The Gift of Presence

Ann Voskamp once shared on her blog about what it means to minister to those who have suffered so deeply, that is seems like there is nothing you could possibly say or do. She spoke about listening to the stories—about making eye contact—and then she used the phrase that has become a part of my own vocabulary: being a witness

So often when we see those that are suffering deeply our first response is to try and fix it. We want to make it all better, to make the pain go away. But these attempts are often not only futile, but damaging to the one who suffers. Like giving a makeover to someone with a bullet wound.

You would think that being one who has suffered, I would always make the right choice in this department, but I don’t. I am a controller by nature; a fierce and loyal protector. My first instinct is to make the pain just go away. My second is to go “mama bear” on whoever has hurt one of my precious ones. And if the thing is something you can’t actually punch with fists, like cancer for instance, then if I’m not careful my perceived helplessness can turn to apathy. As you may imagine, neither of these first instincts is particularly helpful.

But when I remember what it meant for someone to hold space for me: to be a witness to the way I was suffering and had suffered, to look me in the eyes and say, “I’m so sorry that happened to you.” Then I come back to the power that is present in my presence alone: I get to be a witness.

As someone who walks often through seasons of suffering with others, this can be a dark task at times. But I don’t believe in a God who cannot take the darkest night and turn it into brightest day; so even as I stare into the black of present difficult circumstances, I imagine what God may do. Not to try and predict the future, or control it in any way, but, as Emily P. Freeman says, “to cast a hopeful vision for the future.”

With tears in my eyes, and my hands in yours, Dear Reader, I stand on tip toe and whisper words of hope: what might God do? How might he begin to redeem every broken piece of your shattered heart?

I am the little girl hiding in her closet, wondering what it would be like to be a “normal” child; wondering if God will keep his promise to work all for my good.  I am the little girl who at seven years old already felt like “damaged goods,” though I couldn’t have put it into words. I am the little girl who was hurt not only by the abusive actions of one, but by the silence and apathy of many, many, others.

Sometimes the wounds feel too deep for words.

I have been the one holding the box of tissues for the heartbroken wife. I have been the one sitting across from a friend discovering piece by piece, an abuse that so damaged her life that her mind tried to erase it. I have been the one in a hospital room, hearing the words, “it’s as we suspected. She has leukemia.” And how in the world do we go on living in a place where babies get cancer?

Sometimes all you can do is sit with a person. To hold their gaze. To not be embarrassed by their grief, but to enter in with them. To hold your friend in your arms and tell them that you love them. And though you don’t know what the future will hold, or if you should ever make any kind of comforts based on your assumptions of the future (I.E. “she’ll be fine,” “he’ll come back,” “that probably won’t happen”), you do know who is holding you both. The Lord of hosts. Who doesn’t promise us a pain free life, but does promise us always and forever, His Holy Spirit presence with us. 

I find it terrifying sometimes, the places God asks me to go, both personally and with others. But one phrase continually comes to mind, like a mantra and a command: Stare into the black, and refuse to be afraid.

I’m not sure where it came from, but I’m pretty sure it wasn’t me. I don’t find myself all that bold or particularly daring. I’ve got fear riding like a tiny hitchhiker in my back pocket. Insecurities like radio static in my ears. My hands shake on these keys sometimes, and I am far from adequate for the task.

But God. How wonderful that He does not call the qualified, but qualifies the called. It’s humbling. I pray it may always be so.

For you, dear Reader; I stare into the black and refuse to be afraid. Because you are suffering, either personally or through choosing to enter into the hurt of someone you love, and it’s painful, and you need to know there is hope. You are not alone. While you mourn the loss of normal. While you suffer in the presence of pain, both that belonging to you and that which you bear with others. While you grieve the very existence of death, and sin and suffering; I stand with you. I weep with you. I groan with you and with all creation for that day when all will be made new. Wrong will be made right. Every tear will be wiped away from our eyes…oh how I long for that day.

Until then, I stand as a witness. I refuse to remain indifferent or apathetic, and instead choose to practice the with-ness of Jesus, trusting that it will be enough. I practice the presence of God with me, and with us, and I practice also giving the gift of my own presence. It is my greatest honor and privilege to hold space for you here in this corner of the internet. So come as you are. With all your broken pieces. With the darkness you feel that surrounds you. You are not alone. You have never walked alone.

Now I leave you with the words of the Apostle Peter. May these words point you to a hope greater than the worst thing that life could ever throw at you

“Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ! According to his great mercy, he has caused us to be born again to a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead, to an inheritance that is imperishable, undefiled, and unfading, kept in heaven for you, who by God’s power are being guarded through faith for a salvation ready to be revealed in the last time. In this you rejoice, though now for a little while, if necessary, you have been grieved by various trials, so that the tested genuineness of your faith—more previous than gold that perishes though it is tested by fire—may be found to result in praise and glory and honor at the revelation of Jesus Christ.”

