Gathering Pain

It is to be expected that a home with five children, a parakeet, a hamster, and a turtle would be a lively place, full of noise both genial and raucous.  And it was, it was all that and also the children were full of expectancy, for what it would be hard to assign a name; it was as if they were ready to be ready for something.  So it follows that they were in my face and hovering about, and inconveniently my heart and soul were quiet and withdrawn.

My cousin’s son was stillborn yesterday.  Born too early, and yet he was born, and his tiny hands lay inside his parents’ wedding rings in the black and white photograph.  We all mourn him, and the pain is sharp and singular.  The pit of my stomach has an empathetic ache, for it mourned my own loss, my own Gabriel(a), and every child loss finds an echo there.  My eyes are quick to sting with familiar grief, and really, I had to go for a walk and let the ache ache.

The twilight hour and the storm-thrashed town were fitting.  Violent winds and rains had come through in a brief fury, and everything was clean but tossed, scoured but disordered.  I found my way through the back alleys, partly because my husband thought that going out wearing my apron was a tad ridiculous, and I wondered if I indeed looked odd:  black skirt and top, long linen apron, gray ruffled shabby jacket from a thrift bin, flip flops.  But I couldn’t leave the apron; it has excellent pondering pockets for hands that don’t know where to put themselves, and I had pondering to do.

I came upon the public burial grounds, used from the 1850’s until 1902.  I stooped and read the fading words; I read of Benjamin, nine months old.  I read of Mary who led a long life, ninety-two years.  One headstone was being slowly engulfed by a tree trunk; in a few years it will have grown completely inside of it, the marker of death swallowed into living wood.  Pines grew up and around and between the broken headstones and I imagined the bones mingled and embraced by the reaching roots.

I thought too of black-clad huddled groups of mourners; how they stood at each of these graves and said goodbye to fathers, mothers, sons, daughters, friends.  My eyes returned to Benjamin’s grave, and I felt for his parents who so lovingly buried him, with such a large and distinguished gravestone.  How they honored his life.

As I stood in the damp cemetery, among the dead and the trees jutting up like long bones among them, I felt that this pain wasn’t alone.  It was gathered together with my own loss and the losses of others I never knew.  Even the melancholy green light of a damp day’s end bore it’s part.  Stepping on one nail with all your weight is sharply painful, stepping on five is painful, but the weight is distributed a bit more mercifully.  Step on a hundred and the pain is dulled.  One would rather there be no pain at all, of course, but anything is better than that one nail biting fiercely.

I slipped my hands into my apron pockets and reluctantly left the darkening cemetery, praying as I walked, for it is the best way to gather all the pain; placing it into the hands of the Father, resting in His peace which transcends our understanding.

 

 

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Funerals Teach Us How To Live

My son has a hard time sitting still, but there he was, barely moving, his eyes fixated on the screen at the front where a slideshow was playing of photos of his great uncle, from toddler, to young man, to grinning groom in a 70’s wedding tux, to father, to grandfather, to middle age, to the skinny, yet joyful, man he knew, a man who fought pancreatic cancer for many years, astonishing his doctors.

There is something to hearing it; how the deceased is remembered, what stood out about them and the way they lived their lives, what made them dear and irreplaceable.

I heard many good words today; I saw men wiping away tears, I saw a good man remembered and mourned.

I was glad to remember him, and glad too that my children and I could hear the accounting of him by others who knew him in other spheres of life.  I am glad we heard what makes an impression on folks around us, and what clearly doesn’t.  There was nothing about his looks or his clothes or his car; nothing about his net worth.  We heard how he loved others, how he enjoyed the people around him, how in the midst of suffering he served, how he trusted God, and how he never complained, no matter how bad it got.

These aren’t words for the wind.

They are meant to be caught, and chewed, and swallowed; they’re meant to become part of us and how we live our days, so that, by God’s mercy, our own funerals may one day serve to point toward the good and holy way for the ones we leave behind.

“So teach us to number our days, that we may apply our hearts unto wisdom.”

-Psalm 90:12

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The Goth At The Pep Assembly

It was all RAH-RAH and pom-poms and school colors and loudness.  A high school pep assembly.  Looking through the lens of time it’s easy to wonder what the point of it all really was.  Something to the effect of stating:  We are this school!  We are a-w-e-s-o-m-e!  Other schools (shouted shrilly) are less awesome and we’ll eat them for breakfast!  Accompanied, as it was, by the almost-provocative routines of the cheerleaders and the more conservative twirls of the color guard and the strident blasts of trumpets and trombones, it was like a circus of self-aggrandizement.  And I always pitied the goths.

