The Fight Against the Flesh

Well. It’s been an entire year since I’ve updated this blog, though it surely hasn’t been an entire year I’ve gone without sharing. I’ve had the honor and gift of sharing the story of Benjamin and meeting others in their pain/encouraging one another to keep our eyes fixed on heavenly restoration and the kindness of Jesus through many different outlets over this past year, through different speaking events, my podcast Through the Lens, and my newfound online fitness coaching gig Move More Girls, where I help people view exercise and healthy living as a grace from God, not a burden or a drag, but a way to respect and honor the Creator while also helping us both look and feel great. I love having various ways to connect and share with others, to hear and learn from others, and just to live life alongside so many people, both locally and from a distance, as we journey through life. I’m staying very busy, between mothering 2.5 year old twins and running my different projects along with some church leadership opportunities, and I found myself in a crunch yesterday, wanting to process through some stuff on the grief front. Billy encouraged me to sit down during the twins’ nap time and just write. Here’s what came out–take it or leave it, but it’s where my heart was yesterday, and maybe it’ll meet you in your pain and/or point you to the beauty of the Gospel, which doesn’t fix all of our temporary problems or erase our deep pain, but does something greater–gives us hope in the middle of the pain, giving us promise of restoration to come, both fully in heaven, and in part here on earth.

Today my son would be 4 years old, but he’s dead.

Does that make you uncomfortable? For me to just put it that way? Shouldn’t I be the good Christian mom who only ever talks about how he’s living in heaven now and how he’s with Jesus and we’ll all be together one day? Because all of those are true, and there’s nothing I’m more grateful for. But it’s also true that Benjamin is dead. His medical records (which, by the way, were shipped to me in a box a foot high—no 10 week old baby should ever have a medical record that fills a box that big) state his date of birth followed by “expiration” and the date he died. Like what does that even mean? The word “expiration” should approximately never be used when speaking of a human being. Sometimes you just can’t shake the clinical sterility of the western world. Which, again, I’m grateful for, but when it’s your own kid they’re referring to you’re gonna hate it just a little bit.

So, my son is dead, it’s been 4 years, and I’m still coming to grips with it. One of the grief books I read early on encouraged parents to not use terms like “passed away” or “took his last breath” but to just call it like it is—death. I was surprised by that at first, but the more I thought about it the more it clicked with me—after all, I’d been saying phrases like “he passed away…” in attempts to put others at ease—it does sound a lot gentler. But the thing is it wasn’t gentle for us. His death was horrific and painful and left a lot of scars, and to simply say “he went to be with Jesus”—while true, completely glosses over the fact that we watched him suffer for 10 straight weeks, hungry, operated on like a lab rat (again, grateful, but this is my baby we’re talking about), and then ultimately to just…die.

I think I don’t mind flat out saying words like death, died, dying and just calling it like it is because it highlights the severity of what really happened here: someone, created in the image of God, has ceased to exist here on earth, and that’s a really difficult thing. The most difficult. And really, I don’t mind calling it what it is because, by God’s grace, I understand that physical death is not the same as spiritual death. For the Christian/those before the age of accountability, physical death is…physical. Temporary. Our souls are eternal and scripture tells us that to be absent from the body is to be present with the Lord. Cool! Okay, so that normalizes death and takes the sting away! We also know through scripture that one day, when Jesus returns and the new earth is created, we’ll receive new bodies, ones without disease or decay, to enjoy for eternity. And this is why, though I hate so much with every cell in my body having to say my baby son died, I love so much with every cell in my body knowing that his death, while painful and to be mourned, was physical—that he is now with the Lord and will receive a new body one day.

Today, and every day, I live in the tension between respecting and mourning and crying and grieving that we should be celebrating his 4thbirthday here on earth, and yet also rejoicing and hoping and overcome with gladness that my baby son was chosen to go before us decaying here on earth and has the honor of now being fully in the presence of Jesus. How does that play out tangibly? Honestly, it depends. Today, on his 4thbirthday, I wish I could tell you I’ve spent the day reminiscing and looking at photos and videos and hugging my children who are here tighter with such a grounded perspective on what really matters.

IMG_6555Instead? I was in a sour mood headed to church on Easter Sunday, not wanting to see anybody, not wanting to lift my voice in praise, and generally spent the morning being incredibly short-fused with my 2 and a half year old twins, majorly stressing over potty training struggles and wondering if anyone even likes me. Add in a healthy dose of feeling extra guilty about it all because today of all days I should be utterly grateful for every single cry that comes out of my child’s mouth because I would give anything to be able to hear Benjamin again, and instead I just keep butting up against motherhood and fighting sanctification and just really wanting to escape from all of it but being so very trapped in it all—and yet at the end of the day, there’s nowhere else I’d rather be. But motherhood has me boxed in, and there are plenty more moments than I’d care to admit where I just really, really don’t feel cut out for this stuff anymore.

Many days, rather than keeping my eyes lifted to the heavens with an eternal perspective, my gaze is down at the rock hard soil, hand upon the plow, digging and digging and getting nowhere. These are the days—the moments every day—where my own self is death, died, dying. He’s bringing death to my flesh—my sinful nature that desires comfort and control and predictability and ease more than I desire to be transformed more into His likeness. It’s His kindness that continues to break me down, softening the rock hard soil of my heart, molding me into something new. It’s His kindness, yet it’s far from niceness—a nice God wouldn’t have allowed His own Son to die a painful death. But God is not nice. He’s kind, and that kindness, as scripture says, leads us to repentance—to change directions and go the other way, away from our fleshly sinful nature and stumbling toward the cross. So that’s where I am today, on Benjamin’s would-be 4thbirthday. Feeling the pain of fleshly death, not glossing over any of the decay but calling it what it is—for me, sin, bitterness, anger, pride, selfishness, doubt, fear—and somehow stumbling toward the cross anyway, knowing that‘s the only link to true, eternal hope—the hope Benjamin is already experiencing. I pray it will continue to shape and change how I play it all out on earth, because I of all people know just how short this chance we get here is, and how precious it all really is—not eternal, yet with eternal implications. May He be glorified in the battle we face against the world to keep our eyes fixed on eternity, allowing us to glory in the hope of the restoration to come as well as the glimpses we get of it here on earth. For now we see in part, but soon we will see in full.

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Benjamin’s Third Birthday

Benjamin would be 3 years old today.  As I’ve been settling into my grief journey and navigating being a mother–a bereaved mother of Benjamin as well as mother to 18 month old twins, I find myself more and more grateful and in need of the hope of heaven.  I find myself even more urgently wanting to share the message of the gospel, because I so clearly grasp how truly temporary this earthly life is, and how deeply eternal our souls are.  It often boggles my mind that others don’t seem to care about this reality or seem to be OK with ignoring it or choosing denial.  I guess when you’ve lost someone close to you, especially when it’s your own child, it changes the game.  You’re forced to face up to your eternal destiny or avoid via distraction.  The good news of the gospel is that it’s a free gift; the price of eternal salvation has already been paid by Jesus, and all it requires is us confessing with our mouths and believing in our hearts that Jesus died and rose again (Romans 10:9).  Maybe you have a problem believing this because you don’t understand it or simply don’t think Jesus is the Son of God, that He died and rose again.  I’m not asking you to fall to your face right now and believe–but I am asking you to seek.  Revelation 3:20 says that He stands at the door and knocks.  He is there waiting for you to find Him.  Out of love, He has made Himself available for you.

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On Benjamin’s third birthday, while I continue to press into the joy and hope of eternity with gladness and excitement, I’m also grateful that being a Christ-follower allows me, beckons me, even, to both celebrate and mourn.  Having just come out of the Easter season, I notice that we as believers are intentional about reflecting on Good Friday and Resurrection Sunday, but I never really thought about the meaning of Holy Saturday and how this is where we are, in the in between, between Good Friday and Resurrection Sunday.  It’s both frustrating and encouraging because we know Sunday is coming, but we’re not there yet.  As I reflect on the birth, life, and death of Benjamin I am reminded that we are living in Holy Saturday–death has happened; Good Friday has happened to Benjamin, and I know Resurrection Sunday has also happened for him and is coming for me when I’m reunited with him–and even more so with Jesus when it’s my turn to die.  But how can we live well in Holy Saturday? How do we process the reality of death, how do we grieve well about it, to not sit in despair because we know death has been conquered but also to not just put on a happy face and act like we’re unphased about the reality of the earthly grave?

