Life to Death to Life Again: One Man’s Journey through the Grief of Miscarriage

I wrote this essay in July, reflecting on how I grieved and healed alongside my wife after she had a miscarriage. I’ve tried to be as honest as I can about the experience of grief, so that someone might read it and know that they are not alone, and that what they are feeling is okay. I share it now during October, which is Pregnancy and Infant Loss Awareness Month, in the hopes of spreading an awareness about the often unspoken, isolating loss of miscarriage:

 

If you or your loved one has recently had a miscarriage, then you are probably feeling something like I felt at the time: lost, confused, depressed, and weighed down with a mess of emotions that you don’t know what to do with. If you are anything like me, you have been up searching for articles online to tell you what you should be feeling and doing, because you are dreading the silence that awaits you in the rest of your house. Maybe you have been praying, afraid that no one is listening on the other end.

 

If I’m honest, I really don’t know how you feel. Your story is probably quite different than mine. You might be thinking right now, you don’t know me. And you’re right. I don’t. But I hope my story might help you.

 

You see, I think stories help us heal. They make us realize we are not alone. I’m a Christian, a pastor, and a man: because of this, I often want solutions to problems I can’t solve, and answers to questions no one has ever figured out.

 

My miscarriage story is about how I came to grip with my own helplessness, my utter dependence on the grace of God. It wasn’t easy.

 

My prayer is that my story might help you feel less alone and nudge you closer to healing and wholeness. Things have actually gotten a lot better, but at the time I was a complete wreck. I’ve tried to describe my feelings, using my actual prayer journal and what I remember from the time. I’m sharing this so you might know that whatever you are feeling right now is okay, and to give you some hope that you will not always feel the way you feel right now.

 

You ready? Here we go.

 

The Expectation

 

My wife Molly and I decided in December of last year to start “trying” to have a baby, which I have always found an uncomfortable phrase to hear from other people (I remember as an adolescent hearing this from what seemed to me an older couple, and thinking, “I don’t want to think about that!”).

 

Well, “try” we did, and come February Molly took a pregnancy test. After a few minutes of screwing our eyes at the test stick’s little black cross, we realized Molly was pregnant.

 

This happened more quickly than we thought it would, but we were overjoyed, scared, amazed. I couldn’t believe that I was going to be a father in nine months to a beautiful, crying, living child. It completely changed the way I viewed Molly—it forced me to recognize the holiness of an expectant mother, a carrier of life. It brings into sharp focus the sheer abundance and wonder that anything is alive at all.

 

We didn’t tell anybody. We had heard that it was good to wait until at least twelve weeks, in case anything happens. And so we harbored this secret in our hearts, anxiously awaiting the time when we could share the news. This is what I wrote in my journal at the time:

 

2/23/17

Father, I am carrying a secret around with me, that you and me and Molly know. Molly is pregnant! …

 It’s hard to describe the feeling I have. It’s like everything is about to take on a new level of significance in a way—our home is preparing to receive a lifelong guest, a child of God, one that you are giving into our care…

Who will this person be? This little child? It’s such a gamble to let people be free, God. To let us grow wild, to let us turn from you if we really want to. To let us fall, and fall again, and lose ourselves in the whimsy of our sin. I pray that this little person, this little boy or girl, that they might see in Molly and me a pattern of life that they want to emulate. I pray that through us they might witness and encounter your grace…

 

You can see that in my thoughts, in my prayers, I am trying to wrap my head around the idea of this new life that was coming my way. What would change? How should I prepare myself?

 

The Fear in Waiting

 

Around the seventh week in the pregnancy, Molly started “spotting”, a word I did not yet know to fear. She had some cramping pain, and she began to get worried. We called the doctor, and they said that it might be nothing, but that if it gets worse we needed to go to the hospital and get an ultrasound. This is how I described it at the time in my prayers:

 

2/25/17

…I am living in “forethought of grief” today, as Wendell Berry would say, “in fear of what my life” may be. I don’t want us to lose the baby. I also don’t want to see what it will do to Molly. She’s such an innocent, humble, joyful person. I find it incredible painful to see her in suffering, to see her crumple into herself with disappointment and fear, and shame. I’ve seen it before, when she got laid off in Durham. I hated it. I never want to see her like that.

 Lord, please let us be wrong. Please be the giver of life to us. I know that we are no different and no better than the millions of people who have faced miscarriage or loss of a baby. I also know that this is not your desire, that death is never your desire. Please keep us and sustain us no matter what happens. But Father, please, let me be a father. Let me witness your creating grace. Let me have a healthy, happy child.

