Sunday, April 7, 2013

the grieving heart

The Spirit of the Sovereign Lord is on me,
    because the Lord has anointed me
    to proclaim good news to the poor.
He has sent me to bind up the brokenhearted,
    to proclaim freedom for the captives
    and release from darkness for the prisoners...

 to comfort all who mourn,
    and provide for those who grieve in Zion—
to bestow on them a crown of beauty
    instead of ashes,
the oil of joy instead of mourning,
and a garment of praise
    instead of a spirit of despair.
They will be called oaks of righteousness,
    a planting of the Lord

for the display of his splendor (Isaiah 61:1-3).

So many of us don't understand the complexities of grief; however, everyone has experienced loss--the most obvious being the loss of an important person through death. However, losses of those we love due to abandonment, rejections, separation, or divorce can be just as painful.  We also often neglect to acknowledge that a loss of part of ourselves (such as body functions, hopes and dreams, a job, childhood losses, and external objects/things of sentimental value) are also legitimate losses. All these losses are sources or pain that contribute to our broken hearts.

Our instinct is to run from grief, not face it head-on. Yet of the key aspects of Jesus' mission on earth was to "bind up the brokenhearted" and to "provide for those who grieve." As Christians, we are called to follow Jesus' example and provide hope and healing for the hurting, yet so often we fail at it.  

So, here are some things to keep in mind when you're grieving or ministering to someone who is grieving:

The pain often comes in waves. Just when you think it's gone, it shows up again, stirring up more anxiety, guilt, shame. Some days you might be fine, and other days it may look and feel like you've taken 10 steps back. You don't get to choose when the pain hits next. Sometimes events similar to the original event also have a way of triggering the pain of our original loss. That's just how it works.

Crying is okay. Yes, it's messy, and yes, it looks like you don't have it all together. But crying allows us to flush the hurt out of our hearts. And when the hurt returns, we need to flush it out again. Even Jesus wept. In his tears, we find permission to shed our own. 

Grief takes time. Depending on the severity of the loss, it may take a week, a month, or even years (yes, YEARS!) Everyone is different. Every situation is different. The "stages of grief" proposed by Elisabeth Kubler-Ross, include a series of emotional stages, including denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and finally, acceptance. So don't judge someone or tell them that they should be "over it" by now. Grief is a complex process that takes time. Stopping the process prematurely will do even more damage.

Keep confidentiality. Often, the circumstances surrounding the grief are very, very private. At the very least, the emotions surrounding the situation are raw. If someone opens their heart and shares something sensitive with you, keep it to yourself. 

Just be there. There are times when you want to be alone and when you need to grieve alone, in private. However, in your grief you need others--Jesus AND people--you can lean on to remind you that you are not alone. Friends who will walk through the suffering with you point you closer to Jesus than anything.  

Be a good listener. Pep-talks are not helpful. Sometimes neither is a sermon. Sometimes you hurt so much that you can't read your Bible more--getting out of bed is all you can possibly manage.  The last thing someone hurting wants is someone who keeps trying to "fix" them.  If they want your advice, they will ask for it. Otherwise, just sit back and listen. 

Share your story. This is going to require you to be vulnerable. This is going to force you to re-visit your own grief. This will not be easy; however, one of the reasons why God allows us to suffer, is so He can take the losses we've experienced and build them into a ministry to reflect His glory. Showing empathy is more important than your level of comfort. Sharing grief together will help both of you not feel so alone. It will give hope. It will show you do understand. 

Show unconditional loveGrief is not a mental illness, but it sure feels like one sometimes. It can affect mood, cause insomnia, loss of appetite, forgetfulness, and thoughts of suicide. When I'm grieving something, chances are, I might not be that fun to be around. I might not act like the "old" me. I might say or do things that you don't like. You might not agree with the choices I've made. You might not like the "new" me. Get over it.  A huge part of healing from grief is knowing that someone has your back and loves you. No matter what.

