I haven’t written much. Sometimes it seems like the words have dried up and there’s nothing more to say. But more truthfully, we are adjusting to the years of intensity becoming a place we must live, not a just a short season.
Darryl and I sat on the couch last night, after all the kids were finally tucked in and sipped some hot peppermint tea together. Our home is full and blessed, but at the end of many days we carry the weight of the brokenness. It’s odd, this life is such a two-sided coin. On the one hand, these years have been tremendous years of learning, growing, depending on God. And on the other, such a stripping that a deep melancholy underscoring everything. We’re changed, and sometimes I don’t like it.
The first four years of Calvin’s life were nothing but bare survival, literally trying to keep him alive from one day to the next and making major decisions at every turn. The last three have been more predictable; we’ve become used to being nurses around the clock and know how to navigate his fragility well. Now, the question of Francis Shaeffer’s book often burns in our minds: How shall we then live?
How do we live when life never “gets back” to normal? What do we do in the settling years – the years when everybody else has moved on but we are still constantly adjusting to living with loss?
“The older I get,” Darryl said, “the more I see people settling in two ways. Either they become angry and bitter, resigned in their faith or they serve with love out of their brokenness.”
How many of us haven’t fallen into the first category? We grow up and face unexpected losses and life doesn’t always turn out the way we dreamed or expected. We hurt but then time happens and with it we settle into patterns of living with broken dreams.
We either become more receptive or more hard-hearted.
We grow in love or we grow in bitterness.
We grow in devotion or in apathy.
The settling years.
Richard Sibbes said: “God takes it unkindly if we weep too much for the loss of a wife, or child, or friend, or for any cross in this life; for it is a sign that we do not fetch our comfort from him. Nay, though our weeping be for sin, we must keep moderation, with one eye looking on our sins, and the other on God’s mercy in Christ. If, therefore, the best grief should be moderated, how much more the other!”
God’s comfort is enough for any sorrow, any cross you and I are called to. It is enough to keep us from hard-heartedness, bitterness and apathy. So then why do I find so much of the latter in these settling years?
The temptation for followers of Jesus, living with broken dreams and loss, is to not lean in. Instead of depending on Jesus all the more in pain, we withdraw. Instead of moving forward in faith and hope, we retreat in doubt and despair. We internalize hurt instead of dwelling the comfort of Christ and using that to serve others no matter how broken we are.
It’s gotten a lot of us, and exposes what we may have really been living for all along.
These years are uncomfortable, settling in with altered dreams. But there’s a way to resist the easy street of withdrawing into ourselves and swimming in bitterness and anger. We can ask God to fill us with His Spirit so that we can rejoice in suffering and be filled with peace in believing. Perhaps the settling years are really an invitation to develop rhythms of joy and grace in our lives? A call to live as an ordinary people with an extraordinary hope?
Not only that, but we rejoice in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, and hope does not put us to shame, because God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit who has been given to us. Romans 5:3-5
One of my favorite things on Instagram is Mari Andrew. She takes abstract concepts and creates simple pictures that almost always perfectly characterizes feelings and realities that can be difficult to describe.
She recently has been set back by illness herself and I’m finding that many of her drawings make me say, “Yes, exactly!” I love the drawing below about empathy. Check it out:
It reminds me about the value of being with someone in hard times. Our reaction is to run away, avoid or feel like we’ve failed as a friend when we can’t solve things.
But this picture captures some of the main ways we can be a true friend when life becomes painful or hard.
We can reassure our friend that even though the worst could happen, we will be with them in it. And more importantly God will be with them. The only thing worse than devastating events in our lives, is being alone and forgotten in them. Maybe that means sitting in the hospital room with them, inviting them over for dinner or just making yourself available in any way.
We can take on practical ways to help. It’ll look different for every family and person, but it will always include showing love and kindness through everyday service. When Jesus’ disciples were weary or sad, what did he do? He baked fish for them. He fed them.
We can pray for them. Today an older woman in our church reminded us that our first priority in serving others should be prayer. It’s not an afterthought but the first thing we go to! Pray that their faith would not fail. Pray the promises of God for them. Pray for them to experience Jesus’ compassion and tender care when life is raw. Pray for opportunity to show love just as Jesus has loved us.
We can remind them who God is and what He’s promised. Sometimes pain makes it hard to see straight. The promises of God can seem far removed or a “nice idea” when you are living a hard reality. But that’s exactly when the promises come alive and valuable to us. This is when we move to walking by faith and exercising that. But we need the promises and the reminder of who God is RIGHT in front of us so that we can keep putting one foot in front of the other.
