Stories by Professionals
When Life Edits Your Well-Made Plans - Jeremiah 29:1-11
by Dr. Richard S. Hipps, Greensboro, NC, U.S.A.
I will always remember June 1992. We were completing our tenth year as missionaries to Brazil. This had been the most wonderful decade of our lives. The theological seminary where I served as president decided to honor my family with a pre-furlough dinner. The place was packed. Students, teachers and friends came from long distances to make this a special evening. John Paul Galho, president of the trustees, rose to his feet and said, 'I feel led to give you this scripture to carry with you to the United States." Then he read these beautiful words from Jeremiah 29:11:
For l know the plans l have for you, declares the Lord, plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future.
There was something about the way John Paul read these words that touched my wife and me deeply. We claimed this verse and felt that the Lord was re-affirming His call on our lives. Little did we know that He was preparing us for the darkest days of our lives.
On February 28, 1993, we buried our four-year-old daughter, Alexandra (Alex). Thinking she only had the flu, our physician did not know that myocarditis, an inflammation of the heart muscle, would take her life in a matter of hours.
Lying is easy; telling the truth is hard. Let me tell you the truth about losing a child. Nothing in our experience prepared us for such a staggering blow. It has been the most agonizing ordeal we have ever faced. It is a loss that simply cannot be fathomed. Surviving the death of a child is a day-to-day task. Some days I think I'll make it; other days I'm not so sure. I have reached levels of depression I never knew existed. For the first few months, grace and grit were my only props.
On the evening of Alex's funeral we received many calls from Brazil. Our Brazilian family searched for words to comfort us but we only ended up crying together. No words could help. At least that's what I thought. As I walked around the room, stretching the telephone cord as far as it would go, my eyes fell on something my mother-in-law had taped to her refrigerator. Her church was in a building campaign and they had chosen a verse as their theme. The verse? Jeremiah 29:11. My mind rushed back to the night of our seminary dinner. I had to know more about this verse so I studied the context from which it was lifted.
The people of God were in the midst of the Babylonian captivity. Nebuchadnezzer had carried away the best; the best educated, the best soldiers and the best artists. Without question, these Jews had suffered a tremendous crisis of faith while in captivity. For at the heart of the Hebrew religion lay the unshakable conviction that God would never allow serious harm to befall Jerusalem, or the royal House of David, or the temple. But now He had.
What were the Jews to think in light of this calamity? Clearly, this experience had a profound impact on the life, literature and religion of the Jews, none of which would ever be the same.
We read of their Babylonian Experience in Psalm 137:14:
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?
Were the Jews wrong in believing in an all-powerful God, the Sovereign Lord of history? Were they really His chosen people?
You know, dear ones, we all will visit Babylon at one time or another. There, we too will be prone to question the sovereignty of God. Why did this have to happen? Why did it have to happen to me? Why did it have to happen now?
Allow me to give you three thoughts about continuing on when life edits your well-made plans. See if these thoughts could apply to you or someone you know.
First, we must accept the hard facts of life.
These Jews would remain seventy years in captivity. This was God's will for His people. Seventy years is a full human lifetime. None of those taken to Babylon could hope to return to their homeland. Only their children might live to do so. As hard as it was to accept, seventy years was God's plan. Some of us, when we face things that cannot change, try to deny the facts; and our healing is never complete. I know a woman whose high school daughter was killed in an automobile accident. She has left her daughter's room exactly as it was on the day she died. She refuses to allow anyone to move or touch any object in the room. It has become a museum to her misery.
Our family has taken a different approach. We do not deny Alex's death. Rather, we celebrate her life. We talk about her constantly and with each new event in our lives we like to ask, "What would Alex think of this? Wouldn't Alex love Beanie Babies? I bet the Lion King would be her favorite movie (she loved lions)." There's a Hebrew proverb about wearing out grief - if you bottle it up, you'll never soften it. "Give sorrow words," Shakespeare said, "The grief that does not speak whispers the o'er fraught heart and bids it break."
We always allowed our children to choose a restaurant on their birthday and the whole family celebrated together. Our son, Justin, loves steak. Our daughter, Lacey, loves Japanese food. Alex loved McDonalds. Guess what we do on April 14th? We go to McDonalds and feed on hamburgers, French fries and memories.
The Second Thought: We must keep on living.
We must come to terms with our life in Babylon. We must make peace with our present. We can never bring little Alex back. We can go to her but she can never return to us. If this be so, what are we to do? Give up? Quit? Throw in the towel? God forbid!
There's a lot of living to be done; even in Babylon. What did God tell His captive people?
Build houses and live in them. Plant gardens and eat what they produce. Take wives and have sons and daughters (vs. 5-6).
"Keep on living," God seems to be telling His people. They must carry on because there's still a lot of life to be enjoyed. A loving God is at work in our lives and will never allow our suffering to be in vain. He will not waste our pain and neither should we. We can be wiser and stronger for it.
As a husband, father, brother, pastor, and friend, I have people who love me and need me. I have come to terms with the fact that I have no choice but to endure Alex's death and go on. God has been good to my wife and me in never allowing both of us to be down at the same time. It seems that when I've been at my worst, she has been at her best. In her bad days I have had added strength. Also, helping our son, Justin, and our daughter, Lacey, work through their grief has contributed to our healing.
We have walked with the Lord for a long time. Serving God in ministry has been the consuming passion of our lives. Our hope has always been in Jesus, not our well-made plans. He never promised us answers; He only promised to be with us. There have been times when we've felt lonely, but we've never felt alone.
I've spent too much of my life trying to make sense of everything that happens. It's taken me years to learn that some things don't make sense. Some questions don't have answers. In the words of Gilda Radner, the comedienne who died in 1989 with cancer, "Some poems don't rhyme, and some stories don't have a clear beginning, middle and end."' I now plan to spend the rest of my life in a "holy resignation," believing that the Lord does indeed love me with an everlasting love and has my life in divine hands. Trusting God has become more important than understanding God.
Thought three: We must cling to God's great promises.
Alex loved C. S. Lewis' The Lion, The Witch, and the Wardrobe. On her tombstone we have carved these words from that great story:
Wrong will be right, when Aslan comes in sight, At the sound of his roar, sorrows will be no more When he bears his teeth winter meets its death And when he shakes his mane, we shall have spring again.
We can be sure that despite any evidence to the contrary, God owns this world and will always have the last word. Only He can produce a truth that is greater than the facts. In God's world, the worst thing that happens to us will never be the last. We serve a sovereign God and ultimately all evil will be erased and every wrong will be righted. Aslan guarantees it.
1 Gilda Radner, It's Always Something (New York: Avon Books, 1990) 268. 2 C.S. Lewis, The Lion, The Witch, and The Wardrobe (New York: William Collins Sons & Co. Ltd.
I want to end with a poem that has changed my life and ministry:
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