Monthly Archives: December 2014

Grieving in community

Last night some Westside women joined me in my living room for a sweet hour of prayer. We prayed for Kara, Jason, their babies, their parents and family, friends, and everyone who is touched by Kara’s life. And then one of the ladies prayed for my baby boy, who is particularly attached to Kara. And I lost it; I cried the ugly cry, snot and tears mingling as they inevitably traveled to the corners of my mouth, the saltiness reminding me of bitter tears of grief shed in years past.   VonAndKara

I would say I’ve had my fair share of grief, which has taught me many life lessons, one being that there are few safe people in this world and just as few people who are willing to travel the long road of mourning with you instead of expecting you to get over it and move on with your life.

That is why what happened last night was impactful—never have I experienced grief in community, in unity with so many people.

Isn’t that why funerals, memorial services, receptions are important? They provide a place for all the mourners to be together to cry and laugh and process grief together. But then you all go home, you all have to figure out your new normal, and that unity tapers off as the texts and phone calls get fewer and farther between.

Yet as one of my closest, favorite friends moves closer and closer to her Homecoming, I find myself surrounded by people who are experiencing a grief just like mine. In fact, I can’t think of a single person in my immediate circle who doesn’t at least know of Kara and her story, who isn’t praying for her and praying for me.IMG_0945

Every day I get two kinds of emails or texts regarding Kara. One is people who don’t know her personally but want to know how she is doing and the other is people who want to know how they can love me in the midst of this awful goodbye.

What? This is new to me.

Texting with friends and my sisters, we talked about our tendency to withdraw when faced with such deep pain. When asked if I felt numb, I said, “I think there is an element of grief that numbs us out of necessity—there are so many practical things to do, and if I indulge my sadness, those things won’t get done. My tendency is to withdraw and bury my feelings just to survive.”IMG_0138

And while I pray against that—pray that I will move toward Jesus and Aaron, in particular—I am reminded that I can’t withdraw. I am not allowed. Too many people are reaching out to me every single day to love and encourage and care for me and my family. There is no way I can stuff my feelings away. My community won’t stand for that; they are instead standing by with open arms and generosity of heart.

So this is the Body of Christ. For years I’ve wondered what it would be like to experience such intimacy with my church. I would rather Kara stay with us than find out how wonderful it is to be loved so well by community. But this is our story, this is God’s story. Our communal grief is beautiful, awful, powerful, a game changer. Not only am I not the same person for knowing Kara, I will not be the same person for losing her (temporarily until I am reunited with her), and I will not be the same person for walking this road with our church family.IMG_1166

And so we clumsily, unitedly move toward each other in this suffering. We will cling to each other for breath when Kara has said goodbye, and we will numbly discover our new normal afterward as we continue to be faithful in the mundane, fighting for Grace in our grief.

DWOD

I am grateful to be sitting at my little table typing; last Friday afternoon, I was suddenly gripped by a stomach bug so severe I couldn’t open my eyes for 36 hours, the room was spinning so out of control. It was violent and scary, and my darling mister wanted to take me to the ER. It was powerful and comforting to be in the caring hands of Aaron, who took care of me and the babies and the house. IMG_1063We had lovely friends praying and checking in and bringing us meals. If you know me, you know I struggle accepting help, so that points to how dire our situation was. And today is the first day I am out of bed. I showered and am washing linens, and I just sat down to assess our Christmas situation.

Well, folks, it’s pretty pathetic. Advent didn’t turn out much like I had hoped. Our Usually Very Healthy Household really took a hit. IMG_1057Both babies had the stomach flu—one got it twice—and Baby Boy currently has pneumonia and an ear infection. This has obviously thrown me for a loop and slowed me down.

I can list all of my shortcomings:

  • Candy for neighbors did not get made or delivered.
  • The food for Christmas dinner is not yet purchased.
  • Pies are not baked.
  • Gifts are not wrapped.
  • Children are wearing pajamas instead of their cutesy Christmas outfits. In fact, Baby Girl is sitting beside me, pouting after having smashed her beet crackers with her sippy cup; not very Christmas Charming.FullSizeRender(9)
  • We are waaaaay behind in our family Advent readings (and my personal readings).
  • I did not write the poem I had started constructing.
  • The babies’ gifts are not assembled.
  • The Christmas crafts I planned to do with Baby Boy are still sitting off to the side.

The list goes on. I am tempted to be discouraged as I start to feel dizzy, the weakness of my illness still lingering. My back, spasming from too much time in bed, reminds me that no matter how hard I try, I can’t catch up. And my heart, resolute in its brokenness, is on the fence: do I sigh into the familiar insufficiency of self or do I turn to Jesus?

It’s my age-old question.

