Keeping Christ in Christmas

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pregnancyIt’s that time of year again. The time when I’m last-minute shopping because “oh my gosh, it’s 9 days until Christmas, how the crap did that happen?” Trying to get things (always the things) ordered in time so they can get under the tree in time with mixed success.

It’s the time of baking Christmas cookies to share with others and getting into conversations about the best way to eat those peanut butter blossoms with the Hershey’s Kiss right in the middle (eat the outside of the cookie, then that last little bit right under the chocolate and the chocolate all at once at the end).

It’s the time of scrolling through Netflix to find your favorite Christmas movies and realizing that all of the holiday movies have either 5 stars or 1 star.

And it’s the time of scrolling through your Facebook feed and seeing lots of posts about keeping Christ in Christmas.

Keeping Christ in Christmas means different things to different people. For some, it is a literal fight to keep people from abbreviating the word Christmas. For some, it is a desire to keep from secularizing a religious holiday. For some, it is a reminder of the ideals that Christ taught us – those of love, peace, justice.

As a Christian, there has always been a religious element for me in my Christmas celebrations. I love children’s Christmas pageants and candlelight services. I love singing Christmas carols and someone sings the high note on O Holy Night. I love advent wreaths and the story of a young mother giving birth, though that last one has a bit of a sting to it this year.

And I think that’s what keeping Christ in Christmas means to me this year. It’s keeping Christ in the Christmas story, not jumping ahead to his death.

Pregnancy and birth are fragile things. About one in six women experience the loss of a pregnancy through miscarriage or stillbirth and it’s likely those numbers weren’t better in Mary’s day. There was vulnerability the moment that Jesus became a fetus. There was risk in the act of being born.

This year I want to celebrate the miracle of the birth. An infant holding onto his mother’s finger, suckling at her breast, falling asleep in her arms. I want to celebrate the when God was maybe a little more man than God. When God was Emmanuel just a little bit more fully than on the cross.

I want to think about the time that God was here with us. Not the end, but the beginning. The time when the role of the creator and the created were more interwoven than ever before or ever since. The time when a woman was central to the story of salvation. The time when humans didn’t just need God, but were needed by God.

This holiday, I will keep Christ in Christmas by remembering that God with us was risky and that risk is worth celebrating.

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Scars Fade

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scarred tree

I was examining my arms the other day, and I realized that my scars from this summer have faded. I don’t know quite when it happened, but unless I’m looking really hard, I can’t see them any more.

I remember those first days, angry red punctures from needle after needle being pushed into skin, searching for veins among the fluids that had collected as my blood pressure skyrocketed. Tears in flesh from tape that had been pulled too tight, trying to keep the one hep-lock that had been placed shortly after we arrived, shortly after the ultrasound had been unable to find the heartbeat of our son.

The first days after leaving the hospital, those wounds ached almost all the time. Bruises bloomed, green and yellow petals around the red punctured centers. The skin that had been pulled apart was sensitive to any brush of fabric.

My bruised heart was harder to see, but it lived near enough to the surface. We visited the local Walmart to pick up a blood pressure medication on our way home from the hospital. Walking through the door, we saw a mother pushing a cart with an infant car seat in it, carrying a sweet little baby, not unlike the beautiful boy I had birthed just a few short days earlier. We clutched one another’s hands, knowing that the other was feeling as raw and battered as my arms looked. Pregnant women, babies, my own leaking breasts – I couldn’t escape the pain that festered.

The wounds on my arms began to heal. But they were still there. I could still see the scars from my hospitalization every time I pulled a t-shirt on, leaving that area exposed. I could vividly recall the sharp pain that had been there, and the remembrance would cause my heart to ache once again.

The hurt in my heart didn’t heal as quickly. When I saw the first baby dedication announcement in the church bulletin, I told Rich right in the service that I couldn’t go. Even just seeing the words, I could feel tears beginning to form. I knew that my heart was still too tender to be a part of that ceremony – and to be apart from that ceremony.

This past Sunday, there was another baby dedication. We didn’t sit in the service during it, but I didn’t feel the need to skip church entirely this time. Like my scars, the intensity of the grief that I feel is fading.

Some may think that writing about grief here is unhealthy. That it’s me picking at a scab, preventing healing. But I don’t believe that. I write here because so many others have had the grief of a child lost to miscarriage and stillbirth swept away and forgotten. It’s expected to fade, like my scars.

