The Fire and the Flood

My husband and I are mountain people through and through. At any given moment, if you were to ask either of us where we most want to be, the quick and sure response would be “the mountains.” If that’s not the answer you get, call the police because someone is obviously impersonating us.

For most people, vacation means warm locales, sandy beaches, and doing as little as possible. For us, vacation means brisk alpine days, rugged peaks, and hiking as much as possible—the harder, the better because the most beautiful places often require long miles, quad-busting elevation gain, or both.

I am too pale to ever love the beach—it’s just not worth the endless tubes of SPF 100. And both my husband and I are possessed of an absolute inability to sit still and do nothing for any appreciable length of time. The most stir-crazy hours of my life were spent in Costa Rica, waiting for a friend to finish “laying out” on the beach. I’d been dragging her all over the country from one activity to another for nearly a week, so I had promised her one morning to just relax. I paced the small curve of beach like a chained dog, while she stretched out on her towel in languorous rapture, oblivious to my fitful march. I finally followed a sketchy path into the jungle and found a colony of leaf-cutter ants to watch—not exactly high energy, but better than sizzling like a buttered tortilla in the sand.

My husband is even more allergic to inactivity than I am. I mean, this is a man whose nicknames have included “Mountain Goat” and “Engine of Destruction.” While serving as best man at a friend’s wedding, he once climbed a tree dressed in a full tuxedo, heedless of me standing at the bottom, yelling, “Don’t forget, those tuxedo and shoes are rented!” My husband will walk into a house with a soaring cathedral ceiling, and the first words out of his mouth as he points upward are “You know, drill some holes, bolt in a few holds, and you got yourself a pretty decent climbing wall.” You get the picture—this is a man made to move.

Although my husband and I have very different personalities, we are absolutely bound by our shared love for challenging ourselves in the high places. And when it comes to mountains, for us, there is no place like the Rockies. And when it comes to the Rockies, though we’ve hiked a lot of beautiful places along this range that runs from the United States into Canada, I guess the stretch that feels most like home turf would have to be the alpine peaks and cirques of Rocky Mountain National Park.

One of the backcountry alpine gems that make Rocky Mountain National Park so special

One of the backcountry alpine gems that make Rocky Mountain National Park so special

We first ventured into Rocky Mountain National park on a short backpacking trip that we tagged onto the end of a cousin’s wedding. We were hooked and vowed we’d come back for more. We returned a year later, both of us in pretty good shape from a long summer of road biking and hiking, and kicked off an epic 2 weeks of long hikes into the backcountry. We ticked off a couple peaks and a slew of alpine lakes. We had all kinds of weather from Indian summer days to negative 30-degree windchills and snow. But it’s a trip we both remember with great fondness—something about that time went deep into our hearts and took root.

A panorama of Mirror Lake

A panorama of Mirror Lake

On the last day before we went home, we drove a long way up scenic, winding Poudre Canyon to a remote trailhead and hiked into Mirror Lake—a place so isolated it seemed we really had left the rest of the world behind. I remember returning to the car, tired and happy. We drove back through Poudre Canyon in a mixture of sun and rain, black storm clouds overlaid by a vibrant rainbow visible in our rearview mirror for miles. In 2012, much of that canyon went up in flames consumed by the High Park Fire, one of the largest wildfires in Colorado’s history. I was in the park while that fire raged. I watched the black and orange flames roll over the top of the peaks of the Mummy Range and mourned the destruction of such a ruggedly beautiful place.

View looking upstream from our prayer rock at Horseshoe Falls

View looking upstream from our prayer rock at Horseshoe Falls

My husband and I returned a couple more times to Rocky Mountain National Park. Dreams and plans and prayers were birthed in that place until it pulled at our heart strings something awful whenever we left. We decided the name of our first child while on its trails. When we became youth ministers at our church, we spent a precious evening praying for each of our teens perched on a rock above Horseshoe Falls. Here, the Roaring River cascades over the Alluvial Fan into Horseshoe Park. This area of the park was catastrophically altered by the failure of a dam in 1982. In the fall of 2013, this landscape was again forever changed by massive rains that caused severe flooding and brought a deluge of water and rocks down the slopes. As I followed news of the flooding, it saddened me to see that peaceful place where we had prayed buried under rubble and mud.

It has been hard to watch as a place we love has experienced a succession of natural disasters in the last 2 years. We loved the beauty that was, and we wanted it to stay the same. And yet as I think about the devastation and damage caused by wildfire and flood, I can’t help but think that our life in the last year has been like those peaks and valleys—hard hit, burned by injustice, flooded with pain, forever changed by wounds we never expected. Somehow in the last few years, the havoc wreaked on this place we love has mirrored our own journey with Christ.

