Why Walking Through the Valley is Changing My Life
My grief process after the sudden loss of my mom has not been a clear cut map. It has no borders or expected paths. It catches me off guard and hits me in the most unexpected ways. A song will come on and remind me of her. Or a woman walking in a park will cause me to stare because my mom’s walk was so similar. Or I’ll pass by the old brick bakery where my mom and I often bought bread together and I will burst into tears.
The little things often hurt the most because all the little things stir up a swell of memories that flood through me and around me. It’s like a gust of wind that catches autumn leaves together in a great swell—they are individual pieces that are mixed with the invisible energy that was her essence.
That’s what I miss most. Her essence. There is no replacement. No relationship that fits that empty puzzle piece in my heart that she once occupied. And so with the loss of that relationship, I have lost a piece of myself. A part of me has set sail. And I grieve that too.
At first, I wanted to find a way to accelerate my grief process. I consider myself a happy, positive person (except when my blood sugar is low and then I’m like, “make way people!” as I beeline to the fridge.) I worried that my grief would permanently alter my personality. I know people whose grief consumes them, who wear the sadness of loss like an outfit. They seem stuck in this time-capsule of sadness, unable to see the light that still penetrates their lives. The thought of losing myself to this black hole of depression is unbearable to me.
I think of my daughter and how she needs me to lead and guide her in love. How I don’t want my sorrow to affect her happiness. How I don’t want to miss out on witnessing her beginning because I’m looking back at the ending of one of my dearest relationships here on earth.
I think of my husband who is so tenderly committed to loving me through my pain. I’ve never been more vulnerable with him and yet, my sorrow makes it hard to feel connected at times. He can’t see inside my mind. And no matter how many memories I share with him, he can’t see them played out in movie-like clarity as I do.
I think of my sisters and dad who need my strength, encouragement, sympathy and support.
I need to be emotionally available. I need to be strong and healthy for my family and for my life.
But how? How when my heart is broken?
Unexplainably, I have felt peace and light and hope in this season of excruciating pain. This does not mean that I deny or minimize my pain. I am in pain. I hurt. I cry so hard sometimes I scream and cannot breathe. Some nights, I sit in a cloud of thick sadness too exhausted even for tears.
Sometimes I look for distractions, things to help me forget for a few hours the heaviness inside my chest. Filling my days with friends and events does this, but as uplifting as these are, they are temporary fixes. I know that I still need to face the problem. I still need to face her absence. I still need to face the anger I feel and the emotions that resist forgiveness of the uninsured, unlicensed driver who was too high on methamphetamine to remember that he’d even been driving in the first place. And I wonder at the power of a perfect stranger over me. That his one act has changed the lives of us all irreversibly.
But my story isn’t anything new. Humans have been harming each other since The Fall. Papa did not create this pain. We did by believing the deceiver rather than trusting the voice of our Maker. We made ourselves little gods of our self-centered empires. This is why pain exists. The pain we create and yet spend an exhaustive amount of effort trying to control.
But Papa redeems. He says to his creation, “Behold! I am making all things new!” I love this God who works with His people to accomplish his good purposes. This Savior who became like us in order to show us that He is not like us.
Have you noticed how His universe is full of oxymorons? We must lose our life to find it. We must give up everything to gain everything. And I find this is true for me as I process pain, my heart is broken and yet I have joy. I am at my weakest yet I am at my strongest.
“When we are weak we make room for Him”
When the Apostle Paul asked God to take away this affliction, God answered, “I am all you need. I give you My loving-favor. My power works best in weak people” (2 Corinthians 12:9 NLT)
I love that! Here’s how I interpret it:
“Because I love you, I am all you need. I am all you need even if you don’t feel you have all that you need. My power works best in weak people.
God is all powerful and there is nothing that we can do to hinder God’s power, but he loves to work in relationship. He never forces or makes us do anything against our will. He doesn’t want puppets He wants children. So when we are weak his power is more effective because when we are weak we make room for Him. We stop trying to control because in our weakness we realize we never had control in the first place. Our weakness brings surrender and with that surrender comes the fruit of seeing His power at work. Isn’t that beautiful?!
