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Sunday, November 8, 2015

Lament, Struggle, and Perspective



First, let me say that I’m writing this as a Christian to other Christians. That’s not to say that none of it applies if you don’t hold that belief system. Take the good parts that are helpful to you. Ignore whatever doesn’t apply. 

We live in a culture and society that is pretty averse to pain and lament. We’re not great at dealing with grief. We do everything we can to avoid it. We’re also not great and handling other people’s pain. We just want everyone to be okay. We’d like to rush along through the hard parts and make it all better. The thing is, this response usually just makes it worse. There is something about pain that demands to be felt. It is part of our human experience, our spiritual experience, and I think it is actually valuable. 

In the Bible, there is an entire book called Lamentations. It’s pretty depressing (though not totally without hope)… but still, I’ve never heard a pastor get up on a Sunday morning and devote an hour to lament. But why is it in the Bible? 

Why is there story after story after story of Biblical heroes of the faith in their proverbial sackcloth and ashes, ripping their clothes, and railing at God? 

Most of the time, these parts of their stories are glossed over in sermons. We look condescendingly on them like, “Well, that’s the part where they screwed up.” I think this is a completely wrong point of view. I think those parts of the stories are included for our benefit. I think we’re meant to look at them and say, “Yeah. I get that. I’ve been there.” We’re supposed to sympathize and see that we’re all flawed and prone to questioning and doubt. We’re supposed to take comfort in the fact that God uses messed up people and quit hiding our struggles.

My friend, Lisa, has been so incredibly brave about sharing the truth of her experience in the wake of losing her son, Eli. A lot of what she has written are things that I have felt as well, but never dared to say out loud, certainly not outside the confines of Grief Club. She’s doing a beautiful thing in showing us the whole truth, though. She’s allowing us to see this loss in the dark moments and in the light. Some of it is difficult for us to read. We want to fix her. We want her to be okay. We can’t. We shouldn’t rush her along. We should recognize and embrace that this pain is part of her journey, allow her to feel it, and be with her in it. We shouldn’t negate her experience with words or platitudes.

One of my favorite Old Testament examples of this is about a guy named Elijah. He was a prophet and was part of some pretty serious miracles. Then some stuff went down, and Elijah was afraid. So he ran for his life and ended up suicidal in the woods.  He’s like, “God, just kill me now!” What? I mean, this really makes very little sense. He has literally had mountaintop experiences with God. How on earth does he get to the point of despairing of his own life? I think it’s because he’s human. I also think God’s response is kind of cool. He doesn’t give him a Hallmark card. He sends an angel who does two things. First, the angel touches Elijah. Then the angel says “Get up and eat, for the journey is too much for you.” He does not say “don’t worry, you can do this! God’s got your back.” It’s quite the opposite. He literally says “You CAN’T do this. Eat.” When we are struggling, sometimes those are the kinds of friends we really need. When others are struggling, sometimes those are the kinds of friends we need to be. We need to see someone in their pain and do two things. First, touch them. Hug them. Hold them. Hold their hand, or whatever. Second, acknowledge their pain without diminishing it and maybe just give them something to eat. Here’s some water. Here’s a granola bar. Here’s an apple. When was the last time you ate? It’s practical and simple. It communicates presence and care. 

Then there’s Job. Job really went through some serious stuff. He lost it all… and basically every single one of his friends completely sucked at helping him. You know what did help him? When he finally got the chance to take his case straight to God and say, “What is up with this?!” In A Grief Observed, C.S. Lewis said, “Can a mortal ask questions which God finds unanswerable? Quite easily, I should think. All nonsense questions are unanswerable. How many hours are in a mile? Is yellow square or round? Probably half of the questions we ask – half of our great theological and metaphysical problems – are like that.” I tend to agree. I think God knew that there was no answer to Job’s questions that Job would be able to grasp. Instead, God reminded Job that He’s still in control. Sometimes we just need that encounter with God Himself, to remind us that He’s still in control… but we have to recognize those encounters come on God’s terms. God didn’t sit down with Job and try to connect a bunch of dots to make it all make sense. We shouldn’t do that with people who are struggling either. We should also be very careful about how we remind them that God is still in control. We should do it with love and gentleness. We should remember that we don’t get to come before them like God came before Job to put them in their place. We aren’t God. 