One of my most treasured books, God on Mute by Pete Grieg, talks about this very thing; Pete says that he attended the funeral of a friend who died suddenly, leaving his family behind, and that at this Christian funeral, everything was so encouraging, from the Scripture readings to the songs to the speeches–of course, because Christian funerals are truly celebrations.  But Pete brings up a really good point–after observing his deceased friend’s young daughter staring at her dad’s coffin, Pete says, “in spite of all the singing, dancing and detailed assurances (or perhaps because of them), I drove away later thinking how very fragile our faith must be if we can’t just remain sad, scared, confused and doubting for a while. In our fear of unknowing, we leapfrog Holy Saturday and rush the resurrection. We race disconcerted to make meaning and find beauty where there is simply none. Yet. From dusk on Good Friday to dawn on Easter Sunday, God allowed the whole of creation to remain in a state of chaos and despair.”

This concept of acknowledging and even embracing Holy Saturday really resonates with me because I think we are so prone to glossing over it and as Pete put it, “rushing the resurrection.”  I think we do it out of awkwardness and discomfort–it doesn’t feel good to mourn the grave. But we should mourn the grave, we should respect the Holy Saturday-ness of it all–it’s an intentional space provided by God to reflect and reconcile many aspects of the grieving believer’s journey, and we’d be remiss to rush to fill that space with platitudes or even avoidance.

The following may not sound quite as spiritual, but I wrote this poem because I was feeling inspired and I don’t often feel inspired to write poetry anymore, so when I do I try and jump on it.  I love the catharsis that comes with tapping into uncomfortable emotions. I’m secure enough in my identity in Christ to take a breath and create space for the uncomfortable stuff.  So here’s my Holy Saturday poem; I hope it communicates some of the fast, furious, distant, nostalgic emotions I felt while recently traveling through Philadelphia, Benjamin’s birthplace.

You Don’t Live Here Anymore

I’m riding on Amtrak and we’re headed up the east coast “next stop Philadelphia,” how dare you Amtrak roll right up through like you own the place when this whole damn city belongs to me.

I thought I’d close my eyes like last time this rickety train creaked its bones through the station but today I look out and I see the familiar buildings like familial beings, stacked up stories high with their chests puffed out glaring “where you been?” and I hold my breath ‘cause it’s been two years, no three, since I’ve shown my face around my town.

The guy sitting diagonally from me eats a cheeseburger and I shoot daggers at him, who told you you could take such liberties like I’m not even here? But then when

he

was here we ate cheeseburgers. Like we were all confident like we could leave that hospital room and somehow things would start making sense if we “take care of yourselves” and got out every once in a while.

Hmm, nope.

On second thought eat that cheeseburger while you still can because you never know next time this train brings you back

your stomach may be churning.

What If?: Thoughts on a New Year

I think New Year’s resolutions are so fun and interesting.  Yes, it’s true that for most of us, follow-through is never anything impressive, but still, the intentionality it takes to be introspective and consider how we’re feeling led to better our lives each year is special and, if nothing else, a great conversation piece.  Working as a personal trainer, I loved New Year’s because the gym was always buzzing with energy and I loved talking through health and fitness goals with my clients.  My resolutions of years past have always been a little more laid back in terms of seriousness.  One year it was to accomplish 10 strict pull-ups (check!).  Another it was to watch more TV.  Yep, you read that right: watch more TV. I’ve never been a big TV person and I sort of just wanted to see what all the fuss was about.  Enter Friday Night Lights and Downton Abby.  I see what all the fuss was about. This year, my resolutions include finishing all the books I have downloaded on my Kindle app, and re-building some of the muscle strength I lost during my twins pregnancy.

When it comes to New Year’s resolutions, it’s neat to dream big and plan proudly for the new year upon us, especially if the previous year brought heartache and hardship.  We’re encouraged to set goals and work to meet them and celebrate them when we do.  I have big goals for the years ahead.  Dreams that scare me and excite me.  Ideas that are interesting and stretch me.

But what if we took a different approach this year? We can still dream big dreams and set personal goals, but what if we made it a point to position them under the umbrella of seeking Christ first, acknowledging and appreciating the daily bread He gives us?  It’s not sexy and it’s not popular, but what if our highest goals were to have just enough?  What if our greatest plans were to need the hope of the Gospel more?  Honestly, the thought doesn’t really excite me, but somehow it does satisfy me.  If I’m being honest, these past number of years have been super trying.  I feel like there’s been 30 years crammed into the past 3: good, bad, and everything in between.  Truthfully, I’d gladly accept a seemingly boring by comparison year of ease and relief over another year of sanctification.  I say that with my flesh, but my spirit latches on to the sanctification and knows that that’s what will ultimately satisfy.  But there’s definite tension there.

2017 was a full year.  We got to watch our precious newborns turn into babies in what was a very loud year, with both crying and laughing in stereo.  So much joy and struggle.

We mourned what would have been Benjamin’s second birthday, followed months later by the anniversary of his death.  During this time, Benji’s Playground, a handicapped-accessible playground, was unveiled at our church, with Chase and Gemma being the first to go down the slides.

We had some fearful weeks where both babies, at separate times, had hospital stays due to some potential severe diagnoses (they both ended up being clear!).

We got to march around town like a couple of badasses.

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We hit a major milestone in the life of parenting multiples: surviving the first year!  Chase and Gemma turned one on October 15, and we had a lovely time celebrating with friends and family.

I also started a podcast with a dear friend and fellow loss mama.

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We welcomed the holiday season with smiles and leaf piles,

Enjoyed seeing all four amazing grandparents loving on their twin grand babies,

And celebrated a magical Christmas, complete with more ball pits than there are babies, Chase’s heart-melting smile, and Gemma’s gravity-defying hair, which holds its shape even after the ponytail holder is taken out.

Yes, this year was amazing and exhausting and fulfilling and challenging and stressful and joyful and upsetting and wonderful.

Most of all, it was sustaining.  God gave us what we needed each day.  Most days (every day?) I wanted more.  I wanted to know that everyone in my household was going to be safe, happy, and healthy, even though at my roots I know that’s not His will for our lives.  And many days we weren’t safe, happy, or healthy.  But we were sustained.  Provided for.  Filled with joy and a heavenly peace.  Proverbs 30:7-9 has become my goal, and it still frustrates me because my flesh wants worldly prosperity, but it nourishes me because my soul wants the Bread of Life.

“Two things I ask of you, Lord;

do not refuse me before I die:

Keep falsehood and lies far from me;

give me neither poverty nor riches,

but give me only my daily bread.

Otherwise, I may have too much and disown you

and say, ‘Who is the Lord?’

Or I may become poor and steal,

and so dishonor the name of my God.”

***

Vaneetha Risner put it best in her book The Scars That Have Shaped Me:

“The children of Israel were familiar with the gift of dependence. Manna dropped from heaven so they wouldn’t starve as they wandered in the wilderness (Ex. 16). But they needed God to provide it daily; they weren’t able to hoard it. And thus they couldn’t avoid total dependence on God. The Israelites were given bread so that they would rely on God and live by his word. But like me, they often disdained it (Num. 11). Manna was bland, unexciting, monotonous. It wasn’t what they asked for. It wasn’t extraordinary or gloriously victorious like the parting of the Red Sea (Ex. 14) or some of the miracles yet to come, like the fall of Jericho (Josh. 6) or the healing of Naaman (2 Kings 5). It didn’t impress people. Manna simply provided for their needs when they were in the desert. It became expected. And taken for granted. I know how they felt. I often feel that way as well. I don’t appreciate God’s unfailing presence throughout the day. I don’t acknowledge that he strengthens me when I am weak. I overlook the life-giving power of God’s word. I want miraculous deliverance. Not ordinary sustenance. But as I look back over my life, I see God has delivered me and answered some prayers with a resounding yes in jaw-dropping, inexplicable ways. I remember those answers with gratitude and awe. But the answers of “wait” or “no” have done a far deeper work in my soul. They have kept me connected to the giver and not his gifts. They have forced me to seek him. And in seeking him, I have found a supernatural joy beyond all comparison. A joy not based on my circumstances. Not based on my deliverance. Simply based on his tender presence.”

***

Lord,

Thank you for giving me my daily bread, and please, may it continue in 2018, and may it be enough.  Just enough.  Fully enough.  Not too much, that I would become self-sufficient and not need Your help.

Amen.

Reflections on the First Year of Twins

The twins are ONE year old!

