I’ve tried to figure out something to say about this election, but the last few days I’ve felt like a fish on a dock–reeled in, hooked by the mouth, gills gasping for air. I didn’t realize I would be this upset by this outcome…but I am. The things that I have heard from my black and brown friends and family (both the old and the young) are not my stories to tell, but they are already breaking my heart. I’m not sure what to do about it. I’m not able to let go of the anger I harbor in my heart towards our president-elect and those who helped get him into power. In fact, doing so feels like it would be a betrayal of people I love and want to protect.
So, I’m going to post instead what I wrote for our campus chapel service exactly one week before the election. The topic? Loss. I wrote it with my mother on my mind but yet…this election feels like a loss, like a death, to me. It isn’t something I will or want to get over any time soon. I want to sit with it and figure out what in the world to do. I need to read my own “sermon” to myself. Would you like to read it too?
“Be gracious to me, O LORD, for I am in distress; My eye is wasted away from grief, my soul and my body also.” Psalm 31:9
How many of you here have experienced loss before? The loss I am talking about is not the frustration of losing something important, or losing a distant relative that you barely saw, or losing at a game, or any of the other more superficial losses that aren’t fun, but that pass out of your brain and life fairly quickly.
The loss I am talking about is that type of loss that hits you right in the gut when you wake up in the morning. Or maybe for you, there is little separation between asleep and awake, because this loss finds you even when you are dreaming.
For most of us, this loss is a person. Perhaps they have died, or maybe they have just gone away to where you cannot reach them. Maybe this person was someone who was very dear to you, or maybe your relationship with them was always difficult and full of conflict. Maybe both. Perhaps it was a very close family member, or a romantic relationship…you thought that you loved them, or that they loved you, but it didn’t work out. Maybe it was a friendship that you thought would last forever, but it didn’t.
Sometimes loss isn’t a person at all—but an idea. There might be something you think that everyone else seems to have, and you don’t. The idea of a functional family, or a parent, or a best friend, or the perfect boyfriend or girlfriend, or a physical, emotional, or mental characteristic about your own self that you feel like you wear like a neon sign. Or perhaps it is something that was taken from you—something you didn’t want or ask for…that you wish had never happened to you so that it wasn’t now a part of the daily fabric of your inner being.
Whatever the thing is, or whomever the person was—this type of loss isn’t something that you just “get over”, is it? It lingers…it sticks with you…it bugs you…it haunts you. You hear a sound, or a song, you smell a smell, and suddenly—there is that loss right next to you, as fresh as the day it happened. But…you pack it away, don’t you? You smile…partly because that is what the world expects, and partly because you simply have to if you want to get through your life every day.
I lost my mother this past August. I was holding her hand as she took her last breath. I saw the part of her that made her “her” go right up out of her body and away to whatever happens next to that part of ourselves. I was so glad I was there, but it was so hard, and I will never forget it as long as I am still alive.
As hard as it was to see her go, there was relief in it. She had had a degenerative cognitive disease that gradually took away everything from her, including her ability to recognize me as her daughter, or my children as her grandchildren. This process took a decade. In the months before her death, she was unable to do anything independently, including use the bathroom, feed herself, or walk. When she talked, we could no longer understand anything that she said. So when I saw her finally at the point where she could escape her diseased body and brain that had come to fail her so badly—I was glad…in a way.
But the past 10 years were terribly painful. My mother refused to acknowledge her disease, which meant that I never was able to talk to her about it. I was very angry about that for a long time. Sometimes I still am. Several years ago, I was almost unable to handle watching someone around my age be with their mother without feeling rage or deep sadness. I would see a mom and daughter out shopping together, or eating lunch, and I’d just have to look away, or leave. After I had my first son, looking at Facebook pictures and/or hearing stories from my friends about their moms taking their kids to the park, or spending the weekend with them, or anything really…were incredibly painful to me. Sometimes—they still are. In these moments, like the Psalmist—my eyes could not see clearly—they were wasted by grief. Like the Psalmist, my soul and my body were distressed. Can some of you relate to what I am talking about?
The sadness and emotion and pain that comes from experiencing a loss has to go somewhere. Not dealing with it means that you will turn your pain in inward upon yourself. Everyone does that differently. Some people become very depressed; others harm their bodies by cutting or starving themselves. Some people numb the pain by eating or drinking too much, or with drugs, or by being as successful and driven as they possibly can, or as desperately positive as they can be, or by zoning out on their social media of choice. Still others try to drown it out with as many people and laughter around them as possible, or as much music or noise as they can.
All of these are bandaids. They may actually work for awhile—but if you stick with these strategies for too long, eventually your mental sanity will erode. We all know people who stay locked into cycles involving some of things I mentioned above and never, ever break free. To break free, or to avoid going there in the first place, it takes the commitment and choice to confront your pain in real and authentic ways. And that is harder than avoiding it.
