Worship, Sorrow, and God-Exalting Grief
On October 17, 2020, I led a graveside service at 10 am for a man who died too soon.
He was in his 40s.
At 11:45 police arrived at our house with news about our son, who had just died too sooner.
He was 20.
It was a sunny day. The morning was crisp and just cool enough for blankets at the graveside. By the time I got home, things were warming up for a perfect fall day! My wife, Jeni, had been to the Farmer’s Market and had just texted that she was in the checkout line at Stein Mart, having scoured their Going-Out-of-Business Sale—another casualty of COVID-19.
After changing from my graveside suit to my Saturday skivvies, I turned on a football game that interested me little, but any college game was fitting for this fall day. At 7 pm, Jeni’s team would face a conference-rival in a battle of top-fives. My team was idle, so until 7:00 any game would make for sufficient background noise. One of the secrets of our happy 30-year marriage is a mutual passion for college football.
As the sun rose a few hours earlier, I sat in a local coffee shop, putting finishing touches on the Sunday School lesson. All that remained were some PowerPoint slides and a few edits. I was right where I wanted to be going into Sunday when I would rise while it was still dark and finalize things.
The rest of this day, though, was for Jeni, me, and football.
At 11:45, someone pounded on our front door. Lainey (our yellow lab) and I startled.
“Shhhhhh!” I signaled, having zero interest in answering. We weren’t expecting anyone, and I didn’t feel like talking to strangers.
Then more hard raps came, so I looked through the peephole. Two people. Probably someone on the campaign trail.
But they stayed. So I checked my doorbell cam: one cop in uniform; another in an open flannel shirt, with some kind of police T-shirt underneath.
So I opened the door… to a new life we never asked for.
After establishing my identity, the plain-clothes officer said, “I’m afraid I have some bad news about your son.”
Kyle had died sometime during the night, due to what appeared to be an accidental overdose. From all appearances, it is likely he had taken something laced with a fatal dose of fentanyl, a tragic decision far too common these days.
It has been almost 90 days, and we are still trying to find our way.
Thousands of years ago, another man named Job got several knocks on his door from those bearing awful news. The worst news, though, was ten times more severe than ours. We lost one child; Job lost all ten of his. We had our remaining children for mutual comfort. Job had none.
Though I have read and studied Job many times, I have been more intrigued than ever since Kyle’s death. I find myself especially impressed by Job’s initial response to the horror of childlessness.
Chapter one, verse 20, shows us a deeply emotional response of this heartbroken father—not one of distant stoicism, but of sharp emotion and grief. He first tore his clothes, an ancient practice, symbolizing the rending of one’s own heart (Joel 2:13). He then shaved his head, removing any hint of personal glory or adornment (much like Jeni not wearing makeup to Kyle’s funeral; Jer. 7:29; Micah 1:16). Then the text tells us that Job fell to the ground in humility; at the lowest of lows. His face kissed the dust. His life would never be the same, and it might have seemed that his hanging head would never rise again.
When the police first told me of Kyle’s death, I felt a dark emptiness, as if light and life had been sucked from my soul. That was it for our precious 20-year-old. There would be no second-chances, no mulligans, no do-overs. We would not even have the chance to say goodbye. Our son was dead, and I still had to call Jeni, who remained across town. What would I say? How would I say it? How would we then tell our remaining family members? Next to seeing Kyle in a casket a few days later, this would be the most horrific hour of our lives. A busy parking lot in Edmond would soon be filled with Jeni’s cries and screams. My 20-minute squad-car ride to her would seem endless.
Job’s grief must have been all the more intense, but he had no other family members to share the burden with; just his wife. Everyone else was gone. Forever.
At the end of the book, the Lord restores Job’s wealth, but he never gets his kids back. That’s death, folks. It assures us that no one actually lives happily ever after in this life. A void will always be there.
Death is rude, and it is cruel. The Bible calls death a “sting” (1 Cor. 15:55), and humanity’s “final enemy” (1 Cor. 15:26). For those who remain, death offers no parting gifts; no consolations; nothing but a searing absence.
The last time Jeni and I saw Kyle was a few days before he died, when he stopped by the house to get something. He was in a hurry, and it was a quick “Hi” and “bye.” His visit was so brief, in fact, that we skipped our customary hugs. Neither of us, in our craziest nightmares, could have imagined that this two-minute blip would be the last time we would see our living, breathing, walking, talking and smiling son (and man, did he have a great smile!).
