None of us were sure what October 11th would look like.
We didn’t know if it would be a day of mourning or a day of rejoicing.
It turns out that it was a little of both.
It turns out that when the year anniversary arrives of the death of someone you love and know is with Jesus, there are tears and laughter intertwined. And I think all of us who knew and loved Kathy McDaniel were relieved to discover that.
We were relieved that in the midst of our tears, there was joy in the remembering.
I went to bed last Tuesday evening a little tentative. I learned last year in the weeks and months leading up to and following Kathy’s death that grief does strange things to the heart that translate to the body, like it or not. Like it or not, there were days, or even weeks, it felt like I was walking with lead bricks on my feet or had a weary sorrow pressing on my heart. And I did not know if I would wake up the morning of the 11th with those same concrete bricks on my heart or feet.
But as I climbed into bed, the the word “Rejoice!” popped into my head, a word I had not thought of in a long time. It was almost as if I heard Kathy herself say it.
“Rejoice!” was Kathy’s word; she wore it on a chain around her neck and signed it at the end of many of her letters. And “Rejoice” was her word because joy was the attitude of her heart – joy and steadfast courage in the face of the enemy of cancer, an enemy that ended up taking her body, but not her heart.
And hearing her voice say “Rejoice!” as I climbed into bed was a precious reminder that Kathy Bonds McDaniel was alive and well. Yes, we were about to climb the hurdle of the day of her death the next day, but the day of her death was also the day of her becoming. The day of her wedding. The day of her face to face encounter with her Heavenly Groom, Jesus, the Lover of her soul. The battle Kathy fought so well with cancer had worked out for her an eternal weight of glory that she was in the throes of enjoying, in fact, rejoicing in, while we were missing her on this earth.
When I got up the next morning, I read from the devotional book The Songs of Jesus by Tim Keller. The reading for the day came from Psalm 108:1-4: “My heart, O God, is steadfast; I will sing and make music with all my soul. Awake, harp and lyre! I will awaken the dawn. I will praise you, O Lord, among the nations; I will sing of you among the peoples. For great is your love, higher than the heavens; your faithfulness reaches to the skies.”
The devotional from Keller said this about the psalm: “This psalm is an expression of a ‘steadfast’ heart, one with courage. There is an aggressive joy here. Even if it is dark, the psalmist’s song to God will bring on the dawn.”
My friends, can I tell you something? Kathy McDaniels’s aggressive joy and steadfast heart literally brought on the dawn. She brought on the dawn by showing all of us who watched her suffer and die, leaving behind a husband and three young children, the character of Christ in the midst of every single trial she walked through.
She brought on the dawn by modeling for us that joy and rejoicing was possible in the face of extreme affliction.
And she was bringing on the dawn the morning of October 11th, singing her song of joy and confidence with Jesus over those of us here, reminding us that joy and rejoicing is coming for us too when Jesus comes to take us home.
Were there tears throughout the day of October 11th? Yes. Of course. But they were tears, in the words of Rich Mullins’ song If I Stand, “If I weep, let it be as man who is longing for his home.” They were tears of longing for home – the home Kathy stands so fully and completely in now and the home that we get only glimpses of when the veil is pulled back for a moment and we hear her songs on the other side.
My friend, Jenny Venghaus, said it best. As a few of us sat together last Tuesday, talking about and remembering Kathy, she said, “It’s like she left the wedding reception and got to go on the honeymoon, and we are all still here cleaning up afterwards, waiting for our turn to go too.”
But friends, one day, for those who know King Jesus, our reception is coming too. So until that day, we are to sing, like Kathy, with aggressive joy and steadfast hearts to awaken the dawn. The dawn is a reminder to a dark and weary world that rejoicing is coming, the sun is rising, and glory is breaking to fill our eyes.
We ended the day at the McDaniels’ house eating ice cream sundaes with sprinkles, gummy worms, and chocolate sauce – because, after all, what is a day of rejoicing without a little ice cream at the end?
That’s just the way Kathy would have wanted it.
So “Rejoice”! The way is hard, but the joy is deep. All you have to do is open your eyes, look for the dawn, and sing with aggressive joy. The Son is coming.
I’ve been pondering this concept of walking a great deal lately. I think, in part, because my head and my legs feel so heavy these days. I haven’t birthed another baby or adopted another child. Homeschool isn’t new on the agenda; this is my third year to have my kids at home for three days a week, and there is nothing new or shocking about our routine. But I’m just. So. Tired.
