When the Way is through the Sea

beach clouds dark dark clouds
Photo by Josh Sorenson on Pexels.com

I know it doesn’t sound very spiritual to have a favorite book of the Bible, but the Psalms are my favorite. This ancient hymnbook connects me to the generations who came before me: the Israelites, Jesus and the apostles, the early Church…Though the languages differ, the words are the same. And oh, it’s beautiful! Not a pristine beauty—a raw, messy, and wild kind of beauty.

I cry aloud to God,

aloud to God, and he will hear me.

In the day of my trouble I see the Lord;

in the night my hand is stretched out without wearying;

my soul refuses to be comforted.

When I remember God, I moan;

when I meditate, my spirit faints. Selah

You hold my eyelids open;

I am so troubled that I cannot speak.

I consider the days of old,

the years long ago.

I said, “Let me remember my song in the night;

let me meditate in my heart.”

Then my spirit made a diligent search:

“Will the Lord spurn me forever,

and never again be favorable?

Has his steadfast love forever ceased?

Are his promises at an end for all time?

Has God forgotten to be gracious?

Has he in anger shut up his compassion? Selah

(Psalm 77:1-9, ESV)

These aren’t pretty words with which to adorn your house or sing in a peppy worship song.  These are words of deep suffering. They articulate tough, theological questions about God, the kind of questions that feel too irreverent to ask, but unrelentingly nag at our souls when we’re in the thick of desperation.

God, where are You?

Can You hear me? 

Have You forgotten me?

Did You stop loving me?

Have you stopped being the gracious and compassionate God I thought You were?

Seeking God doesn’t mean you’ll be shielded from suffering or that you’ll feel optimistic in dark times. In fact, sometimes the struggle of seeking the Lord is a kind of suffering in itself—those moments when no matter how much we seek Him, He still feels distant and His silence is overwhelming. So how did the writer of this Psalm, Asaph, get through this dark place?

I said, “Let me remember my song in the night;

let me meditate in my heart.”

Then my spirit made a diligent search…

Then I said, “I will appeal to this,

to the years of the right hand of the Most High.”

I will remember the deeds of the Lord;

yes, I will remember your wonders of old.

I will ponder all you work,

and meditate on your mighty deeds.

(Psalm 77:6, 10-12, ESV)

When we’re desperate for a shift in the midst of our suffering and darkness, remember. And remember with intentionality and diligence. Ponder. Meditate.

Asaph remembered how God helped Israel in the past. In the exodus, when the Egyptians were coming after them on one side and they were blocked by the Red Sea on the other side, it looked like their situation was hopeless. There was no good option in sight. But what did God do? He parted the sea so they could walk through it!

Your way was through the sea,

your path through the great waters;

yet your footprints were unseen.

(Psalm 77:19, ESV)

In Scripture, the sea is a recurring image of danger. The Great Shepherd’s way isn’t always beside still waters; sometimes it’s through the sea. I wish God would just stick to the still waters, but still waters aren’t always as safe as we’d like them to be. It’s far too easy to forget that it was God who led us there, to start believing that His presence is superfluous, and to start placing our trust in the water itself. It’s safer to go through the sea while clinging to God than to lie beside still waters and forget He’s there. Waters change. Still waters don’t always stay still; rough waters don’t stay rough. I’ll stake my life on the One who can navigate them both.

Your way was through the sea,

your path through the great waters;

yet your footprints were unseen.

(Psalm 77:19, ESV)

Your road led through the sea,

your pathway through the mighty waters—

a pathway no one knew was there!

(Psalm 77:19, NLT)

“Yet your footprints were unseen.”

“A pathway no one knew was there.”

Sometimes God—or the path He has for us—is hidden. Hidden doesn’t mean “not there.” We don’t seek God because He’s not with us. We seek Him so He can help us see what we couldn’t see before.

So when you can’t see any good in your situation, no hint of God’s goodness, take the time to remember what He has done in the past. You can even pull out a notebook or journal and write out ways He’s been there for you, come through for you, and surprised you in the past. And if you find that after 10 minutes you’re staring at a blank page, ask God to help you see what you couldn’t see before.

Whether God is leading us beside still waters or through the dangerous sea, whether or not we see Him, we have this hope: He is with us. And He can navigate these waters.

Lord, when Your footprints are unseen,

when You are leading me on a path no one knows is there,

help me to diligently seek You.