Any type of loss we experience, causes us some measure of grief and needs to be worked through. How we do it (or whether or not we do it at all) varies tremendously. Pain within the heart can be so overwhelming that every fiber of your being will want to shut it down. And so we develop "coping mechanisms" -- things we do to escape (or at least manage) the pain in order to get through the day. We change the subject. Avoid the issue. Work hard. Drink harder. Stay busy. Stay distant. Don't look back. 

But in the long run, your coping mechanisms will prevent you from becoming free. Unless you face the pain by grieving your losses, it will continue to fester, impacting future losses, separations, and attachments. Don't walk away from it. Deal with it.

Go ahead, face your grief. Give yourself time. Permit yourself tears. God understands. He knows the sorrow of a grave. He buried his son. But he also knows the joy of resurrection. And by his power, you will too. - Max Lucado

Two excellent books with chapters on grief are  Olive Shoots Around Your Table by John Visser and Facing Your Giants by Max Lucado.

Thursday, April 4, 2013

a match made in heaven

I set out on a narrow way many years ago
Hoping I would find true love along the broken road. 
But I got lost a time or two-
Wiped my brow and kept pushing through.
I couldn't see how every sign pointed straight to you.

Every long-lost dream lead me to where you are.
Others who broke my heart, they were like northern stars
Pointing me on my way into your loving arms.
This much I know is true:
That God blessed the broken road
That led me straight to you.

I think about the years I spent just passing through.
I'd like to have the time I lost and give it back to you.
But you just smile and take my hand
You've been there, you understand
It's all part of a grander plan that is coming true.

Every long lost dream led me to where you are.
Others who broke my heart they were like northern stars
Pointing me on my way into your loving arms.
This much I know it's true:
That God blessed the broken road
That led me straight to you.
(-Rascal Flatts)

After many years of waiting and wondering when and how and if my Mr. Right would show up, and after many temptations to settle for less than God's best, I remember God clearly telling me, “Don’t settle for someone good or even great. Wait for someone extraordinary!”

In honour of our 3-year anniversary as an official couple, and for those of you who have always wondered how I met and married my Mr. Extraordinary, this is our story:

I first met Jared at a bonfire in the County, the very same week that my dad passed away. Our mutual friend was Natalie, my close friend from church, who happened to know Jared from her university days. Though Jared and I had grown up only half an hour from each other, our paths had never crossed--until that night. 

Natalie ended up inviting Jared last-minute to the bonfire and we were introduced in the driveway. Except for spontaneously joining him in singing “Hurt” by Johnny Cash around the fire, we didn’t talk to each other at all. Little did I know, it was love at first sight for Jared!  Little did he know, I was immediately wowed by his good looks, his guitar playing, and his Johnny Cash-like singing voice. I couldn’t believe Natalie hadn’t ever thought to mention him to me before!

As I left that evening (with another guy), I was a little disappointed that we hadn’t talked, though it occurred to me that he probably assumed that I had a boyfriend. For the next week, he played hard-to-get, adding everyone from the bonfire to his Facebook friends list—everyone except for me, that is! Once he did add me, though, we ended up talking for quite some time! I remember Natalie specifically warned me not to get him started on theories of personality or he’d talk my ear off for several hours…to which I replied, “What would be the problem with that? I love psychology!”

We carpooled to several more bonfires, had some more late-night chats over the computer and phone, and thus, got to know each other a bit better. A few weeks after we first met, we ended up going to a movie together in Belleville. Afterwards, we had coffee at Tim Hortons, and ended up sitting there talking until 1:30 am.  That was our first “unofficial” date.

At this time, it was still my intention for Jared and I to simply be “just friends,” though I do recall thinking it would be nice if we became something more eventually. I remember telling him that I would want to be friends with a guy for a year, then date for a year, and then get engaged. Thankfully, God (and Jared), had different plans.

A month after we first met, Jared sat me down and asked, “What would you say if I was your Mr. Extraordinary?” Then he told me he loved me. Although it freaked me out, deep down, I knew he was! We sealed the deal with a kiss (to this day, we still argue about who initiated it!) and that is how we officially became a couple.

