Tag Archives: Grief

The Grief of Leaders: Solitary & Shared

When church leaders grieve, there is sometimes a spiritual reality that makes the grief of a pastor or priest slightly distinct from the grief of other leaders. Grief and reality pair together; anytime we find ourselves grieving, we find ourselves responding at multiple levels to what we perceive to be true, as cartoons remind us whenever someone cries over a character thought to be dead, their tears changing to joy when someone proves alright. So anyone’s experience of grief may itself be real even if it doesn’t correspond either to reality or to the usual proportions of navigating this world: senior citizens with Alzheimer’s “sundowners” syndrome may at the end of the day weep at things they only perceive in their minds, quite apart from the physical surroundings of a nursing home. Young children may cry “big tears” over something that, to adults, seems quite a small thing, and yet, to the child, it is enormous; the child, who doesn’t yet know of genocide or extinction.

When we read in Scripture that Christians do not grieve as the world grieves, the point made is that we do not grieve as those do who have no hope. Another ramification is that we do not grieve as the world grieves because in terms of epistemology – how we know – by the power of the Holy Spirit and the grace of Christ, we see differently and know differently and therefore grieve differently; we grieve many of the same things, yet some very different things. The spiritual reality in which we participate is connected to the presence of God and also to our role in the universe we affirm God created. Christians may explore and study the empirical world with joyful glee and curiosity and also express that there is this and. There is more to the world than the tangible.

So in addition to what might be called the “natural grief” that pastors and church leaders encounter, there is the grief that echoes, originates from, returns to, and expresses the heart of the Trinity – a kind of spiritual grief or lament that sees evil, sees the out-of-joint misalignment of the world, sees disordered loves, and responds with sorrow. The liturgy of the church, like bumpers on a bowling alley lane, prevents us from going off-course by any instinct to “grieve” over the evil in our world without also sitting with remorse for the lack of love in our own hearts: “most merciful God, we confess that we have sinned against you in thought, word, and deed, by what we have done, and by what we have left undone. We have not loved you with our whole heart; we have not loved our neighbors as ourselves. We are truly sorry and we humbly repent.”

So what are some of the “natural” griefs pastors and church leaders experience? They may range from sitting with someone’s loved ones to deliver bad news, to sorrow at moving to a new church, to shepherding a congregation through property destruction from natural disaster, to learning a beloved church member and friend has died suddenly. Many pastors are accustomed to encountering many more funerals and hospital waiting rooms than the average person – yet by and large, these are things that most people would also grieve, whether or not they’re a Christian.

Some of these “natural” griefs are experienced largely in isolation, like moving to a new church, while others are experienced as shared grief, like the loss of a church building to a tornado, or when a congregation mourns a terminal cancer diagnosis for a child. Though Jesus later raised Lazarus from the dead, Jesus saw the mourning and grief over Lazarus’ death, and first wept with those affected by the death. This was a communal, shared grief over the death of a good and beloved man.

When leaders experience spiritual grief or lament, it brings a new – and sometimes draining or demanding – layer to natural grief. When Jesus came near to Jerusalem, what was his response? “And when he drew near and saw the city, he wept over it, saying, “Would that you, even you, had known on this day the things that make for peace! But now they are hidden from your eyes.” (Luke 19:41-42, NRSV)

Unfailingly, the anointing of the Holy Spirit reshapes what and how we grieve, the actions we take in response, and how we take those actions. Unfailingly, whatever our own natural temperaments or cultural upbringing, the Holy Spirit is kind to the gaps in our awareness by gently or not-so-gently revealing what we fail to love, by what we fail to grieve – usually by allowing us to see, if we’re willing, and to grieve, if we’re willing. Unfailingly, the Holy Spirit calls us to see and apprehend and grieve what Jesus Christ grieves, not just what your Grandma grieved, not just what your culture grieves.

There are times natural grief and spiritual grief and lament overlap. There is natural, communal, shared grief over the death of a good and beloved man. There is also spiritual grief and lament over evil, when that man was Rev. Clementa Pinckney, who died while leading a Bible study because an armed White supremacist was determined to follow through on his plan to kill members of a historic Black church. For Rev. Pinckney’s friends and family, the natural grief of loss collided with grief at the past and ongoing active evil of White supremacy. Those who didn’t know him personally were still able to grieve the evil that ended his life. Where did spiritual grief take family members of some of the churchgoers who died at that Bible study? Through their natural grief, their spiritual grief also allowed them to tell a young man who took many innocent lives that they forgave him, that God loves him, but that he needed God’s mercy on his soul for the lives he took. They saw both: both the horrible crater blasted in their families through the loss of their loved ones, and the damage to his own soul that this young man caused when he chose to terrorize and murder others.

Why is it helpful, as a pastor, to ask yourself if you’re experiencing “natural” grief, or spiritual grief or lament, or a combination of both? Because they’re dealt with in different ways. Good therapists, strong support systems, healthy life rhythms, friends in the same vocation, sabbaticals, emotionally healthy discipleship, antidepressants, all these can at times be helpful to anyone grieving and to pastors and church leaders in particular.

Spiritual grief also needs those good foundations in place, yet comes with that earlier and. There is the tangible world, and. Why does the Holy Spirit allow us to see, to perceive and apprehend, to join our mourning to the revealed heart of the Trinity that spills out a fraction of the grief of God at the suffering and evil by, in, and toward humans and creation?

Spiritual grief allows you to pray differently; beyond outer circumstances into the reality with and beyond. Spiritual grief cues you to pay attention, to make room to pay attention, and to practice the hard work of listening and discerning between your own grief or responses or ideas, and God’s. Spiritual grief allows you to see and act differently, when God allows you to come face-to-face with suffering to which you’d previously been oblivious. Spiritual grief drives you back to the Word of God as sustaining, irreplaceable, life-giving, and perspective-setting; truly, we do not grieve as those who have no hope. Spiritual grief is understood by and to a degree also carried by mature people of faith who have a deep life of intercession and deep experience of both the grief and the joy and confidence found in the practices of the life of faith.

Grief of any kind is never comfortable. We would outrun it with busyness, if we could, or hide from it silently as it prowls back and forth, or give voice to it, longing to broadcast our tormented howls daily on a loudspeaker.

