When Perseverance Ends in Disappointment

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She has fire in her heart.

Some call her competitive, but the longing in her eye seems deeper than wanting to win. The intensity of purpose and the drive to get there — I watch her up close and I study from afar, and I wonder exactly where God will take her with all of this.

But she does like to win.

She once finished 12th out of about 200 runners, and it pained her to not be in the top 10. So she trained by herself after school and brought her ache to the next race. She started out strong — so strong I wondered if her speed would hurt her in the end. But as the two-miles unfolded, it was clear our daughter was the girl in first place.

It was an odd race, for it was co-ed. In all the other middle school cross country meets, the guys and girls ran separately — two races during the one meet. But this day they ran together. I assumed it was simply to be efficient. I assumed it was still really two races going on at the same time with all the runners just woven together.

Assumptions are hard.

As she neared the finish line, I let my heart start to celebrate. “She’s going to be thrilled,” I thought. “She showed up. She didn’t choke on past disappointment. She really is going to win that blue ribbon.”

As she crossed the finish line, a woman handed my girl a tiny square of paper, her place number. She glanced down, chest heaving deep, and crumpled it up. “Is she trying to be humble? Why isn’t she celebrating?”

I moved toward her and was met with a blank face.

“I got 24th,” she said through a clenched jaw.

And indeed she had. I opened the tiny paper, and 24 was written unashamedly in black marker. It was a confusing moment. I went from self-restraint (not wanting to celebrate too early)… to silent, internal cheers… to greeting her with joy… to figuring out how to comfort — all in a matter of two minutes.

We thought she was winning the whole time, for we could only see boys ahead of her. But the runners we ignored suddenly had meaning. They were the ones winning, and we didn’t know. They were her competitors, and we were completely unaware.

All that mental toughness between this race and the last — all the physical endurance of the last two miles — was any of it worth it now?


Have you been there?

Have you moved forward with determination despite resistance? Even when circumstances whispered unanswered questions and you doubted yourself to the core? Have you been running “your race with endurance” only for the story to end wrong?

I’ve seen marriages broken and children wandering and illness that ends in death and unfulfilled job searches and empty cradles after in vitro. I’ve seen re-addiction after recovery and unraveling after remission and disappointment after promises. I’ve seen perseverance end with threats of insecurity and doubt and self-loathing and disunity.

Have you seen that, too?

The disappointment that comes after a long season of perseverance is sometimes harder than tragedy that takes you by surprise. Our expectations get high, too high, and we believe there’s eventually victory for the one with enough grit.


As quickly as our joy unraveled, I heard Him say, “This is about so much more than a race. This is hardly about running at all.” I knew her Maker was right, but I didn’t like His story for our family in that moment. I would have written my daughter’s page differently that day.

“But she persevered, Lord. And she worked so hard. And she hoped.

Maybe those moments — maybe our moments — are really about something else:
… Finding my identity in what Christ did for me on the cross. Period. Instead of achievements.
… Knowing I am loved deeply regardless of what number is scribbled on my place paper.
… Believing the lesson that striving leaves me empty.
… Growing trust instead of resentment.


I ache for the Sutherland Springs community: The loved ones grieving with empty arms… The little ones asking “Why?”… The grandmas and dads and those stuck in mid-life asking “Why” and having no answer to offer themselves… The silence and the forever night.

I wonder if any of the 26 victims were in a season of perseverance before death disrupted their hope. Was anyone battling cancer? Were any digging deep in their hearts to rebuild their marriages? Were any kids enrolled in tutoring to satisfy grade-level standards? What were they all enduring? I’m certain — because I know we live in brokenness — I’m certain some had to have been gathering up courage every day, clinging to a hope we can’t explain. And their perseverance was met with… oh why, Lord?

What now, God?

What now for the hundreds of people who knew them well and loved them through their frail, brave humanity? What now for those left behind facing their own seasons of perseverance?

Hope does not disappoint us… God, help me believe you.


“You keep track of all my sorrows.
    You have collected all my tears in your bottle.
    You have recorded each one in your book.” Psalm 56:8 NLT

I see You’re writing a story with our tears, God. Help us reconcile the confusion. Weave in trust if reconciliation never comes.

