Why We Can’t Stand Alone In Our Grief

I have many friends who have known me in my grief and many friends who have loved me in my grief. Friends who loved me when I was so guarded, I completely detached from the roots that make me uniquely Rachel. I have a great community of people who have shared my grief and entered into it and for this reason, when I was ready, I believe I was able to heal and find fullness once again.

Shalom. Wholeness. Fullness. Contentment, completeness, wholeness, well being and harmony.

I believe we can never stand alone in our grief. I have been there. When we stand alone in our grief, grief consumes us. Grief is all enveloping. Grief is like a heavy cloak that is so heavy you cannot remove it on your own.

Before belief in Jesus, The Gospel and The Bible, I believed in grieving behind closed doors. I believed in suffering in silence, giving safe answers to hard questions, holding back tears and flashing “I’m fine” half smiles. Before my understanding of a Jesus who wept and a God who gave His one and only Son to give His life as a ransom for many, I believed in a life of bootstrap pulling and suffering behind closed doors. I believed lies that told me I was alone in my suffering. I believed the lies that I was different and unworthy because of my grief. I believed the lie that it was wrong to be broken in front of a watching world. I felt shame. For a long time I felt there was something wrong with me because of the broken heart of grief I carried silently around within my chest.

Before a changed heart and a changed life in Christ I believed in half-sightedness. I covered that broken heart and the shame with mask, upon mask, upon mask. Masking hurt with pretend strength, worn out boots and a calloused heart that could never fully heal alone behind those closed doors. A heart that could never heal when it was threaded in lies and tangled up in masks.

And I believe, belief in Jesus has changed the way I view my grief. And overtime I see Christ, by His grace and through His church transforming me.

In Mark Chapter 8, Jesus heals the blind Man at Bethsaida. And they came to Bethsaida. And some people brought to him a blind man and begged him to touch him. And he took the blind man by the hand and led him out of the village, and when he had spit on his eyes and laid his hands on him, he asked him, “Do you see anything?” And he looked up and said, “I see people, but they look like trees, walking.” Then Jesus laid his hands on his eyes again; and he opened his eyes, his sight was restored, and he saw everything clearly.

I believe Jesus does not want us, as his people to be walking around behind masks upon masks on our hearts, living with half-sightedness. In the passage above, Jesus heals the man, but when he looks around all he can see are men that look like trees. The man’s whole sight isn’t restored. So Jesus, lays his hands on the man’s eyes again to restore him to whole-sightedness. Wholeness. Jesus doesn’t desire for us to be healed only half way, Jesus wants us to be whole.

Wholeness. Shalom. Peace, Complete restoration.

Charles Scriven (The Promise of Peace, 2009):

So when the prophet Ezekiel spoke words of hope to the exiled people of Israel, he used the word shalom–“peace.” He did this because in the Hebrew tongue, shalom was about food, safety, and freedom; it was about prosperity, well-being, self-respect for the whole community. All this is what people need and want when they feel anxious or think their lives are hanging by a thread. Ezekiel, therefore, thought of God’s promise-the Great Promise–as a “covenant of peace.” The partnership between God and Israel meant that someday the things that hurt would lose out to the things that heal and restore. Someday, God’s people would flourish and be fully alive. (p. 57)

When I think of the shame I had over my broken heart, the hiding, the half-sightedness. I think of how desperately I wanted to live with whole-sight. With wholeness. Shalom. I wanted to feel the truth that someday the things that hurt would lose out to the things that heal and restore. That someday, Someday, as God’s child I would flourish and be fully alive.

Tim Keller Generous Justice (2010)

It means complete reconciliation, a state of the fullest flourishing in every dimension–physical, emotional, social, and spiritual–because all relationships are right, perfect, and filled with joy. (p. 174)

Shalom. Wholeness. Whole sight.

