I once bought a victorian pendant on a long chain from a steampunk artist selling jewelry downtown. The necklace had an “H” monogram and clock parts imbedded in the pendant. I chose that necklace as a reminder to have Hope that does not give out under God’s timing. Somehow, on that day, I knew years down the road I would need the reminder if I was ever to enter my promised land. That was four years ago now.
As I look back over my own timeline, it is easy to think of that year as The Year of Promise. One particular Bible study centered on faith and my own writing of a novel manuscript were the context He used in those days to speak new promises and weave important truths into my soul. It was the first time God began speaking to me about my promised land—a place of radical faith for a unique calling.
Throughout The Year of Promise, God prepared me for my calling, speaking to me of both the glory and the heartache that lay ahead should I choose to follow Him. Though much of this remained somewhat vague, certain things were very clear, words and phrases God was speaking to me, teaching me how to “dance in promise and pain.” He was teaching me how to “suffer well” before I knew what suffering we were talking about. He had given me a promise that He would “turn my desolate wasteland into a garden” before I was sure what it felt like to live in desolate wasteland. He showed me a vision of my future, my family, my calling, just a glimpse, but in it, He had extended a very specific promise. He was speaking constantly, insistently of a “love strong as death” that was fearless and unrestrained.
It was at the end of this season that I bought that necklace. I wasn’t sure exactly what was up against this hope He had birthed in me, but I knew I would need the reminder one day to hold onto it. I had walked hopeless days before and I had learned in that darkness that hopelessness destroys a soul faster and harder than the hurt that first put it there. No matter what lay before me. I was determined that it would be defined by hope.
I put that necklace on that morning as I dressed for Ethan’s burial. With trembling hands I let it fall across the front of the black dress of mine that Ethan had loved so much. Where could there possibly be hope in this? I wondered. It seemed absurd to even suggest such a thing. And yet, I knew if I did not hold onto whatever hope God would extend to me, I would not survive this.
It was cold and windy on the day of the funeral, so I pulled on some boots and wrapped Ethan’s gray scarf around my neck. I had given him that scarf for Christmas just a month ago (How had my whole world changed so drastically in such a short amount of time?) The scarf had suited him well, classic and old fashioned. It covered my necklace as I wrapped it around my neck, but I didn’t care, no one needed to know of my ridiculous plan of looking for hope in this black day. It was absurd. But I had promised myself and God a long time ago that when the black days came, I would always look for His hope.
The funeral wasn’t sad, at least not as I had once thought funerals were. It was terrifying and holy. I had expected to feel grief, but instead of sadness or anger, I felt as if I were standing in the eye of a storm, vibrating in the epicenter of God’s sovereignty where there was a peace and a terror that were one and the same.
Though they gave me time alone in that huge room with his body, I did not say goodbye. Though I trembled as I touched his face, it provided no connection to my Ethan. This was only a stone that vaguely resembled my beloved. Though I sobbed as I tucked a love note into his coat so that it would rest where his heart should have been beating, I did not find any closure. I cried what I had thought at the time were tears of grief and maybe they were, but of an entirely different kind than I knew to be possible. They were not the angry tears of a grief that screams at injustice, nor were they the beautiful tears of a grief filled with grace that knew how to offer a mournful goodbye full of love and peaceful acceptance.
My grief was one of holy terror.
Ethan’s was the first dead body I ever saw and touched. The last time I had seen him he had been alive, laughing and talking, giving me his wisdom, his comfort, his affection. To see the human form you love most in all the world, the mannerisms and voice and thought you knew so well when it was uniquely animated by the very breath of God, now hard and hollow is an utterly terrifying thing to behold. I knew then why death is the last enemy to be defeated.
I stood in the hand of a good God that day and I beheld His power. It was at once a thing of peace and terror, but not in a fractured way. God’s presence was a peace that held me in profound trust, and with this came terror.
They were not emotions, this peace and terror, but a presence. How was it that these two things that had always seemed to be in conflict were suddenly here, simultaneously in a whole and holy kind of way?
Something terrible had happened. There was something entirely not of God, something dark and evil behind death, but the terror did not come from knowing this. The terror came from a sudden knowing that God had not let this happen in a passive way, but intentionally, strategically. And He was also letting me know that His plan was not yet done.
As the funeral procession moved from the chapel to the lawn up on the hill where Ethan would be buried, I wondered if others could feel it—this terror and peace, the presence of a Holy God who was there walking among us, holding within us.
That day was probably the beginning of when I woke up to a worship that would take over my soul, growing in strength and volume throughout the following year. We sang two songs that day as we buried Ethan, Cornerstone and In Christ Alone. Ethan’s mom and I had picked out the songs. And while they had seemed like a soothing comfort yesterday in the familiar walls of my home, here outside as we lowered Ethan’s body into the earth, they seemed like shockingly bold and defiant declarations—offering, at once, a love song of devotion to move the heart of God and a battle cry to make the darkness tremble.
