The truth about marriage and romance
Lessons on Grief: Why Sheryl Sandberg’s Commencement Speech matters
When We Loathe (or Love) Mother’s Day: A Solution For Us All
Why we need to laugh more

The truth about marriage and romance

You came and stood outside my window and proposed that night in 1997.  It was just like the balcony scene in Romeo and Juliet, except I was in my pajamas and you were dressed to the nines.

You didn’t tell me you were coming, that ring burning a hole in your pocket. When I heard the knocking at my window in the midnight darkness, I was too scared to see what was outside my window. When I finally got brave enough to open it, you stood there waiting to sing a love song and ask for my hand in marriage in the frozen winter night.

That’s how the story begins, with me in my pajamas and a midnight song.

DSC03172

The next day I had to get up before the sun and drive down country roads to teach eleventh graders. The girls in my class stared at me dreamily when I told them the how you proposed. They were all thinking of the day when it would be their turn to live the fairy tale.

I wish I had known what to tell those girls about real love:

There are a million ways to get down on one knee and ask a woman to marry you, but the hard task is learning to live that marriage day in and day out when the fairy tale gets kicked to the curb by the real world. 

When there’s throw up on the floor.

When the dishes are stacked mile-high on the counter.

When the medical bills fill up the mailbox.

When you stand at your son’s casket.

Because maybe what we need to show our children is real marriage isn’t a reality dating game.  We need to show couples how to love through the hardships, the piles of stained clothes, and the baby crying, instead of rose ceremonies and private jets that fly perfect couples around the world for their dates.

What we forget about Disney’s view of dating is that every fairy tale is fiction; every romance written by a romantic whose life didn’t resemble a fairy tale at all.

Someday My Prince Will Come has been the single girls’ mantra for years, but what happens when our prince turns out to be a regular guy who snores in the middle of the night?

DSC_0822Back in the 1990’s, our small town school band marched in a parade at Disney World.  We stood behind the closed gates of the Disney grounds waiting for our big entrance into the crowded streets. While waiting in the backstage area, we had been given one strict instruction: absolutely no photography allowed—including taking pictures of the characters, the workers, the props, or any of the “Disney magic.”

Disney prided themselves on creating a magical world, and everything from the cleanliness of the park, to the carefully crafted landscaping and sets, to the lights and views around the park helped shape this storybook image.  We weren’t allowed to take pictures of anything behind the scenes that ruined the “Disney spell.”  We couldn’t show what the characters really looked like without their costumes or how they behaved backstage.

Though I love Disney’s magic, I’ve realized that this fairy tale culture sometimes taints our real lives. We confuse their fairy tale image with real love: the princess never ages; the prince always has the right thing to say.  It is a life of ball gowns and castles, not budgets and bills.

Though our lives look nothing like a fairy tale, I’ve learned that real love can be just as good.

This daily give-and-take becomes more about who can outgive the other. Because real love isn’t just about getting the ring, it’s about giving every part of you in order that you can live more fully as one. 

It’s about serving when you’re tired.

It’s about letting go and forgiving.

In the end, it’s about remembering that day you said yes and then saying yes again everyday.

DSC01322DSC_0810

Disney can show off their romance with big splashy love songs and fireworks, but at the end of the day, their actors take off their wigs and costumes and go home alone.

But you and I, we meet in the middle of our hectic, chaotic lives and your hand touches my arm and we live this thing called marriage.

That night you proposed at the window feels like a thousand years ago.  Your tux is long gone, but you still sing me love songs in the beauty of hard days and broken dreams.

The mistakes of yesterday covered over by mercy and grace. Our hands holding on to one another in morning darkness.

TwitterFacebookGoogle+PinterestShare

Lessons on Grief: Why Sheryl Sandberg’s commencement speech matters

gradSheryl Sandberg, the chief operating officer at Facebook and author of Lean In gave the commencement speech at the University of California at Berkley last week, chronicling the lessons she’s learned since her husband, Dave, died a year ago.

