Wednesday, November 09, 2005

Good Grief

A season is set for everything, a time for every
experience under heaven:
A time for being born and a time for dying,
A time for planting and a time for uprooting the
A time for slaying and a time for healing,
A time for tearing down and a time for building
A time for weeping and a time for laughing,
A time for waling and a time for dancing;
A time for throwing stones and a time for
gathering stones,
A time for embracing and a time for shunning
A time for seeking and a time for losing,
A time for keeping and a time for discarding;
A time for ripping and a time for sewing,
A time for silence and a time for speaking;
A time for loving and a time for hating;
A time for war and a time for peace.

Ecclesiastes 3:1-8 (The Jewish Study Bible JPS)

My son spends two days a week at his babysitter's house so that he can have some social interaction with other kids and so that I can have some time to do all of the things I think I need to do during the week. Usually my wife drops him off at the babysitter's on her way to work, but today the schedule was a little weird, so I had to drop him off. I'd never done that before, and it broke my heart.

When we got there, he held me tightly. I'm his playmate, rarely his snuggle-buddy. If we wants snuggles he goes to his mother, if he wants action and adventure he comes to me. This is a pretty good division of labor, as far as I'm concerned. I get to be the fun-guy, which is probably my favorite role in the world, and my wife gets to be her usual doting and affectionate self. Anyway, she doesn't have the stomach to launch a baby into the stratosphere and then catch him as he free-falls back. It takes a certain kind of maniac to send his child into orbit and not be in the least bit concerned about the potential for maiming or death as the kid rockets back to earth. I am that maniac. My wife is not.

But here he was, standing in the front doorway of his babysitter's house, desperately clinging to me. I felt wanted. I felt needed. I felt my arms go numb as he cut of my blood circulation.

Now, you have to understand, the boy loves his babysitter. I'm usually the one who picks him up, and when I do he almost never wants to leave. He adores her. Whatever it is that she's doing at the moment, with whatever kid it is she's trying to do it, you can rest assured that my son is following her and trying as hard as he can to be in the middle of it. He wants her attention at all possible moments, so it never occurred to me that he might not want me to hand him over to her. But here he was, holding onto me, refusing to go to her. I tried my usual trick to get him to go to someone other than me. I launched him into the air, caught him, spun him around, and while he was still in his giggly state of ecstasy, I handed him over as fast as I could, hoping he wouldn't notice what happened.

He noticed. As I walked out the door he stared after me, dejected, betrayed. He screamed a little, but mostly he just communicated with his watery eyes and his quivering, protruding lip, that I had broken his heart, and he would never be the same again. On the way to my car I said, "I know this won't make you feel any better, but I feel the same way." My son and I were both grieving the loss of our contact. I had the experience and emotional maturity to know that our parting would only be a temporary one. I don't know if I can say the same thing for him.

But babies are nothing if not resilient, and I'm sure that he was down on the floor playing with the other kids within ten minutes of the time I dropped him off. His grief was short lived, and having expressed it, he could move on with his life. By now I'm sure he's in the middle of his morning nap, blissfully asleep, dreaming about whatever it is he dreams about. My grief, alas, has more staying power, and comes out less frequently and less easily.

My first job in ministry was as the Youth Minister at a United Methodist Church in Louisville, KY. But, while I was hired to work with the teenagers, my wife and I quickly became involved in many other ministries within the church. We helped out with a worship service for children called KidStuf (an excellent program). She was on a planning team for it, and I played a uniquely hyper recurring character in the skits. We also sang in the contemporary worship service.

That worship service was interesting, because while it was designed for young adults who wanted to break with some of the liturgy of the traditional worship service while updating the music, it also attracted a surprising number of senior citizens. Most of them came to the service because it was early in the morning, and they were up and ready to go to church, so they came to the worship service that we offered at that hour. [note: offering contemporary worship services as the early service is often counter-productive. You usually start a contemporary service to attract younger people, who are much more likely to sleep in. So the people you're trying to reach with the service won't go because they aren't up yet, and the people who are up and ready to go to church don't want all of the changes that, almost by definition, come with a contemporary worship service.] But some of the older people (notice, I didn't say "old" - I don't have the guts to toss that word around!) who came to the contemporary worship service were curious and wanted to connect with God in a new way.

