be the first sign of new life, new possibilities. Mourn Deeply. Grieve on."  

I'd like to hear a bit more about that.  Mourn well, I would say, and in the fashion that plays to your personal strengths.  Grieve toward hope rather than despair, rather than simply grieving to "get the job done."  Most of all, find the people and places that allow you to do safe and productive mourning without fear of rejection, recrimination or (worst of all) mere pity.

There are alternatives to cry bars, I hope.

Sunday, July 1, 2012

It's All in the Timing (Part two)


Of course, there is another who is waiting as fast as he can.  Jairus is sick with panic, fainting with fear.  Then the nightmare comes true.  “Your daughter is dead,” the people from home report.  “There’s no point in annoying the Teacher any further.”  Jairus has waited as fast as he can.  And all his patience gets him is more pain.

If only that woman had stayed in her place.  If only she had waited her turn, he might have thought.  A few minutes might have made all the difference.  Now it’s too late. 

And what about Jesus?  Doesn’t he know that I, Jairus, am entitled to respect?  Doesn’t he know that I am president of the synagogue?  Doesn’t Jesus know that I’m always first in line at the potlucks?  Does Jesus know that you are supposed to give priority to the power and the privileged and the pure?

No, Jairus, Jesus doesn’t know that.  There is a triage system in the Kingdom of God.  It’s different from the way the world sorts the wounded.  In the Kingdom of God, the last shall be first.  The first shall be last.  The Gentile rulers may throw their weight around to get their way.  But it shall not be so among you.  The greatest in the Kingdom of God shall be servants of all.  Unless you become like a little child, you cannot enter the Kingdom of God.  If the powerful demand privileges and priority, then Jesus can raise up new children of Abraham from the very stones of the street.

Trusting God means trusting God’s timing.

The first shall indeed be last.  But they shall not be left out altogether.  Jairus still has a place in line even if that place is at the tail instead of the head.  A dead daughter?  Well, we’ll just see about that!  “Little girl,” Jesus says as he takes her by the hand, “Arise!”  If you hear the tremors of an empty tomb in those words, you hear correctly.  Jesus comes to launch the death of death itself.

The bleeding woman entered her prison of pain the year that little girl was born.  Now they are reborn on the same day.  The old woman may live to see her grandchildren.  The little girl may live to have grandchildren of her own.  Waiting as fast as you can is part of trusting God in all things at all times.

Trusting God means trusting God’s timing.

Psalm one hundred thirty is a prayer for personal rescue.  Verse five is about waiting as fast as we can.  “I wait for the LORD, my soul waits and in his word I hope.”  The words for “waiting” and “hoping” in that verse are very specific.  They contain the ideas of determination and endurance.  These are words that invite us to lean into our waiting.  We lean into that waiting with confidence and strength that come from Jesus by the power of the Holy Spirit.

God is, after all, waiting for us as fast as God can.  In Second Peter three, verse nine, you can read these words: “The Lord is not slow about his promise, as some would think of slowness, but is patient with you, not wanting any to perish, but all to come to repentance.”  That is the real purpose of God’s timing.  God wants you and me to have life and joy and love for now and for all time.  God will wait for as long as that takes.

Trusting God means trusting God’s timing.

How do we wait as fast as we can?  How do we endure in times of trouble?  Let me tell you a story.

A farmer found a magical flute.  Hoping to charm his hens into laying extra eggs, he played the flute to them all day.  But at nightfall he had no more eggs than usual.  Later, when asked if he’d had any success, the farmer replied, “I sure did!  It wasn’t much of a day for egg-laying, but it was a great day for flute-playing!”

Sometimes in our lives, it’s a great day for egg-laying.  We make plans, set goals, design programs, and hit all our marks.  Sometimes things happen when we want and how we want.  It’s a blessing to have a few of those days.

Most days, however, it’s a great day for flute playing.  Things don’t go according to schedule or plan or specifications.  Sometimes we have to just sit and wait.  And sometimes that waiting feels like pure agony.

I think about that family in my opening story.  They waited as fast as they could.  But waiting for God to act is not the same as doing nothing.  Trust is not a code word for despair.  Patience is not just a nice word for resignation.  Waiting is not a formula for futility.

