Friday, December 28, 2007

Giving Words to Grief

”Give sorrow words; the grief that does not speak knits up o’er the wrought heart and bids it break.” - Macbeth

Grief visited me in a torrent on Christmas. I was expecting difficulty, but I received an emotional mugging. I felt as if grief dragged me down into a pit that can only be named despair. I struggled with it and felt as helpless as a fish out of water, lying in a puddle of my tears. My feelings were far more profoundly sad than those that visited me at the funeral. I was frankly surprised at the sound of my heart cracking again.

I fear Macbeth's words are true; if I do not express my grief in this manner, my heart will break never to be whole again. The word I offer to describe this emotion is "cheated." I feel cheated out of the love of my life. I feel cheated out of the joys of life that I have had, especially at this blessed season. I just simply miss my love. This may be as close to anger as I have experienced so far.

There is also a prolonged sense of foreboding that lies near the border of panic. It’s not unlike the feelings of flight I had as a child, spending the night with my cousin. We would play all day, our minds adrift in some fantasy, but at sunset something would come over me. The only way I could describe it was "homesickness." My aunt would push back my sweaty hair and feel my forehead for a temperature, but there never was one. I felt sick all over, and I wanted to be elsewhere. The place I was staying was safe, good, clean and welcoming, and my aunt’s food was always great, but I just wanted to be home. I feel like such a stranger here without Tammy. I feel odd in almost every circumstance of my familiar life.

I was reminded by a friend who has traveled this road to ask God to reveal what He is doing. So I asked the Lord to show me what He is doing that I may not care to see or want to find comforting. Revelation Chapter 19 describes Jesus returning on a majestic white horse. His name is said to be "Faithful and True." He is most certainly that. In a quiet place I find Him faithful and patient with my whirlwind of bitter emotions. He is true to never leave me or forsake me. I have always believed that God speaks, even if I do not have a clue what His words mean. He speaks, even though His words can be like explaining quantum physics to a three month old child.

When God answers my questions, He doesn’t always offer definitions. He speaks through a remembered verse. He speaks through simple phrases or thoughts I know didn’t originate with my mind. He speaks with love and understanding. He has spoken in firm and frightening clarity, but this time He answered me by sitting with me and letting me know He was there. He brushed away my grief and covered my sulking frame in His peace. He eased the pain of my soul. He did what answers could not, God came near.

Then I remembered, that is what my faithful and true God does. He comes near. I know now how people are dragged into the dungeon of despair. I know why anger and hurt can so easily rule our lives. I know better how to fight back when grief wants to mug me and drag me away. I know I still have a choice. Grief may well have the power to do all I’ve described and more, but it cannot lock me in a prison of despair. I alone hold that key. God made it so. I have been given the keys that lock or unlock my own prison cell. I have the power to choose. Thank God there is still in me something that yearns to be free.

Thank you, Faithful and True!

Ed Litton

Friday, December 21, 2007

The Dangers of Grief

The dangers of grief are many. You may not think of grief as being dangerous but it most certainly is. Charles Darwin reminds me of the dangers of grief gone wrong. The fact that Darwin rejected Christianity is commonly known, but what is not so well known is why he did. The painful death of his young daughter Annie may have been the culprit. According to biographers Adrian Desmond and James Moore in their book Darwin: The Life of a Tormented Evolutionist, "Annie's cruel death destroyed Charles's tatters of belief in a moral, just universe. Later he would say that this period chimed the final death-knell for his Christianity."

Arguably, the most destructive philosophy in modern history took shape in the heart of a hurting and grieving man. Darwin's grief would not be satisfied with platitudes, nor should it have been. Yet something turned in him with which I think I can sympathize. A deep sense of injustice often stalks the grieving. Yet if you listen to those who are most virulent in their attack on faith and in particular the Christian faith, you will hear something like this: "How can a good God, or how can an all powerful God, allow such innocent people to suffer?" The implication is that either God is not powerful or maybe He is not so good, if He exists at all.

I admit that I have often been put in a defensive posture upon hearing such statements. When I read of Charles Darwin's loss my heart sympathized with him. For the first time in all the years I have known of this man and frankly despised his destructive invention of an explanation of our existence without God, I felt compassion for him. Then I felt sadness because of one man’s struggle with grief that turned to anger. I have no way of knowing if Darwin was visibly angry, but his theory of evolution is very angry. It concludes that there must not be a God, or he cannot be loving, or he must not have enough power to stop the pervasive nature of death, so what good is he? Darwin then proceeded to write not so much an origin of the species but an explanation of life without God.