And whether Your way is beside still waters or through the sea,

help me follow Your lead.

Amen. 

Advent

pexels-photo-1487009

Advent is a time of expectation and hope, but the beauty of this season gets overshadowed by busyness, rush, and consumerism. Art has a way of quieting the noise and helping us be attentive to the profound things of life.

May this piece of poetry open for you a small space when the noise of your life gets a little softer and the whisper of God gets a little louder.

 

Listen

 

I groan

—a prayer too deep for words—

as I fight to hope and believe

I will hear Your voice again.

 

The Lord hears

—the Word becomes flesh—

four hundred years of silence

broken by a Baby’s first cry.

 

When the Dream Dies

img_5488-1
Me, circa 2005

To my bright-eyed, 21 year-old self:

People tell you that you’re talented and anointed. “You’re gonna change the world,” they say. (You’re never going to stop believing that!) Your life is overflowing with possibility.

But before your 25th birthday, you’ll pour your heart and energy into a beautiful, God-sized dream and that dream will fail.

And it will feel like death.

When the dream dies, you’ll question if you really did hear the voice of God calling you to this dream or if you just imagined it. You’ll wonder about the myriad of things you could have done differently. You’ll worry your life is over. You’ll fear you’re too broken to try anything worthwhile again.

But as your mind spins with a myriad of questions and emotions, please let yourself mourn. Grieve this death. Feel the pain—God can’t comfort the hurts you refuse to feel. Allow yourself to feel this, even if that means you find yourself kneeling on your cold, bathroom floor crying in agony. Your agony is not too big for God. It is safe in His presence. You are safe in His presence.

When the dream dies, you will learn that your tears don’t make you weak. You’ll learn that you are strong and God is stronger.

One dead dream does not mean the death of all dreams. There will be beautiful things waiting for you on the other side of this.

When the dream dies, your life won’t be ending. It will be a new beginning.

Over time, He will resurrect you from the ashes. You will hope again. You will be courageous again. And you will dream again.

 

Words We Sing on Monday

Update (December 17, 2019): It has been one year since I wrote this blog post. It has also been one year since my last cortisone injections! Hallelujah! (Insert shouting and happy dancing here.) As I look back and read the words I typed a year ago, a different set of challenges weighs on my heart. But these words are still true: “God is with me. And today, when my mind is full of questions, that’s all I need to know.”

– – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – –

Yesterday in church, I found myself swept away by a song that spoke of the God’s goodness and repeatedly declared,

“You’re never gonna let,

Never gonna let me down.”

I wasn’t just singing words. I was remembering times when I desperately cried out to God in my pain and He flooded me with His comfort. I was worshipping the God I know, the God I’ve experienced.

I didn’t know that I was preaching truths into my soul I would need to hold onto the next day.

People ask me, “How are your hands?” more often than, “How are you?” Lupus has been unkind to my joints, adding difficulty to my life as a pianist. Every few months, I get multiple cortisone injections in order to continue to use my hands and play the piano. For those of you who are wondering, yes, the injections hurt. But the relief they bring and the music they allow me to produce are enough to keep me coming back for more.

Today, I visited the hand surgeon for my routine injections—one in each thumb and index finger. Four in total. “Do you think they’re working?” he asked. Then he answered his own question: “Well, of course they’re working. You wouldn’t be back here to subject yourself to this if they weren’t working.”

And then he spoke of the best way to proceed, expressing concern about the danger of repeated injections for so long. I told him, “The rheumatologist doubled my dosage of Plaquenil last Friday, and hopefully that’ll help me to not need shots as frequently.”

“Then, let’s see,” he replied. “Let’s see how things go with the new dose of Plaquenil, and then when”—not if—“you come back, let’s do an MRI and consider surgery.”

This isn’t the first time we’ve discussed surgery. In past visits I’ve barraged the poor doctor with a multitude of questions:

  • Will surgery affect my piano playing? (Possibly.)
  • If I get surgery, is it possible I will need surgery again? (Yes.)
  • What is the likelihood that surgery will be effective in my case? (It’s hard to say.)

The prospect of surgery has never sounded attractive to me. But as the doctor spoke today, the prospect of continuing as I have been looked equally unattractive. No option comes with a guarantee; and no option is without dangerous risks.