And it does fade. I think of Elliott every single day, but I don’t cry every day, or even most days. I can see babies and have a genuine smile on my face. I love to read the stories and see the pictures of friends who had sons right at the same time that my son was to be born. I’m not swallowed by grief like I was, unable to see a way out.

But there is pain, and that pain, though it is as my friend Micha so beautifully called it a ghostly grief, exists for the many of us who have lost babies before we could raise them to be children. I write to remind myself that it’s okay to miss him deeply, that it’s okay to celebrate my all-too-brief time as his mother, that it’s okay to feel happy again.

I write because some days there are still bleeding wounds, and some days, the scars fade. And the tension of living between those places is okay.

To the Mamas of Black Boys

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mother_and_son

To the Mamas of Black Boys,

I don’t know how you do it. How you look fear in the face every morning and go on in spite of it.

I get it a little bit – every mama of boys does. We all have fears about parenting these future men. Are we raising them to respect women? Are we raising them to respect themselves? Are we raising them to participate in a society that may not fully understand their unique characteristics?

But I know that while we have many fears and worries in common, there are challenges that you face as the mothers of black boys that I can never understand.

I worry about things like grades and finished classwork. But I don’t worry that my sons will receive a sub-standard education simply because the color of their skin means that they are suspended more often. I don’t worry that they will have to fight to learn because the system works against them rather than with them.

I worry that my sons won’t always behave in ways that reflects the person that they truly are. But I don’t worry that their wrong-doings will label them a thug. That an expletive will immediately brand them as aggressors. That an outburst will automatically make them a threat.

I worry about them getting behind the wheel of a car in a few short years. But I don’t worry that the color of their skin will make them the victims of more frequent traffic stops and searches, and I’m not concerned with talking to them about the proper way to handle an interaction with a police officer if they are pulled over.

I worry about the pejoratives that my sons may encounter, words that will cut at them and make them doubt their worth. But I don’t worry that the color of their skin will cause some to look at them with suspicion, and will cause call them that which can only be named by a single consonant. I don’t worry that their very humanity will be brought into question because of their features.

I don’t worry that the color of their skin means that their words will be unheard, that their struggles will be dismissed, or that their lives will be in danger. I don’t worry that pleas for their lives will go unheeded by those who should protect those lives.

We all want good things for our sons. Happiness, love, contentment, a future filled with good things. But I know that many of you simply want your sons to have a future.

May this advent come soon for you.

The Good That Is

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scarf

The package arrived in July, maybe August. I don’t remember. The days after our son died were filled with sadness and I didn’t really pay attention to dates other than to mark off one week, two weeks, a month since I delivered a stillborn child.

But at some point this summer, it arrived. A lovely teal scarf from a friend from Texas who I’ve only met online. It was beautiful, in a color that I loved, knit with care.

That wasn’t what it was supposed to be.

It was made from yarn that had been chosen to knit a blanket for our son.

I’m writing today over at A Deeper Story. I’d love for you to join me there.

Broken Family, Whole Family

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broken

I was texting with another friend who went through a divorce recently. We were talking about holidays and how much it sucks sorting through the details of pick-ups and drop-offs and all of that yuck. And she texted, “I don’t feel the ‘broken family’ thing usually, but I do at the holidays.”

I know what she means. While I’m sure it’s different for the kids, there is a certain amount of routine that we settle into. These days the kids stay with us, these days with their other parents. It’s by no means ideal, but there is a rhythm to it that we have all settled into, and there is a greater sense of intentionality with the kids when time with them is split up.

But the holidays are harder, not just on the kids, but I think on everyone. It’s hard to wake up on Christmas morning and not celebrate it with the people who are most excited about it being Christmas morning. It feels wrong to go to text your kids “Happy Thanksgiving” when you should be encouraging them to eat just a little more so they can have dessert. It feels much more like they’re MY kids or HIS kids when the holidays roll around.

And it doesn’t hurt that holidays have a very distinct family feel to them. Advertisers depict perfect families, with well-groomed parents and children gathered around a Christmas tree, smiling at one another in their perfect red and green pajamas while the kids open gifts containing this year’s must-have toys. Songs that talk about mom and dad, that can leave mom or dad feeling guilty when they know that they deprived their children of that.

