Praise to the Lord of the Small, Broken Things

I can’t believe it is November already. This year has gone by so quickly. It seems that it was just summer, but the snow and ice on the ground outside are a testament to the fact that autumn has flown by and we are well into the early part of our Alaskan winter.

The month of November stands out for several reasons. It is, of course, the month where the weather really starts to turn cold. It’s the month of Thanksgiving. For 27 years, it was the month that our family celebrated Jessica’s birth. It will always be that for us, but two Novembers ago, it also became the month that she died.

I was very depressed all the way through November of last year. It was the first anniversary and it was pretty rough. I don’t want November to be like that again this year. There will be sadness, but I would prefer to channel that sadness into remembering the happy times and the good things about her. She died of a drug overdose after a long struggle with substance abuse. That was bad. It was painful and ugly and bad. But there was so much about her that was good. She was a daughter, a sister, a wife, and a friend and she took such joy in all of those relationships. She loved us all so much, and we all loved her more than she ever knew. She was hard-working, creative, fun, loyal and generous. I could go on and on about all of the good qualities that she had. But the very best thing about Jessica is bigger than all of that. It’s bigger than her life and so much bigger than her death. And truly, the best thing about her isn’t really about her at all. The best thing about Jessica is the One to whom she belongs. She belongs to Jesus.

No matter how dark and sad things looked at the end, we know that we didn’t lose her the day that she died. Jesus took her home to be with him and he did for her that day what everyone else – including Jessica herself – had tried to do and failed. He healed her. She is where she belongs and she is finally doing what she was created to do. She is in the presence of Christ, and she is worshipping him. I find tremendous hope in the knowledge that one day I will join her there. And for now, I find comfort in knowing that she and I – though separated for now – both lift our voices to praise the same Lord.

I can’t see her. I can’t talk to her. I can’t call her on Thanksgiving, or send her a goofy card and a gift for her birthday. I can’t do the things with her that sisters do, but I can worship the Lord with her. I don’t have to wait to join her in that endeavor.

With that in mind, I wanted to share a song that I often listen to and sing along with when I am missing my sister; grieving for the pain she suffered and for the loss of her company. This song reminds me to focus not on my own grief and pain, but on the God who suffered for me and has ordained all of my days – yes, along with their suffering – in his infinite wisdom and love, for his glory. This song reminds me that Jessica was never outside of God’s loving care and that his love did not fail her. Her flesh did fail, but God did not. He never does. He is the Lord of all things and he is glorfied in all things. Even the things that are frail, broken, and small.

“Praise to the Lord of the small broken things,
Who sees the poor sparrow that cannot take wing,
Who loves the lame child and the wretch in the street,
Who comforts their sorrows and washes their feet.

Praise to the Lord of the faint and afraid,
Who girds them with courage and lends them his aid,
He pours out his Spirit on the vessel so weak
That the timid can serve and the silent can speak.

Praise to the Lord of the frail and the ill
Who heals their afflictions or carries them till
They leave this tired frame and to paradise fly
To never be sick and never to die.

Praise him, oh praise him, all ye who live,
Who’ve been given so much and can so little give,
Our frail, lisping praise God will never despise,
He sees his dear children through mercy-filled eyes.”
~ Johanna Anderson

A beautiful choral arrangement of this song can be heard here.

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Enough

I just came across this story from a town that is close to my home town. It hits close to home for me. It’s about a woman who was caught illegally dispensing prescription narcotics to a young addict who overdosed on them and died. I know that story well.

This kind of situation is one of my anger struggles. It makes me angry. When I hear of someone who has been caught doing this, my first response is to hope that they go to jail for a long, long time. “How evil!”, I say in my mind, “to prey on the brokenness of others for a few bucks! This person is an evil predator.” Those feelings may last…until God reminds me to that I’m called to love and pray for my enemies… or until I see a picture of the perpetrator like the one included in this article. A picture of a woman who looks worn down, scared and lost. I realize that she is really just another broken person, too, and I don’t even know what to feel anymore. Just very sad, I guess.

