In the Lion’s Den

March 22, 2016 marks the one-year anniversary of Kara’s Homecoming. For the week leading up to that day, we are publishing a series of reflections that some of Kara’s nearest and dearest have written as they’ve processed what this anniversary means to their hearts. This article is a part of that series.

*Images taken from The Jesus Storybook Bible

Last week, my dear friend Marcia, who is in the midst of her own Stage IV breast cancer journey, talked about her lion’s den on social media. Marcia is an accomplished artist and a poetic wordsmith. She writes,

Cancer and chemo and utter fatigue are dark dens of suffering with hungry lions of despair wanting my heart. I would be so depressed and discouraged, but for God’s graces and presence…So many kindnesses from so many who have climbed in that den with me have mattered. And they’ve helped keep the nasty lions’ mouths shut. And protected my heart.

I was undone.

I was immediately taken to my lion’s den, to that dark place. I’ve always called it a well, but I like this better because we know that God was in the lion’s den with Daniel; it’s a clear example of what this world intends for evil, God intends for good. In Daniel’s dark, scary den, God redeemed violence, fear, death. Instead of these things, that dark den was filled with peace, gratitude, hope. I could clearly see Marcia in her lion’s den, surrounded by her beautiful girls holding her, praying over her, protecting her, trusting her to the Lord.

And then, of course, my mind took me to Kara’s lion’s den.

Oh, Kara. How I wish I could crawl into your lion’s den with you again.

Is it weird to say that I miss a lion’s den? That I would jump into that scary place with Kara in an instant? If I close my eyes, the metaphor is bright in my mind: I see Kara in the lion’s den. But she does not have a look of fear or despair on her face. On the contrary, she is smiling and holding her arms outstretched, inviting me to come into the den with her. Once inside, I am not surprised to see not one or two others, but a whole community of people in there—Jason and the kids, Heather, Shellie, and Jill. All of Westside. Jonna and Mickey. Etcetera. So many safe places.

The den becomes a place to gather. A place to worship. A place to seek God together.

Sometimes it is just me and Kara in the den. That’s when we dream about Heaven together and talk about her fears and future plans for after she’s gone. Those are intimate, quiet moments when the lions are breathing on us; we can feel their hot breath on our necks. But more than that, we can feel the presence of the Holy Spirit—we know God is there holding us in his embrace where lions have no power.

A year later—the den is empty, but it’s still there. This den of grief. This den that taunts me with its emptiness. Sometimes I wander in there and find my friends, but the friend I’m looking for has left. The lions are no longer there, either; only darkness and emptiness remain. I go there less often than I used to—I used to sit in that empty den and cry until I cried myself to sleep. When I woke up, I would cry again, immediately overwhelmed by the den’s emptiness. Sometimes the quiet of the den would threaten to suffocate me. It was unbearable, and I learned to take a step or two outside, going farther each time. But over the course of the past year, I haven’t strayed far from the den. It’s always within eyesight, and at the least expected moments, I find myself in there again; I think maybe I hear Kara calling out to me, or I find a note she wrote to one of my children or a gift she gave me, and I go into the den to be reminded of her, to see if I can still smell her patchouli.

Nothing. Silence. Not even the quiet roar of a lion’s yawn.

But wait—I think maybe I’m mistaken. The den isn’t empty—God is there. God has never left that lion’s den! He was there holding Kara with the lions and now he holds me in my grief. He holds me as I imagine the rest of my life on earth without her. He holds me as I mourn for her children and her husband. He cries with me and wipes my tears. And finally, he lifts my chin to see his face; I am filled with joy and hope. I look around the den only to realize that we are not in a den at all, but a tomb.

And the tomb is empty, indeed!

I can’t help but laugh, for I am reminded that just like Jesus’ death, Kara’s death is not the end of the story. Kara wasn’t eaten by the lions or swallowed up in the darkness; she was taken Home. She fell asleep and when she awoke, she was facing grace incarnate: Jesus. I imagine this moment, her delight and joy. How she must have been so overwhelmed by love that the reality of her health didn’t even cross her mind. She was face to face with the one who had wooed her, pursued her, clung to her, embraced her, walked every step of every hard and hurt with her.

What I feel is the end is actually just the beginning.

The purpose of her life was to live in the reality of God’s love for her—to believe his love over the brokenness of the world, to trust his goodness when the cancer mocked her and destroyed her body, to know what it meant to be filled with peace when the world said she should be angry, to fight for grace when everything was all wrong.

And now Kara’s life’s purpose is fulfilled. Her constant pursuit of a relationship with God—to trust his love for her and learn to love him in return—was made complete. Her heart’s desire—to be washed with grace instead of fighting to see it—has been gifted to her. And her Heavenly Father, who loves her with his furious love, can hold her in his arms to say, Well done, good and faithful daughter.

This 1-year anniversary is hard. Harder than I expected. My grief has evolved and changed, but God hasn’t—he remains the lover and pursuer and comforter of our souls, the Great Physician who will make all things new and redeem all of our stories. As I am tempted to creep back into that den of grief, sticking my toe in to test the darkness, I am reminded that the tomb is empty and the day will come when we will grieve no more.