Grief and the Good and Hopeful Life


In my last blog post, I took a birds-eye view with some thoughts on why we don’t know what to do with grief. I’m not trying to talk us out of grief by rationalizing. It only makes sense that we don’t readily know what to do with grief. It can hurt like hell. Its existence means something has gone dreadfully wrong. There are moments where it feels completely dark; I’ve known those moments myself. But perhaps it’s for those very reasons that I think it’s important to look at it from more angles than the typical ones we come at it with.

In this blog post, I want to spend some more time on my final thought in the previous post: We struggle to see what a good and hopeful life can look like with grief always present.

This isn’t to deny the permanent wound a significant loss can leave on us; life will never be as we knew it. But with social media feeding into the rather narrow (read: curated) ways we define a good life which often include some version of lying carefree, young and beautiful on a luxury vacation, it is no wonder that we can feel almost doomed once significant suffering or loss find their way into our lives.

What are we doing to ourselves – and to each other – when we primarily define a good life as one that involves minimal heartache and tears?

What we do when we define a good life in a narrow, idealistic way

We live superficially and don’t allow ourselves to be challenged to consider what can make for a meaningful existence even when circumstances are deeply painful and far from ideal.

We miss out on a certain depth to our perspectives and our care for others that can really only come through wrestling with harder questions and circumstances.

We create a divide between perceived haves and have-nots, further isolating those who are suffering and compounding their sadness with despair.

We set our hope solely upon ideal circumstances that aren’t guaranteed to hold up, and this lays shaky ground for our long-term sense of well-being.

What we can do when we learn to broaden the definition of a good and hopeful life to one that includes grief

We can discover a different and more solid foundation for life – a process that is, quite frankly, work. It’s built through a process of dismantling old foundations that might’ve been easier to establish, ones that are sufficient for effortless days but can never hold up in the storm. It’s built with hammering, fire, sweat, tears, questioning if it’s worth all the cost and effort. But in the end, the new foundation holds solid, firm, unshakable when everything else is shaken. It can be terrifying to build and test, but it ends up providing the greatest sense of security we could find.

We develop an intimate understanding of hope beyond ideal circumstances where there was once ignorance.

We are less intimidated by people who are suffering and develop more capacity to share space with them without feeling desperate to sugar coat the conversation.

We discover deeper and more authentic community. Is it not true that when we are hurting, we gravitate more towards those who have been through similar heartache and less towards those who seem to have never tasted hardship? Our ability to truly know and be known by one another grows in new dimensions through shared suffering. My richest and most significant relationships are with those who have shared their grief with me and who have borne mine as well.

I wish grief upon no one, but we do ourselves such disservice when we pretend that we can or should avoid it throughout our lifetime. Its reality is sobering, but its reality also does not automatically mean a good and hopeful life becomes unattainable for all who experience it. Without discounting the very real pain that suffering brings, my years of being an ICU nurse and my own encounters with personal grief have taught me that in some ways, those who wrestle hard with grief are the ones who find a deeper understanding of what a good and hopeful life really mean.

Blog Post for Cornerstone WLA: A Biblical Response to “You do You”

This pandemic has shone quite a spotlight on our deeply embedded American mentality, “You do you.” We have seen how painfully unloving and detrimental it can be when self and entitlement are at the core.

My latest blog post for Cornerstone WLA shows us through the example of Jesus how to approach the “You do you” mentality in a more loving, healthy way.

You can read the blog post here.

a letter for my soul

I am in tears over Paul’s letter to the Philippians. Oh, my soul.

I’ve been losing sight of the Lord, slowly, subtly, surely. Life has gotten busy and ambitious and it seems my ego has risen a bit too much to the challenge. I’ve been unusually obsessed with control (and if you knew my usual level of obsession, you’d know that’s saying a lot) – trying to control things at home, at church, at work, so that all my raucous ducks are in a row, so that all that is wrong or imperfect can be made right (by me… as if), so that I don’t have to admit that I’m just so terribly uncomfortable with feeling out of control. I can’t get the termites or the fleas or the clutter or others’ opinions or others’ shortcomings or my shortcomings or my patients’ changing statuses or their parents’ anxieties or my anxieties over it all, under control. Oh dear, pour me another cup of coffee. I’ve grown convinced by some deceitful voice that obtaining control means obtaining peace, and losing control means losing peace. The resulting simmering anger and frustration has, with just a minimal increase in heat here and there, occasionally brimmed over and I haven’t been able to put a lid on it.

It is exhausting trying to usurp the place of God.

Here comes Paul. He’s in prison. His life hasn’t gone according to plan, but he’s rejoicing. Because God is in control despite the awful cliché, and so Paul assures his anxious friends in Philippi, “I want you to know, brethren, that the things which happened to me have actually turned out for the furtherance of the gospel,” “I know that this will turn out for my deliverance,” and ultimately, “to me, to live is Christ and to die is gain.”

His life is complicated, but so simple. He is bound up in chains, but he is so free. He knows the One in whom his life rests and that’s all he needs to know. “I know how to be abased, and I know how to abound. I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me.”

And of course, because I’ve lost sight of the One who really matters, the good and sovereign and wise King, I’ve been obsessed with my ego. I love my Facebook likes and my blog followers and all my praise. This I confess. I exploit my own self to promote myself. What depths of sin and self-deceit.

