To Hear and Respond

Sharing our stories, and welcoming the stories of others, can be avenues for hope, learning, and growth

Close up of a shiny black mug of coffee with three steamed milk hearts

The other day, I went to two churches… one, the place where I am experiencing some healing through welcome and kindness. The other, the place where some of my deepest pain originated.

As I sat in the one service, tears came to my eyes multiple times. The singing was authentically beautiful. Words from the scripture passage in Luke leapt at me. The pastor’s words were full of grace, compassion, and truth. Tears flowed down my cheeks as the pastor said, “the very nature of God is to hear and respond.”

My son lay down on the pew and fell asleep for a while. The woman next to us smiled and shifted down so he could have more room. When he woke up and started to rock and flap his hands, no one stared or even gave us looks. When we needed to leave in the middle of a prayer, all the embarrassment I felt seemed to come only from me, not from the judgement of others.

This, for me, has been a space I could enter tentatively, my uncertainty offered grace without even knowing my story. It has been a place that has reminded me of home… of the little country church where I grew up, where people still love me after (and through) everything. 

It has become one of very few spaces in my life where I feel I can let my guard down a bit with my son, my hypervigilance in this public gathering reduced by the kindness I feel in the very air around me.

As I left that space to go to the next church, I had a visceral sense of anxiety… my chest tightened and my shoulders tensed. Even as I got in my car, I considered just going home. The excuses began running readily through my head… all the ways I could justify not going to the place I had said I would go. 

But I had said I would go. My daughter had asked me to come. She was singing her favorite songs and was excited. I had told her I would go. So I would go.

Pulling into the parking lot, I recognized every person. Some had aged, some had grown up, some seemed to have stayed just the same. Some waved, friendly. Most paid no attention, or just looked at me, perhaps wondering if they recognized me. 

I could have told you each of their names. I had made it my job to know each one.

Walking in, I passed some people who did not smile, did not greet me.

Was it because it was me, or because they would not have greeted anyone?

I made it through the doors and hid for a moment in the bathroom, gathering myself together.  Then I stepped out again. The service had started. I could hear my daughter singing.

I breathed deeply and looked in at the sanctuary to try to find a seat. A wave of relief washed over me as I spotted one of my best friends sitting with her family in an otherwise empty row. I made a beeline and sat down. It was right up front, on the side. No hiding here. Breathe.

My friend’s son saw me first and smiled, getting his mom’s attention. Welcome. A smile and a hug. “Come over here, beside me. I’m so glad you’re here.” She knew how hard it was.

Then my daughter spotted me and smiled from up on stage. I had made it. I was there for her. I forgot everything else and focused on the beautiful human up on that stage, nervous and excited, helping to lead worship. My girl.

I watched people notice and recognize me slowly. One by one, eye contact, few smiles. Perhaps it was just the space… not the time for smiling. Perhaps it was me.

The striking contrast I was feeling between churches continued as the scripture was read… a Psalm calling out to God for justice against enemies. A delineation between “us” and “them” in which the writer is the dove and his enemies are wild beasts.

My self-righteousness reared its ugly head as I related to the Psalm. The part of me that wants that kind of justice could have laughed out loud at the irony of the moment.

That part of me wants to tell my story and all of its particulars to the world. That part of me wants to blame others for the mistakes I made, to justify my failings with a childish “he made me do it” complete with a pointing finger and red-faced tears.

In some way, I know I must find expression for that part of me too. She is the hurt child who just wanted someone in a position of power to protect her, to stand up and defend her. To tell her they believed her, that what was done to her was wrong, that those who did it would have to be reprimanded, that it would not be allowed to continue any longer.

That is the part of me that feels so deeply betrayed and abandoned.

And as I let those thoughts and feelings wash over me, they were followed other thoughts…

The recurring realization that God’s justice does not look like ours. God’s justice is for everyone, not just me. God’s justice says there is no “us” and “them,” but we are all one. Loved and delighted in. God’s justice means that God wants good for me just as much as good for those who hurt me.

