What this Election Reveals about my own Depravity

When the 666th text from a political candidate dinged in on my phone, here’s how I replied. “I think I’ll vote for the person who sends me the least number of texts.”
STOP2quit would have been a more mature response.

I’m going to be brutally honest. It’s hard for me to be nice right before an election, not because I’m politically passionate about candidates and causes. You won’t find me plastering social media with propaganda and videos and if you do, presume I’ve been hacked. But this is my space, where I offer up what I have and you choose to read it—or not. And so I will tell you that I’m disillusioned by the political machine and their grimy mud fights. I resent the continental divide that has grown between family members, friends and neighbors over political players and their self-promoting interests. 

Case in point, it’s going to be agonizingly hard for me to vote for the same candidates on my ballot as the dude down the street.  Back in November 2020, he crudely painted a 4 x8 sheet of plywood and in gigantic letters wrote “Trump Won”, then screwed it into his deck fence for all the world to look and be amazed. Afterwards, he added spotlights so nobody would fail to see his important message even in the dark. 

I get it. He’s frustrated. His candidate didn’t win and he considers it a breach of justice but DT is not the first presidential candidate in recent history to be declared “the loser” after a razor close and contested race. Remember the Bush-Gore election of 2000? Ultimately the results turned on a couple hundred votes in Florida that did or didn’t have faulty chads. Was he morally incensed about that as well and publicly grudging for two subsequent years or was he confident about the investigation, maybe even smug as he praised the integrity of our checks and balances because his party came out on top. Does his sign actually represent an amplified moral compass or is he the kind of dude who you’d never want to play a game with because he’s so mean if he doesn’t win.

Can you hear it? Obviously my neighbor triggers me. I’m not even done complaining yet….
Can you imagine what it might be like for his wife if he navigates his marriage like he does his political preferences? If he rams his opinions down her throat day after agonizing day. If he has to be right and requires that she agree that he is. That sounds both like a narcissist and a living hell. Actually, I don’t even know if he’s married, but if he is, my sincerest sympathy goes to his spouse.

Listen to me. I am not being nice. That single sign—well actually, it’s been a whole series of graffiti like billboards littering his yard the past 7 years- should not cause this level of hostility in my spirit but my neighbor and I are experiencing a Grand Canyon like fissure in our relationship and we don’t even know each other. A counselor could more fully unpack what lies behind my strong response and perhaps someday, I’ll process it with him—or her. Today, the Holy Spirit reminds me that my attitude doesn’t replicate God’s posture toward my neighbor.

So, I take a moment to box breathe like the Navy Seals do. To regulate my cortisol levels and lower my blood pressure. When I decompress, I can think with my rational brain rather than my emotional brain. And I tell myself, this is the truth.
My conviction was that Trump’s character and moral qualities deemed him unfit for the prestigious position of President of the United States. Other people thought differently. Neither of us are more or less virtuous than the other. 
And this election is not actually about Trump. His rule and reign is in the history books.
His influence, however, does still dominate the party that I historically affiliate with and most of the current candidates have publicly amalgamated themselves to his endorsement. Even so, they are their own unique individuals and should be assessed on their particular records, platforms and character. This is a new year, a different election with separate candidates. Be a big girl, Hope, and vote your conscience, regardless of how the guy down the street votes.

Good advice! 

After November 2016, I felt disillusioned. Got lazy. Maybe I was throwing my own little temper tantrum, less conspicuously than my neighbor. Anyway, I missed the 2018 mid term election and our state was voting on whether or not to legalize recreational marijuana. That’ll never pass, I thought. Who on God’s Pure Michigan green earth would think it’s a good idea to have mass cannabis usage permitable in the public square, if for no other reason than our communities would start perpetually smelling like a skunk. Turned out that more than 50% of voters did and now I am destined to tolerate mass nasal pollution for the foreseeable future and I have only myself to blame.

So I am taking that lesson from the school of hard knocks to heart this time, pulling up my big girl pants and researching the candidates and proposals in preparation to vote. Actually that mostly means my husband is doing the research and sharing his recommendations with editorial. My ballot won’t necessarily replicate his but he knows what matters to me and will comment on that with his recommendations, which I appreciate.
And this election is particularly epic with the overturning of Roe vs. Wade earlier this year and our state’s opportunity to shape new policies about life and death for the unborn going forward. So, this time around, I’m all in.

Some of you reading this blog are cringing right now. I get it. I feel the same way sometimes when I read what you post too. We don’t agree on everything politically. We might not agree on Trump, but here’s the bottom line.
Trump should not have the power to divide us as family, friends or neighbors. We should not ostracize each other from our affection or our mutual respect because of political differences of opinion.

So, I need to preach to myself first and say, “That neighbor of mine, he gets to express his political stance on his property however he chooses.” My job is to smile and wave when I drive by. And, better yet, I could start praying for him, but not the prayer of the pharisee, the one who says, “Thank you God that I’m not a Trump enthusiast like he is.” Rather, I need the tax collector’s prayer, the one where I cry out to Jesus, because I recognize the judgement in my heart with, “Lord, have mercy on me a sinner.”
More than any particular political outcome, humility is what I most need this election.

My Theology of the Womb

Can we just take a few minutes to admire the womb? The miraculous incubator designed to grow a life until it is ready to meet the world.

It runs like a well oiled machine. Month after month, year after year, decade after decade, messengers from the brain we call hormones prepare a 5 star hotel in womens’ uteruses in anticipation of a baby reserving the room. This accommodation boasts a memory foam mattress created out of blood and tissue covered in 800 count Egyptian cotton sheets. Those same couriers automatically trigger the release of a microscopic golden egg from an ovary, priceless treasure within its penetrable shell. It floats down the fallopian tube like clock-work where it meets  up with a sperm —or not. 

