Knocking on Death’s Door… with Cookies

We moved into our new neighborhood a little over six months ago, and while we’ve had longer conversations with a few of our neighbors, there were a few we haven’t seen much of yet (apart from a quick Trick-or-Treat hello on October 31st). “Invite the neighbors over for dinner” is on our year-long bucket list, and we’ve only made partial headway.

When a hospice van pulled into the driveway of one of our less-known neighbors a few weeks ago, I was filled with all sorts of confused feelings. When hospice comes calling, it means a family is facing loss: it’s a time when you can be sure emotions are running high and you need your community to hold you like never before. But what if you’re the next door neighbor? And you don’t know their names? I felt so close to their grief, and yet so far away. Surely of all the times to make a new friend, this would be the most inappropriate?

I poured out my sadness for them on Facebook: lamenting that we hadn’t connected with these neighbors sooner and now feeling so helpless. Within minutes, friends chimed in with their own stories of grief and comfort as they had cared for and lost loved ones, and how a neighbor showed up and offered a hug… Or a meal… Or a card… Or a plate of cookies. “What a difference it made”, they said. “Now is not the time to hide because you don’t know them well,” they said. “Show you care, even if it feels awkward. It matters,” they said. I cried reading every one of their comments. I am sometimes just overwhelmed at the goodness and kindness and generous wisdom of my online and real life friends.

I am usually a “take a meal” kind of person, but knew this family were Jewish and was anxious about trying to prepare a meal that may not be kosher. So I opted for cookies. My daughter and I defied a school-night-bedtime, and we wrote a note offering to take trash out or walk their dog, and just generally to say we had noticed the van and we were sorry and we care and we were praying. I wrote what my Facebook friends said to write. Our neighbors weren’t in when we stopped by. We left the note with their relatives. It didn’t feel like enough. But I trusted my friends’ advice.

My neighbor texted me her heartfelt thanks a few days later, and then walked over the following week to say that her mom had passed away, and that they would be sitting shiva for a couple days, if I’d like to come visit with them. Since the little I knew about shiva came from the high drama of Jonathan Tropper’s book (turned movie) This is where I left you, I did a little more research to find out about the traditions of shiva and Jewish mourning. In short: Judaism provides a structured period of mourning of up to a year, allowing mourners to go through the various stages of grief. Families will often sit shiva for up to seven days after the funeral: a dedicated time of staying together (often sitting on the floor or low to the ground), and many will open their home to the community to come and mourn with them. Shiva.com is an excellent resource on understanding shiva, how to plan for it, what to bring, and much more.

I baked bread, and my friend who’d followed the story since my first Facebook post added a jar of homemade berry-orange jam; and on the day after the funeral I made my way over to the neighbors for our first real conversation. I spent an hour with them: hearing about the incredibly sophisticated and talented women their mother had been, admiring her art, enjoying a snack, and sharing stories and even laughs. I met their children and looked at photos and it was, quite honestly, the most genuine and lovely hour of meeting neighbors I can remember. I had showed up that first day with cookies wanting to be a blessing, but in truth I walked away so much richer than when I’d arrived.

I’ve thought about that afternoon often, and marveled at the gift of a community tradition like sitting shiva. My white, western, christian culture doesn’t have anything like it in comparison. We see and experience grief and death, but so often my experience of grief is that the mourners are so lonely and overwhelmed, and the friends around them just aren’t sure what to say or do… and so keep their distance.

This is exactly what we shouldn’t be doing, though, as Sheryl Sandberg has repeatedly urged after losing her husband and walking this devastating road last year. “Just show up,” she counsels in her advice on how to speak to people who are going through a hard time.

One of the beauties of the shiva tradition is that it walks the whole community through the process. The bereaved know there are grieving rituals and time periods that honor the months-and-years-long stages of grief. The community around them know that there are appropriate and welcome ways for them to show up and show support, and the family knows they can count on that. I think it’s a beautiful and profound and deeply humane thing. I wish we had something like shiva traditions: death and mourning are something we are pretty bad at, I think.

So I share this story not because I’m holding myself up as an example of someone who knows how to do this well. I share this story as someone who is actively wanting to learn from others how to do this better. I took the advice of my friends who had walked this road and I showed up. At death’s door. With cookies. And then I took Sheryl Sandberg’s advice. And I’m learning from the deep, relational wisdom of the Jewish community whose curated shiva practices are comforting and profound in a way that I ache for.

