how to speak of God’s love?

the following is the final message given to a gathering of university students in berkeley, california in a semester-long study of Jesus’ response to the question: what’s the most important commandment? (mark 12:28-31)

so to wrap up our series on love, i want to shift our focus from our love of God, love of others, and love of ourself to God’s love for us. after all that we have been talking about this semester, we can be left thinking the most important thing is our love, but i want to flip that tonight.

the yale theologian miroslav volf puts it this way:

“in the minds of most people, christianity is supposed to be about love of God and neighbor, even though…at the heart of christianity does not lie human love at all, but God’s love for humanity.”

the most important love is not ours, according to Christian tradition, but God’s love for us.

but here’s the thing: it’s tough to talk about God’s love.

how do we speak about God’s love that’s not met with an immediate eye roll? how do we speak about God’s love in a way that’s not reduced to sentimentality?

or, perhaps even more importantly, how do we speak about God’s love in a way that doesn’t ignore the incredible suffering in the world? how do we speak about God’s love in a way that doesn’t give the impression that we live in complete ignorance of the world happening all around us?

as the peruvian priest and theologian gustavo gutierrez has asked, how do we say to the poor, to those with no rights, “God loves you”?

the first thing i did when i woke up this morning, even before getting out of bed, was check a facebook alert on my phone—which is never a good idea. and i noticed a news story a friend of mine shared that made me want to stay in bed all day.

the story was about a massive international child pornography sting involving the arrest of 348 adults and the rescue of nearly 400 children. those involved in stopping the multi-million dollar international operation said that they had never seen anything like it before, in terms of the sheer quantity of video confiscated and the horrific nature of the acts carried out against these children.

perhaps most tragic among the findings was that among those arrested were 40 school teachers, nine doctors and nurses, six police officers, three foster parents, and nine pastors and priests.

this was the first thing i read this morning, knowing i would be speaking on this topic tonight.

how do you possibly speak about God’s love in light of this news?

i want to try to speak to that point tonight by putting a finger on three characteristics of God’s love: God’s pursuing love, God’s freeing love, and God’s costly love.

but before I get into those, let’s pause and pray.

gracious God, i thank you for this time and this space where you bring us together each wednesday, away from the busyness of our day and week, so that we might meet with you and with one another and maybe even with ourself for the first time.

 

Lord, I recognize the incredibly fragile nature of speaking on your love in a world that is so full of deep suffering, pain, and anger. and yet, your word is clear that you are not simply a loving God, but that you are Love—even when we struggle to see it.

 

i ask that you would work through these, my words to reveal how your love has been at work in the world, and is still at work in the world, even now. it is with hope in your Son that we pray, amen.

God’s pursuing love

you may have noticed in tonight’s scripture readings that we’re jumping all over the bible. the first reading was from a prophet in ancient israel, found in the old testament book hosea. the second passage was a powerful story from Jesus’ life, found in john’s Gospel. and the third and last passage was from a letter to the early church in a city called ephesus, reflecting on Jesus’ life.

and my hope for tonight is to show how God’s love is a thread running throughout the entire biblical narrative, connecting the old and new testaments.

so to start, as quickly as possible i want to speak on how ancient israel understood God’s love. and in order to do so, i need to speak on a few key ideas: creation, fall, and covenant.

according to ancient israel’s traditionall those stories that would have been passed down from generation to generationGod created humanity to live in a right, loving relationship with God and all of creation. but humanity used its freedom to turn away from that relationship, and that led to all of the broken, challenging life that humanity has known ever since.

israel understood its distance from God as the source of its deepest longings, pains, and struggles. this broken relationship with God feels like endless struggle, rather than ease of life. it feels like craving something that nothing will ever satisfy. it feels like loneliness.

a writer i’ve shared with you here before by the name of david foster wallace, who was not a christian but who was deeply in touch with the human condition, described our struggle this way:

“We’re all lonely for something we don’t we’re lonely for. How else to explain the curious feeling that goes around feeling like missing somebody we’ve never even met?”

 

this is a contemporary, north american, well educated white man explaining our modern experience, but it fits with how israel explained their struggles, too. this is what it feels like to live at a distance from our Creator, they’d say. that’s our condition. that’s the creation and fall story, and it accounts for pretty much everything that’s happened since.

not to spoil it for those of you who haven’t read it, but pretty much the rest of the old testament books tell the story of God trying to repair this relationship with humanity. God does that by pursuing a particular people, called israel, and entering into a relationship with them, a relationship that had stipulations attached to it.

God’s relationship with israel was called a covenantal relationship because God had certain expectations of what it looks like for israel to be in right relationship with their Creator. God committing Godself to israel placed certain obligations on israel.

and the truth is, this is how committed relationships work, or else they break down.

most of you know that i’m in a committed relationship with jen, my wife of 10 years, and you would not be surprised if i tell you that this relationship places certain obligations on me. my being in a married relationship with my wife means i don’t get to be intimate with anyone i want. because she has committed to being physically intimate with me, and only me, and she rightly expects the same from me in return.

the same is true when it comes to God’s commitment to israel. when God said, I’m going to love you uniquely, God asked israel to do the same in return.

no longer will you look to other nations’ kings for security, or other nations’ gods to fulfill that loneliness, that void that you feel, God told israel. only I can do that.

so when God and israel have a d.t.r. moment, God gave israel certain rules for their relationship. and here’s the interesting thing about those rules: God told israel that if they lived into those relationship commitments well, things would go well for them. their entire life would be restored, they would flourish.

they called this restoration shalom. you’ve probably heard the word shalom, often translated as “peace.” but it’s more than that. the word shalom paints a portrait of complete restoration. its peace in the fullest, most holistic sense.

and, interestingly, israel is told that God would use their relationship not just to restore this particular people, but to reconcile all of creation to Godself again.

but if you’ve read any of the old testament, you will likely know that basically most of the stories are of israel failing to live into this relationship well. they’re constantly distracted by other desires, other relationships. constantly turning away from the God who reached out to them in love, and turning instead to foreign political rulers in their fears and insecurities, or turning to other foreign gods.

and time and time again, what we read is the story of God: getting angry at israel’s infidelity, and then getting jealous. which is just as it should be, by the way. anger and jealousy is the normal response for infidelity, in any committed relationship.

