Fall is the best season. Hands down. As the first hint of the changing leaves appear (and college football season gets going) I instinctively rejoice and relish the stretch from Labor Day to Thanksgiving. It doesn’t hurt that this time of year reminds me of when Mary Jane and I fell in love and got married. It’s a time of beauty, and reflection. It calls for poetry.
I wrote this poem a few years ago after a run in the park as the sun was setting on a beautiful Fall day. In it I explore the paradox of the stillness that can be found while still physically in motion. We experience this paradox particularly as we slow ourselves down to attend not only to the beauty of our surroundings, but also the peacefulness contained in each noticed breath. There is glory all around for us to attend to and enjoy — the omnipresence of the Triune God (who abounds in steadfast love through Christ) only enhances this rich experience.
OUT in out IN Pace for pace Breath for breath Rhythm to observe Light's escaping Shadow's return Wonder embrace me Painted hues Shrouded for now Outlined cloud Signals sun's parting Moving still Stillness moving Sovereign in session Relish the autumnal glory Breathe, breathe
I’m excited to share that my first book will be published in January! It’s called “A Student’s Guide to Justification” and will be a part of the Track series with Christian Focus Publishers partnering with Reformed Youth Ministries (RYM). I hope that it will be a helpful, short book on an essential Christian doctrine — the heart of the gospel itself. It’s geared towards teens and young adults, but I hope it will prove beneficial to all who read it.
While there will be more to share about the book in the coming months, you can pre-order it now on Amazon.
Feel free to share with anyone you think would be interested in it. I appreciate any support you could provide!
I wrote this article to youth ministers and parents for Rooted on how to foster a Bible-saturated youth ministry. It’s part of a series of posts they are doing on their vision statement:
“To transform youth ministry so that every student receives a grace-filled, gospel-centered and Bible-saturated discipleship in the church and the home.”
I wrote this article for Rooted on the connections between the biblical theme of return from exile (drawing from a particular scene in the book of Ezra) and our own seeming “return from exile” post-COVID. I was writing with youth ministers and church leaders in mind, but I think it is beneficial and encouraging to all.
I wrote this poem during this past season of Lent. I was inspired by Malcolm Guite’s reflections on different selections of Dante’s The Divine Comedy. In particular, my inspiration came from Guite’s poem “Through the Gate” and the selection of Dante he entitles “Towards a Shining World” from Inferno (lines 133-end) and Purgatory (lines 115-129). Guite highlights that, like Dante and Virgil, the journey toward God and redemption involves descent. Down is the way up (echoing T.S. Eliot and John of the Cross). Guite sees this as a picture of the Christian life:
[Dante] (and we) must have the courage to descend and face the worst, in ourselves as well as others, if we are to come at last to our heavenly home. But, as we shall see, even in that descent we continually see signs that our Saviour has gone before us.The Word in the Wilderness (page 82)
This is really encouraging! We follow Jesus as we trek the way down. He leads us down, but back up again. The Cross leads to Resurrection. Guite elaborates further:
Like Jesus, who went to the cross not for pain in itself but ‘for the joys that were set before him’, so we are to make this journey through the memories of pain and darkness, not to stay with these things but to redeem them and move beyond them. And the journey itself is made possible because Christ himself has gone before… We who build so many hells on earth, need to know that there is no place so dark, no situation so seemingly hopeless, that cannot be opened to the light of Christ for rescue and redemption.The Word in the Wilderness (page 86)
Like Dante coming up from the frozen core of the Inferno and seeing the stars shining above, we too can journey with Jesus in hope that He, the Bright Morning Star (Rev. 22:16), will cause us to shine as lights in the world (Phil. 2:15) as He casts His light over all our darkness (John 1:5). Down is the way up. Journey on, my friends!
One Winds the Spiral Down
One winds the spiral down, Wearied step after wearied step. Astonished, aghast – a deep-set frown, Fruit of a grieved heart, unwept. Down the way up – they say A nobler, hoping path. Eyes fixed On stars, shining, yet descent each day. Tears blur lighted steps oft missed. Wipe mine eyes, my soul’s Love, Holy Encampment, Noonday Sun! Gentle Father, bring peace! When Thy Dove Descends, day’s ascent begun.
This is the second post in a short series on analogies of grief. You can read the first post here, which includes an introduction to the importance of these analogies.
