Thursday, January 27, 2011

Dem Bones

In first grade, Mary Claire came home with a purple poetry folder. She loved to recite one of her favorites: “Dem Bones.” You’ve heard it before…♫ “Dem bones, dem bones, dem dry bones…the hip bone’s connected to the knee bone, the knee bone’s connected to the ankle bone, the ankle bone’s connected to the foot bone…we have 206 bones.”♪ I loved the way Mary Claire could divide the word “bone” into about three or four syllables! Thank you, Texas! Yee-haw!

That poem (especially Mary Claire’s rendition) is funny, but it also gets me thinking…you know, dem bones are connected to much more than dem other bones. Dem bones are connected to dem hearts and dem minds, too! God made it that way. We all know it, or we wouldn’t feel so mentally and emotionally sluggish come January 1st after two months of abusing our bodies through the holidays with overeating and stressful busyness. Whether we want to admit it or not, our bodies need a little of our attention so the rest of us can keep on keepin’ on.

January is a time when many of us think about going to the gym…literally. Most of us just think about going to the gym! There are those, though, who will start off on the right foot. They will begin to exercise and eat better, but two weeks later they want to throw in the proverbial (gym) towel. A friend told me she heard on the radio that it was scientifically proven that January 17th was the saddest day of this year. Why? Most people are dealing with post-holiday blues. Nothing to look forward to, it is dreary outside, and besides, by mid-month, we’ve already blown our New Year’s Resolutions. That kind of stuff can surely leave us in the dumps. God knows I understand. For a person who needs her vitamin D, has struggled with clinical depression, and has legitimate real-life reasons to feel sad, January and February are always challenging. I fight my winter blues with a surefire “cocktail”: lots of prayer, blazing fires in the fireplace, scented candles, bright lightbulbs, cozy blankets and--thanks to a huge change in my perspective--a healthy diet, and EXERCISE. I’ve been the thinker (not the do-er) and the quitter before, but taking care of myself is no longer a New Year’s Resolution for me. It’s a lifestyle. Dese bones gotta keep dis mind in check!

Last year I observed first-hand the difficulty people have keeping the promise to get healthy. I had been going to the gym myself for just over a year consistently. I already had a routine, so I kept doing what I had been doing. I watched as the traffic increased in the parking lot of the gym on January 2nd. A few times, I had to wait for a machine. But, by March 1st, things were back to normal. Most of those new people had quit by then. I’m not making fun of them. I’ve been there…over and over. It is so hard to make a change in life, isn’t it?

When it came to health and fitness, in order to make a lasting change, I needed a shift not only in my behavior but in my thinking. A real paradigm shift. I will be the first to admit that my motivation in the past has been vain. In high school, as I was developing physically and hormonally, I began putting on weight for the first time in my life. I had been a gymnast as a child, and I knew what it was like to be in shape. I liked feeling strong. But, as my physical activity decreased and my metabolism changed, I began struggling with my weight. I am sure now that I did the wrong thing in response. I started drastically reducing my calories. I remember taking a bagel and a banana to school for lunch for about two years straight. I am lucky I didn’t struggle with an eating disorder. All my friends were following the latest fad diet, namely the no-fat one. Everyone scrapped the good stuff like healthy oils and low-fat proteins for the standard fare of the day: Snackwells cookies. That was stellar nutrition, ladies. (What did they make those things out of anyway?) And, so began my lifelong love/hate relationship with food.

I don’t think I will ever completely remove the struggle from my life, but now that I am older, I am not looking at my physical health in the same way I did when I was 18. Sure, it is nice to try on clothes and have them actually fit me. And, it is nice to feel pretty. But, I want to testify to you how AWESOME it is to feel powerful and positive about my life because of my health! I want to tell you how much more equipped I feel to do what God made me to do because I don’t feel sick anymore. I want you to know that you can be more prepared to cope with the emotional and spiritual challenges of life—however devastating they are—when you are taking care of your physical body. And, most of all, I want to tell you why I have begun to see taking care of myself as an important part of my relationship with God.

Before I delve any deeper into this subject, let me first make a few disclaimers. Most of us (especially women) have had some struggles with weight in our lifetime. We have wrestled with body image at one time or another. And, there are those out there who are battling with an eating disorder. For all intents and purposes, I will not be primarily discussing weight management, body image, or eating disorders this time. By the mere mention of physical health, I don’t want to heap condemnation on anyone or make anyone feel like they have somehow failed. I also don’t want to proclaim that I somehow have this all figured out. What I do want to do is tell you what God is teaching me about how our bodies and our spirits are meant to work together and how if we surrender it all to Him, He can bring about some victory in our lives we have not yet seen! Do you want that victory as much as I do? I have discovered that if we want spiritual victory, we must not ignore the physical disciplines of life. We must be intentional about taking care of ourselves.

Before you throw a brick at your computer screen, let me assure you I am not just another person ringing the New Year bell telling you to go on a diet and put on your running shoes so that you can be a good little Christian. In the past I have been prone to disregard someone’s words if they even hinted that there was a list of things I should be doing to make my Christian life perfect. Yuck! I detest legalism. Thinking like that heaps guilt. And, sister, we’ve got enough of that to go around already. Hear me: God is much more gentle and patient than that. He doesn’t condemn. He convicts. He doesn’t push. He pulls.

