Grief, the Uninvited Guest

For those who are mourning, here is a repost from a while back…

I have a guest these days. Grief is his name. I did not invite him, but he came and at the worst of times, too.

Grief is a strange beast.  Sometimes I don’t mind him very much and we sit with each other awhile. Other times, I mind him very much, especially when he surprises me in public. I’d prefer he just stay at my home. DSC_0150

I always hope he’ll follow the rules I lined out, but he doesn’t which annoys me. He rarely takes up the guest room but stays in odd places like the shelves of a cabinet, between the pages of a beloved book, or in the smells of familiar food. He’s often in my way when I’m trying to get things done.

He has some shockingly bad habits. He’s a nocturnal sort and has the gall to shake me awake in the night and, then, not let me go back to sleep! He stares me in the face upon waking some days which is a horrendous way to meet the day.

Kind friends come over expecting to meet him, and he is out for the moment. Things are like before, and it’s strange. Then, Grief barges in without knocking. We quickly lay a place setting for him. Then, he doesn’t use the proper utensils if he uses them at all!

If you caught a look at him, you’d know why. Grief is a foreigner. His customs are strange. Though I’ve befriended those with this same house guest, I learned little about how to host him myself. I’m not sure anything can acquaint one so well with grief except a house visit, which no one really wants. But, we all seem to get at some point in our lives.

I get the feeling grief means to stay for a long, long time-maybe forever. I don’t know how I feel about that. Some expect grief to behave, stay for a respectable amount of time, and then depart.  But, as I said, he hasn’t yet followed any rules, even the rules of hospitality.

I’m learning an odd comfort in grief’s companionship. It’d be nice if he paid some rent, though, or helped out a little with the chores. I’d prefer a kickback to the pain in the arse he is from time to time.

My close friends expect grief to stay far longer than I hope he does and seem to welcome him with much more grace than I can afford. I’m afraid grief means to put his name on the deed, and I’ll never be rid of him. I get the feeling that once he comes, he never completely leaves. I also see that others who host grief graciously are ones I respect. I long to learn how to host as they do.

There is one Friend who is with me every moment. He is well acquainted with my house guest having hosted grief himself for a long, long time. He is such a comfort and an excellent help with this added load.

I’m beginning to recognize when other people are hosting grief like I am. So many are these days. Sometimes they don’t want others to know, and hide their guest which I think is a shame. He is a tough one to manage, and I can’t imagine trying to do it alone. I guess I understand. Grief is not the most attractive.

Others host a grief that is so painful and soul crushing, I can only shed tears for how violently he invaded their home. I, too, am at a loss to know what to do with such shocking behavior.

I hope I will not run from my guest or scorn him or shut the door on him. He’s not the type that tolerates that well. In fact, I know he chases those down that try to escape him. He always catches up. It’s better, I hear, to just let him in.

My best Friend says there will be a day when grief will leave. When there are no houses with tears, sorrow, and pain. Everything my Friend says seems to come true, and I believe that day will come.

It’s a great comfort to anticipate such a world, a world without grief.  It helps me deal with today and Grief’s demands with a little more energy.

But, just a little.

Blood, The Color of Love

I reached up and opened a card. It looked promising. I read the inscription which dashed all my sentimental hopes. My only hope these days for meaningful inscriptions is a blank note and my own pen.

Valentine’s Day gets a lot wrong. Romance for romance sake. Elaborate, one-time displays of affection honored more than the constancy of daily warmth in the grind of life. Crude and scoffing cards meant to illicit laughter at the expense of respect.

But, it gets one thing right. The color of love is red.DSC_0039

Red is the color of blood, the color of oxygen infusing a liquid that brings life to the body. Red is the color of the dirt from which God created man in His image. God delighted in man. God loves humans. God loves you. God loves me.

Then, God loved enough to take on a body that pumped blood. After that, He loved enough to be tempted in every single temptation. He knows our pain, our sorrow, our sin. He took on all the hurt, pain, wrong, and disgusting perversion of every person on the planet and bled for it.