 

We didn’t know what else to do but to wait and pray. Maybe it will be okay, I thought. I wasn’t prepared yet to face the alternative.

 

That Saturday, things began to get worse and we decided to go to the emergency room. Things took forever. We waited in the room, just sitting quietly with each other, afraid of what we might discover. They did an ultrasound, but they couldn’t explain it to us. I saw the heartbeat on the screen, though I was afraid to hope that that’s what it was. They took a blood test to measure Molly’s hormone levels. The doctor finally, after many hours, came in and told us there was a heartbeat. But, the hormone levels were way too low. The only thing we could do was wait.

 

We had to wait until Thursday to see if the baby was going to make it or not.

It was probably one of the hardest weeks of my life—I have never felt more helpless, more hopeless, more alone.

 

2/27/17

We still don’t know. We went to the ER on Saturday, and they told us that it was still a “viable pregnancy.” Molly continued to bleed, and had painful cramping on Saturday night. It’s gotten a little bit better. But I don’t think we’ll know for sure if the baby is alive until Thursday. I want to be strong for Molly, but I don’t even know how to feel. I hate the limbo of it, the hanging on for hope, the guilt of not feeling hopeful, the shame of feeling hopeful, the jealousy of people posting about their babies on Facebook.

God I know that all life is yours. You are the Lord of life. I have no right to a child, no rights at all. I come before you only on the grounds of your mercy. Until we know, God, I will plead to you to let life win. Let our child live. Let my bride be flooded with happiness and joy, with health and peace. I don’t know how to encounter her sadness, O God. I don’t know how to accompany it with grace and with dignity, with the presence that it needs to be nurtured and loved. God I fall before you, for there is nowhere else to fall. Only you can rescue from death. Christ, you are the great healer. Come and heal. Come and save. Come and hold us. Come and help us. Please do not leave us to hang with the shame of death, with the pain of loss.

Ash Wednesday is in two days. I do not want to preach about mortality and death, about their inevitability, about their status as fact. I do not want to contemplate the darkness of ashes upon forehead. I do not want to face the abyss, the pit into which we all must plunge. Keep the darkness at bay, my Lord. Order my thoughts, place the dark in its proper place—put death in its rightful place. Make it go! It is conquered, is it not? Why let it linger? Why let it lord over us in a false reign? To what end?

 

I told a few close friends that week what was going on. Molly told her sister and her mom. Her mom came up that week.

 

I told my friend who I’ll call James that I needed to talk, and we went to Mellow Mushroom and I told him what was going on. His compassion, his listening, his willingness to just say “this sucks,” his refusal to explain or provide reasons or false hopes, it was exactly what I needed at the time. If you have a friend going through this, be a James: say “I’m so sorry this happening. This is horrible. I love you, friend.” Do not try to account for another’s suffering. Don’t explain what God is up to. Just witness it, hold it, comfort it. Bear with it.

 

The Great Sadness

 

This is what I wrote the day after we knew for sure that the baby had died:

 

3-3-17

Father,

 

We found out yesterday that Molly had a miscarriage. Our doctor had to help pull some of the tissue out, into an antiseptic little jar, full of what looked like bloody water. It was just horrible. The doctor was very kind, and said that this would not affect future pregnancies. We made an appointment for next week.

When we got home, we sat on the floor and cried. Molly cried harder than I’ve ever heard her or hardly anyone cry, and her face was buried in my lap, and I tried to cover her with my body and hold her, and I was crying too. It was such a shattering of hope, God. I can’t understand it. I know that we are not promised a care-free life, that we are never promised from you a life without suffering or pain or death. But it is so hard when it happens. I don’t believe this is something that you wanted, Lord, I don’t think you wanted death to be in your creation. Or loss, or pain, or tears. I know that you are ushering in a kingdom where you will wipe away every tear from our eyes. But until then, there is such an emptiness.

I feel empty and cold. I’m mad that you didn’t heal this child. I’m disappointed, maybe that’s the better word. You are the God who heals, but you didn’t heal. I know that your ways are not our ways, and that your will is beyond my comprehension. I pray that through this Molly and I could both grow closer to you, and closer to each other. I do feel that I’ve gained a greater perception of life through all this, of the fragility of life. I’ve gained an understanding of how scary the hospital is, of how much fear there is in the waiting, in the little fluorescent-lit rooms, in the technical words to mask such a horrible reality.

We went out to get Mexican food at Garcia’s last night, just to get out of the house. I talked to my family on the phone. What can we say at such times? I’m learning that talking about you of all things is not all that helpful. I remember someone said, “You know, God will help get you through this,” and that just made me mad. I know you will help me get through this, but I don’t think I was ready to hear it said. We watched Pirates of the Caribbean to get our minds off of it, which it did. But when we got in bed, laying down in the dark, there was nothing to distract. I couldn’t stop thinking about it, and for the first time in a very long time I fell asleep with tears in my eyes. There’s no cure for this feeling. No short-term one, I mean.

