I wrote this on Facebook on June 1, 2016.
I’ve been thinking a lot about faith lately.
There are 2 “stories” out there that have made me really question: How strong IS my faith?
One came from something that was in the news 10 years ago this April. You may or may not remember, but it was recorded in the book, Mistaken Identity. I’ve probably read it 5 or 6 times now…and I’m currently reading it again. This story touched me in a way very few have.
There was a terrible wreck involving students and faculty from Taylor University in Indiana, and a young woman named Whitney Cerak was misidentified as another young woman named Laura Van Ryn. Whitney’s family thought she was dead. They planned and had a funeral for her, and they buried her. They mourned her and dealt with the incredible grief of losing her. Laura’s family thought she was alive, but in a coma with a brain injury. They sat vigil at her bedside for weeks. And then, a little more than a month later, Whitney’s family got the unfathomable news that she was, indeed, alive. And Laura’s family got the devastating news that she wasn’t.
As fascinating as this story was, I remember from 10 years ago how moved I was by these families–because their collective faiths were inspiring. They were steadfast. They were unshakeable. I remember watching both families appear on Oprah back in the day….it was when I had decided not to watch her anymore, as she was in her new age “God-is-jealous-of-me-I-think-I’ll-have-a-worldwide-devotional-celebrating-self” era. But I watched the Cerak’s and Van Ryn’s on her show, and I remember thinking…”Whoa. They just attributed everything that got them through this horrific, terrifying, confusing ordeal to JESUS. On national television. Not to “god,” but to His son, Jesus Christ.” They said His name. They said it many times. And you could see Oprah wasn’t embracing it or understanding it very well. But her platform was HUGE then…and all I could think was…they are bringing people to Christ RIGHT NOW!
Because they had inspiring, steadfast, unshakeable faith. Through the darkest, scariest, saddest moments of their lives, they didn’t waver.
I’m watching that same kind of faith played out right now with the LaSource family. So many of you are following little Ryan’s story, and what seems to be the theme among all of us, watching from afar, praying so hard for healing for this baby boy that some of us know and some of us don’t, is the extraordinary faith his parents possess.
They have peered over the cliff and peeked into the chasm of darkness–life without Ryan.
But then they always look up again, and they see light and hope and a future–with Ryan.
And they trust. They trust in Jesus.
The things they are discovering about Jesus’ love, about Ryan’s purpose, about eternity, about why we are all here….to bring Glory to God, to bring more people into a personal relationship with Jesus…in the midst of such deep concern and fear and confusion–and their willingness to share those revelations and epiphanies with us–are bringing people to Christ RIGHT NOW.
It is inspiring. It is steadfast.
It is unshakeable.
And it is real.
But both of these “stories” (they are not stories; they are lives, real lives) have made me wonder….
Do I really have faith? Do I really have THAT kind of faith?
It has been almost 20 years since I have experienced deep, personal, life-altering, debilitating loss. My best friend at 18, a special friend and mentor and her 7-week old little girl at 21, my Nana at 21, my Mac at 22. During that time, I felt crazy.
My best friends have told me: I didn’t know if you would get better.
I didn’t know if I would get better.
But I did. And I aged and gained some wisdom and some perspective and my relationship with Jesus deepened.
But for almost 20 years, I’ve been given a reprieve. Life has been good. My children are here, and they are healthy. My parents and my siblings are here and they are healthy. My closest friends are here and healthy. I have a job, and so does my husband. We are both healthy.
Sure, things have gone sideways here and there. There have been deaths, and some have been tragic. We miss Uncle Jake deeply.
People have hurt me, made me cautious, protective, and way more careful about who I trust.
Scott and I have had our issues.
But for the most part, for almost 20 years, God hasn’t thrown anything at me like what I experienced from age 18-22. He hasn’t thrown anything at me remotely close to what the Cerek, Van Ryn, and LeSource families have had to deal with.
But that day is coming. One day, it will come. This, I know.
So how strong will my faith be?
