Death and Tragedy

My Plan for 2013

3 January 2013

“Now listen, you who say, ‘Today or tomorrow we will go to this or that city, spend a year there, carry on business and make money.’ Why, you do not even know what will happen tomorrow. What is your life ? You are a mist that appears for a little while and then vanishes. Instead, you ought to say, ‘If it is the Lord’s will, we will live and do this or that.’” – James, the brother of Jesus

My plan for ending 2012 and launching 2013 is pretty comical in light of how I actually spent them.

December 30 and 31 I spent with a 17 year old girl and her 21 year old brother. These two lost their dad to cancer on Christmas Day, and they “needed a preacher” to do his funeral on New Years Eve day.

January 1 and 2 I spent in my bed. I was coughing, and sneezing, and blowing, and aching, pouring all kinds of fluids and pills into my body to try to stop it all.

It’s not my plan was bad. My plan was to spend the last two days very intentionally with my family (some of which I still got to do), and the first two days planning my year (none of which I got to do). It was good and God-centered plan, I thought. With good and God-centered intentions.

But it wasn’t God’s plan. And there is a difference.

Now I’m not knocking God-centered planning. This was just my crystal-clear reminder that I shouldn’t ever get so committed to my God-centered plans that they take the place of my commitment to God’s plans.

I woke up this morning, the 3rd day of the New Year, already completely behind is my plans are the benchmarks. But if I’m dying daily, listening for God daily, hearing Him and simply obeying, I’m right on time.

I ended up on the phone with a friend over my lunch hour, sharing my deepest thoughts and heart, and from within this trusted friendship, this space-making listening, and Christ-centered brotherhood – I heard God’s plan for me for this year quite clearly.

He said, “Spend more time with Me. More time listening. Then do what I say.”

What a beautiful way to end 2012, loving on and serving two newly orphaned “kids” who don’t have a “minister”. And what a beautiful way to begin 2013, flat on back helpless to do anything but submit to the healing that my body was so desperately dependent on God for.

May my whole year go so well. And yours, too.

That is Not True

29 November 2012

I was visiting a friend who is in the hospital this week, and ran into another friend who is one of my true allies in the mission of love that I am on in my life.

With a mixture of horror, gratitude, and awe, she briefly recounted an experience from the day before. She was by the bedside of a young boy around 14 years old who was dying. This boy’s older sister was sitting in the room next to the wall, the mother was standing over the bed of her son, howling with uncontrollable tears and sobs, desperately pleading with him to “not leave her.”

Pause. Let’s acknowledge the fact that most people in the world do not experience these kinds of moments. By “these kinds of moments”, I’m speaking of moments that are unescapably raw and real. Moments that are so unconsciously intense and gripping, that a necessary, uncontrollable, and un-censorable emotional honesty, that does not care  how it is comes across to those around them. Can not care. So do not judge. Just witness.

The mom, in the actual, real-time face of losing her beloved son, was wailing and desperately appealing to everyone with reasons why this must not happen, using as many different sentences as her urgently distraught mind could come up with. My friend is standing by the bed, facing her, with the woman’s daughter in her view just over the shoulder of the mom. My friend was doing her best to “be with it all” – witnessing this desperate pain, undone with the magnitude of her task to give care, coming up empty when searching for words to accompany the sorrow and tears that she was sharing with this family.

Then it happened.

Something completely understandable, and entirely false, came out of mom’s mouth. She looked up, drowning in her pain, right at my friend and said, “He can’t die! He is the only joy that I have in my life!”

My sister-at-arms found herself glancing quickly back and forth between the piercing eyes of the mom and those of the daughter (who’s head jerked up to meet hers at this latest pronouncement). And with a surprisingly authoritative voice, equaled only by a loving compassion in her tone and eyes, she looked right at the daughter and said, “That is not true,” and then looked right into the eyes of the mom, and said it again, “That is not true.”