God spoke to me about my health in the same way he speaks to me about everything else…quietly, persistently, and lovingly. When it was time, God whispered to me. “I’ve got something great around the corner over here. Want to see what it looks like? Will you follow me here? I think you’ll be glad you did.” When God talks sweet like this to me, one word comes to mind: revelation! He is about to reveal something new to me. Just when I think I’ve got things figured out, He decides to show me something deeper, something more challenging—something with greater reward. I truly believe He is inspiring me to discuss this topic with you because--for some of you--it is time to walk around that next corner.

If you hear God’s voice beckoning you to get curious enough to peek at what He just might have waiting for you, then join me over the next few weeks on a journey to explore how your physical health is related to your overall health and even your effectiveness in your Christian life. Often, the new thing God holds around the corner requires that I change a bit. Sometimes that is uncomfortable, but when the invitation comes from God, it is always worth it to follow! Dem bones of yours deserve it! Will you come along?

During the next month, we will look at:

o “Falling off the Truck” (exploring the sometimes unforeseeable pitfalls that cause us to ignore our bodies)

o “The Dust of the Ground and the Breath of Life” (recognizing the God-ordained relationship between your body and your spirit)

o “Plato, Pop Culture, and You” (restoring the balance between the spiritual and the physical in our lives)

o “Getting Back on Track” (discovering how God can help us prioritize our health again)

Blessings until next time!

Thursday, January 20, 2011

What Do I Know of Holy?

It took me by surprise. Pictures don’t usually talk. But, this one, nestled in my Christmas tree, mocked me. Situated next to some of my treasured ornaments, among the uber-creative Christmas photo-cards of loved ones, this particularly gorgeous picture caught my eye. One beaming dad, one smiling pregnant mom, three beautiful biological children, and two precious foster children. They seemed to have it all. The picture taunted me: “If God was really in charge of your family all along, Sarah, then why doesn’t it look more like this family does?” I wouldn’t say that I am prone to compare myself to others or to engage in fits of jealousy, but in this case the accuser astonished me with his ability to perfectly time his attack, thereby exploiting my weakened state of mind. When I was off my guard, he got me good.

Only an hour before, I had been freely promoting my blog on Facebook. God had made it clear to me that He was calling me to a ministry of encouragement, so in obedient faith, I was boldly asking people to look at what I have written. Bryan and I had already made the decision to cope with our pain by standing on God’s promises, being honest, and proclaiming Christ’s redemptive power to everyone. Nevertheless, all of the sudden fear gripped me. Some of the material is very personal and potentially damaging to our family, particularly my husband. In this moment, I was thinking I must be the most unloving wife in the world. I must just want to destroy Bryan. I mean, he could lose his job… What could happen to my kids? What kind of maniac am I?

I sensed the photograph on the tree even more hotly pursuing me. In a 4x6 glossy, it screamed, “This is what victory looks like.” I thought about what it was going to take for our family to have victory over our losses, and I was overwhelmed with the prospect. The picture goaded, “Your dream for a family this happy is dead. Nobody gets victory over stuff this devastating.” A victorious, abundant life is what we want more than anything! We know it is what God wants. But, achieving that complete kind of victory--not just the “I survived it” kind--is going to require amazing humility and trust on our part. And, in that moment, I didn’t feel up to the task. I looked at the picture of my sweet friend’s family. I had read their Christmas letter only days earlier and had rejoiced over what God was doing in their lives. I knew that their reality wasn’t all champagne and roses. We had been neighbors, and I had watched as God grew their family and along with it a desire to live an extraordinary life devoted to His purposes. Their letter had inspired me. But, now, I was feeling green. Plain and simple.

“WHY?” I cried out to God. “I have been sold out to you since I was fifteen years old! I did everything in my power to choose wisely so that I could have a family like that! Why have you allowed this pain?” (Ugh. The pride in that sentiment makes me shudder as I recount it. But, I’m trying to be honest.) As I questioned God, all of the pain washed over me afresh like a raging torrent destined to wipe me off the face of the earth. It just might take me out, I thought. I wondered, “How am I supposed to deal with my disappointment and still trust you, God?”

In order to be disappointed, you first have to fall from your original ideal. And our beginning was as idealistic as they come. I met Bryan through a Christian fraternity at UT while playing on an intramural softball team. Friends told me he was interested in me. I didn’t know him, but I sure thought he was cute! One night, following a sorority meeting, I saw him outside the University Christian Church on campus wearing his tuxedo (he had just come from a choir concert). I watched that handsome boy (he was only 19) scan the crowd. Beautiful, sweet girls clamored for his attention. But, he looked over all of them in order to catch my eye. I was finished! We dated for three years as we completed college, and because his parents lived in Germany at the time, Bryan proposed to me in front of the Eiffel Tower in Paris, France…four days before Christmas. It was a dream fit for a princess! As a wedding gift, my aunt made a scrapbook telling the story of our relationship and engagement. It was fairy-tale themed—castles, magic wands, everything. Everyone around us agreed that we were “meant to be.”

