Friday, August 04, 2006

Jimmy - Archived Reflections

Last April, I wrote about the second anniversary of my brother's death. Jimmy died in his sleep in April of 2004. Being able to write and preach about his death, and the aftermath of living with the reality of his death was pretty important for me. I reflected upon that anniversary in my post titled "Two."

As I browsed through archived newsletters, I was reminded how important this time was in my writing. I've loved and hurt before - but never before had I experienced a "hole in my soul" of this magnitude.

The greatest regret I lived with (thank God for the past tense of that) was the fact that Jimmy and I, despite loving each other far more than either of us would admit to each other, never fully nurtured our relationship as brothers in ways that I had hoped. That drove both my writing and my disease of grief that led me to pretty unhealthy behaviors for the balance of the year.

Rather than breaking these writings up in several posts, I'm keeping them all within the confines of this one - it is long, but chronological.

“Oh Brother”
Sunday, April 19, 4:30 a.m. - One day after Jimmy’s death

I fooled myself into thinking I was going to get a good night’s sleep tonight.

I started off numb and exhausted, but just after 4, I awoke with a heaviness of heart that tells me don’t even try right now. It was just about the same time the night before that my sister in-law called me about Jimmy.

Thank you all for your expressions of care yesterday. Rob and Judy, I got your voice messages, but by that time of the day yesterday, I just couldn’t answer the phone anymore. I’m sorry.

Daddy went with Carin and her father to pick out a plot at Ridgecrest and to set the arrangements for the funeral. I was left to hold down the fort with the rest of family and gathered friends until Dad called and asked me to write Jimmy’s obituary.

A more surreal experience I cannot recall. But this whole day has been that way.

Living on the extremes of life is a challenge. Grief, pain and shock bounded by my two year old angel who lives today as if its any other and expecting us to live, love, play and read to him just because that s what we do.

I really think I live too controlled a life.

As short as it is, why so self-protected? My ‘crisis’ of identity a year or so back. So self-critical of who I am in my relationships and dissatisfied that I bring anything of value to them (and yes, with my brother, that is a regret that weighs heaviest) it’s hit me that I’m so afraid I’m not going to be liked and loved for me, that I hide in the control of what I know, who I know, and how I present myself.

Well, that masked has cracked and what’s left is who I am -

My nephew, Eric, will be four in June. I wonder if he’s going to remember his father? My eleven year old gets it. I look at him as it’s as if I’m looking in a time warped mirror and I wish to God he’s not as much like me as it appears he’s going to be.

I know you love me. I have no expectations of any of you except that you continue to love me through this.

Mom and Dad are a mess. Are children supposed to hold their parents as if they were their own children?

Wednesday, April 21, 4:00 p.m.
My Dear Christian Community,
I‘ve been haunted by what I wrote for Easter morning. Between the confidence and conviction of composing it and this moment - everything has been placed into a different light.

Doubt, distress, disbelief, a hole in my heart as big as a truck.

So, today as I was doing some word processing at home, I noticed that the obituary for my brother is just above the sermon I wrote the Sunday before. Providence, timing, synchronicity, who knows, but I went back and re-read this sermon with different eyes - and with faith I proclaim, here I stand, I can do no other, not because it’s easy, but because it’s never been harder.

When my dad got up at the service to speak, my sigh was audible, he heard me. It was “Oh my God, Dad, what are you doing?”

I had been as parent to him the preceding 36 hours, but in that moment, he, admittedly stepped outside himself, spoke the truth - he spoke, nor as my preacher, but as my father, and I needed that so badly.

It’s one thing for us to announce our love for each other and our rubrically guided proclamations of peace, it is something else to make that incarnate, and you have done that for me these past days. I cannot begin to articulate what that has meant and continues to mean.

I am grieving well. I can be reduced to mush in the blink of a teary eye without knowing what triggered it.

Multiple calls have been made to parents and sister and sister-in law “just to hear each others voices.”

Tuesday morning (the morning after the funeral), when Kristy was up with the boys to get them ready for school, Christopher (the 5 year old nephew Jason spoke of in his eulogy) asked her if she could hear me snoring through the night (that being the sign that his daddy was still alive). These are the questions we live with and answer as honestly as we can, even when we don’t know what to say.

I find myself talking about all this and processing it for no apparent reason, it just comes out. I think that’s healthy.

Of one thing I am certain and I pledge, Jimmy’s death will teach me how to live. So help me God.


