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When I was thirty-one years old, my husband died on my bedroom floor.
My sons were five and three years old, fatherless before kindergarten. The doctors thought he had the flu, but they missed a sepsis diagnosis, an infection in his bloodstream that attacked his heart and his lungs over just a matter of hours. They sent him home from the hospital to recover with popsicles and Gatorade. They said, “He won’t die from this, but he will feel like it.”
He died the next morning. He was thirty-five and healthy, and he was suddenly gone. It was two days before Christmas, the eve of Christmas Eve.
If you and I are new to each other, I’m sorry to throw that curveball at you.
It’s a lot to take in, isn’t it, that paragraph of raw facts? There isn’t really a gentle or easy way to say it, to read the words on the page, or to hear them hang in the air. I know this well. That curveball hit my life with the velocity of an asteroid. It blew my world to bits.
If you and I have known each other for a while, if we have journeyed together through a book or two of mine, then you may be wondering if I’m going to tell the whole story again. Maybe you’re wondering what more there is to say. These are fair questions.
I have learned many things, more than a decade after it all happened.
Some wounds become a scar that doesn’t show. It doesn’t bleed anymore, and it doesn’t need the constant care it once required. Healthy tissue has been grafted over the scar, and sometimes even I no longer see it.
But it’s there, part of the landscape of my life. Sometimes, during a hard rainstorm or a change of seasons, it feels tender once more.
I have had a lot of names in my adult life, and the long string of my first, middle, maiden, married, widowed, author, married-once-again monogram could make a bracelet long enough to wrap around your wrist twice. Every name of mine is like a nesting doll tucked inside the newest version. I am all of them together, and I am each, one at a time. At the very center is the smallest doll, tucked away, and all the other dolls work hard to keep her safe. She’s in there.
I didn’t always love the Bible.
When Robb died, the Bible and I were not the best of friends. I didn’t know what to do with it, this Old Testament that portrayed an angry God who let people die if they broke the rules, or this New Testament Savior who seemed to perform miracles only for people with enough faith. So, it could be said that either Robb died because we made God mad, or he died because I didn’t have enough faith to keep him alive.
Everything felt like too much or not enough.
I closed the Bible for a while, like an amateur athlete who hangs up her equipment. I didn’t know how to use it, and I felt like I didn’t want to learn. What good could it do now? I felt like it was my right to say, “No, thank you.” If God was going to take away my husband and leave my children fatherless, then I was going to silence him for a bit. A long bit. He didn’t keep his end of the deal, so I didn’t intend to keep mine.
The word entitled comes to mind. I felt entitled to shut him out.
Entitled to numb myself.
Entitled to take my questions elsewhere.
But here’s what entitlement gives you: very little. You can “right” your way down the wrong path.
Everything felt empty. I remember trying to lose myself in a mindless novel, but I couldn’t make sense of the plot, couldn’t identify with these shallow characters. I remember trying to numb myself with the endless updates of social media, but I felt infuriated by a newsfeed of updates that were filled with inflated optimism or contrived crises. Once again, everything was too much or not enough.
At some point, I began to discover that I had nowhere else to go. And that triggered a memory buried deep inside my mind, of Jesus’ friends coming to the very same conclusion. Jesus had said some very difficult things that most of his followers didn’t want to hear. This life he had invited them to wasn’t easy, shiny, or sparkling with wealth and popularity contests. They wanted something easier, and they began to turn away.
Jesus looked at the Twelve and asked, “You do not want to leave too, do you?”
And Peter, in his straightforward way that makes me love him so much, replied, “Lord, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life.”[i]
Peter didn’t say, “I love every word you say.” Or “This is easy to understand, and I have no questions.” Or “I will never wonder or wander again.”
Essentially, he said, “This is difficult, but I think it would be harder still without you. I would rather walk through this with you—and find meaning—than take another path that leads to meaninglessness, no purpose, no healing, and no life.”
In my mind, I imagined Peter, weary in his eyes and tired in his bones, saying, “You’re my only hope. Let’s do this.”
In his moment with Jesus, Peter answered for me too.
Last week, I told you how when the Bible felt so foreign to me, I turned to the Psalms as I sat in a coffee shop. I opened to the very first one, and I began to copy it into my journal.
I copied one psalm, then another. Then another. And I’ll be honest—sometimes the words felt empty still. But the words gave me something to do with my thoughts; the copying gave me something to do with my hands; and the practice gave me something to do with my mornings.
And here’s what I found.
I found prolific writers who cried out to God in the midst of real conversations in their actual lives.
I found writers begging God to listen.