I sat down with my sister-in-law today and she said, “I know why you’re tired…you’re grieving.”
Oh yes, grieving. That is what has changed in my life. I’m not sure why, but sometimes it’s easy to forget the weight of grief that is ever-present, yet so easily hidden. Kathy is gone, and there is a huge, ever present hole that aches and stares out my front door and pierces my heart every morning, but when I wake up each morning, there are still four children in my household that need to be fed, clothed, schooled, and shepherded through life. My grief sometimes has to hop in the backseat, stuffed under the cushions of the every day. But it makes itself known through unexplained headaches, weariness, a heavy heart, and heavy legs. Perhaps my mind and every day schedule can forget, but my heart and my body cannot.
I think before, ever other project I’ve undertaken or finish line I’ve determined to cross or peak I’ve set my mind to summit, there has been life, joy, or a satisfying tangible outcome at the end. But the race I just finished running left Kathy crossing her finish line into heaven…while I am still here. The emptiness at times is often so huge, it’s hard to understand and make sense of it all.
To be quite honest, I thought I was ready and prepared for her death. But I wasn’t. I had no idea what the finality of her absence would look like or mean. A friend of mine last Sunday summed it well. She said, “You weren’t ready for Kathy to be gone forever; you were just ready for her to be healed.”
That pretty much says it all. I wasn’t ready for Kathy to die. I don’t think I would ever have been ready. I was just ready for her to be out of pain and free from the immense amount of suffering I watched her endure each and every day.
And I was all in in helping her get to that place of being pain free; all of us who knew and loved her were. Whatever needed to be done, we were ready to do. But now that she is gone, I have all of this time on my hands, and I’m not quite sure what to do with it.
I’ve been trying to fill it with responding to emails that have been sitting in my inbox for several months, paying bills and crossing things off my list that had been piling up on my desk in the kitchen, but all that’s done has left this big, empty place in my heart. To-do lists never disappear; no matter how many items I cross off, one hundred more jump in to take their place.
So I’m stopping it with the to-do lists. I have to. They are only leaving me half-empty and aching on the inside. Instead, I’m going to try to take the advice of my friend Kwame who was here last week visiting Houston. Kwame is a Bible translator and pastor from Ghana and one of the Godliest men I know. He sat with Clay, Kathy’s husband, Jason, and me on Wednesday night and said, “People can’t heal other people’s wounds; only God can heal wounds…from the inside out.”
So that is what I am trying to do this week – make time and space for God alone to heal my wounds. I’ve lingered a long time over Isaiah chapter 2, verse 3, carefully looking at each word: “Come, let us go up to the mountain of Yahweh to the house of the God of Jacob, so that He may teach us something of His ways, and that we may walk in His paths.”
The word that has drawn me in the most is the word “Come,” the summons at the beginning of the verse. It is a word that in the Hebrew means “to walk…used of human locomotion and to the characteristic of one’s lifestyle.” So, literally, Isaiah’s summons to the people of God to come into the presence of God is “Walk.”
What I’m learning at this stage of my life in this stage of my grief is coming into God’s presence at any point in time always requires me to walk. No matter how heavy my legs might feel. Because God’s summons to His people to come, to walk, isn’t in the absence of grief, it is always, especially, in the presence of grief. It’s in the face of hardship. It’s in the presence of pain. And walking with the weight of grief wrapped around your legs is so tough. It’s a workout. It takes an extra effort of the soul. But what’s the alternative? Stagnation? Immersing myself in busy to-do lists that suck the life and joy right out of me instead of funneling it in?
Walking with grief and sorrow isn’t fun, and it isn’t easy, but I know, even if I can’t always feel it or see it, that it’s producing an eternal weight of glory in my soul that is worth every ache of the step.
Clay’s sister, Dana, who lives in Georgia but came to Houston to help and live with Kathy and Clay the last few weeks of Kathy’s life has become a precious friend and mentor to me the past few weeks. She texted me a few days ago and said, “Weight bearing exercises build strong muscles and bones. Emotionally weight bearing circumstances build strong spirits. They produce greater dependence on the Lord, a refocusing of priorities, connectedness to people we love, and greater compassion. As you walk with the Lord, your spirit will be much, much stronger than it would have been had you never gone through it.”
