Do You Trust Me?

Remember? This is for you, my darling. Keep trusting me.

The night before the memorial was the first of the panic attacks.

Confusion spun me around and shoved me face down into the floor. Panic took over and began to push me through the floor, it seemed, into a thick darkness, like I was falling without an end, a heaviness descending into an air so thick I could not breathe.

The morning of the memorial came. I put on a dress and mascara, wanting so much to be lovely that day, to be thought worthy of our honored man’s love and affection. But grief has a way of stealing one’s appetite and I had lost a lot of weight in the last eleven days. I hardly felt like a women, let alone, the role of the beauty in this story. I was a spindly skeleton swimming in a dress I had once filled out. My curves and soft features seemed to have disappeared overnight. I was just sharp bones and oversized, bloodshot eyes now.

Ethan and I had had a conversation about funerals earlier that month. He had just gone to one and was processing his experience with me when I told him I had no doubt that many people would have a lot to say at his funeral. And with that adorable gleam he would get in his eyes that somehow assured me that I mattered more to him than just about anything else, he asked me, “would you speak at my funeral?” I smiled at him somewhat sadly, “Yes, of course.” I had said, never expecting we were talking about a reality that would unfold so soon.

I wanted so much to be lovely for him that day.

I kept imagining Ethan watching from Heaven, confident he noticed and loved every detail designed just to his liking.

I am proud of the memorial and the part I played in helping produce it. The design that Ethan’s sister and her husband developed for the memorial was brilliant. It was structured  to be like the Academy Awards, moving through a series of Ethan’s lifetime achievements: Imagination & Adventure, Cinematic Arts, Friendship, Love, Family, and Faith. I had the Love section all to myself. It was up to me to tell of the strength of love in the story of Ethan’s life.

I tried so much to be lovely that day, but my confusion was swelling and with it an anger that seemed ill-fitting for the representation of romance in this story.

Never to have a wedding with Ethan, I had tried to make the programs with all the love I had wanted to put into the wedding invitations. But the bitter irony of that kept turning me into a sobbing mess. Never getting to stand before God and say, I choose this man to love and respect all my days, I tried to say everything I wanted to tell him at the memorial service. But how does one do that? A funeral, after all, is a very different affair from a wedding. All I wanted to do was professes my undying devotion to Ethan for the rest of my life, when I was supposed to be saying goodbye.

I had felt such a distinct sense of mission and purpose with Ethan. I could not compute why God would ask me to give it up what He had commissioned me with it in the first place. I kept thinking, if only we had made something of value together in the world… it wouldn’t take away the pain, but it might ease the confusion I was in. I looked over the year we had spent together, all I could find was the building of something to come. I saw the thread of God in that year, training, building, planning, dreaming. How could the mission be over before it had begun?

The purpose that had been reiterated over my entire life  had always come down to two words, love (particularly of the romantic/marriage variety) and storytelling.  But I grew up in a sun-culture of sorts that thought romantic love only made one weak-minded and less spiritual. That same culture seemed to see novels and films as nothing more than escapism and therefore lacked any real eternal value. The culture I grew up in was pervaded with an undercurrent that taught me to think that those who really loved Jesus do not fall in love and write stories, they serve. The serious Christians who care about what’s really important become missionaries or a social justice workers—they do not write stories, and they never let a romantic relationship get in the way of the “real work” of the kingdom.

And yet, the LORD often called me a “a storyteller” for years before I was one and he called me a “bride” even though no one had ever made me his wife. This strange disconnect between the Lord’s words over my life and the lack of its substance in my reality often made me think of the way the Angel of the Lord appeared to Gideon and called him a “mighty man of valor” while he was still weak and afraid and saw himself as the least man of the weakest tribe.

For years, I kept trying to soften my heart to the Lord’s words “love and storytelling”, I tired to understand what my purpose was under the canopy of these words and I could never really grasp it, that is until Ethan came into my life.

Ethan confidently believed that storytelling was essential to God’s Kingdom work, often pointing out how central Jesus’ storytelling ability was to his life. And Ethan regarded romantic love leading toward marriage as the very important work of reflecting the image of God. With Ethan, suddenly the picture God had always been painting for me was starting to become clear, dignified, important, and possible. I could almost taste it, the kind of rich, Kingdom work that Ethan and I would do together, compelled by a shared calling.

That day, at the memorial, those two pieces, love and storytelling, were on display for everyone in Ethan’s life. Memorials have a way of showing what a person was like, what their life was about. Each section of Ethan’s memorial categorized to show what he really valued demonstrated how profoundly his life was about his fierce loyalty and courageously steadfast love that spoke of something deep within the heart of God. And no one’s memorial was ever more about storytelling than Ethan’s. As the epic film score filled the auditorium, and movie clips were pieced together to reflect his life (including many of his original work), and even as the squadron of stormtroopers marched down the center aisle as part of the proceedings, it was clear that Ethan’s life has been profoundly and vividly about storytelling. And somehow my business here was to say goodbye, not just to Ethan, but to the purpose I believed I was always supposed to have with him. Only that didn’t make any sense.

