Not so Merry Christmas

Merriam Webster Definition of Merry

1 archaic : giving pleasure : delightful
2: full of gaiety or high spirits : mirthful 
3: marked by festivity or gaiety

It wasn’t long at all after the accident that Katelyn, Kristen and Sophie voiced they wanted to go away over Christmas.  They couldn’t bear the thought of being at home for Christmas without Sarah.  I was so relieved when they said it.  I had wanted to run away as well, but above that wanted to do what was best for them.  We are a traditions family, we love traditions and are faithful to them every year, predictable like clockwork.  To make matters worse, Sarah embodies a high percentage of our Christmas spirit as a family.  She loves Christmas, appropriate since she is our Christmas baby born on December 20th.  She and Katelyn are the only two who will push through in decorating the tree each year.  Sophie and Kristen will bail out about halfway through, curling up on a couch or chair under a blanket instead.  But Sarah loves the ornaments, she loves reminiscing over each picture, popsicle stick craft, handprint angel and melt bead ornament.  The thought of hanging each ornament and going on with each tradition without our sweet Sarah is unbearable.

A few weeks after the accident we chose a home on Tybee Island to rent from December 22nd through the 29th.  Our parents planned to go with us, and some of our siblings and their families would be joining us part of the time as well.  Quiet time away from home, on the beach in particular, would surely be healing to our wounded souls.  As time passed, though, the girls started expressing concern about being away from home so long over Christmas.  They were nervous about the possibility of having so much quiet and stillness there that the sadness would actually be intensified.  So a couple of months ago we made the decision to cancel the Tybee Island reservations and book a shorter trip to Pigeon Forge, Tennessee, instead.  With all the shows and activities there, surely there would be no time for the boredom that allows the mind to dip into the depths of despair.  We had our plan, we would busy ourselves with activities to distract ourselves from the pain in our hearts.

December 3rd we planned to put our Christmas tree up and decorate it.  I spent the preceding days trying to brace my heart for the pain that would accompany pulling out each precious memento of years gone by.  More than that I was already having to suppress the dread of taking each of those ornaments off the tree to box them up in January.  The night finally came.  Scott brought the pre-lit tree in and we carefully connected the lights only to discover they would not turn on.  We were so disappointed, especially me.  The days leading up to decorating the tree had been like the slow climb up the largest peak of a roller coaster.   Visions of treasured ornaments popping into my mind like that repeated clicking leading up to the plunge.  I had braced for the plunge, I was as ready as I could be and now I’m trapped on the peak.  My response, “The tree is broken. Of course the tree is broken.  If it can go wrong, it will.  This is where we are.”

This reveals something about me.  I am trusting God with the incomprehensible, with the death of my daughter.  But I’m frustrated that He won’t “give me a break” on the small stuff.  It’s the small stuff that I slip into sin over.  Through tears I give voice to my frustration, “It feels like if you’re enduring your worst nightmare, then all the small stuff should work!” But that’s not reality, a broken heart earns you no breaks.  We have a long list of ongoing fiascos to prove it.  Scott took the tree wiring apart and found that the transformer had gone bad.  He ordered one online and we waited.  In the meantime a precious family friend mailed us a cross ornament with “He Comforts” scrolled across it.  We hung it in the center of our lightless tree.

That week we talked several times about our plans to go to Pigeon Forge, no one was looking forward to it.  One of the girls expressed uncertainty saying “we may just be sad there instead of here, I’d rather be sad at home.”  After several family discussions we came to the conclusion there is no escape, we can’t run away.  It is going to be painful wherever we are, so we will stay home and confront it.  We will strive for joy but brace for the ongoing inevitable waves of grief and sadness.

On December 8th, the six month anniversary of the accident and Sarah’s departure,  the transformer finally arrived.  That same day Scott’s company had their Christmas party.  After applying my make up and crying it off three separate times, I finally gained enough composure to be able to get out the door. Tears brimmed and drained several times on the way to the party.  Scott really wanted to go and I wanted to go for him, but I was dreading it.  His company is wonderful and we have been so well loved by them, but my heart was not merry, it was and is shattered.  With the ticking of the clock throughout that day and into the night I was repeatedly and unwillingly drifting into thoughts of all the things I had done and experienced “6 months ago today at this time.”  My goal for the party was simply to not cry through it.  I did my best to muster a “not crushed in spirit” face and pressed through.  I made it, only allowing the tears to overflow once at the very beginning, and again when we prayed before the meal.

