Sorrowful Yet Always Rejoicing

Thanksgiving and Christmas are here, such exciting and precious times to celebrate family and the rich blessings of God.  Greetings of “Happiness” and “Merriness” are at every turn.  The words “joy” and “rejoice” are in the air now more than any other time of year.  As a result I’ve been meditating at length on what it means to “rejoice,” particularly while walking through the valley of the shadow of death.

I think sometimes when we talk about rejoicing we mistakenly interpret it as gleeful exuberance, perhaps accompanied by visions of singing in the rain or dancing in the park.  We may even mistakenly believe that if sorrow or grief are present that rejoicing can not or must not be.  To believe so would rob us of one of the most poignant expressions of rejoicing, though.  Saved and lost alike rejoice in the good times of life.  Times of health, wealth and blessing are welcomed with giddy excitement and celebration appropriately called “rejoicing.”  But there is a deeper “rejoicing” than this, a deeply resonating joy derived from hope in the midst of tribulation and tragedy (Romans 12:12).  This rejoicing is not evidenced by the expression of festive celebratory “feelings,” but is instead characterized by the peace of confident Hope that rests squarely on God and His promises.  This is the rejoicing of the redeemed that defies worldly logic as it exists even in the midst of piercing pain and streams of tears.

I am strongly convicted that there is a uniquely sweet and profound expression of rejoicing forged only in the hearts of those who walk in intimacy with Christ through fiery ordeals.  Paul wrote, “Rejoice always” (1 Thess. 5:16) yet he also wrote, “I am telling the truth in Christ, I am not lying, my conscience testifies with me in the Holy Spirit, that I have great sorrow and unceasing grief in my heart” (Romans 9:1-2).  In 2 Corinthians he describes the tremendous hardships and abuses he has endured and describes himself as “sorrowful yet always rejoicing” (2 Cor. 6:10).  There is an incomparable rejoicing that is birthed through the marriage of steadfast faith and great sorrow.  It is a rejoicing that is reverent, sober and soul-stirring.  It is the rejoicing evidenced through praise flowing out of immeasurable heartbreak, as tear-streaked faces proclaim, “though He slay me, yet will I trust in Him” (Job 13:15).

Our risen Savior was described as “a man of sorrows and acquainted with grief” (Isaiah 53:3).  He Himself wept at the sting of death (John 11:35).  He is our Great High Priest who sympathizes with our weaknesses.  He was tempted in all things as we are and He lives to intercede continually for us.  He’s beckoning all, but particularly the broken-hearted, weary and heavy laden among us to confidently draw near to His throne of grace.  He lovingly waits to lavishly dispense His grace and mercy to powerfully enable us to persevere, sorrowful yet always rejoicing.  (Hebrews 4:15-16; 7:25)

“And working together with Him, we also urge you not to receive the grace of God in vain–  for He says, “AT THE ACCEPTABLE TIME I LISTENED TO YOU, AND ON THE DAY OF SALVATION I HELPED YOU.” Behold, now is “THE ACCEPTABLE TIME,” behold, now is “THE DAY OF SALVATION”–  giving no cause for offense in anything, so that the ministry will not be discredited,  but in everything commending ourselves as servants of God, in much endurance, in afflictions, in hardships, in distresses,  in beatings, in imprisonments, in tumults, in labors, in sleeplessness, in hunger,  in purity, in knowledge, in patience, in kindness, in the Holy Spirit, in genuine love,  in the word of truth, in the power of God; by the weapons of righteousness for the right hand and the left,  by glory and dishonor, by evil report and good report; regarded as deceivers and yet true;  as unknown yet well-known, as dying yet behold, we live; as punished yet not put to death,  as sorrowful yet always rejoicing, as poor yet making many rich, as having nothing yet possessing all things.”  2 Corinthians 6:1-10 [NASB]

12359995_10208235517031413_5801787986837253507_n

The Power of an Apology

Scott and I recently met a sweet mom who also knows the pain of the absence of her child.  As we were discussing our shared grief she volunteered that the doctor who was caring for her child has repeatedly tearfully apologized for the death of her child.   Even upon seeing them a year later he expressed his deep sorrow and sense of responsibility again.  His heart deeply aches with theirs, he grieves with them and it blesses them, perhaps even more than they realize.  Painfully aware of the fact that we live in a worldly culture that says you should legally protect yourself and your assets at all costs, Scott and I were immediately deeply touched by what she shared.  This doctor defied every medical malpractice lawsuit prevention symposium he had ever attended to minister to the hearts of the family of his patient.  I don’t know if he is a Christian, but he certainly has and is exemplifying Christ-like love as he, in a sense, sacrificially lays his life down for them.  We are so thankful for this blessing for this wounded family.

