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Awaiting that Day: A Meditation on Death, Lament, and the Possibility of Hope

Today I will join hundreds of other people in remembering something that no one wants to be true, the loss of a child. My dear brother in Jesus, Pierson, was more than just a little boy. His family has rightly described him as a superhero, and this is exactly what he was. A resilience and energy that could only come from some secret ability. A capacity and desire to live life to the fullest, even when it was complicated by an enemy that never left his side. A smile (when you didn't get a growl, which still made you smile) that lit up a room in unforgettable ways. A quiet soul, until he opened up, and then there was no place for you to speak. 

I was not nearly as close to Pierson as so many, and yet he has left an indelible mark on my life (and countless other people can say the same). One memory I will always cherish stands out:

Kris was throwing an event for the children's ministry at church last summer and was hosting an art party. Pierson was there painting his heart out, making sure that every color received ample use. But the adult size table, plus the easel on top made it quite a stretch to reach the top of the canvas for my little friend. Before you know it, he was sitting in my lap and we were collaboratively painting a masterpiece on my canvas. I would imitate his every move. He thought it was hilarious. He would put the back of the paintbrush just under his lower lip while he considered the next color. I would do the same, and a virtually simultaneous sigh of consideration would emerge. I must say, it was a brilliant work, and I couldn't have done it without him. He took the painting home. I took that memory with me and will never forget it. 

In my academic work I focus especially on questions of trauma, human suffering, and death. What is the Christian response to these things and how can Christians understand what God has done in Jesus as Good News in a world filled with so much pain? One might think that someone who has devoted their life to the exploration of these questions would have something meaningful to say at a time like this. But in many ways, I am at a loss for words. 

I have spent the last six months trying to think of "what I would say" to people who find themselves in this place, who are trapped in their circumstances and suffering and who want nothing more than to be delivered, to find hope. When Pierson died we told our boys and tried to create a space for them to process that their friend would be absent in a way they had never experienced before. We asked if they had any questions, which they did, and we did our best to answer them. Then my youngest asked this question:

"When God remakes the world, will Pierson be there?"

"Yes," we told him, "yes he most definitely will." But hope for the future is an incomplete solution to the reality that he has died. Christians believe this because we understand that death (the result of the Powers of Sin and Death) is an enemy. Not only is it an enemy, but it is one that Christians believe has been broken in the death and resurrection of Jesus and will ultimately be defeated when the Triune God makes "all things new". 

This dissonance, that Christians have hope, and that death is a terrible thing which the work of Jesus is in the process of overcoming, has given me a new appreciation for the richness of lament. 

Lament in Scripture is most often associated with the subset of the book of Psalms classified as lament psalms. Within this group there are subsections of various styles and contents. (For a great book about this see Glenn Pemberton's Hurting with God: Learning to Lament with the Psalms.) Here is what I am learning in this season about lament:

Lament is not sadness, or grief, or anger. It can be any of those things and more. But at its core, lament is a witnessing to God of the ways in which our lives in the world are not as they should be. They are sometimes a form of protest, or a plea for deliverance, or an accusation of injustice. In the end, they all in their own particular way say, "The world isn't supposed to be like this."

My children should be wearing their superhero shirts today because they are playing with Pierson, not because they are gathered to remember his life which was taken from him. The innocent shouldn't suffer, and frankly, no one should. Christians understand this because we await a renewed world in which grief and pain and death are no more. And the gap between the world we await and the world in which we live brings us pain and longing and even hope. 

I have full confidence that the God who raised Jesus from the dead and who broke the power of sin and death in the cross and resurrection will make all things right in the end. Tonight I will join millions of Orthodox Christians around the world as we shout Christo Anesti! (Christ is risen!). And we will join our voices in the liturgy that has sustained the church for centuries:

Let God arise, let his enemies be scattered; let those who hate him flee from before his face!

Christ is risen from the dead, trampling down death by death, and upon those in the tombs bestowing life
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This is the day which the Lord has made, let us rejoice and be glad in it!

