EARS TO HEAR & EYES TO SEE

“Dad … can I sit by you?” Mitch said softly. It was mid-January and I was working from home that day. “Sure Mitch! I love it when you’re near me.” I then patted my hand on an extra chair, inviting him to sit with me. Mitch sat down holding his baby puppy close to his chest. Marlie looked at me as she snuggled deep into his arms. Mitch thought himself blessed to have a furry friend like Marlie. 

I turned my camera toward Mitch and he just stared into the lens. He didn’t try to posture himself for a photo – he did exactly what I always wanted … absolutely nothing. You see, Mitchie knew I wanted to capture moments unrehearsed … I wanted to capture life, not the imitation of it. So, Mitch gave me the moment. 

His almond eyes and soft expression my heart melted. In this same moment he gave me a curious look as if to say, “Dad, something’s wrong.” He didn’t need to say any words – I sensed it, too. Like a cold wind from the north, I felt a brooding sense that we were on the edge of a great and terrible change and my soul began to shiver. At the time, I didn’t know what was about to happen, I just knew something hard was coming. How hard, I knew not. For almost 2 years this feeling was growing. Looking back, I believe heaven warned me and helped me make the most of time I might have otherwise squandered.

As death drew closer, Mitch would begin to ask me deep questions about the purpose of life, death and what happens when we die. At the tender age of 10, an age that he should have been playing with toys, he faced the stuff of philosophers and theologians. He wanted to understand what too many adults often dismiss for cheaper thrills. 

In less than 6 weeks from this photo, Mitch would lay on his bed unable to open his eyes or speak as his body was shutting down. It is frightening to think how quickly our worlds can be turned upside down and inside out.

This same puppy who was at first frightened to be away from her mother, received great comfort from Mitch, and would soon return the favor with honor. The night he was slipping away, she would use her nose to lift his hand and nestle under his palm as if she knew he needed to touch her. Though he couldn’t open his beautiful eyes, he could move his fingers slightly. So, there on the side of this sacred bed, I filmed Mitchell’s tender fingers running softly through her baby coat. Eventually, when the end was upon Mitch, this little puppy curled around his head on his pillow. Then, within an hour, my baby boy slipped away.

I am a simple, flawed man and I don’t know much; but I know a few things for sure. One thing I know is, we are not alone. I know it all the way to the marrow of my bones. The moment I first laid eyes on newborn Mitch, my Father warned me with a distinct impression something was wrong. That impression persisted for three years until his diagnosis. Then, almost 2 years before he passed away, my Father returned and began to stir my soul with a great uneasiness. I didn’t know all that He was trying to tell me, I only knew He was preparing me for a spiritual winter. A time where darkness would become my home. Then, as my spiritual eyes began to adjust to the darkness of grief, I began to see little flecks of light … little tender mercies. Though I was in hell, I saw evidence of heaven and a Father who cared.

Yes, my heart is still broken and my soul is weary with grief. I long to find my son so that my mind might find some relief. My soul searches as if he were lost in some great wilderness. But alas, it is not he that is lost, but me. So I journey through the wilderness in search of heaven. I pray for ears to hear and eyes to see. Somewhere, out there, my little son waits for me.

GOLIATH AND THE LITTLE GIANT

Tiny Marlie stood bravely before Dragon, a much larger puppy. In Marlie’s mind, she was just as strong as her furry friend and always held her ground with a flurry of high-pitched barks and excited prancing. With one soft nudge of Dragon’s nose, tiny Marlie would topple over and roll into summersaults. Physically, she was no match. The moment she tumbled, she would jump to her feet and begin to bark as though nothing ever happened. In fact, she would bark like she was winning. Mitch smiled and giggled as he watched these two puppies play.

As I took this photo, the words crossed my mind, “Goliath and the little giant.” I couldn’t help but notice tiny Marlie as she stood bravely before her much larger friend, playful and strong. Marlie was a little giant – undaunted by what stood before her. In this same moment, I saw Mitch much like his puppy: a little giant of a different sort … a kind of giant you don’t see with your eyes, but sense with your soul. My mind then shifted to the ancient account of David and Goliath and what it meant to take fresh courage in the face of implacable odds.

