Good Friday: When All Hope Feels Lost

cross hope

I was sinking into a dull depression. Nothing was good and life seemed gray. Every single day.

I cried at the slightest provocation and sometimes with no provocation at all. I was falling into a black hole, and felt powerless to stop my descent.

My life had fallen apart and there was no repairing it. Everywhere I turned, things were hard.

This was one of the lowest points in my life. I was struggling to believe that God was good. That He loved me. That my situation would ever change.

I felt desperate.

My friends tried to help me as best they could. Bringing me food, praying with me, encouraging me to press on.

But despite their best efforts, I felt overwhelmed. Discouraged. Hopeless. No one could fully understand my pain.

No one can ever truly know another’s sorrow. Our sorrow is unique to us. And each of us must walk our path alone.

I was talking with some friends about how I was feeling. I didn’t really want to talk, but I knew that talking to friends was important. Especially when I wanted to pull away.

Soon after we started, I couldn’t speak anymore. I just sat there, crying.

After a long silence, one friend spoke. I will never forget her words.

“When I think of you and pray for you, I keep seeing this image. It’s of the disciples, and Jesus’ mother Mary, weeping at the foot of the cross. They are huddled together, trying to comfort each other. Trying to make sense of what has happened. But it just doesn’t make sense.

The sky is black and all hope looks lost. Their dreams have died. It seems that nothing good will ever come from this.

To them, this day, Good Friday, is the darkest day they’ve ever known.

But the one thing that they do not know is … Easter is coming.”

Easter is coming.

I could scarcely take in the words.

As she was finished speaking, I was filled with an indescribable peace.

Of course. Easter is coming.

I stopped crying.

Her picture was arresting. As I imagined how the disciples and Mary must have felt, I felt a bond with them. They knew what it was like to feel desperate. Dreams shattered. Life ruined. Plans destroyed.

At that point they could only see part of the picture. The part they were living at the time. That’s all they had.

That’s all I could see. The raw circumstances that surrounded me. The endless dark.

I couldn’t see how God could bring anything good out of my situation. But as I let her words wash over me, I realized that my story wasn’t over yet. The end wasn’t written. God was not finished.

God does miraculous things. Even when all hope seems lost.

My friend’s words brought me inexpressible comfort, both then and now. I’ve clung to those words, that picture, for years.

That picture was God’s gift to me. To put my life in perspective. To show me I wasn’t alone. To give me hope.

I realized that my suffering was temporary; one day it would be over. My suffering had meaning; it would not be wasted. My suffering could glorify God; it would ultimately be good.

My life doesn’t feel like it did that day, and God has given me untold joy even in difficult circumstances. I am reminded of Josh Wilson’s song, “Before the Morning,” where he says:

Do you wonder why you have to
Feel the things that hurt you
If there’s a God who loves you
Where is He now?

Maybe there are things you can’t see
And all those things are happening
To bring a better ending
Someday, somehow you’ll see, you’ll see

Would you dare, would you dare, to believe
That you still have a reason to sing
Cause the pain that you’ve been feeling
It can’t compare to the joy that’s coming
So hold on, you gotta wait for the light
Press on and just fight the good fight
Cause the pain that you’ve been feeling
It’s just the dark before the morning

The lyrics remind me that we have no idea what God is doing with the struggles in our lives. It may be that the pain we’re feeling right now is just the dark before the morning.

I don’t know where you are in your life this Good Friday.

But I want to rejoice with you in this:

Easter is coming!

Hallelujah!

 

photo courtesy of Jonathan Davidar

Scarred

scratched apple

I cringed when I saw Shelley.

She was walking straight towards me. Again. I braced myself.

I was just in fifth grade, but I had long learned that the world was cruel and no one could protect me from pain.

I steeled myself for the inevitable abuse. It was Monday, and Shelley always went after me on Mondays.

It was a few minutes before school started. “Why did I get here early? I could have avoided this,” I murmured to myself.

As soon as she reached my side, Shelley grabbed my left arm. Damaged by polio, it had almost no muscle. She shook my arm lightly, and laughed. It always seemed to amuse her.

Trying to garner more attention, she spoke loudly and sneered, “It’s so funny how your arm wiggles like that. It looks really weird.”