One of our first dates found us sitting on a picnic table in the courtyard of my apartment complex, chatting until sunrise about all of our dreams. As dawn broke and the paper boy threw out the day’s edition of the Austin-American Statesman, I asked Bryan, “What is the one thing you most hope to do someday?” I expected this young man to have some adventurous goal like climbing a mountain or traveling somewhere exotic. But, his honest answer? “I really want to be a dad.” I melted. I know, I know. You think that was a sure-fire come-on line meant to lure me into his clutches! But, coming from my tender Bryan it was pure. Straight from the heart.

After we married, we spent the first couple of years getting to know some families of the men Bryan worked with at Dell. One couple had a baby, and the other was pregnant. We had a ball babysitting, throwing showers, and dreaming about our own family all the while. When Caroline came along, we felt immense joy. She was our life. I think we invited 75 people to her first birthday party. It was admittedly obnoxious, but I didn’t know it at the time. All we were thinking was that she was pretty amazing. We got pregnant with Mary Claire when Caroline was only ten months old. It was a shock to us, but we plodded on, excited about how God was building our family. At her birth, the doctor said, “It’s a girl!” And, simultaneously, Bryan and I said through joyful tears, “A sister for Caroline!” Exactly ten months later, I went for a “girl’s night out” to see the movie “The Notebook”. I came home entranced in a romantic whirlwind…and, then there was Audrey. (Caution: Watching this movie may cause pregnancy!) Our quiver was full. Three years, three girls. We were busy. And, mostly happy, if unprepared to face the tremendous challenges of providing for a family and parenting three young children. We had a lot of learning to do. But, it seemed as if we were living our dream.

Then the bottom fell out, piece by piece. Depression, cancer, death, sin, betrayal, disillusionment. The pain and loss we encountered did NOT fit into my fairy tale. How had my lovely dream so quickly derailed and exploded into a fiery mess? “How am I supposed to deal with my disappointment and still trust you, God?”

The answer to that question is a long one, but I have found a solid foundation for my conclusions in the book of Job. I don’t know if you’re aware, but Satan asked for the chance to mess with Job, and God allowed him. I still don’t know why, but that one fact has caused me to challenge some of my notions of who God is. Anyhow, as Job faced the devastation—he lost everything including children, possessions, and his health—he certainly questioned God. And, many people around Job (so-called “friends”) tried to come up with explanations about why this must have happened to him. Job never abandoned God or cursed Him, but he wrestled with his concept of who God is and why He would allow or cause such misery. God is the most interesting character in this narrative, in my opinion. As a loving father, he listens patiently to all of the speculation for a while (nearly 40 chapters of it), but eventually He tires of it. Then, He draws a line in the sand for Job. His diatribe is much longer and harsher than my synopsis, but it goes basically like this: Listen, Job, I made you! I made everything! I know what I’m doing! Now, are you going to trust me or not?

It is notable that for a long time, God is patient with the process Job has to go through to get to the bottom of his pain. God has been at least that patient with me. I believe that it is natural and normal to have to wrestle through things if we are to get to a genuine and lasting faith that sets the course for the rest of our lives—not just a nominal one based on rules and on our own pre-conceived idea of what life is supposed to be like. So many passages in the Bible show us that it is ok to ask questions and that doubt is not the opposite of faith.

Trying too soon to bring someone to the conclusion that God’s sovereignty is enough of an explanation for their pain can cause more harm than good. I remember an older couple in my parents’ church greeting me soon after Audrey’s death. They were compassionate toward me, but their response was rather oversimplified for a grieving mom, “You know, the Lord knows best, honey.” It crushed me. How could the death of my daughter be part of the Lord knowing best?! But, they were not wrong, in principle. Their timing just stunk. The cool thing about God is that His timing is impeccable. He knows when we need His quiet tender mercy, and He knows when it is time to hear His loud declaration that He is God!

So, while God was tender with Job for a long time, when Job was ready for it, God was no-nonsense with him. I think of the conversation I had with my girls at the dinner table a couple of nights ago. I had been so patient with their little complaints about food…for a long time. I had tried to accommodate their individual tastes, and I had even tried to accommodate Caroline’s newfound aversion to meat and all other animal bi-products. After a while, though, this little dance we had at the table had become tiresome. If I had to monitor the number of bites they ate one more time, I think I would have lost my marbles. It was time for a declaration: I am the mother, and I am TIRED of all of this nonsense. After all, I plan the meals, I buy the food, I bring it home, and I prepare it. I know what is healthy. You don’t. End of story. Eat my food. Like it. Use your good manners at the table. Or, leave the table and don’t plan to eat until the next meal!

Wide-eyed, the kids knew I meant business. I didn’t have to remind them I loved them. They already knew that. What they needed was a quick reminder of who was in charge. The next night, Caroline choked down her chicken gratefully. “It’s just food,” she murmured to herself, all the while giving me the obligatory, “Mom, this is a yummy dinner.” No more bite-counting. It was heavenly.

Just like I had to remind my children who was in charge, God told Job, “You don’t know the half of what I know, so just shut up and trust me!” This is not really what I need to hear coming from my fellow travelers on this planet (or what they want to hear from me), but somehow it is more palatable coming from the God of the universe. I was not able to accept this truth when I first faced my disappointment and pain, but three years later, I can choose to respond like Job did. “Whoa. I’m sorry God. I had forgotten how HOLY you are. I’m sorry. Help me to trust you.”