Will my faith that I talk about so much, that I say gets me through the moments that seem difficult, sustain me?
Will it be Cerek strong?
Will it be inspiring?
Will it be Van Ryn strong?
Will it be steadfast?
Will it be LeSource strong?
Will it be unshakeable?
Today, I reflect and ask myself these questions.
When life is good, it is so easy to have faith in the One who created us, who gave us life, who holds us in the palm of HIS hand.
When life is unbearable, is it still that easy?
It wasn’t 20 years ago.
If everything was taken away, if my world was shaken to its core today, would it be that easy?
I don’t know.
I think it would. I say it would. But I can’t say I know for sure.
But what I do know is this:
I’m watching 3 families who’ve worlds HAVE been shaken to their core, and their example is what I strive for.
And what I am learning from them is this:
Those 3 families had inspiring, steadfast, unshakeable faith BEFORE they experienced the unexpected uncertainties of this world.
And because their faith was already so, so, so strong, they were able to REMAIN inspiring, steadfast, and unshakeable when they easily could have been debilitated.
So that is my quest. That is my hope. That is my prayer.
That Jesus will make me inspiring.
That Jesus will make me steadfast.
That Jesus will make me unshakeable…..BEFORE I experience the unexpected uncertainties.
We may change, but He never does.
We may doubt, but He still shows His face.
We may grieve, but He grieves with us.
We may lose faith, but He doesn’t lose faith in us.
Because He is inspiring.
Because He is steadfast.
Because He is unshakeable.
Because He is Jesus.
I re-read this, and I realized that my reprieve ended one year and 22 days after I wrote it.
I re-read this, and when I finished, I knew how to answer my own question.
The answer was no.
When I re-read it, I felt like a fraud.
I felt like I’d been a fraud for all of these months and years when I’ve posted uplifting, positive messages about getting through hard times….because they weren’t my hard times.
And when my Ryan-LaSource-moment and Mistaken-Identity-moment hit, I wasn’t ready, and I haven’t handled it anywhere near the way I thought I would, maybe even how I think I should.
My faith has been in crisis.
I have not been inspiring.
I have not been steadfast.
I have not been unshakeable.
I have been the opposite of all of the above, and to admit that is embarrassing and disappointing.
I am disappointed in me.
But I’ve handled it before. When Mary Witten (7 weeks) and Laurie (her mama) were killed in a head-on, fiery collision Easter weekend of 1996, I had to go through a process. It was a really dark one. They weren’t the first people I had loved and lost, but seeing a 7- week-old infant dressed to be buried with her mama who didn’t have a body anymore was a tad much for a senior in college. I couldn’t pray anymore, because when I prayed, I wanted to ask God to protect me, but I knew Laurie prayed for protection all day, every day, especially over that baby girl she had conceived with the love of her life, waited for, doted on, loved deeper than deep. And God didn’t keep them safe.
So what was the point of praying for it?
During that time, that was my big faith crisis. Why pray for safety if you aren’t going to be kept safe?
I went through several months of intense fear and anxiety. I felt like I had become untethered somehow. I had planned a trip with my grandmother to the United Kingdom in August after the April of the wreck, and I almost didn’t go because I didn’t think I would come home. I was terrified, and I felt completely alone.
And then, my Nana died in the September after the August trip, and somehow, someway, after her funeral, I felt like a veil lifted and I saw things clearly again. Maybe it took Nana being in heaven to allow her spirit to speak to mine. I don’t know why then, but it seems too coincidental that it took her death to bring my faith back at the same time she was able to sit at the right hand of Jesus.
That question that I kept asking over and over in my head finally led me to the truth: We are all going to die. Ok, I know that. I’m not crazy about it, but its reality. I can accept that because I know it is true.
Then, came the next realization: Free will may take us to heaven before it is “our time.” God didn’t will Laurie and Mary Witten’s death. His perfect plan had no mention of a drunk woman leaving a bar in the middle of the day, unable to make a proper curve on a service road. She caused the accident. She killed Laurie and Mary Witten. And, she died, too.
