Tuesday, December 20, 2016

Will Smith, Grief, and Christmas

I went to a movie the other evening. I went alone because it felt a necessary and desired offering on the 4-month anniversary since my father passed away. Four months. I’ve seen September, October, November, and half of December come and go without him. I’ve passed through my oldest’s birthday, my husband’s birthday, a Halloween, an historic election, and Thanksgiving without him. And right around the corner is Christmas. I have yet to determine if it is kindness or cruelty in grief that so many significant days are packed into such a short period of time.

I needed sanctuary. A place of remembrance that allowed me the chance to honor a life, and a death, that has forever changed me. My altar was a big screen and a reclining leather seat. My dad loved movies. I suppose that’s where I got it my affinity for cinema, so it seemed fitting to find myself on this anniversary in a place doing something we both love. 

I didn’t know what I was hoping to accomplish in that dark theater. I didn’t really go with any kind of expectation. That fact, in and of itself, was a gift. 

I parked, froze as I walked from the van to the lobby, bought my solitary ticket, and found a seat among 20 strangers who had also chosen to see Collateral Beauty.

It’s a movie about grief. It’s a movie about life. It’s a movie about what we do with three abstractions: love, time, and death. Although the movie is filled with Hollywood heavyweights, it plays out as a fairly predictable and contrived storyline. Even still, there are some lovely moments where Will Smith’s vulnerability gives the onlooker the permission to grieve along with him.

I had no epiphany during the film. No moment of clarity as the credits rolled. I got up from my seat, walked back to the van, and went home. If I was sure of anything it was that I was glad I had been there. Glad to have followed through and spent a portion of that difficult day at the movies.

Now, days later, I recognize something more. Spending 97 minutes watching Collateral Beauty was the embodiment of Advent reality. The film clearly invites the audience to enter into grief, but if you accept the invitation you aren’t alone. What the film gave me was a chance to be okay with everything I might be feeling and my reactions to those feelings because I am not alone. The raw grief of the fictional Howard Inlet is a reminder that we all connect with grief because we all “bear the wound.” I am not alone in my grief. 

That’s the message of Christmas. We aren't alone. God wrapped Himself in flesh and bone and stepped into time, and in doing so He showed us there is nothing we experience by ourselves. He’s been there. He’s done that. He’s gotten the t-shirt. For grief. For being misunderstood. For the joy of genuine friendship. For being hungry. For fighting to accept the reality in front of Him. He’s walked the road. He’s lived in that neighborhood. You and I aren't by ourselves through any of it. 

Christmas says God really is Emmanuel - the God who is with us. Peering into the Bethlehem manger doesn’t erase my grief. It doesn’t eliminate the struggle of adjusting to life without my dad. But the swaddled baby reminds me I don’t do any of it by myself. I am not alone. And today, that will be enough for me.

The Word became flesh and blood, 
and moved into the neighborhood. 
We saw the glory with our own eyes, 
the one-of-a-kind glory, like Father, like Son, 
generous inside and out, true from start to finish. 
- John 1:14 (MSG) -

Saturday, December 10, 2016

Prelude to a Magnificat: Mary’s Ache

My thoughts behind this poem:
I can imagine a “just-made-it-to-womanhood” girl whose loving devotion to God placed her in the middle of some of the most difficult circumstances an unmarried female could find herself in the days of King Herod. I imagine that Mary, like all of us attempting to walk by faith, faltered in her own understanding and acceptance of God’s will over the nine months Jesus grew in her womb. I imagine the one brave enough to say yes to God’s request was also gutsy enough to be real in His presence. Maybe we can do away with the whitewashed, romanticized girl we conjure up in blue robes, and instead see her as we might actually be had we found ourselves in her situation. 

