I once watched a documentary about a little town in Iceland situated at the base of an active volcano. The town is absolutely breathtaking, rolling hills of vibrant green speckled with pristine white cottages. The black basalt rock of the mountains contrasts starkly against all the life surrounding it. What is incredible about this town is that the volcano erupts every few years. The townspeople evacuate, then come back and rebuild. The molten lava burns up everything in its path. However, from the ashes of that mass destruction, the soil is so enriched that everything grows back fuller and more lush than before.
The days, weeks, and months following the suicide of my step father can only be described as ashes. It seemed as if our lives had been engulfed in flames for three years, and his death was the final eruption. The devastation was everywhere. There are not adequate words to describe the destruction. God is no stranger to heart-wrenching devastation. He has watched the ones He loves choose death and pain over and over again ever since the Garden.
However, the beauty of His love, His truth, is that it shines brightest in the darkest of days. In the midst of ashes He is creating new life.
Suffering and brokenness are an inevitable part of life on earth. Walking with Jesus doesn’t mean we are exempt from pain, but instead that we have a loving Advocate to walk with us through that pain. He can give meaning and purpose to the scars we carry. He never wastes a moment. It can all be used for the good of others and for His glory.
From the ashes, my mom attended college for the first time. (She and I were students at the same community college in the same year). She earned a teaching degree and is now thriving as one of the most beloved and passionate fifth grade teachers in her community. God rebuilt the shattered walls of her heart; He redeemed the joyless years. I see her becoming more of her true, sunshine self every day.
I struggled with forgiving my step dad. It is difficult to forgive someone who is no longer alive. It felt as though he had entered our lives for three years, shaken everything up, then checked out. One day as I was driving down a long Wyoming road, the sun was setting in front of me. Brilliant shades of pink and gold shot out in every direction. In that moment, I felt God saying He loved me as His precious child, and that my step dad was His child, too. I pictured my step dad as a little boy, sweet and blonde and carefree. I wept as I drove. I felt the warm release of forgiveness fill my heart. Viewing someone the way God views him softens accusations, gives grace when bitterness wants to reign, and brings compassion that cannot come from anywhere but the source of compassion Himself.
In the next several years, as I turned twenty, and then twenty-one, God continued to strip away the high walls I had built around my heart. He kept pursuing me, revealing more and more of His goodness and faithfulness, proving time and again that I could trust Him. I would often physically hold out my hand in an open palm and ask Him to keep going, keep renewing me. It hurt. My pride was rocked. My self-righteousness was exposed. But much like the ash covered soil after a volcano, fresh life sprung up from the depths in ways I never knew were possible.
One summer as I was volunteering at a camp, I met a youth pastor from Denver named Aaron. Before he and I ever had a full conversation, he caught my eye in the back of the chapel. I watched him with a group of guys; I think they were the tech team. Everyone else seemed agitated, talking with big hand motions and loud voices. But Aaron stood there, one hand on his chin, nodding thoughtfully. When he spoke, it was quiet, but everyone in the group gave their full attention. I was intrigued by this quiet, strong guy. Intrigued and intimidated.
The intimidation came from Aaron’s story. I knew he had been married before, and he was eight years older than me. His first wife had tragically died in a car accident two years into their marriage. Looking back, I can see how his story is really part of what drew me to him. Aaron carried himself in such a way that you could tell he had walked closely with God. Not in a holier than thou way, but in the way that he was humble, real, and had a depth to his eyes that made me swoon. I wondered how a man like that could ever be interested in a mess like me. I didn’t have to wonder for too long; he asked me out three months after camp.
We had our first date in September. While we sat in the sun on a grassy hill in Ft. Collins, Colorado (our halfway meeting point), I was sure to let him know he probably didn’t want to date me because I had this messy family and this tendency to numb my pain and that I definitely was not pastor’s wife material. Apparently he saw something in me that I could not, because we were married six months later. Living as the second wife is complicated, whether it’s death or divorce, there are struggles. I was a highly insecure, scared girl. I constantly feared that I wouldn’t measure up to Aaron’s first wife. The first five years of our marriage were amazing in so many ways; we welcomed our three boys into the world. But those years are also tinged with my insecurity. I had a breaking point one day when I realized I didn’t fully trust Aaron’s love. And in that, I wasn’t fully trusting God. Could I believe God would care for me, even if my worst fears were realized? Even if I didn’t measure up? I was drawn to Habakkuk 3, where the writer describes his “even if.”
“Though the fig tree should not blossom, nor fruit be on the vines, the produce of the olive fail and the fields yield no food, the flock be cut off from the fold and there be no herd in the stalls,
yet I will rejoice in the Lord, I will take joy in the God of my salvation. God, the Lord, is my strength; he makes my feet like the deer’s; he makes me tread on my high places.”
Habakkuk 3:18-19 (emphasis added)
From then on, I chose to let go of comparison and instead to trust with abandon. It was a pivotal moment in my spiritual walk. Before then, I always had one foot out the door in case I needed to “take care of myself” again. My Habakkuk moment propelled toward true freedom, and within that, the ability to fully flourish.
Through all these years, all the ups and downs of my parents remarrying other people, my step dad’s death, my marriage, and entering into motherhood, my relationship with my dad had been a rocky rollercoaster. He chose not to attend my wedding. That cut deep. He didn’t come meet my babies at the hospital, that cut deeper. I wanted him so badly to be present, to care, and he just didn’t seem to.
By the time I was in my late twenties he was nearing fifty and his alcoholism had only gotten worse over the years. I had moved from Wyoming to Arizona, where Aaron was now the solo pastor of a church revitalization. I talked with my dad occasionally on the phone. Our relationship was stable, but lacked depth. It was safer to maintain emotional distance in order to protect my own heart. He had said awful, terrible things to me and about me over the years, so I was happy we were at least in a place where we could be civil with one another.
On my thirtieth birthday, he called to tell me he was in the hospital with liver failure. Two months later, I flew out to see him. He was out of the hospital. We took the boys to the same park he had taken us to as kids. My young, brilliant, athletic dad could barely stand for minutes at a time. He couldn’t remember things I had told him only moments before. His eyes were sunken and his skin was yellow. His lush black hair was overgrown and greasy. My heart broke for my dad. When I dropped him off at his apartment, I said I’d be back in the fall for a wedding, he said he was excited to see the boys again. I held his quivering hand and looked into his green eyes, really looked, and told him how much I loved him. He paused, then squeezed my hand and said, “Love you, too kiddo,” just like he had since I was five years old.
Dad died on a gorgeous day in September. All four of us kids, his mom, and two brothers were by his side. The hospice center wheeled his bed out into the sunshine. We sang him his favorite songs. I laid my head on his chest. He smelled like my childhood. I could hear his heart beating. Slower, slower, still.
I don’t know if my dad is with Jesus. But I do know God is good. God is just. God is merciful. I don’t need to know the condition of my dad’s eternity in order to trust in my heavenly Father. I miss my dad every day. I miss who he could have been. I don’t hate him anymore. I don’t feel bitterness towards him. I see his face in my three little boys. I hear his humor in their cleverness. I have come to a place where I’m happy I see him in myself, and I’m proud to be his daughter.
Hope rises from ashes. Beauty is the nature of God’s story. He is my joy and my strength. He is so good.
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