Though the observance of Ash Wednesday, Lent and Holy Week was not part of my faith tradition growing up, today even Baptists mark the journey to the cross and on to the empty tomb. For me, this period on the church calendar marks the approach to the anniversary of Lev’s death. I look past Good Friday and death to the joy of Easter. I want to sing, Christ the Lord Is Risen Today. Alleluia!
Perhaps you hunger for the joy found in Easter. I found a roadmap to joy in the Apostle Paul’s letter to the Philippians—three pages in the back of the Bible. My first step in writing Reclaiming Joy was to meditate on Philippians for 28 days—to allow Scripture to speak to me.
This Lenten season I have returned to a period of reflection on Philippians, writing 28 meditations for the four weeks leading to Easter. They are not a Bible study, though the inspiration comes straight from its pages. Instead, each is a one-page outline with suggestions for reflection on Scripture, self-examination, prayer and thanksgiving. I ask the same questions I asked myself. While I reference Reclaiming Joy, readers can spend meaningful time letting Scripture speak to them without buying my book. Though my book was written primarily to encourage other widows, Paul did not write Philippians for those who grieve. Paul’s words—and my meditations—are for all those who seek to reclaim joy in the aftermath of loss, discouragement, depression and anxiety.
Christian Meditation: Letting Scripture Speak
The idea of Christian meditation, of letting Scripture speak, may be new to you. There is no right or wrong way to meditate. Just carve out a quiet space where you are comfortable and receptive. Take time to let your mind wander.
Let me share my experience with mediation, as well as the process I used in writing. Lev’s mother was diagnosed with inoperable brain cancer in September 1995, and a month later I fell and broke my foot. A fog of grief settled over our house. Lev’s grief was contagious, and I sank deeper and deeper into depression. When my cast was finally removed in January 1996, I went to the bookstore and searched the shelves of the self-help section. I bought every book on meditation that I could find.
Each morning after Lev went to work, I sat at my desk, working my way through the Psalms, the Gospel of John and Philippians. I journaled for the first time. I prayed. To prepare myself for the gloom that would reenter the house when Lev returned, I went downstairs to our shadowy living room, assumed the classic lotus position of yoga and practiced deep breathing with “Je-sus” as my mantra, while my mind conjured up images of peace and serenity. The Twenty-Third Psalm took on new meaning:
The Lord is my shepherd; I shall not want.
He maketh me to lie down in green pastures: he leadeth me beside the still waters.
He restoreth my soul: he leadeth me in the paths of righteousness for his name’s sake.
As I meditated, I was transposed from a spiritual desert to a green oasis, where I could rest and where my soul was nourished. I visualized the small lake at the Broadmoor Hotel in Colorado Springs, surrounded by the green grass of the golf course. Cheyenne Mountain was reflected in the water, the silence broken by the music of the carillon wafting down from the Will Rogers Shrine of the Sun. There, in memory, my soul still finds peace.
In the Valley of the Shadow of Death
Lev and I had another 10 good years before heart and lung disease began to weaken him. On New Year’s morning 2009, I called 911. Lev was admitted to the hospital and the final battle began. One evening he had a Code Blue. ICU was full of pneumonia patients, so there was no bed there for him. The kind young hospitalist on duty advised me to spend the night in his hospital room. Alone in the room with Lev, I was inexplicably at peace. I knew, as surely as if I had seen a spirit walk through the door, that God had sent His Comforter to us.
As I reclined in the big chair besides Lev’s bed listening to the sounds of his breathing, the words of the Twenty-Third Psalm again flitted into my consciousness….
Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil: for thou art with me; thy rod and thy staff they comfort me.
Thou prepares a table before me in the presence of mine enemies: thou anointest my head with oil; my cup runneth over.
After two months of hospitalization, Lev came home with an encouraging prognosis. We saw friends and went to a party. He returned to his office. He bought a new car. Then, unexpectedly, he slipped quietly away in the early hours of April 9, 2009. Alone at home in the semi-darkness, I reached for my Bible and read again Paul’s words of love, comfort, encouragement, hope and joy.
It was Holy Week, and we held Lev’s service on Maundy Thursday. On Good Friday I drove to the Texas Hill Country with my son and his family.