In stark contrast to the repeated heartfelt apologies of that tender-hearted doctor, I’ve been reading about the “nonapology apology.”  I was foolish enough to think perhaps I had coined a new phrase as it had been tumbling around in my mind over the past several weeks, but a quick internet search this morning proved me wrong.  The English Oxford Living Dictionary defines nonapology (also known as “nonapology apology”) as the following, “A statement that takes the form of an apology but does not constitute an acknowledgement of responsibility or regret for what has caused offense or upset.” 

1ymthp

Men are most frequently presumed masters of the nonapology, but I’m fairly certain women are just as gifted at it.  Maybe the skill is birthed in each of us as children when invariably at some point our parents require an apology from our unrepentant selves.  Even as children our prideful flesh rears up in defiance, and through it, no doubt, our first nonapology is born.  The first one is probably far from masterful, and if siblings are involved it is most likely something along the lines of, “I’m sorry you made me hit you.”  Over time, though, as wordsmithing skills improve many go on to  become masters of the nonapology.

I know in my teen and college years I was quite adept at the nonapolgy, and sadly I exercised it most efficiently early in marriage.  As I’ve tried to recall those moments, I’ve thought much about my motives for offering a nonapology as opposed to a genuine heartfelt apology.  I ended up with three primary reasons one might give a nonapology, there are probably more but these three seemed to cover it for me.

  • I know I’m responsible for hurting or offending the person but my pride prevents me from acknowledging responsibility
  • I know I am responsible for hurting or offending  the person but I’m scared of the potential consequences if I acknowledge responsibility
  • I do not believe I am responsible for inflicting harm or offending and am determined to proclaim/ maintain my innocence but I also want the issue to go away

As I look at each of those three reasons, I see the focus of all three is one in the same – self.  My pride.  My flesh.  My comfort.  My convenience.  My wants.  I’m suspicious that any other reasons that could be added to the list above would be just as much steeped in self.

In contrast, an apology is defined by Dictionary.com as a written or spoken expression of one’s regret, remorse, or sorrow for having insulted, failed, injured, or wronged another.”   With a nonapology the focus is on self and there is no acceptance of responsibility.    With an apology the focus is on the person hurt or offended and there is an acceptance of responsibility as well as an expression of regret, remorse or sorrow for the wound or offense (intentional or unintentional).  A nonapology is self-centered, and an apology is other-centered.  A nonapology is not an apology.

Heartfelt apologies are powerful.  The deeper the wound that precipitated the need for the apology, the greater the potential power of the apology.  Likewise, withholding an apology has potent negative effects.  A withheld apology possesses the potential to exponentially compound the pain of the wounded party when a deep wound is involved.  Apologies and reconciliation hold the power to bless not only the parties involved but the body of Christ at large.  Conversely, withheld apologies and unreconciled relationships hold the power to negatively impact the body of Christ.  At the very minimum, a withheld apology is a missed opportunity to demonstrate the beauty of the extension of God’s grace, mercy and love in our relationships.  At its worst a withheld apology deeply wounds those affected and sparks disunity and controversy, simultaneously delighting the enemy and grieving our precious Savior.

Christianity and nonapologies are incompatible.  To follow Christ we are called to crucify our flesh daily, to lay our lives down for our friends (Luke 9:23, John 15:13).  We are commanded to love one another, not just a little, but to love one another deeply or fervently from the heart (1 Peter 1:22).   The nonapology violates all of those mandates.   The nonapology indulges our own flesh at the expense of others.

As Christ followers we should be deeply burdened anytime a brother or sister in Christ has been hurt or offended by our words or actions.  Even if I don’t understand how my words or actions were offensive, my heart should still ache that something I said or did was received in such a way.  My deep love for Christ and His body (i.e. my brothers and sisters in Him) should compel me to walk in obedience to Matthew 5:23-24 (below).  As Christians we should have a gripping urgency to be reconciled to one another, not driven by legalistic obligation, but driven by the supernatural love of Christ that indwells us. “For the love of Christ controls us, because we have concluded this: that one has died for all, therefore all have died; and he died for all, that those who live might no longer live for themselves but for him who for their sake died and was raised”  2 Corinthians 5:14-15 [ESV].

“So if you are offering your gift at the altar and there remember that your brother has something against you,  leave your gift there before the altar and go. First be reconciled to your brother, and then come and offer your gift.”  Matthew 5:23-24 [ESV]

“Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse.  Rejoice with those who rejoice; mourn with those who mourn.  Live in harmony with one another. Do not be proud, but be willing to associate with people of low position. Do not be conceited.  Do not repay anyone evil for evil. Be careful to do what is right in the eyes of everyone.  If it is possible, as far as it depends on you, live at peace with everyone.”  Romans 12:14-18 [NIV]

The blessings of this flesh-crucifying, Christ-like, fervent love for one another extend beyond the body of Christ, though.   He tells us that as we sacrificially love one another in this manner the world will know we are His disciples.  Undoubtedly the world seeing the fruits of His love among us will not only cause them to recognize we are His, but will also serve to advance the gospel.  Just as certainly, our failure to love one another with the fervent love of Christ will give the enemy opportunity to blaspheme the name of our precious Savior and impede the advancement of the gospel among us.

