Living Brokenhearted

Nearly four years ago, I walked into a room at a local church, signed my name to the roster, and sat down at an empty table.  I didn’t know anyone, which was the way I preferred it to be.  I didn’t even really want to be there, but deep down I knew I needed to be.  DivorceCare class.  It was one of those surreal moments you find yourself in and completely overwhelmed by.  This was a class for other people. Surely not me.

I was still in a great deal of shock over what had transpired just weeks prior.  As I sat at the table looking around at the weary, distraught faces around me, my eyes wandered to the whiteboard in the front of the room.  The instructor had written a Bible verse on the board.

“The Lord is close to the brokenhearted and saves those who are crushed in spirit.” – Psalm 34:18

I wasn’t sure how I had lived over 37 years of life not knowing that verse.  Tears immediately began to fill my eyes, because if there ever was a description of me, this was it.   Brokenhearted.  Crushed in spirit.

That verse became very personal to me over the years.  It not only brought me comfort, but it was a verse I often shared with others who were going through challenging times.  And now recently, that passage has come back into the light and is one I cling to in the wake of my son’s death.  But for a different reason now than before.

You see, while I had my Bible open to this very verse the other week, my eyes locked in on “brokenhearted” and “crushed in spirit”, as it had so many times.  I closed my eyes and whispered, “God.  I am so weary from being these things far too often.”  And in the stillness, God whispered back, “This verse isn’t about you.  Look what I am doing!”  Huh?  I opened my eyes and read with fresh eyes….

THE LORD IS NEAR.  HE SAVES.

It was like being hit with a spiritual 2 x 4.  This passage was not about my current emotional state, but about God and HIS action.  HIS movement towards me.  HIS love and desire to save me.

How many times times have we had the spotlight on ourselves and our suffering instead of what God is doing in the midst of it?   If you’re anything like me, it’s far too often.  Even when my heart is broken for those around me – and there are so many walking through the darkest of valleys- I tend to focus on their state of grief and sadness.

But, friends, let me encourage you today as much as I encourage myself with these words.  We have a God who sees our broken hearts,  our crushed spirits.  And He doesn’t sit by idly.  He moves closer.  Our hearts are broken.  There is no doubt of that.  But that’s not the end of our story.  God loves us so incredibly much that sent HIS Son to save us, so that by His grace, we will not have to live brokenhearted forever.  Our hearts will be made whole again in the presence of our Savior.  Eternally.

So do not read the words of the psalmist and weep.  Read them and rejoice!

“The Lord is close to the brokenhearted and saves those who are crushed in spirit.”

 

 

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Dichotomous

There are a handful of words I love to say just for the sake of hearing them.  Words that make me feel smart when they roll off my tongue.  Like onomatopoeia.  Monotonous.  Discombobulate. Octogenarian. Antidisestablishmentarianism.  But my favorite, as of late, isn’t quite as long as that.  It’s….

Dichotomous.

I don’t get to use that word much in my current profession of being a Kindergarten teacher.  However, it’s one I’ve found to be particularly relevant when it comes to describing how I’m walking through this journey of grief.  To most outside observers, it would appear that I’m surviving just fine.  But there is an inner struggle between polar opposite feelings on a daily, sometimes hourly basis.

Sadness and joy.   Anxiety and peace.  Despair and hope.

There is overwhelming sadness when I look at the empty passenger seat beside me as I’m driving, wishing there was once again a 14-year-old boy constantly changing the radio station.  And yet, there is overwhelming joy when I think about that same boy singing with the saints around the throne of God.  There’s anxiety each morning when I wake up and wonder how I’ll even get dressed and survive another day.  But as I manage a class of 20 Kindergartners with calmness and patience, I can feel God’s spirit of peace present.  Then there’s the long term.  I don’t know how long I’ll have to live on this earth before I’ll see my son again.  And some days, it almost feels disparaging.  Almost.  But then God fills me with hope and longing for the coming of His Son again like I never have felt before.

I’ve joined a small handful of Facebook groups for grieving parents – some are Christian, some are not.  Let me tell you, there is a marked difference between these two groups that come down to one word:

HOPE.

