We’ve Got To Do Better: Making Ministry the Heart of Church

I am not among those who have given up on the local church.

But I AM critical of the way we in the U.S. –and especially the Southern U.S. -do church.

Let’s be honest. 

Many of us go to church because it makes us feel good, refuels our spirits for the week ahead and is a safe spot to park our kids for a few hours respite from the demands of parenthood.

An added bonus is that sometimes we get to contribute to a cause, a mission or a personal need without having to get TOO involved.

So we come away feeling pretty good about who we are, what we believe and how much we “sacrifice” for others and the Kingdom.

But this is not what Christ came for folks.

He didn’t come so that we can have a weekly club meeting, soothe our souls and shut out the world.  He came so that desperate hearts on the fringe could draw near.

He rent the veil so that no one who trusts His finished work is excluded.

Not even the messy and imperfect.

Not even the poor or unlovely or slightly crazy.

We have got to do better.

We have got to make church a place where people who have no hope feel like they are welcome.  We have got to reach out and reach down and reach across and pull those hurting hearts inside.

I know (believe, me, I know!) that it takes more energy than you want to exert.  It takes more flexibility than a crammed-full schedule can allow.  It takes more time and more emotional investment than any of us really want to spend.

But this is what Christ came for.

He came to expose the barriers religious people had erected between God and man. 

He came to make a way where there was no way.

How welcome are the truly broken to our house of worship? Do we want to see their pain, entertain their questions and offer hope that includes walking the road alongside them and giving support for the long haul?

Jesus came to heal the broken.

Healing takes time and resources. It requires personal commitment to those God brings into our lives. It is messy and can’t be boiled down to a formula or pamphlet.

Jesus has invited is to be His hands and feet.

Will we accept the invitation?

christ has no body but yours teresa of avila

I AM Defined [In Part] By Grief

I’m not at all fond of the saying, “Don’t let your grief define you”.

I understand that I shouldn’t let my grief CONSTRAIN me, shouldn’t let it circumscribe my life, making it smaller and smaller until all I think about, speak about or experience is sadness, sorrow and missing.

And I don’t.

But I cannot ignore that losing a child DOES define me.  It defines me in exactly the same way other momentous events-good and bad-shape, mold and make me into who I am.

Marriage, divorce, receiving Christ as Savior, growing up in a small town or big city-all those things matter to me and in my relationships with other people.

Becoming a mother changed everything. 

I was no longer free to think only of myself, consider only my wishes and schedule, eat, sleep and go places without making arrangements for this new little person.

Burying a child changed everything again. 

I was no longer free to believe that I would be spared great heartache in this life.  I couldn’t ignore the hard question of why does a good God let bad things happen?  My heart was shattered and though the pieces are coming back together again, it will never be the same heart it was before.

We routinely ask one another, “What kind of work do you do?”  

Why?

Because learning about a person’s work usually gives you insight into many aspects of a person’s life, character, preferences and inclinations.  

In the same way, you can’t really understand me unless you know that one of my children lives in Heaven.  

 

Am I ONLY a bereaved mother?

Absolutely not!

I am many other things besides- a wife, mother, follower of Jesus, shepherd, daughter, rural resident, bookworm, writer, lover of all things living.

But I AM a bereaved mother. 

And that colors my perceptions of the world just as surely as any of those other aspects of my identity.  

I can’t ignore it.  

To do so would be to dishonor my child.

I refuse to do that.

Unbroken

I call my parents pretty much every morning.  

It was a habit started years ago after my mother had a bad spell and ended up in the hospital.  I like to start my day knowing how she and my dad are doing.

The other day Papa and I were talking about the movie, “Unbroken” we saw a couple years ago.

There’s a scene where the main character was forced to hold a heavy beam over his head in a Japanese POW camp for hours.  If he let it fall, he would be shot and his torture over. Malnourished, mistreated and disheartened, he somehow found the strength to do it.

He endured.

unbroken movie beam

His courageous example lent courage to the others in that camp.  His victory was in not giving up or giving in, though he bore the scars for the rest of his life.

These past months have been difficult ones for both of my parents.  Mama’s fall, heart attack and multiple hospital stays have left her very different than she was last summer.  Someone needs to be with her all the time.

That means my dad-who has no physical limitations-is as housebound as she.  

Papa is absolutely committed to caring for Mama and he’s doing a great job.  

