The last several weeks have been quite difficult ones. On Thursday, May 20th, my husband's younger brother, who had long struggled with an alcohol addiction, took his life. He was 44 years old. He himself admitted that he had fought against this overwhelming compulsion to drink from the age of twelve on, with only a ten year period of sobriety between the ages of 21 and 31.
It was during those ten years, that I met Rob, and eventually his brother, John. When I returned from the mission field and a brief stint in England, my sister-in-law proclaimed that there was a young man at their corps (The Norridge, Illinois, Salvation Army Corps) whom I just had to meet. I know that she recognized that I would be drawn to his passionate intensity for Christ as a moth to a flame.
Everything Rob did was with an intensity that left others astonished. I remember friends of mine, who were in The Salvation Army's Chicago Staff Band, commenting on Rob's eating habits. That guy could put away more food than anyone I ever met. At one point, he told his brother he had eaten 17 slices of Little Caesar's pizza in one sitting. Moreover, in later years, Rob chose to cover almost every food he ate in copious amounts of hot sauce.
When we would visit my in-laws, Rob would cook out and prepare an incredible array of burgers, brats and hot dogs. After one spicy burger left me sick (during my pregnancy with Trevor), I became more timid around his prepared meats. Of course, that didn't hold me back from enjoying his delectable home-made ice creams.
But, in later years, I really had come to dislike being around Rob. After his first marriage dissolved, his personality seemed changed. He was so fiercely loyal to his only daughter (who, at twelve, is now dealing with her own life-altering challenges) that he often blamed my oldest son for any of their altercations. Of course, I responded with my own mother bear tendencies.
Because Rob lived with my in-laws for several years, here and there, over the past five or six years, it meant that a visit to my in-laws automatically included visits with Rob. Although in many ways his presence was a blessing (a rich distraction from the pains and complaints of my father-in-law for my two young sons who couldn't merely contain their boisterous behavior because "Grandpa is ill"), it was also difficult. He had a patronizing tone with my mother-in-law that really grated on me. He would say, "Sit down, mother dear. Stop being so feisty, mother dear. I can get that, mother dear."
Moreover, his passion for God had shifted. It seemed to me that when his first wife gave up on him, Rob gave up on himself and on God. He remarried, but that relationship only lasted a year as well. It became painfully obvious that he was drinking. His demons were chasing him and all he wanted to do was run.
There were countless individuals who would have gladly stood in the gap for him. Many mutual Salvation Army friends would ask after him whenever I saw them. When I passed along their phone numbers, Rob ignored them. When I requested their prayerful intervention, Rob was incensed. Instead of accepting the support of others, as Moses required assistance in holding up his arms as the people of Israel crossed the parted Red Sea, Rob pulled deeper and deeper into himself and cursed the difficulties he faced.
For me, the most difficult aspect of dealing with Rob's death is that I can so completely relate to Rob's isolation and despair. I've been where he was on that fateful morning and it is only my own lack of resolve or strength that has kept me here, facing another day's difficulties. And in typical default mode, I reverted to asking many "what if" questions.
Rob had attempted suicide several times before, so the actual act didn't really take us by surprise. God seemed to intervene in each of those other occasions. After his first attempt, a police officer, who couldn't explain why he had driven out among the cornfields that day, noticed his car and his body slumped over. When Rob's stomach was pumped, he was violently angry that his plans had been thwarted. However, after that attempt (around age 20), he sought rehabilitation and many of his brass band friends from the University of Illinois (my Salvation Army friends) began to visit him and encourage him.
I found myself asking things like ... "what if Rob had succeeded that first time? what if, therefore, I never heard his zealous testimony? what if, therefore, I failed to consider or give his brother a chance?"
There were other "what ifs" that filled my brain, as well. What if my own children demonstrate these same propensities to extremes? What if one of my sons develops an addiction that proves a constant trial?
It was at this point that God's inscrutable timing began to appear. Several years back, I had read a book review for Paula Rinehart's Better Than My Dreams: Finding What You Long For Where You Might Not Think to Look, on Catherine Gillespie's blog. She mentioned one quote by Jim Elliott in her review and that one quote made me long to find and read the book. However, our library didn't have the book and every avenue I tried came up empty.
Shortly before Bryce's birthday, he requested an item on Amazon and wanted it to arrive quickly. Rather than pay exorbitant shipping fees, we opted to sign on for the one-month free trial of Amazon Prime, which allows for free shipping and reduced fees for urgent shipping. As our one month came to an end, John and I both made up a list of books we couldn't obtain elsewhere for purchase during the final free-shipping window. I purchased Paula Rinehart's book and began reading it on the drive over to Rob's viewing.
During the past several weeks, I have been a yo-yo. On the up swing, I have quoted from and recommended this book to other friends who struggle with accepting a life that is less than they had hoped for. Indeed, I have a distant friend on Facebook who recently shared her own personal struggle with me (involving her passionate desire for another child, her husband's participation and then abrupt withdrawal from adoption proceedings, and her own feeling that he has crushed her heart and stolen her dreams). I find myself wanting to send this book to her because it will speak to her wounded heart. There are so many individuals, like me, who analyze their life and feel short-changed or discontented, who need someone to pass them a pair of reading glasses that enable them to envision what the Lord might be eager to accomplish through their less-than-ideal circumstances.