We just have to sit with it, host it, like an unwanted house guest. Grief is sitting there next to you on the couch, expecting to be served and catered to. You can ignore it for a while, and go to another part of the house, or leave the house, but eventually it will come sneaking in, taking off its coat, and just sit and look at you.

I’m trying to write all this because I want to remember what it all feels like, God. I know I will minister to people going through similar things, and I want to remember so I can bear people’s burdens, and lighten their loads. (James’) call was the most helpful. He just said, “I know this is horrible. I am so sorry. We love you. If you need me, I’m here. We can get a drink, or whatever. We love you guys, I hope you know that.” That’s really all I needed to hear. And I could tell in his voice the struggle he put in to say the right thing, to say the least amount he could to express his love.

I probably need to tell some more of my friends, to let them help me. It’s a hard thing, because it seems like the more people we tell, the more real it becomes. And if we keep it private, we can make it a secret, unreal thing, a thing we can forget more easily. But to share our suffering, it is lodged in the collective memory, it is a thorn planted in many sides, making it more difficult to someday dislodge. Or does it make it easier? I don’t know. This is a new kind of heartache for me God. And it is strange because it is more the heartache of a dead hope—a loss of the future—a rupture in what might have been. It is the fear that it might happen again. Or that we may never have children. I hate to even write those words, though I know it may be a possibility. May it not be so, God.

Lift my spirits, O God, and give me the wisdom to find the help I need, to accept the love I need, to embrace the friends I need. I cannot grieve apart from you, I cannot heal apart from you. Be my all in all, be my Father, be my God. In Christ’s name we pray, that holy name of Jesus. Amen.

 

The next few weeks felt like a great undoing. We slumbered through our daily tasks in the long process of grief. As a pastor, I was at pains because we were not ready to share what was going on with our congregation. We did not want to deal with the painful responses people make (“The Lord was just calling it home,” “Sometimes this is how the Lord works,” “God is in control,” etc.). I was barely able to do the minimum tasks of my very full time profession. I felt totally lost, incredibly alone.

 

The most surprising thing to me was how exhausting it was to grieve this deeply. I was tired—tired of my emotions, of my emptiness, tired of the hopelessness I felt. I wanted to make Molly happy, and I couldn’t. She has always been the light of my days, and to see her so crumpled and hurt, I just had no idea what to do.

 

3/15/17 (about two weeks after the miscarriage)

I had a bad day yesterday.…Molly wanted to go out to eat, and I really didn’t want to, but I went because I thought it might make her feel better. We walked around the mall afterwards, and I was just depressed. Just tired of feeling the way I am feeling. I texted (my friend) some, and Molly was inside Payless looking at shoes, and I just felt like running away, or like just going home and crawling in a hole. I’ve just started to feel an undoing of what I am doing here. How do I know if I am doing what I am supposed to, how long can I keep up what I am doing…

 

On the drive home, I kind of broke down, telling Molly that it is so hard to keep up with everything when I just don’t feel like doing anything. I don’t feel like it. I don’t really care right now. When we got inside, we both put on our comfy clothes, and I really broke down and started crying, and Molly and me just hugged in our walk-in closet, and I said, “Molly, I was just so excited.” … It’s amazing to me how this pain, this depression, seeps into everything I’m doing, like a dead weight. Like a sickness, really.

 

All I want to do is curl up into a ball and watch TV until I feel better. But instead I am in the office, and I am going to try and finish writing my sermon. God, I need your strength. This is beyond my ability to deal with. This is beyond my power. Your power is made perfect in weakness. Your grace is sufficient to me. I pray that this pain might someday be made into glory. I pray that you would take this affront to your creation, this small victory of death, and use it in your ultimate defeat of sin and death and all that plagues your creation—that it might become a testimony of your power and your kingdom breaking into this world. I am only in the midst of a story, my story, and I am afraid that I will not be able to get up as soon as I’d like. I don’t know exactly what will happen, or if I will be able to deal with it. But I got up today, and walked in the brisk March air, and I have to take this one day at a time. I am learning to lean upon you, God, as so many people have learned to do. Give me the wisdom to lean in ever more, O God of the suffering cross.

 

Amen.

 

Things would get better, then get worse. I would forget, and then remember. Pain, and then small joys would sneak in. Somehow.

 

From that hard winter, slowly but surely, spring emerged. It helped my grief begin to recede.