The color of love seeped through the pores of His skin and offered us release from death. We, the living dead, can be born from above.

Last year and again this year, I read the uproar about movies and porn and abuse, my heart aches and it was and is appropriate to grieve. Grey is what we get when we forget that love requires the unselfish giving of ourselves to another.

Grey is the color of death and death brings mourning…or it should.

But, red. Red is the color of life.

 

Spiral v. Mastery

I read an article on how Shanghai schools teach math differently from western schools. They mentioned that Shanghai teachers taught mastery before moving on to the next concept. I remember this well. My daughter spent her 1st grade year in an Asian school. They spent a couple of months on number bonds. It seemed so basic but they drove it home over and over again. She became a master at number bonds and it laid the foundation for mental math. She still loves math.

Then, I homeschooled for a while and our math curriculum used the spiral method. Teaching a concept, then another, and another, and then coming back around and going a little deeper. Revisiting each concept a little deeper each time. My daughter is now in the spiral method in her current school. She’s not a fan yet. “We’ve already done this!” she tells me often.

My heart resists relearning things I thought I knew, too. It can be a book of the Bible I’ve read quite a few times and know. Or a concept like forgiveness…yeah, I know those verses. I hear it in time with others and in my own journey of spiritual growth. I’ve already been here! Are we really talking about this again? I know this!

Yet, the Spirit speaks again in a small, soft, ever deeper way and I discover there’s another thing or two or a million I need to learn about forgiveness, grace, or obedience. The spiral concept of learning. I see it play out.

I am beginning to realize the freedom it brings. The desire for spiritual mastery is strong. To know a truth inside out and always know it, like your math multiplication facts or the ABC’s feels good. Who doesn’t want mastery? It feels so good to know something.

But, from the stories shared in the accounts of Jesus’ life and ministry, Acts, and Paul’s letters, I see a different method at play. Disciples felt they mastered concepts and then were shown how far they were from mastery. Learning, relearning, re-relearning. The spiral method.

I find freedom as I accept the spiral method over the mastery method in growing in my walk with Jesus. It also brings freedom as I endeavor to shepherd others too. Releasing mastery gives us all a breath of fresh air as we abandon the expectation that we can be done learning at some point because we somehow mastered the Christian life.

Letting go of the disappointment of failed mastery allows me to embrace the wonder that I can always, always learn new things about an old thing from God. My lessons are never over, He always keep coming back to make sure I’m getting it. It can be pretty painful and definitely humbling.

The spiral method. May I not act like a brat when presented with a lesson I thought I mastered!

In what ways do you see the spiral method at work in your relationship with Jesus? 

 

Steward of Suffering

When my father got sick, I wrote about it in real-time. A few of those blog posts were widely shared and read due to the circumstances of his sickness and death.

Did I exploit his situation? I knew he did not think so. He was more than happy for many more to hear about his life in Christ, even while his body was dying. But, the thought lingered.

Recently, I listened to a podcast by Michael Hyatt titled Keys to Writing a Killer Blogpost. I highly recommend it. At one point, Hyatt mentions the concept of stewarding our lives. Stewarding our stories. Stewarding our suffering. It resonated with me.

Hyatt’s podcast fleshed out in words what I hoped for and still hope for through my writing. In some way, I wanted to steward my dad’s suffering. Beyond that, I want to grow in stewarding my own.

So, what is a steward?

A steward is by definition in Merriam-Webster’s: one employed in a large household or estate to manage domestic concerns (as the supervision of servants, collection of rents, and keeping of accounts). Or, one appointed to supervise the provision and distribution of food and drink in an institution.

A steward is a manager. At best, they are fair and look after those affairs given to them in honesty. At worst, they are insubordinate, embezzling and neglecting their responsibilities causing people to suffer so they can gain. I imagine a mediocre steward fails to recognize the importance of their job.

Hmm.

