We Were Happy Once

“Write… we were happy once.” In the Little Women BBC miniseries, Mr. March tenderly looks into Jo’s eyes, those eyes filled with pain and despair and tears. How do I go on? those eyes plead, searching her father’s face for wisdom, guidance, help of any kind.

We were happy once. These words echo in my heart. Last week, during a warm autumn evening, I carried a tray of food outside to our veranda. At the step, I paused at the scene: my family, all five of them, around the table; sounds of laugher, of teasing, of shouting with childish freedom; the lights hanging, twinkling; the dusky view of the valley below, to this city that has become home. I so desperately wanted, in that moment, to feel fully happy; and I mostly was. But even on the most joyous of days, mundane or special, there will always be a part of me that is grief.

Thirteen months after the loss of my nephew, and I cannot fathom a time when I will be truly, full of uninhibited joy this side of heaven. Could I before his death? I can’t remember. It was not that my life had been easy before, necessarily; but the difficulties and griefs that I had experienced were not of the same magnitude. The eyes of my heart were opened to a brokenness, a personal grief, deeper than I had know before. There is something about the death of a child that is so desperately, inherently wrong; there is much about this broken world that is so desperately, inherently wrong.


A friend recently asked me, in preparation for a meaningful time with her grandmother, “if there was something, anything you could ask your grandmother, what would it be?” There are many things I wish I could chat to her about; my mom’s mother, one of my closest friends until her death, left earth and entered heaven the year I was expecting my first child. While we had lived much of my short life together, talking about everything under the sun for those twentysome years, I had not asked her much about motherhood; some, but not all the deep questions I now have. Even more than those pressing ones, however, I want to ask her… how do you deal with the compounding brokenness of the world, both personal and cosmic, over the course of a life? How do you live joyfully to the full in the midst of so much sadness? And heaven knows she had seen sadness; more death and war and desperation than most of my American generation could imagine.

But when I imagine sitting with her, at her small apartment table in the little home she made for herself after my grandpa died, I see her shaking her head and saying, “I don’t know, Beth. We just did, one day at a time. It’s all we could do, you know?” And I imagine finding so much wisdom in those words; not a clear path forward, but a perspective of resilience, of perseverance, of faith.


Could there be meaning in this darkness? Is there safety in the truth of God’s sovereignty? I believe there is, but I wrestle still. Francis Fernandez wrote, “everything that happens each day in the little universe of our work and our family, in the circle of our friends and acquaintances, can and must help us find God’s providence. Fulfillment of the divine will and the knowledge that it is being done is a source of serenity and gratitude.” I remembered a dear friend who walked through the dark valley of losing her baby daughter, and her words that God’s sovereignty was her safe place. Without the theological conviction that God has willed and ordered this world and our lives, all can feel desperately meaningless. I most certainly will never know the mind of God, but I know enough of his heart to know that he is trustworthy, even in the brokenness of the world. And even in our loss, he had given my nephew the gift of heaven. It was our loss, truly, not his.

In the end, our happiness is not the goal, is it? I may never feel fully happy again on this earth, and truthfully, I am at peace with that. I have seen too much, I have known too much, I have lost too much. I can join arms with many others who have suffered, who have known deep grief, who have experienced and lived in brokenness. I can share my story of God’s faithfulness in the midst of deep waters, and my hope of heaven.

No, happiness is not the goal; faithfulness is. And faithfulness looks like this: gratitude for what God has given, contentment with what he has not; perseverance in the midst of hardship; hope in the shadows. For we know, the shadows will one day pass, and we who are in Christ will experience joy uninhibited, finally and forever.

The Beauty of Lament

The slanting rain pounds the window incessantly; it’s been one of those days, where it rains the whole day. We awake to rain, we school to rain, we share dinner to rain, we head to bed to rain. The rain is good, so needed after our long, dry winter here in South Africa. It cleanses the air, it waters the soil and life within, it washes the dirt and dust away. It also reflects my heart today.

Since the passing of my nephew four months ago, I have spent a lot of time processing my pain in prayer. In the earliest days, when the prayers were more like moans, all I could offer was oh God, oh God, oh God, tears mingled with desperate cries of help them, help us.

On the very long, lonely trip back to the US, I copied Psalms into my journal, having no words or emotional capacity to form prayers of my own. A liturgy sent to my by a friend from the new Every Moment Holy Vol. 2 became my prayer for the next weeks:

Be nearer, O Christ, than I have ever known… comfort us, O God, in these hard and early hours of loss. Be to us a strength and light, for we are shocked, numbed as children spilled into cold seas… how can I make sense of this? Make peace with this? Have words for this? Though I scarce have words to pray, O Spirit of God, still let my tears, my groans, and my wounded silences rise as an incense of perpetual prayer, reminding you of my need… carry me. Carry all of us who grieve…

The last few months have found me awakening in the mornings to the Psalms, for a long while Psalm 77 in particular. I have noticed in a fresh way the honesty of these psalmists – the crying out to God, the questioning and deep doubts, the remembering of God’s faithfulness, the turning toward hope again. And this structure, commonly seen in laments throughout Scripture, has given me a way to pray through my own pain.

