When I deleted Me

The Blog That Speaks: When I Deleted Me

I hesitated. My finger hovered over the keyboard on my Mac.

This had not been a snap decision, but once it was made, I was resolved not to reconsider. I pushed the key to delete me forever . . . Or so I thought.

My face showed a visible frown as I read the next screen. Did I want to Delete or Deactivate? I paused as I briefly rethought my decision. Time seemed to slow as the two words momentarily hung in the air. Delete or Deactivate? My cursor was poised over “Continue to Account Deletion.” As I heard the keyboard button click, I thought NOW my account was deleted.

Yet, the tenacity of Facebook’s grip lingered as the next screen inquired if I wanted to keep using Messenger. If so, I should only deactivate my account. Since I had not owned the Messenger app, this did not capture my interest. I was also told I could download my Facebook information of my photos and posts. No need. I clicked on “Delete account” one more time. At this point I discovered second chances really do exist. My account could be restored in the next thirty days if I changed my mind.

It was April 17, 2022. Easter Sunday. Later the significance of choosing Resurrection Sunday to delete me would not be lost to me.

Approximately ten days later, my husband inquired, “So, what is it like to no longer be on Facebook?”

I reflected for a few moments. What was it like?

Previously, my Facebook account had not been attached to my hip, so to speak. I would frequently allow several days to pass prior to checking it, and I would only post approximately every two to three weeks. Thus, my deletion of my Facebook account did not suddenly afford me a void of time to fill since I had not been giving Facebook large portions of the clock. Had anything really changed for me?

Yet, something was different, and I was surprised when I identified it.


I had an increased sense of freedom. Freedom to be me.

Despite the fact that I had irregularly checked my Facebook account, it’s talons dug deep even when I was not logged on. There was a sensation that individuals were looking over my shoulder, and I was hoping to gain their approval. Their sway over me evolved with each posting. If I posted something I thought was meaningful or clever, my reward may be only 6 likes while for another post I received 50 likes. Such intermittent reinforcement from Facebook friends held me fast. The depth of friendship was inconsequential for the amount of influential weight they carried. If I had not seen them in 40 years or had only met them one time, their approval still mattered.

Intermittent reinforcement means individuals do not receive a reward every time they perform the task. They can repeatedly perform the same task, but they are unable to determine when their actions will produce a reward. Hope is kept alive as they receive a reward just often enough to cause them to keep trying. Hope springs forth eternally with intermittent reinforcement, making it highly addictive. This is what engenders the addictiveness of gambling. The gambler optimistically anticipates, “I’ll try just one more time.” “Maybe it will happen this time.”[1]

I discovered, by deleting me, that the unseen audience was gone, and with it, a yearning for their approval. Much to my surprise, the invisible chains that had held me fast, fell away, and a new freedom was born.

It wasn’t simply my need for approval that clouded my opinion of Facebook. It was also the false sense of connection. Borrowing from Brené Brown, connection for me is a sense of energy that one experiences when one is valued, seen, and heard without judgment. That sense of energy transpires most frequently when I am face to face with people and not simply relating to them via posts on social media.

I discovered that social media could trick me into believing that I was genuinely connecting when I was reading, liking, and commenting on posts. But in reality, I was comparing and competing, which terminated connection. Friends’ posts could lull me into believing that everyone else’s lives were fun and exciting. Typically, posts consisted only of newsworthy news of achievements, vacations, and excitement. While I cognitively recognized this (and I even did it myself), the comparing-and-competing gene overrode such knowledge, and my self-worth plummeted.

I realized that I was replacing my posting on Facebook with my seeking out genuine connections. If I posted something that I deemed clever, thoughtful, or noteworthy, I assumed people saw it on Facebook. This removed the necessity for me to directly contact them. Therefore, instead of fostering a sense of community, isolation only increased.

One of the concerns I had prior to deleting me was that my only contact with many people was via Facebook. But I came to understand that being in contact did not a connection make. I decided that if people were really desiring to connect, they knew how to contact me via texting, emailing, phoning, or even mailing a letter. Interestingly, of my 500 Facebook friends, only one asked me via text if I was no longer on Facebook. Perhaps people were really not paying as close attention to me as I had made myself believe.

So . . . in the end, I made the decision. The thirty days came and went. I did not change my mind.

I am not the first one to log off of social media, and I probably won’t be the last.

Granted, going cold turkey is not necessarily for everyone. Some support an approach to social media that seeks to reap the benefits while avoiding the unhealthy effects. Emma Lembke is one of those individuals. She started a new student movement in June of 2020 called the Log Off Movement, which encourages her peers to log off as necessary. Unlike a complete deletion, The New York Times notes that Lembke supports remaining on social media to glean its benefits while avoiding any harm to one’s mental health.

While deleting me included a concern for my mental/emotional health, it also was about personal transformation. It was more than a simple act in relation to Facebook—it was an act of new life in relation to my very being. For some time now, my identity has been slowly undergoing a transformation, and deleting me was a piece of that.

While not planned, deleting me on Resurrection Sunday turned out to be a day I was re-born.

My decision to delete me revolved around a wrestling match with my ministerial calling. As a pentecostal, one’s calling to ministry frequently includes supernatural encounters with God. Such encounters generate clear direction and purpose. According to Susan Maros, this type of clarity in calling is deemed similar to a GPS that instructs us, “In one mile, turn left.”[2] Much to my chagrin, however, the recent messages I have been receiving on my journey of identity transformation have been, “Re-calculating.” But this had not always been the case.