Last year during the holidays, I felt consumed with guilt. I knew that my decisions made things more difficult for my kids and for Rich’s kids. I was a bad person; I was a bad parent. I broke not one, but two families.

This year I feel less guilt, but as we make plans for the holidays, it still creeps up. I’m depriving children time with one of their parents. I’m depriving two people time with their children on important days.

But I also recognize that in spite of the brokenness, there are new family traditions emerging. My kids (“the kids”) and Rich’s kids (“the boys”) all enjoy spending time together. In spite of some significant losses for my children, they have gained a step father and two step brothers with whom they love hanging out. They have spent months making plans for Thanksgiving, which we will all be spending together. My eldest helped me incorporate Yum Yum sauce into an icing for her step brother’s birthday cake, because the two of them have posited that it makes all foods better. There are fierce Mario Kart competitions, horrible movie marathons, walks to Arby’s for milkshakes, injury inducing card games.

My divorce revealed and created brokenness, there is no question. But we are taking some of those broken pieces and creating wholeness from them. And while the holidays can make that brokenness feel more acute, it can also strengthen the spirit of our whole family.

Enough

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Bread

I was a recent divorcee, and we were traveling to meet the family of the man with whom I was “the other woman.” Everyone had been gracious from afar, but I knew that his mom had been on the other side of infidelity and I worried that grace might be a little frosty in person. Perhaps there was forgiveness for the son, but not for the home wrecker girlfriend.

In the weeks leading up to Thanksgiving, I kept pestering Rich, asking what we could take to dinner. I was nervous about making a good impression. I knew that his mom was accomplished in the kitchen while I was coming from a season of limited cooking. In my first marriage, I had all but given up preparing home-cooked meals, relying instead on prepackaged food to feed my family. With Rich’s encouragement, I was beginning to stretch my culinary wings a bit, but preparing anything for his mom, my eventual mother-in-law, felt like a test that I was destined to fail. 

We finally decided that we would take bread and salad. We made two loaves of bread, made some compound butters, and bought the ingredients for a Caprese salad with a balsamic reduction. I knew it wasn’t enough. In light of a turkey and mashed potatoes and homemade cheesecake, what were a couple loaves of bread and some mozzarella, tomato, and basil leaves? It wouldn’t be enough.

I wouldn’t be enough.

I’m writing today at You Are Here, a new collaborative blog about the importance of place. Each month they choose a new topic and write about it, asking others to share stories as well. This month was Food & Place, and I’m happy to share the story of last year’s Thanksgiving. I’d love for you to read the rest at You Are Here.

As Much As It Depends On Me

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peace

When I started looking for a therapist, I knew that I was not interested in seeing a Christian counselor. There were things that I needed to talk about that I couldn’t share with other people, things that were just too ugly to say to anyone I considered a friend. Things that might be too sinful for me to admit to someone who had Christian as part of their job description.

I knew that I couldn’t do the standard Christian remedies. I didn’t want to hear to pray more, to read my Bible more, to repent more. My relationship with God at the time was firmly in the “It’s Complicated” category, and dealing with a list of “shoulds” about that relationship when I was trying to get a handle on accepting a mountain of loss felt like a poor use of my time and finances. If I felt like I had certain religious expectations that I needed to meet, I was afraid that I wasn’t going to be as honest as I needed to be in my sessions.

I knew that it was the right decision for me, but that didn’t stop me from feeling guilt about it. Granted, guilt was the handiest piece of garb in my emotional closet at that time, so adding one more level of shame seemed about right. More than one person heard detailed explanations about why I chose not to see a Christian counselor. When you’re busy judging yourself for everything you’ve done wrong, it becomes easy to expect others to judge you for every decision that you make, regardless of how they actually feel.

These days I feel less concerned with what people think. Not entirely so, but I’m getting better on that front. My therapist is a great fit for me, and she is helping me work through a lot of my issues with guilt and shame. One of the things we have spent a fair bit of time addressing is my need to carry the weight of others’ emotions.

Overall, I’ve agreed with her, and have taken some small steps to correct this kind of thinking. But there has still been a part of me that has wondered, “Is this the advice I’d be getting from a Christian counselor?”

