Shared Custody

From the time she was ten months old, my daughter has made it known that she is a fiercely independent lady. I distinctly remember the day I opened up the jar of mashed-up carrots to feed her lunch and as soon as the spoon came within reach, she’d grab it out of my hands and attempt to feed herself.  It didn’t matter that she didn’t developmentally possess the hand-eye coordination to put the spoon into her mouth. She only knew that she didn’t want any part in me feeding her anymore. She was going to do it herself. At two, when she couldn’t reach something, she’d just climb a chair or some other piece of furniture to get what she wanted. At five, she’d ask if I could just drop her off at a party instead of staying like all the other moms.  So it wasn’t much of a surprise that the other day, at age 12, my independent tween got on a plane by herself and flew back to Phoenix without batting an eyelash. (Meanwhile, I struggled not to break down like a complete train wreck in the airport terminal.)

As I walked back out to my car, I thought about all those times when I had to “let go” of that sweet girl.  When she took her first steps. When she started daycare. When she learned to ride a bike without training wheels. When she had her first sleepover.  But perhaps one of the hardest “letting go” moments has had to do with that “C” word all divorced parents know well: custody. Custody meant no more tucking my kids in bed every night.  It meant not having them each Christmas. Or Thanksgiving. Or Easter. It meant a lot of back and forth and packing and things falling through the cracks. It meant sharing when I didn’t want to share.  It meant letting go before I was ready to let go – a concept I’m familiar with all too well. You see, when my son went to be with Jesus, I wasn’t ready to share him yet. I wasn’t ready to let go. I wanted full-time custody of my son on earth for more than just 14 years.

But when those days of entitlement-driven thoughts come, I have to continually remind myself of one key truth:  Joe wasn’t really mine to begin with. He was, is, and forever will be the Lord’s.   Not only was he created by the God of the universe, but more importantly, he was made His child through the waters of baptism.

“But now thus says the Lord, he who created you, O Jacob, he who formed you, O Israel: ‘Fear not, for I have redeemed you; I have called you by name, you are mine.’ ~ Isaiah 43:1  

From the moment he was baptized, Joe belonged to the Lord.  It wasn’t that I gave up custody or decided to share my custody of Joe with God.  Because it wasn’t me that did the sharing.  It was God who shared my son with me. I like to think of it this way:  God and I had shared custody of Joe while he lived on this earth. But as soon as he breathed his last, God took over full-time custody of Joe forever.  

And not only did God share my son with me….He shared HIS Son with me.  And with you. And with the entirety of mankind.  You see, there’s a completely different custody situation to consider when it comes to our relationship with Jesus. While we often define custody as “guardianship or care of another person”, custody can also be defined as “imprisonment”  – which was our reality before Christ came to redeem us.  We were prisoners to the law and, consequently, to our own sin. Paul describes it as this:

“Before the coming of this faith, we were held in custody under the law, locked up until the faith that was to come would be revealed. So the law was our guardian until Christ came that we might be justified by faith. Now that this faith has come, we are no longer under a guardian.  So in Christ Jesus you are all children of God through faith, for all of you who were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ.” ~ Galatians 3:23-27

There is so much peace, so much comfort, so much hope in these words! No longer are we justified by the law, which we could not keep perfectly.  But Jesus could and He DID – and by doing so, freed us from the imprisonment of sin. He redeemed us and set us free. We are now saved by His grace and are His children through faith. FOREVER!

For one of my children, this is already a reality.  As for my other headstrong, independent child, she is still just as much a child of God while here on this earth as is her brother in heaven.  And while I pray that God grants me many more “letting go” moments with her, I pray even more that she would always be in the loving custody of her heavenly Father.  May we surrender all those we love to our all-loving God!

 

 

 

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A Mary Christmas to You

When I used to teach first grade, one of the best parts was introducing the kids to listening to chapter books read aloud.  One of our favorite series was the mysteries of Cam Jansen, the fifth-grade girl detective.  Cam, short for “Camera” had a photographic memory and would often use the pictures she had taken in her mind to solve whatever mystery was at hand.  Several times throughout the story, Cam would happen upon a scene, close her eyes and say, “Click!” And the image would stay in her mind until she needed to retrieve it.