How on earth do you survive such a pep fest?  When your muse is wearing black and looking dour and avoiding sunlight and all things cheerful?  When all around your peers are standing up, stomping their feet, waving their arms, hollering themselves hoarse, and there you are, sitting, quiet, wishing for all the world to be in a corner of the library, reading Poe.

I’m not a goth, but I do have an attitude problem.

It struck me during a service at a local evangelical church.  Our burgeoning family filed into a pew, the worship being already in full swing.  The words to the songs were displayed on large flat screens, with nature scenes as backgrounds.  I ground my teeth.

Why do the songs need to look like obnoxious motivational posters?

Oh my word, this song is idiotic.  Worst of all, it’s theologically untrue.  

That woman over there is actually going to punch the air with her fist every time that lyric is repeated.  Yep, there she goes again.

Stop it, stop it.  Sorry, God.  I’m having a hard time worshiping You today, this way.

By this time I usually have sat down with one of the babies, bowed my head, and under my breath, began to pray.  Sometimes one of the ancient songs will fill my heart and I’ll sing that “..for His mercy endureth forever, alleluia”.  All around me people are swaying and singing, hands lifted up in the air, joy in their smiles and cheer all bunched up in the creases ’round their eyes.  And I’m like a goth at a pep assembly; I couldn’t possibly feel more out of place.

It isn’t right to mock or disdain, that I know and I regularly confess with sincere grief.  But there’s more to my reaction than just pride.  I am mourning and I am angry.

I am mourning because I’ve come to know the beauty, warmth, truth, and joy of Eastern Orthodox Christianity, but I cannot be a part of it.  I honor my husband’s leading of our family, and have had to lay my desires down.  It is one of the few areas in our married life that push came to shove and he had the final say.  Most of the time we reach an accord naturally.  Not with this.  But though we attend evangelical churches (as we are yet in-process of finding a church home), I have his blessing to continue my studies of Eastern Orthodoxy and occasionally we attend services at St John’s.  Dustin regularly comes home to me listening to ancient chants and hymns or absorbed in a theological work with a pencil at hand.  I partake of the feast by crawling under the table for crumbs.  Some is better than none, I remind myself, when tears flow and the sorrow sticks in my throat.  Some is better than none.

I am angry because so many churches are singing nonsense.  And heresy.  Seriously, who is writing this crap?  It feels like a narcissistic romp through my own emotions with Jesus thrown in.  Music is a powerful medium for informing our beliefs; are we singing our theology?  Are we singing true things?

I have to be fair; not all the songs are bad.  Maybe even Byzantine chants would look cheesy overlaying some picture of a waterfall.

When the final prayer has been said, to the background accompaniment of soft guitar strummings, I keep my head low.  I gather our things and hope no one talks to me.  Because, though I am a believer and a sister in Christ, and though this was all once as familiar to me as sliced bread, I am painfully out of place.  I cannot put on a false and brave smile and speak Christianese with the cheerful strangers around me.  I’ve never been good at pretending, so I’m afraid this would happen:

Good morning!  I haven’t met you yet!  Are you folks from around here?”

“Morning.  Yep.”

These all your kids?  Are you just visiting or….?”

I don’t want to be here.  I don’t like evangelicalism anymore.  I think I’m burnt out on everything that’s happened in the Western church since the Byzantine times.  I’m tired of the autonomy, the lack of authority, the sola scriptura-touting denominational sectarianism. I’m only here because my husband likes this.  I’m a mess.  I’m sorry I’m so rude.  I’m going to go to the car and cry now”.

I don’t want to do that to someone on a Sunday morning.  I am getting to know the patterns in the carpet well.

Trust me, I know, I know my attitude is bent and snarly.  But I’m also in pain.  Deep pain and grief.  Measure me some grace on that account.

And pray, I beg you, that God would give me His peace about where I can be and where I can’t, where I can feast and where I can’t.  And may the crumbs from His table satisfy and nourish me as I seek Him.

 

 

About The Dying

Sometimes dreams can slip between your fingers like so much rushing sand.  A helium-filled balloon headed quickly skyward, the shocked child’s hand reaches to the ever-smaller orb in the big, wide sky, “Come back!”

