Easter


As many of those reading this will know, 2011 was rough. I had known death in personal and painful ways in previous years, but nothing like what I experienced last year.

Before dawn on a dark February morning, I received the news that my boyfriend had drowned in a kayaking accident. Three months later, just as I was starting to re-enter life at a more normal operating level, my beloved grandmother died, also relatively unexpectedly. Although very different, in some ways the grief in the second round was harder to bear – it ripped open what had just started to heal and added the additional loss of person who had never not been in my life. In August, my boyfriend’s mother died – her death was not so unexpected but it added to the weight of pain. As the rest of the year went by, it seemed that the shadow of death was all around me as healthy, life-filled, beloved brothers, nephews, and children of people very close to me died abruptly and without warning.

So it was a hard year. Paradoxically, it was also one of the best years of my life. That might seem a strange thing to say – but it was a year in which I learned that in the same heart profound joy and peace can co-exist alongside profound pain and grief without contradiction. It was a year in which I was forced to confront eternity and everything I believe or don’t believe about the “forever and ever” of the Lord’s Prayer. It was a year in which I was challenged to either allow doubt and bitterness to torture me or to embrace my faith and to cling to that hope with all my heart and all my soul and all my mind and all my strength. It was a year in which I learned to live in God’s terrible and tender love. It was a year in which I chose to believe over and over again that all things do work together for the good of those who love the Lord – whether we ever understand them or not.

Death makes people do funny things – and while I received huge encouragement and support from friends and strangers alike, some very well-meaning people also said some horribly insensitive and sometimes offensive things. For the most part I was able to shrug it off and even laugh – not at them, of course, but with other friends who’d experienced similar loss and who shared the similarly insane things people had said to them. We joked about writing a manual for people on What Not to Say to Someone Who is Grieving.

For those who are interested, the advice really boiled down to a couple of things: don’t give advice (at best it’s obnoxious and at worst offensive), don’t try to explain to the person why it happened (you don’t know), and don’t tell them how they should be feeling (just don’t). In reference to those who have lost partners or children – don’t ask when they’re going to start dating again or trying for another child (just don’t even). Do listen, do affirm, do pray, do send letters and messages of encouragement, and do be there when they need you.

Ironically, it was because of some of the strangest things said to me (with much goodwill but great ignorance) by fellow Christians that I came to two realizations about death. These specific comments and advice, which focused on praying for my “liberation” from pain and/or the spirit of death, challenged me to think about why I didn’t agree with them and led me to the following conclusions:

  1. This world is bound by death. I am going to die. Every living thing around me, every person I know, is going to die. I don’t know when it will happen or how but it will. I may experience and witness healing and miracles over the course of my lifetime but the end will come just the same. This isn’t morbid – it’s just a fact of this life, a fact that may be more difficult to deal with for many of us living in the modern first-world where death has been banished to the periphery. If I can’t learn to live with this fact, however, I am going to be in for a rough ride from here on out.
  1. I may have to live with it but I don’t have to accept it. Death is not natural. It is not what we were created for. It is right that everything in me rebels and protests at the very concept and that its advent provokes searing, gut-wrenching pain. Our nature, given to us by God, is to live. And as those who believe and are called children of God, Life is our inheritance.

These two realizations, and learning that it is possible to believe both at the same time, not only helped me to cope and process what was happening to me and around me but also led me to understand Christ, the Cross, the Resurrection, Redemption and Eternity in new and more deeply personal ways. It helped me to see how simultaneously insignificant and important our lives are. It allowed me to experience a tiny fraction of that profound grief God must have felt when humanity chose to allow death to enter into His perfect creation. It challenges me to move my focus from the here and now to the life everlasting – and to remember that that is where my treasure is.

Psalm 84

How lovely is your dwelling place,
O Lord of Heaven’s Armies.
I long, yes, I faint with longing
to enter the courts of the Lord.
With my whole being, body and soul,
I will shout joyfully to the living God.
Even the sparrow finds a home,
and the swallow builds her nest and raises her young
at a place near your altar,
O Lord of Heaven’s Armies, my King and my God!
What joy for those who can live in your house,
always singing your praises. Interlude

What joy for those whose strength comes from the Lord,
who have set their minds on a pilgrimage to Jerusalem.
When they walk through the Valley of Weeping,
it will become a place of refreshing springs.
The autumn rains will clothe it with blessings.
They will continue to grow stronger,
and each of them will appear before God in Jerusalem.