Whether or not you claim to have a photographic memory, chances are you can go back in your mind to any significant life event and remember some memory, some scene, some feeling about that moment.  A surprise birthday party…click!  A fun family vacation…click!  Graduation…click!  Your wedding day…click!  Having a child…click!  But life isn’t just a series of fun and exciting events.  Even the difficult memories get recorded in our minds, too.  A cancer diagnosis….click.  A spouse walking out the door…click.  A rebellious child breaking the rules yet again…click.  The loss of someone you love…click.  Unfortunately, we don’t get to always choose the things our mind remembers.

Since my son passed away last year, my memory has taken a significant beating.  I thought perhaps it was just my own experience, but it actually is a proven scientific fact that memory impairment is a result of grief.  Many others who walk the road of loss would attest to this as well.  As my brain is now starting to be able to handle and process information better than it could a year ago, I feel a little like Cam Jansen, consciously and deliberately trying hard to remember events and moments as they happen.

So perhaps it is no surprise that this Christmas season, I’ve been drawn to one particular verse from the account of Luke 2.

  “But Mary treasured up all these things and pondered them in her heart.”

I don’t know exactly all the things Mary remembered and thought about from that night Jesus was born.  Maybe it was the sweet, soft skin of a newborn baby…click.  The sound of a heavenly angel choir in a nearby field….click.  Or perhaps it was the sight of shepherds coming to bow down and worship the long-awaited Savior that had finally come to this earth…click.  Those are all lovely and amazing memories, for sure.  But we also know that first Christmas was anything but picturesque.  Mary most certainly remembered the tough parts, too.  Being turned away time and time again from finding shelter…click.  The animal sounds and smells surrounding her as she labored to give birth…click.  The loneliness of having a baby with no family around…click.  The uncertainty of what her future meant as the mother of Jesus…click.

But Mary didn’t have a selective memory.  She remembered it ALL.  The good.  The bad.  And most certainly, the incredibly difficult.  And not only did she remember it.  She treasured it.  Mary, despite her circumstances, takes it all in and counts it as treasure.  A gift.

And so my focus this season has been to have a Mary kind of Christmas.  The kind of Christmas where my mind and heart stops at the wonderful, the simple, and the not-so-easy and pauses to say, “click”, without my iPhone in hand.  To treasure those moments, to keep them in my heart, and to count each one as a gift.  All of it.  Singing “Silent Night” by candlelight in church next to my beautiful daughter….click.  Taking in the awe-inspiring colors of a sunset hike on Christmas Eve…click.  Only filling one child’s stocking…click.  Sitting at my son’s grave with a poinsettia in hand…click.

Like Mary, I want to treasure all these things.  These feelings.  These moments.  They remind me that life can be joyous and yet life can also be terribly hard some days.  They remind me of how precious everyday life is.  They remind me there is so much more beyond this earthly life and its temporary joys and sadness.  But most of all, they remind me there is hope of a future with God forever, because of the gift that He gave at Christmas in His own Son, Jesus.  And that truly is the greatest treasure to not only keep in my heart, but to share with the world.

May you have that same Mary kind of Christmas.

 

 

 

 

 

What I Didn’t Deserve

In 1971, McDonald’s came out with one of the most successful advertising jingles in commercial history.  If you’re from my generation (Gen X or earlier), you’ll remember it:  “You deserve a break today, so get out and get away to McDonald’s…”  The concept of  “deserving a break” at Micky D’s continued throughout the 70’s and most of the 80’s.  McDonald’s wasn’t the only company to get consumers to feel they were deserving of some better product or idea.  From diet fads claiming to give you the “body you deserve” to self-help books promising to give you the wealthy, happy future you deserve, we consumers started to believe that we were actually entitled to these things.  Even President Obama in his final State of the Union address declared that “We deserve good things from Washington.”

Not only does the outside world feed us the belief we are somehow more deserving of greatness, but we do the same thing in our own minds, don’t we?  Maybe we’ve had a rough day at work and we feel we deserve that glass of wine.  Or we’ve completed a hard workout and we tell ourselves we deserve that In-N-Out burger and fries. (I may or may not be speaking from personal experience here.)  Maybe our kids are driving us nuts and we deserve a night out or that weekend getaway.  And slowly, we begin to think – or rather even believe – that enduring tough circumstances in life, whether great or small, earns us something better, something we believe we need.

