All Now Mysterious (July 2009)

I suppose everyone who suffers wrestles with the question of, “Why?” It seems like there should be comfort in understanding the reasons for heartbreak. There is nothing worse than meaningless suffering – suffering that has no point to it, no purpose, no ultimate end. And my little pea brain seems to think that if there is a purpose to my suffering (and I know there is) then discovering that purpose is the next step. I must comprehend it, search it out and understand it in intimate detail.

Or, if I don’t understand it here on earth, at least I’ll understand it in Heaven. God’s purposes which are mysterious to me here will at last be revealed when I see His Face. Then, at last, true comfort will be found in comprehending the depth and the breadth of God’s high and mysterious ways.

Josh and I had a conversation with one of his professors at Covenant Seminary a number of weeks ago. We were talking about this idea that Heaven is the place where we will at last understand the “why” of suffering. He made the simple point that we are not given that promise in Scripture. We are never told that God’s ways will be laid open to us when we at last see Him. I am human, created, finite, and none of those things will change after I cross the Jordan. God’s ways will still be higher than my ways and His purposes unsearchable and mysterious.

A little while ago I was re-reading Till We Have Faces, one of my most favorite books in all the world. Somehow I began to connect Orual’s story with Job’s story. This is probably something that both literature and biblical scholars would scorn and I’m not sure how it happened but I think it has to do with the way both stories end. Both Orual and Job speak boldly to God, requiring an answer for their suffering, making their case to Him and pleading with some revelation of light into their darkness. And God does reveal Himself, but neither receives the explanation they were seeking. They are simply confronted with His own presence and power, and that is enough.

I love their words of response. I say them often.

Job says, as one translation puts it, “Therefore I have uttered what I did not understand, things too wonderful for me, which I did not know. I had heard of you by the hearing of the ear, but now my eye sees you; therefore I despise myself, and am comforted in dust and ashes.”

And Orual’s words are very similar, “I know now, Lord, why you utter no answer. You are yourself the answer. Before your face questions die away.”

I am learning not to expect a reason – an explanation – from the Lord. Maybe He will choose to give it to me, but probably not. Even if He did I will never comprehend His ways or His purposes. But I have all the answer I need in the presence and love of the Great Comforter. I know His purposes are good, even if I will never understand them. I don’t know why He has driven us into the Valley of the Shadow of Death but I know He’s with us in it.

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As the Master shall the servant be (June 2009)

Losing our babies was the greatest shock we have ever known.

I grew up in a very happy home. I have two parents that love me greatly. I have four siblings whom I love and who love me. I had bumps and bruises along the way, of course, but very little to disrupt the settled happiness in my heart. I had the amazing privilege of living overseas. I loved all four years of college. I married the best man in the world (still can’t figure out why he picked ME). Blessings heaped on my head, one after another after another.

I will never forget that moment in the hospital room, hearing the doctor tell us that I was about to deliver our son, that they could not stop it, and that he would not survive. I have no words to describe the impact those few sentences had, no category for this pain. Never in my life had I imagined that such a tragedy would happen to me. That God would allow it. We expected those babies to be born at the right time. We expected them to live. We planned our whole lives around them.

I lived those first few days in shock, unable to process what had happened. I had never known such pain and had no room for it in my heart.

And all the while, I know there are parts of the world where women do not expect to deliver healthy babies and raise them to adulthood. Suffering for these women is a way of life. They learn it as children and live with it all their lives. It does not shock them as it shocked me. It does not catch them off guard. Life means suffering.

My dad put these thoughts in my head when he mentioned at the graveside of our babies how often Scripture promises that God’s people WILL suffer. This world is a disaster, a complete shipwreck, the opposite of what life was always meant to be.

Living a “charmed” life left me with so little appreciation for the suffering life Jesus lived, and the lives of so many suffering Christians – through the ages and around me today. God had to break into my life, sending pain and sorrow, so that I would gain a small taste of the grief of my Savior, learning to love Him more and becoming dissatisfied with this broken world. Or, as my dad says, to help me “grow taste-buds for Heaven.”

