I sat on the bleachers, breathing deeply and clenching my fists, fighting the tears that kept clouding my eyes. My first varsity football parents’ meeting. The testosterone level was pretty high- every player’s dad was present for this long-awaited milestone moment. (Such is life in Alabama.) There were lots of other moms there, but I was the only mom without the matching dad. I sat there alone, trying not to cry, and all I could think was “It is what it is, it is what it is…”
That was one of my husband Jeff’s favorite things to say. I always hated it when he said that, because he usually said it when faced with a reality we didn’t like. He said it when he was diagnosed with stage four colon cancer at age forty-one; he said it when he endured multiple surgeries and months of chemo; he said it when we went to the lawyer to make sure our wills were in order. There was not a shred of bitterness or self-pity in him. Jeff fought like crazy to live, but he enjoyed the time he had remaining to the fullest, rather than focusing on all the life he would not live.
But Jeff would have loved every minute of parent football meetings, and baseball games, and debate tournaments and graduations and…. There I was without him. All I could think was “death is the ultimate it is what it is.” Not a thing in the world anyone could do to change the fact that Jeff was gone.
After a long, sleepless, angry night trying to make peace with my new “what is,” I went to run errands the next morning. I stopped to buy a birthday present for a friend. A colorful plaque caught my eye: “It is what it is, but it will become what you make it.”
I nearly fell to my knees in the middle of the store. In all the many years I had heard Jeff say that hated phrase, he never once said that second half. “It will become what you make it.” I must have looked like a crazy person, standing in that store holding a painted wooden plaque, laughing and crying and shaking my head. If ever in my life God has spoken to me, He spoke to me that day, through a little wooden plaque.
Jeff’s death was a fact I could not change, what Bible teacher Julie Sparkman calls a “brick wall.” I could keep ramming my head against it, full of self-pity and frustration and anger. I could keep telling myself this was surely NOT the plan for me, I was NEVER meant to be a widow (who is?), and there was NO WAY I was cut out to be a single mom to three boys entering their teens who were mourning the loss of the daddy they adored. A line from a Talking Heads song often ran through my mind: “This is not my beautiful life.” But, in fact, it was my life. Was there a shred of hope that it would be beautiful again?
This little plaque suggested to me that yes, my life after Jeff could become something good and worthwhile. I could choose to stop trying to move that brick wall and accept my new reality. Neither Jeff nor I wanted his death to ruin our sons’ lives, and I didn’t want to dishonor his memory by giving up hope for my own life either. Don’t get me wrong; I didn’t even begin to have the strength or the wisdom to “make” something of my life, as the plaque suggested. I have never felt so weak, alone, unsure, ill-equipped and powerless. The only thing that I had going for me was this: I had spent a lifetime hearing that God is good. The only thing I knew to do was try to get to know Him better. I was desperate for hope, and God met me there.
By His grace and through His Word, my heavenly Father helps me. This will be a lifelong process; I fight self-pity and frustration and bitterness in some form every single day. Standing on His Word and remembering His faithfulness to my little family are the most effective weapons I have. All too often, in my stubbornness, I refuse to use them. But as I learn (oh so slowly) to choose Him, my life gradually becomes what He wants to make of it.
As God would have it, today we studied the story of Hannah in Sunday school. Hannah, the beloved wife of Elkanah, longs for a child but is unable to conceive. Elkanah’s second wife has several children and torments Hannah about her barrenness. This goes on for several years, and Hannah mourns so deeply she cannot eat.
Hannah’s desire for a child is perfectly natural, yet her childlessness is a fact she cannot change. Her unfulfilled longing threatens her health and casts a shadow over her happy marriage. In a sense she has every “right” to be as sad as she can be. But Hannah knows her God, so she goes to the temple “in bitterness of soul, and prayed to the Lord and wept in anguish.” (1 Samuel 1:10) The priest Eli sees her so overcome he thinks she is drunk, but she responds that she is “a woman of sorrowful spirit” who “poured out her heart before the Lord.” (v. 15)
Hannah emerges from the temple a changed woman. Eli blesses her and prays that God will giver her the desire of her heart, but he does not prophesy fertility. The act of pouring out her suffering to God transforms her. She tells Eli “out of the abundance of my complaint and grief I have spoken until now;” but she isn’t going to dwell on her great sorrow any longer. (v.16) The Bible tells us she begins to eat again, “and her face was no longer sad.” (v.18) She does not know if she will ever have a baby, and yet laying her greatest heartache at God’s feet brings her peace.*
Death and infertility are just two of many brick walls in this life. I cannot change the past. I cannot change other people. (I really need to get that one.) Head-butting those walls gives me –and everyone around me- a huge headache. But there is something far stronger than a brick wall: the immoveable, eternal Rock, Jesus Christ, Whose Word to us reveals the greatest reality, far more true than the apparent reality of earthly circumstances.
Perhaps the best expression of accepting what is and asking God to make something beautiful from it is found in that old familiar prayer:
God, give me grace to accept with serenity
the things that cannot be changed,
Courage to change the things
which should be changed,
and the Wisdom to distinguish
the one from the other.
Living one day at a time,
Enjoying one moment at a time,
Accepting hardship as a pathway to peace,
Taking, as Jesus did,
This sinful world as it is,
Not as I would have it,
Trusting that You will make all things right,
If I surrender to Your will,
So that I may be reasonably happy in this life,
And supremely happy with You forever in the next.
I appreciate the sound Biblical teaching of Julie Sparkman which prompted me to write this post. She gave a talk on “it is what it is” this week that ministered to many people, especially me. For more about Julie’s work and teaching, please go to restore-ministries.org.
* for the rest of the story, go to 1 Samuel and start reading, because the great prophet Samuel is the first of Hannah's six children. That's what I call a happy ending.