A Good Friday Lament for Child Loss and Childlessness

Good Friday is a day for difficult reflection. It’s a day we remember a tragic death. We remember that Jesus hung on a cross to die for the sins of the world.

This year I was asked by a neighboring pastor to lead a Good Friday service for his church. It was a unique request–could I lead a service of lament and remembrance for those who have suffered miscarriage or infertility? As we talked, prayed and planned, we decided to expand the service to minister to anyone who has experienced any kind of child loss or childlessness: infertility, miscarriage, stillbirth, SIDS, failed surrogacy or adoption, abortion, or any other circumstance.

As a former hospital chaplain assigned to the high-risk pregnancy and neonatal intensive care units, I had an idea where to begin. As an aunt to two miscarried babies, I knew something of the sensitivity needed.

So we began with lament. We set our pain and grief before God through corporate readings and song. We prayed and poured out our hearts before the Lord.

From there we moved into acts of remembrance and healing. We lit 41 candles for children lost or hoped for. I anointed sisters and brothers with oil for healing of body and spirit. We went to the communion table and received Christ’s body and blood so that God would sustain us as we heal, and wait, and hope.

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Then we let Jesus’ words minister to us through Lectio Divina:

Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is kind and my burden is light.      Matthew 11:28-30

I wrote a prayer of response to this whole movement of souls:

Jesus Christ, Son of God who hung upon the cross in agony—
Remember our suffering, sorrow, and loss.
Help us come to you when we want to run and hide.
Replace this heavy yoke of grief with one that is kind and easier to carry;
We need your holy rest.

Living and eternal Savior,
Heal and restore us.
Gently teach us how to live with joy.
Resurrect our hope that you are good at all times and in every way.
Supply the resilience we need to live in broken bodies and a broken world, until you
Come and make all things new.


Too often the church remains silent about the pain and grief we experience because it make us (pastors) uncomfortable. Or, we tell ourselves, that the plans we have for our services and sermons can’t be interrupted. But child loss and childlessness burdens too many people for the church to ignore this pain.

1 out of every 10 couples experience infertility.

At least 1 in 4 women will experience a miscarriage in her lifetime.

God lost his one and only son to death.

The church should be a safe place to cry out our every pain and suffering. A place to weep. A place where we give ourselves over to the mysterious, healing work of the Holy Spirit. A place where we stretch our empty arms toward the God who knows our loss.

So tonight a small branch of the church gathered. Tonight we cried out like God’s people have done for centuries. We sat in the quiet–waiting, listening–and expecting that God was at work in us.

At the end of this Good Friday, we left candles burning before the cross and went home knowing that God heard our prayers.

May resurrection and new life come soon.

Like Peter: Following Jesus on Good Friday

I’m working with our worship pastor to shape our Good Friday service. We are using a series of dramatic readings, shaped from the Gospel of John, to tell the story of Christ’s last days. I was looking for a responsive reading that would work well after Peter’s denial of Jesus in John 18:15-27. Despite many online resources, I couldn’t seem to find what I was looking for. So I created something new, borrowing from something old.

This responsive reading is simply built; it’s snippets of conversation between Jesus and Peter, taken from all four gospels. It’s designed so that the congregation walks in Peter’s sandals as he follows Jesus. In one minute, the reading reflects three years of discipleship. I want the congregation to connect with the idea that we are all like Peter. Our lives are full of moments of passionate belief followed by doubt, fear, confusion, and passionate denial. You are welcome to use this as you will.

St. Peter in Penitence, El Greco, 1580s

St. Peter in Penitence, El Greco, 1580s

Leader:     Follow me, and I will make you fish for people.

People:    I will follow you.

Leader:     Who do you say that I am?

People:    You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God!

Leader:     No one can come to me unless it is granted by the Father. Will you go away like the others?

People:    Lord, to whom would we go? You have the words of eternal life.

Leader:     I must wash your feet.

People:    Lord, you shall never wash my feet.

Leader:     If I do not wash you, you have no share with me.

People:    Lord, not just my feet – wash my hands and head too!

Leader:     I must go to Jerusalem, suffer many things, be killed and raised on the third day.

People:    No, Lord! This will never happen to you!

Leader:     If anyone wants to come with me, you must deny yourself, take up your cross, and follow me.

