Have you ever lost something? Some of us may lose our keys or some money. Or perhaps we were in a wreck and our car was totaled or you lost someone you loved? How did you feel? What process did you go through for thoughts and feelings? What did you do next?
The last several years it seems that all I had dreamed of, all that I worked towards was swept away by a strong east wind! When a storm such as this sweeps in and yet you are left standing, there comes a time of grieving. We grieve the things, ideas and people that we were attached to. We could wish that none of it happened this way, but that is not the reality. Now that I've had to face this grief, the sorrow, the loneliness, I now recognize that I cannot regain what has been lost. Accepting this reality allows us to move forward.
Moving forward will look different for many of us. For those of us following the Lord, we find ourselves seeking the Lord and earnestly desiring His will for all of our decisions. The reality of the day to day living is one level of consideration. Daily doing the ordinary tasks of running a household and caring for my two beautiful little girls. At this level I appreciate that we have a stable living and a peaceful household. My girls love having all of Daddy's attention at this point. And I think it is God's grace for our healing.
On a second level, God never wastes experiences, but builds on the past. If we think about the cities and kingdoms in Israel, many of them were conquered time and time again. The next city, the next temple were built on the rubble from the past. What I believe God is doing now is building a totally new foundation for a new work in my life. But I had to accept that I cannot regain what was in the past. I will always treasure the gifts from that season my life. I will always remember and recognize the contributions from those experiences and all that Laina gave to me. I stated in my last blog, that part of Laina lives in me and part of me died with her. What I didn't explain is what parts. Laina was tenacious, a deep thinker, fun and adventurous and loved the Lord! She sharpened me, challenged me and loved me well. I will always have more fun and enjoy each moment of life more because of her. Her deep prayer for me was that I would not fear anymore. Fear would keep me from taking risks or make me try to protect and keep safe those people and things I feared would be taken. My best effort at control was futile! I couldn't will Laina to be healed. Fear looked right into my face, and I am still standing with God's help! I believe when Laina died, she grasped at the fear within me and took it to Jesus! I too willingly submit and confess that sinful part of me. I give that fear up, because I trust the Lord so much more now! It was a refining fire, that testing and facing fear. Fear is an opportunity for God to reveal Himself and His power! He loves us so deeply how can we not trust Him? When I stood upon the hopes, dreams, desires and expectations of what I thought I possessed, I stood on shaky ground. After this great shaking, I recognized that as believers in Jesus, we cannot stand on a foundation of (Jesus + anything). The cornerstone and foundation is Jesus alone! I thought I was on solid ground, but I wasn't. But after the testing, the foundation can now be rebuilt to stand more secure.
I've written a lot over the past few years about the process of grieving. Many of my acquaintances and friends are experiencing and will soon experience grief. It's most certainly a roller coaster of emotions. But there is light ahead! There is hope, peace, joy and love in Christ ahead! The road signs are the day to day moments of gratitude that surround us. Yes, there may be a loss, let's remember, but not focus on the loss. Our focus is on Jesus - the author and perfecter of our faith. He desires to give us an abundant life that is truly free! Let's chose to live in the freedom that brings life! This is a strong foundation! This is freedom!
What's your experience with the process of grief? How do you see God's hand guiding you?
Sitting in silence. Waiting. Listening. Breathing. A discipline that I have often enjoyed, being a slight introvert. I've often spent quiet moments sitting in a chair or walking in the woods. It typically fills me up and re-energizes me.
For the Spiritual Formation class that I'm taking, we have been asked to practice silence as a spiritual discipline. When I first began back in November I looked forward to this time. It often has helped me to refocus and de-stress. However this time I began to notice how much noise I had let into my life. No music, no videos, no conversations. Just me and silence. As I continued this practice and removed the first layer of noise, I then noticed the second layer of distractions and thoughts. There was a lot of clutter in my mind. I just didn't notice because it was covered in noise. But these distractions of all the house work, bills, studies, schedules, care for the girls, sump pump, other issues with the house... were now uncovered. I then took some space to write them out and make a plan in my calendar to address some of them. So I continued with silence.
The third layer then emerged - loneliness and sadness. Oh this is not what I expected friends. I thought I was moving forward and beginning to get beyond some of these emotions. But I was only distracting myself from this journey of grief. These are real human emotions and appropriate for what I've been through. Losing a loved one hurts deeply. My wife was my soul-mate. We were "one flesh." Part of her lives in me and part of me died with her. I feel the void in my heart and miss her. But silence provided the atmosphere for me to remove those other layers so I could address loneliness and sadness. If I don't address them, they would emerge in a more fierce way in the future. They would seek to hi-jack my mind, will and emotions and lead me to a bitter end. We need to move through these emotions like a surfer on waves. Ride the waves and paddle forward.
