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.

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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?”

when tragedy strikes, where is God?

I awoke to a clear blue sky sunny with the cheery light of early summer. I texted my friend, “What a beautiful day for your wedding!” We slowly woke up on this Saturday morning in June.

And then peace was shattered as I heard of a shooting from the evening prior that left a 17-year-old and a Norfolk police officer dead. What chilled me was both how close it happened to our home (ten minutes away), and that the boy who died, Mark Rodriguez, was the son of acquaintances – a fellow pastor and his counselor-wife, Carlos and Leigh Ellen. Carlos pastors Redeemer Presbyterian Church in Virginia Beach, a church planted by the church where my husband is one of the associate pastors. We’ve often prayed for the Rodriguez family and their young church. And now. How to process?

Empathy is helpful to me as a counselor, yet it also means I can feel the emotional impact of an event that does not personally affect me. And I can be weighed down by it. Such as a national tragedy or the nightly news. And this. Well, it’s shaken me. I wonder how on earth I would ever get through such a tragic loss as a parent. And I feel angry at a world in which a high school rising senior would be killed while driving home to make it in time for his 11:00pm curfew. How did his parents get the news? In an extended interview, Carlos talks about retracing his son’s route when his son did not get home in time despite a text to his mom saying he’d dropped off his friend and was headed straight home. He speaks of seeing the car, the ambulance, the police and sirens and flashing lights. He speaks of crying out, “Where is my son?!” And finally getting the answer from the detective, “He’s deceased.” Then of calling his wife … and their stunned disbelief. A car accident with some injuries is what he first thought – but this. It’s a thousand times worse. More tragic, more apparently senseless, more awful. To be randomly shot by a madman with a gun from inside his car. That’s losing your son to the very worst and most irreversible brokenness of this world: murder.

I went to the Christian school’s memorial service for Mark Rodriguez on Sunday afternoon (two days after his death) to be on hand as a grief counselor. I was, instead, counseled by many who are grieving with hope the life of a remarkable man. I saw a picture of a young man wise beyond his years, with the secret of this wisdom being no secret at all: it was the Lord to whom he was surrendered. The God he loved to lead others to worship. His mom said, “All he ever wanted to be was a worship leader,” and fellow students spoke of his joyful (even goofy at times) way of leading them in worship. His mom, Leigh Ellen, spoke of his blog post about heaven – his last one, written less than two months before he died. She talked about his journal that revealed someone “even better than who we thought he was. The Mark you remember is the real deal.” For the mother of a teenager to speak these words – that alone communicates volumes as to the character and integrity of Mark Rodriguez. I was comforted to hear both parents hold in tension the reality of grieving their son’s death (no minimizing or denying this reality) with a deeper seated hope in resurrection life. His father, Carlos, said that there is no question that Mark is alive and with the Savior he loved. They even asked this Christian community to reach out to the family of the shooter, to offer comfort for their grief. They hold no malice (although I am sure there are questions) because they are resting in God’s sovereign goodness over every detail of their son’s life. Psalm 139 that speaks of every day ordained for us before our lives start – this is how a parent can say, “Mark got exactly what he wanted – to be with the God he loved so much. God took our son home, and he did not live one minute shorter than he was supposed to.”

It raises the question for me – well, so many questions actually. There are the typical ones about why and how come and this is not fair. But the questions I want to live with moving forward are these:

(1)  How could I live a life like Mark’s – completely surrendered, longing for Jesus, true through and through – so that those who know me best could say, “She was even better than you thought she was. Not because of her goodness, but because of her Savior to whom she was surrendered.”?

(2)  When I am cut, will I bleed gospel like Carlos and Leigh Ellen? For that’s what’s so poignant. It is the gospel flowing out in their pain that is so compelling. But don’t take my word for it. Watch their interviews here. It is worth every bit of the 20 minutes for all four parts.

How can I live like Mark? And grieve like Carlos and Leigh Ellen? Through drinking deeply of the gospel. A gospel that shows that God’s in the very middle of the tragedy. He is the God who’s not only sovereign in it, but faithful through it. He is the God intimately acquainted with grief. The God who knows what it is to lose a son to senseless murder. For isn’t that the story of the cross? He is the God who hates death and sin and brokenness so much that he allowed Jesus to be murdered that death and sin and its brokenness might be reversed – eradicated – that love would win through an empty tomb and a stone rolled away. Resurrection. Life after death. Hope amidst tragedy that frees a community to grieve and laugh and hope again. 

 

eulogy for Uncle Ashby

In memory and celebration of the life of a dear saint now in glory, Uncle Ashby, upon news of his passing through the pearly gates early this morning of Friday, March 7, 2014 in Columbia, South Carolina.