When I am most honest with myself I know that if I had the choice I would still change what happened to me. But (at least in my best moments) I am grateful that I don’t have that choice. God has made me “acquainted with grief.” I knew it so little before, and I knew so little of the Man of Sorrows.

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Christian Lament (June 2009)

“I am the man who has seen affliction under the rod of His wrath; He has driven and brought me into darkness without any light; surely against me He turns His hand again and again the whole day long.”    (Lamentations 3: 1-3)

It seems like Christians have a reputation for being stoics, unwilling to admit pain and suffering. No doubt some of this is due to the fact that Christians do try to bow to God’s will, striving to accept from His hand both good and evil. There is nothing so lovely as a suffering believer, embracing what God has sent and allowing no room in her heart for rebellion against Him.

But, thankfully, that is only one side of suffering. If that was all God expected of His children when they suffer we would not have the book of Job or Lamentations or so many of the Psalms in our Bible. Our Savior felt human woe and pain, drinking the bitter cup of suffering all the way down. He knows what it feels like to be bowed down under the weight of sorrow. He does not expect His children to deny the grief that is life in this fallen world. He does not ask us to put on our happy face and pretend like all is well when, in fact, it is not.

So He gives us lament. I have lived in Job and Lamentations and Psalm 55 the last two months and there is no better place to be. These are cries of anguish unlike any other, springing from a heart that is sinking under the weight of darkness. All is not well. Why would God bring such pain? How can He look upon His children in distress and do nothing to help them? Has He not promised His grace and mercy? Before I lost my babies I read these laments and I would shudder to hear them – astonished at the boldness of David and Job. But now they are what I need. They give me words to express my own sorrow to the Lord and I know I am not rebelling but rather fleeing to God with my pain.

That is what makes lament so different from unbelieving rebellion. When I lament I am taking my sorrow to God. I am telling Him that I have nowhere else to turn. He is my only hope and strength, even when I don’t hope and even when I have lost my strength. My belief in Him fails. My faith grows weary and falters. But who else will hear me? Who else has the words of life? Where else will I go? David says that God has abandoned him but still he clings to Him, the only One who can save. Job brings his case before God. “I have lived faithfully before you all my life. I have not strayed from the path of righteousness. And this is how you repay my goodness. You pile on bitterness and pain until I wish for my own death.” And yet he still says what must be the most amazing and terrifying words in all of Scripture, “Though He slay me, yet will I trust in Him.”

Christian burial is the last and greatest form of lament. Death has taken my children. The promise of Christ to conquer death is nowhere to be seen when we visit that precious grave. His power seems absent, His presence gone. And yet we buried Ebenezer and Hannah. We buried them in the sure and certain hope that they will one day be raised. We laid them in the ground saying to God that, though we feel the sting of death and we do not feel His power to raise, yet we still believe what He has always said to be true. Those bodies, still and lifeless, will be raised, and on that day all lament will be turned to praise, pure and untainted. The light that is Christ will dawn and all shadows will flee away.

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Present Tense (May 2009)

Recently I had the first of what I imagine will be many such conversations. We ran into a friend whom we had not seen since our seminary days. He was very kindly interested in all we had been up to and wanted to hear about our Britain years as well as how things were going here in Minnesota. I knew the question was coming and I steeled myself for it, wondering what I would say and how I would say it.

And, sure enough, it came quite quickly: “And still no children?”

Before there was time for an awkward pause, without hesitation, I answered, “Yes. We have a boy and a girl.” And then I quickly added that they are with the Lord.

I saw the first dawn of joy and interest in his eyes and then watched it disappear as quickly as it had come to be replaced with sympathy and sadness. I tried to imagine what it was like to get such a shocking answer in response to a simple and quite normal question. He is a kind and believing gentleman and was neither scared off nor put off by what I said. And, later on, during a quiet moment he looked at me and said what every mother longs to hear: “Tell me about your babies.”

I don’t know if I will always answer that question the way I did, but I know now that it is a blessing to me to be able to testify to others, even as the tears fall, that I AM a mother, that I have two children and that they are in the sweet presence of Christ. And, that He calls them by the names we gave them.

