Having lost four friends in November and early December, tears tumbled easily after receiving word that yet another friend died last week. It wasn’t totally unexpected, Denise had battled cancer for more than a year. But when we met for lunch two months ago, that battle was barely a blip in our conversation. Instead, she talked about “God’s kindness” in allowing her to travel to Portugal with her sister the previous month and how exceedingly grateful she was for her family.
While still trying to process the thought of her family navigating Christmas and life without her, it was the observation of another friend that brought comfort and perspective:
”Denise went home to be with the Love of her Life: JESUS.”
Denise loved the people God put in her life deeply, but it was her love for Him that drew others to Jesus. The thought of Denise and my other friends receiving the things promised so long ago, brings comfort and, yes, a joy-filled hope to my heart, mind and soul:
“He will wipe away every tear from their eyes,
and there will be no more death or mourning or crying or pain,
for the former things have passed away.
And the One seated on the throne said,
‘BEHOLD, I MAKE ALL THINGS NEW.’” Revelation 21:4-5b
The thought of tears no longer tumbling and death and separation no longer being a threat, are beyond my comprehension in this life. Yet we can have full confidence that, the God who can change even the hardest heart, will indeed do this.
Are you suffering the loss of a friend or loved one that makes it difficult to celebrate Christmas? Then I invite you to join me in celebrating the HOPE of heaven, won for us through faith in God’s only Son:
“Yet to all who did receive Him, to those who believed in His Name,
He gave the right to become children of God—
children born not of natural descent,
nor of human decision or a husband’s will,
but born of God”
John 1:12, 13.
As we celebrate the birth of Christ Jesus, may we also look forward to the day when the tawdriness of this fallen world will be replaced by the goodness of our faithful Shepherd . . . Merry Christmas!
BITTERSWEET is a word is we grow into over time. It speaks to the disappointments and heartache that are part of life, yet refuses to let go of the vestiges of sweetness remembered. The dictionary defines bittersweet as:
Arousing pleasure tinged with sadness or pain
Being at once bitter and sweet; pleasant but including or marked by elements of suffering or regret
Such is the definition of a life lived out fully. Bittersweetness acknowledges the harshness of things broken or lost,
as it retains the memory of sweeter images past.
Christmas is one of those seasons where bittersweetness abounds:
Childhood memories of hope and excitement as the Big Day approached and family gathered together.
The shadows of candlelight playing against the walls during Christmas Eve Services as “O Come All Ye Faithful” was sung.
The joy of giving sacrificially out of love for the Savior.
Christmas is also is a season of reflection and remembrance of things lost or broken: relationships . . . people . . . health . . . hopes . . . and, yes, dreams never realized.
This past year was especially hard for my family and friends . . . tears still come easy as we remember those who are no longer with us. Many dread the approach of Christmas, unsure of how to get through the bitter pain of loss:
Some may choose to ignore Christmas–with hearts bitter toward God..
Others will go through the motions of Christmas–not wanting to disappoint others, but find themselves numb within.
Still others will choose to lean into the Hope of the Christmas Story-realizing that it was written especially for them.
Is there a way to navigate the pain of loss at Christmas?
Through personal experience I know that the third option is by far the best. To ignore Christmas altogether, or to numb ones-self to the Celebration, too often leads to an ever-spiraling, dark despair that tends to rub-off on those closest to us.
The wisest choice is that of entering into the Light of Christ’s coming,
while embracing the Hope of His return.
After ministering to people struggling with brokenness and loss of every sort and in every season, it is always those who entrust their brokenness to the One who saves, who realize the blessing of a deepened faith that moves them forward:
“The people living in darkness
have seen a great Light;
on those living in the land of the shadow of death
a Light has dawned.” Matthew 4:16
This past week my burden was lightened by the sweetness of a video put out by Southland Christian Church in Kentucky. I offer it to you as we navigate this Season of Celebration, in the hope that leaning into this retelling of the Christmas Story will sweeten your perspective as it has mine:
The old adage, “Hindsight is 20/20”, is certainly true when it comes to the way God works in our lives. When my husband and I took off on our camping adventure seven weeks ago, we felt like a couple of kids cutting school. For years we had talked about taking off to explore the places we never got to because of time constraints. With my husband’s retirement, we realized that the time had finally come. With our new smallish camper in tow, we were as giddy as newlyweds out on a lark. Little did we know how God would deepen our faith through seemingly unrelated lessons.
In my last post I wrote about the tragic deaths of two young men in our church. Killed in separate accidents in the same week, we struggled to comprehend the reality that Josh and Heath were suddenly gone. Three thousand miles from home, our “lark” quickly become despair. But God gently ministered to us in the enormity of the California redwoods through Psalm 46,
“God is our refuge and strength,
an ever-present help in trouble.
