Grief is a vehicle

I drive his 1985 Mercedes SEL on Sundays.

It feels right when I stop to consider that our shared faith was one of the more driving connections between the two of us, my grandfather– my “Papa”– and I.

When I felt the Lord tugging on my heart to follow Jesus to Alaska without rhyme or reason back in 2015, my family’s reactions were varied:

“Your getting too old not to settle down.”

“That lifestyle isn’t one for a respectable Hispanic woman.”

“You’re out of your damn mind.”

With him, it was different.

“Well kid, if that’s what you feel like He’s telling you to do, ya’damnsure better do it.”

Never one to mince words or be flustered by what his greater life experience had proven to be only a seasonal change, my grandfather was my sounding board, my strong backbone, and simultaneously the safest space my heart had for nearly twenty seven years.

Fifty two years ago, nearly three decades before I was even thought of, this man redefined the idea of family as I would one day inherit it. He and I never shared a bloodline, but rather became family through his choice to adopt my mother. With his quiet stability, he dared to interrupt a storyline and thereby changed the life of my mother, me, his “granddaurter”, and hopefully that of generations to come.

My dark features and string bean build may not emulate his sturdy German stock, but it’s unmistakable that my inability to sit still when music comes on is a trait of his I’ve carried in my body since he first enrolled me in piano lessons at the age of five and taught me how to tap my foot to the metronome atop his old piano.

After years of botched recitals and your standard small child temper tantrums, weekly piano lessons were abandoned and monthly jazz concerts took their place. The scratchy tulle of the dresses my mother would wrangle me into scraped the back of my legs and I would pretend to be far more irritated than I was. But there I would sit, in the second row of a jazz concert one Saturday a month, transfixed with the way the musicians’ fingers danced up their saxophones and across their basses. My Papa would close his eyes and drink it in, moving as many muscles as he could to dance in his seat without being noticed. But oh, how I noticed.

On Sundays such as this, I unlock his car and slide into the old burgundy leather seats. I run my fingers across his jazz tape collection and close my eyes for a moment before I drive. I can’t manage to get the old stereo to work to save my life, but some days in the silence as I drive, I swear I can hear him quietly humming Bucky Pizzerelli’s Stars in Your Eyes.

With every passing Sunday, I learn a little more deeply that maybe the grief that continues to come, even a year after losing my grandfather is just another vehicle. One constantly moving me closer to the heart of the One whom me grandfather taught me so much about, and imitated so well in word and deed.

So I wipe my tears and drive toward Jesus, just as my Papa taught me to do.

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Corkscrews and broken record players

There’s a cyclical aspect to grief.

The visual that comes to my mind is more of a corkscrew than a perfect circle though. Maybe that’s it… Maybe grief is a corkscrew that winds deeper and deeper into my heart over time. With each birthday of a lost loved one or the anniversary of their death, I feel myself returning nearly full-circle to the pain and discontentment I felt in my heart a year ago. But those feelings are ever so slightly different this time around…

At each turn, I find myself saying the same phrase I’ve said a million times: I want to be done grieving. And yet, I’m not. I’m still not done.

May was brimming with birthdays and anniversaries of days I’d rather not have engrained in my mind. This month has brought about much celebrating and mourning– so many twists of that metaphorical corkscrew. With each near-circle, the Lord has reached new depths of my heart, bringing about fresh pain while using that pain to expose my own sin, cynicism, pride, and bitterness.

It’s good though, this cyclical process, the screwing in and stripping away… It’s “capital G Good”, “type-2 Good” if I can borrow from the idea of “type-2 fun” and twist it to create a concept. It’s Good not because it feels good (because it doesn’t). It’s Good because as painful as the corkscrew drilling down into my heart is, and for as much as I grimace and cry, I can feel the Lord tenderly speaking healing over my wounds and fears in His timing.

He continues to prove Himself as the Great Physician, even when my wounds seem to deepen or the grief I so desperately want to be over compounds.

As I’ve walked through this month of intermingled celebration and mourning, there have been days where I have found myself a broken record player saying/ screaming/ silently cursing the words that filled my journal and conversations this time last year:

I don’t understand.

I still don’t understand.

I don’t understand the brokenness. I don’t understand this pain. I don’t understand death and separation and the finality of each that sinks in on a new level every day.

I don’t understand why this is Your plan, God.

Yet there, in the screaming and beside my silent cold shoulder He has faithfully met me this month, bringing words of truth from Hope When It Hurts (a devotional on suffering that has been my path back to Jesus many mornings throughout this messy season).

