Easter in the midst of grief

On this Easter Monday, while praying for someone who recently experienced the devastating loss of a loved one,  I was reminded of words I wrote back in 1990, to be published in a church devotional booklet:

Easter…it has held a new, triumphant meaning for me since I discovered that you can’t really celebrate the victory of Easter without being devastated by Good Friday; one is meaningless without the other. When I was 19 years old, my beloved Opa died, my mother’s father, a man who had completely opened his heart to me and captured mine in the process. Even when he was a continent away, I felt his love.

A brutal, painful heart attack took his life not long after he had celebrated his fiftieth wedding anniversary. My mother, who had the privilege of being with him when he went home, told me his last words were a prayer of praise, ending, “Jesus is the victor! Hallelujah! Amen.”

Grief is far more than emotional. It is a pain so intense that it is physical, devastating, exhausting, all consuming.

Easter came in the early days of our grieving. My mother and I stood together in church, singing the familiar Easter hymns, tears flowing down our faces. It was then that Easter became real to me — truly real — dynamic and immediate rather than historic. I was amazed that my heart could be simultaneously filled with such great joy and such aching sorrow.

Someday I too will be snatched out of this life. Someday I will stand before my Savior, along with all the saints who have gone before, and I will shout with my Opa, “Jesus is the victor! Hallelujah! Amen.”

That is what I celebrate at Easter.

Her name was Tina

She was 7 years old, skinny, often unkempt, a wild little thing who screamed like a banshee, knew cuss words no little girl should know, and was quite the disruptive influence at the church school her grandparents paid for her to attend.

Somehow she stole my heart. I was 19 or 20, still young and idealistic, and I had not yet outgrown my childhood notion that love was enough to heal and fix anything. She was as drawn to me, a childcare worker at the school, as I was to her. At first she called me “Teacher”. Then she broke my heart by calling me “Mommy”.

Her mother, a single mom and an alcoholic, bought her a Raggedy Andy doll so that Tina could, as she claimed her mother told her, “also have a man in her bed at night”. She told me of what sounded like a steady stream of men in her mother’s bed, about fixing her own suppers, and about getting herself ready for school in the morning.

No matter how early I arrived to open up the church before morning day care started at 7:00am, it seemed that Tina would be waiting for me alone on the playground, underdressed for the weather, blonde hair all a mess, her thin little arms wrapped around herself, shivering. I would bundle her in my sweatshirt and hold her in my lap until she warmed up. It was one of those times that she started calling me “Mommy”.

She was impossible. She defied rules, tested boundaries, threw temper fits, fought with other children, and cussed like a little sailor. But she also sang the cutest rendition of both parts of Donnie and Marie’s signature duet that I’ve ever heard. And she craved affection and attention so desperately that it was painful to watch.

One day she flipped out when one of the school dads got playful with her. She shrieked, “Don’t molest me!!” and it scared him so much that he avoided her like the plague after that. I tried not to think about possible reasons for her reaction.

She was a bad influence on my little brother, and on a number of the other children. If she wasn’t clinging to me, I had to watch her like a hawk. She was a troubled little soul, desperately screaming for help.

One day she asked me if she could live with me, if I could be her mommy for real. I presented my case to my parents. In my naïveté, I actually thought I could ask her mother — who obviously didn’t want her — to give Tina to me, and I could raise her and love her to wholeness. Surely, despite my flaws and my youth, I would be a far better mother. We would live together in the “little house” behind the parsonage, and I would make sure she would not impose a burden on anyone else.

To me, she was worth turning my life upside down and backwards, worth giving up any hope of a “normal” future. How could I not do everything in my power to help her, to give her a better life, to rescue her, to save her?

I hated it when my mother would respond to my idealistic ideas with, “It’s not that simple.” This time I really hated it, because she was right.