O Lord, hear me as I pray;
pay attention to my groaning.
Listen to my cry for help, my King and my God,
for I pray to no one but you.[ii]
I found writers in very real pain, wondering how bad this could get.
Have compassion on me, Lord, for I am weak;
Heal me, Lord, for my bones are in agony.
I am sick at heart.
How long, O Lord, until you restore me?[iii]
I found people who were sleepless from crying.
I am worn out from sobbing.
All night long I flood my bed with weeping,
drenching it with my tears.
My vision is blurred by grief.[iv]
I found praise that was also a plea to God to keep his promises.
Arise, Lord! Lift up your hand, O God.
Do not forget the helpless. . . .
But you, God, see the trouble of the afflicted;
you consider their grief and take it in hand.
The victims commits themselves to you;
you are the helper of the fatherless.[v]
I found poetry that was transparent despair, sistered with deliberate truth telling.
The cords of death entangled me;
the torrents of destruction overwhelmed me.
The cords of the grave coiled around me;
the snares of death confronted me.
In my distress I called to the Lord;
I cried to my God for help.
From his temple he heard my voice;
my cry came before him, into his ears.[vi]
I found words I could claim in the darkness, even if I couldn’t feel anything.
But as for me, I will trust in you.[vii]
But I will keep on hoping for your help;
I will praise you more and more.[viii]
I found longing that said exactly what I felt.
“Oh, that I had the wings of a dove!
I would fly away and be at rest.
I would flee far away
and stay in the desert;
I would hurry to my place of shelter,
far from the tempest and storm.”[ix]
Over time, as I copied the psalms, I began to weave my words into theirs, adapting the psalms to become my own, becoming a modern-day psalmist in the pages of my journals. I would write the psalmists’ words on the left side of the page, and I’d write my own on the right. I watched the pages turn, and I felt my heart soften.
How long, Lord? Will you forget me forever?
How long will you hide your face from me?
How long must I wrestle with my thoughts
and day after day have sorrow in my heart?
How long will my enemy triumph over me?[x]
How long do I have to do this?
How long will I feel this way?
Why did you let this happen to my life?
How long must I wrestle with my own thoughts
and every day have sorrow in my heart?
My enemies are depression, anxiety, panic, and wrenching loss.
My enemies do not lurk with swords,
but they lurk in the darkness,
and they threaten to swallow me whole.
Is this okay with you?
How much longer?
Show me where to walk,
for I give myself to you.[xi]
Show me what to do.
Show me how to do this.
Be patient with me, please.
The Lord is close to the brokenhearted
and saves those who are crushed in spirit.[xii]
Jesus, I feel too tired to try.
My days blend into one another.
How is the next one different from the one before?
My heart feels timid and afraid.
It is hard to find courage when anything I try produces panic exhaustion.
I am paralyzed.
Be near. You said you would.
But I trust in your unfailing love.
I will rejoice because you have rescued me.
I will sing to the Lord
because he is good to me.[xiii]
In your amazing love, you are holding me above bitterness.
I have felt every shade of sadness, but I do not question your sovereignty.
I feel a quiet purpose in this.
I do not feel like it is some horrifying mistake.
I have grieved the injustice of loss, the unfairness of death.
But I have not believed you to be unjust or unfair.
You have gifted me in many ways.
Two of these gifts are faith and discernment.
These are in full effect:
I believe you are on your throne,
and I believe there is purpose in your plan.
This is your grace.
This is your gift to me.
Hear my voice when I call, Lord,
be merciful to me and answer me.
My heart says of you, “Seek his face!”
Your face, Lord, I will seek.[xiv]
O Lord, how I hunger for you.
You have become the only one I want to be with,
and I want to be with you for hours.
You are my safest place.
I have never known such contentment in simply sitting.
Be still and know.
You are God.
• Have you walked through the “valley of the shadow of death”?
• How have the Psalms ministered to you?
Let’s keep the conversation going.
[i] John 6:67-68.
[ii] Psalm 5:1-2, NLT. Emphasis mine.
[iii] Psalm 6:2-3, NLT.
[iv] Psalm 6:6-7, NLT.
[v] Psalm 10:12, 14.
[vi] Psalm 18:4-6. Emphasis mine.
[vii] Psalm 55:23, EHV.
[viii] Psalm 71:14, NLT.
[ix] Psalm 55:6-8.
[x] Psalm 13:1-2.
[xi] Psalm 143:8, NLT.
[xii] Psalm 34:18.
[xiii] Psalm 13:5-6, NLT.
[xiv] Psalm 27:7-8.
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