I continue to wrestle not only with the issue of suffering and grace, but also the book I am attempting to write on the matter. What tone should I take? Should it be more academic, more of a personal reflection, or more essay based? The following is part of the latter effort.
Walking in Grace
On January 18, 2013 I posted this short reflection on my blog.
A poor analogy but the best one I can think of to explain what life is like surviving, “living beyond,” the death of our son.
It is a bit like being forced to wear a pair of painful, ill-fitting shoes. They hurt like hell and make you limp, wince, and cry, but you can’t take them off. The only way to ease the pain is to start walking, to break them in. Blisters form, then calluses, and the limp begins to settle in. After a while, months or years, I don’t know yet, I imagine that you begin to think less and less about what shoes you are wearing and most people won’t notice the limp and the occasional wince.
In the meantime, it just hurts.
I am the first to admit it is not a great analogy, but I continue to expand upon it. Imagine that those shoes, as ill-fitting as they are, look great. Other people may never know that those shoes cause me deep pain, that I am only able to walk about through the day because of continued effort that allows the calluses to form protective barriers, that each step requires such a force of will that I never needed before I put on those shoes. What they may see, if I am coping well, is a well-dressed person headed to work, going about their day. The shoes look fine, nice even, and my stride may halt or falter a bit, but nothing too out of the ordinary, just someone living life as usual. When we suffer deep loss, nothing is “usual” any more.
C. S. Lewis is well known for his analogies and while I believe I had read A Grief Observed when I was younger, I do not know if his foot-related comparison was in my mind in those weeks after Mack’s death or not. Many people have reminded me of it.
“To say the patient is getting over it after an operation for appendicitis is one thing; after he’s had his leg off is quite another. After that operation either the wounded stump heals or the man dies. If it heals, the fierce, continuous pain will stop. Presently he’ll get back his strength and be able to stump about on his wooden leg. He has ‘got over it.’ But he will probably have recurrent pains in the stump all his life, and perhaps pretty bad ones; and he will always be a one-legged man. There will be hardly any moment when he forgets it. Bathing, dressing, sitting down and getting up again, even lying in bed, will all be different. His whole way of life will be changed. All sorts of pleasures and activities that he once took for granted will have to be simply written off. Duties too. At present I am learning to get about on crutches. Perhaps I shall presently be given a wooden leg. But I shall never be a biped again.”C.S. Lewis, A Grief Observed. (Lacking page numbers from my notes.)
It is also an apt analogy. We who have lost a loved one, especially one as close as a spouse or child, have lost a critical part of our being. We are no longer whole. I do think the analogy falls down a bit since people usually notice when someone has a prosthetic limb. Most people do not know when we are grieving or suffering. When Lewis was writing, he and his society had come through two world wars. Many men in Britain made their way painfully along the streets and lanes maimed and scarred, physically and emotionally, from those battles. The nation understood that and often showed their respect and gratitude to their warriors. Sadly, today many of our veterans again move about our communities on crutches, in wheelchairs, and with artificial limbs. The legs are no longer wooden and offer a greater amount of mobility and comfort to the injured, but they live with the reality they shall never be whole again.
These are the outward evidence of the wounds we bear. But what about the wounds that never appear on the flesh? Anyone who enters and survives battle leaves changed, altered internally if not externally. The truth is that we all have seen battles, we all carry our wounds. Some of us are graced with a time of…well, grace. A few years or perhaps even decades where our conflicts and struggles are not more than puberty and a few personal rejections. But the majority of us carry deep hurts. The majority of people this world, and even of such an affluent country as the United States, experience hunger, poverty, prejudice, and loss that wound and maim. Whether we realize it or not. And once that happens, we are not and never will be the same. Whether we realize it or not.
In those moments we can feel isolated and alone. The truth is that we are alone. The grief and pain that we each feel at the loss of something is unique, it is our own. Mack was a well-loved boy, not just within our immediate and extended family, but in the community. Each of us missed him in different ways; we each grieved in different ways. His buddies on his soccer team (the State College Celtics FC) missed their goalkeeper who kept them in close games and won them a few by his skill. They missed their silly friend who made them laugh. And likely for the first time in their lives they were realizing that this life comes with loss. Each had their own relationship with Mack and their own, unique loss they were trying to cope with…at the age of eight. They were surrounded by people who loved them and Mack, but they each had to take that perilous interior journey on their own.
