Learning to Live with Loss

Loss is a normal part of life. On this side of Genesis 3, everyone has bad days, everyone grieves, everyone sins, everyone makes mistakes. In the final analysis, it isn’t if we will suffer, but what we do with it that counts. Healthy grief is an expression of the value of life — how much we treasure it, how much goodness and love we find in this life. When we grieve, we are fighting toward goodness and love. Here are a few ways that might help you in that fight:

First, find a way of praying that fits you for this season. Don’t worry about how anyone else prays, or even how you prayed on your good days. Find a way of talking to God that works for you now.

I discovered when my mother died that what used to work for me in my prayer life didn’t work for me in that valley. When she was most sick, I simply could not pray my own words. I remember telling my pastor I was out of prayers. But in my grief, I discovered the Psalms. I remember sitting in bed at night reading the Psalms and thinking how they said everything I could ever have wanted to say to God … and more. I fed on them. I hadn’t been a big fan before that but for the first time in my life, the Psalms really meant something to me.

Because the Psalms were written for people in pain, they might be a good starting place if you’re having a hard time praying right now. YouVersion has some great reading plans through the Psalms. One I’ve looked at that might work for you is called Journal Psalms. The last line of the first day is a keeper: “I don’t need to know why as long as I know the One who knows why.” Find a way of praying that fits you.

Let others pray for you. I actually think that’s what Paul was talking about when he said in Romans 8:26-27 that the Holy Spirit helps us in our distress. He says there will be times, “We don’t even know what we should pray for, or how we should pray. But the Holy Spirit prays for us with groanings that cannot be expressed in words. And the Father who knows all hearts knows what the Spirit is saying, for the Spirit pleads over us in harmony with God’s own will.”

There will be times when you won’t know what to pray. There may be times when the best you’ve got is groaning. When those times hit, be at peace. You’re in good company. Sometimes the Holy Spirit groans, too. In those times, don’t try too hard but do reach out. Ask others to pray for you, to hold hope for you. And ask the Holy Spirit to pray for you, too.

Be honest with God about your feelings. Curling up in a fetal position for the month of December, cussing out the cashier at Walmart, or checking out on folks who may just want to get you outside yourself for a few hours might all sound like good ideas right now, but they may not be your best options. When things feel desperate, remember that it is no shame to grieve and that while others may not get that, God does. It is okay to be honest with Him about your feelings, even if they aren’t sanctified. Psalm 23 tells us our shepherd will walk with us through the valley of the shadow of death. Sometimes that valley is spiritual and that shadow is doubt, but the word promises that even when we walk through the valley of death, he is close.

It is okay to be happy. I hope you have good days in this season. I hope you find reasons to laugh, to relax, to feel even for a few hours like things will be okay. When those moments strike, soak in them. It is okay to be happy, to remember the good things. The one you’re missing would surely want you to have good days and big smiles along the way.

So maybe you haven’t had losses this year but folks around you have. How can you best be with them in a season when you may not be in the same emotional spot? Here is one thought for you (or maybe a thought you can share with someone who is trying to help you in your grief): Try to understand, rather than fix. Clichés are not helpful, especially ones that have no basis in scripture. God does not need another angel (and if he does he can make one). Everything does not happen for a good reason. And even if God will give us strength to handle anything, we don’t always want to be strong. Those aren’t usually the best encouragements for someone who is grieving but being there is. Just being present may be the difference between depression and joy for someone who feels lonely. Why not call and ask a grieving friend to lunch or a movie or a walk or coffee. And if they decline, that’s okay. Reach out again in a week or so. Grief is funny: what we don’t want today (or just don’t have energy for) is exactly what we need next week). Be patient with those swings.

In Psalm 23, David paints for us a picture of a table laden with a feast, to which we are invited. Not only are we invited, but the psalm tells us our enemies have to watch while we eat. They don’t get to be there with us. Imagine that! There you are, at a table filled with good things, and all your griefs, sorrows and disappointments are not invited. You get to feast but your grief is not fed. Jesus invites you to feast, but your suffering and pain are not invited. Your spirit is being nourished at this table, while all that breeds death is being starved.

Imagine yourself there now, at this feasting table with Jesus. Will you thank him for this feast? Will you thank him for giving you a place at the table? Thank him for the feast of grace and righteousness that leads to life. Thank him for being your shepherd, your provider, your protector, your savior. Thank him for praying over you in groans when you grieve, and for not letting you stay in the valley but walking you through.

