This past Sunday, I was asked to share a little bit about my journey with gratitude and healing with our church family. Let me say that blatant vulnerability does not come easily for me (though much of my writing might suggest the opposite), but more and more, I am convinced it is required for healing. And so is community. Whether you go to church, or wouldn’t ever go to church, I still think we need to bear one another’s burdens, to be human together, help each other. I don’t think Jesus would want his kingdom, or “kindom” (I’m liking the new iteration of this word, even if spellcheck isn’t), to be limited to church walls. Quite the opposite. The kindom of God can come near wherever the Spirit is at work in Creation. Healing is often found in unlikely places.
Peace to you in this season of gratitude and togetherness, as we mourn those who aren’t at the table in body, and celebrate with those who are.
Gratitude. If you asked me for one word to describe my spiritual journey over the last decade, gratitude would not be that word. Resentment. Fear. Grief. Anxiety. Sadness. Confusion. Those words are closer to the truth.
In 2006, my dad died of liver cancer. He was my biggest fan. Six weeks later, my mom died after a struggling with MS my entire life. She was my second biggest fan, to the best of her ability. Many years earlier, I had lost my only sister to Leukemia. I wouldn’t really call her a fan (we were sisters, after all), but we did love each other. At 28 years old, I was an orphan.
I had met my husband, Kevin, just a couple of months before my parents died. We were both PKs (pastor’s kids) and everyone around me who loved me and my parents, were absolutely thrilled that I was going to be married and rescued by this handsome prince. I was determined to be just fine. I would be strong. Death and grief would not define me.
And so, we were married and had two sweet boys, and for years, I tried to carry on as if nothing had changed, as if losing my family had no impact on me. After all, my family was ‘in heaven’ which was something I was supposed to be happy about. I could have peace knowing that. Right?
But I didn’t have peace. I missed my family desperately. I resented all of the people who still had their families. I grew terrified that I was going to die and leave my own children behind without a mother. I couldn’t understand why God had allowed this to happen to me. I had done everything right. I knew all of the answers, I memorized all of the verses, but God was not at all giving me the desires of my heart. Without realizing it, I had grown very angry with God. This was not how life was supposed to go. I thought that getting married and starting my own family would somehow ease the grief, that time would heal this wound. But the wound was so big, it couldn’t close on its own, and I had kept it hidden for so long that only those closest to me even had an inkling that it existed. I felt very alone.
Grief is a strange beast. And one that tends to grow like a disease when left unattended. Stuffing my feelings for so many years began to take a toll on my body. I was seeing counselors on and off over the years, but nothing seemed to relieve the anxiety that was building inside. I needed help so badly but was so utterly afraid of looking weak or incapable. I had been told all of my life that I was ‘the strong one’ and I didn’t know how to not be in that role. I was the helper. I was the perfect Christian. Surely God was going to deliver me.
I reached a point where my anxiety became so crippling that I couldn’t even do normal things that were enjoyable. I’d walk into a restaurant and my heart would start pounding for no apparent reason. I’d be in a conversation, and feel my mind go blank mid-sentence. I felt like I was going insane. One of my worst panic attacks happened right here at church. Kevin was teaching Sunday School that week, and I walked into the sanctuary alone with my boys. I felt the buzz of the music meet me at the door, and not in a friendly way. The sound bore through me like it was echoing through an empty vessel. Everyone was standing, but I had to sit down, because I was afraid I was going to pass out. I whispered to the boys that I needed to go downstairs, and they should come with me. Kara met me at the bottom of the stairs and asked if I was alright. I told her I was feeling a little off, and she took the boys hands and led them away. I snuck into Kerrie’s office and laid down on the cold floor to see if I could stop my heart from racing and my skin from crawling. I was sure that I was dying. I eventually grabbed a sweater off of the back of her door and headed outside. Kara stopped me and asked if she could join me. I was embarrassed by my flustered state, but I said she could. Kerrie saw us and told me she would see if there was a doctor anywhere, and she would go get Kevin from his Sunday School class. Kara put her arm around me, and we walked outside into the chilly air. She listened intently as I told her my sorrows. I cried on her shoulder. Sobbed, actually. We went inside, and she sat beside me as Dr. Andrew took my pulse and Mary Lynn got a stethoscope from her purse. I was immediately surrounded by care and concern. The kingdom of God had come near to me.
As you might have guessed: I didn’t die. And even better, I was not shunned or shamed for my weakness. I was, instead, met with a safe place to land. The corners of the safety net were stretched tight by the hands of the people of God. I began to realize that healing is not a luxury, it is not selfish, it is necessary so that I can eventually be available to hold that safety net for the next person, and to console others with the consolation I have received.
The apostle Paul speaks of his own grievance in 2 Corinthians 12, the “thorn in his side” as the translation reads. Three times he pleaded with the Lord to take it away from him. How many times did I plead with God to take away my grief? And what was God’s response? “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.”
Had I not been forced to show my weakness, I would not have been able to feel the overwhelming strength and comfort available in this community, and to move in the powerful direction of healing.
In his essay entitled “The Body and the Earth”, Wendell Berry writes: “Healing is impossible in loneliness; it is the opposite of loneliness. Conviviality (or I would say Community) is healing. To be healed, we must come with all the other creatures to the feast of Creation.”
My grief felt too big, too unique, and I suppose in a way, too precious, to be shared with other people. I had convinced myself that no one could possibly understand what I was going through. In fact, I used it as a way to distance myself from other people. But what I have come to realize is that there is no human on Earth who can exactly understand the human experience of any other human. And the only way we come close is by sharing little bits of our experiences with one another. Look at the power of the #metoo movement! We find comfort and solidarity in being able to say that to and to hear that from one another.
I recently had opportunity to hear Trudy from Whatcom Dream speak about poverty and class differences. The whole talk was incredibly profound, and the one thing that really stuck with me was this: “We tend to compare our insides to everyone else’s outsides”. We walk around believing everyone else (for the most part) has it figured out, while we are drowning in our own existential crises or whatever we are dealing with at that moment.
Here is my invitation and my challenge to you: Meet me at the table, at the feast of creation. Take off your outer garments of shame or fear or false certainty, and feel free to say things like “I’m sad. I’m a little bit afraid of dying. And also, I’m really grateful to be alive, and to be a member of the human race and the kingdom of heaven.”
I didn’t know that two things could be true at once, that I could be really sad about losing my family, but also really grateful for all of the other good things in my life. I didn’t know how to hold those things side by side. I thought it was my grief that kept me connected to my lost family. But, in fact, it is love that connects me to my family, and it is my grief that I carry forward into my life without them. Without grief, there is no need for hope.
I Thessalonians 4:13 reminds us that “we do not grieve like the rest of humanity who has no hope.” But we grieve with the hope that we will be restored to wholeness as a member of the kingdom of God, feasting with all of Creation.
I’ll see you at the table.