Running Towards Grief

I AM A RUNNER. 

When stress overtakes me…I grab my sneakers and hit the pavement. When people hurt me…I desire to seek refuge as far away as possible. When life gets hard…I search for the greener pasture. This is a part of my DNA. My makeup. For as long as I can remember, my propensity has been to run. Flee. Take flight. Escape the uncomfortable.

On the other hand…

MY MOM WAS A FIGHTER. 

When stress overtook her…it motivated her to dig deeper and challenge the obstacle. When people hurt her…she confronted them, desiring reconciliation or at least a chance to be heard. When life got hard…She rose to the occasion, passion pulsing through her veins. This was who she was. Her default. Mode of operation. For the 34 years I knew her, she stood up, faced the hard, and conquered the awkward.

The summer after my senior year in high school, I came home from a month-long camp to find a friend problem waiting at my doorstep. As teenage drama happens, people misunderstood people, circumstances got twisted out of focus, and real feelings got hurt along the way. All the while I was living on the Slovakian mountainside.

Heading off to college, I was content to just let things play out. After all, I’d probably never see these people again, right? Mom couldn’t have disagreed more. Before I could raise my hand to object, the phone dialed a few numbers, and Mom was slamming my car door shut as she drove out of the garage. By the end of the day, I had made four house calls, talked through the disagreement with each friend, and felt a burden lifted. That day allies were restored, relationships salvaged, and wounds forgiven. With Mom behind the wheel, my running days were coming to an end. Quick.

Yesterday would have been the perfect day to just hide away and pretend like it wasn’t happening. Try to stay comfortable and just move on. Staying extra busy, I could have glossed over the hurt, stuffing it a little bit deeper into the corners of my soul. Being the one year anniversary of Mom passing away, I had navigated 365 days without the lady I turned to in my deepest pain and brightest joy. Grief is just plain hard. The hurt cuts to the core. Doing most anything to make it go away, this monumental marker felt like an enormous end-cap to the hardest year of my life.

But just like Mom that summer day in high school, God had other plans for my troubles…

“You have to feel this day, Sarah. REALLY FEEL IT. The pain. The loss. The heartache. The memories. The longing. The emptiness. You can’t run from it. You have to let it come. Trust me…”

“Your tomorrow depends on how you navigate today.”

Crawling out of bed before day break, I yearned to escape back under the covers and sleep the day away. Forcing myself to get up, I threw on a fleece, grabbed my keys and headed to see Mom. It felt more like an act of obedience than it did a desire of my heart. Perched on the hillside, I watched the brilliant, full moon fade behind the clouds to the West as the yellows, pinks, and purples summoned the sun from the East. Sitting cross-legged in the damp grass beside her beautiful headstone,  I reflected on all that transpired that day last year; the sites, the smells, the endless hours of waiting, the raw grief all felt real again. I will never forget holding Mom in my arms, watching her take her final breath, seeing this life I loved come to an end.

As tears spilled down my cheeks,  I was reminded of these verses:

Matthew 5:4: “Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted.”

2 Corinthians: “Praise be to the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of compassion and the God of all comfort, who comforts those in any trouble with the comfort we ourselves receive from God.”

The day was long and hard. Seeing my child lay prostrate on the grass, trying to give her Nana a hug, ripped me in two. It is so hard to help others navigate their feelings in light of your own. Singing worship songs at youth group brought a sizable lump to my throat. Every song seemed like it had been picked out just for me, for that space, for that day. Though hard to get the words out, worshiping became the perfect way to end the day, signing praise to the One who brought comfort despite my sorrow and my pain. Had I spent my day hidden under my silken bed sheets, I think I would have missed all the tender ways God showed me His peace and His care. The flowers left on my doorstep. The messages from friends who remembered. The conversation with my sister. The ice cream eaten around our kitchen table as conversation was shared. God was there in the little things. Glimmers of hope, love, and joy. And as my pain became exposed, my burden shifted a bit farther off my shoulders, firmly resting on the One who had promised to carry it for me all along.

In all its ups and downs, I went to bed thankful I had felt the day. And as promised…

Today dawned brighter because of the pain of my yesterday.

When the World Rages On

Ding. My phone lit up at 5:45am this morning. One of my favorite people in the world was in a rage. Literal, chemically induced, uncontrollable rage. Anger, aggression flowed out of her in rapid torrents. Out of control, she cried out to God, “Why did you allow this pain in my life!” Flare gun prayer shot straight to heaven, she yearned to hear an answer.

While the world raged on.

Why does this world hurt so bad? Why are we exposed to pain and disappointment? Who is in control of this chaotic, pressure-filled globe we call Earth? Will there ever be relief from our suffering?

Valid questions. Honest yearning. Sought after answers that pierce to the core of every human being.

I have asked these questions. Have wondered when the relief would come. When my life could just be normal. Calm. Quiet.

