Grief Runs Deep

This morning I picked up the ashes of my dad who passed away on Christmas Eve. It was an odd sensation since my mom had just passed away six months earlier on June 25, 2021. To say things are strange in my world would be an understatement, but today I just need to take a little time and share some things weighing on my heart so I can make a little room for a breath in the midst of this storm. I hope you don’t mind.

To know where I’m coming from, you need to know where I’ve been.  Shortly after the time of mom’s passing, I really wanted to write a tribute post to her, but the words just wouldn’t come.  My mom and I were inexpressibly close. After her memorial service, I tried again to write my post, but again the words wouldn’t come.  So, as we were approaching Christmas day (the six-month anniversary of her passing), I decided it was time to finally put my thoughts together. I almost had my post finalized, but on the evening of the 23rd, I got a call I did not expect. The memory center, where my dad had been residing for the past 2.5 years, called to say he had taken a sudden turn for the worse.

We took off for Dad’s home and sat with him for 26 hours without so much as even a nap until he passed at 6:50 pm on Christmas Eve. So now the things I had started to write in tribute to my mom got very complicated and layered with the passing of my dad.  Now I write this post as an orphan, and it just feels odd. Every post I’ve ever done for my blog, I’ve read aloud to my mom.  It was something we shared, something she enjoyed, and now, once again, words aren’t coming easily.  There are too many of them and yet not enough. It’s complicated, but then so was the journey the last four to five years.

Not only was I close to my mom and dad, but they were also our “couple friends” for me and Michael. They’re the ones with who we went to dinner multiple times a week or on excursions together.  They’re the ones with who we spent weekends hanging out or watching sporting events.  For several years, the four of us golfed together six days a week! Whatever we did really didn’t matter as long as we enjoyed the time together. 

When Dad first started showing signs of dementia, my entire world felt like it shifted. I immediately wanted to know everything there was or everything I could get my hands on about his condition.  I wanted to know what to expect and how to navigate it as best we could. I was obsessed with learning so I could help care for my dad in a way that preserved his dignity and allowed us to keep him in his own home as long as possible.

By the summer of 2017, my world started to become very small. I would go to work, often talking with Dad several times a day to help him through issues or confusion with which he was dealing. I’d come home after work and spend about 30 minutes with my husband, try to eat something and then head to my parents’ house, where I routinely did not return home until 11:00-12:00 at night.  Then I would do it all again the next day. It became my purpose. It became an internal identity even more than an external one.

My dad moved into memory care in June of 2019 due to the deterioration of his condition, and us having exhausted every technique, effort, and ability to care for him at home. It was a gut-wrenching time for all of us, but mostly for my mom being separated from the love of her life. They met when Dad was twelve years old, and he told her that day he was going to marry her. They never dated anyone else and were married in 1963. It was a blessing to have Mom move in with us after Dad moved into that wonderful memory care facility with a staff that is beyond incredible.

Life had changed drastically for our family that had already seen so much. At the time of all these changes, Mom was 23 years post-heart transplant and had definitely beat the odds, since they told us her surgery would be a GREAT success if she made it to five years.  What a gift we were given to have her for so many more, but because of the large number of transplant medications she had to take every day, she developed interstitial lung disease.  Eventually she needed supplemental oxygen and continued to slowly go downhill, but everything that made her who she is never faltered. Her humor and joy, her kindness and generosity, her faith, hope, and love were all just as strong as they’d ever been.  She was the most amazing example of what it means to never give up and to trust fully in the Lord.

In late spring 2021, Mom started having trouble with a loss of strength in her legs, but nowhere else. She eventually agreed to go to the ER to see if it might be some kind of infection, since the doctors hadn’t been able to pinpoint a reason for two months.  We went to the hospital on a Friday night, and by Tuesday, all the doctors determined it was just a very sudden progression of her lung disease. Mom came back home late that night with hospice and passed away a few days later on Friday afternoon at 4:05 pm, just ten days after she and Dad celebrated their 58th wedding anniversary when the three of us had lunch together.

In the vacuum of the loss of my mom, I struggled greatly, but I also still needed to be there for my dad. I spent great amounts of time with him, sometimes just visiting and singing with him, but other times being there to calm him down from being stressed, and even eventually assisting with his most basic daily needs/tasks.  There was still a lot to do. Mom wasn’t there, but Dad still needed things; he still needed me.  I still had a purpose.

Losing Dad one day before the six-month anniversary of losing Mom was a blow. It was a stunning blow. Although I tried to just pick up and keep going like I always have, something wasn’t right.  On Sunday, January 2nd, I went down to my office to take down all the decorations that had been put up for Christmas. In the six hours I was by myself, I realized something is broken in me. I don’t know if it’s my heart, mind or spirit, but something is definitely broken. 

