The following piece was originally written for our May 13, 2023 newsletter.
It has been re-published here in its entirety with minor revisions.
By the time this newsletter reaches you, it will have been a month since our sweet friend and Cultivator Leslie Bustard “slipped the surly bonds of earth.” Though I know all the good truths of it, and hold to all the bulwarks of sound theology, reality hits with its sobering finality in countless ways. The ache in my heart seems greater now than when she first left, not less. So much of what aches is not expressible in words. The language of image and pure thought itself conveys what our small, fragile words never can. And yet there are some words that speak to me in all this. Words spoken long ago by someone else acquainted with sorrow and grief, said to someone throat-deep in grieving the day He spoke them to her.
“Yeshua said to her, ‘I am the resurrection and the life! Whoever believes in Me, even if he dies, shall live. And whoever lives and believes in Me shall never die. Do you believe this?’” (John 11:25-26)
In these past few weeks, I hear the quiet whisper again and again, “Do you believe this?”
Do I believe this?
Yes, yes I do believe this. I believe it to my bones. There is nothing else worth believing. If it is not true, there is nothing in this life worth living for. All that I am is bound into this singular belief, this belief which defies both logic and experience.
Because I do believe this, I grieve not as the world grieves in all its hopeless despair. But that does not exempt me from the grieving, or suffering the loss, the fears, the doubts, the questions, and the terrible wordless aching that accompany it. There is no ‘Get out of Grief Jail’ card even for those who believe. I think of Leslie and the ache comes rushing up and stops somewhere in my throat just before the sob escapes my mouth. My eyes burn with acidic tears that are difficult to release because “life goes on” and the demands of my given life require I stay present with them whether my heart is in them or not. If death has parted you from someone you love, you already know what I am describing.
That it has been a month feels like an insult. Something aches in me with the wrongness of it. How could so much sweetness and beauty leave this world, and the world have the audacity to go on turning like nothing has happened, like nothing has been lost? It is wrong. I felt the same with all of the other deaths of my beloveds that preceded this one, and yet something about her death is more troubling, like a fishhook caught in my skin. This death seems even less understandable if death is ever ‘understandable.’ The finality of Leslie’s earthly absence is more bitter, more sobering, and frankly, it feels more like defeat.
And then I remember.
Once upon a time, the One Who spoke the worlds into existence also stood before the grave of a friend, and even though He knew all the right theology of death, He wept.
Knowing the truth does not exempt us from suffering. Grief is not the absence of hope or faith. Grief is the true and proper response to what ought not to be. It is the visceral evidence of love. We do not grieve over the death or ruin of something that does not matter. Nothing matters more than what and who we love.
Before Leslie’s final battle with brain cancer, she and her friend Annie Nardone went kayaking. Annie posted some images of that outing on her Facebook account and after I saw them, I asked Annie if she would share those with me to use in Cultivating and allow me to process them before posting. Annie, ever-gracious, said yes.
Annie sent an image in the set that I had not seen. It was stunningly beautiful, especially in composition and contrast. Visually arresting, strong, dark, foreboding. Almost ominous. The image was truly a fitting image for someone who has crossed over the bridge of this world to the one beyond. I didn’t know exactly where Leslie was in the scene and assumed she was in a kayak beside Annie when Annie shot the image of the bridge.
Now, for the record, I have processed thousands of images in my career. I’ve gone through the familiar steps of adding light, adjusting warmth, heightening contrast, adding sharpening, dehazing … the same series of adjustments I painstakingly make for each image I process. This process is very much like painting, a slow progression to reveal something extra hidden in the image that the camera and digital file cannot capture or reveal by themselves. When I am processing images, I always expect to find an extra layer of beauty or an element of light that I couldn’t see at first, and that is one of the reasons why I do this work. In this case, however, the image processing revealed something stunning and utterly unexpected!