Between the angelic proclamation and the lyrics to Mary’s Song in Luke 1, I suspect there was a whole lot of soul searching that happened in Mary’s heart. And so, this is my license to wax poetic concerning what could have been happening inside of Mary as she comes to terms with all God’s plan required of her. I see a newly birthed woman preparing to give birth while her tenuous faith and faltering confidence keep her company. And as her vanishing world of safety slips through her fingers, I imagine honest-to-God moments where she pushed back against the inevitable pain brought on by this path she accepted. I choose to place the timing of this poem just before she visited her cousin, Elizabeth. And I end the poem with questions that I think Mary might have easily asked and that God, in His infinite graciousness, immediately answered for her in the greeting she was given by Elizabeth.


This root of grief. 
Growing invisible 
while my abdomen swells.
Loss of trust 
and social standing.
It’s enough to break anyone.
At least to break me.
I am my name.
Like self-fulfilling prophecy.

Shushed whispers,
eyes speaking a thousand judgments.
Virgin in body, but not in reputation.
I die again with each look of a father’s disappointment
and midnight weeping from a mother.
Would they even believe what is true?
Do I still believe it to be true?

Man in glowing white
pronouncing favor,
promising a child,
a king, a savior.
But blessed?
I, who am spared no rejection?
Who befriends isolation and loneliness?
Anger brews and boils.
Lingering long enough for me to invite it in
when doors have closed their welcome
and friends have disappeared.
Bitterness harvested from a heart that God chose.

Prescience might have altered my service.
How is holiness born from scandal?
Or rescue birthed from reproach?
For now, only torment seems the return
on my investment of faith that
makes God the King
but me?
I am lost and afflicted.
Questioning my sanity,
and my willingness to suffer.

My tears have bled me dry.
How long, Lord, 
before you change my name?
How long must I wrestle before becoming Israel?
How far must I walk to be Abraham?
Jehovah, Your name is great,
do not forget about mine?
Will you salvage it?
Can you redeem bitter?
Redefine Mary?
Restore me?

Have mercy, God.
If I found favor once, 
could it be found again?
Would you confirm what I heard?
What I know, but now doubt and fear?
Would you remind me
that your servant is always safe,
that you are in this struggle,
that I am blessed by you?
Even as my world distances itself from me,
will you show you are still close and fulfilling your promises?

Wednesday, November 30, 2016

Smelling Hope (Honest Thoughts on Advent Preparation)

It’s Advent. The season that invites us into the waiting. Through the process of waiting, we are preparing for the arrival of One who will change everything. Christmas Day will dawn and a baby will turn the world, and religion, on it’s head as He grows. Divinity will be clothed in flesh and bone, and humanity will forever be changed. Advent is the time that prepares us to receive this moment. 

I think about the ancient prophet Isaiah, and his words in chapter 40:3-5 when he begins to predict the return and salvation of Israel and it’s people. 

3 A messenger is calling out, “In the desert prepare the way for the Lord. Make a straight road through it for our God. 4 Every valley will be filled in. Every mountain and hill will be made level. The rough ground will be smoothed out. The rocky places will be made flat. 5 Then the glory of the Lord will appear. And everyone will see it together.

In Isaiah’s day, when a king was planning to visit a city or town, the road leading to that town would have to be prepared for the king’s arrival. So the road would be cleared of any obstructions. If the path was not level then painstaking care would be used to fill in holes, raise up ditches, and level off unneeded or dangerous inclines. If the path was rocky, then the rocks, sometimes large and extremely heavy, would be removed. And it would be the people of the town who front the cost for preparing the way because a visit from royalty was worth it.

And so the preparations would begin. Townsfolk would clear away brush and remove large stones that would impede the way. People of the village would take on the task of making the landscape level so that the king could travel without incident. They would do all they could to make the path straight, smooth, and comfortable. The king was worth it.

That’s the spirit of Advent preparation too. There is a King coming, once in Bethlehem and again at the culmination of time when the Kingdom will be fully realized. Advent invites us into the process of preparing the way for a King. And it’s a work done not with our hands, but in our hearts.

With that said,

Advent preparation has been particularly hard for me this year.

