As we enter into this sweet Advent season, my heart feels the familiar anticipation of things to come. I am always filled with an inexplicable excitement as Christmas approaches. I used to think it was because, you know… presents and pie… probably more pie. But as I have gotten older, and presents have gotten fewer (and pie means more than stuffing my face with awesome), my anticipation seems to build, not wane. The sweetness of a baby, the rejoicing of the lowly, even the aesthetics of twinkling lights and shiny things- I tell myself, ‘This is why you’re excited’. But every year, the festivities end and I find myself in the seasonal hangover that is taking down Christmas decorations and finding places to put all those extra toys (and pounds)- and I am sad. That was it?
But this year, though the anticipation is still there, it has a different taste, a different texture to it. This past Sunday my church played a video that discussed the hope that we are preparing for during this time. I had gotten there late and was still decompressing from the mandatory Sunday morning tantrums (No, you can’t take the dog. Yes, you must wear pants. Every. Stinking. Sunday.) I was shaken out of my mommy coma by one quick sentence: “He stepped into time, into the mess, to redeem the world and he says, ‘This is not all there will ever be…Hope in God.”
This is not all there will ever be.
You see, I have been in somewhat of a wrestling match for the past few years. Trying to reconcile some questions about God with truths that I held true only in my mind. I wanted God’s goodness to mean that my circumstances here on earth, and specifically as a wife to a man in full-time ministry, were easy, comfy, and protected. And then they weren’t. My fragile image of Him fell apart- and so did my faith.
JR Vassar said, “He will put you through trial to test if you want God, or if you just want from God.” So here I am, having been stripped to nothing and being given the opportunity to jump headlong in the questions I have harbored. And here He is, so faithful to provide answers.
Jump back to two weeks ago. I am fumbling around with Skype, making sure the camera isn’t pointed up my nose or directly at my chest, and praying. I am about to interview a total stranger about what may possibly be the most difficult thing she has ever faced…but I know God has something to teach me, so I hit the call button.
Grace smiles at me through the screen. She is a friend of a friend and we get through the awkward introductions. (To clarify, it’s really just me being awkward, she’s very poised.) I ask her about her family and her older brother.
“He was pretty awesome. We really became close over the past couple years, especially this year when I found out he got sick. That’s what called me home… God said, ‘I want you to go home and take care of your brother.'”
Grace had been living overseas for three years when she learned that her brother, Robert, was sick. “At first I said, ‘No. You are not making me leave. My heart’s here, I love it here, missions is my life. Do not make me leave. Don’t make me go home to face this awful thing that’s happened to my brother.'”
In December of 2014 she returned to her home in Oklahoma and soon after moved in with her brother and his wife. Robert was diagnosed with what was thought to be Lou Gehrig’s disease (ALS), but what they later found was Lyme disease with ALS symptoms. He had gone from a young, healthy, active minister to completely immobile in the course of just under a year.
She was shocked seeing her once strong protector totally bed-ridden, left only with his ability to speak. Despite his physical condition, she was amazed at his spiritual strength. “I saw that my brother was a man of such strong faith and encouragement. People would come and bring him flowers and encouragement and they would leave feeling encouraged. My brother would pray for them…he would have them pray for him and then he would pray for them back. It was just really touching.”
Her first years overseas had been a very intimate time with Jesus. “I learned how to hear his voice very clearly. How to pray for people, how to keep an ear open to the Holy Spirit while praying for someone…I grew close to the Lord in ways that I had not previously experienced in my Christian walk.”
“When I heard my brother was sick, at least in the very beginning, I was confident the Lord could heal him. Because I had seen it first hand; the deaf hear, the blind see, the lame walk…I held on strong to my faith.” But as the months passed and her brother’s physical condition worsened, fear began to take hold of her. “When I prayed, I had that question in the back of my mind, are my prayers even touching your ears? Are you even hearing me about my brother, I’ve been praying about him for months now and he’s only getting worse. That kind of shook my view of God as a healer, and as completely trustworthy.”
