Trust After Loss: Appropriate God’s Strength

My friend and fellow bereaved mom, Margaret Franklin, Ryan’s mom, shared a beautiful Dutch word with me “Sterkte” (pronounced STAIRK-tah).

It literally translates “strength” or “power” but culturally means much more.  It means bravery, strength, fortitude and endurance in the face of fear and insumountable odds through the empowering strength of God in me.

Not MY strength, but HIS.

It’s the strength Isaiah meant when he wrote:

But they that wait upon the Lord shall renew their strength; they shall mount up with wings as eagles; they shall run, and not be weary; and they shall walk, and not faint.

Isaiah 40:31 KJV

This is what it means to appropriate God’s strength:  

I have to exhale my doubts, inhale His truth and then allow His Spirit to weave that truth into armor so that I am strong for battle.

armor-of-god

There were twelve spies that scouted out the Promised Land.

All twelve had experienced the parting of the Red Sea, all twelve had seen the pillar of fire by night and cloud by day,  all twelve saw God conquer the Egyptians.  But ten of them never allowed that experience to go further than head knowledge.

Only Caleb and Joshua embraced that truth and allowed God to use it to change their hearts.  Those two were willing to fight the giants because they knew it would be God fighting for them and through them and they did not have to depend on their own strength for victory.

That’s what “sterkte” is-it’s inviting God’s power to dwell inside me so that I am strong for battle in HIS strength.   It’s letting His Spirit speak courage to my heart so I have the endurance to live this life NONE of us chose.

In my own strength I am doomed.  In His strength I am guaranteed enduring to the end.

When I was searching for a verse to help explain sterkte-because it is such a lovely and succinct expression of how hearts can and do endure this awful pain, the dark nights of doubt and yet remain strong in this journey-I found it in Habakkuk.

It’s a tiny book tucked into the back of the Old Testament and begins with the prophet asking God questions:

“Do You know what Your priests and leaders are doing?  Are You going to DO something?”

And God says, “Yep.  Going to use the Babylonians to wipe them out.”

Habakkuk answers, THAT’S Your plan???”

God responds, “Yes-but see, I’m going to be sending a Messiah to make all this right.  I’m doing something you can’t understand.  I’m working my plan for history and eternity.”

Habakkuk ends his book with these verses:

16 I heard and my [whole inner self] trembled; my lips quivered at the sound. Rottenness enters into my bones and under me [down to my feet]; I tremble. I will wait quietly for the day of trouble and distress when there shall come up against [my] people him who is about to invade and oppress them.

17 Though the fig tree does not blossom and there is no fruit on the vines, [though] the product of the olive fails and the fields yield no food, though the flock is cut off from the fold and there are no cattle in the stalls,

18 Yet I will rejoice in the Lord; I will exult in the [victorious] God of my salvation!

19 The Lord God is my Strength, my personal bravery, and my invincible army; He makes my feet like hinds’ feet and will make me to walk [not to stand still in terror, but to walk] and make [spiritual] progress upon my high places [of trouble, suffering, or responsibility]!

Habakkuk 3:16-19

Nothing changed!

Bad stuff was coming!

But Habakkuk appropriated God’s strength for himself and knew that would be enough to see him through. 

He was broken but trusting.

There is no shame in being broken.

Here’s the deal:  God loves the broken.  Christ came for the broken.  It’s the broken and breathless who long for the Spirit to blow llife across their wounded hearts.

It’s the hopeless and fearful that run faster to the safety of their Shepherd.

It’s the worried and weary who are thankful for a Burden-bearer.

Hallelu-Yah!

This is NOT a once and done kind of thing- I m here to testify that it is most certainly NOT.  I am assaulted repeatedly by pain and doubt.  I circle back around and revisit places I thought had healed over and over and over.  A sound, a sight or a memory can bring me back to Day One in a heartbeat.

So what does faith really look like?

Is it always a never-ending, wild “Hallalujah!”?

I don’t think so.

I think faith is essentially this:  turning my face toward the God I love even when (especially when!) I’ve stopped expecting an answer and maybe even when my heart has despaired of help.

I would argue that faith is precisely that step forward into the dark unknown, onto the broken road, lifting the unbearable heaviness as an offering and trusting that

God sees,

that He hears

and that He will not abandon me.

