Monday, May 25, 2015

How to Kick-Start Your Grief Recovery

            Have you been languishing in grief for months or years? Do you feel “stuck” in your grief, unable to dislodge yourself from it? Do you find yourself sinking back into grief and thinking about nothing else but who and what you lost? Your baby and the dreams that accompanied her?
            While the title of this post may seem callus or silly, kick-starting grief recovery is often necessary for those of us mired in grief, or those of us letting it control our every waking moment, decisions, attitudes, and conversations.
            Since January, I have been embarking on a daily study of “peace.” (I choose a single word to delve into every year; a word I feel the Lord is leading me to peruse and absorb.) What I have learned is interesting, and life changing.
            Jesus promises us peace, but most of us find complete, true peace elusive or fleeting. Much of the time, that’s because we don’t trust enough, we don’t know God’s word, we don’t look to the Lord for guidance or blessing when we embark upon a plan in our lives, or because we don’t have faith. Or we rely too much on ourselves and find that eventually self runs out and fails even us.
            One of the meanings of peace I came upon time and time again in the first five books of the Old Testament was that peace means “offering in thanks.” And Israelites were to give plenty of “peace offerings,” or “offering in thanks offerings.” It was a reminder of all the LORD had done for them, how He had rescued them from the clutches of their Egyptian slaveholders, miraculously sustained them through their forty-year wilderness trek, and how He continued to lead and bless them. It was a reminder that it was not due to their own abilities, talents, or cleverness that they survived or flourished.
            It became obvious to me that having peace in my life could be affected by being thankful. Having a heart full of thankfulness.
            It is an idea explored by author and photographer Ann Voskamp in her book One Thousand Gifts: A Dare to Live Fully Right Where You Are. When you have a thankful heart, you have a joyful heart. And a joyful heart both simplifies your life and deepens it.
            Voskamp writes: “I know there is poor and hideous suffering, and I’ve seen the hungry and the guns that go to war. I have lived pain, and my life can tell. But I only deepen the wound of the world when I neglect to give thanks for early light dappled through leaves and the heavy perfume of wild roses in early July and all the good things that a good God gives…

            “The brave who focus on all things good and all things beautiful and all things true, even in the small, who give thanks for it and discover joy even in the here and now, they are the change agents who bring fullest Light to all the world.”
            I believe what she writes, but I am struck by two significant words in those two paragraphs. Neglect and focus. They are antonyms, exact opposites, for if your are neglecting something, it is impossible to be focused on it. When we concentrate on something, we are not neglecting it. We are feeding it, giving life to it, nourishing it. We choose to focus on something. We are mindful of it.
            So then it is only fitting for us to take stock of what we are focusing on so we can assess what we are neglecting.
            Are you neglecting to think on good things? Things that bring you joy? Things that make your heart grateful?
            It is an admonishment the Apostle Paul gives us in his letter to the Philippian believers. “Finally, brothers and sisters, whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable—if anything is excellent or praiseworthy—think about such things” (Phil. 4:8 NIV).
            Living this way means we are the ones who take control of our thoughts. And when Jesus tells us outright “Do not let your hearts be troubled,” He is telling us that our thoughts—which affect our heart—are controlled by us alone, and we are the ones responsible for taking the action to guide our hearts to peace, joy, and away from trouble and fear.
            And Voskamp continues: “When we lay the soil of our hard lives open to the rain of grace and let joy penetrate our cracked and dry places, let joy soak into our broken skin and deep crevices, life grows. How can this not be the best thing for the world? For us? The clouds open when we mouth thanks.”
            When we mouth thanks. It seems obvious God knew that a person’s heart needs to mouth thanks as often it can because of the instructions He gave the Israelites to present so many offerings of thanks to Him. Not only did He do that for His benefit but for theirs. Offerings of thanks acknowledge Him as the gift-giver, and they open the heavens for our hearts and lives to be drenched with blessings. Indeed, while we are yet still mouthing the words, our hearts are enlivened and restored. Our hearts begin to swell with joy and contentment. They morph into sponges to absorb all good things the Lord wants to give and does give in response to our attitudes and actions. Having been thankful for the small, we are overwhelmed with gratefulness for the abundant. And the abundant actually often translates to overabundance, which automatically gets poured out on others around us. As Voskamp writes, we become change agents that bring Light to the world, which includes ourselves.

