Church had become a place of loneliness and desolation. Only faith brought me there the first months after Eric died. Faith and a desire for my kids to have other sources of comfort besides me. I was mourning too. My emotional bucket was empty a lot. They needed more than I could give.
Not only did I not have Eric to sit next to and hold hands with, as I had since I was fourteen, I also had mixed emotions about God. I mostly accepted God’s path in my life. In Eric’s life. In Liam’s and Katie’s lives.
But sometimes I was enraged at God for imposing this sudden harshness on me, this punch in the stomach of becoming a widow, an only parent.
Eric and I had learned at our last church that marriage and family were the foundation of God’s Kingdom on earth. Because we believed that too, we had spent a lot of effort forgiving each other because neither of us had turned out as the other wished.
We had grown together in our marriage and we had grown in our faith. We had decided that instead of getting divorced at that point where many couples find themselves, we wanted to be part of the movement for God’s Kingdom on earth, together. We also didn’t want any additional trauma to be visited upon our children. Being orphans and adopted out of orphanages was enough trauma for them. We made commitments to ourselves, our family, our faith. But on top of all of that we realized that we just plain loved each other.
We chose to have heartfelt talks with rules so we could hear and be heard when we needed to work things out. We had a tuck in prayer each night before bed. It was hard not to grow together when we were communicating so much.
A couple of friends knew I loved church and was lonely without Eric. They offered to drive us or sit with me while the kids were at Sunday School. This was wonderfully generous, but those offers dwindled. Grief lasts a lot longer than neighborliness. Soon, it was just me sitting there alone. Sometimes my mind would wander, in panic, rage, and grief. The whole range of emotions.
My grief counselor agreed with me that churches can be lonely, and that they are built for married couples. He also corrected me and told me that human beings – single and married – were the building blocks for Christ’s church on earth. Those words may be true, but they didn’t feel true while I was getting used to sitting alone.
With no husband to be a partner, protector, and breadwinner, I had nowhere else to turn except to Him. To consider God in ways I never had before. Because Eric and I had always taken responsibility for and solved our problems, we barely understood what it meant to rely on God for day-to-day issues. Yes, we prayed and were faithful. But there is nothing like growing in your faith when you have no one but God. My new life was so different.
I was learning that God wanted me to rely on Him to solve my problems. How would that work? I would have to grow.
Could I trust that I would have enough money live on without returning to work?
Would I have enough money to travel a little and afford the things I wanted?
Would my kids get through the valley of the shadow of death without horrible and lasting wounds?
Would I tithe again?
We hadn’t started tithing since we moved to Kansas eight months before Eric’s death. Eric and I hadn’t decided for sure we would be attending that church. It was the kids who loved it so much. We weren’t connected in any groups like at our old church. We dilly dallied like we had time.
One Sunday, very soon after Eric’s death, our pastor announced with great enthusiasm that we were starting a new series.
He excitedly discussed how this would allow us the chance to commit ourselves to God. By commit he meant give more of ourselves, our time, and our treasure.
“What is this clap trap?” I wondered. I laughed derisively, out loud and as sarcastically as I ever had, as our animated pastor passionately foisted his big idea on us. I usually loved how he drew us in with his self-deprecating humor. That day his words made little hollow sounds as they hit the void on my chest that used to contain a full and happy heart. Luckily, I was in the back of the church, hiding behind my church coffee. I was livid.
God had stolen my husband. Decimated my finances. Perched me on the edge of precariousness. And these things happened after I had done my best to follow His commands my whole life. And for what? To be left here. Sitting in church broke, widowed, and alone? Being “inspired” to give more? What did I possibly have to give to God? To my church? I felt like I deserved to be on the receiving end of the All In giving.
I didn’t return to church for a while. During the pandemic churches were closed, which was a great excuse for me not to have to attend or reveal my feelings about God or the insults of being All In.
Eric used to joke about me and my faith, he would say he was along for the ride because I received all the blessings. And I’d had a walloping ride of decades of blessings. When I was 7, I read a tract I found at the bottom of my messy dresser drawer and I got on my knees, accepted Jesus, and decided to trust God.
