Two years ago, I planted a new lilac bush in the back perennial bed. I had wanted to buy a dark purple, French lilac like the one we had outside the bay window of our former home. The garden center had exactly what I had been looking for, or so I thought. I read the tag carefully and made my purchase.
When the lilac bloomed for the first time, I realized the bush was not what I had hoped. The blossoms are white, not purple. Disappointed, I decided to keep it anyway, hoping at least the fragrance would be the same.
Nearly full grown now and in bloom, the white lilac glows as the setting sun backlights the blossoms. White shines brighter than deep purple and the same sweet fragrance fills the air around. I sit on my worn garden bench, viewing and breathing in blessing, thankful for the mistake.
Thankful for mistakes? For things that go wrong? How can we give thanks when life turns in directions opposite our hopes?
It’s easy to thank God for unexpected blessings after disappointments when it comes to flowers. But can unexpected blessings come packaged in pain? Yes, they can, with proper perspective and faith and patience and time. But the learning can be so very slow and so very hard. I think back on decades past, on a good portion of my twenties.
On the day of my baccalaureate ceremony, I walked down the aisle of my hometown church and married Greg, the young man I had dated all through college. I was 21 years old, full of hope and dreams and adventurous spirit. After our honeymoon, we moved from Cincinnati to Chicago, set to embrace the big city. Little did I know what the next seven years would hold.
Less than a year after our wedding, out of nowhere, Greg had a full-blown panic attack with delusional thinking requiring hospitalization. It was the first time I had ever been exposed to a psych ward. I was scared out of my mind, not understanding anything about mental health issues and not knowing what to do. Following the direction of our pastor, we sought out-patient counseling with a Christian psychologist after Greg was discharged.
Over the next seven years, Gred vacillated between extreme periods of mania and severe depression with strong delusional thinking. He was never properly diagnosed or treated with medication. But I trusted the professionals then and didn’t know any better. Watching him deteriorate into the abyss of mental illness was an excruciating experience, one that left me frightened and worn. I felt completely helpless to stop the descent. This popular young man, who graduated from college with highest honors and was a gifted musician, athlete, and worship leader—this sensitive soul had slipped away from me.
Two weeks before Christmas, 1987, just after cutting down our tree and tying it to our car top, he turned to me and said, with snow falling softly, “I want a divorce.” I felt as though I had been shot straight through. I hadn’t seen this coming and I stood there in a state of shock and disbelief. Surely, he must be kidding or threatening or manic or SOMETHING! What was going on?
Turns out Greg had met someone at work. Many months passed without him filing for divorce and a full blown manic state ensued causing a spending streak that racked up dangerous debt. My nerves were shot trying to deal with irrational thoughts and behaviors, some which scared me horribly like the night he tried to break into my apartment at 2 AM and I thought a burglar, or worse, had invaded my space. I heard my front door rattling so I shot out of bed and as I approached the door I saw it opening slowly. I screamed terrified, slamming the door shut with as much force as I could muster. And then he identified himself, wondering why I was screaming. He had only wanted to get a couple of things that belonged to him, he said. No matter that it was 2 AM, he hadn’t called to arrange a time, and I didn’t know he had made an extra key to my apartment.
There are numerous painful and frightening experiences I could describe over the course of my first marriage and, after the divorce, it took many years for me to heal. But there was blessing—great blessing—that came from such pain.
I had to learn to fend for myself, which I had never learned to do as an adult. And I learned I was far more able than I had thought. I also learned that God is my best provider. When I was at my lowest, God provided me with good friends, ample provisions, and a vision for a career change.
I had always been interested in psychology and I decided to apply to graduate school so I could learn to understand chronic mental illness and help relieve the suffering of others. I worked two jobs and spent six years earning a doctorate in clinical psychology, discovering gifts I didn’t know I had and experiencing the great satisfaction of helping others grow and live fuller, freer lives.
I’ve never regretted my past painful times. Sometimes life doesn’t go as we expect and hope. But God is sovereign and He is fully able to redirect our lives in ways that bless us and others at the same time.
Sometimes, we just don’t know why life twists and turns as it does. There are some things we will never understand this side of heaven—like how an extremely talented, brilliant, kind person could become devastated by a mental illness. Can we rest assured, even in the most excruciating pain—in the unknown and sometimes alone—that God is still good and He still has a good plan for our lives? He is always with us. In the pain, He holds us. His heart gushes comfort. In the joy, He hears us and sings with us and helps our hearts fly high.
In August, I will celebrate 20 years of marriage to an amazing man. I can say without reservation that Todd is the most patient, kind, generous, loving, human being I have ever known. I am a supremely blessed woman.
Now, when I look at my white lilac, I think of Todd and the day I wore white flowers in my hair, walking down the aisle of another church in another town in another decade of my life. He’s not what I expected—mustache and all—but exactly what I want. And like the white lilac, the reason we keep growing and blooming together is because we keep ourselves pointed in the right direction—up and toward our God who strengthens, guides, sustains, and always loves—no matter what.
One day, not yet dating, 20-some years ago, Todd sent me a letter with a tiny flower blossom pressed dry in the fold. Know what color it was?
White. Not purple, my favorite color. It was white.
I still have the flower.
I think today I’ll pluck a blossom of white and write two notes of thanks—one to Todd and one to our God, who brought two souls together for good—for so much good.
The desert and the parched land will be glad; the wilderness will rejoice and blossom. Like the crocus, it will burst into bloom; it will rejoice greatly and shout for joy. Isaiah 35:1-2