And then Tina was kicked out of school. I marched into the principal’s office and demanded, pleaded, advocated, begged, guilted, quoted Scripture…you name it, I did it. How could we abandon Tina? Wasn’t she the sort of child who needed this school the most? The grandparents had sacrificed, skimping together money they didn’t have, in a desperate attempt to provide help for their little, troubled granddaughter — and we were tossing her out on her ear? I was eloquent and convincing…well, to my ears anyway. Everyone else seemed relieved to be free of the numerous ongoing and escalating behavior problems that were disrupting the other students. “We can’t sacrifice all the other students for one child,” the principal told me. “Why not?” I had the audacity to reply. “She needs us much more than they do.”

Just like that, Tina was out of my life. I never got to say goodbye, never saw or heard from her again. We had failed her. I was both angry and grieved.

The girl in this heartbreaking video reminded me of Tina…something about parts of her story, the way she looks and her outbursts of anger.

Tina impacted me more than she will ever know. I have no idea what became of her…if she’s still alive…if she even remembers me…I hope that she remembers that someone once loved her and believed in her, and thought she was worth rescuing. More than that, I hope that someone did in fact rescue her.

I hope her story had a happy, hopeful ending, her own version of this one:

Happy birthday, little brother!

This is an updated version of a post I wrote on my former blog a few years back.

 
I was 11 years old when he was born, and our family was changed forever. He was the cutest baby I’d ever encountered — until my own were born years later — and he grew into a hilarious, wonderful toddler and young child. His mission in life seemed to be making sure that things never got boring in our household. Stories about his various escapades are legendary in our extended family. (One cousin, when she and my younger brother were children, ended almost every Steph story with, “And we were so embarrassed!” Well, everyone but Steph, apparently!)

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Steph seemed so different from our older brother and me. We were shy, awkward and nerdy, while our younger brother charmed the little old ladies in the church, traded kisses for dimes and quarters, purposefully got lost in stores just for the drama of having us all paged, and turned the kindergarten portion of the school Christmas program into “Stephan and his back-up choir”.

We were too shy to ask for directions and information, while Stephan thrived on talking to everyone everywhere.

I’ve never met a child like my younger brother. He was, in some ways, a bundle of contradictions as a little guy. He could be an annoying pest and prankster at times, and yet he could also be a classy little charmer. Most three year old boys, for example, make a mess of eating an ice cream cone and couldn’t be trusted drinking out of expensive, fragile stem-wear. Not Steph — his table manners were extraordinary, and he could be such a delightful little gentleman.

Stephan brought an exciting new vitality to our family when he was born. I’ll never forget “kidnapping” him out of his crib and trying to hide him in my bed. (His giggles always gave him away when my mother would come searching for him.) He taught me not to take myself so dreadfully seriously during my teenage years. He put up with my awful experimental cooking and pretended that he actually enjoyed the meals I forced upon him. (That, of course, prompted my theory that children don’t have taste buds.) He was deluded enough to think that I was beautiful, even during my most awkward adolescent moments. Steph loved my silliest stories, inspired me to create ridiculous games, made me laugh, and alternated between amusing and horrifying me with his creative ability to turn mundane events into fascinating tall tales that he would then spread far and wide. (No, I never threw up on the Thanksgiving turkey, contrary to what Steph told his entire school.)

As Steph grew older, I discovered how much he added to the adventures I had been enjoying for years. Ah, what I wouldn’t give to turn back the clock, just for a day or two, and relive some of the weekends spent together…

But it wasn’t just in his childhood and teens that Steph proved himself to be the best little brother in the world. His crowning achievement is that he has given me some of the most adorable, wonderful, beautiful, delightful nieces and nephews in the world — and he has made sure there are lots of them!

Steph has so many traits that I admire (and lack). He is generously hospitable; I’m convinced that I could drop in unannounced with my entire family in tow, and Steph would joyously feed us all and put us up, without the slightest hint that we might be inconveniencing him. I am so proud of his people skills, and of how he uses his talents and abilities to work diligently in providing for his family. But what touches my heart the most, and fills it with a mixture of joy and sisterly pride, is that Stephan has become a student of my father and of the Word, and that he and my father are now sharing the pulpit at the church my father pastors. I enjoy his unique, fresh perspective and his commitment to remain true to the Biblical text. Impossible as it would have been for me to believe when we were younger, not once has anything he has preached made me want to cringe, hide my face, or throw something at him. Proof that even little brothers eventually grow up!


