Trust

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I made an appointment today to meet with a Maternal-Fetal Medicine doctor. The idea is that we will develop a plan for any future pregnancies that will limit my risks for another loss. Planning. Having lost my child in a way that results in the death of less than 25 out of 100,000 babies, it seems that planning is completely futile.

I suspect that it was not a coincidence that my loss defied the odds: God knew that I needed to suffer this kind of extremely unlikely loss in order to grow my trust in Him. You see, trust has never been one of my spiritual gifts and one of the ways that I learned to deal with my lack of trust was learning about the likelihood of something happening. If the chances of facing a particular calamity were low enough, then I was able to move on without thinking much about it. If the likelihood of a particular event was fairly high, then I would meticulously plan how to avoid that unwanted outcome. The problem with that approach is that God is not bound by statistics and this means that every negative outcome is a real possibility – even the ones that only carry a risk of .025%.  Noemi’s death helped me to realize that there is absolutely no way that I can create a plan to avoid disaster and, quite frankly, that is scary.

In the face of my own inability to protect myself and my family, the only real option is to trust this God who defies the odds, but does He deserve my trust? Psalm 46 speaks of having faith in God even when everything around us is crumbling and exploding. It portrays God as a “refuge and strength.” It says that He is “always ready to help in times of trouble.” And twice it says “The Lord of Heaven’s Armies is here among us; the God of Israel is our fortress.” So when God says, “Be still, and know that I am God!” (Psalm 46:10), He is not just looking down at us from some lofty mountain and commanding us to trust because we have no other options. Instead, He is right here with us, He is intimately aware of all that is happening, and He is commanding Heaven’s armies to make sure that His will is done.

The question then becomes not whether or not God is worthy of our trust but whether or not we can accept His plan for us. At the very end of the Bible, John tells us the following about the culmination of God’s plan for us:

“Then the angel showed me a river with the water of life, clear as crystal, flowing from the throne of God and of the Lamb. It flowed down the center of the main street. On each side of the river grew a tree of life, bearing twelve crops of fruit, with a fresh crop each month. The leaves were used for medicine to heal the nations.

No longer will there be a curse upon anything. For the throne of God and of the Lamb will be there, and his servants will worship him. And they will see his face, and his name will be written on their foreheads. And there will be no night there –  no need for lamps or sun – for the Lord God will shine on them. And they will reign forever and ever.” Revelation 22:1-5

If that is God’s final destination for me and my loved ones, then I am willing to believe that all of the earlier parts of His plans can be trusted, even if God leads us to places I never wanted to go. As I begin to recreate my own dreams for my life and my plans of how to get there, I will try to hold them loosely, and allow God to shape and mold them into conformity with His plans. And when God leads me to places that terrify me, I will feast my heart on the wonder of what lies ahead of me and allow myself to trust once again since, as a wise priest once told me, God doesn’t ask us to trust Him once and for all – He asks us to trust Him moment by moment.

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Thanksgiving

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There is a common theme that I have heard echoed in conversations with grieving parents, books about loss, and my own practice as a school psychologist: Thanksgiving is hard. In fact, a day that is set aside to offer thanks can feel like a slap in the face to those who grieve. However, the history of Thanksgiving holds valuable lessons about what it means to give thanks in all circumstances and offers encouragement for those who seek to thank God, even in the midst of suffering.

Every American knows that the first Thanksgiving was celebrated by the pilgrims in Massachusetts to thank God for their harvest and survival (although, apparently which state really held the first Thanksgiving is debated).(1) From early childhood, Americans see images of clean little pilgrim children sitting next to adorable Native American children. All of these chubby children munch on delicious ears of buttered corn, while a perfectly roasted turkey waits to be carved. With images like these to feast our imagination upon, it is easy to forget that the real pilgrims and Native Americans were having a pretty rough time of it. William Bradford, the governor of Plymouth Colony wrote, “…in two or three months’ time half of their company died, especially in January and February, being the depth of winter, and wanting [lacking] houses and other comforts; being infected with the scurvy and other diseases, which this long voyage and their inaccomodate condition had brought upon them, so as there died sometimes two or three of a day.”(2) In fact, nearly half of the pilgrims died during their first year in Plymouth. When we think of the people who chose to hold the first Thanksgiving, we have to remember that many of them had lost dear family members and suffered sickness themselves. Others had left family behind in Europe and were likely missing them. All of them had to work for food, shelter and clothes. Nothing came easy. Yet, this group of people believed that God was so good that He deserved their thanks.

In my naïve mind, I assumed that Thanksgiving became an annual, national event immediately after the first pilgrim Thanksgiving. In reality, Thanksgiving quickly fizzled out. While most states celebrated a day of thanks, these were not nationally celebrated.(3) The writer Sarah Josepha Hale from New Hampshire began to push for a national Thanksgiving holiday during the 1800s. Known as the “Godmother of Thanksgiving,” Hale was widowed at the age of 34 and left alone to support five children. Her youngest child was born two weeks after her husband’s death. Despite her hardships, however, Hale felt that it was important to have a day when the nation expressed thanks to God for all of His goodness. According to Hale, “THANKSGIVING DAY is the national pledge of Christian faith in God, acknowledging him as the dispenser of blessings.”(4) Eventually, Hale convinced Abraham Lincoln to declare the last Thursday in November a holiday of thankfulness. This occurred in October of 1863, when the country was being devastated by the Civil War. Nonetheless, Lincoln felt that it was important for the nation to offer thanks to God. In his declaration, Lincoln wrote,

“The year that is drawing towards its close, has been filled with the blessings of fruitful fields and healthful skies. To these bounties, which are so consistently enjoyed that we are prone to forget the source from which they come, others have been added…No human counsel hath devised nor hath any mortal hand worked out these great things. They are the gracious gifts of the Most High God, who, while dealing with us in anger for our sins, hath nevertheless remembered mercy. It has seemed to me fit and proper that they should be solemnly, reverently and gratefully acknowledged as with one heart and one voice by the whole American People.”(5)

