Friday, November 30, 2012

Good Grief ... Getting Through It

I'm the pastor and I'm pretty sure it's there in the pastor handbook that I should never say something like what I'm about to say.  (Hey.  Wait.  I never got my handbook.  I NEVER GOT MY HANDBOOK!!!)  I'm fairly certain I'm suppose to be beyond this kind of thing.   But let's just get real for a second.

This week has just kicked the crap out of me.

Debbie and I returned from a wonderful, albeit brief, vacation last week.  We celebrated our wedding anniversary where we had honeymooned.  It was barbecue, fresh mountain streams, minor league hiking, awe inspiring views, and the wonder of a long lasting romance.  All laughter and joy.  We came home in time for Thanksgiving with the fam.  Loved every minute of it.  Then ... Well, then it all fell apart.  A precious friend and from our church passed away at a seasoned 88 years old.  Then the horrible news came that Ashley had been summoned to Jesus side.  We said goodbye to Mike and Lori, my Associate Pastor and his wife, as they left us to serve in another church.  We both got bombed by some stomach virus from hell.  Then came Juanita's visitation.  Her funeral was the following morning.  Then Ashley's visitation and funeral the morning after that.  The stomach bug held on like Brian Urlacher attacking a Green Bay quarterback.

Today is Friday.  I'm off work and I found myself staring at the TV screen for nearly an hour.  Nothing odd about that.  Except that I haven't turned the TV on all day.

And I wonder ... what do you do when life sucker-punches you?  Bunches of us are reeling this week from losing Ashley.  I drove to the cemetery alone late yesterday afternoon.  I found a mound of earth covered by fresh sod and a  pile of weathered flowers.  I did not find Ashley.  That little lady is the cornerstone of the pain.  The pain coup 'de grace. She's the mountain and the other events of the week are the foothills.

How do you get through it?  How do you take the pleasantries and platitudes we speak about her life and death and turn them into a cohesive plan to get through the grief?  I admit that I'm still putting the plan into effect myself.  I've not nearly finished.  But here are the only things I am aware of that actually work.

First, you own up to reality.  This might be more difficult than you think.  We all  like to say sweet things to help each other painful moments.  Unfortunately, some of the things we say sound great but are just not true.  Ashley is not an angel looking down and watching over us all.  That's nowhere to be found in the bible.  She is much more than that.  She is a saint of God that He purchased with His own blood.  No angel can make that claim.  Don't short change Ashley by calling her an angel.  The bible says, "Do you not know that we will judge the angels?"  (I Corinthians 6: 3)  Ashley is ABOVE the angels.  That's pretty cool any way you look at it.  Also, it really does not help to "send warm thoughts and good vibration's" to others who are hurting.  I mean, how do you do that?  How do you send a thought?  How do you package up a vibration and send it?  Again, that sounds good.  Surely the intentions are good.  But get real.  This is the time to pray for each other.  It is appropriate to talk to God and ask Him to help those who are hurting.  That is prayer.  Do you want to help?  Voicing prayers works because you are talking to God.  Sending thoughts simply makes you feel warm and fuzzy.  And I think right now we need the real touch of God.

Second, grieve.  Grieve real and grieve hard.  If you need to, go ahead and kick and spit and cuss.  You can tell God what you think.  He has big shoulders.  Now, I do my best to be very respectful when I pray.  I mean, He IS God, after all.  But don't chicken out of telling Him what you really think and feel.  Guess what ... He already knows.  Once you tell Him about it maybe He'll hug you.  Maybe He'll say, "Yeah, I know.  I hate death too.  That's why I'm killing it."  (I Corinthians 15: 2, "And the last enemy to be destroyed is death.")  It's great to know God hates the same thing you hate.

Finally, put all your marbles into one basket.  You already know what I'm going to say by now.  (Hey, I warned you.  I'm "the preacher.")  The basket that works ... the ONLY basket that works ... is God's basket.  Tell Him that you need help getting through this.  Ask Him to walk you through the pain and the grief.  Ask Him to put people in your path that understand.  Find a friend, a counselor, or a pastor and dump on them.  They probably already have kleenex around so you'll be fine.  But friend, if you bottle this up it will eventually wreck you.  I've been wrecked a few times.  I've got the scars.  I managed through my stubborn stupidity to damage myself physically in ways that will not heal.  Living stupid does that.  Maybe your stupid involves a bottle or a pill or an out-of-hand party.  Those things do not work.  Walk away from them.  They leave their own brand of scars. And you need to trust me about the scars. You do not want them.

I believe if Ashley were writing this blog she might end it with more than her classic humor and twisted teasing.  I believe her love for her family and friends would cause her to say something from the heart.  Something of substance.  I believe Ashley would say that she is supremely happy and joyful today because she put her faith and trust in Jesus Christ.  I believe she would want you to do the same.  And I believe she would speak the words found in Psalm 130: 5 ... "I am counting on the Lord; yes, I am counting on Him. I have put my hope in His Word."

