Monday, October 28, 2013

Stewarding Our Pain

Recently I read an essay by Frederick Buechner entitled, "Adolescence and the Stewardship of Pain." (If you have never read anything by him I would highly recommend giving him a read. This essay was in the book The Clown in the Belfry.) In it he talks about the parable where the master gives, five, two and one talents to his servants, goes away, then comes back to call them to account about what they have done with their talents. Instead of viewing this a bestowment of gifts or money to the servants, Buechner asks us to think about the talents as experiences of pain. What do we do with the pain we are dealt, the hard things, the painful memories? Do we bury them somewhere deep, in distraction and busyness, or do we open ourselves up and share with others this universal experience of pain?

I don't know about you, but sometimes I just feel like I'm burdening others with my pain. Do people really want to know how I'm doing when they ask? Sometimes I think they really don't. And I'm not at all saying we should open ourselves up to everyone who asks...sometimes just a "Doing okay, thanks" is the best answer for the moment. But with a good friend, am I protecting them or myself when I pretend and gloss over my pain?

One night about a year ago I was out at a birthday dinner with about 7 or 8 women. Everyone there looked so pretty and well-dressed and happy. The conversation was light and laughter was in the air. At some point the conversation turned to a young woman I viewed as having a picture perfect life--great kids, husband, looked beautiful, always smiling. Someone asked her how she was doing. They had had several big changes in their family life in the last year and so someone asked how everything was going. She smiled--then she became serious and said, "It's been a really, really hard year." Friends looked at her, not really knowing how to respond, so she quickly said, "It's been a good year, but it's also been really, really hard."

I already loved this friend but I knew from that moment I wanted her to be a close friend for life. To be so brave and vulnerable with good friends in a setting that was not exactly conducive to being open and vulnerable---it amazed me. But it also allowed me to see she was hurting and I wanted to be an encouragement and a friend if I could. How else would I have known she was hurting? I would never have guessed from outward appearances or her face (always smiling). It was a gift to me--to see her humanness and her need of friendship. In some mysterious way, instead of feeling burdened I felt emboldened--to not pretend and not be fearful.

In Buechner's essay he says:
     "To trade is to give of what it is that we have in return for what it is that we need, and what we have is essentially what we are, and what we need is essentially each other. The good and faithful servants were not life-buriers. They were life-traders. They did not close themselves off in fear but opened themselves up in risk and hope. The trading of joy comes naturally because it is the nature of joy to proclaim and share itself. Joy cannot contain itself, as we say. It overflows. And so it should properly be with pain as well, the parable seems to suggest. We are never more alive to life than when it hurts--never more aware both of our own powerlessness to save ourselves and of at least the possibility of a power beyond ourselves to save us and heal us if we can only open ourselves to it."

With the recent loss of my brother David, I am experiencing the pain once again of losing someone close to me. David was a gift to everyone who met him and especially to his family. Our family is now altered again in a very unwelcome way and every family gathering will feel hopelessly wrong without David among us. Allen and I were feeling so hopeful and comforted because God had brought so much healing to our hearts regarding losing Joseph. The pain was so deep and pervasive for several years after he died and in the last year or so it has just felt lighter and more intermittent. But now again I feel pummeled by sadness, as does everyone in my family--my parents more than all of us. And while we have the joy and hope of knowing he is complete and whole with his Savior, Jesus, we also have the deep sadness and feeling of loss here on earth. Why would God take someone who so obviously loved well and shared Jesus with everyone he met? And why to our family? We have already lost one child. Do we need to experience this pain again?

I know all the right answers in my head, but my heart still just doesn't understand. I guess I'm hopeful, though, that I can be brave and open in my pain, that I won't bury it but share it...not to be a burden but to be an honest friend. Jesus wants us to come as we are, but I think so often I try to come as I ought to be. I'm afraid what I have is too much or too burdensome, that I should get it together a bit before I bring myself to Jesus or to anyone else. But the beautiful thing about our Savior is that he welcomes the weak and weary, the lost and was us he had in mind when he died.

