Chapter 12: Storing The Memories

Making The Most Of The Darkness , by Eric Elder

You’re reading MAKING THE MOST OF THE DARKNESS, by Eric Elder, featuring 12 inspirational messages to give you hope during your time of loss. Also available in paperback and eBook formats in our bookstore for a donation of any size!

One of the things I look forward to at the end of each year is to look back. I’m often surprised at all that’s happened during the year, and it gives me hope for the year to come.

This past year has been no exception. As I was writing my year-end letter for my family and friends this week, I was amazed at all that God helped me to do this year, even though I felt like so much of it was just absorbed in my grief of losing Lana. As God reminded me of all that He has done in my life this year, I was reminded of the words of Jesus:

“But the Counselor, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in My name, will teach you all things and will remind you of everything I have said to you” (John 14:26).

As I looked through my journal, as I looked through my Facebook posts, as I looked through pictures on my phone and in albums, I was reminded of all that God was doing in my life, even when I wasn’t aware of it at the time.

This time of looking back truly has given me hope for the future. I’m in a different place now after a year of grief than I was last year at this time. And in many ways, I’m in a different place now than I’ve ever been in my life. Things will never be the same.

That’s a statement that has often brought a flood of tears. But as I’ve looked back over all that God has done in my life this past year, I can see that statement in a different light. From here on out, things will never be the same. And I praise God for it. It reminds me of the lyrics to a song by Stephen Schwartz called, “For Good,” from his popular musical, Wicked:

“It well may be
That we will never meet again
In this lifetime
So let me say before we part
So much of me
Is made of what I learned from you
You’ll be with me
Like a handprint on my heart
And now whatever way our stories end
I know you have re-written mine…
Who can say if I’ve been changed for the better?
But because I knew you
I have been changed for good.”

In the weeks before Lana died, she asked me to put together a picture book of all the work we’ve done on the house here at Clover Ranch and send it to a friend who helped us so much with the project. As I looked through pictures from the past 7 years, I was amazed at the transformation that I saw had taken place from year to year. It was a lot of work and it took a lot of time, but it was beautiful in the end.

I put together the book and sent it to our friend as Lana had asked. But it was so helpful to me to look back, and gave me such hope for the future as I look forward, that I bought an extra album for myself and printed out an extra set of pictures so I could keep a copy, too. It’s filled with memories I’ll treasure for the rest of my life.

As hard as it was to look back at the past, I’ve been encouraged by it as I look forward to the future. Perhaps you’ll find it encouraging, too.

In closing, I’d like to share with you the year-end letter I wrote to my family and friends this week. As you’ve been with me on this journey, I certainly consider you my family and friends, too! It’s a summation of some of the things you’ve already read in these messages, but written from the vantage point of one-year down the road. I pray it encourages you that with God’s help, whatever your loss, He really can help you get through it. There really is another side to grief, and I’m thankful now to be able to see it for myself.

With that introduction, here’s my year-end letter.

January 18th, 2014

Happy New Year to you! I wanted to send you an updated picture of our family, along with an update on how we’re doing. I was torn again this year between which Christmas picture to send you, so I’m sending you both.

Eric Elder Family, Christmas Eve -1

Eric-Elder-Family-Christmas-Eve-2013-4x6-2

We took these on Christmas Eve at the Lexington Cemetery, about 7 miles from our home, where we installed a memorial bench for Lana this fall. One picture seems to highlight Lana’s beautiful memorial and the other seems to highlight the beautiful faces of our kids. I think Lana’s spirit is clearly evident in both!

I kept the first few months of last year as low-key as possible: doing school with the 3 younger kids, finishing projects around the house and working on some behind-the-scenes things for the ministry. I wrote a few messages for The Ranch website and spoke at a few churches, but overall it was nice to spend some time out of public view for awhile after our whirlwind year.

In April I drove to Houston in a friend’s truck to pick up the granite bench for Lana’s memorial. My cousin Joan had found it at a craft shop there and sent us a picture just a few days before Lana passed away. Lana loved it and I did too. It turned out to be cheaper to pick it up myself than to ship it to Illinois, and the road trip gave me some extra time on my own to think and pray.

While I was in Houston, I visited the church where we were married. Of course I cried as I knelt at the front of the church where I said my vows to Lana: “You are a gift from God to me and I plan to treat you as a gift.” As I walked through the empty hallways that day, I felt like I was reliving a scene from the Titanic. My mind filled in the empty hallways with people and dancing and private moments with Lana (and the photographer) from 24 years ago. I don’t think I needed a photographer to remember anything from that day.

We tried to keep things the same as much as possible around the house this year because so much had already changed in our lives. We planted a garden as usual in the spring, and we made Lana’s favorite salsa with all the tomatoes and peppers and parsley that we grew. The rest of the garden was overtaken with weeds when our tiller broke, just so you’re not left with some picturesque but false view of our life in the country—although we all still love it out here!

The rest of our summer was filled with fun things like Kaleo’s dance recital in May, Josiah’s week at Boy Scout camp in June, and music festivals and a camping trip to the sand dunes on Lake Michigan in July and August.

In the fall I drove Makari back out to California (in her 1993 convertible 240SX…the best way to head out west!) to start her 2nd year at Bethel College in Redding where she’ll finish a 2-year certificate in transformational ministry in May. On the last day of our trip, driving through the mountains with the top down in the beautiful sun, I somehow felt that everything was going to be all right.

It was a turning point for me and, by the time I flew back to Illinois and started school with the 3 younger kids again, I felt like my heart was really on its way to healing. The deep pain of losing Lana was starting to be replaced with so many beautiful memories, and it’s just been getting better and better ever since.

In December I flew to Australia to spend 2 weeks with Lucas and watch him graduate after 3 years with an advanced diploma in worship and leadership from Hillsong International Leadership College. It was great to meet Lucas’ friends and teachers, see a ballet at the Sydney Opera House, spend a day at the Taronga Zoo and see The Hunger Games 2 at the world’s largest IMAX theater.