Later, in high school, I remember reading a book about a woman who had a tragedy in her life. I don’t even remember what the tragedy was, but the book’s cover had a picture of her snow shoeing into the woods with her husband. She said we should pray for tragedy in our lives so our faith would grow. And with the picture that book cover created, tragedy didn’t seem scary to me. I even prayed for it occasionally. But I never imagined the tragedy could be to lose Eric. That wasn’t even something I could envision.
Until it happened.
About forty-two people had told me I needed to become more active at church for faith and community. Finally, one Sunday not long after I began attending church regularly again, I visited the “Welcome Table” to try to find that community which I knew I needed.
Sitting alone, like usual, on this one particular day, I submitted to a sermon about marriage. My first desire was to walk out and go to Starbucks again. Like the second time we went to church after Eric died. Liam and I were in the sanctuary and the sermon was about fathers. Liam stood up and yelled, “I want to leave.”
That day, we couldn’t get out fast enough because the message was too heavy for where we were in life. Starbucks was the perfect place to hide. This Sunday, however, I stuck it out, comparing what the pastor preached about marriage to what Eric and I had shared. I used to have it pretty good.
I did get up a couple times though, during the sermon. I could only take so much of marriage talk with an empty cup of coffee and an empty chair beside me. I refilled my cup with church coffee because I needed something warm to hold on to as I listened to the pastor discuss the blessings of marriage.
I appreciated marriage more than anyone in church that day, wishing I had it back.
When I left for my coffee security blanket, I walked by the widower who wasn’t interested in me. I had met him at a mixer once. Then I walked by the divorced guy who once bought me a glass of wine, but never called me back. Where was love? Why couldn’t I feel it? Would I find it?
After the service, I finally got up the nerve. Walking across the lobby, I felt like I had a big red “D” for divorce on my chest. What would the happy people at the Welcome Table think? That I was divorced and had given up on my family? When in all actuality my family had been ripped to shreds because God had let my husband die. My husband was dead. My kids’ dad was dead. How could I communicate this?
The sermon on marriage boosted my desire for companionship. Earthly, human, male companionship. Surely there were single men at my huge church? Maybe I would find him by getting involved? Would there be one who was interested in me? Maybe one of them wanted to be married to a good Christian girl like me. Maybe he had as much turmoil inside as I did.
As I approached the Welcome Table, there were smiling faces.
They were dying to help me. It was like when I open the back door and whistle. The dogs race across the grass as if they haven’t seen me for two weeks, instead of twenty minutes. Bounding to me. Wanting me.
The welcomers wanted to talk with me. Get to know me. Plug me in.
I knew I was about to burst their bubbles. My words were going to be a big sharp needle to their bubbly expressions.
“Do you have a singles group?” I felt the shame and judgement that was not there.
“A widow’s group?”
“Ummmm, no we don’t,” they looked at each other desperately. “Oh wait, there is Pastor, he is in charge of small groups.” I turned and saw an adorable, sincere twenty-something-year-old trotting over. I was about to ruin his day.
“Hello! Hi!” He, too, was most eager to help. I almost didn’t want to open my mouth.
“Do you have a single’s group?”
His brow furrowed. I was sure he was judging me. My two kids were behind me, but I wondered if he thought I had three baby-daddies?
“Or maybe a widow’s group?”
“Oh, no, I am sorry, we don’t.”
A hiccup preceded my tears. Poor guy. But he is a pastor, he can take it, right?
“Let’s see if we can get you plugged into a small group,” he steered me over to the Welcome Table. I already knew there wasn’t a group for me. I had checked the schedule. The groups available when I was free were for married couples. As if I wanted to sit with a bunch of smug marrieds who had marrieds problems. I know that sounds so uncharitable, but you remember what my counselor said?
“Churches were not built for single people.”
Pastor was busy looking through his list and I was busy trying to staunch my tears. One of the volunteers offered a suggestion that she was so excited about.
“How about you start a small group for widows?”
This comment primed my pump. Tears of anger, resentment, jealously, loneliness, and rage flew out of my eyes. I think she got a sprinkling of them. I turned on my heel and left. Without saying goodbye, my embarrassed tweens in tow. How dare she?
“How about someone minister to me?” I yelled in my head. I was picking up the pieces of my life and trying to survive and I had to be responsible for ministering to myself? To others in my position?"