I’ve failed miserably at stewarding other hard things in my life to the hurt of some very dear to me. Lately, I sense that every day I am faced with the invitation to be a steward. Sometimes its my own situation I must steward. At times, it is someone else’s.

When life gives you lemons, squeeze the heck out of them. It feels good and channels the emotion. It’s a lot of work. It stings the eyes. It bites the wounds we already have. The juice is so sour. At some point, sometimes just in heaven, He provides the sugar.

 

What does it take to be a good manager of what God entrusts to me? It starts with turning away from some common lies about our master.

God doesn’t care about my suffering…

Sometimes I feel like I am working at a distance from God. I’m in a cubicle, one of many. I’m an ill prepared employee blaming my boss. He’s not around to know how hard it is and He didn’t send me to that training. I grow resentful.

I see the opposite of a distant and uncaring God in the Bible when Jesus weeps at Lazarus’ death. When the Israelites’ cries came before God in heaven while they were in Egypt. He was merciful to them in the desert, knowing their weakness and giving them time to heal. He saw Haggar. Saul persecuted the early church. Jesus asked him at his conversion, why are you persecuting Me? Not, why are you persecuting them but why are you persecuting Me.

God is not unfeeling. He does care. Because He is omnipresent, He is never absent.

My suffering is mine to bear alone, not burden others with…

No one wants to be needy. Problem is, we are all needy. To not be needy is to be God, completely self-sufficient, which makes Him the best provider for our needs. Our suffering is close to God’s heart and we must bring it there first.

But, we must also bring it to others in the family. Paul writes that when one member suffers, we all suffer with them. We comfort with the comfort we receive from God, and are called to give and receive comfort.

Sadly, not all will suffer with you. I have not always suffered with others. Those failures still grieve me. They also teach me in many painfully good ways what it is to stand alongside others better in their suffering now. I can never take back the salt I poured on wounds, but Jesus paid for that too and He can heal that in my friend’s life as well.

As I learn to share my suffering with God and others, I learn to carry others as well. I expect it to make churches and communities warmer places as we carry suffering, because we all suffer.

I should share my hard times when I’m over them…

Sharing struggles against temptations, failures, and doubts in real-time is challenging. It feels like what’s better is to share how I used to struggle. And, some hard times do need to resolve a little with limited counsel to steward them well before crowds.

What happens when I share my temptations, failures, and sin in real-time is that it often takes the power of secrecy and darkness away. Just like many of my hardest moments mentally seem to be in the dark of literal night, so struggles and failures against sin rage when they fester out of the light of the One readily available and able to fight them.

Bring them into the light with a trusted and mature person well versed in the Word and life, and it is like turning on a light in the middle of the night. Things are clearer, brighter, and usually a bit more hopeful. I thank God for the many women and men, too, who have turned on the light in the dark room of my soul.

On the Job Training

There is no way a blog post could exhaust this topic. I know I haven’t grown fully into my job description as a wise manager. I envision a painting (by an old master of course) of a steward depicting this aspect of my life in Christ more fully. I picture a person sitting at a table with provisions, a line of people in front of them, but also a kind master behind them whispering in the steward’s ear instructions regarding what is to be dispensed.

Listening to the master while facing the people strikes me as a good position to steward well. Maturity in Christ comes through on the job training.

How have you stewarded suffering well? Where do you stumble as a steward?

 

Embracing Another New Year

One minute it was 2016, then it was 2017 sometime in the middle of 10 Things I Hate About You, probably when Heath Ledger sings in the bleachers. Or maybe when Julia Stiles reads her poem to Heath in class. Great moments.

Anyway, 2016 passed to 2017 and I’m still surprised, trying to find my footing in a new year.

Last New Year’s surprised me too. It was the first of many markers that came and went without my dad. Christmas came and went rather uneventfully, but the new year brought more sadness than anticipated. Another year different from the one he died. Another year more of him not here with us. Something about that number change drove reality in deeper.

This year seems to be similar. Christmas came and went and I missed my dad in so many ways. But a new year put another year in between then and now and it just feels like a really, really long time. Too long without his presence in my life and the lives of all who loved him.