A couple of weeks ago I was talking to a friend about his experience of grief over the loss of his mom not long after another anniversary of her death. It has been years since her death but the pain of her absence remains and has morphed in some ways as he has grieved. I asked him if he thinks the grief at each anniversary and personal remembrance will dissipate over time and how he feels about that happening. Because for many of us, there’s both a good that comes in “moving on” and another layer of grief (and potentially guilt and shame) for doing so. “Moving on” means healing and growth. It can be the result of grieving well, where the lost loved one is still remembered and cherished but the agony of grief has subsided for the one who remains. However, it can still feel bad. It can feel like you’re abandoning or forgetting them.
My friend replied along these lines. And then he shared this analogy of grief with me: “The Ball and the Box.” Several years ago this analogy went somewhat viral through a series of tweets (you can read about it here). It seems like this is a somewhat common analogy shared by counselors and other mental health professionals with those for whom they care. I think it helpfully describes the experience of grief as time goes on and how to make sense of the times we seem to have been randomly “triggered” into fresh sadness.
Analogy of Grief: The Ball in the Box
So how does this analogy work? Imagine there is a box with a button on one side of the wall like the picture below. When your experience of loss and grief is fresh, the ball is big! It seems to fill the whole space of the box. It bounces around the box like the old “DVD Video” logo (immortalized in this hilarious scene from The Office). When the button is hit by the ball, grief and sadness is activated. Since the ball is gigantic, this happens A LOT and you feel out of control as waves of sadness unrelentingly beat you down. It can feel unending and debilitating.
However, as Lauren Herschel mentions in her original tweets, over time and with help in the grieving process, the ball gets smaller and “hits the button” less often. However, sometimes it still does — just like the “DVD Video” logo eventually bounces exactly into the corner of the screen (again, you have to watch this scene). This helps us make sense of those moments of seemingly random grief that occur years and years after an event or the loss of a loved one. For Herschel it was the sight of a woman at the store who resembled her grandmother, which activated her grief about her mother. For me, it was the thought of showing my wife and kids around my grandparents’ house that made the sorrow for my deceased grandfather surge up within me. Or simply walking into the lobby of the hospital where my daughter was admitted for weeks after her birth (she’s happy and healthy now). What is it for you?
Grieving With Hope
Grief is a perplexing experience. It continues to be so even as time extends past the event of loss, pain, or suffering. It can linger because of continued, chronic pain and suffering. It can surprise us as a sudden emotional ambush. This is in part because God has made us as body-soul amalgams with a rich emotional life (though this can be suppressed and stunted). It is also in part because we have loved much. Our grief can show our love, affection, and attachment. It is in part because the world is sin-sick and deeply broken. Our grief can evidence an impulse to lament wrongdoing and brokenness. These flow from good places. Thus, grief can even feel good at times — a right response to sad, broken things.
Analogies like this one can be helpful in making sense of our experience. And yet, those who trust in Christ and have even more good encouragement that the experience of grief will dissipate and that it is not meaningless or without resolution. In 1 Thessalonians 4, the Apostle Paul, starting in verse 13, answers the local congregation’s concerns about their deceased Christian brothers and sisters. Where are they? What has happened to them? And, how should they grieve?
Paul answers them, but first indicates that he gives his answer to them so that they “may not grieve as others do who have no hope” (4:13). With that as his purpose, he goes on to encourage them with the implications of Christ’s Resurrection as it pertains to those who have died “in the Lord.” Blessedly, these lost loved ones, along with the Thessalonians themselves, “will always be with the Lord” (4:17) — whether in spirit or bodily after Christ returns. Jesus brings resurrection for all of His people through His own. Because of this, they could have hope in all of their grief — even as it stretched out over the years and would be frequently reactivated in the patterns of daily living. They could “encourage one another with these words” over and over again (4:18).
We too can find comfort here. We too can encourage each other with these words. Even when the ball in our box is large and regularly activating our grief. Even when the ball has shrunk over time and yet reactivates our grief again and again. We can have hope. We can grief with hope. Things will not always be this way! Eventually, all tears will be wiped away (Rev. 21:4). Eventually, our experience of the eternal weight of God’s glory will surpass the suffering of this world in our experience (2 Cor. 4:17-18). Eventually, there will be no more ball or button in our box. In the meantime, we have in Jesus a Friend who will never fail us and consolation in the community of His Church. This is good news as we look forward, but it is also good news for us now as we continue to make sense of the ball in our box.