The mom looked over her shoulder and saw her precious daughter, instantly realized what she was saying, and ran to her, hugging her, instantly letting her girl know that she knew that what she had just said, sure enough, was not true. And she embraced her daughter, allowing the untruth of what she just said be washed away by their shared suffering and tears. Mom, who was losing her son, realized that she was not losing her daughter, and that her daughter was losing a brother. And with this, the potential wound that could have been inflicted on her daughter’s heart based on an understandable, but completely false statement innocently spoken while drowning in emotions…didn’t happen.

Because someone was there to speak the truth out loud. Someone was there to expose it as a lie.

As far as I’m concerned, my friend is nothing short of a peace-bringing hero. A relationship saving, heart-protecting, love-advancing, healing-inducing hero of epic proportions.

She didn’t plan this. She couldn’t have. She just had to be willing to be there to let it happen. She had to be willing to walk into the uncomfortable place of human suffering and pain. She just had to be there and not run. She had to be there and not find and use a reasonable excuse to leave the room. She just had to go and stand in that space with people in their most vulnerable and intense experiences.

And she did. And she does. It costs her. It costs her some tears. It costs her some time. It costs her some comfort. It might even cost her some sleep.


She saved people. And saving people, in my book, is worth any cost.  I don’t do it perfectly, this walking into things, and neither do all my allies, like this sister. But it’s what our friend and teacher, Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ did. And we want to be like him. We want to do what he did. We want to do what he does.

We want to save people. Like we’ve been saved. Like we are being saved.

All she had to be was willing. The words came to her when she needed them, precisely when they were needed, and – boom – a miracle.

Dear reader, would you please join her?

Dear God, would you please help us?

My Longing

24 May 2011

“If I find in myself a desire which no experience in this world can satisfy, the most probable explanation is that I was made for another world.” – CS Lewis

I am blessed and cursed with a very powerful sense of longing. I’ve never found the words to describe it adequately, which is part of the blessing and curse. While generally being the kind of guy who is more likely to use or indulge such non-stop, all-consuming hunger as motivation for some kind of action (be it noble or not), I have also strategically tried to escape its incessant hold on me…

By denying it.

By avoiding it.

By medicating it.

By pushing it down.

By judging it as impractical.

By acting as if it was satisfied.

By pretending it was not there.

By trying to delegate it to others.

But no matter what, I’ve never been able to suppress this thirst. It has been a constant companion. In my youth (past) and immaturity (still present), it has compelled me to do some incredibly unwise, even crazy, and sometimes outright stupid things. I have no regrets in this regard, mind you, for looking back, those things served as a litany of experiments and tests. They have cost me, but they have also enlivened and grounded me, authenticating that this longing in me is real and indestructible.

As I’ve grown older, slower, and more easily tired, I’m so grateful for this relentlessness. It serves as an old friend, one that I depend on as motivation for my worthiest endeavors and achievements.

What is this longing I speak of? As I said, I can’t nail down into one set of words, but that is not to say that I haven’t used some to try.

I long to matter.

I long for love and to love.

I long to see. I long to know.

I long for peace. I long for joy.

I long for healing and to heal.

I long to give. I long to receive.

I long for truth. I long for grace.

I long to experience. I long to risk.

I long for justice. I long for forgiveness.

I long for relationship. I long for reconciliation.

I long for good. I long for great. I long for perfect.

I long for victory. I long for redemption. I long for glory.

I long for a plan. I long for spontaneity. I long for adventure.

I long to be righted. I long for things to be righted. I long to participate in righting.

I long for life…to the fullest extent that it is available to a human being…that is what I long for.

Writing this list of words is quite unsatisfying. None of them, not even all of them, can capture this longing. It is at times subtle, at others obvious. It is sometimes overt, sometimes covert, but always subverts everything.

Certain thoughts, sights, and experiences seem to flare it up…

When I see the hungry. The thirsty. The oppressed.

When I see tears of hurt, anger, despair, or loneliness.

When violence breaks out, in thought, word, or deed.

When someone hurts someone, be it themselves or others.

When injuries happen. When sickness comes. When tragedy hits.

