Friday, August 31, 2007

Good Grief Part 2

Good Grief Part II

When I left you last week we were examining the normal and essential nature of grief, and the tendency in our society to try to save our friends who mourn from this process because it pains us to see them grieve.

Hardly a week passes that we do not have some friend or colleague experience the death of a loved one; and we feel called upon to go to a wake or funeral service where we find ourselves fishing for the right words to say to them. And, even if we miss the wake or funeral service, we feel called upon to send a "sympathy card" or if we are more sensitive or thoughtful, write some words of comfort.

There is often a temptation to try to push some grief-stricken friend out of a stage of their grief, which is painful for us to observe, by asking them to compare their situation with someone whose situation is worse than theirs – in our view of reality. The book, "On Grief and Grieving," by Elizabeth Kubler-Ross and David Keesler offers a poignant illustration of how dangerous it is to offer comparisons to a person who is grieving some loss. They tell of a young man named Brian who had to have his leg amputated. The loss was terrible. During a rehabilitation session he saw another man who had lost both legs and he was inwardly embarrassed for having felt self-pity about his loss of one leg. The next day he saw a man who had both legs but needed a cane to walk, and once again he felt his own loss more keenly. Later the two men had a chance to talk about what had brought them to this point. Brian said he had lost his leg due to diabetes.

The man with the cane said he had an automobile accident which had caused a minor back injury and that he was in rehab to regain his strength. Still comparing losses, Brian said: "Well, at least you have two legs." The man with the cane said, "Yes, I do, but I lost my wife in the accident." Someone else’s loss may seem greater or lesser than your own, but all losses are so individual that comparisons are dangerous, if not cruel. Do not try to comfort yourself, or someone else, by comparison. It almost never works.

In the Newsweek article (May 28, 2007) on grief, Jess Hinds, who was grieving the loss of her father said: "My grief is profound: I am mourning the past, present, and future. I resent the condolence cards that hurry me through my grief as if it were a dangerous street at night." "My grief is not a handicap. People seem to worry that if they encourage me to grieve openly I will fall apart. I won’t. On the contrary, if you allow me to be sad, I will be a stronger, more effective person."

There is a great temptation for us to point out the silver lining in the grief of others. Don’t go there! If there is a silver lining or a blessing in disguise to be found, it must be found by the grief-stricken person, not by some well-intentioned friend who just can’t stand to be near or participate in someone else’s pain.

This is an abbreviated form of Jess Hind’s basic guidelines for mastering the "Art of condolence." Read with care! Be simple and direct, i.e., "I am so sorry about . . ." Ask "how are you?" or "How are you feeling?" instead of telling someone how to feel. Never say: "I can’t imagine what you are going through." The emotional translation to the grieving person is: "This is too hard for me, I don’t want to think about it." Never give advice about how someone should get through the loss. There is no universal "how to" formula.

Any loss tends to be like an amputation. You will survive, but there will be less of you in the end. I know that most all of you have experienced some life-changing loss: death, divorce, loss of your job, etc. If you have not, trust me, you will.

I pray that when you experience your next loss you have Jess Hinds, or some sensitive soul like her, to help you grieve properly. In the absence of such saving assistance, the next best medicine will be to read (or to have read) "On Grief and Grieving" and "Life Lessons" by Elizabeth Kubler-Ross and David Keesler. Available at fine bookstores everywhere. Order your copy now and read it before you need it.

Monday, August 27, 2007

Good Grief P 1

Good Grief
Part I written by Dr. Thomas Lane Butts, Pastor Emeritus, Monroeville First United Methodist Church

When Elizabeth Kubler-Ross lay dying at her home in Arizona, she was progressing through the classic stages of death which she had so beautifully set forth in her first book, "On Death and Dying." She observed with some dismay: "People love my stages. They just don’t want me to be in one." How sad! She was just as human as anyone else. Elizabeth Kubler-Ross, who had helped so many people negotiate their exit on the "Long Journey," and who was soon to be flying with the angels deserved better than that!

We all experience many different kinds of loss in the course of life. It is difficult to rate any particular loss on a scale that is universally applicable to everyone. There is no such thing as a typical response to loss, and there is no typical loss. Our grief response to loss is highly individual.

