A Short Note on Grieving and Celebrating on Mother’s Day

Mother’s Day is a bittersweet day for the Almons. We choose to be open and honest about this; despite the realization that sometimes, for some reason, this fact seems to make some others uncomfortable.

Yes, we acknowledge there’s cause for joy and celebration on this day for moms and motherhood. Yes, indeed celebrate!

But we also acknowledge that some women have been made to feel unloved, or less important, or forgotten, or less of a woman on this day because they are not married or do not have children (whether by choice or chance) on this day.

And we also acknowledge there’s cause for lament, mourning, and grieving on this day. The suffering and pain of miscarriage, infant loss (and yes, even abortion though most churches seem to want to steer as far clear of this as they can), infertility, failed adoption, and losing an older or adult child through estrangement or death, and other sufferings that fail to come to my mind at this time (feel free to acknowledge these in the comments below) can be especially acute on this day. Remember to mourn as well.

So, today I celebrate my wife Christie (C.C.), the mother of my children, for her love and unwavering, tenacious devotion. Today we celebrate our daughter, Damaris, for the gift that she is, and for the Jesus shaped young woman she is becoming. Today we celebrate our mothers, ‘Nana’ Jimmie (my mom) and ‘Bma’ Becky (Christie’s mom), for their love and care in raising us and being devoted grandmothers.

Yes, indeed we celebrate!

But we also grieve our babies who are not with us due to miscarriage – our little Jordan Taylor, Micah Jayden, and Noah Avery – who we never got a chance to know, but deeply love all the same. We hold on to (and celebrate) the hope of the resurrection and the new heavens and new earth when we will be able to hold them in our arms, and not only our hearts. We grieve our failed adoptions, which feel like another kind of miscarriage, particularly Kerioth Cherie who we knew for far too short a time.

There is not a day, on this side of the ‘already but not yet’ Kingdom of God, in which we cannot feel their absence. So, yes, we mourn deeply as well.

And for those churches, that have realized that Mother’s Day is not always ‘happy’ and seek in some way to acknowledge the difference of experience and pain involved for some – we sincerely thank you. But also remember that, unless the church in its everyday life and liturgy has endeavored to lament, mourn, and grieve with those lamenting, mourning, and grieving the other 364 days of the year, such acknowledgements will likely seem hollow and fall on deaf ears. Just like celebrating must extend beyond a ‘special day’, so must the practice of grieving in community with others if it is to be genuine.

Celebrating with those celebrating, and mourning with those mourning are not mutually exclusive. They mix together and are coterminous with each other. We need to learn to do both well at the same time.

To all those celebrating and grieving on this day, have a blessed Mother’s Day.

A litany for Mother’s Day…

In peace let us pray to the Lord.
Lord have mercy

For all the women of God’s church across the face of the earth, who have loved and nurtured others into the faith.
Lord have mercy

For those who are single mothers and struggle to provide for their family.
Lord have mercy

For the poor and widowed whose child has been taken from them because they couldn’t care for them.
Lord have mercy

For those held captive by abuse who fear for their children and their life.
Lord have mercy

For those who are estranged from their chlidren.
Lord have mercy

For those have suffered the loss of a child either through miscarriage, abortion or the premature death of a child.
Lord have mercy

For those who have lost their own mothers and feel the dull ache of their loss.
Lord have mercy

For those who have never, and may never, have the opportunity to have a child.
Lord have mercy

For strength in joy and hope for all women and confidence in God’s care for them.
Lord have mercy

For . . .(names of women you feel led to pray for)
Lord have mercy

For all those who call on you from their hearts.
Lord have mercy, Lord have mercy, Lord have mercy

 

Lament, Liturgy, and Living ‘In Between’ (pt 1): Reflections for the Eighth Week of Pentecost

The Gospel text for the eight week of Pentecost: Mark 6:30-34, 53-56 (CEB)

30 The apostles returned to Jesus and told him everything they had done and taught.31 Many people were coming and going, so there was no time to eat. He said to the apostles, “Come by yourselves to a secluded place and rest for a while.” 32 They departed in a boat by themselves for a deserted place.

33 Many people saw them leaving and recognized them, so they ran ahead from all the cities and arrived before them. 34 When Jesus arrived and saw a large crowd, he had compassion on them because they were like sheep without a shepherd. Then he began to teach them many things.

53 When Jesus and his disciples had crossed the lake, they landed at Gennesaret, anchored the boat, 54 and came ashore. People immediately recognized Jesus 55 and ran around that whole region bringing sick people on their mats to wherever they heard he was. 56 Wherever he went—villages, cities, or farming communities—they would place the sick in the marketplaces and beg him to allow them to touch even the hem of his clothing. Everyone who touched him was healed.