I sort of kind of not really totally didn’t think we’d ever get here. The newborn days were long and the newborn nights were a special kind of torture. I was fairly confident the sleep deprivation would kill me, but somehow I’m here to tell the tale. Billy made it out alive, too, although he had his fair share of nights spent rocking pillows in a sleep-deprived stupor. The past few years since Benjamin have worn me down, stretched me, changed me, and sanctified me, and this particular year hasn’t been an exception, but oh man, it’s been absolutely fruitful and incredibly rewarding and fulfilling, and it’s not lost on me that the sweet parts only shine bright because the bitter parts have been there as a backdrop. I’ve been stretched, snapped, molded, and repaired this year, and now things look a lot different than they used to in all forms: mentally, emotionally, spiritually, and physically.

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Mentally, I’ve been challenged in getting the twins on a schedule, making sure their sleep patterns align with one another and their meal times and amounts are on track with each other. The boundaries of a sleep/meal schedule have given me the freedom to enjoy a couple of naptimes throughout the day where I get to shower, eat a meal, and pick up around the house. I find deep satisfaction in creating a somewhat orderly home at the start of each nap to give the twins a fresh slate to mess up at the end of each nap. Somehow I find the same satisfaction in a house riddled with toys and signs of life as I do in fresh vacuum lines. There’s a big push in the social-media-age mom community to ditch the chores, blissfully let the dishes pile up, and turn a blind eye to the overflowing laundry, but I am completely in the minority camp that believes children must grow seeing us parents take care of our homes, and thus our families, joyfully and dutifully, and anyway I just “mom” better when my floors are clean.

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Emotionally…emotionally. Emotionally—where to begin? As if I wasn’t already emotional enough, raising baby twins post-child loss has brought me to the highest of highs and lowest of lows. The Lord has been my stable rock through it all, with my husband being a tangible example of the faithfulness and steadfastness of the Lord, but I’ve definitely been challenged to the point of severe discomfort both emotionally and spiritually this year while at the same time finding deep gratitude in the gifts the Lord has lavished on me and the examples of His love and provision He’s blessed me with via the hands and feet (and arms to hold babies) of family and friends. It’s been a very extreme couple of years, and while I don’t think things are going to be slowing down for, I don’t know, 18 years?, I am hoping and ready for a season of emotional and spiritual rest.

Spiritually, I’ve been challenged to surrender my idealistic expectations of babyhood. Mothering a special needs child who lived and died in the hospital led me to believe anything, even baby twins, would be easier than the grief and painful memories I have of my sweet first son’s life. I can definitely say I wasn’t wrong—no amount of sleepless nights filled with nonstop crying and nursing struggles can compare to holding your child as they die, all your hopes and dreams for their life passing away as well. Still, there were many sleepless nights filled with nonstop crying and nursing struggles, and while those nights have passed (oh praise Him), I still reflect on how quickly I got frustrated and how deeply embedded impatience and selfishness are in my spirit. One of my sweet babies had colic, and there were days where they cried for 10 hours straight; day after day of intense crying followed by night after night of spotty sleep can really wear a person down. I also developed post-partum anxiety, which is typical after delivering multiples due to the greater hormone drop and, I would think, just the natural pressure and stress of caring for two newborns. The PPA caused me to feel as if the walls were closing in on me. I didn’t feel like myself—I didn’t know who I was. I cried all day long and battled insomnia all night long. I was too anxious to nap when they napped, and feeding them through the nights left a scant few broken up hours to sleep, but sleeping meant I’d need to relax enough to actually drift off, and I just couldn’t. When I somehow did, I’d wake at every little noise and then it was time to start the feeding cycle all over again. I felt a heaviness on my chest and a bleakness about my life. On the outside, I kept hearing how fortunate I was to have two healthy babies at home, and how I should enjoy every moment because “these are the days” and “it goes by so fast” and “the days are long but the years are short.” On the inside, I screamed, I get it, I know how fast it goes by—I’ve seen it come and go! But I need to be able to cope now, to find joy now. I never really found a great way to cope, so I kept my head down and kept my hand to the plow, and through the grace of God which He provided in the support of family and friends, we got through a very hard season.

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I was mentally, emotionally, and spiritually challenged on a deeper level with the health of the twins (which we now have zero concerns over). Both babies had separate instances this past year in which they exhibited signs of seizures, rampant enough that I was able to video both babies’ episodes, months apart from each other, and send to the doctor, which led to ER visits and concerns from neurologists about a serious condition called Infantile Spasms (a rare, severe form of epilepsy found in infants). We had overnight hospital stays for both, and EEGs done, wistfully reminding me of Benjamin, who had EEGs done himself for surgical-related seizures. If diagnosed, IS can cause development to stop, or even reverse, unless treated with medications that can cause undesirable side effects. Both babies have been cleared and have not exhibited any more seizures, which we are extremely grateful for. Additionally, Chase went through a few special tests, including going under anesthesia for an endoscopy; he, too, has been cleared and is doing great as he seems to have outgrown his issues, but he appeared to be in discomfort and struggle with eating the first 9 months of his life. These medical concerns are all so basic compared to the even the lower level stuff that Benjamin experienced, yet it hurt my heart just the same every time one of my babies had to get an IV, a blood draw, or fast for procedures.

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Physically, yikes. Physically, things have, um, changed. Before I started having babies, I worked as a personal trainer and group fitness instructor. Workouts were at least once a day, 6-7 days a week, and I was fit, really fit. After having Benjamin I got back into fairly good shape, but then being pregnant with the twins I wasn’t medically cleared to exercise; I could barely stand up to brush my teeth without taking a break. Carrying them to full term has left my body noticeably different, both in appearance and in feeling. My delivery is a whole other story in and of itself, but the short answer is I was induced at 37 weeks because of a condition called cholestasis which can increase risk of stillbirth; I then birthed Chase vaginally and 33 minutes later had a C-section for Gemma who decided to flip breech during Chase’s delivery. Thanks, Gem.   Women are so high maintenance.

If carrying twins to term is a physical endeavor, then nursing twins for a year wasn’t much of a cool down. One of the greatest gifts I’ve experienced was the opportunity to nurse my babies their first year of life. While I exclusively pumped for Benjamin, I never got to nurse him, so it was extremely important to me to at least give nursing my best shot, with a year being the ultimate, though unlikely, goal. It was a goal I set when I found out I was expecting them, and one that I never thought I’d meet when they were newborns and the feedings were a real struggle. But with the support and encouragement of family and friends, we met our goal, and it feels really, really good to succeed in this way.   Over the months it’s quickly become my favorite experience with them. Being a stay at home mom means I am always on the floor with the babies, all day long, and corralling them as they break on three to go their separate ways, chasing the cat and crawling up the stairs. I find that even when Daddy gets home from work and takes over to relieve me, I have a hard time pulling myself away; on the floor with them in the middle of the toy piles is where I belong. But months of playing on the floor, sitting in awkward positions and using poor posture to nurse and tend to babies has caused me to experience aches and pains where I never used to, even when I was working out my hardest. Now that the twins aren’t as reliant on my milk supply (at the time I publish this they actually won’t be nutritionally reliant on it at all), I’ve been able to start exercising again, and it’s been great! It’s actually kind of fun to start from scratch and rebuild my stamina and strength again.UNADJUSTEDNONRAW_thumb_845e

I’ve been stretched this year, and while the twins have grown, I’ve grown alongside them, and it’s been painful and it’s been rewarding. It’s been a give and a take—a taking of my selfish ambitions and a giving of two precious, unique individuals I get to steward, just as I got to steward their big brother during his life, and now in his wake. God’s mercy has been brightly displayed in the provision of family, especially the twins’ grandmothers, who have sacrificed many days to help raise the babies with loving tenderness; through friends, who gave up resources to provide meals and precious evenings to come help us in our exhaustion during the newborn days (my friend Jenny, God bless her, would walk in the door, and I’d barely say hi, hand her a baby while Billy had the other one, and put myself to bed for an hour); and through Billy, who is an all-around better person and parent than I will ever be, and I get to be married to him so it kind of just makes me a better person and parent simply by association, because you can’t help but be better when you’re in his presence. He’s always exuded love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control, but seeing him parent all three of his babies has left him radiating the fruits of the Spirit, and some of it somehow seeps over into my life just from being around him. Our parenting experience thus far in life has been an impressive struggle for the few years we’ve been parents, but our marriage has been spared of struggle and has been a place of refuge, renewal, and rest.

