A year ago: remembering tragedy and finding hope

A year ago today, tragedy shattered one family – intruding into an otherwise sunny summer afternoon and stealing two in its wake. Darkness seemed to win, leaving all of us in our church community in shocked grief at losing Karla and Katharine.

One year ago, we all sprang into action. Seeking comfort through what we could offer the bereaved and surviving husband and daughter, and sharing many, many tears together.

One year ago today – I’d never witnessed a dad telling his daughter the unspeakable, seen them collapse into each other with shared sorrow and grief-torn hearts.

One year ago today, I’d never seen the beauty of a church community activated by tragedy, becoming family for the deeply bereaved, restoring them to health one meal and embrace and shared tears at a time. I’d never felt such a deep sense of call – of being made for such a moment, to walk into the wake of an unimaginable tragedy and find this was holy ground. I did not go alone. God was there. He held us together, and he has been in our midst. Tragedy left its mark, but it does not win in the end.

A year ago, I never knew that laughter and smiles could return – that joy could be had – that comfort could be known even with questions unanswered and hearts laden with sorrow.

A year ago today, I could not have penned the words below (a letter to grief featured on Kate Motaung’s site) for I had not lived them yet. I have been changed, and so have we all. Let us not forget, and let us not stop seeking to comfort one another and to press into hope. Hope that light dawns after the darkest of nights, that it will one day dawn again. Forever restoring and healing and redeeming we who have walked through the valley of the shadow of death.


Dear Grief,

You have claimed many friends in 2014, and I have been touched by you as well. The worst part is that the church has too often refused to own you as she should. She has proclaimed a gospel of health and wealth instead of the message of the Man of Sorrows acquainted with grief who promised suffering for all who take up their cross to follow Him. And in those moments when the people of God feel like they have no refuge, you cackle and seem to win. You whisper lies, saying that there is no hope, and that God is as distant as the well-meaning friends who disappear after an initial rally of support.

Your problem is that you cannot be predicted nor defined. You come as a unique visitor to each of us, rarely on time and often in disguise. You hide yourself in many forms, putting on a mask of anger to make us feel strong instead of weak. Sometimes you sink deeply into the soul, bringing depression and despair that seems impossible to escape. If left unchecked, you can cause me to live entirely on the surface of life in order not to look within and acknowledge your presence there.

Jesus Christ knows you better than any of us. He is “the man of sorrows, well acquainted with grief” (Isaiah 53:3). He bore the weight of what grieves God on the cross and conquered it fully in His resurrection. He took away the sting of death – sin – saying that you, Grief, no longer have the last word. Hope takes away your bitterness, leaving us a cleansing sorrow in its wake. Hope allows us to acknowledge you without surrendering fully to you. Hope frees us to look you in the eyes as you enter our hearts and communities, and to weep freely with those who sorrow. We the Redeemed can meet you without despair; acknowledge you without empty clichés; join with others who dwell in your shadow without demanding answers or reasons.

Sorrow well

So come, dear grief, teach us to sorrow well because of the hope of a risen Savior who will make all things new and eradicate your presence from our broken world entirely when He returns again. You will not own us, though you may visit us more frequently than we would choose. We will not turn away from your presence in our own lives or those of our friends and family. And thus we strip you of your power to isolate, turning your presence into a sign of longing and an invitation to draw nearer to those suffering in your wake.

leaning on the everlasting arms

What a fellowship, what a joy divine,
Leaning on the everlasting arms;
What a blessedness, what a peace is mine,
Leaning on the everlasting arms.

Leaning, leaning, safe and secure from all alarms;
Leaning, leaning, leaning on the everlasting arms.

O how sweet to walk in this pilgrim way,
Leaning on the everlasting arms;
O how bright the path grows from day to day,
Leaning on the everlasting arms.

What have I to dread, what have I to fear,
Leaning on the everlasting arms;
I have blessed peace with my Lord so near,
Leaning on the everlasting arms.

We closed our worship service at my church this morning with this old hymn. It was the fitting closing to a sermon on Deuteronomy 33: a series of final blessings Moses gives to the Israelites, tribe by tribe, which ends with these verses: “There is none like God, O Jeshurun [a term for the Israelites], who rides through the heaves to your help, through the skies in his majesty. The eternal God is your dwelling place, and underneath are the everlasting arms….” Noah Huss, a seminary student, was preaching this morning and one thought in particular stood out to me. He highlighted the idea that we, like Israel, although held secure by our God’s everlasting and strong arms, continually stray after idols and other things which ARE NOT God. The irony is that we are held by God and yet we often anxiously ask Him for new idols to which we cling desperately … as if what we’re holding is better and more powerful than the ONE who holds us. We forget where we are.

And so then my prayers begin to look something like the following:

“God, please work out my schedule today so that I can do what I want to do (and am planning to do) when I want to do it. Don’t let me be interrupted.”

“Lord, would you heal this terrible cold I have? Quickly? And keep me from getting any more colds this winter?”

“Father, would you provide more money for us? So that we can dress in nicer clothes and drive shiny new cars and be able to buy a home?”

