Tuesday, May 26, 2009

The Wondrous Cross: Sorrow and Love Flow Mingled Down

[Note: This writing was orginally done back in April for Holy Week, but I never posted on my blog at the time. A version of the article appeared in the Lodge Forest United Methodist Church newsletter, The Messenger, so some of you may already have read this. Having said that, I think it is worth posting here for those that never read it...]

Many of the songs we sing in our churches every Sunday proclaim the power and wonder of the cross. But I have to ask: Do we truly appreciate that power and wonder? When asked what the significance of the cross is, the common reply is, "Jesus died on the cross so my sins could be forgiven." That answer is certainly correct and very important, but I would argue that this answer is also incomplete. I believe that we lose out on so much of the power and wonder of the cross if all we do is focus exclusively on forgiveness of sins.

There are quite a few theories of atonement—explanations of the meaning of the cross—that have been developed over the years. But no one theory sufficiently describes what happened on the cross. The fact is that what Jesus accomplished by dying on the cross contains a mystery so deep that theologians have struggled to understand it for centuries. So we need to understand and appreciate the different theories of atonement, all the while recognizing that we probably will never have the "complete" explanation .

So given all that, simply saying, "Jesus died on the cross so my sins are forgiven and I could go to heaven when I die," seems like a shallow and narrow-focused answer. It's the standard Sunday School explanation of the cross, but as we grow in our faith, we begin to long for more… (Our standard answer focuses primarily on one theory of atonement—namely substitutionary atonement whereby Jesus "takes our place on the cross" and pays the penalty that by rights should have been ours so that we can be restored to right relationship with God.) My life circumstances recently have certainly forced me to "go deeper" and to search for a deeper understanding of God as revealed in Jesus, and of the meaning of the cross in particular.

The second verse of the old hymn When I Survey the Wondrous Cross says:

See from his head, his hands, his feet
Sorrow and love flow mingled down
Did ere such love and sorrow meet?
Nor thorns compose so rich a crown?

It seems to me that as we seek a deeper understanding of the cross we have to acknowledge both sorrow and love are expressed simultaneously and merge together in a single act that defies our human understanding. What we do know is that somehow, as "love and sorrow meet" on the cross of Calvary something wondrous takes place, and a power beyond anything this planet has ever known is set free in the Universe. The aftershock of that event in history continues to reverberate down through the ages. Even death itself cannot hold it back.

Still, as finite human beings we struggle to understand and enter into this "mingling" together of two completely opposite emotions. We're not very comfortable living with the tension. So we tend to choose what we think is the "easier," more uplifting emotion of love. But is love really easier than sorrow?

I rather believe that love and sorrow are two sides of the same coin that can't be separated if we wish to fully understand the cross and the message of Jesus?

I think I particularly relate to the mingling of sorrow and love right now. In the past year, we have experienced deep feelings of love for both of our daughters, and also great sorrow over the loss of one. And we have experienced these conflicting emotions virtually simultaneously. Rebecca lived and is a healthy 11-month old but her twin sister Hope died tragically two days after birth. We've had to try and reconcile those two facts. In a few weeks we will celebrate Becca's birthday but then two days later, we will honor the first anniversary of Hope's death. This is the emotional whiplash that characterizes our life now… and will for the rest of our lives…

And friends and family also struggle to reconcile these two events. You aren't "supposed" to have a birth and a death of a child two days apart; life just shouldn't work that way… but it did for us. I honestly believe that people mean well, but sometimes they just don't know what to say. So they either say nothing… or say the "wrong" thing. Not surprisingly, people tend to urge us to focus on the love we have for Rebecca and forget all about the sorrow over the loss of Hope. But we cannot separate the two!

Even though we understand why it happens and realize that no one intentionally sets out to hurt us, when others forget Hope so easily, it brings us pain. Indeed, love and sorrow have met intimately in our lives, and while we did not choose it, we must let the two emotions flow mingled down together in our lives and see what God will do with it in our case. Perhaps in some small way, this co-mingling of sorrow and love over our daughters helps me connect with the suffering and sorrow that Christ endured on behalf of the whole world a little more than I did before. Perhaps some of you could share a similar experience that has helped you move closer to Christ and your appreciation of the passion?

I think I also connect to Christ's suffering on another level. Last May, we had to make the agonizing choice to take Hope off life support. It was clear that Hope had no hope of any quality of life on this side of eternity. We chose to take on suffering ourselves so that our child that we loved deeply did not have to suffer any longer. It was the right thing to do and really the only choice we could make in good conscience, but it was still agonizing choice to let the daughter we loved, our darling Hope, pass from life support to life eternal.

I have to wonder if God faced a similar dilemma when he looked at the creation that he loved so deeply? It had drifted so far away from his original creative design and become so corrupted by human sin that the quality of life for humanity was rapidly deteriorating and only a direct intervention could save it. God became a man in the person of Jesus and willingly took on the suffering and sorrow of the world, so that the creation that God loved so deeply did not have to continue to suffer the way it was. No longer did it have to linger on "life support". Now because of what Christ did, full, abundant, and eternal life was possible for those who chose to follow Christ in the new way of life he came to introduce to the world.

