Letter from a Bride

On July 17, 2012, in Commentary, Life, Personal, by Chris

I got an email last week that I was not looking forward to. It had been four years since I officiated the wedding of a young couple at my church – I’ll just call them Bill and Kimberly. On paper, you would have thought they had everything going for them. They were both professionals from good families, had good incomes, and they had successfully navigated our rigorous but not overly burdensome premarital process. It seemed all of the “boxes” had been checked off.

I first realized there was a problem about a year later when I got a call out of the blue from Bill asking for some perspective. We talked, and he dropped out of sight until more recently. Another call for help, and we intervened. We got them help – assessments, counseling, but nothing seemed to be able to stay their dogged march toward divorce. Last I heard, they were talking to lawyers instead of counselors.

But then I got the email from Kimberly. The words stung my heart as I wondered if there was something else I could have done:

Chris,

Today has been a day of mourning-for the promises we didn’t keep, for the “what might have been,” for the loss of what we dreamed our marriage would become. I wanted to thank you for believing in us even though our marriage didn’t make it. You were right-it hurts more than I could have ever dreamed. I believe that everything is in God’s hand now.

I am sorry I let you down. You did such a beautiful job at our cerremony. I hope all is well with you and if it is not too much trouble, that you say a little prayer for both Bill and I as today would have been our 4 year anniversary.

Love, Kimberly

I prayed. And the thought didn’t leave me alone for days. A marriage I had sanctioned in my capacity as a pastor had come apart and the collateral damage was everywhere. The community had taken another wound, and the potential of what could have been was lost.

But I still needed to answer back, and the words just wouldn’t come. How does one truly offer hope to someone who feels so hopeless? A few days later, I offered what I could; and I hope the convictions were offered as humbly as they were deeply held. I hope that the words that follow were of some help to her and will be for others:

Hello, Kimberly –

I got your message last week and have been wrestling with God ever since regarding how I should respond. I hope you didn’t interpret my silence as indifference. I truly do hurt for you and Bill.

I remember that marvelous day four years ago. You were both full of hope and anticipation as all couples are on their wedding day, and there was so much to believe in that it would have been hard not to be optimistic. The human heart longs for a taste of something transcendent, and people could see it in the promises that you made to each other. That is what made it a beautiful ceremony – not me. Thanks again for asking me to be a part of it at any rate.

It’s always humbling to officiate a moment so pivotal in the lives of people; and I’m sure it is hellish – in every sense of the word – to feel like all of those promises are falling apart. There are few things that reveal creation’s tearing asunder like a marriage that seems to be at an end.

But Kimberly, you didn’t let me down. I hurt for you and Bill and there have been a lot of mistakes between your wedding day and now, but my respect and affection for you both has not weakened. I do, however, want to offer you some encouragement and a little vision for the season ahead of you, so I hope you’ll hear the challenges that I offer you:

God is not done with you – don’t be done with him. It would be so easy, right this moment, to write off your entire life as an epic failure that God has utterly given up on. That’s what our our enemy is whispering into your heart as he offers some kind of anesthetic to deaden the pain – be it alcohol, work, food, or another relationship. Even though God’s distance feels very real right now, don’t return the “abandonment” favor and don’t try to step out of the pain too quickly. Properly applied and with the right mix of encouragers around you (have you talked to Eva lately?), pain can be a misunderstood friend that can give clues to the deeper questions to which only God has the answers. Keep honestly talking with someone safe, stay open to what God wants to speak into your life, and you’ll be on your way.

Remember that this is but one chapter in the story you and God are creating together. This is where you have an opportunity to redeem the pain that you’re feeling now. But it takes a shift in your outlook from one of a victim to that of a student. When the time comes, God will give you the courage to take a long look at your mistakes. And you know what? It’ll be okay. You’ll actually find out that brokenness is where God finds all of us, but that’s not where he wants us to stay. And it begins with the terrifying but necessary question, “What was my part in this?” That’s the first step in the new chapter of your story – out of the darkness of selfishness and pain and into scary but ultimately freeing light of God’s truth. It’s a hard thing coming to terms with how messed up we are, but that thorny truth is overcome with endless love and the power to become different if we yield ourselves to that love. That’s called grace – the power to do immeasurably more than our direct effort could ever accomplish – and heaven is waiting to pour it into you as you initiate with Ultimate Good.

You’re right – your marriage and ultimately your life is in God’s hands. And there is no more trustworthy place for it to be. It will be up to you – every day and sometimes moment by moment – to keep it there. The healing path before you is counterintuitive and counter-cultural. There will be moments when you will want to turn back to the familiar choices and habits that got you here, but God (and I) need you to find that healing so that you can encourage someone else when the time comes.