I wrote this poem a year ago. It came out of a time of wrestling with sorrow and grief — some of which was tinged with frustration with my own sin. I had been reflecting on Psalm 73 (Brian Habig’s sermon on this from a few years ago has continued to stick with me) and a few verses in particular:
When my soul was embittered,
when I was pricked in heart,
I was brutish and ignorant;
I was like a beast toward you.Psalm 73:21-22
Here the Psalmist is reflecting on his bitterness toward God and how God had been at work in His life. He loses perspective in His life as a worshiper of God and wrestles to regain it. In the end, he is reminded and comforted by God’s gracious presence with him even still:
Nevertheless, I am continually with you;
you hold my right hand.
You guide me with your counsel,
and afterward you will receive me to glory.
Whom have I in heaven but you?
And there is nothing on earth that I desire besides you.
My flesh and my heart may fail,
but God is the strength of my heart and my portion forever.Psalm 73:23
This similar wrestling comes out in the poem in the desire to “banish the brute” that rages within and the need for God to subdue us all to Himself. Graciously, the Lord does this by reminding us of His “hidden” and “near” presence with us and provision for us, even in the process of “sounding the soul.”
Banish the brute, unconsoled in bondage breaking, And brutish be the unvanquished self undone. In leisure, unrest boisterous, boldly taking Joy unbridled, unfettered, making cares run. Sorrow steals all natural thrills, nowhere now alive. Name what is numb, see and sum, flailing mute, fleeing. Natal calm, the native psalm of Providence spied; Speaks not, spares not, nor assuages grief’s dark dealing. Dark doubles down sounding the soul: a devil’s bind. What dare a wretched rebel devise such deceived? Where fly, dispel, cry, perceive – deliverance find? Divine the Savior be – hidden, near; Soul believe!
Analogies of Grief
Whenever we are going through difficult or perplexing experiences, analogies are helpful. As meaning-makers, pictures and stories are natural ways in which we seek to make sense of what we have experienced (or continue to experience). The pain and stress of these experiences are typically not relieved by this, but the process of naming and defining them can provide some needed closure and clarity on the road to healing. We do this all the time. “You know, it was kind of like…” Or, “The more I think about it, it was a lot like…” We need these analogies to find meaning in our experiences — particularly those of pain, suffering, and loss.
Of particular interest to me at the moment are analogies of grief.
Grief is a broad term for the feeling associated with (or emotional response to) the experience of loss. In terms of the range of human emotional experience, it is in the sadness or sorrow family. It is a response to suffering, pain, and loss. It is the experience and process of mourning — longing for someone or something lost; or that something painful happened. The occasion of grief could be the loss of a loved one to death, a broken relationship, an old or chronic emotional or physical wound, the death of hopes and dreams, unfulfilled expectations, or something else similar. Grieving can be done well or poorly. It can lead to growth and joy, but it also can cripple, hinder, and dehumanize us. We can try to avoid it. But since pain, suffering, and loss are an inescapable part of living in a sinful, fallen world, grief is a fundamental, shared human experience of that world. Because of this, grief is also a place of universal connection.
A glad heart makes a cheerful face, but by sorrow of heart the spirit is crushed.Proverbs 15:13
Since grief is big, emotionally overwhelming, often perplexing and long-lasting, and a universal human experience, it is important to be able to understand it for what it is as well as for how we ought to respond to it. Great benefit and personal growth can come through the process of loss and pain grieved well. Meaningful connections can be made interpersonally through the opportunities that grieve provides. Thus, as visual and storied meaning-makers, we need analogies of grief.
Sorrow is better than laughter, for by sadness of face the heart is made glad.Ecclesiastes 7:3
In this post and (hopefully) a few more subsequent posts, I want to share and reflect on several analogies of grief that I have run across. I would love to hear some of yours as well. The first comes from J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings trilogy: grief is like a Morgul wound. Full disclosure: I shamelessly stole this analogy from my counselor (he’s not offended).
I shared this analogy in a recent sermon on the book of Job, but I wanted to develop the idea a bit more here. You can watch/listen to the sermon here (the sermon starts at 22:40; the Morgul wound illustration starts at 59:12).