I can pretty quickly get to the truth that this woman was the sole cause of the accident, but the God I had always loved and believed was still good, and I felt that as complete and total truth because I knew in my soul that God was there. He watched it, and I know He held Mary Witten’s little hands and sang to her as the back passenger window of Laurie’s car was broken and strong arms lifted her out of that burning car and onto a medivac helicopter to take her to LeBonheur Hospital in Memphis. I know God spoke in Laurie’s ears and told her it was okay to go, that Mary Witten was not going to be alone. God comforted the broken woman, in body and spirit, in the other car and told her she was loved. And, watching the carnage and the promises of certain futures and flesh turn to ash, I knew God wept. He wept for what could have been in terms of accomplishments, interactions, all the ways He may have been glorified for years upon years had they survived.
He did not weep that they were going to Heaven. He wept for what was cut short. He wept for us, those they left behind.
He was there, and He never left. He was present when Laurie left, and I know Heavenly escorts took her straight to heaven. And when Laurie and Gregg’s family were given the gift of another day with Mary Witten, He stayed. And he wiped tears and reminded them of the softness the got to feel and the love they got to bestow and the words they got to say and the songs they got to sing. And when he took Mary Witten with him, he still stayed. He stayed with all of us who were crushed, broken, lost, angry, and bewildered.
I knew He did.
So when I worked through all of those truths, I got to mine: I changed my prayer. I continued to pray for safety, but differently. I didn’t ask so much for physical safety. I realized that if a drunk driver came speeding toward me in a curve, the free will of man combined with the laws of gravity were going to most likely equal my time to go. I came to realize that I should be praying, conversing, just talking, just listening, so that I could become closer to Jesus, so that I could recognize His voice, so that if that drunk-driver-in-a-curve moment came, I would know I was not alone because I would feel His presence and I would recognize his touch as I was escorted to Heaven to be with Him.
I still pray for His angels to guard and protect my children. But to me that means–if an angel has been sent, that is his job. So I just ask that they do it.
And if it isn’t a time for angels, if it is time for Jesus, just don’t let my babies be alone.
And so those truths are what emerged in losing Laurie and Mary Whitten. They got me to a new place, a different place of faith, that I was comfortable with because I had worked through all of it to get there. I muddled through it in my own time and in my own way. And when the revelation of the truth of it came, it made sense. And the sense mattered.
And I found peace again.
I thought it was dark when Laurie and Mary Witten were killed, but Daddy leaving threw me into the abyss, and there was not even a glimmer of light peeking through the chasm of blackness.
In the abyss, I met the face of Anxiety, and it still plagues me.
In the abyss, I met the face of Abandonment, and it still plagues me.
In the abyss, I met the face of Betrayal, and it still plagues me.
In the abyss, I met the face of Regret, and it still plagues me.
In the abyss, I met the face of Anger, and it still plagues me.
In the abyss, I met the face of Isolation, and it still plagues me.
Daddy’s leaving swept my legs out from underneath me because this was not on the list of things of which I should or could anticipate, expect, and prepare. It was not on the list of all of the awful things that might ever happen.
It was impossible, but it was real, and the contradiction couldn’t coexist in my head, my heart, or my soul without plunging into the abyss and staying there.
In the time it takes to pull a trigger, all of my truths became lies. All of my knowledge became uncertainties. All of my rights became wrongs. All of my safest places became terrifying. All of my trust became skepticism.
I had been jolted to the most unstable ground, unable to gain my bearings, unsure of every next footstep, unaware of what was around every corner, uncertain of anything and everything underneath me. It was as if I had landed in the middle of a pond covered in ice, and all of a sudden, the ice began to crack. It was as if I had been thrown into an earthquake, and I didn’t know if the next tremor would be the one that would swallow me whole.
