In the Midst of Tragedy

We live in a culture and society that does everything it can to hide grief. But it’s not okay. Everything’s not okay.

There hasn’t been a post here in over a month, and a sermon hasn’t been uploaded in over two months. At least in the case of sermons, this can be partially attributed to the way in which I deliver sermons now. I’ve switched from writing a full manuscript to using note cards. And since we don’t yet record my sermons in audio or visual form, this means I have to sit down and retype the sermon from memory as best I can (or at least its main ideas).

But I also haven’t written recently because my wife and I have been recovering from a personal tragedy. We’ve been sharing our story publicly because it has helped us heal and allowed others to share their own stories.

Debbie and I married two years ago on a beautiful, sunny, June afternoon and we always intended to start a family. Two years later, it still hadn’t happened. Until, of course, it did. In July of this year, Debbie found out she was pregnant. What a joy! I went with her to her doctor’s appointment and sat with her as she received an ultrasound. There was our little Gummy Bear (our name for our little one since, during the ultrasound, that’s exactly what it looked like we were seeing). Heartbeat, little movements, at eight weeks it was all there, like a little miracle.

Of course, it was too early to tell people, so we waited a few weeks. Nothing seemed out of the ordinary at all, so when my family came up to visit early in August we shared the good news. It took a few seconds for my mother to figure out she was looking at an ultrasound photo before it finally clicked, but my grandmother figured it out right away and woke up half the neighborhood with her ecstatic screaming. We told Debbie’s family through a Skype video call since they were gathered together with her extended family for their annual family picnic.

On Tuesday, August 16, Debbie had another routine doctor’s appointment and I had a Congregation Council meeting. I wanted to be with Debbie since she was going to be getting another ultrasound and we might find out the sex of our baby. However, we were discussing the budget for next year at the Council meeting, and I felt I needed to be there for that discussion. When I got home that night, Debbie was sitting on the couch and I could tell immediately that something was wrong. She stood up, shook her head–and as my heart fell, so did the tears. We spent most of the night and the next few days crying.

Somewhere around the nine-week mark, not long after that first ultrasound, our baby died. We don’t know why, though there were no indications that anything was wrong or that we had done something to cause our miscarriage–Debbie didn’t even feel anything or feel any different, which is why we shared our happy news. We, and the doctor, thought everything was fine. The doctor’s best guess is that the baby had a chromosomal abnormality, which accounts for the majority of spontaneous miscarriages. In other words, we were unlucky.

Because we had just shared our happy news, we knew we had to share our tragic news, too. Both Debbie and I posted to Facebook to let our friends and family know and to ask for their love and support. We can’t thank everyone enough for that love and support. After we publicly shared our tragedy, messages and cards came from across the country. It’s all meant the world to us as we’ve tried to put our lives back together.

But something else accompanied many of those cards and messages we didn’t expect. We knew that some of our family and friends had also had miscarriages, but we had no idea just how many. It turns out, we know a lot of people who’ve had miscarriages and never told anyone. They never got to share their stories.

Miscarriages, we’ve learned, are surprisingly common. About 30-40% of all pregnancies end in miscarriages, and that number includes pregnancies that miscarry so early that the mother doesn’t even know she’s pregnant yet. In pregnancies that are far enough along that the mother knows she’s pregnant, the number is about 10-20%. That’s up to 1 in 5 pregnancies that families know about and are expecting.

Miscarriages, we’ve also learned, are a taboo subject. Nobody talks about them. Debbie and I both knew that there were people in our families who had miscarried, but we were shocked at the number of friends–even friends our own age, with whom we went to high school, college, and seminary–who have also had miscarriages. These are people we talk with semi-regularly and keep up with on Facebook. And we never knew, because nobody ever talks about it.

We live in a culture and society that does everything it can to hide grief. We’re told to muscle through, to put on a good face, to pretend like everything’s okay and to grieve quietly and privately at home. Debbie and I each took time off of work, though not enough. We knew we had to get back to work if we wanted to keep our jobs. But it’s not okay. Everything’s not okay. And it’s okay to say that.

I don’t know if Debbie and I would have shared our miscarriage if we hadn’t told everyone yet about our pregnancy. Our hand had been forced. It was either share publicly, or share with every person when they congratulated us for our good news and embarrass them privately. We chose to share publicly so there would be no mistake and no misunderstanding. But in the process, we came to better handle our grief. We learned we weren’t alone, as we had friends and family across the country praying for us and checking in on us. Two of our best friends even drove 12 hours in one day to spend a weekend with us before driving 12 hours back. We learned that others had experienced the same hurt but didn’t have the same support because no one else knew; and that by sharing our story, we allowed them to share theirs, to know that they weren’t alone either, and that someone was thinking of them.

