Fade To Black (And White)
Eileen and I have now been married nearly forty-two years and have known each other forty-four. This coming January, Joshua will have been gone twenty-five years. Joel has been out of college ten years and is nearly thirty-three. And now, Eileen and I are back to where it all began – empty nesters.
There has been a “whole lot of living” in all of those years. And as promised at the beginning, we trust that we have given you a glimpse into how God has brought about good and how He has blessed us with joy and peace in the midst of affliction and sorrow.
The Apostle James tells us, “to consider it pure joy, my brothers, whenever you face trials of many kinds, because you know that the testing of your faith develops perseverance. Perseverance must finish its work so that you may be mature and complete, not lacking anything. . . . Blessed is the man who perseveres under trial, because when he has stood the test, he will receive the crown of life that God has promised to those who love Him” (James 1:2-4, 12, NIV).
As I reflect on the feelings and emotions associated with the images of trials in Our Family Album, pure joy is certainly not one of them. Nor would I expect it to be. It would, I believe, miss James’ point altogether. It is not the trials that we should consider pure joy. Rather, it is knowing that through these trials, in the midst of the sorrow and affliction, God is at work in our lives. That is what we should be joyful about — God is at work in our lives! He is making us into who we are and who we are becoming. Not just for us, but for anyone who might see God working in our lives and are somehow blessed or inspired because of it. And not just for the here and now, but for all of eternity. For “if only [in] this life we have hope in Christ, we are to be pitied more than all men” (1 Corinthians 15:19, NIV). Perhaps with an extra measure of pity thrown in for our family. But “Christ has indeed been raised” (1Corinthians 15:20), giving us a hope that extends beyond this life and its disappointments.
Even so, in the midst of anguish and sorrow, this is a difficult perspective to come to. It is not just difficult during the trials. It is also difficult sometimes just looking back on the experiences. It would, in fact, be less than honest of us to claim that there were not times where we questioned why things had to turn out the way that they turned out. We questioned them many times, and still do on occasion.
But once again, this is where God’s all sufficient grace comes through for us. Rather than becoming embittered by the pain and sorrow that has been allowed in our lives, He gives us a perspective that reaches beyond the experiences, beyond this life and into eternity. This perspective shows us that what has happened here on earth, what has been memorialized in Our Family Album, although often unpleasant, is temporary. A twinkling of the eye, a mere instant in time when compared against the never-ending future we will have in eternity.
Eventually the pain that accompanied these images will disappear. But what remains, the handiwork of God created in our lives through these experiences, will last forever. “For our light and momentary troubles are achieving for us an eternal glory that far outweighs them all. So we fix our eyes not on what is seen, but on what is unseen. For what is seen is temporary, but what is unseen is eternal” (2 Corinthians 4:16-18, NIV). By then we might be asking ourselves, “so what if we have exchanged temporal pleasure in this world for temporal afflictions?” In the bargain we have stored “up for [ourselves] treasures in heaven,” (Matthew 6:19, NIV), that will last forever. In some respects it might be like the pain a mother experiences during childbirth. A rather unpleasant experience I am told. But the pain, intense as it can be, does not last. And the joy that comes after the pain makes it all but forgotten. An inconsequential price to pay when measured against the end result.
Looking back on our journey together as a family I am reminded of another journey from my all-time favorite work of fiction – The Lord of the Rings trilogy by J. R. R. Tolkien. It is an epic quest to destroy an evil ring of power before it fell back into the hands of its already powerful and wicked master. In the trilogy the quest fell to a most unlikely creature, not at all the type of person one would choose for such a formidable undertaking. Early in the story we read this exchange between the unlikely hero (Frodo the Hobbit) and the mentor and guide (Gandalf the Wizard):
“I do really wish to destroy it!” cried Frodo. “Or, well, to have it destroyed. I am not made for perilous quests. I wish I had never seen the ring! Why did it come to me? Why was I chosen?” “Such questions cannot be answered,” said Gandalf. “You can be sure it was not for any merit that others do not possess: not for power or wisdom, at any rate. But you have been chosen, and you must therefore use such strength and heart and wits as you have.”
