an open letter to my wife on calling

a few months ago, i was asked to speak to a group of mothers on calling. i’ve never thought about how to speak to moms on this topic, and i realized the person i should start with is my wife. so i wrote this letter to jen and read it aloud to introduce my talk. i’m sharing it here in hopes that it stirs up some helpful conversation where it’s desperately needed.

hey hun,

so i’m giving this talk to a group of moms on calling, as you know, and i’m realizing i have not actually given much thought to how i would explain calling to you—even though you’ve heard me speak on calling, you’ve read my writing on this topic. how I tend to think and talk and write about calling, I am realizing, has largely been for myself, not you.

i’m slowly realizing that so much of the way that i think, write, and talk about calling has more to do with me—my giftings, my passions, my hopes, my dreams—and less to do with you. in my most fearful moments, i worry that i’ve masqueraded my hopes, ambitions, and aspirations as God’s call—the ultimate trump card. i realize now, having been asked to speak to this group of moms, that the way i think about calling has not always served you well.

i’m sorry for that, hun.

i realize also that i’ve written and even taught others in a way that has, if not explicitly, at least implicitly suggested that God calls me more than God calls you—or at least that God’s call on my life is more important than on your life. for that, i’m deeply sorry, hun. if God calls either one of us to anything, God most certainly calls you just as much as me.

i’m sorry for not doing a better job of giving you time and space and voice to follow God’s Voice, even as i have been so caught up in the work of listening to God’s call on my life, and helping others do the same for their life. i’m sorry for living in such a way that has most likely led you to feel as though if God is calling out to you it’s somehow less important than God’s call on my life.

my heart aches to think that i have, unintentionally, given you a picture of a God who cares more about my life than yours.

i hope that this opportunity to speak on calling with other moms will challenge me–and not just this once, but continue to challenge me to think about how God is calling out uniquely to you, how i might give more space to encourage you to listen to this call, and then encourage you to live faithfully into that call.

thanks for believing in this crazy call on our lives all those years ago, hun. thanks for continuing to believe in me, even when i struggled to believe in myself. i could not do this without you even for a day.

yours for always,

ryan

a letter to emma

hi there, princess. it’s me, ryan. your dad. the one with the lower voice who you hear every once in a while when you’re trying to nap. or when you’re in the middle of your water aerobics routine.

you’re not far away at this point. very soon you’ll be joining us here, in the world, rather than reclining in the warmth of your mother’s womb. and we can’t wait to meet you.

we’re getting things ready for you here. picking out clothes for you to wear. setting up your bed. and tucking away plenty of fuzzy blankets. the world is getting ready for your arrival.

and i know you won’t be able to read this for a while yet, but i wanted to take the time to write you a note. i thought i’d give you a heads-up on the world that’s preparing for you, so you can prepare for it.

now, i haven’t been here for long–less than 30 years, at this point–and i’m far from having things all figured out, but i have been here long enough to take note of a few things. and so i thought i’d scratch them down for you, hoping one day they might be helpful for you.

some of this may be helpful right away. other bits will likely not be helpful until years later. and the rest, well the rest may not be helpful at all.

and if, for some reason, it turns out that none of this is all that helpful by the time you’re old enough to read it, i apologize. but know i’ve given it my best.

your mother

to start, i thought i’d tell you a few things about your mother. you’ll be spending a lot of time with her, so you’ll have plenty of opportunities to get to know her for yourself, but i’ve known her for some time now. more than 10 years, i guess. so i have a bit of a head-start, and i thought i’d give you a few pointers.

first, and most importantly, the thing you should know about your mother is that she has been waiting for you for a long, long time. in fact, you should know that you are your mother’s dream come true. it may not always feel like it, particularly when you get to the age of 13 or so, but it’s true. ever since i’ve known your mother, she’s dreamed of welcoming you into this world.

and so, on those more difficult days, never forget: long before you showed up, your mother dreamt of holding you in her arms. that will be true whether you’re 16 months or 16 years old.

the second thing you should know about your mother is that she likes her sleep. i tell you this because, if you want to earn some major points with her someday, let her sleep in. and then bring her breakfast in bed (preferably pancakes with chocolate chips). she’ll smile at you with the kind of smile that stole my heart years ago if you do.

thirdly, you should know your mother sees things in black and white. and i love that about her, mostly because it’s very unlike me. if you want to have a long conversation as you think through things, you will find i’m the man for the job. but if you don’t have time to waste and you just want a straight answer, you’re probably better off asking your mom. she’s a straight-shooter.

the last thing i’ll tell you about your mother is that she likes gerber daisies, peanut butter and chocolate (especially together), fuzzy socks, and puzzles. she does not like bananas, spiders or feet.

i could go on, but that should be good for now. i have a few other things i want to tell you that i hope might be helpful.

love

perhaps it’s good i started with your mother, because the next bit isn’t quite so nice.

you see, the thing is, emma, you’re being born into a world with a lot of wounds. i’m very sorry to say it, but we haven’t been very good to one another. the people who came before us weren’t very good to each other, either. nor were those who came before them.

and so what you’ll find as you move through life is a lot of brokenness. and hurt. you’ll find people have a hard time trusting one another. you’ll find people getting frustrated over things that really shouldn’t matter all that much. you’ll find people saying mean things and generally acting pretty ugly to one another a lot of times.

but don’t take it personally. it’s not about you. it’s about all of us. and the pain we share.

you didn’t create this pain, but you will be born into it. just like all of us. and like all of us, you will be asked to carry an overwhelming amount of this pain. more than seems fair. more than you can bear.

i’m very sorry about that, but my hope is that you may be able to help do something about it. in fact, my hope is that your life may be lived in such a way that you might help to heal it from the inside out.

now i know that seems like an awful lot to ask of you. and i know you’re probably asking yourself how you are possibly supposed to help heal the wounds of this world that has been broken and hurting since long before you arrived.

my answer? with love.

and yes, i know. i know that sounds terribly idealistic. i know it is sounds so simple. and it is. but it isn’t, at the same time.

you see, if you want to make a difference in this world, emma, if you want to help heal the brokenness and the hurt, you have to love.

love those who show you love. love those who don’t. love those closest to you. love perfect strangers.

and no matter how useless or thankless it seems, keep going. not to be noticed, not to be rewarded, but simply because you believe in it.

mother teresa, a woman who left us before you got here, and a woman who not only believed in love, but who embodied it, has this great quote where she says,

“do not think that love in order to be genuine has to be extraordinary. what we need is to love without getting tired.”

i hope you find a way to love like that, emma. without getting tired. if you do, the world will be better for it.

work

now i know it’s a little early for me to be talking to you about work. don’t worry. for the first 18 years or so of your life, we’ve got you covered. (and probably for a while after that, the way things are looking at the moment).

but eventually, there will come a time when you have to start thinking about what it is you want to put your hands to. we all do. here are my thoughts for when you begin to think about this.

when it comes time to consider what it is you’d like to invest your time doing, don’t over-think it. instead, trust your heart. you’ll find, as you go through life, that you like certain things. you’ll also find you dislike other things. you’ll find there are things you’re pretty good at. you’ll also find there are things you’re not so good at.

if you can, find a way to combine what you enjoy doing with the things you’re pretty good at. if you can do that, this world will not only reward you for your work, but you will find that the world will be rewarded by your work.

Truth

another thing you’ll find in this world is that everyone has questions, and everyone is looking for answers. people want to know why we’re here. they want to know where we’re going. and they want to know what happens when the curtain of this life comes tumbling down.

you’ll find, as you go through life, that people offer a lot of different answers to these questions. you’ll find some people who say their answer is the right one. and you’ll find others who say all answers are right, just as much as the next one.

we’re going to spend a lot of time together, you and i, so you’re going to find out very early on what i believe. and you’ll probably even be influenced by my beliefs. but i’m honest enough with myself to admit that there will come a day when you start poking around to find the source of Truth for yourself. when you do, here are three things i hope you’ll think about.

first, when you’re considering whether something provides answers for life’s great questions, ask yourself, “does this help make sense of what i know about the world around me? or, instead, does it sound like something someone would make up, out of some sort of wishful thinking?”

secondly, and order is important here, ask yourself, “is this aesthetically pleasing?” what i mean by that is, when you’ve found something that you think makes sense, ask yourself if it’s actually attractive, as well.

and then, lastly, after you’ve done all that, ask yourself, “does it make a difference with the pain and the hurt of this world?”

i say order is important because if something simply doesn’t hold water, in the first place, then don’t bother with how much you’d like it to be true.

but, if you find it seems reasonable enough, in light of what you know of this world, then go on to ask how it satisfies your taste for beauty. when you hear it, does it make you smile? does it make you smile uncontrollably? while not necessarily a guarantee of Truth, beauty seems to be an awfully good indicator of it.

and then, when you’ve done all that, ask yourself whether it actually makes a difference with the brokenness of this world. i can’t imagine Truth suggesting we run from the brokenness and pain that surrounds us. i can only imagine Truth healing it. any offer of truth that doesn’t do something to heal the pain and hurt of this world is too thin to be True.

i think what you’ll find when you’ve really considered things, emma, is that Truth is both intellectually satisfying and aesthetically pleasing. you’re not likely to find that all of your questions are answered with a watertight solution, but if any attempt at an explanation for our questions does not satisfy both of these requirements, and if it does not then actually attempt to make a difference with the brokenness of this world, be careful how much you trust it.

and one more thing, while we’re on this topic: there are going to be many, many people who disagree with you once you’ve arrived at a particular position. and plenty of them will be much more intelligent than you.

don’t let that bother you. but don’t shut them out, either. listen to other people’s questions. go deeply with them, and allow them to critique your ideas, as you do theirs.

but at the end of the day, when you still have questions and their arguments still scratch at the back of your mind, don’t believe or disbelieve something simply because of what others say. believe in what you think to be true and beautiful because of what you know of the world around you. at the end of the day, that’s the only thing that will provide a solid foundation for anything you hold to.

a handful of thoughts

i’m sorry these final thoughts don’t fit into any neat categories, but here are a handful of thoughts i wanted to share with you before i go.

there are an awful lot of things in life we don’t get to choose. friends is one exception. i hope you surround yourself with great friends.

i hope you surround yourself with the kind of people who love you enough to tell you the truth, even when it hurts. and if it hurts you to hear, know it hurts them to say.

if you’re hurting or struggling or lonely or confused, and you find yourself feeling like you’re the only one, remember, you’re probably not. there’s an awful lot of us. because of that, there’s someone who has likely been where you are who can help.

growing up, my grandpa (your great-grandpa) used to say, “if you see something that needs to be done, go ahead and do it. don’t wait to be asked to do it.”

i think that’s a pretty good rule. except if it’s your mom’s things left out. if that’s the case, know they’re probably there for a reason and don’t need to be picked up. trust me on this one.

i mentioned this previously, but you’re going to find things in life that you’re pretty good at. i realized i should also tell you, you’re going to meet people who are better than you at whatever that might be.

don’t let that get you down. do what you cannot not do, and do it in the way only you can.

and on a similar note, remember that we’re not likely to always be the best, the smartest, the fastest or the strongest, but we can always choose to work the hardest at whatever it is we do.

one thing you’ll come to learn is i married your mother, in large part, because she has one of the biggest hearts of anyone i know. i love that about her. i also inherited a big heart from my parents, which means you can expect to have one yourself.

two warnings about that: first, guard it. be careful. you will find your heart often leads you to love people in a way that they might not always return. and that can hurt. others aren’t always going to love as you do, and expecting them to can lead to disappointment.

at the same time, be careful you don’t guard your heart so much that you don’t allow others to feel its warmth in a way that makes their life better. that is, after all, the reason you have it in the first place.

as a girl, and later as a woman, you’ll have the temptation to believe that you ought to be defined by your body. i hope you don’t. i hope you know that you’re so much more than that. cs lewis, an author who has helped me out a lot, as you’ll come to learn, once wrote, you aren’t a body, you have a body. you don’t have a soul, you are a soul. and i think there’s a lot of truth in that.

on a similar note, one thing i hope you learn to avoid is allowing others to determine your value. what i mean is, know you are worth more than what others might think of you. or not think of you. you see, living to please others is like starting a race that has no finish line. if you can avoid this, you will save yourself an incredible amount of time, energy, and hurt.

at the same time, know that the greatest experiences in your life will come from the times you put others before yourself. they’ll come when, in one way or another, you were serving another. it seems counter-intuitive, i know, but that’s how it goes.