            The thankfulness meter of a heart registered plainly and profoundly for me recently when I attended the funeral of a friend who died unexpectedly of a massive heart attack, while his wife looked on. While I stood blubbering before her, repeatedly saying, “I am so sorry,” and “I don’t know what to say,” Marie clasped my hands in hers, smiled up at me through glistening eyes and said, “It’s okay. I know where he is.” Another thing she told everyone was, “I am so happy and grateful that we made forty-two years together.”
            Did you see it? Grateful. A thankful heart. Most likely, a heart practiced in the art of being thankful and overflowing with the memories of those forty-two precious years. I know Marie, and I know her words are not coming just out of the benevolent grace God usually bestows upon the recently wounded heart. It is how she lives life. It reflects the grieving with hope that I wrote on two posts ago. It is a heart condition born of practice and repetition.

            Another word Voskamp I am struck by is brave. Go back and read Voskamp’s sentence. “The brave who focus on all things good and all things beautiful…” 
            It takes a brave person to take responsibility for their joy. It means letting go of their pain and grief. It means stopping the finger pointing. It means making a conscious decision to take responsibility for one’s thankfulness, joy, and subsequent peace of heart and mind. It means changing direction and concentrating on all of your blessings and the good things, and rejecting thoughts about all of the things you don’t have.
            It’s probably another reason Paul tells Timothy in his letter to him that, “God did not give us a spirit of timidity…” When our hearts are fearful, it is not because God has made them so. He has given us brave hearts. Being thankful can shore up and strengthen a timid heart and make a brave heart braver. It taps into the bravery languishing there, dormant and stagnant.
            So where are you in your grief? Have you been languishing, unable to move forward? Are you stuck?
            If you answer “yes” to any of those questions, or this post strikes a nerve, then perhaps thankfulness is something you need to explore and pursue. Start writing down all that you are thankful for, one a day. I’ve made thankful lists for years, but not nearly enough of them. I have not saturated my heart in thankfulness. I too easily think of what I don’t have, what I’ve lost, what I think or convince myself I’m missing. Every year I mature more in my thankfulness, but I have a long way to go.
            Where are you in your journey? Write and tell me.
            So we can be thankful together!

            Next week we’ll look at how tender God is toward the broken hearted.

Until next week,

Thanks for joining me!



Monday, May 18, 2015

Heart Tattoos

            Do you have a heart tattoo? You know, a permanent mark imbedded in your heart?
            Texas pastor and New York Times selling author Max Lucado manages to think of the most brilliant metaphors and analogies. It is certainly a gift God has bestowed upon him. In his 2014 book before amen: The Power of a Simple Prayer , He likens the memories of past sins to being tattoos on your heart. When I read that in the quiet, solitary confines of my reading room, it struck me as being so beautifully true, that I reacted by talking to out loud. “Brilliant! Exactly!”
            I wasn’t just thinking about my sins, though. I was thinking about how it feels to have experienced grief through the death of my baby. I could envision and almost feel a tiny “V” permanently inked into my heart for my baby Victoria. And I’m sure many of you have your own letters marked on your hearts. I can think of friends who do.
            The friend who experienced six miscarriages before finally succeeding in having a baby she ached for. She still has six tiny “B’s” on her heart for the babies who didn’t make it. My mother, whose first baby died in utero. An abnormally short umbilical cord wrapped around my sister’s neck and slowly stole the life from her. My mom has a tiny “C” for Cheryl etched on her heart. Then there’s the friend who underwent two abortions, thinking at the time that once she got rid of “the problem,” that the fear and memory would subside, but instead learned that the memory and pain of the decision nip at her heart and gnaw at her mind nearly every day of her life. If she knew the sex of her aborted babies, she could name give them an identity by naming them. If not, she has two “B’s” tattooed on her heart, too.
            Your tattoo may be fresh and still oozing from the needlepoint penetration. Or it may be old and worn. Either way, it’s permanent.
            The trick, though, is to not compartmentalize it away and live as though it never happened. That way of handling pain is simply a coping mechanism that strives to deny truth. Some take this so far as to brainwash themselves by so thoroughly suppressing the pain that they create a new reality for themselves. In doing so, they create a new “truth.”
            But neither should we live tethered to our pain, with coagulated blood forever decorating the edges, or, worse yet, wake up daily to re-imprint over the name because we simply cannot let our pain go. We’ve become so attached to it that we let it define us, and our living. It sacrifices our here-and-now life on the altar of the old one.  
            Knowing and facing the truth can set you free from living in either extreme.
            And having visions of a glorious future can help you experience joy in the present, and victory over the past.
            With that last thought in mind, I’d like to leave you with what I think is a beautiful word picture Dr. J. Vernon McGee painted in his booklet Death of a Little Child. He addresses a question so many parents have about their “missing” children.

