Holy Sorrow

Ievietots: 03.12.2012 / LBDS ziņas

I am honored to address you this morning at the Prayer Breakfast. To be honest, I would gladly give anything and everything I have ... even my own life ... if it were possible for me to avoid being in the position to address this most serious topic.

Swedish poet Erik Axel Karlfeldt, winner of the Nobel Prize in Literature, wrote:

“That ache
which tries to break out in words
I'd like to throw into
the fires of human pain.
And remember
that my task
is not to grow darkness
but humbly do
what in weakness I can --
Present the world
with a ray of light.”

I pray for God's help to do that in this place at this time.

Our beautiful, sweet, gifted, four-year old daughter Bella (Izabella Hildegarde) passed away two months ago on August 26th. My wife and I had just returned from a conference outside Latvia; we had almost missed our flight because of traffic jam. We were so happy to be home with our children on Saturday night. We spent the whole night talking, playing, kissing and loving them. We gave our little daughters gifts from Croatia, and they gave us their specially made drawings. That night we all fell asleep in one bed. After sleeping on one side for several hours, I woke up, took little Bella and put her on her mattress. She slightly woke up, pulled me close to herself, and I slept next to her until morning.

Sunday morning came when I am usually busy preparing for the service. This time we were to go to the Valmiera Church for its anniversary service. I thought through my sermon and felt ready to go. I went back to wake up the children and again, significantly, I woke up, tickled and played with little Bella in particular. We all went to Valmiera together.

August 26th was a sunny day. During the anniversary service, the children went to the Sunday school, and then came back. Little Bella sat by her mom, drawing flowers in her notebook, and mom whispered into her ear, “You are so beautiful; I love you so much. You will be a singer!” Later she came to me and I whispered the same thing to her. We say that to our children often. There are times in our lives, when all that matters is that you have told somebody that you love him or her and that God loves him or her, too. When such moments come, nothing else matters.

I mean it. Absolutely nothing else matters. At that moment it does not and will not matter what you have achieved, earned or lost. At that moment it will not matter what newspapers did or did not write about you. At that moment all of that does not matter. At that moment all that matters is whether you have said and truly meant it, “I love you, and God loves you.”

Therefore, I would like to call you to do one thing. Say this to those who are dear to you. We do not like awkwardness. But some awkwardness is beautiful, like when you finally tell your children or parents something you are not used to saying ... “I love you!” All your courage amounts to nothing if you cannot say these words, if you cannot live them out. At that moment, everything else does not matter.

The anniversary service came to an end. We went outside. People were visiting, taking pictures, and talking in the backyard. My wife held our camera in her hands and called little Bella. Bella looked at her and smiled. My wife took this picture.

We were soon ready to leave. Little Bella ran a couple steps ahead of us. Suddenly she started coughing and choking. She could not take the next breath. We did everything we could. A paramedic was there and she did everything that could and should be done to keep choking from turning into a tragedy. All was done that could be done and even more. Many people present prayed and expected a miracle. It was a perfect situation to hope for a miracle.

Little Bella was still looking at me with her beautiful blue eyes. I saw that she was hoping I would help her. I had always done that – when there was a bruise, or a hurt, or when her little heart was aching. But I could not help her. This was so difficult to realize at the time. And it continued to be my heaviest memory for several days until I realized: Bella saw my eyes, and next she saw God's eyes. My eyes were loving, but confused and scared. Jesus' eyes were loving and peaceful. Peaceful – not because of the lack of emotion, but peaceful because no one can snatch anything out of His hands.

A moment later we were in intensive care, I collapsed on the floor praying to God for healing, for a miracle. Then, out of nowhere, I said words which I had not planned to say, “God, whether in this life or Eternity, I put her into Your arms.” I said these words and then got scared of them and wanted to get back to the place where I had not yet said them. But, of course, it did not matter and of course, it was not possible. It seemed to me that at that moment her soul went to God. The doctors continued to apply artificial breathing and did other medical manipulations. Through the glass wall I could see it all. I was not allowed to be next to Bella, but I know Christ was there with her. Closed doors and brick walls are no obstacles for Christ. When His scared disciples were gathered together in the upper room behind closed doors Jesus came and stood among them saying, “Peace be with you!” I believe that Christ was there with little Bella and His peace covered and filled everything.

We can only give what we have ourselves. Attempts to give that which we do not have to others end in failure. Regarding peace, we can only comfort others with that which we have received and experienced. The greatest comfort, the kind our world needs most, can only be experienced in circumstances we would never choose. If you have not encountered joy in sorrow, light in darkness, hope in despair, then, possibly, you have not encountered it at all.