We have a friend who lost a son a number of years ago. He was speaking of this to Archbishop Henry Luke Orombi of Uganda explaining that he had five children but one is now in Heaven. The great man said to our friend, “You HAVE five children. Never lose the present tense.”

“How many are you then?” said I, “If they two are in heaven?” Quick was the little maid’s reply, “O Master, we are seven.” “But two are dead; those who are dead! Their spirits are in heaven!” ‘Twas throwing words away; for still the little maid would have her will and said, “Nay, we are seven!”  – Wordsworth

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Mourning (May 2009)

Thank you all for your kind comments. We have been amazed to discover the comfort of knowing that there are many who are grieving with us.

Why is it that our society has no ritual of mourning? With all you hear about “healthy grief” from our culture of psychobabble we are surprisingly embarrassed when faced with deep suffering and sorrow. You are expected to have your few moments of tears and then, apparently, get on with life. It’s best to move on – get back into the swing of things – do all you can to feel normal again. There are things to do, money to be made, holidays to take and the endless pursuit of life in our great American society.

Tears are embarrassing. Grief is awkward. Suffering is much better kept to oneself. After all, one would not want to upset the American philosophy that laughter heals everything. Too much sorrow will simply bring your spirits down. And low spirits is the worst possible affliction in our society.

When Jacob, the great Patriarch, died, all of Egypt mourned him for 70 days. When Aaron, the first High Priest of Israel, died, the people mourned him for 30 days. You read about people in the Bible tearing their clothes and wearing “sackcloth and ashes” to demonstrate sorrow, sometimes sorrow for their own sin and sometimes for death. In fact, when Ezekiel’s wife died he was told by the Lord explicitly that he was not allowed to mourn her. This was a break from the norm, a shocking symbol to the people of Israel that all was not right. Grief was given ritual significance in the society. Even as late as the early 1900s, England had ritualized periods of mourning and grief.

Why is it that we have lost this tradition? Why do we deceive ourselves and think that somehow if grief is ignored it will lessen or, better yet, completely disappear. One used to wear black for a period of time after losing someone, a sign to everyone around that all was not right – with you or with the world. I hate that everyone looks at me and everything seems “alright.”

We lose so much when we do not grieve. In our desperate pursuit of “happiness” we never recognize how much is to be learned and gained in grieving. I have had the most sacred conversations of my life in this last month. I have found the precious love of my Savior to be more deep and more wide than I had ever imagined. And I have discovered a whole host of saints who have suffered, grieved and at last triumphed in their battle to believe and affirm God’s good purposes.

Would it not be better to have some outward demonstration of the inward reality that one’s heart is buried in sorrow, that everything is not okay? Wouldn’t it be a good thing to be often reminded that the world is not as it should be? That all is not well? Would we not then learn somehow not only to suffer alongside of each other but to be more ready ourselves to dig in the ashes of grief and uncover the gold that is buried there?

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Delights and Shadows (April 2009)

The title of this blog is “Delights and Shadows.” Our lives have known many, many delights in the last few years and far fewer shadows. I trust – I know – there are more delights to come. For now we’re living in the shadows.

I would imagine that most of you who read this blog already know the tragedy we have recently experienced – the dark providence that God has wrought in our lives. Yesterday marked three weeks since our two darling babies died, only an hour or so after delivery.

It had been my intention simply to take this blog offline and be finished with it. What does one say after such a thing? I don’t know how to communicate the reality of our lives these days through such an inferior medium as this.

However, recently I have found myself pondering different aspects of my own suffering, asking questions that have surprised me and catching glimpses of the world of grief that I did not expect. And the world of hope.

And I think that I will continue to write even if the tenor of writing might be different, at least for a time.

Our lives have changed forever. I will never be the same and my husband will never be the same. One does not “get over” the death of one’s children. Others who have been through this storm have told us that over time the sharper edges of our anguish will be blunted and the burden of grief will not weigh so heavily. I believe them and I wait for that time in expectation. But I also know that a part of me was buried that day we buried our babies. A part of my soul is now in Heaven. I will never get that back. I wouldn’t wish it back. It belongs with my children. I am in Heaven even while I continue here on this tired earth.

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