If it doesn’t and the reservation gets canceled, the bed is stripped in preparation for the next potential guest and we call that experience menstruation.

If it does, the two amalgamate and a teeny-tiny human is conceived. The nanoscopic person burrows itself into the wall of the uterus.  Its cells create a life support system we call the placenta wherein the baby lives in its very own self-protective swimming pool. From the egg sac, a connective stalk emerges and tethers the baby to its mothership. This cord contains a delivery system for oxygen and a sewage system for depleted lifeblood. 
Nothing is wasted.

A new somebody, called a baby, grows in an older somebody’s body. That’s the mother. And the womb is the location designed for this task. Nine months down the assembly line, the baby gets a quality control stamp of approval and is ready to leave the manufacturing plant.  The escape route is through the mom’s vagina. An automated message tells uterine muscles to contract expanding the vaginal exit. After a rigorous workout that pushes mom to her limits, the tiny tot passes through the wardrobe into Narnia, thanks to the womb.

It doesn’t always go like this though. 
Sometimes the machine glitches resulting in infertility, miscarriage, premature birth, C-section, stillbirth. 
Sometimes messages in the golden eggs can’t be decoded resulting in disease, defect, anomaly, demise. 
Sometimes the host body is sick, malignant, endangered.
Sometimes the creation of new life occurs under violent circumstances beyond a female’s consensual control or in the throws of addiction, poverty and dysfunction. And it is legitimate to have concern for the quality of life a child will experience when it’s born to a mother who is not prepared to nurture it.

All life matters. Mother’s lives and baby’s lives. 
And when both cannot co-exist, gnarly questions are asked and answered. Questions I am grateful I did not have to personally consider.

True story. I was conceived when my mom was 45. Those were the days before abortions services were legally and conveniently available and there were just a handful of neonatal care units cross country. My mom’s physician evaluated the statistical risks and offered some under the table advice. “There’s a place I know of where you can go to protect mom from this high-risk pregnancy and eliminate the probability of brith defects and developmental disabilities for baby.” My parents declined termination and said yes to the gift of life instead and here we are today, two generations and four healthy granddaughters later.

I work in a neonatal unit and see every kind of disaster recovery after the reproductive machine malfunctions. Unthinkably petite newborns, some of whom arrive in helicopters with a whole entourage of clinical traveling companions receive cutting edge medical care. Outside of the womb, there is a unanimous commitment to the ethical rules of modern medicine—help and not harm. Every little person’s life is equally valued regardless of how dire their prognosis or family circumstances are. 
We have a photo shoot booth that reads NICU Graduate in large, bold letters on the backdrop. It’s the last stop before discharged infants depart the unit. We congratulate the ones carrying the car seats and bless the babes on to a beautiful life because that’s what we want for them and that’s what they deserve.

But life is complicated and broken and fallen. Both in the womb and in the world, children aren’t safe. If we claim that we are advocates for protecting children from abuse and violence, then we must start with the place they are most vulnerable, in the womb. And if we claim to champion the protection of the unborn, we must be a proponent for the programs and services that protect children from the suffering and trauma they encounter living outside the womb. To be one and not the other is to be a hypocrite.

Last week, my son in law and I talked about pregnancy. I told him that I’m sorry he’ll never get the privilege of growing a baby in his womb. Of feeling it flutter in his abdomen or kick on his bladder . Of having his abdominal skin expand like a balloon or his vagina dilate to give birth.  I don’t know why, but God reserved this phenomenon for a woman’s body only. We are the ones who experience the miracle.

This is my theology of the womb. That it is the remarkable invention of God’s mind and heart for reproducing human beings, a beautifully complex process that generally works like magic. By design, a biological girl greets the world with all the parts and pieces necessary for replicating the miracle once she’s matured. And the baby boy comes supplied with undeveloped sperm cells that grow and exponentially duplicate following puberty. And when the two sexually conjoin, the ordinary and the extraordinary greet one another with a holy kiss. 

God describes it like this:

So God created human beings in his own image. In the image of God he created them; male and female he created them. Then God blessed them and said, “Be fruitful and multiply. Fill the earth and steward it…..Then God looked over all that he had made, and he saw that it was very good! 

(Genesis 1: 27-31 paraphrased)

Very Good! 
That’s God’s proclamation about the womb.
And for the privilege of being a woman and participating in God’s plan for the circle of life through my womb, I’m grateful.

Parenting and the Wish-Dream

The seasons are changing. My wind chime sings on the porch. I’m covered by my patchwork quilt on my favorite oversized chair. The sky was a sheet of gray today before darkness descended by 7:00. All harbingers of winter. There are four seasons up North, but Spring and Autumn generally feel like shorts before the feature films of Summer and Winter. Spring brings anticipation of a Pure Michigan summer but we’d like to slo-mo fall. Those second summer days. The treeline a canvas blaze of glory. Every single leaf painting the town, dancing on a limb in the breeze before it releases from the tree. Rocked peacefully, it floats toward its place of rest.

The weather isn’t the only thing a-changing…Within less days that it takes to turn a page on a calendar, my baby turned legal adult. Another one changed her name and two more added a plus 1 to the number next to their age. For a few weeks, I felt like a squirrel skittering across the road chaotically transporting the next nut. On task. Bulking up on moments. Digging holes to preserve memories I don’t want to lose. Preparing for scarcity. Now it’s all over and like the squirrel will do this winter, I’m shivering in the cold.

I am no longer a mom of children. One day, my kid needed a legal guardian. The next I could no longer access any information on her bills I still pay due to HIPPA privacy laws. 
We celebrated her beautiful life with friends and family and flowers and photos. One after another, 23 characters in her story descended on the little donut shop where she works, each bearing a stem in honor of our wildflower. And now her adult story begins.