Here comes Christ, who, being in the form of God, did not consider it robbery to be equal with God. He made Himself nothing, of no reputation, taking the form of a servant. I nailed Him once to the cross with my pride, twice with my unrighteous anger, a third time with my envy, a fourth with my critical heart. And then He took it all and bled and wept and died from it and got buried with it all. But oh my soul, He rose again above even those depths to show that He who began a good work in me would still be able to carry it to completion. It is He who works in me to will and to do for His good pleasure now, not to make me a slave but to make me free.

And so it’s time for me to relearn how to do all things without complaining and disputing. To count all of man’s praise and approval and promotion as loss compared to the surpassing greatness of knowing Christ. And believe me, my secret heart has counted it all, taliied my points to give myself those big gold stars. It’s time to put that behind me again and press on, that I may lay hold of that for which Christ Jesus has also laid hold of me.

It’s time to rejoice, and again, rejoice. Quell the anxiety. Hallelujah, I don’t have to be in control of it all. Lift up prayer and thanksgiving. Let generosity and gentleness and contentment be mine because He is on the throne and I am not, and so all is right with my world again.

He is the King, and I am His child.

Oh my soul, again I say, rejoice.

Reblogged: Can Grief and Joy Coexist?

I deeply appreciate the honesty of this blog. I have lost my stomach for pat answers laden in overspiritualized vocabulary that invalidate the reality of what people experience when life is just honestly, hard. I have a deeper hunger for something both honest and real when we talk about joy in Christ, because of Christ. The same Christ who knew the Father was good, loving, and in complete control when He was broken on the cross and asked why He had been forsaken. He knew He wasn’t back Home yet, and He knows we are not either, not yet. This is the Savior I love, in whom I hope and in whom I can rejoice.

Clearing Customs

There is a phrase in Mandarin Chinese, bei xi jiao ji (悲喜交集), meaning “mixed feelings of grief and joy.” Grief and joy aren’t commonly thought of as partners, but when faced with loss, cross-cultural workers need to understand that one doesn’t necessarily cancel the other one out.

Expressing Grief

Dr. Steve Sweatman, president and CEO of Mission Training International (MTI), says that the call to take the gospel of Christ to another culture “inevitably is a call to sacrifice, to losses, to things that you will have to leave behind or give up.” This sacrifice takes many forms, and MTI has identified five categories of loss experienced by Christian cross-cultural workers. They are

  • a stable home
  • identity
  • competence
  • support systems
  • a sense of safety

In an audio presentation at Member Care Radio (entitled “Good Grief“), Sweatman also discusses the differences between concrete and abstract losses felt by cross-cultural…

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when my mess tumbles out and God comes in

In all the 20 years that I have been leading worship in music at church, I still get nervous every single time. It’s more than stage fright, though that remains a significant component. It’s anticipation, longing. Wanting more than a sentimental musical experience. Wanting something real, something deeper. Creating a space with the music for people to go beyond words in bringing their hearts, their hurts, their fears, their doubts, their shame, before a God who says to every broken soul, “Come to the cross, I will not turn you away there.” Creating a space where the heart is opened and everything tumbles out in the mess that we often feel we are, and we try so hard to contain our mess and apologize that we didn’t get it together before we came before this Holy One. Only to find ourselves caught up in the embrace of the Father who ran to us while we were still a long way off and says, “Welcome home.”

I long for this as a worship leader. For this real exchange to happen. For people to find themselves found by God, because of Christ. I am afraid of getting in the way with too many words, not enough words. Awkward pauses. Wrong notes. I’m afraid of a Sunday with a weak voice, an off voice that doesn’t inspire others to proclaim, “I am His beloved, and He is so good.” I used to think that quality and skill in music didn’t matter that much as a worship leader, but particularly after going through John Piper’s series, “Gravity and Gladness,” and reading Bob Kauflin’s book, “Worship Matters,” I am convinced that quality and skill do matter. Quality in music, quality in leadership style, skill and discernment in both. I don’t think I can take the ministry of worship in music too seriously. I am leading people, through song, to come before a holy, loving God. The Creator and King of the universe. Our Life-giver. He is holy, holy, holy. I tremble with this, every week. I don’t want to sing flippantly to this God who sees my heart of hearts. I want to be used by You, God. I don’t want my pride to get in the way. I don’t want my fumbles to get in the way. Give us Yourself. We need You. No one brings life the way You do. Not me, not my music. Give us Yourself and help me not to get in the way.

There is a deep joy I share with my fellow worship team members. I love musicians who offer what they have to worship the Lord. They get it. They get that the backing off with an instrument is a humble expression of worship, a humble act of service to the church family, just as much as the loud strums and beats. I don’t have to play, to be heard, to be recognized, all the time, because it’s not about me. We’re creating a dynamic with our music, the rise and fall of our hearts when we hurt and we hope and we fall and we get up, when our brokenness robs us of our words before God and when our joy can’t be contained so we have to sing and shout and clap. There are certain Sundays when we know that the Lord has been gracious to us in our time of music, He has been there. The weight of His glory lingers even after the benediction has been given. I exchange glances with other worship team members and we just know, He has glorified Himself through our offering, and our hearts are so glad. Sometimes, I have trouble talking with people afterwards because I feel so amazed that He would give us this gift of Himself, our little broken but beautiful church community. He is what we have longed for. We need Him to go with us into our traffic and our housework and our tense relationships and our Monday morning blues. Give us Yourself, God. As you always have, would you now, again, graciously give us Yourself.