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Tuesday, September 29, 2009

“See you in the Morning”

Now, pick yourself up off the floor. I know I haven’t written a blog in a loooong time. Moving to Florida this summer kind of took a chunk out of my “me” time. It isn’t that I haven’t had many thoughts penned in my head or I haven’t wanted to pour my heart out in ink. I just simply haven’t had many spare quiet moments. There comes a point though that I know I MUST write or I will not be serving God in the way I promised Him I would. He knows my hectic schedule. He knows my many demands. He knows how many boxes I just unpacked. He knows I have 5 kids and a husband to care for. But His grace is also sufficient to have allowed me some time right now in the car to type while Jim drives. His sovereignty brought us to another crossroad of life today; the funeral of a dear friend taken Home too soon. The first funeral I have attended since my own sweet husband’s. The first funeral Jim has attended since his own dear wife’s.

Not too long ago I mentioned an amazing young woman named Sara Sullivan. She was in her twenties. She was a cancer patient. She was a fellow F-16 pilot’s wife. She was an expectant mommy. She was a faithful servant of Christ. She was my new friend. Only a few short months later, she is gone. Not from cancer. Not from childbirth. But from a massive stroke just two days after bringing her premature, yet perfectly healthy baby, Chloe, home from the hospital. She didn’t even know she was fighting for her life. She was just figuring out how to feed her little baby. Her husband, Brad, did not know that morning when he woke up next to his beautiful wife that it would be their last morning to do so. And that evening that he would climb into an ambulance next to that same beautiful wife begging God for her life.

Brad and Sara’s story is told best by them. Their blog site is bandssullivan.blogspot.com. If you haven’t been on their blog yet I highly recommend it. Reading the Sullivan’s blog is akin to taking a vitamin boost for your faith. Suffice to say their story, in some ways, combines my and Jim’s stories. It has many common themes. Cancer. Sudden and unexpected death. A married couple trusting the Lord in sickness. Parents of a sweet baby girl. A fighter pilot and the wife who loved him serving their God and country. Sound familiar? It did to us. Life came full circle today. We just weren’t sitting in the first pew. We watched someone else’s life in a slideshow. Hope and sorrow on the face of a hurting Believer who just gave their spouse back to their Creator. A traveler about to go on a weary journey. We were there….just farther down the road and looking back. Brad is a new widower and a new daddy but he certainly is not a new Christian. He may not know much about changing diapers but he knows the God he serves. He will be okay. He will see light again. Morning will come. But he will walk in the dark for a while. I cried knowing that road will not be easy. It will be excruciating. I held sweet Chloe and praised God for the chance to witness a bonafide miracle. The doctors told Sara and Brad to abort the baby because Sara had to go through surgery and round after round of chemo. They gave their baby to the Lord, placing all their trust in Him. She is perfect. Brad took care of her all by himself last night. He said it was a sweet time. Just he and his baby girl. Jesus must have wept as He watched. Yet He knew this world would have burdens. Christ walked this world for 33 years. He saw it the struggles on the faces of the people He knew. He felt our sorrows on the cross. He knew Brad would be walking the floor with Chloe at 3 am. He knew I would lay in my closet crying until I couldn’t breathe. He knew Jim would sit in a chemo chair and hold his tiny faithful wife while the pain ached deep in her bones. He knew all these things. He knows all your things. I struggled awhile back with the fact that He knew all this was going to happen yet would do nothing to stop it. I know people sat in that church today and wondered the same thing. I couldn’t have stood up there in front and given them the answer. But I know now, more than ever, that everything doesn’t have to make sense to me because I am not God. I don’t qualify for the job. I don’t see the other side of that tapestry He is constantly weaving. All I know is He keeps His promises to walk with us. I thought the pastor today said so many powerful things. Obviously, many about Sara and what an incredibly glorious way she lived her life all the way until her death. But he also have a beautiful explanation of some verses of Psalm 23. They are familiar verses we read without possibly understanding fully the comparison David was making between us, the sheep and the Lord, our Shepherd. I won’t say it as eloquently as he did but I must give it a shot because it was SO good. A message so full of hope and healing on such a sad day.