Or maybe we think that doing something good means we deserve something good in return.  We work hard at our job and we deserve that raise.  We’ve lost a few pounds and deserve a new outfit. We’ve poured time and energy into a relationship and we deserve the same in return.  We’ve done our best to raise healthy, happy children and we deserve their love, respect, and obedience.  Right?

I’m not sure why the concept of “deservedness” has been bothering me lately.  Perhaps because I’ve recently been the recipient of comments about something incredibly positive in my life such as, “I’m so happy for you!  You deserve it!”  or “If there’s anyone who deserves this, it’s you!”  While a small part of me is tempted to respond with, “I know, right?”, the majority of me is wondering why I would be considered deserving of such happiness in someone else’s eyes. Did walking through brutally difficult circumstances in life earn me this happiness?

Let me say this with 100% assurance:  Not. One. Bit.

You see, I’ve concluded that there are two veins of thought to be had on this topic of “deservedness”.  And it all comes down to whether you believe you are in control of your life or if you believe God is in control of your life.

When you believe you are in control of things, your thinking may be something like this: “I did this good thing; therefore, I deserve something good in return.” or “I don’t deserve this bad thing because of the good I’ve done.”  Either way, both avenues of thought breed a sense of entitlement.   And friends, I have been there too many times.  Shouting at God that I did not deserve what had happened to me.   And I’m sure you have, too.  It’s the age-old question we are constantly trying to answer of “Why do bad things happen to good people?”

Let me break it down for you:  there is no “good” person on this planet (which completely invalidates the above statement, but I digress).  Not me, not you, not Mother Teresa, the Pope, or anyone else who has ever walked this earth or who ever will.  We are all sinners.  And we all fall short of the glory of God (Romans 3:23).  There is nothing “deserving” about us.  We have earned NO GOOD THING in this life.

“He repays everyone for what they have done;  He brings on them what their conduct DESERVES.”  ~ Job 34:11 

You and I deserve nothing.  Well….almost nothing.  Because we all sin and fall short, we do deserve something:  eternal death and separation from God.  But here’s the crazy part.  Psalm 103:10 says,

“He does not treat us as our sins DESERVE or repay us according to our iniquities.”

I don’t know about you, but is that verse not the best news EVER???  That’s a game changer for our lives!  What’s even CRAZIER is that the only person who didn’t deserve death is the sinless One who died for us.  Even Pilate said during Jesus’ trial, “He has done nothing to deserve death.” (Luke 23:15)  The criminal who hung on the cross with Jesus also recognized this.  “We are punished justly, for we are getting what our deeds deserve.  But this man has done nothing wrong.” (v. 41)  But perhaps Timothy puts it best:

Here is a trustworthy saying that DESERVES full acceptance: Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners—of whom I am the worst.  But for that very reason I was shown mercy so that in me, the worst of sinners, Christ Jesus might display his immense patience as an example for those who would believe in him and receive eternal life.”  ~ 1 Timothy 1:15-16

When you begin to understand that God is ultimately the one in control, and has been since the beginning of time, you realize that the word “deserving” has no part in what has happened in your life, good OR bad.  The “bad things” are a result of living in a sinful world.  And the “good things” are a simply a result of having a loving, merciful God.  You start to realize that God is the same yesterday, today, and forever – independent of our positive and negative circumstances.  He already gave us what we didn’t deserve – eternal life – because of who He IS.  Not because of who we are or what we’ve done.  But because of what His son did for US.

As I stood at my 14-year-old son’s grave yesterday, those little twinges of “I don’t deserve to be standing here” came creeping up again, ready to give way to a full-blown pity party.  But as I read Joe’s favorite verse engraved on his marker, as I have done so many times, my eyes were opened to an amazing undeservedness of God’s love.

How great is the (undeserved) love the Father has lavished on us, that we should (undeservedly) be called children of God.  And that (even though we didn’t deserve it) is what we are!  ~ 1 John 3:1

Ok, so maybe I added a few extra words that weren’t there….but it turned my near pity party into feelings of incredible gratitude for what Christ did for me.  For my son.  And for each one of us who believes in the underserved love of God.