This concept has taken hold of modern mankind, and with it some truly devastating result have followed. Millions have died because of Darwin's idea that only the fit survive. In countries that choose to live out Darwin's conclusion and establish atheism, the numbers are staggering. In excess of 50 million have been tortured and killed by the "fittest" who had their hands on the controls. Religious people have also taken lives in their very real and depraved grasp for power, yet even the Inquisition would be hard pressed to match the 20th Century’s record of death. Others took these concepts to justify their illogical conclusions and gassed Jews, exterminated their opposition, destroyed the weak and infirmed, in the gruesome acts of living out the survival of the fittest.

The thought that haunts me is that this all happened because a man grieved, and his grief turned to anger, and his anger turned to unbelief, and that turned to hopelessness. We get to choose what we do with our grief. It feels like grief sits in the driver’s seat of our lives, and for a while it may; but in fact we get to choose what we focus upon, what conclusions we draw, and where our anger takes us.

Does God have a good answer for grief's nagging questions? I believe God's answer came, but in a surprising form. He sent his one and only Son, and he gave him a unique name. "The word became flesh and dwelled among us..." (John 1:14 NIV). God's answer was the Word becoming flesh and giving us Himself, not a glib answer to satisfy our intellect but to satisfy the problem of death, suffering and evil. Our God got close, so close that he could hurt and bleed. He refused to remain distant. Thomas, the disciple of Jesus, suffering great grief, declared that he would not believe unless he could see and touch the scars of Jesus, then found himself invited by Jesus to feel his wounds, touch his scars and believe.

Stop. What kind of God has scars? Only a God who is willing to get close enough to hurting people that they could hurt him. These are the scars of crucifixion, another depraved human invention. Why was he crucified? For you and me. He came near because that is the only way to help hurting people.

The question of suffering is hard, profound and consequential. Struggle with it carefully. Struggle with it valiantly, but ask the God of grace to help your anger; hurt and let your suffering rest at the nail-scarred feet of Jesus. Grief is dangerous, but equal to the danger is the possibility of knowing the God who created, sustains and loves you. The only wise God who came near and suffered with great purpose, to end deaths power once and for all.

Struggle well!
Ed Litton

Monday, December 17, 2007


Art is a gift from God. I'm convinced it's His provision for us to express what is left of His image in us. Sin has done a number on us, and though I don't pretend to grasp the full impact of our total depravity, I'm grateful we still retain this amazing, God-given desire to capture and express the inexplicable. Like preschoolers painting with their fingers, we attempt to imitate God's eternal, creative, artistic nature. Psalm 92:5 says, "How great are your works, O LORD, how profound your thoughts!" (NIV)

I see this in George Frederic Handel's Messiah, in Winslow Homer's amazing paintings, Leonardo Da Vinci's sculptures, and the architecture of great churches. I marvel at a well-told story in film and a photograph that seems to speak. When I listen to great musicians, I marvel at the skill and giftedness with which they perform. Even more, I marvel when they seem to genuinely perform for an audience of one, the Lord. I'm convinced that Christians have a high calling to recapture the arts for God's glory. Writing, painting, producing films, composing songs, and a host of other creative endeavors must be pursued by believers for one reason--to glorify our Creator God.

This desire to create is much like a child who stops playing with a toy when she sees the long embrace of her father and mother in tender love. That little child loses all awareness of the toy and runs to the embrace. She squeezes between them, clinging to both. Why? She was made for intimacy, even though she may not fully understanding what it is. She yearns for it and is magnetically drawn to it.

In a similar childlike way, we yearn to express worship and praise for the Lord Jesus. One day we'll know fullness of intimacy with Him in His glory and His presence. This is when the fingerpaintings that we call masterpieces give way to the most creative place ever imagined, heaven. Won't it be wonderful on that day, to be in His presence and see something strangely familiar? We walk toward it, driven by curiosity and need, then realize that it is something we created while on earth. We're now embarrassed at its childish simplicity, but a sense of overwhelming love fills us as we see what we made hanging on the Lord's refrigerator?