I have a very vivid memory of sitting with Daddy on our couch on Monroe Street, and I couldn’t have been older than 8. I told him that every time I thought about how long forever was, it made me scared. And every time I thought about not knowing where the sky ended, it made me scared.
And I very vividly remember my daddy telling me that those things scared him, too.
He didn’t try to placate me with an answer that he didn’t have. He never told me not to be scared. He validated his own fear of the unknown, and it gave me peace in some wierd way. It just let me know I wasn’t alone, and if my daddy felt that way, too, then I wasn’t as crazy as those thoughts made me feel.
And so, when he left me, he stole that sense of peace, and he thrust me into the world of Forever.
And that, that is what really made the ice crack, the terrain impossible to navigate, the earthquake shake the ground until the ground was nothing but that abyss, swallowing me up, illuminating all of the faces that exist there.
The Forever question was and still is the most petrifying face I found in the abyss, and it sits on an ugly plaid couch and it wears the face of my daddy, and instead of answering me so kindly, so lovingly, so truthfully….it laughs.
And it doesn’t ever go away.
I have been told that some people who did not have a positive relationship with their Earthly father had a hard time seeing God as an entity that was good. I’m reminded of the book, The Shack, in which God is portrayed as a kind woman with whom it was easy to feel comfortable and protected.
I never had that dilemma because I had the Earthly father that everyone wants. My daddy was always present. My daddy was open and allowed me to be open with him. My daddy was fun and loved to be anywhere his family was. My daddy gave me everything he had to give me. My daddy was kind and good. Every quality of my daddy is the same quality I would expect to find in my Heavenly Father.
So, it is not off the mark to assume that I put more trust and more faith in my daddy here on Earth than I did my father in Heaven. I could see and hear and touch him. I could pick up the phone and call him. I could ask him any question I wanted and I got an answer. He made sure I had everything I needed and almost everything I wanted. In his presence, I felt like all was right with the world.
I don’t know that I’ve ever felt that sense of completeness with my Heavenly Father, even though I thought I did, told myself I did, portrayed that I did. Before June 22, 2017, I didn’t even realize that I might have been trusting Daddy more than I trusted God because it was all okay. I had both of them, and so I didn’t know that I was a fraud.
I had no idea.
I do now, though.
I do now.
I had lunch with a dear friend, and I was finally able to tell someone why church is so hard, and why, in the last year and seven months, I have only been a handful of times.
I have been able to pinpoint 3 reasons why, of all of the places that were miserable to walk into in the beginning, my church still remains. The others…they have become tolerable most of the time. I’m not going to tell you that every one of them doesn’t require medicine or a hasty exit, because some do. But the church is the last of the places that I just don’t ever want to go.
If I didn’t have children, I don’t know that I would even try to make myself go back because it is that difficult.
I hate it.
And you have no idea how much guilt that gives me to write.
But this is uglyreal, and this is my truth.
I hate church because I hate the music. When I say I hate it, I want to stick my fingers in my ears and say, “Lalalalalalalala” until it quits. Church music is funeral music, and I go back to Daddy’s funeral every single time I hear the striking of the keys of the organ and the piano. It makes me want to crawl out of my skin. It makes me cry, and when I start crying in church, I can’t stop, and I don’t know why.
But the biggest problem with church music having become a trigger is: there isn’t one thing anyone can do about it.
There is always going to be church music in church.
Second, there are too many people around me. I have gotten better in crowds, even crowds where I know the people because they were all characters in the story of my life, and they remind me of being at visitation where all of the characters gathered in one place. But the church crowd still has not gotten better, and I don’t know why. I love those folks. I know they love me. They would actually completely understand if I curled into a ball underneath my pew just so I could tolerate being in church. They would be thrilled if I did so if that meant I could come and stay.
I know this.
As I’ve said before, it is not them. Not them in the least little bit.