if i was unfaithful to my wife, if i turned to someone other than her for my most intimate needs and fulfillment, she would rightly be angry and jealous. if she wasn’t, that would reveal that something was wrong with our relationship. you would have reason to question not only my love for herbut whether she really loved me, too.

the same is true for God’s relationship with israel. God genuinely loved this people, genuinely wants to be reconciled to all of God’s creation, which explains the anger and jealousy we find throughout the old testament.

but then something interesting happens…

after God’s anger and jealousy subsides, God returns to israel, and recommits to their relationship. what we find in the old testament is a God who pursues His unfaithful lover with reckless abandon, over and over again.

it’s as though God cannot help Himself.

which brings us to the passage read for us from hosea. after israel has once again turned away from God for other lovers, the prophet hosea gives us a picture of God turning back to his unfaithful lover.

after washing and cleansing israel from her relationship with these other lovers, hosea gives his people a picture of God and israel returning to the honeymoon stage of their relationship, and his bride singing to God as she used to.

and then I’ll marry you for good—forever,” God tells israel. “I’ll marry you true and proper, in love and tenderness. yes, I’ll marry you and neither leave you nor let you go.”

God’s love, as we see it in the old testament, is that of a God who pursues His unfaithful bride over and over and over again, with reckless abandon.

this is also an image that appears throughout the new testament—think of the parable of the shepherd with 100 sheep who loses one and leaves the 99 behind to go after that one.

and this God who pursues His creation in love is a story that shows up in so many people’s lives.

last week i shared a song from a favorite singer of mine, andrew belle. i mentioned the fact that he became a christian after he already had success in his music and the affect that had on his work, especially lyrically.

he said this in a recent interview:

“i can’t really pinpoint when i became a christian, but all i know is that in 2010 i had one of those existential crises. life blowing up times… stuff was going badly. i just realized that i was living on a trajectory of life… and i didn’t want to be going in that direction anymore.”

 

“really for the first time, i actually felt like I realized, ‘wow, i’m really a despicable person at the core of me. there’s something wrong, and I can’t do it on my own.”

the track i played for you last week comes from his album, “black bear.” the title refers to belle’s experience of being pursued by God.

“flannery o’conner describe Jesus as this ragged figure, lurking in between the trees and motioning and calling. in my head, I pictured a ragged bear—a black bear—just kind of disheveled and not attractive.”

 

“[black bear] is the whole idea of being pursued or hunted, tracked down, ultimately by God, and the person of Jesus Christ is the black bear.”

many others have described their own conversions similarly, as being pursued by God, including c. s. lewis. as a 30-something oxford university lecturer and ardent atheist, lewis refers to himself as “the most reluctant convert in all of england,” wanting to be left alone, who was pursued by God, and who finally gave in.

so many others describe their own experience with God in this same way. God’s love is not one we must find; it is a love that pursues and finds us.

which brings us to the new testament and our second point.

God’s freeing love

when God’s love finds us, it doesn’t leave us as we are. God’s love affects us.

over and over again in Scripture, God’s relationship with humanity is that of a freeing love. in the new testament, God shows up in the flesh and bone Person of Jesus, constantly freeing people…

…from the guilt and shame and the voices that tell them they cannot go out in public.

…from skin diseases that put them at a distance from others.

…from being a slave to the law, rather than understanding the law as a gift and means to peace, restoration, and life in a full sense.

…from self destructive behavior, and from so many other chains.

and the scene that was read for us from john’s gospel is an instance of God’s freeing love, but not how we initially expect.

woman-caught-in-adultery-sebastiano-conca-1741

woman caught in adultery, by sebastiano conca (1741).

to get a good picture of what’s going on here, listen closely to this story. picture it. we’re told that this woman was “caught in the act of adultery,” caught “red handed,” we might say. which means she’s not likely well dressed or covered up.

and then she’s brought to where Jesus is teaching in the temple by religious leaders. she is completely shamed, with no opportunity to hide herself or take shelter from these men.

and she’s brought to Jesus, we’re told, in order to tempt Jesus.

“moses, in the law, gives orders to stone such persons,” they say to Jesus. “What do you say?”

their question isn’t actually about this woman; this is about Jesus.

what’s he going to do? they wonder. how will he respond?

this woman is used as an instrument for Jesus’ capture. surely Jesus sees that. but this woman, most likely, doesn’t realize it.

she only sees her shame, guilt, and her fear for her life. because she knows that these men, if they choose, have precedent to pick up stones and heave them at her until her life is taken from her.

with her heart racing, her mind racing, her fear through the roof, she, too, is wondering: what’s he going to say? what’s he going to do?

and then, in a turn of events that no one sees coming, Jesus bends down and uses His finger to write in the dirt. and we’re told not what He writes, but that when He straightens up, He asks whoever is present and who is without sin to go ahead and throw the first stone. and then he bends down again and keeps writing.

and all of the men there, with their stones in hand, begin to turn and walk away, starting with the oldest.

“woman, where are they?” Jesus asks when he stands. “is there no one here left to condemn you?”

“no one,” she says. and you can just imagine her relief.

this woman had pictured herself as the target of so many heavy stones heaved until she could no longer stand. but now, now she’s free.

and notice: Jesus doesn’t tell her to enjoy her freedom by doing whatever makes her happy so long as it doesn’t intrude on someone else’s happiness—which is largely what we’re told today, right?

instead, Jesus says: “neither do I [condemn you]. go on your way. but from now on, don’t sin.”

which is to say, don’t keep living into those ways of life that threatened to take your life.

Jesus looks at this woman and says, in so many words:

“I know you. I know all about you…

 

I know you don’t like what you do, don’t like the fear and hiding that come from it—even though you keep doing it, even at risk of your own life.

 

don’t keep doing that.

 

know that I love you more than you dislike what you do. you are more than the worst thing you’ve done.”

and what i hope you see is that this woman is israel in all of the old testament stories of an unfaithful lover. we are this woman. i am this woman.

in search of love and fulfillment, but looking in all the wrong places. turning away from my true love to lesser loves. condemned by so many voices telling me i don’t deserve to be loved.

and Jesus’ says, accept the gift of true life and love I’ve come to give you.

