Friday, November 21, 2014

Giving thanks for a hard year

Thanksgiving is less than a week away– happily, we got all the non-perishable and freeze-able food shopping finished weeks and weeks ago (and let's face it, how much of a traditional Thanksgiving dinner is actually made with fresh food?) My parents arrive tomorrow and I will get to spend this holiday with them for the first time in four years (and it will be Nate's first time ever!) We will give thanks together... for...

For a hard, hard year.

For a year of struggling through my difficult, physically-debilitating pregnancy with our girls, mourning their deaths, and adjusting to the new reality of being parents whose babies are in Heaven.

Giving thanks. Perhaps we might just skip that part and try again next year?

Yet when I lay wakeful in bed, this blog post starting to form itself in my mind, I startled myself realizing that I really am thankful for this year. Even with all the pain, the tears, the suffering of this year, I'm not wishing for a do-over, or wanting to forget. I'm not trying to silver-line the hurt of this year– it is simply that the mercies in the midst of pain stand out  surprisingly vividly to me now. I can see some of the ways that God has met us in the darkness. For that, yes, I am thankful. And I give thanks.

Here are some of the things I see:

I see the physical hardship of my pregnancy teaching me about sanctification. Through the weeks and months of being so ill I couldn't leave the house, sick and exhausted and lonely and bored, my body was literally laying itself down to nurture the tiny lives of my daughters growing inside of me. Physically, it was awful. I hated the miserable side-effects of pregnancy– but I loved the life inside me. I loved that my body was doing exactly what it needed to nourish and grow our girls. Usually, Twin-to-Twin-Transfusion babies have significant weight disparity, a result of the faulty placenta giving far too much blood and nutrients to one and not enough to the other. But when the girls were born, Livia only weighed three ounces more than Lucy, and both girls were very close to what normal weight would have been at that period of gestation. It amazes me to think how hard my body was working to grow the girls in spite of the placenta problem. All I knew at the time was the physical hardship it was causing me– but later, holding my daughters, marveling at their perfectly-formed bodies, their similar sizes and weights, I got to see the beauty that came out of that hardship. Isn't this the story of the Christian life? The Holy Spirit refines us and in the moment all we can feel is the searing flame, the pain, the fear. Only later do we see the beauty He is creating out of those moments.

I see incredible beauty in the way this grief has drawn Nate and me together. I remember shortly after being married reading Tim Keller's book The Meaning of Marriage. Early in the book Tim says that while holding his wife Kathy's hand now after decades of marriage doesn't give him the same nervous thrill as it did back when they were first dating, it is far more meaningful because of the years spent living, working, rejoicing, and suffering together. Nate and I have only been married for almost three years, but after this year I think I understand much more of what Tim is talking about. I think suffering is the crucible of a relationship: it can either shatter it or make it stronger. Walking through this valley of the shadow together has only strengthened our marriage– we cling closer, cuddle longer, are more intentional about communicating, remind each other of our love for one another more often. One of the first things I found out in my reading about loss was the grim statistics about couples divorcing after the death of a child. While theoretically I can understand that, with my own experience divorce seems a thousand times more unthinkable now than before Livia and Lucy died. Nate and I are the only two people in the whole world who are the girls' parents– we are the two blessed to be their mommy and daddy, blessed to have them as daughters and mourn their loss as daughters. We have held each other and cried out our anguish, our broken hearts, our longing for our girls, bearing the burden of grief together. We grieve in different ways, it's true, but we grieve differently together. Neither of us holds the other's grief at arm's length, and sharing grief honestly in all its rawness, ugliness, and messiness, breeds an intimacy, a knowing, that I'm not sure can be achieved any other way.

A third patch of light which I see in the darkness of this year– and for which I give thanks– is for an enlarged experience of God himself– for a truer view of God. This one is the hardest to explain, the most difficult to see, and it might seem the least likely to give comfort, but I'll try to show what I mean.

My two favorite quotes from C. S. Lewis's The Chronicles of Narnia is that Aslan is "not a tame Lion" and that he is "not safe, but good." Of course the books are allegorical, and we can draw Lewis's conclusions about God– that God is not tame, and not safe, but He is good. This year has been my deepest experience I've ever had of the wildness and danger of God. Lots of people want a tame God, especially when it comes to grief. They want a safe God– one whom they like to think will never allow anything really terrible to happen. And then, when terrible things inevitable do happen, they try to let God off the hook and say that it wasn't really His fault. He didn't do this thing– it was fate, or chance, or evil forces, or randomness. "I could never love a God who would allow x." And I know that most of these people are well meaning and well intentioned towards God. But what they don't realize is that what they're asking for is a tame, safe God– a God who would never do anything that might be painful, a God whom they can always understand– the kind of God, in short, whom they think God really ought to be.

I have had to grapple with this. I have had my own images of a tame God hacked down and been forced to see a more of who God really is– a God who is mysterious, a God whom I don't always understand, a God who is sovereign and does things that make no sense to me. I have come face-to-face with the majestic, decidedly not tame God who declares in Isaiah,
"For My thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways My ways... For as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are My ways higher than your ways, and My thoughts than your thoughts."

I can sit with Job and painfully affirm that it is God who gives and God who takes away. God wounds and binds up; He shatters and He heals. I like the giving part, the binding up and healing part. Am I willing to submit to the taking away? To the wounding and the shattering?

But if He does that, why should I trust Him? If He is not tame and not safe, what hope do we have?

I trust because of the third way C.S. Lewis describes Aslan– not tame, not safe, but good– a goodness seen in staggering clarity on the Cross. If God is really God then it makes sense that not everything He does will make sense to me. He is Infinite and I am finite. He is my Father, I am His child, and even here on earth fathers must do things for their children which, in the mind of the child, make no sense– things that hurt, even. But He is also the God who endured suffering– who took on the penalty for sin in Christ on the Cross– who rescued me from eternal death. He is a Father who shares in the pain He allows. I don't know why God shattered us this way; I don't know why He took away our girls. But I can trust Him because He did not hesitate to Himself be shattered, for my sake. I am willing to trust (and it's been a hard journey to get to this trusting) that the healing will follow the shattering, because I believe in His goodness and what's more, His love for me, and I taste that goodness and love even in the midst of pain. Even as God declares how much higher his thoughts are than the thoughts of man, He is also inviting us:

"Come, everyone who thirsts, come to the waters; and he who has no money, come, buy and eat! Come, buy wine and milk, without money and without price... You shall go out in joy, and be led forth in peace; the mountains and the hills before you shall break forth into singing, and all the trees of the field shall clap their hands." 

I give thanks because our sorrow is not without hope; because of God's goodness there is meaning and purpose in our heart-break. Outside of my narrow, finite field of vision where all I can see is the wounding and the shattering, God is crafting a work of unfathomable beauty– beauty which perhaps I will never see in this life. But whenever and however I do see it, I will break forth into singing and clap my hands for the wonder and joy of it.

And this, more than anything else, is why I give thanks this year.