THERE IS NOT A SINGLE atomic attribute we possess within our humanity able to ensure security. Simply, our ultimate welfare is out of our hands. Our lives sway in the breeze of circumstance. One day we are well, the next bedridden. We tire. Our bodies succumb to sickness. Beyond that, we tangle ourselves in worry until our hearts sag heavy under the weight of life out of our reach. The phone rings and we receive disappointing news. Maybe the news concerns your position at work suddenly gone, your spouse confessing he no longer loves you, a diagnosis set to violate your child’s life. There is an unending myriad of tragedies and difficulties you could attest to. And as quickly as that we find the fragility of life, like that of a dandelion blown by the wind.Read More
THERE'S NO ART to beginning – you just do. Clumsily, luckily, unsure or maybe mostly confident, or maybe in full ignorance, you find yourself too far beyond the end for it to possibly still be considered the end. That’s just how it happened for me – too far beyond the end.
Swallowed by an ending, the spotlight quick faded before the curtains could even touch closed. It’s absolutely isolating and frightening, both at the same time.
I am a survivor, but by no means at all is my story a tale of a self-made man who overcame great odds and bootstrapped to victory. No, mine is a story of the kind of survivor who was found just wanting the end.
Quite simply and never forgetting, the beginning found me. I should be duly clear here: the beginning was, and is, God. And not god as in, a god or feeling or some self-sustaining resolute strength discovered within myself fueled by an ambiguous goodness somewhere out there, I thoroughly mean the Creator, Divine Trinity – Father, Son and Holy Ghost. There is no forever blooming, never spoiling beginning outside of Him. Understanding the psychology of grief and my breaking couldn’t nor wouldn’t get me to a new beginning. Neither would time’s passing, which is such an empty lie to tell someone suffering the shock of loss or tragedy of life unraveling. God in all of His regular might led me far, far beyond the end of my first wife’s death to the warmth of a day I could’ve never dreamt up in my best, undisturbed night of sleep.
Journal entries that pawed at death and ash in the form of spiraling questions, accusation and curses, discovered God’s welcome, even His beckon. ‘Come to Me, all who are weary and heavy burdened,’ echoed determinedly in my sunken heart. I came because He called to me and I had nowhere else to go. My dreams, my hopes and my security – the life I built – lay ruined and left me without home. That’s where I was found. Those original journal entries grew into pages of words telling the grandest of stories of my finding, in the too far beyond the end. Those pages piled into a book that I called, Earth and Sky.
Today, I celebrate the writing, but more so, the story. It’s who I was, where I’ve been and who I’ve become. I do hope you find the time to read my story. It is one far greater than I could ever tell, one that will forever define me, for it was in those pages that I was truly born again.
Does He know fully well? In days too undone and nights darker still, where is God? Busy with the cosmos, waiting for Forever, un-winged by our unbelief or tending to bigger brokenness than we know, perhaps? There have been times when the cool of swollen waves have swallowed most of me and lost, in the most dislodged sort of way, pushes into my thoughts - my heart apart from my head. In those times, the question grows emphatically, demanding attention and all of life, from beginning to now, looks diseased. Good couldn’t have possibly existed here. Somehow, the goodness in life appears to have always been bad just waiting for the opportune time to strike, and it is as it always really has been.
Suffering has a way of sickening all of life. Many different faces draw upon suffering - death, illness, divorce, brokenness, abuse - tragedy of all sorts. There in the moment every fleshed person, whether faith is confessed or disavowed, sneers upward, “How could you?” Every fairy tale and happy ending is perverted, and we feel tricked by a feeling of good.
Here’s a truth I’ve learned: not every ending is a good one. At least, not in the way we consider goodness to be good.
In the writing of my book, Earth and Sky, I wrestled with the question. I wondered if God truly knew how deeply affected my heart really was or if He truly cared. Fear lurked in life upended. In grief, something that looked just like security fractured deep within me. Frailty rushed over faith, and strength was matched by circumstances too big for me. Here's an excerpt of a chapter entitled, '9 Degrees':
This is the ageless question asked by everyone drowning in painful, uncontrollable circumstance. Where is He? He’s present in dark times, when powerful waves grind against the sides of our faith, when we’re disoriented by suddenly changing conditions. No matter the severity or the suffering, Christ remains aware. When our distress flags wave and we can withstand no more, when we float lost in the frailty of all that we are and have become, we can still be assured that God is good. His power isn’t diminished by changing conditions. His goodness lies in His unmatchable ability to redeem and make uncontrollable wrongs right.