Psalm 23

“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 paths of righteousness for His name’s sake.. Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death I will 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 anoint my head with oil. My cup overflows. Surely goodness and love will follow me all the days of my life. And I will dwell in the house of the Lord forever.”

David was many things. A giant-slayer. A shepherd. A warrior. A sinner. An adulterer. A fugitive. A Believer. A musician. A poet. A king. A man. David stood on the top of the mountain and walked in the deepest valley. David was us. A little bit of a lot of different things. Some good and some not so good. I love David. David was an emotional guy. David expressed what was on his heart. He shared what was on his mind. He knew, in the end, it really wasn’t all about him. There is a reason the Psalms are so relevant. David was so relevant. Relevant to who we are and what we struggle with. Life and death. Joy and sorrow. Pain and comfort.

The words he wrote in Psalm 23 were of comfort. The picture he painted was of peace. Not comfort and peace when life is easy there on the mountaintop. But comfort and peace in depths of the valley.

The pastor today gave us the historical background of what prompted David to write this particular Psalm. David was a shepherd early in his life. There was a dark and difficult path he had to lead his sheep through to get to safety on the other side; the valley. Death was all around. The mountains on one side were too rugged to cross. The other side was desert. Both equally dangerous with darkness lurking alongside the narrow path. Yet the shepherd would send out someone ahead of them to make sure their was enough food and water and no predators for their passage. He prepared for their arrival. Just like God prepares for our tomorrows. The shepherd’s rod protected the sheep from harm and the staff kept them on the path so they didn’t wander into the wilderness or the desert. He cared for them so they wouldn’t be afraid of what was ahead. Just as Christ cares for us when the shadow of death is all around us. The shepherd put oil on the sheep’s heads to keep certain pests out of their ears. In other words, our Great Shepherd takes care of the things that “bug” us along the way. At His table we are always welcome with a warm welcome and a full cup. He won’t let us go on down the road on empty.

Death of a spouse casts a long shadow over your past, present and future. There is no part of life that that death does not permeate in some way. We live in a fallen world. We live in a world that is not nearly as much about what we see but about what we don’t see. Remember it was hard for the sheep to see in that dark valley. They HAD to trust their shepherd. We HAVE to trust our Shepherd even in the times we cannot see that any of this journey makes any sense or is even worth going on.

Ezekiel 34:11

“For this is what the Sovereign Lord says; I myself will search for My sheep and look after them. As a shepherd looks after his scattered flock when he is with them, so will I look after my sheep. I will rescue them from all the places where they were scattered on a day of clouds and darkness.”

When I first married Jim and he would kiss me goodnight, often he would say “See you in the morning.” It was a simple statement to me as he closed his eyes. He probably didn’t even think much about it. But as I laid there I couldn’t help but think how comforting those words were to me. Each night after Troy died when I laid my head on the pillow for another sleepless night I began to dread the next morning. Because the next morning meant more of the same; another day without him. I knew going to bed lonely would only lead to waking up lonely. So when Jim first said that to me, I thought to myself how lovely and sweet those words were because that meant that in the morning he would be there. I had something to look forward to when I woke up. Day was a happy time all of the sudden.

The deep pain and stinging sorrow inside of a broken heart stops making it worth waking up in the morning.  But, with the Shepherd’s help, it will be worth it someday. We don’t have to do much at first. Just wake up. Just put your feet on the floor.  Like the pastor said today; Just Walk. I remember my dearest encouragers reminding me to keep walking. Morning will come they said. I couldn’t picture it. I couldn’t even imagine the hole in my heart being healed enough to want to live again or be a good mother again. I knew what God promised me in Psalm 23 but I just didn’t know what the other side of the valley looked like or how long He wanted me to walk through it. Those thoughts terrified me.  But I had to trust Him. Even sheep are smart enough to know they are too dumb not to follow the Shepherd.

Today Brad begins that same walk Jim and I went on. As we stood with him next to Sara’s casket, he said he felt he belonged with us now. We told him we were sorry he did. But we know he won’t walk it alone. And we know that someday his mourning will to turn to morning. In some way there always will be morning for those that love the Lord. Sometimes that morning is in heaven like it was for Troy, Andrea and Sara. Sometimes that morning will feel like hell on earth, like it was for me, Jim and Brad. But for those that serve a mighty God, morning will come and it won’t even resemble night at all. 

