Friday, July 28, 2017

From Shadow to Light

John was a man well acquainted with suffering. He had witnessed with his own eyes and ears the death of his best friend and Lord. He had watched helplessly from the sidelines as Jesus was beaten to the point of being unrecognizable. His ears had heard the flesh-piercing sound of nails driven through his savior's hands and feet. Not knowing what was to come three days later, the sight, sound, and smell of death enveloped him. An experience he would not soon, if ever, forget.

 He had lost other a brother and many friends to martyrdom. He had himself been exiled to a lonely island for speaking the truth of Christ to an unbelieving world. In his lowest moments he must have questioned the purpose of his suffering. Why, if he had been following closely to Jesus, would his life look like this? Hadn't he been a faithful follower of Christ from the beginning? Why would God want this for him? What good would come of it?

Here is what I love about John's story: in the midst of his isolated exile Jesus showed up. In an extraordinary vision Jesus allowed John a glimpse of the future, and even more staggering, John saw Jesus himself in His glory. But this meeting was not in the midst of a thriving ministry or John feeling overly spiritual. John saw Jesus during a time of great weakness. Of loneliness. Of suffering. Possibly because it often during those times that we are acutely aware of our need for God. Walking through the shadows gives us eyes to see and ears to hear the Lord in ways that walking in the light doesn't.

I don't have answers to all the whys of our pain. I can't tell you specifically why God allows us to walk through seasons of sorrow, but I can tell you that there is great purpose in pain. My family continues to grieve the loss of my brother. It is our season of shadows. There are answers we will never have this side of heaven as to why he chose to end his own life. This world simply doesn't hold the answers we seek. But I know the One who does. God has been silent when I ask for answers to the why, but He is anything but silent about reminding me of His promise to walk with me through this monumental pain. And He is gently leading me back into light.

On days when I feel as though I'm caving in on myself I reach out to the Lord and I know beyond the shadow of a doubt that He is the one sustaining me. When pain feels like a knife slicing through my heart I am overcome again by my utter need for Jesus. He is my anchor in times of sorrow and the giver of hope in an otherwise hopeless world. I cling to His promise to one day make all things new, and this eternal focus gives me a lens through which to view my own grief. Suddenly the whys no longer plague me because I know the Lord. And I know that He is trustworthy and He is good. Yes he allows me to walk through trials and tribulations but these sufferings will one day seem light and momentary when I am face to face with my Savior.

The glory and magnitude of Jesus was too much for John. He was overwhelmed to the point of being unable to stand up. But Jesus looked at him and said, "Do not be afraid. I am the First and the Last. I am the Living One; I was dead, and behold I am alive for every and ever! And I hold the keys of death and Hades." I wonder if John gave a single thought to his sufferings as he stood in the presence of Jesus. Gazing on the face of His Savior must have wiped away all his worries and fears. Jesus reminded John of His power and sovereignty over evil and death. I imagine the yet un-penned hymn lyrics would have rung true for him in that moment.

Turn your eyes upon Jesus
Look full in His wonderful face
And the things of earth will grow strangely dim
In the light of his glory and grace

Suffering may seem insurmountable but Jesus is bigger. He holds it all in his hands. He is in control. And one day He will make everything right. And in the meantime He will meet you in your shadows and draw you to the light of His glory. One day at a time.

Saturday, January 21, 2017

The Moment Before the Rapids

I remember a pastor once equating life to a river; sometimes it's calm and peaceful, other times it's a raging stream full of white water, ready to capsize you any moment. There's no bypassing the white water. It's coming around the bend whether you're ready for it or not. We must use the calm, peaceful seasons of life to prepare for the rough waters ahead. Once we get to the rapids the time to prepare for them has passed.

I've been thinking about that a lot in the context of my brother's suicide. My life was meandering along just fine when BAM. Suddenly I felt like I was rocked to my core. What has followed has been the most emotionally traumatic experience of my life. I've never lost anyone close to me in this way.  I've lost grandparents, but in a way we all expect to lose those older than us. That's just a natural progression of life. No one plans to lose their brother in such a gruesome and unexpected fashion. How do you even begin to prepare for that?

This idea of preparing for the white water is hard to pin down. It's less about readying yourself physically and more about readying yourself spiritually. In the peaceful times of my life (which, if I'm honest, has been most of it) God has been teaching me to trust Him. To hold onto Him. Somewhere in the back of my mind for years now I've been waiting for tragedy. Waiting to find out how I will handle the suffering when it inevitably comes.

