Keep your heart

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I have been working out with a heart rate monitor this summer. At first it kind of freaked me out. Watching my heart respond to the stress I was putting it through was crazy, and sometimes discouraging. (I think I might be a hummingbird) The worst was determining my max-heart rate, which is usually somewhere around 220 minus your age but can be higher or lower. I took my road bike up a steep mountain road as fast as I could and three-quarters of the way into the climb found out just how fast my heart can beat. At one point I was convinced it was going to explode.

Usually when I ride I am focusing on speed and cadence. How fast I am going and how many times in a minute my pedals are turning. Now I am not just thinking about my legs and lungs while riding, I am also watching my heart. One article I read suggested that long rides keeping your heart in a low zone are better for you than just constantly riding yourself into the ground. Though it seems counterintuitive, by riding slower you can supposedly become faster.

As a result I have taken a number of rides where my goal has been solely to keep my heart in certain zones. This has been harder than I would have thought. On the flat roads it’s not a big deal as I found my typical riding pace kept me in the sweet spot naturally. But downhill I have to work like crazy to keep my heart from dropping too low.

The most difficult and at times humiliating, has been anytime there is an incline in the road. Since this is Montana (mountain in spanish) that is very often. I love to accelerate and bound up hills but if I do that my heart goes too fast. On steep sections I have to slow down so much that it is hard to stay upright, my heart just one beat away from breaking into a zone I am trying to avoid. On one of these hills I was actually passed by a chick–a soccer mom on a ten-speed. It bothered me more than I care to admit.

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More than a wedding, more than a funeral


Earlier this week I posted about the way a marriage transitions from honeymoon to real life. The emotional high of getting married inevitably fades with time as it becomes normal. Everything is awesome at first because it all feels so amazing, but feelings aren’t enough in the longterm. You must fight to honor God and your spouse even when you don’t feel it anymore.

It got me thinking. Grief is the same way. It’s a marathon, not a sprint. Very much like the first few months after a wedding, when you are grieving, there are overwhelmingly intense emotions that seem like they will last forever. They don’t. Facing the death of someone you love is also like getting married in that maybe the hardest part is what happens when things start to quiet down.

In the initial aftermath of grief everything is on fire. There is such wild, extreme, blinding pain that at times you can’t believe it’s possible to feel so bad and it’s hard to imagine you will ever feel good again. This slowly subsides. This is where it gets truly challenging though. Shock and surprise act like an emotional anesthesia, and as they wear off you feel everything.
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The honeymoon is over


When you first get married there is a newness to it that causes everything to glow. It is surreal, like living in a dream. No more saying goodbye at the end of the night. No more falling asleep with your mobile phone because after you dropped her off you still wanted to talk as you drove home and got ready for bed, brushed your teeth and drifted off together. (Thanks Verizon.) Now you get to brush your teeth together!

When Jennie and I first got married we didn’t want to leave the house. We had spent our engagement at church, restaurants, other people’s houses and public places in order to avoid being alone in our two apartments like the plague. We knew ourselves and our desire for each other too well to put ourselves in a place of temptation. So once we said “I do” we had no desire to go out. We played board games, cooked, ordered food in, and pretty much became shut-in’s. It was awesome. A new marriage is like a new car, everything is so fresh and magical.

This is a wonderful thing but it is not sustainable. The euphoria and newness of it all has no choice but to give way to the reality and inevitably of life. Goosebumps can’t last forever. Marriage is an endurance sport. You can cultivate those initial feelings by doing the first things but you can’t count on them. Try as you might that elusive new car smell can’t be kept longterm. Believe it or not, this is actually a good thing.

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Pain is personal

We can’t help but evaluate the difficult things that we go through and assign to them a value for how bad they are. Like the pain assessment chart hanging on the wall at the doctor’s office where you choose a level ranging from the yellow smiley face to a red face with x’s for eyes, we are constantly ranking the emotional trauma we experience in real time. The problem is we don’t stop with judging our own trials, at times we do this for other people as well.

I’ve had people say things to me like, “I know just what you are going through, my grandmother died last year.” A statement like that assigns a level to their experience and mine. Benign as it might be they are effectively saying our pain is the same — which can make you bristle a little bit on the inside. How can they compare losing a daughter to a grandmother? Old people die. That’s what happens. Not kindergarteners. That’s not the same. Intentional or not it belittles what I have gone through by forcing an unnecessary comparison.

