The grief sat like a bubble in my chest, stuck, not working it’s way out in tears. They came with great heaves when I sat on my rock in the Normanskill, the river that bordered our family’s farm on three sides. I was facing downstream. My sighs felt like the claustrophobia I’ve felt when kissing, only the tears burst out in shouts. My mother had just died and I needed to heave, even though her funeral felt more like wedding. I wore a sundress, with the colors of flowers she sent, yellow, maroon, orange, the sun warm on my shoulders at the grave. I went to Thatcher Park after and sat on the wrong side of the overlook wall with an old friend.
That was the beginning of the long loneliness, that still catches me, especially around holidays. Sometimes the lesser holidays like July 4 and Labor day, can hurt. It will bubble up, making it hard to breathe, until the sobs pour out. And the wind catches my tears with a brisk thumb. Only that’s not quite true because I grieved my mother long before she died. I leaned against trees in the woods, completely private and cried. Every time the TV came on public service ads announced The American Lung Society’s warning about how cigarettes could kill you. Then we watch a cowboy canter across the prairie on a white horse with a snappy tune, a cigarette hanging out of his mouth. It’s a marvel Miss Busky didn’t send me to the school counselor when she read my poem about standing on the rock, alone, with Jesus. Alone again.
My mother’s death was only the beginning. My father died five months later. And my brother died six years later. I was left an orphan by the time I was thirty-two. Maybe I wasn’t a child when my family crapped out on me, but I can still ache even though it’s been forty years.
At any rate, Chris Green spoke on The Wounds of God where he quoted Henri Nouwen’s letters. He spoke how Nouwen corrected a woman’s misreading of his wounded healer concept. From Chris Green’s talk, he said, “We minister best not out of our needs and wounds, but when we have recognized our needs and tended our wounds and have our wounds cared for. We are in care for healing. Our needs and wounds can be a source of ministry when they are acknowledged and cared for.
Green went on to say, “Wounds can be infectious. Show them to someone who is clean and can keep your wound clean. Sometimes you need to be guarded with people. There are a few people where you can be fully exposed. A few people where you can be vulnerable.”
When I mentioned that I’d corresponded with Nouwen, Green invited me to share my letters. It took a few weeks to pull open the file drawer and open the red folder with letters from Nouwen and Madeleine L’Engle John Clellon Holmes Frank Schaeffer and Larry Woiwode.
Tears came to my eyes when I saw how raw, how hurt I was, and how loving and compassionate these great, kind men and women were.
I had occasion to write these people because I was the opening publicist at Crossway books. It was my job to try to obtain author endorsements for the back covers of books. My mother was diagnosed with metastatic cancer a few weeks after I began work. I had just moved to the western suburbs of Chicago, had no community, and had to make up the routines that would convince people to promote our books. My dog was in New York. I slept on the floor of my apartment, until my boss gave me a couch. (My parents later shipped furniture.) When I first started, Crossway’s mission was to publish high quality Christian fiction among other books. It wasn’t long before I was also tasked with promoting books that urged Evangelicals to engage the culture war, and I wasn’t so sure that was the right thing to do.
Just before my mother died, I sent Henri LeAnn Payne’s Broken Image, a wise book about sexual identity that would not be published today. He thanked me for sending it and sent me A Cry for Mercy: Prayers from the Genesee.
Here’s what I wrote to thank him:
“I wanted to thank you you’re your kind note and your book A Cry For Mercy. The timing for both was perfect as my mother had just gone home to be with the Lord two weeks earlier. I received your letter the day I returned to work. I miss her, but I’m very grateful to the Lord for taking her so gently. Being at home at that time was one of the holiest experiences of my life. It was the holiness of community and comfort, with gifts like a rock with a fossil in it, a farmer cutting the fields and baling the straw, a clear blown day and a plow sinking deeply in the headlands…
Henri, the Lord is so gentle with us, a Lord we can trust to seep down into our deepest grief and weakness. After all isn’t it the fissure and cracks in rock that allow water, spring water to seep out? Just another image for what you know well.