As someone who’s only followed Sandberg since her Facebook post on grief last year, her words resonated with me.

Her lessons included learning to live with “Option B” and how she’s found joy after the pain. But more than that, her speech was a call to overcome adversity, no matter what trials we face.

“It is the hard days — the times that challenge you to your very core — that will determine who you are,” Sandberg says. “You will be defined not just by what you achieve, but by how you survive.”

Her speech struck a chord with people around the world because Sandberg is an example of resilience in the face of a devastating blow.

And like Sandberg, I’ve dealt with what psychologist Martin Seligman has defined as the three P’s: the personalization, pervasiveness, and permanence of grief. These three P’s, as Sandberg explains, are necessary hurdles to overcome as we process our grief and bounce back from hardship.

Sam Hugs Sara2

The Personalization of Grief

Personalization is the belief that we are at fault for our loved one’s death. Sandberg explains, “When Dave died, I had a very common reaction, which was to blame myself. He died in seconds, from a cardiac arrhythmia. I poured over his medical records asking what I could have — or should have — done. It wasn’t until I learned about the three P’s that I accepted that I could not have prevented his death. His doctors had not identified his coronary artery disease. I was an economics major; how could I have?”

Like Sandberg, I struggled with the realization that I was not able to stop my son’s death. I questioned why I hadn’t taken him to the children’s hospital sooner and whether it would have made a difference.

There was not a doctor in the world who could have cured my son’s disease. But that didn’t matter.  I was his mom. I was supposed to protect him. In my mind, I had failed at my most basic job.

After months of feeling like a failure, I finally talked to a counselor friend about my feelings. They told me I was not to blame.  I did not fail.  It was not my fault. My son had an incurable disease. I needed to let go of the guilt.

By dealing with this, I gave myself a chance to recover in the same way that Sandberg did–by letting go of what could we could have done.

Pervasiveness of Grief

Pervasiveness is the belief that an event will affect all areas of your life and you will not be able to experience joy again. Your grief will become an all-consuming sadness.

Ten days after her husband’s death, Sandberg was encouraged to return to work and send her children back to school. Although she felt like she was in a fog when she returned, she had a moment in a meeting when her mind was able to focus on her work and she experienced a brief glimpse of life without the crushing weight of grief.

Grief sometimes leads us to believe that life will be tainted by sadness and that we will never experience joy or relief from grief again. But here’s the thing I’ve learned: the deeper the pain and suffering, the more aware we become of those moments that bring us satisfaction and gratitude.

I have more happiness now because I’ve realized I can still enjoy life despite the pain. It’s not one or the other.  It can be both.  

Never is this more true for me than now. I love laughing with friends over a good story. I get pleasure from traveling to new places with my family.  Sitting on my back patio with my daughter and husband is one of life’s greatest pleasures. These things do not eliminate the hole in my heart from my son’s death. They coexist with it.

The key to getting out of the pervasiveness of grief is recognizing that God brings redemption to our sadness. There is joy in the morning. We will laugh again.

Permanence of Grief

Permanence is the belief that grief will last forever. Sandberg says that we often “project our feelings out indefinitely,” believing that if we feel sad, then it will never go away. To combat this belief, a psychologist encouraged her to focus on how much worse things could be.

He said to Sandberg, “Dave could have had that same cardiac arrhythmia while he was driving your children.”

Sandberg realized that the outcome could have been much worse.  Instead of losing her husband, she could have lost her whole family.

“The moment he said it,” Sandberg admits, ” I felt overwhelming gratitude that my family was alive. That gratitude overtook some of the grief.”

Though gratitude is key in getting over the feeling of permanence, focusing on eternity also leads us to look beyond our current circumstances.  Not only am I thankful for the good things that happen to me today, but I’m grateful God promises to wipe away all tears from my eyes, so that someday, I will no longer experience pain and suffering. I will see my son again. This is not the end. He turns our mourning into dancing again.