Jesus asked His disciples, “Why are you afraid? Have you still no faith?”
Their feet were soaked. Their hearts still pounded. They still drew breaths deep and out of rhythm. . . . but everything was eerily calm. The threatening wind suddenly was no more. The water was as still and flat as glass. Jesus was wet, too, yet His eyes were calm, as if nothing had happened. He understood why His friends had been terrified. He had seen the waves; He had heard the howling wind. But He wanted them to see something else. Now. Afterward certainly, but even now. “Why are you afraid?” invites us out of the wind and waves, beyond our panic and dread, and into His moment of security.
Afterward. Even then.
We’re just like them—transfixed by the storm, wondering when it will stop (or kill us), waiting for people and love to make sense again. We expected a life so bright, right there at our doorstep. In our sorrow, we try to make it right, but we only make it worse. Finally, we find the One who can still the storm in our souls. That’s grief. Embracing yesterday and wishing it well. Embracing now and holding it tight. Wanting so badly to be whole now.
So what, then? Faith. Have you none?
I realized my life would be ruined if I didn’t let go of fear. I had to endure the storm of what-ifs and hope-nots. Fear consumes us when we can’t let go. We run around in panic and assume the painful present will last forever. Life ebbs and flows, circumstances threaten to swamp our lives, but hope exists even in quiet thoughts. After the darkest of nights, the morning will bring a new dawn. Fear had consumed me and changed me, altering words and perspective. The problem, I realized, was the fear of losing, not the losing itself. Loss is the lasting reality left in the wake of fear.
Grief isn’t just sorrow. It includes faith in the future. It’s releasing what can no longer be and becoming open to new possibilities. I have to trust that Jesus is standing there right in front of me. He is wet, too. He never left me during the stormy moments. His eyes are calm, loving, and patient. He sees my panic, calms the storm, and whispers, “Why are you afraid?”
Your cause for breaking might very well be different from mine, but make no common mistake - we are all broken. We all reach a point where we wonder just how much the sky separates us from God’s knowing care. Out of timelessness, He fleshed himself and entered our world to own all pain and abandonment. And then, He returned to timelessness with it all in His hand. Yes friend, He knows well the day in which you walk right now. He knows your pain and your fears and right in the midst of it all, an invitation extends to you, too. Go his way.
Something wrong will happen. Count on it. There will come a time when life will not add up or line up just as it should, or you anticipate it should. There in the gap of life as it should be and as it actually ends up being, when your feet feel disorientation in what was expected and what is being experienced, something will be amiss. Maybe you’re like me and faith will recoil in the surprise of life not adding up. I remember after my first wife unexpectedly died despite prayers and pleas for death to not win out. Not only did faith fade into my circumstance, but betrayal and anger seeped into place.
Things were not as they should be. Often times, life lands just in this way and breaks more than our expectation. We are broken in moments when reality separates from our expectation or hope. I think it is there when life breaks from our expectation and what we wanted, hoped for or thought doesn’t add up with how things end up being that we discover the greatest transaction aside from God’s love for us. It is the trading of what we want for what actually is. Healing while hurting transcends all that can ever possibly be wrong for the acceptance of all things always good for the heart belonging to God.
Those who learn to live well don’t learn to dance in the rain, make lemonade or smile through tears, but feel the bruise, wince and swallow the goodness of life that is rather than wander through thoughts of why things went wrong.
Life will break, friend. and so will you. Things will not always add up and you will be disappointed. Pain will threaten your security in life. You may even feel dislodged by the unfair way life moves unconcerned of your needs, your identity or achievement. Many a good men have lost it all here in their inability to heal while hurting and see beyond the day burning into the next. There is always another day for the heart belonging to God for it is He who knows them all, and it is He who knows best the way brokenness.
He was despised and rejected by men; a man of sorrows, and acquainted with grief; and as one from whom men hide their faces he was despised, and we esteemed him not. Surely he has borne our griefs and carried our sorrows; yet we esteemed him stricken, smitten by God, and afflicted. But he was pierced for our transgressions; he was crushed for our iniquities; upon him was the chastisement that brought us peace, and with his wounds we are healed. Isaiah 53:3-5, ESV
(*image credit: thewrongsideofthepond.com)
Year’s from the touch, our hearts still feel tender in moments of our memory’s choosing. It’s easy to feel captive about what you will and won’t allow yourself to esteem or talk about. We’ve held a high rule in our home since Marianne’s death, a rule that has held us together tightly in times grief would’ve pulled us apart. It is always okay to talk about memories of her. In fact, more than okay, sharing memories is a measured must that keeps gauge of our honest movement through grief and life inexplicably coming undone.