Then, in a world where there are Octobers, there was a wedding. Our Lovely chose her  l’e`poux and with vows and a ring, made it official. With a parent on either arm, she walked the aisle of the White Way of Delight, toward her groom. It has been a privilege to companion her through all of her Anne of Green Gables childhood and now she’s chosen a new travelling partner to walk into her Pure Michigan future with.

The birth certificate verified that another turned 22. According to Taylor Swift, it’s the miserable, magical inauguration into being “happy, free, confused and lonely in the best way”. Not for this one. After a 5K jog and a chicken pizza dinner, she went to sleep next to her dude wearing the wedding band on his fourth left finger and that’s just how she wants it.

The one who first called me Mommy continues to aspire toward autonomy nirvana. As if living 150 miles away and being a financially independent professional isn’t enough to prove her emancipation, she needed a Kitchen Aid. So we made her birthday mixer dreams come true and blessed her on her way to bake carrot cupcakes with her new kitchen tool.

My life as a mom, now, is mostly waving, cheering, praying and blessing them on their way to their wish-dreams. 
But every season has it’s own glory. Moments to savor. Memories to treasure. Events to celebrate.
Even winter. 
I didn’t know that before I spent all those Texas years without it. And I ached for what I no longer had. Life is like that for moms too.
But, to both moms and squirrels, God gifted adaptive survival savvy, each according to our own design. The shivering we each experience, it’s not just an indicator that the weather or the relational climate is cold, it generates heat and keeps us warm regardless of the elements. In God’s grand plan, I am resourced by what He provides in order to live out my maternal destiny in every season. I am not more or less than what He made me to be.

So much changes with the seasons but not His love. 
Not His delight
Not His companionship. 
Not His faithfulness. 
And for today, that is mercy enough.

A Blessing for a Perfect Second Summer Day

Father, 
On this bonus second summer day, I’m right where I want to be. For more than a decade I longed to take a walk in a Pure Michigan October and now, here I am. Thank you, God! 

A squirrel is scurrying across the road hoarding nuts in his cheeks. I hear the leaf blower humming in the distance, a bird singing in harmony. Some of the leaves release from the limbs and I marvel at the grace of floating. Gently rocked by unseen hands, they somersault toward the earth. I smell the scent of those that have already landed and are combining with the terra firma, together creating nutrient rich soil. 

On this spectacularly beautiful morning, my little corner of creation proclaims that God is real. 
That He is the Creator. 
And that His creation displays the work of an artist who loves beauty and goodness.

I am on my ritual prayer walk and there are many burdens I carry on my increasingly rounding shoulders. 
For myself.
My marriage.
My children.
My relatives.
My friends. 
My community.
My state.
My country.
And the world.

They are heavy and I see no definitive solutions on this magnificent horizon. 
I cannot fix what’s broken. 
I cannot solve our problems. 
I cannot make right all that is wrong. 
And that includes myself and the ways that I resemble Eve. Birth, choice and generational bondage all pummel me this side of the veil. But there are two realities colliding even here. Broken and beautiful. Even though God is absolutely perfect, He doesn’t expect me to be. He knows I am frail. He remembers that I am dust. He accepts me as I am, claims me as His child and proclaims that He will entrust to me the privilege to bear His image to the world even while He knows I will diminish it. 
He has decided that I am not just a part of the problem. I am also a part of His solution.

I can’t really grasp it and it is not calculable like math. I am the squirrel searching for the next nut. Hoarding moments and memories. I am not designed for omnipresence, omnipotence and omniscience but God is. And He can be trusted with this picture perfect moment. With this idyllic October day. With my broken, beautiful life.

The One who created all things, who sustains all things, who will judge all things true to His character, full of grace and mercy, slow to anger and abounding in love, patient so that no one will perish but all will come to repentance, He sees, He knows and He cares about every good and perfect gift being given and received right this very moment and all of the utter travesties too.

He says He will restore, redeem and rescue the world according to His plan. And that plan gives each of us a second chance to be called His children when we never did anything to earn the first one. What wondrous love is this, O my soul!

The earth declares His glory.
Even the rocks cry out.
And so will I.

Amen

To be a Mama, You have to be Brave

The elevator dings and the door opens. A brand new mom, straight from the delivery room and looking like she’s just been to war, approaches the front desk at the Neonatal Intensive Care Unit for the first time. Pushed in a wheelchair, because she isn’t able to walk yet, her body stretched and torn, bleeding and aching from her labor of love, that mama bear is already resolute. “I want to see my baby!” she states emphatically.

From the moment egg and sperm collide and the miracle of a developing life is underway, you start being brave. There is no other way than through it, and that mama who delivered a tiny person out of a tinier hole, she’s been through it. Now, instead of a picture perfect ending to the chapter entitled “birth”, she’s donning a mask and scrubbing up to her elbows to go visit her precious in an isolette. This wasn’t the plan. Not the machines, the procedures, the tubes or the temporary barrier to physical contact. It’s bravery upon bravery for this mama today.

And it never ends. They don’t tell you that from the start, or if they do, you don’t hear it. Maybe you can’t yet. But to be a mom, you have to be brave. Brave enough to act. To wait. To speak. To listen. To release. To trust. To hope. To believe. And to suffer.

At first you have to be brave enough to lay your beloved in their crib, in whatever position the current medical trend supports for minimizing the risk of SIDS.
You have to be brave the first time they take a wobbly step, tenuously descend the stairs, and cautiously cross the street.
You have to be brave for the bumps and bruises, the injuries, accidents and unexpected health crisis.
You have to be brave when they go to school.
When they get a phone.
When they learn to drive.
When they go on a date.
You have to be brave when there are tears because they weren’t picked, didn’t win, couldn’t pass. 
When they tell you they are lonely, depressed, bullied, abused. And when they don’t but you know.
You have to be brave enough to discern when it’s time for an all play and when to be a spectator to the natural consequences of their choices.
And oh so many choices they will make like
If they will go to college and where, 
What they will do vocationally, 
Where they will live, 
Who they will marry, 
If they will follow Jesus.
Like ours, some of their choices will work out better than you imagined and some will result in the most rigorous school of hard knocks.

