Those moments where the personal and the professional collide.
On Friday morning, we were called to Lurie Children’s Hospital to keep vigil with our son and daughter-in-law as they accompanied their 8-week old daughter, Eliana, on her final journey. Late Saturday afternoon, we stood over her bed, her life having slipped away after she had been in their loving arms for the previous 30 hours.
Fourteen hours later, I was standing in the pulpit on the 4th Sunday of Easter, expected to proclaim resurrection when my experience was the raw reality of death. And in this case, a death that seemed particularly cruel and unfair. As fate would have it, I presided at six baptisms on Good Shepherd Sunday.
Eliana was a beautiful little girl. She was active, feisty, and demonstrated extraordinary courage in the face of a disorder that wracked her body with pain. Epidermolysis bullosa is the worst genetic disorder you’ve never heard of. Her skin was finally beginning to heal, but the infection that took over was beyond the reach of even the most powerful antibiotics.
It’s my job to preach Easter, to speak of resurrection and life. Sometimes I find the promises hard to believe. It’s hard to believe the promises in the face of the excruciating physical pain of an infant and the extraordinary emotional pain of two young parents, one of whom is my own child, parents who in so many ways were deprived of the most basic joys of parenting, not to mention handed an unspeakable loss at the death of their infant child. The promise and hope of life seem empty and powerless. At times like these it enters my mind that all the flowery church language we have devised for Christ’s call and promise are nothing more than that. Words. How can those words represent any substantial reality when suffering and brokenness and death seem so much more real, as real as the lifeless body of a tiny baby.
“In the face of this, we have the promises of God?” he asks, a sad and cynical edge to his voice.
“In the face of this, we have the promises of God,” he replies.
A promise is wonderful in that it brings hope. But a promise isn’t any those things that we would like it to be. We cannot hold a promise in our hands as evidence of its reality. A promise is not the mulligan on the golf tee where you get a do-over when you’ve messed it up. It is not a time machine where we can go back and right the wrongs. A promise is not the fairytale ending of a television show. A promise is not Harry Potter’s magic wand that would allow us to fix things with the flick of a wrist and a fancy incantation.
A promise is a word from God, God who down through the centuries has been faithful to God’s Word. A promise is the word of the Word made flesh, the One who invites us into trusting that in the midst of all the death there will be life. The promise carries with it the image of the Good Shepherd with his arms spread wide open, his hands and feet nailed to a cross, his voice crying out in desperation, abandonment, and death. The Good Shepherd has promised to meet us in the horrible places that we are sometimes forced to go.
That’s the voice that calls to me and will keep calling even when what it says is hard to believe and my heart may not be ready to hear because the stench of death still lingers. The Crucified One reminds me that the tomb is still empty; Easter still offers hope and life. Especially in the midst of so much death.
Amen. Your naked honesty is more inspiring and helpful than any flowery prose. From your example, I will hope to remember that doubt and struggles are OK, and that the promise is still there.
Thank you, Jim. And thanks for holding me up.
The written version of Sunday’s sermon reads as well to eyes and spirit as it did on Sunday, for ears and eyes and spirit. I have forwarded your thoughts to several others, including Tim and Julie Frakes, who have been praying for you during these weeks!
Keep writing. Keep thinking. Keep wording. . . . .
Thanks, Bob. Actually not the Sunday morning sermon though a few paragraphs include some of the same language. Variation on a theme? And thanks for sharing.
So, so deeply sorry for your loss of your precious granddaughter. Even though my current struggles are not at all the same, your words and your willingness to share your grief and your doubt have been very helpful. Thank you. Ann
Grace and peace to a fellow traveler. Though we have never met, we hold one another up.
Pastor, thanks for giving us the resurrection message even while you were grieving. During the services, I was thinking it must be so hard for you to have just loss your granddaughter and then be presiding at 6 baptisms the next day. I will be praying for your family. Donna
Jim,Thoughts and prayers erupted from my depths upon hearing this news. Like you, I live in words and have for decades, trying to make sense of the the senseless, seeking words of right sound and rhythm that carry mind and heart into the Loving Mystery who alone is the answer to human need and longing. I pray you find those words that take you and your family into the place where silence is consolation, not agony, and you hear the Voice that says, “Nevertheless, even now, even here, Love abides and always will.
Thanks, David, for these kindnesses.
Pastor Honig, my mom shared this with me and can’t help but grieve with your family. It’s hard to believe in a good God at times like this but your words speak right to the soul and shine a light on God’s sovereignty. Over the years, I have come to trust in words like those in John 16:33 and find hope and courage in His promises despite times like this that seem contradictory. Chris and Liz have had and will continue to have an army of prayer warriors in Cincinnati.
Since Easter, we’ve been going through a series at church called brave — attempting to be like Peter and step out of the boat in face of our fears and challenges. In any case, this Sunday’s message was on storms. During the message a woman shared her personal story of losing her baby and I couldn’t help but think of Chris and Liz only to hear about Eliana on Monday. For what it’s worth, I thought I would share the message: https://www.crossroads.net/message/3782/Storm
Powerful message, Jim. Thank you for sharing so much of what is in your heart during this sad and difficult time for you and your family. Doris and Bill Bettin
Thanks, Doris and Bill. I’m grateful for the community that surrounds us and holds us up.
Pastor Honig and family, Our hearts are breaking at the loss of your precious granddaughter. Thank you for your sharing your beautiful message, we prayed for your family at Grace Lutheran today. I hope you find comfort as in Nahum 1:7.
Thanks, Cynthia. It’s good to hear from you. All the best to you and your family. Greet the good people of Grace for us.