Two Years

twoyears

I left the hospice hours before the end, but we knew it was coming. I held her cold hands and whispered my goodbyes. I told her about Elliott, something I had not been able to share with her when I knew she could hear the words. I couldn’t stand being a  disappointment one more time, but in those final moments, I wanted her to know there was another grandchild on the way. I wanted her to know that life would continue, even in her absence.

In the car, I was listening to the playlist I had compiled with the songs mom had chosen for her funeral. I knew it was just days away, and I knew that I was going to play the piano for it, so I wanted to try to numb myself to the songs.

That numbness never came. Songs of freedom don’t dull easily. Songs of life eternal don’t lose their edge quickly.

I cried as I drove the stretch of highway from Pennsylvania to West Virginia. I cried when my dad called a few hours later telling me that she was no longer with us. I cried when I passed the news on to my kids, when I kissed her lifeless cheek in the funeral home, when we placed bumper stickers on her casket.

Last year I didn’t cry on the anniversary of her death. I cry easily, but when you’ve been living in survival mode for a year, it’s hard to predict when those tears will come, and when they won’t. And last year, they didn’t happen. I thought about her, about those final days, but despite the memories, there were no tears.

I have spent a lot of the past year thinking about grief and the ways that we try to avoid feeling it, and while I never want to force emotions, I also don’t want to do anything to stifle them when they show up.

We were at church last night, and the praise band played Chris Rice’s Untitled Hymn. It was one of the songs mom had asked to have at her funeral, and as Rich was singing it, the tears came in a way they had not last year. Deep sobs in my chest, tears falling on my glasses, snot running from my nose. It didn’t bother me. My grief wasn’t pretty, but it was honest, and it felt good to feel it in a way that had been missing last year.

Mom always liked lighthouses. I think they signified hope to her. A reminder that when things were dark or stormy or hard to navigate, there was light and safety ahead.

Allowing myself the opportunity to grieve felt a bit like a lighthouse yesterday. The grief itself wasn’t a safe harbor, but it pointed the way to rest. It was a beacon that helped clear away the fog that clouds my thoughts with accusations of inadequacy, with shame, with regret. By giving myself permission to grieve, I could see that many of those things are amplified in the fog, and I can cautiously navigate them.

It’s been two years since I whispered my goodbyes to my mom. Today I hold that grief close and allow it to lead me to safety and to home.

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On Wednesday, I will begin sharing a weekly Lenten devotion with subscribers to my newsletter. If you would like to receive this, head over here to sign up. 

Also, through the Lenten season, Embracing Grief is on sale for just $.99 for the ebook and $5.99 for the paperback. You can get it at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, Kobo, and Apple

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Beauty in the Darkness

 

morningprayers

I have more concrete memories as a child observing Advent than I do of Lent. When I think about Advent, I remember Wednesday nights spent in one of the classrooms at the church, first eating a potluck meal, and then working on an Advent-themed arts and craft project with my family. I remember creating our Advent calendars and Advent wreaths at these evening get togethers. Advent was about waiting, but it was imbued with a sense of excitement, and in the midst of the waiting, there was lots of beauty to be created and discovered.

Lent didn’t have that same feel. Lent was solemnity, sacrifice, and repentance, attributes not particularly interesting to a child. Giving up ice cream for six weeks didn’t have quite the appeal as getting a small piece of candy every third day as we counted down the days until Christmas. Focusing on what I could give up was never as fun as focusing on what I would be getting. To be honest, it still isn’t.

But as I aged, and presumably matured, I began to appreciate Lent. There was something about the gravity of the season that began to resonate with me. Taking time to slow down and reflect on areas in my life needing repentance became a task with engaging in. Looking for quiet in the midst of the noise became a worthwhile pursuit.

This was particularly evident one year during college when I was playing piano at the Newman Center, the Catholic outreach on college campuses. The priest asked the musicians to suspend the use of instruments for the duration of Lent. He wanted us to focus on the words we were singing and felt that changing up the way we used music during Lent might help with that.

Each Sunday during that Lenten season we would gather in the campus church, our voices providing the only music. We had no instruments to fall back on, no support from guitar or piano, we only had the music of one another. During those weeks, we were exposed. We were vulnerable.