Two weeks after Lucas graduated, Karis texted me to let me know she had just turned in her final paper to finish her bachelor’s degree in biblical studies from Liberty University Online. She’ll have a graduation ceremony in Virginia in May, but as of now I have 2 college graduates! I’m so proud of both of them, and I know Lana would be so pleased at the fruit of all her labors of homeschooling the kids from kindergarten through high school.

We were all together for 2 weeks at Christmas before Makari had to fly back to California for her 2nd semester at Bethel. We’re starting to get back into the swing of school here at the house, too, happy to have Lucas home for awhile after being so far away for much of the last 3 years. Last weekend we had a movie night here at the house with all the kids (minus Makari) to watch the first of the Lord of the Rings movies as Bo had just finished reading the first book.

And that brings us up to today, January 18th, 2014. It’s a new year and a new season of life. Psalm 5:3 has become one of my daily prayers:

“In the morning, O LORD, You hear my voice; in the morning I lay my requests before You and wait in expectation.”

I never could have made it without God’s help and without your love and prayers. Thank you! I appreciate you all so much.

Love,
Eric

P.S. Here are a few more pictures of Lana’s memorial bench. If you’re ever in Illinois and would like a quiet place to think and pray, Lana’s bench is a perfect place to do it. She would love to know that you were taking time to think and pray, not about her, but about anything in your life that you’d like to think and pray about!

You’ll find the bench in the northeast corner of the Lexington Cemetery in Lexington, Illinois, just off Highway 55 at the Lexington exit. I think it’s a beautiful memorial in a beautiful spot to a beautiful woman.

Lana Elder Memorial Bench - Front

Lana Elder's Memorial Bench - Back

Placing Flowers At Lana's Bench

Flowers At Lana's Bench

Lana's Bench At Sunset

Chapter 11: Helping Others Reach Their Goals

Making The Most Of The Darkness , by Eric Elder

You’re reading MAKING THE MOST OF THE DARKNESS, by Eric Elder, featuring 12 inspirational messages to give you hope during your time of loss. Also available in paperback and eBook formats in our bookstore for a donation of any size!

As you head into a new year, I’d like to encourage you to consider making one of your goals to help someone else reach one of their goals. That way if one of you succeeds, you’ll both succeed at the same time! And you may just help someone do something they never could have done on their own.

About 8 years ago, I came to the realization that my wife had some goals for her life that she may never achieve without some help. There were 3 in particular I was concerned about: 1) She wanted to go to Africa and help orphans in need. 2) She wanted to go to Israel and walk where Jesus walked. 3) She wanted to make a movie about St. Nicholas to inspire others in their faith at Christmastime.

Lana had talked about wanting to do each of these things from time to time, but was never able to move forward on them. Raising our kids and helping me reach some of my goals had become her full-time focus. She was happy to do these things, but I felt that some of her dreams got shelved in the process, and I didn’t want her to miss out on anything that she felt called to do herself.

So I began to pray to see if there was anything I could do to help her reach her goals. And I’m so glad I did.

The Bible says that each of us has different gifts, and we’re to use those gifts for the common good (see 1 Corinthians chapter 12), so God began to show me how I could use my gifts to help her with her goals.

First, I talked to her about her dream of wanting to go to Africa. I asked if she would want to go on a missions trip if we could find one with a reputable group that we could trust was doing good work there. She said that would be great. The very next day, I was in a bookstore looking for a book that I had been waiting to come out for months. The publisher had contacted me a year earlier to ask if the author might mention one of my stories in his book, but I never knew what he decided to do.

That very next day after talking to Lana about going to Africa, I happened to find the book in the bookstore! It had just been published and I quickly began to skim through it to see if there was any mention of my story. There wasn’t! But I was enthralled by the vision of the author. After skimming through the first 100 pages, I got to a line that stunned me: the author said he was trying to recruit thousands of American volunteers to come to Africa the following year!

I bought the book and brought it home to Lana. I said, “How would you like to go next year?” Within 24 hours, we had found a reputable group! She said, “Yes!” and we began to save money and raise money for both of us to go to Africa along with our 2 oldest kids and one of their friends.

Lana Holding Sleeping Orphan in SwazilandEven though it seemed impossible, a year later, all 5 of us were on the plane and headed to Africa to do what Lana had dreamed of doing for a lifetime. Here’s a picture of Lana holding one of the orphans there as he slept on her shoulder.

There’s a great 5-minute video on our website that you can watch about our trip called Planting Hope In Swaziland.

Having seen one “impossible” dream come true, the next year I began to pray about her desire to go to Israel. We decided to put together a study-tour of some of the places she most wanted to visit and invite others who might want to come along with us, too. We knew it would take a couple of years to save enough money for even one of us to go, but we decided to start making plans. But before we even got started, God provided another answer.

A woman who was staying at Clover Ranch for a few months and helping us to renovate it told us she was going to Israel at the end of her stay with us. She asked Lana if she’d like to come along and be her guest! Two months later, Lana was walking where Jesus walked! When Lana came back, she said she was so inspired by the trip that she wanted us to still plan our own study-tour and bring some of the kids and anyone else who wanted to come along with us.

So we continued planning and saving for our own trip to Israel, and 2 years later both of us went, along with 4 of our 6 kids and several friends who wanted to join us! (My 2 younger kids want to go now, so I’m hoping to take another trip over there in the next year or two if you want to join us! Start planning now!)

Lana and Family in JerusalemHere’s a picture of us in Israel with the hills of Jerusalem in the background.

You can also still read a devotional book on our website that we put together when we came back, along with 30 minute-long video devotionals you can watch to see for yourself the places you’re learning about. It’s called Israel: Lessons from the Holy Land.

Two of Lana’s dreams had come true now, and I had already been praying about the 3rd: a movie about the life of St. Nicholas to inspire others at Christmastime. It seemed like a long-shot, but the first 2 seemed impossible and they came true, so maybe this one could, too! But I had no idea what I could do to help her.

As I prayed, I read about a project called the “National Novel Writing Month.” It was started by a group of writers who wanted to encourage other writers to “write that novel they’ve always wanted to write.” It didn’t cost a thing—just a commitment to try to write a 50,000-word novel in 30 days, and they would walk alongside you and encourage you along the way.

