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Reflections of Grief / Bearing Our Infirmities / Abandoned?

Stories
Contents
"Reflections of Grief" by Keith Hewitt
"Bearing Our Infirmities" by David O. Bales
"Abandoned?" by David O. Bales


Reflections of Grief
by Keith Hewitt
John 18:1--19:42

In my dream, the world is a twilight place of indifferent light and long shadows that lie about like litter, carelessly cast to the ground.  There is blood everywhere, and I try to avoid it, but I can’t—I step in it, I kneel in it, it stains my clothes and makes my hands sticky as I fight what seems like a forest of pale, stiff limbs…arms that reach for me, legs that lie in my way no matter how carefully I watch, and all this in a surreal silence…only the sound of my own short, heavy breaths and those of my companion as we both struggle, stifled sobs and the moaning of the wind that might be the groans of the dead, and the hair on the back of my neck stands up…

And then I realize it isn’t a dream, but a memory, because sleep will not come…

How long has it been? I wonder, blinking in the darkness.  Will I ever sleep again?  Or is even that comfort gone forever, taken from me because of my sin? Eventually, I accept reality and sit up, swing my feet off the bed.  Next to me, my wife sleeps…a gentle sound of snoring that speaks of deep, innocent slumber without a care in the world.

Good.

I had not shared with her my time on Golgotha—that miserable outcrop of Gehenna.  She had not been a follower of Jesus, although she indulged my fascination with the man and his ministry, but even so I saw no need to share the details of what Nicodemus and I did as a final mercy to our teacher.  Such things—the prying out of the nails from tissue that had swollen tight around them; fighting against the rigor of death to fold arms and legs to some form of decent repose…and the blood, everywhere—these were not the sort of things one shares with his wife.  Rather, they were the burdens one carries in silence because sometimes blissful ignorance is a gift to others.

And then there are the other burdens, the doubts that cling to the memories of Golgotha.  Questions like, “Did your cowardice contribute to his death?”  “If men of influence had stood up to the High Priest and Pilate, would it have changed anything?”  “If men of stature and principle had spoken reason to the mob, would if have changed their minds?”  “If you believed in the man and his ministry—if you believed that he was showing you the door to the Kingdom of God—what one thing did you do to help him in his hour of need?”

But maybe it’s not the questions that are the burdens, as much as the answers.

While the ministry of Jesus was a living and vibrant thing, it was easy enough to find reasons to stay in the shadows.  You could convince yourself that there was work to be done behind the scenes--putting in the right word here, paying somebody there, all without revealing yourself.  It was better to avoid all the awkward questions and not have to battle automatic assumptions, because that freed you up to be a better…if silent…supporter.

Or maybe you were just fooling yourself—trying to enjoy the status of being a leader in the Establishment, while questioning some of its most fundamental precepts.  And the longer that went on, the more it bothered you, nibbling at your conscience, because Jesus—and John, before him—had taught passionately that all men walked a path of sin, and the only way to leave it behind was to change paths—to turn away, to repent and consciously embrace a new way of living, a new relationship with God.

To which you said, “Sure—but let’s keep that relationship secret for now.”

But could a man secretly follow God?  Or would the evidence of that relationship give him away?  And if it didn’t show—did that mean that there was nothing to show?

My friend Nicodemus had brought some of these very same concerns to Jesus, one night, and had gotten into a discussion about being born again.  It was an image as poignant as it was enigmatic—we all knew that birth and death were issued to everyone in the same number, one of each—and we had both struggled with it when he shared the discussion with me, finally concluding that we must find the time to discuss it with Jesus again…at the first opportunity when we could meet discreetly.

Only that opportunity never came.

Instead, the Temple Guard came, to arrest him.  And the chief priests conspired to convict him.  And the Romans…well, they killed him with about the same moral struggle as one feels when swatting a fly, because to them he was just one more Jewish troublemaker.

And through all that, not one of us followers, public or private, stood by him.

We only came to clean up the mess at the end…one final mercy to a man who deserved none of what he got, and so much more.

These thoughts chased each other as they had since Friday.  In the end, I didn’t know which was worse—denying my public discipleship of Jesus, or trying to make up for it by preparing and burying his body.  Both now reeked of hypocrisy.  Both seemed unforgivable. 

