Thursday, September 11, 2008

Handling Grief

A friend of mine recently dealt with the one-year anniversary of the sudden death of her sister. As she shared how the day went and told stories about the messages people gave her, we couldn't help but shake our heads. What are people thinking sometimes? Another friend chimed in, "But what do you say to someone who is grieving? I never know what to say or do."

Her question prompted a lot of reflection. My family has been through the wringer on more than one occasion, and deep grief is not a foreign concept to me. How did I want people to respond to me?

After my mom almost died from a virus in her heart and then was miraculously healed by the power of God in 2001, I experienced a deep post-traumatic depression. I had held my emotions in check during Mom's entire illness and didn't experience the grief and trauma of what had happened until after Mom was healed. At the time I was reading through the Christy Miller series by Robin Jones Gunn for a second time, and I reached the book where Katie broke up with her boyfriend Michael and Christy and friends didn't know how to comfort her. So they planned a fun trip to Disneyland to cheer her up, but halfway through the day Katie ends up in sobs. "How can I help you?" Christy asks. "Just let me hurt," Katie replies.

Just let me hurt.

Too often we feel like we need to say something. Tell the grieving widow that her husband is "in a better place." Or that "everything will be okay." We combat emotions with facts, as if knowledge will suddenly erase the grief. We give a theology lesson instead of a silent hug. We offer solutions instead of a willingness to simply listen.

What do you do when someone you know is grieving? You pray for them, hug them, hold them. You listen to them vent bad theology about God . . .

and just let them hurt.

When Job's three friends . . . heard about all the troubles that had come upon him, they set out from their homes and met together by agreement to go and sympathize with him and comfort him. When they saw him from a distance, they could hardly recognize him; they began to weep aloud, and they tore their robes and sprinkled dust on their heads. Then they sat on the ground with him for seven days and seven nights. No one said a word to him, because they saw how great his suffering was. —Job 2:11–13

Sunday, July 22, 2007

Thorns, Thistles, and Trust

A vast field stretches before me. Not one of those pretty ones that stills your heart with peace and serenity, but an ugly one overgrown with ratty weeds and thistles. Totally uninviting. Totally without beauty. Totally revolting.

God points to it. "Walk through that field, April. It's not going to be fun and it's going to hurt, but the coarse thistles and briers will scratch away the parts of your flesh that need to die. I'm using this field to prune you."

I look down at my skin and see ugly black spots that need scraped away. I look at the field. No, this isn't going to be fun, but it needs to happen. I set out. Each scratch, each painful dig bites into my flesh and tears away pieces of who I am. I bleed. I cry. But I praise God because I know I'm being made into a new person. I understand His purpose for the suffering.

I finally plow through the final patch of weeds and enter into a breathtaking field of wildflowers. God leads me to a stream and says, "Well done, my daughter. Now stay here awhile and refresh yourself. Let me heal you and strengthen you." So I stay and allow Him to bandage my wounds. When I'm whole, we frolic together through the field enjoying a beautiful time together. Happy and content, I lie down to sleep.

I awake in desert. The sun beats down on me, burning my skin. A hot, dry wind chafes my face. I look around—I'm alone. Forsaken. Abandoned. "God, where did you go? Why is this happening?" I keep asking, keep searching. Panic seizes me. Suddenly God's peace fills me, and I hear His voice. "Everything will be okay. Just walk through this desert to the blessing I have waiting for you. I'm here with you; I have not left you. Keep walking."

So with God holding my hand, I walk through the dry place. My feet blister. My mouth longs for water. My stomach churns in the heat. But all the time I feel my hand securely kept in the Father's. I can see the destination, so I keep my eyes on the goal. Finally I reach the blessing of Faith and gratefully claim it. "Well done, my daughter! See how I have led you to a waterfall of more surpassing beauty than the stream? Drink and swim, for your trust in me has proven good and true."

Gratefully I plunge into the cool waters. The swirling current playfully pushes me and restores my dry and thirsty soul. I soak in the water until I am replenished, then climb ashore. I gaze around at the magnificent trees, the ornate flora and fauna, the fluttering birds. I smile in pure joy. Satisfied and at peace, I lie down on a patch of pillow-soft moss and sleep.