For the nonbeliever, hope is minimal at best.  There’s an abundance anger, sadness, despair, grief, and hopelessness.  The believer also experiences some of those feelings to a degree.  But for those who are in Christ, hopelessness is not part of the equation.  If there was no  hope that one day I would see Joseph again, I surely would not be able to walk through this life.  It’s hope that puts my feet on the floor to walk through another day.  How true it is when Paul writes in 1 Thessalonians, “Brothers and sisters, we do not want you to be uninformed about those who sleep in death, so that you do not grieve like the rest of mankind, who have no hope. For we believe that Jesus died and rose again, and so we believe that God will bring with Jesus those who have fallen asleep in him. According to the Lord’s word, we tell you that we who are still alive, who are left until the coming of the Lord, will certainly not precede those who have fallen asleep.  For the Lord himself will come down from heaven, with a loud command, with the voice of the archangel and with the trumpet call of God,and the dead in Christ will rise first.  After that, we who are still alive and are left will be caught up together with them in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air. And so we will be with the Lord forever. Therefore encourage one another with these words.”

Hope is not merely a wish.  It’s believing in the promises of God as absolute truth.

Last week, my daughter and I were in St. Louis visiting my sister.  We went to a nearby park to get some exercise and preliminarily (now THAT’S a fun word too…) burn off New Year’s Eve calories.  It was thrilling for us desert folk to see so many leaves on the ground, albeit brown and dead.  I loved seeing Ella’s face as she crunched through those leaves in her boots.  And as she grabbed a handful of them and flung them into the air, I couldn’t help but think of that word:  dichotomous.  Here we were surrounded by dead leaves and bare trees…and yet experiencing joy in the midst of it.

That sums up the journey of grief.  We are surrounded by it.  We walk in the midst of it every day.  But there are moments of joy in the journey.  Moments where we take what’s been given us and throw our hands up to the sky in praise to our Creator, knowing the leaves won’t always be brown.  The trees won’t always be bare.  New life is around the corner.  We rejoice in that truth.  That promise.  That HOPE.

 

Resolved

I’ve been trying to figure out for a while now how exactly I feel about the end of 2016.  I don’t think anyone who knows me would disagree that 2016 wasn’t my best year.  Not by a long shot.  As I reflect back, though, 2016 wasn’t all bad either.  There were a lot of happy memories:  Joe’s 8th grade graduation, a summer full of swimming in the backyard, family game nights, an unforgettable day of riding crazy roller coasters in California with my two kids.  So while it’s true that the last few months of this year have been extremely challenging and emotionally exhausting, 2016 does have something that 2017 does not:  memories of my sweet boy alive.  I guess it’s no wonder then, with just a few short hours to go until a new calendar year begins, that part of me wants to hang on to this year and not let go.

A friend asked me yesterday if I had any New Year’s resolutions.  To be honest, I hadn’t really thought about it all; it’s been years since I’ve made any.  So to answer the question, I wittingly replied, “To survive.” Because that’s what every day, every hour feels like:  survival.  But then, as God always does in His perfect timing, He brought something to my mind that I had forgotten.  Something He knew I wasn’t ready to mentally handle or process until now.

You see, the day we met the director at the funeral home was the day Joe’s body had arrived there.  I had already spent three agonizing days without him.  Towards the end of our meeting I had an overwhelming feeling of wanting to be near him one last time.  The director graciously set up a private room for us to be in, even though he explained Joe’s body would be covered with a quilt.  I didn’t care.  Every fiber of my being was longing to be next to him.  As I walked into that empty parlor room, I knew I had done a thousand hard things in my life…but this one would just about top the list.  I forced my feet to keep moving until I crossed the room.  Kneeling on the floor beside Joe’s body, I laid a hand on top of the quilt.  Tears began to pour down my face.  I can’t share everything I felt, thought or said in those next few minutes.  But as I was on my knees, crying out to God for strength to bear this terrible burden, I looked up.  There on the wall above where Joe’s body lay was a simple wooden cross.  I stared at that cross for a long time.  Something was welling up inside me…a deep conviction of what God was going to do with me through this tragedy.  All of a sudden that deep sadness was gone.  And in its place was a fierceness to be bold in my love for the God who had brought my baby to his eternal home.  Right then and there, I spoke words aloud to God that I would not stop declaring what He had done in my life.  I would not quit making His name known.  I would be confident to step out in faith.  Because I knew that was the best way to honor the life Joe led.