Early in her professional life as a psychiatrist, Dr. Elizabeth Kubler-Ross developed a framework in which most people work out their grief response to loss. Her initial research was at Cook County Hospital in Chicago from which she wrote her most profound book, "On Death and Dying," which lists five stages through which people tend to move on the way to death. Those stages are denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance. These stages are tools that help us identify what we may be feeling at certain times in our grief. It should not be supposed that everyone goes through all these stages, or that everyone moves through these stages in a prescribed order.

There is no loss that brings a more profound sadness or leaves a more indescribable emptiness than the death of a loved one. I am not sure that the prospect and process of our own demise is as great or any greater than the death of a loved one. The whole world stops. Intellectually you know that life will continue but you are not sure about how or why, or even if you care. Since this is a situation we see in others more often than we experience it personally, how can we be helpful to our friends as they deal with this intense and life altering experience? This is one of the most sensitive and difficult things we are called upon to do for friends.

It is surprising, and unfortunate, how often we try to talk grieving friends out of their grief instead of helping them with this most essential element in the process of dealing with death. I was touched by a "my turn" piece in the May 28, 2007 issue of Newsweek. It was titled: "‘I’m sorry’ shouldn’t be the hardest words," and written by a 25 year old teacher who lost her 58 year old father. She writes a graphic description of her profound feelings of loss, and then describes the unintentionally insensitive way in which many friends tried to console her by trying to talk her out of her grief. There is nothing more natural or essential in dealing with the death of a loved one than to not only allow, but to encourage the natural flow of grief. Jess D. Hinds, the young author of this article, spoke of how many condolence cards and letters she received that tried to talk her out of her grief. One friend wrote: "You should be happy to have your memories." Another: "You should feel lucky you got to be with your father in the hospital."

Miss Hinds’ response was: "You have got to be kidding!" Others tried to distract her from her grief with such questions as: "Are you applying to grad school?" "How is your teaching going?" "Are you still renovating your apartment?" "Are you keeping busy?" Miss Hinds opined how in our society we tend to want mourners to just "snap out of it" because observing the grief of others isn’t easy.

A casual perusal of sympathy cards on the rack at pharmacies and at Wal-Mart affirms how when we "Care enough to send the very best" but are too lazy to write, the generic cards almost always miss the deep feelings of those who mourn. Our condolences should not tell those who mourn how to feel but rather reach out to touch those natural feelings of grief that are already there, and which we had really rather avoid.

I am not finished here. More next week.

AN ENCOURAGING WORD for July 26, 2007 - written by Dr. Thomas Lane Butts, Pastor Emeritus, Monroeville First United Methodist Church

Tuesday, August 21, 2007

Stewards by Dr. Jim Savage

The word steward is an old Methodist term, but more importantly it is an old Bible term. In the old days of Methodism the Stewards were an all male group who felt it was their job to look after the “buildings, grounds, and finances” of the local church. That was a huge misuse of the term, and of the way John Wesley originally meant for the term to be used. Wesley meant for his Methodist stewards to be people who…

· Stewards set the example for everyone
· Stewards greet everyone they meet, and help new people find their way around the campus
· Stewards look for new people in worship, in the hallways and in the parking lots and try to be helpful
· Stewards are the LEADERS of the lay ministry and look for ways to step up and SERVE;
· Stewards are part of the volunteer staff of Riverchase United Methodist Church
· Stewards know Christ and share Christ
· “Stewards of the mysteries of God”
I Corinthians 4:1
· “Stewards of the manifold grace of God”
I Corinthians 4:10

The last two points relate to the passage in I Corinthians. These are the most important points for several reasons.
1. ALL Christians are called to be God’s stewards.
2. The very last things stewards should be concerned with are “buildings, grounds, and finances.”
3. Stewards are called to witness to others about the great “mysteries of God”.
4. Stewards are called to share “the manifold grace of God” with all whom they meet.
5. The passage in I Corinthians reminds us that we do not have all the answers to every question about God.
6. It reminds us we are not supposed to have all the answers, and that some things about God are simply a “mystery.”
7. The passage reminds us that God’s grace is abundant and not skimpy. It is “manifold” grace; not “small, little, limited” grace.

