Childloss and Unbearable Grief

The Virgin Mary, who was told long before her son was an adult that the arrows of sorrow would pierce her own heart, is an inspiration to those who lose a child. She reminds us that we are not alone.

When I sat down with Ernest and Lacy (not their real names), I did not have much to say.  They had lost their daughter several days ago, and what can one say about the loss of a child that can make things better?  Their tears were still fresh; the Kleenex box was about half-full.

As a chaplain to senior adults in Decatur, I said what I usually say in these circumstances: “Tell me about your child.”

In between sobs and long periods of silence, Ernest and Lacy told me stories about their beloved daughter, age 63, who lost a battle with cancer.

Then Ernest and Lacy told me what I always hear from mourning parents: “A child is not supposed to go before her parents.”  This was especially heartbreaking; they both celebrated 90th birthdays just last year.

I have been serving senior adults in this capacity for nearly eight years.  I have seen almost every kind of hardship–everything from death to the grief that results from losing the ability to drive.  I sat with way too many people who lost a child or grandchild.

The fifteen minutes I spent with Ernest and Lacy, however, were among the hardest in all my ministry.  While I heard their stories, patiently sat with them in silence, and provided sacred space for them to sob, I could barely compose myself.  I almost had to excuse myself twice for fear that I, too, would not be able to control the onslaught of tears that accompanies such tragedy.

I almost burst into tears because I was realizing several things that day.  For one, it does not matter if a child is 6 or 63, she is still someone’s “little” girl or boy.

Second, there really is nothing like the loss of a son or daughter.  The emotions that come with that kind of loss are different than the grief that follows the death of a spouse or parent.  And, as a father, I could empathize with Ernest and Lacy all too closely.

There was a sermon I once read by late Episcopal priest, John Claypool, that addressed child loss.  Years ago, Claypool lost a eleven-year old daughter to leukemia.  It was a year-long battle before she passed away.

His first sermon upon returning to the pulpit was on Genesis 22, when God commanded Abraham to sacrifice Isaac.  The text is an awkward one since we cannot relate to Abraham’s unflinching willingness (and where is Isaac’s mother?) in offering his son without some kind of fight.

Claypool noted that his journey with his daughter was a lot like Abraham’s trek up that mountain.  The uncertainty and the mystery of giving up such a precious life was all too familiar.  When it was time to come down the mountain, however, Claypool’s story differed from Abraham’s.

Unlike Abraham, Claypool–like Ernest and Lacy–did not get to come down that mountain with his child.  It was unbearable grief that followed such an empty-handed journey.

If I were to visit Ernest and Lacy again, I would not do anything different.  I would not try to explain away the situation.  I would not try to use cheap cliches that merely make excuses for God or try to rectify a horrible situation.

All I can do is cry with those whose loss is too much for words to describe.  All I can do is sit in silence and make a sacred, safe space that permits a deluge of tears and a runny nose.

All I can do is recall a simple fact that preacher, William Sloan Coffin, realized when he lost his son in a car accident: the fact that when Ernest and Lucy’s daughter took her last breath, “God’s heart was the first of all our hearts to break.”

What Mary teaches us about Advent

In one of the holiest places in Rockdale County–the crypt chapel at the Monastery of the Holy Spirit–hangs a lone icon of the Virgin Mary and baby Jesus. In the silence of that little room, these two striking figures give visitors a serene look filled with the quiet fortitude required for the Christian life.

When I look in Mary’s face, I can only imagine what it was like for her the day the angel Gabriel told her that she would bear Israel’s Messiah (Luke 2:1-26).  God chose Mary, favored among women, to continue God’s redemptive plan in the least expected of places, the backwoods village of Nazareth.

When we first meet Mary in Bible, she was betrothed to Joseph, a humble carpenter. More than likely, her days were filled with excitement surrounding wedding plans.  Mary probably giggled with friends at the thought of sharing a home with someone; she had to pick what food to eat, what wedding dress to wear.  Hers was an ordinary life, much like those of the other 13-year old girls in her neighborhood.

Those plans abruptly ended when a divine visit struck Mary with fear. She would, according to Gabriel, conceive the Son of God whose very name means “God will save.” Through her, the king of an everlasting kingdom would walk the earth, and she would experience God’s favor in a uniquely miraculous way.

Any other girl would run away, and even Mary had her doubts.  The brief conversation with Gabriel included a question surrounding her apparent inability to fulfill God’s promise:  “How can this be, since I am a virgin?”  With God, Gabriel told her, all things are possible.