It’s a dissonant note in a season of  resolutions, moving on, organizing, cleaning, looking forward, gaining control. It’s weird to feel a stuck in the past. If I could just make a resolution, a plan, or buy a container for the mess, I’d be moving forward and that would feel good.

There are some things in our lives, though, that can’t be contained neatly. Like grief. And, there is so, so much I cannot control. Like my dad not being here with us. So much I must respond to when I wish I could just change it.

It reminds me of the woman in the wonderful book The Help who slip covered everything in her house in a desperate effort to be more than she was in reality, to cover the pain of what she felt was less than. Instead of face herself, she controlled everything and everyone around her to conform to her desired image. It cost her so much.

The dangers of slip-covering the reality of life are real. Even the sadness of something like losing a father.

So, today, with children back in school and the house quiet, I am endeavoring to respond to the life God has graciously given me before moving on. It means counting the joy and also counting the grief, resisting the urge to slipcover things that need stripping, and loving what needs to be embraced in its current state.

The really ugly chair that inspires parts of this post, a craigslist find that must be loved a while longer in its current state.

There are things I want from this year for sure, but to rush into those feels like building on sand. For today, I survey the terrain…and write because that’s how I do this reflection business.

 

 

Frozen Green Tomatoes

A woman thrust the tomato plant into my hands when I displayed a mild level of interest. The pastors set up a garden behind the children’s wing and these were the leftover tomato plants, a bit bedraggled and needing a good home.

I couldn’t promise them the good home, but we have dirt in our backyard. I came home and put them in a large planter on a lark. Growing things is new for me.

We left a few weeks later for a 6 week trip during which a turtle died but our tomato plant flourished. It was a stunning discovery. It was large and hanging over the edge of the planter!

In adjusting back to the U.S. after so long in our former familiar culture, I needed a project to focus my attentions on. I would see this tomato plant through until it produced tomatoes. Picture a woman making a solemn vow.

I bought a cage, plant friendly insecticide, tomato fertilizer. Every day I checked on the plant which continued to grow. I read blogs and did weird things like shake the tomato plant vigorously so it would pollinate itself. Bees are scarce and I began feeling mildly panicked about our loss of the bee population in respect to my tomato plant’s chance of success.

Imagine my joy when I discovered small yellow flowers! Flowers lead to fruit. Tomatoes are a fruit! Tomatoes should soon come.

They did not. The flowers wilted and died without fruit. I got mad at the plant that failed to grow under my helicopter gardening. I stopped watering it and left it to itself in the 90+ degree September heat.

It sprang a tomato. Then another. What a tease! Fine, I thought. You’re doing so well on your own, I’ll let you continue that way. So I did.

The tomatoes kept growing bigger and still green. I began checking on them again, these very expensive tomatoes.

Then it froze this week. 2 nights in a row of a bitter cold. I neglected the tomato plant. It lay out there cold and bare with no blanket to cover it. With Christmas and busyness beyond the norm, the tomato plant got the shaft.

I don’t expect any ripe tomatoes now. Just frozen green tomatoes turning to mush. May it yet surprise me.

About halfway through this tomato story, I began to wonder why I was writing this up? What does a tomato plant have to do with anything? Probably not much but its served as a visual reminder of principles my heart needs to know. A kind of wrap up on a fall of life and ministry.

So, here is what my tomato plant taught me…

  • Only so much is really under my control, and its a very little much.
  • Faithfulness in what is my part of God’s will is not promised to yield
  • Expectation of fruit is highly motivating, yet faithfulness is more steady a motivation
  • When fruit fails to come, its easy to get discouraged, resentful, and unfaithful to my task
  • God often chooses to remind me to trust Him for fruit by bringing it in unexpectedly and unrelated to the proportion of my efforts
  • Fruit purposely left on the vine and untended in harsh conditions is evidence of neglect and unfaithfulness
  • Yet, God can surprise and often uses harsh conditions to temper His children and make them hardier. He doesn’t waste anything.