It will be a long time before Debbie and I can get our lives back together. We’ll never forget our little Gummy Bear. One of our friends told us how she remembers her child that was never born, and so there are now stars going up in each room of our house to remind us. But we’ll also never forget the messages of love and support we’ve received, that let us know we aren’t alone. And we’ll never forget the stories we’ve heard in the midst of tragedy from others who’ve experienced the same thing, who’ve finally been able to give a voice to their grief and pain.

Featured Image: “Double Rainbow” by Susanne Nilsson is licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0.

It’s Hard

We are a people of hope. Our God is not silent, and neither are we.

This post originally appeared as an article in Faith’s Foundations, the monthly newsletter of Faith Lutheran Church in Three Lakes, WI.

It’s hard. I know it is.

It’s hard to experience what we all experienced these past couple of months and still remember that we worship a God who is Sovereign and Lord.

We watched in horror as 49 people were killed and 53 more were wounded in a shooting spree at a gay night club. We couldn’t believe our eyes when two black men were shot to death by police, one with no real motive at all. We cried in sorrow and in fear when five brave police officers were assassinated in the line of duty during a peaceful protest, and again when three more were killed just a few days later. We kept a tight grip on our seats as bombs continued to go off in France and the middle east, including more than one that killed over 80 people, and one wounded over 300 more. And we sat in shocked silence when we heard that a priest had been stabbed and had this throat slit during morning Mass in France, which brought up comparisons to the murder of Archbishop Óscar Romero.

I also know it’s been hard to hear me preach on these events. Oftentimes I think we wish preaching in church could be all about love and happy things, how great God is, how wonderful it is to be a Christian, and all that.

The past few months have been a stark reminder that we live in a broken world in which, for some, God feels so very far away. It’s important to know that. It’s important to acknowledge that. It’s important to wrestle with that like the psalmists do, who ask God, “Why do you sleep, O LORD? Awake, do not cast us off forever! Why do you hide your face? Why do you forget our affliction and oppression?” (Psalm 44), and “How long must I bear pain in my soul, and have sorrow in my heart all day long?” (Psalm 13). Not everyone’s experiences are the same, and we do injustice when we filter or judge another’s story or experiences through our own to determine their validity.

And yet, we are a people who are bound by something else. A few weeks ago I presided over a funeral for a woman who died suddenly and without warning. I sat with the family in their numbness and shock, trying to figure out what they needed to do next and how they were going to move forward. And then we read from Paul’s letter to the Thessalonians:

“But we do not want you to be uninformed, brothers and sisters, about those who have died, so that you may not grieve as others do who have no hope. For since we believe that Jesus died and rose again, even so, through Jesus, God will bring with him those who have died. For this we declare to you by the word of the Lord, that we who are alive, who are left until the coming of the Lord, will by no means precede those who have died. For the Lord himself, with a cry of command, with the archangel’s call and with the sound of God’s trumpet, will descend from heaven, and the dead in Christ will rise first. Then we who are alive, who are left, will be caught up in the clouds together with them to meet the Lord in the air; and so we will be with the Lord forever. Therefore encourage one another with these words.” (1 Thessalonians 4:13-18)

This is what makes the Christian life livable, even in the face of national tragedy, international terror, martyrdom, and sudden loss. This is why those same psalmists who cried out to God in lament could end their psalms, “Rise up, come to our help. Redeem us for the sake of your steadfast love,” and “But I trusted in your steadfast love; my heart shall rejoice in your salvation. I will sing to the Lord, because he has dealt bountifully with me.” This is why we as children of God can confront the evils we see and experience in the world around us. We have the courage to both wade into the pain of people suffering—including ourselves—and bring not a message of woe, but a message of hope. That God is present during our sufferings. That God hid with the hostages in Orlando, and was there to care for the wounds of Alton and Philando, and held the officers in Dallas and Baton Rouge in God’s arms after they were shot, and dug through the rubble after the bombings across the world, and wept as Father Jacques Hamel took his last breath.