Amen. Walking weighted hurts. It’s hard on the muscles, it’s hard on the emotions, it’s hard on the spirit. But it builds endurance and strength. And according to Isaiah 2:3, the house of the Lord isn’t a house by the sea. It isn’t accessed by a gentle stroll down a sandy beach or shaded lane. It’s up. On top of a mountain. In fact, according to Isaiah 2:2, “the mountain of Yahweh’s house will be secured as the head of the mountains and it will be lifted up more than the hills and all the nations will stream to it.” We’re talking Everest here. And to climb Everest, one had better be in shape, doing some weight-bearing, hard-climbing, mountain-peak exercises.
Walking with God is never a striving in our own flesh or strength. We don’t aim to be better people, or do better works. Through the person of Jesus Christ, God Himself stepped off the mountain and came down to us to make a way for us to come. To walk. To ascend to the mountain of the Lord. But there’s only one path, and only one way. It’s through the broken body and spilled blood of Jesus who tells us, “Come to Me, all you who are weary and heavy-laden, and I will give you rest. Take My yoke upon you, and learn from Me, for I am gentle and humble in heart; and you shall find rest for your souls. For My yoke is easy and my load is light” (Matthew 11:28-30). I feel like when Jesus said that, He was picturing me. He was picturing what I would need to do in the wake of Kathy’s death. He was picturing Clay and the McDaniel children. He was picturing Kathy’s parents, extended family, and friends. He was picturing all those who are weighted down by sorrow and grief and the hurts and cares of this broken world and saying, “Listen to Me, you will never be able to make it up the mountain of of the Lord in your broken state. So let me become broken for you. Let me shoulder your weightedness with you, and let’s walk together. There is never one step I am asking you to take that you will take alone. Just look long to the left and the right, and I am there with you. Even inside of you. Yoked to you. Walking every step of the way.”
When I take my focus off of the weight and put it on the One who is walking alongside of me, I can walk like that. I can walk with a Savior, a King, and a Lord, who became weighted down when He didn’t have to be, so that He could help me in my walk. And it is in Him, and by Him, and for Him, and with Him that I will learn to walk this out, this journey into the ache, and through the grief, one step at a time.
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Sometimes we don’t get the ending to the story that we wanted.
Sometimes it looks like death has the last say.
But that’s when we have to shut our eyes and remember that the ending to the story here isn’t the final word.
Kathy Elizabeth Bonds McDaniel didn’t have the ending to the her story that we all so desperately wanted. That I wanted.
I didn’t want to watch an ambulance drive away with my friend and neighbor, knowing she would never step foot in her house again.
I didn’t want to walk in the lobby of a hospital, push “4” for the hospice floor, and walk into room 417 to say goodbye to a beautiful young mother of three children.
I didn’t want to get her husband’s text at 7:35am last Tuesday morning that Kathy had slipped into the arms of Jesus at 2:09am earlier that morning. I just didn’t want to.
I didn’t want that kind of ending.
But I didn’t get to write the story.
But the One who writes all of our stories left us words to reflect on and remember, to trust and to believe, and to give our hearts great comfort and hope in the midst of great sorrows He knew would inevitably come. These words were read at the service celebrating Kathy’s life last Friday morning: “‘Let not your heart be troubled; believe in God, believe also in Me. In My Father’s house are many dwelling places; if it were not so, I would have told you; for I go to prepare a place for you. And if I go to prepare a place for you, I will come again, and receive you to Myself; that where I am, there you may be also. And you know the way where I am going.‘ Thomas said to Him, ‘Lord, we do not know where You are going, how do we know the way?’ Jesus said to him, ‘I am the way, and the truth, and the life; no one comes to the Father, but through Me'” (John 14:1-6).
Here is the amazing part: according to Jesus’ words in John 14, Kathy’s story is just beginning. She left her earthly house to go to her Father’s House, to be received by her Father’s Son, Jesus, and to live the rest of eternity fully healed, fully fulfilled, made fully whole and new, redeemed and restored in His Presence. Not a bad ending to her story.
But it’s the rest of us who are left here who have to adjust to the ending and learn to live life with one foot firmly planted in our earthly homes, the good places God has put us to grow, flourish, live, work, and bring His rule and His reign in the here and now, and with one foot firmly planted in Heaven, the Home where all those who love King Jesus and long for His appearing are headed and where Kathy is now.
I’m trying to adjust to this ending. I’m not used to (and will I ever get used to?) Kathy’s presence missing from across the street.
