The Business of Grief

My uncle passed away the other day, quietly slipping from this life surrounded by the people who loved him most.

I was not there. It’s not that I didn’t love him, I did, but that time, when breath is labored and the fleetingness of life has become the truest reality, is so intimate, so personal, that it was not for me. Not then.

My aunt had said that I could come, as I and my husband had been planning to do, even though she was praying that, for his own sake, her beloved would not last much longer. “I think he’s in his last hours,” she responded to my text. “I pray it’s minutes.” And then a few minutes later, “You can still come…”

That’s just who she is: gracious, warm, welcoming. Even when her heart is torn open, and she cannot grab hold of it. Even when that heart is lying on a hospital bed; the man that she has loved for decades, who cannot hold on much longer.

How do you say goodbye to your heart?

In the midst of that, she said I could come.

But I didn’t. I loved my uncle, but I didn’t belong there. Not then. I didn’t lose what she lost. I didn’t lose what my cousin lost: his dad three weeks before his high school graduation. They needed enough room to say goodbye. The husband, father, brother, uncle, in-law, lying on the bed in the middle of the living room was surrounded by a great cloud of witnesses whose presence testified to the import of his life.

Those of us who were not there testified as well, and when I texted my aunt that the moment they were in was too intimate for intrusion, I simply asked her to tell him that we loved him. And she did, and then again she welcomed me into that sacred space by texting me back, “that got a smile.”

I was undone.

My aunt is not a great lady in the lineage of social prestige. I don’t think she’s ever been on a magazine cover or the topic of an op-ed in The New York Times. But maybe she should be. She works hard, she loves her husband, she mothers her son. She is quiet, friendly, and unassuming. She opens herself to others – even in the moments of her greatest grief. That, my friends, is a great lady.

Her husband lay dying, and she texted me back. She made time for me, when time was her cruelest companion.

And then he was gone, only six months after we got the word, that word, CANCER.

Cancer is a thief. It steals health, wholeness, and time. But she would not let it steal her kindness.

And after the goodbye, now what? I imagine that people all do this differently, filling in this space after the goodbye.

Goodbye, my love.

Period.

Emptiness.

Now what? 

I don’t know the answer to that question, but I don’t think anyone else does, either.

This perhaps is the real business of grief. Answering this now what? of filling in the empty space, the gaping hole. How do you live with a gaping hole without getting swallowed up by it?

I don’t know, but I don’t think anyone else does, either.

And of course, the logistics. The tangible business of grief. Phone calls, plans, and arrangements. The mechanical processes of dealing with the dearly departed.

Decisions.

Decisions.

Decisions.

How do you make decisions when your heart is gone and your brain is mush? I imagine that you laugh, you remember, and you wait. Because everything doesn’t really have to be done right now. Because now, suddenly, you do indeed have time.

Time does not really heal all wounds, I don’t think. Only God can do that. But when time slows down, and the urgency of the moment is overshadowed by the joy of the memory, time moves slower, and gives enough time to breathe. And that glorious inhalation is the gift of peace that God speaks to us when He says,

Be still, and KNOW that I am God.

Be still. Not stillness in the paralysis of grief, but stillness in the deep soul recognition that God is God, and I am not.

Death is profound, mysterious, and mundane. And in each part, the ones for whom the grief is rawest need us to sit quietly with them, so that when they slip at the edge of that gaping hole, we can reach out our hands to lift them up.

___________________________________________________________

References:

Psalm 46:10 “Be still, and know that I am God.”

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Celebrate the Creation Cycle: A Poem for Easter

The barrenness of winter

Gives way to the bursting blooms of spring.

Twisted, gnarled branches

Stretch out their arms

For the new season of verdant shade,

Protecting birds, squirrels, and me.

Bulbs and roots awake from their sleep,

Revealing stems, leaves, and petals deeply hidden.

The sun’s distant heat comes closer,

Drawing me out from my winter hibernation.

Sunshine restores my soul.

It is no coincidence that we celebrate

The bleakness of our Lord’s death

And the triumph of his resurrection in springtime.

