I attended my first sentencing hearing yesterday. Given the nature of the offense - a drunk driver who killed my friends' wife and daughter Meg while she was running - the hearing quickly took on the tone of a funeral. I listened to a mom describe life without her daughter and a dad fight off tears like only a dad can fight for a daughter to share what life has been like without daddy's only little girl. I heard Meg's two brothers describe the void left behind by a sister who was always there for them, but is now forever gone. And I listened to Scott, Meg's husband, walk us through the incredible life that was Meg the wife and mom. How she selflessly did everything she could to shape a family built on love and togetherness, right up until the final second of her final run, when, with the help of one incredibly reckless decision, it would all turn to emptiness and separation.
I also listened to the family of the man who hit Meg share how their lives have been turned upside down. I don't presume to guess how others did or should have received those testimonies. I will only say, for me, they added another element of tragedy to this story. A very real-life horror story.
On the 10 minute drive home from the courthouse to my house, a drive that seemed to take hours, I couldn't shake the final words of Scott's testimony. He said, and I'm paraphrasing the best I can, when everyone leaves here today (the sentencing), they will go about their lives, but my family, we will remain in the valley of the shadow of death. And I don't know when we'll ever come out of it.
The friendship Scott and I have has grown this past year. As a result, when I walked into that courtroom yesterday I felt like I had a good understanding of his and his family's pain. I couldn't feel it, no one can, but I felt like I understood it in a way that I could describe it if someone asked me to. But driving home yesterday, a black cloud overwhelmed me with this suffocating thought: I'm really blind to their valley. The shadow of death the Cross and Menzies family live in is impossible for anyone to see through and into the depths of their loss.
That was difficult to accept.
As the evening wore on I did find a way to accept it, though. I was able to see a light flickering within that shadow; the light that is Meg's family themselves.
You see, in realizing just how much I had underestimated their pain I came to know just how much I'd underestimated their strength and courage. And I've been awed by both. But by not fully grasping the depth of their hurt, I've been unable to see just how completely they are leaning on Christ for their strength. It is the only strength that can possibly hold them upright against the kind of storms that rolled through the courtroom yesterday in sad detail after sad detail.
Last night, in thinking about this, and searching for understanding, I was struck by one more lesson in all of this. For me - maybe the biggest lesson.
I got to thinking about how much of our lives we put into planning: planning our families, retirement, meals for the week, career advancement, running schedules, etc. The one thing all of those plans have in common - none of them are guaranteed. None of us are guaranteed. Not tomorrow. Not the time to finish reading this article. What is guaranteed is hardship. Whether today, tomorrow, or this year, hardship is on its way.
Scott and Meg and their family had dinner plans for January 13, 2014. Those plans were interrupted by the very unplanned death of Meg. In one instant Scott had to throw away whatever script had been written for the day and begin improvising. Life was no longer about a plan, but about a response to a plan gone horribly wrong. That has been his and his family's life since that day. Wake up and respond to the wells of tears that come out of nowhere. Respond to the anger that sneaks in even when they've posted signs that it's unwelcome. Respond to the disappointment of children getting off a school bus hoping mom will be there only to find once again she's not - a disappointment time seems to be cruelly patient to take from them.
The flickering light from this family has been in that response. So many times they've unselfishly stepped out of their valley to let us know that not only do they not blame God for taking Meg, they continue to find ways to thank Him for all he's doing in their lives today. They thank Him for being central to their strength to respond, for being the only one who can truly see through the shadows, and for his promise to live in the valley with them for as long as they need him.
Scott said something in his testimony Friday that made some folks chuckle, and for others it might have understandably gone completely unnoticed. For me, though, it now stands out as the most powerful thing he said that day. He was recounting family life as he and Meg knew it. He told us how Meg sacrificed to be a stay at home mom. How they lived paycheck to paycheck. Life was a constant struggle, he said. Every single day. But then he added this - and to me this is now a mountain of inspiration - he said "and we loved that struggle."
It occurs to me that so many of my plans in life are built to avoid struggle. I map out a path to go around or over or under or time warp myself thousands of miles and years above even the slightest hint of a struggle. I too often pray to God: please deliver me a struggle-free day, protect my wife and kids from struggle.
But what if God is more interested in being there to help me overcome the struggle than avoid it. What if God is there to help me claim living paycheck to paycheck as a joy, and not an obstacle I'm to spend every waking hour bemoaning. And what if, exactly like Meg, in struggles I see the image of God as clearly as it is possible to see Him. His approving smile and loving hands. What if living in struggle prepares me for the tragedy that's on its way, whatever that may be, so when it's here it's God I see, not God I blame.
My friend Scott, I've been amazed at his Christ-like response to a circumstance that human nature would counsel him he has no obligation to offer. I'm more clear of this than ever, though. Scott, through Meg's faith, has been preparing for this response for many years. This is not the first time he and his family have leaned on God to find joy in the struggle. Meg always looked to God for that flicker of light when their times were tough, and when she found it, and she always did, she let it shine on Scott and the kids. That light is gone now, but through Scott and Meg's family, we still see it even in the valley of the shadow of death.
Their light isn't enough to overcome that darkness. They need my light and yours. Maybe we can all commit to seeing the joy in struggle, or maybe being the joy in someone else's. Maybe we can quit planning for the great day and spend more time asking God to prepare us to respond to the one that goes all wrong. I mean that is what this group is about isn't it? We've united, one light, around one single run that couldn't have strayed further from the training plan. But yet this family stayed faithful to their every day response: trust God to be the light.
Today seems to be the perfect day for me to be reminded - I run for Meg because Meg ran for Him.