Saturday, July 21, 2012

The Tragedies (and Grace) of a Two-Week Vacation

We come here every year. 

For 25 years we have spent at least a portion of our summer vacation at Cherry Grove, SC on North Myrtle Beach. We come here for several reasons. Probably the best reason is my in-laws own a condominium on the beach and offer it to us a week each year, free of charge. Nothing makes a vacation more inviting than free accommodations.

We also come here because we love this town and we love the beach. It is fun for our family and is relaxing to our souls. There is something about the ocean that makes a person feel small, the way they should feel, while at the same time illustrating the peaceful and powerful attributes of the Almighty.

There is also the sentimental meaning of this place. Kim and I first came here the year before we were married. We began our courtship here, and we still take long walks on the beach holding hands 25 years later. We have come to this place many times as a refuge in seasons of great life storms, and other times just to relax in a shelter away from great life stresses. Cherry Grove claims a special place in our hearts and lives.

And so every year we strategically and intentionally begin planning our vacation in January and set out in June for one full week of beach life. The six months from planning to going is part of the joy of the vacation, filled with great anticipation, dreaming and preparation. This year was even more special because my in-laws have decided to sell the condo and settle down in Florida with their fellow snowbirds. Added to this is the realization that my son, Noah, will be leaving for a four year enlistment in the US Army in August.

We figured our future vacation time here might be limited for our family, so we planned a very special two-week stay. 

The anticipation of a two-week vacation, away from our very stressful jobs, at our favorite place in the world, with the realization that it could be our last, made us count down the days like a prisoner awaiting release. 

But when the day finally came, it came complete with the pain, tragedy, interruption and disappointment that this sinful world cannot avoid.  We began our 10-hour trip south by first heading 3 hours north to Columbus, OH, paying one last heart-wrenching visit to my dear aunt (who was more like a mother to our broken family). She had been diagnosed with stage four cancer two weeks prior.

We left her house in tears, knowing we had said our final goodbye's on this side. We then proceeded 3 hours northeast to be with our son, Jake, as he had some minor (which is always major) surgery at a hospital in Morgantown, WV.

After spending six hours at the hospital with an autistic man-child in complete hysteria--and finally in a medicated stupor, we got him back to his safety net at the Potomac Center and proceeded south to Cherry Grove, SC. It was a long, quiet, emotional drive.

We spent the first three days of our vacation feeling guilty for being there, worrying about our son and waiting for the inevitable call from my uncle. Added to our guilt was the aftermath of a severe storm that ripped through our home community leaving thousands without power and food during a 100 degree heatwave. It was so bad that they had to evacuate the hospital where my wife works. And here we were—two “first responders”—sitting on a beach 500 miles from the mayhem, with our toes in the sand, watching our children being refreshed by the simple pleasures of Krispy Kreme and cool water.

But the beauty of the ocean, the feel of the sand, the smell of the beach all seemed stale and dull, unable to penetrate the wall of guilt and pain that had been built over the past few days.

Then came the call. My aunt died peacefully at midnight on the fourth day of our two-week vacation. I was walking on the beach in the early morning with Kim when we got the call. 

We made the 10-hour return trip home for the grave-side service and a nightmarish view of our sweltering, storm tattered community.

After it was all said and done, we had four days left on our two-week calendar. I seriously contemplated just going into my bedroom, lying on the bed and sleeping for the final four days. I was on the verge of being emotionally paralyzed.  

Instead, I made a command decision to repack my family in the truck and head back 10-hours south in an attempt to salvage what was left of our peaceful getaway. It was probably done more out of spite for the circumstances than in pursuit of relaxation. I am not easily defeated.

Being at the beach during those last four days had its moments of peacefulness; mostly surrounded by a short-time countdown to the end of our vacation and the departure back home.

As I sat on the beach in deep contemplation, frustration and disappointment, I wondered to myself if retreating to a place or a time on this earth where the heart can be fully rested, relaxed and restored was actually possible. I even grew cynical towards God thinking, “The Creator of the universe could not fix two weeks of my schedule, uninterrupted, to enjoy some time with my family! Really?"

The only thing that amazes me more than my sinful, selfish mind is His unconditional, merciful grace.

Then all of a sudden, there on the beach, four days before I would be headed back home, back to work and back to the stressors of life, I finally opened the first book of my carefully planned, two-week vacation reading.

I made it all the way to page 12 before John Piper punched me right in the nose. 

“Imagine being able to enjoy what is most enjoyable with unbounded energy forever. This is not now our experience(Emphasis mine) Three things stand in the way of our complete satisfaction in this world. One is that nothing has personal worth great enough to meet the deepest longings of our hearts. Another is that we lack the strength to savor the best treasures to the maximum worth. And the third obstacle to complete satisfaction is that our joys here come to an end. Nothing lasts.” (John Piper, The Pleasures of God)

And there I saw the grace of a merciful God who was so skillful and careful to reveal to me—through the shadows of eternity—that He is not taking pleasures away, but preparing me for pleasures unending. 

Nothing lasts here. Storms come, people die, hearts break and sin abounds. And two weeks (or two years) is not enough to kill the pain. Nothing is able to meet our heart's most desperate desire for pleasure. And even if it did, we do not (yet) have the capacity to comprehend and enjoy it with any lasting effect.

However, there is coming a Day when He will lead us down the crystal beaches filled with unspeakable treasure, into the ocean of unending pleasure. And on that Day, our greatest satisfaction will not be in the relaxation of a two-week (or two-millinium) vacation, but in the relationship with the One who will fill our hearts with eternal joy.

"So we do not lose heart...For this light momentary affliction is preparing for us an eternal weight of glory beyond all comparison, as we look not to the things that are seen but to the things that are unseen. For the things that are seen are transient, but the things that are unseen are eternal." (2 Corinthians 4:17)

May all of our vacations point us eternally homeward, and gracefully Godward!


  1. You bless so many others by sharing your struggles, thank you for being willing to be vulnerable. A friend and I are studying through Randy Alcorn's book on Heaven, and it is giving so much motivation to look to that "lasting city."

    Peace and joy,

  2. This might be the best postcard ever received from someone else's vacation. Thank you.