Jesus’ love doesn’t let us remain as we are. He frees us to live life in the fullest sense. He changes us, from the inside out, and then sends us out to share that life with others.

but here’s the brilliance of what Jesus does here. He doesn’t just set this woman free from her accusers. do you see that? He also frees her accusers. from their self righteousness. and from the torment of stoning this woman to death, an act that would have likely stuck with them for the rest of their lives.

Jesus frees not just the accused, but the accusers, too. God’s love means freedom for all.

Costly love

God’s love is not just a love that pursues and frees humanity, it is also costly love. and it’s costly because it’s always costly to be in relationship with others.

the russian novelist fyodor dostoyevsky put it this way:

“to love is to suffer and there can be no love otherwise.”

similarly, the author susan sonntag writes:

“it hurts to love. it’s like giving yourself to be flayed and knowing that at any moment the other person may just walk off with your skin.”

it hurts to love, to be in intimate relationship with others, because doing so requires vulnerability. and once you’re vulnerable, it’s only a matter of time until you’re hurt.

it’s true for humans in relationship, and once God entered into human relationships, it was true for God, too.

God’s love is costly because it required God’s vulnerability with us.

the german theologian dietrich bonhoeffer said that once God became human, either humanity had to die to itself, or God had to die. and of course we didn’t want to die, so God had to.

there’s a film from the early 1990s called the fisher king that’s set in modern day manhattan. in it, robin williams plays a mysterious, homeless, holy fool figure by the name of perry. it is unclear whether perry is brilliant or crazy.

in one scene, perry is walking with a woman named lydia after their dinner date. walking side-by-side down a quiet sidewalk, lydia insists that he doesn’t have to bother with all the compliments.

“it’s old fashioned,” she tells him. “given what we’re about to do.”

innocently, perry asks what they’re about to do.

lydia explains that they’ll both likely go up to her apartment for coffee, when perry interrupts her to mention that he doesn’t drink coffee. lost in her own thoughts, lydia doesn’t seem to hear him. she goes on to say that, once in her apartment, they’ll talk and get comfortable, have a drink, and then he will most likely sleep over.

and when they wake up the next morning, she insists that he will be distant. he won’t be able to stay for breakfast, except maybe coffee (he points out again that he doesn’t drink coffee, but she doesn’t hear it). then they’ll exchange numbers and he’ll leave and never call.

with a sigh, lydia explains that she will go to work and that, for the first hour or so, she will feel great. but then, she tells him, ever so slowly she will turn into a piece of dirt.

and when she has finished saying all of this, she pauses. reflecting on this scene that she’s just painted, lydia is silent. when she finally speaks up, lydia thanks perry for the great night and she runs off down the sidewalk.

perry is left standing by himself on the sidewalk wondering what has just happened. a second later, he chases after her.

and when he finally reaches her, lydia picks up right where she left off: going on about needing to end things before they go any further, until he finally has to interrupt her.

“please, would you just shut up for a minute?!”

“no, please stop… i’m not coming up to your apartment. that was never my intention… i don’t want just one night. i’m in love with you.”

lydia stares at perry like he’s lost it. unfazed, he continues.

“and not just from tonight. i’ve known you for a long time. i know you come out from work at noon every day and you fight your way out that door and then you get pushed back in and three seconds later you come back out again.

 

i walk with you to lunch and i know if it’s a good day, if you stop and get that romance novel at that bookstore. i know what you order, and i know that on wednesdays you go to that dim sum parlor and i know that you get a jawbreaker before you go back in to work.

 

and i know you hate your job and you don’t have many friends and i know sometimes you feel a little uncoordinated and you don’t feel as wonderful as everybody else and feeling as alone and as separate as you feel you are…

 

i love you… …i love you… and i think you’re the greatest thing since spice racks and i would be knocked out several times if i could just have that first kiss.

 

and i won’t, i won’t be distant. i’ll come back in the morning and i’ll call ya if you let me… but i still don’t drink coffee.”

“you’re real,” lydia asks, “aren’t you?”

Jesus’ love is like this holy fool’s love, who knows this woman in all of her odd idiosyncrasies, in all of her self doubt and shame, and who says he would be knocked out several times just to show her his love.

i mentioned before that those who brought the woman caught in the act of adultery to Jesus weren’t really there to condemn the woman; they were there to condemn Jesus.

the stones they brought were really for Jesus, and the thing about those who throw stones is that it’s only a matter of time before they return. in the end, they came with more powerful stones: the force of Rome and the threat of crucifixion, if Jesus didn’t back down.

and of course He didn’t back down. nor did He overpower them.

He continued to pursue us in love and the Father in obedience, and it cost Jesus His life.

“I would be knocked out several times to show you my love…”

but, surprisingly, from the darkest of days following Jesus’ death, christians came to find that His death wasn’t the end of the story, but the beginning.

to their amazement, the earliest disciples found that the Father honored Jesus’ love and obedience by bringing Him back to life—and the promise they received from Jesus was that they and we, too, might find life in His life.

Jesus’ love is a costly love, but it means life from death. and not just after we die, but life from the kind of life that’s more properly described as death.

so that brings us back to where we started: how can we speak of God’s love in the midst of so much senseless suffering?

God’s love means that we in no way minimize or try to explain away the suffering in our world, the suffering in our life.

God doesn’t ignore our suffering, nor does God seem primarily concerned with explaining it. instead, God enters into our suffering, shares it, and redeems it—all of it, somehow.

to quote dostoyevsky again:

“i believe like a child that suffering will be healed and made up for…in the world’s finale, [that] at the moment of eternal harmony, something so precious will come to pass that it will suffice for all hearts, for the comforting of all resentments, for the atonement of all the crimes of humanity, for all the blood that they’ve shed; that it will make it not only possible to forgive but to justify all that has happened.”

for christians, we believe the suffering in this world is not the result of evil in an abstract sense, out there, but that it is inside of us, right here.

and in love, God pursues us and frees us from that evil and from certain death—death we feel, and from which we think there is no way out. and God does so at great cost to Himself.

and then, when we are freed from death to life, God calls us to go out and live in this new way of life so that others, too, might catch this life, like a good infection.

focus-christmas-caroling-dec-2016

“be kind to on another, tender-hearted, forgiving one another, as God in Christ has forgiven you,” paul writes to the early church in the city of ephesus, read for us earlier.

