Jesus wept, and so can we

By the time Alan Wolfelt was 15, his best friend and two of his grandparents had died. He remembers hearing familiar advice about coping with loss: You’ll get over it. Time heals all wounds. Keep your chin up.

But the conventional wisdom didn’t help.

“What people were saying just didn’t make much sense,” he said in a phone interview this week.

By age 16, Wolfelt had written a mission statement for his life: to launch a center to help people deal with loss, a place where they could learn to mourn. Out of his wounds, he said, he found his calling.

Wolfelt, now 54, fulfilled his adolescent vision, earning a doctoral degree as a clinical psychologist and then opening the Center for Loss and Life Transition in 1983. He’s written at least two dozen books about bereavement and grieving. Besides the counseling and teaching he offers at his center in Colorado, he spends up to 75 days a year presenting workshops and seminars across North America.

He comes to Johnson City next week (16-17 June 2009) for two sessions at the Millennium Center, hosted by Tetrick Funeral Services. Tuesday night’s seminar, “Understanding Your Grief: Touchstones for Hope and Healing,” is designed for anyone facing bereavement or caring for those who do. A workshop for caregivers, “The Art of ‘Companioning’ the Mourner,” will be held Wednesday.

Some fundamental facts about grief are easily missed – or dismissed – in our “mourning-avoidance culture,” according to Wolfelt.

For one, the loss of a loved one, particularly a close family member or friend, is a transitional event: there’s no going back. A significant loss takes us to a “new normal.”

“So well-meaning clichés about ‘getting over it’ aren’t that helpful,” he said. “It’s not about resolution or ‘getting back to normal.’ It’s about reconciliation … integrating the new reality with our lives.”

Grieving and mourning are essential parts of that process.

“If we give and receive love, it’s natural to grieve,” Wolfelt said. “It sounds corny, but it’s true: you have to feel it to heal it. When you have a loss, you can’t avoid grief. You have to go through it.”

Mourning, which he defines simply as “grieving made public,” is also an instinctive response, a need to tell and listen to the stories and share in other ways about the people we’ve lost. He goes so far as to say it is impossible for anyone to mourn alone.

Central to Wolfelt’s work is the idea that we need companions to help us grieve. He’s even coined a verb, “companioning,” to describe the task.

“My role as a fellow human being is to help someone feel safe enough to be open in their mourning,” he said. “I can create conditions to help the mourner” by listening, by simply sitting with a grieving person – in short, by acting as a friend rather than a therapist “trying to drag them back to their old normal.”

While his work is not specifically religious, Wolfelt calls grief an inherently spiritual journey, one that forces even the most secular person to ask profound questions about the meaning of life, or about why one person gets cancer and another doesn’t, or about the nature of God.

Wolfelt said he has integrated his clinical expertise and an interest in Eastern philosophy with his Methodist faith to shape his ideas about death and mourning.

People who are spiritual or religious need to “guard against the idea that we don’t need to mourn, or that to do so shows a lack of faith,” he said. “You can have profound faith but still miss the person. But I see a number of people who are shaming themselves” because they think they shouldn’t be sad.

As he pointed out, Jesus himself wept over the death of a friend.

Grief forces hard questions, and Wolfelt encourages them.

“We all have a world view, and then loss flips your world upside down,” he said. “Now you’re faced with questions, some directed at God.”

A good companion, according to Wolfelt, allows mourners to ask the hard questions and search for meaning in the loss.

“If you say ‘Don’t ask why,’ you’re inhibiting one of the instinctive needs to find meaning,” he said. “The very nature of grief leads to searching. But those who do not search, do not find.”

 Johnson City (Tenn.) Press, 13 June 2009.

Rumors that just won’t die

Zombies_Ahead_610x479The rumors still sound ominous.

Atheists, inspired by the now-deceased Madalyn Murray O’Hair, are pushing the Federal Communications Commission to ban all religious broadcasting. If this request – petition RM-2493 – succeeds, then we can say good-bye to church services on the radio, televangelists and all religious programming.

