“Faking Fine” in the Midst of Grief?

“I pray that the eyes of your heart may be enlightened, so that you will know what is the hope of His calling, what are the riches of the glory of His inheritance in the saints, and what is the surpassing greatness of His power toward us who believe.  These are in accordance with the working of the strength of His might which He brought about in Christ, when He raised Him from the dead and seated Him at His right hand in the heavenly places, far above all rule and authority and power and dominion, and every name that is named, not only in this age but also in the one to come.  And He put all things in subjection under His feet, and gave Him as head over all things to the church,  which is His body, the fullness of Him who fills all in all.”  Ephesians 1:18-23 [NASB]

Over the past eight months I’ve read countless articles imploring grieving people to not “fake being fine.”  Many of the articles express deep concern over the importance of being open with everyone about your pain and never suppressing or stifling your emotions which is to the detriment of your own well being.  Others express concern from the viewpoint that grieving people who “fake” well being unintentionally reinforce or perpetuate false beliefs and unrealistic expectations regarding the depth and longevity of grief, particularly the grief of parents who have lost a child.  I understand both concerns and the validity of each, but have struggled to understand what really constitutes “faking fine.”  I’m suspicious some would deem me a faker as I have struggled to navigate feeling lost between two seemingly opposing realities.

One reality is my family’s and my ongoing inner brokenness from Sarah’s sudden departure.  This reality finds my husband’s and my hearts equally shattered, and our remaining children deeply wounded.  It is a reality characterized by deep, inexpressible pain that regularly reverberates through our souls.  None of us are who we were prior to Sarah’s departure.  We have each been transformed by the cavernous wound of her absence.  This reality requires inordinate amounts of energy and effort to be invested in understanding who we are now, both as individuals and as a family.   Nurturing our remaining nuclear family relationships and seeking to ensure the well being of each individual as we learn how to move forward together is a staggering responsibility.   On a nightly basis it takes Scott and me to our knees together in brokenness and desperation seeking God’s sustaining grace, wisdom and strength to persevere.  This is the heart rending and exhausting reality of “child loss.”  We are aware of this reality every moment of every day.

The other reality is equally unavoidable, it is the mundane reality of “every day life.”  We must persevere in living daily life in a world that has more or less moved on without our daughter.  In this reality there is Scott going to work each day, our meeting the daily needs of our remaining children, household management tasks, various errands, as well as church involvement, just to name a few.  In this reality I interact superficially with most of the people I encounter.  My focus in this reality is the task at hand, as well as the people each task brings me into contact with.  I smile, I answer “fine” when casually asked as a greeting, “how are you?”, I reciprocate small talk, and I strive to be politely attentive and engaged in whatever topics, interests or concerns others choose to discuss.  Sarah and our desperately missing her are rarely mentioned by anyone in this reality.  In this reality my pain is not visible and I appear fine.

I’ve recognized from very early on the apparent dichotomy between these two realities.  I have repeatedly pondered the possibility that I am “faking fine.” My concern that I might be perceived that way was recently reinforced by a friend.  After I shared my perception of the two realities with her, she interjected, “but that’s faking it.”  I was not surprised by her assessment, but I was disappointed because that is definitely not my intention.  In my mind, instead of opposing realities where one is “real” and one is “fake,” they are actually both “real” or “true” realities.  The more I’ve pondered it, I have come to believe they are actually joined together within a third overarching reality, the reality of our Hope.

“Therefore we do not lose heart, but though our outer man is decaying, yet our inner man is being renewed day by day.  For momentary, light affliction is producing for us an eternal weight of glory far beyond all comparison,  while we look not at the things which are seen, but at the things which are not seen; for the things which are seen are temporal, but the things which are not seen are eternal.”  2 Corinthians 4:16-18 [NASB]

Sarah is alive.  Though she died, she lives (John 11:25).  She is absent from the body and present with the Lord, alive with Him in paradise today (2 Cor. 5:8; Luke 23:43).  Though death has not been destroyed yet, it has been defeated through the shed blood and resurrection of Jesus Christ.  As I fix my eyes on the Hope I have in Christ, my heart becomes acutely aware of the distinction between the temporal and the eternal.

Strong’s defines the word translated “temporal” in  2 Corinthians 4:18 as “for the occasion only, i.e. temporary:—dur-(eth) for awhile, endure for a time, for a season, temporal.”  My separation from Sarah is temporal, for a season.  My deep heartache and that of my family is temporal, temporary.  My opportunity to be used by Christ in this life to make an eternal impact is also a temporary fleeting opportunity.  I can’t say it any better than Sarah did in one of her last text messages:

“For you have been born again, not of perishable seed, but of imperishable, through the living and enduring word of God. For, ‘All people 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 endures forever.’” 1 Peter 1:23-25 [NIV]

“This is such a great reminder! We are like a wisp of smoke. We are only here a moment. And this is not about us. Life is not about us.  It’s about God who is eternal. So I want to dedicate the one moment I’m here completely and entirely to him.” ~Sarah Harmening

The clashing of the pain and Hope within me sparks an overwhelming awareness of the brevity of life and an urgent longing for my remaining days to be full of fruitful labor (Phil. 1:22).  I am consumed with a desire to finish well (1 Tim. 4:7-8).  Hope compels me to fix my eyes on the goal before me (Phil. 3:14).  Obedience to my Lord in running the race marked out before me takes precedence over my pain (Heb. 12:1-3).  Every day I acknowledge the presence of the pain to Him, the only One who can help.  I entrust it to Him daily and then I fix my eyes on the goal and seek His leading for the day ahead.  If He prompts the sharing of my testimony or pain to comfort or encourage another I will gladly share, but I am content to be silent about it otherwise.

I’m not faking fine, I am just learning to be content in Him.  In accordance with His great faithfulness, He pours His sustaining grace and strength into my shattered heart alongside the pain and Hope to enable me to cry out with the Apostle Paul, “…I have learned in whatever situation I am to be content.  I know how to be brought low, and I know how to abound. In any and every circumstance, I have learned the secret of facing plenty and hunger, abundance and need.  I can do all things through him who strengthens me” (Phil.4:11b-13 [ESV]).

“Therefore, since we are surrounded by such a great cloud of witnesses, let us throw off everything that hinders and the sin that so easily entangles. And let us run with perseverance the race marked out for us,  fixing our eyes on Jesus, the pioneer and perfecter of faith. For the joy set before him he endured the cross, scorning its shame, and sat down at the right hand of the throne of God.  Consider him who endured such opposition from sinners, so that you will not grow weary and lose heart.”  Hebrews 12:1-3 [NIV]

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Artwork: Sarah Harmening

Redeem My Pain, O God.

“Look upon my affliction and rescue me,
For I do not forget Your law.
Plead my cause and redeem me;
Revive me according to Your word.”
Psalm 119:153-154 [NASB]

Since the moments immediately following Sarah’s earthly death I have clung to the hope that God would use both her death and our indescribable pain to further His kingdom.  The pain of Sarah’s absence drives an urgency within my spirit, a longing to “do” something, a desperation to be used by God in a way I can see.  I hoped and believed that this deep pain would surely be met with “big redemption.”   “Big redemption” being something of broad, tangible, visible, powerful, and ongoing impact.

I’ve prayed over and over again with hands open before Him and tears flowing, pleading with Him to show me what He would have me do.  If led by Him, I would be willing to move around the globe to share His name, to go to school for broader ministry opportunities, or to pour myself into ministry locally.  I am willing to follow Him wherever and however He leads.  I’ve offered it all up to Him, the pain and my life as a whole, but all He has spoken in response is “wait.”  Over and over again, both through prayer and His Word He repeatedly says only “wait.”