“be imitators of God, as beloved children, and live in love, as Christ loved us and gave himself up for us, a fragrant offering and sacrifice to God.”

rather than destroy the darkness inside us—the darkness that threatens to destroy us from the inside out, like cancer—Jesus touches and heals this darkness. and then He calls us to go out and be a light in the dark that remains, so that one day there will be no more dark, only the full light of His life, radiating throughout all of God’s creation.

grief: reflections on loss

i wish to be completely forthright in saying this entry was written entirely to help myself deal with a deep amount of recent pain. to walk through the many thoughts of loss and hurt the past several weeks have brought. and to attempt to make some sense of the horrific loss of our dear sister, hayley dawn.

while hands&feet began as a way for me to simply capture my thoughts, it has grown to become more than that. however, this entry, in particular, returns to those original roots. it is full of loss and grievous remorse, and i make no promise that it will leave you feeling better. about anything. it is a bit like someone narrating the experience of their own surgery. if you are squeamish, i do not blame you in the least for looking away. however, if this narrative does help you. if this account somehow makes her — or anyone you’ve lost — feel close to you once again, if only for a moment. then praise be to God for that.

but, i am confident that these words will very likely leave some feeling as though they’ve just walked through a storm. and so i make the offer upfront: this is a dark cloud you may wish to walk around. you do not always have that option, but you do here, if you so choose.

to sit & listen

driving home from the hospital that first night, the night after we received that dreadful late-night phone call. the car headlights tearing through the darkness of that 2:30 a.m. morning, all i wanted to do was sit beside my sister. by the water. on the shore. and listen to her. i didn’t even want to ask any questions. i just wanted to sit shoulder-to-shoulder with her. again. tossing rocks into the waves as they rolled into shore. watching the water play with the pebbles underneath as it washed over them with each coming and going.

i just wanted to be there to lend a listening ear when she felt like talking. that’s all. and i prayed for that opportunity. to once again sit and talk with her. and it was then that i felt Him whisper to me that He was already talking with her, and that i need not worry.

feels like

what does grief feel like? it feels like a dry lump in the back of your throat that you cannot swallow away. it feels heavy, like a wet blanket on your shoulders that you cannot shake. weighing you down with each footstep. it fogs your vision and dulls your mind, so that you cannot see or think clearly. except for the pain and the memories, which shine brightly through the darkness. no matter how hard you try to push the former away, without sacrificing the latter.

and it lingers, like a deep, dense fog. consuming everything in its path. and you’re left wandering in it, lost. aimlessly. for days. weeks. and just when you feel like you’ve come to the end of it, you realize it was only a brief clearing in what seems like an endless valley, surrounded by the thick gray haze.

experiencing loss

there is nothing sexy, cool or desirable in any way about sitting beside the hospital bed of someone you love on life support at 2:00 a.m. there is only pain. there is only prayer and tears. wanting with all you have for them to blink their eyes. to grab your hand. to wake up.

i remember staring at hayley’s nearly motionless body during those early morning hours, as she lay there on the hospital bed. the only movement coming from the rise and fall of her chest with each robotic breath. aided by life support. by tubes and beeping machines. and all i wanted to do is talk with her. i wanted to whisper to her, that i loved her. and i did. and i hoped with all i had that she could hear me.

and i remember thinking how frail she looked. even her hair. each strand of it, strewn across the white linens. not a single ounce of her being showed even a hint of strength. and the only reason she was alive was because He had brought life and a pulse back to her lifeless body. i remember thinking how each breath was a gift from God, and how she was literally one breath away from leaving us.

and i remember telling jen He was going to redeem her. from all the pain of this situation. and somehow, comfort i can’t now describe surrounded me during that time. comfort that doesn’t make any sense.

impact on my faith

before all this happened, i had often wondered how my faith would hold up in the face of such loss and pain. i wondered if it would blind my vision toward His goodness. if i would feel distant from Him. or have a deep-rooted hesitation to ever approach Him again for help.

i am thankful that has not been the case. however, immediately following hayley’s diagnosis — which we had waited several days to receive — my faith was surely tested. and i was incredibly scared.

hearing her diagnosis from a doctor, a neurologist, was by no means easy. it was like having a biology textbook read to you when what you would prefer are the compassionate words of a sympathy note from a friend. or the loving arms of a well-timed hug. but that is not what we received. rather, what we heard were the cold, bleak, hopeless words from an unattached physician. someone who had never even had the pleasure of meeting hayley.

and it was after receiving that news, during the shock, that i was scared. i was scared because, for the first time i can remember, i honestly had no idea what to pray for. i felt as though there was nothing i could pray for that would resolve this situation. at that moment, leaning heavily on the windowsill and looking out into the deep blue sky through the icu window, i felt totally and completely helpless.

i felt as though the robe of this world had been pulled back, revealing the dark, ghastly flesh beneath. teeming with black machinery and hoards of crawling insects. i felt as though i was seeing all the dark evils of this world with clear eyes for the very first time. a darkness that had always been there, but that had been cleverly disguised. and once the mask has been removed, there is no forgetting what lies beneath. even if it is replaced. the image is forever burned in your memory. and, at that moment, it was for me a darkness i wanted to turn and run from with all my might. but i knew i would not fully escape it until that day i reached His Kingdom.

and so, it was at that moment that i desired His Kingdom — the paved streets of gold and fields of light streaming forth from His presence — more than i ever had before. i thirsted for Him in a way i never knew possible. but i also knew the path leading toward that day, the day when i would see His Kingdom, would be one lined with much pain and sorrow. the only way into the Light leads straight through the darkness. there is no other path.

painful aftershocks

when we lose someone dear to us, we really do feel like a part of ourselves is gone. like the entire world has changed overnight. like something is not quite right. and you almost become frustrated with others for acting like it is. for going on with life. i remember driving past a field of cows grazing the morning after hayley’s passing and thinking, “how can you possibly be eating at a time like this?!”

following the loss, you wake up feeling like someone covered you in a heavy, soaking-wet blanket while you slept. and even though your eyes are now open, the weight is constantly pressing down on you. so much so that you don’t even feel like getting up.

the tinge of death affects your palette, as well. it changes your tastes, both literally and figuratively. you do not want to eat. and when you do, it is not for the flavor or the smell, but because you know you must. your favorite food is no longer what it was. and what seemed so important before no longer does. what excited you before fails to do so now. i no longer spend my time as i did before. your priorities, it seems, are completely shaken up.