 

A Dream Come True

I’ve always been a dreamer.  Not the wistful-for-the-future kind of dreamer.  (OK, I’m a bit of that,too.)  But an actual while-you-sleep dreamer.  I dream in vivid color and extreme detail nearly every night, as if a movie were playing in my head.  In fact, I’ve often thought that if my dreams could be scripted and acted out, I could actually become famous for original movie plots.  That or be committed to a mental institution.

My dreams aren’t usually too significant or meaningful, but last night’s dream about seeing my son prompted me to write this blog and share what I experienced nearly a year ago.  And not just because my grieving mama’s heart needs an outlet.  But I believe there is a simplistic significance to why God gave me one incredible dream that I’ve shared with only a small circle of people.

I’ve had a handful of dreams about Joe in the last year.  Some are mundane in terms of content, but waking up from those dreams brings such a peace and comfort to my broken heart.  I miss my son terribly.  I long to see him more than anything.  And getting to see Joe again, alive and smiling – even though it’s just in a dream – is a true gift.

I remember in the weeks that followed Joe’s death, friends and family would often share that they had had a dream about my son.  Although I know they meant it as a comfort to me, it hurt to know that God was giving other people dreams about my son.  And not giving them to me.  I was angry at God.  Why couldn’t I see my child?  I begged God for weeks to see Joe.  And I waited.  And waited.

While I waited, I found myself seeking out grieving parent groups online and immersing myself in the posts and conversations.  Just the fact that there were other mothers experiencing what I was going through brought some comfort….to a degree.  These stories, posts, and blogs dominated my newsfeed day and night.  And because these were not necessarily Christian viewpoints, they were often times depressing.  Overwhelming.  Hopeless.

And then God intervened.  God finally answered that prayer and longing I had to see my son in a powerful dream.

My dream began in a mountainous European-type village, where its residents wore clothing from perhaps a different century, which seemed rather charming.  I wasn’t from there, but rather a visitor roaming the streets, fascinated with a people whose ways were almost storybook-like.  I found myself coming to an overlook of the town square, where a large clock stood in the center.  As I admired the craftsmanship of the clock, I realized it wasn’t moving at all.  And that it hadn’t been for quite some time.  This seemed to explain the villagers’ antiquated ways.  I felt a sense of urgency to tell the townspeople they were stuck in time.  I ran to the town hall as fast as I could, where I found everyone had gathered for a meeting.  I began to shout that the town clock was broken, that the people were stuck in time and the world around them had moved forward significantly.  They looked at me with disbelief and were about to throw me out when suddenly, the roof of the town hall began to peel away.

The villagers looked up in shock and horror.  But in my heart I knew what was happening.  Jesus was returning!  I shouted, “It’s Jesus!  He’s coming back!  He’s here!” The villagers looked at me bewildered.  I knew Jesus was going to take me home and that was thrilling beyond my wildest dreams.  But there was a sadness, too, in knowing that for the villagers who didn’t believe, it was too late.

The next thing I knew, I was on some type of a flying carpet or rug, side-by-side with Jesus Himself, soaring through the sky.  I knew where we were going and the sights I saw, I cannot even begin to describe in words.  Majestic, awe-inspiring, magnificent….those words don’t even come close to doing the views justice.  There were mountains higher than I’d even seen and a beauty that was unparalleled with any sight I’ve seen on this earth.

We flew to the top of a large plateau and I stepped off the rug.  I looked at Jesus, unsure of what I was supposed to do now and with the voice of complete love and gentleness, He said these two words:  “Call him.”  And then I knew.  I knew I was going to see Joe again.  I looked out across the plateau and saw two large rocks forming an entrance to somewhere I knew I couldn’t go.  I yelled out, “Joe!  Joe!”  And between those two large rocks, my baby boy came running towards me at full speed.  Healed.  Whole.  Full of joy.  I knew in that moment that I was dreaming, but I silently prayed to let the dream continue so that I could not just see Joe, but feel him in my arms.  And for the first time even in a dream, I could actually feel physical touch.  And it was the most amazing feeling!

I wept as I told Joe how much I missed him and how much I loved him.  He smiled at me and said “I know, Mom.  But heaven is amazing!” I pleaded for him to stay a little longer.  I had so much to tell him! But he replied, ” I can’t stay.  I have to go.  I’ll see you soon!”    And with those words he bounded away, running back towards those rocks, never once looking back.

