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for days grief won’t go away… it’s okay

Sometime while we sleep, the moon slips behind clouds, hides behind their walls — building, rising, thunder rolling, lightning striking.

And when day dawns, we listen to the coffee maker drip, draw open blinds to stare across a gray Mississippi horizon, watching the way the sky turns into itself, puckering its face as if the heavens themselves were sharing in our grief, this day we lay to rest a man who taught us all about true redemption.

for days grief won't go away photo
Licensed under CC0.

The dirt from the recently dug grave turns to mud and is this really the way it has to be, God, I murmur, can the sun not shine on this day we so desperately need it to?

Maybe I’m sad too, He whispers and I find comfort here because so often I forget God feels what we feel. He came to earth a human, felt the joy of life, the sting of death and when our hearts hurt, His hurts alongside it.

It’s okay, I whisper, Thank you for sharing in our grief.

Here’s the thing about grief; it shows up when we least expect it. We may be able to hold our tears back on the day the coffin is carried across the gravel, across the mud… but a week from now, maybe months, when we pour coffee into two mugs instead of one, grief knocks us to our knees.

Maybe it’s when Mother’s Day rolls around and she’s been gone for years, this lady with soft smiles and gentle words but then you see a bouquet of flowers, lilacs, her favorites, and your face turns shiny, heavenward, there in the grocery store next to the cards you no longer buy.

We are all only a phone call away, a six-inch dotted yellow line away from this grief, knees hitting the ground and the screams echoing loud inside our head. But can we remember, also, that we are all only a prayer away from heaven, the One who knows all and holds all and loves all?

The throne of grace is only reached through brokenness; is only touched when some manner of healing is needed.

I spoke with a man, once, who had driven his tractor over his own wife, him not realizing she was there bringing him a sandwich and lemonade for lunch.

“I don’t remember,” he whispered, “I don’t remember the funeral, the weeks following. Even now, I don’t know what color her casket was. What I remember most was climbing alone into the mountains where we often went for picnics, her and I and the girls, and I found this place where we used to go and there were rocks, huge rocks, where we used to sit together and watch the day end. I started screaming,” he said, “I screamed and screamed and I flung those rocks hard down the mountain. I knew nothing but rage. Nothing but pain. And then the sun went down. I watched the way it fell into the lake below. I’ve never seen a sunset since that was more beautiful. I stayed there, then, holding my knees to my chest, just sobbing and the moon came out and the stars along with them. I felt God, then. He slipped his arms around me. I knew at that moment that the emptiness I felt was only going to be filled with love.

Yes, we can fill the emptiness of grief that way, by continuing to love what is gone, by reaching to love those left behind, by filling ourselves full to the brim with God’s love.

So when Mother’s Day comes, it’s okay to take a moment in the card aisle and hold close some words that remind you of her. Maybe you buy her some dark chocolates and remember her each time you take a bite. Maybe you take your motherless daughters up the high mountain with the big rocks and you sit there watching the sunset, drinking lemonade and eating sandwiches and remembering. Maybe you pour two cups of coffee instead of one, then sit extra long drinking from them both, watching the day rise and remembering your years together.

It takes great bravery to face grief, to experience the sadness of it all… but the brave, I realize, have faith in a God who will see them through.

So when that storm rolls in my friend, and the sky bends low to the earth, maybe it’s God way of leaning close to your ear and whispering, “We’ll get through this… We’ll be okay…”

“The Lord is close to the brokenhearted and saves those who are crushed in spirit.” Psalms 34:18 NIV


for when we need contentment

We’re driving narrow roads down valleys and up sloping hills, through trees budding green to our campground. Nestled in a historic part of Minnesota, this is where we plan to rest for a few days, right next to a clear cold water creek.

Three days of furtive glances from curly-white haired Mr. Watson trying to sneak food from our picnic plates and the large, pleading eyes of Ervin to throw the ball, just one more time, hiking up steep mountains, soaking in the sun, sleeping in, reading all those books stacked in the back of the car.