A Morgul Wound
In the first book of Tolkien’s epic tale, The Fellowship of the Ring, Frodo and his hobbit companions are guided by Strider (aka Aragorn, aka King Elessar) on the initial part of their journey out of the Shire. At Weathertop, the group is ambushed by the Nazgul and their leader, the Witch-king of Angmar, corners Frodo in pursuit of the One Ring. As the Witch-king presses in, he stabs Frodo with a short blade called the Morgul knife. Though not a fatal wound, Frodo cries out in agony as Strider intercedes and eventually drives away the Nazgul. You can watch the film adaptation of this scene below:
The Witch-king’s knife is a unique weapon with dark, evil origins that has a poisoning effect on its victims. In Tolkien’s books, the Morgul-knife breaks off in the wound and the shards travel toward the victim’s heart. Eventually, it has the effect of turning the victim into a dark, shadowy wraith like the Nazgul (to read more of the lore behind the Morgul-knife, you can go here). As Aragorn indicates in the film, only elvish medicine can heal this particular type of wound.
Thankfully, Aragorn is able to get Frodo to Elrond, the great elf lord, at his fortress in Rivendell. Though Elrond is able to treat Frodo’s Morgul wound by removing the blade’s shards, Frodo continues to feel the pain of the wound intensely from time-to-time, particularly on the anniversary of the attack at Weathertop. In the end, a permanent cure for Frodo’s wound is only found in his departure to the West, to Valinor and the Undying Lands (an experience that only a select few non-elves had experienced).
Some wounds “never” heal. In this scene at the end of the film version of The Return of the King, Frodo reflects on his continued pain from the wound:
Our Morgul Wounds
Like our hobbit friend Frodo, we too have our own Morgul wounds. The losses, pain, and sufferings of life — big and small; acute and chronic — ail us and press us into the experience of grief like a wrestler pinned face-first to the mat. Our grief lingers. It reappears with new strength at anniversaries and at the sights, sounds, and smells of that which was lost or the pain that was experienced. Even the best medicine of the Means of Grace, the spiritual disciplines, counseling, healthy habits and personal boundaries, intimate relationships, etc., leave a remaining ache in us — body and soul. Like Frodo, we too have pain and loss that will be to some extent unresolved until we enter the Undying Lands (and praise be to the Lord Jesus who makes the way for us through His Resurrection).
It is in the unresolved nature of Frodo’s Morgul wound that we find a helpful analogy for our grief today. Because, even if we know and believe with all our hearts that Christ will bring us to the Undying Lands in due time, our wounds still throb. The tears still pour from our eyes. We hurt. We grieve and we grieve and we grieve.
Grief is a process. It is a process that is part of being a sinful human being in a fallen world. In it and through the gospel of Christ ministered to us by His Spirit and in the fellowship of the Church, we find substantial, yet not full, healing in this life. And it’s in seeing, understanding, and embracing this unresolved tension in our grief and loss that we are able to make some meaning out of it all and persevere with real hope and joy here and now — on our way to full and complete healing in our own, true Valinor in the New Heavens and New Earth.
1 Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth, for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away, and the sea was no more. 2 And I saw the holy city, new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband. 3 And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, “Behold, the dwelling place of God is with man. He will dwell with them, and they will be his people, and God himself will be with them as their God. 4 He will wipe away every tear from their eyes, and death shall be no more, neither shall there be mourning, nor crying, nor pain anymore, for the former things have passed away.”Revelation 21:1-4
Analogies illuminate, but they don’t fix or heal things. Only Jesus can do this. In the meantime, He gives us His grace, His Word, His promises, and His people. Jesus gives us His very self. And though we grieve, He is with us. And though we suffer, it is not the end of the story. All He has promised, He will fulfill.
23 Now may the God of peace himself sanctify you completely, and may your whole spirit and soul and body be kept blameless at the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ. 24 He who calls you is faithful; he will surely do it.1 Thessalonians 5:23-24
I wrote this poem last Spring as an exercise in the art of noticing. It’s happy and short — capturing a brief scene of Spring’s green beauty. There is always much to be noticed and enjoyed all around us in the simple nature of things. This is particularly so when the earth returns to life in Springtime. Notice. Enjoy. Give thanks to the Maker. New life is everywhere.
The sweet gum’s star leaves flap Like birds’ wings alighting Dancing so cheerfully Dappled with sunlight’s rays And the wind whips them ‘round As their waltzing partner