Saturday, January 26, 2013

How to Say Goodbye

Tell me how to fill the space you left behind
And how to laugh instead of cry
And how to say goodbye…

                Imagine this, if you will. A world of perfection, where no one sinned and no one was sad and nothing died. A place where the grass was more lush and green than any grass our eyes have ever beheld, the fruit was sweeter than any fruit we have ever tasted, and the animals were all tame and friendly and without malice or fear. A world where you could run your fingers through a lion’s mane and he would purr like a kitten. A world where mankind walked in harmony with God and all of Creation. It existed, once. It was called Eden.

                And then, in a moment of pride, mankind succumbed to temptation and the lust of the flesh. In a split second, his eyes were opened to a new reality of sin and sickness and suffering and death. I wonder what our first parents must have thought, how they must have felt when they realized that the garments God gave them to cover their nakedness were made from the skins of their animal friends. That they, indirectly, had caused the first death, the first shedding of blood. It must have been terrible. The sense of loss and pain must have been nearly unbearable.

                We have been feeling it ever since that moment.

                We were not designed to deal with death. In the beginning, nothing was supposed to die, not people, not animals, not even plants. In a world that now seems so hardened and indifferent toward human life, even now, we don’t cope with it all that well, not really. Not when it involves those we are close to, or when it is a result of senseless and random evil, like the 9/11 tragedy and the Sandy Hook massacre. We try and we struggle and we flounder, struggling to make sense of it all. The reality is, there is no one solution, no formula, no foolproof  six-point plan to coping with grief and loss.

                Countless books have been written about this topic. There are allegedly even stages of grief that have been observed, but those who compiled the list admit that grief often deviates from that pattern, that people may move back and forth among the various “stages” , that some may go directly from shock and denial to seeming acceptance and then anger and deep sorrow may come years later. In other words, it cannot be so easily defined. There is no one way we are “supposed” to feel, no one way that all of this should go.

                C.S.Lewis understood this. For so many years this man was able to intellectualize and compartmentalize, and, using logic, he had figured out the reasons why human beings suffer. Then he suffered the most terrible loss of his life, the death of his wife Joy from cancer, and suddenly it just couldn’t be so easily explained. In the following conversation, he is speaking to a friend regarding his loss:

“Life must go on.

 I don't know that it must, but it certainly does.


              - I'm sorry, Jack.

              - Thank you, Christopher.


              - We're all deeply sorry.

              - Thank you.


               Anything I can do?


              Yes, just don't tell me it's all for the best, that's all.


              Only God knows why these things have to happen, Jack.


              - God knows, but does God care?

              - Of course.


              We see so little here. We're not the creator.


              We're the creatures, aren't we?


              We're the rats in the cosmic laboratory.


              I've no doubt the experiment is for our own good, but...


              it still makes God the vivisectionist, doesn't it?


              It won't do.


              It's this bloody awful mess, and that's all there is to it.”



                    “Bloody awful mess.”  It sounds dreadful, doesn’t it? Some might even consider it a not very “Christian-like” expression.  Some may find it offensive, even. I don’t. It’s the reality-the raw, unvarnished, aching reality. It is the utterance of a man who is in despair, the sound of ultimate suffering. I have been there. I have walked that road. I have never lost my faith, or doubted God’s existence, or even thought in any conscious way that He doesn’t know what He is doing. I have, however, wondered at times if He is capable of cruelty. I have questioned why He allows us to undergo such pain. The only answer is that we live in a sinful, fallen world. I didn’t make it this way, so how can it be fair?


                    It’s not. God is not “fair”- but He is just. He is merciful. Above all, He is Love. Because He is Love, He weeps with us and He does not become angry at our questions. He is big enough to handle anything we hurl at Him in the midst of our very human sorrow. He knows. That’s why He came here as a Man. He does not expect that we will understand exactly how we are supposed to get through the grief that death causes. He knows that we are limited, and can only fumble along day by day. He knows that even years down the road we will have moments when our longing to have those we love back with us is nearly unbearable. But as we blindly stumble through unspeakable pain, the one thing we can know, the one thing that was actually promised was that He would not leave us comfortless.


                    I would never try to tell anyone, ever, that there is a “right” way to say goodbye. Grief is very personal. I can have an idea of what someone is going through, but I cannot fully know. I can sympathize and even, to a point, empathize because of what I have been through, but I am still not them and they are not me, and I would never presume to tell them, “This is what you must do/say/feel/ think.”  I know some who try to remain stoic because they think giving in to grief is a sign of weakness or lack of faith. Nonsense. Throw something if you have to, break all the dishes in the cupboard, go outside and scream and shake your fist at the sky, but allow yourself to feel it.  Pretending that it’s not there, pretending that it can’t possibly be terrible and awful because it is “God’s will” is just a lie, and God doesn’t believe that any more than we do. He knows when our hearts are torn and if they are ever to be healed at all, we must acknowledge that it is indeed “bloody awful mess” and we can’t get through it on our own.