Sure, my fairy tale life looked pretty good on paper. But, it was a fallacy to think my life was ever MINE in the first place. And, what made me think if I was the author of my own story I would be able to craft it better than God could? In fact, my own ideal, good as it seems, if I don’t surrender it, will most certainly hold me back from all the better things God has planned for my future. One of my friends, who is facing marital struggles, has learned the same lesson. In an email to me she wrote, “One of the toughest realizations I had over the weekend was that my idealism was actually a lack of faith. My "high expectations" were actually a ceiling and I was preventing myself from trusting in what God was allowing in my life. God has better plans that exceed my highest expectations or ideals. I'm planning to trust in Him instead of my ideals.” Wow! You go, girl! God’s plan is indeed far richer and grander than anything we could have ever planned for ourselves. God said it to Job, and he has (in his perfect timing) said it to me and my friend, too. “I am holy.”

Want to know the best part? Guess what happened to Job once he bent his knee to God’s holiness: God restored him. The very same God who allowed calamity to come upon Job restored to him more than he ever had in the first place. “And the Lord gave Job twice as much as he had before…And the Lord blessed the latter days of Job more than his beginning.” Job 42:10b, 12

Now we’re talking! I want my latter days to be blessed more than my beginning! That may not come in the form of material possessions or more children, and it may not look like my original fairy tale, but I know that the God of the Bible is going to bless me beyond my wildest imagination as I trust Him. Either way, I know God is God and I am not. I can’t see what He can see. His purposes include things outside my own happiness. My life is not really about me anyway. God is holy. I will bend my knee.

The morning after the fateful encounter with the Christmas card, I awoke with a song in my heart. I had heard it once the day before, but only in the midst of a bunch of different songs. There was no conscious reason it should be running through my mind. But, I knew it was no accident. They were the words to a new Addison Road song, “What Do I Know of Holy?”:

“I’ve tried to hear from Heaven, but I’ve talked the whole time. I think I made you too small. I never feared you at all…What do I know of you who spoke me into motion? Where have I even stood but the shores along your ocean?...I guess I thought that I had figured you out. I knew all the stories, and I learned to talk about how you were mighty to save. But, those were only empty words on a page. Then I caught a glimpse of who you might be. The slightest hint of you brought me down to my knees…So, what do I know? What do I know of holy?”

It has been a long process getting to this place, but I am in awe of God’s holiness. I’m sure Job was, too. And, I’m wondering, as I’m sure he was, “What do you have in store for me next, Lord?” Instead of mapping it all out as I did in my younger days, I’m keeping my eyes open and my heart open and my soul expectant.

Have you suffered some deep disappointment? As a result, are you unsure if God is trustworthy? I get it. Been there. And, besides, God already knows. So, tell Him. Wrestle with your thoughts in prayer. Let it all hang out. Then, don’t be afraid when you hear God’s voice (when it is time) saying, “I am holy.” When He does, you’ll be ready to receive it. Chances are, when He speaks this way, He is getting ready to restore you beyond your deepest, most heartfelt dreams.

“How am I supposed to deal with my disappointment and still trust you, God?” Recognize Your holiness. Take You at your Word. Wait for You to finish my non-fiction fairy tale as You desire. Knowing the kind of author You are, it just has to end well.

Thursday, January 13, 2011

Miserable Comforters

We’ve all known one. If we are honest, we’ve all been one. A miserable comforter! Have you noticed that when you are having the hardest time, people just say the dumbest things?

Take for example, my neighbor, who showed up on the day my daughter died and thought it was helpful to offer this advice, “You just have to get yourself together and go on for those other two little girls.” Do I? Less than 24 hours after my 2-year-old’s tragic death? Really?

Or, take this example from a friend of mine who lost a child to cancer. When an acquaintance from church showed up to retrieve an empty food container (at least she was trying to help by bringing food…), she lamely offered these words, “When my dog died, I thought, ‘This is what it must be like to lose a child.’” Ouch.

You know, people try. But, they often miss the mark. Big time. I could get indignant if God had not brought to mind one of my own incompetent comments. Remembering it this week made my stomach churn. I was at my 10-year high school reunion. Mary Claire was about 8 weeks old. I was still big and tired, not quite recovered from the birth. So, as I walked in the door, I was dealing with feelings of inadequacy--as I’m sure many were. I was a ball of nerves. High school was good, bad, and awkward all at the same time. I was trying to be mature and expect everyone else to act grown-up, too. But, somehow, we all seemed like 18-year-old kids in 28-year-old bodies, still groping for our identities.

An hour or so into the evening, I got the courage to approach my 7th grade crush. I had heard that his girlfriend and soon-to-be fiancĂ©, another classmate of ours, had recently died in a car accident. I felt so sad for him, and I wanted to offer my condolences. I saw him standing with a friend. I took a deep breath, and once I decided to move in, there was no stopping my mouth. I blurted out, “I am so very sorry to hear about Michelle.” Whew. That was ok. Not a bad start. But, then I added something about knowing how he felt because my mother-in-law was just diagnosed with brain cancer. I don’t know the exact words I used, but that doesn’t matter. What did he care about my mother-in-law’s cancer? How was that in any way related to what he was going through? He smiled at me and nodded, as if to graciously accept my feeble attempt to console him. I walked away, and I felt guilty about it…for about another 10 years, apparently!