I wish I could say that I'm past these emotions, but I'm not yet. However, each day as they occur we are given a choice. Do I choose to self-medicate and fill the void with a distraction or a means of trying to control it? Or do I acknowledge it's there, present it to God in prayer and do what's next? We so easily fall into the trap of temptations that try to fill the void apart from God. The remedy I've found so far is God's grace and mercy. God gives grace for today. It's underserved and it's a gift.
As I try to manage my own grief, there are several other people going through losses and potential losses around me. And Koby Bryant's death brought back my sadness and loneliness too. Silence has helped reveal these things to me, but it's not the total picture of what is needed. Yes, I need time alone in silence to re-center myself on Christ. But I've also become aware within this loneliness the need for community. At points I've prayed for and hoped that a community would spontaneously come offer support and encouragement. But silence. So I reached out but circumstances and schedules just didn't line up with others. It's as if in all my praying and God's seeming silence, God then pipes up and says, "Todd, I'm with you. All you need is me. But now go and be that community for others who are lonely and sad." Part of the answer for my loneliness, is to extend myself to others who are lonely. God provides as we serve others.
Now this may not be the case for everyone. But I think if we are in fellowship with God (1 John 1), we will be able to bring the light of His fellowship to others, even when we don't have the strength, because He is our strength.
Silence has drudged up the mire and muck that was within me. It brought forward the layers of noise, distractions and emotions that grief brought into my soul. But it also brought to light the sin in my heart. In those times of being alone we can hear God's whispers, "I'm here. Wait for me." But besides our own sinful desire, Satan or one of his minions also whispers to us,
"God's really not being fair, is He! He took your wife, your ministry and now you are all alone and no one cares. He is so unjust. Why bother anymore? Look how everyone else is so blessed. You've been faithful, but you have lost so much. You are sad and rightly so. You are lonely. Well if God isn't going to help you, go take matters into your own hands. Get what you need! Do it now!"
God's words are few. Satan's words many and will eventually lead to more pain, sadness and harm if listened to. I've talked with a lot of widows/widowers over the last couple years. A few have made the choice to marry just a few months after the death of their loved one. I can't judge if that was God's will or not. But I do know they have not fully processed their grief and will not make decisions without clouded judgement. A couple people have even said that they'd rather be single again because their new marriage is very difficult or even not healthy. We should heed their words and take our time in grieving. Silence is one of those disciplines that can be helpful in revealing what lies beneath the surface in our interior, our soul.
Confession is another discipline that has mostly been forgotten in mainstream Christianity. It's basically presenting to God in prayer, our needs, weaknesses and sin. It's a crying out to the Lord who is able to bring what we really need. The Apostle John states in a letter:
If we claim to be without sin, we deceive ourselves and the truth is not in us. If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just and will forgive us our sins and purify us from all unrighteousness. 1 John 1:8-9
Turning toward Jesus and confessing our struggle, our weakness, our control and our sins brings forgiveness and purity. The problem is that our will often doesn't want to let go of the control. Yet submission to Jesus has proven to bring freedom! Why do we wrestle and struggle and fight and resist this simple offer? Our old nature is ruled by our sinful nature, but once we began as a believer in Jesus, the new man begins to resist the sinful nature. The sinful nature lives by the law of sin and death. The Spirit of Christ offers grace and life. Romans 7 and Galatians 5 explain this more in detail, as well as other parts of the Letters from Paul (Epistles).
As I have taken this journey through silence, I've been having to face my grief and the things that come with it. How long would I have buried sadness and loneliness without confronting them? Many people live their entire lives never recognizing the healing and hope that is available in Jesus. The healing is offered through Jesus alone. It cost him his life to purchase it for us. And His invitation is packaged in silence and a whisper. The alternative is to continue to self medicate ourselves with "everything under the sun," noise, media, music, work, projects, people, busyness, drugs, alcohol, you name it.
So how about giving it a try? Sit in silence and let God peal back the layers. It may take time but you will find healing and freedom! Jesus says:
"Come to me..." you who are lonely. You who are sad and depressed. Learn My ways. Give to Me your burdens, your weaknesses, your struggles, your sin. I offer you rest for your weary souls.
It's the year 2020 and I see many posts of people's reviews for the last year or even the last decade. It's healthy to pause and review one's life at certain times. New Year's is a natural time to do just that. So here is a quick decade in review from my story.