                    When contemporary Christian artist Steven Curtis Chapman’s beautiful little five-year-old daughter, Maria, was killed in an accident several years ago, his first instinct was to never write another song. That’s real. That’s an honest acknowledgement that losing a child is unbelievably painful and utterly heartbreaking. Within days he had reached the conclusion that if what he believed was ever true, it was still just as true in the wake of Maria’s death and the world still needed to know. The result was his album “Beauty Will Rise”, which he refers to as his personal collection of psalms. It is a completely honest chronicle of suffering and is probably some of his best work. Another result of the loss is “Maria’s Big House of Hope”, an orphanage in China built with the donations of people around the world in memory of Maria.


                    I believe that the Chapman family still struggles and weeps and grieves. In fact, I know they do, because I am connected to Mrs. Chapman’s Facebook page and she often makes comments that speak of their sorrow. Yes, they have gone on. They live their lives fully and embrace the time they have, but it does not mean they miss Maria any less. Even knowing that we will see someone again in Heaven does not completely ease the pain, because we want them here with us, right now. That is natural and human and there’s nothing wrong with feeling that way. Picking ourselves up and being able to somehow move on does not mean that we forget, ever.


                    I don’t want to forget. I don’t want to forget the good times and the love and the laughter. I don’t want to forget the hugs and the silly jokes and his voice and his eyes. A student of mine who lost her father six years ago says she is afraid of forgetting what he looked like. I told her that she probably won’t, but even if she does, she will remember what he was like and that is what truly matters anyhow.

But I will not tell her that she will ever reach a point where a memory doesn’t move her to tears. I will not tell her that the loss will ever be unimportant. What I have told her is that the loss has made her who she is, and will continue to be part of who she is. I have told her that it has changed her forever, but that doesn’t have to be a bad thing. We are shaped as much by experience as we are by heredity.


                    If we will but admit that even as Christians, we can only do the best we can in the face of grief, we will seem so much more real to those who don’t believe. Be honest when you are walking in the valley of the shadow. Be honest with yourself and with others. There is no one way to say goodbye. Don’t worry about whether you are doing it right…just trust Him, one step, one moment, one hour, one day at a time.

This hand is bitterness
We want to taste it and
Let the hatred numb our sorrows
The wise hand opens slowly
To lilies of the valley and tomorrow
This is what it means to be held
How it feels, when the sacred is torn from your life
And you survive
This is what it is to be loved and to know

That the promise was when everything fell, we'd be held...
-Natalie Grant

Monday, January 21, 2013

Whom Shall I Fear?

So do not fear, for I am with you; do not be dismayed, for I am your God. I will strengthen you and help you; I will uphold you with my righteous right hand. (Isaiah 41:10, NIV)

          It had been a rough week, to say the least. Two of my classes had chosen to be rather uncooperative, with some outright defiance on the part of a few students .On the home front, I was dealing with an injured horse, a sick child, and the financial stresses that seem to crop up at the worst possible times. I wasn’t feeling well physically, and my old nemesis, Depression, which I have battled off and on for most of my life, was lurking around the corner. I stay one step ahead of this particular enemy most of the time, recognizing it as merely an agent of the true Enemy, but I was tired and a bit discouraged and I wasn’t sure I had the strength to fight.

          Then, a voice out in the hall, a sweet young male voice, caught my ears. “I know Who goes before me, I know Who stands behind, the God of angel armies is always by my side.”  I stuck my head out the door and saw a middle schooler standing at his locker getting his books as he sang Chris Tomlin’s “Whom Shall I Fear?” He didn’t see me and I didn’t want to embarrass him so I withdrew quietly back to my desk and thanked God for that small, yet all-important reminder. The day didn’t get stunningly better but I did.God had spoken to me through a child to inform me in no uncertain terms that I was not alone. I am never alone. I do not have the strength to fight anything, be it sickness, depression, or financial woes- but God does.

          In C.S.Lewis’s The Screwtape Letters, the high demon Screwtape tutors his nephew in how to corrupt mankind through deception. One of the many strategies he discusses is prayer.If a man prays and things don’t get better, he can say that God didn’t listen, therefore God doesn’t care, or perhaps He does not exist. If a man prays and things improve, it can be chalked up to chance or coincidence-something that “would have happened anyway.”  Therefore, prayer is no proof of anything. I know many people who have fallen into exactly this line of thinking. For me, I have ceased to think of prayer as any kind of evidence. Prayer is our most powerful weapon because it strengthens us. Does it affect what God does? I think it does, quite often. In fact, because He exists outside of time as we know it, it is entirely possible and even likely that our prayers now are determining what He has already done. When I first heard this idea expressed by a pastor, I was staggered. Can it really be?

