• Courtney Ellis

When You’re Given More Than You Can Handle

My grandfather died this spring, on Holy Wednesday, drawing his last breaths from a hospital bed overlooking tall stands of white pines. I smoothed his brow an hour before he died, telling him the only words we’re left with when no other words can hold all that we mean.


“I love you,” I said. “I will love you forever.”


I had forgotten how much grief feels like a bruise, not to the heart or the head, but to the entire body, making the walk through daily life impossibly tender.


“How are you?” people would ask and I would tell them I was fine, that I was grateful to make it home in time to be with him, to say goodbye. I’d ask for prayers for my grandmother, for my mom, for all those who stayed behind in his final moments as I was driving south to catch my flight home. And I would not cry, not because I was not sad, but because once the dam was breached there would be no stopping the flood to come.


I stave off tears, but a body won’t be stopped from grieving. My voice falters and strains and then drops out entirely. I see a doctor who treats me for a sinus infection. Two weeks later I see another who only shakes his head.


“It’s laryngitis,” he says. “Rest your voice and use a lot of cough drops and gargle with saltwater and it should come back.”


Then a gunman shoots up a church down the street from mine, killing the doctor who rushed to stop him, wounding the elders who’d gathered for lunch. One congregant who helped subdue the shooter told the press he wasn’t afraid in the moment, but that he is now.


I stave off tears, but a body won’t be stopped from grieving.

I stand in front of my congregation on the following Sunday, preaching in a quavering, still-weak voice to the people who call me pastor, who trust me to protect them but who also don’t want our sanctuary turned into a fortress because the same locked doors that keep danger out can also barricade it in. I watch the gray heads of our elders bow in prayer. After we say amen, I look into their eyes and it is then tears come. My voice chokes to silence mid-sermon. I sip from a cup of water and take a breath and struggle to return to a stronger, clearer place.


The death of one 89-year-old man in rural Wisconsin is a tragedy that has splintered my heart into fragments searching for every last shred of memory. The lake in summer. Whole chickens cooked over a Weber grill. An ancient, blue Suburban with a bench seat. The crunch of snow under Sorel boots as he went out to check the ice fishing lures. Pabst Blue Ribbon and Swisher Sweets. Green, cotton, long-sleeved shirts.


Grandpa was old and sick and his death was unexpected but not surprising. Still, on the heels of a pandemic that made cross-country visits to the frail elderly unwise, the grief feels layered in what ifs.

 

Jesus hangs on the cross in the center of the Isenheim Altarpiece, a massive 8x10-foot oil painting hung in Unterlinden Museum in Alsace. He is gray and pale with death, his fingers splayed upward in agony. To his left stands John the Baptist, his hair and beard long, holding an open book in one hand and, with the other, pointing a long bony finger toward Jesus. The light hits squarely on this finger; it’s the first thing you notice. His pointer finger is a blazing arrow turning our attention to the center of the painting. Turning us to the crucified Christ.


In an episode of The West Wing, President Bartlet, played by Martin Sheen, takes to the podium to decry a pipe bomb set off at the fictional Kennison State, killing students and teachers.


There’s evil in the world,” he says. “There will always be . . . But we can do better and we must do better and we will do better. And we will start this moment, today.”


I used to love this speech. It bolstered my belief that all wrongs and pains and rifts eventually make us stronger, that every bitter breakdown would have its reconciliation, that each wound could find healing. (It’s also just really good TV.)


God did, it appeared, give us more than we could handle.

Before I went to seminary I had lunch with a Lutheran pastor, stars in my eyes, to ask him what it was like to do the work of God, to spend a life telling stories of God’s goodness and glory.


“You really can’t make that much of a difference,” he said. I brushed his words off, not wanting to hear them. Perhaps he just wasn’t trying hard enough, I thought, ignoring his literal Pulitzer Prize nomination and decades-worth of wisdom. I would do better.


I spun stories for my congregation—true stories—of redemption and transformation, the bright glory of God driving out shadows and mending broken hearts. And then, in my first months, I buried person after person after person, standing in the unairconditioned church parlor with freshly minted widows and newly orphaned children, watching my shiny seminary adages tarnish in real time.


God did, it appeared, give us more than we could handle.

 

We live, as Thomas Hardy proclaims, on a blighted star. Poets and preachers and prophets spend a life pointing to goodness and truth and beauty while knowing it is all aspirational, that our meager words cannot move the doomsday clock back even a second to save the world.


Yet somehow, when I stop pushing so hard against the torrent of atrophy and despair, I am surprised to feel a flicker of something else utterly unexpected undergirding all of the noise and questions that plague me. A spark of understanding. A tiny, fragile tendril of hope.


We will each lay down our tools one day and face a stand of tall white pines.

There is evil in the world. You cannot shoot up an elementary school or a graduation party or a gathered congregation of Taiwanese Christians without first opening a dark chasm in your own soul.


We can do better and we must do better. Yes and amen to that as well. This week alone I’ve watched friends march, call Congress, write letters, and do a thousand other small acts of lighting metaphorical candles in the darkness. Not one of us is exempted from the work of doing good while it is still day, and yet our time is short.


We will each lay down our tools one day and face a stand of tall white pines.


So let us point toward the only one who remains.



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