“I would have despaired unless I had believed that I would see the goodness of the LORD In the land of the living.  Wait for the LORD;
Be strong and let your heart take courage; Yes, wait for the LORD.”
Psalm 27:13-14 [NASB]

For months “wait” was the only response He gave my petitions, until a couple of weeks ago.  A couple of weeks ago through His Word and prayer He gently spoke another word to my heart, and what He whispered was not what I wanted to hear.  In the stillness of my quiet time He asked me if I would be content if the only redemption I ever saw was the refining of my own heart.  He prodded my heart asking if I will be satisfied if the only lasting change to come from all my pain associated with Sarah’s death, as well as some excruciating circumstances surrounding it, is my own personal sanctification.

My transparent response was one of great disappointment.  The Holy Spirit within me boldly testifies that personal sanctification is more than enough redemption for the agony I bear.  But my aching heart resists that notion as it longs instead for what it perceives as “big redemption.”  My flesh cries out for redemption that it deems more worthy of the excruciating pain being redeemed.  Others who bear the same or similar pain get to see redemption in the form of foundations and ministries that have tremendous ongoing impact for His kingdom.  Yet, the Lord is speaking to my shattered heart that it must be willing to be content with the possibility of its only redemption being its own refining?

The truth is, I deeply longed for the big redemption to be the sparking of heart transforming revival in our church and community.  We as a family, Sarah included, had prayed for revival in our church and community throughout the year preceding her death.  How can I possibly be content if instead my heart is the only one impacted?

“Sow with a view to righteousness,
Reap in accordance with kindness;
Break up your fallow ground,
For it is time to seek the LORD
Until He comes to rain righteousness on you.”

Hosea 10:12 [NASB]

As I wrestled with the Spirit through scripture and prayer, I was confronted with the reality of my misplaced focus.  I recognized the sanctifying work the Lord was doing in my heart through the pain, but I failed to appreciate the immeasurable worth of it.  I was so focused on a desire for external redemption, being called to “go” or “do,” or seeing others impacted, that I failed to rightly appreciate the big redemption He had already provided; His ongoing sanctifying work in my heart in the midst of the flames.

Progressive personal sanctification is “big redemption.”  Sanctification turns the soil of our hearts, rips out the weeds of fleshly tendencies and desires, and enables the fruit of the Spirit to flourish in abundance.  Priceless fruit, both visible and tangible redemption.  Through the sanctifying flames of adversity “the proof of our faith” is found (1 Peter 1:6-7).  This sanctified faith that emerges, forged and fortified through the flames, is “more precious than gold.”  Precious redemption.  Powerful, imperishable, lasting redemption.

“In this you greatly rejoice, even though now for a little while, if necessary, you have been distressed by various trials,  so that the proof of your faith, being more precious than gold which is perishable, even though tested by fire, may be found to result in praise and glory and honor at the revelation of Jesus Christ;”  1 Peter 1:6-7 [NASB]

I am still in the flames.  He is still refining and sanctifying me through the relentless pain.  He is still saying “wait,” but He is also saying “be content” in the wait.  He is specifically challenging me to be content to “lead a quiet life” as I wait on Him (1 Thess. 4:7-12).  In the midst of the pain, He is gently calling me to choose to joyfully embrace and celebrate His ongoing transforming work in my heart as “big redemption.”

Perhaps one day soon He will no longer say “wait,” but will instead say “go” or “do.”  If He does, I will rejoice in that day knowing that He has prepared my heart for “such a time” through His sanctifying work in the flames.  Whatever my calling may be, whether “wait,” “go” or “do,” may my obedience to it, and my sanctification through it “result in praise and glory and honor at the revelation of Jesus Christ.

 “For God has not called us for the purpose of impurity,
but in sanctification.
So, he who rejects this is not rejecting man
but the God who gives His Holy Spirit to you.
Now as to the love of the brethren,
you have no need for anyone to write to you,
for you yourselves are taught by God to love one another;
for indeed you do practice it toward all the brethren who are in all Macedonia.
But we urge you, brethren, to excel still more,
and to make it your ambition to lead a quiet life
and attend to your own business and work with your hands,
just as we commanded you,
so that you will behave properly toward outsiders and not be in any need.
But we do not want you to be uninformed, brethren, about those who are asleep,
so that you will not grieve as do the rest who have no hope.
For if we believe that Jesus died and rose again,
even so God will bring with Him those who have fallen asleep in Jesus.”

1 Thessalonians 4:7-14 [NASB]

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Christmas 2016: My last Christmas  with Sarah, with the last gift she made me

Helping Your Grieving Friend

Timewise I’ve really only just begun this painful journey of deep grief, but I’ve already learned a number of significant lessons.  I’m sharing some here both for future reference for myself, and in hopes that they might be helpful to others walking alongside grieving friends.

I dislike the ever popular lists of “15 things you should never say to___________” or “10 things you should always do for_________”.   Those lists consistently strike me as being rooted in egocentrism and entitlement, and lacking grace.  We who are grieving do not get a free pass to be egocentric, entitled or lacking in grace.  We continue to answer to the command to be governed by love and grace, bearing with one another patiently and overlooking offenses.

My intention is not to present a legalistic list of do’s and don’ts regarding grieving people.  I am simply sharing some of what I and other grieving friends have found both helpful and hurtful.

Please hear me cheering you on and encouraging you in your call to walk alongside your grieving friend.  We have been so blessed by those who have faithfully come alongside us and we hope they will continue the journey with us.  In the same way, your grieving friend will be deeply blessed by and appreciative of your faithful, Spirit-led companionship.

BEFORE YOU HELP:


Check your motives before attempting to help a grieving person.  

If you are wanting to position yourself in the life of a grieving person in some way other than providing simple practical help, be certain to check your motives before you do.  Go to the Lord and ask Him to help you examine your heart to be certain you are desiring to come alongside that broken person for right reasons.

It is possible to mistakenly believe you can somehow effectively save or rescue the grieving person.  It feels good to help people, but we must ensure we are driven by selfless love for them in our helping, not a subconscious desire to be the one who saves them.  There is only one Savior who can provide the help they desperately need in their grief, and His name is Jesus Christ.  If you approach them with any hint of believing you are equipped or called to tether, save or rescue them, you will unintentionally do more harm than good.

Weep with those who weep; and be quick to listen and slow to speak.
(Romans 12:15, James 1:19)

  • Weep with those who weep.  Nothing has ministered to us more than those who genuinely hurt with us.  Whether shared in person with tearful hugs, or through cards and messages, shared heartache is a precious gift.  This continues to be powerfully true eight months later, and will remain true the remainder of our earthly days.
  • Be quick to listen.  Listen intently and be faithful to pray for whatever wounds or needs they share or you perceive.
  • Be very slow to speak words other than those of love and compassion.  Be extremely cautious about offering unsolicited counsel, or bombarding with scripture, articles and literature.  Unless you are absolutely confident the Lord is prompting the sharing, choose instead to simply weep with those who weep.
  • Attempting to relate dissimilar grief experiences is generally not helpful.  It might seem like sharing your grief experience would help them by demonstrating you know and relate to their pain, and as a result can counsel or encourage them.  But unless your experience is very similar, you actually do not know and can not relate.  For example: the death of my grandmother and the death of a very dear friend, both of whom I deeply loved, along with my miscarriage were all three extremely painful grief experiences; but they relate in very few ways to the pain and grief associated with my child’s death.
  • Avoid all non-death related parallels.  Attempting to relate to their pain by sharing your experience of pain in the loss of a possession, animal, job, or home (or any other non-death related life transition) is unintentionally hurtful.  It devalues the life of their loved one, and reflects a failure to comprehend the magnitude of the loss that person has experienced.  They would gladly endure any non-death related experience you might share to have their loved one back.
  • Be diligent in prayer.  Ask God for discernment and wisdom as you interact.  He is faithful and will guide you if you are surrendered to Him.

ABOUT GRIEF:


Grief is not a medical process to be completed.