“A new commandment I give to you, that you love one another: just as I have loved you, you also are to love one another.  By this all people will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.”  John 13:34-35 [ESV]

May Your love in me O’ Lord be a consuming fire that melts away my pride and selfishness as dross, leaving behind only sacrificial love for You and others.  May I be marked by Your humility that others may see You in me, that You alone may be glorified and Your name be made known.

FullSizeRender

Artwork: Sarah Harmening

Waiting in Solitude

“my soul is bereft of peace; I have forgotten what happiness is; so I say, ‘My endurance has perished; so has my hope from the LORD.’  Remember my affliction and my wanderings, the wormwood and the gall!  My soul continually remembers it and is bowed down within me.  But this I call to mind, and therefore I have hope:  The steadfast love of the LORD never ceases; his mercies never come to an end;  they are new every morning; great is your faithfulness.  ‘The LORD is my portion,’ says my soul, ‘therefore I will hope in him.’  The LORD is good to those who wait for him, to the soul who seeks him.  It is good that one should wait quietly for the salvation of the LORD.  It is good for a man that he bear the yoke in his youth.  Let him sit alone in silence when it is laid on him;  let him put his mouth in the dust– there may yet be hope;  let him give his cheek to the one who strikes, and let him be filled with insults.  For the Lord will not cast off forever,  but, though he cause grief, he will have compassion according to the abundance of his steadfast love;  for he does not afflict from his heart or grieve the children of men.”  Lamentations 3:17-33 [ESV]

Sometimes we choose solitude, but other times solitude is unexpectedly thrust upon us carrying with it the potential sting of isolation and loneliness.  I had a season of undesired solitude years ago when I was a young stay at home mother to my preschool aged children.  At that time I longed for an intimate circle of friends like everyone else seemed to have, but I lacked.  God used that extended season of solitude to redirect my focus to Him.  During that time I learned to lean hard into Him not just to meet my every need but to be the source of my joy, hope and love.  Though I went into that season of solitude kicking and screaming against it, I look back on it as one of the sweetest seasons of my life.  Through solitude and the power of His Word, He drew me into His presence and taught me the richness of intimately abiding in Him.

I have been feeling increasingly isolated and lonely over the past few months.  I am physically alone far more than I used to be prior to Sarah leaving, but it is a much deeper loneliness than just being physically alone.  In fact, sometimes I feel most alone when I am in a crowd of people actively engaging in superficial conversation.  I’m confident I appear just fine in those moments, I certainly do not look alone, but my heart and soul feel as though they are locked away behind cold stone walls of solitary confinement.  I think often of Proverbs 13:14, “Even in laughter the heart may ache, and the end of joy may be grief.”  I know most commentators relate this passage back to the folly of fools, but I so relate to a literal reading of it.  I frequently find myself surrounded by people yet alone, laughing yet aching, and experiencing joy yet grieving.

There have been some extenuating circumstances related to Sarah’s departure that have played a significant role in my sense of isolation. However, after reading and speaking with others who are grieving the absence of their children as well, I am realizing I probably would have struggled with the sense of isolation even in the absence of the other circumstances.  My loneliness in no way reflects any type of failure of Scott, family or friends.  I’m suspicious a degree of loneliness following the physical death of one’s child may be inevitable. There is a staggering void in our family where she once was, and I desperately miss her presence and companionship.  She is the last thought on my mind as I go to sleep and the first thought the moment I wake, both instances spurring a deep ache within me.  Everywhere I go and everything I do, my mind is flooded with memories of Sarah with each location and activity.  I long to step back in time to be with her there, and can easily get lost in those thoughts.  I am lonely because I uniquely grieve as Sarah’s mother, and I painfully miss my child.

Additionally, in my uncertainty of how to answer people’s inquiries I have probably contributed to my isolation.  Increasingly I sense in those who love us an urgency for us to be okay or better.  When asked expectantly how I am, I am confronted with a choice to be transparent or to make the person asking feel better by speaking only the positives.  The majority of the time I opt for speaking only the positives.  While the positives are true, they are only half the story.  The reality is that Scott’s and my hearts ache deeply.   With each pulse we bear a throbbing, indescribable sadness.  In the midst of the indescribable sadness, though, we experience God’s grace, mercy strength and provision.  While mourning our unfathomable loss through Sarah’s absence we also simultaneously celebrate God’s many rich blessings.  We are painfully broken yet we have great hope and joy.  I am so thankful to be able to boldly proclaim the truth of all the positives, but at the same time I recognize my failure to acknowledge the magnitude of the lingering pain  contributes to my isolation.