But the anxiety that manifested after Daddy left has caused me to feel the need to shrink myself to the size of nothing so I can’t be seen. I want my back against a wall as I go into a room, especially at the church, so I can shrug against it to make my way to my seat. Even when I want to try to be there, I want to be invisible while I am there. And I can’t explain that or understand it. I just know it is my truth. It is what I feel…this absurd magnetic attraction to a wall, the other side of a door frame, an empty space where I can’t exist to anyone else. It is an involuntary reaction to being seen in that place.
And last, its the words that are spoken in the sermon, the language that has become unfamiliar, the topics that I see from another angle than I saw before Daddy left. What once was scripture and analysis that buoyied me, the same verses and dissection make me feel void. I don’t know why. I really don’t.
I do still pray. I pray aloud with my children in the car on the way to school every morning. I started doing it a long time ago, and I continued to do it, even when they started school shortly after Daddy left. In the beginning, back then, I knew I was doing it to keep things consistent for them. It is what they expected me to do, and especially then, they needed any and everything upon which they could depend. They needed certainty and sameness in each and every place they could get it. So I provided it.
And after saying those prayers, at first rote and only for them, I started feeling them.
I knew that was a step. I was glad for it.
I have since started to pray more regularly on my own, though sometimes I am not sure if I feel them. But I do it. And as I have learned, the more I make myself do something that I’m unsure of, the more comfortable it begins to feel and the more authentic it becomes.
In my conversation with my friend at lunch, she wondered aloud–not suggesting, not directing, not tell me to try, which is how she works and why I hear her–if maybe listening to some podcasts about faith and spirituality and religion and Jesus would bring back the familiarity once again. Together, we batted back and forth the positive of such. If I started to feel scared or angry or uncomfortable or sad, I could cut the podcast off. No one would know. No one would be disappointed or worried, and I could be back in my safe space again.
But if I dared to try, to let myself feel whatever those words brought me while alone in my car, able to have the breakdown that I can’t have at home in front of my children, that I don’t want to have in church, then I could feel it as long as I could stand it and cry or scream or pray or not in the safety of my car, a car with a radio with an on/off switch. And that switch could give me words, a few at a time or many in a row, or it could bring silence so that I can piece myself back together again.
It was a good wondering aloud from a dear person that gets it.
It’s another step.
And lastly, there is one tangible thing I to which I cling: my children’s dream visits from my daddy.
Mac has had several, and I’ve documented them here. Leelee has had one, and she had it after we prayed very specifically for it. Their visits, especially Mac’s first one last summer, was so real, filled with all of the peace that Daddy gave to Mac every day that he breathed, dotted with symbolism that gave it a depth that a 9-year-old could not self-create, that I believe it.
And I cling to it.
Though I may not have figured out if dream visits are given to us by God or by the one who makes the visit, I’m satisfied with knowing that they happen. That makes them real and true, and I have found faith in them.
And that is a big, forceful, intentional, satisfying step.
Stepping, timidly, deliberately, awkwardly, uncertainly is the best I can do right now as I navigate that pond that has iced over. Ever unsure if it will hold under my weight, ever afraid of the crack that could come at any moment, I will continue to step. My steps may come slower than the people who love me would like. They may come less frequently than the people who care about my body and spirit would hope.
But I am stepping.
In my own time.
One at a time.
I have not been inspiring.
I have not been steadfast.
I have not been unshakeable.
But I will be again.
Step by step, I will find myself again.
Because somewhere deep inside, maybe all because of golden hot air balloon dreams, dreams not just meant for Mac, but for me, too. Dreams given to me in a comfortable, familiar language that I can hear and know, given to me with a vividness only filtered through the words of my child, my child who loved my daddy unconditionally, my child whom I love unconditionally, given to me with tenderness and promise and hope, I know it will happen, not because I used to be or because I can be.
Because there is something inside of me, planted a really long time ago, still living, still breathing, still wanting, patiently waiting, and that something will walk me back, step by step, to a place of peace.
Because I may have lost my faith in Him, but He hasn’t lost His faith in me.
Because He is inspiring.
Because He is steadfast.
Because He is unshakeable.
Because He is Jesus.