Each time I doubt I am quicker to acknowledge the pain and admit my doubt– I take my questions to God.  My mind is more likely to access TRUTH and my heart is more inclined to appropriate God’s strength, my personal bravery, my invincible army.

hebrews-11_1.jpg

I used to think that Hebrews 11:1 was essentially a personal verse-my faith confirmed to ME that God was working.  But now I see it in a different light.  I think it is a corporate verse leading my heart to emulate lives that exemplified enduring faith-that “great cloud of witnesses” cheering us on from Heaven.

I did not choose this life but it is the one I’ve been given.  My prayer in this Valley for myself and all of us who are broken is this:

“God to mold me and make me into the masterpiece You designed me to be as a testimony to the fact that You are who You say You are.”

I long for my faith to be evidence to a doubting world that there is MORE than the eye can see.  I want my endurance to be an invitation for others to join me in pursuing what lasts for eternity and not just for this short mortal life.

Full redemption will have to wait for Heaven, but God is working even now to bring some redemption from my pain. 

He [Christ] said not, ‘Thou shalt not be tempested, thou shalt not be trevailed, thou shalt not be dis-eased,’ but He said, ‘Thou shalt not be overcome.’

Julian of Norwich

courage and perseverance

 

Trust After Loss: Access the Truth

 

“I wake before the morning light.  Every. single. morning.

I get my coffee, sit in my chair and wait for sunrise.

I never worry that today it might not happen.

I’m never concerned that after all these years of faithfulnessthis day may be the one where daylight fails to make an appearance.

There is no fear in this darkness because I know it will not last forever.

Morning is coming.

Morning. Is. Coming.

And that’s the hope I cling to in this longer darkness of the Valley of the Shadow of Death-no matter how many years it may bethe Valley has an end.

The same God Who keeps the earth in orbit around the sun has ordained that death will not have the last word.

Light will triumph.

Darkness will have to flee.”

From Morning Is Coming

sunrise trees

I have loved Scripture as long as I can remember.  When I was in second grade I got the notion to read the whole Bible straight through-in the King James Version.  I made it to Leviticus before I threw in the towel.

By the time my kids were grown I had read and studied Scripture for decades. 

But three years before Dominic ran ahead to Heaven I realized my reading had become rote-I felt like I “knew” all the stories.  So I slowed my study to a crawl-only one chapter a day-and I usually copied the whole chapter plus my notes into a journal.  I had just finished this time through the Bible in January before Dom was killed in April.

And all that truth stored in my mind and heart was what I “read” for months when my eyes were too full of tears to see print on a page.

Many verses stung-some still do-but I was committed to bathe my broken heart in what I knew was true.  I would take it like medicine, even when it tasted awful.  I knew-in the end-it was my only hope for help.

It’s easy when doubt creeps in to let my heart hold onto it-even in the face of Truth that puts the doubt to rest.

But if all I do is question, question, question and never still my soul to receive God’s answers or His comfort, then I will simply run out of oxygen and faith.  I will lay prostrate with the enemy’s foot on my neck.

I will lose all hope and give up and give in.

I let my feelings, questions and doubts OUT, but I also choose to take the Word of God IN.

And when I can’t do anything else, I recite and cling to the names of God:

Jehovah-Roi-the God Who Sees Me.  This is the name Hagar gave God in the desert.  He didn’t change her circumstances but He assured her that she was seen, not overlooked and not abandoned.

Jehovah-Nissithe LORD my Banner.  God is the One I look to in the battle.  He will not always save me from the fight, but He has guaranteed the victory.

Jehovah-Shalom-The LORD my Peace.  Jesus is Sar Shalom-the Prince of Peace Who promises Himself to every heart that will turn in faith to Him.  This peace is inner certainty that He is Lord over all, even when the evidence I can see is telling me that’s not true.

THE NAME OF THE LORD IS A MIGHTY TOWER.  THE RIGHTEOUS RUN TO IT AND ARE SAVED.

I leaned hard on the Word stored in my heart. I was too broken (and some days still am too broken) to open my Bible.

God had prepared David for years as a shepherd to lean hard on Him.  David’s Psalms don’t end with “Where are You, God?” they progress to a recitation of the character of the LORD, to an enumeration of His past faithfulness, to a true understanding that sometimes there’s NO understanding what He is doing.

