From Grief to Joy: A Resurrection Story

How can one experience a “birth” and a “death” at the same time?

I have experienced that paradox up close and personal two times. The first was our twin pregnancy that ended on September 5, 1990, in the hospital delivery room, when our (now beautiful 24 year old daughter) Lindsay, was delivered with a sad and pitiful little cry, just minutes before her identical twin sister, Gretchen, was exhumed silent and still from her mother’s womb.  Gretchen had succumbed to the complications of the rare twin–to–twin transfusion, a condition that had us on pins and needles for the final 11 weeks of the pregnancy.  The doctor had said in the very beginning, after the diagnosis, there was only a remote possibility of having any babies.  After Lindsay’s delivery the collatoral effects of the condition kept her in a neonatal intensive care unit for 25 days before we would bring her home from the hospital.

Of an unfairly long list of personal tragedies and challenges, this was by far my deepest sorrow and my darkest day. Every birthday that Lindsay has celebrated since that day – and, in fact, every act of celebration of a life event: first steps, learning to ride a bicycle, going to prom, graduation, and most recently walking her down the aisle to get married – all have been sweet and bitter for me.  Not a single one of those milestones have I celebrated with Lindsay without wondering: “what if?” in remembering my sweet, tiny, and perfectly formed Gretchen.

It had not even been five years since that hard day when we were back at the hospital for the delivery of our third child. The pregnancy had gone fine this time and we were thankful that other than routine doctor visits Leann nor I worried about much, other than normal “expectant parent” concerns during our nine month wait.

In the late morning of January 12, 1995, after finding out we had a brand-new baby boy, I couldn’t imagine I was about to experience that ever so strange encounter with a birth and a death at the same time yet again.

Leann and I never knew the gender of our third child during the pregnancy. So as soon as I heard the doctor proclaim: “it’s a boy,” I let my mind run free with all the things any father has in mind when thinking about a relationship with his son.

How often is it recounted by someone who has a brush with death and escapes, “I saw my life pass before my eyes?” I have never thought about the truth of that in all these years until this very writing. That is exactly what happened to me.  I saw my life with my son played out in living color in the hour or so between hearing, “It’s a boy,” and hearing, “Well, we can’t really confirm without genetic testing…but he does appear to have traits that are characteristic of Down syndrome.”  As quickly as I had painted those pictures in my mind of days that we might spend together sharing a love of sailing, throwing a ball, flying airplanes, looking for beauty in the world, singing songs and making music  – there was an ugly crashing sound as those dreams were all pronounced “dead at the scene,” by the nurse who was the only one brave enough to tell us the truth when we began to realize all really wasn’t right with the world anymore.

It is the day after Epiphany as I write this. Epiphany is the name given to the day on the calendar of the church when we celebrate the star that led the Magi to the proof of God’s love for all creation: a child whose name was Jesus. Epiphany means “appearance” or “manifestation.”

I have been led to a deep and beautiful truth myself as I have contemplated Matt’s birthday on January 12. I am sure I have felt this way for some time. I am also sure I have never had the words to articulate my feelings like I have been given now as I remember this important 20th birthday that we will celebrate with our special son, Matt.

What has “appeared” or been made manifest to me, is that whatever sadness, sorrow, mourning, or grief I experienced at the birth of my son and the death of my dreams, has ever so surely and completely been replaced by the undeserved abundance of love and laughter and joy that Matt has given us over the 20 years we have been blessed to have him in our lives.

When Matt was born, and I found out he had Down syndrome, all I could think in my silent (because it seemed so blasphemous) prayer was: “God… Are you kidding me? After what we went through the last time? This is what you would give us to deal with? Are you kidding me?”