It is this hope to which we cling on days like this. The hope that Christ has defeated death and is the giver of life. But what do you say? How do you speak to what did happen, not what we hoped would happen? The following is where I have arrived in reflecting on the loss of my dear brother in Jesus, Pierson. This is my testimony as I gather with others today to lament to God and confess my hope in the resurrected Son of God:

I believe that on that Day, when the Triune God remakes the world, that death and suffering will be no more. And on days like this, I wish that Day was yesterday. Christo Anesti! Maranatha!

Mother's Day (A Sermon)

This is a "sermon" that I preached back in 2012 when I was still in full-time ministry. It was my attempt to move beyond the typical Mother's Day sermons that focus exclusively on those women who have had children and raised them well. I do not think that this is intentional in many churches, but for many women this is a day that is more painful than any other, and this is what I sought to mitigate in the small way that I could. I read this sermon verbatim as it is written here...

Saint Augustine and his mother Saint Monica.

Saint Augustine and his mother Saint Monica.

Monica, mother of Augustine, prayed for years that her brilliant but undisciplined son would be saved. When she sought the counsel of her priest, he listened as she poured out her heart of love and her intercession for this prodigal. At the conclusion, the priest said, “Go on! Leave me alone. Live as you are living. It is not possible that the son of such tears should be lost.” (I think when a mother’s prayers arrive in Heaven, they go to the head of the line. When Hannah gave birth to her baby, she was so thrilled that God had heard her prayers, she named the child Samuel—literally, in the Hebrew, it means: “Heard of God.” His very name proclaimed that God had heard his mother’s prayers!)

Some of you know the Augustine story. Monica prayed that he would not go to Rome, which was then such a wicked place. But he slipped away and went anyway…and came to Christ there.

Monica is quoted as saying the following in Augustine' s Confessions:

Such things was I speaking, and even if not in this very manner, and these same words, yet, Lord, Thou knowest that in that day when we were speaking of these things, and this world with all its delights became, as we spake, contemptible to us, my mother said, “Son, for mine own part I have no further delight in any thing in this life. What I do here any longer, and to what I am here, I know not, now that my hopes in this world are accomplished. One thing there was for which I desired to linger for a while in this life, that I might see thee a Catholic Christian before I died. My God hath done this for me more abundantly, that I should now see thee withal, despising earthly happiness, become His servant: what do I here?”

In many ways I feel totally unable to speak about the special role that we honor today, Mothers. 

This is in part because I know that being a mother is more complex, more complicated, and more difficult than most of the sermons I ever heard about this day growing up. 

So what I want to do briefly is look at a couple of ways that motherhood is spoken of in Scripture and then take up the ancient practice of Christian preaching which is offering a blessing on a special occasion. 

Paul writes to Timothy of the influence of his mother and grandmother in the formation of his faith…

I thank God, whom I serve, as my ancestors did, with a clear conscience, as night and day I constantly remember you in my prayers. Recalling your tears, I long to see you, so that I may be filled with joy. I am reminded of your sincere faith, which first lived in your grandmother Lois and in your mother Eunice and, I am persuaded, now lives in you also. (2 Timothy 1:3-5)

Jesus speaks about those who lose family to follow Jesus and participate in the Kingdom of God…

“Truly I tell you,” Jesus replied, “no one who has left home or brothers or sisters or mother or father or children or fields for me and the gospel will fail to receive a hundred times as much in this present age: homes, brothers, sisters, mothers, children and fields—along with persecutions—and in the age to come eternal life. (Mark 10:29-30)

Paul describes what has been true for many people down through time…

Greet Rufus, chosen in the Lord, and his mother, who has been a mother to me, too. (Romans 16:13)

I do not wish to pretend that motherhood is easy, or painless, or simple and straightforward. I do not want to pretend that everyone in the room has had great experiences with their own mother's or that there aren't regrets and hurts from being a mother as well. Life is more complicated than that, the world is more broken than that, and the church needs to be more honest than that. 

But what I do wish to say is that the God of the Universe is a good God, that he is love and mercy and redemption and grace and power and wisdom and compassionate. 

That no matter your experiences, no matter your choices, no matter your shortcomings, regrets, failures, or victories… God loves you and we thank God for you. 

Down throughout church history it has been customary to offer blessings on special days. These blessings typically hold three things in common.

