Grieving In Community

6 years ago yesterday, I received a phone call from my parents informing me that my brother-in-law had taken his own life. That day, and those days which followed, are impressed upon my memory in vivid and visceral ways.

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Fernando and I at my graduation from Randolph-Macon College in 2008

Prior to this marker moment in my life, I felt to be in a fertile place of growth toward vocational discernment. I was in the final weeks of my seminary education and looking forward to graduation. I was working at a local congregation, serving as Youth Intern. I was recently engaged to my college sweetheart. I had just returned from a discernment weekend to find out my placement as a Young Adult Volunteer through the YAV Program of the PC (USA). Life was good!

The emotional toll of my grief, after learning of Fernando’s death, seemed more than I could handle at the time. I heavily depended upon my family, my faith community, and my seminary community to hold me and assure me of God’s presence in my darkest hour.

Prior to my time as Church Relations Officer, I worked as a healthcare Chaplain in a small, community-based hospital. I witnessed the deaths of many individuals, from 22 weeks of age to 98 years. As I digested each experience, I was eager to find an algorithm of support which worked in every situation, with every type of traumatic event, and with every type of person. I wanted to know what to say, how to say it, and when to say it. I yearned to be a great pastoral care provider!

Upon reflection, I soon learned that it was my being human which gave me the best tools to support another in their time of grief.

As pastors, educators, lay leaders, and people of faith, we are called upon to nurture and guide one another as we wade through the storms of life, including moments of grief and loss. One of the most precious gifts we may offer to one another is our gift of love, listening, and empathy. Here are some practical ways to put those gifts into practice:

Practice empathy, not sympathy

An empathetic posture towards another who is grieving creates space for mutuality, processing of emotions and deeper understanding. A sympathetic posture towards another who is grieving creates an emotional imbalance between the care giver and the one grieving. Metaphorically speaking, we might create a better connection with those who experience grief if we choose to put on our rain boots and experience the storm with them rather than floating by in our safety raft, looking on with pity and disbelief. Empathetic responses require us to tap into vulnerability and truly seek understanding of the other. We do this best through listening and being aware of our own emotional processes with traumatic situations.

Your grief is not my grief

When we project our stuff—our feelings, our experiences, our trauma, our vulnerability—onto another, we limit the grief of another. This is most often reflected in our response to another person’s experience of grief. Some people experience shock and cannot comprehend the reality of loss. Some people transition into autopilot and prefer to keep busy in order to protect themselves from feeling their feelings. Some people roll on the floor, pound their fists and cry out to God in anger. Some people remain stoic and hold their feelings in.  Some people burst into tears and seem to cry for days at a time. Some people feel relief, but may be afraid to say it. We all grieve differently, and that is okay.

Your grief is not my grief, so when providing care to another who is grieving, it is important to keep our projections about how grief should look, feel, sound, taste, and smell out of the conversation. Leave aside anecdotal words of wisdom, bad theological commentary about tragedy and your personal story of loss. Instead, practice listening to hear rather than to respond. Allow the grief to manifest how it may, and love them through it.

Those who grieve don’t always know what they need

How often have you heard another say to you, “Let me know if you need anything” when faced with a traumatic situation? We say this to one another with the best intentions and our comment comes from a place of sincerity; however, traumatic situations inhibit coping skills in the throes of grief so such a question can be overlooked by the grieving. What can I do to help?, we may think, and so we whole-heartedly tell our hurting friend, “Let me know if I can do something, anything!”.

It is important to remember that those who grieve don’t always know what they need, or what to ask for.  They may be so overwhelmed by their circumstances that even the simplest tasks like eating, drinking, or using the restroom are pushed aside. Here is a nice opportunity to do rather than ask. Arrive with snacks or refreshments. Encourage hydration or a break by invitation to do something with you, whether it’s a coffee break, getting some fresh air, or making a trip to the restroom with you. As time goes on, coordinate hospitality needs with family members, friends or other members in the faith community. People may not remember what you said to them, but they might remember how you cared for them.

Anniversaries are important

Grief is like a deep cut in our skin. At first, it is raw and fresh to the touch. The pain is ever-present and we fear it will never subside. Over time, however, our bodies begin the healing process to repair the wound. The fresh cut becomes a scab, and then the scab falls away to allow for a pink scar. Soon, the pink color fades from our scar and our skin returns to normal, though the scar remains. It no longer causes us immediate pain to touch, but we can run our finger along it and remember the ache of when it first happened.

