Wednesday, September 24, 2014

Good Grief...

Consoling or comforting a friend or loved one who is in the throes of grief is never a pleasant task. However, there is nothing more important or moving as doing so, even if it means working through our own discomfort.

Many of us have learned Elisabeth Kubler-Ross's stages of grief: denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance. Understanding that grief has stages can be helpful in experiencing it, and certainly in helping a friend on this tough journey toward healing. It doesn't make for shortcuts or a "painless" reconciling of the divergent feelings of loss and hope. Still, walking with another along this path is a truly compassionate act, and the discomfort of empathizing with their suffering is very much in line with what Jesus meant when he urged his followers to "take up your cross and follow me." Jesus experienced the ultimate pain of total empathy with the failings of the human condition.

Grief is especially hard when the death is viewed by us as "unfair" or senseless, such as in the death of a child or young parent, or in the case of a suicide. Our congregation recently experienced the passing of a young mother due to cancer. There is a universal desire here to reach out to her children, who are peers of our other youth in the youth program. The hardest thing is that hugs, while comforting, are inadequate to sooth the slowing unfolding grief of a young person who has lost his or her Mom. What can we do to provide comfort?

First of all, don't distance yourself from the person; stay connected, and try to "normalize" the relationship--just be there for them, and continue to be their friend. Don't over-sentimentalize the situation or send even subliminal signals that you will relate to them differently because of the death. Secondly, realize full well that this will be a process, and it may happen in fits and starts, especially with a younger person. Watch for signs that the grief is being subverted by a negative behavior, and gently encourage the person to move back onto a healthier path. Young persons, whose emotional maturity is still developing, may "act out," which is not always bad, but it should be observed carefully, noting that less maturity may result in poor judgment, especially on the part of a teen.

Above all, if you are in a caring situation with a grieving friend (young or old) and observe behaviors or here comments which concern you, make contact with a professional caregiver/counselor for guidance and assistance. It is never a bad thing to realize that you are "in over your head," and should facilitate a connection between the counselor and the bereaved.

If you are a young friend of another young person who has lost a loved one, again, just be present with your friend. Let them talk, and be a good listener. Do your best to be patient with them and don't rush to make them "feel better." They will get through their grief, but as we said earlier, it may take time, and while the temptation of youth may be to "just get over it," this is something that does not go fast. If you have a grieving friend who seems to get over it soon, realize that that is not a good thing! Encourage them to walk in "baby steps" so their mind and heart can heal.

Good grief is a gift of God designed to help us cope with huge losses in life. As you help another along in this process, don't short-change its healing power! Shalom, friends.

Friday, September 5, 2014

Why Am I Here?

This question, "Why am I here?" was recently flagged in a survey as the "most asked question" by those responding to the poll. I guess we all want to get a grip on our purpose for existence. People in the Christian realm have varying "shoot from the hip" answers to this efficacy question: "To glorify God"; "To be a witness"; "To find God's will and do it." While each answer may carry some truth, most would find these answers somewhat unsatisfying.

Why ARE you here? First of all, I don't believe any of us are here by accident. Your creation was an "act of God," even if you were not "planned" by your biological parents. Although, I must say I find it very cruel when parents SAY in front of a child, "They were an 'oops'," or some other statement that even a small child can understand to mean they were in some way "not wanted." Even if those same parents follow through by a remedial "But we love them, anyway." But aren't we all on a kind of quest to figure out what "our part will be," to quote the Robin Williams line from "Dead Poet's Society"?

At St. Paul's UMC, we're going to take a look at this question, along with a couple of others, in our Fall worship themes. "Why are we here?" is the first, followed by "What can I bring?" and, during the Advent season, "Are we THERE yet?" As a pastor, my primary task is faith development--helping each person I serve grow in her or his faith. I have found that one of the best ways I can do this is by encouraging each one to ask good questions. If we can learn to form our curiosities into helpful interrogatives, understanding will follow. Notice that I did not say "answers." When it comes to faith--and, honestly, to life--there are often not finite answers, only more questions. But if WE become good architects of our questions, and when we also invite the Spirit of God to bring illumination and wisdom to our inquiries, specific ("black and white?") answers take a back seat to the helpful framework and faith/intellect insight that results.

So, why ARE you here? The Bible spends a lot of time on THAT question, but in the good rabbinical tradition, it raises more questions than it answers. Still, it is a key text for our investigation. How about prayer? Have you ever asked God why you are here? Maybe that should be on the list of daily prayer requests, too? Who knows, maybe God's idea about why we are here changes daily. In a recent conversation with a person in a restaurant who saw my staff nameplate, which lists me as "Lead Pastor," that individual asked, "What do you DO as a pastor?" My flip response was, "Which hour of the day?" But the question did give me a chance to tell about what a Christian pastor "does," and about whom we dare profess to represent. The brief encounter has caused me to ask MYSELF that question each day this week: What DOES a pastor do?

Here's another one for you: Do you feel "called" to do what you do in your career? In the parenting of your children? In the tasks you undertake in your church? Or, even broader, in your life? Call is an important thing to consider. If you believe you were put here for a purpose (I happen to believe we all are, by the way), then doesn't this mean that everything we do fits under our "purpose"? Something to ponder as well.

OK, I guess I can put another "hourly" answer to the "What does a pastor do?" question: we blog! Peace, all!

What's Next?

  What’s Next?   2 Samuel 6:1-5, 12b-19 6:1 David again gathered all the chosen men of Israel, thirty thousand. 6:2 David and all the people...