I’ve looked at photos from the fire. New trees will spring up to cover the burned-out ridges, but right now, it’s ugly and messy. It will be a long time before that canyon boasts swaths of stately conifers in the charred scars left by the flames. I’ve looked at photos from before and after the flood. In places, the landscape has been completely changed as rivers raced down slopes, shuttling rocks and mud; breached their banks; and forged new courses, creating channels where none existed. The old way it looked, the old way it was, is gone.

I realize it’s such a convicting metaphor for how God has been working in our lives this last year. I know God is not the cause of the wounds we have received. I know He is grieved and weeps with us. He does not relish the fire and flood, but though His hand could have stayed them, He chose to let them pass on through and roll over us. Looking at our situation, people have often lamented in awkward, hesitant words that we must wonder how God could do this to us. I’m sure there is suffering God could allow in our lives that would tempt me to agonize over that question, but not this time, not this trial. I am convinced that it broke the heart of my Lord to allow the fire and flood to fall on us, and so I am just as convinced that He must have had a very good reason for letting them come.

God’s ways are always beyond us, but sometimes they are easier on the heart. We can readily accept when He comes like a warm campfire on a chilly winter night—the kind we want to sit around and roast marshmallows. It’s harder to take when He comes like a searing wall of flames—the kind that scorches everything in its path, making ashes of the things we wanted to keep. We welcome God when He comes soft and gentle like a cool rain on a blistering August day. But sometimes, we need more than a pattering shower. So He comes like a flood, tearing old things away in His torrent, raining new things down in His rush, carving new channels where none existed, and forever changing the landscape. And we weep for what we miss. And we mourn for what we lost, and that is okay. God knows how hard it is to see the seed of beauty in our burned-out, flood-ravaged lives. But by faith, we can know that seed is there. Before the first sprig of green pushes up through the blackened earth, it is there. Before the flood waters recede, it is there. It is there because He is in the fire and the flood. There is no suffering He allows that is not meant to bring greater beauty to our lives and to His Kingdom.

I’m convinced that in those moments when we feel completely wrecked by God’s hand, He is actually at work in our lives in ways that only fire or flood could accomplish. Suffering testifies to His transforming power working in us and His tender Presence walking with us. This is why we can “consider it joy” even when God’s hand on us is heavy. We say that we want to be more like Christ, that we desire for God to change us. Well, sometimes, to be changed by God is to be ravaged by God—not ruthlessly, recklessly, or callously, but lovingly, purposefully, and tenderly.

Whenever I am tempted to despair under trial, reading Lamentations 3 always brings me this surging sense of hope. Here, Jeremiah recounts in great detail his own ravaging by God, and just when you want to cry, “Stop!” because you can’t take hearing any more of this man’s pain, the story takes its turn into beauty:

Yet this I call to mind and therefore I have hope: Because of the Lord’s great love we are not consumed, for his compassions never fail. They are new every morning; great is your faithfulness. I say to myself, “The Lord is my portion; therefore I will wait for him.” The Lord is good to those whose hope is in him, to the one who seeks him; it is good to wait quietly for the salvation of the Lord. It is good for a man to bear the yoke while he is young. Let him sit alone in silence, for the Lord has laid it on him. Let him bury his face in the dust—there may yet be hope. Let him offer his cheek to one who would strike him, and let him be filled with disgrace. For no one is cast off by the Lord forever. Though he brings grief, he will show compassion, so great is his unfailing love. For he does not willingly bring affliction or grief to anyone. – Lamentations 3:21-33 (NIV)

It’s been a “Lamentations 3” sort of year for my husband and me, awash with wounds and pain that have nearly staggered us at times as we have stumbled together side by side on this path on which the Lord has placed our feet. We have wanted off so badly at times. Although we have been blessed to have each other’s steadfast love and comfort in this trial, some hurts go so deep only God can fully understand what we’re feeling and minister to us. But somewhere in the haze of pain, there has always been a keen awareness of God’s gaze firmly fixed on us in tender love and compassion.

A year and half ago, when the first wisps of this trial began to swirl around us, I distinctly remember a night that I couldn’t sleep for thinking about what was happening. I came downstairs and began to pray. I had been reading a devotional called God Calling for several months. It’s arranged by calendar days, but I had fallen a few days behind. As I prayed, I sensed God urging me to turn to the devotional reading for that day. This is what I saw there:

The Hardest Lesson

 Wait and you shall realize the Joy of the one who can be calm and wait, knowing that all is well. The last, and hardest lesson, is that of waiting. So wait.