Therefore we will not fear, though the earth give way
and the mountains fall into the heart of the sea,
though its waters roar and foam
and the mountains quake with their surging.
There is a river whose streams make glad the City of God,
the holy place where the Most High dwells.
God is within her, she will not fall;
God will help her at break of day.
Nations are in uproar, kingdoms fall;
He lifts his voice, the earth melts . . . .”
Where verses 1-6 spoke to the immediacy of our pain, it is verse 10 that continues to direct our steps:
Be still and KNOW that I am God.”*
As the incomprehensible assailed us, Psalm 46 became a blanket that enfolded us with these tender assurances:
“Hush. Stop striving to understand what is far larger than you can comprehend. Hush . . . be still. KNOW that I am with you and in the coming days will carry you.
This isn’t the end of the story.
Hush . . . you must trust Me in this.”
Looking back, we can see how God had been preparing us weeks before in our travels. We had noticed them before we left–little “shrines” along roadways marking where someone was killed in an accident. Typically a simple cross with a name on it; at other times flowers, teddy bears, and other personal reminders are placed as a memorial. Our awareness grew as we traveled through Montana, where the State marks every life lost on its roads with a small white cross. We began watching for them as we drove and were stunned when more than one cross marked a scene. In this age of “political correctness” we wondered how long the practice of using a “religious” symbol would be allowed to continue. Looking back, it was then that what had been “a lark” became a journey within a journey. It was as if the roads we traveled on, “scenic” or ordinary, became grim reminders of loss.
When we received the news about Josh and then Heath, we remembered those crosses. They were with us, full of life one moment . . . and then suddenly . . . they were gone.
So what does it mean, to “be still and know that God is God”,
when we are stung by such painful loss? For us, the biggest thing has been to remember that God is Big and we are small.
To be still and know is a call to humility. James 4 speaks to the battle that is on-going in our hearts, especially when life hits hard:
“God opposes the proud but shows favor to the humble.” Submit yourselves, then, to God.
Resist the devil, and he will flee from you.
Come near to God and He will come near to you.
Wash your hands, you sinners, and
purify your hearts, you double-minded.
Grieve, mourn and wail.
Change your laughter to mourning and your joy to gloom.
Humble yourselves before the Lord, and He will lift you up. (Verses 6-10)
Since leaving Montana, we’ve driven through eleven more states. In that time God’s incomprehensible enormity has been demonstrated in countless ways. The day after receiving the devastating news, we watched whales basking in God’s Provision off Patrick’s Point and then appreciated the solitude of three days camping in the Avenue of the Redwoods–where God was indeed big and we . . . were tenderly cared for. After that, visits with long missed family and friends ministered greatly to our hearts.
In the weeks since, we have learned that when life hits hard, it is tempting to doubt God’s goodness. But when we entertain those doubts, the world around us dims as we distance ourselves from Him. Yet it has been through those struggles, that we have gratefully embraced the Shining Hope of the Gospel, as the Cross speaks:
Death, Loss and Eternal Darkness for those outside of Christ, but Redemption, Hope and Life Eternal for those who are in Christ.
Today, we continue to mourn the loss of two very special men along with family and friends. But we have learned to give thanks to God:
For His faithfulness in loving us–even in our doubts.
For ministering to us–as we have been privileged to witness the enormity and ever-changing diversity of His Creation.
For Josh and Heath’s lives–and the assurance that they are safe with Him . . . .
When God is BIG and we are small,
doubt recedes as we find HOPE and SHELTER in HIM. Giving thanks!
It was a dream come true for us–embarking on this journey to explore the places we never made it to in our previous travels. We purchased a smallish camper with a comfortable bed and just enough amenities to make it work for us. In four weeks, we’ve traveled through over 5,000 miles of diverse, often spellbinding beauty. We’ve learned to laugh at ourselves and “Hilda” (our GPS) when a wrong turn is taken and she “recalculates” our next move. Best of all, we have started to become adept at enjoying what I like to call, “The quiet of now . . . .” In short, my husband and I have slowly been uncovering the sweet loveliness of growing old together.
Then less than a week ago, we were hit hard by the news that Josh, a young man in our church, was killed in a motorcycle accident. We ached with Josh’s family and friends as we remembered the shock of losing my husband’s younger brother 45 years ago. Vern was 19. There were no skid marks made by his motorcycle at the scene–indicating Vern didn’t see the car that made the sharp U-turn from the curb as he rode down the street. We still wonder, “What would Vern have done with his life, if the guy had made his turn even a minute later?” There’s no making sense of such tragedy.