Then, I hit the down swing. I have been weaning from the antidepressant Cymbalta. I was convinced that the drug was causing me to feel entirely depleted and to gain stubborn weight in my mid-section. Another friend has suggested that I might be dealing with adrenal fatigue (so I am pursuing further information and testing for that). Needless to say, many days I am a ragged mess.
I have been unable to rouse myself to deal with anything (thus the mindless distraction of the pointless Spider Solitaire games). I could not even blog. Even since Rob's loss, I have found myself wishing for the release he sought, wanting to abandon the struggle and simply cease to exist. It has seemed like more than I could bear. Last weekend, I even "ran away from home."
That was, in itself, quite discouraging. I headed back to DeKalb and felt overwhelmingly that there was nothing there to really return to. Although I could breathe freely (something I often cannot do at home in IN), it felt like trying to jam a now-circular peg into a square hole.
Tonight, I am back on the up-swing. One of the cancer families that I follow, sent out a post including a link to an article by John Piper, called "Don't Waste Your Cancer." So many tidbits from this article are resonating with me tonight. Although Piper's ten main points refer to individuals struggling with cancer, they could equally be posed to others. If Rob had read those words and inserted "alcoholism" for every c-word, he would possibly still be here. I choose, for myself, to merely substitute the idea of unwanted trial. And, really, don't we all have some trial in our lives that tests us like cancer, that takes us on a road that looks weedy and like a bad suggestion from Mapquest?
Here are his ten points (along with a few comments added by his colleague, David Powlison) that I found especially helpful (although, I would highly recommend reading the entire article at the provided link):
"You will waste your cancer" (addiction/trial/difficult marriage) ...
1) "if you do not believe it is designed for you by God."
2) "if you believe it is a curse and not a gift." (David Powlison adds "Your cancer, in itself, is one of those 10,000 ‘shadows of death’ (Psalm 23:4) that come upon each of us: all the threats, losses, pains, incompletion, disappointment, evils. But in his beloved children, our Father works a most kind good through our most grievous losses.")
3) "if you seek comfort from your odds rather than from God." Piper adds, "The aim of God in your cancer (among a thousand other good things) is to knock props out from under our hearts so that we rely utterly on him."
4) "if you refuse to think about death."
5) "if you think that “beating” cancer means staying alive rather than cherishing Christ. Satan’s and God’s designs in your cancer are not the same. Satan designs to destroy your love for Christ. God designs to deepen your love for Christ. Cancer does not win if you die. It wins if you fail to cherish Christ. God’s design is to wean you off the breast of the world and feast you on the sufficiency of Christ. It is meant to help you say and feel, “I count everything as loss because of the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord.”
6) "if you spend too much time reading about cancer and not enough time reading about God. Cancer is meant to waken us to the reality of God. "It is meant to make unshakable, indestructible oak trees out of us: “His delight is in the law of the Lord, and on his law he meditates day and night. He is like a tree planted by streams of water that yields its fruit in its season, and its leaf does not wither. In all that he does, he prospers” (Psalm 1:2).
7) "if you let it drive you into solitude instead of deepen your relationships with manifest affection." (And these are, I think my favorite additional words from David Powlison:) "Our culture is terrified of facing death. It is obsessed with medicine. It idolizes youth, health and energy. It tries to hide any signs of weakness or imperfection. You will bring huge blessing to others by living openly, believingly and lovingly within your weaknesses. Paradoxically, moving out into relationships when you are hurting and weak will actually strengthen others."
8) "if you grieve as those who have no hope." Here David Powlison adds, "How on earth can heartache coexist with love, joy, peace, and an indestructible sense of life purpose? In the inner logic of faith, this makes perfect sense. In fact, because you have hope, you may feel the sufferings of this life more keenly: grief upon grief. In contrast, the grieving that has no hope often chooses denial or escape or busyness because it can’t face reality without becoming distraught. In Christ, you know what’s at stake, and so you keenly feel the wrong of this fallen world. You don’t take pain and death for granted. You love what is good, and hate what is evil."
9) " if you treat sin as casually as before. Are your besetting sins as attractive as they were before you had cancer? If so you are wasting your cancer. Cancer is designed to destroy the appetite for sin. Pride, greed, lust, hatred, unforgiveness, impatience, laziness, procrastination—all these are the adversaries that cancer is meant to attack. Don’t just think of battling against cancer. Also think of battling with cancer. All these things are worse enemies than cancer. Don’t waste the power of cancer to crush these foes. Let the presence of eternity make the sins of time look as futile as they really are." David Powlison adds, "Suffering really is meant to wean you from sin and strengthen your faith. If you are God-less, then suffering magnifies sin. Will you become more bitter, despairing, addictive, fearful, frenzied, avoidant, sentimental, godless in how you go about life?"
10) "if you fail to use it as a means of witness to the truth and glory of Christ. Christians are never anywhere by divine accident. There are reasons for why we wind up where we do. Consider what Jesus said about painful, unplanned circumstances: “They will lay their hands on you and persecute you, delivering you up to the synagogues and prisons, and you will be brought before kings and governors for my name’s sake. This will be your opportunity to bear witness” (Luke 21:12 -13).
Once again, in the words of a Bryan Duncan song, "God knows, and I don't, what's good for me." It may not feel good. It may not appear to be the best path. But it can be the path that leads me to mark my compass towards Him. I only pray that I can continue to seek Him rather than give way to discouragement and preference for easy streets.