“How are you doing?”
How am I doing? How am I doing in what, exactly? With regards to how I am doing without my Annie, it’s only been a couple of months since she was called home and away. But it feels like days and decades all at once.
Today marks 81 days without my Annie. It’s my 12th weekend without my wife.
I’m finding my stride around the house and I’ve got my weekly chores down to a few hours on a Saturday morning. Using the washing machine no longer feels like cracking a safe and my household administration is running as smoothly as the well oiled runners of my filing cabinet drawers. There’s still an amount of post-death administration but I feel like I am in control of it and not vice versa.
There are still significant domestic mountains that I have yet to ascend including cooking and grocery shopping. With all the invitations to supper that I get I still haven’t had to do any significant grocery shopping – which is not a bad thing because I am still without a refrigerator. Today the engineer will visit for a third time and I am hoping that this time he leaves me with a refrigerator and not just a large, room-temperature kitchen cupboard with a light inside it!
The month of May has marked the event of a sudden uprise of kitchen emergencies. This time last Saturday I was literally up to my shoulders in the most foul smelling, endless depth of drain gunk as I pinpointed the source of my slow draining kitchen sink to a major blockage in the external drains. In a moment of weakness (both in competency and stomach!) I succumbed to calling a plumber but I am pleased to add that his outrageous call-out quote was as far as it got; I returned to the rubber gloves, a deep breath and the reward of a warm shower. I don’t believe that anyone in the world had a greater sense of achievement than me, when I de-clogged those pipes and had the drains running with water as clear as a mountain spring! Mount Blocked Drain, conquered! Equally, I don’t believe anybody in the world smelled as foul as me at that time!
So, how am I doing around the house? I guess I am doing okay. But the degree to which I am doing okay only emphasises and exacerbates the pain of how much I miss my Annie. The slicker and quicker I get at chores and other domestic duties, the more time I have alone to ponder and contemplate just how much I miss her. I miss sharing the mountaintop of my successes with my Annie as much as I miss holding her in the valley of my failures. I miss her encouragements. I miss having the confidence she gave me to tackle things that I didn’t think I could manage.
When it comes to DIY and domestics, some guys and girls are either born naturals or paid more attention in the classroom and at home than I did. 13 years ago, at 25 years of age, my skills were contained to whatever went on inside a computer; what went on inside a home was far more complex and overwhelming to me. Soon after Annie and I were married, I realised that buying a fixer-upper was great on the mortgage repayments, and greater still if you were endowed with the gift of fixer-upmanship. I was not endowed with that gift directly but God endowed me with a great treasure and a great helper named Annie. And what I lacked in those skills I developed through the encouragement and optimism of my wife. She really did not believe that there was a single thing that I could not do around the house – even if I had never attempted it before; I dare say, even if it clearly required a professional qualification! At least, that’s the way it came across to me.
Every good and perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father of the heavenly lights, who does not change like shifting shadows. – James 1:17
One of the many gifts that God gave to Annie was to be an encourager. She never stopped using that gift as long as she had breath in her. Encouragers are people who God gifts to give courage where it is needed. Where there is weakness or fear or doubt or despair, God uses an encourager to give courage so that the weak and fearful move forward in strength and confidence, getting the job done, making it through the valley or over the mountain. That’s what Annie did. And when I say “I miss her” I don’t only mean that I miss her physical beauty and touch; I greatly miss the courage she gave to me.
Annie’s gift of encouragement was not just bound to practical domestics; she applied it spiritually too. I recall so many late Saturday nights – the night before I was due to preach – on my knees and on my feet in the bedroom, praying unfinished and poorly articulated prayers, pacing and panicking “I can’t do this, Annie! It’s not coming together! I just can’t preach this…I don’t even think I understand what I’m supposed to be saying!” In the middle of those storms, God used Annie to personify His calm, channel His peace and arm me with courage. She would listen. She would pray for me. She would tell me to read out to her those unfinished Master’s pieces disguised as my preaching notes. And I recall how she would often say “Ry, just be open and transparent with the people. Just bring what God gives to you – even if it doesn’t feel like much. Don’t try to be someone God hasn’t made you. Don’t attempt to give more than what God has given to you.”
Rarely did I ever have to apply that last part of her encouragement. The transparency and openness she called me to, often remained within the four walls of our bedroom and was something visible only to Annie and to God. Not a Sunday went by where the Lord – in His grace and mercy – didn’t prove His faithfulness, provide me with the message and bring it all together literally by the eleventh hour of Sunday morning. Without doubt, my Annie was often His most effective channel of strength and courage to me. How many times I recall walking to those doors at the back of the hall after I had preached, thinking that folks should be shaking hands with Annie because without her gift of encouragement I might have spent Sunday morning hiding beneath my bed or dying behind the pulpit.
Sometimes folks ask me specifically “How is the church plant going?”
I’ve reduced my response to one sentence:
“It’s really hard work, in a really hard place, among really difficult, really needy people with issues as massive as their lives are messed up, all at a really difficult time in my life.”