But I still hurt at times. The hardest part is to be so far away from my family and friends and the fields where I can walk my prayers out any time of day or night. (I know God is not limited to a place, but place is sacramental, and he does come to us in certain places.) I do know it’s probably the best thing to be so far away now.
Another thing my mother’s homegoing made me realize is how grateful I am to my mother for raising me into the kind of person I am. I bless the Lord that I can carry on in my called place where she left off. This publicist job is a hot, high-pressure job that right now I feel called to do. It’s something in my blood, but like Jeremiah I feel like I’m just a kid, who’s more likely to say the wrong thing than the right one. But the Lord has proven himself to be Lord, even over our tongue.
If the Lord reminds you, please say a prayer for me because I have to plan a national tour for a major Christian author [Francis Schaeffer] and it’s a lot of pressure and responsibility. I’ll remember you to the Lord that He restores you and gives you a sense that you can’t help but do whatever it is He leads you to do.
Your prayers brought me into the cadence of intimate prayer, the cadence of being honest with the Lord as I might be with someone I’d talk to across a meal.
I’m enclosing a poem I wrote and printed for a priest I know down in Arkansas. The poem applies to more than just him. (It’s really about a road I walked at midnight to talk to the Lord about whatever it is that’s happening at the time..) I wanted you to have it as a gift, and a prayer I’ll to the Lord for you.
Thanks for being kind and listening.
The Lord be with you.
Here’s the poem that was eventually published in When the Plow Cuts, 1988:
Prayer for a Pastor
Let him be the road where we walk to know You.
(I know the road I want him to be.
It’s graveled with bluestone and ruts.
A short way along the road, pines stand
–monarchs on a chessboard.
I’ve often wondered how You’ll play
the game You offer to play with lords).
so big and pawns so small. Help us to walk.
Let him braid streams over bluestone
when You come like the rain. We smell
the rain coming and moisten with sadness.
Let him smooth back our weariness
–the jagged dust we smell heavy with rain.
(We hear water whirr through a culvert
and through it we sail a stick and a leaf).
Let us respond with our own scent
No less prayer than the change from brown to green.
Let him teach us the stillness of wire
between barbs in the fence.
Let him tilt up our chin to the clouds knived
and light slides up a straw blade.
Let us know it’s You making us look.
Nouwen’s assistant wrote saying that Nouwen had left for South America. She sent In Memoriam, and forwarded my poem and letter. “I don’t know when he might be able to respond, or if he will have time at all, but I am sure you will be hearing from him when his busy schedule allows.” I just now read In Memoriam. In it Nouwen talks about how his mother was afraid of dying and she experienced an excruciating death. It would not have been a word for me then. But it is a word now because it shows I can trust the Lord, no matter what kind of death comes my way. John Behr says that our death here is being born into our new life in Christ. And the birthing can be a violent, shitty affair, but a beloved child comes of it. The book takes the pressure off, to have to have a “peaceful night and a perfect end.”
Henri replied via a postcard from Lima Peru:
Jan 4, 1982
Many thanks for your kind and warm letter. Be sure that I pray for your mother and ask the Lord to receive her with joy and peace of His House. I also pray for you in these months of grief and mourning. My mother died three years ago and I could so well understand what you wrote. I just arrived in Peru after two months of language training in Bolivia. It is good to be here and start working here. May the Lord give you joy and peace in 1982. Henri
March 11, 1982
I wanted to thank you for your post card. I appreciate your willingness to stay in touch. Would it be possible for you to fill me in on the details of your ministry, so I can pray better for you? I’ve been reading Tell No Man by Adela Rogers St. Johns, that’s been telling me where I am in this wasteland and challenging me in my faith. (The story is about a hot shot salesman who experiences light and comes into the Kingdom. His major desire is to live the way Jesus lived, to obey the commands to feed the poor, heal the leper, teach the good news etc.) Steinmetz, a great scientist, says, “Unless we learned the truth about prayer in the last half of the century, we’d wish we hadn’t learned so much about the atom in the first half.” It’s true.
