If not, then it’s paradise

This post was originally published over a year ago after we learned of Marissa’s recurrence. This past week a 24 year old young woman I was praying for was welcomed into God’s presence without much warning. We weep but hang on to hope in our sorrow.

I know two mamas who said good-bye to their babies not so small this week. Said good-bye before they were ready and before they knew how.

It can shatter the heart.

And it would be so hopeless without Jesus. Without His promises which slowly seep back in to heal the shattered pieces. Without the knowledge of redemption and peace and eternity with God. Without His nail-scarred hands pulling us in and holding us close.

Jesus is our only hope in the sadness.

He makes real the truth we did not know before this sadness. He’s a friend and He’s a conqueror and He speaks peace. He binds our wounds and He heals our hearts and He carries us. He reminds us of a forever-after with no sorrow and no pain. With no sickness and no separation and no fear.

I always want to be open, always honest about the sadness. I want to be able to talk about hard things. I want to show my children that God is real and He meets us in our real. He meets us in our hard.

He has met with us this year.

On a Sunday just after Marissa’s biopsy, we went to church and I felt truth wash over me. Afterwards, we had a sweet talk with our pastor. He gently encouraged our fearful hearts. He reminded us of God’s providence and sovereignty. He told Marissa he expected her to be here for many years. But if not? If God was doing something unusual and painful and hard?

If not, then it’s paradise.

Marissa is not afraid of dying. She doesn’t want to, but she is not afraid. She knows God as her Savior and she is settled in His hands. We trudge on and we wade through and we expect God to answer our prayers for healing. We know He is able. We know what our hearts seek, what they desire.

But if not, then we unclench our fists and open our hands fully to God. If not, then we remind ourselves of the painful glory of the cross. If not, then we rejoice through tears.

Because if not, then it’s a safe passage for her through the swollen waters of the Jordan. If not, then it’s streets of gold and eternal harps and angel choirs. If not, then it’s the forever healing in the presence of God, her King.

If not, then it’s paradise.

The journey home

For Jennifer, and all of us in the middle of the story

We did some traveling this past week, and we drove through Durham and right past the exit for Duke where Marissa spent so many days. Where we fought and some would say lost. So much happened there, and I feel such a tumble of emotion–and not just for the physical battle.

No, the battle was much more than that.

Floods of memory rush in with a growing thickness in the throat. A sigh for all the ways the battle changed us. And a heaviness. For Marissa, the horrific fight but then a full transformation into glory. For us left behind, some growth. Some faith. A new realization of God.

But many scars. Fear. And a struggle moving forward some days.

I suppose this is how soldiers feel after a great battle. Where do we go from here?

A friend has finished her cancer treatment and is searching for a new normal. She knows Marissa and knows the end of that story and wonders about her own.

And wonders how to trust God with all the stories.

Because all the stories are different. All the stories are His. Short or long, peaceful or battle-filled, joyful or laced with sorrow, they are His. He writes them. He fills each line.

Some are filled with excitement and wonder. Some are funny and light-hearted. Some are settled and beautiful. Some have one great battle and then peace. And some, endless conflict.

What is there to do but trust the Author? To remember His skill and His purpose and His love. To keep moving through the pages with faith. To be patient. To wait expectantly for Him to resolve, renew, and restore. To believe that He will direct each step and give strength for each new fight.

To stop looking at the words on the page and to trust in the proven One.

To believe in His plan, His beauty, His grace. To settle our hearts in truth.

To believe that it ends well.

That our journey ends with the warmth and joy of home.

Lord, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life. John 6:68

You will make known to me the path of life; In Your presence is fullness of joy; In Your right hand there are pleasures forever. Psalm 16:11

And the Lord GOD will wipe tears away from all faces. Isaiah 25:8

 

Flourishing

My husband and I went away for a few days last weekend to celebrate our upcoming anniversary. It was quiet–we picked blackberries, puttered around in antique shops, and walked in the rain.

Thirty-six years ago we made a solemn promise, and it’s been both better than we dreamed and harder than we imagined. So many joy-filled moments and now this great sorrow.

The steady joy of tested love is like a favorite sweater–the weight and warmth always nearby to take the chill away. Thick and comfortable. Familiar and cherished. I do not take this love for granted.

