Blog Archives

Death Grief and Hope: Songs for the Shadows (2)

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 hopeso 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; s_s_hopestruck down, but not destroyed; Afflicted but not crushed.”

  1. Perplexed but not driven to despair
  2. Persecuted but not forsaken
  3. 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

  1. 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,
  2. 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” Read the rest of this entry

Death Grief and Hope: Songs for the Shadows

  We must face our losses.  Courage does not spare us from them. 

Courage’s work begins at the other end of honest acknowledgement.

          Grief can encompass many parts of life, not merely death.  It is, in many ways, our most universal experience.  It can be the death of dreams, grief of a way of life that ends, the end of a relationship, leaving home, moving to another town, divorce, a broken friendship.  The question is, “What are we to do with it?”

I can’t speak for people who have no faith in God, but I will admit that having faith in God doesn’t dispose of grief. It is just the same, just as overwhelming, the same disbelief followed by disintegration and despair and a long struggle to put life together again.

One verse of scripture I have found meaningful is  this one:

But we do not want you to be uninformed, brothers and sisters, about those who have died, so that you may not grieve as others do who have no hope.   1 Thess. 4:13

 I take great comfort that it does not say, “Don’t grieve, you’re a Christian,” but I have heard many a well-meaning minister stand up and talk about death like it was a flu shot. Death is real, it is irreversible, it is disheartening. I don’t think dismissing reality is a good idea. It has a way of showing up again with reinforcements.

The denial of death is, as Ernest Becker said, the most pervasive of human failings, and the most futile. The Apostle Paul said, very intentionally, that we should not “grieve as those who have no hope.” Instead, I would assume, we should grieve as people who DO have hope. Read the rest of this entry

Dreaming On


The anniversary of 9/11 is not only a marker of a terrible historical moment, it is a reminder that we have lived an entire decade in the collective shadows of fear and diminished hopes.  Our children graduating now have spent their childhoods absorbing tsunamis, wars, terrorism, hurricanes, earthquakes and economic catastrophe.  They enter a job market that will test their ability to hope.  It may be a great moment not only to remember 9/11 but also to remember how to hope.

Howard Thurman once wrote that “as long as a man has a dream in his heart, he cannot lose the significance of living.” (Meditations of the Heart, 36-37).  He went on to say that realism, daily facts, are unavoidable, but without that ineffable presence of something bigger inside us, life turns into “a swamp, a dreary, dead place and, deep within, a man’s heart begins to rot.”  This dream does not have to be some world-shaking vision of dramatic change, although moments of history sometimes require these.  Instead, “the dream is the quiet persistence in the heart that enables [us] to ride out the storms of  [our] churning experiences.”

Thurman grew up in Daytona Beach during segregation, but rose to national prominence as a preacher, writer, pastor and academician. He traveled widely and participated in many Christian missions and among his travels, spent time with Gandhi.  He was a college classmate of Martin Luther King, Sr., and was the Dean of the Chapel when King’s son, Martin, came there for study.

Thurman took the young man under wing and mentored him.  He was, in many regards, King’s spiritual director through his short life.  His book, Jesus and the Disinherited, written in 1949, profoundly influenced King.   In 1953 Life magazine) rated Thurman among the twelve most important religious leaders in the United States, but time has moved on and, outside the African American churches and historians and theologians, Thurman is not well-known.

When we think of all of these echoes of Thurman in the life of a young preacher from Atlanta, and how Thurman’s thoughts lived out through King’s life, it underlines the importance of his words about dreaming.  Our dreams do not have to be cosmic or political and yet they can roll out to change the world.  The Apostle Paul had a dream one night of a Macedonian man who said, “Come over here and help us,” and the gospel came to that place.  Peter had a vision that opened the gospel to the Gentiles in Acts 10.  Dreaming is powerful.

These dreams do not have to be world-sized.  They can be quite simple—dreaming of a better life for your children, to help a friend whose life is crushed, or as simple as “I want to be a better person than I have been up until now.”  It can be a dream to rebuild out of financial ruin or when your circumstances have taken a devastating turn.  We can dream of helping the next generation do more than we ever imagined and so give ourselves to a career of teaching and guiding.

There is something very determined about dreaming.  While “dreamy” often describes escape, inward dreams are just the opposite—they occupy our hearts and minds and drive us toward something that is ultimately better.  We imagine a future worth attaining.

Don’t underestimate the dream.  It is quite powerful.  It raised the ancient Jewish patriarch Joseph out of prison and into the Pharaoh’s court, and ultimately Israel into existence.  Thurman’s dreams lived into a young man who was part of calling America to its best self.

In these times of rebuilding, re-imagining and renewal, biblical people ought to dream.  Who knows what might come of it?  Just when life is at its worst is when dreams matter most.