A Time to Grow

A Time to Grow

We think of Lent as being all about sacrifice, but it can also be about joy.

Max Lucado

I was only in Washington, D.C., for the day. Yet I couldn’t leave without visiting the Vietnam Veterans Memorial. I had read and heard about it, but I’d never seen the wall myself. That it was the beginning of Lent made the visit more urgent, for isn’t Lent all about life and death, sacrifice and renewal?

A gray sky shed a coat of drizzle. I pulled my collar tight and descended a sloping sidewalk. There it was, the wailing wall of my generation.

As far as the eye could see, the black stone was carved with name after name of soldiers who had made the ultimate sacrifice. Behind each name was a bereaved widow, an anguished mother, a fatherless child.

At my feet lay a dozen roses, soggy and frosty from the weather. A girlfriend or wife had come to say, “I still remember.” A couple walked behind me. They were looking for a name and had a map. “Did you find it?” I heard the woman ask. “Every name has a reference number.”

True, I thought. Every name does have a number, and sooner or later every number is called.

For a moment I relaxed my focus and stared at the shiny stone. As I did, I saw myself, my own reflection, reminding me that I too have been dying as long as I have been living. I too will someday have my name carved on a stone.

Lent is that season when we stare directly at our own mortality. We make tiny sacrifices of our own to recall the incomparable sacrifice Christ made for us. It might all sound quite dreary, except on the other side of Lent is the enormous spiritual crescendo of Easter.

Jesus unmasked death and exposed it for what it really is–a 98-pound weakling dressed up in a Charles Atlas suit. I don’t doubt that at the end of that first Good Friday, the disciples thought, What a waste of a life. If they could only have seen what was coming. But to them the hour was too dark.

In my work as an author and pastor I remind people that God can use tough times to help us accomplish great things. I’ll be in my office listening to a woman whose husband just told her he wants a divorce. She takes a tissue from the box on my desk and sobs, asking questions I don’t have answers for.

What she needs more than anything is a word of hope. “God is at his best when our life is at its worst,” I tell her. We learn much more from our trials than from periods of happiness. “Get ready,” I say to her. “You may be in for a surprise.”

Do you need the same reminder? Stay close to God’s people when you’re in despair. God’s right there even if you can’t see him. That’s the message of Lent and the Resurrection.

Years ago, my wife, Denalyn, was fighting depression. Her life was loud and busy–three kids in elementary school and a husband who didn’t know how to get off the airplane and stay home. The days took their toll, each one grayer than the last.

Depression can buckle the knees of the best of us; it can be especially difficult for the wife of a pastor. Congregants expect her to radiate joy. They want her to be superhuman. But Denalyn, to her credit, has never been one to play games.

One Sunday when the depression was suffocating, when she could barely drag herself and the kids to church, she armed herself with honesty. If people ask me how I am doing, I’m going to tell them, she thought.

Friends, acquaintances, church members she hardly knew, came up to her and said, “Good to see you. How are you doing?”

She didn’t hedge. To every questioner she was candid. “Not well,” she said. “I’m depressed. Feeling completely overwhelmed. Will you pray for me?”

Obligatory chats became conversations. Brief hellos became heartfelt moments. By the time she left that day she had enlisted dozens of people to hold her up in prayer and to look out for her. She was not alone.

Denalyn traces the healing of her depression to that Sunday morning service. On her darkest day she found God’s presence among God’s people.

My father, a man of rock-solid faith, would have understood. No one had quite as much goodness as Dad. He worked as a mechanic in the oil fields of West Texas. Never finished high school, never went to college, but he learned the important skills in life.

He knew how to listen, how to love. His younger brother, my uncle Carl, was unable to hear or speak. Nearly all of his 60-plus years were spent in silence. Few people in the hearing world knew how to communicate with him in sign language.

Dad did. He took the trouble to master American Sign Language so he could communicate with his brother. Let Dad enter the room and Carl’s face would brighten. The two would find a corner and the hands would fly. Carl’s huge smile left no doubt that he was grateful.

Love is about listening and Dad listened to Carl.

Dad retired in his late sixties and he and Mom bought a travel trailer. Their plan was to see every national park in the country. As for me, I dreamed of doing mission work with Denalyn in Brazil.

I had finished college, gotten married, become a minister and served a church in Florida for two years. Finally we were ready.

Then my world darkened. Dad was diagnosed with ALS, or Lou Gehrig’s disease, a cruel and fatal neuromuscular condition. Within months he was unable to feed, dress or bathe himself. His world, as he knew it, was gone.

I wrote him a letter, saying that Denalyn and I had decided not to go to Brazil. We needed to take care of him and be with Mom. He wrote back, just two words that looked almost carved into the paper: “No! Go!” with big exclamation points. He had no fear of where he was going.

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