And David leaned in, hung on and recited truth to his heart even when his head couldn’t figure out how what he was experiencing squared with what he knew to be true.

The whole book of Job is full of questions but it is also contains Job’s declaration he was firmly convinced that “as for me, I know that my Redeemer lives, and He will stand upon the earth at last.”  (Job 19:25)

hallelujah1

“You can’t hold your breath forever.

But when you first learn your child is dead you want to–oh, how you want to.

I don’t know if it was defiance or hope that made me certain that if I could just stop breathing, I could freeze time.

I could undo the truth.

I could stop the creeping terror that seized my heart.

But it was impossible.  My body insisted that my lungs release the poison of carbon dioxide and refresh my oxygen supply.

There is a spiritual counterpart to the physical desire to stop breathing. 

Most bereaved parents will tell you that at some point in their grief journey, whether they would describe themselves as “believers” or not, they have had to examine their notion of God.

They have to ask, “How am I to relate to this Person that controls the Universe–this Being that could have saved my child–but chose not to?”

I am a Christ follower.  I believe in Jesus and I trust His Word.

But I will honestly confess that burying my child has made me reexamine just what that means and just Who He is.

Before my son was killed, I gave mental assent to the idea that “God is in control” but wasn’t forced to reconcile His control with my heart’s desire to guarantee my family’s safety.

But His existence, and His character does not depend on my understanding.  And to be frank, a God I can comprehend wouldn’t be much of a God at all.

I could not will my body not to stop breathing.

And what I am learning in this grief journey is that I can’t hold my spiritual breath forever either.

The poison of doubt and the insistence that I be able to comprehend the fullness of God will suffocate my soul as surely as lack of oxygen will stop my heart.

So, “Hallelujah” is my exhale.

It is my letting go-my drawing in again the life-giving truth that God is God and I am not.

And acknowledging that while I cannot understand His ways, I can choose to trust His Father love.” 

From Hallelujah is an Exhale

There is no easy answer for why children die-no sweet saying that can wash away the pain and the sorrow and the regret of burying your son.

But I know this:  If my healing depends on me, I am lost.

If the God of heaven is not the god of all, then I have no hope.

If Jesus didn’t really come, and die and rise again,  I have nothing to look forward to. 

Ann Lamott recounts this tale in her book, Plan B:  Further Thoughts on Faith:

There is a lovely Hasidic story of a rabbi who alwasy told his people that if they studied the Torah, it would put Scripture on their hearts.  One of them asked, “Why on our hearts, and not in them?”  The rabbi answered, “Only God can put Scripture inside.  But reading sacred text can put it on your heart, and then when your hearts break, the holy words fall inside.”

My heart is already broken-burying my son did that. 

Now I’m waiting

and trusting

that the holy words will fall inside.  

band-aid-and-heart

 

Trust After Loss: Acknowledge Doubt and Ask Questions

This is the third in a series of five posts.  If you haven’t read the first two, I encourage you to do so.

I am sharing from the perspective of child loss but the things God is teaching me have much broader application. If you are struggling because you feel like God has let you down, please read on.  And please read the posts that follow this one.

God welcomes us to the divine dinner table to talk things out.

Join us.

Grief forces me to walk Relentlessly Forward  even when I long to go back.

I can’t stop the clock or the sun or the days rolling by.

Those of us who are more than a couple months along in this journey (or any journey that involves tragedy and loss) know that it is ABSOLUTELY POSSIBLE to feel worse than in the first few days.

Because as the edges of the fog lift and the reality of an entire lifetime looms before you the questions form and the doubt sinks in:

Where ARE You God?

Why don’t You DO something?

Are You even LISTENING?

So many of us who have been in church for a long time think that Wrestling With God or entertaining doubt  is sin-or, at best- unhealthy and proof of a weak faith.

faith is not an epidural

But Scripture is filed from start to finish with God’s people asking God:

“Why?”

“Where are You?”

“What exactly are is Your plan here?”

Truth is, you can’t hide it.  God KNOWS it anyway.

