Category Archives: grief

When it hurts too much…

Hasten, O God, to save me; O Lord, come quickly to help me. May those who seek my life be put to shame and confusion; may all who desire my ruin be turned back in disgrace. May those who say to me, “Aha! Aha!” turn back because of their shame.

But may all who seek you rejoice and be glad in you; may those who love your salvation always say, “Let God be exalted!”

Yet I am poor and needy; come quickly to me, O God. You are my help and my deliverer; O Lord, do not delay.

(Ps 70)

I have never known what it is to have my life threatened as David did, nor to have people who actively sought to cause me harm. I am blessed and thankful to know such peace, and have an obligation to pray for those who are oppressed in this way.

But I do not think it is inappropriate to apply this psalm to those times in our lives when it seems our spiritual life is under threat, when we are assaulted by doubt, fear, and the relentless voices which wear us down into a dungeon of self-pity and hopelessness. The devil is wily and knows how to use our experiences to twist our perceptions and undermine our faith in the goodness and faithfulness of God.

When I am under such assault, it may take a while to realise what is going on, and to gather my wits to claim the victory which is mine in Christ. This happens most readily when it is my feelings which are attacked, and the resulting emotional storm is hard to ride out. It happened today.

There is a grief in my life which has been my companion for many years, and which, like Paul, I have begged to have removed. The Lord has thus far answered me as he answered Paul, saying that his strength will suffice for me, and I must trust that means he can be glorified through the wounded soldier and servant that I feel myself to be!

Sometimes, I can bear it more easily than others, and have my eye fixed more securely on God’s faithfulness and less on the pain and my own weakness. But not today.

Today, as I floundered on the brink of despair, God has been pouring out extravagant love gifts of beauty upon me, as brilliant winter sunshine picked out the snowy summits of our mountains, each one clear as a razor edge against the blue sky. Each fresh sight cut me afresh, like a wound. The contrast between the grief and darkness within my heart, and the tender love which was being proclaimed across the land, was just too much to bear. It was as though I was on one side of a chasm, with my pain; and the beauty and my dear Lord were on the other side, taunting me with my inability to reach them.

All I wanted to do was run away home, to leave this weary world of warring emotions, messy lives, and endless struggle to keep in step with the spirit of God. I wanted to be where there is no more need to endure, only the privilege of enjoying our God for ever. But of course, I couldn’t run, I have to stay until the time God decides is right for me, so how can I bear it?!

There is no magic formula; this life of faith is indeed a struggle, and at times a bitter one. But I can testify to the power of God to keep me in and through each fresh bout – because by his grace and mercy, he draws me back again and again to Christ.

There I find one who knew the pains which we bear in our human experience; and who can enter into the feelings which torment and drag us down. I praise God, that he turns me toward and not away from him in my need. I confess that I am still far more poor and needy than I like to admit, but rejoice that he will never give up on me and never abandon me to destruction by the forces that assault me.

There is no place for pride here, only profound thankfulness that our God is sufficient, ever-attentive to our cries and never running out of patience with us. Let our cry  in our need always be that of the psalmist:

..come quickly to me, O God. You are my help and deliverer; 

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Getting to know me…

Don’t be drunk with wine, because that will ruin your life. Instead, be filled with the Holy Spirit, singing psalms and hymns and spiritual songs among yourselves, and making music to the Lord in your hearts. And give thanks for everything to God the Father in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ.

(Ephesians 5.18-20)

The heavens declare the glory of God; the skies proclaim the work of his hands. Day after day they pour forth speed; night after night they display knowledge. There is no speech or language where their voice is not heard. Their voice goes out into all the earth, their words to the ends of the world.

(Psalm 19.1-4)

David, the shepherd boy, the giant slayer, and beloved king of Israel, is also described in the second book of Samuel, as “the man anointed by the God of Jacob, Israel’s singer of songs. The Spirit of the Lord spoke through me; his word was on my tongue.” (2Sam 23.1)

The gift of song-writing was given to David as part of God’s great plan to bless the whole world through his chosen nation, although his people probably valued his military and leadership skills more highly while he was alive! David’s songs, left to us in the collection of Psalms, are the word of God to us just as surely as the words of the books of law, history and prophecy. He knew that this gift came from God, and that what he was doing was of eternal power and significance.