For years I heard, “Consider others as better than yourself!” and “JOY = Jesus, Others, then You.” As I sat in my therapist’s office, and I hear that I can let go of what other’s think, it feels like it is at odds with what I’ve learned. How can I consider others better than myself if I’m choosing not to allow their emotional hang-ups to interfere with my healing? Even as I worked on this, this thought would float through my mind.

And then on Sunday, I was listening to my pastor talk about loving our enemies. I settled down to hear more of what I expect – that the changes that I was making to my life were at odds with the Scripture and I was embracing a selfish worldview.

Instead, he pointed to Romans 12:18“If it is possible, as much as depends on you, live peaceably with all men.”

“As much as depends on you.”

My eyes filled with tears almost immediately. Yes, I should try to live at peace with all of the people in my life. But, as my therapist has been telling me, I am not responsible for how others react to that. My responsibility ends with my efforts to create peace. Paul recognized that peace would not always come, and it was okay not to carry burdens that are not ours.

I don’t have this down completely. I still struggle with pleasing others and trying to make them feel a particular way, when it’s not my job to do that. But as much as it depends on me, I’m going to embrace truth no matter how it is presented to me.

Proving Repentance

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repent

One by one, we gathered in the mountains, robbed of cell service and internet access.

Our differences were easy to spot. Different ages, different professions, different races. We had the coffee drinkers and the tea drinkers. Those who worked with the elderly and those who worked with children. Women married for years, women in much newer marriages, women who were unmarried. There were friendships among the group, but there were strangers there as well.

We ate hummus and pizza and cheesecake. We laughed at the light that randomly turned on and off in the kitchen, suggesting that a poltergeist should have been mentioned one at least one Yelp review.

We were there to brainstorm ideas to empower the women of our home state, but we knew that first, we had to recognize our own strengths. We had to believe, or at least be on our way to believing, that we were women of worth, women of beauty, women of courage before we could help women see those qualities in themselves.

Wrapped in blankets and warm sweaters, warm beverages in hand, we began to tell our stories. Stories of being rejected, stories of abuse, stories of people pleasing. We talked about the ways we had failed ourselves and others, but also of the ways that we had experienced success and freedom. We listened, we cried, we laughed, and we thanked each other for our openness.

As the weekend came to a close and we were packing our cars to head back to civilization, one of the women stopped me to ask about something I had shared – the part of my story that I still struggle with the most. “How do I know I’ve repented?” She offered encouragement and acceptance.

A few days later, another woman texted me, asking me who I needed to prove that I had repented to, reminding me that she believed I have, and that others did as well.

Repentance is a tricky thing. I’ve been told that it’s a turning away from any particular sin. Repentance is why I threw away all of my Stephen King books, to prove that I was really serious about keeping my mind pure. Repentance is why I spent most of the early 2000’s listening exclusively to Christian worship music only, to prove that could turn away from secular music that might not feed my soul as well.

I think part of my issue is that repentance and forgiveness somehow feel divorced from one another. And to some degree they are. Someone doesn’t have to repent in order for me to forgive them. I can choose to let go of the hurt that has been done to me without any action on the part of the one who doled out the pain.

But if you’re the one who did the hurt, that starts to be murky. Did I really repent, or have I just been forgiven? I can accept that forgiveness has happened, but how do I prove that I’ve repented when I divorced my first husband and married the man with whom I had an affair?

I think again about my friend’s question: Who am I trying to convince that I’ve repented?

Maybe it’s the church, where I feel like I’m not living out the right kind of story. Maybe it’s to the exes, where I know there is still hurt over my actions. Maybe it’s to myself, because, like everyone, I can be my own harshest critic.

Then I think back to that cabin in the woods, and to the love that I felt there. I didn’t have to prove to them through some outward show that I had repented of the wrongs that I had done. I didn’t have to list off the actions I had taken that would substantiate claims that I was no longer the person that I had been. I said that I had repented and they accepted it, no proof necessary.

I’m not sure if that’s how it’s supposed to be. It’s frightening to take people at their word and to believe the best about them. It’s risky to trust when someone tells you that their past is truly in the past. Sometimes that gamble is strictly with yourself.