2010 - I was laid off from youth ministry and after a period of not working, I transitioned to serve as a chapter planter with InterVarsity Christian Fellowship.
2011 - Our first daughter Kysa was born! Laina and I learned to slow down, enjoy each moment and rest. It was certainly a life transition where we couldn't pace our life as we once did.
2012 - I continued to serve with IVCF and went to my first Urbana. I was exhausted and skipped a main session. As I laid on the bed and prayed God spoke to me in my thoughts, "Ask Laina her dreams." Laina's dreams were to have another baby and move by her parents. A week after asking Laina her dreams, we found out she was pregnant and we planned to move to Wisconsin.
2013 - Our second daughter, Matea was born! But two months later Laina had a suspicious lump. We investigated.
2014 - We found out Laina had breast cancer. Six months of treatment and we got the all clear. We had planned on moving to be near Laina's parents. We delayed due to the cancer. It was a very difficult season in ministry as well.
2015 - We moved to Wisconsin to be near Laina's parents. I continued with IVCF.
2016 - We discovered cancer metastasized in Laina's brain, lungs and liver. I was in shock and struggled with anxiety and depression.
2017 - We continued to fight the cancer with various treatments. I resigned from IVCF. I started to substitute teach as I was able.
2018 - Laina fought hard, and taught us all how to live each day with joy and to cherish each moment. I learned to submit to the Lord and accepted his calling for Laina. My anxiety and depression went away. Laina passed on to be with the Lord, September 6. I started a Spiritual Formation Cohort with Moody Bible Institute. I continued as a substitute teacher. And learned the joys and challenges of being a single parent.
2019 - I took a Masters class on the Synoptic Gospels from Trinity International University. I started year 2 for the Spiritual Formation cohort and Spiritual Direction certificate. I continue to substitute and started to teach Environmental Education.
2020 - God willing, I will complete the Spiritual Formation/Direction certificate and continue on with my Master's of Arts in Theological Studies. It's been my dream to take seminary classes most of my life. I'm taking life moment by moment and step by step. God is with us on this journey.
In the Spiritual Formation cohort we are practicing the discipline of "Silence." I've appreciated this discipline most of my life as I've been a quiet person. Yet, what I discovered is that since Laina passed, I've been filling my mind/soul with noise. Always listening to something or watching YouTube or looking at Facebook, reading and taking on house tasks. As I try to pull away from all of the "distractions," I discovered a void, a deep sadness. I've been suppressing this part of my grieving and trying to move forward. But only in silence do we face what is buried deep inside our souls. We may seem fine if we suppress it or bury it with distractions, but it needs to be acknowledged and brought to the Lord or it will emerge in more harmful and unexpected ways. I know there are many others going through their own trials. I hope we can learn from each other as we journey through suffering and grief.
Submission to the Lord is the first step to freedom from anxiety and depression. Then desiring to draw near to the Lord and seeking Him in his word, prayer and community we can hear His words to us. "If the Son sets us free, we are free indeed." John 8:36. His Presence bring Freedom and peace. Silence has drawn out what remained unseen. Now I need the faith and courage to face the grief. It's healthy to do so. It's not healthy to suppress it. This brings us to some forks in the road. Moment by moment, day by day, will I choose distractions or choose to let the Lord lead me through this grief? Some days I do well, others I am totally distracted. But the Lord is a gentle shepherd and leads his sheep with care. He even puts us on His shoulders and carries us at times. And already I am seeing God's hand over these terrible times of suffering and loss. Other's are going through trials and some have even asked, "How do you do it? How do you get through letting go? How do you get through grief?"
There is much to say, but at times like these it would be more than any person could bear to listen to it all. But the simple answer is this: Submit to Jesus and keep your eyes on Him!
Whatever lies ahead for 2020 - Submit to Jesus and keep your eyes on Him!
With sincere love toward you in Christ Jesus,
A blessed New Year from our family to yours!
It is days like these that a person walks through when an unexpected illness or diagnosis occur. Or when that accident happens and your dreams are shattered in a moment. Not only have I walked through the darkness of suffering and facing death, but many friends and acquaintances are going through these things now or will someday. As I have previously written, grief and trauma have varying affects on each of us. No person's journey is exactly the same, but there are similarities. There were days or months of shock. I sat frozen and unable to move. My mind raced with the worst of thoughts and fears that seemed as realities. Worry turned to anxiety, anxiety turned to depression, depression tried to drag me to the darkness of despair. It's goal was to lead me to death. At one point the gravity of this pull was so intense that I almost put myself into a hospital. I was losing hope. How could this happen? I had been a faithful servant of the Lord, serving in ministry for nearly 23 years. As I prayed with a friend about this pain that was gripping me. He asked me, "Todd, are you in despair?" I hadn't even considered the word despair in my vocabulary. How had this happened? What should I do to get relief? Is there any hope?!