i’ve never been so confused about how i feel until facing this death. you are sad and hurt and angry, all at the same time. and it is incredibly confusing. like a diver who struggles to determine which way is up in the deep, cold, mirky waters.

and you feel like, no matter how hard you try, there are no words to properly communicate these feelings to others. and that inability to do so leads to feelings of isolation. creating a vast chasm between you and them.

the four words, “how are you doing?” have never been so confusing. for, even if i knew, i am not sure i would be able to communicate it. and, even if i could, i am not sure you would want to know.

leaving the hospital that last night we were all there together. just the six of us, walking out into the darkness under the clear night sky above. it felt as though we were going on a family vacation, and hayley was being left behind. and i knew there would be points on our trip when i would want to turn back. with every ounce of my being. to go get her. to grab her by the arm and run to catch up with the others. so that she might not be left alone. so that we might sing to her on her birthday. so that we could open presents together on Christmas morning. or spend our warm summer days together at the lake. so that she might enjoy this trip with us. but i knew i wouldn’t be able to. i knew that, even as i turned back. to turn to her. that i would be met by a face that assured me she could not go with.

when you’re at this point, the words, “i know how you feel” simply lead to feelings of distrust. for you could not possibly ‘know’ how i feel. even if you lost someone. that someone is not this someone. and your relationship with them is not this relationship. you may speak this language, sure, but this dialect is foreign to you. and i realize these words are meant to help, and i sincerely appreciate the sympathy and the consideration behind them, but they do not bring healing.

it’s a bit like wandering around in a maze with all the lights turned off. alone. blindly trying to find your way. and you can hear the voices of those on the outside, but inside, there is no one there with you. they cannot help point you in the right direction, for they can no more see anything in the dark blindness you find yourself in than can you who are in the middle of it. but the sound of their voices assures you that they are indeed there. that they know you are in the darkness. the mere sound of their presence — and their acknowledgement of your present circumstance in this dark maze — is all they have to offer, as you blindly stumble into walls in the darkness.

and this experience leads one to feel like a leper. the sickness in my life becomes so apparent, as does the health in theirs. and it almost makes me feel like asking to be put away from others, realizing no good can come from this pain. almost worrying that the pain in my life is contagious. and that, if i’m too close to others, it will wear off on them. contaminating their lives, as it has mine.

you will see them again

saying to those in pain, to those dealing with the loss of a loved one, that they will see their loved one again one day is a bit like telling a child they must go to bed early so that santa claus may come and set out their gifts. surely, every child enjoys gifts, but that does not make the act of going to bed early any more enjoyable. nor does it make closing one’s eyes and finding rest any easier. if anything, it only makes it more difficult.

i may see them again one day, sure. but i want to see them now. and, when that day comes that i do see them again, i find it hard to believe my focus will be on them. for it will be overshadowed by His presence. no, what i want is her. now. returned.

a better place

would you say to a child who misses their parents while they’re away on vacation, away on a cruise, or sitting on a beach in some tropic location, that, “it’s okay, they’re in a better place.”? hardly. for the issue is not so much their location, or their current state. it is that their location is not with them. they are missing their loved one’s presence. and so the point that they’re in a better place or not is hardly the issue.

are they happy their parents are enjoying themselves? probably. and their happiness at this thought grows in magnitude as their gaze falls less and less on their own desires. their desire to be with them. and more on their desire for their loved one’s well-being. or to put it another way, the less one’s focus is on them self, the greater one’s joy at knowing their loved ones are enjoying themselves.

however, those feelings of missing one’s vacationing parents are very real. and pointing out that their loved ones are in a better place hardly addresses those feelings. rather, it feels like an attempted distraction.

process of pain

and the experience of this pain goes through different phases. at first, it feels like a deep bruise. dull and hard. it steals your energy and makes you feel sore and weak all over. so much so that you do not want to move from the hurt.

but then, as the weeks go on, the painful loss seems more like a laceration. like a deep cut. where the painful realization begins to set in clearly and sharply. and it comes and goes. but when it comes, it comes at a moment’s notice. it comes with a sting that takes you by surprise. sharp and cutting. deep, leaving your wound open and revealed.

and all you want to do at that point is find somewhere safe. somewhere comfortable. where you can let your wound air out. in the open. without fear of more pain being inflicted. you seek solace. escape. and sometimes words, no matter how well-intended, only feel like salt in this open wound.

rather, you come to appreciate the simple presence of someone just being there. not trying to talk away the pain, as if words could heal these wounds. but just being there. in the darkness. their presence a reminder that you are not totally and completely alone. even if they cannot understand. even if they cannot see the twists and the turns of this dark maze you now find yourself in.

a good friend is willing to let the tears fall, without feeling ashamed or embarrassed at your pain. pain is not orderly. it is not clean and tidy. it is messy. a good friend is willing to carry the weight of your tears simply with their presence.

pain is a heavy heart. heavy from taking on water. from the weight of your tears. so heavy it feels like it could fall out of your chest from pressing against your rib cage so hard.

and then, as the days go on, you begin to realize you haven’t thought about your lost loved one for a while. not days, by any stretch of the imagination, but hours. and then you almost feel guilty. as if not thinking about them for a period somehow dishonors their lost life. and that thought comes with pains of guilt.

roller-coaster in the dark

and it makes no sense, the pain. it comes and goes without any warning. like a roller-coaster in the dark. you feel as though the bottom falls out from under you at a moment’s notice. and you’re left grasping for something. anything. to hold onto. to hold you up. to strengthen you. for you feel so very weak.

a friend of mine recently lost someone dear to her. a long-time friend. a boyfriend.

it was a highly publicized tragedy, receiving much media attention. particularly in our region. three friends in oregon set out for a hike on a snow covered mountain. nothing out of the ordinary. something they had done many times before. but this time, they did not come back. and friends and family waited. for days. to hear something. to hear some hint of good news. but it never came.

and she shared with me about how she resp0nded to others during this time. while she waited. the words she spoke to co-workers. to friends. to the family members who aren’t yet believers.

