My Son Needed the Love of the Church. I Wasn’t Sure It Was Possible.

Including the cognitively disabled in ministry is a chance to live in a cross-shaped way.

Jennifer Brown Jones| May 8, 2019

“NO! I NOT QUIET!” The meltdown began—of course—just as the prayer was starting. My husband grabbed our son Mischa’s hand and left the sanctuary, as quickly and quietly as possible. It wasn’t quiet. I have no idea what the worship leader was praying, but my own desperate cry had become almost rote: “Lord, I can’t do this. Help. I’m so tired. I don’t remember not being tired. I can’t do this.” The lights came up and people began greeting one another. I took a breath, preparing to apologize. Again. We wouldn’t be able to come back to this church.

First appeared on May 8, 2019 on Christianity Today where the rest of the article is available.

True Faith in the Tears: A Time for Lament

Songs of Praise, Songs of Lament

Have you ever stood in church on the verge of tears as you sing a worship song? Maybe the tears actually flowed. But why? Was it because you were so overwhelmed with the goodness of God that you were singing about? Was it because your heart was breaking and you could only sing them as a cry for help? Or maybe you couldn’t sing at all.

While God has been using the some of the hymns in the Psalter in my life this summer, these songs aren’t the only psalms that I’ve been turning to. As I mentioned, the hymns are part of a group of psalms that OT scholar Walter Brueggemann has called “psalms of orientation.” But the Psalter also includes “psalms of disorientation,” often in the laments. (Psalms 13, 35, 74, 79, and 86 are some examples.)

Lament isn’t a word that you hear very often these days. To lament means to express deep grief. In the Bible, the laments express individual or communal loss to God. They can reflect individual circumstances or a community’s experiences. While the laments are widely represented in Scripture, especially in the Psalms, they don’t tend to be widely used in our churches. Why not, though? Brueggemann offers two possible explanations:

  1. Praise instead of lament my represent a defiant faith that proclaims God’s goodness in spite of what we see and experience.
  2. We may be ignoring or denying circumstances that are part of a reality that we don’t want to (or are unable to) face.

Brueggemann may be on to something here. How often do we paste on a smile right before we walk in the church doors? Can we admit that we’re angry, broken, or hurting to our church community? How about to ourselves? Can we admit that our communities are full of hurting people who hurt people? And what does it say about our faith or trust in God if we admit that pain, failure, or anger out loud?

I’ll add a third possibility. Maybe we sing praise despite the world around us in desperate hope. We focus on God’s ability to help us because He is our only hope. We remind ourselves of His sovereignty, even if we are questioning whether or not He will actually do anything about our circumstances.

A Bold Faith

While we may sometimes focus on praise as part of a defiant faith, a subconscious act of denial or self-deception, or in desperate hope, the lament psalms teach us that honestly acknowledging the reality of life in a fallen world doesn’t represent a lack of faith. Admitting the truth doesn’t mean that we think God has lost control. Not at all!

Honestly acknowledging the reality of life in a fallen world doesn’t represent a lack of faith. Admitting the truth doesn’t mean that we think God has lost control.

Instead, with Brueggemann, I’d like to suggest that these songs represent a bold act of faith. That faith may look a little different than we have come to expect it to, though. Sometimes we think of faith in terms of blind trust. The laments don’t do that. They don’t express simple submission to the way things are. No. They express fear, abandonment, and anger. They plead for God to intervene and change things.

So how might we see praying the laments as an act of faith? Two ways are particularly relevant:

  1. The laments are brutally honest! They don’t pretend that everything is OK. They teach us that being candid about our experiences doesn’t mean that God, God’s character, or God’s sovereignty are somehow diminished because our lives aren’t perfect.
  2. Praying these psalms—taking the ugliest parts of our lives, thoughts, and experiences to God—insists that everything should be taken to Him. Nothing is outside of His sovereignty or concern.

In other words, the laments teach us that just because our lives aren’t perfect or we aren’t on the mountaintop doesn’t mean that God isn’t in control or that we don’t trust Him. They reveal a steadfast faith that keeps seeking God and His work in our lives, regardless of life’s circumstances.