Is it possible, that in the midst of our own sufferings and devastation, God has blessed us with gifts that are “so consistently enjoyed that we are prone to forget the source from which they come?” Can we push through the haze of our pain enough to see the beauty in the sun’s warm rays, feel the comfort of a warm cup of tea, or enjoy  laughter with families? Can we begin to allow our spirits to say “thanks” even if it is only in a whisper? St. Therese of Lisieux who suffered from ill health and the loss of many loved ones wrote, “Prayer is a surge of the heart. It is a simple look toward heaven, it is a cry of recognition and of love, embracing both trial and joy.”(6) Can we dare to offer a prayer of thanks like that in our own times of difficulty?

In 1 Thessalonians 5:16-18, Paul wrote, “Rejoice always, pray continually, give thanks in all circumstances; for this is God’s will for you in Christ Jesus.” Yet, the question remains, can we be thankful in our present circumstances, and, if so, how? I believe that the only way to do this is to maintain our focus on God. Earlier in 1 Thessalonians 5, Paul reminds his readers that Christ died for them so that they would be rescued from the calamities of the earth and receive salvation. For this reason, Paul told them to encourage one another and not to be surprised when tragedies struck. It was only after his readers had focused their gaze on God’s plan of salvation that Paul told them to “give thanks in all circumstances.” I believe it needs to be the same with us, because thanksgiving is the natural response to reflecting on God’s grace. As we prepare ourselves to celebrate Thanksgiving in the midst of a hurting world, let us fix our eyes upon Christ and dare to see the blessings that surround us. 

References

1 http://www.jaxhistory.org/timucua_first_thanksgiving/

2 https://nationalhumanitiescenter.org/pds/amerbegin/settlement/text1/-BradfordPlymouthPlantation.pdf

3 Allegra, Mike. Sarah Gives Thanks, Albert Whitman & Company, 2014

4 http://www.pilgrimhallmuseum.org/pdf/Godmother_of_Thanksgiving.pdf

5 http://www.abrahamlicolnonline.org/licoln/speeches/thanks.htm

6 http://www.ocarm.org/en/content/ocarm/therese_lisieux_quotes

Hope

cropped-p_20161103_1157481.jpgI have two daughters. One of them lives here with me and her dad. The other one, our second child, lives with her Father in Heaven. My first daughter was born after a nearly perfect delivery that was full of joy and culminated in holding her warm, wriggling body. My second daughter was born after a horrible labor and emergency c-section. Her birth story ended thirty-five minutes after delivery with the doctor’s breathless “I’m so sorry” and me cradling my baby’s motionless, rapidly cooling body.

In those first days after my daughter died, it was hard to understand why God would create such a perfectly formed little girl only to allow pneumonia to end her life moments after birth. I thought about the lessons that her life and our response to her death might teach. I considered the ways in which those lessons might benefit me and others. However, as a mom who longed to hear her baby’s heartbeat, none of those lessons appeared to make her short life and my suffering worthwhile. When I shared these thoughts with my family, they reminded me that we were each created to bring glory to God and that our daughter would continue to do that in Heaven. Her life was not over.

God’s creation joined with my family in reminding me of the life to come. My daughter died as the leaves turned majestic shades of red, orange and gold. In spite of their splendor, I realized that their final burst of color signaled their death and heralded the approaching cold of winter. If life was never going to return to the trees’ branches, then all of their beauty would vanish, overshadowed by the sadness of death and the finality of the impending loss. Yet, because there is life to come, their death holds beauty. I was reminded that my daughter’s brief life and death held beauty because of the eternity that God made her for.

Later, I was reminded of the hope of resurrection by the words of St. Zelie Martin, a deeply devoted mother who lost four young children.1 She wrote:

“When I closed the eyes of my dear little children and when I buried them, I felt great pain, but it was always with resignation. I didn’t regret the sorrows and the problems I had endured for them. Several people said to me, ‘It would be better to never have had them.’ I can’t bear that kind of talk. I don’t think the sorrows and problems could be weighed against the eternal happiness of my children. So they weren’t lost forever. Life is short and full of misery. We’ll see them again in Heaven.”2

St. Zelie knew that her suffering and trials were worthwhile because they were an insignificant price to pay to have her children in Heaven. She new that their lives did not end when their hearts stopped beating on earth. Instead, their death marked the beginning of their eternal life in paradise.

What does that mean for those of us who are left here while our loved ones, perhaps even our children, are living in Heaven? For me, it means that my grief is mine to bear and is not shared by my daughter. I grieve my own loss because my daughter has only gained! It means that I have the hope of sharing a wonderful eternity with those I love and have temporarily lost. It means that I have a new understanding of how important salvation is and a deep, aching desire to reach Heaven. It means that I hold this world more loosely and am ready to move on when God decides it is time for me to do so. It means that I did not birth death, but life. By God’s grace, that life is eternal – it will never end.

Before my daughter was born, we named her Noemi Christiana which means “the pleasantness of following Christ.” I prayed that Noemi would know Christ’s pleasantness in her life and would follow Him faithfully. I believe that God, in His goodness, has more than answered that prayer. My daughter truly knows the pleasantness of Christ because she followed Him into His kingdom. Her life and death have shown me that the pleasantness of following Christ on earth is only the beginning of a truly pleasant eternity.   

1http://www.louisandzeliemartin.org/

2Piat, Fr. Stephane-Joseph, O.F.M., A Family of Saints: The Martins of Lisieux‐Saints Thérèse, Louis, and Zélie. Ignatius Press, 2016. EBook.