Tears are close to surface most days for me. My children are used to seeing Mommy standing at the sink with water running from both the faucet and my eyes. The other day, my 9-year old son asked me a question and apparently my voice sounded odd so he asked if I was okay. My 7-year old inquires if my tears are “because I am sad about Granddad.” My tween notices my melancholy and tells me I am quiet a lot. it’s all true. I am quiet these days. More quiet than normal, albeit I am an introvert by nature.

I am in my head a lot. Things swirl and go round and bring me back to the place I started. It keeps me up at night. I try to make sense of things. Of myself. Of my grief. There’s a code word I use with my husband (thank you, Gilmore Girls) to let him know I am in my head and it’s a storm up there…”monkey, monkey, underpants.”  I know, it’s not sophisticated, but it does communicate.

Anyway, my heart’s been a little bit (or a lot) of a mess lately. Probably like the wilderness that Isaiah was calling on to be leveled in preparation for the king. I’ve needed some work. There’s been soul-brush that needs removal. There are some valleys that need filling in and some rough places needing attention. So I’ve been doing what I can, with the tools I have, to prepare for what God might wish to do next when He shows up. And He always shows up.

Paths Made Straight
Heart work is always hard work. It forces us to face who we are. It requires honesty, which is something we say we want but secretly fear, especially with ourselves. Advent preparation means a new attempt at being honest with myself. For more than three decades, I have fortified a way of believing that says I am what I do; that I hold no value apart from my behavior, my performance, and what I can offer. In this season of preparation, I am learning (and relearning) that this way of thinking is old wineskins. It’s hard to let go of old wineskins even when they keep bursting from pouring in new wine. The new wine being this fresh, bigger, more magnificent sense of who God is and who I am to Him. But oh what lengths I will go to in order to hold on to the familiar. This house-of-cards shelter of faith I’ve erected over time is a known place for me, but it is no longer comfortable. Like a hermit crab that’s outgrown it’s shell. 

Even so, I stitch up those old wineskins, looking to recycle and repurpose them. Problem is those old skins can only be mended with a needle of “suffering is spiritual” and the thread of performance-based worth. Then I try and tie it off with high expectations, happy isn’t holy, and secure a hidden lining of works-based theology. But they burst every time I pour in the new wine - the new wine of a God who’s lifted my head from shame, who’s forgiven me already, who’s love is not conditioned by me, who’s grace is always enough, and who’s dreams for me are good. It’s just too much. And it turns out Jesus was onto something after all. Old wineskins don’t go with new wine. So, I am working on exchanging an ill-fitting way of thinking for a new one.

Filled-in Valleys
This year's Advent preparation has about done me. 2016 has been a year filled with grief and loss for me and my family. And this journey with grief has stuck close to me. It curls it’s fingers around my heart and squeezes until I cry, “Uncle.” But grief doesn’t play by my rules, and so the ache remains and never quite dulls enough to be forgotten. Deep surrender to this companion of grief has sometimes come through tears and sometimes through the desperate need to sleep, because the emotional exhaustion is real. 

I’ve lost a father. And in doing so, have lost my only close, blood connection to his lineage and ancestry. I’ve lost a voice of affirmation and strength. I’ve lost a voice of wisdom, even when we disagreed.That kind of loss presses into me like a weight that won’t let up.

My husband and I have lost a sense of identity and relationship as we said goodbye to a congregation with which we’ve spent 18 years. We’ve lost companionship, built-in time to relate to others. We’ve lost the sense of sharing life together with a group of familiar people sharing a common goal.

Our family lost our cat. It sounds silly, I know, but in the midst of everything else, it almost felt like the breaking point. You know that point, where you throw your arms in the air, look heavenward, and ask in all sincerity, “Really, God? Seriously?” Our children are heartbroken. I am too. With every movement I see in my peripheral vision, I expect to look up and see Sophie. I expect to find yet another hairball to clean up. What I wouldn’t give for another hairball to clean up.