“I waited a long time for the Eternal;
    He finally knelt down to hear me.
    He listened to my weak and whispered cry.
He reached down and drew me
    from the deep, dark hole where I was stranded, mired in the muck and clay.
    With a gentle hand, He pulled me out
To set me down safely on a warm rock;
    He held me until I was steady enough to continue the journey again. Psalm 40:1-2

 

Photo by Terry French

Preparing for Easter (Saturday): The Borrowed Tomb

tombNow there was a man named Joseph, from the Jewish town of Arimathea. He was a member of the council, a good and righteous man, who had not consented to their decision and action; and he was looking for the kingdom of God. This man went to Pilate and asked for the body of Jesus. Then he took it down and wrapped it in a linen shroud and laid him in a tomb cut in stone, where no one had ever yet been laid. Luke 23:50-52 

And they made his grave with the wicked
and with a rich man in his death,
although he had done no violence,
and there was no deceit in his mouth.
Yet it was the will of the Lord to crush him;
he has put him to grief.     Isaiah 53:9-10a ESV 


When He walked the earth and breathed our air, my Lord said He had nowhere to lay His head. And here in death, here He lays in a borrowed tomb. A man of means came forward to preserve my Savior’s dignity and lay Him to rest in the earth He Himself created before the start of time.

The mystery… it’s too much for me to understand, too much for me to reconcile.

The very God who wrote a love story at the beginning of time included His own suffering in the darkest chapter.

The very God who wrote a love story at the beginning of time included His own suffering in the darkest chapter.  

I look around, and I see myself reflected in the eyes of my brothers and sisters in Christ. I see their brokenness, and it mirrors mine.

I see the violence in my heart – an unkind thought, a judgment, an annoyance, a scorn. But my sweet Jesus – there was no violence in His hand, and none was found even in the deepest crevices of His heart where no one sees.

And I find myself deceived over and over again by a culture that clashes with the truth. I cringe as I hear myself speak error not only to others, but to myself, as I whisper doubt and end up believing lies. But my Rescuer, there was no deceit in His mouth. He spoke no wrong. He gave no empty threats, no empty promises.

But here He lay in that borrowed tomb after enduring my cross.

My Jesus, the Author of the greatest love story — He could have defeated and even prevented His own suffering. But He wrote chapter after chapter in which He Himself was misunderstood, and mocked, and tortured, and betrayed. And here He lay abandoned. Here he lay alone, crushed by the very story He wrote to save me.

And dare I ask Him why?! Dare I ask Him to interpret His mystery? His thoughts are not my thoughts, neither are His ways my ways. As the heavens are higher than this earth, higher than this cold, cold tomb, His ways are higher. His thoughts are higher. His story is much, much deeper and intricate than I could ever write.

So do I trust Him? When I am crushed, do I trust the God who wrote suffering into His own plot? When I choke on grief, do I surrender to the One who poured Himself out as an offering to mankind, spilling His grace everywhere?

Sweet Jesus, my Rescuer, my greatest Hope, I lean into the mystery I can’t understand. I collapse into your redemption plan. But I grieve as you lay there bruised and alone.

A Time to Speak: Finding Courage

prophet“And now, Lord, take note of their intimidations intended to silence us. Grant us, Your servants, the courageous confidence we need to go ahead and proclaim Your message while you reach out Your hand to heal people…” Acts 4:29,30

I get confused sometimes.

My heart pounds with empathy as suffering weeps in silence. I reach out to touch the wound that’s not mine to touch. And my fingers linger on the scar as I long for healing to flow forth.

The job of Savior is already taken. 

And I get intimidated sometimes.

Responding to hurt and binding up wounds is often easier than opening up my mouth to proclaim abrasive truth.

Do you follow? I want to be the healer instead of the prophet.

“Christan, you need to stop bringing home your clients’ angst,” a friend told me, the social worker hoping to save my corner of the world. Years ago, I had a 14 year-old client whose story came home with me everyday… whose fragments felt like my own brokenness, for I tried to piece them together in my mind all night long. I stayed awake night after night thinking and pondering and carrying a shame that wasn’t mine to hold. I still think of her.


“Is now the time, Lord — the time when You will reestablish Your kingdom in our land?” (Acts 1:6) Fresh from witnessing the resurrection, Christ’s friends were still feeling oppressed… still feeling taken advantage of… still wanting a political hero to rescue them from Rome… still full of fear at what they might find just around the corner.

Have you waited incredibly long to be rescued?
Have you yearned and longed while injustice rips through the flag of freedom over and over, tearing it to shreds?

“Here’s the knowledge you need: you will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes on you. And you will be my witnesses, first here in Jerusalem, then beyond to Judea and Samaria, and finally to the farthest places on earth.” Acts 1:7-9

You will speak and reflect Me among what’s familiar
…and among people and cultures just a tad bit different
…and with those whom you fear and scorn and judge
…and with those you’ve never even thought of before.
That’s what you need to know for now.
You’ll open your mouth.
You’ll speak truth without fearing what others think.
You’ll boldly proclaim My love for those right in front of you,
for those that don’t look like you, for those who make decisions you would never make, and for those you’ve forgotten about. (Acts 1:7-9 paraphrase)

“You will speak, and I will heal,” says the Maker of Heaven and Earth.