My baby brother has grown into a loving husband, a devoted father, a wonderful man. But, as a big sister, I’ll never forget the excitement I felt 45 years ago today, when he made his way into our lives and hearts, and how cute he looked when I first got to see him. I was full of dreams then for what we would all do together, but I had no idea how wonderful that little baby would turn out to be.

Struggling with Church | Faith Friday

We are supposed to be the Body of Christ, His hands, His feet…why is church such an ongoing struggle for me? Sometimes I feel as if I’m going around in circles.

It’s been over seven years since I wrote the post on my old blog, pouring out my grief-filled thoughts about church:

Sunday, January 14, 2007
Changes

We’re less than halfway through January, and 2007 is already promising to be a year that is rather…well, interesting.

After much prayer, study, soul-searching, discussion with friends and advisers, sleepless hours, and uncountable hours of analyzing things from every angle we could, my husband and I have made the painful decision to leave our church. Today was our first Sunday to go elsewhere. The church we visited was friendly and warm, and we knew several people there. The worship seemed fresh and real. The man who filled in for the pastor had a powerful testimony, and his message seemed to speak to an issue that I’m currently living out in my life.

But it wasn’t home.

I have often wondered if church is forever ruined for me. Part of it is, of course, being raised as a P.K. (Guys, that meant “Preacher’s Kid” long before it meant Promise Keeper.) No pastor can fill my father’s shoes. Besides, I’ve seen the dark underbelly of the church, and it has wounded me forever.

But there is more…I’ve also seen, as Michael Spencer writes so eloquently, “When I discovered the voice and practices of the ancient church, and the language of the ecumenical church, I resonated deeply. All of the church was my home, but no single room within it made me so comfortable I wanted to stay there and there only.”

No church is ever enough for me. It seems that I always long for more, for something different, for some part of my heart and mind to be touched in a way that no one church has ever been able to touch. I want expository preaching and deeply heartfelt worship and beautiful architecture and pipe organs and liturgy and spontaneity and unadorned simplicity and lay pastors and ordained clergy and formality and informality and ancientness and newness — and there is no church crazy enough and contradictory enough to give me all of that, to feed all those parts of my soul.

I want a church that follows a glorious historical tradition…and a church that also offers, at times, a worship experience that is the spiritual equivalent of “partying down at the frat house.” (The last time we were looking for a church, a pastor friend of mine told me that I would never be happy in a church that didn’t encourage me to be a serious student of the Word. But he also told me that I would probably need to go elsewhere on occasion for a more exuberant expression of worship. “After all,” he said, “there is nothing wrong with partying down at the frat house.”)

Most of all, I want a church that is, as another friend of mine said, a safe place to land. I want a church that will not, yet again, add to my woundedness. I want a church that will instead minister healing.

The truth is that I’m not always sure what I want. I’ve found bits and pieces of my “church home” here and there but, in every church since I was a teenager, I’ve felt like a sojourner or, at best, a member of the extended family. I am already weary at the idea of searching for a new church, because I doubt that I will ever, this side of Heaven, find what I’m longing to find.

I want to see Jesus. Just show me Jesus.

What has happened since then?

In a nutshell, after re-examining and questioning everything I believed about “church”, after much reading and discussion, my husband and I have spent the last 5 or so years in a small home fellowship. It has been mostly wonderful. Unlike some “house church” people, especially those who use the term “organic church”, I have not become opposed to the institutional church. Yes, there is much within the American church that I consider problematic and disturbing. Yes, I have found it wonderfully restorative and freeing to “do church” without all the unnecessary trappings, the programs, fads, committee meetings, infighting, jockeying for influence and control, majoring on minors, etc., etc.

But sometimes I need my “churchy fix”: beautiful architecture, a sense of awe and reverence, the exuberance of a large congregation rejoicing in singing…

At the same time, I have found “church” in unlikely places. It’s not so much what we do in a meeting. It’s who we are.