Regardless of the causes, though, it is clear I have entered another season of solitude.  As an extrovert my flesh resists and even dreads being alone, my natural reflex is to frantically fight against it.  But, remembering well the sanctifying power of that season of solitude so many years ago compels me to lean into Him in this new season as well.  Instead of focusing on my solitude as an additional source of pain, I am striving to set my heart to seize this time as an intimate retreat with Him.  As I seek His face through His Word and prayer, I am continually hearing the same thing over and over again, “wait.”  As I’ve meditated on what it means to wait, I believe there are three specific modes of waiting He is calling me to in the midst of my pain and solitude.  I am called to wait on Him in His Word, to wait on Him in prayer, and to wait on Him in service.

God’s Word is living and active and speaks to my every need (Hebrews 4:12).  He speaks to us through the unfolding of His Word by the power of the Holy Spirit who indwells each of us as believers (1 John 2:27).  Aside from spending regular time in His Word, for me in the mornings and frequently again before going to bed, I also harness each sting of loneliness throughout the day as an impetus to meditate on His Word.  Whenever the solitude overwhelms me giving way to feelings of isolation and loneliness, I open His Word and meditate on it waiting expectantly for Him to speak.  As I wait on Him in His Word, He is so faithful to speak exactly what I need.

“My soul clings to the dust; give me life according to your word!  When I told of my ways, you answered me; teach me your statutes!  Make me understand the way of your precepts, and I will meditate on your wondrous works.  My soul melts away for sorrow; strengthen me according to your word!”  Psalm 119:25-28 [ESV]

In addition to waiting on God in His Word, I wait on Him in prayer, the two go hand in hand.  As I wait on Him in prayer He uses the power of His Word to answer and sanctify me.  I regularly pray scripture back to God, often using the prayers lifted by David and the other Psalmist as my own.  Prayer is powerful because the God of the universe hears and answers our prayers.  This simple yet revolutionary truth should continually drive us to our knees.  I say that as the one who prayed fervently for my precious child, Sarah, to be healed and to remain with me.   He did not answer how I desired that day, but as I listened in prayer He did answer, and His answer was powerful.  He spoke to my heart that Satan had asked Him for permission to sift us and He had granted it,  but if we would cling to Him He would carry us through.  He has been, and continues to be faithful to that answer.  Through time in prayer He also reveals those areas of my life that are not fully surrendered to Him, the areas where I have allowed sinful thoughts or attitudes to creep back in.  As I repent and surrender those areas back to Him I am drawn in closer to Him.  As I cry out to Him daily entrusting my pain to Him and asking Him to strengthen me yet again, He is faithful to do so.  Through His continued faithfulness to speak and answer as I wait on Him in prayer I am learning to abide more and more deeply in Him.

“He who dwells in the shelter of the Most High will abide in the shadow of the Almighty.  I will say to the LORD, ‘My refuge and my fortress, my God, in whom I trust.’  For he will deliver you from the snare of the fowler and from the deadly pestilence.  He will cover you with his pinions, and under his wings you will find refuge; his faithfulness is a shield and buckler.”  Psalm 91:1-4 [ESV]

Most recently He has been teaching me that I am also to wait on Him in service.  Previously I had viewed waiting on Him in a more passive sense, but I am now convicted that I am to actively wait on Him as well.  I am called to wait on Him much as a waiter waits on a table of dinner guests.  In His gentleness He has shown me my act of waiting on and serving Him doesn’t have to be an in depth, far reaching, complicated commitment, but instead continues to be simply perceiving and doing the next right thing.  As I daily wait at His feet, He tenderly leads me in the next right thing moment by moment, hour by hour and day by day.  If I fail to wait at His feet, shifting my gaze from His face to instead look to my circumstances and future, my heart invariably grows faint within me.  But then my gentle shepherd quietly reminds me to “not be anxious about tomorrow, for tomorrow will be anxious for itself. Sufficient for the day is its own trouble” (Matthew 6:34).  As I shift my focus back to Him, my fears are alleviated as He faithfully comforts, encourages, leads and directs me; equipping and sustaining me to actively wait on Him day by day.

