Lament

The grief of losing a child is all too familiar for Christie and I, having lost three babies to miscarriage. Upon hearing news of friends who have lost children as recently as yesterday, my heart is shattered once again. There are no words. The triune God revealed to us in the person of Jesus and by the Spirit has given us a particular (though neglected) language, grammar, and practice of the Kingdom for these times … lament.

We lament the death of a beloved (a spouse, child, family, friend, etc):

Lamb of God
You take away the sins of the world
Have mercy on us.
Grant us peace.

For the unbearable toil of our sinful world,
We plead for remission.
For the terror of absence from our beloved,
We plead for your comfort.
For the scandalous presence of death in your Creation,
We plead for the resurrection.

Lamb of God
You take away the sins of the world
Have mercy on us.
Grant us peace.

We lament in the aftermath of evil and 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.

We lament in song:

We’ve seen mothers bury sons | And were begging You to come

The broken fill our towns | And the hopeless shout aloud

We cannot wait | We cannot wait | Oh, we cannot wait

When the poor are thrown aside | The sick are left to die

We need Your grace, oh God | Your grace, oh God | We need Your grace

We cannot wait, oh God

Your grace, oh God | We need Your grace

You are here | Your Kingdom come

Rescue us from all we’ve done | Help us move and be the love

Save us now from all we’ve done | We’ve seen mothers bury sons

And we are begging You to come | We are begging You to come

God, come

We pray the Prayer/Cry of the Kingdom (Matthew 6: 9-13 CEB):

Our Father who is in heaven,

uphold the holiness of your name.

Bring in your kingdom

so that your will is done on earth as it’s done in heaven.

Give us the bread we need for today.

Forgive us for the ways we have wronged you,

just as we also forgive those who have wronged us.

And don’t lead us into temptation,

but rescue us from the evil one.

O Holy and Compassionate Father, we cry out to you in the name of your Son, our liberating King Jesus, who lives and reigns with You and the Holy Spirit, forever and ever. Hear our prayers … heed our laments … heal our hearts! Amen.

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.

‘Becoming Human: Fear, Shame, and Vulnerability’ or ‘Thoughts on Having a Sucky Lent’

I couldn’t decide what to name this post, so I cheated. I’ll get to the first part in a bit … but before we go there I need to talk about the fact that Lent sucks.

Yes, you read that correctly. Two words – Lent sucks! Or it could be that I suck at Lent and am simply a free church poser (or is it ‘poseur’) when it comes to the liturgical calendar and this is the reason why my Lent sucks.

Whatever the reason, the fact remains, Lent has not gone well for me – its sucked! I know that saying something ‘sucks’ doesn’t sound too ‘spiritual’ but that’s probably a good thing. Lent is about ashes, and finitude, and death, and repentance, and being all too human – all stuff that can not seem very ‘spiritual’ by some (not very well thought out) standards. Sometimes the human part of life sucks. Hmmmm, well, put it like that and ‘sucks’ seems to fit nicely with Lent.

What has made my Lent suck? I’m reading Eugene Peterson’s Christ Plays in Ten Thousand Places. Peterson’s book does not suck, but my reading has not gone well. I’m not as far along as I had hoped. I was also going to do a series of ‘Readings in Spiritual Theology’ as I read through the book. This has not happened either.

Jumbled … fragmented … distracted … scattered … blocked … blocked … blocked

This is how I feel when I go to write. Even now I have to force myself. I know what it is like to have the words flow … it’s a great feeling. I do not have that feeling right now. It wasn’t supposed to be like this. Our exile journey in the New Mexico wilderness is over. We are where God wants us, where God has ‘placed’ us, we stepped out on faith and here we are. I had planned for Lent to be a time of rest and regaining my bearings, the orientation part of Ricoeur’s ‘orientation by disorientation.’ But this is what I get, more disorientation.

I couldn’t figure it out. What is blocking me, what is it that is keeping me disoriented. Well, a huge part of it is that one can’t really plan when the disorientation part of over. In fact, the disorientation and orientation is part of an ongoing process, which is just to say that we can’t experience one without the other. So disorientation at some degree will always be with us. But what else…

Well, I actually knew what it was but was literally afraid to admit it. The feeling keeping me blocked and disoriented, jumbled and scattered, feeds back in itself so readily its hard to break out of the cycle it creates. Fear…

I say it again, FEAR!

Fear – I genuinely appreciate God’s provision by providing me a job in Christian retail. It provides a paycheck where previously there would be none. It helps give some rhythm to my week. At one time I may have even considered a career in Christian retail. That ‘me’ no longer exists. Christian retail hasn’t really changed but I have. How long will I have to do this type of work?

