Glimpses Into the Eternal

Glimpses into the eternal. They are the little gifts, the sneak peeks–Jon’s death is not meaningless. God is using it for his kingdom and his glory. And for the spread of his gospel.

Here we are about five months since Jon’s death, and throughout God has wonderfully and mercifully given some windows into some of his purposes.

I’m so thankful for the specific examples of God’s working. Thankful is not a strong enough word, but I cannot think of another one that encompasses my thoughts. Strengthened? Encouraged? Comforted? Broken? Overwhelmed?  Perhaps I just need all of these words. I know “overwhelmed” regularly peppers my vocabulary, but it just fits. Perhaps they will bless you too? Perhaps they’ll remind you that God is doing more than you can imagine.

God doesn’t have to give me any explanation at all, however. Were he to say, “I took your husband, and you must trust. That is all,” he would be perfectly right and just. He doesn’t owe me anything. Yet he is a merciful and faithful High Priest having experienced suffering and the weaknesses of human flesh. And he loves me.

So, he’s given an “appetizer” so to speak, a foretaste of the feast to come. By that feast I mean eternity with him, where there is no need for the sun because of the radiance of God’s glory!

The other day a brother from our church shared his admissions essay for seminary with me. This man’s story of salvation is incredible. He was thirty-five and had been to church maybe six times in his whole life when God began to show him his need for Christ. When Jon and I witnessed his baptism over a year ago, we both though it was possibly the most Christ-exalting baptism we’d ever seen.

This guy is a firecracker. A “miracle-grow believer” like Jon was. You know, one of those folks who grows leaps and bounds in a short time. Jon saw it early on, and couldn’t wait to invest in Eric. I was so floored by what I read in his essay. Though Jon’s life is a small part of how God is leading and directing this man, his words about my husband are overwhelming to me. Staggering really.

“After coming to know Jesus and sharing my story I continued to face challenges and at times it felt as if I was under attack. The most notable personal attack was being hospitalized and nearly dying as a result of diabetes, prior to Christmas.

While that experience was terrifying and absolutely life changing, perhaps the most trying challenge was the death of my outstanding, Christian friend Jonathan. He was a member of our church and was only thirty when he passed away, very suddenly of heart complications. Jon was following Christ’s path to be a lead pastor someday and his value to me as a teacher and friend will be missed.  I have not missed one Sunday service since his passing. The silver lining out of the sadness and grief that came following his death was the realization that I needed to step up within our church and help serve in any way possible.

I recently learned that Jon told his wife Ami that he knew I would become a pastor someday… I firmly believe I’ve been called into ministry and the Lord has been preparing me for the past thirty-six years through some amazing life experiences.  As His now humble servant, I’m completely confident in this path He has laid out before me.  After all, if I have lived thirty-five years without acknowledging Him, how much greater will every day be now that I do have Him in my life?”

Another beautiful glimpse… I received this message from a college friend a couple days after Jon died, and her words affected me so deeply because I know her actions toward her husband were the same as mine to Jon sometimes. It’s crazy that she saw Jesus in me, though I know the reality of my heart. I think her story also greatly comforted me because it was an immediate example of God making something as horrifying as death into something tremendously beautiful.

“After delivering my 3rd child (on Christmas day) my emotions have been pretty haywire! I cry pretty easily and get way too overwhelmed, too often. The Lord has blessed and has given MUCH grace and strength- far more than I deserve, really. But believe me, I still have a lot of growing up to do spiritually! It wasn’t a half hour before Dan found out via Facebook that your husband passed away that I had allowed my flesh to have control, and in doing so, I brought Dan to tears (NOT an easy thing to do, but leave it to me to do it!) Without going into much detail, my tongue can really do great harm, and Dan’s feelings were greatly hurt that night. Not only was he hurting, but I was struggling spiritually and we both needed the Lord to intervene somehow.”