I know I’ve needed that kind of comfort myself, before. I remember with crystal clarity opening up an email twenty years ago, in the week after terrible crisis, and reading these verses a friend had sent me from Job 2:

“And when Job’s three friends heard of all this evil that had come upon him, they came each from his own place… They made an appointment together to come to show him sympathy and comfort him….. and they sat with him on the ground seven days and seven nights, and no one spoke a word to him, for they saw that his suffering was very great.” (Job 2:11-13)

I remember sobbing in the computer lab as I read those words: tears of grief that needed compassionate space. My friend’s willingness to be near and offer that space spoke volumes.

Perhaps there is nothing quite as comforting as having people willing to just sit with us in times of great loss. It strikes me as remarkable that even though he knew he was going to raise him from the dead moments later, when confronted with his dear friend Lazarus’ death and the throng of grieving friends, Jesus’ first response was to weep (John 6:35). To share in their grief before rushing to make it go away.

Just show up, says Sheryl, you don’t have to say or do anything.

Let’s show up.

 

 

Teach us to weep

Jen Michel’s book Teach Us to Want remains a highlight of my reading in the past few years. What does it mean to want things as a Christian? Is it okay to desire things, or to have ambition? What place (if any) do those have in the life of faith?

This past weekend I got to hear Jen speak, and she reminded us of both the caution of desire (we should be wary of wanting, because we want wrongly, willfully, and dangerously); as well as the call of desire (because wanting lies at the heart of prayer, and transformation, and discipleship as we learn to want what God wants). Jen’s words are soul-mingling with a number of other voices of late: Paul E Miller’s practical and profound insights in A Praying Life, the beautiful paths of spiritual formation mapped out in the novel Sensible Shoes, as well as the wise mentoring of Ruth Haley Barton in her podcast Strengthening the Soul of your Leadership.

What do we want? What do we hope for? What do we pray for? And how do we cope with the glaring gaps between what we hope and pray for, and the grueling realities of how life sometimes is? How do we discern where God is at work, and what he has for us in each of these? What happens if we wanted and desired good things, and they were withheld or lost?

I have a journal full of questions and confessions and thoughts that have no place on this blog, but I do want to share this one thing, because perhaps you’re wading through some deep waters, too:

There is no path to spiritual wholeness that does not walk through the rocky terrain of grief and lament.

I’m learning to grieve. Right alongside, “Teach me to want, Lord”, I’m praying “teach me to weep”. Teach me how to notice and name the losses and disappointments of this life, and to lay each of these before you. Teach me to feel the hard feelings. Teach me to process pain in your presence.

Grief is not only a feeling we feel with the loss of loved ones. It’s what we feel when we lose anything: friendships or dreams or hopes or the change in a situation. There are good things about each life stage, and when change happens (even for good reasons!), there is still some grief we feel in losing what we had before. Noticing it. Naming it. Calling out the elephant in the room… or prayer closet as the case may be.

My friend Alastair Roberts made an insightful observation about the role feelings play in our spiritual lives: we are not to be ruled by our emotions, but we are not to be dismissive of them, either. Instead, the Psalms teach us to attend to our feelings: to notice them, listen to them (for our emotions, like our minds and our bodies, each give us some information about the world and ourselves), and respond appropriately.

I can have all the “God is good and God is sovereign” theology firmly tucked under my proverbial Belt of Truth and Breastplate of Righteousness… but all of that does not muscle out the fact that sometimes, my heart still hurts, and disappointments still come. It is true that we can say, with Paul, that “in all these things (including death! disease! disappointment!) we are more than conquerors through Christ Jesus who loved us” (Romans 8)… and at the SAME TIME to acknowledge that we feel hard-pressed on every side, perplexed, persecuted, and struck down (2 Corinthians 4:9).

“Why are you so downcast within me, O my soul?” asks the Psalmist.

And then he lists the ways. There is no fast forwarding to hope. Joy may come in the morning, but sometimes there’s still a long night to endure before then. In truth, I think sometimes the most spiritual thing we can do in a situation is to cry.

I made a list of all the things I’m sad about right now: not a prayer list asking for help. Just a “I’m sad” list. This is not the kind of list I would have thought it was okay to write in a journal, but I’m learning that there’s a good and right place for lament.

