What Tragedy Teaches Us (guest post at TGC)

I will always remember the summer of 2014 as one bookended by two tragedies that struck close to home. The first happened on the evening of May 30. As 17-year-old Mark Rodriguez was driving home from his Christian school’s graduation, he was shot and killed by a madman firing randomly. The madman then killed a police officer and wounded another before being shot and killed himself. That terrible evening in Norfolk, Virginia, seemed particularly tragic for Rodriguez, the son of a pastor and Christian counselor.

What’s amazed me in the wake of that tragedy is watching the way Jesus has shone so brilliantly through that young man’s life, testified to by his parents as well as his own writings and photography on his blog, most notably a post on heaven. As his parents grieved in the days after his death, they graciously accepted interviews during which they spoke of their clear hope in the resurrection:

Our son is not dead; he’s alive, and we believe we will see him again. Mark wanted nothing more than to be a worship leader. And you know what? He got exactly what he wanted.

Two Questions 

As I sat and watched his family and the local Christian community grieve, find hope, and paint a picture of a young man wholeheartedly devoted to Jesus, I asked myself two questions. … [Click over to The Gospel Coalition Blog to read the rest here.]

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.

Five Minute Friday: hope

Even when I don’t find time to write in between Fridays, it is good to know FMF always awaits me at the end of each week. Five Minute Friday (FMF) is a community of bloggers writing for 5 minutes unedited on a given topic. Learn more from Kate Motaung here.

****

photo from 801seminaryplace.wordpress.com

photo from 801seminaryplace.wordpress.com

It comes like the first ray of light at break of day, defying the darkness that has reigned and declaring that there will again be morning and evening. 

Hope hovers over darkness and tragedy and despair. Waiting. Waiting to be noticed. Waiting to reveal itself at the proper time. Hope is what gives freedom to grieve and mourn and cry. It is hope that says I can grieve the losses woven into my story and I won’t be undone. Hope gives me strength to enter into the tragedy when I don’t have words and I feel paralyzed. But because of hope – I take a deep breath, and we step out of the car and we embrace the husband who has just lost his wife and daughter in a tragic way. Hope became his chorus as we wept together. Him saying – “we are resurrection people – we are resurrection people.”

It is much more than a thing with feathers that alights and drifts and is barely noticed (sorry, Miss Dickinson, I must beg to differ with you). It is weighty like an anchor teaching us to hold on despite all evidence to the contrary. 

Light will dawn again.

****

The perplexity, fear, and joyful disbelief of Easter morning

Perplexed. Frightened. Startled. Disbelieved for joy. Alarmed. Astonished. Afraid.

All of these describe the response of those who witnessed Jesus’ resurrection. Joy is our primary emotion on Easter morning, but fear overshadowed all else on that first Easter morning. Fear and astonishment. Nestled in the middle of the gospel accounts is this, “disbelief for joy,” and that seems to make the most sense to us. It’s what we can connect to as ones who eagerly proclaim resurrection hope.

I wonder what it would be like to stop and sit in the other responses: perplexed at how this could be – at what this could mean. Frightened, startled, alarmed, astonished to find the tomb empty. This shook those first witnesses to the core. We expect it because we know the end of the story, and we can’t bear to sit with the weight of the grief of Good Friday for long. (I was all too happy that we did a pre-Easter celebration with my daughters yesterday – like skipping the uncomfortable scenes of a movie, we press fast-forward to today’s joy.) But what would it have felt like to go to the tomb early on a Sunday morning, while it was still dark, fully expecting to pay homage to the memory of beloved Jesus, and to find instead that it was empty? Of course Mary’s first response is that someone has stolen the body (John 20:2):

“They have taken the Lord out of the tomb, and we do not know where they have laid him.”