I was hoping that was the end, but Shelley was not finished. She grabbed my arm again, this time lifting it straight up and letting it drop. It flopped down and swung limply by my side.

Shelley smiled. By now a few people were watching. I fought back the tears as I had so many times before.

I wasn’t going to cry. Not there. Not then. I wasn’t going to give anyone that satisfaction.

Just before the teacher came in, Shelley declared, “I hope you don’t mind that. I don’t want to make you cry or anything. I just think it’s funny that’s all.”

The few people around me uncomfortably looked away. No one said anything.

I didn’t want Shelley to know how much she hurt me. So I laughed and said as casually as I could manage, “No, its fine.”

Of course it was not fine. It was cruel. And humiliating. But what could I do about it?

If I told on Shelley, it would just make things worse. If I didn’t make a big deal about it, maybe it would get better.

That’s what I always hoped. I hoped that if I ignored it, pushed it aside, pretended it didn’t happen, it would go away.

But it never did. The mocking continued, though it took different forms after elementary school. But the words that echoed inside me didn’t go away. They became deafeningly loud instead.

These words told me that I didn’t count. That my pain didn’t matter. That I would always be an outcast.

Of course on the outside I looked fine. I never cried about it. Not even to myself. I wasn’t going to let it affect me. No one was going to hurt me.

So I laughed. I pretended. I deflected attention. After all, my feelings didn’t count. I needed to stuff them away.

I’ve been stuffing my feelings for a lifetime. Hiding. Pretending words and actions have not hurt me. Not voicing them to anyone, but reciting them to myself till they have a well-worn place in my heart.

Invisible wounds.

My wounds have been mostly from words. Words that have torn into my soul and left a mark. A mark that I carry with me everywhere. A mark known only to me.

I tried to protect these invisible wounds for years. I couldn’t risk more hurt. So I covered them up and locked them away. I told myself: No one cares about your pain, so get over it. You aren’t as good as everyone else, so accept it. People will hurt you if they know your past, so hide it.

I buried my pain, keeping it hidden for decades. No one needed to know. What good would it do?

Isn’t it better to bury the past and move on?

Sometimes.

But burying the past just drove my pain deeper. Isolating me further. Numbing me to really feeling.

We all have memories that have left us hurt and lonely. Our secret wounds.

I didn’t acknowledge mine till some painful circumstances caused me to feel a crushing sense of worthlessness. Though the situation was new, the feelings of inadequacy, of not measuring up, of being unimportant, felt all too familiar. Rather than being angry at the person who hurt me, I felt shame that I was once again found unworthy.

My atypical response led me to examine myself. I started writing about my past in my quest for understanding. I had endured tremendous teasing as a child, but shared little of it, even with my family. It seemed unimportant. Valueless. Humiliating.

Perhaps the past was significant after all. Consciously or sub-consciously, my past had molded me.

As I wrote, long-buried memories came flooding back, carrying with them the lies I had believed. That I wasn’t “normal.” That my handicap made me sub-par. That I wasn’t intrinsically valuable.

I saw that I had become a pleaser, working hard to be fun, thoughtful and funny. That way people would like me. Accept me. Want to be around me.

As I sat with my feelings of inadequacy, I slowly unearthed and acknowledged all the pain I had endured. And laid it before God. I let Him show me the lies I had believed about myself. And the truth that nullified those lies. And His grace that could change everything.

That process was excruciating, yet exhilarating. I saw that I am not defined by what other people have said or done to me. I am defined by who I am in Christ. He alone can tell me who I am. And He has told me that I am loved. Accepted. Beautiful.

And in the hands of my Redeemer, my wounds are healed. All that remains is a beautiful scar, a reminder of His work in me.

In my life, I want to redefine scars. To see them as evidence of healing. For more of my journey, see my previous post “Are Scars Beautiful?

Because of Jesus, I can share my scars, my past, my shame, freely. He has redeemed it all. There is nothing to hide.

I’m becoming more open about my past. I’ve found that when I show my scars, the evidences of God’s healing work in me, other people find courage in their journey towards healing and wholeness in Christ. And that completes the circle of grace as I pass on what God has done for me.