Grief is not a series of steps that we work though, a list of boxes to be checked, or a process with a right and wrong way to be completed.  Grief is the agony we experience in the absence of a precious loved one, and it will persist as long as we love that person.  For more on this, read here…

  • Pray for your grieving friends.  Not just “Lord comfort them,” but genuine, deep, wrestling in prayer on their behalf.  Pray scripture over them, the Psalms are a treasure trove for this.
  • Understand there are no standards or timelines for grieving. Understand and constantly remind yourself of this.
  • Don’t sanitize their grief.   Grief is sanitized by viewing it as a medical process rather than the reality of the deep pain and loss they are suffering in the absence of their loved one.  Read more here…
  • Accept that they may always grieve. Their grief may change form or appearance, but depending upon their relationship to the deceased, they may always grieve.  With near certainty, parents who have endured the death of a child will always grieve.  The waves of anguish will vary in frequency, intensity and duration, but they will continue to come until they are reunited with their loved one.

Grief is emotionally and mentally exhausting.

The magnitude of the emotional and mental anguish of deep grief, the death of a child particularly, is incomprehensible outside of experiencing it.  Trying to accept and process the reality of the unthinkable is all-consuming.  All of the grieving person’s mental and emotional resources are occupied with processing the death of their loved one.  For parents with children still at home, the intense emotional and mental demands are compounded as they must also strive to ensure the well being of their remaining children.  Even after the initial shock has passed, the emotional self control required to push through the heartache of grief to accomplish activities of daily living is staggering.  This is particularly true when those activities require interacting superficially in public or group settings.  Normal events that previously required little emotional energy, like church attendance, can be completely exhausting in the midst of deep grief.  

  • Pray for your grieving friends.  Ask God to strengthen them, and to lavishly grant them His grace and mercy to enable them to persevere emotionally and mentally.  Ask them for specific needs to pray for, and then purposefully bathe those needs in prayer.  Follow up with them for updates when appropriate.
  • Be available, but allow space.  Offer to be present in a way that they can decline your offer without fearing hurting your feelings.  For me, short text messages were awesome, but phone calls were stressful (and still kind of are..).  Ask if it is a good time to visit rather than showing up at their home unannounced.
  • Don’t add to their burdens.  Be cautious about sharing non-urgent or unnecessary problems or burdens with your deeply grieving friend.  If they love you they will feel responsibility to shoulder your burden as well, further depleting and compromising them emotionally.

Grief is Spiritually exhausting.

Spiritual warfare, especially when wounded, is exhausting.  I believe our adversary who lives to steal, kill and destroy, fixes his focus and intensifies his attacks on those who are wounded.  In the midst of this warfare we know that the Lord is close to the brokenhearted, we know that He will neither abandon nor forsake them.  Even in their deepest grief He is actively and faithfully ministering to, teaching and instructing the brokenhearted in His time and His way.

  •  Pray for your grieving friends. Pray that they will be able to fix their focus on Christ and that their ears will be attentive to His voice.  Pray that He will speak to them through His Word, and that the truth they glean will echo in their minds and hearts as an anchor for their souls.
  • Don’t assume you know what they need spiritually.  Remember the lesson and rebuke of Job’s friends in the book of Job.  Be extremely cautious about presuming what your grieving friend needs spiritually.  Unless you are absolutely confident the Lord is prompting the sharing of something, choose instead to simply weep with those who weep.
  • Don’t panic if they wrestle with God and His truths.  In the midst of their distress everything they know and believe is in The Refiner’s flames.  Their wrestling will result in the stripping away of falsehoods and the strengthening of Truth in their lives.  Faithfully pray for them to persevere in their wrestling until Truth prevails.  If they do, they will emerge refined and fortified for their good and His glory.
  • If you are praying for them, tell them.  A simple text message is fine, “I’m praying for you right now.”  But only tell them that if you are really interceding for them in legitimate purposeful prayer.  They will never tire of hearing it. Never.

Grief is physically exhausting.

Words can not adequately describe the bone-aching, crippling physical fatigue of deep grief.  The cumulative energy exerted emotionally, mentally and spiritually to process the catastrophic impact of death renders you completely and utterly physically exhausted.  In addition, sleep disturbances are common while grieving, further compounding that already debilitating exhaustion.

  • Pray for your grieving friends.  Pray for them to be able to sleep.  Night time is extremely hard for many who grieve, pray for the Lord to guard their thoughts through the night watches and shield them from the attacks of the enemy.  Pray for the Lord to miraculously sustain them through the exhaustion to do the things that have to be done.  Then pray that the Lord will give them discernment to recognize what has to be done and to let go of that which does not.
  • Deliver household necessities and grocery items.   Toilet paper, paper towels, disposable cups, plates, utensils, garbage bags, and grocery staples are always helpful.  Before delivering, text them to ask if it’s okay to leave the items on the porch.  If they are having a particularly hard time at that moment this releases them from the additional emotional strain of visiting, but if they want to visit it gives them time to prepare.
  • Offer specific practical help.  “I would like to bring a meal one night this week, may I?” “I would like to cut your grass this weekend, may I?” “I would like to help you clean this week, which rooms may I clean for you?”  A grieving friend shared that a group of her friends paid for house cleaning service for a period of time, also a great idea.
  • Give gift cards for meals.  Gift cards for meals are a fantastic way to help.  It will both challenge and enable them to get out of the house, and at the same time meets a very real need.
  • Be patient and understanding.  If you’ve asked or offered to get together with them, recognize that they may be too exhausted to do something right now, but that won’t always be the case. Try again later.

Grief impairs memory, focus, concentration and comprehension.

The overwhelming nature of deep grief obliterates mental acuity.  Short term memory and the ability to focus and concentrate become scarce resources.  Since they struggle to focus on one thing, let alone concentrate on it for any length of time, comprehension fails as well.  I can testify to the accuracy of this well documented fact.  I have to set multiple reminders for every single event, and post-it notes are indispensable.  I can’t remember who told me what, or who I told what.  It seems to be improving slightly after almost eight months, but my mental acuity is nowhere near where it was before Sarah left.

  • Pray for your grieving friends.  There is so much to be decided and completed in the days immediately following the death of their loved one that the strain on mental acuity is particularly frustrating and distressing.  Pray for them to be able to remember, focus and comprehend to accomplish all that has to be done.  Pray for these issues to stabilize in the weeks and months that follow.
  • Buy them Post-it notes.  That’s partially tongue in cheek, but if you happen to be delivering paper goods, by all means throw in some post-it notes.
  • Invite them to get together.  They are squarely focused on surviving each day, it is unlikely they will have the foresight or thought to invite you.  However, if you invite them they may well come, and even if they are not up to it they will appreciate being reached out to.
  • If they fail to acknowledge your kind gesture, know that it does not indicate lack of appreciation.   They most likely have just forgotten to respond, or are so overwhelmed with their grief that they simply can not respond yet.  Cards, letters and kind gestures are always deeply appreciated, and increasingly so when they arrive after weeks, months and years have passed.
  • Don’t take it personally if they don’t respond to texts or calls.  If they fail to respond to your text, call, offer to get together or other kind gesture, don’t take it personally.  It most likely has nothing to do with you, and everything to do with their grief.   They may be too overwhelmed or exhausted, or they may have simply overlooked the message or forgotten to reply.  Don’t take it personally and give up or pull away from them, just try again later.
  • Don’t expect them to remember your offers.  If you mention in passing that you would like to get together with them, they probably will not remember or think to contact you to make it happen.  Don’t assume that means they don’t want to spend time with you, assume they are overwhelmed or forgot.

Grief is awkward.

Grief is so awkward.   If you feel awkward around your grieving friend, you are not alone.  Many people voice gripping fear about saying or doing  “the wrong thing.”
On the flip side, it is incredibly awkward for your grieving friend as well. They have no idea how to navigate this new path and role they didn’t choose.  In an instant every relationship they have was altered, and in many ways they have to relearn each one.  They are completely overwhelmed.

