The love of Jesus tells us that there is hope for change, hope for restoration, hope for redemption, hope for freedom…
I will get some things wrong, most likely a lot of things. I will miss something, and fumble through. And, I will do my best to describe the tension I’m attempting to hold while avoiding the binary choices the government, the media, and the masses appear to be suggesting. I can’t stop thinking about the pain and fear I see spilled out on the internet all day every day via hateful memes, name-calling, finger-pointing, us vs. them, either/or, tribalistic, angry rants. I believe we need to start talking about how to stand up for what’s right without perpetuating hate. I believe we need to start talking about how to advocate for holy causes without creating unholy wars on our social media accounts, in our families, neighborhoods, communities, churches, states, and country. I believe we need to press into the hard work it takes to have uncomfortable, and more importantly, humble conversations that result in the kind of change that comes from radical love and courageous action.
As I read the rhetoric on both sides of the issue of police brutality and systemic racism, I keep coming back to the falsehood of dualistic thinking. I keep clinging to, “yes/and,” while trying to reject the natural response of “either/or.” I struggle to avoid binary choices while continuing to practice non-judgment of those I disagree with. It is uncomfortable and lonely to avoid sides, because choosing a side brings immediate belonging. But, I choose to sit in the discomfort, and plead for God’s love to consume my heart so that I may learn to love others as He loves us all.
What I know is that I have yet to see or feel the value in clinging to sides, digging into being right, staking my claim, or protecting my tribe at all costs. What I know is that I’ve consistently witnessed good fruit grow from loving, listening, and holding grace with open arms. There has never been a time in my life when I’ve felt a more desperate need to find nuance, while attempting to push mass incivility out of my heart and mind. Rather than run to a side and hunker down in an echo chamber filled with people who agree with me, I believe God is calling me to deeply know that I am no more righteous than my neighbor…that my feelings and opinions are not the only ones that matter…that I don’t have it ALL right, and I never will…that I am living in a broken world that breaks people, and that bold action with a foundation of love and grace will bring healing.
Being right doesn’t bring healing.
Name-calling and pointing fingers don’t bring healing.
Pressing into our agenda doesn’t bring healing.
Shame and blame don’t bring healing.
Weaponizing our words doesn’t bring healing.
Spouting statistics and building defenses don’t bring healing.
Gearing up for the next gotcha doesn’t bring healing.
Healing comes from moving towards that still small voice of the Spirit.
Healing comes from listening.
Healing comes from grace, love, and forgiveness.
Healing comes from putting understanding above being understood.
Healing comes from allowing ourselves and others to express the emotions that make our bodies sick when kept inside.
Healing comes from community…communing.
Healing comes from validating one another’s trauma and doing no harm.
Healing comes from expressing God’s love with our actions, our words, our insistence on putting others before ourselves.
Healing comes from pressing into difficult conversations with a hunger to hear over being heard.
Healing comes from de-centering ourselves and making the human being sitting across from us, God’s own creation sitting across from us, more essential.
Healing comes from restorative dialogue.
Healing comes from healthy boundaries.
Healing comes from learning what weighs heavy on another’s heart and then pursuing an avenue to lift that weight so that they can soar.
Healing comes from loving the other as they need to be loved without conditions.
Healing comes from allowing the grace of God to show us how to lift another up, protect another’s heart, save another’s life, vote in another’s favor.
Healing comes from dismantling structures that allow for abuse, developing policies that lift up the oppressed, creating solutions that are equitable for all, and putting others first as Jesus ALWAYS did! Others first: Every. Single. Time.
I’m not capable of being the hands and feet of Jesus without his direct movement in my heart, and I’m seeking that movement, praying for that movement, hopeful for that movement as I continue to fight the urge to enter a battle that appears to call for “othering” and division.
The world, the news, many people I follow on social media suggest I choose between all Black people or all police. The love of Jesus tells me that this is not the choice. The love of Jesus tells me that there is hope for change, hope for restoration, hope for redemption, hope for freedom, and that it stems from a love that permeates our core, a love that calls us to lay our lives down for another, a love that sacrifices self, religion, world-views, politics…a love that calls for death to self.
As I press in, listen, learn, read, and pray about the next action step I should take to fight racism in our country, I am also holding many “yes/ands” in a tension so great I think my heart will tear down the middle if I don’t disconnect from the dualistic commentary pulling, pressing, pushing us apart in every corner of our lives.
There is so much I have yet to learn, tomorrow may bring a new set of eyes, AND today my “yes/ands” sound like this:
Our country suffers from systemic racism. There are police officers who deserve our gratitude.
Policing is born from the evil seed of slave patrols. There are police officers who abhor evil and selflessly lay their lives on the line each day to serve and protect.
There are policies steeped in racism that lead to the destruction of Black lives and protect racist police. There are police officers who would sacrifice their lives to save anyone regardless of their skin color.
There are deadly consequences in communities of color when police breathe air they don’t know is racist. There are police who have worked to build trusting relationships in Black communities.
There are rioters taking advantage of the cause of peaceful protestors. The majority of people taking to the streets are doing so peacefully.
There are police pepper-spraying and shooting rubber bullets into peaceful crowds. There are police officers kneeling and marching with peaceful protestors.
The brutality perpetuated on Black bodies by those who are supposed to protect and serve is sickening. There are officers who wear their badge with the spirit of a guardian rather than a soldier.
There is an urgent need for re-evaluation, re-focus, re-structure, and reform in our country’s policing. There are men and women in blue who put their lives on the line every day to serve their communities.
