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.

Letting Go Instead Of Holding On

Tonight I am having a hard time getting my thoughts to “gel.”  There are pieces of creativity, phrases, melodies, images that are passing through my mind but none of them seem to rest long enough for me to make sense of them.  It’s like trying to catch the wind and hold it in your hands.  You can’t hold it; you can only feel it, and those two things are very different.  Holding something and feeling something require different things.  One requires energy and activity, while the other simply requires a willingness to be open.   One is achieved through effort and endurance, while the other is achieved through being still and present.   I know it may seem like I’m just rambling, but tonight, I feel a little entitled to do so.

It seems lately my life has been filled with different aspects of death and grief.  Some of it has been people I know who have lost loved ones.  Some of it has been the loss of people in my own world or people who have been seriously ill.  Today I attended the funeral of a cousin-in-law that I never met.  In doing so, I got to meet the rest of that branch of the family tree and immediately felt a connection to them.  I sat in the service, moved to tears both for the beauty of her life and the loss I felt in never having known her personally.   It made me remember all the losses I’ve had over the course of my own life.

shutterstock_3066153After the service, I went to another cemetery to pay my respects to someone I loved very dearly.  I hadn’t gone to this particular grave because it is quite a distance from my home, and I’m not one to hang out in cemeteries.  After all, burial places hold nothing more than the earthly shell of the people we love.  Today I was not too far from the final resting place of my loved one’s remains, so I felt compelled to make the trip.  Upon my arrival at the mausoleum, I searched and searched but to no avail.  I finally asked for help from the cemetery in locating my loved one.  It took much longer than I expected, and then the response hit me like a ton of bricks.  My loved one’s remains had been placed in a community crypt without any identification to the outside world.  It bothered me.  It sat in my heart like a lead weight as I stood in front of the unmarked crypt.  It hurt, and I struggled deeply with trying to square what I believe about death with what I was feeling at the moment.  That isn’t always an easy thing to do.

We all lose people we love at one point or another.  We feel the sting of death and the pain that comes with being separated from the physical presence of the ones we love.  We attend funerals and memorial services to honor their lives, and then we each find our own ways of navigating through the subsequent grief process.  I have found, no matter what the process looks like for each of us, there is one common thing we experience:  the struggle between holding on and letting go.  It seems to be an ebb and flow, but even after many years, we find ourselves still faced with moments of trying to decide when to hold on and when to let go.  When we lose someone we love, our instinct is to hold on.  We hold onto physical items such as clothing, gifts or other items that he/she touched, or things that smell like them.  Our longing for that person to still be with us makes us grasp at whatever we can to keep them here in some way.  We don’t just hold on, we cling.  We sometimes hold so tightly that our knuckles turn white and we lose feeling in our hands, and yet we still can’t find the strength to let go.  Letting go seems like it will only magnify our loss, and we will be left with nothing at all.  There’s nothing wrong with trying to hold on, but we must remember there are some things that just can’t be held.

Letting go usually comes with a sense of fear and apprehension for some people.  When we lose something, we naturally want to hold tighter to what we have left.  If we lose money, we tend to get tighter with what we have because it feels like if we don’t, we might lose it all.  We can become so hyper-focused on protecting our “stash” that we can no longer enjoy our lives.  The same is true with losing a loved one to death.  If we become so hyper-focused on protecting what remains of their lives here, we can become crippled and no longer enjoy our own lives.  Letting go is a process that occurs in stages, but we have to be careful to not mistake what it means to “let go.”  Letting go does NOT mean forgetting; It means loosening your grip.  Open ArmsRemember what I said about the wind in the opening paragraph?  You can feel it but you cannot hold it.  Think about standing somewhere beautiful and suddenly a perfect breeze comes blowing through.  You have two choices:  You can start grasping like crazy, trying to capture it in your hands, or you can stand still and experience its touch completely.   If your focus is on trying to hold it, all you will feel is the lack of being able to do so.  You will grasp tighter and quicker, but all you will feel is the emptiness of your own hands.  However, if you focus on standing still and opening your hands, you will feel nothing but the breeze itself.  Letting go is what enables you to feel!  Letting go is what enables you to remember.  Letting go is what frees you to be present.

Today was difficult, and the unexpected situation in which I found myself made it extremely difficult to keep from tightening my grasp after many years of loosening it.  The pain, anger, disgust and sadness that I felt standing in the corner of an empty mausoleum overcame me and brought me literally to my knees.  It crippled me physically and emotionally in a single moment.  I felt lost.  I suddenly felt like I had no footing.  Everything inside me was screaming as it was the day my loved one actually died, and I found myself unable to walk away from that spot.  My emotional hands closed tightly, and all I could do was sob.  And then I remembered what I believe.  I remembered what I know to be true, and slowly I started reconnecting the dots until I could pull myself away physically from that spot.  I stood with my hand on the wall and prayed.  I stood and talked to my loved one.  I knelt and kissed the wall of the tomb in which the remains were sealed, and then I walked out a different door because it was the only way I could make myself leave.

And then something wonderful happened.  I got my shorts out of the car and went back into the restroom inside the mausoleum to change out of my suit and into my comfy clothes for traveling back home.  I forgot to grab my other shoes, so I had to walk out in my shorts, athletic shirt and black knee high trouser socks.I had taken off my dress heels because I didn’t want to look THAT stupid, but I had to laugh at what I looked like.    All I needed was some sandals to complete my “old man” outfit.  I started for the exit, but then thought of how much my loved one would have found my appearance to be hysterical, so I turned and ran back into the mausoleum, into the hallway of the unmarked crypt.  I waited until the security guard walked away from the area and then leapt around, danced and laughed right there in that hallway.  I then whispered out loud, “I knew you’d get a kick out of that so that one is for you!  I love you. ” To some, that may seem inappropriate or even ridiculous, but for me, it was a reminder of the difference between holding on and letting go.

Loss of any kind is never easy, whether through death or some other means.  It is painful, and we scramble to protect whatever we have left.  But loss does not have to cripple us forever, and death is not the end.  Yes, it is excruciating at times.  It can be debilitating in those moments it hits us so hard we can hardly breathe, let alone function.  Grief does not have a timetable, and sometimes it jumps up and grabs us unexpectedly.  And when it does, we need to just step back, be still and open our hands instead of closing them into fists.  If it hurts, let it hurt.  If tears come, let them fall.  Whatever it is you feel, just take a breath and be still.  Open the hands of your spirit so that you can be touched, instead of grasping tightly to what you cannot contain.  Because in the end, the best way we can keep our loved ones with us is to let them go.

Blessings!