I often think about the years I sat in my shame and grief alone, hidden behind those masks upon masks. When I first believed, I knew enough scripture to be able to walk in half-sightedness. I knew Jesus wanted me to find comfort in Him. I knew Jesus wanted me to rest in Him. “Come to me all who are burdened and heavy laden and I will give you rest.” I just didn’t know how to find wholeness alone. I needed others to come alongside me and share in my grief, cry tears with me and preach truth to me. Because with half-sightless and masks over my broken heart I could not see truth with full clarity. I could not see truth with half sight.

We need others to share in our grief so others can preach truth to us when we can’t see it for ourselves. Community draws us out of the lies we preach to ourselves in our grief. Community draws us out of the shadows of shame and into the light of Christ. 

So flee youthful passions and pursue righteousness, faith, love, and peace, along with those who call on the Lord from a pure heart. (2 Timothy 2:22) 

We cannot be pushed out of our youthful passions and the shadows of shame unless we are alongside others, calling us out of it and helping us pursue righteousness, faith, love and peace. Shame is too big. Shame is all consuming. And walking along in shame is a breeding ground for lies.

But you are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people for his own possession, that you may proclaim the excellencies of him who called you out of darkness into his marvelous light. (1 Peter 2:8-9)

We are drawn out of the darkness and the shadows of shame and into a people. A priesthood. A nation. We are drawn out of the darkness and into a community of others. A community of the marvelous light of Jesus where we can be seen and unashamed because we belong to Christ.

We cannot stand alone in our grief because we cannot bear the burdens of grief alone. 

In a recent sermon I heard in church from the series “A Community That Cares” I learned that God cares for us here on earth by giving us a community of leaders.

Moses’ father-in-law said to him, “The thing that you are doing is not good. “You will surely wear out, both yourself and these people who are with you, for the task is too heavy for you; you cannot do it alone. (Exodus 18:17-18)

Heart work is hard work and being alone in your grief is not good. You will surely wear out, the task is much too heavy to bear alone. We cannot be alone in our grief, we need leaders, leaders in our Bible studies, Sunday Schools, churches and community groups. We can’t do the heart work of removing masks from our hearts alone. It is hard work.

When Moses’ hands grew tired, they took a stone and put it under him and he sat on it. Aaron and Hur held his hands up–one on one side, one on the other–so that his hands remained steady till sunset.

We need friends at our sides, holding up our hands when we can’t hold them up ourselves. We are human and God provides friends to be alongside to do the heavy lifting when we can’t bear the load.

Bear one another’s burdens, and so fulfill the law of Christ. (Galatians 6:2)

Jesus is the ultimate burden-bearer. We are called to bear one another’s burden which also means we must step out from behind the masks and the shadows of shame and allow others to bear our burdens as well.

The way I think about grief, my pain and the loss of my mother has changed little by little, thread by thread. It is a process of putting off old patterns and walking in new ones.

put off your old self, which belongs to your former manner of life and is corrupt through deceitful desires,  and to be renewed in the spirit of your minds, and to put on the new self, created after the likeness of God in true righteousness and holiness. (Ephesians 4:22-24)

And thread by thread as I unravel untruths from truths I feel God restoring me to whole-sightedness. I feel God bringing me out of the shadows of shame and out from behind the masks upon masks upon masks, into His marvelous light.

Little by little and thread by thread as I unravel, I feel shalom-peace: complete reconciliation, a state of the fullest flourishing in every dimension–physical, emotional, social, and spiritual–because all relationships are right, perfect, and filled with joy.

If we say, ‘I believe in Jesus,’ but it doesn’t affect the way we live, the answer is not that now we need to add hard work to our faith so much as that we haven’t truly understood or believed in Jesus at all.” Timothy Keller, The Prodigal God: Recovering the Heart of the Christian Faith

