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.)

To Infinity…and Beyond

When I look at the night sky and see the work of your fingers—
    the moon and the stars you set in place—
what are mere mortals that you should think about them,
    human beings that you should care for them?

~Psalm 8:3-4

I recently visited ASU’s School of Earth and Space Exploration to watch a 3D, live-narrated program entitled “To the Edge of the Universe and Everything in Between”. Unbeknownst to me, this school at ASU is a leading center for space discoveries and study.  Who knew, right?  Plus, the theater was overly air-conditioned, which was another determining factor to attend.  (Hey, it’s how we survive the brutal desert heat of summer.)

The majority of the program was to impress upon us the sheer vastness of space. It began by showing the planet Earth, then zoomed out to show the hundreds of satellites that revolve around our floating home, and continued to pan out to the solar system, the exoplanets, the Milky Way galaxy, the multitude of galaxies, and beyond.  Like waaaaay beyond.  To something called “cosmic background radiation”.  What’s fascinating is that new information and depth to the universe are constantly being discovered.  The edge of the universe is continually being redefined.  My mind was truly blown away by what the latest technology has discovered about the seemingly limitlessness of space.

But perhaps what’s even MORE mind-boggling to me is that there is not one shred of information, not one piece of technology, not one single image brought to our eyes that is new to God.  He knows it all.  Every galaxy, every star, everything in the entire cosmos is no mystery to the Creator.  Yet, while my mind could not even begin to comprehend the vastness of space, I began to wonder if the edge of the universe is as infinite as the love of God.

Just as the show was about to wrap up, the narrator told us to sit back and enjoy as we “zoomed back in” through everything we just saw to the planet Earth.  Once again, I was awestruck….but this time not at the vastness of God, but at His intimacy.  To go from the edge of 45 billion light years away, to our rotating home of green and blue….let’s just say it makes one feel pretty small in the grand scheme of things. And yet, God knows every detail of each one of us, down to our very cells.

The night before my son went to be with Jesus, I watched as he and his friend stood in an open field and stared up at the sky.  In curiosity, I wandered over to them to see what they were looking at.  The absolute blackness of the sky illuminated millions of stars in our view – something we don’t often see because of living in a large city.  We commented on how vast space must be…and how amazing God was to have created each star with just a word.  Joe was so blown away by the sight of the stars, he took out his phone in an attempt to photograph it.  I was not aware at that precise moment that the night vision camera recorded the final photograph I would be in with my precious boy.

But in that moment…God knew.  

He knew what the next day would hold and how it would change our lives forever. There was no mystery to the Creator of the stars that one of His beloved creations was going home soon.

That truth is one of the hardest to come to terms with, and yet, is one of the most comforting lessons a grieving mother learns.  To know that every day of my child’s life was ordained from beginning to end, and that there was no single thing I could have done to change the course of how it ended….it truly does bring comfort to my overwhelmed heart of grief.

“All the days ordained for me were written in your book

before one of them came to be.”

~Psalm 139:16

My grief is constantly being redefined.  But my God is not.  God is who He was, who He is, and who He will be forever.  The circumstances of my life do not change God’s character. Nor will they ever.  It is ME who is constantly discovering the depths of His love and the infiniteness of His grace.  And now I am the one who stands amazed, looking up at the heavens, blown away by what God has done and continues to do in, through and for me.

My friend, I don’t know what kind of valleys you have walked through or are walking through right now.  Whether you saw it coming or you didn’t, be assured that NONE of it was or is a mystery to God.  His knowledge of this vast universe is certainly wise enough to know every detail of your life.  His intimate love for you can fill the very depths of your broken heart as He has done for mine.  His grace goes to infinity.  And beyond anything we could imagine.

When I think of all this, I fall to my knees and pray to the Father, the Creator of everything in heaven and on earth.  I pray that from his glorious, unlimited resources he will empower you with inner strength through his Spirit.  Then Christ will make his home in your hearts as you trust in him. Your roots will grow down into God’s love and keep you strong.  And may you have the power to understand, as all God’s people should, how wide, how long, how high, and how deep his love is. May you experience the love of Christ, though it is too great to understand fully.  Then you will be made complete with all the fullness of life and power that comes from God.  

~Ephesians 3:14-19

 

 

 

Jesus is My Pool Boy

When people ask how we desert folks survive the intense summer heat, my response is always the same:  air conditioning and a swimming pool.  I’m not sure how anyone survived 100+ temperatures before these things were invented.  Not everyone is blessed enough to have their own backyard pool here in Phoenix.  But when we were looking for a rental home three years ago, my kids took one look at the pool and diving board and knew THIS was the place to live.  And they were right.

