The Purpose of Our Collective Tears

It is better to go to a house of mourning
    than to go to a house of feasting.

Ecclesiastes 7:2

I don’t know how prepared you are to give of your tears or how familiar you might be with what that entails. I’m going to write a bit about mourning this morning. Grief, loss, and death, I know are not necessarily fun topics to read about. I don’t know a lot about pandemics, the spread of viruses or the long term effects of these things, but I am  fairly confident that if political leaders and people are willing to show any hint of prioritizing stimulating the economy and bailing out large financially irresponsible big businesses at the risk of spreading a deadly virus, it’s safe to say that some compassionate folks may have to take up the business of empathy and grieving.

*Scroll to the bottom if you just like practicals*

And that person might be you or me. So here’s how:

Tears are beautiful. One day, in the Kingdom of Heaven there will be no more use for them. But here, now, tears of the emotional variety are a visual display of our pain and our stress and our empathy. As they are released chemicals are typically released in our body that calm our mind and relieve us of physical pain. In this way they are chemically associated with doing good for the inside.

It is important to keep in mind that the capacity for tears or crying is more important than volume. So like anything crying too much or persistent crying amidst a depressive episode could yield little to no benefit. It’s important to discern and distinguish between the two.

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For instance:

Yesterday, my mom put her cat Tabitha down who was 19 years old and had kidney failure. I cried a bit on my drive to her house thinking about my mom during this season of quarantine, thinking a little about Tabitha and how interesting of a cat she was. Those tears were in some ways helpful because I was prepared to empathize with my mom and imagined what it was like to lose a pet but also adjust in a season when being home a lot and perhaps for a extended season is necessary.

Later on that evening, I cried again while being exceedingly frustrated and uncertain even scared about what decisions to make, feeling like life is still out of my control and being frustrated and double-minded about how to live out what I feel called to in the midst of my current vocation after a season where I already felt isolated for the previous 5 months. These tears were less helpful, but still helpful. In part because these tears were more a response to an unclear uncertain emotional framework that had me stuck on myself. If I was still crying those same tears now they would not be helpful and perhaps self-indulgent.

Let’s return to loss and grief and death though for a moment. Some of you may have experienced the loss of a loved one. It was a deep loss that you may have not been prepared for and suffered or may suffer still as you learn to adapt to a new rhythm without that individual. Sometimes their loss might still illicit tears or sadness but hopefully, that loss has not kept you unable to find fullness in life.

Hopefully, you found a helpful ritual or prayer or found ways to accept the loss and have been given new eyes of appreciation for others. Hopefully, also, you will be presented with the opportunity to help others walk through their own grief and loss.

My hope is that this will not be a season that you will be called upon to do that, but there is a chance in the coming weeks even months you might know several people who lose something or someone due to this virus.

Not all loss is death, but death feels the most permanent. And in seasons where isolation is already becoming the norm if someone were to die while others are isolated and may not be able to mourn as easily communally, we will need to be diligent in helping to heal those who suffer loss.

We have power to minister and bring healing to others when we stay alert and aware in the midst of our own loss, to not checkout and isolate, but to remain available. To be reminded that others too will suffer the loss of spouse or grandparent or parent or child, that while our grief and loss is unique in the individual or thing lost, the experience of losing is not unique to us.

So a couple of practicals:

-Imagine you are in their position, in the coming weeks it might not take that much imagining (we’ll see)

-Listen more than spouting advice or cliche phrases of optimism (Scripture written in an encouraging note or a timely word spoken gently might be helpful but listen first)

-Pray for them

-Make sure they are fed and checked in on

-Affirm that they are loved, again gently

-Maybe not a reminder for the one suffering, but death is not the end of everything and it is a part of life; death might become more normalized, but Jesus has promised us eternity with Him for those who believe. So yes, a priority on the restoration to or perseverance in their most important relationship.

-Remember God is with us in our tears

Psalm 56:8

You have kept count of my tossings;
    put my tears in your bottle.
    Are they not in your book?