I step out of the car, breathe deep, then deeper yet. My heartbeat slows. Life starts, it seems, when we finally ask it to stop. I stare at the towering hillside, the way the pine trees seem to hold the jagged rocks from falling down around our feet.

After plugging the RV in to electric and water, we chit-chat with the neighbors who stop by. He’s a UPS driver and I gush awkwardly, tell him he’s my favorite person ever because he brings me books, lots and lots of books. Thank you, Amazon… you are this introvert’s best friend. He’s pleasant of course, like all UPS drivers have to be, but he shuffles away quickly.

We drive into town, then, to an old A & W drive-in and we sit under neon lights, eat burgers and fries and talk about nothing and everything all at the same time, all those tiny little thoughts that make up a life. And I watch a chubby girl in white sandals and a red sundress ask her dad something and he walks to the jukebox, selects a song, and she dances. Her hands held high, her face relaxed, eyes closed, she gyrates across the floor, kicking her feet high, her dress twirling and I stop talking, watching her, the way she so unashamedly moves, how she feels this moment, loves this moment. Her breathless excitement ignites something within me and I’m tempted to throw the rest of my fries to my dogs in the backseat and dance next to her.


I want that. I think about hitting the button on the panel next to my window, wishing I could say, I’ll take the #6. Yes, contentment. Yes, a large. But I don’t. Instead, I hit the button and order a turtle sundae, which is kind of the same thing.

Stomachs full, we putter to our home away from home, and I’m quiet, turning the thoughts over and over in my mind while I build a campfire. The brook, a thousand tiny tongues, laps nearby. Southern Gal hands me a mug and I clench its warmth between hands, take sips filling a soul so thirsty. Ervin hufflepuffs his way around the camp, convinced our neighbor from Wisconsin who’s whistling is surely a horrible man intent on pillaging our camp and stealing our marshmallows. Out there, in the grass, there’s a chorus of insects singing while they crawl. And out there, somewhere in the trees, two owls yell at each other about whose turn it is to catch supper.

Southern Gal settles next to me, wraps her arms and a blanket around me and we scoot close to the crackling fire. I watch the moon rise, imagine hidden strings holding it, hidden strings manipulated by a God above, this great puppeteer slowly raising it, white and full, to the heavens.

for when we need contentment photo

I see Him up there, holding the strings, and maybe He bends his ear, listens to some eight billion hearts beating, this symphony of humanity, this collective rhythm of sleeping and breathing and eating. Does He hear mine? I lift my face to His, soak in all this goodness, praise Him for such beauty. It’s easy to be contented, I think, when everything is perfect, but what about the hard times?

And then I feel it, just a drop at first, then more.

Rain. It falls down around us, each drop hissing as it hits the fire.

We run for our camper.

We play a game then and argue about who really won because why did you drop that card worth three points on the floor or should it be in the discard pile? The winner takes her shower (yes, she did win) and I step outside into the drizzle with the dogs and the grass is wet between my toes and the moon is gone and it makes me lonely, the way it went away so suddenly.

Tomorrow is another day.

Tonight, I will take the rain, take the pattering on my poncho, hear its melancholic drip and maybe I’ll let my eyes drip too.

I think back to the previous year, the many days how my broken mind would bustle within my skull, my heart would race, how I would simply take the medications, lie down, turn my head slowly to stare at the blank wall and wait till the dizziness passed, wait till the chemicals in my brain neutralized, how I would pray a little harder and hold a little stronger.

Life is unbearable sometimes. It’s so broken; so terribly, horrifically broken. And it’s okay, I think, to open oneself up to feeling its rough, jagged edges. Bad days happen. Maybe, if for no better reason than to make us grateful for tomorrow when it’s different, to remind us to always cling to hope that the next moment might bring joy?