The first time I realized I had an option was after being slighted—seriously slighted—by someone who hurt me deeply. I sat with my head in my baby sister’s lap, sobbing, her tears of compassion falling into my mess of hair. “What do I do?!” I pleaded for an alternative to my usual spiral into self indulgence.

She lifted my chin. “You pray. You turn to Jesus and you pray and you believe that he loves you.”

It was a lightbulb moment for me. I hadn’t realized before—for whatever reason—that I had a choice. I had always assumed that falling into my DWOD (Dark Well of Despair) was inevitable. Caitlin was litruhly a lifesaver in that moment. She told me there was another way. And she prayed with me and showed me the way of Hope.

This is totally different. Not having gifts wrapped is not truly that big of a deal—it’s petty even. But my little ol’ heart, fragile with scars and mistreatment and misunderstandings, feels like it’s a big deal. I wanted this Advent to be big and hope-filled and joyous and monumental and one for the books. I am so tired of disappointments, even small ones. I feel like a failure to my family and friends and neighbors (although, who is counting?!). I can’t measure up to my own expectations of how to love them well.

 

I was recently visiting a friend at the hospital, and I noticed the hospital’s huge nativity scene. Vintage and awesome. And missing one key component—Baby Jesus. I am sure one of the nuns who volunteers her time there will place him in the manger with care on Thursday morning, completing the Christmas picture.IMG_0927 It was a reminder to me. We live in the Already But Not Yet. Jesus has come, but we are still in this broken world. Jesus has delivered our hearts, but our bodies await redemption. Jesus has conquered sin, but our hearts are not yet restored.

I can console myself with empty platitudes: next year will be better, now I know how to plan more effectively, this helps me focus on the real meaning of Christmas. Blah blah blah. But that’s not what my heart needs—what my heart needs is the reminder of Christ. Emmanuel. He has made a way to be with me during the disappointments, throwing up, crying when my baby can’t breathe, sitting next to a sick friend in the hospital. And he has made a way for me to Hope and for that Hope to come to fruition some day. Some day when he will wipe away all my tears. When my sobs of grief will turn to heaves of laughter. When the Already But Not Yet has passed away and the road to DWOD is gone forever.

Broken Christmas

I just read the news on Facebook: my very first voice instructor’s husband passed away after a long illness. They were madly in love, the Fitches. The kind of love that would probably embarrass some but delight others, and I watched from a distance, gazing at Facebook lovey-dovey pictures of them dancing at their daughter’s recent wedding. I’d think, When we’re in our 60s, I hope we’re still madly in love like that.

This a couple of days after the news of a friend’s mother passing away. What a sad time of year to lose your mama.

As I type, I’m watching my 1-year-old daughter eating lunch, discovering rogue blueberries and banana pieces in her bib pocket. What kind of heartbreak is in store for her? I wonder. It’s impossible imagining sadness in her life. I want to protect her from anything that would prevent her smile from lighting up the room. Now she is making a funny sound with a funny face and laughing hysterically. She is the delight of my life. How can I bear the thought of her hurting?

IMG_0132This morning, the babies and I read the 23rd Psalm in our Jesus Storybook Bible.IMG_1043The image of God being my shepherd and loving me so tenderly brought me to tears. I sent the pic to Kara who was facing a Scary Snort today—if anyone would understand these words, it would be Kara. Then I realized—again—that without trials and suffering, we can’t experience the depth of the Shepherd’s care. Have you ever noticed the people who are the most madly in love with Jesus and the most believing of his love for us are the people who have been hurt the most?IMG_0943I’ve shared how I got started on Christmas early this year. How it’s been a rough year and I needed the Hope of Advent, of the promise of Emmanuel. Please don’t misunderstand me—this is not an avoidance of pain or a masking. Putting my tree up early and baking extra treats and going crazy with taking pictures of my babies is not my trying to pretend like it hasn’t been a tough year. I am not putting the hurt of 2014 on hold until after the New Year. On the contrary, my celebrating Advent so ferociously is actually an embracing of the pain. I am engaging the hurt on such a level that says, I cannot move forward in this grief without Jesus, Emmanuel, the promise of his someday wiping away all of our tears. Comfort me, Lord, bring us peace, instill Hope in our hearts so we can put one foot in front of the other.2014121095190420

I’ve learned one thing that goes along with suffering is teaching our children to respond well to it. They are still babies and need to be protected from much, but allowing them to reach out to others who are hurting is in turn teaching them about the need for Jesus and the origin and reason for our Hope.IMG_0945I don’t want my children to think the Christmas story stops with the Wise Men visiting Baby Jesus. I don’t want them to think the point of Christmas is happiness instead of Hope. I don’t want them to be surprised by loss or pain. And I want them to know how to engage those who are hurting and how to respond well with Hope in Jesus.FullSizeRender(8)IMG_0981

So please, if you are hurting, do not be mistaken into thinking that Christmas is not a time for grief or pain. It is the perfect time. Just as the Prince of Peace was born a grisly, bloody birth into a broken world, so does our brokenness coexist with the promise of Hope as we live in the already but not yet. Christmas is the perfect time for crying out of our darkness to our King and asking for the comfort only he can bring. IMG_0930

Longing for normal, hunting for grace

Yesterday my beautiful Kara blogged about her longing for normal in the midst of a cancer-ridden Advent. How she longs to decorate her house, full of energy, like other mothers; bake Christmas goodies with the children; have a bad hair day. How during a particularly awful night she mourned her children hearing her pain.

