The Surprising Gifts that Come from Hard Times

November 1 is known in the Church calendar as All Saints Day. It’s a day to remember and honor those godly people who have gone before us in faith and life, and whom we’ve lost in death even while we celebrate their eternal life. At UPPC, for the past two years we have seen this day as an opportunity to contemplate the interplay between loss and redemption. This week, we were blessed by Brahms’ Requiem, which he composed as he processed his own grief and hope in Christ.

This interplay is very much at the heart of the Bible’s wisdom literature, including the book of Ecclesiastes, from which comes this famous passage on the inevitability of seasons in our lives. When we read it, we’re reminded of the truth that there is a time for all things. That said, we tend to strive for only some of the items on that list — the seasons we would call “good,” of course. But the reality is that all of those items are inevitable for all people in some form or another. The reality is that if we are alive, we will endure times of loss and the need for restoration.

The Japanese art of kintsugi entails the repair of broken pottery through bonding with gold. It is a beautiful proclamation that not only can we survive the experience of being broken and imperfect, but we can become more beautiful and valuable in the healing process. In kintsugi, the cracks in each pot are unique, and rather than being hidden are highlighted in beauty.

So the wisdom we might share with our younger selves this week is: “Pain is a catalyst for spiritual growth.” When we do more to become involved in the world and our communities, we set ourselves up for more hurt. It’s an essential ingredient to the love by which we live into the world. A teacher of Pastor Aaron’s once remarked, “One day, you will lose everything.” At first glance, this seems painfully dark and pessimistic. But insofar as “everything” entails the measurable phenomena of our lives (family, friends, health, wealth, etc.) it happens to be true. The “Teacher” who wrote Ecclesiastes is wrestling with this very inevitability and seeking to articulate the motivation behind living in a life so characterized by loss.

As followers of Jesus, we know that the material losses we endure, as rightfully painful as those losses can be, do not have the final say about our lives. And no, it’s not because we just close our eyes and brace ourselves for life’s pain as we await the “afterlife.” Rather, it’s because Jesus “brings gold into our losses.” We must never forget that Jesus is intimately acquainted with pain, loss, and of course death. And while we may be perplexed by God’s unwillingness to spare us of these things, we are also strengthened by the way God redeems pain to make us stronger, so that the world may also experience God’s love through us.

Consider Jesus’ disciple, Peter. In one night, eager Peter boldly claimed he would never deny his Master, and promptly did that very thing. Imagine how broken he must have felt when Jesus was crucified, and for the excruciating day that followed. Imagine also Peter’s tearful humility as he looked his risen Master in the eye on the seashore, only to be forgiven, restored, and put back to work for the sake of Jesus’ new kingdom. Here was a man, strengthened through the experience of being broken and restored.

For reflection:
– Consider your personal life. What aspect(s) of your life appear to be whole, but are actually broken?
– Kintsugi does hide cracks, but highlights and beautifies them. Are there broken parts of your life that you’re hiding, but which can be made beautiful?
– Consider your community. What people, places, or other aspects of your surrounding community are broken and in need of restoration?
– Consider the national and global communities. Ask the Holy Spirit to guide your mind toward the broken people and places for which to pray.
– How could it change your view of contentment to remember that God is not only unafraid of brokenness, but willing to enter it, feel the world’s pain, and still offer healing and wholeness?
– The Hebrew word shalom roughly translates as “peace.” But its meaning is broader, more like “wholeness” or “complete contentment.” Take a few moments to describe what one day of shalom would look and feel like for you.

Don’t Sing Songs to a Heavy Heart

We will all encounter someone who is suffering from grief. And if we live very long, we will also experience our own grief. The irony is that while grief is ubiquitous and ultimately universal, many of us are utterly unprepared to respond well. So, sometimes what we say (usually with good intentions but not a lot of forethought) ends up doing more harm than good. And sometimes, if our words betray the heart of God as revealed in scripture, what we say can deeply harm someone’s understanding of God. Our ultimate goal, when we seek to comfort someone in grief, is to comfort them (not ourselves) and also to do so in a way that accurately reflects the grace, empathy, and compassion of the One who loves them most of all. In short, we want our words to bring healing, not pierce like swords.

So here are SEVEN things to avoid saying to someone in grief:

  1. God needed another angel.” Sorry, this one is just out. It’s poor theology. People are human, not angels. We do not change into angels at death. Also, God does not “need” anything, per se, and if God did want another angel God would create one. Finally, God does not have needs that supersede our needs. There is nothing God needs that would necessitate removing a child from its parents, or any other painful loss. So yeah, this one is just out of the game, okay?
  2. It’s for the best.” Question #1 should be, “best for whom, exactly?” A response like this one really displays one’s discomfort with the pain itself, and an attempt to brush the pain aside.
  3. She/he is in a better place.” Surely well intentioned, this one also arises from poor theology that shares roots in the ancient Gnostic worldview that the material world is “bad” and the spiritual world is “good.” But this is not the Biblical view. Rather, God will redeem and restore creation. God created us to be here, in this place. This is the better place we should be (and will be one day in the resurrection).
  4. This is God’s will.” A good policy is to avoid saying anything about God about which you cannot be certain, at least in terms of how God is revealed in scripture. And unfortunately, God does not entirely reveal God’s will to us (Mt. 24:36; Isa. 55:8-9).
  5. With time, you’ll move on.” In reality, one will never move on from loss, especially with the loss of someone particularly close, and especially if that loss was sudden or tragic. Losing someone close to you is like losing a limb. You might adjust. You might learn new habits. But time will never help you “move on” as though the loss never happened. We might say instead, “With time, your grief will change,” or “With time, you will learn to live with this loss.”
  6. God won’t give you more than you can handle.” We visited this one a few weeks ago, too. We don’t know what God “gives” any more than we know God’s will. Moreover, if we were expected to “handle” our greatest losses and grief, we would not need the community into which God places us.
  7. I know exactly how you feel.” Again, well intentioned, but this is ultimately impossible. You can never know exactly how one feels, even if you have experienced a similar category of loss. A chaplain once taught me that true empathy is not understanding someone’s pain, but rather seeking to understand it.