For that, I am truly grateful.

Though I’ve cried many tears, I’ve also learned there are gifts in grief. I’m more joyful than I used to be. I try not to take the gift of life for granted. I look forward to eternity in a way I hadn’t before. I’m more resilient to life’s ebb and flow of trials and joy.

As Sandberg concludes, “You are not born with a fixed amount of resilience. Like a muscle, you can build it up, draw on it when you need it. In that process you will figure out who you really are — and you just might become the very best version of yourself.”

How to find the beauty in our brokenness

I find the broken planter when the snowdrifts melt on my back porch, leaving behind puddles and mud. Large cracks reveal an orange eyesore on the side. I turn it over to see if the other side looks any better, but it is cracked through on both sides.

Studying it to see whether I can fix it, all I see is the brokenness, the effects of a harsh winter, my own absentminded neglect.

Why is it when I only focus on the cracks, then I feel the weight of my mistakes, the disappointment of small failures?

DSC03649DSC03652DSC03675

My daughter and I plant seeds the color of black pepper in our seedling flat.  She can barely pinch them between two fingers, so she shakes them over the dirt like salt sprinkled over a pot of soup.  The seeds scatter over everything like hope.

It looks like barren soil, but when we’re not looking, a few of those tiny seeds sprout.

My daughter peeks behind the plastic and finds them, like gifts on Christmas morning.

Just about the time we give up, hope surprises.

The tomatoes and peppers grow leggy and tall and I know it’s time to move them under the garden light in the basement.  The Midwest sun is fickle in the spring, covered by cool grey skies, causing the plants to stretch toward the light, to lean in. 

We know that our suffering ends in rejoicing.

The cross ends at the empty tomb.

Christ came through his own harsh winter with scars and was considered even more beautiful because of it, the scars symbols of his suffering that led to our redemption, and hope, and eternal life.

I think of that broken planter now, how I focused on the cracks and thought it useless.

I’m reminded of Christ, broken and scarred, and yet so beautiful.

Sometimes brokenness is more beautiful than if we had been whole.

We are cracked vessels, redeemed by grace and love, but still cracked and changed from the hard days.

DSC03666DSC03681DSC03662DSC03587

A few years ago I saw a play performed by a group of people with disabilities. Sometimes they forgot their lines, sometimes they sang off-key, sometimes they weren’t sure what to do, but it didn’t seem to matter.  The piece was a beautiful creative endeavor, a lovely gift to witness, people who found a way to create beauty despite their own personal challenges.  The audience cheered and whistled and clapped and so did the people on stage.  It was wondrous joy.

During the show, one young man approached the microphone unable to walk without the help of a facilitator.  Holding him under his arms from behind, the facilitator placed him next to the microphone and whispered the words of the song in his ear while he remained silent.  His knees were limp; his body pressed firmly into hers, he stood there quietly until one word of the song was finally sung loud and clear:

Happy!

The young man struggled with the simple act of walking and talking, but sang his one word solo on stage bravely and with beauty, over and over again:

Happy!

He sang gloriously, as if this was his life song, his own personal mantra.

While most of us hide behind our cracks and flaws thinking we’re not good enough, he sang his song out loud and clear. The truth is we are not good enough. That’s where grace comes in.

What this man teaches us is that we should be singing our one word with all we’ve got, that we should be singing because of our limitations and brokenness.

I know people who have been broken by life’s harsh winter but are more beautiful because of it, those suffering from grief and loss, divorce and marriage problems, cancer and chronic pain.  They teach me to live past my fears, to live through the brokenness, to sing with all I’ve got.

DSC03668DSC03685DSC03697

This morning I hear a bird belting out his song in the dark morning hours, when the air is still cold enough to see my breath.  He whistles loud and clear and I can barely see him sitting on the electric line, silhouetted against a morning sky slowly brightening, singing against the darkness.