“Amazed and Confused”
Luke 24.l-12
Easter - Year C
Rev’d Dr. Jonathan L. Jeffords, OSL, April 11, 2004
“But these words seemed to them an idle tale, and they did not believe them. But Peter got up and ran to the tomb; stooping and looking in, he saw the linen cloths by themselves; then he went home, amazed at what had happened. Luke 24.11.12
What is this day about?

What does it mean?

Isn’t that at least some of what lives in us at Easter? Children are bombarded with influences and understandings of this day that confuse.

I have a minister friend who leads the devotionals at the pre-school at her church. She was telling me this week of what happened as she was asking the kids if they knew what Easter meant.

The response?

“We get to hunt for eggs and get candy.’

My colleague said, But isn’t there something else about Easter we remember, something about Jesus?’

And one little girl raised her hand and blurted out, “You mean Jesus gets to hunt for eggs and get candy too?”


There’s a photograph of me that captures what it means to be “amazed and confused.”

I’m coming out of the birthing room at Methodist North and into the family waiting area to announce that my first child has been born, Despite holding multiple degrees from institutions of higher learning, despite knowing the biology of human childbirth, seeing it, witnessing it, was, well, in a couple of words ,“amazing and confusing.’ See, it was the “physics” of it all that blew my mind, And so, there’s this photograph that captures my face before the first words were spoken that Andrew Scott Jeffords had entered the world, It was true, it had happened but that didn’t make it any less amazing or confusing.

As grand as my emotions of that moment, all those amazing and confusing moments that accompany any effort to raise three boys, be a good husband and father, and pastor — if pictures had been taken of me on the occasions I’ve been in the company of death, I wonder how similar or dissimilar they would be, Maybe not so different. Our entrances and exits on the stage of this earthen sod is the stuff of music and poetry, the touch of the artist’s brush and the liturgies of many a religious tradition.

But as true as that might be, our culture does not know what to do with death. In fact, we are so much more in the death “avoidance and denial” business than ever we are death as a part of life. We don’t talk about it without squirming, and if we do it’s usually only because someone’s mortality has forced us to deal with it.

Craig Barnes in his commentary in “The Christian Century” magazine, remembers his grandmother’s generation. He said that death was an integral part of their lives. Family members died in their own beds, wakes were held in their houses. He said that it was spoken as a reality of life.

Now if there was the polite whisper in her day it was about sex. After all, some things do demand some discretion. Contrasting that to today, the turnabout is obvious isn’t it? We don’t talk about death except in whispers, but our indulgences into human sexuality are plastered on every billboard, TV show, and song on the radio - everywhere for everyone to see. Death is compartmentalized in our culture and times — we deal with it only when we have no other choice,

The transition of life to death is sacred. Bill Coffin says,

“Death cannot be the enemy if it’s death that brings us to life. For just without leave-taking there can be no arrival; without growing old there can be no growing up; without tears, no laughter; so without death there can be no living....he says, Death is the great equalizer, not because it makes us equal, but because it mocks our pretensions at being anything else."
Yes, death is real. No getting around it, But it is also sacred. And for those of us who hold to the unique revelation of God through Jesus of Nazareth, we know that everything we understand as real, common, ordinary is indeed extraordinary. And on this Easter morning we find ourselves in good company with those first witnesses teased by this amazing and confusing question— ‘why do you look for the living among the dead?’

On that first Easter morning, Luke tells us of the women who went to the tomb to do what must be done to the body to prepare it for burial. The ointment and spices were prepared: the sad and noble duty was theirs to carry out.

Death, although sacred, isn’t pretty - it stinks.

In fact the stench of it casts such fear in our culture that we’ll do any and everything to avoid its reality. Their only worry was the stone that blocked their way, how could they get to Jesus without help?

How indeed!

The men, the ones we traditionally know as the disciples, fearfully locked away as the dreams of what could be lay dead in the stone cold tombs of their spirits. It was what it was. He was dead, and so too, was the revolution, the new Reign, the hopes of tomorrow long gone. The only reign now ruling their lives was grief of lost and fear of what all of this meant for them.

You’ve been there, haven’t you? Are you there now? There’s something here that transcends time — Our knowledge of Jesus — who he is, what he taught, what he charges his followers to do—it seems is not enough. Christians are people most needy of assurance, We need those confirming moments that in spite of the evidence, there’s something more still. What a minute, there’s a church word for that — FAITH!

‘Now faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen.’ Hebrews 11.1
I love Jim Wallis’ definition of faith. Wallis founded the Sojourner’s Community in D.C. He says that -

Faith is believing in spite of the evidence, and watching the evidence change.’
But how many times did we hear Jesus admonish those even closest to him that their lack of faith prevented them from seeing the Truth. Guess what folks?— Lack of faith still does.