I want to grow in this area of being a good friend who empathizes. After all, isn’t this just another way of loving our neighbor? So many times we get caught up in worry about saying the wrong thing or assuming other’s have it all figured out, so we stay away. Or, even worse, we are so consumed with what’s going on in our lives that we stop looking out for others.
Jesus is the perfect example of one who empathizes. He did much more than empathize, but he illustrates drawing near in weakness. As we show empathy to people around us, we allow others to experience the love of God and in turn we are changed more into the image of Christ.
“Since then we have a great high priest who has passed through the heavens, Jesus, the Son of God, let us hold fast our confession. For we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but one who in every respect has been tempted as we are, yet without sin. Let us then with confidence draw near to the throne of grace, that we may receive mercy and find grace to help in time of need.” Hebrews 4:14-16
Occasionally I write for the kid’s section of our church magazine thought I’d share them here to use with your kids, if you’d like. This one is appropriate for the time of waiting between Easter and Ascension.
Have you ever seen a friend walking sadly on the playground? How can you tell they’re sad? Maybe they have their head down, shoulders drooped, all the while kicking wood-chips while they walk.
Once there were two friends walking sadly together. Cleopas and his friend weren’t on the playground; they were walking along a dusty road going from the city of Jerusalem to Emmaus, a seven mile trip! They had a long walk home and as you know, walking goes quickly when you talk with a friend, so they were pouring out their hearts to each other.
They had just had the worst week of their lives, and it wasn’t because of the ordinary reasons that sometimes make us say, “This is the worst day ever!” They didn’t have lost homework or even a lost donkey. They weren’t arguing with their friends or fussing over hurt feelings. It was far worse.
The week before, they had gone to Jerusalem to celebrate the Passover. It was normally a joyful celebration—a time to remember God’s faithfulness in delivering them from Egypt and a time of hope, remembering that God had promised to send another deliverer.
But this Passover had been all mixed up and seemed to have gone terribly wrong. Their dear friend, Jesus, a great prophet had been killed, on the very day of the Passover. And this was the one they thought was going to deliver them!
Their hearts hurt just thinking about Jesus, He had loved them and been with them day after day. They had seen the power of God in Him when sick people came to the door and when sinners found life and joy in His words. He had been their friend, their hope for a better future, but now all they felt was sadness and confusion. Jesus was dead and there was no delivery in sight.
Everything they thought was true seemed turned upside down, had they been wrong all along? Jesus joined them on their walk, right in the middle of all the mixed up thoughts and feelings and listened. Of course He knew all about it, but He loves for us to pour out our hearts to Him. They told the whole story to this stranger, not even recognizing it was Jesus! And Jesus gently began pointing to the truth that He was right here and all was going according to plan.
Now, if you or I have something very remarkable happen we might tell our friends the sensational details, show pictures or even reenact what happened. But Jesus, who had just suffered the greatest sorrow and achieved the greatest victory in the history of the whole wide world, began in the most ordinary way–by opening up the scriptures.
He pointed out the plan that God had been perfectly carrying out through the stories of the Israelites and the songs of the prophets. He showed them how all these stories pointed to the Lamb, the Redeemer, HIM! And as he spoke the words of scripture, their hearts started to thaw from the fear and confusion and they began to burn, throb and nearly burst with joy as recognition lit their entire being, it was Jesus. And He HAD delivered them from something much worse than the Romans—they were delivered from the clutches of sin which had the power to destroy them more than any Roman.
These two disciples had started their long walk with heavy hearts and sandals dragging, but by the end of the long trip as they sat down to break bread with Jesus, their hearts were light and their feet eager to get up and spread the news—Jesus was alive and God’s plan of deliverance was being carried out perfectly.
I don’t have a time machine to send you back to the Emmaus road, but I can tell you where to find Jesus–open up the Bible, He really is on every page! This week, in your devotions, why don’t you write down your findings of seeing Jesus in the stories and prophets of the Old Testament; ask your parents for help if you’re stuck.
Seeing Jesus made the disciple’s hearts burn with passion, joy and devotion. If your heart is dead and cold and the Bible seems boring, go to your knees. Ask the Holy Spirit to open your eyes to see Jesus as you read the Word. He is the only one who can wake us up from the sleep of sin and make us alive in Christ. Seeing Him will make our feet eager to worship Him and to share the news of Jesus with others.
This article was originally published in the Banner of Sovereign Grace Truth. It sums up my theology of grief and I hope it gives you encouragement.