As we walked out of the church after Sara's service I couldn't help but notice this big sign in the foyer.  Doesn't the fact that the word DOES is underlined say just what we need to be reminded of in times such as these?  He does love us.  He does stretch His mighty arms down from heaven to hold through the pain.  He does bring us sunshine again.  I snapped the photo and reached for Jim's hand and we walked out the door knowing the sign spoke the truth; morning comes.

I love that God chose to raise His son early in the morning on that Sunday 2000 years ago. I think it was symbolic that night was over forever. Satan would never have the last word. He may whisper in our ears that there will never be another glimpse of sunshine in our life. That it’s over or at least not worth living for. But Christ’s victory over the grave forever says to us, “Keep walking, I am with you and I will see you in the morning, my child.”

Lamentations 3:22-23

“Because of the Lord’s great love we are not consumed for His compassions never fail. They are new every morning; great is Your faithfulness.”

Tonight, as I finish writing this blog, Brad and Chloe return home after burying Sara today. My heart is heavy for Brad. It’s unbelievable how significantly enormous the absence of someone can feel. Yet, it is equally unbelievable how weighty the presence of the Lord suddenly becomes when you need it the most. Grief can dull the senses in one way. Yet, in an another, it shines a light on God’s goodness and mercy. I know Brad must feel both as he rocks their precious baby girl to sleep tonight.

Sara gave me a candle right before I moved. I had been saving it for some unknown purpose. I began lighting it last week as I prayed for her healing. I remembered she said it was her favorite scent. My friend, Angela, also received one from Sara and she brought it my attention that the scent of the candle is "Bird of Paradise".  How fitting.  Paradise.  Sara's new home.  The same address as Troy and Andrea.  How they all must soar now - birds in Paradise.  I burn it now most every night, knowing the fragrance is even sweeter now that she is gone.

Isn’t that just the exact same way we want our lives to be remembered and our legacy to be carried on? As a pleasant bouquet that lingers in the thoughts and hearts of those we leave behind? With tears filling my eyes I listened to the pastor speak of Sara in much the same way that Pastor Steve spoke of Troy. I so desire those same words to echo again, someday, when my loved ones are gathered together to celebrate my coming Home.

Until then, I will seek to love, live and forgive. I will keep walking. Peaks. Vallleys. Whatever the Lord asks me to do. And only with His help.

Oh and I will probably find out where Sara bought me that candle and order another. The candle reminds me of her light and her light reminds to continue to trust God, no matter what.

Proverbs 3:5-6

Trust in the Lord with all your heart. Lean not on your own understanding but in all your ways acknowledge Him and He will make your paths straight.

Tuesday, September 8, 2009

The Rich Young Man

I went through a lot of struggles as I tried to understand and reconcile Andrea’s cancer and her near constant bad test results. I had prayed for years for Andrea’s healing only to find no relief. I had asked for healing in every way I knew. I had pleaded, begged, and promised all to no avail. I had asked so many times I started to think I was bugging God with the same request over and over. I constantly struggled with asking for the desire of my heart and Allowing God to be sovereign and trusting Him. Was I lacking faith in God by constantly asking for healing? Did He really need to hear me over and over, sometimes 100s of times a day ask for the same thing? Was God hard of hearing or was I not using the right words. Was I being a nuisance to Him? Was I lacking faith by not believing for healing? Should I have taken a stand and just said Andrea is healed and not wavier or was I shutting the door on God’s will, just trying to shout so I did not hear what I did not want to hear? The stakes were so high, life and death for my best friend and the most important person in my life. How does God’s will and my will intermesh? That really was the question. I wish I could tell you the answer. All I know is what I experienced and that is what I’m trying to express in this blog. The answer is mine alone I do not think this is a one size fits all response from God. It was a custom fit for me and it had to do with my life, experiences, my strengths and my weaknesses.

I learned many things during the 4years and 4 months of treatment Andrea endured and truthfully I always felt a little guilty growing and learning and becoming a better person while Andrea suffered and died. But not as guilty as I would feel if I did not learn, change and grow from that experience. It is hard to pick the most important lesson I learned but certainly one of the most important is God’s place in my life which I have written about in previous blogs. This blog a slightly different angle on that subject.

