Reflections on Grief and Ministry
When we think of grief we usually think of the death of a parent, the
loss of a friend, or perhaps even the breakup of a family through divorce.
This is a grief that is easy to see and often easy to talk about because
it is so obvious. And usually, through time, there is healing. But there
are all kinds of grief and inner pain. Some kinds are not so obvious or
easily expressed. And some are so profound and so deep that time may not
be enough for healing.
I first met Lee in 1980. He lived in a dilapidated, rat-infested housing
project in Richmond, Virginia, with his wife, their infant daughter, and her
two children. I was a "bus pastor" and began taking the two older kids to
church. Each Saturday morning I would make my rounds of the project and
visit them. I quickly learned that even early on Saturday morning, I would
always find Lee drunk or high.
At first Lee would avoid me. But as the months passed he began to talk,
sometimes more coherently than others. Eventually Lee began asking me to
come inside and visit. The house reeked of cheap wine, soured beer, and
dirty diapers. But we sat and talked. It seemed that Lee enjoyed our brief
time together on Saturday mornings.
I learned that Lee had gone to Vietnam as a nineteen-year-old and had
stayed for two tours in the Army Rangers. He proudly pointed to a display
case on the wall full of medals. He showed me two purple hearts and several
commendations. Lee didn’t mention it, but in the center of the case I
noticed a Silver Star. He also pointed out an issue of Soldier of Fortune
magazine with his picture on the cover.
Lee was in and out of jail most of the time I knew him, usually for
drunkenness or brawling. Once he was arrested and spent several months in
prison for selling stolen dynamite. Even though Lee was always unshaven,
usually dirty, and perpetually drunk, I began to see something more to Lee.
One Saturday morning in the midst of our usual small talk, Lee suddenly
began crying. With slurred speech, course language, and a smattering of
incongruous profanity, Lee began talking about a childhood when he used to
go to church with his parents. Then as he looked up at me, he told me how
much he appreciated my concern for the children. He told me that he wanted
them to grow up learning to love God.
The last time I talked to Lee was the only time I ever saw him totally
sober. I sat on the edge of his bed in the VA hospital in Richmond. Lee
had attempted suicide with a drug overdose. He talked quietly and calmly
about his suicide attempt. He also talked about his time in Vietnam. And
about his pain. It was war, of course. People die. And soldiers kill other
soldiers. That’s the way war works.
Yet it became clear that Lee was
grieving. Not for himself. He was grieving for people he had killed. And
for people he had watched die. Lee never gave any details. I didn’t ask.
But I heard enough to know that part of his grief came from the grim
reality that not all the people he had killed were soldiers. That’s
also the way war works.
Lee told me that he just couldn’t make the memories go away. He
remembered people and faces. I sat on the edge of the bed with my arm around
his shoulder and cried with Lee.
Then we prayed together. There was not much else I could do. As I stood
beside his bed ready to leave, he very matter-of-factly told me that the
next time he tried suicide, he wouldn’t fail. I believed him. I shook his
hand, put my arm around his shoulder again, and told him goodbye.
Lee kept his promise. The day after he was released from the hospital he
used a gun. There were only five people at Lee’s funeral, besides myself and
our pastor: Lee’s wife, his brother, and the three children. Lee will never
show up in any church growth statistics. He never quit drinking and doing
drugs. He never made a profession of faith. He never attended church the
whole time I knew him. We could spend a lot of time debating what God could
or couldn’t do for Lee. Or why He didn’t. We could debate the issues of sin
and grace, and wonder to what extent Lee was accountable.
I don’t have any easy answers to those issues. I don’t think anyone does.
Some would say that the church, that I, failed with Lee. I don’t think so.
Lee was my friend. Maybe that’s what he needed more than he needed any kind
of religion: just someone who cared enough about him to sit beside him and
share his pain. I think that is what Jesus did, and showed us to do.
The rest I’ll leave in God’s hands.
[Note: This is a true story,
although the names have been changed. The last time I visited
Richmond, all three children were still attending church.]