So, maybe this week we can meditate on and pray some of the laments, whether for ourselves or for a struggling friend. And while I pray that God will intervene in our circumstances, just as importantly I pray that He will give each of us a deeper understanding of who He is and how He works in our lives. Perhaps especially in and through lament.

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Who Do You Trust? How to Experience Contentment

Last week we talked about Paul’s take on contentment and his experience of it regardless of his circumstances. But do we really expect to experience contentment in any and every circumstance? Let’s face it: we live in a fallen and broken world. Dreaded diagnoses still come. Friends still die. Marriages still fail. Layoffs still happen. If we aren’t experiencing any of these things right now, we all know that it’s quite possible that it’s just a matter of time. How on earth are we supposed to find contentment in the face of life in a fallen world?

While there isn’t a set formula, I’d like to suggest five things we can do. These are practices, not one-time events. I return to them over and over, and the tougher my circumstances are, the more often I do them. I’d love to hear about what you’ve found helpful!

  1. Acknowledge our own brokenness and insufficiency. Contentment or “self-sufficiency” paradoxically only comes when we rely on God and His power. It doesn’t come from our circumstances or from our ability to handle them. I’ve written about this idea at length elsewhere, so I won’t dig deeply into it here. Instead, I’ll just quote a bit of what I wrote:

    When we recognize, accept, and then integrate our own weaknesses, vulnerabilities, and brokenness into our lives, God brings healing. It is here where we meet Jesus, for it is only when we welcome our own weakness, need, poverty, and insufficiency that we are able to welcome him.

  2. Trust in God’s character, not in particular circumstances or outcomes. Paul’s joy and contentment in Philippians 4 aren’t because of the financial gift he had received (the outcome). Paul rejoiced in God because of the evidence of the Philippians’ faith that could be seen in their gift. Another good example can be found in the OT, where God led the Israelites in the wilderness. He was faithful (His character), despite their unfaithfulness. That said, we are never told that the journey was easy (the circumstances) because of God’s presence:

    Remember how the Lord your God led you all the way in the wilderness these forty years, to humble and test you in order to know what was in your heart, whether or not you would keep his commands. He humbled you, causing you to hunger and then feeding you with manna, which neither you nor your ancestors had known, to teach you that man does not live on bread alone but on every word that comes from the mouth of the Lord. Your clothes did not wear out and your feet did not swell during these forty years. Know then in your heart that as a man disciplines his son, so the Lord your God disciplines you. (Deuteronomy 8:2–5)

  3. Be obedient to God’s call on our lives. This obedience can be general obedience to Scriptural commands or specific obedience to something in particular that God is calling you to do. Maybe God has called you to walk away from a dating relationship that doesn’t honor Him. Maybe He has called you to stop gossiping. Maybe He is calling you to trust Him with your finances by tithing. Paul’s contentment didn’t happen in a vacuum. It was a part of his lived experience in obeying God’s call.
  4. Remember that it’s a process. Paul learned contentment through his experiences. While this contentment isn’t listed as a fruit of the Spirit, I think a similar principle applies. Fruit takes time. It doesn’t just magically appear in our shopping bag or on our plate.
  5. Cultivate the soil of your life. If fruit takes time, it also grows in the right environment. At some level, contentment relates to our perception of the world around us. In Romans 12:2 Paul urges us to “be transformed by the renewing of” our minds. In Philippians 4:8, just before he talks about the contentment he’s learned, Paul urges his readers to focus on that which is beautiful:

    Finally, brothers and sisters, whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable—if anything is excellent or praiseworthy—think about such things.” (Philippians 4:8)

    Paul tells his audience that thinking about these things and practicing what he has modeled for them will lead to God’s peace in their lives. Thinking about what is beautiful can take practice and discipline. It’s a choice we have to make every day, over and over again. It ties to what James Bryan Smith has called “mind discipleship.” (Personally, I love his podcast Things Above, where he develops this idea and provides weekly “Thoughts from Above” to meditate on.)

Ultimately, there is no formula. We won’t find contentment by just memorizing this verse and “claiming” its promise. We can’t just take five steps and be overwhelmed with a sense of well-being and contentment. Maybe it happens that way sometimes, but often it comes as we walk with God day in and day out. And while the contentment may not just magically appear, one day we may all of the sudden realize that we too have learned contentment through our experience of walking with God. I’m guessing it won’t be in spite of our circumstances, but because of them.