She did not shirk away from her responsibility.  Nor did she let her fears or doubts hinder her from living into her purpose.  This girl, barely a teenager, answered the angel with bold obedience: “Lord, I am your servant; do with me according to your word.”

Mary was so blessed, yet so fragile in this little Advent story.  And though we do not have much information about her family background; we can clearly see that her life spoke volumes to God.

Mystery does surround Mary nonetheless.  Many churchgoers have theorized how Mary lived out God’s purpose in her lifetime.  By the year 400 CE, at least three theologians argued whether Mary conceived any more children after Jesus.

One theory held that the brothers of Jesus were half-brothers–Joseph’s sons from a previous marriage.  Another theory held that Jesus’ brothers were not brothers at all, but cousins.  A third concluded that Jesus did have blood brothers, and that Mary’s “immaculate conception” did not preclude her from having children after Jesus was born.

What catches my attention about Mary, though, is not the controversy of her place in the church; rather, it is how much she acts as a mirror for us all.  When I visited the crypt chapel, I felt that I was a part of that parent-child relationship. Mary’s divine visitation was my divine visitation. God’s calling on Mary’s life was my calling as well.  We are all called to bear God’s Light into a world of darkness and despair.  We are all called to be Jesus’ brothers and sisters.

As I noted in my article last week, Advent is a time of anticipation when we enter the biblical story and await the birth of the messiah. It is pregnant with suspense and ends in the dramatic birth of light, love, and life in a manger.   Mary reminds us that we are pregnant still, awaiting the Advent of Christ in our very spirit.

Like those who visit the womb that is the crypt chapel at our local monastery, we sit and wait and let that picture of Mary bring us strength and courage so that we, too, can hold the Christ-child come Christmas day.

Halloween, among other holidays

For today’s article, I researched the background of Halloween and All Saints Day.  After spending about an hour online, I found myself enjoying the research more than anything else because reading about these two holidays was like following Alice into that mysterious rabbit hole.  I just did not know where I was going to end up.

It did not take long, however, before I discovered one simple truth about October 31: Halloween is a time in which various religious traditions clash within a cultural quagmire of superstition and the sacred.  Allow me to explain.

Halloween is an ancient pagan holiday rooted in Celtic sects of Ireland.  It includes all of the superstitious beliefs for which Halloween is known, in particular the visitation by ghosts, spirits, the (un)dead, and the like on humanity’s earthly realm.  In the words of at least one online documentary, it was a time in which the season of life met the season of death.

The holiday also included celebrations for the summer harvest.  Since the days turned darker around autumn, the Celts celebrated their reaping, stored their foodstuffs, and enacted religious rites to prepare for the upcoming winter months.   Halloween was a way of protecting these ancient tribesmen from that which haunted them in their darkest hour, namely famine or freezing or both.  They lit bonfires (now we light jack-o-lanterns) to ward off the dark and adorned costumes in order to fool evil spirits.  Creepy stuff for sure.

When the Catholic Church stumbled upon Halloween in the fourth century, the Church found many of those Celtic practices unacceptable for obvious reasons.  Pope Boniface IV stripped the holiday of all its pagan practices (the Catholic Church did the same to Saturnalia for Christmas and Eoaster for Easter) and replaced it with All Saint’s Eve.  To this day, Christians celebrate All Saint’s Day on November 1.

That’s a long story made short, but there’s more.

Protestant Reformers in Germany came along, many of whom preferred neither Halloween nor All Saints Day.  Instead, they made October 31 Reformation Day.

Since many people in the United States are not willing to worship on October 31 because of all the Halloween hype, many churches simply dedicate the Sunday before Halloween as Reformation Sunday.

When I was in Decatur last Sunday, I worshipped with a Lutheran pastor who led us in singing Martin Luther’s “A Mighty Fortress is Our God” just for the occasion.

Suffice it to say, October 31 is a day in which many faith traditions intersect.  Whether you’re a Roman Catholic, Eastern Orthodox, or Protestant, we all hold something in common today: it is a time to remember the heroes and heroines of our faith.  You may choose to remember the pillars of the Church—Martin Luther, St. Patrick, or Mother Teresa to name a few.  Or you can choose to remember someone more personal: Grandma and Grandpa whose faith sparked your own belief in Jesus or your old youth pastor who might have been a catalyst for your salvation.

There is nothing inherently wrong with remembering and celebrating the lives of our saints.  Even God is big on remembering the ancients; in the Old Testament He declared repeatedly that He is “the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob.”

You may call today what you will—Halloween, All Saint’s Eve, Reformation Day, or just another lazy Saturday—but at least be sure to thank God for giving us saints whom we can remember, admire, and cherish in our hearts.