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Jewish Journal

Rabbi Wolpe: Why I went to church last Sunday

by Rabbi David Wolpe

July 31, 2013 | 10:17 am

Rick Warren speaks at the 2006 TED conference. Photo by Steve Jurvetson/Creative Commons

Rick Warren speaks at the 2006 TED conference. Photo by Steve Jurvetson/Creative Commons

Rabbis don't make it a practice to attend church. When I read that Rick and Kay Warren would be returning to Saddleback after their son Matthew's tragic suicide however, I resolved to go.

Rick had attended services at my synagogue several times and was even kind enough to contribute a forward to one of my books. As I came to know him, he was a large man in every sense: in physical presence, in embrace, in ambition to do good, in faith and in spiritual stature. Eliphaz reminds the suffering Job in the Bible how often he has helped others and now is himself in need of help. Thousands upon thousands showed up at services to honor a couple that had helped them as well as helping countless others across the world through the network of purpose driven churches.

There was an almost eerie contrast between the sparkling sky, the immaculate Saddleback campus dotted with cheerful greeters, and the drama of grief and faith that had gripped the church. I met up with colleagues, Rabbi Elie Spitz and Dr. Ron Wolfson, who had also come to show their friendship and support. The music kicked up, as young men and women in jeans led the congregation and large screens supplied the lyrics. People sang enthusiastically but with an acute consciousness that on this morning praise was a prelude.

Two songs later the Warrens were introduced and the 5,000 person hall along with all the annexes and auditoriums erupted in applause that seemingly would not end. When finally calmed at Rick's insistence, everyone sat and listened as he thanked all those who had helped him through. Then drawing a deep breath, he spoke.

He did not hide. The pulpit can be as effective a mask as the stage but neither he nor Kay hid the hell they had endured. Rick spoke of having cried every day since Matthew's death. He recounted how he and Kay stood in the driveway on that awful day, fearing the worst, waiting for the police to come to break down their son's door, only too sure of what they might -- and in fact did -- find. He spoke about the inexpressible torment of mental illness that made Matthew's life so painful that at 17, ten years before he took his life, Matthew asked his father why he had to go on living.

Kay was, if anything, even more raw in her honesty. She talked about songs she listened to in the car the past few years that helped her hope Matthew might be cured and how she could not listen to them anymore. She showed us her 'hope box' that had been full of biblical verses that had braced her as they shuttled their son from dr. to dr. and clinic to clinic. Now those passages had to be changed and new inspirations found. The power of the moment was that neither spoke to solicit sympathy. Each spoke to tell the truth. It called to mind Whitman's etched lines: "I am the man. I suffered. I was there."

As a Rabbi I could not help but measure the theology of my own tradition against the explanations that Rick gave for Matthew's having been born with a mental illness. He spoke alternately of the scourge of mental illness itself, of the machinations of Satan and of a deep mystery that we cannot know. There was no sadness for Matthew now, for he was in a better place, in heaven. The pain was for those left behind who feel his loss. Both Rick and Kay were certain that this morning Matthew was cheering his parents on. Their task was to mine hope from the hopelessness of such devastation.

The distinguishing feature of Warren's contribution is not the theology of loss. It is enacted love. Author of the world's bestselling book apart from the Bible, he distills experiences into actions, clarifies them and makes them compelling. Carefully the process the Warren family had undergone in the past three months was outlined in six stages: shock, sorrow, struggle, surrender, sanctification and service. All of these Rick said he would elaborate, one by one, in the weeks to come to explain "how to get through what you're going through."

In that last stage, service, was the secret and the kernel of inspiration. When asked later about why he had more stages than Kubler-Ross in her work on grief, Rick kiddingly responded, "She didn't know about the alliteration!" But Kubler Ross focused on the mourner and not on the world. The stage of service was the real and characteristic theme of his presentation. When God, for whatever reason, has wounded you, you learn how to minister to others with the same wound. Saddleback, which has long had support groups for an array of human ailments, is working hard to destigmatize mental illness. The sermons and classes themselves are essential to 'service,' for they will help others. Part of the process of grief is learning to use your loss to reach out. Even the keenest anguish can be, as the poet put it, a "gauntlet with a gift in it" -- a challenge to use the wisdom to help others in the same pain. In the words of my own tradition, turn your mourning into mitzvah.

Rick spoke about the cruel things that had sometimes been written about him after the tragedy and how the opinions of others, if they ever could hurt him, could not touch him now. But of course it was not his or Kay's imperviousness but their openness, their brokenness, that left us who attended a little more whole, a little more healed. No matter one's faith, every worshipper walked away that day knowing they had seen God's work being done.

This story originally appear at HuffingtonPost.com.

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