“‘My thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are My ways your ways, declares the Lord. For as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are My ways higher than your ways and My thoughts than your thoughts.’ (Isaiah 55:8-9)

If God always acted in ways that made sense to us, then He certainly wouldn’t have sent His sinless Son to die in our place, offering us complete forgiveness and acceptance freely through Christ before anyone even asked Him to (Romans 5:8).”

In a plot twist of sorts, on the year anniversary of Kevin’s death, with another turn of the metaphorical corkscrew, I found myself on my knees in the grass outside of Denver General Hospital, weeping and terrified. Twenty minutes before I had received the news that my grandfather– the anchor of our family– had had a stroke. And on a day where the grief already felt like a bit too much, the corkscrew went deeper into my heart and pushed me to my knees. Outside of that hospital in the middle of downtown Denver, my broken record brain repeated my familiar song through tears yet again:

I don’t understand.

Nearly a week removed from that day, the Truth remains that I don’t need to understand; I likely never will.

This week as I’ve sat in a hospital room next to my dozing grandfather, I’ve played one of his favorite jazz records over my phone speaker. In those moments, I’ve closed my eyes and held his hand, pretending we’re in his basement listening to that record play over his beautiful antique phonograph, instead of in a room full of beeping machines.

In those moments, and the moments between, I’ve struggled to make the choice to replace my own broken-record-inner-monologue with Truth. The reality is that I have struggled against the root of bitterness this week (month) [year]. My prayers have been funky and nonsensical, an inconsistent mix of submission, confession, expletives, and stabs at thankfulness that my God isn’t one Who operates within the scope of my understanding.

The other reality within all of this is that I don’t know how this story will continue on.

I don’t know why the Lord has placed me back in a situation so similar to that of the last week of May 2016. I don’t understand why He has me asking roughly the same question I was asking this time last year as I was preparing to leave for Cambodia: “What if someone else I love dies when I go to Asia?”

I really, truly don’t understand.

But by His grace I am finding peace in fits and starts through the Truth that the most illogical events on earth brought about my greatest Good when my perfect Jesus died on the cross, then rose three days later.

(And in the moments when the corkscrew turns and I simply can’t be the one to fight for that Truth, I’m learning to turn on worship music and allow Him to be the One to become the answer to my questions.)

“Because I spoke of things I do not understand, things too Wonderful for me. Although I had no right to ask, my God knelt and answered me.” -Ghost Ship, “Where Were You”

When God doesn’t feel Good: Asia, panic attacks, & Truth

Saying that I freaked out would be putting it mildly.

It was my only Tuesday in Colorado last June. It came on the heels of a sudden move from Alaska, Kevin’s funeral, his sister’s wedding, and a million other life changes crammed into two weeks’ time… As of that night, I had roughly 48 hours to flip my entire wardrobe and organize my life (and heart) before I was slated to board a plane and spend the next month in Southeast Asia.

That night, I dumped all of my winter clothes out of my Alaska/Iowa luggage and drug all of my boxes of summer clothes into the house from the shed.

When my roommate came in to check on my progress, she found me sitting on the floor of my empty soon-to-be bedroom with my backpack and passport, throwing fistfuls of clothes across the room and ugly crying.

“I can’t. I can’t… I can’t… do… it…”

Those were the only words I could choke out for about ten minutes. Finally, I was able to calm down to a point where I could at least spit out the rest of that statement:

“I can’t do it. I can’t go to Asia. I can’t leave. What if someone else dies? What if I’m on the other side of the world. Again.?!”

Kitty listened to me cry for heavens knows how long and if she judged me for blowing my nose into a clean t-shirt I’d dug out of one of my boxes, she didn’t show it. After listening to a considerable amount of crying, she quietly said,

“Kace, how are you seeing Jesus right now?”

My answer left my lips before I could think it through. And as soon as it was outside of me, I wanted nothing more than to take it back, to make it untrue.

“I don’t know if God is Good anymore, Kit.”

My words sent me back into hysterics. “I want to take that back. But I can’t. ‘Cause it’s where I’m at. I don’t know if He’s good. And that scares the *insert explicative here* out of me.” I blubbered. “If I don’t know that? Or if He’s not good?! Then I have nothing. I gave up everything I had to follow Him to Alaska. My job. My security. My community. The most important relationships in my life. And He allowed my worst fear to come true when Kevin died. So if He’s not good? If I can’t trust Him? I’m screwed. And I just don’t think I can follow Someone back across the world that I don’t trust is good… or just don’t trust at all. So, I can’t.”