“Christ is my hope.”

when she didn’t know what to say or how to brace herself for support, her words pointed to Him. and her weight fell upon Him. hoping He would hold her up.

no magic pill

naively, i thought the healing process would progress in a linear manner. that each day would be a little easier than the last. i was wrong. the 17th day could, and did, feel very much worse than the third day. there is no rhyme nor reason for it. no predicting it. it simply comes and goes as it pleases. as quickly as the memories. entering without any hesitation. or any concern for your current circumstances. and you’re left floundering.

grief, after a time, is like a guest who has overstayed their welcome. your irritation with its lingering presence grows greater and greater as each day progresses. you want to throw mud in its face. kick it in the shins. curse at it. and tell it to leave. but it doesn’t. it loiters. and the frustration mounts. until finally the tiniest things make you snap. from the anger and the frustration and the hurt. and you’re left looking around, wondering to yourself, “where did that come from?”

and, no matter how much you want to change it. no matter how much you want to deal with the pain all at once and make it go away. to leave you, and never to return. you cannot. this is something you cannot overpower or simply “deal with.” no matter how hard you try.

you cannot intellectualize away grief. you cannot outthink a feeling. for, where the feelings trod, the intellect cannot approach. it is a place untouched by the mind. there, if nowhere else, the mind has no power. it is burned away in the fiery presence of the heart. of love. of warmth. of feeling. of dread. of fear. the mind knows not what to do. it cannot. and so you’re left, blindly, feeling your way in the darkness.

no amount of power or wealth can help in this situation. death is the great equalizer, as they say. for you cannot buy back what you’ve lost. not in this case. no matter how much you want to. no matter how strongly your desires are to barter with God. “i will give you this… i would give you it all, just to have her back.” but those offers are met only with silence. for there is nothing you can offer Him to return this life that is now no longer here.

nor can you order someone to fix it. you may spend money and time and resources on the road to recovery, but there is no pill to take. no magic wand can break this spell you’re under. as lewis puts it, “there is nothing we can do with suffering except to suffer it…” (c.s. lewis, a grief observed, p. 33)

and so i pray. and i remember. and i grieve. and i cry. sometimes the tears come with laughs. sometimes they simply come in sobs. overpowering, heaving sobs that rock my body and prevent me from doing anything else at all. leaving me to simply wait them out.

healing in pain

pain allows certain things to come alive. for the first time. song lyrics. even those cliche sayings we’ve all heard a million times. for, in the experience of pain, those words now have meaning. they have ground to stand upon. and, from that ground, they rise up to eye view, so that you can see them for what they truly are. whereas, prior to the pain, they seemed so very meaningless. lacking any context. floating by without any hint of consequence.

for me, this pain has helped illuminate parts of scripture that previously seemed intended for someone else. specifically, Jesus’ power to heal.

a significant portion of the attention Jesus received during His ministry was from people who came to Him to be healed. they had pains. they had diseases they could not shake. and they had heard that, somehow, this Man, this nazarene carpenter, had powers that could help them.

the book of luke, in particular, focuses heavily on these healing miracles. luke was a medical doctor, so he was naturally intrigued by the accounts of how Jesus had brought health where there was sickness. life where there was death.

and, as much as i think these healings served a practical purpose — revealing Jesus’ power — i think they also served as a metaphor for the ultimate Healing He intends to bring all of us. and reading about these healings serves as a reminder to us, even now, 2000 years later, of why He came. of why He was written into humanity’s story. and, lately, i have come to see that it is only in true pain and brokenness that we can see the incredible value in His healing power. and our need for it.

someone who has no thirst cannot appreciate the life-giving benefits water offers the human body. it is only someone who is truly fatigued and lacks proper hydration who can appreciate what water offers. and our true need for it. however, inviting someone to run 10 miles so that they can appreciate a drink of cool water will not likely be met with much excitement. this offer is only appreciated by those who are already fatigued. by those who are already thirsty.

in the same way, He reveals different attributes of His character to us based on our experiences. based on our current situations. however, that does not make us want to put ourselves in those situations so that we can experience these particular attributes of Himself.

if you do not see your need for healing, His offer to heal will likely mean nothing to you. and you are not likely to desire losing someone close to you so that you can feel His healing presence. however, if you are in pain. and if you feel broken. you will grasp at His healing power with everything you have. reaching out to Him in hopes that even if you were to only touch the corner of His robe, He would somehow mend the stump where a hand used to be.

always there

not long before hayley’s death, i was going through a rough time. a death in the family. a birth in the family. balancing an awkward combination of feelings. unsure of what to do with it all. and i remember texting hayley. just to tell her about it all. and i told her i didn’t even know why i was bothering her, except for the fact that she was my sister. she replied, right away. to tell me she was sorry. to tell me she loved me. and to tell me she was there for me. no matter what.

and so many times during these past several weeks, i’ve gone to those words. wanting to cash in that promise. i’ve wanted to go to her. to tell her how hard this is. losing her. to tell her how it hurts. to ask her if she remembers when…

but i can’t. i can’t go to her and get a response. and that is so incredibly difficult. so painful. but i do it anyways. sometimes. aloud, to myself. in my car. and it helps. to get it out. the words. the tears. all of it.

and sometimes i even feel like she’s there. just like she promised.

to feel close again

when we’ve lost someone close to us, we find ourselves turning to things that remind us of them, hoping to somehow feel close to them once again. we turn to a song. to a place. to something. anything. that you once shared.

i’ve found myself listening to lots of hip hop lately. songs i knew hayley liked. new songs i thought she’d like, and that i wish i could send her to listen to. we loved sharing music with each other.

the week following hayley’s service, i picked up flowers and a card. and i returned to the hospital. the same place we spent the week waiting. hoping. that everything would turn out all right.

i wanted to find the nurse who was there for us during those long nights. who let us sit by her bed and watch. who would talk with us. who would be real with us. rather than just doing her job. rather than just checking hayley off her to-do list.

she was helping out in the er that night i visited. rather than the icu. so the icu secretary helped me find her. she called. then called some more. and as i waited for this nurse to respond to the phone calls, asking her to come up to the icu, i sat at the front desk. waiting. flowers in one hand. card in the other. sitting. staring straight at the door to hayley’s former room. the last room i saw her. the last room i talked to her.

and i thought, naively, that somehow being there would make me feel like i was closer to my sister again. that i would be reminded of her presence. but that was not the case. it simply felt like a hospital. like a room where someone else received treatment. not her.

