Ordination in the UMC: A Sign of Hope in A Divisive Time

laying-on-of-hands-ordination

 

It hardly needs to be said, but it is a strange time to be ordained in the United Methodist Church. It feels bit like trying to jump into a runaway train: where you will go, what will happen to you once you are inside? Is it better to jump in before it hurls off the upcoming cliff (February 2019), or would it be best to wait and see what will be left after the crash?

 

As far as I can tell, no one really knows where we are going as a denomination. The sharpest minds in United Methodism that I know have looked at our current division over human sexuality from every angle, reworked it and hypothesized and prophesied, but at the end they always conclude with a similar sigh of bewilderment. An overly familiar shrug. A sign of mute surrender.

 

For ordained clergy, those already bound by covenant to one another and to God, this is a particularly painful moment. What God has put together, let no one put asunder, or something along those lines. The suspicion, the equivocation, the erosion of trust: it hurts in a numbing way. In a discouraging way. And really, in a quiet way, as men and women whisper about their “gracious exit” plans, their plan Bs, as hope in the church they love slowly diminishes.

 

But what about those of us being ordained into such a church? What should we make of it all?

 

I grew up a United Methodist, and I’ve always loved the church. I felt called into ministry in college, I immediately went to seminary, and am now serving my first church. I’ve been “in the process” for many years, a process that at times is full of grace and encouragement, and at other times seems to test one’s bureaucratic prowess more than pastoral fitness. But processed I have been, and this month, in just a week’s time, I will be ordained. Hands will be laid upon me, and by the power of the Holy Spirit, I will be called and set apart by the church to the fourfold vocation of Word, Sacrament, Order, and Service. Questions will be asked of me. Tough questions. Questions about my commitment to give my vow, my covenant, to this body called the United Methodist Church. I will be asked if I will uphold the rules and discipline of the church; if I will strive toward Christian perfection; if I will essentially give all of who I am to a life of service to Christ through the UMC.

 

My plan, as foolish as it may seem, is to say yes. When I see this runaway train, full of sinners and saints, there is something in me that wants to dive in. To go where they go, fall where they fall, crash where they crash. I am not fatalistic, nor naïve. I am not idealistic, nor optimistic. But, dang it, I am a Methodist and I don’t know where else to go.

 

Why? Why bind myself to this denomination on the verge of division? Why throw in my lot with this frustrating hierarchy that often seems to value equivocation and pacification over the hard-fought, hard-won truths of Christian orthodoxy? Why not leave this struggling, leaderless cohort and move on to serve Jesus elsewhere, in the greener and more theologically sensible pastures of denomination X or non-denominational church Y?

 

Because she is my mother, of course.

 

She formed me in her womb. She gave birth to my faith. Without her introduction, I would not have met Jesus. She drowned me in the waters of his baptism; she brought me back to life with the breath of his Spirit. And I love her like a mother. She frustrates me daily, constantly. She nags me. She is stuck in the past; she is horrible with technology; she is almost triumphantly un-cool. But she raised me. She raised good children, my sisters and brothers, who have shown me what a life of following Jesus looks like.

 

I have tried my whole life to imitate the saints she calls her children, men and women that I have looked up to, that have shown Christ to me.

 

People like:

  • Jim and Debbie Wright, the parents who above all are the reason for my faith
  • Nat Peters, a model of Christian manhood to me and countless other youth at my home church Middletown UMC
  • Rachel Wallace, his daughter, my lifelong friend who continues to teach me how to be a pastor and who recently baptized my son
  • Nancy Tinnell, the pastor at that church who taught me what it means to be spiritual leader
  • Chris Morgan, my dear friend and colleague who first taught me how to have an intellectual love of God
  • Warren Hopper, the director of Camp Loucon, who taught me what it meant to be passionate for Jesus.

 

This is just to name a few; there are many more. All rather obscure figures to the world, but in my world, in my life, these saints have meant everything to me. And they all were formed by the Spirit as he lived and moved through the UMC.

