When Mother’s Day Hurts

10 05 2015

I love my mum. I have that going for me. To add blessing to blessing, I love my mum-in-law as well. They are both strong, caring, fun women who seek adventure, who pursue Christ wholeheartedly, and who never fail to be practical and emotional supports in difficulty and avid cheerleaders in times of triumph.

I also have many other mums in my life that I love and admire more than I can manage to put into words. Some dear friends who have mothered me at key moments in my life. Some dear friends who I watch in amazement as they pour goodness and strength into their creative, confident, and kind children.

And yet… Mother’s Day can still sting.

infertilityI think I have always wanted to be a mother. But, for me, the traditional route to motherhood was simply not available. 5 years of trying culminated in 2 surgeries… neither of which resulted in the ability for me to bear a child. And, without going into a myriad of details, after examining the complex and varied options to adopt–we realized God wasn’t calling us in that direction. So here I am. A mother without children on this day–a day on which facebook and twitter and commercials and TV and every possible form of technology and entertainment turns toward mothering. Even NHL players are interviewed before their playoff games about what they have learned from their mothers. It’s inescapable.

Hear me when I say… absolutely we should celebrate parents. It is a hard and sometimes thankless job that makes a huge difference in our world. We need good parents. We need to be their cheerleaders when there is reason to celebrate (even if it’s “just” a dry diaper, or a hard-won C+, or a slightly cleaner room), and their comforters when things don’t go so well, and their encouragers when there is too little sleep–or too much sass–or just, simply, too much. Parents are worth celebrating and supporting. Absolutely.

But there is real hurt here too. Women, like me, who will never fulfill a felt calling to mothering (at least not in the traditional way). Women who grieve not only childlessness on this day, but singleness as well. People who have complex or fraught relationships with their own mothers. Women who have lost children. Anyone who has lost their mother. There are many types of grief that this particular day presses on.

What I find most sad is that those of us who are struggling/grieving/hurting on this day will feel like staying home from church today. Will feel unsafe with their pain in the very community that should provide comfort and encouragement. Many of us will give in to the temptation to “turtle”–to curl up in a blanket at home and try to forget what day it is. Because sometimes the church gets it wrong. Sometimes the church makes an idol out of mothers and fathers. Sometimes the church comes dangerously close to defining humanity (and human worth) in terms of the nuclear family. Sometimes the church mistakenly weaves cultural days and seasons into the sacred rhythms of faith in a way that is unhealthy.

See we are called together, each week, to worship the Living God. That worship can include thanks for parents. It can include joy in and support of parents in our congregation. But when we begin to place all focus there, I think we have a theological problem that warps our worship away from God and toward people. When we worship, we make a profound statement about what matters–what is worth our attention, our time, our commitment, our whole selves. Parents do hard work, do good work–but they are not worthy of worship (nor are children, for that matter, wonderful as they are). While we should celebrate and support parents, our focus should remain on the Triune God. There should be no such thing as a “Mother’s Day service“.

I went to church this morning. I admit that I was a bit apprehensive. But, thankfully, blessedly, my church got it right.  I received a delightfully squished carnation from a small child who didn’t really want to let it go. I prayed, along with our church leadership, for mothers in our congregation. I shed a few tears in the midst, as I think I always will. But the focus of the service was the Triune God. I sang my heart out to Jesus–along with my fellow mothers and fathers and sons and daughters and uncles and aunts and sisters and brothers. Our whole delightfully mixed-up and diverse family heard the word of God and responded together. Because our family is so much bigger than we realize. So much deeper and broader. So much more messed-up and beautiful. And today I was reminded that–in that family–I have countless opportunities to be a mother, and a sister, and an aunt, and a daughter. And it was good. Happy Mother’s Day.





Lament: Proclaiming the Reign of Christ in Every Circumstance

31 03 2015

Recently, Columbia Bible College published their Spring 2015 of “Columbia Contact,” their bi-annual magazine. The focus of the issue is faith in the midst of suffering and pain. On page 7 is an article I wrote entitled “Lament: Proclaiming the Reign of Christ in Every Circumstance” in which I discuss why we need lament in our gathered worship, and how biblical lament can be implemented in a way that reflects reality while also revealing real hope and joy.Lament article

A few excerpts:

If we don’t lament in our congregations…

“we promote the idea that our gathered worship is reserved for the happy and well-fed. That those who struggle with sin or grief or poverty should just stay home. We declare them unwelcome in our midst. (This makes an interesting contrast to Jesus’ declaration that all who do not welcome the stranger, feed the hungry, and clothe the naked are, in fact, outside of his kingdom–Matt. 25:41-43.) By failing to lament in our gathered worship, we propagate a circumstantial faith–faith that is dependent on things going well–rather than faith that is dependent on the character and actions of God.”