Indignation followed close behind. Because how will I ever find my voice if I keep being this egalitarian empathic freak?!?!? It would seem to me that one cannot tell a story about pain, without discussing the reason for the pain.

My child comes to me with a cut on his finger, and my first question is, “oh baby, what happened?”

If someone said that to me, how would I respond?

The question brought me up short. Because that is exactly how God comes to me, comes to each of us, in our pain.  “Oh my child, what happened?” Spoken tenderly. The Unconditionally Loving Parent bends down to be with us and hear our story, holding us while we cry.  That same Parent knows the best way to heal the wound, carefully tending it. And like a child, we might resist… “No!!!! That will sting!!!” But when we embrace the care, and give it time, healing does come.

God has more than enough good, more than enough healing for everyone.  For me, and for those who hurt me.

When I find my voice from this internal space, sharing my story can be for the benefit of those in similar situations.  To let them know they are not alone. To offer some hope that they, too, can make it through. It can also be for the learning and growth of those who caused pain, that they might not repeat what they did before.

As I’ve reflected on these two church services, it struck me that they are a reflection of our culture. 

For the past few years I have felt that we are at a crossroads… on one hand, devolving into “us” and “them,” in which anyone who is “them” is ridiculous, or stupid, or aggregiously wrong and “I can’t even listen to you because you are clearly insane.”  This path leads us to division and pain… to everyone losing.  

On the other hand, we could notice this time in history as an opportunity… we could allow our nature to be like God’s, ready to hear and respond. 

We could take time to listen to the painful stories others share about their experience and simply believe them without defending ourselves (“but we didn’t mean to,” or “that may have happened, but it wasn’t me,” or “but you are not the only one in pain here, I’m in pain too”).

We could choose kindness, graciousness, and welcome, instead of dividing those around us into the camps of doves and wild beasts.

I believe with every fiber of my being that everyone is doing the best they can, and the path to healing involves radical belief in the highest good existing in every one of us.  

I believe that the vast majority of people do not intend to harm others, but they do.  And those who do intend harm are filled with pain in such a way that it overflows to those around them.

It is my deep hope that each of us can experience the healing of welcome, kindness, grace, and understanding… and that we can, in turn, offer the same to others in the best way we are able each moment.

Where have you experienced welcome and kindness?

Where have you experienced pain?

We each have a story to tell.  Sometimes the particulars are things we share only with our closest, most trusted friends.  Sometimes we pour them out only to God. May our stories bring us together. May they be vehicles of hope, learning, and growth for those willing to hear and respond.

Chronic Grief

Opening ourselves to grief can make room for joy

Sunrise over the ocean

I will never forget the first time my daughter rolled over. She was just two months old, and by some fluke she managed to flip over while laying on the bed. I made a huge deal of it, as only a first time mom can, talking to her, cheering, and immediately beginning to anticipate when she would roll over again. Days turned into weeks, and weeks into months. Then one day she did it. And then again. And again. Suddenly she was rolling across the living room, going wherever she wanted.

Her development continued in this way… she would consistently do the next “big” milestone, like sitting up, or crawling, or walking, one time and very early. Then she wouldn’t do it again for at least two weeks. But once she did it the next time, she had it nailed. Seriously, once that child started to actually walk, she rarely fell. It was like from the beginning of her life she was wired to only do something if she could do it well (yikes, I know).

Her brother was quite different. He took forever to hold his head up in a way that made me confident he could sustain it. Every developmental milestone was delayed, heightening my search to figure out what was going on. I think I thought if I knew what was happening, I could fix it. There must be some therapy, some medicine, some diet that would help him.

But no one seemed to have answers, and even when answers came, solutions did not follow.

It was the first time I’ve felt so completely powerless.

We would go to church and I would stay in the nursery to help, watching all the other babies doing things mine could not do.

Comparison to his sister or to his peers was excruciatingly painful. I knew I shouldn’t do it. I had heard all the people say, ” he will do it in his own time.” And I knew that if he was going to do anything, it would be in his own time. The problem for me was not the delay, but the unknown… it wasn’t about doing it in his own time, it was about what he would or wouldn’t do at all.