The Winding Up Tight

While the threads of my story do begin at birth just like every one else’s, the threads of this particular story do not begin at the very beginning at all. The threads of this story begin several years later with a girl in the front passenger seat of a Silver Chrysler Town and Country minivan and my father in the driver’s seat behind the steering wheel. We pulled out of our drive on that rainy gray March morning in the Midwest, the kind of morning where you can feel the change of sunshine and blue skies right around the corner, but the grayness of winter is still hanging on. It was raining as the minivan accelerated to twenty-five miles per hour on the short-less-than-a-minute ride down the mostly-straight, slightly-slopping down on the way out to the main road and slightly up on the way home Sycamore Creek Drive, a road though now I only visit once a twice a year I could possibly drive with my eyes closed. I don’t remember where my father and I were driving that day. I know we were sloping down and heading out somewhere. My memory was as cloudy as that overcast day and I can’t recall which way the van turned on that main road. At fourteen on a morning in March I could have been going to the dance studio (my second home), a friend’s house, I could have been late to school or maybe my father was driving me to visit my mother in the intensive care unit in the hospital downtown.

I remember that less than minute drive like it actually lasted a lifetime. Or maybe the memory has been stretched out and hung onto, revisited so many times it now feels like a stretched out knit sweater which was left on a metal hanger to dry in the laundry room. The moment by means of minutes and seconds was short but the memory, the pieces my brain has tucked and filed away feel like they have traveled around the world, through time and back again, stretching and weaving into my story across years, seasons, places and stages.

I am the kind of person who cringes at the notion that someone may reach out and touch my shoulder or give me a friendly hug. Physical intimacy has always been difficult for me. I would gladly and firmly shake your hand and flash you a smile but for as long as I remember that is about as chummy as I can get, left up to my own self. So I imagine this memory, this story defining moment as feeling cold. Two people in a car, I in my personal space on my side and my father respecting my personal space behind the driver’s seat the feeling of so much more space than that between us. That day was incredibly gray both the weather and the words that were about to be birthed out of my father’s mouth. I know he labored over those words. Carefully thinking about how to deliver them to me. The last seven years for our family had been less than Leave it to Beaver with my mom being diagnosed with breast cancer in 1991 and as the oldest child in the family I felt the emotional weight of what was going on. I knew what he was about to tell me. I had felt the weight of what he was about to tell me and carried the anticipation of those words around with me like a heavy cloak.

On the exterior I am a tough girl. It is my nature to pull up bootstraps, march on, hold it all together for everyone else. My deep desire is to appear strong. Appear solid. So with the expectation of my father’s delivery of these words I emotionally prepared myself. I made sure my gaze was fixed opposite of him. I knew if I looked in his eyes I would cry. My firm foundation built upon all the human strength I could muster up was brittle and shallow like a thin sheet of ice on a neighborhood pond. The simple resting of a branch upon its waters could cause the surface to crack, exposing what lies underneath. So I layered invisible walls between us in the front of that Silver Chrysler Town and Country minivan. I turned my gaze out the window on that gray day in March. I focused on the blurring line where the slopping curb meets the grass on Sycamore Creek Drive. The lines which when riding at twenty-five miles per hour it is difficult to tell where the sloped curb becomes grass and vice versa. My inner monologue chanting ugliness, don’t you be weak Rachel, you better not cry. I stared out the window, my father drove, he labored, he delivered.

“Rach, you know- mom is going to die.”

I didn’t have to look at him to know he was choked up behind the steering wheel on the Chrysler Town and Country minivan on Sycamore Creek Drive. I could feel his tears through the invisible walls I had built between us and as I tried to focus on that blurred line where the curb met the grass on that gray day in March. Those lines went from a straight streaking blur to a jumbled up swirl of gray-green as my vision became impaired by the tears I was trying so hard to keep myself from crying. There were hot tears in my eyes that I couldn’t stop from coming. I gritted my teeth as if my jaw was the gatekeeper of those tears. Being broken for me was the very worst possible thing I believed I could do for my father in that moment. The news that he had labored over went in one ear at out the other. I wanted to be numb to it.

“I know,” I grumbled in hard-core teenager-like fashion.