I’ve just completed an author tour with a respected evangelical thinker who is urging Christians to social action and protest [Francis Schaeffer]. His major issue is abortion. He feels that we have to change society, we have to stand up for what we believe and not let secularists tell us how we should live. Basically, he says that secular humanists have no basis for law because they have no lawgiver. As Christians we have to change that and impose our ideals of morality on society. The logical end of this is theocracy, which my author says he’ll fight, but my author won’t be with us much longer, and the people who hear him aren’t as likely to put in the balances he does. I feel these Christians have to get on their/own knees and start praying hard for our society and letting God move them into action instead of the other way around. I was also disturbed by his lack of concern for the poor and other issues of social justice.
I was privileged to be with some very ‘famous’ Christian. Professional Christianity is a wasteland, an absolute wasteland. I wonder if some of these men haven’t built their churches on the basis of their talent as good businessmen and not the blessing of the Lord. I feel we need a reformation in modern Christianity, especially evangelicalism. These people say the right things but don’t act on them. There are things as wrong as and we are as blind as the medieval church.
I don’t mean to rant and rave. The church is where we have to begin, even more basic, the Lord is where we have to begin.
Another point Tell No Man makes is that the Lord is good, not to be defeated by evil. That we’ve listened too much to the gospel’s ending with the Lord’s death and not his resurrection. The Lord is good and means good for his people. (My freshmen year at Wheaton I was blown away by passages in Isaiah, Proverbs, and the minor prophets that the Lord longs to bless his people. “The blessing of the Lord, it maketh rich and he addeth no sorrow to it” (Prov 10:22).
These are just some thoughts I’ve had as I’ve walked through some rough things. In the middle of this tour, my father passed away. Your basic heart attack. It’s going to be a long haul, an interesting walk up the mountain. Right now the fog is thick, hopefully the rain will come soon and clear it. His going home was very quiet, something very right about it and something very misplaced. Not as glorious as my mother’s home-going. (I think the Lord let that time be special for my father’s sake—what a man of God he is.) My community at home was shocked and grieved. It’ll be interesting to see what fruit comes.
I’ve got other letters to write, so I’d better go. You’re in my prayers as the Lord tells me. Thank you, thank you for your prayers.
The Lord be with you.
Yours in Christ.
April 3, 1982
Many thanks for your wonderful letter, which I received in Peru just before I left there to return to the States. I really appreciate your writing to me and sharing with me some of your ideas and experiences.
Thanks for writing me about the death of your father. I very much hope that this very deep and personal experience will prove to be a pain that leads you closer to God. Be sure of my fervent prayers for you in this time of grief. I also pray that the Lord will receive your father in His home and give him a share of His joy and peace.
I would like to share with you a little book that is just recently published [A Letter of Consolation]. It is a letter I wrote to my father six months after my mother’s death. I will send you a copy of this book within the next few weeks.
It is so important to stop once in a while in our life and to let the pain of living enter deep into our hearts. Our society wants us to just simply keep going but often God reveals Himself precisely there, where we are the most vulnerable and wounded. The death of your father might be one of those occasions in which God wants to draw you closer to Him.
Many thanks for sending me “Prayer for a Priest”. I really appreciate your sharing this with me and I will cherish it very much.
Many kind wishes and special prayers,
A few weeks later I would skid into letting that pain of living stab my heart.
April 25, 1982
I wrote: “I wish that my parents’ deaths were leading me closer to God. The pain has only just begun. I’ve taken les time to be with Him than ever before in my life. And I’m sorely tempted to walk away from Him. But I can’t. Prayer insistently springs up inside me. I’ve learned more and more the need for forgiveness.
