Discover more from Finding Words in Hard Times - with Jon Swanson
031 - Bearing withness
A long, personal read for a long weekend.
I could qualify that, by saying, I mostly teach college-age or college-thinking people, I teach mostly about faith-related things, I teach best in relation to helping people.
But bottom line, I teach.
At the moment, I am updating a course on pastoral care. It’s for undergraduate students in ministry-related majors.
I’m not seminary-trained. When people who have been trained that way say, “Oh yes, that theory or this construct or the other methodology”, I shrug and smile. And then I think about how annoyed I get with preachers who can’t pastor, with leaders who struggle with caring and I think, “I’m going to help people who want to help people.”
(Let me know if you want to know more about what I’m doing in the course.)
One of our textbooks is Tish Harrison Warren’s Prayer in the Night: For Those Who Work or Watch or Weep. Warren unpacks a nightly prayer, one that's been part of the lives of Christians for centuries. She draws examples from her own life and loss. She draws examples from her work as a pastor. She draws on the writings of others. And she weaves a picture of pastoral care. She writes elsewhere that the prayers of the church guide us in our belief when we don't know what we believe anymore.
Choosing this book is deeply personal for me. It was published in March, 2021. But I had read her words about the prayer sometime during the summer of 2020, when I was deeply immersed in the pandemic. This prayer sustained me at night as I prayed it for my coworkers and the families and the patients and myself. Every night. When the book finally came out, I took the unusual step (for me) of buying it in paperback. I wanted to read the words on paper. And I read it through almost all at once.
In the first chapter, she writes this in a footnote: “There is a whole genre of Christian literature dealing with catastrophic loss. Often these books are written after the author has suffered life-altering tragedy, like the loss of a child or a spouse. This book is more about ordinary forms of suffering.” (190)
Her book includes stories of two miscarriages and the sudden death of her father. There is catastrophic loss. But the heart of her book isn’t what she learned about grief as much how she was sustained by understanding, through this prayer, the presence of God in the middle of the night and the middle of the crisis and the middle of the chronic.
On August 31, 1989, I was getting ready for class to start the following week.
I taught public speaking, I taught our “Welcome to college” course, and I was preparing a new course on Christian worldview that included movies, television programs, and a music video or two.
Preparation for the semester was more challenging than usual. In late July, our daughter, Kathryn was born. She was on time but was tiny. We had learned in April that she had Trisomy 18. She would have any of many physical challenges, including only a 50% chance of ever taking a breath. She had a negligible chance of turning 1.
She started taking breaths. We took her home with us. We learned to use a feeding tube. We did our best to comfort her. With a two-year-old and Kathryn, with visitors and uncertainty, we were exhausted.
One of the movies for my course was one of the Star Wars movies. Up in the middle of the night to hold Kathryn, I watched the movie on our VCR, volume turned low. And in the early morning of September 1, 1989, she stopped breathing. I carried her upstairs to our room where Nancy was. There was, we already knew, nothing that we could do. There was nothing that could keep her alive. Eventually, her heart stopped, too. She was five weeks old.
Eventually, I ran down the street to the dorm where my sister lived. She came right away. (The dorm was torn down this summer.)
Months before, we made arrangements with a funeral home for this moment. A friend of a college coworker worked there. Making funeral plans for a still-alive, still-unmet child was hard, but it may have been harder for Mary Lou than for us. We knew what was going to happen. To her, as it almost always is for people on the outside of a death, it was painful.
I called the funeral home that morning. She came, too. She wanted to accompany Kathryn.
All that day, family members came. We had a small, private viewing. On Saturday morning, I stood in our bedroom upstairs, our small house full of family.
I hollered, though inside my head, “God, I don’t understand.” It was my most honest prayer ever.
I’m a communication person. I always wonder, or did, whether I was being honest with God or I whether I was trying to get the formulas right, getting the right amount of penitence and praise. That morning, I had nothing.
We went to the cars. We drove to the cemetery. We sat in the chairs next to the small hole, looking at the little casket, listening with half attention to our friend, Carl.
Carl had told us that it was okay to feel relieved. Carl had been honest. Carl was a college coworker, but was that day, our pastor.
And sometime in the middle of his words, I felt the opposite of butterflies in my stomach.
Not numbness. Movement. But not the movement of anxiety or fear. The movement of peace.
We finished there. We went to a lunch. We went to church Sunday morning and learned that the pastor had been asked to leave. People didn’t know what to say to us or to each other. We never went back.
We left town that day. We went to a zoo. It was Labor Day weekend. We came home and sometime that week I started teaching again.
I wish, of course, that I had some amazing lesson that I learned about grief and recovery. Sometimes, when I’m talking with people in the moments before or after a death, I tell a tiny bit of my story. This one, or about watching my dad die or about watching my mom die. But there aren’t any amazing lessons. There aren’t any bullet points. There aren’t, at least for me, five chapters that lead to a much happier life.
I don’t know the steps.
But the heart of my story isn’t what I learned about grief as much how I’ve been sustained by understanding the presence of God in the middle of the night and the middle of the crisis and the middle of the chronic.
I can’t build a logical argument, I can’t give you the formula we used, I can’t generalize. That’s why I make suggestions, I offer options, I take into account personalities and experiences and timing.
Others can make these lists. And for personalities and experiences other than mine, they help.
What I can do, however, is bear witness to the withness of God.
Thanks, as always, for coming here. I’m grateful for your encouragement and support.
Next week, back to lists and research reports and all. But on this evening, I wanted to let you know a bit of what’s behind what we do.