‘Integrity is often a willingness to hold the dark side of things instead of reacting against them, denying them, or projecting our anxiety elsewhere.
Frankly, it is just another name for faith.
Without the inner discipline of faith, most lives end in negativity, blaming or deep cynicism – without even knowing it.’ Richard Rohr
A little while ago I was in the car with a friend who was driving me home from a night out. We had been talking and laughing most of the way, not listening to the Sat Nav and making a few U-turns. As we drove along there was a moment of quiet and into the darkness my friend asked,
‘So, what’s it been like without your dad, Tory?’
There are questions that take no thought to answer at all. Questions like, where did you get your shoes? or did you see the Bake Off Final? And then there are questions that require deep courage and a shed load of vulnerability to answer. And so, my initial response was to mumble ‘I don’t know’ which is ridiculous because of course I know. But articulating an answer meant venturing into a wounded part of my heart and soul. And it’s hard to know the outcome of that scenario. My friend was courageous in asking me the question but I struggled to find an equal amount to respond. A silence ensued.
Then my friend did something so simple, but truly difficult.
She just drove along without saying a word and allowed whatever needed to come to the surface an opportunity to rise. She didn’t change the subject. She didn’t offer me her advice. She didn’t panic.
She was able to sit and wait.
And slowly, I began to talk about my dad and my life now and faith in the midst of deep sorrow. I started to talk about a new understanding of brokenness and how I am learning to hold darkness and light, together. I told her that when dad died nothing really mattered much to me – all I really needed then was God. And there are days now I miss that same sense of dependency.
I share this little story because that car journey was important. To anyone else it was just an awkward quietness, but to me it felt like permission to share some of my struggle and experience. It was the encouragement I needed to think it all through. Most of all, it was so healing and helpful.
And the thing is, my friend said very, very little.
I have been thinking about growing up in a religious culture where the general response to asking questions and waiting for honest answers – was fear. I wonder what it was about difficult situations and broken people that filled us with such trepidation. Perhaps it was this fear that led to a pressure to say something, to hurriedly fix the brokenness and somehow right all the wrongs. When faced with a tangled mess of uncertainty we felt an urgency to remind the struggling few about the joy of their salvation. And somehow I learnt that those who wound up in the difficult ‘grey area’ were backsliders. Sometimes they came back to the church, but often they would disappear and who knows where they went.
Did we make them feel like less of a Christian because their faith was not all wrapped up in a pretty bow? Was there a way to talk about Jesus when all that existed was hurt and loneliness and ache? Did they have permission to bring their doubt and struggles to the table?
Because if there is one thing I felt growing up in church it was this:
My faith was predominantly experienced in black and white. Them and Us. In or Out. On fire or backsliding. We knew how to be liked and accepted but not so much about how to dwell in the grey area. We knew how to rush in with our truth and heap on our theology but it all lacked a sense of humility and grace. There wasn’t much sitting and waiting.
And now I wonder why.
Since dad died I’ve felt such empathy for those who struggle with church because they aren’t sure what to do with their questions. I think in the past I found it difficult to believe and cope with faith as paradox. I feared it. I rushed in with my own smug and succinct explanations of joy and despair. But then I’ve heard that experience changes your truth. And when my dad died so suddenly grief flung me into a world of darkness. It was there that I discovered there is much about faith to be sure of but there is much that is mystery, too. And God dwells in the tension. He moves in it. He speaks in it. He loves in it. I don’t need to fear it.
But if my faith is to mean anything to me I do need to learn how to live in it.
Because I walk a road that is straight and narrow with questions that are deep and far-reaching. And the work required to stay on this road and walk this way is far from simple. Or quick. Or easy. It can be lonely.
I am learning that those of us who struggle with faith should never carry fear or shame. In fact, it is deeply important that we don’t rush the difficult, messed up murky parts of our lives in a bid to keep it all neat and simple. It’s vital we take our time and ask our questions. It’s vital we keep finding ways to share our stories of faith, even if it is just with a close few. We need to make room for healing and hope by spending time with others who will humbly sit and wait while we unravel the mess.
