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!
I recently posted about the Hineni Prayer Garden at Oakwood Church in Hartland, WI. And as promised, I wanted to share a few of my personal stories about these types of prayer gardens. It has been a journey through our marriage that we encountered prayer walks (Labyrinths).
Our first experience with a prayer walk was during our honey moon. We decided to travel along the Blue Ridge Tail and stay at various cabins, bed and breakfasts and retreat centers. It was a wonderful honeymoon filled with many firsts for both of us. It was the fist time navigating mountainous terrain in a tiny little car, which if Laina didn't buckle in time would flash "#2...#2." That became a marriage long mantra to "buckle up", when Laina got in the car and was slow in buckling I'd say #2, #2! and we both laughed. It was also our first time on the Blue Ridge trail. We came to one part of the trail and we ascended up the mountain it began to snow and there were considerably less trees. We were a little afraid and wondered what elevation we had ascended to. Should we have oxygen at this height? But we quickly descended to what seemed more like typical Smokey Mountain skylines and felt much better as we approached our destination. We also attended the Wooly Worm Festival in Banner Elk, N.C. I mean, who else has attended such a festival. They had clodders, wooly worm races and even a man dressed as a wooly worm! We visited a mining town... Ummm awkward! Everyone was staring at us probably thinking, "Who vacations in a mining town?" Unique is what we were going for and we loved the adventure!
When we arrived at the retreat center, we unpacked and settled in. Then we headed out to explore! That is when we discovered a beautiful garden with a prayer path (labyrinth). It was beautiful and fun to walk, but I also approached it with suspicion. Though I didn't know much about these paths, I remembered how it was used in Celtic traditions that did not have a Christian belief system. So I cautioned Laina and we moved on to other parts of the gardens.
Fast forward a few years as Laina and I walked at a local park, we discovered a prayer path out in a grassy field in Ann Arbor, MI. It was much simpler in materials but had the same type of design. Laina was always a woman of curiosity and fun. And so we chased each other through the paths until we reached the middle. As we walked back out of the paths, I noticed how they winded back and forth, in and out and I began to consider how this type of internal /external winding about was like life. It seemed like a time of internal introspection. I talked to God about these feelings and also regarding my questions about if this type of path was honoring Him. We visited this path a couple times over the years, but didn't put much thought into it.
Moving forward another few years, much had happened in our lives. I had resigned from architecture and moved into youth ministry. Two years later, due to the finances of the church I was let go. Then was led to be a staff with InterVarsity Christian Fellowship. The next year we had our fist child. A few years later we had our second child. Three months later we received the shocking diagnosis that Laina had breast cancer in 2014. We had planned to move to Wisconsin that year, but decided to wait for her treatment to end - and it ended with "all clear" no sign of cancer. We moved to Wisconsin in 2015 and established a new home and continued working with the same organizations.
In October 2016 we were noticing Laina having more headaches and showing signs of depression. It was getting difficult to manage our marriage and household, with the new demands of my ministry and her job. I requested time off during mid October for us to celebrate our 10 year anniversary, hoping it would give us time to reconnect and get things on track again. With some hesitation, yet allowing me to take time off during a school year and before a major conference - my supervisor agreed. Even now I am so grateful for this time I had with Laina! Little did we know how significant it would be.
Our destination - one of our honeymoon sites from Gatlinburg, TN. It was a great opportunity to get away and remember our journey over the last 10 years. We saw some of the same sites, but also some new ones, since the Smokey Mountains were closed due to a storm during our first honeymoon there. We enjoyed the trees, mountains and artist's shops. We hiked and spent time sitting on large rocks by a river reading the word and praying together and alone. It was refreshing! Exactly what we needed!
One new site that we wanted to experience was one of the largest prayer labyrinth's in the United States that was located at Buck Thorn in Tennessee. We made plans to visit there on October 15, 2016. When we arrived and approached the labyrinth. I sat on a bench outside of the path and let Laina enter first. As she began, I turned my attention to writing a prayer in my journal.