When I adjusted the elements of light in this image, the light itself took center stage. The deep greys in the original image became shades of blue with hints of pink and gold washing across the somber sky. Fingers of light glimmered radiant. Water sparkled. The beauty caught me off guard. But the truly stunning surprise in this labour? It was the sudden exposure of Leslie paddling in the waters where she had been completely obscured in shadows before! I had no idea Leslie was even in the picture when I started processing. Yet here in what had looked like gloom I found Leslie now bathed in light, beautifully moving through peaceful waters under an exquisite sky!
This image is a wonder to me, and not only because of its transformation. It is a wonder also because it is a perfect demonstration of the way the Holy Spirit talks to me in a language I understand. Image. Every time I look at it I am talked with through it. He draws me into understanding and the understanding brings a stillness and an anchoring. To be with Him in the exchange quells the ache.
Grief is a defining quality of the human condition. Our experience of grief is full of shadows and foreboding, like a film over our eyes. Nearly all of what we can see through the experience of grief is indeed somber. Like what we could see in the first image with its intense architecture of light and dark, through grief as the film, what we see in the landscape of our lives are desaturated colours, and elements obscured in murk. The implications of what we can see completely change when that film is pulled away! What I see in this image now is not the sickening terror and finality of death looming everywhere, but my beautiful, sweet Leslie, merrily paddling her kayak in the company of her Maker and her friend, Annie. And suddenly, just like that everything is mantled in hope! Behind the light is a wild, soundless laughter of joy.
This image of Leslie in her kayak brings Reepicheep to mind, sailing his little coracle to the Aslan’s country and the utter East. The Voyage of the Dawn Treader is my favourite of the Narniad, and I cherish this part of the story.
“While I can, I sail East in the Dawn Treader. When she fails me, I paddle east in my coracle. When she sinks, I shall swim east with my four paws. And when I can swim no longer, if I have not reached Aslan’s country, or shot over the edge of the world in some vast cataract, I shall sink with my nose to the sunrise.”
~ The Voyage of the Dawn Treader, by C. S. Lewis
As much as she often reminds me of Lucy, Leslie also reminds me of Reepicheep ~ brave hearted, courteous, valiantly and cheerfully unswerving in the face of giants and dragons. Leslie has not been pitifully wrenched away from us; a warrior slain in battle, defeated. She is a beloved, invited into Beauty and into peace to be loved, protected, given joy, crowned with delight, mantled with rest.
Just because my eyes are not yet strong enough to see it, does not mean that the light is not there. There is glory may be hidden but it is already full blown and radiant, though veiled in shadows. Maybe my tears wash a little of the murk away that blinds me from this good, glorious truth. The wonder of it is everywhere present whether or not we see it yet in its full light. Every once in a while, the veil flutters and, if I am looking just so, I catch a glimpse of glory.
If you find yourself walking through a valley of shadows, I pray that you may find the shadows pulled back and that the veil flutters in places to give you, too, a glimpse of glory. May you be met with the courage to keep paddling steady onward, and may you be comforted with wonder. The Light shines ever on and the darkness does not overcome it.
The featured images are courtesy of Annie Nardone and used with her kind permission for Cultivating.
Lancia E. Smith is an author, photographer, business owner, and publisher. She is the founder and publisher of Cultivating Oaks Press, LLC, and the Executive Director of The Cultivating Project, the fellowship who create content for Cultivating Magazine. She has been honoured to serve in executive management, church leadership, school boards, and Art & Faith organizations over 35 years.
Now empty nesters, Lancia & her husband Peter make their home in the Black Forest of Colorado, keeping company with 200 Ponderosa Pine trees, a herd of mule deer, an ever expanding library, and two beautiful black cats. Lancia loves land reclamation, website and print design, beautiful typography, road trips, being read aloud to by Peter, and cherishes the works of C.S. Lewis, J.R.R. Tolkien, and George MacDonald. She lives with daily wonder of the mercies of the Triune God and constant gratitude for the beloved company of Cultivators.
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