I want to tell you a story that might help you understand what helped to build my philosophy behind TLS and why I do the things I do the way I do them, and why TLS is the way it is.
This story starts in the winter of 2007. Sarah, in the photograph, is my friend. She was in her mid twenties at the time. I was the pastor of the Vineyard church here, and she was a member of it. She had a boyfriend. They were pretty much engaged, but without the ring. One winter’s night I got a phone call. It was Sarah’s mom. She was hysterical. Sarah’s boyfriend was found dead in his car on the highway. Sarah was, of course, at her mom’s, beside herself. Lisa and I rushed over. They were both losing it. Her boyfriend was such a wonderful young man. He seemed happy, smart, a great sense of humor, and very loving, especially towards Sarah. An all around great guy. This just did not make sense!
We leapt to the conclusion that he must’ve been murdered or been involved in some kind of freak accident. The police were not immediately very forthcoming. There was a cloak of mystery about it. But eventually we were informed that he had driven to the highway, parked on the side of the road, lit a barbecue with charcoal inside the sealed car, and slowly put himself to sleep and ended his life.
We couldn’t believe it. In a way, we still can’t.
We walked with Sarah through that whole season. The identification of the body. The preparations for the funeral. The funeral. The burial. Then the longest part, the grieving process.
I was just visiting her mom last night and she said to this day Sarah still talks about that season and how grateful she is. She tells people that one of the key things that helped her survive was that her pastor (that’s me!) provided her with smokes and booze and listened to her process her grief out loud for a long, long time.
I’m not telling you this to get a pat on the back. I’m telling you this because this one story is indicative of how I did things as a pastor, how we did things as a church, and that it is extremely informative as to why TLS is the way it is. I want to try to explain it.
Sarah was a part of a small group we had in the church. So after this tragedy she would come to group and just process. Sometimes she was completely silent. Other times she would question and question. Other times she would vent with rage. Other times she would pray and pray and pray. It took a long time. There was a lot of anger, hate, despair, doubt, fear, hopelessness, loneliness, depression, along with the tears and shouts and… you name it. The whole gauntlet of emotions. It was horrible to watch our dear friend go through this.
The small group was great. We never preached at her. We never quoted inspirational sayings. We never provided answers. We never tried to rush her or push her or stop her. We never denied her. We just listened. Oh, we’d occasionally say things, but never in a condescending or instructive or impatient or religious manner. Most of the time it was just repeating back what she was feeling and saying to show her that we were listening and that we were there for her. Sometimes we would just sit with her and cry. No words.
It took a long time. In fact, it took too long for some people. A couple took me aside after a while and said something like, “When in the world are you going to tell her to get on with her life? This has gone on too long! She’s stuck and needs to move on!”
So I told them what I’m going to tell you now:
When people are given the space, they will heal themselves.
They lost patience and left the group. Sarah kept on sharing. I want to be clear. Sarah didn’t dominate the group. She didn’t take over. Maybe once in a while she did. But that’s valid. We were all there sharing our struggles. But when Sarah did share, it was intense. Very intense! Almost unbearably so. Of course! How could it be otherwise?
But I held to my guns. Eventually, Sarah did come to a place of acceptance and peace. Even happiness. It’s eight years later and she’s happily married and living a happy and fruitful life.
So last night I asked her mom how Sarah was doing. I told her the reason I asked was because I was in a hardware store that morning and bought some charcoal for a barbecue and it triggered memories of Sarah’s boyfriend. It was an overwhelming flash of sorrow and a flood of memories of that horrible season. Sarah’s mom said she is doing great and that she still tells people about her pastor keeping her supplied with smokes and liquor for months. It’s kind of a joke. But what she’s telling people is that she had people who were just with her, uncritically, non-judgmentally, patiently. That’s what she’s talking about. She was given space to process until it was all processed. That’s what she means.
It’s a proof to me that if we are provided a protected space to process, we will heal ourselves. It may take a short time or it may take a long time. It depends on our own inner resources as well as the intensity of what we’re processing. But given the space, we will heal ourselves!
THAT, my friends, is why TLS is the way it is.
And you help to make it so. You guys get it.
So… thank you.