Embracing the Grief that Connects Us
In the Valley of Death
With arms outstretched on the hill
An American chestnut tree stands resurrected.
Silently she draws new life from an old, dead stump
Where her ancestors died with blighted roots a hundred years ago.
She bears witness to the graves lying stoneless in her valley.
The sunken earth is the only marker
For brothers and sisters, enslaved, laid too shallow.
The woodland cemetery is adorned with vine wreathes
Among pawpaws and May apples that keep wake.
People lay down and wept here in the shadow of death.
The rising Chestnut holds this broken history in her belly.
On this sacred ground an owl flies at half-mast and calls out,
“We cannot kill what God calls very good.”
Nothing is forsaken since love seeps through
Shallow graves and dead stumps.
We weep for blights and injustices,
But even if we hung up our lyre,
The bluebirds and yellowbellied sapsuckers
Sing for the weary, “There is love after death.”
Burying those we love is the hardest task of our lives. That is why at gravesides tears flow freely — as deep calls to deep. Those tears are made of the same stuff as the waters that set the captives free in Egypt. Those tears of grief accompany us through the hard and holy ground of returning to God.
The most difficult part is feeling how quickly everything but love returns to dust. Death scares all of us when we contemplate its power, and fear is usually lurking close by. While love cannot immediately remove the sting of death for those who remain, in love death is diminished as we make our song of hope.
Where, O death, is your victory? Where, O death, is your sting? — 1 Corinthians 15:55
Even as we face loss, God gives us clues in the midst of grief that love is with us — and in the end, love is more powerful than death.
Three times since the early death of my father when I was five, an age before my memories could take root, I have dreamed of him: once in college, once at a church convention in 2003, and recently while I slept in the hills of Alabama. He was a pastor, and I have loved carrying on his legacy of serving the church. In the most recent dream, we were together in the room that holds all the supplies for the church services, called the sacristy, at Saint Augustine’s Chapel in Nashville. There, where I have worked setting up altars for more than twenty years, candlesticks are stored among chalices and robes. In my dream, I picked up two candlesticks from my father’s old mission church in Nashville, and he showed me that hidden inside the candlestick bases were wads of lamb’s wool he had stored. Lamb’s wool is the traditional fiber ministers use to apply dabs of healing oil when they visit the sick. When I took out the wool, another older man was in the sacristy with us. He had tears welling up in his eyes, and my father gave me permission to take the wool and dry his tears.
My dream was filled with overwhelming grief, but also present was a tenderness and compassion that felt like the balm in Gilead we read and sing about.
Even in the face of death, there is healing and hope, the dream reminded me.
Gilead was a rocky region east of the Jordan that was home to the people of Israel who grieved and longed for God. When the prophet Jeremiah cried out,
Is there no balm in Gilead? Is there no physician there? Why then is there no healing for the wound of my people?” he knew there was, and his cry was to his people to remember that they had access to it. — Jeremiah 8:22
There is always more balm to heal than pain to suffer.
We are always in the presence of the Great Physician, who carries us all the way home.
The balm in the wilderness of Gilead offers us new and secret places of healing found tucked beneath the golden candles that mark our altars. Sometimes in the most hurting and haunted places, we are able to discover the great depth of love. In my dream, the healing balm in the lamb’s wool, tucked beneath the light, is compassion bestowed with a fearless love for all those who are grieving. It makes sense to me that the bearer of the healing wool was my father, from whom the only line of preaching I know of is on a slip of paper I found tucked in his Bible that read,
In the shadow of His Cross may your soul find rest.
We are called to love and heal in the midst of the shadows of our own grieving. Whether we are talking about the suffering of death of someone we love or the general grief experienced from war, disease, or oppression, we are called to look beneath the golden candles to discover new healing.
