Our Family's First Christmas in the Valley of Suck

So we made it to today.

The first Christmas for my kids without their mom.

The first Christmas without my wife.

How are we doing it?  We're making it.  One breath at a time.  One moment at a time.

We have kept some traditions in place and added a new twist or two along the way.  It is not the same.  A year ago we really expected to have a few more years together.  Heather was so full of life, hope, and energy.  We were blessed by being "adopted" by some friends who made it an incredible time.

This year was different.  The kids and I spent the Christmas Eve at the church we have been attending for a couple of months.  It was so different from Christmas Eves of past years.  I did not preach but instead volunteered on the parking lot team for two of the three services.  Every time I went inside, my kids were in different conversations with new friends they've been making.

Different and yet, very much the same.  The traditions of our family and our faith have proven to me just how healing and comforting traditions can be.  If there is one thing I have learned and would counsel, it is this: do not dismiss all traditions when walking through the valley of suck.

Do indeed add a twist or two along the way.  You can certainly leave out some things too if you need it.  Every little decoration did not come out! In fact, probably half stayed in boxes.  One of Heather's legacies was that we would NEVER be at a loss for decorations!

Did I wonder how it would be?  Yes, often I did.  I wondered what would trigger me; what sights or sounds or smells, would bring back memories?  I was most surprised when the chorus of Silent Night began and the candles were lit in the sanctuary.  The words would not come but only tears. Oh, I wouldn't give that up for anything!  And it was then my imagination, a godly gift indeed, kicked in and I could see, if only for a moment, Heather and us, together, singing in worship on Christmas Eve!

This above all else has brought me the most comfort in the tradition of my faith now: to know that when I gather with the Body of Christ, at that time then I am closest to Heather.  For if we know anything about heaven, it is where God is high and lifted up and the saints are celebrating more profoundly than we can imagine!  And, for at least a few moments, we are in one accord.

What grace is given us all!  What mysteries we so often miss in our rush to "move on?"  How thankful I am for the Faith, for the gift of Jesus Christ, for "the hope once given" that is given still to those who will seek after Immanuel.  Indeed, God is with us, even in the valley of suck...especially at Christmas.

Have mercy.  Come Savior, come.

Image Use with Permission: http://www.freeimages.com/photo/christmas-mother-and-child-1428487

The Desert and Distractions: God Comes for Us In the Valley of Suck

Growing up, my grandparents lived in west Texas.  There ain't much of anything in west Texas except for "grasshopper" oil pumps and tumbleweeds and sand.  Lots of sand.  It is so dry and lacking in moisture that one of my uncles told the story of how desperate the termites were for something to eat, home inspectors started finding them eating sheetrock.

I think movies and shows portray deserts well most times.  While they hold much beauty, they are very unforgiving places.  There are very few things to distract one in the desert.

On Sunday, the sermon I listened to was a challenge to our popular culture and the holiday season.  It wasn't for the usual reason of consumerism but another of its temptations: busy-ness and distraction.  This is not new though - it isn't unique to our day and time.

While today's preacher went one direction, I want to track a bit different road, one that leads us into the desert.  Why?  Precisely because the desert, rather than being an image of isolation from people, provides an image of limiting distractions from our lives.

If you spend time reading the writings of the desert fathers and mothers of the early centuries, you find they often gathered together and spent time with others.  They went to the desert, not to escape relationship, but to wrestle with the demons of our world and the "old self."  This is what Paul wrote the Ephesian church: "Put off your old self, which is being corrupted by its evil desires; to be made new in the attitude of your minds; and to put on the new self, created to be like God in true righteousness and holiness. (4:22-23)"

The temptation of the holiday season, of our working lives, of our worldly lives, is to be busy - to always be about doing more, earning more, and getting more.  Even within religion, there is a constant push to be more like culture and less like Christ Jesus.  If you are not being "fed" or if the teaching isn't to your liking, then you just move along.  Hear this warning from one ancient Christian:
"I warn you, guard against this wrong attitude about the spiritual life - that is, thinking that you must ever be seeking better counselors, new teachings, greater spiritual precepts, and reading book after book.  These things may be good in and of themselves, or they may be in error.  But even the best spiritual teaching will not benefit you at all if you are not growing and walking in the Spirit of Christ." 
Some would never consider these words if I had introduced the writer as St. John of the Cross but his words speak and remind us of our need to look always for the Spirit of Christ Jesus.  Sometimes we think being a monk means someone has nothing to do with other people but that is far from the case, especially if you look more into John of the Cross and his story.  His passion and love for Jesus was something so offensive that he was imprisoned by other monks!  He saw a need for reformation within the Roman Catholic Church at and his order of monks.  Funny thing is, many reformers in many traditions have experienced much the same.  Even though John Wesley would write and preach out against the idea of "the desert" image, in similar ways, he walked through the desert in attempting to reform the Church of England.

If you take time to read Isaiah 35, you'll find it reads more like a Psalm than the typical words we think of from a prophet.  You'll also pick up on a similar theme I've touched on here: the desert.  I've written so much about dealing with grief and "the valley of suck," it is really easy for folks to tune out.  People question, "When are you going to get over it?"  Well, Isaiah says, you're going to come out of the desert when God comes and God saves (35:4).  Of course, Isaiah is referring to the Jewish people in exile but the application is true for us all.