My own call to serve overseas in ministry involved more than one, unexpected, supernatural divine encounter—sort of like a modern Abraham or Moses experience. Ministry within my context is typically regarded as a calling to be a teacher, pastor, or missionary, with the latter being the highest on the pedestal. Now, I wasn’t looking to become a missionary. I mean, “snakes, spiders, and scorpions, oh boy!” was not an adventure I was seeking. Yet, when I sensed that I was called, I assumed, along with my denomination’s missions board, that this call was a lifetime commitment.[3]

I mean, seriously, God calls us to go, not come home, right?

I was wrong. My assumptions shattered. My discovery was that it was much harder to obey the call to come home than to go. Disorientation emerged. My dream to be a successful missionary died along with my identity and purpose. [For more of my own story, read The Unmapped Experience: An Escort to Empathy.)

Unbeknownst to me and as hard as it is to admit, I now see how I had made the call to ministry all about me. Serving God was all about my being an influencer, a celebrity. Ministry in my context underscored those who had large ministries or large churches. Thus, if I was to be successful and live up to the multiple divine encounters about my calling AND other people’s expectations of me, I too was to be well-known in order to sway the masses.

It sounds egotistical, I know. I had swallowed hook, line, and sinker the message that it was all up to me. I was the center of the story. Facebook contributed to that understanding. Ironically, I now regard social media as not about sociality (with deep connections) but individuality (with isolation). Chris Nye writes:

“We’ve constructed monuments of ourselves: profiles and personal websites and feeds that are all about us, serve us, and (in our minds) glorify us . . . Online, the world actually does revolve around us.”[4]

These aspirations for fame are not unique to contemporary Western culture, but rather, according to Nye, it’s a human problem. By drawing from Old Testament scholar John Sailhamer, Nye notes that we have believed two lies since the beginning of the fall of humanity. The first lie appears in the account of Adam and Eve who “chose to be like God instead of with him.” The second lie, writes Nye, “is that we absolutely must make a name for ourselves.” In Genesis 11, we read of “the story of the tower of Babel, whose construction managers and leaders make the vision of their project to ‘make a name for ourselves’ (Gen. 11:4).”[5] In the words of Nye:

“[N]othing much has changed. Our habits and goals revolve around being something like a god—renowned in the world and worshiped by others. We want to ‘make a name for ourselves.’”[6]

Andrew Root asserts that we are focused on having, not being. Having a name. Having fame. Having knowledge in order to be like God, not with him, which is the sin that occurs in the Garden of Eden.[7] Such a focus on having, as Root argues, places us at the center of the story.[8]

But like my journey of identity transformation is teaching me, I am not the center. This is God’s story, and I am a participant in it. According to Root, we are not the stars but the narrators of God’s story, and as narrators, we serve the “primary characters in the story. Though the story is not about the narrator, the narrator is crucial. Paul proclaims only Christ and him crucified (1 Cor. 2:2).” This is the narrator’s role. It is not, as Root notes, to answer the question “‘Who should the church in Ephesus or Corinth be?’”[9]

If this is God’s story, then, my identity begins and ends with God (thank you, Bob Kaylor), not with how I compare to others. Picture with me the Western concept of a linear timeline, in which the timeline represents God’s story, and you and I are placed on that timeline in the 21st century. We are definitely not the center since God’s story began long before we were born and continues long after each of us is dead and gone. Instead, we are people in God’s story with an opportunity to be participants in the healing of creation. We are the narrators who discern how God is ministering in the world while embodying the message of Christ and him crucified as we join God in that ministry.

Joining God in ministry entails surrendering for this is how God ministers to the world. Jesus did not cling to his equality with God (Phil 2) but lowered himself. Jesus did not grasp for fame (Luke 4:4-8) but emptied himself of the desire to have. I too must surrender my desire to have—more likes, more followers—if I seek to participate in God’s story by embodying the message of Christ and him crucified. Genuine life, according to Jesus, is less about being an influencer and more about living out the dialectic of losing my life to save it. This indicates the story is not about more of me but less of me. It is more about the denial of me, or maybe we could say the deletion of me.

There may come a day when I return to Facebook, but for now I am learning about less of me. Of course, it would be nice if less of me was as easy as pushing the delete key. But it isn’t. It is a journey of identity transformation, a sanctifying process if you will, that grasps that I am not the center of the story after all.

[1] Don’t just take my word for it. Tim Harford’s article “Should We Dislike the ‘Like’ Button” on June 19, 2019 at BBC News addresses this very issue.

[2] See Susan Maros, Calling in Context: Social Location and Vocational Formation. Downers Grove: IVP, 2022.

[3] In our interview with the denominational missions committee to be appointed, we were asked if this was a lifetime commitment or if this was simply a short-term stint we would do for a while. The manual for fully-appointed denominational missionaries also underscores that this is a lifetime commitment.

[4] Chris Nye, Less of More: Pursuing Spiritual Abundance in a World of Never Enough (Grand Rapids: Baker, 2019), Kindle edition, 97.

[5] Nye, Less of More, 101-102.

[6] Nye, Less of More, 103.