Mark 10: 17-31
The Rich Young Man

As Jesus started on his way, a man ran up to him and fell on his knees before him. "Good teacher," he asked, "what must I do to inherit eternal life?" "Why do you call me good?" Jesus answered. "No one is good—except God alone. You know the commandments: 'Do not murder, do not commit adultery, do not steal, do not give false testimony, do not defraud, honor your father and mother." "Teacher," he declared, "all these I have kept since I was a boy."

Jesus looked at him and loved him. "One thing you lack," he said. "Go, sell everything you have and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven. Then come, follow me." At this the man's face fell. He went away sad, because he had great wealth.

Jesus looked around and said to his disciples, "How hard it is for the rich to enter the kingdom of God!" The disciples were amazed at his words. But Jesus said again, "Children, how hard it is to enter the kingdom of God! It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God."

The disciples were even more amazed, and said to each other, "Who then can be saved?" Jesus looked at them and said, "With man this is impossible, but not with God; all things are possible with God."
Peter said to him, "We have left everything to follow you!"

"I tell you the truth," Jesus replied, "no one who has left home or brothers or sisters or mother or father or children or fields for me and the gospel will fail to receive a hundred times as much in this present age (homes, brothers, sisters, mothers, children and fields—and with them, persecutions) and in the age to come, eternal life. But many who are first will be last, and the last first."

Why did Jesus ask the rich young man to not only obey all the commandments but also sell everything he had? Why doesn’t Jesus ask this to everyone? Why such a strict standard for this young man? We are told this is a rich young man, why so descriptive? He is not only rich but he is young. If he were alive today I picture him as a Harvard grad, always at the top of his class, used to accolades and rewards. He would be well known due to his wealth at such a young age. He would be used to having what he wanted when he wanted it. I think the descriptive words we are given help us understand why Jesus asked him to sell it all and give it to the poor. I think like today’s rich, successful young man he would derive a lot of his security from his success. He would be prideful of his accomplishments and probably very self reliant.

As I reflect back on Andrea’s treatment I remember Andrea’s first round of chemo in Alaska. It was hard, very hard in fact and we prayed and sought God but truthfully it did not demand us to totally surrender. In the beginning you find some comfort in your doctor, certainly in the medicine, and at times in the facts of cancer treatment. You see yourself as one of the __% that will be healed and in that mere fact you hold on to a portion of your life. There are portions that exceed your ability to control and I definitely sought God in those moments but there were times when I found comfort in the treatment or in watching Andrea’s strength or at times in the inability to believe that death could actually come to Andrea. She was too young, too faithful, and too “good” of a person to die.

Most of those footholds crumbled beneath me when Andrea’s cancer returned in 2005. When a doctor tells you the cancer is incurable you suddenly realize those things that you were holding onto vanish as the words flow the doctor’s lips. You feel naked, vulnerable, scared and totally alone as the words sink into your mind and you try to process the meaning of his words. Intellectually you understand the facts, but it takes time to fully absorb the impact.

Rather quickly Andrea and I began the process of facing death. Death was no longer some future event, something we would deal with when our hair was grey or our dreams fulfilled, our bodies tired, almost seeking relief from this life. No it came when we had many things to accomplish, kids to raise and the joy of grand kids around the corner. We had trips we still dreamed of taking; our retirement home still was an idea in our minds, all we knew was it had a big porch where we could watch the sunsets. Death had somehow leaped forward and landed right in front of us, we stood face to face with death and somehow we had to reconcile this fact with the faith we had professed.

Soon afterwards I began to hear, to sense or maybe feel God prompting me. His message, “Let go and Trust Me.” Those who knew me knew that I loved Andrea and we had a very special marriage. She was my life, my source of joy and happiness in life. So when I ran to Jesus I was not expecting to hear, “Give up your wife and follow me.” I felt what the rich young man must have felt, “Are you kidding me?” The rich young man had poured his life into his work and his money was his reward and his security now Jesus told him he had to sell it ALL and follow him. It was eerily similar to how I viewed Andrea in my life. I poured all my effort into our marriage and I was reaping the rewards of my work. Andrea and I loved being together, we were best friends but for me she was more than that, she was my security.