Grief is a fluid pain. It is like a river that overflows its banks and suddenly has no predictable borders. There is no way to map the path and no time frame as to when it will recede again. My parents both had such a deep, abiding faith and trust in God, and so do I. I’ve written so often about a higher perspective in looking at things in life or in ways to keep holding on when storms come along.  I KNOW how to walk through difficult times and losses, but this one has dropped me into a place where almost nothing feels familiar anymore.  On top of the normal grief that comes with losses like these, I have lost a huge purpose and part of my internal identity. Honestly, I feel lost. The world is different now; I am different.

Faith does not prevent us from having struggles, nor does it always quell our fears. It doesn’t suddenly take away our pain or cause us to just skip on down the road, but we can still have faith while the tears are flooding our pillows. We can still have faith and trust, even when pains are so great that we don’t know where we will get our next breath.  Faith, hope, love…these three things remain and abide, but not without the noise of the troubles in this life. They remain and abide despite the storms swirling around them.

We make choices every day about how we will live our lives. Emotions come along with our circumstances, but we can still choose to believe while in the midst of those emotions. There is a song I used to sing that said, “I choose to believe that You are faithful, and my life is in Your hands, and this mystery I face today is part of bigger plan. I choose not to be discouraged when the sun will not break through. I have a choice in trusting You, so Lord this is what I choose.”  I don’t know that I could sing that song at this exact moment, but I believe I will get there.  I believe it because I know God understands where I am and what I need. I’m thankful for that because even I don’t know what I need at this point. 

The shortest verse in the Bible is John 11:35, and it’s found in the story of Jesus raising Lazarus from the dead.  It says simply, “Jesus wept,” but the verse right before it tells us why. “When Jesus saw her weeping, and the Jews who came with her weeping, He was deeply moved in His spirit and was troubled…”   Just let that sink in for a moment. Jesus loved Lazarus and knew he was dead. He also knew He was about to raise him back to life, but when He saw the sisters and friends of Lazarus in such deep grief and distress, it bothered Him and moved Him to tears! He knew the joy that was about to come, but it didn’t keep Him from literally crying with sadness to see those He loved experiencing such heartache and pain.  That thought brings me comfort. God knows that it was time for Mom and Dad to go home to be with Him (and each other). God knew it was going to be a grand reunion and the joy and celebration it would bring in Heaven, but He also knew it was going to devastate me and bring a heartache like I’ve never known.  God knew that Heaven’s gain would leave me feeling lost and without a purpose. He knows, but more than that, He cares! When I am grieving and the tears won’t stop, His heart feels that pain and sees those tears, and it moves Him to tears right along with me. 

When we are walking through the valleys of life, no matter how deep, we are not alone. God is still there right in the middle of the darkness. We may not always be able to see Him clearly because of the blackness, but He sees us as if we were in the middle of the light, because we ARE in the middle of the light. If God is with us, there is light even if we can’t see it.  My favorite passage includes a verse that says, “If I say, ‘Surely the darkness will hide me and the light become night around me,’ even the darkness will not be dark to you; the night will shine like the day, for darkness is as light to you.”  Regardless of how you or I feel, there is still light. There is still hope and there is still love.

If, like me, you are trudging through one of life’s valleys and trying to find your way, you are not alone. The One who sees the beginning from the end is still working things out for our ultimate good. He can see all the joy and every great experience that is to come in our lives even though we can’t see past today.  He knows it is going to be ok because He has promised to never leave us and to walk us through everything we face. He sees the you and me that are laughing and engaging with life again. He sees the you and me that are stronger because of what we are walking through right now. He sees it all, but most importantly He sees YOU. I’m not saying the road is easy, but I pray we can remember there is a path forward and God, Himself is walking with us and clearing the way with each step. 

Take care of you and of those around you. Love each other; pray for each other because you never know through what valley the person next to you is walking.

Blessings.

Yesterday Once More

shutterstock_1255117942Although I might be dating myself with that song-cue of a title, I want to share something very important with you about an issue that is affecting more and more of us, an issue that is leaving families hurt, lost and confused about what to do or where to turn.  This issue is the condition called Dementia, and it not only affects older people but people of all ages.  They are even finding new strains appearing in young children.  I know this is a bit of a departure from my normal posts, but it is one to which many of you can relate.

Dementia, in any form it manifests, is devastating.  I know first-hand, because my dad, who is the most brilliant man I ever knew, has now been walking this journey for a number of years.  As a result, so have the rest of us.  This disease doesn’t just affect the patient; it sinks its teeth into every relationship surrounding them and wreaks havoc in the lives of everyone who loves them.  If you had told me it was possible for my dad to struggle like I’ve seen him do in recent years, I would have told you that you were out of your mind.  Yet, here we are.  Some days it’s yesterday all over again, and other days it’s a brand new world.