Celebrate art, and in doing so you prepare for the reason we were given creativity as a gift--to glorify the Creative One who made us.
Ed Litton

Wednesday, December 12, 2007

The Hallelujah Chorus

Last Monday night my thirteen-year-old daughter Kayla played the cello in a Christmas concert with the Mobile Symphony and the Mobile Opera. The historic First Baptist Church was filled with people who came to sing Handle's Messiah, and it was a beautiful and worshipful event. Near the end, right before the “Hallelujah Chorus,” comes a simple chorus called “His yoke is easy, His burden is light.” As the congregation sang, I closed my eyes and thought about the inviting power of those words.

In Matthew Chapter Eleven, Jesus sends out a call to all people which still echoes throughout history:

“Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest” (Matt. 11:28). NIV

What an invitation. Never before or since has such a standing invitation been given to all people who are weary and hurting. Jesus invites us all to come and take Him at His word, accepting His promise of eternal life. It's a powerful invitation with an even more tantalizing promise of rest. Are you tired? I am. I'm weary, yet I find Jesus' yoke to be a safe place for my burdened soul. Then Jesus adds:

“Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls" (Matt. 11:29). NIV

Do you realize this is the only time Jesus ever described Himself? The reason He's a safe place for hurting and harassed people is that He has a soul that has been tamed from any agenda except the agenda of God's redeeming love. Why a yoke? 

Jan Scoper is a young mother in our church family who moved to America from Singapore. She lived among us for over fifteen years and last year finally became a citizen of the United States. We were so proud of her when she stood to take her oath as a U.S. Citizen. Jan becomes a American by assent. She raises her right hand in a solemn ceremony and assents to certain ideals about freedom and responsibility and--boom--she becomes an American. Many come to these shores come casting off yokes of oppression, never to bear them again. Becoming a Christian is different. It's responding to Christ's invitation to come to Him, to draw near to God with the promise that He'll draw near to you. By this we trust Him to bear our sins, and once saving faith is exercised, a relationship begins. Then we take on His yoke. 

A yoke is a single object built for two. When yoked together, two oxen can pull more than one alone can. It cuts work in half and multiplies the effect of their labor. Think about Jesus' yoke. Christmas is the celebration of the fact that Jesus came to earth as a flesh and blood human being. John 1:14 says that God became flesh and dwelt among us. Why? So He could invite us to His yoke. The Hebrews had strict laws concerning the abuse of animals, especially those placed under the yoke. An ox and a horse could not be hitched together in the same yoke. Why? One or both will get hurt. So Jesus came as He did, to do what He does--carry the heavy burdens of life with us. He came for the heat of the struggle, when your body is weary, when the sound of the cicada reminds you that pain does not always go away quickly, and the humid heat of the day is still young.

He is strong. He takes up the load that you can't handle. He carries the load when you stumble. He holds the yoke in place when you refuse to go another inch. His strength makes the yoke easy and the burden lighter for us. In the midst of our struggle and pain, we have His gentle and humble heart to teach us His way, the way to a cross. He knows how to handle heavy objects and weighty things. He manhandled the cross up Calvary. The Christian life begins by placing faith in Jesus, but it continues victoriously as we learn to walk like Him--by walking with Him under the yoke. 

I don't know where one finds rest while still in the struggle, except with Jesus. 

With warm, salty tears moving down my face, I listened to the heavenly music played with skill and operatic voices singing in amazing harmony. The notes faded away as the music paused, and the conductor swept his arms upward. The orchestra began playing the familiar triumphant refrain that caused us all to rise in honor of the great God and King, Jesus Christ. He is worthy of my tears of praise. He is worthy of our standing and rejoicing in chorus as we sing Hallelujah! To God be the glory!

Merry Christmas from the Yoke!
Ed Litton

Friday, December 07, 2007


When sorrow arrives, it's important to focus on what yet remains; loss can consume you if you let it. I always find strength in the Lord, and He is gracious to give me His Word. In Psalm 16: 6, David makes a statement that has been on my heart today:

“The boundary lines have fallen for me in pleasant places; surely I have a delightful inheritance.”

Today I give God glory for causing my boundary lines to have fallen in pleasant places. I'm grateful for the place Tammy and I have raised our family for the last thirteen years. It's a place called Saraland. Honestly, when I first heard the name of this small suburb of Mobile, I thought it a bit corny. After coming here, I didn't see a lot of impressive buildings or memorable structures.

I have a strange habit, rooted deep in my DNA. When I visit a place, especially when I move to a new place, I want to learn as much as possible about it--how it came to be, how it got its name. I quickly discover that most people don't have the same compulsion. I see a lot of wrinkled foreheads and shrugged shoulders, and I hear, “I have no clue” or even “Who cares?”

I do. I want a sense of history, especially about the place I live.