I dreamed a dream in times gone by/when hope was high and life worth living/I had a dream my life would be/so different from this misery I’m living/so different now from what it seemed. Now life has killed the dream/I dreamed. These are the famous haunting lyrics of Fantine, a character in the classic novel, Les Miserables by Victor Hugo.
The story behind the song is one of lost dreams: a mother (Fantine) wanting to provide for her child but, at every turn, her life unwinding into poverty and spiraling into ruin. The song has one theme: bitterness.
Bitterness at what could have been, but wasn’t, bitterness about the sting of her present circumstances, and bitterness about facing a future she didn’t want. In short: bitterness at the loss of her dream of what life would be like.
Very few of us will stand on the street corner and belt out a song of anguish like Fantina, however the sentiments she expressed may be alive and well in our hearts. Who hasn’t experienced the bitterness of hopes dashes and dreams not realized? Many of us could say: “I had a dream of what life would be like, and this isn’t it.”
There is nothing wrong with dreams or hoping for good things in life. In fact, we are told to make plans, prepare, hope: in essence, “dream”. We can have good and godly dreams: the upbuilding of the church, a healthy family, a life of usefulness, a loving marriage, financial security and meaningful relationships and work.
But since the fall has dashed our purity and communion with God, we and our dreams (as in hopes and plans) are broken, both in essence and their fulfillment. Sometimes it’s in the big things of life: churches can flounder in strife or error, babies are miscarried or born with life threatening conditions, spouses become ill and die or financial disaster happens.
Even if we haven’t had major disappointments, we often have smaller dreams unfulfilled, such as struggling with loneliness while longing for relationship, or the perceived lack of meaningful and fruitful work, etc.
With the loss of any dream, we realize grief and disappointment with an intimacy we never desired. But within every lost dream there is a beckoning, a divine opportunity, even in the midst of your grief and brokenness.
A Divine Opportunity for Unbelievers
For unbelievers, the loss of dreams is a divine opportunity sent to awaken us from the stupor of comfort and the futility of life without Christ. It’s a wild wake-up call from the God of the cosmos to take our eyes off our little dreams and set our eyes on Him.
Our “little” dreams matter, to us and God, but when we are missing Him, they all amount to nothing. And because sin dwells at our core, our dreams are hopelessly bent to serving ourselves and that only. But God is gracious and uses these disappointments as a call to wake up from the mirage of satisfaction with your perceived success and happiness here and a call to drink of the Living Water (Jesus!) in order to bring you to true happiness and success only found in Him.
Look over the past years of your life. Are there areas of loss, disappointment and frustration? They are divine opportunities to come and drink. They are invitations to place your bitter and frustrated heart into the hands of a capable and complete satisfier: the Christ.
A Divine Opportunity for Believers
But what about the loss of dreams for believers? Many of us have had good dreams slip from our grasp and crash into a thousand pieces. And these aren’t hypotheticals, they are real situations that create a painful daily reality for many of us.
In my immediate relationships I can think of at least ten families dealing with the serious loss of dreams. One has lost a husband, a young couple grieves infertility, a father deals with a disabling illness, a marriage broken by sin and on it goes.
Providence woven with the fallen world frustrates the life we dreamed of. No matter how much we intellectually understand that God will work things for our good, when we actually endure the loss of dreams, we grieve. And that is not a lack of faith. It is the natural response to the pain of living in a broken world as broken people.
Grief can make us physically nauseous, emotionally depressed and spiritually dry. It can numb us to the realities of God’s comfort and goodness. Surrounding ourselves with the people of God, immersing ourselves in the preaching of the Word and continuously crying out to God in broken confession and trust are often the remedies for healing the deep wound we feel. In short: commit our broken dreams and grief to Him.
This is the divine opportunity. Even in our losses, He makes us gain in Christ. Here are three ways:
Communion. We’re very short-sighted; it often takes pain for us to lift our eyes off of our little lives and actively seek the Lord in prayer. Not only because we have more need, but because we desire Him more. When our dreams are ripped from our hands, the earth and all it holds becomes small and He becomes everything.
Some Christians are afraid to be transparent about feelings of disappointment, grief and perplexity in these times. But God doesn’t need us to bolster up a false cheerfulness or an it’s-all-for-the-best attitude. Instead God comes near, and compels us to turn to Him in our grief.
We can confess our wrong attitudes, ask for forgiveness, grace and help. He is not a distant, uninvolved Father. He takes your tears and puts them in a bottle, and invites you to take refuge in Him. He reminds you of His everlasting arms when it feels like the loss has struck you so low you can scarcely face another day. He doesn’t gloss over your grief and actually binds you to Himself as you walk through valleys.
