Letting Go Of A Dream

Letting Go Of A Dream

Have you ever found yourself facing the unfulfilled end of a long-held, soul-rooted dream? That’s what I’ve been doing for the past year. Specifically, I’ve been wrestling with my unfulfilled dream to be a mom. It seems divinely appointed that I come to let this dream go during the season of Lent. I’m comforted in the fact that I am not the first one to make a difficult sacrifice.

There’s a lot of quiet in my life, especially in the evenings. I’m a homebody who doesn’t often fill my free hours with the noise and distraction of TV. The more quiet you allow in your life, it seems the less you are able to avoid what’s happening in your heart.

In my evenings this past year, I’ve faced the aching reality of the loss of my foster daughter, the disintegration of my hope to adopt, and with them, the collapse of my dream to be a mom. God, it’s been painful! And so important.

All the wrestling has allowed me to get to a place of resolution. I know I need to leave this dream behind, and I’m ready to, but it won’t be easy because wanting to be a mom is such a big, beautiful dream.

When I was a young girl thinking of my future, I always pictured myself as a mom. In fact, I never imagined a future in which mothering wasn’t a main feature of my story. If you asked me at ages 8, 11, and 14 what I wanted to be when I grew up, I would have told you quite sincerely that I wanted to be a mom. That’s it. Just a mom.

with baby Katie Crossman

That’s me as a tween with my baby cousin Katie

Everything about me being a mom makes sense. Children delight me. How other people get embarrassingly enthusiastic about sports, gush over classic cars, or blather about their favorite video game — that’s how I get about spending time with kids.

Anytime I get to snuggle a baby, I call it therapy; it fills me to the brim with joy. One of my favorite activities is to read aloud to kids, especially if I can jazz up the stories with fun accents. When I was a pastor at a large church, parents would often pass me their kids while they dashed off to use the restroom, grab coffee, or have adult conversation. Sure, it’s a sign that I’m trustworthy, but these parents also knew I would enjoy hanging out with their kids and would never find it an inconvenience.

I’ve been caring for other people’s kids since I was a kid. I was the youngest nursery worker at our church, drafted when I was just 11. In my early teen years, I spent more time minding the neighbor kids on weekends than their parents did.

auntie loves me

Looking back at my life, I realize that I’ve been mothering all along. I care deeply for my nieces and nephews and for my friends’ kids. They all call me Aunt Coco.

It matters to me the kind of influence I have on the children in my life. The kind of love and affirmation I give them. The fact that I can teach them to laugh loudly, to be caring and empathetic, to be courageous and adventurous, and most of all, to be kind to themselves.

Yes, I was a foster mom — and that is being a mother in the fullest sense of the word — but it was temporary. I had hoped fostering would lead to adoption. For years, I made choices and sacrifices to make that dream a reality. Fostering exposed my depths and limitations, and taught me exactly what it takes to be a single parent of a child who has experienced trauma. I discovered that I don’t have the emotional reserves to do ministry professionally only to come home and do even more intense ministry at home. So, after a lot of prayer, reflection, and conversation with trusted friends, I’ve concluded that it’s best to turn away from this option.

“But Corrie,” you might say, “you aren’t decrepit! You are still young enough to have your own child.” And yes, while it’s technically true that I’m still of “childbearing age,” I’m also well into what they call “advanced maternal age,” which comes with its own catalog of risks. There’s no guarantee that I’ll marry, and even if I did, that my spouse would want kids, or that my reproductive system works. Sure, there are medically-assisted ways to become a mother, and paths to adoption other than the foster system, but those aren’t things I can or want to pursue.

Rejected options, dead ends, and diminishing paths brought me to a place of wrestling. I’ve asked myself, God, the world — what options remain? What more am I willing to give or to sacrifice to realize this dream? How far, and for how long, am I willing to stretch the endurance of my soul in pursuit of being a mom?

There is a cost to our souls when we pursue our dreams.

