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.

Lent 2014: The Fiction Fast

I do strange things for Lent. The first time I observed Lent I was 24 and an earnest seminarian. I decided to fast from exaggeration and sarcasm. Yes, you read that correctly. If you know me, you realize the irony – I speak fluent Sarcasm. Hyperbole is part of my charm. My friend Courtney, a Presbyterian minister and a veteran practitioner of Lent, questioned if this would be too much for my first time. I thought and prayed about it but I was resolved. I’d always liked a challenge. Plus I’d recently been convicted by a sermon on Matthew 5:33-37. I was all in.

My first Lent was a sometimes funny, always challenging experiment. I found myself offering the world more pauses, lots of apologies and much shorter stories. All of the new empty moments in my life created space for more introspection. I thought a lot about truth, chaffed against a deep-seated insecurity to be heard, learned about the risks white lies and half-truths pose to my soul and my relationships, and through it all I grew closer to Jesus, which for me, is the whole point.

It’s uncommon for Evangelicals to anchor themselves to the church calendar. I imagine there is a modest group of us who do extra devotional reading between Ash Wednesday and Easter but only a small subset who participate in Lent by fasting. Few of my fellow Evangelicals seem to understand why I observe Lent by fasting. Even my formerly Catholic sister-in-law is curious and confused by my practice. Sometimes I’m not even quite sure why I do this. Maybe it’s the artist in me craving sacred time when I can imaginatively enter into the life of Christ.

Every year I get to choose whether I observe Lent. I don’t have to do this. No one expects me to fast and certainly no one is judging me if I don’t. This is something I do for myself, for freedom. My attitude going in is always a strange blend of eagerness, seriousness and curiosity, with a shot of playfulness. Lent is a truly mystical choice in our get-the-next-best-thing-because-you-can culture. For me it’s 40 days when I willingly sacrifice something of my life, something I love or need, or think I need, because Jesus spent some time in the desert without a survival pack and without attempting to escape what was surely desolate.

The most unleashed thing about a Lenten fast is that there is no clear goal. There’s not a single anticipated outcome that I can project with any certainty. It’s just me creating space with the hope that this sacrifice will make me more attentive to Jesus. I think of it like a sugar detox. Once your body is stripped of artificial and added sugars, the flavors in natural foods begin to zip and zing along your taste buds like Pop Rocks. So I guess I could call Lent my “Quest for the Organic Jesus.”

book-stack

This year I fasted from fiction. Before you roll your eyes and think this lacked bite, know that I read several hours a day – probably the equivalent of time you spend watching TV– often finishing several books a week. Stories are like food to me; they feed my spirit and soak my always-thirsty imagination. I confess – non-fiction puts me to sleep faster than Ambien would crushed in warm milk. I’ll take David Baldacci over C.S. Lewis any day. (I know, I know. Please don’t judge.) Fiction captures me. It takes me on adventures, welcomes me into foreign cultures and families and then confronts me with new questions and challenges. In some ways, reading fiction has better prepared me to be a thoughtful pastor than most theology books and seminary classes ever did. Fiction lets me engage deeply in others’ stories without worrying about myself – what to do with my hands, what my face should conceal or reveal, and when to speak or keep quiet. Each book is someone else’s world, a life unlike my own. The more foreign the story, the more I can learn, particularly how to have compassion for a life so different from my own and how to welcome a stranger. I owe so much of my ability to love the world’s outcasts and the suffering because books have opened my eyes to complexities in the human experience that I didn’t know existed.

So now you see that my fiction fast of 2014 wasn’t just a trifle. It opened up hours of time in each day, some of which I intentionally replaced with gospel reading. Like those magnifying vanity mirrors that allow us to zero in on wrinkles and stray hairs, my fast revealed some major flaws in my spiritual life. For most of the 40 days, my yearning to read fiction dwarfed my yearning to read the Bible. That was intensely humbling, especially as a pastor. Many prayers spun out from there. I also grappled with the fact that too often my reading becomes a buffer from allowing myself to feel, to process my feelings and to pour out my day before God.

