I had the privilege once of being present at a celebration of 65 years of ordained ministry. I’ve been present for a few 50 year ordination anniversaries. Those milestones will not happen for me. God waited until I was well into my forties to call, or I just wasn’t listening until then. I’ve never been entirely sure which. My anniversaries will be more modest. That said, this year would have marked 18 consecutive years of preaching on Good Friday. This unbroken streak began before I graduated seminary and before ordination when I, together with other Geist Christian Church staff, was asked to design a Seven Last Words of Christ worship service. If you’re not familiar with such a service, it is generally 3 hours long, from 12 to 3 pm, in 25 minute segments, each themed around one of the 7 passages in the gospels that are said to be Jesus’ words from the cross. I was pretty green at preaching in those first few years, and sometimes the intensity of the day caused me to be speaking through my tears.
When I moved to Cleveland 7 years ago and every year since, I have been asked to participate in a community Good Friday Service at St. Paul’s Episcopal in Cleveland Heights — also a Seven Last Words service. This year I was assigned the final word from John’s gospel. It is finished.
But not this year. I just can’t. It feels strange this morning not to be doing the final edits making sure that I stay within the 10 minutes I’m given. There is nothing to edit because I could not write. I had nothing. Not a word.
The grief is too fresh. It was less than two weeks ago when my eldest son was found dead in his apartment in his bed. Complications from diabetes was the coroner’s official word. Diabetes was a recent — and ultimately deadly — diagnosis for my 37 year old son who already did not take good care of himself. His death was unexpected. That he was alone when it happened was not. He did not take good care of relationships either.
He had a family who loved him anyway.
Last year I began my Good Friday sermon with these words: We’re here today to grieve the death of an adult child. Adult child is a strange pair of words. No longer a small child who needs our care and protection. Rather an adult who we expect to be independent, to live away from his parents, maybe even to have a family of his or her own. But that adult remains an adult child, no matter how old, to that child’s parents. The impact of the death of an adult child is profound regardless of how close or strained the relationship, or how far apart they lived, whether the death was anticipated or sudden. No parent wants this to happen. It happens anyway.
They were heartfelt words. I’ve been called into such situations as a pastor, praying that I could somehow bring comfort to the grieving parents. This year it is my own adult son whose death I grieve. Just as I described last year. This year it’s personal. My heart aches.
Suddenly last Saturday, I became part of a group to which no one wants an invitation. I am now a parent who has lost a child. Parents are not intended to outlive their children, and no parent wants that to happen. It happens anyway.
Heartfelt messages continue to pour in to us — his family. A few words recur in them. I cannot imagine. I don’t know what I would do. I have no words. Your hearts must be breaking. Unimaginable. Unthinkable. Unspeakable. Unbearable. Heart breaking.
The words are right on. On all counts. But only to a point. Because this is not unimaginable or unthinkable for us. Not anymore. It is real. I pray these words will never become real for anyone else. But for this being unbearable, we are bearing it. The heartache is intense, and yes, there will always be a place in our hearts that will be his. His alone. Nothing or no one else will fill that place.
But my heart is not broken. But for that one empty place, my heart is overflowing with love. It could not have been easy to walk into that room in the funeral home, much less to know what to say to any of us. And still hundreds came. I can speak but the waves of grief come without warning, and so another is speaking in my place today. I have been given the greatest gift any person can receive — the gift of presence. People present with me. Present for me. Present in messages. Present in prayer. God sent all these persons into my life, and God has given them the strength to be present. I am blessed.
And so, in the midst of the grief, my faith grows. Deepens. Comes alive.
Why do I believe? What keeps faith alive? Loss and grief, struggle and disappointment, like rain on rock they can wear faith down. I believe not because I am wise or strong. I am neither. I believe because I have seen the God who walks beside me. There is no journey God has not shared.
Words penned by Steven Charleston, and hand-written on a note card I received today in the mail. Charleston is right — there is no journey God has not shared with me. On this day we remember when God lost his adult son. God knows my pain and my sadness because God has suffered the same. God is here with me with a love that never departs, a love that believes in me.
I cannot be a preacher or a pastor this Good Friday. Not this year. I can only be a mother who has lost her child. And so, God has wrapped mighty and loving arms around me and will not let me go.
Thanks be to God.
He is loved forever by his family. He is your beloved child.
….. this mother who has lost her adult son.