Monday, June 30, 2014

Hope for the Hopeless

After Chris' death, I prayed that the Lord would graciously redeem all that pain—that He would not only turn ashes into beauty in my life and in Erika's, but that He would provide me with opportunities to comfort others with the comfort I have received.  I couldn't imagine how that might look. But I knew that my heart was more tender to human suffering than it had been before. And I understood greater depths of the comforts of my loving God—the special nearness of the Father to His aching children.

Last week, Scotty and I returned from a life-changing trip. I believe God answered my prayers. He told me what He has for me—how He plans to redeem the past pain. We spent two weeks traveling throughout Lebanon. My dear husband has lived and served in the Middle East for over 20 years, but now we needed to find out what God might have for us together.  How might He use us both?

Almost immediately upon our arrival, I fell in love with the people. There is a warmth and affection in communication and hospitality that is very unlike American culture. Community is prized far above individuality. But I also saw how this honor-based society often gives way to pride and hate and abuse and murder. And myriads of devastated human beings are left in the wake. 

Hatred is everywhere. And hopelessness nearly chokes them. They are oppressed at every turn. Hunted down or caught in the cross-fire of hatred directed at another. Or they boil inside with their own hate—and they strike. Fear and anger permeates the society and the soul.

Compassion! Where is compassion? Who will show them the love of Jesus? Who will tell them of the hope that transcends this awful world? Who will weep with them when their fellow-refugee neighbor refuses to share water and their slumlord shamelessly exploits their vulnerability and need? Who will sit beside the woman who has been raped and drugged and punched by the man who shares her bed—and she finds no one in her society who takes up her case for her?

There is a stirring in our hearts to be the hope-bringers.  Pray with us! The task seems full of impossibilities, but we feel confident in the Lord's call. And "He who calls you is faithful; He will surely do it." (I Thes. 5:24) 

We read this while in the city of Byblos, Lebanon (from Streams in the Desert, June 23):

"So he said, 'Come.' Peter got out of the boat, walked on the water, and came toward Jesus. But when he saw the strong wind he became afraid. And starting to sink, he cried out, 'Lord, save me!' " (Matt 14:29-30) 

Peter had a little faith in the midst of his doubts, says Bunyan; and so with crying and coming he was brought to Christ. 

But here you see that sight was a hindrance; the waves were none of his business when once he had set out; all Peter had any concern with, was the pathway of light that came gleaming across the darkness from where Christ stood. If it was tenfold Egypt beyond that, Peter had no call to look and see. 

When the Lord shall call to you over the waters, “Come,” step gladly forth. Look not for a moment away from Him.

Not by measuring the waves can you prevail; not by gauging the wind will you grow strong; to scan the danger may be to fall before it; to pause at the difficulties, is to have them break above your head. Lift up your eyes unto the hills, and go forward—there is no other way. 

Dost thou fear to launch away?
Faith lets go to swim!
Never will He let thee go;
’Tis by trusting thou shalt know
Fellowship with Him.

We pray for faith to look not at the waves but at Christ. 

Saturday, March 1, 2014

A Letter at Two Years

My dear Chris,

How I miss you!

On this day two years ago, I held your hand for the last time. I kissed your smooth forehead. I looked into your pained eyes—trying to imagine with you the paradise for which you were departing in just mere moments. I said "goodbye." I watched your chest rise for the final time.

And then I stared at your emaciated, soulless body—so overjoyed for you to be finally delivered from the horrors of the valley of death. I tried to envision the bliss that surely tasted sweeter than my earthly mind could fathom. You were at last with the Lover of your soul.

And then I collapsed. My dearest friend was gone from me. My daughter’s daddy was out of her life forever. Just after you died, I would frequently dream that you came back for just one day. And it felt so good to be in your company and your arms again. I had so much to tell you. And then I would wake with that awful, sinking feeling—the realization of my alone-ness. And one time, I picked up my phone to call you because I just had to ask you something...and then remembered that no one would pick up. It was as if I lost my arm or leg. I didn't know how to live or make decisions without you for a while.