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But while I’ve been uncomfortably stretched and challenged this year, I’ve also been encouraged, lifted up, and strengthened. Parenting baby twins after losing their big brother has been somewhat isolating in the sense that it’s not the typical early parenting experience. Because of this unique entrance into motherhood, it’s been hard for me to relate to many other moms. I’ve always been an emotional person, but since losing Benjamin I feel things really, transparently, deeply. With the twins, the lows are to the depths and the highs are the peak of the mountain. Benjamin, Chase, and Gemma have caused me to grab onto every moment with fury and awe. There’s a big push in motherhood to “enjoy every moment,” but I straight up don’t. Nope. There have been some very hard moments that I haven’t come close to enjoying. And you know what? I’m more than okay with that, because while I haven’t enjoyed it all, I’ve felt it all. I’ve lived every moment. I’ve counted every one of them. Each moment is precious to me. The good, the bad, and everything in between. There have already been many times I’ve wanted to escape, but with God’s grace I’ve showed up, I’m here, I’m present. I’m in it, all in. Every moment matters. In that, there are many moments I’ve wished away, and many I’ve wished to repeat. I give myself the freedom to feel it all, because I know how fleeting the moments are. With this perspective, this grabbing hold of and diving into and wrestling with and holding tight to, I’ve been encouraged that while my parenting years have been short, my vision of the big picture is more fully realized than it ever could be if I hadn’t lost Benjamin. This is only because of Christ, because He made a way for me to have one foot in heaven and one on earth.

The amount of pride I have for Chase and Gemma could span a lifetime, and somehow it’s all crammed into one big, little year. Chase and Gemma have got to be the most loved babies in the entire world, and while every baby deserves the kind of love the two of them receive, I’m really, really happy we get to be their parents and we get to project the love of Christ onto them, His beautiful creations. I am absolutely smitten and find myself often having to play it cool around others, because I could go on for hours about all the amazingly cute, silly things they’re both doing, learning something new every day and wowing me with their development and the innocent lens through which they view the world. I thank God every day for allowing us the means to have me stay home with the babies, because I couldn’t imagine being anywhere else. Chase and Gemma won’t remember these early years, spending every moment under my care, but I will remember, and I’ve counted every moment as sacred. That’s not to say many moments, many more than I’m comfortable with, haven’t been hard and scary and frustrating and even just mundane. But that’s just part of this nuanced life, and I’ll take the frustration and fear if it means I also get the joy and laughter, the wisdom and sanctification. Because it’s worth it. They’re worth it.

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Reflecting on Benjamin’s Death

On June 30, 2015, at 6:23am, Benjamin died.

It’s a day I think about daily. It’s a day I try not to think about daily. It’s a day I always want to remember. It’s a day I always want to forget. I want to remember every detail. I want to forget every detail.

There’s a visceral reaction whenever I see the numbers 623. The clock reads: 6:23. The expiration date on the milk reads: 6/23. The total amount reads: $6.23.

The doctor looks at the clock and reads: “Time of death, 6:23.”

It takes a moment for me to remember why my body reacts with a pounding heart and pit in my stomach when I see these numbers. This moment in time when his heartbeat, which had been slowly declining after they unplugged all the devices, stopped, and his soul slipped away. Just hours before, he opened his swollen eyes for the last time, and we raced to get his baby book with the black and white images for him to look at; we wanted him to have any crumb of pleasure we could offer. I remember lying on the couch in his hospital room during his final nights of life. I was so tired and so sad. We knew it was coming, we just didn’t know when. Hours? Days? Weeks? We didn’t sleep; we couldn’t sleep. His room was always full of doctors and nurses, scratching their heads and manipulating medications in a last-ditch effort to manage his blood pressure while his organs failed, one after the other after the other.

I remember his last night of life, the hours leading up to 6:23am, just lying on the couch while the nurses were doing all sorts of things to try and help him, and all I could do was lay there because I was so exhausted in every sense of the word: mentally spiritually physically emotionally. And my stomach hurt so, so bad. Just cramps, all over my body. I couldn’t even stand. I couldn’t even get up and be by his side. I always felt guilty about that. We even left the room and went into a sleep room; I’m not totally sure why or how we managed to leave his room and go into a sleep room and actually sleep for an hour or two. I guess it was self-preservation of some sort; we knew the worst was coming and we didn’t know how to begin to process it, so we just left, went down the hall, and curled up next to each other on a twin-sized bed and slept. How could I actually let myself fall asleep when he was down the hall, fighting for life? The nurses and doctors were urging us to go, sleep. They would be sure to call us if anything were to happen. So we left the room, his oxygen saturation levels already dipping into the 80s. I was just so tired, so sick, and so scared.

The phone rang an hour or two later, the shrill sound jolting us from the stupor of sleep. Something about his sats dropping more and it’s time. The next couple of hours were too sacred to write about, or even really to think about as I tend to divert my mind when I subconsciously go to that place daily. It’s too sacred to re-live in full detail anymore; too painful and too holy, the songs that we sung as my tears drenched his hospital gown; how the doctor turned off the monitor so we wouldn’t hear the descending beeps as his heart stopped and his soul entered heaven. How we finally got to hold him without any tubes or wires; also, without life. How I kept stroking his head and holding his hand after we’d laid him back on his bed. How family gathered around and the nurse asked us if she could pray while we all joined hands around him.

Leaving the hospital that day was

It was

I guess there’s not really a word for it. I mean when we got there I was pregnant so he was always with me and then he was born so he was always there and then he died so he was there but gone and so then we had to go.

Our friend Becca saw us coming down the ICU hallway toward the exit; she saw us crying and asked how Benjamin was doing. I somehow communicated that he died, and that we just had to go. We got back to the Ronald McDonald House where we planned to just get in bed and sleep the day away; it was early afternoon by this point. We took showers and climbed into bed, then realized we couldn’t sleep and needed to just go home, so we packed up and made the 5 hour drive back to Norfolk. The roads that we know so well felt so wrong. We had always said how when we returned to Norfolk, Benjamin would be with us; we’d leave as a family of 2 and return a family of 3. And yet there we were, just the 2 of us.

Walking into our apartment felt so familiar and so foreign. We lived so much life in those 3 months away; coming back to everything just as we’d left it seemed like going back in time. It was like mentally spiritually physically emotionally we’d traveled across the globe, yet being back in our apartment in Norfolk without our son, our displacement was zero.

We woke up slowly the next morning, everything hitting like a ton of bricks. We stayed inside for a couple of days I think, and when we finally went out, I remember the air felt so hot and thick and the sun was so glaring. When we left, it was March, cold. Then just like that it was July. The months in between were spent inside the hospital, so the seasons changing just eluded us, and they didn’t match up with how we felt mentally spiritually physically emotionally. It should have been late January; we should have walked out our front door into bitter cold and biting wind. Even the weather betrayed us.

In the 2 years since Benjamin died, I have felt so empty and so full all at the same time. It’s the tension between living in a fallen world and knowing Christ and sharing in His sufferings. The joy of the Lord had always been there, but before Benjamin, it was a naïve, easy sort of joy, sort of there but not realized yet. Now, it’s making real sense. Everything’s been stripped away, so much life being lived and lost in such a short time, and now I’m connected to heaven in a tangible way. Benjamin is alive and free, and I get to look forward to seeing him again. Child loss is the greatest loss from an earthly sense, and as a believer, the greatest gain from an eternal sense. I’ll never understand why he had to suffer the way he did, and maybe I’ll never find earthly peace with his pain, but I don’t think God would necessarily want me to make peace with it, because pain and suffering breaks His heart, too. Pain and suffering caused Him to sweat drops of blood as He prepared for separation from His Father in bearing the cross. I think He’d want me to remain in a place of heartbreak, actually, because that’s what keeps me in need of Him and in need of His promises. He created us with spirits and bodies, not just souls, and our spirits and bodies are precious to Him, and when they’re damaged, I think it grieves Him. I think so many of us who are used to the Western, first-world genre of Christianity are so bent on being earthly happy and living life with as minimal of sufferings as possible, that when something bad happens we want to jump right into triaging, diagnosing, bandaging up so that we can get back on the path to health and happiness. But He did not come for the healthy, but for the sick. This is great news—this is the Gospel! Because Jesus bore the wrath of God, we don’t have to—we who follow Him are free. Those of us with broken bodies and weary souls like Benjamin are free. We can be free of the longings and desires of earthly happiness, which is absolutely futile and unattainable anyway; we get to be in the business of being eternally happy.

Benjamin, I hope you’re so busy having a complete blast in Heaven and hanging out with Jesus that you’re barely even aware of this messy world you spent time in. Thank you for being willing to be used by God on this earth, your body broken and your soul suffering; for holding out your happiness for that of eternity. I can hear you saying, “It was worth it.” Well done, good and faithful servant.

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Streams of the Conscious

Here is some stream-of-conscious writing about things bouncing around in my head.

Benjamin turns 2 next month. Two seems like such a big, yet tiny, age. I could say so much more about his upcoming birthday, but I think I’ll probably be pretty quiet.