But it’s hard on a heart to be confined when you are surrounded by so many chores that need doing and so much wide open space that begs you to get out in the sunshine.

He is enduring.  

And I am thankful for his example.  

So few of us will have an opportunity to do really grand things that make headlines.  But most of us will have a chance to be faithful in hundreds of small things that make up meaningful lives. 

courage doesn't always roar male liion

Quiet, everyday commitment to not giving up when life is hard and rest seems so very far away is victory even when it doesn’t feel like it.  

It speaks courage to other hearts to hold on.

Truly.

Always.

 

be strong you never know who you are inspiring

 

 

“Why Am I Robbed, And Who is Benefited?” Mark Twain on Child Loss

I only recently came across this quote by Mark Twain.   

It’s from a letter he wrote to a close friend after his favorite daughter, Susy, aged 24, died of meningitis while her parents were abroad. 

It is heartbreaking and utterly perfect.  

You have seen our whole voyage.  You have seen us go to sea, a cloud of sail-and the flag at the peak; and you see us now, chartless, adrift-derelicts; battered, water-logged, our sails a ruck of rags, our pride gone.  For it is gone.  And there is nothing in its place.

The vanity of life was all we had, and there is no more vanity left in us.  We are even ashamed of that we had; ashamed that we trusted the promises of life and builded high-to come to this!

I did know that Susy was part of us; I did not know that she could go away; I did not now that she could go away, and take our lives with her, yet leave our dull bodies behind.

And I did not know what she was.  To me she was but treasure in the bank; the amount known, the need to look at it daily, handle it, weigh it, count it, realize it, not necessary; and now that I would do it, it is to late; they tell me it is not there, has vanished away in a night, the bank is broken, my fortune is gone, I am a pauper.

How am I to comprehend this?  How am I to have it?  Why am I robbed, and who is benefited?mark

He and his wife never returned to the home where she died.

there is no at least in child loss

 

Barefoot Over Broken Ground

I first shared this in 2014 not quite a month after Dominic ran ahead to heaven.

His leaving has made me much more aware that what we read as “stories” where we can turn to the last page and know the ending, others lived in real time, with no ability to fast forward to the ending.

It’s easy to be impatient with a heart barely holding onto hope and try to goad someone into “looking on the bright side” or hammer them with Scripture because “we know how this ends”.

But when you are walking barefoot over a path of sharp stones, you really can’t focus too much on the fact that it might not be as long as you think.

All you know is it hurts like hell right now.

When I read the Gospels it is tempting to mock those who refused to see that Jesus was bringing in a kingdom that would be so much better than the earthly one they expected from Messiah.

But they were living a day-to-day reality of hopelessness under Roman rule that made them ache for relief.

When life this side of heaven is more than you can bear, there is great tension in your soul to beg God for relief in this earthly life and to be a bit impatient with the idea of “all things working for good” in some distant future.

It doesn’t mean you don’t believe it, but it does mean that you carry a weight of sorrow.

So be patient with broken hearts and with those walking a broken path.

You might think declaring “Victory in Jesus” is helpful.

But it’s not. 

Instead, hold a hand, call courage, choose to walk alongside.  

In the end it’s endurance that’s the real victory and that is only possible when a heart can hold on.

endurance is patience concentrated

 

If You Can’t Say Anything Nice….

There may be some mamas that don’t drill this into their children but if there are, they don’t live south of the Mason-Dixon line.

Every time there was back and forth in the back seat or on the front porch and Mama overheard, we were told, “If you can’t say anything nice, then don’t say anything at all.”

Parents weren’t interested in policing every errant word out of the under 18 crowd’s mouth back in the day.

It was a simple (and effective!) rule:  If what you want to say does not meet the criteria of T.H.I.N. K. (true, helpful, inspiring, necessary, kind) then

just.

don’t.

say.

it.

THINK ACRONYM

I wish grown-ups would follow the same advice. 

Especially when it comes to offering up “helpful hints” to broken hearts.

In that instance it is rarely a case of another person aiming to be ugly or to hurt someone, but words are not neutral and they do hurt when tossed out carelessly by people who really just don’t understand another person’s pain.

So, for those who are tempted to fill empty spaces with empty words, may I help you apply the T.H.I.N.K acronym to the kinds of situations more likely to face us as adults?