Recently I was told that I have lived a “movie-worthy life”. An atypical childhood spent at international peace camps, a cameo on the kid’s TV show, Barney, a stint living in Switzerland with young babies, and so on…. On the outside it has been lovely. Exciting. Adventurous. Special.

When you peel back the layers of this unconventional life, you find death. Lots of it. To date I have lost six friends, all to different and tragic means. I lost all of my grandparents years ago, followed by my mom last July. I am no stranger to suffering. An autoimmune diagnosis tried to steal my health a few years ago, and mental illness has inflicted members of my family. Not to mention the normal ups and downs of life. Byproducts of just being a human being living in this fallen, broken world.

I use to ask these questions. Sought them to the heart of my being. And then one day the questions stopped. I had found someone who held the key to all my wavering. Someone who replaced my wondering with belief. Belief in a God who created this world. Belief that He humbled Himself to come in the form of a baby. Belief that He lived a perfect life despite immense pain and suffering. Belief that He died for ME. And for YOU. Because I am not perfect and needed Him to.

Belief that He didn’t stay dead – in His great power was raised to new life conquering death for good. Belief that He sees me, cares for my pain, carries my burdens, and lavishes peace. The only place I know to turn is Jesus. When life crumbles, when the fortified tower falls, when heartache becomes my compassion. He takes it all. Once and for all.

John 16:33 says, “I have told you these things, so that in me you may have peace. In this world you will have trouble. But take heart! I have overcome the world.”

Hebrews 4:15 reminds us, “For we do not have a high priest who is unable to empathize with our weaknesses, but we have one who has been tempted in every way, just as we are–yet he did not sin.

Matthew 11:28-30 encourages us, “Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest. 29 Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. 30 For my yoke is easy and my burden is light.”

Jesus knows. He suffered. Wept. Was tempted. Accused. Was hungry. Beaten. Killed. There is nothing we go through today that He doesn’t understand. Nothing that He can’t help carry. Absolutely nothing that His death didn’t conquer.

So come. Come to Jesus. His arms are open wide. I will be there too. Right by your side.

Jesus Has Outgrown His Manger Box

As we approach Christmas this year, the air is filled with a different kind of wonder. Yes, the Christmas lights are still twinkling and pretty, the hot chocolate is still warm and welcoming, and the entertaining of friends and family brings joy and contentment. Even the thought of presents to unwrap brings a smile to our faces. However, our perspective of Christmas has changed because our year has required our view of our Savior to change. For years we have loved Him, have always tried to celebrate His birth at this time of year, and have tried to remember the true reason for the season. It isn’t all about Santa Clause after all, is it?

This year Christmas looks different because Jesus looks different.

Over the past year, Jesus has showed up in the midst of the darkest storm of my life in a way I have never experienced before. He stretched His arms out wide and brought us deep comfort, peace and dare I say, joy, in the midst of our hardest trial and deepest pain. He brought endurance to face difficult days and rest despite sleepless nights. He brought acceptance and hope. He brought people who loved us well. He brought wonder at His character. He brought a real, living Jesus, a full-grown, perfect Savior. He brought Himself as the spotless Lamb of God who actively intervened in our world and in our story of grief and our hope of redemption.

He isn’t just a cute baby in a wooden manger to us anymore.

He isn’t just a fixture on our wall or one we adorn around our neck. He isn’t just someone we call on when we have tried everything else and failed. He isn’t just a name we sing about on Sunday mornings.  He isn’t just one small piece of our life. He is everything. The full package. The true Christmas miracle in flesh.

So many things affect our view of God. Our upbringing, our family religious beliefs , our moral compass, and our past experiences all affect how we see God. Sadly, all too often, we hear stories of people who have been deeply wounded by the church or by people who call themselves Christians. Battered and wounded, people get disenfranchised and decide the God thing isn’t worth it anymore. They put Jesus back into His manger box, only seeing Him as the baby born in the hay. They put Him back on the mantel and forget about Him. He becomes nothing more, nothing less, forgotten except maybe for a few weeks at Christmas time. For us Christians, we can easily fall into this mindset too. Life gets busy, days come and go. Our world of blessings and possessions don’t require us to daily depend on God to meet our needs. We can mostly do this life on our own. We forget that God is still alive. That He still actively pursues us. That He wants to be taken out of the manger box and become fully engaged in an intimate relationship with us. The box is where His earthly life started, but it doesn’t represent who He is in the great scheme of eternity. It sure doesn’t represent Him in my life anymore.

At an earlier point in my life God was only that, just a baby in the box. As the trials and tribulations of my life have come, the neat and tidy box I had kept Jesus in for so long has unraveled. He isn’t some impersonal prophet who came to the earth to be a good teacher and to do a few miracles. He isn’t a bearded man who can look handsome in some paintings. He isn’t just a noble man who took the consequence of someone else’s mistake. He isn’t just a myth or a fantasy. He isn’t just a small wonder at Christmas. He didn’t stay small and weak. He didn’t stay in his box.