Although some might wish that they never asked, I actually don’t mean it as a discouragement. As hard as it is, I am learning to be glad that it is that way because it has the wonderful effect of leaving me on my knees, desperate for more of the Lord’s leading, more of the Lord’s wisdom, more of the Lord’s power and grace, more of the Lord’s presence, more of the Lord’s people praying for the Lord’s work!
Last night as I walked Milo and Rosie (the other dog that I am looking after for a couple of weeks) I just was overwhelmed to tears struggling and failing to maintain any public composure. In the last 81 days I have become a man accustomed and accomplished with my own tears. But this was different. The overflow of grief within me is often contained to a room within my house and prompted by a memory of my Annie. It’s not that I don’t like to show my emotions in public – at least I don’t think it is the only reason – but more that I just feel the comfort of the Lord greater when I am alone, weeping with Him. These tears were prompted by my feelings of inadequacy and vulnerability in the work of ministry. It was that all too familiar ‘Saturday-night-before-preaching’ feeling all over again; and with only two dogs for company all I could do was just cry before the Lord. No words. No carefully constructed prayers. No crying out, just crying. Just tears before the Lord.
I was talking to an elderly neighbour (M) just the other day – a person whom Annie had wept over in prayer for many years. She asked how I was doing and invariably, I can never answer that question without talking about Jesus. When I testified again about the hope I have in Jesus for this life and beyond the grave this neighbour – with pursed lips and bitter tongue – coldly objected “No. Not for me! There’s no life after death!”
Dealing with darkness and duelling with demons is spiritual warfare and no war is without its horrors. Yes, I had lifted up the name of Jesus but I didn’t leave that neighbour with a skip in my step and a victory song on my heart. It was a battle and I felt bruised and deflated. How could this neighbour have not seen the life of my Jesus in my Annie? How could this person not inquire of the hope that my Annie had in the face of death? How could those many tear-oiled prayers of a dying saint not tear down the dark strongholds in the life of this person?
As I walked away these words of Jesus came to mind:
And you, Capernaum, will you be lifted to the heavens? No, you will go down to Hades. For if the miracles that were performed in you had been performed in Sodom, it would have remained to this day. – Matthew 11:23
And yet still I was torn because I also remember that Jesus instructs me to love my neighbour. I remember how His love for this neighbour poured out of Annie with tears. Now those tears and that heart and heavy burden are with and upon me. Surely Annie’s tears were not in vain? Surely her prayers and her testimony unto death will result in fruit?
Record my misery; list my tears on your scroll — are they not in your record? – Psalm 56:8
I am so glad that God understands the language of my troubled heart. Those wordless prayers oiled with tears and propelled with sobbing might not make the Common Book of Prayer but the Lord assured me – through His Word and His Spirit within me – that I never pray more clearly than when I weep before Him, poor in spirit.
The Apostle Paul writes:
So then, death is at work in us, but life is at work in you. – 2 Corinthians 4:12
God is using the death and loss of my Annie to work the life of Jesus in me and through me. I am beginning to recognise this pain as the vinedresser’s pruning knife. By His grace, I see the fruit of His Spirit in me. With the increase of great loss the Lord is seeing to it that there is a commensurate increase of greater gain. The degree to which I experience the pain and difficulty and discouragement of being without my Annie, is the degree to which I am desiring and experiencing the pleasure and encouragement and safety and blessing of being nearer to my Jesus, my Saviour, my Shepherd and my King. This fact is simultaneously the most painful and tangible and precious of all the encouragements I have ever received. It means that even though the work of ministry is so hard, I know with increasing certainty that the Lord is good and sufficient for all my needs.
In fact, it’s because the work is so hard that I am learning and experiencing this. Because the work is hard, Jesus is nearer and dearer to me. I am learning what it really means to have the life of Jesus Christ within me. It means death to self. Death to self-reliance; death to self-esteem; death to self-improvement; death to self-involvement…so that the resurrection life of Jesus Christ might be more prevalent and powerful within me. This isn’t just an internal spiritual thing or feeling either. I am, for the first time, learning to receive the encouraging advice that Annie used to give me but I rarely used to take: to be open and honest and transparent with other people even in my weakness. As I prepare to preach, I find myself replacing the occupation of hunting for illustrations with the opportunity to personally testify of His outrageous grace and endless sufficiency to a weak and wretched sinner like me. The Lord is putting to death so many past masters that enslaved me: vanity, pride, fear, anxiety, worry and the love of the stuff of this world, from movies to money; He is changing my appetite for the temporal and meaningless so that I might know Him more and enjoy Him more.
Death has laid me bare in a way that money, materialism, marriage and ministry has not been able to cover up. I am poor in spirit and covered with the majestic robes of righteousness that have been given to me by my King. All I have is Jesus and all that I desire is to use all that He has given to me for His eternal glory.
What is more, I consider everything a loss because of the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord, for whose sake I have lost all things. I consider them garbage, that I may gain Christ – Philippians 3:8
How am I doing?
Well, ministry is really hard work, in a really hard place, among really difficult, really needy people with issues as massive as their lives are messed up, all at a really difficult time in my life – my own, messy and difficult life. But I have a Great Saviour, Lord and Shepherd in my Jesus. Because He does very well, I am doing very well.
In His Arms,