“God, please keep trouble and suffering away from me. Will you please deliver me from the current troubling situation? And give me strength so that I can think that I did this on my own?”

Can you relate? Perhaps not to how obvious those examples are … and rarely do my prayers actually sound this obviously idolatrous. But if I’m honest, this is what’s often in my heart. NOT that God doesn’t care about every detail of my life, like the fact that I’m fighting a cold or that we would like to live in an apartment with 2 bedrooms one day, but His heart desire is that I would want HIM more than I want any of these things or comforts. And that my prayers would begin with resting in Him. Realizing I have what makes me most secure already — that I have true comfort and eternal treasures.

Where do you struggle? What do you run to the most? And what helps you to remember your secure place in the arms of our Father God?

For those of you “reading” to whom this concept seems quite strange, I hope and pray that you will one day know the security of this God-embrace I’m discussing. It’s only possible as our brokenness of sin that separates us from God is restored through the saving work of Christ on the cross. And, oh, what true security and comfort is found in God’s embrace to us in Christ! It is a wonder that we who know its comfort struggle so …


10 reasons I’m praying for NOLA as Gustav approaches

10. Our team of 19 just arrived back barely a week ago from a mission trip to NOLA doing Katrina relief.

9. It will be expensive to get our team back down there so soon …

8. Some homes still look like this THREE YEARS AFTER Katrina hit.

7.What havoc will a hurricane wreak on the FEMA trailers? Forcing people to lose their 2nd home before their 1st one is finished seems quite the tragedy. (They’re still very much present in some of the worst hit parishes, like East Orleans and the lower 9th ward).

6. Many doubt whether the levee problem has been sufficiently addressed. In fact, they’re still leaking. And of the 20% that were repaired after the breach … what about the remaining 80%? Read more at this link: http://www.nola.com/hurricane/index.ssf/2008/08/incomplete_levee_system_leaves.html

5. Are the looters already out prowling? A friend we met last week says some people were hesitant to evacuate out of fear of their homes being looted if they left.

4. Many homes were not re-built in an elevated condition because of the expense of doing so. If the same thing happens as Katrina, these homes will be devastated … right after being renovated.

3. Why so soon? It seems many have just gotten over the post-traumatic stress caused by witnessing such an event with so much personal devastation. Everyone we met there has a story, many of them quite heart-wrenching.

2. Those survivors who we met: Lisa, John, Minette, Sherry, and Gary (for starters). Their faces come to mind as I pray.

1. Our God is a God of compassion, the Father of mercy … may He have compassion on this city and His people within its walls.

why I go to church

I’ll be honest. This morning was one of those mornings when I felt like sleeping in would have been more valuable than going to church. Attending “Bedside Baptist” or “Church of the Holy Comforter” is what we termed it at my Christian college when we (or our friends) skipped church to sleep in. It makes sense, right, that I can meet God alone just as well as at church?

Yes, and no. In our individualistic society, we have the false notion that we can be sufficiently self-contained in ourselves if we try hard enough, read the right things, listen to the right people. But the reality is that God created us for community. In my own private worship time with God, there are glaring sins I miss because I’m blind to them. How can I see? Through people around me lovingly pointing them out in a way that points me to Jesus. My husband can see sins that I conveniently ignore (and vice versa). Even more so in church, I am drawn to worship God in a way that I wouldn’t be able to alone. Singing worship songs alone can minister to my soul, but it falls short of the awe found in worshiping by singing that same song with a whole congregation. Praying alone can be sweet, but I’m easily distracted and not nearly so focused as when praying alongside other brothers and sisters in Christ. Hearing their prayers focuses me and directs me to pray in ways I wouldn’t have come up with on my own. I love that during our church’s congregational prayer time, I hear different people spontaneously voicing their prayers — of thanksgiving, confession, worship, or request. When it comes time for the sermon, I always hear something that I wouldn’t have challenged myself with and I see a new way of reading a portion of God’s Word.

Why do I go to church? Because I need church. Even when I don’t know I need (maybe especially so then), I need it. I need my brothers and sisters in Christ to point me back to the gospel through their prayers, words of encouragement, sermon, hymn-singing, honest doubts and questions.

This morning as I was wrestling through why to go to church, I read a chapter in Eugene Peterson’s book “A Long Obedience in the Same Direction” that reminded me of all of this. He says it much more succintly and poetically than me, so I hope you’ll enjoy it as much as I did:

If we stay at home by ourselves and read the Bible, we are going to miss a lot, for our reading will be unconsciously conditioned by our culture, limited by our ignorance, distorted by unnoticed prejudices. In worship we are part of “the large congregation” where all the writers of Scripture address us, where hymn writers use music to express truths that touch us not only in our heads but in our hearts, where the preacher who has just lived through six days of doubt, hurt, faith, and blessing with the worshipers speaks the truth of Scripture in the language of the congregation’s present experience. We want to hear what God says and what he says to us: worship is the place where our attention is centered on these personal and decisive words of God.