When my gritting teeth helped me choke back those tears, my gaze turned up from where the curb meets the grass on Sycamore Creek Drive and I saw my reflection in the window, then my father’s reflection and finally I felt the weight of disappointment on my chest. I had screwed it all up. Even with all my wall building. If I could see my reflection in the window, my father could see it too. He knew I was crying. He knew I was hurting. In that moment I believed I had failed at accepting what was happening. In my fourteen-year-old brain I had already reasoned that I had no time for anger, or sadness and forget grief counseling. This was my first test and I failed. When I have recalled the long drawn out threads of this moment, stretched over times and seasons, I honestly can’t reconcile which I am more upset about: the news of my mother’s coming death or the fact that I felt deep shame over being sad about it.

So in that seat on Sycamore Creek Drive I committed to winding up my threads a little bit more tightly. I committed to building greater walls. The more I covered up, the less I would be seen. The less I would be found out for a sad girl unaccepting of her future to live her life without the glue of everything she knew. So I committed to hiding beneath a tough exterior at fourteen the best I knew how. I committed to a life of bootstrap pulling and winding up tight. A committed to a life without anyone ever knowing the real me.

But thankfully I see this moment as the beginning of the story. The beginning is the winding up tight and the rest of the story in the chapters that follow is the loosening of those threads. The unraveling of them. Where overtime, season by season threads are loosed from what I believed was true about strength and brokenness and walking in what God says is true about strength and brokenness.

“It would be nice and fairly nearly true, to say that ‘from that time forth, Eustace was a different boy.’ To be strictly accurate, he began to be a different boy. He had relapses. There were still many days when he could be very tiresome. But most of those I shall not notice. The cure had begun.”
― C.S. Lewis, The Voyage of the Dawn Treader

Listening is Loving

Yesterday I was putting mountains of clothes away upstairs as I watched my three boys in the backyard below me digging in a large hole of mud.

I had a report to give in about an hour and the babysitter arriving in forty-five minutes. I was already whirling around my home. I had no extra in-case-of-mud-buffer built in to my schedule.

I let the boys dig and kept putting away clothes until the pile has come to it’s end. Then I walked downstairs trying to breathe deeply to prepare myself for three mud covered children and also a quick prayer to Jesus that I would exude the fruits of the spirit instead of spewing the impatience of my tired flesh.

To my great surprise I found muddy clothes and boots in the laundry room and my boys washing the mud off their ankles and hands in the kitchen sink, the exact same process of demudding I have walked them through time after time over the last eight years. Without me saying a word, they just did what they were supposed to do.

And when I praised them my five year old simply replied, “Mom, we were just listening and listening is loving.”

Cue a:

Wait, are these MY children?

moment.

My children and I have not gotten to this place of automatic obedience overnight and pretty much, three-hundred and sixty-five days a year, sixty-five times a day it feels as if my children are not listening to my voice at all.

But this moment was my diamond in the rough. The one moment I can cling to in three hundred and sixty-five days and see just for one moment my words, my constant words on repeat all day every day are not falling on deaf ears. That slowly, ever so slowly my words are settling into the nooks and crannies of the hearts of my children.

Listening is loving was very much our summer love language last summer.

I developed this love language of listening is loving between my kids and I for the following reasons:

  1. Listening is life-giving to mommy.
  2. Listening is not just hearing but hearing followed by action.
  3. The action of listening must occur all the way, right away and with a happy heart.
  4. Listening is an important skill for all of life.

I have said listening is loving, I have chanted listening is loving, I have yelled listening is loving, I have whispered listening is loving in the ears of my four children as they sleep soundly at night.

Like a broken record for almost an entire year. Listening is loving have been the words I have both yelled and cried to my children.

As I saw my children doing what they were supposed to do I couldn’t help but remember the words a friend of mine said to me almost five years ago. Rachel, you sow. And you sow. And you sow. Then much later you will reap. 

You sow. And you sow. And you sow. Then much later you reap. Much later.

Yesterday’s scene of muddy clothes automatically in the laundry room and children automatically demudding at the sink came after an entire year of constantly repeating listening is loving to the ears and to the hearts of my children.

There are so many moments when I am so tired of sowing. My heart screams phrases similar to: Mommy does not want to sound like a broken record.

Planting wisdom and words in to the hearts of my children is very similar to the dirty, back breaking work of planting seeds outside in the fields.