Augur Between Augusts

Depending on where I look for answers or direction, I can set myself up for excitement or disappointment. I typically act in the way I play the stock market, invest in things I like and allow myself to lose on the stocks I let my brother pick for me (mostly true).

Honestly though, I’m not really afraid of losing money. Not that I couldn’t be afraid of that, I just have more longstanding desires than wealth that occupy my thoughts or worries. I don’t particularly feel the need to name them, but I do feel the need to share a new word I learned which has lent itself to how I have lived in an unhelpful way.1200px-Ein_Augur

An augur, in ancient Roman religious practice, functions as an official who observed signs particularly birds looking for an indication of divine approval or disapproval for certain actions. Have I done this with God?

Instead, of being a minister of the Gospel (Good News) at any cost and trusting in God’s time and God’s way I have watched those flighty birds. Those birds can serve as metaphors, metaphors for whatever you want them to be, perhaps a metaphor for finding direction in woman, perhaps a metaphor in stability of emotion or vocation or family, perhaps looked for in the sign that a cat would function as the great hope to cope with loneliness. I’m sure the above examples serve as everyone else’s birds but mine that they’ve watched for.

The only thing that has taken my eyes off of God is the bird of being such a darn good chaplain, worlds best, flawless. Only one time in the last week did I pray with a family of a patient who was dying and called the patients sons partner  by a name similar to the patient in the prayer, then proceeding to forget everyone else’s name in the room.

Only one time this week did I break down when a fellow resident said to me of clown painting that I painted, “he looks as if he is waiting for life to bring him something.” Only one time did I get angry with my consult committee causing an early ending when interviewing for Level 2 of my residency.

I can’t get those moments back. No sign will bring me a redo.

Though I’m halfway through my residency and think I leveled up and am doing a fine enough job as a chaplain and have provision in abundance, what in the world am I watching for? What in the world am I looking for approval from?

Why do I live like God isn’t saying, “Son and Daughter, you are always with me, and all that is mine is yours” (Luke 15:31), “Not one word of all the good promises that the LORD had made to the house of Israel failed; all came to pass.” “Delight yourself in the LORD, and he will give you the desires of your heart.”

I don’t want to be an augur, I want to be a lover. I want to live passionately serving and working for the Gospel, not looking for a sign that I’m doing something right. I want to be pre-occupied with obedience not stuck in my stumbling. I want to wait in hope for God’s good gift instead of grasping at things not good for me. I want to live like God is going to give me something because I am beloved in Christ.

The God and the Ghost of Present Christmas

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I read an Instagram post by Craig Groeschel about Christmas being a magnifier today.  (For those of you who don’t know who Craig Groeschel is, he’s one of those muscular pastors that talks about how he doesn’t have time to dress himself in the morning)  The intent of his post was to state how the holiday can take positive and negative emotions and circumstances and enlarge them. This is why it is so important to fix our attention and affection on Jesus as the center of our celebration especially when we bent toward the negative.

I enjoyed the encouragement and I agree. I actually was weirdly looking forward to working in the hospital on Christmas today. I’m not entirely sure why, maybe the escape, maybe to feel important, maybe to feel more or less alone?

It is lonely you know, being a ghost.

My friends came up with this little joke that I am everyone’s imaginary friend, but I myself am unaware of it. I like the concept, but that is not me. I am no ghost, although I try to be as transparent as one, when I can be, when the risk isn’t too much, when I’m not afraid of rejection or losing someone, when I’m safe, when I’m surrendered.

A patient’s husband said to me today, “You must feel good being able to help people as a chaplain and on Christmas.” I thought this statement curious because I wanted to say, “It feels okay, but that’s not why I do it.” I didn’t try this ministry out so I could merely feel good, although if you constructed a well enough argument I’d probably believe it.

I think I chose it to hopefully find God in it, desperate to find God in myself (the Spirit dwelling within). I think I chose it or rather God called and chose me, so I would live in the fear of the Lord and in the love of God. I think I chose it to be transparent about all my evident weaknesses and hoped I would find warm love in it. And yeah, maybe warm loyal love feels really good, but I often don’t feel that, which is why I wish I was a ghost sometimes.