I had some great reflections for today on the Gospel lectionary reading. As is my practice I started the previous Sunday afternoon and began to soak my meditations in the readings for the week. It came as no surprise that the bolded portion of the text above is the phrase that jumped out at me in my lectio divina readings, and is the phrase that I began to shape my thoughts around for this post. Sabbath … rest … shalom … and my own personal Sabbath rhythms that I follow filled my mind and heart as I meditated all week. It all fit like a glove with the sermon, the most memorable line from Jerry (our pastor) being, “If you feel ministry is like pushing a train uphill, get off the tracks!” Great advice and all this would have been a great post. I was looking forward to it … really I was. But these reflections will have to wait for some other time.

Unless you live under a rock or are a hermit you will have heard by now about the shooting in Aurora, Colorado during a midnight showing of the most recent Batman movie. A terrible, unspeakable, tragic evil has, once again, occurred. If you’re like me you’re thinking this sort of thing is getting far to frequent – what’s going on here? In the aftermath my Twitter and Facebook feeds were abuzz with all sorts of Christian responses and calls for prayer. Some of these responses were typically cliché like ‘God has a greater plan in mind’. One that I still can’t believe I read said, ‘God took these people so that He could reach more people later.’ I have also heard some say that it’s a sin to question God – ever, even now.

I realize that the first one is meant to be comforting, but as my wife and I have walked through the grief and despair of the death of three of our babies and heard this numerous times … all I can say is its not! Its rather unhelpful speculation that honestly makes God out to be rather capricious. The second quote just renders divine providence down to a cold, calculating mathematics game. Let me say this clearly: in the wake of manifestations of evil and suffering like we have seen recently, if this is all you have to say, or if you are going to tell people it’s a sin to question God … please for the sake of our liberating King (even if you mean well) at most offer your presence but don’t say anything. I’ve been through this on both sides (the comforting one as a chaplain and the one comforted) and I have never seen these responses help. So stop, please.

But there were still other responses filling up Twitter and Facebook as well. Some prayed that God would use this to cause people realize their need for Jesus and that Jesus would reveal himself in this tragedy. Many others offered prayers that the victims and their families would be able to find and rejoice in the comfort of the Lord. Many posted verses like Romans 8:28 to say that not even tragedies like this shooting can separate them from God’s love. But as one well schooled in the grief of the tangible absence of three of my own children daily it felt like something was missing.

I wondered … where are the calls for lament, the cries of a cruciform people on behalf of a world that needs to be put right?

Lament is something our culture in general and the church in North America in particular is not good at. Lament is no longer native to the language of most Westernized, modern Christianity … and we are all the poorer for it. Sure it may be something some study about, but its not something most actually do; and its sure not the first thing most think about, even in response to manifestations of evil and suffering like we saw in Aurora this past weekend.

I think if we’re honest it would have to be admitted that when confronted directly with anguish, suffering, grief, and despair most are uncomfortable and driven to relieve this discomfort with some sort of explanation. Well intentioned as they may be, they seek to ‘say’ something, perhaps even something good, but in the end skip over the experience of anguish, suffering, and grief altogether. Ultimately, what is meant to comfort actually hurts.

Its kind of like trying to serve someone by bringing them a hot cup of coffee and then spilling the coffee on them.

I’m not saying praying for people to rejoice in the Lord or to find joy in the Lord is wrong … it’s a good prayer – it’s just not timely, it’s not the fitting response up front. In the immediate aftermath of such tragedy it can even come across as insensitive. When evil and suffering enter into our experience, we MUST acknowledge it first before we can authentically rejoice in the Lord or any other way. Lament gives us a way of making this acknowledgement.

Our normal responses, born out of our own discomfort, are generally ways of avoiding ‘going there’ – of acknowledging the experience of suffering and anguish. The act of lamenting is hard. Lament requires that we actually inhabit our own discomfort rather than run from it and requires that we enter into the experience of the suffering of the ‘other’ rather than avoid it. But this is what the Jesus story and mission of God require of us.

We must cry out in lament because there exists the ‘not yet’ of the kingdom of God, there exists those places where the kingdom is not manifest. We must cry out in lament because the mission of Father, Son, and Spirit moves us into the suffering of the ‘other’ – into incarnation. We must cry out in lament because even our liberating King Jesus cried out ‘Abba, Father’ and ‘My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?’ Daniel Kirk says,

We must remember that Jesus’ cry, “Abba, Father,” is a cry of lament, because here our words are said to echo his.