And what bothered me most was that there was no going back.  There was no forgiveness to ask, no apology to be made.  Jesus was dead and buried, and I had done nothing about it when—maybe—doing so would have counted for something.  Instead, I had been a coward and a pretend-disciple. 

That’s what had fueled two sleepless nights of endless self-reproach.  The knowledge that there was no going back, no way to make good, and only a future of endless doubt and regret to look forward to had stolen sleep from me and replaced it with torture.  Sitting there, in the dark, listening to the blissful sleep of innocence as the first fingers of daylight began to stretch across the sky outside my window made me envious, certain that I would never sleep that way again because there was no atoning for my failure.

Dreadful, bloody Friday was gone…and the bleak darkness of the heart that was Saturday…and now Sunday was here, with its promise of more guilt and grief.  They said Judas, the traitor, had killed himself to end his guilt—and the ache in my soul made me think he might have had the right idea.

And then there came the pounding at the door…

* * *

Bearing Our Infirmities
by David O. Bales
Isaiah 52:13—53:12

On Tuesday morning while Jeanie Graft was on her knees reaching deep into a shelf, shuffling small boxes of number eight two-inch screws to the right and returning the number six two-inch screws to the left, she heard, “Hey Jeanie.”

The voice came from the end of the aisle and she hadn’t quite identified it before she was able to manipulate her head out of the shelf and toward the sound. She watched Mr. Corey her high school biology teacher advancing with his huge smile. She slid on her knees back from the shelf and used a hand to help her stand, “Hi Mr. Corey,” she said. She waited for him to speak next, knowing he would. He was a great talker.

“Good to see you,” he said. “Didn’t know you were back in town.”

“Yeah,” she answered with a forced smile. “Been working for Dad for a couple months.”

“You were in…”

“Portland,” she answered.

“And how long you say you’ve been back in the hardware store?”

“Six weeks. Feels like two months.” She gave a sideways grin.

“Haven’t see you in worship.”

Ordinarily Jeanie wouldn’t appreciate such an observation, but she’d known Mr. Corey all through high school. Two years ago in her senior year she was in his last advanced biology class before he retired. “No,” she said, and didn’t quite tell the truth, “working in the store.”

“You’re looking swell,” Mr. Corey said. He tipped up his voice. “Hope you’re glad to be home.”

“Not every day,” she said as she dipped her head and attempted a laugh.

Mr. Corey stood silently a moment, looking serious. “You still drink that perfumed coffee you spilled on the dissected frog?”

That brought a genuine smile from her. “Yeah, a definite addiction, twice a day.”

“How about coffee together sometime?”

Jeanie was pleased to agree. She hadn’t taken many steps toward melting into the town again. Other than her family and a few in Graft’s Hardware, she’d only met up with one high school friend.

On Thursday at Tim’s Coffees as soon as they sat at their table, Mr. Corey leaned over his cup and asked, “Why you home?”

Jeanie came expecting this. It’s the relationship they’d always had. She wagged her head slowly, “Nothing, just nothing worked.”

“Nothing?” He bent further over his coffee. Jeanie rearranged herself in her chair, closing her eyes, then taking a deep breath. After a moment or two Mr. Corey said, “Big city life?”

“No,” she said, too loud for the coffee shop. People near her turned. She lowered her head and her voice, “that’s the thing. Not just in the big city. Everywhere.”

“I’m not following,” he said with spread hands.

“I’ll give you an example. You know my oldest brother Darrell, he teaches in the middle school.”

“Not well. Never had him in class.”

“I come home and one of the first things he tells me is how many of the middle school teachers are divorcing and marrying spouses of other middle school teachers and the bunch switching around and not even marrying. Any different in the high school?”

He made a waffling gesture with his hand. “Could be.”

“And that’s the world. Not the protected little place I grew up in and learned about in school and church. The internet glows with stories of pedophiles and payoffs. Our national leaders act like fifth graders on the playground. Calling each other names and sounding like ‘My dad can beat up your dad.’ And my fellow citizens seem to love that kind of stuff. You’re going to have to forgive me, but I just don’t see much integrity left in individuals or groups. Everyone’s in it for themselves and no concern for anyone else.” She bit her lower lip with a sigh.