 

This gratitude for the church that raised me has formed over time, but it came into sharp relief a few minutes before my commissioning interview about two years ago. I was standing outside the Kentucky annual conference offices in Crestwood, KY. Before me stood the impressive statue of a circuit rider on his horse, Bible in hand, a monument dedicated to the sacrifices of brave, gospel-preaching clergy throughout the years. Sheepishly, I averted my gaze from the imposing figure and looked down at my feet, nervous about my approaching interview, wondering what I was even doing there. I began to read the mosaic of bricks beneath me, each brick naming a donor that had contributed to building the conference office.

 

As I read the names of the bricks my feet were covering up, I gasped:

 

Rev. Clay and Henrietta Sledge.

 

I doubt many would know those names anymore, but I certainly recognized the names of my great-grandparents. Papaw and Nanny, right there below me, memorialized in the ground I stood upon. Papaw was able to attend Vanderbilt for seminary, because his brothers all chipped in to pay for it; I never got to meet him. Nanny wanted to be a preacher’s wife, and when she filled in for Papaw when he was sick, many said that she was the better preacher. They gave their entire lives to Jesus. They offered their bodies, in the words or Romans 12, as a living sacrifice in ministry with the people called Methodists. As I saw their names below my feet, I felt a great relief, an abiding sense of hope. I was standing upon a strong foundation. I walked into my interview with renewed purpose: to honor my great-grandparents in a life lived for Jesus.

 

As I think about my upcoming ordination, I am reminded of a scene in Lord of the Rings when Pippin and Gandalf look upon the darkness of Mordor. The hobbit Pippin asks if there were any hope for Frodo and Sam, who journey there to destroy the ring. Gandalf responds, “There never was much hope. Just a fool’s hope.”

 

I think for all of us in the UMC, a fool’s hope is the kind of hope we need. We see a looming battle, an uncertain future, and a thousand ways in which things could go badly awry.

 

I don’t pretend to know what the future holds for our denomination. I have no idea. But I take courage; into this very confusing situation, God is calling men and women to be leaders in the church. God is calling bishops, elders, deacons, pastors, preachers. God is calling Sunday school teachers, small group leaders, youth ministers, prayer warriors, parents.

 

One by one, all across the world, in this time that we have been given, there are United Methodists hearing that call, and responding in the ancient words of Isaiah: Here I am. Send me.

 

That is what I, along with several other ordinands in the Kentucky Annual Conference, will say on June 11. We will look out into that future and say come what may: send me.

 

All of us who step forward to be set apart for a life of ministry, we do not step forward out of fear or anxiety. We do not step forward hedging our bets one way or another. We do not step forward because we trust in presidents or bishops, traditions or innovations, committees or commissions.

 

We step forward because we are genuinely hopeful. God is still God. The gospel of Jesus is still true. The Spirit is still transforming his church to be a holy people.

 

I don’t know if our hope is foolish or faithful. I don’t know how all this will play out over the next few years. But we cannot wait for a perfect church before we get to work. The harvest is plentiful and the stakes are simply too high.

 

And so I take heart, because God is calling workers, even into the mess. Because there is work to be done. Lives to be transformed. Souls to be saved. A gospel to be proclaimed. A church longing for renewal.

 

This is why we step forward. To do the work, to serve the Lord, to love our people. To say, by the grace of God, come what may, I will go where you go. I will stay where you stay. Here I am. Send me.

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A Woman Taking A Picture of Brilliant Yellow #9 by Jo Baer

I recently took a trip to Chicago and visited the Art Institute. This is a poem, a reflection, of a moment I had in the contemporary art section.

brilliant yellow number 9photo from https://www.flickr.com/photos/_jwong/8385878632

 

A Woman Taking A Picture of Brilliant Yellow #9 by Jo Baer

The painting but a slab of white
bordered by a yellow line
she sees it through her lit up screen
and captures what is thought sublime

I watch the woman watching lights
transmitting white and nothingness
I pause with sadness and delight
unsure of who was watching what

Two floors down to Renaissance
I blush before El Greco’s queen
towering in her innocence
assuming more from the current scene

Stopping by a Field on a Gray Spring Morning

I haven’t posted in a while–having a newborn will do that to you. Here’s a new piece about my usual subject: just whatever I happen to see while walking around. I hope you enjoy it. 