Whatever month grief first appears, however long it stays, once a year, the church marks a day where “natural” and spiritual grief or lament overlap. On Ash Wednesday, Christians set aside a day for grief – we grieve mortality; we grieve, perhaps, those we have returned to the earth; and we grieve the decaying effects of evil, and the reach of evil into our world, into even our own hearts. And then, we turn our eyes toward Lent, and the long road to the cross, and the shaking road away from an empty – an empty – a definitively empty tomb, that proclaims the last word, anchoring even spiritual grief in the reality of hope; because both spiritual grief and hope find their origin in the heart of God, who enters our dusty mortality, weeps with those who weep, and sets all things toward the inescapably new.

Thanks to Dr. Pete Bellini for his related insights on the spiritual gift of prophetic intercession.

Elizabeth Glass Turner is Managing Editor of Wesleyan Accent.

Featured image courtesy Kira Porotikova via Unsplash.

Ministry Grief, Loss, Compassion Fatigue: A Conversation

We’re pleased to share this recorded conversation created as a resource from The Wesleyan Church Department of Education and Clergy Development. Although this was created in the spring of 2020, the topics remain pressingly relevant for pastors. The discussion ranges over concerns including grief, being tired, leadership, fight-or-flight responses, loss, anxiety, and identity.

This excellent discussion on disruption, crisis, and impact on leaders was led by Executive Director of Education and Clergy Development Rev. Russ Gunsalus, Dr. Toddy Holeman, Professor of Counseling and Chair of the Counseling and Pastoral Care Department at Asbury Theological Seminary, and Rev. Dave Higle, Director of Clergy Care for Education and Clergy Development.

Click play below, and scroll further for excerpts from this discussion.

As Dr. Toddy Holeman elaborates, “We’ve all had losses as a result of being at home, closure of gatherings. If you think about the losses, it’s natural for us to feel this unusual, unexpected sense of sadness and loss, lamenting what we don’t have. That’s a grief that everybody experiences, just put the adjective in front that describes your context.

I read an article recently on ambiguous loss. A death is a clear loss. This is ambiguous loss. It leaves us feeling unsettled, off-kilter. The article used the words ‘uncanny loss;’ when no cars are out, it’s a weird sense. It leads to anxiety. I’m sure that’s part of what all of us are feeling – the unknown future. Will we go back to business as usual – assuming there’s a usual? A result of this bumping up of the known against the unknown – a lot of us will feel fog-brained, foggy, carrying around with us a constant sense of alarm. It’s a combination of, ‘I don’t know what to think, I’m having a hard time making decisions, I’m on edge.’”

Later, she observes, “Part of our problem is our anxiety is a future-oriented feeling – projecting ourselves into a future we have no control over. The best way to go through those uncomfortable feelings is to go through them. Recognize they’re temporary. They ebb and flow. Let them come in. You might cry – welcome to the human race! Experience it in that moment, recognize what’s going on, and treat yourself with the lovingkindness God offers to you – we don’t serve a God who’s shaking his finger at us. Keep your eyes open: God is on the move. Whenever there is major world disruption, God is on the move. Have open ears and eyes to catch up to where God has already gone before us.”

Featured image courtesy Chris Montgomery via Unsplash.

Unwanted Holiness

As the United States screeches with discord and distrust, the people in pulpits and in pews are exhausted. Some had loved ones piloting evacuation flights out of Kabul. Others have spent long hours working in crowded ICUs, nurses or chaplains or doctors breaking down in tears. Firefighters on the West Coast have their pick of blazes incinerating once-lively trees to ash, and in some parts of the South, the power is beginning to blink back on. Who wants holiness if it looks like this?

Somewhere along the line, we get the idea that holiness requires energy. Sure, we know that sanctification is a gift of grace to be received. Naturally. Countless Christians in the Wesleyan Methodist tradition have experienced some kind of moment in which God comes to us to do something in our hearts that we are powerless to do ourselves. We know this. We know that works of piety and works of mercy – spiritual disciplines, caring for poor, broke, or incarcerated people -we know those actions don’t create holiness. They are a response to grace; they make room for the Holy Spirit to continue to work in us and through us. We know that sanctifying grace is a gift.

And yet.

It is easy to get the idea that holiness requires energy.

How will you grow if you’re not getting yourself to a Bible study or small group? How will you foster the grace of Christ at work in you if you aren’t seeking out ways to serve others, at the food pantry or through the altar guild or volunteering with, heaven help them, the junior highers?

Of course churches need volunteers.

Of course you want to grow in holiness.

But the hundreds of pastors, church leaders, professors, and chaplains I know do not feel an overabundance of energy right now. Between executive function fatigue (decision fatigue) and constantly putting out fires and choosing between making 50 percent of people angry or the other 50 percent of people angry and attempting to construct any kind of planning or scheduling with a viral variant that’s 1,200 times more transmissible than the original COVID-19 strains, there are very few pastors with the energy they think they need to be holy. There are very few nurses, doctors, or nursing home workers with energy for anything other than showing up and doing what has to be done.

Can holiness look like this?

Can holiness look like exhaustion, burnout, panic attacks, depression, crisis intervention, peace-keeping – even numbness?

Can I tell you something?

Some of the holiest people I’ve seen in the past 18 months have looked just like that. Some of the sweetest anointing has enveloped leaders who are tired, grieving, exhausted, burned out, or even numb.

You do not have to have energy to be holy.

This is something elderly people in long-term care facilities already know. It’s just something most people don’t want to have to learn personally for ourselves – because energy is power; control; agency.

And if you’re asking, dear God, how can my numb trauma be holy? then I invite you to listen to an audio version of 1 Kings 18 and 19 – when Elijah the prophet is in a showdown with the prophets of Baal. God honors Elijah and sends fire from the sky. But afterward, Elijah’s life is on the line. He is exhausted. He runs. He curls up too tired to do anything to protect himself. Fed by divine intervention, he runs more, to take shelter in the mountain of God. And God does not come to Elijah in an impersonal show of force, in crashing theophany. God gently arrives in the still whispering rustle, and Elijah is safe to pour out his heart and his heartbreak. After he does, God quietly reminds him that as alone as he feels, he is not alone. And to relieve Elijah’s burden further, he directs him to Elisha.