I wrote this three years ago:

Saturday, July 23, 2011
Remembering and reflecting: where I’ve been

It’s been quite a while since I blogged semi-regularly….

…A lot has happened in my life and in the life of my family since those days. Life and death stuff, or I should say, near-death stuff. Crises. Heartbreak the likes of which no one should ever have to suffer. Anguish. Dark nights of the soul. But also incredible joy in the midst of that sorrow.

In other words, real life. Real nitty, gritty life.

When life gets that in-your-face overwhelmingly real, despite all the chaos and confusion that might ensue for a season, some things become really clear. You re-examine a lot when you’re treading through deep waters. You begin to realize what and whom — and Whom — you can grab onto for safety and what and whom will only pull you down further. You realize who you can go to with your burdens…those who will weep with you and rejoice with you…those who will hold your darkest secret heartaches as sacred trusts…those who will walk with you through the darkest valleys.

There aren’t many of those sorts of people.

Years ago, back in the day, I remember an online discussion of homeschooling mothers during which one brave soul dared mention a minor issue she was having with her teenage daughter. This girl was no longer content to play “Little House on the Prairie” and read Elsie Dinsmore for the 20th time; she wanted more out of life; she longed to do something that made a difference and was exciting at the same time. A number of the other moms, who only had young children, tore into this mother and her daughter. You would have thought this girl had announced, “I want to be a harlot” and that the mother had answered, “Whatever you want, dear, is fine with me; let me buy you some harlot clothes” — that’s how these other moms carried on. They gave advice that this girl’s “rebellious spirit” needed to be rebuked and punished, that the mother shouldn’t listen to her nonsense, that both were in sin, etc., etc.

Needless to say, these are not the sort of people you turn to in a crisis.

A few years went by, but it was still back in the day, when the son of a homeschooling family died under unfortunate and disturbing circumstances. The parents decided to alert other families to what had happened, so that others might be spared their tragedy. I was horrified at the lack of empathy, at the other callousness, in which some in the online world responded. There was much holier-than-thou shooting of the wounded.

Needless to say, these are not the sort of people you turn to in a crisis.

More than one mother, way back in my days of writing about my concerns regarding the Ezzos’ teachings, insisted that they had the whole parenting thing down and would never have to deal with any problems because their one-year-old was already “characterized by first-time obedience”.

Needless to say, these are not the sort of people you turn to in a crisis.

Also, back in the day, there were certain online teachers, some of them leaders in their own churches, who thrived on controversy, who loved to declare their authority over anyone who commented on their blogs, who sounded convinced that they held a special corner on doctrinal correctness, and who loved to argue until they didn’t have the upper hand, in which case they banned people from their blogs.

Needless to say, these are not the sort of people you turn to in a crisis.

In May of this year, I went to a retreat. It was my second year going. I wouldn’t have missed it for the world. When my mother heard of my plans, she asked with some trepidation, “Is this the same retreat you went to last year? the one with the…troubled people?”

It’s always after the fact that I think of what I should have said. In this case, I should have said, “Yes, that one…because I am one of those troubled people.”

Jesus said, “In this world, you will have trouble…” Some people are just more honest and open about their trouble than others. Some people know what it is like to be broken, wounded, and lost. Some people know what it means to find joy after sorrow. Some people aren’t afraid of messes. Some people will let you grieve in ways that wouldn’t look pretty in a movie, and they will sit with you in your pain, without condemnation. Some people know the joy of finding hope after despair, and they share it with you. Some people will walk with you as you try to find your way out of the darkness, out of the deep waters, and they will carry you when you are tired. Some people are like beacons in the night. Some people will give you permission to fall apart if need be. Some people will let you be real, as real as real can be, without any pretense, without any self-protection, and their complete and total loving acceptance of you will be like a healing balm to your soul. Some people will love you so much and so obviously that they earn the right to speak painful truth into your life, and they will do it with tears in their eyes. Some people will, with a hug and some whispered words, give you hope to sustain and encourage you for another year.