Oh. But I want to do the healing. I want to bind up the wounds and see brokenness transform before my eyes. I want to do something meaningful, and healing seems significant.

But the job of Savior is already taken.


Again…
“And now, Lord, take note of their intimidations intended to silence us. Grant us, Your servants, the courageous confidence we need to go ahead and proclaim Your message while you reach out Your hand to heal people…” Acts 4:29,30

I see the accusers pointing at me. I see their hate …and confusion …and fear. Everyone has a story that’s led them to today. But I will proclaim what’s real without intimidation. I will not wait in silence. I will open up my mouth and exchange shame for courage and proclaim a Gospel-driven message of love and wholeness. For now, I will speak.

And I’ll watch my Savior reach out His hand to heal those I love. I’ll see His hand with that deep, deep scar cover the wound. I’ll see Him touch the scars and bring a restoration I never could.

Wait for the Lord;
    be strong and take heart
    and wait for the Lord. Psalm 27:14

 

photo source | john sting, portugal

What I Learned from Our Series on Suffering

fontcandy (1) copy 3Although our Series on Suffering officially concluded last week, I’m compelled to share how I was personally changed over the past few weeks. My hope was to help others — either those in agony or those watching another suffer. By posting updates from four years after the initial story, I hoped to point toward perseverance. There’s something about seeing another’s redemption that helps you reach out your hand when you’re drowning. But once again, I found transformation in the mirror.  I entered the series as the facilitator, but I left the student.

I learned…

… Everyone has a story. Everyone. Why do I forget this? Life would be so much richer and more meaningful if I stopped to listen. If I pursued. If I slowed down enough to be a safe place for others. I must remember the faces in my life have identities. Everyone has so much to say.

… People grieve differently.  There’s no consistent, proper way to get real and deal with pain. Yes, there are common rhythms of grief. But I can’t put people in boxes and expect them to convey their distress a certain way. Some friends are more emotional while others are more rational. There’s beauty in this kind of diversity. Why bring judgment into someone’s healing process?

… It’s cowardly to remain silent amidst another’s pain. The fear of offending someone absolutely can not supersede our practice of living in community. Loving others requires us to feel awkward sometimes. I absolutely must get over myself.

… I whine too much. You see, all those thoughts harbored deep within, whether they pour forth from my lips or not, reflect where I’m at. Proverbs 23:7 makes it clear: For as he thinks in his heart, so is he. (NLV)  I’m too self-centered… period… in my peer relationships, my marriage, my parenting. Especially my parenting. There’s nothing like hearing another’s story to put your own in perspective.

… I must fight to prevent my body image issues from impacting my children. I know the standards of 21st century American beauty —  for women and men. I see it everyday at the check-out lane, in Athleta catalogs that invade my mailbox, on television commercials, in the lies I uncover in my own thoughts. I must commit to not complain about the way God made me in front of my son and daughter. I want my children to grow up knowing they’re beautifully created and knowing their identity is in what Christ did for them on the cross. As our world has become smaller through technology, unfortunately our infatuation with one type of beauty has grown bigger. I must fight our culture no matter how daunting the task seems.

… Redemption often looks different than I would have imagined. I believed this already, but I’m convinced even more after presenting these four stories. We pray and claim and beg — and even tell God what to do — and His answer is often different than our original hopes. But He’s purposeful. And He often uses radical, painful situations to convey His counter-cultural message. Regardless, I’ve seen him bring beauty and life to a dying heart. As Jeremy Bedenbaugh, a local St. Louis pastor, says, “Only where the graves are is there resurrection.”

I know God will continue to uncover more lessons for me. And hopefully for you, too. I don’t know what struggle will stare me in the face tomorrow. But for now, I have much to ponder — suffering, healing, Good Friday, Easter Sunday. Come, Lord Jesus. Come to the darkest parts of our stories.

Series on Suffering: Losing A Spouse (Update)

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We resume Susan’s story of losing her first husband with an update. A lot can happen in four years — especially when you’re adjusting to a new marriage, raising middle schoolers, forging new paths in your career, and getting to know a new community. Read on…


How has your situation changed in the past four years?

Oh, so much change! I’ve now been remarried to Todd for almost six years, and three years ago, God called us to a great adventure, which included moving our family to Kansas City. New city, new church, new jobs, new friends. Now three years out, I can see how God has pushed me to corners of myself that I didn’t even know existed. I’m so grateful for the growth and refinement.

