Deleting the Comma

My dad is the king of unusual and clever t-shirts.  I’m not exactly sure when and how it all began, but as he and my mom began to travel more extensively around the world, a t-shirt was often purchased at nearly each destination they visited.  Over the years, my dad’s wardrobe has boasted shirts from Norway, Greece, Panama, Hong Kong, and Egypt just to name a few.  But as my parents’ travels have slowed down, the creativity of my dad’s t-shirts have not.  My sister has taken t-shirt gift giving to a new level, often scouring the internet for just the right “dad shirt” for his birthday or Father’s Day.  One of my all-time favorite shirts to this day was one she purchased for him a few years ago.  (It was arguably my son Joe’s favorite as well, as it never failed to elicit a laugh from him.)   There’s nothing particularly fancy about the shirt – it’s a plain white tee with simplistic black lettering that reads,

“Let’s eat grandpa.”

“Let’s eat, grandpa.”

Punctuation saves lives.

Now, the shirt’s message is funny in and of itself, but even moreso if you know my dad’s affinity for precise grammar – a trait I have no doubt inherited myself.

It’s interesting how one little minute stroke of the pen, such as the comma, can completely change the meaning of a sentence, isn’t it?  And ironically, I have been discovering the difference a comma (or rather, the lack of a comma) has had upon my relationship with God.

I’ll confess that I have been struggling lately with the upcoming first anniversary of my son’s death.  And perhaps not for the reasons that would seem obvious.  You see, God has been and is doing an amazing new thing in a particular area of my life that I have been intentionally praying about.  While this is new and exciting and wonderful, my heart feels overwhelmingly guilty for having all these emotions when I think I should be feeling sadness and loss and pain.  These conflicting feelings became so burdensome to me lately that I brought up the issue to my counselor.  I said, “I feel like I should be more overwhelmed with sorrow at this particular point in my grief journey.  But yet, I can’t stop feeling gratitude and joy over what God is doing in my life.  How do I reconcile having these conflicting emotions?”

After acknowledging my feelings about both issues, he said two very generic words that put everything into a new perspective.  Those two words brought tears to my eyes and a deep understanding of the grace of God to my soul.  He simply smiled and said,

“But God.”

I’ve thought a lot about those two words and how I’ve frequently them over the years in my conversations with God.  They’ve sounded something like this:

“But God, I didn’t cause this!”

“But God, I feel so broken!”

“But God, I’m lonely!”

“But God, I’m tired of waiting!”

“But God, I didn’t choose this!”

“But God, I can’t lose my boy.  I’ve already lost so much!”

“But God, I won’t survive this!”

The list could go on and on. And every time I used a “But God” phrase, that little comma would sneak right in and put the focus on myself and my own personal sense of injustice in my life.  It was almost as if I was saying, “Listen, God.  You don’t seem to understand my plight and can’t possibly know what I’m walking through.  Let me lay it out for you.”  As if God didn’t see or know my heart better than I did.  So when my counselor said those two words, “But God”, it took me a second to realize there was no comma after it.  And when there was no comma, I began to figure out that the phrase “But God” had nothing to with me at all.  Instead, it had everything to do with God’s character and His action toward me.

I decided to scour Scriptures that used the “But God…” phrase and to my amazement, found more than 30 examples of those two words side by side that clearly describe who God is and what He’s done.  Here are some of my favorites:

“…but God intended it for good to accomplish what is now being done, the saving of many lives.”  ~Genesis 50:20

“…but God has surely listened and heard my prayer.” ~Psalm 66:19

“…but God is the strength of my heart and my portion forever.” ~Psalm 73:26

“But God made the earth by his power…” ~Jeremiah 10:12

“But God raised him from the dead…” ~ Acts 2:24

“But God was with him…” ~ Acts 7:9

“But God has helped me to this very day…” ~ Acts 26:22

“But God demonstrates His own love for us in this…” ~ Romans 5:8

“But God had mercy on him…to spare me sorrow upon sorrow.” ~ Philippians 2:27

“But (that) God loved us and sent His son as an atoning sacrifice for our sins. ” ~ 1 John 4:10