"My Father in Heaven, Holy is Your Name. Your will be done on earth and in my life as it is in heaven. Help me Lord, to regain passion and intimacy with my wife, with my family and in my calling and vocation. Search my heart and know me; try my anxious thoughts and renew a right spirit within me. Holy Spirit come and speak to me and Laina! Speak Lord, Your servant is listening."
Then I stepped toward the entry of the path. I stood there and began to be aware of what my senses were taking in. Along the path was a single yellow flower on a clover. Then I saw one ant crawling across the stones. Laina came over and had me smell an herb. Then a single dry yellow leaf gently fell to the ground in front of me. I also noticed a single yellow butterfly fluttering around the gardens. All around me I saw beauty. A gentle breeze. Bright sunlight. Colorful leaves of autumn were all around. All the while I'm taking this in, my thoughts keep turning to Laina, rather than myself. The words kept coming to mind, "Enjoy this moment." Then I met Laina on the path next to me and we kissed, the song "Kiss me" by Six Pence None the richer played in my mind. My thoughts again turn to Laina, "She is ahead of me, walking in circles it seems like she is lost. Then I think, "Stop worrying about Laina and focus on my own walk. Hineni - Be fully present with the Lord."
Then I heard Laina singing, "Holy Ground." "...Standing on Holy Ground..."
I picked up my Bible and read Psalm 43...
"Why are you in despair, O my soul? And why are you disturbed within me?
Hope in God, for I shall again praise Him, the help of my countenance and my God."
I arrived at the center of the path. "So why do I feel anxious?" I thought.
I reply, "Enough about me, let's talk about you God."
Yet these words came to my thoughts, "Release your fears and anxieties. Receive gifts from my Spirit."
God continued to speak in my thoughts, "I desire that you are a free friend. If the Son sets you free, you are free indeed." "You will be like a seed upon the wind."
A quote from childhood came to mind by Henry Van Dyke, "Use the talents you possess, for the woods would be silent if no birds sang accept the best."
I then told God all of my insecurities and fears about leading my family and frustrations with ministry. It was quiet for a moment. I only felt a gentle breeze. And I looked up toward Laina.
Then the song, "Good, Good Father" came into my mind, then Psalm 23.
A Psalm of David.23
The Lord is my shepherd,I shall not want.
2 He makes me lie down in green pastures;
He leads me beside quiet waters.
3 He restores my soul;
He guides me in the paths of righteousness
For His name’s sake.
4 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.
5 You prepare a table before me in the presence of my enemies;
You have anointed my head with oil;
My cup overflows.
6 Surely goodness and lovingkindness will follow me all the days of my life,
And I will dwell in the house of the Lord forever.
Honestly this is the first time I've reviewed my journals in the last couple years. If you have been following my blog you'll recognize that this was just two months prior to finding out about the metastasized breast cancer diagnosis for Laina. The metaphors that God brought before me as I intentionally sought him in prayer astounded me. If you reflect on the yellow and single items - it's profound. Laina was not only my wife, but the best friend I've ever had. Looking back I can see the meaning of these significant details of this experience. God knows the paths that lie ahead of us. As we seek Him, He will guide us. Whether to green pastures, still waters or through valley's of the shadow of death. He is with us. He is the good shepherd. All of His promises are true and good. And at the end of our lives whether short or long, if we remain in Him we remember:
"Surely goodness and lovingkindness will follow me (us) all the days of my (our) life. And I (we) shall dwell in the house of the Lord forever."
What more could we ask for in life? Laina was my wife, my best friend ever, she was fun, curious and helped me to choose the less traveled paths in life. Though I dreamed of a lifetime of these adventures with her, I am thankful that I was able to travel these last 13 years with her. The prayer path had become a place of meeting with God as he prepared me for the paths ahead. But there is more...
Part 3 will continue these thoughts.
Here you will find updates, thoughts, discussion and prayers for my life and ministry...