Toward a Sensitive Observance of Holy Innocents Day 2017

A few verses in Matthew are all that are granted to the tragedy of slain baby boys following the birth of Jesus. Christian Churches in the west have memorialized Herod’s paranoid panic as Holy Innocents’ Day, celebrated historically on December 28th, the fourth day of Christmas. In Medieval England, children were awakened to the solemnity of the occasion with a whipping. The Reformation effectively put a stop to the observance, but in Mexico the Feast of Holy Innocents is still celebrated as a mid-winter April Fool’s Day.

Consistent with our tendency to gloss over the unpleasant portions of Scripture, the church today skims quickly over the tragic tale. All the same, I’m wondering if that’s really an honest approach when 2017 has seen so much senseless carnage of innocent children.  There are children in famine-stricken Sudan, starving under the Khartoum regime. A dozen or more children have been shot and killed in pews and in their car seats here in the U.S. in the random violence that has characterized 2017.

Tricked out of a positive identification of his rival by the stealth of the wise men, Herod reduced a precious population of baby boys to a disposable demographic: male child, resident of Bethlehem and its districts, two years old and under. Herod’s extreme measures to protect his power from a child who might grow up to dethrone him is a theme we’d rather not think about at Christmas time.

Perhaps the early darkness of this season here in the Northern Hemisphere is the ideal setting in which to pause from our seasonal hoopla and allow our hearts to enter into the sadness and the grief that accompany the violent loss of a child. I find myself wishing that the weeping women of Ramah could have somehow joined the company of those who “sorrow not even as others who have no hope.”  With tears foretold by the prophet Jeremiah, it is unlikely that even one of those bereaved mothers ever realized that her boy child died in the place of the Savior of humanity so that Jesus could live and die in the manner God had ordained.

God’s economy is strange to us, and even if those Palestinian mums had been privy to the rich theology behind the survival of the one and only two-year-old whose parents had been warned in a dream, I have no doubt that there was not a mother in the lot who wouldn’t have traded all that promise of righteousness, all that prophetic fulfillment for one more day with her boy. Is there ever an era or a set of circumstances in which a bereaved mother does not sob ragged to frame these words:
Why my child?
Why not some other?

Let’s give the gift of prayer and support to those who grieve the loss of a child this Christmas season. As a mother of four living sons, I do not claim to understand the depth of truth behind Jeremiah’s cruelly accurate prophecy that they “will not be comforted,” but I do know what I have read from authors like Nancy Guthrie and Meadow Rue Merrill who have experienced the loss of a child and written about it. Their experience schools me in the truth that in spite of hopeful expectations, grieving mothers in Texas and Sudan will not soon be comforted:
Not by time.
Not by the kind consolation of thoughtful words.
Not by the probing questions — thinly veiled queries, which, over the years
will come to revolve around a single theme:
“Isn’t she over this yet?”

Let’s weep with them as they wait for their hearts to heal. Finding no ready answer to the evil in the world let’s discover that their suffering — all suffering — creates a space in which we wait for the deep comfort promised by another ancient prophet:

Healing for the brokenhearted.
Consolation to those who mourn.
Beauty.
Joy.
Praise.

We wait for another coming of Jesus, and we long for the hearts of grieving parents to find reconciliation with God through His Son so that shortly after these brokenhearted mothers see His face, they will see, once again, the face of their child.


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If You REALLY Want to Help those Who Grieve

We sat on the couch, side by side, but miles apart.  She had just lost her son in a tragic accident.  I had four living and healthy boys — and no words that could touch her loss.  In the weeks and months that followed, I wrote notes, shared Scripture verses, listened to her sadness, and showed up at her door bearing food, but never feeling confident that any of it held meaning, and often feeling as if I was missing the whole point.

