A Sign, Grief, & Prayers for the Future

The disruption of grief ebbs and flows as a tide freed from the predictable confinements of the moon’s rationality. And with each sweeping set of sorrows comes new decisions. Some being codified by our legal system float above the waters. Others jump out at us from under the dark waves without warning. It is the later that prove most difficult because they defy anticipation. For example, the innocent blue and white wood sign hanging above my fireplace that my late wife painted a few years back recently became unavoidable point of tension in my heart. I could not get over the phrase, “Established 2012.”

In one sense, it was the most basic of truths. Twenty-twelve was the year in which I asked my dear wife out for the first time, popped the question with a princess cut diamond ring, and then said, “I do” before a hundred or so witnesses. But 2012 was more than that. It was the year my soul was knit to hers to an eternal love forged in the fires of faith and trust. And it was that love that I rested in time and time again in the years that followed.

Many know of the sorrows that April and I endured when we buried our first-born son. A few others knew that we suffered a miscarriage between the births of our second and third child, another pain that scarred our hearts. But no one knew of the almost suffocating isolation of ministry that enveloped our souls at times. Though we thought about sharing the depths of our sorrows, divine prudence dictated that we do otherwise. There were no public dialogues, FB posts, or blogs. Only the two of us and the Lord knew the full extent of those days. But as we debated how to best apply theology to this and that situation, memorized Scripture, read ferociously, and lifted our concerns to the Lord, sweet blessings arrived. Our love for Christ and for one another become ever more fixed and more glorious. Oh how we both delighted in those long weekends spent eating Mexican food in Dublin, shopping in Warner Robins for a deal that would align with our simple budget, and walking the few historical sites of note that dotted the middle Georgia landscape. Even in the worst of days, I knew I could pour out my soul to her with all its faults for she loved me as she had been loved by Christ. Indeed, many a bitter day followed 2nd Peter’s death, the miscarriage, and those times of intense isolation. But her love was always sweet, charitable, and unfailing. Hope was always close by. Even in the worst of days, I was the most blessed of men.

When we arrived in Virginia, we came to start anew and to live our lives without the secrecy that had defined our past and that of so many other pastors. As her cancer descended upon her with unprecedented speed, we both embraced the public nature of the moment, seeing our suffering as an opportunity to live out our theology…to do what we had always longed to do…to cast a vision for what could be. But then that which was perishable was transformed into that which is imperishable. What had begun in 2012 ended in 2022. And now that sign…

Though my blessed April exchanged mortality for immortality, the secret memories and sorrows of times past have not disappeared. Rather, they have shifted in-whole to my shoulders. My heart has ached under their pressure of late. As I succumbed again to the waves of grief, those old muscle memories from years ago took over, and I looked afresh for the profound solace derived for my wife’s faith. But I found only the profound emptiness and sorrow that comes with losing one’s soulmate.

But with the tears came clarity. I now know that while a modified version of our vision for what could be still belongs in my heart, those recollections of sorrow need to be carefully stored in the depths of my heart away from the light of the present. I need to cast them fully upon the Lord, trusting myself to his care. In other words, those memories are my past – a past that both profoundly and positively shaped who I am both in an out of the pulpit – but alas, still my past. For better or worse, my kids know little to nothing of our experiences from those years. My family as it exists today did not begin in 2012 but in the tragically late hours of June 25, 2022.

In other words, God has ordained that I begin anew and that my kids begin anew as a family of four. The burdens of yester-year are to be laid aside. However much I mourn this transition and fought to prevent its arrival, I can no longer maintain perfect continuity with my past. Our shared experiences are no longer the essence of who I am. That chapter of my life is now complete. A new chapter awaits.

And so as the waves once again begin to recede, I join my sweet children in beseeching the Lord to bless our family with the woman that would necessitate one more beginning. Waves of sorrow and glimpses of hope; of love lost and loves to come. May God be merciful.

And the sign? It came down.  

From Grief to Hope and a Lifting Fog

As the soft rain struck the ground atop my late wife’s grave with the relaxing rhythm of summer tranquility, a rather clarifying if not somewhat cruel thought snuck into the recesses of my brain. April’s closest earthly friends were now those grimy little worms wiggling about that damp Virginia soil. We who once were one in the most glorious and wonderful of ways were now forever separated by time and space until such measurements are no more. She under me, and I under her.

