Columnists > Soul Food

A grieving primer

Postcard from a friend going through the shadow of death

Issue: "Saber savior," May 22, 1999

If you ever have occasion at some future date to walk through the valley of the shadow of death (that place to which God is pleased to send one man or another now and then, a place from which the land of the living looks like strange commotion), there's no reason, I think, why you should have to reinvent the wheel.

I myself have been there recently and taken notes (that's what I do; I'm no good at math). And here is the map I have drawn up, a postcard for you to slip into a pocket of your mind for a rainy day.

First, do not grieve before the time. Tomorrow this or that may happen, but today my husband is alive and warm, and with heightened senses not before mine, I am with him. How wonderful that he was not taken in an instant, in some freak car crash. Every day is a gift now. Do I envy those who imagine they have 30 years more? I do not.

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And if I confine my gaze to what has in fact happened rather than what I fear may come, what do I see but blessings and mercies of every kind: my sins exposed, my husband's goal realigned, the lethal complacency of my family shaken, a bouquet of prayers blooming up from the body of Christ. Grace enough for the day.

Fasting. Doesn't earn a thing toward salvation but conditions the mind to pray somehow, by the removal of all pleasurable anticipation but the presence of God.

The book of Lamentations. Exactly the wrong thing to read when you're happy, but transformed by some divine alchemy into a great source of comfort when you're a lodger in Doubting Castle of Giant Despair. (Make sure to read chapter 3 twice.)

Push out a sentimental, sadness-unto-death song with hymns and spiritual songs. (The only lyrics I can summon at will are to "Great Is Thy Faithfulness"). Makes all the difference in achieving that "wholesome thinking" that Peter enjoins (2 Peter 3:1). Suffering should be clean, clearminded, affliction always tempered by the hope that is fitting for a child of a King.

And so, avoid self-pity. It only wastes time. You will have to come around to God's way eventually, so why not sooner than later?

Memorize a few selected Scriptures. It's good to have some concrete promises of God at your fingertips, rather than just vague impressions.

Choose a "mantra." It will stand you in good stead when you can't put two thoughts of your own together. Mine is Psalm 40:17. You will find your own.

Extract all the good juices you can from your suffering. Unless James is just being poetic in 1:2, there is some happy opportunity in trial that isn't available otherwise. How do you prove to God that you trust Him if you have nothing to trust Him with? Now's the time for building a muscular faith, that perseverance leading to character leading to hope.

Relish the newness of an experience of living with absolutely no hope but God, nothing to look forward to but His grace in the next five minutes, all your plans and five-year projections blown away like dandelion fluff, and the future a blank canvas. There is your radical existentialism, Mr. Sartre.

Learn that "waiting" is another name for "faith," and be willing to do a lot of it, watching like a watchman for God to lift you out of the pit. Americans are not good at waiting. Russians do it all the time, and with much less to gain at the end of it.

If in your crisis you discover that you are much worse than you thought, go to Him anyway. What else can you do? He has the words of life.

I am assuming that if God wanted to cast me off forever, He would have put an end to me like Hophni and Phinheas and not given me today to repent.

You will fail. Then you will catch yourself and get up again. Till in due time you learn to walk. This is the dialectic of the Christian life. There are no larger battles. There are no other methods. "By faith from first to last."

Emergency e-mail from a friend: "God is very pleased with His Son's sacrifice." OK. That's the power. That's the reason. And, come to think of it, that's all you really need to bring on your journey.

Andrée Seu
Andrée Seu

Andrée is the author of three books: Won't Let You Go Unless You Bless Me, Normal Kingdom Business, and We Shall Have Spring Again.


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