When life goes up in flames

Photo by Stephen Radford on Unsplash

God, sometimes there are no words.

What can one say when a mother who has made her way safely through the explosive streets of Syria weeps for her seven children lost to flames in a “safe” country, in the sleepy quietness of their own beds? When her husband can’t even weep with her as he lies in a coma? What words could possibly express the depth of the anguish, or speak the least bit of comfort into a pain like that?

Across the world we stand in stunned silence, the grief in our own gut swallowing words we might once have had.

Words, which sometimes seem so powerful, aren’t enough for a pain like this.

They aren’t enough even for the smaller flames licking around the edges of our own lives, consuming us in a slower, more hidden way: the burns of radiation on one body, of grief in another; the unexpected explosion of words or tears fuelled by hidden pain that is forcing its way to the surface, crying, “See me! Hear me! Love me!”

Everything in me aches with the longing to comfort, to help, to compensate for the terror and make the wrong right. I feel again my smallness, my lack of power against the flames.

I can find only three words: Lord, have mercy.

They seem so small. 

But as I wait in the silence, the weight of it all heavy within me, I realize all over again: 

You, God, know that words, though strong enough to speak the world into being and to call Lazarus from the grave, are not enough for the greatest of our pains.

You know that pain of the heart can’t be touched with an appeal to the head. We need to be met in that place of our pain, heart to heart, gut to gut, the pain shared rather than reasoned into submission. 

And so You come to us not first as a teacher with lessons to impart, but as a father who has compassion on his children, a mother who can’t forget the child she has borne and quiets us with her love, a midwife who, rather than explaining the principles of labor, stays close, a calming presence, and helps us find courage to keep breathing through the pain.

You come as our father, running into the flames to rescue your children.

As our mother who will one day wipe away our tears forever. And who longs for us to turn from the corner where we ache alone and weep our pain on your shoulder and begin to receive your comfort now.

For this is what the LORD says:

“. . . As a mother comforts her child,

so I will comfort you. . .” (Isaiah 66:12-13)

What the trees are teaching me

The steps where I stretch my calves each morning are covered, now, with crimson and brown and gold. Fragments of life fallen, flung, surrendered for a season in the certainty that what is given up now will be given again in the delicate lace of springtime green after a few months’ rest.
The sunny flowers of the St. John’s wort have shrivelled and shrunk to a crisp brown casket, a temporary hiding place for tiny black seeds, the hope of  life to come.
To the north, a row of trees stands strong and tall, slowly releasing their leaves to drift into bright piles beneath them.

To the east a maple has left its crimson gifts on a blue car during the night, painting its small piece of the world bright with primary colours.

Southward, a poplar lifts its arms, each small fragment of the life it is releasing glowing like living gold in the sun’s rays. It almost seems a celebration—the tree holding up its arms to the sun, the sun revealing the preciousness of each bit of life released, touching it, delighting in it. Is this always how to release things well—to hold up our arms to the One who invites us to press our wounds into His, and as we do so, find ourselves not only comforted but celebrated by the One who gives us life and teaches us to lay it down and gives it all over again, us a little taller and stronger the next year, our arms reaching with even more longing toward Him?

“Now the Lord is the Spirit, and where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is freedom. And we, who with unveiled faces all reflect the Lord’s glory, are being transformed into his likeness with ever-increasing glory, which comes from the Lord, who is the Spirit.” (2 Corinthians 3:17-18)

I’ve read those verses often. I’ve memorized them. But as I delight in the fall colours and grieve the branches that now stand empty, as I rejoice like a child running through crispy leaf piles and feel sad as I see my favourite red maple now naked, I realize all over again, and more deeply: Freedom involves letting go. And a big part of our transformation into the likeness of Jesus “with ever-increasingly glory” is learning to let go gracefully, even, sometimes, with joy mixed in with the grief because as we let Jesus meet us in the letting go we are receiving the goal of our faith, greater closeness to Jesus.

