When death and life collide

Six weeks ago, my grandma Charlotte passed away. We knew there was a good chance we wouldn’t see her again after we moved, so it wasn’t completely shocking. I still remember the really surreal feeling of walking out the door the last time we went to see her, wondering if that would be the last time on this side of glory that I got to kiss her on the cheek and tell her I loved her. Turns out it was.

She was the best. My mom always tells me I’m going to be just like her when I get old. Which is I think a nice way of saying I’ll still be abrasively competitive and unapologetically opinionated, but I’ll take it. Grandma Charlotte was a feisty little Italian lady — and she was a magician of a chef. I proudly carry the honor of being the only one of the six grandchildren who got “the gene” in the kitchen.

On July 19, my dad called to tell me he thought she was probably on her last day. About two hours later, I got a message that she had officially gone to Heaven, and that my dad was going to fly me home two days later so I could be there for her funeral.

Even when it’s expected and you’ve been able to prepare, it hurts to lose someone you love. There is something so “other” about experiencing death — we don’t have a grid for it because we weren’t made for it. God never intended for us to taste death. It’s a result of the fall of man.

What He did do though, was redeem it.

On July 20, I was packing my bags for Houston when I got a message from my little sister. She was pregnant with a baby girl, to be named after the grandma we had just lost. She wasn’t due for three more weeks, but she texted to tell me her water had broken and she was on her way to the hospital. There was going to be a baby by the time I got there the next afternoon.

Just thinking about the kindness of God in that moment right now, tears stream down my cheeks. I had spent nine months grieving the fact that I knew I’d miss the birth of my first niece. I had spent 24 hours grieving the loss of my grandma, reliving that last day I got to see her over and over in my head. And right there in the middle of my grief, God was bringing new life.

Because that’s what He does. In the economy of the kingdom, death is always followed by resurrection. He always brings new life. Beauty for ashes. Joy for mourning.

I will never forget how sweet it was to hold baby Charlotte on July 21, and at the same time grieving Grandma Charlotte with my family, who would have been 81 the next day. I learned over those few days that this dichotomy of emotions is one that I had become familiar with in this season of my life.

A few weeks later was Judah’s due date. I found myself reliving the grief of that Friday morning in May all over again, wishing he was here, still not understanding why God allows these things to happen sometimes.

And all the while, we are living inside of an unprecedented move of God in Salt Lake City, Utah right now. I’m looking around at the way God is growing His Church and our ministry here, and I feel like I haven’t done anything to make that happen. I’m just a mess, and He’s just moving.

I still feel the sting of death and the ache of loss every single day. And in the same breath, I feel the most alive in ministry I have ever felt. Familiar with suffering and at the same time unable to escape the goodness and favor of God.

This is the gospel. More alive in my own story than I’ve ever known. Deepest grief and highest praise seem to be the simultaneous cries of my heart in this season.

And something feels right about that.

I don’t get it.

Last week Noland and I traveled to Little Rock to be with is family and go to his grandfather’s funeral. It was a strange interruption to the blissful feeling of the beginning of spring — an interruption of all things being made new to feel the sting and reality of death. At the same time, it was oddly timely for it to happen during the week of Easter. It got me reminiscing and re-living a lot of things, because this wasn’t the first time I was experiencing a convergence of death and resurrection in my life.

In fact, exactly six years ago today I experienced a tragedy I’ll never forget. It was the loss of a close family friend, he was my best friend’s dad and my dad’s best friend. I’ll never forget my mom telling me what had happened that Monday afternoon after school. I’ll never forget the somber drive from Nashville to San Antonio two days later, and I’ll never forget sitting through his funeral on Good Friday that year, trying to hold on to the truth that He’s good no matter what, all the while asking that same one-word question over and over in my head.

Why?

I was seventeen years old and for the first time I was feeling the unparalleled pain of the death of a loved one — a pain that, in the beginning, it was never intended by God for us to feel.

And somehow the kindness of God showed up in the timing of it all. Because on Easter Sunday two days later, we celebrated the resurrected one who died so that we could live forever. It didn’t take away any of the pain. If I’m honest, I still ask that same one word question sometimes when I think about it to this day. But it reminded me that Jesus already defeated death so that we don’t have to be defeated by it. We can’t escape it, but it isn’t our end either.

But I still don’t get it. And I never will.

Two months ago, a guy I went to high school with committed suicide. That’s the kind of death that will make you question all sorts of things about eternity you never questioned before. I had so many friends that were hurting so badly, and my heart broke for them. It still breaks for them. And that same night, as all of this was weighing so heavily on me, Noland and I went to the college worship service at our church. It happened to be a night of worship and baptism.

As the service went on, people who hadn’t been saved started giving their lives to Jesus left and right, and spontaneous baptism broke out and all of a sudden there were 25 people standing on stage who had just been baptized. Buried with Him in death. Raised to walk in newness of life.

And I stood there on the second row, not knowing a single person on that stage yet weeping at the beauty of what was happening. In that moment God spoke, “You came here mourning the loss of one. You’re leaving celebrating the resurrection of twenty-five.”

And just like on Easter Sunday in 2007, the pain didn’t go away. But I felt the presence of God draw so near, and the only thing I can resolve from this mystery is this: I can not escape the sting of death on this side of Heaven. But the goodness of God will always outweigh it — and not just a little bit, but 25 and 50 and 100 fold.

Sometimes God’s mysteries are fun, like a treasure hunt. And sometimes they hurt. But no matter which side of the spectrum, they are always humbling. The mysteries of God always remind me of how small I am. They always remind me of how much I need him. I was reminded of that this weekend as I felt so small standing with Noland over his grandfather’s coffin. 

“I just don’t get it. I don’t get death,” he said.

“That’s because you were never meant to,” I told him.

And we stood there silently in the mystery. There are so many things we don’t get. I don’t get why I still watch a family I love grieve a lost father, six years after he’s been gone. I don’t get why people take their own lives, and I wonder how God handles it.

I don’t get how God will make all things work together for my good, but it says in his word that he will. I don’t get how every promise he’s spoken will be fulfilled, but I know he’s not a liar. I don’t get how Noland’s dreams and mine will be woven together into something more beautiful than we could have imagined, but I know God said he would show us things we wouldn’t believe, even if we were told.

And the trade off is that even though I don’t understand the hurt, I also don’t understand the love. It’s endless. We’ll never reach the end of it. There’s always more. It’s unfathomable, and it reminds me that living in the unfathomable is worth it.

When I don’t know anything else, I always know He’s good.