For all the saints who from their labors rest
Who, Thee, by faith before the world confessed
Thy name, O  Jesus, be forever blessed,
Alleluia, Allelu/

Thou wast their Rock, their Fortress, and their Might
Thou, Lord, their Captain in the well-fought fight,
Thou in the darkness drear their One True Light,
Alleluia, Allelu/

O, may Thy soldiers, faithful, true and bold
Fight as the saints who know they fought of old
And win with them the victor’s crown of gold
Alleluia, Allelu/

The golden morning brightens in the west
Soon, soon to faithful warriors comes their rest
Sweet is the calm of paradise the blessed
Alleluia, Allelu/

But, Lo, there breaks a yet more glorious day
The saints triumphant rise in bright array
The King of glory passes on his way
Alleluia, Allelu/

There is no better hymn to sing through tears and smiles as I pause in Panera this Friday morning to remember the great and gentle saint known as “Uncle Ashby,” my great-uncle, the brother of my paternal grandmother, Emma Davis (who preceded him into glory over 32 years ago). What I first knew of him was his kind thoughtfulness and generosity to support me on various short-term missions endeavors throughout high school and college. He and his beloved Aunt Dot were eager to support my ministry not only financially but through prayers and encouraging phone calls. Throughout the years, they would always call to hear the report of how I saw God at work through these experiences. He was a gospel cheerleader, as it were. And he lived it out. Always eager to listen when he himself had the greater stories of God’s faithfulness to share, stories he would talk of only when prompted and asked about.

He was delighted to hear that I was engaged to marry a man in training for full-time ministry as a pastor, and he and Dotty sent their support through a card and beautiful bouquet of flowers. They eagerly received us as visitors when their health failed and their care was transferred to a nursing facility, he asking after Seth’s seminary study and ministry positions and then delightedly meeting our twin daughters when we brought them for a few visits.

As he talked and as Dad filled in the details he was too humble to discuss in the first person, I gained the picture of a saint who labored for his captain in a “well-fought fight.” After injured in combat during World War II, the trauma of that experience sent him into a mental breakdown. In this painful time, God found him. And when God healed him, he devoted the remainder of his life to full-time ministry, preaching throughout the low country of South Carolina and as an Army chaplain. Dad described this gentle man as “on fire” when he stood behind a pulpit to preach about the good news of Jesus Christ in the Scriptures.

Uncle Ashby was the picture of a devoted husband to his beloved Dotty through her share of difficulties and suffering to the very end of her life. His face lit up to speak of her, and it is only natural that he would follow her into glory but a short three years after her passing. And he loved his family. He loved us, his great-nephews and great-nieces (and our children) as if we were his own grandchildren. In many ways, he was the paternal grandfather we never knew while we were the grandchildren he never had. He was thoughtful and kind, sending cards on special occasions and calling to commemorate big life events for each of us (marriages, births, graduations).

sunriseWe will miss this kind soul, while rejoicing that he is in glory. At daybreak today, glory broke open for this man to see face-to-face the realities he had lived out by faith to the very end. The King of Glory whose gentleness and kindness this man reflected so well is even now embracing a fully restored and glorified Uncle Ashby. I imagine there was quite a party this morning in heaven as they welcomed him home! We grieve; they rejoice. And one day we too will rejoice to be welcomed home by this one who has gone before.

Earth has lost a man who brought joy until his dying days (evidenced by the weeping of the nursing staff who loved him so much), and this is a void that will not be filled. I am reminded of the travesty that death is for all of us left behind; how very unnatural it is that life should end. And yet in the tears there is hope, glorious hope, that death is never the end for those who trust in Jesus Christ as their own Savior and Redeemer. Grief now; glory later. And so we press on in hope as Uncle Ashby would have us to do, continuing to labor until we, too, like him will end the well-fought fight and rest in the welcome of our Savior.

When Father’s Day is painful

Before I delve into this topic, let me begin with a disclamor: I was blessed to be raised by a Dad who loved me well as his daughter and cherished me and led me to Jesus over and over again and proudly gave me away to the man I married almost 7 years ago. This man has been a father for three years to our twin daughters, and I daily thank God that my girls have such a father to call, “Daddy.”

This isn’t a post about my pain, but it’s a post about the pain so many of you carry on this day. God calls us to bear one another’s burdens, and in my calling as a counselor and friend, I have heard your stories and I hurt for you today. And I wanted you to know that someone notices, sees, and acknowledges today’s pain.

Today may be painful because you’re grieving the father you never knew. The father you wish you had known, but whose absence leaves a hole in your heart and your life. A hole that you’ve tried to fill a thousand other ways but it always comes up short.

Your pain may be the absence of a father you knew and loved dearly and who is now gone. Whose death you grieve today most keenly. I’ve written about grief here, and I pray the God of all comfort will meet you in each avenue of sorrow you will walk through today as you know Him as Father and the ever-present one.

Or maybe the pain comes from a father who violated the protection and trust meant to be inherent in your relationship. Abuse of any sort – emotional, physical, or sexual – breaks boundaries established by God and leaves indelible pain, confusion, and deep wounds. Your journey feels long and hard and impossible and dark. You may not even be able to speak of what happened, and so you have to fake a “Happy Father’s Day” to the man who violated you and did what should not be done. And this only adds insult to injury. I hurt for you and with you, and if you need a safe place to talk about this, find a trusted friend or counselor or pastor and begin to share this pain. Speaking about such things feels as if it will multiply shame, but that’s the kingdom of darkness trying to keep you from coming into the light. When light shines in the darkness, the darkness cannot overcome it (John 1:5).