It was true as well even for those of us closest to Mack. As his parents, Elizabeth and I obviously felt this enormous void, yet that hole in each of our lives was not the same. Elizabeth looks at images of Mary and the child Jesus and remembers holding her little boy. She takes strength from reflecting on Mary’s loss and remembers the moments that only a mother has with her child. I pick up and reassemble the LEGOs that Mack and I put together together and remember the silly joys we shared. Those LEGOs are icons, no less holy to me than the Pieta. Neither of us grieves more or less than the other; we grieve together, each in our own space of pain and memory. But we grieve together.
The Grace of Together
How do we walk on, lacing up those painful shoes or putting on that prosthetic leg each morning? How do we carry on, day after day? We must begin by being open to and accepting the grace that is offered to us.
Returning to Genesis, consider the situation of Adam and Eve after they had chosen to forge their own path, a path that led away from God. Once they were confronted with their disobedience and the consequences of their decision, God punished them he does not abandon them. God provides for them.
Gen. 3:21 And the Lord God made garments of skins for the man and for his wife, and clothed them.
There, in the midst of their new self-awareness of nakedness, shame of sin, and overwhelmed with the realization that their whole world was literally changing, never to be the same, they are graciously provided with warmth and protection. Granted, compared with what they have just lost it is not much, but it is comfort.
It is a small passage, one verse before we move on to what many also see as another act of grace, removing humanity from the Garden so that they may not eat of the Tree of Life and live forever with their new knowledge. Yet it serves as a reminder that in our own time of grief God remains with us, offering us comfort that we would do well to accept.
How often are we in the midst of our own frustration and hurt when someone offers us some seemingly small kindness. In the face of the loss of a child, a chicken casserole can seem absurd and yet it is grace. That simple offering removes from us the need to think about groceries, cooking, and the day-to-day duties that we must eventually get back to, but in mourning are simply too much to consider. It also shows the other person’s love and allows them to participate in our grief as well. It is also just for a time. (Although we found a green bean casserole, the one with the dried onions on top, in our basement freezer three years after Mack had died. Some things last longer than others.) We who grieve must be willing to accept these small acts as and when they come, not only for ourselves but for the blessing of the giver as well.
It was just some basic clothes, hardly anything in comparison to what the Man and the Woman had just lost, had just given away. Yet they were sacramental. According to the Book of Common Prayer, “sacraments are outward and visible signs of inward and spiritual grace.” Those clothes of skin were not simply to provide protection and physical comfort, but were also symbols, reminders of God’s continued presence with them as they left the safety of the Garden.
This is a biblical truth found not just in one small verse; it is throughout the Bible. God is present, God is with us. Consider when God first told Moses that he had heard the prayers of his people and was sending him to bring them up out of their captivity.
Ex. 3:11 But Moses said to God, “Who am I that I should go to Pharaoh, and bring the Israelites out of Egypt?” 12 He said, “I will be with you; and this shall be the sign for you that it is I who sent you: when you have brought the people out of Egypt, you shall worship God on this mountain.”
No doubt Moses was more than a bit nervous or scared, leaving aside the whole burning bush for a moment, the prospect of taking on the Egyptians was undoubtedly a point of concern. In fact, Moses objects three times to God’s calling him to this task. But notice God’s very first response to him: “I will be with you.”
“I will be with you.” It is the same assurance that was given to Gideon when God called him to deliver his tribe from the Midianites. “The angel of the Lord appeared to him and said to him, “The Lord is with you, you mighty warrior.” (Judg. 6:12) Like Moses, Gideon was not so sure this was a mission that he wanted. Like most of us, Gideon considered the world he lived in and wondered, “But sir, if the Lord is with us, why then has all this happened to us?” (Judg. 6:13)
Why? Because humanity continues on the path that we chose in the Garden. The very structure of the Book of Judges is ordered by the cycle of obedience and rejection of God. While Gideon had his doubts and asked God proofs of his calling, he came to accept that God was indeed with him and would guide him in walking the path before him. He followed God’s leading and “the land had rest forty years in the days of Gideon.” Yet Gideon himself eventually allowed the power and prestige that he gained through his initial obedience to lead him into greed and the Israelites into idolatry (Judg. 8:24-7). Yet God never left the Israelites, indeed he has never left humanity.
As God calls Mary, like Gideon, into a time of trial and difficulty he declares to her, “I am with you.” Everything about Gabriel’s announcement to Mary was fraught with fear and anxiety. Betrothed, but not yet married, she was now pregnant. Rather than bringing 40 years respite to a portion of Israel, this time the angel was declaring that the salvation of the world was at hand and it would come through Mary. Yet that salvation would only come through the loss of her baby boy. For all the assurance of the angels, I am sure she grieved no less than any other mother.