But in the meantime, I want you to know that I and many others are available. Stay in there. It will get better.

– Chris

And if it isn’t too much trouble, please remember Bill and Kimberly in your prayers tonight. Thanks for listening.

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A Year (and a Lifetime) Ago

On June 12, 2012, in Julia's Journey, Life, Personal, by Chris

Tonight I was reminded again that sometimes in the crush of the day to day, I need to remember to sit and be grateful every now and again.

It started innocently enough. I was dealing with a typical “first world” problem and rearranging some stuff in our refrigerator so that I could somehow wedge more stuff in. I was in the middle of marveling over how many different mustards we had when my eye was caught by a small brown bottle in one of those shelves in the refrigerator door.

It was the Enalapril – a medicine that we gave Julia after her surgery to protect the delicate work that the surgeon had done on her heart valves. We stopped giving it to her after we got the okay from Dr. Weinhouse last May. That was over a year ago.

But for just a moment, as Jocelyn finished cleaning up from dinner and getting ready to meet a friend for coffee, it all came flooding back.

I sometimes marvel at how seldom I think about those first intense months of Julia’s life when the needs of little girl now sleeping happily upstairs utterly overtook our household. But I marvel all the more at the little touchstones that God puts in my path to remember and say “thank you”.

It took a small brown bottle of long-expired medicine to remind me of the nights of sacrifice common to all new parents, painted over with a thin watercolor tint of uncommon terror as we painstakingly documented every milliliter of fortified milk that she took in. Staying mindful of the 150 kilocalories per kilo of body weight per day target that the docs had set for a healthy weight gain, we celebrated when she was able to fight through the fatigue of a failing heart and take in a whopping sixty milliliters in one feeding. And it often felt like the world was going to end when she spit it up like any normal baby does from time to time.

But we stayed even more mindful of the drugs that kept her comfortable before her surgery and protected her heart after we brought her home. Dosing, timing and praying to God that she wouldn’t hurl it up after we gave it to her. Dr. Weinhouse told us in so many words (and out of his love and concern for us) to chill out a little bit, and toward the end we started to.

But before too much longer, it was done. May 30th, 2011. Julia took what we pray was her last dose of heart medicine for a long, long time.

And as you can tell a year later, she is thriving. Now we have a whole boatload of new challenges: therapies to get her strong and mobile (not much longer!), negotiating with the school’s special education department for services over the summer (no dice) and thinking through the implications of the selection of a new school superintendent. But for all of the challenges, we find ourselves enjoying the present far more, even as we prepare for her future.

But sometimes it’s important to remember what has passed, remember God’s presence in it, and say “thank you”.

Oh yeah, and remember to clean out the fridge a little more often!

Good to be back…

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Intrinsic Good

On March 20, 2012, in Commentary, Julia's Journey, Life, Personal, by Chris

There was a lot to be thankful for today. It’s the first day of Spring after the mildest Winter on record, Detroit had an 80 degree day in March, Julia celebrated her eighteen month birthday and I have the evening off!

For all of those great things, I am thankful. But I’m also finding myself pensive, a little crabby, and a little weepy – simply not knowing what to do with something that’s come to my attention. The only thing I’m sure of is that I cannot remain silent. And the risk for you, dear reader, is that even as I start this post, I’m not quite sure how I’m going to turn it around into something even remotely upbeat.

You might have seen the small seismic “ping” over social media a couple of weeks ago. It spoke of a paper from a mainstream academic journal making a philosophical case for (are you ready?) killing a newborn when its care would be an “unbearable burden” on the family or society as a whole.

I’ll let you sit with that for a minute.

I’ll also tell you that I am shifting in my seat as I write this knowing that, in your incredulity, you read that last paragraph more than once hoping it would come out different. Yep, their proposition would include and perhaps even single out children with special needs for infanticide. It would put yet another set of crosshairs on kids like Julia.

Believe it or not, when I saw the link to that article come up, I did what a lot of us do. I read the link description, scanned through some of the uniformly acidic comments of justified indignation, shook my head and moved on. And I pretty much forgot about it.

But when a friend of mine gave me a printout of the actual article about a week later, I got the horrible feeling that I wasn’t done with this. I couldn’t simply sit in my ignorance on the sidelines anymore. I would have to actually read it and take full responsibility for my revulsion. Even in situations where you know you are going to hate every minute of it, you can’t have any integrity in saying, “I disagree” without being able to say, “I understand.” So I read it. More than once.

Turns out the article was peer reviewed according to standards of the journal that published it. And the sad reality is that its propositions are not all that new or groundbreaking. The concept of infanticide is not a new one; nor is it outdated in its practice in some parts of the world. I already knew that and up to this moment have done very little.