[7] Root writes, “Sin enters the world because Adam and Eve are tempted to make knowledge and knowing more important than being. They encounter God’s being in the cool of the garden, but they are tempted to make knowledge . . . [which is] represented in the tree and its fruit at the center of the garden . . . more important than being.” Andrew Root, Churches and the Crisis of Decline: A Hopeful Practical Ecclesiology for a Secular Age (Grand Rapids: Baker, 2022), Kindle edition, 78.

[8] “The church has idolatrously made itself the subject of its own story. The church’s story has become about the church and its possession of its religion, not the God who is acting in and for the world.” See Root, Churches and the Crisis of Decline, p. 87.

[9] Root, Churches and the Crisis of Decline, 91.

When A Story Appears Mundane…

The Blog That Speaks: When A Story Appears Mundane…

It was a rainy, humid Monday in June when I walked into her room for the first time since her stroke, which had occurred just three to four days earlier.

Photo by geralt on Pixabay

Since the stroke, her eyes had been closed, her left side had been paralyzed, and she had been on oxygen. I was struck how much she looked like her own mother when she, too, laid on her bed having had a stroke. I realized that if family genes had any say in the matter, this would be how I would appear when I became her age . . . I have been told after all, “You look a lot like your mom.”

As I sat by her bedside, I related to her about my graduation since I had just graduated on Friday with a Master of Divinity. When I relayed the story of my husband yelling, “That’s my wife” as I received my degree, I saw a small smile appear on her face, signaling to me that she had heard me. There were other signs, too. When I asked her questions like, “Do you want more cranberry juice” or “Do you want the radio on,” she responded, “Yeah, sure.”

If her verbal interactions were minimal that Monday, they were even less the next day. And by Wednesday, we were placing her on hospice, not knowing if she would live days, weeks, or months. I cognitively knew what to expect as the staff explained about hospice since my husband was a hospice chaplain; however, my acquaintance with hospice did not mitigate the pain of this grim situation.

Placing her on hospice was a harsh reality-check: my mom was dying.

When the phone rang at around 8:00 AM on Friday, I instinctively knew it was about Mom. The nurse on the other end of the call informed me that there was increasing evidence of my mom’s impending death. As she described the new developments, a sense of urgency rose in her voice as she spoke. If the family wanted to say their goodbyes, now was the time for Mom would probably die that day or the next.

As a friend and I walked into the room with the nurse that Friday morning, it was evident that death was in the shadows, standing in wait. Perhaps it was death’s loitering that induced us to sing Christian hymns at Mom’s bedside. Former professor, David Augsburger said to me later when he heard of this: “You sang your mom into glory.” And sing we did. Hymn after hymn after hymn. As we sang “Blessed Assurance” (a song I no longer can sing without thinking of Mom), I smiled as I saw her lips move. She was aware of her surroundings. When her pastor and his wife came, making the duet into a quartet, we sang “Victory in Jesus” and witnessed her lips moving once again. When the song was over and knowing my mom loved quartets, I said, “Mom, you just had a quartet sing to you!” I smiled with pleasure as I watched her raise her eyebrows in response.

By mid-afternoon, I was exhausted. Waiting is exhausting and perhaps waiting for death’s door to open even more so.

As my dad and I waited by her bed, only the sounds of Mom’s breathing alongside the muffled clamor of the noise outside her room could be heard. We watched as her chest went up . . . down . . . up . . . down. Then . . . it didn’t. We waited . . . My dad was the first to break the silence: “Is she gone?” But before I could answer, Mom responded with a shudder while she took another breath. Her breathing had slowed so that 10 to 15 seconds passed in between breaths.

One breath.


Another breath.


Another breath.

Wait . . .


Just as quickly as her breathing had slowed, it stopped. No announcement proclaimed, “This is the last breath.” Only a void of breath remained as death had emerged soundlessly from the shadows.

No tears were shed as feelings of ambivalence washed over me. Joy, sorrow, and peace simultaneously entwined around my soul. It felt surreal as my words still to this day fail to form an adequate rendering of that moment.

Her breathing had been mundane . . . until it wasn’t.

A sense of the sacred flooded my soul. As if I was in the sanctuary of an ancient cathedral, this sacredness demanded silence, and if I had to speak, it was not to be above a whisper. On this day, June 18, 2010, I stood in the presence of something profoundly holy, the moment Mom died.

I have told the above story of my mom’s death multiple times in various versions.

The hyper-abbreviated version of “My mom died” was reserved for strangers, such as the unfortunate man who sat beside me in the plane or the clerk at Target. Longer versions were relayed to acquaintances, but the most extended version was told to close friends, such as my husband, to whom I repeated the story again and again. Despite his hearing it over and over so that the story became more or less unremarkable, not once did he say, “You said that already.”

Unfortunately, this is not the case for many of us as we have a propensity toward impatience with repetition. We are more accustomed to changing channels when a television story becomes too pedestrian. We will say to no one in particular, “I have seen this show multiple times” while we click on the remote in search of something more novel and fresher. For many of us, repeatedly hearing the same story borders on pedestrianism. The newness has long worn off, leaving us longing for an imaginative and vibrant quality.

But it is precisely in this ordinary retelling of a story of loss and grief in which something sacred occurs . . . healing. That is, the telling of the story appears mundane . . . until it isn’t . . . as healing emerges.