Anyone who has been affected in one way or another by the devastating aspects of any form of dementia – either as patient or care partner- can relate to the myriad of challenges, frustrations and griefs that become a part of every day life.  I heard others talk about having a loved one with dementia, and my heart always went out to them, but the truth is that I had no clue about the depth of what they were walking through.  That all changed when this disease hit my own family.

golf non dadDementia is an umbrella term, under which fall a large number of different types of the disease.  Alzheimer’s, for example, is simply the most common type of dementia, but there is Lewy Body, Frontotemporal, Vascular Dementia, and a host of others.  Dementia is not a memory problem; it is brain failure.  Just like any other organ can fail, the brain can experience failure.  Where that failure first manifests itself will determine the functions that are the first to begin diminishing.  My dad did not start out with memory problems.  You could ask him about things and talk with him, never knowing there was a problem at all.  We did however start to notice he was starting to struggle with problem solving, or things involving processes or sequencing.   We saw the signs but never recognized them.  We just blamed it on not knowing technology or being tired and stressed.  Because he didn’t have any trouble with remembering people, events, stories or anything else, it never occurred to us in the beginning that he might have an actual issue going on.  We were wrong.

It wasn’t until things really got noticeable with Dad that I began researching dementia and what to do.  By God’s grace, I stumbled upon a 3-minute video of a woman named Teepa Snow, and I was captivated.  (Here is the video that started it all: Teepa – Communicating with a person with Dementia  ) Immediately I knew I was in over my head, but I also felt a huge relief that someone could make aspects of this disease so easy to understand, (and with a great sense of humor to boot).  I immersed myself in her videos and website (www.teepasnow.com).  I took webinars and attended a wonderful Care Partner Series that was a cross between a class and a support group…twice!  Teepa, and the way she imparts coping mechanisms and techniques in how to walk this journey, absolutely changed the trajectory of ours.  Did it stop the disease? Nope.  Did it change the grief and constant changes that come with brain failure?  Nope.  What it DID change, was greatly reducing the feeling of isolation that comes when your world shrinks as you care for a loved one with this disease.  What it changed was how we viewed this disease.  It provided ways for those of us who love Dad, to offer support for him, and each other, in ways we wouldn’t have known otherwise.

shutterstock_316304594As of right now, there has not been a single survivor of this disease.  Let that sink in for a moment.  We have found ways to mitigate some of the effects of it, but it still remains a 100% fatal condition.  That may sound harsh, but it is the reality.  There is no currently no cure.  We have done a great job in this country highlighting all kinds of diseases and raising money for research, but this disease falls through the cracks sometimes.  Maybe it’s because it is often a private battle that still contains a stigma that causes people to be afraid to discuss it openly.  Maybe it’s because people who would normally be out there raising money for the cause are far too busy just trying to survive from day to day as they care for their loved ones.  Whatever the reason, we need to get busy doing all we can to raise money for research, while raising awareness and educating others, so that we can reduce the stigma associated with this disease.

My Dad is still the most brilliant man I know, and every so often I get a glimpse of that same man during a visit or conversation with him.  Underneath the looping conversations or behavior is still an amazing, loving, funny, demanding, professional and successful man; it just takes a little more to see past the surface now.  Most people who encounter those with brain failure seem to focus so much on what the person has lost in functionality, but I agree with Teepa that we need to be focusing on what someone can still do!  When we focus on the skills and abilities that remain in a dementia patient, we are able to bring out the person they’ve always been.  Unfortunately, that also means letting go of what we expected or how we think things should be, and embrace what is right in front of us.  Now that I think about it, that’s not a bad way to live our lives anyway.

Blessings!

NOTE: I will be participating in the “Walk To End Alzheimer’s” on October 12, 2019 in our local community.  I have never been one to ask for financial support for a cause, but this one is near and dear to my heart, as it is may of yours as well.  If you can make a donation to join the fight for Alzheimer’s first survivor, it would be so appreciated.  It doesn’t matter if it is one dollar, it absolutely makes a difference!     Thank you! 

Deanna OLeary’s Walk to End Alzheimer’s Page

Not Without Hope

Many of you have heard the Bible verse that says we sorrow not as those who have no hope.  I would assume that almost every occasion (if not all) was in reference to someone who has passed from this life.  Sure, it is a comfort to know that we can have hope in the midst of our grief when we lose someone we love, but these past few weeks or so have once again made me look at a common verse a little differently.  I recently lost my dear uncle Dewayne Hoppert, and it has affected me in the most profound ways.  Of course the verse I mentioned keeps coming to mind, but not in just the sense of hope I have of seeing my uncle again, but more in how my uncle lived HIS life.