I don’t know how to make a movie, but I do like to write. So I asked Lana if it would help if I tried to write down some of the highlights of what we had learned about St. Nicholas and put them together in a compelling story of his life. Then, once we fleshed out the story, maybe we could try to find someone who could help us turn it into a movie. So we outlined our ideas for a book and I dedicated time each day during the month of November to write a chapter of the story. I went a little over the 30 days, going a few days into December, and went a little under on the word-count, writing just 35,000 words instead of 50,000. But in the end, we felt like we had a book captured the essence of the story and, most importantly, the essence of what Lana wanted to share.

We still had some changes we wanted to make to the story, so we set the book aside and began to pray about what to do with it next. One day we were able to get in touch with a Hollywood scriptwriter who said he was willing to take a look at the project and wanted to see our book when we were done. Ironically, that was the very same day we got the call that Lana was diagnosed with cancer.

Our life and focus shifted dramatically that day, and by the end of the year, Lana was gone. But during those final weeks of her battle, Lana took out the St. Nicholas book again and made her final edits and suggestions, asking me to take it the rest of the way. So for Christmas this year, I made the changes she suggested and published the book online in the weeks leading up to Christmas. On Christmas Eve, I submitted the final copy to our printer for a beautiful paperback edition.

It makes me cry to think about it, but not just with sadness for missing her. It makes me cry with thankfulness that God would have prompted me 8 years ago to help Lana fulfill each one of these lifelong dreams. Had I not followed those promptings, she may never have had a chance to do any of them.

I say all of this to encourage you to consider making one of your goals this year to help someone else reach one of their goals.

Maybe your husband or wife has said something to you over the years about a dream that’s been on their heart. Or maybe your children or parents have wanted to do something that may seem to be impossible. Or maybe your friends or family or co-workers have talked with you about something they’ve wanted to do for years, but have never gotten around to doing it. Perhaps the only thing they’re waiting for is you!

The Bible says that God has given each of us different gifts for the common good. None of us are given all of the gifts, but working together we can accomplish all that God has called us to do. As the Apostle Paul said to the Corinthians:

“Now to each one the manifestation of the Spirit is given for the common good. To one there is given through the Spirit the message of wisdom, to another the message of knowledge by means of the same Spirit, to another faith by the same Spirit, to another gifts of healing by that one Spirit, to another miraculous powers, to another prophecy, to another distinguishing between spirits, to another speaking in different kinds of tongues, and to still another the interpretation of tongues. All these are the work of one and the same Spirit, and He gives them to each one, just as He determines” (1 Corinthians 12:8-11).

Paul then goes on to describe people who have all kinds of gifts, but makes note that no one has all of the gifts:

“And in the church God has appointed first of all apostles, second prophets, third teachers, then workers of miracles, also those having gifts of healing, those able to help others, those with gifts of administration, and those speaking in different kinds of tongues. Are all apostles? Are all prophets? Are all teachers? Do all work miracles? Do all have gifts of healing? Do all speak in tongues? Do all interpret?” (1 Corinthians 12:28-29).

We need each other to help us accomplish all that God has put on our hearts to do. And that means that others need us to help them accomplish what God has put on their hearts to do. Helping others is also a great way to help ourselves as we deal with our own losses. As we invest in the lives of others, we can begin to see that God is not finished with us yet.

A good friend of mine, Kent Sanders, sent me a small key this year along with a note that read:

“I am enclosing a little something as a reminder of the incredible power you have to unlock the God-given potential of others.”

Thinking back on Lana’s goals and how God helped me to fulfill them, plus Kent’s note about unlocking the potential of others, helps to remind me that God’s not finished with me yet, and to be on the lookout for other ways I can use my gifts to help others accomplish their goals, too. Perhaps they’ll encourage you to do the same.

Let’s pray:

Father, thank You for giving us a brand-new year with a clean slate and a wide open calendar. Help us to accomplish all that You’ve put on our hearts to do this year, and help us to be on the lookout for how we can help others accomplish what You’ve put on their hearts as well. In Jesus’ name, Amen.

Chapter 10: Leaving A Legacy

Making The Most Of The Darkness , by Eric Elder

You’re reading MAKING THE MOST OF THE DARKNESS, by Eric Elder, featuring 12 inspirational messages to give you hope during your time of loss. Also available in paperback and eBook formats in our bookstore for a donation of any size!

This is one of my all-time favorite pictures. It’s a picture of my wife, Lana, giving our oldest daughter, Karis, one big last kiss before sending Karis “off to school” for the first time ever…at age 19!

Karis and Lana Off To SchoolSince Karis was homeschooled from kindergarten through high school, we had never sent her off to school before. But when Karis decided to move 4 states away to Virginia for her sophomore year of college, we finally got to experience it.

Karis and I had gotten up early in the morning to start the 12-hour drive to drop her off in Virginia, but Lana called me after we had been on the road for about 30 minutes. Lana was crying because, even though she had said goodbye to Karis, she realized she hadn’t given her a goodbye kiss. I said I could turn around and meet her half-way if she wanted. Lana said, “Would you?”

So I turned around and drove back towards home. Lana met us half-way, still crying, and pulled over on the side of the road. She jumped out of the van and ran to give Karis one big last kiss. It was one of the sweetest moments I’ve ever seen in my life.

Looking back on that picture now, I’m so thankful I turned around that day, and so thankful that Lana wanted me to. I had no idea that 18 months later Lana would be diagnosed with terminal cancer, and 9 months after that she would be gone.

As hard as it’s been to lose Lana, memories like these remind me of the legacy Lana left us. Her life was filled with love for me and for the kids and for those around her, and that love still helps to fill the holes in our hearts that were created when she passed away.

Some people, because of their great love for others and the investment they’ve made in their lives, leave a legacy when they die. Others, because of their lack of love or the abuse they’ve doled out over the years, simply leave a vacancy. It’s much easier to fill a hole in your heart that’s already been filled with love, than to fill a hole in your heart that’s been empty for years.

Thankfully God can fill both kinds of holes! His love is limitless! But I’m thankful, too, for Lana’s love, as it has helped me through so much of this past year without her. It inspires me to want to leave a legacy when I leave this life as well.