And I’m not sure how to live in the wake of the ending to this story. How do I, and how does her husband, and how do her children, and parents, and close knit community of family and friends, live in the every day reality of a story that leaves our hearts torn rather than mended? Bruised rather than healed? Battered rather than bandaged?
I don’t know. But the prophet Hosea must have had to learn to walk through an ending to a story he wasn’t expecting or wanting when he wrote the words, “Come, let us return to the Lord. For He has torn us, but He will heal us; He has wounded us, but He will bandage us. He will revive us after two days; He will raise us up on the third day that we may live before Him. So let us know, let us press on to know the Lord. His going forth is as certain as the dawn; and He will come to us like the rain, like the spring rain watering the earth” (Hosea 6:1-3).
Pressing on isn’t a magical formula. It isn’t a magic wand waved over us that makes our hearts whole, healed, and mended from the tearing. Pressing on is a long obedience in the same direction. It’s an every day decision to wake up and put the right foot in front of the left foot and to walk down the path of the God who will come to us as we choose to walk in His ways and trust in His character even when we don’t understand the ending to the story.
So that’s what I’m planning to do today. And tomorrow. And the next day. And the day after that.
I’m planning on putting one foot in front of the other every morning when I wake up. I’m planning on turning to His Word and reading and soaking in its words when I’m tempted to listen to words of despair. I’m planning on meditating on and trusting in His goodness every time I look out the front door of my house and see Kathy’s house and achingly miss her presence. I’m planning on opening my heart wide to the pain of the ending of this story and to the pursuit of God in the midst of this story knowing that, as Kathy told me several weeks ago, “The God of the Sunrise” will come and dawn over our hearts, ushering in the grace and the power and the hope and the faith and the love that we need so that we can trust the One who wrote the story, knowing His ending and His final word will bring more healing, more grace, more goodness, more mercy, and more redemption than we could ever possibly imagine not only here, but in our Home to come.
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This hope we have as an anchor of the soul, a hope both sure and steadfast and one which enters within the veil, where Jesus has entered as a forerunner for us, having become a high priest forever according to the order of Melchizedek. Hebrews 6:19-20
Hope is Kathy’s word. It’s been on a chain around her neck the past three years. It’s travelled with her to chemo appointments, over trash cans and kitchen sinks where she has stood doubled over from nausea and pain, and into weekly doctor visits where she has had to face hard news. It’s travelled with her on family trips and in backyard gatherings of friends and neighbors eating dinner and swimming in their pool. It’s carried her when the lights have gone off and she’s chosen to go on thanking and praising the Lord, no matter how she feels or what circumstances dictate. Kathy’s strong and joyful determination to choose hope from the moment she heard the word “cancer” have stood as a beautiful testimony to the beautiful spirit of woman who has chosen, against all odds, to trust and hope in God.
So that’s why, this week, when the decision was made to call in hospice, all of us who know and love Kathy had a decision to make about hope when it looked like her anchor had been cut and was plummeting to the depths of the sea.
Personally speaking, for several days, I had to wrestle with and remember the definition of hope, not according to what I wanted it to be or thought it would be but according to what it actually is. Hope defined according to the Gospel of Grace, the good news given to us by the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ and the authority He brings and instills in His Kingdom here on the this earth and in the world to come.
I went to my shelf and blew the dust off of a cover of a book I read in college: Faith Hope Love by philosopher Josef Pieper. It is a book I read before I had children when I actually had brain cells and the ability to concentrate longer than ten seconds on any particular task. I remembered the section on Hope being particularly helpful when I read it twenty years ago, and when I went back to its highlighted pages, I wasn’t disappointed.
“The virtue of hope,” writes Pieper, “is preeminently the virtue of the status viatoris; it is the proper virtue of the ‘not yet.’….To be a ‘viator’ means to be ‘one on the way’. The status viatoris is, then, the ‘condition or state of being on the way’. Its proper antonym is status comprehensoris. One who has comprehended, encompassed, arrived, is no longer a viator, but a comprehensor…The ‘not yet’ of the status viatoris includes both a negative and a positive element: the absence of fulfillment and the orientation toward fulfillment.”
So why in the world was that complicated definition with Latin words helpful to bolstering my understanding of hope?
Because hope, according to Pieper, and according to the Scriptures, is the state of being on the way. It’s the virtue associated with knowing while you take breath on this earth you haven’t arrived yet. The moment you live on planet earth and think you have arrived, the moment your hope disappears. Until we take our last breath here, and stand before King Jesus and see Him face-to-face, we are not Home. Therefore, when awful things happen here on this earth, when the lights go out, when cancer calls our name, when it looks like hope exits the room and hospice enters, hope remains as long as we understand that we are on the way.