Did you notice that none of those passages contained a single comma after the name of God?  Because the comma’s purpose is to separate.  And when we continually interject the comma, we begin to separate ourselves from what God is doing in and lose trust in His plan for our lives.  But when we delete the comma, the focus is no longer on ourselves.  In grammatical terms, God is the subject and the rest of the sentence becomes the predicate – the action the subject did.  God becomes the focus and who He is and what He has done is what remains.  He makes.  He listens.  He helps.  He demonstrates. He has mercy.  He loves.  He sent.  He raises.

Perhaps the most meaningful passage for me today, as I reflect upon remember the day my son went home to heaven, is this:

BUT because of his great love for us, GOD, who is rich in mercy, made us alive with Christ even when we were dead in transgressions— it is by grace you have been saved. ~ Ephesians 2:4-5

It is that love, that mercy, and that grace that even a year later, I cling to and am overwhelmingly grateful for.  It is why there can be joy in the midst of sorrow.  Peace in the midst of sadness.  Hope in the midst of despair.  And happiness in new beginnings, even while acknowledging the pain of the past.

Happy heavenly birthday, my sweet boy.  I love you forever.

Joseph Alan Brinkman

April 23, 2002- September 5, 2016

JoeBW

 

 

 

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Moving Forward

One of my favorite childhood memories was going on summer vacations with my family. As a family of five, we couldn’t afford to fly, so we’d all pile into our Pontiac 5000 and travel cross-country to wherever our destination happened to be.  One year, we had a particularly long drive ahead of us, so my ingenious mother wrapped up little gifts for us to open each time we entered a new state to celebrate.  My siblings and I would pour over the atlas and count down the miles until we could open our next treasure.  I remember looking ahead down the seemingly endless interstate, thinking that once we crossed over a border, the scenery would magically change.  Or that perhaps, there would be some large definitive boundary line surrounding the entire state to mark the difference when crossing over from one to the next.  But as I soon learned, there was merely just a sign saying “Welcome to….”.  And that was it.  Not only was that a disappointment, but imagine my dismay when Iowa looked just like Nebraska.  And eastern California looked just like western Arizona.

Funny how it’s the same with age, too.  We go to bed one age.  We wake up a new age. And yet, there is nothing that really feels any different than the night before.  Nothing’s changed or newly significant.  (Well, unless your now old enough to drive or drink or rent a car.  After that, there’s not much to look forward to….except senior citizen discounts.  But I’m pretty OK with waiting for that age.)

So tonight I say goodbye to 41.  I’ve had a love/hate relationship with this age.  When I turned 41, I had a son who would tease me mercilessly about getting older.  I had a freshman in high school who was excited about his future.  I had two children to love and care for under my roof.  But 42? That age doesn’t have those things.  I keep asking myself, “How can I turn a new age without Joe here?”  I know I don’t have a choice in the matter, but knowing that I am forced to move forward to a new number while he remains forever 14 is too much for my heart to handle most days.

It’s difficult to see my son’s peers moving forward…growing taller, voices changing, starting school as sophomores, and getting learner’s permits.  It’s difficult to see my daughter moving forward….growing taller, developing a preteen hormonal attitude, and using Clearasil soap. (She’d be mortally embarrassed if she knew I wrote this, so let’s keep it on the DL.)  My nephew is starting Kindergarten soon and my niece now talks nonstop in complete sentences.  All around me life keeps moving forward, despite my wish for it not to. And yet, my boy remains forever frozen in earthly time. Never moving forward.

God has taught me a lot about what “moving forward” in grief looks like during these past ten months.  Moving forward doesn’t mean I have to wash the dirty glass that still sits by Joe’s computer.  Or that I need to take all of his clothes to Goodwill.  I don’t need to straighten the shoes that he carelessly tossed in the closet.  Nor do I need to dump the water from the bottle that I found in his backpack from the day before he died. And most surely, it doesn’t mean I’ll ever have to stop crying or expect my heart to be fully healed this side of heaven.