As we come to the end of the calendar year, and as I come to the end of this first year without Lana, I can honestly say I’m looking forward to the new year ahead. I feel that God has many more things for me to do in my lifetime, and I want to make the most of the days I have left.

Two weeks ago, my daughter Karis turned in her final paper and graduated from college with a 4-year degree in biblical studies. Two weeks before that, my 2nd oldest, Lucas, walked across the stage at his college graduation, graduating with a 3-year advanced diploma in worship in leadership. And next May, my 3rd oldest, Makari, will graduate with a 2-year certificate in transformational ministry.

As much as I wish Lana were here to see these milestones herself, I can’t help but be thankful for all the fruit that her years of labor and love have borne.

When Lana left, she left a legacy, not a vacancy. And that inspires me to want to leave a legacy as well. How can I do that? I believe the best way is to do what Lana did, which was the same thing that Jesus called each of us to do: love God and love others as we love ourselves. Jesus said:

“‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.’ This is the first and greatest commandment. And the second is like it: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ All the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments” (Matthew 22:37-40).

I want to leave a legacy in the future, not a vacancy. Of all the goals I could set for myself in the New Year, this one inspires me the most. I pray it inspires you, too.

Will you pray with me?

Father, thank You for helping us through 2013, and I pray that You’ll help us through 2014 as well, with love in our hearts for You and for those around us, so that we can leave a legacy of Your love everywhere we go. In Jesus’ name, Amen.

Chapter 9: Making The Most Of The Darkness

Making The Most Of The Darkness , by Eric Elder

You’re reading MAKING THE MOST OF THE DARKNESS, by Eric Elder, featuring 12 inspirational messages to give you hope during your time of loss. Also available in paperback and eBook formats in our bookstore for a donation of any size!

Some of the scariest times in my life have not been those where things are swirling all around me, but actually in the pitch black, in the silence of night. But I’ve also found that some of the most amazing things in life can best be seen when it’s dark.

Here’s a transcript of a message I shared this week on how God can help you overcome fear with His love. It’s one of the most important lessons I’ve learned this past year as I’ve been walking through my own times of darkness…

Good evening and if you don’t know me, I’m Eric Elder. The quick snapshot of my past year has been in some ways some of the darkest times of my life, and in other ways, some of the most enlightening times of my life.

My wife passed away a year ago next week and Jason was here and helped me conduct the service here at the church. She died quickly after 9 months of breast cancer. I’ve got 6 kids, 3 still at home with me and 3 in college, so it’s been—as you can imagine—a difficult year, but an amazing year at the same time.

I just wanted to encourage you tonight that God’s love never fails you. God’s love never leaves you. Even in your darkest hours, I want to encourage you that God is still with you, and I can tell you He’s been with me. I have preached that and taught that for years. Knowing that going into this, I still get into those dark moments and I wonder how it’s going to turn out. Then I remember God’s great love for me and I just know it’s going to be all right. He’s going to work all things for good for those who love Him and are called according to His purpose (see Romans 8:28).

So I just want to continue tonight in the series that Jason has started in 1 John chapter 4. This is a passage that talks about God’s great love for us, that the only reason we can love others is because He loved us first and sent Jesus to die for us. It is out of His love that comes down to us that we can then extend that love to others.

I’m not going to read the whole chapter to you, but if you need some encouragement that God loves you this week, I encourage you to read 1 John chapter 4. That’s not the gospel of John, not the book of John, but later in the Bible, 1 John. It’s a letter that he wrote, and I’m going to look at verses 17 through 19.

“God is love. When we take up permanent residence in a life of love, we live in God and God lives in us. This way, love has the run of the house, becomes at home and mature in us, so that we’re free of worry on Judgment Day—our standing in the world is identical with Christ’s. There is no room in love for fear. Well-formed love banishes fear. Since fear is crippling, a fearful life—fear of death, fear of judgment—is one not yet fully formed in love. We, though, are going to love—love and be loved. First we were loved, now we love. He loved us first” (1 John 4:17-19, The Message).

As I said, the scariest times in my life have not been those where things are swirling all around me, but actually in the pitch black, in the silence of night. I was at an amusement park and went on an attraction where you just sit in a seat in a theater and they swirl all kinds of things around you. They had little fake rat tails that ran across your feet under the seats and they sprayed water at you and all these things went by you on the screen.

But the scariest time of that whole attraction was when they shut off all the lights completely, and it was totally silent, and you had no idea what was coming next. You didn’t know where it was coming from. You couldn’t see anything. And I’ll tell you, for all the other things that came at me that day, that was the moment when I panicked. Even though I knew I was in a safe environment and they were going to take care of me—I was going to be fine—I just had this moment thinking, “What’s it going to be?” because it was pitch black and it was totally silent.

Sometimes that’s the way we feel in life. Take kids, for instance. When are they most scared? At night, in their beds, even though there’s nothing there. Nothing’s going to happen. But because they can’t see, they don’t know.

And we’re the same way, it’s when we don’t see what’s going on, when we don’t know what’s going to happen, that we can become consumed with fear. And that’s when we most need to remember: God loved us first and His love is still there for us, even in the darkness.

I want to encourage you, in those dark times, to make the most of the darkness. Because the truth is, there are some things that can be seen better when it’s pitch black outside.

If you’ve ever walked past a house during the day and you look in the windows but they’ve got a curtain up, a curtain like this [holding up a curtain], it’s really hard to see anything that’s going on inside because of the daylight. You can’t really see.

I don’t know if you can see me behind here [stepping behind the curtain]. Can you tell how many fingers I’m holding up? No? Nothing?

You can’t see in. But if you walk by the same house at nighttime—and Jason if you want to turn the lights off—if you walk by the same house again at nighttime and the lights are on inside, it’s amazing, especially with sheer curtains like this. When the lights are on in the house, can you see me now? Can you tell how many fingers I’m holding up now? [the people can see and start to respond I hold up different number of fingers: 5, 2, 3, 1.]

Quite a difference, isn’t it?