We can’t keep Him in a box anymore.

How do I know this is true? There are intellectual arguments I could make. There is the question of the authority of scripture I could argue. There are the prophesies fulfilled that I could point to. But when it comes down to it all, the most powerful argument I have for my Savior is what He has done for me, much like the Samaritan woman from John chapter 4.

The Savior I bring you today, saved me at nine years old, when my parents sent me away to camp so they could go on vacation. My Savior saw me through the death of my close friend in middle school and the suicide of another friend a few years later. As I look back, my Savior carried me through those times, even when I wasn’t following him; even when I didn’t recognize His presence. My Savior led me to a Greek sorority where, against all stereotypes, some sorority sisters were waiting and ready to introduce me to the Jesus I had trusted so many years before. My Savior brought me a godly man who could lead me. In the last 11 years, my Savior has walked me through post-partum depression, 10 moves in 8 years, an auto-immune diagnosis for myself, three babies, an adoption journey still yet to be completed, a severe car accident, a near-fatal choking incident with one child, another daughter’s medical condition, my parent’s divorce, my loved ones path to sobriety, and mom’s three cancer journeys and ultimately her death. He has allowed trials to come, but He has walked me through each one of them, showing me just what I needed along the way. He has forgiven me, thus releasing me to forgive others. He has comforted me. He has given me community. He has redeemed my brokenness. He has performed miracles, even as recently as today.

This afternoon my sister posted a Facebook memory from a year ago, one which showed a photo of us when we were toddlers. My sister is here with us this Christmas as we struggle through this “holly, jolly season”, where our hearts miss Mom the most and our struggle is real. Several hours after she posted the memory, she checked her notifications to see who had liked it. To her astonishment, Mom’s Facebook profile had somehow liked the photo. No one has logged into her account since her death. I am the only one with the password. There is no explanation we can come up with as to how our mom, dead over 5 months, could like a photo of her babies. We took a screen shot of it to memorialize this moment. A couple hours later, Mom’s like was gone. It was there, clear as could be, before it disappeared. It was a small glimpse of Mom and her former life. I truly believe this was a miracle from God. I believe God knew my sister especially needed to see something tangible from Mom today. I believe God sees us and can use any means to show us His love and His presence. He is a Savior that intervenes in our lives in sometimes silent and invisible ways. He is a Savior that loves us so much he sent His only son into this world. God grew His son out of the manger and into a full-grown, perfect lamb, a lamb to be sacrificed for us. He is a God who has the power to raise Jesus from the grave. He is a God who we can have relationship with and who pursues us fiercely. He is a God who can even use a Facebook “like” to meet a deep need of ours…a need to know Mom lives on in heaven and that we are seen.

Christmas looks different this year because our Savior looks different. We see Him for more than just His birth. We see Him for what He has done and continues to do for us and for you.

Through the cookies, gifts, carols and stockings, we celebrate the greatest gift ever given…the birth of our Savior. This year my Savior isn’t just laying in the manger. He can be felt palpably through our tears of both sadness and joy. And so…we celebrate.

The Year That Changed Everything

I woke up October 30, 2014 full of hope, excitement and anticipation for the year ahead. For the first time in 10 years we would have a grandma living in the same town as us . My mom had woken up one day that July and just knew she needed to move to us. She bought a house sight unseen, one that was only one mile from ours. She just knew Texas wasn’t suppose to be her home anymore, even after 33 amazing years in that community. She just knew this year everything needed to change.

As we waited for the moving van to arrive on that beautiful fall day, we talked about the sleep overs, family outings and projects we could do together. She was excited to make friends, get involved and open this new chapter of her life. She was full of hope for her life here, eager to see what blessings lay ahead. She just knew she was where she needed to be. In hindsight we just didn’t know exactly why.

Today, October 30, 2015, I left the house keys on her kitchen counter, releasing her home to some other family. Exactly one year ago we were moving her into this house, with dreams in tow. Now it lays empty, void of her smells, her furniture, our plans. As I walked the halls for the very last time, I shed tears for the loss of her presence. I cried, mourning the memories yet to make. I broke over the way we suffered together, shared life together, and clung to hope side by side. The emptiness of her place was overwhelming. The finality deafening.

This Year Changed Everything.

