Who Are You God?

Darkness closes in. It’s always been there, on the edges of my world, but I’ve kept it safely away with faith and hope, along with some denial and selective attention. I’ve focused on the light…the love of God, his final victory, goodness in people around me, beauty and tastes of joy. 

Now the light has disappeared, and it’s only darkness. It’s everywhere. In our own home it’s the death of Samuel and the silence of God. In our neighborhood it’s the family whose 5th grader was just diagnosed with cancer. Their middle school son has already battled leukemia twice. This is too much pain for one family. I see darkness in the lonely, the hungry, the addicted, the victim. There are wars and famines and floods. There is brutality and abuse. The world is overrun with horrible, horrible darkness. 

I find myself asking questions that have confused thousands of others before me. How can God allow this? If he hates it, if he is good, if he is powerful, how? 

I know the usual answers. But I am surrounded by darkness, and they no longer satisfy me. They only worked when most of my world was light. 

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God, why did you take my son? It would have been better for you to take me instead.

Why have you hidden from me? I look to you for answers, but you cannot be found. You have left me when I’ve needed you the most.

You promised to be near to the brokenhearted, but I am alone and find no peace.

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I wonder if God is different than I’ve believed. 

I don’t doubt that God is there. Science and nature point me to something, or someone, bigger than what I see. To accept that marvelous complexity and beauty is random is too much of a stretch. I believe in a creator. 

But what is the character of this creator? Beautiful and powerful, bigger than me. Those things I see. 

Is he good?

I continue to get stuck on this.

He allows suffering. The Bible is clear about this, and my observations of life concur. There is a lot of suffering. He chooses to use suffering as a refining process, as a test of faith. He allows us to suffer so he will increase in glory, and to display his power. And sometimes suffering is a punishment. There might be more reasons too, but these he has acknowledged.

Job

Is it good that God uses us, in painful ways, to promote his own glory? This seems to be what happened to Job. God wanted to show Satan just how faithful Job would be, so he allowed Job to lose everything. I admit, this story has always made me cringe. It seems dark. God comes across like a bully, and Job the victim. If God is good and just in using Job in this way, I have to reevaluate who I am in relation to who God is. This story makes me much, much smaller, and God much bigger than I find comfortable.

It’s one thing to consider these things in theory. When confronted with a taste of it, I found I wasn’t actually ready to go there. It’s easier to sing words of surrender on Sunday morning, set to a crescendo of worship music, than hold my child’s life before God with open hands. I would have failed Abraham’s test with Isaac. No, God. Not my child. That’s too much to ask. That can’t be good. I don’t want you to have full rights to my life if this is where it’s going.

How big is God? And how insignificant, exactly, am I? Am I willing to exist for his glory alone? Does God’s love make that all OK? And why in the world would God create us for his purposes, and then program us to want our own? It’s as if he designed us to be conflicted. He wrote it on our hearts to be fulfilled when we follow him, yet gave us free will to choose differently. 

A set up, so he could be glorified? 

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My Friend Amay

I made a friend this summer. Her family called her Amay (it’s Mongolian for grandmother). She was homebound, and I checked in on her while her family was gone on a trip. It started as a favor, but we became friends. She was full of humor and had a generous heart. I enjoyed spending time with her.

One day in September Amay stood up and the bones in her back crumbled. That was how she found out she had stage 4 cancer. It was everywhere, and there was nothing anyone could do.

I was drawn to sit with her while she was sick. She told me stories of her life, joked about her symptoms, and talked about death. She was confident in her Savior and ready for heaven. I didn’t feel uncomfortable in the slightest holding her hand and listening. I wasn’t worried about what to say or how to be. I knew there wasn’t an easy way out. There were no pat answers to make this better, to soothe her pain or provide dignity as she lost her ability to do basic things. Looming death made each of her days real, all pretenses removed. Her courage was refreshing. Even in her last weeks she was teaching her grandkids one more thing…how to face death with hope. Her friendship has been a gift to me.

Finally I can identify a positive change as a result of what I’ve been through the last year. My troubles have stripped away taboos and tensions around the subject of death. Before I lost a child I would not have been able to reach beyond my anxiety of words like “cancer” and “terminal” to see Amay, both who she was and what she was facing. I would have been concerned, and sad for her suffering. I would have said something like “let me know if you need anything” to her family. My intentions would have been good, but I doubt I would have made a sincere effort to be present. I wouldn’t have known what to say. I wouldn’t have known how to look her in the eyes, both of us aware that soon the cancer would win it’s mutiny against her body.

But I’ve learned how to be still with grief. I’ve made some discoveries about what is comforting, and I’ve seen how well-meaning people can inadvertently add to sorrow. I’m no longer afraid to come close to someone who is suffering in circumstances without answers.

 

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Amay died on Wednesday.

Two weeks ago she called her family around and asked their permission to let go. They talked and cried. She has lived with them for 10 years, long enough so her grandkids don’t remember life without her there. At the end of the conversation, in the whisper of a voice she had left, she told them to crowd in for a group selfie. She makes me laugh.

I will miss her.

