She Picked Me and She Picked Us

On September 20, 2012, in Life, Personal, by Chris

I’m taking a moment to celebrate today, and it’s an easy one to remember. It’s the day that two lives were completely and permanently woven into mine. It’s the day that life would (twice!) never be the same.

Four years ago tonight, I was a new husband. A year prior, I had basically surrendered to the possibility of lifelong bachelorhood, but it seemed that God had other ideas. Jocelyn and I met in December, 2007, and our tribes saw the magic before it became completely clear to us. We exchanged vows nine months later, fulfilling a prediction of one of Jocelyn’s mentors that it would happen before the summer was over. It’s amazing to look back and to see the design in it all – just to say, “thank you.”

Two years ago tonight, I was a new dad, scared spitless as I looked at my daughter under the oxygen tent in the NICU while my wife rested two floors below after a scary, premature birth. The future was so uncertain at that moment as the staff checked her for the myriad complications that can face a child with Down syndrome and we embarked on the months of preparation for the inevitable heart surgery ahead of us.

All I could do was croak out a meek “thank you” to God – at least for that moment – that my girls were safe.

But even in my fear, my soul was enriched by our ever-widening community (with representatives from four continents) praying in solidarity for Julia’s health and Jocelyn’s and my sanity. And many of those friendships still remain even after we got through the surgery in January 2011. (editor’s note – she just met with Dr. Weinhouse yesterday and he described her as “magnificently healthy”)

Moreover, as Julia’s life has unfolded over the last two years, a conviction that I clung to before she was born has slowly come into focus. Even through the frustrations of navigating the endless bureaucracies finding resources to help her reach her fullest potential, it is becoming more and more evident that it was no haphazard pairing and re-pairing of chromosomes that brought us together.

Just as God somehow moved in Jocelyn’s heart to choose this clueless guy to live out the rest of our lives together, I (perhaps foolishly) like to think that Julia somehow chose us. Her bright little spirit was tasked by God to teach Jocelyn and I how to love in a new way.

That learning process has often been a gut-wrenching one, especially now that Julia’s two-year-old willfulness has emerged. But the ancient covenant that is struck between parents and child still remains, and Jocelyn and I pray every day that God strip from us all that could get in the way of his dream for the life he has entrusted to us.

I am so glad for this day and so glad that Jocelyn chose me and Julia chose us.

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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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A Year With Julia

On September 20, 2011, in Julia's Journey, Personal, by Chris

At 6:10pm one year ago today, Julia Paige Cook first drew breath on this good earth. For all of you who have been following our story and praying so faithfully, we have a little video postcard of the last year. Please settle back and celebrate with us!

But that’s not all we have to celebrate today. Jocelyn and I are also celebrating our third anniversary. Last year, Jocelyn was on modified bed rest in preparation for Julia’s birth and was a little sad that she hadn’t found my anniversary present yet. Julia decided to come three weeks early and solve the problem for her.

I think God either has a wry sense of timing or not much faith in my ability to keep dates in my head; but it is kind of convenient to only have to remember one date for my daughter’s birthday and my anniversary!

Thanks again for all of your care in the past year – here’s to many more!

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Thus Far…

On October 20, 2010, in Julia's Journey, Personal, by Chris

The weather has given way to wind and rain tonight, and I’m listening to Jocelyn singing “You Are My Sunshine” to Julia up in the nursery. The house is quiet after the flurry of activity that comes with trash night and a run to Target and I’m thinking back to where I was a month ago.

Right around this time, I was peering through the plastic of an oxygen tent at my newborn daughter – the NICU staff working quietly around me as I stared in disbelief. My wife was recovering from an emergency caesarean a floor above. And I wondered in awe as I watched her sleep, what surprises lay in the days ahead.

There have been surprises and challenges in the last month, but tonight we celebrate a month that Julia Paige Cook has drawn breath on this earth. And we thank God and our community and family for it all.

So why is the picture of the stone? I see it as the intersection of ancient reminders of God’s presence and an interesting happenstance while we were on vacation in Greece this summer.

My sister, Lauren, is not much of a deep water swimmer, preferring to chum along the shore with her snorkel and mask looking for interesting stones to add to her collection. I have seen her come out of the water laden down with more than she can carry. So, ever the pragmatist, she most often tucks them into her bathing suit as she swims to take full advantage of the time in the water. A gifted artist, she has gone to great lengths to incorporate her finds into the tile work of their villa.

Jocelyn and I had been on the island for a couple of days; and the care and stress of Julia’s diagnosis was beginning to melt away a little. During an evening swim at a secluded beach, Lauren popped up between us and showed us some of her finds. Jocelyn’s eyes fell upon a green stone with a stripe of marble running through it, and without missing a beat, said, “That’s Julia’s heart!”

Interesting. It had the distinctive shape, and the marble stripe ran right where the wall separating the left and right chambers of the heart might have been. It was a strong line, and a reminder of what to pray for regarding Julia’s heart, which by then we had been told had complications.

Before our vacation, we had spent an evening at a friend’s home with the British evangelist J.John, who is a firm believer that God can move in the present day just as he did in the Bible. His challenge to us that night was to pray for Julia’s wholeness, despite everything that medical science was telling us. And when Julia was born, we would have more clarity on what specifically to pray for. So for the rest of the summer, we used my sister’s gracious gift as the focus of our prayers: “Please, God. Make our child whole. Repair the breach in her heart and let her live.”

It turns out that Julia still has a heart defect; and the stone still sits on the sill of our kitchen window. But instead of a reminder of promises unmet, its meaning has changed and deepened as our experience has formed us.

Its roots take Jocelyn and I back to a time long past with a nation doing its best to follow a Deliverer God with a name no one dared speak out loud. They gathered and asked their priest, Samuel, to intercede with God on their behalf. Enemies learned of the gathering and raised an army bent on genocide, and God swept them aside with heaven-sent thunder. And as the old Hebrew story goes,

“…Samuel took a stone and set it up between Mizpah and Shen. He named it Ebenezer, saying, ‘Thus far has the LORD helped us.'”

Ebenezer – a stone of God-sent help. When God did something memorable in Israel, they would often raise a stone of remembrance, so that in the darker days of the future there would always be a reminder that God would be there – even when it didn’t feel like it.

The good news from the Cook family is that Julia is responding well to the medications and her breathing is more comfortable. She is gaining weight, even with the fluid loss caused by the medication. We have our first consult with the surgical team at Children’s Hospital tomorrow, and we may even set a tentative date for the procedure. Complications notwithstanding, the countdown begins tomorrow.

There are times as we consider Julia’s condition that it feels like we have been forsaken and the fears of going it alone overtake us. But the marble striped stone stays on our window sill as a reminder that thus far, the LORD has helped us. We celebrate that tonight on our daughter’s one-month birthday.

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