Today, I mourn her death in a new and fresh way. No longer will I ever be able to enter my Mom’s house, a place that brought instant safety and an ease I could always find at “home.” Her house, whether in Texas or Oregon, was a sanctuary where I would run to if I was afraid, lonely or downtrodden. It was a refuge, a place where joys were celebrated, dreams were brainstormed and losses comforted. We had a couple hard seasons along the way, but I always knew I was loved unconditionally and that her door was wide open for me. As I locked the front door for the very last time, a lifetime worth of memories, joys, trials and struggles replayed before my eyes. She just knew she needed to move close. She just knew she needed to be here. We know with absolute certainty that she “just knew” because God is omniscient, all-knowing. God spoke to the depths of her heart in July, pressing her to move. He knew what lay ahead. He knew what we needed most of all. We thought it was for her to live life well beside us for years to come. In reality, it was so we could walk beside her as she faced her death; and in that we got the privilege of witnessing her testimony lived out to the full until the very end. We saw her legacy. We were changed by her journey.

Mom lived almost six months from diagnosis to death. She was in and out of the hospital often, eventually giving up the chemo that was tethering her to life, yet destroying it along the way. She was determined to live life well, to the full. Days she felt like lying in bed, she would get up, dress herself in her favorite Chico’s jacket and call me to ask, “Where are we headed today?” She picked berries, danced the hula in Hawaii, went to high school basketball games and played with her family. She laughed, she cried, she listened and she lived. She comforted a nurse who had just miscarried a baby, all the while being on the fringe of death herself. She called friends, sent cards to people who were hurting, and continued to be a tour guide to out-of-town guests. She passed out Hersey kisses to her doctors and nurses while in the hospital on Valentine’s Day. She made quilts for her granddaughters. She talked about hard stuff and planned her funeral. She was weak. She was sick. She was weary. Some days she would tell me she was just ready for heaven; this was just too hard. But she kept fighting. Kept persevering. Kept reaching out and kept loving people. And most of all she rested in deep peace, knowing her time ending on earth meant a new beginning in heaven. This is how she chose to end.

John 10:10 says, “The thief comes only to steal and kill and destroy; I [Jesus] have come that they may have life, and have it to the full.”

Mom lived out her faith greater in the last six months of her life, then in 71 years combined. She clung to the hope of heaven, yet didn’t lose sight of the opportunity for today. She trusted God, even when the greatest trial of her life came, and she lived and loved well despite no promise of tomorrow. Cancer came to steal, kill and destroy Mom; but Jesus came to bring her life and life to the full.

For Mom, everything changed this year. She went from being fully alive, to experiencing death, to being completely and perfectly healed. For us, so much of life still looks the same. We still have the daily grind: the school work, the job obligations, the church commitments. We are still fully alive on this earth. Yet, everything seems different as we now look through the lens of this loss. Life feels strangely shifted, as if a new normal needs to set in. This year changed everything, but most of all it has dramatically changed my faith.

Over the past six months I have seen God move in a way that I had never experienced before. I saw first hand what it means to rely on Him for every part of every day. I witnessed countless prayers answered, some lifted up by people who hadn’t prayed in decades. I saw comfort being wrapped around people like a blanket in the dead of winter. I was able to rejoice while weeping in a way I never have before. God has been palpable, ever-present. He has been just what we needed Him to be in this darkest of times.

The song, “Christ Be All Around Me” by All Sons and Daughters has been on repeat for me over the past several months. My favorite verse repeats this line over and over again:

“Your life, Your death, Your blood was shed, for every moment, every moment. Your life, Your death, Your blood was shed, for every moment, every moment.Your life, Your death, Your blood was shed, for every moment, every moment.”

It has become almost a chant for me. A battle cry. I sing it, yell it, proclaim it out loud, reminding myself that God sees me in THIS MOMENT, in THIS SEASON, in THIS PAIN. And He has already met me here, long before it ever came to pass.

When we think of Christ’s death on the cross we often only associate it with Him dying for our sins to give us salvation. His death brought the reality of eternal life to us. We don’t have to fear death if we believe in His name. We don’t have to live eternity separated from Him. The lines of this song brought the realization to me that not only did Christ die for eternity, but He died for EVERY moment of EVERY day. His blood was shed for this cancer diagnosis. He died to see us through the hardest six months of my life. He was crucified for this pain and for this loss. Not only did He die for my situation, but He also came to this earth for yours. His death came for the wife whose husband just walked into the arms of another lover. His life was given for the child who is bullied on the playground. His skin was pierced for the baby who dies prematurely in its mother’s womb. He bore the cross for the wayward son and the discouraged daughter. Jesus Christ lived and died, and was resurrected for every joy, every sorrow, every tear, every triumph. FOR THIS MOMENT, FOR EVERY DAY.

We don’t have to be afraid. We don’t have to worry about tomorrow. We can rest knowing that it has been covered. And not just covered but…

CONQUERED

As I shed my tears today and mourn the absence of my Mom, I lean on the cross; that is the place where Jesus’s death meets my pain today. I can surrender my hurt, knowing full well He alone can bring me freedom from it in my tomorrow. People change. Seasons change. But God’s promises are secure for yesterday, today and tomorrow.