I’ll tell you, when Lana died, for those first few days especially, I felt like I could glimpse into heaven like I’d never seen before. It was so dark on my side, but it was so bright on her side. When we were married, we became one, and even death doesn’t separate love. And I felt like I could see into heaven, and she was dancing with Christ, and because, in some supernatural way I was one with her, I was there with Him as well.

It was dark on my side, but I could see into the windows of heaven better than I could ever see before. Thankfully, I was able to keep my eyes open and say, “OK, I’m going to make the most of this darkness and I want to learn everything I can about heaven while I’m here.” And I looked at passages about heaven and when exactly you go there? Is Lana there right now or is she dead in the ground? Is she dancing with Jesus or is she in some waiting zone?

The conclusions I came to may not be the same ones you come to, but I have no reason to believe that Jesus was saying anything other than the truth when He told the thief on the cross:

“Today, you will be with Me in paradise” (Luke 23:43).

Whatever “today” is to God, because He is outside of any constraint of time, Lana is there with Him today. She was there the moment she died. She was there with God. God loved her, and God loves me, and all of this reminds me that God is with us all the time. But again, it was because of the darkness that I could actually see.

There’s another story I want to tell you, too. This was when I was driving in California last year. It was September and we dropped our daughter off in Northern California for school. So our whole family took a road trip and went to see my brother and my sister who live out west. Lana and all of us, we took a big drive.

We dropped my daughter off and then we drove down the coast, down Highway 1 that winds along California along these cliffs with hairpin turns. I had been there before—with its beautiful scenery, it’s incredible—so I wanted to take the family on this drive, a couple hour drive to where we were going to spend the night.

But we got a late start for the day and it was getting closer to nighttime. Then the fog rolled in, some rain came up, and all of a sudden it was pitch black. We were practically alone on this road of hairpin turns, because no other car would dare drive on it, except someone random from Illinois who didn’t know any other way to go.

I was amazed how dark it was. There were no cities. There were no streetlights. There were no gas stations. We were out in the middle of a desert and mountains, so there were no houses, nothing inland. It’s just ocean on the other side, so there was nothing out there—it was pitch black. And it was terrifying. It was probably the most terrifying drive of my life.

It was probably also the longest “2-hour” drive, which actually took 8, I’ve ever made in my life and just took us forever to get there. My wife was in a lot of pain from the cancer. We were just trying to get to the hotel. I had given up on the “scenic” idea a long time ago but this was still the quickest way that we knew to get there.

Every once in awhile I would have to pull off to the side of the road. It was so tense. It was so difficult for me to drive and to see. And when I did, the first time I pulled off, I got out of the car and I just sort of “shook off.” I said, “OK, God, You’re going to have to help me.”

Then I looked up. Even though the fog was all around us, it was totally clear above us! The sky was full of stars—more stars than I had ever seen in my life. I live in the country here in Illinois and I thought we had the place that could see the most stars of any place on the planet Earth. But this place had 10-fold—100-fold—what I had ever seen before because there were simply no lights anywhere for miles and miles around. The sky was just filled with stars.

And I thought, as I was driving earlier in the car, that if I just riding and not driving, I would have closed my eyes in fear. But after I stopped and looked up into the sky, I saw a sight I had never seen before. It was incredible. Even though the drive didn’t get any better, my attitude sure did! I was actually driving through a wonderland.

I’ve heard when you’re down in a well— even in the daytime—if you go down in a deep, deep well, you can see the stars up above. Of course, normally, you can’t see any stars when the sun is shining—except 1 star, the sun—but you can’t see any of the others. But down in a well you can see the stars. In fact the deeper you go in the well, the more stars you see.

It’s one of those natural phenomena, just like the curtain here, that veil that I showed you, it actually because of the darkness that surrounds you that you can see things you never saw before.

A 3rd story I want to tell you is about a cocoon.

Imagine a cocoon for a caterpillar—my kids and I were walking down the road this morning and we saw a little caterpillar—imagine all those hundreds of legs or however many they have, and they’re grounded for life, or so it seems.

They’re walking along, as slow as a snail’s pace, literally, and then they crawl into here [this cocoon] to die, or so they think. They spin this little cocoon. This is their last hurrah. And they come in here thinking this is it, this is the end.

But the changes and the transformations that take place inside this dark, claustrophobic place are amazing. When that caterpillar comes out again, it doesn’t have those hundreds of legs. It’s not grounded. Now it can fly, it can flit, it can float. It can go faster than it could have ever gone before. It can go higher than it could have ever imagined.

This is certainly an analogy for our transformation into heaven. In an instant we will be changed, the Bible says. We’ll get new bodies. We’ll be like the angels, the Bible says (see 1 Corinthians 15:35-58 and Mark 12:25). I can’t even imagine what it’s going to be like.

But this is also, I think, an analogy for our life here on earth, for the ones who are left behind, as in my case, or for you if you’re in a dark place right now.

I read about a woman who had gone through a similar grief. She had lost her mother. And she said she went into like a cocoon-like state for about 2 years. She said it was dark and terrible for her.

But she said that when she came out, she couldn’t believe the transformation that had taken place in her while she was inside that cocoon. She said she felt more alive, more radiant, more compassionate, more gracious and more loving than she had ever felt before she had entered that cocoon. She learned that God was able to make the most out of her darkness.

It wasn’t necessarily the things that she did, but what God did in her, and what God can do in us, if we allow Him to, during those dark times.

C.S. Lewis’ wife died of cancer, too. He married her knowing that she had cancer. They said it was terminal, but they still hoped she would be healed. He married her, anyway, and she died. He wrote several things about this, but here’s one of the quotes that he wrote that I really love. It says:

“Grace grows best in winter.”

Grace grows best in winter. Sometimes we grow more gracious and loving in the winter seasons of our life than we do when the sun is shining. There are a lot of things that grow well in the summer and in the light. But there are certain things that seem to just grow best in winter, in the darkness.

I want to read one more passage for you, and this is from Romans chapter 8, because maybe you’re in a dark place right now, or maybe when you go home tonight, you’re going to feel like you’re in a dark place.

