Friday, May 5, 2017

Celebrating and Remembering

The first week of May is always a bit of an emotional roller coaster for our family.  It’s a week to honor both my twin daughters.  We celebrate our daughter Becca May’s life while at the same time we honor Hope Marie’s memory—and try to live in the inevitable uncomfortable tension between those two tasks.

The writer of Ecclesiastes says: For everything there is a season. Paul tells the Romans to rejoice with those who rejoice and mourn with those who mourn. Most of the time life allows for a separation between those "seasons".  Babies are born healthy and we rejoice over a new life; people die after living a long life and we mourn their loss.  But every now and again, the neat divisions break down, such as they did for me on May 2, 2008.  Suddenly, joy and sorrow exploded into my life simultaneously.  I had identical twin daughters born that day; one was perfectly healthy, the other clearly was not.  She never cried and was surrounded by medical staff who struggled to keep her alive. She was quickly taken from the delivery room to the NICU at Franklin Square, and later that day she was transferred to Johns Hopkins.  

Hope looked perfect on the outside, an identical match to Becca in every way physically, but it soon became clear her body was just a shell.  The medical diagnosis was grim.  As I lived through that long surreal 48 hours, the neat boundaries I thought existed between joy and sorrow came crashing down around me.  It was emotional whiplash.  I struggle to handle one emotion at once—much less the torrent of feelings that came with these events that changed my life.  I remember, more than once, asking God to breathe for my daughter because clearly she was struggling to do it on her own.  She never did breathe on her own, though.  In fact, she barely survived the transfer from one hospital to the other. When we came to Hopkins the day we let her go, machines were the only thing making her lungs move.  We knew what we had to do… We felt what I can only describe as peace in the midst of the pain.

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 I have always been thankful that, in our situation, we had a slight separation between the day the girls were born and the day that Hope died—two days later. (Not all who lose a twin are so fortunate.)  The separation is by no means perfect, however.  May 2 is, after all, the day both Becca and Hope were born.  Even May 4 is a bit of a mix, since it happens, is my brother's birthday.  Yes, my daughter died the day my brother was born.  Despite our best efforts, life often refuses to cooperate with our attempts to compartmentalize our emotions. 

We mark the occasion a little differently each year, but we always try hard to focus on celebrating Rebecca on her birthday.  This year for example we surprised her; her mom and I picked her up early from school.  We took her to the American Girl store at Tysons Corner and had lunch, and then she bought a new doll—Gabriella.  I had to take some time off work to do it, but the hug she gave me when she got in the car and realized dad was coming too made it all worthwhile.  It was a true God-moment I could not have planned.  She felt the joy of a happy surprise; and I felt the joy of a daughter's love for her dad.  I know it won’t be that many more years before she won’t be as interested in being with mom and dad on her birthday, so we need to take advantage of these moments together while we can.

May 3 is the day in between the celebration and the remembrance—it almost has a Holy Saturday quality to it for us.  This year I spent it working.  My wife attended a clergy meeting.  The kids went to school.  Brady had a baseball game in the evening.  It was, in many ways,  a “normal” day for our famiy, and the weather was beautiful too.  But we were also well aware of what tomorrow would bring. 

Our family refers to May 4 as Hope Day.  As we do every year on that day, we visited the cemetery where our daughter is buried. A line from Lauren Daigle’s song,  O Lord,  says: “I will stand my ground where Hope can be found.”  While Hope’s earthly remains are buried in a tiny casket on the edge of Miranda Cemetery in Huntingtown, MD, we believe that her spirit soared beyond the limits of her weak mortal shell the moment she passed from life support to life eternal.  Wherever Hope dwells now, she is not confined to a rusting box in the ground.  We do not have to be in a specific geographic location to commune with Hope.  

Nevertheless, there is something significant about occasionally and intentionally making a pilgrimage to a specific plot of ground in Calvert County (right now, a 45-minute drive from where we live).  There, we “stand our ground where Hope can be found” and honor her memory. (I might add that this is where my wife and I will some day be laid to rest, “reunited” with the dust of the earth—and with our daughter’s physical remains.)  My wife and I have done this pilgrimage to Huntingtown every year on May 4, sometimes alone and sometimes with our children.  We stand before the marble monument representing our daughter and take a moment or two as a family to acknowledge that, though Hope’s life was all too short and ended tragically, her story is forever part of our story.  She was real and she mattered deeply to us.  Others may have mostly forgotten her but we most certainly have not.  Our family portrait will always be missing someone. 

