The Pit of Despair and the Long Journey Out

Well, it’s been years since my last post on this blog. I have had this written for months now, but haven’t had the will or courage to click on “publish”. Maybe some days my faith is just not as strong as others. Quite honestly, I wasn’t even sure I would post here again.  I wasn’t sure what else there would be to tell.

But our God is always at work, so here I am again. A lot has happened….

January, 2016
I was sitting in a café on the other side of the world – literally. I had not planned on this trip, yet somehow the Lord quickly orchestrated the details before I had time to think my way out of it. So, there I was in Cambodia. Our small team had visited poverty-stricken widows and orphans in a spiritually dark, primarily Buddhist country. Yet, I couldn’t stop thinking about a message my friend back home had sent the day before. It simply said “there is beauty there if you look for it”.
She was right. There was beauty there, even among the darkest of places. When I read this verse from Isaiah 61, I knew this was the right one for our devotion I was leading that day. It became a theme verse of sorts for the rest of our trip:

The Spirit of the Sovereign Lord is on me,
because the Lord has anointed me
to proclaim good news to the poor.
He has sent me to bind up the brokenhearted,
to proclaim freedom for the captives
and release from darkness for the prisoners,
to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor
and the day of vengeance of our God,
to comfort all who mourn,
and provide for those who grieve in Zion—

to bestow on them a crown of beauty
instead of ashes,
the oil of joy
instead of mourning,
and a garment of praise
instead of a spirit of despair.
They will be called oaks of righteousness,
a planting of the Lord
for the display of his splendor.
They will rebuild the ancient ruins
and restore the places long devastated;
they will renew the ruined cities
that have been devastated for generations.

 

October, 2016
A few years before my Cambodia trip, I spent some time in despair. It’s a horrible place. I heard despair described as a place much darker than sadness because there is NO HOPE. So true.

We can’t do much without hope. If you have read the classic “The Pilgrim’s Progress”, you may remember that Bunyan writes about Christian being trapped in Doubting-Castle as a prisoner of Giant Despair.

Despair (n.): the complete loss or absence of hope

How did he get out of the dungeon? He suddenly realized that he had the key to get out all along, and it was called “Promise”.

Those of us who have faith in Christ do have hope and have been promised some things. So what are God’s promises?

I can’t tell you they usually involve getting back what you lost,physical healing, material wealth, job success, or personal contentment. His promises don’t always mean getting prayer answered the way we wish. In our culture, even if we don’t subscribe to the teachings of the Prosperity Gospel, we still often believe those things subconsciously. Unfortunately, those false “promises” don’t really hold up in the face of trials. All they do is cause disappointment and bitterness towards God. I wonder if we have a harder time grasping this than those widows and orphans in Cambodia who hold tightly to the promises of Jesus and nothing else.

Another passage from Isaiah outlines the core of what I think is His strongest promise to us:

Isaiah 43:2 (NIV)
When you pass through the waters,
I will be with you;
and when you pass through the rivers,
they will not sweep over you.
When you walk through the fire,
you will not be burned;
the flames will not set you ablaze.

Notice that this text doesn’t promise that He will keep us from the waters, from the rivers, or from the fire. He could of course, but that’s not His greatest desire for us. This verse speaks of His presence and His protection in the midst of difficulty. I believe that’s His biggest promise to us.

I wish I could say that I have stronger faith over these past 3+ years, but the fact is I still struggle. I have maybe more questions instead of less. Even last fall, there was a paradox of emotions fighting within my heart. Tuesday, October 4th, was my birthday, but it was also the 4th anniversary of what was unarguably the worst day of my life – the day we had the doctor’s appointment where we got the bad news about Lael’s grim diagnosis. I fight with God on this one a lot. After all, did He really have to let that fall on my birthday of all days? Then there was Wednesday, which was the 7th anniversary of what was probably the happiest (at least the top 2) day of my life – the birth of my daughter Madisyn. My emotions can be schizophrenic at best.