I would almost say tonight, “Forgive Me, children, that I allow this extra burden to rest upon you even for so short a time.”

I would have you know this, that from the moment you placed all in My Hands, and sought no other aid, from that moment I have taken the quickest way possible to work out your salvation, and to free you.

There is so much you have had to be taught—to avoid future disaster. But the Friend with whom you stand by the grave of failure, of dead ambitions, of relinquished desires, that Friend is a Friend for all time.

Use this waiting time to cement the Friendship with Me and to increase your Knowledge of Me.

In a holy hush, I wanted to whisper, “Wow!” But all I could do was weep in awe of a God of such precise sovereignty that He could take words written 80 years ago and breathe them into my heart at my exact moment of need. I was awash in His love, its soothing stream soaking my anxious, desperate soul.

Yes, God allows us to be ravaged by adversity, but oh how He loves us in the process! Oh how it breaks His heart to see our pain! Oh how quickly and tenderly He works to save us, to make sure there is not one moment of unnecessary pain! Waiting is so very hard while we are laid open, bleeding, desperately crying out to Him for relief. But I am convinced that if we could see His face with our hearts—see how His eyes are tenderly trained on us and weeping with us even as He allows the pain to come—we would know that His is the greater hurt, watching His beloved suffer and yet knowing it must be.

For me that night, reading those words—it was God setting His precious face before me and saying “See, how I love you! See how My heart breaks over what is about to pass!” It was a stake in the ground, declaring the absolute certainty of God’s goodness and love beyond all the pain and devastation the days ahead would bring. It was my first glimmer of beauty in the suffering, and those moments of precious communion have fed and sustained my faith through this trial.

God is always good. We say it all the time. But if our faith can really absorb the hard truth that God is good even as He allows us to suffer, then I think nothing in our earthly intimacy with our Savior surpasses the rich dichotomy of His goodness and love coming to us in the fire and the flood.

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Living Through the Days Between

I love Easter. Every year, even as I groan at the arrival of warm weather and the hint of summer humidity I can feel in its balmy breath, I look forward to the celebration of Christ doing for us what we could not do for ourselves. I love the shiver of anticipation I always feel on Palm Sunday and the somber sweetness of Maundy Thursday. On Easter morning, I can’t wait to sing “Up from the grave He arose” with its crashing crescendo. And unlike Christmas, I’m never tempted to get wrapped up in the hype of trees, gifts, and lights…do we have enough lights???

A bunny bringing treats doesn’t hold much appeal for me. Maybe it’s because I’m not a big fan of chocolate or candy in general, except those little Peeps. Puncture the plastic wrapping, let them get slightly stale for a few days, and you’ve got yourself a real treat. Of course, you don’t need Easter for Peeps because now they come in pumpkins, snowmen, trees, and hearts for a year-round dose of marshmallow-y goodness. Anyway, I digress. The point is that I can do without Reese’s peanut butter eggs, gargantuan chocolate rabbits, and pastel M&Ms. Now, a bunny bringing a gooey cinnamon roll or a flaky slice of blackberry pie a la mode—that’s a bunny who would have my number.

And then there is the other Easter tradition of coloring eggs. Dying eggs is just plain tedious. As we all know, if you’re going to make them look halfway decent, you can never stop with just letting them marinate in the dye. There’s glitter and sequins and wraps and stickers, and don’t forget the little wax crayon for writing secret messages. Then, it never fails—you always end up cracking the prettiest eggs or losing track of them in an Easter egg hunt. Anyway, what a perfectly good waste of a dozen edible eggs! Unless you’re one of those weirdos who actually eats their Easter eggs…yeah, enough said.

But really, for me, the spiritual significance of Easter is just so precious that I don’t want to be distracted from the intensity of remembering Christ’s sacrifice in all its crushing pain and Christ’s victory in all its wonderful completeness. This year though, I have to confess that a glimmer of sadness has been building as we get closer to Easter. It calls up bittersweet memories that swirl in my heart and can’t seem to find a place to land.

A last photo of my dad and my daughters taken that final Easter weekend

A last photo of my dad and my daughters taken that final Easter weekend

Last year, my family got together as we often do on Easter weekend. We ate way too much food, engaged in a messed-up Easter egg hunt with eight people hiding them and one child hunting them, talked about things none of us can recall, snapped a few photos of the newest grandbabies, and then went home. An ordinary day, like so many Easters from the past—a little quieter maybe, a little more low-key because our parents are getting older, and so are we. But a milestone passed that day without any of us knowing it. The whisper was there, but we didn’t hear it over the loudness of everyday life. A week later, my dad began a downward spiral that landed him in the hospital the following weekend. Two weeks later, he was gone. During those final weeks, dad was rarely conscious or lucid. Easter had been our last family gathering with dad, our last chance to have real conversations with him.

