For sufferers and comforters

I’ve been around suffering and death more often than I would wish. As a civilian police chaplain for 13 years, I was called to the scene of 50 or more traffic fatalities and suicides. I bore the heavy burden of making death notifications, informing families that their son or daughter, husband or wife, had died suddenly and violently. Early one Thanksgiving morning, I had to knock on Connie’s door, conveying the terrible news that her police officer husband, Mike, had just been shot and killed. Not only was Mike Connie’s husband, but he was also my best friend in the department.

Through 40 years of preaching ministry, I’ve made innumerable hospital calls and have conducted more than 100 funerals. A 6-inch thick binder on my library shelf is stuffed with outlines and manuscripts of my funeral sermons. Each sermon stimulates a memory of pain experienced, grief shared, stories told, and a life both mourned and celebrated. The binder contains funeral sermons for babies not yet born; infants who died at birth; a 12-year-old who succumbed to leukemia; young children and teenagers who died in car accidents; a college student who committed suicide; a woman who was murdered by her husband; middle-aged men and women who died of heart attacks, cancer or ALS; as well as for aged saints who lived into their late 90s. Death indeed is no respecter of persons. What a great honor for a preacher to be asked to help grieving family members navigate their unique journey from defeat to victory, from brokenness to wholeness.

EVEN AS I’VE WALKED alongside others in their grief, I’ve also personally experienced the sting of death at the passing of my loved ones. Granny Miller was the last of my grandparents to die in 1986. Cancer took my mother’s life in 1983 when she was only 62. My dad lived to the good old age of 91, but the last several years of his life were marked with physical suffering and mental decline. When he died in 2008, Dad was only a shadow of the youthful, strong, independent naval aviator he had been during World War II. Growing up, I enjoyed wonderful relationships with four uncles and six aunts, but they’re all gone except for two. I’m blessed that I’ve not lost a spouse, child, grandchild or sibling. The depth of such losses I can’t imagine! My wife, however, was inflicted with Parkinson’s disease when she was only 42 years old. This relentless, progressive disease has enacted a heavy physical and emotional toll on her for 20 years. She once remarked her body had become her enemy rather than her friend. Healthy people are barely aware of their flawlessly functioning bodies. Sufferers of acute and chronic diseases can’t get their minds off their bodies that ache, throb, twitch, freeze up, and generally refuse to cooperate in ways we take for granted when we’re healthy.

More and more, I’ve begun to face my own mortality. Around the time I turned 
50, I perceived that the end of my life was closer than the beginning. That thought is even more sobering a decade later, especially when younger teaching colleagues remind me, “You’re old enough to be my father.” I tell myself that getting older shouldn’t bother me, but sometimes it does. So I feel guilty reading Paul’s triumphal words, “My desire is to depart and be with Christ, for that is far better” (Philippians 1:23). Right now at least, my desire is to live as long as I’m able. The lyrics of a popular country song reflect my present feelings: “Everybody wants to go to heaven, but nobody wants to go now.” Those feelings could change, I realize, if diminishing faculties or unrelenting suffering beset me. After all, more than one aged saint
 has confided in me at the hospital bedside, “Brother Phil, I’m ready to go. I just wish the good Lord would call me home today.”

I make no claim to be a trained scholar in the study of death and dying, and fortunately, I’m not an “expert” by means of personal experience. Indeed, the enormity of losses Christian friends of mine have endured makes me shudder. However, dealing with the reality of death in my own life and in the lives of others to whom I’ve ministered, has led me to this firm belief: Life is a gift, and death — for the Christian — is a conquered enemy. I seek to live fully and fruitfully as many days as God grants me, but when the time of my departure arrives, I hope to close my eyes in the confidence that I will awaken to the light of the glory of God.

I’ve also come to understand that every journey through “the valley of the shadow of death” is unique. No doubt our grief stories contain common themes, but they are never identical because suffering is individual and particular. There is no single, right way to grieve, but there are healthy ways. There is no single, right way to offer compassion, but there are helpful ways.