As the weeks passed, tentative voices became more bold. Harmonies that before might have clashed with what the instruments were playing were explored. As a congregation, we found that our collective voices were a beautiful instrument. Without relying on what we had previously used, there was a greater focus on the lyrics being sung.

There was still solemnity. There was still sacrifice. There was still a sense that we were waiting for resurrection. But in the midst of that, we found beauty. And we found it not in the accompaniment, but in one another.

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Lent has fallen by the wayside for me in the past few years. So much of my life felt like it has been spent mourning that it has been hard to add another season of intentional darkness. I spent a full year wondering if I had truly repented, and then untold time spent second-guessing my conclusion. Making that my focus for six weeks seemed like torture, rather than a beneficial spiritual practice.

This year it feels different. I’m in a church that observes the liturgical calendar again, so Lent will be at least a small part of my worship experience. More than that, however, I’m beginning, once again, to see the beauty inherent in the dark times. And once again, I’m finding beauty in the support from those around me. Finding that as we join our voices together, it brings more light, it brings more joy, it brings more loveliness.

As I strip away some of the noise and reflect, I begin to find beauty.

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Beginning next Wednesday, I will be mailing out a weekly devotional thought for Lent and grief. Sign up for my newsletter in order to receive this, along with other messages about writing projects and deals on books. Thanks!

Also, Embracing Grief is on sale right now for just $.99 for an ebook and $5.99 for a paperback. You can also still enter to win a signed copy from Goodreads until Friday.

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When We Write for Justice

Today’s post is from my dear friend Andi Cumbo-Floyd. She has been a consistent encouragement and inspiration to me, both as a writer and as a woman striving for justice in our corners of the world. Her latest book, Steele Secrets, releases on February 9. Today she is here to share a little bit about that book and about writing for justice. 

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At this precise moment in my life, I am teetering between tears and glee.  You see, I have a book coming out soon, and I care very much about this creation of mine. . . More though, I care about the situations and stories that inspired it.

See, my book is about justice.

It’s also about a teenage girl who falls in love for the first time, about a community struggling with it’s own truth, and about a mother and daughter who carry each other.  But mostly it’s about justice. unnamed

The basic plot of the book is that Mary Steele finds herself committed to the fight to save an abandoned slave cemetery.  Through the course of the book she encounters the racism in her small town and has to deal with some tough personal questions about her place in the world, too.  Most of the time, I hope anyone who reads it walks away with a sense that they enjoyed the read and that they have some questions to explore. That’s really the ideal book – one that captures a reader’s attention and leaves them wanting to know more.

But sometimes, sometimes I let myself dream a little bigger and hope that the book brings some real change, that it inspires people to save historic African American cemeteries, that it pushes people to push into the systems of racism in their home communities, that it urges the reader inward to root out the racism she has been taught.

Hence the uneasy balance of tears and glee.  I’ve done the work of racial justice for long enough to know that I cannot make anyone care – or even acknowledge – what they will not choose to care or see. So this book is going into the world with all the care I can give it, and yet I know it will mostly be ignored (and almost every book is), and I know it will also likely be attacked.

Still, I’ll take the tears if it means that just one person walks with Mary Steele on her journey and comes out ready to act in their own community.  Sometimes the work of justice is as small as 237 pages.

Andi Cumbo-Floyd is a writer, editor, and farmer, who lives at the edge of the Blue Ridge Mountains with her husband, four dogs, four cats, six goats, and 23 chickens.  Her previous books include The Slaves Have Names and Writing Day In and Day OutHer new Young Adult novel Steele Secrets will be released on February 9th.  Connect with Andi at her website, andilit.com

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Influencing Our Enemies

enemies

A week ago, Franklin Graham was on Dr. James Dobson’s Family Talk radio broadcast. In it, he was talking about LGBTQ people in the church. He made suggestions that gays are the enemy, or are at least working with The Enemy, i.e., Satan. I couldn’t really tell based on the context of his comments.

Benjamin Corey has written an excellent post about why treating LGBTQ people, and children in particular, as the enemy is incredibly damaging. I have written before how fear-based rhetoric is costing lives. The number of LGBTQ people left homeless and/or suicidal because of these kinds of statements is staggering. Creating an Us v. Them mentality between Christians and LGBTQ people, even the nearly half who identify as Christian, has caused a rift that has cost people their lives.