With that last point, here are FOUR alternatives (or something like these in your own words) you can rely on when responding to someone in grief:

  1. I love you/You are loved.” Grief can make us wonder if anyone cares about it, and especially if the all-powerful God does. When we’re able to assure someone they are loved by us or by their community, we don’t dishonor the reality of their pain by trying to “move past” it, but at the same time we answer one of the deepest pains of grief. Similarly we can also give this reassurance…
  2. You are not alone.” Grief naturally isolates us. If the bereaved person is also an introvert or does not have a natural community (like an immediate family nearby) that isolation is exacerbated. So to reassure someone that you’re not going anywhere can be an enormous source of comfort, allowing them to grieve without guilt, shame, or worry that their grief will cost them their friends.
  3. I’m so sorry.” The truth is that if we’re trying to respond to someone’s grief at all, it’s because we have a degree of empathy and/or compassion. So we can just speak for ourselves by letting them know that we are simply so sorry they are having to endure this loss. Again, this lets them know they’re not alone while not negating their pain.
  4. Say nothing at all. The power of presence cannot be underestimated. But it requires the courage to dwell in the discomfort of someone else’s grief. I try not to overestimate the nobility of animals, but this one makes me think of good dogs. If you’ve ever had a bad day and been comforted by your dog, it’s not because of something they say. It’ s because they sit by you, and frankly because they say nothing! The ministry of presence can also take the form of action without expectation. Pastor Aaron shared an experience of being comforted by someone leaving a tray of brownies at their home when they were suffering from grief. No words, only action without expectation. And it afforded them great comfort.

For Reflection:
– This was a longer entry, but one that we should all put in our back pockets for quick reference. Which of the first seven stood out to you the most?
– Which of the last four things to say stood out to you the most?
– Do you know someone grieving a loss? What can you say or do now that you’re confident will be wise like the proverb describes, bringing healing and not piercing?

Many blessings,
MM

Moses – A Broken Shepherd in the Desert

It’s a long way up from the Nile delta to the Midian wilderness — about 7,000 feet! Some historians say it would have taken Moses a month to get there on foot as he fled certain death at the hands of Pharaoh, which would have been his punishment for killing an Egyptian.

Ironically, as Moses ascended toward Midian, he descended in the social ranks, from a prince of Egypt to an insignificant shepherd — someone Egyptians at the time would have believed to be beneath dignity. But Moses stood up for another injustice, this time toward someone other than his own people — Midianite shepherd women. Eventually Moses was able to marry and start another life…a life that would become his first forty years in the wilderness.

Though now a foreigner in a foreign land, Moses had already grown up as an outcast in Egypt. His name in Egyptian means “son” but was usually affixed to a father’s name also. But Moses did not know his father, so “Moses” indicates being a son without a father — doubtlessly a source of great pain for him.

Oftentimes, pain leads to one of two basic outcomes. Pain can breed resentment in our hearts. It can isolate us, tempting us to believe that no one understands us. Pain can tempt us to long for the greener grass we are sure is growing in other fields. Pain can even tempt us to believe that God has abandoned us, or that there is no God in the first place. But pain can lead elsewhere, too. Pain can strengthen us, similar to the way hard work strengthens our muscles. That which removes our comfort (like resistance) can actually result in strength rather than weakness! Pain can also cultivate perseverance, humility, discipline, and faith. Okay, I’ll do it — I’ll quote the movie Star Trek V. Captain Kirk is tempted to let an alien force remove all of his life’s pain (including the death of his son), but Kirk wisely insists: “I want my pain. I need my pain!”

Within a month, Moses’ entire life had changed, and not in a direction he would have wished. We can only wonder how often he thought back on his crime of passion. We can only wonder at the pain of letting go of the dreams of his young adulthood. And while God had not “forced” Moses into this challenge, God would be willing to shape Moses within it, and even teach Moses how to lead a stubborn flock in the wilderness (he had no idea whom he would lead later in his life). Moses would learn that just because life is hard doesn’t mean something is wrong.

In a world that tries to sell us easy answers and quick fixes, are we willing to dwell in our own wilderness long enough to let God shape us there?

For reflection:
– Have you ever had a season of “wilderness”? Tell someone the story.
– What has been your experience of pain, and what was its result in your life?
– Are you in a painful wilderness right now? Do you have someone you trust to talk to about it?
– If you have a story of being strengthened as the result of pain in your life, whom do you know that could be inspired by your story?

Many blessings,
MM