(1) They are specific to the occasion that they address.
(2) They seek to acknowledge the complexity and realities of life in relation to God.
(3) They seek to point us back to the one who makes all things possible, Jesus Christ. 

I have spent some time looking at various blessings written down through the centuries and this is the blessing that I have composed for this special occasion… Mother's Day:

A BLESSING ON MOTHER'S DAY

To mothers, both biological and adopted, connected by blood and by experience, torn apart by circumstance and sometimes by choices…

To those who have given life both in birth and in formation, to those who have lost life before birth and before old age…

To those who have done what only mother's can do, 

To those who have been "the perfect mother" and to those who live with regrets, 

To those who are close to their children, and to those who feel like they are a million miles away, 

We bless you today, on this day, Mother's Day. 

To those women who have given birth to a child this year, 
     We celebrate with you the gift that God has given. 

To those who feel the pain of children long desired but never received, 
     We grieve with you the too often secret pain you have borne.

To those who have experienced miscarriage, failed adoptions, and kids who have run away, 
     We mourn your loss and ask for your forgiveness when we have been silent or even worse, indifferent.

To those who have longed for children, but for whatever reason have been unable to have them, 
     We love you and we are sorry for the times that we have failed to be sensitive in our words and actions. 

To those who have been "mother's" to others who are not their children, 
     We need more people like you both in the church, and in the broken world in which we live.

To those who have close and meaningful relationships with their children, 
     We celebrate this day with you and thank God for his grace.

To those who have complicated, painful, or non-existent relationships with their children, 
     We sorrow with you and thank God for his grace, while we pray for redemption and reconciliation.

To those who have close relationships with their own mother, 
     We thank God for that intimacy. 

To those who have suffered at the hands of their mother, 
     We acknowledge you and love you as our own. 

To those who lost their mothers whether recently or so many years ago, 
     We mourn with you today.

To those who have experienced weddings, graduations, and the general experiences of growing into adults, 
     We are proud of you for coming through them with grace.

To those who have gone through school tests, medical tests, emotional tests, and tests of patience with your children, 
     We are encouraged by your patience, your faith, and we stand with you as these will continue to arise. 

To those who will have an emptier nest this year, 
     We both celebrate and cry with you. 

To those of you who long to be better mother's, 
     God's grace will provide and we will commit to you as well. 

To those who long to make things right with your children, 
     Remember that God's redemptive power can cross any boundary, any brokenness, any pain. 

To those who struggle with their children today, 
     Remember that even the young Jesus almost gave his mother a heart attack on more than one occasion.

To those who feel like all they do is struggle and experience stress and frustration, 
     Remember your investment is never in vain, and that God uses your faithfulness to change the world.

To those who are bursting with pride today both with their mothers and their children, 
     We celebrate with you today.

For those of you who struggled to get out of bed this morning, who would rather be at home because of the pain of this day, 
     We love you and are encouraged by your faithfulness. 
     We pray that we may be more sensitive and more proactive in being a blessing to you and yours. 

To the men in the room, love your wife and love your mother's as Christ loved the church. 
     Give yourself not as "the husband" or as "the son" but more deeply than that as a servant of Jesus Christ. 
     Don't let today be the only day you do the dishes, help with the kids, or say kind things to grandma. 
     Recognize that your wife and mother and grandmother are made in the image of God, 
          They are precious to him, they are like his mother or grandmother or bride. Honor them as such.

To the women in the room, we thank you for who you are and what you mean to us as individuals and to this church. 
     We would not be who we are and where we are if it was not for you. 
          We haven't always done a good job of honoring you, thanking you, appreciating you. 
          We haven't always loved you as you have loved us. 
               For that we ask for your forgiveness and grace. 
     May we be people who honor and encourage and bless you from this day forward for whom God has made you, precious children of God. 

"The Lord bless you and keep you; the Lord make his face shine on you and be gracious to you; the Lord turn his face toward you and give you peace."

And in the words of the Hebrew writer...

"Now may the God of peace, who through the blood of the eternal covenant brought back from the dead our Lord Jesus, that great Shepherd of the sheep, equip you with everything good for doing his will, and may he work in us what is pleasing to him, through Jesus Christ, to whom be glory for ever and ever. Amen." (Hebrews 13:20, 21, NIV)