you’ll also find, as you go through life, that the most rewarding experiences will come from the greatest challenges. i wish it weren’t the case, but it seems to be a universal truth. knowing this, in advance, can help when you’re facing those challenges.

and, lastly, when life brings you to a point where you simply don’t know what to do, when you have to make a decision and you have no idea how to move forward, imagine yourself having to explain your decision to your future son or daughter one day (when you’re much, much older). that’s what i did with you, long before you arrived, and it helped me with some of my most difficult decisions.

see you soon

well emma, you’ll soon be making your way into this world. and we’ll be here waiting for you. like friends and family at the airport after a long flight. we’ll be wearing smiles, and we’ll be crying. well, i will be. your mom claims not to cry when she’s happy.

but here’s the thing, princess, no matter how dark this world will seem at times, know that you never have to go it alone. not ever.

when this world is overwhelming, when pain and fear is so great you want to run and hide, i want you to know this: your mother and i are here for you. and we love you. we love you with the kind of love that doesn’t make any sense. we loved you before you entered this world, and we will love you long after you arrive. we will always love you, with the kind of love that doesn’t get tired.

and at the end of a long day, a difficult month or even year, when you still have questions, you’ll find me waiting. patiently. you’ll find my lap to crawl in and my ears attentive. and when you’ve grown too big for my lap, you’ll still find my ears patiently waiting. and then, as now, i’ll give it my best.

see you soon, princess.

love,

your dad

what love is: when our family numbers three

one day, many years from now, one of our children will ask what love is. it may come after a heartbreak, when she’s trying to understand the crushing feeling inside her chest. or maybe later. when he’s trying to figure out if she’s ‘the one.’ the question will likely come as a surprise. and i’ll struggle to find the words, as my thoughts hurry to catch up with my mouth.

i’ve learned so much about love since i was a few months away from my high school graduation, when i first told jen i loved her. i’d be lying if, 10 years later, i said i now know what love is. but i am learning. and every so often a memory seems to stand up in my mind and says, “this, this is what love is.”

and so, many years from now, when our son or our daughter asks what love is, there are a few memories i’ll likely mention.

a handful of memories

i’ll mention the time my wife, ‘your mother,’ agreed to move to england. i’ll look into our daughter’s eyes and tell her that, long before we made that move, her mother dreamt of starting a family. i’ll tell her how her mother wanted that more than anything else. i’ll tell her how her mother dreamed of becoming pregnant, and looking forward to the day of her birth. since she first said ‘i do’. and even before then. and i’ll tell her how her mother put those dreams on hold. for mine. and i’ll mention how that felt like love to me.

many years from now, when our son asks, i’ll mention the sunday morning in may we floated in a punt along the river cherwell in oxford, ‘your mother and i’, when we remembered ‘aunt’ hayley. one year after we said ‘goodbye.’ on that day when red roses raced our tears along the river’s surface. i’ll tell him, as much as it hurt, that felt like love to me. and when he asks, i’ll mention the fact that the word ‘grief’ doesn’t have any meaning without the word ‘love.’

and, as i struggle to put my finger on just what love means, i’ll likely remember the time ‘your mom’ called to tell me our family would soon number three. early that morning when i felt my stomach fill with a confusing blend of fear and joy, as my mind raced to catch up with this news. i’ll mention how i remember feeling the edges of my lips turning upwards in an uncontrollable smile. i’ll tell her, there, right there, when i first heard we would soon be parents, i’ll tell her there was love in that. even in the fear and anxiety, there was a river of joy that flowed from your mother’s joy-filled words to my ears, and it played over the pictures in my mind of our family coming together around this new life, like a soundtrack to a movie.

i’ll bring up the time i first saw him, reclining in his mother’s womb, with his heart fluttering like a butterfly and his limbs making gentle swimming movements in his liquid-filled home. i’ll describe to him how it was then that i knew, for the first time, what it meant to be truly speechless. when tears painted lines of joy down my face with warm brush strokes. and i’ll tell him, in that moment, when there were no words, i was pretty sure i knew what love is.

beyond words

when he asks, i’ll tell him he came from it. and he was born into it.

when she asks, i’ll put my head close to hers, so she knows she’s not alone, and i’ll tell her it’s scary and confusing and the most brilliant, radiant thing she’s ever experienced. i’ll tell her it will be the source of her richest memories, even when it hurts.

i’ll tell him we know what love means only because He chose to take on flesh, enter into our story, and lay down His life, on our behalf, in an infinitely beautiful sacrifice. in that, we’re told, is love. and i’ll point to these pale reflections of love, reflections i’ve been fortunate enough to experience along the way. and i’ll say, there, right there, that’s what love has looked like in my life. it has looked like sacrifice and loss and being made speechless.

and i’ll hope that, in these examples, he’ll see a reflection of what love is. as i lean my head back and smile, eyes looking skyward, with one arm stretched out across his back, and the other bracing the back of my head. i’ll smile faintly, laugh softly and pat his back gently. knowing this world, love included, is far greater than we will ever be able to put into words, no matter how many we use to paint its portrait.

as if i had a choice

when people hear about what i am doing at this point–that of leaving behind friends and family and a great job to move half-way around the world to return to school and study theology, with no promise of gainful employment at the end of this journey, and without even a clear idea of what that will be–they have a tendency to compliment my faithfulness. or to say how they admire what i am doing. and i have a hard time with that. i have a hard time accepting such praise, as if i had a choice in the matter. it does not feel as though i did, not in light of what i’ve come face-to-face with.

confronted by beauty

i first saw my wife’s smile during my junior year of high school. i can still see the scene so clearly, even now, more than 10 years later. she wasn’t my wife back then, of course. we got married young, but not that young. no, i was sitting in the audience of our homecoming assembly at that point, as she walked onto stage to be crowned freshman class royalty. she was dressed in an elegant gown, with a tiara resting gently on top of her head, and she was wearing the most beautiful smile i have ever seen. i found myself sitting in the middle of that auditorium thinking, “why don’t i know this girl?…” and then, “i will know her soon enough.” about nine months later, i told my mom I believed God created that smile just for me, and i meant it. i knew i could not imagine my life without it, and i spent the next five years of my life pursuing its permanent place in my life.

the same thing is true with my response to God. i first heard the Good News of God’s love a long time ago. while i was still a young boy. and i fell in love with it then. upon first hearing how He loved us so much that He sent His Son to die in our place, so that we might enjoy eternity in His presence. i love that. and i think it’s beautiful. that of God’s perfect, love-saturated sacrifice for an undeserving creation. even as a young boy, i knew i didn’t deserve that kind of love. and i feel the same way about it now. but i also knew i wanted that kind of a relationship. i wanted to live in His love. i still do. and ever since i first heard that Good News, God has been chasing me down. waving His arms in my face as if to say,

look, everything else, all of this life and its many temptations are merely a distraction to this Good News. it will all, ultimately, leave you wanting. but this, this will not. My love will take up the whole of your desires, and it will fill you to the point of overflow.”

building a life that doesn’t feel empty

and it has. it has completely. somewhere along the way, He helped me realize that if my life were spent devoted to anything but helping others realize the infinite beauty of this Good News, it would be a life that, ultimately, felt empty. at the end of this road, i want to be able to look back and say, “there, that’s the difference my life made. that’s the road that my hands helped build. a road that led directly from that person’s feet to the loving arms of a Heavenly Father Who made it possible to receive such love.”

but I certainly can’t take the credit for this desire. no more than i can take the credit for falling head-over-heels in love with that beautiful smile that first captivated me from my seat in our high school auditorium so many years ago. that was simply the rightful response to my experience with beauty. but the beauty lies in my wife. not in me. it also lies in God’s Good News. what choice did I have but to respond with my life? none, so far as I can see it.

the most beautiful thing i have ever known

when we see, clearly, the love of our Heavenly Father, made visible by the life, death and resurrection of the Son, on our behalf, there is simply nothing we can do but fall head-over-heels in love. it is, quite simply, the most beautiful thing i have ever known. (i married my wife for more than simply her beautiful smile, of course, just as i consider myself a christian for far more than the beauty of this Good News.)

the compliments and the admiration rightfully belong to Him. He is the source of all that is good, and i am merely called to say, “look, look at what He is doing! it is beautiful. how can we not desire to drop all we’re doing and be a part of it?”

success & sacrifice: all as loss

it wasn’t until i met by best friend steve that i realized we get to choose the kind of stories we tell with our lives. we all have dreams. some of us simply choose to go after them.

“i kinda feel like i’m tearing down everything i’ve spent the past four years building up,” i explained to steve while he worked away.

“kind of?” he said with a look of confusion on his face. “you are.”

i had dropped in an on early friday morning. to say hi. to catch up before heading into the office. i wasn’t planning on telling him i was having a rough time. but it ended up coming out anyway.

steve was already working away when i arrived. he had been all night, as it turned out. he owns his own business, and summer is his busy time. his unshaven face a dead-giveaway he hadn’t been home for days.

“but that’s what you wanted, isn’t it?” he asked.

“yeah. yeah, it is,” i said. “but it still stresses me out. it’s just so much change.”

not his own

i met steve a couple years back. at a friend’s birthday party. it was at steve’s shop, and he was delivering some birthday cakes for the party. we got talking a few weeks after the party, and i was blown away by how this guy lived out his faith.

for starters, he served full-time at his church. leading the worship team. which isn’t a huge thing in and of itself. okay, maybe it is. especially for a guy like me who can’t even whistle in tune. but that was on top of owning his own business. achieving incredible success and notoriety in his industry. being featured in loads of magazines, including martha stewart. he had gone after his dreams, and he was living it out in a way that glorified God. all before he was 30.

“money is just a tool that allows me to bless others,” he explained over coffee shortly after we met. and i never doubted for a second his words. i knew he was being genuine. and he was. the income he received from the church he worked at was used to support his widowed mother. and to treat the youth on his worship team. truly, his time and his money were not his own. and he lived that out in a way i had never seen before. and haven’t seen since. it blew me away.

introducing my dream

not long after that, steve asked me what my dreams were. it took me completely off guard. this wasn’t something i was used to being asked. and so i fumbled my way through an answer. keeping things pretty shallow. but then, after a while, i blurted out what was really on my heart. it came pouring out of me before i could stop it. what i really wanted to do, but what i had been too scared to share with anyone other than my wife. for fear of being laughed at.

“i want to study at oxford someday,” i said. pausing. giving the statement room to breathe. giving him time to laugh. but he didn’t. so i continued.

“c.s. lewis studied and taught there, and he has had a huge impact on my faith,” i explained. “his writing has helped me think through and understand a lot of things of the Christian faith, in a way that nothing else ever has, and i’d love to be able to do that for others.”

“then you should,” he said, matter-of-factly. that was it. straight and to the point. no laughs. no “come on’s!” just, “you should.”

i remember sitting outside with steve on another occasion. in the courtyard outside his shop. it was sunny. and we had just finished lunch. and i remember him saying to me, “if i were you, and if this is what i wanted, then i would do everything in my power to get there.”

let’s be realistic

a couple months after i had shared this dream with steve, my wife and i had some close friends over for dinner. an older couple from our church. i say friends because they are. but they’re so much more than just friends. they’re mentors, in a lot of ways. they’re trusted counselors in our lives. and we love them dearly.

carol is a very intelligent, beautiful older woman with a sing-song voice. soft-spoken, her presence feels like a warm plate of fresh out of the oven chocolate chip cookies. doug, her husband, is a man’s man, to be sure. he loves to fish and play sports, and he greets you with a firm hand-shake. even though the grey hair has tried to steal away his youth, his looming frame gives away that he was an exceptional athlete. doug’s laugh bellows through a room after each witty jab, and he’s one who is always digging deep in his faith. reading. discussing. never taking it for granted. which i consider invaluable. and i love being around them both. their energy is contagious.

it was after dinner when we found ourselves seated around the living room. talking. and carol brought up something i had been getting doug’s thoughts on for a little while. an itch i had had for some time. to be doing something different. to somehow be integrating my faith with my work. to mix things up a bit. even though i didn’t know exactly what that looked like.

“so ryan, what’s the news on that?” she asked, nonchalantly.

“well, it’s still there,” i said.

“yeah? well what are you going to do about it?” she replied.

i grinned. “i don’t know. nothing, probably.”

doug smiled from across the room.