I do not know or agree with everything the BLM organization stands for. I agree and loudly declare without hesitation that Black Lives Matter.
I empathize with the rage, and do so without judgment. I do not condone rioting and violence.
I do not believe looting is a solution. I do believe that no matter the looting, murder is worse, and excusing murder by police must end.
I mourn the loss of Black lives. I mourn the loss of cops killed in the line of duty.
Ultimately, what I hope and pray for while I hold these “yes/ands” is that the Lord will transform my heart and thoughts to be more in alignment with his. I continue to ask Him for wisdom on how to better love my neighbor, my enemy, my fellow human who was created in the image of God. I continue to pray for his eyes, his heart, his guidance on how I can move and breathe in a way that will lift up the marginalized, protect the oppressed, and stand for the disenfranchised. I continue to ask him what it is I can do to be a light in the midst of collective mourning.
I continue to pray.
Dear Heavenly Father, please help us navigate this fractured world in a way that mends the broken-hearted and avoids the creation of deeper fault lines in the souls of your precious creations. Help us to tear down the walls of injustice and destroy the power structures that create inequity and inequality while also building bridges of love and restoration. In Jesus name, Amen.
Whether you’re walking through grief or walking alongside the grieved, grace is a gift that offers space for vulnerability and healing. Grace is a gift that makes room for the pain to push its way through and out, over and over. Grace is a gift that says, “you are loved in your darkest hour. You are cared for even when the tears won’t stop. You are accepted and valued while you’re blinded by pain and tears. You matter, even at your messiest.” Grace is a beacon of light that shines on the long path of loss traveled by the grieved.
It has been less than 3 months since my mom unexpectedly passed away, and I am reminded daily how much grace is required to live through deep, heavy, aching loss. I’m reminded moment by moment that I rely heavily on heavenly grace as I put one foot in front of the other. I’m reminded that when grace slips through my fractured heart, I’m blessed to be surrounded by people who tenderly love me back to a place of hope and restoration, love and favor. I’m learning daily lessons about the surprising movements of grief and grace, and some of these lessons have been hard to tread through.
Just hours after my mom’s memorial service, I lost sight of grace, and made a decision I regret. I allowed hurt and disappointment to get the best of my weary heart. I was confused and afflicted by the lack of outreach I had received from 2 women in my life, and I could’ve let it go. I should’ve let it go. My mom would’ve let it go, and she would’ve counseled me to do the same. I could’ve chalked it up to immaturity, trauma, ignorance, or universal brokenness. I could’ve let it roll off my back, but that’s not what I chose. I chose to engage my hurt until it boiled over hissing for release. I chose to take a route that would bear no good fruit. The very same day I stood up in front of hundreds of people honoring my mom and her beautiful spirit, and claiming that I wanted to be more like her, I still chose to send a message to these women, sharing my hurt and disappointment. It wasn’t an angry message, but it was a message that carried a dose of shame, and it was not a message of grace.
It took less than one day for me to regret my decision. I quickly came to realize that I had allowed my deep hurt, my heavy grief, my exposed and raw emotions to be expressed as anger towards them, and I was heartsick by my choice. I felt guilt and shame for lashing out and I felt a dark sadness that my mom was disappointed in me. In an effort to repair the graceless mistake I had made, I sent the following message:
“I have not acted out of grace or love, and my mom was the perfect representation of both of those things. I want to be more like my mom. I’m ashamed that I’ve allowed my broken heart and hurt to turn into hurting you. I was hurt, but did not need to share it with you…Love should always lead and we love you…Grief at this magnitude wears on the nerves and can cause emotions and behavior that are outside of the norm. That’s where I’m at right now…outside of the norm. I am broken. Please forgive me.”
Neither woman responded and I was undone. I could not stop the self-talk that said I deserved to be ignored, that my mistakes make me unlovable, that if I mattered I would be forgiven, that the only way I can be accepted is to get “it” right all the time. The shame swimming in my head was keeping me up at night, and I could not stop ruminating. Shame is toxic, and in the midst of grief it can be almost too much to bear. I had inadvertently compounded my grief by adding emotional pain that didn’t belong…pain that had nothing to do with losing my mom…pain that actually blocked my ability to get back to processing my grief. Here I was focusing on the hurt caused by my expectations rather than putting my energy into grief work and healing. Suddenly, I found myself sitting in shame…hating myself for allowing my wounds to wound others. What had started as disappointment in someone else was now a great disappointment in myself.
Thankfully, I have friends and family who stepped in to remind me that I’m worthy of forgiveness and grace, just as much as the 2 women I had clearly hurt. A dear friend held me tightly and said, “you are allowed to make mistakes and you are forgiven.” She acknowledged that grief turns our world upside down and that we must be kind to ourselves during these times. She encouraged me to forgive myself so that I could refocus on my walk with grief. This is when I realized that the grief journey is also a grace journey, and without grace we may find ourselves experiencing additional pain and loss. The mistakes I’ve made on this path have taught me that in order for healing to move unhindered, there are 3 directions grace must flow in times of grief:
Giving grace to others while we grieve
Many people haven’t suffered significant and/or traumatic loss, and if they have, then their trauma may not allow for the kind of support we need. It is important that while we are grieving we make a decision to forgive others for their lack of understanding, their perceived insensitivity, and even their bizarre or misguided comments. Death is uncomfortable. It cannot be fixed. There are no words. It reminds us of our mortality and the fleeting nature of life on earth. To show up for someone who has just experienced a terrible loss takes courage and vulnerability. Try not to hold on too tightly to expectations of what people should do and/or say or how often. Expectations often lead to disappointment, hurt, and anger in a time we’re most in need of love, peace, and healing. Everyone is doing their best and as Toni Morrison said, “if they knew better they would do better.” Decide not to take disappointments personally. It is important to recognize that those who are showing up, are absolutely doing their best, and even those who don’t show up are living within their own emotional, physical, mental, and spiritual capacity…we are all doing the best we can.