“Come to me, all who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest.  Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me, for I am gentle and lowly in heart, and you will find rest for your souls.  For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.”  Matthew 11:28-30 [ESV]

So I thank Him today for using my solitude for good.  Through it He continues to teach me to abide in Him and no other.  In the silence He is teaching me to wait on Him through His Word, prayer and service.  Therefore, I cry out with the heart of Jeremiah this morning, “‘The LORD is my portion,’ says my soul, ‘therefore I will hope in him.’  The LORD is good to those who wait for him, to the soul who seeks him.  It is good that one should wait quietly for the salvation of the LORD.  It is good for a man that he bear the yoke in his youth.  Let him sit alone in silence when it is laid on him;  let him put his mouth in the dust– there may yet be hope” (Lamentations 3:24-29).

IMG_0226

Botswana Bound?

“And He summoned the crowd with His disciples, and said to them, ‘If anyone wishes to come after Me, he must deny himself, and take up his cross and follow Me.  For whoever wishes to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for My sake and the gospel’s will save it.'”  Mark 8:34-35 [NASB]

Sarah prayed at length over her role on the mission trip to Botswana.  While deciding whether or not to go, she thought and prayed about the possibility of death.  She thoughtfully and prayerfully counted the cost and deemed it worthy.  She told us before she left that no matter the outcome she knew God had called her to it.  My child counted the cost and was willing to lay her life down to share the gospel with the Tswana people because she was confident God was calling her to go.  Our hearts and lives are forever intertwined with the Tswana people through Sarah’s life.  Recognizing this compelled us to direct a portion of the Lottie Moon Christmas Offering collected in Sarah’s name toward Botswana specifically.

Scott, Katelyn, Kristen, Sophie and I are excitedly and fervently praying about the opportunity to go on a short mission trip to Botswana.   At first the idea of going to Botswana as a family was just a thought I mentioned almost in passing to Scott.   After talking and praying about it, though, it progressed from just a thought to a strong interest.  We asked one of our MZBC ministers to pray about the possibility of leading us on a trip there, which he graciously agreed to do.  We committed to continue to pray about it as well, asking God to continue to open doors if this is the direction He is leading or to close them if we are misunderstanding His leading.

While at the IMB we learned some of the greatest opportunities for ministry in Botswana are among children and college aged people.  My passion is college ministry, Scott and I have been serving with our college students for several years now and love them deeply.  Katelyn, Kristen and Sophie have been active serving in children’s and student ministry as well.  Katelyn feels called to minister to children through teaching, and will complete her degree in elementary education in December.   Realizing the greatest ministry opportunities directly align with the passions God had already set in our hearts as a family quickly fanned the flicker of interest into a flame of longing.

We don’t desire to go to simply observe or experience what Sarah would have.  Rather, we long to be the hands and feet of Christ to the people God called our child to be willing to lay her life down for.  We want to hug the Tswana children and tell them how our child loved them enough to be willing to die to share with them the love of the Savior who died and rose again for them.  Scott, as a loving father, wants to share with the fatherless of Botswana the heart of a father who deeply loves his children, and in so doing relate the love of The Father to them.  We want to stand among the Christians of Botswana and encourage them He is worthy of passionate and diligent pursuit.  We want to implore them to be people of the Word, to dig deep in study, to know truth and flush out untruths.   We long to come alongside the Turner family to love and encourage them as they pour out their lives in ministry there.  Greater than all of these longings, though, is our longing to be obedient to God’s leading.  If He is calling us to go, we are so very excited to go.  But if not, we want to be obedient to Him still, and will set aside our longing to go if He so leads.

We are continuing to pray for God to clearly guide us.  We are moving forward in planning and preparation and will trust Him to show us if we are moving in the wrong direction.  We have begun saving for the trip, and the profits from the current t-shirt sale will be held in an account for this purpose.  If God closes the door to our going to Botswana we will donate the funds through the Lottie Moon Christmas Offering.  Either way we are thankful and confident that God will be honored and Christ will be shared.

“He who loves his life loses it, and he who hates his life in this world will keep it to life eternal. If anyone serves Me, he must follow Me; and where I am, there My servant will be also; if anyone serves Me, the Father will honor him.”  John 12:25-26 [NASB]

IMG_1403.HEIC

To Order Your “Live Redeemed” Shirts Click Here

IMG_0211

The Sanitizing of Grief

“He will swallow up death for all time, And the Lord GOD will wipe tears away from all faces, And He will remove the reproach of His people from all the earth; For the LORD has spoken.  And it will be said in that day, “Behold, this is our God for whom we have waited that He might save us. This is the LORD for whom we have waited; Let us rejoice and be glad in His salvation.”  Isaiah 25:8-9 [NASB]