One of these curious souls was a man named Al, who quickly befriended my wife and I. Al was a seeker who never gave up his search for a better understanding of the nature of God and a closer relationship with God. I learned a great deal from him. He was, in fact, the last person I visited as a staff member of that church, right before I accepted an appointment to pastor my own church. He was very sick, but he gave my wife and I more fresh vegetables from his garden than we could have ever hoped to eat. Delighted, we ate what we could and gave the rest away.

A few months later, while preparing to lead worship at my own church, I read in the newsletter of our former church that Al had died. I shared this with my wife, who cried a great deal, and expressed many regrets that we hadn't taken the time to go back and visit with him again. We made the usual mistake of thinking that he would last forever, so we could go see him again when the craziness in our lives had died down. Life, or death, had other plans.

This past weekend I got a phone call from a dear friend of mine. He told me that his grandmother, whom we had been thinking about and praying for for quite some time, had finally passed away. He was grieving his loss, but had come to terms with it. She had been in a great deal of pain, and that pain, he reasoned, was now over. She was in a better place.

These deaths, and the grief that accompanied them, forced themselves upon me as I watched my child go through his own grief. Then it hit me. Through this terribly tumultuous time, I haven't allowed myself to grieve. I haven't given myself the time or permission needed to properly mourn the loss of who I thought I was and what I thought I was supposed to do.

One of the most important doctrines in Buddhism (and, I know that it is misleading to say that Buddhism has doctrines, but that's going to have to wait for another time) concerns impermanence. The Buddha, in his critique of the Hindu system with which he was raised, taught that there is no permanent self, no atman. This teaching has troubled Western minds, because our whole way of thinking assumes a permanent self which we call the "soul." But, while this teaching has troubled us, we stand to learn a great deal from it.

There are two obvious respects in which we are not permanent, and it is important to come to terms with both of these:

1. We all die. While the truth of this statement should be obvious, we don't want to admit that it holds true for us or the ones we love. As such we are so often taken by surprise when someone dies, and are incapable of dealing with it. We need to grant ourselves and the ones we love permission to be mortal. Not, of course, that we or they need permission in order to be mortal. Mortality imposes itself, with or without permission. But as we give ourselves and others permission to, at some point, die, we come to terms with our mortal nature.

2. We are all in a constant state of change. I am not who I was yesterday, nor am I now who I will be tomorrow. This fact is imposing itself on me as I transition from one stage in life to the next. Right now I am dealing with this in terms of vocation. I was once a minister, now I don't know who or what I am. Earlier there were other obvious changes. It was a big jump to move from being single to be married - and living with my wife, constantly trying to accommodate myself to her desires as she accommodates herself to my desires, was a real mechanism for change. It was similarly big jump to become the parent of a small child.

Even within these apparently fixed categories I am constantly changing. I am not the husband I was earlier in our marriage, nor am I the father I was earlier in the life of my son. He is not the same either. He is most obviously in a constant state of change. When we go back to look at old pictures of him we almost can't recognize him. Could that tiny creature possibly be the same being who currently eats us out of house and home.

But there are still subtler changes which happen every day, and each of those changes come with a degree of grief. Every time we make a decision we choose one path over many others, and so lose all of the potential paths we could have taken. In gaining the finite actual we lose the infinite potential, and in doing so we grieve the loss of all of our possible choices. I was in the bookstore the other day, and I had enough money to get one book. But, there were two books that I wanted. In choosing the book I did, I may have gained a book, but I lost another book, and there was (as silly as it may seem) a time of unconscious mourning for the book I didn't buy. In fact, I was a bit surly for a couple of hours until I figured this out.

So what? Why do I bring all of this up? Because, I think that we need to become aware of our every day griefs, and give ourselves permission to experience them. So often we experience an inarticulatable sense of loss, like what my son experienced when I dropped him off this morning. We don't know why we feel the way we do, and we don't like the loss of control that comes with it. But Ecclesiastes, the great Jewish book of wisdom, reminds us that there is a time for everything. We should not feel bad because we experience everything in its time.

1 comment:

Tyler Simons said...

That was great. Have you read Maimonides on Ecclesiastes? It's neat.

I'm really sorry to hear about your experience with your congregation. That's one of my worst nightmares. Actually, it will be once I stop worrying about the Committee on the Ministry, gatekeepers to priesthood in the Episcopal Church.

Have you considered the possibility that you are still called to the ministry, you just got caught up with a parish that wasn't ready for you? It's not like there are millions of good ministers just waiting to take your place, is it?