Giving grace to ourselves while we grieve
In the pursuit of healing, we must offer ourselves daily and generous doses of forgiveness for our mistakes. When our hearts are torn open, we are much more susceptible to overwhelm and uncharacteristic behavior. Sleep is diminished, anxiety is at the forefront, we can barely see straight let alone think straight. We are exhausted and worn out. Grief takes an emotional, mental and physical toll and we must be patient with our hearts, our minds, our bodies. The ability to focus on anything other than the pain can be impossible at times, and our minds struggle to keep up with even the most mundane activities, so please be gentle. Two hours of work may feel like 12 and two minutes of patience with our children may feel like a lifetime. As we walk through this fog, we can expect to stumble. We will make mistakes, we will say things we wish we could take back, we will hurt other’s feelings, and yet we must continue to give ourselves grace. We are allowed to be messy AND loved! We are allowed to say, “ I’m sorry. I just can’t do this. I need help.”
Giving grace to those who are grieving
There is no telling how grief will impact a person or how a person will cope, but you can expect the bereaved to be forever changed. Please understand that the grief-stricken cannot see the world the way we saw it one moment before. Everything has changed…our reality has changed. We are heavy and pushing through something dark and deep…we often feel lost and disjointed. We will not be ourselves, so please offer abundant forgiveness and understanding. We are facing a long road of healing from an amputation. We must learn how to see and do things differently, think differently, live differently. Every moment carries a pulsating ache. We need love, acceptance, space to scream and pound and weep. We need space for our enormous feelings, but not distance. We need close, strong, loving arms, and undeserved forgiveness as we stumble through the haze of sorrow that surrounds us. We need tenderness even while our rough edges rub everyone the wrong way. We need to be reminded over and over that mistakes do not make us unlovable. We need forgiveness as we will do and say things that are out of character and likely uncalled for. Our world has shifted. Everything about the past, the present, and the future is now different, and we need hope to step forward. As we break before you, and disappoint you, and maybe even anger you, please forgive us. I’m begging for myself. I’m begging for others.
As I walk the path of grief I clearly see the beauty grace has to offer. Unmerited favor and love create the conditions necessary for the grieved to move towards hope and healing. Unmerited favor and love give the grieved a chance to live with their head and heart above water, while they learn how to live without their loved one. Unmerited love and favor carry the grieved through the heaviest and darkest of days.
I have made mistake after mistake since my mom passed, and I am so grateful for those who continue to hold me close. I am so grateful for those who remind me to be tender with myself. I am so grateful for those who help me lean into grace for myself and grace for others.
I pray that you will join me in the practice of giving grace to those who may disappoint, and that includes ourselves. This journey is not meant to be walked alone, so let us surround ourselves with friends and family who allow unconditional love and favor to flow freely in ALL directions. Let us journey through grief and grace together.
I love celebrating your life but I hate that I have to.
It’s hard to describe the shadows that creep in late at night, while I lay awake unguarded. The harrowing memories that plague my tired mind. It starts before I even consciously realize that we’ve slipped into April. It’s as if everything shifts. The air is thicker, the mood cloudier, the dreams lonelier, the heart heavier, the words insufficient. Like clockwork the grief creeps forward, relentlessly gaining intensity with each passing second. It’s difficult to explain the trembling in my voice that appears this time of year. I may have told a thousand stories that included your name, but in April I can’t even silently think of you without tears welling up in my worn out eyes. It’s as if the valiant effort my mind put forth all year to shrink that permanent hole in my life was all in vain…completely upended as the hole burrows deeper and wider overnight. I am flooded with the realness, the pain, the emptiness that comes with no longer having you here. It’s as if I’m flung back to that day 5 years ago and I have suddenly forgotten how to cope…forgotten the miles I’ve traveled in healing…forgotten how to live with the sorrow that visits always uninvited.
There are no words to adequately describe the aching I feel in my spirit to see you again…hear your laugh, hug your neck, listen to your stories, tell you mine, introduce you to your darling niece and nephews. There’s no stopping the flow of tears as I imagine how much you would love these precious little ones that have been born since you departed, and how much they would love you back. Just last night I read The Book With No Pictures to Isaac, the nephew you kissed on the knee as you passed in the stars. I couldn’t help but imagine the hilarious voices you would’ve invented while reading this book and how much he would’ve relished in your time together. I try to do it justice, to make you proud, to give Isaac a glimpse of the joy and silliness you brought into our lives. I give it my all even while fighting back the quiver in my voice.
I love that your legacy lives on in your family and friends, but I hate that you left a legacy so soon.
Your birthday is in April.
The last time I saw your smiling face and heard your voice was in April, on Easter Sunday, when we announced that I was pregnant.The last letter you wrote me arrived in April. It was red ink, with capital letters, in your beautiful architectural hand writing, clearly expressing your excitement that your baby sister was going to be a mom. You passionately described the unconditional love that comes with parenthood. This letter…the last letter you wrote to me still explodes with adoration for your beautiful girls.