I’m not working through the stages of grief.  To be frank, I have grown to resent the phrase “the stages of grief” rather deeply.  Let me say it again, I am not working through the stages of grief.   I am missing my child.  I am learning to live life moment by moment, hour by hour, day by day, week by week and now month by month in the wake of the death of my daughter.  I am learning to live life without my child.  I am learning to press on while no longer hearing her singing, her laughter, or her quirky sense of humor.  I am learning to leave the house in silence instead of hearing her cries of “Wait! Wait!” as she bounds up the steps because she needs to hug me just one more time.  I am learning what it means to cling to the Hope of the resurrection unlike ever before.  I am learning what it truly means to let the Joy of the Lord be my strength.  I am learning and doing a myriad of other things, but I am not “working through the stages of grief. ”

I first learned about the stages of grief in a health occupations class in high school.  As a senior in high school I worked in CCU (the Cardiac Care Unit) and as a result saw many people die.  I remember watching terminally ill patients and their families and trying to identify where they were in the stages of grief.  True to what I had been taught, I observed some who were in denial right up to the very last seconds, some who were filled with rage, others bargaining, many depressed, and now and then even someone who had reached acceptance.  My black and white, perfectionistic personality that loves to categorize things found it very intriguing.  In my immaturity, it was a neat, tidy little outline, another medical process to be observed and analyzed.

Later in college I took a class titled, “Death and Dying.” We looked at how different cultures respond to death, it was there that I was first confronted with the concept of “the sanitizing of death.”  I don’t remember if that was the exact phrase used in our discussions, but it was definitely the thrust of what we discussed.  As you look across cultures in comparison it becomes clear that Western culture strives to hide death as much as possible.   We clean it up, or “sanitize it” to make it more palatable, or to hide it all together.  It’s uncomfortable and awkward to discuss, and its aftermath, grief, is equally uncomfortable and awkward, so we make every effort to neutralize the sting of both.

Sadly, along with death, I fear we are sanitizing grief through standardizing and medicalizing “The Stages of Grief.”  While outlines of the stages of grief may be beneficial in recognizing the gamut of emotions and feelings many walk through as they grieve, I think the manner in which many now apply “the stages of grief” has become a detriment to the bereaved.  The prevalence of referring to bereaved family members as “working through the stages of grief” may well be another way we are sanitizing death.  We shift the focus from the tragic death of their loved one and the details of the legitimate and horrific pain they are experiencing to instead focusing on a standardized process that even in its title lacks the impact of the word death.  It is an impotent encapsulation of the heart shattering reality of the bereaved.  It distances the observer from the full impact of death, because now the bereaved are working through a defined process that has a conclusion.  It’s neat, it’s tidy and it’s much more comfortable to discuss.

Those who are better educated on the stages of grief are quick to tell the bereaved that they may go through the stages in any order, skip some of the stages, and they may go back and forth between stages as well.  The educated will also tell the bereaved there is no set timeline for working through the stages, that everyone does it in their own time and way.  But the implication remains that there is a conclusion, there should be resolution and the bereaved are charged with working toward it.  If we switched our terminology back to what I shared in the first paragraph, though, would there be a conclusion?  What if instead of talking about “working through the stages of grief” we talked about me no longer “missing my child,” or for better clarity yet, you not missing your child?

If your child is gone when do you stop missing them? Think about the last time your child was gone, if it was more than a few days, say a week or even a month, did you miss them more the first day or after many days?  Because my child is physically dead and I can not see her again this side of heaven does that mean that changes for me?  It does not.  I miss her more today than I did the first day.  That deep sorrow I feel as I miss her, that throbbing pain in my heart is “grief.”  There are no stages, processes or procedures that will strip away my longing to see and hold my child, or the grief that results from my inability to see and hold her.  There will be no conclusion or resolution to my grief this side of heaven.  But saying that undoubtedly made someone reading this very uncomfortable.  It sounds hopeless, perhaps someone even had a desire to clean it up a bit, to sanitize it.

Don’t do it, don’t sanitize grief.  Grief hurts and it is raw, but grieving is not bad or wrong, it is not a disorder to be cured, and it is not a list of stages or steps to be completed.  It is simply deep sorrow in response to deep loss.  The presence of grief does not eliminate the possibility of joy and happiness.  Grief and joy exist simultaneously.  I grieve the absence of Sarah, but I have great joy that she is in the presence of our Lord and Savior, and even greater joy that I will one day join her there.  I am able to celebrate the victories and blessings of others while at the same time bearing the pain of her absence in my heart.  The permanence of my grief does not define or enslave me, but it does change me, it molds me.  God, who uses all things for the good of those who love Him, is using my grief as a sanctifying flame to refine and transform me more and more into His image.