That makes sense. But that Jesus is alive? It is too good to be true. If it’s true, everything changes. And that is perplexing, frightening, and alarming. What will happen next if resurrection has happened? It interrupts with discomfort the order we depended on (even the grief inherent in the old order of things can feel comfortable because it is familiar). If Jesus is alive, what else will change? Do we dare to hope that freedom from Roman oppression will also happen? What does this mean for our mission? Will we die, or will Jesus bring us with him to heaven immediately?

No wonder there are numerous letters written to the early church discussing the implications of Jesus’ resurrection. It changes everything.

What has it changed for you, and for me?

I have hope that I will meet again those who have died. Bethany, Nancy Leigh, Beverlee, Uncle Ashby, Grandmother and Grandfather Davis, Papa, a sister-in-law I never knew (Sarah), Lynn, Karla, Katharine. And you who have lost beloved family and friends will see them again, too – Nan; Liz; Jill; Megan, Kelli, & Patti; Mike & Shelby; the Rodriguez family; Kimberly & Erick; John – thinking and praying for each of you particularly this Easter morning.

I have courage to enter into the messy and broken places of my heart and others’ lives as we grieve to live in between resurrection and full restoration when Jesus returns. I can weep with those who weep, who miss their beloved ones, whose hearts are breaking because of the brokenness of this world. I can sit and mourn without having answers. I can listen and be impacted by the grief of life in a world that’s not yet what it should be. 

I can ask my questions and doubts, and create space for you to do the same. Jesus compassionately showed doubting Thomas his scars. He did not berate him for his disbelief. (For disbelief might be one of the most honest first responses to the reality of resurrection.)

sad untrue quote

photo from poetrystoryteller.blogspot.com

I can choose joy (belief in a bigger purpose, a deeper reality) in the middle of suffering and heartache and frustrations. I have an unshakeable hope waiting for me, guaranteed by the Resurrection. “Everything sad will come untrue,” writesSally Lloyd-Jones in The Jesus Storybook Bible.

I’ll close with one of many teachings on “what now, in light of Jesus’ resurrection?” This one penned by the apostle Paul in 2 Corinthians 4:16-18

“So we do not lose heart. Though our outer self is wasting away, our inner self is being renewed day by day. For this light momentary affliction is preparing for us an eternal weight of glory beyond all comparison, as we look not to the things that are seen but to the things that are unseen. For the things that are seen are transient, but the things that are unseen are eternal.”

Letter to Grief (reposted) and a book to purchase

[repost from December 21, 2014]

All is not calm and bright, is it? This time of year is more often chaotic and dark as we scurry around with our never-ending Christmas to-do lists, flitting from one festivity to another. And for many of my close friends, this Advent season brings unimaginable grief. I feel it with you. And so I jumped at the opportunity to join in a “Letters to Grief” event hosted by Kate Motaung coinciding with the launch of her book by the same name. This letter – it’s for you, my friends grieving loss this season. Whether that loss is of a parent or a child or a pregnancy or a job or a clean bill of health or a dream or a marriage – the loss of hope and community too often follows in its wake. Let this be a small reminder that no, you are not alone, and yes, it feels excruciating. Cry, and sorrow, for we are not Home yet. But grieve with hope, for Home is being prepared for all those clinging to the hope of our Redeemer Jesus Christ.

***

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. …

[read the rest over at Kate Motaung’s site where I am featured today as part of her book launch, Letters to Grief, which will be one of my first reads in 2015]

Sorrow-well-300x300

Letter to Grief

All is not calm and bright, is it? This time of year is more often chaotic and dark as we scurry around with our never-ending Christmas to-do lists, flitting from one festivity to another. And for many of my close friends, this Advent season brings unimaginable grief. I feel it with you. And so I jumped at the opportunity to join in a “Letters to Grief” event hosted by Kate Motaung coinciding with the launch of her book by the same name. This letter – it’s for you, my friends grieving loss this season. Whether that loss is of a parent or a child or a pregnancy or a job or a clean bill of health or a dream or a marriage – the loss of hope and community too often follows in its wake. Let this be a small reminder that no, you are not alone, and yes, it feels excruciating. Cry, and sorrow, for we are not Home yet. But grieve with hope, for Home is being prepared for all those clinging to the hope of our Redeemer Jesus Christ.