We learned about the accident when we were headed toward the mountain that looms above all else in the Seattle/Tacoma area–Mount Rainier. We stopped by the side of the road to process the news–the physical distance between us and home felt like a chasm. Yet, as we began to lift up Josh’s family and friends suffering the shocking pain of his loss, the distance all but vanished from our minds.
After entering the national park, we began our upward ascent. We stopped at one of those information kiosks–you know, those places that orient the public to things to look for in the area. We were stunned when we read: “Considered one of the most dangerous active volcanos in the world, Mount Rainier has been the source of numerous mudflows, covering large portions of the Puget Sound lowlands.” As we looked around we realized that the trunks of huge trees, broken off like mere toothpicks, served as evidence of those “numerous mudflows.” Though acutely aware of the fragility of life at that moment, we continued upward, entering what became for us, holy ground. With every bend we climbed, God allowed us to look with awe at the dangerous yet breathtaking enormity of Mount Rainier. When we drove as high as we could go, we could see the turquoise of several glaciers above us. As hundreds of people milled around like ants on a hill, our smallness and the enormity of our Creator registered powerfully. That was the beginning of our journey within a journey . . . .
Two days ago, my husband looked at me in confused disbelief after reading a text message–death had struck again. It was Heath, the son of our closest friends. We considered Heath one of our own. Thoughtful, funny, smart–outspoken when it came to his faith in Christ–Heath was a big guy with an even bigger heart. It had been a thrill to join in the celebration, the day Heath married Amy (another one of our own.) Our daughters were in their wedding. Over the years God blessed them with two wonderful kids. What a delight it has been to watch their children and our grandchildren become friends, enjoying the wonders of life together. We never dreamt all that would be shattered . . . that Heath and Amy will not grow old together.
After receiving the horrible news, we found ourselves off-the-grid, camping in the redwoods of Del Norte Coast State Park in California. God ministered to us there as we were awed by the enormity of the trees. We set up our camper quickly in our need to take advantage of the remaining daylight. As we hiked, we were grateful to blend into the lush landscape of giant ferns and other forest greenery amongst the redwoods. However, we soon noticed a troubling pattern that amplified our grief. It seemed as if everywhere we turned there was a giant stump of an ancient redwood–obviously cut down in its prime. Each stump was surrounded by a circle of good-sized redwoods that grew directly from the base of the giant–like a fairy ring of mushrooms paying homage to the one that had been cut down. When we found one of the ancient giants on our trail, standing freely on its own–I fell against it gladly. It was there that God’s comfort–bigger than the sky yet tender to my soul spoke,
Feeling worn to the bone as we returned to our campsite, we welcomed the clear direction of our loving Shepherd as we found rest in the shelter of His Provision.
There is more to share of our journey within a journey that I will write about in my next post. Still shattered as sorrow-filled tears continue to well to up without notice, we have taken a break from our traveling. It is tempting to wallow in despair over the tragic losses that will continue to be suffered for a long time to come. Last evening, this reminder from I Peter helped to quiet my heart:
“For you know that it was not with perishable things such as silver or gold
that you were redeemed from the empty way of life handed down to you from your forefathers,
but with the precious blood of Christ . . . .
For, ‘All men are like grass, and all their glory is like the flowers of the field,
the grass withers and the flowers fall, but the Word of the Lord stands forever.'” I Peter 1:18, 19a, 24-25
How are we to get through the tragedy and heartache of life
that leaves us raging inwardly, yet feeling numb in our grief?
It is not about what we do; it is about where we turn.
TO BE STILL BEFORE GOD: IS TO REMEMBER OUR HOPE OF HEAVEN,WON FOR US IN CHRIST JESUS.
(THE HOPE THAT IS NOW A REALITY FOR JOSH AND HEATH BY FAITH.)
TO KNOW GOD: IS TO HONOR HIM AS THE GREAT “I AM”–AS HE TENDERLY QUIETS OUR BROKEN HEARTS . . . LIKE NOTHING LESS CAN.
“And forgive us our debts, as we also have forgiven our debtors.” Matthew 6:12
It is difficult to make sense of forgiveness, especially when it is extended to someone who brutally snuffed out the lives of innocent family members. Such was the response of a Lancaster, Pennsylvania, Amish community in 2006, when five young girls were brutally murdered and five others severely injured. Not only did they forgive the shooter (who committed suicide at the scene), the Amish community extended their forgiveness by caring for his wife and three children who were left without a husband and father.
A similar scenario played out this past week in Charleston, South Carolina, where a stranger, welcomed into their church’s Bible study, murdered the pastor and eight others. Though still reeling from the loss of their loved ones, family members none-the-less made their way to the courtroom to extend forgiveness to the shooter as well as his family.