Think of athletes who, for years, train their bodies and minds toward the achievement of a big dream: complete a ultra-marathon, swim the English Channel, break a record, win a medal, summit Everest, be named among The Greats. Imagine all of the time, money, energy, and heart, not to mention the injuries and rehabilitation they likely put into reaching their goal. We understand that in order to reach these big dreams, training becomes their job, almost their whole lives.

Big life dreams can become too big, larger than life. Sometimes what they require of us becomes unsustainable and we crumble under the weight. Or, our dreams can grow too big too fast, spreading like weeds, choking the other sources of life that surround us. Dreams can deplete us. Constant striving, all this emphasis on pushing ourselves, can cause injury and damage to our bodies, our minds, and our spirits.

The danger of big dreams is that they can eclipse everything else about us. We can get lost in them.

If a dream, and your journey towards it, becomes your largest identity marker, what will you do after you’ve achieved your dream?

Or, what would happen if somehow your dream was suddenly taken away from you? Imagine there is some circumstance beyond your control and you can no longer go for your dream. What would you do then?

Reaching these craggy, shadowed places means grappling with these questions:

Who am I without this dream?
What will I suffer if I lose this dream?
How will I cope?
How will I grieve?
What will it look like to recover?
How will I rediscover who I am beyond my dream?
How will I detangle myself from its tentacles?
And once I do, will I like the me that remains?

There is a cost to our dreams.

I have a friend that got married much later in life. We lived in the same town for a few years when she was still single and I learned very quickly that her greatest dream was to be married. Wherever we went, whatever we were doing, she would talk about this dream.

Now, there’s nothing wrong with wanting to get married and looking forward to married life, but I often felt a little concerned for her. When we would meet up to go out she would talk about how long it took her to choose her outfit or how presentable she was because, she would say, “you never know when and where you will meet your spouse.”

My friend lived with such laser-focused hope — she was so some-day-focused, so saturated by her dream — that she seemed to devalue herself in the present. She lived leaning forward, always in a state of wanting something else, wanting more, always waiting. She was waiting for marriage to fill out her life, to define or redefine her, but she didn’t seem to realize that she was already well-defined.

There is a cost to our dreams.

I’m grateful for my life as it is and as it has been. Frankly, it’s been downright gorgeous: a vibrantly bloomed garden of rich relationships and experiences. There is such deep value in being a daughter, a sister, an aunt, a cousin, a friend, and a pastor. I am completely fulfilled by these things. I’m in no way less than, nor lacking in dignity or maturity, because I am unmarried and childless. I faced those demons of insecurity a decade ago. I just also hoped to have a child to call my own and to love for life.

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With my nephews and nieces in 2015

Being a mother, getting delightfully messy in the art of mothering, is a dream I cherished for so long. But now, for my heart health, for the good of my soul — to live as fully and freely as possible into the me that I am right here and now — I need to let go of this dream.

I’ll keep mothering as Aunt Coco. I’ll keep rocking babies, reading stories, coloring with crayons, playing in parks, and showing up to soccer games. But to my dream to be mom, I’m saying goodbye. To this dream, I say:

You are a beautiful dream, so worthy of having been dreamed.

You made me a better person because, for years, you stretched me toward a very good thing. You helped me be optimistic as I imagined and believed that I would one day care for a child.

You taught me to be brave, because bravery is exactly what I needed to follow the call to foster as a single parent — a scary, and some would say, crazy idea. You taught me patience as I waited years before the time was right to foster. You taught me to pray boldly for a two bedroom home I could afford. Through that long-shot prayer, you showed me that miracles do happen; you expanded my faith. And for six months, you gave me a precious soul to nurture.

I gave you my whole heart, and I am so thankful I did.

But now, dear dream, I’m going to let you go. I set you aside with warm and sincere gratitude, so I can focus on being exactly who I am, as I am.