dewayne happyMy Uncle Dewayne (or Uncle Wayne as I called him) was the most amazing man of faith and incredible teacher of God’s word.  He gave up a very successful and lucrative career in construction to answer the call to full-time ministry.  He earned a double Bachelor’s Degree in Theology and Bible Languages, as well as Master of Bible Languages and Doctor of Bible Languages.  He was not only masterful in his study of God’s word and everything associated with it, but also in relating it to others in the most easy to understand ways.  He was an incredible Pastor and Uncle, but he was an even more amazing example of what it means to live by faith.  Uncle Wayne lived with the effects of Multiple Sclerosis for many years.  He had continual health issues, eventually ended up in a wheelchair and often needed assistance physically.  By all rights, he should have been sad, depressed, and maybe even angry at God for allowing him to suffer physically after he had dedicated his entire life to His service.  Many people would have thought, “If this is what serving God and living by faith means, then I don’t want any part of it.”  But not Dewayne.  Nope, my Uncle Wayne always had a smile on his face and encouragement for everyone else.  You could always hear him laughing from the depths of his soul or whistling as he wheeled around the church.  At his Celebration of Life service, it was one of the most talked about aspects of his life aside from his faith, and yet it was his faith that allowed him to be so joyful and hopeful.  How in the world was he able to keep that attitude no matter what stresses came into his life (physical or otherwise)?  Well, for lack of a better statement, “He sorrowed not as those who have no hope.”

Grief and loss is such a terrible sensation.  Whether we lose a loved one, our jobs, a relationship or any other thing we value, it saddens us.  It grieves us.  It breaks our hearts.  I have lost a lot of people in my life who were dear to me, and I usually go back to this verse (along with others) to comfort me that I will see them again.  Some losses have been profound, but this is the first time I have been so confounded by one.  Maybe it’s because Dewayne was my “second dad.”  Maybe it was because, for 20 years as Music Director, I had the privilege of working so closely with him as the Pastor.  Maybe it was that he was so consistently there for me as my Uncle.  Maybe it was that he was a giant of faith in my eyes.  Or maybe, just maybe, it was simply because he lived every word he ever taught or preached.  Every time he said, “God is in control,” or “God’s got this,” he spoke out of the experience of living it.  He may have doubted now and then, but he never caved to that doubt.  Instead, he talked about how we can live victoriously over our circumstances through our faith, hope and trust in God.  And just like him, we can do the same thing by letting our love and gratitude for God drive our mindset.

shutterstock_672165244Hope is not easy to come by in a hopeless world.  Recently our Pastor brought a message on hope, and it reminded me of what Dewayne always taught:  The word “hope” used in the verse  “…sorrow not as those who have no hope,” isn’t the kind of hope this world has conditioned us to consider.  This is not just wishing for something.  We talk about hoping we get that promotion or raise.  We talk about hoping something goes well.  We hope our team wins the game.  We hope the weather is good.  We hope, we hope and we hope, but what we are really saying is we “wish.”  This verse, however, uses a word that does not infer wishing, but conveys the certainty of a positive outcome.   I’m not going to go into all the certainties of the resurrection or the certainty of our salvation as believers.  Instead, I want to talk about this idea of being certain of the positive outcome of a situation.  Romans 8:28 tells us that all things work together for our ultimate good and His glory, but when you are trudging through difficulties it’s hard to feel that way.

Having faith isn’t very hard in the good times, but when the rubber meets the road, we are so quick to complain and murmur.  We complain about our jobs, families, churches, traffic,  health, and everything else that doesn’t go the way we want.  We all have difficulties and challenges, but we don’t all go through them the same way.  The Bible is filled with verses telling us God can be trusted and that we need to trust Him.  It tells us He operates differently, and has ways that aren’t like ours, because He sees the big picture.  He knows all the paths in my life and sees it as a beautiful tapestry, where all I see is the mess of threads on the other side.  He isn’t doing things to harm me, but I can only see the threads, and sometimes it feels like He must be mad at me based on my circumstances. But in Jeremiah 29:11 He declares, “For I know the plans I have for you: plans to proper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future.”  Verse after verse tells us to seek God first, and He has promised He’ll take care of us in every way.  Dewayne used to say our problem with being totally committed to trusting God is that we KNOW He will take care of us, but we are afraid He won’t do it like we want Him to.  That’s so very true.  We want Him to lead us, but not if it takes us down a path that has difficulties.  We’ve twisted our perspective of God and who He is so much that it’s no wonder we struggle with our faith when things go wrong.