This is where I’m at. A place where I have no idea what the best way to move forward is. A place of unknown. A place where the mind easily imagines worst case scenarios.

So today I’m facing my worry with quiet trust. I’ve prayed short prayers—anything longer than a few words will bring me to tears. It’s not that I’m afraid of tears and emotion. I’m sure I’ll be ready to cry ugly tears tomorrow. But today, I want to process. To let the words of the doctor sink in. More importantly, to let the words I sang yesterday sink in.

You’re never gonna let,

Never gonna let me down.

You’re never gonna let,

Never gonna let me down…

After all, what’s the point of singing words like this on Sunday if I can’t continue to sing them as I face the darkness on Monday?

I’m not praising God out of naiveté. I can sing to God, “You’re never gonna let me down,” because I’ve been through the unknown and darkness so many times already and He’s never stopped being good or left me to fend for myself. He’s always been with me. He’s always brought me through.

God is with me. And today, when my mind is full of questions, that’s all I need to know.

“‘Behold, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son,
and they shall call his name Immanuel’
(which means, God with us).”
“And behold, I am with you always, to the end of the age.”

The Prayers We Stopped Praying

brown wooden church pew
Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com

In the days of Herod, king of Judea, there was a priest named Zechariah, of the division of Abijah. And he had a wife from the daughters of Aaron, and her name was Elizabeth. And they were both righteous before God, walking blamelessly in all the commandments and statutes of the Lord. But they had no child, because Elizabeth was barren, and both were advanced in years.”

Luke 1:5-7, ESV

“Why is this happening? How have I sinned? What’s wrong with me?” Years of living for God and doing everything right, and still she was barren.

“Lord, please give me a child.”

How many times did this prayer escape her quivering lips? How many times did she allow her heart to hope, only to be disappointed? And with each passing year, her window of possibility got smaller and her wounds grew deeper.

She was barren, marked with shame. And her years of hoping were over.

She knew the story, the one that happened millennia ago. Sarah, the mother of the Jewish people, was 90 years old when she conceived. “But God has been silent for centuries. Could God still do things like that today? And if He could, would He?”

Now while he was serving as priest before God when his division was on duty, according to the custom of the priesthood, he was chosen by lot to enter the temple of the Lord and burn incense. And the whole multitude of the people were praying outside at the hour of incense. And there appeared to him an angel of the Lord standing on the right side of the altar of incense. And Zechariah was troubled when he saw him, and fear fell upon him. But the angel said to him, ‘Do not be afraid, Zechariah, for your prayer has been heard, and your wife Elizabeth will bear you a son, and you shall call his name John. And you will have joy and gladness, and many will rejoice at his birth, for he will be great before the Lord. And he must not drink wine or strong drink, and he will be filled with the Holy Spirit, even from his mother’s womb. And he will turn many of the children of Israel to the Lord their God, and he will go before him in the spirit and power of Elijah, to turn the hearts of the fathers to the children, and the disobedient to the wisdom of the just, to make ready for the Lord a people prepared.'”

Luke 1:8-17, ESV

He was chosen by lot. What appeared to be the luck of the draw, something completely random, was divine. God was in the randomness. And as he performed his duties, something miraculous happened. Prayers he had stopped praying years ago were extravagantly answered. He was finally going to be a father.

How do I know Zechariah had stopped praying for a child? Because what he said in response were not the words of a man who still prayed to have a child, but the words of a man who had given up:

And Zechariah said to the angel, ‘How shall I know this? For I am an old man, and my wife is advanced in years.'”

Luke 1:18, ESV

He had just heard the most wonderful news of his life, but He couldn’t praise or give thanks. How many times had he prayed for a child? How many times had he consoled his crying wife? How many times did he mask his shame as other men in the community beamed with pride because of their growing families? How many years had God disappointed him before he stopped praying that one, painful prayer?

And after all those years, when his peers were enjoying the births of their grandchildren, was God really going to finally give him a son? Maybe he was numb. Maybe he still felt the sting of old wounds. Either way, the idea that God would bless him now in this way was preposterous.

But this man who had dedicated his life to God’s service had more to learn about God and His ways. Zechariah’s age, circumstances, and limitations were no match for what God could do. God could do anything. But after everything Zechariah had been through, could he believe this—really believe in a personal, non-theoretical, hope-risking kind of way?