T-Is it true?  You may think that giving out a Bible verse would automatically mean you were safe on this count.  Yes.  God’s Word is truth.  But how we use it and whether or not we understand the context can make a particular application of God’s Word UNTRUE.  And even if we get the context right, hammering a heart with a Bible verse may not be helpful.  You are not the Holy Spirit.  Let Him breathe truth gently into a wounded heart.

H-Is it helpful? This is tricky because sometimes what is helpful for one person is unhelpful for another.  I try to use this as my litmus test:  When have I ever been distraught and helped by someone pointing out the obvious? Or laying out a plan of action (when they don’t have access to the full picture)? Or reminding me that “all things work together for good” when right now all things really stink?  If there is any doubt about whether or not what I say will be helpful, I swallow my words.

I-Is it inspirational?  The word, “inspire” has roots in the the idea of breathing into someone or something.  Will my comment put wind in a person’s sails?  Will it breathe courage into his or her heart?  Will it lift them up and help them hold onto hope?  Is it the equivalent of mouth-to-mouth resuscitation or am I instead sucking what little breath they have left out of their body?

N-Is it necessary?  This single criteria helps me hold my tongue so many times.  I might think of lots of things but is is necessary for me to speak them?  Am I warning someone of impending danger or am I just trying to make myself sound wise or insisting on making a point?  To be honest, very few things I have to say are necessary. Most of the time a hand on the shoulder, a hug, a smile, a friendly nod are the only thing someone really needs.

K-Is it kind?  The word kind comes from the same root as “kin”-which means family.  Is what I’m going to say something I’d want someone to say to me or my close family?  Am I treating (with my words) this person they way I want to be treated?  The Golden Rule, rules.

I can’t claim to always follow my own good advice.

But when I do, I find that I am building people up, not tearing them down.

There’s enough tearing down in the world.

I want to speak light and life.

a candle loses nothing by lighting another candle

Calvary Love

We just moved through the feel-good season of Christmas where we look with awe on baby Jesus, cute and cuddly in swaddling clothes, surrounded by His loving parents.

But what most moderns miss is that even in His birth, His death was foretold.  

The manger was most likely hewn from stone, as was His tomb.  And while the wise men’s gifts were costly and appropriate, they not only spoke of His kingship, they also included myrrh which was used for embalming the dead.

Jesus came to live so that He could die.  

Both His life and his death are models for my own. 

Every day of ministry was a day of self-denial-a pouring out of life onto and into the ones He came to serve.  

And if anyone-if ANY. ONE.-could have lifted Himself above those who presented their brokenness like offerings at His feet, He certainly could.  Not only was He without sin, He was God Himself in the flesh.

But look how gently Jesus welcomed the lost and lonely.  See the compassion of the Good Shepherd for His confused sheep.  Notice the love and kindness as He gathered the children around Him.

THIS is my example.

I am most certainly not above my Master.  

I am called to love and serve as He did-not in a condescending way that says, “I am helping you because I am better than you.”  But in a way that says, “I am helping you because I AM you.”

I have nothing I did not receive.  I have nothing to give except from the bounty of my Lord.  

My heart is just as broken as the next heart.  

We all need His touch.  

calvary love

Here We Go Again: Season of Joy-Blessing the Brokenhearted During the Holidays

I wrote this two years ago,  our second without Dominic.

This will be our fourth.

I’m still feeling my way along this path, still trying to figure out how to honor the missing and love the living in ways that are meaningful and helpful. I didn’t get a “how-to” book when my son died. I and other grieving hearts are doing the best we can.

Most parents feel a little stressed during the holidays.

We used to be able to enjoy Thanksgiving before our 24/7 supercharged and super-connected world thrust us into hyper-drive.  Now we zoom past the first day of school on a highway toward Christmas at breakneck speed.

For bereaved parents, the rush toward the “Season of Joy” is doubly frightening.

Constant reminders that this is the “most wonderful time of the year” make our broken hearts just that much more out of place. Who cares what you get for Christmas when the one thing your heart desires–your child, alive and whole–is unavailable…

Read the rest here:  Season of Joy: Blessing the Brokenhearted During the Holidays

What Else Can I Do?

I will confess right here that this week I am more than tired. 

I’m defeated. 

I have fought the good fight, tried hard to endure and worked myself nearly to death and in the end can’t move the challenging situations I face one inch closer to resolution.

And like I’ve written before here,these months and years after Dominic ran to heaven have amply demonstrated the truth of the phrase “the straw that broke the camel’s back”.  It’s not the STRAW, it’s the unbelievable heavy weight the camel is already carrying!