 

 

3-21-17

Father,

 

I am sitting outside on the back porch. It’s only the second day of Spring, officially. Gracie is leaping happily outside in the yard, eating grass, rolling in it. It’s cloudy, but it’s pleasant. My neighbor John is out in his yard with his shirt off. I went over a little while ago and talked to him. The rooster just crowed, and I can hear the goats far off, bickering with each other, crying like a pack of babies. The birds are tweeting and whistling as they do, and there is a strange newness to the sky, like the blue is trying its best to break through.

Molly and I have planted a garden. Well, we tilled the soil, and on Sunday we put in the chicken wire fence to keep out rabbits. Molly put in the lettuce and the spinach I believe. It’s kind of a memorial garden. A way of remembering and a way of letting go.

I remember as I was out there a few weeks ago with Molly’s dad, and her dad was tilling and I was shoveling, and Molly and her Mom were inside. I realized that I was inheriting the ancient curse. Me toiling in the soil according to my manhood, Molly toiling with the pain and loss of womanhood. And yet there was a solace in becoming a part of an ancient story, of realizing the pain of being human…

I accept that I am grieving a strange loss, and grieving the happiness of myself and almost more the happiness of my bride. The weight of the emotion is draining to me. I’m worried that we may have another miscarriage someday, that we may never have children. I’m worried that pregnancy is now going to be a scary thing, as opposed to a happy thing. I’m worried about my ability to bear loss with courage and grace…

 

 

It’s hard to say how things start to get better. If you are in the middle of it, it feels like it will never get better. But hear me: it does. It will. Things might be terrible now, but you will not always feel the way you do now.

 

I had said that to people before as a pastor, assuming they were true. But now I can say with confidence: healing is possible. Things can and will change. Light will overcome the darkness. Especially if you let others into your life to help you heal. That’s exactly what Molly and I did. We told our friends one by one, and they helped bear our burdens. They lightened our load.

 

3/29/17

…Travis and Erin were in town this weekend, and it was such a blessing to have them stay with us. Being with them is like having home come to us. And on Sunday we had friends over to watch the UK game, and even though we lost to UNC in a buzzer beater, we had such a great time—afterwards we had a fire in our backyard. I felt such a sense of community and wholeness…

The sun is shining, Lord. And it’s strange how good it has made me felt. The weather was warm and kind today, and in it I felt your kindness and your warmth. People are coming outside in the neighborhood, and coming alive again after a mild but long winter. It’s warming the bones of my soul, if I can say such a thing. Molly too. Molly is getting somewhat better too. She got a picture of the ultrasound of our baby from the hospital, and she has put it in a white frame on her bedside table. I hope this helps her to grieve. I am more inclined to just let it go and forget about it, but I doubt this is the wisest path. I know people need to remember, so that they can say goodbye. Lord, please help Molly to say goodbye. Help me too…

 

New Life

 

We were overjoyed to find out on April 30 that Molly was pregnant again. It is July 28 now, and yesterday we heard the baby’s heartbeat for a second time. All is well so far, and Molly is due to have the baby in January. And in all honesty, this new pregnancy has helped push away a lot of the grief we felt. It gave us a new hope to help heal our past hurts.

 

I know that for a lot of people, the story is very different. More miscarriages happen. People have trouble getting pregnant again. No children ever come. And I don’t know what that feels like. I imagine that it’s incredibly painful, and probably at times feels very hopeless.

 

All I know is that through my own experience of loss, I was able to understand the grace of God anew. I did not go through a phase of being angry at God, though I’m sure people do. I think I just became more aware of the deep sadness embedded in creation, the groaning that Paul talks about in Romans 8, the way all of the earth is yearning for a day when pain and death will be no more. We may not all go through a miscarriage, but we will all face that groaning in one form or another.

 

The Christian response to that groaning, the Christ-like response to loss and death, is to be angry and cry. After Lazarus died, Jesus got angry and he cried. This is the way through. He talked with his grieving friends in the words they needed to hear. He comforted them. He went with them to the tomb. And he showed them, in the raising of Lazarus, a glimpse of the future hope: a glimpse that there will be a day when our tears will be wiped away for good. It’s just not here yet.

 

Molly and I have come to understand our utter dependence upon God. We simply don’t know if our new baby will be healthy, or if something terrible will happen. It is absolutely out of our control—it’s not about how much we pray, or how much faith we have.

 

There’s this great part of Finding Nemo when Dory and Marlin are hanging off of a blue whale’s tongue, and Dory is about to let go and drop into its mouth, and Marlin asks her: “How do you know something bad isn’t going to happen?” Dory says, like we all should say, “I don’t!” Then she lets go and falls into the dark abyss, into a future that she cannot foresee.

