Wednesday, April 22, 2009

My Own Great Sadness

[WARNING: The following paragraphs contain slight plot spoilers for William Young's novel, The Shack. If you have not yet read the book, and don't want any plot details revealed, read on at your own risk...]

The Great Sadness is the term the author of The Shack uses to describe the feelings that the main character (Mack) experiences following the abduction and murder of his daughter (Missy). The author himself probably had experienced some kind of intense sadness or grief in his own life that tested his own faith, and was sharing how it made him feel. How else could he have written such an effective work of fiction that challenges us to think about how God relates to the suffering and evil that seems an inescapable part of our life here on Earth?

I relate to these kinds of feelings as well; I suspect most of us can. We've all experienced grief and sorrow in our lives—or if you haven't, you will… Maybe this is what makes The Shack such a popular book that, though undeniably written from a Christian perspective, seems to have universal appeal? It seems to touch on issues that at the very core of human existence—i.e., What do I do with the evil and suffering that are so prevalent in the world… and are often part of my own personal story?

I definitely feel my own version of the Great Sadness—I suspect that though they may have similar elements everyone's Great Sadness is unique. Almost a year ago now, I lost my daughter Hope two days after she was born. They told me everything was fine; I believed them. Unfortunately, they were wrong. I was blindsided… totally unprepared for what happened that day at Franklin Square Hospital. That day, a wave of sadness swept over me like a flood and I was sent spinning like an autumn leaf before the gale of a Noreaster. I've been struggling to find my bearings ever since. A year later, I begin to find some grounding again and healing has begun, but my new tether is not secure yet…

I think I was so numb at first that I didn't realize just how much what happened disrupted my life. It's almost a year later, and the initial shockwave of grief has passed, and my wife and I begin to settle into a new "normal" mode of living. That new normal includes the fact that one of our daughters only lived for two days. After almost a year of doing not much more than surviving each day, Laurie and I can actually start living again. And as we do we stop and ask: "What the heck just happened?" In other words, after what I have just lived through, how goes it with my soul? And the irony is that now that I finally can ask the question… I find it hard to give an answer.

I've certainly done a lot of thinking and praying about what has taken place. I struggle so hard to make sense of something that is totally senseless. Many times I process what I am thinking best through the written word. Out of my pondering this came two descriptions of how The Great Sadness has felt to me…

A wet blanket or wet clothes. Think about how you feel when you go outside in the wintertime to work or play in the snow? At first you feel comfortable and warm but eventually the heavy clothes you wear to stay warm get wet as the snow and cold penetrate the layers. Now you aren't warm anymore, you are wet and cold and the clothes hang on your body and weigh you down—in short, you feel pretty miserable. You pretty soon want to go inside and get out of the wet clothes and snuggle up by the fire with a cup of hot cocoa. The grief and sadness I have felt in recent months can be a little bit like that. The major difference is that there has been no obvious "warm fire" or "hot cocoa" for me to retreat to—or perhaps they are just harder to "find". I often just feel alone in the cold with the heaviness hanging over my body refusing to let go. I struggle to give it expression… but it is my constant companion, always lurking not far away from the surface of my thoughts.

Oppressive humidity. Think about one of those days we sometimes have around here (in the mid-Atlantic) in the summertime when you almost feel like you can cut the air with a knife. They always say that it's not the heat so much as it is the humidity that gets to you—usually they are right. On those hazy, hot, humid, stagnant days the slightest exertion begins to take its toll on you; it takes nothing to break out in a sweat. The Great Sadness kind of feels like oppressive humidity; it sort of hangs over your life and slows you down. Though you still manage to function and do the things you have to do, it just seems to take more energy than it did in the past. I often feel like my energy for life is completely sapped; I feel tired all the time, and I wonder if I am "okay." But honestly, I think it's the impact of the grief and sadness that has enveloped my life in recent months—this improves with time, but restoration of Spirit comes slowly especially when you have two children under the age of four who make it difficult to get that much time alone (or with my wife) to contemplate what has happened to me (us).

It's sometimes hard for me to give expression to what I feel about all that has happened, but I know that am still "sad" in my Spirit. This really came into my mind as I was praying at the altar on Good Friday this year. The closing scene of The Passion of Christ was playing on the screen, and Jesus was saying "My God! My God! Why have you forsaken me?" I have so related to that phrase this year. At the altar, I just kept thinking and praying: "God I am so sad… I am so sad. I don't want to be sad anymore." (And I begin to realize that the sadness of Spirit I feel is not just about losing my daughter, though that has been the event that brought it to the forefront of my thoughts at this moment in time.)

I can so relate to the kinds of questions that Mack asked in The Shack: How could a loving God allow all this pain and suffering into our life? In my specific case, I often find myself thinking: "My wife and I give so much of ourselves to serve God's Church, how could God do this to us?!" Kind of presumptuous of me I suppose, but I still go there. I act as if God has capriciously singled us out for hardship. In my head, I know this isn't the case… but my heart hurts, and is not as easily convinced. Healing comes… but once again, the journey to restoration and wholeness is painful and long.

Like Mack, all I have lived through has shaken my faith in God to its very core—I hope that's okay for a pastor's spouse to admit ☺. It has been a difficult road to walk to say the least, and I have been worn down by the journey. I don't understand the way things have unfolded in recent years, and it causes me to question God… even doubt his nature at times.

But at the end of the day there is one thing I don't question. Deep down at the core of my being, despite the fact that I don't understand many things right now, I still know I believe. I continue to lift up God in praise every Sunday and help lead our congregation in worship. I am thankful to God for giving me the strength to move forward day-by-day. I am thankful to my family (and church family) for their continued love and support during difficult days. I am certainly hoping that "better" days lie ahead for my family, but in the meantime, I want to learn the Apostle Paul's secret—he seemed to have learned how to trust God no matter what his life circumstances were.

Hope's death was, is, and will always be tragic, but I hope and pray that God can somehow bring good out of tragedy. I begin to see glimpses of how that might happen in our lives. It's probably too early to say much definitive but I do believe things are beginning to happen for both Laurie and me. For example, I think that as a result of living through the great tragedy and sadness of losing my daughter, God is gently leading me to accept and admit the significance of the true Great Sadness of my own life to date—the impact that growing up with a mentally ill mom from a very young age has had on the entire trajectory of my life. I pray that in time, I will be able to learn more of the "lessons" that the hardship and suffering in my life is trying to teach.

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