Sanctification. Holiness is not a boring state of being, it is a life of new obedience to Christ. In that there is a growing intensity and closeness with the Triune God. By His power, He actually transforms us into His likeness and into the fellowship of His love. Often this isn’t accomplished in gentle or comfortable ways. There is pain involved–the chipping away of our desires, our pride, our entitlements. The stripping of dreams we thought we deserved. And a surrender. A surrender to follow Christ no matter what; without reserve or contingencies.
New Dreams. Nothing will replace the dreams we’ve lost. There is no “get-out-of-grief” card when you suffer great loss. But we are not left with the ash of broken dreams and no hope for the future. We are offered a “new and living hope”. Jesus.
Even when our dreams may have been good dreams, He gives us better and richer dreams. He takes our dreams for a comfortable normal life and gives us dreams for an increasing life with Christ. He trades our dreams of pleasing ourselves into dreams of living for Him.
Losing our dreams can free our hearts to embrace Him and a kingdom dream. Just recently I witnessed an older lady come to faith and a life of service after being converted during a valley of grief. Out of the wastelands of our lives He can grow such beauty, hope and life.
Ash or Him
Grief and loss are murky and often unpredictable experiences. But no matter how we are affected, we all face similar temptations in them. Our grief can turn us from God, instead of towards Him. We can nurse the incredible pain and let it fester into life-long bitterness and anger. We can settle for ashes and miss the divine opportunity extended to us in grief: come to Him and live.
C.S. Lewis said this about our dreams (favorite wishes): “Lose your life and you will save it. Submit to death, death of your ambitions and favorite wishes every day and death to your whole body in the end: submit with every fibre of your being, and you will find eternal life. Keep back nothing. Nothing that you have given away will be really yours. Nothing in you that has not died will be raised from the dead. Look for yourself, and you will find in the long run only hatred, loneliness, despair, rage, ruin, and decay. But look for Christ and you will find Him, and with Him everything else thrown in.” (Mere Christianity, 226-227)
The story of Fantine’s life is not a happy one. She was without Christ and laid low by broken dreams and had no living hope. She died a miserable painful death, holding only the ashes of dreams and a bitter heart.
Your circumstances are different, but maybe your life is also at a point so low, a place where every dream has been lost. Don’t settle for clinging to ashes. Turn with your lost dreams to Jesus, for the first time or as your life-long posture. He is holding more than a dream; He is offering the reality of a life in Him that can never be lost.
His head is tilted back in his chair. His mouth hangs slightly open as he breathes quietly, his body heaving in once more and then out again. Chronic lung disease is no joke.
An inch below the surface his lungs continue their struggle: battling fluid that tries to fill every air sac, tube and pocket of space. His will fights hard and he breathes in again, forcing oxygen into fluid saturated pockets. Oxygen rushes in and then, with concerted effort, his exhale squeezes air out. He gets relief until the next breath.
Sometimes being seven and war-torn go together.
War torn because each breath is a battle, fought 40 times a minute. Some days are better than others.
It’s no wonder his head is tilted back in exhaustion. Still a grin, that lopsided knowing smile that can change his face in an instant. He listens in on the chatter drifting from the dining room. Noah and Evie don’t realize they’ve got a third player as they build imaginary worlds with blocks and figures.
His eyes look in the direction of their noise, looking for them, only to be greeted with more black. Or maybe, as Dr. Geddie surmised, he catches a patch of sight, like peering through swiss cheese.
His smile widens and his legs stiffen out straight in front of him. He’s smart, trying to manipulate tone to get his body to move. But it doesn’t, so instead a happy call rises above the gurgle in his throat. Then he relaxes back into his chair, making up for the effort and catching his breath again.
His eyelids flutter and his eyes roll back slightly into his head, obviously tired from this small effort. But giving up is not in his playbook.
His bedroom lies adjacent to the kitchen. Each morning as I move about measuring coffee, pouring water and washing leftover dishes from the night before, he calls me.
I tuck the wet dish towel back in the rack and head down the hallway to his room. The machines rumble, his lungs crackle and two little arms shoot up eager. They’re bent at an odd angle but I don’t care. All is see is invitation, so I offer my cheek for his kiss. The dry chapped lips find me and his arms rest on my shoulders.
I can hear the crackling and whistling in his lungs as he alternates between deep sighs of contentment and sounds of joy.
A life of exhaustion.
A life of battles that will never win the war of chronic lung, but they do win him time. And that seems worth the price to him.
A life of joy.
A new day breaks and again he calls from the room: Come in and love me, mom! It’s a new day.
He has learned to fight the battles well.
He’s learned contentment.
He’s found love is enough.