Am I the only person who likes road signs while driving? I like them because they tell me what is ahead and if I need a warning. Caution: curve ahead. Yield: there’s oncoming traffic. Slowdown: school crossing. Love those road signs. Need them.
There are some “road signs” in our Christian walk, but not always and not as many as I would like. In July 2015, Daryl and I moved back to the US after a dreamy and wonderful five-year existence in beautiful Lithuania. Loved my job. Loved my students. Loved my friends. Loved Lithuania. I truly felt God’s good pleasure (in the words of Eric Liddell). But we knew in our last year there that God was calling us back to the US. Promptings. Urgings. And some tangible evidence that we were needed back home. So we packed up our wonderful life in Lithuania and returned to the States with joyful expectations and a plan. Plans are funny. Plans are stupid.
On the night of our arrival back home in Kansas City, all of Daryl’s kids greeted us at the airport and all the grandkids were there too. It was a lovely sight and all felt as it should be. That night Daryl’s daughter and her husband surprised us with the news that their family of three was going to be a family of four. I laid my head on the pillow that night and was so glad we were home.
Within our first few days back in the US, my cousin Jerry Wayne died. My first family event was a funeral. Jerry Wayne was my Mom’s cousin. Both being only children, they were raised like brother and sister. Jerry had always been my idol – a horseman, a true Texan, a great sense of humor, and movie star handsome. A group of us cousins had planned to go and spend a weekend with Jerry on his Texas farm in September–a way to reconnect as a family. Instead, we drove down a long highway to a funeral. He died August 2, 2015.
One of my plans for our new life back at home was family meals! I decided to do “First Sundays” each month and fix a big old meal and any family member in town that wanted to come, would be warmly welcomed. Plans are funny. Within the first month of our being home there was a fallout with family members and I grieved those plans.
So, I wanted to spend my time wisely. I wanted not just to mope around feeling sorry for myself. A dear friend of mine, Betty Barnett, had moved to an assisted living residence an hour out of town. Daryl and I went to visit dear Betty about every two weeks. Betty had no husband, no children, no brothers or sisters. She had been a volunteer for the organization Daryl and I used to work for. She was my travel companion back in the day when I spoke for women’s conferences. Every June 1st, Daryl and I celebrated Betty’s birthday by taking her out for dinner and going to the Johnson County library sale. I loved Betty’s spirit and her heart for God. I once wrote a blog about her because she so lived out the spirit of Christ – humble, gentle, always a servant’s heart. Betty died in October and those in charge of her estate did not have a funeral for her. We got word of her passing and never got to celebrate her life or even properly say good bye. Her death made me think of my own death and left me wondering, would I die alone too? I started having bad dreams of Betty dying alone with no one there to hold her hand or say good bye. It was a tough loss.
Compensating for my lost plans, I became consumed with home projects. I had a job lined up to teach starting in January, 2016, so I got busy painting, repairing, cleaning, and organizing our home. I was grateful for a semester off to get back into the swing of things before classes started in the spring. Then I got an official email from the university that funding had been cancelled and there was no job for me. It was a great job that I really was looking forward to. Plans are stupid.
November came and family hurts hadn’t healed so we celebrated our first Thanksgiving back home with only part of our family. My sister and her gang came up from Oklahoma and I cooked my head off. We had a good time and though we missed the absent ones, we made the best of it. My brother-in-law Mike brought me a beautiful oil painting that I had always admired in their home. They had just sold their big house and were downsizing to a charming 1930’s bungalow and the painting wouldn’t fit. It’s worth a fortune and I was so shocked that he and my sister had decided to give it to me. Made me glad to be home. It blessed me deeply.
On December 11, I woke up thinking of my Dad’s passing. It was the fifth anniversary of his death. He died while Daryl and I were heading home from Lithuania for the holidays. He died while we were in flight. As Daryl and I layed there in bed slowly waking up the phone rang. My brother-in-law Mike had died. Suddenly. Unexpectedly. Without warning. Gone. Mike was one of the most important people in all of my life. The loss was one of the worst I have ever experienced. It has been nearly a year now and I am still not recovered from it.
Because I had been preparing for our first Christmas back home, I had gone wild with the Christmas decorations. Being unemployed had something to do with that as well. Two Christmas trees, lights in every room, our big tree outside covered in Christmas lights—we walked out of our over-decorated home to bury my brother-in-law. It was horrible.
On the five-hour drive down to Oklahoma I made calls and let family members know Mike had died. Each call so surreal and each announcement choking the breath out of me.
A casket to select. A cemetery to choose. A funeral to plan. A loved one to bury. There was pain in every step.
The day after the funeral I got a phone call. My cousin Carolyn’s husband had died of a heart attack on the way home from the funeral. Kenny was one of a kind. He was so easy to be with. He loved God. We had plans to go and be with them in Texas in the spring. Another loss? Another death? Another stupid plan.
