Friday, March 21, 2014

How He Loves

"And we know that all things work together for the good of those who love God, and are called according to His purpose for them." Romans 8:28 NLT

We all know this verse. Its one of the most popular scriptures for people to quote, usually in an attempt to help someone feel better about a particular trial they are facing.

"It's going to be okay! All things work together for good!"

"Just remember, all things work for good."

"He's working it all out for good."

Can we have a moment of brutal honesty here?

I. Hate. It. When. People. Say. That.

I know its supposed to be helpful, but, honest to God, I have to control the urge to punch the person in their nose.

Because it doesn't help. If that's all you can think of to say...I recommend silence instead.

Knowing the verse doesn't magically make trials go away. Neither does hearing it.

Understanding the promise in the verse does not, in any way, make the THING we are facing any more GOOD. It really only makes the hearer feel like they have been chastised for finding their particular trial difficult. Like we should all just KNOW that our hard times are really good, and that's all there is to it.

It's a stupid thing to say, and just in case you ever think to say that to me in the future...I will most likely control myself and NOT punch you in the nose...but you can never really be certain of that, can you?

Okay, moment of brutal honesty adjourned.

I've heard this verse my whole life. We all have.

But we are missing the point. We can't really understand the point until we have lived it.

Yesterday I was talking to my husband, telling him about my day, filling him in with a moment-by-moment play-by-play, (because what man doesn't want to hear every single thing their wife did all day, right?) and suddenly, in the middle of my recounting, I had to pause, and blink, and gasp.

My husband was looking at me strangely, his glazed-over-eyes clearing as he realized I had stopped jabbering incessantly.

"It was really good, wasn't it?" I stated, more to myself than to him. "Never in a million years would I have thought it could be better this way, but it really is for our good."

He smiled at me, as if he had known all along what I had, only that moment, figured out.

Perhaps you would like to hear the tale? (name that movie...oops, sorry, that's a game Faith and I play, inserting movie quotes into our everyday conversations and quizzing each other...)

The tale goes back almost four years, to the death of my sister, Joy. Most people know that story. I won't retell it. Here are the facts.

She was a missionary in Malaysia.
She died due to complications of a congenital brain defect.
We didn't know she had it.
No one in our family was able to get to Malaysia in time to say goodbye to her.
It was a terrible, tragic, horrible shock.

After she died came even more shocks. It would cost $13,000 to have her body shipped back to the states for burial. None of us could afford that.

And so her body was cremated. And the US Embassy in Kuala Lumpur shipped an urn, filled with her ashes, to my house.

It was just a box wrapped in purple cloth, and it arrived like any other package.

But it was awful.
I sat in the entryway of my house, with my husband and kids surrounding me, and I wept.

And for many months after that, I dreamed that she wasn't really dead. In my dreams she had been taken prisoner and I had to go rescue her, or she had gotten lost and couldn't get word out.

Because I never saw her body. I never held her hand as it grew cold. I never heard her stop breathing.

So my mind had trouble making it real. Sometimes I still have trouble believing it is real.

Fast-forward a bit.

As a family, we decided to bury the urn containing her ashes, and mark it with a headstone, because it would hopefully help us all start to accept what had happened in a country on the other side of the world but had changed us all forever.

So, we found a spot on my sister, Sarah's, property, and we had a graveside service, just our family.

And it was so sad and so terrible, the tiny hole we had to dig to put the box in, and how it didn't take us but a few minutes to cover it over with dirt.

How I ached to kiss her cheek, or stroke the back of her hand, or lay beside her on her hospital bed.

I didn't want the box.

I couldn't imagine there would ever be anything I would feel thankful about with regard to her ashes.

But...

Yesterday I was showing a picture to some friends. It was a picture of Joy's grave, and what it looks like now.

We have created a garden, the Joyful Garden, in the nearly four years since she died. Every year around her birthday, my sisters and I buy and plant something new at the grave, and expand it, and weed it, and put down landscaping mulch. It's really starting to look beautiful.

This year we enlisted a few of our cousins to help us build a stone wall to enclose it.

That's the picture I was showing my friends, a picture of the wall, and how truly spectacular it turned out.

And as I was telling my husband about how impressed my friends were with our endeavor over the past weekend...that is when it really hit me.

We wouldn't have been able to bury her body there.
We would have had to bury her body in a cemetery.
And then we wouldn't have the Joyful Garden.
We wouldn't be able to visit her grave side, and feel close to her, anytime we wanted to.
We wouldn't be able to spend days surrounded by our cousins, working up a sweat to build something that honors Joy.
We wouldn't be able to see the gladiolas blooming, and smile at their loveliness, and be thrilled by how enchanting the garden becomes as the years pass.

The ashes and the urn, and the closure that was so long in coming because of them...those things turned out to be for our GOOD.

They are a blessing.