There’s been a lot of back and forth about assisted suicide this week.  I felt a steady anger burn within my heart when words like “courageous” were spoken about the young lady’s decision to end her life on her own time clock, by her own hand.  No, thought I, courageous are those who face suffering and endure to the end, who take the lumps with the gravy, the sorrows of life with it’s joys, who don’t circumnavigate suffering, who don’t demand control.  Her decision smells of fear, not courage.  And her legacy?  To encourage cultural and societal acceptance of assisted suicide.  Lord, have mercy.

We are a society that doesn’t want to feel against our will.  So there’s pills for headaches, and there’s pills for our depression and there’s divorce for relationships gone sour.  There’s all sorts of psychobabble gaining traction about setting up scads of boundaries and getting rid of negative people in your life and the main message is that your happiness and personal fulfillment are worth any cost; that selfishness is really good and something you owe to yourself.  To your enthroned and sovereign self.

It came to me as I hiccuped back some emotion lingering from a good, hard cry, as I washed the breakfast dishes on this sunny Sunday morning, that maybe what we’re willing to die to is just as important as what we’re willing to live for.  What we’re willing to suffer for the sake of another, for the sake of something nobler, for the sake of God, that it just might be right there where God finds His seeds germinating within us, His image unfolding, just a bit.  It’s about the dying.

Jesus knows about that.  Death to his own understandable desire to not have to suffer the torture of crucifixion:

“Abba, Father,” he cried out, “everything is possible for you. Please take this cup of suffering away from me. Yet I want your will to be done, not mine.”  Mark 14:36

He died to easier routes, to many temptations laid-out for Him in the desert when Satan came to test his mettle, and found it strong.  He lived a daily dying, en route to death, that we might live.  I think about that.

“Then he said to them all: “Whoever wants to be my disciple must deny themselves and take up their cross daily and follow me.”  -Luke 9:23

Our culture says “me, me, me” and Christ says “deny yourself”, “take up your cross”, “follow Me”, unto even death.  Even a death of suffering.  Even a life made acutely painful through giving up dreams held dearly, sacrificing our desires for the sake of others, and letting go when our hands most want to grip tight.

It’s about the dying.  Which is also about the living.

“He who has found his life will lose it, and he who has lost his life for My sake will find it.”  -Mathew 10:19

That somehow, some way, an unshakeable, un-loseable blessing is present riding alongside the pain, the denial of self, the suffering.  A life found.

Hands no longer full of sand, no longer gripping the balloon string,  hands painfully empty, yearning in the dying, and maybe it’s just then, that God can take our empty hands in His own and fill them unchangeably full.

 

 

An Eggshell, A Nest, and A Lovely Sound

“And how many pregnancies?”

“This is my sixth.”

“All carried to full term?”

“All but one.  One miscarriage.”

A nod.  Fingers flew over the keys and I looked around the small examination room, so very familiar to me.  Only once did these pastel rooms hold pain for me.  Two days after Father’s Day, 2012, two years ago.

That day my face was barely holding it together; I was tears and heartache with legs.  The nurses kept the questions low and few; this was no bubbly visit this.

I remember a great deal of tenderness that day; the midwife who checked me held my hand as she laid out the hard truths, that the baby had died, that the bleeding would take a while, that these things happen and that it wasn’t my fault.  Oh how my soul howled, how it beat at the air with clenched fists and rage.

Just the day before, when the bleeding had begun, I had walked out into the yard.  There I found a broken half of a robin’s egg.  The little one had left, and it was one of those double-meaning moments, like God whispering in a simple shell that my little one too, was elsewhere now, with Him.  Dread swept on over.

In the days that followed I tore the floor out of our dining room.  For me, grief holds a hammer.  I pried out ugly tiles and poorly-installed oak tongue and groove flooring, hacked through crumbling layers of sub flooring, and exposed at last the 100 year-old wood floor underneath, looking like a porcupine with thousands of nails poking up.  For days I pulled out one nail at a time, tears dripping down my nose and making wet circles in the dust.  My husband sanded the floor and varnished it and there was some redemption in the energy of grief.  I stopped crying every day.

I was out walking in the yard two months later, unknowingly pregnant with dear Henrik, when I found a perfectly formed nest.  Again that recognition of double meaning; life would again dwell within me.  When the pregnancy test was positive I cried the unmanageable cry of joy/pain/grief/fragile hope.  I was scared, scared to love again, hope again.  I felt guilty about the joy; how could I be happy when my other baby had just died?