It is the Spirit of God by which we cry out, “Abba, Father,” showing that we are God’s children and heirs–”if, indeed, we suffer with him in order that we might also be glorified with him.”

This is a cry of suffering and lament.

It is a cry that wells up simply because of how the world is–a place where God’s power has been usurped. And usurped repeatedly.

We cry out, not only for our own suffering, but for suffering with Christ which is a suffering whose deliverance yields the age to come.

The whole creation awaits the revealing of these sons–no longer suffering, but glorified and redeemed.

The creation awaits the answer of God to the laments of God’s people.

God answered Jesus.

He raised him from the dead.

This newness of life spills over, such that it is ours. Now. Already. Even as we live into it by the way of the cross, and by taking up our own cry, “Abba, Father,” on behalf of the many, even as Jesus himself cried out on behalf of the many.

For those of us who claim to be incarnational, missional Christians and participants in the cruciform story of Jesus, lament is not optional.

Inclusion in the triune, divine life of Father, Son, and Spirit means participation in the mission of Father, Son, and Spirit. Union with Christ means participation in the cruciform sufferings of Christ. When we forsake lament we fail to take up the sufferings of our Lord and we lose the language … the liturgy of a cruciform, New Creation people who live ‘in between’.

Kirk continues,

As long as the world is not as it should be.

As long as children are trafficked for sex.

As long as women are enslaved for their bodies.

As long as stomachs rumble with no bread to quiet them.

As long as tongues swell with no water to shrink them.

As long as money defines justice with no one to declare it bankrupt.

As long as bankruptcy overtakes people entrapped in cycles of injustice.

As long as our lives are taken from us by cancer and bullets and cars.

As long as there is a world that needs to be set to rights, there must be a people standing up for that world in the presence of God. There must be a people living out the world’s suffering in the presence of a father with the power to deliver.

There must be a people who cry out, “Abba, Father,” even to the point of death, even death on a cross.

This people of lamentation is none other than the people of the kingdom inaugurated by Jesus himself.

As people of the kingdom, we cut ourselves off from the mission of the triune God and the cruciform story of Jesus, both personally and communally/ecclesially, when we fail to lament as the people of the liberating King.

Prayer for the Week:

Almighty God, the fountain of all wisdom, you know our necessities before we ask and our ignorance in asking: Have compassion on our weakness, and mercifully give us those things which for our unworthiness we dare not, and for our blindness we cannot ask; through the worthiness of your Son Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen.

A Prayer of Lament in the aftermath of Evil/Tragedy:

O Holy One, I can no longer see.
Blinded by tears
that will not cease,
I can only cry out to you
and listen
for your footsteps.

Are you, too, O God,
blinded by tears?
Have you watched this world
pile its hate
onto the faces
of your little ones
until your eyes are so filled with tears
that you cannot see me
waiting for you?
Are you, O God,
deafened by the expletives
of destruction and death?
Have you heard
so many obscenities
that you cannot hear
my moaning?
O God, if you are blind,
can’t you hold out
your hand to me?
If you’re deaf,
can’t you call my name?

How long, O God,
am I to sit
on the plain of blindness?

How long am I to listen
to the profanity
of my enemies
who mock:
“Where is your God now?”

Show them, O my God,
that you remember.
Reach out your hand
and dry my eyes
that I might see
a new beginning.
Open your mouth
and call me by name
that I might know
you remember me.
Claim me that I might
announce in the marketplace
that my God is here.

O my heart,
give thanks!
My God is here even
in the midst of destruction.

A Tribute to My (Courageous) Wife on Mother’s Day (2012)

A Note on Skipping Church on Mother’s Day

To start things off, a confession: As the heading confirms, yes, we are skipping church on Mother’s Day.

I will just be bluntly honest, Mother’s Day is difficult. From talking with others about their experience I know that we aren’t the only ones who experience Mother’s Day (and other special days) this way. It has been from the beginning … from the very first Mother’s Day after our first miscarriage when we lost Jordan Taylor in September 1998. I remember Christie asking if we really had to go to church that first Mother’s Day after losing Jordan. Since then we have lost two more babies (Micah Jayden in January 2001 and Noah Avery in January 2004) and had some failed adoptions (the by far most devastating being our little Kerioth Cherie who left our home in March 2003 – the details of this particular story are still almost impossible for me/us to talk about with others).