  • Recognize greetings can be awkward.  “How are you?” is a really awkward one.  If you can remember to greet them in a different way, it would probably be appreciated, perhaps greeting instead with, “It’s good to see you.”  Don’t panic if you forget, though.   Most grieving people will learn to view “How are you?” as a generic greeting, and will justify answering generically with something like “okay” or “fine.”
  • Acknowledge the awkwardness.  If you are extremely concerned about saying or doing something to hurt them, just acknowledge it.  Say something like, “I don’t know what to say, I am fearful of saying something that might hurt you, but I want you to know I love you.” [only say that if you actually do love them…]
  • Don’t pretend like nothing has happened.  Awkwardness is intensified by pretending like nothing has happened, especially if you’re seeing each other for the first time since the death or funeral.  Just a short acknowledgment is often all that is necessary to disarm the awkward.  Something as simple as “I’m really sorry for your loss” will usually work.
  • If it appears they are fine, it doesn’t mean they are “over it.” Particularly in the  weeks and months following the death, appearing fine does not reflect being fine.  It is just an indicator that they are perfecting the tedious skill of restraining their grief.  Their pain and heartache is always just beneath the surface.  You don’t have to worry about hurting them by accidentally reminding them of their loss, it is impossible for them to forget.
  • Participate in conversation about the person who has died.   Sometimes conversation will naturally drift to the person who has died, don’t panic if it does.  If your grieving friend is steering the conversation there and engaging in it, that means it is helpful to them to talk about their loved one, engage with them.
  • Be attentive to their social cues.   If they appear to be trying to end a conversation with you or anyone else, help them gracefully end it.  This can be particularly helpful in a group setting,  I was rescued on more than one occasion.  The need to end the conversation is not a negative reflection on you or the person they are talking to, it’s just recognition that they may have reached their emotional limit.
  • It’s never too late to reach out to them.  If you’ve let the awkwardness of grief prevent you from reaching out to them, its not too late.  Apologize to them for being absent, if you think that is appropriate or needed, and proceed to reach out to them however you feel led.  I can testify eight months later I would very graciously welcome it, so I believe others would as well.

Your friend may grieve for the remainder of their earthly life. 

I can’t emphasize enough that your friend may continue to grieve for the remainder of their earthly life.  If it is their child who has departed, they will.  Their hearts won’t just ache on the “special days,” anniversaries and holidays, but at completely random times as well.  When an unexpected thought or memory washes over them, when they see someone interacting as they used to with their loved one, when a certain song is sung at church, upon hearing a certain phrase, smells, sights, places, on and on the list of triggers goes. Through God’s grace, over time they will become much more adept at reeling it in and restraining it.  But because the pain persists they will always be touched and encouraged by you acknowledging it.

  • Persevere in praying for your grieving friends.  There is no greater gift that you can give them.  They are most likely weary and longing for Home, continue to pray for His soothing of their aching hearts.  Pray for God’s sustaining grace to richly abide in them to enable them to live fruitfully for Him until He calls them Home.
  • Remember the “special days,” anniversaries and holidays.  Telling them you are praying for them at these times is a tremendous blessing.
  • Acknowledge their ongoing pain.  If you have been thinking about or praying for them and their pain, telling them touches their hearts.  As time goes on very few will continue to recognize or acknowledge their pain to them, you doing so ministers to them.
  • Continue to send cards, notes and messages as you feel led.  They will never tire of hearing you are thinking about or praying for them, and as time goes on those ongoing reminders become more and more precious.

Grant grace, grace and more grace.

Their world has just fallen apart.  They are overwhelmed and emotionally, mentally, spiritually and physically exhausted.   Their grief and exhaustion have robbed them of much of their mental acuity.  That is in no way an excuse for them to act in an un-Christlike manner, but it is an extremely strong reason to lavishly grant them grace.

Grief will transform your friend. 

In cases of deep grief, such as the death of a child, your friend will no longer be who they were before the death of their loved one.  They have been radically transformed by the deep wounds and pain they bear.  If they choose to cling to Christ, through the grace of God sustaining and refining them they will emerge transformed with greater strengths and gifts than ever before.

If you humbly and prayerfully follow the Spirit’s leading in gently and faithfully walking alongside your friend, you will have the privilege of witnessing the transforming power of God’s grace that redeems all things for His glory and our good.   He will knit your hearts together and you will both be blessed in the process.

If you have been absent for a prolonged part of their journey it will be extremely difficult to pick up exactly where you left off.  You are probably more or less the same person, but they are not.  They are acutely aware of the fact that they are no longer who they were, and that you have missed vital parts of that transformation.   It’s never too late to reach out to reconnect, but interact with them in a way that allows you to glean insight into who they are now, to get to know the person they have become.

“Let love be genuine.
Abhor what is evil; hold fast to what is good.  
Love one another with brotherly affection.
Outdo one another in showing honor.
Do not be slothful in zeal, be fervent in spirit, serve the Lord.
Rejoice in hope, be patient in tribulation, be constant in prayer.
Contribute to the needs of the saints and seek to show hospitality.
Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse them.
Rejoice with those who rejoice, weep with those who weep.”
Romans 12:9-15 [ESV]

Morning is Coming

“My soul waits for the Lord More than the watchmen for the morning; Indeed, more than the watchmen for the morning.”  Psalm 130:6 [NASB]

It happened again in the depths of the darkness last night.  Exactly the same as it has happened almost nightly for over six months now.  Six months, not seven, because I was unable to sleep at night the first month after Sarah left.  It happens most frequently between 2:30 and 2:40 AM.  It’s as if Grief is an enormous bird of prey that recognizes the vulnerability of my desperately needed slumber, and opportunistically and violently strikes.  I am jolted awake by its talons abruptly clutching my chest, piercing my heart and squeezing the breath from my lungs.  Two thoughts join as one and instantaneously shock me with the impact: “the bus crashed” and “Sarah is gone.”  Both ever present thoughts, undeniable realities, but in the depth of night, especially, completely incomprehensible.  My mind races.  I know it’s true.   I have borne the months of pain that testify it’s true.  Yet, somehow in the dark of night my shattered heart pulses with hope as it tries to convince me, “surely we have been deceived, it can not possibly be true!”  My mind and my heart cry out against each other.

In the darkness of the night, seconds are as minutes, and minutes as hours.   My mind replays memory after memory.  I can feel her snuggled in the bed beside me.  I can hear her sweet voice laughing and chatting away, recounting all the day’s events.  I can smell her freshly washed hair.  I can feel the bed shift slightly as she drapes herself across the edge next to me, begging me to rub her back, and delighting when I do.  With each memory the talons tighten, the gripping pain becomes unbearable.  My soul cries out with that of King David, “I am weary with my sighing; Every night I make my bed swim, I dissolve my couch with my tears.  My eye has wasted away with grief” (Psalm 6:6-7a).  The darkness of night prevails as the light of hope is shrouded by the blackness of despair.

I focus my mind to pray, hoping my heart and soul will soon follow.  I cry out to God for mercy, compassion, comfort and grace.  I intercede for my family and others.  I meditate on and cling to the truths of His Word.  Gradually, as minutes have ticked away to hours, the talons loosen.  I can breathe again, though the pain of their gaping wound remains.  I drift off to sleep.  A couple of hours later my eyes open once again, this time absent the violence of the sudden strike.  No need, the pressure of the grip and wound of the talons from a few hours before still remain as painful reminders.  Light filters through the blinds on the windows as the sun has risen and I am confronted with the reality of yet another day without my precious child.  Another day of mustering resolve to go through the day in a way that brings honor and glory to the Lord, and strengthens and supports my family.  The sun has risen but Morning has not yet come.

Night remains as we trudge through the dark valley of the shadow of death.  But Morning is coming.  That glorious long awaited Morning is coming, as certain as the rising of the sun.  We are told of that morning, “But for you who fear My name, the sun of righteousness will rise with healing in its wings; and you will go forth and skip about like calves from the stall” Malachi 4:2 [NASB].  Oh, brokenhearted brothers and sisters, we must remind ourselves, “Weeping may last for the night, But a shout of joy comes in the morning” Psalm 30:5b [NASB].  There is coming a dawn when we will joyously proclaim with all the saints, “You have turned for me my mourning into dancing; You have loosed my sackcloth and girded me with gladness, That my soul may sing praise to You and not be silent. O LORD my God, I will give thanks to You forever.” Psalm 30:11-12 [NASB].