More than that, David knew that they were songs, not just poems or words to be spoken. He knew that music has a divine power to drive truth into the human heart, and to release human sorrow, joy and gladness, bringing healing and wholeness to the singers. Modern research simply confirms what singers have always known – it is good for you! We feel physically better, but also emotionally better, when we sing. And as followers of Jesus, we have much to sing about.

We join in the song of creation, adding our voices to those of the heavens in praising our maker. We sing with all the ransomed souls around the world, adoring the one who loves us enough to become human and even to die so that we might live with him. And we also follow David’s example in singing about our griefs, our struggles with injustice and oppression, with the sheer wanton destruction caused by evil in the heart of mankind.

Our new congregation has for some years held a weekly Songs of Praise event during the summer months, open to all and giving us the chance to sing the sun down on a Sunday evening. Although it can seem a bit daunting to go out again after two services, it is in fact such a sweet and wholesome time of fellowship together and well worth the effort. No preparation is required, our accompanist can play literally every song in the book, so folk just call out what they would like to sing and away we go!

At the close of the service last week, my neighbour turned to me and said, “That’s a bad cold you’ve got!” I replied that it was no cold which had caused me to blow my nose and wipe my eyes so frequently, but rather the emotions which our songs had brought. One after another celebrating the awesome sacrifice of Jesus; His tender love for us; our sure hope – through all trouble – of glory to come; our shame at our sin and thankfulness for forgiveness, cleansing and transformation; affirmations of our own vows to follow and serve him and him alone. It had been a night of floodgates opening in my heart, and I was utterly drained and profoundly thankful.

I hope that my new congregation will quickly accustom themselves to the sight of their minister’s wife in floods of tears, because it happens so often! I cannot sing of my Lord and his love without being deeply moved, and how can I not show it? Perhaps my own tears – sometimes of joy, sometimes of sorrow, sometimes of homesickness for heaven –  will help others around me to freely express their feelings and enrich our times of worshipping God together.

I am not ashamed of my Lord, and I will not be ashamed of the depth of emotion which he stirs in my heart. Let us all rejoice in his praise, and join the glory of the heavens in lifting his name high!

Mourning..at Christmas?

Even in laughter the heart may ache, and joy may end in grief.

(Proverbs 14.13)

So last week our church family held its annual ‘Carols by Candlelight’ event, our building transformed by candle – and fairy – light into a glowing haven on a dark, damp night. Music from the choir, the praise band and the gathered folk themselves, interspersed with readings and video clips to challenge us to look beyond the familiar trappings of the story.

And I stood at the back, weeping inconsolably, bewildered by the force of my grieving, and ashamed to bring it into such a lovely space.

Why, why should I feel wounded and heart-broken as I hear these wonderful words again, words which have marked every Christmas of my life, the story of my Saviour’s birth?

One may be sad at any time of year, and perhaps especially at Christmas when remembering loved ones who have died; realising that life is not working out as you had hoped and that expectations are not going to be realised; recognising that life may be going to get harder, that there are trials and sore tests on the horizon. But it was none of these which I found in my heart last Sunday evening.

I felt myself drowned in the grief of God for a world of human beings whom he loves with a passion which we cannot imagine; and who have consistently refused to recognise his love, rejecting his mercy and scorning his tenderness.

Look around at society today.. chasing material wealth, health and long-life; grasping eagerly at every excuse for a party, a reason to “be cheerful”, trying to live up to the myth of the perfect Christmas and the ideal family. People know that there is more to life than they have already, that is what drives them. But they will not see that in Christ, God has given us what we really need, and that without him, nothing else can satisfy them.

Folk crowd along to carol services, they sing the old familiar songs and watch the old films again; they eat the same foods and play the old games; all reaching vainly after something meaningful and nourishing for their hearts.

But they can’t or won’t see past the glitter, the tinsel, the food and the gifts. The story is there because it has always been there, but they cannot see past the nativity play costumes to the glory enclosed in human flesh; to the priceless gift that Mary held in her arms for the shepherds to adore. Our God, with us, in our mess and desperation; our self-deception and fatal self-sufficiency; our willed blindness to all that might do us good.

Our God, with us, to give us the new hearts that we need to live well, to live forever with him in wholeness and joy.

Is it not enough to make us weep? That we who have been given this gift – through no merit of our own, but entirely by God’s grace and goodness – should be unable to open the eyes of our neighbours, colleagues, family and friends to what we have.