I know from experience I will feel this sadness for a really long time, that it will never feel right or good that David died, but I also know that my sadness and pain are only truly safe in Jesus' hands. Turning to any other good thing or person will ultimately leave me empty. Hiding it, ignoring it, and burying it will leave me bitter and cold. Only feeling my pain and anger and bringing them to Jesus will bring true healing. I just pray for the courage to do so.

"Come to Me, all who are weary and heavy-laden, and I will give you rest. "Take My yoke upon you and learn from Me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls.…" Matt. 11:28-29

Wednesday, August 21, 2013

Happy Birthday, Joseph

"But we have this treasure in jars of clay to show that this all-surpassing power is from God and not from us. We are hard pressed on every side, but not crushed; perplexed, but not in despair; persecuted, but not abandoned; struck down, but not destroyed. We always carry around in our body the death of Jesus, so that the life of Jesus may also be revealed in our body...So we fix our eyes not on what is seen, but on what is unseen. For what is seen is temporary, but what is unseen is eternal
2 Cor. 4:7-12, 18

"What, then, shall we say in response to this? If God is for us, who can be against us? He who did not spare his own Son, but gave him up for us all--how will he not also, along with him, graciously give us all things...For I am convinced that neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons, neither the present nor the future, nor any powers, neither height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord."

Romans 8:31-32, 38-39

Joseph would be turning nine this year. Usually the weeks leading up to his birthday and day of death are the hardest weeks for us all year. Anticipating the heartache is usually harder than the day itself. I could hardly have imagined that we would be grieving another great loss to our family this year instead of anticipating these days. The loss of my brother David has impacted us and many, many friends in a huge way. Who knew the very great treasure of a person he was? He was such a humble, sweet, and often quiet person in our family. Little did I know the incredible leader and servant he was among his peers and for the kingdom of God.

Pondering over this I was reminded of the verse I wrote above about treasures in jars of clay. I read the note below this verse in my Bible:

"It was customary to conceal treasure in clay jars, which had little value or beauty and did not attract attention to themselves and their precious contents. Here they represent Paul's human frailty and unworthiness. The idea that the absolute insufficiency of man reveals the total sufficiency of God pervades this letter."

Thinking about both Joseph and David--children really (although David of course was older and mature beyond his years)--I was struck with how God chooses and uses the unlikeliest of people according to the world's standards---to demonstrate his great power and sufficiency in us. I'm thinking of David, the runt, in the Old Testament, Rahab the prostitute, Mary the teenager to be Jesus' mother, just to name a few. It seems God delights to surprise us with his great power in the weak, the young, and the outcasts. The only thing he requires is a heart that needs him and believes him.

My heart is breaking over David's death. Some days I think my heart might burst with sadness. I'm thankful that God has brought a lot of healing to Allen and I in the last year or so. (We were able to go on Nancy and David Guthrie's respite retreat last year for grieving parents and that began a journey of healing that we are so grateful for. Their example of hope and joy even after losing two children has been powerful in encouraging us.) Otherwise I don't think I could handle this new grief or deal with it with any hope at all. But the Bible tells us that we should grieve as those who have hope, because while death and sadness are real, those are not the ultimate reality. We don't live with only this life on earth as our hope. We should live with the view of heaven always in mind. It doesn't take the sadness or ache from our hearts immediately, but it does bring peace. And I can tell you from experience that this is true.

That first year after Joseph died I really wondered if I would ever be happy again, if I could ever enjoy being around people again, or if my life would ever feel meaningful. God did bring peace, but then he has also gradually restored those things in me that I had felt I lost along with Joseph: enjoying the company of people, real happiness, and a feeling of meaning to my life. In other words, he has rescued me (and continues to) from a life of perpetual self-pity and bitterness.

God is faithful to do abundantly more than all we ask or imagine. The other verse above is from Romans: "He who did not spare his own Son, but gave him up for us all--how will he not also, along with him, graciously give us all things..." God deigned to become one of us, to take on human form and live a servant's life and endure a criminal's death. If He would go to all that trouble, won't he also graciously give us everything we need for this life, to live in a way that pleases him?

"For I am convinced that neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons, neither the present nor the future, nor any powers, neither height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord."