We talk about Marissa often. I think he shares his heart more than most men. Maybe grief has been a good teacher. We remind each other of God’s faithfulness, repeat words of hope. We remind each other to keep walking this pilgrim path, this thorny path that has been chosen for us to walk together.

We miss her so much, but we remember where she is. We remind ourselves of truth.

I’m thankful for the deep roots that steady us.

The crape myrtles are starting to blossom here. Our neighborhood is lined with their color.

I’ve always loved the idea of a tree that is most beautiful when the weather is hot and so inhospitable. All of the other trees bloom in the coolness of spring with ideal temperatures and a host of flowering encouragement. But this one waits. This one bursts with color in the middle of summer.

I am wise enough to know that there would be no flowering without the roots growing deep. I know storms can uproot–I have seen tall and beautiful trees blown down by strong gusts of wind, some unseen weakness underneath.

The righteous flourish like the palm tree and grow like a cedar in Lebanon. They are planted in the house of the Lord; they flourish in the courts of our God. They still bear fruit in old age; they are ever full of sap and green, to declare that the Lord is upright; he is my rock, and there is no unrighteousness in him. Psalm 92:12-15

I want to be a flourishing tree, to still bear fruit in old age. I want to be the tree that flowers in summer, the plant that is watered by a desert stream. I want the deepest roots in my marriage, my family, and my heart so that I will be firmly planted. So that I will not fear when the heat comes.

Ultimately, though, the story is not about the flourishing of the tree. Ultimately the story is about the uprightness of God. About His powerful ability to be our rock, our strong tower, our hiding place.

Ultimately, the beauty is from Him.

The beauty is Him.

Blessed is the man who trusts in the LORD and whose trust is the LORD. For he will be like a tree planted by the water that extends its roots by a stream and will not fear when the heat comes; But its leaves will be green, and it will not be anxious in a year of drought nor cease to yield fruit. Jeremiah 17:7-8

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The praise of yes

Summer has settled in with its muggy mornings and lazier days. This summer does not feel typical, because we are playing catch-up with school and living in the mess of several home projects.

Oh, and grieving. That consumes a bit of energy, a bit of time. We are all navigating the twisting path of it. All trying to get to the other side of it.

The best days begin and end with being outside. I find my soul somehow strengthened by being out-of-doors and seeing God’s creative work. I can imagine the Garden of Eden and how it must have been to walk and talk with God in the cool of the day. I know that I am not in reality closer to Him but my heart perceives more of Him, and I am drawn to think and to pray.

I feel His peace. I see His glory.

Marissa loved being outside, and we walked often. In the last months, I pushed her wheelchair around the block many times a day. In the evenings there were often 6 or 7 of us walking together in the gathering dark. Doing our best to cherish the moment and push fear away. Doing our best to remember God and the goodness of His ways.

Longing for peace and glory.

My husband and I find that walking yields some of our best moments. We talk and we share–the deep things of our hearts spilling out over pavement and alongside neighbors’ gardens. There is plenty of shallow, everyday speech, but it seems to always make its way to deep–the jagged edges giving way each time to the crater hiding just beneath.

I remember the walk after we learned that Marissa’s cancer had spread to her liver, when the hard truth of terminal cancer slowed our steps. I remember my husband telling me we needed to say yes to God. I remember walking faster and trying not to think about what saying yes would mean.

That was a hard and painful yes.

The truth is that saying yes doesn’t change the circumstance. It changes you. It changes your relationship with God. It makes it possible to praise Him in the middle of boring or hard or sad. It makes it possible to praise Him in the middle of unthinkable sorrow.

To praise Him with your yes.

I have had to say yes many times. I know you have, too. I find myself even now saying it when the “no” rises in my heart. When I don’t want to be content with what God has done or what He has given me to do. When this isn’t what I would have chosen for me.

When we say yes we are released from our fear and our heartache. The yes of submission, the yes of sacrifice, the yes of contentment–it reconnects our heart with God’s. It enables us to draw near, to rest, to trust.

Our yes becomes our deepest praise.

Through Him then, let us continually offer up a sacrifice of praise to God, that is, the fruit of lips that give thanks to His name. Hebrews 13:5

I will bless the Lord at all times; His praise shall continually be in my mouth. Psalm 34:1

 

 

Renovation

A little bit of happy surged in my heart this morning.

