10 Four mothers

Weeping and rejoicing

I talked with three mothers one day. We talked a bit about the situations they were in. We talked a bit about their children. I looked into their eyes. I talked with God on their behalf. And I walked out of the rooms.

Each time, I was drained. Because each time I was talking with a mother contemplating the death of their child.

In one case, the child was near the age of retirement, seeking relief from the aching pain of cancer. The mother was sitting on a sofa nearby, aware of a long journey of pain.

Another mother stood by her child’s bed. She talked of her prayer for him from before birth. The child was mid-thirties, fighting forces inside the head. At the moment, a machine was helping the child breath, as the body recovered from too many drugs taken with intention and without hope.

The third mother had been talking a couple days earlier with her own daughter about a grandchild struggling to breathe. Two last efforts, one medical, one prayerful, had delayed a hard decision, but it would come again.

As I talked with these mothers, as I prayed with them, I was aware of Jesus’s deep emotional response in the time following his friend’s death.[1] Lazarus was dead. Martha and Mary were grieving, balancing the presence of their friend who might have done something with the loss of their brother. And Jesus has that heart-crushing, chest-caving, moment on the other side of words. He weeps. He is troubled again. And then he calls Lazarus out.

I tell them, I feel myself, that there is nothing wrong with that sense of anguish. My voice cracks as I ask God to give them peace and to give them the life of their child.

And then I think of another mother. She knew from before her son’s birth that he would be special. She heard rumors that he had spoken of his death. She watched him die.

We do know how that story turned out. We can know the who of that story. And I find comfort and courage in my conversations knowing that in the middle of the story, Jesus and Mary hurt, too.

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The day after I wrote those words, I woke up thinking about them. It’s a true story, but it isn’t the whole story. Because we smiled in each of those rooms. Tiny laughs about relationships, about perspective, about events. Smiles about timing, about mercies, about corners turned.

I have a tendency to push back against mindless optimism. Sometimes we call that denial. When there are facts about the current situation that people are unwilling to talk about, or cry about, or listen to, I try to help people quiet their arguments long enough to listen. But when you are fully aware of how things are, and you acknowledge the likely direction of the situation, and you have a confidence in God’s presence, I think of that as informed optimism.

“I will sing of the mercies of the Lord.” It’s a song that started through my head as I was thinking about the whole story. It’s a little kid’s song from when I was a little kid. The first couple sentences of Psalm 89 from the King James Version were set to music in a repetitive way: “I will sing of the mercies of the Lord forever: with my mouth will I make known thy faithfulness to all generations.”

For the record, it’s probably good that kids were only singing the first sentences. Later in the psalm, the writer says, “How long, Lord? Will you hide yourself forever? How long will your wrath burn like fire? Remember how fleeting is my life. For what futility you have created all humanity!”[2]

That’s not as catchy. But it is true. Both parts of that psalm resonate with our lives. In many conversations, I discover that people are both laughing and weeping. They are speaking both of God’s mercy and the pain of life.

I think that’s healthy. Informed optimism. Excruciating hope. It’s the wholeness of the story of Lent and Holy Week, of the Ascension and the Return. Weeping with, rejoicing with. And sometimes at the same time.


  1. John 11:33-40.
  2. Psalm 89:46-47.

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Before You Walk In Copyright © 2018 by Jon Charles Swanson. All Rights Reserved.

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