Happily ever after

My life story was written by the sovereign pen of God. Surely “a man’s steps are from the LORD; how then can man understand his way?” – Proverbs 20:24

There are dog ears folded in the pages of our autobiographies. Bookmarks in life that changed our hearts and changed the narrative.

In my story, like in everyone’s story there are blessings and testings that make and shape the saga.

For me those bookmarks include marrying Stacey Philo on September 17th, 1988. Add three markers for the births of our children Jordan, Jacob and Jared.

Add three more when I gave my daughter to her husband and gained a son. When I gained a daughter at Jared’s wedding and most recently added the blessing of our first grandson Eli Michael Ritter.

My story became our story and like all stories there are dark chapters interwoven throughout the goodness life brings.

May 15th 2013 began a difficult chapter that culminated in the graveside committal of 3 loved ones exactly one year to the day later.

Our son Jake, nephew Justin, mother Linda, and grandmother Marjorie. That year and those losses were written by God into our story.

The Lord truly gives and takes away. All these events penned down and foreknown by God before the opening of my storybook.

These are a few of the days that changed my storyline. Events that are bookmarked. Some I turn the pages back to and others I cannot bear the thought of doing so.

One date stands apart in my timeline that changed everything forever. Literally.

It was 25 years ago this week on February 5th 1996 that God wrote redeemed into my script. At least on my calendar he did- on his I was there from the foundation of the world.

I was in a bad place in life at that time. For sake of time the details of how I got to that place cannot be stated but just know that much was unraveling around me.

It was evening and I was cleaning the junior high school wing as I had been doing for the previous 8 years.

God was hounding me. My heart was heavy and on that winter night. 25 years ago this week my pride was broken and I humbled myself before God.

In a classroom, at a desk, in tears at about 7:00pm God laid down his pen and revealed himself and his son to me.

I met the author and finisher of my faith that night. Nothing would ever be the same for me. All that was to come afterwards would be seen through the lens of faith.

This awakening changed everything in my life. God began to shape me and change my thinking, attitudes and behavior.

That day was and is the best day of my life. Above all days, this day made the good days doubly blessed and the difficult ones filled with grace, mercy and love.

25 years ago this Friday God called my name and wrote my name in his book of life.

My story is still being revealed to me. I have read the ending already. He has revealed to me his good intentions and I am currently living in the happily ever after.

I have been graced with eternal life and for this I give him thanks.

23 “Oh that my words were written! Oh that they were inscribed in a book!

24 Oh that with an iron pen and lead they were engraved in the rock forever!

25 For I know that my Redeemer lives, and at the last he will stand upon the earth.

26 And after my skin has been thus destroyed, yet in my flesh I shall see God,

27 whom I shall see for myself, and my eyes shall behold, and not another. My heart faints within me! – Job 19:23-27

Thank you Jesus for a life full of your amazing grace and love. Thank you for 25 years of friendship.

Thank you for writing in the happily ever after.

Surviving the RIP currents of grief

Walking along the shore in Oceanside California yesterday I noticed a warning sign about rip tides. Being from Michigan I am familiar with these signs because Lake Michigan has dangerous rip currents as well that swimmers must be wary of.

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Fortunately, I have never experienced getting caught in these currents that can kill. They are survivable if a person knows what to do when caught by the unexpected pull into the abyss.

I stepped into the warm Pacific beach sand, set up my beach chair, cracked open an Aquafina and plopped my butt down for some beautiful  California sunshine. It wasn’t long till we left our chairs and waded into the water for a cool down. There were no visible rip currents where we were but the force and power of the water was very evident.

I struggle with grief related depression. Standing waist deep in the cool salt water I felt the strong push and pull of the Pacific and thought of the similarities between rip tides and grief. Escaping and surviving a rip current and surviving grief are very much the same.

The Pull

Grief, like the rip current, has an incredibly strong and visible pull that transports its hostage out into the deep. The victim can see the shore and all the happy beach goers as they struggle alone against the unstoppable force. Very quickly your treading water and it’s over your head, fear takes hold and there is no lifeguard on duty to help us in our distress. Or is there?

Remembering the sign

The beach sign gave instructions on what to do when caught in a rip current. Step one said to identify the current and step two was to exit the shallow water before it pulls you out over your waist. The rip current of grief is sometimes visible, you see it coming, and other times it is sudden and unexpected and catches you off guard. There are times you can walk out of it quickly and many other times you cannot.