Want to hear something exciting? God is totally onto this problem. The undesirable fact is that when we are hurting, some of the things people say to us actually end up hurting us more. God knows.

When Job’s friends offered all kinds of advice and speculation about why he suffered, he took it quietly for a while. But, he got fed up eventually. Here is what he said:

2 “I have heard many things like these;
you are miserable comforters, all of you!
3 Will your long-winded speeches never end?
What ails you that you keep on arguing?
4 I also could speak like you,
if you were in my place;
I could make fine speeches against you
and shake my head at you.
5 But my mouth would encourage you;
comfort from my lips would bring you relief.” Job 16:2-5

Did you know that the phrase “miserable comforters” was even in the Bible?? I didn’t until a year or so ago. I tell you, the day I read this passage, I just about jumped up and down! God gets it!

I would like to assume that, most of the time, the people in my life have good intentions. I know that when I have said the wrong things, I have sincerely wanted to be helpful. But, the same could not be said for the men that tried to explain Job’s suffering. There is a difference between thoughtless words and those that convey a misinterpretation of who God is. The former may be hurtful to us, but the latter is offensive to God.

Sometimes, people come to offer us comfort and end up passing judgment instead, just as Job’s contemporaries did. One woman, coping with infertility and the deep desire to have a child, described a Christian person’s response to her: “Have you considered whether you have some sin in your life that may be keeping you from getting pregnant?” Whoa! In my opinion, that statement hits below the belt and quite probably misinterprets God and His character. I don’t know everything about the Bible yet, but I don’t think that God works that way. (and my Biblical reasons for believing so may be a topic for another day…) In my estimation, this woman, who was seeking God and needed comfort, instead received judgment under the guise of godly counsel.

Job’s “friends” responded to his loss in much the same way. They tried to put God in a box, to ascribe to Him character qualities that were not based in truth. And, to put it plainly, God didn’t like it. After God made sure Job knew who He really was (see more about this in next week’s post), he rebuked the men who had been such “miserable comforters”. Read on:

“ 7 After the LORD had said these things to Job, he said to Eliphaz the Temanite, “I am angry with you and your two friends, because you have not spoken the truth about me, as my servant Job has. 8 So now take seven bulls and seven rams and go to my servant Job and sacrifice a burnt offering for yourselves. My servant Job will pray for you, and I will accept his prayer and not deal with you according to your folly. You have not spoken the truth about me, as my servant Job has.” 9 So Eliphaz the Temanite, Bildad the Shuhite and Zophar the Naamathite did what the LORD told them; and the LORD accepted Job’s prayer.” Job 42:7-9

I love it! God forgave those miserable comforters because of Job’s prayer! How’s that for just desserts?

God knows people don’t always say the right things when we are hurting. And, He didn’t get upset with Job for telling them so. I don’t think God would have been bothered if Job decided to part company with these folks. And, I am confident that God did not want Job’s healing to hinge on their words. As hard as it is, sometimes we have to be able to discern whether or not someone’s words are worth giving another minute of our time—even if the source is someone close to us or someone we previously thought of as wise. We must ask ourselves, “Does that comment line up with God’s truth and character as He has revealed to me in the Bible? Does it sit well with the Spirit, who lives inside of me?” If the answer is no, we must toss it out. As my husband says, “Take out the trash.” Mentally erase it and ask God to replace it with truth.

Moreover, Job’s restoration from all of his suffering happened only after he prayed for his friends’ forgiveness. If he was going to offer a sincere prayer for God to forgive them, then he probably had to forgive them himself as well. If he still harbored anger in his heart toward them for the pain they inflicted, he probably would not have been able to genuinely ask God to let it go. Maybe Job, like me, was able to remember a time when he had said something he regretted…or worse, when he said something that misrepresented the living God. Perhaps because he was able to offer mercy, he could fully receive the restoration God had planned for him. As we will study next week, that restoration was better than he could have imagined.

Listen, we all foul this up! The truth is that nobody knows what to do or say when someone is hurting deeply. We all fumble for words. Sometimes we don’t say anything because we don’t want to say the wrong thing. Ironically, we may hurt people with our silence. And, sometimes, we rely on an underdeveloped view of God or Scripture, bring our own biases and judgmental attitude to the table, and really mess up big time. There is no perfection to be had. But, God does give us some guidance when it comes to consoling others: “3 Praise be to the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of compassion and the God of all comfort, 4 who comforts us in all our troubles, so that we can comfort those in any trouble with the comfort we ourselves receive from God.” 2 Corinthians 1:3-4.

How can we do our very best to comfort those who are hurting? Offer first what we have been given from God Himself! What is the most valuable prerequisite for being a skilled comforter? Personal suffering. The more we have hurt and the more we have needed comfort, the more adept we will be at offering comfort to others. But, it still won’t come naturally. We must always approach this subject with a little fear and trembling.

