Pain is Not Un-Christian

C. S.Image via Wikipedia

One of my favourite authors is C.S. Lewis. I love his Narnia series, and I have read them out loud about five times now: once to my cousins when they were young; once as a camp counsellor; and three times to my children.

I also challenged myself a few summers ago to read through his non-fiction works, and I did. I loved Surprised by Joy (you can read my comments on it here), but I was really touched by A Grief Observed. As someone who has also gone through grief, I found it real, refreshing, and melancholy. And perhaps it was the melancholy that I liked. This wasn’t one of these “Just look to God and all will be joyful again!” type of books. This was one of those “sometimes life is just awful”. And isn’t that closer to the truth?

Today, for Good Friday, I thought it might be good to return to this question about how the dark moments fit into our lives as Christians. I think that it’s a misnomer that Christians are always supposed to be happy and nothing is supposed to get to us. God, after all, is a God who cries. Perhaps the times that we are closest to Him, Lewis once said, are not in times of ecstasy but instead in times of grief. That is when we touch God’s heart the most, and understand the tears that He shed.

I don’t think we should be ashamed of our tears, or think that it means we haven’t healed, haven’t surrendered, haven’t advanced. This world is fallen, and life is pain. God understands that. To be a Christian is not to feel no pain; it is to have God carry you when that pain comes.

I have written books about emotional healing, and I’m working on another right now. Again and again I hit a brick wall when I really dig deeply into the way the church often handles pain. We think that it is something that we need to get over, that the pain itself is somehow an aberration of life, a betrayal of faith, and something from which we must emerge.

I’m not so sure. I think joy and pain can coexist; and to think that pain must be banished is also, I believe, to banish love. Pain is simply what we feel when the object of love is taken from us. It is a loss. In that loss, we often feel God’s love much more acutely, and hence that is why pain and joy often are experienced together. But to say that a grieving parent must somehow get over their grief, or that a betrayed wife must heal from her loneliness, I find harsh. I don’t think God asks us to heal; I think God asks us to turn to Him in these times, and it is then that we are given strength, and mercy, and peace.

My mother does not pine over my father, who left her over 35 years ago. She has a full and rich life, though it did not turn out the way she would have hoped. But every year, at Christmas, when we sing a certain hymn at church, it all comes flooding back: the desperation she felt, realizing she would be a single mother at 29; the loneliness; the grief; the betrayal. Because she sang that song to me in the midst of her grief, it has the power to take her back, and she feels briefly sad again. It does not mean that God has not ministered to her; it is just a reminder that this life is hard, and that we do still bear the marks of a fallen world while we walk upon this world.

If you are bearing those marks more acutely today, I do understand. I have been betrayed by a father. I have lost a son. And I can tell you, too, that I also experience great joy. There were days, though, when I couldn’t feel God, and when it was all I could do to breathe.

I wrote a little book about it called How Big Is Your Umbrella: Weathering the Storms of Life. If you’re sick of Christian books that tell you that you should be happy, you’ll appreciate this. And if you have a friend walking through sorrow, and you don’t know what to say, it can help.

And today of all days, I hope that, if you are walking through sorrow, grief, or even just a funk, that you will still be able to turn to God, even in that pain. He is there, and often He feels closest when we feel the most vulnerable. May you feel God carry you.

When Life Really Stinks, What Do You Yell at God?

'Very cool dark clouds' photo (c) 2007, Josh - license:

I don’t think it’s wrong to yell at God. After all, most of the Psalms are just David yelling at God. I think we read them wrong. We tend to read them in a pretty reading voice like this:

“O God, where are you? I am surrounded by enemies and pressed down, and I cry out to you.”

But I think David said it like this:

“O GOOOOOOOODDDDD!!!!! Where are YOU?!? !? I am SURROUNDED by ENEMIES here, God, and I’m pressed down!!!!!”

You know what I mean? And since God knows what we’re thinking anyway, we may as well be honest and yell it out.

There have been times in my life when I’ve yelled a lot at God. When my son was diagnosed with a terminal heart defect, I was devastated. I cried. And I yelled.

But one of the things that made me scared to yell too much was the idea that I might tick God off. And if there was any chance He was going to save Christopher, I had to be picture perfect and figure out what God was trying to teach me through this.

At some level, I thought that if I could just figure out what God was trying to say, then maybe the pain would go away. Maybe Christopher would get better. Maybe the grief would lessen.

What God showed me was that I was asking the wrong questions. I was making the whole thing about me, rather than about God. And I was misunderstanding the way that God works.

If you’re having trouble walking through suffering, or if you’ve ever cried out to God and tried to figure out how to appease Him, this might help. It’s an article I wrote about some of the things that I learned when I was walking through that really hard time. Is death a punishment? Is God really mad at me? If you’ve ever felt that, I hope that these words can help you see His love through whatever storm you’re going through.