Where does such strength to forgive–such determination to face-off evil–come from? After years of working with people in the Counseling Room, as well facing my own personal challenges, I can assure you that such forgiveness never comes easy. Humanly speaking, we want to hold onto anger and hate; we desire to repay evil for evil. Yet even from a health perspective, we know that to allow such things to hold sway for very long, is to allow the acidic erosion of our thinking to separate us from the God who saves. James 4 speaks to the inward struggle we face:
“What causes fights and quarrels among you?
Don’t they come from your desires that battle within you?
You desire but do not have, so you kill . . . .You do not have because you do not ask God.
When you ask, you do not receive, because you ask with wrong motives,
that you may spend what you get on your pleasures.”
The good news is that God desires better for us and calls us to Himself as the Shepherd of our hearts. In the end, forgiveness is God’s means of deepening a faith relationship between Himself and His people. Jesus said,
“Come to Me, all who are weary and heavy-laden, and I will give you rest.
Take My yoke upon you and learn from Me, for I am gentle and humble in heart,
and YOU WILL FIND REST FOR YOUR SOULS.… “
Matthew 11:28, 29
That rest for your souls, is embedded in the knowledge that God, who is merciful as well as just, will not forget the burden you surrendered to Him. If not repented of, God’s justice will prevail. With this in mind, God asks but one question, “Will you trust Me in this?”
Forgiveness, pure and simple, is a God-thing . . . it is not something we can conjure up alone. What is the critical ingredient needed to face-off evil when life hits us hard? Forgiveness . . . that is grounded in the love and mercy of Jesus. As forgiveness is applied in humility and faith, the evidence of God’s Presence in the hearts of His people is revealed.
The declaration Paul made to his friends in Galatia, when they were in danger of entering into the bondage of legalism, is a good reminder to us when we are tempted to hold on to bitterness and anger:
“It is for freedom that Christ has set us free.
Stand firm, then, and do not let yourselves be burdened again by a yoke of slavery.”
Forgiveness is a decision, that reflects the mercy received through God’s only Son.
Forgiveness comes alive and is believable, only as acts of mercy follow it.
Forgiveness chooses, to trust in God’s ultimate justice.
Forgiveness is the ultimate means whereby God’s people are truly freed– to live for, love and serve Him with glad hearts.
I hate when I wake up in the middle of a dream, feeling lost and confused, not knowing where I am or where I have been. A few mornings ago I experienced just such an awakening. I dreamed that I was lost for what seemed hours and then, finally, found myself driving home to visit my parents. It was then that I felt my body heave an involuntary shudder as I remembered that Mom is gone, Dad’s days on this earth are probably short and the home I grew up in was sold three years ago. It was at that moment that the cold shudder of feeling lost and alone gripped my heart.
Trusting in God’s Goodness has kept me steady even as:
I have fought tears back when I have seen something Mom would have liked . . .
when thinking of Dad alone and confused in a strange place . . .
realizing that what was . . . has been lost forever.
The temptation to separate myself from the festivities of Christmas–knowing that Christmas will never be the same–has been especially difficult. Yet it is in those moments of suffering profound loss, that God has faithfully shepherded my heart with these verses:
” . . . the people living in darkness have seen a great Light;on those living in the land of the shadow of death a Light has dawned.”
“The Light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it.”
Even as despair has threatened I have been greatly comforted in remembering that,
No matter how dark life may appear, Christ’s Light dispels darkness like nothing else can.
Daily, He has drawn me into the Light of His Love, filling my heart to overflowing . . . not with a Christmas carol, but with the comfort of God’s boundless Grace in saving the lost:
Amazing Grace, how sweet the sound,That saved a wretch like me.I once was lost but now am found,Was blind, but now I see.T’was Grace that taught my heart to fear.And Grace, my fears relieved. How precious did that Grace appear The hour I first believed. Through many dangers, toils and snares I have already come;’Tis Grace that brought me safe thus far and Grace will lead me home.
As the Celebration of Christ’s Coming draws ever closer, God has faithfully spared me further heartache with the wondrous truth that God came down to seek and save the lost–you and me! Jesus taught in parables about God’s pursuit of lost things in Luke 15. I especially love the picture He painted as the love of a father was poured out when his son returned home:
” Bring the fatted calf and kill it. Let’s have a feast and celebrate. For this son of mine was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found.‘ So they began to celebrate.” (verses 23-24)
If you find yourself struggling this Christmas . . . give thanks that you are not alone and lean into to the Light of His Love–He is so very worthy of our trust!
Yesterday I was able to talk to my dad on the phone for the first time since having to leave him in early November. He is still very sick but there was Joy in his voice, so very grateful to be back in his apartment for Christmas. Many thanks to those of you who have asked about and prayed for my dad. Merry Christmas!