“It’s times like this that I dread, when there’s everything to say, but nothing left to be said.” –Third Eye Blind

I used to love wintertime: the holidays, it getting dark out early (I know, I’m the only one), snow (or the potential for it), staying inside and cozying up…other than running, I’ve never been much of an outdoors gal. But now that I have kids at home I can’t wait for warmer weather and brighter days to get outside and watch them watch things. Whenever they squint in the sunlight I think of how Benjamin never got to go outside; he never even got to see the sunlight through the window.

Whenever I have thoughts about things Benjamin didn’t get to do (you know, like eat or breathe on his own, is that really so much to ask?), I am brought back to heaven and the life he’s living now, of the eternal variety. I bubble over with joy for him. This does not mean I have “healed” or “moved on” or any of that sort of nonsense. Nothing can touch the pain of the life he lived and the death he died. I don’t believe the Lord wishes for us to be satisfied on this earth—I believe He wants to keep us in a place of longing for restoration, for heaven. It’s what keeps us focused on our earthly journey. This is the type of satisfaction I have, and well…I’m satisfied with it.

I eat these little granola ball things everyday, like literally every time I walk into the kitchen I grab one or two. My friend Sarah (who continues to grieve the loss of her own baby boy Andre) made a batch for me when I was pregnant and I’ve continued to make them like once a week since then. They have oats, flax, PB, chocolate chips, honey, and coconut (which I’ve since traded out for chopped pecans—a texture thing). Nursing twins burns 1,000 calories a day which means I’m having to eat more now than I did when I was pregnant in order to keep my supply up. I’m also so, so thirsty all the time. It’s a physical endeavor, for sure.

We follow Babywise for the twins which has been amazing. I know when they’re going to eat, when they’re going to nap and for how long, and they’re able to fall asleep independently from a wide-awake state. It’s so crazy because when I was pregnant with Benjamin I never read a single book about baby routines/schedules, I only ever read about CHARGE Syndrome because I really wasn’t in any way concerned with his schedule, I was concerned with his health. Now I’ve pretty much read everything there is to read about scheduled feeds, naps, and nighttime sleep, because I don’t know how anyone with twins does it otherwise. The babies still wake to eat once in the middle of the night around 4am and it’s honestly my favorite part of the day. Billy gets up with us, everyone is sleepy and calm, and the babies nurse well and sweetly go right back to sleep, as do Billy and I. I honestly hope they continue to wake to eat until they’re weaned, which is kind of a strange thing to hope for but I don’t know, I just love it and am savoring these fleeting moments.

My body has taken on a completely new shape since the twins. Four years ago I competed in (and won my division) a figure competition. I put so much effort into my nutrition and workouts and was very proud of my hard work in achieving such a physical feat. Since then, in the past 2 years I’ve been pregnant with twins, gave birth to Benjamin, then got pregnant again and carried twins full term and birthed them and am now exclusively nursing them. I’m so much prouder of my body now than I’ve ever been before, but you’d never know by looking at me that I’m a personal trainer with 10+ years of fitness experience under my belt. My humble looking body now aches with the poor posture I’ve developed from tandem nursing and hovering over 2 babies while they play on the floor. I wake up sore and stiff, not from single leg squats and chin ups, but from carrying around one baby or the other for hours each day, or from laying in awkward positions while a baby stretches out and fall asleep on me. Hashtag worth it.

I do, however, long to be able to get back into shape, not necessarily for appearances but just to simply feel strong again. Fitness will always be a big part of who I am, and even though I’m not currently regularly exercising (or bossing around other people to exercise), I can talk shop all day.

I love the family unit designed by God. I love being a stay at home mom (though many times a day I dream about what it would be like to go back to work and have a break from the chaotic monotony) and I love having a faithful husband who is the head of our family. I get to prepare our meals, keep our house in somewhat decent shape, and nurture our children while he works hard, then comes home at the end of the day ready to jump into full-on dad mode. I’m not saying this is the only way to do things, but I think it’s a beautiful way, and it’s what we’re doing for now. I do have ambitions outside of the home that I’d like to achieve one day, but this season of baby twins takes priority for our family.

To temper that sweet thought, I also struggled with postpartum depression the first few months after having the twins. It was a heaviness and anxiety I’ve never felt before, not even during the life and loss of Benjamin. That’s not to say it was worse than losing him by any means, but just different. When Benjamin was alive, his medical struggles were so unspeakably painful, but there was always the hope that he’d break through and come home. And when he died, we mourned (and continue to mourn) so deeply, but we mourn with the hope of heaven and restoration. Grief is not the same as depression, and depression not the same as grief. There is mourning with each, however. Mothering a medically fragile, special needs child who lived and died in the ICU is an extreme form of parenting. Mothering newborn twins at home is an extreme form of parenting. While both are extremely…extreme, they are also extremely different. The roller coaster of hormones from birthing two babies at once coupled with insane sleep deprivation made for some really dark days. The support of friends and family, the passage of time, and the achievement of a few hours of uninterrupted sleep allowed the fog to lift after about 3 months, and I now feel like myself again. This was the first I’d experienced of any sort of depression, and it was terrible, and I’m so glad to be on the other side of it. My heart has grown for those who aren’t yet on the other side of it, no matter what shape the depression takes, postpartum or otherwise.

I have serious mom-brain. No like for real. I do things like wash my hair twice because I can’t remember if I used shampoo before reaching for the conditioner, or removing my glasses to take my contacts out only to remember that I already took them out which is why I was wearing my glasses….

Nothing brings me back to our time in Philadelphia with Benjamin like listening to Josh Garrels. I swear when I’m listening while driving I am immediately brought back to the roads leading to and from CHOP. Music is such a powerful memory tool and I’m so glad I can link my favorite musician with my dear son’s time on this earth. I am so wistful over our time at CHOP. I so vividly remember the ins and outs of the Ronald McDonald House and the surroundings of the hospital. The faces of the doctors and nurses are forever etched in my memory. I have a harder time remembering Benjamin’s face and body; Billy does, too. I guess it’s just something grief does to you. You think you’re never going to forget how his forehead feels under your lips or how his hand feels gripping your finger…and then it’s like you just woke up from an intense dream and can’t seem to remember the details you wish you could. It’s extremely sad, actually. I mark many things in 10 weeks (the length of his life). Chase and Gemma have been alive for over 2 full lengths of Benjamin’s life.

One thing I’ll never forget, though—the feelings I felt when he was placed on my chest after being born. I have never been so overcome with joy in my entire life. I won’t even try to describe those sacred moments, but I will forever carry them, my own little secret, a memory I refer back to daily and that reminds of the beauty in this world.

Chase and Gemma are so funny and crazy. At 5 months, they’re really challenging—having both of them at the same time, that is. While nothing will compare to the debilitating exhaustion of the newborn months, I collapse onto the couch in a heap of exhaustion each evening after they’ve gone to bed, having lived a full day. I don’t know what I’d do without my mom and mother-in-law helping me on a daily basis. I thank God for them every day—the Lord’s provision. The babies are hard. The babies are amazing. The babies are feisty. The babies are fun. The babies are frustrating. The babies are magical. The babies are growing and learning so much every single day. They stretch me every day, between reflux, colic, nursing strikes, teething, bad naps, crying, crying, and more crying. They tickle me every day, between their smiles, recognition, skills, wonder, delight, and sweetness to the max. As I said earlier—every day is a full day. It’s an interesting life, mothering 3 babies, one of whom isn’t on earth and the other 2 being twins. Challenging. Rich. I have treasures in heaven and treasures on earth. Nothing is easy, but everything is worth it. In the words of one of my best friends Chelsea Anderson: Do Hard Things.

Billy and I are coming up on our 13-year dating anniversary and 8 years of marriage. Back when we were dating/first married I remember always thinking that he was so much more than the man of my dreams, because I couldn’t even dream up a guy like him. I feel that way now even more so! And I’m so excited about it because I get to spend the rest of my life with this amazing, hilarious, kind, generous, patient, calm, peaceful person. I am so excited for Chase and Gemma to get to grow up with him as a dad! It just delights me. When you lose a child (or someone close to you in general I’m sure), you kind of just think about death all the time because you’ve witnessed it in such a personal and painful way. So I think often about how if Billy dies, I would never remarry because no one could come close to his wonderfulness. On the other hand I often tell him that if I die before him, I insist he remarry because he has so much love to give and it would be a shame for no one else to experience the joy and laughter that is life with Billy.

Billy started an “If I Croak” document for me. It contains tips such as how to keep the power on so that if he dies, I’ll be able to access our accounts. I guess you could say we take death and dying very seriously, but at the same time super lightly because we know where we’re going and we’re at total peace with death. So we can talk about it and even joke about it thanks to Jesus and the treasures we have in heaven.