And so there has been an edge to the approach of Easter this year. When a believer dies, we love to quote the words from I Corinthians 15:55: “Where, O death, is your victory? Where, O death, is your sting?” And I feel like we say it as if death should have no sting for the believer. But we were never created to die—physically or spiritually. We were never created to be apart from God or the ones we love. We were not made for that rupture. That is why death hurts even when it’s believers who must say goodbye to each other.

I read these verses again around the time my dad died, and I was struck by the context:

When the perishable has been clothed with the imperishable, and the mortal with immortality, then the saying that is written will come true: “Death has been swallowed up in victory. Where, O death, is your victory? Where, O death is your sting?” The sting of death is sin, and the power of sin is the law. But thanks be to God! He gives us victory through our Lord Jesus Christ.

The sting Christ’s death removes is not the grief of losing someone we love. That parting is real, and the pain runs deep because we were not created to know death. The sting Christ’s death removes is that sin holds no power over us in life or in death—it cannot separate us from God here or in eternity. Sin does separate us temporarily from those we love here on earth, but because of Christ, it cannot keep us separated from them in eternity. The victory Christ’s resurrection brings is that physical death cannot hold us. Death still comes to us, but we are with Christ and with our loved ones who have also placed their trust in Him.

Christ has absolutely conquered sin and death—that victory was complete on the first Easter. But our experience of that victory comes to completion when our perishable bodies are clothed with the imperishable, our mortal bodies with immortality. Until then, we stand in Christ, victorious over sin and death, but still touched by them on this earth in ways that break our hearts.

I often think about the days between Christ’s crucifixion and the resurrection, and I wonder about the thoughts and emotions of his family, friends, and followers as they lived through that time between. Christ’s death took most of them by surprise. Just as they hadn’t been expecting His death, they weren’t looking for His resurrection. They believed His death was final.

Can we imagine the staggering pain of saying goodbye to Jesus? Think of who He is to us—Love, Hope, Truth—and imagine being parted from His Presence. Could there be a greater grief than to say goodbye to the Lover of our souls? Their parting from Christ was temporary. His victory over death was never in doubt in the heavenly realms, but it was a bleak impossibility for those left behind. They had to live through the days between Death and Life. Christ had tenderly prepared them for this time, giving them all the truth and hope they needed to cling in faith to His resurrection. Yet instead of their grief being tempered by hope, they suffered as those who had no hope.

When someone we love dies, the rupture of our spirits rends us because we were created to love in a world without death. But where there is Christ, another dynamic is also at work. Death can part believers, but it cannot keep us apart. For those left behind, we are living through the days between death and life. They are excruciating. At times, it may seem that they will break us. But we can live these days as the disciples did—knowing the hope of resurrection but not living in its promise, “grieving like the rest of men, who have no hope” (I Thessalonians 4:13). Or, we can embrace the pain of parting, tenderly aware of the empty places left by those we love who have died, but grieving as people who “believe that Jesus died and rose again…” and “that God will bring with Jesus those who have fallen asleep in him.” (I Thessalonians 4:14)

We will all lose someone we love. Sin’s ripples spread wider and wider, and death catches us in its wake. It is not whether we will live the days between, but how we will live them. A few years ago, a dear friend very unexpectedly lost her husband. As I was writing a card to her one day, God brought the idea to mind to tell my friend that her husband was as much in her future as he was in her past. How He has graciously reminded me of that same truth in this last year—that my dad is not just a part of my past, he is in my future! I miss my dad, but oh how I want to grieve him in the hope of Christ, feeling the pain of his parting graciously blunted by the comforting certainty of sweet reunion. Our grief can showcase our pain and fears, or it can demonstrate the power of the Gospel at work in our lives.

We tend to think there is a great gulf between life and death, but it only seems that way. We think of it as a veil of blackest wool—heavy and barely penetrable. Instead, it’s more like the filmy strands of a cobweb. It seems thicker at some times in some places, and other times, it thins so much, we wonder that it holds together for the holes. Sometimes, it is surreal for me to think that my dad is gone from this earth. A strangely new sadness pierces me as I remember again that he is beyond this time and place. But other times, often in the stillness of night, I find myself wondering what he is doing in heaven at that very moment. And in those moments, it comes naturally to me to ask Jesus to say hello to my daddy for me. That is the delicate balance of living through the days between, waiting for Easter to come.