On the first Monday of February in 2001 my mother entered the hospital with a urinary tract infection.
Her brother happened to be visiting her and called me to report. Since it seemed a minor problem and I had just visited her 10 days earlier, I stayed in Cincinnati rather than traveling the three hours into the Kentucky mountains. The next morning when the phone rang before the sun rose and I heard a voice on the line with a deep Kentucky accent, I knew it wasn't good news. The nurse could not reach my uncle, so I was the first to hear of my mother's unexpected death. Her infection had reached her blood. They could not save her.
She had visited the doctor a week previous, when the infection could have easily been solved. However the doctor failed to run a simple test, instead sending her home with valium for her nerves. When I read the chart that expressed his opinion that she was simply nervous, I burned with rage. This doctor's carelessness and incompetence had cost my mother her life at age 66. She adored my four children, and now they had lost their grandmother.
When I stood by her grave and realized the permanence of her death in terms of my earthly existence, I plunged into a year of doubt and anger. Yet except for that first weekend off for her funeral, I continued pastoring my church. I was faced with the question: how do I lead my church authentically while dealing with a personal crisis?
Authentic with God
The word authentic comes from the Latin authenticus meaning "coming from the author." What an inspiring definition for us as believers. God's authorship of us can make us truly authentic when we aim to display the image of Christ. Central to being authentic is being real with God. We can't fool God anyway, as the story of Ananias and Sapphira so dramatically illustrates, but it's always tempting to pretend to be more than we are.
During my year of struggle, I never really lost faith in God or felt abandoned. But I did have trouble resolving what seemed to me to be an unnecessary and untimely loss. It was especially difficult to see my children lose their grandmother. I also had trouble understanding how my mother could be joyful in heaven while I felt so distressed on earth.
Being real about my issues pushed me to a new understanding that has also helped me minister to others in grief. Like David's imprecatory psalms, I held nothing back in my prayers. This too has helped me to encourage others to be real with God, no matter what, trusting that God can take it.
Authentic With Yourself
Authenticity requires being real with ourselves as well. That can be tough for pastors. Too often we hide even from that level of honesty, fearing if we let our guard down, everyone will discover the true us. Sometimes this seems harder than being real with God, and yet the two are closely related. Before I can admit my feelings to God, I have to realize what they are, and avoidance can protect from the pain. Brené Brown, a researcher who studies the benefits of vulnerability, notes we numb pain with medication but in so doing we also numb joy. To really feel the highs, we have to experience the lows.
I never used medication to numb my pain, but sometimes I grew weary of my pain and simply ignored it. We have to find our own threshold. Mom died right before Lent. Usually I observe Lent with fasting and deprivation, but that year I couldn't take more buffeting of my body.