Grief can be triggered by persons, times, places and events. Anniversaries of traumatic accidents, deaths or loss are important and we can be most helpful to one another if we remember and acknowledge the event with a phone call, a card, a coffee date or some other extension of care. Holidays or other gathering times for family and friends can trigger feelings of grief so remaining aware of these times can greatly impact care. Most importantly, we should be gentle with ourselves and with others as we approach, and work through, the anniversaries of grief and loss in our lives. Taking time to acknowledge our pain, celebrate those whom we lost or gathering to share love with one another can be helpful for all involved.

Candles

Looking back on my experience of loss on this sixth anniversary, I can tell you that I felt loved and cared for by those who held me through that painful time. I don’t remember what they said to me but I remember how they made me feel. Pastors and lay folk, seminary classmates and professors, neighbors and long distant friends alike responded with support in meaningful ways.

As you seek to guide your congregants, family members, or friends through loss, be encouraged that your presence and love is enough. Your gifts of listening and compassion are integral to those who grieve. For it is, indeed, in the blessed community where we find our sense of belonging and the courage to face the next minutes, hours and days. Grief is not partial to some, but visits us all. May we find comfort and encouragement in this knowledge, knowing we can be God’s presence to one another even when we face the valley of the shadow of death.

Rev. Nicole Childress Ball

Learning to Seek: My Lenten Journey

Several weeks ago, I sat on my couch wondering what I would “do for Lent” this year. Over the years, I have begun to groan at the thought because it reminded me too much of a “New Year’s Resolution Restart”. I have given up chocolate, Diet Coke, and fast food more times than I count and IF I made it through Lent, I rushed back to my vice with even more desire on Easter afternoon. In recent years, I have been encouraged and interested in the ideas spread through social media– “40 Bags in 40 Days” for donations to local thrift shops and clothes closets, “40 Letters in 40 Days” for mailing letters to friends, and even “40 Hours in 40 Days” for volunteering with local organizations. Seeing these ideas has reminded me that Lent isn’t always about dieting, and so I started making a list of things that I think are missing in my life or might need more attention, finally settling on one.

One thing in my life that I wish I had more of is study and devotion time. My colleague, Rev. Nicole Ball, recently wrote about a missing CONSTANT congregational presence in our lives as we travel from church to church each week. As much as I absolutely love my job, this is something that I do lament, and so for Lent I decided to take time visiting a few different congregations in my part of the world for worship and study, and focus on devotion more at home. My hope was that I would be able to reconnect with congregations I have worked with in the past, but in a less formal way. I knew that some would still be a one-time visit, but I also intentionally picked one to be my “home” for Lent.

20170301_114627Stressed out and fighting allergies, I shut my computer on Ash Wednesday and headed to Kirk of Kildaire Presbyterian Church in Cary, NC for their noon-time service. I have been able to spend time in conversation with their Senior Pastor, Rev. Jody Welker, recently and wanted to start the Lenten season somewhere I knew I was comfortable and wouldn’t feel completely alone. I arrived a few 20170301_123424minutes early and sat in the beautiful silence of the sanctuary, watching the wind blow blooms off of the trees just outside the window. The stress began to melt away and I was ready to worship.  I listened to Scripture, I sang songs of praise, and I was reminded that I “am dust and shall return to dust, but the steadfast love of the Lord endures forever.” The allergies from the morning remained, but peace replaced stress. That night, I decided to join another congregation and friend, Davie Street Presbyterian Church in Raleigh, NC (led by Rev. Byron Wade) where I was challenged by Rev. Wade’s question to the congregation of what it means to follow someone– something I continued to consider through the next 40 days.

A few days later, I joined a small group of women from First Presbyterian Church in Durham, NC for the start of a book study. Over the course of Lent, I returned each week to discuss “Being Disciples: Essentials of the Christian Life” (Rowan Williams) and join together in delightful fellowship and prayer. I quickly realized that even having the book sitting next to me on my side table each night encouraged me and reminded me of these women and our upcoming gathering. The two times I did miss this study, I noticed an absence in my week which led me to a prayer of thanksgiving for this opportunity and the women I was getting to know through our discussions. For the season of Lent, I had a “home” and I look forward to hopefully returning in a few weeks!

