Ashes

During the few years we lived in Japan when I was a child, I learned to be afraid of the wind. Some of it was the fault of Jeff, a neighborhood boy one year older than I and a teller of tall tales. But much of it was due to the wind itself. The wind was wild in Japan. When the storms got bad enough, my father would pull the large metal shutters over the windows, and then I would lie in bed and listen to the wind pulling at the house, tearing at those shutters, trying with all its might to rip our little house right off its foundation.

Now I look at the news of Japan and I see that it wasn’t the wind that threatened. It was the sea. The sea that came to the edge of our street, that curled and frothed in the wild wind, that turned to the color of ashes right before our terrified eyes.

I look at the news of Japan and see devastation and loss that stagger the imagination. It is, in fact, very difficult to believe.

For my ashes, you give me beauty
For my mourning, you give me joy

We sang that song in church today, and once again today, I found I couldn’t sing it for the tears. We lost our nephew Colin in a tragic accident in his home last fall. It was sudden, freak, and defies all reason. But in October, we traveled to Cleveland to be with our family, to offer what comfort we could, and to be with his parents and siblings when they said good-bye. Colin was only five years old.

It’s not that I don’t believe the words of that song; it’s not that I don’t believe that God can and even will give beauty for ashes, joy for mourning. It’s that I can’t imagine Colin’s mother knowing either joy or beauty while her arms ache to feel within them again the living body of that little boy.

For my tears, Lord, you give me kisses

Visiting our school last week and this are two young men from Rwanda, Tao and Joel. They are still teenagers, seniors in high school. One of them, Tao, has been assigned to my Shakespeare’s Tragedies class, and he listens with respect to our conversation despite the fact that he’s never read King Lear before. We’ve asked him a lot about what he thinks of life and school in America, and we’ve heard from him– somewhat, at least– what it’s like to be a student in Rwanda. He has a gentle spirit, and seems genuinely grateful to be here.

On Wednesday, Tao and Joel spoke to our students in our weekly chapel service. Tao described his experience in the genocide, on what was the genocide’s seventeenth anniversary. He talked about cowering with his mother and newborn baby sister under a window ledge, while men outside the window aimed their guns into the house and killed his father and his five other siblings. Not long after this, both his mother and sister also died.

When Joel stood up, he talked about forgiveness, about how bitterness binds you, how it destroys, and how only by forgiving those who hurt you one can be free.

Gracious and compassionate, You are so good
Slow to anger, rich in love, You are so good
You are so good.

I know there are many people who reject God outright, who can’t believe that, given the suffering and misery in the world, any kind of God– any kind of good God– could possibly exist.

I understand that.

But I think that believing that must be very lonely. And I also think it isn’t true.

For my ashes, you give me beauty
For my mourning, you give me joy
For my tears, Lord, you give me kisses
That’s how good you are.

If you are going to have a God in the context of tsunamis and genocide and senseless death, then the God for me is the Christian one, despite all his bad press. We believe Him to be the creator and sustainer of all things, you know, which means that he also created the beech tree.

Right now, the beech trees of my neighborhood have expelled out of impossibility their tightly wrapped, newborn leaves. These leaves are, for the time-being, twisted tighter than a top-string around themselves, and their tips look needle-sharp. One can only imagine that contact would mean some blood-letting, that the birth of leaf from branch was nothing short of painful.

But soon those leaves will unfurl, uncoil, and fall into open all over the trees. They will be bright green and vibrant, softer than the blanket of a baby, and whispering their summerings for months. And when winter comes and the other leaves grow dry and sharp and fall to the ground, the beech tree will gather her leaves to herself. Her leaves will cling to their branches. They will be faded to the color of parchment, they will curl, and they will keep her warm through the winter.

This is only one example of such gentleness.

Gracious and compassionate, You are so good
Slow to anger, rich in love, You are so good
You are so good.

If one is looking for comfort, wanting mercy, hoping for some gentleness from heaven, then the Christian God is the One, I think. For who can comfort best but the one who has lacked comfort, who has known the absence of mercy, who has wanted for all gentleness Himself? Who but the One who has tasted tears, who has known mourning, who has stood in the ashes of Absolute Loss?

But He was pierced for our transgressions,
He was crushed for our iniquities,
the punishment that brought us peace was upon Him
and by His wounds we are healed.
Isaiah 54:5


5 thoughts on “Ashes

  1. Ahhh. The writer Rebecca I know and love is still there. This is beautiful. 2/3 of the way through I was already thinking of the people I would like to have read this post. You have a gift, Friend. Thanks for sharing Truth.

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  2. Hi Rebecca

    Well done. I look forward to further dialogue regarding this. I have continued to wrestle with the question, “What is God’s answer to the seemingly un-answerable questions in life?” The older I get the more I believe that His answer is beautifully and completely displayed at the cross (and more importantly through his resurrection). At first- this sounded like a cliché to me. But as I have analyzed it more, its meaning has become profound and intense. The truth is that the hope of salvation through Christ is the only answer to everything and everyone within creation’s fallen state. A wealthy person with seemingly no material needs, an atheist denying the very existence of the God who created him/her, a sincere follower of Christ trying their best to live according to His precepts, a peasant in a remote village who may not have yet heard of the redemption available through this person Jesus… The tsunamis of life may come to each of these. Why does God cause or allow it? What is the answer? Christ is the eternal answer. He somehow transcended time and took on our pain and suffering and offers life in return. I have to admit, I can’t quite understand it fully. But I am getting there…

    1 Cor. 13:12 Now we see but a poor reflection as in a mirror; then we shall see face to face. Now I konw in part; then I shall know fully, even as I am fully known.

    – Scott (sorry for piling on) Can't wait to be with the Stevensons this summer!

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