I know it is wrong to despair, but I think it is good to realise a little of how our utterly good God must grieve over this world in its stubborn refusal to hear him. I think that there is a place for mourning at Christmas, for calling out to God by his Holy Spirit to open blind eyes, and breathe life into dead bones. The hymn ‘It came upon the midnight clear’ expresses this so tenderly:

But with the woes of sin and strife the world has suffered long;

Beneath the angel strain have rolled two thousand years of wrong;

And man at war with man, hears not the love song which they bring;

O hush the noise, ye men of strife, and hear the angels sing.

And ye, beneath life’s crushing load whose forms are bending low,

who toil along the climbing way with painful steps and slow,

Look now! for glad and golden hours come swiftly on the wing;

O rest beside the weary road, and hear the angels sing.

(E H Sears, 1810-1876)

The truth is here for all to see… Oh Lord, have mercy upon the closed mind and the proud heart, remove the veil and let people see you in all your beauty.

Blinded..

I thought I had no tears left, that the worst pain had already come upon me on Friday when I held Mary as she watched her son’s blood trickle from his side and the breath leave his body.

We had cried ourselves blind, eyes swollen with grief and hearts wrenched apart.

The man who had delivered me from the blind darkness into freedom, who had loved me and welcomed my company, who had allowed me to love and serve him with all  my heart… this dearest of all, dead.

We watched as Joseph and Nicodemus took his bruised and battered body, anointing and wrapping it for burial in haste so that he might be committed to the tomb in decency before the Sabbath put an end to all labour. It all felt so unreal, as if we were in a nightmare and knew that if we could only wake up it would end.

But the dawn of Saturday brought no waking, even as the night had brought little sleep, only a deep ache and restlessness…

He is dead, he is gone, what shall become of us now?

He gave our lives purpose and direction; his voice calmed our fears, opened our understanding and gave us glimpses of a glory we barely comprehended. What is there to live for now?

I could make no decisions yet, but I could still be close to him, show my love in the only way that remained open to me. What did I care for the guard at the tomb? The soldiers didn’t take a woman seriously as a threat, I am nothing to them, less than nothing, and their scorn is meaningless.

So when the weight of Saturday night shifted into Sunday morning, and I could not bear to pretend to sleep anymore, I went to the garden, to watch for the dawn at his side, just to be there.

I found my way well enough through the dark city, but when I reached the garden I thought my eyes had played tricks with me. There was no guard, and there was no stone across the tomb…

Sick to my very heart, limbs heavy as lead, and weeping again with a bitterness which I had not known before, I fetched Peter and John, I needed someone else to tell me that I was not going mad in my grief, someone to make sense of what I saw.

They came, but could make no more of it than I did, although John was quiet and lost in thought, as if he were searching his memory for words from Jesus which might speak into  this deep mystery. He left for home with a strange light on his face, but no comfort for me.

Tears were my only relief, in utter bewilderment, like a lost and abandoned child pressed in by fears and paralysed by grief, I could do nothing else. Somehow, Jesus was even more lost to me than before, not even a body over which I could lament. Oh my beloved, where have they taken you, why have you gone so far from us?

Finally I too look into the tomb, expecting deepest shadow, and emptiness, final confirmation of my hopelessness. And it is light, glowing bright, my eyes are dazzled through their tears, but two figures sit there, where the body ought to be. Am I dreaming? Is this what grief can do to people? One of the figures asks why I cry, and without thinking just how strange this all is, I tell them that my Lord has been stolen away, lost to me.

I must be dreaming. The lack of sleep, the exhaustion of so much emotion in the last few days and weeks is finally taking its toll and I have fallen into a waking dream, in which bizarre things happen and I take them as perfectly ordinary. What else can this be, but an illusion?

I turn away from the tomb, suddenly aware of the utter weariness which is weighing me down, and another figure looms up through my tears, not bright with light this time. It speaks, asking who I seek, and why I cry.

Perhaps now I am awake again. Perhaps this is the man who looks after this garden and he might know! I ask eagerly if he knows where my Lord has been taken, that I might go and care for his body. In my weakness I barely raise my head to look at him, but my voice is urgent and he hears me.

Then it happens…

He speaks again, one word, my name.

‘Mary’

And I am blinded by light, deafened by the triumph of love in his voice!

He is not dead, He is risen! Oh my beloved, Oh my dearest dear, how shall I bear the brightness!

I do not understand, but I know. I am alive and awake, and the whole world is made new in my eyes. I shall never walk in the dark again, because I know that He is with me for ever, and by the light of his love, I see…