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 born 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!
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.
Hineni – means “Here am I”.
It was the prophet Isaiah’s response to The LORD’s call on his life.
In the presence of the LORD, Isaiah recognized and
confessed his sinfulness and surrendered his heart to serving GOD.
Established June 2019 ~ Funds contributed in remembrance of those who have gone before us as they “walked with God”. May all who use this garden continue or begin, their fully present walk with God and go where He sends them.
The following is what I recently submitted to Oakwood Church regarding the prayer Garden that many of you contributed to last year at Laina's memorial. Recently I've heard of several people using the prayer garden and giving me some good feedback. Also, after summer camp crowds of children run on the paths, laughing and playing tag. Laina would be so thrilled to see her daughters enjoying this space; As well as others who use the prayer garden for prayerful reflection. In the coming weeks I'll be posting some personal stories on how God had used these types of paths in our walk with Christ throughout our marriage. If you have never used a prayer path or (labyrinth), this is an introduction to how you may chose to try it out. Feel free to reach out to me if you have questions. May you slow down and enjoy the Presence of the Lord. Hineni!
Life is fast paced and packed with activities. How do we slow down and find time to rest and listen to God? Surely there are many ways to do this, but a Prayer Walk is one way that this can be accomplished. You are invited to walk and talk with God in this beautiful prayer garden at Oakwood Church. Bring your burdens, bring your cares and come and praise our Creator! Our Lord and Savior created the earth and planted a garden. He placed the first man and woman in that garden. He walked with them in the garden, in the cool of the day.
Jesus often prayed in gardens or remote places when making decisions or during times of lament. There is something special about praying in gardens. Whatever your interest or need, know that God see’s you, He hears you, and He desires to have a relationship with you. You are invited to come to the garden and be present with the one who is always present with you.
How to use the Hineni Prayer Garden:
There are as many ways that this prayer garden may be used as there are people that God created. This prayer garden in a tool. It has no mystical power. And is not sacred in or of itself. It is a place where we may seek God, just as any other place on earth. It is a tool for intentionally slowing down and listening to and speaking with God as you walk.
It is helpful to have a Bible and journal with you during the prayer walk to capture what the Lord has spoken to you during this time of seeking Him in prayer. You also may choose to walk with nothing in hand and journal after you complete the walk. The choice is yours as to what benefits you most in listening and remembering your conversation with God.
Begin by standing at the point of entry to the path. Take a moment to just relax and breath.
Say an opening prayer: You may use scripture (Psalm 23), a liturgy or share from your own heart as you pray. Liturgies help when you are not certain what to say. Many other believers have walked a similar path as us. We can learn from their prayers.
Example: Heavenly Father, come and meet with me in these few moments as I walk and pray. I give to you my full attention. I give to you my burdens and concerns. I ask that you speak to me as I seek you about _______________. I also give you praise for Your many blessings.
Hineni – “Here I am Lord!” In Jesus’ name. Amen.
As you take your first step offer to God a question, a burden or a praise that is at the forefront of your mind. Verbally share it. Breath and pause for a few moments.
When you are ready take another step. Be aware of God’s Presence with you. Also be aware of your thoughts and how your other senses (sight, smell, touch, hearing, taste) are responding to your surroundings.
Continue to take steps and move at your own pace. You may take long pauses. You may sit, stand, crawl or dance. Whatever you do, may it be in conversation with the Lord! You may want to read and meditate on sections of scripture as you walk too. The Psalms and Gospel’s are a good place to start.
Listen and be aware of your thoughts. Write down or remember what seems important to the question or concern that you asked God at the beginning.
Talk to God quietly or verbally. If you have a question – ask Him. If you have a thought – tell Him. Prayer is a two-way conversation.
Move at a pace that is comfortable. Sometimes people may walk very slowly, and other times move very quickly through the prayer walk. The whole idea is that you are intentionally seeking God through prayer.
If it happens that more than one person is on the prayer walk. Don’t view them as a distraction. But instead let God speak to you through your encounter with them on the path. God also speaks through the body of Christ.
At the end of your prayer walk – thank God for the conversation. Then perhaps journal or debrief with a friend. Consider the question or concern that you brought to God.
How has God met you in response to your concern?
After walking a prayer walk such as this, you may find that it helps you as you “walk” in daily life. You may intentionally slow down. You may consider that interruption as a divine appointment instead of a distraction. A prayer walk is a tool (spiritual discipline) that can be used when we feel we need to slow down or make a big decision.
We pray that the Hineni Prayer Garden will be a blessing to you.
Hineni “Here I am Lord! Send me!” – As we seek to be fully present to the Lord, know that He is always fully present with us – and wherever He sends us!
PS - Thanks for all who contributed to this beautiful garden! A special thanks to Don Douglas and Josh Larson for construction drawings and labor, and others who volunteered their time as well.
I do believe God will use this garden to call people to Himself and to send people into the harvest fields. If you use the garden message me a note of how God used it.
Here you will find updates, thoughts, discussion and prayers for my life and ministry...