And the angel answered him, ‘I am Gabriel. I stand in the presence of God, and I was sent to speak to you and to bring you this good news. And behold, you will be silent and unable to speak until the day that these things take place, because you did not believe my words, which will be fulfilled in their time.’ And the people were waiting for Zechariah, and they were wondering at his delay in the temple. And when he came out, he was unable to speak to them, and they realized that he had seen a vision in the temple. And he kept making signs to them and remained mute.

Luke 1:19-22, ESV

I used to think that Zechariah was being punished for his unbelief, but now I’m not so sure. Because he was suddenly unable to speak:

  • he could no longer speak words of doubt
  • other people were able to see he had a divine encounter, so they became part of the story and Zechariah wouldn’t/couldn’t walk this journey alone
  • he was constantly reminded of what God had done
  • he could spend more time listening, remembering, and reflecting on what God had done.

(How often do I think God is punishing me when really He’s blessing me and preparing me for something beautiful?)

Sometimes when God answers prayers we’ve abandoned or forgotten, He needs to break through the walls we’ve raised to protect our hearts and get our attention so we don’t miss what He’s doing. For Zechariah, he was speechless. Not in a metaphorical way, but in a literal, inconvenient, and disruptive kind of way. For nine months.

Nine months to let this glorious miracle sink in. These nine months would transform Zechariah to his core and make him the kind of father that his son would need him to be: a father who wholeheartedly believed in the God who can do anything, who hears our prayers, and who keeps His word.

When Zechariah’s week of service in the Temple was over, he returned home. Soon afterward his wife, Elizabeth, became pregnant and went into seclusion for five months. How kind the Lord is!’ she exclaimed. ‘He has taken away my disgrace of having no children.’”

Luke 1:23-25, NLT

No one could look down on Elizabeth any longer. Not only did God make Zechariah and Elizabeth a father and mother; He made them a father and mother like Abraham and Sarah. How kind the Lord is!

And this child would have a special place in history. He would be the one who would prepare the way for the Lord, the one who would baptize the long-awaited Messiah, the one of whom Jesus would one day say, “Truly, I say to you, among those born of women there has arisen no one greater than John the Baptist.”

God knew what Zechariah and Elizabeth’s story would be all along, writing their story so much more beautifully than they possibly could. However, I’m sure it didn’t feel beautiful to Zechariah and Elizabeth as they navigated the many chapters of barrenness and abandoned prayers. But God didn’t stop writing their story when others declared it to be written. When the plot seemed to be at a standstill, everything changed. Their future would not be the quiet they anticipated and their past now had purpose they had never been able to see before. For them, it was as though God rewrote the story they thought they knew.

And for us…

God remembers the prayers we prayed long ago, the ones we gave up on and stopped praying, the ones that became too difficult to pray as the years went on and left us wounded. He remembers and does something more wonderful with them than we can imagine. 

God is kind even when prayers go unanswered, even when He delays, and even when His ways make no sense.

And God writes beautiful stories. If you feel like your story isn’t beautiful, just wait; God’s not done writing yet.

God’s Presence in Our Suffering

blur close up closeup flowers
Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com

This past week, I was invited to speak at a monthly luncheon at Drury University where I’m a piano professor. In front of students, the university president’s wife, the school chaplain, and the dean who hired me, I stood up, took a deep breath, and shared my story…

Thank you so much for giving me the opportunity to be part of something special that our university has to offer and for allowing me to share my story with you today.

Before I begin, I want to let you know that I’m 36 years old and I have a decade’s worth of experience teaching in higher education. I am not—as most freshmen believe upon seeing me the first time—their classmate. I tell you this so you’ll know that as I speak to you today, I’m not speaking from my youth; I’m speaking as one who has experienced life, had my ideals come crashing down, and come through on the other side to know that amid the darkness, there is good to be found in the world and that God truly is who He says He is.

Six years ago, I got a Master’s degree in piano performance—a huge feat considering I had been diagnosed with carpal tunnel syndrome and tendonitis in both hands and wrists before I started the program. I was also a music professor at a college and I was performing across the country. I felt like my career as a pianist was beginning to take off. On top of that, my husband and I have felt a call to one day move to Japan to start a church, and everything was happening right on schedule.

But then everything changed.

I first realized something was wrong when I was preparing for a recital and noticed my hands were stiff. “Maybe I’m practicing too much. Maybe I’m stressed,” I thought.