You are a treasure to God. He gave up his own Son so that you and I might live. You may just feel like a clay jar, but because of his Holy Spirit you are so much more. You may feel like God has forgotten or abandoned you. He has not and cannot. We are God's children (Romans 8:16-17) and heirs with Christ of an eternal treasure that outweighs all these trials we may endure on earth. He longs to give us everything we need for this life, but then we also have the promise of an eternity with Him. Hallelujah, what a Savior!

Tuesday, January 1, 2013

Keep Moving Forward

The first time we went to St. Jude's it was days before Christmas. We had a few visits with the doctors then we were given the okay to leave for a couple of days to spend time with family. A kind young nurse handed me a brown paper bag full of large bottles of medicine I couldn't pronounce. I looked at the bag, then at her, and said, "Merry Christmas to us." Because I didn't know what to say.
The nurse looked like she might cry.
In the last month of Joseph's life we made a few trips back and forth to St. Jude's. We were always looking for fun movies for him to watch in the car to keep his mind off the fact that he would be going to see a doctor.

One of the last movies we found for him was one that I didn't watch much. I would be sitting in the front seat (for most of the drive), Allen driving, and the kiddos in the back. I'd hear bits and pieces and listen to the songs and it sounded nice and he seemed to like it.
On one trip, we had watched something else and he was asking to watch "The shuture has ived!" movie. We were completely perplexed, frantically trying to find it as he was gettting more and more hysterical. I think after a long time we finally figured out he wanted to watch "Meet the Robinsons," which has a song at the very end called "The future has arrived." Phew. We were glad to figure that one out.
It wasn't until after Joseph died that I really watched this movie, and I have to say I really love it. There are some inspiring themes about the importance of failure and trying, love and adoption, and moving forward.
In fact, one of the main themes is "Keep Moving Forward." There are a lot of really creative types in the movie and the main character is an inventor and therefore tries dozens of times before he actually succeeds in making something work. (They even celebrate when someone fails, and dance around with glee saying, "He failed! He failed!") But they don't let failure get them down. It's an opportunity to grow and learn and try again.
After watching it again this Christmas season, I'm wondering if there is a message in it for me?
There is a great temptation for me, in my love for Joseph, to look back a lot, to miss him and cherish those days when he was small and we had all the time in the world, to wish I had appreciated him and Holly so much more and to live in regret over lost moments.
I think it is vital to remember in love and to keep Joseph as a special part of our family, but I know it's important to move forward with joy as our family is now, with two new members, and one up in heaven. It is a mixture of pain and joy, but we have much to be thankful for.

I feel like God is teaching me lately the joy in giving thanks for the hours we are given, for the "today" we are given, even if it doesn't seem special, even if it is filled with dirty dishes and dirty clothes and messy rooms. It was those ordinary days I had with Joseph that were such precious gifts.
And it is those days now that are such precious gifts, with my children and my husband, my family and friends. There is glory in each day if we have the eyes to see it.
Our June Bug is an example to me in rejoicing in today. She looks so forward to special events (like birthdays, or school days, or gymnastics days), and then when the day finally arrives she can hardly keep her joy from spilling out all over everyone. One day, after many days of us saying "Tomorrow is gymnastics" (because she doesn't quite understand time yet) the day finally came when it was gymnastics. She proclaimed, "Mommy, today is tomorrow!!" She meant that today was the day she had been waiting for.
Maybe today is the day we are all waiting for. Maybe it's the "normal" we might wish we could go back to after a tragedy. Maybe it's the day we will miss in 20 years when our house is so quiet you could hear a pin drop. And maybe that person you have today (who might be currently driving you crazy) is the one you will miss after they're gone from this life.
I'm hopeful that this year we will choose to give thanks for all our many, many blessings and even give thanks for things that don't feel like blessings. What feels like punishment could actually be a gift. And what feels like a plan gone wrong could be God's greatest plan for good. And that we'll keep moving forward in faith, whether we have it all figured out or not.

"You, Lord, keep my lamp burning;
my God turns my darkness into light.
With your help I can advance against a troop
with my God I can scale a wall."

Psalm 18:28