I want to encourage you that God still loves you. In fact, He may be doing a transformation in you that you’re not even aware of. Don’t give up on Him, because He’s certainly not given up on you. So this is Romans chapter 8, near the end of the chapter. Paul says:

“I’m absolutely convinced that nothing—nothing living or dead, angelic or demonic, today or tomorrow, high or low, thinkable or unthinkable—absolutely nothing can get between us and God’s love because of the way that Jesus our Master has embraced us” (Romans 8:38-39, The Message).

Paul says nothing—nothing—absolutely nothing can get between us and God’s love, because of the way that Jesus our Master has embraced us.

I want to pray for you, that God would embrace you with His love—that you would feel it and that you would make the most of the darkness.

Whether it’s the illustration of the veil, and seeing into heaven, or whether it’s the illustration of the well and a starry night with fog all around, or the cocoon, where it may be dark, but you can trust that a huge transformation is taking place, I just want to encourage you and remind you just to let God embrace you with His love. Let Him make the most out of your darkness.

Let’s pray.

Father, thank You for carrying me through this past year, even those darkest nights, and even those that may be yet to come. I pray that You would help me to remember how much You love me. I pray for those reading these words, God, that You would help them to know that You love them, too. God, I know You’re embracing them with Your love. Your love never fails. Your love has been demonstrated in Jesus when He first loved us and came to die for our sins, so we could be free of them. And Lord, that same grace that saved us is the same grace that sustains us. God, I pray that You would embrace each person in this room, and each person reading this later, that You would embrace them with Your love, a love that can overcome fear, a love that never fails, and a love that can never separate us from You. In Jesus’ name, Amen.

Chapter 8: Looking Forward – 3 Stories Of Hope

Making The Most Of The Darkness , by Eric Elder

You’re reading MAKING THE MOST OF THE DARKNESS, by Eric Elder, featuring 12 inspirational messages to give you hope during your time of loss. Also available in paperback and eBook formats in our bookstore for a donation of any size!

I’d like to talk to you this morning about hope—capital H-O-P-E—hope. I know you don’t want to hear about heartache today. We all have enough of that. You want to hear about hope, and I do too.

So I want to share 3 stories with you about how God has given me hope over the past year. I pray they give you hope, and then you can pass it on to others. The 3 stories I’d like to share with you have to do with a ring, an apple and 3 emails.

Wedding RingThe first story is about a ring. Several years ago my wife, Lana, lost her wedding ring one day. She had already been up and going for awhile before she realized that her ring was missing from her finger. She never went without it, so she was surprised and disturbed that it was missing.

So we started looking all over the house. We looked by the kitchen sink where she did the dishes. We looked in the bathroom where it might have come off. We looked everywhere we could, but we couldn’t find it all day.

By the end of the day, we were going back to bed and she thought to look under the bed. There was her ring on the floor. She said, “You know, I remember waking up this morning and hearing this ‘clink, clink, clink.’”

I said, “Well, that would have been good information to know as we were searching for your ring all day!”

She went on to say that at night, when she put her hand under her pillow, she would sometimes play with her ring, spinning it around and taking it on and off. The night before, she must have taken it off and fell asleep, and then it must have fallen to the ground in the morning when she got up.

So that became a little joke between us over the years. Whenever something would go missing, one of us would say, “Did you hear anything go ‘clink, clink, clink?’”

So a few months ago I was sitting with a couple at our dining room table. At one point in the conversation, I looked down at my hand and noticed my ring was missing. I’ve always worn my wedding ring, too, and even though Lana passed away about 8 months before this, I still wore my ring every day. I couldn’t bring myself to take it off. Even though I knew there might come a day when I would take it off, I couldn’t imagine ever wanting to take it off. And honestly, I was dreading that day.

So when I noticed my ring was missing, I panicked. I thought, “Where’s my ring?” I felt naked and embarrassed in front of this couple, wondering if they noticed it, too. I wondered what they might think of me—if I had taken it off because I wanted to start dating again or something, which I definitely didn’t! All these thoughts started racing through my mind, all the time wondering, “Where could my ring be?”

Then I remembered something. Earlier in the year, I had decided to start losing some weight. I’m a stress eater, so when I get stressed, I eat. By January of this year I had gained more weight than I had ever gained in my life. I knew that I needed to stay healthy, for myself and for my kids and I wanted to start losing weight again, but I just didn’t have the fortitude to do it at the time. As the year went on, however, I decided to do it, and began losing weight, week by week. The night before I had met with this couple, I was laying in bed and noticed that my ring was loose and could come right off and go back on again. So I laid there in bed, spinning it around and taking it off and on, and then must have fallen asleep with it off.

As I was sat there at the dining table with this couple, I thought to myself, “You know, I do remember hearing this ‘clink, clink, clink’ when I woke up!”

After saying goodbye to my visitors, I went upstairs, looked under my bed, and there was my ring on the floor. I looked to heaven and said, “OK, Lana, now I get it. Now I can see how you could have overlooked hearing that ‘clink, clink, clink’ when you lost your ring years ago.” And so I had a little smile in that moment in my mind with Lana.

Although I was dreading the day when I would have to take off my ring, having that little smile with Lana made me think: “Well, today’s as good a day as any. At least I can look back on it with fondness and a smile, rather than with sadness. So I’ll try and just leave it off.” So I left it off. I still felt naked for the rest of the day, and even today when I look down and see that it’s missing, I feel like part of me is missing, too. But at least I can look down and think about it with a smile now, and with thankfulness for the time that I did have with Lana.

I tell you that story to say that sometimes God gives us those little moments of grace. Moments that we may have been dreading in the future, but when they come, God gives us the grace to get through it—sometimes even with a little smile that says, “It’s going to be OK. I love you and I’ll walk you through this, too.”

In one of the books I read on grief, called Decembered Grief by Harold Ivan Smith, I read a quote that has helped me through this new season of my life. The quote is from an unidentified woman and says:

“It has taken me many months to get to the point where I can say, ‘All right, the future is not going to be what you thought it was. It’s gone, and you’re not going to have it. You just will not have it. Your future went with him. Now you’ve got to build a new one.’”

I didn’t like reading those words at first, but over time I knew they were true for me, too. I’ve come to realize that the future is not going to be what I thought it would be, either. It’s gone, and I’m not going to have it. I just will not have it. Now I’ve got to build a new one.