So what are your invisible wounds? Where is the Great Physician offering to heal you?

 

Photo courtesy of Jonathan Davidar 

Are Scars Beautiful?

my leg scar

It took wild courage for me to post this picture.

If you can’t figure it out, it’s a photo of the scar on my left leg. I have spent much of my life hiding my scars, particularly this train track on my shin. This mark is visible whenever I wear a skirt so I have worn pants for decades. My scars used to tell me that I wasn’t like everyone else. They made me feel unattractive, an oddity, a bit of a freak.

Scars.

There are two kinds of scars, visible and invisible. Like many of us, I bear both. Each has been difficult. Each has elements of shame. Each carries its own pain. This post is about my visible scars; the next is about my invisible ones.

Some people are proud of their scars: they speak of courage. They show others what they’ve endured. But for me, with scars covering both my legs, they were not medals to wear, proclaiming my bravery. They were rather deficiencies to hide, reminding me daily of my flaws. Reminding me I was damaged.

As a teenager, I desperately wanted a perfect body, hoping that would have made me feel accepted. But instead I saw in the mirror a body deformed by polio and further marked by the 21 ensuing operations. In a world filled with images of flawlessly airbrushed models, it was a challenge to believe that my physical imperfections were beautiful.

So hiding my scars was natural. That way, no one could see how imperfect I was. That way, I could look more normal. That way, I wouldn’t be humiliated.

My scars were simply jagged reminders of my pain.

I hated going to the pool, or the beach, or anywhere that my legs could be seen. Even if no one openly stared, I imagined that everyone was repelled by my scars. That if they saw the real me, I wouldn’t be accepted. That my scars made me ugly.

For a short while my high school friend Maggie convinced me to show my legs at the beach. She said my scars might be ugly to me, but to everyone else they represented strength and courage. To everyone else, they revealed what I had endured just to walk. To everyone else, they were just part of what I’d been through. And for a while, I did show my bare legs, but I slowly reverted back to covering them up. It was easier that way.

I went back to believing the lies I had told myself: that I was more valuable if no one could see my scars.

I hid my wound marks and was comfortable doing so for decades. But one day, I was reading the Gospel of John and saw that Jesus, after He had risen, was recognized by His scars. That is how the disciples knew it was Him.  

Michael Card’s song Known By the Scars echoed through my head immediately. Why had I not connected with this sooner?

Jesus didn’t need to have scars on His resurrected body. His body could have been perfect, unblemished, unscarred. But He chose to keep His scars so His disciples could validate His identity. And even more importantly, so that they could prove He conquered death.

As I considered this truth, something stirred in me. My scars are significant and precious. I shouldn’t keep hiding them. I am recognizable by them; they make me unique. They are an integral part of who I am. But more importantly, they show that I am a conqueror. That I have suffered. That I have overcome. 

Scars represent more than I ever realized.  They can be beautiful.  The dictionary says that a scar is “a mark left by a healed wound.”

A healed wound. My scars signify healing.

And even though my initial flesh wounds have healed, there is yet a deeper healing in acceptance.  

I started to notice scars more as I looked around. There was something captivating about people who were unafraid to be themselves:  authentic, unmasked, and unashamed of the wounds that shaped them.

Their vulnerability was magnetic. I was drawn to them. To learn from their self- acceptance. To hear their stories. To see their courage.

I learned it was often a good thing to ask people about their scars. As long as I did it respectfully. And lovingly. Asking demystified their scars. And allowed people to share what had shaped them.  Because all scars have a story.

I saw that when we display our scars, we inspire others to do the same. 

Those of us with scars should wear them like jewels, treasured reminders of what we’ve endured. It’s okay to show our imperfections. They are evidence of our healing. And perhaps we’ll discover the beauty in our scars. 

This is What it Means to be Held

held cd

Burying my precious two-month-old baby was devastating. I had no idea how to cope with his sudden unexpected death. True, Paul had been born with a heart problem, but he had survived the critical surgery at birth and was thriving. He’d come home from the hospital at three weeks old, and after a slow start, began gaining weight.