“Ami, I want you to know that what you wrote on Facebook that night about Jon’s death stabbed me in the heart like a dagger and it’s been on my mind ever since! Believe me, the Lord used your Spirit-filled words to get my attention and point me closer to Him! I strongly regret what I said & how selfishly I behaved towards Dan that night back in January, but I am humbled by and truly thankful for friends like you who are sensitive to the Holy Spirit and allow Him to use you to point others to Christ! I can get choked up just thinking about it. Though you’re going through an extremely trying and difficult trial right now with your loss, please know that the Lord has used and will continue to use it for His name’s sake!”

I don’t share that story to point to me. For I know that any beautiful response comes only from Christ. But in that first numb, shocking week God knew I needed to see some “tangible grace.”

Finally, God has created a strong bond with a friend who has the same heart valve problem Jon had. His death cemented our friendship, and in a literal way, saved her life. These next words are Carrie’s words.

“As I’ve gone through the last few weeks, God’s grace has been abundant, just as He promised. His timing in bringing me to surgery and Jon’s death was not arbitrary…let me back up a few years to Freshman Speech class…the second memory of that class was Jon Atkins. We found out we shared the same heart defect. He asked me out once, but I declined… I don’t remember much about our valve conversation, but I never forgot him. To this day he is still the only person my age that I knew who had AVS. Looking back now, I would have never imagined how God would use that in my life. Years have passed since then….Fast forward to recent months.  I learned of Jon’s death right away through Facebook. I can’t put into words my immediate thoughts…. Having AVS, always in the back of my mind is the knowledge that there are people who die from this, and now I know someone who had. And then as I read Jon’s testimony and saw the man he was, I just asked God, “Why him?”

“I know God is good and working His plan…He has answered the “why” for everything in His Word; the ultimate answer is His glory, His preeminence, and the furthering of His Kingdom through the gospel. But God knows my frame, my weakness, and sometimes He kindly, tenderly, and intimately, shows us an answer to the why. On Tuesday January 29th (4 days after Jon died) I had an echo and appointment with my cardiologist… the echo had changed pretty significantly, but symptomatically things were fine. I was tired, who isn’t? We made a follow-up visit for April 9th…”

“A few weeks passed, the fatigue was really bothering me. All along I was just praying God would give me wisdom, and the back of my mind were thoughts of you and Jon. So I called my doctor and asked to see her sooner. She did another echo, and nothing had changed. Still the only symptoms were fatigue and low BP. So she ordered a battery of blood tests, and a heart catheterization. We got what I thought was the answer when the blood-work came back–low Vitamin D. I was relieved, however truthfully in the back of my mind I was still concerned. But as my natural tendency, I managed to convince myself that it was just the Vitamin D.”

Once Carrie got the Vitamin D result, she seriously considered canceling the heart catheterization.  She was feeling better. Yet she went any way. The doctor who did the cath said, “weeks, months, but don’t wait a year.” So they scheduled surgery as soon as it was possible, merely a week and a half later.

“I think I mentioned Jon to just about every doctor or nurse I talked to, and I told them how God used my friend’s death to encourage me to be vigilant about getting the valve replaced… And I’m so grateful for how God worked and led. The surgeon said the valve was ugly– that it was good timing to have it replaced. There was no other damage to my heart. God answered prayer in amazing ways! I cannot dwell on the ‘what ifs’ or ‘if onlys’ when I think about the last few weeks. But I can think about what I know in my heart. That is, in some sort of way, God used Jon’s death in my life and in my ‘heart’ journey (physically and spiritually). In some ways Jon’s death gave me life…. I do not remember a lot of the details right after surgery, but I remember thinking, “God you did not waste Jon’s death.”

I admit when I first received this letter from our friend, there was a rush of mixed emotions. Sorrow. Anger. And finally joy. As I read her words, I was reading the exact things that we were told. Yet Jon didn’t make it to his heart catheterization. And yes there was some anger, “God why did it have to be Jon’s life? Why couldn’t his life be saved? Why was there so much more damage to his heart?”

But finally, my heart gave way to joy. “Thank you God for saving Carrie’s life. Thank you that her children still have their mother, and her husband still has his wife.” It also reminded me again of God’s sovereignty. In both cases, medical technology, advanced as it is, couldn’t see the severity of the situation. And in both cases God had a plan before time began.

There have been more glimpses, equally just as special. Yet I think these three encapsulate what I mean pretty well.