Nancy Guthrie writes to bring clarity and a measure of confidence to people like me:  those of us who want to help and bring comfort to our grieving friends, but want to avoid saying all the wrong words and assuming things that are not true.  Her “research” for What Grieving People Wish You Knew was gritty and uninvited, and began on the day when her infant daughter Hope was diagnosed with a rare and fatal metabolic disorder.  Grief “barged through the door,” and Hope’s 199-day life was a day-by-day good bye that was all too short.

Certainly, this experience alone would qualify a well-known Bible teacher like Nancy to speak wisdom into the lives of those who grieve, but then, a year and a half after Hope’s death, Nancy discovered that she was, once again, pregnant with a baby who had the fatal syndrome and who also lived for about six months.  Working through all this sadness sharpened Nancy’s awareness that often, when Christians try to help those who have suffered losses, we mainly reveal that we just don’t “get it.”

In response, she conducted an online survey in which she asked grieving people for examples of what others said or did for them that proved to be helpful and meaningful. She shares many of these suggestions in her book, and they were truly a highlight, including thoughts as simple (and as obvious) as using the name of the deceased in casual conversation or sharing pictures and memories with family members.

Under the best of circumstances I’m not a great conversationalist, so it was a relief to me to hear the news that “it matters less what you say than that you say something.”  In fact, “even if you come up with the perfect thing to say (as if there is such a thing), it simply won’t fix the hurt or solve the problem of the people who are grieving.”  This is absolutely critical, and with that taken care of, Nancy goes on to provide additional insights:

  • Grieving is as unique as the individuals who grieve.  There is no one-size-fits-all comfort formula.
  • Listen more than you talk.
  • Don’t assume anything about their feelings, about the spiritual condition of the deceased, or that your own grief experience is comparable — or helpful to share.
  • Don’t feel the need to be a fixer.
  • Examine your heart for selfish motives in your caring or for a warped tendency to get your own need for significance met by ministering to your grieving friend.

Nancy quotes Dr. Kenneth Haugk who cautions us that if you hear yourself starting a sentence with the words “Well, I . . “; “When I . . .”; “I remember . . .”; or “My . . . ” — just don’t say it.

Other red flags that call for a re-thinking of our words include:

“Well, at least . . .”
“It was God’s will . . .”
“I know someone else who . . .”
“God took him/her so that . . .”

According to Nancy, one of the best statements you can make is “I don’t what what to say,” while one of the incorrect assumptions we make is that the grieving family is being ministered to by people who are “closer” to them, or, even worse, that they would rather just be left alone.  Showing up makes a powerful statement of support.

Esteeming the grief of those we love will look like patience and will keep us from putting a deadline on someone else’s grieving process.  It will keep us from looking away when they cry, and will give us courage to shed our own tears in their presence, because this demonstrates the fact that their loved one is worth grieving for.  Our shared sadness is tangible evidence of our love.

Nancy and her husband David host respite retreats for couples who have faced the death of a child and are actively involved in GriefShare which offers a ministry of education and counseling for those who are walking through loss.  She encourages grieving families to laugh and reminisce together and to seek community rather than trying to soldier their way through healing alone.

Over the long haul, friends who mark their calendar to remind them of anniversaries and birthdays, who provide practical help ranging from the casserole brigade to the repair of the broken back step, who offer to baby sit for children, or contribute money for the onslaught of expenses are truly demonstrating the love of Christ and are helping their grieving friends move toward healing and hope.

What Grieving People Wish You Knew is a resource of words and ideas, and it’s a gift to readers which will certainly result in greater courage and a more sensitive engagement of the Body of Christ with those who need to experience first hand the love and mercy of God.

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This book was provided by Crossway in exchange for my review.  I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission’s 16 CFR, Part 255 : “Guides Concerning the Use of Endorsements and Testimonials in Advertising.”

If you enjoy reading Living Our Days, subscribe to get regular Bible studies and book reviews delivered to your inbox.  Just enter your e-mail address in the box at the top of this page.

I link-up with a number of blogging  communities on a regular basis.  They are listed in the left sidebar by day of the week.  I hope that you will take a moment to enjoy reading the work of some of these fine writers and thinkers.