Yet I Will Praise Him: Grief, Church, and God

Yet I Will Praise Him. Thoughts on grief, the church, and God. via

The past week has been a hard one in the life of our church.

Over the past several days, we watched and prayed as one of our youth faced insurmountable complications from a heart valve replacement surgery. We prayed for a miracle. We wept. We begged for healing. And we waited. 

As we gathered together to worship yesterday morning, we got the news that we didn't want to hear. We stood and sang songs of God's faithfulness with tears streaming down our faces, all the while grieving for the life that had been taken from us.

The ties that bind a church together are sometimes hard to see. Like any family, we have more than our fair share of squabbles, but the thing that I love about the church is the way we take care of our own when it counts. When one part of the body of Christ hurts, we all hurt. We all feel the pain. We all feel the loss.

Yesterday was hard. But it was so, so good to be together while we grieved. To kneel together at the altar and pray for peace and comfort. To stand together and proclaim God's goodness in the midst of heart-shattering grief. To bow together as the tears overflowed.

There's a long road ahead for Cole's family. The days will be long, and the nights longer, but I pray that God would use us, the people of their church, to walk beside them on the road to healing. This is what it means, I think, to bear one another's burdens.

The promise of the gospel is not that we would never know sorrow or pain but that we would never face it alone. The gospel promises that God is not only with us in our suffering, but also that he shelters us in the darkest parts of the storm. I'm convinced that he sometimes uses the church to do just that. It's one of the ordinary means through which God gives us extraordinary grace. 

To say that I'm close to the family would be a lie. I know some of them better than others, but I knew Cole only in passing. What I knew of him made me smile. He was a funny kid with a quick wit who wasn't afraid to use it. Although I don't know them well, I do know what it is to be a mom, and imagining the total devastation of losing a child took my breath away, drove me to my knees, and forced me to cry out on their behalf.

I wept yesterday, not just for the loss of such a bright light, but also because we live in a world where things like this happen. Jesus lived, died, and rose again so that death could no longer have victory over us. But sometimes, as we live and breathe in the space between his resurrection and the time when he will finally make all things new, that promise seems so very far away.

And yet, it's the promise to which we must hold on tight. Without it, we are lost.

The book of Job tells the story of a man who lost everything. In one crushing disaster after another, he goes from being the man who has it all to the man who has nothing left. Somehow, though, he manages to maintain hope. I want to have hope like that. Shane & Shane sing a beautiful song about it. I've included it here so you can listen.

The Lord gives, and the Lord takes away. Blessed be the name of the Lord. Though he slays meyet I will hope in him. (Job 1:21 and 13:15, paraphrased).

Our hearts are broken today, but thanks be to God that brokenness doesn't get the final word. He does. And he has promised to bind up all our broken hearts, to mend the places that are torn, to wipe away every tear from every eye, and to make everything right in the end.

Today, and every day, until that day, I will praise him. What else can I do?

Until next time, grace and peace.

The Ordinary Shape of An Abundant Life

The Ordinary Shape of an Abundant Life by Leslie Ann Jones

Early Friday morning I got a text message from my mom telling me that their next door neighbor had died during the night. Though he was older, he certainly wasn't old, and his death came as a surprise. He had been sick, and, feeling cold and tired, he turned in early for the night. When his wife checked on him a few hours later, he had slipped away.

A few nights later, I found myself unable to sleep, so I got up and read Jojo Moyes' Me Before You, a novel that can only be described as poignant and heartbreaking. The book opens with a horrible accident. Will Traynor is hailing a taxi near his London home when he unwittingly steps in front of a motorcycle hurtling toward him. In an instant, the life that Will had known, a life of moxie and determination, adventure and success, drifts away like a vapor in the wind.

I can't stop thinking about it.

My mind keeps mulling over these two unrelated stories. One the very real story of a good and kind man that I have known for 20 years. The other a made-up tale of a man whose life looked nothing like my neighbor's. But despite their obvious differences, the stories have a commonality that I just can't get past. They are a stark reminder that life can tilt in the space between one breath and the next. That we honestly don't know what the future holds. That everything really can, and oftentimes does, change in an instant.

The prophet Isaiah said that all people are like grass and that our beauty is like that of flowers, which, as anyone who has ever potted a plant knows, is quite temporary. Flowers bloom once a season, and their brilliance is stunning, but it's also fleeting. It lasts for just a moment. And then it's gone.

