I’m in my pantry, door closed, sitting in the dark, the glow of the computer screen illuminating the mason jar full of strawberry smoothie next to me. I like to close the blinds when I write. I like to create a cocoon of dim light because it helps me focus on what I want to say. Snowy days are the best writing days. But the sun is out today and I am much too sorrowful for the sun. The blinds won’t even do. So here I am in my windowless pantry because what I have to write feels much too sacred to have out in the light of day yet.
Grief is a terrible thing. What I didn’t know until today though, is that grief is also a holy thing.
When deep sorrow comes knocking it always seems a little unfair, doesn’t it? Even though we know there is sorrow in this life. Even though we have always understood we will have to say goodbye, it still seems wildly unfair when it comes time to actually bear it ourselves.
Our family is being put through the ringer of grief right now. It’s potent—in the air. It’s uncomfortable at best, twistingly painful at worst. Each day is tinged with pain. And it feels like it will go on and on forever and never stop. Will we ever not be sad again? That becomes the question.
I have a sign up in my house in anticipation for Thanksgiving. It reads “In All Things Give Thanks.”
The other morning, after a night of fervent praying and overwhelm at everything going on and not knowing what I could or should do, I woke up and remembered the verse I memorized five years prior: “be joyful always, pray continually, give thanks in all circumstances, for this is the will of God for you in Christ Jesus” (1 Thesselonians 5:16-18). I decided when I don’t know what to do, this is what I will do.
Thanks is a hard thing to give when we are in such deep grief. I’m supposed to give THANKS? Of all things, THANKS? It’s like this song that comes on the Christian radio station sometimes.
So I’m thankful for the scars
‘Cause without them I wouldn’t know Your heart
And I know they’ll always tell of who You are
So forever I am thankful for the scars
Jeremy hates it. He’s always shouting “you are not thankful for your scars! You don’t say ‘thank you God for allowing this horrible thing to happen because now I know God better. That’s not the point.’”
It’s true. The thanks is meant for God for being who He says He is in the midst of what will leave a scar. Our savior. Always near. Who will never leave us. Who will always, always work even the most bleak circumstances, for our good. Who makes beauty from ashes. Who binds up the brokenhearted. Our thanks is to Him *for* Him. That even in this, He is here at work binding up hearts. Comforting. Offering lavish displays of mercy. We shouldn’t give thanks to our pain just because there are silver linings. Rather, our thanks demonstrates that we acknowledge that even though we may not feel grateful for much in the midst of pain, we will choose to be thankful for who He is and trust Him to do what He says He will do—even in this. We will trust we are not alone. That all will be well. That we are held. The thanks is a proclamation of faith. And it’s for our own good or He wouldn’t tell us this is what He wants us to do “always”
While I’m talking about songs, you know that old one “It Is Well With My Soul?”
When peace like a river attendeth my way
when sorrows like sea billows roll;
whatever my lot, thou has taught me to say
it is well, it is well
with my soul
Though Satan should buffet, though trials should come,
Let this blest assurance control,
That Christ has regarded my helpless estate,
And hath shed His own blood for my soul.
It was written by Horatio Spafford after his four daughters died when their ship sunk in 1873. After, as he himself sailed near where his daughters had died he penned the lyrics. In immense grief he said “thou has taught me to say, it is well with my soul.”
Somehow his soul could find respite, even in the face of this. That’s what great faith produces. There’s something about grief that pushes us deeper and deeper toward the heart of God. Not that we want the pain in order to get there, or that pain is necessary to the process—it’s not, but we find that in grief He fulfills His promise that he will make beauty from ashes. One of the ways he accomplishes this is when you find you grief pushing you further and further to Him. It’s a natural process. Our dependence grows as our independence and what we have control over fades away and what feels like a curse paves a way to be held and safe. He says “if you are in pain I will be near you and I will lead you closer and closer into faith and belief and comfort. He says “it’s okay, you can trust me. Whatever it is, you can trust me.”
Notice trust doesn’t promise a certain desired outcome but instead gives you a way through, come what may…come what may.
