Altar Call – Opelika-Auburn News
February 21, 2021
The liberating concept of seeing life as unmerited
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.
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.
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.
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:
to Put Our Sorrows
I think of the accumulation of sorrow and pain
have carried over so many years,
the times I have buried my dead and yet I still remain,
ask myself, “Where do I put my tears?”
there is a place for me to go
sorrows come pouring down,
there is a place for me to know
comfort for my pain can be found.
have found a man acquainted with grief,
who has my sorrows borne,
Man of Sorrows who gives me relief,
tells me not to mourn.
His Presence has revealed
to my troubled soul,
by His stripes I am healed,
His blood has made me whole.
sorrows I carry no more,
I have seen Hm face to face.
only I could have known before
my help was found in
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