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the joy/pain relationship

July 30, 2011

Do you ever find the same theme running through your conversations with different people and with God?  For the past couple of weeks, I have found myself frequently talking about marriage (specifically, the hopes my single friends and I have to someday be married), and about the relationship between joy and pain.  I’ll save the first topic for another time, because the joy/pain topic has been truly refreshing in recent days…

I think the first conversation was this blog post written by my friend Bob.  He references C.S. Lewis in The Problem of Pain, about how love demands the perfecting of the beloved, and as any human–especially a follower of Jesus–knows, the process of being perfected is far from pain-free.  In response, I recommended that Bob read Where Is God When It Hurts? by Philip Yancey.  I read this book years ago but still remember how well Yancey describes the necessary and helpful nature of pain.  Physically, pain is part of a God-created system of warning and protection for the body.  Emotionally, he says pain is intimately linked with joy: “Pain is an essential component of our most satisfying experiences.”  I rephrased the joy/pain relationship in these terms:  We may experience tremendous joy without pain, but pain allows us to fully appreciate the joy.

Example:  Last week, I visited my dear friend Kristin in Colorado Springs for a few days.  She had been praying for me before my arrival and specifically prayed that my vacation would be a chance to experience God’s beauty and joy after a time of so much loss.  Her prayer set the tone for my time there.  I could have visited Garden of the Gods and Pike’s Peak and fully enjoyed them.  But with the awareness of my recent pain and loss, I had a new, keen appreciation for every moment, every sight, every conversation of the trip.  Every experience was teeming with life and was thus life-giving and joy-giving to me.

I cannot express how refreshing it is to have entered a season of joy.  My hope is that as I continue to grieve and remember the pain, the result would be ever-increasing joy.

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A Severe Mercy and its soundtrack

July 17, 2011

I first read A Severe Mercy by Sheldon Vanauken in the summer of 2004.  The book captured me like few others have, not only because of its autobiographical story of a young couple’s love, faith, and untimely encounter with death, but also because of how beautifully it is written.  The author’s reflection upon his marriage and loss of his young wife is poetic, heart-rendingly honest, and magical.  It quickly earned the title of Favorite Book of All Time in my estimation.  It was a timely first read in 2004, as just a month or so later, a friend’s husband passed away suddenly at the age of 26.  They had been married only 13 months.  The book became my guide, my sounding-board for grief over the loss of young life and love.  I have re-read the book near-annually since.

After my friend Emmett passed away last month, I knew it was time for the yearly reading of A Severe Mercy.  As I started to read, I was expecting a new wave of grief for Emmett or the other friends I have lost.  Instead, I found myself swept up in the music of the story.  Vanauken mentions a piece of classical music for the many seasons and moods of his romance with Davy:  the “Humoresque” was one of the first ways he told her “I love you,” Tchaikovsky’s Fifth Symphony was the anthem of their love, “The Love for the Three Oranges” a means of resolving fights.

I decided to read the book in a way I never had before: accompanied by its own soundtrack.  With the help of google, I have been tracking down recordings of each piece online and playing them while I read.  What a rich experience it has been!  I feel as though I am in the room as Van, Davy, and their friends listen to Tchaikovsky’s Sixth, the “Pathetique,” on the brink of war with Japan.  I feel I am beginning to understand what music meant to this remarkable couple, its powerful ability to represent emotions and evoke memories.  I find myself wishing that more of my life’s memories had their own soundtrack.

You can probably anticipate my recommendations: reading A Severe Mercy, reading with its soundtrack playing in the background, and doing the same for any other books that mention musical pieces.

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my favorite things about summer:

July 6, 2011
  • sleeping in late(ish)
  • being finished with work by 11:30
  • tutoring
  • parents who bring me Starbucks to drink while tutoring their child
  • eating lunch at home
  • garden-fresh salads
  • open windows
  • relaxing on the back porch with the dog and a good book
  • time to read a good book
  • re-reading To Kill a Mockingbird for the first time as an adult.  I highly recommend this to everyone.
  • lemonade
  • a new awning over my front door
  • flowers
  • sunshine and breezes that make the temperature just right
  • flip-flops
  • time to watch movies
  • more daylight
  • farmers’ markets
  • tomatoes ripening in the front yard
  • unhurried time with friends
  • nectarines

What are some of your favorite things about summer?