Then there is May.
You left us in May. The last text message you sent the family was on May 11th, the same day you died. While we were celebrating dad’s 70th birthday, you were being greeted by Jesus. The call I will never forget came the morning of May 12th. It was Mother’s Day…it was a day of mere survival because the unthinkable had happened…you had not survived. We delivered your eulogy on the 21st day of May.
I hate these anniversaries.
Every year, for 2 months I feel myself receding into the shadows where words are meager and bitterness clings to the tip of my tongue. I’m tempted to numb the vivid memories of this trauma with hollow distractions and senseless behaviors. For 2 months a year I spend sleepless nights soaking my pillow with tears of regret, anxiety, anger, fear, heartbreak. For 2 months a year I can no longer fight off the visuals of your death, your viewing, your casket being lowered into the ground, your daughters faces as I drove them to the cemetery. For 2 months a year I’m reminded of the agony I felt completing menial daily tasks after you passed. I’m reminded of the first time I showered after your death and how I despised myself for any sense of relief I felt as the warm water poured over me. I couldn’t shake the guilt that came with knowing that you lost your life in a bitter cold river and now I was allowing this same hijacker of life…this water…rain over me as a source of comfort, washing away my tears. For 2 months a year I think back to that time I couldn’t bare to use punctuation because it felt too final. As if the energy it took to end a sentence was more than I could muster. For 2 months a year the dam breaks wide open and I can’t fight back the sobs or run from the gripping sadness.
Then, the strangest and most unexpected gift is given. Somewhere in the middle of those 2 months I find solace because you ALWAYS show up. You show up in a dream that someone shares with me. You show up in a Bob Marley song that’s playing in a random boutique I step foot in for the first time. You show up in a memory I had forgotten about. You show up in a picture I’ve never seen. You show up in a story I’ve never heard. You show up in a beautiful building that I instantly imagine you creating. You show up in a whisper reminding me that I must not take a moment for granted. I feel you standing beside me. You dare me to self-reflect on my attitude, my complaints, my propensity to take the blessings around me for granted. I picture your smiling face and imagine all I would give to prevent you from taking that hike by yourself…I imagine how many more breaths you could’ve had…should’ve had…and I’m convinced once again that I must use my time and the gift of life wisely and in honor of you. You show up during those 2 months to confirm once again that God’s grace is sufficient for me and His power is made perfect in my weakness.
It is during these wearisome months that it becomes crystal clear how God uses each heart wrenching moment to remind me of the preciousness of life. Every year, by His grace, I experience supernatural strength and peace to push through the months of tears and the nights laying awake thinking of you and what I would sacrifice to have you with us again. He comforts me in my most vulnerable time of need and assures me that one day we will meet again and it will be a reunion more beautiful than I could ever imagine. He joins me in my grief and assures me that my grief is not without hope. This year He gave me a song on Easter Sunday and it consumed my soul as I sang from the depths of my mourning heart, “death where is your sting?!” As I sang, with my arms reached high I imagined you with open arms ready to embrace me when it’s my time to journey home. He draws me into Him and I feel close to you again.
Burt, it’s April and I feel you near.
“And the God of all grace, who called you to his eternal glory in Christ, after you have suffered a little while, will himself restore you and make you strong, firm and steadfast.” – 1 Pete 5:10
I woke up the other morning and read President Trump’s tweet, “The booing at the NFL football game last night, when the entire Dallas team dropped to its knees, was loudest I have ever heard. Great anger.”
In that moment I couldn’t help but wonder if my heart would be better off if I allowed my sadness to be replaced with great anger. If I could blame others, avoid accountability, point fingers, apply apathy, scream at people and ideas I didn’t agree with, defend myself at all costs and offend others with no remorse, would this be a healthier place for my heart? Would “great anger” be better than waking up in the middle of the night with a heavy weight on my chest and a soul that weeps over the discord in our country and the pain in this world? If I could be ruthless rather than repentant, indifferent versus engaged, judgmental instead of merciful, maybe the sadness would turn to vigorous fist pumps and powerful chest beating. After some reflecting I realized that “great anger” is the easy way, the world’s way, and the way that is absent of God’s love. Some nights I can’t sleep and too many mornings than I care to count, I wake up, scroll through my Twitter notifications and cry before I even roll out of bed. I have been so burdened by the polarization in our country, the cruelty and name-calling from people I typically respect, and the hypocrisy (from all sides) that is now magnified due to social media. I’m taxed by the anger I’m constantly shoving down or trying to “pray away” and even when the anger subsides the sadness takes its toll.
Why do I remain plugged in? Why do I continue to scroll? Why am I tuning into CNN and Fox News every day?
I’ve convinced myself that I need to invest time on these media and social outlets so that I can stay well-informed, understand both sides, and have an educated opinion. Recently though, I’ve come to realize that what I’m consuming is so polarizing that regardless of what I’m watching, reading, and/or hearing it’s coming from a place of anger, fear, bias, bitterness, defensiveness, offensiveness, prejudice and so on. These undercurrents are affecting my spirit. Although I do believe it’s important to keep my head out of the sand and get involved when there’s injustice, stand up for the oppressed, and carry the burdens for others when the weight is too much, I have to find a better way.
I believe God can use me in powerful ways regardless of the news I watch or the social media I scour. I believe The Lord will guide my decisions and purify my thoughts if I turn my gaze towards Him and away from the self-serving perspectives of the world. If I believe this to be true, then why do I feel anxious when I consider deleting Twitter from my phone or abstaining from National news?
