Thursday, May 31, 2012

The Cup of Bitter and Sweet

“That is deep enough, Jack.”  It feels like the hundredth time that I have said the words.  He turns to face me and flashes a smile, shooting out rays of joy that lightly skim across the river’s glassy top.  “I won’t go any deeper,” he responds, giddy as he deliberately lifts his left toe up and over the water’s surface to step further away from me.

I sit on the bank of the river, my legs folded in the arms of an Adirondack chair, and watch this little boy, my little son, soak up the pleasure of water with the freedom of youth.  As I watch him roll and splash in delight, I drink sweetness from a cup that is full.  Longing to drink the sweet to the very last drop, I savor the taste and give thanks. 

Jack raises his arms in the air, spins around and plops in the river’s sand.  I laugh loud to make up for the laughter that would have surely erupted from his twin. 

And then I taste it.  Drops of bitter taint the sweet.  I try to spit it out, for while sweetness goes down smooth, bitterness is hard to swallow.  I long for Webb to be in the water with Jack, and I swallow bitter.  I long to see in color again, without a screen of sad grey, and I swallow bitter.  I long for our family to be whole, and the taste of sweet is now all but forgotten. 

My soul and my cup are empty and longing never satisfies.  Longing for something, for someone on earth, only stimulates and amplifies the thirst.  

“Watch this, mommy,” he pulls his knees up high and stomps his feet in the water.  New, big splashes emerge and his body shakes from all of the excitement.  “Wow, Jack! I’m not sure I’ve ever seen such huge stomping splashes.” 

I know I am not the first to taste bitter mixed with sweet.  But, how do I do it?  How do I take and drink bittersweet from the cup, and be filled?   

In the same way, after supper he took the cup, saying, ‘This cup is the new covenant in my blood; do this, whenever you drink it, in remembrance of me.’" (1 Corinthians 11:25). 

No, I am not the first to taste bittersweet.  For when I survey the wondrous cross, where sorrow and love flowed mingling down, I remember that He poured out bitter, and He poured out sweet.  And remembering replaces longing, for remembrance fills the soul

“Mommy, is it ok if I do this?”  Jack creeps closer to the swamp.  “No, bud.  You need to stay where I can see you.” I must have said the words a hundred times.  He responds by flashing a smile that sets the swamp ablaze, and I taste the sweet.  I imagine a boy looking much like Jack following behind him, stomping and splashing, laughing loud, and I taste the bitter.  

With two hands on the cup, I bring it to my lips and remember the God who first tasted bitter and sweet.  He filled this cup with love, and He emptied this cup with love.  He finished it to the very last drop, so that one day I might know bitterness only in memory.  And I will swallow and be filled by sweetness alone.

Friday, May 25, 2012


I have yet to catch my breath from viewing these pictures.  My friend and soul sister, Amy Free, took them last week.  I didn't think that family photographs existed for our family after Webb's death.  But, by using her God-given gift, she captured heaven and earth.  

Tuesday, May 22, 2012

Along the Road

I walked a mile with Pleasure. 
She chattered all the way, 
But left me none the wiser 
for all she had to say. 

I walked a mile with Sorrow, 
And ne'er a word said she; 
But, oh, the things I learned from her 
When Sorrow walked with me.

Along the Road 
by, Robert Browning Hamilton

Thursday, May 17, 2012

An Egg

It is the same every morning.  I slip on my tall, green garden boots that wait patiently for me by the back door.  I cringe as the door creaks to open, wishing I could snatch back the loud sound before it reaches my sleeping family.  The morning fog moves so quickly that I wait for its curtain to rise and scatter into the sky, before beginning my walk to check on the hens.  Mostly, I check for eggs.  Mostly, I hope for eggs.  Always, I find emptiness. 

“Good morning, girls.” I greet them, and they reply with cheerful clucking.  All of their chatter gently wakes me and helps me shake off the night’s sleep.  It has been weeks, no, months, since we brought the chickens home to their coop.  Yet each morning when I rise to meet them, hoping for eggs, I peer into their nesting box and find space, only emptiness. 