When there is a death or a trauma, our being is unable to acknowledge the reality of what has transpired (see When There’s an Empty Chair at the Table). We struggle to make sense of that which has just occurred. From having an embarrassing moment to having an up-and-close-personal encounter with a moose (ask me about that someday and I will tell you the story . . . again) to experiencing a death, our whole being needs to make sense of it and what has happened. And so  . . . we tell and retell the story.

I heard from one grieving woman that the most important thing that she had learned so far in her grief journey was, “The telling of the story again and again. It does not matter if you have told it previously because it is in the retelling of the story that the brain processes the death.”

The telling of the story appeared mundane . . . until it wasn’t.

And really . . . one does not relate the same story twice. As my husband commented once after hearing me tell the story of Mom’s death yet again: “Each time you tell the story, it is told a little bit differently.” Part of these differences in telling is also linked to the one who is listening. Lisbeth Lipari writes about research that demonstrates speakers are dependent on the listener’s body movements when they relate a story. The more attentive with his/her body that a listener is, the more the speakers remember about their stories and the better they relay them. Research also indicates that the listener and the speaker tell a story together. That is, a good listener becomes a partner in the telling of the speaker’s story.[1] In short, physical attentiveness matters in listening, no matter how prosaic the story may appear to the listener. The telling of the story may appear mundane . . . until it isn’t. This is difficult to grasp amidst today’s techno-focused world in which we continually seek for something newer and more invigorating.

Yet, ironically, we tell the same stories or enact the same rituals every year during our holiday seasons.

From American Thanksgiving to Hanukkah, Christmas, or Kwanza, rituals and stories are repeated annually. Many of us draw comfort from the rituals and the repeated telling of stories surrounding them.

As one who celebrates Christmas, I am not only struck by the retelling of the birth of Jesus Christ, but also the mundane aspects that appear both explicitly and implicitly, which are weaved within the story, such as in Luke 2:

  • A census issued by a government
  • A crowded city
  • A stable
  • A feeding trough
  • Labor pains
  • Blood
  • Placenta
  • A cry
  • A nursing baby at his mother’s breast
  • Shepherds watching their sheep

Many of the above details are so commonplace that they are omitted in our annual storytelling. The version is frequently sanctified and spiritualized to avoid the mundane and center on the WOW-factors:

  • The dark sky brightly illuminated
  • Angels appearing
  • Angels’ declaring (not necessarily singing) that a Savior is born, Christ the Lord

The sign to the shepherds, however, is rather commonplace: a baby wrapped in strips of cloth. New Testament scholar James Edwards comments,

“[A] newborn is commonplace . . . Apart from the angelic announcement, this sign could easily be overlooked or mistaken for something other than it is.”[2]

The sign from God was in the mundane, a human being, and it would be a sign that would be rejected (2:34). Edwards notes “that signs are ordinarily given to resolve contradictions,” but this sign will be a focus of the “contradiction.”[3]

Luke’s use of the word “sign” in his Gospel, as in the other Synoptics, demonstrates being “skeptical about the value of signs for faith”[4] as it includes people seeking a supernatural sign, the WOW-factor:

  • 11:16, 29, 30—The people ask Jesus for a sign, but Jesus responds, “[This generation] looks for a sign, but no sign will be given to it except the sign of Jonah”;
  • 23:8—Herod “was hoping to see him perform some miraculous sign.

However, the sign is the appearance of the mundane, a human being, where healing comes to the world.

The story in Luke, then, not only informs us of the WOW-factors where we find an encounter with God, but it is both in

  • divinity and humanity
  • eternity and time
  • supernatural and ordinariness

 . . . where God is encountered.

Similar to the people in Luke’s Gospel, I too continually long for the supernatural (after all, I am pentecostal), but may I not miss God in the pedestrianism . . . the ordinariness . . . the mundane of being human . . . such as in the retelling of a story again and again . . .

It is here in the appearance of the mundane . . . which really isn’t . . . one may experience healing . . . that is, God.

[1] Lisbeth Lipari, Listening, Thinking, Being (University Park, PA: The Pennsylvania State University Press, 2014), loc. 3376-3384, Kindle Edition.

[2] James R. Edwards, The Gospel According to Luke (Grand Rapids: Wm B Eerdmans, 2015), 78.

[3] Ibid., 87.

[4] Ibid., 77.

When There’s An Empty Chair At The Table . . .

The Blog That Speaks: When There’s an Empty Chair at the Table . . .

Tears rolled down her cheeks as she said, “I mentioned Mom, and they said nothing.”[1]

I heard feelings of frustration, confusion, and disappointment pour out of her story.

Photo by Casey C from FreeImages

Madison, as I will call her, had longed for, and expected, a shared connection—that is, a shared reality, but instead, her longing remained unfulfilled as she was greeted by the coldness of disconnection, producing feelings of loneliness and fueling her sense of isolation.

Her story could actually occur in any family celebrating any holiday after a death. Hers revolved around a family Christmas celebration, the first after her mother’s death. She, her father, her siblings, and their families had gathered in the parents’ home just as they had done year after year to be with one another during “the most wonderful time of the year,” or so it was commonly billed.

Sure, she knew it would be different, even hard, but she was unprepared for what greeted her that Christmas. Mom was absent, but she was also present . . . In every nook and cranny . . . In every spot in the house . . . In each place she looked, Madison saw her mother. Her china. Her collectibles. Her home décor. The sofa she selected. The chair that was hers. The spices in her cupboards. Her favorite coffee mug. Family photos displayed by a handy piece of Scotch tape. Even her holiday recipes were in her handwriting. As Madison saw item after item, they seemed to emanate her mother.