But, I learned. Eventually. The same Jesus that was with you in heaven was also with me. And so I could keep living. Putting one foot in front of the other. I could love and laugh with our girl. And joy began to return—sometimes in ounces, sometimes in bucketfuls.

Chris, you taught me so very much. You taught me patience and fortitude and grace. You were called to many years of pain and sleepless nights and scary doctor visits and awful treatments and news that went from bad to worse. And shattered hopes and dreams. And too-early goodbyes. And one of the most drawn-out deaths possible. You were stripped of every last shred of modesty but never lost your dignity or grace. Your prayer to "die in the saddle" (of ministry) was answered. Your death was the most important lesson in all of my life.

Eternal perspective came to me from that valley. But sometimes it slips away a bit. I forget the lessons I learned. I forget what you taught me—the  lessons you learned from your Savior and Friend. I start worrying about things. I snap and say unkind words. I lose my temper. I start to think that this life is all there is and that I have to make all my dreams come true here. (You know me and all my weak spots.)

And so, I'm thankful for this anniversary. A day to remember those lessons. And to remember you, my sweet man, and all the ways you reflected your Lord. A day to look back so that I may walk forward with purpose and grace.

I've had many gifts. The gift of a decade with you—living and growing with you, loving and being loved by you. The gift of parenting with you. And your death—bitter as it was—was also a gift. The lessons learned could not have been learned otherwise. (And your dying ministry reached far beyond your wife. You taught thousands how to suffer well.)

And now, I am quite confident you know about my newest gift. Erika and I are now two of eight! The Lord has answered your prayer and has placed the solitary in a family (Psalm 68:6)—and quite a large one at that! I have a godly and kind husband, and Erika has a father and five siblings. Our new family members have their own dear one in heaven—where you are. And so we often wonder if you and Bev know our story and if you have sweeter fellowship because of it? And I also wonder if you do most of the talking?

Guess what? God gave me another talkative husband! There are a few other ways in which you are similar, but more that you are not. The important things are there, though. Scotty loves the Lord, he loves me, and he loves his kids—all six of them. You'd like him a lot. Like you, he's passionate and excitable. It's one of the first things I liked about him.

We don't know where the Lord will take us, but we pray for hearts that are willing to be poured out always and for hands that hold our plans and hopes loosely. Our prayer is much like the prayers you and I prayed together.

How different, though, is this plan from the dreams we dreamed! But I wouldn't change one thing. And I am absolutely certain that you agree. Our God is a loving Sovereign, isn't He? How thoroughly you know this now! His purposes are grand and good. And you see and understand them now. I still walk by faith.

Thank you for living life with me while you were here. I will see you soon, my dear man. Much love.

Wednesday, February 12, 2014

On Life and Love

Life in Washington is new and different and wonderful and challenging. I laugh and cry. I cook (a lot) and drink coffee (a lot). I pray more.

Changes! Marital status, house, climate, family size and members, grocery bill, free time, church, friends and family, occupation, sleeping schedule... I remember learning about the stress scale in nursing school. I'm pretty convinced my score would pretty high if I calculated it. But I won't.

Because I know the ONE who has planned all this. The One who holds my hand and fills my heart. I know He loves me. And I know that what He has called me to do, I can do well. And those He has called me to love, I can love fully.

All this transition is not without pain. All eight of us, I think, could tell our own story of the pain of this change. But I think each of us could also speak about some joy or some gift that has come as well.

I will tell only my story here (and maybe a bit of Erika's since I've told hers all along, and she is too young to care, I think, if her mother tells it)—and leave the others to tell theirs.

Remarriage after the death of a spouse is a beautiful thing. It is redemption out of pain and devastation. Here's the part you don't always hear, though: it is also one of the most difficult things I have ever done. It has brought more pain and grief than I have known in many months. It has reminded me of Chris and all that he was to me. And it has closed completely the "Chris and Emily" chapter of my life. The life I thought I'd have is most clearly now never-to-be.

Given my cross-country move, I find also that there is no one around me that knew and loved Chris. No one says (or even can say), "Remember the way Chris used to juggle WHILE playing the harmonica?" Or "I was thinking of the heart Chris had for people. I sure miss him." I tell stories about him to his little girl, but she recalls so little that we can never swap stories. There is a comfort in co-remembering, co-missing. So this is a lonely sort of grief.