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Seven hopeful words for grieving souls

As the holidays ramp up, here are seven things we can know that speak hope to grieving or stressed-out souls:

God is good. C. S. Lewis was one of the top two or three theologians of the 20th century. He lost his wife after a late-life marriage and he dealt with that loss by writing a lot about grief. He would say of God, “God is not safe, but he is good.” I don’t know if that truth hits you like it hits me when I’m down, but when I am down that becomes a critical piece for me. My mom died while I was in seminary (I was 34) and I remember my professor asking in class one day to name the most fundamental truth about God. I answered immediately that God is good. He told me that no, the most fundamental statement is that God is love. Which I know but I remember thinking that day, “Nope. Not for me. Today, in order for me to trust God at all while I drive eight hours back and forth every weekend to see my dying mother, what matters most that God is good.” Whatever the end-game, I need to know that even if I don’t understand all that happens, the God over it is good.

God is alive. Visit a country that believes in ancestor worship or idol worship and you’ll see the stark difference between our brand of hope and theirs. Rows and rows of idols representing ancestors who have died (with rocks piled on them, which are the prayers of family members) and rows and rows of trees with wishes tied to their branches. Rocks praying to stones. Paper praying to wood. Meanwhile, we profess this radical truth, that Jesus in the flesh is seated at the right hand of God the Father. Hebrews 9:11 calls him the high priest of good things to come (Jesus is the high priest of hope!). Everything we believe hinges on this truth: “Because I live, you shall live also” (John 14:!9).

Death does not get the last word. Which is not at all the same as saying death doesn’t matter. It does. Your loss matters and your sorrow in the face of it is perfectly legitimate. It is okay to be sad and even to hold gratitude and grief in the same hand. One doesn’t cancel out the other. I read the story somewhere of this indigenous village in Australia. When someone in that village dies, everyone else in the village moves a piece of furniture from their house out into their front yard. So the next morning when the person who has lost someone wakes up and looks outside their house, all over the neighborhood there is furniture in the yard. The compassionate message being sent to the grieving one is that yes, the world has changed. It does not go on as if nothing has happened. We can acknowledge that things may never “get back to normal” without ditching all hope. We can learn to walk in gratitude toward all we have even while we carry our loss. Friend, your loss is noticed, it matters, and it might not be fixable. But it doesn’t get the last word. An empty tomb promises us that.

I can survive death … both now and when my own life is over. The Old Testament feasts teach us the power of remembering. They were given by God to help the Israelites act out and remember their story. In Exodus 12, God tells the people, “Eventually, you’ll have kids who won’t remember what we’ve been through, and they won’t be able move forward if you don’t show them where you’ve been.” Even today, when Passover is celebrated by Jewish people, the youngest person in the room has the privilege of asking this question to invoke the telling of the story of the Jewish people being delivered from slavery: “What makes this day different from all other days?” God told the Israelites, “When the children ask, you tell them, ‘We do this because God is great, because He brought us up out of our slavery into a desert and toward his promises.” Sometimes the way forward is best charted by remembering where we’ve been and who brought us through. Remembering, we learn, is part of resurrection. And sometimes remembering is how we get courage to keep going. Perhaps a good way to begin this season is by choosing something to remember and celebrate. Or ask a friend to sit with you so you can share memories together. The Bible teaches us that we survive not by distraction but by remembering.

I can know why, even if I can’t know why right now. Maybe the hardest part of grief is the mystery of it. We are so sure that if we could just know the “why” we’d feel so much better. Not knowing the “why” is hard. Why did I have to lose someone I loved so much? Why is my marriage loveless? Why do my children suffer with illness or disability? Why so much loss and emotional pain? The questions that don’t have answers can be so frustrating but as it turns out, truth is not a set of principles we can logic through to find relief. Truth is a person. Which means the answer to your “why” is “Who.” It is Jesus being willing to be with me in my grief, without words, unjealously, unswervingly, peacefully there. And it is Jesus who teaches me to be a friend to those around me. In the face of our own pain, God may not give us all the answers we’re hoping for but he gives us himself, which is so much better in the long run than the temporary fix of cheap advice. I can know why, but maybe not now and maybe not even in this lifetime. But as it turns out, knowing Who is enough.