May we embrace our God-given permission to sit and wait.
May we pursue a willingness to exist in the tension and learn how to make room for others to do the same.
May it become a transformational, faith-filled act in our lives.
‘Each moment of our existence we are either growing into more or retreating into less. The spirituality of wonder knows the world is charged with grace, that while sin and war, disease and death are terribly real, God’s loving presence and power in our midst are even more real.’
So…….there goes Summer!
We’re back to a 7.30pm bedtime and deciding what to make for lunches (sliced cheese or grated?). Once again Clarks have robbed us blind and there’s a shed load of school notes stuck to the fridge door. The nights are already getting darker, but hey ho, at least Bake-Off is on again.
We enjoyed a trip up north this year along with some time spent in Lusty Beg and a few day trips. And it felt like enough. I don’t think I needed the stress of too much this summer.
I think my heart needed a little room to feel and pay attention.
Because this was a summer without my dad. And that’s been hard. At times I found grief to only be a subconscious niggle and yet, on other occasions it became piercing and I was left wondering what the last few months have even been about.
This summer I have found the beach days and garden days and even the first school days both simultaneously great and difficult. I’ve thought about those of us who smile and wave and talk and yet hold a secret sadness. I’ve held space for those who on the journey home from the beach or the school gate or the garden feel a little heaviness return to their heart.
Because grief and loss can leave many of us feeling changed somehow, where everything is the same but different. Great days just used to be great but now, they are often tinged with sadness, too.
And we must find a way to sit honestly with both.
My dad died suddenly five months ago and I’ve been thinking about grief as loss but also as change. It’s change because things are never going to be as they once were. For me, one of the hardest parts of grief has been sensing the loss of a connection. My Dad was a very positive presence in my life, constant and unconditional and good. Sometimes I just feel the loss of that presence, that connection.
It was more powerful than I ever realised at the time.
And so now I must make room for the long, slow reality of living a life altered by the absence of someone I loved. I am left to consider how I am going to experience and accept the changes that come.
I find the only way I can experience grief as true lament is to acknowledge the place I find myself in to be okay. I am learning to allow myself to feel whatever rises to the surface, be it quietness or anger or ambivalence.
Resisting the perpetual urge to explain and deny is not an easy thing.
But what is even harder is trusting God with this difficult and mysterious space of change. What takes courage is trusting Him with my soul which is often tangled up in fear and uncertainty and regret.
I have trust for milk in the fridge and a coat on my back but how can I trust God with the pain of losing my dad? How can I continually trust in his goodness when my heart is often heavy with sadness? How can I know I won’t be trapped by my own feelings forever?
This is how.
I encounter a life outside of material blessing and wealth and success and I still find God to be good.
I end up in a crappy valley of grief and discover His goodness is nothing much to do with the absence of my sadness, but rather it is in His nearer-than-near presence. I realise that yes, I am blessed with His gracious gifts but I am blessed further still by a God who is found way beyond what I can hold in my hand.
And it’s in this place that He offers me a peace that gives trust a new meaning.
Trust is not naivety or holy nonsense. I know it only to be the reality of a broken hearted daughter stumbling forward in the light of a God who keeps His promises. Promises of comfort and presence in a life that was never meant to be easy.
It is not even a spectacle to behold. I know it to be the persistent choice to look up, moment after moment, quietly believing in the guts of faith I have professed for over twenty years..…’The Lord is good, a stronghold in the day of trouble; he knows those who take refuge in him.’
And so, there are no fireworks but there is unexpected peace and undeniable comfort from being held and known and loved. I can watch my children squealing in the sprinklers and realise there is joy and there is sadness and there is God. I can sit on a step and wave at my kids and miss my dad all the while whispering prayers of thanks and struggle to a God who knows me better than I know myself.
And there’s a birthday in our house and a party without my dad. There’s a card from my mum signed, ‘Love Nanny’ and the tears sting at the absence of my dad’s name and my kids continually getting older without him. And I hear it. God’s voice. It cuts through the excitement and joy. It cuts through the bravery and ache. ‘I know about all of it. Your joy today. Your struggle. I know you. I’m with you.’ And I find courage to pay attention to that voice and trust it.