Ministry, like life, is not something we pastors can control. Because our work centers around people and their connection to God and to others, what is a smoking ember on Monday can cause a blazing firestorm on Tuesday – all it takes is a little wind. During Lent this year life gusted and ministry blazed. Miscarriages, crumbling marriages, career disappointments, painful perseverance, major life changes: all of this was swirling around me and within me. And each night as I retreated to the quiet of my bedroom, when I would normally pick up a book and dive into a fictional life, the silence and my empty hands stripped away my buffer. I catalogued my cares and fears before God and I cried enough tears to turn any book into slimy paper mache. And every time, I felt better. More connected to God. Heard and loved. Companioned by a Savior who endured much more than 40 days in a desert. A Savior who knew solitude and hunger, and who understood the need to stay connected to the Creator of all good things. Those tears and those prayers cleansed me and prepared me for another day.

This is what I learned by fasting from fiction – even the things we enjoy, things that are not inherently harmful, can become liabilities to our spiritual lives. We can lose ourselves in the things we love. If mismanaged, our hobbies can diminish our vital connection to God. Even healthy habits can become a buffer, an escape, a way to hide from God, ourselves and the world. I suspect that we are all masters at twisting good, happy, fun and fruitful things into barriers, numbing agents and knots. I don’t want to do this anymore. I want to love myself better than this. I want my relationship with God to thrive in and for itself, but also so compassion and mercy can continue to flow in my ministry.

Lent 2014 – I gave up fiction. I wept with Jesus. God restored me. I’m ready for more. More life and more ministry. And yes, more fiction. I’m reading again, but I hope with greater maturity, using fiction as a tool for fun and relaxation and not a buffer against my life, my feelings and my God.

A Holy Week

On Palm Sunday I preached the good news about God’s unexpected salvation – salvation from sin, salvation for all, and salvation from circumstances. I said this –

If God’s power can conquer sin and death, then he can certainly free us from everything that enslaves us. He can remove every roadblock and work miracles through our limitations. But often God doesn’t intercede the way we expect…

Friends, too often we make ourselves prisoners of hope, looking for salvation from circumstances to come in a particular package or follow a particular pattern. As greatly as God loves you, he wants to set you free! But are you coming to God with clenched fists, holding tightly to your expected outcomes? What if God knows that there is something better, something you need more than what you are asking for?

My last blog post was a raw expulsion of feeling. I compared myself to an unraveling sweater. I had reached a breaking point emotionally, spiritually and physically. I could not think of another month of job searching without crying.

What a difference a week makes.

Within days of writing Unraveling Sweater, good news rolled into my life like a 4th of July parade. My father, who was laid off a year ago, received a wonderful job offer. Beginning May 1st he will raise money for a non-profit that serves some of the poorest children in Phoenix. God heard our prayers and came to save.

A few days later I received a job offer of my own. From June thru December I will be serving as a chaplain at the Punahou School in Honolulu, Hawaii. I will lead chapels for students from Kindergarten through 5th grade and offer pastoral care and counseling to students and their families. Though I love spending time with children and prize my role as aunt as much as I do my role as pastor, I’ve never imagined myself working with kids. Clearly God had other ideas. He heard my cries and he came to save.

After 4 years relentlessly pursuing a full-time job, this new opportunity feels like a Jubilee, a real trumpet-blast of liberation. I will have a new challenge to feed my brain and an island getaway free from job-searching to feed my soul. I’m embracing my own lesson. God has given me unexpected salvation, a gift in an unusual package, but I’m welcoming it with joy and anticipation.

The desert has been a significant metaphor for my inner life and experiences the past four years that I’ve lived in Phoenix. It’s not lost on me that I’m moving from the desert to what many people consider paradise on earth. Most people only dream of places like Hawaii and only a privileged few vacation there. I will soon live and work there. I will leave behind the dry, dusty, marrow-sucking heat of the desert for the lush greens, fragrant blooms and warm breezes of a tropical island. I can’t find adequate words to describe my sense of gratitude to God and the renewal of hope that is happening in my spirit.