But yet, there is still beauty He is weaving throughout those ashes and the oil of gladness He is using to restore. It hit me that while I still don’t understand things, Jesus loves to “build up ancient ruins” and “repair ruined cities”, so maybe I was looking at it the wrong way. Perhaps long ago, knowing how horrific October 4th, 2012 would be, He set out on a path to redeem the day by cradling it on either side by gracious life and love. His loving plan included orchestrating events so that Madisyn would arrive 8 days late on the day after my birthday, exactly 3 years prior to that horrific day. Then this past year, exactly 4 years later, on October 3rd, He orchestrated another new life to come into the Shoemaker family about 5 days early, yet right on time.

Welcome to the family, Nora Lael Shoemaker!nora

Josh and Brittany have shown us a great honor by carrying on Lael’s name and therefore ensuring that her story will not be forgotten. Our Father uses His people to carry out His promises, to restore, to bring beauty. And although there is still a long journey to go in the healing, and it may never be complete here on earth, it is comforting to know that for us He has  lovingly punctuated both sides of October 4th with beautiful life and the signature of His presence.

If you are a follower of Jesus, keep looking for His presence. He is there, working to restore all things in His time.
That’s His greatest promise.

IMG_1083

Advertisements

Is it really a good Friday?

I wish I could say the passing of a year has taken care of all the hurts and questions, and that things are now back to normal. The truth is that some events in life change you in such a way that they become interwoven into the fabric of your soul and who you are, and normal does not ever again look the same as what you thought it would. The loss of a baby is certainly one of those things.

Cemetery

Over the past months, I have prayed that God would show His hand in our situation. Not that He will reveal His ultimate purpose for Lael on this side of eternity, but that we would just see Him still there and at work. And now I find that He is and was present even in the coordination of the timing of the events of Lael’s short life, so I won’t pass by the symbolism of this year, the one year anniversary of her departure from this earth. It’s Good Friday today. It also is the same date last year that Lael died. And guess what? Easter Sunday this year is the same date that we buried her small body last year. We thought we were randomly picking the day our child would die last year, but He knew. Oh yes, He is present in those details, reminding us that He has a plan.

Some of the past months have been the hardest for us. Some days I get caught up in today and the happenings of this world and forget there is a bigger plan. I remember a sermon series our pastor did right around the time Lael was born last year about how we live in a three-day story. I am again reminded how the disciples of Jesus must have felt on that Friday and Saturday, which is where we have been living in our own family’s story. How confusing and dark it must have been for them. We have the rest of the story now, the story of the Easter resurrection, so we can cheat a little. We know how it turns out. But they didn’t really know, even though Jesus himself told them. They still lost hope and forgot about Sunday. Life in the Friday and Saturday is dark and depressing. So I am reminded today to keep the hope of Sunday, that day that I can’t yet see but have been told is coming. I cling to the hope that a Sunday story will someday be revealed in the story of Lael Faith Shoemaker and her family.

You may have heard the song “Oceans” by Hillsong. We first heard it last fall, and it has meant so much to us.  I love the lyrics in the first verse:

IMG_5559You call me out upon the waters

The great unknown, where feet may fail
And there I find You in the mystery
In oceans deep, my faith will stand

Have you ever been called out into deep waters? I won’t pretend that my feet haven’t failed nor that my faith hasn’t faltered. But I love the fact that only through God’s sustaining grace, my faith will stand.
It reminds me of the verse in 2 Corinthians 4:
We are hard pressed on every side, but not crushed; perplexed, but not in despair; persecuted, but not abandoned; struck down, but not destroyed.
We are not destroyed! That is encouraging news.

In this family, we are being called to abandon a former way of thinking and to press on to deeper truth that comes from knowing our Lord even more. It’s a scary place to go. It’s a place I want to run from because getting there is an ugly path. It requires pressing on through fear, despair, sadness. It requires letting go of self-reliance, comfort, and cultural expectations of what a “successful life” looks like. It’s often lonely and confusing. But turning back offers no hope, so we press on towards His calling, where hope abounds. We try to remember that we are only in Friday, but Sunday is still on the way.