When the sun pierces through the window panes of my kitchen and the seedlings stretch toward the light, I feel that song of hope rising up in me. The snow piles disappear. The daffodils poke their green heads out of the earth.

Eventually the barren garden beds and empty planters will be full and overflowing, singing their own song.  I take the broken planter and put it on the garden bench for repair.  I think of the beauty of his grace, his brokenness creating redemption and hope out of cracked vessels.

Sometimes the remnants of our lives become our stories of greatest power.

We sing out our life song with all we’ve got.

His arms keep us from falling, held up by his grace.

When you loathe (or love) Mother’s Day: A solution for us all

20140627-081747-29867586.jpgGrowing up in a small church in the Midwest, our congregation had the traditional Mother’s Day Recognition, or as I call it, Parade of the Queen Mothers. These ladies were asked to come to the front of the sanctuary during our worship service, where they stood in a receiving line and accepted gifts and applause for being a mother.

As a child I thought this was fabulous, never realizing that what women want is not a carnation and a pat on the back, but a real I love you and a thank you from their families. A day off from doing dishes wouldn’t hurt either.

My mother, in fact, hated this tradition. She disliked public recognition on Mother’s Day and for many years, threatened not to go. What I didn’t know was there were probably many more like her.

It never occurred to me, not once, to ask why we did this. When you grow up with a tradition, it is easy to absorb these habits without ever questioning their purpose.

We should ask. In return, we should be given an answer–or at least, discuss how we can best support the people who are part of our community.

I have a feeling that “gifts” and “applause” really aren’t that helpful and cause more hurt than help.

DSC05455

Years ago, when we were trying to have children, I struggled to go to church on Mother’s Day. This was a problem because I not only worked at the church, but my husband was the worship pastor, so I really wasn’t allowed to skip or sleep in. I thought I was the only one who struggled and wondered why I couldn’t just ‘get over it.’

We are so nice to ourselves in pain. We tell ourselves to “get over it” and “pull up our bootstraps” and so many other things that are incredibly helpful.

So on top of our pain, we shovel heaping doses of guilt and shame, because we don’t know how to pull up our bootstraps. We don’t even know what a bootstrap is.

It wasn’t until I became a mom that Mother’s Day changed for me. It was like someone had finally given me the secret knock and told me, “Good job—you’re in the club now!”

But because my entrance into the motherhood club was a bit nontraditional, I felt conflicted about my feelings. Although I was happy to be mom, I couldn’t forget how I felt on past Mother’s Days and I began to wonder if others suffered too.

Over the years, I started hearing from women who struggled to attend church on Mother’s Day. The group was bigger and more diverse than I realized: Women who were single, childless, or grieving a loss—a mother who died, a miscarriage, a stillborn birth, or the death of an adult child.

It’s not that these women didn’t want to celebrate motherhood. Most of us agree, moms do thankless work every day and rarely get the appreciation they deserve. 

It’s just that tradition had made a spectacle of one group and not another, and these other women felt invisible. Left out. Forgotten.

The message was sent, whether we intended it or not, that mothers were more important than the women who were not mothers. Fathers more important than childless men. Married couples more important than the single person.

Any time we put one group on a pedestal, we alienate another group. When we send those kinds of messages, we begin to create divisions and hurt feelings, instead of unity and community.

When we focus on public recognition of people, it obscures what we really come to church for—to focus on Christ. We’re there to worship Jesus, not ourselves.

So how did a secular holiday end up so entrenched in our church traditions?  

The problem with separating Mother’s Day from our church worship is difficult. Our deep-seated traditions have entwined secular holidays with the religious calendar, giving it added importance.

Then there’s the problem of it falling on a Sunday–with Mother’s Day documented as the third largest attended church service of the year.

My church typically downplays Mother’s Day because we are so large, but in some smaller churches, where the prevailing attitude is we’ve always done it this way, it’s hard to get away from established traditions without offending someone.