Tomorrow makes three years. What makes grief so precariously hard to track is its random rhythm in our lives. Out of nowhere a difficult string of days will move in unpredictably - tempers flair, patience flattens thin, arguments stir quick and tears do fall freely. We are a war torn bunch who sometimes jump at the sound of grief’s return. Never was it easy, and our memories don’t let us forget that.
Still my daughters hold tightly to those close to them. Goodbyes are hard. Each time we leave family after a visit or they leave our house after a few days all together, I recognize their little eyes dim for a bit. They grow quiet, and they remember the feeling of letting go. One day, I’ll have a conversation with the women they will be. I hope to hear sadness their vocabulary struggles to express at times in their young age. I pray their future expression of sadness will give greater evidence to God’s faithful watch over them in His keeping of their designed destiny. Then my joy will be touched with wholeness and once again reminded of the fury and mystery of grace. Maybe I’ll need reminding then.
In poignant eloquence and thoughts collected, too, from the sting of pain, C.S. Lewis observed, “We regard God as an airman regards his parachute; it's there for emergencies but he hopes he'll never have to use it.”
That learned reality is the blessed fruit of pain experienced; to know God because of healing bruises. Only in that regard, maybe I’m more blessed than some. Amen and amen.
Memories taking me back three years and some still hold dark insecurities that if given open door could easily overwhelm my trust in God and who He is. Other memories of saving grace and strength not of my own - from God and family and friends - float atop steady tossing waves and still give passage through grief . . . to the point where I confidently say I am forever healing and not forever grieving.
Grief does burst in and out of life unpredictably. I think many reasons play culprit to grief’s irrational movement in our lives, but possibly most prevalent to me is life’s fragility exposed in death’s touch. In a moment all can be lost. And in that same moment, all can be simultaneously found.
Friends, I count it blessing the three years behind us. All 1,095 days. And for as many are ahead, may grace always guide us and trust always bind us.
As Julian of Norwich hollowly spoke to times beyond her, “All shall be well, and all shall be well and all manner of thing shall be well.”
Let come what may, and I pray both in smiles and tears we remain honest in all things.
As I look about and count rich blessings sprouting and blooming all around, love, marriage, family and tomorrow, I, for a moment, take to blushing at such weakness and frail faith in difficulty. But then I am corrected by the scars of life's real blow and reminded of the even greater realness of God's hunting grace.
*(artist/image credit: Gillian Carnegie)
Two. What are two years worth? Can days be discarded, undesirable and unwanted ones?
In a telling shortness, the two years behind me are worth all that’s ahead. I’ve cursed plenty of those days playing the victim drunk stumbling on circumstance violating what I measured fair in my life. Death never seems fair or fitting in its happening and the lonelier days following.
Tomorrow marks 2 years completed since my wife unexpectedly died. On a Wednesday like countless other ordinary Wednesdays before it, she was rushed from home to hospital. And I think it was then, not on the following Monday when she breathed her last, that our paths began to pull apart. I say this because for five days while she lay in an ICU bed, machines pushed air into her and fluids through her. She was gone. All that she was was no more.
Time stopped even as I watched it continue all around me and my life, the one lovingly built with her, ended. A new one started where I was a minor character in a major lead role, often overwhelmed with wordless emotion swirling in the context of grief resting heavy and constant.
I hated the new life that I had no choosing in. I resented God and if I’m honest in confession, parts of me still do. Those are the real hurt parts of me pierced by inexplicable, but not out of the question circumstance of a loved one dying.
Killing those hurting and accusing parts of me by allowing time, love and hope to heal is a daily exercise in trusting God and his goodness both universally for all people, but more intimately, for me.
We all die someday, I suppose.
We certainly do die, everyone of us. Saying, ‘I suppose,’ comes from one of those hurt parts of me that finds a slighting satisfaction in reminding God that I don’t agree nor expected such tragedy to find me then. But death and tragedy in its wake did find us. That’s right where our new life started, the one that we are two years into now.
Like morning fogged with sky fallen as low as our feet, Ahead ambiguously hangs on the fading tail of days bled through, lost in and even the smallest celebratory moments in clouds knifed through by sun. The promise of life in the closing distance warming more with each step away from life tearing apart glows on the horizon. We are not yet there at the glowing destination where all seems as though it rests only calm and giving. Maybe we never will be fully there. And maybe not being there is a good thing; a sort of guiding beauty always prompting us onward to a land and place of promise and peace.