I was confronted with a dilemma at that party, though.  Up until then I had managed to avoid Christmas for the most part.  But now, for almost four hours we were surrounded by festive celebration with repeated cheerful exclamations of “Merry Christmas!”  When it was spoken to me directly, my eyes still brimming with tears from the quiet drive there, my heart recoiled in my chest.  What do I say in response? This is not a merry Christmas at all, my heart is broken, how can I possibly say those words? I had not thought about how to answer, all I know is my lips will not form those words, not right now.   “Thank you.”  That’s all I could come up with in response.  My mind was suddenly reeling with questions, is my lack of merriness reflective of a lack of faith? Is it a sin to not think Christmas is merry? Am I not appreciating Christ by not enjoying Christmas this year?  So many thoughts, and in the midst of the torrential flood of emotions, so few answers.

The next day was Katelyn’s college graduation. My goal for the day was to celebrate Katelyn.  I wanted to remind her how very much she is loved and how proud we are of her, not because of a college degree but because of who she is.  I believe we celebrated her well.  At the end of the day the five of us were in the den, the lights of the tree twinkling with our single ornament in the center.  I believe it was Sophie who said it first, “I like the tree like that.” My heart leapt in my chest, “Yes, I do, too!” Everyone agreed, it was the perfect way to keep the tree this year.  The lights are glistening like the hope that remains in our hearts, but only a singular message to be spoken for us this Christmas, “He Comforts.”

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It wasn’t until two days later that I realized the blown transformer had been more of God’s tender care for me, His comfort.  By delaying the decorating of the tree, He had graciously delivered my shattered heart from a task that was certain to crush the remaining shards.  Conviction immediately fell over me.  I have no explanation for why I trust Him when my world literally falls apart, but I so frequently fail to trust Him in the midst of the small stuff.  Perhaps I am too quick to assume He’s not in the small stuff.  It never entered my mind He could be working through those broken lights, but oh how my loving Father was working on my behalf.  Lord, I believe, help my unbelief…

For our family, this is not a merry Christmas, and that’s okay.  It is not a sin for us to not feel merry.  It’s not a sin to not feel like celebrating the holiday.   The absence of merriness does not reflect an absence of faith.  The reality is we have never celebrated more the arrival and provision of our precious Savior.  We boldly proclaim He is our only Hope. He is our only Redeemer.  He is our only Sustainer.  He is our only Deliverer.  He is our only Comforter.  He is the one who sometimes blows transformers to spare our wounded hearts suffering upon suffering.  I am celebrating Him in the depths of my heart, just not with “gaiety, high spirits and festivity.”  Not right now, and maybe not even next year.  If not, that’s okay, too.  If there’s one thing I’m learning in all of this, it’s to trust Him and walk in obedience to Matthew 6:34, “So do not worry about tomorrow; for tomorrow will care for itself.  Each day has enough trouble of its own.”

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Longing to Die

A couple of months after Sarah’s departure I had the opportunity to visit with a friend I had not spent time with for several months.  I was sharing with her some of our experiences surrounding the accident and in the process had a very candid moment in which I said that I would welcome death.  As soon as the words parted from my lips I realized she might not understand.  It was as if I could see the words tumbling through the air in slow motion from my mouth to her ears.  The moment they hit her ears, her eyes widened and I saw fear, possibly even horror in them.  I immediately tried to explain that I was not suicidal, but that I am just torn between heaven and earth, now more than ever.  I’m not certain I was ever actually successful in alleviating her fears that day, and I felt terrible for having traumatized her.  As a result, I’ve been exceptionally guarded in saying anything of the sort since.

