Reflection: 04-10

This month marks the 15th anniversary of the Oklahoma City bombing.  Besides living in Oklahoma, this has a rather deep effect on me and my family.  On April 19th, the day of the bombing, my wife and three-year-old daughter were to go to the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building to obtain a new Social Security card for my wife.  They were going to be going first thing in the morning.  That would be roughly nine o’clock.  However, as I was off work the day before, we all went on April 18th at roughly nine o’clock in the morning.  As one might imagine, watching the events unfold the following day, the 19th, we were a little more than shaken.  And a lot grateful.  That could have been my wife and daughter.  We could have been in the middle of that horror.  But we weren’t.  But that didn’t stop us from being moved deeply by what we were witnessing.  Perhaps it moved us all the more.  My wife quickly found a baby sitter and went to ground zero and volunteered.  I was working at a local hospital and we were preparing for the influx of our injured families, friends, and neighbors.

~~~

In October of 2007, my Mother, Kaye, passed through the Valley of the Shadow from some strange, unknown illness.  She was only 60.  I assumed that I would have plenty of time with my Mother.  My maternal Grandmother, Stella, was well into her 90’s and still living while my Mother was in the hospital.  She passed through the Valley a few short months after my Mother.  My Mother’s journey was very hard on our family, as can be imagined when one is loved as much as my Mother is loved.   It was especially hard on my wife.  In some ways, it was harder on her than on me.  My Mom was the glue that held the family together.  I now know that it was because of her that we were always together as a family.

My Mother and I had some wonderful conversations, mostly around our very different spiritual paths.  Well, they weren’t that different, really.  We were just at different places on the same path.  Those conversations are some of my fondest memories of her.

I have some regrets about my Mom.  Especially as she got close to starting her journey.  I remember visiting her in the hospital once and asking her if she was scared.  She said she was.  I didn’t offer prayers or words of comfort or even read a Psalm.  I didn’t really know what to say.  Sadly, I was more concerned about what the others in her room would think than I was about her.  So I just nodded.  At the time, I wasn’t in a place to offer the Eucharist.  I really wish I could have been able to serve her in that way before she started her journey.

~~~

I share these stories because this month’s reflection is on the little book, A Grief Observed, by C. S. Lewis.  I think, like most people who have lived to a certain age, we have all experienced the type of loss and grief that Lewis describes in this book, though we might not have put the words so eloquently as he did.  I remember as I first read those pages that I was intruding on a sacred moment.  I did not know ‘Jack’ Lewis and those words were of the most personal kind.  As one goes along with Lewis, one gets the sense of scattered-ness at the beginning and a progression of thought and order as one goes farther that is familiar territory with most of his other work.

I am so thankful that Lewis and his family decided to publish this little book for the simple reason that it shows that all of us struggle with the same type of questions and doubts when faced with such things.  I remember when Mother Teresa’s journals were published there was such an uproar about her doubts.  Doubting is normal and healthy, I believe.  It shows that we are growing into God in ways that our former understanding can’t take us.  Gone are the simple understandings of youth.  As we grow older we find out that life is more complex and harder than when we were younger.  And, a lot of the time, our faith has to change with our experiences.

In Lewis’ book, I can see this growth, even though watching him grow is painful in its own right.  Gone are the ‘simple’ and neat categories and packages of the academic (as seen in his other book, The Problem of Pain).  If we are not struggling with the responses to our questions, then we are not wrestling with them long enough.  The widower can no longer be sustained by the simple answers he used to give out.  When those same answers are giving to Lewis, they make him angry and nauseated.

One thing that I have learned from this book, or perhaps remembered is a better word, is that my experiences are not the same as someone else’s.  I can’t ‘know’ what they are going through.  I know what I go through.  But I can’t know what they go through.  And it is an injustice to pretend that I do.  When my Mom was sick, my struggles were my own and not hers.  Her pain and fear and struggles were her own.  We must always remember this when listening to others who are in pain and fear and struggling.  It is of no comfort to quote chapter and verse assuming that all one needs is a healthy does of Scripture.

Another thing I learned (or, again, perhaps remembered) from the book is that of listening.  There was a song from Charlie Peacock a number of years ago that had as a lyric, ‘Cry with me, don’t try to fix me friend, and that’s how you’ll comfort me’.  Too often, we try to get to the ‘answer’ instead of just being present with someone.  We hurry past the moment mostly because it’s uncomfortable and we really don’t know what to say.  We’ll almost brush off the person with a very spiritual sounding, ‘I’ll be praying for you’ instead of just being there.    A lot of the time, people don’t want answers.  They just want someone to listen and cry with them.  This is just what St Paul said – when one of us hurts, we all hurt.  Or we should.  We should be like Christ and take the pain of the other upon ourselves all the while realizing that we can’t ‘know what they’re feeling’, like I noted above.  Just be present.  Just be.

Of course, this is really challenging when it comes to my own family.  As I hinted at earlier, when my Mom was starting her journey through the Valley of the Shadow, I was more concerned about others than about her.  Similarly, when my Daughter is going through something, I seem to say and do and respond in all of the wrong ways.  At least with my Wife I seem to get it right more times than not.  Although, she may have a different take on it.  But, with Lewis’ book, all I could do was sit there.  Listening.  Reflecting.  Praying.  Perhaps that is all we are to do anyway.  I would bet that it is.  Why do we feel we have to defend God or try to explain things?  Why can’t we seem to say, ‘I don’t know’?  Or, perhaps better still, why don’t we say nothing at all and just be with the one who is hurting?