Some say faith precludes doubt but I say faith is exactly what you cling to in the margins of doubt-when you have exhausted all the possibilities that exist in the physical, you-can-touch-it world and yet you KNOW there is MORE.

Even in my most doubtful moments I knew God was there.  Even if I couldn’t see Him, even if I couldn’t hear Him, even if I couldn’t feel Him-I still knew He was there.  Somewhere deep inside me I knew He was still God. 

But I was trying to figure out how to re-engage with this God that wasn’t at all who I expected Him to be and didn’t act in ways I thought He should.  The relationship had changed because I was not the person I used to be before I buried my son.

HE is the same, but I am most definitely NOT.  

God invites us to bring Him our questions and our doubts.  He says, “Come let us reason together.”  Questions are how you mark the borders of what you know and find the edges of what you don’t.

God is not diminished by my desire to understand and make sense of my world-He doesn’t owe me an explanation-but He gives me freedom to ask the questions.

my-faith-is-a-wounded-faith

Wrestling is not UNBELIEF.  Wrestling is the hard work of true faith.

Walk through the Hall of Faith in Hebrews 11-Abraham, Sarah, Moses, Gideon, Samuel, David-every. single. one. had questions for God.

God is not threatened by my wondering.  His throne is in no danger due to my queries.

It is most often other believers who find the questions unsettling.  Doubters can be shifted to the back pew-not because people are mean but because our presence is threatening.  For someone yet to face the test of faith, our test can remind them that theirs may be coming.

I don’t want nor expect to have the last word, I believe that belongs to the Creator of the Universe.  But I think He will hear my pleas.

In my trouble I called to the Lord, I cried out to my God for help.  From his temple he heard my voice.  My call for help reached his ears.

Psalm 18:6 ICB

God is God of the day and God of the night-when I can’t feel Him, He’s still here.

He knows my frame-He made me.

He knows I’m strugging, I can’t hide it.

When I swallow my doubts instead of speaking them all I do is poison my own heart.

Lament is a biblical response to deep pain.

I have to exhale before I can inhale. 

If my heart is full of unreleased anger and bitterness, then it has no room for the Spirit of God to move.

If I want to keep my faith, I’ve got to acknowledge my doubts.  

bereavement-is-the-sharpest-challenge-to-our-trust-in-god-if-faith-can-overcome-this-there-is-no-quote-1

 

 

 

Trust After Loss: Admit the Pain

Child loss is Unnatural-no way around it.

Out of order death is devastating.

When my perfectly healthy, strong and gifted son was killed instantly in a motorcycle accident on April 12. 2014 my world fell apart.  My heart shattered into a million pieces.  And after three and a half years, I’ve yet to even FIND all of those pieces much less put them back together.

So what does a heart do when that happens?  Because, try as I might, I cannot stop time. 

Even THAT awful day only lasted 24 hours.

When the sun rose again, the pain was still there.  And behind that pain and mixed with it was something else-disappointment, disaffection, distrust.

Where were You, God???

God is sovereign-He rules.

God is good-He loves.

How do those two truths live together in a universe that includes child loss? How can I trust the rest of my life and my eternal future to a God who lets this happen?

It’s a process.  And it takes time.  It involves purposeful choices by me to place my heart where it can hear truth even when it doesn’t want to hear and doubts every word.

The first step toward trusting again is to ADMIT THE PAIN.

You may be thinking, “Are you crazy?”.   

“Of course I know I’m hurting-my child is no longer here!”

But that’s the easy pain to recognize and own up to.  For those of us who have swallowed the western church model of “Sunshine Christianity”*, we will have a much harder time admitting our dismay that as victors in Jesus we feel discouraged, defeated and disgusted.

And should we dare to whisper it aloud we may well be shouted down by voices afraid to hear what they themselves sometimes secretly think but never speak.  So we convince our hearts these are phantom pains like those of a lost limb and try to ignore them.

But they will not be ignored.

The Bible is full of broken people bringing their hearts and their hurts to God.

  • He doesn’t despise my pain.
  • He doesn’t turn away from my tears.
  • He doesn’t hurry me through hearbreak.

Death is awful!  We dare not make it small!

It was the penalty for sin and the price of salvation.  To deny the presence of pain is to diminish the power of the cross.

I must admit my pain:

  • Own it.
  • Feel it.
  • Name it.
  • Speak it.