Why we were chosen to see such “perilous” afflictions cannot be answered fully this side of Heaven. But we were, and certainly not for our “merit, power or wisdom.” We lacked sufficient quantities of these to face what was before us. But as we faced these afflictions we believe we saw the following principle of “strength and heart and wits” at work in our lives. “[This] all-surpassing power [was] from God and not from us. We [were] hard pressed on every side, but not crushed; perplexed, but not in despair; persecuted, but not abandoned; struck down, but not destroyed. We always [carried] around in our [family] the death of Jesus, so that the life of Jesus may also be revealed in [Our Family Album]” (2 Corinthians 4:7-10). We hope, that at least in some small measure, that it has been so. If it has, the praise is due Him, not us. If not, that is our failure, not His.
And now, as we look forward to the continued journey we have before us, we believe that we are beginning “to grasp how wide and long and high and deep is the love of Christ, and to know this love that surpasses knowledge—that [we] may be filled to the measure of all the fullness of God. Now to him who is able to do immeasurably more than all we ask or imagine, according to his power that is at work within us, to him be glory in the church and in Christ Jesus throughout all generations, for ever and ever! Amen.” (Ephesians 3:18-20). I say we are beginning to grasp it because it is “not that [we] have already obtained all this, or have already been made perfect, but [we] press on to take hold of that for which Christ Jesus took hold of [us]. [We] do not consider [ourselves] yet to have taken hold of it. But one thing [we] do: Forgetting what is behind and straining toward what is ahead, [we] press on toward the goal to win the prize for which God has called [us] heavenward in Christ Jesus.” (Philippians 3:12-14).
We press on. Knowing, that while we may look like we have been defeated by all of the things that life has thrown at us, that in reality through “all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us. For [we are] convinced that neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons, neither the present nor the future, nor any powers, neither height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord.” (Romans 8:37-39).
It bears repeating that in the final analysis, Our Family Album, the images that are seen, are not an accurate picture after all. It is what God has produced through the experiences recorded in our album, what is unseen, that tell the real story of our lives. Eventually, the pictures in our album will fade, in the end forgotten by most. But what remains will never be forgotten. What remains, God’s handiwork woven together in the fabric of our lives, is eternal.
Please forgive me for drawing this to a close with a somewhat rambling sermon, but I felt compelled to conclude with a few verses that have inspired and sustained my family and me throughout the last forty-plus years. I also include below a couple of inspirational readings that have encouraged and inspired me over the years. I hope they will do the same for you too. After the readings we share a few final thoughts, as we fade to black.
Before that, I feel that I must also offer an apology. It is a vice shared by many husbands and fathers to boast a little too much about their spouses and children. As I proofread Our Family Album it occurred to me that I too shared this vice and had perhaps placed my family on a pedestal that was much too high for any of us to have possibly climbed up on by ourselves. My intention in writing this book was to place our family in a light that was a reflection of Christ’s work in our lives. It was not to portray us in a more favorable light of our own making than I ought to. I am sorry if my intentions fell short. After all, if not to reflect Christ, the only thing a pedestal is really good for is to fall off. A second reason for writing this book was to possibly help others who find the struggles of life a bit more than they can handle at times and offer some degree of hope and encouragement. If anyone happens to read this book, I truly hope it helps.
And now, as we began “once upon a time,” we return to what we hope is “happily ever after.” In some respects things are the same. Once again it is just the two of us, empty-nesters continuing their life-long journey together. In other respects, so much has changed. We have a few more hard-earned wrinkles, a little less hair, a touch of dull grey replacing the shiny highlights that once were captured by the camera and an extra pound here and there, mostly in places we do not want them to be. The two of us are now more one, with similar habits, attitudes and outlooks on life, than when we started our journey together so many years ago.
But most of the changes in us are the ones that cannot be seen in a photograph. They are the changes that God has brought about in who we are as a result of the varied experiences that He has led us through. As we look back all too often we see that there were “only one set of footprints in the sand,” as the song says. For while He gave us each other as “suitable helpmates” to lean upon as we took our journey through life together, many times He had to carry us both.
Now, we find ourselves closer to the end of that journey than we are to the beginning of it, neither one of us wanting to be the one that has to finish the journey without the other. Until then a few more chapters may be written. But for now, we conclude this series of musings from Our Family Album.
“Th-th-th-that’s all folks!”