So I have to thank God for His sovereign purpose, because without it, this kind of thing would go on destroying lives and families and it would be nothing more than meaningless, endless cycles of suffering. It looks like such a hopeless mess to my human eyes, but God has a purpose for it, and that is the only source of true peace that I’ve been able to find. From my limited vantage point, I can’t see God’s bigger picture. I don’t know how He is going to work these things together for good to those who love Him. I don’t know what God’s purpose for this kind of suffering is, but the truth is that I don’t really need to. Knowing that He has one is enough.

Some Thoughts for Matt Walsh on His Blog About Robin Williams

Dear Matt Walsh,

I think you are a Christian. You’ve said things in the past that make it clear that you consider yourself one, so I’m going to respond to your latest blog
post
about the death of Robin Williams as though you are a fellow follower of Christ.

You seem frustrated that people are not talking enough about the fact that Robin Williams made a choice to die. You acknowledge that depression is a real, physical disease but insist that what Robins Williams died from was his choice to commit suicide. I will not deny the truth of this. You are correct. I agree with you, also, that human nature is both spiritual and physical and that while we are alive, the two cannot be separated. Depression affects the spirit as well as the body.

Having acknowledged those points of agreement, I would like to raise a concern that you may not be giving enough grace in a situation where people are grieving the loss of a loved one to “a choice”. You briefly mention the pain that families are left to suffer with for the rest of their lives when suicide happens, but you don’t spend a lot of time contemplating the way that those families may need to deal with that pain.

I’m intimately familiar with that kind of pain, so your post hit very close to home for me. My sister killed herself on her 27th birthday, about a year and a half ago. Her intention when she chose to mix alcohol and pain killers was not to die, but that was the result. She died because of a choice that she made. She had suffered for many years with addiction; a disease of it’s own that is often caused or influenced by other illnesses like depression or bipolar disorder. Our family watched her suffer in many ways for most of her adult life. We hoped and hoped that she would accept help and get better one day, but she would have had to have chosen that. We couldn’t choose it for her. Then, one day she made one last bad choice and she was gone forever. We were devastated. Crushed. Her death fundamentally changed my family in many ways and our lives will never be the same. We have to live the rest of our lives in a world where my little sister is no longer living and breathing.

That is hard thing. It’s hard to stand beside the freshly-dug grave of a loved one and contemplate the rest of your life. Decades of separation ahead feel like an unbearable burden. And always, always in the back of your mind is the knowledge that you are standing there, distraught and destroyed, because this person you love so much made a choice.

How do you deal with that? I can tell you what has gotten me through. First and most importantly, my belief in the sovereignty and goodness of God helped me to accept that there are no “what ifs” to agonize over. It frees me from feeling angry or bitter towards my sister for the choice that she made and allows me to just grieve her loss instead. Her death was a part of God’s plan and for that reason – as awful as the circumstances of it were – I can trust that God did what was right and best in her life and in mine.

Secondly, I choose to grieve my sister as a whole person. I grieve for the life that is gone, not just for the way that it ended. I grieve because I can’t see her anymore. I can’t hear her voice. I can’t goof off with her until we are laughing so hard we can’t breathe. She won’t ever again be able to sit on her porch and let neighbor girls play with her hair or donate her last dollar to victims of a hurricane. I won’t ever see her become a mother. My older children won’t remember much about her and she never even met my youngest son. The circumstances of her death are only a small part of the sadness of losing her.

I don’t know Robin Williams’ family and I can’t speak for them, but in my own experience, all of those wonderful things about my sister far outweigh the bad. I love her – flaws and all – and because of that, I choose to honor her memory by focusing on what was good and covering over her failings with grace and love. That doesn’t mean I deny what she did. I am willing to talk about her if it will help someone else, but I will not allow her to be reduced to a mere public service announcement. She was a whole person, and there was more to her worth mourning over than just the circumstances of her death. If the loved ones, family and friends of Robin Williams want to grieve in a similar way, it is not your job to make sure they remember that he chose to kill himself. I assure you, they have not forgotten that fact and they never will.