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The Lent after Hope died I recall that I appreciated the song When I Survey the Wondrous Cross, as I never did before.  I was particularly drawn to the lines that say, "Sorrow and love flowed mingled down.  Did 'ere such love and sorrow meet? Or thorns compose so rich a crown."  I think I appreciated it, because, for about nine months, I felt I had been living it.  

I’ve been living in a place where love and sorrow met for nine years now. You may wonder: Have I reconciled things?  Not really.  I don’t think you ever really reconcile the gap between sorrow and love, rejoicing and suffering.  I think rather you learn live within the tension between those conflicting emotions.  After all, when you think about it, our world is a place where love and sorrow mingle quite frequently.  So we get lots of practice in this earthly life.

When people ask how we got through the loss of a child, the first answer I give is: God.  I unequivocally believe we could not have done it if God were not with us every step of the way.   But, I also believe that God works with us—not for us.   We had a role to play in our healing too.  Specifically, when Hope died, my wife and I had a choice to make.  Would we become better or bitter because of what happened?  I know I have had moments over the past nine years where bitterness got the better of me (my guess is Laurie would tell you likewise), but I hope and pray the overall arc of our lives has pointed toward betterness.  We’ve done our best to focus on living these past nine years.  From early on, we determined to keep on getting up every day and moving forward as best we could—and as much as we might have felt like staying in bed some days.  In a way, our other children made our choice easier.  After all, we had an infant daughter depending on us, not to mention a toddler son.  We often reflect that our children were our salvation in those difficult days immediately after Hope died—and their life energy keeps us moving forward still today.  I often say my daughter Becca carries “the spirit of two” within her.  Watching my children “live life to the full” brings me joy.

As time went on, I have become increasingly comfortable living a both–and existence. I learned to make both the joy of Becca May and the sorrow of Hope Marie part of my story.  The passage of time has helped to scab over the wounds of our painful experience in May 2008, but, to this day, they still can easily be reopened.  We are especially prone to reentering our wounds in the weeks leading up to the girls’ birthday.  It happened to me just the other day at Target, when there just happened to be, not one—but two—sets of healthy identical twin girls in Target shopping with their parents.  One of the sets had to have been close in age to Becca.  What is this God: sarcasm?!  I think seeing twins make me think of what I missed out on—being a father to twins.  I watch them being "normal kids" and want to stop and ask them what their life is like.  

Our celebrations with Becca are fun, and we try hard to make it a joyous occasion but there is inevitably a shadow.  We sometimes feel sad we can't celebrate the same way with Hope.  We are left with only a few photos and other mementos of her brief stay here on earth.  Looking back, we wish we had taken more time and preserved more icons of her existence.  But then again, they won’t bring her back to us.   Yes, we would give anything for more time with Hope, to have a chance to celebrate milestones (e.g., birthdays, Holidays, school and church achievements) with her, the way we do with Becca.  But alas it is not possible.  I offer myself consolation by imagining that the celebrations Hope attends on the other side are pretty darn special too.  I’m confident they know how to celebrate in heaven!  It must be wonderful have a seat at the heavenly banquet.  It must be great to have Jesus "planning your birthday".

Tuesday, March 7, 2017

Returning to the Shack: When God Visits Our Beautiful Mess

I saw the movie The Shack and I very much enjoyed it. (I had read the book a few years back as well.)  While we can certainly quibble over the nuances of the theology presented (and such discussion has its place), I also think getting bogged down too much in that kind of discussion might be missing the point. This movie provides plenty of opportunities to have a conversation about God—and to me, that’s a good thing!  In hopes of fostering such a conversation, I share a few things that struck me as I watched the movie and later thought about it.  WARNING: There are some plot spoilers below, so read at your own risk.

Mack arrives at “the Shack” still “stuck” in his Great Sadness, unable to let go of the pain and anger over his daughter Missy’s abduction and death. Mack feels angry at God for letting this tragedy happen; he also feels guilty that he wasn't there to protect his little girl when she needed him most.  His feelings are quite understandable.  Having lost a daughter myself (albeit under quite different circumstances), I felt a certain solidarity with Mack.  My guess is most people are sympathetic with Mack’s point of view.