I miss my parents. I’m angry they’re gone just when my life started to get interesting for them. Being in business gives me things in common with them…
[I write about difficulties rising with settling the estate with my brother and how exposed I felt doing my job]
Henri—I wish like anything the Lord would draw near me, that I could see him working in my life and in the lives of others. Sometimes Christianity seems so impotent. And I’m not looking for a potency that is showy like the televangelists. I recently read Tell No Man. The book told me where I was—something very rare these days. I understand now how the Israelites gagged for the word of the Lord even though they had a rich religious heritage surrounding them. At any rate the book talks about a man who experiences the Light of Christ and he goes out and becomes a priest. He takes the Bible at its words and seeks to prove the commands: raise the dead, heal the sick, cleanse the leper. But how broken, continually broken we must be if God ever does decide to entrust us with that kind of power. I’m not sure I could ever be trusted. So that leaves me in the ambiguous position of railing against the impotence of faith on one hand and grateful I don’t have any more revelations of it on the other. Besides the power of life is subtle, not flashy and quick like death. Just notice the buds on the trees.
I wish the Lord would lead some friends to Himself.
So much for my yik yak. How are you doing? What brought you back to the States? I was under the impression you were going to be in Peru for awhile. Will you be going back? What are your plans for the future?
I’m looking forward to your book.
This whole grief thing skews so much. Now I know why God used Leprosy as an image in the Bible. Apparently it’s caused by the deadening of the nerve endings, so a person doesn’t even know he’s hurting himself. I think grief is like that for awhile. The shock deadens you, so you don’t feel what you normally would. Then it begins to wear off and you feel where the injuries are and then is probably when the Lord can come with peace that is beyond the natural.
And I want to make something out of this. I have a novel about a horse farm that I’d like to get down on paper. Would you be interested in having a copy of my thesis, a book of poems called What We Have in Common? If you’d rather wait till it’s published that’s okay. [The poems were later published as When the Plow Cuts. I’m thinking about republishing them.]
The good Lord be with you,
P.S. All is not dismal as it sounds. I just bought a Rottweiler puppy. He’s quite a clown. He’s getting me out walking and surprisingly introducing me to introducing me to interesting people. The publishing crowd gets old after awhile. I hope to show him for the fun of it.
I don’t believe Henri responded, though it’s possible I lost his letter.
What could he say? Though his book Reaching Out he spoke to the loneliness I’ve so often experienced. He spoke how the Lord can transform it into solitude where we can bring others. He says, “When we live with a solitude of heart, we can listen with attention to the words and worlds of others, but when we are driven by loneliness we tend to select just those remarks and events that bring immediate satisfaction to our own craving needs” (38). The whole book spoke to my need for boundaries and just what it means to offer hospitality to our friends.
As I wrote this, I think about my father’s sacrificial love because he did not call me home after my mother died. He had the courage to encourage me to stay in my job, do good work, despite how painful doing so would be for both of us. He had the courage to let me have my adventures, which lead me down some pretty dark paths.
These letters mark the beginning of a long walk through a dark wood, that lasted for decades. As Dante said, “I did not die but nothing of my life remained.” After I pulled this file, a lot of memories surfaced the other night. How God sent me two friends, Pam and Jutti who listened to my pain and let me listen to theirs. How I wasn’t hurt by the homeless man who took me for a walk in the forest preserve who said he saw someone killed there, and the hair on the back of my neck stood up, how Pam asked a friend to tell him to stay away from me. And the gift of being good at the job, at convincing national journalists to write stories about the company. The kindness in Ken Woodward’s voice when I called to pitch a story to Newsweek. And Frank Schaeffer’s deep thanks for my professionalism.
And yet, new creation did come. God does bring us into a broad place, he brings us to a place where we can receive his goodness and peace. (I think it takes some training to get to that place. At least it did for me.) Writing and rewriting my novel was a gift that allowed me to let the story speak.
And you can find The River Caught Sunlight here if you’d like to read the full, but revised story.
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