In the past decade, I have chosen several of the avoidance tactics that I described above. They sort of worked for awhile, until one day I found myself unable to get up and come to work, or eat, or take care of my son. That day, I realized I had to make a change. Since then, I have spent the last three years in fairly regular counseling in large part to work through some of these emotions. I can’t speak highly enough of mental health counseling, and I urge those of you who have suffered a loss like or similar to the ones I described earlier on to seek help. There is no shame in needing to talk to someone trained to help people work through these sort of things. There is no shame in having depression, and no shame in needing medication to help you get your brain back in balance, for a period of time or maybe even for life. This is where I am, and I can’t believe I waited so long to get the help I needed.
So where is God in the middle of loss and pain? If I knew the answer to that question, then I would be wiser than most of the philosophers in all of history—and I’m not. Thousands of pages, and thousands of hours of thought have been devoted to trying to figure out where God is when bad things happen, especially to good people. If you take a class with Dr. Gibbs, you might have the opportunity to write a paper on this subject.
But here are some of the things that I do know—not just because the Bible says so, but because I feel them in the core of my being every single time I wake up in the morning.
- First, I know that God is there. The first book of Romans says For since the creation of the world, God’s invisible qualities, his eternal power and divine nature, have been clearly seen, being understood from His workmanship so that men are without excuse.” I have seen the evidence of God in the lives of the non-Christians and Christians around me, and in the beauty of the world, and I cannot be an atheist, even as much as I sort of want to be sometimes.
- The second thing I know is that God loves us. In fact, God cannot stop loving us, or help but love us, because we are his creation, no matter how unlovable we feel that we are, or whatever unlovable things that we have done, or whatever unloving things have happened to us in our lives. God loves us no matter how long we stay away from his presence, or whether we come to him every day.
- Lastly, I also know that God will not take away the pain of your loss. If you are praying in this way, or coming to church hoping that He will, you will likely be disappointed.
So now you may be thinking…then what good is God then? What is the point of having a God if this God does not make my life better?
It may be that you are asking the wrong questions.
It seems to me that God has spent considerable energy trying to get us to simply draw closer to him. He has given us the Bible, which helps us understand who he is through the writings of people whom he has drawn close to and who have drawn close to him throughout history. He has given us Jesus, who shows us how God acts and how he loves, in a human way that we can understand. In Jesus’ life and in his death, the gap between God and man is bridged. And then he gives us his Holy Spirit, which we can see in others and find within ourselves when we ask.
I think one of the most powerful ways we can draw close to God is just simply to be silent before him. We tend to think of prayer as being words, whether we are asking God for things, or whether we are asking him to work inside of us. But being silent is equally, if not more, powerful. I would like to challenge you, and in challenging you I am speaking also to myself, to find even just 5 minutes of silence in your day to be quiet before God. This is really REALLY hard when you are a college student, I admit. Especially if you live on campus and have no car, it is very difficult to find a place to be truly alone. BUT…I ask you to try. Find a comfortable position to sit or lay, set your phone to silent, and set the alarm for five minutes. Ask God to bless your time with Him, and then close your eyes. Do not actively pray, but rather just feel God at work in your heart. If you have thoughts that distract you—try to let them pass away like sand in an hourglass.
The more you do this, the easier it gets, and the longer amounts of time that you can do it. The first time I tried it, I felt like I became aware of the part of me that is my soul for the very first time. Tears came to my eyes, and I felt fear that I didn’t realize I had drain away from me. What I am talking about is called Christian meditation. It draws on practices that are very related to Eastern religions, but yet is still grounded in Christian prayer and ideas. There are a couple of great books and websites to look at if you are interested in learning more. When I do this meditation regularly, I experience great peace in my inner being, even when I am not in the middle of this quiet time and just going about my daily life. Everyone’s experience is very different, so do not feel bad if you try it and feel nothing, especially at first. The goal is not to feel—the goal is to draw near to God.
Of course it is also important to pray with words sometimes. But I have found that sometimes I do not know what to say to God, and it feels awesome just to be able to come into his presence without needing to say anything. Or if doing this kind of meditative prayer doesn’t work for you, just figure out something that does. There are so many ways to approach God. And the amazing thing is that God is always there, waiting for you, loving you. Never disappointed, never chiding you for not coming sooner. There is only love.
I began this by speaking about loss, and the pain that this loss brings into your life. Drawing near to God will not erase your pain. Drawing near to God does not mean that your sadness will be gone, or that your problems will be solved, or your depression will lift. However, drawing near to God WILL help you reframe your loss, your pain, and your sorrow. You will see your loss in a new light. You will experience more and more periods of time where the pain of this loss does not overwhelm you. More and more, you will feel a peace that passes understanding that you will not find in any other place. All you have to do is ask and then remain quiet so that your heart can hear the answer.
“Come near to God and he will come near to you.” James 4:8
“And the peace of God which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus.” Philippians 4:7