The next morning God leads me to a cliff. I look down and quickly back away. There is no bottom. We've reached a dead end. Why did God lead me here?

"Do you trust Me?" He says.

Armed with my faith, I say, "Yes, I trust you."

He nods. "Then let it be."

A storm rolls in from the distance like none I have ever seen. The thunder deafens me. The lightning blinds me. The rain pelts my skin, and the wind pushes me to the edge of the cliff. God stands in the middle of the storm—present but not preventing the wind's overpowering shove. "Help me, Jesus!" I twist, I fight, I lose my footing, I fall ... and I scream.

As I freefall, thoughts of anger and bitterness quickly take root in my mind. Why did God let me go? Why did He let this happen? Where is His protection? Where is His sovereignty? Why did He allow this storm to overtake me? Why, God, why?

Unlike the other tests of suffering, no answers come. I just fall and fall, tossed to and fro by the winds of the storm. Helpless, I'm completely at its mercy, and it thrashes me and beats me until I'm defeated. Broken and confused, I question God's goodness.

Softly He whispers into my ear and reminds me of His guiding hand and provision in the past. I am reminded of His faithfulness and a seed of hope takes root. My faith waters it until it blooms into trust and praise. My leg collides with a rocky ledge as I continue to fall. I scream in pain. But with tears streaming down my face I cry, "Oh God, thank you! I don't know where this is leading or why I'm falling, but I praise you because I know you are good. I know you are faithful. I know you are sovereign. I know this is happening for a reason." A loose rock gouges my face. Amidst the pain, a fierce stubbornness rises within me. "I will praise God through this storm. I will believe in His goodness!" So I let go of the anger, bitterness, and questioning ... and I sing, I praise, I worship as the tears flow and the blood streams.

The storm keeps raging, and I think it will never end. But eventually the winds die down, the sun peaks across the horizon, and I land in the soft and warm embrace of the Father. I cling to Him and weep, releasing my pent-up fear. He embraces me tightly, and I revel in the comfort of His touch. His presence, His nearness calms me. Finally I look at Him.

"God, why didn't you answer me? Why didn't you tell me why I had to go through this storm?" I ask. "I've already learned the lesson of faith. Why did you test me so harshly again?"

He looks at me gently. "When I took you through the thorns and thistles and through the dry desert, why did you obey me?" He asks.

"Because I knew what you were doing. I saw the purpose in the pain."

"Many say they trust me, for it is an easy thing to say. But few remain faithful when unfair storms of life blow through and they cannot understand My purpose or allowance of it. In their anger they hold a grudge against Me and turn away from Me. But you have trusted Me and blessed My name both in the meadow and the storm, both in the understanding and the non-understanding. You have learned what it means to give a sacrifice of praise—blessing Me even when it hurts.

"The purpose of this storm was simply to see if you truly trusted me. Well done, my daughter. Well done! I am well-pleased."

Trust in the LORD with all your heart and lean not on your own understanding. . .
--Proverbs 3:5

Through Jesus, therefore, let us continually offer to God a sacrifice of praise—the fruit of lips that confess his name. . . . for with such sacrifices God is pleased.

—Hebrews 13:15–16

Wednesday, May 9, 2007

The Best Birthday Gifts

Every year God surprises me with a birthday gift. I've really only noticed it in the past few years, but now I've come to expect it and watch for it. His gifts are always special and unique to me. It's usually something He and I have been talking about for quite a while (or rather, something I've been complaining about for quite a while *grin*). And His gifts are always big. It's not just one gesture, but multiple gestures with the same message. He lavishes me with love on my birthday.

In the madness following the accident and returning to Texas to wrap up things at school, I wasn't even thinking about my gift this year. May 4 came and went, and I had an absolute blast celebrating my birthday with friends at school. Then I packed up and drove home. And without even knowing it, I started to unwrap God's gift. As I drove through Illinois and Indiana during the late afternoon and evening, I marveled at the scenery. Acres of farmland stretched before me, and all the farmers were in the fields planting. It's a sight I love, and I enjoyed it for hours. Then I witnessed a beautiful sunset that painted the sky pink and lavendar with strokes of clouds brushing the horizon. The serene landscape warmed my heart and filled me with joy.