We’re drifting, sliding sideways some days, but mostly moving forward in tossing waves frothing and foaming of grief and grace ...a heart-healing, God-stirred elixir.
Days old and aged in effort given and attempts overcome are also effective little liars. Creepers finding cracks to grow in; the unwanted searching for higher position than truth just standing stoic. Those days must be let go of as our hands grasp and hold to a new day. Faith. Grief. Healing.
Rocks hold well in the sea stirring and are a sure welcomed sight for one drowning, but waves don’t relent in crashing. Unconcerned of their breaking, they keep coming and breaking, again and again. Life and waves can feel much of the same in this way.
Rock holds and waves break.
So what of the two years behind?
I’m braver. I’m bolder. I’m stronger.
I’m more lost. I’m lonelier. I’m smaller.
I’m more convinced of good. I’m wrapped in dawning grace. I’m rescued.
I’m a better father. I’m a contradicting son. I’m an honest man lying in moments precarious.
...a loser won.
And what of them, the girls, my daughters? Well, they’re still watching, always waiting and regularly wondering and dreaming of tomorrow. They simply are the best thing for me, and I would surely be someone different without them. My daughters hurt and are still found in tears. In moments where moms fit appropriately, they have no one of exact measurement. That is the deepest bruise. Their little hearts have journeyed further and lived more than mine at that age. And smiles defy all wrong in their day with an honesty inspiring each of my steps.
These two years have beat the hell out of me, honestly. But I’m here everyday gazing upon a glowing distance still blurry in my eyes.
You are where you are, precisely. Circumstance, both good and not, will always loom and exist. Your choosing just as mine is simple: onward and through; no matter the depth nor height.
And now three.
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“Tomorrow found in today; what’s ahead discovered in days behind.”
This has become somewhat of an echoing mantra and anchoring core value in my life. Often what we need for today and beyond lies in the path behind us. A risk that taught us to trust more. A failure that taught us bravery. A mistake that taught us humility. A hurt that taught us to bleed. A loneliness that taught us to find. A darkness that taught us courage. A victory that taught us to win.
Whatever those steps pressed into the ground of yesterday hold, above all, they hold life and answers and path.
The writing of my book gave perfect opportunity to look back, gaze upon the burning heap of dreams behind ...look ...love ...want ...hurt ...break, and mostly ...find. Recounting pieces of my past floating, stretching further apart on life pulling like the tide and swelling waves, has, in a way, been the greatest happening. Many days I felt like a scavenger walking through barren lands once rich and fertile, now hollow and uninhabited. And then, I would stumble upon deep wells of remembrance whispering words I couldn’t understand but laced with promise and passage finding penetrating way into the chambers of my heart.
Losing my wife, a woman whom I loved indescribably, did nothing less than change me completely.
Life turned unexpectedly and unforgivably. I stopped lost in tracks. The steps behind me began to guide me with each faith-filled, God following, narrowly trusting, grace infusing step into the unknown.
Future bowing to past in homage and honor. My eyes learned new, the value of unknown and how to choose.
Here’s an excerpt central to my story from a chapter currently entitled, “Surely Goodness and Mercy.”:
I saw a man alone, subdued by pain, frightened by the fear of all that may be some day, and I quietly asked to never be that man. I can't. I won't. The man fumbling through fading memories like a thief holding a leaking bag, the man stumbling drunk on why things settled they way they did, talking to himself, mumbling angrily and hurt. That will not be me.
My daughters will not know him. They might see me wince and wrestle to the ground... But they will never know a hollowed heart comfortable only in shadows. I may not have much greater to give them than that but it will be an echo that resounds like bells of freedom in their warm little hearts. Always. I pray.
I will not allow myself to be the man hollowed by pain, afraid of shadows and those things which lie in waiting. Life may indeed only seem to take from us, days, memories, happiness, but courage is mine to give. And the source, it is immeasurably and unfathomably deep. It is unending. Through darkened spots and failing strength, the reason for courage remains.
For months following her death, I only prayed for God to piece back together the life I was forced from. So little did I know and perceive the beauty of his bridge building redemptive ability lies within the thinnest, most inescapable steps when I am invited to only follow and not need bearing or direction or understanding.
Each day, a decision. Choose wisely. Trust ridiculously. Step faithfully.
... A day forsaken is a day forgotten. So many want only to escape.