Jared knew right away that he wanted to marry me, but he had initially promised that he would wait at least a year before he proposed. (I was still in a state of shock over how fast things were moving.) However, this didn’t stop us from starting house renovations, choosing our wedding rings, and setting a wedding date. I told him I wouldn’t hold him to his promise to wait a year, however, he felt it was important that he honour his promise. So it turned out that we had the church and the hall booked, and my wedding dress bought before I even had a proposal or a ring on my finger!

I was hoping that he would propose on our first anniversary, but the day came and went with no proposal. In the following days, we went on several long walks, and each time I was convinced that he was about to propose, but he didn’t--he was just tying his shoelace! On April 30, several days after our anniversary, Jared asked if I would like to drive out back with him to drop off a load of scrap wood from our renovations. I agreed, and again, I was convinced he was going to propose beside the bonfire pit. After all, we had first met at a bonfire. But the moment passed—and still no proposal! Instead he asked if I would like to learn how to drive the tractor today. At that point, I became convinced that he was not going to propose, since he was clearly only thinking about tractors!

I drove the tractor around the field while Jared waited nearby. As I parked the tractor beside him, he held out his hand to help me down off the tractor, but he didn’t let go. As he held my hand, he dropped to one knee. With the sound of the waterfall in the background and my dad’s tractor behind me, he pulled out the ring, and finally proposed! He explained how he was the new man in my life and it would be his job to protect, provide, and cultivate my heart. I started to cry and I couldn’t believe it when he told me he had planned this  moment months in advance. Even though I knew it was coming, it was still the most wonderful surprise. (Oh, and of course I said, “Yes!”) 

We were married a few months after that on August 20, 2011....and the rest is history!

Tuesday, April 2, 2013

when life falls apart

Wish it could be easy--why is life so messy?
Why is pain a part of us?
There are days I feel like nothing ever goes right,
Sometimes it just hurts so much.

August 20, 2011 is a day I will never forget. It was the day I married my sweetheart. Unfortunately, what was supposed to be the happiest time of my life, quickly became the worst year of my life. Not only was marriage hard, but every other aspect of my life was spiraling out of control as well.

A month before we married, I was taking a final course to finish my degree. Two weeks after we married, I started a new job which included a substantial pay cut.  In addition, we had decided to renovate our 1880’s farmhouse, and this involved gutting the entire upstairs. Not only were the two of us crammed into 3 rooms downstairs, but my neat, orderly, and safe little world now consisted of dust, debris, and chaos, with no end in sight.

During this time, it became apparent that many of those who I had considered to be my friends, really were not. A year earlier, my best friend had suddenly decided to part ways with me, after four years of spending every Sunday afternoon together. Her absence left a deep hole in my heart. I not only lost her friendship, but also that of her family. She was the first of many who slowly withdrew from my life over the next year. After I married, other friends drifted away, including the guy who had offered to give me away on my wedding day.

Shortly after our marriage, it also became clear that the church we attended was not a good fit for Jared. I was saddened by the gossip, and horrified at the way Jared was treated by those in leadership. I was also deeply hurt when so many from the church volunteered to help with the pastor’s daughter’s house renovations, but only one person came to help with ours.  Jared was convinced that the leadership, as well as many of the people in the church were more concerned about their image and how things looked on the outside, as opposed to actually caring for people’s hearts. Little by little, I was inclined to agree. Unfortunately for us, no one else at that time was bold enough to agree and take a stand, and so we found ourselves increasingly ostracized.

My breaking point occurred not long afterward. We had just received a new kitten to replace the cat that I’d lost right before our marriage. Three weeks after he came home, he crawled into one of our exposed walls, fell into the cistern below, and drowned. Jared was away that day, and I ended up watching the whole event alone. I was horribly traumatized, and inconsolable. I had now lost two pets in two months. I was furious with God for allowing this to happen. It seemed as though He kept taking away everything that I loved—the serenity of my home, the security of my job, my pets, and my friends. When I searched for answers, all I got was silence.

I found no comfort in the songs that used to lift my spirits, and scripture verses could not penetrate the depths of sadness I felt. Now that I had seen what lived in the hearts of those in leadership at our church, I wanted nothing to do with anything that came out of their mouths. I could not bear to set foot in a church where everyone around me appeared to be shiny and happy. And in the midst of this, Jared dropped the bombshell that he wanted to return to his home church. I didn’t want to go to any church, let alone a new church, but for his sake, I went along. All I could do was cry. Everything was a reminder of what I’d just lost. I didn’t belong, and I didn’t know how to cope, so eventually after six months, I stopped trying.