So what’s the common denominator? It’s Jesus, who is sovereignly in control of all things, who holds all things together, and is bringing all things toward their final completion. On a grand scale there are no coincidences. A Sovereign God leads my life. A Sovereign God is working out His master plan.

“Now in putting everything in subjection to Him, He left nothing out of His control.” (Hebrews 2:8)

Also in these stories is the common theme of redemption. God redeemed a broken man, turning him instead into a whole, new, spotless, vessel. God redeemed some harsh angry words, turning them instead to forgiveness and reconciliation. God redeemed death, so that rather than horror and tragedy, it is life. And God redeemed Jon, so that his death was not truly death at all– rather, absent from the body and present with the Lord. These stories also remind me of the beauty of Christ’s church. These three folks I mentioned don’t know each other, and would probably not have much in common. Yet each one recognizes Jesus as Lord, Master, Savior. And each one acted toward me as body truly would toward itself– “Part of me is hurting. I’m compelled to take care of it.”

It’s phenomenal to think of the love of God. He knows my frame and remembers it’s dust. So when my faith waivers and grief seems crushing, He gives me small, lovely glimpses. He doesn’t have to. But that’s just what grace is. I’m so thankful that God is still using him. And in a greater way then I know.

Yet my darling man would quickly shift the focus. He would say this is just a small taste of Christ. Just a glimpse of God’s great story. And truly it is. For His plan is infinitely bigger than just Jon and me.

Of course, there is much I will never understand for I’m reminded that “my thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways, declares the Lord. For as the heavens are higher than the earth so are my ways higher than your ways and my thoughts than your thoughts.” (Isaiah 55:8-9).

And also “Our God is in the heavens; He does all that He pleases.” (Psalm 115:3) Praise God I know Him, and can trust that all He pleases is good.

By the way, I’m not being stoic. I know that God is not only working in the lives of others, He’s doing some big big things in me. And some of it I cannot even see yet. I am not the same. And this is good.

For Jesus is becoming sweeter, and eternity more near.

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A neat little summary, but not really

???????????????????????????????Each Friday marks a new week. I don’t know why I count weeks instead of the calendar date, but I guess Fridays stand out as the day my life changed forever.  So even though the calendar says 3 months isn’t until the 25th, Friday marked 12 weeks–3 months. Maybe I just have an elementary understanding of what a month is.  Nevertheless, on Fridays my mind goes to variations of, “Three months ago at this time Jon was still alive.  Three months ago I was still married. Three months ago I had a normal day at school. Three months ago I stopped for Jon’s prescription and orange juice…Three months ago I begged God to save my husband, but He was silent. Three months ago I left him at the hospital and faced that first blinding sleepless night.”  Every Friday I have these thoughts.  The only thing that changes is the number of weeks. Perhaps someday it will just be the month anniversaries, and then the year anniversaries… But that seems far away.

So of course, analytic and introspective as I am, each Friday comes with, “What truth is God nailing down this week?” Overall, that’s been a good question to ask, except when there isn’t always an answer.  For some reason, however, I’ve viewed the three month mark as a place where I should be able to easily summarize what I’ve learned.  Sounds like I’m a teacher huh?  And as any good teacher would do, I’ve been trying to distill the lessons into a neat little summary with topic sentence, main ideas, and concluding sentence.  But I’m starting to realize that I can’t yet. Perhaps there won’t ever be one short summary!  I can pinpoint some of the very real things God is doing in my heart, but I think I’m still right in the thick of it. I think there are also facets of God’s lessons that I have yet to see. I know there are some things that never will have explanation and that I never will understand. I can see some things God is doing very clearly, but other truths are still darkened.

Some weeks God penetrates my heart with “crossroads” truth—You know, that kind of truth that seems like it is going to shape your very being. For example, the week God dealt with me regarding my “resounding no” was one of those weeks. I look back and think, that was the lowest point so far, but God met me in an abundant way.  As a result, I believe I can say with confidence that I’ll always know that Christ is hope not only for eternity, but for this life also. But other weeks, in true spaghetti brain fashion, a million thoughts whiz around in my brain and stay there at a seeming academic level.  Sometimes I think I get stuck inside my own head. This was one of those weeks.  And I felt frustrated. My prayers were, “But God I want to see you. I want to hear from you. What truth do you want me to take this week? Is there something I’m missing?”