What I failed to explain to her that day is that I was not just longing for an escape from the pain.  It’s true that my heart continues to ache and throb.  I do long for the day that He will wipe the tears from my eyes, and all the anguish will be as waters gone by (Rev. 21:4; Job 11:16).  More than that, though, I am simply longing for Home.  As Christians we know that we are aliens here, this world is not our Home (1 Pet. 2:11).   But to my shame, I have to admit I felt pretty cozy here until June 8th.  I clearly saw the waywardness of the world around us, but our family had a little bubble that felt a bit like heaven on earth.  I loved it, I was content.  I had a desire to be with Christ eventually, but as a mother my longing to be here to parent and disciple my girls was clearly more compelling.  I deeply dreaded the thought of leaving.  Sarah is now Home and my heart is torn.  I long to be with her there, but I also long to be with her sisters here.  My comfortable bubble, my little bit of heaven here has been shattered.  Everywhere I go I am constantly reminded this is not Home.  Particularly in our house, our earthly home, every room, every picture, every memory that floods my mind as I look around reminds me this is not my Home.  I am so very homesick.

I also long for Home because I am battle worn.  In addition to the weight of the pain of grief, there continues to be spiritual warfare (Eph. 6:12).  We don’t get a reprieve from the war with our flesh as we grieve, we continue to be responsible to walk in righteousness.  When I am tired and weary, my fleshly desires, selfishness and pride rise up with every intention of consuming me.  I must be alert and sober minded to crucify them, as well as to avoid the schemes of the enemy (Gal. 5:21 Pet. 5:8-9).  I am convinced our enemy, the predator of our souls, joins forces with our flesh and intensifies the attack when he sees us struggling, wounded and limping.  So in the midst of our pain we must press on in fighting the war against our sinful flesh, while simultaneously buffeting the fiery arrows of the enemy (Eph. 6:16).  I long for the day when the wars are over, for the day I am stripped of this sinful flesh with all its worldly passions and desires.  I long for the day when the schemes and arrows of the enemy can no longer reach me.  To die will be great gain.

I save for last the greatest reason I am longing for Home.  I long to be with The Father and The Son, the very One who makes heaven Home.  I long to be with my loving Father who sacrificed His Son for me.  My Father who gives us His song in the night when we are too weak or broken to sing (Job 35:10).  My Father who catches my every tear, takes account of them and holds them in His bottle (Psa. 56:8).  My precious Lord and Savior, the one who gave His life for me.  My compassionate risen Lord who I believe stood at the death of Sarah on June 8th, just as He stood at Stephen’s (Acts 7:55).  Our Good Shepherd who softly and gently leads us, and carries us when we are wounded (John 10:11).  Our Great High Priest who lives to intercede for us (Heb. 7:25).  Our merciful Savior who beckons us to come to His throne of grace, “that we may receive mercy and find grace to help in time of need” (Heb. 4:16).  Indeed, to die and be with Him will be great gain.

 For to me, to live is Christ and to die is gain.  But if I am to live on in the flesh, this will mean fruitful labor for me; and I do not know which to choose.  But I am hard-pressed from both directions, having the desire to depart and be with Christ, for that is very much better;  yet to remain on in the flesh is more necessary for your sake.  Convinced of this, I know that I will remain and continue with you all for your progress and joy in the faith,  so that your proud confidence in me may abound in Christ Jesus through my coming to you again.” Philippians 1:21-26 [NASB]

Paul’s words written from prison to the Philippians resonate so deeply in my soul.  “I am hard-pressed from both directions, having the desire to depart and be with Christ, for that is very much better”  (vs. 23). The word translated “desire” in verse 23 is translated elsewhere as “lust” and “coveting.”  Paul was deeply longing for Home, acknowledging it as “very much better.”  However, he immediately goes on to say, “yet to remain on in the flesh is more necessary for your sake.”  Paul was emulating Christ in surrendering his personal desire, to desire instead that which is best for his brothers and sisters in Christ.   Jesus Christ left His throne in glory, His and our Home, to come to earth to redeem and reconcile us.  His act of coming, enduring and dying on earth was sacrificial from start to finish, not just at the climax of the cross.  Jesus told the disciples at the last supper, “A new commandment I give to you, that you love one another, even as I have loved you, that you also love one another” (John 13:34).  The second greatest commandment, to “love your neighbor as yourself” (Matt. 22:39), was being intensified through this new commandment.  As He was preparing to be crucified, He was telling His disciples watch me closely because you are to love one another in the way I demonstrate for you.  Paul was responding in obedience to this command to love others as he had been loved by Christ.  Compelled by fervent love he chose to persevere in sacrificially pouring his earthly life out for those who had and would come to know Christ.  He embraced his call to live, recognizing that to live is Christ.