I looked at Jesus and He held His hand out to me to get back on the rug.  “You can’t stay.  You need to go back, ” he told me with eyes full of love.

And then I woke up.  Grateful.  At peace.  And blown away by what God had just done.

I have thought about that dream countless times and what a gift it was to me.  And I was stuck there for a long time until recently.  What if that dream was a gift not just for me, but for others as well?  Sometimes I try to apply deep, meaningful, complicated interpretations to my dreams.  But maybe there is a very simplistic message here.  And it’s this:

Jesus is coming back.  It will happen.  I believe that with all my heart.  And not just because I dreamt it, but because Jesus has promised it.   The only way you and I are going to be on that magic carpet ride to heaven is through Christ.  Jesus’ death and resurrection is the vehicle there.  Nothing else.  No one else.  Not you.  Not me.  Just God’s grace and our faith in that grace.  Period.

“I am the gate; whoever enters through Me will be saved.” ~ John 10:9

“I am the resurrection and the life.  The one who believes in me will live, even though they die…” ~ John 11:25

“I am the way and the truth and life.  No one comes to the Father except through Me.” ~John 14:6

This truth is why I teach little kids about Jesus for my job.  It’s why I write these blogs.  It’s why I have the strength to get out of bed every day and keep living life.  Because there is still work to do.  More hearts to win for Christ.   There are still villagers out there who still do not know the love of Jesus.  More people who are “stuck” in whatever it is they face, whether it be sickness or cancer or divorce or depression or anxiety or grief or ANYTHING.  My heart desperately wants them to know that NOTHING can separate them from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus.

I pray if you are “stuck”, that the love and peace of Jesus would touch your heart in such a way that you would know how deep and high and wide His love is for you.  That you would believe with all your heart, that Jesus died for YOU, rose for YOU, and wants YOU in His kingdom for eternity.  And if you already believe this, my prayer is that you would passionately share the love of Christ with those who do not yet believe.

When I was in college choir, we always ended every concert with a song written by Paul Manz called, “E’en So, Lord Jesus”.  The song ended with a description of the day we will be with Jesus for eternity:

“E’en so Lord Jesus, quickly come and night shall be no more.

They need no light, nor lamp nor sun.  For Christ will be their all.”

And that day, my friends, will be a real dream come true.

 

 

When it’s Not Always Well

In 1873, Horatio Spafford put his wife and four daughters aboard a ship traveling from the United States to Europe, with the intention of following them a few days later for a family vacation.  The Saffords had already suffered the death of their young son and lost all of their properties in the Chicago Fires.  A trip to get away was definitely in order. However, the ship Mrs. Safford and her girls were aboard collided with another ship while en route, causing the boat to sink.  The vast majority of the 313 passengers drowned in the ice cold waters of the Atlantic.  While Horatio’s wife was rescued after being found clinging to part of the ship’s debris, his daughters did not survive.  Spafford left on the next ship to be with his wife after learning the tragic news.  As his ship passed by the exact spot where his daughters died, he penned the words to the beloved hymn, “It is Well”.  The words of that grieving father have been an inspiration to me in light of such personal loss, as I’m sure they have been for many.  If one can say “It is well” when reeling from the death of not one, but five children….wouldn’t we all consider that to be a person of great faith?

A year ago, I would have agreed with that.  And many a time, I have sat at the piano and have sung those same words, thinking that I, too, must be a person of great faith to even be able to utter such lyrics.  After all, wasn’t it a great demonstration of unshakable faith and immovable trust in God to accept “my lot” in life?  If I wasn’t able to sing those words, it seemed to be a denial of that faith and trust.

But as time continues to pass in my grief journey, I find it more and more difficult to sing, let alone, hear those words.  Recently as I walked around my neighborhood one evening, those familiar words came streaming through my earbuds:

When peace, like a river, attendeth my way,
When sorrows like sea billows roll;
Whatever my lot, Thou hast taught me to say,
It is well, it is well with my soul.

My ears heard the words.  But my heart was not comforted.  Tears welled up as I faced the conclusion that even a year after my son’s death, I can say with brutal honesty that it is not well with my soul.  And it never will be.

It is not well with my soul that my son doesn’t get to begin his sophomore year of high school.