Like Stars

Yesterday I was beyond discouraged. I had high, almost desperate expectations for something important, and it ended in disaster. I was angry and hurt. I felt unfairly criticized and misunderstood. My impulse was to run away in hopelessness and quit.

Later I stood in a long line to pick the kids up at school, hands stuffed in my pockets, staring at the floor. I always feel heavy in the school lobby, watching the kindergarteners trip over their shoes and backpacks as they are led down the hall. No matter how busy, Samuel’s absence echoes loudly, and the place feels empty. Two moms next to me chatted about the anxiety they felt dropping their little ones off at preschool every day. “It tears my heart out to drive away each morning, knowing I won’t see him for four hours! I want to see everything he does, hear every cute thing he says. It’s so hard!” 

Their loss is legitimate, but weighed down by failure, loneliness, and grief, I couldn’t muster any sympathy. I stared harder at the floor, willing myself to make it through. A friend walked up and touched my arm to get my attention. “Deep in thought? I think of you all the time. Can I give you a hug?”

And then I didn’t mind so much that I was crying in a room full of people. 

In the evening some friends stopped by. They sat on the rug, giving kisses to the dog. They acknowledged the approaching anniversary of Samuel’s death, and showed us a picture they had made of Samuel to hang near the children’s classrooms at church. 

Grief and trauma drain me, and I find myself unable to remember that people care. If I’m not reminded, the darkness in my head and heart take over. The picture for church is precious, but yesterday, it mostly mattered that they showed up. For a while the darkness gets lighter.

Even a small kindness is a gift. I am thankful and humbled by every one. Maybe they stand out brighter because the darkness of child loss is so dark, the way stars shine clear on the deepest nights. People say grief is a lonely road, and in many ways they are right. We have to process our own unique losses. But that shouldn’t be an excuse not to get involved. Friends can’t fix grief, but they are desperately needed. There is an enormous difference between lonely grieving and grieving while surrounded by kindness. 

To My Friends Who Hope

A few days ago, I came across a letter online. It was written by a woman to her friend who had just buried a baby.

It was gentle and caring. She spoke of hope through the pain, and how the soul grows through loss. It was lovely.

It frustrated me.  

Because I’m not there yet.  

We all grieve differently. There are some who walk through the early days of child loss aware of the refining process happening under their pain. Maybe this young mother needed to be reminded of the truth in that frightening place, right after her loss. Or maybe she will, like me, hide the letter away for a later day.

I just miss my son. And that missing knocks me down and I can’t breathe. I press my hands to my chest because the emotional pain is so physical it threatens to rupture my heart. My hair won’t stop falling out and half of my toenails peeled, then flaked completely off. Yes, grief can actually do that.

When the loss belongs to someone else, it’s easier to hope. My friends feel my pain, they are horrified and hurt by Samuel’s death. They are frightened by how easily the future in his eyes was turned off. They are trying to make sense of it, wrestling with why’s, knocking persistently at the doors of heaven for me. As the days go on, they begin to discover peace. They see God at work. They are comforted and confident that a good God can do something, well, redeeming, with all of this.  

It’s good that my friends get to these places before me. I am deeply grateful. We’d be in trouble if we all carried the same weighty burden. But they are there before me. My eyes are still clouded by hurt. If they tell me too soon or too often, that my pain is a good process, I assume they don’t get it. It’s hard to listen to what they have to say. And eventually, I need to hear what they have to say.

To my friends, please keep working these things out with me. Keep hoping, keep praying, keep fighting for my heart. Search for the answers. Not the kind that make it all OK. Those look like answers but they are counterfeit. Find the real answers, the kind we have to content with in a broken world. The ones that don’t satisfy on the surface, but stretch our faith and make us dig deeper into life. I’m searching too, I’m just slower.  

But if I’m crying so hard I can’t even hear your voice, maybe you should wait before you share. The only words I can hear on the worst days are a hand on my shoulder, a hug, or the tears in your own eyes.

 

“…don’t come talking to me about the consolations of religion or I shall suspect that you don’t understand.”  C.S. Lewis, A Grief Observed

 

The Duet

There is a faint line of hope in my heart today.

I’m afraid of it.  Hope means expectations.  Expectations mean disappointment.  Disappointment means anger and hurt.

But there it is.  It’s been there since last night, which is a long time for me.  Lately my glimmers of hope last for 10 minutes to an hour or two, but no more.  Then the discouragement settles back in, feeling heavier than it did before.

I’ve had a low tolerance for music since the accident.  But music is how I discover, how I pray and worship, and how I love.  Losing music starves my soul like not being able to swallow would starve my stomach.  I found some music I can listen to this week.  They are songs about pain.  Although the hope woven into them is very, very small, it is more hope than I feel.  But today I can imagine hope like that in my life.  That’s no small thing.  Listening to these songs is replacing some of the despair in my head with stillness.

So today my grief has tried a duet with hope.  Maybe God’s silence isn’t abandonment, but a pause.  A holy tear as God sits, listening, before he speaks to me.  Waiting for me to be quiet, so he can continue the song that he’s always sung over me.  Maybe God is still there and I’ll find him again.  That would be good.  I need something good.