This is the season of Advent.  We live in a world that is the desert.  We all live in some form of the valley of suck.  For some, certainly for me, the brightness of "the star in the east" seems far brighter this year.  I guess, sometimes the desert is right where we need to be to see the reason for the season and the reason for it all.  There really are less distractions out here.

Image used with permission:  http://www.freeimages.com/photo/himba-1-1622259

8 Thoughts for Surviving Holidays in the Valley of Suck

We didn’t know last Christmas would be our last one with my wife, Heather.  We didn’t “know” but Heather and I both had the feeling it was a good possibility. The last doctor's appointment did not bode well. Like today, I wrote on the eve of a new Star Wars movie.  I wrote a year ago about “Saying No to Star Wars” and I said the reason I said no was because the there was a bigger yes - I needed to live according to a bigger “YES!” which was Heather and my kids.

I have reflected on that often this past year - the power that comes when we say “YES” to something deep within us - in our soul - something which gives our lives true meaning and purpose.  Saying no to Star Wars wasn’t really all that hard - all I was saying “no” to was that I wasn’t going to see the midnight showing.  THAT didn’t make me any less a fan - it set a new tone for my life though, one which I have been living more and more each day and one which has me living more within the framework of faith, trust, and grace.

I am saying no once again this year to opening night of Star Wars: Rogue One because I’m saying yes to peace in me - in my soul.  I am saying yes to a “peace that passes understanding,” and "no" to a culture in our world which orders our lives around entertainment.  I will still go to see Rogue One and probably, I’ll get back to going to opening nights in the future.  But, in my journey in the valley of suck, I’ve learned to listen to my soul - to practice stillness - and make note of the lessons God’s Spirit reveals.  Here are eight thoughts that I’ve had in the valley of suck from facing the holidays last year and in facing them this year.

  1. Make the change now.  Don’t wait until January 1.
Last December I had a doctor’s appointment for a check-up and found a few issues, one of which was being a bit overweight.  Rather than wait till January 1, I started in on her recommended diet and a new workout routine.  Not only did I drop 30 pounds in three months, I’ve kept it off and learned to eat better.  Unfortunately, I had a dangerous spike in my blood pressure just a few months later.  It might have been worse if I hadn’t changed my behavior.  BUT I’ve learned through the years, I stick better with new behaviors/goals/habits if I tackle them when identified.  
  1. Make small changes.  Don’t try to do it all at once.
From the above example, I started with small changes: first, getting doctor input and second, picking the right diet that focused on portion control and simple changes.  After that was underway, I added a change in exercising.  There was more than enough change I couldn’t control a year ago.  I could handle the small changes.

  1. Start with easy.  Don’t go for the biggest task or goal.
Sometimes this means ignoring things or finding someone to help.  The easier things are, the simpler and less stressful.  I know many people wanted to cook for our family during Heather’s illness and following her death.  Problem was/is, none of us had the same diet.  Heather could only eat certain things, I had my issues, my daughter is vegan and my son can eat anything.  The easiest thing?  Gift cards for grocery stores and Subway.

  1. Go slowly.  Don’t try to rush your emotions.
Grief takes time.  I wish you could skip through it but really, you can’t.  They go at their own pace and for caregivers that is...well...it is damn slowly.  Accept it and let them come.  I didn’t get hit with anger and the “why” questions till last month - five months after Heather died.  That was the right time.
  1. Get your emotions out.  Don’t hold them in…(Soda rule: contents are under pressure)
This relates to number 4 too.  Grief can be like shaking up a soda can or bottle - don’t give it an outlet and you’ll find the contents are under ever increasing pressure.  Express them in healthy ways so they won’t come out in unhealthy ones.  For some of us, a punching bag is a good investment and for others it maybe poetry.

  1. Honor some old traditions.  Don’t feel you have to do everything.
We decorated the tree right after we got back from Thanksgiving and played the same Christmas CD’s and we’ll watch “A Muppet Christmas Carol” on Christmas Eve.  Once I put the stockings up though, I was done.  Not putting up Heather’s stocking broke me.  Half the decoration are in their boxes.  That is okay.

  1. Add a new tradition or two.  Don’t try to repeat the stories of Christmases past.
Hanging at Hogwarts and enjoying Butterbeer
At Thanksgiving, we chose to honor one of Heather’s dreams for our family to go the Wizarding World of Harry Potter at Universal Studios in Orlando.  We had saved up and so the kids and I followed through on it.  For Christmas, we’ll be in a church where I’m not pastoring for the first time in 20 years and we’ll be volunteering.  Some things are the same but some things are new.

  1. Keep faith.  Don’t ignore the spiritual aspects of the season/holiday.
Each holiday and season, I think, comes with a focus and something to reflect upon.  Take the opportunity built into these times to seek after God.  Of course, there is room to question God, to wrestle with faith but it is also a time to rest in the tradition of the season and holiday.  There are many who lived before you and I, and they told the stories.  Keep faith.

Much love to you and your’s this season from the valley of suck.

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