On July 8, 2012, I wrote in my journal:

“My shoulder keeps slipping out of place and the joints in my hands are swelling. I was planning on taking a break from the pain medications [I’ve been taking for carpal tunnel and tendonitis] this summer, but instead I’m taking more pain pills that I’ve ever taken in my whole life just to function. I have some important performances coming up this month. It will take a miracle for my hands to endure the physical requirements of my pieces and make it through from start to finish. At any moment, my hands could stop, ending my music career forever. I go into every performance with a strong awareness that this could be my last one and it will happen only because God will make it happen.”

A few weeks later, on July 25, I wrote:

“Faith isn’t a surface belief but a knowing that God is doing something. I know that God keeps His promises. I know He is my healer. I know He has not sentenced me to a life of arthritis. I know He holds my future in His hands and His plans for me are good.”

Looking back, this entry makes me want to cringe. At the time, I thought these were faith-filled words, but now I see that my faith had a lot of growing to do. I still believe God is my healer, that He holds my future in His hands, and that His plans for me are good. But the prolonged, excruciating pain made me take another look at what the Bible says and reevaluate my definition of faith. Is faith just believing for miracles or can faith be bigger and deeper than that?

Over time, the stiffness turned into pain and spread all over my body to the point that I couldn’t move on my own. My husband, Daniel, had to lift my body out of bed and walk me one step at a time through my morning routine. I couldn’t even squeeze toothpaste onto my toothbrush.

It took every ounce of my strength to make it through each day.

On September 5, 2012, I wrote:

“It’s not that I’m not trusting God to take care of me and my future. I feel secure in Him. I don’t find myself doubting Him. I am full of hope and peace. But it’s the PAIN. The pain is just so much. And the new medicine the doctor gave me makes me feel worse. It makes me feel like I don’t have full control of my mind, like I’m not completely me.”

Keep in mind that I was teaching a full load at the college and this was still the beginning of the school year. On top of that, one of the professors in my department had unexpectedly passed away a couple weeks before the school year began. So not only was I a professor to these students; I was also a counselor to them as I navigated my own grief. And it was crucial that each day I came to work, I was fully present.

And that’s why a couple days later, I wrote:

“I had to make a difficult choice this morning: function in my hands and body or function in my mind. I didn’t take any pain meds last night because it was making me sleepy, dizzy, nauseous, and unable to think clearly. This morning, I woke up in extreme pain. I needed help getting out of bed, turning on the sink, getting in the shower…I didn’t know what to do. I chose to have my mind today. I am in so much pain.”

And September 17:

“The pain is getting worse. Me and Daniel are growing more exhausted. My muscles are disappearing. The doctors still have no answers. But God is sustaining me.”

As I look back, it’s crazy to me that I was able to continue teaching. There’s no way I could have done it if God hadn’t been sustaining me day by day.

It was during this time when I truly understood the words of 2 Corinthians 12:9.

“My grace is sufficient for you,

for my power is made perfect in weakness.”

All the while, I went to numerous doctors, and they did test after test and had no answers. Weeks of waiting turned into months, and the pain was too much for me. My hair started falling out until half of it was gone. And I began to wonder, “Am I dying?”

There was one time when I was laying in bed, and I asked Daniel to come to my side so I could tell him my dying wish: “Promise me that if something happens to me, you’ll still go to Japan.”

This was a scary time. I was scared of what the doctors would say. I was scared for my future. I was scared that I might be dying.

Even though I was in horrific pain, this was a beautiful time in my relationship with God. I was acutely aware of my dependence on Him. And because every movement was excruciating, I spent a lot of time lying in bed and praying to God. Early on, I couldn’t understand why God would allow me to suffer for so long (at least, what seemed long to me at the time), but I needed the wait so God could transform my heart. Looking back, I can see clearly how God was being good and wise in allowing me to wait.

Instead of allowing me to have the diagnosis the moment I wanted it, God waited until the moment I was ready to hear it.

On October 3, 2012, I wrote:

“Still no relief from the pain. I am very dependent on Daniel for a lot of basic things. I have lost almost 20 pounds since the end of July. I am exhausted. I saw 2 doctors today. They are close to having a diagnosis. Right now I’m waiting for test results…[and] I don’t like some of the words the doctors are saying. But I’m too tired to be stubborn.”