I’m not the first nor will I be the last to wonder about where God is and what He is doing.  Nicolas Wolterstorff’s adult son was killed in a climbing accident and his little book, Lament for a Son, was one of the best I have read in grief.

It struck a chord with me both because of the similarity of our loss and his honesty in exploring the edges of pain and doubt.

He writes:

Will my eyes adjust to this darkness?  Will I find you in the dark-not in the streaks of light which remain, but in the darkness?  Has anyone ever found you there?  Did they love what they saw?  Did they see love?  And are there songs for singing when the light has gone dim?  Or in the dark, is it best to wait in silence?

Noon has darkened.  As fast as they could say, “He’s dead”, the light dimmed.  And where are you in the darkness?  I learned to spy you in the light.  Here in this darkness, I cannot find you.  If I had never looked for you, or looked but never found, I would not feel this pain of your absence.  Or is it not your absence in which I dwell, but your elusive troubling presence?

Nicholas Wolterstorff, LAMENT FOR A SON

C.S. Lewis wrote A Grief Observed after the loss of his wife, Joy.  And he also is honest and raw-asking aloud the questions that hide in our hearts, admitting the fear that the God we serve may not be the God we thought we knew.  

Giants in faith-both men. 

Yet they, like us, had to bring the shattered pieces of their broken hearts to the foot of the cross and beg God to put them back together. 

Admit the pain. 

God already knows.  

god shouts in pain cs lewis

*Sunshine Christianity is the notion that once one belongs to Jesus the road is smooth (God can make a way), the path clear of obstacles (if you have enough faith), and if I simply claim the promises of Scripture I have victory over every circumstance.  It does not square with either Jesus’ own experience nor that of the 12 apostles.

Out of the Depths I Cry

So many times I feel like this violet, clinging to a tiny foothold in a treacherous world-only enough strength for today, only enough bravery for today, only enough mental and emotional reserve for today.

But I know as surely as the sun rises, that tomorrow God will be present to give me what I need for THAT day too.

violet in crevice of rock

Out of the depths I cry to You, O LORD,
O LORD, hear my voice,
Let Your ears be attentive to my cry for mercy.
I wait for the LORD, my soul waits,
and in His word I put my hope. 
My soul waits for the LORD more than watchmen wait for the morning,
more than watchmen wait for the morning.

~Psalm 130-selected NIV

Zero Points for Pretending: You Can’t Hide Your Heart

Oh, sometimes I think I’m clever enough to do it.

I edit my words, costume my body and fix my face so  I can act the part.  But truth is, I never manage to fool anyone who looks closer than my plastic smile.

I can’t hide my heart.

And I don’t know why I try-I don’t get points for pretending.

There’s no prize at the end of this long road for the one who makes it with fewest tears.

No one offers me any token for the months or years or decades I make it without breaking down or cracking up.

exhausted-over-trying-to-be-stronger-than-i-feel

But I damage my own soul by shoving the feelings deep.  I clog my arteries by swallowing every angry word.  Sorrow turns to despair which turns to hopelessness if I never let it out.

And like it or not, it leaks out somewhere.

So I’m learning to speak my truth, to name my feelings and express them in healthy ways: 

  • I journal.
  • I share in safe spaces like bereavement groups and my church small group.
  • I exercise-which helps to burn off “steam” or just that awful sense of discomfort when darker feelings overwhelm my heart.
  • I build rest into my day along with silence so my mind and heart get a break from constant self-restraint and editing needed during conversation.
  • I read helpful articles and books.
  • I write this blog.
  • And when I need to, I talk to someone who is making my journey more difficult and try to work it out.

All of this takes energy and effort when I have the least of either to spare.  But the alternative is too grim to consider.  

I don’t want to walk the rest of my years carrying more heartache than that of child loss-which is heavier than I could ever have imagined. 

I choose to shed the extra pounds of emotional baggage I can leave by the roadside.

I won’t hide my heart.  

feel deal heal

 

Repost: True Truth

I will not get used to the fact that my son is beyond my reach.  I have come to a certain acceptance of it as fact, and acknowledgement of the truth that I cannot change that fact.

The pain hasn’t become less painful, only more familiar.

Read the rest here:  True Truth