Another person recently told me, “We have had to face the loss of my dad this year, but it’s nothing compared to what you’ve gone through.” Although this certainly didn’t hurt my feelings as they said it, I still found myself disagreeing with them. It was kind of them to acknowledge how unnatural it is for a parent to lose a child, but that doesn’t mean losing a parent is nothing. In this instance they minimized their own pain. What they have walked through isn’t any less difficult for them because of what I am facing. The fundamental problem is that this is still thinking based on comparison.

What I have discovered is that pain is extremely personal. It is impossible to feel anything except for what you are going through. If you have a finger chopped off it doesn’t matter if having your whole hand cut off hurts more — it is going to hurt like crazy for you right then. It’s the same way with all suffering. All we can know at any given moment is what we are experiencing. Until you go through something worse, the most difficult thing you have ever faced is the most difficult thing you have ever faced. At each new level of suffering it can be easy to think nothing could ever hurt more because it is the most you have ever hurt. Or to look at those facing “smaller trials” as though they are less painful than what you have gone through. As a result it is easy to inadvertently make people feel worse about what they are going through when you are really just trying to help.

Jesus is the only who fully understands anyone’s pain. As His agents of compassion our hearts desire should be to give people grace and room to hurt in their own way and pace. Making sure a person in trial knows you have felt just what they are feeling (and you haven’t, even if you have gone through nearly the exact same thing) isn’t as important as just being there for them. Sharing lessons you learned in pain are fine, but insisting that you know exactly which face on the chart they are at isn’t helpful. Attempts to empathize can backfire and come across as patronizing. We should try as much as possible to strip our words and our thinking of language that tries to force trials into bins and levels. Pain is personal.

Hebrews 4:15–16 “For we do not have a High Priest who cannot sympathize with our weaknesses, but was in all points tempted as we are, yet without sin. Let us therefore come boldly to the throne of grace, that we may obtain mercy and find grace to help in time of need.”

There’s no such thing as a wireless anchor


The Bible tells us that we have hope as an anchor of the soul. It is both sure and steadfast. Translation: It is unmovable. A permanent anchor that will never budge. We can know this is true because it is Jesus who is our anchor. He is our hope. He has entered God’s presence and has promised to bring us to be where He is. Our hope is not dead either, it is a living hope, because He lives forever.

There is endless comfort to be enjoyed from these truths and the symbolism God employed to help us understand them. Simply seeing an anchor reassures me when I feel shaky. In the last five months since Lenya’s departure I have felt gale-force winds of sadness and tsunami waves of grief crash down on me and yet my anchor holds within the veil.

The great thing about anchors is that they are never cordless. There is always a connection. A rope or a chain. That cord is every bit as vital as the anchor itself. It doesn’t matter how securely that big hunk of metal is wedged into the ocean floor if you’re not tied to it anymore. The leash matters greatly.

Our anchor of the soul is no different, it comes equipped with a mighty chain. The Holy Spirit. Before entering God’s presence Jesus promised to send His Spirit to be our Helper. He is our great rope that cannot be frayed. The one who has lashed our hearts to Heaven. Through the Spirit we have an everlasting guarantee that we are slowly but surely being winched into our true Country. He is the one who groans in us and keeps us from getting too comfortable here on this earth. He is the proof that there is more to come and that death is not the end.

In moments of overwhelming sorrow I not only am strengthened by my anchor, I am given courage because of the chain. Because Lenya is with Jesus and, through His Spirit, Jesus is in me, there is a direct connection. I have mumbled these words to myself in moments of sadness, “She is with Him and He is in me.” And through them, as a family, we have been revived again and again. In a very real sense we are holding hands with the One who is holding her.

This also means that through choosing to be filled with the Holy Spirit we can feel the cord grow taut. Walking in the flesh and choosing to sin puts slack in the line, but honoring Jesus and walking in the light reels it in. The more room we give the Spirit to come upon us and control our lives the more receptive we are to Heaven’s signal, it’s guidance, and the greater peace we will enjoy.

Hebrews 6:19 “This hope we have as an anchor of the soul, both sure and steadfast, and which enters the Presence behind the veil …”

A time to cast away stones

We recently came across a pile of stones that Lenya had gathered. All of our girls love rocks. They have real toys too — Barbies, Littlest Pet Shop characters, Disney princesses, and animals of every sort imaginable — yet they enjoy playing with rocks as much as anything you can buy at Target. Especially Lenya, she has loved them ever since she was very young. Whenever we go on a walk or a bike ride they love to collect them to be transferred to their purses, or other treasure boxes when we get home.

When winter loosed it’s grip and spring finally brought us back out to our backyard we made a discovery. On a patio table there was a handful of rocks that had been there since last fall. Alivia and Jennie remembered that Lenya had picked them from our yard and had been playing with them on a sunny day. When I heard this I stared at the rocks and could picture her standing there selecting them. I wonder what they were in her imagination. Rubies, sapphires and emeralds? Pirate coins? Dinosaur bones? Why did she pick these out of all others? What was going on in her wonderful little head that day as she whimsically played?