That grief nearly breaks me in two at some moments. And then I look at my best friend beside me. My husband! He is my gift. My comfort. He too knows the pain and loss that at times grips me and tears me apart. So I lean into him, and he leans into me.

I've learned too, that being married before means not that I know how to live with a man—it means I know how to live with ONE man. This guy with whom I've agreed to share a life is awkwardly foreign to me at times—as I am to him. And when we relax and slip into "the way we did things before," disaster erupts! Sometimes we laugh about it, and sometimes we cry.

We speak more of grace and love than we ever have before: God's great grace and love shown to us—and our deep need to be loved graciously by the other. And then to let that love and grace spill out all over these six kids. 

If you pray anything for us, will you pray this: that we would learn more fully what true love is? That we would be known by our love!

So we find that life is far from easy, but it is sweetly blessed. And it holds joy and gifts that would never have been possible without all this pain and loss.

How is it that I, one who has never birthed a child, now find myself surrounded by 6 of them? Infertility was a bitter pill to swallow—but it was medicine all the same. God used it to cure my heart of pride and self-sufficiency and then brought to me my precious gift, my Erika Grace. Then widowhood! The very picture of loneliness and neediness! Yet through it, I have been given another husband and his five beautiful children. I find myself humbled to stand in for their dear mother.  

 Only God could have done this.

And my extremely extroverted and social daughter now has a big family—one for which she was most obviously born! She has playmates nearly every moment (and her introverted mother gets a bit of a break from the intense socialization)!

Erika was born with some pretty remarkable qualities for the life she was to have. She is flexible and loves change. She thrives on the new and the unknown and the unexpected. She's always up for an adventure and for meeting new people and going new places. I wish I had a fraction of her adventurous nature! How easy she makes all of this. If she had a sensitive or inflexible temperament, the turmoil that change would bring for her would be rather hard for her mom to watch.

She does miss her Nana and Papa and Grandpa and cousins and aunts and uncles at home, though. And she talks often of her beloved Gramma Judy (Chris' mom), who died suddenly on January 4th. Her loss felt acute to us as we were moving and leaving our life in Minnesota. It seemed somehow to widen the chasm. We miss her greatly.

So we have sadness and joy, loss and gain, goodbyes and hellos. We step forward, with resolve to see the gifts in life—not to dismiss or ignore the pain—to feel it all. But sometimes when things get hard, these human minds forget to soak in the joys and give attention to what's good and whole and beautiful.

My heart overflows with gratitude for the life, the love, the people I've been given—past and present.

Happy Valentine's Day! May we all find ways to love our big people and our little people better.

(All photos were taken at our wedding by Emily Steffen)

Wednesday, January 1, 2014

New Year, New Life

Happy New Year to you all!

Today I embark on a journey across the country with my groom. The man of my prayers and of my dreams. I start the year with him--moving into a new life and a new home. I am absolutely filled up with gratitude and joy!

Just eleven days ago, we spoke life-changing vows to each other. And how lovely it all was! We feel so happy and so blessed. Thank you for your prayers and your love and your encouragement.

More soon!

Photography by my dear friend, Emily Steffen. 

Thursday, November 21, 2013

Love Story

Several weeks ago, I promised to tell you my story. Forgive the long delay! Life has been quite busy!

So, here I finally am. Where do I start?

When Chris was dying, he talked with me at length about getting married again. He said, "you do better married," and he wanted a father for his sweet girl. So, he told me things like, "Don't wear your wedding ring on your left hand very long." He prayed that the Lord would bring Erika and me a godly man who would love and care for us as he did. And he told all of our loved ones who visited that they should encourage me to get married again soon.

This all perhaps sounds odd to some of you. You may say, "I could never imagine getting married if I lost my spouse." Things look very different, though, when you are a parent with a young child and when you treasure the sweetness of marriage and companionship. I used to feel a bit sad about there being "no marriage in heaven." But what a beautiful truth that is to me now! I am free and blessed to marry again! And Chris wanted it for me. What a gift he gave me--to release me to another.

