by Beth Johnson
I walked around for months with my head down and my chubby little seven-year-old hands clasped . . . around a 1950’s Eastman Kodak Brownie Camera, a Christmas gift from my parents, intended to distract me from the death of my older brother, Billy, whose four-year battle with childhood leukemia had been lost several days before his tenth birthday. Little did they know how symbolic this new lens on life would become for me.
Our family was numb. Our lives had revolved around Billy’s care, keeping him encouraged, doctored and medicated (at the Cleveland Clinic), and rested. We siblings brought his school work home weekly from the Edwin Markham Elementary School, and sat on his bed to play board games, willingly giving up our friendship time to support his health. Our family had purchased one of the first black-and-white T.V.’s for his bedroom so that we could enjoy “The Lone Ranger” and “Howdy Doody” and hope to cheer him up. We had gone to church every Sunday and prayed and done everything right. Of course Billy couldn’t go because of germs. He had died despite our heroic efforts.
Our minister advised that we kids not attend the funeral. Too sad an event, as if we weren’t already devastated and knew exactly what had happened, as if we might live blissfully onward without a care. Billy’s leukemia had been, after all, four years of all of our lives. We stayed home with our grandmother and cried. Our clergy preached that we should all feel happy that Billy was in Heaven with God, no more pain or suffering. They seemed to have no concept of the kind of support we could have used to help us work through the deep hollowness that the death brings.
After my second grade class let out one day, I walked directly to our church and asked to meet with the Head Minister. I was ushered into the office of the Minister for Christian Education, a woman with a strong intellect and little warmth. I sat dwarfed in her huge brown leather wing-back chair and asked if she could help my family with our sadness. She told me to give my life to Jesus Christ and everything would be O.K. She gave me theology when I needed God’s Love and Sustenance. She gave me precepts when I needed the warmth of a faith community.
Within a year, my mother had Stage IV breast cancer and a radical mastectomy. I can still picture my eight-year-old-self standing in shock by her bedside as she showed me her railroad track scar and explained what the doctors had needed to do. From that point our family life struggled. I listened while my mother cried herself to sleep many nights out of a sense of guilt and for fear of losing another child. We were living with the sudden rise of polio and no one knew the causes. My father traveled increasingly for his work. We kids buried ourselves in our school work and tried to be the best daughters and sons possible in order to alleviate our parents’ suffering.
One day, as I shuffled my little feet home from school, one of my brother’s classmates asked me where Billy was. I hesitantly pointed toward the sky. “No!” he exclaimed. “That can’t be true!”
At that moment I realized that there were probably many people in my life who had no idea that my brother had died. A second “aha” came close on the heels of that one – that there were very likely lots of people in the world walking around with smiles on their faces while hiding deep pain. Because that was exactly what my parents and siblings and I were doing. At age seven, radical empathy was born.
This life-changing experience was the jump-start of my spiritual and moral development. It became a lens through which I filtered every life experience. It heightened my sensitivity to people around me, driving me forward with an untamable desire to ease human suffering, especially through the church and God’s Love. This life lens led me to understand that children, adolescents and young adults within and outside of our churches have deep needs for spiritual and moral support and guidance. They may not show that to us, but it is there and they need us to love them. People of all ages and walks of life are doing the best they can and need us to be God’s Love for them.
My experience of my brother’s leukemia and death is something that I rarely discuss but I am very conscious that it was a pivotal experience that has catapulted me into the ministry and the helping professions. There is no greater pastoral care tool for a clergy person than understanding pain, from the inside.
You, too, have stories of pain and struggle that have immeasurably changed who you became, as a person and a professional. That job that you lost, the parent who left, the wayward child, an addiction, a run-in with the law, you know. Are you embracing your “pain stories” ? At least to yourself? Are you recognizing how they have shaped and strengthened you, even though they were extremely difficult? Even though you’d like to bury many of them in your unconscious mind.
We bring “our whole stories” (OWS) to life and to church. It is through the lenses of the “OWS” that we respond to every situation, secular and sacred. Our assumptions, perceptions, conclusions, fears, and actions are ALL filtered through the lens of the “OWS.” Furthermore, every other person in your faith community is having the same individualized experience. We are all looking for healing and acceptance, understanding and deepening, growth and a sense of spiritual peace and goodness, friendship and Love. We are all looking to become better, more whole people.
Jesus made it very clear that God treasures each of our “whole stories.” Warts and all. The woman at the well. The woman who was hemorrhaging. The dishonest tax collector. The mad man inhabited by demons. Our whole stories develop us into God’s people, if we will let them. Our OWS have Power! Together with God, we can turn them into “POWS” !
Jesus lived authentically and embraced the unbelievably difficult aspects of his life and calling. He could have backed down during the last week of his life, but he did not. His “whole story” is what we carry forward as Christianity. If he had not lived “whole-ly,” there would be no Christianity. Jesus gave us a lens through which to perceive and experience life and a role model to follow. The lens is his whole life story.
How have the lenses of your “whole story” informed your development? How has the lens that Jesus provided helped you? Far better lenses than my 1950’s Brownie Camera !
“Be ye perfect (whole) as your Father in Heaven is perfect (whole).” Mt. 5:48
To respond confidentially to this article, you may reach Beth using the contact information on her contributor page.