I don’t know why my heart has been so heavy the last few days or why the slightest smell or smallest gesture has triggered floods of memory. I don’t know why the memories hurt so much some days.

And then one day it is simply better. A softer light and a lifted burden. Relief and warmth. Grace.

So grateful for grace.

I’m learning to be gentle in my expectation of myself and my family. Just because there is a smile on the face does not mean there is no pain in the heart. And there is no easy way to predict when the sadness will hit. It’s like riding a wave. You are certain another is coming, but will it be a gentle wave that you can ride to shore or a violent, sudden lurching into the cold? No way to tell.

You can hold your mind captive, but the emotions come and go as they will. You just try not to fear the waves.

We started a summer project of replacing our countertops. And somehow that has snowballed into painting our cabinets and tiling the backsplash and removing the bar–so much more mess and trouble and work than I had planned on.

Life sometimes snowballs like that, doesn’t it? You don’t realize what you are getting into until you are right in the middle. You wake up one morning with a simple plan and no idea of how God is going to change your life with an unexpected event or a change of direction. A car accident or a doctor’s appointment or a meeting with someone. All of a sudden, life is much more complicated than you planned on, and you’re not sure the mess or trouble is worth it.

Sometimes you just want your old, green countertop back.

God is doing this new work in me, I know. I am trying not to resist the labor of it. I am trying not to be discouraged in the process. The renovation reveals all sorts of weakness, all sorts of ugliness. Sometimes it is overwhelming, and it is hard to look ahead. Harder still to believe that the finished product will resemble anything good, anything beautiful.

But I do believe in beauty and the God who creates it. I believe that ultimately this messy, hard work of living will reveal the forethought of a master builder who holds the blueprint in His hand.

I do believe when the project is finished, it will be worth it all. It will be beautiful.

For we are his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand, that we should walk in them. Ephesians 2:10

Woe to him who strives with him who formed him, a pot among earthen pots! Does the clay say to him who forms it, “What are you making?” Isaiah 45:9

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The wondering

I grew up on a farm in upstate New York. We lived on a big hill–a little girl’s version of the top of the world. There were cows and chickens and windy meadows, an old rope swing that could lift your soul, and a daddy who laughed.

My mom loved to watch the sun as it dropped low behind the hill each evening. The sky with its vibrant colors at end of day brought quiet joy to her busy days, and she rested in the God who painted it. She smiled at the future through strength and weakness, sickness and sorrow, and blessings scattered all around.

She is smiling still, though frail and worn. She has seen a lot of sunsets. She has said good-bye to many joys and wished a few times for journey’s end. But she’s had ninety-five years of trusting the One who paints His landscapes and spins the world and shepherds His people.

Ninety-five years of changing skies.

She broke her arm recently, and I am here with her. There are so many similarities to Marissa–oxygen tank and wheelchair, weakness and pain. And there is also the beauty of a life well-lived and the expectation of a future home where all is well.

An enduring spirit and faith in a God who safely keeps.

I suppose it is natural to wonder why Marissa was given only 26 years while my mother has been given almost 96. It is natural to wonder about so many things, and I don’t think God is disappointed or surprised when we wonder.

He put in us the wondering.

It is the wondering that invites us to seek Him. It is the wondering that draws us to the ancient God-words of truth.

So let us wonder about the things we do not know while we rest in those we do. Let us wonder in the breath-taking moments, and let us wonder in the hard.

Let us wonder in the changing color of our skies.

But in our wondering, let us seek truth.  Let us rest in God who has always been and will always be. Though the earth shakes, He does not move. Through every darkened sky, He changes not. In the midst of every despair, He loves fiercely and loyally. He keeps us and He carries us. He knows all things and faithfully fulfills His promises. He causes all things to work for good.

In our wondering, let Him speak.

In our wondering, let us find Him.

Let Him open our eyes to the beauty found in changing skies.

The Lord is good to those who wait for him, to the soul who seeks him. Lamentations 3:25

Whoever would draw near to God must believe that he exists and that he rewards those who seek him. Hebrews 11:6

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

He wept, too.

Grief comes in gently most days.