Another great lamenter and struggler was King David. David was the same kid who knocked out Goliath with a rock. He was the same shepherd boy who became a king. He communed with God and was chosen by God, but still, he said things like “How long, Lord? Will you forget me forever? How long will you hide your face from me? How long must I wrestle with my thoughts and day after day have sorrow in my heart?” We tend to gloss over the anguish of these verses right to the hopeful ending because we are not good at addressing pain, but David was a guy who God called “a man after His own heart.” David was honest and open. His doubts and questions and pain and struggle are woven all throughout scripture. There is a beautiful example in that. We shouldn’t look down on David’s moments of “failure.” We really shouldn’t even call them failure. We should consider it David’s humanity. We should thank God that all those moments are recorded. We should thank God that we can relate to someone like David when we ask those questions ourselves. We shouldn’t be so quick to try to correct the others in our lives when they are going through a season of asking difficult questions. We should try to see the David in them. We should see ourselves in them. We should touch them. We should feed them. We should remember that this human experience is full of joy and pain, so both must have some value for us. 

I recently re-read a children’s story that is so poignant and relates well to so many issues, but particularly this one. The story is called “Seven Blind Mice,” by Ed Young. (Listen to the story here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=sta9xdOvSBU ) Basically, the premise of the book is that there are seven blind mice who are investigating a “strange something” by their pond. Every day, a different mouse goes to try to figure out what the “strange something” might be. The “strange something” is an elephant, but mice are so very small in comparison to an elephant. Each mouse climbs on a different part of the elephant and comes back with a completely different assessment of what the “strange something” might be. One mouse thinks it’s a pillar. Another mouse thinks it’s a spear. Another mouse thinks it is a snake, a fan, or a rope. On the last day, the final mouse wisely runs all over the “strange something” to discover that all of the other mice had been correct in their assessments, but each only had a piece of the picture. The moral of the story is that “knowing in part may make a fine tale, but wisdom comes from seeing the whole.” 

I believe that we are like these little blind mice when it comes to God. He’s gigantic, but we are small and blind. We encounter Him in different ways and have different experiences with Him throughout our lives. Perhaps we’ve just experienced a mountaintop moment with Him, and we see Him in the highest heights! But perhaps we’ve latched ourselves on to one of his legs as we walk through the darkest valley with Him. He feels scary and unpredictable. We are doing everything we can to trust, but our perspective matters. Our circumstances and experiences matter. And both perspectives are equally valid. And both perspectives actually complement one another and give us a better picture of the reality of God. He is in the highest heights! But, He can also be very scary and unpredictable to us. I think this is why God places a high value on community. We can become skewed when we only hang out with people clinging to the leg for dear life. Equally though, we can become skewed when we only hang out with people riding on His back in the highest heights. We need to be in relationship with both groups, and with everyone in between. We need to learn and practice the skills of empathy and understanding. 

The Israelites were actually much better at mourning with those who mourn. This is probably due at least in part to culture and advances in modern medicine. We have so many ways of staving off death that we have become culturally stupid when it comes to mourning with those who mourn. We relegate that to the funeral, and then we are ready for everyone to hop back up on the elephant’s back and join us in our joy. Really, we have to climb down to the leg and hold the hands of these people as they make the long and scary journey back up. We have to form a human chain and bear their burdens and see the scenery from their point of view. We can’t rush it. We’ll either leave them in our dust or knock them off the elephant entirely. We have to recognize that we’ll encounter some difficult situations on our journey. We have to admit that we don’t have all the answers. We have to recognize that we’ll find ourselves clinging to the leg for dear life at some point as well. And this is hard. 

We can celebrate, praise, and worship together easily. It is second nature. But can we lament together? I’m not sure, but I think we ought to learn. I love that we have examples of struggle from some of God’s “favorites.” If you are a questioner and a struggler, you might just be one of His favorites, too. Much love, strugglers.

I’ll encourage you also to read these blog posts by my friend, Marc Nettleton, on Lament, Cynicism, and Despair - http://nowisthedayof.blogspot.com/2012/12/lament-cynicism-and-despair.html and Lament and Empathy - http://nowisthedayof.blogspot.com/2014/10/lament-and-empathy.html
This article on “The Recapturing of Lament as a Christian Practice” is also quite poignant - https://www.biblical.edu/faculty-blog/96-regular-content/695-the-recapturing-of-lament-as-a-christian-practice

Saturday, August 1, 2015

On Death - Write that down.

Lisa and I have talked about a billion things over the past couple of weeks, but there are two specific things that I was directed to write down. So, that's what I'm doing. Writing it down.

(And I suppose for the sake of any strangers who stumble upon this blog, I should say that Lisa is a good friend and mom to little Eli, who recently went to be with Jesus. So she's a newly initiated member of death club, where we love well, but "we aren't as fun as Girl Scouts." Quote credit to the wonderful and hilarious Janice Foster.)