Although not going to church provided some immediate relief, I felt like a fake. I’d been leading a small group for women, and I was supposed to be a Christian school teacher, yet often, I doubted whether or not we had a loving God that cared about our day-to-day struggles.  However, at that time, God reconnected me with a dear friend who had been part of my life in varying degrees since the fourth grade. After a three hour talk over dinner, I realized that I was not alone. She too had just experienced a year from hell, and I encouraged her to join our women's group.

However, leading the small group eventually became too much for me. I longed to quit, but felt guilty, since I was the one who had started the group. One night, though, I broke down and could not continue leading. My dear friend immediately stepped in, and was able to effectively lead the rest of the evening. Afterwards, I asked her to consider taking over the leading of the group, and she agreed.  With the burden of leadership off my shoulders, I felt comfortable enough to remain in the group, and eventually to participate openly and honestly again. 

But You're here, You're real. I know I can trust You
Even when it hurts, even when it's hard,
Even when it all just falls apart, I will run to You
Cause I know that You are Lover of my soul,
Healer of my scars. You steady my heart.

2013 rolled around, and with it, what I hoped would be a new start. My job had ended before Christmas, and in my free time, I had toyed with the idea of trying out church again. Unfortunately, I spent most of January in bed with the flu. One Sunday morning while Jared was at church, I decided to listen online. The message was called “Holding on to Faith” and in it, our pastor shared very openly and honestly about his personal struggles from the past year. (I highly recommend listening to the entire sermon here.)

As I lay on the couch, still sick with the flu, tears poured from my eyes as he shared that if it had not for the grace of God and the prayers of his people, he may have lost his faith because of broken relationships, relentless legalism, the silence of God, and overwhelming temptation to give up. In those moments, I again realized that I was not alone. As I watched our pastor standing back up on the pulpit after a 6-month absence, something began to change in my heart and I knew that I too, would one day stand back up.

I'm not gonna worry
I know that You got me right inside the palm of your hand
Each and every moment-what's good and what gets broken--
Happens just the way that You plan.
And I will run to You and find refuge in Your arms….
You steady my heart.

Over the past few months, I have felt my some of my joy slowly returning. Some days are still really hard. I still miss my former friends. I still feel angry over certain events. I am still unemployed. Our renovations aren't finished.  Some days I still feel overwhelming sadness, but every morning I wake up to a handsome husband and precious kitty that both still loves me--in spite of all my flaws and failures. I feel more at-peace than I have in a long time, and I believe God is beginning the process of bringing me back to life.

One of the pieces of my healing journey is God's provision of a new mentor to help me walk through my grief and shame. Because of his fatherly love, I have a deeper understanding of my Heavenly Father's love for me. Because I know that he's been where I am, I believe it when he tells me, "You're going to be all right, girl!"  Because of the truths that he has already spoken into my life, I have found the courage to confront a few of those who have hurt me; I have been able to attend church without any more panic attacks; I have been able to make some new friends. 

Some time ago I saw a picture of an old burned-out mountain shack. All that remained was the chimney...the charred debris of what had been that family’s sole possession. In front of this destroyed home stood an old grandfather-looking man dressed only in his underclothes with a small boy clutching a pair of patched overalls. It was evident that the child was crying. Beneath the picture were the words which the artist felt the old man was speaking to the boy. They were simple words, yet they presented a profound theology and philosophy of life. Those words were, “Hush child, God ain’t dead!”

That vivid picture of that burned-out mountain shack, that old man, the weeping child, and those words “God ain’t dead” keep returning to my mind. Instead of it being a reminder of the despair of life, it has come to be a reminder of hope. We all need reminders that there is hope in this world, especially when all around us, life is falling apart. In the midst of all of life’s troubles, disappointments, betrayals and failures, we need to hold on to the hope that all is not lost. 

"Steady My Heart" song lyrics sung by Kari Jobe