It seems to me that one of the most tender moments in these two chapters comes in 18:30 – “Then Elijah said to all the people, ‘Come here to me.’ They came to him, and he repaired the altar of the Lord, which had been torn down.” The prophets of Baal had been frantic, mutilating themselves, calling on Baal. But when it is Elijah’s turn, there is a sense that this is an act of grief, a labor of love: rebuilding what had been torn down, taking 12 stones and building an altar “in the name of the Lord.” (v. 32) What do you rebuild? You rebuild what you love. Where there is grief in the ruins, there is hope in the rebuilding. But it is manual labor: hard work, smashed fingers, bruised thumbnails, a sore back. His hands must have been so tired, his muscles strained. What a beautiful labor of love. No frantic shrieking; just the loving repair of what had been in ruins.

What an offering to give to God: smashed fingers, bruised thumbnails, a sore back – an altar that had been desecrated, repaired.

If you believe holiness requires energy, it will be easy to believe you can detect when it is you are being or acting holy. But most genuine holiness, I am convinced, accompanies your lack of awareness of it. It is accidental – incidental. It happens behind your back, when you’re not looking. It shadows you on your off-days.

There is a holiness of proximity that has nothing to do with energy.

It is proximity to Christ, and it is proximity to the overlooked people Christ loves.

You do not have to have energy to be in close proximity to the quiet warmth of Jesus Christ.

Elijah collapsed and didn’t care if he lived or died, after running away. It was God who enabled him to travel: “the journey is too much for you.” (19:7) When he reached the mountain of God – he slept. (19:9) Only after he rested, did God ask him what brought him there. Elijah’s strained brain chemistry could not detect the presence of God in the overwhelming sensory stimuli of loud sounds or shaking ground or bright light; he did not have the energy for that. So God whispered.

The holiness of proximity is standing, sitting, or lying in the safe presence of God, however you feel, however you don’t have the energy to feel.

There is also a holiness of proximity when you draw near to people others are ignoring. Mother Teresa exemplified this well. The embodiment of the Beatitudes is a sacred thing to witness. Blessed are those who mourn; blessed are the merciful. When you care for sick bodies or cry with grief-stricken loved ones, you are in the proximity of the blessed ones; you are blessed when you are merciful to them.

You do not have to have energy to be holy. Your exhaustion, your grief, your numbness – none of those things keep you from being holy. Whether or not you feel the presence of God, you are so close to the side of Christ that you shine when your back is turned, when you’re not even aware of it.

Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God.

What are you doing here, Elijah?

Featured image courtesy Marek Piwnicki via Unsplash.

Gathering in Worship Again: Ways to Mark Change

As many congregations return to gathering in new or partial ways after a period of virtual worship, there are both logistical challenges and shepherding challenges. Essentially, widespread change has occurred in a condensed and contentious time. Some shared rituals in worship function as rites of passage, like funerals; the loss of sharing these rituals as a community has at times been devastating. For many, the past 12 months have been marked by uncertainty, frustration, fear, loss, anxiety, stress, and relief; but not only are we, in the midst of life, in death; we are also, in death, in the midst of life. Babies have been welcomed, weddings performed, new vocations discovered. In liminal times of emotional complexity, humans crave communal markers to express the cry of the heart and to clarify seasons and meaning. Symbols can carry layers of meaning when life experiences are so tangled that mere literal words struggle to hold the weight. In Christian worship, these symbols aren’t only functions of community expression; they are received as means of grace that reveal the very heart of God. Not every Christian symbol is a sacrament, but many moments in embodied Christian worship have the capacity to serve as means of grace.

As believers begin gathering in person again, what are some practical ways a community can bear witness to the loss and hope woven throughout the past year? Surveying the sheer scope of change – good or bad – that individuals and communities have endured, how is room made for lament, celebration, and the exhaustion in between? Finding ways to mark change sits peacefully with the reality that everyone – individuals, communities, regions, countries – will re-enter familiar patterns at different paces, due to varying needs and conditions.

What are some recurring cries of the heart expressed by Christians and non-Christians, leaders and laypeople alike? Many are echoed in Psalms of lament. Gathering again stirs a variety of responses among people. There may be:

  • Relief, celebration, joy
  • Grief at the empty spaces of those who have died
  • Grief at the loss of daily rituals and companionship
  • Fear that accommodations for the disabled or home-bound will be forgotten
  • Distrust of others fueled by differing perspectives
  • Impatience for places and practices to look like they used to
  • Fatigue of tragedy and bad news
  • Relief at return to familiar space and practices
  • Guilt from surviving or experiencing the pandemic relatively unscathed
  • Anxiety from uncertainty in social interaction
  • Gratitude for the ability to begin gathering again, even with adaptations

Thankfully, there are some helpful liturgical resources from The Episcopal Church, the Church of England, and the Methodist Church in Britain that provide some markers to guide worshipers through the fog. From the inability to write in a coffee shop to the death of a loved one, from losing a business to losing facial expressions to educational upheaval, there is space to mark changes big and small, yet not-so-small. Jesus wept over the dead and heard the cry of the falling sparrow alike; and people who live alone, and people who live in families with children, all have something they’ve lost and found in the past year. There is room in the heart of God, and there is space in the worshiping community, for all of it – tragic fatality and kids’ disappointed plans alike.

The Liturgy of Gathering Again: Lament, Remembrance, Thanksgiving

The loss of usual funeral rituals has stolen the opportunity for loved ones to receive the healing honor of community witness. Not only have families of the deceased been affected, but communities themselves have endured the loss of sharing in these rituals. Some communities have lost many – so many it’s difficult to keep track. Health care workers sometimes lost the in-person support and services of hospital or hospice chaplains, finding themselves end-of-life witnesses. At the same time, many people have been limited in ways they can express thanks and gratitude for the many health care workers who labored often behind the scenes in very difficult circumstances.

The Church of England has shared valuable resources and reflections on opportunities to hold general services of lament, specific services of remembrance or memorial, and services of thanksgiving. For instance, on remembering and memorials, the counsel in one guide prompts that,

“The two main elements that memorial services and remembering events need to offer are opportunities to mourn and to give thanks:
• Acknowledgement of suffering, loss and death
• Gratitude for all who have helped in so many ways
• Thanks for survival, health and wellbeing
• Thanks for the life of the individual(s) who has died”

There are also insights on the value of services of restoration – a time of worship designed to bridge worshipers from crisis and loss toward renewed trust for the future. “Naming the unexpected gifts of this crisis as well as its challenges, celebrating the rediscovery of the importance of the local, and the resurgence of neighbourliness will enable the journey of renewal and restoration. Consideration may be given to bring an act of worship to focus in some sort of symbolic act of restoration, entrusting ourselves to the God who leads us into his future.”

