Wednesday, September 7, 2016

"Words Cannot Express...." Speaking From the Heart to Those Who Mourn

The text below is written in the form of an address to "my friend" -- a person who has lost a loved one to an act of violence.

These words could apply to many people who continue to suffer and question their faith in the wake of brutal actions that have taken place all over the world this past summer, or in recent years. They could also apply to people whose grief is not connected to anything we have read in the news. And, though I bring up the element of human violence, there is much here that could pertain to any person who grieves the loss of a loved one.

Perhaps someone can find a helpful thought or phrase in all of this muddle of my words. It's a muddle, indeed, but as I have said before, this blog is my verbal "workshop" where a lot of things come out of experience and reflection and begin to get hammered into written words, expressions, sentences, paragraphs, communication. It's a work in progress.

I must emphasize that this is not the transcript of an actual note written to a particular person (not even I would be so pedantic as this in a real note!). It is true, therefore, that to a great extent this "speaking to my friend" is a kind of literary device. What is written here cannot be taken as applying to only one person; in many ways the praying, pondering, and writing about our violent world has drawn my awareness into solidarity with many people in distant places. But there are some elements, some raw points that may still come through in this text, because it has as its origin real personal circumstances and communications, real pain, real friendship.

I indicate this to emphasize that--"abstract" style notwithstanding--this is a suffering that I am speaking to from the heart. But I have removed specifics here, and I have also "mashed in" my own thoughts, my own efforts to understand, and my own grieving over the grieving of others--my own poor efforts of empathy. I have expanded the horizon of the original context and taken the suffering of others to heart as well.