Each milestone that passed brought a fresh wave of grief.

Would he learn to sit up?

Would he crawl?

Would he walk?

When would he say words I could understand?

He cries so much, if he could just speak, maybe he could tell me what’s wrong and I could make it better…

Then came school, and all the things were hard. Fine motor, reading, writing, math, peer relationships, gym class, recess, field trips…

And with each struggle, grief. We can say all the nice things about developing character and growing through adversity, and I can accept that to be true for myself. But for my child? Sure, to a certain extent, yes. But not like this. When everything is hard, that doesn’t grow you, that defeats you. There has got to be a limit to what a person has to bear.

Of course, this was really just my struggle. I would guess that if my son could tell me about his early school experience, he would say it was fun. He knew he was loved, and I have entire scrapbooks filled with joyful pictures of shaving cream projects and sensory tables, PT’s balance beams and OT’s scissors.

He might have been behind his peers, but I am pretty positive he was blissfully unaware of any difference.

No, this was mostly my problem. But it really was a problem. Grief seemed to ooze from my pores, like too much garlic. Grief over the unknown, grief over the unfixable. It never quite left and it never quite consumed me. I pushed it off with prayers focusing on what I had to be grateful for, and all the things I could do to make things the best they could be. I believed in cures and new medications and miracles. But just underneath the surface, I questioned God’s goodness, and felt plagued with the why of it all.

Then one night, in the middle of the night, laying in my son’s bed as he rocked back and forth beside me, unable to sleep, I heard very clearly, “I am not going to heal your son. This is something both of you need.”

Tears welled up in my eyes and ran silently down my cheeks. This was not the answer I wanted. This was not the clarity I sought. And yet I knew it was true. Deeply and unshakably true.

Since that night, I have experienced varying degrees of acceptance, from raging against it to hesitantly embracing it. The words that God placed on my heart from that time on have been trust and surrender, neither of which seem to be my forte as I am still working on them over a decade later.

Through all these years of grief, it seemed like no one really had the right words for my experience and yet I knew it was not unique. Many other parents I talked with experienced similar sadnesses as they raised their children with special needs. This grief was not a one time event, as in the death of a loved one, with lasting impact. Instead, it was a series of events (or non-events like missed developmental milestones), each like a dull ache, lingering… chronic grief.

Sometimes I felt guilty for feeling the sadness at all… my child was not typically developing, but as far as I knew his disorder was not life threatening. How could I grieve when other parents have lost their children?

But I’ve learned that grief doesn’t follow rules, and feeling guilty for feeling what we feel rarely makes us feel any better. In fact, more often it leads to despair and stuck-ness.

Instead, I have come to expect this chronic grief. It seems to be a natural partner to chronic illness, but I never know when it will show up, I just know that it will. And when it does, the only thing to do is to acknowledge it. Look at it, full-on, without hiding. Much like a storm, it is here now. It was not yesterday, and it likely will move through by tomorrow. Somehow acknowledging this makes it both less surprising and less overwhelming. I feel more able to roll with it, and not be drowned.

And just like an unexpected rainbow immediately following a storm, as I have come to expect grief, I have also been amazed by joy. As I get better at letting go of my own expectations for what “should” be and accept what is, I am finding that what is can be exquisite. Joy springs up in the recognition of goodness that still surrounds and upholds us. Joy slips in in the simplicity of mutual care, expressed through small acts of kindness. Joy underpins the creation of our own path, making a unique life that works for us. Joy overflows in watching my children grow at their own pace, in their own ways, light-bearers all.

Grief still settles in beside me at times, usually accompanied by some worry about the future, or perhaps some present pain, but it is a familiar presence, lacking the power it used to hold. This life, all of it, is making me soft and strong. It is forming me and my family into the shape of grace.

Wherever you are on this journey, may hope accompany you. May you see dawn breaking on the horizon, because even if circumstances don’t change, you can. May this path open you up and fill you with grace.

So much love,

~A