I wish I was floating in and out of people’s lives unaffected by their pain, yet present to it and to them whenever I wished or they wished. I would be a source of comfort without the feeling. I would be present, without the awareness of when I’m not feeling a comforting touch or hug when I want to be hugged or close to someone.

To be a ghost seems to me to be without a need, to be a gift without holding onto one back. I felt like a ghost sometimes today. I felt like a guilt-ridden sinner sometimes today. I felt like one in need of love and redemption sometimes today.

I am one in need of Immanuel, God with us, and God in us by the Holy Ghost always today.

I need the God and the Ghost

Breakers of the Fall

Between faith in God and family and friends I hope you have found that those combined are more than enough to break your fall if you find yourself falling. I’m so thankful for family during the holiday, the embrace of my friends and a church that feels like home. They all offer me such a strong love.

I’m sad to be at an airport getting ready to go to a place I’ve called home twice this weekend. I found it strange slipping up by calling Charleston home, especially since it at times it feels a place I associate with discomfort.

But it is my mind.

It’s all in my head. It’s the combination of feeling unable to be self-forgetful while simultaneously forgetting who I am becoming.

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I confuse grieving the loss of the familiar by losing the one tangible living being I brought with me… me. And when you begin to grieve for yourself, you’re falling.

I fall out of touch with a realty that, yes, I am responsible for myself, but I also have entrusted ownership of myself to God.

And God most assuredly is here now with me in the airport as well as waiting to encounter me at my apartment in Charleston.

God becomes the breaker of my fall during feelings of loneliness.

For now I am thankful, thankful for a Thanksgiving that I enjoyed with my family, thankful I saw my Dad doing better, saw my grandma consistent in her awareness, so many fun moments with friends packed into 3 days, free milkshakes with burgers, laughing while playing Loaded Questions, riding on the back of a motorcycles before eating Mexican, hearing the testimonies of God’s activity in the Church community, and the heart connections of feeling heard and assured of God’s plan in the process.

I’m thankful Jesus broke all our falls, I’m thankful for the access of his love that can meet us anymore in a variety of forms including discipline, refining and gifts. But Jesus also came to break us off from the things that make us fall, to catch us but also to stop us in our stumbling and guide us in our wandering.

Hebrews 12:1-“Therefore, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us also lay aside every weight, and sin which clings so closely and let us run with endurance that race that is set before us, looking to Jesus the author and perfecter of our faith, who for the joy that was set before him endured the cross, despising the shame, and is seated at the right hand of the throne of God.”

Mood Disorder-ly Conduct

Mood disorders color our decisions but also color our consequences. We must take ownership of our actions even when temptation takes us out of our own mind. They might blind individuals to consequences who give in to impulsivity, or it might accentuate a consequence allowing it to loom much larger than the consequence may in fact be.

This is the danger within the lie, but also the double edge sword. Some people can bounce back from minor mistakes and extend grace to themselves. Some people with certain kinds of mood disorders lose the proper balance. They might extend massive amounts of apparent grace towards people when it is unrequited and have great difficulty in accepting or extending this grace to themselves.

This out of balance endeavor typically leads to worsening matters through bad decisions that continue in an unhelpful pattern. A person with a mood disorder who has been wronged might be desperate to try to right the wrong, that they commit additional wrongs to themselves with good intentions. They try to extend what could be kindness, but it ends up being unnecessarily costly.

So much time has been spent in recent years within some circles trying to explore the why behind conduct. Sometimes trying to place a reason why we do things is helpful, but I have often found it exhausting.

While I do believe much conduct to be symptomatic of the mood/mentality one is in, it is absolutely, necessary to take responsibility for conduct which can often be helped by either medication or a cognitive therapeutic plan that is in place when/if the wave of despair arrives.

A Short Story

Too many holiday’s growing up were colored by my mother’s mental illness. So many of my good memories from 8-18 are lost to traumatic moments where I would leave her home crying while my brother remained the steady voice of reason. One holiday, either Christmas or her birthday we visited and tried to celebrate.