Crying out to God // In pain, the natural temptation is to turn inward: no one understands me or I’m so alone or everyone has moved on. It is an act of courage, then, to take the first step of turning to God and acknowledging his presence, which alone can conjure more pain. God is here, and yet this happened? In Psalm 77:3, the psalmist says, “when I remember God, I moan; when I meditate, my spirit faints.” It is not easy to acknowledge God in the midst of our suffering and grief, because in his omnipotence, he did not prevent this painful circumstance. And yet, we also realize in his omnipresence that we have never been, and truly never are, alone. He has been with us through the whole of our pain. It is courageous to turn to God in the midst of pain.

Voicing of complaints // Once we have turned our attention toward God, the pattern we see in Scripture is a vocalizing of questions, of complaints to him. We do not need to jump straight to hope, but rather honestly pour out our hearts to him. All of those disappointments, all of those questions, all of that pain – he is aware of it already, but like a knowing parent who waits patiently for his child to come to him, intimacy builds through honesty. “Has his steadfast love forever ceased? Are his promises at an end for all time?” the psalmist writes in 77:8. Well, that’s not very biblical, you might be thinking. And yet, biblical laments model for us a holy complaining, a pouring out of our hearts to our Father who wants us to.

Remembering God’s faithfulness // Once we have poured out our hearts to God, we recall how he has been with us throughout our lives, through the joys and pain of the past. Has he failed in his promises to me? Some laments at this point frame a request to God; Psalm 77 turns to remembering: “I will remember the deeds of the Lord, yes I will remember your wonders of old” (77:11). It may be that the goodness of God is obscured at this present moment, but I can recall his faithfulness in the past. Never once has his love failed; never once has he left me. Rather, he has been a shield for me and the lifter of my head (Ps. 3), my refuge and my strength (Ps. 9 and 18), my rock and my fortress and my deliverer (Ps. 18), the strength of my life and a very present help in trouble (Ps. 27 and 46), the strength of my heart and my portion forever (Ps. 73). This is what I know to be true of God.

Turning toward hope // This intimate honesty and remembering leads my heart to be renewed in hope. Through the tears, through the pounding rain, the relentless pain, my eyes again can look up to Jesus in deep hope and anticipation for his restoring work in my life and in the world. Recalling Israel’s exodus and Red Sea crossing, our psalmist declares, “Your way was through the sea, your path through the great waters; yet your footprints were unseen. You led your people like a flock…” Even when God’s way seems hidden to us, we trust his hand is guiding us, as he was guiding his people then, and has for all time. We turn our eyes again to the light, and we wait in hope, for him to make all things new, as he has promised someday.

The rain is still pouring down, my heart is still heavy. And so I will turn again to God, and in so doing, reject the narratives of my aloneness or the uniqueness of my suffering. Instead, I will join with the saints of old, the writers of Scripture, who have modeled to us how to pray through our pain. Give us courage, Father, to turn to you again today.

++ a book I found helpful on this topic is Dark Clouds, Deep Mercy by Mark Vroegop.

On Shadows and Home

The situation in Afghanistan has been heavy on my heart these weeks, for those who must stay and for those who must leave. For the uncertainty, the danger, the chaos. Perhaps it’s heavier for those of us who live outside of our “home” countries, for those of us who have experienced some level of uncertainty, of danger, of chaos. But then, we know these things can ensue anywhere, no matter your location. The shadows of this world are powerful.

A month ago, South Africa experienced the worst violence, the worst unrest, since the fall of apartheid in 1994. The bulk of it centered in our province, in which our city is central. At the height of it, Ben and I looked at each other, and realized that even if we felt like we should try to leave, how could we? Where could we go? Our highways were closed, all COVID testing centers were closed, most gas stations were closed. We had thrown our essentials into backpacks – you know, the documents, the charging cords, the single change of clothes for each of us, one stuffy per child. We looked around our house, our home of the past five years, and imagined the real possibility of just leaving everything if we must. It was disorienting, it was chaotic, it was awful. And we did not even need to leave in the end.

