Laughter on the Pathway of Lament

When we read about women in the Bible, there’s a tendency to flatten them out into cardboard characters, one-dimensional and distant.  Kate Merrick was in that camp as well, intimidated by the fabulous woman of Proverbs 31, judging Bathsheba, missing the depth of Mary’s sacrifice in saying yes to God, and brushing Sarah off as that old lady who had a baby.

Then, her nine-year-old daughter died of cancer.

Desperate for moorings in an ocean of loss, Kate looked to the Truth of Scripture and found there a community of women who had suffered as she was suffering.  When she delved into their stories, her collision course with bitterness and despair slowly turned toward joy and peaceful acceptance of the will of God.  In And Still She Laughs, Kate Merrick is still writing from that liminal place between tangible grief and the new normal that finds its way to the surface, so her words are raw and real, and just about right for me in these days following the death of my mum.

Like breaking in a new pair of jeans, like the bathing suit that fits everyone differently, like a water balloon that if you let just a little bit out it might explode on everyone, Kate employs multiple metaphors to bring her readers into the world that opened up to her when she joined the ranks of the bereaved.  Still longing for the old jeans, and having realized that grief looks different on everyone, she encourages readers to throw her book across the room if it helps — and then to come back to it later at a different stage of grieving.

A Path Through Grief

Since a Western understanding of living “blessed” only served to drive Kate further into bitterness, she turned to the stories of biblical women, for whether one reads Bathsheba as roof-top temptress or helpless victim, the ultimate outcome of King David’s moral lapse was the loss of their baby son.  Bathsheba’s story became a virtual grief support group for Kate since so many of their story-points coincided:

When I was the only woman I knew who had experienced death so close to my heart, I remember how she had too.  . . She whispered strength, dignity, and fearlessness.  When I was comforted with a pregnancy, I remembered that she had been too.  She showed me how to be loyal to another child while grieving the first.  She held my hand in the gloom, leaned close to my ear and whispered, ‘Me too.'”

Then there was the dawning realization that, like Sarah, grief and bitterness were leading Kate toward a “bitter, hardened laughter, like a waste product of a sick heart.”  Sarah’s Old Testament story sounds idyllic from a distance:  remarkable beauty, a godly husband with unlimited assets, a bevy of servants, and exotic travel opportunities — and Kate is convinced that Sarah “was covered in swanky accessories.”  (Sure, why not?)  But then, there were the empty arms, and the seemingly empty promises of God:  Sarah had waited so long that even good news elicited bitterness, bubbling forth in a sneering laugh alone in her tent.

Opening the heart to a journey of grief puts a mother in company with Mary, who demonstrated that a yes to God can lead to a sword through the heart.

“The yes doesn’t always make sense.  We don’t fully understand how God works, but we read in 2 Corinthians 1:20: ‘For all of God’s promises have been fulfilled in Christ with a resounding ‘Yes!’ And through Christ, our ‘Amen’ (which means ‘Yes’) ascends to God for his glory.”

Ultimately, Kate realized that her bitterness was directed toward God.  She had lost sight of the truth that, in her suffering, Jesus was suffering with her.  In the midst of our own Romans 8 groaning, we need to hear, again and again, that we are foreigners on this planet, but we do not grieve without hope.  Like Mary, Bathsheba, and Sarah, we are citizens of heaven and live in anticipation of a day in which death will be swallowed up in life, the empty arms of grieving mums will be filled, and the laughter our hearts long for will never end.

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This book was provided by Thomas Nelson in exchange for my review.  I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission’s 16 CFR, Part 255 : “Guides Concerning the Use of Endorsements and Testimonials in Advertising.”

You can read an excerpt from And Still She Laughs and check out the book trailer here at Ann Voskamp’s place.  

There’s lots more of Kate Merrick’s great story telling here on her own blog.

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The Meeting Places

Some mornings the new mercy arrives at 4 a.m., looking like a slice of lemon yellow sunrise behind ragged lavender clouds.  My early morning drive to the hospital sent me due east.  Not knowing what I would find there, I thanked God for the mercy of ambulances and strong men who lift gently and answer questions with thorough patience.  When I arrived, I thanked Him for a thoughtful son who showed up unexpectedly and stood in a cramped, curtained room waiting for inconclusive test results.  There were no windows in this meeting place to announce daylight’s arrival, but this one thing I know:  by the time the coastal mist had burned off and blue sky had chosen the morning, Mum was already in heaven.

That afternoon, three generations gathered around spaghetti and salad and pictures from my mother’s albums.  Remembering and wondering and making ten thousand phone calls filled in the spaces of that whole day, but this is a homeschooling family, so the following sunrise was succeeded quickly by breakfast as usual — and trigonometry.  My graduating senior will tell you that trig has a language all its own, but what I see in these days of comings and goings is a charming branch of mathematics that assures me that there is a relationship among all the parts. If I know the measure of an angle and the length of a couple of sides, I can figure out the whole triangle.  This is oddly comforting on the morning after an abrupt departure that followed a mere three hours in the emergency room — a flight that somehow connects the vast horizon of heaven to the granite outcroppings and furrowed garden soil that comprise my everyday world.

