How to Sleep In the Middle of a Storm

It occurred to me this morning that there's another side of the "at leasts" among us. There's also the "at mosts." You know the sort: again, you're sharing grief, pain, sorrow, anger, or some other struggle through which you currently walk, and they're there waiting to interject a "But God!" or "Well, at least it's not worse!" They're the eternal optimists or, more likely, the ones who are uncomfortable simply letting someone experience pain, suffering, or the depths of what God wants to bring them into. 

Just as I was guilty this past weekend of casting judgement on a fellow family member at my church, I can be guilty of "But Goding" myself all the time. A friend confessed a few years ago that he was learning how to walk into the depths of what God was doing in his life, instead of just in the shallows. He'd learned to bounce, rebound, robotically respond with the greatness of God, without letting the person across from him, or even himself, feel, process, or experience the deepest parts of their pain.

If we truly believe God isn't wasteful, if we truly believe he is sovereign, then we have to learn to comfort others and ourselves without distilling complex experiences down to a platitude—even if the platitude is true. If our response is quick and automated it says more about us than it does about the pain of the other, or their faith in the God who holds them. It says we're unwilling to really wrestle with our brother or sister and instead just want to get the hard stuff over. It says we're unwilling to really listen to them and just want to get a word in edgewise. It says we think our wisdom is better than God's wisdom in allowing this season to unfold for them. It also betrays our lack of trust in God to hold them, even though there may be darker days ahead. 

When we offer up a mere platitude in the face of someone's suffering or confession of weakness, it says more about our lack of faith than it does about theirs. 

True faith acts on the truth of God's word and sometimes Jesus simply wept, sometimes he asked questions, drawing out the mourner or the one in need of healing, sometimes he just fed them, sometimes he fell asleep in the middle of the storm, sometimes he removed himself from the crowds. It is true that he was proclaiming the good news everywhere he went, but good news does not always come in the form of words. Sometimes it comes in the form of weeping with those who weep, the provision of food on the table, and the sight of one who can rest in stillness, without talking, even in the midst of the storm. 

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The "At Least" Among Us

You and I and everyone we know has been there. We're finally mustering up the strength to be vulnerable and not just transparent. We're putting our fears, emotions, anger out there, hoping to simply be heard. And as we're speaking, we're watching the person across from us, their face changing from the tense desire to sermonize back or jump in when we take a breath. It grows softer, sadder, and somewhat madder. "Well," they say, "at least you don't have to deal with..." And your heart drops. 

I've written before about the danger of saying "at least" to the married or the single, and I suppose whatever struggle it is through which we currently walk, that's where we see the at leasts among us. A single friend said recently, "Well, at least you can try to get pregnant, my eggs are just drying up over here." A father of three said, "Well, at least you don't have other kids keeping you up all night." Someone who's struggled to conceive at all says, "At least you can get pregnant, I can't even do that." A moment of vulnerability for one becomes a competition for another. 

The thing about saying "At least" to someone—particularly someone who's confessing their own anger, fear, grief, or sadness at the circumstances of their life, is it negates their wrestle and it naturally elevates our own. It tiers the very specific means of sanctification and grace God is working in our own lives and separates his people into the haves and the have nots. Having many blessings can offer a form of dominance in the Christian culture, but for some of us, it's a race to see who's suffered the most—that's the real currency in our hearts. 

Yesterday at church while we sung about the sting of death being gone, my voice broke. I couldn't say those words and I wanted to, I wanted to. A few rows ahead of me someone worshipped passionately, both their hands raised, fingertips stretched out, abounding with energy. My heart wrenched and the words, "They've probably never even experienced death closely and here I am, all my life, life marked by death down to my very body." I knew the wickedness of the thought immediately and knew it wasn't true, it was a lie of the enemy trying to arrest me from processing why I struggled to worship the King and instead casting judgement on my family member. The lie felt more real, though, it felt like the most real thing in that moment, far more true than the words our church was singing or their rootedness in Scripture. I wanted to believe my pain was worse than theirs. The invasive weed of "at least" was taking root. 

I have been really struck the past month by the old adage that we're all fighting a hard battle and how I cannot be there for all the people I love because I'm fighting a hard battle too. My battle is not better than, worse than, or even equal to another's. It's simply the thing God has allowed into my life in order to shape, form, and sanctify me into more like him.

Whatever you're facing today, that thing that seems insurmountable, terrible, or just plain unfair? God is at work in that. He's not wasting it and he's not wasting you in middle of it. 

The next time we're listening to someone share what is breaking their heart today, notice the invasive weed of "at least" and pull it out right then, if we can. Ask the Spirit for help, if we can't. He is there to help us do hard things and comfort us when we feel alone. Places where it might be prone to pressing through the soil of our hearts: over coffee, at church, on social media, with other moms or those who want to be moms, with other single friends, when a friend loses something or when they gain something. We don't have to say "at least" to anyone in whatever they're facing because God is never doing the least of anything in our lives. He is always doing the best—even if it feels like the worst. 