Bella enjoyed puzzles. She could work on them for hours. Alone. Some of her puzzles were easy; she put them together quickly and repeatedly. There were more complicated ones which took her longer. And sometimes her puzzles were so complicated that she asked me to help her. At times she did not know where that one piece fit so she tried to force it into the wrong place. Later we had to take that piece out, even if it was forced to fit. Each of Bella's puzzles was designated for a certain age group.

I now have puzzle pieces scattered on my desk. The puzzle box could be labeled “From 39 to the Eternity”. I understand that I will probably never finish this puzzle in this life. But I know that the pieces are from the right puzzle, even if I do not know where and how each piece fits. I still know, believe and in many ways experience that God is good. But I do not see every aspect of how this significant piece fits into the big picture. If I say I understand it, I would be a hypocrite, and it would do no good to anybody. My puzzle has many unplaced pieces, yet I know that they are from the right puzzle. Some day the pieces will form one picture. Without some of these pieces the picture will have holes and will not be beautiful and complete. But I do not yet see how they all fit together.

By God's grace there are times when I somehow sense, in the end, the picture will be light-colored. There are times when this simple realization means very much. This is not just saying lightly, “Right, we know it is written in the Bible that in the end all will be well.” But how do we know? There is a difference between “knowing” and “knowing”. It is by God's grace that I see many dark pieces in this puzzle; and yet, in the end, the picture will be light-colored.

I am not speaking as one who has ascended the mountain of Transfiguration, but as one of you who is trying to climb it. Several days after little Bella's passing away, a man, wise in his heart, sent me an email mentioning the 12th century mystic Julian of Norwich. She spoke to Christ asking, “What is the meaning of life and all of its suffering?” Then she heard Christ's voice, so majestic and peaceful, “In the end, all will be well. All things will end well.”

Corrie ten Boom, a Christian, lived in the Netherlands. During World War II her family chose to protect Jews from destruction by hiding them in their home. They did this for a long time until were discovered. Her family was arrested. Her grey-haired father died on the tenth day of his imprisonment. Corrie and her sister were sent to a concentration camp where her sister died in terrible conditions. Later, looking back at her life, Corrie could say that life is like a tapestry which is being weaved but we see only the reverse side where there are many broken threads, discordant color combinations which do not seem to make anything beautiful. We cannot see any connections, any patterns. All looks like one ugly chaos which we would never put on a wall. But only in Eternity will we see the right side of the tapestry. Using the analogy of a puzzle, it seems to me that we do not see the right side of the puzzle. We see only fragments from the other side, and at times we are unable to recognize any coherence. But I believe we will see the right side. And then, possibly, we will understand it all.

We all seek refuge. Some seek it in food or drink, which, of course, is self-deception. We can seek refuge in our business, power, and position. But there comes a time in our lives when we no longer can find refuge in any of these things. There comes a time, when we realize that the only refuge is found by entering into holy sorrow. In this sorrow lay your memories of your child. By entering into it and experiencing God's peace and light instead of darkness – that is the only thing that brings healing. I used to think if I had to experience anything like this, there would only be darkness there and I would go crazy.

The miracle is that there comes a time when, entering into this sorrow, you find light. There we can experience what we read in Psalm 139, “If I say, “Surely the darkness will hide me and the light become night around me; even the darkness will not be dark to you; the night will shine like the day, for darkness is as light to you.” God is everywhere. Sometimes we allot God victories and say: “Health, wealth, and victory are God's blessings.” Of course, God gives us all these things too. All is because of God's grace. But God is also in darkness, sickness and hopelessness. He is there when you think: there is nothing except hopelessness. God does not send or cause our suffering, but God is there too. When I realized this, I also understood that God is greater than I had thought. If only victories, health and wealth belong to God, then in fact such a God is not too great. The territory of life, which includes health and wealth, is rather small. But there is a vast territory of life which is loss, suffering, and injustice. And God is there too. God's greatness and might is not only revealed in victories but even more so in losses as we experience His presence there.

The theme of this Prayer Breakfast is PEACE. Where do we find peace? Where do we find peace for ourselves to be able to bring peace to others? There are three roads, and two of them are not really worth traveling. One could be called the road of a hardened heart and revenge. One chooses to say that I have been hurt so much that I will harden my heart so that I never feel anything like this again. And if I can identify the one who hurt me, I want revenge. But if you travel down the road of revenge, then you become like the one you despise. If you travel down the road of a hardened heart, then soon you will lose your ability to feel that which is worth living for. This is not a road, it is a dead end.

Another possibility is to try to explain everything away. It might be the attempts we experienced when people came to us saying, “Maybe you should understand what this is all about. Why has God allowed this? What God wants to tell you through all of this?” And I do try to understand the answers to these questions. However, all of this trying to explain things is a cover-up for desire to control everything and for fear to acknowledge that we do not control anything. For many of us, especially men, it does not come easy. Because, if you cannot explain something, then you cannot make sure it will not happen in your life again. You have to rely on God's grace. But at times we want to be gods; we want to control things. And it seems to us, “if only I could explain it, then I will be able to control it and make sure it will not happen to me again.” But this is not the road to travel; it does not take us anywhere. Because the truth is: we do not control life. We must live by grace.

