The faith I had always leaned on seemed to crumble before my eyes.
By Rev. Karen W. Burton
Just lean on God … The words were whispered in my ear. My thoughts crystallized in the middle of that agonizing day. I thought, “How can I lean on someone I can’t find?”
I figured it couldn’t get any worse. Our unborn son was diagnosed with a hypoplastic right ventricle at 28 weeks gestation. Joseph Allen “Joey” Burton was born on May 24, 1993 and died nine days and two heart surgeries later on June 2, 1993. I held him in my arms on that last day after we requested his life support be withdrawn. I held him for the first and last time while he slowly died. And now, I was sitting at his funeral, trying to focus on the people who were talking to me, touching me, trying to console me. And then, those words, “Just lean on God…”
A lot of people tried to talk to me about God. I was not surprised by that. I am a United Methodist Pastor. A lot of people tried to use religious cliches to make me feel better. I was not surprised by that. People struggle for things to say in a crisis and often rely on cliches. But then, I tried to pray, to go to church, to believe and I was surprised. The faith I had always leaned on seemed to crumble before my eyes. My only prayer was, “Okay God, where were you? Didn’t you see what was happening to me and my son?”
People throughout my ministry have shared faith stories with me. For many, their faith in God has pulled them through times of crisis, tragedy and death. But for me, my loss brought about the worst faith crisis in my life. I found myself wondering if I could ever “find” God again. I wondered if God even cared about me. I couldn’t pray. I had lost my son, and now, it seemed as if I had lost God to. I was hurt, angry and feeling utterly and completely alone.
If your faith has sustained you during your time of loss, I am truly glad. But, if you share an experience with me, if your loss has brought about a crisis of faith, I want you to know that you are not alone. A faith crisis can happen to anyone, even a pastor. The journey through the crisis can be long and hard. There are no easy answers or solutions. But, you do not have to struggle alone. When I was at my lowest, I was lucky to receive a lot of help and good advice. I would like to share a couple of suggestions that were helpful time:
Give yourself time.
There is nor reason to panic. As I just stated, many of us have found ourselves in your shoes. Just as you cannot hurry along your grieving, you cannot hurry your faith back to “normal.” So, take a deep breath and promise yourself the time you need to heal, to reflect, and maybe, to pray.
Put a filter on your ears.
Well-meaning folks may try to fix your faith for you by telling you how to believe or act. People may actually tell you that people of “real” faith don’t have a crisis in tragedy. When these people talk to you, try to hear only their concern (if it’s genuine). Ignore attempt to control this painful and very real journey you are on. A good clue to turn that “filter” on is when you hear words like “if you really believed… you should be counting your blessings… at least you have…”
Be honest with God.
Genuine faith is an HONEST faith. Try not to pray the way you think you ought to – pray what you really feel and believe. If a yell is what you can do, yell. We shouldn’t worry about expressing our anger, despair and pain to God. The Maker of the Universe is strong enough to handle our anger. I remember one day, when I was home alone, I walked through my house, room to room. As I entered each room, I yelled at God over a particular aspect of my pain. I yelled until I was hoarse. Finally, I shouted “WHERE WERE YOU?” It was the most honest prayer of my life. So, let God have it – whatever “it” is in your heart.
Let others believe for you.
When I first went back to church after Joey’s death, I couldn’t sing, or pray, or participate in worship at all. So, I sat week after week and let others to it around me. My faith community sang for me, prayed for me, worshiped for me until eventually, I said one prayer, hummed one stanza of a hymn, and smiled during a sermon. In your grief, you do not have to be the pillar of faith in your faith community. Let your community do some of the work of faith for you. Go ahead and spend time in their midst, even if you cannot work up any excitement over the prospect.
Find support in spiritual friends.
I was so fortunate to have two clergy women friends who walked my journey with me. They did not try to fix me or my faith. They let me wail at God over and over. They did not try to explain the inexplicable. They cried with me and for me. Find friends who will listen and care. Discuss your journey with them, cry with them and when you are ready, pray with them.
Be prepared for things to change.
You know this in your gut already. You are changing. You will never be the same person you were before this time of loss and pain. Your priorities are shifting. Your religious beliefs may change as well. You may find yourself with new questions, different perspectives and changing needs. As you search for God throughout this struggle, you will think about things in new ways. One mother I know said tome, “I will never again say ‘everything happens for the best.’ Since my daughter died, I just don’t believe that anymore.”
Seek spiritual advice from a trusted source.
It is helpful to have the support of a pastor, priest, rabbi, etc. when your questions arise. It is my hope that your spiritual leader will be supportive and understanding of your pain. If one person is not helpful to you, look for another. Your best resource in locating such a person is probably other parents like yourself – people who have suffered a similar loss. Ask their advice.
The most helpful words I heard in the weeks after my son’s death came from the senior pastor at my church. I share them with you as a final thought.
Paul was in the midst of a struggle with cancer that would eventually take his life. I spend many afternoons in his office as we discussed the nature of bewilderment over God’s “abandonment” of me. He listened with a caring ear. I finally asked him where God had gone. “why,” I asked, “when I hurt the most, was God most silent?” He thought for a moment and said, “It is hard to hear the still small voice of god when your soul is screaming in pain.”
Reverend Burton was ordained in 1986 and is the Associate Pastor of the First United Methodist Church in St. Charles, MO. She is also a bereaved parent who volunteers for SHARE, a non-profit national organization established for the benefit of the bereaved parent experiencing a pregnancy loss, still birth or neonatal death.
©Rev. Karen W. Burton, published here with permission.