The Wings of History

No offense to Sir Winston Churchill, but history isn’t just written by the victors. The fact of the matter is we all have our histories. You, me – everyone around us carries with them at all times the accumulation of their lived days. Some of those days are memorable for some reason – the excitement of undefiled joy, the depths of immense pain – but even the unremarkable days build up what we call our life.

Often, we are uncomfortable when people want to walk us back, take us through their history. My family is experiencing something of that tension right now; my wife is currently leading the research into some of her family history, and we’re finding that no person is fully good or bad. The same is true of history. There’s always something of both to be found if we’re willing to look fairly.

I read this the other day, and it gave me the courage to continue thinking about my own past and the things I often remember but don’t explore for fear of upsetting someone. These are the words of Frederick Buechner, from his book Telling Secrets:

I am inclined to believe that God’s chief purpose in giving us memory is to enable us to go back in time so that if we didn’t play those roles right the first time round, we can still have another go at it now. We cannot undo our old mistakes or their consequences any more than we can erase old wounds that we have both suffered and inflicted, but through the power that memory gives us of thinking, feeling, imagining our way back through time we can at long last finally finish with the past in the sense of removing its power to hurt us and other people and to stunt our growth as human beings.

The sad things that happened long ago will always remain part of who we are just as the glad and gracious things will too, but instead of being a burden of guilt, recrimination, and regret that make us constantly stumble as we go, even the saddest things can become, once we have made peace with them, a source of wisdom and strength for the journey that still lies ahead. It is through memory that we are able to reclaim much of our lives that we have long since written off by finding that in everything that has happened to us over the years God was offering us possibilities of new life and healing which, though we may have missed them at the time, we can still choose and be brought to life by and healed by all these years later.

I know now, as an adult, that the people who surround me are themselves highly complex and equally as possessed of memories and experiences similar to mine. I know now, as an adult, that things which happened to me as a child were also happening to the people with whom I interacted. Indeed, none of us have histories that are solo performances. The other people entwined in our memories have their own versions of the same events.

What gives me a sense of peace is Buechner’s assertion that “instead of being a burden of guilt, recrimination, and regret that make us constantly stumble as we go, even the saddest things can become, once we have made peace with them, a source of wisdom and strength for the journey that still lies ahead.” My past – your past – does not have to be a weight.

It can be wings, if you’re willing.

I write so much about what happens in my life – what has happened in my life – as a way of making sense, of interpreting the movements of history so I can be a better man, better husband, better father; but also so I can leave the world a better place. Even as I go back, I find the familiar villains from my childhood weren’t necessarily villains at all, at least, not in the classic sense; rarely are people wholly evil, even if that’s what I remember. In fact, I find myself more and more frequently wondering just how many people have slotted me as their villain; because there have been times in my life where that title would fit like a tailored suit.

I’m learning that with history, as with so many other things in life, there has to be a sense of grace for the people around you. All I can hope is that as I learn to extend grace, others will extend it to me.

Imagine what a difference that might make.

Stillborn, Still Here

photo (23)I couldn’t sleep last night. My neighbor’s to the back apparently were conducting search and rescue missions in their backyard, because a massive floodlight lit up the back of my house, a light so bright it was sufficient for identifying insects in their yard with the naked eye. From my patio. Over 300 feet away.

Anyway, since I couldn’t sleep, I powered up the laptop and checked email. There was the usual assortment of junk (mostly writing website stuff), but among the various vanities was a tiny little message from my father-in-law, Jim. The subject line took my breath: Ruthanne Awaiting In Heaven.

I wasn’t prepared for it, so it stunned me. Even though I mentioned Ruthie in yesterday’s blog, and even though my mind knew her birthday was today, I simply hadn’t been consciously thinking about her. Sure, when we visited my parents yesterday, my dad pointed out the flowers they’d placed in her memory at church. He asked Ella to tell him how old Ruthanne would be; Ella walked over to the plant, saw the preciously painted pink polka-dot nine, and informed my dad that her sister would, in fact, be nine years old. My dad grinned, turned to me and said, “Can you believe that? In just a couple more years she’d be a teenager!”

“Yeah, and only another couple of years and she’d have been driving!” my mom added.

I shook my head. No, I really couldn’t believe it. After all, I’m doing well just keeping up with a seven year old girl who thinks she’s seventeen and a four year old boy who enjoys screaming random bits of conversation when not actively giving his mother a hard time. In other words, I have no idea what the heck we would do with a third, older child.