So, yes, Mother’s Day is hard … terribly hard, especially for Christie … and there is nothing wrong it being hard. I feel like I shouldn’t have to say this, but not everyone seems to understand. Many well meaning folks express concern that we haven’t grieved in a healthy manner and ‘gotten over’ the loss of our babies. They bring up the so called ‘stages of grief’ as evidence of our need to ‘move on’. But while the stages of grief look good in a textbook they rarely mesh well with the actual human experience of loss and suffering. Still others are concerned that somehow Christie and I have a ‘codependent’ relationship. Besides questioning popular understandings of codependency … I would prefer the more biblical/theological ‘one flesh’ description of our marriage. A ‘one fleshness’ cultivated and fostered as much through the intimacy of shared suffering and grief as all the other forms of intimacy we share. Others are concerned that Damaris, who we refer to as our miracle child, will get the impression that she is somehow less important than Jordan, Micah, Noah, or Kerioth … or that somehow she will feel less loved simply because Mother’s Day is difficult. The simple fact here is that honoring the grief we feel and being honest about our lament in no way mitigates against our love for Damaris. One does not cancel out the other.

Now, I will admit to feeling a great deal of frustration about this and I try to balance it with the understanding that most folks are trying to express their concern for us as individuals, as a couple, and as a family. But on the flip side it genuinely feels like a good many, perhaps uncomfortable with our experience or perhaps trying to find something to ‘say’, try to play amateur psychologist, analyzing our grieving patterns instead of seeking to enter into our experience and journey with us. I recognize that it will be difficult for many to ‘get’ what we are doing here. A friend even told me once that it seemed un-American to skip church on Mother’s Day. As a way to foster further understanding, at least to a degree, what I would like to do is to invite the reader into our story and into our experience (and in particular the experience of Christie).

So what’s this all about? Consider for a moment three different calendars that can mark our time. The first one is the consumer calendar operative in American retail (secular or Christian) complete with its own holy days. Some of these holy days have been co-opted (ie, Christmas) and others are often popularly called ‘Hallmark Holidays.’ Mother’s Day is probably the most popular of Hallmark Holidays. I am not suggesting people shouldn’t honor their moms, wives, etc on Mother’s Day (note: Damaris and I were sure to get Christie a gift) but I do think its important to realize the place of Mother’s Day in the calendar and liturgy of American consumerism. This is the story in which it is embedded. The second is the liturgical Christian calendar which also has its holy days and seasons (Advent, Christmas, and so forth). By observing the seasons one is able to live into the story of Christ. The third calendar for us is one formed from the anniversary dates for losing our babies, along with their would be due dates, and along with the dates when Kerioth came to our home and then left. These dates embed themselves into our story forming a rhythm of grief and a constituting a liturgy of lament. What I want people to know here is that what we need is not to somehow ‘get over’ our grief but to contextualize our grief and experience in a bigger story – not the ill suited aforementioned consumer story – but the story of Christ. So, in our experience the liturgical Christian calendar and the rhythm of grief and lament go together.

The decision to ‘skip church’ on Mother’s Day is about more than it being difficult to be in a place where one’s grief or loss is forgotten, barely mentioned, or tagged on as an afterthought. For many who have lost children this is what Mother’s Day is like and what it will be like this morning in a great many churches. And today is not about hiding from the world, from church, or anything else for that matter. This may be surprising to some but ‘skipping church’ like this is a way for us it is way to both celebrate and lament. We do celebrate (we really do!) the gift and miracle that Damaris is to us. We lament that we are without our babies and that Damaris is without her brothers and sisters. We celebrate that the resurrection is true … and that because of this we will see our babies one day (true resurrection hope – this is why the consumer story won’t do, why we need the story of Jesus!). The anniversary dates come with their expected regularity and the world doesn’t stop nor does life cease moving because of them. It became clear then to us that we needed a day set apart for us to stop, to remember the loss, to share in lament, to celebrate our hope, and to honor the grief, to do the hard thing of celebrating and mourning at the same time. … as a family. Mother’s Day has become that day for us. We ask for your prayers on this day, and after this day we ask for the greatest gift we can think of – that those reading would continue to simply enter into our experience and journey with us.

She’s the Courageous One!

The picture here is the Mother’s Day gift Damaris and I got for Christie. (She has a running joke anytime a gift getting occasion come around about what Willow Tree figurine I am going to get her this time. Yes, I may suffer from a lack of creativity and I know Willow Trees are easier. In my defense, they are easier because she likes them and she doesn’t complain.) When I saw this one I knew that I had to get it for her. Its called ‘Courage.’ Since Christie is easily the most courageous person I know, I felt we couldn’t pass it up.