The mornings sing with newness. Blooms and air and birds all fresh with wonder. And the wonder is still there inside of me.

I read God’s words–alive and working in me. I’m always surprised by the treasures found in passages read many times before. There is this settling of the soul that happens–a grounding. There is a peace in aligning my thoughts with God’s.

But there are other days when grief is not as gentle. Days when I am agitated and restless. Days when I am sad. This merry-go-round of grieving–some days up and some days down and never the same as the person right next to you.

It keeps you dizzy enough to lose your balance.

I was reading in John 11 where Jesus wept after the death of Lazarus. Why was He weeping? He knew that He would soon raise him from the dead. He knew that Lazarus was safe for eternity. He knew all the days, all the details. He was not surprised.

Yet still He wept.

I’m certain He wept in compassion for Mary and Martha. And in sorrow for sin and its awful consequence. Maybe for the magnitude of death–its unnatural pain and unspeakable grief and the misery of this unintended process.

Perhaps He was weeping over the path He was on to conquer it.

He sorrowed even though He knew Lazarus was ultimately safe. Even though He knew the power of resurrection. Even though He knew God’s will was being done.

He wept.

And I weep some days. Over the enormity of this loss, over the empty place next to me and inside of me. Over the unnatural call of death and the weariness of dealing with it every day. Over the painful hurt that does not go away.

And even though I know she is safe, and I know the end of the story, and I know this is God’s will, I weep.

I weep because she is gone.

And my Savior knows. He understands each heartache and every longing. He is acquainted with this merry-go-round of grief.

Even here, He finds me.

For we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but one who in every respect has been tempted as we are, yet without sin. Hebrews 4:15

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Rhythms

My teenagers are almost finished with spring soccer games. It’s been a hard season for them in many ways, but it’s been good for them to play. It’s been good to be outside, to work hard, to let grief energize.

Sometimes it’s just good to run fast.

There’s a rhythm to the game that is joyful to watch. At the beginning of the season, they were out of shape and out of sync with their teammates. But now they know each other and work well together. Some games are full of synchronized vitality, and the rhythm of the game is a thing of beauty.

Life hums along with its springtime rhythms. The sun is rising earlier and there is more light. More color. More beauty. The daily rhythm is a comfort, and some days I can slip into it without much effort.

But some days I cannot find this new rhythm. Some days I resist it.

I think about how God put rhythm in every part of creation–the tide, the moon, the seasons, the living. How every day is different and yet the same.

And how He made us to long for both.

In many ways, my days are the same as they always were. In many ways, I am the same. Yet all is different. All is changed. The empty chair and the lingering memory of death’s shadow changes everything.

But God is there. He provides a surrounding rhythm, and the pulse of life stays steady. He provides goodness in this land of living and a continual call to look upward.

I wonder about the rhythms of heaven. The Bible tells us that there is no night there, and so I wonder about the meter of days. I’m certain there is a pleasing hum to glory-living, a beautiful pattern of time-less being.

And no darkness. No pain. No sadness. A perfect balance of peaceful light.

The beauty of rhythm is the returning pattern. With every change, you work to find the new rhythm. The pattern sings to you like the breaking of day, reminding you of order and beauty and the goodness of God.

Eventually you do not resist the returning meter of the song.

Eventually the rhythm hums inside of you–a thing of beauty.

For His anger is but for a moment, His favor is for a lifetime; Weeping may last for the night, but a shout of joy comes in the morning. Psalm 30:5

He has made everything beautiful in its time. Also, he has put eternity into man’s heart, yet so that he cannot find out what God has done from the beginning to the end. Ecclesiastes 3:11

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

It’s meant to be hard

I find myself reaching back for before-cancer memories. The joyful skipping on the easy path before sorrow hitched a ride like a too-heavy backpack.

I always thought I would write funny stories. I thought that maybe someday when life slowed down I would write about the hilarity of life with nine children. I thought I might capture some of the joyful beauty of chaotic, noisy days.

My story–I thought it would be different than this.

Marissa thought her story would be different, too. Even after her cancer diagnosis, she thought God would heal her and use her journey. She had plans to help people struggling with physical needs. She had a list of people she wanted to bless with gifts of encouragements. She wanted to go back to teaching her preschool children with new purpose. She was always pushing through until she could get a bit of good news, until she could move on with the rest of her story.