But this was all the wrapping—when I saw the gift inside I couldn't help but laugh. My family greeted me warmly when I arrived home and related information and events to me. And there it was—I discovered something that absolutely never happens to me . . . had happened. And not once, but multiple times. In that moment, I started laughing. And I knew God was laughing too. I could see the glee on His face as I understood my present—something He and I had been talking about for quite a while and something He had fashioned just for me. I laughed all night, and I've been laughing ever since.

To top it off, the next day I experienced my first summer thunderstorm, complete with peals of rolling thunder, streaks of lightening, a gentle rain, and a beautiful rainbow. I felt wrapped in God's embrace and heard His whispered message: "Happy birthday, April. I love you."

No one knows me like my Creator, and He gives the absolute best birthday gifts. What awe-insiring love that the God of the universe cares about something as simple as my birthday—and cares in such a lavishing, intimate way.

I look forward to His gifts every year. Do you?

Wednesday, April 11, 2007

God's-eye View

Tonight I saw a glimpse of the Father’s heart. As I stood beside Mom’s bed, holding her hand and looking down upon her tear-washed face, my heart broke. As I listened to her pray, tears filled my own eyes. I watched her chin tremble. I heard her voice break. I heard her earnestly pray to her Father, and I saw myself in her face.

I remembered the countless times I have cried out to God and earnestly prayed in the same way. And for the first time I had a God’s-eye view.

Is this what I look like when I weep before the Father? Is this how He feels when I pray? Do tears flow from His eyes when they flow from mine? Does He cling to my hand and whisper words of reassurance over me? Does He smooth the hair away from my face and kiss my brow? Does He stand there the whole time, holding my hand, never leaving my side until I am calm and able to sleep?

Yes. And He remains there even after I have fallen asleep. He is always with me, never leaving me. So many times I think of God as "up there," distant from me and perhaps uncaring. But He's not. He is right beside me, deeply moved and comforting me.

God, thank you for letting me see from Your eyes tonight and showing me how much you care for Your children. Your love is tender, powerful, and deep. I am overwhelmed.

"Yet I am always with you; you hold me by my right hand...." Psalm 73:23

Friday, April 6, 2007

This Fragile Life

A phone call. A flight. A funeral.

How quickly life changes.

A conference call from friends. I hear laughter and teasing. Bright, animated voices. I stare out the window with the phone to my ear and watch snowflakes fall to the ground. The house is still. Mom is sleeping. More laughter in my ear. A reminder of the life I paused still playing without me.

Grandma walks in. I smile and hug her. I hear heavy footsteps and see the shape of someone taller step behind her. An automatic smile and greeting for Grandpa come to my lips, then die when my eyes see and my heart remembers that he's no longer here.

It's 2 a.m. I know some friends are up late writing papers. I am up late rubbing Mom's back, trying to ease her pain. She rocks and moans. "Pray, April," she whispers in agony. I place my hands on her and pray. A little while later: "Sing, April. Sing." So I sing.

And I will keep singing.

"[I] wait in hope for the LORD; he is [my] help and [my] shield. In him [my] heart rejoices, for [I] trust in his holy name. May your unfailing love rest upon [me], O LORD, even as [I] put [my] hope in you." - Psalm 33:20-22

Sunday, January 7, 2007


Yesterday I attended a beautiful wedding. Two of my friends from seminary united their lives forever, and their wedding testified not only of their deep love for each other, but their deep love for God. This afternoon I watched A Walk to Remember on TV and again witnessed a story of deep, powerful love. These two examples of love prompted me to write and reflect in my journal. Here is a portion of what I wrote:

So often I long for the love of a husband, a deep abiding love. A love of someone who knows me so intimately and that stands the test of time. A love that fiercely protects me, humbly serves me, walks through fire for me.

This love that I long for . . . I already have. It is the love of Christ. He knows me more intimately than I know myself. He created the universe and said it would not be complete without me in it. He sees me at my best and at my worst—and loves me through it all. When I am covered in sin and shame, he takes his own blood and wipes away my filth to make me clean. He gave up heaven for me. He gave his life for me. He will never leave me. He will always hold me, carry me, protect me . . . because he delights in me.