Because at just the right time…

Christ died for the ungodly. 

God restores creation each spring

To remind me

That He has restored me

Through Christ

And to invite you

To be restored as well.

Happy Restoration Day.

“All the earth will worship You, And will sing praises to You; They will sing praises to Your name.” Selah. Psalm 66:4

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Lazarus: Dying to Live

Recently, I finished reading through the gospels. Someday I may write highlights of the many lessons I learned from that study, but for now I will share just this one. Not too long ago, I shared it with a friend as we sat together at my kitchen table, talking, praying, and weeping over her impossible situation. I don’t have the answers to her problems, but I have Scripture, and so does she, because we are sisters in Christ.

Before his own death and resurrection, Jesus displayed His resurrection power in the life of a dear friend. In John 11, the familiar story of Lazarus is told. This is a beautiful story of death and life, but the problem with its familiarity is that we can easily skim over the details. Rereading it, I discovered truths that I had not noticed before.

The story begins when Jesus receives word in Jerusalem, where he had been staying to celebrate the Feast of Dedication (Hanukkah), that Lazarus, “the one You love,” is sick.

Upon receiving this urgent word, Jesus responds by doing nothing.

NOTHING.

He stayed in Jerusalem two more days. A good friend was sick, and He didn’t go see him.

Then, seemingly out of the blue, Jesus suddenly announces that it’s time to go to Bethany, where Lazarus lives. The disciples remind Him that the Jews were just recently trying to stone Him there. Jesus seems unconcerned by their protests, and instead twice tells them that Lazarus will not die from his illness, even though Lazarus did die before they even left. After some further discussion, Jesus finally tells them directly what He’s going to do, because they’re not following Him on the whole sleep/death metaphor.

We are so slow to follow. 

As a side note, the infamous “Doubting Thomas” is the one who rallies the rest of the disciples and boldly proclaims that they should all go to Bethany and die with Christ, if it would come to that. Thomas had a crisis of faith when He doubted Jesus after His resurrection, and that’s all we remember him for. Nobody remembers that Thomas was the one in this story who was ready to die with Christ. Why don’t we ever call him “Fearless Thomas?”

This is why I refuse to define people by their worst moments. We all have them. Thomas’s timing may have just been the worst in biblical history. Poor guy.

When Jesus finally arrives in Bethany, His friend had already been dead four days.

FOUR DAYS.

The Jews believed that the spirit hovered over the body for three days, and that sometimes people could come back to life in that period of time. But by the fourth day, the deceased was officially dead, and there was no longer any hope.

This is exactly when Jesus showed up: WHEN THERE WAS NO HOPE.

Bethany was only two miles from Jerusalem.  Mourners came from Jerusalem to comfort Mary and Martha before Jesus did. It would have been easy for them to wonder why He wasn’t showing up when these other people had come.

It doesn’t even take an hour to walk two miles.

It seems they did wonder, because Martha and Mary both told Jesus that they knew if He had been there Lazarus would still be alive. Jesus could have healed Lazarus. He loved Lazarus.

He wants good things for those He loves.

Jesus was planning to do a greater work in Lazarus, but Lazarus had to die for it to happen. If Jesus had gone before Lazarus had died, only the three siblings would have witnessed the miracle. But because Jesus waited, and the many Jews had come to mourn his death according to their custom, lots of people got to see a much greater work than healing.

They got to see a dead man brought back to life.

God is not far off, dear friend, and He is always right on time. He is doing a greater work in your life, but you might have to let something you love die in order for Him to do it.

This is a hard truth.

And this is why I wept with my friend at my kitchen table. But you know what? When Jesus stood outside the tomb of his dead friend, Jesus wept, too. He wept, even though He already knew He was about to do a marvelous thing: to return a brother to his mourning sisters, to bring back His own dear friend, to show His power as the God-man, and to glorify His Father.

Despite all these glorious truths, Jesus wept. He wept over the loss of Lazarus. He wept over the grief, the loss, and the separation that death brings. He wept because it wasn’t supposed to be this way. He didn’t create us to die.