The hands that keep holding

There’s a huge, turreted home that I pass on my morning runs. It sits well back from the road, peeking out from behind giant rhododendrons heavy with mauve blossom and trees squat or tall, blue-green or russet, leafy or needled. A black, wrought-iron fence surrounds it all, a boundary preserving the peace.

It’s beautiful. But for a while, when I ran past it, I could only feel the lead ball of grief in my gut.

It is a children’s hospice, and one morning when I’d passed it, I’d seen a woman sitting in her SUV with the lights on. She was still there when I ran back past. I wondered if she knew that the lights were still on, or if she would be surprised when she tried to start the car and her battery was dead. I walked to her window to ask. She thanked me. But when I said goodbye, wishing her a good day, her “thank you” seemed to hold a sadness that couldn’t be hidden even by her calm graciousness.
For days, the car was there each time I ran past. And then it wasn’t. And I could no longer run past without picking up once again the grief that I’d sensed in that mother. I was willing to share it, glad to pray for her and for them and for all the families and staff in the hospice. But some days it seemed too heavy and I wondered whether I’d have to change my route. Until a friend challenged me to change my perspective.
She’d been inside, in where they have king-sized beds so the whole family can sleep together. In where there are always fresh-baked cookies and home-made meals, a room for art and another for music and a grand staircase welcoming families in. “It doesn’t feel sad inside,” she said. It’s a place where smiles are treasured, pain is soothed, and grief is shared. It seems, in many ways, more about life than death. About finding life and hope and even joy in the same place as the devastation of death.
Here, where life and death walk together, neither laughter nor tears have to be checked at the door. Whole families come and stay for breaks before the final days arrive, continuing with play and school, and when that final time comes, they return here to a place where they already know themselves loved and cared for. In between, they can call from home in the middle of the night and find a familiar voice ready to help. And after their child dies, families continue to receive care.


Now, when I run past, I give thanks. I see in my mind a pair of great Hands cupping the whole estate, and I feel welcomed in through the open gate, into that place of knowing myself held. I feel the tenderness in those hands, the strength, the love that is stronger than death. I relax and breathe more deeply, soaking in the peace that comes from knowing that these families are being cared for, that I am too, and my own family. That no matter what comes, we will be held. I can breathe in the world’s pain, and then let it go into the hands of the One who has already lifted it and let it crush him and has come out the other side, strong and vibrant and still perfectly loving, and always ready to care—often through human hands (whether they know it or not)—for all of us in all of our pain.