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Pitting Cherries and Not Another Podcast

Last Thursday, a week ago, I bought a cherry pitter. Having no reason to suspect that cherries might be on sale this week (but of course they would be, it's nearly August), I find myself more prepared for the laborious task of pitting six pounds of the burgundy orbs.

Friends laugh at me for the lack of gadgets in our home, but if I had to go another season using a cheap paring knife, my fingernail, and a whole afternoon to pit cherries just so we can have cherry pie in January...well, that wasn't going to happen. It's a small tool, not electric, not even the size of a garlic press or a can opener. I've already pitted a pound and it took me a quarter of the time. But it still took time. "Just buy a can of cherry filling," you might say, "or at the very worst, a bag of frozen cherries. There's souls to be saved, work that needs to be done, and you're standing there pitting cherries?"

Yes. Yes I am. 

Nate and I took the long way home from dinner on Tuesday night, through the bit of countryside still mostly untouched by the creeping metroplex of Dallas and Fort Worth. I forget what the subject was exactly, but he lamented the amount of time people have these days. Everything is mechanized and technologized and passive income is all the rage and it leaves so much more time for folks to spend their days reading theology or politics and commenting on every single issue whether they have suffered or worked or lived much at all. Everyone considers themselves an expert because they read about it in a book or a blog or listened to a podcast where people purported to be experts because they read about it in a book or a blog or they, too, are podcast listeners. We are a society of commentators, each one of us abridging, abutting, amending, or simply adding our own two cents to every issue under the sun. 

That's why I've taken so long to buy a cherry pitter. 

I need my hands to be busy with real work—not just mind work. Mind work is good work too, I won't argue that, and technological advances are things of beauty (the attributes of God as creator at work), but when everything exists to make our lives easier, faster, more automated, and less work, well, what else is there to do but commentate? We become merely observers of life and not partakers in it. 

Whenever I feel a tinge of shame creeping in because I eschew Fast and New and Quick and its accompanying accusation that while I stand there pitting cherries for four hours, there's gospel work I could be doing instead, I want to remember that pitting cherries is gospel work. It might not be the kind we raise support for or throw neighborhood parties for or write pamphlets for or send our kids overseas for, but it is still producing in me (and, I'd argue, in those who partake January's cherry pie at our table) something good. It is keeping me away from the commentary, the blurring lines of experts, the pundits, armchair preachers, and seminarians who think because they know how to pronounce Barth and have read the entirety of City of God, they know anything about real life. 

If you hear a note of sadness (or its stinging cousin disgust), it's very real. I am saddened by how much everyone is an expert in their field, but how little they know of real work in real fields. "Stay in your lane," is the most lamentable phrase to enter Christianity. God has made us infinitely complex and we squeeze all of that complexity into one thing and call it a calling. But we need to feel the soil in our fingers and the pop of a cherry being pitted and to learn how to make a proper bed and the frustration of a weed that overtakes our garden and the stinging loss of life and the relief that comes from learning something works not because we read about it but because we tried it and failed miserably—or, glory be, succeeded. We need the whole gamut of work and rest and the exercise of our mind that comes from learning new laborious skills with our hands, and the exercise of our bodies that comes not from getting in a run, but waking early and feeling its limitations, its mutations, and its inability to be perfected. 

I hope my disgust moves along quickly and is replaced by wisdom, but I am weary of the commentary and I hope, I hope, I hope you are too. I hope you turn off, unsubscribe, stop buying books, turn down the volume, and listen instead to the dandelion men, the poets, the sages, the ones who have suffered full lives and have earned the right to commentate on what they have seen and known. I hope you will live an examined life of your own, and not just spend it examining the lives of others.

I hope you'll buy a cherry pitter too, just for the act of slowing, stopping, and feeling the ripe, red flesh in your fingers for a few hours, the juice that pools on your raw pine tabletop. I hope, for a minute, you'll remember you are dust and your thumb will get a cramp and your fingers will be stained and January will feel a long way off. I hope as you crack these red orbs, you're reminded of how a few weeks ago your body was cracked open and blood was shed, and how a few millennia ago your Savior's body was too. I hope you run out of time and don't have enough to spend one blessed moment pontificating on your silly blog about how much time people have these days. If you don't, it's okay. I'm grateful I mostly did. 

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*Just to be clear: you don't have to pit your own cherries: perhaps you're raising little ones, or managing a garden of your own, or engaged in some other act that takes time and doesn't result in much praise or notice or a strong, consistent feeling of accomplishment. This is what I'm talking about. Abstain from the glut of information and commentary on it and just, you know, do something.

