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grumble hallelujahLEARNING TO LOVE YOUR LIFE EVEN WHEN IT LETS YOU DOWN
By Caryn Dahlstrand Rivadeneira
Tyndale House Publishers, Inc.Copyright © 2011 Caryn Dahlstrand Rivadeneira
All right reserved.
Chapter OneLIVE GRUMBLY
Letting Go of the Life That Was "Supposed to Be"
Years ago, when the whole hanging chad debacle ended Al Gore's shot at the White House, my husband and I snuggled together on our brand-new sofa in our brand-new house (well, new to us) watching the news on our brand-new TV as we did nearly every night in our pre-kid life. And we talked about how sad this was for Al Gore.
Though, to be honest, I remember feeling less sad for Al and more pity. I pitied him in the way only someone whose life is going exactly according to plan—with many dreams fulfilled or ready to be grasped—can pity another person. It's that horrible, smug kind of pity, which I used to feel a lot back in those easy days.
But whether it was sadness or pity, I felt for Al Gore because he was "a man widely believed to have been groomed for the U.S. presidency from birth." Meaning, his presidential aspirations weren't simply born out of the "Boy, you could even grow up and be president" sort of way many of us hear (with or without the "boy" part)—but that nobody actually believes will happen.
His dreams came from being the son of a "Washington insider." Young Al was sent to the right schools, surrounded by the right people, and even kept from playing the wrong instruments. (Talk about a political-stage mom: Mrs. Gore apparently made Al quit violin because "future world leaders do not play the violin." Whoa, boy.)
Anyway, you see my point: Al Gore's life was supposed to go a certain way. And for many years it did. I imagine that he was all smiles during his vice presidency under the popular Bill Clinton (and if we're honest, he probably had his fingers crossed during those impeachment hearings!). Everything had lined up in his favor; his presidential destiny was right there—a tiny finger stretch away—his for the grabbing.
Then came the day—after months of lawsuits and recounts and Supreme Court hearings—when he realized he had lost his bid, lost hold of his destiny. It was then that I remember saying to my husband (and here's the point of this little walk down election-memory lane): "Aw, man. He's gonna need to grieve this."
So you'd think that several years down the pike, when my own life started unraveling—when my own life became pitiful—that I'd have remembered this "gonna need to grieve" piece of wisdom I so handily offered up to Al Gore.
But I didn't. I like to think that centuries of Swedish blood pulsing through my veins kept that from happening. It was as if every bit of my staunch ancestors' DNA yelled up to my brain: Don't go there! We don't do grief! You know how we like it—bury it deep, keep it down, and just move forward! And for goodness sake, don't talk about it! Now get back to work.
This is precisely why, even now, even when I know better, when I know that my dear beloved ancestors didn't have it exactly right, I'm so loathe to dive into this chapter. Grieving doesn't come naturally to me. If it does to you, awesome! You're already way ahead of the curve.
But I hate it. I hate entering into pain and processing it. So why do it? Why do I think grieving the life we miss or the one we wish we had is the first thing we need to do as part of our "detox" program? Why is it step one in learning to love our lives? Because grief is an essential part of the human experience, and because in our grief, God works wonders.
Before you go nuts and catch me on technicalities, I'm not saying that grief itself is a toxin. But unacknowledged or un-dealt-with grief totally is (in fact, I believe it leads to some of the toxins we'll work on in upcoming chapters). We need to admit when life has gone astray or even all wrong. We need to acknowledge—cry out to God!—when life disappoints, when something important gets lost, and when we hurt because of it.
And we need to give ourselves (and others) permission to grieve the loss of dreams, of the life we thought we'd have, of roles we longed for, of relationships we thought would always exist, or whatever we desired but haven't gotten.
For a long time, I didn't think I had permission to do this. I didn't think it was right. I suppose I thought it was sinful. Because while we certainly understand the need to grieve the "big stuff " of life—like death or divorce or infertility—for much of the rest of it, grieving seems to run contrary to a good Christian life. It's not easy to admit we're a bit down because we're grieving a loss as "silly" as not having the family we imagined or the job we always wanted or, say, the income or lifestyle we thought we'd have.
And yet, if I'm being totally honest, I have to admit that much of the "stuff " that got me on the floor during my dark midafternoon of the soul was related to exactly that: to money, to our "reversal of fortunes." My life wasn't supposed to be about debt. About business loss or free-falling income. A person like me (raised in a well-off home, educated, and equipped with a work ethic to shame the Puritans) who was married to a man (smart as they come, with a knack for taking risks that paid off in only-in-America types of reward) wasn't supposed to live day to day, worried about mortgage payments on a modest home or how we'd get new summer clothes for the kids. A visit to the grocery store wasn't supposed to stress me out, as I wondered if my credit card would be rejected.
