Psalm


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.

Another quasi-guest posting. This psalm comes from Bishop Benjamin Kwashi in Nigeria with an intro by a colleague of mine:

“As Boko Haram claims responsibility for the violent events in Plateau State last week, here is a second, equally moving lament from the Archbishop of Jos. Please pray for Nigeria. The situation is bleak; no one knows where, whom or how these people will strike next, and the state appears unable (or in some instances, unwilling) to protect its citizens. Their only hope and help is in the Lord and His people are trusting and waiting longingly for His deliverance.”

PLATEAU LAMENTS:

God is working his purposes out…
Tears, sadness, sorrows and fear….
Betrayed, anger, losses, dangers, blood, blood, blood…
LORD have mercy.

Plateau under siege…
Widows on the increase..
Orphans are countless…
The aged disregarded…
The young are angered…
LORD have mercy.

How long Oh LORD..
Turn sorrow to joy,
Change fortunes,
Rescue Your heritage,
Glorify your name!
LORD have mercy.

I met a little girl today and asked if she had any prayer requests. She nodded. We sat there for a moment, in silence, while her face grew stony and then crumbled and she began to cry. She buried her face in the shoulder of the pastor at her side but managed to get the words out, “Pray that everything will be alright.”

She is nine years old. When she was seven she saw her father, a church leader and local community leader, gunned down by members of an illegal armed group. Her parents were forced to flee their homes in 1996 because of violence from the armed groups and once again it had encroached on their lives. It reached its arm into their home and took her father right before her eyes.

Her mother, only 28 years old, did not yield. She carried on the work her husband had been doing, standing up against the armed groups that killed her husband and threatened to forcibly displace the community once again. She offered public testimony at regional and national hearings about what was happening on their land and what had happened to her husband.

In January the threats started. She carried on. Then she was physically attacked by men from the armed group, but she stayed. Then it became clear that she and her family were going to be killed.

She left the community with her two daughters and the clothes on their backs – escorted by Christians from other parts of Colombia and other parts of the world as a measure of protection. She was resettled in a nearby city but then she learned that the armed group was still looking for her and would not rest until she was dead.

She was sent into hiding in another part of the country, to a big city, and left to fend for herself. She has lived all her life in the countryside, working as a small scale farmer and didn’t know how to survive in the city. Christians from our partner organization decided she and her family would be better off in a smaller city where she could receive constant support from a local church.

She and her two daughters live there now, sharing one room. They have few possessions. The little girl studies hard and was promoted to the fifth grade, a year above her age group. But there was no room for another fifth grader at her school so she was transferred to the only school that had room, a school infested by gangs where she is bullied and threatened by the older girls in her class. Her mother wants to put her in a different school, a Christian school, but has no money with which to do so. She can’t even afford to buy her a uniform.

Her mother works in the evening selling arepas, a kind of corn based flatbread, on the street. She can’t work during the day because she can’t afford childcare for her younger daughter who just turned four. She doesn’t want to leave her locked up in the room alone while she goes out to work like some other single mothers do. Childcare would cost about $56 dollars a month. She has a place to work if she could find a way to care for her little girl.

They receive support from the local church but the local church has little resources and many needy people in similar situations. She said to me, as I left, “If I didn’t have God, I don’t know what would have become of me.”

Psalm 57
Be merciful to me, O God, be merciful to me,
for in you my soul takes refuge;
in the shadow of your wings I will take refuge,
till the storms of destruction pass by.
I cry out to God Most High,
to God who fulfills his purpose for me.

He will send from heaven and save me;
he will put to shame him who tramples on me. Selah
God will send out his steadfast love and his faithfulness!
My soul is in the midst of lions;
I lie down amid fiery beasts—
the children of man, whose teeth are spears and arrows,
whose tongues are sharp swords.

Be exalted, O God, above the heavens!
Let your glory be over all the earth!

They set a net for my steps;
my soul was bowed down.
They dug a pit in my way,
but they have fallen into it themselves. Selah

My heart is steadfast, O God,
my heart is steadfast!
I will sing and make melody!
Awake, my glory!
Awake, O harp and lyre!
I will awake the dawn!
I will give thanks to you, O Lord, among the peoples;
I will sing praises to you among the nations.
For your steadfast love is great to the heavens,
your faithfulness to the clouds.
Be exalted, O God, above the heavens!
Let your glory be over all the earth!