And there is a local library where my dad spent so much of his time. I go there and sit on tiny plastic chairs, reading with my kids and thinking about my dad. I feel his absence. And I feel God’s presence. It’s just a local library but sitting there I am both honestly broken and lovingly healed. It is not an easy thing. But my soul encounters the grace and peace of a God who is faithful.
And He is good.
Since my dad died I have been told many times that grief is a journey. CS Lewis described it as a long valley, a winding valley where any bend may reveal a totally new landscape. And it’s a strange thing to ‘assess my progress’ as I walk this winding valley. In the early days progress was having more energy and sleeping better. It was finding language to describe some of my thoughts and feelings. Progress was being able to freely share a memory of dad.
And I guess I had this notion that I was covering a fair distance of this so-called journey. I was somehow dealing with it.
But not long ago, I walked up the road to church and slipped in quietly near the back to join in with those who were gathered for worship.
I had only been standing a matter of minutes and surprisingly to me (though perhaps not to you) tears began to flow down my face. Grief gripped me almost as if I had just been told the news about my dad. Overwhelmed, I found I could not sing a single note. The ability to open my mouth and have my voice form the words I knew so well was just not there. And naive as it may sound, it was a shock to feel this way because in recent weeks the emotional side of my grief had mellowed.
I had been talking about it, reading and listening and writing about it. But standing there on this Sunday evening, I found I was not yet able to sing.
And it was not a refusal to worship. It had nothing to do with a disagreement with the words or a firm resistance to their truth. Through the storm He is Lord. Yes indeed, I have found that to be true. I feel more known and loved by God than I have felt my whole life.
And yet my soul will not allow me to sing about it.
How little I understand about the pain in my heart and how deep it goes. It is not a visible pain and so, in most circumstances, it is easy to disguise. I can do much of life without acknowledging the hurt I carry.
Perhaps this is why I am fooled into thinking the pain has lifted and gone away.
But that evening as I tried to make the words come out I felt ashamed I couldn’t sing. I was disappointed that this journey had taken me around yet another winding bend and the landscape had changed again. I heard the old religious tapes begin to play in my heart;
‘Why can’t you just worship the Lord in Spirit and in truth?’ Sing
‘At all times he is worthy of your worship.’ Sing.
‘You can do all things…’ Sing
I bowed my head and jammed my hands into my pockets. I bit my tongue in a bid to keep it together and try harder.
It is so difficult to lean into pain.
But as the tears began to flow again I realised that denial and pretence are so futile. His fierce love is not dependent on my ability to hold it all together and cope. He does not need me to apologise for how things really are.
And so, my worship that evening was not audible, no words were formed or sung. I just allowed myself to weep and decided that weeping was my worship.
Worship is our response to the overtures of love from the heart of the Father, it is kindled within us only when the Spirit of God touches our human spirit. Richard Foster
And here’s the thing I want to say.
Worshipping this way stirred up something deep in my soul that no other facet of life has done. And I am no expert on the effects of music on our inner being or making room for genuine lament at our gathered events or helping worshippers give and receive comfort. I am sure there are approaches and forms, liturgies and techniques. But I do know it had something to do with being in a place of no escape. There were no kids to chase, no floors to brush. There were no books to read or plans to make. There was no avoiding, pretending, ignoring or surviving in a culture of denial.
There was only the presence of God and the exposure of pain in my heart.
And whilst leaning into pain is so difficult and I avoid it with every ounce of my being, it also brings about a strange sense of healing. And this has nothing to do with the radical disappearance of hurt. There is no removal of sorrow or answers to my eternal questions. I am not politely and quickly fixed.
This healing has everything to do with honestly bringing my pain to light and finding God resides there. The healing is God himself. It is discovering he is not afraid of my suffering. He is not waiting around the next bend in the journey– the one where I might be wonderfully composed and full of courage.
His presence is what heals my hurt because He enters right into it. Every uncomfortable, ugly and painful step.