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Who Do You Trust? Rethinking Contentment

The headline says it all. The obvious answer is that I trust God. But do I really? How about you? Do we trust in God’s provision or God’s character? Do we really trust God or do we trust in our own abilities?

These questions can seem a bit abstract, but our answers to them really matter. On one hand, Job’s beliefs about God and his trust in his personal faithfulness contributed to a crisis of faith when his world fell apart. The people of Judah believed that God would protect them in spite of their sin because of His temple in their midst. On the other hand, Paul tells us that he had learned to be “content” no matter what his circumstances were:

I have learned to be content whatever the circumstances. I know what it is to be in need, and I know what it is to have plenty. I have learned the secret of being content in any and every situation, whether well fed or hungry, whether living in plenty or in want. I can do all this through him who gives me strength.

Philippians 4:11b–13 (NIV)

These verses probably aren’t new to you. They definitely aren’t new to me. How many times have we focused on being able to do anything based on the strength that God gives us? But perhaps more importantly, how many times has that been our experience instead of what seems to be just an exercise in wishful thinking?

These verses are often pulled out of context, so if that’s what we’re doing then “wishful thinking’ may be an apt description. Philippians 4:13 doesn’t mean that we can recreate Nik Walenda’s tightrope walk across Niagara Falls. Paul’s meaning is focused: he’s specifically addressing the ability to be content no matter what his economic circumstances are. That doesn’t mean that contentment isn’t possible in other areas though. In 2 Corinthians 12:9 Paul talks about the sufficiency of God’s grace in living with a “thorn in the flesh.” We don’t know what that thorn was, but the idea in 2 Corinthians 12 is similar to that in Philippians 4.

So, what exactly is this “contentment” that Paul describes in Philippians 4? In our world, contentment is often associated with a sense of well-being. It doesn’t necessarily imply happiness, but at some level we are satisfied. For me, it usually includes the feeling that things are under control.

There’s that word: “control.” I admit it. I can be a bit of a control freak. How about you? Can you think of a time when you were content but everything felt completely out of control? In desperation we may laughingly throw our hands up in the air and say, “Jesus take the wheel,” but do we really mean it? If we do, do we really trust that He will? Well, in different words, that seems to be part of what Paul is getting at.

Paul isn’t talking about a contentment that is related to life being manageable. I’m guessing that very few of us would describe lacking what we need for daily life as having everything under control. Instead, Paul chooses a word for contentment (autarkēs) that Greek philosophers often used to describe a self-sufficiency that was tied to an indifference to the world around us. While we may not think about contentment as detachment or indifference, I think many of us do—perhaps subconsciously—tie it to the idea of self-sufficiency. Didn’t I just describe it as being tied to my perception of having things under control?

It is God’s grace that is sufficient, not Paul’s abilities—or ours.

You may not bring precisely the same ideas to your experience of contentment that I do, but in Paul’s letter we see a paradox. Yes, Paul uses a word that describes self-sufficiency or independence, but then he turns it upside down: Paul’s contentment (independence) is rooted in his dependence on Jesus. When he is weak, then he is strong. It is God’s grace that is sufficient (2 Cor 12:9–10), not Paul’s abilities—or ours.

Paul had to learn this—he mentions that twice in just two verses (Phil 4:11–12). I’m guessing that we all do. Paul learned it through his experiences of weakness and insufficiency. So do we. Sometimes, like Jesus, we pray for the cup to be taken from us. And sometimes, just like Jesus, we hear our Father say “no.” But may we also hear Him say: “You are not alone. My grace is sufficient. My power is made perfect in your weakness. Your contentment is found in me, not in your circumstances. Trust me.”

Next week we’ll dig into the implications for our everyday lives, but today I’m praying that each of us will trust Him, seeking His presence and sufficiency.