I left that room…..resolved.  

So perhaps I do have a New Year’s resolution after all.  And not just one for 2017, but for the rest of my days:  to live a life passionately for Christ until I am reunited with all those who have gone before.  And now that I think about, it’s ironic that my resolution just happens to be the chorus of one of Joe’s favorite Toby Mac songs.

‘Til the wheels fall off

‘Til the spotlight fades

I will lift your banner high

I will lift your banner high.

And ’til the walls crash in

For the rest of my days

I’ll lay it all on the line

‘Till the day I die.

Colossians 1:

24 Now I rejoice in what I am suffering for you, and I fill up in my flesh what is still lacking in regard to Christ’s afflictions, for the sake of his body, which is the church. 25 I have become its servant by the commission God gave me to present to you the word of God in its fullness— 26 the mystery that has been kept hidden for ages and generations, but is now disclosed to the Lord’s people. 27 To them God has chosen to make known among the Gentiles the glorious riches of this mystery, which is Christ in you, the hope of glory.

28 He is the one we proclaim, admonishing and teaching everyone with all wisdom, so that we may present everyone fully mature in Christ. 29 To this end I strenuously contend with all the energy Christ so powerfully works in me.

Great Expectations

If you had asked me a year ago what I thought I’d be doing this Christmas, I wouldn’t have guessed that going to the cemetery would be one of them.  Or picking out a Merry Christmas balloon for my son’s grave.  But there I was this morning, in hand, with the balloon.  At the cemetery.  On Christmas morning.  Alone.

Every year at Christmas time, I look back to the year before and marvel at how far God had brought us.  I would look forward with expectation to the next Christmas to see where God would take us.  And hope that the brokenness of years past would somehow be redeemed.

It wasn’t so long ago that Christmas was filled with church services, children excited for Santa to come, and the busyness of being a family of four.  Then 2012 came and left us reeling.  It wasn’t at all what we expected.  Christmas changed. Children were now shared.  Holidays were split. New memories and traditions had to be formed.  But we survived.

And now 2016…a year of unbelievable and most certainly unexpected loss.  Loss that leaves me gasping for air some days.  Loss that doesn’t want to look back to last year, because there was joy in waking up with my kids on Christmas morning.  Loss that doesn’t want to look ahead, because maybe next year will be worse.  This is not how life was supposed to be.  

And therein, lies the crux of so many of my problems.  Expectations vs. Reality.   Or perhaps….God’s plans vs. My plans.  

The Christmas story is full of UNexpectation, isn’t it?  Angel sightings, a 14-year-old virgin impregnated by the Holy Spirit, lowly shepherds being the first to hear the news, a crude barn for the King of Kings.  Yet, people had been expecting Jesus for literally thousands of years!  Perhaps He just didn’t come the way people expected He would.  But it was God’s plan.  All of it, down to the last detail.  

Reality better than expectation.  

God’s plan was better than any we could have thought up on our own.  Because that plan was to send a perfect baby, His son, into this sinful world.  His plan was to have Jesus grow up, fulfill all the Scriptures and become the sacrifice on our behalf.  To save us.  To ensure that we would never be separated from Him for eternity.  To give hope to those who grieve.  To those whose life didn’t turn out the way they thought.  And even to those who bring a balloon to their son’s grave on Christmas morning.  

So now we, like the people of Israel did long ago, wait with great expectation that Jesus will come again as He promised.  That longing is so deep in my heart on a day like today.  I don’t know what I can expect for next year or the year after or really any day I live on this earth.  But I do expect God’s plan will be better than my own.  And that His promises of peace, comfort, rest, hope, and salvation are mine forever.  I can’t think of better gifts to receive this year.  