I’m scattering these words like seeds into the soil of their hearts so that with hope and prayer and divine intervention one day these seeds will grow and produce fruit. Produce evidence that my words have taken root. Produce automatic obedience all the way, right away and with a happy heart.

We have so much further to go with listening is loving.

I will probably say listening is loving a million times more, have three-thousand more bad days with a few diamonds scattered here and there.

But to reap a harvest of children who know that listening is loving to others with hope that they will connect this truth of listening is loving to listening to God and believing His truth…. that is the kind of harvest I am sowing for.

That kind of harvest is what makes the broken record of saying listening is loving a million times more worthy of the dirty, back breaking work of sowing.

Listening is loving.

You sow. And you sow. And you sow. Much later you will reap.

When X Marks the Spot

I have a child who enjoys drawing check marks on all of his drawings. To him, a check mark is his mark of approval on his drawing. If he feels good about a drawing, it gets a check mark at the top right next to his five letter name written in chunky crayola marker and all caps.

You can imagine my hurting heart when I walked down our staircase one afternoon to notice a brown X on my kneecap in our 16 X 20 family canvas that hangs on the wall right in our entry way at the end of our staircase. Like Tonya Harding had been there, planning her next hit.

I had recently corrected my child for drawing on the walls in my house and sent him to the bottom step of that staircase, where all four of my children have to sit and wait for me to come and sit with them, discipline them, hold them, talk to them about their hearts, pray with them and reconcile with them. A place that is worn from the never-ending merry go round of training up kids.

My child literally X-out his mother in our family picture. The very opposite of the marks I see him draw on his favorite drawings. He clearly was marking his disapproval of me. In permanent marker. The ultimate and forever mark of disapproval.

The child who in this picture I am holding close to my very own heart. The child who smooches with me with pursed out lips. The child who states I am the one he loves the most in the whole world. He put an X on me in our family photo that hangs in our entryway.

My initial reaction was fury. This is my baby. I carried him in my body, nursed him, held him and I make sure his animal blanket is smoothed down perfectly every night at his request.

I was both angry and heartbroken.

I’m not the kind of mother one would X-out. I sing the songs, make the freezer meals, play the games, read the books, volunteer in the classrooms. I should have a thousand green check marks of approval for heaven sakes.

As I continued in fury, and woe as mes, I had to think. Was this X marking the spot of something deeper? Was I hurt because I want to be liked by my kids? Am I the kind of parent who desires to be liked more than I care about the trenches and the hard, ugly places of correcting my children when they are wrong on that step? Am I willing to be ready for the long road of all the X-marks-the-spot moments of the future?

Where do I look to find my green check marks? What is my identity really rooted in? How much my kids approve of me? Or that Christ approves of me not because of my X to check mark ratio but because of what He has done?

For our sake he made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God. (2 Corinthians 5:21)

This one X on our family picture in permanent ink, marking the spot of my own pride. Revealing the deep desire I have within to be a perfect mother, a well-liked mother, a green check-marked ten-times over mother.

I know some of you out there are with me too on the step. With your babes upset with you over correction and discipline.

I just think motherhood there are no guarantees of a long scroll of green check marks. Maybe in forty years, but in the trenches, there will be Xs. But in Christ we get it all. We get his robe of righteousness, we get all His green check marks.

If we are faithful mothers who sit on the steps of life with our kids the Xs will come. There will be times when our correction will stir up the desire in their childish hearts to mark us in Xs either in their minds or right on the family picture in the entryway. We can only be faithful to teach our children about their hearts (and vandalism). We have to faithfully walked with our kids whether in the moment the approve or disapprove of our correction.

No discipline seems pleasant at the time, but painful. Later on, however, it produces a harvest of righteousness and peace for those who have been trained by it. (Hebrews 12:11)

The family picture in the entryway was marked with an X one year ago and it still sits there at the bottom of our entryway. As a reminder for me. That if I am a faithful mother, committed to raising up kids I will keep on sitting on that step even when the Xs come. Because my identity in in something greater than what kind of mother I am. I belong to Jesus. And that sisters, is more than enough.