To those of you still praying for us, thank you a million times. It’s comforting to know we are not forgotten. I will end with an earthly picture of the promise of new life. It’s the dogwood tree we planted last fall in beautiful pink bloom. Right on time.
Have a good Friday!

Lael's Dogwood Tree

Lael’s Dogwood Tree

Remembering

The last post was on my birthday, and my daughter Madisyn’s birthday was the following day. It’s always a busy time for us, but this year there were some sad memories as well. Through a series of events that lined up just right, no doubt due to God’s gracious and perfect timing, we also had some very special opportunities to remember and honor Lael on that same weekend.

First of all, a sweet group of ladies in my weekly Bible study group thoughtfully ordered a pink dogwood tree for us to plant in our yard. It just so happened that this is the best time of year to plant a dogwood tree, and ours was ready to pick up on the Saturday of Madisyn’s birthday. It should bloom in the spring around Lael’s birthday, along with some azaleas, a cherry tree, and several other plants given by other dear friends. Here are some pictures of us planting it. Notice that we had a bit of help!

IMG_1483

IMG_1478

The coolest thing is that our friend Kim Schwartz and her mom were in Israel this same week and guess what? They planted three trees there – one in memory of Lael. How special she is to have trees planted in the same week on almost opposite sides of the world!

October is also National Pregnancy and Infant Loss Awareness Month. Atlanta’s Northside Hospital Perinatal Bereavement Office hosted their annual Atlanta Walk to Remember on the following Sunday, October 6th. The ladies who work there were so kind to us during our journey this past year, and surprisingly asked us to join three other families onstage for the dove release at the end of the program. That special gesture is something that will always mean a lot to us. At the Walk, it was touching to see all the families who have been affected by loss of little ones way too soon. Here are some photos from the event:

Butterfly wall to remember all the babies

Butterfly wall to remember all the babies

Big sister writing Lael's name on the sidewalk in the park.

Big sister writing Lael’s name on the sidewalk in the park.

Dropping petals of remembrance into the Chattahoochee River

Dropping petals of remembrance into the Chattahoochee River

All the love and sorrow these petals represent.

All the love and sorrow these petals represent.

Getting ready to release the dove.
Getting ready to release the dove.

Somewhere Over the Rainbow

Somewhere Over the Rainbow

Reflections from the Worst Day Ever

Hello Friends,

Today is my birthday. It is also the 1-year anniversary of what is probably the worst day of my life. As you can guess, it is a bittersweet day.

I have seen lots of blogs over the past year and am often reminded that I should also be posting about things like how to decorate my house, how I can keep from going insane while keeping up with 3 kids, or what delicious recipes I cooked this week for my family. Instead, I am writing of things more dark and heavy. You may wish to stop reading now and flip back to one of those cheery, light-hearted blogs. But if you wish to travel with me into a place where things don’t always make sense and are not really that fun or funny, keep on reading.

I hope you have never had the same experience my husband and I had a year ago today, but if you have, you know how it goes. There is that happy moment when the ultrasound tech comes into the room and you are so excited that you are about to see one of life’s greatest miracles right there on the screen. The conversation at first is the usual light banter as the tech applies the gel and starts doing what she always does. But then the room suddenly starts feeling cold, clinical, and sterile as your stomach tightens and you realize something is wrong. She has tried not to let on, but you know it right away; no matter how professional or trained she is, there is no hiding it. You know it because the conversation has suddenly slowed and become less cordial, and she is focusing a little too long on one area of your baby. You can see the concern on her face as she finally says “well, let me go get the doctor”. She hasn’t said anything really, but you know.

Full Backup 06-07-13 220

Ironically, my birthday 4 years ago was the start of one of the most joyous and blessed times of my life – my daughter Madisyn was born the next morning on October 5th. Strange that the highs and lows coincide this way right around this time of year. But I was thinking, isn’t that how life is? Good things, then bad; health, then sickness; laughter, then tears; rainbows, then rain.