Instead, moving forward for me means celebrating just getting out of bed each day. Being sad when I need to be.  Knowing that taking two steps back doesn’t mean I’m not healing. Trusting God even when I still don’t get it.  Opening up to others about my grief.  Not trying to hold it all together.  Asking for help when I need it.  Staying close to God through His word and prayer.  But most importantly, moving forward means always remembering and talking about my precious son, no matter how much time has passed.

I know that waking up tomorrow won’t change much.  The end of 41 will look a lot like the beginning of 42.  No numerical line I cross will delineate one season from the next…the landscape is still the same. But little by little, day by day, God is slowly working to help me move forward.  Not move on from, but move forward. And I’m learning there is a BIG difference between the two.

For those of us walking this journey of grief, moving forward is so difficult because it means moving away from the time we’ve last seen our loved one.  But for the believer, it also means moving closer to the time when we will see them again.  And that is what we must chose to focus on.  Press on, my friends.  Keep moving.  It ain’t over yet.

I press on toward the goal to win the prize for which God has called 

me heavenward in Christ Jesus.

 ~Philippians 3:14

(Joe’s favorite singer, Toby Mac…we played this song at the end of his funeral.)

Letting Go

Every time I hear the song “Let It Go” from the movie Frozen, I can’t help but smile a little.  Not because of the song itself, but because of the memories associated with it. Memories of my daughter playing it on repeat in her room at loud volumes just to annoy her brother.  Hearing it on the car radio and belting it at the top of my lungs, just to drive Joe nuts.  Frequently breaking into chorus with Ella at any point in the day to watch my son run out of the room screaming.  Yes.  Those were some good times.

Perhaps then, it was rather fitting that for what would have been Joe’s 15th birthday, many family and friends gathered together at the cemetery to “let it go” – releasing blue balloons with Bible verses of hope.  It was a lovely scene, really, to watch all those balloons drift up and be carried away by the breeze. (Well, except for the dozen that flew into a nearby tree…but people need hope even at a cemetery, right???)  As they floated away, I turned my eyes to my 5-year-old nephew, still clutching the balloon he brought to release.  It was a beautiful birthday balloon, shiny with lots of colors and stars.  I’m sure he had picked it out himself.  He knew he had to let it go, yet you could see it in his face that he would have loved to keep it.  But after some gentle coaxing from his dad,  he opened his hand and let that beautiful, shiny balloon fly away.

I smiled to myself, watching that scene.  How often have I been holding on to what I thought was something so beautiful and perfect for me, when God was gently nudging me to let it go?  To release it to His care and divine plan?  There have been many things I have had to let go over the years…homes, jobs, churches I’ve attended, a marriage, friendships – and yes, even my own son.  And as much as I would like to shake my fist at God and remind Him of all that’s been taken from me, I can’t.  Because I’ve learned the simple truth that all of those things were never mine to begin with.  Not a single one.

I’ve been an expert at giving things to God over the years….and then taking them back when I feel I can handle them again.  However, walking through the grief of a child has changed my entire view of control.  The whole concept of “letting go” is actually a lot less scary than it used to be.  Perhaps because in death, you realize that you have absolutely zero control and that God is sovereign.  His plan and purposes won’t be stopped regardless of our best intentions or interference.  And maybe, it’s not so much about letting go as much as it is about surrendering.

Because when you surrender, you don’t just give up control. You hand it over to someone else.  

I’ve had to learn to hand it over.  It hasn’t come easily.  But with God’s gentle nudging, I’ve begun to surrender my hurt.  My relationships.  My finances. My future.  But most importantly, my heart.
I’ll be honest.  I had NO idea how much freedom there was in surrender!  Freedom to not worry about what others think of me. Freedom to not feel like I need to manipulate circumstances to work in my favor.  Freedom to trust that God has it all under control.  Freedom to live out HIS purposes for my life, whatever that looks like.