Here’s a bit:

C.S. Lewis, after the death of his wife, remarked that grief felt a lot like fear. It was the same sickening pit in your stomach that precedes something truly awful. That’s what I felt, too. But what is it, exactly, that we’re afraid of? Facing the future alone? Forgetting? Or that this feeling will never end?

Perhaps it’s a combination of all of them. After Christopher’s death I was scared simultaneously of forgetting and of never being able to cope well again. During his illness and after his death I wailed many questions at God to try to make sense out of what was happening to me. In many ways, though, this quest was self-serving. I reasoned that if I could just find the reason for this storm, then it would stop. So I searched my repertoire of explanations for suffering in order to make sense of it. As I did so, these are the questions that vexed me.

How Big Is Your Umbrella: Weathering the Storms of Life, Second EditionYou can read the rest here. It’s based on my book How Big Is Your Umbrella? Weathering the Storms of Life. I hope it helps you, too!

Song of Solomon Thoughts

I wrote in the post immediately below my thoughts about Islam and polygamy. I won’t go over them here.

But I do want to touch on Solomon for a minute.

I speak at marriage conferences throughout North America (if your church is interested in booking one, let me know!), and one thing that we often do is read humorously from the Song of Solomon to show that sex–and even rather steamy sex–is definitely a part of Scripture. So we should be able to talk about it!

But Song of Solomon has still always bothered me as a woman. Here is the bride, talking to her bridegroom, but she is obviously part of a harem, and she is worried that he’s going to go back to the other women. How can that be true love? How can this really represent the kind of intimacy that we long for? In fact, to tell the honest truth, I’ve always found it rather creepy. We know that Solomon had hundreds of wives and concubines, so this wasn’t exactly the love story that theologians often try to make it out to be (any more than Esther is a love story; that’s really particularly disgusting. But that’s for another day).

Anyway, this morning I was reading Song of Solomon in my devotions and a thought occurred to me that I believe came from God. I touched on it in the post below, but thought I’d elaborate.

We believe Scripture is God-breathed, so God is responsible for this book of the Bible. And what if He wrote it to be a wake up call to Solomon? After all, it was his wives that led to his downfall later in life. He had too many and he followed after them. What if God wanted to tell him that true love wasn’t found in a harem. It was found in one person. And that’s why this book is focused on a relationship between one man and one woman. It’s not just focused on sex; it’s focused on the totality of the relationship, and hence the reference to “my sister, my love.”

Like C.S. Lewis in the Four Loves, I think this refers to two kinds of love: both affection and eros, or even friendship and eros. Such a thing rarely occurred to ancient Middle Eastern men. Friendship was with men; women were only good for eros. Yet in Song of Solomon they refer to the bride as a sister, meaning that the relationship goes beyond eros. And that is what Solomon needed to see.

I don’t think he ever did. But the book remained in Scripture as a reminder to us of two things: Eros is beautiful and God created it, but it is meant to be expressed beautifully only between one man and one woman. And when it is, the relationship will grow much deeper.

So that’s what I take away from it. God never sanctioned polygamy, and every example in the Bible of it ended in disaster. He spoke deliberately against it in the New Testament. Yet He created eros. So we are to carry that on; let’s live passionately with our husbands, and maintain those boundaries around our marriages. That’s what brings true fulfillment. And God understands that totally.

My Bible study for Honey, I Don’t Have a Headache Tonight concentrates a lot on Song of Solomon. If you’ve ever wanted to study it in depth, you can read more here.

Who's Your Mother?

I just opened a really creepy piece of mail.

My utility company sent it to me, and the front cover says, “When’s the last time you showed your mother you love her?”. Then you open it up and all these weird pictures of women holding the earth are in there.

And it’s all about how we need to tell Mother Nature thank you, and treat her well.

Now, I’m all for protecting the environment (though I can’t get overly excited about global warming; you can read here for that).

But earth being our mother?

My husband is reading G.K. Chesterton’s book Orthodoxy right now, which is just an amazingly written book. He reads me excerpts every now and then, and they’re brilliant.

One from a few days ago was about how too often we view nature as a mother. Pantheistic religions do this when they say we are all gods. Environmentalists do this. Secular evolutionists do this. We are all here by accident, so nature created us.

The problem with this is that nature then takes on a very serious tone. If nature is our mother, she must be obeyed. We must submit to her. We must do her will.

Christians, on the other hand, see nature more like a sister, according to Chesterton. We both have the same Parent, so we can enjoy nature, we can play with nature, we can appreciate nature. In fact, nature is more like a kid sister that we love watching explore something new.

Nature is something we can laugh over, and even protect. But it isn’t something that requires such severity of thought.

It’s interesting because C.S. Lewis said something similar when it comes to sex. In The Four Loves, he wrote that those who make sex their god tend to give it a seriousness that robs it of its true beauty. Sex, the way God intended it, is darn funny. It’s almost ridiculous. And it does operate by the law that anything that can go wrong, likely will eventually. If we treat it so seriously, as the object of our life, then these little failings and foibles will seem disastrous. If, on the other hand, we realize that it was created for us, then it’s okay to laugh over it.