The first thing I want you to know about death is that it's not what you think it is. This is so hard to communicate, and I'm not sure anyone will believe me until they are actually in it, but it's just not what you think it is. Lisa and I sat in my car in the wee hours on Saturday night, the night before Eli passed, talking and crying and praying. She told me how she didn't think she could survive losing him, how she didn't know how she would be okay, and how she didn't know how they would go on. She shared all the fears and thoughts you can imagine, and yes, you CAN imagine it. Everything that you'd fear and think if it were your child in that hospital bed is everything that she said. I kept telling her, "If you have to do it, you'll be able to do it, and I'm so sorry that you'll be able to do it." She was sharing thoughts about life without Eli, well beyond the actual moment of loss. How would she only be a mom to a teenager? Would she be such a young empty nester? How can this be happening? This is all wrong. It absolutely is all wrong. Completely. 100%. However, there is something interesting that happens when we entertain thoughts and fears about the future in our minds. I experienced this when I lost Ransom, and I've experienced it in a hundred different ways since then. The anticipation of a thing is almost always worse than the thing itself. I truly believe the reason for that is because we fail to account for God in our minds. You have to know that when I knew that I'd be giving birth to a baby who had already passed away, I was terrified. How could I do that? How would I survive? What would it be like? Would I be completely crushed? There is no way I could live through such a thing. ....and then God. If you know my birth story, you know that I ended up giving birth with arms raised singing a worship song. It was truly the most beautiful birth experience of my life. It wasn't because of me or anything I did. It was because God showed up. When God shows up, things are completely different than our fears and expectations. We can't predict God. He does new things. He shows up. He walks with us through our darkest moments, and they are completely different than our expectations. There are moments of beauty and joy and even laughter. He genuinely draws near to the brokenhearted. And when He's near, you're okay... actually, you're better than okay, and there are times in those moments when you get a glimpse of the bigger picture and realize that your pain is worth all of this beauty, and this story, and this closeness with the Creator. I understand if you only sort of believe what I'm saying here, and that's okay, but just try to plant this little nugget in your mind. When you are fearful and anxious about the future, remember that your brain is only capable of so much. Once you're actually in those places where you're afraid, God will show up. It won't match any of the scenarios your mind has constructed, and you'll remember that He is good. So whatever it is, you'll be able to do it. And I'm so sorry (but maybe a little not sorry?) that you'll be able to do it.

Here's the second thing. Once you've walked through a loss, you have a choice. It is easy to become extremely fearful. Death has hit too close to home now. You can expect it to hit again, at every turn....OR you can become fearless. You can recognize that you have survived the worst experience of your life, and no matter what is thrown at you, you will survive. You are capable of so much more than you realized. No, you don't become reckless or try to tempt death, but you grow in strength and confidence. You think, "Screw you, Death. You thought you were going to destroy me,  but you didn't. I'm going to take this experience and tell everyone they shouldn't be afraid of you. I'm going to link arms with others who've walked this journey, and you are going to lose some of your power against us." In the past, I shared my Lord of the Rings analogy, and I'm going to share it again. This is an excerpt from a previous blog, but it still applies.

"I’ve shared this several times with several different people. I think it applies to a multitude of circumstances. I know it applies to mine. (Bear with the following nerdiness.) In the first Lord of the Rings movie, there is this scene that always makes me cry. They are running across this bridge in the mines of Moria. This monster, a Balrog, to be precise, is coming after them. Gandalf stops on the bridge and faces the monster. He yells, “You cannot pass!” The monster keeps coming at them. He says, “I am a servant of the Secret Fire, wielder of the Flame of Anor. The dark fire will not avail you, flame of Udun.” A moment of silence. “Go back to the shadow.” Another moment of silence. “YOU SHALL NOT PASS!!!!” Every single time I see that scene, I cry. I think if I had any clue of the power that I have in Christ, I would face my own fears with that kind of confidence. I would slam my staff into the ground. I would say, “I am a servant of the Most High God, bearer of His Holy Spirit. The dark fire will not avail you, my enemy.” “YOU SHALL NOT PASS!!!” I’m sure some of you are thinking, “Yeah, great. Doesn’t Gandalf fall off the cliff in that scene?” Yes. He does. BUT THAT MONSTER DOES NOT PASS. And if you know the whole story, you know that Gandalf falls and fights that monster and emerges as Gandalf the White. Here’s a youtube clip of the scene. (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=44kBN340vd4) Knowing Tolkien’s motivation for writing these books, I don’t think my interpretation or encouragement from that scene is far from the mark that he intended. So, as I daily declare to my fears that they shall not pass, join with me. Declare the same to your own. Slam your staffs into the ground and refuse to be defeated. Join with me “until at last we throw down our enemy and smote his ruin upon the mountainside.”

Sometimes we face hard battles. We fall off the cliff and we fight. There is hurt and pain and difficulty, but our monsters DO NOT PASS. We don't give ourselves enough credit, but if fear hasn't completely overtaken our lives, if we're battle-weary and still fighting, it counts! Gandalf's battle was long and rough, and our own battles are the same, but as long as we keep fighting the temptation to let fear take over our lives, our monsters WILL NOT PASS, and guess what? WE WIN. Screw you, Death.