I often wonder what crossed David’s mind as he stood in the long shadow of Goliath. I’ve heard so many variations of this quote that I don’t know who to attribute, but it has been said that courage is not the absence of fear, but the decision to act in spite of it. Did David’s soul shiver just a little bit at the sight of Goliath? Perhaps. Though small in stature as compared to his 9-foot opponent, David clearly possessed an inner strength and courage that cannot be forged by human hands or feigned by mortal hearts.

I did my best to teach Mitch that he was the son of a King and that he could call on Him for courage when the shadows of doubt grew especially dark or when his Goliaths seemed especially frightening. Mitch battled many Goliaths in his short life: he overcame fear, self-doubt, and a multitude of big and small battles – some so small they might seem insignificant to the casual observer, but to him, they were towering and he faced them bravely.

I sometimes wonder if mortals have life a little backward. We seem to measure so much by the accomplishment of big, visible things … the job promotion, the new car, or any number of accolades. Surely the big battles matter, but I’m persuaded that the little battles matter even more. Sometimes the big battles we face come because we ignored the little battles along the way. In like manner, victory is almost never achieved overnight but instead by little victories won over many days and nights. None of this is new thinking, and it has been said a million times by a million people. But we are human, and we are prone to forget. Perhaps, when we finally see with heaven’s eyes, we will discover to our great surprise that the little battles were really the big battles.

When confronted by his personal Goliaths, Mitch eventually won every battle with dignity and grace. Notice, I used the word "eventually". He didn’t always win at first, but he kept trying until he ultimately won. The one battle, however, he couldn’t win was that with death. As Mitchell’s final Goliath towered over him and stretched its long shadow, a shadow black as a moonless midnight, I admit I trembled with fear and anguish for my son. I cried out to the heavens, “Take me! Take me!” as though I could distract the Goliath of death and persuade it to come for me instead.

Like David, Mitch faced his ultimate Goliath with a kind of courage that cannot be forged by human hands or conjured up by mortal minds. Instead, he was strengthened by his knowledge of who he was and to whom he really belonged. Though Goliath was huge, David was filled with faith and a certain knowledge … which made him even huger. Mitch, too, was a little giant.

As I examine the past to learn and focus on my present to do, I have discovered one thing, maybe two. If Mitch could stand before his Goliaths, victorious, I know that I can, too. From the Goliath of grief to the quest for peace, I know this one thing is true: the little battles matter both for me and for you.

IT’S OKAY MOMMY

It’s okay, Mommy.” He said those same words just a few days prior when he told my wife and me that he didn’t think he could survive. In his moment of realization … when he knew he wouldn’t survive, he didn’t seek comfort from his mother … instead, he handed it to her selflessly. ‘I’ll be okay, Mommy.’
— Christopher M. Jones | Mitchell's Journey

Natalie had wept for a few hours. Exhausted from grief, she curled around her young boy’s head as if to comfort him – even though she was in the depths of hell and very much in need of comfort herself. 

There, in the quiet of a winter night, the world had fallen away into oblivion … and all that remained was our son whom we fought valiantly to save, but could not. As the warmth of his body drew cold, darkness gathered round us. How pitch black that darkness felt, I have not words to describe.

Just then, in that moment of profound agony, when hell seemed to open its mouth wide open … as if to swallow us whole, something sacred happened. Natalie felt a distinct impression that Mitch lingered … that he was with her in Spirit and she felt as if he whispered, “It’s okay, Mommy.” 

Comfort was his parting gift to his mother’s weary and broken soul. Comfort, and a knowledge that he still lives and loves her and that, at times in her life, he will be near to help. 

“It’s okay, Mommy.” He said those same words just a few days prior when he told my wife and me that he didn’t think he could survive. In his moment of realization … when he knew he wouldn’t survive, he didn’t seek comfort from his mother … instead, he handed it to her selflessly. “I’ll be okay, Mommy.” 

I don’t know why such heavy things were placed on his tender shoulders, for he was an innocent boy of deep faith and enduring goodness. He was honest, faithful and true. At 10 years old, he was everything I have ever hoped to be. Yet, he died. 