I understand Kara’s jealousy on a certain level. I am insanely jealous of women with mothers. Children with grandparents. Families who spend Christmas with parents and have babysitters for Christmas shopping. Women who go to tea at Glen Eyrie with their mothers and daughters. God has provided family for us and people who love our children deeply. But the loss will always be there—that hole can never be filled.

My family and I stood vigil for Kara throughout the awful night, praying and begging God for relief. I want to be like the persistent widow, never tiring of asking. But when I really think about it, I despise the fact that I am asking God for manageable pain for Kara for Christmas instead of something, well, normal.

For another friend, I am begging for provision for her husband who has been out of work for too long. For another, it’s relief from a dark despair closing in on her from all sides. For another, it’s freedom to feel joy again even if it coincides with the grief from her loss this year. For another, it’s restoration of her marriage. The list goes on. And I bet your list looks something like this, too.

What I’ve come to understand is that in this broken world, brokenness is normal. We can’t escape it. Some people are lucky and learn this later in life than the rest of us and are spared, but even so, when we look around, we are surrounded.

If life were what we wanted, if we had everything we desired, there would be no need for a Messiah, no need for Emmanuel.

God with us.

When I feel overwhelmed by the hurt and pain in my life, and I think the brokenness might suffocate me and Christmas preparations and celebrations feel like senseless obligations, God reminds me: This brokenness so sharp it is stealing your breath is the reason you celebrate Christmas. Rejoice, for your Redeemer has come! Place your hope in me, for this, too, will pass away, and soon we will celebrate together the wiping away of all your tears.

Oh, how my heart needs a redeemer.

If you are struggling this Advent, be encouraged by the words of our sister, fellow hunter of grace: “Breathe—just breathe, look for Jesus, rest, and repeat. And remember all the past moments where you were kept, known, blessed, comforted, and normal—and give thanks for those sweet moments. Feast on the small great moments- and know they have not come to an end at this small corner of pain we are battling.”

Christmas limbo

Advent is a time of waiting. Waiting for Jesus, waiting for change, waiting for redemption. The patience we exercise while waiting is not rooted in wishing or planning or picking ourselves up by our bootstraps; it is rooted in hope, a promise of restoration that was born a bloody mess into a crude bed of hay.

The idea of limbo has come to mind this season. Maybe the Israelites wandering in the desert for 40 years felt like they were in a limbo—would this aimlessness never cease? Would there be an end to collecting manna and wondering where they’d spend the night? I bet Noah and his family felt like they were in limbo on the ark with no promise of the rain stopping, the violent rocking of their boat a constant reminder of their need for deliverance. What about Abraham and Sarah waiting for their promised child? A lifetime of dreams and desires in the hands of a God they feared and didn’t understand.

What is the difference between waiting and limbo? In my life, the difference has been hope. Or lack thereof.

I remember the first Christmas after my parents died. Nothing was how it should have been. I had nothing to look forward to and no home to go home to from college. I dreaded each day of Advent, the joy of others’ unbearable to my broken heart. Many people promised that the grief would get better, that my heart would heal, but I saw no evidence to that end, nothing that lent hope to my despairing soul.

That was limbo.

Have you experienced this? Do you understand the limbo of grief or the limbo of illness or the limbo of unemployment? How about the limbo of depression or abuse or divorce? Really, any ugliness can trap us in this limbo. Our broken hearts are very susceptible to it.

If you are wandering limbo this season, I wish I could give you a magic formula to make it better. I wish I could tell you what Bible verses to read, what hymns to sing, what chocolate to eat, what good deeds to do that will fix everything.

But the truth is, the only thing that can heal the pain of limbo is a slow trust—a tiny, minuscule recognition that Jesus loves you. A seed of faith. A simple prayer: God, I don’t trust, my heart is cold, I can’t remember joy. Help me trust you. Help me believe you love me and will redeem me.

Maybe you can’t pray these prayers. Maybe it hurts too much and past disappointments have crushed your heart.

It’s okay.