And I am nearly choking on the words as I write them, because how can anything that includes the ashes of a person we love ever be considered a blessing?

But...the daffodils are blooming right now in the Joyful Garden.

One of the hardest things about the worst time in my life...turned out to be for my good.

If you want to tell me about the hard thing in your life, or the dark place you are in, or the pain you are facing, or the fear of trials, I can promise you I will NOT tell you that God is working for your good.

Because if someone had said that to me when I was holding that urn...I probably would have punched them in their nose.

It's not good, the pain and trial and darkness and hurt. Its horrible, and gut wrenching, and I will probably tell you that I wish more than anything that you didn't have to go through it.

But...God is still there.

He's working.

He's holding you in His arms, and if you let Him, He will keep you from drowning, He will shelter you as long as the storm rages, He will breathe for you when you don't have the strength to take another breath.

And one day, you will have a moment like I had yesterday, where you can look back at the trail, and the trial you've been walking and living, and you will be shocked and breathless to realize...

He worked for your good, even in the tragedy.

It won't make the tragedy less awful.

But it will be a reminder that you are loved.

Somehow, today, those ashes are a love letter to me from God.

How can that be? It's too hard to fathom. It's too much for my heart to bear.

But...there is a garden. The Joyful Garden.

And its the evidence of His love.


Tuesday, March 11, 2014

Shadows

I've been thinking about shadows lately. (yes, I know that is a totally random thing to be pondering, but that is the way my weird mind works sometimes.)

There is a dog named Shadow in the kids movie "Homeward Bound. He is loyal and brave and tough.

Peter Pan loses his shadow and has to have it sewed back on. He is lonely without it.

In the Lion King, Simba refers to the hyena's home as "that shadowy place."

...clearly I watch too many kids movies...

Depending on the time of day, my shadow makes me feel skinny...or the opposite of it.

Our house casts a shadow on our front lawn, so much so that there is still a bit of snow surviving in places, despite the fact that it was 70 degrees here yesterday.

For the most part shadows are kind of a pain. They obscure things from view. They are a place where sneaky people notoriously hide. They are home to all the creepy, crawly critters. Most plants can't grow there, because there is no light.

And then their are the metaphorical shadows. The ones that lurk inside us.

They rise up at unexpected times and cast their long dark fingers across our hearts, making it cold and sad and lonely.

Shadows of regret.
Of mistakes.
Of unforgiveness.
Shadows of loneliness. Abandonment. Fear. Doubt. Grief.

I have shadows under my eyes this morning, caused by the shadow of grief that lurks in my heart. When it rears its ugly head and blots out the sun, I feel helpless against it. No amount of light pierces it for very long. I swear, this shadow of mine has claws and teeth and breathes fire.

The worst thing about all these heart shadows is: we never know when they will rise up and blanket us in their darkness. Its totally random, triggered by nothing, or by something that doesn't make any logical sense.

And suddenly we are standing in the grocery store, paralyzed by fear.
We are sitting on the couch, and guilt overwhelms us.
We are on the phone with a friend, and unforgiveness is choking the breath from our lungs.

Yesterday some plans I had been hoping to make with my baby sister fell through. She lives in Hawaii and I don't get to see her very often, and I was pretty determined to make this particular plan work. When I finally realized that it just wasn't feasible...I sat down in my bathroom floor and cried.

And cried. And cried. And cried.

Because a shadow had risen up. And I was reminded of a family dinner at a restaurant 3 1/2 years ago, a dinner I wasn't able to be a part of and a picture taken of everyone but me. I was reminded that it was the last pictures taken of my family with Joy in it...and I wasn't there. And now she's gone. And that is a night I will regret missing out on for the rest of my life.

And fear joined the regret, and irrationally I worried that Rachel would die before I got to see her again, and I had a panic attack, because even though she is still on this planet...it seemed no different than trying to get to heaven to see Joy...I just couldn't reach out and hug either one of them.

And it was dark and cold and shadowy in my heart the whole day, despite the fact that it was absolutely perfect outside.

But last night...something else crept in. A whisper. A feeling. A gentle tug.

A song on the radio.
These words: "...find rest in the shadow of the Almighty..." Psalm 91:1

What?

My breath hiccuped in my throat.
My tears tracked silently down my face.
The shadows didn't magically retreat from my heart.

But...

I can find rest in the shadows?
I don't have to fight them off?
I don't have to wait till they retreat?
I don't need the sun to shine?

I can rest in the shadow.

Because its His shadow.

Because all the other ones are totally consumed by His.

Oh. The freedom.

We don't have to wait for our dark places to be filled with light.

We don't have to hang on until the hard times pass.

We don't have to choke back the shadows of past pain that threaten to overwhelm us.

We don't have to pretend the shadows aren't there.

No! Crawl deeper into the Shadow. He is there with us in the dark...and we can rest.