Momentous Milestones

Poet Luci Shaw compares the death of a parent to standing on the top rung of a ladder.  Suddenly there you are, at the top, hands grasping at nothing, “no one above you to compass the wideness of space.”  Mum had long ago ceded the role of family matriarch to me, her older daughter, but even so, the generational ladder is filling up behind me and every milestone feels momentous.  For example, this year marks a perpendicular line that perfectly bisects the span of my days.  At the age of 27, I married an unreasonably patient man, and this month marks our 27th anniversary.  Finally, I have been married for as many years as I was single, my life folding over onto itself with a neat center crease like a greeting card — or a church bulletin.

This intersection of halves has set me to wondering:  would the single me even recognize her married counterpart, all settled into gardening and homeschooling, and happy to spend any amount of time alone with a book and a pen?  At the same time, my married self looks back with astonishment at all the energy and emotion that was spent like water in those early decades.  Surely there’s some way to capture and recycle it?

Of course, all this comparing and contrasting of the two halves is one more evidence that I “see in a mirror dimly.”  So, as I grab my cuff and vigorously wipe away as much of the fog as I can, the clearing surface reveals an aging faith along with this aging face.  The girl who loved theology — but was pretty sure she wasn’t smart enough to declare it as a major —  would be astonished at all the reading and re-reading of sacred words, the taking of notes and the building of outlines that goes on in this graying head.

The Truer Meeting Place

Paul writes about this kind of growth in a letter to the Ephesians that emphasizes wholeness and a maturing process that is endless, for today it is incomprehensible that I could be “like Christ in everything . . . so that we will grow up healthy in God, robust in love.” (MSG)  Meeting myself in the middle and saying goodbye to my mother allows all that is past to strike a sympathetic chord with the future.  I’m encouraged to move forward, mindful of my weaknesses and stubborn sin tendencies — but not defined by them.

Madeleine L’Engle once said in her later years, “I am still every age that I have been.”  She may have worked that out through her career as an author, but with my mother’s departure, I’m seeing it happen in real life.  Already the past ten years of cantankerous demands and stubbornness are being swallowed up in memories of better days when she laughed at her own jokes and answered the phone with a high pitched “hallooo” (that my sister and I always made fun of).  Her older grandsons remember stale Oreos and boxed macaroni and cheese served with joy while they watched Teletubbies on her t.v.

Perhaps this miracle of memory foreshadows a truer meeting place that will become reality once faith has become sight; when the energy of the twenties; the ambition of the thirties; the settled contentment of the forties; and the ripening wisdom of the fifties and beyond all meet, join hands, and dance in a full-hearted, completely mended consummation of a life, “fully mature . . ., fully developed within and without, fully alive like Christ.” (Ephesians 4:13 MSG)

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Mum, my curly haired baby sister, and me — probably in 1965.

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Beyond the Happy Hallelujah

On New Year’s Eve 2015, our family had gathered with friends for our traditional celebration, but I had decided to shake things up a tiny bit.  Yes, we would eat goodies and play games and laugh at our crazy kids as usual, but I had found a list of thoughtful questions for us to ponder.  One of them stopped me in my tracks, because, without hesitation, my husband and I gave the identical answer — in unison:  With what word would you describe 2015?

“Disappointment,” we both said, and now, having read Broken Hallelujahs by Beth Slevcove, I can’t help but wish that the book had been written a year sooner, for Beth looks squarely at the truth that for most of our lives, we are living on “Holy Saturday,” waiting for a resurrection and walking in a hope that feels, at times, beyond hope.  Her journey began with multiple stories playing out in her life at the same time:  her brother’s diagnosis with brain cancer; his decline and eventual death; an on-going struggle with infertility; the realization that rheumatoid arthritis would limit her activity level and cause chronic pain; and a crashing economy that took her family business into bankruptcy.

Beth’s poignant memoir of grief and waiting moves beside a parallel narrative of spiritual formation.  “God, are you kidding?” became Beth’s prayer and anthem of loss, sung as she groped toward enough light to stay on the way of faith.  I especially appreciated her admission that her practical theology had centered around a cause-and-effect-vending-machine God.  Disappointment and unmet expectations led, eventually, to a howling lament that opened her ears to the sound of her losses, and, like the psalmists who poured out their sad hearts before God, she found that the “answer” to her cry was not an answer at all but a Person.    In learning how to pray out of that place of depletion, Beth realized that prayer postures can be a wordless connection, an expression in themselves of “openness, vulnerability, acceptance . . . submission, humility, and repentance.”

At the end of each chapter, Beth challenges her readers to dig deeper in a “here’s what worked for me” tone through exercises that require three healing behaviors:

  • Listening to your body, to your desires and emotions, to your places of poverty and neglect.
  • Engaging through projects that foster creativity, movement of the body, prayer practices, self-examination, and through questions that reflect on past behaviors and habits.
  • Connecting with God through heightened awareness of His love and His trustworthiness; entering into intensely personal communication with God without fear.

