Even in grief

But God cares deeply

Psalm 116:15 The Lord cares deeply when his loved ones die.

This weekend was unusually busy and intense. In the middle of it I learned my friend Vanessa, whose generosity I wrote about on April 4, died a month ago from cancer. Here’s what I wrote:

I struggled one whole morning to understand a series of marketing procedures new and not intuitive to me. In frustration I cried to the Lord, out loud, “I need help! I need someone who can show me what I’m doing wrong!

Within seconds of my prayer, a message flashed onto my Instagram screen from a Brazilian friend I haven’t seen or talked to for at least twenty years, a psychologist who worked with me in restoration ministry. “Debra, do you need any help with online advertising for the Karis book? I’m trained in that.”

Yeah. I was stunned. But wait—there’s more!

When I told Vanessa her offer was a direct answer to prayer, she said, “Well, your need is a direct answer to my prayer. Last week I was diagnosed with metastatic cancer. I asked God to give me something to do for someone else, to divert my focus from myself and my fear and worry about this cancer. Then I saw your announcement about the Karis book being published here in Brazil and thought, that’s it! I want to do all I can to help you let people know the Karis book is available now in Portuguese. I’ve been reading other things I’ve found written about Karis, and her faith is helping to stabilize mine as I walk through this battle with cancer.”

Vanessa died on the operating table. I don’t yet know more details than that. I only found out because a friend of Vanessa’s noticed my repeated inquiries on Vanessa’s Instagram about how she was doing and took the time to tell me she had died.

Vanessa was so sure she would beat this cancer. Perhaps I won’t ever know why she couldn’t. I’ve learned, though, that in these times when I don’t understand, I need to cling even tighter to the Lord, who sees the big picture I can’t see.

Yesterday the Lord comforted me very personally. Not just through my tears and my husband sitting with me as I cried. And by giving me a vision of Karis hanging out with Vanessa in Heaven. The Lord also cared for me through a friend who unexpectedly offered to help me solve yet another computer issue I find perplexing. A touch of kindness in my landscape of grief that means so much to me because it touches another area in which I’m weak and vulnerable.

So I’m praying God will touch each of Vanessa’s loved ones—her husband, her parents, her extended family, her friends, even her beloved dogs—with whatever specific kindness will let them feel how deeply he cares about each one of them, even in their grief.

Perhaps he already has.

Do you practice lament?

But Jesus grieves

Matthew 23:23; 37-39 “What sorrow awaits you hypocrites! For you are careful to tithe even the tiniest income from your herb gardens, but you ignore the more important aspects of the law—justice, mercy, and faith. … O Jerusalem, Jerusalem, the city that kills the prophets and stones God’s messengers! How often I have longed to gather your children together as a hen protects her chicks beneath her wings, but you wouldn’t let me. And now look, your house is abandoned and desolate. For I tell you this, you will never see me again until you say, ‘Blessings on the one who comes in the name of the Lord.’”

A new month. Are we any wiser? Or just older, continuing in our same patterns of behavior as we conclude Lent and prepare for Holy Week … We still have time, time to sit before the Lord and ask him to reveal to us our own hearts and his. Time to soften our resistance to his still, small voice of love, inviting us to be freed from our selfishness and blindness. Inviting us into his care.

Matthew 23 is a chapter we tend to skip over, except for verse 37. Jesus pours out a blistering rebuke of the leaders of his day, repeating the phrase “What sorrow awaits you” seven times. It’s an anguished cry of lament. “They don’t practice what they teach … They crush people and never lift a finger to ease the burden … Everything they do is for show …”

The last line I quoted refers back to Jesus’ “triumphal entry”–after which the Jewish leaders, indignant, began to plot how to kill him.

I find most shocking Jesus’ declaration to these leaders that they will be held responsible for the murder of “all godly people of all time,” beginning with Cain’s murder of Abel. “This judgment will fall on this very generation,” Jesus says, before launching into his lament over Jerusalem. We know he would shortly bear on the cross the penalty for all the sin committed for all time.