It is a gift, those few decades a mama spends building bravery muscles. You need them when they grow up. That’s when you aren’t taking them on a vacation to the Grand Canyon and holding their hand on the trail anymore. Instead, they’re walking on the edge of so many precipices unaccompanied. Yeah, you’ve prepared them to take their own hike, to walk out their own stories, but you are keenly aware that the risks can be treacherous and missteps fatal—body, soul and spirit. You feel that gravity in ways your children simply cannot grasp— until they can. And that’s further down the road than I’ve been as a parent and took longer than I wish it had as a daughter..

But here’s the miracle— mostly they do survive and even thrive. And in your absence God companions them with tender compassion.
And, meanwhile, you just keep being brave.

You won’t do it perfectly—not even close. And they will judge you for it. They will forget what has been oh, so beautiful and remember what has been oh, so hard.
They will feel disappointed in you. At times, disdaining toward you. They will disregard you for newer, better heroes, who made their mistakes on another kid instead.
And then your bravery must greet humility with a holy kiss. You will be wise to own your mistakes, to welcome having your blind spots revealed, to recognizing your particular brand of sin, while simultaneously not being shamed by their whims, defined by their critiques, crushed because of their rejection.

Like the parent in the parable of the prodigal son, sometimes you have to participate in their folly and bless them on the path they choose to take. And, all the while you pray. Not the demanding prayers that tell God what to do but the groaning, trusting and hoping kind. And that is the most profound courage of all.

So, dear new mama, you have no idea how today changed everything for you but you were brave and you will keep being brave and every day of your life from this day forward will be a testament to your profound love and indomitable courage.
May God be with you, and with me, as we bravely write our family stories.

Long Lived the Queen

About eight weeks back, we stood at the entrance to Buckingham Palace and waved at the Queen. Well, actually, our wave was intended for Her Majesty, but we don’t really know if she was at home that day or peering out her window. Then, we snapped our typical tourist pics as bona fide proof we were there. The beefeaters with their tall fuzzy, black hats and red jackets opened the gates to the palace, entered the portico, only to walk back out a few minutes later carrying a suitcase. I wonder if it had Paddington’s marmalade stashed inside.

The text dinged in from our Scottish friends last week just moments before American news reports.
Two words. “She’s gone.”
“The queen died peacefully at Balmoral Estate today,” read the news ticker.

Like the queen, who loved her Scottish home best, if I got my choice about where to die, the Highlands would be on my short list too. And now with the heather carpeting the hills interwoven with the color palette of greens and the sheep leisurely feasting on the table set before them, it doesn’t take much holy imagination to see the Shepherd, Queen Elizabeth leaning on His strong arm, wearing her wellies and a plaid wool scarf walking toward the next hill through the misty rain, trading one world for another.

Being Americans, many of us find a political system that has both a ruling government and reigning nobility disorienting. Our presidents come and go every four to eight years and generally we don’t get that attached—well, except maybe for Trump worshippers. We are, after all, rugged individualists who make our own way in the world. Our heroes are the folks with rags to riches yarns, the ones who grew up in poverty, created a line of boujie vegan dog biscuits or hipster computers with a cute little apple on the cover or a swanky casino empire with their name in neon lights. We’re skeptical, even grudgy about the families who were born with a silver spoon and pass it on like they’re in a relay race. The idea of living off taxpayer sovereign grants and a privy purse doesn’t win a popularity contest for most Americans.

But it’s different in the UK and other places where the Queen has ruled a conglomerate of nations. There is an abiding loyalty between the Sovereign and many of her subjects. For the Brits especially, she’s been the steady these past seventy plus years, which might as well be forever for the vast majority of their population. This loss, for our international family is monumentally historic.

Since September 8, some have been glued to their screens watching live coverage of the pomp and circumstance while others are at least slightly annoyed that a person who enjoyed every opulent luxury in life continues to be pampered post-mortem while simultaneously countless other average, everyday humans lived and also died on September 8, 2022.

And in recognition of those other humans and the ones who love them, I express my sincerest condolences as you grieve your losses. Here’s what I know to be true—that every soul God breathed life into matters equally to Him. That Jesus didn’t play favorites on the cross. And while our mortal stories are written with one of a kind diversity, God is attentive to every single one. Your beloved matters to Him and so do you.

Honestly, I struggle to reconcile British colonization and other inequities of life. I was born white in the USA where indoor plumbing, clean water and air conditioning are standard even up north where it’s only appreciated for about 6 weeks of the year– off and on. I’m privileged. Simultaneously, others in my universal family are drinking the water they bathe in and living with PTSD in refugee camps for decades after experiencing the trauma of genocide. Someday, I’ll get embalmed and buried in a satiny casket while someone else’s carcass will get dumped in a ditch. As a christian, I find these realities hard to make sense of. 