It is Jewish practice for the bereaved to eat an egg for the first meal after the funeral.   This egg is a symbol of circular fertility, meant to begin the painful work of reminding the griever that she will live, in spite of her loss.[1]  For most people, an egg is just an egg.  But for one who is clinging to every sign and every symbol that there may be life again in the land of the living, this egg is sacred. 

On Thursday morning, the boots were on, the door was creaking and the fog was rising.  The hens were clucking and my sleep was shaking.  Expecting to find, once again, the empty space of the nesting box, I mindlessly opened its lid.  But on this morning, the emptiness was filled.  A perfectly round, brown egg sat in its place.  I held the egg and beheld the sacred.  For most people, an egg is just an egg.  But for me, this egg turned a Thursday morning of ordinary into an Easter morning of glory. 

[1] Lauren Winner, Mudhouse Sabbath: An Invitation to a Life of Spiritual Discipline

Friday, May 11, 2012

A Holy Mother's Day Letter

"Though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death..." Psalm 23:4

Dear Shadow-Dwelling Mother,

You remember what life was like when you mothered in the light, without the heavy blanket of pain pressing down on you.  The small, blue handprints on construction paper, the photographs of smiles that came easily, the journal entries describing your hands so full but your heart filled to the brim, all remind you of your days in the sun.  Mothering in the light was never easy, and you and your children were far from perfect.  Yet you read books and told stories and wiped tears with a sense of weightlessness that you now long to know.  Certainly there were things that obstructed your view of the light at times, worry over a missed milestone or frustration grown from disobedience.  But the shadows cast from such obstructions were fleeting, constantly changing and easily integrated.  You received the calling of motherhood with gratitude.  Some days were incredibly hard, but most days were wonderfully happy, and you knew, in the light, that you were blessed to be called Mother

But today, you find yourself dwelling in the dark of a shadow caused by an event, a disappointment, or yes, perhaps a death, that is so vast that you wonder if there is indeed any light at all.  It is one thing to dwell here in solitude, as an island.  But you have been called “Mother”, and such a name does not exist on any island. You now know that the milestones and the meltdowns were miniature, and the moments and the mundane were miraculous.  Bearing the pain of your loss might seem possible if you were to focus only on mending your own wounds.  But you have been called to wipe the tears, to soothe the cries and to bind the broken hearts of your children as well.  And your children bear wounds and pains that no band-aid or kiss will cure.  Such a calling requires a strength that you are not sure that you possess. 

The questions that the little voices of your children raise often come out as innocent curiosities, yet they hold such profound depth that you are unable to answer them.  Questions beginning with “why” and “how” and “where” seem so simple to your little one, but you have no answers that satisfy.  For it is hard to find words when you are choking back tears, challenging to form thoughts when the wind has been knocked out of you, and it is difficult to see truth when you stand in the middle of the dark.  You wonder if God called the wrong woman.  You feel that you are too weak to carry your own pain, much less hold and nurture the brokenness of the little loves of your life.  Your cup is dry, and they are still thirsty.  Your heart is broken, and theirs still need mending

A mother’s heartbeat is the pulse of the home.  Your heart is shattered, but you do in the shadow what you learned to do in the light.  You bend low and dig deep and get to the hard, sacred work of picking up the pieces of your heart, while scooping up the pieces of theirs, as you pray in hope, that you will all be made whole again.  You know that you are right in thinking that you are unable, unequipped and inadequate to do this work alone.  So you say “yes”, again with gratitude, to the high calling of mothering in the shadow, while you call on He who is able, He who is equipped, He who is adequate.  You weave your worry into a tightly spun ball and kick it to the curb, while you open your hands to receive the gift of trust.  Here, with palms open, you allow God to begin His work of restoration, trusting that He might mother a miracle through you, to bring healing to you, yes, but most importantly, to your children.     