 

Experiencing a miscarriage was horrible, and I wish it upon no one. I do not believe God wants it to happen. However, I have also grown immensely from my grief. I’ve come to find solace in the idea that there will never be a single moment when I am in control, when I can make this world free from pain and death. I can cling to my worry and my control, I can remain in my illusory pockets of safety. But life, abundant life, it comes when we let go of all that and allow ourselves to fall into the deep things of God. And that is the only way through: in the long, slow process of learning to trust him with everything. Even the lives of those we love.

 

Encouragement

 

If you are going through a miscarriage, here’s some ways I would encourage you to find healing, though I am certainly no expert.

  • Remember, there is no easy way to get rid of grief. The only way is through.
  • I encourage you to find a friend, find a counselor, find a pastor, and tell them what’s going on. They will listen. It will help you to heal. If you are a man, I understand that you are bearing the double pain of the loss itself, and the inability to fully understand your wife’s loss. Others can help you process what you are feeling. Let them help you do this.
  • Resist the quick healing. Healing will take time, longer than you want it to take.
  • Be vulnerable with people you trust. Protect your heart. Some people are not helpful, and some people are. When people are harmful, forgive them; they probably have no way to relate with what you are going through.
  • Lean into your love—don’t run away from your spouse or partner. Support each other. Let each other take turns crying. Let your man cry, he is going to want to feel strong. Let your wife cry long after you have “gotten over it.” We all deal with this stuff differently.
  • Have grace for yourself. Meaning eat too much, watch too much TV. Be less productive. Forgive yourself for doing these things. You are facing a real loss, and it is going to affect you in every way.
  • Pray. Meaning be honest with God. Be angry, be depressed, be sad, and bring all those dark emotions to God. He can handle them, and he can guide us to a place of healing. We can do nothing to separate ourselves from his love: if we bring our true selves to him, we can become more aware of his saving presence even in our times of trouble.

 

If you are supporting a friend who is going through a miscarriage, here is some encouragement and advice for you:

 

  • Do not talk about how common it is to have a miscarriage. It is common to get cancer as well, but that does not seem to be the compassionate response to it. This is a real loss of a real child—understand that felt reality, even if the child was only a few weeks old. Knowing that thousands of others are experiencing it at that moment does not make it any easier.
  • Silence is always better than harmful clichés. Do not say anything about God’s will. Do not explain the problem of evil. Do not say God works in mysterious ways. These are things beyond our understanding. They are never helpful and often harmful.
  • Listen deeply, and say “I’m so sorry this happened. I love you so much.” Repeat.
  • Talk about what happened. If you have a friend or family that is experiencing a miscarriage, don’t ignore it. Write a note. Make a phone call. Visit them! Bring them a meal. They need you, but they might not be able to communicate that. Take the initiative. Go and listen in whatever way you can. This may be uncomfortable for you, but we need each other.
  • Pray with people, when you are with them and when you are not. They need it. (We had friends pray for us immediately when we told them—this was exactly what we needed, and it brought our friendship with them to a new, deeper, and more intimate place).
  • Share your story. If you have had a miscarriage, your story can help people. Reach out, write a note, say I’ve been there. It helps more than you might know.

 

*Also, update on my wife’s current pregnancy. She is in the third trimester officially, and everyone, wife and baby boy, is healthy and happy. We are looking forward to meeting him in January!

 

 

 

 

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Some Prayers (2010-13)

For a long time, I have kept a record of prayers–I’ve never been sure of what to make of them, much less what to do with them. They are poems, I suppose, but more so they are just honest reflections of my prayer life put to words.

I decided to just post a few of them with the hope that maybe they would be helpful, enjoyable, and pray-able for others.  They are a few years old, and I have revised them a little bit as I’ve gotten some distance from them. I’m happy that some prayers are the same for me, and that some have changed.

 

3-25-10

David was not a god, but I am so jealous
of his heart, and how close he was to you.
Make me that close;
make my heart so big.

 

I want to slay giants
and behead them,
place them on sticks
for all to see,

 

to be bloody for my God,

 

to imitate Samuel
and prophesy without control,
as my Saul tries to overcome me,
as I clip his robe in triumph—

 

God, make me more solid today;
condemn my wickedness.

 

I am a weak man, full of pride:

 

open my closed fists,
slay my violent heart.

