Monday, July 28, 2014

One Year

It’s been a year since Susan died. I was honored to share our story in church yesterday about how God has spoken to us through the Psalms and to tell in part what he’s done during our journey:

The events still seem surreal to me. Breast cancer in 2006, a brain tumor in 2007, surgeries, complications, chemo and radiation, hospital stays, hospice, and then finally Susan passing away at home one year and one week ago.

What’s more remarkable though, is that as things began to unfold, Susan and I had a sense that God had prepared us for what was happening. We had peace. We knew that God had good plans for us no matter what. He was enabling us to trust him, and we did. In spite of the worst kind of crisis, the life and death kind, we knew the Lord was with us and everything was okay.

There were a number of things in our lives that led us to that particular sense of God’s provision, like when in early 2007 Susan had a spiritual breakthrough – the latest among others. She told Joyce Wybenga that she truly knew God loved her, personally, fully. It was a rich experience for her.

More preparation came around April 2007 when I spent that month seeking God in Psalm 23 so I could help lead the Oasis worship and prayer meeting. I found new insights in its words and gained a wonderful new confidence in God.

Just two months later, we learned of Susan’s brain tumor. I had no idea how Psalm 23, now from my heart, would comfort Susan as she struggled through the pain and fog of her disease. I realized that God had put that word inside me ahead of time so it could come back out when we needed it.

As time went on, we both became more dependent on God. We settled into praying all the time, hoping for the best, and being ready for anything. The attitude of David’s Psalm is amazing. He writes, "Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil, for you are with me."

In a closer look at those words, the "even though" speaks of God's resources for us during times when nothing makes sense. He invites our trust and then builds us up as we trust him when it's so hard.

  • To "walk through the valley" speaks of us moving through hardship. It's not a destination - we don't stay there. It’s hard, but somehow we’re okay. There are good things to come.
  • The "shadow of death" is just that, a shadow. While we must encounter death in this world, it has no hold on us. Although its power is greater than our own, it cannot claim or govern us because Christ has overcome it for us. The reason it appears as a shadow is that there is a greater light above it.
  • "I will fear no evil" speaks of God's love, which is his very nature. He wraps us up in his perfect love, and it casts out all fear.
  • "You are with me" is as personal as it gets. God knew each of us before the foundation of the world. Although sin, death and evil may threaten to separate us from him, he guards his children. He draws us near. He remains with us and for us.

Other Psalms got woven into our lives during and after Susan’s illness. Vicki Gelberg gave us Psalm 103: "Praise the LORD, O my soul, and forget not all his benefits – who forgives all your sins and heals all your diseases, who redeems your life from the pit and crowns you with love and compassion."

Chris Olson gave us Psalm 121, personalized for Susan: "I lift up my eyes to the hills—where does Susan's help come from? Her help comes from the LORD, the Maker of heaven and earth. The LORD will keep Susan from all harm—he will watch over her life; the LORD will watch over her coming and going both now and forevermore."

The Psalms still speak. Recently I got this from Psalm 89: “Righteousness and justice are the foundation of your throne; love and faithfulness go before you.” Then I connected it with Psalm 23: “Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life.”

How brilliant is God then? He attracts us to himself so we’ve got his love and faithfulness out front with his goodness and mercy following behind. He’s done that for us. It’s perfect – he’s places us right in the middle of his provision, like a Psalm sandwich. God is amazing.

Several things come to mind about what the Lord has done during our journey. First, God is developing my character.

In showing me his nature, he’s also shown me my own. That part’s not pretty. My sinful nature rages inside me and often spills out. The hymn says, “Prone to wander, Lord I feel it, prone to leave the God I love.” That’s me. I’m often shocked at how easily I forget who I am. At the same time, I always know I’m his. I am bonded to God. I know that because of Christ, God doesn’t see my sins. He’s removed my transgression from me. In his eyes, I’m a saint, so I’ll go with that.

Second, God has poured out his tremendous love for us. He has loved us immensely through our church. You prayed for us. You supported us with encouragement, cards, cash, gift cards, housecleaning and meals. You volunteered companion care with Susan for six hours every weekday for six years so our family could go to work and school. A choir army of you painted our house inside and out in about four hours one Saturday. I call it “Extreme Makeover – Brain Tumor Edition.” You all showed God’s love to us in life-giving ways. We will always be grateful.

God also allowed me to love my wife well. Sometime earlier we learned at church that Susan’s primary love languages were time spent and acts of service. These were the things that if I would just do them, she’d feel most loved by me. Now she was compromised and needed lots of help, so I got to care for her – with time spent and acts of service. It’s true that cancer brought that on rather than my own big-heartedness; but I’m glad it happened. Susan knew she was loved.

