I’ve been resisting writing this one for a while. I haven’t been eager to talk about it, but I’ll just say it right out: there has been a dark cloud. Mostly throughout January and February (although, it’s still kind of hanging around). Your first thought probably is that I live in the Greater Vancouver area, so of course there has been a dark cloud; there have been many, many dark clouds. The fact that it is grey and rainy a lot here during this time of year, doesn’t help, but if you haven’t guessed yet, I’m talking figuratively about a dark cloud. You know, one of those heavy, low-lying kind, that follows you (just you) around all the time.
Throughout January, I prepared to tell Mike’s and my story to a group of clinical counsellors at an information and recruitment meeting for the ALS Society of BC. The ALS Society provides free counselling to anyone affected by ALS, so they rely on counsellors to volunteer their time. Executive Director (and friend) Wendy, told me later that day, that it was a very successful meeting; they had more people sign up to do this good work than ever before. I was so pleased to hear that, but preparing for, and presenting that day was very emotional for me. I read some blog posts to the group and really emphasized Mike’s positive attitude and strong faith while trying to give them a realistic glimpse into the cruel world of ALS. It was weighty indeed but like I’ve told Wendy a few times, “How ever I can help; whatever I can do for you and the ALS Society, please just let me know.”
It’s a similar conversation I’ve had with my friend Darryl who has ALS. He sent me a message recently (it was actually a beautiful picture he had taken). I asked him how he was doing. This was his reply: “I almost wrote you earlier in the week – Sunday and Monday were bad days – but then decided against it. It might be too painful to talk about ALS specifics”
My reply: “Please feel free to message me anytime day or night. ALS is so painful, but I’m in for life. The good Lord provided the support, love and help we needed when we needed it and I want to be there for others.”
The presentation for the ALS Society was just one thing but there were other contributing factors to the heavy mixed emotions of my dark cloud. I’m not sure if I can pin point them all, but these are probably some: grief, a little bit of regret, doubt, some sadness, anxiety, fear and worry. “Fear” and “worry” always lead to guilt and conviction, especially considering I’ve been shouting from the roof tops that, “I’m trusting in the Lord with all my heart!” Well, from my roof top anyway and from a number of blog posts over the last few months. “Trusting the Lord” is something I’ve emphasized in all my writing and recently in my speech for the Apologetics Canada “Thinking” Conference I spoke at on Mar 5.
Under this dark cloud of heaviness, I really felt God encouraging me to stay there. I think I heard Him say, “Don’t run.” I wanted to run (still do). Like other times, I just wanted to escape, and quickly, but this time, more than any other time, I felt like I was suppose to embrace all those “ugly” feelings and find God in that mucky place.
It’s a bit of a battle zone there though. Can anyone else hear the negative voices? You might think I’m really losing it now, or you might be a little relieved that you aren’t the only one who hears negative voices. A few of mine sound like this: “You can’t do this on your own.” “You are going to fail.” “God has rescued you every time, but this time, He might just want to teach you a lesson.” “You can trust Him, but you should still be afraid.” “You aren’t worthy of God’s love or anyone else’s.” The negative voices could also be called “lies”.
Leading up to the Thinking Conference, I heard these lies: “This is a mistake.” “No one wants to hear what you have to say.” “Who cares?” “You are such a fraud, such a loser, such a fake …” Ironically, my speech title was ‘Worrier to Warrior’.
The dark cloud along with all those icky feelings is one thing, but the voices are like a torrential downpour, like a pelting of fiery darts … at night, in the dark, all alone. Oh my goodness, where is He? And then you start feeling around for God and calling out to Him and thankfully He is there. So much relief. But the fear doesn’t necessarily disappear.
Sometimes it feels like He’s not there at all, but like Pastor Bradley said in a recent sermon (sermon series titled: “Living the Psalms”), the Psalmist cries out to God, “Where are you?” And even in that despair, there is hope. We have to ask Him where He is … has He forgotten me? But just by asking, we know ultimately He is there, even though we don’t see, feel, or hear Him.
Ultimately, He is there. And that is where my trust proves stronger than the negative voices. That is where hope and even joy is stronger, and I can’t be separated from those things or His love … and I’m so relieved.
For the past four weeks, Pastor Bradley from Open Door Church where I go, has been preaching about embracing the emotions/feelings God gave us. Changing our opinion that “sad” isn’t “bad” and that God can really be found in our sorrow. The timing was perfect for me. It was kind of like Bradley handed me an umbrella and this message: Don’t run … enjoy the storm (or something like that). A message similar to the following one from Oswald Chambers:
“When you are joyful, be joyful; when you are sad, be sad. If God has given you a sweet cup, don’t make it bitter; and if He has given you a bitter cup, don’t try and make it sweet; take things as they come.” – Oswald Chambers, from Shade of His Hand.
It reminds me of what I told Pastor Art, (who led Mike’s memorial service) when he reminded me that those who mourn will be comforted. I replied, “I’m not going to try to be happy and I’m not going to try to be sad. I’m just going to be.”
God gave us an array of feelings and for some reason, most of us only want to feel happy, we resist sadness and any other emotions that don’t make us “feel good”. But here is the silver lining: we really get to know God in those dark places – the sad, scary places. I guess we can curl up and die there, but if we look for our Lord, we will more likely grow there. We have a tendency to call out to Him there, we get to know Him better there … and that’s the silver lining!
My friend, grief councillor, inspirational speaker and author of ‘In the Cleft: Joy Comes in the Mourning’, Dana Goodman was also a Breakout Speaker at the Thinking Conference. Her experience with grief and sorrow goes deeper than the average person’s. She lost her first husband, her oldest son and mother-in-law to cancer and her second husband was also battling cancer when her oldest son was diagnosed with the deadly brain tumor.