I am writing tonight because I believe I have friends and others who are experiencing this darkness in some form or may experience it in the near future. When you come to this point, know this, "there is hope and his name is Jesus!"
You may think to yourself, "Ya, I already know this. That's such a Sunday school answer."
But there's more here to consider.
I've had time to reflect on my journey now, being 15 months since my wife passed. Hindsight gives some perspective and we can begin to see at least some things more clearly. Though we will not know all of God's wisdom and plans through suffering until we are in His Kingdom fully.
My eyes moved from Jesus to my circumstances. I was consumed with grief and all of the fears of suffering and death were before me. I couldn't think of anything else. When your mind is so fixed on fear it begins to affect your body, your relationships and your ability to function day to day. It's as if you are chaining and imprisoning yourself. My eyes needed to be refocused.
However, my eyes were really on Jesus + vocation/ministry + wife + family + comfort...
I've been viewing the world through Western Christian, American eyes. These are the expectations of our cultural norm. Why shouldn't I deserve these things? Yet my world was shaken and it seems I had to hit this low for Jesus to teach me.
Prior to this whole ordeal I had been reflecting upon and praying a section of scripture for a few years.
Matthew 11:28 “Come to Me, all who are weary and heavy-laden, and I will give you rest. 29 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. 30 For My yoke is easy and My burden is light.”
Read and think about those words for a few moments. I was probably at my maximum weariness and was weighed down with worries, fears, anxiety, depression, despair. We're human and subject to these things. But when I read these words, I felt the deep weight of them personally. I longed for rest! I wanted relief from these burdens. I was not enough in myself to handle any of it. I know Jesus says he is gentle and humble of heart, but to be honest this suffering didn't seem so gentle. These burdens didn't seem so easy or light either. But the phrase that I kept coming back to was, "...learn from Me,".
Okay, Jesus. What am I to learn from you through all of these losses?
I was so concerned about all that I was losing, that I didn't keep my eyes on Jesus. The losses and suffering in some way was helping me to detach from all that I was attached to in my expectations and perceived entitlements. It was, "My ministry, My job, My wife, My family..." Wasn't it?
They all belong to God. After all, we live in a world darkened by sin and our disobedience separates us from God - who is the Creator, Provider, Sustainer and Savior of His people. " We have nothing without Him.
"In Him was life, and the life was the Light of men. 5 The Light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not comprehend it." John 1:4-5
If we want to see clearly enough to get out of the darkness, then we need to keep our eyes on Jesus, the Light. As a friend reminded me in the middle of this swamp of despondence, "Faith is greater than fear." And as I held on to those words, I turned my eyes upon Jesus again. And He was there all along, right beside me. Then moment by moment, day by day, renewing my mind with His word, with worship, with gratitude, I began to see the light of day again. Each day God grants us gifts of light and beauty. He reveals them through the Truth of His word. If we ignore them, they fade into the past unseen, unappreciated. If we take hold of these moments, they are treasures that we can enjoy right now and they become memories to hold in the future. God gives these for our pleasure even in the midst of trials, hardships and suffering of all kinds. There is beauty in the midst of suffering. Joy can be ours, as well as peace!
And as I let go of what I thought I had, but didn't really, I began to feel a lightness. Moment by moment, day by day, I could take a next step. With Jesus beside me guiding the way, there was joy in the moment. Laina (my wife) was intentional about this receiving and choosing joy in each moment. I learned a lot from her. And honeslty I'm a bit jealous of her, because she fully sees Christ and His glory even more now. I'm seeking God is this earthly shell. But she is truly free! My mind now is more fixed on "things above" and I am holding more lightly to things that don't really matter. And in the process of suffering, facing darkness and death, I am learning from Jesus to be free too! Moment by moment, day by day, take the next step. Keep my eyes on Jesus! As He speaks, I listen and obey. A new light is dawning! A new freedom lies ahead! Keep moving forward friends! He is our Living Hope! He Lights the way, stay close!
“Behold, I am going to send you Elijah the prophet before the coming of the great and terrible day of the Lord. 6 He will restore the hearts of the fathers to their children and the hearts of the children to their fathers, so that I will not come and smite the land with a curse.”