Queen Elizabeth, she lived a really cushe life. But everyone’s story has its very own hard and not even royals get a pass. There’s power jockeying between leaders on the world stage. And security concerns. There’s the utter lack of privacy. The imperative of political neutrality. The cumbersome protocols of ettiquete. The expectation of spot-on diplomacy every time. The pressure of knowing that the worldwide web will plaster a picture of the booger in your nose at a state dinner, your wardrobe malfunction on a windy moor or editorialize on the mid-life stone you gained right at the midline. Professional lip readers will share your words intended to be communicated privately on the evening news, assess the warmth in your body language with your husband. Extrapolate messages in your clothing choices and hairstyle.
24/7 you live in a fishbowl. 
You are not your own. You are the House of Windsor. No autonomy for you. You are a part of a machine. And so is your family. You didn’t chose it and you might not want it but you were born into it and it is your destiny.
No shopping days at the mall with a Starbucks and an Aunt Annie pretzel for you. The system dresses you. 
No meandering through the aisles at Meijer scoping out tonight’s dinner ingredients. The system feeds you.
No leisurely lunches sharing secrets across the table at Panera Bread with a good friend. The system socializes you.
No Zillow searches or planting annuals in the garden by your front door. The system houses you.
And the paparazzi, they follow your family everywhere for the express purpose of substantiating or fabricating a juicy story and slapping a catchy headline on it that will boost sales to curious readers.
As a parent, you miss your child’s first step, losing her first tooth, reading his first word,  performing in her first dance recital, playing his first competitive game of cricket because you are on tour for the sake of the Crown.
And like the rest of us, you experience the loss, grief and family drama common to man.

Truth is, that while we might like the perks of royalty, the price tag on those creature comforts is more than most of us would be willing to pay. Bottom line is that the Queen lived into her particular calling faithfully for all ninety six years God gave her life and breath and I think that deserves honorable mention.

I’ll let you in on a little secret. I like funerals better than weddings. Here’s why. Weddings represent pie crust promises that haven’t yet been tested. Funerals recount what it actually looks like to live in the integrity of those commitments over the long haul. And that inspires me. 
What is my calling?
How am I living into it today?

These are the questions we ask as we reflect on a life well lived. As Queen Elizabeth embraced the work for which she was chosen, may I be faithful to the unique calling that is mine alone. Writing generative stories. Creating lasting legacies. Leaving some corner of the world better than I found it.

In July, we walked the route from Buckingham Palace to Westminster Abbey, the same route her funeral carriage will take. We attended an Evensong service in the Abbey too. Sat in the same chairs the  elite few thousand will warm for her funeral on September 19. Listened as the spoken Word ricocheted off the walls making it hard to catch.  Stepped over the graves in the ornate floor where famous historical figures who left their mark were laid to rest.
God bless them. 
God bless the Queen. 
God bless me. 
And God bless you. 
Not because we deserve it. We don’t. But because His love is long and high and wide and deep and His mercies are new every single day, He does.

And may each of our lives, not perfectly, but faithfully respond to that blessing with the lyrics of Ben Rector’s song. The one that wakes me up every morning, reminding me of the top priority on my daily to-do list.
“Please let me make something beautiful. A thing that reminds us there’s good in the world.”
Amen.

Life After Suicide

(Trigger Warning//Suicide)

I was 16 that October day in 1982 when the girl who shared my stand in band died by suicide. In a moment of abject fear after an imprudent choice with a boy at the beach, she lost her flashlight, couldn’t find a path forward and everything went dark. Permanently.

It wasn’t my first brush with suicide. That would be the neighbor lady, the one with kids who lived in the blue house on the corner. My mom’s yard sale buddy. I was too young to understand mental illness and addiction. All I knew was that she jumped from an overpass and was no more. For decades, I unpacked that tragedy in my nightmares. Then there was the older boy who rode my school bus. He sat a couple of rows behind me one morning and the next his seat was empty. There have been others— always too many- and each death or threatened loss leaves a mark of indelible black ink on the soul.

My baby was 16 last August when her frenemy died by suicide. After a turbulent relationship in middle school, they made peace with a more mature  high school version of each other. One day they were living the dream. Camping at the beach. The next it turned nightmare and he was gone.

Artwork by Starla.

There is no mathematic equation with an absolute solution for quashing suicide. The human experience is bound up in the amalgamation of a physical body and a tender soul. Both can be bruised, crushed and ultimately overwhelmed. The CDC lists suicide as the 10th most common cause of death in the United States. While it can confound the powers of reasoning for a mature, healthy mind, it honest-and-true can seem like the only viable option for pain relief to a brain that goes offline or is sick.  The most common bottom feeders for suicidal outcomes are: 

  1. Psychiatric Disease. These are the suffering souls who often navigate multiple diagnosis at once—things like traumatic stress, severe depression, substance abuse, anxiety and psychosis. Like a constantly dripping faucet, their brain chemistry torments them day and night with ungracious, self-incriminating, hopeless thoughts and feelings until they succumb to its despair.
  2. Crisis intersecting with an immature prefrontal cortex. These are mostly teenagers and young adults who feel desperately alone, ashamed or angry after an emotionally charged incident like a relational fissure, bullying or abuse. Because their brain is not yet fully developed, their fuse is short. Their toolbox of coping strategies is near empty. When triggered by an extremely undesirable circumstance, their thinking brain goes offline and they become neuro-physiologically disregulated, like a toddler who throws themself down onto a cement floor with a thud, kicking and screaming as they dispel energy from the cortisol rushing through their bodies. This is the teen who grabs the family gun, a belt, a rope, a container of pills and acts before they consider the permanence and irreversibility of their action.
  3. A cry for attention. This individual is less motivated for the perceived relief that death brings and more intent on finding a means to communicate the need to be seen, soothed and secure. It is a desperately dramatic SOS call whose intent is not to die but sometimes they actually do.
  4. A toxic all-play. The perfect storm. All of the above.

For every single one of God’s image bearing creations who die by suicide, the devastation ripples through families and communities. On average 200 people in the orb of the deceased are left traumatized and grieving. 

Last fall, almost 40 years later, I meandered through the cemetery where my grandparents are buried and stumbled upon the grave marker of my band stand partner, the one who’s death at fifteen was not God’s best plan. This was not how it was supposed to be. 