Easter hope—or at least its exhilarating joy—was hard to maintain in the face of death and all that followed. On that Easter Sunday immediately after Lev’s death, I was grateful to worship at the Church at Horseshoe Bay, high up on the hillside overlooking Lake LBJ. I was glad to be among strangers, people who did not know I was grieving, in a place where Lev and I had worshiped on other Easters. Afterwards, the family headed back to Dallas for work and school, but I spent the night there on the lake by myself before driving home to face an empty house. I was totally at peace that evening as I sat on the shore, wrapped in a blanket, watching the sun sink slowly below the hills on the opposite shore.
Afterwards, I found myself back in a spiritual and emotional desert. My cup was empty. I had nothing left to give. Though I realize now that I experienced moments of joy, I only remember the fear, anxiety, grief and drudgery of those early years of widowhood. In my search for joy, I frequently returned to Philippians. And I escaped the memories of home and the responsibilities of widowhood as often as I could.
In August 2013 I escaped to New England. Four years and five months after Lev died as I walked the cobblestone streets of Nantucket, I finally found joy that lasted more than a moment. I discovered a serene, tranquil beauty and peace that caused my spirit to soar and led me to reevaluate and ultimately repurpose my life. For the very first time, I thought perhaps I should write a book—a handbook for new widows.
I didn’t know what kind of book it would be. I certainly didn’t think it would be a memoir. I didn’t even know how to write a book. But I knew to begin with Philippians. I wanted Scripture to speak to me.
When I sat down to write nine months later, I recalled those months I spent in meditation when my mother-in-law was dying. I spent an hour each morning meditating on Paul’s letter to his beloved congregation, followed by 45 minutes on the treadmill, where I continued to sort out my thoughts. Paul’s letter contains four chapters. I carved each into seven sections that spoke to me. I cleared my old desk in my bedroom (not in the office where I did my “Lev work”) and stacked up various Bible translations, concordance, thesaurus, index cards and notebook paper. I printed out the words of the old hymn, “Speak to My Heart,” to sing as a prayer at the start of each writing session. I meditated on Philippians—a section a day for 28 days. Next, I wrote in longhand on notebook paper whatever experiences I recalled, whatever insights I had that seemed to illustrate the passage. Those stream-of-consciousness notes—those vignettes of death and grief—formed the basis for my first draft.
It took me three more years to deliver my finished manuscript to a publisher. Reclaiming Joy was released in September 2018, and my life has not been the same since. Speaking engagements, print and online reviews and interviews and talk-radio shows have kept me too busy to keep up with my regular responsibilities, much less write. My goal was to post daily meditations to accompany Reclaiming Joy for the 28 days following its release, but I never found (or made) the time. When I wrote, it was always for the next speaking engagement.
The concept of giving up something for Lent is outside my faith tradition, but my journey to the 10th anniversary of Lev’s death is very real. Therefore, this Lenten season I am practicing the spiritual discipline of spending time daily reflecting and writing meditations on Philippians. I plan to post the meditations—these way stations on the journey to Easter joy—each morning beginning Sunday, March 24.
- To receive daily emails with links to the meditations, sign up to subscribe to my blog here.
- To order a copy of Reclaiming Joy or download the Kindle edition, visit my book page.
- If you want to know more about the history and biblical background of the church at Philippi, you can download my essay, Philippians 101.
I also will be speaking on the journey to Easter joy—same theme, different approach—in Waco and the Dallas area. I will be signing and selling books at both locations:
- April 7 – Speaking during worship services, 8:45 and 11 a.m., Shiloh Terrace Baptist Church, Mesquite, Texas.
- April 10 – “The Journey to Easter Joy,” 6:15 p.m., Seventh and James Baptist Church, Waco, Texas.
- April 13 – “The Journey to Easter Joy,” 10:30 a.m.–12:30 p.m., women’s luncheon, Shiloh Terrace Baptist Church, Mesquite, Texas.
 Today’s blog includes excerpts from Reclaiming Joy: A Primer for Widows, published by 1845 Books, an imprint of the Baylor University Press, 2018: The Valley of the Shadow of Death, xvii; Chapter 22, 155; Chapter 12, 85–86; Chapter 24, 170.