But could I grieve this?
So what about the other big "not supposed to be's" of my life during that period? Could I grieve the loss of picture-perfect holidays at my childhood home because of my parents' divorce? The loss of security—emotional and financial—within my own marriage? My loneliness and lack of meaningful friendships?
I mean, no matter how hurtful my grievances are to me personally, when we consider the vast scope of world problems, they hardly top the list. Could a good Christian girl really grieve the supposed-to-be's of life without being a big whiner?
You might ask yourself the same sorts of questions: What about the things that bring pain in your own life? What about those dreams you once had that now seem impossible? What about the life—or lifestyle—you thought you'd be living? Does God want you to grieve these things?
Left to my own devices, I'd still listen to the voices of my stoic ancestors. But I couldn't shake a pretty basic truth: God doesn't want me listening to my ancestors. God wants me listening to him. So to the Bible I went. But while I searched, I also tossed out the challenge to some friends. I asked for examples from the Bible of people who grieved over, not the big tragedies, but the more banal supposed-to-be's of life.
Turns out, my friends are smart people. They suggested everyone from the obvious Naomi and Job (who grieved losses of everything!) to Moses grieving not being able to enter the Promised Land to Rachel grieving a pregnancy she had been desperate to have. Some of the grief made sense, some seemed weird, but all of it made me realize how patient our God is. And the good that grief can do when placed in God's hands.
"Does the Lord count?" Janine asked in response to my Great Grievers of the Bible Challenge.
Um, yeah. I hadn't thought of him as a griever, but I'd say he counts. Wouldn't you?
So Janine wrote back: "Well, the Lord grieved over making humans in the first place, and he grieved over making Saul king."
Righty-o! Check out these passages, with my helpful emphases:
The Lord saw how great man's wickedness on the earth had become, and that every inclination of the thoughts of his heart was only evil all the time. The Lord was grieved that he had made man on the earth, and his heart was filled with pain. (Genesis 6:5-6, NIV, emphasis mine)
The word of the Lord came to Samuel: "I am grieved that I have made Saul king, because he has turned away from me and has not carried out my instructions." Samuel was troubled, and he cried out to the Lord all that night. (1 Samuel 15:10-11, NIV, emphasis mine)
So if God grieved, it must be okay, right? It's an actual image-bearing thing to do, in fact. While the fall of humankind and rampant wickedness that God grieved could probably be classified as a "big thing," when you read it from the perspective of the Creator watching everything go all wrong, it begins to look a lot like what grieving was supposed to be. Certainly, that's what was going on with Saul. He wasn't supposed to turn into a king who followed his own ways instead of God's. Hence, the regret and disappointment on God's part. (Of course, what's peculiar is that our omniscient God must have seen this coming, but that's a whole other conversation.)
I wrote earlier that grieving is an essential part of the human experience, but clearly, it's also an essential part of the God experience. A process in which something mighty happens. This helps explain (at least in my mind) one of the most bizarre grief sequences in Scripture: when Jesus weeps at his friend Lazarus's death.
I say this is bizarre because for days Jesus had been saying how Lazarus wouldn't end up dead. Then he tells Martha directly that he will raise her brother from the dead. Instead of being a "not supposed to be," this was a huge God-ordained event, a supposed-to-be if there ever was one! Jesus even said that Lazarus would be raised "for God's glory so that God's Son may be glorified through it" (John 11:4, NIV).
And yet, when our Jesus saw his dead friend, we know what happened (every former smart-aleck Sunday school student told to memorize their "favorite" verse can say it with me now): "Jesus wept" (John 11:35, NIV).
As bizarre as it might be, Jesus' grief just moments before miraculously raising his friend from the dead actually offers us a clue into what God-style grief can be about and how God uses grief to raise us up. We can't deny the grief-redemption or grief-resurrection connection.
Grieving, shedding tears, emptying ourselves of hurt seems to clear up room for God to work. While our grief may not allow us to raise friends from the dead, our grieving can bring other things—like peace, mercy, and joy—back to life.
When I first saw Esau's name on a friend's reply to my query, I thought, What? Esau? Blech. No! Can't stand that guy.
You know, he smells like a field (which sounds lovely, but since fields don't come with baths, I'm sure is not). He has hair like a goat. I picture him with blood and guts caked under his raggedy fingernails. Esau is just gross, right? And stupid—trading Jacob his birthright for some stew? So I ignored him.