He stated, “…they’re not going to influence those (gay) kids, those kids are going to influence those parent’s children.”

He is absolutely correct.

When we’re in a relationship with someone – when we invite them into our home, into our lives – that relationship will change us in some way. It will influence us, even if that is not our intention. The move toward becoming more accepting of LGBTQ people is largely due to more frequent interactions with those who are different. So yes, Rev. Graham is correct that “those kids” will influence their own children.

But I disagree that there is no reciprocal influence. When we open our homes to those who have been marginalized or rejected, we give a positive view of God. We show with our actions, rather than telling with our words, that God is love.

Graham says that we “think we can fight by smiling and being real nice and loving. We have to understand who the Enemy is and what he wants to do.”

But perhaps fighting isn’t what we’re called to do. In the gospel, we are told to love our enemies. We are told that if our enemy is hungry, we feed them, if they are thirsty, give them something to drink. We are not called to vanquish our enemies, but to love them.

When Jesus said that we are to love one another as he loved us, it wasn’t a recommendation to fight, but a command to love. When Jesus said that others will know we are Christians by our love for one another, that wasn’t a call to arms, it was a call to open arms.

The problem comes when we believe that the influence must come in a particular way. When we believe that the only positive influence is that someone must change who they are, we may come away disappointed if they accept who they are. When we believe that positive influence looks like self-loathing, self-doubt, self-flagellation, we may not believe that we have had an influence in the absence of those responses. If we believe that the only way to have an influence is to increase shame in the lives of those we disagree with, we may not find that smiles and love produce that fruit.

But that doesn’t mean that those things have no influence. When we share our smiles and our niceness and our love with others, we share hope with them. We share joy with them. We share God with them. If we believe that God has power, we must believe that the power will have some influence. The influence of knowing that you are loved is more powerful than any fight. That is how we influence our enemies and make them our brothers and sisters.

 

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Unsafe Christianity 

unsafe

Rich held me in his arms and whispered, “I think I love our new church.”

I immediately stiffened. I’m still thinking of it as the church I attend. I don’t know it enough to love it. Sure there are things about it that make me happy, like the inclusion of LGBTQ people at all levels, the willingness to have people in leadership who disagree about certain issues, the sermons about love and acceptance. I enjoy playing again and am quite fond of those I get to make music with on Sundays. But I’m not quite ready to say that I love that church. After all, this church is still part of The Church, and I have some serious concerns about those guys.

I look at my experiences in The Church, and I see a lot of reasons to be wary. Times when I have been let down. Times when my vulnerability has not been respected. Times when my voice has been silenced.

The Church has proven to me time and again that it isn’t a safe place. So why should I make an effort to try to love this new church? Doesn’t my safety matter in this instance?

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Over the past month or so, I’ve scrolled through my Facebook feed and have seen people calling for more compassion toward the Syrian refugees who are fleeing the slaughter of ISIS. Calling for an opening of American borders to some of the millions of displaced Syrians looking for safety.

And in nearly every one of these cries for mercy, I’ve seen voices being raised pleading for safety. Governors are refusing to allow people into their states so that their citizens can feel secure. We have Donald Trump calling for a ban on the entrance into the United States of an entire religious group based on the evil deeds of a few. And Franklin Graham who echoes the sentiment, all in the name of safety.

When I read the news, I can find plenty of evidence of violence that seems to warrant caution. Recent terror attacks have reminded us that we are at risk at any time and that we may unwittingly welcome in the enemy if we accept waves of refugees. The calls for common sense and desire for security in the midst of the confusion show a high level of acuity. Of course we want our children to be safe. Of course we want ourselves to be safe.

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I don’t know what the right answer is in either of these situations. What is the proper Christian ethos when we’re talking about keeping people safe?

I wish I knew. Sometimes it seems so clear. It seems to me that love must create space for those who are different, for those who may represent a threat. Forgiveness, grace, mercy – these aren’t words of safety. They carry with them risk. Risk that the person who has done wrong, who has harmed, who has demoralized – they may do it again. In that realization, I find myself sitting beside Peter asking Jesus, “How many times do we forgive? Have we hit that number yet? Please?”