A quick story: Having recently seen the movie Courageous, a coworker of mine was praising me recently about how ‘courageous’ I am in taking care of Christie. Her take away from the movie it seems was that (in her words), “Men are naturally braver than women and are supposed to be courageous FOR their wives. Its not the wife’s job to be courageous, that’s the man’s job. That’s a part of his leadership and I see that you do that for your wife.” Needless to say, Christie and I intentionally practice mutual submission in our marriage so I have some qualms about what my co-worker said to me (as well as the movie itself). But rather than go into all that with my co-worker, I simply said this,

“Throughout our shared journey of grief and suffering, Christie has consistently amazed me. I can say without exaggeration that my wife is the most faith filled person I know. I learn more from her about what it means to follow our liberating King Jesus in the cross shaped way of suffering than from any other person or book. Thank you but I’m not the really courageous one. She is. She’s most courageous person I know.”

When we lost Jordan and she looked around for grief support surrounding miscarriage and found little to nothing, she courageously started her own online miscarriage support group ministry. From her experience of loss and grief she reached out to minister to others. That’s courage!

When she felt called to take her place as a woman in ministry and as a chaplain and when she and I were being ordained together by our church she handled opposition and disagreement from others in what can be a veritable minefield with poise and grace (I was honestly not so poised or graceful). Again, courage!

Many will know that in addition to grief and loss surrounding our babies she also has Fibromyalgia. Unlike you and I, there is not a day that she is pain free and some days it is completely debilitating (especially since we are without health insurance currently). Her experience here with grief, loss, and chronic illness has put her deeply in touch with her own frailty, fragility, and finitude – that is, with her own humanness. (This perhaps explains why she was/is such a good chaplain. It seems to me we need more pastors/ministers in touch with themselves in this way.) This takes courage!

Despite her own pain and suffering she can often be found rushing headlong into her concern for the other. I was amazed in her first year of CPE/chaplaincy at some of the cases that she recounted to me, especially the tragic ones involving children. Her dependence on God amazes me. This is courageous!

And the reality is that our experience can be kind of ‘heavy’ (this is what another chaplain I worked with told me one day). I have come to see how the invitation into our experience might be intimidating to others. My chaplain friend is right, our story is kind of heavy. We can’t help it, we can’t change our story. The reality of this causes me to sometimes hold back. I’m afraid of the reaction if I invite another into my story. Christie though, while not perfect, seems to do this more naturally than me. She takes the risk of inviting others into her experience and demonstrates an openness to the other that inspires me. I think this is why she is so good a spiritual care. Courageousness in action!

She demonstrates her courage through her engagement of the medical system (and now the disability process). Its an act of courage to even step into the ‘system’ and the inherent way that it acts to depersonalize and even dehumanize. And just recently she listened as a doctor at a local clinic told her that her Fibromyalgia was simply in her head and that the best prescription was a positive mental outlook. Despite her tears from, again, another doctor that seemed to skip the class on bedside manner and listening she stayed engaged and did not back down. This takes heavy doses of courage!

And she is always trying to move outward toward others as best she can to find places of community and incarnational space wherever she can. Since we moved back to Abilene she has found a place at a local yarn store (which of course involves knitting). She is an extension of Crosspoint and the story of Christ in this place – incarnation. But she also knows that the more of this she does the more ‘consequences’ there will be later when her body needs to recover. You might say that currently for everything she does there is an equal and opposite negative reaction in which she has to recuperate. This means she (and we as a family) must budget time and energy. Yet she presses on. I have rarely seen anyone as tenacious for community as my wife. Not only does this take vulnerability but courage as well.

Finally, she’s willing to admit she is afraid sometimes and that she needs the strength of another – particularly the strength of our suffering, liberating King Jesus. Oh that more of us were really courageous enough to genuinely do this and not pretend (I’ve been a hospital chaplain too so I know pretending when I see it). It’s perhaps a strange paradox that its takes a great deal of courage to admit that one needs help and that one feels afraid. But its this vulnerability and courage to come face to face with her own frailty, fragileness, and finitude that makes my wife one of the most genuinely human people I know. In my opinion we need more people in this world with this kind of courage.

So, as we take our day as a family to remember, to grieve, to celebrate – I simply want everyone to know that my wife is the most courageous person I know. And through her courageous faithfulness she teaches me more and more every day about what it means to be a follower of Jesus.

[Edit: Be sure to read Damaris’ tribute to her momma here.]

May you all have a blessed Mother’s Day.