Many of you know what this is like in your own life. You’ve reached those points in your life where you’ve had to say, “This isn’t the direction I thought my life was going to take.” And at some point you’ve had to let it go and say, “It’s not going to happen; they’re not coming back,” just as I’ve had to say, “OK, she’s not coming back.”

And she’s not. As much as I hate to say that, I know that God still has a future for me. It reminds me that I just need to keep “fixing my eyes on Jesus, the Author and Perfecter of my faith, who for the joy set before Him endured the cross…” (see Hebrews 12:2).

As much as I wish I had my old life back, I know the best thing I can do now is to keep moving forward—to keep saying, “God, I’m going to fix my eyes on You. I’m going to trust You, no matter what, because I know You’ll work it all out somehow for good in the end.” And I know He will.

Apple PiesThe 2nd story I want to tell you today has to do with an apple. There’s a quote I read years ago that I thought was profound and beautiful. It said:

“The best time to plant a tree is 20 years ago. The second best time to plant a tree is today.”

I thought of that quote this spring as I looked at 2 pine trees in our yard, one of which I planted this past Christmas in honor of Lana, and the other which Lana and I planted 19 Christmases ago, almost 20 years now. The tree I recently planted is only about a foot tall, but the older tree is one of the largest in our yard. We had bought the tree from a nursery that winter and had brought it into our house for a few days at Christmas to decorate it and put presents underneath it. Then, after Christmas, we took it out to my dad’s farm and planted it, not knowing that one day we would eventually be living there ourselves. Over the years that tree has grown and grown, and now it’s one of the tallest that we have.

So over the years, I’ve taken this quote to heart about planting trees, and every year we plant a few more, and a few more, and few more trees. We don’t have a forest by any means, but we do have more trees than we would have had otherwise, had I not stopped from time to time and just said, “OK, I’m going to stop at Big R and pick up a tree and we’ll put it in the ground.”

For some reason, this has been an amazing year for fruit trees, and for all the trees that Lana and I planted with the kids over the years. This is the first time any of them have produced an significant amount of fruit. And not just one tree, but nearly all of them have started bearing fruit, even those we planted just a year or 2 ago, when normally they should take 5 or 6 or 7 years before they produce any fruit. So this year we had apples from 4 different trees, cherries, peaches, and even 2 little plums on a new plum tree! All these trees started bearing fruit—just this year.

When I saw all these trees bearing fruit, part of me was tempted to be really sad and wonder, “How could Lana have missed all that fruit?” But the other part of me said, “Lana would be thrilled to know that all her hard work has paid off and is now bearing fruit—fruit that will last.” And that made me so glad that we just kept planting and planting and planting, because the Bible says:

“Let us not become weary in doing good, for at the proper time we will reap a harvest if we do not give up” (Galatians 6:9).

Even though Lana is gone this year and can’t enjoy it herself, we’re all enjoying the fruit of all that she’s done.

And picking up an apple tree from Big R is hardly a big deal, but Lana’s investment in my life, and our 6 kids’ lives, and your lives and many other people’s lives—whether it was at home or in her writings or recordings or any of the number of things she invested in—those things are bearing fruit now in so many wonderful ways.

I was preaching at a church last week and took an apple with me from one of the trees that Lana and I had planted. And because it was a smaller congregation of friends that we knew and loved, my kids and I baked some pies for them from the apples off the tree, too, so they could enjoy some of the fruit from Lana’s life as well.

I told them what I’m telling you today: just keep planting. Not all the trees we planted have taken root. Some of them have died—in fact, several have. But not everything we do in life takes root, either. Jesus spoke very clearly about this when He told the parable of the seeds. He said:

“A farmer went out to sow his seed. As he was scattering the seed, some fell along the path; it was trampled on, and the birds of the air ate it up. Some fell on rock, and when it came up, the plants withered because they had no moisture. Other seed fell among thorns, which grew up with it and choked the plants. Still other seed fell on good soil. It came up and yielded a crop, a hundred times more than was sown” (Luke 8:5-8a).

So not everything we plant will bear fruit. But I want to encourage you to keep planting and planting and planting because at the proper time you will reap a harvest, too, if you do not give up.

I had a friend who seemed to turn everything he touched into gold. He was a great businessman and a great supporter of missions. When people would say to him that everything he touched seemed to turn to gold, his response was, “No, but I do touch a lot of things—and when those things that do bear fruit come to fruition, they bear a lot of fruit.” Sometimes in order to bear a lot of fruit, we just need to plant a lot of seed. So I want to encourage you to keep planting. Keep watering. Don’t give up. One day, you will reap a harvest, if you do not give up.

The 3rd story I want to tell you today is based on 3 emails I received recently.

If you’ve been reading along with me through this series, you’ll remember my story about a Jewish woman who emailed me 3 years ago after “accidentally” receiving one of our daily emails when a co-worker sent it to her by mistake instead of another co-worker. She started reading the stories about Jesus on our website, and began wondering if He really was the Messiah they’ve been waiting for for so long. She eventually put her faith in Christ and wrote to me back in May to tell me about her new-found faith (see chapter 4).

Well, was I ever surprised when we hosted our “Night of Worship at The Ranch” a few weeks ago here in Illinois and she came up and introduced herself to me as we were gathering to get some food before the time of worship! Here she was, someone in “real life” who had been touched by something we posted on our website many years ago, and which she had just discovered 3 years ago. As a result, she had a complete change of heart and complete change of life as well. I shouldn’t be surprised, because we hear regularly from people who say how important our messages are to them, but there’s something about meeting people in person who have been touched by what we’ve done that gives us an even greater glimpse of what God can do through our lives when we’re willing to live them for Him.

I tell you that again to say: keep investing in people’s lives. Don’t give up. Don’t become weary in doing good. At the proper time you will reap a harvest, too, if you don’t give up.

In that same message (in chapter 4), I mentioned that some of the music that we’ve put on our website has begun to pay dividends in a big way, with a surprise royalty check that came a few weeks ago from Pandora. And the check came at a time when things were becoming tighter and tighter for us financially, as I haven’t been able to write or do the fundraising that I normally would have done in the time since Lana’s passing. And it came the same week I had finally finished putting all of our books and music on The Ranch website for free, so people could listen day or night without charge, from anywhere in the world.