I don’t remember Kitty’s response to my diatribe other than the sad look in her eyes and her suggestion to spend at least 1 of my next 48 hours with our pastor doing some counseling. (For that wise recommendation and the countless hours she has sat with me while I have cried in the last several seasons, I am forever grateful.)

As painful as it was, I took my tush to counseling the next morning, then I got on that plane to Asia a day later (even though I cried my whole way to the airport and through security). And true to His character, the Lord has slowly changed the trajectory of my life since.

The change has come in strange ways… It didn’t come in a desire to move to Asia as I was afraid it might, or in the multitude of ways I thought He might interrupt my story yet again. No…

The change has been slow and difficult. It’s been a daily, hourly, minute-by-minute reassurance that He is good and that I can trust Him no matter what life brings. When cancer strikes, I can trust Him. When my students are shot, He is still good. When planes go down, He is still sovereign and loving. When I feel weak and alone, He is my steadfast companion. When I have to sit and silently watch my loved ones suffer, He is all of our true comfort. When I am homesick, He is my home. When fear threatens to overtake me, He is my safe place.

Because He is exactly who He says He is. Unconditionally.

~~~

I had a conversation about truth with one of my students a few weeks back. As I sat, feeling a little bit like I was hitting my head against the same brick wall I was talking to, I attempted to poke holes in her life’s truth: “I’ll treat others the way I want to be treated. If they deserve it. And only until they disrespect me…” The caveats in her “truth” made me laugh and roll my eyes. At the point which she surely thought was going to be the end of the conversation, she stubbornly slammed the palm of her hand against my table and said,

“Well, you can disagree, Miss. But that is the truth that I live my life on.”

While it was probably an inappropriate response, I laughed right in her face before I could stop myself.

“Oh, baby, that isn’t truth…” I drawled as I reclined back into my chair. “Truth is True in every situation, for every person. That’s why it’s called Truth… ’cause it’s universal. Truth is always good news for everyone… not just the ones who aren’t pissing you off in the moment. Truth doesn’t have conditions or caveats. 

There are only a handful of things in the world that are True and they’re all intertwined: Jesus is Truth. The gospel is Truth. Scripture is Truth. But if you’re building your life’s truths off of that ridiculous statement you just said, you’re in for a world of hurt…”

I leaned back in my chair and resumed my reading while she spent the remainder of my planning period staring at me in silence. She was clearly ticked at my bluntness, but also clearly processing what I’d just said.

As I sat under her glare, I thought about multitude of ways Jesus has shown the gospel to be true in my life this year. Unconditionally.

Christ’s constant salvation, even though I am one royally screwed up, sinful, hardheaded woman.

The redemption He is weaving into my life here and now because of that loving salvation.

The eternal life He offers.

The eternal life He has called so many of my loved ones into.

The comfort of His Spirit as He has done so.

The fact that He conquered death. Let me repeat that, if for no one else but myself. The most pervasive struggle and point of suffering in my heart this last year has already been conquered.

Christ has shown Himself to be perfect strength in my abject weakness.

His grace. (Upon grace upon grace upon grace…)

He has revealed His grace to me every day, increasingly, since that Tuesday in June and I am confident that He is the only thing that keeps me upright on the days when curling up in the fetal position and “waiting out the storm” seem like my best options. And just as He keeps me upright, I know that His grace is also the thing that empowered me to get on that plane last June and travel around the world to see His Truth in action in various tribes, tongues, and nations.

After all, the good news is universal– it is just as good and true in my life and personal need in Colorado as it is in the life of the widow and now single mother of 6 that I ate lunch with in Thailand. Or in the life of sweet Joshua, the little boy I took out to dinner from his orphanage who spent the whole time chanting, “I want a mommy and a daddy,” over and over again in English as we ate on the steps of the market. The gospel is good news in all three of our situations. We all have hope because of who Christ is and what He has done.

The Gospel is only Good because He is.

The Gospel is only true because He, Himself is faithful and true. 

No conditions, no caveats. Only absolute Truth, grace, and love in every circumstance.

“For this reason I bow my knees before the Father, from whom every family in heaven and on earth is named, that according to the riches of His glory He may grant you to be strengthened with power through His Spirit in your inner being, so that Christ may dwell in your hearts through faith– that you, being rooted and grounded in love, may have strength to comprehend with all the saints what is the breadth and length and height and depth, and to know the love of Christ that surpasses knowledge, that you may be filled with all the fullness of God.”

(Ephesians 3:14-19)