I can hope without being disappointedif my ultimate hope is attached to the Infinite. God has been talking to me lately about the difference between fantasies and hope. I am a master at wanting things I can’t have. Not stuff, so much. But I’ll get some crazy idea about what success looks like and then I get so frustrated when that thing I dreamed up doesn’t happen. What I’m beginning to learn is that things I dream up and then desperately want have no substance. They never were true, are not true now and never will be true. Since there is no substance to an impossible idea, its only function is to frustrate. Meanwhile real hope — biblical hope, hope with substance to it — is rooted in Jesus and his Kingdom. The Bible actually puts it just that way: hope is the substance of things not yet seen (Hebrews 11:1). That means real hope — though it is still unseen by us — exists substantially in God’s Kingdom. For those who grieve, this is both challenge and good news. We may have to put to death our frustrated fantasies — the “if onlys” that feed our disappointment and discouragement — but we can hope again, if we are willing to hope away from those fantasies and toward Jesus and his Kingdom.

Life is worth the fight. This world and our place in it is worth fighting for. Even if we have suffered, we live in a world created by a good God who lives, and who invites us to live also. We live in a world being reclaimed day by day by a Savior who loves us and who invites us to the other side of sin, suffering, hopelessness, pain and death. We live in a world in need of what we bring to the table. A worship song I lean on (10,000 Reasons, by Matt Redman) has this verse about learning to praise God all the way through, in this life and in the life to come:

And on that day, When my strength is failing, The end draws near, and my time has come … Still my soul will sing Your praise unending, ten thousand years and then forevermore.

In a stressful and often lonely season, my you find so many good reasons to praise our good God and trust what he is doing … even if you don’t have all the answers.

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Suicide and the Enemy of Our Souls

I wrote this blog some time ago, after a friend emailed to share her grief over a family member’s loss to suicide. In the wake of recent stories, it seems appropriate to share this piece again, with the hope that it might bring some balm to those who struggle to make sense of such hard loss:

Some time ago, a friend lost her sister to suicide. She wrote to ask, “Do you think it is possible that the enemy has kept me down and in such a battle for the last year or two so he could keep me from being there for my sister?”

When devastations like suicide drop into our lives, we’re left with far more questions than answers, not to mention the guilt and so often, such a sense of powerlessness. Stretching to make sense of a tragic event, we tend to grab at answers only to find straw. This is how I responded to my friend’s question. Maybe my answer to her will help someone plagued with grief, pain and questions in the wake of such loss:

Dear friend,
So good to hear from you and good to hear your heart. I appreciated so much that you took time to share with me where your thoughts and struggles have been in these last few weeks. I’ve been praying for you and now I know how to pray more specifically. It sounds like you and your family have been under attack in a lot of ways — much more it seems, than your sister’s death. I’m so sorry.

I loved one statement you made in your note. You said that even if you and your family let your sister down, Jesus never did and even his faithfulness didn’t make a difference in her decision. That’s a profound insight…

In your question, I hear the trails of guilt. I wonder if that is an inevitable side effect of suicide. Feelings of guilt among survivors seem to be common. With all the love, respect and grace we can give to those who lose their battle with depression, we must also acknowledge that suicide leaves a huge burden for the living to carry. God, your sister’s circle of friends, your family, you … everyone grieves this loss.

I’ve praying about what is truth in your situation since that’s what you are seeking. I probably only know things you already know, but here’s where my mind has been as I’ve prayed for you.

As her sister, you would have given anything to be more than you were — or more of what she needed — in her darkest days. To know more. Anyone in that situation would feel the same. “If only we had known…” And it would be tempting to find your place in the midst of her despair, even if only to say that the enemy separated you from her when she needed you most. That’s a normal and natural thought, I’m guessing.

Be wary, though, of putting yourself into her equation. This is her story, not yours. As humans, we tend to see things with us at the center, or at least close to it. But what if the realization you’re wrestling with is not that you could have done more (“If only I’d been more present, less busy …”) but that you didn’t have power to do more? What if, no matter what your personal circumstances, your sister’s mental illness was beyond her ability to survive it? In much the same way that a cancer victim’s illness can be beyond their ability to survive it …

It boggles the mind (doesn’t it?) to acknowledge just how little power we actually have in the face of some cancers, some accidents, some mental illnesses. “In this world, you will have trouble,” Jesus said, because the world is fallen and we’re imperfect and it is simply the case that not everything can be fixed this side of heaven.

Some things happen in spite of us and when it comes to mental illness, some things can’t be explained. Reason doesn’t apply. One plus one doesn’t equal two for a person whose mind is ill. Maybe there was no amount of time or energy anyone could have given until your sister was free of the illness that conquered her. Until we’re in the presence of Jesus, I doubt any of us will understand just how personal and complicated that battle was for her.

