“Pain removes the veil; it plants the flag of truth within the fortress of a rebel soul.” –C.S. Lewis in The Problem of Pain.
For me, the Christmas season always stirs up a sense of “good grief.” A couple of days before Christmas in 2005, my wife and I received a call in the early morning to get to the hospital ASAP because our almost 2-year-old niece had stop breathing in the middle of the night due to a rare strand of pneumonia. At the time, I was pastoring a networked house church community while teaching high school as my day job.
We rushed to the hospital, and I remember struggling with my identity as to how to approach the chaos of the catastrophe. Was I a pastor, brother-in-law or friend? I was confused and overwhelmed. We got to the ER and were ushered into the sterile room where my sister-in-law sat embracing her gift of a daughter that had now passed over the veil into the fullness of the Kingdom of God. The pastor in me had only one goal—it was to raise the little one back to life. All of the stories in our Scriptures tell us that this can be so, that we have a faith of resurrection. But by the time my hands touched the bodily forehead of my niece, Kate, my prayer changed. I was not destined to be there because of a bodily resurrection; I was there to be invited into a long season of “good grief.”
The questions that followed were clearly horrifying. First there was the practical. It was just 2 days before the Christmas holiday—is the funeral home open and available for planning? Is there time to find a burial plot before the workers go on holiday break? With all the holiday planning, when is the right time to have a funeral for a little one? To have to compartmentalize practical questions in the midst of shock and early mourning seemed particularly cruel. Then there were the deeply surreal and spiritual questions. How do we now, as a family, approach the adoration of the Nativity scene having just lost one of our own dear babies? With Darkness on the doorstep taunting us like a destructive bully, how does one respond? More specifically, how does a community respond?
Here’s what I have learned … you respond with “good grief.”
Suffering of most any kind can lead you to a place of utter isolation. I found some hope in Shelley Trebesch’s book, Isolation: A place of Transformation in the Life of a Leader, after this season of grief. Shelley describes these places of isolation in terms of desert or wilderness experiences. They are unwanted, unplanned and avoided if at all possible. Her thesis is that we don’t just try to survive, endure or get past these times, but to begin to see them as the very transformational experiences that may be preparing us for another journey. Within the crucible of pain, grief and isolation, we can learn and grow in powerful and transformational ways that only suffering can do. We shouldn’t try to “avoid” these times, but we should embrace them as a kind of “good grief.” The crucible of pain reveals the shallowness of our previously held goals and expectations, and we realize that God desires to deepen our life into more of what the truth really is about ourselves and our world. In this way, the truth very much does hurt. However, it is also only the truth that sets us free.
What I learned is that every single person that Jesus healed eventually died. Every person he resurrected, died again. So what is the point of healing in the Christian faith? I believe that all healing has nothing to do with the actual act of healing, that’s simply just a rearranging of sick cells in the body. Rather, that each divine act against the laws of nature are meant to be a resounding announcement that there is a God and we aren’t him. In the same way that we have a worked out belief in healing, we also need to grow up and have a mature belief in “not healing.” When God doesn’t rearrange cells as we wished he would, what do we do then? I learned that when a spiritual community has “good grief,” meaning they grieve with a violent sense of hope, that also is a resounding announcement of a Kingdom that has come. Healing and not-healing are both a primal and rebel yell of hope.
Since these tragic events of Christmas 2005, it changed the way our small church community worshiped. It was as if our faith wasn’t about making ourselves feel better anymore, but that we were at war with the bully of despair and our cry was one of hope. We didn’t want to sit still in our little cocoons; we wanted to buck up and have the courage to walk through the dark night of our suffering to come out the other end into the light. As a father, I had to deal with the mortality of my children. Life needed to be about the precious now, and connecting with them was more important than my selfish ambitions. Dealing with the loss of their cousin, the death of Kate, changed my kids’ worldview. They see the world and the future somehow more grown up. They organize their thinking and planning about their bright futures around the idea of spreading the virus of hope through their unique giftings and abilities. Life is short and precious … make it meaningful. Hope is violent … pick a fight there.
We need not seek to avoid these times; we can embrace them. We don’t like grief—it’s painful—but in the hands of the One who made us, there is such a thing as “good grief.” We can find Hope even in the most grievous of times and circumstances. In utter darkness, light can yet shine through. I love these words from Henri Nouwen:
“Hope is not dependent on peace in the land, justice in the world, and success in the business. Hope is willing to leave unanswered questions unanswered and unknown futures unknown. Hope makes you see God’s guiding hand not only in the gentle and pleasant moments but also in the shadows of disappointment and darkness.” (60) Turn My Mourning To Dancing
Photo (Flickr CC) by Hamed Saber