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dear Quinn

June 24, 2011

I have spent the past couple of days working on a project: writing a letter to Quinn, Emmett’s 3-year-old son.  It took me several days before that to even convince myself to begin.  But Emmett’s wife, Wendy, had asked Emmett’s friends to write down their memories of Emmett so that Quinn can remember his daddy.

The problem was, I suddenly felt guilty for the 17 or so years of friendship I had shared with Emmett, while Quinn knew his daddy for less than 4.  17:4 seems like an incredibly unfair ratio.  A sense of dread about writing the letter set in for a couple of days.  When I resigned to the fact that there is nothing I can do about this ratio, I said a few prayers, sat down, and started writing.

Much to my surprise, I did not write the letter with a torrent of tears.  I got a little misty at times, but overall, I found that writing to Quinn was a joy-giving experience.  It allowed me time to remember a great friend and the wonderful memories we made together.

I did encounter one major problem in writing the letter, though: I could not recall many specific, detailed memories of Emmett from our adolescence.  I wanted to be able to tell Quinn about the time that his dad said this funny thing, or had that embarrassing moment, or won some award…  I remembered a couple of those, but for the most part, my memories of Emmett were one big blur of my high school experience.  Emmett was always there.

Emmett was always there.

That was it.  If my high school years had been a sitcom (and they often felt much like one), Emmett would have been cast as the sidekick character who always walks on the scene during a crisis moment and dispels the tension with a joke, a word of wisdom, or a hug.  Between four years of German, several English classes, and band practice after school, I probably spent more waking moments with Emmett than I did with most of my other peers.  He was always there, and his friendship and care for me were unwavering.  Loyal does not even begin to capture this aspect of Emmett’s character.

So I wrote to Quinn about that.  And I wrote about his great sense of humor, his perfectionism, and his poor handwriting.  I told Quinn everything I could think about Emmett’s character.  I tried my best to paint a picture of the guy who was my ever-present friend in high school.

And pictures: I included photos from high school and college.  I copied what Emmett wrote to me on the back of his senior picture.  And I copied a page from a yearbook he had signed.  I even dug up an old demo tape of Emmett’s college band, but decided I’d keep that one for myself since Wendy already has one.

Writing this letter feels very final to me–almost like closure.  It is one of the last tangible things I will do to honor my friend’s memory.  I don’t really want to put this envelope fat with memories into the mailbox, but I know that in doing so, I am helping a little boy get to know his daddy.  I am participating in the legacy that Emmett leaves behind.  My grief is not finished, but perhaps once that letter is on its way to Nashville, I will be able to take one more step in that grief process.  And if I don’t, that’s okay, too.

letter

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goodbye, Emmett

June 9, 2011

Early this morning, Emmett Stallings left this world.  You can read his wife’s description of his last couple of days at teamemmett.com.

I am at a loss for words, and I feel like my heart and stomach are trying to tear their way out of my body.  I keep thinking of Emmett’s wife, Wendy, and imagining the moments and emotions she is living right now.  And their son Quinn…

For the past couple of hours, a list of names has been tumbling in my head: Leah, Cindy, Aunt Eileen, Emmett.  Leah, Cindy, Aunt Eileen, Emmett.  All gone.  All had cancer.  My friend Joan has conquered her cancer, and for that I have an ever-growing gratitude.  But four people gone…

Dear God: I don’t think I can handle any more death.  Please, in your mercy, give life to my friends and family, and protect them from illness and accidents.  I just can’t take much more…

In addition to the list of names, this song has also been a constant in my head for the past week or so.  I apologize for the somewhat cheesy photo montage, but it’s the best I could find:

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the School of Grief

June 7, 2011

I have noticed some overarching themes in my life–lessons that God takes months or years to teach me.  It’s like being in school for a specific topic, and the topic is never of my choosing.  In my teens and early twenties, it was the School of Forgiveness, which was soon followed by the School of Living by Grace, Not Works.  There has also been a School of Asking and Believing and a School of Caring for Widows and Orphans.

