Altar Call – Opelika-Auburn News
February 21, 2021
The liberating concept of seeing life as unmerited gift
Laity Lodge is a beautiful retreat center in the hill country of Texas, located on the Frio River near Leakey, Texas. It was there that I met and became friends with John Claypool, a Baptist preacher who later became an Episcopal priest.
Having come to the lodge to speak during a weekend retreat, John and I were stunned to learn that we had both lost a child to leukemia. Our son David had died several years earlier at age three. John’s daughter, Laura Lue, was ten when she died two years before our time together at the lodge.
While John’s insightful preaching was inspiring, what blessed me more were our personal conversations between preaching assignments. We were eager to learn from each other; I was especially excited to learn from John.
He was the first person to help me understand that the concept of seeing life as an unmerited gift helps us handle grief. A few years later John would elaborate on that idea in several of his fine books, the most helpful of which was Tracks of a Fellow Struggler. More than a million copies of that book have helped hurting people struggling with sorrow.
John introduced me to the idea that one of life’s great challenges is to learn to lose, and to lose in healthy ways. It is loss that hurts so much in the death of a loved one. John and I had lost a child. When Dean died in December, I “lost” my wife. Of course, we try in various ways to soften such loss or to deny that the loss has occurred. For example, someone may say, “Since God is with us and our loved ones are with Him, they are not very far away.” While those are sweet and true words, the reality that Dean is no longer with me still hurts.
Friends may say, as some have said to me about Dean, “She is not lost. No one is lost if you know where they are, and we know that she is in heaven with Jesus.” I will admit I like that statement; it is an affirmation of our Christian faith. But even so, the reality is that my wife is gone. And my painful sense of loss does not go away because someone tells me that Dean “is in a better place.” When I reach across the bed to touch her, she is not there. I have indeed lost her. The pain is still there.
When the overwhelming pain of this lostness surges within me, I am tempted to feel angry because life is not fair, or guilty that I did not take better care of her, or depressed because I can never hold her in my arms again. I can now understand why depression is called the “quiet” stage of grief; my feeling of lostness and loneliness leaves me sometimes confused and vulnerable to apathy.
It is at this point that Claypool’s concept of seeing life as unmerited gift helps me overcome inertia and begin to handle my grief in more healthy ways. Life is a gift of God. My life, Dean’s life, the life of our children, the life of many precious friends – all gifts that I have in no way deserved. Embracing that truth helps me handle grief in healthy ways. Claypool puts it this way: “This perspective frees us from possessiveness and a sense of entitlement; it also enables us to receive the good things in our lives with gratitude and to hold them lightly rather than clutchingly. It even opens the way to relinquishing beloved objects and persons without falling into bitterness and resentment.” And I might add, anger, guilt and depression!
This attitude is liberating. Dean’s life, her love, our life together, the bond that was ours, the productive years of witness and service, the family that we cherished – these were all gifts beyond my deserving, graciously given by the Author of life! Again, Claypool sums it up brilliantly: “To be angry because a gift has been taken away is to miss the whole point of life. That we ever have the things we cherish is more than we deserve. Gratitude and humility rather than resentment should characterize our handling of the objects of life.”
I wish I could say that I am now filled with boundless gratitude and humility. I am not there yet but I want to get there, and I am on the way. I know that is the way out of the darkness and pain of sorrow.
Dean and I were not surprised by the arrival of death. We had talked about dying. We wanted to die at home. She got that gift, and it was a gift to me as well.
Dean wrote poems, both humorous and serious, about death. Her poems were another precious gift which I cherish. Christ followers recognize that the gift of life, and all gifts, come to us because of God’s “amazing grace.” In her poem that follows (taken from her book, The Yellow Butterfly, and composed March 4, 2010), Dean concludes with an affirmation of that grace, so that seems a fitting way to close this offering:
Where to Put Our Sorrows
When I think of the accumulation of sorrow and pain
I have carried over so many years,
Of the times I have buried my dead and yet I still remain,
I ask myself, “Where do I put my tears?”
Surely there is a place for me to go
When sorrows come pouring down,
Surely there is a place for me to know
That comfort for my pain can be found.
I have found a man acquainted with grief,
One who has my sorrows borne,
A Man of Sorrows who gives me relief,
And tells me not to mourn.
Surely His Presence has revealed
Himself to my troubled soul,
And by His stripes I am healed,
And His blood has made me whole.
My sorrows I carry no more,
Since I have seen Hm face to face.
If only I could have known before
That my help was found in
His Amazing Grace.
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