We are a people of hope. Our God is not silent, and neither are we. In this newsletter you’ll find letters from the Rev. Elizabeth Eaton, the Presiding Bishop of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America. You’ve heard me mention her many times over the past few months, and there’s a reason for that. I want you to know something else about us as Christians: that we never face life’s trials alone. We are part of a wider community than just our congregation. We part of a regional synod and a national church. We are part of a global tradition of Lutherans and a community of saints that extends into the past and will live on in the future. When the world groans in pain we groan with it, together. When tragedy strikes, we respond together. When any one of us is in need we act out of love together.

And when it seems like we can’t go on, when the weight of the world crushes down on us, we lift each other up together.

It’s hard. I know it is. But we will face the evils in our world together, and together, the message of hope will be shared for and through us.

The letters and messages from the Rev. Elizabeth Eaton, Presiding Bishop of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, can be found here.

Featured Image: “Mystic Still Life – Tribute to Fr Jacques Hamel” by Daniel Arrhakis is licensed under CC BY-NC 2.0.

The Greatness of Doubt

Now, I know what you’re thinking: of all the apostles to remember, of all those people who traveled with Jesus and participated in his ministry, why on earth would we remember “Doubting Thomas”? Isn’t there someone better, more worthy, more qualified than Thomas?

Feast of St. Thomas, Aspostle
Preached at Faith Lutheran Church in Three Lakes, WI.

Judges 6:36-40
Psalm 136:1-4, 23-26
Ephesians 4:11-16
John 14:1-7

It may seem like a strange choice to break from our usual pattern to celebrate the Feast Day of an apostle.

For many Lutherans feast days, martyrs, and saints are all relics of the old Roman Catholic church, those people we “left behind” when the Reformers made their attempts to correct abuses in the church. That there are no such things as “saints”, and that people should have nothing to do with them. Yet even the Reformers themselves stated in the Augsburg Confession that “our people teach that the saints are to be remembered so that we may strengthen our faith when we see how they experienced grace and how they were helped by faith. Moreover, it is taught that each person, according to his or her calling, should take the saints’ good works as an example.” (Article XXI)

Keeping Time: The Church’s Years, a supplement volume to Evangelical Lutheran Worship, has a handy calendar of the major feast and festival days that we Lutherans are encouraged to remember and be familiar with. You’ll find one of these excerpts in your bulletin this morning.

In addition, we’re in that long, long, long season after Pentecost, 20+ green Sundays in a row, and it’s good to break things up once in a while. So today, as we gather this morning to worship God, we also remember the Apostle Thomas the Twin.

Now, I know what you’re thinking: of all the apostles to remember, of all those people who traveled with Jesus and participated in his ministry, why on earth would we remember “Doubting Thomas”? Isn’t there someone better, more worthy, more qualified than Thomas?

There’s a few reasons why we’re remembering Thomas today. One of them is that today, July 3, is actually the feast day of Thomas, Apostle. In fact, as I looked ahead at the calendar for the rest of the season after Pentecost, Thomas’s feast day is the only one that actually falls on a Sunday. So it was an easy choice to celebrate his feast day today.

But if you’ve heard me preach on any part of his story before, you might remember that Thomas is one of my favorite apostles, right up there with the disciple Jesus loved (both of whom are in the Gospel according to John). I don’t think he deserves the bad reputation he’s been given.

Thomas’s story is certainly an interesting one. As one of the twelve disciples, his name appears in all four Gospels as well as the Acts of the Apostles. But only in John’s gospel does he have a speaking role, and he speaks in three stories.

In the first story, Jesus and his disciples have just received the news that Lazarus is sick and dying, and after being certain that Lazarus is dead, Jesus announces that he and his disciples are going to go back to Judea, where Lazarus’s family is. The disciples are more than a little apprehensive about this; the reason they aren’t in Judea at the time is because the Judeans tried to stone Jesus the last time he was there. Afraid that the same thing might happen if they go back, the disciples try to convince Jesus to stay out. Jesus will have none of it, however, and sticks to his guns: he’s going back to Judea to see his friend’s body. And one disciple finds his courage. Thomas stands up and says to the rest of the disciples, “Let us also go, that we may die with him,” or in other words, “If he’s so determined to go, and if this is really where he’ll meet his end, then we who follow him are going to go as well.

The second story in which Thomas speaks is the story from our gospel reading this morning. Jesus is giving what is known as his “farewell discourse”, a very long speech he gives to his disciples before his arrest, trial, execution, and resurrection. In it he comforts them, promises that the Holy Spirit will come after him, tells them how much he loves them and that they should therefore love one another, prays for them, and expresses his confidence in them to continue in God’s mission once he’s gone. During the speech, he tells the disciples that they have come so far in their faith that they already know the way to where he is going. But Thomas, perhaps channeling the uncertainty of the other disciples, speaks up and asks, “Lord, we do not know where you are going. How can we know the way?”

