Losing a spouse is heart-wrenching. Loving a spouse through a terminal illness is even worse. Many of us have walked paths of deep sorrow in these uncertain days. But a few faith-filled men and women seem to shine in the midst of trials and face the pain head-on. Jan Shrader, long-time pastor’s wife and pastor’s daughter, is one of those “shining saints.” Here’s her testimony:
“I hate to exercise. So, if I dislike it why do I continue to exercise? It’s because the benefits it brings into my life are worth the discomfort. If I regularly work out I don’t have to watch my diet so closely. And, I like the endorphins my body makes when I exercise. These ever-important hormones help me keep my emotions on a more even keel and help make me more resilient. So, I exercise even though I seriously dislike it.
I have tried numerous times to trick my mind into not realizing I was actually working out. When I was younger I would ride a stationary bike or walk on a treadmill while I was engrossed in reading a heart-stopping mystery novel. When my parents became ill I started running because I desperately needed the benefits of exercise and I didn’t have a lot of time. But, after seven years I never learned to love running. I am a talker, so I have found walking and talking with a friend helps me to ignore that my body is sweating. Eventually though, I found a job full of physical labor at a cactus nursery where I marched over ten acres helping my customers find precious treasures. My all-time favorite exercise plan was working at the cactus nursery because it felt like I was getting paid to go to the gym.
In May 2019, I learned my husband Gary had a brain tumor called glioblastoma. They were able to successfully remove his tumor that very week. But, suddenly I wanted to leave my job and spend as much time as I could with him. I didn’t know what the future held, but I knew I wanted to put Gary first. Unfortunately, as soon as I quit trekking across ten acres I started gaining weight.
And then, in March 2020 Covid-19 hit us all and it felt like the entire world had moved into the “Limbo Land” I had entered back in May of 2019. All of us were, so frustrated together. Like everyone else in this time of social distancing, I have found it hard to get off the couch and stay active.
In scripture God often describes our relationship with him as a walk. God reminded me of this truth while I was trying to find the motivation to keep exercising. Look at Micah 6:8
“He has told you, O man what is good: and what does the Lord require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God? ” ESV
Gary’s doctors didn’t offer us hope for his future. They said they could only prolong his days, but they couldn’t cure him. Thankfully, God is always in control, but their words started me thinking about loss. What would it be like if I walked with Jesus through this season where I was living daily with the unknown? Meditating on this concept has brought me great comfort. All of us will suffer one kind of loss or another in life. In Luke 24 there is a famous walk with Jesus that has given me fresh revelation about what it means to keep in step with God. Look at Luke 24:13-36.
“That very day two of them were going to a village named Emmaus about seven miles from Jerusalem, and they were talking with each other about all these things that had happened. While they were talking and discussing together, Jesus himself drew near and went with them. But their eyes were kept from recognizing him. And he said to them, “What is this conversation that you are holding with each other as you walk?” And they stood still, looking sad. Then one of them named Cleopas answered him, “Are you the only visitor to Jerusalem who does not know the things that have happened there in these days?” And he said to them, “What things?” And they said to him, “Concerning Jesus of Nazareth, a man who was a prophet mighty in deed and word before God and all the people, and how our chief priests and rulers delivered him up to be condemned to death and crucified him. But we had hoped that he was the one to redeem Israel. Yes, and besides all this, it is now the third day since these things happened. Moreover, some women of our company amazed us. They were at the tomb early in the morning, and when they did not find his body, they came back saying that they had even seen a vision of angels, who said that he was alive. Some of those who were with us went to the tomb and found it just as the women had said, but him they did not see.” And he said to them, “O foolish ones, and slow of heart to believe all that the prophets have spoken! Was it not necessary that the Christ should suffer these things and enter into his glory?” And beginning with Moses and all the Prophets, he interpreted to them in all the Scriptures the things concerning himself.
So they drew near to the village to which they were going. He acted as if he were going farther, but they urged him strongly, saying “Stay with us, for it is toward evening and the day is now spent.” So he went in to stay with them. When he was at table with them, he took the bread and blessed and broke it and gave it to them. And their eye were opened, and they recognized him. And he vanished from their sight. They said to each other.”Did not our hearts burn within us while he talked to us on the road, while he opened to us the Scriptures?” And they rose that same hour and returned to Jerusalem. And they found the eleven and those who were with them gathered together, saying, “The Lord has risen indeed, and has appeared to Simon!” Then they told what had happened on the road, and how he was known to them in the breaking of the bread.
As they were talking about these things, Jesus himself stood among them, and said to them, “Peace to you!” ESV
When we walk through our loss with Jesus, we will sense His presence.
The phrase “That very day…” at the beginning of verse 13 refers to the first day of Jesus’ resurrection from the dead. Remember that on Good Friday Jesus’ followers had experienced a staggering bereavement. The one they thought would be crowned the King of Israel had savagely been put to death on a cross by their own religious leaders. The Christ who had healed the blind, raised the dead and confronted religious hypocrisy at every level was now dead. The one they thought was the long ago promised Messiah, had died tragically without saving himself. In their grief they some how missed that Jesus was standing right in front of them.