O Lord God of Heaven’s Armies, hear my prayer.
Listen, O God of Jacob. Interlude

O God, look with favor upon the king, our shield!
Show favor to the one you have anointed.

A single day in your courts
is better than a thousand anywhere else!
I would rather be a gatekeeper in the house of my God
than live the good life in the homes of the wicked.
For the Lord God is our sun and our shield.
He gives us grace and glory.
The Lord will withhold no good thing
from those who do what is right.
O Lord of Heaven’s Armies,
what joy for those who trust in you.

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Mary on the 2nd Day

A number of years ago I attended a religious liberty conference in Bulgaria. I like to try to take advantage of being in countries where I can actually afford art I like, so while I was in Sofia I used a free afternoon to go down near the cathedral to peruse the open air market where Bulgarians sold art, much of it original, and antiques (lots of the expected Soviet memorabilia and the more unexpected Nazi paraphernalia). I was drawn to the art booths that sold icons and searched for one that looked “different”, something that would call out to me. When I saw this icon, though I had no idea who it was, I knew it was the one I wanted. The artist couldn’t speak English but from what he said I gleaned the two words Kata Pia. In my ignorance, I didn’t realise he was telling me what the Greek letters on the icon said, I thought I was buying an icon of St. Kata Pia and quite happily went away.

That afternoon we met with a Bulgarian Orthodox bishop and a number of priests. The bishop was celebrating his birthday and in the midst of boisterous toasts, I pulled out my new icon to show him and asked his opinion, introducing him to St. Kata Pia. This caused great consternation. The bishop and the priests all agreed that the icon was a good one but they did not think there was a saint called Kata Pia. After about fifteen minutes of intense discussion and argument they reached a definitive conclusion.

“The woman is Mary, Jesus’ mother, but it’s a special Mary,” said Bishop Cyril, looking at me intently. “It’s not the Mary we usually see, the Virgin receiving the good news, or Mary in her glory, ascending to Heaven. It’s Mary on the second day. That is why she looks so sad.”

I love this Mary. I keep the icon on my desk where I look at it several times a day. She is a Mary whose son has just been killed. She is a Mary who has just seen her dreams and what she thought were the promises of God crushed. She is a Mary who watched the Light of the world die a horrifying and final death. She is a Mary who doesn’t yet know what will come on the Third Day and doesn’t even know to hope for it. She is a Mary asking “Why?” in agony and pain.

The Church gives a great deal of emphasis to Good Friday and to the Resurrection, but there is rarely any real focus on the Second Day. Yet this is the day in which most of us live. This is the experience of those who are persecuted for their faith, both those who die and those who survive to mourn the loss of their loved ones. This is the experience of my colleagues who receive devastating news day after day from Egypt, Nigeria, Pakistan, Burma, North Korea, and others where Christians suffer horribly and little seems to change. This is the experience of those of us who have seen dreams die along with those we love.

Mary on the Second Day reminds me that we are not alone in our confusion and our despair. We share it with her, with the disciples, and with all of those who throughout time have cried out in pain as what we thought would be is destroyed for no apparent reason. We can bring our grief and our despair before God and know that He understands it.

I read from Hebrews 12:22-24 this week and was reminded of the hope that lies in the Third Day. We live in the Second Day, and while it can be bleak, we have this promise: No, you have come to Mount Zion, to the city of the living God, the heavenly Jerusalem, and to countless thousands of angels in a joyful gathering. You have come to the assembly of God’s firstborn children, whose names are written in heaven. You have come to God himself, who is the judge over all things. You have come to the spirits of the righteous ones in heaven who have now been made perfect. You have come to Jesus, the one who mediates the new covenant between God and people, and to the sprinkled blood, which speaks of forgiveness instead of crying out for vengeance like the blood of Abel.

The line, “You have come to the spirits of the righteous ones in heaven who have now been made perfect” particularly stood out to me. That number includes so many: people we have loved, our ancestors who have gone before us in faith, the martyrs whose names, or sometimes just numbers, flood the inboxes of all of us who work on behalf of the persecuted. This is Hope. We have come to them! They have been made perfect! They are part of all we do! They wait for us!