Dana and I were both giving our talks in the same area of the church, upstairs at the end of a long hall (the speakers were spread out in different rooms through out the extremely large venue). She and I chatted before the sessions began and both confessed we were nervous no one would show. Then she told me that she knew people would come because during the main session, the session everyone attended, the question was asked to the hundreds of people there, “Who is experiencing sorrow?” She said that many people raised their hand. Then she smiled and said, “Yay for sorrow.” I echoed, “Yay” and we high fives. (Check out her blog here)
I certainly don’t invite sorrow, but I’m trying to learn from Mike. He taught me something extremely valuable that I will never forget. Shortly after he was diagnosed, he thanked God for the things he wanted in his life and the things he didn’t want, like ALS. He said that ALS would teach him to fully rely on God. So, like a good student, I’m giving thanks for the things I want in my life and the things I don’t want, like grief, struggle and strife.
“The discipline of dismay is an essential lesson which a disciple must learn. But when the darkness of dismay comes, endure until it is over, because out of it will come the ability to follow Jesus truly, which brings inexpressibly wonderful joy.” – Oswald Chambers, from My Utmost for His Highest.
Spring officially starts on Sunday and we’ve been experiencing more sunshine and blue skies, but regardless of the weather outside, I can feel the dark cloud lifting off of me. I wish I could say I’ve enjoyed my time under the dark cloud, but I haven’t. But, I have drawn closer to the Lord and that has definitely brought me joy (and I hope it’s brought Him joy as well).
I know this is getting long but I’m almost done. I just really want to tell you this cool story. You know those negative voices I told you I was hearing before the conference? Well, the night before the conference, I received a Facebook message from someone I didn’t know and through it God showed up in His usual perfect timing to help me battle the lies.
It started like this:
“My name is Chris Ryan and I wanted to write to you to share my experience over the last year. First let me give you some background. My beautiful bride Heather passed away in August of 2015 from Lung Cancer. In June 2014 we found out that the cancer had metastasized to her brain and formed 8 tumors. She was given months to live and all they could do is radiate to try and shrink the tumours to prolong her life…”
Chris’ message was filled with joy as he continued to tell about his wife’s determination to prove her oncologist wrong and how, after she battled long and hard, when there was nothing more doctors could do for her, they decided to make wonderful memories together and live life to the fullest.
“…It was while in hospice I experienced two of the greatest gifts that Heather ever gave me. The first was while sitting having breakfast one morning she turned to me and said, “I can see Heaven and it’s beautiful and I want to go there.” This conversation lasted a couple of minutes and when I tried to lay her down she was trying to get out of bed as she wanted to walk to Heaven. I told her you will walk to Heaven when Jesus comes to take you by the hand. The second gift, as she was taking her last breaths, I was holding her hand and it was warm to the touch, then in an instant it went bone cold and I felt her spirit leave this world to be with Jesus in Heaven…”
Of course by this point, I’m crying like a baby and then this:
“So the reason I am writing is to share with you how important a role that you have played in my healing from the loss of Heather. In June of last year, I was in House of James bookstore in Abbotsford to look for a copy of the Bible on CD. While I was there looking around, your book literally called to me from across the store. It was on the shelf with about 30 other books but yours was the only one that I could see. There were two things that intrigued me the most. One was the picture of you and Michael and how much love and joy exuded from the cover. The second thing was the title, “Hold On, Let Go.” I picked up your book and perused it for a few minutes and put it down and said I’ll get it later. I went back the next day and the book was gone, sold out. At that moment I went to the counter and ordered your book and two weeks later I received my copy. I felt that I could learn something from your book to give me insight on the pending death of Heather. I brought it home and put it on my kitchen table and there it sat for three months. Everyday I looked at it on the table and I feared picking it up to read it because my mind wasn’t there yet and ultimately the timing wasn’t right. Through the passing of Heather in August, through her service in September your book sat on my table as a reminder to read it. I then took a trip to Ontario for the month of October to visit relatives I haven’t seen in upwords of 20 years. I took your book with me and began reading it on the flight. I continued to read it over the next week until it was finished and I could feel all of the emotions that you were expressing as it was what I had been feeling. Watching your life partner slowly fading right in front of you can be difficult, however it can also be beautiful if your faith in God is strong enough. The combination of your writing, Michael’s writing and the mixture of the Bible and the words of Oswald Chambers strengthened my resolve to not let my loss take over me…”
“… It is because of my faith that I have been able to handle my loss. I have joined your blog and your writings continue to bring me joy and comfort. I had people worrying about me and my daughters around Christmas time. After reading your blog post, “We had Christmas” I realized over the last year with Heather that these would be our lasts of everything and now we go through the firsts without her. I had one of the best Christmases I have ever had as I too, felt that it was Heather’s first Christmas in Heaven (as well as my Dad’s as he passed two months before Heather). That thought brought me so much joy and I wouldn’t have thought about it that way if I hadn’t read your blog…”
“… So I’m writing you to thank you. Because of your insight I have been able to look at things in a more positive light. I am a better person today because of Heather’s love and God’s love and I feel complete joy in my life…”
Wow, right? Talk about timing! Thank you Chris! And thank you everyone who has let me know that my blog and/or book has been helpful … I really appreciate it! Mike and I said that if we could help a few people, or even just one person with our story, it would be worth it.
On March 29 2012, I posted a blog post about the book of Psalms called, ‘A Really Good Book’. Check it out here.
Picture of the Fraser River taken from the Port Haney Wharf
Psalm 5:11,12: “But let all who take refuge in you be glad; let them ever sing for joy. Spread your protection over them, that those who love your name may rejoice in you. For surely, O Lord, you bless the righteous; you surround them with your favour as with a shield.”