CCC Blog

“At Least” is not an Option

In my late 20s, my father died.  Suddenly.  Of a heart-attack.  On a Thursday.  I had spoken to him four days earlier, and we discussed my planned visit home the following weekend and the things we were going to do together.  Then, in an instant, he was gone.  In the aftermath, many well-meaning friends said “at least” a lot.  At least he didn’t suffer, as if those magical words somehow softened the blow.  Through that experience, and my many years dealing with grief as a pastor, I acknowledge that all losses are difficult and painful.  There is no merit in trying to rank them.  There is only difference and distinction, which does not require value judgment.  The biggest distinction is timing.  With prolonged suffering before the loss, there is much pain in the process but also a chance to say good-bye and have some semblance of closure.  With a sudden loss, there is no preceding pain process, but also no closure nor chance for “last words.”  In both cases, however, there is nothing good comes from saying “at least.”  “At least you had the chance to say good-bye” rings as hollow as “At least they didn’t suffer.”

So it is noteworthy, and not surprising, what Jesus does – and doesn’t – do when Lazarus died.  Jesus arrived in Bethany, Lazarus’ hometown, 4 days after Lazarus’ death.  The entire town was gathered around the cemetery, so well-loved was Lazarus in his community.  When Jesus arrived, he was greeted by people in the throes of grief.  What Jesus didn’t do was say “at least.”  He didn’t say “At least you had some good years with Lazarus,” or “At least his death is bringing you all together,” or “At least there are many other love-able people in this town.”  Instead, he wept.  That’s right, he sat down with the crying people and cried with them.  John 11:35 is the shortest verse in the entire bible and it simply reads: Jesus wept. 


Consider the power of that gesture.  Jesus knew he was going to raise Lazarus.  He knew this wasn’t the end, but before he did anything, he acknowledged the pain and hurt of a people broken by grief.  He didn’t try and rush them through it.  Nor did he try to put their loss in some kind of perspective.  He just honored the reality of their present moment – which was all they could see at that moment. 


What the Corona pandemic has wrought upon us has been a thousand “sudden” losses.  In the blink of an eye, preschoolers were uprooted from their teachers; college students were forced to abandon their friends and return home.  Sports seasons were instantly halted, with coaches and players unable to prepare for the separation.  Seniors, in both high school and college, are facing the reality of not having in-person graduation which is something the mind simply cannot compute.  Graduation is one of the few classic moments in American culture – a coming-of-age event that we all hold in our vault of important memories.  Not one student, teacher, athlete, coach, director or performer was thinking “This might be the last chance we’re going to play together (or sing together; or perform together; or study together).”  And that is a big deal. 


Today, we begin week 2 of our governor’s order to “shelter in place.”  In my own household, all three of our children are deeply grieving the loss of their physical connections to friends – even though they don’t always articulate it.  My wife and I find ourselves trying to convince them that when things get back “to normal” there will be opportunities to have closure on the significant transitions that have transpired.  And I also find myself using the words “at least.”  To my eldest son I heard myself say, “If your show choir season ends now, at least your last performance was the best of the year.”  Even as I hear these words coming from my mouth, I know they are really meant to make me feel better, just as those who said to me all those years ago, “At least your dad didn’t suffer,” were their attempts to make themselves feel better. 


Which brings us back to Jesus and the community around Lazarus.  Sometimes we just need to cry.  Even though we may pride ourselves on being stoic in our behavior, there is something innate in being human that simply needs to grieve the loss of something valuable.  And we crave, and long for, the space in which to do that even if we are not always conscious of that reality.  St. Ignatius of Loyola said there are 3 reasons why we cry.  First, we cry because we are sad for the sufferings of Christ.  Second, we cry when we are confronted with the reality of our own sin.  And third… we cry when we experience suffering in the world.  That last one seems especially applicable today.  We grieve the weight of a thousand losses inflicted upon us because of this virus.  We grieve them without placing blame.  And we grieve them without saying “at least.”  We simply grieve them.


Which is entirely okay, or else scripture wouldn’t have devoted an entire verse to just two simple words – Jesus wept. 

Posted by Michael Karunas with

Only One Sermon??

Only One Sermon???

About a month before I moved to Decatur to begin serving as senior minister at Central Christian, I attended a clergy leadership seminar in Louisville.  One of the speakers, a long-time congregational pastor, shared this thought.  “It has been said,” he noted, “that all preachers preach only three sermons.  That is, each sermon is some version or variety of the same three.”  As he spoke, I found myself replaying the hundreds of sermons I had preached in my career and nodding my head.  Yes, I admitted to myself.  I suppose that is true.  The scriptures on which the sermons were based, the illustrations I used and the details of each Sunday’s context were certainly different from week to week.  But if I’m honest, I probably do preach some version of the same few sermons over and over again. 


The keynote speaker pushed on.  “So it happened,” he continued, “that I shared this thought with the congregation I was serving at the time.  After I said this, one of the elders raised his hand.  ‘So…’ he asked, ‘you’re saying you have 2 more???’”  I loved that story then, and I do now.  Though this was clearly meant as a good-willed jab at the preacher, there is a deeper idea to be examined; the thought that the congregation keeps hearing the same thing week after week. 

With this thought in mind, I find myself reflecting on this during our current context – day ??? of being quarantined by the Coronavirus pandemic.  As we turn on the news, read our social media feed, talk with friends by phones, skype, face time or zoom, we may find ourselves asking, “What is there to say that hasn’t been said?  What hopeful or thought-provoking statement can be said that hasn’t been offered already?  Aren’t we saying and hearing the same things over and over again?” 


But I wonder if that isn’t necessarily a bad thing.  When Jesus said the greatest commandment from God was “to love God and love neighbor” (Matthew 22:34-40) he also said, “On this, hangs all the Law and all the Prophets.”  Everything else depends on understanding this fact.  If we fail to grasp the importance of this simple truth, nothing else in scripture will make sense.  It is as though Jesus is telling us that the entire bible can be reduced to a single dictum – love God and love neighbor – and the rest of the 65 books, 27 chapters and 33 verses in the entire scripture is just details. 


In our current situation, when we find ourselves looking for something new to say, or longing for something new to hear, which will help make sense of our very uncertain situation, it is perhaps the simplest explanation that is the best (a la Occam’s razor).  Love God.  Don’t give up on God just because the earthly circumstances in which we find ourselves are confusing at best and painful at worst.  And Love neighbor.  Be kind to those around you.  Treat with grace those closest to you.  It is a simple message for sure.  But it never gets old and it always bears repeating. 

Posted by Michael Karunas with

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