          We try with finite minds to grasp the Infinite. It cannot be done. We try reason and logic, which does have its place, but then we run up against the Unexplainable. A friend of mine recently related a story about a terrible car accident which he survived. The officers on the scene looked at him in amazement. “You can’t be alive,” they said. “It’s impossible.” But Ben was alive, with only one small, insignificant injury. The fact that, humanly speaking, he should have been dead was not lost on him. He had been drifting somewhat from his true purpose, and this brought him back to it, realizing that our time on this planet is very brief. The accident itself was part of the Plan written from before the foundation of the world. It was a Plan written for the whole universe.

          Shakespeare said that “All the world’s a stage, and all the men and women merely players.”  There’s some truth to that. God has given everyone a role to play in the great Story. But there is no “merely” about it. The roles were assigned by the Author of all things. He, the Author, the God of Angel Armies, does not regard a single one of us as “merely” anything. We are His masterpieces, each one of us. So no matter how weird I am, how unlovely physically, how limited in my abilities, I still matter. I do not fear death nearly as much as I fear not being truly alive while I am here. I fear, quite often, that because I do not measure up to the world’s standards of conformity and beauty, that I am nothing. I know this is a great lie of Satan, but I have seen more than one person fall victim to it. Mostly, I fear that the root of bitterness I still harbor in the deepest recesses of my soul will spring into weeds of cynicism that will choke out all of the love and idealism I try to nurture.

          Unfortunately, it doesn’t take much to send me spiraling into that abyss of self-doubt. Fortunately, I have a God Who doesn’t let me stay there for long, provided I allow Him to consume me from the inside out and give Him control. When I do that, giving up is not even an option. The real truth is that we are fearfully and wonderfully made, perfectly designed for whatever his purpose for us may be. The real truth is that in the face of hardship and loss and betrayal, the God of Angel Armies has always been with me. At the end of The Screwtape Letters, “The Patient”-the man Wormwood has been trying to turn from his faith-dies during an air raid. Screwtape is outraged, because the death is a victory. Wormwood was unable to pluck The Patient from the hand of God. In the end, The Patient sees clearly the angelic beings who have been with him all along, and then he stands before his Savior. Screwtape, knowing that Evil has lost, roars that “someday we WILL win.”  But that is not true. Satan lost the moment Jesus went to the Cross and died in our place. He is defeated already.

          All of this is knowledge that I have had from my childhood. Getting it into my head was not difficult. I was a bright child. Getting it from the head to the heart, however, has been an ongoing process. Salvation is a present progressive kind of thing. I am being saved. I am being transformed. The one thing that the Enemy, as clever as he is, is unable to comprehend is that Jesus did what he did out of love only. There was nothing in it for Him. And of course Satan, being the one who comes solely to steal, kill, and destroy, will never understand that. We think we understand it, we say we understand it, and then we make our weekly trek to church and throw our offering into the plate hoping that it will be enough to buy God off and keep anything terrible from happening, ever. When the Bad Thing does come, we remind him of our great righteousness and question His justice. We bought our ticket-so why isn’t the journey easier?

          The journey is what it is because we actually didn’t buy our ticket-God did. Our redemption was purchased with His blood, not our own. He never said it would be easy. We just assumed it would. We think we deserve something. We think that the process of transformation should be a walk in the park, but a walk in the same old park day after day just isn’t very challenging. When we played that old childhood game of Follow the Leader, it was pretty dull if the leader just went around in circles, never jumping over a crack in the sidewalk or climbing a hill or wading through a puddle.

          Life would indeed be easier without challenges, but challenges are part of the deal and we are stronger for them. Of course there are things which will make us fearful, but the fear lessens when we realize Who is leading. Courage is not the absence of fear, it is being afraid and facing what you must face anyway, in the power of Christ. I know I am not walking alone. Because the Leader in this game is omnipresent, he can be standing behind me, going ahead of me, and walking beside me all at once. It’s as great a mystery as being able to transcend linear time, but God is God. There’s an old song that goes, “Fear not tomorrow-God is already there.” Even if I cannot quite grasp this with my human understanding, I can grasp the unseen Hand of Almighty God, the Lion of Judah. He is standing guard. He always has; He always will.

No guilt of life, no fear in death
This is the power of Christ in me
From life’s first cry to final breath
Jesus commands my destiny
No power of hell, no scheme of man
Can ever pluck me from His hand
‘til He returns or calls me home
Here in the power of Christ I’ll stand.