He created us to live.

As you stand at the tomb of whatever you have lost, or are about to lose, remember that Jesus stands with you, and He weeps with you, because death is so hard. But even in the weeping, you can know, as Jesus did, that resurrection is coming. Resurrection may not be a returning of exactly what was lost, as it was in the case of Lazarus, but God always brings new life out of death, because He has promised,

Behold, I am making all things new.” 

Some time after Jesus brought Lazarus back to life, He hung on the cross, storming the gates of Hell–conquering sin, pain, and death. And because God raised Him from the dead, you can be raised, too.

Happy Good Friday, dear one. You will not mourn forever. It may be dark now, but Sunday’s coming.

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On My Birthday, or, Angel on Constitution Avenue

In February, 2016, our family rented the second floor of a row house one block from the Capitol building in Washington, D.C. We spent a wonderful few days exploring museums, monuments, and landmarks, but our most precious moment was an encounter with a homeless man on the way to the National Archives.

We took the Metro from our apartment on Capitol Hill to the Archives downtown, but had to get off early at L’efant Plaza Station because of work being done further up the line. The long walk on the cold windy day made us wonder if we had wasted our Metro cards, but even simple inconveniences can prove to be divine appointments.

The massive Archives building loomed over us as we crossed Constitution Avenue. On the opposite side of the street, a homeless man sat by the curb, leaning on a street sign, playing his trumpet. His song filled the crisp, cold February air.

I asked my husband if he had any money for this man. He was ready with his wallet in an instant. He has been married to me long enough to know I would not be able to pass this man by. As he pulled a out bill, our 13 year old son, Caleb, grabbed his own wallet and pulled out some spending money for the trumpet-playing man, too.

The children are always watching.

John handed me the bill. I placed it in the trumpeter’s cup. We lingered for a moment, and when the song was over, I leaned down to shake his hand.

“God bless you,” I said. “You play beautifully. What’s your name?”

“John.” Well that was easy. We laughed and told him he was in good company. He laughed too and shook my John’s hand. We found out we were the ones in good company: the company of a Vietnam veteran.

He asked our names, and we made our round of introductions. “We’re celebrating a special holiday weekend, you know. President Lincoln’s birthday.”

“Yes,” I said, “we are. And it’s my birthday, too.”

“Oohh, it’s your birthday?” He cooed. He looked around at our children. “You kids better be good to your mama, you hear?”

“Preach it, John,” I encouraged him.

“My, Miss Julia, you are certainly blessed. You have a very happy birthday. Make sure those kids mind you, now.”

I smiled bright. “Thank you, John. I will.”

He reached up to give me a hug. I hugged him back and kissed his cheek.

Human touch mends broken hearts.

We turned to go. When we got about a quarter of the way down the block, I heard my name.

“JULIA!”

I turned around. John, the trumpet-playing, Vietnam vet was calling me.

“This one’s for you.”

He lifted his horn to his lips and “Happy Birthday” rang out. I stood with my family, motionless. We listened, soaking in the trumpet sound, and the special blessing of connecting with a forgotten human being. It was the best “Happy Birthday” serenade I have ever received.

When the song was over, I put my hand up to salute John, the soldier who served in Vietnam, the musician who played his trumpet like Louis Armstrong, and the homeless man who sat outside on the cold concrete sidewalk in the middle of winter, depending on the kindness of strangers. He smiled and waved back. We turned around to walk inside, quietly aware of the gift we had just been given.

The day we left D.C., I asked John to drive down Constitution Avenue for me, just in case. It was not on the way, but he loves me, so we went. My trumpet-playing friend wasn’t there, as he had said he always was. Grief stung my heart; grief for the man I would not see again, and for his life that I could not fix. But I also realized that some moments are not meant to be replayed, because they just can’t be. If you miss the one, you don’t get another.

I am so thankful that we gave John the Trumpet-Player a few dollars that day, because what he gave back we can never repay.