This is one of the verses that has been on my heart and mind the last several years. It may be due to the suffering and loss of my wife, that my heart has been turned even more so towards my daughters. It seems unless we face some trial, our vision and purpose usually moves towards our vocation and professional careers. Even those in ministry can be focused on tasks instead of on the Lord or those whom He has called us to care for - our family.
When talking with my daughters about the loss of their mom, I asked them a question: What good has come from losing mommy to cancer? Childlike faith always amazes me. My eldest daughter stated as a matter-of-fact, "Well Daddy, Mommy is in heaven. And... we have you home a whole lot more!" She said with adoring eyes batting at me. They miss their mommy terribly, as do I. But now their desire is to have my attention and my presence. And that's exactly what I need from my Heavenly Father too. This verse is personal to me.
However, there may be a broader application for our nation and the world. I know of at least 5 families who have faced suffering and death of young wives/mothers over the last few years. They all are godly families who serve the Lord and whom are faithful to each other and to God. I keep asking the question, why? Why are such amazing families being broken by cancer and other diseases and having to face death? In each case the fathers are left with two little girls, as is the case in my household. Is this a sign post from God?
Hebrews 12 speaks about the discipline of the Lord. He disciplines his sons and daughters, testing them, refining them and strengthening them to face suffering and death. This is certainly a difficult love to bear, but it is wisdom and grace upon God's children. If we are His children we will endure these days of discipline and we will heed the warnings of the Lord.
However, for those outside of the family and kingdom of God, it will not be discipline that they endure, but instead wrath. Wrath is not a popular word, but God's Holiness and Justice require such action. His great love for all of humanity compelled Him to offer His own Son, Jesus on the cross as a sacrifice to atone for all of our sin! The wrath of God fell on Jesus! As children and disciples of Jesus we proclaim this message to all nations - because God's great love for humanity pours through us to others (if we are indeed God's children). For those who do not chose to receive this message and heed the warnings, then wrath shall come. But first, the Lord's people shall be disciplined, refined, tested and purified. Is this what is happening now?
From my experience the last several years, the Lord has used suffering to do all of these things within me. I certainly have not arrived, but there is progress. And my desire is not just for my own purifying but that the Holiness of God will grow in the lives of my children, family and friends. And that means letting them go through suffering, as I have gone through suffering, the disciples and many other believers in the cloud of witnesses have gone through suffering, and yes, as Jesus has gone through suffering and death - yet he is the first born from the dead. It is in Him that we put our trust for the restoration of our souls through his blood, but also the hope of the resurrection. I will see Laina again someday. Until then we need to walk with each other through suffering, we need to proclaim the Good News of the Kingdom of God through Jesus Christ! And as I stated in a short message, "suffering is a pulpit." I believe that is from one of Eugene Peterson's writings. I'm still trying to track down that quote. When we suffer, God is setting a pulpit before us. We may not speak any words or even to large crowds, but people are watching.
I know this is a hard word tonight. No one likes suffering. No likes discipline. And wrath we don't even want to submit to such a thought. But who's version of justice is true? Us mere men and women or God's?
Father in Heaven, Holy is Your Name! We admit we have gone astray trying to build our own kingdoms and living our lives apart from you and of our loved ones. We heed Your warnings and discipline Lord! Forgive us by the shed blood of Jesus! Turn our hearts back to you and return the hearts of fathers and mothers back to their children, and the hearts of the children back to their fathers and mothers. In the Name of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit! Amen.
Your brother in Christ,
There is certainly more to say regarding this topic. I encourage readers to look through the book of Malachi.
Thirteen Years ago, Laina and I were married on a Saturday at Concordia University Chapel in Ann Arbor, MI. It was autumn and the leaves were at their peak. Laina was a radiant bride, dressed in white. The stained glass windows were beautiful, colors all around. We had our family and friends gathered together as they witnessed our love and commitment to each other and before God.
I cherish the beauty of that season of life and the joy of waiting for my bride. We made our vows similar to: I, Todd/Laina take thee Laina/Todd, to be my wife/husband. To have and to hold, in sickness and in health, for richer or for poorer, until death do us part.
When the vows were stated, it seemed we were wearing rose colored glasses. We saw all of the good things about marriage and that special day. Certainly we were mindful that the sickness, poorer and death could be a possibility, but not taking it too seriously.
When I met Laina, she was sick. She had an unknown illness that she spent a lot of time with doctors trying to figure it out. This illness had lasted 2-3 years prior to her meeting me. Daily she struggled with digestion and though she felt pain, you usually wouldn't have known it. But as we dated, I boldly stated, "Well you've had this illness long enough. I'm going to take it to the Lord in prayer!" I felt like a warrior coming in to defend my damsel in distress. Many other people were praying too. But a few months into our dating, a doctor from the University of Michigan listened to what Laina thought was going on and agreed with her. He gave her a medication that got rid of what I believe was Giardia, a parasite that she may have picked up in her travels around the world. We were relieved to be done with that awful disease. But I quickly realized that her appetite exponentially increased and my wallet thickness decreased as I took her to dinner on our dates.