I don’t  understand why that ultrasound appointment just happened to end up on my birthday last year; perhaps I thought that along with all my prayers, God surely wouldn’t allow something bad to happen on that day. But He did.

If you are going through something right now that makes you question the goodness of God as I have, here are your choices if you are a follower of Jesus:

1. Keep being mad at God and walk away from Him. You don’t understand Him, you don’t know Him like you thought, you don’t love Him because He obviously doesn’t care anything about you. He has made you suffer while blessing others around you who don’t deserve it, and you won’t follow a God like that.

OR

2. Pray for the grace to seek Him even more, knowing that although He may not give answers, there are none elsewhere. Ask Him to show you who He really is instead of who you thought He was. Choose to look to Him for healing, being honest with Him along the way by letting Him know that you don’t trust Him like you once did.

If you choose the second, you will find that He will provide grace through your honesty. He will provide healing. It won’t be quick, it won’t be easy. But you will slowly start to see that somehow there is still beauty. Just as in the story of the cross, when Jesus himself was asking His Father to allow it to pass so He would not have to suffer, there is beauty in the restoration. The cross is both the most tragic and sad story every told, and yet the most beautiful, hopeful one ever told. Allow Him to restore that beauty and hope in your life.

We aren’t there yet; there is still a long way to go. As we start this process of moving through “this time last year…”, we truly are counting on the fact that His mercies are new each day.

Love to you all, and thanks for continuing with us on this path of healing.

A New Season

Hello Friends,

It’s hard to know what to write at this point, but I suppose many of you are curious as to how we are doing. Jonathan has mentioned several times that another update on this blog might be in order because we don’t want to leave things “just hanging”, but the truth is that a lot is still “just hanging” and probably will be that way as long as we are on this side of eternity. I know from speaking with people who have been through similar circumstances that there are questions that will never have answers, no matter how long we ask them.

So it’s time to be real and share with you that there is no perfection in this right now. There is no way to tie all this up in a nice package and give you a summary of what happened and why, as much as we would love to. At Lael’s graveside service, a special friend did a beautiful job singing “I Will Carry You” by Selah. In the book that is the story behind the song, Angie Smith writes that “it is easy to be a believer when He gives you a miracle”. That’s so true, but He did not give her baby a miracle, nor did He choose to give ours one. So now what do we do with that, when we are not in that place of “easy” but in a new season requiring trust and faith like never before?

Lael was born on the first day of spring. I returned to work about a month ago on what just happened to be the last day of spring. It was one more piece of things trying to return to normal, when normal is not the same any longer.  It’s hard to begin to describe what this is like if you haven’t been there before. If you have, no description is needed. How do we move forward through the feeling of panic constantly just below the surface that threatens to resurface any moment with the knowledge that we are not really in control of much in this life? Sure, we have illusions of control and seek it as much as we can as humans, but everything can be lost in a moment’s time and there may be nothing we can do.

The reality is that this is a time of grieving our loss and a testing of faith that now goes beyond just waiting to see what God has planned to really taking a hard look at what we believe about His character and plans for us as His children. For me, this experience has been more spiritual than anything.  It has required that I hold onto what I know is true about God’s character instead of what I feel.  I need a lot of reminders these days that God’s ways are not ours and that He does love those who know Him, regardless of how it feels. Recently I shopped in a new store opened by some friends. They carry a lot of faith-based items, and I found a bracelet with a charm that I knew I had to have. If you see me anytime soon, you might see me wearing it. On the charm is written “He Loves Me” and on the back is John 15;9. Never more have I needed such a visible reminder of God’s love.  It’s a strange irony that even though right now I feel my faith is stronger than ever and feel more of a connection with Heaven than ever, it’s still often hard to make it through church when everyone else around is singing about His love.  Sundays can be some of the hardest days during this new season.