This week I had the sacred privilege of visiting the home of a friend who is grieving a late miscarriage…the death of her child….only a week ago. This was holy ground. I wanted to tread lightly. When I walked in the door, this precious mother, armed with Kleenex, a journal, and a handful of index cards plastered with Scripture verses, hugged me and cried. “I have been going around the house clinging to Scripture,” she said. “It is the only thing that comforts me.” I had to suck in the flood of tears waiting to gush out of my eyes. I suddenly felt an unfathomable camaraderie with her searing pain and her grief process. I had experienced it. And, it was as if I could transport myself back there in a nanosecond. I did shed some tears, and I think she knew I cared. But, I was careful not to talk too much about how her pain made me feel. This was about her today! And, her pain was brand new and unique simply because it was hers. This was holy ground.

I had a very different experience leaving this friend’s home than I did leaving the high school reunion nearly a decade ago. This time, I wasn’t worried I should have said something different. I had weighed my words, relied on the Holy Spirit, and used the comfort I had been given—straight from God—to comfort this weary, broken-hearted mama. This time around, I have a much more rational grasp on what I have the power to do and what is out of my control. And, I actually think I may have helped.

In this case, I had a very similar experience to draw from, but there were still many differences. My loss was a two-year-old, hers a 20-week-old fetus. Our ethnic cultures are different. She and her husband describe themselves as private people. I…well, I am obviously not! I am using these differences to make an important point: You don’t have to have been down exactly the same road in order to comfort someone. You need only draw from the gifts God gave you when you needed them! Look back at 2 Corinthians 1:3-4. It says that God comforts us in ALL of our troubles so that we can comfort those in ANY trouble. Did you catch that? We can comfort those in ANY trouble with what God has given us. It’s kind of a “pay-it-forward” system.

No matter how inadequate we feel, we can be confident we will be equipped to help others because God promises to personally comfort us in ALL of our troubles.

He comforts us with His presence, guidance, and control.

o “Even though I walk through the darkest valley, I will fear no evil, for you are with me; your rod and your staff, they comfort me.” Psalm 23:4

He comforts us with His promises.

o “My comfort in my suffering is this: Your promise preserves my life.” Psalm 119:50

He comforts us through His Word.

o “I remember, Lord, your ancient laws, and I find comfort in them.” Psalm 119:52

Best of all, God assures us the comfort we need will come directly from Him.

o “Shout for joy, you heavens; rejoice, you earth; burst into song, you mountains! For the LORD comforts his people and will have compassion on his afflicted ones.” Isaiah 49:13

o “I, even I, am he who comforts you.” Isaiah 51:12a

In other words, as believers (especially as we live, grow, and suffer ourselves) have exactly what it takes to be “first-class comforters”…instead of miserable ones!

Wednesday, January 5, 2011

When Small Talk Becomes Big Talk

Strangers. Can’t live with ‘em. Can’t live without ‘em. They’re everywhere! In the grocery store, in a conference room, in the beauty shop, at every cash register, waiting to pick up kids at school. Everywhere we go, we chat with people in passing. Most of the time, the comments are benign. “Sun’s out again. Sure is a beautiful day!” We respond, “Sure is! Have a great one!” But, if you are stuck in line, introduced to a business associate, or assigned a seat next to someone on an airplane, the small talk gets upgraded a notch. At this point, mere comments morph into questions. There is the typical fare like “Where are you from?” and “What do you do for a living?” I have heard my husband complain about the latter. I mean, does what you do to make money define you? But, for Bryan and I, the MOTHER of all small talk questions is, “How many children do you have?”  Um, do you want the long answer or the short one?

You want to know how answering that question makes me feel?  Watch this.

I love this clip! It is so ridiculous that the actors can’t even keep a straight face. It makes me laugh every time I watch it. And, I identify with it 100%. In fact, we’ve been to Disney World twice since Audrey died, and I tried not to tell anyone at the time, but I couldn’t help but feel empty a lot of the time we were there. I noticed all of the families fighting and all of the morbidly obese people who couldn’t walk through the park and I wondered, “Lord, is this all there is? Is this really the happiest place on earth?” (Funny side note: In Mary Beth Chapman’s new book Choosing to See, she has a whole chapter about their trip to Disney World titled, “The Unhappiest Place on Earth”. Guess I’m not the only one.)

Anyway, take note of the SNL jingle:

♫“You’re enjoying your day. Everything’s going your way. Then along comes Debbie Downer. Always there to tell you about a new disease, a car accident, or killer bees. You’ll beg her to spare you, “Debbie, please!” But, you can’t stop Debbie Downer!”♪

Bryan and I have joked time and again about the Debbie Downer skit. After all, you have to keep your sense of humor. While being honest about the death of your child is not the same as being a negative pessimistic downer about everything, it is nevertheless a less-than-socially-acceptable choice in some circles. It is a very real dilemma we face almost daily. Do we tell the truth and risk making someone uncomfortable, or do we lie or bend the truth to protect others and in the process stuff our own feelings? Early on, we had to decide how we were going to talk about Audrey’s death. How will we define it for our children? How will we talk about her in extended family gatherings? How will we discuss our daughter and our grief amongst friends? What will we project to total strangers? When will we speak up? When will we be silent? What is the least painful way? What is the right thing to do? This is big stuff.