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How to Praise God When the World is Shaking

Have you wondered what it might look like to praise God by praying some of the Psalter’s hymns when life doesn’t make sense? That’s just what I talked about in my last post, but it may not be obvious how it works. It’s probably a bit different for every person, but I thought that rather than moving on to talk about the psalms of disorientation I’d give you an idea of how I’ve been praying one particular hymn when the world around me is shaking.

Psalm 111 is a wisdom hymn. It talks about a world that God clearly rules. In it, the speaker reflects on God’s provision and faithfulness. Sometimes we can focus solely on that provision and faithfulness, but sometimes our hearts are broken and we are confronted with the brokenness of the world. That is the kind of place my prayer comes from.

The prayer below shouldn’t be read as a translation or commentary. Instead, Psalm 111 served as a model and starting point for my personal prayer, although the original Hebrew, the Greek translation, and my wider studies in the OT have influenced my prayer. (If you have a question about how my studies influenced something particular in my prayer, feel free to ask in the comments.)

Praying Psalm 111

Let us praise You, Lord—in every circumstance; despite every circumstance.

Help me to praise You with the entirety of my being, even though I feel surrounded by loss.

Help me to see and tell of Your goodness no matter where I am: among those who love You and among those who may not.

Great are Your works. I am surrounded by them. I see the beauty and majesty of Your creation. I have seen Your answers to prayer. You have gifted Your people with Your word. No matter my circumstances, I can see these things. I can reflect on them. I can thank You for them. I can stop and allow them to show me Your nature and Your faithfulness. Help me to stop in the midst of my everyday craziness and reflect on Your works and what they teach me about You.

Sometimes we can focus solely on praising God’s character and works, but sometimes our hearts are broken and we are confronted with the brokenness of the world. In just such a place I am choosing to blend my praise and prayer. I am choosing to seek and to trust God in spite of my circumstances, letting my praise lead me to prayer for His kingdom to come.

You tell us that Your righteousness endures forever. Sometimes it’s easy for me to echo that statement. Honestly, though, as I look around the world that You created and see its brokenness, it can be hard to see how Your people reflect that quality; myself included. You have called us to put the needs of others ahead of our own. You have called us to love our neighbors as ourselves. You have called us to justice, holiness, and peace. Yet even within our church walls we fail at this. Please, transform the hearts of Your people—that we may reflect the cruciform image of Jesus; that we may be Your hands and feet with an allegiance to You above any worldly powers or agendas. May Your reign come and Your will be done in the hearts and lives of Your people! I confess that all too often it is easy to just go on dealing with my daily life and to forget about the bigger picture. Help me to see and love others as You do, especially those who are different from me. Fill me with Your grace and compassion. Show me how to demonstrate Your love to each person I meet today.

I thank You for Your faithfulness to Your promises and covenant. Throughout Your word we see examples of Your faithfulness in spite of human unfaithfulness. You deliver. You provide. You instruct. You call. You equip. I thank You for Your Spirit that works in Your people.

Your instruction given to us throughout Your word is trustworthy. You have established it forever. Jesus came to fulfill the Scriptures, not to abolish what had come before. His life on earth gives us a picture of what it means to be truly human and live as You desire. Help us to see where we fall short. Transform us to be more like Jesus through the work of Your Spirit. Show me today where I need to change and surrender things to You, especially in my small, daily choices. Transform me.

I thank You that You work in the lives of Your people. May we not only echo the teaching that fearing You is the beginning of wisdom. Help us to live it every day.

You, Lord, are holy. You are faithful. You are gracious. To You and You alone belong eternal praise. Lord, move in Your people. May we praise You not only with our lips, but also with our lives. Amen.

3 Ideas for Our Prayers

If you’ve read Psalm 111 lately, you probably noticed significant differences between my prayer and the original text. Sometimes, like the psalmist, we can focus solely on praising God’s character and works; but sometimes our hearts are broken and we are confronted with the brokenness of the world. In just such a place I have chosen to blend my praise and prayer. I am choosing to seek and to trust God in spite of my circumstances, letting my praise lead me to prayer for His kingdom to come. Here are a few ideas for praying hymns no matter where you are:

  1. Praise & prayer: I didn’t worry about changing the tone to reflect where I’m at. The psalm itself is heavily focused on praising God and affirming His goodness. Those points are in my prayer, but I also dealt with the world as I’m experiencing it right now. That means that I focused more on praying that God’s goodness will become evident in the world around me and that we as His people will exhibit His character.
  2. Structure: While Psalm 111 served as a starting point, my prayer is really rooted in my own stream of consciousness. After I had expressed my thoughts on a particular line or verse, I would move on to the next one. Sometimes I would find that my thoughts on that next line had already been expressed, so I just kept going.
  3. Personal & communal: My prayer goes back and forth between personal expressions and prayer for the wider church. If we are praying for God’s kingdom to come and His will to be done, it isn’t just about us as individuals. Just because one particular part of my prayer is communal and another is personal, though, doesn’t mean that I think a particular doesn’t apply to me. It’s just how it came out.

My approach to praying this hymn isn’t the only one. It’s just what it has looked like for me lately. I’d love to hear about how you are praying or have prayed the psalms!

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Songs in the Dark

The other day a friend asked me to be praying for her family—her father is in hospice and it’s probably only a matter of days until they lose him. Another friend’s mother is also in hospice. Her fight with cancer has been long and painful. I’m praying for all of them, but right now my prayers are running along the lines of “Lord, I don’t know how to pray for them. I don’t have the words . . . so much death. So much pain. Please comfort them. Please give them strength and a sense of your presence.”

My husband and I have lost 3 people in 3 months. Two in the last 10 days. More loss is coming. These people are our friends and extended family members. They aren’t our spouses, parents, children, or best friends, but while not overwhelming, the sense of loss still lingers. And when I hear about yet another imminent loss, I don’t even know how to pray any more.

Human words, Divine words

While the Spirit intercedes for us when we don’t know how to pray (Rom 8:26–27), Scripture also gives us words for times like these, especially in the Psalter. The psalms are human words to God. They were composed by His people to address a multitude of experiences and occasions. But they are also God’s word to us. He inspired the composers. The psalms give us words to express our joy and sorrow, but they also teach us about God, who He is and how He works.

Through the centuries, believers have often turned to the laments to express their grief. Interestingly, though, over the last few days God hasn’t been bringing me to the laments. He keeps taking me to the hymns.

 LORD, our Lord, how majestic is your name in all the earth . . . What is mankind that you are mindful of them, human beings that you care for them?

Ps 8:1, 4, NIV

Your kingdom is an everlasting kingdom, and your dominion endures through all generations. The LORD is trustworthy in all he promises and faithful in all he does. The LORD upholds all who fall and lifts up all who are bowed down.

Ps 145:13–14, NIV

These particular verses come from psalms that Walter Brueggemann has called “psalms of orientation.” His description highlights the “situatedness” of our words to God. Our prayers, our expectations, and our understanding of God can all change and grow based on our experiences and the situations in which we find ourselves. In this case, Brueggemann suggests that the psalms of orientation come from a place where people find God to be trustworthy. Our worlds make sense and life, if not what we expected, can be described as settled, if not good.

Unexpected Songs

I’m not really in that kind of place, though. So why does God keep bringing me back to these songs? Why not the laments? I think He’s teaching me that while these psalms of orientation often praise God based on our sense of God’s goodness and reliability, He can use them in our lives a in a variety of times and ways. Here, I’d like to suggest three:

  • Praise: Praise is the most obvious. Here, when we as individuals or as part of a community experience God’s goodness, we can use these psalms to praise our Father. We join generations of those who have worshiped Him in times of joy and sorrow.

But what about when we are hurting?

  • Reminder: Sometimes in our darkest moments, we need a reminder of God’s larger plan. Here, these hymns have been pointing me to the ultimate hope that we can have: a future where everyone experiences God’s goodness, justice, and rest. These hymns point to our hope for the new heavens, the new earth, and the resurrection.
  • Prayer: Prayer ties back to the reminder that these psalms give us. Here, whether we are experiencing God’s goodness or are struggling, we can pray that God’s reign will come, bringing the new creation that reflects God’s intended world. We can pray for that experience not only for ourselves, but for our friends, family, communities, and for all of humanity.

Today, God is reminding me that our lost, hurt, and broken world isn’t the final word. Today, as I’m praying for those friends, God is also teaching me to pray in a new way for His kingdom to come and His will to be done.