Teach us to weep, O Lord. May all our longings be laid before you, all our sighs heard by you; and in time, would you lift our heads.

I believe because…

When I was six, I first believed because the Sunday School teacher told us a story about who could be with God forever in heaven. We needed our own ticket, he explained, holding a carefully folded piece of paper in his hand as an example. We couldn’t get in with someone else’s ticket, or by snipping off a corner of a ticket. He snipped a corner, and then another, and then another. He unfolded the piece of paper to reveal a cross. Our ticket was Jesus, he said. The snippets were just…. trash. Jesus was a friend who would never leave us. Jesus was the one who would bid us welcome into heaven. And anyone who asked Jesus for a ticket could have one. And my six year old heart—longing for a forever friend and a welcome to heaven—believed.

When I was twelve, I believed because—like ballet and piano and reading books—Christianity was part of Who I Was, and What I Did. I belonged. And my well-worn copy of the NIV with its randomly highlighted verses (because it was the highlighting itself that seemed spiritual, not the verse itself), did bring comfort and hope and stability in a time when so much around me was unstable.

When I was seventeen, I believed because the Holy Spirit seemed powerful and I heard stories of mighty answers to prayer. I believed because belief was the gateway to a community of really nice, welcoming people, with a place to use my piano gifts in church, within easy Sunday walking distance.

When I was twenty, my world was turned upside down and I believed because everything else was falling apart. Again and again I was drawn to John 6:63, as the disciples stared at Jesus, incredulous about the difficulty of what he was saying and asking. “Will you leave me, too?” Jesus asked Peter (and me). And my own heart would echo Peter’s reply: “To whom else will be go? You have the words of eternal life.” I had no answers for why God allowed suffering or why He seemed silent in the face of heartbroken prayers, but no other community had answers either. At the very least, Jesus had compassion for the brokenness and had chosen to enter into the heartache. So, he understood. Even if I didn’t. To who else would I go?

When I was twenty five, I believed because I sifted through all the evidence for the resurrection. Compelled by law school’s training to have sufficient evidence and witnesses for anything that claimed to be truth, I learned about the historicity of documents and textual criticism and how it was that we established anything from history to be true. Turned out, the evidence for Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection was significantly better attested in history than any evidence for Genghis Khan or Julius Ceasar or a multiplicity of other things we accepted as historical fact. I believed because it was true.

When I was thirty, I believed because I held my newborn child in my arms, and marveled at the wonder of life. How could ears be so perfectly formed? How was it that my body—without any research or intellectual effort on my part—had known exactly how to grow what was needed to house this beautiful life? Surely that was God. Shell-shaped ears and eyes that looked at us and baby breath and the ability to find breastmilk from the first moment? I believed.

When I was thirty six, I believed because again, and again, and again, and again… things happened that could not possibly have been “coincidence”. I would reach the end of my limits on something, send up a quick prayer in desperation, and seemingly out of nowhere an offer of help would come. We would totally run out of money, or time on our visas, or out of patience with our kids… and a gift would arrive, or an official would extend mercy we hadn’t expected, or some moment of delightful laughter with our children would reset our tolerance limits and we would find breathing space again. I’d be tangled up in a relationship, and just “happen” to read a verse that spoke directly to the situation. There were signs of God’s attentive care and involvement all around, if only I had eyes to see.

Last week I read Psalm 107:2:

Has the Lord redeemed you? Then SPEAK OUT.

He has. Again, and again, and again. He has forgiven more sins and healed more wounds than I can recount. He has answered more prayers and paid closer and more loving attention than I could ever give him credit for. I still have days of believing because I feel his presence and know the truth of Jesus… and still have days of believing because I don’t have any other better options.

But I believe.

I do. It’s more than habit or culture or community. I believe there is a living, active, loving God who gives each of us life and breath. I believe he wants relationship with us and a restored world where all of creation (including us) live in harmony. I believe he sent Jesus to make that possible: that pain can be healed, the worst of sins and failures can be redeemed, the most alienated of people can be drawn in.

I believe, and therefore I have spoken (2 Corinthians 4:13).

And, Lord willing, will keep believing and speaking.

Which is more blessed: poverty or plenty? (Some thoughts on wealth, faith, and the feelings that go with that)

Gilted Guilt.

I’ve been wondering about this recently: the feelings of guilt that—for me and many other Christians—seem to attend the having of things and money.