Each of these losses have impacted this journey of preparing my heart for a coming Christmas. There’s been a loneliness in adjusting to life after each of these goodbyes. And working through the loneliness is like clearing away the brush from a road the king is going to use.. I may be attacking 10 foot shrubs with tiny hedge clippers (and I have truly tried that in real life), but I am doing the work I can with the tools I’ve got, because there is a King coming. Redemption is drawing nigh and I want to be ready.

Rough Ground Smoothed
And so the road to my heart is being increasingly prepared through this "dark night of the soul." But you know what also helps in the preparation of a road?

Natural erosion. 

Wind or water, 

over time, 


consistent, steady 

pressure and contact, 

can actually alter 

the landscape. 

And that’s when it hits me like a righteous 2x4.  Every single blasted tear I have cried over these horrible, mysterious, enlightening, aching, burdensome seven months has been precious. Before I even understood it to be so, my tears were helping to prepare my heart for a time that is still future to me. A moment when my Christmas will dawn and God will show up in my life, in a new way. 

My tears have been eroding the hard places, the rocky crags, the jagged edges so that my Bethlehem moment can come, and the King will be born anew in me. It may not be on December 25th. In fact, I have no idea when it will come to pass, but I believe it will. God promised He wouldn’t leave me and would not forsake me. And in this wilderness of heart, my King is still on His way. So I will do what I can to keep at preparing the road, even though it’s hard, taxing, grueling, and may cost me more than I thought possible. But the King is coming, and He is never late even though it might feel that way to my grieving heart. 

The Coming Glory 
There’s this particular smell in my therapist’s office. It’s a good smell, but I can’t put my finger on what it is. For me, however, the aroma is synonymous with healing. I step in the office, sit on the brown love seat, and crack open my soul - piece by piece - trying to make sense of all the loss, of all the changes, of all the everything. And I can smell hope. Every time. Even when I am stumbling out of there from the hard work of heart work, that hour offers a little more encouragement to endure and do what I can to clear the way for the King's arrival.

I sometimes wonder why I choose to write such personal things on a public blog. I am not sure I have a great answer, but I have some ideas. One is that maybe being open with my journey will allow courage to rise up in another so they can admit they aren’t okay...and realize it’s okay to not be okay. Second, if I share my struggle now, before all is said and done, do you know how freaking amazing it’s gonna be when I get to share how the glory of the Lord has shown up? Isaiah must have known when you do the hard work of preparation, it clears the way for God to be down-right, kick-butt amazing. 

And you know what else? You can travel both ways on a road prepared. It goes in both directions. And when Christmas comes, this prepared path between my heart and God’s will be less obstructed. And I love that image. The valleys of my heart? They’ll have been filled in. The rough places of my soul? They’ll have been made plain. And I will have unprecedented access to the One who knows me best and loves me most, just because I am.

The Advent preparation has been a killer, but the King is coming and He’s worth it.

Sunday, November 27, 2016

Not This Year (Honest Thoughts on Advent Waiting)

This is first Sunday of Advent. The 4-week season that presses us toward Christmas and the Incarnation. When we welcome Emmanuel as He moves into the neighborhood as a baby born in Bethlehem's obscurity.

Advent. The season that marks the beginning of the year in how the church tells time. The season named from the Latin "adventus" which means to come or arrive. This is the season that will end when the divine splits human history and is birthed now in flesh.

And culturally, we Americans often misunderstand the meaning of Advent. Advent is about preparation. Getting ready for what Christmas will bring. It's about fitting ourselves for the coming of Jesus - the Christ child. 

There's something beautiful in the idea of preparation. Of being set for what is ahead. Practicing and conditioning one's self, mind, heart for the future. Being primed for the yet unknown. 

There's also an general excitement surrounding how we ready ourselves for Christmas. An expectation that comes for the promise of gifts and goodies at the end of Advent. The thrill of Christmas day is what propels us, as we hope and wait for all that could be. As if the waiting will be worth it. There will be no disappointment. We can freely fling our arms wide and receive whatever is given because it will be good.