            “Will our children be as we last saw them? I do not know nor can I prove it
            from Scripture (for Scripture is silent at this point), but I believe with all my
            heart that God will raise the little ones as such, and that the mother’s arms
            that have ached for them will have the opportunity of holding the. The father’s 
            hand that never held the little hand will be given that privilege. I believe that
            the little ones will grow up in heaven in the care of their earthly parents— if
            they are saved… What an added joy this lends to heaven in looking forward
            to having your little one again! Though the Scriptures do not teach this
            explicitly, this does seem to be the sense. Remember that David expected to
            go to his child. And referring to children Christ said, ‘Of such is the kingdom
            of heaven.”’

            Until next week,
            Thanks for joining me!

Monday, May 11, 2015

How to Sorrow With Hope

            How difficult is it for you to answer the question: Are you sorrowing with hope or sorrowing without it?

            Maybe I can help you answer that question.
            God tells us, through the Apostle Paul, in 1 Thessalonians 4:13 that we must not be ignorant and sorrow as those who are without hope.
            The passage does not, however, say we are not to sorrow at all. Some of us erroneous believe that sorrow is a sign of weakness, and we become uncomfortable with ourselves when it threatens to unbalance our well-ordered lives.
            I once counseled a woman, (who considered herself to be a serious student of the Bible), that God says you aren’t supposed to be angry. (She was struggling with anger at the time and the more she tried to release it, and chastised herself for being angry, the worse her anger seemed to get.)
            But the Bible doesn’t confirm what she adamantly believed. What it says is: “Do not sin in your anger.” There’s a big difference there. It tells us that we must not allow our anger to drive us to vengeance or sinful action. It doesn’t say we will not, or should not, ever have those feelings. How we let them rule our thought processes and behavior is the concern.
            It is the same with sorrow. Sorrow is a normal part of living in a fallen world. The depth of our loss and anguish causes us to suffer.
            So how do we, as grieving mothers or fathers, combine sorrow with hope?
            One important thing we can do is remind ourselves where our babies now are.
            While their tiny bodies may lie sleeping in a burial plot, or their ashes lie confined to a memorial urn, their spirits, I believe, are enjoying the peace and joy of heaven.
            It’s obvious from Jesus’ behavior toward children that He had, and still holds, a tender heart toward them. He gave them His full attention when on Earth, and He soundly gave a firm dressing down to those who tried to keep the children from Him.
            From that example, I think we can safely assume that He probably affords them a special attention and place in heaven.
            How wonderful to know that the Creator of the Universe, the One who knit your baby together in your womb and knows him intimately, is still keeping a loving, watchful eye on him for you.
            I know what you might be thinking: “But I wanted to be the watchful one!”
            I know just how you feel. The pain is nearly unbearable when you receive the answer “No” from the Lord, and He takes your baby home. We don’t like to hear “No.” We rebel against the answer, against not having things go our way.
            Yet, after He does take your child, you can be assured that God’s comfort is ready for the asking. His presence is vital to your recovery and hope. And His words will give you the life you need to grieve, and then emerge from to live again. Seek out His comfort. Spend inordinate amounts of time in His presence, just the two of you together, talking, weeping, listening, crying out in anger and fear. He’s the most trusted, tender friend you’ll ever have. Saturate yourself in His soothing, hopeful words. Scripture is loaded with them. He constantly reminds us in His gigantic love letter that He will never leave or forsake those who belong to Him. Even when your world lies shattered around you, and God seems to have taken an extended trip to the outer galaxies and left you hanging alone in your suffering, you can remind yourself that He is with you, He cares, and He will get you through this. Repeating those truths to your brain will help your heart believe and take refuge in them. Often we don’t feel those closest to us because we don’t want to, we’re keeping them at arm’s length; or because we’re so self-absorbed, the protective cocoon we’ve wrapped ourselves in doesn’t allow anyone else entrance.
            And how do I know that Jesus cares and will weep with you? Because he wept while He was on Earth. On one occasion, it was when he attended his friend Lazarus’s grave. Even though He fully intended to fully restore His dead friend to life, He took one look at Lazarus’s tomb, and cried. It’s the shortest verse in the Bible: “Jesus wept” (John 11:35).
            Jesus wants to fully engage with you in your sorrow. He wants to feel your pain. Jesus understands us because He took on our humanity and suffered what humanity suffers. He knows you and knows exactly what you need.
            It is through the death of your child that Jesus can draw you nearer to Him and that eternal hope He offers. At some point in the grieving process, we need to stop asking the question “Why?” and start asking the question, “What now, Lord?”
            There is a great story of a custom that illustrates how He can offer eternal hope and move you forward to the "What now?"
            In the summertime in the Alps, when the valley grasses wither and no longer provide nourishment for the grazing sheep, the shepherd turns his face upward, toward the rich, green grasses found higher in the mountains. But the pathway there is rocky, windblown and laden with thorns. As you can imagine, it’s not the kind of path sheep are eager to follow the shepherd on. Often, they will refuse to follow the shepherd and turn on their little cloven hooves and make a beeline back to the familiar, “safe” valley. After repeated attempts to get the frightened, untrusting sheep to follow, the shepherd plucks a little lamb from the flock and tucks it under one arm. Then he repeats the process with another lamb and tucks it under his other arm. Then he turns his face toward the high country and starts out again on the craggy, arduous path. Can you guess what happens?
            The mothers of those two sheep can’t stand it. With their eyes plastered on their babies, they follow after the shepherd, undoubtedly now oblivious to the once-feared obstacles and dangers in front of them. They probably keep their eyes glued to their lambs, their ears pricked with the constant bleating emanating from each of them. And the remainder of the sheep, being the habitual followers sheep are, turn and head up the hill after the shepherd and mothers. The shepherd leads them up the path to more comfortable, life-giving pastures.
            Sounds like the shepherd knew how to get their attention.
            It’s definitely how He got mine.
            As Dr. McGee so beautifully put it in his booklet Death of a Little Child: “The Great Shepherd of the sheep, the Lord Jesus Christ, our Saviour, has reached into the flock and He has picked up your lamb. He did not do it to rob you, but to lead you out and upward. He has richer and greener pastures for you, and He wants you to follow.”
            You can keep your eyes turned upward, toward the Shepherd, who guides and comforts. The Shepherd who provides everything you need, if you let Him.
            So keep your eyes turned toward heaven. Let the Shepherd lead you. Let hope flourish in your heart. Unravel the cocoon and let Him in. And rejoice, for to such belongs the kingdom of heaven, and your baby lies safe within His loving arms.
            If you follow the Shepherd, you will see your precious little one again someday.
            Knowing and reminding yourself of that is when you can truly sorrow with hope and not flounder without it!
            I’d like to leave you with a couple of poems. Clearly, these two writers knew suffering, and their Savior.

