Just the other day, one of our younger clergy brothers died from a massive heart attack in the wee early morning hours, or late at night during his sleep, depending on your point of view. His contemporaries were in a state of shock, as well they might be, for if death could take a strapping young person in the prime of life, who had a spouse and small children plus an active and vibrant ministry, death could suddenly appear on their doorstep or in their bedroom also. From the facebook posts and videos, he had a grand send off. The show of grief is over and now the real work of grieving begins.
“The memory of the righteous is a blessing…” (Proverbs 10:7a). Yet for those who grieve, their love is often mixed up with wondering all the “what if’s”: should I have insisted on more doctor visits, been more careful about our diet, put my foot down on taking days off to be with the family, etc. usually, nothing we could would have changed the outcome in the short run. We can’t carry guilt for another’s behavior to our own graves.
For the living, especially for a bereaved clergy spouse, the true loss of their loved one will come all too quickly. As soon as the new appointment is made to the charge, the “eviction notice” comes to the parsonage. Most of us clergy live in the home provided by the ministry to which we are assigned, so death or divorce comes with an eviction notice to the non pastor spouse. This is when depression sets in, for the loss of the loved one now involves the loss of a home that has the memories of laughter, meals together, and quiet times on the couch holding one another close.
For all the outpouring of fellowship and grief at the celebration of our brother’s life, this is the time his widow actually needs the most attention. Feeling helpless and powerless, in addition to feeling abandoned both by her spouse and the conference (I’d hate to be the DS delivering this news), I’ve seen otherwise gentle folks get angry at God and everyone below.
Healing will eventually happen, but not if we don’t attend to it. We need to make this most recent loss part of our life experience. As a pastor I’ve buried lots of people, some of whom I’ve known well and some of whom were strangers to me. I think my record was seven people in ten days. That’s a bunch of sermons about how persons lived their lives before God and experienced their faith in action. I was summing up for the families the faith stories of their loved ones so they could carry the good memories forward. As a pastor however, I often didn’t have the opportunity to grieve myself, for I needed to be available to help others to grieve.
I found that keeping a journal helped me to be creatively cleansed of all the pent up emotions that I wasn’t able to express in my professional life. I didn’t have time to wallow in grief, for I had grieving people to encourage and to counsel. I would find a bible verse just by opening the Bible, reading until a verse grabbed my attention, and then I would inscribe it on the top of a page of a cheap spiral bound notebook. Then I would date the page and begin to write whatever came into my mind. I chose the cheap book because too often we come before God with our words and panic: it must be perfect, have complete sentences, good punctuation, good spelling! You would think we have some image of God as an old fashioned school mistress. Where in scripture does it say this? No where! Get over it! Talk to God more often and you will lose that fear. Let the words flow. Do not judge. Don’t reread, don’t rewrite. Finish today and call it good enough. Come see God tomorrow with a fresh verse and a fresh page.
Now I paint as a form of journaling also, for it too is a creative expression. Before I went to seminary, I was virtually nonverbal. Now that experience, combined with the call to preach, has unleashed my tongue. I am finding my art has grown by leaps and bounds over the four years of my incapacity leave. I process emotions and ideas best visually, however, rather than through the written or spoken word. Images from nature cause thoughts to pop into my head, rather like the prophet of old who saw the almond branch blooming and God asked him what he saw (Jeremiah 1:11).
In the unfinished painting attached to this blog, I was on a walk around Mercy Hospital in Hot Springs when I saw a group of trees reflecting in a still pond under a cloudless sky. I thought of how the water is like another place and time, perhaps heaven, and the earthbound trees are our connection of clergy. We have storms, but the sunshine comes in and a rainbow reminds us of God’s care and providence for the earth and its creatures. The solitary tree without leaves is the brother we lost. Because the water is not of this world, the colors of the trees don’t reflect naturally or according to shape. In fact, even the leafless tree reflects in this heavenly pond with a full set of leaves. All the reflected trees share the same colors, for in heaven our differences disappear (Matthew 22:30–For in the resurrection they neither marry nor are given in marriage, but are like angels in heaven.) The question for each of us today becomes, are we so busy with our tasks lists and our need to be at the next destination on our overcrowded schedules, or are we open to the voice of God saying, “what do you see?” My prayer is that your heart is open.