And when the end of November comes, almost every year that I can recall, I have met Advent with a sense of delight. Something about this time of year that makes the world seem better, friendlier, hopeful. And my heart has involuntarily responded to the thrill of the season. As if I can't help but be caught up in the goodwill among most men.

But not this year.

This year, my heart is unresponsive. Flatlining in the wake of grief and change and unknowns. This year, waiting doesn't seem to promise a good end on December 25th. In fact, it is hard to see any end to the waiting in my heart this year. 

Oh, I know for Whom I wait. I know His name and I am sure of His character. But as this Advent dawns, my heart dreads more waiting. 

That's why this sentence brought some solace to me last night:
"The character of worship during Advent is more solemn, quiet, and less festive than during other times of the year." (churchyear.net)

Solemn, I can do. Quiet, I can do. Less festive, I can do. Looking backward, to how believers have historically approached this season of "arrival", we find it was done in a much different attitude of heart. It seems quite contrary to the way we approach and even worship in Advent today. 

I am finding camaraderie with the ancients this year, for nothing in my heart is leaping for joy. There is very little in the waiting that brings comfort for me right now.

We picture waiting as the wide-eyed excitement of children straining for a glimpse of reindeer. But sometimes the waiting couldn't be farther from that truth. Sometimes the waiting is the hard part of the journey. The birthing pains of a future yet unseen. Sometimes the waiting doesn't hold any thrill at all. Sometimes waiting is just the endurance to hang on another day. The challenge to stay faithful without fanfare.

And I began to wonder who in scripture might have understood waiting as I do this year? And surprisingly, or perhaps not so surprisingly, I easily listed nearly twenty examples of those who knew a season of waiting when it was far from amenable or desired.

- Noah and his family waiting on the ark 
- Abraham and Sarah waiting for the fulfilled promise
- Joseph waiting for the cupbearer to remember him in prison
- David waiting to be king after his anointing
- The enslaved Israelites waiting for deliverance
- Moses waiting on the mountain while the people waited below
- Elijah waiting for the famine to end accompanied by a widow and her son
- Jonah waiting in the belly of a fish and under a leafy tree
- Mary waiting for the life inside her to grow (and perhaps for her faith to be vindicated. her reputation to be restored)
- Mary & Joseph waiting in Egypt for Herod to die
- The wisemen waiting for the sign of the star
- King Herod waiting for the wisemen to bring word of the whereabouts of this Jewish King 
- Mary and Martha waiting for Jesus after sending word of Lazarus’ illness
- The woman with the issue of blood waiting for healing, 
- The man paralyzed for 38 years at the pool of Bethesda
- Jesus waiting at the well in Samaria
- Jesus waiting before the Sanhedrin and Pilate for their opinion concerning his guilt
- The angel waiting at the tomb for the women?
- The disciples waiting in Galilee for Jesus to appear after the resurrection
- The disciples waiting in Jerusalem for the Holy Spirit
- Peter waiting in prison
- Paul waiting for his sight to be restored after losing it on the road to Damascus

I am not sure any of these examples of waiting warrant the giddiness of anticipating Christmas like we do in this brave, new world of ours. 

I know my waiting doesn't.

I know a family still waiting for an estranged child to come home and to discover the love of God. I know a couple who are waiting (or perhaps have given up the waiting) on becoming parents. I know a city of people still waiting for the water that flows through the pipes to be declared safe for consumption. 

All of these examples can bring a melancholy to the process of waiting. Grief can dull the sense of expectancy. And so can weariness. And loneliness. And feeling unheard and unimportant. So can being powerless and without leverage. So can praying the same prayers for months and years with no change.

Advent is a season of preparation. A waiting for something that is still due to arrive, still yet to come. And for some of us in our world, the waiting is just plain hard, somber, sad, heartbreaking, distressing. 