I wanted to do due diligence and really hear more of the dissent and support for the article, so I clicked on the journal editor’s statement in defense of its publication and his indignation over multiple death threats that the paper’s authors had received. I got less than halfway through the comments by people way smarter than I (many of them really articulate) when I got to the heart of the matter – at least for me:

I’m just a dad who is often in way over his head when it comes to actually being a dad. But in my moments of clarity, I see intrinsic, inestimable worth and potential in my little girl.

And it scares me a little bit that some others don’t. It frightens me that there is some faction in the global community that could see their way clear to assign value to one over another because of the perceived burden their life would put on others.

I’ve never talked about this publicly, but reading the article took me back to the moment almost two years ago that a doctor told us about Julia’s heart defect and asked if we even wanted to continue with prenatal testing. As soon as we found out that her life was not going to be typical, there was an overt presupposition on the part of many on the medical team that we would opt our kid out of living the life that God had laid out for her.

And I thank Him. Every day. That we didn’t make that unthinkable choice. Because Julia Paige Cook in her brief time on this planet has helped others know joy.

But at the same time, I cling to the conviction that human life – in all of its inconvenience – is intrinsically and uniquely good. And even as I am repulsed at the propositions put forward by the writers of the article, I simply cannot join the chorus of shrill voices of opposition who have gone as far as to threaten those same writers’ lives in order to quiet their voices.

I have to choose (moment by excruciating moment, sometimes) to live in the tension that if there is room for dialogue, then we should keep talking. Even when the space between our convictions feels so vast, Love demands that we keep striving to find peaceful common ground for as long as possible – and “possible” is way, way longer that we are often comfortable with.

Because Love died for those two writers as well.

But at the same time, we don’t have to simply sit by and let this debate go on in the rarified air of philosophical academia. I (and you, if you’ll join me) have a cool opportunity before us:

One of the preeminent organizations for Down Syndrome, the Down Syndrome Research and Treatment Foundation, has a primary goal of driving research to improve the learning, memory and speech of people with Down Syndrome by fifteen percent. It’s called the plus15 Campaign and it could make all the difference for the long term independence and quality of life for kids like Julia.

Wednesday, March 21st is World Down Syndrome Awareness Day. We could really make a dent in the arguments of the “opposition” if we skipped a lunch this week and gave fifteen bucks to the plus15 Campaign and asked fifteen friends to do the same. And if you do it on Wednesday, the DSRTF has made a 3 to 1 match available to turn your fifteen bucks into sixty! Go ahead and check out their Facebook page as well.

I’ve not often been one to leverage my friends for a cause, but I have way too much skin in the game to let this one go by. And I simply cannot let her small and as yet unformed voice be drowned out.

Thanks for listening.

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Scenes From a Coffee Shop

On February 8, 2012, in Commentary, Personal, by Chris

Not long ago, I decided to take a Monday away from the office and work remotely at my favorite coffee shop in town. Time away like that is surprisingly productive – especially with the crush of distractions and interruptions that can come at the office.

As I was burning through the mountains of correspondence, a quiet exchange caught my eye. A little girl and her dad had come in and sat snuggling together in one of the comfy chairs nearby. She with her orange juice and he with his coffee, they beamed at each other and shared a muffin with a love and affection that can only be found between a father and child.

I smiled to myself as I watched, looking forward to the days I would bring my daughter Julia to this coffee shop and do much the same thing.

Not much later, a woman came in – obviously the little girl’s mom – and the scene changed. I didn’t hear all of the words of the conversation between dad and mom. But the tone was unmistakable – admittedly civil, but with the clipped exchanged of a couple that was simply trying to get through an unpleasant situation.

And then it hit me. I was witnessing a kid hand-off between divorced spouses.

The conversation ebbed and flowed in the few minutes they were together. He forgot to get a picture of the girl printed that was to be used for a craft later that day. He apologized, she cut him some slack; but as I looked at her careworn brow, it seemed she was silently adding it to the list of broken promises that had been piling up over months and years.

And the little girl, who had been happy and carefree just minutes before, was stone faced. It was a kind of stoic bravery that I see in people far older and with lives far more complicated than a four year old girl has any business having. And that expression remained as she hugged her dad and went with her mom out the door and down the street.

Please understand, dear reader, that I’m not assigning blame to anyone in that embattled little family. I don’t know their story and would never presume to armchair quarterback the situation – or any situation for that matter. I’m not assigning blame – but I have to tell you that I’m seeing that kind of pain more and more.