 

4-20-10

It rained today a little
and I had a great supper

 

Help me find you better
in my every day walking steps,
help me fly to depths
where the light is hidden,
yet ablaze with purpose,
as the eagle intent on flight,
hidden in a mountain crag

 

Help me see everyone but myself:
make me lowly in my high place

 

I want to fly
but I am sunk in dirt

 

Help me flourish in the garden
where you planted me

 

(I think it was just last spring
that I first learned
to grow)

 

4-25-10

 

Help me dig in the Word
where untold stories take root,
where my eyes yearn to bloom
grow
and flourish

 

There will be trouble, he said,
but I have overcome this world, and I bet
Jesus loves the sound of this spring rain
almost as much as the trees,
who soak in its life,
and by twisting, desperate roots,
drink up this sweet spring rain
so much, and sometimes,
how different we are from the trees

 

Please, my Christ,
let me soak up
your water
so much

 

 

that I simply burst

 

 

 

10-18-10

how i long for you, father
you met my weakness with ferocity,
waves crashing after waves

 

you embraced my depravity, pulled
me up out of the depths, and i breathed.

 

my father, carrying me:
my spirits are lifted by your breath in me
and your life is yet life, in me

 

father, Lord over the waters,
descend again and again to me
i need you every day and hour,
for my fears need conquering,
and i call you Conqueror;
tether me closer and closer,
my ocean-anchor,
my gentle captain

 

now waves after crashing waves
are such sweet music:
and my father is the mighty song

 

 

4-6-10

 

O Trinity, the world is good:
my friends smile,
laying on soft grass in the courtyard,
throwing discs, rugby balls, stories,
ignoring responsibilities.

 

I find new songs today for you,
a thousand songs for your name:
the whole earth cries out your praise
and so will I!

 

For this earth is whole and so am I,

 

and Jesus you are whole
and Father you are whole
and Spirit you are whole.

 

Give me the movement of your shining, shaking
world,
help me tremble in the joy of this innocent hour,
so that when I walk
the whole earth sings
of the living God who walks with me.

 

 

 

11-19-11

 

your unparalleled parables,
small blazing lights
ignite within me a strange undoing
of heart and presupposing thought,
like grenades in a cramped
and cluttered mind,
a clarity undone by ancient prose
(and everywhere the kingdom grows)

 

I bow to this eternal plot: my savior’s words
such mysteries so full and deep

 

let me forget myself in you
and let my heart be wrecked and torn
if that is what you feel so I
desire to feel brokenness

 

but in your winding winning words
let me rest and be restored
those wondered lights create my path
that lead me to your mind so deep

 

(and all this time will bow to space
when I am with you at the gates)

 

1-12-13

Jesus let me praise You with my words
though they are feeble, limited and bland
You are the sweetest breath—the strongest wind!
You conquered death before I ever feared
You fill up forests with your mystery
You whisper grace into the dying throngs
The dying eagle hears your Calvary cries
He lifts his head, acknowledges the Lord!
I wonder in the darknesses of day
about the Light you shine within my chest
Poke holes in me, like yours if I can bare
to shine your likeness in a dimming land
for you can puncture wounds and make them Love
and be the river washing clean the world!

 

4-4-13

Jesus: every drop of water
every drop of red
every bread-crumb broken:
the son of man, my only friend
the only guide in the dark world,
the sole rock of the soiled earth

 

I lift my eyes to you
and your face
I weep, sweep my tears
steal my sorrow from sight
I am unworthy of you
I am no true Israelite
no centurion

 

but a sinner with wet eyes
a sinner without excuse
a sinner with hands ascending

 

Lord God
teach me again
to fear the waters
to be washed by them
to hear the old fathers
to praise the Almighty
and deny the self

 

I need your every drop
your every crumb:

Jesus
I am thirsty
Jesus
I am hungry

 

4-17-13

 

O Lord my God, redemption (spelled in blood)
your justice captures me, I freeze, ensnared;
I ache under the iron chains I locked,
I fear the death, my sentence soon impends—
and wait—a man has blood poured in a bowl—
he stands a witness from the Skull, Golgotha—
he dips his shining hand under the red
and smears the crimson life across my head.
I am stained afresh with dripping life!
The chains fall off, they transform into bread—
the angel passes over me—I rest—
my God, my Christ, is making all things new!
This broken bread repairs my shattered heart!
The morning comes—hold on—I feel its warmth!

 

 

 

Notes for my Unborn Son

My wife and I are due to have a baby boy in January. I don’t know how one prepares for a first child, but as someone who writes poetry, that is how I am doing it (as well as, of course, buying lots of things for his nursery and all). Anyhow, these are just little notes I I’ve been imagining saying to my son: as I’ve seen him coming more alive; as I’ve seen my wife go through this amazing process; as I’ve thought about his life to come and the conversations we will have as he grows and explores this God-given world.