***

photo from terragalleria.com

photo from terragalleria.com

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.

I saw you tragically enter stage left on a late night in May when the Rodriguez family lost their 17-year-old son and brother, and the Jones family lost their police-officer-husband and young father to a madman’s random fire on the streets of Norfolk, Virginia.

You descended like a sudden summer thunderstorm on an otherwise ordinary Wednesday afternoon when a desperate mother decided to end her life and that of her 8-year-old daughter, leaving our entire church community gasping for breath as we suffered under your shadow. You came in waves of tears to the surviving father/husband and daughter/sister, and I know they still feel your touch.

You linger in Manayunk, a suburb of Philadelphia, haunting the friends and family of Shane Montgomery, a college student missing since Thanksgiving Eve. They do not quite know whether to succumb fully to you or to try to resist in hope against hope that there could be good news after so long.

You have been the unwelcome Advent guest to a close friend and her family as the sudden heart-attack death of her beloved mother sinks in alongside the Christmas carols and festivities.

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.

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.

five minute “Friday”: adore

photo from shutterstock.com

photo from shutterstock.com

“O come let us adore Him …” rings the Christmas carol from the most unlikely places. Radio, department stores, Target. Everywhere I go, there are invitations to adore the newborn King.

But how do you adore when your heart is broken in two by grief? When you’ve lost your mom from a heart attack, when your missing friend still hasn’t been discovered, when you worry about an upcoming biopsy? How do you adore in the middle of heart-rending grief? When this is the first Christmas without your mom and your sister? Or your son or your brother or your father?

How can I adore when I’m caught up in all the tasks of the season? The parties, and the gift-buying, and the Christmas-cookie-making, and the making-sure-no-one-is-left-off-the-list?

Jesus. He invites me to adore him, and then he does the miraculous. He comes near so that I can. He interrupts my over-scheduled insanity with a bout of illness, and I’m forced to practice the white space I’ve been proclaiming. He comforts my friends in the middle of their deep grief. He leaves perfection to come to a quiet, dark, hay-filled manger – born amidst poverty. Our newborn King. He brings Christmas in a way none of us would ever have planned. And to think of this? There is no option but to adore him.

***

Writing for five minutes on a given prompt, unedited. A favorite link-up with a fabulous community of writers, hosted by Kate Motaung here.

white space

She lost her mom last night after an unexpected heart attack two days ago. You are never ready to say the most permanent of earthly farewells to such a beloved parent, but particularly not when it’s so sudden. I remember this close friend’s mom as being gracious, caring, kind, compassionate. And now she is Home with the Savior she loved and worshiped, seeing face-to-face what we know by faith. We who are left behind grieve her physical presence with us.

Another friend is waiting along with the rest of Philadelphia and now the nation on any sign of Shane Montgomery who went missing in the early hours of Thanksgiving morning. Vanished without a trace. She grew up with him and their family ties go back three generations. She has participated in search and rescue efforts; she sat with Shane’s mom for a few hours the day after he disappeared. There are no words.

A friend from my community group at church asked simply for “good days” for her dad who is dying of cancer. And that he would make it to February 5th, when he and his beloved wife will celebrate their 50th wedding anniversary. She is glad for the good moments they share, and she prays that they will continue to savor the present.

White space. How we need it in our lives! Tragedy’s disruption will always force us to make room for it. It is in the white space that we can grieve, and pray, and be present. The white space is needed because the dark spaces will come.

In visiting Anne Smith’s opening of “Corner Gallery” last weekend, it was the backdrop of the white space that gave the paintings their full effect.