Then I wrote in capital letters:

“GOD IS BIGGER THAN ANY DIAGNOSIS.”

I wasn’t afraid anymore of death or bad news. I had hope because I had God.

Several days later, on October 8, I wrote:

“Still in pain. But God has given me a tremendous peace. I feel His presence and the support of His people. When I look around, I can still see God’s goodness in my life. In the midst of extraordinary pain, He has given me extraordinary strength.”

The very next day, the doctor called to tell me that I have lupus, an autoimmune disease where the immune system can’t tell the difference between a good cell and a bad cell, so it attacks anything and everything. That phone call changed my life. The months of waiting for answers were so hard, but because God waited until the perfect moment to let me have them, that phone call did not fill me with despair, but with worship. And as soon as I got off the phone, I cried happy tears and said, “Thank You, God!” I was so relieved that I finally had answers, and I could finally move forward.

That day in my journal, I wrote down a verse from Scripture:

“Because the Lord is at my right hand,

I will not be shaken.”

(Psalm 16:8)

That same day, my husband came home with a couple of trays of food from a friend with a card. On the card was written the same verse.

The past 6 years have been hard. Too often, if something is hard, we equate that with it being bad. Hard doesn’t always mean bad. Sometimes hard is bad, but sometimes hard is just hard.

I still wake up in pain every morning and I have to take medication every day just to function and survive. Every few months, I get cortisone injections in my hands so I can continue to use them and to play the piano. In October, I’ll perform a third piano recital here as a faculty member of Drury. It would be so easy to say, “This is too hard. I quit.” And to be honest, on my hardest days, that’s what’s going on in my head. But every practice session and performance is a victory and a declaration of what God has done in my life. And you know what? If the day ever comes when my hands are no longer able to play the piano, that will be hard, but God will still be good and my life will still be abundant.

The reality is my life is hard, but my life isn’t bad. Even with lupus, my life is good and God continues to be good. And with all of the struggles and obstacles I’ve faced the past six years, I can confidently say, “Because the Lord is at my right hand, I will not be shaken.”

So here’s what I want you to take away from my story:

I want you to know that whatever you’re going through—no matter how dark, or hopeless, or difficult—God is bigger. He’s bigger than your circumstances, bigger than your dreams, bigger than your fears. He’s even bigger than your failures. There’s nothing and no one that is beyond what God can handle or redeem.

I want you to know that God is who He says He is. He is good, He loves you, and He is with You. What we experience in this world doesn’t change that. When we suffer, it becomes more difficult to believe those things. So do the work of theology. That’s not something that’s reserved for “theologians” and pastors; it’s something we are all called to do as Jesus followers. Over and over in Scripture, we are beckoned to know God, not just about Him, but to know Him personally and deeply. So dig into His Word and wrestle with your doubts, questions, and preconceived ideas through study, prayer, and even community. That’s what I was doing as I wrote in my journal. I was wrestling. And as I did that, God gave me what I needed to be able to face my difficult circumstances with hope and peace.

I want you to know that you don’t have to be afraid of the waiting or the silence. Just because we can’t see or hear God doesn’t mean He’s not there. There are things that God can do in the waiting and silence that are more powerful and more beautiful than we can imagine in the moment. So amidst the waiting and silence, cling to God. And when it feels impossible to cling to Him, allow Him to cling to You.

And I want you to know that it’s okay to pray ugly prayers. When I was waiting for a diagnosis, I prayed a lot of ugly prayers. They weren’t always the most reverent or refined. They were raw, and gut wrenching, and tear-soaked. And most importantly, they were honest. We are to love the Lord our God with all our heart, soul, mind, and strength. God wants all of us; not just the pretty, put-together parts of us. The same Jesus who cried in the Garden of Gethsemane, pleading to the Father so intensely that He sweat drops of blood—this same Jesus is not offended or shocked by our ugly prayers. In fact, he’s able to empathize with us and understand our pain. And because it’s in our ugly prayers when we’re most honest with God, those are the moments when He’s most able to speak into our hearts.

I’d like to close with a verse you’ve heard me read a couple times already, but this time from the New Living Translation. Whatever you’re going through today, let this be your anthem:

“I know the Lord is always with me.

I will not be shaken, for he is right beside me.”