In God’s Book, He says that as Creator, He gets to decide the days, hours and minutes that we spend on our mortal pilgrimage. But sometimes, He defers to our recklessness instead. He assents to mental illness. He yields to our madness. He permits us volition to murder others and to terminate ourselves. And we are left with the tiny word that asks the biggest question ever—WHY? Theology teaches us that humanity’s sinful rebellion toward God plays out in our mortality. It unpacks the implications of free will and agency in our choices. But those cerebral explanations fall short of addressing the deep, guttural, personal anguish in the question.  Why him? Why her? Why us? Why now? Why this? And so, it is good to know that the God of theology is the same One who also counts our tears and saves them in His bottle. The One who cries, even weeps, over the death of His beloved and we are His beloved.

Today we stood at the fresh new grave marker of my kid’s buddy. The marker said “Beloved Son, Brother and Friend”. There was a cross etched into the stone and heavy chain necklace with a ring lying on top. My girl, she added the flowers she picked from our yard, the ones I planted and God made grow. We stood together quietly because sometimes there are no words. Only thoughtful silences that whisper softly of caring.

To those who remain, the nearest and dearest, survivors, the ones with an empty spot in their family pictures and at their kitchen tables, I honor the life of your precious. 
And, I honor the courageous journey that you are on.
There is no blue ribbon path through this. No winners. No best of show. This is a participation ribbon only experience.
And you are participating. You didn’t choose to. You didn’t want to. You shouldn’t have to but here you are.
Taking on your life one day at a time the best you can.
Breathing.
Eating.
Sleeping.
Crying.
Laughing.
Working.
Playing.
Talking.
Groaning to Jesus a language only He understands.
Well done.

The conundrum of our temporal existence is that life is so incredibly beautiful and so excruciatingly hard.
We don’t get one without the other.
It’s not either-or but both-and.

So, blessed are you, grieving mamas and daddies, husbands and wives, sons and daughters, brothers and sisters, relatives and friends, all of you who greet your complicated lives with shaky hope.
Yours is God’s promise of fresh mercies, new every morning and somehow, always enough.
Yours is the guarantee that this temporal existence is not the final tragic end of the story but rather an introduction to eternal life. 
And yours is the confidence that when the story reaches its climax, the broken will be fixed. The sick will be healed. The dirge will become a dance for all who have collided with God’s undeserved forgiveness and unfathomable grace. 
God’s mammoth family reunion. 
Together.
Forever.
Amen.

This Is The Great Adventure

We did the thing. The great adventure. Lived the dream for 13 days straight.
All seven of us. 

The mustard seed of hope, the one where I would share my second favorite place in the whole wide world with my family—ever single one of them- it’s been dormant in the soil of my story for decades until the idea germinated last August. 
“How about if I save my paychecks and take us all to Scotland next summer.” I queried. “Here’s the thing,” I appealed, “Dad and I aren’t getting any younger and hiking the West Highland Way won’t get easier either. It’s now or never guys!” That’s my Enneagram seven wing talking.
“Would you go?” I asked sheepishly. It felt like a no-brainer to me, but you can’t assume anything once your kids grow up and live their own complicated lives.
One by one, they agreed. Some more reluctantly than others. 

I bought the plane tickets in singles, then reserved hostels and airbnbs as I picked up shifts at the hospital and deposited my paychecks. Finally, I started ordering train and bus tickets for people moving our tribe from place to place. 
It sounds easy enough in print but sometimes it’s best if you don’t know what you’re getting yourself into until there’s no turning back.

I got introduced to Scotland the summer of 1985, returned with husband in 1992, a couple of littles in tow and one in the oven the summer of 2000 and then back again in 2017 celebrating the college graduation of my firstborn. “Don’t wait another 17 years or you’ll be 68.” That’s what my Scottish friend said as I boarded the plane in Glasgow that trip. So I didn’t. Last month we piled our suitcases into the van and drove to Chicago, bantering most of the way about the merits of frog tattoos. Then, we boarded a double decker Dreamliner,  popped a few Xanax and 12 hours later, we landed with a thud on a cloud covered, misty afternoon in Scotland.

The house I lived at in 1985.

Our friends were there to meet us. First there were waves, then hugs, after that, party-time at their house. A smorgasbord of local favorites baked by our very own Great British Baking Show ought-to-be. Harry Potter featured on the tele. Impassioned conversation about the latest political headline. People napping on the floor. Laughter intermingled with tears because some dreams, when they come true are worth crying about.

The next day we boarded a train, carrying our backpacks with raincoats inside and headed due north—my favorite direction. The plan, to hike the West Highland Way together. The seats were arranged in tables, some passengers looking back and others peering forward. Life is so like that. One direction Auld Lang Syne and the other, the unturned page on the calendar. This trip an amalgamation of both.

Over the next couple of weeks we exercised our freedom to roam through one sheep pasture after another. We hiked the Devil’s Staircase, climbed the tallest mountain in the United Kingdom, rode on the Hogwart’s Express, e-biked through the Yorkshire Dales and worshipped at St. Paul’s Cathedral. Two weeks of breathing and eating and sleeping together one day on top of the next.

I was eighteen years old when I first caught a glimpse of the grandeur of Edinburgh Castle alit on a rock cliff against the backdrop of darkness. It was love at first sight and my attraction to that beloved country has never diminished. I didn’t know if it would be like that for the kids but I hoped they’d love it too. Going into the trip, I held a handful of wishes like a dandelion, ready to be blown into the wind. 

I told them:
“When you get back from our great adventure, I hope that you see the world as bigger, more interesting and diverse than you knew when you left.
I hope that your souls are refreshed by the color palette of greens and the bleating of the sheep wandering amongst us on the moors, the hills and the mountains.
I hope that you’ll value the gift of a few good friends to share the journey of life with.
And, I hope that we will be present for each other with care and kindness, not perfectly, but the best we are able.”