The touch of God upon my soul happened a handful of times during the service, but I was not in a trusting, listening mindset. Everything the Lord pointed out to me only made me more angry.  There was one moment in the service when the pastor said, “Ethan loved a good story” as he went on to share the gospel story unfolding all around us as an epic narrative. Ethan often spoke of how all the best stories echo the archetype of the gospel. But in that moment as I sat there at his memorial, it enraged me. The pastor continued on, saying of the gospel, “Its a love story,” and the confusion burned hot and loud within me. Wasn’t that what we were doing God. Story and Love. This is where I fit. Epic Narrative and the Wedding Feast of the Lamb. Wasn’t all this why You brought Ethan into my life? How could this be over? We hadn’t done anything of purpose yet. Everything had felt like it was building to something of value and life and creativity—not this. Not this.

After the memorial, there was a reception that lasted for hours. It too, was perfect like the memorial. All the planning had come together in just the right way. Everything was right, it seemed expect me. I could not find that place of the lovely bereaved. 

I thought again of how the grief cycle was “not for me”.

Then show me, LORD, I pleaded, what in the world am I supposed to think and feel about all this?

Friends and family greeted me with lots of love and support throughout the reception. Most of the people I talked to brought soothing balm to my soul, the most welcome of any conversation were stories of Ethan. I especially loved talking to Jordan and his girlfriend who had come down from Seattle for the memorial. Jordan was another one of Ethan’s lifelong friends. He shared lots of stories about Ethan from childhood and the post-college years when they shared an apartment, and even some of the details in their more recent conversations about me. 

But sprinkled throughout the day of stories and remembering and delighting in everything we loved about Ethan, there were also the warnings from well meaning friends about grief and how it only gets worse after the planning for the memorial is out of the way, and how so and so ended up in the hospital due to panic attacks and did I have a counselor or support group to walk me through the grief cycle?… my head began to spin with each shot of fear administered in these well-meaning words. 

Again, I cried out, “Lord, show me what to think and how to feel.”

And instead of giving me an answer I could wrap my mind around, all I kept thinking about was the reel of love scenes that had played during the love portion of the service. The montage of classic movies showed several scenes where long lost loves were reunited, all the romantic scenes culminating with the scene from Aladdin, where he reaches out his hand to Jasmine and asks, “do you trust me”. There seemed, in some strange way to be some kind of invitation from the LORD for me there, though I struggled to understand exactly what it was. Trust Him? For what? It was all over now, wasn’t it? There was no magic carpet ride anymore. No more love. No more story. And yet… and yet, it was as if the Lord’s tone about Ethan and my purpose together had never changed. But I couldn’t even begin to imagine what the Lord had planned, or what He was inviting me into. 

If you would like to watch the memorial you can find it here.

Thanks for sharing my journey with me.

Ch 4: The Wilderness Below Mount Sinai

Remember? This is for you, my darling. Keep trusting me.

Ethan hugged me from behind. I loved when he did that. “Go for a walk with me?” he asked, the words brushing against my face as he leaned in to kiss my cheek.

“Sure,” I said smiling under his kiss.

I didn’t know how we had gotten here, this place that was as natural as it was thrilling. We were in love. And yet, love seemed like too common a word to fully encapsulate what was happening between us… or perhaps, it was simply that I did not yet know the full meaning of the word.

We made our way outside and Ethan took my hand in his as we turned toward the rocky desert hills behind his house. The sun would be setting soon. Just as the pavement turned into dirt, he asked me, “What has God been doing in your life lately?”

I smiled as I watched our feet fall into sync, loving that he would ask such a thing. I thought for a moment and then replied, “Freedom… I think He has been trying to show me how to live in more freedom.”

“How so?” Ethan asked.

I took a deep breath and then proceeded to try to articulate this thread the Lord had been pulling at in my heart. “I spend so much time trying to make sure that I do things the right way, that I get it right… sometimes I feel like I barely know what freedom in Christ even means,” I was exposing a tightly held secret to Ethan, and it felt good to be able to put this inner tension into words. “I want to demonstrate that there is freedom in Christ,” I continued, “but I try to do it so carefully and calculated that I end up white-knuckling my faith, like the slightest misstep will send me onto the wrong path.”

He just nodded, listening, processing this information as we began to pick our way through a desert land wrought with tumble weed and sage brush.

“I know God is inviting me to live in more freedom,” I went on, “but I am a little confused about how to get there.” I thought for a moment, then added, “Maybe its because I feel blocked in accepting my identity in Christ.”

“What do you mean by that? “ he asked as he stepped over a thorny bush.