When lies are told. When masks are utilized. When hypocrisy is practiced.

When suspicion is called for. When skepticism pays off. When pessimism results.

And especially death. The death of anything, really, so long as it qualifies as “good”. A dream. A childhood. An innocence. An animal. A relationship. An idea. A motivation. An enthusiasm or spirit. A marriage. A person.

This longing…this hunger…this thirst… it simultaneously must be and can’t be satisfied!

It makes me walk through pain for the joy on the other side, and long for more.

It makes me call my dad and settle things between us, and long for more.

It makes me engage fully with my wife, and long for more.

It makes me present with my kids, and long for more.

It leads me to friends of depth, and long for more.

It drives me to give, and long to give more.

Ultimately, it makes me start movements that have no end, not projects that get done. And they are investments that demand as much or more than they will ever seem to payoff. It puts me smack dab in the middle of “problems” that are over the top, over my head, and overwhelming, while I get to feel under qualified, under resourced, and under the weight of it all. It gets me involved in issues that are so big, they will never, ever be solved…the work will never be finished.

Why do it then? Well, because…I long for it. I must. I guess the best answer would come by comparing the longing to an addiction. Not an unhealthy, self-defeating, chosen addiction like alcohol or drugs or workaholism…but a healthy, necessary addiction, like food or water or sleep.

Something in me knows that I’m contributing to something very worthwhile and satisfying now, and something that will be ultimately solved and satisfied later.

The way Jesus said it was, “Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled.”

My Sadness

23 May 2011

I’m in a Texas airport having gotten off of one plane from Amarillo about to get onto another one to Houston.

I kissed my wife and kids goodbye this morning. While I’m excited about the nature of my trip, I’m sad that I ever have to tell my wife and kids goodbye. And even with the anticipated sweetness that will come (Lord willing) with our reunion, I’m sad that I will do so many more times in my life.

I’m sad that I have a very good friend in Houston who has recently and suddenly discovered melanoma cancer in her brain, and the family is now talking to hospice.

I’m sad my country recently conducted a retaliatory hit on Osama Bin Laden, murdering him for having murdered 1000s of my countrymen, for which I am also very sad. I remember watching in stunned silence back in 2001 the TV images of people in the streets of middle eastern countries celebrating OBL’s hit on the Twin Towers, and then in 2011 watching Americans celebrate the hit on OBL. Those make me sad, too.

Many things make me sad.

I’m sad about the mistakes I’ve made.

I’m sad that I have hurt other people. I’m sad that others have hurt me. I’m sad that others hurt others. 

I’m sad about my inability to do what I say I want.

I’m sad that our bodies wear out. I’m sad there is emotional pain in people. I’m sad that mental and physical disabilities are suffered.

I’m sad that there are hungry people.

I’m sad that there is evil. I’m sad when people do evil and get away with it. I’m sad when people who do evil get what’s coming to them. I am sad when someone can’t defend themselves. I’m sad when someone has to.

I’m sad there is sickness.

I’m sad there is war. I’m sad there is politics. I’m sad there are quarrels. I’m sad there is violence.

I’m sad there is poverty.

I’m sad there is inequality. I’m sad when equality is forced or coerced. I’m sad there is lack of compassion.

I’m sad there is oppression.

I’m sad there is divorce. I’m sad there are hasty marriages. I’m sad there are children who are relationally orphaned by both.

I’m sad about sexual abuse. I’m sad about homosexuality. I’m sad about prostitution. I’m sad about pornography. I’m sad about gender confusion. I’m sad about the fear and hatred expressed towards it all.

Obviously, lots of things make me sad. But one thing that I am NOT sad about is that there is sadness.

Sadness seems like a very unique, very special, very appropriate emotional response to just about anything that would cause any negative thoughts, feelings or actions. Sadness, seems to me, is the most (or only) productive of what we might call “negative” emotions.

Sadness is my escape from the “control emotions” of guilt, anger, and worry.

Guilt comes to me when I can’t control the past.

Anger comes to me when I can’t control the present.