I bring up this topic because if you are dealing with anything serious, you know what I mean. You may have lost a child, too. But, it may be something completely different you are facing. Maybe your marriage is falling apart. Maybe you are struggling with a rebellious child. Whatever it is, small talk can hurt. When someone casually asks, “How are you doing?”…do they really want to know? How can you be sure? Will you say, “Fine, fine” when you’re not? What will the emotional backlash be, over time, when you continually have to pretend? Or, instead, will you say, “You know, truthfully, I’m having a hard time right now”? If you do, will you be forced to elaborate? Or, can you just leave it at that? Short and sweet, to the point…and honest. Probably not. Small talk can so often become BIG talk.

In December, I went to the home of a sweet, precious, hospitable neighbor for a ladies luncheon. All of the invitees were neighbors except for one woman who was a good friend of the hostess. She had recently moved here from out of state. As we all sat around the dining room table, in the course of the lunch conversation, I mentioned redecorating Audrey’s old bedroom for use as Bryan’s office. I noticed that the friend shot a glance at the hostess. I wondered, “Did I make her uncomfortable?” I concluded that maybe she didn’t know I had lost a child. People are often shocked by our tragedy. It’s nothing new. But, a few minutes later, she spoke up. “Did I hear you say you have a daughter who died? My 10-year-old son died of cancer three years ago.”

By then, lunch was almost over. And, people may have wanted to give the two of us some privacy to talk about what we had in common. I will give the benefit of the doubt because I know a lot of these ladies, and they have listened to me before. But, I kid you not: There is no better way to clear a room than to start talking about your child’s death! It is almost comical!

Ironically, as the woman and I talked, we discussed just how difficult it is to decide when and how to tell new acquaintances about our loss. She told me that her new counselor advised her not to put that information out there first because “it does not define her.” I felt like I had been stabbed in the gut when I heard those words. My initial reaction was to wonder, “What kind of wacky counselor would advise a grieving woman not to talk about her child?” I know I didn’t hide this well. I asked, “Are you ok with that?” She told me that she was and that she knew God was telling her it was time to put on new clothes, to remove her clothes of mourning. Not to “move on” but to “move forward”. Somehow that rubbed unsettlingly up against my line of thinking with regard to my own personal walk through grief.

All in all, we had a lovely conversation. I could tell we were both hungry for someone to identify with our pain, and I knew that this was a divine appointment. I tried to imagine leaving all of my support and starting over. I shuddered. When we parted ways, we exchanged information and agreed to contact one another. But, I couldn’t shake some icky feelings. First, I thought I had probably come on too strong, shared too much, and ruined the Christmas party for everyone else (Debbie Downer style). Second, I was bothered by this mom’s newfound peace about not defining herself by her loss. Was I doing that? Was I staying in my grief when I should be “moving forward”? Did she think I needed to change as much as I thought she did? What was the right way?

In the next few days, I visited her son’s website originally set up to keep family and friends updated on his condition and how they were all faring. I was amazed at the faith expressed in the pages. So many people loved and supported this beautiful family. A large sum of money had been raised to help him fight cancer and to help other children fight cancer in his name. The website included a video of his father preaching to their church, boldly proclaiming Christ in the midst of terrible tragedy. But, now, this brave mother was leaving everything known, everything that was home to her. In faith, she was following God into the next chapter. No wonder she had to look at things differently than me! I was so relieved when I received an email from her saying she was glad to meet me, wanted to mail me something, and looked forward to getting to know me. Even if she was just being nice, it was a relief!

A week later, I sent her a CD I love and she sent me a Bible study excerpt that had recently changed her perspective. My CD shows how one family is being transparent in grief, standing on Scripture, and publicly teaching. Her Bible study shows how one woman decided to throw off her mourning clothes in exchange for a new wardrobe so that she could receive the next thing God had planned for her (see the book of Ruth). Both, I realized, are sincere and right responses from people who desperately sought God’s hand in their pain.

In hindsight, I don’t know why I thought there was a “right” way to handle things. God revealed to me that my problem was thinking that either of us was wrong. This sweet woman told me that since she is a “rule follower” she doesn’t read books about grief because she knows it would make her feel like she was “doing it wrong”. I heard in my head: Hello, pot. This is the kettle. You’re black! I was doing the same thing by comparing my response to hers! What if God had two different plans for two different people? Isn’t that possible? Duh.

I have concluded that there is certainly more than one right way to respond to the “mother of all small talk questions”. But, you do have to pick one. So, how do I respond? Usually with the truth. “I have three children. Two here and one in Heaven.” Does that make some people uncomfortable? Yes! Sometimes, it ends the conversation dead in its tracks. And, sometimes, it provides the perfect opportunity to share my faith. One thing I expect: it’s always a gamble. I never know which way it is going to go. But, I choose to answer this way because I want the chance to share Jesus with people. Often, I am given the opportunity to encourage someone else in their grief or pain. It may be uncomfortable for some to hear, but I am convinced that discomfort is not the world’s worst evil. In fact, often, we must be uncomfortable to grow. I also don’t believe that I am sharing about Audrey or our loss simply to hear myself talk. If I thought what I had to say was depressing, I would shut up! But, I don’t believe that for one minute. What I have to share is HOPE! I have found the keys to the kingdom. I have lost a child, and I still have HOPE! I want to let others in on this little secret of mine. It’s a good one.