“oh come on,” carol cooed, in that sing-song voice. “what would you be doing if you had nothing stopping you?”

this was her way of prying the answer out of me. and it worked.

i paused. to look at her. to gauge if she really wanted to know, or if these questions were just for the sake of conversation. the look on her face told me she genuinely wanted to know.

“if i could do anything?” i asked. repeating her question. “well, honestly, i’d love to teach and write about theology someday.”

her face blew up with excitement.

“really! oh, ryan, that would be great! now, you’d have to go back to school, of course. where would you want to study?”

“i’ve gone this far,” i thought to myself, “and she hasn’t laughed me out of the room yet. i guess there’s no hurt in going the rest of the way,” even though this was terribly out of my comfort zone.

“oxford,” i replied, aloud. “i’d love to study at oxford.”

again, she blew up.

“i knew it! i knew you were going to say that!” her voice erupted into the room.

“really?” i said. scrunching up my face, completely baffled by her response.

“yes, i just knew you’d want to go somewhere exceptional,” she said. “I knew you’d want to travel and go somewhere far away.”

pausing, to let it settle in. to think. looking at me with a smile on her face, carol then spoke again, “well, you’re going to have to go for it, then.”

“okay, but let’s be realistic,” i interjected. only to be put in my place.

“realistic?!” carol belted out. so loud and deliberately i was almost ashamed of my words. “realistic? what’s not realistic about that, ryan?”

carol and doug spent the next two hours talking us into booking a trip to england that summer. to look into schools. to meet with professors. and to see if this was something more than just a pipe dream.

“if you don’t go after this now,” doug said, “you’re going to spend the rest of your life wondering ‘what if?'”

he was right. and i knew i had no choice in the matter. this itch would not go away on its own.

successful

growing up, i wanted to be successful. i thought about it all the time, even though i didn’t know what that looked like, exactly. i knew i wanted to do really well at whatever it was that i ended up putting my hands to, but i wasn’t sure what that was.

i knew what i wanted to achieve, though. i wanted to achieve security. i wanted to earn enough that i didn’t have to worry about providing for my family. i didn’t want my children to have to want. or to worry about money. or where it was going to come from. i wanted to take care of things. i guess that’s what i thought success meant. not having to worry about things. i thought it meant doing so well in your job that you had everything in control. whatever that was, that’s what i wanted.

but then, at some point, that all changed. i realized i could have a job that provided great paycheck after great paycheck and still not feel successful. if it was something that didn’t have deep significance to me. not because i felt my job was insignificant–i actually really enjoyed my job–but because, well, i realized there was an itch inside of me that deeply desired to be scratched. there was a passion that begged to be let out. to teach and write in a way that helped others see Christ clearly. to be doing that. full-time. as my job. i knew that’s what success looked like for me.

to look back on my life. 50 years from now. and know i did that. that my life’s work pointed others to Him. that is what success looked like to me. and i knew that’s the path i needed to set out for.

all as loss

the new testament tells us about a jewish man by the name of saul. saul was born into the right family. he was taught by the right teachers. and he went on to become a very prominent man himself. he was what many young jewish boys dreamt of being one day. for his time, saul had it made.

saul would have been in his mid-twenties during the time of Jesus’ ministry. which means he would’ve heard all about it. about the healings. about His teachings. about the huge crowds that would gather everywhere He went. about how He was going against the traditions the jewish people had kept for centuries. and about the miraculous claims. that this Jesus had risen from the grave three days after being crucified. he would’ve heard it all.

the new testament also tells us that saul went on to lead a persecution against the early Christ followers. against those professing faith in Jesus’ resurrection. against those who were mockingly called “Christians.” we’re told he would imprison them. and that he even personally oversaw their stonings.

and it was at one point in saul’s travels–on his way to send some early Christ followers to prison–that he was stopped. suddenly. by a great light. and a voice that came from within the light. a voice that spoke to him. personally. asking him,

saul, saul why do you persecute me?”

we’re told it was the voice of Jesus. and we’re told this man saul was so changed from this personal interaction with Jesus that he stopped his mission of imprisoning and killing the Christians, and he actually began telling other jews that this man Jesus was the messiah they had been waiting on. that He was the way to their God. he began telling his jewish brothers and sisters about the salvation that was found only in Jesus’ life, death and resurrection. and about the life that was made possible by His grace.

saul was completely changed. he had it all, and he left it all behind. he traded his place of prominence for a lonely prison cell. he traded praise from men for beatings and lashings. because of his experience with Christ.

and at one point in his ministry, saul (who Jesus renamed paul) went on to write, “i consider it all loss for the sake of knowing Christ.”

over tea and books

and so we went to england. the first time for either my wife or i. we had an incredible time. and by incredible i mean, of course, it was filled with plenty of moments where i thought to myself, “what in the world are we doing.”

the day after we arrived, we found ourselves sitting in the rental car office. we were told our car had been rented to someone else. but not only that, there were no automatics left. anywhere. i could probably re-introduce myself to the intricacies of driving stick shift after driving an automatic for the past eight years, but it would be enough of an adjustment driving on the wrong side of the road, from the wrong side of the car. it was a risk i didn’t want to take.

i had setup an informal interview at oxford for that day. it was supposed to be starting in only a few hours, and i had no idea how we were going to get there.

but we did. it all worked out. we even made it there on-time. and i was speechless when we arrived. the old brick buildings. the beautiful, stretching green lawns. the sunlight pouring over the fields as the local youth played cricket. it was breathtaking. all of it. and i felt a bit like we were stepping into someone else’s shoes for a while.

i had my meeting with the oxford professor whom i had been in touch with for a couple months. by e-mail. as soon as i knew we were coming. he greeted us by name with a warm smile and that rich english accent that makes you feel about 50 iq points lower. he asked if we wanted some tea, of course. and we did, of course. his office was like a small library. brimming with books. both old and new. rows and rows all lined up neatly along shelves that stretched from floor to ceiling. the room wasn’t terribly large, but just large enough for a fireplace, his desk, and a few chairs for guests. tall windows that offered beautiful views of the english countryside sat across from the bookshelves.

he started with some questions to get to know us a bit better. where we were from. what we do. welcoming jen into the conversation just as much as he spoke to me. making us feel very much at home. even though we were so very far from it.

and then he got straight to the point. he turned toward me and asked why i wanted to study at oxford. and so i told him. paying careful attention to each word.

i explained how i had a great job back home. one i knew i could stay at and be very happy with. but that i also had a deep passion for theology. that that’s what i spent my free time in. reading (he asked me for authors). writing. and that’s what i wanted to spend my time doing.

i shared with him how i had first experienced c.s. lewis’ writings during my sophomore year of college. how i had been amazed by how brilliant this man was, and by his ability to support his own faith in the Christian traditions. traditions and beliefs that can be pretty tough to swallow, he illustrated clearly. illuminating them with approachable analogies and precise logic. and i explained to this professor how lewis had taught me that i did not need to sacrifice my intellect to approach the things of the Christian faith. and how i wanted to help others see that.

he smiled at me from his chair across the room. nodding in agreement. and all of a sudden, i knew we were speaking the same language.

he asked about my academic history. grades. and he closed our meeting by telling me he thought i’d be a great fit. he encouraged me to apply, and to use his name as a reference. i was ecstatic.

returning home from that trip, i knew this was the right path.

three months

i spent the next three months working on applications. after a full day of work, i’d find my spot in the local coffee shop. my favorite. the one that looks out over the bay. the san juan islands and sailboats gliding slowly across the water provided a backdrop for my preparations. asking for paperwork from these people. and then sending them to those people. writing. about myself. about why i wanted to go. until the sun had set and the coffee shop closed for the night. then i’d leave. and do it all again the next day. for three months. i hardly saw my wife during this time. and it was wearing.

less than a month after submitting my application, i found out i had been invited to return to the school for an interview. i was so excited to hear the news. but i also knew i simply could not afford the time or cost of the trip for a single interview. and so i worked out a deal with the school. so that i could hold my interview over the phone. i knew this would put me at a disadvantage. to those who were able to meet face-to-face with the school. but i had no choice.

the night before my phone interview, i thought i’d look a little into the process. just to see what i was getting myself into. apparently these interviews are a pretty big deal. i found out that just getting invited to this point is quite the achievement. and that parents were known to spend around $500 an hour to hire a consultant to help prepare their child for the questions they might be asked during their interview. which put me at ease.

i went on to read that of all of those who had applied to this program, the school had only accepted six students the previous year. six. in the world. and it was at that point that i laughed out loud. i was actually relieved. there was no longer any pressure. if i was supposed to be there, then i’d be there. but if i wasn’t. . .well. . .six.

even his very life

i watched a video online a while back. it was introduced by francis chan. a pastor and author out of california. a man who is absolutely committed to helping the downtrodden. and to sharing with others the love of Christ.

but the video itself was something else entirely. it was a video of a man being beaten for preaching his faith (as was made clear in the introduction). his Christian faith. he was in india. and he was from india himself. he was standing in a group of people. the group was circling him. and all of a sudden he was kicked in the back. knocked to the ground. and then the beatings began. kicks to the head. stones were thrown. he was literally beaten to death. it was horrific. unlike anything i’ve ever seen. you wanted to do something. to step in. to help this man. but you could not, of course.

and the thing that stuck with me most from this video. the thing that is still with me, more than anything else. more than the physical violence. more than the crowds of people. more than the fact that no one got involved to stop the violence. no, what stuck with me most was that this man fought to get up. after the kicks to the back. after the kicks to the head. while they were still standing there. waiting for any movement. to attack again. this man actually struggled to get up! and that blew me away. it still does.

me? i would’ve laid there. quietly. i wouldn’t have moved. i would’ve made it appear as though i were dead. until they left me for dead. then maybe i would’ve tried to get up. after i knew the coast was clear. but this guy. this man. he struggled with all he had to lift his beaten and battered body from the ground. even while his enemies stood over him. even while the beatings continued.

how proud the Father must have been at that point. for this man. in this instance. when he considered all as loss. even his very life. for the sake of knowing Christ. and showing those watching what that looked like in His life.

everyone who stood there in the crowd that day. the hundreds of thousands of people who watched this video. they all saw what i saw. a man who professed faith in Christ. a man who believed in Him with all he had. and who cared more about that than his very life. and who wasn’t giving up.

that’s the kind of faith i want. with all i have. the kind of faith that considers all as loss. even my very life. the kind that’s willing to strive with every last ounce of my being to show others my faith.

and i pray you would, too. i pray you would see clearly the love of our Father, and the incredible gift He is offering. i pray you would be so enamored with it that everything else would be but a periphery issue. that all else would be but a distraction for the path that leads you directly into the loving arms of your Savior. and mine. Jesus Christ. that He might change you from the inside out. creating you into the most beautiful creation. into His very own image. that you might display Him to the world.

creation over the Creator

the truth is, very few–if any–of those reading this will be asked to choose between their life and their confession of Christ as Lord. that is simply not the way satan is attacking those in this part of the world. instead, he is battling with complacency and pride and self-worship and materialism and idolotry. rather than fearing for our lives, we are fearing for our possessions and lifestyles. you may not be asked to bend the knee to allah, but you will certainly be asked to bend the knee to a lifestyle that worships creation over the Creator. you will most certainly be led to believe that a life lived for one’s self is not a wasted life, but rather an admirable life, if it is met with success.

and rather than holding on to our faith and the gospel so tightly, more tightly than our very lives, our grip loosens on it a bit more each day. slowly. so that we care a little bit less about the gospel, about His good news each day. so that, steadily, our gaze moves from Him, onto ourselves. or others. or things. and that is where satan wins. he wins by saying, “look at this.” and we do. rather than at Him.