Now, before any of you non-pool owners get any ideas about how we just walk out the door when we feel like it and jump into the cool water, let me stop you right there.  Not only were we fortunate enough to have a pool in our backyard, but we also had a palm tree near the pool.  A really TALL king palm tree.  Sounds pretty scenic…unless you know that king palms send out these long green shoots at the end of May.  And those shoots open up and blossom with little white flowers.  And those little white flowers fall at the slightest of breezes. And it takes WEEKS for all those little white flowers to fall.

What does that have to do with swimming you ask?  Nothing, I suppose, as long as you don’t mind floating around in a pool full of little white petals, dead bees and itty bitty pieces of palm tree debris.  I find the whole scenario rather disgusting, which is why at the first sign of those nasty green shoots, I immediately call my landscaper to come trim my nearly 30-ft. palm tree.  Problem solved, right?  Well, yes….except that the neighbor’s king palm tree sits directly over the wall just to the southwest of my pool. And they could care less about all those shoots and flowers and debris that make their way into my pool.  So, therein lies the real problem: every time we want to swim, I have to spend more than a half-hour skimming all the debris from a tree that isn’t even mine.  (Pity party for one, please.)

It’s a back-breaking task that takes extreme patience, perseverance, and a great deal of strength, too. (And I did mention that it’s over 100 degrees most of the summer here, right?) I cannot go out to the pool and expect to be done cleaning in a matter of minutes.  I know it will be a long, arduous process.  I can skim over a certain area of the pool over and over and over again…just to return to the same spot and find it still a mess. Sometimes as I feel I’m nearing the end, a big gust of wind comes up to extend my cleaning time.  There are moments I have to set the long pole down and take a break. But I don’t quit.  I keep going.  Because I know in the end, I get to sink into that cool, refreshing water and relax.

In those quiet moments as I silently skim the mess from the pool, God has been speaking to my heart about this incredibly difficult journey I’ve been on in my life and how much it is like this process of skimming.  There is no doubt that my days are filled with so much debris and mess.  Broken relationships.  Loneliness.  Grief.  Financial worry.  Anxiety. Fear of the future.  The burdens of others I love.  And just when I think some area of my life is “fixed” and clean, I come back to it over and over and over again, to find out what a mess it continues to be.

Do you identify with this as well?  How many times do you find yourself asking God, “When will this be solved?”  or “How much longer do I have to keep dealing with this?”  Somedays I just want to quit, don’t you?  I just want to put down that heavy metal skimming pole and walk away from all of life’s battles.

As much as I detest cleaning that pool, I have come this conclusion:  I have gained considerable strength (and a decent tan) from those half-hour upper-body workouts. (Hmmmm….perhaps I should consider skimming my pool in the non-swimming months as well.)  If I only had a few measly leaves in my pool, my gain of strength would be quite minimal.  When I stand and survey the mess before I begin, I can’t help but think,  “Why couldn’t there just be a few leaves?  Why couldn’t the neighbor just trim his tree?  Why is today another windy day?”  But as I get to work, it hits me:  The fact that so much mess blows into my pool on a daily basis, which is seemingly frustrating, is the very reason I am stronger.

So many of my life’s messes I did not choose.  And I know you didn’t either, sweet friend. How many times do you survey the mess and ask God those hard questions:  “Why did my marriage have to end?  Why did my loved one have to die?  Why did I have to be the one to get cancer?   Why do I have to struggle with finances?  Why did this happen to ME???”

Most likely, we will never know the answers to these questions on this side of heaven. But I do know this:  it is those VERY messes that grow a deep faith in us, strengthen us beyond anything we think we could endure and empower us to live a life pointed to Christ.

It is the debris of our lives that God uses for His glory and His purposes. 

And the absolute beauty of this truth, is that no longer do we bear the burden of holding onto that skimming pole all by ourselves.  You see, we have the most amazing, strong, faithful, loving, sacrificing pool boy, who takes the pole from our hands and says, “Dear child….you are not alone. I’ve got this mess under control.  Let me help you.”

Make no mistake.  There are days I don’t think I have the strength to keep dragging that net around and around the pool.  But as I am weary, Jesus comes alongside me with His strength as He so faithfully promises to do.  And He reminds me of why I keep going, moving forward, continually skimming those itty bitty pieces of junk. Because there is hope and complete assurance that when all the mess of this life is over, I’m going to put my feet into the refreshing waters of eternity.  And it will be SO. INCREDIBLY. WORTH IT.