Having said all that, Mr. Walsh, I have one more thing to say. You talk about joy always being an alternative to suicide, and I am with you on that. It bothers me, though, that you don’t seem to think it’s important to tell people where the only source of true joy can be found. Your blog lectures people about the selfishness of suicide and tells them to choose life and joy instead, but as a Christian, you should know that apart from Christ, neither of those things can ever be chosen by anyone. Christians have a unique brand of comfort to offer to broken people. We have the hope of eternal life in Christ. We have the promise of the death of death and the wiping away of every last tear. We have the security of knowing that God is in control of each moment of our lives, and that is why a Christian need never despair to the point of death. If you are a Christian and you have a large platform to speak from, I don’t know why you would choose to focus on the choice to give up, made by a broken man. You know of the hope that can be found in our Savior, Jesus Christ, who defeated death and has the power to save us, even out of the graves we dig for ourselves. Christians cannot give the world hope without pointing it to Him.

Stirred-up Memories

I came across this article about a family who lost their son/brother to overdose recently. He was on life-support before he died, so the family was able to honor his wish to be an organ donor. The picture of the family watching the helicopter carry his body away for the organ donation really grabbed me. We didn’t have the option to do this, but it brings up many memories, anyway, of those surreal last goodbye moments that we had the day we buried Jess. I remember watching the pall bearers put her casket in the hearse and having to lean on the door frame of the church when my head started spinning, because it seemed so unreal. And having the same feeling again in the car following the hearse, as it pulled into the cemetery. I had the urge to video that moment, too, which I think this family did, based on the other pictures. It’s hard to explain, but for some reason, you want to hold on to those very last moments before the goodbye is officially over. I have the video saved in my little dresser that I keep her things in, along with some pictures from that day. I never look at any of them and have never played the video. Probably never will, but I am still comforted in knowing that I have them.

I also share in this family’s hope that they will see their loved one again. As final as it feels, it’s truly only temporary. I think maybe that is why Christians – even though we know our loved one’s spirit is no longer with their body – still care so deeply about how the body is treated. We are looking forward to a day when we will not just meet our loved one again in Heaven, but when we will also witness the resurrection of their bodies by our Lord. Every time I visit her graveside, I look up to the sky and think about what it would be like if Jesus did return right then, and I got to see her body raised. I always pray, “maybe today, Lord?”.

Not yet, but someday. Maranatha!

Oh, God, Be Merciful to Me

This year will mark the second Easter since Jessica died. But before we celebrate the resurrection of our Lord, we need to remember that it was on Good Friday that He died. As that day approaches, I find myself dwelling more and more often on Jessica and on how much I miss her and how much I long for just one more chance to talk to her and ask for her forgiveness for the way that I responded to her addiction. Knowing that I will never have the chance to do that has been one of the hardest, most painful truths that I have I ever had to accept. God has done many things in my life since I got that terrible, late-night phone call, and none are more bittersweet than this – that He has opened my eyes and shown me just how deplorably sinful I really am, and how very, very lost and doomed I would be, were it not for His sovereign grace.

Oh, God, where would I be if You turned away from me the way that I turned away from her? How can You love me when I have been so unloving? How can You show me mercy when I have refused to be merciful? How could You spend hours nailed to the torturous cross to pay the price for my sins, when I would not even spend a few minutes in uncomfortable conversation with my own sister? Oh, God, You have shown such love for me, and I have refused to love others the way that You have called me to. I don’t understand it, Lord.

Oh, God, be merciful to me. A sinner.

With Broken Heart and Contrite Sigh
by Cornelius Elven

“With broken heart and contrite sigh,
A trembling sinner, Lord, I cry,
Thy pardoning grace is rich and free,
Oh, God, be merciful to me.

I smite upon my troubled breast
With deep and conscious guilt oppressed,
Christ and His cross my only plea,
Oh, God, be merciful to me.

Far off I stand with tearful eyes
Nor dare uplift them to the skies
But Thou dost all my anguish see
Oh, God, be merciful to me.

Nor alms, nor deeds that I have done,
Can for a single sin atone,
To Calvary alone I flee,
Oh, God, be merciful to me.

And when redeemed from sin and hell,
With all the ransomed throng I dwell
My raptured song shall ever be,
God has been merciful to me.”

click here to hear part of a beautiful arrangement of this old hymn.