On that glorious morning we will joyfully proclaim His lovingkindness.  And through the remaining darkness of this night we will experience and boldly proclaim His faithfulness (Psalm 92:2).  He absolutely is faithful, even in the darkest of nights.  He is near to the brokenhearted, giving us His song to sustain us in the night (Psalms 34:18; 42:8).  Our mighty yet gentle Shepherd beckons, “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.  For My yoke is easy and My burden is light” Matthew 11:28-30 [NASB].  Surrendered to Him and empowered by His grace, I will persevere.  I will expectantly fix my eyes on the The Good Shepherd, The Son of Righteousness, and follow wherever He leads, for it is He, One with The Father, alone “who changes deep darkness into morning” (Amos 5:8).

“He who testifies to these things says,
“Yes, I am coming quickly.” Amen.
Come, Lord Jesus.  
The grace of the Lord Jesus be with all. Amen.
Revelation 22:20-21 [NASB]

heaven

Artwork: Sarah Harmening

Rains of Refreshing

 “Come, let us return to the LORD.
For He has torn us, but He will heal us;
He has wounded us, but He will bandage us.
“He will revive us after two days;
He will raise us up on the third day,
That we may live before Him.
“So let us know, let us press on to know the LORD.
His going forth is as certain as the dawn;
And He will come to us like the rain,
Like the spring rain watering the earth.”
Hosea 6:1-3 [NASB]

Two days a week I take Sophie to classes at a church across town.  Because she only has three classes, one class one day and two the other, there’s not enough time to return home while she’s in them.  As a result, both days I typically sit in the parking lot in the car and wait.  More often than not these forced times of stillness result in the spilling of my tears.  I have repeatedly tried to productively use these hours of parking lot time, but only with marginal success.  My raw heart has very much grown to dread my time there.  From the start I have never doubted that the preciousness of the drive time with Sophie is worth any and all pain the parking lot time holds.  None the less, I was greatly relieved to have a break from those hours of entrapment when Christmas break arrived.

School resumed on January 8th, as did my parking lot time.  Seven months to the day from when Sarah left us, and there I sat trapped alone again with my shattered heart.  I sat in the parking lot facing the church, battle ready, Bible in hand and worship music playing.  I closed my eyes and communed in prayer with Him.  I opened my eyes and watched the rain drops steadily landing on and rolling down the windshield.  As I shifted my focus, I noticed in the distance the cross on the church before me.  In that moment I was reminded how just as I shifted my eyes from the raindrops to the cross,  I am called to look through this raging storm that currently engulfs me to focus on Him (Isa. 26:3-4).  I was reminded that He promises to sustain through the storms of this life those who are founded upon Him (Matt. 7:25).  I was reminded that He promises to satisfy, strengthen and comfort us like the rains that replenish scorched lands (Isa. 58:11).  Though our souls may be dry and parched from suffering and pain, as we continue to hunger and thirst for righteousness, He promises we will be filled (Matt. 5:6).  As we fix our eyes on Him, we will be fully satisfied in Him (Psalm 22:26).

I’m so thankful for His gentleness and faithfulness to meet us in our brokenness.  The dispenser of the rain and the collector of my tears sees me, knows me, and loves me.  He has not forgotten me, forsaken me nor abandoned me.  Though He has torn and wounded me in allowing Sarah’s death, He promises to bandage and heal me.   And through the blood of Jesus Christ, raised on the third day, He has graciously enabled me to live before Him.   So in the midst of the storm I will focus on Him.  I will press on to know Him, confident in the certainty of His coming, and with Him the rains of refreshing.

“So let us know, let us press on to know the LORD.
His going forth is as certain as the dawn;

And He will come to us like the rain,
Like the spring rain watering the earth.”
Hosea 6:3 [NASB]

Below is Sarah’s journal entry from one year ago today.  A one line note from our student worship service, along with one of her favorite quotes, hand lettered.  So divinely timed and appropriate.

“When things get dark, you can focus on Jesus.” ~ Sarah Harmening

focus

“For the mountains may depart and the hills be removed, but my steadfast love shall not depart from you, and my covenant of peace shall not be removed,” says the LORD, who has compassion on you.  ‘O afflicted one, storm-tossed and not comforted, behold, I will set your stones in antimony, and lay your foundations with sapphires.‘” Isaiah 54:10-11 [ESV]

Laughter in the Valley

“A joyful heart is good medicine, but a crushed spirit dries up the bones.”  Proverbs 17:22 [ESV]

Our home has always been one characterized by joy and laughter.  We find humor in almost everything, and we delight greatly in evoking laughter in one another.  The day of the accident I promised Katelyn, Kristen and Sophie that we would find our way back to joy.  I promised them we would smile and laugh again, but I had no idea how we would get there.  In those moments, it was unfathomable that this oppressive pain we were only just beginning to feel the full weight of could possibly lift enough to allow any joy, let alone actual laughter.

The day after the accident we found ourselves over 24 hours without sleep, and needing to get back to Huntsville.  It would have been unsafe for either Scott or me to drive at that point, and the thought of being trapped in the van for hours on the same course we had so traumatically driven the day before was unbearable.  A family friend graciously agreed to come get us in his eight passenger jet to take us back to Huntsville.  It would be a 26 minute flight, rather than a three and half hour drive, we were so thankful.  Neither Kristen nor Sophie had ever flown, so when we told them we would be flying, Sophie expressed some apprehension.  In what was probably not one of my better parenting moments, I told her it was a win/ win situation, “we’ll be there in 26 minutes, or we’ll be with Sarah, either way we’ll be fine.”  She hesitantly agreed to go.  It was such a blessing to not have to go through a commercial airport, we walked straight out to the jet and boarded.  Scott and I sat in the back seats in the tail, Sophie sat knee to knee with me, Kristen was knee to knee with Scott, Katelyn was then back to back with Sophie, and Will, Katelyn’s boyfriend, was back to back with Kristen, and right next to the door.  After what seemed like a prolonged period of taxiing, we finally took off.  While we were still climbing in a somewhat steep ascent, we began to turn to the right.  As we turned, suddenly the door of the jet flew open revealing mostly sky, and earth far below.  Will, who was sitting right next to it, quickly grabbed it and pulled it to.  He was unable to actually close it or latch it, though, so he held it in place as best he could and looked back to Scott and me for help.  Katelyn, assuming her boyfriend was about to be sucked out of the jet, was frantically clinging to his arm and telling me to do something.  Scott just sat leaning back with his arms crossed, no reaction at all.  Sophie and Kristen were silent, just looking around to see what was going to happen.  To everyone’s surprise, mine included, my reaction was to laugh.  The pilot and co-pilot had headphones on and couldn’t hear us talking, or me laughing.  As Katelyn’s and Will’s panic grew, we all, with the exception of Scott, joined together in repeatedly shouting toward the cockpit, “The door is open!”  Finally, after what seemed like several minutes but was probably only seconds, the co-pilot heard us and told the pilot.  We then turned back to the airport and landed safely.  When we landed, Will looked back at Scott and me, no color left in his face, eyes wide, hair tousled, and simply said, “good Lord.”  Katelyn then looked at me with a smirk, and proclaimed with a stern accusatory tone, “I thought you had prayed us down! [to our demise]” All of which evoked more laughter from me.  Our friend re-latched the door, we then took off again and had an uneventful flight, safely landing in Huntsville 26 minutes later.   I still look back on that event with such great gratitude.  When laughing seemed so very unthinkable, this story was one of the few that possessed the power to make all of us laugh, not a little superficial laugh, but a genuine hearty laugh.  If you were around us at all in the early weeks after Sarah’s departure, you no doubt heard this story as it was a lifeline of laughter for us.