But I suppose God is reminding me that knowing Him doesn’t always come with a beautifully succinct, well-written paragraph.  But whoever said I was succinct anyway—ha! But I digress. He is too big for me to comprehend. His ways are infinitely higher than my ways. I will never have Him figured out! And praise God I won’t!  Sometimes I may not be able to boil His truth into bullet points, but He is teaching me to know HIM and to know His gospel. And with that comes complexities and intricacies that I cannot imagine. I think it was Tim Keller who said that the gospel is shallow enough for a child to wade in, but deep enough for an elephant to swim in.

But here I am trying to make sense of my world and of my God. How very human of me. And of course, we humans naturally try to make sense of the things around us. It’s a good thing. God put it in us. It’s the capability to know Him and understand truth about Him. However, some things cannot be understood. I know Christ in a personal, real way, but He doesn’t fit in my nicely labeled box.  I can know Him more and more, but I will not ever fully comprehend an incomprehensible God. It’s a great paradox. And so He asks me just to trust.

I’m finding that my schemas (Like my fancy education word? It means frame of understanding) labeled “gospel,” “Christ,” and “God” are ever expanding. Nor should they stop expanding! At the three month mark I’m standing before the vastness of God. I’m catching glimpses of how small I am and how immeasurable He is. And He is reminding me that this is a beautiful thing. I want to learn to know God experientially for the rest of my life, and if I do I still will not have begun to scratch the surface.  So do you see where I’m going?  Even on those weeks when I cannot quantify one main truth or lesson, God is still teaching me Himself. He is teaching me to say with Paul, “That I may know Him and the power of His resurrection, and share in His sufferings becoming like Him in His death” (Philippians 3:10). He is teaching me to know Him not through academic knowledge, but through experience and relationship.  Suffering for example, is teaching me to know in just a minuscule way how Jesus suffered for me. Emptiness reminds of His emptiness on the cross.  So often we want to know Him in the “power,” the mountain tops, the victories. But the verse says “AND share in His sufferings.” Knowing Christ is both. And I think it’s true that believers know Him far better in the valley than on the mountain.  There’s a beautiful song called “In the Valley”, and a line from it reminds me that the valley’s “where your glory shines so bright.” It’s true. When things are going well, it is so easy to say, “Yeah! I want Jesus more than anything!” But when the bottom falls out, there’s the true test- Am I really a disciple? A dead-to-self follower who knows Jesus is sufficient?

Also, He is still keeping His promises toward me. “And I am sure of this, that He who began a good work in you will bring it to completion at the day of Jesus Christ.” (Philippians 1:6) Because I am redeemed, He IS transforming me. And He WILL continue to transform me. And He WILL bring me to perfection when I see Him face to face. These are gospel words folks! Here I go again! But I’ll gladly stand here. He justified me-God looks at me as if I’ve never sinned, and as if I’ve always obeyed.  He is sanctifying me- He is changing me to be what He has already declared me to be.  I may feel like I’m lost, but I know who I am in Christ. But you might be saying, how do you know? What do you mean? Go check out Ephesians 1!   (And then go over to Ephesians 2. That’s a good idea too.) Losing my own sense of identity reminds me that my true identity is IN Him! He will glorify me- One day I will be made never-ending new. I will actually be what He has declared me to be—perfect, spotless.  And this is good truth. This is gospel.

So when God is silent, when things don’t make sense, when I don’t understand, I can rest in what I know is truth. I have some anchors in my understanding. God is good. God is doing all things for His glory and my good. God loves me more than I can understand. God will always keep His promises concerning me. He will complete the work He began in me. Jesus purchased my salvation. No one can pluck me from His hand—even myself. (John 10:28)  Because I am His, He’ll give grace for me to understand His lessons when I’m ready to see them (2 Corinthians 3:18). And that’s the crazy mystery: God is incomprehensible, high and lofty, yet he chooses to be known. He chooses to be personal. He dwells with those of a humble and contrite heart. (Isaiah 57:15). Not only does he dwell with the humble, He exemplified ultimate humility. (Philippians 2)

At the three month mark, I can’t really offer you a neat little summary. But I can say that there really are so many things God is teaching me—who I am in Christ, His carrying grace, His deep compassion and grieving with me…There’s at least one more thing, and I think it’s the theme of my ramblings today. Learning to trust in the silence. So as I struggled with God’s silence on Saturday, here were the prayers of my heart.