Though we may be imprisoned by pain, suffering or discouragement, and longing for Home, we must choose like Paul to say, “if I am to live on in the flesh, this will mean fruitful labor for me.”  However many days the Lord leaves us here we should long for them to be full of fruitful labor for Him.  As we look at those around us, family, friends, acquaintances and strangers, the words of Paul should ring in our ears,“to remain is more necessary for their sake, for their progress and joy in the faith.”  God has called us and longs to equip us to impact the lives of others through His love in us, if only we will humbly submit to Him and seek His face.  Like Paul, fervent love for others should compel us to live, and to live fruitfully.  We are not our own, we have been bought with a divine price (1 Cor. 6:20).  As Christ-followers we are His bond-servants to do His bidding.  We must embrace our call to live, recognizing that to live is Christ.

 “not one of us lives for himself, and not one dies for himself;  for if we live, we live for the Lord, or if we die, we die for the Lord; therefore whether we live or die, we are the Lord’s” Romans 14:7-8 [NASB]

The anguish of my child’s death is a sanctifying flame being used by the Refiner to melt away my temporal desires and interests, leaving a piercing focus for that which is eternal.  More than ever before I am acutely aware of the race I am running, the purpose for living.  The charge from the book of Hebrews echoes in my mind, “Therefore, since we have so great a cloud of witnesses surrounding us, let us also lay aside every encumbrance and the sin which so easily entangles us, and let us run with endurance the race that is set before us,  fixing our eyes on Jesus, the author and perfecter of faith, who for the joy set before Him endured the cross, despising the shame, and has sat down at the right hand of the throne of God.  For consider Him who has endured such hostility by sinners against Himself, so that you will not grow weary and lose heart” (Heb. 12:1-3 NASB).  So then, let us run this race with endurance, recognizing that to live is Christ.

There is much life to be lived and I want to urgently and obediently live every second of every day ordained for me (Psalm 139:16).  His Word tells us we are “His workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand so that we would walk in them” (Eph. 2:10 NASB).  I long to live the remainder of my days with my eyes so fixed on Jesus that I don’t miss a single appointment or opportunity that God prepared beforehand for me.  The promises contained in His Living Word will guide and strengthen me to persevere.  I will find hope in the midst of pain by meditating on the magnitude of the eternal weight of glory being produced through affliction (2 Cor. 4:17).  Through the outpouring of His sustaining grace I will not lose heart until, finally, I will have completed the race on the day appointed for me.  On that glorious day,  through the power of Christ in me, I will join that great cloud of witnesses joyously proclaiming, “I have fought the good fight, I have finished the course, I have kept the faith” (2 Tim. 4:7).   For to me, to live is Christ and to die is gain.

IMG_0738 copyArtwork: Sarah Harmening

My child died. God is good?

Sunday at church a song was sung that has been stuck in my head ever since.  I say “it was sung” instead of “we sang,” because both Scott and I found ourselves unable to sing it.  We were not familiar with the song so we were particularly attentive to the words.  It repeatedly said about God, “You are good, good” followed by repeatedly saying “You’re never gonna let me down.”  After several choruses of “you’re never gonna let me down” I leaned over to Scott to ask him what exactly he thought it meant.  Perhaps the song is written by someone much younger than us and the meaning of that phrase has changed, but for us, “never gonna let me down” means I will never be disappointed.  Similarly, Macmillan Dictionary defines “let down” as “to make someone disappointed by not doing something that they are expecting you to do.”  In the songwriter’s defense, maybe he or she meant God will never forsake us, which is, of course, true.

As I’ve thought about those lyrics from that song I’ve been reminded of how we as believers frequently report good news and follow it by a euphoric exclamation of, “God is good!”  For years, long before Sarah’s departure, I’ve been bothered by stating the truth “God is good,” in the context of good things happening to us.  Linking good circumstances with a statement of God’s goodness seems to beg the questions, what if it had not been good news?  Would God still be good, then?  Certainly those good circumstances are blessings of God, but if they are the evidence of God’s goodness, what are the terrible circumstances evidence of?  I’ve often wished we instead reserved the statement “God is good” as a battlecry for the wounded rather than an “amen” to everything that goes our way.

