Unlike MLK, these words do not describe my inspiring aspirations for the future. They describe a recent dream I had while I slept. It is a very rare occurrence for me to remember a dream. I don’t believe this was a prophetic dream, nor do I believe it was dream caused by too much pizza the night before. It simply was something that happened that made me think about my life.
In my dream I was the busy pastor of a thriving, vibrant church. I was blessed to partner with incredible local ministry colleagues and a wonderful denominati0nal family. We were active sharing the love and truth of Jesus Christ with a lost and dying world and the supernatural fruit of repentance resulted. Occasionally I had the privilege to travel the world to encourage international workers as they faithfully served. It was a wonderful dream.
Then I woke up. None of those things were true in real life. I love the tiny, mountain church family I am blessed to share God’s Word with on Sundays, but due to physical limitations I am not able to do the work of a shepherd among them. As an interim, I have no authority to lead. Being unable to drive, I cannot be a presence in a community that is 40 minutes from my house. I seem to struggle to be a light here in my own neighborhood. I pray for my past ministry partners, but often feel forgotten and even sometimes ignored by those busy with their own ministry responsibilities. I will never travel the world to cheer on my missionary friends and see the pioneering work of God firsthand. While my wife and I once prepared to be missionaries, we are now limited to praying that others will be called to the peoples we love.
I wonder if my almost 60 years have been wasted as I sometimes served in congregations that really didn’t want me but felt forced to hire a credentialed worker because of denominational regulations. Did my life bear any fruit that pleased my Savior? I can honestly say that everything I did in my decades of imperfect ministry was done with a heart desiring that God would be glorified. As I look back, I doubt if I made much of an impact for Him and the furtherance of His Kingdom.
Instead, as I look back I fear that the deep wounds that my family experienced through years of being the subjects of scrutiny, gossip, slander, and suspicion were not worth it. Did my desire to fulfill a mostly fruitless ministry-calling ruin the lives of those I love most? I hate to think some of this might be true, but I wonder.
I write these words not to elicit sympathy. I write these words to express my grief. Grief is what we experience when we mourn the loss of something. For me it was the loss of the American-ministry dream. I had hoped that the Disney-inspired “just believe and work hard and your dream will be fulfilled” ministry-mantra would happen to me. I mourn its loss. I mourn what it has done to my family.
So many are grieving today. COVID has destroyed precious lives and separated families. Jobs and financial security have been lost. Some have been forced to give up certain freedoms they enjoy, at least temporarily. Our divisive political climate seems to be destroying the country we love. Social media contributes to the destruction of long-held relationships. Churches are being split over things that don’t really matter. So many have lost so much! And just like the families who due to COVID were unable to hold funeral services to say good-bye to family members, multitudes of people are now frozen in time and unable to deal with the losses of life.
To truly heal and move on, we must take the time and energy to journey through several stages. After the crisis of loss, we often numbly deny what we have experienced. Sometimes we erupt in anger or tears. We face questions we cannot answer, such as “If only I had done this, would they have died?”, or “Why did this happen to me?”. Sadness, hopelessness, loneliness, numbness, and feelings of guilt and blame are all part of our journey back to some sense of “normalcy.” Quite often we go back and visit these various emotions and experiences time and time again. Some never make it very far in their journey back to a life of renewed hope and healing.
I often hear from my Christian friends that all I have to do is “believe the promises of God” and try really hard not to feel bad or sad and my grief would go away. But as I explore Holy Scripture, I don’t see that being true. Jesus Himself cried out, “My God, my God, why did you abandon me?” (Mt. 27:46). Jesus wept at the tomb of His friend, Lazarus (Jn. 11:33-38). The psalmists acknowledged their losses and wept (Ps. 6:6, 39:12, 42:3). So did the prophets (Is. 22:4, Jr. 9:1). Ecclesiastes reminds us there is a time to weep (3:4). We can never weep over loss if we never acknowledge our loss. How wonderful to think that God doesn’t get angry at us when we grieve. Instead, He sees our tears. Those tears are precious to Him (Is. 38:3-5)!
I wonder if the reason I lived a life with frequent loss is so that I can help others right now who are grieving. I pray I won’t be like Job’s friends who after sitting with Job in silence for a week, began a diatribe pointing out Job’s lack of faith and blaming him for his suffering. Rather than comforting their friend, they increased his suffering.
Instead, I want to truly listen to the broken-hearted. I want to pray for them. I want to allow them to express their emotions and ask their tough questions. I want to help practically with things that the grieving person might not be able to do right now. I want to remove some of their responsibilities that are weighing on their tired hearts. I want them to understand it is normal to grieve. I want to encourage them with the healing balm of God’s Word. And I want to help them lament.
In Psalm 13:1, David cries out, “How much longer will you forget me. Lord? Forever?” Yet, a few verses later David proclaims, “I rely on your constant love; I will be glad because you will rescue me. I will sing to you, O Lord, because you have been good to me.” Often we can’t move on to that place of trust and worship until we truly acknowledge our pain and loss. So many of the Psalms include a lament, where people pour out their complaints to God. Perhaps they are trying to persuade Him to act. Oftentimes they end up remembering God’s faithfulness in the past that enables them to trust Him in the present. They know that God is the One to run to when loss comes. They know God is their help, even if they don’t see it right now. It is an honest cry that allows one to trust. The problems are not often solved right away, but hope is renewed through lament that God will act in His way and in His time.
Have you experienced life-crushing loss recently? If you need someone to listen, contact me. If you would like to be part of an online healing group where you can share your brokenness in a safe atmosphere where people will love and pray for you, message me and we will start one up. I can truly say that while I sometimes go back and visit the unpleasant places of my grief journey, I am now experiencing God’s presence and peace in ways I never would have if I had not experienced my loss. He is faithful. And I want to introduce you to Him.
[Inspired by Lesson 3, “What Happens When Someone Is Grieving,” in Healing the Wounds of Trauma (American Bible Society, 2014).]