Same River, New Perspective

Life goes on. This is what I have learned. The world can be entirely upside down, everything alien and unfamiliar and confusing, but life will go on. No matter how hard you try to stop, close your eyes, cover your ears and stay right where you are until you can make sense of the strange new world around you, it will keep going on, and there is no “with or without you”. You are going on, too. You have no choice. This is what grief has taught me.

Bereavement changes everything. Nothing is the same for me anymore, inside or out. I am a different person and I see the world through a different lens. I’ve spent a lot of time trying to explain it, but I’m never satisfied with my own words. The closest I think I’ve come is to compare my life before I lost my sister to a kayak trip down a rushing river. Before, things were fast paced and a little bit scary, but I was upright, I had my paddle and knew how to use it, I knew where I was going, and I felt -for the most part- in control. Then I got that late-night phone call from my mom, and all of a sudden, my kayak was upside down in the water. It was dark and I wasn’t sure what was going on. The paddle was gone and I lost all sense of direction (this is literally true. For the first month or so I couldn’t even keep track of what day of the week it was). My only concern was getting my head back up above the water long enough to breathe.

It’s been over a year now, and through the grace of God, I feel like I have been pulled out from under the kayak so that my head is above water and I can at least look around and see what’s going on and where I’m going; it’s definitely more…manageable. I’m not drowning anymore. However, instead of navigating the course of life with strength and confidence, I am pretty much just clinging to the side of my still over-turned kayak, doing my best to guide it somehow. Some steering is possible, but it requires completely different muscles and techniques than the ones I felt I had mastered before and in learning those, I find myself dashed up against no small amount of rocks, trees and other river obstacles that are generally best avoided. I’m all wet and bedraggled and generally just kind of a mess, but I’m still rushing along at the pace of “life”, which always goes on, whether I am in position to navigate my little boat effectively or not. I guess you could call this stage “doing the best that I can.”.

I try to get back to normal. I try to do the things that I used to do; the things that used to work so well and made so much sense, and I’m incredibly frustrated to find those things inexplicably harder to accomplish. The tasks haven’t changed. The responsibilities haven’t changed. The demands haven’t changed. Those things are all the same. So if something is different, it must be me. Loss has changed who I am. I’m navigating the same life from a completely different perspective. I have to learn new coping skills, new time-management strategies, new ways to relate to people…the list goes on. And I have to adjust to it somehow. I’m learning that instead of being enraged at myself for not being the navigator that I was before I was so abruptly dumped out of my little boat, I need to accept that I am in exactly the position that I am supposed to be in and learn to navigate from there. I believe that God is sovereign and good, so it follows that if I can’t climb back up into my boat, it’s because to do so would not be God’s best for my life. I know that He loves me enough to make me uncomfortable when that is what’s best, and that He is powerful enough to sustain me through whatever that discomfort entails.

Maybe someday I’ll get this kayak flipped right-side-up again. Maybe I’ll be able to climb back up into it and find a new paddle and maybe I’ll get back to doing things the way that I did before. And maybe not. Either way, I will keep my head up with my eyes trained on Jesus, because I know He is in charge of this river, and I trust Him. I trust that He is holding me, even though things haven’t gone the way that I’ve wanted them to. I trust that He is carrying me along to where I know this journey ends. Heaven is my ultimate destination and when I get there, I will see His face and this struggle will fade into a distant memory, eclipsed by His glory…when I contemplate that, I am filled with hope, even when things seem hard and overwhelming. My hope is in Heaven, and that’s where this crazy journey ends. I’m so thankful for that hope and for the One Who gave it to me. He encourages me and gives me the strength that I need to take heart, to keep trying, and to learn, experience and do what He has for me along the way. Even when it looks and feels like a big, unpleasant, failure-riddled mess.

“Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ! According to his great mercy, he has caused us to be born again to a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead, to an inheritance that is imperishable, undefiled, and unfading, kept in heaven for you, who by God’s power are being guarded through faith for a salvation ready to be revealed in the last time. In this you rejoice, though now for a little while, if necessary, you have been grieved by various trials, so that the tested genuineness of your faith—more precious than gold that perishes though it is tested by fire—may be found to result in praise and glory and honor at the revelation of Jesus Christ. Though you have not seen him, you love him. Though you do not now see him, you believe in him and rejoice with joy that is inexpressible and filled with glory, obtaining the outcome of your faith, the salvation of your souls.” 1 Peter 1:3-9

Anywhere…

It’s been a while since my trip to North Carolina to be with my family for Jessica’s birthday. I have a lot that I want to say about it, and it will probably take me a while to get it all written down. The wound left by her death was feeling too raw when I first got back to post on my blog, but I am feeling ready to do it now. Or ready to start the process, at least.

My last night at my mom’s house, I decided to write out a prayer to leave at Jessica’s graveside the next morning. It was raining that day, so I sealed it in a plastic baggie and put it in a little glass flower pot, but the rain ruined it anyway. My mom wanted to read it so she asked if I would rewrite it. I know I’ll never get the wording exactly the same, but I do still believe it with all my heart, so I should be able to get the meaning across. This is for my Mama, because I love her and she asked me for it. And ultimately, it is for Jesus, because He loves me…and I guess that He has asked me for it, too.

Dear Lord Jesus,

I remember learning a song in school called “Lord, Send Me Anywhere”. I think it’s based on a quote by the famous missionary, Hudson Taylor. It says:

“Lord, send me anywhere, only go with me.
Lay any burden on me, only sustain me”
Sever any tie, save the tie that binds me to Thy heart.
Lord Jesus, my King, I consecrate my life to Thee.”.

I loved that song, and when I sang it as a fresh-faced, dewey-eyed teenager, I had such lofty dreams for what I thought You might one day call me to do. I imagined myself leaving the comforts of home to go to some third world country and share the Gospel with people who’ve never heard of You. I thought surely I would one day follow in the footsteps of family members who dedicated their lives to serving You that way. I meant the words to that song with all my heart, and I was excited to grow up and see what You had in store. I had no idea then what sort of life You had ordained for me, but I thought I did. I guess that’s how it goes with teenagers…and I guess You know that better than anyone, don’t You?

But Lord, tonight I drove out to a cemetery to visit my little sister’s grave. When I said, “send me anywhere”, I did not have that cemetery in mind. Not at all. Never once did I think that you might send me to a cemetery to grieve the loss of someone so dear. Sometimes I just can’t even begin to make sense of it and I stare at her grave stone and ask “how in the world did we get here?”. And in those moments, the sentiment expressed in that song can be so very far from my mind.

And yet, I know that when I am in that cemetery, You are there, too. You were there with me tonight. I know you saw that wave of pain crash over me in the dark, lonely little spot that sometimes feels like it’s all I have left of her. I know that You saw my heart breaking for the millionth time and that You heard me cry out in my soul that this is not where I want to be. Not this place. Not here, not without her, not suffering this way. I told you that I don’t want this and that I wish there was a way to remove my heart so that I could escape from these feelings of anguish.

I know You heard what I said in my heart because Your Holy Spirit immediately convicted me. You caused me to remember all that You have taught me through Your word about the hope that You suffered and died to give me. You reminded me of all that You have revealed to me about Yourself through Your word, and Lord…You are wonderful! You are holy and perfect in righteousness. You are the Judge of all the Earth, and I can trust that all You do is right. You are always working all things together for the good of those who love You. You are the Refiner of my faith, and my suffering is a tool in the hands of the Master. You are perfectly just and incomprehensibly merciful. You are omnipotent, exalted, high and lifted up. You are sovereign over all things, Your love never fails, and You are ever, only, always good.

You are worthy of my trust, and I repent of my unwillingness to give it. Forgive me, Lord. How it must grieve Your heart when I doubt Your will for my life after You gave Your own for me. Strengthen me so that I will not sin that way, and help me to live my life in humble faith and obedience, knowing that You will always be enough. Give me the strength to stand at my sister’s graveside if that is where you have called me to be. Help my faith so that when my heart is torn and life looks hopeless, I will still look to You and pray the prayer that I offered to You in my youth:

“Lord, send me anywhere, only go with me.”

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