Step three tells the victim to remain calm and to conserve your energy. Grief can be so exhausting and it is important to weather the storm, find your peace, and keep your head above the water. Grief has taken me to places I never wanted to go but fighting the current is futile and potentially fatal. Its important to keep your head in a rip current and during grief.

There are times that I have felt like I was going down for the third and final time but I remembered the sign once again. Step four (if you are a poor swimmer) is to wave your arms and call out for help. Hurting people need helping people. We need people to talk to and people to listen to our heart. We need people to laugh with and a shoulder to cry on. We need friends and family, pastors and counselors. We need our spouses and we need to wave our arms and to cry out from time to time. Mostly importantly we need God and to call out to him. Grief should never be done alone.

Step five says to swim parallel to the shore and out of the current. Grief is hard work I have found, and it takes much effort to swim out of it. There have been times where I was just treading water and stuck in my grief. Simply put, without effort there is no progress to the shore I needed to get back to. It is tiresome and when I get exhausted by grief I remember the sign again and step six which says, conserve energy, float and relax. I have done this very often over the last four years. It is a vitally important part of getting back to the place you need to be. I never feel guilty about escaping and getting away from it all, it is a necessary part of the healing process.

Finally, step seven says to swim vertically towards the beach. With every stroke I have found that I am nearer to solid ground. Thankfully I am not where I was, I can see the shore, the pull is gone and I can feel the sand in my toes once again.

Back on the beach

Losing a child is undoubtably the worst kind of grief any person can endure. I wish I could say that the experience in the rip current was just one go around and your done but it’s not. I have found that I get back to the beach and get on with life but the cycle of grief continues. I wade out, I loose my footing, I feel the pull and I get in over my head again and again. I remember the routine and what to do. Thankfully the rip currents aren’t as often as before nor do they seem to be as strong but I do enter them nonetheless.

The lifeguard is always on duty

I can’t imagine navigating the rip currents of grief without a rescuer on watch. The Apostle Peter walked on water when Jesus called him out of the boat but Peter looked away from the Lord at the storm and he began to sink. In fear he cried out these comforting words, “Lord, save me.” Jesus immediately reached out his hand and took hold of him, saying to him, “O you of little faith, why did you doubt?” And when they got into the boat the wind ceased. And those in the boat worshipped him saying, “Truly you are the Son of God.”(Matthew 14:30-32 ESV) 

The Lifeguard is always on duty and has never lost a soul yet.

I doubt, I have weak faith at times. Despite this I have discovered the continual presence of my lifeguard Jesus in the rip currents of my life. He was there the whole time, he never left me and he has not forsaken me. For this I give him thanks.

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Even the birds have a song

I still have no song in my heart and I feel almost unchristian to make such an honest confession. I do not make melody in my heart, or whistle a tune or catch myself humming a hymn. My harmonica is tarnished and dusty from lack of use and I have not desired to play it in a long time. I am not nearly as pained by the sound of music as I was 28 months ago but I still react and withdraw from much of it most of the time.

I can evaluate my grief and sorrow by the way I react to music. I know I have a ways to go in my healing by the response I feel in my heart. Solomon said, “Whoever sings songs to a heavy heart is like one who takes of a garment on a cold day, and like vinegar on soda.” (Proverbs25:20) I know the chill that he speaks of and have experienced the explosive internal reaction that is described in this truth.

My church family stand to sing praise to God and I feel no compulsion to join in but am rather satisfied to just pray and listen to the harmony of their praise. I wait eagerly for the last note of music to be over so I can listen to the sweet sound of the word of God. I am an enigma I suppose, few people in this world can get through a day without music but I happen to be one of them.

Solomon had the wealth to purchase his own personal singers and musicians and he said in his pursuit of meaning that it was all an empty endeavor (Ecclesiastes 2:8). Some may wonder if I even have joy without a song to sing but I can assure those who might doubt that I definitely do. I affirm with the greatest songwriter ever that my joy, like his joy, is found someplace other than music. Actually many of the songs David wrote were the epression of his deepest joy that he found in the word of God. He said, “The precepts of he Lord are right, rejoicing the heart.” (Psalm 19:8) and “My tongue will sing of your word, for all your commandments are right.” (Psalm 119:172)


My joy is found in the same place as David but is expressed differently than song.
I want a song in my heart again. I really don’t like this about myself and as I said, I feel very unchristian because of it. It is unnatural. Even nature sings the praises of God their creator, this truth became alive to me each morning as I watched the son rise in Mexico. The birds sang beautifully, the waves roared loudly and the palms clapped their hands in the wind. Yet here I sit, without a song on my lips- it is natural for all God’s creatures give him praise and certainly we who are made in his image should shout to the Lord as well.