Getting Honest. Again.

“My Truth”

Being honest about my feelings of loss last summer wasn’t the end of the story. As I’ve continued to reflect on those events and experiences, God has been highlighting for me that this kind of honesty is something He calls each of us to continually. This call requires us to be honest with ourselves, even when it isn’t easy. In today’s lingo, we need to know “our truth.”

It’s become somewhat cliché in recent years to talk about our individual “truths.” Friends tell us to “own your truth” or “live your truth.” They say “my truth” is just fine, no matter what God has to say about the matter. These ideas are part of a culture where we hear over and over that “everything is relative,” and truth seems to be just another one of those relative things.

As a Christ follower, though, these conversations always make me uncomfortable. We serve an infinite God who is all-knowing and all-seeing. He is just. He is love. And, He is truth.

Jesus answered, “I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.

John 14:6 NIV

If we accept Jesus’ claim here, then truth is not simply a relative concept, even if it feels like that might make life easier.

By contrast, we are human. We are finite. We are limited. Our ability to understand God, ourselves, and the world around us is limited. What we know in these limitations can be influenced not only by what Scripture teaches us, but it is also inevitably shaped by our personal experiences and our surrounding cultures. To that extent, our understanding of truth is relative—it is shaped by our situatedness in time and space. It is shaped by our cultures, our families, our life experiences, our churches, and yes, by our reading of Scripture and walk with Jesus.

If you don’t believe me or if this makes you uncomfortable, think back over your lifetime. Has your understanding about God, His ways, and His work in the world ever grown to greater depths? Have you ever been falsely accused and had your eyes opened to the reality that human authorities don’t always get it right? Have you lost a loved one and experienced the love of God and His people in your grief? Have you been angry with God and questioned His goodness? (Job was and did.) Has an experience of divine silence brought greater compassion for those walking in their own darkness? I’m not trying to say that our knowledge and beliefs are entirely wrong, only that we don’t have the full picture.

God’s Truth

So why do I bring all of this up? How does this fit with what we’ve been talking about? For me, the honesty I talked about last week led to a place of comfort in that moment, but that was just the start. I’d like to tell you that I took leaps and bounds ahead in my faith or ability to handle my circumstances, but I didn’t. The challenges I face daily continue. I have to keep taking my exhaustion, frustration, and yes, sometimes even anger, to God over and over.

In the midst of the challenges I face, though, I keep seeing God’s fingerprints and hearing echoes of His whispers. I have seen those fingerprints in unexpected financial provision that has enabled us to get some extra help. I have heard those echoes in friends with whom we can spend time and laugh or talk about God instead of trying to “solve” problems that don’t really have a solution.

I have to own “my truth”—that I can’t do this alone—even when I don’t like it. And I have to embrace God’s truth: I was never supposed to.

When I deny the pain, difficulties, or problems, though, the load gets heavier and the burden becomes unbearable. I have to own “my truth”—that I can’t do this alone—even when I don’t like it. And I have to embrace God’s truth: I was never supposed to. God doesn’t call His people to rugged individualism, however much my culture might prize it. No. He calls us to dependence and interdependence.

I need the Spirit to transform me into the image of Jesus, who poured Himself out for others. I need God’s people to help me see where my understanding of God falls short. I need them to encourage me to keep going. Sometimes I need them to come alongside and help carry the load. But just as importantly, I need to see their needs and take my eyes of myself, trusting that God will provide what our family needs when we help meet the needs of others.

How about you? Are you struggling right now with either your circumstances or your relationship with God? Is there an aspect of that struggle where God might be calling you to a radical honesty in His presence, even if it’s not pretty? Even if it’s not gracious or doesn’t seem “Christian”?

Job’s honesty in Job 3, while not addressed directly to God, is brutal. God doesn’t answer him immediately and when He does, He doesn’t provide the answers that any of us want. Instead, what God gave Job was an encounter with His complete “otherness” that reframed Job’s entire understanding of God, His ways, and His world. So, I’m not promising that our honesty will always be met with the comfort I experienced that day. But I do believe that God will give us what He knows we need. He isn’t situated and finite. He’ll get it right.