But I’m learning that as I accept that risk for myself, my need to prove my repentance to others is diminished. Instead, I’m able to believe my own worth, see my own beauty, and experience my own courage. 
Photo: Robert Bejil

Recluttering My Life

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pews

I couldn’t tell you the last CD I bought for sure. I think it was Jonathan Coulton’s Artificial Heart, because when I preordered it, I could get the MP3 sooner. When I got my first Kindle, I abandoned purchasing real books in favor of eBooks. When I discovered Vudu, I abandoned movies in disc form. My pictures live almost exclusively on my phone or computer. Most of what I consume is stored out in that magical place called The Cloud.

I appreciate that. I’m an unorganized person, so keeping clutter down in my too-small-for-a-disorganized-person-house is fine by me. Stuff morphs into mess in the blink of an eye for me, so anything that I can do to cut down on the stuff I have is a positive action. Watching the world become increasingly digital may feel like blasphemy to those who want the sound of the needle on vinyl or the smell of a book that hasn’t been cracked open in a while, but for the person who feels like she’s cleaned when things are piled instead of strewn, there are concessions that need to be made.

I’m posting today over at A Deeper Story. It would mean a lot to me if you would stop by and read the rest.

Brittany Maynard’s Death and Embracing Loss

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death

On Saturday, with the help of doctors, and with her family near, Brittany Maynard took her life. She was battling a form of brain cancer that was likely going to end her life in just a few months, so she and her family moved to Oregon so she could take advantage of the state’s Death with Dignity Act.

I’ll be honest – I’m not sure what I think about it. On one hand, I have a hard time with the idea that it’s just up to God whether we live or die, because most of us accept medical intervention for illnesses. I would have almost certainly died this summer if not for medical help with my blood pressure. Did I interfere with God’s plan because I accepted medicine that prolonged my life? I certainly don’t believe that, so the idea that God is the only one who gets to determine when we die doesn’t sit all that well with me. I

I think a lot about my mom in this case, because I watched her struggle with ALS. She never, to my knowledge, considered suicide, assisted or otherwise, in her situation. She chose limited interventions, which most certainly allowed the disease to take her sooner than it may have otherwise, but I don’t believe at any point she considered taking her own life.

Almost exactly 24 hours before she died, mom had about an hour of lucidity. She had been non-responsive for most of that day and I think we all feared that we would not have any more opportunities to tell her that we loved her when we could know that she would hear us. But around 7pm on February 6th, she awoke one last time and we were able to communicate with her and she with us. She looked each of us who were at her bedside as we told her that we loved her and that we all wanted her to experience the peace that was waiting for her. It was a beautiful moment and I’m so grateful for the opportunity to experience that last brief encounter with her.

But what if that had come a few months earlier when she started to deteriorate quickly? What if, instead of gathering around a hospice bed, we had gathered around her bed at home? What if she still had her voice and had been able to tell us aloud that she loved us? What if we could have hugged her and had her hug back?

I don’t know. Maybe if she had gone that route, she would have missed knowing that her oldest granddaughter made the All-State band. Perhaps I wouldn’t have had the opportunity to sit at our family piano and play Christmas carols for her. She would have had fewer kisses from my dad.

And of course, there are things that we may have missed if she had chosen a more aggressive treatment plan. She may have been alive when Rich and I married. She may have been alive when we went through the loss of our son. She may have seen the outpouring of support for those with ALS with the ice bucket challenge.

There were losses that happened because she chose not to end her life. There were losses that would have occurred if she had made different choices. We can’t know what any of those are, but we can know one thing.

Life has loss.

And ultimately, I think that’s the most frightening part of Brittany Maynard’s choice. It reminds us that any choice we make will lead to some kind of loss. Every yes we make is a no to something else. The benefits of some no’s are more obvious than others, but every decision carries with it some small loss. And in a culture that is afraid of death and loss, it can be easier to examine Brittany Maynard’s decision than it is to examine the losses that our own choices have made. It’s easier to talk about the rightness or wrongness of the way that Brittany Maynard died than it is to talk about death itself.

But our fears don’t stop losses from happening. Our discomfort doesn’t eliminate grief. Hiding from loss, death, and grief doesn’t make them go away. What it does is allow us to miss our on opportunities to mourn with those who mourn and weep with those who weep. It creates barriers that keep us from better loving those who are hurting.

I don’t know how to determine what is the best way for life to end. I do know that the best way to live life is to live it in full community. We have that when we embrace not only life, but loss.

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