I haven't always been so great at grieving. Maybe you're like me in this way? We could blame it on culture or our upbringings or whatever. Regardless, I know that even Jesus himself wept on the bad days (John 11:35) and if he was allowed to grieve, so am I. So are you.
Seven years ago today my dad died. His name was William Alexander. He was 56 years old and I was 28 when it happened. Exactly half his age. It came suddenly and was completely unexpected. I've learned a lot this year from my therapist and a few very close friends – lessons that will change me for the rest of my life. And for that, I'm extremely grateful.
One of the things my therapist said to me last June was profound. He asked, "Alex, have you ever grieved the loss of your father?" I looked at the floor and said, "Sure, I have." (All this meant was that I had some hard days and attended the memorial service). He pressed in more and revealed to me that I really hadn't dealt with the pain, the loss, and the sadness that accompanies death's sting. He helped me see that at the time of our loss, I grieved over my dad as a pastor would (because that's what I was doing at the time; it was my job) but I did not grieve as his son. I didn't think I had permission to do so.
With a very immature and unbiblical understanding of death as well as a goofy, macho, no-crying-allowed version of manhood in my mind, (which isn't manhood at all, by the way) I suppressed the grief. I would be strong and courageous (insert out of context Bible verse). I would "press on" (again, insert out of context Bible verse). After all, that's what God "called" me to do, right? Deep down, I thought pastors were supposed to be tender towards everyone else but tough on themselves. Boy, was I wrong! I had no idea. I really didn't know that what broke my heart also broke Abba's.
You Can't Sink A Buoy
Little did I know that grief and pain are much like a buoy in the lake. No matter how hard you try to climb on top of it and push it under, you eventually slip off, and it resurfaces. Confession: I sought to submerge my grief not with obvious sins like sexual promiscuity or getting drunk. No, I was savvy enough to suppress my pain through busyness as a pastor and theology lecturer. You see, I picked the good vices, the ones that made me feel and look good. Serving the church at break-neck speeds can't be bad for you, can it? Here’s the thing: there’s no such thing as a "virtuous vice." I needed permission to slow down, to grieve, to process, and sit with reality. In sitting in that space of grief, I learned that it's okay to have a broken heart and I learned that if I was going to heal, I'd have to be gentle with myself.
Self-Compassion is not Selfish
You see, extending compassion towards others is remarkable. But extending compassion towards ourselves is a miracle! I am becoming more and more convinced every day that the depths of one's Christian maturity are not measured only in terms of good works or abilities to articulate the faith in fresh and profound ways (though both are very important). The better, more accurate marks of a Christian are seen in those people who walk barefooted into the bathroom, stand in front of the mirror, and think of the bloody mess of Good Friday and the bright, clean sunlight of Easter morning and look oneself in the eyes without a scowl, a wince, or smirk, and say "I forgive you." "I accept you." "I love you."
This does not in any way deter from the glory of God or the work of his Son and Spirit! This does not hijack the gospel of God and make it a man-centered, pop-psychology! On the contrary, it is the most logical, profound, and fitting application of the gospel! To profess that we are the justified, those who have received the free pardon and righteousness of God and yet withhold basic self-acceptance, self-forgiveness, and self-love betrays the very confession of the faith that the 2nd century Apostles Creed states so clearly: "I believe in the forgiveness of sins." If we will accept the forgiveness of God, the grace of God, and the love of God but then turn and shame ourselves, we've yet to let our confession become our reality. We all know talk is cheap. And we know that theological talk can be the cheapest.
The writer of Hebrews tells us that the triumphant Son of God is unashamed to call us brothers and sisters. How dare we sit around, licking our wounds, sulking in yesterday's regrets, and pouring self-hatred over our heads as though that were our true baptism!
To be a member of the family of God is to abandon self-hatred.
To be the forgiven is to be the undamned.
To be free is to be the non-slave!
To be accepted is to remove alienation.
To be the adopted is to undo our orphanhood.
To be loved is to be the unhated of Almighty God.
If all that's true (and I believe it is!) then we can be a bit more gentle with ourselves in our brokenness and grieve but not as those who have no hope (1 Thes. 4:13-18).
William Alexander Early
August 4, 1952 - February 26, 2009
Filled with the Light, Life, and Love of God