From the very first moments after the accident it was vitally important to me that our remaining daughters know we as a family would have joy and laughter again.  Their lives and joy had not “ended” because Sarah’s physical life had “ended.”  I was and am strongly convicted that the restoration of Scott’s and my joy and laughter is our testimony to our girls and others that the Hope which we profess is real and certain.  We can experience joy and laughter because we know Sarah is safely home rejoicing in the presence of our Lord and Savior.  Laughter has returned to our home, we laugh often and heartily.  We have the joy of Christ that enables us to laugh despite the persisting, indescribably deep pain of Sarah’s absence.

I have heard many who have lost loved ones, particularly those who have lost a child, express deep guilt over experiencing joy and laughter.  I am convinced this is yet another cunning strategy of our adversary.  With his choice weapon of lies, the enemy clamors to convince us to stifle even the faintest glimmers of joy that begin to glisten in the darkness of grief.  He whispers, “your joy and laughter would surely mean you are not appropriately or adequately grieving your loved one.”  If that lie is not effective, he may whisper,  “others will think you are fine, that your heart is no longer shattered,” “if they see you laughing they will question your love for the one who is gone.”  Or, “how can you laugh now or enjoy this when your loved one doesn’t get to experience it?”  Any thought that implies we must not laugh or experience joy while in the valley of the shadow of death is a flaming arrow from the father of lies (Eph. 6:16).  Each moment of joy, whether in the valley or not, is a precious gift of God’s grace, peace and mercy.  But in the valley, moments of joy bathed in His grace are the “good medicine” that strengthens and refreshes us to withstand the ongoing waves of pain that continue to take our breath away (Prov. 17:22).  The enemy targets those moments and our joy because he knows they are vital to our faith and witness.

As believers we are called to rejoice in Him and His salvation.  Through the power of His Holy Spirit indwelling us, His eternal joy can prevail over our temporal anguish.  Perhaps first appearing and experienced only as glimmers, and then fleeting moments that gradually run longer and deeper.  Our greatest and most elaborate joy here on earth pales in comparison to the joy our believing loved ones are experiencing in the presence of our Lord and Savior.  Their joy did not end with their physical deaths, but was instead transformed into uninterrupted, never-ending, eternally perfected “joy inexpressible and full of glory” (1 Peter 1:8).   As Scott has said many times, if Sarah could come back, she wouldn’t want to.  She has fully tasted and knows the richness of His presence.  Her faith has become sight, and I’m confident she is exuberantly worshipping Him at this very moment.  There is no place she would rather be.  She is experiencing eternal joy, and I greatly rejoice in His gracious promised provision of that for her and us.  Because of this certainty, the Hope of His salvation, I can and should rejoice in this very moment.  As I choose to rejoice, His joy penetrates the shroud of my grief, shining forth its light even in the deepest pit of affliction and pain.  The restoration of His joy in us is both blessing and obedience, and contrary to the accusations of the enemy, it is absolutely not a cause for guilt or shame.

The restoration of joy and laughter does not indicate “healing” of the gaping wound of Sarah’s absence.  The pain of my child’s absence is ever-present and often excruciating.  I desperately long for my child, my arms and my heart ache for her.   But we “do not grieve like the rest of mankind, who have no hope” (1 Thess. 4:13).  Praise God, through His Hope I can rejoice, because I know with certainty I will see her again.  In the meantime, pain and joy will continue to collide, weeping and laughter will co-exist, and suffering and Hope will endure in unison.  Until eventually, on that glorious day, “He will wipe away every tear from [our] eyes, and death shall be no more, neither shall there be mourning, nor crying, nor pain anymore, for the former things [will] have passed away” (Revelation 21:4).

“Rejoice in hope, be patient in tribulation, be constant in prayer.”  Romans 12:12 [ESV]

“Let me hear joy and gladness; let the bones that you have broken rejoice.  Hide your face from my sins, and blot out all my iniquities.  Create in me a clean heart, O God, and renew a right spirit within me.  Cast me not away from your presence, and take not your Holy Spirit from me.  Restore to me the joy of your salvation, and uphold me with a willing spirit.  Then I will teach transgressors your ways, and sinners will return to you.” Psalm 51:8-13 [ESV]

“….for the joy of the LORD is your strength.”  Nehemiah 8:10 [ESV]

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Katelyn, Kristen, Sarah & Sophie ~ Fall 2016

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Artwork: Sarah Harmening

Moment by Moment

Within days of Sarah leaving, we as a family began dreading the upcoming Christmas season.  We were certain it, combined with Sarah’s December 20th birthday, would be filled with devastatingly hard days.  In the months leading up to December we tried to come up with a strategy to somehow reduce the pain of those days, all to no avail.  In early December we finally accepted that we could not avoid the coming hard days and the pain they would bring with them.  We resolved as a family to make our way through the season one day at a time.

I didn’t really sleep the night before Sarah’s birthday, I was instead reliving the hours leading up to her arrival.  I arose early and wrote what had been on my heart through the night watches.  I then spent some time reading her baby book and reminiscing, moments accompanied by both smiles and tears.  Sophie needed me to take her to run some errands, so much of our afternoon was spent doing that.  We were immeasurably blessed at 4:45 when some of our dear church family came to our home to pray with and for us.  After they left, a florist delivered a beautiful arrangement from a precious family who also knows the pain of the death of a child/ sibling.  After the florist left, a sweet friend showed up at the door with a stack of cards from other friends, acquaintances and strangers sharing their thoughts and prayers with us.  Our birthday tradition for each of the girls is family dinner and dessert of their choosing at home.  To break away from the sting of that tradition for Sarah’s birthday, Katelyn, Kristen and Sophie requested we go eat dinner at a restaurant instead, which we did.  When we got home, Scott and I sat on the couch reading each of the cards that had been delivered by the friend, as well as others that arrived in the mail.  What a blessing each card and note was to our aching hearts.  The day as a whole was very reminiscent of the days immediately after Sarah’s departure.  It was a day marked by a clear ebb and flow of pain and tangible grace.  Multiple moments of stark heart wrenching reality followed by clear outpourings of God’s grace through the touch of His people, we were so richly blessed by our brothers and sisters in Christ this day.

Christmas Eve and Christmas Day we decided to push through our family traditions with the exception of Christmas stockings.  The girls did not have strong feelings about what to do with stockings this year, so I elected to not get them out of storage.  Whenever they come out again, they will all be out, Sarah’s included.  But this year I didn’t think my shattered heart could withstand seeing hers alone and empty Christmas morning, so we had Christmas bags instead, and it was just fine.  We played lots of games Christmas Eve and Christmas Day, both days being full of moments of special family time and laughter as well as moments of heart crushing anguish.  Two more days characterized by the ebb and flow of pain and grace.  Grace evidenced in special moments of love and joy with family, times which now more than ever, we do not take for granted.  But more importantly we were also aware of the grace which we are celebrating, the coming of our Lord and Savior.  The very reason we have confident hope we will soon see Sarah again.

Now that we have survived those dreaded “hard days”, more of the big “firsts” without Sarah, I am realizing for me it’s better to think in terms of moments rather than days.  There were many exceedingly hard and painful moments within those dreaded days, but there were also moments where God’s grace and provision were palpable.  There were moments of laughter and joy interspersed with moments of the overwhelming, indescribable acute pain of longing for our child.  The reality is those daunting days we had dreaded for so long were not all that different from all the other days since June 8th, 2017.  Each day has held moments of joy and pain, sometimes the balance tips to one side or the other, but both are always present.  While it would have been very easy for the balance of these particular days to tip fully to pain, and there certainly was much pain, through fervent prayer and God’s grace there were also many moments of joy, laughter, love and peace.