Thank you. You are good and you blessed me.

dandelion lawn

I read on a gardening website that dandelions, if left undisturbed, can grow roots 15 feet deep. I guess that’s why, when you yank them and only break their stems, a new flower sprouts quickly in the same place.

My hope to be a mom was rooted as deeply as a dandelion, but I want the freedom to plant something else in its place. So, I had to dig deep and extract this dream at its root.

I haven’t made this decision lightly, or as an escape from my pain. I’ve wrestled with it. I’ve waded through the pain to get to this place. I’ve cried confused tears, angry tears, and sorrowful tears. I’ve prayed confused, lamenting, and sorrowful prayers. All this has tumbled around in me and finally settled in my soul.

The pain, angst, and grief have loosened and fallen away. Now there is relief and a welcome peace. Yes, there’s still occasional sadness. There probably will be for years. But I imagine the sadness will fade and transform into a simple, cherished memory of a sweet dream.

I’m okay to let my dream go. I’m ready. I will be healthy and happy without being a mom the way that I hoped. I already am.

Now, my prayers have turned to hope for new, unimagined, good things.

Dandelions are prolific. It’s part of their design. They easily spread themselves around until they blanket our lawns with their cheerful yellow caps. But I think they are at their most beautiful when they’ve transformed into seed heads. One yellow flower can produce up to 170 seeds. Those delicate white parachutes gracefully dance away on the breeze, off to spread their cheer in new places. They fall on new ground, shoot out new roots, and spring up into new life.

Dreams, when given away, allow for the birth of new dreams. I look forward to my post-Lenten, spring bloom.

Fly away dandelion

On Crying in Meetings

I confess. I have cried in professional meetings. Many times. In fact, three weeks ago in a meeting I cried so hard that I could barely speak.

A few things to keep in mind. First, I work in ministry. I’m not a PepsiCo executive sitting at a boardroom table crying over shrinking distribution numbers or a software engineer suddenly overcome with emotion because I screwed up a line of code.

Also, I’m not much of a crier in general even though my maternal family is full of criers. My grandpa can never make it through the dinner prayer if any of his grandkids are at the table. My mom has been known to cry during commercials and in restaurants. I may be equally tenderhearted, but I probably cry (the kind with tears sliding down my face) less than ten times a year.

So when I cry, it means something. My soul is engaged. Something I deeply care about is being probed.

As a pastor, I work both with people and for people, as an advocate. I regularly step into messy situations and respond to raw emotions. In 15 years of ministry, I’ve witnessed premeditated acts of hate and their aftermath. I’ve been a first responder to traumatic events like attempted sexual assault. I’ve been the person who showed up in the middle of the night, took the bottle of Advil out of shaking hands, and called for help. In my office, people process some of their most intense experiences — the effects of abuse, the loss of a loved one, rejection, mental illness, loss of faith, suicidal thoughts, and sexual issues.

This is not the kind of work you can do well and remain untouched. You can have great boundaries in ministry and still need to cry. Sometimes tears are the only way to expunge some of the toxins you’ve been exposed to.

My dearest hope is that my “work” reflects the deep love that God has for each and every human being. Since I ultimately serve God, it’s important to me that I strive for excellence in my work. I exercise best practices in counseling. I attend conferences for professional development. I read new research and consult the works of experts in the many fields that affect Biblical studies, ministry, and theology. I believe that ethics are as important to a ministry environment as they are to any other work setting. All that to say, I’m a professional. I try to be the best professional I can be.

But I still cry in meetings.

As a Christian pastor, the Bible is the most important book in my life. I believe its pages tell the story of God’s love for all people and reveal God’s plan of redemption for broken individuals. In a world that is slowly but painfully wasting away, I believe that the message of Jesus is the greatest news. His words are hope for the disillusioned and for aimless wanderers. They are a fresh breath of life for the suffering, the oppressed, and the depressed. They’re a warm light for all the people forgotten in the dark or dirty corners of our streets. God’s story and his life-giving words are precious to me.

