The Gift of Grief and the Thing I Heard in Portland

“If we honestly face the sadness of life in a fallen world, then only our hope in Christ can preserve us from insanity or suicide.” – Larry Crabb

That’s an intense statement, and I sort of choked when I read it for the first time. But the more I chew on it, and the more I ponder my own life with its episodes of emotional and intellectual crisis, the more I think it’s correct.

I spent three years working as an ER/Trauma nurse in an urban hospital in the States, and that bloody, chaotic trauma room forced me to “honestly face the sadness.” Those were dark days indeed; I was ill-prepared, psychologically and theologically, to deal with the darkness and the depth of the pain I witnessed. I was far outside of the Christian bubble, and reality bit hard.

For many people, moving across cultures, often to developing places, serves as their wake-up call. Missions becomes their trauma room, where they see suffering and poverty and grief up close and personal. People often move to Cambodia bright-eyed and in love, and then after a few months, or perhaps a year, the accumulation of the poverty and the corruption and the darkness forces them to “honestly face the sadness.”

Have you seen that happen?

Of course, the sadness was present in their affluent passport countries too, but money and familiarity have a way of disguising and hiding pain, like gold lacquer on cardboard.

But when the suffering is really seen, honestly, it does what Martin Luther wrote about nearly 500 years ago; it “threatens to undo us.” Of course, it doesn’t have to undo us, but it certainly threatens.


The Gift of Grief
“[W]hen we are able to maintain the fiction that life is tolerable at worst, and quite satisfying at best, we sacrifice an appreciation for the two center points of our faith: the Cross of Christ and His coming. The Cross becomes the means by which God delivers us from something not really too terrible, and the Coming is reduced to an opportunity for a merely improved quality of life.” – Crabb

In other words, when we blind ourselves to grief and the real sadness of the world, we risk turning the glorious reality of Eternity into a nice upgrade instead of the radical salvation of the universe and the epic righting of all wrongs that it certainly is.

Now, I hate grief. I really do. I don’t like being sad and I don’t particularly like listening to peoples’ sad stories. But for whatever reason, God has brought me to a place where I now regularly get e-mails from people that say, “Hey, I was told that you were the guy to talk to about my recent traumatic loss.” Awesome.

I think it’s because I don’t flee the feelings. And I don’t flee the feelings because I know that God can do amazing, restorative, centering, maturing, focusing, healing work through them. Not after the feelings, not around the feelings, but through them.

I am absolutely convinced that grief is a gift that the Church needs to learn to deal with. Grief has the potential to refocus us on the Eternal, if we’ll let it. Grief and loss guard us against the temptation to degrade Heaven into a distant and entirely non-applicable theory, instead of the life-altering reality that it is.

“When hints of sadness creep into our soul, we must not flee into happy or distracting thoughts. Pondering sadness until it becomes overwhelming can lead us to a deep change in the direction of our being from self-preservation to grateful worship.” – Crabb

Worshipful grief is potent and eyes-open.

It’s also evangelistic.

Worshipful grief communicates to those outside the Church that we’re not morons whose faith completely disconnects from reality. We are, in fact, in tune with the way things are precisely because of our faith. And because of our faith, we can grieve with hope, something that secular philosophy and humanism simply cannot provide.

What Happened in Portland
Portland is a beautiful city in the Pacific Northwest of the United States. It’s also where my sister lives, so last year I left a very hot and dirty and brown Phnom Penh and landed in a cool and beautiful and green Portland.

I bought blueberries by the gallon and ate them by the handful.

And I was angry.

Why do these people get to live here? In this place that’s so safe and gorgeous? Why do they get berries and public services and English? And why are they all in shape and appear to have just disembarked from a travel magazine?! (To be clear, I realize that not all of Portland fits this, but my sister lives in a suburb, and yeah, it pretty much all fits.)

There’s a public park close to her house, and they’ve got a fully shaded state-of-the-art playground with grass and towering pine trees. The whole place smells like a pine forest because the whole place is a pine forest. And did I mention it was also just a small city park?

Anyways, there was a trail around the lake and I of course took it. I passed picnics and happy people on stand up paddle boards. I passed ducks and geese, and I swear they’d all read the book “How to Pose for a Postcard.” I heard laughing kids.

And I was angry.

And then I got to a waterfall, clear and sharp, loudly mocking me with its falling waters. It was astoundingly beautiful and embarrassingly infuriating. And so I cried.

I cried to myself and I cried to God.

I mourned the loss. I grieved the fact that I lived in a concrete box with bars on the windows and karaoke and neighborhood cats that liked to work out their differences very loudly and very after-hours.

I did what I counsel people to do.

I named the losses, I felt the losses, and I talked with God.

And in one of those rare occurrences when I sense God speaking back to me, I felt God say, “Yes, you have lost something. Yes, you have given up some stuff. But what I have asked you to sacrifice I have not asked you to sacrifice forever. I have asked you to postpone.”

Now I was listening.

“I will bring you back here, on the New Earth, in Eternity, and all that is good and lovely and beautiful about this you will experience again.”

And then I cried some more, but different tears.

Sweeter tears.

His words, had they been preached to me by a hard-nosed theologian, would have grated and rubbed raw. But on that day, in a city park somewhere north of Portland, his words were like falling water, cooling and calming and stirring in me deep peace.

And his words still resonate.

His words reminded me of Truth my heart desperately needed – all is not lost. There will be a resurrection and the restoration of all things.


Why it’s a Gift
This oxygenating reminder, this reminder of Eternity, did not happen in spite of my grief. It happened because of it. It didn’t come through an attempt to erase grief or diminish loss. It came through mourning and boldly naming the loss.

And although I do not like it and I wish it weren’t so, grief is often the mechanism for drawing our hearts and souls back to God and the eternal intimacy he’s promised.


An Unforced Gift
Don’t miss out on the focusing ability of grief. It is a gift. But remember, like most gifts, this gift is best received without force. These are not truths to preach at someone in pain.

There are times for non-preaching, when grief bleeds and souls mourn. For these times, I still just recommend a gentle hug, quiet presence, and the often ungiven gift of silence.

Preach heaven to the Church. Preach Hope to the Church. But watch your timing. Preaching to someone in pain is an awfully cheap and cowardly substitute for simple incarnation.


The Gift of Music
Music can give voice to the soul, especially in the areas of grief and Eternity. In fact, mourners and poets often instinctively connect feelings of grief with longings for Heaven. One researcher, in his essay entitled “Recovering the Theology of the Negro Spirituals” showed the connection: “The eschatology of the spirituals emphasized heaven. Roughly forty percent of the compiled spirituals dealt with heaven as a primary theme.”

Likewise, for me, music is often a balm and lifeline. Here are a few songs about heaven that have ministered to me in my grief.


“We are citizens of heaven, where the Lord Jesus Christ lives.  And we are eagerly waiting for him to return as our Savior.”  Philippians 3:20

“I heard a loud shout from the throne, saying, ‘Look, God’s home is now among his people! He will live with them, and they will be his people. God himself will be with them. He will wipe every tear from their eyes, and there will be no more death or sorrow or crying or pain. All these things are gone forever.’ And the one sitting on the throne said, ‘Look, I am making everything new!’ And then he said to me, ‘Write this down, for what I tell you is trustworthy and true.'”  Revelation 21:3-5

“My Father’s house has many rooms; if that were not so, would I have told you that I am going there to prepare a place for you? And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come back and take you to be with me that you also may be where I am.”  John 14:2-3