The daunting days and dates may hold more ripe cumulative opportunities for piercing pain, but they lack the element of surprise.  I expected them to be dreadful, and while they were in many ways dreadful, the depth of pain was not new or surprising.  It was the same deep indescribable pain I have felt in waves regularly for months.  In fact, in some ways I may actually struggle more when I am caught off guard on an otherwise nonsignificant day or date by an unexpected wave of the same pain.  I was hit by such a wave when we took Katelyn, Kristen and Sophie ice skating a few days after Christmas.  After we had been there for a little while and were enjoying our time together, a man came out to the center of the rink with his daughter. He was bald like Scott and she had brunette hair much like Sarah’s.  They remained in the center of the rink for the majority of our time there.  Seeing them together was like a living flashback of Scott playing with Sarah.  Each time I passed them hugging and laughing together it was like the twisting of a dagger in my heart.  I found myself skating faster and faster, partially to avoid focusing on them and partially to ensure the streams of tears now running down my face would dry before they were noticed.

I was hit by another such wave the next day when the girls and I were sitting in a waiting area near another mother and daughter.  The mother looked our direction, but not at anyone specifically, and asked if the girls were three sisters.  I attempted to change the subject but she asked again, this time looking directly at me, “so you have three girls?”  I recognized the potential string of questions probably getting ready to ensue so I attempted to subvert them by answering candidly, “I have four daughters but we lost one in an accident.”  She carried on with the conversation as if nothing out of the ordinary had been spoken, but my heart was rent, every ounce of energy I had was refocused into trying to hold back the wall of tears rising in my eyes.  Those are just the two most recent among many unexpected waves of pain.  Perhaps one or both are unrelatable in the absence of having lost your child, but for me both bore a similar sting to many of the stings of the dreaded days.   As I write this I am reminded there is another moment that my heart is pierced on a daily basis, and that is bedtime.  Bedtime brings a nightly aching of my arms as I long to hug my child and tell her how much I love her.  Each night finds me seeking the balm of His Word as I go to bed missing that treasured nightly ritual of seventeen and a half years.

I share all of that to say, thinking in terms of moments rather than days casts out fear and brings hope.  There are still many “firsts” to be trudged through without Sarah, and after all of them are completed, there will be the entire collections of “seconds”  and then “thirds” without Sarah.  Thinking of my time in moments rather than days guards my heart from despair.  It reminds me that though each day continues to bring indescribably hard and painful moments, those moments will continue to be flanked by moments where joy and peace dominate.  Each day will continue to have the ebb and flow of pain and grace.  In the moments that breathtaking pain dominates I can remind myself it is momentary, and He will soon provide moments dominated again by joy and peace.  No day, no matter how excruciatingly painful, is ever void of His grace and mercy.  As I think of my days in terms of moments, I can acknowledge the often consuming pain in the midst of the painful moments, but cling to the hope that with the certainty of the ocean tides, a fresh wave of grace is coming any moment now.

“Therefore we do not lose heart, but though our outer man is decaying, yet our inner man is being renewed day by day.  For momentary, light affliction is producing for us an eternal weight of glory far beyond all comparison,  while we look not at the things which are seen, but at the things which are not seen; for the things which are seen are temporal, but the things which are not seen are eternal.” 2 Corinthians 4:16-18 [NASB]

“This I recall to my mind, Therefore I have hope.  The LORD’S lovingkindnesses indeed never cease, For His compassions never fail.  They are new every morning; Great is Your faithfulness.  “The LORD is my portion,” says my soul, “Therefore I have hope in Him.” Lamentations 3:21-24 [NASB]

Extracting the Precious

Why has my pain been perpetual And my wound incurable, refusing to be healed? Will You indeed be to me like a deceptive stream With water that is unreliable?  Therefore, thus says the LORD, “If you return, then I will restore you– Before Me you will stand; And if you extract the precious from the worthless, You will become My spokesman. They for their part may turn to you, But as for you, you must not turn to them.”  Jeremiah 15:18-19 [NASB]

I have wrestled for a couple of weeks with the thought of sharing this part of my journey.  I’ve been inhibited by a pervasive concern that it is too intimate to effectively share.  Not too intimate in the sense that it will require too much vulnerability.   But instead, too intimate in the sense that it might be such an intimate encounter with the Lord that I can not adequately convey the magnitude of what happened.  However, it has impacted me so profoundly that I have repeatedly felt prompted to share for two weeks now, so I will do my best to put to words at least a portion of what He impressed upon my heart.

Before I share what happened, I need to share my life verse and how I came to choose it as my life verse.  I believe it was shortly before Valentine’s Day of 2005.  My mom asked me what my favorite verse was.  I have always disliked that question because I find it impossible to choose one “favorite.”  I might have a favorite for battling discouragement, another for inspiring me to persevere, another for reminding me of the attributes of God, etc, etc.  But to narrow it down to one overall favorite literally seems impossible to me.  She explained she was wanting to have matching  bracelets made for my dear friend and me, each with our “favorite” verses.  Touched by her idea, I told her I would pray and think about it, which I did.  I can’t remember now how I ended up in Jeremiah.  I’m unsure if that’s where I happened to be in my quiet time reading when she asked, or if the Lord led me there on a quest.   But somehow I ended up reading Jeremiah 15:16, and in that moment I knew that was the verse for me.  I claimed it not as my favorite verse, but as my life verse, longing for it to be the verse that would characterize my life.  From that day forward that verse has been very precious to me.

“When your words came, I ate them; they were my joy and my heart’s delight, for I bear your name, LORD God Almighty.”  Jeremiah 15:16 [NIV]

Fast forward to the week of December 10th, 2017.  Several things had recently happened that amplified my awareness of my solitude.  My heart was aching with the pain of longing for Sarah, but it was compounded by deep loneliness and the stings of circumstances beyond my influence or control.  As I sought the Lord through tears of discouragement the morning of December 13th, I laid my hands on my Bible and pleaded with Him to encourage my weary heart, and to strengthen my weak and trembling legs to enable me to continue to stand.  In the desperation of my “aloneness” I searched His Word for encouragement by doing a word search on BlueLetterBible.org for “alone.”  Skimming the verses that showed in the results, Jeremiah 15:17 instantly caught my eye and resonated with my heart.  I immediately flipped to it in my Bible.

“I did not sit in the circle of merrymakers, Nor did I exult. Because of Your hand upon me I sat alone, For You filled me with indignation.”  Jeremiah 15:17 [NASB]

It wasn’t until I opened my Bible to Jeremiah 15 that it connected in my mind that this verse that now resonated with my broken heart was the very next verse following my life verse, claimed and clung to for more than a decade.  I then read the remainder of the chapter, and I wept both bitterly and joyfully.  It was simultaneously convicting and encouraging.  It was as if the Lord audibly spoke and told me He had given me that life verse so long ago for a reason.  I thought I had claimed that verse as a goal, but He had claimed it for me as a promise.  It was given to me as my identification and my reminder for such a time as this.  I clearly discerned Him impressing on my heart that now the remainder of that chapter is His direction for me as well, and I have a choice to make.  I can wallow in and waste time dwelling on the worthless, or I can extract the precious and allow Him to wash the worthless away.

The enemy of our souls throws so much worthless our way.  He devises scheme after scheme seeking to distract, cripple and destroy us.  Worthless thoughts he whispers in our ears to breed fear, doubt and insecurity.  Worthless words of gossip he circulates through flaming tongues speaking in ignorance and then delivers to us to scorch our wounded hearts.  Worthless tasks and pursuits to distract us from the only worthy goal before us.   Worthless burdens designed to weigh us down and enslave us to worldly masters,  rendering us ineffective for the only worthy Master.  On and on his list of wily schemes of worthlessness goes.  He seeks to bury all the precious that the Lord has for us beneath mounds of worthless.  But we are called to extract the precious from the worthless.  I am called right now, in the midst of my brokenness, to continue to extract the precious from the worthless.  In fact, what more opportune time to clearly discern the precious and distinguish it from the worthless than in the midst of the flames of adversity?

