On May 18, I was in an airplane, flying to Moline, Ill., for my sister's and brother-in-law's funeral. To their funeral. This was the morning after death: The initial cries of horror and disbelief had subsided, and "the solemnest of industries" lay ahead. I felt all wrung out and hung out to dry like a used dish cloth. There wasn't another tear left in my head. I leaned against the window and watched the fields and towns below.
The landmarks of my hometown are easy to recognize from the air: several impressive bridges, the Rock Island Arsenal, the convergence of the Rock River and the Mississippi. But, something was not right. There was a lot more river down there than there should have been. Little peaked roofs poked up out of the muddy waters here and there. Familiar sandbars were gone, and there was nothing left of some small islands but the treetops, waving in the current. "The rivers of woe overflow," I said to myself.
Not two months before, my mother-in-law, Louise, had died after a long struggle with cancer. Now, my sweet sister, Cindy, and her shy husband, Tim, perished in a house fire. The rivers of woe overflow. The image is from the hymn "How Firm a Foundation."
"When through the great waters I call thee to go
The rivers of woe shall not thee overflow;
For I will be with thee, thy troubles to bless,
And sanctify to thee thy deepest distress."
A contemporary version of the hymn renders that last line as "Delivering you from your deepest distress." But that's not the same at all, is it? I'm not so sure I want God swooping down, like a National Guard helicopter rescue team, to lift me up out of the flood of my grief. No, I want to wade in that water. I feel called to grieve. How can I not grieve for those I have loved and lost?
As I grieve, I draw hope from the promise that God will "sanctify" my deepest distress. God promises to bless my troubles, to transform my grief and make it holy.
The waters of the Rock and Mississippi have receded, but they have left their mark on the landscape. My river of woe is no longer at full flood stage either. As the waters recede, the landscape of my soul is changed. I'm not sure if I can describe how it is changed, any more than you can stand on a river bank and describe how it has changed from one summer to the next. It just has.
This hope I can offer you who mourn: the rivers of woe shall not drown you. For God will sanctify your river of woe and make it holy, and you shall arise from the baptismal waters of grief, a new creation. Thanks be to God.
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