Because I love God and his word so dearly, it can be tough to live in a pluralistic society that denigrates the church, the Bible, and the people who worship one God exclusively. Sometimes that makes me cry.

But I think it’s far more painful to be a Christian among other Christians. It’s disheartening to sit down with your spiritual family, to read the Bible together, and to have such divergent views of the same text. This is a book we all revere and cherish because it’s God’s. We are all sincere and loving, and we serve God well in our unique ways. We even love each other. So it doesn’t feel good when we disagree. It hurts to see smirks or eyes roll as someone shares their opinion. It’s painful when people make light of topics or passages that impact other people every day. It’s dismaying when we see each other’s blindnesses but we can’t find a way to gently expose them.

So this month I cried in a meeting.

But no matter who I am with when I cry in meetings, I usually walk away feeling a little embarrassed. Our culture isn’t very welcoming to public displays of emotion, is it? We’re even less accepting of emotions in the workplace. There’s an unspoken belief that strong emotions are a sign of immaturity, or weakness, or irrationality, or overreaction, or instability, or of (said in a hushed tone) being hormonal. And those things don’t fit the excellent or professional persona, so tears are generally unacceptable at the office. Instead, our culture champions clear logic, precise speech, and undisturbed rationality.

After I cry during a meeting, I worry that people think less of me. That they will regard me like a whiny puppy who just needs a pat on the head to be quieted. And I hate thinking that my tears may make others disregard my words altogether.

But here are some things that I believe are true about emotions. All human beings have them. We all have a wide range of emotions that we can experience: from rage to sorrow to utter joy. I believe God designed us this way. It’s we humans who choose to either express or suppress our emotions. Which way is healthier?

I also believe that God gave us brains capable of keen intellect, logic, and impressive creativity. The same brain that houses these things also houses our emotions. We are all both rational and emotional beings. Both things make us human. Both reflect the image of God.

So why is laughter safe and respectable in a meeting, but tears are not? Why do we prize rationality but look askance when people express their emotions? And why do we always talk about rationality and emotions like they are the opposite ends of a spectrum? They may be closer together than we think. We might be wise to consider that they are linked.

There have been times in meetings when I was crying and thinking clear thoughts at the same time. Imagine that! Now, sometimes it is hard to verbally articulate my thoughts amid the stirring emotions, but that doesn’t mean I am just a puddle of messy feelings. My identity is not reduced. Instead, what you are witnessing is a powerful moment of realization, something deeply true that finally crystallizes, or a strongly held belief that’s been triggered. Such moments are rarely emotionless.

When I cry in a meeting it’s because my mind is engaged. In these moments I am, perhaps, more fully human because I’m experiencing and expressing thought and emotion at the same time. My brain is firing on all cylinders. You may think it looks messy, but maybe you could learn to see the beauty too.

When I cry, I hope you will learn to read my tears. This is what my tears might say — this is a very important topic to me. What we are talking about has very real implications for me, or for you, or for people who we love. That thing you just said? It was either deeply true or it missed the marked, but it certainly moved me to respond. Sometimes my tears say that I’m grieving. Sometimes they say that you’ve caused me pain. Emotions are a language all their own.

So rather than avoiding eye contact or patting me on the head, would you offer me an equally human response? When you see my tears, would you sit up and pay better attention? Would you consider, or even ask, what my tears are saying? Would you be patient if it takes me time to get the words out? And would you offer me more compassion than I’ve come to expect, and not think less of me?

I cry during meetings. When I was a young professional I would apologize profusely, swipe away the tears, and try to tamp down my emotions. I rarely do that anymore. I’ve learned to be kind to myself and to not be ashamed of being a human being who feels. I’ve come to accept that this is just a part of who I am.

I love and serve a God who grieves when his people suffer, and when they wander far from him. I think my tears are often a reflection of the heart of God. 

When I cry, when I express any emotion, I’m being human. I’m resisting the tight bindings of cultural norms because there are just some things that need to be expressed. Triumphs and tragedies call us to respond. I want to be the kind of person who listens and responds well to the needs of the world around me. I hope my tears invite others to be and do the same.