shutterstock_527029558I’m going to be a raw here for a moment.  I miss my Uncle Wayne more than I could possibly put into words.  At times it is an isolating sensation, even though I know others miss him too.  The sorrow over the loss of his physical presence is even more difficult than I imagined it would be.  I miss everything about having him here to see and talk with, whether it was laughing about old times, sharing music, discussing God’s word, or even just saying nothing while enjoying his company.  My heart breaks every time I realize I won’t have one more hug, smile, laugh or conversation with him.  It is a loss so profoundly difficult to process, but then in those moments it’s almost as if I hear his whistling drifting down from Heaven.  I am reminded of what he endured in this life and how he kept his faith no matter what he had to face.  I remember things he taught, but more importantly I remember what it looked like watching him actually live those very things through faith.  He wasn’t perfect, but I’ve never known anyone who was a more perfect parable of what it is like to be a sinner saved by the grace of God, living victoriously through trust and faith in Him.  I told someone recently that we have the perfect, sinless example of Jesus Christ on how we should live our day-to-day lives, but I was blessed beyond measure to have the most perfect example of what it looks like for an imperfect child of God to dedicate himself to learning God’s word, loving God’s word and living God’s word – even when he messed up.  I saw someone who asked for forgiveness when he sinned and understood that he didn’t have to beat himself up over it, because God forgives AND forgets.  I saw “perfect imperfection,” and it was incredible to witness.

My last visit with Dewayne was something I intended to keep private, but now feel compelled to share with you.  I did not intend to see him in the hospital because my previous visit at church with him had been so “normal.”  I was content with it, but less than two days before he passed from this life, God tugged at my heart, and I wanted to go see him.  I couldn’t explain why, but my husband and I headed to the hospital.   He was resting and not very alert, though he would nod and react to what we were saying.  There were even a few moments of laughter and responsiveness.  Before we left, I took his hand and told him I loved him.  He kind of mumbled that he loved me too, and then said, “Hey Mike” to my husband.  On the way down to the lobby of the hospital, my husband and I were talking about being glad we came, even though it was tough.  Suddenly I realized I had left my purse up in the room.  DANG!  We had to go back.  I wasn’t thrilled, but it ended up that my forgetfulness was a total gift from God.  When I walked back in the room, he was actually quite alert.  I got my purse, but then he started talking with me.  We spoke for several minutes, mostly about God being in control.  Here he was, still proclaiming God’s goodness even in his most difficult time.  He told me three different times how proud he was of me, which felt like warm oil soothing my heart.  As we talked, he said, “God’s got this.  There may be some challenges here and there, but He’s working it out and everything is going to be ok.”  He repeated those sentiments several times throughout our conversation.  Then he said, “Study,” and I told him the great thing was that he had actually taught all of us HOW to study through the rules of interpretation.  I told him he had equipped us, and that I would absolutely study.  I said, “That’s a great gift because you can listen to someone all day long but until you study things out for yourself, you don’t own it.”  He pointed at me and said, “That’s right, you’ve got to OWN it.”  He and I then clasped hands, and he pointed at me with the hand I was holding and said, “Now you’re responsible.”  Although my cousin and I laughed and joked a little bit, in my heart (and based on his expression), I will always believe he meant we are the next generation and we need to carry on in faith.  Before I left, we told each other “I love you.”  This time there was no mumbling, but the clear beautiful words that are etched into your soul in those moments.  As I left his room I turned around and pointed at him, and he pointed right back.  Then I gave him a thumbs up, and he laughed and gave one back to me.  That was the last image I had of him.  He was laughing with me and giving me the thumbs up.

I started this post saying I have never had a loss that affected me so profoundly.  It is because the way he actually LIVED affected me so profoundly.  It is a multi-faceted kaleidoscope of memories and lessons that is too massive for me to be able to wrap my head around.  My last visit with him was filled with more than what I could have ever imagined.  His ability to keep his faith, trust and joy was so strong that it filled the room in which he was staying.  It really was no different than how it filled every other room he had been in over the course of his life.  He was different.  He had HOPE!  He knew it didn’t matter what he faced, even when he had every right to be angry or bitter, because in the end he knew he was going to overcome.  He never sorrowed in this life as those who have no hope.  He had hope even when MS began to make it difficult to do certain things.  He had hope when he became confined to a wheelchair.  He had hope when his health faltered or when he had to deal with other challenges associated with life or ministry.  He didn’t just have hope, he LIVED hope!  And so can we!

Matthew 5: 14-16 is something Dewayne spoke about quite often.  “You are the light of the world.  A city set on a hill cannot be hidden, nor does anyone light a lamp and put it under a basket, but on the lampstand, and it gives light to all who are in the house.  So let your light shine before men in such a way that they may see your good works and glorify your Father in Heaven.”  He always said those verses don’t say we might be light, but that we ARE light; the question is whether or not we are going to shine or hide.  We have a reason to hope (the certainty of a positive outcome), and it is our turn to shine.  We don’t have to reserve our hope simply for knowing we will see our loved ones again.  We can be certain every day and in every circumstance (no matter how difficult) of exactly what my Uncle Wayne last said to me:

“God’s got this.  There may be challenges here and there, but He’s working it out and it’s going to be ok.”

Blessings!