Grief and God in Psalm 23
Psalm 23 was the first psalm that I memorized as a child. I remember reciting it to myself in my basement bedroom at night because I could hear hissing water heater and trickling pipes that sounded like a shriveled witch ready to come and get me. (What can I say, I had a really active imagination!)
When my mom was killed in the car accident, this psalm took on a whole new shape in my heart.
The Old made New
The Lord is my shepherd;
You know how a narrative becomes so familiar you tune it out? Well, scripture is not just empty words. The Holy Spirit breathes life into them and unveils our hearts to new wisdom. Read the above passage again. The Lord is MY shepherd. Not A Shepherd or The Shepherd. Mine. Possessive. It implies both relationship and belonging. I am His and He is mine. There is safety in knowing you belong.
For example, I love when Keegan introduces me as his wife and I love introducing him as my husband. Not because we believe in any way that we own each other but because we are introducing each other and the relationship we have with one another. An intimate relationship built on trust, commitment and love. I feel safe and special because I am HIS wife and he is MY husband.
Similarly, calling Christ my shepherd because it implies not simply who He is but the relationship we have.
“I NEED her!”
The Lord is my shepherd;
I have all that I need.
After learning the news, I called my husband in hysterics shouting over the phone: “I don’t understand! How can she be gone? I need her! I need her!”
And yet, here is some of the richest imagery of Papa’s tender care in the Old Testament assuring me that I have all that I need? It seems like the psalmist didn’t know what he was talking about! At first, my heart had a hard time accepting this, but in time, I saw that, in fact, I do have all that I need in Christ…even if I don’t have all that I want. Even if I had nothing (which I don’t) this truth would still remain the same. I would have all that I need because of His redeeming work.
This is a hard distinction for many to make. We think we have the right to relationships, possessions and the pursuit of happiness. But as Christ followers we are asked to give up our rights just as Jesus did.
When we give up our “rights”…
There’s a passage from The Shack by William Paul Young that illustrates this concept better than I can. The main character, Mackenzie, is talking to the Holy Spirit, Sarayu, about this very thing. Sarayu says to him:
“Rights are where survivors go so that they won’t have to work out relationships,” she cut in.
“But if I gave up—”
“Then you would know the wonder and adventure of living in me,” she said, interrupting him again.
Mack was getting frustrated. He spoke louder.
“But don’t I have the right to—”
“To complete a sentence without being interrupted? No you don’t. Not in reality. But as long as you think you do you will surely get ticked off when someone cuts you off, even if it’s God.”
He was stunned and stood up, staring at her, not knowing whether to rage or laugh.
Sarayu smiled at him, “Mackenzie, Jesus didn’t hold onto any rights. He willingly became a servant and lives out of his relationship to Papa. He gave up everything so that by his dependent life, he opened a door that would allow you to live free enough to give up your rights.”
I love that last part. Jesus gave everything so that we are free enough to give up everything.
Green Pastures and Peaceful Streams
He lets me rest in green meadows;
He leads me beside peaceful streams.
He renews my strength.
This psalm was written by a former Israelite shepherd turned king. Because Israel is a dry place, there are very few green meadows for sheep to graze. I had always imagined the sheep grazing in a place like Minnesota with its green rollings hills and 15,000 lakes. But interestingly this is not the case in Israel.
The job of the shepherd was to constantly move his flock from one food source to the next. In Israel, shepherds had to take their sheep to these rocky areas by the sea where the sea spray and dew caused delicate grass to grow up between the rocks. Here, the sheep could graze but it was only a enough for a day.
This is a fascinating image when you unpack it. Scripture reminds us again and again to trust God for today.
When Jesus’ disciples asked him how they should pray he said, “Give us THIS DAY our daily bread.” He didn’t ask for tomorrow’s bread or next week’s. He said, give us this day. Just this day.
Scripture also speaks of not storing up in barns; or worrying about tomorrow or making arrogant plans about the future. I don’t think God warns us against these things because there is something inherently evil about thinking about the future. Most of us live in an inner world consisting of the past or the future. The past is often filled with longing for simpler times or regret over things we did or wish we’d done. The future holds anxiety because it contains no certainties.