“Well,” I took a deep breath as I thought about it, “I suppose its because to me, being loved has so much to do with being seen and known for who I am. But they say, finding your identity in Christ means that when God looks at you, He doesn’t see you and all your disgusting flaws and sins, he sees Jesus… I know that that is a beautiful truth, and I should find it a relief, but instinctively, I totally resist that picture.”

The sun was getting low in the sky, “It might sound foolish,” I went on to explain, “but I want to be seen, to be known.” I looked up at him, smiling a bit shyly for exposing such a deep longing. Ethan’s eyes locked on mine. “I know I have sin and flaws, but still my heart longs to be seen by my God, and loved for me, not for someone else… Is that totally sacrilegious?”

Ethan hadn’t taken his eyes off me for several moments. “What do you think, Ethan?” I asked.

“I think,” he began, “that its hard to focus on what you are saying when you are so beautiful… backlit by the sun… and those blue eyes.” He smiled then, and continued on, sounding more introspective then flirtatious “when you smiled at me, it literally took my breath away.”

I blushed deeply. No one had ever told me anything like that before. I wondered if it was okay to enjoy the way he loved me as much as I did. Accepting his words and letting them nourish my soul felt indulgent. It was so hard for me to let go and dive in. He stirred a desire in me that felt dangerous—he was rewiring what I thought love was and everything was uncharted territory.

Finally we reached the mountain and climbed up into the boulders a ways until we found a rocky ledge to perch ourselves on and watch the sunset. He pulled me close, wrapping an arm around me.

“And what has God been talking to you about lately?” I asked him.

“That He created them ‘male and female’. The role, the design of each.”

“Seriously?” I asked.

“Yes,” he said without a trace of insincerity, “I have been thinking a lot about how this design points us toward the love of God. How together we can be more then the sum of our parts.”

“Go on,” I said, wanting to hear more.

“Well, I’ve also been thinking a lot about marriage, how to have a good marriage. How to keep the love of God a constant within it.”

My heart skipped a beat. This was the first time he had brought up the topic of marriage with me.

“You often see parents trying to put the kids first, but I think that’s backwards,” he began to explain, “I think its a better picture of God’s love for the kids to grow up in if they see their parents putting each other first.”

“I agree,” It was easy to imagine throwing my arms around this man’s neck at the end of every day and welcoming him home with a passionate kiss. “It would take the pressure off the kids if they weren’t the center of their parent’s relationship or their family’s functioning. I think it would give the kids security to know that their parents’ love existed before and will exist after they leave the home.” But even as I spoke it, I wondered if it were possible. Could we build a home on a love that would last?

The love God had woven Ethan’s heart and my heart together with was a cord taken from a secret vault in the heavens–it felt utterly beyond this world. What I had with Ethan was real and it exceeded expectations, of that I was certain. What I was less certain of was this mysterious, destructive force that I feared lurked in the shadows of marriage and would try, at every possible opportunity, to erode our love. I knew that other people had been in love before us and things had gotten all messed up for them. I didn’t want to be naive.

Ethan stood up and helped me to my feet just as the sun was touching down to kiss the earth and sink below its surface. A breeze picked up and made my hair swirl around my face. He held me there on that mountainside, eyes locked on mine as he reached up and tucked a hand behind my neck and pulled me into a kiss. My heart began to race and my head began to swim. He’s the feast, I thought. There is no more manna here, this is a feast more satisfying than anything I had ever dreamed up. It is too good to be real.

Then I felt God remind me of the dream of just such a moment that I had handed over into His care months ago. God was there in the breeze around me, “Do you remember?” He was there in the kiss “This is for you, my darling. He was in my soul, “Keep trusting me.”

Oh how I wanted to melt into the moment and let it carry me away, to accept such an outpouring of love, from Ethan. From God. I was living a dream come true!

And yet, God’s wasn’t the only voice there that day, there was another– a sinister creature with a cynical voice vying for my attention. The cynical voice said, “dreams don’t come true. He maybe well meaning, but his love won’t last. Love never lasts.”

I was very well practiced in distrusting love… and I am pained to admit that it was more natural for me to believe the cynical voice than the voice of God that day.

As the doubt began to gnaw its way in, I suddenly felt on-guard and I didn’t know where to look.

The mysterious destructive force was already showing his ugly face and I cringe to realize how much airtime I allowed him. It is so easy to see now. That was the vortex that was swallowing my freedom, stealing my joy, playing on a severed place in my mind, determined to saw in two the heavenly cord between Ethan and I, between God and I.

(And it was this break within me that God would go to incredible lengths to restore to wholeness).

Ethan looked into my eyes for a long moment. Searching. I struggled to hold his gaze. He tucked a loose strand of hair behind my ear, “you okay?” he asked, “you seem a little distant.”

“I’m sorry,” I said, “this just feels… surreal.”