Grace wrestled with God for months before returning home, “I would be honest with the Lord in my prayer times…saying ‘I’m scared about going home. I’m not afraid to admit it, my faith is shaken, my trust in you is shaken. I know I believe that you’re a healer. I know I believe that you’ve got my whole world in your hands, that you can do a miracle in an instant, but I am shaking with fear. I am afraid to lose my brother. I am afraid to go home and face it.'”
Raised in a Christian home, Grace grew up hearing God’s truth spoken to and over her. She tells me about knowing from a young age that God had spoken bravery over her, that it was something he had instilled in her heart. But watching helplessly as her brother remained sick, despite her having witnessed God’s miraculous healing through prayer in the past, was a direct challenge to this gift. Like God was asking her, “Will you be brave? Will you go home and face this thing you fear?”
Caring for her brother full time was not something she initially wanted to do, it seemed too painful. “But then God convinced me, he said ‘Look, you can do this, my grace is sufficient for you.’ So I moved in in early February.” Grace continued to hope for a the miracle she knew was still possible, all the while watching her brother grow weaker and weaker. “His speech got softer and softer and softer. He started losing more weight and certain systems started to shut down. We knew that unless God did a miracle this was it.”
Her brother Robert passed away in June, 2015. He was 30 years old.
“I have asked him why, many many times…. I used to be afraid to yell at God. I was afraid I would go to hell if I was angry at him. I even asked my mom once if it was ok if I yelled at God, because I feel like I needed to get these emotions out… She [mom] said, ‘Oh yeah, God can handle it. You just be real with your Father. If in your quiet time you need to cry, you need to shout, whatever you need to do, you do it.'”
“I know God doesn’t always answer our why questions. He hasn’t really given me an answer. But I always kind of get this picture of when a child’s upset and his father comes in and wraps his arms around him. He doesn’t answer why, he just kind of pats him on the back and says, ‘It’s ok. I’m here.’ I kind of feel like that’s what God’s doing with me.”
She says she feels like her trust and her strength have been stolen. “I just want things to be ok. I’m tired of being strong, I’m tired of having to be brave, I just want to rest. But I want those things back. I want to be brave, I want to have unshakable trust. And my love for the Lord has never changed. I feel like he’s restoring [these things] one at a time.”
I ask her how he is restoring trust to her. She smiles a little, “I think it’s definitely in the quiet places that he’s restoring them… Whenever I worship the Lord, I feel so at peace and free to express myself. I’m a dancer, so I’ll just close the door and dance. I feel like there’s lightness in my feet, almost like when I worship him nothing else matters.” Her voice changes, softens. “It’s almost like I’m conquering something. When I’m able to say, ‘despite everything I’ve been through, I can dance. Despite everything I’ve been through, I can worship. Because you’re still good and you’re still God.’ Even though things have been stolen or shaken I know you’re going to restore them to me, and I am going to worship and dance in the rain- in the storm. Especially when I dance actually. I just feel lightness of my feet. No longer heavy lead. Just lightness.”
She learned this tactic, the dancing out the storm in her Father’s arms, from her mom. On the days when she is ready to run instead of rest, she hears her mom praying in her prayer closet. “I’ve watched her struggle with this. I’ve watched her ask those same questions and I’ve watched her grow closer to the Lord… To know that my mom, who has suffered more, who has had to deal with more anguish in her soul, she just runs right into the arms of her Father. I can say, ‘Yeah, I’m going to do that exact same thing.'”
God’s protection is not found in health, or keeping those you love near you. It is not making our lives cushy and Pinterest pretty. It is the promise that in the end all will bring glory. And God’s glory is wrapped up in the perfect unity of sovereignty and goodness. Not sovereignty tempered by goodness- but the two working in perfect union, always bringing wholeness. Grace says she feels like God is pushing her forward into hope, telling her “the best is yet to come.”
And I’m reminded, we too are called to this same hope, the hope that causes feet to dance in rain, and whispers into a grieving heart, “This is not all that will ever be…”
To read the final installment click HERE