Mr. Corey spoke slowly, almost solemnly, “You’ve earned another A. This time in recognizing reality. He paused, then, “You talk to your folks about this?”

“Not a word.”

“How about Darrell?”

“I’ve hinted at it but he comes out with ‘cynic’ and I just leave it.”

Mr. Corey continued to look kindly at her and she took courage in his acceptance. “I’ve thought about it a lot. And, no, you haven’t seen me at church.”

He nodded and clucked his tongue, “I can tell you’re angry; and this… this is what I think: You’re angry because you’re disillusioned, like you’ve been lied to about life and you don’t find anything you can trust. You’re not the first with the affliction.”

“Close enough. There’s a bunch more. But that’s enough, way more than enough.”

Mr. Corey took a sip of coffee and so did Jeanie and they sat quietly hunched over their cups. Mr. Corey maintained his bright look and the sound in his voice, “Tell you what: You working on Sunday?”

“Late afternoon to closing.”

“Would you come to worship with Marie and me? And,” he raised his hand to prevent her from refusing, “and we’ll take you to a pre-worship event that might help you some.”

“What?”

“Something that happens every Sunday, has happened every Sunday for longer than I know. What do you say?”

His inviting smile won her agreement. On Sunday Mr. Corey and his wife Marie picked her up at her parents’ house at 10:15. Marie was in the back seat. “Here,” Mr. Corey patted the passenger’s seat. “Sit up here with me.”

“We’ve got plenty of time to get to church,” she said.

“First,” Mr. Corey said, “we’re going somewhere else.”

Mr. Corey drove to the Lifecare Center and parked across the street half a block away. “Right here 10:30 most every Sunday morning worship begins, worship of the one we say ‘has borne our infirmities and carried our diseases.’”

In a few minutes a 20 year old four wheel drive Ford pickup drew up and parked in front of the Lifecare main door. A stooped, gray-haired man stepped out and limped inside.

“What?” Jeanie asked.

“Doc Fuerney. You probably never went to him. He’s been retired 15 years at least, but he’s been coming to this spot every Sunday morning before worship as long as we’ve been in town. We know because one Sunday we had to drive this route when our street flooded. Saw him years ago. We’ve never talked about it, though others know.”

The three sat facing the Lifecare door. It opened and a wheel chair came out with a white-haired lady crunched sideways. She was waving her limp wrists and talking incessantly, showing the lack of half her teeth. Doc Fuerney pushed her wheelchair.

“Beth Summers,” Mr. Corey said. “She’s been this way from birth. Cerebral Palsy. Affected both her body and mind. You might never have noticed her. He wheels her in to the back of worship.”

“I’ve seen her,” Jeanie said.

“She’s there every Sunday Doc’s in town.”

They watched Doc Fuerney lift Beth from her chair into his pickup then put her wheel chair in the back. None of the three spoke.

“He’ll take her in to worship through the alley and then return her here after worship. I’m sure he’ll do it till one of them dies,” Mr. Corey said. “Whenever Marie or I think life’s been tough on us or the world’s swirling down the drain because love and integrity have fled the earth, we drive here to begin worship.”

Marie leaned over from the back seat, “We’re willing to pick you up any Sunday and drive by here if you’d like.”

Jeanie didn’t say anything; but, she was swallowing hard when she nodded her head.

Preaching point: Jesus is seen in selfless service.

* * *

Abandoned?
by David O. Bales
Psalm 22

Curt walked half a block with his arms stiff at his side, not realizing that with each step he was clenching his fists by his hips. He used to clench his fists by his hips when he was angry with Noel, but not anymore.

Why am I doing this? And why do I even ask? And who am I asking? And how long do I go on asking toward the silence?

Without noticing, he’d walked the first block from home. Seven to go. Sharp’s Neighborhood Grocery had butcher paper signs taped in the window advertising T-bone steaks and Gala apples. He was close enough to touch the glass, but he passed without noticing, concentrating and asking why he even concentrated. It was Sunday morning and this is where he always walked on Sunday morning, to worship at Second Presbyterian Church.