Image result for isaiah 40 31

 

 

Frosties, Fries, & Best Friends

Today was a Frosty and French fry kind of day.  Let me explain:

I grew up in one of those small Nebraska farming towns.  You know, the ones where there’s just a handful of stoplights and Friday and Saturday nights meant one thing to high schoolers: cruisin’ the strip in your beat-up car with a bunch of friends. Yep, those were the days.  My best friend Lori had a boat-sized olive green Buick which could have been a substitute for some type of military tank, I’m quite sure.  Me, on the other hand…I had a little rusty-orange ’81 Chevy Citation.

As you can guess, entertainment was hard to come by in our town.  Wal-Mart closed by 9 p.m. and the movie theater was out of business.  The bowling alley had league bowling on weekend nights, so cruising was about all there was to do.  (And there were most likely parties to go to and drink, but we weren’t cool enough to be invited to those. Which was ok with us.) Now, you might think that driving around in a big loop repeatedly was less-than-exciting, but let me tell you, the thrill of pulling up to a stoplight to see who would be in the car next to you, executing a Chinese fire drill at a red light, and blasting music from the car stereo was all the fun my friends and I needed.  Once things got monotonous and slowed down later, we’d head out towards the interstate for our favorite late night snack:  a chocolate Frosty and French fries.  Sometimes there would be a big group of us.  And sometimes it was just Lori and me.  But it didn’t matter…Wendy’s was just our hangout.

June 4th marks the eighth anniversary of the end of Lori’s battle with lupus.  But more significantly, it marks her entrance into Heaven.  And that’s why today was a Frosty and French fry day.

Because I refuse to forget.

I refuse to keep all those fun crazy memories inside we had.  Like how we used to rate people’s shoes during church when they went up for communion.  And how we used to try see how many letters of the alphabet we could say while we burped.  (Lori was the champion…she made it to P.)  And how we had code names from old movies for everyone in our class so we could write notes about them and no one would know who we were talking about.  I used to think that all those memories died when Lori did.  But I’m starting to realize that they only die if I stop telling them.  So I keep telling them.  I refuse to stop telling stories about her to her children and mine.  And anyone else who will listen.  I want them to know who she was.

Lori was FUNNY.  She was quick-witted.  She was intelligent.  She was wise.  She was kind-hearted. She was practical.  She was ambitious beyond anyone I’ve ever known. She was confident.  She was fearless.  She was generous.  She was beautiful.

Following Lori’s funeral and burial in our hometown, the church hosted a luncheon reception in the church basement.  Her nearly two-and-a-half-year-old daughter became restless and cranky after being around so many people.  For some reason, she chose me to hold her and take her to walk around and calm down.  We soon found ourselves inside the church itself.  The same church her mom and I sat through many chapel services as little girls in school.  The same church we were confirmed in.  Sang in the choir in.  Got married at.  And now here I was in a very surreal moment, holding her precious baby girl after her funeral.

I remember her daughter being particularly drawn to the statue of Jesus that stood front and center above the altar.  She pointed up with one of her chubby little fingers and looked at me quizzically with big blue eyes, as if she wanted to know who that was and I had the answer.  “Jesus.  That’s Jesus.”  She said nothing, but seemed content with my reply.  She listened as I told her how much Jesus loved her.  How much He loved her mama.  And how He would watch over her until they would see each other again.

Eight years later, I find that sometimes I’m as expectant as that little two-year-old pointing up at Jesus.  I’ve quietly listened as people have told me how much Jesus loves me.  How much He loved Joe.  And how we will see each other again.   Those words have become my anchor.  My peace.

Last year, as the kids and I sat at Wendy’s eating Frosties and fries, I told them stories I could remember about my best friend.  There was a pause in the conversation, until Joe smiled and said, “Man.  I can’t wait to see her in heaven.”

Nine months ago, his wait was over.

For those of us still waiting to see those we love and miss dearly, let me share the words that came on the radio the very day Lori died.

 

 

There’s a peace I’ve come to know
Though my heart and flesh may fail.
There’s an anchor for my soul,
I can say “It is well”.
Jesus has overcome
And the grave is overwhelmed.
The victory is won
He is risen from the dead!
And I will rise when He calls my name.
No more sorrow, no more pain.
I will rise on eagles’ wings
Before my God, fall on my knees
And rise.