At my brother-in-law’s funeral I was reacquainted with his sister’s two girls – Rachael and Fern. I had always loved these two beauties. Their Mom had been a kind of hero of mine. Mike’s sister Val had died of cancer and the girls had been hit hard with the loss of their Mother. Seeing them at Mike’s funeral brought back so many memories of Valerie, their granny Irene, and of course Mike. Fern had met a wonderful young man and married. Corey was a helicopter pilot for his community’s search and rescue. He was a highly trained EMT and also an instructor. He loved God and really lived out his Christian faith. We fell in love with Corey and made plans to travel to North Carolina in the spring and visit Fern and Corey along with other friends we have in that State. Meeting Corey reminded me that God does answer prayers. I shared with Daryl how I had prayed for Rachel and Fern for years to find comfort in God and to find good mates. Corey and Fern were evidence to me that God answered prayer. Funny, kind, a good listener, madly in love with his wife and a good brother-in-law, Corey touched mine and Daryl’s hearts.
Three weeks after Mike’s funeral in Oklahoma, I traveled back to Kansas. It was ridiculous to walk into our over-decorated home. Our first task was to take down all the Christmas decorations. Daryl went outside to take down the lights on the big tree and slipped on the ice and broke his wrist (the other wrist). He was in a cast for six weeks and in a lot of pain. He was without the use of his right hand. He had to go to physical therapy for another six weeks after the cast was removed. In the meantime there was another family fallout and this time it was worse. Reconciliation seemed impossible. Hearts were broken. Plans are stupid.
In May, another tragedy. Corey died unexpectedly of a heart attack at the age of 42. Fern and her two kids had lost the love of their lives and those lives were forever changed. Thousands of people attended Corey’s funeral. He was one of the finest young men I have ever met and he was gone in an instant. Tragedy isn’t a big enough word for his death.
Five deaths in ten months. Broken family relationships that just won’t heal. Joblessness. Weight gain. Constant illness. Sorrow and loss at every turn.
Road signs. I wish when we had left Lithuania I could have seen a road sign warning that a big, long, black, endless tunnel was ahead. I have read about, heard about, and talked to people who have experienced The Dark Night of the Soul – but nothing in my whole Christian life has prepared me for this—the tunnel that never ends.
What? Is there no good news? Yes. Daryl’s daughter Lana had a beautiful and healthy baby girl on February 7, 2016. Baby Lydia is wonderful and her brother August is delightful. Daryl’s job is going well and he loves what he is doing. We found a wonderful church and each Sunday the sermons are perfect for us, as is the praise and worship. This church has been my lifeline. We got a puppy and she has brought comfort and diversion to our lives. We are both healthy – stressed out a bit, but healthy. Our home is warm and safe and dry. We don’t have any huge impending debt. God is good, but when going through a tunnel it is almost impossible to see what’s on the outside.
Yes. I understand that death and dying are a part of life. I am fully aware that all those that have died this year are Believers and I will see them again. I am not without that hope. But that hope seems like a very thin thread to cling to right now. And yes. I understand that God is my Provider and that He is faithful. He has promised to never leave me nor forsake me…and yet…the darkness closes in.
I watch as my sister and niece go through the grieving process and there is nothing I can do to help. The very thing that can fix their pain is impossible to produce. My heart grieves each day for family members I cannot see as I long for reconciliation. I wait for a job that doesn’t come and I look for light around each corner. But the tunnel is dark and and I can’t see daylight as I had hoped.
I wish there had been a road sign that said, “Dark Tunnel Ahead.”
C.S. Lewis states that when you are happy it feels as if God welcomes you with open arms, “But go to Him when your need is desperate, when all other help is vain, and what do you find? A door slammed in your face, and a sound of bolting and double bolting on the inside. After that, silence.”― A Grief Observed
Anfechtung is the word Martin Luther used to describe these dark tunnels. He often said he experienced a loss of faith that God is good “…and that He is good to me.” “Luther’s agony in his later years was all the more intense because he was a physician of souls; and if the medicine he had prescribed for himself and for others was actually poison, how frightful was his responsibility?” (Bainton, 1950).
Luther explains that without these tunnels no one can truly understand Scripture, faith, the fear or the love of God. One cannot know the true light of hope who has never experienced darkness.
Is FAITH, truly the cure for the lack of faith? Luther thought so. Scripture says without faith it is impossible to please God. So…I move through the tunnel Hellen-Keller like with my arms outstretched and awkward footing and no senses or feelings to guide me…just blind, deaf, and muted by the pain and the darkness, but stumbling forward trusting only in God because in the words of Peter, where else can I go? Christ alone has the words of eternal life. I hope it is true. I cling to it being true and it better be true because I have staked my entire life on it and even if I spent what is left of my years here on earth stuck in this dark endless tunnel I’d rather be in the dark with Christ than on the outside without Him. Peace.