Thanks for sending the picture of your nieces and nephew. There is family here to love, family here to breed hope. I love that even in the midst of your grief, God is sending signs to assure you that there really is no such thing as no hope. Jesus is our assurance of that. I hope the family in that picture can look around them and see reason for hope in their love and care for each other.

Your sister may be gone from this world, but her life matters. As you continue to listen and look, I believe God will give you signs of assurance — that in ways we cannot begin to fathom, she is in his care. Suicide is not the unforgivable sin; I have to believe that God’s mercy takes special care with those who are not just bruised but mentally broken by this life. His hand is over your sister’s soul, much like his hand was over Moses as he crouched in the cleft of a rock, in search of a glimpse of glory in the midst of despair.

Be at peace. Rest in the mysteries of the Kingdom of God, and as Ranier Maria Rilke once powerfully wrote, “be patient toward all that is unsolved in your heart.” God will, in his time, make all things new.

Peace to you — Carolyn

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Jesus is a friend.

December was a hard month and its effect continues to creep into my days and the days of many I love. We lost a friend, so we are all learning together — again — that grief is exhausting. Complicated. Soul-stretching.

I have learned that in the midst of loss, Jesus is often the one friend wise enough to simply be present without comment. Although, I have to say I wish he’d speak up a bit more. Some days, it frustrates me, his quietness. I interpret it as rejection because I am a broken person desperate for someone to fix my pain, to clear the fog, to say something in 280 characters or less that will make all the rest of it make sense. But no matter how much I beg, manipulate or argue, Jesus keeps his posture — quiet, but solidly present. A faithful friend. Which, of course, is what I need most even when I don’t know it.

Years ago, another friend of mine lost her husband. They met in an Alcoholics Anonymous meeting and became followers of Jesus. I never got the sense Christian life was easy for them; it was so different from what they’d lived for so long. When you’ve lived a lifetime trying to fill an emptiness with alcohol, all your relationships incubated in the petri dish of addiction, it is reasonable to wonder if Jesus is just another way to be disappointed.

But hard as it was, my friend and her husband discovered Jesus was the one thing that worked. He saved them from self-destruction and fed them a kind of healing nothing else had been able to offer. He was the only one patient enough, kind enough, to hang in through the valleys to the feasts on the other side. And Jesus was the one who taught them to be friends with each other. When my friend’s husband became ill, they leaned on Jesus together and discovered he was enough. Just days before he died, my friend’s husband, laying on his deathbed, turned to her and said, “You know, it really is true: what a friend we have in Jesus.”

Yes, and amen. Surely it is no coincidence that it was precisely in his death that Jesus taught us some of the more profound lessons in friendship. Among his final words to his followers were these: “I no longer call you servants; I call you friends” (John 15:15). And then he picked up the cross and pointed it at all humanity — like a kid on a playground choosing his team — inviting all who would choose him in return to become his friends.

Not servants, but friends.

Christ’s friendship is an act of grace. Brian Edgar, in his book God is Friendship, writes, “It is a profound, unexpected, gracious and powerful promise” (p. 28). It is richer than servanthood, beyond what we can earn. The friendship of Jesus offers the joy of intimate presence, one to another, deep calling to deep. It is Jesus being willing to be with me in my grief without words — unjealously, unswervingly, peacefully there. And it is Jesus who teaches me to be a friend to those around me.

But I’m a pastor. Subtlely and not so subtlely, pastors are taught to detach from personal relationships for the sake of building the Body of Christ (this may be especially true of itinerating pastors). Books upon books indoctrinate us in the art of boundary-making as a mark of good leadership. Jesus, meanwhile, says things like, “Greater love has no one than this, that one lay down his life for his friends” (John 15:13). Maybe both things are true. Maybe there is a place in healthy leadership for giving our hearts to those in our communities.

Perhaps it is not just okay but a mark of holiness to discover the place of friendship not beyond but in the midst of ministry.  

Indeed, that also has been part of my grief — that I haven’t learned sooner how to be a better friend to those who have chosen to live in community with me and to do so as an act of ministry in the best sense of that term. As Edgar says, “Christian friendship is to be transformative. It is a loving ministry that transforms us into the image of our friend Jesus, and enables us to be friends and reflectors of Christ’s character to others” (p. 172).

As he so faithfully does, God is redeeming this season by teaching me things I could learn no other way.  He is revealing the power and beauty of friendship as he offers me his whole heart and proves himself a faithful friend. And he is modeling the kind of friend I can also become, so that in the valley of shadows there is beauty instead of ashes, the oil of joy instead of mourning.

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