The reality is God didn’t just let our family down.   Disappointing us or letting us down sounds far too mild.  Instead, in the blink of an eye He allowed our family to plummet into a deep, dark, unimaginably painful pit.  We had bathed our precious child in prayer, pleading for her safety.  I had wrestled with putting her on that bus that morning and had prayerfully gone through the process of entrusting her to Him and His providential care as I allowed her to walk up those steps.   I absolutely was hopefully expecting him to honor those prayers to keep her safe, and I was wretchedly, horribly, excruciatingly disappointed.

Our family identifies with Paul.  Our good God has allowed us to be afflicted, perplexed, persecuted, and struck down, and we bear “great sorrow and unceasing grief” in our hearts. (2 Cor. 4:8-9; Rom. 9:2).  Our good God absolutely allows His children to be let down, disappointed, wounded, broken, grieved, persecuted and even killed.  He told us in His Word that He would.  He repeatedly warns us we live in a fallen world, and that we have an enemy who has come to steal, kill and destroy (John 10:10).  He warns us that we will endure fiery trials (1 Peter 4:12).  And if that’s not clear enough, He tells us, “Indeed, all who desire to live godly in Christ Jesus will be persecuted” (2 Tim. 3:12).

His goodness is completely independent of our circumstances.  His goodness is not contingent on health, wealth or prosperity.  His goodness is not compromised by tribulation or suffering.  To the contrary, His goodness is most powerfully experienced and displayed when He, our mighty Deliverer, plunges into the pit with us (Psalm 40).  He is faithful to be there with us, as the mire of heartbreak and agony press in tight and we struggle to breathe, He upholds us by His righteous right hand (Isa. 41:10).  Though the waters rise, He will not allow us to be completely overtaken (Psalm 69).  In the midst of our pain and suffering His sustaining grace is poured out enabling us to persevere and testify, “we are afflicted in every way, but not crushed; perplexed, but not despairing; persecuted, but not forsaken; struck down, but not destroyed (2 Cor. 4:8-9).

Some have mocked our faith since the accident, presuming out of finite imagination that a good god would only allow good circumstances and would never allow us to be let down or disappointed in such a way as we have suffered.  Such a view fails to take into account the totality of scripture and the fact that this life is not the focus, it is but a flicker.  When we look with earthly eyes at the painful circumstances of this temporal life there seems no option but hopelessness and despair.  However, when we view the struggles of this life through the lens of scripture and eternality, God’s goodness is clearly revealed.  “After you have suffered for a little while, the God of all grace, who called you to His eternal glory in Christ, will Himself perfect, confirm, strengthen and establish you” (1Pe 5:10 NASB).  “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 Cor. 4:16-18 NASB).

For most of us there will come a day when the mountain before us is not moved, the flood is not diverted or the flames are not quenched.  When that day comes we can persevere knowing that, though the path before us is unspeakably hard, we do not go alone.  Our good God was not absent or unaware the day Sarah died.  He did not abandon us or forsake us.  The mountain was not moved, the flood was not diverted and the flames were not quenched for our family on June 8th, 2017.  Even so, we still testify, shouting the battlecry of the wounded, “God is good!”

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The Stewardship of Pain

“As each one has received a special gift, employ it in serving one another as good stewards of the manifold grace of God.  Whoever speaks, is to do so as one who is speaking the utterances of God; whoever serves is to do so as one who is serving by the strength which God supplies; so that in all things God may be glorified through Jesus Christ, to whom belongs the glory and dominion forever and ever. Amen.”  1 Peter 4:10-11 [NASB]

I periodically wrestle with feelings of insecurity about continuing to share our family’s painful journey.  I realize that there are varying views regarding the appropriateness of speaking so openly about the intimate details of the deep heartache of grief.  I also recognize that some say there are limits to how long it is appropriate to discuss the pain of the death of a loved one, that doing so may reflect a lack of desire to “move on.”  I am confident those who say the latter have not had the experience of walking this path or they would recognize the grotesque fallacy of that line of thinking.  None the less, these realizations trigger insecurity by causing me to think perhaps continuing to acknowledge our pain will only serve to weary those around us, and in so doing will alienate us as well.  As I’ve recently taken a short break from social media and blogging this has been one of my primary focuses of prayer.