That family did everything within their power to reach the woman in her coma.  They squeezed love and meaning and joy out of every second in that ICU.  They did everything possible to will her back to consciousness.  They painted her toenails red for the Husker game.  They told family stories and jokes.  They sang hymns and prayed.  Those wonders of waiting packed more life into that intensive care room than some people put into their whole existence.

The woman still died, even after those heroic efforts.  It was sad and sorrowful.  But it wasn’t the end of all things.  In our reading as well, that healed woman died at some point.  So did the little girl.

So did Jesus.

Of course, Jesus didn’t stay dead.  And because we are baptized into his death and resurrection, neither shall we.  That makes all the difference.  That’s why we wait.  That’s why we wait with hope as fast as we can too.

Trusting God means trusting God’s timing.  Amen.

It's All in the Timing (Part one)


(Today's sermon at St. Paul's Lutheran Church)

The young woman was stricken, seemingly from nowhere, with a blood clot in her brain.  In a matter of seconds she went from an active and vibrant wife, mother, employee, friend and parishioner to a still figure on a respirator in the ICU.

Physicians and nurses scurried in and out.  The doctors poked and prodded, peered and pondered, whispered orders and walked away.  The therapists gave breathing treatments, moved her lifeless limbs, and cleared out her tubes.  The nurses changed bedding, rolled her from side to side, and hung new IV bags.

The family asked all the professionals the same question.  When will we know something for sure?  The answer—after all the technical and clinical calm—the answer was always the same.  We don’t know yet.  We’ll have to wait and see.

One morning a nurse came in and tried to lift the mood.  “How is everyone today?” she chanted cheerfully.

The oldest son smiled softly in answer.  “We’re waiting as fast as we can,” was his reply.

We’re waiting as fast as we can.

That’s our story so often in times of stress and struggle.  We’re waiting as fast as we can.  Such waiting can try our trust in God.  Sometimes that trust is tried to the breaking point and beyond.  With that in mind, here is the thought I want to send with you today.

Trusting God means trusting God’s timing.

It’s a paraphrase of a plaque that hangs on our living room wall.  Trusting in God means trusting God’s timing.

Today’s Gospel text is a desperation sandwich served with a side of panic.  Jesus is back on the Jewish side of the Sea of Galilee.  He steps on to the shore.  Immediately the begging begins.  “My little girl is at death’s door,” Jairus pleads.  “Please, please, please, come and do something!”  Who knows how long Jairus had scanned the horizon waiting for the Jesus boat to come back to shore—days, perhaps.  Every parent can feel the pulse of panic in his pleading.

Jesus goes with him at once.

In the crowd walks a solitary and silent sufferer.  For twelve years she has bled from her private places.  Well-meaning doctors did their best without success.  Quacks and frauds lifted her hopes while they lifted her wallet.  Now she is flat broke.  She is tired and pale.  Her bleeding creates a boundary that bars her from the temple with its worship and prayer and sacrifice.  The woman is isolated, alienated, irritated and down to her last try.

She knows she has no right to ask Jesus for anything.  She is entitled—as far as the world is concerned—entitled to precisely nothing.  Maybe, she thinks, just maybe a hit and run healing will work.  “If I could just touch the hem of his cloak,” she says to herself, “then just maybe I could be saved.”

For twelve years she’s been waiting as fast as she can.  In a moment of desperation and hope, she reaches out.  The bleeding stops!  She turns triumphant to sneak back home before anyone notices.  As she takes a step, however, she hears a voice.  She freezes, knowing she’s been caught in the act.

“Who touched my clothes?” Jesus demands.  His disciples are dumbfounded to the point of disgust.  “You’re kidding, right?”  They point to the crowd.  “You’re swimming in this sea of sinners, sight-seers, and simpletons.  And you want to know who touched your clothes?  Who didn’t touch your clothes?  That would be a much easier question!”

Through the milling mob comes the woman—the color returning to her cheeks for the first time in a decade and then draining out again in terror.  “It was me,” she says with her face planted in the dust.  Jesus stops and listens to her story.  Then he pulls her to her feet and blesses her.  “Go in peace,” he murmurs, “and be healed of your disease.”

The word Jesus uses for “disease” here is the word for a whip.  Her twelve-year-long beating is over.  She has waited as fast as she can.  Now the wait is over.

Trusting God means trusting God’s timing.