Don’t Sing Songs to a Heavy Heart

We will all encounter someone who is suffering from grief. And if we live very long, we will also experience our own grief. The irony is that while grief is ubiquitous and ultimately universal, many of us are utterly unprepared to respond well. So, sometimes what we say (usually with good intentions but not a lot of forethought) ends up doing more harm than good. And sometimes, if our words betray the heart of God as revealed in scripture, what we say can deeply harm someone’s understanding of God. Our ultimate goal, when we seek to comfort someone in grief, is to comfort them (not ourselves) and also to do so in a way that accurately reflects the grace, empathy, and compassion of the One who loves them most of all. In short, we want our words to bring healing, not pierce like swords.

So here are SEVEN things to avoid saying to someone in grief:

  1. God needed another angel.” Sorry, this one is just out. It’s poor theology. People are human, not angels. We do not change into angels at death. Also, God does not “need” anything, per se, and if God did want another angel God would create one. Finally, God does not have needs that supersede our needs. There is nothing God needs that would necessitate removing a child from its parents, or any other painful loss. So yeah, this one is just out of the game, okay?
  2. It’s for the best.” Question #1 should be, “best for whom, exactly?” A response like this one really displays one’s discomfort with the pain itself, and an attempt to brush the pain aside.
  3. She/he is in a better place.” Surely well intentioned, this one also arises from poor theology that shares roots in the ancient Gnostic worldview that the material world is “bad” and the spiritual world is “good.” But this is not the Biblical view. Rather, God will redeem and restore creation. God created us to be here, in this place. This is the better place we should be (and will be one day in the resurrection).
  4. This is God’s will.” A good policy is to avoid saying anything about God about which you cannot be certain, at least in terms of how God is revealed in scripture. And unfortunately, God does not entirely reveal God’s will to us (Mt. 24:36; Isa. 55:8-9).
  5. With time, you’ll move on.” In reality, one will never move on from loss, especially with the loss of someone particularly close, and especially if that loss was sudden or tragic. Losing someone close to you is like losing a limb. You might adjust. You might learn new habits. But time will never help you “move on” as though the loss never happened. We might say instead, “With time, your grief will change,” or “With time, you will learn to live with this loss.”
  6. God won’t give you more than you can handle.” We visited this one a few weeks ago, too. We don’t know what God “gives” any more than we know God’s will. Moreover, if we were expected to “handle” our greatest losses and grief, we would not need the community into which God places us.
  7. I know exactly how you feel.” Again, well intentioned, but this is ultimately impossible. You can never know exactly how one feels, even if you have experienced a similar category of loss. A chaplain once taught me that true empathy is not understanding someone’s pain, but rather seeking to understand it.

With that last point, here are FOUR alternatives (or something like these in your own words) you can rely on when responding to someone in grief:

  1. I love you/You are loved.” Grief can make us wonder if anyone cares about it, and especially if the all-powerful God does. When we’re able to assure someone they are loved by us or by their community, we don’t dishonor the reality of their pain by trying to “move past” it, but at the same time we answer one of the deepest pains of grief. Similarly we can also give this reassurance…
  2. You are not alone.” Grief naturally isolates us. If the bereaved person is also an introvert or does not have a natural community (like an immediate family nearby) that isolation is exacerbated. So to reassure someone that you’re not going anywhere can be an enormous source of comfort, allowing them to grieve without guilt, shame, or worry that their grief will cost them their friends.
  3. I’m so sorry.” The truth is that if we’re trying to respond to someone’s grief at all, it’s because we have a degree of empathy and/or compassion. So we can just speak for ourselves by letting them know that we are simply so sorry they are having to endure this loss. Again, this lets them know they’re not alone while not negating their pain.
  4. Say nothing at all. The power of presence cannot be underestimated. But it requires the courage to dwell in the discomfort of someone else’s grief. I try not to overestimate the nobility of animals, but this one makes me think of good dogs. If you’ve ever had a bad day and been comforted by your dog, it’s not because of something they say. It’ s because they sit by you, and frankly because they say nothing! The ministry of presence can also take the form of action without expectation. Pastor Aaron shared an experience of being comforted by someone leaving a tray of brownies at their home when they were suffering from grief. No words, only action without expectation. And it afforded them great comfort.