Some might say God is cruel or indifferent by letting such hardships happen to children. What they forget is that nobody makes it out of here alive. What’s more, the purpose of life is not to build homes and garnish them with material things. We are here to struggle and walk by the dim light of faith … and in our struggle, we will be made strong. That is an immutable law of nature that not only applies to our bodies and minds, but our souls. Struggle makes us stronger.

I have always appreciated the words of the French philosopher Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, who once observed, “We are not human beings having a spiritual experience. We are spiritual beings having a human experience.” Those are words to remember, especially when our bodies fail us and those we love.

I don’t know the meaning of all things, for I am yet a child who is learning to hear the voice of his Father. While I have much to learn, I have discovered a few things as I have stumbled in the valley of the shadow of death. I have come to know things I cannot deny: I know we are loved by a Father in ways we cannot yet comprehend, but I have felt a portion of that love and it has changed me from the inside out. I know that our spirits live on, for my dear wife and I have felt the presence of our son. I know that those who go before us can visit and offer us comfort in times of trouble.

As ancient Elisha once observed, “Fear not: for they that be with us are more than they that be with them.” I hope that my spiritual eyes will be opened so that I may see what is often hid from sight while living in mortality. I will always remember this dark winter night when my wife sensed our son’s presence, just beyond mortal sight. “It’s okay, Mommy” … a comfort and plea … whispered from a sweet little boy who wanted his mommy to see. 

--------------
NOTE: I gave this to Natalie on Mother’s Day. We both wept as we reflected on this sacred evening where there was both the darkness of grief and the light of God. This art will be part of a book I plan to release later this fall.

GOING HOME

Going home, to that place I love to be. 

Yet there is another home ... a place I cannot yet see. I wonder what it's like... a sacred grove, a grassy knoll, or perhaps a place so filled with light we cannot imagine it, not even in our dreams. 

Somewhere out there my little child waits for me.

WINGS UNKNOWN

It had only been a few short hours from the time little Mitch passed away. I felt like I had been thrown overboard into a vast sea of grief – how deep and violent that sea would become I never imagined. I had clung to a little raft of hope for so long – and in a moment, that hope for one more day … one more moment with my son was suddenly submerged in terrible waves of sorrow. 

It was that realization he was gone (I mean really, really gone) that was terrifying. My soul experienced a new, darker form of grief as what little hope I had was dashed and absolute. Like wading in the ocean; one moment surrounded in warm water then suddenly the water went cold, then warm again … our emotions were no different. One moment we felt peace, the next moment unimaginable horror. The nightmare I was terrified to imagine became a suffocating reality.

My dear wife sat on the edge of our bed quietly weeping when my oldest sister came into our room and began to console her, mother-to-mother. This is the same sister who knew Natalie and I sat in the hall outside Mitchell’s bedroom and wept while he slept and brought us cushions to sit on just days earlier. I made mention in a post how hard the ground felt and this good woman offered the only relief she could.

As a father, the death of my son stripped me of everything. I was no longer the protector of my children but instead a helpless, terrified bystander to the implacable force of death. I loved my son and wanted to save him – but I failed. My wife and I were terrorized by feelings of doubt, frustrated that medical interventions presented themselves too late, and panicked by an endless list of “what if’s.” Although the morning sun had risen, night had scarcely begun.

Then entered my sister, an angel made mortal. Like heavenly wings of comfort, she wrapped her arms around my broken wife and wept with her. I wept at this very sight – grateful for compassionate souls. Today, when I look at this image of my sister mourning with my wife, my heart is softened and my soul soothed. I don’t know much, but I have come to know we are comforted, as if by a whisper, by those who have gone before us. Though they want for our happiness, they mourn with us … not out of pity or disappointment that we are sad, but empathy. They understand that we hurt and they hurt with us. Sorrow over loss is nothing to be ashamed of. It is an evidence of love. I can see Mitch holding my wife, sight unseen, whispering to her soul, “I know mommy, I miss you too. I am sorry that you hurt so much. I understand.” 