 

Notes for my Unborn Son

 

I.

 

where to begin?
with a handful of dust
and a prayer

I know less than I did
when I started this poem
I have become less
and wild John was right

I must

 

II.

 

last week I had a group of college students
staying at our house
their eyes wonder-wide
hungry for the wisdom we call advice
and I gave it
like a fool

but son
we never get there
we never feel sure
we merely cup our frail hands
before the pouring fountain
and pray to our Father:

more, more, more

 

III.

 

life is inexpressibly
beautiful

your mother walks by me
humming to herself in reverie
and again she is an angel, a quiet mystery
floating past in her silken robe—
what words, what feeble cages
could contain even her shadow?

 

IV.

 

I once saw a young man
pluck a tulip from a bed
but for me and God
and the watchful dead
deep in the soil:
he was alone

he walked twenty yards
and tossed it in the trash

I also held hands
with an old woman
dying at the hospital
all of her family
prayed and sang
like cherubs before dark

her fearless eyes glowed
when we saw her glimpse
our veiled future

at times this all may seem
terrible, aimless, futile

but trust me that pain
ends, suffering
transfigures, death
at the close
meets her reflection

and shudders

 

V.

 

I am sorry God called me
to this pilgrim
cross-haunted life
I am sorry the world
is the world
I am sorry that I
am not Jesus
I am sorry to drown you
in his waters
to join you
to his sufferings

his costly, narrowing life

I pray I only bury you once

but child
I know of no
other road
that finds
Love

 

VI.

 

forgive me
for wanting to save
you already

give me time
to trust you to God

a few moments
where your fragility
does not frighten me
but emboldens me
to become strong

I know that someday
I will let you save me—
feed me          nurture me

I will let you sell my home
make all the decisions
even cry like I taught you

more than I ever could

but long before my stone is overgrown
I will lose you to the happiness
of sense and life—I will long
to lose you

I will beg you
to wash me
into the realm of dreams

but for a moment
till that moment
cry and cry away this night

The New River

I wrote this pantoum about and for my father a few years ago, based on a picture I had from a white water rafting trip we took when I was in Scouts, taken right before I got flung into the rapids (I looked terrified). I hope you enjoy it on this Father’s Day. Sorry I couldn’t find the picture it’s based on!

 

The New River

You will soon ride under the river alone.

The photo was taken offshore, by a professional

waiting to capture my fear before I faced what they call the Hole,

a Class-5 Monster, the Big Dip of the New River.

 

The photo was taken offshore by a professional.

He caught that stupid yellow duckey, my front tilting up

over the Class-5 Monster, the Big Dip of the New River.

My eyes are wildfire. Father’s stay steady and blue.

 

The stupid yellow duckey is lopsided,

father anchors into the water, pushes me up.

My eyes are wildfire. His remain steady as blue

waves overwhelm us with the river-white foam.

 

Father weighs down in the water, but the river will push me out.

The picture shows my oar, halfway out my hands,

waving, overwhelmed by the river-white foam.

I wish I could tell my 8-year-old self: don’t worry

 

the oar is halfway out my hands,

but father’s will not be moved.

I tell myself even now: do not worry,

my father’s hands are sure. He will not leave me.

 

My father will not be moved.

He already can see the end of the rapids,

and his hands are sure; he will not leave me.

He will never be ashamed of my fears.

 

He can already see the end of the rapids,

the rapids that teach me to fear death,

but he will never be ashamed of my fears:

he shares them with me. By his outstretched hand

 

my father will teach me to fear death, but also

to keep my young eyes still, my new arms strong.

He shares his with me by an outstretched hand.

He looks ahead for me and tells me what is coming:

 

Keep your eyes open. Your arms strong.

Release your fear as you face what they call the Hole.

I will not always see ahead of you, or know what is coming.

You will soon ride under the river, alone.

Semis

 

They have always been like giants to me

eager to squash and munch and bellow

 

but as I hush the voices of NPR

and my eyes scan the hills and knobs

of this great winding mess called I-65

 

as I duck and dodge these monsters

I am struck with wonder:

What’s in all those semis?

 

I mean, where are they going?

Where is it all coming from?

 

Tearing through their metal sides

I see their wonderful secrets

 

one semi is full of piñatas

the shape of crosses

stuffed with expired Easter candy

 

the other has live monkeys

no cages and no rules

 

one contains a discothèque

pulsing with the sweat of teenagers

who fall as one at every pothole

 

another has piles of wax statues

crude, colorful imitations of the Greek masters

all falling short of their god’s glory

 

one hosts twenty-six princesses, all sitting in front of mirrors

putting on lipstick and wiping it off again

unable to screw their face just right

 

the other has a single pea under a pillow

blissful and still as he could be

 

there we all were

rushing off

going somewhere

showing something

hiding most of it

 

after all that dreaming

I felt so transparent and boring

with my non-tented windows

and my silver 2006 Corolla

 

I wondered what hidden things

these semis might find in me?