You see, we did not really "lose" Ashley.  How can you say something is lost when you know where it is?  And we know where Ashley is.  "To be absent from the body is to be present with the Lord." (2 Corinthians 5: 8)

Wednesday, November 28, 2012

The Ashley Dilemma

Like many people this week I have been struggling with what I have come to call "The Ashley Dilemma."  Why would God ... whose very essence is Love ... allow a young woman of incredible beauty, strength, popularity, influence, and intelligence to suffer the ravages of Leukemia three times, defeat it three times, only to succumb to a virtual side-effect of her bone marrow transplant?  Where is the logic in that?  How can that possibly make sense?

My faith in God, my belief in God, remains unshaken.  I have known Him too long and walked with Him too far to believe at this increasingly advancing age that He sometimes decides to do us dirty.  Nope.  Doesn't happen.  There has to be another answer.

To say that Ashley was unique is probably an exaggeration.  I believe there are other Ashley's out there right now.  They are loving, serving, giving, and caring.  They are imperfect, blemished and flawed.  But I would not short change the current generation of young women by saying that they do not exist and that when our Ashley left the planet her uniqueness left as well.

But that is beside the point.  And the point is ... what is God thinking?

I knew many great Ashley stories going into this last week.  I lived some of them out with her.  I heard a great many more stories during our moments of grieving.  My favorite one was unknown to me until I heard it first from her parents and then from another young woman at yesterdays funeral.  It seems that when Ashley was a freshmen in high school she was preparing to attend "homecoming."  That is a very big deal at Civic Memorial High School.  Ashley had a friend who seemed to be everything Ashley was not.  She was not popular.  Not well dressed.  Not able to afford to attend Homecoming.  And all of that was not acceptable to Ashley.  And so, very quietly, with absolutely no fan fare, Ashley paid for her to have a new dress with her own money.  She dressed her up, helped her with all of the details, and invited her to attend with her.  And so off they went.  This unlikely duo attending homecoming surrounded by very popular ... and probably very confused ... teenagers.  Ashley became not only her friend, but her advocate.  When a party was given, the girl was invited or Ashley refused to attend either.  Are you getting a picture of what kind of person Ashley was?  She was not perfect.  But ... well ... she loved.  And that's just pretty rare these days.

I've spent many hours this week praying.  Prodding God really.  Asking.  Wondering.  I usually did it with a strong case of nausea and a spinning head.  I did it during the sleepless nights and the tossing and turning and sweating and telling God over and over again what He should have done and how maybe this one time He should have checked with me first.  I do not know where the bug that I was battling ended and the pure stress of fulfilling Ashley's fathers request that I be Ashley's voice at the funeral service began.  It doesn't much matter.   Pardon my earthiness but puke is puke.  Finally, late last night, after all of the memorials were finished, the remains of my friend were buried, and my house was quiet and dark, and sleep was still not coming, God whispered.

God did not allow Ashley to suffer even though she was special.  Ashley was special because God allowed her to suffer.

Her pain taught her that life was not about her.  Her desperation taught her that she had to rely on one bigger than herself.  Feeling helpless and hopeless taught her to care for others that feel helpless and hopeless.  Wondering if her life was going to end early taught her to love others who maybe wished their lives would end early.  And I believe in the middle of all of that, in those very early teenage years, Ashley ran head first into the Christ who had suffered as well.  His suffering resonated with hers.  And she fell in love with Jesus in a way that did not prompt her to pursue a perfect Sunday School attendance record.  She did not separate herself from those lost in the battles of earth by sequestering herself in the faux holy halls of self-righteousness.  No, she got down and dirty with them.  Just like Jesus did.  Ashley could have gotten bitter.  Instead she chose to get better.  Her battles made her the phenomenal woman that she was. 

And she changed her corner of the world.

I will miss you, Ms. Brown.  We got separated a bit there at the end.  I went to Cleveland and you went to Murray State.  We didn't talk much until you entered the world of pain again.  But thank you for teaching this old guy some things.  Thank you for being real, and earthy, and oh so much like Jesus.  One of the last text messages you sent me said, "Ohh, thanks Ron.  :) I really appreciate it! I'm glad you're not super embarrassed for me.  But ya know, I have a little more anger I have to deal with these days and so I have to vent somewhere!  But thank you for all of your prayers ... It's getting closer and closer to the end of the treatment!"  The anger is gone, Ashley.  Yours.  Mine.  I hope your parents and your brother's too.  And yes, you were closer to the end of those treatments than any of us realized.  Enjoy heaven, my friend.  Don't booby trap my room before I get there.  Because I WILL hunt you down...