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Spirituality: Grief on a Silent Night

It was a memorial service unlike anything I have ever done. It was done in the silence of the night.

The leader was a woman named "Cindy" who scurried me into the sanctuary, where the windows were covered with paper to keep out curious eyes. Signs outside the entry clearly announced that this was a "private memorial service."

Cindy seated me at the end of a semicircle of 10 women positioned to face an altar adorned with a cross, candles, roses and Communion trays. She made no effort to introduce me. I was the first outsider and could only be tentatively trusted through Cindy's invitation.

The memorial service was for a silent night of grieving. It was the conclusion of a 10-week support group for post-abortion mothers.

At this point, let me say that those who see this group as political will disrespect the grief of these women. The most amazing thing about this group was that it was not political at all. No one spoke of overturning Roe v. Wade. They weren't planning marches or printing bumper stickers. They were expressing what they knew best: their own personal journey of grief and healing.

After the invocation prayer and a song, I led a short Communion service in which I explained "the Communion cup was a reminder of the day that God became culpable in the death of his son. It was on that day, the world darkened with God's pain. Because of that day, God experienced your pain."

Then came the most difficult part in the service - one by one, each woman stood before the altar, announced the name they had given their aborted child, then presented a personal memento in memorial to their unborn child.

Each woman presented a different face of pain at the altar. One woman spoke of a failed relationship with the father because of the abortion. Another attributed the loss of her adult daughter to her own abortion 30 years previous. Another woman wept over three aborted children.

With each presentation, the women lit a candle and placed a rose under the cross, signifying each child and symbolizing closure, that their child was now in God's hands. It also was a commitment to leave their guilt with God and press on toward the life God had given them.

In the memorial sermon that followed, I addressed their complicated combination of guilt and grief.

"It's tragic that society has disrespected and silenced your grief as a way of dealing with guilt of their own. As a result, you meet in anonymity for fear your grief will be discounted."

But most of all, I spoke about grace and growth.

I asked them to imagine something that I often ask people who are in the stages of grief and guilt. I asked them to imagine a God who could use the same creative powers used in creating their babies to create something new in them - a new growth.

But I think the most important point that I shared with them is something I try to share with everyone on both sides of the abortion debate.

"God's grace," I announced to this group, "is so much bigger than anyone can define. It's not dispensed like a Christmas sale item limited to 'three per customer.' "

It's the same grace that was fervently announced on the most holy of all silent nights.

"Don't be afraid," the angel said. "I'm here to announce a great and joyful event that is meant for everybody, worldwide."

That event was the arrival of God's grace in human flesh. It meant limitless grace to the world. But the best of all, this event allows us all to burst through the silent night of our shame and bring us into the marvelous light of grace.

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Norris Burkes is a former civilian hospital chaplain and an Air National Guard chaplain. Write norris(at)thechaplain.net or visit www.thechaplain.net. You can also follow him on Twitter - username is "chaplain" - or on Facebook at facebook.com/norrisburkes.

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