What dreams has the dreamer

failed to see? What dances

under my hood?

What lies asleep in my trunk

coughing and crying

hoping and waiting

even by these monsters

to be seen?

Sabbath

I’ve sat around all day, really.
I read a theological magazine.
I watched a kung-fu television show
all the way to its campy finale.
I took a walk with my dog.
And I even wrote a poem about God.
But it’s today that’s vexing me.
Did I do enough?
I’m sure I didn’t love anyone,
or even talk to anyone face to face
(except for my neighbor John
and he barely got a hello).
But I enjoyed the pink blooms
on a nearby cherry tree
and I also made and devoured a delicious turkey sandwich.
I even toasted the bread.

But the most important work I did today
was on my walk
when I stopped to enjoy the rare sunshine
cutting through the grey Spring clouds.

I heard God say to me
Isn’t this enough?
Is my earth not enough?
Am I not enough?

And I wonder now
as I sit in watch for the dark to come
if my lazy, wasted, fruitless day
can count as one long
heaving sigh of

Yes
Yes
Yes

Polynices: I. Icarus

 

This is the first part of a four part poem entitled “Polynices,” named after the brother of Antigone. It’s about an experience I had as an on-call chaplain, in my attempt as a young white man to minister to an African-American family whose 22 year old had been shot and killed.

I. Icarus

Last night
I dreamed about you again
kneeling outside the ER
squawking, flailing, moaning

your old mothers perch beside you
cooing and humming
their clay faces
lined with the contours of grief
hardened by years of this—
this terrible familiarity
with shotguns
and the cracked shells
they leave behind

the grandmothers in their wisdom
nest a home for your cries
beside you on the sidewalk
folding you in close
with sighs of oh child
and the deep, winged memory
of men and their guns

your aunts and sisters swoop in behind
to preen your moans, searching for answers
hatched in the silence that death brings

your lament breaks the starless night
with rushing, un-prescribed pain
your pain is an eagle of the river
bald and black and wild

escaping the cages
forged by the hospital and its managers of risk

was he your brother? your cousin?
your lover?

(I mean the dead black body
the police are keeping as evidence

or as Christ put it
where the vultures gather)

I don’t remember now
who he was to you

I just remember flying
away from you
up through the door
past the guard
and the nurses
to catch my breath
and stretch my tightened chest

and I’m still flying
up and up
away from you

because a man like me
too close to a pain like you

who knows
my wings might finally melt

A Question

This is one of many poems I wrote during my experience as a chaplain’s intern at Duke Hospital. I haven’t really known what to do with them–they just contain these little snapshots of the hopelessness, but also the grace, that is found in trying to minister to the sick and the dying.

the patient was eighty-nine years old
I bet on Sunday he is an usher in a big old church
with a grey suit and pocket square
but not tonight
tonight he was groaning, blind
ready to meet Jesus
a dying Ray Charles who’d lost his voice
and sunglasses

they phoned the chaplain
because the man might “hurt himself”

I could see why
his wrinkles tremored with the knowledge of pain
stretched across his crisscrossed
black skin, weathered by decades of memory
hardened by the near-misses and nearness of death

I sat and held his trembling hand
as he moaned like sandpaper:

I can’t keep on like this
I don’t want to keep on like this
I just I don’t I can’t      anymore
Prea—cher?                 he sang in a deep baritone
Prea—cher?                 What do I do?

my infant tongue flew up and stuck
to the roof of my mouth
the question shot within me
and bounded like an old-fashioned bullet
the kind that doesn’t go straight through

even as I write this now, the shrapnel
of his words cut and bounce under my thick skin
with a strange, piercing echo:

Prea—cher?                Prea—cher?
What       do     I       do?

 

 

 

Haiku: Mass

Cold rain, the blue noise

beats upon us weary men;

Father, Kyrie.

 

Green corn, opening,

your life breath moving, cooling;

the Spirit reigns, flies.

 

In dark terror, I

cling to firm cliffs, solid land,

your words affirming.

 

Holy holy Lord,

the forests sway, erupt, shout

this Sanctus solstice.

 

My great Messiah

soars through rushing waters, that

ferocious current.

 

The fallen oak stands

up: life gushes from God’s Lamb

a green, breathing world!