(1 Peter 1:3-7 ESV)

Spring is coming

I had a dream last night that my daughter was making paper mache at church. Her hands and face were covered with the sticky white glue/water/flour mixture. For a Mom of a child with severe gluten sensitivity, this was an actual nightmare.

It’s been seven weeks since her last flare up. It’s been a long hard season, but it feels like maybe we are getting towards the end of it…? I’m always afraid to say that. Like maybe I’ll be jinxing it somehow. Maybe I am just waiting for the other shoe to drop. 

But part of me is almost ready to dare to hope. To hope that maybe this season of intense hardship is ending. Maybe we have done a better job keeping her safe. Maybe we are finally figuring some things out. Maybe there isn’t another shoe hanging above our heads, but just the same shoe at our feet: that she has severe issues with gluten. And maybe it’s celiac and maybe it’s not.

We were told by the pediatric gastroenterologist that we will not be able to get a celiac diagnosis, even if we did a scope, because she has been on the gluten free diet for so long already. 

“Even though she’s still been having flare ups?” I said.

“You could make a case for it,” she said, “but I don’t think it would show up definitively, no.”

She said the only way to get a celiac diagnosis would be to feed her gluten for six weeks straight and then do a scope. 

You can probably guess what my answer to that was. 

Heck NO.

I am not so obsessed with answers that I will purposely hurt my child to get them. 

I am not so obsessed with control that I will break the well earned trust that she has built into me, that what I cook for her, to the best of my knowledge and ability, will not make her sick.

I do not need answers that badly. 

It helps that she’s doing better. Right now, that feels like answer enough. 

She still has tummy aches from time to time, a few every week. I try to keep on top of her enzyme as best I can. I make sure to follow rigorous hand washing when we go anywhere and I wipe down a table before she sits there.

I don’t take her down the aisles with bulk bins and I warn her not to touch the open baskets of bread at the grocery store. I don’t take her to Willy’s hockey games anymore; that was the tragic scene that we are fairly certain caused her last flare up. Gold fish cracker crumbs littered the bleachers, and who knows what other specks that could not be seen. It was probably just a few too many small exposures in one day.

No matter how we covered her hands with her sleeves, I laid out a blanket for her to sit on, she washed hands repeatedly during and after our time there as well as changed her clothes the moment we got home. I thought I had thought of everything. But then next day when she woke up sick, I remembered the dog licking her face. I hadn’t accounted for that. Most dog food contains gluten of course, and I would never let a person who just ate a slice of bread lick her face.

So we try to be careful of that now too. 

It could be easy to start feeling sorry for myself, but when I think back to that season of intense suffering that has only appeared to end a few weeks ago, I remember to give thanks for the little girl with the strength to be sassy to me about how “unfair” it is that she can’t eat/touch/do XYZ. 

It’s understandable she’s upset. But the fact that she calls it unfair and doesn’t automatically shy from that thing in fear, just goes to show how the Lord is healing and protecting her little psyche as well as her body. She is forgetting how bad it all is, and I am okay with that.

Maybe that’s what this in-between season is all about. Learning to be okay. Learning to live with the unresolved. The lack of answers. The lack of certainty about whether or not what we are doing is working, or if it’s something else all together. Time may reveal some of these. But either way; God is with us in the middle places just as he was with us in the darkest nights.

My youngest child has always been a good sleeper, but these past few weeks he’s taken to waking multiple times at night again like he did when he was a newborn. I could bemoan this fact, or I could thank God that he’s doing this now and not while I was dealing with a daughter in flare up in the middle of the night.

A friend has needed temporary childcare help with her sweet 2 year old daughter, and though adding a fourth kid, five and under, does make some things (like a trip to the grocery store) a little more interesting, it’s also just so amazing to me that God has orchestrated this timing. If this had happened a few months ago, I wouldn’t have been able to help.

Another friend’s daughter has been in the hospital for the past four weeks; they just finally moved her out of the ICU. And the thought in my mind and heart is that I’m so glad I can offer my help in some small way. Watching your daughter suffer is no easy task, I know it in new ways now that I hope help me to be a compassionate companion.

And you Dear Reader, I am working hard for you; like I’ve never worked before. If you would like to be one of the first to receive my (almost finished) FREE DOWNLOAD: Scattered: A seven day journey to planting seeds of hope in the soil of suffering, just click here to sign up, and as soon as it’s finished I’ll deliver it to your inbox.

In Colorado we are transitioning—from winter to spring. And it comes slowly here, where we often still get snow even through the month of May. But the crocuses are opening in the morning light. The tulips and the daffodils are emerging from the front beds that I neglected to clear of leaves last fall. The chorus of birdsong now greets me and my morning cup of coffee. And the clearest sign; the delicious light that lingers over me as I prepare supper in the evenings.

Though I’m sure we haven’t seen the last of winter’s chill, this time does feel like a change in the air. Like the spring that we hoped for might be just around the corner, after all.

It’s almost time to plant some seeds.

Advent: the waiting

Anticipation is half the joy. At least, when you know the thing that is coming is really really good. 

