You left in Autumn,
The leaves were turning.
I walked down streets of orange and gold.
I see your sweet smile,
I hear your laughter
You’re still beside me everyday,
‘cause I know you by heart.
- Dianne Scanlon, Eve Nelson
Today marks Five Years without John. This day five years ago marked the beginning for many of those who loved him, of a walk through a dark, uncharted territory of grief. While addressing the overwhelming crowd who came to sit with us at his funeral, I remember saying, “When someone you love is taken from you at such a young age and so suddenly, there really is no silver lining.”
That is certainly how it felt. I’ve lost grandparents I’ve loved, and though I’ve felt sadness because they are loved and missed, there has also been a sense of celebration for a life well lived. It’s pretty difficult to muster up these same feelings for someone who is just starting to come into his own.
This evening as my two kiddos are tucked into their cozy beds (and sleeping, I hope), I’m reminded of a lyric from a song my sister Sarah and brother-in-law Nat led at John’s funeral, “Whatever may pass and whatever comes before me let me be singing when the evening comes.” (Matt Redman, “10 000 Reasons) Also, I can’t shake the words of Psalm 30:5 “Though the sorrow may last for the night His joy comes with the morning”. Yes. How beautiful this thought is and I have found it to be true. Thank you Jesus.
I now feel compelled to share something extra I’ve struggled with in all of this; something I’ve shared over the years with a select few individuals. Until now, I’ve mostly kept these thoughts to myself because I couldn’t see how my extra layer of pain was going to do anything but add to that of those already grief-stricken. I share now because that struggle has a happy ending, and perhaps my journey to get to this point, will be helpful for those of you struggling with something similar. The night has been long but I’m starting to feel the morning sunshine, and I’m happy to report I’ve learned to be singing when the evening comes. Maybe this share will help someone else sing again too.
Now to lift the bandage off my ugly scar…
A couple hours after the news broke I was on my way home to Blyth with Kyle and my brother Colin when my mind experienced a brief moment of quiet from the swirling thoughts. Then THE Question…
”So…Where is John now?”
At that moment, the implications of my belief in the Bible’s explanation of the two possible locations for us to spend all of eternity became extremely personal.
Here it is in a nutshell:
Jesus said, “I am the Way the Truth and the Life and no one comes to the Father except through me.” (John 14:6). This sounds pretty exclusive, and it is, I suppose, except that when God in human form sacrificed Himself on the cross, He paid for ALL of our junk: yours, mine, convicted criminals, all of us. This Forgiveness and Salvation has an incredibly high price, and in His love for us, recognizing that no amount of ‘right living’ and sacrifice could ever atone for our messiness, He paid for it himself. It’s a free gift extended to all of us.
But here’s the thing: like an unopened Christmas present, it’s not claimed until we choose to unwrap it. The Bible teaches that those of us who choose to recognize our need of Him and turn to Him will get to enjoy eternity in His presence (aka Heaven), and those of us who resist Him will ultimately get what they’ve been fighting for all along, eternity without Him. (Hell). The Creator wants so desperately for each of us to turn to Him, that the ‘yes’ for you is hanging on his lips already. It is NEVER His desire for any of us to end up apart from Him (2 Peter 3:9), but in His great love for you and me, will never force us to say Yes to Him, He wants us to choose this on our own.
So there lies the rub… I believe the Bible to be the inspired Word of God, and this is what the it teaches… but if that’s really what I believe, then John’s fate has been decided around 2:00 am on November 15th 2011. He was gone. I couldn’t even pray for him anymore. His soul was alive, somewhere. But I couldn’t be sure of where that was. I couldn’t be sure that he was safe with my Savior.
So, Where was John?
The unanswered question began gnawing at my trust in my Jesus, and ultimately at my belief in the Goodness of God.
Just a little sub-text…
I’m a follower of Jesus; often a lagging, falling behind and scraping both my knees, needing to be turned around and hauled back onto the right-track kind of follower, but a follower none-the-less. Often when I meet people this gets worked into the conversation in a surface-level way. I often walk away from these conversations feeling crumby because they usually focus on denomination, doctrine and the charity work my church family is involved with, and although worthy of discussion, these things are not the focus of my faith. Any conversation about my faith that doesn’t involve my friendship with my Jesus is completely missing the point.
Here is what I really wish I could share during these conversations…
I have the immense privilege of leading a room-full of believers in worshipping Jesus about three times a month. The incredible feeling of freedom and boldness that comes over me as I raise my arms, close my eyes and lift my voice in worship and enter into His presence is tangible and thick. It’s like feeling the rays of sunshine on your back as the sun suddenly breaks out from behind the clouds. The overwhelming freedom and joy in those moments is incredible. It’s as though Stephanie who struggles with depression and social anxiety is suddenly transformed into Stephanie 2.0, confident, bold, joyful, and more who she is supposed to be. Some people would describe this experience as ‘positive energy’. Call it what you will. I call Him the Holy Spirit.