And with those words, off we went…. 

I can’t quantify my favorite memories and the mercies were too generous to count. But when I sit quiet, remembering,
I hear boys voices volleying across the ridges,
“Can I get a hi-yaaaa?” one calls. 
Pause. 
Another responds, “Hi-yaaaaa!” in return.
And as I stand on a plateau surrounded by vast green wilderness with the one who was most anxious about coming, she says, “It’s so peaceful here!”

I see hundreds and thousands of sheep meandering around grassy hills contentedly chewing their cud.
And four determined climbers making their final approach to the finish line after hiking to the top of Ben Nevis and celebrating with a flask of whisky and a corporate reading of Psalm 121 at the tip-tip top.

I smell the scent of 8 hour pot roast wafting through the hostel in the Dales, the one with the dope Spotify playlist and the bleating of sheep, our nightly lullaby. 
And, inhale the fresh, clean breeze of the Scottish Highlands.

I taste mammoth plates of fish and chips being devoured by hungry hikers.
And savor delicate cakes and flaky pastries from the bakery on the main street of the town I lived in just shy of 40 years ago.

I feel misty drizzle mixing with sweat as I climb a steep and rocky hill and chilly wind bite my cheeks as we bike on paths between stone fences through tiny hamlets with pristine English gardens.

My kids talk about their take-aways and fresh ideas they want to carry back to their ordinary American lives.
“I’m going to have a rose arch in my yard someday.”
“I’d like to name my own little cottage.”
“I plan to be more intentional about  caring for the environment.”

We all made new discoveries about how to navigate family togetherness. 
Like eating at a restaurant is generally more of a stressor than a treat unless our weight-lifting dude gets hangry. That’s the time for mapping the closest McDonald’s to refuel with a couple of cheeseburgers. Otherwise, a grocery store and accommodations with a kitchen are our gig.
Big cities and crowds are not.
We all move at our own pace. Some forging a path to get us where we’re going, oblivious to the others who are stopping to pet the puppies and smell the roses.
Animals make us happy. All of us. But some happier than others.
And the snorers in the group need to unite and bunk together going forward.

There were plenty of “those moments”— the ones where where you start to feel  annoyed, exasperated  and slightly self-justified. But mostly we chose benevolence, generosity and self-sacrifice instead. Not always, but family love trumped rugged individualism for the win.

Friendships expanded cross generationally through shared experiences and a rousing evening of Name that Tune with a room full of Brits and Americans singing Veggie Tales, I Love My Lips as the grand finale.

Those wishes I blew into the wind, they landed in gentle places and came true.

This trip, it was worth all my pennies. The kids caught my love for Scotland like a contagion. Some of them want to relocate there. Others are scheming a plan for a return expedition. What happens next in their story is theirs to write but what happened this summer, we wrote together. Sometimes there are titillating tastes of heaven right here in this broken beautiful world. Sometimes the brilliant dreams we dare to imagine jump out of our heads and take on time and space, flesh and blood. First, we get to savor them in the moment. And then, we get to muse about them through the rear view mirror. Fresh mercies. New every morning. Supremely grateful.

Summer Solstice and Fireflies

The shortest night of the year. The summer solstice. Out on my prayer walk, I watched the sky go from salmony blue through various shades of gray until it turned black. Right around the tree line, it looked like Christmas, the twinkling white lights playing peek a boo in the branches. I remember our peanut butter container with a red cap and air holes on top. Every single night, my littlest girl and her daddy would chase the fireflies and see how many they could catch in their jar. Catch, count and release. Some nights it was a little like  the dudes who couldn’t catch any fish at first and then Jesus decided to give them so many their nets broke. I bet they giggled as delightedly as my baby did when her jar was full.

I tend to camp on those kinds of memories. I spent a few solitary hours scrolling through kid pictures of one of my princesses on her last birthday. My girls have varying levels of disinterest in childhood photos, but for sure, you’d never find them choosing to spend a riveting evening watching a slideshow of old iPhotos. Me? I’m always ruminating about the past, reflecting on the present and projecting about the future. Trying to assemble it like a puzzle until I recognize the picture. I started with the edge peices. Those formed the structure that contains the image. I like knowing there’s a frame and that I put it together, but the center can feel overwhelming and mysterious. I’m not sure how to fit the pieces together or even what it’s supposed to look like when it’s done. Sometimes I want to just give up, put it away unfinished. Other times, I’m determined to see it complete. Most of the time, I find my reading glasses, sit down and fish around until a few stray pieces snug up to each other and then I set it aside for another day. I truly am trying to love the future, to harness the momentum of the past to live into it fully but, honestly, what I really want is a better do-over of what I’ve already had.

It’s not like that for my little women though. One of them told me that when she looks back on pictures of her childhood, she never feels the desire to backdate the time machine. She loves her life and her autonomy. The tough lessons she’s learned in the school of hard knocks, she has no interest in repeating.