My dear, fellow shadow-dwelling mother, this shadow is only possible because there is a Light behind the painThough you dwell in the dark, you abide in the Light.  And the pain is not meant to torture, but to stretch and the fire is not meant to burn, but to refine.  I know that this shadow feels like home, but it is only a tunnel leading to new life, and there is Light in front of the pain as well.  If you will allow it, if I will allow it, we might emerge from this tunnel, not necessarily as happier mothers, but as holier mothers.  May we continue to dig deep and to bend low, while we get to the hard, sacred work of mothering in the dark.  We will find that in the middle of this tunnel, with hands dirty from digging and knees scraped from bending, that we quietly slip off our sandals, for we are quite sure that we stand on holy ground.   My fellow shadow-dweller, it is here on this dark, holy ground, with the hope of Light at the end of the tunnel, and the trust of a healing miracle, that we know, in the shadow, that we are blessed to be called Mother

Sunday, May 6, 2012

Wednesday, May 2, 2012

When Doubt Shows Up

As I sit cross-legged on the couch in the middle of the morning, the songs of birds chiming in the wind and the low roar of a lawnmower several houses away are the tracks that play in my empty house.  The boys are with my mom. The dog is in the yard, and Jeff is on the road headed east to meet a client.  A pile of books stacks high on the coffee table; Eudora Welty, Tim Keller, Anne Lamott and Michael Pollan, all waiting for me to step into their conversations, to hear their stories.  The paring knife of time is dull from multiple attempts to carve out space to receive their words.  But the lawnmower roars and the birds chime as my doubts and questions for God, about God, blink on and off so quickly that I once again drop my knife.  This block of time is too dense with questions and doubts for carving, so the stories of my friends continue to wait to be heard. 

These questions, these doubts have a way of stomping down all lighter thoughts that try to cartwheel across the front page of my mind. Sometimes the “whys” and the “hows” flash in neon, and other times they flicker on and off as subtle as a flutter.  Now with the house to myself and a few hours to sit with solitude, frustration mounts while these questions knock on the door.  The pounding of doubt breaks the roar of the lawnmower and drowns out the song of the birds, and all I hear is the nagging, broken record of unbelief.  “I believe,” I declare as I carefully place the needle back on track.  But just as I sink back into the couch, the track begins to skip again, and the questions and the doubts pick up steam. 

There is no use slamming the front door on Doubt, for he will surely slip in through the back.  And while it is certainly painful to face such an unwelcomed guest, it is another thing all together to be scared by him.  So I sigh as I pass the stack of books longingly, to welcome in the unwelcomed, and to sit a spell with the dark face of Doubt. 

I shift and squirm on the couch while he walks right in and pulls up a chair.  “You shouldn’t be here,” I want to say, but he cuts me off and starts right in with the questions, always the questions.  I respond to his questions with truth and promise, but he speaks so loudly that he slowly drowns out my answers of faith.  Before I know it, I am serving “How could He?” and “Where was He?” on a sterling silver platter with my right hand, while gripping a shrinking mustard seed with my left. 

While the seed rolls through my fingers and over my palm, I hear another, more gentle knocking.  I feel the presence of another One who finds His place right between Doubt and me.  “I’ve been waiting for you to come,” I exhale as I whisper the words.  He assures me that He has been here all along, gently knocking.  I stammer out my reasons for allowing this Doubt to accompany me, and all of these reasons sound like excuses when I say them to the face of this One. 

“Get Doubt out of here!  Answer his questions and see him to the door!” I am pleading with Him now.  Surprisingly, this One allows the Doubt to stay.  He calmly quiets me with the three words I most often need, “Do not fear.”  He stares at my Doubt in the eyes without blinking once, and I realize that He is not afraid of my guest.  He is not shaken or surprised.  I find that though Doubt’s questions still linger in the back of my mind, his stature shrinks in the shadow of the beauty of this One.  And I cannot peel my eyes away from His beauty.  Though I long for answers and I yearn for certainty, sitting here on this couch in the presence of this One, His beauty and His presence are the answers and the certainty that I need.  He quietly ushers Doubt out the door.  I cling to this One, while rolling the mustard seed between my fingers and over my palm, noticing that it no longer seems quite so small.  He places the needle back on track and together we sit and hum the sweet song of belief.