The Timing of Gathering Again: Scattered & Together

Depending on the region or specific community needs, some congregations have not yet begun to re-gather, or haven’t started gathering again fully. One resource from the Methodist Church in Britain provides a service guide called “Beyond Exile: A service to celebrate a return to public worship.” Adaptable for local circumstances, it includes liturgy, planning notes, preaching notes, and new hymns for “a returning congregation” for situations that include congregational singing. From this service, one excerpt from the “litany of lament” questions,

“We thought we knew how the world was meant to be. We would see colleagues, friends and loved ones again, and we would embrace, laugh and share stories as we always have. How can we sing the Lord’s song in a strange land?

And now, we know something new. We know that the world is not ours to control, and that our plans are confounded by the smallest microbe. God is teaching us a new song, for a new land.

For places with many restrictions still in place, when believers may still be scattered or unable to provide in-person support, the Methodist Church in Britain also has adapted prayers for “the dying, the bereaved, and those who cannot attend a funeral.”

The Visual Cues of Gathering Again: Re-Entering the Public

This global moment invites people of all walks of life to re-engage with the practice of public mourning: not as a maudlin display of self-importance, but as a healthy tool of communication. But it’s been decades since people regularly wore the formerly common black armbands, like the character George Bailey when his father died in the film, “It’s a Wonderful Life.” A black piece of fabric around the upper arm is a visual cue to strangers and acquaintances alike: be kind, tread gently, this person is grieving, give some extra grace for a while. A more modern version is a simple black silicone band marked with words like, “I’m grieving” – just enough to remind the wearer and others that all is not well.

Sometimes, biblical phrasing like, “sackcloth and ashes” or “weeping and gnashing of teeth” is used figuratively – few Americans would grieve now wearing scratchy cloth or ashes. But grief and lament are not antithetical to faith. They are emblems of love, that “greatest of these.” They do not betray a lack of hope or trust; they hope and trust in God’s character, willing to express without repression. Demonstrating grief is Christlike: Christ, who groaned at Lazarus’ death, who wept over Jerusalem. (Tish Harrison Warren’s uncannily timed Prayer in the Night: For Those Who Work or Watch or Weep is a gift for the grieving and those who love them.)

For those who re-enter worship or public gathering with other infirmity, like ongoing health risk, there are other visual cues available to communicate simply with others. Wrist bands like Social Bands quickly cue an individual’s risk and desire for physical engagement. Ongoing consideration for others may well be one of the strongest notes of public witness that Christians can sound right now – consideration regardless of one’s own assessment or perception of risk.

At a basic level, hospitality is in part anticipating the needs of another and proactively preparing for them. Welcoming the jubilant alongside the dazed and shell-shocked means providing space and opportunity for both to bear witness to the changes in the lives of the other. In gathering, all are invited to bring the cries of their hearts to God in worship, receiving the same shared grace that offers hope, comfort, and celebration to each vulnerable heart.

Featured image courtesy Luke Carliff via Unsplash.

Resilient Prayer in Escalating Crisis: Video

Are you a leader facing escalating crises on multiple fronts? Enjoy this video from Managing Editor Elizabeth Glass Turner, on resilient prayer for leaders juggling the unexpected, and recognizing signals of growing spiritual resilience. Excerpt below.

Excerpt: “The Holy Spirit not only shapes what you want or what you pray for, but how you pray in the midst of crisis, because you cannot pray for what you do not see. This is why resilient prayer begins with deliberately mindfully honing awareness. As you acknowledge your human propensity for blind spots, it allows your spirit to be sensitive to what you simply haven’t been aware of.

So when you pray from awareness of the seen and unseen, awareness of the immediate vs the eternal, the global and not just local, aware of the limits of your own control and autonomy – then you are inviting God to break into the present calamity in ways that you can’t foresee or predict. You are inviting God to put a burden on your hearts for the needs around you that the Holy Spirit helps you discern. You are inviting God to take your availability and propel it into the needs of this world, whether locally or globally, in small or in major steps.

When this honed awareness provides the basis and architecture of prayer, what will you find? Spiritual resilience that is steadfast in crisis – personal crisis, national crisis, global crisis; it may not feel like you are resilient; you may not feel confident.

So what are some signals that you are growing in spiritual resilience, whether you feel strong or resilient, or not? First, if you find that God is using you in ways you didn’t expect, that is a signal that you are praying with honed awareness. It is a signal that that awareness is structuring how you pray, and that how you pray – no matter what your circumstances – is demonstrating growth in spiritual resilience.

What you wrote off or thought nothing of, you now discover yielding unexpected good things. Maybe someone comments, or says, “you have no idea how much I needed to hear that.” Maybe what you underestimated instead blossoms and flourishes. If you find that God is using you in ways you didn’t anticipate, pay attention; you are praying with honed awareness, and how you pray is demonstrating growth in spiritual resilience – because you were faithful to small moments that seemed insignificant.”

Aaron Perry ~ A Grief in Birth

I’ve never been pregnant. I watched my wife, a complete champion, bear three children with heroic efforts. Bearing a child means to carry the child through pregnancy to birth, when the child is born. Leading up to the birth, there are contractions. Contractions prepare the body to deliver the baby by shortening uterine muscles and dilating the cervix. As the uterus contracts and the cervix expands, the baby passes through the birth canal. But that description is deceptively simple. Like I said, it took heroic efforts.

And a midwife. By no means could I keep my wits through the process to support my wife to any great extent. I was able to boil water (stereotypes to the wind!), rub her back, cheer her on, and grab towels. But a midwife helped keep me together and coached my wife along. I’ll come back to this point.

My Dad died on October 17, 2018. It was about 30 months after a terminal liver cancer diagnosis. My Dad taught me many things; he was teaching us until the day he died. My brother, Tim, summed it well: He taught us to die slowly. By God’s grace, most of my Dad’s final 30 months were quite enjoyable. He had a good quality and quantity of life post-diagnosis. A doctor helped us to frame the situation: Dad refused to surrender to death easily and fought in such a way that he won many battles, though it was a losing war.