For the rich young man this demand seemed a little excessive I’m sure. He had kept the commandments, surly he could give the required 10%, maybe half of all he owned. Surly that was good enough. Like ourselves we sometimes face a trial and look around us and see plenty of people who deserve to suffer far more then we do. I asked myself why such a demanding requirement for this rich young man? If I had to guess I would say it was because if he held onto any of his wealth and possessions he would always place a portion of his own security in them. God knew that his source of security was intertwined with his money and as long as it remained in his life he would find comfort there. He would never live totally a surrendered life as long as he felt security in his possessions. How bad did he really want eternal life? When Jesus told him to sell all he had and give it to the poor, He forced the Rich young man to look himself in the mirror and choose his source of security. Who was his god?

The seemingly unfairness of this demand spoke to my heart when I struggled with why Andrea had cancer. The most faithful, honest, God fearing person I had ever met, yet for some reason she was being ask to give her all, and in doing so I was asked to give up my wife. For me that meant giving up all I had known and the one person I had intertwined my life and my security. When Jesus asked me to let go and trust him, I too was being asked to give away all my possessions, my security, and follow Him. I too was sacred and walked away sad at this seemingly high standard.

Like the rich young man I had misplaced my security in something other then what God had intended for me. Like the rich young man God saw this as a hindrance to my spiritual growth. The process of me understanding this did not occur overnight; in fact it took over two years for me to grasp what God was trying to teach me. Did I really trust God and if I did then what could this world do to harm me? Could life be difficult? Yes. Could life be hard? It was. But did God love me? He certainly did. Could I trust Him even when life was turning in a direction I did not want to go? In time yes.

God continued to speak to me until and one day as I pulled into the driveway I told Andrea I had to let her go. I had placed Andrea and our relationship above God in my life. I have written this before and I’m not trying to be prideful in my words but I was good at being Andrea’s husband. We had an amazing marriage and I was proud of my love for her. So when God told me to let her go I was a little confused. Didn’t God command me to love my wife? Didn’t he give her to me? Didn’t He ask us to become one flesh? The answer to all the above is yes, but He also told me to put nothing before Him and to “First, seek His kingdom and righteousness and all these things would be added.” Did I believe that? Did I trust Him enough to act out what I professed to believe?

I will tell you after 27 months of fighting cancer you find yourself at the end of your abilities. No longer can you hide behind temporary strengths or mere determination, reality hits you and you have to fess up that you cannot do this alone. We have many crutches in life, things we use to hold us up when we lack the strength or ability to do it ourselves. Our crutch could be possessions like the rich young man, or a relationship like mine with Andrea. God’s desire is that He be the only crutch in our life.

I think the progression to the point of surrender is reflected in our prayer position. You begin by praying quick prayers, most often while you are engaged in other tasks usually as you stand. The obstacle is a mere bump in the road hardly worthy of your precious time. As it becomes more serious you may stop to pray even sit down to devote all your attention to praying. You begin to focus on the potential enormity of the task ahead of you. This is when you see a hint that the problem you are facing may just maybe exceed your ability to handle it. Maybe outside help will be required, but the odds are low at this point. At this point you start to feel a ting of worry. If the prayer goes unanswered your fear can grow. You had counted on this being resolved long before this point but for some reason this has not occurred. Now you will kneel to pray. This may be a first for many people and it reflects a definite escalation in the matter. The probability that you will need outside assistance is likely. Usually at this point you take your concern public and begin to seek outside advice, or ask friends and family to pray for you trying to get the odds in your favor. Surely the support of more Godly people can sway the tide in your favor. Finally, if things continue and you have not won the battle, you will find yourself face down, prostrate before God, hopeless, and incapable of finding your way out of the situation. You have exhausted all your options, expended all your talents and abilities to no avail. All your talents, securities have proven inadequate; they are as filthy rags before the Lord. If you get to this point you no longer utter words in your prayers you just lay there stripped of all pride or reliance on your own abilities. You are nothing and you need Him. God brought me to this point in the summer of 2006. I was finally ready to listen, even if I did not want to hear what God had to say.