It seems I am always asking “how does God exist in this?” My question is never does God actually exist? I am never trying to suss out whether or not He is there. I am trying to determine how he is there—when he doesn’t provide the miracle for the people we love. How is He existing in the midst of that? And what will I do with myself then?
When CS Lewis’ wife was dying he wrote, “Not that I am (I think) in much danger of ceasing to believe in God. The real danger is of coming to believe such dreadful things about Him. The conclusion I dread is not “So there’s no God after all,” but “So this is what God’s really like. Deceive yourself no longer.”
He goes on, “Feelings, and feelings, and feelings. Let me try thinking instead. From the rational point of view, what new factor has her death introduced into the problem of the universe? What grounds has it given me for doubting all that I believe? I knew already that these things, and worse, happened daily. I would have said that I had taken them into account. I had been warned—I had warned myself—not to reckon on worldly happiness. We were even promised sufferings. They were part of the program. We were even told, ‘Blessed are they that mourn,’ and I accepted it. I’ve got nothing that I hadn’t bargained for. Of course it is different when the thing happens to oneself, not to others, and in reality, not in imagination.”
I read verses like “And I will do what ever you ask in my name” and “do not fear” and I wonder if some of us interpret this as a direct promise from God that all will be well. I’ve been a part of circles where the thinking is “God will make everything okay if we just believe enough.”
But we are never promised a certain outcome. We are promised that come what may, He is faithful, will wipe every tear, fight for us, and take care of us. He is not telling us do not fear because nothing bad will happen. He is saying don’t let your heart be troubled, come what may—this is how I want you to be. This is how you can live and find joy. This is how you move forward. Come ever back to me. I am where your help comes from. Before I came, death got the ultimate ending, but then I came and now death has lost it’s sting.
Come what may. Come what may.
This is faith. This is knowing God.
I still don’t know Him as well as I’d like. This is why I often get scared and then I have to remember how He is and what I am promised. I have to remember I am His. I have to remember that when people I love leave this world earlier than should be allowed, I am only a mere blink behind. Even if I live to a ripe old age, I am only 50-60 years behind. And if heaven is here and now and all around then it just like that Henry Scott-Holland quote:
“Death is nothing at all.
It does not count.
I have only slipped away into the next room.
Nothing has happened.
Everything remains exactly as it was.
I am I, and you are you,
and the old life that we lived so fondly together is untouched, unchanged.
Whatever we were to each other, that we are still…
Why should I be out of mind because I am out of sight?
I am but waiting for you, for an interval,
somewhere very near,
just round the corner.
All is well.
Nothing is hurt; nothing is lost.
One brief moment and all will be as it was before.
How we shall laugh at the trouble of parting when we meet again!”
I may not know God as well as I’d like, but I am letting my pain push me further into the heart of who He is so I can be changed. So I can know how to be. So I can live and love and hope and not be in fear. So I can one day say “it is well with my soul” and really mean it.
For now, I practice returning back to Him. Again and again. As many times as it takes. Praying continually. Remembering where my help comes from. And giving thanks…not for the scar, but for who He is amid the scars and how He loves.
How he loves us.
At the end of time it will be you and God. That’s it. That’s all that will matter.
(The next few paragraphs I’ll be quoting or summarizing from: http://kenpulsmusic.com/pilgrimsprogress131.html)
In John Bunyans classic Pillgram’s Progress, The pilgrims realize that death is unavoidable. As they enter the river, which symbolizes the crossing over from life to death to life again, they are encouraged and accompanied by the Shining Ones. The allegory shows that the Shining Ones represent God’s work of grace in heart. And God send them to guide pilgrims in the final steps of the journey. The Shining Ones tell the pilgrims that the river will be shallow or deep depending on their faith. As the pilgrims enter the water, we see that they all experience death differently. Christian, the main character, is in great turmoil. His pride has long been his greatest obstacle, and even in death, his thoughts are of himself. He remembers his sins and ponders his failings. He begins to sink and cry out in distress. He quotes David in the bible: Deep calls unto deep at the noise of Your waterfalls; All Your waves and billows have gone over me.Save me, O God!
