How long, Lord? Will you forget me forever?
How long will you hide your face from me?
How long must I wrestle with my thoughts
and day after day have sorrow in my heart?
- Psalm 13:1&2
The recent blast of arctic air brought with it a memory that caught me unawares. The cold wind conjured up an image. The image of a tall man with dark skin and even darker hair. He’s hunched over in the cold - walking face first into a bitter breeze. His jacket is much too light for the conditions. His face is buried under a thick bushy beard. The beard appears to be as woefully out of place as his jacket on that blustery afternoon. The man in my memory was a seminary classmate of mine, whom I haven’t thought of for quite some time. For the sake of this column, I’ll call him Louis. Louis grew up in Vanuatu – a small band of islands in the South Pacific. Thanks to his island upbringing Louis was most comfortable in shorts and flip flops. Needless to say he despised the cold winds that accompany winters in Holland, Michigan. There is no doubt that the journey which led Louis to Western Seminary is a tale worth telling. But that’s not what brought Louis to mind. Rather, I recall Louis for one reason; that thick bushy beard. You see, in the Fall of our second year at Western Louis received word that his father had been suddenly killed in an accident of some sort. Because he was so far from home, and because his father had been such a strong supporter of Louis coming to the U.S. for his studies, Louis made the heart wrenching decision to not attend his father’s funeral.
As a community, the seminary tried very hard to support Louis during his time of grief. We did what we knew how to do in times of loss. We made casseroles and baked cookies. We gave him awkward hugs and told him we were praying for him. We did our best to care for him. But Louis’s grief would play out in a way that I had never experienced before, a way foreign to our culture. You see, when Louis heard his father had passed away he did what was native to his culture. He simply stopped shaving. Gradually his beard came in. It was spotty and course at first – but eventually became full and bushy. As Louis’s beard grew, it served a dual purpose. With each passing day, not only was Louis offering a testimony to the father he loved, he was also demonstrating to those of us in his community the ongoing reality of his grief.
I have no idea how long Louis kept his beard, but I do know that he kept it until he was ready to shave it off. I also know he kept it long after his classmates had forgotten about the tragedy in his life. He kept it long after he once again was able to do “normal” stuff. Eventually the beard began to fade into the background, becoming part of Louis. Then one day it was gone. His hurt wasn’t gone. His grief wasn’t gone. His father was still gone. But Louis’s beard had served its purpose. The beard gave Louis a way of communicating without saying a word and it gave those of use who knew Louis a visible reminder that the sting of death doesn’t just go away.
So my hope this cold winter morning is that we learn from Louis. That we keep making the casseroles and baking the cookies. But that we also learn how to be patient and compassionate with each other. That we learn how to allow others the space to grieve at their own pace. That we learn how to not avoid those who hurt, not brush past the pain, but allow them to shave their “beards” in their own time.