Image from Anne Smith's Corner Gallery [December hours Wed - Sat 10am-2pm]

Image from Anne Smith’s Corner Gallery [December hours Wed – Sat 10am-2pm]

In the white space of our lives, we cease from rushing around helter-skelter. I take time to sit and watch my daughters’ impromptu ballet show in our living room. (I may even join in, only if the blinds are closed.) I look the cashier in the eye instead of ruffling through coupons or checking text messages. I purposely leave margin in my life, under-planning instead of over-planning.

In this “the most wonderful time of the year,” how can you and I make white space for the beauty of the Advent to dawn anew in our hearts? For us to rejoice that our King came to us, and for us to long for His next coming when He will heal our broken world forever? No more death, no more cancer, no more missing persons vanishing without a trace. Until then, I cry with the words of this hymn –

O come, Thou Day-spring, come and cheer
Our spirit by Thine advent here;
Disperse the gloomy clouds of night,
And death’s dark shadows put to flight.
*Rejoice! Rejoice! Emmanuel shall come to thee, O Israel.*

in the aftermath of tragedy

I have been at a loss for words. Understandable, after what we have all mourned as a community. And yet problematic as one who processes through writing, and one who seeks to give comfort through words of the same. It’s almost been two weeks since tragedy struck our community through the unexpected death of a mother and daughter. I think what feels both haunting and comforting is that life goes on. We have returned to our routines, and this feels wrong, for how can we ever really return to a “before” when tragedy interrupted our lives so forcefully and so permanently? Yet in all of the grief research, this very routine normalcy is part of how we grieve and process. Life has to have a rhythm, and it continues to roll on despite the times when I feel it should stop for awhile. Pause, let us catch our breaths and be able to absorb how life has now changed. It feels like a betrayal to grief that I should return to weekly grocery shopping and breakfast/lunch/dinner and reading stories and work-outs at the gym. All of this should be different. And it is, but it isn’t.

katrinadestruction.com

katrinadestruction.com

The analogy that comes to mind is walking through New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina devastated that city. I was there with a team from my church to contribute to the ongoing rebuilding efforts. And four years later, there was still ample evidence of the destruction. Shops boarded up; homes crumbling in disrepair; areas of Ward 9 barely touched because of insufficient resources to rebuild. We began that week of rebuilding with a tour of the devastation. That helped us to have a context for our work, and motivation to work, and compassion as we worked. Could it be similar as we walk through the aftermath of this tragedy as a community? That now is a time for surveying what’s broken as we pray and grieve and ask about what and how we can begin to rebuild. 

We will do this in very apparently ordinary ways. Like bringing a meal to provide immediate relief to the surviving father and daughter, and not being afraid to reach out and call or email to say, “I’m praying for you. What do you need today?” I remember the words from my counseling professor Ed Welch in a class on how to enter into the suffering of others, and he said simply,

You show up. And you continue to show up. You aren’t afraid to reach out and to contact the person [grieving or suffering an unspeakable tragedy].

If you were impacted by this tragedy, how is it changing you? What’s the damage that will need to be repaired? Such as theological questions that came unhinged that will now need deeper foundations. Or categories of “how life should work” that seem to be obliterated. Even personal questions of how to support friends in need and how to know whether or not someone is in a desperate place and how to ask for help when I need it. All of these are part of the communal story of grief and response to tragedy. Let’s discuss them together and be changed for the good by such a tragedy. Couldn’t that begin to be part of the redemption story God promises to write, even (especially) here?

…For the Lord has comforted his people and will have compassion on his afflicted. (Isaiah 49:13)

a grief of tragic proportion

Shock. Disbelief. Profound bewilderment. Deep sadness, even anger. Could we have done more? How didn’t we see this? Who could have helped? What do we do now? All of these and more flooded through me as Seth shared the news of a tragic mother-daughter death that occurred on Wednesday afternoon. A mother and a daughter who were very involved in our church, who leave behind a bereaved and broken father and an 11-year-old sister who lost half of their family on an afternoon in July. She was at camp, and immediately there was the question of how to tell her/when to get her/who should be there. Questions no grieving husband and father should have to answer. Questions he couldn’t answer. Questions we all attempted to speak our best opinions into while we, too, reeled inside with the sadness.