Fear – will others judge me for ‘complaining’? How many will construe my questioning as a lack of appreciation.

Fear – will my boss see this?

Fear – will others assume that because I admit to feeling fear that I lack faith somehow?

Fear – will others miss the fact that I demonstrate my faith every day as a husband devoted to his wife, a caring father to his daughter, and as a hard working employee?

Fear – what’s around that next curve anyways?

Fear – will others hold my epic failures as a liability against me?

Fear – am I up to task of being a husband, dad, employee, friend, theologian, pastor, etc, etc, etc?

Fear – am I … inadequate? (My answer to this one may indeed surprise people.)

I know this is a lot of fear I’ve just spilled out, and it wasn’t easy. But why do this? Respectable people don’t do this do they? Well, I’m not sure about what respectable people do or don’t do but I’m pretty sure that keeping our fears bottled up inside of us is just about the least human thing we can do. I’m also pretty sure that admitting we are afraid is not the negation of faith (just like doubt is not the negation of faith), that faith is going on one step at a time even when we are afraid, that admitting we are afraid is itself an act of faith.

Let’s be honest, we live in a marketplace that has come to define us and our lives. We work jobs in this marketplace, we look for jobs in this marketplace, we entertain ourselves in this marketplace, church has been subsumed into this marketplace, and we keep each other at a distance in this marketplace. It seems that the marketplace (or the church for that matter) doesn’t like weakness … no vulnerability here please. But I’m pretty sure that any context that sucks away our ability to be vulnerable simultaneously has a way of sucking away at our very humanity (even the church).

The practice of vulnerability though has the resources to break the feedback loop fear creates. In the midst of my Lenten journey I came across a TED video by Brené Brown with some great thoughts on the power of vulnerability. Have a look at the talk and then I’ve got some theological observations (promise you’ll actually watch the video and not cheat by skipping ahead, ok). [Note: for reasons I don’t understand the video(s) may not show up if the post is viewed in a reader. Click through to blog and you can view them there.]

While Brown has a ‘secular’ psychology and social work background, I believe her words have the potential to help us be better practicing theologians. The act of being vulnerable is perhaps the most genuinely human thing we can do. Jesus, our Lord, embraced weakness and made himself vulnerable (in the ultimate sense of the word) in the incarnation. Not only divine, our Liberating King is the Truly Human One! If this is the case, when we are forced to forsake vulnerability to keep a job, to find a job, to keep ourselves amused … do we in fact dehumanize ourselves? Or the Trinity … three in one … Father, Son, and Spirit in perichoretic, interpenetrating love and communion. Trinity – ultimate vulnerability at the very center of the universe itself. Humans created ‘male and female’ together made in the relational image of vulnerability … imago deiimago trinitas. Could it be that by forsaking vulnerability we forsake the very divine image in which we are created as ‘male and female?’ Yes, our lack of vulnerability, often the result of much needed protection at a particular moment, in the long run dehumanizes us.

The upshot of all this I’m trying to get to is that by its focus on ashes, death, repentance, and finitude Lent reintroduces us to our humanity … Lent schools us in vulnerability (this could be why as of yet Lent has successfully resisted commercialization – you won’t find a Lent aisle at Wal-Mart – but without Lent it becomes easy to see why the marketplace doesn’t get Easter either). But as it turns out, I am writing myself into a corner. The reason is because I believe theology matters, Peterson’s definition of spiritual theology as having to do with lived experience and lived theology underscores this. According to what I have written so far, vulnerability is a theological imperative! This means I can’t be like Ananias and Sapphira in Acts and only give part and act as if I’ve given the whole. Again, Brené Brown comes along at the right time in the video below (again, promise that you’ll watch before reading further).

Shame is even heavier than fear. Shame makes fear look easy! Want to clear a room or get some time alone … mention shame. Yet Brown is right on this one, we must deal with and listen to our shame. Again, theologically, we chip away at our own humanity by ignoring shame or hiding shame. Well, here goes…

I don’t carry shame for most things. Grief … fear … regret even, these feelings even jumble themselves together, but I do not feel a lot of shame. But I do feel shame in regards to one thing in particular – I feel shame that I’m seemingly powerless to find a way for Christie, with whom I am one flesh, to have access to medical care to help manage her fibromyalgia. For me the question deep inside is, “why can’t I get a job that carries health insurance so my wife can see a doctor – what is wrong with me?” I feel that I fail her every day that I can’t find a way for her to see a doctor or get medicine that might help.

On the flip side of the shame is still fear.

