I’m a person who simply sees life through a narrative lens. Everything is a story to me…funny things my kids say, encounters with parents in the schoolyard, conversations with baristas – in short, all of life unfolding in front of me each day.
But this season of my life has a bigger God story unfolding. My mother-in-law died recently. She was a gem of a woman – serving was a way of life she embodied. She had a great laugh and a fantastic sense of humour. And she was extremely committed to the good of her children and grandkids. I got folded in as one of her own, when I married her son, and it is an understatement to say this was one of the greatest gifts of my life.
Although we are incredibly saddened by her death, and our grief will be a part of our story for a long time to come, we are also relieved that her suffering has come to an end. She had a long battle with a brain tumour, and while we had nine unexpected years of grace, this last year was tremendously difficult for her and debilitating in many ways for us to watch. Yet in the midst of this suffering story we experienced a tremendous wonder six months ago that is still comforting us today.
My husband, Calum, had gone to see his mum in the UK. While he was visiting her one day he brought up a spiritual conversation about dying and where she was at with her reality and with God. Mum had experienced what we might call a spiritual awakening in the years since her brain surgery, but she had never experienced spiritual formation in a church community during her life. As such her faith was simple, and honest, and sometimes unknowing. So, as Calum gently asked about her thoughts around death and God mum surprised him by mentioning that Jesus had been coming to her room every day. They had a fairly remarkable conversation about this grace of seeing Christ, and the next morning when Calum returned mum asked,
“You seemed surprised yesterday when I said about Jesus being in my room. Is that not normal? Don’t you see him too?”
Calum went on to explain most Christians never have the experience of seeing Jesus. Rather than making her afraid, he was able to explain this was a special grace mum was experiencing. And for all of us it brought a new dimension to what Emmanuel means – God with us.
I think that’s the story that’s shaping my grief narrative right now. Jesus was with Mum. Jesus is with Mum now. And Jesus is with me. This is not my first rodeo with sorrow, but it feels different for me because of how we saw God break into mum’s story in the end of her life. I’m comforted in ways I’ve not experienced before.
Dietrich Bonhoeffer was the first person to help me see a correlation between Psalm 22 (the Psalm Jesus prayed during his crucifixion) and Psalm 23, which is often the Psalm given to people who are grieving.
Bonhoeffer said, “Now we know that there is no longer any suffering on earth in which Christ will not be with us, suffering with us and praying with us – Christ the only helper. (Psalm 22)
“On this basis the great Psalms of trust develop. Trust in God without Christ is empty and without certainty; it is only another form of self-trust. But whoever knows that God has entered into our suffering in Jesus Christ himself may say with great confidence: ‘Thou art with me; thy rod and thy staff, they comfort me.”
(Psalms – the Prayer Book of the Bible by Dietrich Bonhoeffer)
You are with me. And now, because of Mum’s experience with Jesus, I have a new understanding. God with us has gone wildly beyond my imagination. In light of His willingness to enter into our suffering all the way, to even bear scars in perpetuity, ought to have told me God with us is the greatest gift humanity has ever known. But this truth didn’t really come home to me until it became intrinsic to our personal experience of suffering as a family. God is with us. Literally. He is not far off. He is near to the suffering person. He is willing to reveal himself to us, to enter into our stories, to bring us the comfort of His presence.
This is our God story right now and I daresay, the one that will shape the rest of our lives. Thanks be to God.