But instead of allowing the dark clouds hovering above her grave to stain my face afresh with tears, I just gazed out at the cemetery and sighed…a deep abiding sigh. I miss her deeply. But at that moment, I could not conjure up the wailing that had defined the first 6+ weeks that followed April’s death.

During those first 40 days or so, I cried and cried profusely. Everything from the pictures in my office to the pillows on my bed shattered the composure of my soul. I hated family meals. Instead of being able to share my day with my purplely person, I had to banish my thoughts to the confusing realm of inner dialogue while my kids bantered about the finer points of steam locomotives and the proper way to eat ketchup. Grief even accompanied the sweet joys of ministry. Those moments indirectly highlighted the wretched truth that my spiritual helper and greatest source of earthly wisdom was gone. As Lacey told me when she presented me with a new portrait complete with tears, “Daddy, you cry a lot.”

Being the planner and muddled visionary that I am, I attempted to estimate the ebb and flow of my grief almost from the moment April died. Though I now know such an enterprise is doomed to fail, I could not help myself. I predicted then that the dark misty cloud of sorrow that swept over my soul the morning after April’s death would remain over my heart at least into the early months of 2023.  

But shortly after the 6-week mark while driving home, that dark wet flog unexpectedly lifted. The hope of God blew afresh into my soul through the ordinary means of Christian fellowship, scripture memory, and prayer. That afternoon, I suddenly and inexplicably felt the goodness of God afresh for the first time in months. As Psalm 42 says, I could, “again praise you. My salvation and my God.” He was no longer a painful mystery to question but a loving Father to trust. On that Tuesday afternoon, I had tasted the goodness of God. That following Wednesday proved to be the first day without tears.  When Thursday arrived, I just sighed.

I do not believe that week represented the end of my grief, but rather the unpredictable changing nature of my sorrow. The external tears of those first weeks have seeped into the depths of my soul and formed a never-ending stream of loss. At times and without warning, it will still rush to the surface of my consciousness. The last few days have been particularly brutal. In years past, I never minded getting older but celebrating my 38th birthday as a single dad with three kids proved to be a vicious reminder of why death is so evil. I have lost a lifetime of goodness. The tears still come. I suspect they will continue to flow until I am reunited with my dear April in heaven which dries up all tears and sorrow. In other words, grief will undoubtedly always be my companion in some form. She cannot be buried. She cannot be escaped this side of heaven.

But, I also learned a few weeks back that grief has no right to banish hope. Rather, the two emotions work in tandem. We see this in the grand scheme of the Christian gospel. The grief of sin leads to the joy of faith and holiness. As Jesus said, “Blessed are those who mourn for they shall be comforted (Matt 5:4).”

The same proves true for this widower. When I come across our wedding photos, I cannot help but stop and appreciate the goodness of God represented in those mementos of love, joy, and happiness. October 20, 2012 was a good, good day. The loss of that goodness rightfully leads to tears. But, I must not remain forever in the sadness of that grief. No amount of tears spilled (not even a years’ worth) nor of time traversed can heal the heart. But hope founded upon the character of our God who promises to bottle our tears can.

When resting with Him, I am reminded that the blessings of time past do not represent the limits of God’s love but rather his great ability to bless me afresh. His love for me did not end when April died. In other words, the grief of today increasingly fills me with hope for tomorrow. I have come to understand that April’s story which so gloriously shaped my story points to the reality that Jesus is still working in my life for my good today. As the Psalmist reminds us, “By day the Lord commands he steadfast love and at night his song is with me (Ps 42:8).” In other words, the sorrows for what has been increasingly give me hope for what could be – albeit in a new and varied form. Grief must accompany my soul but hope also proves to be an equally close friend. She too will never be buried. And so…as I walk into tomorrow…I embrace the sorrow of today trusting that its end will be joy. May God be merciful.

5 Weeks Later: A Postscript to April’s Death

The last few weeks have been hard…unbelievably hard. During the last weeks of her life, I told April many times that my heart would forever contain a purple stain. Having lost a son four hours after his premature birth and having buried my own father not too long ago, I thought I knew something of the scars that wound the human heart. But when I awoke on June 26 to a world that no longer contained my purpley person, I experienced a penetrating and soul crushing grief unlike anything I had ever encountered. My heart had not been wounded. It had been severed…wrecked at its core.