There’s a Scriptural basis for the call to financial simplicity:  ‘The Son of Man has nowhere to lay his head’, said Jesus, and ‘Blessed are the poor in spirit’. ‘The love of the money is the root of all kinds of evil’, warned Paul. And I hear it around me, too: from the Kon-Marie call to purge and simplify one’s life, the rise of Buy Nothing communities, to the hilarious-yet-convicting Jen Hatmaker read 7: An Experimental Mutiny against Excess… there’s a lot out there that commends buying less, having less, living more.

What complicates it further is increasingly realizing how privileged our wealth is. We work hard, yes… but there is no way that I can say I worked for and deserve all I have. I am, from birth to death, the recipient of bucketloads of privilege. Born with a white skin to educated parents in a country where the legal system opened doors to whiteness that it slammed to brownness: I got health care, education, opportunity. I was born English-speaking in a world that favors English. Having financial stable relatives opened doors to being able to do things like buy homes, travel, secure loans for entrepreneurial ideas. Privilege cumulates: it wasn’t just that I was born into privilege… it’s that the system continues to reward it. (For a brilliant explanation, read this on how riding a bike taught this guy about privilege).

So then, what does it look like to be a privileged, wealthy person of faith? Jesus has called me to simplicity and to

Our cherry tree. Oh, the bounty.

pursue the Kingdom first and to beware of greed and the love of money which is like bermuda grass to the soul… and yet I live in this place, in this time, in this skin. We own a car. We own a (big) house. We have fruit trees that produce cherries and plums and tongue-tang perfect oranges. We live in a safe, well-resourced community with a school district that is the envy of surrounding cities. Having more (food! savings! travel! cute shoes!) is not only possible, but desirable… and is strongly encouraged by every glossy-paged advert that gets stuffed into my mailbox.

It’s so easy to be greedy.

And, coupled with news of those starving all over the world and the realities that it is not merit but mercy that separates my living conditions from theirs, it’s so easy to feel guilty.

I’ve been wrestling with this since we moved into what is admittedly our dream house a couple months ago. What does it mean to live amid such abundance? I am tempted to downplay the gifts (“oh, this old thing? let me point out the faults so you aren’t too jealous…”), or just ignore them completely. Or feel guilty. Guilt is always knocking at the door asking to come and play.

However, as I’ve wrestled and prayed over this, God is gentle\y reminding me of some additional truths. Yes, it is true that Jesus had no possessions, but it is also true that his ministry was supported by wealthy women of independent means. While it is true that for our sake, Jesus became poor 2 Cor 8:9., it is also true that  God himself is rich in every way (power! goodness! all creation is his!), and that the Father has no Gilted Guilt over it. Instead: he is GENEROUS with his riches. He lavishes his grace on us. He shares his inheritance with Jesus and all those who are his.

So, rather than feeling guilt and greed over wealth, I am called to gratitude and generosity. 

Command those who are rich in this present world not to be arrogant nor to put their hope in wealth, which is so uncertain, but to put their hope in God, who richly provides us with everything for our enjoyment. Command them to do food, to be rich in good deeds, and to be generous and willing to share. (1 Timothy 6:17)

It baffles me that God has set up the world where evil and good thrive side by side: where we will “always have the poor with us”, while others are “richly provided with everything for their enjoyment.” And it baffles me all the more that we are in the latter rather than the former category. Why? Why? I don’t know. It is a mystery; it is not merited.

I may not know why, but I do know what God asks of us, should we find ourselves among the fed/clothed/free/literate/privileged. He asks us not to put our confidence in that, but in Him. He asks us to enjoy what we have as gifts. And he asks us to be generous. Generous with our time, generous with our money, generous with our home.

Yes, there are those who identify with the sufferings of Jesus in his poverty; but perhaps there is also a place for us to gratefully identify with the God who has plenty and throws his arms and doors open to the world and invites them to share in his goodness. And so—following his example—we say yes, we can host that dinner. Yes, you may borrow our car. Yes, we can help with this or that.

Not guilt, gratitude.

Not greed, generosity.

Remind me of this if you see me getting tangled (again), please? And come over and eat bread and pick fruit off our trees: come and taste and see with us that the Lord is good.