“Surreal?” he repeated with a slight raise of the eyebrows.

I looked up at him, nodded and swallowed. I wish so much I had ignored that slithering voice of doubt that day. I wish I had not paid a bit of attention to the ill-advised caution that was insisting it was always wise to doubt love–safer than letting your guard down and getting blind-sighted.

Ethan kissed me again as the sun disappeared completely. And I wanted to cry. If this turned out not to be real, if love was, as I suspected in my doubt, one big deception, then God was torturing me by showing me a better reality than I knew to dream of.

“Ready to head back?” Ethan finally asked.

“Yeah,” I said. And I followed him off the rock and down the slope. I reached for his hand once we reached bottom, feeling desperate in the torture of my double-mindedness, like I might lose him any minute.

The stars were out now and the city lights where shinning in the valley below in dazzling colors. We walked in silence for a long way. I chewed my bottom lip and wondered how I would ever find the freedom my soul craved.

Ethan finally broke the silence, “Why don’t you sing?” He asked as we made our way back to his house.

“Sing?! Me? Um, NO.” I said definitively.

“Why not? I’ve never heard you sing before.”

“That’s because I don’t sing.” I said, full defensive shield moving into position.

“Oh, come on.”

“No,” I snapped, “I am not going to preform. I refuse to earn your love that way.”

“Whoa,” he said, taken aback. “That was not what I was asking for at all. I was just being playful.”

My words startled me as much as they did him. Is that what I really thought? Where did this edge come from? I knew I shouldn’t have snapped at Ethan that way and I was embarrassed that I exposed how much I feared that his love might actually end up being like the other loves I had previously known–performance-based and easily lost with a bad production. (How quickly the downward spiral of doubt begins its descent).

Ethan was constantly goofing around by singing some song or another. He was actually a very good singer and when he wasn’t being funny his musical talent was at once deeply attractive and extremely intimidating to me.

I am not sure when I stopped singing, all I knew was that I hadn’t sang in years, not even in church. The darkness was targeting yet another severed place in me. I secretly longed to share music with Ethan, all my life I hungered to be able to play music and all my life I had carried the grief that my inability to make music was one of my greatest deficiencies as a human being.

It never occurred to me that I could have chosen a different response. I could have done something playful, I could have been free (even if imperfect) and trusted that he wouldn’t throw me out of his life because I might hit the wrong note.

We walked in silence for a few minutes, I was still holding his hand, but now I felt the weight of a wall suddenly between us.

“Makaila,” Ethan finally broke the silence, “I don’t want you to ever feel like you have to earn my love. I just want to see you loosened up and carefree.”

I was confused and frustrated. I hated that it felt like he was pointing out another flaw of mine. “I don’t have a problem being carefree. I just don’t sing, okay?”

“Okay,” he said. And we walked on in silence again.

“Makes you love me less, doesn’t it” I was in full self-sabotaging mode, “that I won’t sing?”

“You saying that is more frustrating to me then you not singing.” He exhaled roughly. Then stopped, took a deep breath as he closed his eyes and shifted into a gentler tone, “But no, let me assure you. You cannot make me love you less.” He stopped in the road and made me face him, “Makaila, I love you. You. All that you are, just as you are. Nothing is going to change that.” He lifted my hand to his lips and kissed it, maintaining eye-contact, willing me to believe him. “You never have to earn my love,” he went on to say, “You already have it and you always will, come what may.”

How could anyone love me this well? It was so hard to compute. How could something this good actually be real? It was still hard to fully believe, but Ethan could melt the walls in me with his eye-contact alone, it seemed, and his words worked their magic to dispel the darkness that was trying to splinter my mind further that night.

“I’m sorry.” I offered. I was sorry for all of us. I was sorry I snapped at him, he did nothing to deserve that. I was sorry for everything else too, all the slight and subtle betrayals I had been committing in my heart against him and God with every unwarranted thought of doubt that had stolen joy from the gift of this moment. “I love you too,” I said as I slipped my arm around his waist and found that place where I fit so well against his side as we walked the rest of the way to his home. And somehow, because God is good and love covers a multitude of sins, the cords of love between us miraculously grew in strength that night.

Ethan would make that beautiful moment into a habit, committed as he was to breaking though all my fears. Many times following that desert walk he would reiterate the words he had spoken on the road back home, usually it happened when we were driving around town in his car. He would be holding my hand, his contemplative silence filling the space with a substance I had come to love, and he would raise my hand up to his lips and kiss it, pouring so much feeling and sincerity into his touch. And he would say again, “I love you Makaila, I always will. Nothing is going to change that.”

The memory of those moments still makes my heart thunder. I love him so incredibly much… how could I not?

It wouldn’t be until a year later, after Ethan was gone, that God would show me the deep, soul-altering work He had been up to that day on our walk through the desert, my own Shavout atop Mount Sini.