John's Gospel says that, God so loved the world that he gave his only son… Because of that great love God had for the world, the cross was ultimately the "only choice" God could make. However, the Bible also makes it clear that Jesus' decision to submit to his fate was an agonizing one. We shouldn't diminish that fact. Sometimes we tend to think it was "easier" for Jesus because he was fully God, but remember that he was also fully human so I suspect the pain he felt as he suffered and was rejected by those he came to save was very real. (If the suffering and sorrow Jesus endured wasn't "real" then I tend to doubt Christianity would have had nearly as much impact that it has had on the world over the past 2000+ years.)

Not only that, but having lived through the loss of a daughter, I have to assume that in some mysterious way, God experienced deep sorrow in watching a part of "Himself" die. Even though there came a point where Laurie and I both realized the most loving thing we could do for Hope was to remove her from life support, it was still very hard to sit there in the Neo Natal Intensive Care Unit at Johns Hopkins last May and watch our daughter die in our arms. It was probably the hardest thing either of us has ever had to do.

Likewise, God the Father ultimately allowed Jesus the Son die on for the greater good of humanity, but it had to be agonizing to watch unfold. Near the end of his ordeal on the cross, Jesus cries out, "My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?!" This suggests that there came a point where the Father was unable to bear the scene any longer, and had to turn his "face" away, and the Son was totally abandoned and alone to face his fate.

The good news is that we know suffering, rejection, and abandonment is not the end of the story. The horrible events of Good Friday mingle together with love, grace, and hope and something amazing happens between Friday night and Sunday morning. When the women went to the tomb early that Sunday, they expected to find a dead body. When they found the tomb empty, they were confused, and were filled with wonder at what had happened? But they still ultimately expected to find a dead body, just moved to a different location. It took a while the reality of what had actually happened to sink in, but when it did it began to change everything for those who followed the way of Jesus.

It was impossible, but it soon became apparent it was true: Jesus was alive! Not even death on a Roman cross could stop God as revealed in Jesus. It is the miracle on which Christians base their faith: Christ is risen… Christ is risen indeed! We celebrate that miracle on Easter, and in some way, every Sunday when we gather for worship. Even death cannot hold back God's love for creation… including you and me and every living thing. God will do extraordinary things to see that his dream for creation comes true, and that we become the people God created us to be.

It is my hope that as we begin to gain a fuller appreciation of the meaning of the cross, we will also be filled with the same sense of power and wonder that gripped those early disciples on that first Easter morning. As we do, perhaps we too will be able to experience the reality of the risen Lord in our midst in new and fresh ways.

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Friday, May 8, 2009

Remembering Hope: One Year Later

May 4 marked the one-year anniversary of Hope's death.  On Monday we went to Miranda Cemetery (which is connected to Huntingtown UMC in Huntingtown, MD, where my parents worship and where Laurie and I were married) to remember our daughter. The weather was cool and damp, certainly not very spring-like.  A light drizzle fell as we stood at the graveside, but somehow it seemed fitting.  My wife commented that it was almost as if God was weeping along with us. 


I think there may be something to Laurie's analogy of tears from heaven because I think God stands with us when we experience sorrow and in some strange way that defies human understanding, experiences the same emotions we do. I still don't, and probably never will, know why we had to go through all that we went through the last couple of years.  I struggle with many doubts and questions, but deep down I know that God has been, is, and will continue to be with us in the midst of all that we do.  Though I've struggled to "recognize" God recently, God has never left us.


Sandy Taylor (the pastor that mentored Laurie when she entered ministry, married us, baptized both Hope and Becca, and presided over Hope's funeral) was present, as well as both Laurie's and my parents. We placed flowers on Hope's grave and the arrangement included two pink roses.  The story behind the roses is that on the day the girls were born Laurie's mom bought two pink roses to the hospital.  One of the roses opened and bloomed beautifully, but the second did not…


Sandy shared a prayer, which was a modified version of words we prayed at Hope's funeral last year.  She also lit a candle in Hope's memory—yes we got it lit despite the dampness and wind.  (My father noticed that Becca's eyes seemed transfixed on the flame almost the whole time it was lit, as if she knew it was for her identical twin sister on some intuitive level.)  I also read something that I had written (words printed below), and we let Brady  "send a pink balloon to Jesus" for Hope.  It was not a long gathering, especially given the weather, but it served it purpose to honor the memory of our precious daughter whom we continue to grieve even as we move forward with life.


While it was a difficult day, it was also good to have this opportunity to pause and remember Hope.  We actually went to Annapolis Mall afterwards and saw the new Earth movie, and did some shopping.  It seemed fitting to do something fun after the time of remembrance.  Somehow, it seemed to us that Hope would have wanted us to…  We went to the Cheesecake Factory (yum!) and all (including Becca!) had a piece of blueberry cheesecake in Hope's memory. 