 

 

 

Finding God in the (Mommy) Whirlwind

How I wish Catherine McNiel’s book Long Days of Small Things – Motherhood as a Spiritual Discipline had been around when I was first a mom. Her conviction that God know and sees and loves and longs to connect with Mothers not just despite motherhood but in the midst of motherhood is deeply true and life-giving. I am so grateful for her guest post here today.

I remember that crazy cocktail of emotions that swirled through my nine-week birthing class. Fourteen pairs of wide-eyed, frightened, soon-to-be parents met in a hot, crowded room. We watched terrifying birth videos, considered impossible contortions of the pelvis, and clenched ice cubes in our fists (a stand-in for pain while we practiced relaxing).

All twenty-eight of us were standing on the precipice of the biggest jump of our lives. We knew we had to go over, but not who would go first—or what would come after.

A few months later I ran into a family from birthing-class in a shopping center parking lot. Swinging car seat carriers back and forth we eagerly introduced our infants to each other and caught up on how the real birth and early days had gone.

We exchanged tales of colic and weight-gain issues. We confessed to being exhausted, a bit unhinged, and absolutely unable to find time for the basics of life that we’d taken for granted before—showering, laundry, sleeping, making a sandwich. Where was it all going? we asked ourselves. How could someone so small take over everything?!

Then one of them looked at me and chuckled. “I remember you saying you couldn’t wait for the quiet rhythm of life at home with a baby. You thought you’d have more quiet times working from home than you did working full time in the office.”

I did?

Only a few weeks in to parenthood, I couldn’t recall anything of that pre-precipice world where I might think something so preposterous.

There is a sacredness to that spot on the edge of the precipice, isn’t there? We are all-in, moving forward, no stopping us now. Yet, we have no idea what is coming. We can’t possibly. The future is unknowable; the change is massive. We’ve seen a hundred other families walk down this rite of passage and survive, yet there is no way out for us but through. We can only learn as we go. Our bodies and souls are wide open in surrender—we have no choice but to accept what may come.

And what comes is a whirlwind.

A new person, with unrelenting physical needs that can only be met by our physical bodies. Ourselves torn, inside and out, with stiches and sutures and post-partum depression. Waking every 90 minutes for days, then weeks—maybe even months. The worry of plugged ducts, infections, APGAR scores, developmental milestones. The pressures from family, from strangers, from ourselves. The joys of first smiles, soft heads, clenching fists.

Our children.

We were taught, with Elijah, that God’s voice is not in the whirlwinds, not in the earthquake, not in the fire. For Elijah, who had staved off rain then brought it back, who called down fire and bested his enemies—he found himself in early retirement, with no false-prophets to confront or battles to win. His challenge was learning to hear God in the gentle wind, the still, small voice.

But me? I’ve always known how to find God in the silence, in the quiet times. The hours of journaling, singing, serving. What are we supposed to do now, in the sleepless days of constant bouncing and breastfeeding, of unwashed hair and piles of laundry? In the days when we can hardly keep it all together and our families moving forward?

Sister, I am here to tell you, God is in the whirlwind too.

During these precious days of miracles, we celebrate the gifts but grieve what we have lost. The certainty of who we are, the satisfactions of contributing to a team, the autonomy to choose where we will go and how we will spend our time. The mental clarity to study the Bible, the ability to be awake long enough to close our eyes and pray.
There is so much guilt that piles up on us, in this season, this whirlwind where everything “normal” is set aside. Shouldn’t we be better, do more, have it all together?

But God is in this whirlwind.

He made our bodies to create, to give birth, to lactate…and to heal again, eventually. He made our babies to need a loving grown-up day and night, to learn their identity through the unrelenting rhythm of constant cry and response, tiny tummies and diapers emptied and filled, and then again.

Our Creator is in this process, in this love, in this nurture. He is with us in the sleepless night-time vigils and the daytime pouring-out.

The day will come again, Mama, when you will wash your hair, put on clothes, and go out into the world independently. The season will arrive when you can pull out your journal and listen for that still, small voice in the gentle wind.

But in the meantime, sister, God is in the whirlwind.

Catherine McNiel writes to open eyes to God’s creative, redemptive work in each day—while caring for three kids, two jobs, and one enormous garden. Catherine is the author of Long Days of Small Things: Motherhood as a Spiritual Discipline (NavPress 2017), and loves to connect on Twitter , Facebook , or at catherinemcniel.com .
 