And in the middle of all of this good news, pain and loss continue to shade my life. A friend is experiencing the miscarriage of her first baby. Another is newly devastated by infidelity. Two others have said their final goodbyes, one to a mother, the other to a sister. A homebound widow begs for a visit and prayers – her roommate returned to a life of addiction and is now hospitalized after attempting suicide. People I love are hurting and so even as I rejoice, I shout – Hosanna! Save, now! Save, I pray!

This has been a holy week. A week of contrasts inhabiting the same moment. I rejoice in my circumstances even as I weep with others. Hope sprouts with new dreams for my future while circumstances crush the spirit of those around me. Joy mixes with sorrow and makes its own kind of liturgy.

As a Christian, Holy Week is the strangest week we live. We do our best to step into time with Jesus, to participate in the iconic moments of his last days. On Sunday we celebrate his arrival as king. He’s come to do his most sacred work, to redeem God’s people and take the throne. We dazzle and sometimes disturb visitors to our churches with waving palm branches, cute children’s plays and shouts of hosanna. By Friday everything has changed. We have lost our joy. We are full of confusion, pain and fear. We turn down the volume and the lights and soak in the fact that our savior has been betrayed, arrested, tortured, humiliated and nailed to a cross. On Saturday we weep. Some give up and walk away. In all of us there is an inner stillness; we’re waiting for something, but we don’t know what. And then it’s Sunday again and we experience the deepest possible joy as Jesus appears before us alive and victorious!

It’s a week full of contrasts that inhabit the same moment. Light and darkness. Life and death. Waiting, seeking and finding. Unprecedented despair followed by unparalleled rejoicing. Holy Week is the pattern of life, at least for now. And it’s only the knowledge that painful things lead to unexpectedly good things, that keeps me living.

A Letter A Day: Reflections on Lent & Love

ImageI’ve been meaning to report on my practice of Lent this year but time has blown by lately like a desert monsoon. (I started a new job in mid-March and I reserve most of my free-time for brain recovery.)

A love letter a day. I loved the idea and for much of the season, I enjoyed the discipline. However, I bumped again into one of my weaknesses: I’ve never been good at doing what’s best for me every day.

I find time to read fiction 1-2 hours a day and it is of some value. Exercise, reading scripture, prayer — these are of higher value and yet I struggle to make them part of my daily life. Even excited to write these Lent letters, there were days I had to pull out my calendar and count boxes to know how many letters I needed to write to catch up.

The major benefit of writing to so many of my beloveds? I was constantly reminded to offer myself the grace and love that I show others. I forgave myself the skipped days and focused on enjoying the hours spent with pen, stationary and warm memories.

The picture above is my final stack of love letters before I stuck on Forever stamps and sent them across the globe. The easiest part of this whole practice was deciding to whom I should write. Composing these letters often slipped into times of praise and thankfulness for the many cherished memories and relationships I’ve formed over the years. I wrote to each of my 7 nieces and nephews, to my siblings, parents, some extended family, many former college students whom I mentored, and friends from every stage of life.

I wrote to my mentor from high school, thanking her for showering me with unconditional time and love. I credit her gentle and considerate presence in my life as one of the major reasons that I have an authentic faith in Christ today.

I wrote to my friend and former roommate Joni who is a long-term missionary. She recently moved to Madrid and despite debilitating chronic pain from scoliosis, Joni lives with such joy and purpose. Since meeting her in 1999, she has inspired me to take risks and to push against the boundaries of what I think God can accomplish through my ministry.

Secrets and trust were themes in many of the letters. I wrote to several friends about secrets shared and released. I met Karen at a time when I held many things tightly and fearfully inside me. Openly and honestly Karen shared a personal struggle with me, which enabled me to trust her with my stuff. By example, Karen ushered me trust again. Writing to Karen sparked a second letter to a friend who last year broke silence to me regarding a life-long struggle. I wrote thanking her again for trusting me with her pain. I sealed the second letter realizing that have become a safe place for others because Karen was first a safe place for me.