If you want an example of what might happen, consider the fate of that popular CBS-TV series, “Touched by an Angel.” It was taken off the air because it mentioned God in every episode.

Christians can stop the atheists, however, by adding their names to a petition that would force the FCC to keep its big government paws off their broadcasts. The goal is to collect one million names. James Dobson of Focus on the Family endorses this effort to stop RM-2493.

But wait, there’s more!

Redesigned dollar coins and Lincoln pennies omit the words “In God We Trust”!

Jesus will be portrayed as a homosexual in an upcoming film!

Steak ‘N’ Shake restaurants won’t allow its customers to pray in public!

And of course, Barack Obama is secretly a Muslim!

One problem: Not one of these rumors is true. Not one.

According to, one of several Web sites devoted to researching and unraveling rumors and so-called urban legends, more than 40 religion-based rumors are currently blowing around cyberspace. Only a handful of them, however, are emphatically true. The vast majority are bogus in whole or part.

That FCC rumor about removing religious broadcasting? Various versions have circulated for more than 30 years, by chain letter before the days of Internet. It started after two men filed a petition, the infamous RM-2493, asking the FCC to investigate the operating practices of stations licensed to religious organizations and not to grant new licenses for new noncommercial educational broadcast stations until the investigation was complete.

The FCC denied their petition in 1975. O’Hair had nothing to do with it, but her name got attached because she was then America’s most famous atheist.

But the story just won’t die. The FCC still gets mail and phone calls.

 “Such rumors are false,” the FCC Web site bluntly states. “The FCC has responded to numerous inquiries about these rumors and advised the public of their falsehood. There is no federal law that gives the FCC the authority to prohibit radio and television stations from broadcasting religious programs.”

For their part, Dobson and Focus on the Family have never been involved in any controversy over RM-2493, except for efforts to distance themselves from it.

The “Touched by an Angel” Web site also set the record straight in 2001, just after it was renewed for a seventh season: “A chain email has been floating around the internet and our message board stating that the FCC is forcing CBS to take ‘Touched By An Angel’ off the air because we mention the word ‘God. … This is a new variation of an old hoax. If you are a recipient of this email, please ignore it.”

The series ran a total of nine seasons, a long and successful lifespan for any program, and the scripts mentioned God from the first episode. The show ended for the same reason most do: it no longer appealed to the audience advertisers wanted.

Ironically, the same Internet that makes it so easy to spread rumors makes the truth more accessible than ever. Viewers can check out sources directly, such as the FCC, or locate information on sites such as Snopes and Urban Legends.

That being the case, then why do such stories persist, some for decades? Why don’t people check for themselves?

Maybe they don’t know how. Maybe the stories confirm what we already believe or what we want to be true. Maybe it’s a reaction of fear and insecurity, prompts for people who feel threatened by the world around them.


For now, let’s just take the pledge to check the facts and find the truth before we risk passing along a lie.

Johnson City (Tenn.) Press, 2 May 2009. (This column is an updated version of one that was published on April 29, 2006.)

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Easter: It isn’t kids’ stuff

ea-00004-ceaster-girl-in-rabbit-suit-with-eggs-postersEaster is for grown-ups.

That’s not to say Christmas is just for kids, but we can tell that story to children, start to finish. Babies are cute. Farm animals are usually cute. Angels singing in the sky are cool. (There’s the terrible interlude when King Herod orders the massacre of Bethlehem’s little boys, but that episode is easily avoided.) Christmas is mostly G-rated.

But the only way to talk about Jesus’ resurrection is to deal with a gruesome, unjust death. Easter is rated R – literally, if you recall Mel Gibson’s Passion of the Christ five years ago.

So for the sake of the kids, we bring on the bunnies. The children wave palm branches one week and the next hunt for eggs and wear new outfits. But in between there’s not much for them. The story is too brutal, and it’s too close for comfort.