That takes us to the third road which I would call falling into grace. Only by falling into grace can we say that, as in Jesus' parable of two sons, we turn from the older brother into the younger one. You know this story Jesus told about father having two sons. The youngest came to his father and demanded his portion of inheritance. He acted as though his father was already dead. After squandering his inheritance he came to senses and said, “I will return to my father. I will tell him I am not worthy to be his son and ask him to hire me.”

The father ran to greet him – that is what God is like in His love for us – he hugged his son, dressed him, renewed his sonship and said, “Let us celebrate! My son was dead and now he is alive!” But the older son was full of bitterness. He said to his father, “I have been working for you all this time and you have never had a party for me.”

What do we see here? We see that the older son lived with a sense that he has earned and deserves something. But in fact we do not deserve anything. All is grace. It does not mean losing our identity; it means finding ourselves. It does not mean losing our self-confidence; it means finding it. Life can be compared to principles of design. Perfection is not lots of something, but nothing in excess. God's Spirit cleanses us from the excessive. This is a lot. All is grace. All is gift.

Sometimes Bella's older sister brushed her aside because Bella was smaller and still not able to do many things. When that happened, her little heart ached and she cried. I used to comfort her saying that she was the second child in our family, just like her mom and I are the second children to our parents. And it is okay to be the second. I taught her that she can show the number “2” with her fingers as a “V” which also stands for “victory” in English. It means that we are the second, and we are still the winners. That was our little secret. When little Bella died, I shared our secret with the others. As we looked at pictures we noticed that in many of them our sweet Bella was showing the “V” sign. This is the last picture of Bella and her victory sign taken during the Riga Festival, a week before she passed away.


The son, who experienced God's grace, also was the second son. We all are the second. None of us deserves anything. All is grace. All is gift. Little Bella also was a gift, given to us for four years.

The son who wanted to say, “I am the first”, in the end, when the party started, stayed outside in his bitterness. And the one who was ready to acknowledge, “I do not deserve anything”, in the end was at the party, embraced by his father's love. He is where fullness is. He is where victory is. That takes us to this road of thankfulness. It does not take away our pain. We still miss our Bella very much. No hour passes without the sense of missing her so much. But somehow this road of thankfulness helps to break through the darkness and gives a ray of light. And this is grace.

Finally, there is another secret I am learning. There is something similar about the feelings that we experience during our greatest joys and our greatest sorrows. The same string is touched and resounds in our hearts during our deepest sorrow and in our deepest joy. In deepest joy – as when our child was born and I held her in my hands and gave her to her mom. Not as intensely, but just as real, when we kiss our child who is asleep at night; there is something there that you cannot find anywhere else. Then during the deepest sorrow ... there was such a moment when I was by the hospital bed; life had left sweet Bella's body, but I still felt her warmth. I kissed her forehead. It seemed so terrible, and yet the same string resounded there. That string which was present at our child's birth, that same string that played during our deepest joy also plays during times of deepest sorrow. I then realized – God is so very close to us, giving us joy and comfort.

It is great wisdom to seek God in deep joy. In bringing up our children; in remaining faithful to our marriage; in caring for those who have suffered, for widows and orphans, as the Bible says. In forgiving even when we are not asked. We want to seek God in things that can give deep joy, until the time comes when we have to seek Him in deep pain and sorrow.

The good news is that we do not have to live in fear. Even when we have to seek God in deep pain and sorrow, we do not have to be afraid. Because even there where we perceive only darkness, there is light. God is great. God is everywhere.

My memory of little Bella is very dear to me, and it allows me to better understand our Heavenly Father. When I came out of the hospital to tell my wife and daughters that Bella is with her Heavenly Father, I felt rather lonely. I had and still have many questions for God. I then realized that there is much I could say to God, and even reprove Him. But there is one thing I cannot say of Him and to Him – that He does not understand me. Because He has experienced the same.

If anybody would show disrespect for the memory of my little daughter, it would be very easy for me to be led by anger and feel justified at that. Our Heavenly Father sent His Son into the world where nobody presented his condolences at His death. Instead there was derision, mockery and humiliation. On that day in Valmiera, I would have given completely everything to have my daughter back. But then I have to consider that Christ continued His road towards the Cross, regardless of all derision, mockery, humiliation and everything else, and the Heavenly Father did not say, “Enough!” He could have sent destruction and it would seem justifiable, but He went to the end.

This is Love. One must love strongly to go to the end during such moments. The Triune God did it. So I would like for you to know – you are very much loved. You are very much loved by God. And you do not deserve anything. You are the second, and all is God's grace.

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