It wasn't until after our second daughter was born that we began to face the trials of cancer in 2014. Here is where our vows were being tested. Could we handle the worse when health is challenged by an unexpected illness? And if she were to depart due to death, how would I manage an infant and a 2 1/2 year old? At that time, these questions faded quickly as six months into the trial we got the all clear - no evidence of disease. We decided to celebrate by attending, "A weekend to remember" retreat in Florida at an expensive resort. It was an amazing long weekend! But both of us were caught off guard when every service offered at the hotel expected a handsome tip. However we quickly adapted to the sun, sand and beach life.
One day as we walked in the ocean and enjoyed the view of dolphins just 50 feet away, all of a sudden Laina jumped out of the water and held on to my head and shoulders. Apparently she stepped on sting ray and it went between her legs. She held on to me until it swam away. We laughed and enjoyed the moment.
Laina also really wanted to take a charter boat out on the ocean. But you know, those can cost a lot of money. The boat company associated with the hotel said, if we could get the "weekend to remember crowd" to sign up, and if they had a full boat they would take us out for $20/ person. So Laina put out a notice to the conference. Then several times a day for the next 2 days she called the boat company. "Are enough people signed up!" She asked. But no one signed up. Laina however did not give up. She kept calling. Did enough people sign up? Again no one signed up. Eventually the boat captain got to know Laina a bit better. He had heard our story about her battle with cancer. And finally said, "Why don't the two of you come down and I'll give you a boat tour at the cost of $20/person." She was so excited! Our hope now was to see dolphins, sharks or manatee's. The captain said, "Well it's not the time where we see many of those." I responded, "Don't worry, I prayed that God would show us some." The captain smiled and laughed. His skipper scoffed. But as we cruised along, a pod of dolphin's began to swim along side the boat. It was amazing! We had this huge boat all to ourselves and the dolphin's were swimming along side of us! The Captain laughed and stated, "Well it looks like God heard your prayer." "I responded, "He'll hear yours as well." We then had a wonderful conversation about the Lord with both of them. God uses our trials to bless us and others.
There are so many other memories of our anniversaries and marriage. I'm blessed to have been married to Laina for twelve years. But I miss her. The ache, the sting, the void left behind is difficult to fill. I've tried to stay busy. I do believe it is God's grace that I am only working part-time currently. The girls love having me home more! They've told me so as I asked them, "What good has God done through mommy's death and going to heaven." I know this time off is good for our healing. Yet, I feel discontent longing for a purpose vocationally again. It seems like life speeds right along, leaving me behind.
I wrote in my journal recently, "Oh this pain, this void that echoes within my soul. A searching for what was lost - this grief - it gouges the inner man like a glacier. The blood of Jesus is the only salve that can heal such a wound. Everything else fills the void for a moment, but to no avail to bring wholeness. Fixing up the house, vocational changes, vacation to some exotic place or new relationships are only distractions - they do not heal the deep places within from loss. Yet through this suffering, God can make good fruit grow once again."
I need to receive His grace and mercy daily! I do not need to perform, to strive, to have an impact in the world, to make a legacy for myself or my posterity. I only need God Himself! He loves me as I am. That is enough.
I continue to remember. But I'll also continue to move forward, by God's grace.
The following are excerpts from my journal during a 2 day silent retreat that I took a few months into the reoccurrence of my wife's cancer. I often take retreats of this type when there are life transitions, or difficult decisions or lament. I long for alone time with the Lord. Don't we all long for rest and refreshment during times of suffering or stressful circumstances? That is what I longed for, but that's not exactly what I received. God certainly meets with us as we seek Him. But He also allows for testing, temptations and even spiritual warfare. When we face these things, what is our response?
After we received the news in December of 2016 about the tumors in Laina's brain and lungs, I went through a period of shock for a couple months. I did cry some, but I felt little emotion. Every day I just went through the motions. Then I had a time where I felt emotionally distant from Laina and really everyone. I was physically present, but my mind was elsewhere. I had set backs as I resigned from ministry, was let go from a temporary architecture job just a couple days into it and was just feeling lost. After talking with Laina and her parents, we decided they all would stay at her parents house and I would take a 2 day silent retreat. Was this a good idea when I was potentially depressed? Yet God is always faithful to meet with us when we intentionally seek Him. And in a time like this, I really needed to hear from Him!