and when the nurse finally appeared, that did not make her feel closer either. but it was nice to see her. she approached with a warm look of sympathy and compassion. with a look of knowing pain at our loss. and she received me with a hug. she told me she was so sorry. and she told me she had been thinking about us.

after some time, i left. i walked out of the icu and, while waiting at the elevator door, i overheard the conversation that followed, “that was her brother-in-law.” … “we should take your picture!”

no, it did not make her feel closer. i walked out of the hospital that night into the cool air of the evening. just as i had so many times the week before. and the tears fell. slowly at first. but then stronger. knowing, perhaps more so than i had before i entered the hospital that night, that there was no longer a place where i could find hayley. that no matter how much a place reminded me of her, it would not bring her back.

we’ll visit you

after a while, you find yourself just wanting life to go back to normal. to “the way it was.” but, the truth is, it won’t. it cannot. for it has been forever changed. it is a bit like wishing a snow globe would be just as it were before it was shaken. that each tiny snowflake would fall in the precise place it had previously been, prior to being shook. it cannot. but that is what we desire. with all we have. we want things to be as they were. and there is nothing worse than thirsting for a drink that does not exist. to have a thirst that cannot be quenched.

i recently grabbed dinner with a friend of hayley’s. a close friend. they had dated for years. so he knew her like we did. closer than most.

it was the first time i had stepped foot into a local restaurant since her passing. and, as i did, i felt the eyes of those familiar with our loss fall heavy on me. as if to somehow gauge my temperature. i spotted hayley’s friend from the door, already seated at a table across the room, dropped my head low, and found my seat.

we talked. for quite a while. sharing memories. and that brought so much joy. it almost made her seem close again. and it was comforting because we shared these similar experiences of her. these memories of the hayley we both knew and loved. those who enjoy cars do not get together with those who have no interest in cars to share stories about their vehicles. rather, they get together with other car enthusiasts. the closer their interests (by make, model, year…), the more enjoyable their conversation. the tighter their bond. so it is with those missing a lost loved one.

so there we sat. in this restaurant. sharing memories. laughing, mostly. and it was refreshing. then, at one point during this meal, he mentioned visiting hayley’s grave the week before. and it was the first time i had even thought of visiting hayley’s grave. to go see her. to remember her.

but the cemetery hardly fits the description of something i turn to remind me of her. for we never spent time in the cemetery then. we never shared a laugh there. you never gave me a hug before leaving there. i never tossed you in the lake there, shouting and laughing at the same time. you never sprayed whipped cream in my face or insisted that you could in fact carry me there. that is not where i saw your smile or heard your laugh. that laugh we used to tease you for, until you would shout, “it does not sound like leanne’s!”

your body now rests there, sure, but that does not help me remember you. it all feels so foreign. so, “for someone else.” but don’t worry, hd, i will visit you. we will visit you.

the wrong question

the truth is, hd, when you left, it felt like a piece of our joy left with you. and we cannot get it back. not matter how hard we try. which makes sense, for you were filled with it.

and, in the middle of this all, we find ourselves asking if it would’ve been easier to never have been given this life. this relationship. so that, when this loss came, it wouldn’t hurt so bad. so that we wouldn’t ever have to experience this overwhelming pain. we find ourselves wondering if a life of complete isolation would not be the safer route.

were we to never be so close, we would never feel this distant. this distance that i now feel would not feel so great.

i remember going out to lunch with a good friend of mine a year or so back. a good friend from high school. from middle school, really. his mom had fought — and won — a battle with cancer while we were still in school. which made the return of the cancer years later that much more difficult.

and i remember, at this lunch, something he told me. i don’t think i’ll ever forget it.

we were talking about how his mom was doing. an incredible woman. a woman who felt much like a second mother to me for so many years while in school. a Godly woman. the kind of woman who, when she says she’s praying for you, you know she’s not simply allowing words to pass from her lips to make you feel good. a woman who anyone would be proud to call, “mom.”

and i remember my friend talking about how things were getting more and more difficult for her. and how he was handling this.

“you know how i get through this? he asked me, rhetorically. “i ask myself, if God gave me the choice, to either have an incredible, Godly mom for the first 26 years of my life, or to never have one at all, i would choose to have her for those 26 years. every time.”

and i just remember thinking, “that is an incredible perspective.” in the face of one of the most difficult experiences of your life — losing your very mother — that is the perspective one should have. that of being thankful for the gift you have received. rather than damning the God who blessed you with that gift in the first place.

and so, faced with this pain. faced with the question of, “would it have been easier?…” i realize i’m asking the wrong question.

would it have been easier to never have that relationship? would it have been easier to never have become so close — to have cared for someone else so much — so that it doesn’t hurt this bad when they’re gone? perhaps. would it have been better? doubtful.

for those memories. those priceless memories. they are more valuable. they are worth far more than this pain is deep — no matter how deep these wounds now feel.

if it would’ve been better for us to never be so close to another soul so that this pain is not felt in the face of loss, i doubt very much He would encourage us to love one another as He does.

if He says, “I am going to break your heart over this loss,” which is no less than what this has been, then we must trust that the relationship that precipitated this loss was worth having in the first place.

nineteen years

hayley dawn. you are an angel who visited us for nineteen years. some splendid. joyful beyond what it is easy to capture in words. some more difficult and painful than we would care to now admit. but, even in their imperfect moments, you were here. with us. in a very real way. more real than our memories will now permit. real in a way we would never try to change. for doing so would change you. and that is what we desire. more than a memory. what we want is you. in all your imperfections. just as He created you.

hd, i am jealous of Him. that He now gets to enjoy that smile. that laugh. that contagious grin. we all are. when we miss you. we miss those things about you that showed us your love. and now, we know, that He is the One enjoying those traits of yours. that those gifts He created you with are now being given back to Himself. in a way that glorifies Him.

and we’re jealous. because that’s what we miss. you. and, in our most honest moments, we hope He enjoys you as much as we would. we hope He deserves it. is it fair of us to feel this way? no, probably not. is it right? of course not. but is it how we feel? yes. absolutely.

back from Perfection

but what good is it for me to want you back, hayley? to beckon you from the presence of Perfection, as it were.

