From the Valley of the Shadow of Death

This post is an excerpt from my book Learning to See Beauty in the Wreckage, which will publish later this year.

I often think about the grief my grandparents experienced when an aunt I never knew died as a one month old baby to whooping cough.

The anticipation of pregnancy.
The joy of a new arrival.
The excitement of each new day with your baby.

But then.

The grief of losing your newborn.
The sadness of what could have been.
The despair accompanying each passing day.

After Judy’s death, my grandparents visited the cemetery each Sunday. It just so happened that the cemetery was next to a church. And while my grandparents were not people of faith, the church family would join my grandparents in their pain and suffering, comforting them, consoling them, and walking alongside them in their loss.

Through their loving kindness and compassion, my grandparents began to follow Jesus.

And man, this story tears me up everytime I share it, because my grandparents were not planning to have any more kids once Judy was born. But as a result of her premature death, they decided to have one more child.

That child was my dad.

And I am only here on this earth, very literally, because Judy died as a one month old baby.

It is tragic and horrible and beautiful. But these are the tensions we hold together right now.

Let me be clear. God did not make her die. God did not need another angel. God wasn’t testing anyone’s faith. God didn’t have a better plan for her. God was not sitting on high like a great marionette orchestrating this death for some greater good.

We live in a world that is suffering under the weight of immense pain and suffering and death in the present. But even in our pain, even through our suffering, even in the throes of death, God is there with us, surrounding us, holding us, hurting with us, grieving with us. And even in the most painful and horrific situations, God can still bring healing, still bring life, still bring transformation, and still bring hope.

God does not cause death. But God can bring life and beauty from it.

For all the pain my grandparents experienced. For all of their sufferings. For all of their grieving tears and burdened, sleepless nights and heartaches, did they know that I would be sitting here, writing these words of life and love and hope to each one of you?

And is it possible that the same eyes that shed tears of sadness on the fertile ground will one day shed tears of joy for the seeds I have planted in that ground?

Is it possible that their days of great loss and great sorrow can be redeemed, at least in a small way, through a lifetime of gratitude, joy, and blessing that I experience and pass on to others?

Is it possible that a young life did not pass away in vain but can be honored with what I do with my life, how I live it, and how I pass it on?

Beauty can, and will, come from this wreckage and devastation.

Suffering, as an end destination, is nothing but wreckage and devastation and hopelessness. It is a wasteland where nothing good is found and where misery and brokenness reside. It is the valley of the shadow of death.

But suffering, as a transformative passageway, is the ground upon which beauty flourishes, where hope is birthed. It is the morning light, the dawning of a new day, from which the first hopeful rays break over the distant horizon of the valley that causes the darkness to flee.

You may not trust these words now, but there is hope in your pain and suffering.

From the outside looking in, pain and suffering as a transformative passageway where beauty begins to spring forth, is completely counterintuitive. It is upside-down thinking to the logical mind. But for the contemplative seeker, for the humble mystic, it is the power of God that brings life from death.

Again, it’s not that we actively seek out painful situations, or enjoy our sufferings.

Suffering is a natural inevitability of this life experience that we all will face and enter into at some point in our lives.

But there is an awareness and trust that begins to develop within the contemplative seeker and the humble mystic in understanding that no matter the degree or type of suffering we are experiencing, there is something beautiful at the core of our being, at the very center of our humanity, being birthed deep within us, that transforms our pain and suffering into something extraordinarily beautiful. We are being forged with a depth and resilience into something invaluable and useful and magnificent when we are willing to face our pain and walk headfirst into our suffering, in a posture of humility, that leans into the Spirit.

For it is in this place where the transformation begins, both within us and then ultimately through us for the benefit of others.

Peace…

Brandon

Washing My Hands of God

To say that this year has been difficult is a woeful understatement. It has been seven long and painful months since Abbott died tragically on an unseasonably warm and inviting February night.

The devastating impact of his death, while reverberating deeply within our town on so many levels, knocked our smaller community back on our heels and then to our knees. Our house church, of which Abbott and his family have been an integral part over the last decade, is still completely broken.

But each week, we gather back together and hold each other and try to pick up the fragmented pieces as best we can.

How does a person even take a step forward in so much pain and suffering?

How does a group of friends walk through this pain and suffering together?

How do people hold one another in woundedness, in anger, in frustration, and in doubt?

This is all new territory.