Do I fear I’ll miss the immediate opportunity to protest a great injustice? Do I fear someone else will learn something before I do? Do I fear I won’t have the ammunition necessary to make my next political point? Am I searching for others to validate my feelings? Will I miss the anonymity I enjoy when sharing my knee-jerk reactions on Twitter? Do I think my responses, retweets, comments are actually making a difference? Do I believe purging my emotions on the social landscape changes minds? Do I imagine my ability to affect positive change in the world around me will be lost if I can’t express my opinions to the world at a moment’s notice? Do I presume that my thoughts, my opinions, my advice will actually change someone’s position?
It’s embarrassing to admit my answers to most of these questions. When I get real with myself about my motivations behind “keeping up,” I’m ashamed. Who do I think I am? My opinion doesn’t matter, but what my heart projects does. Even after I spend time in prayer, asking for God’s heart…His grace, His love, His perspective, as soon as I click those tempting icons on my phone I’m immediately pulled into the chaos and lose sight of His desires for the world. I bombard myself with animosity spewed from people I don’t agree with AND people I do.
The truth is that I can stay informed without delving into bias and partisanship. The truth is even when I consume information on both sides I’m still exposing myself to fanatical responses and antagonistic commentary. The truth is that I can lean in to the Lord and His will and become involved in my community in healthy ways without fighting every fight or making every injustice my calling. The truth is that I can give of myself without thinking that I have to save everyone or anyone for that matter. The truth is that I can continue to use social media to share love and inclusion without absorbing the disgust and anger that seems to be spreading like wildfire straight into my heart and mind.
I’ve decided to protect my heart more carefully. I want to be able to love the way God does…without qualifiers, without conditions, without expectations.
With depression lurking behind every click, I’ve decided I must change how I’m consuming news. I’ve decided to delete Twitter from my phone, stop notifications from Facebook, and fast from ALL major news outlets (specifically CNN and Fox News) for the next 30 days. I’m curious to see how my thought-life will change after I remove myself from the toxicity that is seeping from most news reports and social media reactions I see these days. While I fast, I will pour myself into causes I believe in, such as The Welcome to America Project (https://www.wtap.org/), and I will continue to seek new opportunities for providing hope to those who are hurting. I will seek out non-partisan news sources such as Reuters (www.reuters.com), ProPublica (https://www.propublica.org), AllSides (https://www.allsides.com), PolitiFact (www.politifact.com), FactCheck ( www.factcheck.org), and PBS (www.pbs.org). If I observe opinions instead of facts in the reporting, I will stop engaging with those news sources as well. My goal is to remove myself from limited perspectives and I cannot do this while I’m constantly soaking in the world’s bathtub! I believe I can be well-informed, lovingly active, persistently merciful and proactively thoughtful without the anger, sadness, and fear that is being so loudly projected.
My hopeful prayer is that by severing my constant connection from biased news and hateful rhetoric running rampant on social media, I will be freed from the sadness that has adhered itself to my heart this year. My hopeful prayer is that I will be moved to reach out with love and grace to all people, regardless of politics or religion and give of myself without bias or prejudice. My hopeful prayer is that I will consume facts (free of hate) and determine how to proceed from a place of love in response to those facts. My hopeful prayer is that my emotional health will be protected while I continue to restoratively engage with communities near and far in ways that spread the hope and love of God.
For those interested, I will share any shifts in my spirit worth mentioning.
You met him once in the vastness of heaven and space. His arms reaching for you, no longer stiff, no longer cold. The cosmos faded as he watched you draw near. His eyes smiled, no longer grey, no longer lifeless.
He waited for you in the stars and held you close as you journeyed through the constellations.
He whispered his love for you and kissed you gently before you entered the life from which he had just departed. He shared his ocean blue eyes and startling smile with you – those eyes and that smile that he inconceivably left by the Ty River. You touched his soul, swallowed his essence, embraced his light, and then you EXPLODED into our world.
You met our grief with healing and beauty and powerful, overwhelming life. Your first breath was a cooling and beautiful fog over our scalding trauma – a cleansing of our hearts that had festered with loss and bled with each shattering tear. Your ocean blue eyes opened and we saw him gazing back, searing hope into our souls, connecting life and loss in a circle of complete unity. Both of you permanently branded into our lives forever. Your smile illuminated the room as if he were there, holding us together in his starlight. Your vivacious cry was his voice assuring us that we can hurt and still heal. We can shudder with grief and still laugh. We can die and still live in the hearts of those who loved us and those we meet in heaven’s stars.
For 34 years, I described my faith as “inherited.” I spent a significant amount of my adult life wrestling with my convictions and whether or not my spiritual life was solely a result of my upbringing. I openly shared with other Christian friends the desire to have a faith that was my own, a faith I experienced first hand, a faith I had heard so many others enthusiastically proclaim from the pulpit after encountering a miracle in the midst of their life’s “rock bottom.” I longed for something to strengthen my spiritual walk…I longed to know The Lord in a way so real that there would be no room for doubt….I longed for a testimony that I couldn’t ignore or explain away. I always sensed deep down that to secure my faith, I would need a moment where everything changed….saved by something supernatural, something undeniably bigger than myself. I spent many years praying for that moment and that it would forever obliterate my lingering uncertainty. I prayed for a testimony that I could share with passion and authenticity.