I cry in meetings. If my tears make you uncomfortable, so be it. I’m being real. I probably won’t stop any time soon. And we might all be better for it.

A Good Friday Lament for Child Loss and Childlessness

Good Friday is a day for difficult reflection. It’s a day we remember a tragic death. We remember that Jesus hung on a cross to die for the sins of the world.

This year I was asked by a neighboring pastor to lead a Good Friday service for his church. It was a unique request–could I lead a service of lament and remembrance for those who have suffered miscarriage or infertility? As we talked, prayed and planned, we decided to expand the service to minister to anyone who has experienced any kind of child loss or childlessness: infertility, miscarriage, stillbirth, SIDS, failed surrogacy or adoption, abortion, or any other circumstance.

As a former hospital chaplain assigned to the high-risk pregnancy and neonatal intensive care units, I had an idea where to begin. As an aunt to two miscarried babies, I knew something of the sensitivity needed.

So we began with lament. We set our pain and grief before God through corporate readings and song. We prayed and poured out our hearts before the Lord.

From there we moved into acts of remembrance and healing. We lit 41 candles for children lost or hoped for. I anointed sisters and brothers with oil for healing of body and spirit. We went to the communion table and received Christ’s body and blood so that God would sustain us as we heal, and wait, and hope.

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Then we let Jesus’ words minister to us through Lectio Divina:

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

I wrote a prayer of response to this whole movement of souls:

Jesus Christ, Son of God who hung upon the cross in agony—
Remember our suffering, sorrow, and loss.
Help us come to you when we want to run and hide.
Replace this heavy yoke of grief with one that is kind and easier to carry;
We need your holy rest.

Living and eternal Savior,
Heal and restore us.
Gently teach us how to live with joy.
Resurrect our hope that you are good at all times and in every way.
Supply the resilience we need to live in broken bodies and a broken world, until you
Come and make all things new.


Too often the church remains silent about the pain and grief we experience because it make us (pastors) uncomfortable. Or, we tell ourselves, that the plans we have for our services and sermons can’t be interrupted. But child loss and childlessness burdens too many people for the church to ignore this pain.

1 out of every 10 couples experience infertility.

At least 1 in 4 women will experience a miscarriage in her lifetime.

God lost his one and only son to death.

The church should be a safe place to cry out our every pain and suffering. A place to weep. A place where we give ourselves over to the mysterious, healing work of the Holy Spirit. A place where we stretch our empty arms toward the God who knows our loss.

So tonight a small branch of the church gathered. Tonight we cried out like God’s people have done for centuries. We sat in the quiet–waiting, listening–and expecting that God was at work in us.

At the end of this Good Friday, we left candles burning before the cross and went home knowing that God heard our prayers.

May resurrection and new life come soon.

Missing is Good

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Photo by Greg Rakozy

I miss singing with a choir. The heat of bodies standing close. That gently gathered breath before the first note. The intensity of listening to others. Voices jabbing notes, caressing others. The intricacies of rhythm, of adjusting tone, shape, and volume to let the music tell its story. The dance of the conductor. The hush after the last note.

I miss acting. Bringing story to life through speech and silence, movement and stillness, light and fabric and color. This grown-up version of pretend is a dazzling work of imagination, play, experimentation, planning, and instinct. Oh, the nerves that made me pace and cough before a performance! The buzz in my ears and fingertips and toes when I stepped onto stage. The pride of captivating an audience and using their energy to fuel a palpable art. The satisfaction of hanging up your costume and turning off the lights for the night. The eagerness to do the same thing tomorrow.

I miss playing euchre with Midwesterners. The long, cold winters that forced us into one another’s homes for an evening of cards and laughter. The elaborate table talk my mother and her best friend developed over years of teaming up against their husbands. The house rules that were debated and haggled over at each new table. Even when you lost a match you made a friend, because that’s how Midwesterners roll.