So I prepared and scheduled my retreat for April, just a few days after I resigned from ministry.
Friday 4/7/17 (Journal Entry)
I settled into the upper room (Casa #2) at the Redemptorist retreat center in Oconomowoc, WI. I loved that this was "the upper room." On these types of retreats I usually bring my favorite foods, books, journal, Bible and art supplies. I settled in and then I headed outside to walk the Stations of the Cross. To walk this “way of the cross” was emotionally draining, when I already was emotionally drained to begin with. To see Jesus willingly take the cross and walk with it, wow, just wow. To endure unjust suffering that he knew would lead to death was heart wrenching. I feel like I’m walking this same journey right now. We don’t know how cancer will respond to Laina’s treatment. The statistics and data are not encouraging for a good outcome. But our God is able! However, death is a possibility which sobers my thoughts. As I walked past the last station I had to walk down the hill into a valley, the shadow of death? As I walked down I read:
The LORD is my shepherd,
I shall not want.
He makes me lie down in green pastures;
He leads me beside quiet waters.
He restores my soul;
He guides me in the paths of righteousness
For His name’s sake.
Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death,
I fear no evil, for You are with me;
Your rod and Your staff,
They comfort me.
You prepare a table before me in the presence of my enemies;
You have anointed my head with oil;
My cup overflows.
Surely goodness and lovingkindness will
Follow me all the days of my life.
And I will dwell in the house of the LORD forever.
In the evening, I made a pizza for dinner. I had fig newtons for dessert. Then I took a nap. These are great ways to meet with God - food and rest. Jesus always seemed to love food and is even preparing a feast for us. Food and rest are important parts of a retreat of this type.
When I woke up from my nap, I ate more food and read Job. Job's friends asked a lot of questions and made bold statements to Job. Perhaps they were trying to help? Yet they have a wrong view of God. I found myself asking similar questions though, “What have Laina and I done to deserve this?” “If I do enough good will God relent?” "If I just repent enough, perhaps this will all go away." This is either my sinful nature or one of the Devil's henchmen trying to condemn me. But I know none of these things are true! By God’s grace through faith in Jesus we are saved. I need to remind myself what the Word says, and test every thought accordingly.
At night around 10:30pm, I laid down on the bed. I spent time thinking and praying. I don’t think I really wanted to go to sleep. If I stay awake maybe I can control something to change our circumstances perhaps? Around 11:00pm I laid down to sleep. Not shortly after, I had either a dream or experience of a spiritual attack. A dark figure appeared (a demon?), chained my hands and feet together and gagged my mouth. I lay there and tried to wake up and call out to Jesus, but I could only moan and wail. Eventually I woke up with my hands and feet in a bound position and realized I had a dream. Shaken, I prayed for a while. For some reason this type of warfare seems to happen on the first night of a retreat like this for me. Why does God allow this? Perhaps it is so I would seek Him more through our trials? Maybe I needed to be shaken to take prayer more seriously? This is a retreat that I desired to meet with God face to face, to grieve, to be refreshed and to hear from Him. But it seems more of a wrestling and a battle!
This morning I woke up around 7am. I listened to some worship video’s, mostly hymns. Gethsemane is a keyword that has been coming up; Jesus’ prayer in the garden. I feel I need to do a gospel comparison of these passages.
I also read more of Job. He was in so much pain physically, emotionally, spiritually. He lost so much, but kept his faith in God. His friends though they mourned and cared, had wrong theology. They perceived God all wrong. They almost believed more of a karma than recognizing a Sovereign Holy God who loves His creation. They also missed that all of us deserved death as a punishment of our sin. What are they basing their knowledge of God on anyway? Perhaps this is a taste of what would have been, had God not provided a way (Jesus) for us to be redeemed and saved.
I took a walk on a nature trail after breakfast. It is a beautiful sunny day. Today has been a day of just “being” and letting myself grieve our trials, especially the cancer. I am angry that she must go through this and suffer. O Lord, why?!!!!
After my walk on the trail I went to the prayer labyrinth again. I stood at the entry point and waited. I took in some deep breaths and prayed. The wind was strong and cold and hit straight up against my face. I heard a wood pecker calling. The sun warmed my face as well. I stepped in.