for we can’t, on the one hand, find comfort knowing you’re in the presence of the only eternal Love you were made for. but then, on the other hand, beg that you be returned to us. it is no good for us to want it both ways. we will get nowhere with that. we will find ourselves paddling in circles in the middle of this dreadful lake of loss.

no, there is not even a hint of (true) love in that thought process. in wishing you back to us from Him. there is only selfishness. and, when i realize it, i despise myself for wanting you back at that cost.

but, as they say, the truth hurts. and there is nothing more true than admitting we want you back. at all costs. at our deepest, darkest, most selfish moments. for one more hug. for one more laugh. for one more smile. for one more memory that we can bottle up and store away.

and, every once in a while, we think we’ll get just that. turning to the door. or an empty hallway. half-expecting you to come walking in. wearing that smile of yours. wiping away all our tears of loss. laughing it away, as if the whole thing were some bad dream. the white of your teeth and scrunched corners of your eyes from your smile a sign that our glimmers of hope were not all for nothing.

but that moment never comes. instead, we find ourselves staring into an empty hallway or a doorway longer than we should. hanging our head at the painful realization that our deepest pains are real. we can put our hand there and find blood. the wounds are not yet healed. and we’re left wondering, “will they ever be?”

life in death

in a paradoxical way — just as so many things are with Him — we see that in death, there is Life. life of the fullest sense. not half-inflated, as we experience here. but life in the clearest, most full sense. as He intended it to be.

after hearing of our loss, a friend of mine — the same friend who lost her boyfriend to that terrible mountain — reminded me that hayley is alive.

through these words, she wrote to me, “hayley may have died, but she is alive…she has life… so even more i affirm you with the fact that hayley is alive and well! she is well, ryan…”

and the words set in heavy, like an oversized helicopter settling into a field of long grass to land. and, while i knew this to be true, it somehow shook me to the realization that, even in the painful experience of death, there is life. and, particularly in this death, that reminder of Life was incredibly encouraging.

for the first time in years, she is well. for that which hayley was unable to experience here, she is now experiencing in full. “…through [death], increase of life now comes.” (a grief observed, p.229) whereas she was unable to see it fully before, now she sees His love with eyes wide open. as He pours it out over her. she is loved. now. completely. totally. in a way she was not able to be before.

what previously held hayley back from living life as He intended it to be lived no longer can, because of death. because of God’s built-in safety device, as lewis refers to it. while the world may have slowly blinded her vision to His love for her from time to time before — as it does for so many of us — she is now experiencing it clearly. hearing it from His lips. in a way we do not yet have the benefit to hear.

and, in that thought, we receive a hint of comfort.

is she in “a better place?” no, she is in The better place.

to put Him in His place

and yet, in the pain of our loss, we want to pound away on His chest. even as He holds us. through tears, through short gasps of breath. we want to ask Him, through shout-filled fits, “why?!” why would He allow such pain. why He wouldn’t do anything about it. we want to push Him. to shove Him. to put Him in His place, so to speak. demanding that He answer up to our questions.

and all the while, we forget that He knows of this loss we are now experiencing. we forget that our love for her pales in comparison to His love for her. for, with our gaze so fixed on our own pain-filled loss, we cannot begin to comprehend His love for her. and we forget that all we’ve done for her pales in comparison to what He has done for her. even laying down His own Son’s life to save her’s.

and, when the tears slow. when we stop shouting long enough to catch our breath. when we relent from the pushing and flailing. we find Him patiently waiting. speaking to us,

do you really believe I do not know pain? do you think the sacrifice of my own Son did not grieve me? to sit back and watch Him hurt, holding back so that your loved ones might not feel such terror and torment. so that they might be saved. so that you might be saved. do you think that was easy on Me?

who are you that you would make such demands of Me? to try and test My love, as it were. it is true, I most certainly love her. more than you know or can comprehend. but in My righteous love, My vision is not blurred. even when yours is. and My goal is still fixed on her good. and yours. and even when you cannot see it being worked out, I can. but you must never question My love. for in that love — My love for My sons and My daughters — no questions remain.

who understands

no matter how deep those pains go. no matter how fresh the wounds feel, even after the passing of weeks, of months, of years, we must never forget, He has experienced our pain. we worship a God who understands.

so that, even when we are driving back to the hospital, completely unaware of the painful news that awaits us, He knows what is coming.

even though it feels like someone took an eraser to the pages of the story we have been reading, leaving us to try and make sense of this revised version. the truth is, those are not revisions on the pages we have already turned. rather, they are the pages we had yet to turn. but which we had imagined. reading ahead in our minds even after putting the story down. so that it feels like a revision, but the truth is, it had always been there. waiting. no matter how strong the shock.

and even though the coolness of the dove white clouds floating in the burnt orange sky during the drive back to the hospital that week seemed to hang like a promise that everything would be okay, we must remember that our ‘okay’ and His ‘okay’ do not always look the same.

we must remember that, where we are weak, He is strong. and that, in our weakest moment, He is hard at work. that He loves us. even when our own pain and tears blind us to that fact.

relief from our tears

my prayer for you is that your tears would fall. day after day. until they can hardly fall anymore. and then, when the nights seem long. and the days seem as though they run right into each other. when it seems like nothing could brighten the darkness, i pray He would. for you. i pray your gaze would turn from yourself. from your pain. and that it would turn toward Him. so that you can see, for the first time, His open arms.

this God is not a toy. He is not a divine wishlist created to give you what you want. were we to get from Him only that which we desired, He would seem much like something we had created. but that is not what we find. not at all. He is not a genie to be beckoned. He is not a servant of our imagination who sits in the clouds, waiting upon our every request.

but He is Love. of the deepest sort. the kind of Love who knows our good. even when it comes in pain. like a loving Father who holds back, even at the most difficult moments, so that we can learn on our own. or, as lewis puts it so well, like the Great Surgeon, creating incisions that will ultimately bring healing. at the moment, they simply appear as cuts. but, when He is finished, we should be on our road to recovery. the kind of recovery that will mean our good, in the fullest sense.

He knows when you’ll come to Him. He is not surprised. there is no surprise ending with Him. but He will still smile. He will still welcome you with a party. for you are His child. and He loves you. just as He loves our dear hayley dawn.

where do we find relief from our tears? at that thought. no, we cannot have it both ways. there is only one way we can have it. precisely the way we find it. knowing He is in control. that He can love her better than we can. and that He is. even now.