Well, Saraland has a history. It seems that a long time ago there was a Methodist circuit-riding preacher who had a preaching point in the country just north of Mobile, near Chunchula, Alabama. In those days travel was limited to the speed of a good horse. So this preacher would faithfully travel--one week to one place, the next to another, following the great tradition of Methodism's founder John Wesley.

When he would arrive at each point in the circuit, there would be the preaching of God's word, baptizing of converts, and memorial services for those who died. That was the life of a circuit-riding Methodist preacher. On one of this preacher's trips to north Mobile, his wife came with him. I don't know if it was her regular custom to do this, or if this was a rare occasion. But on this trip she fell ill. They stayed in this area hoping and praying for her recovery. She died in the home of a stranger.

The community was moved by the plight of this preacher. People poured out love toward him. He experienced so much love, so much gratitude for his faithful preaching of the gospel, that when a town arose in the region north of Mobile, they called this little place Saraland after the wife of the circuit riding Methodist preacher.

I find a sense of irony in this story. Here I am--a preacher, not from Alabama, but willing to come here at God's command. Married to a woman who made my life and ministry possible. Grateful for a good community in which to raise our family, and even glad at times that it is small, quiet, and not worthy of much attention in this world. It's a good place to hide beneath the shadow of the Almighty. We've found this people to be kind, grateful for our ministry, in the same way they were for that Methodist pastor and his wife. I also know the great loss of my precious wife. I know the powerful love and compassion of people who feel my grief and wish to do everything they can to come to my aid. I believe they would name this place Tammyland if they could. Tammy would never stand for that, I assure you.

What marks this community is compassion, love, and a generous spirit. It always has and still does. Our community will not stay small for long. Change is already under way. What I hope and pray is that in the process of time and transformation, one thing will never be lost in my little city: love.

Thank you Lord, for allowing my boundary lines to fall in pleasant places!

Ed Litton

Monday, December 03, 2007

Insight in Worship

From time to time, I wonder what Tammy might be doing. This thought was a normal mental exercise anytime we were separated. In the past, I could easily picture her in our house, driving her car, or playing her oboe in the living room. Now, this mental escape seems very strange indeed, because I have no easy reference point to imagine what she could be doing in heaven. The problem is not my lack of imagination, or my failure to believe in heaven. Paul's words in I Corinthians 2:9 explain why I struggle to picture her in heaven. However, as it is written:”No eye has seen, no ear has heard, no mind has conceived what God has prepared for those who love him”—Heaven is incomprehensible, but thank God not unimaginable. The problem with my imagination is that it is too weak and cannot do heaven justice. Therefore, I choose to think of what she could be doing and not so much what it looks like where she is at this moment.

Heaven is, of first importance, a place to glorify Christ in worship. The worship of heaven must be amazing, unimaginable, and in a sense unspeakable. Since the chief aim of man is to glorify God, heaven is a place where His will is always done and His glory never diminished. The unending worship of heaven is beyond my comprehension; yet, I have seen my bride worship and I can picture what she looks like in worship. Many Sundays, I was touched and received great joy as I stood on the platform in worship and glance at Tammy, in her usual place, her eyes closed and her hands raised, in her gentle way of adoring Jesus. Now I can picture her beautiful face surrounded by His glory streaming from every direction, her eyes open wide, and her hands raised in worship.

Yesterday, I was in worship with God's people at church. As I worshiped and praised the Lord, a thought became instantly clear: I worship like a man looking through a dark glass. I do not see, but I believe. I worship Him who is unseen to me. In heaven, I will behold Him. I worship now with constant distractions, but Tammy worships with single focus. As I think of Tammy beholding Jesus, I am almost overcome with envy of her. Then, like an electric shock, its hits me: she will never again worship out of blindness, with her eyes closed, trusting what she cannot see. She now worships in the fulfillment of the promise; I worship in hope of the promise. She worships in wholeness; I worship in brokenness. She worships complete; I worship undone. Yet, my worship causes the angels to marvel, because it is by faith. In my painful, broken, and pitiable condition, I have one advantage that brings my Lord glory: I worship by faith.

Then another thought greets me, like a warm blanket, and I begin to weep. We who have been separated are united at one place: worship. I am on one side of Jesus; Tammy on the other. I worship like a blind man; she as one who has perfect vision. Yes, I wish I could hold her one more time; but, I can be content to worship with her again and again. Worship has a refreshed meaning in my life today.

Ed Litton