I’ve written a book several editors like but won’t publish about how dying is essential to the emotional, spiritual, and even sexual health of marriage and how I discovered this during the multiple times my husband’s physical health made death relevant. Here’s a brief laundry list of those times:
Cancer at 23, when I was his 21-year-old almost wife. Heart attack at 38, when I was 36 and the mother of his four, young children. First of many heart stents in his late 40s when I was in my mid-40s. And then at 52, when I wasn’t quite 50, major heart surgery. A tiny little stroke and a carotid artery stent at 56, when I was 54.
I’ve come to a point in my life where I cannot fake anything anymore … when I’m terrified, I say it too loud, and if I’m overcome with fear I can’t help but show it. I don’t wear a crisis well. The cumulative effect represented by that little stroke kind of did me in for a while. For a while.
This writing is not about dying, it is about fear.
I know fear, know it well. But when I said Bill’s little stroke did me in only for a while, I wasn’t pretending to have conquered fear once and for all. I’m also at the point in life when, to survive, you cash in on what you have believed for close to 40 years. If it’s real, you need it by then. What you need is more ancient than any human life span, more certain than death. More sure than gravity and more solid than the ground that gravity will pull you to if you jump from a cliff. What you don’t need are clichés or half-truths.
I have found that it works best to be deeply serious about my fears—not about running from them—but facing them. It’s a good catch phrase, to face fear.
Here’s what I’ve learned about turning my face, eyes wide open, toward fear:
1. Go ahead and imagine the worst.
Because God does not promise it won’t happen. I don’t mean that you should dwell on it, but allow your mind to admit that, yes, it could come to that. The fiery furnace moments, they purify us. Like when Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego told the king that they trusted God, whether He delivered them from the flames or not. “Or not” was a gruesome reality, but they admitted it was a possibility.
In 1988, Bill and I sold our house, said goodbye to our family and friends, and hauled our little family to a small town on the West Branch of the Susquehanna River in Pennsylvania to pastor a church that could barely pay us and didn’t know us well enough to love us … yet. We had CB radios to communicate from truck to car, and I used mine to say, a bit too late in the game, “Bill! What have we done? We have left everything. Are you sure about this?” to which I think I might have added, “Over and out, good buddy.”
My wise, mostly fearless husband answered in a crackle of wisdom, “Kitti. The worst we can do is fail. And if that happens, we’ll just move back home.”
We visited that beautiful river valley this summer, almost 30 years later, and we marveled at what God did then and how He is doing it still among people who have become friends for life.
We failed a lot, but He never has.
Somehow, facing the worst made me able to trust God for the best.
2. And speaking of the best, go ahead and jump right into it.
I remember attending a Tres Dias weekend years ago at a particularly low ebb in my life. If you know anything about Tres Dias you know those people are eerily secretive about what goes on at their weekends, but I don’t think I’m breaking any rules by telling you what I got out of it: love big. I was in this place where I felt small, and as a result I gave small, I attempted small, I lived small. Suddenly I had permission, by their example, to give, love, act, and obey—big. To live a lavish life.
Even when others criticize you for spending money in a certain way, when your plans get shot down, or disgruntled people on the sidelines tell you you’re nuts, or that it—whatever it is—is not worth the effort, jumping into the crazy best is better than jumping into the safe good. I am not attempting to give you complete freedom to do dumb things. But, really, isn’t it worth doing a few dumb things to figure out what’s best, especially when the best is simply your fumbling attempt to love? Don’t let fear rob you of that.
Somehow, facing the worst made me able to trust God for the best.
3. Finally, sing.
Actually, although I’m sure there’s research out there to support the endorphin benefits of singing in a crisis, I’m talking here about worship. Worship only starts with singing and then it stretches to serving and giving. All told, worship is the best fear-buster I know.
After his heart attack, when the helicopter dropped Bill off at the ICU a few hours from our small Pennsylvania town, a group of friends gathered in the waiting room with me, all of us shell-shocked and sad. They helped me process the doctor’s comments, prayed over me, and left. And I spent the night alone in that waiting room, sitting up straight in the hard, molded chair, feet on another in front of me, and head on the pillow a nurse gave me. I had my Bible with me, but I was too shaken to read it. I think I may have prayed. But what I remember best was that I sang. Out loud. “Our God Is An Awesome God”—an anthem meant for good acoustics and better voices than mine. At dawn I let my Bible fall open and my bleary eyes landed on Psalm 91. It ends like this:
The LORD says, “I will rescue those who love me.
I will protect those who trust in my name.
When they call on me, I will answer;
I will be with them in trouble.
I will rescue and honor them.
I will reward them with a long life
and give them my salvation” (Psalm 91:14-16, NLT).
I remember saying, “Lord, what does this mean? Does it mean Bill will live? Does it mean he will live a long life? What is long anyway? Because, Lord, 38 might be considered long.”
I wanted to grab these verses and make God comply with my understanding of them. But this Psalm is the very one Satan quoted to Jesus when he told him to jump off the temple and let angels catch him (Matthew 4:5-6). Satan did what I do when I am afraid. He used specific God-breathed words to extort action out of Jesus. But it never works. Jesus reminded him that it is not the only thing Scripture says.
I knew then and I know now that Psalm 91 is not the only thing the Scripture says. I know that these promises are true, but may not be true in the way my human brain can understand them. I know this. And that is why I can face fear. Because I know, even if the furnace turns me or those I love to ash, I know my God is by nature a Rescuer, a Savior, and Protector. He is worthy of worship, deserving of big obedience and ridiculously lavish love. Both Rewarder and Reward.
Take that, fear.
I know that these promises are true, but maybe not in the way my human brain can understand.
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