Do not forget to show hospitality to strangers, for by so doing some people have shown hospitality to angels without knowing it. Hebrews 13:2

 

 

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Ugh, Chores!

Chores. The word falls with a clunk from the tongue. It is neither romantic nor poetic. When we describe something as a chore, we say it with deep, heavy sighs and dramatic eye rolling.

“Oh, that was such a chore.” The word is just not endearing.

And yet, chores are a daily reality. I have read many mommies who eloquently throw off the oppression of chores for the better task of child-rearing. With them, I wholly embrace my children as my first priority, right behind my Savior and my husband. What I don’t understand, though, is how chores, also not-so-affectionately known as housework, and child-rearing became mutually exclusive. At what point did it become noble to neglect the tasks of homemaking in order to dote on the kids all day?

Please don’t misunderstand. I LOVE my kids. I LOVE being with my kids. I LOVE playing with my kids. I LOVE caring for my kids. I LOVE taking my kids places, both for activities they participate in and family outings. I cringe at the messages we send our children when we refuse to spend time with them or ignore their needs in order to complete our daily to-do lists. People are more important than agendas. Who wouldn’t agree with that?

People first.

Always.

And yet, there’s a problem. We need clean dishes and clean underwear. In order to have these things, someone has to clean them. Like actually, physically clean them. That someone is usually Mom. Yes, the kids can help, and they do, but honestly, even in a house where the labor is well divided, as it is in ours, Mom still does the most. It’s just reality. That’s okay. It’s part of the job. I did sign up for this, after all.

I just wonder, what am I teaching my kids if I always put off the chores till later? As I like to remind them when they  want to put off their chores until later, the problem with later is that it never comes. It is always NOW, and there is always something else I’d rather be doing NOW.

When a grown-up is being  whiny and demanding, we say (or least think) things like, “Don’t be such a child.” We don’t mean it as a compliment. But when children are whiny and demanding, we imagine that it must be because we are neglecting their needs, and the oppressive beast called Mommy Guilt tugs our heartstrings away from the responsibilities of everyday life.

Of course, we want to meet our children’s needs. We should meet our children’s needs. But what are we teaching them when we immediately drop everything every time they have a need? Because, let’s be honest, children ALWAYS have needs. They have needs 24 hours a day. And they want them to be met.

TWENTY FOUR HOURS A DAY.

Child-rearing naturally varies across time, cultures, and families. But something that has morphed into this ugly child-rearing monster of oppressive Mommy Guilt is the belief that our primary role as parents is ensuring our children’s immediate comfort and happiness. The Bible has a lot to say about child-rearing, but I am telling you, I can’t find a primary concern for their happiness anywhere.

In generations past, children came alongside their parents to learn life skills, help the family, and learn a future trade. I am not longing for the “good old days.” I know better than that. But I do humbly submit that parents then got something right that we are getting horribly wrong now. The children were part of the family, and were expected to work for the good of the family. The children were not the center of the family universe.

Spending time with our children doesn’t always have to center around doing what they want to do, just as completing the daily tasks of life doesn’t, and shouldn’t, have to happen without them. Family time can be productive, bonding, and beneficial to the children when it is spent making dinner, doing dishes, washing windows, cleaning the yard, washing the car, or doing whatever else needs to be done, and can be done together. We already know this, of course. We all agree with this concept in theory, because we all lament the entitlement attitudes that pervade our culture. But we have to remember that the children feel entitled because they believe they are entitled.

Who taught them this?

We did. We congratulated them for showing up and rewarded them for participating.

In order to change the pervading culture, we have to change our own little cultures. The cultures in our own homes.

The best part?

When our family cultures naturally expect our children to contribute to the good of the family, they feel more connected, secure, and happy. They aren’t as whiny and demanding, because they’re learning how to fend for themselves, how to look to the needs of others, and sometimes, even how to go without. We are not raising our children to be childish, we are raising them to be good citizens, spouses, parents, friends, neighbors, and professionals.

We are raising future adults.