Third, God has brought us salvation and healing. Susan died well. She used up every ounce of life in her body, but for six years, her spirit forged ahead. She had peace inside her that only deepened. Her confidence in God and in his good plans for us only grew. She was not afraid to die. When that time came, as much as it has grieved us, there was nothing left unsaid or undone, nothing between Susan and me or our kids that needed to be restored. She was complete. That was a gift.

But there’s another gift. God comforted and strengthened us and he let others see it or perhaps feel it. He has allowed us to comfort others with the comfort we’ve received. I don’t understand all of that, but I’ll go with it.

Finally, God has worked for good through a hard situation. He’s brought things into perspective for me. Susan had 52 years on the earth, not long enough; but I know even 90 years whiz by. I’m 51 and I know my days here are numbered. The system of this world is all messed up; and yet we spend so much of ourselves devoted to it and so little of ourselves devoted to God. I’m compelled to make my time here count for God while I have it. His kingdom is the only one that will last.

Moses said to God on Mount Sinai, “Show me your glory.” God’s response surprised me. He said, “I will cause all of my goodness to pass in front of you.” God is good. Along with love, goodness is his very nature. I believe he wants to grow us into people who know his goodness. Sometimes the only way he can do that is to put us in situations where it’s impossible to do anything but trust him.

Think about it. He took Moses out of a palace in Egypt, made him wait 40 years in the wilderness, brought him to the end of himself leading Israel out of captivity, until finally, Moses couldn’t wait to know more about God. He had to go through a whole bunch of things that didn’t make sense. He had to learn to trust God in that and let God reshape his desires.  God grew Moses so much into his goodness that he was allowed to come face to face with it.

What if we could embrace every situation God puts us in with a sense of Godly adventure and with the confidence that there’s a glorious discovery at the end of it? Our first reaction is to cry out and cave in under suffering, but what if God wants to help us rise up under hardship? What if we just need to allow him?

If God can use a hardship like brain cancer to prune away things that don’t belong in our lives and prepare us for heaven while giving us a greater awareness of his presence, isn’t that a good thing?

Saturday, January 18, 2014

Six Months

Today is six months to the day since Susan went to Heaven. I’m compelled to record some thoughts that have been swirling in mind for the past while. I’ve visited her grave three times so far. I went once in August when the patch of sod was still sub-green and uneven, clearly outlining her exact burial place. I went again around October and found a pristine lawn with no headstone yet and only vague landmarks, so I could only guess where her body lay exactly.

A few days before Christmas, I received word from Rose Hills that her marker had been placed. I went there Christmas Day along with thousands of others attending their loved ones and found her grave easily. Our spot is secluded and quiet. Susan's marker looks just like I’d hoped – simple, lovely, and hopeful. That was her style. John 20:31 says, “But these are written that you may believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that by believing you may have life in his name.” That verse summarizes Susan’s and my desire that, having received such grace from God for hard circumstances, our experience and response would lead others to this precious faith.

"Life in his name” on Susan’s headstone is God’s eternal Word for his people. "Life in his name” takes root as we live in relationship with him for our days on the earth. "Life in his name” infuses our dying through the power of the cross so death becomes a bitter but hope-filled parting for those we leave behind and a launch pad to heaven for us. And since his name is I AM (and I will be with you), "life in his name” forecasts our life without end, where with time and sin and death removed from our experience, we will be alive with the Lord forever. I sure wonder what that's like in heaven. Susan used to and no longer does.

I like the fact that her stone quietly screams “life in his name” from the grass right there over the bodies of Susan and thousands of others. It mocks the silence of death. It proclaims there’s more. It recalls the one who exchanged his life for ours in his dying and then reversed death for all with resurrection power. And since we know that life in his name is our choice and we also know whether we’ve chosen it or not, it urges a response from the living while we still have today. I hope you believe in Jesus Christ and have life in his name, because we're all destined for the dust. As weird as it sounds, there's a way to welcome that day. As my favorite Iowa-bred preacher says, God does his best work in graveyards. 

Thursday, October 3, 2013

My finger's like a piece of pie

I put my wedding ring back on a week ago. I’m not double-minded, and I usually don’t waffle in my decisions. But grief has a way of leaving you untethered, adrift, without traction. I expect it’s all going to be sort of squishy before things settle down.

I had proper motives for putting my ring in safekeeping. Since Susan had gone to Heaven two months before, it was a tangible step for me to move on, to heal. It’s not that I want to close a door on the past, but I don’t want to be shackled by it. I gotta go forward. But its absence from my finger tripped me up. Not wearing it felt as unnatural as wearing it feels normal. I kept being startled when absent-mindedly touching my finger, as though I forgot to tell my hand that I removed my ring on purpose. 

But really, the blank space on my finger was too much of an exclamation point behind the constant, silently droning statement that Susan has died and that we’re to remain apart for the rest of this earthly life. That blank space underscored my longing for her.