I am now learning to grieve. And my Dad isn’t here to teach me. I watched grief and experienced grief after the deaths of grandparents. But, like pregnancies, deaths and their grieving are unique. My Dad’s grief for his own parents was different from my own. C.S. Lewis noted after the death of his wife that he didn’t know grief felt so much like fear. The fear I have is that I won’t grieve – or that I won’t grieve well. I have had my tears, but what is grief supposed to look like? How will I know I’ve grieved?

Every pregnancy was different. My children were all carried differently. They sat in different positions and they liked different foods; they rested and played at different times, all within my wife’s body. I recall one time when my unborn daughter (though I didn’t know the child was a girl at the time) was awake but my wife was asleep. We played a little game of tag. I would tap my wife’s abdomen and wait for the response: a kick. I would wait just a bit and then tap again. Another brief pause and then another kick. There was a little life inside my wife, completely dependent on her to survive yet with a life and will of her own.

I’m taught and I teach that grief comes in waves. It’s true; I don’t deny it. Grief often comes in force and then recedes. But (so far) not for me. I wait for the waves, but they don’t come. There are only brief laps at the beach’s edge, laps that dissipate without foam, even, into the sand. I want more.

Back to the midwife. My wife learned to handle contractions in waves: accept them as they come, breathing and staying as relaxed as possible, and, finally, letting them go. I don’t know what a contraction feels like and I don’t know what grieving—this grieving, at least—is supposed to feel like. This unique grieving has taken the form of irritability, temptation, weariness, flashes of drive and energy.

I take these experiences as contractions. You can’t stop contractions and you can’t speed them up. They come and they go. Contractions prepare the body to birth a baby. They intensify and bring urges to push; the body wants to deliver the baby. In a similar way, I want to control my grief. I want to speed up the waves. I want to be delivered of my grief.

“Heather, on the next contraction, you are going to want to push. You are going to want to push very, very badly, but I need you not to push. If you push, you are going to blast that baby right out of you.” That was some of the most memorable support the midwife gave my wife. The contractions were working, but the body was not yet ready to be delivered of the baby.

I want to blast this grief right out of me. But I can’t. At least, it will be harmful if I do. I need to hold on and let the grief come; let these grieving moments do their work until the grief is fully delivered. I need to do this without breaking trust—without giving into the irritability, the temptation, the manic drive. C.S. Lewis didn’t know grief felt so much like fear; I didn’t know grief took so much faith. 

Note from the Editor: the featured image is from the painting “Grief” by
Morteza Katouzian, 1983.

Tom Fuerst ~ Mothers, Sons and the Crucifix

The fundamental difference between the Protestant’s cross and the Catholic’s crucifix lies in the Protestant belief that Christ is no longer on the cross. He has resurrected and ascended.

Or so Protestant polemics go.

In what follows, I do not care to discuss Catholic vs. Protestant soteriology or the differences between their accounts of the death, resurrection, and ascension of Jesus. All I wish to discuss is the fact that, a few years ago, this here Protestant found immeasurable comfort in Christ on the cross – a crucifix on the wall in a Catholic nursing home chapel.

I’d been in and out of the nursing home visiting my 51-year-old mom in the last days of her fight with cancer. None of us expected the illness to progress as quickly as it did. But in a mere month and a half, we went from optimism about her diagnosis to staring down her mortality and releasing her into the loving hands of Jesus.

My encounter with the crucifix began on the night I had to decide to sign my mom up for hospice care. She was so weak I had to help her hold the pen. Even then she could only make a scratch on the page. Her once-beautiful signature which used to sign my birthday cards, report cards, and detention slips was reduced to a single scratch on several pieces of hospice paperwork.

In this moment I was forced to grapple with the existential angst, fear, and brokenness that smothers ever-shattered souls stepping one inch closer to the inevitable realization of our mortality.


Mom is mortal.

I am mortal.

I needed to leave the room as soon as we signed all the forms. I didn’t know where I was going. I found myself in a wing of the nursing home I hadn’t visited before, looking for some privacy.

Barely holding back tears, I stumbled into the chapel.

Now, despite the fact that I’m a Christian – not to mention a pastor – I did not choose the chapel for some spiritual reason. I simply chose it because no one would be able to find me in there. Or more specifically, no one would be able to hear me weeping in there.

I looked around for a second or two, not noticing anything about the chapel except the fact that the least visible place in the room was on the floor behind the back few pews. It was the perfect place to hide. It was a perfectly private place to grieve.

I don’t know how long I sat there with my face in my knees. Fifteen minutes. Thirty minutes. An hour. I don’t know. But after a while, I looked around the room and saw a plethora of Catholic images and icons, most of which are probably quite familiar to Catholic Christians but are quite foreign to us Protestants, who sanctimoniously brag of our lack of “graven images” and our risen Christ.

It was clear in these various items that the crucifixion of Jesus and the sufferings of Mary are of foremost importance in the hearts of the persons who designed this chapel. From the seven depictions of Christ’s crucifixion story to the mother of Jesus holding her infant son as she stretched out her arms to the weeping worshiper, the entire chapel was an invitation to see our sufferings – our very humanity – in light of the fact that neither Jesus nor Mary was exempt from suffering, pain, or death.

In fact, the truth experienced in that chapel was not merely that Jesus was not exempt from suffering or death, but more specifically, that Jesus shares in our suffering and death and we share in his.

On the opposite wall from the statue of the virgin and her baby boy hung a wooden crucifix. Not a pretty one. Not a bloodless one. A horrific one. A crucifix agonizing to see, even though its monochromatic varnish shields viewers from all the viciousness of the reality it depicts. In this crucifix, I saw that with every broken rib and visible wound, our God hung naked before the world, taking upon himself, not only all of our sin but all of our suffering. This is a God who did not remain indifferent to our suffering, our illnesses, our cancers, but who on that cross waged war against our mortality.

This is a God whose resurrection was preceded by a deep and unrelenting experience of our mortality. Before he ever won the war, he first lost this battle to death.

Could it be that Catholics “leave Christ on the cross,” not because they fail to recognize his resurrection, but because they believe the God who lost his Son on the cross suffers with me as I hide on the floor of this chapel? Maybe God is not just up in the sky somewhere looking down half-callously saying, “Hey, don’t worry about how bad it hurts now. She’s going to heaven because Jesus died for her sins.” He’s not up there saying, “Here, have this opiate and buck up.” Instead, in the crucified Jesus, God draws near to us, weeps with us, feels forsaken with us, knows loss with us, and even dies with us. Even his mother shudders from the pain of it.