It was a week before Christmas last year that I learned I was expecting our third child. This child was something we had been hoping for and anticipating; even as the thought of going through all it takes to get a child here, and especially all it took to get our second child here, was more than a little terrifying. 

But still those two pink lines showed up exactly one week before Christmas, and as the waiting to celebrate the holiday and the significance of God incarnate ended, a new waiting began.

It brings fresh to mind the way we wait in the dark. So often. For someone or something. Sometimes we aren’t even sure which. Our lives can feel like a fog more often than not; but we have this secret hope, and this light on each and every step, and we take them. Even though we aren’t at all sure where it will take us, that hope carries us. 

The hope of Advent is ultimately the hope we all carry; the hope for a Savior. Every human heart, whether believing in Jesus as Lord or not, hopes for a future. For the fulfillment of longing; for the arrival of joy. It’s pregnant within us, and no matter how jaded and discouraged we get sometimes, I rarely dies. If it does, that’s when you know you are in real trouble. A human heart cannot live without hope. At least not here.

We have been studying 1 Corinthians with the Women’s Bible Study at church, an just a few weeks ago we talked about how there won’t be hope in Heaven. Because all our deepest longings will have been fulfilled, we won’t need hope. There won’t be faith either, because our faith will be sight. You don’t need faith to believe in something when it’s right there, in flesh and blood, staring you in the face. 

Strange as it may sound, I think it took a little faith to know that Isaiah was going to be such a good gift. It seems foolish I know, for all children are a gift and I believe this to be true. But I didn’t know it enough. I knew it because I believed it, but now I have seen his eyes sparkle in good humor. I have smelled the sweetness of his breath. I have heard the iridescent sound of his laughter. I have kissed his face until he shrieked for joy, and I myself felt my heart full to absolute bursting with it. 

The waiting takes faith. The anticipation of the coming is joyful, but we rarely know enough of what the coming will look like to anticipate it properly. I couldn’t have known what a precious gift Isaiah would be, without knowing him. I couldn’t have known how redemptive and healing his birth would be, until I experienced the very real presence of the Lord during that laboring time, and he continued to lavish gift upon merciful gift, to me. We carry our hopes and our dreams, but we try not to let them carry us away, because we don’t want to be disappointed. And in a broken world, where God’s ways are so much higher and wiser than our own, I think it wise to hold our own plans loosely. But we need to learn this perspective; that we cannot even begin to fathom the joy that is to come.

Did Mary even know? As she carried this child and this promise for nine months in her womb. As she was given confirmations and signs from Elizabeth and Joseph. As the Lord prepared the way for his son to come into the world, in the most unusual way. 

I have seen birth in the hay before. Just this past April, my goat Carmela kidded in the straw of our loafing shed. It had been warm the day before, but that particular day it was windy and cold. The fresh straw smelled clean, but even still i couldn’t get her to lay down in the cleanest spot. And she just kept pawing the ground to make a space for her babies, but all she was actually doing was making things dirtier. I myself was 20 weeks pregnant, and I kept thinking how much I admired her zen…chewing her cud between pushes and contractions. But I did not at all envy her job of giving birth in the straw. Even with all the spare towels I could muster the whole scene was a gory mess when all was said and done. 

I’m sure this scene would not have been the one that Mary pictured for herself when she imagined giving birth to the son of God, even if she was a poor girl from Nazareth. Even a poor girl from Nazareth could have done better than a filthy stall. 

But that was how he came.

When the waiting was over, the way Jesus came was stranger and more wonderful than anyone could have imagined. He came in the lowest of ways, because he is the King of the lowly. And if a King stoops low, we all ought to stoop low.

It was the incarnation of the upside-down Kingdom of God. The world wasn’t expecting a Messiah to show up. The Israelites were expecting a Messiah, but they didn’t recognize him in the way he came or the way he carried himself. 

Jesus, never in a hurry. Never in a rush. Jesus slow and steady. Jesus eating with sinners. Jesus, the King of the Universe, and of the lowliest of sparrows. Jesus dying a torturous death in our place. We couldn’t have imagined how wonderful he was, until we were staring him straight in the face.

We still can’t can we? 

But just like my precious son Isaiah, the longer that we spend time with Jesus, the more we see what an incredible blessing he is. He doesn’t just save us, he heals us. He sees us. He knows us. And he leaves no stone unturned in the pursuit of redeeming every last broken piece of our hearts. This is the ultimate gift of the with-ness of Jesus. Of Immanuel. 

We still don’t get it. Not really.  But someday, we will.

Someday we’ll understand fully, but for now we wait. We hold onto hope; onto faith. And just like you might stare at the ultrasound picture and imagined what it will be like,  you can stare into the scriptures and catch angles of him. Glimmers of him. The more you look, the more you make out the shape of him. 

So let the anticipation build, let it be pregnant within us. Let it mold us and make us, even as it unmakes us all together. Someday, we will see him face to face. But in the advent of his second coming, as in the advent celebration of his first coming, we wait.  

{Featured Photo c/o Anton Darius on Unsplash}