Being in the parents’ house made it appear as if her mother was alive again . . . but not. It gave the impression that the lines between death and life were blurred, leaving Madison in a state of bewilderment.

Never before had these objects in the house meant so much to this grieving storyteller . . . including those she had disregarded and some she had despised (like those plaques with the cheesy clichés). The all-pervasiveness of the objects calling attention to her mother was overwhelming for Madison, making it seem that her mom was not dead but alive. It seemed that at any moment this bereaved daughter would see her mother standing by the stove making more Christmas sweets or whipping up a favorite family recipe or walking through the dining room. But in the light of the acute sense of her mother’s presence, her absence also became more palpable. Like a splotch of black on a white canvas, so was her mom’s absence, becoming more conspicuous on a canvas of objects that exuded her presence.

Yet, when she mentioned Mom, the members of her family only stared, saying nothing. This was baffling to Madison. How could one not be propelled to speak of Mom when she is everywhere but not? It seemed impossible to ignore the elephant in the room: Mom’s chair was empty at the table this Christmas.

As the holidays quickly approach, many, like Madison, find it confusing on how to manage them after the death of a family member.

Are we to forge ahead, upholding every aspect of the holiday’s traditions while attempting to convince ourselves, “He wouldn’t want us to be sad” or “She would want us to celebrate per usual”? After all, isn’t that what culture expects? But it isn’t like we can simply wish things back to normal. Besides, business as usual seems to disrespect the person who died and our love for him/her. So then, how are we to navigate the holidays when a person’s absence is obvious?

These are the types of concerns that surface when I participate in facilitating a virtual workshop on managing the holidays for mourners. Underneath these concerns are mourners’ attempts to find meaning during the holidays now that there is an empty chair at the table. It is natural to wonder about finding meaning in a holiday when it loses its luster after a person has died. The holidays may seem empty and shallow in contrast to the depths of the pain of the loss, causing mourners to experience an internal emotional incongruency to the giddiness and temporary happiness of the holidays. A person has died. A chair is empty at the table. Life as they know it has changed, which indicates that the holidays have also changed.

In the desire to find meaning in the holidays and gain a perspective, mourners wrestle with the disparity that exists between the customary high energy of the holidays and the lethargy of grief. The internal sluggishness due to grief blots out the inflated expectations of fun, laughter, and magic that ordinarily accompany the holidays. If time travel were possible, many would consider it a valid alternative to the holiday hoopla. It would allow mourners to move ahead in time to mid-January, a season perhaps more suitable to their current emotional state . . . the winter blues. But since time travel is not yet possible, some may be tempted to think hibernation is a feasible option.

Such thoughts and feelings of dread are common, but if we are to move towards finding meaning in the holidays, it calls for us to pause and step back to gain a perspective. Finding meaning implies taking a broader view through re-evaluation and reflection, which moves at a slow, unhurried pace unlike the busyness of the holidays. It is pausing to reconsider the why of the holidays and our family traditions. It asks:

  • “What is important and why?”
  • “What is the meaning of this holiday and the reason for these traditions, such as lighting these candles and singing these songs?”
  • “Why are we gathering together?”
  • “Who will be gathering together?”
  • “What will we be doing?”

Many mourners mention the importance of acknowledging the reality of the death by embracing the pain of the loss[2] in order to find meaning in the holidays.

Acknowledging the reality of the death may be an overwhelming experience, as described by Madison, and may create an impulse to run and hide, either literally or figuratively. This is when mourners seek courage to embrace the pain of the loss by becoming present to their grief, crying if they desire. Embracing is not the same as clinging to the pain but rather is similar to befriending it. Embracing the pain of the loss occurs by feeling the feelings such as naming them and sitting with them for a few moments, empathizing with the experiences of grief.

Finding meaning for many mourners involves remembering the person who died, such as speaking his/her name or telling stories during the holidays.

Walking down memory lane through the telling of stories or looking at pictures is a way in which mourners go backwards so that they may move forward in their grief journey. Whether the stories produce laughter or generate tears, both are necessary to integrate the loss into a mourner’s life and to find meaning during the holidays.

Finding meaning for many mourners also includes reflecting on what roles to fill during the holidays, including those that are left vacant by the person who died.

Determining what roles to fill necessitates planning ahead, such as deciding which traditions will remain and who will do them, and which ones will be completely discarded. In this type of re-evaluating, some mourners decide to forego a family tradition for a year, or they jettison it all together and start a new one. Mourners underscore their freedom to pick and choose in order to determine what is most meaningful to them while accepting the lethargy that grief brings.

Many mourners additionally speak of the significance of supportive friends and family as they try to discover meaning during the holidays.

Mourners underline the need for friends and family to provide understanding for their choices, such as not sending holiday cards; not decorating; not preparing the usual holiday feast; or eating from disposable plates. A mourner particularly appreciates friends and family who support his/her decision to drive to an event alone so that he/she may depart when the mourner deems it is necessary, be that after ten minutes or sixty.

As a follower of Jesus Christ, being supportive of mourners by joining alongside them in their losses is how Christians may participate in the kenotic ministry of Christ.