I love God. Honestly, I do. Sometimes I have to remember that Jesus’ commandment to “love God,” uses the same Greek word for love that we pastors explain to brides and grooms: “this love (agape) means you choose to love even when the object of love doesn’t seem very lovable.” So sometimes (especially September 5, 1990, and January 12, 1995) I have simply chosen to love God even when I really didn’t want to.A beautiful boy

Now my silent (because I’m embarrassed to admit aloud how wrong I was) prayer is: “Oh… I get it God. You really did know what I would need. You knew there would always be a hole in my heart that unspent love would just steadily pour out of when I lost my Gretchen. You knew there was no way I would ever plug that hole. So you gave me Matt.”

You see, what I would discover along the path of what I thought would be a dreadful journey, was the surprise that Matt poured overflowing love into my life, and like someone using a funnel discovering it can only empty out at the same rate something is poured into the top, I soon realized this sweet boy (who would be furious if he knew I called him that, now that he has “turned from a kid into a guy!” – his own insistent words) started filling my wounded heart so fast and so full with love and joy that what went out of the hole would always be overcome and overfilled by his special love.

I get it now. Thank you. Thank you! Amen.

 

 

“Why Do You Keep Saying That?” An Answer to a Question Everyone Should Ask

In my Lutheran tradition, when it is time for Holy Communion, the communicants are invited to come to the altar rail and kneel or stand to receive the bread and wine.  I guess the meaning of participating in that meal is as diverse as the people who come and gather at the table.

My eighteen year old son, Matt, has Down syndrome.  He has been taking communion for at least a dozen years.  From the very first time he took communion he just seemed to know what he was supposed to do, and for several years now he has no trouble stepping up to the altar (sometimes before the ushers have given him the “now-you-may-go” sign), kneeling, and extending his hand to receive the bread.  However, it is rare that Matt does not offer some commentary as he receives communion.

Before I was ordained, and was serving as a Vicar, I was assisting at the communion table, distributing the wine from the chalice, following the presiding minister, who was distributing the bread.  When the presiding minister got to the person just before Matt, he ran out of bread, and so he turned to move toward the altar to retrieve more bread.  There Matt knelt, hand extended, expecting the Bread of Life to be placed there lovingly with the words: “The Body of Christ…given for you.”  As he watched the pastor walk past him without even acknowledging that he was kneeling there, Matt exclaimed loud enough to be sure the pastor heard him: “Hey!  I think you forgot something!”

Since I have been presiding at communion I have always wondered what Matt was going to say.  Sometimes it is simply “thanks,”  Sometimes it is: “Thanks Dad….see you at lunch.”  Sometimes he mumbles a little bit and is honestly hard enough to understand that I just smile at him and move on to the next person.

On a recent Sunday, as soon as I handed him the bread and said: “The Body of Christ given for you,” he replied so clearly that I heard him – and I am sure everyone else did too: “Why do you keep saying that?”  I smiled at him and moved on to the next person.  But as I did that, I couldn’t help but realize he had been paying attention.  He always does.  He realized I was saying the same thing to everybody.  Or maybe he has always noticed that – and today he was going to ask me “why?”  The assisting minister was following about three people behind me, and when the small cup of  wine was given to Matt, with the words: “the blood of Christ shed for you,” I heard him ask again: “Why do you keep saying that?”

All of a sudden, I wasn’t sure if he was asking me that because he wanted to know, or if he was asking me that to test me?  I could almost sense him asking us: “Do you know why you are saying that over and over: ‘The body of Christ given for you? The blood of Christ shed for you?’”

I decided to learn from him in that moment, and that is why, before I pronounced the table blessing, after everyone in the congregation finished taking Communion, I told everyone present  that I had heard him ask that question of me and the communion assistant, and here was my answer…and I thought that it was a question everyone should ask, and so everyone should hear the answer: “Matt, I say that to everybody because none of us can hear the story enough times about how much and how deeply God loves us: “The body of Christ given for you…the blood of Christ shed for you.”

It is not just that Jesus’ body was given, or his blood shed. These things were done for you.

Thank you Matt for reminding me the importance and impact of what we say and what we hear when we receive this holy gift from God.