Paradise Lost?

shutterstock_732751837Have you ever walked through tough times in your life and come out on the other side, only to be plunged back into difficulties?  It’s one of the most discouraging things in life to think you have finally hit some smooth sailing and then your boat overturns again.  In my life, these times have rattled and shaken me to the core.  I have felt defeated, like the sun was never going to shine again, and have often felt like maybe God is mad at me for some reason to have allowed more trouble in my life.  Of course, there are all the cute quotes out there that remind us God is always good and is always working for our good.  Heck, I even believe that, but man, sometimes I don’t feel it.  I sit and wonder what God is up to and why there are times it feels like He yanks me out of a pleasant place only to drop me into a difficult, depressing or downright terrible place.  If I’m being totally honest, it makes me question His goodness and wonder why He doesn’t just put me (or others) in that pleasant place and let us stay there.  Sometimes it is life circumstances that just hit us, but sometimes God actually calls us out of the good places for a reason.

Recently I’ve been thinking a lot about a man named Lazarus.  Many of you may know of whom I am speaking, but let’s take a look at it for a moment. Lazarus was a dear friend of Jesus (and also the brother of Mary and Martha).  He became extremely ill, so Mary and Martha sent a message to Jesus telling Him, “Lord, the one you love is sick,” because they KNEW Jesus had the power to heal him.  It probably seemed like a no-brainer that Jesus would come and heal his friend, especially since the Bible tells us that Jesus not only loved Lazarus, but also loved Mary and Martha.  They were a dear family to Him, and you’d think He would immediately run to take care of it.  But He didn’t.  He told the messenger, “This sickness is not going to end in death.  No, it is for God’s glory so that God’s Son may be glorified through it.”  Then He stayed where He was for two more days before telling the disciples “let’s go back.”  When they asked why, Jesus told them that Lazarus was asleep and He was going to wake him up.  The disciples crack me up because they told Jesus that if Lazarus was sleeping, then he would get better.  As usual, they missed what He was saying, so Jesus had to clear it up by saying, “Lazarus is dead and for your sake I’m glad I wasn’t there, so that you may believe.  Let’s go.”  That sounds a little harsh, but Jesus also knew his disciples needed some strengthening of their own faith.

When Jesus got to where Lazarus lived, He found that he had already been in the tomb for four days!  Martha hears that Jesus is coming so she takes off to meet him.  She gets to Him and says, “If you had been here, my brother wouldn’t have died!” I always feel like Martha was irritated or even scolding when she said it, like “you took too long and now look what happened!”   So Jesus tells her that her brother will live again, but Martha misunderstood and thought He was talking about the resurrection.  After a brief conversation, Martha goes to get Mary.

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When Mary reached Jesus, she fell at His feet in anguish, crying “Lord, if you had been here, my brother wouldn’t have died.” Same words, different emotion behind it.  The Bible says it was her anguish that deeply moved and troubled Jesus.   He asked where they had buried Lazarus, and then He began to cry.  Yes, He cried openly.  As a result, some people thought, “See how He loved him,” but others started to criticize.  They said, “He opened the eyes of the blind, couldn’t He have kept him from dying?”  What happens next is best read in the verses themselves (John 11:38-44)…

Jesus, once more deeply moved, came to the tomb. It was a cave with a stone laid across the entrance. “Take away the stone,” he said.  “But, Lord,” said Martha, the sister of the dead man, “by this time there is a bad odor, for he has been there four days.”  Then Jesus said, “Did I not tell you that if you believe, you will see the glory of God?” So they took away the stone. Then Jesus looked up and said, “Father, I thank you that you have heard me. I knew that you always hear me, but I said this for the benefit of the people standing here, that they may believe that you sent me.”  When He had said this, Jesus called in a loud voice, “Lazarus, come forth!” The dead man came out, his hands and feet wrapped with strips of linen, and a cloth around his face.  Jesus said to them, “Take off the grave clothes and let him go.”

Most Christians use this account to share the incredible miracle of Lazarus being raised from the dead, and it IS miraculous.  We hear sermons about how God always shows up right on time, even when we think He is “four days late.”  We hear preachers and teachers talk about Jesus’ love for His friend and the emotion He showed in weeping openly over the situation.  Those are all great things to consider, but how often do we look at how Lazarus probably felt?  If I was Lazarus, I would have been ticked off!  Think about this for a moment:  Here’s a guy who had been really sick and was miserable.  He eventually succumbed to his illness and died, but in that moment, he was immediately in the presence of God.  He was in Paradise!  He has no more pain and doesn’t have to worry about anything anymore.  As a child of God, he is finally home.  I imagine him hanging out with Moses and Abraham, or maybe some of his loved ones who had already died.  What a great homecoming!  What a great time!  All the crap he had to endure on this earth was finally passed, and he could relax.  But then, from beyond the grave, a voice calls to him, “Lazarus, come forth.”  If I was Lazarus, I would be thinking, “Are you kidding me?  After everything I’ve been through, You are calling me BACK?!!  I’ve attained more than I could imagine and You are yanking me back into a world full of trouble, evil, pain and suffering.  Leave me here!”  We don’t know what actually went through Lazarus’ mind, but I think of how I would feel if it happened to me.