The last story in which Thomas speaks is the story most people know, the story of “doubting” Thomas. In it, Thomas is not present when Jesus appears to the other ten disciples, shows them his wounded hands and side, blesses them, and gives them peace. Thomas is upset by this, and declares that he won’t believe the other disciples’ story unless he too gets to see Jesus’s wounded hands and side (like they did). And so the following week, when all eleven disciples are gathered, Jesus appears again and offers to show Thomas his wounds, and Thomas gives what is perhaps the shortest and yet most powerful confession of faith found in any of the Gospels: “My Lord, and my God.”

That’s the end of Thomas’s story in the Bible, but church tradition has a number of stories about Thomas. In one of them, he is the only one present when the body of Mary, the mother of Jesus, is taken up into heaven after her death and burial. As her body is being taken up, she drops her girdle, which Thomas brings back to the rest of the disciples. In an ironic twist, it is now the rest of the disciples who don’t believe Thomas’s story.

Tradition also says that during the time that Paul was writing his letters to his churches and friends, Thomas was sailing to India to spread the good news of Jesus Christ there. He is still very highly regarded as the patron saint of India. While there he founded seven churches and performed miracles, which the people remembered and passed down. It was quite a shock to the European missionaries when they arrived in India only to find an ancient community of Christians already there.

Eventually, we are told, he was martyred, killed in India by being stabbed with a lance, and his relics are kept in many places around the world.

This is Thomas, the man we so often disparagingly call Doubting Thomas. And you know, looking at the biblical stories about him, doubt does play a central role, but not in the way we might think.

In the first, it is the other disciples who doubt, and it is Thomas who declares his intent to follow Jesus to his death. In the second, the doubt that Thomas harbors leads directly to asking tough questions, to engaging with Jesus, to wrestling with faith. And in the third, the man who is often called the doubter is the only one who declares that Jesus is Lord and God.

So even if we continue to call Thomas “Doubter,” perhaps we need to reevaluate what that means. In her book Outlaw Christian: Finding Authentic Faith by Breaking the Rules, Jacqueline Bussie challenges the “rule” of faith that says “Don’t doubt. Doubt is faith’s opposite, and is therefore sinful.” Talking about doubting Thomas, she says this:

“Thomas, in other words, is the only person who remembers Jesus’s whole story–all the hurt, and the hope too. Thomas believes redemption is more than just an erasure of pain. For him, redemption involves the way people live on in spite of the fact that they still carry scars on their skin. Thomas expects scars. If the guy in front of him doesn’t have scars, Thomas will know he can’t be the Jesus he knew–because the real Jesus suffered something awful. Thomas is the only one in the room brave enough to remember that a friend’s painful wounds still remain without having to be shown them first…”

“It’s so sad that we label Thomas ‘doubting Thomas,’ but ignore the fact that he is also ‘willing-to-die-with-Jesus Thomas.’ What is the ironic point of the story? Could it be that scar-sharing is the solid foundation for any authentic friendship? That no one really knows who we are until we are brave enough to show our scars to them? That the people who have put their fingers and eyes on our scars and still stick with us anyway are the people who understand best how to love us? Thomas’s story teaches us all of these lessons and more. Those people in your life who accept and name suffering for the wounding thing it actually is are the only friends who can ever override the fear of walking with you down all life’s paths of pain. Only people who believe your wounds are real in the first place can ever imagine placing their wounds next to yours.” (pp. 59-60)

Thomas was one of Jesus’s disciples, one of his closest companions. And even he, at times, doubts. But out of that doubt comes some of the most profound statements of faith and belief. Thomas has been through the best and the worst with Jesus. He’s asked the tough questions,  made the tough choices.

Doubt, then, is not a weakness. It drives us to faith, it drives us to question, it begs for answers, it motivates and draws us closer to God. It exposes our wounds to a God who doesn’t think less of us for them, but instead invites us to see and touch God’s own wounds. For how can anyone who has not been wounded understand our own hurts, our own fears, our own doubts?

This is the strength of Thomas–that in the doubts around him and in the doubts within him, he finds what he was looking for all along: courage, trust, and love. Don’t be afraid of your pain. Don’t be afraid of your doubts. May we, like Thomas, embrace our doubts, embrace our questions, embrace our fears and our hurts, so that like Thomas, our faith will shine through and we too may proclaim: “My Lord, and my God.”