I love stories. I love reading stories. I love watching stories. I love telling stories. And I believe that God actually writes our stories. I LOVE how the Bible is filled with stories of the flawed and frail human beings who the Lord loved and wrote into the parchment of history. I am so thankful for the stories recorded for us, that we might know God more through each story He’s written.
But what do you do when you don’t like a chapter of your story? What do you do when the chapter you don’t like…is a permanent chapter…a chapter on death…and one that will affect every page of the rest of your book?
That is where I am at. Though I truly believe that God’s goodness and mercy do follow (literally: wildly pursue) us all the days of our lives…I also believe in the rest of the Psalm. I also believe that sometimes, we are led by our Shepherd right through the valley of the shadow of death. And just as there are hard chapters to read, to watch, and to tell…these hard chapters are even infinitely harder to live.
In this journey through the valley of the shadow of death, there is one biblical character in particular that I have really identified with. I thought it would be David…but it isn’t. It’s Peter. Clumsy, broken, vocal Peter.
I so identify with Peter’s desperate words to Jesus, “Lord, to whom else shall we go…You have the Words that give eternal life!” I identify with Peter’s struggle to walk with Jesus as Satan literally sifted him like wheat and a war was fought over his very soul. I identify with Peter’s broken heart, as his entire world fell apart with the death of the One he loved.
But the part of Peter’s story I have most identified with is that scene on the beach. You know…the one with the cozy bonfire, the delicious fish, and the resurrected Christ. The one where Jesus has a very significant heart to heart with his beloved friend…
“Peter was grieved because he said to him the third time, “Do you love me?” and he said to him, “Lord, you know everything; you know that I love you.” Jesus said to him, “Feed my sheep. Truly, truly, I say to you, when you were young, you used to dress yourself and walk wherever you wanted, but when you are old, you will stretch out your hands, and another will dress you and carry you where you do not want to go.” (This he said to show by what kind of death he was to glorify God.) And after saying this he said to him, “Follow me.” -John 21:17-19
I feel like Peter in so many ways. I wake up every morning in my new life and I think, “How did I get here?” One minute I was decorating a baby room, feeling Charlie kick, and preparing for my life with him…and one heartbeat later I was planning a funeral for my own child. All of the life I had thought I was going to have with my sweet son…is suddenly spent living without him. I feel heartbroken and disoriented and very, very uncertain of what is next.
I also feel more certain than ever of the truth that my life is not my own. More certain than ever that I can’t control nearly as much of it (read: any of it, ultimately) as I had thought I could. I obviously didn’t think I could control major world events, the weather, or the conception of a child…but once someone you love has died, you are hit sharply with the realization that you actually can control much, much, much less of life than you had thought you could.
Now I hear verses like I Corinthians 6:20, “You are not your own, you were bought with a price,” and I realize that God is actually talking about my life. My life is not my own. My kids are not ultimately my own. My life story is not my own. The quill is not actually in my hand. And nothing makes you realize this quite like death.
It’s not surprising that death is what Jesus is referring to during their little beach side chat. Ultimately Peter’s physical death, but also, I believe, the death of self, the death of dreams, the death of his life as he knew it.
I feel this too. Like when I was young (read: before Charlie’s death) I mostly went where I wanted to go (read: I didn’t HATE my life) and now, I’ve been led where I did not want to go. A silent hospital room. A cemetery. A grief support group. These are places I have literally been led…that I never, ever wanted to go.
It doesn’t mean I no longer see GOD in my story. Or that I no longer like any part of what is being written by Him…but honestly, I would never have written it like this. My heart often feels what Job cried out from the deep valley of death’s shadow, “I loathe my life. I will give free utterance to my complaint. I will speak in the bitterness of my soul.” (Job 10:1-2.) Please hear me…I, like Job, also see that my Redeemer lives and that God is very much at work in even the hardest chapters and the deepest darkness…but do you honestly think Job liked burying TEN of his kids? Absolutely not.
And it was the heartbreak of my life to bury one.
Death takes each and every one of us…places we never wanted to go. And I really believe that the same was true for Peter. Peter…who was mercilessly crucified upside down on a cross. Peter…who was led there by Someone who had endured the suffering of crucifixion as well.
Maybe that is why I find such comfort in Jesus’ words to Peter that this was coming. That Jesus not only knew about this suffering, but that this was what He had written for him. And in classic, Peter fashion, he was none too happy about it. Right after Jesus tells Peter what was going to happen in his life, Peter asks, “But, Lord, what about (John)?” And Jesus replies, “If it is my will that he remain until I come, what is that to you?”
I don’t think Jesus could be any clearer with him, that even in the hardest parts of Peter’s story...He was writing every single word. This is SO VERY IMPORTANT. Because I really believe that one of the biggest lies of the American church “prosperity gospel” isn’t about prosperity at all. It’s not about money or houses or jet planes or cars…the biggest lie is that your most precious treasure…your life…is YOURS. Yours to give to God, or to keep if you’d prefer. And that if you do decide to grace Him with your life…it’s still yours to control. Yours to go where you want, when you want, how you want. Yours to withhold from others. And yours to even withhold from Him.
All I can say to that big fat lie is “Nope.” It’s just not true. It’s not the real Gospel. Not from the real Savior Jesus whose sovereign will ultimately led every single one of his closest friends to painful deaths.
And it’s not true for my life either. A BABY…my baby whom I had wanted so very much DIED inside of me, and his sweet body is buried in the ground. And now, we, all five of us, are slowly learning to live with the broken pieces of our shattered life…
We talk about death every single day with our kids, because death is now very, very real. We also talk about Heaven.
We talk about prayer and how we pray the desires of our hearts…not our demands to God of what He must do. And we pray like that together.
We talk about how Jesus promised that He came to “bind up the broken hearted.” And this means so very much because right now there are five broken hearts where we had once thought six less broken ones would live. And yet, Jesus is here with us.
This is where we have been led.
And THIS is the Christian life. For each and every one of us. And no matter who you are…I know that there will be chapters in your life with Christ where you will experience being led where you never wanted to go. And honestly, this is what most of the Kingdom world experiences…through most of the chapters of their stories. So many of our brothers and sisters around the world are undergoing incredible suffering as they live out the Gospel The Lord Jesus is telling through them in their corners of the world.
And I know that many of you are walking through deep pain as well. In the Third World this being “led” through dark valleys has names like hunger, poverty, slavery, persecution, and death. But here in America there are different names for the painful valleys of the human heart… abuse, cancer, soul poverty, and still, as much as we fight it…death.
And yet, in the midst of all of this suffering…He who conquered even death…calls us to do the very same thing that He once told Peter. That whoever you are, and wherever you are…if you are His…you’re to feed His lambs. To let your story reveal to this hurting and broken world…that His Word still feeds the hungry soul. To let the story He is writing through you show that even in the darkest valley…He is still the Shepherd who loves his lambs, and binds up their broken hearts. One heart at a time. In every corner of the world.
Sadly, this world will always be filled with hungry, hurting, broken lambs.
Until one day…when we’ll finally be in the Place where nothing is broken. Where there is no sickness, or sorrow, or mourning, or death.
And it is There where the story, His Story…will begin it’s very best chapter.
The one where He is worshipped forever as the great Shepherd of our souls. The great Binder of the broken hearted. The great Author and Perfector of these stories we have lived.