People:    I will follow you. I will lay down my life for you.

Leader:     Tonight all of you will run away because of me.

People:    Even if everyone runs away because of you, I will never run away!

Leader:     Before the rooster crows, you will deny me three times.

People:    Even if I have to die with you, I will never deny you!

[pause]

Leader:     Weren’t you with Jesus the Galilean?

People:    I don’t know what you mean.

Leader:     Yes, you are with Jesus of Nazareth!

People:    I don’t know the man.

Leader:     I am sure you are one of his disciples.

People:    I am not!

A Holy Week

On Palm Sunday I preached the good news about God’s unexpected salvation – salvation from sin, salvation for all, and salvation from circumstances. I said this –

If God’s power can conquer sin and death, then he can certainly free us from everything that enslaves us. He can remove every roadblock and work miracles through our limitations. But often God doesn’t intercede the way we expect…

Friends, too often we make ourselves prisoners of hope, looking for salvation from circumstances to come in a particular package or follow a particular pattern. As greatly as God loves you, he wants to set you free! But are you coming to God with clenched fists, holding tightly to your expected outcomes? What if God knows that there is something better, something you need more than what you are asking for?

My last blog post was a raw expulsion of feeling. I compared myself to an unraveling sweater. I had reached a breaking point emotionally, spiritually and physically. I could not think of another month of job searching without crying.

What a difference a week makes.

Within days of writing Unraveling Sweater, good news rolled into my life like a 4th of July parade. My father, who was laid off a year ago, received a wonderful job offer. Beginning May 1st he will raise money for a non-profit that serves some of the poorest children in Phoenix. God heard our prayers and came to save.

A few days later I received a job offer of my own. From June thru December I will be serving as a chaplain at the Punahou School in Honolulu, Hawaii. I will lead chapels for students from Kindergarten through 5th grade and offer pastoral care and counseling to students and their families. Though I love spending time with children and prize my role as aunt as much as I do my role as pastor, I’ve never imagined myself working with kids. Clearly God had other ideas. He heard my cries and he came to save.

After 4 years relentlessly pursuing a full-time job, this new opportunity feels like a Jubilee, a real trumpet-blast of liberation. I will have a new challenge to feed my brain and an island getaway free from job-searching to feed my soul. I’m embracing my own lesson. God has given me unexpected salvation, a gift in an unusual package, but I’m welcoming it with joy and anticipation.

The desert has been a significant metaphor for my inner life and experiences the past four years that I’ve lived in Phoenix. It’s not lost on me that I’m moving from the desert to what many people consider paradise on earth. Most people only dream of places like Hawaii and only a privileged few vacation there. I will soon live and work there. I will leave behind the dry, dusty, marrow-sucking heat of the desert for the lush greens, fragrant blooms and warm breezes of a tropical island. I can’t find adequate words to describe my sense of gratitude to God and the renewal of hope that is happening in my spirit.

And in the middle of all of this good news, pain and loss continue to shade my life. A friend is experiencing the miscarriage of her first baby. Another is newly devastated by infidelity. Two others have said their final goodbyes, one to a mother, the other to a sister. A homebound widow begs for a visit and prayers – her roommate returned to a life of addiction and is now hospitalized after attempting suicide. People I love are hurting and so even as I rejoice, I shout – Hosanna! Save, now! Save, I pray!

This has been a holy week. A week of contrasts inhabiting the same moment. I rejoice in my circumstances even as I weep with others. Hope sprouts with new dreams for my future while circumstances crush the spirit of those around me. Joy mixes with sorrow and makes its own kind of liturgy.

As a Christian, Holy Week is the strangest week we live. We do our best to step into time with Jesus, to participate in the iconic moments of his last days. On Sunday we celebrate his arrival as king. He’s come to do his most sacred work, to redeem God’s people and take the throne. We dazzle and sometimes disturb visitors to our churches with waving palm branches, cute children’s plays and shouts of hosanna. By Friday everything has changed. We have lost our joy. We are full of confusion, pain and fear. We turn down the volume and the lights and soak in the fact that our savior has been betrayed, arrested, tortured, humiliated and nailed to a cross. On Saturday we weep. Some give up and walk away. In all of us there is an inner stillness; we’re waiting for something, but we don’t know what. And then it’s Sunday again and we experience the deepest possible joy as Jesus appears before us alive and victorious!

