Voices: Grief and a pastor go for a swim

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Pastors’ calendars and lives can be an emotional roller coaster, mixing moments of celebration with times of tears.

My family experienced several tearful times in 2016: friends who suffered severe injuries, a dear friend who died, and another who was murdered. Our oldest son got married, and if you’ve ever had a child marry, you understand the joy mixed with “s/he won’t ever live under our roof again.” We put down our sweet dog at the vet and then drove straight to visit a dear family greeting a precious baby girl.

“I’m so ready to turn the calendar to 2017,” I told my wife Heather many times.

But 2017 was more of the same … and then some.

The following sentence is still hard to type. In fact, though I’ve written it by hand, it’s the first time I’ve typed this sentence.

My brother Jody is dead.

The brother who taught me to swim

Jody Raye Smith was a wonderful soul of caring mixed with determination mixed with stubbornness. Jody possessed amazing artistic ability. He played the piano and practiced by teaching me to harmonize while he played. And he wouldn’t accept mediocre pitch, intonation or sloppy breath control.

He pushed me to stand in front of congregations at the age of six and 10, 13 and 16. I grew comfortable onstage at a young age because of my brother. He was the first person who placed me before people to lead them toward Christ.

Jody took me to New Orleans for a few days when I graduated high school and introduced me to a personal passion—Cajun food.

I had my first sip of alcohol as well.

“That’s terrible,” I said. “Does all alcohol taste that terrible?”

“Yes,” he replied.

And so my life “on the sauce” ended all in about two minutes.

We sat at a jazz club on the edge of Bourbon Street three nights in a row listening to jazz. And yes, I’ve been going to that same spot since 1990, enjoying the music and drinking a Coke.

When it came time to choose a place to work on my doctoral degree, there wasn’t any consideration other than New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary. They serve killer red beans and rice, by the way.

When Jody lived on the West Coast, during late night drives home when my family would be asleep, I called Jody, who was two hours behind me, and we talked and laughed for hours.

During the summer of 2017, the worst news came: Pneumonia that wouldn’t go away and a spot on his lung they kept trying to drain but couldn’t.

Though we had been honest with each other about many things, Jody finally revealed he had been sick for some time. I started to fear the inevitable.

The inevitable that flooded me

Heather and I were looking forward to the longest vacation of our lives. About four days into our trip to Germany, I received the call.

It’s funny being a pastor and a family member. On most days, you are simply a family member. But every now and then, you throw your pastoral “hat” on for your family.

Jody was back in the hospital and wasn’t doing well. A few days later, even though he had been told he didn’t have cancer in his lung, the diagnosis was Stage 1 lung cancer.

Normally, Jody would ask me to pray for him. This time, he asked me to pray with him. And I did so gladly.

“Do you want me to call our family members?” I asked, pastoral hat firmly in place.

“No,” he replied, “I will call them tomorrow.”

A few hours passed. It was about 2 a.m. in Germany when I received the call.

“Well, it’s actually Stage 4 cancer,” his friend told me over the phone, “and he has it in multiple places in his body.”

I already knew. I’ve been at hospitals enough to know. He wouldn’t survive.

Jody made the request, and wearing half a pastoral hat and half a son hat, I called my parents and my brother to break the news. I shook as I called but not from the cold.

Am I pastor or son? Brother or counselor? I’ve had many difficult conversations in my career, but calling my parents and brother on behalf of their son and brother to tell them, “He is going to die,” was by far the most difficult.

When Heather and I arrived home, Jody was mostly incoherent. Our last meaningful conversations were two prayers.

The text message came in the middle of the night. Jody was gone. And a part of me left with him.

When the levee broke

“A tropical wave is entering the Gulf of Mexico,” I heard a few days later. “If named, it will be called Harvey.”

La Grange flooded, with a total of 351 homes lost in our small town. I dove into the busyness of ministry.

What I didn’t realize at the time was how Harvey swept away my grief. One day, in the middle of it all, I thought to myself, “Well, I guess my grief over my brother has already passed.” Being trained in grief counseling, I knew better.

The Harvey floodwaters subsided, and things got back to normal. And the tides of grief rolled in.

I rode the wave of the Astros World Series as long as I could to stave off the grief that would follow.

It arrived slowly with fits of anger and bouts of sadness, but it was the anxiety—a typical response to grief—that swept my soul downstream. Though I could fall asleep, I awoke at 11:54 p.m. or 2:19 a.m. and was awake for the rest of the night. The fear was gripping and all-consuming. I was afraid of things I’ve never feared before.

This continued for about six weeks.

On Sunday, Dec. 3, 2017, about 15 minutes before worship began, I felt faint and weak. I thought I was going to have to tell my people: “I can’t do this today. I can’t deliver the sermon.” Full on panic attack!

I prayed: “Lord, I’m weak. Make me strong.” Close friends prayed the same prayer over me. He did make me strong. I didn’t faint, but I did sit on my preaching stool most of the message. No one seemed to notice.

The next Sunday while Heather and I were home, the dam holding back all of my grief and anxiety exploded. I don’t think I’ve ever wept like that before.

Since that day and a visit with my doctor to get some temporary help with sleeping, God has been restoring my strength day by day. Some days are good, some are bad. All days are filled with a new sense of hope, even though I have reached for my phone to call my brother Jody more times than I can count.

God has heard my cry for help, and he is “restoring my soul.”

The restoring work of God during grief

As pastors, we are not immune to the sting of sorrow, even when we put on our best acting faces. I’ve had to speak joyful words of hope at a funeral, trying to help others smile about a life wonderfully lived, while stifling my own grief quietly and deep inside like a geyser wanting to explode.

In those times, these truths help me.

God is with you in grief. Though you are walking through a deep, dark shadow in a low valley (Psalm 23), don’t be afraid. God hasn’t left or forsaken you.

Grief is God’s beautiful way of making you well. Cry a lot. Embrace the darkness. Express the emotions. Even “Jesus wept.” Intentionally do things that cause you to grieve. You will find in your weakness—even if it’s time to deliver a sermon—God will be your strength.

You’re not crazy. You are grieving. Anger, fear, anxiety, depression, loneliness—all of these emotions actually are a process God uses to make you well eventually. “Cast your anxiety on the Lord, because He cares for you” (1 Peter 5:7).

Know there is beauty in your grief. Grief indicates you’ve loved someone well. Grieve and be thankful you loved and were loved.

Be patient with grief and those who are grieving

To those of you grieving, you are not alone. Others are grieving, too. What’s more, God is “near the brokenhearted” (Psalm 34:18).

To those of you who will watch grieving family members this Christmas open presents and be a little less excited than expected; to those of you who will wonder why your grieving loved one seems a bit off, gloomy or blue, be patient and “bear one another’s burdens” (Galatians 6:2).

Jonathan Smith is the connect minister at First Baptist Church in Friendswood, Texas.

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