Throughout the rest of Lent, I sought opportunities for worship in different ways.

20170315_171343I spent one afternoon with the leaders of Farm Church as we worked in the garden and covered the plants so they would not freeze that night. “You are dust, and to dust you shall return” echoed in my head as I moved the dirt and prepared the rows for the upcoming planting.

I sat alongside one of my childhood pastors as we each sought sacred space at White Memorial Presbyterian Church in Raleigh, NC for their noon-time worship. We celebrated our reunion and praised God in song and prayer, alongside other colleagues from our Presbytery and members of that particular congregation.

While I traveled for Continuing Education, I prayed with other church leaders seeking knowledge of stewardship and other young pastors seeking rest and reflection of the joys and struggles we find in ministry. I listened, shared, and prayed with a beautiful group of women as we reflected on the slave narratives and how we can change the story today by sharing our own (read more about this experience!)

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I spent most of Holy Week in Washington, D.C. taking in the beauty of the Cherry Blossoms, the sunsets, and the rich history of our country, giving thanks to God for bringing us through the wilderness so many times through incredible leaders. On Maundy Thursday, I found myself praying my way through a series of prayer stations before worship at Blacknall Memorial Presbyterian Church in Durham, NC.

Finally, I returned to my parent’s congregation for Easter Sunday where I celebrated the Risen Lord and led worship for those who encouraged me through seminary and were present at my ordination almost two years ago.

With all of these different worship experiences, what did I actually learn during these 40 days?

In the stress, in the sickness, in the celebrations, in the resting– God is there. In the tears of joy while sitting in the car following various meetings and worship, in the tears of frustration when I couldn’t figure out what was going on– I had a group to go to with whom I could both celebrate and lament. On the days when I couldn’t find my grounding, there would be a place to sit and join God both with and without other individuals. In the most unlikely places, we can find reminders of God’s presence when we need it most.

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This Lent has been a unique one for me– a true journey through the wilderness filled undeniable glimpses of hope and grace. I didn’t give up any chocolate (I probably ate more!), but I did give up reasons to think that I am alone. I did find my grounding in worship and study. I have found ways for devotion. I have learned how to truly seek God in this crazy, confusing, and unpredictable world.

Will I keep going to the “extra” worship services? Maybe, but not likely.

Will I keep going to the book study? I do hope so.

Will I remember to do my daily devotions each day? I would love to, but recognize that I will miss some.

Will I continue to celebrate the glimpses of hope and grace amidst the struggle and things I cannot control? Absolutely.

We cannot change a lot about this world, but we can change the way we respond. Isn’t that what Christ’s life and sacrifice were about? Following this Lenten journey, I am changing my response through more intentional worship and prayer (apart from what I lead as a pastor). How are you changing your response?

Rev. Jordan B. Davis
Church Relations

A Prayer for Holy Week

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 Jardin de Gracias, Siguatepeque, Honduras

John 11:35

What a life you have given us, God,

and who in the world can be expected to navigate it all?!

How many times can I cry as I absorb

the daily news of misunderstanding and distrust?

the reality of violence among family, of disparagement among those who are supposed to love?

the pressure of success placed upon the youngest among us?

the strain on us to be self-sufficient, to not need and not ask?

Tell me, God, should I weep in despair or laugh at the overwhelming absurdity of it all?

Jesus cried, at least once.

I think I would cry more often than Jesus but laughter is a cheerier mechanism to cope with what I see

what I hear

what I feel

what I fear.

I don’t know what you think of all the ceremony

We’ve given to this week called, “Holy,”

but at the very least it gives us an outlet

for processing

suspense

doubt

death

fear

anger

complexity

and, hopefully, agree with you at the end of it all

That life is the most important thing,

worth laughing at and worth crying over.

Worth fighting for.

There’s no navigating life without being scarred,

but there’s grace for living with the scars.

There’s grace.

There’s grace.

My God, thank you for grace.

 

Written by Rachel G. Hackenburg

“Writing to GOD: 40 Days of Praying with My Pen”

Why Not?

Do you ever have weeks that flow seamlessly from one event to the next, and you can only thank God for the way things have happened?

