Grace Beyond the Grave
Suffering isn’t something we would think of to ‘savour’. But if there is a gift within everything that comes our way, it may be the only way to taste Grace.
Ian lost his fiancé, Seets, last February. She had battled cancer, won and then succumbed to a tumour in her brain. On this anniversary, Ian looks back at his reflections and finds them rooting him afresh and also yielding fresh insights.
As 23rd February approaches, I find myself reading through reflections of the past 12 months. This activity has proven to be rather insightful; a reflection of my own reflections. Time has revealed more perspectives, more textures; more lessons.
I realise that reflections help facilitate - and hopefully strengthen - a personalised experience of Life. How one relates to God is influenced by events of life and the processing that follows these events.
Seets and I met on the dating app “Coffee Meets Bagel”. Reading her profile biography gave me an idea of who she was, and our shared experiences turned that mental picture into an actual relationship. I think the same can be said for our faith - we have shared experiences with God.
Reflections on “In darkness, He holds my hand"
"I enter a dark room and I am momentarily blinded. Before my eyes adapt, I am surrounded by blackness and nothingness. A few seconds in, outlines and vague shapes. Over time, I get accustomed to this darkness, and begin to navigate. Now the lights come on and I am once again blinded. The blackness is flooded by the whitest white. What a powerful contrast. Dark and light. Death and life. My question has been: Can grace truly shine without the gloom of the grave?"
For some people, life might seem mostly bright, punctuated with the occasional descent into deep darkness. For others, a constant transition between varying shades of light and dark. The past year felt like a mixture of both. There were days where I felt good, and days that I felt really good. But all too soon, another descent into a dark space. Or a moment of light followed by unbearable darkness. Yes, the first experience of light amidst darkness is powerful. A warmth that finds me on a cold and barren floor feels especially warm and present. However, the journey that follows is more grey, where the transition between joy and sadness and disappointment and anger is much more continuous. How then, do I stay focused on the light?
"Seets’ passing has been my darkened room. Physically I remain, but a part of my soul has been taken away, as well as the hopes, and dreams, the will to move forward. For those familiar with the Johari’s window, I am sitting squarely in the bottom right - the mystery zone, unknown to myself nor to others."
As I re-read this, the faces of friends and family come to mind. I am deeply grateful for the ones who banded alongside to make sure that I was eating well and resting sufficiently. The ones who accompanied me for dance classes and the ones who invited me to their homes for meals. There was no pressure to “move forward” or “stop grieving”. I can only imagine how those conversations would have been harmful and counterproductive.
It takes maturity to hold space for a grieving person, to allow for silence instead of progress.
Over time, a tribe that I could truly call my own formed and rallied around me. They say that stars shine brightest in the darkest of nights. I am truly grateful and blessed to have friends and family.
"But therein lies the first realisation of grace. Darkness has forced me to focus. In this dark room, I cannot see far. There is no end in sight. So I am forced to focus on what’s nearest to me. My first instinct is to look for my hands. And when I make this attempt, I see not one pair of hands, but two. In an instant, the nature of God has shifted from the Lord Most High, to the Shepherd Most Near. He has come to guide me by the hand. The Grace has come to find me in the dark. And what part did I play? Nothing - but only to be still, and wait. For once I am not trying to make sense, but sense the Maker - for I have been utterly incapacitated and that is all I am capable of. Perhaps that is the point. Darkness does not determine my direction, but it directs my determination. And this is my determination: To be still, and know that He is God."
Stillness is a discipline. Not just of the body, but of the soul and spirit as well. There were numerous moments where I would ask God: When would this dark period end? Inside me, I was eager to move out of the spaces that brought me discomfort and ambiguity. A part of me felt that I had reflected and learnt what I needed to; it was now time to get out of the dark room. Yet how presumptuous I was to think that way - for who am I to determine the length of the season?
Time and time again, I was led to be still.
The question was not about the presence of growth - but whether the growth was complete.
Like the helpful passerby helping the yet-to-be butterfly unfurl its wings, I caught myself (or maybe others caught me) attempting to fly again, and failing. As I stumbled like a man not yet fully awake, I was eventually brought to the place of stillness once again. And in that place, the discipline of stillness began to weave itself into my thoughts and decisions. ‘Not my will, but Yours’.
May this space exist for me till I have learnt all that You have planned for me. Earlier I spoke about life in the grey. Perhaps stillness amidst all the transitions helps one to focus on the light. St. John of the Cross spoke about a painter's subject who could not sit still and ended up delaying the painter's work.
Perhaps stillness allows the necessary work to be done.
"Oh Jesus, how you gave the wine of salvation into my hands. How my undeserving and dirty hands took the cup, barely knowing the full extent of what would next happen: my Saviour bearing a burden heavier than the cross itself! And in stillness, I glimpse the humble majesty of the servant King, the one who did the work before I even knew I needed it. The one who says, “drink this cup, and remember me as you do.”
Towards the end of 2021, a beloved pastor and mentor asked me how I would summarise the year. Looking back, it has been a year of “wounds”. I term it as: “Three Wounds, and a Mirror”.
From August 2019 till February 2021, the mirror was angled toward the wounds of another. I wrestled with watching Seets go through treatment after treatment. Worry turned into hope into joy into disappointment into sorrow as the months went by. Being physically well made me feel especially helpless; unlike helping a needy person with his next meal, I could not help Seets using any efforts of my own. God was leading me through my first steps in the garden of surrender.
As February 2021 came and went, the mirror slowly turned towards my own wounds. Grief has a way of worming itself into the hidden recesses of life, the ones that see the least light. As I work through it, other nasty parts get fleshed out too. Now I saw parts of myself that had been well kept over the years. Parts that I forgot had existed. Like a house with many rooms in need of spring cleaning, the hidden parts of my inner life were gradually being exposed and dealt with. With the benefit of hindsight, I now see the deep cleansing and pruning work being done.
A book I read had this line:
God works in you before He works through you. How true - for what use is a cup filled with mud?
Fresh water is poured in and gets clouded; no one would dare take a drink out of it. God was continuing to lead me through the garden.
There was a particular point in the journey where I felt utterly worthless and filthy, not fit for use by a God whom I professed to love and serve. But just as my dustiest rooms were exposed, the mirror turned once again. This time, I looked upon the wounds of the One who loved me and gave Himself for me. The One who knew no brokenness, yet became broken for me. What love, what sacrifice! It is noble to die for a good person, but to die for an unworthy person?
I was confronted head-on by the great mystery called Grace. That God would love me so much, that He would send His Son to die for me. Once again, I could do nothing but stretch out my dirty hands to drink from the cup. Once again, I was reminded of the great mystery of Grace: a gift that cannot be earned. My unworthiness has made me worthy. “I am not good enough” was no longer a sigh of hopelessness, but a declaration of hope and victory.