His desire is to pour Himself out, completely, into your life. but, you will have no arms to catch Him, no room in your life, if you are holding too tightly to the things of this world. and He knows that.

i pray your gaze would remain on Him. i pray your heart would be broken by His love, and His sacrifice. every day. i pray you would not help but be consumed with love for Him, and for what He has done. every day.

misguided focus

the entire story of humanity is one in which satan comes to us and whispers, “this deserves your focus. this deserves your focus. this deserves your focus.” continually throwing things at us in the vain attempt (or perhaps not so vain) to distract us from what actually deserves our focus. namely, Him. the Lord of all creation. the Lover of our souls.

throughout all of history, that is what he has been doing. trying to distracting us from what our focus should be on (Him). and, instead, trying to focus our attention and our efforts on other things. on money. on government. on fame. on clothes (“fashion”). on sex. on appearance. on food. on our work. on ourselves. and, as we’re created knowing something actually does deserve our focus. our worship. we fall into the mistake of believing him. we fall for his lies.

and our self is the thing with which he most easily distracts us. tricking us into thinking we deserve our focus. for, of all other things he points to, our self finds itself most fitting this description. of that which deserves our worship (perhaps it is because we’re designed in His image). we see this worked out in pride and self-conceit.

surely, when it comes down to it, we’re able to identify the futility of living for material gain. we all strive for it, but not many of us are going to say clothes or riches or any material possessions should be our ultimate pursuit. however, it is more difficult to make the same acknowledgement when it comes to our own well-being. when it comes to our selves. we’re much more likely to realize material wealth does not deserve our focus when compared to our own needs, but our own needs fail to deserve our focus in light of His purposes. of His glory. and of helping others realize His love.

busy little bees

i fear we are living our lives just to busy ourselves. like busy little bees. or birds. going to and from work. building. going. meeting. moving. doing. so that we can build these comfortable nests for ourselves. that is our aim. for most of us.

we believe the lie that His desire for our life is one of comfort. of a safe, warm nest. and the sooner we awaken from that misconception the better. for the longer we’re led to believe that to be true, the more difficult the truth will be to receive when it comes. for many, there may be a period of shock at the realization that there are no suburbs in heaven.

i feel like He wants so much more for us. i feel like He wants to free us from this lie. that we might experience Him. and live for Him. in big ways.

christmas eve news

i got the news on christmas eve. we were in-between christmas parties. dropping off gifts from the last stop. picking up gifts for the next stop. i picked up the mail from the staircase, and i didn’t even look at the address to see who it was from. i assumed it was junk mail and i was on my way to the trash can. and then i stopped. in the middle of the kitchen. by myself. and read the words i never actually thought i’d see.

“dear ryan pemberton,

we are pleased to offer you a place to read theology at harris manchester college of oxford univ…”

that’s as far as i got before letting out an embarrassingly loud yell of excitement. there may have even been a little bit of a scream. but i can’t know for sure. i was in a state of genuine shock.

“no way!” i shouted, running into the living room, letter in-hand, to show jen. as she stood at the foot of the stairs. looking into those big blue eyes that knew this news was going to forever change the road we had been traveling together.

the sadness in her eyes

we were on our way to jen’s grandparents’ house that christmas eve night. when i opened up the mail. we were heading there to open up presents. jen’s family was already there. it was late. and we were late arriving. everyone else–jen’s immediate family and her grandparents’–was already sitting around the table when we walked in. talking. over plates of pie crusts and dirtied forks.

“i got in” i said excitedly, as i approached the table. the smile on my face likely giving away the news long before my words.

big eyes. huge smiles. at the news. laughter. people getting out of their chairs. for a hug. to congratulate me.

i made my way around the table. and i’ll never forget the look on hayley’s face that night. her best attempts to put on a look of joy and happiness for this news failed to hide the sadness in her eyes.

she was supposed to wake up

a few months later, we found ourselves in the hospital. by hayley’s side. saying goodbye. even though we didn’t realize it at the time.

it was the second night we were there. and i had been up all night. by her side. waiting for what was supposed to be good news. the hospital staff had brought hayley’s body temperature down significantly. shortly after she arrived. to try to save her brain functioning. they were warming her body up now to her normal temperature. two days after she arrived. slowly. carefully. so as not to do any damage.

she was supposed to reach normal body temperature between 4 and 5 a.m. at which time she was supposed to become responsive. she was supposed to wake up. that’s what she was supposed to do, we were told. but she did not.

what was supposed to be a celebratory time was traded for tears. and sorrow. after seeing the look on the nurse’s face. the look that said, “this is not good.” i went to the waiting room. to wake up the rest of the family. her mom first. shaking her shoulder gently. and then the others. so that they could be there. they woke up expecting good news. to be able to once again say “hi” to hayley. but that’s not what they received.

family filled the room. we cried. and prayed. and then the doctors asked us to give them some space. for tests. so we were shuffled down the hall. and into the waiting room. we took our places. to wait some more.

after not sleeping all night, expecting to see my sister open her eyes once again. i realized there was absolutely nothing i could do at this point. i could not even be by her side. so she didn’t have to  be all alone in that cold hospital room. and so i took the opportunity to close my eyes. to get some rest. i grabbed a blanket and crawled underneath the computer desk in the corner of the waiting room. closing my eyes hard. trying with all i had to shut out the reality we now found ourselves in. hoping to wake up and find myself somewhere else.

waking up in the icu

at 8 a.m., the previously quiet waiting room was now filled. with family. and a handful of friends. i awoke slowly. from the voices. and one voice in particular stood out from the rest. not because i recognized it, but because somehow i knew i was being talked about.

“i think that’s him,” i heard the voice say. “i think that’s her brother.”

slowly my eyes opened. i stretched. and sat up. carefully, so as not to hit my head on the computer desk that had acted as my makeshift tent in this icu waiting room. squinting to open my eyes. contacts sticking to my eyelids from working overtime. i didn’t recognize the girl who had spoken, but i could see her steal glances over her shoulder. so as not to stare at the guy waking up in the corner of the room.

laughs, from family. “get a good night’s sleep?” they joked.

rubbing my eyes. looking around the room, i realized i had woken up exactly where i had finally went to sleep. things were the same. they had not changed. unfortunately.

the girl looked over again. this time long enough to ask, “are you the one who wrote the devotional book?”

“uhhhhh,” i struggled to catch up to speed. with the question. “yeah, i think so. . .maybe.”

the birthday present

we celebrated my birthday the same week jen and i returned from our trip to england. and it was at my birthday party that i was given the greatest gift i’ve ever received. it was my words. in book format. steve had compiled each entry from hands&feet, and he had them bound into 10 hardback and 10 paperback copies. i was speechless.

hayley was there that night. when i opened my books. when i saw them for the first time. when the tears filled my eyes as i held the wrapping paper in my hands, staring down into the box. at the spines of these books that held my words.

saying goodbye, hayley said she’d like to read one sometime. without thinking twice, i put one of the hardback copies in her hands. “here you go,” i said with a smile. “now you can.”

she had been walking a pretty rough road for a while. i didn’t know where her and God stood. but i knew that relationship had seen better days. i had hoped the words would help her see Him more clearly. and His love for her. and how deeply He wanted better for her. i wanted that so bad. and i hoped this would help.

she talked about you

“she talked about you,” this girl spoke up again, in the icu waiting room. jen told me later she was a roommate of hayley’s. “she’d read your book at night, and then she’d share it with us.”

a smile spread across my face, slowly, as i woke up. as i became more aware of the conversation at-hand.

hayley had been reading my book. she read my words before bed. and she even shared them with others. and i could only hope and pray that it had helped her see Him more clearly. and His love for her. with all i had, that’s what i wanted.

you have mine

hayley and i talked a few days after i shared the news with her that christmas eve night. by text. i asked her how she was doing. she congratulated me again on school. and then she said something i will never forget. something that sticks with me to this day. something that pushes me forward and encourages me when i need it most.

“you’re going to impact a lot of people’s lives. you have mine.”

saying goodbye

we’re moving to england later this month. we’re saying goodbye to all that we know and love. to all that is comfortable to us. to pursue a long-time dream of mine. i’m going to study at oxford. theology. that i might use the knowledge i gain there to continue to write in a way that helps reveal Christ to others.

and it’s funny. i never thought i’d actually get to this point. preparing to go pursue this dream i thought was so far out there only a couple years ago that i didn’t even want to share it with others. for fear of being laughed at. and yet, here we are, preparing to go. and i never thought i’d be so scared.

in pursuing this dream, i’ve realized that often times our greatest hopes and dreams are tethered to our greatest fears. and it isn’t until we take a step in the direction of our dreams that those fears become real. so real you can smell them. so real you can feel their warm breath on your face. the question is, will we believe in the reality of our dreams deeply enough to face our fears head-on? it is only when we do so that the beauty of our dreams will a become reality.

our very own all as loss

the past several months have consisted of us preparing to leave behind all of our comforts. tearing down the professional relationships i’ve worked so hard to build up over the past four years. with my clients. and the job i fully expected to be at. for years. to settle down and have our own warm little piece of the american dream. saying goodbye to all of our friends and family. most of whom we’ve grown up with.

this is me considering all as loss for the sake of His glory. i have a good job here. i have no idea what job awaits me at the end of this journey we’re undertaking. i have amazing friends here. i have no idea who we’ll meet over there. this is my wife considering all as loss. putting her own dreams of settling down and raising a family on-hold so that we might undertake this calling now. and i couldn’t be more proud of her. or more thankful.

there are still so many unknowns. so much that makes me afraid. but we are doing this in the hope that, through this step in faith, God will show up in a big way. that He will swoop in and work through this experience and use it to help share Himself with even more people than i might otherwise reach were i to remain where i’m at. where we’re at.

i am not risking getting kicked in the face or beaten for my faith. but i don’t think that’s what He is calling me to. not at this point, at least. but i do think He is calling me to this. to relax my firm grip on everything i thought would bring me comfort and security. my job. my friends. my family. and to trust Him. so that He might do an incredible thing with a pretty ordinary thing.

what is it?

what’s distracting you from living for Him? what’s getting in the way of living in a way that others see Him at work in your life? what’s stopping you from living your life in a way that tells a beautiful story of His grace? of His redemption? of His love? what’s preventing you from living in a way that makes Him look glorious?

is it fear? for taking a step out in faith that He’s going to show up? or is it fear for what others will think if you put both feet in this faith, rather than leaving a bit of yourself outside this faith? rather than investing all your faith in Him. so that, when the opportune time comes, you can pretend like you’re not totally into this faith. so that others don’t think you’re one of the loonies.

what is it? is it something else? have your desires become muddled? have you become tempted by the world so that other things have taken the place that is meant to be reserved for Him? so that other things have taken the prominent role in your life? so that you’ve become the ignorant child content with making mud pies in the slum because he cannot imagine what is meant by the offer of a vacation by the sea (as lewis puts it)?

whatever it is, i would ask that you be honest with yourself. let yourself answer the tough questions. even if the answers hurt. it’s only when you answer this question that you can begin taking steps to remove the distractions. to remove the fear. so that He might be displayed in your life as He should. so that He might take the throne in your life. and so that you might live life beautifully. so that your story would display His love, mercy, compassion, grace and redemption. in a way that touches the lives of those around you. in a way that makes Him look glorious.

not leave you as you are

i pray your life would be blessed as mine has.

i pray your life would be filled with amazing people. friends. family. with people who believe in you, even when you don’t believe in yourself. who dare you to dream big. who encourage you to do great things. who make you a better person, just by being around them. who love you. dearly. so much so that they’re willing to lay aside their own interests for the sake of yours. who sacrifice. for you.

but, even as great as those things are, i pray you would consider them all as loss. for the sake of knowing Him. for the sake of seeing Him more clearly. and for the sake of being His hands and feet. to a hurt and broken world. i pray your grip would not be so tight on the things of this world that you cannot carry His beautiful story of grace and love and redemption into those dark spots in this world that need it most.

that’s my prayer. that’s what it has always been. that’s why i began writing here three years ago. and that is what i hope you take away from these words. hold it close to your heart. chew on it. take it and run with it. share it with others. let it stir within you and drive you to seek Him out. in His word. in prayer. but, by all means, do not let it leave you the same. for His desire is to do great things with you. and He will not leave you as you are.

digging in

like a farmer on his hands and knees. in the dirt. under the scorching sun. he digs his worn hands into the soil. scooping it from the ground. and lifting the rich, dark soil to his face. he closes his eyes and breathes in its smell. a smile spreads across his sun-weathered face before opening his eyes. slowly. and as he exhales, you might be confident he is in fact crazy. but he is not. for he knows something we do not. he knows what this soil is capable of producing. life. newness. of the sort we cannot imagine. but he can. he has seen it before. and he is looking forward to seeing it again.

in the same way, He is capable of producing life. even in a life that seems so far gone. but we must dig in. we must get our hands dirty. and when we do, we will find life of the sort we did not know possible. we will breathe it in. and it will fill us up. so much so that it will pour out from us. into the lives of others. and the smile will spread slowly across our own face as it does. going out. changing lives. all for His glory.

thank you

thank you so much for taking the time to read my words. the past three years of writing here at hands&feet. of pouring out my heart and my thoughts. this truly has been a blessing in my life. i pray they have been for you as well, and i look forward to hearing what they’ve meant in your life some day.