Continuing…

“Thankfully, implementation of biblical lament is easier than it might seem. Sometimes, lament will be a simple expression of trust in the midst of an honest expression of circumstance…. Lament might be as simple as praying “I don’t know” in a circumstance that doesn’t make sense when considered alongside the goodness of God and his promises of love and mercy. Because I don’t have to have the answers, not to eh big ‘whys.’ What answer can I give my friend who recently lost a child? What answer can I give to those living with constant fear? There is, sometimes, very little to be said. What is needed, instead, is the ability to climb down into that dark corner and whisper with them, ‘I don’t know why. But I do know that God is good. I know that he loves you. And I will sit with you here in the dark until we start to see that light.'”

To read the full article, which explores the implications of lament for our world, as well as further ideas for implementation in our gathered worship–and to read other great articles in this publication–follow this link.





Joy in Lament: Faith Today

14 01 2015

Joy in LamentLast summer I gave an interview to a writer from Faith Today on the topic of lament. The resulting article is out, and well worth a read. Enjoy! Faith Today: Joy in Lament





A Prayer for Mental Health

30 04 2013

The week of May 6th is mental health awareness week – a friend asked me to write a prayer that Sanctuary Mental Health Ministries could circulate to churches (check out their website for some great resources and events). As someone who struggles with depression, and has witnessed family and friends also wading through the mire of mental illness, it was a task I was eager to undertake. Mental illness carries a heavy weight of stigma and misunderstanding. In reality, it is both subtle and pervasive. It is varied. All of us swing somewhere on its pendulum. This prayer is intended to reveal Christ’s presence within the pain and difficulty we all experience. Then, out of that state of sympathy, we can pray more fully for those who struggle with profoundly damaging levels of mental illness. May we pray with passion and with enduring sympathy.

Please feel free to take and use this liturgy in your church.
 
The bold print is to be read by the congregation. The plain print and the italic print by two different readers. The final section of the prayer may be read by either of the two readers (or both), or by a third reader. The first section of liturgy incorporates Psalm 23, and parts of Deuteronomy 31 and Joshua 1.
 

The Lord is my shepherd, I lack nothing.

Although sometimes we feel we lack everything. Sometimes we cannot see what you have given us through the lie of what has been taken away. Show us how to see your blessing. Show us how to see your provision when the world teaches us an economy of fear and scarcity.

The Lord himself goes before you and will be with you; he will never leave you nor forsake you. Do not be afraid; do not be discouraged.

He makes me lie down in green pastures, he leads me beside quiet waters, he refreshes my soul.

Refresh us, Lord. Let the raging waters be quite. Let dry pastures be watered. Let us lie down and rest without fear.

Be strong and courageous. Do not be afraid; do not be discouraged, for the Lord your God will be with you wherever you go.

He guides me along the right paths for his name’s sake.

We so often turn from your path—believing lies about ourselves, about others, about you; taking on burdens that are not ours to bear; struggling to entrust you with ourselves, our family, our friends, and our circumstances. Guide us along your path of trust and contentment.

Have I not commanded you? Be strong and courageous. Do not be afraid; do not be discouraged, for the Lord your God will be with you wherever you go.”

Even though I walk through the darkest valley,

The valley of depression, the valley of medication, the valley of sorrow, the valley of pain and abandonment, the valley of past wrongs done to me, the valley of despair, the valley of derision, the valley of fear, the valley of waiting, the valley of misunderstanding.

Be strong and courageous. Do not be afraid or terrified because of the valley in which you walk, for the Lord your God goes with you; he will never leave you nor forsake you.

Even though I walk through the darkest valley, I will fear no evil, for you are with me;

Although we sometimes feel abandoned, you have not left us alone. You have not left us alone with our depression, with our sorrow, our pain, our illness, our despair, our fear, our waiting. You have not left us alone with the past wrongs that have been done to us, with the derision and misunderstanding of others. You have not left us alone. You are with us.

The Lord himself goes before you and will be with you; he will never leave you nor forsake you. Do not be afraid; do not be discouraged.

your rod and your staff, they comfort me.

With your rod, you protect us from ourselves. With your staff, you protect us from the harm of others. Your truth comforts us, as we find our identity wholly and firmly locked up in you.

Have I not commanded you? Be strong and courageous. Do not be afraid; do not be discouraged, for the Lord your God will be with you wherever you go.

You prepare a table before me in the presence of my enemies.

Although we are surrounded by people who do not understand the weight we bear, the struggles we face, we gather to eat at your table. Although we suffer ignorant comments, laughter, and sometimes shame—we are worthy to eat at your table. We can eat our fill—even feast—because you have not despised us. You have made us welcome.

Be strong and courageous. Do not be afraid or terrified because of them, for the Lord your God goes with you; he will never leave you nor forsake you.

You anoint my head with oil; my cup overflows.

You have made us worthy. You have made us chosen. You accept us with all our flaws, with all our illness and frailty, with all our failings. You have anointed us, us, to serve with you—our cup overflows with joy.

The Lord himself goes before you and will be with you; he will never leave you nor forsake you. Do not be afraid; do not be discouraged.