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All Scripture citations are from the NIV unless otherwise noted. Copyright 1973, 1978, 1984, 2011 by Biblica, Inc.

Getting Honest

Confronted with Loss

Last summer, as we were driving through Glacier National Park, marveling at the views, I unexpectedly found tears streaming down my face. Not tears of joy for the beauty, but rather those of deep-seated grief and loss. I stared out the window, trying to hide them—the pain was raw, a never-healed wound that had ripped open yet again.

It all started as my husband and I were listening to Margaret Feinberg’s Fight Back with Joy on audio. In Chapter .005 Margaret, who reads the audio version herself, describes how she used ancient Jewish mourning rituals to express her grief as she fought breast cancer. At first my tears were for Margaret as I tried to imagine her experience. They turned into tears for a friend who was fighting cancer. But then Margaret’s words hit me where I live:

What do you need to grieve? . . . Sometimes we sweep away opportunities to grieve by convincing ourselves the loss is no big deal . . . sometimes the quieter losses prove to be the most important . . . the unmet expectations you’ve never said aloud, the unrealized dream that haunts you when you can’t sleep.

Margaret Feinberg

As she talked about how these ancient mourning rites invite “mourners to voice the unspeakable to God” I realized that the loss that continually confronted me was the one that I had never really grieved. It was one of those quiet losses of unmet expectations and unrealized hopes. It was the loss that in some ways I had never taken to God: our younger son Mischa’s genetic disorder.  

Worshiping in the Dark

If Margaret’s words challenged me to be honest with myself and with God, the keriah ritual she described took me back to Job. As Job talks with his friends, he demonstrates honesty with a vengeance. But the words and actions of the keriah ritual echo Job’s initial response. Job had lost almost everything. Only his wife and his health remained when

Job arose, tore his robe, shaved his head, and fell on the ground and worshiped. He said, “Naked I came from my mother’s womb, and naked shall I return there; the Lord gave, and the Lord has taken away; blessed be the name of the Lord.

Job 1:20–21 (NRSV)

With these words, Job submits himself to God and worships (1:20). Before Job rages against God (chapters 3–31), demanding an audience, an explanation, and justice, Job acknowledged both God’s sovereignty and his own dependence on Him. Job worshiped the One that he held responsible for his loss.

Speaking the Unspeakable

When Job was afflicted with sores and his wife encouraged him to curse God and die, Job responded that we must receive both good and evil from God (2:10). But after Job’s worship, his refusal to curse God, and finally his silent suffering, Job becomes bluntly honest, saying exactly what he thinks and feels. He “voice[s] the unspeakable.”

I cried quietly that day in the car, but I wasn’t brutally honest with God. That only happened a month later as I talked about daily life with Mischa in a small group from church while we were discussing Rom 12:1:

Therefore, I urge you, brothers and sisters, in view of God’s mercy, to offer your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and pleasing to God—this is your true and proper worship.

One of the women gently and kindly commented that it sounded like my husband Casey and I were living this out. I replied—actually, I think I snapped—that it didn’t count because I hadn’t chosen this path. And suddenly I could breathe. I’d finally been honest and stopped trying to put a brave face on it. My words weren’t pretty and I wasn’t gracious. But as I looked in her eyes, I felt understood and accepted. She got it. She knew. She hadn’t chosen her path either. She was a cancer survivor. And kind of like Job’s experience before his friends spoke, in that moment I knew that I wasn’t alone. She too had walked a difficult path that she hadn’t chosen and that many would never understand. God may have taken my dreams and expectations, but He had gifted me with understanding and compassion. In my mourning, He provided comfort.

What about you? What do you need to be honest with God about? Or do you need to be the understanding ear for someone who is finally ready to be honest? You are welcome to share a word or two, or perhaps someone’s initials if you need prayer. But even if you don’t, I’ll be praying this week that you will come to a place where you can allow mourning to lead to joy, saying with me:

Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted. The Lord gave, and the Lord has taken away; blessed be the name of the Lord.

(Matt 5:4; Job 1:21)

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All Scripture citations are from the NIV unless otherwise noted. Copyright 1973, 1978, 1984, 2011 by Biblica, Inc.