I long for love, but I am already experiencing the ultimate love. No other love is perfect. No other love is as strong or intimate. Any love I experience on earth is only a reflection, a shadow of Christ's love for me. The love I already know on earth is precious, strong, and deep. How much greater is God's love for me?

It is a love that knows no bounds. An endless, unfathomable love. A love I will cling to all of my life, and a love I want to return with every fiber of my being.

Even if I never meet "the love of my life," it's okay . . . because I've already met Him and He lives inside me daily. He is enough, and I am complete. Everything else is just an added blessing.

Wednesday, December 27, 2006

Mega-Church Meet & Greets

Can I just say I deeply dislike the meet and greet time during a church service? Especially in large churches or mega-churches. Since moving to Dallas, I've visited a number of churches and don't really feel like I have a "home" church, even though I've been living here for a year. Moving to a new environment, I'd finally become the "visitor" instead of the "regular attender." I've been able to put the church's welcoming abilities to the test, and I can tell you right now...they suck. Being a new person at a church is the most awkward, uncomfortable feeling on the planet. Especially when you attend the church for several weeks or months and still don't know a bloomin' soul in the church. All because we never reach out beyond the superficial five-minute meet and greet. I'm so fed up that in the courageous realm of my imagination, this is how I pretend the scenario could actually play out:

"Turn to your neighbor and welcome them this morning," says the worship minister in his cheery voice. Only cheery is the very last emotion I feel at the moment. Dread, yes. Annoyance, most definitely. Cheeriness? No. I fake it every Sunday, but no more. Today I'm going to be real.

I turn to the person on my right, who has turned their back on me to shake the person's hand next to them. I wait, they ignore me. I move on. I turn to the people sitting behind me. Stick out my hand to the first available person. They give me a half-hearted smile that's as fake as they come and shake my hand. Here's my chance. "Hi, I know this is awkward and none of us really want to do this and I hate it just as much as you."

I move on to the next person. "Hi, I'm John," he says. "Nice to meet you, John," I say, "even though I will only remember your name for two seconds and I'll never see you again. But hey, this is the ritual so let's just go through it."

I see a person just standing there, so I stick out my hand to her. Because she has no one else to turn to, she shakes my hand. "You don't know me, and I don't know you," I say. "This really isn't about making people feel welcome because I know you don't care about me and if I'm honest with myself, I don't really care about you. I bet we both just want to get this over with and sit down."

I make eye contact with two more people, but they act like they don't see me so we do that little dance and stand awkwardly until the worship leader says we can finally sit down. Whew. We survived another one.

I hate the meet and greet time!! It's so pointless and hypocritical. People come to church to fellowship with God and fellowship with people—but only people they know. I'm guilty of it too, so I'm not pointing the finger at everyone else. But how are you supposed to get to know someone in five minutes? Especially when no one wants to anyway? We file in, sing, hear a message, and file out. Oh, and chat with our friends before and after the service. And that's it. We don't care about the people sitting in front of us or behind us. So why not just scrap the whole awkwardness and fakeness of the meet and greet? If someone wants to greet those around them, let them genuinely do it before or after the service. I'm tired of pointless rituals that mean nothing. I'm tired of routines with no sincerity or heart. I'm tired of the fakeness I see in church and in Christianity.

Now attending a small country church is an entirely different matter—that is a MEET and GREET. It lasts anywhere from 15 minutes to half an hour, and the event hasn't concluded until you've shaken every single person's hand in the church and been hugged and kissed by every elderly lady that just oohs and aahs and fusses all over you. Now those kinds of meets and greets I can handle...and even enjoy. Because I'm actually meeting people and being genuinely greeted and welcomed to the church. I'm noticed. I'm cared about. People learn my name and actually remember it, check up on me the next time they see me. I feel embraced into the body of Christ, not just cordially acknowledged and promptly forgotten.

So if you see me at a large church and happen to be around me during the meet and greet time, it's not you I dislike, it's the the facade of the ritual. I would love to get to know you if you sincerely want to get to know me. But let's cut the crap and not fake it, okay?

To love [God] with all your heart, with all your understanding and with all your strength, and to love your neighbor as yourself is more important than all burnt offerings and sacrifices. (Mark 12:33)