If I were to start an “If I Croak” document for Billy, it would contain line items such as: change Simon’s water dish and wash your sheets every now and again. Also change out your toothbrush every couple of months.

I love my family.

The Flower on the Door

When Benjamin was born in the Special Delivery Unit at The Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia, we noticed a laminated photo of a flower on the door of the room next to us. “They must have had a girl!” we said as we walked up and down the hallway, Billy dutifully pushing my IV cart as we waited for my induced labor to begin. The maternity ward was so warm and welcoming. Our room was big and cozy, and when Benjamin made his arrival, after I held him on my chest for what remains the single greatest moment of my life, he was passed through a window into a private nursery filled with 20 or so medical professionals.

Later that day, we made the trip down the hallway to the Cardiac Intensive Care Unit to visit Benjamin, our precious baby with CHARGE Syndrome. We expected him to remain there for maybe a couple of months or so as he had some surgeries lined up. Billy pushed me in the wheelchair and I wore the pink “Special Delivery Unit” robe I was given, feeling like a queen mother–so proud of my son and myself for delivering him. Once in the CICU, we couldn’t help but notice the same laminated photos of flowers sprinkled on a few closed doors. One day, curiosity got the best of us, and we asked our nurse what the flowers meant.

“You don’t want to know.”

She then proceeded to tell us that the flowers were there because the children in those rooms were dying. They were set to receive palliative care, and the medical staff knew not to enter the rooms with the flowers on the doors so as not to bother the families who were soaking up their final moments, hours, days with their dying children.

I felt a loss of innocence then. We assumed the flowers were a sweet symbol of life, and now we knew they were a sad symbol of death. From then on, every time we’d pass a closed door with a flower on it, we’d glance knowingly at each other and squeeze each other’s hands, our silent way of paying respect to the grieving families. I remember feeling equally sad, for the families about to lose their precious ones, and yet very relieved—so grateful we weren’t there. Yes, Benjamin had a long road of surgeries ahead of him, and a lifetime of living with a rare syndrome marked with serious challenges, but he wasn’t going to die. We just needed to get his heart fixed and we’d be on our way home.

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No one talked about death. The doctors, surgeons, nurses—everyone was so set on getting him better and getting us home. Every day was hard, but home was on the horizon. After particularly hard days, as we drove back to the Ronald McDonald House for the night, I’d quietly ask Billy, “Do you think he might…you know…not…make it? What will we do if he…dies?”

Die.

The word felt funny coming off of my tongue. Foreign. Icky. “He’s not going to die,” Billy would assure me. I’d nod my head. “Yeah, you’re right. I just can’t help but think…. But you’re right. He’s not going to die.”

As the days turned into weeks, and weeks turned into months, the cardiologist’s countenance began to change. “When’s” started turning into “if’s.” Days before Benjamin’s second open-heart surgery was to take place, the doctors started to have some serious conversations with us. The Palliative Care team started paying us visits, giving us a fatal alternative to surgery. The surgery came and went. His single kidney, liver, lungs, and heart began to fail. Proper pain medication wasn’t an option, as the appropriate dosage would interfere with his blood pressure. Sedatives were given to distract him from the pain. Paralytics were given to prevent him from flailing from the pain. Fluid overloaded his body so much so that he was unable to even open his swollen eyes. I was a trapped-animal of a mother, watching my son’s actual cut-apart heart beating as his too-swollen-to-close chest lay open on his hospital bed. I am still dumbfounded that the world continues to spin and clocks continue to tick.

Five impossible days later, I could almost feel the flower being taped on our door, after desperate attempts to manipulate medications and a last-ditch effort to put in a pacemaker failed. The decision had been made. Not by us, not by the doctors, but by some mysterious collision between the sovereignty of God and the brokenness of the world. The medical staff left the room, save for one somber doctor. Monitors were shut off in an attempt to provide some semblance of peace, protecting our eyes and ears from the flat line. The parasite-like flower seemed to mock us, going about its business, playing eenie-meenie-miney-mo as it landed on our door, staying for a while to take what it needed, then off to claim the lives of others.

I never thought I’d feel betrayed by a laminated picture of a flower. I never thought such a simple image could mark such devastating circumstances. I never thought one would end up on our door: The Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia, Cardiac Intensive Care Unit, 6-South, Room 6.

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Learning to Lament by Pete Greig

I want to share an excerpt from a book I’m reading.  It’s one I hadn’t heard of before, but is quickly leaving a mark on me, as I find myself wanting to highlight every other paragraph.  I think this book was given to me by divine intervention, as a series of events (read: they were out of town, we were plant-sitting, I was snooping around) caused me to pluck it off of my friends Michael and Noelle’s bookshelf.  If you’re struggling with unanswered prayer, or feeling like God is silent and not understanding why, I highly recommend you check out God on Mute by Pete Greig.  This excerpt is called “Learning to Lament.”  May we who are grieving gain acceptance from the book of Psalms, through which we’re given freedom to “shake our fist at God one moment and break into doxology the next.”

“All too often, it is the Church that creates cultures in which people feel compelled to have it all together and, therefore, to present.  In January 2005, a huge mudslide demolished 15 homes and killed 10 people in the coastal town of La Conchita, California.  The world watched their TV screens in horror as one traumatized father, Jimmie Wallet, described how he went out to buy ice-cream for his wife and three kids and returned to find his home buried under 30 feet of mud, sand and debris.

Jimmie fell to his knees in the rain, screaming the names of his children and digging in a frenzy with his bare hands and his credit card.  Rescue workers arrived, but Jimmie continued digging.  At one point, he thought he heard the cry of his two-year-old daughter, Paloma.  The mud was hardening like cement.  The workers unearthed a pink princess dress, a pair of shoes and shattered family photographs.  But it was not until 36 hours later that the lifeless bodies of Jimmie’s three children and his wife, Mechelle, were pulled from the mud.  Ten-year-old Hannah, six-year-old Raven and little Paloma appeared to have been sitting together on a sofa, no doubt waiting for ice-cream, when the house was crushed.

The neighbouring town of Ventura was still mourning when I visited a few weeks later to see my friend Greg Russinger, who was leading a church there at that time.  Greg had prepared an eloquent sermon for the Sunday after the mudslide about Abel’s blood crying out to God from the ground.  However, as he looked around at the faces of the congregation that day, it was evident to him that many people were struggling with profound questions of doubt and grief.  In that moment, Greg knew that there could be no easy platitudes.  No absolution for a so-called ‘act of God’ that kills a wife and three kids, sparing the father for the price of ice-cream.

Abandoning his sermon, Greg drew attention to the black paper with which he had covered the walls.  Next, he invited a couple of men to go out into the street and gather some dust and mud.  This was mixed with red paint, and members of the community were invited to use this blood-mud paste to express their emotions, questions and prayers all over the black paper in the sight of God.  Chaos ensued.  ‘Pain is not ordered or aesthetically pleasing,’ reflected Greg wryly.  Some people just wept.  Others could barely paint.  Children seized brushes.  Adults used their hands.  Some people didn’t participate.  Some expressed images of hope.  And all this time, the mud-blood paint just kept splattering off the paper and onto the floor, creating a mess.

At the end of this unconventional evening, a visitor thanked Greg for allowing him the opportunity to mourn, to be silent and to remain in the questions.  He also said that he had attended another church that morning where the pastor–no doubt a well-meaning man–had attempted to explain away the pain of the week’s tragedy, as if to defend God’s reputation.  The sermon, the man said, had culminated with a well-intentioned yet clumsy offering to ‘respond to the mudslides with an avalanche of financial blessing.’

Where, I wonder, is the mystery and the mess of biblical spirituality?  What place is there in our happy-clappy culture for the disturbing message of books such as Ecclesiastes, Lamentations and Job?  Where are the moments in both our private and public meetings with God when the major key turns to the minor, when the soft rock anthems pay respect to the blues, and when those top melodies of pop praise finally give way to the scattered logic of jazz?

Although more than half of the Psalms are laments to God, the vast majority of our contemporary worship songs are celebratory in tone (musically as well as lyrically), leaving little space for the expression of our deepest anxieties.  I just conducted a little analysis of the lyrical content of the modern Psalter (the official top 50 contemporary worship songs being used in American and British churches at the time of this writing).  I discovered that only 2 of these 50 songs mentions the reality of human suffering, and not a single one of them expresses doubt!