In my pondering I have frequently wondered if Satan plays a role in the sanitizing of death.  It makes sense that the very one who comes to steal, kill and destroy would want us to avoid meditating on the weight and ramifications of death.  Death and grief should not be hidden away or sanitized.  Instead they should be harnessed as powerful reminders of the consequence of sin, the fallenness of this world – and the origin of death itself.  Death and grief are reminders of the brevity of this life and we should use them as catalysts to teach ourselves and others “to number our days that we may get a heart of wisdom” (Psalm 90:12).  They also provide profound opportunities “to make a defense to anyone who asks you for a reason for the hope that is in you” (1 Peter 3:15).

I am not working through the stages of grief.  But God is working through my grief to transform me, to equip me and to use me in ways that He has foreordained (Eph. 2:10).  My grief is part of my offering to Him.   Just as I offer up my life to Him, I offer up my grief, knowing  that He who is faithful will use it, too, for His glory and my good.

“Why are you in despair, O my soul? And why have you become disturbed within me? Hope in God, for I shall again praise Him For the help of His presence.”  Psalm 42:5 [NASB]

IMG_9361.JPG copyArtwork: Sarah Harmening

Immeasurably More

“Now to him who is able to do immeasurably more than all we ask or imagine, according to his power that is at work within us, to him be glory in the church and in Christ Jesus throughout all generations, for ever and ever! Amen.”  Ephesians 3:20-21 [NIV]

In the minutes after Scott told Katelyn, Kristen, Sophie and me that Sarah was gone, we all huddled on the floor of that little EMS office suite and cried out to God asking Him to please redeem the unimaginable pain, and allow us to see at least a portion of that redemption.  In those moments we had no idea the depths of pain we would enter in the days, weeks and now months that followed, but shock and numbness gradually subsided to reveal the excruciating reality of the absence of our precious child, and sister to our girls.  From the first moments, though, we knew and clung to the foundational truth of Romans 8:28, that God would redeem the agony because “we know that God causes all things to work together for good to those who love God, to those who are called according to His purpose” [NASB].

One of the ways that God quickly revealed He was redeeming our pain was through an outpouring of support for the Lottie Moon Christmas Offering in honor of Sarah.  As previously shared, our initial goal was to raise enough funds to support a missionary for one year, a lofty goal of $58,200.00.  However, our gracious and mighty God “who is able to do immeasurably more than all we ask or imagine, according to His power that is at work within us,” chose to move in the hearts of our brothers and sisters in Christ to far surpass what we asked of Him.  To be exact, He prompted generous men, women, students and children throughout our community and abroad to donate $32,920.00 more than we asked or imagined, for a total of $91,120.00.

There are no words to adequately express how deeply grateful and blessed our family feels for the generous outpouring.  We recognize each donation was an offering first and foremost to our Lord and Savior, but also that each donation was given with the intent of honoring Sarah and her heart’s longing to share the gospel message and the love of Christ throughout the world, and in Botswana specifically.   Motivated by a desire to make the impact of the donated funds more concrete for Katelyn, Kristen and Sophie, we contacted the International Mission Board leadership to ask if we could deliver the donation to them personally.  In addition we asked if they would share with us how the funds might be used so we could then partner with those ministries in prayer.

October 25, 2017, we spent the entire day with some of our brothers and sisters in Christ who serve with the International Mission Board in Richmond, Virginia.  We were loved so very well and once again blessed immeasurably more than we could ask or imagine.  By the end of the day we felt we have another home in Richmond with our family at the IMB.  They taught us, listened to us, laughed with us and cried with us.  They loved us with the love of Christ.  It ministered to my heart as Sarah’s mom, but as Katelyn’s, Kristen’s and Sophie’s mom, I am forever indebted.  They were the hands and feet of Christ to our family, demonstrating for our girls God’s ongoing tender loving care for us.  God used the time and effort they invested in us to show our girls that He is indeed at work through the midst of the unimaginable pain they face day in and day out, to give them tangible evidence that He is actively redeeming it and using it for good.

We were able to learn about a precious family serving as missionaries in Botswana, Brent and Amanda Turner.  Now that we have their names and some of their prayer needs we are excited to partner with them in prayer.  We were also blessed to Skype with a missionary in South Africa who had previously served in Botswana as well.  He was able to share at length about the ministry and prayer needs for Botswana, as well as some of the prayer needs of his family and their area of ministry.  We learned that the population of Botswana is approximately 2,250,000, of those 1,545,000 are Tswana people.  75% of the population in Botswana is under the age of 29, and fatherlessness is pervasive, both facts present unique ministry needs and opportunities.  After hearing him share we had a strong sense that Matthew 9:37-38 is absolutely true of Botswana, “The harvest is plentiful, but the laborers are few”  therefore we, too, are compelled to “pray earnestly to the Lord of the harvest to send out laborers into His harvest.”

