Trying to Make Sense of It? Life Is Full of Question Marks. Pity Is Never the Answer.

Beauty comes from inside you. It is the beauty of a gentle and quiet spirit. Beauty like this doesn’t fade away. God places great value on it. ~ I Peter 3:4

I told her that I loved when my kidlets forgot where they were — felt so comfortable where they were — that they called me “Mom.” She said, “Mmhm. Just wait until they call you ‘Grandma.’”

She was wrapping up her teaching career, and I was just getting started. We had only a short time together, but it was God’s grace that our paths crossed. Her smile and easy laugh reached from her heart and shone through her eyes. We shared a love for art and literature, and we shared a Savior. Her gentle and quiet spirit was a soft, safe place for me in an overwhelming season.

After she retired, she invited me to paint with her one Saturday. She was a versatile artist and had taken up watercolor batik. We sat in her living room with kinwashi, paints, wax, newsprint, irons. She walked me through the process, but I loved watching her more than working on my own piece.

She had an innate giftedness that allowed her to envision nuances of light and shadow, to think ahead five layers of wax and know which color to lay down next, to turn any accidental slip of the brush into a purposed part of her creation.

God was preparing her, even then.

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I moved to the city and didn’t reconnect with her until several years later. I wrote to her — to tell her that the Marjolein Bastin wind chimes she gave me graced my craft room, that I had found new footing in a new season but missed the slower pace of fields and meadowlarks, missed her. And in return came her letter. Typed. Because she’d been diagnosed with Parkinson’s.

She was in assisted care. Her mind was fine; it’s just that she was losing motor skills and could no longer write by hand. And had she ever mentioned that her husband struggled with addiction during their decades of marriage? Probably not — she’d never told but a few. But he did, and had been in rehab in another state, and had died suddenly there. She was sad not to have been with him when he passed, but his demons took him from her long before that, and she was at peace.

I laid her story on the table and cried. Ashamed I hadn’t reached out sooner. Ashamed I had been so self-absorbed when I started teaching that I didn’t stop to consider whether her tender smile masked pain. Humbled by her perspective. She didn’t want pity. She had no regrets about her life and trusted the Lord with this chapter, too.

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In The Sweet Side of Suffering, Esther Lovejoy tells of praying for a friend who’d been diagnosed with a rare, aggressive cancer. She sensed God telling her, “You may pray for him with empathy and concern, but do not pity him.”

Why? Because pity … implies that God had somehow goofed. … Remember David’s words: “As for God, his way is perfect” (Psalm 18:30). Perfect! That doesn’t leave any room for error or poor judgement. … That doesn’t allow for any improvement. … That means any other way is inferior. … To surrender is to trust the One whose way is perfect and who alone can make our way perfect, even in suffering. It is to allow God to define good.

My friend didn’t realize the gift she’d given me through her vulnerability. I’d recently received difficult news that would affect my future. I had stopped short of demanding a why from God, but I don’t understand was my one-line lament during that time.

I needed to know how to respond rightly to suffering. And I needed to know how to handle the looks, sounds, words of pity — given not with undertones of compassion but of misfortune — that would inevitably come once someone knew my circumstances.

She gave me the answer that has since framed every interaction — to know who’s safe to hold my story, how I can safely hold others’ stories: You may be sad with me, not for me.

Lament is … more than just the expression of sorrow or the venting of emotion. Lament talks to God about pain. And it has a unique purpose: trust. It is a divinely-given invitation to pour out our fears, frustrations, and sorrows for the purpose of helping us to renew our confidence in God. ~Mark Vroegop

The next summer I was home, I visited her. She was still her beautiful self — I could still see her heart in her eyes. Still, there was no denying what she’d lost. Words came only with great struggle. Instead of working with a delicate paintbrush, she was working a puzzle. But she was choosing life. And her smile testified to her continued confidence in God’s plan and purpose for her life.

There’s an in-between time in every journey … We can … take whatever diversion promises an escape, or retreat into a world of memories past, yearning for their misty hills and glowing horizons. …

Or we can choose to face reality. … And by facing that reality for as long as it takes — submitting to its questions, learning its lessons, taking it on, staring it down, punctuating it with rest and what laughter we can muster — we may stumble on to find new wisdom and purpose … and be surprised by the gifts we now have to offer. ~Sheridan Voysey

God has no accidental slips of the brush. He knows how each twist and turn accomplishes His will for our lives, proclaims His glory.

My friend lived out surrender beautifully. She went Home not long ago — and now is in the presence of the One who called her into existence, who called her to Himself, who held her as she fought the good fight, and who was waiting with open arms when she crossed the finish line.

Goodness can overcome evil. This is good news. … Because when we can’t become who we want to be, we can still become who we’re meant to be. ~Sheridan Voysey

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I thought of her often while reading Sheridan Voysey’s The Making of Us: Who We Can Become When Life Doesn’t Go As Planned. He documents his pilgrimage to see the Lindisfarne Gospels, created in the 700s by a group of monks in northern England (flip through a few pages online!). She would have loved Voysey’s lyrical style, loved the history and magnificence of the volume he described.

Such detail, they say, could have taken a decade to complete … every monk praying, that body-wracking work done in cold, wet huts in an age of war and plague. But this was a labor of love, a holy calling, every dot, dash, and stitch offered as a prayer. The Word was being enfleshed in a work of sacred beauty. It was only right to take time crafting it to last.

There’s over a mile of elegant calligraphy inside that book. … You’ll find an ink splash on one of the pages, words crossed out on others, even some question marks. Some letters are unfinished, some spots lack gilding, a wrong color has been used in Luke, someone has numbered the pages incorrectly. This magisterial work … is stained, imperfect, incomplete. … Complex. Priceless. Changing through time. Marked. Unfinished. Flawed. … Beautiful.

The artist in her would have appreciated the Lindisfarne Gospels. The determination behind the crafting — the heartrending, hopeful tension between giving our best efforts and the battering reality of living in a marred world.

She, too, lived her life as a labor of love. There were unavoidable ink splashes and question marks; she was a complex, priceless work of sacred beauty. She’s flawed no longer, though. The Lord has brought her faithfulness to completion (Philippians 1:6).

And she can paint again.