I sent Lent letters to more than 15 states. Three went to Canada; a few to Europe. The youngest recipient was my niece Kherington, who, at age 3, got a few silly jokes her mother will have to read to her and a terrible drawing of a cat.

Some letters remain on my bookshelf, stampless. There are 5 written to God, labeled with different names of God depending on the nature of the letter. I sent those through a prayer office rather than a post office.

There’s a letter written to a friend whom I’ve lost contact with, but for whom I pray regularly. Over the past two years I have asked for his new address via Facebook and email. He has not responded. My concern that I caused him pain is the very reason I wrote. I hope he will allow me to make amends. I’ll hang on to his letter with hope.

I never wrote the letter to my former sister-in-law. I stared at many blank notes intended for her. In the end it was too difficult to write, too charged. I chose instead to pray for her, for us, for all whose lives were forever changed by her actions.

To Corrie, July 1st, 2017 — this is the label of the letter I wrote to myself in 5 years. I’ve spent a lot of time in these tumultuous three years praying and thinking about the woman I want to become. I’m not looking for a brand new me but a Corrie who is renewing, refined, purposeful.  This letter had several lines of celebration for the real and far-reaching love I’ve experienced.

I wrote all of these letters sitting on my bed just an arm’s-length from a high school graduation gift – a friendship quilt made by my relative Augusta Cole. I always hang it close to my bed, where I do most of my praying. The quilt, like these love letters from my seventh season of Lent, reminds me that my life is not about me.

My life grows richer because I move toward others, as I share myself with others, when I love others. I thank God that I learned this lesson young.

My friendship quilt. Each cream square is signed by a friend.

My friendship quilt. Each cream square is signed by a friend.

morning, the first day

Study of Women Mourning by Michanelangelo Buonarroti

Study of Women Mourning by Michelangelo Buonarroti

 

 

dirt and ash adorn my head,
a dark covering of filth gritty on my scalp.
thick, tangled hairs scratch my cheek like coarse threads,
strangely comforting.

hands hang guiltily at my sides.
soiled, broken nails like swords
left streaks of red down my arms
as I rent the clothe of my tunic.
tight fists like clubs that beat purple, black and green onto my chest.
iron fingers that ripped clumps of hair from roots set deep in my skull.

eyes, swollen from the blow of wind and grief,
see little but tan ground or grey sky;
everything out of focus and unremarkable.

my body is parched:
muscles shriveled and limp,
skin cracked like the wadis that line every valley.
even the marrow seems sucked out of my cavernous bones.

i think i should waste away but the gushing never stops;
(perhaps another of his miracles).

tears tear a wide rift down the plains of my face,
a mark of my homeland etched into a thousand layers of skin.
some slide into my mouth creating a paste with the dust that always coats my tongue,
today made thick and repugnant by the yeast of bitterness.

lips posed like the spout of a clay jar,
a feature delicate but useful,
tremulously pouring forth watery wails birthed deep in my bowels.

my voice joins the chorus of anguish made by the many women of this illegitimate tribe:
a babe in the arms of her grandmother, neither able to be pacified,
a wife and a prostitute standing as sisters,
an adulteress supporting the weight of one already weakened by years of bleeding,
a samaritan’s tears soaking a galilean’s breast,
one who was possessed by demons now doubled by a stronger affliction,
some rich, many poor —
all unpaid mourners weeping a sweet harmony of sorrow.

a single flute accompanies our morning song;
its high pitch slices through the humid air,
giving tragedy a proper dissonance.

the mingled cries produce a slow rhythm;
our bodies sway to its haunting pulse.
feet drag slowly forward in steps so heavy
they could cause Jerusalem to go the way of Jericho.

we follow the dusty wake of the bier,
a simple pallet that bears the dead form of our master,
torn from a cross.
some of our brothers carry him, an excruciating weight.

many in our procession grow faint.
some stumble to their knees,
tripped by grief or fatigue.
hands reach down to drag the fallen to aching, splintered feet.
we must reach the tomb.

the carnivorous sun,
unrelenting even when death is done,
waits to consume his flesh.

we will give him shade in death;
we could not provide as much in life.

the room is sealed but we hunker just beyond the slab.
every limb, feature, voice twisted and marred in the expression of woe.
our bleating continues;
perhaps it will never cease for suffering was never so dark as now,
today,
just the first of innumerable days of mourning.