I would imagine we’d lean on her to help keep the other two in line, or ask her to watch them when we need to get work done. I can imagine her being Ella’s best friend and chief rival, Jon’s mini-Mom, and Rachel’s sweet helper. It’s easy to think about those things. But it’s hard to imagine how she would relate to me. Ella is so much like me in her creativity and imagination (though she is very much like her mother too) that I can’t imagine having a daughter more attuned to this nerdy dad. I look at Ella and try to think about what Ruthanne might have been like – responsible, intelligent, socially aware, helpful, lots of the qualities that Ella exhibits by virtue of being the first surviving child – and I just can’t picture it.

Yet, that doesn’t make me sad.

Once upon a time, I would’ve felt tremendous regret for what I missed out on with Ruthanne. In some ways I suppose I still do, but it’s not as consuming as it once was. In fact, other than the occasional question about Ruthie from Jon or Ella, I really don’t think of her much at all. It sounds heartless, but here’s the thing: like David, I know she’ll never come back to me, but one day I’ll go to her. In the meantime, I have to love on Ella and Jon, pour into them my very best and cherish every moment we have together (even the stressful and annoying ones).

Like the past couple of mornings, when we’ve been watching the entire Star Wars franchise (even the horrid prequels). They run around the house, fighting with plastic lightsabers, knocking into things and raising a ruckus, but it’s life and it’s beautiful and I cherish it.

That’s not to say that today doesn’t hold meaning – it does. But what it says even louder is that the passage of time, the healing of wounds, is not only possible, it is inevitable. It comes whether we work at it or not; it simply comes faster when we participate and chase after healing. Everyday people come to this blog because of a search on the word “stillbirth” or the phrase “stillborn child.” I can honestly say that there hasn’t been a day in the last two years when that word hasn’t shown up in my stats information. That means that everyday for two years someone has either been curious about stillbirths, or wondered how to survive a stillbirth, and they’ve landed here. They’ve read our story. And they’ve seen that healing does come.

It’s painful at times. It’s sudden (or seemingly so) at others. But it’s persistent and it’s real, and that’s something I desperately wanted to know nine years, eight years, heck five years ago.

We’re still here. We’re still a family. Perhaps even more so because we have such a poignant reminder of the fragility and value of life.

And we also know what my father-in-law knows. His email was brief, but so powerful. Jim is a man who has lost much in his life – Ruthanne, his little brother Preston, other family members who didn’t have much time on this earth, but who live now eternally in heaven. And so his quiet, thoughtful, touching email grabbed me last night and reminded me that while we’re healing here, we’ll be fully healed when the day comes that we join our loved ones on the other side.

Here’s what he said:

Dear Rachel and Jason,
The most beautiful thing about Heaven is knowing that infants like Ruthanne, Preston, Gravis, and Helen who went early before us will be waiting to meet us there.
The closer I get, the more I am looking forward to seeing them!
Remembering Ruthanne in our thoughts,
Jim Paw and MeMe

Short. Sweet. Heartfelt. And for our family, utterly true.

Today, the sun is shining, and both my kids are foaming at the mouth to get out of the house and do something fun (which means, as it does with most children, going somewhere and spending money). Today, they’ll want to run all over a playground or go to Stone Mountain or see a movie or any number of things that incite their tiny little imaginations. And, as best we can, Rachel and I will chase after them, laughing and enjoying the day, forgetting our loss by embracing our blessings and simply living without the burden of regret.

This is what life is. It’s perpetual rebirth. It’s discovering each day that the greatest way to honor the memory of Ruthanne is to not let that memory steal our life. She was stillborn, but we’re still here. One day, we’ll see our loved ones and never have to let go, so let’s start that process today, with the ones closest to us. We’ve got a lot of living left to do.

So do you.

Now get out there and do it.

God In The Whirlwind?

ImageI haven’t been keeping up with the devastation in Moore, Oklahoma. From what I’ve read, it’s a sad and horrifying natural disaster, and the response of countless people with donations of time, money and supplies has been heartening. Sometimes, we forget that people are capable of tremendous acts of sacrifice and kindness. It’s a shame that we only remember when something like this happens. In fact, there are a lot of things that we don’t think about until something like this happens. The value of human life, the need for community, the presence – or absence – of God in everyday life.

Depending upon where you fall on the religious spectrum, you might have very strong feelings about that last one. Some people will tell you that the tornado is a message from God, a statement of destruction to wake us up to the various moral failings of our country. Some people will tell you that God wasn’t in the whirlwind at all, that nature just strikes at random and we are all held hostage until Jesus returns and reboots the universe for God. Others take a middle road.