For Reflection:
– This was a longer entry, but one that we should all put in our back pockets for quick reference. Which of the first seven stood out to you the most?
– Which of the last four things to say stood out to you the most?
– Do you know someone grieving a loss? What can you say or do now that you’re confident will be wise like the proverb describes, bringing healing and not piercing?

Many blessings,
MM

Godspeed: Names

The one who enters by the gate is the shepherd of the sheep — He calls his own sheep by name

Pastor Aaron revealed this morning that when he was a young child he decided to run away from home. His first stop? 7-11. After gorging himself on candy, he remembered seeing his mother coming down the street.
“Aaron David Stewart!” she called. His mother was justifiably angry (and probably scared), and to this day, even though he was only four years old, Pastor Aaron recalls the importance of hear his mother call out his name. In what was undoubtedly unpleasant in the moment, it would become an unforgettable moment of grace and mercy.

Consider also the amount of time and energy we put into naming our children. We know it matters! In our day of increased disconnection and loneliness, the presence of God to us, represented by God the Son Jesus Christ, and God the Holy Spirit, is so often represented by our connection with each other. Especially when we practice that connection by name. Isn’t this part of the reason why visiting a new church can be so daunting — because no one yet knows your name? And isn’t it the reason that belonging to a community of faith is so joyful and liberating?

In today’s passage, John 10:1-6, Jesus uses the metaphor of sheep and shepherd to illustrate this intimate relationship. In the middle east, the shepherd will walk into the middle of sheepfold and call them by name. And they come to him! He knows them each individually: their coloring, their tendencies. But those sheep will not respond to the voice of someone else, who is not their true shepherd. People were wondering, “Is Jesus the Messiah or what?” To give them assurance, Jesus likens himself to the ideal image of a benevolent king — the shepherd.

In our most honest moments, what do we really want? No matter how much theological prowess we may have, no matter how much money in the bank, no matter how many people we influence or how much attention we warrant…In our heart of hearts, we want our Good Shepherd to call us — to know us — by name.

But if I want the sound of that voice to be comforting, I must be willing to “go out” with him. I must be willing to leave the comfort of my pen and go where he leads. Psalm 23 reminds us that he leads us in paths of righteousness. He leads us beside still waters. He also leads us to the cross, to lose ourselves for his sake, only to have him restore to us our complete and full identity in him.

Here’s an oxymoron — “Impersonal Church.” Such a thing should not exist! Because if the Church is to embody the hands and feet of Jesus, the voice and tenor of Jesus, the love and healing touch of Jesus, then it must be a place where we are known — and know others — by name.

For reflection:
– In what communities are you known by name?
– Are you known by name in a community of Jesus’ people? If not, what risks could you take to be known?
– Do you want to be part of a community who knows you by name? Why or why not?
– If you are well-known by name in your community, how could you challenge yourself this week to know others by name?

Many blessings,
MM

Godspeed: Rooted

In any culture, we are shaped by forces which we don’t choose but which have enormous influence over our lives, our perceptions of ourselves, our world, and even God. Today, one of those forces appears to be “individualism,” otherwise known as the “self-made person.”

But that’s just not how things work, is it?

Consider the human body, as one basic example. As a metaphor (there are always exceptions if we take this analogy too literally), it reminds us that a single living organism is actually a series of interdependent living things. In fact, when the body isn’t operating interdependently, it is said to be in a state of “dis-ease.” So it is with the Church, which Paul called the “Body of Christ.”

The health of the interdependent Body is largely determined by its stability. If the parts of the Body aren’t stable, then the whole Body becomes less stable. Benedictine monks understand this when they take their vows, one of which is the vow of “stability,” that is, the willingness to live in a particular community for the rest of their lives, through thick and thin, and to renounce the endless (and fruitless) search for greener pastures elsewhere.