Mom is mortal.

I am mortal.

Jesus was mortal.

Jesus died.

God was dead.


And while I know that the story does not end there, while I know Jesus came down off that cross and ascended as the Lord of Life, there is a deep and infinite beauty in knowing that my mother’s broken body is preceded by the broken body of her Creator.

An empty cross certainly announces victory over death. But a crucifix, hoisting the dying Savior with outstretched arms, is a warm welcome to all who are wrecked and weary.

Resurrection is coming.

But for now, we suffer. Together.

Elizabeth Glass Turner ~ Why Congregations Must Embrace Awkwardness

Recently I read an article by seminary professor Kate Bowler that had me staring wide-eyed at the computer screen, alternately barking bursts of laughter, fist-pumping the air, and feeling tears sting the corners of my eyes.

She walked up to the elephant in the room, reached out, touched it, gave it a treat, made friends with it, and sat down next to it.

Which, as it turns out, is not so far off from her conclusion.

After all – have you ever been the elephant in the room?

If you’ve gone through a divorce or a painful church circumstance or you switched political parties or you finished a round of chemo or any number of things, you probably know what I mean. Conversation becomes forced, or usual warmth is dimmed to clipped small talk, or eyes are busy looking elsewhere.

Americans are uncomfortable around pain.

We don’t like it. It doesn’t fit well with our post-polio, shiny marketing, Dow-skyrocketing dreams. This is a seismic shift from a generation ago. People born in the late 20’s or early 30’s remember the Depression, pre-vaccine life when outbreaks could wipe out tens of thousands, the Dust Bowl, and the generation of young men mowed down in World War II. They remember the last few public lynchings, the Japanese internment camps, the Negro Motorist Green-Book.

Simply put, illness, bad crops, segregation, disease, and war all had a different effect on daily life. My great-grandparents first entered a church after the church members had brought food to their house when it was under public quarantine; there was disease in the house. One great-aunt I never met died of scarlet fever when she was young. I saw an old photo of her once and realized it was she to whom I bear a striking resemblance. My grandmother named my mom after this sister who had died so young.

In other parts of the world, the proximity of death is different; whether from cholera, or falling bombs, or a bad crop season; whether from polio, or women dying in childbirth, hours from a clinic or hospital. And just a few minutes ago on the American clock, the proximity of death was nearer, too. Now we are shocked or surprised by its indecency of showing up uninvited. If someone is suffering, we look for a cause, because suffering makes us uncomfortable.

As a friend put it recently, people are uncomfortable with their lack of control; if Bad Thing A can happen to you, then maybe it could happen to me – so let’s find something you did that caused it. That way, I feel safe again.

But pastors and churches are distinctly called to reach out a hand to people hurting, or contagious, or dying. (Recently my own congregation has been bringing in meals as my husband goes through a health crisis, and I mentally pray into sainthood everyone who walks in the door and feeds us, though it’s been a learning curve for me to feel at ease receiving help without yet being able to give it.)

So what can we do to walk up to the elephant in the room and make friends? What can we do to force ourselves not to avert our eyes at other peoples’ pain?

Kate Bowler has a few ideas. The thirty-something seminary professor was diagnosed a couple of years ago with Stage IV colon cancer. She lives, as she points out in her recent article in the New York Times, “What to Say When You Meet the Angel of Death at a Party,” three months at a time, from one scan to the next.

But being a seminary professor hasn’t shielded her from a wide array of responses to her illness. (To learn this was comforting.)

“We all harbor the knowledge, however covertly, that we’re going to die, but when it comes to small talk, I am the angel of death,” she writes. Yet sometimes when people talk with her, suddenly their own stories of loss come pouring out. However uncomfortable it is to Bowler personally, she says, “I remind myself to pay attention because some people give you their heartbreak like a gift.”

“What does the suffering person really want?” she queries. “The people least likely to know the answer can be lumped into three categories: minimizers, teachers, and solvers.”

Bowler continues to explore the internal dynamics and social settings in which these impulses emerge, with sharp humor not lacking patience with the well-intended. After all, we all fear saying “the wrong thing,” which often almost guarantees we will.

Her words of guidance? Simply acknowledge the loss a person is going through; a person with a bad diagnosis or life upheaval may just need to hear their upheaval named and acknowledged. That acknowledgment, she says, creates space. Then, love.

There is tremendous power in touch, in gifts, and in affirmations when everything you knew about yourself might not be true anymore. I’m a professor, but will I ever teach again? I am a mother, but for how long? A friend knits me socks and another drops off cookies, and still another writes a funny email or takes me to a concert. These seemingly small efforts are anchors that hold me to the present, that keep me from floating away on thoughts of an unknown future.

Through these reflections, Bowler gently affirms what we all want to know when we’re hurting: she is a person, not an inconvenience; she has value, whether she is contributing in her normal way or not; her suffering is not contagious, as if those who come near her will also be cursed with misfortune; and she is seen, not forgotten.

None of this threatens the sovereignty of God, or deconstructs the notion that, “He’s Got the Whole World in His Hands.” But it does draw from the stories of Jesus, who noticed a short man perched up in a tree; who sat and chatted with a woman collecting water; who sobbed with Mary and Martha and the other Jews grieving Lazarus, and grieving death itself; who picked up a severed ear of an enemy and silently put it back on its owners head, healing it into place.

Jesus saw; Jesus stood with; Jesus ate with; Jesus bumped up against; Jesus listened in the middle of the night to troubled people; Jesus cried; Jesus cooked fish and fed his friends.

It all starts with, Jesus saw. He saw and did not look away.


“Everything Happens for a Reason: and Other Lies I’ve Loved,” will be available February 6th.

Elizabeth Glass Turner ~ A Cold and Broken Thanksgiving

From our archives, we are running a popular Thanksgiving reflection for the brokenhearted by Wesleyan Accent Managing Editor Elizabeth Glass Turner.

And I’ve seen your flag on the marble arch
And love is not a victory march
It’s a cold and it’s a broken Hallelujah

-Leonard Cohen, “Hallelujah”

Hopefully, you’re having a banner year – one for the books. The stars align and everything’s coming up you. Babies smile at you, old people are grateful for you, good people respect you and bad people leave you alone. You have a lot to be thankful for. Make your gratitude list, have seconds of sweet potato casserole and pause to appreciate the moment.