shutterstock_427738096There was certainly a bigger purpose for bringing Lazarus back than just relieving the grief of his family.  God used that event to show who He is and that He IS who He says He is.  He used it to show His power, but also his mercy and love.  Look, there was no denying the miraculous nature of what happened.  The Bible tells us that Lazarus was in the grave for four days already and that he stunk!  No one could deny he was dead – I mean “dead” dead!  There was no way to say what Jesus did was a parlor trick or anything else.   It was most definitely effective!  Not only that, but the disciples needed their faith strengthened, and Jesus knew that bringing Lazarus back would accomplish that.  But again, what about Lazarus?  What good did it do HIM to be brought back?  He lost all of the perfection of Heaven, AND he would have to go through an earthly death TWICE!  Is it just me, or does that seem mean to anyone else?  I’ve felt bad for him on that piece, because it really feels like he got the short end of that stick.  I think that’s why we don’t often talk about this piece of the story.  We don’t want to think that God would purposely bring us back from something amazing – or even perfect – just to drop us back into something where we are going to have to struggle.  We can say all day long that we’d be ok with it since it for His glory, but I really don’t think that’s how our hearts react when it happens.

So what was in it for Lazarus?  Think about it this way:

  • Lazarus got to see Heaven and knew exactly what it was like.
  • Knowing what was waiting in Heaven, and that death was not to be feared, would most likely have caused Lazarus to live with a boldness and courage he never had before or might not have had any other way.
  • He got to experience what the rest of us have to take on faith. He believed God, but he actually got see his faith realized with his own eyes, ears and hands.  That would definitely give you a new certainty most people don’t get.
  • He was free when he died and went to Heaven, but he was liberated when Jesus called him back to this world. One of the definitions of being liberated is “releasing someone from a state or situation that limits freedom of thought or behavior.”  By coming back after experiencing Heaven, Lazarus was liberated from fear and anxiety over death.  He was liberated from any doubt that God’s word was true.  He had seen it and it changed him.

So back to present day and all the troubles we endure in life.  I don’t have the big view that God does.  I know that His word tells me that “all things work together for good to them who love God and are the called according to His purpose” (Rom 8:28).  I know that God loves us and cares about everything we are going through.  When we cry, He cries (remember how He was moved by Mary’s grief).  He knows exactly where we are, all the time.  Jesus knew Lazarus was dead without anyone telling Him.  He told it to the disciples even though he had not received that message from anyone.  God knows what we’ve endured to get to those pleasant places in our lives – places HE has actually created.  So why call us back away from those places?  Because it can change us for the better if we let it.  It can liberate us if we look at things differently.

shutterstock_293580959When things are going well for me, I need to stop waiting for the other shoe to drop.  I’m sure Lazarus wasn’t worrying about things on earth after he died.  He was simply enjoying being in Heaven.  I need to do the same thing in life’s pleasant places.  I need to just sit back and marvel at how true God’s word is, and that He has taken care of me just as He promised He would.  I need to just relax in that place and not worry about what else might or might not happen.  I’ll be honest, that is NOT a natural or easy thing for me to do, but it would be so much better for me.  When we worry about what might be coming next, we drain all the joy and peace out of the pleasant places in life.  When we do that, we wring the joy and confidence in God out of our lives as well.  Then we wonder why we are so stressed or why God feels so far away.

In those times when we are called out of the pleasant places back into difficulties, it’s so easy to be frustrated and even angry with our Heavenly Father.  We may say, “it’s ok because I know He is working this for His glory and my ultimate good,” but it often becomes just words.  It hurts to be pulled back from the pleasant places.  It hurts when we have to endure challenges after we think we’ve conquered them already.  It is frustrating and so often causes us to immediately lose sight of everything God has done for us or how He has, in the past, brought us through trouble TO the pleasant places. We need to learn to think differently about the challenges.  Rather than seeing them as a punishment or reprimand, we need to recognize that God needs people in this world who have seen first-hand what He can and will do.  He needs people who have unshakable confidence in our eternity so that we can live liberated lives here.  He needs people living courageous lives, in spite of their circumstances, because that kind of life touches and changes the lives of others.  Through that kind of life, we have opportunities to share what we have seen and know to be true about our God who loves us so much.