Kathy is on her way to healing. Even if the Lord chooses to heal her body completely while she is still on this earth and eradicate cancer from her physical frame (something for which we still pray), she will still not have arrived. She will still be on the way. A viator. A traveller. A pilgrim. A sojourner. A sojourner whose tent pegs are driven firmly and beautifully and purposefully in the dirt of this earth, but who knows she has a permanent home to come.
So hope remains. Even with hospice. Or, I should probably say, especially with hospice. Because as much as we want Kathy to be healed on this earth, every step she takes closer to Heaven is a step filled with more and more hope. Because true, lasting, eternal, physical, emotional, and spiritual healing is about to flood her soul. Forever.
So what I am learning this week is that hospice isn’t the enemy of hope. Bad news isn’t the enemy of hope. War and rumors of war aren’t the enemies of hope. Cancer, sickness, illness, broken bones, broken bodies and broken souls are not the enemies of hope. But despair and false hope are.
“Hope says: it will turn out well; or more accurately and characteristically: It will turn out well for mankind; or even more characteristically: It will turn out well for us, for me myself. To these characteristic degrees of hope there correspond the degrees of despair. The most characteristic form of despair says: It will turn out badly for us and for me myself” (Pieper).
The first enemy of hope, despair, is seeing the height to which God has called us to rise, and refusing to rise. Despair is seeing the beautiful, healing life God makes available to us through the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, and choosing to remain sick. Despair is fearing “more than anything else the demands that are made, as a matter of course, on one who is well” (Pieper). Despair is a purposeful turning aside from life to sorrow. From resurrection to death. From hope in fulfillment in the life, home, and healing to come to focusing on (and even demanding) its fulfillment in the here and now.
The second enemy of hope, false hope, is more commonly known by another name…pride. We come to God on our own terms, in our own way, fully expecting Him to meet our demands and desires for fulfillment of hope the way we think He needs to answer. We falsely hope in a God who lives to serve us, rather than us serving Him.
False hope demands answers in the here and now and makes the subtle shift of moving from one who is on the way to one who has arrived.
Every day, Kathy, and those of us who love Kathy, live walking on the razor edge of hope. A misstep one way causes despair and spiritual sorrow that our petitions for the fulfillment for her healing have not been met in the here and now. And a misstep the other way causes us to land in the midst of false hope. Thinking we know the answers and that true healing can only occur while standing firmly with our feet planted on this earth.
The razor edge of hope is a hard place to walk. Actually, it’s an impossible place to walk, save for the anchor tied to our souls that firmly fixes us to God. Hebrews tells us that Jesus is a High Priest who can help us in our time of need because He looked hopelessness full in the face. He faced the temptation to despair and to refuse to believe that it could turn out well for Him or for others’ souls. He faced the temptation to have false hope that He could bring His kingdom in His way and His time, and the world could be His (see Luke 4:1-13). But every time despair or false hope reared its ugly head, Jesus placed His true hope in God. “Since then we have a great high priest who has passed through the heavens, Jesus the Son of God, let us hold fast our confession. For we do not have a high priest who cannot sympathize with our weaknesses, but One who has been tempted in all things as we are, yet without sin. Let us therefore draw near with confidence to the throne of grace, that we may receive mercy and may find grace to help in time of need” (Hebrews 4:14-16).
So this week, that is where I am headed. To the throne of grace.
Last week, I had to search for and remember my definition of hope and the enemies that desire to keep me from it. So this week, my desire is to stay firmly planted in true hope, real hope, hope that does not despair that God works all things for the good of those who love Him and are called according to His purpose (Romans 8:28). Hope that this earth is not home. It is place that God loves and even died to save (John 3:16), but it is a place that is broken, old, and dying from the curse of sin but will one day be renewed (Rev 21:1-8). I will not be tempted to fall off the razor edge of hope into despair of God or pride that I am God. Well, let’s face it. I might. But if I do, I have an anchor that ties me firmly to the throne of grace, to Jesus who is there to look long at me, and at Kathy, her family, and her friends, and to renew our hope when we need it the most.
Hope was Kathy’s word. And hope is still Kathy’s word. Because Jesus is Kathy’s God. And wherever Jesus stands, He stands with hope and healing in His Hands.
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