Where High the Heavenly Temple Stands

Where high the heavenly temple stands,
The house of God not made with hands,
A great high priest our nature wears,
The guardian of mankind appears.

He who for men their surety stood,
And poured on earth His precious blood,
Pursues in Heaven His mighty plan,
The Savior and the friend of man.

Though now ascended up on high,
He bends on earth a brother’s eye;
Partaker of the human name,
He knows the frailty of our frame.

Our fellow sufferer yet retains
A fellow feeling of our pains:
And still remembers in the skies
His tears, His agonies, and cries.

In every pang that rends the heart,
The Man of Sorrows had a part,
He sympathizes with our grief,
And to the sufferer sends relief.

With boldness, therefore, at the throne,
Let us make all our sorrows known;
And ask the aids of heavenly power
To help us in the evil hour.
                                                                                   ~ Michael Bruce
                                                                  Scottish Paraphrases, 1781

            And then there is this poem written by Martha Snell Nicholson, a bedridden invalid who suffered from four incurable diseases. She struggled with pain for over 35 years. After being an invalid for many years, her loving husband, who she depended on, died suddenly. Through all her pain and suffering came some of the finest Christian poetry ever written. May you be blessed by reading her spiritually rich and heartfelt poetry that exalts Jesus, her Savior.

There is a new lamb cradled on Thy breast
A sweet small lamb, so lately mine
I scarce can keep my arms from reaching out
As though to snatch her back from Thine.

These arms of mine are wonted so to her, dear
They curled about her little form
So sweetly, and from dawn of time my breast
was meant
To be her pillow, soft and warm.

What does one do with aching arms and empty
With silent rooms, and dragging days?
The things I knew before will not avail me now—
Teach me new lessons and new ways.

Take Thou, I pray, these idle folded hands of
Which can no longer busied be
With dear, familiar tasks for her…. In mercy,
Fill hands and heart with tasks for Thee!

Until next week,

Thanks for joining me!



To read more of Martha Snell Nicholson’s poetry, go to: