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  • Writer's pictureJeff Conway

Life. Is. Tough.

Ten years ago, my life was very different. Sure, my left leg dropped out from under me occasionally, but I didn’t pay much attention since I’d had three ruptured discs in my back. Patti and I were moving forward. Barrett was off at Texas A&M doing well at school and surrounded by a large group of friends. Addison was visiting schools. I was sure he was going to choose Virginia Tech. He had friends who were already attending there and he was almost literally glowing after our visit to the campus. How surprised I was when he ended up choosing Gordon College north of Boston just five miles from where I attended seminary. He ended up treading paths where Patti and I had spent our early years of marriage.

I took Patti on many surprise trips after we moved to the Philadelphia area. We often went to New York to see a Broadway play, and one of the plays we saw over the years was The Book of Mormon. I had written my senior paper at university on Mormons, which gave me a good understanding of their unique theology. As such, I thought the play was hysterical and I was amazed how on-point it was with what I knew of Mormon beliefs. (Patti did not enjoy it. She found it to be too crude.) One of the songs was about the people in Uganda basically giving the middle finger to God. The song asks how a loving God can exist when people are living in poverty, suffering heavily from AIDS, experiencing a famine, and surrounded by death daily. Though the lyrics are crude, they display questions that many people all over the world live with or have experienced at some point in their life. I have walked with many people through those questions in my thirty-five years of ministry, both here in the States and throughout the world.

I received one call from a friend of a friend of a friend. “Can you help? Something awful has happened.” A twenty-one-year-old young man, in his last semester at college, with a Wall Street job waiting for him in June, slipped down an embankment into and an icy river, and unthinkably, tragically died. “Can you help? The family has no church and is lost for where to turn.” “Yes. We will do everything we can for them,” I answered. I’ve shared about my journey with many people on their known journey towards death. But this? Oh, it hit me hard. The parents had two boys the exact age of my sons. In the midst of such horrible pain, how was I going to bring a message of God’s presence, mercy, and love?

I received another call from a very close friend. At a regular OB-GYN appointment, no heartbeat was found. Our friends were in the hospital, labor induced. Joy had turned to grief. I was there a few hours later; the sweet, lifeless baby was swaddled in her mother’s arms. They wanted me to baptize the baby and say a prayer before they said their goodbyes. I was overwhelmed, but I knew the words of the prayer really didn’t matter. What mattered was my presence.

Yet another time, I received a call from a woman asking for an appointment in my office. Her friends had grown weary of her grief. Her grief was as sharp as the day she had lost her husband to cancer years before. “They tell me I need to move on and stop interrupting every gathering with my tears.” But her faith was not shattered, her heart was. Sitting in my chair—long before my disorder started its assault on me—was I to talk to her about spiritual disciplines, prayer practices, ways to move back to a life of wholeness when nothing felt whole to her? I just listened, and I did so many more times over the years. (Can you imagine after thirty-five years of ministry how many short descriptions of people lost in the deep shadow of grief’s pain I could share?)

In my dissertation work in Edinburgh on early Presbyterian worship, I found that the protocol after a death was to immediately bring the body to the cemetery, say a quick prayer, and move on to the church to hear a message about the joy of the resurrection. There was to be no mention of the person who had died. The service was to be one of celebration:

  • God created a perfect world.

  • Humanity broke that perfection.

  • We live with the consequences of that brokenness because we all die.

  • God, in God’s loving, redemptive plan, offers eternal life to each of us through God’s work through Godself, Jesus.

This was great systematic theology that can be fleshed out in thick volumes, but where was the humanity, the empathy?

During my second year of seminary, I got a call informing me that my father’s sixteen-year-old stepson had taken his own life; the well-placed rug of joy and peace was ripped from underneath me. My systematic theology—which I held then and still hold now—brought me no comfort, no answers, and certainly no joy. I don’t even want to try to remember the number of well-meaning seminarians who came up to me and said something about God working good through all situations. I’m not a violent person, but I wanted to give them an emotional slap. Did you seriously just say that to me? I learned at that time why people wear sunglasses after deaths. Our eyes give away too much of what we are experiencing. Dark glasses protect us from others seeing the fullness of our grief. By contrast, my roommate, Paul, said very little. He just sat by me. He walked with me in the hallowed hallways of the school. He was just…present. He allowed me to speak when I wanted to and be quiet when I needed to be. It was a gift.

I’ve written about facing my death with my failing body. Barring an incredible and possible miracle, there does not seem to be a way to turn my body around towards health. We all die. That’s not a fun fact but it’s true. My theology, despite this crazy disorder, has not changed over the years. It’s a broken world and we are broken people. Through the brilliant gift of God’s redemptive design, we are all offered mercy, love, and forgiveness. I believe this to my core. I’ve experienced it day after day, deep in my soul. It is the foundation of my ministry of pastoral care, but it is often not the first thing people need to hear when challenge and crisis affect them. Empathy, understanding and caring, was always my first step in helping people. Sharing theology came when I earned the right to speak or I sensed God calling me to share.

It is important for me to express these thoughts with you now. I’m not a heartless, theological robot. "I Found It”; “Jesus Saves”; “Come to the Altar”; “Receive God’s Grace.” These are all great statements, they’re just not always the most helpful for people in grief. It is important for me to bring the hope found in Jesus to all, but just as important to bring empathy to those experiencing loss and grief by sitting quietly, by listening, by doing acts of kindness, and by building relationships so that the truth of God’s love can be revealed and spoken.

Who in your life is in need of some empathy? Who on the outer circle of your life is in need of someone being present, someone walking with them? Who is out there that you need to ask God to help give you the energy to listen? Who is exhausted by a failing body or the sharp knife of grief that needs an expression of love?

Listen to God as you contemplate those questions. Sit, be quiet, and listen. You could be the person God is calling.

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About Jeff


I've always been a fish out of water (and I love fish). From being an artist in a sports family, to a Christian who leans into the mystery of God while still trained in a Word-centered mainline tradition, and now a person in a wheelchair amongst able-bodied hikers, my life has perpetually been outside the box (or bowl). 

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