what i learned from 2016

I planned on this post for year’s end. But I decided to share now. Because something tells me I’m not alone. 

1. Grief is transformative. 

Loss is exhausting, unrelenting, unraveling. Every explosion of worst rushes to the surface, and you are forced to stare at the wreckage that is turned reality: hope evaporating, best-laid plans crumbling to dust.

But here in the smoldering rubble is where a strange thing starts to happen. You can change.

You are undone by sorrow, anger, despair, and fear, yes. But you can also turn inward to discover a hidden reservoir of strength you did not know existed. Resilience starts here.

A broken heart by definition is torn open, widened. Torrents of life and love can flood through the cracks, currents stronger than could ever rush in before, if you resist bitterness and embrace vulnerability. When grief is well lived – and yes, there is such a thing – it gives birth to growth, empathy, understanding, and stubborn hope.

We suffer, we lose, we grieve, and we are changed. Like it or not, this remains the story of human existence. (Dying and rising, dying and rising.)

If we can let our undoing bring some good – personally and communally – then suffering is never wasted.

This is how we go on.

2. Community matters more than ever.

You redefined community for me this year. Your prayer embodied Christ. Your compassion held our family. Your love taught me mercy.

The honest truth is that I assumed I understood many things long before 2016 dawned: prayer, faith, hope, compassion, community, justice. Turns out I had only glimpsed through a mirror, darkly.

Now I have seen face to face.

Because once you have lived through Worst, scales fall from your eyes, shed like snake skin. A thousand insignificant worries slip through your fingers, sand grains of nothing. And when you finally reach out to gather something solid to yourself again, what you find is the love of others.

Turns out it is the most powerful force in the universe.

We need each other; we are made of each other; we only survive because of each other. Take this for granted, and you will miss most of love means.

We only go on together.

3. Light shines in the darkness.

John 1:5 has been clutched in my palm for months. There are a handful of solid gold truths I hold now, and this is one of them: The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it.

Believe this and you believe the whole story.

All you need to move forward is enough light to take one step. Mercies fresh for one morning, then more manna on the ground to gather the next. Enough becomes abundance.

When you cannot see how hope can breathe, starved of oxygen; when all odds are stacked against your feeble favor and your power is reduced to dust; when every goodness you dreamed and labored to bring into the world has been ripped out of your hands – this is the moment when you start to see in the darkness.

Behold: there is just enough light there to see one foot forward, bumbling and blinking. It is the only step you need to take next.

4. Prayer works, but not like we thought.

The outcome we wanted? It didn’t happen. Instead we got the worst version of Plan B anyone could fathom, the whiplash yank to the utter opposite of probable. It was never supposed to be like this. 

So did our prayers – and everyone else’s – fail? Was this all our fault?

No. Prayer is not magic. It is not a spell or a formula, a panacea or a placebo, a power tool or a control panel. It is something far more mysterious and far more ordinary.

Prayer is our language to God. But we do not control it. We do not drive it. We cannot manipulate its outcome to fit our wishes.

Prayer works because it changes us. At best it makes us more humble, hopeful, loving, trusting, and faithful. But all of this is God at work. Not us.

We are not ultimate; we are not the source of healing; we are not the causa sui of transformation. Only when we surrender to what prayer asks of us – which is always love, which is often uncomfortable, which is never stagnant – only then do we see the true power of prayer.

That we do not control it. That God is at work.

5. God is real, but not like we thought. 

Here’s the half-step after honest prayer: you discover that God is not what you expected.

We mortals are excellent at defining the divine. We shove into tidy boxes the Source of Love that set the universe spinning. We assign God names, and we expect God to meet them.

If you have understood (warned Augustine but we never want to listen), then what you have understood is not God.

Every hard learning this year shoved my way – how the world works, what death means, what comes next – skidded straight into plain truth that God is not Who I thought.

I am re-learning God. As presence closer than my own skin. As a companion of quiet constancy. As a comforter already grieving before I got there. As mystery holding every question. As love embodied in startling simplicity.

I vacillate between thinking I should never attempt to write another word about God and deciding I should spend the rest of my days doing nothing but.

I am absolutely, unabashedly, unreservedly convinced of the reality of God. Whatever flimsy facsimile of faith carried me this far, I chalk up to sheer grace. But whatever comes next will continue to tear the roof off my well-constructed theories, my comfortable theological home, my self-seeking skull.

Of this God, I am certain.

6. This is not the end.

How I wish I could impress one solid truth upon the tender flesh inside your heart. No, I wish I could sear it onto your soul’s skin with a branding iron – this is how cell-level completely I believe it.

The worst is not the end. It is the way through.

You do not get over. You do not forget.

Whatever happens next, it was not “meant to be” or “the silver lining” or “all part of the plan.” Eager, easy fixes need not apply.

But what it can be is still good. A path opens onto a strange world you never expected, but you can learn to live in an unfamiliar land.

Stay tuned, whispers every story of resurrection. Wait to see what comes next. Right when everything looks like the end, everything is only beginning.

The story is still unfolding. You get to be part of it.

This much I know is true.

3 thoughts on “what i learned from 2016

  1. Laura, you must keep writing. God has given you an incredible gift. You take what is complicated and misunderstood and lay it clearly before us. Thank you.

  2. Amen on #3!!! That verse over the last few years has been such a ray of light when I have felt most alone or scared, it gives me hope when I feel hopeless…

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