It seems like the whole subject is a messy business. Those of us who’ve seen both sides—the value of celebrating our moms and the despair of being left out—are caught in the middle, with a desire to find some middle ground.

love

A Revolutionary New Mother’s Day

So what if instead of buying Mother’s Day corsages and planning Mother’s Day recognitions, we turned the whole thing upside down and reimagined it?

What if Mother’s Day was about helping the mothers who have the most need—the mothers who are poor, or single, or have a terminally ill child?

What if we focused on the grieving mothers, women who’ve suffered huge losses and are depressed or struggling to find their worth?

What if Mother’s Day wasn’t about recognizing who’s in and who’s out and instead was about lifting up the head of those who are often forgotten?

What if we took this event and made it something all women, including those who aren’t mothers–could get behind?

Instead of spending our funds on pink carnations, why don’t we join together and bless a mom whose needs are far bigger than our own—a single mom who’s struggling or teenage moms at a pregnancy center?

Instead of asking what we should do on Mother’s Day, we learn to ask, What would Love do?

Because as much as I love being a mom and celebrating the moms in my life, I like helping women even more. I want to help lift the heads of those who have been crushed by the pain of life, because that is what others have done for me.

They have taught me what love does.

Maybe this is the way we, as a community can come together—men and women, single and married—all in a common goal.

Let’s love each other well.

Because Love is something I can get behind.

Love is revolutionary.

+++

Other thoughts for the hurting mom on Mother’s Day:

The Biggest Mistake the Church Makes on Mother’s Day

When It’s Hard to Get through Mother’s Day

Why we need to laugh more

“Mom, I didn’t know you could be so silly,” my daughter said awhile back. We were in the midst of a painful season, but I knew what I needed most: more laughter.

It was the year I chose “joy” as my theme word that I looked for laughter in the small spaces of my life.

We laughed through tickle fights, basketball games in the driveway, impromptu dance parties on Sunday evenings, and silly photos on vacation.

According to Anne Lamott, laughter is “carbonated holiness.”

When we drove to a state park this winter, we discovered a display in the lobby that included a toboggan and a fake pine tree background.

“What is this for?” I asked.

“Pictures,” my family responded.

Pretty soon, we climbed onto the display, seeing how many ways we could “ride” the toboggan, including backwards, lying down, and standing up.

Don’t try this at home.

 

We snapped pictures and howled with laughter. I’m pretty sure it was only funny to us. 

To our surprise, we found that laughter began to have a trickle-down effect.  We laughed more in our marriage, with our daughter and through our mistakes.

It’s all good and holy–this laughter that heals us from the pain.

 

Learning to Laugh Through the Pain

We can’t avoid life’s minor chords–the dissonant strains of musical melancholy.  But in the midst of a dirge, we must find a new rhythm, one that echoes both the pain and the joy of life.

As Erma Bombeck says,

“There is a thin line that separates laughter and pain, comedy and tragedy, humor and hurt.”

If we spend all our time listening to a dirge, life will always be a funeral and never a celebration.   

So if Jesus-followers are supposed to be a bunch of loud-mouthed rejoicers, then what’s happened to our celebration? Why are we singing so many dirges instead?

Laughter is what we need in the dark night—in hospitals, chemotherapy rooms and grief groups.

When we laugh with people who have walked through our darkest hours, who have seen us in holey sweatpants and bad hair and still laugh with us—not at us—that’s a carbonated holy moment.

Laughter is sacred space, says Ted Schwartz, because in those moments, we can taste a bit of heaven in the here and now. 

We realize how much more laughter must be on the Other Side, when all things are made new and our hearts are flung wide open with nothing to hinder them.

So here’s my resolve:  If laughter is a glimpse into the eternal, then let me live with more open-hearted joy.

Let the laughter heal the scars.

Let me laugh in the company of others–the balm of good medicine settling on our earthly wounds, as I lean into you, our laughter ringing into the night like a song only you and I can hear.

1 2 3 46