I remember the day we found out the cancer had spread to her liver, and she understood it would be the thing that took her life. She understood that hers would be a dramatic short story instead of a long and lovely novel.

She understood that she would not be walking out of the valley.

She wept with sorrow, and there was this grievous knowing. No going back to the easy path. No normal life events or length of days. No escape from the battle.

I think she would want you to know that she struggled. That in those last weeks when things just kept spiraling downward, she was sad. She was in pain. She was weary.

As it turns out, she was right then dying, and none of us really knew.

And it was hard. It was hard because it was meant to be hard.

The curse of sin and all of its leading-to-death ramifications–it is grievous to God and impossible for us. Without the sin-bearer, God’s Son, we would be crushed and destroyed.

Dying is hard. This grieving–it is harder than I thought. And sometimes living is just very hard.

Our hard is meant to be hard. It is meant to be a glorious, eternal work. It is meant to establish us and grow us and make us like the Son of God!

And how could that be easy?

We can do the hard thing He’s called us to do. We are right now doing it, and with His help we can finish it. Farther along we’ll know all about it. Someday soon we’ll look back and marvel at the grace and recount the blessings of the story.

Someday soon all the hard will be done. We’ll see His face.

Let the risen Savior lift your weary head. Don’t be discouraged with this dusty, treacherous path. Look to the One Who leads you on. The One Who will shepherd you and carry you when you stumble. The One Who knows the way.

It’s meant to be hard.

It’s meant to lead you on to glory. It’s meant to make you like the Son of God.

And we all, with unveiled face, beholding the glory of the Lord, are being transformed into the same image from one degree of glory to another. For this comes from the Lord who is the Spirit. 2 Corinthians 3:18

And we know that God works all things together for the good of those who love Him, who are called according to His purpose. For those God foreknew, He also predestined to be conformed to the image of His Son. Romans 8:28,29 

 

 

A time to mourn

Sometimes in the dark stillness, I can feel my heart beating fast, remembering. And how can it be that the remembering hurts so much?

I am finding that memories can heal, but they also bruise. Some days I am drawn to remember like a moth to flame–no matter that my wings begin to wilt as I draw nearer. I look at pictures, and there are never enough of them or enough of her in them. I sort through her things–a note saved from her daddy, a pressed flower, a ticket stub. And they seem so inadequate. As useless as my words to describe her life.

Not enough. A constant ache that feels like there is not enough.

I suppose that is where grief takes us. To a place where there is not enough of her and the knowing that we will not get more. No more pictures, no more phone calls, no more sweet reunions. No more of her in this life where we thought she would walk beside us, where we thought there would always be more.

New layers of sorrow uncovered every day.

Severe storms are heading into our area this afternoon. You can smell rain and some fear in the air. There is no predicting them–who they will impact or what they will damage. There is just this waiting. And for those who have been touched before, fear.

I can feel this vulnerability now. As if my storms have taught me that I need to be afraid. But fear is not a good predictor of outcome. Fear only keeps you from moving forward, and it stifles the gift of joy.

Better, far, to remember safety. To remember all the times you have been spared. To remember the fiercest storm with the perspective of experience.

I am always surprised by the joy that reaches me.  A joy that springs up from the deepest place and catches me even here. And isn’t that the paradox of the Christian life? We are called to rest and a cross. Called to joy and to suffering. Called to healing and to pain, to peace and a battle.

And a season for all of it.

So I will mourn in this season of mourning. I will cry with the sadness of missing my girl, and I will always feel the ache of not enough.

But I will remember that He was there in the storm. I will remember His words and His promises. I will remember Him lifting my head and the deep joy untouched by sorrow. I will cling to eternity in my heart, the hope of it and the realization of it. I will not let fear cripple me.

I will remember the Creator of the storms.

I will remember that in this world of not enough, He is.

He is enough.

But You, O LORD, are a shield about me, My glory, and the One who lifts my head. Psalm 3:3

For everything there is a season, and a time for every matter under heaven: a time to be born, and a time to die; a time to weep and a time to laugh; a time to mourn and a time to dance. Ecclesiastes 3:1, 2, 4