Everyone responds differently to pain, whether physical or emotional. Some shake their fists in anger toward heaven, accusing God of being a cruel dictator. At the opposite end of the spectrum are those that cling to God ever tighter, knowing that He alone sustains them. I find myself in the second camp.

I will never forget the phone call with my mom that shattered my world into a billion, irreparable pieces. She had left a teary voicemail asking me to call her back, and instantly I knew something was wrong. I almost wish now that I had savored the last few moments of ignorance before I called her back. I wish I could somehow un-hear her shaky voice telling me that Brian had shot himself. I wish I could un-know the truth, even if just for a moment to give myself a reprieve from the hurt. Mom breaking the news to me that my baby brother was dead brought me to my knees, and I spent the next 20 minutes weeping on the floor. It felt like the air had been sucked out of the room and I was grasping for something to hold onto.

The first thought that went through my head was one of disbelief. How could this have happened? How, when we all thought Brian was doing better, did we all miss what was going on underneath? How is he really gone? Is this actually happening? The second thought was unexpected. It was Revelation 21:4, "He will wipe away every tear from their eyes. There will be no more death or mourning of crying or pain, for the old order of things has passed away." This is a verse I have been clinging to for dear life for the last 5 weeks. It is my hope. It is my reminder that the pain of this world, while suffocating at times, is temporary. God hasn't checked out and left us to flounder in our pain. Quite the opposite. He draws us near to Him, if we will let Him. The very fact that Jesus will one day wipe them away is evidence that there will in fact be tears this side of heaven. Our pain isn't a surprise to God. Nor is He unable to comfort us in the midst of it. When we pray for God to comfort us He does so by sending His very presence into our lives in powerful ways.

We continue to navigate these rapids hour-by-hour. Eventually they will subside, though likely never completely. There will be moments of calm ahead, and what we do during those moments matters. We can begin to rely on ourselves thinking we've got it all together, or we can cling to God. Lord help us learn to trust you in times of peace so our faith may not fail us in the rapids. 

Monday, January 9, 2017

Ashes and Bruises

These last three weeks I have been in this swirl of survival mode and of coming to grips with finding a new normal now that my brother is gone. I try to do normal things: having play dates, going grocery shopping, cooking dinner, even watching movies. I'm finding it all to be an enormous struggle. It's so hard to focus on conversations about normal things when all I can think about is the fact that my brother's ashes are frozen in the ground in a cemetery 80 miles away. How can life possibly feel normal when that is the reality we must stare in the face every day? Nothing about that is normal. Nothing is about that is alright.

The first Sunday at church after my brother died was harder than I imagined it would be. Normally I love being surrounded by my church family, and half the time I'm late getting into the service because I can't stop visiting with people. But last week was different. I've never wanted so badly to be invisible. I wanted the words of the music and sermon to wash over me but I didn't want to be seen. I'm not one for crying in public but that particular morning I was a mess. A friend of mine had made me a mix CD of several Sojourn worship songs, and I'd been listening to it on our way to Brian's funeral. One song in particular was running through my head throughout the visitation, and we sang that song on Sunday. It was a small detail, but one that sent me reeling. Perhaps I'll never again listen to that song without thinking about that awful day. The pastor who preached was someone I hadn't heard in awhile, then it occurred to me that the last time I heard him give a sermon was the one Sunday that Brian had come with me to Sojourn.  Seemingly insignificant details that brought on an overwhelming sense of loss.

While trying to keep from coming completely apart at the seams during that service I felt bruised. Like a bruise covered by a piece of clothing so no one around could really see the pain. That was me on Sunday. I sat in the midst of so many people who were oblivious to the absolute chaos that my life has become. Then it occurred to me to wonder how many others around me were feeling the same way. Our church is full of bruises like me. We are all stumbling around in our pain hoping that someone will help keep us standing upright.

The thought I keep coming back to in all this is how difficult it is to have something in my life that I can't fix. It's not like the loss of a job or a temporary illness that will eventually be made right. Brian is never coming back. All plans of getting old as a trio of siblings has been dashed to pieces. We can't fix Brian. There is no putting him back together this time. What a hard reality that is. That means this hurt will never fully go away. The swelling will go down eventually but the bruise will remain. Like an old veteran's war wound that acts up when it rains, there will be perpetual reminders of this loss for the duration of my lifetime. How do I move on from that?