like spring: awakening to new life

i’ve had this picture stirring in my mind lately. one i can’t seem to shake. it’s a picture of a frozen tree set against a white field of snow. the tree is covered in a sheet of ice. frozen solid from the long, cold, hard winter.

everything is quiet. everything is still. there is nothing going on. it’s almost as if time itself is frozen in place from the cold. and then, unexpectedly, the sun makes an appearance. coming up slowly over the mountain tops. the mountains that provide a backdrop for this scene.

and as the first ray of sunlight hits the tree, the ice begins to melt. slowly. so that the only hint of any release from the freeze is a steady drip, drip, drip of water from one, single branch.

this is what life is like?

life is funny sometimes. not funny ‘ha ha.’ but, ‘are you kidding me?’ funny. ‘is life really going to punch me in the face again?’ funny.

we go through these stretches sometimes where it seems like you walk around one corner and you’re punched square in the face, only so that you’re holding your face from the hurt and find yourself unguarded for the next corner, where someone is waiting to kick you in the groin.

that’s kind of how life has seemed for the last little while. one thing after another. after another. for me. for us. for those close to us.

and it’s reason enough for anyone to say, ‘really?’…’this is really what life is like?’

not getting that job you thought you were a shoe-in for… the one you prayed for every night. for that pregnancy you want so desperately, but know you cannot have… even while everyone else around you enjoys their good news. cancer… for the first time. for the second–and final–time. death… the loss of life and all that comes with it. at such an early age that it doesn’t make any sense.

and it’s all so much. too much, at times. enough for us to ask, “when is enough, enough?” enough for us to say, “your Word tells us You won’t allow us to be tempted beyond what we can handle, but it seems like that point has come and gone.”

waking up

spring is my favorite time of year. the real kind of spring. not the fake kind. not the kind that feels like fall all over again. which we sometimes get here in the northwest.

after a long winter–be it cold and dark, or just grey and wet–there’s nothing better than noticing the days getting a little bit longer. the sun coming up a little earlier. the air slowly warming up. and the sky getting brighter. it’s as if everything is waking up from a long sleep. and it’s refreshing. it gives me energy.

i feel like my soul has been in a bit of a sleep as of late. tired. groggy. shrugging to shake off a darkness and a cold that doesn’t want to leave.

and this picture of spring–the one i opened with, the one that has been with me for a while now–it brings me great hope. as if to remind me of the fact that, no matter how long the dark days may seem. no matter how frigid cold the soul may appear. it will not last forever. the Light will return. the freeze will melt. all will be made right again.

invading the darkness

and i feel like this image reminds us of the coming of His Kingdom. in a way. of Heaven. and how His Light will invade this darkness. of how His Light is already invading the darkness. even through us.

i feel like it comes like an awakening. His Light in us. it feels like spring. like an opening of the eyes. a yawn. a stretch. and then the legs hit the ground. and life begins. and His followers go out. like seeds. like the cotton balls floating through the air on a spring day. a sign of Him going out. spreading His goodness. even through us. we are but conduits for His grace, love and joy.

He works through us. and those experiences we go through, the ones that feel like a punch to the face or a kick to the pants. the ones that make this all seem like a perpetual winter. they grant us opportunities. for conversation. for relationships. like a key that opens a door. this experience allows me to talk to you. that experience allows you to talk to them. and your shared experience grants you a common bond, creating between you a shared language. and, in that language, you will share what He has revealed to you. including Himself.

that is how it works. like spring. like the first rays of warm sunlight after a long, cold winter peeking over the jagged, frozen mountaintops. mountains raised up into the sky like tent tops. carving out the blue blanket of a sky that rests on the mountain’s shoulders. the sunlight creating a path as it goes out. calling out to the remains of winter to wake up. to see the new day.

so it is with Him. nudging us to wake up. to have a look at what He has been doing while we slept.

“look. do you see? it is good. and you are a part of it.

now go. and be in it. that you might bear My image.”

recognizing the difference between light and dark

but the long winter months of this life wear on and on and on. so long that we sometimes forget what the warmth feels like. so long that we forget what the Light looks like. so long that we begin to think this winter is all there is to life. so long that we begin to wonder if we’d even recognize the Light, were we to see It again.

and that thought–that we become so well adjusted to the dark that we wouldn’t recognize the Light at its first appearance–that thought brings me fear. for i want that Light. with all i have. that it might burn away the cold. that it might thaw the frozen spots of my soul. and so, thinking that i might not recognize the Light after feeling far from it for so long. or not as close as i once was. i find myself fearing i might miss out on an opportunity to feel the warmth of the Light when it does appear. and that thought scares me.

how do I know the difference between the Light and the dark, when the dark feels all too familiar, and the light seems like a distant memory? or when it feels like the hint of a dream? i know the difference between the two because i never confuse the Light for the dark, although i may confuse the dark for the Light, mistakenly.

or, to put it another way, when i am in the Light, i never second-guess myself. i never find myself walking in His presence halfway knowing i should be walking in the dark. however, when i am knowingly walking in the dark, after mistaking it for the Light, that is precisely what I find. i find myself knowing, even already one foot in, one foot out, that i should be walking in the Light.

like a long-lost friend

and yet, when the Light reappears, it is almost as if it had never left. welcoming us like a long-lost friend. you worry that it might be awkward. like a hug from a stranger who seems to know you, even though you have no idea who they are. but the first sight of this Light washes away any such worry. for you are too overcome with joy to think of anything but your delight in seeing It again. and the first sight of It is but a hint of what is to come. overwhelming your senses like a thundering wave of warmth crashing against the rocky shore of your soul.

and as we see that first glimmer of this Light, it reignites within us a deep thirst for more. so much more. that we might lift the cup It is being poured out from with both hands to drink It in. to gulp It down. hastily. so that some even spills onto us. we do so without regard. and we begin to feel ourselves filled, for the first time in ages. feeling It warm us from within.

the coldness that made itself at home there before now is but a distant memory. more like a nightmare. that we have trouble now recalling. even if we can still feel–in part–the sharp pains it once carried. but it slips away, back into our memory, in the presence of the warmth of the Light. the warmth reassuring us the Light is here. and where the Light touches, pain and darkness cannot remain.

not alone

the blessing of this life is that, from time to time, we find someone who is traveling a similar path as the one we are on. like a stranger in the desert. a complete surprise. an oasis, of sorts. and we find their experience somehow sheds light on our experience. and it is a gift.

for it reminds us we are not alone in this journey. even if we feel that way. even if the one, single unifying trait among us seems to be that we feel all alone. we are not a lone star in an empty galaxy, as it were, but one of many. with many shared similarities amongst the masses. no matter how alone we may feel, at times.

rumors of a Man

this is a blessing. this reminder that we are not alone. and we would do well to recognize it as such. even amongst all the dust and darkness and cobwebs this life sometimes carries. like a ray of shining light, peaking in from a single, lone window in the corner of the room. revealing, in part, the Light that awaits us outside of this room we now find ourselves in.

the door leading out is locked, for now. but there remain rumors of a Man who came through that door once. long ago. of a Man who was just as we are. flesh and blood. but Who was also fully Divine. Who had been with the Father since the beginning. Who–at times–radiated the same Light that now shines (dimly) through that lone window. and, after being with us for a time. after sharing with us of what lies beyond this room. of love. of joy beyond imagination. of grace. and of how we ought to live. after sharing all of that, He left. through the very same door He entered.

but He didn’t leave us hopeless. no, He left us with the promise that He went to prepare a place for us. with a promise that He intended to bring us with. that, at some point, a point not yet made known to anyone, that the door would be unlocked, and that the outside Light would change all that we now see before us. the dust. the darkness. the cobwebs. all left scrambling for fear of the Light. and that we, too, would be changed for the entrance of the Light. and that, in a way, things would be as they were always intended. that the darkness of our present conditions, that the darkness we have even grown accustomed to, would be a thing of the past. a distant memory. a bad dream, of sorts. the freeze will have completely melted. there will be only Light and warmth. “the bad dream will be over, it will be morning” (c.s. lewis, mere christianity, p. 200)

salve for our souls

i think His desire is to break through the darkness in our lives. into our hearts. like the first ray of sunlight shining forth into a dark room as the door opens. and, as He does so, it’s like salve to the calloused parts of our souls. cooling our painful wounds and healing the cracks. providing refreshment and nourishment as only He can.

and this happens as we approach Him. as we come to Him. for healing. for newness of life. where before there was only death and darkness and sadness.

His is a presence of warmth. even in the dry, frigid, wintry desert of our souls.

a snake oil god

but it is here where i wish to be perfectly clear. i am not suggesting we market Him as some snake oil sort of god. one we over-apply to any and all of our wants. that we simply have to rub on here and there and suddenly all of our desires are fulfilled.

“job trouble? you need to pray more.” “money woes? buy this book, so that He can do great things…” no, that is not what i am implying here at all.

i turned on the tv the other day. mostly to provide some background noise for a sunday afternoon nap. and i was greeted by a televangelist telling me if i sent $1,000 for his ministry, that i’d get a book in the mail teaching me all about how to be successful (i wish i were making this up). he talked about sowing a seed, and how God would show up and provide a garden more bountiful than we imagined if we did this. he went on to share a recent conversation he was having with a man from africa, and how, after hearing this message, this man had asked if this held true for him as well. even in africa. and the televangelist assured him it would. and that’s when i had to change the channel. i couldn’t believe it. it was embarrassing. that He was using God in this way. it was disgusting.

for starters, that’s a really expensive book. on top of that, i don’t think God is interested in selling us success via self-help books so that He can build His Kingdom. no, i think He is far more interested in dealing with the darkness that ravages our souls. so that we might reflect His Light.

a magic wand God that we have to simply wave in the direction of our desires He is not. particularly for what we think we need (be it success or otherwise). He is so much more than that.

Good Medicine

no, that is not the image of God i am trying to paint here at all. my application here is much more like that of handing someone who has thirst a glass of water. for that is what they need. so it is here. your soul runs on Him, just as our bodies run on water. just as a car runs on fuel. when the light of our souls has dimmed, He is what we are lacking. for, in this arena, He is the solution. He is the Good Medicine, if you will. He is what you need in this case–what i need in this case. when all seems so very dark. when our souls seem so very cold.

as children, we rate medicine on how it tastes. the better it tastes, the more willing we are to take it. if it comes in the shape of a gummy bear, that’s bonus points. but as we get older, we assess the quality of a medicine on whether or not it resolves our illness, as opposed to whether or not it tastes good. indeed, often times it is that medicine that tastes the worst–that falls furthest from what our tastes would prefer–that actually leads to the quickest, healthiest recovery. so it is with our faith.

like many religions, Christianity acknowledges that something has separated us from God. from eternal joy. from a right relation with Him. the Christian faith calls this barrier sin. and, in most religions, what we find is a list of things we must do to make right what has separated us from god. there is something we must do to appease this divine being. if we try hard enough. if we pay enough. if we live a pure enough life. if we do this. or, often times, if we don’t do that. then we can somehow make things right between us and this god. and, in each case, the weight falls on our shoulders.

and such belief systems beckon to our desires. we like this kind of thinking. it makes sense to us. and we can take pride in such religions. “i deserve this,” we think to ourselves. or, “i earned this.”

but here, in Christianity, we find something very different. we find Him saying, “you are broken. you were separated from Me by your very nature. but I have already made things right. I have already paid the price for you. you can do all you can to try and earn this, but the fact of the matter is, I’ve already earned it for you.”

that’s the difference. there is no other religion (that i know of) where God says, “this is what it will take to make things right, and here is Me showing up to do it for you.” in Christ, we have Divinity arriving in actual history to make right our wrongs. in the flesh and blood of a Man. into a body that needed air to breathe and food to live. into a body that felt hunger and cold. into a body that felt pain, just as we do. so that His blood might make payment for the price His perfect law demands. so that He might pay for our sins. that’s why this faith is filled with words like grace and good news. because it’s not about us. or what we’ve done to earn this. ours, unlike any other, is a faith of divine charity.

here, we find God holding out His hand. holding this gift. saying to us, “this is what I did for you. before you could ever dream of deserving it. while you were still broken. laying down the life of My perfect Son, for your sake. so that you might be saved.”

in the case of Christianity, we find a diagnosis that says, “you suffer from an eternal wound that goes so deep you cannot possibly heal on your own. no amount of right-living or wisdom or anything else can mend this brokenness.” while, at the same time, offering a prescription that says, “but I can. and I will send my own Son as payment. My blood in place of your blood. so that you might be healed. so that you might have life, and life to the fullest.”