Work is something adults naturally understand we have to do. Why? Because it is necessary, yes, but even more so, because we were created for it. When God made Adam and Eve, He put them in a garden to cultivate it. In other words, they had chores to do. Imagine! In a perfect garden there were chores. We are often restless and bored without work, because we were made for work. Children with meaningful work develop a much deeper sense of self and purpose than any accolade or trophy will ever provide. And the help they give helps Mommy keep her sanity, and slays that nasty Mommy Guilt Monster in the process. When the work is done, everyone is available to play together, even Mom.

So I say, Yeah! Chores! 

 

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Blowing Bubbles

 

Blowing bubbles: chasing troubles

False humility: self idolatry

 

Floating on the wind, circle back again

Time has taken hope forsaken

 

Bursting bubbles: healing troubles

True humility: solidarity

 

Facing in the wind, forward without end

Christ awakens hope unshaken

 

 

 

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Draw Deeply

 

Draw a drink of water

Deeply from the well

Wayward woman sitting

At the gates of Hell.

 

Living Water quenches

What pleasure never can

Filling up her emptiness

In the arms of men.

 

Judge not others harshly

The wounds of life hard born

But in your own thirst-quenching

Go, and sin no more.

______________________________________________________________

References:

1. John 4:1-42 Jesus Talks to a Samaritan Woman

2. John 8:1-11 Jesus Rescues an Adulterous Woman

 

 

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Broken Glass

 

Shattered, broken life pieces

Scattered on the floor

Usefulness is ended

Beautiful no more.

 

Shards of glass, sharp edges

Gathered up cut deep

Vibrant colors dirt-dulled

My soul no more to keep.

 

Shattered, broken life pieces

Scattered at the throne

Beautiful mosaic

Suddenly takes form.

 

Jesus the Shepherd cradles

This lamb close to His heart

And in His arms my shattered life

Becomes a work of art.

 

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Real Simple

Standing in line at the grocery store, I did my best to avert my eyes from pictures of scantily clad women and gossipy headlines. Thanking God for my ordinary, unnews-worthy life, my wandering gaze finally landed on a picture of a beautifully decorated kitchen underneath the title Real Simple.

My heart stilled. I sighed audibly. I could feel the simple, relaxing life I crave oozing from the glossy magazine pages. I grabbed it from the rack, threw it onto the conveyor belt, stuffed it into a grocery bag, and headed home.

Problems greeted me as soon as I pulled up to our humble abode: ungroomed shrubs, a cracked, heaving driveway, and best of all, a broken screen door. On a warm summer day, one of my littles had fallen through the screen and later decided it was a super-cool doggy door for kids. Naturally, his brothers readily agreed. I mean, who has time for opening doors when you can just jump through the screen and land your muddy shoes right on the kitchen floor? And so now I am left with a choice: be the best mom ever and keep the boy-sized-doggy-door-style-flapping screen, or do what most normal people would do and get the door fixed. So far, the door is still super-cool, and so am I. At least for now.

I unloaded the groceries onto my pink formica countertops, putting the nonperishables inside wood-look laminate cabinets, on a wire shelf in the basement hallway that pretends it’s a pantry, and on plastic shelving in the basement that is also having a food-pantry identity crisis. I get frustrated at the lack of acceptable storage. Where am I supposed to put all this food?

All. This. Food. All. This. Space. But I can’t see the blessings for the formica, the laminate, and the wire. Because when I am done unloading all this bounty, I grab my Real Simple magazine, make a cup of tea, and spend way too much time flipping pages, dreaming of a simply beautiful house and a simply beautiful life that I could have if only things were more simple.

If only.

As if.

As if ripping out our kitchen, living in a construction zone, and plunging ourselves into debt is going to make my life simpler. Seriously, I don’t think so. What if the secret to the real simple life is simply seeing what I  already have and being thankful for it? What if I stop trying to complicate things that aren’t supposed to be hard? Because really, so what?

I love our house. I really love it. When we bought it, we saw its potential. A diamond in the rough, but not too rough, because we had already done that. We painted, did the floors, and even opened up a wall, so that being in the tiny kitchen would feel more like a privilege and less like a prison sentence. And it does. And it’s enough.