Who knows, maybe I will get more than I deserve, more than frozen green tomatoes. It is supposed to reach back up near 70 this week.

But even if I don’t, my tomato plant experience revealed quite a bit about my spiritual life. I plan on trying again.

Gardening seems to be a God-given method to teach me His ways.

Being a Friend to the Mourning

Most people don’t know what to say to the grieving. Most grieving don’t know how to talk about their grief. Mourning that comes out of time, during college-the days supposed to be the best of your life, can lead to profound loneliness.

And, I’m not just talking about the death of a family member or friend, maybe its the family relationship that was unspeakable, or the experience that stole what can never be physically restored, or a home lost due to an international move.

Not many know how to mourn among the old, so where does that leave the college student? Usually speechless. And angry. And searching for something to dull the pain. Surrounded by friends who do care, but may not have logged enough life to know quite how to come alongside their friend. It can be hard to know how to be a friend when you’re needed most. DSC_0062

I’m no grief expert, but I can share what I’ve learned along the road from a college student with few recognized losses in life to now, mid way through life having logged a few. I’ve experienced losses related to life lived overseas. A year and a half ago, my dad passed away of a brain tumor.

Entering back into U.S. college ministry, my heart weighs heavy for the many, many students I meet who are grieving and struggling to find a way through the grief.

Here’s a few things to keep in mind when walking alongside a friend through loss…

  • Begin understanding your own losses. Maybe you haven’t lost someone to death, but have you lost a friend or family member to a severed relationship? to a different direction in life? to addiction? Those are losses to grieve and mourning brings compassion for other losses.
  • Log time with your friend. Call them. Text them. Even when you don’t know what to say. Just say “I don’t know what to say”. It’s honest and it may be enough for the moment. Keep calling and texting even when it seems they don’t want to be your friend because they don’t call back. They’re grieving and it can be hard to take simple steps to maintain friendships during grief. Don’t take it personally and keep offering your friendship.
  • Allow space for a range of emotions. Grieving isn’t just crying. It can be laughing over a memory or just doing something normal to remind yourself that life isn’t all about your loss. It’s not all sad. It feels like a roller coaster sometimes. Being a friend who is there means you are along for the ride, with all its ups and downs.
  • Avoid explanations. Most of the time, we really don’t know what God’s purposes are in the timing of loss. When a friend of mine died right after graduation, a nurse rattled off a long list of false statements as we sat stunned out of words from the shocking news. The dead do not become angels. God probably did not take them because they were the prettiest. He does not need more angels in heaven because God does not need. As we sat bereaved in the hospital, my anger grew to overflowing. The best thing she could have given was silence. Statements and explanations make the speaker feel better, they have something to say. If you don’t know what to say, say that, and sit. You may feel inept and weak but that is ok. It’s a demonstration of selfless love. Presence is a profoundly comforting comfort.
  • Educate yourself. Watch movies like P.S. I Love You, Steel Magnolias, Stepmom, or Band of Brothers. Read memoirs written by the grieving. Do a word study in your Bible on mourning. Read slowly and repeatedly through Jesus’ interaction with Mary and Martha when Lazarus died but before he was raised. Listen to Mary and Martha’s responses as though you were there. Notice Jesus’ responses.
  • Pray for your friend and yourself. Most of the time when I pray for my grieving friends now, I pray that they will experience comfort from the Lord.
  • Get help when its needed. If your friend is coping with grief in self-destructive ways, don’t just stand by. If they’re binge drinking, coping oddly well but not willing to talk much with anyone, displaying poor hygiene that is beyond normal, taking drugs, hooking up with others to avoid pain, missing an abnormal number of classes, or unable to sleep well consistently, they need more help walking through their grief. Approach them about talking with a counselor and help them set up and keep the appointment.

Sometimes I’ve felt there should be a class where I can learn how to be compassionate. Alas, I believe God grows a heart of compassion in us as we experience pain and come close to those in pain.