Pain is a strange companion of ours, whether we like it or not. There’s pain in our very welcome to this world, we fall and scrape our knees as we learn to walk, baby teeth have to be pulled in order for permanent teeth to show up and do their work. Seeds must shatter for a tree to be born, and caterpillars fight like hell for the right to be a butterfly. Try to help that butterfly—to make its liberty pain-free—and you’ll kill it in the process.

Pain is indeed a most curious companion, isn’t it? There are volumes of good theological discourse on why pain exists in the first place, and wonderful studies done on pain’s purpose in our bodies.

It warns us, moves us, shapes us, informs us. It lets us know change is coming, that things are being transformed in some way. And maybe that is what frightens us—that we might not know what to do with what we become.

But if we let pain do its birthing, changing, shaping work, we become more.

More beautiful, more graceful, more powerful, more faithful.

I could say I know it because Jesus certainly has demonstrated the redemptive power of pain over and over again through his life, death, and resurrection. But as he does best, he has revealed it through the testimonies of people I’ve walked with over the years—the pain of new parenthood, the pain of job loss and infidelity and divorce. We’ve walked through the pain of waiting, the pain of wanting, the pain of broken bodies and broken brains, the pain of abuse and neglect.

And he has most powerfully revealed the redemptive work of pain in my own life as well, in the unlikely friendship of grief.

Even in the unending shadows of death’s darkness,
I am not overcome by fear.
Because You are with me in those dark moments,
near with Your protection and guidance,
I am comforted. Psalm 23:4

It has been twenty-one years since I awoke to the sound of the phone ringing, of water in the sink to splash my face to reality, of the car starting and the road racing and the ding of the elevator at the county hospital, of the silence in the room where the woman who tried to be constant love in a fickle fling world laid so quietly.

That morning, as I sat on the corner of the hospital bed and gazed at my mom’s peaceful face, I knew that if I could just tear through the parchment-thin reality, I would have seen her dancing. I realized the profound ache of missing Eden that day, and that death was never created or invited but rather self-imposed after the long afternoon walks with God were traded for the insatiable desire to know it all and do it all. I felt the space between the grief that holds hope out like a bouquet of roses, and the grief that stands in a field to say, “Hope is buried here—and I believe you can still find it.”

Mom’s death was both the bouquet and the field.

I used to think grief was something to get over or to get through or get past. I’ve learned it’s certainly not a thing to cling tightly to for too long, as it needs fire and water and air and earth to do its work. Gripping grief will destroy its beauty and denying it will destroy us.

I’ve come to be okay with the unlikely friendship of grief. The wash of it over a tender moment is the reminder that we are made for more than the dirt under our feet. The sound of it in a bird’s song is the reminder that our stories are still being written even as the ink on the page blurs from the tears. The presence of it in dog-eared picture books or fading photos is the reminder that death is the very thing that God uses to plant his new seeds of life in us, the way the soil in the field hides the seeds of hope—hope waiting to be baptized.

Perhaps it’s our tears that water the ground.
One of the most precious places grief has gathered with me in conversation is in the pages of my mom’s Bible. It’s the one she opened for the first time in 1982 to try to prove me wrong when I told her I would be traveling to Mexico to live for a while as a missionary. Surely any God worth his salt or her attention would never take away her little love. 

There are marks in ink on the pages where the searching took her to a different place—a place of his great affection for her. I remember the day she told me she had accidentally fallen in love with Jesus—and that she was terrified still but knew he would care for me. There are other marks as well, as the woman who couldn’t get to a church building learned about love and strength and grace sitting in the living room with a cup of coffee and words written in King James English. 

God taught her about beauty. He taught her about wisdom. He taught her about letting go. He taught her to be thankful—always. “Praise the Lord for everything, even that which we think to be bad. Praise the Lord.” He showed her the power of women. He reminded her not to worry. He told her that love was worth it all. She marked not only Scriptures but circled small descriptors in margins as well.

{made complete | devotion | known | good courage | saved | bless}
I continue to learn about grief’s friendship in the painful eternity of the missing. I hear my mom’s voice in the markings on the page. She reminds me that the latter days will be better than the former, that where I am today holds more beauty than she could have ever imagined in any poem she wrote or picture she drew. Today, she’s reminding me of the power that lives inside me to be prophet and priest and keeper of Holy Spirit-perfected words of prayer. She reminds me that I am both legacy and future—that seeds planted in the soil of pain have sprung up in bouquets that give life. In the highlights on the page, she’s whispered my favorite Scriptures to remind me that God redeems and keeps redeeming.

The Lord says, “I will give you back what you lost
    to the swarming locusts, the hopping locusts,
the stripping locusts, and the cutting locusts.[a]
    It was I who sent this great destroying army against you.
Once again you will have all the food you want,
    and you will praise the Lord your God,
who does these miracles for you.
    Never again will my people be disgraced.
Joel 2:25-26

The unlikely friendship of grief says you and I are still here, still breathing, purposefully planted in this moment to keep living and keep marking the pages until the ink runs dry. It says we are here, circling descriptors that tell the world who we are and who we want to be. It says we are beautiful, it says love is still worth it. It tells us to take good courage, and to bless beyond all blessing. It reminds us that there is redemption to be found in pain. Always.

Yes, we are still here with our stories being written.  And we are made for more than the dirt under our feet.

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