Worry comes to me when I can’t control the future.

These come when I feel like something is “wrong” and I can’t do anything about it. They are all unproductive. They steal my light and love and life. They all lead (in one way or another) to death.

Sadness, on the other hand, while intense at times, is merely the acknowledgement that all is not as it should be. Sadness happens when you believe that things should be better than they are, when you admit that they aren’t, and when you refuse to hide behind the control emotions.

And you might as well let go of control since you don’t have it anyway. After all, guilt leads to despair, anger leads to violence, and anxiety leads to either denial or panic. Sadness, however, is the only emotional response to bad things doesn’t lead to other things that create and inspire more sadness.

Sadness can only end with the arrival of comfort. Given the alternatives, sadness is a very appropriate, and even good, thing.

Trust sadness. Don’t solve sadness. Stay in sadness. Take it with you when it comes. Do not shortchange sadness. Do not replace sadness.

Practice sadness.

For those who do, it comes with a promise from Jesus, who said it like this: “Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted.”

Looking for Hell

10 March 2011

“How will you escape being condemned to hell?” – Jesus

I’m a bit taken back by all the cyber-energy that has exploded as a result of Rob Bell’s upcoming book about the nature of the afterlife. His choice of subject matter has certainly touched a sensitiveLove Wins book nerve in many people.

After writing my first piece about this hailstorm of reaction, I’ve learned that folks in my circle vary from (1) not caring, to (2) thinking that conclusions one has about the afterlife plays part in determining where you go when you get to it, to the more moderate response of (3) just wanting to dialogue, study, and contemplate it a bit to consider the nature of God a little more.

Where do I sit? I’m a huge fan of attitude #3, a convicted opponent of attitude #2, but strangely I find myself strangely tempted towards attitude #1, not caring too much, at least about this aspect of the subject.

But, of course, in a larger sense, I do care. For example, I have asked and answered the above question posed by Jesus for me personally, at first as a young man with urgency and fury, and at last a bit older with peaceful intensity and intense peace. And it is not entirely accurate to say that it the past tense, really. Maybe I should say that I am asking and answering it.

So why am I tempted to not care about the particular angle on this subject that has currently peaked the interest of so many, you might ask?

Because the answer I landed on does not require knowing for sure the exact nature of the afterlife in order to escape hell.

  • I don’t need to know whether heaven will have physical streets and gates (Rev 21:21) or is more of a state of being (Rom 14:17).
  • I don’t need to know if hell is eternal punishment (Mt 25:46) or eternal destruction (2 Pt 3:7).
  • I don’t need to know if my resurrection from the dead will be as a purely spiritual being (1 Cor 15:44) or in a more glorious physical body (1 Cor 15:42).
  • I don’t need to know if Jesus is coming soon (Rev 22:12), coming much later (2 Pt 3:8), or has already come (Mt 24:34).
  • I don’t need to know if people’s only chance to escape hell comes in this life (Mt 10:33) or if they will have a chance to repent in the next life (Rev 21:6).
  • I don’t need to know if there is one generic reward called heaven (Luke 12:33), 3 heavens (2 Cor 12:2), or degrees of reward in heaven (Mt 6:20).
  • I don’t need to know if few (Mt 7:13-14), most (Mt 12:31-32), or all (2 Pt 3:9) people are going to be there with me.
  • I don’t need to know whether God is going to be fair based on my judgment of fairness (Job 38-40:1).
  • I don’t need to decide whether Jesus spoke within the culturally accepted view of hell at the time he was here in order to make a point, or if he was confirming this view of hell as accurate by using it (Lk 16:19-31)
  • I don’t even need to know whether to spell heaven as “Heaven” or “heaven” or Hell as “Hell” or “hell”.

Now, I do have beliefs about these things. I do believe there is truth about them, and there is falsehood. And I have no problem with disagreement, lively debate, or firm and committed positions by convinced and convicted people on these or any subject. I myself enjoy dialoguing, studying, and contemplating them. I’ve learned much about God through them, and continue to do so.

