I sat down to write this article, it feels like the 74th day of January. In reality, it’s the end of the month. What is it about January that it seems to drag on forrrrreeeevvvvveeeerrrr?? And I don’t know if it’s January or the cold or what, but I really struggled with what to write to you this month. After a very challenging month, I’m feeling a bit dry, honestly. So I turned to my trusted confidant, our secretary Lynn, and asked her “what should I write about this month?” And in her infinite wisdom, she said “well, February is the month of love. Why don’t you write about love?” But here’s the thing, beloved, I’m in the mindspace that I’m more wanting to talk about grief.
I don’t want to assume that all of you reading this know, but a young man in our congregation, Tristan Toppert, died on January 13. I confirmed Tristan. I took him to the Lutheran Youth Gathering in Houston (along with Kristi Lueders, Katelyn Howe, Paige Bauer, and Sam Lueders). Chris, Ellen and I have had the honor of spending many of the major holidays at the Stuedemann house. This means that I have spent many Thanksgivings, Christmases, and Easters with Tristan. The story of his death, while not private, is one familiar to too many families in this congregation. It comes with a different kind of grief.
I have walked with many of you through grief. And if I have had the honor of doing that (and yes, for me it is an honor to be invited into such a sacred place) you have heard me say something like this. Grief never happens at a convenient time. It never happens when you’re home alone, with the lights turned down, and a kleenex box nearby. Grief happens at really dumb times, like when you’re at the grocery store and you pass by a woman who wears the same perfume as your grandmother and now you’re crying in the potato chip aisle. And yes, this really happened to me. And it happened to me more than once. I ran into someone at the meat counter at Hy-Vee less than 24 hours after Allen Petersen died. They asked me “how’s Allen doing?” and there I was, crying in front of the sirloins. Grief is terrible and awful and confusing. But, grief is the price we pay for loving one another so fiercely. Grief is the price we pay for having loved.
And yes, sometimes love looks like chocolate, roses, even folding the laundry. Sometimes love looks like holding hands to steady one another. Love looks like rides to chemo, sitting in the silence waiting, rocking babies, and being comfortable with one another’s wrinkles and rolls. And sometimes love looks like picking out the perfect casket for a 17 year old who should still be here if it weren’t for bullies. I don’t think we often think about that grief and love are partners that go hand in hand. What love and grief have in common is that God is present in them both.
I think about the first time I laid eyes on Ellen and my heart just about exploded out of love and I know God was in that moment. After years of infertility and our struggle to bring this little girl into the world, I knew without a doubt, God was there as we fell in love with this amazing creation of God who bears the image of her redeemer. At the same time we know and must lean into the idea that God is most certainly present in our grief. I don’t dare imagine how unbearable grief would be without God or without faith. If I need proof of God’s presence in grief, I think about the story of Lazarus. When Jesus arrived and heard his friend Lazarus had already died, his first reaction was one of tears. Sorrow. Pure grief. This was the very human Jesus having very human emotions.
The only way we can avoid grief is to not love. Grief physically hurts (like that gut-wrenching hurt) because something or someone we love has been removed from our lives. I believe that loving is worth the hurt. At the same time, I also believe that life is too short and nothing is guaranteed. I am writing this just a few days after basketball great Kobe Bryant died in a tragic helicopter accident. So if you’ve been waiting for the perfect moment, the perfect words, the right opportunity or whatever to act on love, stop waiting. Stop waiting because I don’t want you left with grief and “what if’s.” Love and grief are both gifts from God. Yes, gifts. Love we can understand as a gift. Grief is a gift because it reminds us that we are capable of loving and being loved. When we read “for God so loved the world” (see John 3:16) that includes you, me, and everyone you love and everyone you may not even know. Love is not a precious commodity. Grief isn’t a precious commodity either. So don’t wait for Valentine’s day. Don’t wait another moment to love. If there’s anything I’ve learned in my short time thus far on this spinning ball of madness it’s that there’s always room for more love.