The loose stack of pictures slid from my Bible as I opened it and cascaded towards the floor, fanning out in an array of color. I quickly grabbed at them before they slid out of reach, careful to not bend them. I laughed to myself because this has happened before, usually in church. The photo collection has been growing since the early spring. I sat and flipped through them, distracted by the odd collection, yet moved by the significance of each picture.
There are pictures of my two sons with their beautiful wives, and pictures of my granddaughters that were taken the last time I saw them. Then there is a picture of Jermaine, Dave Myland and me taken last winter when we visited Dave in prison. The last picture is a young man named Justin. He is sitting sideways with a look of amusement towards the person taking the picture. He is handsome, dressed neatly in a polo shirt and jeans, in his early twenties, at a time in his life when good looks are easy and his smile emanates with confidence and a little pluck. Justin is dead now.
I met Justin’s mom not too long ago and she handed me the picture before she began to speak. She wanted me to know him and his life; twenty one years in twenty minutes and a picture; and then his death, the details so similar to my own son’s death. There had been a fight, he tried to help, two gunshots were fired and he lay dead; his mother’s only child. I let her speak, with my arm resting around her shoulder, the words like water pouring over a broken levy, knowing it was the best and only thing I could do. Much of it was incoherent. It had been only three weeks. The shock, the numbing confusion, and a crushing sorrow that had only begun to make its way down into the depths of her soul; I knew it well. We hugged and exchanged numbers.
Later that day another woman who had been at this meeting remarked how crazy this woman seemed; the irrational crying, the endless details of her son’s murder, the anger, then withdrawal. At one point she had run out of the room, weeping, only to return ten minutes later, composed.
“You weren’t like that, were you?” she asked. And I had to stop for a moment and think, because I don’t like to think of then. Yes I was.
Right away I remembered an awkward encounter at a Bible Conference two months after my son’s death. A kind woman sweetly enquired as to how I was and within thirty seconds I was describing how my son’s body looked on a stretcher. I didn’t even notice her backing away until she found a way to break free and leave me to ponder my own craziness. I may have made matters worse by then apologizing to her and bursting into tears. I was closer to real insanity than I ever wanted to be, I could feel it drawing me but I was too weak to fight.
When I was twenty I spent six weeks in a psychiatric unit of a New York City hospital. There are plenty of nuts in the Big Apple, so the unit was packed with a great variety of truly insane people. One man crouched on the floor all day sobbing, and he would often smash his head on the linoleum until it bled. The orderlies would drag him away and I would listen to the sobbing diminish as the medication tucked him in. Then crazy Susan would get naked and start jumping up and down on her bed, which always drew a crowd. I was broken, exhausted and alone but I knew I wasn’t really nuts like the man on the floor or Susan on the bed. There’s broken, then there’s gone. Gone crazy.
I think God made us to bear only so much. One of my pet peeves is when someone, usually another Christian smiles and says, “God only gives us what we can bear!’ (Side note: Why do Christians always feel like they have to make excuses for God?) First of all, that’s not what the Bible says. And second, who can “bear” their child’s murdered body on a stretcher? Picking out their casket? And who can bear a holocaust? A Rwandan genocide, watching your family hacked to death before your eyes? Who can bear holding your child while they slowly, agonizingly slip away from hunger? We can’t, and Jesus knows that. He knows all about pain.
“Cast your cares upon Him, for He cares for you.” 1 Peter 5:7. This is such good news for those of us who have held onto hope by a very small thread, knowing it could give any second. Several years ago, when waking up each day was so exhausting, I could feel the Holy Spirit speak to me and say,
“Come on, Robin, let’s go. I am here and I will help you carry this.” And He would take the heavy end.
I could only listen to this broken mother, knowing the gift of finding a soul who can listen and not run. And give lots of hugs. Hugs say, “You’re still one of us, you still belong to life even though it doesn’t feel that way.” Sometimes holding someone says more than a thousand fumbled words.
As I gently shuffled my pictures over my open Bible I realized God was showing me something, which, by the way, happens often when I open my Bible. It was if Jesus was next to me, saying, “See? I heard your cry for your two sons. And look at the wives I found for them!”
Without Jesus, it would’ve been a very different picture. Anger, bitterness, perhaps drug addiction or prison time. Or worse, maybe being unable to love anyone. They have beautiful, wide open smiles in the pictures and so do their wives.
Next, the picture of Dave Myland, Pastor Jermaine and me. This picture always makes me smile in awe and wonder. I think I love God’s redemptive power more than anything else on earth. Beauty for ashes. ( Read “The Visit” for more.)
Justin. I keep his picture close to remember his mom and pray for her. It’s a long, hard road. Thank you, Jesus that I can comfort others with the same comfort you have given me. (2 corinthians 1:4)It’s a gift and I don’t take it lightly.
I spend the most time looking at the pictures of my granddaughters, Brooklynn and Olive, because their entry into my life brought me more than hope, more than promise. It was unexpected joy, new life, and God’s legacy to my children and my children’s children.
As I tuck the photos back into my Bible, my heart feels revived and filled with peace and a strange excitement towards the future. Jesus alone has not only navigated me through, but He has brought me into a new place, He has restored my soul.
God has not given us a spirit of fear, but of power, and love and a sound mind. 2 Timothy 1:7. A sound mind. Amazing.
True courage is not in self-determination; it’s not even in the battle because I hide behind Jesus in the midst of mine. I think real courage is stepping back into life after you’ve been knocked out. And not just hanging in there. Step into joy, into its fullness and don’t be afraid to go deeper. And then a little farther still. You can trust Him. He is there, Jehovah Shamma, the Lord who is there through it all.
You will show me the path of life; in Your presence is fullness of joy. At Your right hand are pleasures forevermore. Psalm16: 11