It has been a process, but I am becoming very comfortable with being that crazy lady who is always talking about Jesus and her deceased child. Sure, it comes up in settings where the social norm is to discuss Christmas decorating, school events, and the latest episode of Modern Family (which I think is hilarious, by the way). But, that matters to me less and less. You know why? Because people are dying inside to just say what they’re feeling. Many people at a party and in the midst of day-to-day affairs are harboring their own pain, questioning matters of life and death and faith. I’m just there to make it easier for them to be honest and to point them to the One who is still on the throne.

Yes, the answer to the “mother of all small talk questions” was decided for me long before I ever faced this dilemma. It was decided the day God made me who I am. Sarah’s my name, BIG talk’s my game. However you decide to handle your pain, though, know that you have at least one comrade out there who gets how hard it is to make up your mind.

Saturday, January 1, 2011

Surprised by Cake

Happy New Year, everyone! Welcome to 2011. A Space Odessey. No, I’m just kidding! But, for those of us born in the good ol’ 19-somethings, it sounds like a futuristic space movie, doesn’t it? 2011. Weird.

As most do, we’ve been reflecting over the last week about what happened in our family in 2010. It’s amazing how quickly we forget all of the things that transpire in a relatively short period of time. For us, 2010 included a 10-day kid-free trip to Hawaii, the birth of an adorable nephew, the wedding of a dear friend, a family vacation to Washington, D.C., my parents’ 40th wedding anniversary celebration, my dad’s retirement, and the unexpected conception of two close friends’ babies (second-rounders…I mean the “I-thought-we-were-done…our-youngest-child-is-seven” kind). So many great things happened this year. But, in the Bryan Moran family, our standards are kind of low. It seems like a red-letter year when we go 12 months without a major tragedy. We still have had lots of crying and fighting through to do, but no new junk to deal with. We consider that a really good thing. I would like to see about 10 more years in a row like that. God knows I’ve asked Him for it.

But, the truth is that none of us knows what 2011 will bring. With God, we are on a “need to know” basis. Our great adventure with Him does not include a lot of advanced warning, does it?

Two nights ago we went bowling for my sister-in-law’s birthday. When we left the bowling alley, we got in the car and headed to a family member’s home for birthday cake. From the back seat of the van, my girls piped up. “Hey, we didn’t know we were going to Aunt Tricia’s for cake! Nobody told us!” My dad remarked, “Well, you didn’t need to know. All you need to do is to be surprised by cake.”

It was a simple comment, really. But, it was profound. Really profound. My kids are on a “need to know” basis with us. We are their parents. We love them with a fierce love. We know what is going to happen next, and most of the time, the kids don’t need advanced warning. They live in a trusting relationship with us. We know what they need, and we provide it. And, sometimes, we bless them unexpectedly.

There may just be a theme here, because, again, I am challenged to relate to God like a trusting child. I am to live my life with abandon, following God wherever He leads. Heck, I don’t know where that is!! But, it can’t hurt me to trust Him. “I know the plans I have for you, says the Lord. Plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you a hope and a future.” (Jeremiah 29:11). I’ve heard that verse a million times, but it strikes me differently today. Take the first phrase, for instance. “I know the plans I have for you.” The key lies in who the “I” is. It is the God of the universe talking to me here! And, He knows what He is doing. Nothing is an accident. I don’t need to know what is going to happen because God already does. And, he intends to use everything that happens to me—good or bad—to prosper me. That doesn’t need to make sense to me. I just need to believe it. If God loves me and God is in control, then what do I have to lose by trusting Him with my whole heart?

In keeping with that attitude, I’m excited about this year. I know my Heavenly Father better than I ever have before. The One who says, “I know the plans I have for you,” loves me with a fierce love. He wants to prosper me, no matter what comes. And, He will.

With Bryan and I as their parents, Caroline and Mary Claire are free. They are free to play and have fun and enjoy life. They are free to learn and grow and try new things and make mistakes. They are free to dream and to hope and to explore everything life has to offer. In the arms of my Heavenly Father, I’m free, too.

In 2011, and for time and eternity, all I need to do is to be surprised by cake.

“Now to Him who is able to do far more abundantly than all that we ask or think, according to the power at work within us, to Him be the glory in the church and in Christ Jesus throughout all generations, forever and ever. Amen.”
--Ephesians 3:20-21

Dive—Steven Curtis Chapman

“The long awaited rains
Have fallen hard upon the thirsty ground
And carved their way to where
The wild and rushing river can be found
And like the rains
I have been carried here to where the river flows yeah
My heart is racing and my knees are weak
As I walk to the edge
I know there is no turning back
Once my feet have left the ledge
And in the rush I hear a voice
That's telling me it's time to take the leap of faith
So here I go

I'm diving in I'm going deep in over my head I want to be
Caught in the rush lost in the flow in over my head I want to go
The river's deep the river's wide the river's water is alive
So sink or swim I'm diving in

There is a supernatural power
In this mighty river's flow
It can bring the dead to life
And it can fill an empty soul
And give a heart the only thing
Worth living and worth dying for yeah
But we will never know the awesome power
Of the grace of God
Until we let ourselves get swept away
Into this holy flood
So if you'll take my hand
We'll close our eyes and count to three
And take the leap of faith
Come on let's go”