Clinging to Christ in Compounded Grief
“It was like a scene out of a movie.”
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I’ve heard that phrase a few too many times in the past month.
On June 26, after the third consecutive 100-plus-degree day, residents of northwest Colorado Springs fled their neighborhoods with a few belongings shoved in their cars as a wildfire came barreling down the mountainside. The billows of smoke and inferno flames, calculated to be three stories high, could be seen from anywhere in the city. It was like a scene out of a movie.
In the early morning hours on July 4, I received the text that I had been dreading: “Cliffy is with Jesus.” After a six-year battle with cancer, my biggest cheerleader, friend, and mentor, Cliff Anderson, died in hospice. Two months prior, Cliff was sharing his wisdom and offering his typical words of encouragement at a retreat for GreenHouse Ministry, an intentional community that we started together in Colorado Springs. But shortly after that weekend the diagnosis became clear. This incurable type of cancer was going to win, sooner rather than later. Watching his decline felt like watching a tragic movie.
At the midnight premiere of the new Batman movie, Dark Night Rises, on July 20 in a suburb of Denver, a gunman opened fire on a packed theater, killing 12 and injuring more than 50 people Witnesses to the shooting said it was like something out of a movie. The scene was an eerie echo of another mass shooting in a different Denver suburb 13 years ago at Columbine High School. Could this really be happening again?
This isn’t a movie; this is real life. And right now, the question I keep asking God is, “How do we respond to events like this, experiences that shake us to the core?” Not just one tragedy, but tragedy upon tragedy. Exponential suffering. Compound grief.
I feel like the disciples as they worked through the theological puzzle of the man born blind. In the face of physical affliction, they ask Jesus to peg the blame somewhere. “Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?” (John 9:2, NIV)
Who carelessly flicked their cigarette off the hiking trail or worse yet, intentionally set a fire, and caused the destruction of hundreds of homes and thousands of acres of land? What happened earlier in Cliff’s life — what did he eat, where did he go — so that cancer formed in his blood and spent years pulsing through his veins? What happened to that young man that would cause him to methodically plan and carry out such a horrific attack?
The need to peg blame in a tragic situation is a natural human response. We want to know why, we want to grab that hovering question mark and rid our lives of the unknown, we want to throw our tears at something, someone … anything, anyone … and say, “You did this. This is your fault.”
One week before Cliff passed away, I was at the hospital café getting my go-to caffeinated comfort drink. A man appeared around the corner pushing a hunched over, frail, colorless woman in a wheelchair. His t-shirt read:
F*(skull & cross-bone symbol)*C*K cancer
If I could have painted a picture of the emotional turmoil going on inside that man, I’m sure it would have included him pummeling cancer personified. Someone to peg, something to blame, just someone taking a beating for his agony. At least it would provide some relief to the lingering questions and the life-altering events that he was walking through.
As a person walking through her own compound grief, I can empathize with this guy. When your world is shattered, when your life suddenly takes a drastic, unwanted and unexpected turn, there seem to be more questions than answers and lots and lots of tears.
Who will catch all these tears?
“You've kept track of my every toss and turn through the sleepless nights, each tear entered in your ledger, each ache written in your book” (Psalm 56:8, MSG).
These days, it might seem like we’re just characters in a tragic movie. But when I wake up in the morning and have to remind myself that Cliff is dead, I have to clear the cobweb of sleepy dreams and move through real life. Try as they might, movies cannot capture human suffering in 100 minutes.
I too cannot begin to explain the suffering of the families who returned to a leveled home and started sifting through ash, only to find that the wildfire disintegrated everything. God is catching the tears of the families whose children were brutally killed last week outside of Denver. And when I just want to hear Cliff’s laugh, his bellowing, loud, big-toothed laugh, I feel a wave wash over me, a mixture of sadness and love for my dear friend.
So I’ve determined that while I’m here, finding sorrow in every corner of our world, I want to be about the community that absorbs grief. I want to be a part of the community, God’s church, that seeks to enable faithful living, even in the midst of suffering. I need to be part of a community that will help disassemble my compound grief and absorb the effects of these tragic events.
And then I need to be placed before the cross, because real suffering has the effect of folding us in front of our suffering Lord, where all explanations fail. At the cross, there are no pegs on which to hang blame, only the pegs that served a different purpose, nails that pierced for the purpose of reconciling us to God and to this world. Because of this, death doesn’t get the last word. Destruction doesn’t prevail. The need to blame somehow dissipates in the air as hope overcomes, and we begin to see glimpses of answers to the prayer that escapes our lips, “Thy Kingdom come, thy will be done.”
Amber Odvody lives in intentional community and directs the intern program, GreenHouse Ministry (www.greenhouseministry.org). She is also a pastor at First Presbyterian Church, Colorado Springs, CO.
Fog and light photo, lussiya / Shutterstock.com