Early in the movie, we learn that Mack also carries an even deeper pain—a Greater Sadness if you will—around his relationship with his father.  As often happens in our lives, a “current tragedy” can open up the wounds of the past.  His father was an alcoholic and abusive to his family.  Once during a church altar call, young Mack dared to reveal his father’s “sin” to the pastor.   His father, whom we have no reason to think was not a well-respected member of his church—perhaps even a leader—responded by brutally beating his son, all the while quoting scripture to the boy, as if to remind him that he was only getting what his “sinful” actions deserved. 

How could this experience he endured as a child not influence grown-up Mack’s view of God?  Is it possible he thinks on some level that he lost his daughter as a form of punishment?  You have to wonder if, even just a little bit, Mack thinks Missy died because: “I deserved it”.

It’s no wonder then, that when Mack first meets Papa (the God character) he is skeptical at best. When Mack asks why God chose a black woman avatar, Papa replies, “I figured the last thing you needed right now was a father.” Mack becomes caught up in the love of the Trinity, however, and he begins to soften.  I love how The Shack portrays the interplay of the Trinity: Papa, Jesus, and Sarayu (the Spirit character, whose name means “breath” or “wind” or “holy river” in Hindu).  The scene with Mack eating dinner with the three members of the Trinity portrays the "easiness" of the relational flow between these entities—with Mack “in the middle” of the conversation.  It is a beautiful metaphor for the communion with God for which every human being was created.

We were designed to dance with the Trinity, to walk with them, to talk with them, to laugh with them, to be caught up in the triangle of Trinitarian love—but God doesn't force anyone to join the dance.  In one scene, Papa and Sarayu dance together in the house as Mack watches them from outside through a window.  Later, after some tough conversation with Papa, Sarayu gives Mack his car keys; he is free to go.  While he is tempted to leave, in the end he chooses to stay.  Like Mack, we too can choose—and from the very beginning, human beings have chosen—to turn away from God at any time.  We can and do choose to worship other gods, take over the judge's seat from God, and even decide we want no part of God—often because, like Mack, we've misunderstood God's true nature.

Our Communion Liturgy says that, "When we turned away and our love failed [God’s] love remained steadfast". In other words, God never gives up on us. God always finds creative ways to lure us back, calling us home in a variety of ways and through whatever form is most effective to get out attention.

Papa repeatedly tells Mack she is "especially fond of him", but she later tells him she is also “especially fond” of the man who killed his daughter.  Mack struggles with a question we all wrestle with at times: How can a God that loves me also love someone that hurt me so badly?  During his encounter with a mysterious fourth character named Sophia (which is the Greek word for “wisdom[1]”), Mack learns that the key to resolving both his Great Sadnessand his Greater Sadness—lies in learning to “let go” and let God alone be the judge. Toward the end of the movie, Mack asks Papa, "Is there anyone you aren’t especially fond of?"  To which she replies, "No.". The point is, God loves all—period.  God's love is not contingent on anything we do or don't do.  That doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t do good works, nor that there are not consequences for poor choices (sin), but we should always remember that our works don't earn God’s love.  

Love isn’t just what God does; love is what God is—see 1 John 4:8.  God was love at the beginning; God is love now; God will be love into eternity.  In the end, love—not sin—has the last word. 

In fact, God loved us so much than when it became clear that there were significant roadblocks preventing us from turning to God, God chose to take on human form and come to us that we might have a chance to experience God in a "more familiar" form—see John 3:16.  Christians believe Jesus was fully divine—he was God with us in every way—but he was also fully human.  That means he experienced what it is to be human in every way.  God literally took up residence in a human body and lived a human life.  Jesus was born, he grew up, he had relationships, he experienced the full range of human emotions and the struggles that we experience, and then he died.  Not just because he died, but because he died precisely the way he did—a violent and public execution at the hands of the Romans—Jesus is somehow able to draw the sins of the whole world out of the darkness, expose them, and take them upon his body—see Colossians 2:14-15.  He was crucified and laid to rest—along with the world’s sin.  