 

Come, thou long expected Jesus

Born to set Thy people free

From our fears and sins release us

Let us find our rest in Thee

Israel’s strength and consolation

Hope to all the earth Thou art

Dear desire of ev’ry nation

Joy of ev’ry longing heart!

Born Thy people to deliver

Born a child and yet a King

Born to reign in us forever

Now Thy gracious kingdom bring

By Thine own eternal spirit

Rule in all our hearts alone

By Thine own sufficient merit

Raise us to Thy glorious throne.

The Toilet on the Sidewalk

It was a night like any other.  Except it wasn’t.  Because nothing was the same anymore.  It was a night of trying to adjust to a new normal, which never would really be normal again.  

It was a month after Joe died, and I was trying to get into the habit of going for a short walk after dinner.  I knew exercise was good, almost necessary for me.  And it was hard to be in the house with pictures and memories.  I needed time to process the day, reflect on life, cope with this new reality life had thrown at me.  It was also my time to spend alone with God and connect with Him.  I plugged the tangled headphones into my iPhone, found my favorite Pandora station and set off around the block.  As I settled into my reflective gait, my head was down, always looking just at the two or three feet in front of me.  And perhaps that’s why I didn’t see it coming until I was nearly upon it.  

A toilet.  Directly in front of me.  Blocking my path.  

It wasn’t off to the side in the grass.  It wasn’t facing away from me. It was dead center in the middle of the sidewalk, as if it were looking straight at me.  Challenging me.  Mocking me.  Daring me to pass.  Interrupting my perfectly peaceful walk of solitude.

I stared at that toilet for a while.  I had seen a lot of odd things in my pseudo-ghetto neighborhood over the months:  mattresses piled in the yard, broken chairs, dilapidated couches, outdated TVs on the edge of the lawn.  Even a larger-than-life green and white-striped chair next to a wooden moose.  But a toilet?  And let alone, one blocking my path.  It was absolutely ridiculous!  

And yet, here I was, frozen.  My eyes transfixed on this newest eyesore of the block.  I must have stood there for a good minute just looking in disbelief at what was in front of me.

I did eventually step to the side and pass that toilet.  I mean, what choice did I have?  To stare at it all night? That would be a waste of time.  To turn around and go back?  That wouldn’t really accomplish my goal of continuing my peaceful walk, would it?  I had to pass it to get on with what I set out to do.  

And there, transfixed by the toilet, it hit me.

Life had thrown me for a loop.  It had put me on a path I never wanted to walk.  And for lack of a better analogy, it had placed a toilet on the sidewalk of my life.  It was certainly not what I had expected and it was the last thing I had wanted.  I had truly experienced the ultimate crap (or whatever word you’d prefer to use) of life.  My baby boy was gone.  In an instant.  A mother’s worst nightmare realized.

And I was faced with a choice.  I could stay frozen in my path, focusing on the horrors of my son’s death. I’ve relived it in my mind more times than I care to say.  I could turn around, turn my back on the path God chose for me.  Or I can step to the side and continue to walk.  Continue to worship.  Continue on the path with God to the destination He has called me to.

I don’t know what’s ahead on the path, but I will tell you this with everything in me:  I trust in the sovereignty of God.  I trust in HIS power.  HIS grace.  HIS strength.  HIS plan.  

We all have a “toilet” in life, don’t we?  Something we didn’t see coming, something we didn’t plan on happening.  Something we wish were different in life.  But we don’t need to stay stuck in that reality.  We can chose to, by God’s help, get off “our” path and move forward.  Keep fighting the fight.  Keep running the race of the Christian life.  This is what Paul described in Hebrews when he said, “Therefore, since we are surrounded by such a great cloud of witnesses, let us throw off everything that hinders and the sin that so easily entangles. And let us run with perseverance the race marked out for us,  fixing our eyes on Jesus, the pioneer and perfecter of faith.”

My translation?  Take your eyes off the toilet and put them on God.  He knows the path.  He sees what’s ahead.  He’s making a way.  He’s already there.  And even when it feels like there’s no good that can come from it, God will make something beautiful out of the crap of your toilet.