My grandmother who was in her late 80’s had soiled herself on the couch and my mom over-exaggerated. There was frustration, and then sadness, and in her anxiety, she kept muttering, “Another Mother’s Day, another Mother’s Day,” likely because something had happened on Mother’s Day where I had left in tears while my mother was distraught. And I probably started to weep because I never could just contain my feelings. I always wanted her to just keep from being anxious or not say something that would make me sad, but I could never just control myself in those moments, control my emotions and actions of uncontrollable sobbing.

I have spent so much of adult life trying to manage feelings, some time going to therapy to recognize feelings and not giving in to them and staying composed in hard situations. I cry far less (maybe more so than I’m comfortable with in the past few months but still less for now).

But I actually cannot seem to cry with patients in the hospital. It’s not that I don’t find their stories sad or that I don’t want to cry, I just can’t physically bring myself to. For pain to be real to me it has to last longer than a few moments I spend with strangers. I have to feel like I’m not being counted on. But it’s also a result of the way I view my own tears. I believe probably a lie that no one needs my tears, because I no longer find them helpful for someone else, or I find them to be the currency I have stored up to figure out and forgive myself.

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Either way my mood, my emotion can never be an excuse for a lack of self-control; either we control our emotions and mood through medication or cognitive therapy or we do neither, but that makes me culpable. Either way the only one responsible for our self-control is us as the individual.

The order to our conduct comes through a will submitted to God’s and acting honorably, obediently, in sincerity. There is help available to walk this out. There is help available now. God is our ever-present help in our time of need.

On Loneliness, Loss, and Lasting Love

This is it folks, the blog post that will break the internet. If  you couldn’t tell by the title I’m ambitiously going to person-splain the meaning of life.

But before I get into it and switch gears, allow me to set the stage of the state I am in while I’m writing. I’m eating candy heart grapes and gluten-free pretzels while drinking Arizona Iced Green Tea from a protein shake bottle. I also took the day off today because the hospital offered it to me after working a 24-hour shift on Friday, and I highly considered not taking it, but I did. I took it not because I was tired or needed it, rather I took it because I read a few pages from a book titled Images of Pastoral Care, from a chapter written by Henry Nouwen regarding personal loneliness and the minister.

And to explain a little more, I took it because I believe the greater challenge for me today is not ministering to patients in a hospital, some of whom could be dying. Rather, my greater challenge is how Nouwen puts it “finding the wound of loneliness to be an inexhaustible source of beauty and self-understanding.”

But that’s enough from the guy who has given pastoral ministers one of the clearest images of caring for others spiritual health in the last 40 years. If you want to hear from him I’ll loan you the book.

So let me ask you one question, then I’ll write a little, then I’ll go pay my parking ticket, visit the library, and write an assignment, and then maybe make some time for self-understanding.

Have you ever found the awareness of loneliness or loss to be a source of beauty?

If yes, well don’t read the rest and just write me immediately or better yet call me or better yet come to Charleston and agree to sit and talk with me for at least several hours about this topic and nothing else. I’ll buy you a moderately priced meal.

How can loneliness be beautiful? 

To start, loneliness can only begin to be beautiful with the assurance that it is temporary. If we feel our isolation will never end, all we will see is despair and be paralyzed by fear. Reminding the feeling that it is fleeting even if it seems final, is essential.

What also helps but is not a solution is the reminder that there are worse things than feeling lonely. Feeling incessantly annoyed or tortured is probably worse. But what’s actually worse than being lonely is self-loathing. There is  perhaps nothing worse than not liking yourself, which is why if you combine this with loneliness, its combustible.

I have a theory that people who genuinely like most things about themselves have little problem being alone.

Why is that?

Because they know what they like and feel absolutely no shame embracing that which they enjoy. Sure this could turn into complete selfishness, but there is something admirable about someone is completely secure in their delights.

Combine liking your self with self-awareness, you combine to make a refreshing human being. You’re like a classic Coke or Sprite, your like a refreshing Iced Tea, your like a warm (insert favorite latte), you’re the type of person that its okay to walk around in your underwear in front of. You won’t be creeped out or do anything creepy; you’re content to breastfeed in public without judging the people who might be judging you. You’re (this stopped being helpful 2 sentences ago) contented.