The Global Engagement Team graciously gave us the opportunity to designate a portion of the funds given, almost $30,000, to three Lottie Moon projects in Botswana.  The remaining majority of the funds will go into the Lottie Moon Christmas Offering fund to support missionaries like the Turners in Botswana.

Once again, to all who donated, bought shirts, or supported us in any other way, we are so very, very grateful.  Thank you for your willingness to funnel your donation through the Lottie Moon Offering in Sarah’s name so we can have the opportunity to see God tangibly redeeming Sarah’s absence and our pain.  We hope you will join with us in praying for the three Lottie Moon projects in Botswana, that God will providentially guide the implementation of each, and that each will be effectively used to make an eternal impact in the lives of all who are touched by them.

QuotePhoto courtesy of Matt JonesPrayerChapelPhoto courtesy of Matt JonesSmilingFamilyPhoto courtesy of Matt JonesIMG_1403.HEIC

Deliverance, Memorials & Hope

“So Joshua called the twelve men whom he had appointed from the sons of Israel, one man from each tribe;  and Joshua said to them, “Cross again to the ark of the LORD your God into the middle of the Jordan, and each of you take up a stone on his shoulder, according to the number of the tribes of the sons of Israel.  “Let this be a sign among you, so that when your children ask later, saying, ‘What do these stones mean to you?’  then you shall say to them, ‘Because the waters of the Jordan were cut off before the ark of the covenant of the LORD; when it crossed the Jordan, the waters of the Jordan were cut off.’ So these stones shall become a memorial to the sons of Israel forever.”  Joshua 4:4-7 [NASB]

Throughout the Word of God we are instructed to tell what He has done.  Memorials and altars were built as reminders of His mighty works and deliverance, each time with the intent that they would prompt the telling of His provision and glory.  The theme of God’s deliverance of His people is throughout His Word.  The Old Testament is the deliverance of His people chosen and set apart for the ushering in of Messiah, and in the New Testament His offer of deliverance to the World through the precious blood of Messiah, Jesus Christ.  Each time one is delivered they are instructed to “tell.”  Testimonies of God’s provision and deliverance consistently give hope to all who hear.

“We will not conceal them from their children, But tell to the generation to come the praises of the LORD, And His strength and His wondrous works that He has done.”  Psalm 78:4 [NASB]

In the midst of God’s deliverance we might be tempted to assume we will never forget what we have witnessed, but with time and tribulation memories can fade, and with the fading of those memories hope can fade as well.  We need memorials.  We need written records of the mighty works of God.  We need to consistently tell the great works He has done, not just so the next generation and the generation after them will know, but also to remind ourselves and serve as an impetus to continually fix our focus on Him.

“Seek the LORD and His strength; Seek His face continually.  Remember His wonderful deeds which He has done, His marvels and the judgments from His mouth”  1 Chronicles 16:11-12 [NASB]

God has been so faithful to provide for us in the valley of the shadow of death.  He is faithfully and mightily redeeming that which the enemy intended for harm, the taking of Sarah’s physical life.  Thanks to the generous donations of many we have a check for $90,000.00 to deliver to the International Mission Board to fund mission work that Sarah was so very excited about and willing to lay her life down for.  We look forward to telling and recording the story of how He uses that money in the days ahead.

“But as for me, the nearness of God is my good; I have made the Lord GOD my refuge, That I may tell of all Your works.”  Psalm 73:28 [NASB]

I long for the telling of our personal story of God’s provision and deliverance of our family in the valley of the shadow of death to bring hope to others.  This written record of our journey is our lasting memorial to Him, not just for the generations to come, but for us as well.  In the days ahead there will continue to be many dark stormy days when hope may seem elusive, but my prayer is this memorial will be a beacon in the night reminding us and others of the certain hope we have in Him.

“When I remember You on my bed, I meditate on You in the night watches,  For You have been my help, And in the shadow of Your wings I sing for joy.  My soul clings to You; Your right hand upholds me.” Psalm 63:6-8 [NASB]

We savor and cling to each and every account of God redemptively using Sarah’s life and death.  To our family each testimony is like one of the stones Joshua commanded the leaders of the tribes to stack.  Each testimony reminds not just us, but all others who hear it, of God’s faithfulness to provide and redeem all things for the good of His people.  What a blessing it would be to build a memorial tower here of testimonies of how God is using our family’s dark valley for His glory.  If you have been impacted through Sarah’s life and love of Christ will you consider sharing your testimony here to join us in the building of a lasting memorial?

“I shall remember the deeds of the LORD; Surely I will remember Your wonders of old.  I will meditate on all Your work And muse on Your deeds.  Your way, O God, is holy; What god is great like our God?  You are the God who works wonders; You have made known Your strength among the peoples.”  Psalm 77:11-14 [NASB]

10448244_10205611538633593_3165466445760749080_n