They call them rainbow children; those ones born after a child loss.  They seem to bring healing with them, hope, and help usher joy back into the house.  The promise after the storm and torment.

IMG_0544 I just know to call him a gift, God’s merciful gift.

As was his brother or sister who passed right from my womb to God’s hands.  Not just a sorrow, but a gift, someone I’ll embrace one day with bright joy.  Gabriel, or Gabriela, which means “stands in the Presence”, can show me around.  Part of my heart lives in Heaven now, this very moment.  I don’t know what God does with my requests, that a hug be sent to my baby from mama, that He tell him/her of my love unending.

The heartbeat fluttered at a quick clip as the smiling doctor said, “Well, that settles it, you’re pregnant!  Good sound to hear?”

“The most lovely of sounds.”

Faith Like Perfume

It’s four days into summer break and it’s been four days of rain and gray.  Which keeps all the four inside with me with no open spaces to vent their considerable energy.  I directed some of that energy into cleaning projects.  While de-junking the boys’ room we unearthed three library books and a bevy of orphaned socks.  We had a great shoe trying-on-athon and managed to part with the scrappiest of broken velcro sandals.  School papers were purged and backpacks cleaned out, and I felt I could exhale a bit.

I can’t sing any worship song these days without blubbering.  We’ve visited many churches but have yet to find that peaceful certainty from God that “this one” is “it”.  Oddsfish though, in all this uncertainty and bumbling, my faith is strengthening.  I feel it like a firm floor beneath my feet, sure and steady.  It comes as the whispered assurance daily, “You are held.  God knows.  He is in control.  Trust.”

It isn’t logical; that my faith would be stronger in the midst of disconnect with the Body, disconnect with our beloved vocation of overseas missionary work.  But so it is.

I’d always heard that perfume is made of potently stinky (and disgusting) ingredients.  That smelled full strength they’d near knock you over, but at a certain dilution they round out a sweetness, a freshness, a zing.  In there is castoreum, a product of a castor beaver’s genital scent sac.  Or musk, a sexual secretion of the male musk deer.  Or ambergris, which is, simply, whale vomit.  But put together, at the right dilutions, in the master hand of a perfumer, something altogether surprising and pleasant is made.

So in the oddest of ways, via suffering and flagging hope, disappointment and heartache, my faith and trust in my heavenly Father have grown.  This is both a mystery and a grace.

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From The Silent Place

silenceIt may seem strange to speak of silence when one is a mother of four precious jibber-jabbering children, all under the age of eleven, in anything other than a sighing-longing way.  Amazingly, I am immersed in it (when Henrik deigns to nap, that is).

Since closing down my Facebook a while back, the reams and reams of information, quips, photos, and humorous bits which I plowed through each day have disappeared.  In their wake, silence.  I didn’t know how anyone was doing, or what they were doing, and no one knew my news either, unless I called, emailed, or got together with them.

My habits have been startled; before, when I’d read a particularly striking quote or passage in a book, I’d earmark it for sharing on Facebook.  I wanted to share the nugget I found and hear others’ feedback on it.  Now I read that line and am struck and I look up from the page.  I still want to share it, I still want to discuss it, so I memorize it.  I swallow it in and make it part of me, so that I can, by word spoken, share it.  I am chewing on words, rather than handing them off right away.

Also, “checking the computer” takes all of five minutes.  Reading and responding to the few emails that trickle in and catching up on the major news stories…and…..done. I close the laptop and look around.  There’s nothing more to see here, people, move along.

silence1  In the meantime, in this wider silence, I find myself quieting too.  Almost like that feeling when you step into a lofty empty cathedral and the quiet urges a stilling of the tongue, urges a listening and an awe.

What is God teaching me in this valley, this quiet, dark, valley?  I don’t know, but I beg Him in whispers for wisdom, humility, selflessness, and mercy.  For Him to burn out the weeds in my heart and plant life-giving things.  For all the soul-killing sins to be yanked into the spotlight and named that I might reject them full in the face, with no turning aside.  That sort of stuff.

And in this time, Baby grows in the deep, nearly the size of a kumquat, but with a soul as large as any, in the secret place.  And I pray to be a wiser, more humble, more gentle mama today, tomorrow, and when I meet this wee one face-to-face, smiling.