This can be challenging when we recognize that, similar to the culture at large, the Christian can equally romanticize Christmas by being mesmerized by the twinkling bright lights, the glowing angels, and the sanitized decorative nativity scenes; thus, it is tempting when encountering a mourner to select from our bag of Christianese such phrases as “She is in a better place so be happy for her. Don’t be sad!” “God has another angel in heaven.” “He gets to celebrate Christmas in heaven!” Unfortunately, these phrases convey how we are mirroring our mourning-avoidant culture by Christianizing quick-fix responses rather than participating in Christ’s ministry. Amidst our celebrations of Christmas with the singing angels and the bright shining stars, it is also crucial to not overlook the broader theological picture of Christmas: Jesus’s coming to earth is an act of ministry of entering into our death (our void) and now we are invited to participate in that ministry.

Jesus Christ’s ministry to the world involves acknowledging the reality of our death and embracing the pain of our death, similar to a mourner who is seeking for meaning amidst the holidays. The triune God recognized humanity’s helplessness to overcome death; thus, because it is the very nature of God to empty God’s self— that is, be a minister— and to enter into the other’s death (impossibilities, nothingness, void), God entered into humanity’s death by becoming human and dying. As Andrew Root emphasizes,

“The cross is not a unique outlier to God’s own act and being but rather its very core.”[3]

In other words, Jesus entered into the pain of the empty chair at the table through his own birth and death.

If we are followers of Jesus Christ, we are invited to participate in this ministry of Christ in the presence and the power of the Spirit by entering into the others’ impossibilities, their deaths. As Christ entered into our death, we too are invited to participate in his ministry by acknowledging with mourners the reality of the death of a person and sitting with them in the pain of their loss. That is, we mirror Christ by emptying ourselves. Root writes,

“To be a minister is to be kenotic, self-emptying . . . If it is not kenotic, then ministry is disconnected from the divine being and is something other than ministry.”[4]

As the Apostle Paul describes in Philippians 2:5-8:

You should have the same attitude toward one another that Christ Jesus had,
who . . . [because][5] he existed in the form of God 
	did not regard equality with God 
	as something to be grasped,
but emptied himself 
	by taking on the form of a slave, 
	by looking like other men, 
	and by sharing in human nature.
He humbled himself, 
	by becoming obedient to the point of death 
	—even death on a cross! 

Thus, this holiday season when we hear of an empty chair at the other’s table . . .

  • May we sit with the mourner in his/her pain of the loss, emptying ourselves by dying to our desire to quickly fix the other’s pain.
  • May we accept that there is no reward for speed, resisting any attempts to rush in and hurry the person in his/her grief journey.
  • May we perceive this as sacred space for this is where the Spirit is moving to bring consolation and healing into which we are invited to join.

As a Christian, this is an integral part of the meaning of Christmas.

ATTENTION: If you have experienced a death of a person and would like to join a virtual, non-religious, 10-week support group that is open to any mourner no matter of his/her location, you may inquire or register by contacting: CGES@seasonshospice.org OR 507-285-1930. It will meet: Tuesdays, 6:00-7:30 PM CST, January 11-March 15. The cost is free, except for the purchase of Alan Wolfelt’s Understanding Your Grief, 2nd edition. It is sponsored by Seasons Hospice Bereavement Center in Rochester, MN, and the group will be guided by two trained co-facilitators who will help to provide a safe environment for individuals to explore their grief experiences.

[1] This story was used by permission, but some details are changed to protect the identity of those involved.

[2] I am drawing from Alan Wolfelt’s six needs of mourning as found in Understanding Your Grief. These six needs are:acknowledge the reality of the death; embrace the pain of the loss; remember the person who died; develop a new identity; search for meaning; and let others help you—now and always.

[3] Andrew Root, Faith Formation in a Secular Age (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2017), 163.

[4] Root, Faith Formation in a Secular Age, 166.

[5] I am following the lead of some NT scholars translate this as “because” rather than “although” so that it carries a sense that a characteristic of God is to empty God’s self. See Root, Faith Formation in a Secular, 163.

Here Lies . . . An Unlikely Candidate

The Blog That Speaks: Here Lies . . . An Unlikely Candidate

Have you ever considered the epitaph you want on your headstone after you die?

Consider a woman named Kay who had her recipe for Kay’s Fudge on her headstone (side note: Does this mean that she literally took her recipe to her grave? … Yes … you may roll your eyes and groan). However, be forewarned that the recipe’s placement does not mean it is mouth-watering delicious. According to Stacey Conradt in “29 Unforgettable Epitaphs,” the recipe was tried and found wanting.

Image by Gordon Johnson from Pixabay

Then there is the use of humor like Merv Griffin. According to Conradt, the well-known talk show host and creator of Jeopardy and Wheel of Fortune chose the following epitaph: I will not be right back after this message.

A number of years ago, I had my own musings about my epitaph. It resulted in selecting a phrase that would impact how I lived out my life today when I chose the words: Here lies a woman of grace.

Becoming a woman of grace is not easy for a person like me who is intense, has a bend toward perfectionism, and has a little OCD to boot. Perhaps any one of those characteristics could eliminate me as a likely candidate to be a woman of grace. So, in my pursuit of such an objective, I began to implement some practices. One of the practices involves repeating three concepts to myself each morning:[1]

  1. Because I tend to take on too much responsibility for others and seek tangible outcomes, I say, “Pam, you are participant in Christ’s ministry. You are not responsible for the outcome.”
  2. Because society emphasizes speed, tying it to intelligence and success, I tell myself, “Pam, there is no reward for speed today.”
  3. Because God’s Spirit is continually moving in the world, I say, “Pam, every interaction you have today, whether it be verbally or by text/email, is sacred as the Spirit is moving in you, the other, and the space in between to bring healing.