I recently had lunch with a good man and colleague. He is an ecclesiastical leader and a man of great faith. He asked the question, “Why do some people really suffer by the loss of a loved one while others seem to accept it as a fact of life and mortality and move on?” I was a little surprised by his question and didn’t quite know how to answer it at the moment – I only said when my father passed away, that was hard. But when my young son died, it was life altering and soul shattering. 

Grief is hard. It is the hardest thing I’ve ever experienced. Ever. 

Sometimes grief comes barging into my heart at the most unexpected moments. I was on a business trip last Friday and everything went better than expected. I was excited about the future and my heart was filled with hope and anticipation. Then at about 10:30 PM, on the flight home, I dozed off. I began to dream of my dear son and somewhere between sleep and consciousness I realized Mitch was gone and my soul panicked. I awoke in a terror and my heart was pounding. I felt the pains of loss anew – with the same intensity as this very morning when I lost my son.

So, what is the point to all this suffering? The answer lives deep within - where secrets of the soul are ours to win. They do not come easy - in fact they often come at a cost ... sometimes at the hand of a terrible loss. But when we learn to look and see, our hearts will be healed by a most heavenly scene. Perhaps, after all, when we felt most alone, we were comforted by arms unseen and wings unknown. 

A MORTAL’S GUIDE TO SUFFERING

It was the summer of my son’s passing that I found myself alone for a few weeks. Circumstances were such that my kids were at various camps and Natalie was away from home helping them. On this night I lay on the grass next to my son’s headstone as the summer sun set. I loved to hear the sound of crickets and lay on the soft carpet of grass that covered my dear son. Though the world was harsh and hard, there was a certain softness to this place.

Looking back, this period of my grief journey was especially surreal. The gravity of grief was so great that I could hardly breathe most of the time. Beneath the veneer of my soft smile and dry eyes was a soul that was in a state of constant weeping and grief. It felt that earth and my life before was somewhere far away. 

If I wasn’t at work or with my wife and kids, I wanted to be at the cemetery, next to my son. I don’t entirely understand why I had such a strong desire to be near him – I think on some level the father in me subconsciously wanted to comfort my son who, deep inside, I worried was frightened. Looking back, I am beginning to wonder if I was the one who was frightened and in need of comfort.

So on this summer evening, as the sun fell behind the hills, I jotted the phrase “A Mortal’s Guide to Suffering.” I didn’t know exactly what to do with it … I only knew I needed to remember those words. It has been two years now and I haven’t been able to put that phrase down. It keeps surfacing in my mind and heart – as though it’s a whisper from that other place to explore its meaning in my life.

Since then I’ve begun working on a series with that title, A Mortal’s Guide to Suffering. It is not a pulpit or a collection of “life lessons” … for who am I to teach anyone? I am the least of everyone. I’m just a fumbling student who is trying to listen to my Father, a master teacher, who tenderly and patiently teaches me hard things. So in a way, it is a journal of observations and wonderings.

I have received many messages from people all across the world sharing stories of hope and hardship, love and loss. I have wept as I’ve read your own journeys. I have discovered there is a great deal of silent sorrow in this world, but there is also a great deal of hope and healing. At first I was confused why people found solace in reading another’s sorrow, my sorrow. I think I understand it now, at least to some degree. 

Perhaps the first healing step in a mortal’s journey with suffering is to discover we are not alone in sorrow and that other people understand a darkness we thought was unique to ourselves. It would seem the second step in our mortal journey with suffering is to not only find that others care that we hurt, but to discover the healing power when we learn to care for others, despite our hurt. I don’t believe it’s possible to overstate the healing power of empathy. I have discovered that empathy not only repairs part of the sufferer, it also repairs an invisible part of the person who does not appear broken at all. 

And therein lies one of mortality's great deceptions, to think any one of us are unbroken. To be mortal is to be broken; and while everyone is broken in one way or another, most of us are broken in many places, great and small. Some hide their brokenness in anger and bitterness – they lash out and try to harm others, mistaking that rush and thrill for wholeness. Others retreat in quiet sorrow. Some try to mask or numb their brokenness in things that ultimately hurt themselves and others. Still, there are some who hide their brokenness in egotism and by appearing to be exactly the opposite of flawed. There are many things I hope to become in this life – chief among them is I hope to always be real.