And so from the beginning of my widowhood, I began praying for a husband. I prayed these things: that he loved the Lord and was in ministry for Him; that he had suffered some loss, in order that he might be able to understand my daughter's and mine (I hoped for a widower, but I did not specifically pray for that); and that he had a daughter, so that he might have a heart for mine.

I admit--I kept my eyes open for this kind of man. I did not see him around. Several people suggested "going online." I hesitated but did think about it for a while. Eventually (last December), I decided to make a profile on Sovereign Grace Singles.

In January, I began corresponding with a widower. We started writing about our losses--something both of us needed and wanted to do. We talked about the nearness of our God and all of His comforts. It was sweet fellowship, and we found ourselves writing volumes to each other each day. There was so much to say, and we felt we never really got to say it all. So, we decided to talk on the phone a few weeks after we began writing.

I think my sister saw the writing on the wall. She warned me: don't fall for this guy. He was 15 years older than I, a missionary (to the Middle East, but currently living in Washington state), and a father of 5 children. "A lot." Alot of years, a lot of ministry, a lot of kids.

The phone call was four hours long. Immediately I loved the smoothness of his voice. I thought he was articulate and thoughtful, and I enjoyed talking with him--immensely. I saw the heart he had for the hurt his children were suffering. I saw his clinging to his Lord through the storm. We talked about our beloved lost spouses--Chris and Bev.

We continued writing and also started talking a lot. And then I made the first move. I told him (in an email!) that I would like to pray about being "more than just friends." It became clear to me that he possessed the qualities for which I had prayed. He agreed to pray about. He called me "Ruth"--who made the first move on her Boaz.

It was a quiet, rather secret relationship. My family and pastor and a few close friends knew about Scotty, but that was all. We felt we needed to discover--without a lot of scrutiny or judgment--what the Lord might have for us together. Remarriage evokes strong feelings in people at times--especially when those people knew and loved our late spouses. It also seems that when children are involved, well-meaning people want to be sure we are not neglecting their needs and feelings. Additionally, Scotty's children are older, and we wished to spare them questions and attention about this relationship. We wanted to allow them time and space to process all of this and to make known their thoughts and feelings.

In June, we met for the first time in person. I flew to the west coast, and we spent 3 days together. I briefly met his children and parents, as well. In July, Scotty came to Minnesota and spent 3 days here. He met my family, and we had some fun dates. Then in August, Erika and I spent a week with Scotty and his kids. These trips went quite well and served to progress our relationship.

On September 26th, Scotty flew to Minnesota again. He gave me a ring that time. It was one of the very best days of my life.

That was a sober, yet very joyful time we spent together. We made plans and promises for this "part 2" of our lives. We thanked God for giving us the gift of companionship again--and another parent for our kids.

And, now we are just one month from our wedding day. We will marry on the winter solstice--December 21st--and we look forward with hope and expectancy that it will mark the beginning of increasing light each day for us all.

Erika and I will be moving to Vancouver, Washington. We grieve deeply the loss of family, friends, church, school, job. It is truly a bittersweet thing. But more sweet than bitter! I am overjoyed to live and work beside a good man again. I am thrilled for my daughter to have the love of a father again. And I am privileged and deeply grateful to love and to serve the five young people that I will soon call my family.

Abby (19), Matt (16), Zacky (14), Yusef (9), and Luke (7) are lovely and tender and kind. And they showcase their Mama's loving and sacrificial input into their lives in a beautiful way. To follow after her is indeed a humbling thing.

Scotty and I do not know what the Lord has for ministry for us in the future. Our general direction and hope is to continue to pursue missions. We pray the Lord would make it very clear to us when we should go overseas--and what ministry will look like for us together. For now, we feel we need to spend time combining our new family and to minister to Arabs here in the United States.

We would love your prayers for us, as we undertake the enormous task of learning to love and serve each other and combine these 2 families into one. Two families who have suffered huge losses. We need much grace! We move forward but will never forget. Thank you! Much love!

Bev Wharton
 Chris Drager