No matter what Bono says, the words of Psalm 89 would not work well in a context of congregational singing (and anyway, even when we’re hurting, it is still appropriate to praise God).  Yet it is important that we learn to lament.  Jesus Himself was overwhelmed with sorrow, wrestled and cried out to God, begged for another plan, and allowed His friends to see that this was how He felt.  Five days earlier, His shoulders had slumped, His eyes had filled with tears, and He had mourned for Jerusalem while the crowds around Him partied and praised.

Lamenting is more than a technique for venting emotion.  It is one of the fruits of a deepening spiritual life that has learned to stand naked before God without shame or pretence.  In fact, long before Gethsemane, Jesus Himself had pronounced those who mourn blessed (see Matt. 5:4)!  ‘Implicit in this statement,’ notes Walter Brueggemann, ‘is that those who do not mourn will not be comforted and those who do not face the endings will not receive the beginnings.’  Honest lament can express a vibrant faith; one that has learned to embrace life’s hardships as well as its joy and to lift everything–everything–to the Father in prayer.  As the author Richard Foster says of the Lament Psalms, ‘They give us permission to shake our fist at God one moment and break into doxology the next.'”

On Faith and Healing

One of my biggest struggles these past almost 2 years since Benjamin was diagnosed prenatally has been the struggle of praying for healing, especially the perspective of not just asking for miracles, but expecting miracles.  It’s been difficult to understand what true faith looks like while balancing the demise that comes along with the brokenness of this world and of our earthly bodies and the call to pray faithfully over those who are sick and they will be healed (James 5:14-15).  I’ve been on every side of the argument here and it’s something that fills my mind on a very frequent basis because it’s so pertinent to every human’s life, as we will all, at some point, physically suffer or watch a loved one do so.

So how should we approach God when we’re faced with sickness or disease?  What should our attitudes be?  While He is definitely the one to have the final say here, there are some important truths He’s revealed to me via my own experience and other’s.  I am still developing and growing in what His desire is for us, but I’d like to record some of what I’ve learned so far.

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  • How should we pray when asking Him for action?  We have a perfect example in the Gospels when we read about how Jesus taught His followers to pray.  The Lord’s prayer tells us to pray “Your kingdom come, Your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.”  I’ve meditated and studied and sought council on what Jesus had in mind for us when He taught us to pray this way.  It sounds like such a simple phrase, one that we can all probably recite without even thinking, but what are we really asking for when we pray this prayer?  I feel that by praying this, we are first asking for God to bring His kingdom here on earth.  What is God’s kingdom?  That’s a loaded question, but ultimately I believe it entails God as our King, ruling over us, His people.  All of us joined together, worshiping and praising Him, “on earth as it is in heaven.”  The “in heaven” part gives us allowance to pray for healing, because in heaven we will all be healed and whole, so we are encouraged by Jesus to pray for healing on earth as it is in heaven, but ultimately keeping in mind that the kingdom of God is one such that He is ruler over all–that it’s about Him and His kingdom, not us and our wants/needs.  I’ve tended to think that praying “Your kingdom come” and “Your will be done” as almost conflicting requests (“God, we want this thing to happen, but ultimately we ask for You to do Your will”).  But maybe the two requests are more in line with each other than I used to think (“God, we ask for Your kingdom to come and Your will to be done”).  Not a but, but an and.  We ask for all people to come together under His reign, healed and whole, on earth as in heaven, and we ask for this to happen when and how He wills it to (not on our timeline or for our safety or comfort, but for His glory).  May we understand that His will for us on earth may look very different concerning our physical states than it does in heaven when we will be made whole, both spiritually and physically.  I know there are plenty of other interpretations of this passage, and I’m no Bible scholar, but I do have the Holy Spirit residing in me and I have found peace with this passage to where I no longer feel divided, confused, or doubtful when I pray the Lord’s prayer.  I found this resource with more scripture references on the kingdom of God that are in line with what the Spirit revealed to me.
  • Should we always pray for healing?  If we don’t pray for healing first and foremost, is it a cop out or a sign of lack of faith?  Nancy Guthrie answers this question with a beautiful perspective of her own example.  She has an essay in her book “Holding On To Hope” where she talks about how after losing her first child to genetic disease, and then getting the news that her second child would also die young due to the same disease, that she and her husband didn’t pray for healing, that they didn’t feel led to pray that way (she admits that this may have been out of fear). She talks a lot about submission and says, “I know that it has been difficult for many people around us to understand why we have not cried out to heaven for healing. Is it because we think that it is too hard for God? Absolutely not. God can do anything. Often, I see the body of Christ put so much into pursuing God for healing. With great boldness and passion and persistence, we cry out to God, begging for physical healing. And in these prayers, there is often a tiny P.S. added at the end where we say, ‘If it be your will.’ But shouldn’t we switch it around? Shouldn’t we cry out to God with boldness and passion and persistence in a prayer that says, ‘God, would you please accomplish your will? Would you give me a willing heart to embrace your plan and your purpose? Would you mold me into a vessel that you can use to accomplish what you have in mind?’ And then, perhaps, we could add a tiny P.S. that says, ‘If that includes healing, we will be grateful.'”  !!!  Does this perspective excite anyone else?  Reading this was like a breath of fresh air to me.  I shared this passage on my friend Sarah’s podcast earlier this year, but I felt such freedom when I started to meditate on this humble, respectful, glorifying perspective of approaching God for healing requests.  As I told Sarah, I feel taking this approach is so much kinder to ourselves—and to God. I think it’s kinder to God because God doesn’t want to watch his children endure broken hearts when we don’t get what we want. I don’t think He takes pleasure in teaching us hard lessons—I think it’s hard for Him, too—we see that all through scripture, from the Israelites wandering in the desert to the struggles of His disciples. So I think it’s kinder/more respectful to God if we adapt the perspective of praying first, foremost, and eagerly for His will to be done.  Not just throwing it out there so we can check it off the list.  And I think it’s kinder to ourselves, a way of almost protecting our hearts from putting God to the test—it’s so easy to tell God that because He can heal, that He better heal.  It’s a fine line between belief and manipulation.  I truly don’t think we had manipulative intentions when we prayed for healing for Benjamin.  We prayed for healing with every cell in our bodies—and I think that’s OK to do, because we have freedom to approach His throne with confidence, and as children of God, we are welcome to ask our Father for healing.  But for me, it was a long way to fall when the healing didn’t come.  I felt betrayed, confused, angry…I still do in many ways.  What if instead of putting so much energy into pleading for healing, I had prayed for the Lord to have His way, and to give us strength to battle through whatever that looked like…would it have been easier to accept Benjamin’s suffering? Would it have been easier to surrender?  Regardless, I think the Lord is glorified in the fight to choose to surrender, to submit to His will, even if it’s an ugly fight. But I do think it would have been kinder to my heart if I had switched my prayer focus during Benjamin’s life.
  • But does choosing to not put our main focus on praying for earthly healing imply a weakness of faith or disbelief in what the Lord is capable of?  The same author I mentioned earlier, Nancy Guthrie, says this in her book “Hearing Jesus Speak into Your Sorrow:”  “What we need most is not to hear God say yes to our requests.  What we need is to be filled with such deep confidence in the character of our Father that when he says no, we know he is doing what is right and good for us.  What we need most is the faith to trust him.  Some claim that strong faith is defined by throwing our energies into begging God for a miracle that will take away our suffering and then believing without doubting that he will do it.  But faith is not measured by our ability to manipulate God to get what we want; it is measured by our willingness to submit to what he wants.  It takes great faith to say to God, ‘Even if you don’t heal me or the one I love, even if you don’t change my circumstances, even if you don’t restore this relationship, even if you allow me to lose what is most precious to me, I will still love you and obey you and believe that you are good.  And I believe that you, as my loving Father, will use everything in my life–even the hard and hurtful things–for my ultimate good and your eternal glory, because you love me.’  As we bring our wants and pour them out before our Father, he gives us the courage we need to surrender, so we can say along with Jesus, ‘I want your will to be done, not mine.’  And he gives us the grace we need to say it–not through gritted teeth, but with open hands.”  Wow.  Amen.  I think the whole gritted teeth/open hands things may be a lifelong struggle for me, but I love the encouragement that faith may shine beautifully through surrender, even/especially when we feel we may spontaneously combust because we want Him to act a certain way so badly.  Here is another great resource for why the Lord doesn’t always heal everybody and some encouraging instances in scripture where healing doesn’t happen (I know it sounds strange that God not healing provides encouragement, but having lost my precious treasure, it really does encourage me that not everyone in the Bible who followed after Christ/prayed for healing was healed).