But they are much more academic in nature than imperative. They are interesting, even useful, for some folks in their journey towards God, but in answering the above question of Christ, they are not necessary.

You don’t need to accurately know about the nature of hell in order to effectively escape it. And you don’t need others to agree with your conclusions about hell in order to consider them your allies in the fight against it.

I guess we all have a line somewhere. A line that dictates to us what you need to know and what you don’t. For me, it is quite liberating figuring out what you don’t need to know.

And the best way to figure that out is to go looking for what you do need to know. That’s why I don’t go looking for Hell.

I once was sitting with my wife at a time-share in Conroe, TX when a Canadian guy joined us. We struck up a conversation where I learned that he was a Mountie (a member of the Canadian national police force). He told me he was in the division that dealt with counterfeit money.

canadian MoneyHe asked me, “You know how you learn to identify a counterfeit bill?” 

I assumed you needed to know all the latest and greatest ways of printing fake money. That you needed to study the tricks of the trade, be familiar with the details of the various crafts, know all the mistakes and shortcomings found in each false process used to print fake money. And I told him so.

He smiled and said, “Nope. You don’t need to know anything about the counterfeits. You just need to focus on and become intimate with the real thing. That’s all you need to know.”

“Everything that does not measure up to the real thing,” he said, “isn’t the real thing.”

Seems to me that all I need to know about Hell is the answer to Christ’s question above. Whatever hell is, and however God uses it for His own glory, and whoever ends up going there…how will I escape it?

The disciple John says it well, and I have accepted this as my response to Christ’s question, and am spending the rest of my life learning it, practicing it, teaching it, living it, sharing it, and enjoying it.

He says, “God has given us eternal life, and this life is in his Son. He who has the Son has life; he who does not have the Son of God does not have life.” – 1 John 5:11-12

Why go looking for hell? Go looking for life instead. Look for the fullest possible one available to human beings. You will find Christ. You will find the life he brings from God is eternal – meaning you will never stop learning it, practicing it, teaching it, living it, sharing it, and enjoying it.

And what’s more, you will escape being condemned to hell without needing to know a thing about it.

Where to Find the Spirit

4 January 2011

“Now the earth was formless and empty, darkness was over the surface of the deep, and the Spirit of God was hovering over the waters.” – Genesis 1:2

I’ve spent much of my life wanting to experience the Spirit of God.

I have traveled to mountains high above the earth and into caves deep below – just for the chance.

I have sung my voice out with a thousand ecstatic worshippers in the stadium and I have laid prostrate silently with a few monks in the monastery – craving Him.

I have spent hours immersed in the most beautiful and stunning scenes of creation and just as many surrounded by plain and unimpressive walls of brown sheetrock – looking for Him.

I have holes in my jeans from being on my knees in prayer, paper cuts from turning the pages of scripture, stacks of highlighted notes from attending seminars, information overload from reading books, and a sort of interpersonal numbness, if you will, from having listened to so many people who have tried to guide me to the mysterious place where I can reliably find this Spirit that is so Holy.

The journey has not been in vain, or without pleasure. But through it all, there is only one place where I have learned to find my experience of the Spirit of God most consistently.

In the darkness.

I would have never read it this way before my journey, but not 2 verses into the Bible’s story, actually pre-day one of Creation, I am told where to find this least visible, most mysterious Person of the Trinity.

In the darkness.

According to this verse, right at the beginning, there were two things hanging out together over the deep waters of emptiness and formlessness that was earth at the time: Darkness, and the Spirit of God.

In a poetic way (and the creation story is recorded as poetry), I have found this to be practically true.

