Unexpected change can wreck havoc in our lives, wreck our faith, and cause us tremendous grief. This post will help us learn to process change and keep our faith intact.
I’ve been thinking a lot lately about change. Seems like every week over the past couple of months, I’ve encountered a patient or family who are suddenly faced with a life-threatening illness or situation, and BOOM!, their whole world is different.
Speaking of change, last weekend was Veterans Day in the USA, and as I was preparing my thoughts for my weekly newsletter I ran across this old picture of my big brother Rob and me with our mom around 1992, back when we were both lieutenants. We were both skinny and young, and still both blissfully unaware of the fact that life could jump up and bite you.
But change was coming.
This was before Rob’s stroke, before I went to war, before we’d both lost sons and my mom lost two grandsons. A lot has changed since this picture, and the subject of change is what I want to discuss with you today.
This past week I had a profound conversation with my father-in-law Dennis. It’s been a tough few months for him, as he’s been taking care of Lisa’s mom Patty. Patty’s suffering from a rapidly progressive neurologic problem, struggling with her balance and speech, falling a lot, and this past week had to have surgery to relieve pressure on her brain. She seems to be getting better now, but the strain of watching the woman he’s been married to for half a century has taken a lot out of Dennis (and all of us).
To give you some background, Dennis is one of the foundational people in my life. I met him during a dark hour in my history; first marriage crumbling, serving in a war-time military hospital and unsure of what would happen to me, struggling with my faith.
Dennis was the guy at our church in San Antonio who visited the sick, served as a chaplain to local hospitals, prayed with and for anyone who was having a problem. One Wednesday night, after I’d lost a patient and was hurting badly, I came into the church early and sat in the back of the dark sanctuary. I just needed some quiet to sort out how I was feeling. I was crying and praying and asking God to explain himself for all the hard things I was going through. Suddenly I became aware of an arm around my shoulder. I opened my eyes and looked to the right to see a man sitting next to me. It was Dennis. The first words he ever spoke to me were, “I felt like you could use someone to pray with.”
Over the next few months we prayed together, visited people in hospitals together, shared meals and golf games and many tears together. He and Patty became like second parents to me. And years later, I married their daughter Lisa and we became family.
Although I knew the Lord, Dennis showed me how to be His hands and feet to other people. He’s got a flat knee cap and smooth skin on his right shin from thousands of hours of kneeling to pray with people. He breathes encouragement and brings scripture to life in practical ways, right where people need to feel Jesus and not “religion” in their worst moments.
Over the years, I’ve looked to Dennis when I was in tough spots and the pain of life made it hard to see God. When I went to war and wasn’t sure I was a good enough leader, he reminded me how he commanded men by using Jesus’ example. When I lost a child and wondered how I would survive it, Dennis reminded me that he and Patty had lost two, and taught me how to see God’s hand in the healing process. Everything I experienced in life Dennis had somehow been through as well, and his friendship and example always help me see that God’s plan and His word will provide the answers and show me the path to get through it.
Fast-forward to last week, and we’re sitting in my house after spending the whole day at the hospital sitting with Patty the night before her surgery. Lisa was at a meeting, and Dennis and I were on the couch talking about everything.
He said, “Everything’s changing,” and went on to talk about Patty’s illness and how difficult it was to watch her struggling to even make a sentence when six months ago she was able to cook and clean and FaceTime the great-grandkids, sharp as ever. He talked about all the friends they have who are selling their houses and moving to assisted living facilities or smaller places. And about how life is taking on a different feel for them than he ever anticipated, and how shocked he was at the speed with which Patty’s illness has attacked her.
Then he said, “It feels like God’s not listening anymore.”
It was one of those moments when time seemed to stand still for me, like when a mortar landed close by in Iraq and for a few seconds I waited for it to explode and kill all of us. Once I realized it wasn’t going to detonate, I started to breathe again.
Dennis was looking down at his hands. It was quiet in the room and we both just sat for a few seconds. I didn’t know what to say, because in my world a Dennis McDonald with shaken faith would seriously be hard to process. There are some certainties I need to count on, and his ability to navigate trouble and still believe is one of the major ones.
We read some scripture, we cried, we talked about all we’d been through, and how God had always gotten us through it in the past.
And then he looked up and said, “I’m so glad that what we feel isn’t always what’s true. Because even when I feel like God’s far away, I can look back over my whole life and see that He’s always right there. And He’s here in this too, for Patty and for me and for all of us.”
We read Lamentations 3, and Dennis reminded me that in the same chapter where Jeremiah said, “My strength has perished, and so has my hope from the Lord,” (verse 18) he also wrote, “The steadfast love of the Lord never ceases, his mercies never come to an end… therefore I will hope in him.” (verses 22-24).
Then Dennis turned to Psalms and read me this: “When I am afraid, I put my trust in you.” (Psalm 56:3)
“You see,” Dennis said, “It’s okay to be afraid. The Bible never tells us not to be scared. It tells us what to do when we are scared.”
What do you do when everything’s changing in your life?
Does it wreck your faith? Does it make you afraid? Or do you know where to turn to find solid ground again?
Sometimes we need another person to just sit with us, talk through it, and remind us of what we know to be true. Always, we need to look back at what God’s done in previous times to help us make it.
I live and work in a world where these big changes, like my brother’s stroke, happen instantly and with no warning. My good friend Dubby is the best emergency room doctor I’ve ever seen, and she sees this even more often than I do. People are fine one moment and then suddenly, they’re sick or injured or dying and there’s no more time to fix whatever things in their lives they’d planned on taking care of “someday.”
Like my mother-in-law’s illness took us all by surprise, life can throw up big changes you weren’t expecting. These things can shake your faith unless you land on the same stunningly important conclusion Dennis did: what we feel isn’t always what’s true.
One thing is for sure, though: life is full of change, often out-of-the-blue and unexpected change. So we need to be ready, and not have our faith connected to momentary circumstance.
Take a lesson from Dennis, and make the decision to hold onto your faith despite the painful changes life can bring.
And start today.