that is not the kind of medication many of us would choose for ourselves (even less the kind of prescription we would invent), were we not wholly interested in getting better. yet that is precisely what Christianity prescribes for the condition of our soul.

scale-covered eyes

the truth is, i need Him. i need Him so much. like medication for my soul. so that it would re-awaken. to newness of life. that it would shake off the weariness brought on by a long, cold season that feels so much like winter. and so that it would feel the warm presence of His Light. that my soul would soak Him in. so that, ultimately, His goodness would be reflected in my life.

unfortunately, the repeated, day-after-day darkness of this world has a way of blinding us to His goodness. it has a way of covering our eyes with scales that try with all it has to block His Light from shining in. so that we’re left blindly fumbling about in the darkness. and so many of us are in this spot. some who have never seen His Light. others who have, but whose eyes have been now covered for so long.

and, as we fumble around in the dark, looking for something–for anything–that will help our present condition, the prince of darkness is running about shouting, “here, here! this is it! this will help you!” and we shuffle about. in the darkness. trying to find our way to what he is directing our attention. and just as we reach it, he quickly runs to another spot and shouts, “no, no, no. over here! this is what you’re looking for!”

all the while we tire ourselves out. stumbling blindly in the darkness from here to there. bumping our head into walls. bloodying our nose and bruising our foreheads. looking for a solution. time after time we are met with only pain. and we fall on our hands and knees. our head hanging low, tired from the exhaustion. blood streaming from our wounds. pooling beneath us. and we strive to work up enough energy to lift our tired, worn frame off from the floor. only so that we can do it again. “this time it will work,” we think to ourselves. “this time will be different.”

and this scene must grieve Him so much. because He loves us. and He cares for us. and because He wants what is best for us. truly.

and because it’s only His light that can peel away the scales. it’s only His Light that will bring about healing. it’s His Light that we need so desperately. in this present darkness we now find ourselves in. so that He might revealed. in all His goodness.

and He is. through the Christ-sized hole in the darkness. the Good News is that the battle is won. the good news is that the darkness is rotting from the inside out. and this kind of rot is bringing about our healing. His Light is breaking through the darkness. even now. the night is slowly pealing back, and the darkness is trying with all its might to grasp at every soul it can as it is pulled away.

taste for Him

and so we ask Him to give us taste for Him, when we don’t have taste for much at all. we ask that He will create within us a desire for more of Himself. for what we need most. to heal us. to cure us. to chase away the darkness in our souls.

that we might hunger and thirst for Him. so that we might delight in drinking Him in. so that we might be filled. and so that we might be awakened to new life. but that desire for Him is a gift. it is not something we are capable of creating within ourselves. but, once we have it. once we have tasted it. we are awakened to our hunger for more of it.

when hayley was in the hospital those five days. on life support. i hardly ate. it seemed like my desires for everything else faded away in light of my desire to be by her side. in case she woke up. in case something happened. in case nothing happened, but so that i could just be present for each and every possible second. to listen to her breathing. to enjoy her just a little bit longer.

“have you eaten anything today?” my wife asked. the late afternoon question a reminder i hadn’t. and those who know me knew how unlike me that was. those who knew about my two dinners a night routine.

and so they’d encourage me to eat. but eating seemed so inconsequential. it seemed only like a distraction. stealing me away from hayley’s side. to the cramped waiting room. squeezed in when we were removed from hayley’s hospital room for testing.

i didn’t feel like eating, but i knew i should. i knew my body needed it. and when i first took that bite of food, after not eating for a day or so, i was instantly reminded of that need. my mouth and my stomach thanking me with each bite. and my hunger–the hunger for food i seemed to have lost before–was now returned. growing with each bite of sandwhich. of left-over pizza and cookies. what was missing in the absence of food was now returned. fully. in the presence of food.

and i think that’s the way we work with Him, a lot of times. when we go without Him for a period. we tend to get used to it. so much so that our desire for Him seems to wane in His absence. we don’t desire to seek Him in prayer like we once did. we don’t desire to find Him in His Word  like we did before. and it only seems to get harder and harder to find ourselves wanting to do so the longer we go without It.

but then, when we finally do return to Him. in His Word. in prayer. we find our hunger for Him renewed. like a long-lost hunger washing over us at first taste. our awareness of our need for Him, and our absence of His presence in our life, now pouring over us. crushing our senses. overwhelming us. so that we cannot get enough of Him. we taste Him in His Word. we feel His presence in our prayer. and it was like He had never left.

breaking through the shell of our soul

if that’s you. if that’s where you currently find yourself. feeling like life is kicking you in the teeth at every turn. feeling surrounded by unending fields of waist-deep snow and cold you cannot escape. i pray you would seek Him. i pray you would ask that He fill you with a deep-rooted desire and hunger for more of Him.

and i pray that as you approach Him, that He would crack open the shell of your soul with His Light. with His grace and tender mercy. with His love. with His joy. that it would permeate every corner of your soul. that His delight would become your delight. and that your delight would be found in Him.

and the Good News is that Jesus has done this. He has broken the cold shells of our souls. He has already redeemed us from our fallen state. breaking into our story so that His Light might shine into this darkness. waking us up from this slumber. from this sleep-like state.

and as we approach Him, this Light is made brighter and brighter in our lives. and so we do that. we run after Him with all we have. so that we might be changed into His likeness. and so that the frigid parts of our souls–the ones that pull us down and away from the life He desires for us–might fall off. and so that they might be left behind. like an old sweater pulled off and tossed overhead as you run headlong into the approaching summer sun.

warm, loving arms

and if ever you feel as though you are not worthy to approach Him with such desire. or if ever you feel as though you might be met with a slammed door in your face for such effort. i would tell you this. He will meet you with open arms when you go to Him. with an earnest heart that desires Him. and you will find Him in all His righteous love. the love of a tender Father waiting for His child to return home. and anyone who tells you otherwise would do well to know more fully anyone they attempt to speak of. because, it is His grace which gives us this opportunity. it is His grace which lays the foundation of the path we walk, from where we stand to where He is. it is not because of anything we’ve done or anything we do or do not deserve. it is only by His grace.

His goodness provides the light for our footsteps. into His warm, loving arms. loving arms that will peel back the ice that covers our souls, so that the Light might come in. it is dim now, to be sure. but it will appear in its full brightness one day. He will reappear one day. in all His infinite splendor.

until that day, i pray His grace and the warmth of His presence would begin to melt away the remains of winter from your soul. that you might reflect His goodness. His love. His joy. His peace. and His grace. to others, even while the final hints of this long winter still remain.

grief: reflections on loss

i wish to be completely forthright in saying this entry was written entirely to help myself deal with a deep amount of recent pain. to walk through the many thoughts of loss and hurt the past several weeks have brought. and to attempt to make some sense of the horrific loss of our dear sister, hayley dawn.

while hands&feet began as a way for me to simply capture my thoughts, it has grown to become more than that. however, this entry, in particular, returns to those original roots. it is full of loss and grievous remorse, and i make no promise that it will leave you feeling better. about anything. it is a bit like someone narrating the experience of their own surgery. if you are squeamish, i do not blame you in the least for looking away. however, if this narrative does help you. if this account somehow makes her — or anyone you’ve lost — feel close to you once again, if only for a moment. then praise be to God for that.

but, i am confident that these words will very likely leave some feeling as though they’ve just walked through a storm. and so i make the offer upfront: this is a dark cloud you may wish to walk around. you do not always have that option, but you do here, if you so choose.

to sit & listen

driving home from the hospital that first night, the night after we received that dreadful late-night phone call. the car headlights tearing through the darkness of that 2:30 a.m. morning, all i wanted to do was sit beside my sister. by the water. on the shore. and listen to her. i didn’t even want to ask any questions. i just wanted to sit shoulder-to-shoulder with her. again. tossing rocks into the waves as they rolled into shore. watching the water play with the pebbles underneath as it washed over them with each coming and going.

i just wanted to be there to lend a listening ear when she felt like talking. that’s all. and i prayed for that opportunity. to once again sit and talk with her. and it was then that i felt Him whisper to me that He was already talking with her, and that i need not worry.

feels like

what does grief feel like? it feels like a dry lump in the back of your throat that you cannot swallow away. it feels heavy, like a wet blanket on your shoulders that you cannot shake. weighing you down with each footstep. it fogs your vision and dulls your mind, so that you cannot see or think clearly. except for the pain and the memories, which shine brightly through the darkness. no matter how hard you try to push the former away, without sacrificing the latter.

and it lingers, like a deep, dense fog. consuming everything in its path. and you’re left wandering in it, lost. aimlessly. for days. weeks. and just when you feel like you’ve come to the end of it, you realize it was only a brief clearing in what seems like an endless valley, surrounded by the thick gray haze.

experiencing loss

there is nothing sexy, cool or desirable in any way about sitting beside the hospital bed of someone you love on life support at 2:00 a.m. there is only pain. there is only prayer and tears. wanting with all you have for them to blink their eyes. to grab your hand. to wake up.

i remember staring at hayley’s nearly motionless body during those early morning hours, as she lay there on the hospital bed. the only movement coming from the rise and fall of her chest with each robotic breath. aided by life support. by tubes and beeping machines. and all i wanted to do is talk with her. i wanted to whisper to her, that i loved her. and i did. and i hoped with all i had that she could hear me.

and i remember thinking how frail she looked. even her hair. each strand of it, strewn across the white linens. not a single ounce of her being showed even a hint of strength. and the only reason she was alive was because He had brought life and a pulse back to her lifeless body. i remember thinking how each breath was a gift from God, and how she was literally one breath away from leaving us.

and i remember telling jen He was going to redeem her. from all the pain of this situation. and somehow, comfort i can’t now describe surrounded me during that time. comfort that doesn’t make any sense.

impact on my faith

before all this happened, i had often wondered how my faith would hold up in the face of such loss and pain. i wondered if it would blind my vision toward His goodness. if i would feel distant from Him. or have a deep-rooted hesitation to ever approach Him again for help.

i am thankful that has not been the case. however, immediately following hayley’s diagnosis — which we had waited several days to receive — my faith was surely tested. and i was incredibly scared.

hearing her diagnosis from a doctor, a neurologist, was by no means easy. it was like having a biology textbook read to you when what you would prefer are the compassionate words of a sympathy note from a friend. or the loving arms of a well-timed hug. but that is not what we received. rather, what we heard were the cold, bleak, hopeless words from an unattached physician. someone who had never even had the pleasure of meeting hayley.

and it was after receiving that news, during the shock, that i was scared. i was scared because, for the first time i can remember, i honestly had no idea what to pray for. i felt as though there was nothing i could pray for that would resolve this situation. at that moment, leaning heavily on the windowsill and looking out into the deep blue sky through the icu window, i felt totally and completely helpless.

i felt as though the robe of this world had been pulled back, revealing the dark, ghastly flesh beneath. teeming with black machinery and hoards of crawling insects. i felt as though i was seeing all the dark evils of this world with clear eyes for the very first time. a darkness that had always been there, but that had been cleverly disguised. and once the mask has been removed, there is no forgetting what lies beneath. even if it is replaced. the image is forever burned in your memory. and, at that moment, it was for me a darkness i wanted to turn and run from with all my might. but i knew i would not fully escape it until that day i reached His Kingdom.

and so, it was at that moment that i desired His Kingdom — the paved streets of gold and fields of light streaming forth from His presence — more than i ever had before. i thirsted for Him in a way i never knew possible. but i also knew the path leading toward that day, the day when i would see His Kingdom, would be one lined with much pain and sorrow. the only way into the Light leads straight through the darkness. there is no other path.

painful aftershocks

when we lose someone dear to us, we really do feel like a part of ourselves is gone. like the entire world has changed overnight. like something is not quite right. and you almost become frustrated with others for acting like it is. for going on with life. i remember driving past a field of cows grazing the morning after hayley’s passing and thinking, “how can you possibly be eating at a time like this?!”

following the loss, you wake up feeling like someone covered you in a heavy, soaking-wet blanket while you slept. and even though your eyes are now open, the weight is constantly pressing down on you. so much so that you don’t even feel like getting up.