Now I think I’m a student enrolled full-time in the School of Grief.  I’ve been resisting this reality for a while, but I am hard-pressed to continue denying that the past 18 months or so have been all about grief.  The numbers in my little world are staggering:

5 friends/loved ones diagnosed with cancer

3 died within 16 months of each other

1 is in his final days

One of the people who recently died happens to be my Great Aunt Eileen, one of the kindest, sweetest women on the face of the planet.  I will admit: It has been easier for me to walk through her illness because she is 87 and has lived a long, fulfilling life.  She has done what she set out to do, and now it is time for her to rest. But this reality does not make it any easier to let her go.

The one in his final days is a friend from middle school and high school days, Emmett Stallings.  He has been fighting esophageal cancer for about a year and a half, but he recently had to discontinue chemotherapy because his body simply cannot handle it any more.  His family has asked people who know him to send words of love and encouragement now; they are also compiling memories of Emmett to pass on to his young son, Quinn.  My heart has been so heavy for Emmett, his wife Wendy, and Quinn.  I have run out of words to pray for them, so tears and moans will have to suffice.  You can read more about Emmett’s journey at teamemmett.com.

I am sure that I have not yet figured out all of the lessons God has for me to learn in the School of Grief, but I have figured out one:  It’s not easy to pray for a loved one who is dying.  My faith wants to pray for miraculous healing, while the realist in me wants to pray for a peaceful, pain-free death.  The theologian in me is constantly wondering what God’s will is in the situation of a dying person and questions whether I can even begin to pray God’s will for my suffering friend.

The only prayer that seems to suffice so far is, “Lord, have mercy.”  Mercy on my suffering friend, on his overwhelmed family, and on my inadequate prayers and confused heart.

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dreams do come true

May 26, 2011

I believe that God speaks through dreams.

9 times out of 10, my dreams are the result of whatever I was thinking about before I fell asleep, something I ate, or perhaps the random activity of my subconscious.  But every so often–and more often lately, it seems–my dreams have a deeper significance.

Take, for instance, a dream I had a couple of months ago:  My friend Jamie and I had (in real life) purchased tickets to see Josh Groban in concert.  In the dream, we found our seats in the nosebleed section of the arena.  Before the concert started, an usher approached us and said, “Ladies, I would like to offer you front-row seats.”  Of course we accepted and moved to the front row, and the dream ended right before the concert began.

Last night, Jamie and I really did go to see Josh Groban in concert.  We arrived at the arena and took the long escalator up to the nosebleed section.  At the top of the escalator, an usher stopped us and said, “Ladies, your tickets have been upgraded.”

What?!??

A person who disembarked from the escalator behind us asked, “All of us?”  “Yes,” the usher replied.  “Just go to the table over there and trade in your tickets for a closer seat.”

Still in disbelief, I turned to Jamie and said, “My dream came true!”  I had told her about the dream so she was also in shock.  We got in line, traded in our tickets, and got to move to a lower section.  It wasn’t the front row, but at least Josh looked about 2 inches tall instead of only 1.

I am sure I would have enjoyed the concert from nosebleed seats.  Being far away would not have diminished the experience in the least.  After some thought, I am convinced that the only reason that God orchestrated closer seats for us–and gave me a dream to anticipate a seat upgrade–was because He loves me and wants me to be happy.

The skeptics out there are now thinking, “You’re reading way too much into this, Allison.  It was just a dream.”  Was it?

How many parents have ever said to their child(ren), “I have a surprise for you!”  The anticipation of a surprise or gift brings so much joy to the child as recipient and to the parent as giver.  Why would parents tease (for lack of a better word) their children with surprises if it did not bring joy to at least one of the people involved?

I have the feeling that God had a great time these past few weeks as He observed me wondering if the dream might actually come true.  And last night, when it did, I could almost imagine Him jumping up and down with delight and a huge grin on His face as He clapped and said, “I told you I would do it!  Isn’t this fun?!

Which leaves me wondering…  What will I dream about next?!