You see, this Advent, I am waiting... 

for the night I can tuck my kids in bed without tears for a beloved pet we had to put to sleep.

for the deafening ache of missing my dad to dissipate.

for the silent phone to ring with news of a job.

for a steady income so we can secure new housing.

for my pace to slow.

for my soul to breathe.

for my trust to increase.

for my courage to stretch.

for my fear to wane.

for hope to come easily on it's own.

This Advent, I am waiting. 
But there is so much about the waiting that is unwelcome. Unnerving. Uninvited. 

And I happen to believe this is no reflection of a lack of faith on my part. My disdain of the waiting doesn't mean I am losing my way or walking away from God. I would argue the exact opposite. With every step I take into this Advent, I am exercising greater faith than ever. I am certain Jesus came in Bethlehem and I am confident He will come again to set all things right. And when I don't feel a thing in this heart of mine, I have no doubt that He is still the God who is Emmanuel. He is God with me...even in the midst of this waiting in which I do not delight. 

This short, instrumental piece is one that seems to reflect a part of my soul for this Advent. There's a longing in the melody of the oboe. A discontent within the notes, as if straining for something more. Something distant and out of reach.

And that's my waiting. No clear end in sight. No excitement in the meantime, yet an acceptance of what is because I know who is in it all. And so the final notes of the song bring a kind of resolution. I trust that is true for my own heart as well. I didn't ask for so much of this waiting and I am not thrilled with it's presence in my life. 

Not this year.

Come Christmas, however, maybe I will have made a little more peace with my waiting. Or maybe I won't. Either way, I am trusting the One who has been given the position as Prince of Peace. Either way, Jesus has come, is come, and will come again. God has been, is, and will be with us. And God is with me. 

"...and he will be our peace..." - Micah 5:5

Sunday, November 13, 2016

An Election Lament

The country has waged a full-blown civil war,
but there’s nothing that’s civil about it.
The underground chasms that lay so long dormant 
have surfaced and broaden the rift.

A two party system that forces two sides,
while neither is full friend or full foe.
Demanding decision - come on, where’s allegiance?
Make a choice…cuz the aisle’s now closed.

The vision of eyes has narrowed enough 
that enemy is all that we see.
Unless of course, you have the “good sense”
to only agree with wise me.

We’re force-fed opinions and ear-splitting derisions,
all the while, we dismiss one another.
We can’t insist freedom for our slice of the pie,
while oppressing the life of a brother.

We swallow the thought that louder means lovely
but sometimes, loud is just loud.
With deafening speech and a short-sighted voice,
the decibels shatter our trust.

Parents aren’t havens when drafting their children
so families are torn full apart;
Friendships unravel, relationships scatter,
as words drop like bombs on our hearts.

The keyboard’s become our nuclear codes.
And social media? It’s almost all anti-social.
For we forget that we’re interdependent, 
not made by God as precocial.

Removing the safety, the crosshairs in sight,
sound-off with your words, sons and daughters.
Go ahead, kill me quick, neighbor of mine,
for we’re all being led to the slaughter.

No longer neutral in this no-man’s-land,
where life isn’t meant to exist.
Every square inch has become full-on noxious,
seems futile to try and resist.

To just keep on fighting brings no victory,
for all of us end wounded warriors.
So holding my hands in a silent surrender
I shed my heart’s prejudiced borders.

Retreat, in this case, is not my defeat,
instead it’s the spartan brigade.
For people aren’t targets, they’re not punching bags,
I won’t sling my words like grenades.

So I am defying the conventional orders 
of a most unkempt civil war.
Civil disobedience is my battle cry,
as I seek to give another the floor.

Don’t cut my taxes, instead cut my losses
and I’ll start to reorient my view.
Until freedom and justice is granted for all
this meaningful fight we can choose. 

The most foreign of policies we could ever espouse 
is to fight for the rights of another.
So foe becomes friend, yet again in this land,
and enemy transformed to a brother.

Until we decide to mutiny our fear,
we can’t be the home of the brave.
A country united for the good of each life,
let that be the banner that waves.