You can’t convince me He doesn’t exist. I experience His presence daily. Dismiss me as crazy if you must, but He talks to me. Seriously. It’s not as weird as it sounds. I would be so happy to expand on that sometime if you’re curious. He’s my source of strength, wisdom, comfort, and peace.
My GREATEST desire is for those I love to know His friendship too.
This desire often brings me to my knees. This desire fuels my passion when I lead congregations in singing, “You’re rich in love and you’re slow to anger, your name is great and your heart is kind. For all your goodness I will keep on singing. 10 000 reasons for my heart to find.” How badly I want all of my family members to know His friendship and this incredible Living Hope.
And so I pray.
But then, Nov. 15, 2011. Johnny B was no more. I didn’t know where he was. I didn’t know if he had been given a chance to understand the choice ahead of him and that all of eternity was at stake. And I couldn’t even pray for him anymore. Not only that but my Source of Comfort and Peace knew this was coming, and CHOSE NOT TO STOP IT.
Where was John?
The question left me reeling. My trust in Jesus was seriously damaged.
My prayers were reduced to unintelligible choked out sobs. I pulled myself from the worship team and sat near the back of the auditorium on Sunday mornings at my home church sitting in paralyzed silence during worship time, listening to my church family sing songs about God’s Goodness, and how He rescues us, the whole time my mind racing, “But did you rescue John? Is he safe? Is he with you? I don’t even care about my own salvation right now, DID YOU SAVE JOHN?”
Staying in that mental head space was too intense and eventually I came out of it enough to talk to Jesus again. I started feeling panicked at the thought that another family member could die unexpectedly and I may not be sure he/she was with Jesus. I decided to do a 21 day Daniel fast (consume only fruits/vegetables and water) and spend my usual food-prep time praying for one person I was particularly ripped-up over to know Jesus as a Friend. On day 11 of my fast I was on knees, face-down on the floor praying with such urgency my body was starting to hurt, when I felt Him whisper,
“Stephanie… STEPHANIE! Stop. STOP. I hear you. I’ve got this. Him. I’ve got Him. Go eat something.”
“Yes. Trust me. Go eat something.”
Conceding defeat, I ate a hunk of pepperoni from the fridge, plunked myself on the couch, my head and heart sore but finally quiet.
Fast forward to just a few weeks ago…
Over tea one evening, my friend Julia graciously shared with me a few stories from her life of being thrown into sudden grief and the comfort she had found while walking through these difficult seasons. A few days later she lent me a small book, saying it fit right in with our conversation from the night before. As it turns out, Ian McCormack’s story was the salve my festering wound needed.
Here’s the abridged version:
Ian McCormack was stung by five box Jellyfish while diving off the coast of Mauritius. Although one sting can sometimes be enough to kill someone within five minutes, he remained conscious (albeit slowly becoming paralyzed), for a while. He was clinically dead for 15-20 minutes and came to when his body was being prepared for the morgue. His story, “A Glimpse of Eternity”, as told by Jenny Sharkey, recounts his experience with the Divine, Heaven and Hell during that hour.
As I read his story, I was reminded of a few truths about God’s character. His loves us individually, intensely, and will chase after us to save us (Luke 15: 3-6), He can fit a whole lot of conversation/revelation into a small amount of time (2 Peter 3:8), and that ANYONE who just cries out to him will be scooped into His loving arms (Romans 10:13).
I started to feel a new flicker of hope. Those few minutes John was awake before he died would have been enough for Jesus to speak clearly to Him, for John to choose safety, for him to take the hand extended to him. Even the time between consciousness and his passing would have been more than enough for the two of them to work out their stuff. And if this is true, (and I’m convinced it is), that means there’s a good chance I’m going to see Johnny B’s beautiful smile and hear his delicious laugh again someday. Thank you Jesus.
Although I have this reassurance to cling to now, I’m not going to let up on praying for people I love to know my Jesus. The freedom and joy and peace that is a direct result of His friendship is life transforming, and of course I want that for those I love. But my conversations with Him are going to be less panicky now. I can rest in His Goodness once more. For someone who takes medication for anxiety, this is of pretty huge importance, haha.
So yes, five years later I’m happy to report I’ve found my silver lining. It took me a while to see it, but I’m thankful it’s within my sights now. The ugly scar left by grief is finally healed and the long night is over. And you can be sure that today, this girl will have found her song when the evening comes.