If I can say that I have experienced the Holy Spirit at all in my life (and I hesitate to trust anyone who is a little too certain that they have), then it has been, more than anywhere else, over the deep, dark places of my life. As I look honestly, the Spirit of God hovers most obviously “over the waters” of…

  • My most tragic memories
  • My most shameful failures
  • My most difficult (and impossible) circumstances
  • My most intense and inconvenient emotions
  • My most confusing and brain twisting intellectual dilemmas

I don’t say this with total elation, mind you. I would prefer that the Holy Spirit be found in the light and full places rather than the dark and empty ones. I wish this Spirit hung out more often in my very structured world rather than in some formless one. If the Spirit of God hovered over the shallow puddles that take shape on my driveway after a good rain rather than over the deep waters of some dark ocean, I think I would more often journey to Him.

But that is not where I have found him. Not most consistently. Not most reliably.

I have found Him and experienced Him (again, if I have at all) by embracing and telling my whole story, by owning and confessing my sins, by admitting and walking into my most scary situations, by being attentive to and learning from (but not owned by) my emotions, and by being open to and fearless about being wrong.Darkness

I’m far from being done learning about what and where the Spirit of God is. And I know it seems counter-intuitive to say that you should go to the “dark” to find Him, when Jesus and Paul spend so much time talking about walking in the light.

To that I say – and I speak from a position of experience rather than theological knowledge – I have best been able to see and experience God as Light on the backdrop of the darkness.

That’s where I find him. In the darkness. My belief is that you will find Him most reliably there.



The Best Last Minute Gift Idea

22 December 2010

I while back, I went to Zimbabwe. I left many tears on the ground of that nation.

Because of what I saw and reported back to my family, every night, my two sons and daughters, who go to bed having had 3 square meals a day, pray for the kids I met there. Food is ServedSpecifically, they pray that they would each get at least one survival meal each day.

You can help those prayers be answered and give a very meaningful gift to that special someone who has everything. You can feed these hungry kids AS your gift to your loved one.

Just go here and decide what level of gift you would like to give. You can…

  • Feed one child one survival meal a day for 1 month – $10
  • Feed one child one survival meal a day for 3 months – $30
  • Feed one child for a whole year – $120
  • Fund an entire feeding center for a year (approx. 200 children) – $2000

Or you can help a family feed themselves by…

  • Providing a pair of rabbits for a family – $10
  • Help a family start a rabbit business (1 dozen rabbits) – $60

Waiting to EatI’ve been there. I took these pictures myself. I’ve seen hundreds of widows and thousands of orphans who are suffering in this nation. I know this pipeline through Operation Starfish Africa not as an “operation”, but as friends of mine, natives of Zimbabwe who take the call to get food to their nation’s children personally. They have had to buy food on the black market and get this survival help to people covertly in some cases.

100% of your money goes towards food. No admin costs for the people organizing it are necessary or even wanted.

Follow the instructions at this link and help secure these meals for these hungry kids.

Follow the directions and you can pay through debit or credit card. You could write your own, but you can also put in your email address and receive a special Christmas note to print out, put it in an envelope, and either mail it or put it on the Christmas Tree for your loved one letting them know of the gift Thank Youof life you gave on their behalf.

In Zimbabwe, when someone is grateful and wants to say thank you, they put their hands together as if they were praying and look at you in the eye.

When they are unbelievably humbled and full of intense gratitude and want to express the depth at which they feel it but feel helpless to do so, and words can not express it adequately, they still put their hands together and look you in the eyes, but then they drop to their knees.

So here is the little girl that received a McDonalds toy that my daughter sent me over there with to give away. She was one of the few children I met that was not orphaned and lived with a mom and a dad.

So look her back in the eyes, and allow her to express the deep gratitude that will be felt by her less fortunate peers that live all around her.

I give you mine as well.

Something Died to Give Me My Life

15 July 2010

“In most cases, something has died to give us life.” – Norman Grubb

I’m one hour out from being at the funeral of a great man. And I’m a few seconds removed from having read the above statement. So forgive me as I sit in the space that these two events have suddenly and surprisingly created within me as I ponder the relation of death to my life.

How dependent I am on death for life!

For me to have the leather for my shoes, death was required. For me to have the cotton for my clothes, death was required. For me to have the wood for my desk, death was required. For me to have the food that I will consume today, to sustain my very existence, death was required. For me to have a roof over my head, death was required. Even the oxygen I breath in every moment gives its existence completely up so that I might live.