I pray that all of us will read I Corinthians 4 and step up to the plate to be the true “steward” God is calling us to be. I pray that we will be Christian stewards who are full of the Holy Spirit, filled with the saving love of Jesus Christ, and overflowing in our witness with the abundant love of God. I pray that God will bless you and lead you to fulfillment as stewards of the “mysteries of God” and the “manifold grace of God”.

In Christ, Dr. Jim Savage

Observations on History by Thomas Lane Butts

I majored in history in college. I do not remember why unless it was because I was fortunate enough to encounter some history professors (such as Auxford Sartain and Merlin Cox) at Troy University who made the subject come alive. It seemed to be the logical thing to do when I was in the theological school at Emory University to major in church and biblical history. My academic background not only left me with a love for history, but to my consternation, a lingering ambivalence about it. I have studied enough history to realize in my ambivalence that it is both essential and dangerous.

Alexander Solzhenitsyn alluded to this in the preface to his monumental work, "The Gulag Archipelago." He quoted an old Russian saying: "Dwell on the past and you will lose an eye. Forget the past and you will lose both eyes." Early in my life I thought of history as an objective and uniform account of reality. Then I learned enough history to raise considerable doubt about that initial opinion. If you read a variety of accounts about the same event, the differences in what is reported and how it is reported will gradually, if not quickly, disabuse you of the illusion that history is a uniform account of reality.

In one of Samuel Johnson’s conversations with Boswell he pays his respects to the accuracy of history. "We must consider how very little history there is; I mean real authentic history. That certain kings reigned, and certain battles were fought, we can depend on to be true; but all the colouring, all the philosophy of history is conjecture." Johnson had earlier expressed his dismay with the subject when he said: "What are all the records of history but narratives of successive villainies, of treasons and usurpations, massacres and wars."

The philosopher, Voltaire was even more pessimistic when he wrote "All history of the past, as one of our wits used to say, is only an accepted fable." Thomas Carlyle called history "a distillation of rumors". Who would not be amused at Jane Austen’s observations on the subject: "History, real solemn history, I cannot be interested in . . . I read it a little as duty; but it tells me nothing that does not either vex or weary me. The quarrels of popes and kings, with wars or pestilence in every page; the men all so good for nothing, and hardly any women at all."

Hegel in his "Philosophy of History" writes with his characteristically caustic dismay in the introduction: "What experience and history teaches us is this – that people and governments have never learned anything from history or acted on principles deduced from it." That, my friends, is not only true, but scary.

My experience leads me to agree with Disraeli who counseled: "Read no history, nothing but biography, for that is life without theory." If I dared to apply my understanding of personal history to a broader understanding of the subject I would say that there is some danger in accepting conclusions of history written too soon. Personally, I have discovered that experiences which seem to be bad at the moment often, with time, become blessings in disguise. Enemies may become friends and friends may become enemies with the passage of time. Never write your conclusions of an event on the day it happens. It may change. It often does. Sir Walter Raleigh opined that if you follow too near "the heels of truth" it may kick your teeth out. Hegel expresses the same thought more classically and more beautifully in his observation that "the owl of Minerva spreads its wings only with the falling of the dusk." The meaning of that quote is worth researching.

One of my most treasured books is "Man’s Unconquerable Mind," by Gilbert Highet, in which he writes: "People who know no history always learn wrong history, and can never understand the passing moment as it changes into history."

If you have read this essay to the end, let me remind you that truth, even hard truth, is not meant to discourage anyone about history. It is meant to caution. If you are a faithful student of history, you will always be ahead of the crowd in your understanding of yourself and the world in which you live.

AN ENCOURAGING WORD for July 19, 2007 - written by Dr. Thomas Lane Butts, Pastor Emeritus, Monroeville First United Methodist Church

Tuesday, August 14, 2007

Transformed by Tragedy

Transformed by Tragedy. written by Dr. Thomas Lane Butts, Pastor Emeritus, Monroeville First United Methodist Church

When Tammy Faye Bakker Messner died, Larry King did a program on her life. Larry King seems to have had a strange fascination with Tammy Faye. He had her former husband, the Rev. Jim Bakker as one of the guests. Jim Bakker was toppled from his position as a nationally known televangelist several years ago. He did time in prison for his financial misdeeds and is now rebuilding his life as a minister. Larry King asked Bakker a question about how he felt about his tragic experience. His answer was a shock to many. He said that it was the best thing that ever happened to him, and that if he had the power to change what happened he would not change it at all. Ordinarily, I would have either been shocked or would have thought he was not being truthful; but I have had some experiences with people who have had life-altering tragedies that made me believe the man was telling the truth.