An epitaph that centers on grace may seem to kick against the goads in a culture that embraces a system of meritocracy.

Such a system is heard in common phrases like, “You earned it” or “You deserve this.” Michael Sandel argues in his book The Tyranny of Merit that we live in a nation built on meritocracy in that we are to distribute rewards based only on merit, producing winners and losers. This results in attitudes of hubris for the winners and humiliation for the losers,[2] creating a divide between likely and unlikely candidates based on merit and cultivating a culture of honor and shame.

Some of us carry attitudes of pride because, based on our societal rank, title, degree, income or ethnicity, we are blessed by God because we have worked so hard or because we have won the ethnic lottery. Others of us struggle with shame because we are not good enough. We are not deserving based on our merits nor our ethnicity. We compare ourselves and compete with others, but when we are labeled “not good enough,” blame and envy emerge.

Yet, as Sandel points out, merit does matter. If we need a contractor or a surgeon, we want persons who are competent, who are the best for the job. However, as Sandel notes, a system of meritocracy may also foster human agency in that we believe that we determine our own fate in life. This may spill over into our theology by believing that God rewards us when we are good, but God punishes when we are bad. That is, in Sandel words:

“Although God is the one who bestows the rewards and punishments, he does so according to people’s merits, not arbitrarily.”[3]

This theology, however, is contrary to the Gospel of Jesus Christ. Jesus enters the world that he created, being the only one who comes from outside societal systems, thereby being able to break the powerful grasp of the entrenched rules of society.[4] He is described in John’s Gospel as being full of grace and truth (1:14), which implies abundance (see also 1:16). As Patrick Oden indicates, this grace is displayed when Jesus empties himself and resists the established conventions of society by being crucified by the world’s ruling system. When Jesus Christ defeats death, the resurrection becomes an invitation by Jesus for us to reject the world’s patterns and experience a full life, lived out in the Spirit’s power.[5]

The fact that Jesus does not cling to a higher status is exemplified in John 4 in a story that centers on a Samaritan woman, an unlikely candidate to participate in God’s grace in the world. To have a fuller understanding of the portrait John paints of this woman, it is necessary to highlight the context in which this story is placed.

The world of antiquity into which Jesus came was not unlike contemporary culture. It adhered to the importance of achieving a higher status as dictated by having a proper bloodline and by maintaining the rules of meritocracy, fostering comparison and competition. John opposes the world’s value of having the right bloodline when he writes:

“But to all who have received him—those who believe in his name —he has given the right to become God’s children—children not born by human parents or by human desire or a husband’s decision, but by God” (italics mine; see 1:12-13).

He then challenges the significance of a proper bloodline or nationality when he repeatedly emphasizes “the world,” such as God loving the world (3:16-17; see also 1:29).

John’s Gospel also exhibits the priority placed on higher status by alluding to comparison and competition. In 3:25-26, John the Baptist’s disciples complain that everyone is now flocking to Jesus. They are envious of Jesus’ success while John’s popularity is waning. In 4:1-2 this theme of comparison and competition continues when it is being said that Jesus is baptizing more people than John the Baptist, but it really is Jesus’ disciples who are baptizing others. John’s assertion about who is doing the baptizing is a possible attempt to avert a sense of superiority if some had been baptized by Jesus.[6]

By the time readers arrive at John 4, they have been introduced to a grace that defies the importance of both having the right bloodline and a system of meritocracy, and this story continues this theme. It begins quite simply: Jesus asks a Samaritan woman for a drink. This is an unexpected request so much so that the woman is quite direct in naming the cultural barriers:

I am a Samaritan woman, and you are a Jewish man.

This story bears witness to Jesus’ crossing of three cultural barriers: ethnicity, theology, and gender.[7] His crossing of these barriers shows the nature of grace: it is willing to risk one’s reputation to offer the gift of God (v. 10).

First, Jesus crosses the barrier of ethnicity by talking to a Samaritan.

The conflict between the Jews and Samaritans revolved around ethnicity: a disagreement about the Samaritans’ origins.

  • The Samaritans believed they were the direct descendants of a faithful group of ancient Israel. In short, they were pure and the faithful ones.
  • The Jews believed that the origins of Samaritans occurred when the Assyrians colonized the Northern Kingdom with people from several other Mesopotamian towns, and then some Jews in that region intermarried with them. In other words, the Samaritans were impure and the sinful ones.[8]

Like the Jews and Samaritans, when we are in conflict with others, we tend to cling to “information that affirms” our previous conclusions about our opponents (see When Enemy Images Emerge). If we are presented with positive information about them, we tend to disregard it and center on the negative that supports our views. And so it was with the conflict between Jews and Samaritans: Jewish stories painted the Samaritans in a negative light and Jews in a positive light, and vice versa. Thus, it is understandable that this Samaritan woman would see herself as an unlikely candidate to converse with a Jewish man.

While perhaps this barrier between Jews and Samaritans could be early signs of xenophobia, for Jesus, it is an opportunity to participate in the ministry of grace by offering grace to someone of a different ethnicity.

