A few years ago I taught at a small Christian school where each day began with a brief devotional time called Morning Prayer. Over the two weeks leading up to Easter I'm publishing posts derived from devotionals I shared or experiences I had during that year, all having to do with presence and absence, generosity and loss.
(This doesn't technically belong in a series of morning prayers since it regards a dinner-time blessing, but today is Maundy Thursday and so I'm more committed to a theme than to a technicality.)
One winter evening during my year as a teacher one of my co-workers hosted a few of us in his home after school. Our mission was to make egg rolls from scratch, fry them, and eat them while enjoying each other's company outside of work. It was an evening of greasy fingers and spicy fluorescent-orange dipping sauce and boisterous laughter, but it's one quiet moment in particular that has stayed lodged in my mind since that night.
We took our seats around the table, mouths watering and poor-teacher-tummies rumbling at the sight of steaming golden rolls. Our host said a prayer to bless the food, ending it with this: "We thank You, Father, for everything You have given us, and we thank You for everything You have taken away."
There are many very palatable, easily-swallowed slices of Christianity: Jesus loves me. God is love. The Lord is my strength and my song. But what about the bitter cup? Our voices cease when it is passed to us, stunned or angered into silence. Pain, loss, sickness, death -- how do these match up with the promises we shout with joy (or nod vigorously, depending on your denomination) on a Sunday morning? How is it possible to see these circumstances as gifts?
No one asks for loss. We ask for virtues but not for loss, and there's the rub. Loss is not a soft prompt from an inexperienced teacher. Loss is an assignment from an expert in the field of Human Hearts and Their Ways. Loss is somehow part of grace, and sometimes grace has to cut like a knife, pull us from home, blind us with light so that we see and feel and inhabit the world with properly-aligned hearts. "He wants them to learn to walk and must therefore take away His hand," wrote C.S. Lewis.
How can I thank You for that heartbreak, for that financial blow, for that loss of a relative I loved? The most I can manage so far -- overdue and torn from a tightly-clenched fist -- is to thank You for what You gave me in return: greater understanding of the frequent chasm between Want and Need. Progress in learning to ask for and receive help. Memories of a friendship that, though brief, was full -- full -- of unmerited goodness I did nothing to deserve or earn. Incentive to explore and enjoy the world the way she did. A somewhat enlarged (though still too miserly) heart for the loved ones who are still here.
And so gradually in all these lessons in presence and absence, gift and loss, I can begin to see a constellation that tells me truly of the heart of God. It is a heart I want to follow. It is a heart that broke bread with the very man who would betray Him, knowing full well what loss awaited Him but seeing the gift in that loss: the return of sheep to Shepherd, shalom to creation.