I'm trying to give myself space to grieve. Yes, I trust in the promises of God to be near me and strengthen me during this nightmare, but that doesn't mean that the actual pain diminishes. Those of us who trust in Jesus live in an "already but not yet" kind of world. We believe that one day Jesus will in fact wipe away every tear from our eyes. Every moment of suffering will be forgotten because we will at last be face to face with the author of our very lives. In the meantime we are still part of this sin-soaked world, and the current reality is that we stand face to face with all sorts of unspeakable pain. I used to think that for the Christian suffering was somehow a lighter load. God makes it ok right? How naive I was. God allows us to feel the full weight of suffering not to crush us but so that we might look to Him for our strength.

Yesterday I read Psalm 74:25-36 which says, "Whom have I in heaven but you? And earth has nothing I desire besides you. My flesh and my heart my fail, but God is the strength of my heart and my portion forever." Somehow every time I've read that verse I've glossed over the word "heart." In times of suffering it is God who gives us the strength we need. Not just the physical ability to get out of bed in the morning and put our shoes on the right feet. God strengthens our hearts as well. He holds us together in the palm of His hand. He will walk through this unspeakable pain with me. He will work through His church to come alongside me and grieve with me. Grief isn't something we can fast forward through. We must do the hard work of trudging through it, but my hope is in the fact that I'm not trudging alone. God is my strength when my heart fails.

Wednesday, January 4, 2017

Close to the Broken

I'm good at accidentally smashing things. I recently knocked my coffee pot carafe into the faucet and caused a shower of glass to rain down all over my kitchen counter and sink. My gut reaction to a broken dish is to jump back from it lest a piece of glass finds a way to embed itself in my finger. I'm especially fanatical about it if my kids are nearby. "Nobody move!" I hear myself shouting. "Back up, back up, back up." It's good to be careful around broken things. Caution keeps us from doing more damage or bringing on more hurt. We humans are so fragile. We bleed easily.

We sometimes do this with people though, don't we? We see pain and suffering and our gut reaction is to back up. Don't go too close. That pain might be contagious somehow. I might hurt myself trying to help with that burden. Or I might make it worse because I have no idea what I'm doing.

Today I'm thankful that God doesn't react to our pain that way. This afternoon I read Psalm 34:18 which says, "The LORD is close to the brokenhearted and saves those who are crushed in spirit." God doesn't need to jump away from our suffering to avoid inflicting pain on himself. He's already done that on the cross. God steps in to our sadness; our brokenness. Sometimes I think the more broken we are the closer we can be to God.

I know I'm not the only one for whom 2017 is off to a rough start. I'm by no means alone in my suffering. There are so many of you who are experiencing some sort of upheaval, whether big or small. Know this: God draws near to our brokenness. He leans in to our pain. He is close to us when we are crushed. God lifts us up and helps us stand, shakily at first but eventually with firmly planted feet. I hope that in your pain you will lift your eyes to the heavens and let God take hold of you. Praise God that He gives us hope for tomorrow.

Monday, January 2, 2017

The Affront of 2017

I usually look forward to New Years Day.  The notion of getting to start something fresh has always been appealing to me.  This year is different though. When you're grieving it feels like a slap in the face to hear people wish you a happy New Year. Happy? Really? Happiness is about the farthest thing from my mind right now.

Our neighbors set off fireworks on New Year's Eve at midnight, a booming reminder that life marches relentlessly on however ill prepared we are. I'm not ready for it to be 2017. It's a year that my brother will never see. I want to scream for time to just stand still for a minute so I can catch my breath and get my bearings.

I've been experiencing those waves of grief that everyone talks about. Some days are better than others, and today was a rough one. Something about it being a new year has made the permanence of Brian's death a little more real in my mind. Perhaps it's denial, or maybe it takes awhile for reality to set in, but I keep thinking he's coming back. How can he just be gone? How is it possible that I'll never see or talk to my brother again? Reality is painful. It's hard to come face to face with the truth that we'll never take another family picture with Brian in it. He'll never goof off with his nieces and nephews again. He'll never celebrate another holiday or birthday with us. Forever there will be a missing piece in our family. An empty chair. It's so surreal. And it's so incredibly painful.

I've been trying to articulate why the pain seems deeper these last two days, and someone pointed out that with it being a new year it's the beginning of having to move forward. As much as I might want to I can't stop time. The irritating tick tock of the living room clock is a constant reminder of that. It's true that we do have to move forward. Everyone that knew and loved Brian will forever be changed by his death, but by God's grace we'll keep going. We'll keep getting out of bed everyday and breathing in and out. Eventually we'll come out of the tailspin we're in and we'll get our feet under us again. We will figure out a new rhythm to our lives but that's not something we can expect to happen overnight. There are going to be plenty of bad days ahead but I have hope that there are good days ahead too.