Luke 1:28 And he came to her and said, “Greetings, favored one! The Lord is with you.” … 30 The angel said to her, “Do not be afraid, Mary, for you have found favor with God. 31 And now, you will conceive in your womb and bear a son, and you will name him Jesus. 32 He will be great, and will be called the Son of the Most High, and the Lord God will give to him the throne of his ancestor David. 33 He will reign over the house of Jacob forever, and of his kingdom there will be no end.”
When Gabriel spoke to Mary he spoke to all the world, since through Mary, Jesus, God’s only and eternal son, came into this world “to share our human nature, to live and die as one of us, to reconcile us” to God, the Father of all. His name is Emmanuel, “God with us.” So it was that he literally walked with us, through hardships, suffering, and death.
“The Lord is with you.” This is the grace of God, the freely given gift that enables us to continue to move through this world, even while looking for the complete healing that will only come in the world to come. Jesus himself offered the same encouragement to the disciples on multiple occasions, most notably his last words recorded in the Gospel of Matthew. “And remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age” (Matt. 28:20).
We are not in the Garden, we are not the First Woman or First Man with complete freedom to determine our destiny. When they stepped foot on that path leading out of the Garden, the world was no longer their partner, willingly offering up her fruits and comforts, but instead the land itself was cursed because of them. Thorns and thistles it brought forth, infections and cancer, hazards and hardships were now the reality of humanity. And “by the sweat of your face you shall eat bread until you return to the ground, for out of it you were taken; you are dust, and to dust you shall return.” (Gen. 3:19)
God remained with them and they knew his presence, even as they began a new life in this malformed world. Eve “bore Cain, saying, ‘I have produced a man with the help of the Lord’” (Gen. 4:1). The “help of the Lord” is likely a reference to his preserving her life in childbirth that not only had God promised would come only through pain, but in the ancient world (and in much of the world today) was a major cause of death for women. She knew God was with her and helped her through that time of pain. past the shadow of death, that resulted in the life of her son Cain.
In childbirth, agonizing pain gives way to new life. As I write this we have just celebrated the 20th birthday of our daughter. It was a day that used to rank as the most frightening of my life. Our daughter was supposed to be born in late October, early November; she was more than two weeks late. Elizabeth, my wife, was to be induced and we checked into the hospital late in the evening with the expectation that the Petocin would take a while to kick in.
Her water broke almost immediately, but it would still be 18 hours of labor before Isabel was brought into this world. In between were hours of waiting and pain for Elizabeth, and a frantic hour of as many as seven doctors and nurses around her bed (and two sets of forceps) to help deliver the baby. When her doctor made the call for an emergency C-section (“the baby’s head is just too big,” she said, looking at me) they all wheeled her bed out and down the hall. I was told to wait, put on the scrubs provided, and assured that I would think they had forgotten about me, but that they hadn’t. I changed, then I called our friend and priest and asked him to pray. I waited.
A voice came over the intercom to say, “I am sorry Mr. Brady, we forgot about you. Come down the hall to room three.” As I walked into the operating room, a nurse looked up and said, “Oh, that explains it.” My wife and I are a full foot in height difference.
Throughout this time, what I kept thinking about was all the times I had taught my students about the perils of pregnancy and childbirth in the ancient and undeveloped world. I would tell them about the fact that in the Bible the majority of references to “crying out in childbirth” are in the prophets, in relation to God’s day of judgement. That in all three times when the Bible describes a woman in labor crying out she dies. I would tell my students that it is through the pain of death that life enters into this world.
I thought I would lose them both. Yet by the grace of God and our living in a modern society with up-to-date surgical facilities, they lived. And our son would be born in the same way, albeit planned and with far less anxiety, six years later.
The pain of childbirth is the beginning of new life, but it is not the end of pain.
It is understandable that of all the various promises in the Bible we cling to those of hope and reassurance: that God has created us, loves us, and redeemed us through his Son. They are true and they give us strength to come through the hardship of life. But that too, the hardship of life, is a promise of the Bible and remembering that can provide also provide us with strength and resiliency. If we expect that our life will always be filled only with moments of blessing and joy, then those hard times will be that much harder, that much more inexplicable. Our faith becomes a crystalline structure, a clear and pure vision of purpose and love. But it rigid and unyielding so that when the stones of life are thrown against it our faith may shatter.