Am I Focused on the Smudges or the Sunshine?

Last week tucked in between rain and unseasonably cold temperatures we had two very pleasant days of warmth and sunshine in my little nook of the world.

So often on these warm sunny days, I find myself watching my four children playing in the yard from the bay window in our kitchen. As I watch my children playing outside, sun streaking through the windows, feeling it’s warmth and enjoying the extra brightness that sunshine brings inside our home, I feel shalom for a moment. Wholeness, peace and beauty.

On this particular day, I found myself feeling shalom and enjoying beauty one minute and finding faults the next. I took my eyes off the beauty of that sunshine streaming though the bay windows in my kitchen for a moment and I began to see first handprints all over everything; windows, television, fireplace, then computer screen. And next the tiny specks of dust resting on the surfaces of my cherry furniture. My gaze turned from beauty and instantly I saw imperfections and smudges all over the place. Sunshine has quite a way or exposing beauty and smudges.

It is a tough battle for me not to grab my version of a glock 19, the windex bottle, and distract myself from that moment of rest, shalom and beauty by getting caught up in the busyness of shooting down smudges. Doing is the nature of my flesh. Rest has always been counter to who I am. It is the work of the Spirit maturing inside of me to hold still and fight to take my gaze back to the beauty and shalom of that sunshine.

I cannot see beauty when I am bustling about focused on destroying dust and shooting down smudges.

I can only see beauty when I still myself. (Psalm 46:10)

When I lay my arms (that trusty bottle of windex) down and see shalom despite the smudges.

And as I have thought about his moment over the past week I have been convicted that my entire life is lived this way. I am so quick to take my eyes off of bright, warm, all encompassing beauty and focus and fret over tiny imperfections. Once I find one tiny imperfection, I tend to see them all.

I live this way with my kids. My children could have one hundred good days at school and a handful of bad, but that handful of bad tills up every single imperfection I see in them in my heart. When I take my eye off of beauty with my kids, I easily forget whose they are. I see them for how they live, what they do right and where they fall short instead of seeing them as covenant children of the Risen King.

I live this way with my husband. I could come home from being away at a women’s retreat or spending the day subbing at school. Every time I am away he has folded the laundry, taken all four kids swimming or to the amusement park or something else extraordinary, but I find myself taking my gaze off that beauty and finding faults in tiny details of crumbs on the counters and toys strewn across the floor. I fail to see all of the beautiful ways he loved our children while I was away when I focus on the condition of my home.

I live this way with myself. When I turn my gaze from beauty, when I forget to keep my eyes fixed on Jesus, the author and perfecter of my faith (Hebrews 12:2). It is so easy for me to see my imperfections and let those imperfections take hold of my gaze. I so easily focus on the smudges in my own life and fail to see the sunshine. I fail when I focus on seeking the approval of others, what I did right or what I did wrong, drinking from the unsatisfying cisterns (Jeremiah 2:13) of performing the role of parenting well or my reputation in the community and the church.

And as I reflect on standing there in front of that bay window in my kitchen I believe I am feeling God’s nudge to fight to focus on the sunshine.  To lay down my arms of wanting to constantly work on buffing away smudges instead of basking in the beauty of my Savior. When I keep my gaze on Him, the smudges are still there but pale in comparison His beauty.

In my nook of the world I want to automatically focus on the sunshine and forget the smudges. When I start to feel my fretting heart beating a little bit more quickly when it comes to housework, parenting, marriage, ministry, I want to be quick to ask myself: Am I focusing on the smudges or the sunshine?

In my nook of the world I am fighting to remind myself to keep my gaze on Jesus. To focus on sunshine and feel shalom, wholeness, beauty and peace. To dwell in the shelter of the Most High God, feel His all encompassing beauty and rest in His presence. (Psalm 91). To be still, lay down the doing parts of my nature and walk in the path God has called me to. A path of freedom and rest. A path with eyes fixed on Him.