After the service, I climbed up into the rocks and watched the people as they lingered on the lawn below. It was windy. I tucked myself into a ball and played the song, Rock of Ages on my phone. That would be the first of many, many times I would crawl up into those rocks and ask that the LORD let me hide myself in Him.
At first it was always, about hiding in the cleft of the rock. I was so desperate for the strength and safety of a beloved’s arms. And God met me there, held me there, and hid me there. But He also spoke to me there, and through His words, my broken cries for a hiding place would turn into a shaky, but excited request to see His glory. As I grew more and more hungry to behold His glory with my own eyes, this shaky request would turn into a song of praise, shouted from that mountain top. And then that song of praise found its way into something so tender and bold as I began to ask if I could speak with Him face to face as Moses and Abraham had. Both men were known as God’s friends. I wanted that with my LORD. I wanted to become His friend, someone He could tell anything to, someone He could share things with face to face. But I am getting ahead of myself, there was much He said to me before I even lifted my eyes from my hiding place.
I walked away from the funeral knowing that God alone gives life, God alone sustains life, and God alone can take his own breath away from man and God alone can give it back. And in this, I grew certain, more certain then I had ever been about anything, that God was planning something bigger with all of this than any small dream I had projected into mine and Ethan’s futures. He is a good Father and He does not allow pain for the sake of pain. It was for a purpose so great and awesome, that even I would think it would be worth it.
People kept saying that even if just one other person is in heaven because of Ethan, then all of this is worth it. But every time I heard that, I wanted to scream and pound my fists into the chest of the men who spoke these words. Ethan was my person, my spiritual leader, my best friend. His life is not worth the life of a stranger to me. It was his heart that I was entrusted with, his growth that I was praying for, his passions I was jointly pursuing. How could someone else’s life mean more? And what of God’s promises and purpose for me?
In my more rational moments, I realized that if someone else got saved because of Ethan’s death it was not really an exchange of one life for another, but a gathering of souls into eternity. And so I told the LORD, that if one person devoting themselves to Jesus was His design and purpose of this tragedy (and my profound intersection with it), then I needed to know that story. I could not live with an assumed possibility. I needed to hear the story. I needed to know the people this had been done for, I needed to partner with God to make sure not one bit of Ethan’s death was without substantial and satisfying effect. Eventually, I realized that if one person got saved, it would be enough, but I wanted a front row seat so that I could know it was all worth it, not just speculate at what might have (or might not have) happened.
For this, I actually felt the LORD encourage my insistence at seeing His glory with my own eyes rather than try to defuse the passion of a desperate woman as so many others had done.
Many days after the funeral on one of my trips to visit the gravesite, a friend had come with me. While I sat up at the cemetery with my friend, I began to cry as I told her about all the conversations Ethan and I had been having about how we would raise our kids. Just earlier that day, some family had just been to visit and they had brought their toddler with them. He had blond hair and was dressed in a leather jacket, jeans, and converse shoes. In that moment, that little guy looked just like a mini Ethan, and it was so easy to picture what our kids would have been like. I sat there with my friend and cried over the family that I had been holding in my heart…but something about this grief felt off. My friend had lovingly suggested that yes, even children that were only in my mind’s eye must be grieved now.
I sat with that for a beat, contemplating it, deciding if she was right. I think under normal circumstances she would be right, but God was doing something unique here, I could feel it. Everything happening now, had to do with words spoken in The Year of Promise. It was like a hazy picture was starting to become clear. I didn’t understand all of it then, but I found myself saying, “No!” It came out nearly as a yell, struggling against the wind, as tears streamed down my face. Somehow my promised land was on the other side of this pain. A sudden defiance kicked in and I knew once more with absolute certainty that God would do something greater with this story than anything I had imagined. There has never been anything I have wanted more than to be a wife and mother, but I was suddenly certain, that God’s purpose in all of this had to exceed my dreams.
“I don’t want to waste my time,” I told her, “God didn’t bring me here, birth so much desire in me, lead me into greater boldness and intimacy only to patch up my broken heart with healthy grief. Whatever God had intended with me and Ethan, His purpose all along has not changed. Ethan may have been in an ‘accident’ but God doesn’t have accidents. This is not random God was behind everything with Ethan and I. I have to believe He is here in his death too, in greater ways than anyone suspects.”
I didn’t want to waste my time grieving things unless the LORD led me into the process of letting go or mourning such specifics. I needed to have my full attention on finding God’s glory in this. I didn’t have time for grief that was separate from this thing that God was doing. Somehow I could feel the difference. I was so alerted to the Holy Spirit, I knew when He was in a thought and when He was not. I knew when He was leading me to look at a hard thing and when I was just wasting my time wallowing in grief that would have no good fruit. I can take no credit here. This awareness had nothing to do with me being spiritual or good, in fact, it came from a place more fiery and fierce than anything I had ever known. It was God alone revealing Himself to me. And I was determined to follow His every move.