Everbloom: Stories of Living Deeply Rooted and Transformed Lives (Even in Grief)

Many months ago, I received a phone call. It was just after school drop off, and I had gratefully relocated my now-cold coffee cup moments before. “We’re putting together a book proposal. It will have stories of all the seasons of faith, like a tree: being rooted, having a strong core, and living a life reaching out as branches, blossoming and bearing fruit. We’re praying it will bless many: would you consider writing something for it?” 

Friends, that seed of an idea took root, grew, and today the fruit of all our labors burst forth into the world with the launch of Everblooma collection of stories and poems from the women of the Redbud Writers’ Guild. It is simply BEAUTIFUL, and I am both proud and humbled today to have had a small part in such a gorgeous work.

Here’s what Shauna Niequist says about it:

“Stories that help us feel seen, known, and understood. Honestly and beautifully told.”

And poet Luci Shaw:

“Gritty, funny, painful, affirming. Once I began reading these stories I couldn’t stop.”

Everbloom is available wherever books are sold (on sale this week from the publishers and on Amazon!), and I have a copy to give away to a reader! Enter below and I’ll contact the winner on Friday 4/28. But don’t just take my word for it that it’s lovely: here’s an excerpt from Whitney Simpson. Her chapter is entitled “Grief. Sit with it.”

Grief. Sit With It.

They say loss is common in a first pregnancy. The details escape me—specific words said, who knew about the loss, or how many meals were delivered. Yet the gift of the pillow and mug remain clear in my mind over a decade later. As I was cleaning out a closet recently, my gaze fell upon this gift, and I fondly remembered that dark season of hushed loss. I remembered with compassion the “wounded” me who received this perfect gift and the invitation for growth it offered.

The gift invited me to embrace rest after my first pregnancy—a pregnancy that introduced me not to motherhood, but to loss. It was a meaningful gift from a mom who had also experienced a hushed loss and understood this gray season and my feelings of quiet sadness.

While this form of loss is a common occurrence, I had never lost like this; this was different. But it was early in my pregnancy, and somehow the briefness of gestation seemed to discount my grief in the view of others.

The gift of the pillow and mug reminded me that there were people who cared for me and wanted to draw near to me after our loss—even if I did not allow it in my dark time of quiet sadness. I seemed fine on the outside, and few were allowed near enough to know the emptiness I felt within. The gift reminded me that God is near, yet I did not choose to rest or sit with God in my brokenness. While life continued on script, I busied myself and pushed through in fast-forward.

In a few short months—and still giving little time to sitting with the grief—I turned from quiet to angry. It was at my husband’s brave urging that I met with someone, months after my miscarriage.

I will never forget the day we sat together on our couch as anger spewed from my lips at him. I do not remember what my anger was connected to that day, but I do know it was unwarranted.

For you see, I could not identify how grief was binding to me and blinding me. Soon, my counselor, and later a spiritual director, helped me process those feelings and not silence or discount them. I discovered God in them, identified new skills, and began embracing the grieving cycle. It was a season of patience that allowed me to process the grief, and, ever so slowly, the anger began to fade.

This processing of the trauma was necessary before I could fill that mug with tea and receive support from that pillow, or from anyone for that matter. I began to sit with God in my grief and discovered I was not alone.

Color soon filled my gray days with the delight and joys of family, life, and ministry. Yet seasons changed as they do, and grief returned with the loss of first a job and later a parent. These losses opened unexpected spaces for anger to return. I stumbled a bit in the darkness, each experience another opportunity and invitation for sitting with God. I was no longer a stranger to the sneaky ways grief masks itself in my heart or in the hearts of others. I was invited to sit in the changing seasons.

Befriending grief has opened me to growth. It walks with me on a journey of spiritual transformation. It teaches me to value others in their times of loss. It helps me to value my feelings and thoughts. It reminds me that God can handle my anger. It invites me to trust those who love me most, even when it hurts. Grief asks that I slow down and sit awhile.

Years later, the little gold pillow and coffee mug invite me to sit with each loss . . . sit with the sadness . . . sit with the longings of my heart . . . sit. Novelist George Eliot reminds me of how vitally important it is to embrace the grief: “She was no longer wrestling with the grief, but could sit down with it as a lasting companion and make it a sharer in her thoughts.”

Are you living in fast-forward after loss (even months or years later)? Have you considered the invitation to slow down and sit with your grief for a season? Allow your whispers to be spoken to and heard by the God who weeps with you as you discover grief as teacher, companion, and friend. May you sit with your grief and be comforted by your God there.