Cemetery (1)

A few weeks ago, we went to a support group meeting for parents who have lost children of all ages. Each person in that group has been slapped in the face with the reality of mortality and forced to address the question of eternity. It is a club we were all thrust into, but none of us wanted to join. The sadness and pain in the room was almost unbearable, and all I could think about as everyone took turns telling their story of loss is how this is not supposed to happen.  I once again had a glimpse into the weight of sorrow that was the very reason God set in motion a plan to send Jesus to earth.  Many in the group lost children who were teenagers or young adults, and as I listened to them express gratitude for the time they did have with their child, I was at the same time secretly thankful I did not have longer to become attached to mine, knowing what the outcome would be. But what I am most thankful for is the promise that we will be with our child again.

So what we have to do with this right now is keeping looking to the one place where answers might be found, though they may not, and not to places we know there are no answers ever. It was impossible to save mankind from the sorrow of this world after the fall of man, but it was possible to offer us hope in One who understands our suffering. I pray those other parents in the support group have the source of strength my family does, and I hope you have it as well. Otherwise, there really is no hope. As for us, we hold onto the promises of God that one day all will be redeemed and made right. And we need your prayers as much as ever.

When I cannot have the answer/That I’m waiting to demand/I’ll remember You are God/
And everything is in Your hands/With your hands You put the sun and moon and stars up
in the sky/For the sake of love You hung Your own Son on the cross to die/And You
are faithful/Yes, You are faithful/When You give, when You take away even then/Great
is Your faithfulness/Great is Your faithfulness/And with everything inside of me/
I am choosing to believe/You’re faithful

−Steven Curtis Chapman, “Faithful”

Family

The services we had for our beautiful Lael Faith on Saturday were blessed by God’s favor and are bittersweet memories we will treasure forever. We miss her so much already. It is hard to even start to process all the emotions and events that have taken place over the past month. But our heavenly Father, who loves us and loves Lael, is still showing us that He will take care of us for being obedient to His will and has worked out a plan for us to have some time for rest and reflection this week. There will be more thoughts to come as we process all that has happened, but for now we need to offer a “thank you”. There are so many of you who have overwhelmed us with your kindness and mercy, and we do not even know where to start to thank some of you. However, the “thank you” today is for our families – our parents and siblings:

At times throughout our journey with Lael, we have heard comments over and over from different people and realize that we need to take note of the message being sent to us. One of those messages we heard over and over and over recently was how loving our family is and how amazing the love is that you have for us and Lael.  Jonathan and I assumed that is just how families should be – there for us no matter how hard it is – but we now realize just how blessed we are by you. This has been difficult for you as well, and we wish you did not have to experience this great loss either, but you have been a testimony of a loving family and have touched many people also. We might not have thought much about it except that many of the comments came from those who deal with families in difficult circumstances on a regular basis: our pastor, the funeral home staff, and NICU nurses and staff. The way you have loved our daughter during her 1 month on earth has amazed us. We want you to know that we appreciate your love, and most of all, that we will show that same sacrificial love that you have shown us to Madisyn and wish we could have shown it longer to Lael.  Take comfort in knowing that although we love her and you have loved her, she is being shown a love far beyond what we could express in our mortal lives on earth. It is hard to imagine her being loved more, but she is now experiencing perfect love in the arms of Jesus.

Here are some pictures so you can see an example of what I have written about. These were taken during Lael’s last hours with us, when she was free from all the tubes and equipment. Although I don’t have a good picture right now, I wanted to also give a very special thank you to my mom, who made the most beautiful home-going dress ever for Lael. It was made with tenderness and love. That pink dress trimmed with lace and covered with pearls made her look like the angel that she was.
IMG_3829IMG_1167IMG_3774IMG_1173IMG_3807IMG_3786IMG_3826IMG_3833

Services

Family will receive friends from 1-2 pm this Saturday, April 20:

Mayes Ward-Dobbins Funeral Home & Crematory Macland Chapel
3940 Macland Road
Powder Springs, GA 30127
(770) 943-1511

A private graveside service will be held at Kennesaw Memorial Park Cemetery at 2:30 pm.

Friends are also invited to join the family at 4 pm:

Pleasant Grove Baptist Church
1167 Angham Rd
Hiram, GA 30141