It’s embedded in the fabric of my daily experience. I’m completely dependent on death to have life.

And this may be the first time I’ve acknowledged it with such awareness and gratitude.

And that’s the thing, I think. Awareness and gratitude. These days, people have divided into opposing camps: some people fight for the rights of those things that are dying to give man his life, some people fight for the rights of man to kill those things to have the life he has.

Both sides have merits, I think. I don’t want things to die for nothing of real value to man, but I don’t want man to miss out on things of real value just because it requires death to receive them.

It’s a dilemma.

I have felt it most poignantly in the story of Christ. When I hear the story, I never want to Jesus to die in it. But I want the life that he says I can have only if he does, too. I’m like he was in the Garden before he was drug off to be crucified, praying, “God, if there is any other way, let this cup be taken from him.”

It’s in the Bible’s story, and it’s in my daily story – someone or something’s death is the price for me to have my life.

I don’t think Jesus would want me try to convince him not to do it for me, nor would he want me to fight against it happening (Peter tried both – see Mt 16:23 & Jn 18:11). I think what he wants is for me to have…

…awareness and gratitude.

And then, everything that these two things bring, when they are with me, gives praise.

When I’m aware and grateful for all the things in creation that die to give me life, I won’t misuse creation. I’ll utilize it’s sacrifice…but I’ll also enjoy it, admire it, protect it, and care for it.

When I’m aware and grateful for Jesus who died for me to give me life, I’m not inclined to misuse him, take him for granted, or “live however I want since I’m forgiven”.  I enjoy him, I admire him, I serve him, and I praise him. I live a life of love…

…when I’m aware and grateful.

Outline for a Funeral

24 March 2010

What is one to say when life gets interrupted with death?

Whenever I am called upon to answer this question (in the form of sharing at a funeral), I am always filled equally with dread and honor.

I’ve spoken at many funerals… my family, close friends, nearly perfect strangers, religious and irreligious, old and young, tragically unexpected and comfortably natural. Last week I spoke at the heart-aching funeral of a 3-week-old baby named Ryson. This week I will speak at the soul-stinging funeral of a young woman who committed suicide, the wife of one of my friends and mother of 3.

Do you feel me? Equal parts dread and honor. Each and every one has provided a unique stress on me, and also a unique blessing.

I’ve tried to be all “preachery” and develop some sort of “form funeral” outline (well, not really tried…but have often thought it would make things easier) that fits each and every circumstance of death powerfully but generically, with some sacred space inside of it to pack with personal stories or circumstances in order to serve and honor the family of the loved one. But that has never come for me. It has for weddings, but not for funerals.

So I find myself “attaching to the emotion” of each death with my whole heart as best as I am able, by “being with” the family and friends left behind (sometimes physically, sharing and remembering, but sometimes just emotionally and from a distance, observing and empathizing). Somewhere in the midst of this exercise, words come.

I feel they come from God. Why? Because I’m not smart enough to come up with them alone, and the reaction to them is always mysteriously good.

So when the come, I write them down next chance I get. They provide me with some comfort (“shew…I have something to say”), but they usually provide some more dread (“Are you serious, God? You want me to say that?”).

At any rate, some thoughts came to me for Ryson’s funeral last week that I found very useful for me in general, concerning the emotional roller coaster ride that loved ones find themselves on when death interrupts their lives.  I thought them worth sharing with you.

These thoughts come in the form of four perspectives on death that each of us unintentionally (and usually uncontrollably) jump between, each one with it’s corresponding emotion attached. They are all appropriate perspectives (as are the emotions attached to them), and they all serve a role in ushering a human being safely through the experience of death, but two of them are meant to be temporary, and two are meant to be permanent.