I miss holding baby nieces and nephews. The trembling newness of being an aunt. Of being part of a tribe to welcome little ones into the world. Making my littles laugh. Joining their babble. Kissing fat cheeks and singing them to sleep. The joy of handing them to their parents when a diaper needed changing. Chubby hands curled around my fingers as they toddled. Reading and writing them stories to grow on.

I miss living in Hawaii. The sweet smell of my morning walk to work. The chill of afternoon rain falling from cloudless indigo skies. And then the majestically puffy cloud ranges. The brilliantly green geckos. Church potlucks, a revolutionary fusion of pan-Asian Polynesian dishes and SPAM. Chickens crossing the road. Waves crossing the road. Courteous, unhurried driving. Living the aloha way.

I miss summer nights in Ohio. The cricket symphony. Chasing the glow of fireflies with neighbor kids. Driving down country roads with my brother, the windows down, our arms sticking out and slicing through the wind like plane wings.

I miss living two buildings away from my best friend.

I miss a lot of things. So much has come and gone in my life, but I’m not sad. I’m not wallowing or wishing for something else.

Missing things is fine. It’s healthy. It reminds me that I’ve experienced so much of life’s utter beauty. I’ve witnessed. I’ve noticed. I’ve grasped. I’ve risked. I’ve joined. I’ve welcomed.

Missing is goodness that moves you.

Missing is not the same as regret. It notices change and acknowledges loss. Sometimes missing aches, but it isn’t always painful. Missing does not judge the things that fill my life now. It doesn’t look at the differences between now and then and say — if only. It says instead — how rich!

Sometimes, like tonight, missing things is an invitation. A whispered gift.

Maybe missing things matures our thanksgiving. It’s easy to be thankful for what we have and hold dear now. It’s more to be thankful for the things we used to have, experiences we can’t relive, people we’ve said goodbye to, and moments that will never shine the same way twice.

When we miss, but live happily, curiously, and hopefully — then missing is an act of worship.

 

The Break

This spring I was working very part-time at a church while I continued a multi-year search for a full-time, permanent position. I was strapped for cash and hope. As I marked my 250th job application, I felt overlooked and frustrated.

The waiting was the hardest part of those years. For all of the hours I spent searching the internet, applying for jobs, and praying, I spent hundreds more waiting. I learned then that waiting can deplete energy faster than any other activity.

As the waiting stretched on, I began to feel diminished. I joked more than once that I was experiencing brain atrophy, but I wasn’t laughing. I was so emotionally exhausted that sometimes I lost my train of thought and stopped in the middle of a sentence. The worst thing in all of this was feeling like I’d lost touch with the vibrant person I am.

Last winter, during the miserable waiting, I went on a spiritual retreat and spent an hour slowly walking a labyrinth. The path was shaped by mismatched rocks on top of sparse Arizona earth. I was so focused on the rhythm of my steps and my prayers, that I missed most of my surroundings. But then, there was a moment when I looked ahead, saw, and stopped. On the ground along a particularly sharp corner of the labyrinth, was a sprig of pale green topped with a single flower. The petals were an apricot color kissed with sunshine. It was a desert poppy, its presence so cheerful and carefree in the middle of so much dust, that I started to cry.

desert poppy

This is the color of my spirit, I thought. This is the joy I’ve lost touch with.

A couple of weeks after that, I applied for the job in Hawaii and few weeks later the principal called to offer me the job. I’d told God that couldn’t face another month of idling, so even though the job was temporary, I accepted it as a gift straight from Heaven. Working with children had never been on my professional bucket list, but I’ve always loved kids, so I thought — why not? At the very least, it would be a break from financial stress and job searching. I was sure to learn something new. To stimulate and engage my mind again. The change might revive my energy and maybe the youthfulness of the students would slough away some of my calluses.