I have to admit, for as often as I believe that I have the right words to say, the right perspective to offer, or the appropriate wisdom to counsel, I have realized that I have absolutely nothing that can remedy or alleviate the pain, or the heart ache. It is a place I rarely find myself. A place of complete helplessness.

And then, there are all of the impossibly difficult faith questions about the purpose of life, why we are here, what this life is all about, and then God’s seeming distance and indifference toward our lives in the pain and suffering.

Last year, reflecting on suffering, I wrote the following words, not knowing how prescient and true they would be for me and my friends, as we walk together in our collective grief.

“Suffering breaks us down into insufferable little parts where we can either self-destruct or cry out helplessly to God, because we are in a place where we have seemingly lost all control. Our sense of self has been shattered. Our identity has been obliterated. And it is in our place of pain through suffering where we can choose whether we make it our final destination or a transformative passageway.

That is the profound mystery of suffering.

Suffering strips away any and all control we believed we have had over people and situations. And it is in this place, our place of pain through suffering, the place where we have lost all control, where our hearts and minds can either be closed off or opened to the healing and transformative love of God.”

But it is a place where the choice doesn’t seem so easy. It’s a place where one can easily be pushed to the end of faith. It is a place where it seems like the most logical conclusion is to wash our hands of a God who has abandoned us in our sufferings, who has left us lost and alone.

That is the place where my friend Jackie, Abbott’s mom, was a couple of months ago, as she was preparing for a backpacking trip to the Pacific Northwest with a couple of her friends.

While she did not share with us everything she was thinking as the trip approached, one thing she did share was that she needed to go out into nature and just breathe and decompress and find peace and stillness. Unbeknownst to us, she was also giving God her pain and asking for a sign to know that God is with her in this place of pain, to know that God has not abandoned her.

Being that she was going to be in one of the most rainy regions of the United States, she simply asked God to give her a rainbow as a sign that she is not alone and that God is with her in this.

On the last rainy evening, utterly dejected, not having seen a rainbow over the three previous days, Jackie said that she “had words with God,” and that, in her brokenness, she was “washing her hands of God.”

She poured out her heart and soul to God in agony. She broke herself open in real and raw emotion to God by saying, “I have lost my son and I am broken and in so much pain… and the least you could do is give me a sign that you are with me in this. But you can’t even do that. I am (expletive) done with you.”

The next morning, as the sun came up against a promising blue morning sky, the ladies broke camp and were met by a husband and wife team who would be shuttling them back to the ferry. They loaded their gear into the flatbed truck and took their spots amongst the gear.

As the truck barreled down the road, Jackie, who had recently gotten a couple of tattoos after Abbott died, noticed that the lady in the passenger seat had a tattoo on her forearm, but couldn’t quite make out what is was or what it said. It wasn’t long before the truck drove onto the ferry for the short ride out of the National Park.

As they reached the other side and began to unload their gear, the man, whom they affectionately referred to as “Standing Rock,” because of his imposing stature, and his wife got out of the truck and joined the ladies at the back of the truck to help with the gear.

Jackie noticed that Standing Rock had a tattoo of baby’s foot on the back of his leg with a date just below the tattoo.

It was Abbott’s birthday.

July 9th.

Shocked and taken aback that he had a tattoo with Abbott’s exact birth date on his leg, Jackie pointed it out to her friends.

Among the surprise and chatter, Standing Rock’s wife explained that their newborn baby boy died on that date, so they each got a tattoo to commemorate his life. Moved by their story of loss, Jackie told them that Abbott died four months earlier and the date of their tattoos was Abbott’s birthday.

July 9th.

And that’s when the lady walked up to Jackie and turned her arm over to show Jackie her tattoo.

img_4515

There is a rainbow
of hope at the end
of every storm
7-9-16

There are just no words.

The rainbow.
The date.
The promise.

Never will I leave you.
Never will I forsake you.

I AM here.

I have to admit that I don’t fully understand this life, or why it has to be so full of tragedy, pain, and loss. Further, I don’t understand the mysteries of God or how all of this will fully resolve as one of the greatest stories ever told.

I really don’t.
But I do know this.

Even in our darkest hour, God does not leave us, does not abandon us.

God’s love and compassion, amidst the pain and suffering, still surrounds us and holds us.

And it is in this place where we can close off, shut down, and make our suffering a final destination, or the place where we can trust that God is truly with us and not against us, trust that God is breaking with us and is with us even in our suffering, trust that God has not left us or abandoned us or forsaken us, and trust that God’s love is always with us and enveloping us and holding us… even when our hearts are broken.