So, while I felt like I shouldn’t be reading this little book from Lewis, at the same time, I felt honored that I was allowed to share the experience.  And the fact that it was in written form made it all the easier to just be in those moments with Lewis.  I know that he didn’t share all of what he was going through (he noted that he only wrote down ‘one thought in a hundred’), but I’m thankful for what he did share.  It helped me see things a little differently about my own experiences with grief.  I think it will also help me with helping others with their grief.

Again, I admire his doubts.  In asking ‘Where is God?’ he wrote, ‘ . . . [When] your need is desperate, when all other help is vain . . . what do you find?  A door slammed in your face, and a sound of bolting and double bolting on the inside.  After that, silence.  You may as well turn away.  The longer you wait, the more emphatic the silence will become’ (pg 6).  Isn’t this the question that we always get asked and ask ourselves?  ‘Why did God let this happen?’  Or ‘Where was God when [fill in the blank]?’  Or, ‘How can I believe in God after this?’  All of these questions show a couple of things.  First, that we are not in control like we pretend that we are.  So often I hear that people don’t like religion because they want to be in control of their lives.  And all it takes is a common cold or a traffic jam to show us, rather quickly, that we are anything but in control.

Second, it shows that deep inside us is a ‘knowing’, a remembrance, an ‘echo of a voice’ as Bishop Tom calls it, that there is a God and that God is ‘good’ (by our understanding of what ‘good’ is, of course).  That’s what makes the difficult times even more troubling.  There is this deep knowing that God is good and in ‘charge’ of the world but when bad things happen, it just makes us question that belief.  Now, as I stated above, questioning is a good and healthy thing.  But not when times are tough.  At those time, one wants an anchor, a rock, for support.  Just like a child who looses a toy or scrapes a knee, it is most helpful knowing that Mom or Dad is there to take care of us.  But, more often than not, we end up like Lewis with deafening silence.  And, to top it off, we have good and meaningful friends who try and say all of the ‘right’ things.  Or, even worse, they don’t even call at all.  The avoid us and leave us in our misery.  And then their distance become an abyss.

But, once in a lifetime, we may find some true friends that just be with us.  I had an experience once that was so devastating that I could not find my way forward.  The two friends ‘kidnapped’ me from work and took me to a park where we just sat in the car and cried and cussed and snotted and, yes, prayed.  Some of the most honest prayers I have ever heard I heard in that car.  ‘God, I f***ing hate sin!’  One friend exclaimed.  I remember laughing.  I didn’t realize it until just this moment, but those two men showed me how to be in the moment when someone is hurting.  And how to love those in pain.  And that’s where Lewis ends up in his book.  Love.

He recognizes that the love of God is what sustains us through our times of pain and suffering.  The love of God is not shut behind some door.  It has burst the door open and is surrounding us at those most important times.  It suffocates us to the point that it is us who no longer understand.  Christ, through others around us, comes flooding in with Love so strong that we can’t take it anymore.  We just want to be left alone.  But that is what we can’t be because every where we turn, even at our lowest points of grief, the Love of Christ is there.  In the very midst of the pain is where Love is.  That is why it hurts so badly.  ‘Only love, only love can leave such a mark.  But only love, only love can heal such a scar’ sings Bono in the U2 song ‘Magnificent’.  It’s so true.  Why do we try and make it any different?  Why don’t we just leave it be?  Why don’t we just accept the Love of God when it’s presented to us, however it comes to us?  Because it’s the same Love that hurt us so badly in the first place.  If we can’t trust Love, what else is there?  Love is the One who brought Helen to Jack.  And Love was there when she started her own journey through the Valley of the Shadow.  Oh, it doesn’t matter that they both knew that this was coming.  They met, fell in love, and married knowing full well that she had cancer and that her time was short.  But you can’t stop Love.  And this is where Lewis finds himself in the last chapter of the book.  He realizes that grief is a process, not a thing.  And that, like a lot of processes, it leads one to a deeper love that was unknown before the grief.  But, even here, he is cautious.  ‘Not my idea of God, but God.  Not my my idea of H., but H.  Yes, and also not my idea of my neighbor, but my neighbor.’  He wants the real thing and not an idol.  An idol will not do.

But, the reality is often difficult for us to comprehend.  He wrote:
When I lay these questions before God I get no answer.  But a rather special sort of ‘No answer.’  It is not the locked door.  It is more like a silent, certainly not uncompassionate, gaze.  As though He shook His head not in refusal but waiving the question.  Like, ‘Peace, child; you don’t understand’ (pg 69).
No, we don’t understand.  ‘We cannot understand,’ Lewis wrote.  And in such deep grief, we come out the other side understanding a little bit less.  And perhaps that’s part of the point.  Perhaps it leads us to lean on the Love of Christ all the more.

‘Three things will last forever – faith, hope, and love – and the greatest of these is love.’ ~ St Paul



~~~
In the Love of the Three in One,

Jack

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