It was the eve of my long-anticipated departure — the culmination of many years of plans and prayers unfolding. To say that I was excited would be the understatement of the century. I was giddy, nervous, butterflies — literally skipping around the house and singing, like a scene out of a Disney fairytale with cartoon blue birds fluttering around my head. Those who know me well might say this wasn’t a far cry from my normal disposition.
For years I had felt called to be a writer — to encourage women. Something had always stopped me though. Fear, doubt, insecurity, shame about my past…there was always an excuse. I had been through a divorce and allowed myself to believe that had disqualified me. I didn’t know where or how to start, so I just didn’t. I was stuck.
But then, through a God-orchestrated series of events, I met and married David. David believed in my calling — he believed in my writing, and he lovingly pushed me toward the doors that were opening. One of those open doors was the opportunity to go to SheSpeaks. It’s a conference hosted by Proverbs 31 Ministries with teaching and training from best-selling authors like Lysa Terkeurst as well as opportunities to meet with book publishers and literary agents and holds great potential to jumpstart a real writing career. It was the opportunity of a lifetime for me.
Three weeks before the conference, a spot had opened for me to go. My dear friend, Nancy, upon hearing this, insisted there was NO WAY I was NOT going…and SHE was determined to pay for my whole trip…the conference, the hotel, the airfare, the rental car. All of it. I was speechless (which never happens — ever).
So I got to work preparing for the trip. I crafted a one-sheet proposal for my book idea, I had professional business cards printed, and I borrowed really cute outfits from some friends (there were no business casual options in my stay-at-home mom closet). My daughters insisted on a fashion show so that I could try on all of the outfits and jewelry combinations and they helped me decide on my final ensemble choices. On Tuesday, July 19, I was literally dancing back and forth from the bedroom to the kitchen as I multi-tasked between making dinner and packing my suitcase. I was at the pinnacle of joyful moments as far as I can remember.
It’s easy to feel joy when it’s tied to happy circumstances. We call it ‘joy’ when we get something we want or celebrate something fun — birthdays, promotions, date nights. It’s tempting to diminish joy to a feeling — an emotion that is tethered to the temporal. But the true test of joy comes when a storm crashes in from nowhere and the temporal thing your ‘joy’ was tied to is suddenly gone — that moment when life stops and brings you to your knees.
My moment was on that Tuesday evening, July 19th. I was standing at the stove flipping pork chops in a cast iron skillet when the phone rang. My Bethel worship music was too loud for me to hear clearly the first time she said it, but it didn’t matter, because she kept repeating it over and over and over again.
“He’s dead, Elizabeth. He’s dead. Nathan’s dead. He’s gone, Elizabeth.”
“No, Mom. No, he’s not. It’s okay, calm down.”
“He’s gone, he’s dead, Elizabeth. Nathan’s dead.”
“Mom, he’s not dead. Why do you think that he’s dead? It’s a mistake.”
“Dad saw him. He’s dead. He’s really gone. It’s too late.”
I turned off the burner on the stove and barefoot, ran outside so that my kids wouldn’t hear any more. It was raining. I collapsed out by our barn and the agony inside my soul erupted into a broken, rattly scream. “Nooooooooo!!!” Gasping for each breath, I turned onto my back and faced the sky. The tiny drops of rain seemed to fall in slow motion and felt like cold pricks on my cheeks between the streams of hot tears. He couldn’t really be gone. This couldn’t be final.
But it was.
My little brother, my first friend — my best friend — was gone. And the next time I would see him, he would be in a casket.
HOPE AMIDST THE ASHES of despair
The hope of the righteous brings joy. Proverbs 10:28a ESV
It was from this heap of ashes, this pit of despair, that I came to terms with how small and helpless we really are — how little control we truly have. In the days that followed, I was faced with the choice of where my focus would be. Would I fix my eyes on my loss, my helplessness, my despair? Or would I allow myself to fix my eyes on my hope in Christ?
Being a stay-at-home mom with several (six at that time) children did not afford me the convenience of time alone to grieve. Although it felt like the world should stop the day Nathan died, it simply didn’t. I still had bathrooms to clean, laundry to fold, and meals to make. I still had little people bickering over toys and making messes.
As followers of Christ, we don’t get to turn off His principles for living when bad things happen. In fact, it is even more important for us to continue to follow Him in the face of our trials. I am learning that even my best efforts are not enough to navigate myself through this life. We are still called to obey Him, and His Word, even in the midst of terribly painful and difficult times.
But the beautiful thing about serving a Father who loves us so deeply is that His assignments change as our situations do. He knows we are fragile and weak and He longs to be our strength in our weakness.
For he knows how weak we are; he remembers we are only dust. Psalm 103:14 NLT
hope brings joy
But hope brings joy, and we must cling to hope. We must fix our eyes on Him and not on our pain. That doesn’t mean we ignore our pain — it means we are to bring it before Him.
When faced with tragedy, those who don’t have their hope in Jesus feel hopeless. The dark pit of despair that we all find ourselves in at some point – it is a bottomless pit for those who’s hope is not in Christ. Those of us who know our Maker have a different experience. Yes, we are in the dark — hurting and grieving. But our pit isn’t bottomless because we are held in the hands of our Comforter. And it’s in this holding of our hearts that we can still have peace and hope — and even joy, in the midst of tragic circumstances.
For God, who said, “Let there be light in the darkness,” has made this light shine in our hearts so we could know the glory of God that is seen in the face of Jesus Christ. We now have this light shining in our hearts, but we ourselves are like fragile clay jars containing this great treasure. This makes it clear that our great power is from God, not from ourselves. We are pressed on every side by troubles, but we are not crushed. We are perplexed, but not driven to despair. We are hunted down, but never abandoned by God. We get knocked down, but we are not destroyed. Through suffering, our bodies continue to share in the death of Jesus so that the life of Jesus may also be seen in our bodies. 2 Corinthians 4:6-10 NLT
LIGHT IN THE DARKNESS
The light that pierces darkness shines within us, reflecting the very face of Jesus. We are fragile, cracked vessels, carrying the greatest treasure the world has ever known. It would seem then that the bigger the cracks are — the more light can shine through. Therefore, when we are at our most broken we have an opportunity to reveal even more light than when we are whole. If in our suffering and sharing in Jesus’ death we can reveal His light to a broken world, is there any greater privilege? Any greater calling? Any greater joy?
A couple of years have passed now since that Tuesday in July. Sometimes the pain of it still renders me breathless. I have to fight the irrational fears that someone else whom I dearly love will die a sudden and tragic death. I have to fight the guilt from not answering the phone the last time my brother called me — the day before he died. I have to wrestle through the questions my children, and his children, ask — questions for which I have no answers. There are still some significantly big cracks — and what is inside of me is sure to leak out.
None of us are immune to suffering, yet the Bible tells us it’s possible to “sing for joy and be glad all our days.” How can this be?
If our joy is tethered to the temporal, it will be temporal. But if our hope is rooted in the eternal, unfailing love of Christ, then our joy is secure. And it can withstand even the most violent of life’s storms.
Satisfy us in the morning with your unfailing love, that we may sing for joy and be glad all our days. Psalm 90:14 NIV
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