It is not well with my soul when I look at kids Joe’s age dressing up for a homecoming dance.

It is not well with my soul that his friends have started to learn how to drive – something he couldn’t wait to do.

It is not well with my soul to go eat sushi and not have him across the table from me.

It is not well with my soul every time I take out two plates for dinner, rather than three.

It is not well with my soul that his room remains empty day in and day out.

I am learning that as long as I have breath in these earthly lungs, I will never be “well” with Joe’s death.  There will never be a day where I don’t long to see his face and wrap my arms around him.  And that is perhaps one of the most important lessons I’ve learned in grief:

It is OK to not be OK.

It is well to not be well with the difficult circumstances of this world.  When I look at the devastation of hurricanes and earthquakes and fires and violence, it is not well with my soul.  When I see those around me suffering with illness and cancer and Alzheimer’s, it is not well with my soul.  When I hear about death of any kind, my soul cries for those who now have to walk their own difficult journey. And it is not well with my soul.

If all of this is not well with my soul, it begs the question….well, then what IS well with my soul?  The answer is one that is slowly developing with the course of passing time and the healing of my broken heart.

I am well with the sovereignty of God.  I am OK knowing that God is God and I am not. God is in control of all things He created.  He owns all things, knows all things, rules all things.  Nothing that happens in my life is a mystery to Him.  Even the death of my child.

Remember the former things, those of long ago;
    I am God, and there is no other;
    I am God, and there is none like me.
I make known the end from the beginning,
    from ancient times, what is still to come.
I say, ‘My purpose will stand,
    and I will do all that I please. ~ Isaiah 46:9-10

I am well with God’s plan for my life. I fully trust that God has a plan with a much bigger perspective than I will ever know or understand.  He sees the big picture and ultimately, I know it is not about God living out His part in my story.  Rather, it is about me living out my part in HIS story.

Many are the plans in a person’s heart,
    but it is the Lord’s purpose that prevails. ~ Proverbs 19:21

I am well with God’s mercy.  There is never a more greater awareness of the mercy of God than when walking through the journey of grief.  I cannot explain it well enough to do it justice, but it is because of this undeserved mercy that I have the assurance of seeing my son again.  My child was saved because of the mercy of God through Jesus Christ.  I am too.  And this is what will ultimately reunite us.

In his great mercy he has given us new birth into a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead, and into an inheritance that can never perish, spoil or fade. This inheritance is kept in heaven for you…  ~1 Peter 1:3-4

Perhaps it is this concept of God’s mercy that inspired Horatio Spafford to write the less infamous verse of “It is Well”.

My sin—oh, the bliss of this glorious thought!—
My sin, not in part but the whole,
Is nailed to the cross, and I bear it no more,
Praise the Lord, praise the Lord, O my soul!

And finally, I am well with Christ’s return like never before.   Joe and I used to joke about that all the time.  Whenever things were hard and we were dealing with difficult issues, or when we would watch depressing news stories, one of us would turn to the other and say, “I’m ready for Jesus to come back.”  And the other would agree.  But let me tell you, a grieving mother’s heart could not mean it any more sincerely to say those same words and pray it to come true every day.

1For the Lord himself will descend from heaven with a cry of command, with the voice of an archangel, and with the sound of the trumpet of God. And the dead in Christ will rise first. ~  1 Thessalonians 4:16

The final two verses Horatio Spafford wrote are no mystery to those of us who long for Christ’s return with every fiber of our being.

But, Lord, ’tis for Thee, for Thy coming we wait,
The sky, not the grave, is our goal;
Oh, trump of the angel! Oh, voice of the Lord!
Blessed hope, blessed rest of my soul!

And Lord, haste the day when the faith shall be sight,
The clouds be rolled back as a scroll;
The trump shall resound, and the Lord shall descend,
Even so, it is well with my soul.

God knew we would have to walk through trials in this life.  He knew the moment sin entered the world that it would not be well.  With His soul or ours. Which is why He sent His only Son to die the death we deserved.  So that there would be no more separation. No more sadness.  No more grief.  No more death.  He made a way so that it would truly be well between Him and us.  Forever.

And that is why I can declare with all that is in me, “It is well with my soul.”