With his winsome smile, easy disposition, and mop of curly dark hair, he delighted us all. He was healthy and beautiful. Even the physician filling in for Paul’s regular cardiologist was so impressed with his progress that he impulsively eliminated most of his heart medications. Paul didn’t need them anymore. He was fine. At first, I was encouraged by the good news. But two days later, Paul was dead.

A doctor’s foolish mistake took my baby’s life. I struggled to accept what had happened. As I watched them lower Paul’s tiny casket, I thought this was the end of my dreams for his life. Nothing good could come from his pointless death.

But God in His wisdom knew differently. He uses everything in our lives as we submit to Him. He can turn the broken and marred and ugly into something beautiful. And He did that with Paul’s death.

My dear friend Christa penned the song “Held” and it begins with the story of Paul. The opening lyrics are raw:

“Two months is too little, they let him go. They had no sudden healing. To think that Providence would take a child from his mother while she prays is appalling.”

The chorus provides the response,

“This is what it means to be held, how it feels when the sacred is torn from your life, and you survive. This is what it is to be loved and to know that the promise was, when everything fell, we’d be held.”

The words of the chorus echo my experience. God holds us in our pain. That is how I survived.

“Held” is a compelling song. Natalie Grant recorded it. Numerous awards followed. But its power hit home on a rainy afternoon when I wondered if any good comes out of suffering. Or at least my suffering.

It had been an impossible day and I was feeling sorry for myself, running behind on errands because of the stormy weather. Nothing ever went my way, I reasoned, and this was another entry in a long list of grievances about my circumstances.

Partially drenched, I ducked into a bagel shop to grab a quick lunch. It wasn’t busy, but the guy making my sandwich seemed interminably slow. Couldn’t he go a little faster, I wondered, as I sighed impatiently. He was almost finished, just tearing the final leaf of lettuce, when “Held” came on the radio. As I heard the familiar chords, I felt my tension and irritation roll away. Thankful for the delay, I smiled and leaned against the counter to enjoy the moment, unhurried. Something healing had come out of my brokenness, and it was still healing me.

Lost in my thoughts, I didn’t notice that the young man making my sandwich had stopped. When I looked up, I saw he was crying. Our eyes met and he apologetically mumbled, “I’m sorry. Are you in a hurry? Do you mind if I stop for a minute and listen to this song? You see, my mom died a few months ago, and this song is the only thing that got me through. It has meant so much to my whole family.”

I cringed at my prior impatience. Pulling myself together, I nodded and whispered, “Please do. Take as much time as you want. I love this song too.”

Time stopped as this stranger and I shared a sacred moment together. I stood in silence as he took in the song, mouthing the familiar words, as I recited them in my head. When the song was over, tears were streaming down my face as well. Tears of hope. And redemption.

I knew that the song had touched thousands. But I’d never seen it firsthand. Never witnessed its impact. Never seen its power.

I’ll never forget that day. Seeing purpose in my suffering was more redemptive than I ever imagined. Though it didn’t take away the pain, it did take away its sharp sting. Knowing that God was using my loss made it easier to endure. Seeing the way it changed someone else changed me. It brought meaning to what had felt meaningless.

None of my other trials have been memorialized with a song, but God has brought meaning to them all. Every time I share about a tender loss in my life, it makes my burden a little lighter. I walk away feeling encouraged, knowing God is using me.

Sometimes I shy away from sharing. I don’t want to relive the agony. It’s easier to stay on the surface with struggling people. It’s neater. Less painful. But ironically, when I stay on the surface, talking about light and trivial subjects, I feel heavier. My burden increases.

At the same time, when I am willing to shoulder another’s burden, my own load lightens. Perhaps it’s because Jesus is carrying both of us. So when I meet someone who is in the midst of a storm I’ve weathered, I need to be vulnerable. To initiate the conversation. To share my experiences and listen to theirs.

I can offer hope. Show them that God is sufficient. Offer evidence that they will heal, survive and even thrive. I hear others asking the same questions I did: Will I make it through? Will the aching ever stop? Will I laugh again?

The Lord has held me in my grief and comforted me through all my trials. And because of His tender care, I am able to encourage others who are suffering. And when I do, I myself am healed. I get stronger. I gain courage. I feel joy again.