His heels tapped rhythmically on the sidewalk but he didn’t hear them. He’d now walked the second block. In the past, which seemed as indistinct as a forest in a fog, he walked to worship with Noel and their daughter Karie and son Robbie. The walk was special then. Every Sunday except in the most miserable weather they walked to the church. He looked forward to that family time every week. If something was wrong in any of their relationships when they left home, it was better, if not settled, by the time they arrived to church. He’d felt the family’s Sunday stroll to worship was a procession, a joyous parade to meet God. The kids grew up treading this street and because of this street had moved away from home ready enough to face life.

He halted at the stop light beside Judd’s pharmacy. He didn’t notice the familiar door he’d entered more and more frequently in the last nine months to pick up medicines for Noel. Curt had watched Noel’s strength fluctuate, sometimes even increasing for a few days, but ineluctably decreasing. He’d shared her desperate, then hopeful, then desperate faith. They’d celebrated each felt recovery and mourned each notch down on the blood count numbers they received month by month in the clinic and then week by week.

He and Noel chuckled and wept in prayer. Their pastor and congregation prayed. The congregations of relatives and friends prayed. For weeks Curt felt as though beside Noel he was also side by side with Jesus. The presence felt like a halo of love. What happened to all that? He marched beside the school’s playground where both his children had attended. The swings, monkey bars and the wooden skeleton of a castle didn’t catch his eye.

It seemed we were cooperating with God. Seemed we were working together. We followed the doctors’ treatment but we thought God was the most help. Then all help was too late, unnecessary, futile. For all that Noel went through—pain and confusion, hope and fluctuating faith—she never said she felt abandoned by God. Now I, on the other hand….

He saw the steeple three blocks straight ahead.

We always went straight to church, that was our half mile walk. Helped us think we were going directly to God. Now I don’t know why I’m doing this, marching to doom. Where’s God now?

He threw his arms out in a semi-circle in front of him while he spoke his silent words. He was running out of distance to the church. The building loomed only a block and a half away.

Why am I spending the mental energy? Maybe all the talking to invisibility wasn’t really prayer, wasn’t anyone on the other end of our begging… or of our joys. Maybe it’s just been my brain cells tangling and untangling in a cellular mess that means less than nothing.

He stepped off the curb crossing the next to the last street before the church and aimed one more effort toward a question: Why am I doing this?

Mid street he remembered that for the last six months, whenever possible, he stopped at Mrs. Stilmann’s house to walk their eight year old Jocelyn to worship so that Mrs. Stilmann could have the last few minutes to get her two year old twins ready. Curt had seen her at the funeral. She was trying not to weep and he felt the one thing he could do for her was to speak up and tell her he’d be there Sunday morning as usual.

He turned around and walked the half a block back, stepping carefully over a sidewalk tipped up by the root of a red oak tree. He looked at his watch and saw he was already late. The doorbell hung by wires. He had to hold it with one hand and press it with the other, but somehow it worked. Mrs. Stilmann was waiting and shuffled Shawnalee out the door with a grateful smile. Curt took Shawnalee’s hand as she showed him her new pink dress. “Look,” she said, “it has a belt. My friend Landy has a dress with a belt too, but these aren’t the kind of belt that actually holds anything up, just kind of holds it in. Hers is blue, though not the blue like the sky, or the Bibles at church, a little like the swimming pool at the Y, but more like our school bus.” She continued to talk about things that were blue and began to skip next to him. Curt walked faster to keep pace with her and because the church bell was already ringing.

Preaching point: Wondering if God has abandoned us.



**************


StoryShare, April 19, 2019, issue.

Copyright 2010 by CSS Publishing Company, Inc., Lima, Ohio.

All rights reserved. Subscribers to the StoryShare service may print and use this material as it was intended in sermons, in worship and classroom settings, in brief devotions, in radio spots, and as newsletter fillers. No additional permission is required from the publisher for such use by subscribers only. Inquiries should be addressed to permissions@csspub.com or to Permissions, CSS Publishing Company, Inc., 5450 N. Dixie Highway, Lima, Ohio 45807.
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