If I discover the fullness of my own humanity I also discover the many faces of God. Esther De Waal
Grief can feel like something to overcome and conquer. It is like you must find a way to quickly progress and emerge ‘fixed’, declaring it all to be the goodness of God.
But I think worshipping from a place of ruin has shown me that healing and wholeness are more than just becoming better at life, where everything appears to be tidy and comfortable. Wholeness is about living with an ever increasing sense of honesty about our need for healing. And it’s about demonstrating a hope in a healing God of love who longs to restore us.
Because when we stop fighting the urge to reject our stories of darkness we instead discover ways that allow the light to flood in.
It was a Tuesday morning and we were heading to the shops to choose glasses for Noah, my four year old. As we pulled into the carpark a giant tear just slid down my cheek. The day before my dad had been given a cancer diagnosis and although we knew he was sick, because he looked so sick, it was still a shock to get the really bad news from a doctor.
But this tear was not even so much to do with the cancer. The tear was because in some deep part of me I felt a sudden awareness that in our world all is not as it should be. I felt a wave of fear at the realisation life can mean struggle and pain. It was a moment when darkness just seemed so heavy and I felt exposed and small. As my husband unbuckled my son out of his car seat I wiped the tear away and quickly grabbed my bag.
A few hours later my dad took his own life at home.
And this isn’t a post about his death or a detailed account of what happened and why. I’ve been through that a million times. I know it will not get me anywhere. It doesn’t help. It doesn’t change anything.
This is my truth about how being alive and human is both beautiful and brutal. It’s a post about a war that rages all over the earth and how it can crush everything you once so innocently sang and smiled about. It’s a post about experiencing faith when you feel like the oil for your lamp has run out.
I have discovered it is not a crisis of faith to have no words.
When dad died my words just disappeared. They seemed void of any meaning. The things people said or wrote didn’t affect me in the slightest. I didn’t really want to speak to anyone or write or read. Sometimes when people politely asked how I was I would say ‘fine’ and it sounded callous. I could hear myself saying it thinking, my goodness your dad has just died, show some remorse.
But really, I would rather have talked about you and your life, than me and mine. I had no words for my own life and it was an effort to find any. When people called I was glad my husband was there. He carried the conversation, he answered their questions for me. He filled the gaps when my voice trailed off and disappeared.
I dreaded the hope-filled explanations of what happened. I didn’t want to hear anything from anyone, actually. I just wanted to sit in my sadness and grieve the loss of my dad. I just want to quietly remember. I wanted space to let my questions linger a while and I was tired of the inevitable clichés and quick responses.
The shock and grief was tough to articulate, to be honest. I had grown up with a faith in God and gone to church my whole life. And yet when dad died, suddenly and unexpectedly, I didn’t really know what to do with the horror. I wasn’t sure what church had taught me about the darkness. I knew plenty about the light, plenty about celebration and joy and beauty but not so much about despair and heartache and fear. There had never seemed much room for that.
What did God think about my emptiness and the vacant blank stare I held on my face and in my heart and soul?
What was I to do at night when I was too afraid to close my eyes, too scared of what I might see?
What would he make of my anger and the constant tirade of questions I threw at him?
When dad died it was like darkness had arrived at my door and I wasn’t prepared.
One week I was standing in a soft play area chatting to friends and organising my little boy’s fourth birthday party and buying a new handbag. And the next I was at the funeral directors, choosing hymns and a coffin with my mum.
One week grief was the furthest thing from my mind and the next I could hardly breathe from the weight of it.
But organising funerals and writing tributes and driving to crematoriums are not really things you prepare for. Or think about, I suppose.
Often I felt like the light I carried inside me had just gone out.
I felt a bit broken, changed and altered somehow. I worried if I would cart that void feeling around forever. I had family and friends all around me. There was a lot to do, a lot to be organised and always a lot of people. But I felt like it was just me, all by myself, just existing.
I’d never been to the funeral of a family member before. In fact, no one close to me has ever died. I’ve never experienced anything traumatic my one whole charmed life. I’ve observed grief from a distance, sure. Offered sympathy and hurt with those who are hurting, but it’s not the same thing.