There is a quietness, a calmness, even contentment in accepting that not all things work out in this moment but all things do, however, work together for good. (Romans 8:28) This I believe.

Acceptance towards all things, good and bad, is the key that unlocks truest contentment.

I push my chest to the heavens, breath deep, feel the rain against my face. My heart beats wild, free, content. I know God is listening. I thank Him for the good. Even the not-so-good. I thank Him for this beautiful, chaotic experience called life. And most of all, I thank Him for having me along for the ride.

The trash bag whips in the wind and Mr. Watson growls, all eleven fluffy pounds of him ready to fight while Ervin, the seventy-five-pound dog, runs terrified for the camper.

Life. Isn’t it simply the best.


what redemption truly looks like

When you marry into a family, you get what you get.

My new family got a multi-colored sock wearing, politically independent, chaotically abnormal, minimalistic, nature-loving hippie who sees no reason a shirt should ever have buttons. And I got, well, the opposite of all that and then some and I definitely got the better end of the deal.

Bless them, for having me.

This became evident when we were recently down in Mississippi for an extended family reunion, over 200 people smiling and hugging and claiming the same genetics willingly.

I’m here to tell you folks, there’s a lot of nice people in this world. I didn’t know their names and they hugged me as if I were their own. At first, I was skeptical, this tribe being strongly Southern, would likely embrace even a skunk if it rang their door bell and asked for some sweet tea.

But over time, I became convinced of their genuine kindness as they continued to talk to me throughout the day; so much talking, in fact, that at one point, I escaped to a bookstore and sprawled in the Psychology section with only my coffee in hand to read excerpts from a favorite book called Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking.

Upon my return, Southern Gal sits beside me, continues to whisper, “That’s so-and-so. He’s the one I was telling you about that’s going to school for… or she’s the one who was diagnosed with…” And so on. Clearly invested, I became invested in these people also and there was one man in particular who stood out.

Time has a way of reducing us all. Vibrant, we come into this world. All cries of joy and screams of hunger we arrive and then one day becomes two and so on until wrinkles appear and our bones protrude through thin skin and what’s left is a life lived, mere memories holding our shrinking bodies together.

I notice him right away. An erase marker board in hand, family members are writing their well-wishes to him since his hearing is impaired and a stroke had made it difficult to speak.

“I’m an emergency nurse,” I write to him while waiting for a burger. “It’s nice to meet you.”

“You too. I’ve been to the emergency room many times,” he replies.

“I’m sorry,” I scribble.

“They saved my life a few times. It’s good.”

And there it is. A body wracked with cancer, tired, and still saying, “It is good” can only be the murmured when we grasp the greatness of God, can only be uttered in seeing the bigger picture in the grand scheme of this one little life we’ve been granted.

Gratefulness in this world’s darkness shines brighter than any other testimony one could give to the goodness of our God.

The next morning, we gather for Sunday devotion and this man stands, shuffles quiet to the front and tells us his story. Many of us know it’s also his goodbye, the prognosis of cancer very likely not allowing him to attend another reunion.

He holds his hand to his mouth, his face twisted with life’s circumstances and he mumbles the words, telling us about how he woke in the ICU, hooked to cords and IV lines keeping him alive. And how in one of those IVs, the steady drip of red blood fell straight into him, a life giving life.

what redemption truly looks like photo

He told us about another blood spilled, on his behalf, and ours, about a man who was hanged a sinner so we didn’t have to. He mentioned a life of many regrets and how in that moment, nothing mattered except his acceptance of that blood, how it gave him new life, how the restraints of this physical life meant nothing in the face of the freedom he gained.

“Oh, what a Savior,” we sang after, our voices harmonizing together, bouncing off the low ceiling of that sunlit sanctuary, “Oh Hallelujah. His heart was broken on Calvary. His hands were nail scarred, His side was riven. He gave his life blood, for even me.” (Marvin P. Dalton)

For even me. Yes. For even me. 

