Aug. 28, the call came late. I had just arrived at a neighbor’s to take care of his dogs. Since early in the morning, I’d been traveling by car and plane.

The awkwardness of the too-late call was soon confirmed. Paul, my brother-in-law in Colorado Springs, had very sad news: “Steve, I’m so sorry. Your brother died by Monument Creek while on a bike ride today.”

My “No!” was involuntary.

Healthy Gary was only 60. How could this be?

Soon, I was the messenger. I well remember the ache, the tears, the constricted throat and quavering voice -- especially speaking with my sisters as well as with Via and our eight children.

I prayed for our 96-year-old Mom, Ruby. Gary was her baby of four. Subtracted.

Two days later, death took lingering Dorothy, Mom’s 94-year old sister -- one of two remaining siblings. A week later, Mom’s treasured friend, Faith, suffered a debilitating stroke. These dear ones, bound to my Mom by bands of love, now, subtracted.

“Subtraction”

For some reason, I kept thinking about “subtraction.” I learned it comes from “sub” = “from under" + “trahere” = "to pull, draw.” “Withdrawal.” The ancient "The Crafte of Nombrynge” (1425) declares: “Subtraccion is drawynge of one nowmber oute of anoþer number.” True enough.

But, our grief had led us to “relational subtraction” -- “drawing one person out of another person.” Approximate wholeness gone.

Dr. Ogden says such loss brings a "sense of unreality, of disjointedness -- sort of like waking up on another planet.” Subtraction.

“Treatment”

Our saddened souls needed “treatment.” And, curious reader, what about “treatment?” It too comes from “trahere” -- "to pull, draw."

Aha, we remember! “Trahere” is the origin of “tract” in “sub-tract!” Without “sub,” “traction” in medical care is "a sustained pulling to hold fractured bones in position.”

Who has such “sustained pulling” power to “treat” our fractured souls?

God

“Blessed be God, the Father of mercies and God of all comfort, who comforts us in all our troubles, so that we may comfort each other” (2 Cor. 1:3-4). God, the God of “all” comfort, comes alongside the broken hearted.

So, we pray: “Holy Spirit, Comforter, we have lost a partner in life. For Christ’s sake, comfort us and continue to pour out your comfort. Come to us in our grief and go with us through our grief -- giving us faith in the promises of God.”

Getting to God’s great promise

Is it too much to ask that we believe the promises of God while we’re in the midst of grief? No -- not with God’s help.

Let’s hearken back to our first parents’ epic fail. God warned: “The day you eat the fruit of this tree (literally) ‘dying you will die’” (Gen. 2:18). They chose to be wise in their own eyes. They ate.

But, when did they die? Physically, years and years later. Spiritually, immediately -- “the day you eat, you will surely die.” So, we, their descendants, are spiritually “dead in our transgressions and sins” (Eph. 2:1). Ouch.

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Now, imagine being with our first parents when God announced: “Dust you are, to dust you will return.” The ache and the tears that cling to our present griefs would have been multiplied for them. Their profound intimacy with God and each other -- gone. Instead, new longings to hide from God and -- now, intuitively, they blamed others and God. This relational amputation was the great subtraction.

In the midst of this mess, we are astonished. Adam’s immediate response to God’s declaration of death is to name his bride, “Eve” -- “Mother of all the living.” Why not “Muth” -- “Mother of the dying?” Death had been unleashed. Their son, Cain, would murder his brother, Abel. Was Adam naïve?

No. Somehow, in these soul-wrenching cataclysms of the great subtraction, Adam had ears and a heart to hear God. When God spoke to the serpent: “I will put enmity between you and the woman, and between your offspring and hers; he (singular) will crush your head, and you will strike his heel” (Gen 3:15), Adam heard and believed God’s promise. Somehow, he knew that his failure was not final. Eve’s Descendant would crush the devil while being wounded himself.

Spiritually dead-in-sin Adam did not/could not generate such faith. Instead, faith is the gift of God (Eph 2:8) -- given by God who comes looking for sinners. Even when all we sinners see is subtraction, God comes giving – adding. Wow!

And so, he can come to us in our grief. Aha.

True reckoning – life for those in Christ

When Mom learned that Matthew, Gary’s son, and Callie, Matt’s wife, will name their soon-to-be born son, Mark, Gary’s middle name, she replied: "What a sweet thought."

When Judy, my older sister, suggested Mom read about the city of Colorado Springs naming a new reservoir, the Gary Mark Bostrom Reservoir, too-tender Mom was teary-eyed. She has been humming, "Lullaby and Goodnight.” Judy commented: “What a beautiful way for a mother to grieve the death of her youngest.”

Nephew Ben reckoned: “Uncle Gary was part of the swirling milky-way of God’s grace in my life, part of the gratuitous beauty and generosity of God who keeps giving and giving and can’t help himself. Even death is a gift for those in the city of God. It announces a home going. The end of an exile. We are bereft, are we not? But not without comfort.”

On the cross, Jesus fulfilled God’s profound promise. Jesus, the Wounded victor, the source of sustained pulling, overcame the great subtraction. At the cross, God displayed stupendous reconciliation. Those who are united to the resurrected Christ are given eternal life!

So, at Gary’s burial, I read a faith-provoking passage: “The first Adam became a living being;’ the last Adam, a life-giving spirit. Where, O death, is your victory? Thanks be to God! He gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ” (1 Cor 15:45,55,57).

Despite subtraction, through Christ, God’s sustained pulling brings true reckoning.

Steve Bostrom, a descendant of Swedish homesteaders, husband of Via, father of eight, and grandfather of nine, loves Helena and serves here as a pastor at large. The Presbyterian Church in America oversees his work. To contact him, email: stevebostrom@gmail.com. If you would like access to previous columns, please go to www.stevebostrom.com.

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