The Laments — by far the most common type in the book of Psalms — picture healthy ways to grieve. Cries to God that arise from the depths of sickness and sorrow, catastrophe and loss, they not only teach us how to suffer faithfully, but also how to be a faithful presence to others. Consider Psalm 22. Lament begins with invocation, “My God, my God,” followed by the lament itself, in which the psalmist honestly describes the sufferings that have compelled him to cry out to God: “Why have you forsaken me? Why are you
so far from saving me, from the words of my groaning? O my God, I cry by day, but you do not answer, and by night, but I find no rest …
I am poured out like water, and all my bones are out of joint … a company of evildoers encircles me; they have pierced my hands and feet, I can count all my bones — they stare and gloat over me.” Then the sufferer begs help from God: “But you, O Lord, do not be far
off! O you my help, come quickly to my aid.” Following the prayer, the psalmist expresses hope that God will hear his plea, often vowing to praise God for his answer: “I will tell of your name to my brothers; in the midst of the congregation I will praise you … For he has not despised or abhorred the affliction of the afflicted, and he has not hidden his face from him, but has heard, when he cried to him.”

While the Laments reflect a general and recognizable form, each cry to God is personal and specific. There is less concern for grieving according to specified steps than there

is for grieving honestly and openly to God in the midst of a supportive community. We’re reminded that suffering is both universal and particular and that it is inadvisable to impose a rigid grief pattern on people’s suffering.

The book of Job pictures healthy and unhealthy ways to show compassion. Job’s identity as a beloved child of God was shattered by the accumulation of immense and unexpected losses. Initially, Job’s companions sat silently beside him, patiently bearing his “mute suffering” in which groans and sighs replace words. Their supportive silence allowed Job to move from “mute suffering” to “expressive suffering.” But as Job expressed his anger and self-defense before God, the friends found voices of their own, voices that hurt rather than helped. They made matters worse, as Allen Verhey (Reading the Bible in the Strange World of Medicine, 2003) points out:

The problem is not that they speak, but what they say. And the problem with what they say is not that they have no answers for Job, but that they think they have them all. They claim to know too much and to know it too clearly. They would be defense attorneys to God, but they end up prosecuting Job.

From the story of Job, sufferers learn that they may cry out to — and even against — God in anguish and despair. Such “expressive suffering” often paves the way for the voice of God to break through our grief and be heard. Would-be comforters learn not
to pretend that faith supplies easy answers. Assuredly, the doctrine of the resurrection furnishes ultimate confidence and hope to believers. We grieve, but not “as others do who have no hope” (1 Thessalonians 4:13). We experience joy in the midst of sorrow, peace in the midst of turmoil. We shed real tears, but our grief is tempered by our faith in Jesus and our hope in the resurrection. Nevertheless, mystery that defies simple explanation accompanies individual cases of suffering and death.

FROM THE WAY JESUS DEALT with his own grief and the grief of others, we observe the following. First, Jesus talked. With plain and pointed words, he told his disciples that he was going to die. It’s painful to think about death, much less to talk about it, but we must.

Second, Jesus wept. At the tomb of Lazarus, “he was deeply moved in his spirit and greatly troubled” and “wept” (John 11:34-35). Anticipating his own suffering and death, Jesus “offered up prayers and supplications with loud cries and tears to him who was able to save him from death and he was heard because of his reverence. Though he was a son, he learned obedience through what he suffered” (Hebrews 5:7-8). We must be willing to “weep with those who weep” (Romans 12:15), which is a sign of love and care rather than a show of weakness.

Third, Jesus lamented. On the cross, the words of the ancient sufferer became his own words: “My God, my God, why have your forsaken me?” (Matthew 27:46). We must learn to speak, and to be comfortable with, the language of lament.

Fourth, Jesus surrendered. In Gethsemane he prayed, “Abba, Father, all things are possible for you. Remove this cup from me. Yet not what I will, but what you will” (Mark 14:36). When do we fight the disease at all cost, utilizing every possible technological means, hoping God will intervene at the last minute? When do we discontinue burdensome treatments that offer no hope of a cure, allowing the disease to run its natural course, trusting God to take us home in his time? When faced with such gut-wrenching decisions regarding my loved ones or me, I pray God will give me wisdom to discern, “not my will but yours” and will grant me the courage to say, “For to me to live is Christ, and to die is gain” (Philippians 1:21).

When my time comes, I want to die like my friend and sister-in-Christ Pam. Providentially, I was at Pam’s bedside when she slipped through the shadowy veil between life and death. Loving family and closest friends surrounded her. She was in and out of consciousness, and her breathing was agonizingly slow and labored, signs her
end was near. We consoled one another
and talked with her, but groans and sighs were all she spoke. We prayed and sang her favorite hymns. In the middle of “Amazing Grace,” Pam suddenly awakened, and her eyes opened wide. Gazing upward with arms outstretched, she unmistakably said, “Lord Jesus, I see angels … I see angels coming to take me home.” I didn’t see angels that day, but I believe Pam did. And I, too, hope to see them when God calls me home.

By Philip Thompson, professor of Bible

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