The night before, April had been my everything…the source of my earthly happiness and the marrow that infused hope into my future. Even as she slipped into an unconscious state on the evening of the 24th, our marriage was real. Memories of vows, first dances, and nights alone rightly informed my vision for tomorrow. Hope, however precarious, still remained. Relationship existed. Her soft inhale and exhales and the touch of her warm hand brought comfort to my heart. But the moment that she turned cold, I was alone. What had been the most fundamental and essential essence of my life was became but a memory – a treasure chest of joys and wisdom to be stewarded well- but still a lifeless memory. Life to death. Hope to tragedy. Whole to less than whole.

Though my grief is profound, I know that all that has transpired is no tragedy for my dear bride. She has exchanged her frail body for one of eternal peace and her flawed husband for the perfect love of Christ. Though I know her desperate wish and prayer was to stay with me and our children and though I affirm that her love for us still resides within her heavenly heart- albeit a perfected love, I cannot wish her back to this troubled planet. I cannot ask her to exchange Christ’s headship for mine. She has achieved her end. She is glorifying God and perfectly enjoying him forever. Her joy is complete.

And yet, mine remains hidden by hidden a glass covered by shadows.  

In the hours after her death, an unsettling silence settled over our home. As I wandered are room alone, I could not help but fill that forsaken space with the simply cry of, “Where are you?” Though I asked the question often, no reply came. All those pictures that she valued so much just coldly stared backed at my tear-stained face. I miss her. Ten years ago when I stumbled into April at Southern Seminary, I found in her something far greater than any ruby or diamond. Though she has gained all, I have lost the companionship, the wisdom, and the affections of this woman worth more than gold.

These last weeks, I have found a new affection for Paul’s sentiment in Philippians 1:23 which says,

“My desire is to depart and be with Christ, for that is far better (Phil 1:23).”

I long for Christ…for the joys that my dear April knows well. Life is hard. Oh, what faith it takes to say, “The Lord gives, and the Lord takes away, blessed be the Lord.”

The Path Forward

Though no prophet or son of a prophet, I suspect my life is not close to its end. At the very least, I know God has not called me to prepare for death as much as he has called me to prepare for and to minister to my children and to my church family. As Paul notes in the next verse in Philippians 1, “But to remain in the flesh is more necessary on your account.” Thus, I will cherish the days ahead. I will navigate the dark alley ways of doubt and the swamps of sorrows, knowing that my savior will hold me fast. As the Psalmist says,

“When the righteous cry for help, the Lord hears and delivers them out of all their trouble. The Lord is near to the brokenhearted and saves the crushed in spirit (Ps 34:18).”

Though hard and emotionally complex, the path forward possesses a spiritual simplicity that even the youngest of believers can easily recognize. God asks nothing special of me during this season. He calls me to trust his wise, loving, and all-powerful character. Then, he commands me to live out the gospel within my local church context, attending to the things that he has called me to such as preaching and loving my children well. In short, I am to love the Lord my God with all my heart soul, mind, and strength and my neighbor as myself.

When April and I lost our first-born son, we found simple obedience to be the surest pathway to hope. Even as she and I grappled with her cancer over the last three years, our souls were forever and always reinvigorated by ministry. The very act of caring for our neighbor in the midst of our sorrows often brought us the divine perspective and hope that our hearts needed to make sense of the very pain that only hours earlier had tempted us to withdraw from the community of faith. If I will but obey Christ in the minutia of life as I suffer, hope will come. As Paul wrote,

“Suffering produces character which leads to the hope of Christ that never disappoints (Rom. 5:2-5).”

With this in mind, I have resumed working on my dissertation, returned to the church office, and reascended the pulpit. The pathway to restoration is beautifully simple.

As I traverse the many ups and downs of this path of grief over the next months, I know there will be many more tears…some anticipated – such as the first full week of school – and some not so much. Life will continue to hurt for a time. And I fully suspect some sorrows will not fully healed until the other side of heaven. But I also know there will be new joys…new relationships…new and increasing evidences of grace in my life, in the lives of my children, and in my church family. Christ promises of abundant life have not grown stale. The God who knew April would live but 39 years and ordained that I would have the blessed joy of being her husband (of being one with her) for 9.5 of those years still loves me. The valley of Bacca will once again flow with the streams of hope. By God’s mercy, I will go from strength to strength (Psalm 84:5-7). The clouds will lift. Joy will come in the morning, and I will praise him again.

I greatly appreciate your prayers for me and my family as we continue walk through this valley.  

May God be merciful!