(Psalm 16:8, NLT)

Reliving Pain

black and white woman girl sitting
Photo by Gratisography on Pexels.com

I dreaded this doctor’s appointment. The last time I saw him was a little over year ago—the last check up before my last round of fertility meds and my final pregnancy test, the one in which, like all the others, the strip did not turn blue. In the ten months leading to that last appointment, I saw this doctor at least once a month. Each time, we spoke about things that felt too painful to talk about, I was poked and prodded while wearing a funny gown, and in the moments when the doctor stepped out of the room, I whispered desperate prayers.

So now, about a year later, I was afraid that sitting in his office would bring it all back and I would fall apart. I can do this, I told myself. It’s going to be okay. I’m not going to cry.

I had seen this doctor so much that I had gotten to know him and the nurse that assists him. I liked her. She was sassy and told me stories when I wanted to be distracted from the poking and prodding. And as I sat in the waiting room, I waited for her to call my name and greet me.

“Esther!” It wasn’t her. The woman who greeted me was friendly, but she was a complete stranger, and my heart sank. When this woman looked at me, what she saw was another patient who had come for a routine check up. She had no idea that I was in anguish.

She didn’t know that at my last appointment, I asked the doctor if I needed to send him a message if my final pregnancy test ended up being negative. “No need to send a message,” he said, “If I don’t hear anything, I’ll assume you’re not pregnant.” At the time, I thought he just didn’t want to deal with all of that. But now I understand that he knew that despite my best intentions, I wouldn’t be able to bring myself to call or write.

She didn’t know that the months that followed my last appointment were the darkest of my life and that it was a miracle that I no longer woke up crying every morning.

She had no idea about any of this when she looked at my file. In the midst of all the questions she had to ask me before I saw the doctor, she asked, “You’re still married with no children?”

Yup. She did nothing wrong; she was doing her job. But I really wished that the person asking me the questions in that moment was the nurse I knew and the one who knew me in return. She would have known to not ask; she would have known that my heart needed different questions altogether. But it doesn’t serve us to dwell on how we feel our circumstances should have turned out. And in that moment, I focused on the one goal I had for that day: don’t cry at the doctor’s office.

She left the room and I was alone. And it all came back to me. I relived all the pain I experienced over the past year and a half. But something else began to wash over me, something I didn’t expect: I also relived every beautiful moment of God’s grace and comfort. This isn’t how I expected my life to look, but it’s more wonderful than I could have imagined.

When God brings healing to our souls, it’s not a one time deal. The comfort of God doesn’t remove our memories. At some point, we will remember our pain. We’ll see something or someone will say something in passing, and we’ll remember.

And when we relive the pain of old wounds, we must allow God to heal us again. The key word is “allow”: God can’t heal us if we don’t allow Him to.

We tend to avoid reliving pain—we must protect our fragile hearts, after all—but we must be careful to not avoid reliving pain altogether. Sometimes reliving the pain can help us remember all that is beautiful: the victories, the moments that kept us going, the ways God entered our darkness and gave us glimpses of His abundant goodness.

I don’t want to forget. I want to remember all of it, even if that means feeling the pain again. For by remembering, I can know hope and joy and gratitude. By remembering, I can keep moving forward.

Fifteen Years Later

img_3221-1
Taken in 2004 when we were still babies.

The day we got married fifteen years ago, we were babies. I was twenty-one; you were twenty-three. At the time, we thought we were so grown up, but now I see how naive we were. Our entire future lay before us: bright and overflowing with possibility. We were going to conquer the world! Not really, but it certainly felt like it.

We didn’t know that our first ministry position would be at a church plant that would fail before it fully launched, that in its final week you would become the lead pastor with the responsibility of shutting it down with dignity. You were amazing; I can’t remember if I ever told you. We didn’t know how bad the situation was until a veteran minister told us that what we went through was the worst he had ever seen. Surely not, we thought. But further corroboration came a decade later when we ran into several pastors who had seen what we went through and each told us the same thing: “We’re so happy you’re still following Jesus.”

When we were in the midst of that ministerial catastrophe, we felt like our lives were over. We had no idea our lives were just beginning.

We didn’t know that in less than a year, we would move to the Philippines and join the pastoral staff of the largest church in the country. (What a turnaround from what we had come from!) Our minds didn’t have the capacity to anticipate how much we would learn, how much we would heal, and how much we would fall in love with a people we never expected to fall in love with. When we eventually left the Philippines to follow the dream we had in our hearts since before we got married, we again felt like we could conquer the world.