The only exception I can find in the bible is the one I quoted at the start. I guess I still walk with a heavy heart and only God and time can mend the broken hearted. Some morning I will awaken and sing a new song and someday I truly believe that I will hear God himself sing over Israel. For he has promised them this, “Fear not O Zion; let not your hands grow weak. The Lord your God is in your midst, a mighty one who will save; he will rejoice over you with gladness; he will quiet you with his love; he will exult over you with loud singing.” (Zephaniah 3:16-17)

Even so, come Lord Jesus and sing over us all.

 

 

Xanax altenative: my prescription for grief

In our journey with grief my wife and I have not used medications as a means of coping with the pain. It wasn’t long after Jacob’s death that I went for my annual physical and I told my doctor that I just preferred to deal with everything head on without drugs.

Grief is warfare and I battle its symptoms daily. I fight against sadness and loneliness for my son. I get anxious and I fall into depression. I get irritable, frustrated and angry at times. Grief is still a daily battle, I expect it to change but I would be a fool to believe that I will ever be free of it. I can’t suppress it, or ignore it, or expect it to just go away. I don’t believe I can medicate or drink it away either. I can fill my life with busyness, entertainment, work, vacations and run from grief but though I may run I am unable to hide.

So how do I cope? Some may think that I run to religion to medicate. After all Mike is a man of faith and for him religion is his crutch to hold him up. It may surprise you to know that I reject religion, it is a blight on the earth because religion is built on lies and I prefer truth. I believe in unchangeable absolutes and I apply the healing balm of truth to the pain of life to comfort my troubled heart. Truth is medicine for the soul and Jesus the lover of my soul is truth. He alone can mend my broken heart.

I often walk with sadness in my heart. When the heaviness for my son weighs on me I often pray the simple prayer of, “God, help me.” In those times Jesus the Good Shepherd comes near so that I never lack any good thing. He brings me to the still waters, he causes me to rest in green meadows. He restores my soul.

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When confused and without wisdom on how to navigate the pain he leads in in the right path and I follow him for the sake of his name.

There are times I have felt as though I was dying inside, robbed of my joy and utterly destroyed. But the Good Shepherd says to me, “I have come that you may have life and have it abundantly.” (John 10:10) The times I walk through the valley of the shadow of death he has calmed my anxiety and quelled my fears. For he is present with me, with his rod Jesus corrects me, and with his staff he gently guides my steps.

Though the enemy of my soul desires to destroy me I am richly blessed by the Good Shepherd. I look around, I see his grace, my cup overflows with his blessings. Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life.

When hope sees dim and the dark days casts doubt over my faith I remember the truth, I remember his way and I recall his life. The Good Shepherd speaks and I hear his tender voice, he calls me by name and I follow him. He whispers to me, “I give them eternal life, and they will never perish, and no one will snatch them out of my hand.” (John 10:28)

So with confidence and great hope in the truthful voice of the Lord my shepherd I have hope and eternal life. I can conclude my life as David the sweet psalmist did and joyfully proclaim, “And I shall dwell in the house of the Lord forever.” (Psalm 23) This is my hope, this is my future, this is the truth and it is good medicine for my soul.

Jesus gives me what no medication can ever provide. He gives me faith, hope and love. He provides me comfort, peace and assurance of the future. He makes me strong when I am weak, we makes me wise though I am a fool. He is mercy, he is grace, he is all I need. I don’t need Xanax and I certainly don’t need religion all I need is the truth. Jesus is truth. He said, “I am the way, the truth and the life.”