That last, seemingly tiny, almost weightless additional burden sends the poor critter over the edge.

straw that broke camel back

But unlike a dumb animal, I don’t get to just lay down and give up.  My head and my heart tell me that if I do, the load will just shift to my family.  If I quit I can’t simply drift off into witless sleep where I don’t realize how hard I’m making it for everyone else.

So I don’t give up. 

I keep on keeping on. 

I raise my eyes to the sky and beg God to give me the grace and strength and help to endure. 

I beg for mercy-for some small token that things might just get better.  

I lean into the promises of God in Christ and hold on with both hands.  

What else can I do but keep praying to You even when I feel dark;

to keep writing about You even when I feel numb;

to keep speaking Your name even when I feel alone.

Come, Lord Jesus come.

Have mercy on me, a sinner.

-Henri Nouwen

 

Holidays and Grief: Thanksgiving Plan

Thanksgiving is hard on my heart.

My birthday is usually close to, and sometimes on, Thanksgiving.  So we often celebrate them together.  What makes that especially painful for me since Dominic ran ahead to heaven is that the last birthday before he left was a surprise party at his apartment.

It was wonderful and loud and fun and filled with laughter and love. 

So all those good but achingly hard memories are wrapped up with the turkey and dressing.  

Thanksgiving has also been our family’s favorite holiday for opening our home to people.  No gift-giving expectations and abundant food made adding another chair to the table easy and fun.  Internationals, singles, widowers, and other families often joined us cramming the house as full as our stomachs.

So now when the gathering is intimate and one chair left unfilled, it echoes loudly to my heart that things are oh, so different!  

empty chair

The first year after Dominic ran ahead, we went out of town.  Our eldest son had married that summer and we visited him and his wife in West Virginia.  A power outage that lasted through Thanksgiving Day evening was a welcome, if slightly annoying, diversion from the heaviness of the first real holiday without Dominic.  Traveling used up some of what would have been long, empty days.  So, for us, it was the best thing to do that year.

The second year we kind of muddled through with a facsimile of years past.  it was a struggle and not at all comfortable for my heart.  I don’t really know what I was thinking or not thinking that year-the second year found me more anxious, less able to deal with my sadness and overwhelmed by unexpected grief waves that swept me under before I knew it.

The third year some very special friends invited us to join them for Thanksgiving.  They fixed all the food and we crowded together in their daughter’s apartment, packed in but jolly and very well loved.  Getting there involved an unpleasant and emotional discussion with extended family.  But the day was redeemed and it was exactly what I needed last year.

This year-well-I’m not entirely sure just yet. 

There are a number of factors keeping us from making definitive plans. My mother is still unwell and not able to travel.  One son will most likely be absent.  Some friends may need a place to land and a table around which to gather.

So my plan is to have a plan by early next week.  

I’ve done a few things so far:  purchased pretty paper plates, baked some goodies and put them in the freezer, got my Thanksgiving cards out (remember-I’m sending them instead of Christmas cards this year!), washed the big windows in the kitchen and living room, and begun putting out feelers to the lonely and abandoned in our circle to see if they are interested in coming for a meal.

The meal is the easy part.  Because in the end, as long as it ends with pie and chocolate, who really cares what you eat beforehand? 🙂

The hard part is the conversations. 

brene brown vulnerablity sounds like truth

The way I have to remind even those closest to me that this year will be just. as. hard. as every other year since Dominic left us.  The way I have to breathe deep and swallow words so I don’t burst out crying at the mention of who’s coming and who’s not-because Dominic will never come again.  The way I have to be very, very careful to balance all the emotional needs of family members and try to respect various requests for what’s important to their hearts.

I remind myself that I am not the focus of every event or holiday.  I am not the only one carrying emotional or physical burdens that require accommodation.  I am not given a pass to act ugly or pitch a fit or crawl in a hole and hide just because I buried a child.  

So I try to think ahead, ask ahead, make my needs known ahead and then I participate as fully as I can-with a smile and an open heart to the ones that still gather.

I refuse to turn every holiday into a battle and every meal into uncomfortable silence where people are afraid to say anything for fear of hurting my feelings.  

I honor Dominic by honoring those I have left. 

My heart may be broken, but it is also blessed.

I won’t let one overshadow the other.  

thanksgiving psalm 30_4