But it’s not only because of her ethnicity that she is an unlikely candidate; it also is because of her religious beliefs.

This unfolds after 4:16 in which Jesus instructs the woman to go call her husband, and she responds with: “I have no husband.” Jesus says to her, “Right you are when you said, ‘I have no husband,’ for you have had five husbands, and the man you are living with now is not your husband.”

This is not the first time John’s Gospel underscores Jesus’ supernatural knowledge about another person; it also occurs in 1:47-49 with Nathaniel, resulting in Nathaniel calling Jesus the Son of God. In the case of the Samaritan woman, she determines that because of his supernatural knowledge about her, Jesus is a prophet; thus, it is possible that the woman perceives an opportunity to obtain answers to some of her theological questions[9] since theological issues have contributed to the divide between Jews and Samaritans:

  • The Samaritans centered on worshipping physically on Mount Gerizim;
  • The Jews focused their worship in Jerusalem on Mount Zion.

And each was convinced their beliefs were correct and the other was wrong. But how does Jesus respond?

As New Testament scholar, R. G. Estrada notes, Jesus addresses the issue, but he does so in such a way that completely reconfigures the idea of the place of worship.

  • Jesus indicates that true worshippers worship God in the Spirit. This indicates that the realm of the Spirit is the most important place of worship, not Mount Gerizim nor Mount Zion.
  • Thus, if we are worshiping in the realm of the Spirit, we will reject practices that generate hatred that are based on differing ethnicities or philosophical views.
  • This does not mean we will agree, but neither will we exclude the other on the basis of differences in philosophy or ethnicity.[10]
  • Worship in the Spirit is worshipping in grace, willing to respect who we are and who others are in the body of Jesus Christ.

But there is a third reason this Samaritan is an unlikely candidate. It is pointed out in verse 9 and also stressed in verse 27: it is because of her gender, her being a woman.

In some Jewish circles, rabbis are to avoid conversations with women, and the disciples knew this, so when they returned from buying food, they are shocked to find their teacher alone talking with a woman. Here we see the rules of status in society: be of the right gender, and you have more power and respect.

Yet, Jesus dispenses with such rules. Instead, in v. 26, he reveals his true identity: he is the Messiah. It is one of the rare occasions in the Gospels that he does so, and it occurs here with an unlikely candidate, a Samaritan woman.

At this point, the woman returns to the village where she declares in v. 29: “Come, see a man who told me everything I ever did. Surely he can’t be the Messiah, can he?” And the townspeople begin to come.

John’s story is one that undercuts the weight that is placed on status by portraying an unlikely candidate as a recipient of grace. It is upon receiving grace that she invites others to come and see.

The story then closes with the Samaritans persuading Jesus to stay with them an additional two days, resulting in their saying that Jesus is the savior of the world (v. 42). It is a reminder that becoming children of God is not based on ethnicity, theological tradition, nor gender but on the generative gracious power of God (v. 12-13).[11]

This is God’s ministry of grace in action that usurps the importance placed on higher status through a system of meritocracy and proper bloodline. It brazenly appears in the face of categories that mark some deserving and others undeserving. This story beckons us to rethink about the cultural categories of likely and unlikely candidates and how we pigeonhole ourselves and others within such categories based on our current world’s systems. 

Like the Samaritan woman, status does not matter in the realm of grace. There is no winning of the ethnic lottery nor is there meritocracy; thus, no shame. Christ’s ministry of grace is currently at work in the world in the power and presence of the Spirit, and we are invited to participate in it, to see the Spirit working:

  • In the checkout line;
  • With the person restocking shelves;
  • With the driver who is waiting at a stoplight;
  • With the neighbor who has the dog that barks incessantly;
  • With the server at the restaurant, whether the service is great or mediocre;
  • The person at the office, the military base, the senior center, or school.

As recipients of God’s grace in Jesus, we are being called to be participants of God’s ministry of grace, vessels of healing in the world.

And it may simply begin by asking for or giving a drink of water.

[1] These are original with Dr. Alan Wolfelt which I have fashioned for my purposes.

[2] Michael Sandel, The Tyranny of Merit (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux), 29-30, Kindle Edition.

[3] Sandel, The Tyranny of Merit, 41.

[4] Patrick Oden points this out in Hope for the Oppressor: Discovering Freedom through Transformative Community. (Lanham, MD: Lexington Books/Fortress Academic, 2019).

[5] Oden, Hope for the Oppressor.

[6] Marianne Meye Thompson, John: A Commentary (Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 2015), 97.

[7] I am drawing from Marianne Meye Thompson who writes, “neither her gender, nor her ethnicity, nor her religious commitments or practices are a barrier to Jesus’ gracious gift to her.” John: A Commentary, 99. See also Craig Keener, The Gospel of John: A Commentary, vol. 1 (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2010), 585.

[8] H. G. M. Williamson, “Samaritans,” in Dictionary of Jesus and the Gospels, edited by Joel B. Green and Scot McKnight (Downers Grove: IVP, 1992), 725, Accordance edition.

[9] Thompson, John: A Commentary, 103.

[10] For fuller development of these thoughts see paper presented by Rodolfo Galvan Estrada, III at Society for Pentecostal Studies in 2017 called “John 4:23–24: The Spirit and Ethnoracial Tension in Worship.”

[11] Thompson, John, 32.