In your heart of hearts, in your raw place of grief and suffering, in your rich centre of love and redemption, who do you say God is? There, in that place, who is he to you now? (Sarah Bessey)
I’ll tell you the truth.
I had read before that God was close to the broken hearted and I was glad – for them, for those who had the broken hearts. I was pleased that I believed in a good God who saw people hurting. I had prayed for Him to draw near and carry them.
But I didn’t know God in that way. Not really. I knew God in a way that was thankful for all my blessings and good gifts. The God in my life had always been very real and present, but it was always through a lens of joy and hope and gratitude for the comfortable, content life I led.
And then, all of a sudden I was broken hearted. I was the one limping along the dark valley, in pain and so lost. I had a wonderful dad who lived down the road and set up obstacle courses in the garden for my kids. And then I didn’t.
Silence and presence.
When dad died this is how I felt God. In His silence and in His presence. When it was just me and my grief I discovered God was there in a way that people around me found difficult. I had no words to form a prayer but I felt like God wasn’t bothered and he stayed with me regardless. Just his presence. No pressure to understand or sort it all out or make sense of it. No easy answers.
Just silence and presence.
I felt held and known and protected. By people around me, yes of course, but also in a truly special, supernatural way from a good Father.
I found that in my bewilderment God did not desert me. He did not roll his eyes at my doubt and confusion. He did not scold my lack of enthusiasm for anything spiritual. In fact, I felt like I had his holy permission to grieve in whatever way I liked on any particular day. God could take it. He could handle my anger. He didn’t leave in a huff when I turned the other way in a rage.
He gently remained.
He remained when I got stuck, staring into space, for hours on end.
He remained on the nights I battled lies whispered over and over in the quiet places of my soul.
He remained for the questions and deep confusion.
He remained when I walked the school runs feeling like the loneliest person on earth.
He remained at Noah’s birthday party when brave faces disguised deep pain.
The morning of dad’s funeral my husband left to drop the kids to school or with family for the day. I got dressed and then sat down in our unusually quiet house to read a chapter from Out of Sorts by Sarah Bessey. The chapter was called ‘Obey the sadness. On grief and Lament’. And in it she shares incredible words from Frederick Buechner,
‘The weight of these sad times we must obey, and must obey just because they are sad times, sad and bewildering times for people who try to hold on to the Gospel and witness to it somehow when in so many ways the weight of our sadness all but crushes the life out of it.’
I felt these words to the depths of my soul.
In my hand I held a tribute I had written about my dad for the funeral. It was full of things I loved about him, things he had taught me and ways he had loved me well. My dad wasn’t perfect, sometimes he got it really wrong, but in his own way he did his best to always make sure I felt loved and cared for. And so for 33 years I experienced the beautiful gift of a good father trying to do his best for his daughter. And to loose that gift is heart breaking.
But the thing about life is, it is both beautiful and brutal. I know this now.
And still, even on the darkest of days I have witnessed such beauty and hope. My kids seem able to talk about dad so openly and freely that often it just leaves me speechless. They remember lovely things that I have forgotten. They talk about heaven with more assurance than I often possess. Yesterday Noah suddenly said, ‘I wish I could see Granda’ because he does and I do too but I probably don’t articulate it out loud very well, or very often. ‘I wish I could see dad.’ I do. When Poppy took her first steps I clapped and cheered but in my heart I was sad. Because dad would have been so proud of her.
He’s not here and I miss him.
There are moments in my life right now that are so full of beauty my eyes fill with grateful tears. And there are times when the sadness descends and the tears are of a different kind.
I am slowly learning to hold onto the truth that I have a Father who remains for it all. And I have a voice and a faith in it all, too.
Grief is not causing me to desert my faith. Grief is deepening it.
Since dad died my greatest need has not been for explanations or assigning blame or finding something to diminish my grief. My greatest need has been for deep assurance that I am gently held and deeply known in every circumstance.
‘Who is he to you now?’
I have found my God to be a good Father who holds me, knows me and He remains.