 

Stopping by a Field on a Gray Spring Morning

this early spring morning wet with dew
the Bradford pears dripping white and green
coloring the gray sky, refreshing the songbirds
lightening these tired brown eyes

I walk a narrow farm driveway
I am almost to the cattle-gate
my dog tiptoes across each morning

to the right, centered in the once-farmed field
I eye a tall brush-pile, taller than me
wider than several men, ready for the bonfire
I’ve never been to and never seen

a tower of logs, sticks, branches
death piled upon death,
the fallen canes of old man winter

but right in the middle
in its heart
a bright orange rocking chair
enthroned upon the brush
yet hidden too

who made this chair
who threw it out
who painted it with such a garish eye
what man or metal bent its swinging frame
what child, for it was fit for a child,
sat it in it, holding her doll,
play-acting her serene grandmother,
babbling nonsense to the wind?

I know my house, the parsonage, lies just down the lane
and I will be there soon to dwell among its joys

but what calls me to sit a while in such a chair
to watch the flowers bloom and whither?

who beckons me to rest there
like a fallen king of a former mountain

until all this is flame and smoke
until the easy wind and downy flake
is but the soaring of ashes
rising like ghosts in the summer haze?

Fourth Sunday of Advent: Love

Merry Christmas! This is a poem I wrote for the fourth Sunday of Advent, which this year was Christmas Eve too. I hope to post a Christmas Eve and Christmas Day sonnet soon, but for now enjoy this poem, inspired by the many walks I have taken with my (very!) pregnant wife. Enjoy the beauty of this day. God is with us!

 

Fourth Sunday of Advent: Love

Love is walking by my side, the oldest force
to wreck the pride of men: a woman with child.
She calms my pace, pulls me back on course—
who can resist a power as pure or wild?
Old Joseph, you were stronger than most men,
urging Mary on to Bethlehem. What tears
were shed along that road of sin?
What arguments or silence stilled the air?
Love has overlooked my coward’s heart,
in grace endured my anxious laugh,
ignored my tendency to fall apart,
and taught me wisdom weakness on the path.
She carries me, and stops a while to rest.
Love slows us down to show us we are blessed.

Third Sunday of Advent: Joy

This Sunday I preached about John the Baptist leaping for joy at the presence of Jesus. In the same way, I have seen my son leaping in the womb. What better image of expectation can there be? And what better posture for Christians in the Advent season, as we long with John to meet our Lord.

 

Third Sunday of Advent: Joy

My son leaps like John from the womb, his feet
pressing, stretching out to the music. The fading
glow of voices and their shadows, the glory of his
awakening eyes: all lights dancing toward the coming day.
My hand upon the mother’s skin, but now he’s steady,
a coy withdrawal into mystery or heaven.
Any day now. My fingers block his muted sun,
poking shadows into his floating world, temporary
yet pleasant in its dreams, true in its imaginations.
Like ours, your world is everything—and incomplete.
Expanding, contracting, groaning with the rhythms
of love and pain, moaning with the masses: to what end?
What motion prods us from the coming day?
What child, what pain, what joy is on its way?

Second Sunday of Advent: Peace

I wrote this poem to reflect what the peace of the Christ child might mean for this world so flooded with news of death and destruction. In this Advent season, I hope that you can look to Christ as the actual, living, present hope to every suffering person in this world.

With all the saints we pray in this season: Come Lord Jesus!

 

Second Sunday of Advent: Peace

The forests of the west are burning. These days
a cutting wind sweeps over us—I am burning
and you are burning. The heat of war, the whipping
lash of lies, the shrapnel of senseless words
pierces every living soul. I am tired
and waiting for a son. What is this falling world,
this furious gift? Who counts the flames,
who rests easy when any laughter mingles
with the cries of Ivan’s children*—how many
Joan of Arcs, child soldiers, are become ashes,
forgotten for a cease fire we mistake as peace?
What voices drew them to mankind’s fire?
Our only hope a child from the coals:
Born a babe to die and make us whole.