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Unreliable Mirrors

A woman poses in a fun fair hall of mirrors, circa 1935 (BBC.co.uk)

I’m never sure if it’s a compliment if someone says “you’re really photogenic”. Do they mean “you are attractive and this photo shows it!” Or do they mean “this is a nice photo of you… in real life you don’t look really as good?” One thing is for sure: depending on the photographer and the angle, the same face can look a variety of different ways.

My children and my husband, for example, have a different perspective (literally) on what my face looks like. One looks more down on my hair, the others get to see much more of my chin (I try not to think about this, actually.) As for me: I see myself eye-to-eye in the bathroom mirror, which is the closest I can get to seeing an accurate reflection of what I look like. But often, others can reflect things to me that I don’t see: the tag sticking out of my shirt at the back. The bit of fluff behind my ear. Or, later in the day, the proverbial piece of spinach between my teeth. We need mirrors—glass or human—to tell us what we’re like.

Much more important than our physical appearance, though, is that we all rely on others to reflect back to us what we are really like as people. There are no bathroom mirrors that can tell us if we are kind, or self-deluded, or mentally unstable, or genuinely hilarious. We gather information about what we are like from the human mirrors around us: our family, our friends, our communities.

However, we human mirrors vary wildly in our ability to reflect truth. None of us are perfect mirrors: every part of us is affected by sin (this is what I understand by the phrase total depravity… not that we’re as bad as we can be, but that every aspect of our being is tainted by it). We all are prone to self-deception, self-focus, and self-interest; we are finite, fallible, and foolish—as one of my professors used to say—and so we all give somewhat “warped” feedback to the world around us.

But, some people give healthier reflections than others. And this post is my reflection (<< cannot resist puns) on whether the most significant relationships in our lives are providing us with reliable or unreliable mirrors about who we are as people. So much of our emotional, mental, and spiritual well-being depends on it.

The healthiest of relationships are ones where a person show us, as closely as they can, how God sees us. They see our dignity, our gifting, our strengths. They also see our flaws and our struggles, and they are able to reflect back to us when we might need to “take a good, hard look at ourselves.” They are able to help us identify our talents. They are able to name our blind-spots. The best of friendships, and the best of marriages, are those where we are loved by a reliable mirror. This person doesn’t always take our side in things (they are not a permanent instagram filter for our character!), but they are not critical by default (like the mirrors in the Target dressing room).

The most toxic of relationships, by contrast, are ones where the person is close enough to be playing a major role in you forming your self-perception of you, and they reflect a deeply distorted version of yourself. This, I think, is what gaslighting is at its worst (you need to know what gaslighting is. Read about it here.) This is what abusive relationships look like: where you begin to see yourself as a crazy, awful, terrible person and a blight on human existence… but the terrible twisted image you are seeing of yourself is not accurate because it isn’t you which is twisted as much as the twisted mirror which is reflecting back a distorted image.

So my question to you is this: take stock of the relationships in your life, and consider how reliable the “mirrors” are among your inner circle.

Are your mirrors telling you that you are wonderful and perfect and lovely all the time? If so, your mirrors may need to be sharpened up a little. We need others to help us see and identify our weaknesses, to gently point out where maybe we took offense too quickly, or are responding to some trigger from a past insecurity rather than the person in front of us.

Are your mirrors just pointing out your flaws? Do you feel like you’re always failing? Always responsible for someone else’s bad behavior? That you might be a little bit crazy? Do they see you for who you are? Or for what you can do for them? We need mirrors that also see our strengths, that hear and validate our voices and our value. If your primary relationships (with your parents, spouse, boss, best friend) show the signs of being deeply unreliable mirrors, please – get help. Not all our loved ones reflect the truth about ourselves back to us accurately.

Are your human mirrors reflecting both the beautiful and the broken in you? And do they love you, regardless? Ultimately, this is the way God sees us, and this is the self he wants us to see when we look at him. One day we will see him face to face, we will know and be fully known (1 Corinthians 13:12, 1 John 3:2), but until them he has given us Scripture as a mirror in which we can see our true selves, and he has given us other people who, as they themselves become more and more like Jesus, should also be better able to reflect true to us.

I’m hoping and praying that we will be increasingly reliable mirrors to others, and be loved and known by increasingly reliable mirrors in return.