Because it seems as though safety must exist for the victim as well. For the downtrodden, for the outcast, for the marginalized. There has to be some way for the person who has suffered to be granted asylum, while still extending those risky Christian values to perpetrators.

I don’t have answers. At the least, I want to acknowledge that The Church has a poor history of choosing who to protect, often electing to protect those with privilege and power over those with less to offer in terms of finances or prestige. There has been an elevation of the status quo, and an invocation of forgiveness when it suits those who have the most to promote the well-being of the institution.

Somehow we have moved from the call of The Church to offer protection to those on the outside, and have primarily used it to protect those on the inside. I believe that if we want to be a Church that is a reflection of the One we worship, we must begin to practice unsafe Christianity.

And I know that it needs to start with me.

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Let Them Win

I count myself lucky. I live in a time when I have access to the internet. It has its faults, but I also get to connect with people from all different walks of life. I get to read a variety of views and share my own as well. It’s a fascinating season to be alive during.

Despite the fact that I regularly post things that some may consider controversial, I don’t encounter much nastiness online. I’m usually able to navigate the internet unscathed. For the most part, my interactions online are positive, even with people with whom I disagree. I consider myself lucky in this a well.

But as I opened up Twitter earlier this week, there was some ugly waiting for me. Someone spewing a string of harsh tweets about my mom, about my stillbirth, about personal things that they had no business commenting on. It wasn’t constructive, it was strictly mean spirited. The last tweet was a taunt, daring me to block them.

At first, I didn’t want to. I wasn’t giving them the satisfaction of knowing that their words got under my skin. I didn’t want to be seen as thin skinned, afraid of words on a screen. Sticks and stones, after all.

A few months ago, Elizabeth Gilbert answered the question, “How do you deal with criticism?” I encourage you to read her entire response, but in it she said,

I avoid criticism about myself not because I DON’T care what people say about me, but because I DO care. I am sensitive and easily bruised. I know that critical words can hurt me, and I am not in the business of hurting myself on purpose.

I said it the other day, and I will say it again: God gave me a soul to take care of, that soul is my own. I am the only one who can keep that soul safe. I am the only one who can protect my creativity so that my imagination can run and play freely in the world.

As I thought about her words, I realized that loving myself enough to say no to negativity in my life is okay. Part of being unapologetic means that I won’t feel bad for choosing to honor my mental health.

So what if they “win”? What is it they’ve won? Knowing that they hurt me? Knowing that their words had enough bite to make me not want to interact with them? That’s not much of a win, honestly. If someone wins because you refuse to accept their negativity, it’s okay to let them win.

hostility

I have seen calls to engage with people, even when we have strong disagreements. I think this is absolutely correct. We need diversity of thought in our lives. It helps us remain open to changing our minds. It helps us remember that the world is bigger than our ideas. It helps us remember that we’re people first and opinions second. Allowing disagreement in our lives is critical to being healthy, whole people.

But being open to disagreement is not the same as being open to criticism, and it is definitely not the same as being open to hostility. 

There are people who have earned the ability to offer criticism. There are times when we need to hear information that helps us get back on the right track. However, not everyone falls into that category. And no one has earned the right to speak with malice toward you. You are not, in any way, obligated to listen to those who berate and belittle you.

Yes, that might mean that they get the last word. It might mean that they get to sit smugly behind their computer keyboards, knowing that their words hurt you. It might mean that they win this confrontation.

Let them win. The prize isn’t that good.

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Embracing Grief Giveaway

One of the things about releasing a book in the middle of the holidays is that you kind of miss a lot of marketing. I let the blog go cold, let my newsletter languish, stopped posting on my Facebook page.

But it’s a new year and I’m not apologizing for spending time during the holidays with the people that I love instead of worrying about book sales and reviews and all of that. And part of my new year is that I’d like to invite you to head over to Goodreads for an opportunity to win one of five signed copies of Embracing Grief!

Goodreads Book Giveaway

Embracing Grief by Alise Chaffins

Embracing Grief

by Alise Chaffins

Giveaway ends February 06, 2016.

See the giveaway details
at Goodreads.

Enter Giveaway

Click on through for your opportunity to win a copy!

Of course, if you can’t wait until February to see if you’ve won, you can pick up a copy at Amazon, Barnes & Noble, iBook, Kobo, and just about everywhere you can think to buy books.

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