October 7, 2014

holy grief

I was fifteen when I learned a solemn and irritating truth: Christians aren't super skilled when it comes to helping people grieve.

There is this skittery panic that ripples through the church pews when A Griever enters the building.
First, everyone wants to make sure that they say just the right thing to help you know that you can trust God even though you just lived through a trauma that will most likely scar you for the rest of your life.
Secondly, they want to ascertain whether or not you are "okay". They will ask you prodding and inappropriate questions like "How are you doing?" or even worse "How are you handling things?"
"Like a boss. I mean, I'm SUPER GOOD at going to my mom's funeral, thanks for asking."

The funeral was just the worst. Worse than the month before when my best friends and their mom took me to the mall to find a fancy black dress to wear to the impending funeral. I vividly recall standing in front of the mirror at the mall in Kearney, Nebraska (at a JC Penny's, I believe), making morbid jokes about my sexy black funeral dress.

Harder days followed. I had been raised in a home and church where I felt pressure to perform...and so, even as I grieved, I felt the need to keep it together, to cry the right way, to say the right things, to wrap up my sorrow with a tidy "I'm Still a Christian" bow.

A woman once advised me that it was "okay" to question God and lament - after all, even the psalmists did that. "But look at how those Psalms ended...they question God in the beginning, but they always end with praise."

I remember even then thinking that was pretty terrible advice.
We have no idea how long it took a Psalmist to reach that point of praise. 
Who's to say that David didn't start his lament as a 20 year old, and 30 years later finally decide that he could "publish" that Psalm with a praise chorus at the end?

And besides that, I want to push back a bit on this mindset of there being a Right Way and a Wrong Way to grieve.
There seems to be this unwritten code in the Church that ascribes a certain allowance of questioning, a certain level of doubt, and a certain time frame in which a person is allowed to be sad.
And then, it's time to move on. It's time to stop crying during "Blessed be your name" and it's definitely time to stop acting traumatized.

I think that this comes from a very intense level of unease that sits just below the platitudes and easy advice. I think  we say stupid things and give simple answers because we are all terrified at what the Severe Mercy of God might mean for our lives.
We are afraid that God's goodness for us might involve cancer, car accidents, miscarriages, or worse.
We want to believe that it won't happen to us.
And we definitely want to believe that if it does happen to us, everything will turn out for the good of those who love Him and are called according to His purpose.

Here's the sucky part:
It DOES turn out for the good of those who love Him and are called according to His purpose. And it also still feels really terrible for the rest of your life. For some reason, this just isn't accepted by a lot of Christians. We want for God's healing to come now.

But isn't it possible that God's goodness doesn't wipe away the sorrow of death, at least not immediately? Is it possible that God's goodness, his absolute best for us, is going to feel like the shittiest thing ever for years, maybe even decades?

Is it possible to trust God, and at the same time not make it through the song Great is Thy Faithfulness?

Is it possible that there is nothing more asked of us than to grieve the effects of sin and death with every ounce of our being?

My mom died in May of 2003. I was 15 when she died. The grief was crippling at first. Vomit-inducing. Puffy eye crying was the norm. I cried at school. I wept at home. I thought about her constantly. I kept track of how many days she had been dead. I journaled my anger. I questioned God. I poured over the psalms. I memorized scripture. I tried to forget scripture.
And in all of that, I believe with all of my heart that my grief was honoring to God.

I remembering hearing a verse quoted often after my mom's death...
"We do not grieve as those who have no hope." 

And I second that sentiment. There is hope, and there is a future that does not include death. I believe that my mom's soul is not gone forever. She is more alive than she has ever been.

But does that verse imply that we are not allowed to grieve?
No, it says that we grieve differently. We grieve as those who have hope. 

I think grieving with hope does not include pulling ourselves up by our bootstraps and moving on with life. In fact, I think it is very possible that all grieving - by those with and without hope - is honoring to God.

Here's why.
God did not create us for death.
He created us for life, wholeness, eternal wellness and unending relationships.
He did not create our souls with the capacity to absorb watching babies and mommies and brothers and sisters die. It breaks us. This is why we have words like "broken hearted". Do we think God created us with the intention of our hearts being broken? No.
Illness, disease, death. These are all results of the fall.
Affairs, divorce, racism, indifference. All results of sin in this world.

I grieve daily. Sometimes it is the memories of watching my mom suffer that grieve me. Sometimes, it is me wishing I could watch her hold my babies and play with Elliot. Other days, I grieve my own depression. I grieve the effects of sin on my brain, my health, my marriage, my relationships. I grieve the reality that there are new orphans every day, children dying from unclean water, adults selling their daughters into sex slavery.

I grieve because my heart was not made to contain the realities of sin and death.
I grieve because the holiness of God drives me to hate sin.
I grieve because I believe God. I believe Him when he says that we were not made for this. I believe that there was a better plan.
I believe that this grief is holy. And even in this holy grief, I trust Him. I fear the effects of sin at times; I fear that my babies will die, that my husband will get ill, that despite all of my efforts to prevent my mother's story becoming my story, I will someday find a lump. I fear because I do not yet know Him fully. I press on to know Him more, to trust Him more, to cling to The Promise.

And I cling to the reality - the hope - that this holy grief will not be forever.
How long, O Lord?
This is the groaning recorded in Revelation, spoken not by unbelievers, but of the Redeemed.
The Song of the Redeemed...How long, O Lord? 
I long for ultimate redemption. I cling to glimpses of The Story being woven into my story.
Someday, tears will be wiped away.
Someday, redemption will draw near and we will know fullness of life.
Until then, I grieve with a holy grief, I trust the Severe Mercy of God that uses suffering and even death to write a story that will end with no more sorrow.

How long, O LORD? Will you forget me forever?
How long will you hide your face from me?
How long must I take counsel in my soul
and have sorrow in my heart all the day?
[Psalm 13:1-2]

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