Sunday, May 12, 2013

Like a Motherless Child

I confess, I am not overly fond of Mother’s Day, much as I love being a mother. And now grandmother.

As a kid, I hated Mother’s Day. That’s a strong word – but true. Mother’s Day was the day to remember that mine had vanished before my second birthday. A day to note, up close and personal, that not every family looks and feels like a typical Hallmark card.

I pause to think and pray for the friend who this year lost dearly loved mother and mother-in-law in the space of a few short months. The friends who lost their mothers too soon and still carry the weight of “motherless child.” The friends whose mothers weren’t there, or only rarely, carried away by mental illness or addiction. The friends whose mothers linger but no longer know their names, or recognize them when they visit. The friends whose mothers could never quite affirm them, who carry their mothers' critical voices like embedded shards of glass, sharp points of pain that never heal.

There’s no shortage of pain. What of those who would love to be mothers, but aren't? Those mothers who have lost a child to accident or illness, or are losing a child to estrangement or addiction.  I think of the mothers and fathers I know who will spend Mother’s Day grieving the loss of a child to suicide. 

As Job’s comforter Eliphaz said, “Man is born to sorrow as the sparks fly upward.”

Or – to quote Frederick Buechner:  "Here is the world. Beautiful and terrible things will happen.” Enjoy the dogwoods and azaleas. But remember those in pain.

How do we walk alongside those in pain without doing harm ourselves?

I travel back to the spring I was sixteen. My grandmother complained of chest pain and went off to the doctor, from there to the hospital, leaving my brothers and me on our own.

Sifting back through memories of that difficult time, I find no conversations with caring adults. No one who sat us down and said “your grandmother’s had a heart attack, and this is what that will mean.” It was clear our lives would change, but how? When? Where would we be?

Kind people dropped off dinner: Roast chicken. Unfamiliar casseroles.

Kind people offered rides, wrote down the dates we needed to arrive at the camp jobs we had planned, promised they’d get us there.

But I don’t remember any real conversation about how we were doing. What we were feeling.

Resettled Farm Child, Dorothea Lange, New Mexico, 1935
And stranger: I don’t remember anyone praying with us. I know people prayed. But not with us.

Looking back on that season of my life, I am overwhelmed again by how alone I felt.

And overwhelmed, again, by how God’s presence became real, in a way I have never since doubted.

In the years since then, I've walked with others in pain, and my prayer is always that they know God's presence.

There are plenty of things people say when trying to comfort those in trouble: “It will all work out.”

Really? And what if it doesn’t?

“It’s all for the best.”

No. God can redeem even the ugliest event. But no – I refuse to believe bombs, massacres, kidnap, suicide are “all for the best.” Never.

“God needed her in heaven.” Please. No. Don’t.

Our attempts to sweeten, lessen, minimize pain just make the pain worse, just push the questions deeper.

Why did God allow a loving mother to die when her children were still young?

Why did God allow children to be gunned down by a mentally ill young man?

Why cancer, why psychosis, why heroin, why . . .

Here’s what I know for sure: we live in a broken world. We live in a world that staggers under the weight of folly, that shudders in the grip of sorrow.

And in the midst of our grief, we are not alone.

What I want to offer, to those in pain, is God’s presence. 

But that’s not mine to give.

What’s mine to give are prayer, and my own presence.

So somehow I want to say: you’re not alone. If you want to talk, I want to listen. If you need a hug, I’m here, nearby. If you’re angry – that’s okay. Go shout at God. He doesn't mind. Some days I shout too.

And if you’re sad – go ahead and cry. As long as you want. As loud as you need. I'll cry with you if you let me.

I’m not planning to tell you what to think, how to feel. I just want you to know: you’re not alone on this dark road you’re traveling.

But most, I want to pray. Over coffee, in a car in the driveway before you jump out and go inside, standing by the door as you leave for the hospital, deep in a couch that’s lost its springs.

On a crumbling cement stoop with neighbors walking by.

Under a tree on a summer day. 

Around a late night campfire.

 Over the phone. 

After you’ve said what you need to say, shared your fear, put the questions into words, here's mine: "Do you mind if I pray?"

How many times have I asked that question?

On a battered city porch.

In a glass strewn park.

On the end of a dock, feet dangling in cool water.

In the prayer alcove of our church, or right there at the front, with the worship band playing loud.

Do you mind if I pray?

I want to pray for God’s presence to be known. For his love to be felt. For his goodness to be visible.

Sometimes when I pray, I’m overcome by the sadness the other person carries. I set a hand gently on her shoulder, and the grief travels through me – like a tide of darkness, flowing up my arm, through my heart, weighting me to the floor.

I hold that darkness out toward God, pour it, like dark water, into his waiting hands.

Sometimes when I pray, I’m overwhelmed with the sense of God’s great love pouring through me toward the person beside me. It wells up through me – warm, bright love – wrapping us both, setting our hearts pounding, spilling across us like golden sunlight after a winter rain.

Sometimes when I pray, words come un-thought. Words of blessing, forgiveness, of mercy, of hope. People come back, weeks, months later, and say “When you said that, this happened.”

Those were not my words.

Once, praying for a girl who had just lost another father, I felt all those things: the weight of her pain, the warmth of God’s love, the words of blessing. As I prayed, she sank to the floor, sobbing. Someone moved to comfort her – and I said, softly, “No. She’s crying in the arms of her father.”

We moved away and left her, sobbing on the floor. Later, she asked, “How did you do that?”

Do what?

She thought we’d been sitting there, rubbing her back, in a way that made her feel very warm, very loved, very held.

She was comforted. Joyful. Radiant.

That was God, pouring love and strength right through her. I pray she remembers that presence when she feels like a motherless, fatherless child, a very long way from home.

The prayer I pray often is this:
For this cause I kneel before the Father, from whom every family in heaven and on earth derives its name. I pray that out of his glorious riches he may strengthen you with power through his Spirit in your inner being, so that Christ may dwell in your hearts through faith. And I pray that you, being rooted and established in love, may have power, together with all the Lord’s holy people, to grasp how wide and long and high and deep is the love of Christ, and to know this love that surpasses knowledge—that you may be filled to the measure of all the fullness of God. (Ephesians 3) 
The family I’m part of might not look like a Hallmark card, but it’s a family of great love, love that flows through our places of pain and draws us deeper to an eternal, unfailing embrace.

And for you, part of that family or not, motherless child or not, walking today in pain or beauty or both, I pray that you feel God’s presence, that you see his mercy, that you grasp, in some small way, his love far beyond our understanding. 

I pray that you travel through the dark times, and the light, knowing you’re not alone. 

Road to Emmaus, William Strang, Scotland,  ca 1900