C.S. Lewis said, “Banish play and laughter from the marriage bed, and you let in a false god,” or something to that effect. Sex without laughter is all too severe.

I think nature is the same thing. Take away the laughter and make nature into a stern mother, a warning mother, the way society so often does today, and you remove one of the greatest joys of life. You make it so you can’t even see the humour anymore.

And that is sad.

Yes, I have told my mother I love her recently. And I will tell her again on Tuesday, on her birthday. But nature is not my mother. Perhaps I should return that letter to the utility company and tell them that?

It’s hard to believe bureaucrats get paid for this stuff.

Holding My Son After Death

I’m partway through Surprised by Joy by C.S. Lewis in the Spring Reading Thing challenge, and it’s like entering another world. He just writes so beautifully. I wish I could express things like that. It’s almost like standing and staring at a Monet painting from a distance.

Anyway, Surprised by Joy is his sorta-autobiography. He deals at length on his childhood, because, as he says, one’s childhood is always the most interesting part of one’s life, and it’s integral to understanding his conversion story. He’s only about 14 at the point where I stopped for the night, so I can’t comment on anything more.

But a few thoughts for the journey.

He differentiates Joy from Happiness. The only thing joy has in common, he believes, is that once you experience it you want it again. But unhappiness or grief could even be part of joy. It is almost an other-worldly, intense experience that is quite glorious. I know what he means.

And that brings me to what really struck me tonight. But for that I have to back up.

Eleven years ago I had a beautiful baby boy, perfect to my sight except for a defect in his heart that, much as the doctors tried, could not be repaired. You can read a little bit about his life here, in one of the first articles I published, or look at a longer book I wrote about the journey of grief here. Suffice it to say that I know how grief and joy can be intermingled.

A year after my Christopher died Katie arrived, and she has always been my huggy-bear and a great comfort. But I still miss my little peanut.

On the night that he died we actually weren’t expecting it. It was five days post-surgery, and we left the hospital at 9:30 at night to go home and get some rest. The last thing I said to him was “Mommy loves you, sweetheart.”

When the phone rang at 1:30 that morning I knew the worst had come. We hurried down to the hospital, and a doctor told us that they had done all they could.

And then they brought his body out to us.

I wish they hadn’t. There is something absolutely horrid about dead bodies, because you know they’re dead before you even touch them. You can tell. It wasn’t him. And I didn’t want to remember that way.

For my husband, holding him was catharctic. I wish I never had. Few people understand that when I explain it. After all, we live in an age when open coffins are the norm. But C.S. Lewis agreed with me, so I feel in very good company.

This is what he says after the death of his mother:

I was taken into the bedroom where my mother lay dead; as they said, “to see her,” in reality, as I at once knew, “to see it”. there was nothing that a grown-up would call disfigurement, except for that total disfigurement which is death itself. Grief was overwhelmed in terror. To this day I do not know what they mean when they call dead bodies beautiful.

I know exactly what he meant.

And perhaps it’s appropriate for me to be thinking about this on Holy Thursday, the time when Jesus was agonizing in the garden. In just a few short hours his mother would be anointing his body for burial, all the life taken out of it. It would no longer be Him.

And yet, in that moment He truly did defeat death, so that this empty shell of a human being is not all that remains anymore. And not just that, but the desecration of what was supposed to be life that the dead body shows has been redeemed, and we will one day see it in all its fullness.

I know tonight, somewhere in heaven, as the saints praise our Lamb once again, my grandmother is standing next to my son, and laughing over him. And I will join them one day, and then the image I have of Christopher will not be some desecration, but instead his glorious body that was made possible only because Jesus gave up His own body. And for that I am eternally grateful.

UPDATE: You can read my letter to Christopher on the fifteenth anniversary of his death here.

Spring Reading 2008!

Callapidder Days is challenging us to get reading!
That’s not really a stretch for me. I read all the time. So I thought to myself, what have I always wanted to read but never have? And the answer came to me.
C.S. Lewis.
Oh, I’ve read the Narnia series, of course. Out loud. Four times. And by myself about eight. But I’ve never read his other books.
So I will read them all by June (they’re not that long), and post reviews here.
But that’s not my REAL spring reading challenge. Here’s my real challenge:
While I am reading novels (which I will also do, since I do all the time), I will not insist that I finish it in one day. I will put it down occasionally, and look around me, and talk to my children.
I will not get mad if they bug me while I am reading. I will actually cook a meal every now and then. I will not get angry if the phone rings (unless it’s a telemarketer). I will not refuse to tuck them in and send Keith to do it because I’m in the middle of a “good part”. I will try to stick to four or five chapters a day, and then PUT IT DOWN.
Ugh. I’m hating just writing that. But that is my real Spring Challenge: C. S. Lewis and sanity. Think I will do it?