A dozen years ago, my world shattered. My fiancé, Richard, was killed in an accident, just weeks before our wedding. He was helping some neighbors cut down a tree that had been struck by lightning and the tree fell on him.
The story from that night to today is paved with lots of stories about God being God: showing up when I asked for the big neon sign, and whispering just when the silence seemed deafening.
From time to time I’ve been asked to share my story, to speak to a group of women or to a Bible study, and nearly every time my initial response is, “What do you want me to share?” I’m curious what they want to hear. Are they looking for the happy ending, or are they comfortable with the full story?
But over the last year I’ve been thinking about my story and praying – a lot – and a couple questions in particular have led me to shift my perspective a bit, and to see my story in a new light, and to review what I consider the “beginning” and the “ending.”
At the heart of my questioning what a simple thought: “How is my story relevant? I know it’s compelling, but I feel like it was THEN. What about NOW?”
Then I stumbled upon this quote in a devotional I’m reading by Shauna Niequist:
“I needed a piece of a story, something real and full of life and blood and breath and heartache, something that someone had lived through, a piece of wisdom earned the hard way.”
That! I thought. That’s what I have to offer. If I have wisdom, it’s been earned the hard way, and that which I have to give it’s yours to have, freely. My little brother is wise beyond his years, and whenever he dishes out some really sound truth, I’m quick to tell him I’m glad he’s so much wiser than me. He always responds the same way. “You can only keep what you have if you give it away.”
Earlier this year I shared with a group of new friends a story about a women’s conference I attended not long after Richard died.
My best friend Sarah invited me. I wasn’t sure I would go. I went. We sat in nosebleed seats of the Greensboro arena, surrounded by 19,000 women. I really needed a God moment. I needed the NEON sign. And I’d asked God pretty specifically to just show up. “Be big God. Big like I can’t miss it or wonder if the message is for me.” Beth Moore was teaching on Ruth & Naomi. Naomi – Mara – “it is more bitter for me.” Beth says aren’t there so many reasons for us to be bitter? She had received a stack of letters from women coming to the conference, a mom who’s just lost her son to suicide, a mom who lost her son in Iraq. And then after pausing, she said, “and a young woman who may or may not be here tonight whose fiancé was killed just weeks before the wedding.” As I turned to look at Sarah, I saw tears streaming down her face. She whispered, “I sent them an email.”
Big neon sign. I need big neon signs.
Sometimes the best signs are the ones we write ourselves.
About two hours after hearing what had happened to Richard, I grabbed my journal and a pen. I remember staring at the blank lines. I didn’t know how to capture the moment, but I knew I needed to. I wrote:
“Tonight I received the news of the unspeakable. Regardless of what I think in the next few days, I believe that my God is faithful. I believe that the Lord is good. I believe that the Lord gives us the strength to meet the pain in our lives. He is sufficient. He will comfort us and heal us.”
That night, that journal entry was a beginning.
That was when I marked out the path I wanted to take.
I wanted to fight emotion with truth, and to confront fear with love.
To get there I had to believe God.
“My flesh and my heart may fail, but God is the strength of my heart and my portion forever.” (Psalm 73:25)
“Yet this I call to mind and therefore I have hope: Because of the Lord’s great love we are not consumed, for his compassions never fail. They are new every morning, great is his faithfulness.” (Lamentations 3:21-23)
I can’t count the number of times tears streamed down my face as I whispered to myself, “I still believe. I still believe.”
In tragedy – in grief, in loneliness, in disappointment, in fear – when life isn’t going the way I want or expect – I think there’s a loudspeaker in my head challenging me, “What do you believe?!? What about NOW?!”
Is God still God?
Does God still love me?
Is this my fault?
There’s a lot of theological questions that pop up when life doesn’t go our way.
But ultimately, in the Bible every time someone asks Jesus WHY?, his answer is to a different question: “To what end?”
John 9 tells the story about a man born blind, causing the disciples to ask Jesus, “who sinned, this man or his parents?” Jesus replies, “but this happened so that the works of God might be displayed.”
Phillip Yancey says that the disciples’ questions of “why” point backwards, but Jesus’ answers point his disciples forward, asking them to look to the future. Yancey says that’s the Bible’s answer to the problem of pain – it gives forward-looking answers, hope for the future, that suffering can be transformed or redeemed.
I believed that. I believed God could redeem my tragedy. God could bring someone else into my life. But I didn’t expect him to do that for me.
I just thought that I had to cling to the truth and accept life as it came.
God is good.
He is faithful.
He is sufficient.
I didn’t always feel it, but I believed it.
I totally identified with Peter who said to Jesus, “Where else would we go? You hold the words of life and truth.” (John 6:67-69)
Here’s what I learned: eventually my feelings would catch up.
Truth trumped emotions. Every time.
God’s truth healed my broken heart. His love showed me my heart was bigger than I realized.
And since I got married, I assumed my story ended there. God exceeded my expectations. Happily ever after.
But recently as I’ve asked God for a fresh word, He’s shifted my perspective a little – what if the “happy ending” was a beginning?
What if the deepest truths that I learned walking through the valley of shadow of death were exactly what I needed today?
Suddenly that story about yesterday is incredibly relevant TODAY.
Psalm 139 tells us God has a plan for ALL the days of our life. Before any one of them came to be, he knew it.
God knew how hard my transition to motherhood would be.
He knew that Abigail would eventually walk even as the doctors and therapists tried to explain why she wouldn’t use her legs.
God knew we would go to Montgomery for a year, even though Air Force statistics said the chance of that was less than 4%. He knew we’d leave Alabama for the Badlands, even though I researched homes and schools in six other states!
He knows where we’re going when we move again.
[And he knows my dreams of writing a book.]
The reason I need God’s word buried in my heart, why I need to constantly remind myself of God’s truth, why I need to pray without ceasing… Even when I don’t feel like it… Is because THAT is how He prepares me and equips me for all the days to come.
In tragedy the loudspeaker in my head is so unmistakable that I shouted right back: “What do I believe? I’ll tell you what I believe. I’ll show you.”
In tragedy I don’t have to remember to pray – I’m praying constantly.
That’s not always the case when life is going according to my plans.
CS Lewis said, “I don’t pray to change God, I pray to change me.”
I tend to think of prayer as getting my head and heart in line with what I believe.
My favorite college professor challenged us:
“Live what you believe, or you will end up believing what you live.”
It’s a subtle difference, but it’s huge.
When I’m believing what I live, dreams are impossible.
When I live what I believe, I hold up Truth and remember that God knows where I am – He’s not surprised, even if I am.
When I live what I believe, I not only know what God could do, but I expect Him to do it for me.
When I live what I believe, I know this is just the beginning of my story.