One last thought about this story:  Notice that Jesus called Lazarus by name.  He didn’t just come back to the grave and say, “come out.”  Do you know why?  Because if He had done that, everyone who was dead would have come out.  He specifically called to Lazarus because God does not operate in generalities.  He operates specifically, personally, on a one-to-one basis.  He has specific plans for each of us, and each of us has a different journey to walk. In spite of our different callings, God wants ALL of us to have peace, confidence and joy.

shutterstock_82458775So the next time I hear, “Deanna, come forth,” I’m going to take a quick look around before I leave the  amazing place in which I’m standing, and consider all He did to deliver me from trials in the past. By doing that, I can walk back into this flawed world with complete confidence and security in the truth of His word.  Only then can I live a liberated life, free of worry and fear in my circumstances, because I have seen His glory and His fulfilled promises first hand.  THAT knowledge and experience in the pleasant places is what will change the way I live in every place else.

Blessings!

Sorrow From the Sandlot

This morning I found out that my childhood best friend lost her father yesterday.  I haven’t stayed in close touch with Dawn over the years, but she was my best friend during the best years of my childhood.  In the late 70s, we had moved from California to Little Rock, AR as a result of my dad’s job.  Dawn was the first friend I made, and it seems we almost instantly became fast friends.  We spent three years in Arkansas – just three years out of my 48 – but those three years were the best years of my childhood.  Sometimes I think they were the best three years of my life.  I was at an age where I was old enough to be allowed to go out, run around the neighborhood and woods, and play without supervision – living a  tomboy’s dream.  But I was young enough that I didn’t know all of the bad things that could happen or were going on in the world.  There was a lot of upheaval, as there always is in life, and yet for me, none really existed.  It was just a great time in a great place with the best of friends.

Dawn DeannaDawn and I both had a strong tomboy spirit.  We didn’t mind getting dirty and we played football and all kinds of other sports.  We even competed together against a bunch of boys in a Punt, Pass and Kick competition.  I’m pretty competitive, and so was Dawn, so when she beat me in that competition, I wasn’t real happy about it.  What I was happy about was that she and I took 1st and 2nd place in a competition in which we were the only girls.  It’s one of my great memories, and the truth is we were girls who could kick butt!

Dawn had an amazing family.  She had the most beautiful mom of any friend I ever had.  She was stunning, and she was kind.  I didn’t spend much time with Dawn’s dad.  I dare say, he probably didn’t even remember me after a number of  years went by, but I remembered him.  I remembered the family he led and raised, of his influence on his family and what wonderful people they all were as a result.  Over the years after we moved back to CA, I lost touch with Dawn until 16 years later when we reconnected.  We spoke on the phone and said we would stay in touch, but then like most people do, we got busy with our lives and lost touch again.  It would be another 12 years or so before we eventually reconnected on Facebook, and in doing so have been able to keep up with each other’s lives even though we haven’t seen each other in more than 30 years, nor have we spoken voice-to-voice since that day in 1996.  Facebook can be a curse sometimes, but in circumstances like this, it is a blessing beyond belief!

So this morning, when I found out about her dad’s passing, I was surprised at how it affected me.  I just sat there and cried and cried, brokenhearted for her, her mom and her family. Pucek family I’ve experienced a lot of loss in life, and I’m always touched and have deep sympathies for the loved ones that are left behind, but this was different.  Maybe it’s because I’m dealing with my own aging parents and the health struggles they endure.  That is a reality my generation is now facing with our parents, aunts and uncles.  We don’t like to think about the losses that may be coming in our own lives, so it hits us harder when that reality is right in front of us.  But it is more than just that piece.  This loss affected someone incredibly important to me, with whom I have such a deep connection in my heart and spirit.  Someone whose friendship I have carried with me and inside my heart all these years.  This loss reminded me of something, and not just the truth of how painful loss can be.  It reminded me of how special and uplifting true connections of the heart can be.  It reminded me that when you love and care about someone, it transcends time, space, and circumstances.  It makes them a special kind of chosen family.  Our experiences with them shape our lives.  They open a vault in our memory in which these experiences are placed, and it lasts forever.  It preserves them forever.

Both Dawn and I have undoubtedly gone through many things in our lives that have been difficult to endure.  Difficult losses or the challenges that come with day to day living.  But you know what?  She is my friend.  In movie terms, she is my “Sandlot” friend, my “Stand By Me” friend.  And today, she and her family are grieving.  Today I weep and I grieve with them.  I honor the life of my dear friend’s father and lift prayers for the entire family and all the friends whose lives he (and they) have touched.

So today, I want to remind you all to take a few moments and open the vault that contains all the memories of those meaningful relationships and amazing friendships you’ve had over the course of your life.  If you are still in touch with them, remind them of how much they have meant to you and the difference they made in your life.  If you have no idea where they are or what ever happened to them, stop and send up positive thoughts and prayers of gratitude for their role in your world.

shutterstock_184599686The movie “Stand By Me” ends with the following words:  “It happens sometimes.  Friends come in and out of your life like busboys in restaurants. … I never had any friends later on like I the ones I had when I was twelve.  Jesus, does anyone?”

Much love and prayers for the Don Pucek family

And blessings to everyone.