The first perspective has us looking at “what was, that is not anymore.” Attached to this perspective is the emotion of mourning. We had a person, and now we do not. As human beings, we seem to grow accustomed to the presence of someone (or even some things) once they are in our lives. Our lives, expectations, and even schedules get influenced and revolved around them quite quickly, and we attach our happiness to all of this. So… mourning is the process of adjusting to the loss of someone (or something) we have attached to. It can be seen when a friend moves to a new city, when we retire, when all the kids leave, and yes, when someone dies.

The second perspective has us looking at “what could have been, but will not be.” The emotion here, to distinguish from mourning, is grief. This is more of a future perspective on our loss, the loss of something that we feel was supposed to be, but isn’t going to be. It’s why our loved one’s birthday will cut to the heart a little each year, holidays are difficult, and milestone events (graduations, weddings, family reunions, etc) will have their sting.

Pause here for a minute. We must beware of shortchanging or shortcutting either of these powerful feelings of loss…in the days immediately following and in the years to come. While we aren’t meant to live in them every day (praise God!), they are meant to be visited. Though we place stone monuments in cemeteries, these are the monuments of their memory and evidence of our capacity to love, truly worthy things to hang on to and cherish. While it is natural for humans to always want to escape pain, our love for those we lose is something we never want to escape. And if Christ taught us anything in his story, it is that love and pain are bedfellows. So don’t let the ongoing feelings of loss spiral you to despair…instead let it elevate you to your love.

The third perspective, which causes the emotions of gratitude and even rejoicing, is “what is, that is so much better than it was.” Death is many things, and one of the things that it is, is the ultimate escape from the pains of this life that we are all vulnerable to. When we dwell on the pains and sufferings that our loved one no longer must deal with, the emotion of gratitude slides into our hearts. For example, baby Ryson fought hard for his life for 3 weeks in the hospital, which is courageous and admirable, but he wasn’t meant to have to fight at that intensity daily. This perspective allows us to feel gratitude for the rest and relief of this pain. And for those who believe in Christ, there is the additional surge of gratitude that comes from knowing that the life Ryson was fighting so hard for, is now his in all it’s abundance without strain.

Pause again. I might add that there is a guilt that tries to creep in on people here. Our Enemy loves to poison this healthy and positive perspective, making people feel like they are selfish for feeling any gladness… as if they are only grateful because they themselves get to be done with the loved one’s pain. We need to guard our own hearts from this, and the hearts of others. Else we (or they) will get trapped in mourning and grief out of a false sense of duty to prove that they love who they lost by doing so.

The fourth perspective is only available to people of faith. And this one is the one that gives the human being the feelings that make life abundant presently no matter the circumstances faced, that is, the feeling of hope and confidence that leads to joyful perseverance. It is the the perspective of “what will be, which is the perfection of our heart’s deepest desires.” Those who follow Christ have a story that tells us that death is not the end and does not win. It says that there is a time coming when we will have our loved one and they will have us and all of us will have God. Jesus said that the Greatest of all Commandments are those that speak of love for God and love for one another. I believe he chose those two because they are what will remain when all of what we know now is gone. The complete perfection of every desire that the human heart longs for and can never attain in all of it’s glory here on earth… is coming.

I have found that the healthiest people who have suffered loss are the ones who progress openly and honestly through each of these perspectives, embracing and deeply “being with” them all, until finally they become able to control this emotional roller coaster, living primarily in the 4th perspective, and choosing to visit the other 3 when necessary and desired. For the 4th perspective is the major theme, the first two are true, but minor themes, and will not last. And the 3rd perspective, while very helpful in ushering us to the 4th, is as far as the atheist can go for comfort, and it does not seem to create lasting joy in them.

I hope this helps someone who reads this, because I’m not quite sure why I’m writing it, or where these thoughts have come from. I’m grateful to Ryson’s family, however, for most recently inviting me into the dreaded and honorable position that they did, that I could get these words for myself.

I needed them.

They confirm to me that death isn’t really a interruption to life, but a powerful and potent and relentless part of it. Necessary for life to the full, which I am daily after.

I love you.

P.S. At risk of being a bit trivial after such a weighty subject, I have some more books for sale here. Perhaps you know someone who might be interested?