the tinge of death affects your palette, as well. it changes your tastes, both literally and figuratively. you do not want to eat. and when you do, it is not for the flavor or the smell, but because you know you must. your favorite food is no longer what it was. and what seemed so important before no longer does. what excited you before fails to do so now. i no longer spend my time as i did before. your priorities, it seems, are completely shaken up.

i’ve never been so confused about how i feel until facing this death. you are sad and hurt and angry, all at the same time. and it is incredibly confusing. like a diver who struggles to determine which way is up in the deep, cold, mirky waters.

and you feel like, no matter how hard you try, there are no words to properly communicate these feelings to others. and that inability to do so leads to feelings of isolation. creating a vast chasm between you and them.

the four words, “how are you doing?” have never been so confusing. for, even if i knew, i am not sure i would be able to communicate it. and, even if i could, i am not sure you would want to know.

leaving the hospital that last night we were all there together. just the six of us, walking out into the darkness under the clear night sky above. it felt as though we were going on a family vacation, and hayley was being left behind. and i knew there would be points on our trip when i would want to turn back. with every ounce of my being. to go get her. to grab her by the arm and run to catch up with the others. so that she might not be left alone. so that we might sing to her on her birthday. so that we could open presents together on Christmas morning. or spend our warm summer days together at the lake. so that she might enjoy this trip with us. but i knew i wouldn’t be able to. i knew that, even as i turned back. to turn to her. that i would be met by a face that assured me she could not go with.

when you’re at this point, the words, “i know how you feel” simply lead to feelings of distrust. for you could not possibly ‘know’ how i feel. even if you lost someone. that someone is not this someone. and your relationship with them is not this relationship. you may speak this language, sure, but this dialect is foreign to you. and i realize these words are meant to help, and i sincerely appreciate the sympathy and the consideration behind them, but they do not bring healing.

it’s a bit like wandering around in a maze with all the lights turned off. alone. blindly trying to find your way. and you can hear the voices of those on the outside, but inside, there is no one there with you. they cannot help point you in the right direction, for they can no more see anything in the dark blindness you find yourself in than can you who are in the middle of it. but the sound of their voices assures you that they are indeed there. that they know you are in the darkness. the mere sound of their presence — and their acknowledgement of your present circumstance in this dark maze — is all they have to offer, as you blindly stumble into walls in the darkness.

and this experience leads one to feel like a leper. the sickness in my life becomes so apparent, as does the health in theirs. and it almost makes me feel like asking to be put away from others, realizing no good can come from this pain. almost worrying that the pain in my life is contagious. and that, if i’m too close to others, it will wear off on them. contaminating their lives, as it has mine.

you will see them again

saying to those in pain, to those dealing with the loss of a loved one, that they will see their loved one again one day is a bit like telling a child they must go to bed early so that santa claus may come and set out their gifts. surely, every child enjoys gifts, but that does not make the act of going to bed early any more enjoyable. nor does it make closing one’s eyes and finding rest any easier. if anything, it only makes it more difficult.

i may see them again one day, sure. but i want to see them now. and, when that day comes that i do see them again, i find it hard to believe my focus will be on them. for it will be overshadowed by His presence. no, what i want is her. now. returned.

a better place

would you say to a child who misses their parents while they’re away on vacation, away on a cruise, or sitting on a beach in some tropic location, that, “it’s okay, they’re in a better place.”? hardly. for the issue is not so much their location, or their current state. it is that their location is not with them. they are missing their loved one’s presence. and so the point that they’re in a better place or not is hardly the issue.

are they happy their parents are enjoying themselves? probably. and their happiness at this thought grows in magnitude as their gaze falls less and less on their own desires. their desire to be with them. and more on their desire for their loved one’s well-being. or to put it another way, the less one’s focus is on them self, the greater one’s joy at knowing their loved ones are enjoying themselves.

however, those feelings of missing one’s vacationing parents are very real. and pointing out that their loved ones are in a better place hardly addresses those feelings. rather, it feels like an attempted distraction.

process of pain

and the experience of this pain goes through different phases. at first, it feels like a deep bruise. dull and hard. it steals your energy and makes you feel sore and weak all over. so much so that you do not want to move from the hurt.

but then, as the weeks go on, the painful loss seems more like a laceration. like a deep cut. where the painful realization begins to set in clearly and sharply. and it comes and goes. but when it comes, it comes at a moment’s notice. it comes with a sting that takes you by surprise. sharp and cutting. deep, leaving your wound open and revealed.

and all you want to do at that point is find somewhere safe. somewhere comfortable. where you can let your wound air out. in the open. without fear of more pain being inflicted. you seek solace. escape. and sometimes words, no matter how well-intended, only feel like salt in this open wound.

rather, you come to appreciate the simple presence of someone just being there. not trying to talk away the pain, as if words could heal these wounds. but just being there. in the darkness. their presence a reminder that you are not totally and completely alone. even if they cannot understand. even if they cannot see the twists and the turns of this dark maze you now find yourself in.

a good friend is willing to let the tears fall, without feeling ashamed or embarrassed at your pain. pain is not orderly. it is not clean and tidy. it is messy. a good friend is willing to carry the weight of your tears simply with their presence.

pain is a heavy heart. heavy from taking on water. from the weight of your tears. so heavy it feels like it could fall out of your chest from pressing against your rib cage so hard.

and then, as the days go on, you begin to realize you haven’t thought about your lost loved one for a while. not days, by any stretch of the imagination, but hours. and then you almost feel guilty. as if not thinking about them for a period somehow dishonors their lost life. and that thought comes with pains of guilt.

roller-coaster in the dark

and it makes no sense, the pain. it comes and goes without any warning. like a roller-coaster in the dark. you feel as though the bottom falls out from under you at a moment’s notice. and you’re left grasping for something. anything. to hold onto. to hold you up. to strengthen you. for you feel so very weak.

a friend of mine recently lost someone dear to her. a long-time friend. a boyfriend.

it was a highly publicized tragedy, receiving much media attention. particularly in our region. three friends in oregon set out for a hike on a snow covered mountain. nothing out of the ordinary. something they had done many times before. but this time, they did not come back. and friends and family waited. for days. to hear something. to hear some hint of good news. but it never came.

and she shared with me about how she resp0nded to others during this time. while she waited. the words she spoke to co-workers. to friends. to the family members who aren’t yet believers.

“Christ is my hope.”

when she didn’t know what to say or how to brace herself for support, her words pointed to Him. and her weight fell upon Him. hoping He would hold her up.

no magic pill

naively, i thought the healing process would progress in a linear manner. that each day would be a little easier than the last. i was wrong. the 17th day could, and did, feel very much worse than the third day. there is no rhyme nor reason for it. no predicting it. it simply comes and goes as it pleases. as quickly as the memories. entering without any hesitation. or any concern for your current circumstances. and you’re left floundering.

grief, after a time, is like a guest who has overstayed their welcome. your irritation with its lingering presence grows greater and greater as each day progresses. you want to throw mud in its face. kick it in the shins. curse at it. and tell it to leave. but it doesn’t. it loiters. and the frustration mounts. until finally the tiniest things make you snap. from the anger and the frustration and the hurt. and you’re left looking around, wondering to yourself, “where did that come from?”

and, no matter how much you want to change it. no matter how much you want to deal with the pain all at once and make it go away. to leave you, and never to return. you cannot. this is something you cannot overpower or simply “deal with.” no matter how hard you try.

you cannot intellectualize away grief. you cannot outthink a feeling. for, where the feelings trod, the intellect cannot approach. it is a place untouched by the mind. there, if nowhere else, the mind has no power. it is burned away in the fiery presence of the heart. of love. of warmth. of feeling. of dread. of fear. the mind knows not what to do. it cannot. and so you’re left, blindly, feeling your way in the darkness.

no amount of power or wealth can help in this situation. death is the great equalizer, as they say. for you cannot buy back what you’ve lost. not in this case. no matter how much you want to. no matter how strongly your desires are to barter with God. “i will give you this… i would give you it all, just to have her back.” but those offers are met only with silence. for there is nothing you can offer Him to return this life that is now no longer here.

nor can you order someone to fix it. you may spend money and time and resources on the road to recovery, but there is no pill to take. no magic wand can break this spell you’re under. as lewis puts it, “there is nothing we can do with suffering except to suffer it…” (c.s. lewis, a grief observed, p. 33)

and so i pray. and i remember. and i grieve. and i cry. sometimes the tears come with laughs. sometimes they simply come in sobs. overpowering, heaving sobs that rock my body and prevent me from doing anything else at all. leaving me to simply wait them out.

healing in pain

pain allows certain things to come alive. for the first time. song lyrics. even those cliche sayings we’ve all heard a million times. for, in the experience of pain, those words now have meaning. they have ground to stand upon. and, from that ground, they rise up to eye view, so that you can see them for what they truly are. whereas, prior to the pain, they seemed so very meaningless. lacking any context. floating by without any hint of consequence.

for me, this pain has helped illuminate parts of scripture that previously seemed intended for someone else. specifically, Jesus’ power to heal.

a significant portion of the attention Jesus received during His ministry was from people who came to Him to be healed. they had pains. they had diseases they could not shake. and they had heard that, somehow, this Man, this nazarene carpenter, had powers that could help them.

the book of luke, in particular, focuses heavily on these healing miracles. luke was a medical doctor, so he was naturally intrigued by the accounts of how Jesus had brought health where there was sickness. life where there was death.

and, as much as i think these healings served a practical purpose — revealing Jesus’ power — i think they also served as a metaphor for the ultimate Healing He intends to bring all of us. and reading about these healings serves as a reminder to us, even now, 2000 years later, of why He came. of why He was written into humanity’s story. and, lately, i have come to see that it is only in true pain and brokenness that we can see the incredible value in His healing power. and our need for it.

someone who has no thirst cannot appreciate the life-giving benefits water offers the human body. it is only someone who is truly fatigued and lacks proper hydration who can appreciate what water offers. and our true need for it. however, inviting someone to run 10 miles so that they can appreciate a drink of cool water will not likely be met with much excitement. this offer is only appreciated by those who are already fatigued. by those who are already thirsty.

in the same way, He reveals different attributes of His character to us based on our experiences. based on our current situations. however, that does not make us want to put ourselves in those situations so that we can experience these particular attributes of Himself.

if you do not see your need for healing, His offer to heal will likely mean nothing to you. and you are not likely to desire losing someone close to you so that you can feel His healing presence. however, if you are in pain. and if you feel broken. you will grasp at His healing power with everything you have. reaching out to Him in hopes that even if you were to only touch the corner of His robe, He would somehow mend the stump where a hand used to be.

always there

not long before hayley’s death, i was going through a rough time. a death in the family. a birth in the family. balancing an awkward combination of feelings. unsure of what to do with it all. and i remember texting hayley. just to tell her about it all. and i told her i didn’t even know why i was bothering her, except for the fact that she was my sister. she replied, right away. to tell me she was sorry. to tell me she loved me. and to tell me she was there for me. no matter what.

and so many times during these past several weeks, i’ve gone to those words. wanting to cash in that promise. i’ve wanted to go to her. to tell her how hard this is. losing her. to tell her how it hurts. to ask her if she remembers when…

but i can’t. i can’t go to her and get a response. and that is so incredibly difficult. so painful. but i do it anyways. sometimes. aloud, to myself. in my car. and it helps. to get it out. the words. the tears. all of it.

and sometimes i even feel like she’s there. just like she promised.

to feel close again

when we’ve lost someone close to us, we find ourselves turning to things that remind us of them, hoping to somehow feel close to them once again. we turn to a song. to a place. to something. anything. that you once shared.

i’ve found myself listening to lots of hip hop lately. songs i knew hayley liked. new songs i thought she’d like, and that i wish i could send her to listen to. we loved sharing music with each other.

the week following hayley’s service, i picked up flowers and a card. and i returned to the hospital. the same place we spent the week waiting. hoping. that everything would turn out all right.

i wanted to find the nurse who was there for us during those long nights. who let us sit by her bed and watch. who would talk with us. who would be real with us. rather than just doing her job. rather than just checking hayley off her to-do list.

she was helping out in the er that night i visited. rather than the icu. so the icu secretary helped me find her. she called. then called some more. and as i waited for this nurse to respond to the phone calls, asking her to come up to the icu, i sat at the front desk. waiting. flowers in one hand. card in the other. sitting. staring straight at the door to hayley’s former room. the last room i saw her. the last room i talked to her.

and i thought, naively, that somehow being there would make me feel like i was closer to my sister again. that i would be reminded of her presence. but that was not the case. it simply felt like a hospital. like a room where someone else received treatment. not her.