There are people for whom tragedy becomes a transforming experience in which you might say they were "born again." This is certainly not universally true with tragedy. More often than not a tragedy, whether physical, emotional, or financial results in a brokenness from which a person never recovers, and from which they experience no benefit at all. But there are people who are so radically changed for the better by a tragedy that they would not change what happened to them even if they could. This is an anomaly to be sure, but it happens.

It is not unusual to hear someone speak of something being "a blessing in disguise." I have noticed, however, that people who offer up this casual assessment of an unfortunate event are usually speaking of something that has happened to someone else, or if it is about themselves, it is in reference to something far short of a true tragedy. When people are transformed, born again, as the result of some tragic event in their lives it is usually a blessing that was disguised to be sure, but it is more than that. There is something deeply mysterious about what has happened when someone is truly transformed by an actual tragedy, and the transformation is such that the person says they are glad that it happened and that if they had the power to change the event they would not change it. It is not just mysterious, it is even holy!

After more than 57 years in the ministry, I am no stranger to tragedy. I have seen tragedy destroy individuals and families. I have presided over more tragedies than I would like to remember. But every now and then I have seen people who were saved, transformed, born again by a tragedy from which I never dreamed any good could come. Don’t ask me to explain the mechanics of how or why. I do not know. I only know that it happens. Life-threatening accidents or illnesses often cause people to re-examine the very premises upon which they have based their lives.

Let me give you an example, and I have to be very careful here. It is a delicate matter for a minister to speak publically or write about a tragedy in someone’s life without their permission.
About two years ago I met a vibrant, beautiful young woman in a social setting in which I was involved. Her spirit of joy and sense of peace with herself was palpable. She was absolutely charming! I thought to myself: "Now, here is a young person who has it all together! She knows who she is and is happy with her life." In what began as a casual conversation I learned that when she was in her late teens she was in a terrible automobile accident in which almost every bone in her body was broken. Everyone thought she was dead, or would soon die, but by some miracle she recovered completely. I offered what I thought was an empathetic comment by saying: "What a terrible thing to happen to someone." As quick as a flash, and with an obvious sincerity that defied doubt, she said: "Oh, no, it was the most wonderful thing that ever happened to me. I would not exchange it for anything in the world!" She went on to explain how in this tragedy she found herself. She was transformed and (my words, not her’s) born again. Now that is more than "a blessing in disguise." There is something holy about that kind of alchemy.

It happens! Not every time, but it happens!

AN ENCOURAGING WORD for August 16, 2007 - written by Dr. Thomas Lane Butts, Pastor Emeritus, Monroeville First United Methodist Church

Amos & Hosea

By Dr. Jim H. Savage
What do we have in common with folks who lived over 2,700 years ago?
We actually have a great deal in common. We learn from writers like Amos, Hosea, Micah and others that the people in the northern kingdom were named Israel at the time. Hosea was a prophet who lived in the northern kingdom of Israel and Amos and Micah were prophets from the southern kingdom of Judah. Why was everyone mad at the king and head priest in the north? What did they have in common with us?

It seems the head priest and king had allowed other gods to be worshipped, and had even changed the worship in the main temple to include “temple prostitutes” and other little things that would cause us to raise our eyebrows today. They had changed their measuring standards for the poor so that food was too expensive for them to buy. A pound of grain was really less than a pound, and then they raised the price on this “pound” as they called it. They were cheating the poorest of the poor. I guess the ones cheating them needed more money for those temple prostitutes.

They also began to do whatever was “politically correct” regardless of what the ten commandments said, or the other commands that had been passed down to them from God. Is this starting to sound familiar?