The corporate nature of life in Christ is emphasized throughout scripture. In other words, salvation is not just personal. We are saved into something greater. We are baptized into something greater. We eat the Communion meal in the presence of something greater, as we anticipate something greater, that is, the fulfillment of God’s kingdom.

Sometimes our lives are thrown into seasons of instability, when we feel uprooted. Failing health and the death of loved ones; struggling relationships and divorce; corporate lay-offs, or corporations moving employees to new locations; military families moving every three years; these are legitimate and real reasons we can become uprooted. The call to be a rooted people is not meant to indict our real-life situations, but rather, to acknowledge that ultimately we need stability in a community with deep and healthy roots as we seek to know ourselves, our God, and our place in God’s world.

For reflection:
1) Are currently feeling “rooted” or not? What are the factors contributing to your answer?
2) Is there a way to feel “rooted” if forces outside of our control (job, health, etc.) are making us feel unrooted? What ways might there be?
3) Do you know someone whose life has recently been “uprooted?” Pray and ask the Holy Spirit to guide what you might do to bless that person this week.


Godspeed: Presence

If you heard there was a disease that was rampant throughout your community, would you want to know more about it? Given the emergency status of the measles outbreak in Washington state alone, my guess is you would.

There is a problem that is robbing people of a sense of ease in their daily lives: a “dis-ease” called busyness. Busyness may even be more harmful than most physical diseases because unlike those, busyness often feels good while we experience it. Being busy can make us feel important or productive. And most of us do little or nothing to become less busy.

Spiritually, one problem with busyness is that it also robs us of our ability to know God’s presence. Last week, we looked at the notion of “Place” and remembered that while we often ask “Where is God?” God is asking the same — “Where are you?” In a culture that is increasingly competitive and socially networked, our answer might all too often be “Where am I? Well I’m busy, of course.”

The story of Ruth is well-known among students of the Bible, but you rarely see it on wall posters or verse-a-day calendars. And yet it is one of the most powerful stories of commitment to presence in scripture. Ruth herself is a widow with a chance to start over. She has every reason to think of her own best interest. But instead she sets that aside and chooses to live fully present with her mother-in-law Naomi, for the rest of her life: “Wherever you die, I will die, and there I will be buried.” (Ruth 1:17)

To be sure, there are many demands on our daily lives that we cannot run from. Life happens. Nevertheless, we are invited, and even commanded, to keep an account of the lifestyle we can choose and decide whether or not we will choose to be open to experience the presence of God.

For reflection:
– Make a list of the things in your life keeping you the most busy; which do you have the power to change (don’t forget to include how you spend your spare time).
– What is standing in the way of being fully present to God? Being fully present to the people in your life?
– What are some simple choices you could make to become more fully present, even just for the next week? Journal about your experience.

Many blessings,
MM

…There Your Heart Will Be

Over the last three weeks, we have been dwelling in what Randy Alcorn calls “The Treasure Principle.”  Pastor Aaron has meditated on scripture and experience that points to the simple fact that “God owns cattle on a thousand hills” and invites us to participate in God’s redeeming work in the world. The three basic principles have been:

  1. You can’t take it with you, but you can pass it on ahead.
  2. Learn from the legacy you inherited to create a legacy for the future.
  3. The only way to be free of materialism is by giving.

The challenge of applying the Treasure Principle is that we often forget those thousand hills that God owns and instead cling to “our” possessions, even though we know they can never give us abundant life and ultimately belong to God anyway.

In the story of the wealthy person wanting to inherit eternal life Jesus is stopped by a young man who “wants it all,” including eternal life.  It’s a good thing to want, but Jesus sees through his question to the deeper one:  “How can I squeeze in everything I want and still get heaven too?!”  So Jesus challenges the final obstacle keeping this young man from having a heart truly set free of the tarnishing treasures of this world.  He challenges him to let go of his worldly possessions.