My chosen career has afforded me a unique vantage point on situations like this. My job is running a portfolio of initiatives at a local church that deals with the equipping and healing of relationships. Part of that is overseeing the premarital program that works with couples before they’re married to give them a few tools that will prepare them for the continuous exercise in self-denial and service that comprises a healthy marriage.

I also oversee the divorce recovery workshops. Twice a year, a team of dedicated volunteers works with scores of adults who have gone through a divorce and help them heal from the pain of it all. We also work with their children, who sustain much of the collateral damage of the broken marriage. And it’s amazing and humbling to see how a little truth applied with liberal amounts of love can redeem a broken situation.

But it’s ironic to me that if I asked those bonehead-in-love couples entering our premarital program to tell me their aspirations for their marriage, exactly zero percent of them would dream of being divorced within a few years.

It’s never the plan, but it’s sadly the case sometimes. And as I watched that little girl walk away with her mom, I asked myself and my Creator what could be done.

Then I looked down at my work and the answer came to me (from God or from my computer, I’m not sure which):

You’re already doing it.

I am part of a small band of co-conspirators who have spent a year developing a consensus and a plan for a marriage mentoring initiative. I had taken time away from the office that day to put together content for our first vision and training gathering. We’re still in the developing stages at the moment; but we’ve realized that as great as a workshop or a retreat weekend or a counseling session can be, the thing a couple often needs most are friendships that can regularly encourage them to continuously do the simple things that feed a healthy marriage…

Talk to each other
~
Fight fair
~
Laugh a lot
~
Let go of everything you think you’re owed
~
Pour everything you have in service to your spouse
~
Trust God and the identity He’s given you – and here’s how

Forty six couples showed up at our first gathering last Friday night; and the anticipation in the room was truly breathtaking.

Like I said, we’re starting small and developing as we go; but it’s my prayer that this growing conspiracy is going to be able to push back just a little bit against the fearsome cultural forces that are tearing marriages apart or making people give up on marriage altogether.

And maybe someday we’ll see fewer little girls walking away from one parent in the hand of another.

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Heart Day’s Eve

On January 16, 2012, in Commentary, Julia's Journey, Life, Personal, by Chris

I rocked my little girl to sleep tonight.

I know that’s not such a news flash. In fact, it’s pretty routine around our house. Even though all the experts say you shouldn’t let your baby fall asleep in your arms, but lay them down while they’re still awake so they can self soothe and all of that, I indulged myself a little bit, just for tonight.

I also cried like a little girl when I read Julia one of her bedtime stories tonight.

Okay, that’s a little less routine. Jocelyn was out at her book study and Julia and I had a great night playing stack up cups and tossing her rattles around and knocking down blocks and doing our silly little dances together. Then she gave me that “I’ve had enough” look and we settled into a few books before I took her upstairs. And I have to admit that something caught in my throat when I read those words to her:

For never before in story or rhyme
(not even once upon a time)
has the world ever known a you, my friend,
and it never will, not ever again…

Heaven blew every trumpet
and played every horn
on the wonderful, marvelous
night you were born.*

*Taken from a great children’s book called On the Night You Were Born by Nancy Tillman. Find out more here.

I have read those lines I don’t know how many times before, but tonight I couldn’t even get through the second stanza before I sat there, thunderstruck and weeping at the realization of what a gift this little girl was in my life. As I tried to compose myself and read through the blur of tears, Julia looked up at me with her wide, innocent eyes, knowing that this was not the usual program.

Okay, I’ll let you in on the mystery behind all the waterworks. Today marks the eve of a very important anniversary in the life of the Cook family and Julia especially. It was a year ago tomorrow that we handed her over to the Cardiovascular Team at Children’s Hospital for an eight hour procedure that made her life a year later even possible.

And it all seems so long ago now…

I took some time this weekend to look back at some of my posts from those seemingly endless days just to jog my memory of what we were facing. The pictures from the surgery day still make me gasp.

But the interesting thing is that we really don’t think about the scary stuff any more. The only reminders we really have is the fading scar on Julia’s chest and a very infrequent consult with her cardiologist.

A year ago, we were gutting it up for eight hours of surgery. Nowadays, we are gutting it up for the war of wills when nap time comes around.

A year ago, we were dosing out four different medicines at several specific times each day. Now we’re doing high fives if we can get a sometimes picky eater to down all of her peas.

It all feels so… normal.

Yes, there’s the morning ritual of her thyroid medicine and the regular (and frequent) adjustment of expectations that come with the territory when you have a kid with Down Syndrome.

But with God’s grace, the prayers of so many and the hand of a skillful surgeon who had the humility to know where his skill came from, our baby’s heart is just fine.

Thanks for celebrating January 17th – Julia’s Heart Day – with us!

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