Can you feel his anguish over innocent people who are killed by others with evil motives? It’s the lament of the Old Testament prophets, a revelation of God’s tender heart. “I hate all your show and pretense—the hypocrisy of your religious festivals and solemn assemblies” the Lord said through the prophet Amos after decrying those who oppress the poor and crush the needy. “Instead, I want to see a mighty flood of justice, an endless river of righteous living” (Amos 5:21, 24).

And then comes the phrase Jesus appropriated: “What sorrow awaits you …” (Amos 6:1). “How foolish you are when you turn justice into poison and the sweet fruit of righteousness into bitterness” (Amos 6:12).

Lord, you see our nation. You see all that’s going on in our broken, weary, bleeding world. And you see my heart. Take the blinders from my eyes so I can see it too. Let me find refuge beneath your wings.

What socks are you wearing?

But God encourages  January 31, 2022

2 Corinthians 1:3, 4:6-7, 7:5-6 God is our merciful Father and the source of all comfort. … For God, who said, “Let there be light in the darkness,” has made this light shine in our hearts … but we ourselves are like fragile clay jars containing this great treasure. … We faced conflict from every direction, with battles on the outside and fear on the inside. But God, who encourages those who are discouraged, encouraged us by the arrival of Titus.

Genesis 16:13 Thereafter, Hagar used another name to refer to the Lord, who had spoken to her. She said, “You are El-roi, the God who sees me.”

At the memorial service yesterday, hidden inside my boots, there was a hole in my sock. A big one. Not at all attractive.

I may have looked decently put together, but I knew the hole was there. God knew too. He didn’t care about my sock, but he cared about what it symbolized for me, the hole in my heart. God saw. The same El-roi who appeared to Hagar in her wilderness. I feel her awe.

God, who encourages those who are discouraged, appeared to Hagar through an angel. He encouraged Paul through Titus. He comforted me yesterday through Jeanne. Her gifts of music unveiled to me the Presence of God with us, evoking the deep comfort of her ministry to us through Karis’s memorial, almost eight years ago.

In this marvelous way—tailor-made, it seemed, for me, though doubtless the beauty and power of worship touched each person there—God strengthened me to walk into this week. Joy and sorrow will blend somehow as I share in the happiness of my brother’s wedding while reliving both the grief and the solace engendered by Karis’s death.

But Jeanne’s ministry of worship yesterday also touched and softened a current grief. My dear friend Mary, whom God used to shine light into my darkness so many times through our years in Brazil, lies in a São Paulo ICU breathing through the support of a respirator, her lungs 75% consumed by Covid. Before I go to bed and first thing when I wake up, I check for news, entrusting her and her family many times a day to the mercies of God.

Yesterday, as the service guided us to think about Sharon free, well, and joyful in the presence of her Lord, I pictured Mary there with her. Both women poured out their gifts of worship and of intercession and counsel to bless and comfort and encourage many, many people. Both suffered huge losses in life; both lost dearly loved sons. Both, through the deep empathy engendered by their own suffering, shone light into the darkness of others. As Jeanne did for me yesterday, in a reprise of her ministry to me almost eight years ago.

Perhaps you have no hidden hole on your sole. Perhaps, though, you have a tattered place in your soul. Perhaps no one else knows it’s there. But God sees. He sees you. Through Jesus, the Man of Sorrows, he understands your fragility. Your fear. Your need. I pray he will touch the tender areas of your heart today with his comfort and healing and encouragement. As he did for Hagar. As he did for me.

Today, I’m changing my socks.

“… your feet shod with shalom” (Eph. 6:15)

Bittersweet Christmas

But God heard my cry for mercy

Psalm 31:5, 21-22 I entrust my spirit into your hand. Rescue me, Lord, for you are a faithful God. … I am dying from grief; my years are shortened by sadness. … In panic I cried out, “I am cut off from the Lord!” But you heard my cry for mercy and answered my call for help.

“It’s the hap-happiest time of the year …”

Well, no. Not for everyone.