Someday, we will redo the kitchen. We have picked up a few things along the way that we hope to use when, as we like to call it, “The Great Someday Someday” finally arrives.  It’s okay to dream, as long as the dream doesn’t ruin my reality.

The secret to a real simple life isn’t found in a magazine, on Pinterest, or the never-ending episodes of HGTV. We all know this, of course. Of course we do. We regularly affirm the ridiculousness of it all. But we don’t really know it, because we keep buying, pinning, searching, and watching. We keep looking around and feeling like what we have is not enough. Like we’re not enough.

The real simple life is contentment. Contentment with my house, my life, myself. I thank God for what I have, what He has done, and who He is making me to be. Contentment lowers my expectations in the most wonderfully simple ways.

I have enough, because He is enough. Now, isn’t that real simple?

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Common Tragedies

I wrote this post over a year ago, after the tragic events that occurred at an elementary school in Connecticut. I am not really sure why I haven’t posted it before, but I have been reflecting a lot on loss lately, and so it seems time to share it now.

Public tragedy. An uncomfortable reality we reluctantly accept as part of life. The never-ending cycle of violence in nations, communities, schools, malls, homes, and even churches leave many questions that are hard to answer. 

What in the world is going on?

How could anyone do such things to other human beings?

And even more, how could anyone endure such horrific tragedies?

When innocent lives are lost in tragic, dramatic circumstances, the country, and perhaps even the world, sits up and takes notice. The stories are all over the news. The families grieve in public. Their grief, so private and painful, becomes a grief we try to bear with them.

It is right and honorable to grieve with families who lose loved ones in tragic events. But it is also seems a bit dishonest. When we hear of a deranged gunman shooting out a window in an elementary school to commit mass, premeditated murder, or of a bomb going off in the middle of a busy city street in the middle of a publicized event, we realize that it could have been our children’s school; it could have been our city. It could have been us. And so our grief mingles with fear. Even in the outrage over the senselessness of it all, there is a collective sigh of relief that even though it could have been us, it wasn’t.

It is easy to say that we share their grief, but the truth is, we don’t. How could we? Parents, siblings, grandparents, aunts, uncles, cousins and friends all lost something real and tangible in those tragedies. They lost real people that were special to them, and beyond that, part of their identity.

What makes me a wife, a mom, a sister, a daughter, a teacher, a friend? It is nothing more than the people who define me that way. Tragic loss changes that definition, not in the heart and the mind, but in the day to day routine of life. I often think of the tragedy of losing a loved one when the table is set, and one place is no longer needed, when the laundry is washed, no longer to be worn, or when plans are made, never to be fulfilled.

This is the tragedy of losing those who make us who we are. It is in the redefining. A child lost will always be child to his parents, or husband to his wife, or mother to her children, but not in the practical-ness of daily life. Not in the restaurant where a table for five suddenly becomes a table for four. When the Christmas cards must be signed, and the name of that precious loved one is not included. When the milestones come and go, and all that is left is what might have been. There will always be mourning, always a sense of loss, even as those who remain work at the redefining.

When national tragedies strike, I wonder about those who lost loved ones that same day, quietly, unassumingly, un-newsworthy-ingly. We pause, we mourn, and we move on. We send cards, flowers, casseroles, and condolences. But we avoid making eye contact, because the dark pit of grief opens through the eyes. Grief is uncomfortable. Grief is raw and unpredictable. It does not make good small talk. It requires that we listen. And that we stay.

Our lives quickly resume “normal,” whatever that is. And we forget the suffering. But they don’t forget. How could they? For them, there is no national tragedy. There is no personal tragedy. There is only grief, and the real tragedy lies, beyond the loss, beyond the grief, in the collective amnesia we seem to develop over the suffering of others. May we weep openly and aloud at the reality of their tragic losses, as the Savior did, and may we bring the promise of future hope by simply being present. The best thing I can do for someone enduring tragedy is to just show up, and let God work at the healing.

 

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