 

 

 

 

*This is a reference to Ivan Karamazov from The Brothers Karamazov. This is what Ivan says, in his doubts about God’s goodness:  “For the hundredth time I repeat, there are numbers of questions, but I’ve only taken the children, because in their case what I mean is so unanswerably clear. Listen! If all must suffer to pay for the eternal harmony, what have children to do with it, tell me,please? It’s beyond all comprehension why they should suffer, and why they should pay for the harmony. Why should they, too, furnish material to enrich the soil for the harmony of the future? I understand solidarity in sin among men. I understand solidarity in retribution, too; but there can be no such solidarity with children. And if it is really true that they must share responsibility for all their fathers’ crimes, such a truth is not of this world and is beyond my comprehension.”

Advent: First Sunday

This Advent season, I am hoping to write a series of sonnets, about the dual longing for Christ’s birth and for the birth of my own son, who is due to be born somewhere around January 2. I hope you enjoy them as a way of reflection upon this season of longing, anticipation, and expectation of how new life is breaking into this world.

 

Advent: First Sunday

My wife lays next to me; she breathes and rolls
from side to side. The pains of child-growing
and its joys—tossing her in wonder and in awe—
the thunder and the beauty of the night—
we’re both awake and dreaming of the dark,
the luminous shadow: our son, unborn, his face.
The light of morning—sooner than we think.
Yet darkness stays. We stay. We wait.
She rises now to read and sleep alone,
contorting on the couch to find some peace.
I fade away, in fitful anxious sleep,
the kind that never ends. Until it does.
O Mary, what comes after restless nights?
What joy and loss, what cross, what life?

Newtown, A Lament. 12/14/12

I wrote this poem about five years ago, after the Sandy Hook shooting. It’s difficult to process these horrific massacres from a distance, when you see it on a screen or when you read about them on your phone. I am sad because I feel like these past five years have made me numb to the horror of these shootings–they have become normalized, they have become integrated into the fabric of our culture. When a mass shooting happens now, we all know what to do, what sides to take, what to tweet, if or if not to pray, who is right, who has the answers, who can fix things. And I count myself in this, too. I have taken no meaningful action to prevent such horrific acts, and this apathy renders my heart a stone. I hope to discern the violence in my own heart today, as I grieve for what is lost, as I discern how I should act to work toward a more peaceable kingdom on this earth.

As a pastor, I cannot imagine what it is like to have your entire congregation gunned down–people you loved, people that annoyed you, people that changed you, people that made you a better Christian, people you prayed with when their loved ones died, people who poured out their lives to you. All gone in a few minutes, snatched from you by a demon, killed by a terrorist, slaughtered without pity. There is nothing to say about such a thing as that. Texas, we love you, we weep with you, and God forgive us as a people if we continue to do nothing.

 

Newtown, A Lament. 12/14/12

hold tongues                   it’s a tragedy
balloons bursting yellow                  tape cotton candy
glass melted, the metal burning                  hot

kids fly off                                  into outer space
bullets land on them, chanting
lullabies            rhymes              folk songs
clapping hands            cold fists
blood hands of four score                seven years
pulls them down                 to earth

lord
we are ugly
forgive us for
Hiroshima                          morality

concrete shards ascend                    into the clouds
burning victims dragged down                   into ideologies

o God where are we what                  have we done?

we all are
talking saying mouthing pointing blaming noising chanting singing stomping             shouting                     crushing                     yelling!

turn off the computer,                      turn off my computer!

silence is me inside the school.
stillness is my finger                         on the trigger.
I caused this              my sins
children die because I am a sinner
did      I      cause     this      tragedy      too?
my tears won’t come                                    they won’t save me
lord why can’t I cry over this?

I eat                I am               I see
nothing           nothing
there is             nothing
does life continue
will tomorrow still                 after such madness will there
be any sense of         will we                        move on tomorrow or the
next or will it be                    the next day

                                Eli Eli
                               maranatha*

 

 

 

*Come, O Lord

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!