Now it’s December and my last week in Hawaii. It’s been seven months packed with rich experiences, far too many to recount here. The students did revive me. Everywhere I went on campus I’d hear, “Hello Chaplain Gustafson!” Sometimes it was Gusterson, Guftasin, or Gustussin, but it was always endearing. The children just saw me. They accepted me and loved me. I never felt like I had to prove myself to them or perform for them. I could just be me, offer whatever was in my spirit that day, and that was enough. This is the kind of hospitality that extended job searching had sucked out of my life.

One of the most beautiful things about Hawaiian culture is the tradition of giving a flower lei. Most visitors think this is a cute, touristy thing that only happens at the airport or in the lobbies of fancy hotels. For those who live here, giving a lei is a sign of affection and respect. You give one to mark a special achievement or occasion, but more importantly, to honor the recipient.

For almost every chapel I led this fall, the class helping me would present me with a lei. This ring of flowers always came with words of thanks and a hug that I would have to kneel to receive. Their variety and colors dazzled. Their sweet fragrance circled me all day, everywhere I went. With a lei around my neck, I couldn’t go unnoticed; their scent drew people to me.

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Because of my story before Hawaii, lei have spiritual significance to me. Each time someone placed one around my neck, a piece of my exhaustion fell away. As flowers piled up, frustrations lost their weight. Just a few months ago I felt invisible and diminished, but now I feel strong and happy. Receiving these lei was like being hugged by God — there was no chance of staying small. Thanks to God, thanks to this job and a promise of a future job, and thanks to these beautiful, giving children, joy is a regular experience again. I’m in full bloom.

A few weeks ago I walked to work in a downpour. I waded through ankle-deep puddles, got splashed by passing cars and sighed as my umbrella leaked drops of cold rain on my head. I am not a morning person, so walking through a storm at 7am put me in a terrible mood. But as I passed the pool on my way to the chapel, there was a break in the gray clouds above the trees. Behind them I could see clear blue sky threaded with brilliant rays of sunlight.

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There I was, waterlogged and grumpy, but God was winking. Welcoming me to a new day. Reminding me that there are good things to come.

Seeing the break in the clouds, I smiled, and hoped.

The Day You Said “I Do”

wedding aisle

The year I graduated from college I received 17 wedding invitations. Though it was difficult to decide, I could only afford to attend a few, so I chose the weddings of my three closest friends. The first wedding was in a city church and the reception in an old bank building with 20-foot granite columns and gleaming green floors the color of dollar bills. The next was a homegrown affair in the bride’s backyard. The chickens, donkey and dogs were relocated for the day, a flower-covered arbor set in the corner with the grills far enough away so the smell of barbecue ribs and rocky mountain oysters wouldn’t be mistaken for the groom’s cologne. The bride and I spent four hours the night before baking batch after batch of rice krispy treats which we sculpted into a large castle, complete with turrets, for the many underage guests. The third wedding was a simple, elegant affair in a formal garden on an estate, followed by a dinner cruise which boasted an open bar and a DJ.

To date, I’ve probably attended around 40 weddings as well as fulfilling various roles at them: flower girl, guest book attendant, gift attendant, babysitter, cake server, song leader and soloist. I’ve been a bridesmaid four times and now, as a pastor, I’ve officiated a few weddings, one of which took place under a dripping palm tree at the wind-whipping tail end of an Arizona monsoon.

Weddings, I’ve learned, are as diverse as the couples they honor. But for all that diversity – for all the poignant walks down the aisle, the beautiful music, the first dances, the funny and sentimental toasts – nothing beats the moment when a couple takes their vows.

Vows are what make a wedding something more than a party we throw to celebrate our friends. When you stop and think about life and our culture, it’s truly an uncommon thing to stand before a public audience and before God, to pledge your life to someone else. Whether the language is formal or casual, traditional or unique, long-winded or concise, all vows say, in essence – I’m all in, forever, with you.

