Editor's Note: On June 28, 1987, four Dallas-based Christian leaders were killed in an airplane crash as they were returning from a Focus on the Family retreat in Montana: George L. Clark, chairman of the board and CEO of Mbank; Dr. Trevor E. Mabery, a surgeon who helped found Humana Hospital-Medical City; Hugo W. Schoelkopf III, an entrepreneur and sporting goods manufacturer; and Creath Davis, senior pastor of First Baptist Church.
Among the losses their families shared, Creath's wife, Verdell, also lost part of her identity: No longer was she a pastor's wife, and no longer was she sure what she believed.
Oh God, where do you go to put down the pain? The voice I heard filling my car was my own. My sobbing threatened safe driving, but I didn't care. Can a person really die of a broken heart? If so, I wished it would hurry up. I told God that if something didn't ease this pain soon, I was going to explode. It had been two months since my husband's death, and I wasn't sure I could physically endure much longer.
Sooner or later pain and sorrow invade our lives, and their sources are legion. We can't run fast enough, hide well enough, be good enough or become wealthy enough to escape heartache. It is part of the human condition. "Lifestorms" will come those times when our lives are interrupted by an unexpected loss, the consequences of sin, the devastation of betrayal or the ruin of everything we have worked for.
The lifestorm that blew through my life, forever changing its landscape, came like a rogue wind out of a clear blue sky, leaving destruction in its wake. I was left to pick up the broken pieces and try to put together some sort of existence.
At lest that's what I though I was supposed to do. This is too big even for God, I thought. Convinced that life could never be good again, I thrashed about, searching for ways to get through each bleak day. Surviving was the best I could hope for.
But over time I learned that God never intended for us just to survive our losses. Within each lifestorm he plants a seed of new life. He buries it deep within our souls and waits as we grieve our way toward it. As we do, the wound opens to the light of his love and grace, the seed sprouts and hopelessness gives way to new life.
So it was with me.
Before June 1987, being a wife of a minister defined my life. I had loved Creath since I was 16 years old, and I needed him for my life to make sense. In the wake of the accident, I clung desperately to my memories, trying to find stability. Tearfully reflecting on our long talks, our children, our dreams and our ministry kept me tied to what was familiar when everything else was strange and frightening.
We had been married 27 years when I was forced to face life without him. We had weathered the storms of early marriage and the meshing of two opposite personalities, his outgoing and embracing, mine compliant and quiet. We had raised three children and put our arms around two grandchildren. We were at a good place in life, and with our love for each other came a deep and satisfying friendship.
My desire was to be the wife he needed. I saw this as God's assignment for me, one I gladly accepted. I loved Creath completely and found contentment in his happiness.
But then he was gone. My identity, my dreams, my contentment, my security, my sense of future — all went with him.
Day after weary day, I begged God for the will to get up in the morning. If the choice had been mine, I would have chosen death over the pain that consumed my every thought and made my fragile spirit and body ache with fatigue. That is, until the day Stephen, my younger son, put his arms around me and said, "Mom, I have a reason for you to get up in the morning." "What's that?" I asked.
He simply pointed to himself. In that gesture I saw all three of my children: David, Shawna and Stephen, all in their 20's when their father died. At that moment I knew that no matter how much I hurt, I had to do more than just survive this loss.
"Do what you must," I begged God, "but please get me to the place where I can embrace life again." I owed this to my kids — and to myself.
Now, more than 10 years later, I feel as if I am standing "on the other side" with Pilgrim in John Bunyan's classic, Pilgrim's Progress: "Now morning being come, he looked back, not with any desire to return, but to see, by the light of day, what hazards he had gone through in the dark."
Morning has come to me, and I look back in awe. I still remember the darkness; I can still see the shadows. My crisis of faith was very real, and the hazards were ominous. Even so, in the light I see how God has brought forth a new life.
In the years since the crash, among the many things I have learned, I have discovered three truths:
I have often wondered if Job, after losing his family and property, would have heard God as clearly had he not emptied himself of the myriad thoughts and questions disturbing him in the face of unexplained loss. Job lived his questions, as did I. I asked God "Why?" and "What now?" and "Who am I without the man I love?" I asked him, "Are you truly sovereign? Do you ordain all that happens to us? What am I to believe about prayer?"
I questioned goodness and tragedy, love and pain, promises and reality. Though I have embraced the gospel for as long as I can remember, I felt torn by the tension of saying, "I believe. Help my unbelief."
In the midst of raging questions, and growing more and more impatient with easy religious answers, one day I found myself praying, "God, help me look beyond my subjective interpretation of your promises, and look to you, who made those promises."
In time, even while I still ended my sentences with question marks, I came to believe what my husband had taught: You can trust in the character of God beyond what you understand. Job certainly learned this, and he said to God, "My ears had heard of you but now my eyes have seen you" (Job 42:5).
There is no dark so dark as hopelessness. When all hope is gone and we are convinced it will never be retrieved, we die, if not physically, then most certainly emotionally. Life becomes meaningless. For hope to be real and operable in the midst of a lifestorm, it must be rooted in the truth of an unchanging, sovereign God.
Peter's question for Jesus must be ours: "Lord, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life" (John 6:68).
Our search for the hope that will restore the will to live must take us to the eternal perspective of God's redeeming purpose; this world is not the whole story. God's purpose is not to make us comfortable, but to make us like himself in character, so that one day we will stand in the presence of a holy God, because he has made us holy.
In our darkest hours, we must cling tenaciously to the hope stored up for us in heaven. When we do that, we begin to see meaning and purpose in our most painful and baffling experiences. The sustaining force of this hope allows us to believe that God is doing great work in our suffering.
Until the pain of staying is greater than the fear of going, we will always remain with the familiar. I came to the place in my journey where I knew I had done my grief work well and that changes in my life were urging me onward.
Moving ahead demanded that I first let go of what was no longer mine — not only my husband, but also a ministry that had given me a great deal of fulfillment. It was difficult to open my fists, so tightly clenched around "what was."
But once I did, I was able to finish my journey. And now, on this side of a very dark valley, I can see how God's intent in our suffering is to refine us and enable us to become, in Henri Nouwen's phrase, "wounded healers." For God's work is not about helping us to merely survive. He is about healing; he is about wholeness.
Ever feel like you need to wear a mask to cover up who you are? Are you concerned that, if people knew who you really are and how you really felt, they wouldn't understand?
One minister, two jobs and the family that's at the top of the list. The number of bivocational ministers, those in full- or part-time ministry who carry an additional job, is estimated by some researchers to be as high as 30 percent of ministers nationwide.
"You should see the church they attend," Lucille said, armed with bulletin and newsletter. Creases formed across my brow as celebration gave way to comparisons a trap that had sprung too many times.