Ad Clerum on If Only

“For I know the plans I have for you,” declares the Lord, “plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future.” (Jeremiah 29:11)

A contemporary writer, Kristin Higgins, wrote, “If only … the saddest words in the English language.” And while there may be a competition for the very saddest words, these are two of the most debilitating words that I have heard … and at times used! IF ONLY you had done this, IF ONLY we had not done this, IF ONLY you had behaved differently, IF ONLY you had listened, IF ONLY! It is so easy to express frustration with these two words, but, sadly, it accomplishes nothing except to add blame and guilt to an already painful situation.

When our daughter Rachel was born, Angela and I were introduced to the world of special needs children with all of its mystery and misinformation mixed with its hopes and fears. We were also warned of the challenges and stressful times to be expected. The number of divorces and separations for couples with special-needs children is significantly higher than for other families – some analysts suggest that it is as much as 70 percent higher! The stress and strain are ever present, and the temptation to blame and accuse is always close by. IF ONLY!

We also discovered that the community of the disabled is filled with remarkable families – families who often take on almost insurmountable challenges with persistence and grace. One such family was that of Charlie and Carole Cordova – parents of Celeste, who is married to our son Jon.

Charlie was an officer in the US Air Force and faced many challenges in the military, but his and Carole’s greatest challenge came when their son Chuckie was born brain damaged. While he grew physically, he was never able to speak, and his intellectual development was very limited. Charlie and Carole had three other children – Kim, Kesti, and Celeste. As a family, they devoted themselves to the hard work of helping Chuckie flourish. As Chuckie became stronger as he grew, he sometimes used his physical strength in unpredictable and harmful ways … he cleared the community swimming pool more than once! Charlie went back to school to earn a Ph.D. in Special Education in order to help Chuckie and other children like him. Tragically, Charlie died of a heart attack at age 47, but Carole and the girls continued the struggle.

Carole was also to die prematurely at age 56 in 2001, and her funeral was at Truro Church, where I served as rector. We were all concerned about how Chuckie – now age 36 – would react to his mother’s death. Although he was living in a group home, Carole had been with him almost every day of his life. The day before the funeral, the casket with Carole’s body in it was placed in the Truro chapel so that the immediate family could have time to grieve and give thanks for her remarkable life. Chuckie came in and stood at the door – and we all held our breath as we prayed for him. He walked up the open casket, looked very carefully at her body, and then stroked her hair. And then he stood next to the casket, motionless, for several minutes. He was usually in constant motion, but on this day, he stood still, rather like an honor guard, to show loving respect for his mother. After a while, he walked out quietly. It was a grace-filled moment for all of us.

IF ONLY can sometimes be a vague wish for a different life situation, but it can also be a scream of protest – that was how it was at first for Karen, a member of our church in Lafayette, Louisiana. When we first met, Karen was confined to a wheelchair as a paraplegic. However, she was one of the most joyful, faith-filled people we had ever met. Until her death a few years ago, she prayed faithfully for Angela, Rachel, and me every day! But it had not always been this way. Karen had been married to Freddie (not his real name) who shipped boatloads of illegal drugs from South America into the bayous of Louisiana. It was a very lucrative business and they lived high – in every meaning of the word! They were part of the local jet set and regularly flew in chartered planes for parties on the West Coast with big-name Hollywood stars. They had money to burn and eventually it burned them.

Freddie ran afoul of one of his distributors, and in retaliation they hired a couple of men to terrorize Karen. The men followed her every movement, and one day, as she was driving along a lonely road, they came up behind and bumped her car, forcing her off the road and into a field. She got out and tried to run, but they drove after her, and when she tripped, they drove their car over her, smashing her spine. They left her to die, but she managed to get help and was taken to the nearest hospital.

The doctors were able to repair some of the damage, but the spinal cord was gone for good – she would never walk again. Her jet-setting days were over. Once she got home, she spent much of her time in bed cursing God and anyone else that she could think of … “IF ONLY!” she screamed. One of the women who cared for her was a Christian. She brought a Bible and offered to read it, but Karen cursed her for suggesting it and threw the Bible on the floor. Later that day she got so angry and so violent that she fell out of bed. It so happened that no-one was in the house at the time, and so, down on the floor, Karen began to weep, and through her tears she spotted the Bible. Since she had nothing else to do until the next helper showed up, she dragged herself over to it and started to read. As she did, there came a point when she realized that God was real and that his love for her had never stopped, even though she had told God many times just how much she hated Him. She kept on reading and reading, and God began speaking to her through His Word. Over the next few weeks, God’s Word and God’s love changed Karen from a nasty, foul-mouthed woman to the joyful, faith-filled woman that we later came to know.

Karen never regained the use of her legs but she did everything else – she drove around town in a special van, she went swimming, she was active in our church. She would often say that if it had not been for her accident, she would have remained lost to the love of God. But now she could rejoice and give thanks for it. She never said IF ONLY again!

What about you?