“In this you greatly rejoice, even though now for a little while, if necessary, you have been distressed by various trials, so that the proof of your faith, being more precious than gold which is perishable, even though tested by fire, may be found to result in praise and glory and honor at the revelation of Jesus Christ” 1 Peter 1:6-7 [NASB]

In the midst of the flames of pain, longing and loneliness my desire to be used by Him compels me to beg Him to use those very flames to refine me by clearly revealing that which is precious.  Each time I feel the burn of one of the enemy’s schemes I will ask Him to use it as well to reveal the precious to me so that I may “extract it” as a costly gem.  I will also ask Him to simultaneously reveal to me that which is worthless so I can forsake it, allowing Him to wash it away.  I long to become the spokesman He has called me to be.  May I never allow that which is worthless to blind me to, or distract me from that which is precious.  Nothing worthless is worthy of sacrificing His plan for me.  So through His divine power in me I commit to set my heart to discern and throw off the worthless, so I may increasingly possess and share the precious for His glory and my good.

“Grace and peace be multiplied to you in the knowledge of God and of Jesus our Lord;  seeing that His divine power has granted to us everything pertaining to life and godliness, through the true knowledge of Him who called us by His own glory and excellence.  For by these He has granted to us His precious and magnificent promises, so that by them you may become partakers of the divine nature, having escaped the corruption that is in the world by lust.  Now for this very reason also, applying all diligence, in your faith supply moral excellence, and in your moral excellence, knowledge,  and in your knowledge, self-control, and in your self-control, perseverance, and in your perseverance, godliness,  and in your godliness, brotherly kindness, and in your brotherly kindness, love.  For if these qualities are yours and are increasing, they render you neither useless nor unfruitful in the true knowledge of our Lord Jesus Christ.”  2 Peter 1:2-8 [NASB]

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Artwork: Sarah Harmening

A Mother’s Pain

“Whenever a woman is in labor she has pain, because her hour has come; but when she gives birth to the child, she no longer remembers the anguish because of the joy that a child has been born into the world.” John 16:21 [NASB]

December 20th, 1999, was a day marked by intense pain followed by consuming joy.  John 16:21 (above) is absolutely true regarding the birth of Sarah Lauren Harmening.  As I sit here this morning, 18 years later, I can not recall the pain of that day, but I very much recall the thrill of holding that beautiful baby girl in my arms.  Unlike the pain of December 20th, 1999, I’m certain the pain of December 20th, 2017, will not be forgotten.  As I sit here in the dark of early morning I recall the excitement as we traveled to the hospital eighteen years ago today.  I would soon be holding the precious baby who felt so long awaited.  Today I again find myself longing to hold that same precious baby, but recognizing my wait has the potential to be oh so very much longer.

As I was lying awake through the night watches I was thinking about the oppressive weight of the pain in my heart.  In my mind’s eye I once again traced the pain to its source, the fall of man.  The pain I felt 18 years ago and the pain I feel today both originated in the exact same moment.  Both the pain of childbirth and the pain of death entered in Genesis 3.  The pain of childbirth only a fleeting memory in comparison to the debilitating sting of death, though.

With the prevalence of the prosperity gospel some have mistakenly come to believe that we as believers should be free from pain and hardship, and to experience otherwise is evidence of a lack of faith.  It is wrongly implied living victoriously in Christ means we live free of the impact of the fallenness of this world.  It is presumed we are to be free from pain, suffering, grief, trials and tribulations.  Joy in Christ is wrongly understood to mean the absence of pain and the presence of perpetual happiness.  These beliefs and teachings can result in unintentionally pious Christians who meticulously hide away their pain, fearing that acknowledging its brutal grip will indicate a failure to abide in Christ.  I’m convinced this is another brilliant scheme of our adversary.

Experiencing and acknowledging pain and grief is not evidence of a lack of faith or joy in the life of a believer.  They are simply evidence we live in a fallen world and suffer some of the consequences of that fallenness.  Every twinge of pain should be a reminder of the consequences of sin: Adam and Eve’s sin, and our sin.  Pain should be a powerful reminder harnessed to propel us toward righteousness.  Pain, suffering, mourning, grief, trials and tribulations are acknowledged as ongoing realities throughout scripture.  As followers of Christ we are never promised to be spared from these things, but we are promised His grace and mercy to sustain and uphold us.  As Dr. Jimmy Jackson shared, having heard someone else say, “God’s grace is sufficient, but it’s not novocaine.”

Though we as believers have been gloriously redeemed, we are not spared the painful, temporal consequences of our sins.  We will all taste of the hardships of the fall in this life: brokenness, pain and death.  Just as pain should propel us toward righteousness, it should also compel our sharing of the gospel.  We are called to be Christ’s ambassadors to a broken, hurting and dying world.  Our tasting of the pain of brokenness and death powerfully equips us to be effective ambassadors.  If I am unwilling to experience and transparently share about the deep sting of pain and death, how can I testify to His faithfulness and provision as the great comforter (2 Cor. 1:3-4)?  If I am unwilling to acknowledge the hurdles of this life, how can I testify to the joy that perseverance brings in the midst of the hurdles and pain (Job 6:10)?  If I refuse to acknowledge the depths of the sting of death, how can I adequately testify to the weight of the glorious truth that the day is coming when there shall be no more death (Rev. 21:3-4)?

“Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of mercies and God of all comfort,  who comforts us in all our affliction so that we will be able to comfort those who are in any affliction with the comfort with which we ourselves are comforted by God.” 2 Corinthians 1:3-4 [NASB]

“But it is still my consolation, And I rejoice in unsparing pain, That I have not denied the words of the Holy One.”  Job 6:10 [NASB]

Therefore, I am compelled to transparently share this morning that my heart is still shattered.  I desperately long to hold my child, to feel her hair brush across my face as she hugs me, to hear her laugh, and to see her eyes light up as she tells a story.  I ache beyond words that there will be no birthday celebration with my child today.  In the midst of all that pain, though, He is faithful.  Though He allows the pain to persist, He faithfully comforts me in it.  He is faithful to graciously uphold me by His right hand, and I confidently know He will remain faithful.  More glorious than that, though, is the Hope of knowing there is coming a day when He will wipe away every tear from our eyes, and there will be no more death, no more mourning, no more crying, and no more pain.  “He who testifies to these things says, ‘Yes, I am coming quickly.’ Amen. Come, Lord Jesus” (Rev 22:20 NASB).

“And I heard a loud voice from the throne, saying, “Behold, the tabernacle of God is among men, and He will dwell among them, and they shall be His people, and God Himself will be among them,  and He will wipe away every tear from their eyes; and there will no longer be any death; there will no longer be any mourning, or crying, or pain; the first things have passed away.”  Revelation 21:3-4 [NASB]

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A Brokenhearted Night Before Christmas

‘Twas the night before Christmas
when glad tidings abound.
But for the weary and brokenhearted
it seems little rest to be found.

Memories of Christmases past
bittersweet flashes of years
Crying, “how long will this last?”
heartache spills out as tears.

‘Twas also a dark night long ago,
when hopelessness did abound.
Many searching for a deliverer,
but none to be found.

In darkest night men strived
but all hope seemed as lost.
Our Deliverer then arrived
to redeem at great cost.

That babe in a manger
lying in the hay,
here to endure toil and danger
our debt to repay.

Our Light in the darkness
Our Hope in the night
The Redeemer of lostness
The King of great might

The Alleviator of our fears,
with us He weeps.
The collector of our tears,
in a bottle He keeps.

“How long, O’ Lord?” we pray,
oft’ feeling so alone.
“In a little while,” You say,
“you’ll soon be coming home.”

A little while feels so very long,
but in our night He comes as well.
We’re not alone, He comes along,
our fears and pains to quell.

We’ll sing His story in the night,
His new mercies and His grace.
Faithfully sustaining us by His might
to one day behold His face.

Release for the captive,
Life for the dead.
He’s come that we may Live
because He suffered and bled.

Take Hope weary hearted,
death does not win!
Though our loved ones departed,
we’ll soon see them again!

Karen Harmening
ListeningToHim.com

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Katelyn, Kristen, Sarah and Sophie –  2015