I look around, so many here also, their faces fighting the same emotion I’m fighting and why are we so scared, as a people, to be vulnerable? Why do we swallow the lumps in our throats when tears are a way of cleansing the soul, of letting others know we’re in this together, that this life we’re living isn’t an isolated experience but instead a dirty and grace-filled march toward Home?

A few tears fall. Some are whispering the words to the song. And then there are those, wracked with emotion, not singing at all and I wondered if God looking down didn’t think they were singing the loudest of all, the cry of their heart ascending toward heaven because they too realize:

True redemption is ugly. It looks like scars and imperfection laid raw; like nails ripping through flesh and blood spilling. It looks like dirt on one’s knees and tear-streaked faces turned heavenward. It looks like a man lowering his hand from his drooping face and letting the tears fall, letting us see his sagging face, how no matter what we go through in this life, how beautiful it can be if surrendered to God.

Later that day, the sun starting to set, we stop in at this man’s house to say goodbye. Exhausted from a tiring weekend on a tired body, he sleeps in his chair. I scribble a note, leave it on the armrest of his chair. I don’t remember what I wrote. I just remember feeling the emptiness of words in that moment, how I could write a thousand amens to the testimony of his life and it still not be enough. So I write it simple, thanking him for being him, for allowing God to work miracles and sharing those miracles with the rest of us.

He sleeps on, his gentle snores the only noise in the house save for the subtle, ever forward ticking of the clock on the wall.

Don & Elaine and family… we are praying for you in this difficult time. And won’t you, friends, pray also for these beautiful people as their dad, their spouse, their grandpa and friend takes his final breaths on this earth and inhales deeply the first of many breaths on the other side of eternity?


for if you find yourself an outcast

We’re five miles or so in the air headed for Chicago and I’m staring down the aisle at a sea of blurred heads… balding grays, curly brunettes, tawny wilds, hipster hats.

I’m halfway through an article in April’s Outside magazine, an article titled “What Killed the Bear Lady?” It illustrates the life and times of Kay Grayson, a lady living on a rugged patch of nature in North Carolina with her bear friends, Munchka, Susan, Highway 64, Betty Sue and many more.

After a particularly large bear raided her house and was found sitting on her mattress eating a sweet roll, she started feeding them, desensitizing them to her presence until she was able to walk into the “woods, hold out her long arms, and turn her palms to the sky. Then in a loving voice she would sing, ‘It’s OK. It’s OK.’ ” Grunting, shuffling, out of the woods, her furry friends came.

for if you find yourself an outcast photo
Licensed under CC0.

I read fascinated, the pages covering her previous life of Vegas, immorality, dancing and partying… talent wasted. Until, one day she stumbled upon what she considered God’s plan for her life… to take care of the bears. And isn’t this how we so often find God’s path for our life. A tiny step, a stumble, head-long we trip into His will for our lives and in surrender, we fall safe into the guiding arms of our Savior. Our life, once clumsiness, now a beautiful dance. 

But as most stories go, there must always be an adversary and for Kay Grayson, these were the local hunters and poachers and often, she went above and beyond what was considered rational behavior to protect her bears, one time even landing herself in jail.

Upon her return from her short stay in the slammer, she found framed pictures of dead bears, one of these her beloved Highway 64, silent beside a gun-welding, smiling hunter. She screamed and raged until the police led her away.

The article ends with her death. That winter was particularly harsh and Kay was growing older. One neighbor reported her skin gray and discolored, hanging loosely on her ailing body. One of her bears, Susan, slept in her bed with her to keep her warm. And it is surmised that one morning, she didn’t wake and the bear, trying to save her, dragged her lifeless body into the woods, thinking she was protecting her.

“True or not,” the article states, “That’s a nice way to think of Kay’s end, her bears spiriting her body away into the wild. After half a lifetime of strife, she deserved some peace.”

I’m crying now, the sea of people all headed to Chicago blurring into one and I see myself standing to face this anonymous, blurred world of people and realize for too long I’ve considered myself “different, odd, too imperfect” to ever have purpose.