I was 12 weeks pregnant with our first baby and it was 7am on Mother’s Day when my phone rang. I saw that it was my sister-in-law and immediately assumed she was calling to wish me my first “Happy Mother’s Day.” I answered the phone and cheerfully said, “Happy Mother’s Day Nicole,” but in a distant and shaky voice she responded by asking if I was with my husband and if she could speak to him instead. As my husband held the phone, I thought I heard her whisper, “Burt’s dead.” My mind immediately began rejecting the sights and sounds around me as I watched the color drain from my husband’s face and listened to him vehemently repeat, “that’s not funny….stop…why are you saying that?” He left the room and I watched the walls close in around me as the world disappeared. I somehow summoned the courage and the strength to walk from my bedroom to the living room as my husband returned from the porch and somehow conveyed to me that my brother had died in a tragic accident. Reality ripped through me like a jagged knife and I my heart was left severed…barely beating. Soul shattering pain has a sound. It’s deafening silence is filled with cries so raw they don’t sound human. Grief has a taste and a texture. It is sharp and unforgiving. It is bitter but necessary to survive. Tragedy alters your senses forever. I began trembling in an effort to reject the truth as I begged, “you must’ve misunderstood…that could not have happened…he’s probably hurt and in the hospital, but he’s not dead!” I insisted that my husband call the chaplain to get the correct information…information I could live with. I was absolutely convinced there had been a horrible mistake…an incomprehensible misunderstanding and that another phone call would clear up all of the confusion, loss, and darkness. With another call it was confirmed that we were now facing the most harrowing weeks of our lives. I fell to my knees in the middle of the floor, crying out in a voice I didn’t recognize, shaking and rocking as if my body was incapable of absorbing another breath. My husband placed a blanket around my shoulders as if my trembling could be rectified with physical warmth. Screams escaped the deepest part of my being, “not my family! This doesn’t happen to us! This doesn’t happen to us!! What about my mom!? Where’s my mom?! It’s Mother’s Day! Not us! Not us! Not my brother! My mom! Where’s my mom?!” Even 3 years later, when I think back to that horrifying day it’s as if I’m separated from it all and watching from a dark detached place. From afar I can see my mom at my front door trembling with disbelief. I watch my little brother kick open the front door, throw his hat across the room and embrace my mom and I with arms that would never hug our brother in this world again. The sorrow is tangible. The pain audible. I used to hear stories of loss or watch tragedy on the news and say, “I can’t imagine!” and I was right…I truly could never have imagined how horrific unexpected grief would be. Even now that I’ve lived through something traumatic, there’s a barrier my soul has created to protect me from fully re-imagining the devastation. When I let my mind wander, I still cannot conceive surviving the kind of loss my family has already survived. It’s as if what we endured that day was from a separate life…a life once removed and even though we made it to the other side I cannot fathom weathering another tragedy like the loss of my brother.
Five months after Burt’s passing, my little brother (Ryan) and I flew to Seattle to tour where our older brother had spent the last year of his life. We ate his favorite food at his favorite restaurants, took his favorite hikes, and visited where he had very happily worked for the year before we lost him.
It was a beautiful and gut-wrenching trip. As we waited in the airport for our flight home we reminisced about the emotional yet healing trip we had just encountered. I was flooded with emotion when I finally worked up the nerve to ask Ryan, “How do you know Burt is ok? How do you know God is real? How do you KNOW that you know?” Void of judgment, my younger brother shared with me that he knew Burt was ok because he knows The Lord is real and that his personal relationship with God our Father has made his faith strong. With the few tears I had left, I admitted to Ryan that I didn’t have this faith but that I had longed for it for years. I confessed, “I don’t know that The Lord is real. I don’t know that Burt is ok or that there’s a heaven. I have so much doubt and I want to have peace. I have no peace and I’m scared.” Ryan and I had a powerfully honest and vulnerable conversation and he promised he would be praying that I would find the assurance and peace I was seeking. There was no way for me to imagine the turn my life would take, the challenges I would face, the fear that would soon flood my heart and mind.
Shortly after our trip I became completely debilitated with a chronic migraine that stole my life for months. I wasn’t just weak or weary…I was profoundly incapacitated. After having our son, Isaac Burton, we moved in with my parents. I was unable to work, unable to drive, unable to run a simple errand or clean my house. I was unable to do most of the things we take for granted every day. The loss I experienced from no longer being able to participate in everyday tasks didn’t hold a candle to the grief I felt due to not being able to care for my one and only newborn baby boy. I couldn’t provide the basic things a mother gives her child. I couldn’t feed my son, I couldn’t bathe him or play with him or even laugh with him. I couldn’t comfort my son when he cried.I was soon on 10 different medications whose side effects made me so ill I lost 40lb in less than 2 months. I saw multiple chiropractors, acupuncturists, reflexologists, massage therapists, dentists, endodontists, 6 different neurologists, visited the ER 3 times and was finally hospitalized for infusion therapy for 3 days with zero progress. It was after this hospitalization that my husband drove his spiritless wife back to her parent’s house while she was swallowed by a dark abyss.
A day or two after my hospitalization my brother and sister-in-law brought dinner over for the whole family. My pain was too extreme and the multiple meds I was on made me too sick to eat, so I retreated to my parents room and laid down on their bed. My brother soon followed to offer me a head and shoulder massage in the hopes that he could give me a little relief from the constant pain I had been living with for months. My brother began praying over me and although I don’t remember his words, I do remember the tears of desperation and hoping with all of my being that the power of his prayer would lead to that miraculous testimony I had been longing for. I was imploring the Lord for a miracle.