Make no mistake, though, those who witness Jesus’ death on that dark Friday afternoon view it as a tragedy.  They do not realize, yet, what will happen on Sunday morning.  They have invested themselves in following Jesus for several years, and pinned their hopes and dreams in his being who he claimed to be.  All that hope and optimism appears lost on Good Friday.  For three days, it seems that even God couldn't overcome the world's darkness.  But then, the “impossible” happens…  God moves as only God can to bring goodness out of tragedy—life out of death.  Three days later, Jesus rises from the dead, showing that nothing—not even death—can separate us from God's love—see Romans 8:38.  

If God overcame the ultimate tragedy—the Ultimate Mess if you will—what does it say about what God can do with our personal tragedies and messes—the sin, the hardships, the suffering that inevitably come into our lives? 

I think of this chorus states it well:

We pour out our miseries.
God just hears a melody
Beautiful the mess we are.
The honest cries of breaking hearts.
Better than a hallelujah, sometimes.
Amy Grant, "Better than a Hallelujah"

Beautiful the mess we are.  In The Shack, there is a scene were Mack and Sarayu discuss this very subject.  The conversation happens in a garden as they do some work together.  When Mack first sees the garden, he thinks it is a mess—although he also notes its wild, untamed beauty.  Mack and Sarayu clear a section “overgrown” with beautiful wildflowers.  Mack didn't really understand why they were doing it at the time.  To him, it seems wasteful to destroy so many beautiful flowers to make space for “something new”.  From his limited perspective, he couldn't see the "big picture" the way the Trinity could. (We the movie watchers get a “view from above” at one point to bring this point home.)  The wild garden was a metaphor for Mack’s life: wild, messy—in process. As Papa had said to him earlier, "When all we see is our pain, we lose sight of God."  He would later lay his beautiful daughter to rest in the space that he and Sarayu had labored to create together, in a coffin Jesus had been exquisitely crafting in his workshop behind closed doors throughout the film. 

The scene where Mack literally takes the coffin and lays Missy to rest resonated deeply with me because I’ve been in a similar situation.  When we buried our daughter Hope on May 2, 2008, I was the one who carried her tiny casket from the hearse and placed it on the altar during her funeral.  While the details of Mack’s and my experiences were quite different, they were both moments that symbolized a father “letting go”, relinquishing their beloved daughter over to the care of the Trinity, releasing them from our arms to God’s.  I know full-well how heart-wrenching that is to do because I’ve done it—but, looking back nearly nine years later now, I also know how necessary it is to our healing and wholeness.

Out of Missy’s “remains” came new life; watered by Mack’s tears, which Sarayu had collected earlier, flowers and a beautiful tree spring up from the “roots” of tragedy.  What a beautiful Lenten image: New life rises from the “ashes” of a “broken” life, reminding us that, “after the last tear falls, there is love.”[2]

Beautiful the mess I am.   Okay, so a movie is great, but what about the man in the mirror?  How does this apply to me? I confess I sometimes find it easier to believe that God loves the world in general than to believe he loves me—Alan—specifically.  I feel so “messed up” some days.  I think: How can God love a mess like me? When that happens, I'm usually pretty self-absorbed and less likely to notice the world around me—much less notice God's Presence in my life. (During the movie, Mack was so self-absorbed in his own pain that he not only failed to see God, but also failed to notice that his older daughter Kate felt her own guilt over Missy’s death that was causing her to be withdrawn and depressed.)  To quote another song, "in the middle of my little mess I forget how big I'm blessed."[3] 

I have to remind myself that God sees beauty in “my little mess”, and that “my mess” is precisely "the stuff" God uses to form me into the person I was created to be.

When we start catching a glimpse of that larger Perspective that God sees all the time, we begin to realize that nothing we do in this life happens apart from God.  Every little mundane and ordinary thing we do in this life is permeated with the Presence of God.  God is in it all: the good, the bad, the ugly.  What we have to do is train our senses to become more continually aware of God’s presence in the wild, messy, in-process—and beautiful—world in which we all live, move, and have our being.

[1] The writer of the Gospel of Matthew portrays Jesus as Wisdom personified.  He is both the source of true wisdom and the Great Sage, who teaches his followers his ways.
[2] Andrew Peterson, “After the Last Tear Falls”.
[3] Francesca Batistelli, “This is the Stuff You Use”.