That night as we looked through Hope's "memory box" we both found ourselves shedding tears—yes even me!  Reading the words Laurie had written for Hope the day we buried her was very moving, as was seeing the tiny bits of her hair that we had saved. Brady was with us in bed (yes… he sleeps with us) and saw that we were sad and seemed concerned, and we did our best to explain to him that he had another sister Hope who is "with Jesus," and mommy and daddy loved her very much just like we love him and Becca, and sometimes it makes us very sad that she is not with us.  I'm not sure how much a 3-year-old comprehends that explanation, but we feel it is important that he and Becca know about Hope, and understand as best they can that her loss has made us sad, and it's okay to be sad sometimes and to ask questions about Hope if they ever wonder about her.  We also told Brady that when he expressed concern for mommy and daddy being sad, it almost instantly made us feel better—which is quite true. We seem to have a compassionate little boy who gets upset when others are sad, which is a good thing to see!


Not surprisingly we shed lots of tears this past weekend as we marked the girl's birthday and the anniversary of Hope's death, but I hope they were healing tears.  It seems like this one-year anniversary kind of marks another milestone as we walk this dark journey together and continue to seek healing and wholeness. No matter how much we try, there will always be an empty space in both of our hearts where Hope should have been.  We have to learn to "live with" that empty space and adjust to the reality that loss of a child is now a part of our story.  The passage of time helps… but it is a difficult road to travel. 


*****   *****   *****   *****


Lord of all creation, we know that you rule over all things—even death. The writer of Ecclesiastes says that there is a time to be born and a time to die  I think as human beings we expect the pain of death to be softened by the passage of time.  When someone lives a long life we still grieve their loss, but we can celebrate their long life and rejoice that they now have passed to the next phase of life.  It seems like the natural progression of life. 


But when we lose a child, none of us know what to think or feel.   (In fact, we'd prefer not to have to think about it at all!  But it's there… the empty place is palpable and I can't ignore it!) How do you reconcile someone's time to be born and time to die being so close at hand?!  It doesn't make sense! I have said many times this past year that when you lose a daughter two days after her birth: "the very cosmos seems out of whack!"  The pain of searing loss is much more harsh…. and the pain I feel is often difficult for me to put into words.  I echo Paul's words from Romans, my Spirit "groans inwardly." A Great Sadness permeates my life and I've had to learn to function in the midst of it…


Almost six years ago now, Laurie and I gathered at the church across the way to begin our journey together as man and wife.  What a beautiful day of celebration as our family and friends—including all of you—gathered together to celebrate our marriage.  On that day I spoke of a cord of three strands that would be formed by our union—God, Alan, and Laurie.  But I can honestly say that when I stood on that altar that day, I could never have imagined what lay ahead for us.  We've had many exciting  "chapters" of our story that have unfolded that past six years.  Some of these "chapters" I would not have chosen (that's the thing about life stories, is you don't get to read ahead and find out what will happen, and you can't exactly skip "chapters" you don't like either.)  But of all the "chapters" to date, none has been more difficult and painful for us than the last year since our twin girls were born.


It still sometimes seems a little surreal to me.  No parent should ever have to bury a son or daughter, and yet one year ago, we gathered in this cemetery to do just that.  Friends and family surrounded us that pretty spring afternoon as we said goodbye to our darling Hope. Since that day, Laurie and I have had to begin to weave this tragedy into the fabric of our cord of three strands. It has been extremely difficult year to say the least; our cord has certainly been stretched and strained by what we have lived through but by God's grace has not broken and I actually think it is growing stronger.   We have survived this ordeal together and I pray that in time we will find the healing and wholeness we seek and grow stronger because of what we've lived through. 


But today we still grieve.  In some ways the wounds are barely scathed over and very easily opened up again.  Today, we pause to remember the anniversary of Hope's passing and we bring our grief and sorrow before You O God…


Lord, we grieve because we got so little time to have Hope Marie with us…  Two days after she was born… she died… While we rejoice that Hope has passed from life support to life eternal, we confess that we would rather have our daughter here with us today… We don't understand why this has happened to us and perhaps we never will…  We're perplexed by what we have lived through this past year…   We grieve because we will not get to watch Hope grow up…  We grieve because her brother, and especially her twin sister, will not get to know Hope…   We grieve for so many reasons… 


We pray that You will be with us as we continue to walk through the valley of the shadow of death.  Help us to give ourselves space and time to grieve our loss, and lead us to healing and wholeness.  Help us to find the seemingly impossible balance of celebrating Rebecca's life while at the same time continuing to mourn the loss of Hope. We thank you for the support of our friends and family—both those here today and those who have surrounded us this past year. 


We ask that You take good care of our precious Hope—keep her safe in Your arms.  Though our heart hurts that she is not celebrating her birthday with her sister, we find some consolation that she is free to run with the angels.  We envision her smiling down on us today and we will always see her image reflected in the beautiful smile of her twin sister Rebecca.  We look forward to the day that our whole family will be reunited—a day with no more tears… no more pain… no more suffering.  We thank you for the promise that death is not the end of our story.  Resurrection has the last word.   In the last "chapter," good will win—life will ultimately triumph over death!  We cling to that HOPE today.  As much as we mourn the loss of our darling daughter Hope, we know our true HOPE is alive and well!  Confident in that reality we will do our best to carry on.  I pray this in the name of Jesus Christ the risen Lord.  AMEN

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