 

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

 

 

 

Surrendering the Pen

One of the most rewarding yet frustrating parts of teaching Kindergarten is walking my students through the writing process.  In the beginning of the year, the children simply draw pictures to tell their stories, as most of them don’t have the phonetic skills to sound words out and write them down.  But as the year goes on, they begin to label, then write beginning sounds, stretch words out, learn and use high frequency words, and put all those things together to create sentences.  By the end of the school year, my little Kinders can write several sentences about their chosen topic.  It is truly a wonder to behold!  But the process of getting there?  Well….let’s just say there are days when digging my eyeballs out with my bare hands would be less painful.

The other day, one of my sweet boys sat with a blank piece of paper in front of him for the entire writing time.  I checked in on him periodically to offer suggestions of stories he may want to share, but all he would quietly say was, “I just don’t know what to write.” I’ve started to figure out that this little cutie is a bit of a perfectionist.  He didn’t just want to slop anything down on the paper.  He wanted it to be exactly the right thing.

I like to imagine God as the author of my story (although, I’ve come to the conclusion that I’m merely a character in HIS story).  But unlike the uncertainty of a new writer, God already has every detail of my life planned out.  He doesn’t just sit wondering what to write.  He is purposeful.  Timely.  All-knowing.  He wants my life to be exactly the right thing.

It’s an interesting notion to think of your life as a story, isn’t it?  If you’re anything like me, there are good chapters, boring chapters, exciting chapters, and sad ones, too.  And then there are those chapter that you desperately wish you could just tear out of the book, because they weren’t supposed to be there in the first place.

Or were they?

Perhaps this is one of the greatest dichotomies of faith to make sense of…we believe that God has written some wonderful chapters for our lives, but then we question if He really did author the completely tragic ones, too.  And if so, why did those have to be a part of our story and not someone else’s?  Nearly a year later, my mind often revisits the chapter called, “The Day Joe Went Home to Jesus”.  I don’t know why the Author allowed my sweet boy’s death to be written into my story.  But He did.  And there’s no rewriting that chapter. No edits can be made.  When I reread it, the outcome remains the same.

Over a year ago, when Joe was going through some very difficult issues, he’d often come to me for counsel and advice.  I told him I knew deep down God was writing an amazing story for his life.  And that one day, all of it would make sense.  That God was going to take the bad parts he was walking through and use it for his good and God’s glory someday.  Thinking back on those conversations are tough….maybe because it didn’t go the way I had planned it in my head.  But God was still the author of Joe’s story.  Not me. And so I trust that God saw some bigger purpose for my son’s life through his death.

Which reminds me of another story.  Of a Son’s death with not just a big purpose.  But the greatest purpose.  It was a purpose that was birthed from the moment sin entered the world.  And it was fulfilled the second that Son – Jesus – breathed His last.  It was the chapter that God knew had to be written, if we had any shred of hope to spend eternity with Him.  And as awful as that chapter is to read or even imagine, it is the single most life-altering chapter for all humanity.  I am forever indebted to the Author, because it means my son’s story continues in heaven and that one day I will get to share how God did indeed use his story for good.

There’s been a part of my story I’ve been trying to write for a while.  At times the pages are blank, just staring back at me.  And while I have allowed God to pick up the pen to start the chapter, I find myself taking it out of His hands and trying to finish it myself. But God has so gently whispered to my heart to let go, to surrender that control, and let Him make something beautiful out of what He’s purposed.

So….where are you in your story?

Is your life going well and everything you dreamed it would be?  Surrender the pen.

Are you waiting for God to move in an area of your life because things aren’t going according to your timetable?  Surrender the pen.

Have the trials of this world made you hopeless and weary and you aren’t sure how you will make it through another day?  Surrender the pen.

Because God has been writing the most incredible stories since the beginning of time. Some were miraculous, like Moses’ story.  Some were tragic, like Job’s.  Some were unbelievable like Jonah’s.  But they all had God as the Author.  And not only did He write those stories.  He was the Hero.  Every. Single. Time.

I don’t know how my story – or yours –  will turn out.  The process of letting it unfold may be painful at times.   But I do know that regardless of the chapter – good, bad, or ugly – God will forever be the Author and the Hero of my story.

Many are the plans in a person’s heart,
    but it is the Lord’s purpose that prevails.  ~ Proverbs 19:21