Seth and I witnessed the two hardest conversations of our lives yesterday as this brave father shared the details in two stages of the how with his 11-year-old daughter, and they wept together. And how can you see this and not weep? And not rage? And not feel utterly bewildered? No one saw this coming. No one. Not her best friend with whom she had lunch that day; not her husband who’s said, “She’s the center of my life!” None of us who worshiped alongside her on Sunday. Not the fellow girl scout troop moms who remember a friendly, engaged woman who loved her two daughters.

There is a sense among us who knew her of a communal fail. Why didn’t we know? How could we have helped? And this is good to ask and to explore and to take as a renewed call to engage in community (the antidote of isolation). And yet we must balance this with the reality that she must have been very good at hiding. She did not want anyone to know, for a part of her must have known that she would have been stopped. In some very secret and broken place, she decided this was best for her and her special needs daughter. But all of us left behind … this father, this daughter … whose lives will never be the same, whose stories will always be defined by this most awful of days … we grieve, we question, we are shocked, we don’t know how to go on.

Except that there is one who weeps with us. Who is in our midst. Who is not absent. And so we gathered as a church community yesterday to lament, to pray, to sing our grief and our questions without answers, to fall deep in the arms of the One who is holding us. Herein lies comfort that is real. A comfort that will meet us even when the questions will linger for the rest of our lives. There are no answers, but that’s not what we need the most right now. We need to know we are not alone, and that’s the comfort that even a deeply grieving father gave to his shattered daughter as they wept together:

“You are not alone. We are Easter people. We are Easter people. We are resurrection people.”

He said through his own sobs. There is resurrection promised, and it does not ease this week’s grief but gives a hope beneath the grief. The grief will end one day. Tears will change to joy of reunion. And in the meantime, resurrection guarantees that we have HIM with us. He is not in a cold tomb; He is alive and He is with us in the sadness unspeakable.

It was this hope and this reality of Christ-with-us that propelled Seth and me to walk up to the house of the grieving, and to walk inside, and to sit and weep and mourn. “Jesus wept,” is instructive here. Jesus, who knew Lazarus would be raised to life again, wept. He wept for his friend and with his friends. We can do no less.

******

Finding words for the feelings are also provided by our God who knows us and gives us what we need to bring to him. If you are grieving this loss or any other, I suggest reading the following as the prayers of your heart when your heart has lost its words.

 Lamentations 1-5

“Arise, cry out in the night,
at the beginning of the night watches!
Pour out your heart like water
before the presence of the Lord! …
Remember my affliction and my wanderings,
the wormwood and the gall!
My soul continually remembers it
and is bowed down within me.” (2:19, 3:19-20)

 

Psalm 44

“Awake! Why are you sleeping, O Lord?
Rouse yourself! Do not reject us forever!
Why do you hide your face?
Why do you forget our affliction and our oppression? …
Rise up, come to our help!
Redeem us for the sake of your steadfast love!”

 

Psalm 55

“My heart is in anguish within me;
the terrors of death have fallen upon me.
Fear and trembling come upon me,
and horror overwhelms me.
And I say, ‘Oh, that I had wings like a dove!
I would fly away and be at rest;
yes, I would wander far away;
I would lodge in the wilderness;
I would hurry to find a shelter
from the raging wind and tempest.’ “

 

Psalm 77

“In the day of my trouble I seek the Lord;
in the night my hand is stretched out without wearying;
my soul refuses to be comforted. …
You hold my eyelids open;
I am so troubled that I cannot speak.”

 

Psalm 88

“But I, O Lord, cry to you;
in the morning my prayer comes before you.
O Lord, why do you cast my soul away?
Why do you hide your face from me?”