I took slow steps and progressed inward. Yesterday I noticed dead sticks, leaves and goose poop on the path. All waste that turns into dust. Once they were part of a tree or food for a bird, living and vibrant. But now they are broken and apart from what gives them life. I recognized this, but I needed to move on. I took other steps and my thoughts wander about all my fears – Laina’s health and possible death, cancer, jobs, failure, closed doors, hurt, discouragements, disappointments, all my plans that seemed to fail and my dreams that died. Potential is meaningless, unless God is doing the leading. Was he leading us through this mess? Is this His will for us? But I kept presenting these things to God and continued walking, slowly, step by step.
At one point in the trail I saw a dot in the path, like someone put their finger on the ground and started to write. I knelt down and thought of how Jesus wrote in the sand when the woman was caught in adultery. I wrote in the path and drew a heart. To me it was a symbol of God’s love toward me and my family, but also my love for Laina. This is one point in my journey (almost 11 years of marriage); I recognized how blessed I have been to be united with this woman of God. I thought of all the wonderful things we have done together and how she has made me joyful, and blessed me so much; even with two beautiful girls (Kysa 5 and Matea 3). I took a step and kept moving on until I got to the center. Here I unloaded all that binds me and gave it all to Jesus. I cried. I waited. I sat on a log.
Eventually I stood up and prepared myself to go back out into the world. My inner world though certainly not entirely healed, I presented to the Lord. I walked on and listened. I thought of the song, “Dry bones come alive!” by Lauren Daigle. Ezekiel 37:1-4.
Then I thought about, Ezekiel 3:22-27: “Bind your hands and make your tongue stick to the roof of your mouth. You will only speak and say to them what the Lord instructs.” “He who hears, let him hear; and he who refuses, let him refuse, for they are a rebellious house.” The thought struck me on how much it was like my dream/experience the night before. But what does it mean?
As I continued down the path I came back to the heart I had drawn on the path. I stopped, knelt down and remembered God’s love for me. I also remembered the love that I shared with Laina. I looked at the heart and looked ahead at the path. I wanted to move on, but I couldn’t leave my heart!
I cried bitterly. Tears falling on the dry sand and pebbles.
A thought came to me, “leave the heart and move on.”
“I can’t! I love Laina and I don’t want to leave her!!!”
“Do you trust her with Me?”
I took a long pause and thought about that statement. All things belong to God, including Laina’s life, my life and even my daughters. I have no choice but to give them all to God. After all He does love us. And He is the only One who can bring us all together for eternity!
It was a wrestling. A battle. I cried. Tears poured down my face. I needed to surrender! But could I?
Gethsemane - Accepting the “cup” that we are to drink is difficult. It would be much easier if it was for a reward, recognition, applause, a well done. However, we must accept the outcomes of illness, suffering, rejection and death to be able to move on. If we don't, bitterness or other vices take hold and Satan has you in bandage. The way of the cross is a path to our death, so that we may truly live. It's unfortunate many people think climbing a ladder or having ministry success in numbers is affirmation they are on the right path - I've been there too. But it's not true.
I sat there and cried for a while. I looked ahead on the path. I was in the shade and a cold wind was blowing on my face. "I cannot stay here in sorrow and tears. It’s dark and cold, I need to move on. There is more journey ahead and I see the sun just steps away."
I took a deep breath and said a prayer of release. “I give unto You O Lord, my wife and all that is mine. It is all Yours." It feels like a thousand deaths! But God is the only one who can give life!
I continued on the path, but as it winded back towards the heart, I remembered, I grieved, yet I had to move on. I ended the Labyrinth feeling emotionally drained and tired. I headed back to the upper room for lunch and to write all the happenings for this day.
A labyrinth seems like a calendar year. It's the same time of year, but a different year altogether. And even now we are circling back to the year mark from Laina's death - September 6th. A lot of memories flood in at inopportune times. It's not the same, but close to the same as that life event. With time comes more distance from the loss. The sting is there. But so is God. He's the healer, Savior and Lord of all. And as I've said before, "He doesn't lose any that are His."
These types of prayer paths have been tools that God has used to help me walk the difficult trials in life. God works in many ways. And with the new prayer garden at our church, I feel this is a continuation of offering hope to others going through their own trials, others making life decisions and perhaps even committing their lives to Christ as they slow down and intentionally seek the Lord.
Looking back at these experiences, I can make a bit more sense out of it all. I don't fully understand God's ways or timing. But I do see that He has walked with us the entire time. Even now, though the future is a foggy mist and unclear, I know the Lord will lead us step by step.
What are you going through? Do you have decisions to make? Do you feel stuck? Take a walk. Use the prayer path or go to where you can meet with the Lord. He is with you! Seek Him with all of your heart! He may not give the answers you were hoping for, but He is good and He loves you deeply. Walk with Him!
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