And all because God surrendered His own Son, so we could not only live in total freedom for Him, but one day, live in His eternal presence.

“It is for freedom, that Christ has set us free.”  ~ Galatians 5:1

And as Elsa so eloquently stated in that annoyingly beloved song, “The fears that once controlled me, can’t get to me at all.”

 

The Happiest Place

As a little girl growing up in Southern California in the late 70’s, I used to make frequent visits to Disneyland with my family.   The park was less than 15 miles away from our house and getting there was not nearly as complicated as it is today.  Not to mention, it was way before a day’s admission felt like you needed to take out a loan. Back in the day (now I’m really aging myself), one could simply park a car in the parking lot right in front of the entrance of Disneyland – no tram needed, walk into the park and purchase books of tickets for individual rides.  The “A” tickets were the cheapest at ten cents and were for rides like King Arthur’s Carousel and Sleeping Beauty’s Castle.  An “E” ticket was for something far more thrilling, like the Matterhorn and Haunted Mansion.  So we would come after dinner, ride an “A” ride or two, a “B” ride if we were lucky, and then go home.  (Thus, the secret to how we could afford to go to Disneyland every so often.)

I had so many happy memories from my childhood of my trips to Disneyland that years later, I wanted to experience that same joy from the perspective as a parent.  Back in 2005, I spent months prepping my three-year-old son with Disney books, songs, and movies, so he’d know all the characters by sight.  I wanted him to be prepared for his trip to The Happiest Place on Earth.

The day came and Joseph took it all in stride.  He patiently waited in a long line for his beloved Peter Pan ride, sang along as we rode on the Pirates of the Caribbean (even though he belted out “Heigh-Hooooo”, instead of “Yo-Ho”), and had enough energy for eight hours of non-stop fun before he crashed in the Tiki Room.  It was a great day.

There were other trips to Disneyland over the years.  But perhaps none as significant as last year.  You see, Joe got to spend his final birthday on earth with his best friend at The Happiest Place on Earth.  He had talked about the annual junior high choir/handbell trip to California for months.  It was the highlight of his entire school year.  For his birthday, I wrapped up things he could take on the bus ride there:  Flaming Hot Cheetos, Coke, Kit-Kats, a puzzle book, and of course, spending money.  It was the first time I wouldn’t get to be with Joe on his actual birthday.  But how could I be sad knowing he was ecstatic to be going to his happiest place?  I remember him calling me on the phone that April 23 from Disneyland to check in with me – and so that I could sing Happy Birthday to him.  He was so happy.  And that made my heart happy, too.  And a little sad for not being there to share those birthday memories with him.

And now, a year later…life is so incredibly different in many ways.  Except one.

This year, my son isn’t just at The Happiest Place on Earth.  He’s in THE Happiest Place.  Period. And knowing he’s happier now than this world could ever make him does bring joy to this sad mama’s heart today.  I want to be there with him.  More than anything most days.  But I can’t.

What brings comfort to my heart, though, is this:  I know Joe was prepared for this trip he left for seven and a half months ago…not with food or movies, but with the things that mattered in this life.  The prayers we prayed together.  The devotions we would read at night snuggled up in his bed.  The many church services we went to together.  The tearful conversations we had about forgiveness and love.  The years of a Christian education and learning Scripture verses. The community of people who loved on my son and were models of Christian love.  But ultimately, with the grace of our loving Savior.

Today is one of those dichotomous days.  Celebrating and mourning.  Life and loss.  Happy and sad.  Laughter and tears.  The “year of firsts” continues.  Some days, like today,  are harder than others.  But each one brings me closer to being with my boy in The Happiest Place ever.

“Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth, for the first heaven and earth had passed away and there was no longer any sea.  I saw the holy city, the New Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride beautifully dressed for her husband.  And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, “Now the dwelling of God is with men, and He will live with them.  They will be His people, and God himself will be with them and be their God.  He will wipe every tear from their eyes.  There will be no more death or mourning or crying or pain, for the old order of things has passed away.”

~Revelation 21:1-4