Truth be told, I resonate with that. It’s not all the way back to my childhood that I want to go either. Being a kid is both so easy and so incredibly hard. On the one hand there are no bills to pay, no job to work, no image to present, no adult responsibility to shoulder. But children still carry their own heavy burdens on weak, tiny shoulders. They’re born into varying configurations of families. Their primary caregivers range the gamut of reasonably normal to entirely unfit. They come into the world utterly helpless needing to be seen, safe, soothed and secure—not 100% of the time because that’s impossible, but more often than not. That’s how they build healthy attachment patterns and when they aren’t, their inner world becomes a conflicted place of false narratives they weave together unwittingly. Because they aren’t abstract thinkers yet, they end up blaming complex problems on themselves and trying to fix multi-faceted dilemmas that are out of their control. Sometimes they’re abused and neglected. They’re often bullied and rejected and the uncharitable judgments children speak over each other stick. They want to be good, try to be good, feel pressured to excel, succeed and attain perfection but fail and lose instead. On top of their own disappointment, they are quick to recognize the look of dissatisfaction in their parents, teachers and coaches eyes and wounded when they receive berating comments. Children are often taxed beyond their physical and emotional resources. They don’t have the vocabulary for or the maturity to recognize their feelings and control their impulses. And the stakes only get higher as they move into puberty. Teenagers are unrelentingly exposed to confusing messages about gender and sexuality, porn and sex, drugs and alcohol. With undeveloped frontal lobes and insecure identities, they often make impulsive decisions that result in toxic addictions, STD’s, pregnancy and other long term health complications. Generally, kids are doing their best but their best doesn’t feel good enough. Some nights, they lie in bed feeling overwhelmed and scared, with no idea how to navigate through their raging storm.

When I look back at my kids’ pictures, I hear happy little voices creating, playing, exploring, giggling, singing and talking. But I also acknowledge that being a kid is way more complicated than it looks and I hope that in those images of the little people that they were, and even in the more archival photos of who I was, we can all see ourselves and feel delight, kindness, compassion and gratitude for our younger “me’s”. That we can frame our moments within God’s faithful companionship and trace His ongoing mercies in our stories. Fresh and new each morning. Always, always, always enough.

The Ravaging of the Sunflowers

Though the fig tree does not bud and no fruit is on the vines, though the olive crop fails and the field produce no food, though the sheep are cut off from the fold and no cattle are in the stalls, yet I will exult in the Lord; I will rejoice in the God of my salvation! Habakkuk 3:17-18

My sunflower crop got ravaged overnight.
Where I least expected it. On my back deck. Right outside my patio door.
This time it wasn’t my garden 50 feet out on my side yard with the more mature plants. It was the most vulnerable. The tiniest new growth, 150, still in their white paper cups.
I stagger the crop based on days to flower. This variety was my over acheivers. Slated to bloom in 50-60 days.

I’ve been watching my big garden daily, reapplying my very expensive repellent and turning on my hose when it doesn’t rain. I lost a half dozen in one corner to a hungry predator one night but sighed with relief that for whatever reason, it satisfied itself with an appetizer.
Never have I lost any plants off my deck where their failure to thrive wasn’t on me.
This morning, I walked outside ready to tend them with care. Lord knows, I needed the hope of their sunshiny future and found them 
Destroyed
Uprooted
Killed
Their roots pulled out of the soil, exposed and burnt, their leaves chewed off leaving a still greenish stem. Others had pinprick looking holes left where the entire plant had been consumed. For those yet to shed their seed and become real, the varmint had cracked the shell open, eaten the life and left the carcass behind.
Some were only injured—roots still intact but growth whittled down to the soil line.

For a few minutes I just stood paralyzed. Speechless. Until I couldn’t stand and so I sat down, right in the middle of the war zone and wept. I know they’re just sunflowers and I recognize that the loss I just described is absolutely trivial compared to countless other casualties but they matter to me and their untimely devastation feels like the deathblow on a week where I’ve already been beaten to a pulp. The particulars in my story and the stories of the ones I love are ours alone but everyone has had their own kick in the gut some fateful day, week, month, year, decade, lifetime even…. and for each and every one of us, it just plain hurts. It throbs. It’s a red, frowny, teary face on the pain chart.

So what do we do with our ravaged gardens. The ones we nurtured and loved and had such beautiful hopes for? Here’s the only thing I know to do. Start by sitting in the devastation for as long as you need or at least as long as you can. Look at your uprooted plants. See what has been lost and grieve that the hopes you had for them will not be realized. Cry your tears. They’re legit. Then, assess the damage and start cleaning up. Separate what’s salvageable from what has to be thrown into the compost bin. It’s not a race. Do it at your own pace. Let yourself re-assess the damage as you go and give yourself permission to feel what you feel. Dispose of what has been lost. It cannot be retrieved. Nurse what has been wounded with the tenderest care you are able to give.
Now, take your now seedless cups of soil and plant more sunflower seeds. Yeah, I really did say that. Choose courage to hope that the next effort, the next seed packet can live and thrive and bloom and be gloriously mature.
It’s an incredible risk. There’s a part of me that wants to just rototill my garden, let it grow weeds  and entirely give up. There’s no risk in that. There’s nothing I value that I can lose. But that is the path of despair and at the fork in the road, I will not choose to take it.
Today, I will sow. I will water my pinkish-red strawberries and and the other flowers in my porch pots. They’re alive and in bloom. They can’t take the place of my sunflowers because they aren’t sunflowers but they are a mirror— reflecting back the reality that hope is worth it and some times our good dreams are realized and they’re beautiful.

Here’s what I have to offer up to God today:
God bless my sunflowers.
Bless the tiny ones I just buried in the compost pile. 
May even their decomposition contribute to your plan for the earth and its regeneration.
Bless the injured plants with new growth and energy.
Bless the seeds that I poke into the soil today. May their life be full and may they bloom according to their design.
Bless my garden and all of the plants that are growing toward the sun amidst perils they cannot comprehend. 
Bless me, God, would you honor my courage to persevere as a gardener? 
Would you comfort me in my loss of my crop?
Would you enable me to hope that there will yet be beauty even though I’ve suffered devastation?
God, would you count my sunflowers, each and every one, just as you do my tears and the number of hairs on my head? And, would you tend them with your most gentle and protective care even though I cannot?
I trust the garden I love to you, God. You made the plants and you loaned them to me to steward, to appreciate, to nurture and enjoy.
I have done my part the best I can. With your help, I will continue to be faithful and wait to see what you will do.
Amen