The grass withers, the flower fades when the breath of the Lord blows on it; surely the people are grass. The grass withers, the flower fades, but the word of our God will stand forever. Isaiah 40:7-8

It's in light of this frailty that the second half of Isaiah's statement gains its meaning. Our lives are over and done with in the blink of an eye, but God? He's forever. His word? It's reliable. 

And the word that I'm clinging to today is the word of Jesus, who said that he came not just that we may have life, but that we may have it abundantly. John 10:10

I think sometimes we read this verse and focus on the end game. The abundant life he's speaking of must be eternity, right? Well, the short answer is yes. Eternal life is by its very definition abundant. But abundant life doesn't start after death. It starts now

All of this has been tumbling around in my mind and leading me to scrutinize my life in the light of the truth. I mean, let's be honest. My life is a lot of things, but abundant?

It's an altogether ordinary life, but it's a good life. It's not always exciting. It's rarely adventurous. But it is full of the goodness of God. And it's my prayer that as I grow in the grace and truth of the Lord, that he will continue to fill my life from the wellspring that never runs dry. You see, in abundant life, God takes our oh-so-human frailty and brokenness and replaces it with his very own indomitable vitality. It draws its abundance from Him.

An abundant life is one that is so filled with the grace of God that it spills over its boundaries and nips at the toes of bystanders. An abundant life is one that is so bright with the light of Christ that it pierces the surrounding darkness and beckons others to safety. An abundant life is one that is so overwhelmed by the goodness of God that it simply cannot hold it in. It serves others. It loves well. It brings joy. It seeks the greater good. And it always, always, always points to Jesus.

Abundant life looks different for all of us because we're all beautifully unique. There is no one-size-fits-all picture of an abundant life. The fullness of life that God has prepared for me to lean into is not the same as the fullness that he has prepared for you. It's as different as our personalities and as individualized as our fingerprints. 

But it's also the same. Because if we're living abundantly, then it means that we're each allowing God to fill us with his love, light, grace, mercy, kindness, compassion, and truth so that we may in turn share the bounty with others. And the only way that can happen is if we surrender our lives to him and allow him to fill it as he sees fit.

If you're doing that, then I'd say that your life, no matter how ordinary, is abundant indeed. Now go live it.

Until next time, grace and peace.

The Lord Gives, and the Lord Takes Away: Remembering Uncle Red

Tomorrow, I will sit in a pew next to my family and remember a man who first introduced me to another way of doing church. You see, the pew I will sit in is in an Episcopalian church, a church much different from the churches I grew up in and attend now, and although I'm not looking forward to the funeral, I am deeply longing for the richness of the liturgy and the beauty of the service. Something about the liturgy reaches down and touches a place deep inside me. I need to hear the poignant words from the Book of Common Prayer, words that remind me both of Who Jesus is and what that means for me.

"I am the resurrection and the life," saith the Lord: "he that believeth in me, though he were dead, yet shall he live: and whosoever liveth and believeth in me, shall never die."

I know that my redeemer liveth, and that he shall stand at the latter day upon the earth: and though this body be destroyed, yet shall I see God: whom I shall see for myself, and mine eyes shall behold, and not as a stranger.

We brought nothing into this world, and it is certain we can carry nothing out. The LORD gave, and the LORD hath taken away; blessed be the name of the LORD.

The Lord gives, and the Lord takes away. Blessed be the name of the Lord. Beautiful words from the mouth of Job, a man who had lost everything and yet continued to praise God.

One of my earliest memories of Uncle Red involved a hospital waiting room and open-heart surgery. Another memory involves the church I'll sit in tomorrow - and the shock of tasting real wine instead of grape juice at communion. When I was younger, Uncle Red taught me how to properly hold and fire a gun, even if it was just a BB gun aimed for a makeshift target. And after Mamaw died, Uncle Red and Aunt Pat's house became the going place during holidays. We shared dry butterbeans and potato soup, turkey, ham, rolls, cornbread, and all the trimmings before he put on his "Naughty" Santa cap and distributed the gifts. I will always be thankful for the warmth and the love shared in his home.

A couple of months ago, I took Micah to Uncle Red's house so he could meet her. I didn't know then that it would be the last time I saw my uncle, nor did I know that when I hugged him good-bye, I would never do so again. But I'm glad that my last memory of my uncle, a man who at times was more like a grandfather to me than anyone else, was of him stealing a kiss from my little girl. It's a moment I'll remember fondly.

My uncle was not a perfect man. To be sure, he had his faults, but then again, don't we all?

Tomorrow, we will celebrate his life and remember the words of the gospel. Then we will look forward to the time when death and tears will be no more. Come, Lord Jesus, come.

Until next time, grace and peace.