But apparently, God didn't want him ignored. Because a couple of Sundays after writing him off, my pastor preached on Esau. About his grief, no less. About his agony of being stripped of his birthright and his father's blessing. And after Pastor Bert read Esau's heart-wrenching pleas and screams ("Bless me—me too, my father!" [Genesis 27:34, NIV] and "Do you have only one blessing, my father? Bless me too, my father!"[Genesis 27:38, NIV]) and after seeing this through a new lens, through my own pain and similar pleas with God, my heart changed for Esau. My heart broke for Esau, actually. When Pastor Bert described Esau's cry and pleas of "Bless me, too!" as the cry and plea of "a thousand have-nots in a world of haves," I was a goner for this guy. Oh, Esau.
After a lifetime of rolling my eyes at this goat-stinkin' man, I understood Esau. Totally. (I am a firstborn, after all. We have rights!) His life wasn't supposed to be about getting tricked out of his birthright—his inheritance, his home, his family, his future. But as it turned out, that's exactly what became of it. And he "wept aloud" (a.k.a. grieved) for the life he was supposed to have.
So what does God say about this kind of grief? We don't know exactly. But there's no mocking it. God doesn't seem to curse him for it—send plagues or ruin his life. In fact, quite the opposite. Because if we flip forward a few chapters to Genesis 33—after Jacob ran off to Uncle Laban's, married Leah and Rachel, grew rich, and wrestled with God, and after Esau found his own fortune—we see a reunion between these once-bitter rivals.
I love this story. Rightfully terrified of his brother's wrath, before heading home after probably twenty years, Jacob sends hundreds of goats, camels, cows, and donkeys as gifts to appease his brother. When they finally see each other, Jacob bows to the ground in humility. Genesis 33:4 (NIV) says, "But Esau ran to meet Jacob and embraced him; he threw his arms around his neck and kissed him. And they wept."
Then Esau asks about the kids and tries to refuse the gifts of the animals (in one of those gracious "oh, you didn't have to!" declines). Esau didn't need them—he was rich himself.
Finally, after all the denials and smiles comes my favorite line. Jacob tells Esau, "If I have found favor in your eyes, accept this gift from me. For to see your face is like seeing the face of God, now that you have received me favorably" (v. 10, NIV, emphasis mine). Ah, yeah. Jacob experiences grace from his big brother—and sees the face of God.
Now I hate to read too much into this—and granted, many years have gone by—but don't you think that Esau's grief—his crying out to God, his frustrated yells of "bless me too, father!"—helped get him to this place where he could offer grace? We don't see much of what happened between Esau and God in this story. But it seems that maybe his honest, raw response to getting gypped out of what was supposed to be his helped this broken human show the face of God to his brother.
I could go on and on, dipping deep into the stories of many of God's children who were disappointed, hurt, and grieved. But attention spans flicker, and we've got more to get to, so let me just point to two other quick places.
When Jeremiah (mostly likely it was him, at least) wrote Lamentations, he, along with the rest of his nation, was having a rough go of things, to say the least. The Lamenter's life stinks, and he's letting God know it. Throughout this poem he lambasts God for such things as walling him in, chaining him down, piercing his heart, and breaking his teeth with gravel. I'd be lamenting too.
But the part that really gets me in this book goes like this: "I have been deprived of peace; I have forgotten what prosperity is. So I say, 'My splendor is gone and all that I had hoped from the Lord'" (Lamentations 3:17-18, NIV).
Here's what's so great. Not only is this guy grieving his (and Israel's) supposed to be's, but just after he writes—for God and the world to see—these devastating words of lost dreams and hope in God, he adds this:
I remember my affliction and my wandering,
the bitterness and the gall.
I well remember them,
and my soul is downcast within me.
Yet this I call to mind
and therefore I have hope:
Because of the Lord's great love we are not consumed,
for his compassions never fail.
They are new every morning;
great is your faithfulness. (vv. 19-23, NIV)
Could it be then that this writer, like Esau, got to this amazing place of recognizing God's goodness through his grief? Could it have been his searing and beautiful cries to God that ended up sweetening his bitterness and soothing his gall?
When he remembers the pain of his life, he's still sad—he tells us so—but he is "not consumed." Aaah. Out of his grief comes one of the great treasures of Scripture: "Great is his faithfulness; his mercies begin afresh each morning."
The Lamenter offers us a lovely contrast to some other famous "wanderers" of the Bible. When the Lamenter's forefathers and foremothers grumbled and grieved in the desert after God miraculously delivered them from the Egyptians, they didn't give him even a smidgen of glory. The wandering Israelites refused to acknowledge God's goodness and faithfulness in their hardship. Unlike them, the Lamenter gives us words—glorious language—to express our frustrations in a way that still honors and recognizes our great God.
Excerpted from grumble hallelujah by Caryn Dahlstrand Rivadeneira Copyright © 2011 by Caryn Dahlstrand Rivadeneira. Excerpted by permission of Tyndale House Publishers, Inc.. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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