Peace and always love…

Brandon

When Words Kill

I was reflecting recently about a time a few years ago when I completely blew it.

I was picking my daughter up from a late evening practice. It was dark outside as we drove and talked about her day. I was heading south on Taylor Road in Columbus, Indiana and approaching a stoplight where there were cars already stopped three-wide.

All of a sudden, mid-sentence, a man and a woman wearing dark clothes walked out from between the vehicles and directly in my path. I slammed on the brakes and was able to avoid a disaster. The only problem is that the guy gave me a dirty look, as if I had done something wrong.

And then I did the unthinkable.

I yelled, “Watch where you are going! You idiot!”

It absolutely kills me to write that story. I never call people names. Never. I rarely get worked up enough to get angry at anyone. That is why it kills me to write that down and share it with you. You may be thinking, “Lighten up Brandon. Everyone is entitled to a little road rage now and then. Besides, that guy deserved it, right?!”

I get it.

But man, ever since that happened the Spirit had been sitting on me like an elephant. There had been a disturbance in the Force, if you will. So much so that the next day I wanted to find some time with my daughter so I could apologize to her.
She was doing her homework the next evening at the dining room table. I asked her if she had a second.

“Hey, I want to apologize to you for the way I acted and what I yelled at that guy last night.”

“Uh ok. I don’t see why you have to apologize to me though for something you did to someone else.”

She had a good point, but I couldn’t get off the hook that easily.

“The reason I have to apologize to you and ask for your forgiveness is because I have been entrusted by God and given the awesome responsibility to teach you guys by my words and actions how Jesus would be toward people… and I completely failed at that last night. Do you forgive me?”

Still thinking of ways to help me get off the hook, Anna said, “You know dad, I am not sure that the guy even heard you.”

To which I responded, “Anna, whether he heard me or not is inconsequential. It is what was in my heart, not the words I used, that was the problem. I am really sorry about that. Will you forgive me?”

Of course she did.

So why do I tell you this story?

Well, first, I want to be honest and let all of you know that just because I write a nice blog and have a cool podcast, I am still a work in progress. And that should give each of us a tremendous amount of hope.

No matter where you are in your life and no matter how close or far from God you might think you are, God always unconditionally forgives and works moment by moment to transform you into something exceedingly more beautiful and loving than you ever thought possible. It’s only by the power of God that I can see my sin clearly and ask for a new heart.

But even more, Jesus equates name-calling to murder. I know you may be rolling your eyes at this point, but hear me out. If any one of us calls our fellow human being a fool, or an idiot, we suffer the same judgment as one who commits murder.

But how can the words we use even begin to be as bad as murdering someone?

As with murder, our verbal insult or attack dehumanizes our victim. Our careless, hurtful, negative words are like daggers that penetrate deeply and then severely wound that person at the soul level.

That is how seriously we should take the words we use, because they really matter, they have a deep and lasting impact, and they can kill a person in ways we may never know or understand.

So this isn’t just Jesus creating a new law or new commandment that we ought to follow, but rather it is Jesus showing us that our words significantly matter in the lives of others and they emanate, or spring forth, from what we have in our hearts.

And from a heart that ought to work toward the healing and restoration of people, for the lifting up and edification of our brothers and sisters, for the value and dignity of every human life, and for the blessing and reconciliation of people and relationships, I significantly failed.

In the tenuous and divided country in which we live right now, where dehumanizing others and name-calling are our primary modes of operation in dealing with those whom we disagree, let us not forget that the words we use have value and power, for good or evil.

For every kid in school who is battling through bullying and harassment, contemplating his or her worth and value, and teetering on the edge of killing him or her self, let us not forget that the words we use can be the difference between life and death for others.

For every person who has been torn apart and ripped to shreds their entire life and just can’t handle another hostile and demeaning word, let us not forget that our every word can be the fatal blow or that which brings a person back to life.

Let us not forget that our divisive and hateful words are as lethal as a weapon used to murder. Let us not forget that the words we use are indicative of a deeper heart problem and the place in which our words are ultimately rooted. And let us be individuals who are cut to the core when we use careless language to hurt, wound, or dehumanize another person and then let us look inwardly to see what healing we need at the heart-level.

For the words we use can be powerful weapons that wound, kill, and destroy, or instruments of blessing, healing, and life.

Peace…

Brandon