I’m not really sure how to put into words all that this last weekend was for me. My favorite times in ministry are those times I get to spend extended intentional time with the young people of our church: lock-ins, mission trips, camp, and retreats. This retreat is always special. We have a theme, we start dreaming about and creating a vision for Youth Sunday. I always walk away with extreme pride, a warm heart, and insight into how much these kiddos have grown over the last year (sometimes even just in the last few weeks).
One important thing I have seen in my own life, but I know to be true for others and for faith formation and retention in youth, is genuine connection. To me that includes vulnerability, and openness, and realness. So this year’s retreat theme landed on “Faith Stories”–broad in many senses, but also adaptable to be narrowed down. We talked about what a faith story is, some examples from the Bible, different ways to express your story, mandalas, and then our sponsors shared their own stories. The stories were raw, and emotional, and not candy-coated. It can be uncomfortable sitting with someone else’s story, but our youth did an amazing job being respectful and receptive and present.
I’d like to share the story I wrote for my youth with you all here. It was a struggle to read for them, but I got through it. Please recognize that the audience this was written for was the youth on retreat, so the pronouns and language should be read as such.
Shannon’s Faith Story
I find writing my faith story to be a lot like journaling. It ebbs and flows and most times just eeps out of me. The first thing I’d like to make clear is that I don’t have just one faith story. I have many. Some are big, some are small. No matter the size they have all had a hand in shaping me. And that is ongoing.
I could tell you about my confirmation experience, and why I decided to go through with joining my church when I was in the 7th grade. I could tell you about my African faith story. How it felt to be God’s hands and feet and what culture shock was like for me. I could tell you about my call to ministry and my process for discernment in youth ministry as my vocation. But I think an important lesson in stories of faith is knowing they don’t always come in happy and joyous experiences.
I want to share with you my faith story from the last couple of years. Bear with me because there are bound to be tears. Some of you may know that my mom had Parkinson’s. It’s a degenerative disease, meaning it doesn’t ever get better but medications and therapies can slow the progression of the disease. Parkinson’s is a neurological disease so it affects the brain and nerves. It was very difficult to see the spread of the disease but I found it gave me new perspective about my mom, our relationship, and our faith.
I’d have huge bouts of frustration with my mom in the early stages when she couldn’t remember things I had told her repeatedly, when I had to do everyday tasks for her, or things that seemed strange because she couldn’t do herself. This is when my prayer life picked up. My prayers morphed from just meal times and when I feel asleep to constant breaks in my day: anytime I was driving, after I hung up with talking to family or friends on the phone, when I was exercising, etc. I’d pray for her, my dad, my sisters, myself, and for specific situations as they arose.
Then November 11th 2016 hit. Shelly and I were planning to see our parents and we got an urgent call from our dad saying that he couldn’t wake our mom up. We got in the car and drove to their house. I was in constant prayer then. “Give us strength, give us strength, give us strength.” My heart was racing. We arrived, finally roused my mom, got her in the car and we all immediately went to the ER. This time I wasn’t driving but my prayers kept flooding in “she has to be okay, God, she just has to…”
They ran all sorts of tests in the ER. And found nothing. We’d been down a similar road before. But the crazy thing is once we hit the ER her temperature plummeted. She got so cold the machines had trouble reading her pulse and signaled several times that she had coded.
From there she went to the ICU and our family made the decision after about a week that she should be moved to hospice care. Generally, hospice is used as a way to ease patients and their families into the dying process making patients comfortable for their last days. For me, this took even more prayer. I prayed for my dad, who was going through a horrible time as he thought about losing his wife, life partner and best friend. I prayed for my sisters: one far away who could be in a sense of denial and one close at home who takes emotions very directly. I prayed for our decision making, that we were doing what my mom would have wanted and that God would continue to provide comfort and peace for her through the process.
The thing about my faith at this point is that I believed in the power of God, I believed he would surround us and provide us support but I didn’t make myself the center of my prayers. I have a tendency to be a protector, someone who looks out for others, and gives so much that sometimes I neglect my own well-being. This showed me my own strong faith. It’s like breathing, I don’t have to consciously tell myself to breath in and out, I just do it. The same way I didn’t have to worry about myself because God already had me taken care of.
The next 5 months were tough. I wasn’t myself. I wasn’t always present, in my own life or admittedly at work either. And I probably neglected you all along the way.
Often times when people are grief stricken they resort to asking God “why”. Why do they have to be sick? Why now? Why did they have to die? Why her? Because Parkinson’s patients who have the specific diagnosis my mom had generally live 5-10 years after initial diagnosis, I had been gearing myself up for days and decisions like these with which we were now faced. My mom was diagnoses in the late fall of 2009 and this was November of 2016.
I had already spent the last seven years processing the fact that my mom’s life would come to a close much sooner than I would like, and much soon than the parents of my peers. I already had seven years to fight with God, to question, and to work through much of my grief. So my questions, in Shannon fashion, at this point became more geared toward advocating for my mom. Why is she still in pain? Why this back and forth of good days and bad days and all the in-betweens? When will this burden be lifted? I’m not always so proud to admit that last one.
Even though these questions were difficult, you can see that my faith changed. I knew my mom would be provided for in heaven. I knew she was already having vision of the other side. And I knew that much of her continued time on earth, though stressful for myself and my dad as we visited everyday or every other day, and stressful for my sisters as they processed in their own ways—this continued time on earth was necessary for my mom. Because even in my mom’s strength and dedicated faith, she was scared. She was frightened of the unknown of what heaven would be like, what dying would feel like, and how my whole immediate family would deal with the hole in our hearts and our lives.
This whole experience that I walked through with my mom and her journey to eternal life strengthened my faith and showed me that our prayers are not always answered in the ways we expect. Sometimes the desires of our hearts are not what wins out when put up against the desires of the heart of another. I kept praying for an end to my mom’s suffering—in my mind that being a peaceful passing. But I am confident that she was praying for clarity and comfort as she came to terms with the unknown in front of her. Her needs and wishes were greater than, and honestly, more important than, mine.
I am thankful in knowing that even when we are sad and suffering, our faith can grow in positive ways. We may not always expect the outcomes we get, but with the many prayers God receives, he fits the pieces together to create the needed outcomes.
**The title is a combination of Swahili and Maori words. The first is Swahili for “faith” and the second is Maori for “journey”**