It’s absolutely crucial that we revisit this story over and over again.  At least once a year as we revisit how we manage our resources.  Here’s the never-forget-nugget:  Jesus does not need his cash, but God wants his heart.  And Jesus makes it pretty clear: where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.

What’s more astonishing still about this passage is the reward Jesus points us to.

People need to know WHY they do things.  It’s natural to found our actions on good reasons that transcend our own lives.  Jesus endured the cross “for the joy set before him.”  And the same Jesus teaches that we can give generously, with cheerful hearts, because of what we know our relatively minuscule dollars and cents will accomplish in the hands of the Creator, by whose grace we live and move and have our being.

For reflection:

  1. Not all of our worldly possessions are “money.”  Can you think of anything that you would really struggle to let go of?  Why would you struggle?
  2. Here’s an even more abstract version: can you think of anything immaterial (like family traditions, personal beliefs or values, etc.) that a person might struggle to let go of?  Can immaterial “possessions” like these still be obstacles to an abundant life in Christ?
  3.  Do you think Jesus wants everyone to “sell everything you own” and give it to the poor?  Why or why not?  If not, then what is the deeper meaning of this saying for every single one of us to apply to our lives?

Many blessings,

MM

 

The Sacrifice of Giving

You are the treasure.

When we think about “treasure” it’s natural to wonder what that treasure is.  Talents?  Money?  Resources?  An actual trunk of gold coins?  Those may be tools that enable our work in various ways.  But they aren’t the treasure.

You are the treasure.

In the parable of the mustard seed, Jesus describes the way God begins his work with things that appear to be small but can grow large enough for everyone to call home.

Over the past few years, University Place Presbyterian Church (UPPC) has demonstrated three qualities that are a testimony to the ways God is working in our midst.

  • UPPC is a family.

In 1927, Jesus’ people wanted to teach the gospel to families on the west side of Tacoma.  The startup met at the Narrows Tomato warehouse and affectionately referred to themselves as “The Wayside Chapel.”  One record states that attendance was around 22 people.  Mostly children!

What a reminder that the congregation we gather with weekly isn’t something we deserve.  This community is a gift from God, planted around 90 years ago, which has grown into a large and beautiful tree!

  • UPPC is a place where people find hope in Jesus.

The image of the “wayside” is so important to remember, because it refers to life in dynamic motion, rather than a people who give intellectual assent to a set of doctrines.  Before anyone understood what to believe about Jesus, people were drawn to Jesus himself, that is, they stopped along the wayside.  To eat and drink.  To converse.  To ask questions.  To seek healing and care.  To laugh and live life.

This organic way of living our faith is why we “embrace messiness.”  We like to say, we either are a mess, we were a mess, or we’re one dumb choice away from becoming a mess.  So welcome to the journey!

  • UPPC is a people who give sacrificially.

Here’s the thing — it’s not about money.  As U2’s Bono once famously said, “The God I believe in isn’t short of cash.”  Giving sacrificially is about wanted to live a real testimony of God’s provision.  In fact, it is the only thing about which God invites us to test him — God’s generosity.

Part of sacrificial giving is doggedly maintaining an open and inviting attitude.  It’s all too easy to become comfortable in our community, but the sacrifice of throwing wide the doors means that there’s one more person or family who can experience the love of God as the mustard seed continues to spread its branches across the world.

For reflection:

  1. If you can think of a time someone gave sacrificially for your sake, find a way to share that story with someone.
  2. Have you ever had the chance to give sacrificially, either of money, or time, or talents, or with an attitude of openness to others?
  3. Imagine your community 40 years from now; what part might you be playing now in building a community for that time?

Many blessings,

MM

 

From Pseudo to Authentic Friendship

We tend to throw certain words around pretty loosely.  Words like “awesome,” “super,” and “totally.”  We totally use language to communicate our super awesome ideas.