Then there are those of you who long to be fathers, and whether the delay is due to waiting for marriage or waiting through infertility, this day is a painful reminder of what you (or your spouse) are not yet.

Some of you have a combination of what I’ve mentioned already, and so the hurt is multi-faceted and often complicated grief. Such as grieving the death of an abusive father. Or a feeling of fear and dread as you watch your husband becoming abusive in ways your own father was to you. Or celebrating a wonderful father while wondering whether you or your husband will ever become one.

And then there’s the frustration of waiting for your husband to step up and be the kind of father you had or that you pray he would be for your children. Perhaps you found yourself reading the greeting cards and wishing they were actually true. You feel disappointed and you wonder if and when he’ll ever change.

As you grieve today, I want you to know that you’re not grieving in silence and you’re not grieving alone. Not only do I (and many, many others) acknowledge your pain, but we want to walk with you through it. And even if today passes without any other acknowledgement of the burden you carry, there is One who sees. Who meets you even now, carries your grief for you; atones for the sin committed against you; is the perfect and present Father you long for or miss or never had. He is the one who met a slave-woman and her son when they’d been cruelly abandoned by her mistress and were languishing in the desert, expecting to die. Hagar’s name for this God in Genesis 16:13?

You are the God who sees me.

On this day when you will see all of the Facebook and Instagram posts celebrating fathers and painting pictures of beautiful Pinterest-worthy brunches and picnics and barbecues; on this day when you will feel as if you are not seen or known; take comfort that there is a God who sees you. Who sees your pain and your grief and your brokenness. He sees you, and his seeing brings healing, comfort, and light into darkness. I can’t promise the pain will be less, but I know a God who promises his presence with his people in times of distress. And he is the one from whom all the best earthly fathers derive their name. He is the one Paul speaks of in 2 Corinthians 1:3-4 –

Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of mercies
and the God of all comfort, who comforts us in all our affliction …

And here’s one last thought. All of the images of perfect families with perfect fathers you’ll see today through posted pictures, at church or the brunch restaurant or your next-door neighbors – well, they’re not as perfect as they seem either. And in fact they could be well-constructed masks to cover pain that might be more similar to yours than you know. Take courage to tell your story, whether beginning today or tomorrow; whether with one friend or in a more public sphere; whether in person or email or a blog. Your story will remind others that they, too, do not grieve alone. And you may even be able to put words to what someone else could never express until they read or hear what’s on your heart.

grief, glory, and hope

Having recently returned from our annual vacation at the beach with my family, I am basking in its beauty. One of my favorite memories from this week is the surprising delight of watching monarch butterflies migrate over the beach heading South for the winter. They flew constantly, in groups of 10-12 at a time, in a constant parade through the dunes.  I am feeling restored and refreshed from time with family with whom we can both laugh freely and converse deeply. And just in time, as only days after our return, a beloved sister in Christ from our church passed away to glory after a long battle with cancer. Seth and I both had the privilege of walking alongside her during this journey towards Home, and it has changed us. Reminds us of how very close we each are to eternity, and of how full of suffering this side of heaven can be. Her memorial service will be the second I’ll attend in a month, the first being that of my sister-in-law’s father who also passed away after a battle with cancer. It is sobering and causes one to reflect on life, its endings and beginnings. Death even when “expected” is always a shock. It feels so wrong, because it is. It is not part of the original plan for Glory.

Death tarnishes humanity, casts its long shadow of fear over life. But we have a God who conquers it, in whom we can rejoice even in grief. How do you walk alongside someone who is literally in the valley of the shadow of death? (Psalm 23) Or with those whose lives now are shadowed by the grief of a loved one’s death? You walk with them. You listen; you learn; realizing that there is much to be found in these times of mourning. Ecclesiastes points to that:

It is better to go to the house of mourning than to go to the house of feasting,
for this is the end of all mankind, and the living will lay it to heart. (Ecclesiastes 7:2)

And you hold out hope with them in the midst of grief. Not in a shallow Pollyanna-rose-colored-glasses-this-isn’t-that-bad kind of way, but in a deep way rooted in the hope of the One who also hates death. The One who hated it so much that He sacrificed His own Son to destroy it – through His own death and then victory through His resurrection. We have hope that all who believe in Christ by faith will live again in the place where there are no tears, no pain, no brokenness. We have hope that we will see the One face-to-face we have only known by faith on this side of heaven. We have hope that in the midst of deep grief and mourning, there is One who meets us there – one who uses these very places to open up our own souls to more of His love, to know more of His comfort.

For as we share abundantly in Christ’s sufferings, so through Christ we share abundantly in comfort too. (2 Corinthians 1:5)

The hope doesn’t take away the tears, nor should it. It doesn’t answer the questions; it’s not meant to. But it gives peace and courage amidst the pain and the questions. I have seen that in my sister-in-law and her family. We are already experiencing that in our church family here too. I want to learn more of that. This is the Glory hidden here now: it weaves through life, mixing joy and sorrow, grief and hope.