The Spiritual Path of Grief and Growth

The tragedy at Columbine High School in Littleton, Colo., 12 years ago that resulted in the loss of 12 students and a teacher is eerily similar to the tragedy we experienced 65 miles south at New Life Church in December 2007.

A troubled young man came on our church campus after our morning worship services and killed two of our teenage girls, injuring her father and wounding another woman, before taking his own life in the hallways of our church.

We know the pain of the Columbine families and we know what it feels like to pause each year afterward and remember, mourn again and pray. Our lives continue while the lives of others were cut short by senseless violence. How does a school, a church, a community or anyone move through a dark valley like that?

In my new book, Fear No Evil, I tell about the journey our church has taken through the valley of the shadow of death, and how we eventually made our way out of the fog of despair and relished a brighter day. The most important lesson we have learned along the way is the importance of taking time to grieve.

You and I both have to learn to confront our pain -- to acknowledge it and to grieve. Whether we're talking about the loss of a loved one, a career, a bank account or a dream, it is absolutely critical to stop, to weep, to groan. I think of families who have experienced the sudden loss of a house, either to fire or to flood. Sure, it was just sheetrock and 2-by-4s, but their most precious memories were made inside. It was their first "real" purchase. It was the place where their children were raised. It was their family's haven, the spot where they would rest and relate and know peace.

Or what about people who have experienced the sudden loss of a marriage? A husband thought the union would last forever, but then one day divorce papers were served. "But she was my high-school sweetheart," he laments. "She was everything in my life." Regardless who is at fault in a split like that, division always hurts.

Scores of people I know have suffered great loss in life and are emotionally shut down as a result. They never learned to properly mourn and grieve, and so the pain gets stuffed further down. The day finally dawns when they can't engage in any aspect of life, because their enthusiasm and passion are gone. They can't engage with their spouse. They can't engage with their kids. They can't engage with their role at work. The emotional toll they've been carrying prohibits them from engaging in any aspect of life. And as a result, they are unavailable to God and others.

I saw this play out firsthand at New Life. A couple that has faithfully served our body for many years approached me one weekend and said, "Brady, we love what God is doing among this church and how you are leading us into a brighter future, but for some reason, we just stay stuck. We haven't been able to get involved like we used to be involved. We haven't been able to worship like we used to worship. We aren't serving like we used to serve."

Without intending to, this couple had allowed themselves to become unavailable. They had neglected to adequately mourn the losses they had suffered, and spiritually and physically they couldn't find their way back to full engagement.

As you and I learn to grieve properly -- and fully -- we see God show up with comfort for our weary souls. The two move back and forth in waves: we grieve, God comforts, we grieve, God comforts even more. He exchanges our ashes for beauty and gives gladness where mourning once was.

Months after the shooting, we as a church broke ground, laid soil and planted two tall, beautiful blue spruce trees of remembrance on the parking spot where Stephanie and Rachel Works had been shot. And on that crisp weekday morning, that promise was on our minds. What the enemy of our souls meant for death would bring forth undeniable life. Where a spirit of despair had once clouded our sight, pure praise would be on our lips. Collectively we declared that we were ready to move forward.

I learned something years ago that came to mind this week. It relates to dendrochronology, which is just a big word for analyzing a tree's life based on the rings on its trunk that have formed throughout the years. It came to mind because I was roaming through a dense part of the forest near my home and ran across a series of trees that had been felled by lightning. I stared at the cross-section of one of those trees and noticed an irregular pattern of thick and thin rings moving out from the trunk's center in concentric circles.

I'm not adept at reading tree rings, but according to 15 minutes of a show I caught on the Discovery Channel one time, people who are good at reading them can tell you with amazing accuracy how many forest fires, droughts and beetle infestations a particular tree has withstood in its lifetime, as well as how many healthy years it has known -- all by scrutinizing those rings. Which made me wonder what New Life would look like if you cut our church in half and looked inside. I have a feeling you'd find lots of thick rings representing years and years of great growth, followed by narrow rings representing scandal and the loss of two innocent, young girls. But what energizes me is the idea that just outside of that narrowing, I believe you'd find increasingly wider rings once more: signs of redemption, renewal and restoration. Those "wide rings" are available to anyone who grieves. Hope is real. It is available. And it always prevails.