Read or listen to the story of Jesus’ arrest, trials and execution in one sitting, focusing on what people around Jesus are doing, and you might notice how familiar it sounds. Change the names and a few details, and we could be hearing about some guy getting railroaded by the old-boy network in some mid-major city.

The disciples get confused and then angry and then scared. They want to do the right thing, but they can’t pull themselves together. Peter, the so-called rock, crumbles when confronted by the first-century equivalent of a teenage waitress.

The establishment leaders perform the familiar dance of self-preservation, huddling to engineer an exit for this popular and powerful outsider who threatens their tidy universe.

Perhaps they acted with intentional evil, but maybe they just fell into that long parade of people who convince themselves they are doing the right thing for the public. To those who are charged with maintaining order, any whiff of chaos smells like dung. Security and stability, they say, sometimes require distasteful methods, even if they contradict the values they claim to protect.

So the Jerusalem leaders, intelligent men, decided that Jesus simply had to go, even if he made some sense and raised the dead. (How paranoid and myopic they grew, plotting to murder not just Jesus but Lazarus, the man he raised, because he was a walking demonstration of Jesus’ abilities.)

They talked their way past “Thou shalt not kill” and a dozen more of their holy commandments, in the same way other intelligent people have talked their way into murder, torture, genocide and countless other horrors, all in the name of the people.

We’d recognize the Roman governor too. Pilate, the caretaker of troublesome fringe province, was intrigued by this mostly silent peasant standing before him. But as a minion of the Roman Empire, he discarded his humanity long enough to serve political practicality.

How ordinary and recognizable all this is. And yet, like it or not, this story emerged as one of the great hinges of history. Even our dating system says so.

Momentous events should happen in Rome or its latter-day equivalents – Beijing, Paris, London, New York, Washington – involving people with big offices, big bank accounts or big election returns.

But no. This story could be transplanted anywhere. It’s like the history of the world pivoted around the case of an itinerant preacher in, say, Knoxville.

That’s part of the story’s power: it’s not only for there and then, but also for here and now.

According to New Testament scholars Craig A. Evans and N.T. Wright, “The Gospels never say anything like, ‘Jesus is raised, therefore there is a life after death’ (not that many first-century Jews doubted that there was); or, ‘Jesus is raised, therefore we shall go to heaven when we die’ (most people believed something like that anyway); or better, ‘Jesus is raised, therefore we shall be raised at the last.'”

Writing in Jesus, the Final Days: What Really Happened, they point out that the gospels interpret Jesus’ resurrection as a “this-worldly” event that established Jesus as the Messiah, “the true Lord of the whole world.”

“The line of thought within the Gospels,” they observe, “is, ‘Jesus is raised, therefore God’s new world has begun, and therefore we, you, and everybody else are invited to be not only beneficiaries of that new world but participants in making it happen.'”

A story that immediate, that familiar, that deadly serious – even grown-ups struggle with it.

Johnson City (Tenn.) Press, 11 April 2009.

What’s next? Give up blogging for Lent?

In case you missed, the Vatican has urged Roman Catholics to give up high-tech for Lent. Call it a digital fast.

So if most Catholics follow this lead, and the Roman Catholic is the largest single denomination in the world and in the U.S., what would be the cultural and economic impact? And we can only speculate what kind of church-state tensions may surface among elected officials who happen to be Roman Catholic. If they follow the Vatican’s lead, their constituents may be out of touch in today’s environment.

But seriously, folks, there’s a serious point being made here. As the Associated Press story reports:

The Church is trying to balance an increasing appreciation of modern communication with a wariness of new media.

In January, the Vatican launched its own YouTube channel, with Pope Benedict XVI welcoming viewers to this ”great family that knows no borders.”

Benedict praised social networking sites such as Facebook and MySpace for forging friendships and understanding, but cautioned that online networking could isolate people from real social interaction.

The pope has also warned about what he has called the tendency of entertainment media to trivialize sex and promote violence.