And there are a great many people who will simply say they don’t know.

Why is it that we only look for God in times of tragedy? I’ve heard a lot of preachers expound on the topic, and the consensus seems to be that we’re selfish by nature; that human beings, by default, will seek only those things that satisfy themselves. Therefore in good times, there’s no need to seek God, because the circumstances of our lives dictate Him as unnecessary. Since we have what we need, we obviously don’t need Him. It is only when the universe becomes cruel, when we see rubble piled atop the tiny hand of a child, that we seek out God for accountability. Where were you? How could you let this happen?

The problem, this view suggests, is that we don’t see the world correctly.

I think there’s truth in that idea. But I don’t know that I agree with all of it anymore. I think we are self-seeking creatures, but for some folks that means seeking God in good times as well as bad; I think we do tend to take the good times for granted, but I think we often look harder to see the evil in the world than we should; I think we do turn to God in times of trouble, often in anger or despair, but we do so seeking for some sense of answer, some idea that the things that scare us can also offer us wisdom for healing.

We turn to Him for hope that we might not otherwise see.

Sure some might turn Moore into a referendum on God’s character, but they assume that God is capable of the evil found in the destruction and not the good that comes from the people who respond. They suggest that God is an impersonal force, and thus cannot be present in the humans who are there to help rebuild. They give Him credit only for those things that would discredit Him, as if His only purpose is to be the cosmic bad guy, a reverse deus ex machina that gives us a target for a rage we otherwise wouldn’t know how to express.

It’s funny, but in denying God, they embrace a big part of what makes Him God: His ability to absorb our anger, fear and frustration, yet still love us all the same.

I suppose I should answer a few questions before I close this post out. Do I think God caused the tornado? No, I don’t. Do I think God could have diverted the tornado? It’s possible, sure, but that line of thinking is usually a zero-sum game. Do I think God was present with the victims? Yes. Do I think God is still present in the aftermath, working through the people who will rebuild – both physically and mentally – the town and people of Moore, OK?

Without question.

In the Old Testament, an ancient prophet of Israel went up on a mountain to see God face to face. There was an earthquake, but God wasn’t in it. There was fire from heaven, but God wasn’t there either. There was a great whirlwind, but still the presence of God wasn’t there.

It was only after those events, only after the cataclysmic natural phenomena that left the prophet still searching for the presence of God, that the prophet found Him. The Bible says that God came in a still small voice that the prophet heard. And when he heard it, he knew he was in the very presence of Almighty God.

It is a story well worth considering.

God is Good, Life is Hard

Image“I heard something not too long ago,” my friend, Dawn Hood, said one day while we were chatting in her office over coffee. “God is good, life is hard. Don’t get the two confused.”

If anyone would understand the power and wisdom in that statement, it would be Dawn; diagnosed with breast cancer while pregnant, she not only survived the surgeries, treatment and pregnancy, she came away with a fantastic son and a heck of story. The words, obviously, stuck in my head.

And now I’m living them.

After much prayer and consideration, I resigned from my position as the Youth Pastor of Chestnut Grove Baptist Church on May 2. It was hard. I was graciously offered a three-month severance to help my family through my time of transition because I’m leaving with nowhere to go. No job offers. Nothing immediate on the horizon. Just the overwhelming sense that God wanted me to stop and listen for His direction.

I know it will involve writing. That much has become clear over the last three years. It’s a passion I’ve had forever, one that I almost followed but turned away from because I wasn’t ready. I am, I think, ready now. What that will look like, what that will mean, I don’t know. But I can only do what I know God has directed me to do, and that is put my life completely in His hands and wait on His timing.

And that’s hard.

Not because He’s unfaithful. Not because He won’t deliver. It’s because I’m so used to having things lined up – so used to “helping” Him move me from place to place that being completely out of the loop on this round is a bit unnerving.

It’s also hard because of the people it affects. I spent a bit of time on the phone this evening with a wonderful, sweet woman who was just in tears over my resignation. It’s hard – or it should be – to break good people’s hearts. It should never be easy; at least, not to my mind.

And so I come back to Dawn’s words: “God is good. Life is hard. Don’t get the two confused.”

I haven’t.

I’m hoping I can still say the same tomorrow.

For Those Who’ve Lost a Child

I’m currently working on a book of essays for people who have lost a child. I’m looking for folks both recently devastated by their loss and for people who have been able to heal over time to contribute quotes on any of the five stages of grief: denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance.

If you’d like to contribute, simply fill out the form below with your name, email, phone and story. If I can use your contribution, I’ll get in touch with you soon.