by Lesa Johnson
I have to confess that I grew up reading Harlequin romances. Just so you know, I’m not proud of this. My girlfriends and I would share stacks of them back and forth, through high school and well into college. Over and over, I read the recycled plots of heartbroken women meeting dashing and mysterious men, each being swept off their feet and always loved into eternal wedded bliss. These books were all exactly 187 page-long, “love-guides to life.” They were my mental partners to the more mundane real-life realities of my truth, because I definitely kissed a few frogs and wore a broken heart in those early awkward days of seeking true love. Honestly, my heart just ached to be the center of another’s being. Oh, how I wanted to be desired. How I prayed to be unconditionally loved.
In the middle of all this, one moon-lit summer camp night, I sat on a campfire bench and cried out for forgiveness and life-meaning. It was late high school, when things were vividly raw. I just remember I had been struggling spiritually. Looking back, I needed to know I belonged to God first. Even though I had prayed for Christ to be my Savior as a child, circumstances and events happened to cause great doubt and fear in my love relationship with Him. I remember that end of camp session, as I was such a mess. Sobbing, clinging and crying out my desire for the Holy completion and forgiveness. For me, I needed to be whole.
God answered my cries. I received a covering of love and peace that night. The clarity of the Holy cleansing was so intense, sitting on that broken log in the woods huddled down with my spiritual sisters. I celebrated a new beginning. There was no doubt in my mind that God would ever leave me or reject me. As I later rode down the mountain towards home, I felt so greatly covered with God’s love. I knew my life would be forever changed. Corny as it sounds, we sang the song “Behold What Manner of Love” as a round in the car the whole way home. We were high on Jesus. It was no coincidence then that our verse of the week was this:
“See what great love the Father has lavished on us, that we should be called children of God! And that is what we are!”
1 John 1:3
After camp, I had the “Jesus thing” down, and it was good. I have to admit, the map of earthly love wasn’t quite as straight a route as my redemption plan at summer camp. After a few painful relationships, I truthfully gave in to the fact that the Harlequin Romance “man of my dreams” had actually been in my life since junior high, I just didn’t realize it. The best friend I walked with at high school graduation honestly turned into “the one.” It took a few years, but finally I recognized the jewel God placed at my feet. I was so ready to run down the aisle in a white dress with Deputy Dean. I remember laughing and saying that I didn’t even want or need an engagement ring; I just wanted a plain, gold band. God answered my prayers, and I wanted to be married and have that “happily-ever-after.” Those wedding vows were so sacred to us both—we trembled at the importance of the most holy union this side of heaven. I remember them so clearly—
“I Lesa, take you Dean,
to have and to hold,
For better or for worse,
for richer or poorer,
in sickness and in health,
until death do us part.”
We kissed, we had the biggest party, and we lived happily after. Well, that’s not entirely true. Books are made from life, and life often resembles books. My personal “romantic novel” was sometimes a tragedy, sometimes a comedy, and most often a mystery. I got my characters all mixed up, and I tried to write an ending that just wasn’t so perfect. There were times I felt my holy matrimony was instead a wholly mess.
Can I just say that loving 24/7 wasn’t a perfect transition? Love is hard. I always prayed for a Godly husband, a man I could trust, honor and respect. Truth is, I joked with my girlfriends that I would “submit” to my husband when I found one strong enough to lead me. I was a stubborn wife. He was obsessed with hobbies. I spent too much money. He was a planner. I was fearful, he was fearless. My tough guy was all that and more, and for twenty-five years I shared a home, adventures, careers, babies to teen boys (and richer or poorer every few years) with that handsome door-kicking avenger of evil. I confess to idolizing my husband at times, and I admit that I thought about him way more than I ever thought about God.
Then, one morning, that ended. Like a puff of air on a tiny leaf, My husband came home after working an extra-long shift and went to bed. Then, he got up and unexpectedly collapsed on our bedroom floor. The love of my life simply died, right there between the sink and the closet. Everything in my personal love story was torn to pieces. (Yes, you read that right. My husband died.) Later, we learned he passed from a massive pulmonary embolism in a matter of minutes while I was driving our son to high school. He was forever 48 years young. Our children were fatherless. I was a widow. That morning, in shock, I posted on my social media one simple sentence, “God help us.”
You know what? God really did. In the darkest days, He helped us. He carried me. We were cared for in the most incredible ways. My family experienced love and compassion from so many places that we were repeatedly blown away. I was not unfamiliar with widows—my best friend was sadly already a widow, my mother-in-law, aunts, grandmother, even my own mom was widowed when I was just an infant. I had the same conversation with each of them, “How did you survive this?” I heard repeatedly two things. First, remember the Love of Christ. That covers it all, no matter what happens. Heaven as home base made me edit my story and revise my life thesis. It was not all about my earthly relationships. While the phrase “you complete me” may sound great in a movie, the real truth is, it’s a temporary thing. The second thing I was told, and the advice I found most helpful, was to “just do the next thing.” Widowhood was and is a faith walk, keeping my eyes on my Father’s eyes. We don’t understand all things Holy. We don’t know the way. It’s a trust thing for sure.
The following summer, I attended my first wedding post-loss and again was blown away at my deep, sudden emotion. My eyes were just leaking tears as I said to myself “It’s not supposed to be this way.” I was grieving and I was jealous. Later that night, curled solo in a guest bed, I read a blog on a Christian Widow’s support page, one that touched my heart very much. My heart had a moment, like that night years before, back at summer camp. “My Maker is my husband.” I read it again. And again. What in the world did that mean? And then I read it out loud, just like this:
“Fear not, for you will not be ashamed; be not confounded, for you will not be disgraced; for you will forget the shame of your youth, and the reproach of your widowhood you will remember no more, for your Maker is your husband, the Lord of hosts is his name; and the Holy One of Israel is your Redeemer, the God of the whole earth he is called.”
I was in my late forties and truthfully, I was broken-hearted at word, “widow.” My love story wasn’t supposed to end that way. It simply was not what I had planned. My theoretical understanding of the enormity of God’s love for me met the reality of who He really is, even in the wild storms of life. He is sacred, and he is Holy in the midst of the storm. Grief is so deep and so wide, and yet God’s ability to hold and provide for me was miraculous. It was even deeper, and even wider than my grief. In the early days of widowhood, I cried out to God in such a way that I was fearful I would drown in my own tears. Looking back, I knew down deep, that no matter what, God loved me, He was with me, and would somehow fix the parts of my heart. He filled the vacancy I had filled before with my husband, and when I focused on Him, God eventually fit there completely.
God’s Word is a vow of his everlasting love for me. His Word is a love letter of epic proportions and His love doesn’t stop at earthly death. In fact, that’s when it simply gets kicked up a notch. We grieve and we miss because we loved. We don’t need a Harlequin life, or a Hallmark life, we need a Holy life.
Grief is the price of love. Even in grief, God completes me and I am content in living a good life serving Him the rest of my days. My joy cohabitates with my grief. With faith, family and friends, I have a good life. My vow is truthfully to serve Him, for my Heavenly Father is unleashing love on me, every day. I can’t begin to understand his capacity of love for me, but I trust it. It took a long time to really get this love story. I know how the story ends. We are all reunited again. What a crazy good love story, where in Christ we can all live…happily ever after.
Lesa Johnson is a mom of two cool, adult sons a fabulous daughter-in-law. She spends her days helping people plan to have enough retirement resources, and spends her free time digging in the dirt, playing the piano, and baking for friends.