The first Christmas after Karis died, I thought I would drown in grief. She loved Christmas so. I couldn’t bring myself to do the fun Christmas-y things: the tree, the decorating, the baking, the gifts. I wanted somehow to leap over not only Christmas but January, when Karis was hospitalized with a line infection and, unknown to us, H1N1, and February, with her death and memorial service and indescribable pain. I wanted to skip winter altogether. I wanted spring, with its hope of new life, with reassurance there was still reason to live.

Rachel and Valerie came to my rescue, though they were grieving too. They managed Christmas for our family that year. I didn’t realize how hard this was for them until Rachel mentioned it a couple of weeks ago as we discussed plans for this year.

Yesterday’s poem in Guite’s Waiting on the Word, number 28 of 131 poems published in 1850 as In Memoriam, is framed around the sound of Christmas bells. Alfred Lord Tennyson wrote these poems across seventeen years, tracing his grief over the sudden death of his best friend. His pain is still raw, yet the last stanza carries a note of hope:

                             This year I slept and woke with pain,

                                           I almost wish’d no more to wake,

                                           And that my hold on life would break

                             Before I heard those bells again.

                             But they my troubled spirit rule,

                                           For they controll’d me when a boy;

                                           They bring me sorrow touch’d with joy,

                             The merry, merry bells of Yule.

“Sorrow touch’d with joy.” It’s an apt description of my first few Christmases after Karis’s death. Grieving is not speedy. If we try to skip over the pain, it won’t heal. The only way out is through.

This year, I find I can invert Tennyson’s phrase. “Joy touch’d with sorrow”—yes. That works. Thank you, Lord. Thank you for hearing my cry for mercy.

The joy candle, third Sunday of Advent Shutterstock: Roza Sharipova

But God shares our sorrow

Acts 7:59-8:2 As the Jewish leaders stoned him, Stephen prayed, “Lord Jesus, receive my spirit.” He fell to his knees, shouting, “Lord, don’t charge them with this sin!” And with that he died. Saul was one of the witnesses, and he agreed completely with the killing of Stephen. A great wave of persecution began that day … Some devout men came and buried Stephen with great mourning. But Saul was going everywhere to destroy the church. He went from house to house, dragging out both men and women to throw them into prison.

Romans 8:17, 26 If we are to share Christ’s glory, we must also share his suffering … But the Holy Spirit prays for us with groanings that cannot be expressed in words.

Covid is battering our friends across South America. Daily, it seems, we hear of another heart-rending situation involving people we know and love. So while we delight in the re-opening of our lives here in the U.S., thanks to life-saving vaccines, we’re reminded constantly that this pandemic is not over. Nor will be in the foreseeable future.

A pandemic is one thing. Suffering people deliberately inflict on each other, as Saul did to the early church, is even more painful, especially if God’s holy name is used to justify wounding and destruction. Sadly, this is nothing new. I’m grappling with bitter historical realities in my research for Treasure Hunt 1904.

But God had a plan for Saul, and we’ll get to that in the next chapter of Acts. The time came when Saul, known later as Paul, wrote, “In my insolence, I persecuted God’s people. But God had mercy on me. Oh, how generous and gracious our Lord was!” (1 Timothy 1:13). God offers mercy and hope of transformation to anyone willing to hear his voice of compassion. Even the perpetrators. Inexplicably, he loves our broken world.

Paul continues telling Timothy that despite human arrogance, “He alone is God” (verse 17). God’s not rattled by my sense that the world (and even the church) has gone crazy. He’s still on his throne–remember Stephen’s vision? He has a plan.

So I offer to you, Lord, my sorrow and grief, my anger at what I see as manipulative and unjust, my worry about what’s happening in the U.S. and the world, my frustration with my own limited vision and frail faith.

And now maybe I can go back to sleep.

Deer again ate my pansies–though not down to the dirt this time.

But in fact Christ has been raised from the dead!

1 Corinthians 15:17-20 If Christ has not been raised, then your faith is useless and you are still guilty of your sins. And if our hope in Christ is only for this life, we are more to be pitied than anyone in the world. But in fact, Christ has been raised from the dead! He is the first of a great harvest of all who have died.

