We heard a message last week our church that really hit a nail and made me think about something. The sermon series is called ‘I Am Jonah’ – something we found out was coming a couple of months ago and started the week our Jonah was due – and can be found here for those who are interested. In a sermon full of discussion about failures in the midst of provision and in a story about a man who ran from God’s wish for him, who reserved judgment, and who didn’t feel that a group of people deserved to receive the grace of God, it was that very grace that brought Jonah back into a place of clarity. He realized that in these hardships and in this place of dissension, he found himself in a place where he could be honest with himself. He took a hard look at what his character was and how he was living his life and made some changes.
Folks, this is exactly where I am and likely where many others are as well. I have lived my life in a way that I have focused on helping people wherever I can, and because of my personality and an upbringing that came largely by mediating. I have developed a habit of filtering my words and my thoughts into overly diplomatic messages that, while having good intentions, also cloud me from the clarity that comes with being brought into the light. I’m realizing that I have taken a place of compassion and empathy and made it into something that defines me from within the smoke. What I hadn’t understood until very recently is that it’s ok to let my guard down and filter things less. The grief that I’ve kept on my shoulders over the years has pushed me backwards. My son has helped me walk back out of the smoke and look at myself honestly, and I’m learning some things here. The biggest so far? That I’m the one withholding grace; that I am Jonah.
I lost my grandpa when I was in fourth or fifth grade. I remember going to school and having teachers and aids reaching out to me, asking if I was ok. I remember going to the funeral home – clear as day – and saying goodbye to him with my mom and sister. I have such a visual memory with things like this that I could describe it right down to the look and colors of the flowers. What’s sad is that it isn’t even what I remember most. In the last several years of his life he suffered from Alzheimer’s Disease and Parkinson’s. I remember going to visit him first at a nursing home close to where I work and feeling like he was being taken care of and then being moved to another where he wasn’t. The second place didn’t feel clean. It was grey and dark, the staff didn’t go out of their way to greet families who were coming to visit their loved ones. My grandpa at this point – Larry, from whom I get my middle name – was very weak and frail. The thing I remember the most about him wasn’t his kind face and laugh that I hear about. It wasn’t his spirit that everyone said was infectious. I remember more than anything going to visit him and he didn’t know who we were. He would talk to whichever people he saw in his memories and my mom would respond, hoping to experience just one more moment with him. In this, I’ve withheld grace from the care workers and facility for this specific memory. I keep it and hold on to it, and I take it with me.
I lost my granny, Larry’s wife, two months after I turned 18. She passed just after Christmas in 2003. Here’s the thing – I didn’t find out until I was taking her my high school graduation announcement. She had talked for years about moving into a smaller apartment at her complex after her husband passed, so I didn’t think anything of it when someone different answered the door and her furniture was gone. I walked upstairs to the manager’s apartment and asked where Mildred had moved to and I’ll never forget what came next. “Oh, you don’t know.” My heart sank. While she was telling me that Mae had passed months ago I was looking past her. She had a brown and yellow couch and was watching some cartoons with her grandson. It smelled like lilacs in the spring because of flowers on top of her TV and the tea she had just brewed, still steaming. I could tell you more about her apartment than I could about the clothes she was wearing, but that isn’t the worst part. There is a long and complicated backstory about her relationship with my family that ended up in not getting to spend time with her, but I had come to the point in my life where I could drive myself to go visit her and did frequently that summer. I’d go visit, take some lunch or we’d get fried chicken from Safeway (always her go-to) and sit and talk. Sometimes she’d want to take me bowling like she used to when I was smaller and I’d humor her because I knew she got a kick out of it. But the last time I visited her was in the middle of August and I went to church with her. I was overwhelmed a little by all of the people in the congregation who’s lives she touched. Easily twenty people came to tell me about how she had cooked for them when something had happened or said something to their child that helped straighten them out. On our way out there was no talk about how it went or how I felt about going to her church instead of mine, there was only an ‘I love you’ and a ‘see you next week’ before she turned to talk to someone else that she likely had an impact on. That was the last time I spoke to her. I withheld grace that day. Not from granny for not asking, but from those people who knew her so much better than I did. She was a tough woman who rubbed people the wrong way for all of her life, but she and I had a different relationship than everyone else and I was jealous that they got to spend time with her.
This has developed into a pattern with loss – my dad’s parents who passed in 2000 and 2012 that I never really got to form a relationship with. Another set of grandparents who both passed in 2014. Losing our first pregnancy last year. Various friends and friends-of-friends. I carried their grief with me because I understood what they were going through and it hurt that someone else had to go through it too, and now that Jonah has come and gone I find myself in an interesting place. Losing my son has allowed me to step out of the smoke and take a look at who I am right now, in this moment. In all of these situations, I’ve withheld grace from myself. It wasn’t the care workers I was upset with, it was that I didn’t want to lose him. I wanted to remember him better than that, and I was angry that I couldn’t. While I may have been jealous of the people in granny’s life, I was angry with myself for not going to see her that next weekend. I was angry that I didn’t make the effort to talk to her and tell her that I’d rather go to my church and see her afterwards. I was angry that the last thing I said was ‘see you next week’ instead of ‘I love you’, and I was angry that I didn’t make more effort to spend time with her when I could. Every year when we decorate for Christmas I take out a bell that I had bought to give her for her collection because I didn’t make the effort to actually go see her. I was ashamed that I didn’t go back, and all this time I’ve been afraid that she died more of heart break than old age and the things that come with it. I’ve taken steps to mediate in people’s lives because I don’t want them to say the wrong thing before they lose someone, but I’ve never forgiven myself. It’s long past time that I let go of these things, and it’s because of my son that I’m able to see that now. My baby boy, whom I’ll never get to experience a life with, has given me more freedom than I could ever have asked for and it’s because I was willing to step into the light with him.
So here’s the question – who are you withholding grace from? What experiences have you had that you carry around with you, and that are keeping you from truly honoring those that you have lost? Friends, it’s these things that keep us from being able to see them the way we want to. I can’t say that it will make it hurt less – I’m struggling to see my screen through the tears as I write this. And I can’t say that the path in front of you will be easier because it isn’t – it’s exactly the path you choose for yourself in every small, daily decision. But what I can say is that stepping forward, confronting those memories, and allowing grace in your life will let you look at the memories with love instead of yourself in pain. It won’t be easy, but you won’t be doing it alone. Jonah is with me every minute of every day, encouraging me to be a man that makes him proud, and I know yours will be there too.
Son, I love you more than I will ever be able to tell you. I’m working hard to do right by you and honor your memory, and to be the papa in your death that I wanted to be in your life. We miss you