and when the nurse finally appeared, that did not make her feel closer either. but it was nice to see her. she approached with a warm look of sympathy and compassion. with a look of knowing pain at our loss. and she received me with a hug. she told me she was so sorry. and she told me she had been thinking about us.

after some time, i left. i walked out of the icu and, while waiting at the elevator door, i overheard the conversation that followed, “that was her brother-in-law.” … “we should take your picture!”

no, it did not make her feel closer. i walked out of the hospital that night into the cool air of the evening. just as i had so many times the week before. and the tears fell. slowly at first. but then stronger. knowing, perhaps more so than i had before i entered the hospital that night, that there was no longer a place where i could find hayley. that no matter how much a place reminded me of her, it would not bring her back.

we’ll visit you

after a while, you find yourself just wanting life to go back to normal. to “the way it was.” but, the truth is, it won’t. it cannot. for it has been forever changed. it is a bit like wishing a snow globe would be just as it were before it was shaken. that each tiny snowflake would fall in the precise place it had previously been, prior to being shook. it cannot. but that is what we desire. with all we have. we want things to be as they were. and there is nothing worse than thirsting for a drink that does not exist. to have a thirst that cannot be quenched.

i recently grabbed dinner with a friend of hayley’s. a close friend. they had dated for years. so he knew her like we did. closer than most.

it was the first time i had stepped foot into a local restaurant since her passing. and, as i did, i felt the eyes of those familiar with our loss fall heavy on me. as if to somehow gauge my temperature. i spotted hayley’s friend from the door, already seated at a table across the room, dropped my head low, and found my seat.

we talked. for quite a while. sharing memories. and that brought so much joy. it almost made her seem close again. and it was comforting because we shared these similar experiences of her. these memories of the hayley we both knew and loved. those who enjoy cars do not get together with those who have no interest in cars to share stories about their vehicles. rather, they get together with other car enthusiasts. the closer their interests (by make, model, year…), the more enjoyable their conversation. the tighter their bond. so it is with those missing a lost loved one.

so there we sat. in this restaurant. sharing memories. laughing, mostly. and it was refreshing. then, at one point during this meal, he mentioned visiting hayley’s grave the week before. and it was the first time i had even thought of visiting hayley’s grave. to go see her. to remember her.

but the cemetery hardly fits the description of something i turn to remind me of her. for we never spent time in the cemetery then. we never shared a laugh there. you never gave me a hug before leaving there. i never tossed you in the lake there, shouting and laughing at the same time. you never sprayed whipped cream in my face or insisted that you could in fact carry me there. that is not where i saw your smile or heard your laugh. that laugh we used to tease you for, until you would shout, “it does not sound like leanne’s!”

your body now rests there, sure, but that does not help me remember you. it all feels so foreign. so, “for someone else.” but don’t worry, hd, i will visit you. we will visit you.

the wrong question

the truth is, hd, when you left, it felt like a piece of our joy left with you. and we cannot get it back. not matter how hard we try. which makes sense, for you were filled with it.

and, in the middle of this all, we find ourselves asking if it would’ve been easier to never have been given this life. this relationship. so that, when this loss came, it wouldn’t hurt so bad. so that we wouldn’t ever have to experience this overwhelming pain. we find ourselves wondering if a life of complete isolation would not be the safer route.

were we to never be so close, we would never feel this distant. this distance that i now feel would not feel so great.

i remember going out to lunch with a good friend of mine a year or so back. a good friend from high school. from middle school, really. his mom had fought — and won — a battle with cancer while we were still in school. which made the return of the cancer years later that much more difficult.

and i remember, at this lunch, something he told me. i don’t think i’ll ever forget it.

we were talking about how his mom was doing. an incredible woman. a woman who felt much like a second mother to me for so many years while in school. a Godly woman. the kind of woman who, when she says she’s praying for you, you know she’s not simply allowing words to pass from her lips to make you feel good. a woman who anyone would be proud to call, “mom.”

and i remember my friend talking about how things were getting more and more difficult for her. and how he was handling this.

“you know how i get through this? he asked me, rhetorically. “i ask myself, if God gave me the choice, to either have an incredible, Godly mom for the first 26 years of my life, or to never have one at all, i would choose to have her for those 26 years. every time.”

and i just remember thinking, “that is an incredible perspective.” in the face of one of the most difficult experiences of your life — losing your very mother — that is the perspective one should have. that of being thankful for the gift you have received. rather than damning the God who blessed you with that gift in the first place.

and so, faced with this pain. faced with the question of, “would it have been easier?…” i realize i’m asking the wrong question.

would it have been easier to never have that relationship? would it have been easier to never have become so close — to have cared for someone else so much — so that it doesn’t hurt this bad when they’re gone? perhaps. would it have been better? doubtful.

for those memories. those priceless memories. they are more valuable. they are worth far more than this pain is deep — no matter how deep these wounds now feel.

if it would’ve been better for us to never be so close to another soul so that this pain is not felt in the face of loss, i doubt very much He would encourage us to love one another as He does.

if He says, “I am going to break your heart over this loss,” which is no less than what this has been, then we must trust that the relationship that precipitated this loss was worth having in the first place.

nineteen years

hayley dawn. you are an angel who visited us for nineteen years. some splendid. joyful beyond what it is easy to capture in words. some more difficult and painful than we would care to now admit. but, even in their imperfect moments, you were here. with us. in a very real way. more real than our memories will now permit. real in a way we would never try to change. for doing so would change you. and that is what we desire. more than a memory. what we want is you. in all your imperfections. just as He created you.

hd, i am jealous of Him. that He now gets to enjoy that smile. that laugh. that contagious grin. we all are. when we miss you. we miss those things about you that showed us your love. and now, we know, that He is the One enjoying those traits of yours. that those gifts He created you with are now being given back to Himself. in a way that glorifies Him.

and we’re jealous. because that’s what we miss. you. and, in our most honest moments, we hope He enjoys you as much as we would. we hope He deserves it. is it fair of us to feel this way? no, probably not. is it right? of course not. but is it how we feel? yes. absolutely.

back from Perfection

but what good is it for me to want you back, hayley? to beckon you from the presence of Perfection, as it were.

for we can’t, on the one hand, find comfort knowing you’re in the presence of the only eternal Love you were made for. but then, on the other hand, beg that you be returned to us. it is no good for us to want it both ways. we will get nowhere with that. we will find ourselves paddling in circles in the middle of this dreadful lake of loss.

no, there is not even a hint of (true) love in that thought process. in wishing you back to us from Him. there is only selfishness. and, when i realize it, i despise myself for wanting you back at that cost.

but, as they say, the truth hurts. and there is nothing more true than admitting we want you back. at all costs. at our deepest, darkest, most selfish moments. for one more hug. for one more laugh. for one more smile. for one more memory that we can bottle up and store away.

and, every once in a while, we think we’ll get just that. turning to the door. or an empty hallway. half-expecting you to come walking in. wearing that smile of yours. wiping away all our tears of loss. laughing it away, as if the whole thing were some bad dream. the white of your teeth and scrunched corners of your eyes from your smile a sign that our glimmers of hope were not all for nothing.

but that moment never comes. instead, we find ourselves staring into an empty hallway or a doorway longer than we should. hanging our head at the painful realization that our deepest pains are real. we can put our hand there and find blood. the wounds are not yet healed. and we’re left wondering, “will they ever be?”

life in death

in a paradoxical way — just as so many things are with Him — we see that in death, there is Life. life of the fullest sense. not half-inflated, as we experience here. but life in the clearest, most full sense. as He intended it to be.

after hearing of our loss, a friend of mine — the same friend who lost her boyfriend to that terrible mountain — reminded me that hayley is alive.

through these words, she wrote to me, “hayley may have died, but she is alive…she has life… so even more i affirm you with the fact that hayley is alive and well! she is well, ryan…”

and the words set in heavy, like an oversized helicopter settling into a field of long grass to land. and, while i knew this to be true, it somehow shook me to the realization that, even in the painful experience of death, there is life. and, particularly in this death, that reminder of Life was incredibly encouraging.

for the first time in years, she is well. for that which hayley was unable to experience here, she is now experiencing in full. “…through [death], increase of life now comes.” (a grief observed, p.229) whereas she was unable to see it fully before, now she sees His love with eyes wide open. as He pours it out over her. she is loved. now. completely. totally. in a way she was not able to be before.

what previously held hayley back from living life as He intended it to be lived no longer can, because of death. because of God’s built-in safety device, as lewis refers to it. while the world may have slowly blinded her vision to His love for her from time to time before — as it does for so many of us — she is now experiencing it clearly. hearing it from His lips. in a way we do not yet have the benefit to hear.

and, in that thought, we receive a hint of comfort.

is she in “a better place?” no, she is in The better place.

to put Him in His place

and yet, in the pain of our loss, we want to pound away on His chest. even as He holds us. through tears, through short gasps of breath. we want to ask Him, through shout-filled fits, “why?!” why would He allow such pain. why He wouldn’t do anything about it. we want to push Him. to shove Him. to put Him in His place, so to speak. demanding that He answer up to our questions.

and all the while, we forget that He knows of this loss we are now experiencing. we forget that our love for her pales in comparison to His love for her. for, with our gaze so fixed on our own pain-filled loss, we cannot begin to comprehend His love for her. and we forget that all we’ve done for her pales in comparison to what He has done for her. even laying down His own Son’s life to save her’s.

and, when the tears slow. when we stop shouting long enough to catch our breath. when we relent from the pushing and flailing. we find Him patiently waiting. speaking to us,

do you really believe I do not know pain? do you think the sacrifice of my own Son did not grieve me? to sit back and watch Him hurt, holding back so that your loved ones might not feel such terror and torment. so that they might be saved. so that you might be saved. do you think that was easy on Me?

who are you that you would make such demands of Me? to try and test My love, as it were. it is true, I most certainly love her. more than you know or can comprehend. but in My righteous love, My vision is not blurred. even when yours is. and My goal is still fixed on her good. and yours. and even when you cannot see it being worked out, I can. but you must never question My love. for in that love — My love for My sons and My daughters — no questions remain.

who understands

no matter how deep those pains go. no matter how fresh the wounds feel, even after the passing of weeks, of months, of years, we must never forget, He has experienced our pain. we worship a God who understands.

so that, even when we are driving back to the hospital, completely unaware of the painful news that awaits us, He knows what is coming.

even though it feels like someone took an eraser to the pages of the story we have been reading, leaving us to try and make sense of this revised version. the truth is, those are not revisions on the pages we have already turned. rather, they are the pages we had yet to turn. but which we had imagined. reading ahead in our minds even after putting the story down. so that it feels like a revision, but the truth is, it had always been there. waiting. no matter how strong the shock.

and even though the coolness of the dove white clouds floating in the burnt orange sky during the drive back to the hospital that week seemed to hang like a promise that everything would be okay, we must remember that our ‘okay’ and His ‘okay’ do not always look the same.

we must remember that, where we are weak, He is strong. and that, in our weakest moment, He is hard at work. that He loves us. even when our own pain and tears blind us to that fact.

relief from our tears

my prayer for you is that your tears would fall. day after day. until they can hardly fall anymore. and then, when the nights seem long. and the days seem as though they run right into each other. when it seems like nothing could brighten the darkness, i pray He would. for you. i pray your gaze would turn from yourself. from your pain. and that it would turn toward Him. so that you can see, for the first time, His open arms.

this God is not a toy. He is not a divine wishlist created to give you what you want. were we to get from Him only that which we desired, He would seem much like something we had created. but that is not what we find. not at all. He is not a genie to be beckoned. He is not a servant of our imagination who sits in the clouds, waiting upon our every request.

but He is Love. of the deepest sort. the kind of Love who knows our good. even when it comes in pain. like a loving Father who holds back, even at the most difficult moments, so that we can learn on our own. or, as lewis puts it so well, like the Great Surgeon, creating incisions that will ultimately bring healing. at the moment, they simply appear as cuts. but, when He is finished, we should be on our road to recovery. the kind of recovery that will mean our good, in the fullest sense.

He knows when you’ll come to Him. He is not surprised. there is no surprise ending with Him. but He will still smile. He will still welcome you with a party. for you are His child. and He loves you. just as He loves our dear hayley dawn.

where do we find relief from our tears? at that thought. no, we cannot have it both ways. there is only one way we can have it. precisely the way we find it. knowing He is in control. that He can love her better than we can. and that He is. even now.