I was still not ready for All In. I was certainly not ready to be in charge of my grief. Or someone else’s grief.
As months passed, however, I felt something growing so slowly inside of me. At first, I didn’t even know it was there. A feeling. A comfort.
My church starts with worship time. Evangelical worship time, which includes loud singing, arms up, tears, swaying and all the worship things one pictures when hearing the word Evangelical. Before Eric died, the two of us used to joke about what time we should leave the house so we could miss a song or two, never feeling effusive about our faith emotions. We never considered worship to be anything but attending church.
My heart had started to open more to God. I started getting to church on time to sing every song. Soon, I was early, and I would stand during worship, enveloped in the praise music, tears streaming down my face trying to understand how I could love God. How I could I accept His path for me? How I could trust that everything could be ok?
Maybe God was speaking to me during this time because I came to realize God’s promise in our marriage was for me to be with Eric for his life, not Eric to be there for mine.
Slowly my feelings during praise songs became less wracked with agonizing abandonment and grief. Sometimes I could picture my life and God blessing me after Eric’s death, not just mourning for what I used to have. Soon I didn’t cry with sadness and fear the whole time.
Then one day, I raised my hands and praised God for my life.
My life without Eric.
What had been growing in me all this time? Faith. For some months, since that day at church when the volunteer suggested I start my own group, I had felt a little desire in my heart. A desire to be a support to widows and widowers.
As the months passed, I let go of my angry thoughts and indignation. I not longer yelled in my head, "Well, sometimes I need the church to support me. I need love and care."
Then on other days, the Holy Spirit would whisper quietly, so quietly that I barely heard Him. Then, when finally, I heard it, it was a coherent idea telling me to help those like me. I was surprised, but not surprised either.
One day some Sundays later, Liam brought Kyle over to me. Kyle is also about twenty-something and is Liam’s youth pastor who generously loved and mentored him each week.
“Hey, Lisa, Liam told me you wanted to ask me something?” Great, God was getting everyone involved in honoring the Holy Spirit. The momentum was building before I even knew the widow’s group was an idea.
Kyle took me over to, you guessed it! The pastor in charge of small groups. “Hey, I think you have met Lisa before? Right?”
I saw exasperation on his face that was not there. “Oh, yes, nice to see you again, Lisa.” I am sure he didn’t remember me, did he? The woman who cried and ran away all those months ago.
Later, I found out he is actually thirty-something, and was glad someone had stepped forward. Several months before, a congregant had reached out to him for help because his wife had died unexpectedly when the two of them were on a date. They were both in their 30s. The pastor hadn’t known how to help him. Now he has a resource to plug widows and widowers into. Me!
As I stood at my table on Small Group Sunday, peeking over my sign, I felt too short. Like a kid peeking over a counter made for adults. I was nervous when the doors to the sanctuary opened and people came spilling out to see what kinds of small groups they could join. I hated the way people glanced at my sign, “Widowers and Widows” and grabbed their spouses’ hand and looked at me with pity. And worse than pity were the ones who saw the sign and looked right over me.
Then I saw a woman head straight through the crowd. She had purpose. As she approached, I saw that she was crying. Soon we were hugging. Later, a man came by after putting his name on a couple lists and joked that maybe there would be a cute widow for him to date.
I was surprised when Liam brought his friend over to say that he had lost his mom. He pointed across the church’s great room to the café tables and said his dad was sitting over there. I went over and signed him up.
For a long time, our group turned out to be just three of us. A seventy-eight-year-old man, a fifty-seven-year-old man and a fifty-three-year-old woman. We were a seemingly random club of people finding comfort from those who knew what it meant to lose the love of their life. Meeting, praying, crying (well mostly just me crying) at Homer’s Coffee House. We had a rule that we hugged to begin and end our group because we agreed we didn’t get enough hugs in our lives anymore.
All the time and energy I spent looking to fill my love void. What I needed all along was God’s love and serving Him to fill the hole. And a community of others who were willing to be vulnerable about loss and try to fill it with God’s love.
The peace that passes all understanding.
All In for me started while I was in the darkest and scariest place of my life. Although I stomped my foot like a preschooler and refused to participate, by the time the campaign ended a couple years later, I found that I had gone All In. Tithing, giving my time to ministry, and most of all, my heart to God.