Medication left in a bottle will never help anybody get well and the same is true with the Christian faith. Dosage directions on the label are to be followed precisely for the good of the patient, this is true of the Christian faith as well. The symptoms of grief are many, they attack my soul continually. When I am anxious, when I lose my peace, when I hurt I look to my Good Shepherd and he offers me his cure. I follow his prescription instructions and do as directed by the great physician my soul. It reads, “Do not be anxious about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God. And the peace of God, which surpasses understanding, will guard your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus.” (Philipians 4:6-7)

“I have said these things to you, that in me you may have peace. In the world you will have tribulation. But take heart; I have overcome the world.”- Jesus

My March Madness

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March is a particularly difficult month for my wife and I. Jacob’s birthday and his death day come and go on the 3rd and the 26th. Winter overcast has taken its toll but the seasonal depression is lifting. Its has been 2 years this month since Jake overdosed, he would have been 24. I want to reflect back a little on this journey and evaluate myself and what has changed in me over the worst period of my life. Grief has changed me, this is what has changed to date.

relational change

Death is the great awakener to the value of relationships. Those closest to me have become nearer and dearer. My love for my God, my wife, my kids and my friends has deepened. Time is an un-renewable resource in this life, time spent with people is priceless and has taken on a much different meaning than it once did.

My job is great, it is at work that I spend most of my time with Jesus. There is nobody in this life I would rather spend time with than Stacey my wife. My kids take a close second and a perfect day is to be with them all at once.

 change of interests

Passions in my life have drastically altered. I am more single minded in my pursuits and the things that once gave me a charge are pretty much dead throw away batteries now. Hunting, fishing and various sports were once a pursuit of mine but now have slowed to a snails pace or dead all together. I can take it, but mostly I want to leave it. I don’t enjoy much conversation in those subjects and find myself wanting to withdraw from people who are impassioned about them. I would say interest in theology and bible study has increased, as well as my desire to share, teach and write about the God who love’s me.

I vacation much more than I ever have. My wife has converted me into a beach bum and I like to go to Alaska to see my friend Dan. Dan is there for the fishing, I go to get away and to spend time with my friend. I do a lot more getting away (escaping) these days.

emotional change

I would say I am a little more tender with people but in the same breath I will admit I have less tolerance for nonsense. I don’t listen to music, mainly because it draws out emotions I  rather not deal with. I have no song in my heart yet, I don’t hum or whistle or sing in church- I feel that this is changing some now.

I used to follow politics closely but now am extremely irritated by it all and wish never to enter the dialogue. I have enough problems of my own I can’t fix, my vote won’t change the course of America so I choose not to.

Disappointments in life seem much more magnified and difficult to bear than before. I have become more guarded and less hopeful for fear of disappointment, loss and pain.

Chaos and noise are more bothersome than before and not wanting to be around children is an issue with me. This poses a daily problem because I am an elementary school custodian.

There is a lingering daily sadness I still have. I don’t laugh and joke like I once did. I have always been serious or silly but till now silly is out and serious seems to be the prevailing mood.

Physical change

I have more gray hair in my beard, less on my scalp and more on my back. Gravity is doing a job on me and it isn’t pretty. I work out and lose weight so I can get fat when I go to Mexico each spring.

Psychological and spiritual changes

About a month ago I went to see a traumatic grief counselor. I had never sought help up till then but I was struggling with things I could not resolve on my own. I was having constant nightmares for about 6 months. I would wake up with the sensation of being held down and being choked. I thought it was acid reflux, eating too late and merely a physical issue. I made the necessary adjustments but nothing changed. I went to see Tim and described my experiences of waking up in fear and the feeling of being choked. We discussed the spiritual possibilities in the matter and he gave me advice on how to pray. We prayed together, and I prayed that God would deliver me. He heard our prayers and the problem has left me.

Theological changes

The death of my son made me wrestle with God. Theological issues I once thought I understood  have come to the surface. I have learned to search the Scriptures for answers to questions that cause me trouble. My theology of suffering has changed. My theology of providence, sovereignty, pain, death, grief and much more has broadened and deepened in the last 2 years.

What I would like to change

I would like to feel normal, I don’t feel normal anymore. I would like my irritations and intolerance’s to diminish. I want to be kind, I don’t feel like I show kindness.

This will sound odd but I want to think of Jacob more than I do. I wanted to write today of a story about something in his life- I couldn’t bring myself to do it. I started, stopped, deleted and did this instead. Sorry for the disappointment! My thoughts of his life are snapshots and not stories. The memories are just short peeks into his life and that is all.

I’m welling up now…just thought about what he would say to me in this moment. He was such an encourager, I loved that about my boy. He knew how to comfort and love people from the heart. I guess that is something I would like to change in myself in the coming months. That I may learn how to better love and comfort others like he did.

Much has changed and much will change in the future. Some is good and some is bad. I suppose the time of reflection has been good for me to measure my healing and to evaluate the direction I need to head. March madness is here, March sucks, but I will march on!