There aren’t very many of those people, but I’ve been blessed beyond words to have found some.

Needless to say, those are the sort of people you turn to in a crisis.

And they are also the sort of people you turn to during times of joy and laughter, because they will celebrate with you like no one else will. They totally get the “rejoice with those who rejoice” part because they already have the weeping part down.

When I grow up, I want to be that sort of person.

And that’s what the church should be. Yes, doctrine is important, but not as important as being the living, breathing body of Christ, His Hands, His feet, His shoulder to cry on. One would think those who claim to have the corner on theological correctness would try to outdo everyone else in love, but I’ve found that not to be the case. Sometimes, when I’ve needed Him most, the image-bearer He sent to demonstrate His love didn’t even believe in Him.

Do not get weary | Move it Monday

I posted this on my previous blog on 2/21/2008:

Do not get weary…

Many mornings, as I force myself to get out of bed and head off for my morning exercise, it is a huge struggle. Huge. I am weary. I am lazy. I want my bed. I want a life of easiness, indulgence, sloth…

So I remind myself of the healthy weight range for someone of my size and bone structure: 114-127 pounds. I’m not there. Yes, I could make all sorts of excuses. Those are just numbers on a scale! I’m athletic, and muscles weigh more. All the women in my family have thyroid problems (two have had to have thyroid surgery) and I’m sure my thyroid is probably out of whack, so who can blame me for extra pounds?

But the truth is right in front of me…and right behind me. I’ve indulged myself too much this past year in food and in laziness. The extra weight is there for a reason — my gluttony and my sloth put it there.

I remind myself of my tiny bird bones and of how I don’t want to end up with a broken hip in a few years. I can still add to my bone density, but it will take work. Hard work. But, at my age, should I really risk doing less than what it takes?

I remind myself of diabetes. I’m a ticking time bomb. I know what I need to do to make myself healthier and less at risk.

I remind myself of my children. None of them are married yet. Some are still quite young. I don’t want to be one of those grandmas who is too feeble from years of unhealthy living to play an active role in the lives of my future grandchildren. I don’t want to continue setting a bad example for my children. If I am someday dependent on them for care due to my own physical limitations, I don’t want it to be for diseases and health conditions that I brought upon myself.

I remind myself of my husband. Yes, his example in this area is not one to follow. No, he doesn’t support and encourage me in exercising good stewardship over the body God has given me. In his perfect world, I could be as gluttonous as the day is long and, without doing a thing, somehow be transformed into a delightful person who is fit and trim and movie-star-gorgeous. I know it will not happen. I also know, realistically, that at my age and with my looks, it is really not good for my marriage for me not to be in the best possible shape that I can. I can’t be movie star gorgeous, even if I went to the best plastic surgeons of the bunch. Then there is my age — I’m turning 50 next month. The best I can do is to age well and the best way that I can do that is to be healthy and fit. And that takes work. Constant work. But how can I do anything less for a husband who does so much for me and overlooks so many of my faults?

I remind myself of God. He made me. He gave me this body. Yes, he looks at my inward heart, and I don’t think the numbers on the scale matter as much to Him as they do to me. But…if He looks at the inward heart…that means He sees my laziness, my gluttony, my desire to indulge my appetites, the way I’ve used food to avoid turning to Him…that is so much uglier than any amount of fat my body could possibly carry.

So I drag myself out of bed. I force myself to exercise. I pray for God’s help in overcoming temptation. I keep track of what I eat. I do it so that I will be healthy and more energetic. I do it for the children I teach, so that I may lead by example. I do it for my own children. I do it for my husband. I do it for God.

But I still have to do it.

It’s discouraging how I’ve ended up back in a very similar state! However, some things have changed, besides my age. I now have two granddaughters as motivation. My husband has become more concerned about his own health and fitness, as have several of my kids. In fact, the youngest recently joined a gym, where he is being whipped into shape by one of his older brothers.

So I have less excuse.

I needed this reminder. I also need to remember that I succeeded last time, and can succeed again. It may be more difficult, but that just means I need to work harder.

And now it’s time to get ready for the gym.