And yet, here, before me, I have read about a life, although different, eccentric, and hugely flawed… a life redeemed by surrender to God.

She challenged societal norms, fought hard for her beliefs, fought hard for the underdogs. Many times she got it wrong. Many times, she had to back up, say sorry, make amends. Her passion often led her astray but her vision never wavered.

Yes, count me within the numbers of the outcasts, the rejects, the crazies. Count me with these people, these people with their hardened insecurities formed by an unaccepting society to difference and I’ll show you, under all that, what a true soul looks like. Count me with these people. I see now, clearly, their beauty.

So to you I offer this, if you find yourself one of these people, I want to tell you something today that Kay sang to her bears…

“It’s OK. It’s OK.”

Sneed, B. (2016, April). What Killed the Bear Lady. Outside: 29 Best Trips of 2016, 98-105.


the long way home (part 1)

Hello, journal.

It’s been a long time and I’m dreadfully sorry about that. I wish I were stronger. I wish I had the tenacity in which I so often admire in others.

But here we are. What’s done is yesterday’s memory and the people in suits tell me, “Look at your progress… give yourself credit.” To which I reply, shaking my head, “But look at the road ahead yet.” And aren’t we as humans like that; so often we fail to see the smallest successes because the failures cast even larger shadows.

But I’m getting ahead of myself.

Let’s go back a year ago, a day when I woke and learned everyone has their tipping point. When life veers chaotically to the left and you grip white knuckled to all the absolutes in your life and one by one, even those are ripped from your grasp.

Then one day you wake in the morning and it’s night outside and it’s always night outside despite the hands on the clock and you find yourself pacing, caged, up and down the windows looking east, praying for the sun to rise because aren’t His mercies supposed to be new every morning?

But the darkness remains.

Maybe, when this happens to you, you turn to God. Maybe you turn to drugs. Or alcohol. Or negative thoughts. Or eating. Or a million other unnamed vices.

For me, my unending night happened over a year ago and I turned inward, away from everyone and everything. It’s a story all it’s own and I hope to share it with you in pieces the best I remember but so often when everything goes wrong, our minds block out, shut down.

I became an existence of pain, an unrelenting sorrow masked with a plastic smile and jokes I didn’t feel but told anyway to conquer the silence in my head. And at night, I’d lie down, start sorting through all the chaos in my mind, all the madness in my heart.

So all I remember are glimpses, sitting in my car after that initial doctor’s appointment, my head bent low over the steering wheel, sorrow dripping and I remember thinking my tears were all I had left of myself and even these were being taken from me.

But I turned the key and drove home, unaware of the road.

Pulling into the driveway, I knelt in the foyer, head buried in the soft fur of my dogs and they knocked me over in all their love and I cried and dug my hands into the scruffs of their necks even deeper and I’ve learned since then, God’s love does this: it shows up in odd ways and knocks us over, as if bending our will a little lower to remind us that here is where the hem of Jesus is found.

“I’ll be alright, God. I’ll be alright, won’t I?” I murmur.

I get up, walk to the windows and it’s still night outside, even at four in the afternoon.

So I go to bed.

Like I said, this isn’t a short story. I have over a year of healing to share with you. Did you hear that? I wrote “healing”. The men in suits say you can never be healed, you can only learn to live a different life. So you swallow their bitter pills and nod and in the back of your head, you know this: Healing hurts. It took a man dying on a cross to give hope to a broken world filled with broken people. And now, more than ever, I’m convinced, I’m among these broken people. So I cling to hope. White-knuckled, I cling.

A tiny yellow bird burps its cheerful notes. A squirrel darts up a tree. Ervin, my goldendoodle, huffs at it lazily from the window. And through this window, I see, hope. Rising bold in the eastern sky, a thousand mercies new for the day ahead.

(Lamentations 3:22–23)