One of the biggest changes for me has been my job. I’m a bit of a nomad when it comes to my occupational pursuits, following my heart and God’s leading, and I’ve never been disappointed as to what I have learned on my journey. After serving as a teacher in independent schools for many years, I’ve landed back in public education as a learning coach in a project-based learning environment designed to empower creativity and equip students to be architects of a better world. For years, I’ve had ideas and desires to transform the learning experience for all kids and, while in St. Louis, I continually encountered roadblocks. It was as though God kept saying, not yet. Now, He has given me the opportunity to pioneer forward and be a part of something transformative.

How have YOU changed in the past four years?

Besides the gray hairs and wrinkles, over the last four years, God has continued to refine and humble me. The older I get, the more I understand my depravity and my need for a Savior. The first year we moved to Kansas City felt much like moving to a desert. Lots of anger, resentment, grief, pride. It was a lonely year for me trying to figure out who I was as a mother, as a wife, but, most importantly, who I was as a child of God. I no longer lived in the comfort of my hometown, my community of friends, nor my job – three things that had shaped so much of my adult life.

It’s been a rather arduous journey, but God has been faithful to continue His work in me to transform my heart. As much as I want to think “I’m all grown up and finally arrived at maturity,” I would be deceiving myself. Every uncomfortable situation I encounter, every painful trial I face, every joyful moment I experience–I’m learning more about the power and work of Christ in my life.

What are you still wrestling with?

Two of my greatest sin patterns are anxiety and fear. At times, I think, “Really, Susan? With everything God has done for you?” But, like faceless thieves, they creep in periodically, stealing my attention away from God. Some of my biggest fears and anxious thoughts are about my children. As my boys have grown, I see God’s hand in their lives, but I also see the effects of trauma and loss at such an early age. I tend to brace myself with the worse possible scenario, seeing the future through my human eyes. I continually redirect my thinking to God’s sovereignty and His abundant love for my children.

How have you seen redemption come from your suffering?

As a teenager, I used to think redemption meant “God sweeps in, God fixes problem, we thank Him, and life continues.” At 16, suffering meant the disappointment of not making the lead in the musical or wishing the boy I liked returned my affections. Thankfully, I’ve grown. One of the greatest takeaways from my suffering has been a deeper understanding of God’s redemptive hand in our lives. Understanding redemption, at least how I make sense of it, is believing and living the gospel. Though I will never feel nails in my hands nor wear a crown of thorns, I have learned that the more I lose and suffer in this world, the more I gain in understanding the redemption story. His sacrifice on the cross, His pursuit of my heart, His faithfulness in all my earthly sufferings—there I have known grace and redemption and love and compassion.

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So there you go — open and raw honesty for the past four weeks. While four stories and updates provide a window into the lives of ordinary men and women, I’m convinced many of you are doing more than peering through the glass. Maybe you have been cut by its jagged edges and could tell similar stories.

It’s never easy to read a story of brokenness and know you could be writing it, too. But recognizing is the first step toward claiming hope, toward believing that redemption really can happen.

A few years ago I sat in a class about doubting God’s goodness due to the rampant brokenness in the world. Oppression. Injustice. Invasions on our mortality. Reminders of our fragility. Fear.

While I can’t say I understand the mind of God with any more clarity, I did walk away speechless.  The very God who wrote a love story at the beginning of time included His own suffering in the darkest chapter. Did you catch that? The very God who wrote a love story at the beginning of time included His own suffering in the darkest chapter.

But unlike human suffering, our Author suffered with power. He could have defeated or even prevented His own suffering. But He wrote scene after scene in which He Himself was abandoned, misunderstood, mocked, tortured, betrayed.

So where do we go from here? What we do with the stories of Matthew, and Jami, and Julie, and Susan?

I dare you to look inward today. By seeing our own pain mirrored in these stories, we walk in realness. And that’s the first step toward healing. How can we ask for redemption when we’re not authentic about how our lives have really turned out? And how our situations – and hearts – are crumbling around us?  And how we’re devastated?

Yes, be real. Be honest… first with yourself, and then with someone else. And then together, walk boldly into the mess and watch redemption take place. Watch God restore and re-create your story into something more beautiful than it ever was. His project may take years, but please check in with me during the restoration process. You’re not alone, and I’d love to hear how you’re doing… even on the hardest of days.

Stop by next week for a reflection on what I personally learned through this Series on Suffering. But for now,  take the ancient words of Isaiah with you: “My thoughts and My ways are above and beyond you, just as heaven is far from your reach here on earth.”

Oh, to know the mind of God! But of this I’m sure — the pain of your heart is no surprise to your Maker. He embraced it Himself.

photo source | jen palmer