Slowly I let go of my crutches, actually at time I did not let them go but felt life kick them out from under me. I will offer this one observance, when we face a trail in life and we look with horizontal viewpoint the trail can seem unfair, undeserved and unjust. When we look with horizontal eyes we tend to say things like, “This is unfair.” We tend to compare our situation to others seeking those more “deserving” of our predicament then our self. Our focus in on why this should not have happened to us. This horizontal view can lead to bitterness, anger and resentment and unfortunately it is our eyes natural viewpoint. This viewpoint is focused on this life.

Psalm 144:4
Man is like a breath;
his days are like a fleeting shadow

However, when we look vertically we see our life in relation to eternity. When I knelt at the cross, look up and saw my savior nailed to the cross, beaten, bleeding, and suffering and in that moment I lost all my “rights” to an easy life. I looked at my savior who suffered far more than I ever will so I might have eternal life with Him. This life and its trials shrunk in comparison to what Christ did for me. I saw this life as a vapor when I put my focus was on Christ, who loved me and loved Andrea more than I ever did or ever would. I was learning to trust Christ, even when life was spinning out of control. I had to look vertically not horizontally. I will never fully understand why I lost Andrea but I am confidant one day I will, and it will all make sense. For me it came down to this and I don't mean to over simplify a very complex issue, but God was either God, in the totally of what it meant to be my creator, or it was all a lie. Simply put I was not willing to give up on my faith because I Andrea's cancer was beyond my understanding. I may not have understood it all but I knew the character of God and somehow this all fit together. I was just going to have to wait to understand it.

That is where I was when I told Andrea, I have to let you go. I was not giving up on her healing and letting her die I was submitting to God’s authority for my life. I was letting her go as the source of my security and placing God in His rightful place in my life. Relying on Andrea was my personal struggle, my weakness. If you knew her you would better understand. She was so full of faith, so different from anyone I had ever known, it was easy for me to fall under her faithfulness and inhibit my own relationship with God. This was a four year process, but in the end I found myself a far different person then I was on Aug 22 2003 the day before Andrea found her lump.

I will share it with you my last moments with Andrea because I think it shows how far God had taken me on this journey. I had not really realized it myself until I was telling this to my friend and I began to form this blog in my mind.

Dec 17 2007

When I arrived at the hospital I found Andrea in a coma like state, her body swollen from her liver failing, her breathing labored and I knew she was telling me it was time. I loved her far too much to cause her to suffer for my selfish desires. I think my greatest act of love for Andrea was to let her go when all I wanted was for her to stay. Love is not about what I want but what was best for her.

At 1225 I told the doctor it was okay to remove the breathing assistance from the ventilator and Andrea began breathing on her own for the first time in 21 days. The boys and I stood by her bed. I bent over her and whispered in her ear. I prayed with her for the last time. I assured her we would be okay. Then I sang a song in her ear. It was a song we sang at our church in North Carolina and it was about surrendering our fears. I changed the word “fear” and substituted “wife” and I sang this in her ear. This is how it goes:

Here’s my wife, I lay her down, I lay her down.
Here’s my wife, I lay her down, I lay her down.
I surrender her all to You; I surrender her all to You,
I let go and give her to You.

When I finished those words in her ear, I stood up and the doctors were walking in the room. I asked. “Is she gone?” and they said, “Yes.” I looked at the clock on the wall, it was 1:07.
When I told that story to a friend it hit me how much God had changed me during those 52 months. I had gone from a man to afraid to think about losing my wife, to a man whose last words to my wife were surrendering her. I had sought God with all my heart for relief, for healing, and finally just for His will; His answer remained constant, “Let go and Trust Me.” Like the rich young man I was asked to give up everything I valued in life although my first response was much like the rich young man my face fell and I walked away sad, but God did not give up on me. He pursued me until I was ready to understand that Christ did not die for this life but for the life that is yet to come.

Psalm 138:7-8

Though I walk in the midst of trouble,
you preserve my life;
you stretch out your hand against the anger of my foes,
with your right hand you save me.
The LORD will fulfill his purpose for me;
your love, O LORD, endures forever
do not abandon the works of your hands.