Still ringless, I went to God with my desires. All of them. When you think about it, our lives in this flesh are all about desires – to have our fill of food for hunger, drink for thirst, sleep for rest, comfort for pain, money for peace of mind, applause for ego, sex for lust, domination for power, and on and on. Our flesh is a huge, gaping mouth that will never be filled or satisfied no matter how much you dump into it.

I thought about our tendency to substitute the flesh for the spirit. We’re willing to chase our desires and spend enormous amounts of time, money and energy on them and then, when finally surrounded with an abundant quantity of what we want, we find it tastes tinny. When we decide we really didn’t want that thing, we move on to capture the next one.

I thought about marriage, and how in it God gave us the greatest relationship we could ever choose. I thought about how a husband and wife are joined together in love to know and be known together more than with any other person. I thought about how God designed loving, committed marriage to show us a small but tangible example of the intimacy he created us to have with him. I thought about how easily we can substitute flesh for spirit in marriage and expect our mates to love us perfectly and completely, the way only God himself can.

Then I thought about God himself. I thought about all of our longings. I realized again how we so easily stuff everything imaginable into the mouth of desire, hoping it fits into the God-shaped space inside us, and how reluctant we are to actually put God himself in there.

So my ringless self sat there before God and admitted that wearing my ring would comfort me. I said that although wearing it would still remind me of my longing for Susan, it would also prompt a prayer that I might desire him even more. I’ve said that prayer a lot lately. I am under construction. And my finger’s like a piece of pie – it has meringue on it. 

* * *

I expect this will be my last post on this blog since Susan's brain tumor journey is complete. I have more to write, but differently, so there's a book and some other stuff percolating. I'll share details here when I have them.

Thursday, September 19, 2013

Stepping through it

When should a widower remove his wedding ring? It’s a fair question, even if there’s no good answer. Technically, I’m no longer married, even though I did nothing to end it. It’s just a fact. I’m no longer married. I could have removed my ring the day Susan passed away. I didn’t. I could wait three or four or six months. I didn’t. I removed it last night, two months after July 18. It seemed like the right thing to do. I thought of going three months, but why? When is the right time? I guess I was ready.

For a guy who doesn’t wear jewelry, it took a while to get used to wearing my wedding ring. I remember staring at it while we were driving to Palm Springs for our honeymoon, 28½ years ago. The sun gleamed off of its polished gold finish and sparkled in its stones. It left me transfixed, not just because of its beauty, but because we were married. I liked that. I liked my ring. It was an up-front symbol of our joy together and the commitment we made in marriage before God. I knew I never wanted to lose it – what a horrible thought. When I removed it, it was rarely and briefly.

So nearly three decades after a non-jewelry guy got used to wearing it, my ring is in safekeeping. It will take a while to get used to again, but oppositely. I was transfixed again today in reverse. I must have unconsciously touched my ring often over the years; because I certainly touched my bare finger a lot today. Each time, I was horrified for a moment that I lost it, and then remembered it’s gone on purpose. Then I’d forget the next time. I was unnerved over and over again. Seeing my ring used to remind me of Susan and our life together. Now, feeling an empty finger and seeing a pale ring mark reminds me of her absence. So I grieve. It’s another step, another phase of it, and part of the deal. 

Recently, someone who’s bearing the burden of caring for a loved one with a long-term illness asked me, “How do you do it? How do you carry on?” That’s another fair question. I struggled a bit to answer. I know how Susan and I did it; and I wasn’t sure if that would be true for my friend. We trusted God. I know he enabled us to trust him, but I don’t think it was any more than he’s enabled anyone else. I’m so glad we were able to respond the way we did, moving to accept our circumstances early and not fight them.

I listened a few minutes to my friend and realized she’d needed to vent. I also caught glimpses of healthy responses to their circumstances. Gratitude – knowing God better due to their situation. Joy – recognizing his goodness at work. Trust – learning to accept things the way they are, without assurance of our desired outcome. When times are truly hard, those are precious and powerful responses.

I’ve been thinking this week about the Shema, that centerpiece of Hebrew scripture that begins, “Hear, O Israel: the Lord our God, the Lord is One” in Deuteronomy 6:4. This command follows: “Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength.”

Sometimes it takes all our strength to love the Lord our God. To love him, we first must know that he’s good – a fact he declares about himself and demonstrates continually. His very nature is goodness. To love him, it helps to know he loved us first. Without his original love, we wouldn’t have the capacity for it ourselves. To love him, it also helps to know as well as possible that his love for us comes at an unimaginable expense to him.

God’s goodness and his original, costly love are the source of his command for us to love him with all our heart, soul, and strength. Sometimes it’s hard to love him when our circumstances seem unbearable. Sometimes it takes all of our might. But it’s comforting to know that the avenue of love between God and us flows two-ways. He already loves us with all his might. Lovingly, God wants our response. He simply directs us to love him the way he loves us. My finger feels naked.