It’s comforting to know the Vatican takes seriously the relationships and implications that rise with the varieties of digital media. If a 40-day fast from high-tech gadgets can jumpstart that conversation among believers, then so be it.

What movies can do

Jamal (Dev Patel, left) rises
Slumdog Jamal (Dev Patel, left) rises


Five years ago the big news in movies was The Passion of the Christ, Mel Gibson’s ambitious, gory, controversial and hugely successful portrayal of Jesus’ last 12 hours before his crucifixion. That project was the talk of the town.

Gibson has since slipped off the movie-business radar. His next project after Passion was Apocalypto, an ambitious, gory, controversial and mildly successful portrayal of the passing of ancient South America. After that? Not a lot.

 The Passion of the Christ has followed the typical movie route into DVD rentals, except that some churches, in the weeks before Easter, pull their copy off the library shelf for special showings. But the bold predictions when it first appeared – dire warnings of how the film would fuel anti-Semitism with its portrayal of Jewish complicity in Jesus’ execution, as well as glowing promises among some Christians that the movie would lead people to embrace their faith – did not come to pass.

Is there a lesson here? Maybe just that while well-made movies can move us to think or prompt us to talk about the most important issues in our lives, by themselves they don’t have the power to convert individuals or shift society. Mass media are powerful but not all powerful.

The story line and expectations aren’t so grand for this year’s leading contenders for Best Picture award, The Curious Case of Benjamin Button and Slumdog Millionaire. Yet, these fables have still set people talking about Big Questions.

Button is the sprawling epic of a New Orleans man born with an old man’s body who ages backwards. As his body “youthens” and his mind (and spirit?) matures, we follow his life through his adventures, some of them literally sea-going, and his one great love.

Slumdog follows Jamal Malik (Dev Patel), a barely educated chai wallah, or tea server, at a customer service call center who has a shot at winning the grand jackpot on the Indian version of “Who Wants to be a Millionaire?” Through flashbacks, we discover that he can answer the questions because of his harrowing upbringing in the Mumbai slums.

They are very different movies, of course: set on different continents, in different times, with entirely different approaches to the storytelling. But they also share much. At their core they are touching love stories, portraying relationships in which “love endures all things,” to use a biblical phrase.

Both also deal with the role of fate or destiny, but their answers are sharply different and surprising.

Benjamin Button (Brad Pitt) youthens
Benjamin Button (Brad Pitt) youthens

The destiny of Benjamin Button (Brad Pitt) is sealed by a biological quirk, and a clock is literally ticking in this story. We watch to see what Mr. Button does with his time. Despite happy interludes, high adventure and passionate love, his story turns out to be ultimately tragic.

By contrast, Slumdog Millionaire is a story of choices and possibilities, even though Jamal’s destiny seems to be written from the start. Despite the squalor, heartache and brutality played out on the screen, this movie is actually a comedy in the classic sense. As a few reviewers have noted, underneath the skin of this Bollywood-inspired tale beats the heart of a classic rags-to-riches, feel-good – some say, American Hollywood – story.

Here’s the paradox: Who would have expected that the movie set in bright, exciting 20th century America would turn out to be the sadder story in the end? Slumdog Millionaire hits the moviegoer from the first scene with searing pain and seemingly endless despair. Modern India’s tensions serve both as backdrop and as focal point. The contrast between terrible poverty and unimaginable wealth is only the start. (It’s no accident that the main characters are Muslims making their way in a Hindu-dominated society.)

Yet it is Slumdog that ends with triumph, optimism and a very cool dance number. In fact, that joyful release at the end (memories of college dredge up the word “catharsis”) wouldn’t feel nearly as powerful or even make sense without the high-stakes story of loss and struggle that came before. Tears stay for a time, the movie says, but joy comes in the morning.

A trip to the multiplex probably isn’t going change anyone’s life, but as far as movies go, that’s not a bad idea to walk out with. It’s worth an eight-buck ticket.