A Promise from Jesus When Healing Seems Far Away:
Come to Me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest. Take My yoke upon you and learn from Me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For My yoke is easy and My burden is light. — Matthew 11:28-30
The Balm of Hope
On one of my annual pilgrimages to Ecuador, I hiked up into the Andes to a waterfall at what felt like the top of the world. It is a place so high that each breath is deep and your mind is in the heavens. The water smells like clouds rushing to get to the river. I was silenced by the magnitude and power of that water. While I was standing there, the waterfall tossed a huge volcanic boulder like a skipping stone. There on that transfiguring mountaintop, I wept at the majesty of the waterfall and thought about all the time I’ve wasted in my life wondering how the stone was really rolled away from Jesus’ tomb on Easter morning. I could see, standing there, how easily stones can be moved.
Water can move rocks, and thistles can break through boulders to bloom. If water and flowers can move stones, surely love can. In death there is a deluge of love like rushing water. It clears out everything to make room for a soul that has been set free. In that deluge, the stones of our hearts and in front of tombs are rolled away, time and eternity meet, and we are laid to rest in the bosom of Abraham. This means we can trust that the love we have known in this world will carry us home to God. Nothing can compare to the hope of resurrection. It is what sets us free and allows love to heal throughout our lives.
A Poem for Hope in Healing
A bluebird whistled a tune on a magnolia blossom
As a hawk cut through the lavender sky.
Old tulip trees danced
As mountains broke into song.
Squirrels danced on a wire
As flowers opened in unison.
Just as Jesus broke our hearts wide open,
the stone that kept hope at bay
finally rolled away.
I am amazed by the power of grief. We don’t get to choose what we grieve. We can grieve getting pregnant; we can grieve not getting pregnant. We can grieve a relationship that has been broken and relationships we never even had. We can grieve anything our hearts have been sweet on, and it is released when we say goodbye to what we hold dear. Grief, like gratitude, is a universal language we recognize in others because each person’s grief is related to our own. We all carry grief as part of our story. Yet in order to live well and free, we need gratitude, even in the face of death. With gratitude, healing is not abandoned in death; it is completed. And as we breathe our last breath on this planet, we need to leave grateful.
As we heal in the valley of death, we surrender our lives to God in humility, follow the path before us, and proclaim without fear that we can trust God with our lives. We can trust that God will carry us to the eternal side of time despite our fears of death and dying for ourselves and others. No matter what, we will never be forgotten by our Creator, who reminds us we are more valuable than sparrows (Matthew 10:29).
To say that we are more valuable than a humble sparrow is actually saying something powerful. Sparrows, though common and somewhat plain, are skillful fliers, darting with strength and moving with grace. They are resilient and have a bloodline that carries them back to the days of Scripture. They are mesmerizing to watch, have beautiful babies, and can sing the glory of every morning. To be loved even as much as a humble sparrow is lavish, and it gives me comfort. We can all look at the birds of the air and remember our belovedness.
Sometimes we get glimpses of Heaven, like when we’re standing under a waterfall on top of the world, or when we dream of those who have died. Sometimes we are humbled by all we have to grieve — even our pets. But never are we left without glimpses of what eternity must be like.
Heaven is like the memory of God. All of us are preserved in the memory of God, which is big enough to contain all Creation for all time. Nothing can erase us from the memory of God, and no one on this earth is forgotten. That same passage from Matthew 6:26 that asks us to consider the birds of the air and the grasses of the field reminds us that we will never be forgotten by God, not even the Jane Does who have died alone in a world where no one knew their names. So when we move beyond all our individual and collective fears about death and being forgotten in this world, we move into a deeper place of love where we live fuller lives for all the days we are graced to live.
Death can teach us about humility, gratitude, and hope. But as much as it might sting, it doesn’t stop the beauty of the flight of a sparrow or the touch of lamb’s wool. Death doesn’t get the last word; love does. Before there was death, there was love.
Excerpted with permission from Love Heals by Becca Stevens, copyright Becca Stevens.
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Are you grieving right now? Who or what did you lose? How is that bereavement propelling you toward God? How is His presence healing you? Come share with us on our blog. We want to hear from you! ~ Devotionals Daily