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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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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Bring It + 365

On September 12, 2011, in Commentary, Life, Personal, by Chris

It was a warm Sunday afternoon a year ago that I settled into the comfortable chair in my daughter’s as yet unoccupied nursery to begin the adventure in words and pictures that you see before you.

After recounting the challenges we had seen in the months before and those in the future that seemed to be lining up against us, I began this blog with a simple, scary request of God:

Bring it.

That request was not made lightly or flippantly – but it wasn’t without more than a little trepidation. In fact, it was nearly an act of desperation as Jocelyn and I clung to the possibility that amid the cloud of Julia’s frightening diagnoses of Down Syndrome and heart defect, God was there with us. If he wasn’t, we were going to be in deep, deep weeds.

I hesitate to use such a trite metaphor, but the only way I can describe the last year is that it was a roller coaster. But I will add that it was a roller coaster after your fifth corn dog.

So where are we now? Well, the fact is that I’m writing this at the end of the day with my wife crashed beside me after the bottles have been washed and sterilized and the baby’s in bed. Julia’s had a few fitful nights (teething, we think) and we are all feeling the ache of fatigue that comes from a couple hours less sleep.

But if you’ve been following this little narrative, you’ll know that Julia got through the surgery successfully and the scar on her chest is fading even as the memories of the long days at the hospital fade a bit from our minds.

Honestly, a year after “Bring it” finds me wrestling with a lot of the same questions as before, although their shape and texture have become a touch more conventional as I settle more comfortably into being the dad of a delightful little girl with a mended heart and a tad extra on Chromosome 21. What kind of cruelty will Julia face from others because of her condition? How will she live once we are gone and she is on her own?

A lot of the time, I can push those uncomfortable questions down with a household project or the hum of activity in the office, but it came to the forefront of my mind last Sunday at church as we commemorated the somber tenth anniversary of the September 11 attacks. Since that ugly day, our pastor observed, we as a country have become consumed with security in a very dangerous world. And it was in the middle of the message I got that horrible feeling that I’m really no different.

I am wondering if the crush of the last year has caused me to hang on just a little more tightly to my life, my family and my stuff.

There it is. It’s true that adversity can draw you close to God. But the pernicious flip side is that it can just as easily make you run in the opposite direction. Even when I’ve experienced the Life that is God, I still often find myself clinging dumbly to things that will eventually end up in a landfill, expecting them to give me life.

I hear him asking me, “You’ve trusted me with your life. Will you trust me with Julia’s?” I’m ashamed to tell you that far too often, if I were really honest, the answer would be no.

But here is where I have to go back and do the gut check. Do I still believe that God’s dream for Julia is better than anything I could ever conceive of? And if my faith says that God spoke the universe entire into being, who is more equipped to unlock the best from her (and from me, for that matter)?

Yeah, this “Bring it” thing is hard, hard work sometimes. But all I have to do is listen to the satisfied coos of my daughter and watch my wife as she sleeps beside me, exhausted from the day (“But a good tired,” she says). These are the little reminders that something deeper and more wonderful awaits those who press into life’s occassional discomfort and abandon themselves to the adventure that God has for them.

Here’s to another year.

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Meeting Abigail

On June 29, 2011, in Julia's Journey, Personal, by Chris

One of the real highlights of our vacation was a long anticipated meeting. Not long into our adventure with Julia (and my writing about it), we were contacted by a longtime friend of Jocelyn. He had a friend, Kate, whose daughter was diagnosed in utero with Down Syndrome and the same heart condition as Julia. After introducing her to the blog, he contacted Jocelyn and arranged an introduction.

What followed was some of the most amazing interactions I’ve ever witnessed. Abigail was due right around the time that Julia was supposed to go in for her heart surgery, and Kate had all sorts of questions for Jocelyn on what to expect for the rest of her pregnancy and how to prepare for the birth. Having just experienced what Kate was about to go through, Jocelyn obviously had a lot to share. Through e-mail and text message (the first time they spoke on the phone was setting up our meeting!), she coached and encouraged Kate with all she had learned in the months leading up to Julia’s birth.

But the encouragement didn’t end with the birth of Abigail on that marvelous day in January. Kate and her husband, John, prayed for Julia as she faced her surgery and the hard days following. Jocelyn kept the information going with feeding tips, medication expectations, and the questions to ask the medical staff as the new family navigated through their daughter’s condition.

Knowing the crushing stress that Kate and John were under, we prayed for the family in March as Abigail went in for her procedure. Those of you who follow me on Twitter and Facebook may remember that I asked you to join us in those prayers.

I’m happy to tell you that Abigail’s on the other side of it now and doing great. Our breakfast together last week was the realization of a dream for two families – and the continuation of a lifelong friendship!

So cool to see these kindred souls meeting face to face!

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God is So Faithful…

On March 13, 2011, in Life, Personal, by Chris

I’ve taken some time off recently to settle back into life after all of the drama that’s happened in the past… six months or year, depending on where you set the story’s beginning. I gotta tell you, being the dad of a (now) reasonably typical kid like Julia is great. And having come through the scariness like we have with all of the support and love of so many, it’s often hard to just sit and take in all of life’s sweetness.