Everyone goes through seasons, and some seasons seem to last longer than others.

This is for the people who aren’t having a banner year.

You miscarried.

You got laid off.

You shook your fist at cancer and it didn’t matter.

You picked up your kid from the police station.

You picked up your parent from the police station.

You found that text on your spouse’s phone.

You discovered untruthful gossip following you around.

You discovered truthful gossip following you around.

You arranged a funeral for someone.

You filled an antidepressant prescription.

You should’ve filled an antidepressant prescription.

The turkey is warm, but it’s a cold and broken thanksgiving. Shards of life lie mocking on the floor in the near-shape of their original wholeness and you catch a glimpse of your fractured reflection, a distortion of what was and what should be. And when you count your blessings it’s with gritted teeth or a sense of cruel, useless irony or a numbed, deadened mimic of routine.

What happens when the Mona Lisa is torn apart and the pieces don’t fit and you’re left with a grotesque Picasso? The features are there, but out of place, misaligned, foreign, unfamiliar. Nieces and nephews will recognize you as you walk through the door, but you know, deep down, that you’re struggling to find parts of yourself that you recognize as you sort through remnants, shards, rubble.

Happy Thanksgiving.

You compare your cold and broken thanksgiving to the vast suffering of the world to try to force perspective, to resist the darkness. I have a roof. I have food. My neighbors weren’t just bombed. 

But sometimes even Aunt Bev’s homemade pie tastes stale when your heart is re-breaking every few minutes while you make small talk.

For my days vanish like smoke;
    my bones burn like glowing embers.
My heart is blighted and withered like grass;
    I forget to eat my food.
In my distress I groan aloud
    and am reduced to skin and bones.
I am like a desert owl,
    like an owl among the ruins.
I lie awake; I have become
    like a bird alone on a roof.
All day long my enemies taunt me;
    those who rail against me use my name as a curse.
For I eat ashes as my food
    and mingle my drink with tears
because of your great wrath,
    for you have taken me up and thrown me aside.
My days are like the evening shadow;
    I wither away like grass.

Let’s all go around and say what we’re thankful for…

Your year flashes in bits and pieces in front of your mind and you search for a socially appropriate response that doesn’t include “good medical attention after a miscarriage” or “pro bono lawyers” or “insightful marriage and family therapists.”

Pass the stuffing.

Because you also know by now that faith and hope and love are more than a French bistro-style inspirational poster hanging in the dining room. They’re not feelings, they’re bedrock reality that keep you sane because you know they’re more than trite platitudes.

Here I raise mine Ebenezer
Hither by thy help I’ve come
And I hope, by thy good pleasure,
Safely to arrive at home.

Hither by thy help, I’ve come. Here, through your help, I’ve come. Here, with your help, I’ve finally arrived. And I hope, because of your nature, to also arrive safely home.

Ebenezer: the stone of help. A memorial to overcoming by the grace of God. “A commemoration of divine assistance.”

Friend, do whatever you need to do to sit at the table, to steel your soul and give thanks. Giving thanks is a choice, whether you’re in an expensive subdivision or a soup kitchen or the smoldering ruins of your neighborhood. Wear something that makes you feel strong. Find a small phrase from a song or scripture and force it through your head. Set your phone’s alarm to go off regularly just to remind you to pray “Christ, have mercy,” or to reopen a loving email.

Put on your Superman boxers and set to work mentally constructing your memorial stone that etches onto the landscape the living reality of faith: here, in this foyer full of people, I raise a stone of commemoration. This year, by the grace of God, I made it to this foyer. By God’s help, I made it to the church, which felt like a trek across a universe of pain. Here I stack my rocks that have been thrown at me, leaving me bruised and bloodied. I will stack them tall to scream at the cosmos that I’ve come this far by the goodness of God and that God willing, I’ll make it home.

It may be a cold and broken thanksgiving but it is not destroyed.

We are afflicted in every way, but not crushed; perplexed, but not driven to despair; persecuted, but not forsaken; struck down, but not destroyed; always carrying in the body the death of Jesus, so that the life of Jesus may also be made visible in our bodies. 

But just as we have the same spirit of faith that is in accordance with scripture—“I believed, and so I spoke”—we also believe, and so we speak, because we know that the one who raised the Lord Jesus will raise us also with Jesus, and will bring us with you into his presence. Yes, everything is for your sake, so that grace, as it extends to more and more people, may increase thanksgiving, to the glory of God.

So we do not lose heart. Even though our outer nature is wasting away, our inner nature is being renewed day by day. For this slight momentary affliction is preparing us for an eternal weight of glory beyond all measure, because we look not at what can be seen but at what cannot be seen; for what can be seen is temporary, but what cannot be seen is eternal.

Eucharisteo: I give thanks. “This is my Body, broken for you for the forgiveness of sins. Eat this in remembrance of me.”

The Body Broken will strengthen and sustain us through any and every holiday meal: the Great Thanksgiving, the Eucharist, gives us the taste of Ebenezer. Here, at this place, I take and eat, here, at this place, I taste and give thanks for a broken Savior. By your help, God, to this place I’ve come.

Taste and see that the Lord is good…

Let’s bow our heads and say grace.

Here I raise mine Ebenezer…

“How have you been? I haven’t heard from you lately.”

I’m taking rocks that have left me stunned and broken and crafting a monument from them.

I’m glad you’re here.

So am I. By the grace of God, I’ve made it this far. And I hope by God’s good grace, safely to make it home.

Happy Thanksgiving.

Wesleyan Accent ~ Interview: Katie Fisher’s Dust in My Mouth

Recently Wesleyan Accent chatted with visual artist Katie Fisher about her project illustrating the struggle and grief written in the Old Testament book Lamentations.  

She shares in her bio that she works as a graphic designer, writer, and visual artist. As a farm kid from the Great Plains, she learned to run wild with the wind and live in the trees. Now in Dallas, she and her husband grow as many plants as their house can hold. In her writing and visual art, she explores what it means to be human and how our very existence depends on and interacts with the world around us. 


Wesleyan Accent: How do you approach your artistic process? How do you delve deeply internally to express your perspective? Where are the borders of what you experience internally with how you want to communicate it and how you hope it will be perceived? 