The evidence of faith we are called to pivots on three little letters that begin chapter 24. It’s an interesting figure of speech, a conjunction, “but.” As in ‘despite what you see, there is something else going on here that you don’t see, and because you don’t see it doesn’t make it any less real,”

“But,” a conjunction - for all of us who grew up with Schoolhouse Rock, we know all about conjunctions, right? You know “conjunction, junction what’s your function? Hooking up words and phrases and clauses.”

What a bizarre way to start the Easter narrative from Luke. Craig Barnes comments on the “but,” that it is a sacred intrusion into death. The gospel always turns on a great ‘however.’ I like that very much. It is so consistent with Jesus, who announced the Reign of God again and again by saying ‘you have heard it said,.,, but I tell you that ultimately we find the Easter story from Luke doing pretty much the same thing you have heard it said that I’m dead, but I tell you”

So, the women make their way to the tomb only to find that the problem they anticipated, that the stone wouldn’t allow them access to Jesus’ broken, dead, body, rolled away. One commentator makes an interesting point, “why was the stone rolled away? To let Jesus out of the tomb, or to let us in it and see the magnificent work of God!”

“Why do you look for the living among the dead?”

The women’s’ encounter with the angel, their remembering what Jesus had told them and their reporting of all these things to the disciples was hardly overwhelming to them. Luke reports that the disciples are left with the thought that it was and ‘idle tale,’ I mean, after all, what do the women knew? Can’t you just see that? You know the role and place of women in that culture and time — status attached only to the men is their lines - couldn’t testify in court — their testimony couldn’t be trusted.

I can see Peter, going to the tomb both to pacify and patronize the women, sees for himself. Sees the stone rolled away, the linen cloths laying aside. He, amazed and confused, goes home. We’re pretty sure he didn’t fully believe the women. After seeing for himself one wonders if he believed at first either. The pivotal moment of the Christian faith, where death is both acknowledged and defeated, and he goes home. Mark’s gospel talks about them being afraid. John has Peter being stupid and John (the beloved one) both faster and smarter than everyone else to know what had happened and why.

Despite what we think, or know, or what we think we know about Jesus and the Resurrection, there is still this — something happened. Something happened that cemented otherwise cowardly disciples to martyrdom for the sake of the Crucified and Risen Lord. The kerygmatic message of Jesus of Nazareth resonated with people moving them from hopelessness to hope, oppression or no.

Something still happens. Look at as, here we are. Something brings as here. Something of meaning drives us. There are many reasons to come and be a part of a church—even this one. We choose congregations based upon ideology, theology, political bent, we choose congregations for what they can do for us, provide us, what bells and whistles their program brings — and we find ourselves at churches for what we can bring to them — what of God in as in meant to be offered and shared In the up building of Christian community. But in the end, none of these reasons matter if they are ends onto themselves.

Ultimately, we must wrestle with this fundamental question - “what do you think of Jesus?” Of what account does the one proclaimed crucified and risen hold sway in your life? In the end—what difference does it make, and how does that difference find expression?

Our chancel choir sings and recorded a setting of the Song of Solomon that is haunting in its beauty. The French horn is elegant, the piano is fabulous, the voices are magnificent, especially the tenors! Anyway, there’s a line in that song taken from the Scripture that bears witness to the love of God for humanity. Although referring to the love shared between two committed people for one another, metaphorically it holds up.
Set me as a seal upon your heart. For love is strong as death Love is strong as death.
This Easter morning tells me of something else. Something more. Want to know what Easter is all about? It’s amazing and confusing, yes, but sisters and brothers in Christ, it’s true—not only is love as strong an in stronger.

‘Why do you look for the living among the dead? He is not here, but has risen.’ Luke 24.6

Craig Barnes, ‘We’re All Terminal’ April 6, 2004, The Christian Century
Credo- William Sloane Coffin
The Soul of Politics - Jim Wallis

"I Buried My Brother”
June 9, 2004

I went to the cemetery today to visit my brother’s grave.

I spend a decent amount of time in Jackson for Conference business, and though I’ve been in and through Jackson several times since Jimmy died, I’ve not been able to make myself go there again.

Like that nagging thing left undone that won’t let go until it’s done, this was something that I had to do.

The reality of Jimmy’s death is shrouded still in the disbelief that it actually happened. There have been several gatherings of family in the past weeks, and I’m left with the weight of loss and the sadness of “the one more thing” I could or would have said had I the chance. His absence is profoundly present to me, as it is with my whole family.

So, it was with that, a sense of sadness, no, of obligation, and yes, perhaps a little dread, that I, along with Sky, a brother in the clergy, went to the cemetery at the same time that the Annual Conference’s Memorial Service was taking place to take part in one of our own.