We got clearance from Julia’s cardiologist to go live a normal life and check in once and a while just to make sure all is well. So after a little time to get our bearings, we brought her out into our world to meet the dozens of people who had been praying for her for months. Our first Sunday at church as a family was met with so many smiles and I lost track of how many times we stopped on our way from the parking lot to the auditorium to talk with someone who had been following her story. People would step forward with a smile and we would tell them how we felt like were coming out from a cave and blinking our tiny pink eyes in the bright sun. Julia was well after a long winter of uncertainty; and she was certainly the “belle of the ball” that day.

One conversation after another; and nearly every time we would hear, “God is so faithful.” It was hard not to agree with them.

A similar reception awaited us when we took Julia on her first road trip to visit Jocelyn’s tribe in Dayton last weekend. There were so many who hadn’t met her in person yet (though her aunt Jen was a godsend through the first dark days at Children’s Hospital) that her adopted Gramma D had an open house for anyone who had followed Julia’s story to come and meet her and celebrate the victory.

Dozens came – some of them people we had never met who had heard of this extraordinary little girl through a friend. All of them, often through tears, marveled in one way or another: “God is so faithful.”

Julia even got top billing in the sermon at Jocelyn’s home church that Sunday. They had prayed for her the day before her surgery, so it was a wonderful moment in the service when the lead pastor of the church paused to recognize, celebrate, and later teach on the faithfulness of God – even in the worst circumstances. Before and after the service, the community that Jocelyn grew up in was there to celebrate with and encourage us after a very challenging season.

And the refrain was the same as they looked into Julia’s wide eyes: “God is so faithful.”

It was before the service, as I watched Jocelyn get her eleventh hug and kiss from a well-wisher, that my focus shifted across the room to a family who pushed a young man in a wheelchair to a spot toward the back of the crowd. Mitchell was in his early twenties and one of the more profound cases of cerebral palsy that I had seen. It was clear that he required round the clock care; and his mom, Carrie, had a look of careworn determination that I had become more acquainted with among the other parents on the PICU floor at Children’s Hospital. That kinship between us was further cemented as she came up after the service, knowing of Julia’s Down Syndrome, kissed her on the head and whispered a silent prayer into her ear.

As I sat through the service, there was a thought bothering me that I couldn’t quite pin down but wouldn’t go away. It was a kind of mental itch that took a while to come to a place that I could put words to it. And here it is:

For weeks, we had celebrated with our community God’s faithfulness in seeing us through Julia’s premature birth, two weeks in neonatal intensive care, homecoming, testing, preparation, surgery and convalescence. We asked for prayers as we waited the agonizing weeks before the surgery that her heart and lungs could bear the strain. We asked for prayers as she endured eight hours of surgery and weeks of recovery. And God was faithful through it all. Julia’s heart is repaired and we are looking forward to a long life with our girl. Truly a miracle – both of medical science and the power of prayer.

But as I looked as Mitchell and his family, I had to ask. Is God still faithful when we don’t get the outcome we desire?

I don’t know them well at all, but I’m sure that Carrie asked for prayers from her community as the diagnoses came in. And I’m sure that her community was determined and faithful in their prayer. But where was God with Mitchell’s miracle?

I’ve spent a lot of time over the last couple of days watching the devastation in Japan and the still hovering spectre of the possible meltdown of two nuclear reactors. I’ve been asking the same question you have: Where was God when the earth shook and the tsunami came in? Is God still faithful, even in the terminal diagnosis or at the end of an addict’s needle?

I sat there in that church service, worshiping a God that can seem, at first glance, awfully arbitrary in his distribution of blessings. One lives, another dies. One survives unscathed, another is profoundly wounded. I fought survivor’s guilt as I watched Mitchell and his family. We’ll have our moments of disappointment, no doubt; but Jocelyn and I still nurture the dream that Julia may one day live independently. Carrie will never know the empty nest, unless a time comes when Mitchell’s care just becomes to difficult.

It wasn’t until after the service that I had a chance to really meet Mitchell and his family. I saw a knowing in his eyes despite the disability. I had the good fortune to hear his mom’s story as well. Carrie is a woman of deep faith and has found joy and fulfillment in caring for Mitchell, and said that he is the glue that holds the family together. She says she thinks God knew she wouldn’t bear the empty nest well, and gave Mitchell to her as the remedy.

I had heard that from other families of people with special needs; but my still limited experience had never really seen it lived out until I met Mitchell’s brother. Levi, a lantern jawed young man of eighteen who looked like he could laugh his way through Navy SEAL physical training, came up to his older brother as I was speaking with Carrie. He wrapped his arms around Mitchell, kissed him on the cheek and whispered words of affection as he looked him in the eyes. Mitchell’s face broke into a grin that I could only describe as utter satisfaction. And I wondered at that moment who the truly blessed are in this world.

Where is God in the earthquakes and tsunamis? People much smarter than I have been pondering those questions for centuries. I may take a whack at that larger question sooner or later. But it took the love between two brothers for me to have a little clarity amid the confusion.

I humbly submit that part of the answer is this: God is faithful in the pain of this world when people are faithful. It is our response to the disaster – be it personal or national – that will be the true test of whether Ultimate Good will prevail. And responding well, even when the times are dark, requires a fortitude quite alien to us. When we choose to give – even when it’s inconvenient, uncomfortable, or even dangerous – we join that stream of Love that is always working to redeem and beautify the brokenness of the world.

Yep – God is faithful. To the very end.

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