Another such word is “community.”  Like many concepts, there is nuance and variety to this word, including a spectrum of types of community that can range from “pseudo-community” to “authentic community.”  In our heart of hearts, we long for the latter.

When Jesus put together his closest followers, we see the beginning of a community characterized by unprecedented, powerful experiences of God that bonded the twelve of them as friends. They also argued and competed with each other.  But they also learned to be reconciled and trust each other.  Just as Jesus called that community together, and as scripture describes authentic friendship, God is calling us to authentic communities of friends today.

But we know that many friendships are pseudo-friendships, relying on superficial agreement rather than authentic connection.  Pastor Aaron introduced us this week to a concept from the late great Scott Peck, who claimed that in order to move from pseudo-friendships to authentic ones, we have to be willing to enter and endure what he called the “Tunnel of Chaos.”  Sounds fun, right?

This is the process of “getting real” with one’s friends, facing conflict, asking hard questions, and being vulnerable.  Many people enter the tunnel but just as quickly claw their way back to the safety of pseudo-friendships.  But those who can initiate or accept an invitation into the tunnel are willing to take the necessary steps toward authentic friendship — a sister or brother whom one can trust and rely on in a way that only authentic friendship makes possible.  A fulfillment of our deep longing for true community.

For reflection:

  1. Is there someone in your life with whom you’d like to initiate more authentic connection?  What simple act could you take to invite that person into the tunnel with you?
  2. Have you ever been invited into more authentic friendship?  Did you accept, and what was your experience?  Did you decline, and what has that been like for you?
  3. God is always ready to empower us — Consider praying this week specifically for God to guide you and empower you to risk entering into a more authentic friendship.

In Grace,

MM

Overcoming Fear & Prejudice

“God, I thank you that I am not like sinners.”

This paraphrase of the words of “prayer” from the Pharisee character in Jesus’ parable, found in Luke 18:9-14, can be called a lot of things.  Pompous.  Arrogant.  Proud.

Prejudiced.

This word, which denotes passing premature judgment on someone, is a buzz word in our culture.  In the case of this Pharisee, his prejudice is obviously about other people—he doesn’t know those sinners, right?  But he is also acting as his own judge, ironically letting God know, “Hey, you can take the day off!  It turns out I’m innocent!”   For him, apparently it’s easier to put on the armor of prejudice than it is to face the reality of his own brokenness.

Turns out we can be prejudiced about others, and even ourselves, just like this Pharisee character.  But judgment about others and ourselves is reserved for only Jesus Christ: “The Father judges no one, but has entrusted all judgment to the Son” (John 5:22).  Paul offers an ingenious explanation of this in his letter to the Corinthians:

“I care very little if I am judged by you or by any human court; indeed, I do not even judge myself. My conscience is clear, but that does not make me innocent. It is the Lord who judges me.” (from 1 Cor. 4:1-5)

The good news is that this means we are free to befriend the whole world.  Think of it — when we meet people who are different than ourselves, even if those differences contradict our values and beliefs, we can still be free of passing judgment on them.  Moreover, we can be free of any judgment others may pass on us.  Finally, we can even be free of judging ourselves, which we ultimately lack the wisdom and objectivity to do, just as we lack those qualifications for judging others.

Of course we are still told to be wise and discerning: “Judge correctly” (John 7:24).  But it is possible to exercise unprejudiced discernment, which takes everything into account without presuming to pass final judgment on anyone.  And it opens the door to worldwide friendships.

For reflection:

  1. Have you ever been constrained by prejudice?  Either prejudice you hold about others, or vice versa?
  2. Have you ever had a prejudice about people that you later were able to overcome?
  3. In what ways does fear lead to prejudice?
  4. Character takes practice — what can you, or someone you know, do to practice living without fear or prejudice?

Many blessings,

MM

 

Pitfalls and Antidotes

“A friend loves at all times,
    and a brother is born for a time of adversity.”  (Proverbs 17:17)

This morning Pastor Aaron shared an article from the Boston Globe on a new threat to middle-aged men: loneliness.  And if people who are middle-aged struggle with loneliness, it appears the challenge increases the older we get.  According to one study, about 1/3 of all adults in the US over 60 are living alone.  Over 80?  There’s a 50/50 chance you’re living alone.