“Lord much truth is rattling around my head this morning. Many thoughts on the last couple pages. Help me to see you Lord. Help me to grasp the facets of truth you have for me today. Open my eyes. Open my heart.  ‘Events are a visible sign of an invisible reality.’ What are the invisible realities of Jon’s death?  The visible ‘crosses’ of suffering provide the place that I learn to love and trust. ‘That I may know him in the power of his resurrection, and the fellowship of his suffering being made conformable unto his death’ So often I have prayed sincerely to know you, to surrender my life to you. I have desired to give you all. ‘O Father use my ransomed life.’  But when the suffering comes it shows the weakness of my heart! Though I am sincere, I cannot make these promises of surrender without you. This is the deepest test of faith I’ve ever experienced. And in it I’m thankful that the presence of struggle is not wrong. Rather, the struggle reveals  my desperate weakness and need. Yet there is also your abundant grace that strengthens me to lay everything at your feet. Taking up a cross can only be through you. The ability to say YES is enabled by the power of the gospel . You already surrendered perfectly. You already said, yes. This is the confidence that gives me grace to surrender, to say ‘Take my life and let it be consecrated Lord to Thee.’  True also is that the cost of discipleship is sharing in your sufferings. But so often I want the power and the glory without the cross. But you are teaching me though that the eternal weight of glory truly does far surpass this temporal grief. But the temporal grief is necessary.

Later…

“I’m struggling with a pervading sense of unease and emptiness. And I’m not exactly sure why. Today pictures of happy couples, birthday flowers, babies… are especially hard. But why today? Yesterday was the three month day. I would have thought it would have been then. Lord I desire to write about your tangible grace on the blog, but again I feel uneasy. I feel very much alone today Lord, though I was with people. I had a really wonderful time with you yesterday, but it doesn’t seem firmly rooted in my heart. The lessons still seem academic. Lord meet with me today. Penetrate the depths of my soul with truth. I need you. I find myself longing often for what I cannot have… physical touch, his hand on the small of my back, a tight hug, a lingering kiss, his hand in mine, his arm around me, time together, his voice, his laughter… Why can’t I picture that last look? Why can’t I see his eyes so full of love and adoration? Today the hole in my heart is huge—“Jon sized” emptiness. But I know that not even he could fill it. But you can! And you do! I know you satisfy. Thank you for comforting me. It has been wonderful, but today I feel like there is some great truth that I am missing. I’m thinking of this Elizabeth Elliot quote Lord. ‘This is a necessary part of the journey. Even in its roughest part, it is only a part, and will not last the whole long way. Remember where I’m leading you.‘ Yes, Lord, I know you are leading me to yourself. Even the emptiness of today is part of the journey. And I realize my need for you because other things cannot fill it. You are the God who comforts. You give me yourself.”

In the evening….

“Thank you for reminding me again of the beauty of the gospel.  Thank you for reminding me of Jamie’s questions. What is beautiful about feeling empty today? It reminds me again of my desperate need. It reminds me that it is you who fills. Jesus you emptied yoursef for me. You became sin that I might be made righteous. What is broken about feeling empty? I was never meant to feel it.  And it is a result of the curse of sin. What is redeemed about feeling empty? Jesus you are sufficient for all things and in all situations! This is not merely a mechanical mantra, but questions and answers that stir my soul, and bring my focus back to you. Lord you alone fill the “Jon sized” hole. Thank you for teaching me the ‘fellowship of your sufferings.’ You were alone, so now I never have to be. Even when you are silent you never leave me. And I’m learning to trust your heart when I cannot see your hand. Wonderful, incomprehensible, Lord I surrender to your will. Jon did die. And it is your good gift. This life is yours.”

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