Today is Christmas Eve, 2015. It is the first time I am back in Portugal since your grandfather died this past February. I suppose it’s fitting that I write you now after several months of silence on this blog. There is part of me that shifted focus after your grandfather’s death. It disrupted all of our lives. None more so than your mother. She grieved but was strong. At times, her tears were silent. At times, her grieving was heavy and all I could do was hold her. The comfort I could give her was pitifully limited compared to her need. She had gone to a place where I couldn’t fix it. It was as humbling an experience as it was maddening and frustrating. Your grandfather’s death brought your mother closer to God because He was the only one who could give her the peace she needed; He was the only one who could fill the hole in her heart, fill the fathomless space that her daddy had occupied while he was still on this earth with us.
Your grandfather’s death brought me closer to God in a different way. I learned through several nights of fitful sleep and prayerful moments that I was not enough to meet your mother’s needs. I was and am still not enough to give her peace. I was and am still not strong enough to lift her up when her heart is too heavy to bear. Yet beyond my own shortcomings and your mother’s grief, we each learned in a different way that God chooses to be near to us, in good times and bad. This reality in our lives, that God’s intention is for us to have a relationship with him, is the true meaning of Christmas. Even now as I grieve a little more in a place where I strongly feel your grandfather’s absence, I am reminded of this truth.
There is an emotional part of the grieving process that I have walked through as time has placed distance between the now and the day your grandfather died. Your mother too. There were days that, for different reasons, we forgot he had passed away. Then the memory flooded in with a smell, a sight, a sound, or just a word. For me, that word was “sogro,” the word for “father-in-law” in Portuguese. Though my loss could not compare to your mother’s, it still hurt from time to time. This pain, one that I feel now even as I write you at 0530 in the morning on Christmas Eve, has dulled but is a constant presence. This is what it is like to live with a death in the family. Life moves on, but a piece of our heart does not. For your mother, those emotional triggers were numerous and relentless.
They still are, even now in this house where memories of him swirl around and are as present and constant as the air we breathe.
I know the emotional triggers have become less sensitive over time, but we have found a new normal, a new ground that has settled on the reality that we will never see your grandfather again. He will never sit at the head of the table in the house where your mommy grew up. His voice will never again boom through the stairwell, calling his wife or one of the two of you. As I look around this kitchen, I am reminded that he will never again drink cold water from the fridge, or stand outside on the back porch to shout at the dogs below to stop barking. There are a lot of “never’s.” Grief is grief. When it comes, you cannot avoid it. You should embrace it, feel it, work through it. Talk about it, feel it completely and fully, but with every day you must take a step forward. You must take a step in the direction of life and not dwell on the past. We all experience grief; it is part of our experience in this life.
Grief is bad, but not above God.
There is a spiritual side to grief. I will never forget the moment when I was driving your mother to Dulles airport on the day your grandfather died. It was a two hour drive. We barely talked, but our feelings were screaming. The knot in my stomach was the weight of a bowling ball. Your mother was a mess. Tears were streaming down her face; she went through moments of barely breathing. Her eyes were closed, and she was mouthing the words to a song that has become for both of us a symbol and proof of how God is enough. In the deepest well of your mother’s grief, she held fast to God, her Heavenly Father, and he fulfilled his promise to be all that she needs.
At the lowest emotional moment your mother has probably felt her whole life, she found herself in a place where none but God could remain by her side.
The song we listened to is by Bethel. It is called “No Longer Slaves.”
Listen to the words, especially the beginning, where we sing, “I am no longer a slave to fear. I am a child of God.” This line is repeated several times through the song. Never forget that these are the lyrics that your mommy was singing as we drove to the airport. She even mouthed the words as she got to the point where her suffering and tears prevented her from singing. All I could do was hold her hand. It was Jesus who held her up, kept her together, and walked forward with her as she checked in and prepared for the longest flight of her life.
Writing you now, I realize that I’m tapping into a memory that is hard for me to play in my mind. Like the scene in a movie, where you want to cover your ears and eyes but cannot, I see that moment in my mind, feel it in my heart and know that while it was an extremely tough piece of my life, it was a moment when God was truly present. It was a moment when, as the song says, He drowned your mother’s fears in perfect love.
Part of me wants to stop here, but I have a few more things to say. I need to record a complete version of this shift in our lives, in your mother’s life because you need to know, through it all on this Christmas, that God is real and that He loves you, more than your mother or I ever could.
I have written to you about Romans before. Chapter 8 is about living in a suffering world. As a favorite pastor of mine, Timothy Keller, teaches that Paul the Apostle presents in 8:28-30 three “principals for finding joy in suffering. Paul tells us that if we follow Christ, our bad things turn out for good, our good things cannot be lost, and our best things are yet to come. Those are the reasons for our joy.”
Here is the NIV version of those verses: 28 And we know that in all things God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose. 29 For those God foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the image of his Son, that he might be the firstborn among many brothers and sisters. 30 And those he predestined, he also called; those he called, he also justified; those he justified, he also glorified.
I want to share this Bible verse and sermon with you now because while I have listened to this sermon several times, I now listen to it with new ears. The first time I listened to it after your grandfather had passed away was when I realized that your mother – in her own suffering – had brought these ancient writings to the present in our marriage, in our home, and in how she related to the two of you. In her, God had found a willing witness, a humble servant who would allow Him to use her suffering to show others how much He loves us, how He works bad things to good of those who love him.
In his sermon, Keller references the moment when Jesus stood before the tomb of Lazarus, a man whom he would raise from the dead. It was a bad moment. Jesus wept. He was angry.
As Keller writes: “Jesus was weeping at the tomb, because the bad thing he’s about to work for good is bad. The story of Lazarus does not give you an [overly-sentimental] view of suffering, saying bad things are really blessings in disguise or that every cloud has a silver lining. The Bible never says anything like that! God will give bad things good effects in your life, but they’re still bad. Jesus Christ’s anger at the tomb of Lazarus proves that he hates death. He also hates loneliness, alienation, pain, and suffering. Jesus hates it all so much that he was willing to come into this world and experience it all himself, so that eventually he could destroy it without destroying us.”
And this is what we celebrate at Christmas. That God didn’t just give us a set of teachings to follow, but that He came to the earth to show us how to live as He intended for us to live. How we should take the bad things that happen in our lives and process them into Joy.
That is the miracle we celebrate tomorrow. Amidst the gifts, the food and drink, the laughter and the loving embraces, we celebrate Jesus.
To close, I’ll share a few more of Keller’s words, a sermon I listened to on the way here while driving from Madrid yesterday:
“Christmas means that God has gone to infinite lengths to come near you, to have a personal relationship with Him, so you can know him personally. God is not content to simply be a concept, to be believed, or even something to warm your heart. He is not content to be a powerful force that you bow to in some way because he became human. And one of the reasons is so that we can have fellowship with him.”
Your mother and I have a personal relationship with God that became all the more meaningful and powerful when your grandfather died. That reality in and of itself is a testimony that God uses bad things to work his good in our lives and in the lives of others. Through this relationship, we find happiness in the midst of suffering, we find Joy…
For me, in 2015, this is Christmas in Portugal.