If you can’t pray these prayers, a friend can pray them for you. Can you find the energy to tell a friend and ask them to pray for you, on behalf of your hurting heart? Can you invite them into your struggle and allow their faith to gird up your brokenness? Can you try to speak these words to yourself out loud: God loves me and will redeem me? Because he will, friends. It may not be today or tomorrow or even this side of heaven. But God has made a promise to his children, and he would delight to give you the gift of hope.

A cringing Christmas heart

We had a super fun morning yesterday—my husband took the day off and we went to visit Santa Claus at the mall. This Santa was wonderful—he engaged our babies and was patient with them, earning their trust before reaching for them for the picture. They were happy to take lots of pictures until we got the perfect shot, and then Santa continued to talk to our 2-year old, drawing him out and making him feel special.

I walked away with our pictures so happy. Our 15 minutes with Santa and his helpers was a gift. It was fun. It put me in the Christmas spirit to spend $40 to put my children in the lap of a strange man wearing a costume and offering them candy and toys. I smiled hugely to the mama and her little girl getting in line as we left. In my mind, that mama would walk away just as pleased as I was.

As we walked through the mall, my joy overflowed. I was polite and charming and kind to everyone we encountered. I just knew that everyone was feeling as generous and happy and excited as I was. Christmas is upon us!

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But of course, that’s not true. If I had taken a moment to notice the faces around us, I am sure I would have seen more than what I wanted to see. I am sure I would have seen exhaustion, anger, loneliness, bitterness, fear, dread. The list goes on.

Confronted with this truth, my first challenge is to open my eyes and notice the person who is hurting. This is a big deal to me: what if it makes me feel sad? What if I feel an obligation to reach out to them? What if in reaching out to them, my own happiness diminishes? What do I have to sacrifice in order to fulfill this obligation? Can I love someone else without sacrificing too much? Is there a way to keep my happy feelings and maintain a guilt-free conscience?

When my brain starts working, it reveals my ugly heart. And that robs me of my joy. I am reminded that happy photo sessions with Santa doesn’t bring lasting joy. Seeing my children excited over their Advent calendar chocolate doesn’t express Emmanuel. And even reading our daily Jesus Storybook Bible passage doesn’t magically give me hope or erase my anxieties. These things are all fine and dandy, but my second challenge is to make sure they don’t distract me from the true meaning of Christmas.

Now you all think I sound like Linus.

The truth is, the coming of Christ doesn’t matter if it doesn’t create a heart change in me. When I think of how God has rescued me from the pits of despair time and time again, how he saved me from self-abuse, how his passionate love for me changed the very core of my identity, I get all giddy inside. More than giddy, I get grateful. And THAT is what my heart truly longs to share, not a brief smile while I walk past someone at the mall shopping.

I need this reminder, this perspective shift.

Walking in our neighborhood, it doesn’t take long to see why Emmanuel came. We are a broken people, a needy people, a hurting people. As I delight in my babies and rejoice in our coming King this season, what does it mean for me to notice the pain of others’? How do I engage that? How do I love well, in ways that make sense?

Lord, take off my blinders. Help me to see the hurting people around me. Give me courage to reach for their hands, and teach me to love well. Strip me of my self absorption and allow the hope you’ve given me to seep into the hearts of others.

The advent of hope in my heart

Advent. The season leading up to Christmas. Noel Piper describes it as a celebration of the fulfillment of the promises God made—that he would provide a way to draw near to him. And just as the Israelites didn’t expect their king to be born in the crudest of settings, wrapped in swaddling cloths, and laid in a manger, so am I ignorant of how God will draw me near him this Christmas or for the rest of my earthly life.

Emmanuel. God with us. Jesus.

I shared recently about how much I need Advent this year. I need the promise of God’s nearness, of his drawing me to him. I need Emmanuel to cling to.

In his sermon on gratitude yesterday, Jason talked about how in giving thanks, we must make ourselves vulnerable. Giving thanks acknowledges a need or desire. It reveals our hearts. It shows that we are not whole and need others to help us. I think the same could be said about hoping.

And in his beautiful, poetic book, Touching Wonder, John Blase talks about hope—how it softens us, renews our heart. He prays, Hope has been deferred so many times…and my heart has grown cold. Melt me so that a tear might fall—not a number of them, but just one.

Does that prick your heart like it does mine?

How many times has hope been deferred in my own heart? How many times have I been disappointed, betrayed, devastated? How often have I allowed disappointment to frost my heart, just a little at a time, until I am convinced I can’t be hurt anymore? Until my heart is as ice. Until I can pretend that I don’t need hope, that I am okay, that I am in control. Until the risk of vulnerability is a faraway memory of shame.

But my coldness was no match for this year, for the trials and pains and shocks of brokenness. Insistent tears smothered my heart until it started to melt, and what is left is sadness, fear, frailty.

Emmanuel. God with us. Jesus.

Comforter. Prince of Peace. Savior.

Redeemer. Messiah. Shepherd.

Emmanuel.