On this last day of Easter season (Pentecost is tomorrow), we come to “the” chapter about the resurrection of Jesus, 58 verses of some of Paul’s most enthusiastic defense of our faith.

Valerie quoted from verses 42-57 in her blog post Feb. 5, 2014, the day Karis died. So of course that’s the first thing that comes to my mind as I re-read this chapter. The foundation of our confidence in the transformation of Karis’s weak, broken body into a body that will never die is Jesus’ own triumph over death, and his promises that we too will be raised to unending Life—our experience here just a shadow of the real thing. It’s why we can smile as we think of Karis now, in the joy of her victory over death, made possible by Jesus’ resurrection. It’s the joy at the center of the universe, the “deeper magic,” as C.S. Lewis described it.

Paul illustrates the transformation of our bodies with the analogy of what grows from a seed that is buried

But today what is on my mind is the hope we have for the many friends dying from Covid in Latin America and Brazil, more every day. Since our work is with pastors, those are the ones we primarily hear about from the safety of Pittsburgh. Hundreds of pastors across South America, caring for their people without PPE, without vaccines, and without adequate medical care, literally laying down their lives for their sheep (John 10:11).

I want to honor them today, even as we pray for their families and congregations and friends, left behind for now. They did not love their lives so much that they were afraid to die (Revelation 12:11).

Because of our confidence in the resurrection, Paul says to us, Be strong and immovable. Always work enthusiastically for the Lord, for you know that nothing you do for the Lord is ever useless (verse 58). And borrowing from chapter 16, verse 13: Be on guard. Stand firm in the faith. Be courageous. Be strong. And do everything with love.

But Jesus was angry

Grief. It can skewer you, swamp you, sabotage your self-control. It can be hot or cold. It can leave you bubbling over with the desperate need to talk, share, let others know how you feel. Or it can empty you, dry you out, isolate you. It can fade softly into the background yet knock you down with no warning. I once at the grocery store threw myself sobbing into the arms of a woman I barely knew. No, not typical behavior for me.

As I walked early this morning, the wind blowing my hair because in spring angst I left my hat at home, I thought, “Grief is like the wind.” On the car radio I heard we may have gusts up to 60 miles per hour today. We may lose power; branches may crack off our trees.

Have I felt grief that powerful, draining all my energy, stripping me, changing me permanently? Yes.

The news announcer went on to tell me eight tornadoes ravaged Alabama yesterday. Have I felt grief as devastating as a tornado? No. But I know some people have.

On still days, we don’t think about the wind. On hot days, we relish a breeze. It’s something we share with everyone in our neighborhood, whether we know them or talk with them or not. It’s part of our shared experience. Grief has become like that over the past year, not just locally or nationally, but worldwide. We all have something or someone (or many somethings or someones) to mourn. Can we let it unite us, strengthen our empathy, soften our reactivity?  

Some of us have loving, understanding people around us. Some of us suffer alone. As hard as things have been in our country, the resources we have are abundant compared to many parts of the world. I’ve talked with several people this week who told me, “Vaccines? We have no idea when they will reach our country. And once they do, it will be months or years before they are available for people like me. Meanwhile, our health care system is totally overwhelmed. Our recourse is prayer. And doing what we can to care for each other.”

I’m glad Jesus knew grief; I’m glad he wept at the grave of his friend Lazarus. In 1551, when Robert Estienne defined a verse structure within the chapters of the Bible, he decided “Jesus wept” deserved its own verse. I’m intrigued that Jesus’ weeping was apparently fueled by anger at his friends’ suffering. Could some of his emotion have been linked to his own impending death or, closer to hand, the Jewish leaders’ reactions to this high-profile event (From that time on, the Jewish leaders began to plot Jesus’ death (v. 53)? What do you think about Jesus’ anger?

As I finished my walk, an image of wind turbines marching across Pennsylvania hills flashed into my mind. Lord, I offer you, once again, my grief. Please harness it for your own purposes, beginning within my own soul. Make it a resource. A gift. Another miracle, Lord. Thank you.

Image from cancerhealth.com