Surely your goodness and love will follow me all the days of my life,

Surely goodness and love will follow us. Surely goodness and love will chase us down—despite ourselves, despite others, despite our circumstances—goodness and love, by the power and grace of your Spirit, have found us. And will never let us go.

The Lord himself goes before you and will be with you; he will never leave you nor forsake you.

and I will dwell in the house of the Lord forever.

Forever. In health, in strength, in love, in mercy. Forever. Amen.

The Lord your God will be with you wherever you go.

And as we rest in that assurance, we pray for those who live without it, and who live with the pain and stigma of mental illness. We ask that you would watch over those who live on the street, without the medication they so desperately need. We pray that you would hold accountable those systems that have let these precious children of yours down, that have left them destitute. We pray for those who are in positions of power—that, as they make policies and work to improve existing structures of care, they would faithfully and carefully consider the welfare of those who struggle with mental illness. We pray that you would prevent us from putting distance between ourselves and those struggling with mental illness. That you would grow in us the love we need to take action, and to make their struggle our own.

Comfort those who live with the darkness of depression. May we be a light in the darkness for them. Teach us to avoid false cheerfulness, and instead give us wisdom to know how to help our friends and family who struggle in this way to come up for air. To see, again, your goodness. Lord, watch over those who are, even now, contemplating suicide. Stop their hands. Send someone to intervene.

Guard our tongues from unthinking and unkind words that contribute to feelings of worthlessness. Empower us to use our words, instead, to speak for those who cannot. To proclaim your worth over those our culture denigrates. To defend the powerless, and stop others from contributing to the stigma that mental illness so often carries.

Bring the comfort only you can bring to those who have lost a loved one to mental illness. And use us to bring comfort. May we, your church, be a healing presence, a safe community, a strong advocate for the mentally ill.

Thank you for the assurance that you do not let go. That you are always with us. May we in turn extend that hope to every person we encounter.

Amen.





Joy Is Not the Opposite of Pain

26 01 2012

Have you ever wondered what the opposite of pain is? If you type the question in to the wonderful world of Google, you will read a variety of answers including: pleasure, getting high, bliss, good health, wellbeing, and joy. I’m not going to harp on most of these definitions, but I do want to query the idea that opposite of pain is joy – not because it is likely driven by the Rob Base song “Joy and Pain” (sunshine and rain), but because I think this idea sets up two different concepts as opposites: lament and praise.

While lament seems to be a difficult concept for the modern church, it was a common Hebrew expression of faith. We see this in the proliferation of lament psalms used in Hebrew worship.  Most modern psalters and hymnbooks, however, use only pieces of these psalms. The tendency is to neglect the honest portrayal of pain, confusion, and struggle in favour of what is all too often called the “praise resolution.”

Psalms of lament generally have four parts (they can be broken down further, but these are the basic components): an address, in which the author names the person he is speaking to; the complaint, in which the author honestly, and often vividly, describes his painful circumstance; a request, in which the author asks for specific assistance from the person whom he is addressing; and an expression of trust, in which the author states his confidence in the one he addresses. What we so often do is skip over the more difficult bits, chop off the “expression of trust,” and use that as a song of praise.

This approach, however, does not really result in praise. The psalmist reaches that “expression of trust” through his circumstances – whether or not they are changed. When we divorce praise from the real contexts in which we live, we foster a weak, circumstance-based, superstitious religion in which our praise is dependent on whether or not things are going well. That is a façade – not a faith.

Allow me to use a personal example. I am currently, as mentioned in a previous post, struggling with the possibility of infertility. Viewing lament and praise as opposites would lead me to believe that because I am currently in a state of lament, I am therefore unable to praise. Viewing praise as part of lament, however, allows me to lay my soul bare before God (i.e. yell at him for a while), and also to rest in my confidence in his goodness and power. If I didn’t believe that praise is a part of lament, I would fall in one of two directions: I would sink into despair; or I would feel unable to express the depth of my anguish, and end up wearing a mask. Instead, my lament draws me into the presence of God (because that is who I am addressing); it allows me to express the full extent of my suffering; it prompts me to ask God to change my circumstance, knowing that he is able to do so; and it allows me to push past my circumstance and into praise as I focus instead on the character of God, and his presence in my life. My heart breaks at the thought of not being able to bear a child – but no matter what happens, I know that God is good. I know he will help me to work out my calling toward motherhood in one way or another. That is the basis of my praise: not whether or not he does what I want him to do. And I could not honestly reach that place of praise, unless it was an integral part of the lament my heart is currently singing.

So no, praise and lament are not opposites. And neither are joy and pain. No, the opposite of pain is comfort. We are not called, as Christians, to live a comfortable life. Not in this world – not if we are called to participate in the transformation and redemption that Christ began and finished and will finish. We are not called to a life of comfort, a life free from pain, but we are called to a life of joy. We are called to a life of deep painful joy in which we see the truth of God’s character alongside the suffering of the world.