As I said before, I was concerned I was shooting myself in the foot by not pursuing a publishing or record label for these books and music, but I just kept hearing Jesus’ words in my head, saying:

“So do not worry, saying, ‘What shall we eat?’ or ‘What shall we drink?’ or ‘What shall we wear?’ For the pagans run after all these things, and your heavenly Father knows that you need them. But seek first His kingdom and His righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well” (Matthew 6:31-33).

Well, to follow this up, I received another email from Pandora 10 days ago saying that they had accepted my most recent piano CD, “Soothe My Soul,” to play on their Internet radio stations! This was a huge breakthrough for us, as they’re actually only playing a dozen songs that we’ve produced over the years, which they accepted early on when they were just a small company. But in the years since then, we’ve produced a dozen whole CD’s, and have submitted each one, but they’ve declined each one, saying they simply receive more music submissions than they can include in their catalog. But each year, we keep submitting our latest recordings, and each year, we keep getting rejected. But after 10 years of rejections, last week they accepted our most recent submission and will begin playing it online within the next few weeks!

In case I haven’t mentioned it enough today, let me say it again: keep planting!

And I’d like to mention one final email today—this one came just before I stood up to preach last Sunday at a local church. It came from a grade school friend of mine who is now a missionary in another country. She had reposted a link to my sermon from last week for her Facebook friends to read. Her note, that I just read this morning, said:

“I am begging you….PLEASE take a short time out of your day to listen to this message from my dear friend Eric Elder. It will touch your heart and give you the tools we all need in life!”

She had written me earlier to say how much she enjoyed the message, and I see now that she is passing it along to others. But I have to tell you, the day I stood up to preach that message last week was one of the hardest days I’ve had to walk through yet. It had been about 10 months since Lana died, and was the first time I stood up to preach at a Sunday morning service since I preached at her funeral 10 months earlier. I had only had 4 hours of sleep at best, and when it was 6 in the morning and I was getting my 3 kids ready to go and drive 45 minutes to preach 3 services in a row, I still wasn’t sure what I was going to say. As I was getting everyone ready that morning in the house, I said to myself, “I am never going to say ‘yes’ to preaching again. This is the stupidest thing I’ve ever done, to say ‘yes’ to preaching again. There’s no way I can do it.”

If I hadn’t already said ‘yes,’ and the services weren’t about to begin in just a few hours, I would have cancelled if I could have. I truly didn’t know what I was going to say, and I truly wondered why I was doing it at all. Plus, I had already accepted several other preaching engagements for the following weeks at other churches as well. Even though I thought I was ready when I said ‘yes,’ now I wondered if I could ever do it again.

But I did. And God helped me through it. And even more amazing, He spoke to people and touched their hearts through what I had to say. So much so, in fact, that people like this friend in another country is now pleading with her friends online to listen to the recording as it touched her so much. It reminded me of a passage from 2 Corinthians, chapter 4, about how God can shine through the broken places in our lives in ways so people see His glory, even though we ourselves are nothing more than cracked clay pots. Here’s what Paul says to the Corinthians, in The Message translation of the Bible:

“Remember, our Message is not about ourselves; we’re proclaiming Jesus Christ, the Master. All we are is messengers, errand runners from Jesus for you. It started when God said, “Light up the darkness!” and our lives filled up with light as we saw and understood God in the face of Christ, all bright and beautiful.

“If you only look at us, you might well miss the brightness. We carry this precious Message around in the unadorned clay pots of our ordinary lives. That’s to prevent anyone from confusing God’s incomparable power with us. As it is, there’s not much chance of that. You know for yourselves that we’re not much to look at. We’ve been surrounded and battered by troubles, but we’re not demoralized; we’re not sure what to do, but we know that God knows what to do; we’ve been spiritually terrorized, but God hasn’t left our side; we’ve been thrown down, but we haven’t broken. What they did to Jesus, they do to us—trial and torture, mockery and murder; what Jesus did among them, He does in us—He lives! Our lives are at constant risk for Jesus’ sake, which makes Jesus’ life all the more evident in us. While we’re going through the worst, you’re getting in on the best!

“We’re not keeping this quiet, not on your life. Just like the psalmist who wrote, ‘I believed it, so I said it,’ we say what we believe. And what we believe is that the One who raised up the Master Jesus will just as certainly raise us up with you, alive. Every detail works to your advantage and to God’s glory: more and more grace, more and more people, more and more praise!

“So we’re not giving up. How could we! Even though on the outside it often looks like things are falling apart on us, on the inside, where God is making new life, not a day goes by without his unfolding grace. These hard times are small potatoes compared to the coming good times, the lavish celebration prepared for us. There’s far more here than meets the eye. The things we see now are here today, gone tomorrow. But the things we can’t see now will last forever” (2 Corinthians 4:5-18, The Message).

I just want to encourage you, God is glorified through what you do, too. Maybe there are days when you don’t feel like getting up, you don’t feel like going to work, you don’t feel like going to a Bible study, you don’t feel like leading a small group, you don’t feel like preaching, you don’t feel like teaching, you don’t feel like whatever it is that you have to do.

Can I just encourage you not to give up? Keep planting. Keep reaching out. If you need time out, take time out, but then get back up and go at it again. With God there’s always hope. He’s given it to me this year, and I hope I’ve given a little bit to you.

Let’s pray:

Father, thank You that You can use the weak clay pots of our lives and our brokenness to let streams of Your light shine through it. I praise You, God, that somehow You give us the strength to keep going. I thank You, Lord, for the people who have prayed for us and kept us going, and held our arms up when we couldn’t do it ourselves. Lord, I pray for each person reading this today, that You would give them hope for a very specific situation in their lives—that thing which they’re facing that they struggle to find hope for—I pray You would give them hope, kindle a new flame in them, encourage them to keep going on, keep pressing through and keep planting seeds, for at the proper time I know that they will reap a harvest, and generations down the road—even when we’re gone—will reap a harvest from what they plant now. We pray this all in Jesus’ name, Amen.