The next day, as I was taking a shower, fear hopelessness and suffering poured out of me in angry and desperate cries. This moment became the darkest and most isolating time I have ever experienced. The minor physical relief I felt while in the shower magnified the emotional pain of knowing that this relief was only temporary and that my quality of life would once again disintegrate as soon as I stepped out of the shower. I began to sob so uncontrollably that my mom and dad heard me from the living room. My mom opened the bathroom door and hesitantly asked me if I was ok and I could barely choke out a “no.” She offered me an over-sized fresh towel, but I was well beyond physical comforts. Soon, my husband came into the bathroom. He pulled back the curtain and said, “Renee’ talk to me.” All I could utter, over and over and over as I held myself in the fetal position on the shower floor, was
“I can’t go on….I’m giving up…I can’t go on….I’m giving up…I can’t go on…I’m giving up.”
I explained that if this was living, then I did NOT want to live and that Isaac deserved a mommy who could care for him, play with him, laugh with him. I told him that the only future my mind’s eye held was one where I lied in a bed watching Isaac grow up while he watched me whither into nothingness. I had come to believe that I if I went on living I would do so without being a part of my son’s life and that I couldn’t bare the thought of deteriorating in front of him. I can say without any dramatization that in that moment I wanted to die and I was ready to go…begging The Lord to take me and my suffering and the suffering I was causing and would continue to cause to those who loved me. With fear and determination in his eyes, Pete said, “I will not listen to you talk like this! I will not let you give up or let go. You’re going to get dressed and we’re going for a walk right now.” We took that walk while I barely had the strength to hold myself upright but I could not be convinced there was hope so I continued to repeat,
“I can’t go on….I’m giving up.”
Before my hospitalization I had been gifted a massage with a therapist who travelled to her client’s houses. Having had no improvement from the help of some of the most prominent neurologists in the country there was nothing to lose so I called the therapist and made an appointment shortly after my discharge. Just a few hours after I had proclaimed I was giving up and could not go on, the therapist (Valerie) arrived at my parents house and we met for the first time. She set up her table in my parents room and then asked permission to pray with Pete and I. The three of us stood together in unity and Valerie prayed that the massage would be physically and most importantly emotionally healing. My eyes were almost swollen shut from crying as I laid down on her table. Thirty minutes into the massage Valerie whispered, “I’m going to say something that will probably sound really strange and I hope that’s ok. I’ve never had anything like this happen before, but I feel like I need to share something with you.” Not knowing what to think or expect I tentatively responded, “ok?”
“I feel your brother here and he’s saying that you have to keep going and you can’t give up. You have to keep going! You cannot give up! Have you been thinking of giving up?”
In that instant, I was released from the claws of darkness that had extinguished my hope. In that moment the belief that all was lost was replaced with a promise for the future. In that breath my faith was set in concrete and my doubt was destroyed. Without any knowledge that just hours before I had uttered those exact words, Valerie spoke Truth to my shattered heart. As tears soaked my face, I soaked in the certainty that I would see my brother again and that I would one day be an active and healthy mother to my son. Valerie continued, “Burt and The Lord want you to know that this is just for now. It is not forever. This trial will equip you to be there for others in a way that you would not have been able to without this experience. The Lord is preparing you to be a witness for others…to give hope to others. This is just for now. It is not forever.” She then asked me a question I never would’ve considered. She asked if I had believed the lies of hopelessness…if I had let the spirit of suicide into my thoughts. When I confirmed that I had been consumed by fear and despair she offered me the chance to repent. I had never before thought of the need to repent, but I realized then that I had spent months choosing to believe words from the enemy instead of the promises from My Father. Valerie lead me through a prayer asking for His forgiveness and for His strength and grace to keep my eyes on Him no matter how long my pain lingered. We prayed that I would never again enter that place of desolation and that He would make his plan for my life come alive.
I need to be clear that this supernatural experience didn’t come with physical healing. My pain did not go away. I did not start taking care of my son. I did not go back to work. This was a mental, spiritual, and emotional healing that could be physically felt by those around me. My mom later shared that after my massage she felt a dark cloud lift from our home. My husband agreed that he felt a peace in me he hadn’t had a glimpse of in months. I was a new woman inside. I had a gripping faith. My heart and mind were filled with radiant hope. I had experienced the Lord in a way I never had before and I knew I would one day be whole again. I knew my brother was with our Lord and that he was with me…with us and that one day I would see him, laugh with him, embrace him again.
Shortly after this life-changing event I shared my story with a dear friend. We both cried as I recounted the supernatural change that had taken place in me and then she told me something that made my encounter with The Lord even more genuine and powerful. I didn’t realize it at the time, but she had been at my parent’s house the night my brother prayed over me. She had stopped by to drop off groceries and was told I was in my parent’s room laying down. I recalled someone had been holding my hand while my brother prayed and at the time I assumed it was my mother. My friend shared with me that when she walked into the room there was a wall of suffocating darkness and that it felt like she had walked into my funeral. She said the oppression was palpable and in that moment she knew I was fighting a spiritual battle as well as a physical one. When she left the house she told her husband, “we have to pray for Renee’. She is in a fight for her life.” That night, my friend sensed the destruction I was succumbing to. She had a glimpse of my desire to give up. As she told me her experience I was overcome with awe at the realization that her visit that night and the desperate prayers that followed were a spiritual intervention that literally lifted me from the cold shadows my heart and mind had staggered through for months. It was the very next day that my life was changed forever and I was saved from fear, wariness, and death. When I didn’t have the fortitude to pray there were so many others interceding for me and I will always be grateful for their faithfulness because it was their belief that saved me from my disbelief. It was their conviction that lifted me up to meet and know my God and Savior in a way that transformed me from the inside out.