By His power God raised the Lord from the dead, and He will raise us also.

~ 1 Corinthians 6:14

The Saving Power of Red Liquid

If you ask me the question, “Have you ever seen the movie….?” (fill in the blank), there’s a good 90% chance, I’d answer no.  It’s not that I don’t enjoy movies.  I’m just not sure I have the time or the patience to sit all the way through one.  It’s hard for me to sit still for more than an hour watching nearly anything.  But alas, summer vacation is now upon us teachers, which means having more time to do…well, really all the things we’ve put off for the last 10 months.  Including watching movies.

That said, I finally watched The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe a couple of days ago. (I know, I’m a bit behind the times…12 years to be exact.) I was familiar with the basic premise of the movie, but never quite fully realized the depth of parallelisms to Christianity.  (I’ll spare you the majority of my thoughts about this, as I’m sure it’s nothing new under the sun.)  I also didn’t realize that a part of the movie would trigger a very emotional response.  But for those who have walked and continue to walk through the daily battles of grief, you know these things can happen whenever and wherever, often without warning.  And that’s exactly what happened as I watched the movie’s epic battle scene.

In case you need a little background information about said battle, let me enlighten you. The evil White Witch, a.k.a. the self-proclaimed Queen of Narnia and her army stand ready to defeat the army of Aslan the lion (whom she had already killed).  The Queen’s army is made up of largely grotesque creatures (I’m pretty sure I’ll never be able to look at yaks the same way again), who are poised to kill and destroy.  I knew both sides would endure casualties, but surely good would triumph and win over evil, right?  That it did, with the resurrected Aslan coming to the rescue at just the right moment to kill the White Witch.  But not before she had mercilessly stabbed the boy Edmund.  There was an innocent child lay on the ground, fighting for his life.  And while any regular mom would have been sad, in a detached sort of way, this grieving mom was transported back to seeing her own son on the ground, fighting for his life.

After the epic battle is finished, all of Edmund’s siblings rush to his side, knowing there is nothing they can do for their dying brother.  That is, until little Lucy remembers she possesses the gift of red cordial, which was given to her by Father Christmas “to heal any ailment or injury.” She drops a bit of the cordial into Edmund’s open mouth…and voila!  Edmund is healed and whole again and hugging his rejoicing siblings in a matter of seconds.  My heart broke all over again.  Oh, how I wish I had had a little vial of magic red liquid to drop into Joe’s mouth to save him! But there would be no reunion of hugs for me that day.

Watching that scene made me overwhelmingly sad in ways I cannot even describe.  But it also made me angry.  Angry that God didn’t bring my boy back to life, despite my desperate attempts. Angry that I now have to live on this earth without him.  Angry that I’ve already lost so much.  I know it was just a movie, but it seemed incredibly ridiculous to this grieving mom’s heart that someone’s life could be saved with some life-giving magic red liquid!  That’s not how life and death works.

Or is it?

Jesus said to them, “Very truly I tell you, unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you have no life in you. Whoever eats my flesh and drinks my blood has eternal life, and I will raise them up at the last day.

~John 6:53-54

How easily I forget what has been done for ME.  For Joe.

As much as I wanted to stay paused in that moment of anger and injustice, my mind rewound to the scene just seconds before when Aslan, after killing the White Witch, says, “It is finished.” Powerful words that brought peace and comfort to every soldier fighting that battle.  The enemy had been defeated.  The victory won.

It is no different for us, dear friends. When Jesus said those words on the cross, it was the ultimate fulfillment of every prophecy in Scripture.  To be exact, 353 different prophecies of Scripture.  But here’s what it comes down to for us:   Sin was finished.  Satan was finished. Death was finished.  A life forever separated from God….also finished.  That brings such an incredible peace to my heart and sustains me on those days when everything about life seems unjust.  My separation from my child is temporary. And someday, even that separation will be finished.

Every day is a battle, not just for those of us grieving loss, but for every person battling the struggles and trials of this fallen world.  But take comfort in this:  we already know how the battle turns out.  The enemy has been defeated.  The victory won.  It means my son lives, not through the work of my own hands, but through the work of Christ’s outstretched hands.  It means I will see him again in a joyful reunion in paradise.

And it’s not because of some Hollywood-created magic red liquid, but because of the real life-saving red liquid of our Lamb.

To him who loves us and has freed us from our sins by his blood, and has made us to be a kingdom and priests to serve his God and Father—to him be glory and power forever and ever! Amen.

~Revelation 1:5b-6

 

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