Lord, may we follow after your example in the Garden of Gethsemane the night before You died, to have the freedom to ask You to deliver us from our sufferings, but more than that, like Jesus, to have the faith to trust in Your will above and beyond all else. “My Father, if it is possible, may this cup be taken from me. Yet not as I will, but as you will.”

On Grief and Pregnancy

I am 31 weeks pregnant with twins.

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Their two sweet heads
I never thought I’d be typing that sentence, and as I read it over and over I’m filled with so many emotions.  That one sentence alone speaks thousands of words, many chapters filled with twists and conflicts, climaxes with no resolutions to settle the reader (myself).  In many ways I feel like a mere reader, letting the pages flip over me as I stand there dumbfounded, jaw dropped, waiting for some sense to be made of it all.  It often feels written in another language, causing me to somedays struggle through translation, and other days to want to close the book and say this one was clearly not meant for me.  But as I get to know the characters more and more–I am compelled to keep reading, to keep learning this other language, to keep wanting to tear the pages out in frustration and ball them up and throw them against the room, only then to rush over and straighten out the crinkles and tape the binding back together.  Because even the pages I can’t bring myself to re-read are a part of this gripping tale, and without them, there would be little depth or substance to this story of my life.

“I am 31 weeks pregnant with twins.”  I was supposed to have written those words two years ago when I got to carry twins for two months.  Then, I was supposed to not have written those words for a very long time, if ever, because last year I had Benjamin, and we wouldn’t have been ready to try for another child yet.  Me writing those words is evidence that neither the first twins, nor Benjamin, are here on this earth for me to parent and care for.  Yet the words are written, and they’re true, and that’s that.

You can see how it’s not so easy for me to muster up a smile every time someone asks me how excited I am.  Actually, that’s not really true, I can smile and laugh and be joyful and grateful–but I can’t eliminate the other emotions that come along with the “good” ones.  I can’t smile about these two new little ones without also reflecting on the constant ache in my heart for the ones that have gone before them, especially the one who went before them last year, because he wasn’t a miscarriage, he was a person, someone who was born, lived, suffered, and died, and all right in front of my eyes, his first and last breaths in my arms.  So I’m not afraid to admit I miss him the most and I grieve him the most.  The other souls went straight to be with the Lord.  Benjamin’s soul was here on earth for 10 weeks, ministered to us in a way no person who could ever speak could, was trapped in his earthly body, and went through the fire, experiencing hell on earth before experiencing the redemption of heaven.  And that is something to respect and to acknowledge, and I’ll keep respecting it and keep acknowledging it with fierce, motherly passion until the day I get to experience the redemption of heaven myself.

Okay.  Back to the twins!  I simply cannot adequately express my emotions over these two new littles ones.  I am overflowing with joy and excitement that I get to welcome not one, but two babies next month.  The shock hasn’t quite worn off from when we found out at week 9, and I don’t think it will wear off for quite some time after they’re born.  My daily thoughts spring back and forth between Benjamin and “two babies.  I have two babies in me.  Twins.  We’re having twins (insert X-s for eyes, open-mouthed emoji here).”  The fact of it was so abstract before, when I couldn’t feel them yet and my belly didn’t reflect their presence, but now I’m reminded 100% of the time–I never forget that I’m carrying them.  They make themselves known through their kicks and hiccups, and of course through my ever growing belly, complete with aches and pains (which is an honor.  Even when I complain about it it’s an honor).

Here are some of my reflections as this pregnancy winds down:

  • Adding on, not replacing.  It goes without saying, but I’ll say it anyway: Benjamin can never, and will never, be replaced.  While that was never a question in my mind, I’ve actually had loads of comments that have alluded to these twins replacing him, some even flat out labeling them as replacements.  I mean this as sensitively as possible, but to put it in other terms, it’s as if saying that when someone’s spouse dies, and the living spouse re-marries, that the new spouse is a replacement for the one that passed.  No one would dare to speak those words, dripping with disrespect, well-intentioned or not.  To imply that a subsequent child(ren) is a replacement for a deceased child is not only disrespectful for the deceased, as if they were some stock character that can simply be replaced, but also disrespectful for the new child(ren), implying that they are now to “fill the shoes” of the one that has gone before them, that their role is to now satisfy the empty seat at the table.  No.  A child who has died is just as much a part of the family as the rest of the family members.  Though they are no longer living on earth, they are thought about, considered, missed, loved, and just as important as any other family member, and their place at the table is still taken.  These twins will be just as loved as Benjamin, though the love may look differently, and Benjamin will continue to be just as loved as these twins, though the love may look differently.
  • Surrender.  These twins are not for me.  They’re not coming here to complete our family or satisfy us.  Yes, they will fill our empty arms, and that is a gift, but it’s not the reason they’re entering this world.  They’re going to be born because God wants them on this earth.  They’re going to be born to us because God wants to use us to steward and shepherd them.  And we will be grateful for the satisfaction, joy, frustration, laughter, and tears they bring, because all of those things are signs of life.  And life is beautiful and short and painful and meant to be lived.  But we do not have the right to hold onto the lives of these little people with an iron grip, claiming them as our property, when the reality is that just like Benjamin, these children are God’s children, and in order to live into the freedom God has gifted us with, we need to hold them with hands open toward heaven.  If we really lived into that surrender, how grateful would that make our hearts for the gifts we receive?  How glorifying would that be for the Giver of all good things?  I am positive that living this out will be a minute by minute battle, just as it still is with turning Benjamin over to Him (while it happened physically, I don’t know that it will ever happen emotionally or spiritually, though I will keep fighting to make myself available to the Holy Spirit to surrender him).
  • Health.  What to say about it?  Benjamin had bad health.  Really bad health.  The twins appear to have great health.  I am grateful for their health.  Should I be so glad for their good health?  Does being excited for their good health mean I turn up my nose at Benjamin’s bad health?  I don’t think this is something anyone can understand unless they’ve had a child with bad health.  It sounds really simple, but it’s actually very complicated.  With every good ultrasound report, my ability to rejoice over their physical capabilities gets a little more clouded over as I lament over Benjamin’s lack thereof.  His lack of an aortic arch.  His lack of a fourth heart chamber.  His lack of proper heart valves.  His lack of a second kidney.  His (probable) lack of hearing and his (expected, though thankfully not actually) lack of eyesight.  How can I respect all that he lacked, which made him all the more beautiful and precious, while simultaneously being glad over all that the twins have?  I can, and I do, both respect and rejoice, but it’s challenging and confusing.
  • Control.  I like it.  I’m a type-A person, and as much as I’d like to come across as a go with the flow, laid back, flexible person, I’m just not.  I like to be in the know, involved, researched and ready.  When I lost Benjamin, I figured we’d have a second child, one that I could pour myself into 100%, making sure their every want and need was swiftly met.  I’m not an idiot–I know there will always be trials and hardships with raising a child, even a child without disabilities–but I dream of being able to feed my child when they’re hungry, pick them up when they’re needy, soothe them when they’re fussy.  The typical baby stuff I didn’t get to do with Benjamin–ever.  I wanted/want nothing more than to provide for the physiological and emotional needs of my children.  I thought of how easy it would be to meet those needs, at least on a basic level, with one baby.  And then I found out we were having two babies at once, and I quickly realized that I’m not going to be able to meet their immediate needs all of the time, at least not in the way I want to.  I will always have to choose one to go first, and the other one will have to be left waiting, and that bothers me.  It would probably bother me no matter what, but after already not being able to satisfy Benjamin’s needs, it’s going to hurt all the more to have to make one of them wait, especially during the early days when they’re too young to understand why they must wait.

Above all else, my primary reflection is thanksgiving.  Sometimes my thanksgiving looks like worry and fear, sometimes it looks like laughter and gladness, sometimes it looks like numbness and denial, sometimes it looks like blessings and praise.  At the root of it all, I am thankful.  I’m thankful that we got to bring precious Benjamin into this world and (trying to be) thankful that we got to hold him as he was ushered into heaven.  I’m thankful we got to get pregnant again and thankful it resulted in two more babies.  I’m thankful we get to parent them for as long as their/our earthly journey allows us.  I’m thankful that this earthly journey is just that–a journey, and not our ultimate destination, not even our home.  I’m thankful to serve a God who is kind enough to prepare places for us in heaven, and who will make a new earth one day in the future; who’s kind enough to let us choose and not create us as robots to serve Him against our will, but that He gives us the space to decide for ourselves whether we’d like to follow Him and receive the promise of eternity with Him.  I’m thankful for His earthly blessings which make us smile and His allowance of earthly sufferings which make us sanctified, but most of all I’m thankful for His eternal promises and the guarantee that one day, what is now known by faith, will soon be known by sight.