God in What is Not Said

His is an unassuming wit, the gentle sort that surprises you, and only after you have known him long enough. I am not amused by puns or foolish antics, but by dry wit, the understated kind, the kind my husband has. He has always made me laugh and I have always loved this about him.

Laughter, though, does not echo in these hospital halls or if it does, it is strange and out of place—like our pregnancy this time. “Ectopic pregnancy literally means Out of Place,” my husband reads from the Internet and later writes a poem about the out of placeness we feel in this experience of intermittent infertility followed by miscarriage after miscarriage and now, this. We hold our collective breath for nearly a week in the hospital while I continue to bleed, bent in pain, and we continue to pray. And then I am wheeled into surgery and we lose the baby before we lose me.

I don’t laugh for a month. Nate doesn’t even try to make me. The hours pass slow and monotonous, like the poet said, “a punctual rape of every blessed day.” Even when I am well enough to leave our bed, I don’t want to. Even when the scars don’t pull with every movement, I feel them still and the emptiness they betray. We're not the sort to pretend things are fine when they're not. We're not afraid of mourning, of being sad. We aren't going to pretend we have jubilant and full hearts when the truth is we've felt emptied of joy, and instead brim over with emotions that seem out of place and our control. There's no shame in our grief and we feel no shame for it. We're not in some sort of rush to sweep the bad things away and spring clean sadness from our hearts. Sadness has its purpose too.

One night a month after, Nate and I talk before bed as we often do, turned toward one another, and a surprising laughter comes from within me. He makes me laugh for an hour or more and then again when we turn out the lights and face away from each other.

Someone asked me a question recently: "What's comforts you in infertility and pregnancy loss?" I answered the Psalms. They have been the best comfort to me in the past few years. But there is poetry too, and not of the biblical sort, that has comforted too. I read a poem by Mary Oliver when we were in the hospital and it lingers still with comfort.

Poetry says what cannot be said in prose. And sometimes it says what cannot be said at all or sometimes what should not.  Good poetry leaves much to the imagination and even more to interpretation. Its purpose is not to force the reader into a well-worn pathway, but to surprise instead with inflection, wonder, and—perhaps—emptiness. What is not said is almost more important than what is.

Grief is like that, for me at least. God is at work in what is not said more than what is. He is found in spaces, emptiness, quiet pauses and plots and pieces. He says without saying, "Notice me in this thing or this sight or this void? See me in the ways I preserve and protect and keep?" He is almost an afterthought in many ways. He is a surprise.

The best comfort to me in grief has been the Psalms, yes, but also poetry, and also surprising laughter, filling up from inside and pouring over. The sort that makes my stomach hurt, the kind that makes my eyes water, the kind that makes me stop and notice, for one minute, when my hands feel limp and lifeless, that all things are still held in his.

Heavy, by Mary Oliver

That time
I thought I could not
go any closer to grief
without dying

I went closer,
and I did not die.
Surely God
had his hand in this,

as well as friends.
Still, I was bent,
and my laughter,
as the poet said,

was nowhere to be found.
Then said my friend Daniel,
(brave even among lions),
“It’s not the weight you carry

but how you carry it -
books, bricks, grief -
it’s all in the way
you embrace it, balance it, carry it

when you cannot, and would not,
put it down.”
So I went practicing.
Have you noticed?

Have you heard
the laughter
that comes, now and again,
out of my startled mouth?

How I linger
to admire, admire, admire
the things of this world
that are kind, and maybe

also troubled 
roses in the wind,
the sea geese on the steep waves,
a love to which there is no reply?

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What to do When Your Friend Loses a Baby

Two weeks ago I was experiencing the most intense and sudden pain I've ever had. After an hour where I was just trying to bear it, Nate overruled and we went to the ER. After all night in the ER, we were admitted the next day and there for five days, during which we had every manner of good, bad, terrible, hopeful, and excruciating news about our pregnancy. Our faith was high after one meeting with a doctor and was crushed in the next. It was an invasive and demoralizing stay (what hospital stay isn't?) and in the end, we ended up losing the baby and one of my fallopian tubes in surgery. 

A few months ago our Home Group spent an evening talking about mourning. It was a strangely lively discussion in part, I think, because as western Christians we're not very good at it and we don't want to be. We want to be Happy Clappy Christians who bounce back quickly with the Will of God on our lips and a song of praise in our hearts. We don't want to engage the long difficult process of mourning. We don't want to have a formula for mourning or a plan for it. We had talked about weddings the chapter before in our book and I mentioned it was strange how much attention, dreaming, planning, and money we gladly put into weddings, but how unprepared and shocked we are when we must mourn. Yet, it's death that's certain for all of us, not marriage. 