17757676_10102874189603041_5209129391198303298_nThis past Sunday, I heard Union’s own President Brian Blount teach and preach at First Presbyterian Church in Durham, NC. The overall theme of the morning (of course, focusing on the book of Revelation) seemed to be about standing up and stepping out, testifying and witnessing, and loving God’s children and creation in a new and radical way– in a way that pushes us out of our comfort zone and might even take us somewhere we aren’t ready to go. The messages were very timely, but even more so, they were incredibly challenging.

During his sermon, Dr. Blount shared the quote from Robert F. Kennedy, “There are those that look at things the way they are, and ask why? I dream of things that never were, and ask why not?”

As I went through the rest of my day, I couldn’t help but wonder “Why not?” Why can’t I stand up and speak out? Why can’t I love my neighbor with radical love instead of just a passive hello? Why can’t I make a change in my small corner of the world?

Still reflecting on the message from Dr. Blount and the call to witness in Revelation, I drove up to Richmond dark and early on Tuesday morning because this week, Dr. Paula Parker and Dr. Katie Cannon are leading a workshop entitled “Writing (Righting) Wrong: Memory, Resistance, Resilience” (and I learned, a while ago, that one does not miss a class by either of these women, especially if they are leading together!)

In this workshop we will assess and redress the muted, masked, and mangled testimonies and the trans-generational experiences of women, men, and children whose ancestors were enslaved Africans. We will mine the mother lode of survivalist intentions inherited from our foremothers and forefathers who worked as chattel property in the economies of North America for 300 years.  Instead of giving in to justified feelings of fury, our workshop combines the anatomy of the idea with the genogram, in order to stabilize in writing how characteristics prevalent in the Black Church community are ingrained and shaped by memory, resistance, and resilience.

As I sat in this class surrounded mostly by stories that I cannot begin to understand, but a few that I can, I realized at least initially, my role was to listen. To hear the wisdom and experiences of these women, to hear firsthand the accounts of what my history books never told me.

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Cinquin “Free Write”

For a fleeting moment, I wondered “Should I be here? Should I go home?” In that moment, I returned to Sunday morning and asked myself “WHY NOT? Why SHOULDN’T I be here? Why CAN’T I not just hear these stories, but maybe even share some of my own? Why CAN’T I ask questions and try to understand a narrative that isn’t directly related to my own, but does influence it every single day?” Then we read a litany based on Marianne Williamson’s Return to Love and these words called to me, “Our greatest fear is not that we are inadequate, but that we are powerful beyond measure.”

As I reflect on the messages of Dr. Blount’s sermon, the call to witness and testify in the book of Revelation, and the stories of these women and those who came before, I wonder where I am limiting myself and the ways that I can relate to and grow with all of God’s creation? I wonder “Why not?”… not just in my own life, but in the life of my community and the Church.

Why not ask more questions? Why not listen more?

Why not seek to find the root of the story? Why not take the pen and write the next chapter?

Why not love radically and seek fervently God’s grace with and in one another?

This question of “why not?” is, or should be, at play in every aspect of our lives– in the way we make personal decisions, the way we relate with our neighbors, in the way we complete our jobs, and in the way we gather together to worship.

As we ask this question, we also have to listen. We have to listen to the stories that have shaped us as individuals and as communities. We have to listen to the stories that have shaped those around us. Every story intertwines at some point, every story influences another in some way. If we can hear and receive each of these stories, if we can find the root of the trauma and the growth, we can write our next chapter.

Reading John’s call to the seven churches in Revelation, a call to stand up and testify, or act in “non-violent resistance” as Dr. Blount translates, I hear this echo of “why not?” As we are called, with God’s children of all time and space, to step out and move forward together no matter what the risk, I am tied into the story. Asking questions might be one of the most dangerous things a person can do, but asking AND listening just might be what finally connects our stories and begins to move our pen on that blank page.

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One exercise that has been incredibly eye opening and beneficial this week has been “free writing”. Following each portion of our discussion, we are given a few moments to journal our initial thoughts– without edits, without hesitations. I have written this particular blog in this manner and invite you to practice this act of reflection as you consider your own story and the story of your community– whether that be your family, neighborhood, or congregation with whom you worship.

And now, in the style of Dr. Katie Cannon,
“Your prompt for this free write is:
Knowing the story of where I have been and am now, I want my next chapter to say…”

 

Ashe. May it be so.

Rev. Jordan B. Davis
Church Relations


“Writing (Righting) Wrong: Memory, Resistance, Resilience” is an offering of The Womanist Institute at Union Presbyterian Seminary.