Such a personal experience is what makes Job’s response so intriguing. After feeling the finality of grief and melting into a posture of severe sorrow, “he worshiped.”
In the present day, the word “worship” conjures various mental images—maybe talented singers on a platform, surrounded by dazzling lights and fog. Maybe we “hear” worship through loud speakers and the thump of drums. Maybe we see a darkened room where hands are held high and bodies sway. And maybe we imagine positive feelings of praise for our Majestic God, who has blessed us in countless ways. We feel the energy of a thousand tongues singing our Great Redeemer’s praise. With every verse sung, we feel the coming victory of our High King, when all will be made right.
How, though, can we compare such visions to the darkened silence of Job, chapter 1? How could anyone worship at a time like this? And what in the world would it look like?
Perhaps we can say this, thanks to Job: Worship and sorrow are not at odds. They are friends.
One of the hardest parts of October 17 was going to bed. The thought of waking up on the 18th was dreadful. What would it feel like to awaken to a nightmare, rather than from one? How would we get out of bed the next morning? Would we get out of bed at all? Would the taste of reality grow more bitter on day two? How would we respond each time our eyes opened and we remembered the impossible reality that our son is dead?
There are a thousand ways parents in our shoes might respond, and I don’t know of any that would be out of place. Grief is a monster, and to say there is one right way to act would be naïve.
Interestingly, the first thing Jeni and I did after getting out of bed October 18 was to go to where we had gone every morning for years—a quiet place with a Bible, a journal, and a cup of coffee. Our mornings would be different from that point forward, yet this familiarity just felt right. Jeni’s journal entry that day was a solid page of black. I began numbering the “days after Kyle” (I am writing this on day 88). So this morning would be different, but it would also be the same. We returned to our safe place—God’s Word. It felt like the only safe place in our jumbled world, but it was our refuge the morning after.
Maybe that’s a clue as to what the text means when it says, “Job worshiped.” The term literally means, “to bow down or submit.” In his darkest hour, Job fell down at the feet of his God. He didn’t know this, but he had prepared for this moment by walking with God in good times and bad. And it was as if now, he was saying, “The Lord is all I have, and so I will go to Him, offering nothing but my barren self.”
I am reminded here of Peter’s words when many of Jesus’ disciples began to turn away:
So Jesus said to the twelve, “Do you want to go away as well?” Simon Peter answered him, “Lord, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life, and we have believed, and have come to know, that you are the Holy One of God.” (John 6:67-69, ESV; emphasis mine)
To whom shall we go?
Job’s posture may not have resembled anything like our own ideas or experiences of worship, but what Job did was good and appropriate and pure in its context: He went to God.
In times of severity and hardship, it may be that all we can do is go to God and say, “Where else can I go? All I have is You, and You are enough.”
Of course, there is much more to the book of Job than just chapter 1. Chapter two pours darkness upon darkness. In chapter 3, Job will lament the day he was born. Then he will wrestle with God, as his friends serve up insufficient explanations for divine mysteries. Eventually, God will speak.
Like those first couple of chapters in Job, we are in the early days of LAK (Life After Kyle), and many chapters are yet unwritten. We cannot escape the grief, the sorrow, the deep inner pain, but we can still go to our God. And He will be more than enough.
I once was lost in darkest night
Yet thought I knew the way
The sin that promised joy and life
Had led me to the grave
I had no hope that You would own
A rebel to Your will
And if You had not loved me first
I would refuse You still
But as I ran my hell-bound race
Indifferent to the cost
You looked upon my helpless state
And led me to the cross
And I beheld God’s love displayed
You suffered in my place
You bore the wrath reserved for me
Now all I know is grace
Hallelujah! All I have is Christ
Hallelujah! Jesus is my life
Now, Lord, I would be Yours alone
And live so all might see
The strength to follow Your commands
Could never come from me
O Father, use my ransomed life
In any way You choose
And let my song forever be
My only boast is You
Hallelujah! All I have is Christ
Hallelujah! Jesus is my life
“All I Have Is Christ” - Sovereign Grace Music
Lance Ward is the Pastor of Congregational Care at Crossings Community Church in Oklahoma City and a regular writer at So We Speak.