So, then, to continue from my last post, If we are not to grieve as those who have no hope, and not to hope as those who have no grief, then only one conclusion is left to us. We should grieve as people of hope—so what does that mean?
Here is where grace enters in powerfully. “Grieving as people of hope” means that God’s grace is in the picture with us as we sorrow in life. Grace does not magically take away our pain or make it hunky-dory wonderful. I have heard preachers stand up and talk about heaven and hope in a glib and superficial silliness that emotionally slaps the faces of the grieving ones sitting in front of him or her. If it gives them a moment’s comfort, the dark shadow will soon come. If Jesus wept over Lazarus, there is something important in it for us as well. Whatever we believe about the life to come, it is always in faith, in part, clouded by the contrast between the only reality we know with some certainty against a promise that is yet to be.
Paul helps us in a second passage from the New Testament. In 2 Corinthians 4:7-9 he wrote, “But we have this treasure in clay jars, so that it may be made clear that this extraordinary power belongs to God and does not come from us. We are afflicted in every way, but not crushed; perplexed, but not driven to despair; persecuted, but not forsaken; struck down, but not destroyed; Afflicted but not crushed.”
- Perplexed but not driven to despair
- Persecuted but not forsaken
- Struck down but not destroyed
What sustains us in life is not to escape affliction, questions, persecution and suffering. It is being rooted in the life that transcends it. This means accepting
- The reality of death—as well as the truthfulness of grace. It not only does not avoid the worst features of human life, it enters into them. Grace is seeing the worst about us and still loving us. I once wrote a song to try to express the anguish of this, called,
- The necessity of grief— Grief is part of life just as death is on its path. If we are to imbibe life as a gift, we have also to taste its bittersweet transience. In the nineteenth century, Ray Palmer wrote the great hymn, “My Faith Looks Up to Thee,” and penned these wonderful words:
When ends life’s transient dream,
When death’s cold sullen stream shall o’er me roll;
Blest Savior, then in love, fear and distrust remove;
O bear me safe above, a ransomed soul!
I have written about 110 songs at this point, bits and fragments of maybe 250 more, but looking over them, I realize how much time grieving has occupied in my mind. I am sure much of this has to do with my vocation–I cannot avoid walking through the valley of someone else’s shadow weekly–but I am also impressed with the massive energy spent on avoiding the subject in our culture–and the price we pay for it. One song on this subject for today, “Trying to Remember”
- The return to life—to get up again, to return to living after loss, to believe that the most horrible truth we have ever faced is not God’s last word to us, is the great test of grace, and its shining moment. In all of my churches, legions of widows and widowers, shorn of their closest companions, still worshiping, still praying, still serving God—THESE are among my finest evidences of grace in life. The parent of a child who left too soon, but who has not abandoned hope and life. An adult struggling out of addiction who faces, as Neil Young once put it in a song, “the needle and the damage done.” Honest grief requires the facing of the toll of our sins and the losses that come. Part of that is the life we missed while escaping it, the conversations we didn’t have, the good we didn’t do, the opportunities that slipped past. Without grace, this can press us down into despair. But grace shouts, “Get up! Loss is not the final word. Get up! Start moving! Keep going! By the miracle of God, you are still loved, your life is still open. Get up, return, and lean into love!”
- The cultivation of hope—here is grace’s greatest gift. I like one writer’s description of what our life in grace is: he calls it “habitual grace.” By that, he means that in the life of faith we are “living into” something we have discovered about God—we learn more and more to trust in it. Grace doesn’t change, but we are changed as we learn to count on it, make our decisions in the light of it, turn to it when we are at our worst or in suffering.
Grace is the truth we keep living into, if we will. Grace comes as a beam of light through an opening door into my hopelessness when I suffer and am sure all is lost. Grace is that mysterious power that says, on the day after I am sure I am too far gone or that my life is over because of my sinfulness, “Get up. Eat. It’s a new day.”
Philip Yancey says a friend of his was sitting on a bus one day and over heard a conversation. A woman was reading The Road Less Traveled by Scott Peck. The friend asked, “What are you reading?”
She said, “This is a book a friend gave me. She said it changed her life.”
“Oh, yeah? What’s it about?”
“I’m not sure. Some sort of guide to life. I haven’t got very far yet.” She began to flip through the book. “Here are the chapter titles: discipline, love, grace…”
The man stopped her. “What’s grace?”
“I don’t know. I haven’t got to grace yet.”
That said a mouthful. If we grieve as those who have no hope, or hope as those who do not grieve, then we haven’t gotten to grace yet
We need to get to grace. It is not only about death, but life. It is not only for our grief, but our joy. It needs to be the central preoccupation of our lives—to know it, live into it, and give it to others. I believe grace is not merely operative in the church–God’s grace is an energy of restoration afoot in the creation in ways we barely comprehend.
Grace doesn’t offer a program to change life. It changes lives. We need to pray the prayer of a little English girl Yancey quotes, “God, make the bad people good and the good people nice.”
Only a gracious God can make bad people good and good people nice. And nice people become grace to each other.
My friend Beth wrote a most interesting comment to part 1–that it helped her grieve for our country right now. It returns to my first point in the last post–that grief is the passage through death back into life. Her observation is, I think, a most appropriate response to this election. Despite what the campaigns have said, this election will not leave us happy, or resolved. This campaign has revealed the extent of our challenges, divisions and our lack of reconciliation.
It rather reminds me of something I have often told divorcing couples: if you choose a scorched-earth policy, scorched earth will be your victory when you prevail. My take is, until the election is over, we will not be able to move on to the deep grief left behind. On the other hand, our grief is not, and need not ever be, the final word. Hope, not glib optimism, will survive even this most distasteful descent into the worst of our nature.
NEXT POST: music for the journey: I’ll share some musical companions for grief that I have found helpful.
Brueggemann, Walter. Praying the Psalms. St Mary’s College Press, 1982
Marty, Martin E. “Grace,” A New Handbook of Christian Theology, Donald W. Musser and Joseph L. Price, eds. Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1992, 209-211.
Ward, Wayne E. “Grace.” Mercer Dictionary of the Bible. Watson E. Mills, Gen. Ed. Macon, Georgia: Mercer University Press, 1990, 1991, 347.
Yancey, Philip. What’s So Amazing About Grace? Grand Rapids, Michigan: Zondervan Publishing House, 1997.
5 thoughts on “Death Grief and Hope: Songs for the Shadows (2)”
Thanks again Gary. My psalm haiku this morning was from Psalm 6:
Crying out his pain
He laments O Lord how long–
Merciful God hears.
Thank you, Lamon. Excellent “core” of the dark place.
Always amazing to me how you show up just when needed.
Thanks, old friend.
You, too, Joni!
Very helpful personally and to share. Anxiously awaiting the next one.
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