In other words, your happiness is not dependent on others but you allow it to be heightened and appropriately saddened given the person and circumstance. You’re soul is malleable rather than easily broken.

So you can use loneliness as a method of further self-discovery. This is the type of person I must become, and I must become it quickly and joyously and love God and others all the more for the opportunity.

But, what of loss?

How can loss be beautiful? 

Get your friggin’ softest tissues ready.

Anything you lose sucks to varying degrees. (Except excess weight, I guess). Especially when you lose something you think you need, keys, phone, family, kids. Like it sucks to misplace those things for five minutes but the loss I’m talking about is the kind of loss that implies permanence.

Loss sucks so much, I got to this part of the blog, and I don’t even want to write about it and part of the reason for me writing is to write about it. That’s how much I try to avoid it; I even am trying to avoid writing about it. (Snyder’s of Hanover gluten-free pretzels are great by the way; I wish they would pay me to say that).

Yet loss is inevitable. And worst of all, it usually if not always comes despite our intent. I won’t go so far to say that all loss is unintended because that is not the nature of what I’m trying to convince you and myself of.

If loss is inevitable and loss is painful and it’s something we, I included, try to avoid how exactly do we beautify it? Well, like loneliness, the effects of loss are temporal (what I mean is you can’t permanently lose the same thing twice) yet the love of that which was lost is enduring.

Love has this enduring quality and while you cannot change or really replace that which was lost, whether it be a parent, a sibling, a child, a spouse, a potential spouse, a friend, a pet, a vocation that gave you purpose, love need not die because of loss.

The loss of any one of those things may yield unbearable weight or heartbreak and most likely will. That heartbreak is real and it stings. We may yearn that we were lost in the stead of whom we lost. And the temptation becomes losing ourselves, to lose our identity in that which we lost. To become the person that our broken heart makes us vulnerable in believing: that we are irreparable, irreconcilable, impossible or unworthy to reconstruct. And the lie of loss is not the same as the loss itself or the love of the loss.

The lie of loss tries to tell you all is lost, but all is not lost. Even if in the moment, or in the season, or in the seeming lifetime it feels like all is lost, all is not lost. You are not lost if you are reading this. I mean in the metaphorical cosmic, what is the purpose of my existence, schema you might be lost, but that too is temporal. Our potential for being found is far greater than our propensity to wander away.

The love of the loss is our potential for gain.

How is love allowed to last?

See the divine nature of love is recognizable by its endurance. It’s recognizable by the lengths it pushes us to, and by the length and depth it propels others into. Love has this amazing potential to infuse tangible, powerful hope into the darkest of situations. The demonstration and resource of love provided to us by Jesus gives new strength, new life, and it need not end. Love doesn’t have a salary cap.

But it also has the attribute of self-forgetfulness that gives us additional strength to recognize our losses and loneliness as unique, yet equitable when met with love. It acts as currency to others in the midst of loss and the feeling of loneliness.

38710813_440696929773474_7108082828050432000_nBut the only way we can even begin to be a dispensary of this kind of love is to lean into the divine love of God, as the well we drink from. We drink as much as, even more than we might think we need throughout the day so our loss and loneliness won’t dehydrate us, leaving us so poor and empty that we lose sight of beauty and self-understanding.

The goal of lasting love in spite of loss and loneliness is not to erase existence; it is to thrive in spite of the suffering that comes with existing. It is so that if we lose a parent and yearn for that intimacy, we adopt a widow or widower; it’s if we have lost a sibling, we befriend a lonely stranger who yearns for loyalty; it’s if we lose a child, we find strength to be able to lavish love on one’s not lost, providing hospitality and family to the orphan. It’s if we lose a spouse and suffer heartbreak, we don’t crumble so far inwards that we close ourselves off or run from the viable love of others around us.

Sometimes allowing ourselves to be loved is the only salve that will heal us in time. I don’t think this blog will change the internet, but I hope it provides us with hope to give and receive divine love as our defense against loss and loneliness in a lasting way.