This could be titled What to Do When Your Friend Miscarries or Five Things to Do When Your Friend Has an Ectopic Pregnancy or Ten Things to Do when Your Friend Has a Stillborn but the truth of the matter is no miscarriage, ectopic pregnancy, or stillbirth is the same. There are varying complications, varying circumstances, varying emotions, and varying humans involved. There is no right way to approach or bless or check off deeds well done. 

What should you do when the hope of a baby is crushed by loss? 

First, ask your friend

I know the old "What can I do?" question is tamped down by many well-meaning grief experts who assume answering a question is too difficult for any grieving person. But that assumes a lot of a person's mental or emotional health. For some of us, that question is the most helpful because it doesn't assume what works for someone else works for us.

I am never going to be a strong verbal processor. I am never going to want to cry or talk it out with more than one person. I am usually going to want some space and quiet and someone to just sit beside me on their phone or with a book who isn't doting on me. For most of last week, one of our housemates (the female one, who was one of my roommates before I got married, and is still a good friend) came home from work every day at noon with a drink or lunch, crawled into bed with me, and we watched British bakers for hours. This was medicine for me. For someone else, though, that might feel invasive and they'd rather you just dropped food off at the door and left without a word. Or someone else might want the phone away, the tv off, and to talk for hours. Ask your friend what they need. If they don't know what they need, ask them again tomorrow or in a week. 

Second, be careful with your stories

Sometimes it's helpful to hear your friend talk about their friend who had six miscarriages after being infertile for six years and then had an ectopic pregnancy where they removed one of her tubes and then, miracle of miracles, birthed six babies right in a row without any complications. I can't think of an instance in which that might be helpful to hear when you're grieving, but maybe there's someone out there who would love to hear that story. For most of us, though, it's probably not helpful. What might be helpful is saying, "I'm sorry this is your story and I pray beautiful things come of it." That sounds a bit trite, but not as trite as comparing someone else's pain with yours. 

My mom (who has had eight c-secions) texted me the other day and simply said, "Every woman's body is different." She didn't try to compare her experience of having eight small living humans cut out of her body to my experience of having one small dead baby and a fallopian tube cut out of my body. She just let the stories be different because they are. Sure there are similarities of surgery and hormones and recovery and things like that, but our bodies are different. They heal in different ways and in different paces. Even the comparison of miscarriage to miscarriage isn't helpful. Some women might hardly know they're miscarrying, others, like myself, have seen the baby as they pass. There's a difference of trauma there. Some might experience the emotional loss of the baby more deeply than others, some might generally bounce back quickly. Some ectopic pregnancies end in a quick miscarriage, some end with the mother's death (the leading cause of mother's death in the first trimester is ectopic pregnancy). How could we compare those stories in a way that is sensitive and caring? So much better to simply say to your friend something like, "I know this story isn't what you hoped for and I'm sorry. I hate this for you. I'm praying God heals what is broken in your heart and he heals your body." 

Next, some practical things. 

Line up a few meals. If your friend eats meat, include some red meat or fish. She has probably lost a lot of blood and she needs iron. 

Offer to go grocery shopping for her household. Ask her if she has a normal list, but if she doesn't, buy lots of good healthy vegetables, fruits, and meats. And ice cream. 

Bring her a little basket of care. A friend brought me organic hand lotion, essential oil room spray, a face mask, flowers, and a gourmet cookie on day three of our hospital stay last week and it was the biggest blessing to me. The room spray especially since by day five our room was worse for the wear. Don't underestimate the need for a woman in mourning to care for her body. She may be struggling with hating her body at that moment and it isn't wrong to equip her in seeing it as a unique and beautiful thing. It will help her heal.

Schedule a cleaner for a week or two out. Here's the one we're using this week

Bring her coffee or lunch. 

Run errands: Make some returns for her or go to the library or take the dog to the vet or weed her garden. 

Babysit her other kids for a few hours. 

Essentially, your goal is to not hover around her while she's grieving, but to simply serve her and, if she needs it, you can be near enough that she can cry or talk with you if she wants. Most of these things come naturally to folks when there's a new baby to celebrate, but few of us care for a grieving mom in the same way. Just because there's not a new baby to celebrate doesn't mean there aren't still complicated and difficult things happening in her body. 

When my younger brother was killed suddenly when I was 20, I was struck by a few things: how well cared for we were in the immediate aftermath, and how long and confusing the process of mourning was. I had no rubric or understanding of grief and wasn't sure what I was supposed to feel or when. I don't think most of us do. This post isn't meant to provide that either, but instead to say: Be prepared for mourning. Plan for it. Count on it. It's a certainty as long as we live on earth. Enter into it. Don't mourn as those who have no hope, but mourn with hope in practical ways. 

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*For all the lively discussion our Home Group had about mourning, they were there every single step of our hospital stay, from the ER, to the eventual surgery, to getting home and recovering. They truly know how to mourn with those who mourn.