It’s a week full of contrasts that inhabit the same moment. Light and darkness. Life and death. Waiting, seeking and finding. Unprecedented despair followed by unparalleled rejoicing. Holy Week is the pattern of life, at least for now. And it’s only the knowledge that painful things lead to unexpectedly good things, that keeps me living.

I Thirst

The following is a homily I delivered tonight as part of a Good Friday tenebrae service. 

“Later, knowing that all was now completed, and so that Scripture would be fulfilled, Jesus said, ‘I thirst.'”  (John 19:28)

It was early summer in 1999 when I spent a month studying and traveling through Israel.  I was taking a course on the religions, history and archeology of the Holy Land and spent hours each day hiking through ancient ruins.  Having grown up in Ohio and lived in costal California, I wasn’t used to the intense heat and wilting sunshine of the desert.  I remember one day where temperatures soared over 120 degrees and no matter how much water I drank, I remained incredibly thirsty.

When I chose these words of Jesus for my homily, my first instinct was to attribute his thirst to Israel’s oppressive heat.  But then last week I spent an afternoon slowly reading the Gospel of John aloud, doing my best to pause and place myself in each scene as an eyewitness to Jesus’ ministry.  That exercise led me to a very different conclusion about Jesus’s statement, “I thirst.”

Just a few moments into John’s story, I found myself a guest at a wedding feast where Jesus, informed that the wine was running low, turned six vats of water into the finest quality wine.  His very first miracle was to quench people’s thirst!

Missing Jesus’ involvement and the miraculous transformation, the master of the banquet says to the bridegroom, “Everyone brings out the choice wine first and then the cheaper wine after the guests have had too much to drink; but you have saved the best till now.”  I don’t think the master of the banquet realized he was speaking symbolically about Jesus.

A few months later I watch as Jesus, weary from a long journey by foot, stops to rest outside Samaria, a city of people scorned by Jews.  There’s a woman sitting alone at the well.  She’s an outcast among outcasts; she’s had a suspicious number of husbands and now lives with a man who is not her husband.  From this unclean woman Jesus asks for a drink.  They have a provocative conversation, during which Jesus tells the woman that he can offer her “living” water that will “spring up into eternal life.”  He claims that if she drinks his living water she will never thirst again.  It’s obvious he’s not talking about physical thirst or literal water.

Flash forward to the Feast of Tabernacles when Jesus tells the crowds gathered in Jerusalem’s temple courts, “Let anyone who is thirsty come to me and drink.  Whoever believes in me, rivers of living water will flow from within them.”

Eventually I reach this point in the story – the crucifixion.  By now, Jesus has been betrayed, arrested, questioned, falsely accused and handed over to Pilate.  He’s been slapped in the face, whipped, mocked and ridiculed.  Finally, he is stripped naked and nailed to a cross.

He’s been hanging there for hours.  He’s exposed and exhausted and I’m not surprised when Jesus says he is thirsty.  His thirst is certainly a result of his weakened state, the abuse he’s suffered and exposure to the heat and sun.  But now, when I hear the words, “I thirst,” I think back over the three years of Jesus’ ministry.  I remember the wedding feast when Jesus turned water into wine.  I think of when he offered the lowliest of people living water, eternal life.  And I remember his words from the day he preached on a mountainside, “Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled.”

Jesus says he is thirsty and I watch as a nearby solider soaks a sponge in wine and lifts it up for Jesus to drink.  Except, this is not fine wine fit for a king.  It’s the vinegar extracts of a cheap wine too bitter to drink.

The contrasts are clear between what Jesus offered and what he received:

Jesus gathered disciples, loved them and taught them the way of truth; they betrayed, denied and deserted him.

Jesus treated people like honored guests at his Father’s banquet; they rejected and crucified him as a criminal.

Jesus gave the people the finest wine to drink; they gave him bitter vinegar.

Jesus offered to forever quench the spiritual thirst of undeserving sinners; they nailed him to two slabs of wood and left him to die, thirsty.

Physically thirsty – yes – but more than that.  I think that Jesus, in his very last moments, is still desperately thirsty for the spiritually parched people witnessing his death, to believe that he is the Son of God able to give them the living water of eternal life.