When our lives are completely thrown off track, how do we handled the shattered dreams and goals that God chooses to not heal?
To say Nick Springer was an active kid would be an understatement. His parents enrolled him in hockey when he was 5 years old, and all of his considerable energy soon was channeled into being the best on the ice. Nine years down the road, he was entertaining very real dreams of eventually playing for the New York Rangers and hefting that Stanley Cup over his head.
Summer was time for camping where he and friends could hit the trails and explore the Appalachian Mountains. He had just finished a three-day, 30-mile hike when he suddenly began experiencing fever, nausea and other flu-like symptoms. The camp nurse didn’t think anything of it until she noticed purple blotches blooming across his stomach. Nick was rushed to the hospital where he was diagnosed with meningococcal meningitis.
He woke up two months later from a medically induced coma without arms or legs. Doctors had been forced to amputate his arms at the elbow and his legs at the knees. It was a dark time, especially for an athletic 14-year-old.
His family didn’t let him give up, though.
“My family made a point of showing me my life was not over,” Nick said. “It was more of a timeout.” He noted philosophically, “I realized how lucky I was to have survived. It became, ‘OK, let’s turn it and use a terrible thing that happened to me and be able to make it something for the better.’”
Instead of going for professional hockey, Nick decided to do one better and go for the Olympics in wheelchair rugby. He was selected for the 2008 Paralympic Games in Beijing and the 2012 games in London. He has since become a spokesman for meningitis awareness, helping those who have also suffered from the disease learn how to live fully again.
Days and Years That Follow
Talking about God’s ability to redeem is one thing when we’re suffering a setback but we can see the possibility for healing. It’s quite another thing when the loss is permanent in some fashion.
How do we trust in God’s redemption when a spouse or child has died? How do we talk about God’s power to heal when we develop a severe health issue or physical disability? How do we think about God’s promise to put our feet on the right path when we’ve lost our legs? Our life was a straight line headed toward a dream, and now it has a permanent crimp in it. How we respond in the minutes, months and years to follow is vital.
At the Jacksonville Expect conference, Gary Wilkerson said, “Sometimes when we're in the middle of the crook, we'll say, ‘I'd rather have the straight path than the patience and the kindness and the goodness and the love and the grace. Keep those, God. Just give me my job back. Give me my marriage back. Give me my health back.’
“Listen to this carefully. In thinking and feeling that, it shows where our heart is. ‘I would rather have my straightness in life.’ Who can make that straight? I'd rather that be made straight than…my heart be made straight, my mind be made straight, my spiritual life be made straight, my honor of God be made straight, my trust in him when things don't turn out the way I want it.
“’Though you slay me yet, I will trust Him.’ Will I want that more than my straight arrow life that I had intended, that I had had imagined, that I had dreamed?...
“The deepest people I know in Christ are those who can honestly say, ‘I've been through a storm. I have been beaten. I have been broken. I have been shipwrecked. I have been hurt…. [T]hose people who come through that storm, saying, ‘Yet will I praise you…. I'm not going to get mad at you. I'm not going to get discouraged in you. I'm not going to accuse you. I'm not going to put you down. I'm not going to grow distant from you. I'm not going to walk away from you. I'm not going to bad-mouth you. I'm not going to complain about you.
“I'm going to trust you, even though I don't understand.’”
That trusts can only come, though, when we want God’s design more than whatever or whoever it is that we’ve lost. This doesn’t mean that we don’t feel the loss, that we’ve become Zen Buddhists or ascetics and are ‘above’ the pain. It simply means that in the darkness, we turn to one who captivates eternally, who is present always and whose plans we may not know but that we can trust.
Being Given a New Normal
So the broken jog in our life’s arrow isn’t going away. We’ve come to terms with this; we’ve leaned into God’s promises that he’s good and that he’s not leaving us in this mire. Great. Now what?
Stephanie Thompson wrote for Crosswalk, “Paul’s prophetic words speak through hard times: ‘Not that I have already obtained this or have already reached the goal; but I press on to make it my own, because Christ Jesus has made me his own. Beloved, I do not consider that I have made it my own; but this one thing I do: forgetting what lies behind and straining forward to what lies ahead, I press on toward the goal for the prize of the heavenly call of God in Christ Jesus’ (Philippians 3:12-14). It’s not easy to let go of securities. They shape our earthly narratives without realizing it. There is a reason why Paul uses the word ‘straining.’ Recognizing that obedience to God’s redemptive plans supersede anything else we thought brought identity and safety: career, financial status, church infrastructure, educational setting—it doesn’t come naturally. Without a doubt, life as we knew it will change for a while… or longer.”
Part of straining toward trusting God’s promises that he is good is also allowing him to redefine our ‘normal.’ It probably won’t ever look the same.
Are we okay with that?
Maybe our new normal will be living a single life and ministering to others who are single either thanks to divorce, widowhood or just never having found a partner. Maybe the new normal will be learning how our lives will be redefined by disability and allowing others to serve and minister to us. Maybe normal will become walking with others in our grief and helping them learn how to grieve honestly and healthily over the long haul.
‘Normal’ may now look and sound and feel stranger than we could’ve ever imagined. Do we trust that God has a path for us that will take us deeper into this place where we would’ve never willingly chosen to go? Are we willing to start walking forward on a path that will take us farther away from where we once were, the life we once had and the dreams we once held? Are we willing to be reshaped for a new purpose?
Where the Road Takes Us
Occasionally, God gave someone in the Bible a new name. Today, names don’t tend to mean as much to us, especially in the Western world; but back in biblical times, a name was a major part of a person’s identity.
God stepped in and redefined a person’s future. That had to be a bit scary. Abram was told to leave his hometown and become a wanderer until the end of his days, and the Lord renamed him Abraham. Jacob wrestled with God, was renamed Israel and given a bad hip right before he faced his athletic, angry older brother. Simon was a pugnacious fisherman who was renamed Peter and told he would lead a multinational church (no pressure).
Without a doubt, these were not the futures that any one of these people would’ve chosen for themselves. All of them struggled at some point with their new identity. The new, often painful, life they walked forward into was important not only for them but also for a lot of other people. Since God was the critical center of their lives, they could allow him to set some dreams aside and completely retool others into a barely recognizable shape.
In the Fellowship of the Ring’s early chapters, Frodo Baggins looks out over the Shire that he is leaving on a journey far more perilous that he could’ve possibly known at that time, and he murmurs a bit of poetry that sums up the fear and necessity wrapped up in life changing to serve a greater purpose.
“The Road goes ever on and on
Down from the door where it began.
Now far ahead the Road has gone,
And I must follow, if I can,
Pursuing it with weary feet,
Until it joins some larger way,
Where many paths and errands meet.
And whither then? I cannot say.”
The journey is directed by someone more important than us. The story is bigger than our life. Our identity is constantly being transformed in our heavenly Father’s hand to glorify his far more splendid nature.