So, in the coming months I will share some of my own personal discoveries of being mortal and suffering – and what I make of it. They’re not life lessons nor are they meant to be a digital pulpit … instead they are a lowly journal ... a guide and road map for me, covered in dirt and dust from stumbling. I do this so that if ever I get lost, I can look back and see the journey and make sense of it all. I don’t know many things – but one thing I know is I am a mere mortal with broken bones; and every day, however much I stumble, I am finding my way home.

MY WILDERNESS

As a young boy I used to get lost in the back woods of Edina, Minnesota. The wilderness was thick with all manner of vegetation, rocks and hills – and because of the very nature of nature you couldn't see very far. And when fog settled, you could see almost nothing. 

Being lost as a young child reminds me of the landscapes of my life. Sometimes I sit upon a vista with clear skies and can see far into the horizon. Other times I am scaling my Everest – afraid I might fall. Still, other times I am traveling through a wilderness of hardship where the fog of the unknown makes seeing what’s ahead almost impossible. 

Regardless of the landscape upon which I journey, I have learned to travel by faith. That doesn't mean to travel blind or dumb, but to learn to see with my other eyes and hear with my other ears. There is a difference, and it is significant.

As Mitch started to slip away, I found myself descending into a dark wilderness wherein I could see very little. The further we traveled into this wilderness of grief and sorrow the more difficult the terrain and the thicker the fog. I would hold my son’s face and tell him how much he meant to me. I would kiss and hug him and try to assure him – but inside I was terrified of losing him. I love him so very much. With each minute, each day, the wilderness became ever dark and perplexing. I have never known a wilderness such as this.

My wife came into my office today with tears in her eyes and said, “I know it’s officially tomorrow night (the morning of March 2nd) that Mitch passed away, but the day was on a Friday last year. Today is Friday.” Tears filled my eyes, too. I realized then I am still navigating the wilderness of grief. And what a wilderness it is… 

The other day I stumbled upon a journal entry I wrote when I was 19 years old. I had all but forgotten about the dream – but somehow I had the presence of mind to write it down over 20 years ago. In my dream I was travelling in a forest heading to some place important, but I couldn't put my finger on where. I also had a wife and children but I couldn't see their faces and I didn't know their numbers, yet I knew they belonged to me and me them. Each of them was carrying picture frames. As we made our journey through the thick forest, at some point I realized someone was missing and I began to desperately search for my child. I was in a panic, and then my dream ended.

As I read my journal entry I lost my breath. I am now beginning to understand the meaning of that dream so many years later - and I can’t help but contemplate what God was trying to tell me about my future. He spoke to me, and I listened … and I wrote it down… but I didn't understand it. If there is one thing I've learned in my own journey; it is one thing to receive a personal revelation (or answer, or warning) but quite another to understand it. 

I have discovered that while navigating my wilderness I must learn to rely on my spiritual hearing, not just spiritual sight. And learning to hear is a delicate and personal thing – borne of personal acquaintance. 

Suppose I told you outside there were 2,000 mothers – one of which was mine. And say I blindfold you and told you to find her. I could describe her to you; I might say she’s 5.5, blonde short hair, a beautiful smile and kind voice. If I sent you out there to find her ---- you couldn't do it. Yet if you were to blindfold me I could find her in minutes. Why? Because I know her voice. So it is with God. 

I am still navigating the wilderness of grief - almost as if blindfolded. But I have ears to hear. And while I may stumble and fall to my bruised knees in sorrow, I will get up and follow that voice that whispers ever so gently. A voice that is so quiet that if I’m preoccupied, I may not hear it at all. 

One day, at the end of my wilderness, when I have learned what I must, I know I will see my son again. Only this time I will hold Mitchell’s face not in sorrow but in deep relief … for I will have closed the loop on that dream I had so many years ago; I will have found my son who was lost from my sight. And I will thank my wilderness for teaching me to hear my Father’s voice … a voice that is leading me home. I hear Him.