“Right in the middle of it…”.Kalley Heiligenthal, the momma of two-year-old Olive who died at Christmastime re-emerged on stage in the midst of a season of grief. As her God-led hiatus collided with the outbreak of COVID, she re-appeared on March 30th with this song and with this message:
“Right in the middle of it, right in the middle of it
That’s where You’ll be found
Right in the middle of it, deep in the center of it
That’s where You are now
You’ll be right in the middle
You’ll be right in the middle”
In December, Kalley became the person no one ever wants to become: The mother of a child who dies suddenly in the middle of the night. She is a worship leader at Bethel, and after their daughter Olive stopped breathing, they felt led to pray publicly for resurrection of their daughter. The community of Bethel joined them in public prayer for God to raise the dead child from the grave during the week of Christmas 2019. The child did not physically wake up, but that community experienced an unprecedented awakening even though Olive’s little heart never re-started.
And after several months of following God into hiding, Kalley (Olive’s mom) has recently re-emerged in a Bethel recording session with a powerful declaration that God meets us in the middle of our deepest pain and suffering.
Though in our flesh, we run screaming from suffering, grief, loss, and profound tragedy. Those who find themselves forced to descend into the valley of the shadow find in the bitterness a sweet reality: Christ manifests Himself in a way that we have never before experienced in our more comfortable existence.
When we allow the suffering Savior to minister to us in our deepest, darkest pain, we re-emerge transformed.
We come forth from suffering a different sort of human: One who knows the depth of pain and also knows the depth of the love of Christ in a way that only someone who has known Him in devastating loss can.
Anyone in his or her right mind knows that we would be fools to pursue loss, to run after sickness, or to ask for soul-shaking grief. Our natural man runs screaming away from pain and suffering. During my time in ICU, in the crazy early hours of the morning, when the phlebotomists would take turns trying to find my veins, or at least veins that were willing to sacrifice a few drops of blood, I learned a lot of information about veins and our body’s response when it thinks it is dying or under attack. Because I was the most difficult patient to stick in the ICU, the most specialized phlebotomists rotated in and out of my room, often carrying the ultrasound machine in order to find hiding veins.
As the sweet lady with fair skin and strawberry blonde ponytail dug around in my arms, coaxing my veins to spare just enough blood to fill a pediatric vial, she spoke about the nature of veins:
Veins tend to retreat into the center of the body when they believe that the body is in danger. She said with conviction, “ I swear, I have seen so many veins move away from the needle. I know for certain where the vein is, and then it is gone.” Even our veins retreat from the piercing poke of needles. Our entire physical makeup runs from suffering.
We would rather do anything than suffer. At least, I often feel that way. Consider the nature of addictive behavior and all self-numbing choices we make throughout the day, especially during this season of lock-down. I believe that for many of us, our greatest fear in this season of quaranteen is being left alone with ourselves. Many of us spend all of our time running from pain and creating lifestyles that support self-numbing and distraction. But I would argue that in our avoidance of suffering, we are avoiding the suffering Savior who meets us in the depths of our greatest pains.
In the middle of it.
Over the past two weeks, I have struggled in the tension as the thin space of my ICU time recedes into the more distant past. My time in ICU holds the juxtaposition of crushing suffering and heavy glory. While the glory of the Lord was breath-taking, the intensity of the pain and suffering felt like I would kill me. I am living in the aftermath of a mountain top experience with God that took place in the valley of the shadow of death.
I watched over the week of Christmas as Bethel shared the loss of Olive via Instagram, and as they shared their petitions, supplications, and desperate prayers for her resurrection. I wept as I looked at the instagram photos of this beautiful child, full of life and light. I felt judgement creeping in as I felt drawn to thoughts condemning Olive’s parents and Bethel for publicly asking for God to raise a dead child back to life. And yet, I was drawn into the glorious mystery of it all. When they buried their daughter, after over a week of pleading for her physical resurrection, I stormed into my prayer closet, threw myself on my face, and screamed at God, caught in the limbo of believing His word and miracles and also feeling so angry at Him for not raising this child. He could have. Why didn’t He?
In the midst of it, I saw posts from Bethel and Kalley declaring that they held no regrets for their bold requests of the Lord. They declared that God used little Olive to breathe new life into the bones of His church and usher in an awakening in the hearts of all those who were present as they worshiped and pleaded for her life. They claimed that while they did not receive what they requested, God provided so much more than they could ever ask or imagine. And still, I was angry. Still, I pouted. Still, I waited. And I watched…. I wanted to see how they would emerge from this tragedy. Something in my heart clung to the desire to see them come out in victory.
So when this video appeared on youtube this morning, my heart lept while my mind recoiled. What would be their response after several months of grief? Would Kalley emerge wounded, bitter, and cautious? It seemed to me like she had every right to. Or would she emerge in a different way….a way only God could produce? She did the latter. And it changed everything.
In ICU, I was vaguely aware of my choice to worship within the hours of deep suffering. I remember, when my heart rate was soaring, pain was through the roof, and fever was raging, I chose to draw near to Jesus. He was there, in the middle of it, and He drew me into His arms and did not let go. In the arms of my Savior, I found peace, glory, and deeper healing than I could ever dream. Before sepsis, unhealed areas in my heart had been surfacing Honestly, I was at a loss for how to heal. I knew it had to be a supernatural work of God. In the middle of my deepest suffering, as the Shepherd held me close to His heart, He produced that healing–the one that no human could bring, right in the middle of it.
How we handle suffering is so important, because how God handles it is absolutely breathtaking. Our suffering, surrendered to the careful hand of the Father, is incredibly meaningful. We will all face pain. But we can choose how we respond to it.
The trauma is still present. The tears have come frequently over the past couple weeks. Anything and everything seems to trigger flashbacks to the hospital, and they don’t feel very good. But God keeps growing vines of life, bearing fruit, around the structures of my trauma, and so my trauma is producing within it the new wine that God has promised.
Life is complex. Pain is complex. The death of children breaks my heart in ways that I cannot communicate in words.
And, He’s right In the Middle of It
We have this promise:
Fear not, for I have redeemed you; I have called you by name, you are mine. When you pass through the waters, I will be with you; and through the rivers, they shall not overwhelm you; when you walk through the fire you shall not be burned, and the flame will not consume you. For I am the Lord your God, the Holy One of Israel, your Savior. (Isaiah 43:1b-3b)