While my mother was struggling through her cancer treatments, she exuded strength. In fact, I remember one trip that we were taking in my aunt and uncle’s minivan in those early weeks after the diagnosis. We were between doctor visits and I sat next to my mom in the back of the van. I just held her hand and did my best to console her. I remember hearing her sobbing softly next to me and feeling so helpless and broken inside, unable to really help her. I asked her what was wrong and she simply said, “I don’t want to be a wimp.
Well, “wimp” is hardly the word that would describe her in the final six months of her life. Her strength seemed to increase and somehow she seemed to hold it together better than the rest of us. When it was clear to us all that her disease would be terminal, it seemed that she willed herself to die. I think that she could have stuck around for longer, but the idea of meeting her granddaughter whose birth was still a few months away was probably heartbreaking to her. Why meet someone who you would have to bid farewell to in no time at all?
After she died, I discovered some Bible verses that she had written down on some scrap papers on her nightstand. They were taken from Isaiah 61:1-3. The verses that always stood out to me, the one that I shared at my mom’s funeral was verses 2 and 3, “to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor and the day of vengeance of our God, to comfort all who mourn, and provide for those who grieve in Zion—to bestow on them a crown of beauty instead of ashes, the oil of joy instead of mourning, and a garment of praise instead of a spirit of despair. They will be called oaks of righteousness, a planting of the Lord for the display of his splendor.”
In the time after my mom’s death, that verse came up over and over again. Even now, three years since her passing, it still continues to emerge from the depths every once in a while. The first time it emerged was during a communion service the night before my seminary graduation (you can read about that here). A friend of mine had the verses painted on a canvas for me as well.
Recently, a friend who lost her husband last year shared the verse and I was struck by something that I hadn’t noticed before. As I read these two verses, I kept looking on them as things that my mom was reading to bring her comfort, and I have no doubt that they were, but the people who are spoken of at the end of these verses are not the ones who have gone on. My mom is not mourning, she is not in despair. Those who mourn are left behind and it is them who need to have their garments turned into garments of praise and to have their spirits turned from despair. It is them who will be oaks of righteousness, planted for the Lord’s splendor.
As I read my friend’s post, I looked at these verses from a completely different perspective and realized that part of my journey through grief is the testimony that I have as I struggle, as I despair, as I mourn. As I exchange beauty for ashes, joy for mourning, and a garment of praise for a spirit of despair, God can use even that to make a difference. In the midst of weakness, I can be an oak of righteousness, displaying not my own strength, but the One who gives me strength.
As my friend reminded me, it was an example of the living and breathing Word of God, continually speaking to us, calling out to us in the darkness, and meeting us where we are, shaping and forming us in the midst of our journey. What a great reminder it served to be for me.