Katie Fisher: My process of getting into a project starts with research. I try to create a base of readings, experiences, conversations, and resources that I can connect together. From this base, I start to build connections using my own voice. In the beginning, I try to find a path or catch the scent of the project.  

Dust in My Mouth came out of a personal question. I had read, discussed, and heard a lot about theodicy—why bad things happen to good people—but answers to that question did not give me tools to deal with the reality of suffering in life. Even the most eloquent and thoughtful explanations of theodicy remain cold explanations of God’s interaction in the world. I wanted better tools to respond to my own suffering and pain as well as God’s response to me. In gathering resources I looked for anything that hit on that nerve. Often before getting into a work session, I had to take a deep breath. Trying to hit a nerve never feels good. Rather than diving inside myself, I tried to bring my own vulnerability to the reading, drawing and reflecting.  

I hope others will open themselves to this work in a way that allows them to interact with the rawness and struggle found in the book of Lamentations, Dust in My Mouth, and our lives. 


WA: Your art project centers around “lament.” What does lamenting mean to you? What has your experience been with how lament is expressed in faith communities? 

KF: My thoughts and experiences about lament have changed so much through doing this work. The research started by looking at Lamentations but I wasn’t sure where it would end up. The communal expression of lament provided some form of an answer to my initial question of what to do with my sorrow and suffering.  

This project on lament has many parts and the initial work came as part of a collaboration with literary critic and theologian Tim BasselinDust in My Mouth shows my portion of the work. Through conversations with Tim, I realized much of my focus lined up with the poems of Lamentations. I decided to follow their outline and push into the text more. Each poetic movement I drew sketches around forces me to wrestle with God’s response to unanswered pleas for help. I learned from my drawings while drawing and grappling with lines of the poems.  

Through the first four poetic movements the woman, Zion or Jerusalem, goes back and forth with the poet as they both express anger and deep pain while their lives and worlds fall apart. At every turn, I asked, “What substance of hope does she have in the face of such excruciating circumstances?” If a substantive hope exists in the extremes, like the violent siege of Jerusalem, surely it would apply to me as well. Many times people want to locate hope of Lamentations in the poet’s expression of the goodness of God in Lamentations 3:21-24.  

The title of the overall body of work Dust in My Mouth actually comes from Lamentations 3:29: “let him put his mouth in the dust— there may yet be hope.” (ESV) At every turn of the project, I had to wrestle again with this line. I have written more on this perplexing image here 

The poet’s expression in Lamentations 3 failed, for many reasons, to work as a balm of hope I needed. In looking elsewhere in the poetic expressions of Lamentations, I saw a functional, tangible hope in Lamentations 5. The people of Jerusalem come together in their suffering and express not just their individual pain but the pain of their community. Finally, for the first time in the book they come together as their dancing turns to sorrow and they sing and dance a dirge of lament. 

The book of Lamentations comforted me long before I started working on Dust in My Mouth. I found refuge in the honesty of the lines and a permission to put my own anger, hurt, and pain into my prayers. Taking those honest prayers, however, and sharing them with a community scared me. Yet, the poet leads the women of Jerusalem into communal lament. And in such a lament I find a tangible hope.  

I see lament as an outward expression of pain, sorrow, or even anger. Or, to put it more succinctly, a confessional dance of give and take. In lament, we come together—exposed and vulnerable. Deep life-giving hope activates in the dance of the corporate lament. The final drawing which sprang from Lamentations 5 shows that vision of hope and lament.   

WA: You say, “Dust in My Mouth has been a long, painful, and yet deeply joyful labor for the past two years. So many edges of the drawings were made wet with tears.” In your opinion, how does artistic expression function as prayer? What is it about the visual arts that function differently than spoken words or written language? 

KF: Our senses activate us at our core. Speaking or putting things into words requires us to go into that core area and draw out an abstraction. It seems, at least in Western philosophies, that words have a “higher” status than our perceptual reality. I disagree with that notion and instead place the higher function in our senses. 

As Lin Yutan says in his book The Importance of Living, “we all labor under the misconception that the true function of the mind is thinking…” For Yutan, the brain functions more like the tentacles of an octopus feeling for truth and eating it. Reducing prayers to words limits my prayers to the realm of abstraction. In visual art, I can pray with my whole body—not just my words.  

The visual arts affect our senses. And, again along with Yutan, I would say the education and development of ourselves on a sensual level will allow for better prayers with our words. 


WA: For you, where does lamentation fit in the seasons of Christian living? It seems like many North American people of faith expect empowerment, self-help, health, and well-being to be the norm. 

KF: Many people do expect celebration as the norm of life. Their experience, however, contrasts their expectation—pushing them toward bitterness and isolation in response to reality. Often when people see my work on lament they comment on the relevance and name some event happening either in their lives or the lives of people around them. They assume the human experience exists as a parade of goodness and this one isolated event has temporarily obstructed their parade. I could say a lot about the need many people have for celebratory parades to go on unhindered. In researching for Dust in My Mouth I read Soong-Chan Rah’s book Prophetic Lament: A Call for Justice in Troubled Times. Rah writes directly about the desire for some branches of the church in North America to have a constant celebration. I encourage everyone to pick up a copy.  

I think of lament as both a season and also a constant state. At times we enter into a season of lament and other times we lament alongside others—but always we dance. I think the church moves and lives in a dance of lament. That’s not to say that I see life or the church as sad. Again,  I find the tangible substance of hope in the give and take as we move together in vulnerability, honesty, and grace. 


WA: How would you encourage people to express their own lamentation? What insight about grief do you hope people will walk away with? 

KF: I long for this work to invite others into the dance of lament and hope it prompts people to seek out a community to share their lives with. Pain in isolation leads to despair. I know it takes courage to move toward others in an exposed way. The human experience leans more toward suffering than celebration. Even people living the most protected lives will experience the death of loved ones. At the end of Prophetic Lament, Rah uses one of the poems from Lamentations to write his own lament. If you don’t know where to start look to the examples in scripture and write your own experience into that framework. 

Out of my work on Dust in My Mouth, I created a six-panel visual show as well as a book and prints. Look for all of that on my website after November 15th.



If you enjoy the spirit of Fisher’s writing check out her visual work at katiefisher.us or follow her on twitter at @katiefisher_km