Everyone experiences loss in life. But in our sorrow can we still recognize Jesus’ presence, His comfort, His love? Grief is not a lack of faith. The scriptures don’t exactly spell out what blinded these poor disciples, but their sorrow was immense. Sadness is a normal reaction to suffering, but notice Jesus’ desire to be with them while they grieved. God is with us in sorrow even before we call out his name. This is His promise. In Psalm 34:18-19 the Psalmist wrote,
“The Lord is near the broken hearted and saves the crushed in spirit. Many are the afflictions of the righteous, but the Lord delivers him, out of them all.” ESV
My mom and dad were very sick for four years before they died. One day I found myself following the ambulance that was taking my mom to the hospital with tears running down my face. In great pain I cried out to God and prayed, “Lord I can’t take this.”
And, then with gentleness I heard him say, “I am not going to take your mother in calamity.”
My peace returned with those words. I had to remind myself of this promise many times over the next couple of years, but God was right. Both my Mom and my Dad died peacefully in their sleep with no calamity.
In our affliction we need to invite God to meet us in our sorrows, allow His presence to comfort us, and hold us in the midst of our tragedy. We walk with Jesus through our loss not to avoid pain, but to process our pain. None of us can control when or how trouble comes to us, but we can control our openness to God. Jesus has risen and experiencing his loving presence will change everything.
How could experiencing Jesus’ presence in the midst of a loss transform us?
When we walk through our loss with Jesus, He will help us interpret our circumstances.
I believe the road to Emmaus is a metaphor for walking with Jesus through a loss. Unfortunately, these new believers were trying to interpret their circumstances without listening for God’s revelation. And, things were not as they seemed.
Like these early believers, we need to learn to let Jesus show us what is happening and not jump to our own conclusions. The worst thing these Christ followers could imagine had happened. Jesus had died! But, God had also planned a glorious resurrection. The resurrection of Jesus from the dead was going to make all things possible, all things new.
We are great recorders of our trauma, but lousy interpreters. We remember the pain in living technicolor, but we are deaf and blind to God’s purposes and presence in the midst of our sorrow. Resurrection is never experienced without a death. The death of a dream, a marriage, a loved one or a desire, a desire so strong it has kept us from seeing the bigger picture. This is the power of the Resurrection. After we have walked with Jesus through our sorrow not only will we be ok, things will actually look different to us.
I have wanted God to miraculously heal Gary and I have prayed for this. But, whether God heals him or not eventually God will make Gary whole. The truth is if Gary dies he will go to his reward and hear those precious words, “Well done, my good and faithful servant.” My Gary is more than ready to meet his loving Savior Jesus.
It is hard for me to imagine today, but because of the richness of God’s mercy I will also be made whole. I can say this today, because my faith is not in myself or my abilities. Jesus will not leave me alone in my grief. This doesn’t mean I won’t suffer. Remember what Psalm 34:19 said, Many are the afflictions of the righteous. Grief is hard work. But, God promises to walk with me through both my rough and smooth paths, through my hills and my valleys. He will comfort me and He will sustain me. He will never abandon me.
The truth is that unless Jesus returns soon, none of us are going to get off of this planet alive. What we do with our pain does make a difference. It is emotionally exhausting for us to try and decipher what is truly happening. Only Jesus can make sense of our losses.
What might change if we stayed open to God’s interpretation of our circumstances?
When we walk through our loss with Jesus, He will help us apply the scriptures.
These poor disciples wanted Jesus to be a Messiah who would deliver them from Roman oppression. But, these strong personal desires eventually made them unable to see a greater deliverance. We can also practice this foolishness. Review Jesus’ words from the road to Emmaus in Luke 24:25-27.
“O foolish ones, and slow of heart to believe all that the prophets have spoken! Was it not necessary that the Christ should suffer these things and enter into his glory?” And beginning with Moses and all the Prophets, he interpreted to them in all the Scriptures the things concerning himself.” ESV
Sadly, these early Christ followers were ignoring the very Old Testament passages which would have given them hope. Scriptures like Isaiah 52:13-53:12 expressed the suffering Messiah so vividly.
Unfortunately, we can make the same mistakes. Our strong wills can cause us to avoid certain passages or never even open our Bibles. Only God’s Holy Spirit living inside of us can teach us how to understand God’s precious Word.
If God taught us how his Word applied to our suffering who might benefit from this knowledge?
Since Gary has been sick I have often awakened in the night unable to fall back asleep. Some people like to sing worship songs in their head when this happens, but songs have always created “ear worms” in my head. Singing silently even a praise chorus does not help me fall back asleep.
Instead, I have learned that reciting scripture helps me capture my thoughts during spells of insomnia and I fall asleep meditating on a truth found in the passage I have been repeating. Recently, I decided to memorize Psalm 23 in a new translation. As a child I had memorized it in the King James Version, but now I needed a more modern version to combat my sleepless moments.
Ironically, there is one phrase in Psalm 23 I keep forgetting. “He leads me in paths of righteousness for His name’s sake.” I believe the reason why this phrase alludes me is because I want to pick my own acts of righteousness. I want to choose what I do for Jesus, and I want to selfishly pick actions that make me look good. But, that is not God’s way. Jesus wants to walk with me down paths where only He gets the glory. In Ephesians 2:10 Paul seems to agree with the Psalmist David. Listen to his words.
“For we are his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand that we should walk in them.” ESV
Again this Ephesian verse contains that mighty word “WALK”, which God loves to use to describes our relationship with Him. Jesus will make all things new, even our suffering and our losses. How will you process your losses? Will you walk alone or will you walk with God?”