We left the Philippines to move to Springfield, MO. Not really. We left the Philippines because we wanted to move to Japan to start a church, but we needed to prepare first. And God wanted us to prepare in Small City, USA. “Five years,” we said. “We’ll live in Springfield for five years and then we’ll move to Japan.” No we wouldn’t.

When we hit the two-and-a-half-year mark, we were halfway done with our gotta-do-before-we-go-to-Japan list. We were right on schedule. And then…

“Daniel, my hands hurt. Look, my fingers can barely move.” After getting a master’s degree in piano performance, we thought my hands were just tired. We had no idea our lives were about to get harder.

Months later you wouldn’t just be my husband; you would become my caretaker. Every morning, you would carry me out of bed and move my legs toward the bathroom because I wouldn’t be able to do it on my own. You would lift my hands over my head to help my arms move as I would scream and cry in pain. It was torture, but it had to be done. It was the only way I would be able to shower on my own. When you weren’t at work, you were spending all your time taking care of me. I could see the exhaustion and worry on your face. Before we went to bed each night, I would cry because I knew the next day we would have to do it all again.

All of this was during your first semester of seminary. When I was in grad school, you supported me. “When you start working on your master’s,” I said, I’m going to support you.” I’m so sorry I couldn’t keep my end of the deal.

When I was diagnosed with lupus, people told me, “Your husband is amazing because he stayed.” This isn’t what you signed up for the day you married me. And yet you stayed.

“But what about Japan?” people asked us, as though God was completely shocked by my lupus diagnosis and had no idea it was coming when He placed the dream for Japan on our hearts. We didn’t know that the first time we would have a chance to minister in Japan, lupus would be the key. I would share my story of God’s goodness amidst suffering. It was Christmastime, so you would talk about Narnia, the darkness of winter, and the coming of spring. And God would do amazing things. We had no idea we would have to wait so long for this dream, but God has been good enough to let us have a little taste.

The excitement of that trip was soon overshadowed by more pain. “This is harder than the failed church plant,” I cried, “This is harder than lupus!” You nodded. You felt it, too. Finding out we couldn’t have children was devastating for both of us.

The day we got married, if I would have known the kind of suffering we would experience, I don’t know that I could have gone through it. I would have looked at all the hard stuff and walked away. But if I had, I wouldn’t have known the profound joy that has blossomed out of each painful experience.

In the months that followed the failed church plant, we found another church in Washington, D.C. where we were surrounded by people who spoke life into our hearts. In that church, God taught us to stand up again. Whenever we go back to visit D.C., I love that we always make a stop at that church’s coffeehouse as a kind of pilgrimage. How fitting that it’s called Ebenezers: “Thus far the Lord has helped us.” And as you sip your coffee and I sip my iced chai, we remember that we’re standing on holy ground, a place where God met us. And when we look back on our lives and remember all we’ve been through, we’re filled with fresh excitement for our future. God brought us this far; He’s not about to stop helping us now!

I’ve heard people say that you don’t really know what love is until you have children. But when you carried me—literally—each morning as we thought I might be dying, you showed me what love is. You showed me a capacity for love beyond what I could imagine. And as we have walked through the deep waters of chronic illness together, you have been my advocate and my champion. When I began to walk on my own again, you cheered for me and made me feel like I had conquered the world. I can’t articulate well the gratitude I feel knowing that I have such an amazing person to celebrate every victory with.

And as we walked through the wilderness of infertility, you refused to let me stop dreaming. I love what we’re doing with our lives now. We’re doing things we probably wouldn’t be able to do well if we had children. We wanted so much to be able to leave behind a legacy. We thought we needed children to do that; God showed us we don’t.

And the cherry on top: you’ve shown me how fun it can be when it’s just the two of us. Five Bookstore Friday dates, late night Waffle House runs, and spontaneous “Ooooh, what’s that? Let’s check it out!” adventures.

When we were young, we wanted so much for God to show us His plan for our lives. We know better now. We don’t really want to see all the stuff that God sees because it would terrify us. We would run the other direction and miss all the good stuff He has for us.

I don’t want to know what’s going to happen next. I just want to keep living this adventure with you.