On that table they sat during the cold months waiting to be discovered as a different kind of treasure. A note tucked in a bottle. Once the snow melted there they were. They delivered both cherished memories and a clear message. Time is short. Precious. Fleeting. You never know when it will run out. There is nothing certain about our life on this earth except that it will end. We must savor the moments. Drink in the small things. Strain to find God’s joy in common occurrences as a tiny stone seen with creativity through the eyes of a little child.

Life rushes by and it waits for no one. You will never find time for the most important things, you must choose to make time. If you aren’t careful the tyranny of the urgent will rob your life of true significance. Jesus and people. These are all that will seem weighty in the final analysis. It is tremendously difficult, especially in this crazy, fast-paced world we live in, but you have to fight to be present and focused for what matters most.

I can’t wait to once again enjoy Lenya’s company in Heaven. I groan for it deep in my soul. I am looking forward to spending time with her collecting beautiful rocks on the new earth. Unlike these ones, they will never need to be cast away.

Ecclesiastes 3:4-5 “A time to weep, And a time to laugh; A time to mourn, And a time to dance; A time to cast away stones, And a time to gather stones; A time to embrace, And a time to refrain from embracing;”

A question I don’t need answered

In this whole process of responding to Lenya’s departure to heaven there has been one question I haven’t asked. That question is, “why?” I have never found my heart bubbling up with that. Even in my darkest moments of unfiltered pain and confusion: “Why did this happen?” or “Why did God let my daughter die?” wasn’t what gushed out. To be honest my lack of thirst for those answers has shocked me a little bit.

I am not saying I have faith made out of steel. I don’t. There have been times of deep, deep doubt. Moments where I have come close to despair. There have been anxiety attacks that verged on total meltdown.

The closest thing I can compare these moments to is having one of your kids get separated from you in the grocery store and that sick feeling of panic when you are running up the aisles looking for them. Only there is no resolution. It doesn’t end, on this side of eternity, you have to learn to live with it. Once I was on an airplane and felt myself slipping. I got so stressed that I thought to myself, “if you don’t get this under control you are going to get arrested trying to open the door or something.” I had to breathe slowly with my head down to stop myself from hyperventilating.

Even in these times of intense doubt I haven’t been plagued by “why?” though. It’s not because I already know the answer. I have no clue. Beyond generally, that all death is the result of sin, I don’t know why my daughter’s life on earth was cut short. Today is my birthday and I don’t know why I won’t get to spend it with her. I believe God could have overridden and kept her here. He wasn’t surprised by any of this. I also believe He could have answered our prayers and brought her back even after she left this world. He’s done it before.

One day I will know even as I am known, but not yet. Right now I look at all this through a dark glass. Not knowing doesn’t change anything for me though. I trust Him. I trust His plan. He knows what He is doing. He does all things well. I don’t have to know all the answers because I know Him. So my heart’s cry isn’t, “give me facts,” but “give me faith,” because even if I did have the information there isn’t much I could do with it.  Even the tiniest measure of faith, on the other hand, can move mountains.

The pain of searing loss

In the movie The Avengers there is a scene where Tony Stark and Bruce Banner are having a conversation. Bruce feels as though being the Hulk is nothing but a curse, a nightmare. He feels exposed, like a nerve, and sees no good in it. Tony, on the other hand, views being Iron Man as a responsibility.

He puts it this way, “You know, I’ve got a cluster of shrapnel, trying every second to crawl its way into my heart. [he points to his chest] This stops it. This little circle of light. It’s part of me now, not just armor. It’s a … terrible privilege.”

The point he is making is one that reverberates through the pages of scripture. Things that come close to crushing you completely can become an integral part of your calling. God has a way of weaving together even the most destructive things we go through to bring about His eternal plans and save the lives of many. He never wastes a trial. He has a plan for your pain.

I think of this scene often. I’m no Iron Man, but the pain of having my little Lenya go to Heaven so young feels at times like a chunk of metal seeking to tear my heart apart. If I had been given a choice between the two I would choose the shrapnel. In a heartbeat. Though it has been over four months now, the sorrow is still very severe. It can vary from a blinding and jolting intensity to a dull, cold, throbbing, like an ache deep in your bones.

I have found that there is nothing you can do with this pain except live with it and keep moving forward. I trust God and pray and read scripture every day. It still hurts. I feel myself getting stronger, but the pain never goes away.