It’s tragic that in seasons that bring some of life’s greatest adversity, so many people are going it alone.  There are several pitfalls to real friendship.  But the good news is that there are also answers.

  • Pitfall: Fair-weather friendship.  If, as the proverb says, a brother or sister is born for adversity, then why do so many feel alone at those very times?
    • Antidote: Exchange convenience for commitment.  We all need to have friends who do this, but we all have the ability to be those friends, too.
  • Pitfall: Busyness.  “Haste leads to poverty,” says Proverbs 21:5.  Overscheduling is a huge cause for nominal friendships because it friendship requires the time to walk life’s journey together.
    • Antidote: Set it and forget it.  Hey, if we’re going to live highly scheduled lives, why not schedule time for friends, too?  Don’t wait for that time to just appear — make it a priority.  Set it in the calendar, and when the time comes, enjoy it!
  • Pitfall: Lack of initiation.  When you were a kid, did you ever try to play on the teeter-totter with someone who didn’t do their part?  You just ended up sitting there…not teetering or tottering.  One-sided friendships can be like that.
    • Antidote: Recognize and respond to ‘bids.’  Bids are the little ways people indirectly ask for attention and validation.  Kids say “Mom, watch!”  Friends might say, “Dude, check this out.”  Giving our attention is a great way to take friendship initiative.
  • Pitfall: Conflict avoidance.  Proverbs 27:6, “Wounds from a friend can be trusted.”  No one like conflict, but they happen.  And a friendship that can’t address them is likely to stay superficial.
    • Antidote: Ask for feedback and insight.  Even when we’re not in a time of conflict, we can open the door to constructive input from our friends.  If they are in fact the ones who know us best, their insights should be valuable to us, even if it hurts a little bit to hear it.

For reflection:

  1. Which of the four pitfalls are familiar to you?
  2. Do any of the antidotes seem challenging?
  3. What do you think are some causes and solutions to the problem of loneliness?

Many blessings,

MM

Befriend the God Who Befriends You

There are lots of ways to create friendships.  But there are lots that don’t work very well, too.  Last week we looked at digital, transactional, and one-dimensional friendships that tend to fall short of the kind of real experience of knowing and being known.

But really, all friendships will fall short unless they are built on the only foundation that lasts.

When we read scripture, we enter into a dynamic interplay between our pursuit of God, and God’s pursuit of us.  But really, God’s pursuit of us is where everything begins:

  • “Where are you?” (God to the man and women in Genesis 3:9)
  • “You have searched me, Lord, and you know me” (Psalm 139:1)

When we realize that God is reaching out to befriend us long before we’re able to reciprocate, it changes not only how we relate to God, but how we build even our own identities.  “Our true identity is found not in what we do for Christ, [but] in our belonging to Jesus as a beloved daughter or son” (Pastor Aaron, Sunday 9/23).

The danger in not realizing this profound truth is that if we don’t receive the friendship that God freely offers, we will try to find it in others.  Other who, frankly, can’t give us what we truly need.  How many dysfunctional friendships exist because of the impossible demand of a love that only God can give?

If God loves us and pursues us, how can we receive it?  A primary way is to meditate on those scriptures that remind us.

  • We are the “apple of His eye” (Psalm 17:8)
  • We are “Abba’s children” (Romans 8:14-16)
  • We are a “crown of His splendor” (1 Peter 2:4, 5)
  • We are the “temple of God” (1 Corinthians 3:16; 6:19-20)
  • We are His “friends” (John 14:21; 15:15)

For reflection:

  1. Can you carve out 10-15 minutes of time in each day this week to dwell in the fact that God loves you?
  2. How do you think coming to an experience of God’s befriending love for you could improve your current relationships?  Be as specific as you can in your reflection.

 

Many blessings,

MM