The God of surprises

Since mid-November when my landlady told me she’d sold the condo in which I was living, I’ve been looking without success for a new place to live. A week ago I saw an apartment that seemed perfect. It was big enough but not too big. The old, tiny kitchen didn’t bother me, and I loved the living space that was separate from the bedroom. The suite was bright, the building was secure and the manager who showed me around treated me like a human being instead of the next head of cattle being herded through and inspected. And, best of all, if you drew a circle between the homes of four of my good friends, it put me right in the middle of the circle, only a few blocks away from each.
I submitted my application. None of my references was called. A follow-up email led eventually to a response that my application has been rejected. The listing remains posted. It has been hard not to feel like I was automatically rejected because my primary source of income is disability insurance. And hard not to think that if I’d still been practicing medicine, I’d likely have been a shoe-in. Except that I probably wouldn’t have been applying at all because I’d own a home rather than needing to rent one. I don’t blame the owners. I recognize in their desire for the most secure option the similar desire that lives in me.
So when I received the email, I cried out (again) to the God who defends those in need and provides for his people. I’m in that graced place where it’s easier than usual to stake all my hope on God because there’s nothing else for me to cling to. I appear to be at the mercy of others, which really means that I’m at the mercy of my kind and gracious God who holds in his hand the hearts of kings and apartment owners and building managers.
I grieved the disappointment. I lamented. And then I turned again to the truth of this fifty-day-long season of Easter in which we’re living. I need every one of these days to remember the reality of resurrection and to practice living in the hope that George Herbert and Malcolm Guite describe in my new favorite Lent devotional, saying: “From now on there is just the single, eternal day of resurrection” (p.174). Jesus has been raised, death has been conquered, and there’s no turning back. The new reality is the unshakeable, forever reality. Here in this season I practice remembering: There is always hope. God is the God of wild and crazy, ridiculous, impossible surprises. The God whose ways are higher than our ways, and his thoughts than our thoughts.
I’ll continue the alternating pattern of crying out and returning to hope; of lamenting loss and puzzling over confusion and choosing to trust the God of resurrection. Because as certainly as there is now “just the single, eternal day of resurrection,” in this world we do not yet live the full freedom of that new life. Here and now, resurrection is a taste and a certainty and a hope that holds us through the pain of all our little and big deaths. Resurrection follows each big and little death; it doesn’t prevent them. “In this world you will have trouble,” Jesus says. “But take heart. I have overcome the world” (John 16:33). And Paul explains, “We always carry around in our body the death of Jesus, so that the life of Jesus may also be revealed in our body” (2 Cor 4:10). We who are joined to Christ in his death experience the pain of our own big and little deaths on our way to living fully and forever united to him in his resurrection.  We groan and cry and lament. And then we turn and see Jesus appear to two confused and grieving disciples on the road to Emmaus, call Mary by name in the garden, and cook breakfast on the beach for his closest friends. None of them knew him at first. That didn’t keep him away. And so we can rest again in the certainty that even in the moments when we are blinded by our grief, the smallness of our faith, or the simple fact of our humanity, the risen Jesus still walks among us, quietly working resurrection surprises within us and around us and even through us.
 

________________

Photo by Zoltan Tasi on Unsplash

The challenge and glory of change

We speak of four seasons but isn’t each day a shifting and merging and flowing like the colors in the rainbow blend into each other or a baby becomes a toddler becomes a teen with no clear break in between?
In my corner of the world the bushes have started to burn and the leaves to let go their firm hold on the trees while flowering hearts still bleed. Roses bud and bloom and fruit all on the same morning. Flurries are predicted for later this week. I suppose this is fall, but it carries the lingering notes of summer while it leans toward winter.Do we live any day without changing a little in one direction or another?
I run past the roof under construction and somehow it seems right that there are both trees blazing glory and containers collecting garbage out in front. And more than a single warning sign.
There’s a part of me that thinks the signs have it just about right. Change can be a lot about letting go and throwing out, recycling and relearning and the pain-filled messiness of becoming. Danger: construction zone. I wish I could have a redo of an hour last week, find some kinder way to offer thoughts so that both of our becomings might have been less painful.
I grieve the leaving of another beloved pastor.
I mourn another aspect of illness.
Even good change involves loss and to heal we need to feel and we need to grieve. But creation seems to remember what this human often seems to forget: Change is not only loss, and there can be brightest glory in the letting go.
I see another tree and on it the One who shone brightest in the dying.
Every death into Christ carries the promise of resurrection, every letting go an invitation to let go into God and find ourselves more deeply loved than we could have imagined.
Each truly beautiful person I’ve met has had their share of suffering. They’ve been rolled and polished like pebbles tumbled by the waves. They’ve let go of possessions, certainty, dreams. They’ve learned to live with hands held open, reaching for the hand of God rather than clenched around anything else. It’s a lifetime’s learning.
Change can be messy and grief-filled. But change can also be grace, opening us to God, re-tinting us so we blaze glory. Change can make us more human, more awake, more fully alive. It can show us who God is and who we are and keep us clinging close, our imaged glory flaming to life as we fill with light from the Source.Why do I fear the little daily dyings that life holds when the One in whom life holds together holds me?
The sun sets to rise again, and with its rising, always new mercies.
Leaves fall and new buds spring.
An infant leaves the comfort of the womb to begin a fuller, freer life outside.
What, today, am I being asked to let go of so something new, in its time, can spring?
Knowing myself rooted in the One who is Life, can I let go with hope, maybe even with celebration?