What To Do When Everything Crumbles

Last week I sat in a living room in a chair three feet from a friend who’d recently lost his wife to cancer. I say recently but it’s been almost a year. What’s a year when you’ve lived a whole life together?

The house is full of her—pictures on the wall, her art on the table, hardly anything altered at all since her death.

I imagined her sitting beside us. Or up, certainly up, offering us food, scurrying around to find some book Ron wanted to show me.

I imagined she hadn’t died, but was napping in the back bedroom or outside tending to the goats.

Everything seemed just as it had before.

Not everything. Some things had changed.

My friend Ron had changed.

He showed me a Youtube video on his new Apple computer. Ron was on Youtube (And Facebook, too). I smiled wide as he clicked open the video window. Five years ago Ron didn’t own a computer. He wrote his sermon notes on old directory pages.

Earlier he’d shown me pictures he’d taken on his new Nikon DSLR, something he’d always put off buying despite his love for and remarkable talent in photography. He didn’t know how to use it yet, not like he wanted to. But he was learning.

The pictures were of Petra. And Israel. Just after Donna died, Ron hopped a plane to the holy lands, a place he’d devoted years and thousands of hours to studying. I looked at his pictures of camels. He told me about crawling to the spot where Jesus was said to have been born.

And then he said he’d be in the Marshall Islands this summer. The Grand Canyon in the spring.

All of this—the spontaneous traveling, the technology, the luxury and excitement of a still-to-be-figured-out camera—all of it was new. And who would have guessed it of a sixty year old man wading through the thick fog of grief?

He said to me, “Every so often everything crumbles and we have to build something new.”

-

In Psalm 137 the people of Israel mourn the fallen city of Jerusalem. They cry:

By the rivers of Babylon we sat and wept
    when we remembered Zion.
There on the poplars
    we hung our harps,
for there our captors asked us for songs,
    our tormentors demanded songs of joy;
    they said, “Sing us one of the songs of Zion!”

How can we sing the songs of the Lord
    while in a foreign land?
If I forget you, Jerusalem,
    may my right hand forget its skill.
May my tongue cling to the roof of my mouth
    if I do not remember you,
if I do not consider Jerusalem
    my highest joy.

That image, of God’s people hanging their harps in the trees, abandoning their joy, is a hard one to take. But it feels familiar. Like the way I felt driving to the airport the day my brother died, wanting to roll down my window and yell at the passing cars, “What are you doing? Stop laughing. Stop working. Stop living. Don’t you know my brother’s died?”

I know how Israel felt, a little anyway, but I also know there’s something better than giving up.

In the book of Ezra God’s people, some of them, return to Jerusalem to rebuild the temple of God. Ezra writes,

When the builders laid the foundation of the temple of the Lord, the priests in their vestments and with trumpets, and the Levites (the sons of Asaph) with cymbals, took their places to praise the Lord, as prescribed by David king of Israel. With praise and thanksgiving they sang to the Lord:

“He is good;
    his love toward Israel endures forever.”

And all the people gave a great shout of praise to the Lord, because the foundation of the house of the Lord was laid.”

I love this moment. I imagine the Israelites all gathered—old men and young women, children clinging to hands and legs trying not to get lost in the crowds—all of them here to witness the beginning of a new Israel.

This moment seems perfect for pulling the harps from the trees and praising God.

Instead…

"Many of the older priests and Levites and family heads, who had seen the former temple, wept aloud when they saw the foundation of this temple being laid, while many others shouted for joy. No one could distinguish the sound of the shouts of joy from the sound of weeping, because the people made so much noise. And the sound was heard far away.”

In case it’s hard to tell what’s happening, here’s the gist: the older men, when they see the foundation, can’t bear it. Perhaps it’s too small, nothing like David’s temple, so grand and massive. Perhaps seeing this slab of rock is too hard, too much. Perhaps it reminds them of the fall, of the family they lost, the children murdered in the streets, the burning city of God. Whatever it is, they mourn.

And the young people, the ones who’ve never known anything but captivity, they celebrate.

And the sounds of mourning and celebration grow and mingle and rise, carried on the wind to places far away.

-
The day my daughter London was born was one of the most exciting and joyful of my life. But it was weird and hard, too. Because my brother wasn’t there to see it. And because I’d imagined him holding my daughter, imagined him with a pink bubblegum cigar in his mouth, so proud and giddy, afraid of breaking her.
But that didn’t happen. He wasn’t there.
So I had a choice. I could weep for what I’d lost, the life I imagined I’d live but now never would. Or I could look at this baby as a gift and celebrate her as an opportunity to build something new.
-
Sometimes everything crumbles…
A person we love dies, a person we’d planned a future with.
We lose a job.
Our kids move away.
A church splits.
We watch a dream dissolve.
Whatever it is, in our loss we have a choice. We can camp out in the rubble, weeping, wishing and longing for what was. Or we can set out on an adventure and build something new.
The choice we don’t get is to rebuild what was. That choice was stolen and we can never get it back, not exactly.
-
My husband and I spent a year planting a church in Brooklyn, New York. If our original plan had worked, we’d still be there now. But it didn’t and we ran into funding trouble and we had to leave. We were devastated. We scrambled for work and ended up with a job in rural Tennessee.
On our last night in Brooklyn, we sat on the promenade overlooking Manhattan and the river. It was late, probably 1 am. We were sad. I was sad.
image
Knowing this night would be hard for me, my husband had written me two letters. The first was titled: Things We’ll Miss About New York. The second: Things We’ll Love Doing in Tennessee.
We sat there that night on a public bench and wept through our New York list, knowing we’d likely never have an experience like this again. Our tears dotted the paper and made the pen marks bleed.
Sad. Hard.
But, praise God, there was another list. And when we were done weeping, we read the new list, the list of new things we’d do, a list that included a new work and new friends and even a new baby in a new stroller, walking down new streets.
We laughed as we read that list. And smiled. And knew that if we had to choose between holding onto a lifeless dream and building something new, we’d choose building. 
So we went to Tennessee and, by the grace of God, built this:
image

And our shouts of joy rose and carried to places far away.