People call me a strong woman.
I don’t know about that. Probably no human recognizes my frailties better than I.
What does it mean to be strong? Where does strength come from?
Some want to attribute my strength to me being, well, a strong woman. But I am not. I am so weak. In so many areas. So many times. I can only attribute my strength in grief, in loss, in waiting, in enduring, to my God who upholds me by His “righteous right hand” (Isaiah 41:10). My strength is in me casting myself upon a strong God when I am weak. My strength is His gracious gift to me when I don’t know how to keep going.
So do not fear, for I am with you;Isaiah 41:10
do not be dismayed, for I am your God.
I will strengthen you and help you;
I will uphold you with my righteous right hand.
He carried me. Like the one set of footprints popularized in the poem. Like an inner tube that won’t stay underwater no matter how hard you push it down, it just pops back to the surface. That’s how God’s hand was upon us when we went through our family’s darkest journey—that of receiving a life-limiting diagnosis for our son halfway through our first pregnancy, waiting through those months in all the fears, grief, and unknowns, to burying our son shortly after birth. (Read more in Josiah’s Story Part 1 and Josiah’s Story Part 2.) When I wondered how I was making it, how I could smile and laugh instead of wasting away in a corner of depression, I realized all the prayers of so many friends, family, church members, and many more whom we never met, were buoying me back to the surface so I could not sink. Over and over, all those months, this felt so tangible, almost like we were literally floating on the prayers of the saints.
THAT was the strength that people saw. It wasn’t my own. It was a gift.
It’s easy to become discouraged, to question God, or even lose faith when we focus on the current struggle. But looking back over the timelines of our lives, we can see this same strength carrying us through our trials. We may sometimes be weak, confused, or unsure, but He gives more strength.
First Love and Loss
Shortly after high school, I met a young man named Shanon. After our first interaction at my Grandparents’ house church, I came away excited with the sure sense that “This was the one!” Shanon was first of all passionate about the Lord and searching the Scriptures, which to that point I had seen in no other young men. Plus he was cute and came from a good family. Over the next year or two, we got to know his family a little better, and he and I started writing letters back and forth.
But the summer after my first year of college, I got the call that Shanon had suddenly and unexpectedly died. That was my first experience with grief. My own grief.
During that time, an aunt gave me a CD by Sheri Smith (now Sheri Smith Bertolini) with the cover title of The Pilgrimage. This song spoke to the deepest part of my grief, loss, hopes, and dreams, inspiring renewed trust in the Lord. The words have lifted up my head and given me courage to love Jesus above all else, no matter what, through many seasons of life since that first loss.
“The Pilgrimage” by Sheri Smith Bertolini
There’s a narrow road of pilgrimage
I’ve chosen for my days
And I know the price of traveling here
Will cost my life, my ways
And it stretches farther than my eyes
Could ever hope to see
But I know the Lover of my Soul
Has laid this path for me
When I first began this pilgrimage
My youthful fervor dimmed
As I turned to learning all about
But never knowing Him
So he bent the road to slow my pace
Until my eyes could see
That the gentle Lover of my Soul
Had come romancing me
When I falter on this pilgrimage
He never leaves my side
As I wrestle with my guilt and stains
He waits for me to hide
Under precious, cleansing blood he shed
Upon that rugged tree
And I know the Lover of my Soul
Was bleeding there for me
There’s no need to fear this pilgrimage
His faithfulness endures
I embrace the days of wandering
He makes my way secure
And the weeping valleys turn to springs
His sovereign hand redeems
And I know the Lover of my Soul
Is keeper of my dreams
I have learned to love this pilgrimage
The wonder, joy and pain
As the seasons pass from strength to strength
I have come to know his ways
For the One who died of desperate love
Has caused my life to sing
And I love the Lover of my Soul,
My bridegroom, Savior, King
(To inquire about her music, private message Sheri S. Bertolini on Facebook .)
Early in my college career, I took a required Philosophy class that really challenged my thinking and my faith. The professor was a pony-tailed, fiery, young man with an obvious bitterness toward Christianity. He challenged us to think through what we believe and why, not thoughtlessly accepting what we had grown up with just because that’s what we always thought. My truth-seeking side accepted this challenge, recognizing the folly in blindly following tradition. Yet it was tough to sort through all the ideas to see which were well-founded, recognizing truth in God’s Word yet realizing that was what my professor was attacking. That was a difficult semester. But conversations around the family dinner table (I was commuting from home at the time) and scriptures from Isaiah that someone shared with me provided strength and balance. That class could have destroyed my faith, but wrestling through what I believed, with healthy supports, enabled me to emerge with an even stronger faith than before.
For the next decade, there were the ups and downs of working through college, starting my first teaching job, struggling at a second teaching job and questioning my calling, dabbling in a serious relationship with a college friend, and then living and teaching conversational English in the Central Asian country of Kazakhstan for two years.
Upon returning to the states, I transitioned from teaching high school students and adults to teaching at the middle school level, which is an entirely different beast. A beast my college education did NOT prepare me for! That was my hardest year of teaching ever. ONLY SEVEN boys in 7th-8th grade, who didn’t feel they should be placed in an English language learner class, took advantage of my naïvety and niceness to make teaching and learning a joke. I seriously feared getting fired for doing such a poor job as a teacher. The stress built up in my body until I found myself shaking at home alone in my apartment. But God’s strength shone in that year, too.
That was the year of my best prayer life ever. I got up early in the morning and made my tea, then sat at my desk to read my Bible and to journal. Then I spread out a small blanket on the floor of my bedroom, and prostrated myself before the Lord, begging for help with my students.
And that year God answered. When I most desperately cried out for help, I would get to school and certain students would be absent or my classes were unusually well behaved, or some other helpful “coincidence” occurred. I could only attribute this to God hearing me and giving me a respite from my stress.
Grandfather’s Tragic Death
Early that fall, I experienced my second major loss. My grandfather—the man in my life who set the standard for what all men should be, the one whose approval I wanted if I eventually found a man of my own—was killed instantly in a head-on collision by an enraged, under-the-influence woman careening down the road and into his lane. This was a double-whammy, as I was already barely surviving my year of teaching.
God carried me through.
Others’ Loss of Faith
Ironically, it was none of these struggles or losses—not even the death of our newborn son—that caused me a year of severe doubt and struggle in my faith. It was seeing other family members walking away from faith—cousins who had grown up in strong, God-fearing homes, and had walked with Christ for a while—and not having ready answers for them. This was a low point in my walk, as I wrestled inwardly with faith. Was God true? Did I really believe what I always thought I believed? In the end, whether I had answers or not, I came back to Peter’s statement to Christ: “Lord, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life” (John 6:68). Again, I was strengthened as clarity came to me over time. He enabled me to hold on to faith in the midst of confusion and disappointment.
I can look back at all these crises (or milestones) in my adult life, and see that I was carried “from strength to strength.” This gives me courage when facing the unimaginable grief of preparing to lose our second baby. This time around, I am grieving, but I am not afraid of the grief. I rest assured that God will give the grace, the strength that is not my own, as He always has.
We will be okay, because HE is strong.