Fear – that other won’t see what a great chaplain my wife is (at least three or four times the chaplain I am).

Fear – that others will merely think she is complaining when she talks about her constant invisible companion, fibromyalgia.

Fear – that others will think her disability and suffering is a disqualification for pastoral type ministry when in fact it may be her greatest qualification. There’s nothing like suffering to get one in touch with their humanness and finitude. We need more pastors in touch with these things I think.

Fear – that others won’t see how courageous she is. Our journey has consisted of losing babies, failed adoptions, chronic illness, and fibro … yet she is the most persevering, tough, loving, faith filled person I know.

Fear – that others will keep their distance because all this is too intense or they feel they can’t understand or they don’t know what to say. Please don’t do that … come near. It could very well be awkward, but vulnerability and intimacy take practice. We can’t be incarnational if we aren’t first present with each other.

Fear – that when she reads of the shame that I feel that she will think of herself as a burden. I look at her and I don’t see a burden. That thought doesn’t even register with me. I simply see the woman I married, who is more beautiful with each day.

I feel these things because she’s my wife, she’s a part of me and I am a part of her. The pain of fibromyalgia is not in MY body (though I would take all her suffering into my own body if I could), but I suffer the suffering of my wife (and she suffers my suffering in return). Vulnerability opens me (us) to suffering and struggle, this is true. Because of this she hurts and I hurt, not in the same way, but I hurt nevertheless – this is bound up in the one flesh part of marriage.

I choose this journey with her. Vulnerability opens me (us) to joy, this is also true. Alongside all the other emotions mentioned here is a deep joy that I get to walk this road with her! In weakness, fragility, suffering, and finitude – that is, in our humanness we journey together and there is great joy in this. Paul Ricoeur says,

For from the suffering other there comes a giving that is no longer drawn from the power of acting and existing but precisely from weakness itself. This is perhaps the supreme test of solicitude, when unequal power finds compensation in an authentic reciprocity in exchange, which in the hour of agony, finds refuge in the shared whisper of a voice or the feeble embrace of clasped hands. (Oneself as Another, 191)

This describes I think not simply her story or simply my story but our story together (and even the story of those that choose to walk with us – maybe even your story as you read this). There is risk in vulnerability of this nature – of being judged, of being misunderstood, of not getting the job, of suffering, and of suffering the suffering of others. But its worth it! The joint narratives we form are the wonderfully intimate creation that grows out of making oneself vulnerable to another person.

So, there it is … I just dropped the ‘S’ bomb – shame. The thought pops in my head, I’ve got applications out still … I can’t tell you what it would mean to secure a position at HSU, my alma mater. Yes, the health insurance is a big part of it (huge even, read above) but its also a matter of calling, and place, and service, and coming home, and not just working a job but the pursuit of a vocation (note – I said vocation, not vacation … though a vacation would be nice), and being where I believe I am meant to be. Will talk of my failures brand me as a liability? Will this much honesty hurt my chances? Will people just think I’m always ‘negative’? How did we get to where we have to eschew vulnerability, and thereby chip away at our humanity even if ever so slowly, in order to do the essentially human things of pursuing God callings and providing for our families?

Is there a way to recast the questions? Is there a manner in which one’s failures are our greatest teachers (perhaps there should be a conference)? Is there a way that this sort of thing reveals not instability but great balance, awareness, stability, and the strength to take appropriate risks? Is there way that vulnerability won’t be seen ‘weakness’ but as our most accurate measure of true courage! Is there a way employers can see vulnerability as the doorway to increased productivity and creativity? Is there a way that in the marketplace vulnerability becomes an asset? Or is it just wishful thinking on my part? Will I have the courage to actually post this? (Questions, questions, questions. This is where we end up with vulnerability, lots of questions with few nailed down answers … but even just asking the questions points us toward our humanity.)

Yes, Lent has sucked! But that might be OK after all. Maybe there isn’t one ‘proper’ way to do Lent. Perhaps even, if ‘sucking’ is an undeniable aspect of the human journey then Lent (filled with ashes, dust, repentance, finitude, fear, shame … a kind of mirror of our humanity) is supposed to have a certain suckiness to it. Admitting fear and shame is not the negation of happiness or joy, but rather the kind of honesty that sets us on the path to the deepest expressions of happiness and joy.  As we approach Easter, may we make ourselves vulnerable and find our true humanity in the Truly Human One, our Liberating King Jesus.

Until the next part of the story, may the shalom of our Liberating King be with you.

Postscript: I have two quick prayer requests…

First, medical care … someway, somehow for Christie … and second, job stuff for me as I try to get on at HSU. Thanks!