The one thing that brings the most relief, that I look forward to more than anything, is church. Specifically singing. Like Tony Stark’s glowing arc-reactor, I find that when I am surrounded by a throng of God’s people and we are all lifting high the name of Jesus in a worship experience, the pressure inside my chest is alleviated and the sharp barb gets temporarily pulled from my heart.

These are also the moments when I feel nearest to her. Much more so than when I stand at her grave. That plot of earth merely houses her tent, she is in the presence of the Lord. With my eyes closed and my hands raised and the music swirling around me, there are glimpses of God’s glory that transcend all else. In those fleeting moments I feel locked in to the frequency of Heaven and everything else just fades to gray.

2 Corinthians 4:6 “For it is the God who commanded light to shine out of darkness, who has shone in our hearts to give the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ.”

“Good Grief”

At various points in the last three months I have wanted to find out whoever came up with the phrase “good grief” and do physical harm to them. Too honest? Sorry. I suppose these are the sorts of thoughts you have when you are grieving. For the record there’s nothing good about it from where I am sitting. It makes colors fade to gray, food taste like ash, your stomach sink, your heart burn and your eyes sting with hot tears. In the thick of grief it is very difficult to keep your thoughts collected, and all but impossible to keep your emotions at bay. Besides drugs or alcohol, it is probably the most powerful mood/mind/body altering state you can be in, especially in the initial trauma of it all.

No, in my opinion, grief isn’t good. It is brutal and painful. Very, very painful.

However, like any bad thing, God is able to bring good out of it. The cross is proof. For one thing, grief causes you to focus. I found that it pulled my thoughts away from things that are superficial. The flood of sorrow blasting it’s way through your soul wipes out attention previously devoted to trivial things. It’s impossible to confront such powerful emotion and care about a Super Bowl commercial.

It also enhances your spiritual senses. Being so near to eternity causes you to almost be able to taste it. The unseen spiritual world becomes more vivid and more apparent than ever. There are moments when I can sense its nearness in a way that I have never in my life experienced. It’s as though God’s whisper is amplified in the deafening roar of death and loss.

There is also the good of being at a place where you are trusting God not day by day or hour by hour but literally minute by minute for the strength to go on. When you are grieving you ball up your fists but have no one to fight. You feel the impulse to run but there is no where to go. I have never felt so powerless, so weak and so desperate in my entire life. In the midst of it all, God was there. He was the rock that was higher than I. The tower to run to and be saved. The One who lifted up my head. He has upheld me marvelously with power from on high these 84 days since Lenya left this earth.

I am thankful for all these things. It is with gratitude that I look at God’s faithfulness in the midst of such confusion and pain. It is with a great sense of expectancy that I look forward to what He desires to bring out of it still. More than anything I am thankful for the fact that Jesus “has borne our griefs and carried our sorrows;” (Isaiah 53:4 NKJV)

Easter is on its way


The ground is still cold and frozen. It has been a long and difficult winter. Fortunately, spring is coming and it carries with it the greatest celebration on the calendar — Easter. The ground will thaw, the days will lengthen and flowers will blossom. Life that has been held hostage by ice and frost will emerge and begin to bloom. The crown comes after the cross.

I have never been so excited in all my life to celebrate the resurrection as I am this year. Easter has always meant a lot to me, (and in the life of our church they have been historic times of outreach) but now it is more personal than ever. The grave is brutal, merciless and uncaring. It swallows everything it touches and it is never satisfied. It will not stop until every last person has been consumed.

The good news is that death has been devoured by the life of Christ and it can’t fight back. Jesus’ tomb is empty and because of that fact, we don’t have to be terrified by the grave anymore. Death’s power has been undone. Those who fall asleep in Christ become greater after death than they were before and they can never be touched by it again. Paul said, “For we know that if our earthly house, this tent, is destroyed, we have a building from God, a house not made with hands, eternal in the heavens.” (II Corinthians 5:1)

I am writing these words about a subject that is raw and a wound that is still fresh for me. Seventy five days ago we faced the grave as a family after Lenya went to heaven, but we faced it with hope. The resurrection of Jesus from the dead and the power of the gospel are the only reason I am full of faith and not despair as I sit here. There are tears in my eyes, but peace in my heart. And I am, with every fiber of my being, driven to communicate the truth of this message to as many people as possible (people who will all have to die one day) until my time on this earth is done.

We are going big this Easter at our worship experiences that will be happening all across the state of Montana. For King & Country, Phil Wickham and The City Harmonic are going to help us celebrate. Our prayer is that many will rise, from being dead in sins, to life in Christ. Check out the Fresh Life Easter site for all the details by clicking here.