Order out of chaos

Learning about God: A Personal Story

Part 6 of 6

Editor’s Note — This year marks the 20th anniversary of the death of my wife, Eleanor, who died from injuries suffered in an automobile accident in South Africa. For all of those 20 years I have tried to support people walking the grief journey as I was supported in that crisis time.  It is only in the last few months that I have been able to write something I can share with others about the many crises of that experience and what I learned about God in the midst of grief. This article is part of that series. I pray it will be helpful to others walking the grief journey.

While a prisoner in Nazi concentration camps, Viktor Frankl learned to look into fellow inmates’ eyes and accurately predict which prisoner would live and which would die. Later in his book “Man’s Search for Meaning,” Frankl wrote that if one has a purpose for living, one can endure the cruelest of circumstances. Without a purpose, life cannot be sustained.

I had a reason for living — my children, my 4-month old grandson, my calling to be editor of The Alabama Baptist. And I had God’s promise that “I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me.” But that did not mean the grief journey would be smooth or always upward.

The first three years after Eleanor died I sat under an umbrella at the foot of her grave every July 20 between 6 and 6:30 p.m. That was the time Eleanor died. Every year it stormed at that time and more than once I sat there praying God would strike me with a lightning bolt. That would be an honorable way to die.

The loneliness was almost unbearable. Ours had been a good marriage and I longed for those days to return. One grandchild became two and then three and eventually four. I could not provide the support and help that Eleanor had when our first grandchild was born. My inability only compounded feelings of unworthiness.

Too soon I began dating and sometimes I pushed relationships too hard. Now I know that “find and replace” is a failed strategy for heartache. It prevents grief issues from being faced, but those issues eventually will demand attention, usually in unhealthy and destructive ways.

One can only work on one relationship at a time. Until issues related to one’s former relationship and one’s present identity have been worked through, the survivor has little to offer a new partner.

It took me about three years to begin to find a new sense of balance, to learn to live with an open wound. Often it was three steps forward and two back. But the falls were not as deep as before and it didn’t take as long to regain the lost ground.

I quit pushing toward goals as if it all depended on me and began taking (dare I say enjoying) life as it came.

The leaders of Pleasant Ridge Baptist Church, Hueytown, asked me to be their interim pastor in 1999. I told them I was not sure I was able to help because I was still pretty broken from Eleanor’s death. Ironically, Pleasant Ridge was the last church in which I preached the Sunday before Eleanor and I left for South Africa.

The leaders said their congregation was broken too — they had just had a split — and maybe we could help each other heal. In some ways, I think we did.

At the 125th anniversary of the church the following May, I was introduced to the daughter of one of the deacons — Patricia Hart, a professor at Samford University in Birmingham and former Southern Baptist missionary to Venezuela. The church still had a Woman’s Missionary Union group named for her. We talked briefly and that was that.

More than a year later Pat and I made contact through circuitous circumstances and agreed to meet for dinner. I remembered our earlier meeting but not what she looked like. I found a Samford directory to look up her picture so I would recognize her when she arrived.

I arrived early and was watching the door in order to greet her appropriately. While I didn’t expect it, it happened — when Pat stepped through the restaurant doors my heart jumped. Something inside of me said, “This is going to work.”

‘Bells and whistles and fireworks’

Sometime before, in a conversation with friends who also had lost their spouses, I shared how I had read that second marriages were more about companionship than the “bells and whistles” of early romances. One in the group dismissed that immediately saying she was looking for “bells and whistles and fireworks” in any future relationship.

That Sunday night it was all “bells and whistles and fireworks” for me. We talked until the restaurant closed. We saw each other on Thursday and went to Samford Homecoming on Saturday. The next Saturday, I asked Pat to marry me and she said, “Yes.”

That was October. We were married in March. We were both like teenagers caught up in a whirlwind romance. Our preoccupation with each other caused us not to be as considerate of other family members as we should have been. We had to work through that mistake with love, understanding and forgiveness.

Different people

There was one more challenge. I knew how to be Eleanor’s husband. I had to learn how to be Pat’s husband. Pat and Eleanor were different people. The relationships were different and that meant different ways of relating, acting and communicating.

And now more than 16 years later we both remain confident in who we are as individuals and as a couple because of love for one another and God’s promise that we “can do all things through Christ who strengthens” us.

For neither of us did life work out as originally envisioned. But God is faithful and works amid all the circumstances of life to bring good for His children and honor to His name. Out of the chaos created by sin God brings order and wholeness.

That is why a visitor to our home will see God’s promise recorded in Jeremiah 29:11 prominently displayed. The verse declares, “For I know the plans I have for you, declares the Lord, plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future.”

Our story is not over because the journey is not over. Life is never finished this side of heaven. We are always learning, always changing. But amid all the change and uncertainty one thing is sure — as believers we “can do all things through Christ who strengthens” us.