Death is a great trial. Doubts that he believed were long past, flood his soul again. Fear engulfs him. He fears he will never make it to heaven. The enemy’s he faced in life now return and seek to pull him under. This is Christians experience.
But Hopeful, who is with him, is full of hope. He finds the river much shallower and unlike Christian, walks across with firm footing. He keeps his head above the waves and sees heaven on the other side when Christian is unable. It is God’s kindness that Christian and Hopeful walk together. Hopeful’s thoughts are of Christ. Even in death, Hopeful points his brother to the Savior and the promise of eternal life. Hopeful tells Christian that the trial he is facing in death is an indication of God’s grace at work. Christian is concerned for his soul, distressed by his doubts, and troubled by his sin.
Every true pilgrim who sets out for Heaven will complete the journey. God will do everything necessary to bring us home to glory.
“Being confident of this very thing, that He who begun a good work in you will complete it until the day of Jesus Christ” Philippians 1:6.
But our awareness of His grace as we near the end of life and experience death will be strengthened or weakened by our faith, as we “believe in the King of the place.” We must exercise our faith now. We must learn to walk by faith, not by sight, and be grateful for every circumstance and providence that keeps us pointed to Christ and oriented toward eternity. This requires a radical shift in our thinking…What this world most prizes—status, privilege, wealth, youth and vigor—are things that bind us to this life. Sadly, they can prevent us from looking to Christ and yearning for the life to come. But what the world most fears—hardship, illness, poverty, old age and frailty—are things that cause us to grow weary of this life. Thankfully, they can serve us, if they teach us to value Christ and yearn more for the life to come.
Those most at home in this world will have the hardest time leaving it. It is difficult to face death when you are clinging tenaciously to the world. Those least encumbered by the world will have an easier time leaving it. When we realize that Christ and His promises—which for now are unseen (seen only with the eyes of faith)—are more real and more valuable than anything the world can offer, then we can greet death not as an enemy but as an entrance to glory.”
Until recently I have been at home in this world. I would have a hard time leaving it. Like Kara Tippets once said while in hospice “I feel like I’m a little girl at a party whose dad’s asking her to leave early. And I’m throwing a fit. I’m not afraid of dying. I just don’t want to go.”
I don’t want to go. I don’t want anyone to go. And of course, my own fear drifts back to me. Do I believe enough? Am I earnestly trying to know God enough so that I can walk the river like Hopeful? I want to be like Hopeful. I fear I am much more like Christian, but I want to be like Hopeful. I will spend the rest of my time here tying to be Hopeful. Trying to trust. Trying to fear not. And I think this is why God designed grief to naturally point us back to Himself. Because he is the one who saves. He is the one who can save us from ourselves and our fear–if we let Him. That’s what free will is. We have to let Him. You have to say you want Him to.
Fear not, for I have redeemed you;
I have called you by name, you are mine.
When you pass through the waters, I will be with you;
and through the rivers, they shall not overwhelm you ;
when you walk through fire you shall not be burned,
and the flame shall not consume you
I vividly remember the day Jeremy told me about the Pilgrims Progress river story. I hadn’t read it but I was scared about dying. He said “you know, I don’t think there is any point at which the lights go out. There is no darkness. It’s a crossing over. In Pilgrims Progress Christian has to walk across a river to get to heavens side and he panics as the water rises up over his head but he keeps walking and right at the deepest part his head starts to reemerge and he can breathe again. He has not lost consciousness—he’s just gone from one consciousness to another. He is in heaven. He has crossed over, without any lapse in time. He was at one moment here and the next there. Nothing to it.”
My family is being put through the ringer right now. And despite my most sincere efforts, I cannot do anything about it. I have tried and there is absolutely nothing I can do but sit in my tears and uncertainty while trying to remember God’s promises that He will be near. And so I will continue with my instructions: be joyful always, pray continually, give thanks in all circumstances, for this is the will of God for you in Christ Jesus.
I will give thanks to God for who He is in this. And I will pray continually.
The River Prayer, from Pilgrims Progress:
Lord, we pray for those now crossing
Through the River, death’s cold tide.
Help them through its flowing current,
Bring them safe on Canaan’s side.
We are all coming. We’ll be there in but a blink.
I love you.