Grief and gratitude

Reading is a conversation between a reader and a text. Both reader and text are alive, so reading is dynamic. This is why rereading is not mere repetition, is not redundant.

The dynamism and fluidity of the reader is obvious to any reader who cultivates honest self-awareness and spiritual growth. I am not the same reader today as one year ago, or forty years ago because for better or for worse I have changed—morally, intellectually, spiritually, and physically. Some of that change is active (I am the agent) and some of it is passive (things happen to me).

The dynamism of the text is less obvious but nevertheless real. A text is an expression of a mind. That mind has intentionality. We might think that the text is a snapshot of a mind and its intentionality at one moment, and assume that once it is given the form of (for example) ink on paper it is fixed, unchanging. I will not here explore the flaws in that assumption. I will simply quote my favorite assertion by one important text of its own dynamism:

Ζῶν γὰρ ὁ λόγος τοῦ θεοῦ καὶ ⸀ἐνεργὴς καὶ τομώτερος ὑπὲρ πᾶσαν μάχαιραν δίστομον καὶ διϊκνούμενος ἄχρι μερισμοῦ ψυχῆς καὶ ⸁πνεύματος, ἁρμῶν τε καὶ μυελῶν, καὶ κριτικὸς ἐνθυμήσεων καὶ ἐννοιῶν καρδίας· καὶ οὐκ ἔστιν κτίσις ἀφανὴς ἐνώπιον αὐτοῦ, πάντα δὲ γυμνὰ καὶ τετραχηλισμένα τοῖς ὀφθαλμοῖς αὐτοῦ, πρὸς ὃν ἡμῖν ὁ λόγος.

Indeed, the word of God is living and active, sharper than any two-edged sword, piercing until it divides soul from spirit, joints from marrow; it is able to judge the thoughts and intentions of the heart. And before him no creature is hidden, but all are naked and laid bare to the eyes of the one to whom we must render an account.

I realize that applying these words to the text that is scripture and then by extension to some degree also to all texts in general raises all manner of questions, but I am going to bracket them all for now and ask you to accept this one particular application, this one particular word of testimony, as follows.

This morning when, in the course of my morning prayers I recited once again the words from Galatians 5 about the fruit of the spirit, this rereading was a fresh interaction between a changed reader and a dynamic text. This reader is a changed reader in that his (my) mother just died. And the text (Galatians 5:21) is a different text this morning for this reader because, being focused on reflecting on my mother, because of my own thoughts about her and because of testimony from others who knew her, I recognize in this text a description of my mother.

  • Love: My mother was the most loving person possible. From my earliest childhood to her last conscious moments, she constantly gave herself for me and for others.
  • Joy: Anyone who knew her—saw her smile and her irrepressible love of fun—experienced the resilient, ebullient joy that kept springing to the surface.
  • Peace: She had an invincible ability to accept whatever life brought by absorbing everything into her gratitude for all the good in her life and her confidence that God is good and knows best what is good for us.
  • Patience: The older translation, longsuffering, is more literal. My mother’s capacity for enduring and persevering through hardship and loss was remarkable.
  • Kindness: My sister and I, and our spouses and children, know her kindness well ourselves, and we are hearing testimony from others who experienced it over the course of many years.
  • Goodness: This word is hard to pin down: it refers both to inherent excellence, and so applies properly and primarily to God, but also (and I think this is in the foreground in Galatians 5:21) to the generosity toward others that flows out of inherent goodness. So it refers to being a blessing to others. Which my mother definitely and preeminently was.
  • Faithfulness: The Greek word here is pistis, which is commonly translated “faith.” I can remember wondering as a teenager how faith could be one item, and far from the first, in a list of the fruit of the spirit, given that faith (basic belief and trust in God) was the essential condition of salvation. Later I learned that pistis can also mean “faithfulness” (including dependability, loyalty) and often does in the Bible. My mother was indeed a believer, and she was also someone you could absolutely count on.
  • Gentleness: The word praytēs denotes humility, or humbleness, in dealings with others, and especially when you need to correct others. It is the opposite of the mindset and conduct that my mother would have described as “getting on a high horse.” It is the opposite of severity in judging others. My childhood memories include a paddle and a flyswatter; but I also recall much gentleness.
  • Self-control: Enkrateia means disciplining oneself, not giving in to self-indulgence or luxury, or being enslaved to a need to express oneself freely all the time in speech or in conduct. It is restraint. My mother exhibited this quality in many ways throughout her life.

The list in Galatians 5:21 of attributes of the person whose life is transformed by the indwelling of the Holy Spirit—originally a sentence in a letter from the apostle Paul to a community of Christ-followers that was being led astray—is transformed when it is taken up and incorporated into a morning prayer (for the prayer, reliably attributed to the late pastor-theologian John R. W. Stott, My own recitation of that list in prayer is transformed again for me when I ponder these attributes after walking with my mother into the valley of the shadow of death.

This is an example, I think, of the way in which followers of Jesus can become icons for each other: can become images that we can contemplate as a way of entering into contemplation of the beauty of Christ himself, who is the perfect image of God. Created as we are after the image of God, and marring that image through our own failings, we can be restored only through assimilation to the Image himself, Christ incarnate, crucified, resurrected, ascended, and coming again.

Who in your own life reflects that Image for you? And for whom might you in turn become a reflection of it? This is the most powerful form of evangelism: showing forth the goodness of God as we are ourselves transformed more and more into reflections of the grace and truth that are in Jesus Christ.

Today I give thanks for my mother—absent from us now, and present with God, after 92 years of becoming a more and more faithful reflection of the goodness of God toward us.

This is the first of three reflections on my mother’s passing:
(1) Grief and gratitude
(2) The omicron spike matters
(3) What to do with suffering

3 thoughts on “Grief and gratitude

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