God Gives and God Takes Away

We celebrated Brenn’s birthday a bit early this year. Family was in town and our friends from across the street were getting ready to move to their next assignment (to “PCS” in military terms), so we tossed the calendar out the window and celebrated his June birthday in May.

Brenn, approving greatly of this new found nonchalance for dates and times, ate up his cake and ice cream along with the affection and attention of his friends and cousins. And along with all of this, he received too giantly awesome helium balloons.

Ah, the kid in me still understands the undeniable awesomeness of a helium balloon. Once Brenn had polished off his (giant) slice of birthday cake and downed a bowlful of the children recommended and approved “scooperman” ice cream, he turned his attention to those fantastic new toys. With a string from each clutched in both hands, he ran off to the front yard.

(I’m sure you know where this story is headed. And if you don’t, well, you haven’t played with helium balloons enough in your life. You should probably remedy that. Balloons are awesome.)

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Rebecca Nelson Photography

About 30 minutes after an ebullient Brenn left us, a tearful Brenn returned.

Punctuated by hiccups and sniffles, the sad tale emerged. One balloon had popped and one had gained its freedom and was now only a speck sailing over Dayton even as we spoke.

Now, the fixer in me wanted to jump up and rush off to the store to buy two more balloons, just to make the situation better and to stop the pitiful flow of tears. The empathetic mother was there in full force. But the coaching mother in me (well, probably more like the Holy Spirit) said, “Wait just a minute; there’s a lesson here.”

(Oh man, if Brenn knew that I chose a lesson over more balloons, I’d probably be on his blacklist right now.)

The lesson for Brenn is a lesson that I feel God has been teaching me over the past 10 months as well. It’s a lesson that, if we can learn it, will serve my family well as the Air Force moves us (and our friends) from place to place every few years.

Here it is: Since “the Lord gives, and the Lord takes away,” my response in the moments when he does so should always be “may the name of the Lord be blessed.”

(Granted, the comparison feels a little sacrilegious. In actuality, Job, lying prostrate on the ground destitute and grieving the loss of both his family and all his worldly possessions, is not a few degrees worse than the plight of my son, standing in front of me weeping over a lost balloon while wiping teary smudges of scooperman ice cream and vanilla cake off his face and onto the shirt I had just washed that afternoon.)

But friends, don’t we all have those moments in life when that which we expected to have for a while is taken from us? Sometimes this is heart wrenchingly painful and disappointing. Painful, like the pain of my miscarriage was painful. Sometimes it’s the lesser-but-no-less-real pain of an inevitable parting, like our friend’s recent PCS due to the demands of the Department of Defense. That moment of loss also hurts. Sometimes it is a small thing, like a superhero birthday balloon, that God just allows to slip, without warning, from our hand.

The Lord gave. The Lord took it away.

Paul and I have often discussed the ways in which we can best prepare our children for a life that involves frequent loss and apparent insecurity. It’s very likely that they won’t have the same church, the same friends or the same house for more than three years at a time. If their friends are also military, you might have even less time before they have to leave. Paul could be deployed or sent for a lengthy training. An assignment might need filling before we anticipated moving. Their belongs may be lost or broken during our moves. In general, our life will not be defined by any type of normal external or situational “stability.”

 So how do we handle this?

There are some people (*cough* Paul) that solve this problem by just not caring too much about, well, anything. Eschew friendships! Don’t love things! Avoid community! Become philosophical about life. If you don’t care so much, then you won’t feel so sad when it’s gone. You’ll avoid all that turbulent emotional output. Low expectations will save everyone.

I’ve talked to other military spouses who are tempted to become resentful after each move. They start to obsess over lost friends, homes, jobs (careers really) and other opportunities. As a result, each change is just another nail in the coffin of their embittered hearts. They might grit their teeth and doggedly move forward but there isn’t much joy left to cushion the difficulties of their life in the military.

Others I have talked with seem to drift between assignments like a boat on a stormy sea. They seem to flounder from one loss to the next, each time expending emotional energy at alarming rates. They rage at the storm or at those with them in the boat and all that raging leaves them unable to function (or recharge) during the lull between the storms. Being emotionally wrung out, their lives are a series of tragic losses they simply must learn to endure.

Obviously, I’m speaking in hyperbole, but perhaps you see some of yourself in one of these descriptions. I’m certainly tempted toward one of them and I know that if I’m going to make it, that is, if I’m going to live a life that delights God’s heart and give convincing guidance to my children while we serve him in the Air Force, I need to correct my thinking.

And so I have begun to ask myself, “How do I enjoy the good gifts of today knowing that I may lose them tomorrow?”

In her (excellent thus far) book, “Living Into Community,” Christine Pohl writes,

“To live gratefully is not the same as denying the misery or evil around us. Misunderstandings of the importance of gratitude can turn it into a spiritual bludgeon used to smash the heartache or grief out of people…. [Rather] gratitude involves knowing that we are held secure by a loving God, and that the God we worship is trustworthy, despite the nearly unbearable sorrow we might encounter along the way. …Our capacity for gratitude is not connected with an abundance of resources but rather a capacity to notice what it is that we do have.”

Pohl calls on believers to connect their gratitude for all the gifts in life, whether they are long-lasting or short-lived, to the faithfulness of a good God who both gives them and then (perhaps) sovereignly takes them away. This is what Job was doing as he lay prostrate before the Lord with the ruins of all of the temporal good that God had given him in life surrounding his still-worshipping form. He acknowledged that it was a good God who had allowed his life to be filled to the brim with gifts, and he then acknowledges that the same good God had ordained that all those gifts be taken away. This knowledge allowed him to praise and worship God at the very worst of life’s moments.

Job words sound so brave to me. In that moment he rejected the temptation to become bitter, he refuses to devalue the gifts of his past in order to care less, and he rejects the weeping of despair over his losses. And he worships God for his good gifts. And he trusts God through the loss of those gifts.

I wonder if I could be that brave.

I wonder if, like the Apostle Paul declared in Phil 4:11-13, I will say “I’ve learned by now to be quite content whatever my circumstances. I’m just as happy with little as with much, with much as with little. I’ve found the recipe for being happy whether full or hungry, hands full or hands empty. Whatever I have, wherever I am, I can make it through anything in the One who makes me who I am.”

Paul’s words imply that this type of steadfast contentment takes work. He learned it over the constant ebb and flow of good gifts given and taken. He learned it while floating from crest to trough to crest of stormy seas (figuratively and literally!).

With the possibility of twenty years of change ahead of us, it seems like we’ll have ample learning opportunities. When I talk to my kids before each PCS move, before each deployment, before each good-bye party, can I encourage them in the truth of treasuring the good giver and the good taker of gifts?

What does this look like in our lives? With God’s help, we will love people, no matter how long we have the opportunity to know them. We will enjoy houses and regional cultures no matter how long God has ordained for us to live there. We will delight in the temporal blessing of possessions we are able to own. We will serve joyfully, knowing that we probably won’t see many of the results of our service. We will thank God for every gift and enjoy it, no matter how small (as small as a birthday balloon), both when he gives it to us and when he lovingly takes it away. It doesn’t mean that we won’t grieve the loss of those things, we will grieve, but not with a despairing, hopeless grief. And in our sadness, we we praise him, still.

When the morning falls on the farthest hill
I will sing His name, I will praise Him, still.
When dark trials come and my heart is filled
With the weight of doubt, I will praise Him, still.

For the Lord, our God, He is strong to save
From the arms of death, from the deepest grave,
And He gave us life in His perfect will,
And by His good grace, I will praise Him, still.

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