We all know as believers we are called to steward our finances, material resources, gifts, abilities and skills for the glory of God.  But as I have been praying over how God desires me to walk through this painful valley, I am convicted He is calling me to wisely steward my pain and suffering as well.  The most costly experience we can ever have or offer is that of suffering.  I would give every dollar and possession I have ever had or ever will have, along with my very life to have Sarah back in my arms, even for just one moment.  The pain I bear because of her absence is the most expensive possession I have to offer my Lord.  I am confident I am called to be a wise steward of it.  I am to prayerfully seek His face and counsel to understand how He is calling me to offer it up to Him, or “invest” it, so that He may multiply it for His glory.

In 1 Peter 4:10 we are called to be “good stewards of the manifold grace of God.”  According to Strong’s the word translated “manifold” here can also be understood to mean divers or various in character.   It is through His manifold grace that we as His children are beckoned, comforted, convicted, chastened, rebuked, exhorted, forgiven, restored and healed, just to name a few.  The same grace both carries us through the refining flames of fiery tribulation and binds our wounds on the other side.  The same grace that provides new mercies each morning to soothe our aching hearts, also opens our eyes to sin and convicts and chastens our wandering hearts.  Recognizing this, I hold my open hands before Him and plead with Him to continue to use my pain as an investment to be multiplied through teaching and refining me personally, to continue the process of purifying my heart that I may be increasingly used for His glory.

In addition to stewarding the pain and suffering by requesting and allowing God to refine me personally through it, I am also to steward His grace that has been given to me through sharing our pain and suffering.  As I pull back my flesh revealing my shattered heart to others, it affords me the opportunity to boldly testify of His manifold grace.  It is His abundant, amazing grace alone that sustains us and enables us to persevere through the heartache.   Our pain and suffering is a stage upon which His grace can be boldly displayed as we testify of His faithfulness to meet our every need.  We share our pain and suffering as a means to testify of His provision “so that in all things God may be glorified through Jesus Christ to whom belongs the glory and dominion forever and ever. Amen.” 

I am also realizing that the ability to find the words to communicate both the pain and the provision is “a special gift” from Him to be stewarded as well.   In the middle of the time I had set apart to pray over how God would have me steward this painful journey, our pastor preached a sermon on the account of Paul and Silas in Acts (16:16-40).  After they had been beaten with many blows and shackled in a dingy prison cell they were praying and singing hymns at midnight.  Every time I’ve read that account I’ve been amazed by their faith and God’s sustaining grace in their lives, but it wasn’t until this week that I was struck by the last part of verse 25, “and the prisoners were listening to them.”   From the very first post after Sarah’s death, my intent has consistently been to glorify God through sharing His provision and all that He is teaching us through this valley.  I will continue to acknowledge the cold metal bars of earthly death that now separate my family, and the open wounds of the attacks of the enemy, and the weight of the shackles of grief because through acknowledging them the power of God’s grace in our lives is magnified.  I will tell of the pain and then sing of His grace because the prisoners are listening.

Sarah’s death was not a gift of God, but Sarah’s life and the outpouring of His marvelous grace that sustains us are His gifts.  The tremendous Hope of the knowledge of Sarah’s present ongoing eternal life and our promise of joining Him and her in His presence is the pinnacle promise of His grace about which we are called to testify.   I will continue to pull back my flesh and expose my shattered heart because in so doing I am able to expose the grace of God that is greater than all my pain.   I will join with Paul and Silas as I sing in this prison cell because as He said to Paul, He also says to me, “‘My grace is sufficient for you, for power is perfected in weakness.’ Most gladly, therefore, I will rather boast about my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ may dwell in me.  Therefore I am well content with weaknesses, with insults, with distresses, with persecutions, with difficulties, for Christ’s sake; for when I am weak, then I am strong” (2 Corinthians 12:9-10).

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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]

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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.” 

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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.

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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).

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