There is a tendency in Christian circles to soldier through grief and to minimize wounds and feelings of loss.  An example close at hand comes with my New Year’s Eve story, for right away I was tempted to reassure you that my family is blessed beyond measure and that our tiny disappointments of 2015 were minor compared with those of others we know (and maybe yours).  We minimize our feelings “as if each of us is only allotted a small amount of grief and we had better put it to good use on something really important.”  Allowing ourselves to feel authentically opens our hearts to “see the beauty, feel the joy, hear the laughter, and be touched by God’s innumerable graces that course through our veins and sneak into our circumstances.”

The truth of Broken Hallelujahs is that we are constantly being called upon to hold simultaneously two irreconcilable conditions in our mind and heart:  the way things should be and the way things are on this fallen planet.  Transformation and wholeness will come, but NOT through giving up on the beauty and order that we long for, NOR by stuffing our disappointment.

As a spiritual director, Beth Slevcove is uniquely positioned to share not only her own experience of healing out of grief, but also her observations of others’ creative engagement with loss, their process of making room for hope.  For instance, at the first hint of loss, my mind wants to start launching questions toward the heavens, and this is fine — except that I tend to ask unhelpful “why’s.”  Acknowledging the loss while affirming the presence of God (with me in the vacuum) leads to more helpful “what” questions (“What can I do in this unwanted situation?”); “where” questions (“God, where are you in this?”); and “how” questions (“How are you inviting me to be in this?”).  This kind of fact-finding demonstrates that I am paying attention to what God wants to do with a situation that feels like chaos to me.  Can I trust God’s motives?

Our hearts long for a depth of spiritual discernment that will enable us to hear the voice of God and follow with certainty.   We dread the hurt and disappointment at the end of rabbit trails that we thought were “The Way Home.”  Our broken hallelujahs, sung by and with the suffering during these days of shadows and longing, will find their way to a full-throated “grief-enriched” hallelujah — not in spite of our suffering, but because of it.

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This book was provided by IVP Books, an imprint of InterVarsity Press, in exchange for my review.  I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission’s 16 CFR, Part 255 : “Guides Concerning the Use of Endorsements and Testimonials in Advertising.”

Subscribe to get regular Bible studies and book reviews from Living Our Days delivered to your inbox.  Just enter your e-mail address in the box at the top of this page.

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Finding Abundance in the Shadow of Death

A journey through cancer and a journey of joy would seem to be two very divergent paths — particularly if the cancer is terminal and if it hits in the midst of a season of health and productivity.  However, Steve and Sharol Hayner have invited readers into their experience of Joy in the Journey  — a hard pilgrimage that took them through pancreatic cancer, chemotherapy infusions, side effects, great pain, and loss.  They pull back the curtain on grace lessons from their day-to-day struggle to live their way into acceptance and peace.

Throughout Steve’s illness, the Hayners kept family and friends up-to-date using the CaringBridge website, never intending to write a book.  However, their authentic writing and the deeply theological truth they share work in tandem so that Joy in the Journey avoids sentimentality, instead singing in the key of biblical lament.  Abounding in grace, Steve writes through days in which he “prays his goodbyes” to the people he loves and to his career as president of Columbia Seminary.  Sharol walks her own grieving with traveling mercies that allow her to wait through the weeks of unanswered questions and the months of serial unknowns.

Disappointing test results, a galloping malignancy, and nine short months of living and dying with a terminal disease demonstrate on a macro scale what those of us who believingly follow Christ know well:  life is fraught with — even characterized by — tumultuous days.  Able-bodies and good health make daily adjustments to circumstances and changing relationships a bit easier, but in all the unmet expectations that are part of “every normal, mundane day,” it is clear the we are being prepared — through our daily disciplines and laborious attempts to follow Jesus — for darker seasons and a deeper following.  It is our response to suffering of all types that determines the impact the suffering will have on our soul, and Steve’s thoughtful reflections from the valley of the shadow yield helpful reinforcement toward a right response:

  • When Jesus is all you have, you soon discover that Jesus is all you really need.
  • As long as I have life on this earth, I have a call.
  • God will never give up in His work to transform me into the likeness of Jesus.
  • Joy is not about my circumstances, but rather about being held and sustained by God’s love.

Obviously, there is no “right way” to transition out of this life, nor is there a “best way” to grieve, but this stunning memoir and tribute to a godly man puts a spot light on a melding of grief and gratitude that is both reassuring and motivational.  For those who are trusting God’s faithfulness, it is possible to claim the gift of joy even in the darkest days.


This book was provided by IVP Books, an imprint of Intervarsity Press, in exchange for my review.  I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission’s 16 CFR, Part 255 : “Guides Concerning the Use of Endorsements and Testimonials in Advertising.”

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