Can beauty grow out of ashes?

A journalist, who was exploring this concept, called to ask me, “Can you thank God for the good things that have come out of the murder of your daughter?”

Yes – but the problem is sometimes in the timing.

I remembered how a very caring woman told me when I was in the early stages of grief that I would someday become a great speaker and writer.

I remember thinking, “God, if that is the purpose, I will not write about this!”

Why was this thought offensive to me at the time? Why was I
so angry?

Allow space

Candace Derksen. PHOTO courtesy Wilma Derksen

We need to respect spaces. There needs to be a respectable distance between the tragic event and the journey of turning it into good.

We always need to honour that there is inherent loss in any wrongdoing, injustice, failure, evil, brokenness or whatever we call it.

A negative will always be a negative. We can revisit our history and make it a beautiful memory, but it does not fill or completely do away with that original loss – like the loss of Candace’s life.

And so, even though I have turned my nightmare experience into a valuable learning experience, I didn’t really fill the loss completely. Candace is gone.

We have to be careful when others – or even our own hearts – jump to the next conclusion that gives us permission to participate in a negative experience just so that we can create beauty out of ashes.

Nevertheless, God does work in difficult times, and we need to allow for a certain amount of short-hand reference to all of these inspiring stories. Even Joseph of Egypt chose brevity when he turned to his murderous brothers and said, “You meant this for evil, but God meant it for good” (Genesis 50:20).

But it’s not easy.

Loss is a lesser learning

First of all, we need to remind ourselves that loss is not the only way we learn.

In fact, research shows that we learn best in structured, positive and accepting environments. My son received amazing learning by attending a university and emerging six years later with a doctorate that gives him a great deal of authority and advantages.

People have referred to my learning through loss as having gained an equivalent doctorate in victimization. There is some similarity – except that I did it in 30 years under great duress.

Learning through trauma is the lesser of the two.

Loss doesn’t guarantee a lesson

Secondly, we need to remind ourselves that there are no guarantees in the process of turning something evil into something good. There is no predictable cause-and-effect chain of events.

Some people who experience the aftermath of murder simply never recover.

Why the disconnect? Because to turn evil into good demands an intervention. The ashes themselves do not produce the seeds of goodness.

We have a choice when we are left sitting in the ashes. We can legitimately don our sackcloth and wallow in a self-imposed mourning period.

Seeds of goodness

But to actually turn the ashes into beauty, we need to dump a good yard of soil on the ashes and plant a seed of goodness.

And sometimes we need help.

My husband Cliff and I had help: our community, friends and family gave us a good foundational yard of fertile soil.

And there was a lot of effort on our part to find the seeds of goodness to plant in this new garden we had inherited.

Goodness doesn’t just happen. There has to be a massive intervention to redeem the barren land left by an evil act, our personal ground zero.

Another danger of reciting “good comes out of evil” too glibly is that we can create the false impression that God actually designed the loss from the beginning, perhaps starting the fire that produced ashes in the first place. When we do this, we run into impossible theological challenges: slandering a moral and righteous God, stirring anger toward God and distancing God when we need a good God the most.

So, no; I can never thank God for the murder of my daughter. That was an entirely evil, destructive force at work.

But I can thank God – the beautiful Creator gardener – who helped us find the seeds of goodness, and then to plant and nourish these seeds which grew and produced unexpected fruit in the strangest of places: a transformational picture of beauty for ashes that has surprised even us.

[Wilma Derksen is a member of Fort Garry MB Church, Winnipeg. She is a writer, speaker, victim advocate, recipient of the Order of Manitoba, restorative justice consultant and founder of Candace House. Her latest book, The Way of Letting Go: One Woman’s Walk toward Forgiveness, was released in February 2017.

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