I thought it might be useful to share some of this on the blog, though I don't know quite how--I certainly don't propose to plop this in front of someone as an answer to their grieving. It's all too analytical. It is, as usual for me, TOO MANY WORDS. Sometimes I think all my words should just be reduced to "Lord, save me!" or "Lord, save us!" The rest is vanity. But words... ah, that's what I have been given in life, so I labor with them. Here are the words, then, for you all to read. I can only leave it to God to measure them, to use them in His way, for whatever benefit He may wish to communicate through His mercy. I have done my best. 
My friend, you have been struggling a lot with grief this past summer. I know about the psychological stages of grief, and I want to stay with you in faith and love, and with all the humanity and friendship I can muster.
But this is a hard grief, a particularly black grief, the grief that follows in the wake of violence.
How can I ever really understand what depths of misery and solitude you have experienced? You are suffering the consequences of a profoundly personal assault that has robbed you of someone you love, that has upended the entire structure of life as you have known it. I want to stand with you, but there are depths of your affliction that are beyond the reach of my poor love.
You feel as if you are having a crisis of faith. Violence seems to have shattered your sense of the goodness of God. A particular human face that matters so much to you has suddenly been ripped out of your universe by a malicious act. How can this be?
It feels like evil has somehow prevailed. There is the terrible and real temptation to reject faith, to doubt by choosing to turn away from the truth, by choosing to withdraw from a vital relationship with God.
Though I will never comprehend the abyss of your personal pain, my friend, I beg you not to make this choice. God alone understands. God is your only hope.
Hold onto your faith, even if it hangs by the barest thread. Right now you are experiencing a psychological turmoil that feels very much like "doubt." Suddenly it seems like everything you thought you knew about God's goodness and His particular providence for your life has been overthrown. Perhaps you try to say that "God is good" and that "He loves you" but these words seem to recede to the furthest edges of meaning. You have no strength. The pulse of life itself is so thin, and it quickens only as a nervous response to the shattering noise that still shakes your awareness to the core.
You are plunged into a particular kind of darkness, a state of spiritual shock.
But you still have faith. You have not abandoned God, and He is in fact so mysteriously close to you, but you may fear that all the turmoil and confusion in your mind indicates a loss of faith. You may think, "I can't pray to God anymore. I've lost all the words. I don't know what to say, and I feel like all my prayers in the past were just talking to myself."
Indeed, when we pray we are often "talking to ourselves" (to our own images of God) more than to God, insofar as the strength of our prayer relies on our own resources. But grace is at work nevertheless. God listens to us when we pray, even though we are much more self-absorbed than we think.
But your whole sense of yourself has been blown to pieces. So much of yourself was invested in relationship with this person (and it was a good investment; it was love). You believe that the relationship still exists, but it seems like all the reference points of connection to this precious person have been annihilated. So much of your love for God was bound up with the face of this person, who was a daily reminder to you of the need to love and to be loved. This unique image, this precious gift, was swept away from your sight by wickedness.
You may wonder if it is still possible to pray. What if you feel like you have nothing to say? Everything has been stripped away from you, and you don't understand why. All you have is "nothing."
But you can pray, my brother.
Honestly, I'm "reading the map" here. I don't know the territory you are travelling through. But here is this map we've been given. I am describing something I don't understand, but I am going to take a chance and do it anyway. Why? Because I love you. I don't really know the weight of those words or where they will lead me, but I'll say them again: "I love you." And I trust the map.
So here I am, looking at Romans 8:18-27: "The Spirit helps us in our weakness." What I want to say to you is this: Pray! Take that emptiness of yourself and "pray it," lift it up, give it over to Him. Or just ache in His presence. Cry the hurt. Beg the hurt. Or just hurt. Don't be afraid to hurt. Don't think that pain distances you from Him. Let Him draw close to the pain in His incomprehensible way.
Ah, His "incomprehensible" ways. I'm tossing a word around that I have hardly thought about, and you are immersed in the very reality of it. I'm scared, and I want to distance myself, so I start "doing theology." I'm scared. When I try to pray for you, I don't have the words either. Oh God. Help. Save us!
But, wait. The map points to the Holy Spirit. Pray, brother. Just hurt in front of Him. God will hear the prayer in your pain. He hears within it the "sighs too deep for words" of the Spirit, who helps us because we don't know how to pray as we ought.
After all, we are all dying. In reality you understand this right now a lot more clearly than I do.
What is the Lord doing? He is drawing our relationship with Him more and more into that "hope" for things we do not yet see, the inward groaning which is not doubt (not a willful, sinful rejection of the truth) even when we experience it as a psychological and emotional earthquake. Rather, it is God working in us. He is deepening our hope and it feels like it's breaking us apart, but in reality what is being born within us is the longing for the fulfillment of God's plan.
When we talk about "being broken," however, it is not a cheap symbol. You have really been broken, my friend.
Indeed the break is so real that it opens you. You have begun to long for the "things that are not seen" -- because you can no longer see the person you love and yet you know that she is real, you know that--beyond all the violence of this world--she endures. She has gone before you into the Mystery which we know by promise and by hope, but not by sight.
You miss her, achingly, inconsolably. And she was always a gift from His love and still lives on in His love. But in this world, she was--in a very special, specific, unique way--the presence of His love in your life. And evil has taken her away. It is as though God Himself has in some sense gone away, not forever but for an unbearably long long time. And God has permitted wicked people to take Him away from you.... Why?
Of course. This is Christianity. You know about the Cross. And the Resurrection. This is the Cross. This is salvation. Your salvation. And mine.
But still, right now, you miss that person. You miss her love. You miss the way He loved you through her, the way He was present in your life through her. You miss her precisely in the way she was a unique, irreplaceable gesture of His love. You really miss her, and in the awful strangeness of that experience it can be said that in a sense you miss Him.
You miss God.
So your pain is in this longing for her, which is becoming for you a deeper kind of longing for God, a longing that fills your existence and your soul, and also your eyes and your ears and your hands and your heart and your bones and your blood. It is a deeper kind of love. A love deeper than death, and more tenacious than all the evil that tries to destroy it.
Why does it have to be this way? I don't know. I am not God and I do not understand His ways. I know that love is a terrible mystery and an overwhelming beauty and that it's the only thing I really want!
That is something we have in common, my dear violated brother. We know that it ends in the incarnate realization of ineffable wisdom and goodness, and through the Spirit that realization has already begun in us.
So, let us throw ourselves into the arms of this wild loving God who wants to teach us to love the way He loves. Jesus doesn't explain it to us. Instead He comes to accomplish it for us, and then He enables us to do it in Him.
I don't know what this means really, and I'm afraid of what it means. Help me, my friend.
We need to stay together. We both need to trust Jesus, and in the darkest places in life we will have this hope, and the help of the Spirit who enables us to endure, to "wait with patience."
Forgive me, my friend. I have said too much. Forgive me.