It was an extremely prosperous time for a few folks at the top in Israel. It is even recorded that some had beds made of ivory which was unheard of in their day. The poorest folks who worked very hard in the fields could not even make enough money to feed their children so the ruling class fixed that problem. They set up a place where the poorest farm workers could sell their own into slavery which was often the big land owners and successful merchants. Amos mentioned that even this did not help the poorest people too much because some children were swapped for just one used pair of shoes. Can you imagine being so poor that you had to sell your own child?

Amos, the southern prophet of Judah was taking his life in his own hands when he headed up north to confront these sins. Amos did not see himself as a prophet and even says in his own words: “I am no prophet, nor a prophet’s son; but I am a herdsman and a dresser of sycamore trees, and the LORD took me from following the flock, and the LORD said to me, ‘Go, prophesy to my people Israel.’
Amos knew the agony of the poorest class of people. He was not part of them because he actually owned farm land, and sold his sycamore fruit to the poorest of the poor in the southern kingdom of Judah. But Amos was fair to them and tried to help them. The folks in the northern kingdom of Israel were cheating people right and left and especially those who barely had any type of food to eat. God saw this injustice and said this: “Hear this, you that trample on the needy and bring to ruin the poor of the land”…”I will turn your feasts into mourning, and all your songs into lamentation” (Amos 8:4 and 10). I could go on but you get the picture. God wants us to remember His ways, His commands, and his love for the “least of these” remembering that it was Jesus who said, “Whatever you have done to the least of these you have done it unto me” (Matthew 25:45).

Monday, August 13, 2007

The Long Journey by Thomas Butts

The two most important events in human life are birth and death. The first we do not consciously remember and the second we can hardly consciously contemplate. Most of our life is spent wondering why we are here, until it slowly dawns on us that we are not permanent fixtures, and then we begin to wonder why we cannot stay. Loren Eiseley, anthropologist and writer, wrote the following epitaph for his wife and himself: "We love the earth, but could not stay." The Good Book reminds us that we are all "appointed once to die." (Hebrews 9:27) Ecclesiastes 3:2 tells us "There is a time to be born and a time to die."

How prone we are to forget that we are sojourners in the land. We are just passing through. Philosophically, we understand that idea, but we do not like the practical application of it. Most of us can identify with the candid statement made by American writer, William Saroyan, a few hours before his death. "Everybody has got to die, but I always believed that an exception would be made in my case." We know there are no exceptions, but hope springs eternal.

Is there something in the nature of reality that prepares us to pass off the stage of this dimension? Famous American lawyer, Clarence Darrow, lived to age 81. Before he became senile in the last months of his life, he wrote: "Nature treats all of her children as she does the fields and the forests, in late autumn, as the cold blasts are coming on, she strips us for the ordeal that is waiting. Our steps grow slower, our efforts briefer, our journeys shorter; our ambitions are not so irresistible, and our hopes no longer wear wings." That is one way of looking at how we are prepared to take the "Long Journey."

In the course of 57 years in ministry I have seen many people approach the end of their lives. I have been with many people as they died. Most people seem to leave this life without fear and with a serene calm. I have always felt that there was something I could not fathom or name that gently took over the process. In death everything fades into mystery from this side.

The imminent student of death, the late Dr. Elizabeth Kubler-Ross, said there is no death. We simply move from one dimension of existence to the next. For most of us there is an undergirding faith in the teachings of Jesus on this matter. I love the little tercet by Robert Burns:
The voice of nature loudly cries
And many a message from the skies,
That something in us never dies.

We do know (believe) that death is the great "leveler." In life there are many distinctions, but there is absolute democracy in death. All the distinctions of wealth, power, beauty, fame, etc., fall away, and we leave this world as we came – empty handed.

Alexander the Great was once surprised to find the philosopher, Diogenes, examining a heap of human bones. He asked him what he was looking for, to which Diogenes replied: "I am searching for the bones of your father, but I cannot distinguish them from those of his slaves." With death distinctions fall away.

On those occasions upon which we are able to think about the reality of our earthly existence and the certain fact that we are not here to stay, perhaps we should read the 14th chapter of the Gospel of St. John, which is a source of powerful reassurance regarding death. It begins: "Let not your hearts be troubled..."

Well, read it for yourself. It will make you feel much safer about living – and dying.