Like a wave, the grief hit me again.

There it was, his name and years of life upon this earth inscribed on a temporary marker.

His burial site was now covered with sod, but on the fringes of the sod there was a ring of dirt. I was reminded that the last time I saw that dirt. It was the day I helped to bury him.

That’s right, I helped bury my brother.

Under the leadership and the insistence of his best friend, Jason, who eulogized him, it was made clear very quickly that no machine, no cemetery workers were going to bury Jimmy.

We were.

And we did.

Family and friends all - we picked up our shovels and did a day’s work.

I’ve never done that before. I’m not sure I’ll ever do that again. But on that day, there was no other thing to do but to pitch in.

It truly was a means of grace.

We talked, we laughed, we told stories.

The young and the old helped.

It was a holy moment.

When we had finished, we all looked at each other as if to say ‘what do we do now? So, we gathered in circle and sang the "Doxology."

It felt right. It was right.

In the beginning, and at the end, there is God.

Today I remembered the last time I was there. And even through my tears I could smile. And I remember my brother, and I miss him, and I’m thankful for his life. And I left the cemetery today thinking that it had been a very good day.


Over My Shoulder –
October 26, 2004

Clergy people are a weird lot.

I ought to know.

We’re fairly well educated, often versatile in a number of disciplines, and usually very expressive of ourselves in communicating from the pulpit.

It’s letting folks know who we really are that is the rub.

For many reasons, some of which are pretty smart, clergy don’t always share the full measure of who we are, both to fellow clergy and especially not to the people under our charge.

There’s a lot of me in that sentiment. The stuff that makes up my being is bound in the fear that if you knew me for who I really am, will you still love me? I can remember as a boy, as ontological questions were coming into my awareness, posing scenarios to my mother that went something like this: “If I did (fill in the blank of something very, very bad), would you still love me?” Invariably, the answer was, “I may not like what you did, but I’ll always love you.”

As confident as clergy people can be, we are often in very lonely places. We can well articulate a theology of grace, but when the work of “doing” ministry supplants the personal work of discipleship (spiritual disciplines practiced), knowing the nature of grace as operative in ones life gets a little muddled.

I say all of that to say this — life’s been a bit muddled these last months. I find myself on the other side of a fairly deep chasm of grief and pain. I see it now over my shoulder, and ahead is a life that is good, and one framed in faith and hope.

I’ve always thought that matters of body and spirit were linked.

I understood it.

Now, I can bear witness to it. A couple of weeks after Jimmy died; I developed this “back” issue. It was legitimate enough. I have a bulging disc at L4 and L5, I saw a physical therapist, went through some therapy, and lived in pain for months, for which I sought relief through medication.

It never occurred to me that the pain in my back and the pain in my heart were related. And sure enough, whenever I treated my back pain with medication, somehow the soul was numbed, too. At that point in my life, that seemed preferable.
But grief that is not dealt with, even though numbed, can exact a toll.

It did for me.

And it is a lonely place.

In fact, I’ve come to believe that the medication deepened the pain of my soul. Grief for the loss in my family, shame for the brother I wasn’t for Jimmy, the loss of control in not being able to understand how a 34 year old man goes to sleep one day and doesn’t wake up the next.

Let me tell you people, I have not been well these months.

Ask my staff, they’ll tell you. Ask my wife and kids—or, better yet, don’t!

I’ve listened to playbacks of my sermons, especially since the Summer forward, and all I can say is, “I’m sorry.” I don’t think I said anything heretical, but boy, did I sound angry. Well, I was. It’s taken everything I have to “do my job” these months. I don’t think I’ve done it well.

Three weeks ago I had a breakthrough moment. I recognized that as strong as I thought I was, as self- reliant and sufficient, I needed my parents in the worst way. They visited for Andrew’s birthday, and they basically grabbed me to give me room to vent, to cry, and to affirm that, together, we were going to get through this. I was reminded that I still need my mom and dad. In fact, I need them now more than ever.

It was October 7. That was the last day I took a pain pill.

It’s amazing how much better the world seems with a clear head and heart. Sure, my back still acts up once in a while, but stretching and an occasional dose of ibuprofen is really all I need.

Over my shoulder is a place to which I have no desire to return. I prefer to look ahead.

I miss Jimmy.

I have more grieving to do. But unlike before, “I feel my pain,” and that’s not so bad a place to be.

Because I’m free to feel, I’m now able to heal.

So, that’s where I am. That’s where I’ve been. By the grace of God, it is a “whole” place where I’m going.

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