Even as a happy single person I am deeply affected by these moments, these vows. Pause and think of the magnitude of saying, I love you in such a way that I will put your needs before my own. The weight, both joyful and challenging, of living up to such love! Each marriage is a new creation, and vows are the moment of incarnation. My eyes are usually dry at weddings until the vows. That’s when my tears flow like cheap champagne; it’s a moment, an event, beautiful to behold.

Recently, though, I’ve been crying sad tears. It seems like every month I get a message or phone call from another friend whose marriage is in significant crisis. For the first time in my life I have a special prayer list just for couples. The list has grown to twelve names. The issues they battle are varied and complex: infidelity, loss of faith, mental health difficulties, conflict resulting from unanticipated change, stagnation, and things they can’t yet articulate. My friends are hurting and angry and afraid, and I hate that there is nothing I can do to fix it. All my prayers seem to turn out the same – God, I don’t know what they need, as individuals and as a couple, but you do. Provide what they need! Do it now.

As I’ve prayed, as my ear has grown hot against my cell phone – as I’ve pondered this creation we call marriage which seems as fine and fragile as bone china – I’ve felt moved to write a manifesto of sorts. So, if you are one of the friends I’m talking about, this part is for you.

As someone who loves you and who believes that marriage is a sacred thing, I make a public declaration and a commitment to you as you walk this valley of shadows. I do this because on the day you said, “I do,” I didn’t just show up for the wine and cake. When you said, “I’m all in,” in front of God and all of those witnesses, in my heart I said the same.

I wish I had a magic wand to erase the painful events, the misunderstandings, the words that can’t be taken back, the erupting diseases that brought you to this place, but we both know that magic wands are fairy-tale fluff. So I promise that I won’t try to diminish the giant monsters you are battling by giving you manufactured pearls of wisdom. If you’re looking for advice and I don’t know what to say, I’ll just say so. I may not have many – or any – answers, but I promise to listen long and well to your concerns.

I will doggedly remind you that you are not alone. Yes, you’ve discovered that a disintegrating marriage is one of the loneliest existences on earth, but you are not alone. Think of your wedding album, about the crowd in all those pictures. Many people love you and would consider it an honor to encircle you with support in this crisis, just as they did at your wedding. It takes courage to admit we don’t have it all together and deep faith to confess when things are falling apart. I will continue to encourage you to be faithful and courageous, which means regular reminders to care for yourself, to gather the support that you need, and to seek professional help. I will gently remind you that there is no shame in seeing a counselor; in fact, it’s a positive choice, a great, long-term investment in your personal and relational health and healing.

I promise to be a safe place for you to experience or express any emotion. You can use all kinds of colorful and “unacceptable” language and not worry that I won’t make eye contact tomorrow. You can yell or be silent. We can go kick-boxing or open the mega-pack of tissues from Costco.

And while everything is safe with me, I promise I won’t let you get away with unjust or dishonest speech about your spouse. Afterall, I hope (and deep down, under all these thorns, I believe you hope) that you will discover a way to healing and stay married until death parts you. Really loving you means that I have to be honest with you. I can’t only try to make you feel good if it leads to avoidance or denial; that isn’t the path to healing. So as difficult and risky as it might be, I will be honest with you about what I see, but I’ll do my best to infuse my honesty with compassion so it won’t sting too badly.

I promise to keep your confidence, but if I fail in this, I will confess and ask your forgiveness. And when I’m in company and free to speak, I will speak of both you and your spouse with respect.

I will pray without ceasing until these clouds pass.

And if the day comes when your marriage ends, I will never treat you like a failure.

These are my solemn vows. Hold me accountable to them. If I’ve hurt you, please tell me. If you need something more or something less from me, don’t hesitate to speak up. I may not be able to give you what you need, but I promise to be here, to listen, to remind you of God’s love and forgiveness, to be your friend in sickness and in health, in grief and gladness.

May gladness be your epilogue.

Lily of the Valley symbolizes a return to happiness.

Lily of the Valley symbolizes a return to happiness.