Even with my heart and soul altered forever I was still living with constant pain and In mid-February, I received a dreaded call from my employer telling me that if I didn’t return to work in 1 week then my job would no longer be protected. As I heard those words from HR, I had 2 thoughts: “This is it, the life I’ve known is over” and then, “Renee’, this is it, God has a plan for your life and you are not in control.” I don’t memorize Bible verses, but my massage therapist later quoted Jeremiah 29:11, “for I know the plans I have for you, declares the Lord, plans for welfare and not for evil, to give you a future and a hope.” I didn’t realize it at the time, but that verse came alive for me and was branded on my soul the split second I heard that I was days away from losing my job. I finally embraced the realization that if I could will myself well it would’ve happened months ago. I acknowledged that I was not in control of what life doled out, but that I could choose how I reacted to the hand I was dealt. I had a choice…I could crumble, lose all hope once again, and accept that the life I dreamed of was over, or I could let it all go, step away from the helm and TRUST that God had a plan for my life and that His plan is always good. Again I felt that supernatural peace and strength wash over me. I realized during that phone call that I truly had no authority over how my life would proceed, but I knew without a shadow of a doubt that I was surrounded by love, and that no matter what happened to my health or my job, The Lord had a plan and he would give me the strength and grace to see that plan through. I felt this truth (Jeremiah 29:11) in my inner core…a truth that gave me a peace so real that I can only describe it as being from God. I spent the rest of the day struggling with how I would tell my husband that I would most likely be unemployed soon, but when I finally gained the courage to say the words out loud, he also sensed that same inexplicable, “crazy” peace. We just KNEW that we KNEW that we would be okay. My husband and I decided that I would attempt to go back to work the following week and we remained prepared to accept that this probably would not be a successful endeavor. The day before my return was like every other day had been. I had the same level of pain and found it difficult to imagine that the next day of waking up early, getting ready, driving myself into work and starting a brand new job would be any degree of manageable. The night before, I took my regular handful of sedating drugs and my nightly bath, but then something different happened. I went to bed with more peace than I had felt in 5 months. As I fell asleep I said a prayer of gratitude. I was thankful that I no longer felt the urge to control what happened to me and that I could unreservedly rest in The Lord and His plans for my life. I could see that He had used my brokenness for something good. He had used this chapter in my life to deliver me from the prison of worry and fear. Releasing apprehension and anxiety from my daily routine was a freedom I had never had in my life. Roman 5:3-4 says, “we rejoice in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope.” I was nowhere near rejoicing, but I could finally see how He was using this time in my life to transform me, and I could finally lean into my faith with confidence, because He had made himself so real to me through this trial. The weight of worry had been lifted and I felt lighter.
When I woke up the next morning I was pain free for the first time in 159 days!
I arrived at my new job and although the familiar pain visited me throughout the day, it never came close to what I had withstood day in and day out for 5 months. February 28th, 2014 was the day I finally saw a glimpse of the goodness God had in store for me and I believed God wasn’t just going to give me the strength to live through the pain…He was going to see me through to the other side, and all the while I would be made stronger through the journey. On my way home that day I called the same friend who had been my prayer warrior for so many months and I cried as soon as I heard her voice. I was so overwhelmed with disbelief that I could barely get the words out, “it’s a miracle! There’s no other way to explain it. It’s a miracle! My pain level is manageable! I’m going to be ok! I worked….I can’t believe it…I worked! God is so faithful!” It had been so long since I had been capable of functioning at this level, that I couldn’t stop repeating, “I can’t believe this!” When I walked through my parent’s front door I saw them standing in the foyer anxiously waiting for me to return. I don’t think I was able to get a word out before we were tightly holding onto each other. I realize now that they were there because they knew I would either be ready to celebrate or in urgent need of comforting. I was finally able to tell my parents that I had turned a corner and that one day I would be myself again. The gratefulness, relief and joy we all felt stunned us into silence. The following 7-8 months, I continued to have significant daily pain, but NEVER resembling those previous distressing months. I continued with medications that made me feel terrible and injections in my head to help control the pain, but none of that weighed me down because I was ecstatic to be living again and to be walking with The Lord. We moved back home and began to see our little family develop the way we had always envisioned. I felt nothing but gratitude on the days I would work long hours and then arrive home to take care of my son, because this was far more life than I thought I would ever be capable of living. Even with chronic pain, I was finally in a place where I could be a mother, I could spend time with my family and friends, I could work again!
With several years passing it has become easier to forget how far I’ve come and how much has changed. I must remember what I’ve survived. In 2017 and for every year hereafter, it is my desire to use these lessons in life to shift my perspective to what really matters and avoid complaining about the things that don’t. I also want to use these lessons to remain mindful of the many priceless yet mundane experiences that make up this crazy life. I want to BE PRESENT. I must always remember that right here, right now is precious and beautiful and should never be taken for granted. And, when dark times visit again (which they most certainly will in this damaged world), I must remember that no matter how torn I feel or how dark the clouds around me, The Lord has a plan for my life and it is always good. I am thankful for a testimony I can share with passion and authenticity!