Seventh Lent: Writing Love from Ashes

Seventh Lent: Writing Love from Ashes

I wasn’t raised in a faith tradition that celebrated or followed the liturgical calendar save Christmas, Good Friday and Easter. It wasn’t until I attended seminary in my early twenties that I met followers of Jesus that practiced this thing called Lent, rung in by this day they call Ash Wednesday. Here it is again, the day that is a doorway into a foreign spiritual practice that I have organically stretched and grown into like a child pulling on an adult’s sweater. 

I’m still not very mindful of following the church calendar throughout the year, so Lent sneaked up on me again. A Presbyterian friend who is a fellow minister and blogger posted last week about Lent. I groaned, not because his post was lacking but because it was convicting. My mindless wandering through the time-faith continuum always leaves me with less than adequate preparation. It’s always the week or days before that I begin asking myself what I will do to enter the desert with Christ this year, to walk with him on the path to the cross, to prepare myself for the wonder of his resurrection. This is not an easy question to answer – I really need to give myself more space and time to consider this fully.

How will I enter the desert with Christ this year, follow him toward the cross, fully know the sacrifice of his death so that I can wholly celebrate his resurrection?

For life-long Lenters, these forty days are often about fasting, sacrifice, giving-up, repentance. As a Lenten adolescent, I want to live into the practice, rather than follow a set of rules or expectations. In many ways, practicing Lent has become a work of imagination. Rather than being about soul-stripping deprivation, I like to approach Lent with curiosity, looking for what I can learn about life from one (Jesus) who has experienced the fullness of the life-cycle – birth, death, resurrection and life eternal. I approach Lent wanting to open myself to more of God as I empty myself of self-obsession, to have my spirit expanded not crushed or shriveled, to see and feel God create and grow love for the world in me. 

Lent is less about what I do than who I’m becoming. Lent is an opportunity not a rule. Lent is a creative and imaginative act of my freewill not a mindless religious obligation. I practice because I believe it is a tool available to me to build up my faith in God.

This year I reach Ash Wednesday already in a season of deprivation. When I considered how to practice Lent this year, I rejected a lot of ideas. I thought about subtracting bread from my diet and each day reading passages that teach how God sustains us. Out of kindness for my weary soul, I shelved that idea for another year. Finally, this morning, in the eleventh hour – inspiration.

What do I know to be true about God, even in times of deprivation? I know that God is the source of life. God created each of us; he knit us together in our mothers’ wombs. God nurtures us like a breast-feeding mother and we grow content. At the center of God’s character, actions, message – in my interpretation – is love. If I do any good thing or believe any good thing but do not have love, what good am I? To grow more like Christ, I must grow in my capacity to know and give love.

For the next forty days I will read and meditate on passages about God’s love and each day I will write one love letter. I’ll care little about length, style or the delivery method of these letters but focus my attention on expressing love for the recipient. I’m sure I’ll write to family members, dear friends, even to myself. On Sundays I will write my love letter to God. Some of these letters will be easy, my thankfulness for the recipients overflowing onto paper. Others will be excruciatingly difficult, like the letter to my sister-in-law whose deception and abandonment have caused our family so much pain. I’ve started hundreds of letters to her in my heart. I have known and loved her half of my life but now my love is so mixed with pain, anger, betrayal and confusion that words don’t seem to be the right tool to express all that is in me. Smudging ash across a white page seems the most fitting. Regardless, this letter has been burning within me for years. It’s time to write it out. I imagine it will be the most difficult letter of my life. 

I may not send every letter. I may not know how to finish some of them or even where to send them. But I will do my best to learn from and borrow the love of Christ and spread that love along every curve and point in my script.

Learning love. Borrowing love. Spreading love. It’s shaping into a fruitful forty days.