Saturday, January 5, 2013

The Face of God

“To love another person is to see the face of God.”
Victor Hugo, Les Misérables

                Many critics are slamming the new movie production of Les Miserables, based on the Broadway musical taken from Victor Hugo’s classic novel. Having read some of these negative reviews, I can only be saddened. These people simply don’t understand. They go on and on about the movie’s imperfections, some legitimate, some, in my opinion, totally untrue. In focusing on the flaws in the film itself, they totally miss the point. Or maybe they do get the point, and it makes them angry because they want to deny its truth: there are such things as forgiveness, redemption, and self-sacrifice. Victor Hugo knew this, and wrote about it, as my husband puts it, “with a sledgehammer.” He tackled the notion of man’s inhumanity to man with a grim and gritty sense of realism, unmatched by few save perhaps  Mark Twain, Charles Dickens, and Harper Lee.

                The story of Jean Valjean, sent to prison for stealing a loaf of bread to feed his starving family, is, at its core, a very simple one. The novel itself is nearly 1500 pages long, but about a third of it is exposition, attempting to help the reader understand the context and setting and focusing on the political aspects of the story as well as the history of France. It is the story, however, that matters. It is a love story. The love of parents for their children, the love of friends for one another, the love between husbands and wives, the love of God for humanity-it is all there, presented with heart-rending beauty and complete honesty. Jean Valjean’s redemption following a simple act of human kindness gives us pause. If mankind and mercy are truly our business, then why aren’t we doing more? 

                These thoughts make people uncomfortable, and that may be why the critics are not getting it. They don’t want to. It is impossible to truly do good without God, no matter how hard we strive, on our own, to “be good”. Javert, the antagonist of the story, is a pathetic figure despite his self-righteousness and relentless pursuit of Valjean. In bondage to law and order,  Javert has convinced himself that because he is “good” and Valjean is “bad”, his cause must be just and that the only “right” thing to do is capture Valjean. This inner conflict eventually drives Javert to suicide.  It is easy for us to simply dismiss Javert as evil-but is he? Or is he merely a picture of the way we ourselves tend to live?

                Yes, it causes great discomfort indeed to examine ourselves and consider how many we may have turned away because they were labeled as worthless, hopeless, beyond redemption. For all the time we spend mocking a Britney Spears or a Charlie Sheen-would that time not be better spent in actually praying  for them?  Their falls from grace-which are not truly falls from Grace, after all, because God still loves them-make us feel so much better about ourselves, don’t they? We can say, “Well, at least I’ve never done THAT.” Is that so much to brag about?  Maybe we haven’t done “that”, but we’ve certainly done plenty-and, even worse, failed to do what we really ought to do. But we forget about that, and watch a film like Les Miserables and try to figure out who the good guys and bad guys are. We tell ourselves that the priest would never really protect a Jean Valjean, would never give him the stolen silverware and hand him the candlesticks as well. That’s just a fantasy. But wait-isn’t there something in the Bible about if a man takes your shirt, you are to give him your cloak as well? And if that was an impossibility, would Jesus have told us to do it?

                I noticed that a lot of people were crying at the end of Les Miserables. I myself started weeping when Jean Valjean was given the candlesticks, and never really stopped until I was almost home from the theatre. It wasn’t just sniffles, either-by the end of the movie, tears were rolling down my face at a ridiculous rate. But for whom, or what, was I crying? Why did my chest hurt, why did I feel as if I couldn’t breathe, why could I not even speak for a full fifteen minutes after the movie ended?  Yes, it was horribly sad, possibly even leaning toward melodrama. It was beautiful and poetic . The characters were wonderfully realized. Fantine’s awful situation, the rescue of Cosette by Valjean, the suicide of Javert, the death of Valjean, the love that existed among the characters-all of this, and more, stirred emotion and opened the floodgates. But there was Something Else. Something bigger.

                The story of Les Miserables , the title of which can be translated as The Wretched, The Victims, The Poor Ones, or The Miserable, is the story of all of us. It is a story of loss and pain and longing for “a castle on a cloud”- a better place, a true home, somewhere to belong. It is a story of dreams destroyed, of bitterness and emptiness, of the utter despair people sometimes feel. But it is also a story of hope. It is a story that helps us understand the truth that to love someone is to see the face of God. Fantine, depite her outcast and miserable state, had Something-because she loved Cosette. When we reach out our hand to help a person in need, when we call someone “brother” and show them the respect and dignity to which every God-breathed soul is entitled, we see His face-and, hopefully, we acknowledge our own brokenness and wretchedness and very great need for the Love that transcends our humanity.

                Let us be good to each other-and see the face of God.

                “Ecclesiastes names thee Almighty, the Maccabees name thee Creator, the Epistle to the Ephesians names thee Liberty, Baruch names thee Immensity, the Psalms name thee Wisdom and Truth, John names thee Light, the Book of Kings names thee Lord, Exodus names thee Providence, Leviticus Sanctity, Esdras Justice, creation names thee God, man names thee Father; but Solomon names thee Compassion, which is the most beautiful of all thy names.”
Victor Hugo, Les Misérables