Rarely do we live in the present. So the prayer asking for provision for this day is more than just a pleasant turn of phrase. God encourages us to live in this mindful presentness for our good. In order to protect our hearts from worrying about things we can’t control or creating a false sense of control that makes us feel dependent from relationship with him.
I have found great comfort in trusting Him for today. I’ve never walked my faith out this way before and it is new and refreshing. I know that he has greater plans for my future than I can make for myself. The only thing I am tasked with is trusting that he leads and provides for TODAY. In this simple way, I am making room for him to lead my life.
We honor Him in how we live
He guides me along right paths,
bringing honor to His name.
This part is connected with the day-by-day walk of faith too. We can trust that the paths He will lead us on are right. They are right for us, for our lives, for our families and they work for our good. And in the process of the daily trust, our lives bring Him glory. Wow! Does that make you want to ask him to drive? Does that make you want to give up the striving and worrying?
I love Papa’s ability to weave his master plan and our stories together in this beautiful tapestry. By living the life dependent on Him we are pointing to an other-oriented way. This is the life that produces the fruit of the spirit. A life that flows from a spring of love, wisdom, peace, mercy, and humility. THIS is what I want for my life. Accolades, justice (as my limited point of view sees fit), financial security, a beautiful house, and raising the a perfect family, none of this matters an iota if I do not have the former.
Jesus said to us very clearly what we must do.
“But seek first the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be added to you. Therefore do not be anxious about tomorrow, for tomorrow will be anxious for itself. Sufficient for the day is its own trouble” (Matthew 6:33-34)
The Darkest Valley
Even when I walk
through the darkest valley,
I will not be afraid,
for you are close beside me.
Catastrophic loss is the darkest valley we will face. It is pain unspeakable. It is longing unsatisfied. Jesus told us, in this world we will have trouble. So if we’ve been fairly warned then walking though this valley is a matter of when not if.
“In the world you will have much trouble. But take hope! I have power over the world!” John 16:33
Your rod and your staff
protect and comfort me.
I thought about summarizing this part but Betsy Wise summarizes it so well in her review of Philip Keller’s book A Shepherd Looks at Psalm 23, that I’m just going to quote her here:
“Shepherds use a rod to protect the gentle and harmless flock from predators or reprimand unruly sheep that pick on others, eat the wrong plants, or are oblivious to danger. The shepherd parts the sheep's wool using the rod to look for wounds, disease, and the overall condition of the skin.”
“A second essential piece of shepherding equipment is a shepherd's staff that is long and slender with a crook on the end. When tired, a shepherd leans on the staff or uses it to return a lamb to its mother. He'll bring timid sheep closer to him or guide the flock into new pasture or through a gate. The staff frees sheep from bushes or lifts them out of water when they stray too far and get into trouble.”
I do not know what my future holds. I do not know if I will battle depression or feelings of anger or unforgiveness. But this much I do know. I am walking out my faith today. I am allowing myself to be honest about my feelings and then turning them over to the One who holds my heart. I am daily banishing my pride and envy that comes knocking at the door of my spirit. I struggle with these two more than anything else and it’s disgusting how sorrow unchecked by Wisdom can twist your pain into the fleshly victim, judge, or savior depending on what best accomplishes your selfish purpose.
This is not faith. This is of satan and self and it does not glorify the ONE who considered it JOY to die for us.
I’d like to close with this beautiful poem by Corrie ten Boom. She sums up tragedy in light of eternity in such a beautiful way…
My life is but a weaving
Between my God and me.
I cannot choose the colors
He weaveth steadily.
Oft’ times He weaveth sorrow;
And I in foolish pride
Forget He sees the upper
And I the underside.
Not ’til the loom is silent
And the shuttles cease to fly
Will God unroll the canvas
And reveal the reason why.
The dark threads are as needful
In the weaver’s skillful hand
As the threads of gold and silver
In the pattern He has planned
He knows, He loves, He cares;
Nothing this truth can dim.
He gives the very best to those
Who leave the choice to Him.
What perspective have you gained in the midst of pain? How has Papa revealed more of his comfort to you in those times? I’d love to hear your thoughts in the comments below!