And even though we did not need to leave in the end, my mind and heart began the process of grieving our life of the past five years. I took photos of every single page in our family photo albums, knowing that an emergency evacuation would mean leaving those behind. Ben and I quietly decided which stuffed animal or doll each child would need most. We looked at our cat, our Turkish rugs from his parents, the quilts and guitar from mine. Of course, these are just material things, and yet they are the things that have made up our home. We thought of our friends here, our community here, the staff and students whom we love, this place that has become home to us. The fact of our citizenship and the privilege associated with it brought guilt; we could leave, but what about those who couldn’t? It was complicated. The idea of leaving it all, of leaving everything, was so overwhelming.

It was taste enough of the anxiety, grief, and trauma that can come with suddenly leaving your home, or suddenly losing your home, with the added complication of losing your country, your work, your community. We are still processing, a bit more fragile on this side of it, more compassionate toward those who live in the midst of this kind of uncertainty regularly, and deeply moved for those who have had to leave like this.


A few days ago, as I sat with my children during our daily morning time, we discussed this idea of home. One said, “South Africa is my home, this is where I have mostly grown up and where my cats are,” always the animal lover. Another child replied, “but I love America, that’s where I was born. I think that is where my home is.” I explained that the answer to that question is not even straightforward for me, even though I’ve spent most of my life in one country. We ultimately agreed that home is where our family is, that even the little farmhouse we occupied for a month during our home assignment felt like home while we stayed in it. “And,” I added, “I think there is a part of us that will never feel completely at home anywhere in this world. We will always feel a bit split between the people and things we love here, and the people and things we love in America, because neither of these is our true, forever home.”

Our true forever home. We sat a minute in that thought, the glorious idea that one day we will not have this longing for one place or another, that one day all things will be made new, that tears will be no more, that death will be no more. Some days, it’s hard to reach for the hope through the fog, isn’t it? We remember what Tolkien’s loyal and wise Sam Gamgee once said, “But in the end it’s only a passing thing, this shadow; even darkness must pass.”

On some level, we all know the pain of loss and longing for home. Perhaps those of us who’ve lived in worlds unfamiliar feel it a bit more strongly, yet it’s part of our human experience. We all seek to make our place in this world, our house into a home, our acquaintances into friends, our own little communities of which to be a part. But to keep our hearts rooted and grounded in Christ, rather than in a particular place, is to be at peace wherever in this world we find ourselves.

And so today, I am opening my hands again to this life we have here, this community and this home. I am hugging my children close, snuggling under quilts and soaking up our calm, keenly aware that it is fleeting, and this is not all we have. I am asking God to give peace to those who find themselves in the shadows of the world. And as been my habit these years, I turn my face upward toward the light, to be reminded that even the darkness must pass.

This Is What I Know

The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it.

John 1:5

What is light without darkness?

“Look at the stars, Mom!” my daughter whispered loudly, as we walked outside near our house. I had returned from the US just a few weeks before, from what was the hardest, saddest trip I had ever made. We had lost our nephew tragically; months later, I still do not have words for the depth of collective pain both felt and witnessed in those weeks following, or for these current days.

I looked up, mirroring my daughter’s face. The stars were bright tonight, the winter air dry and crisp and cold, our breath coming out in little puffs. Cause out here in the dark, underneath a canopy of stars, constellations falling from your heart, promise me I’m not alone, cause I’m feeling so very alone… these words from Ellie Holcomb’s song had filled my ears on those long flights, echoing the silent screams in my head as I was suspended over an ocean between my grieving families.

“Yes, they’re so beautiful,” I murmured back, squeezing her hand. If it weren’t for the darkness, never would we witness the glory of these bright and burning balls throughout our galaxy. Would I rather there just not be the darkness? At that moment, yes. And yet he created them both. In the darkness, he gave glorious, beautiful, billions of bodies of light. Humans of all time have looked up in the night, just as we were now, and appreciated the miracle. Did God have to create stars, these sources of lovely light in our night sky? Do they exist only for his glory and our beauty?

We know now that stars are vital for the existence of life, particularly our largest star, the sun. Without it, all life on earth would be exposed to cosmic radiation; without photosynthesis, all plants, animals, and humans would die. Life could not be sustained on earth without stars. Even in the night, God is sustaining our very lives through the physical proximity of earth to the sun.

I held my daughter’s hand as we walked slowly home, both of us quiet, in our own thoughts. The stars are essential for the continued existence of our physical lives, and a source of beauty, comfort, and direction in the darkness of night. In him was life, and this life was the light of men…the light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it. As long as there has been darkness, longer has there been the true Light. Has the darkness not overcome us, though? Looking at the world some days, it is hard to say. Some days, the night is thick and the outline of the constellations is faint, but the stars are constant, existing no matter the obscurity between us and them. And every morning, the sun itself rises again as the earth turns. In the earliest breaking of the world, in the history of the breaking of the world, and in my current world breaking, light is overcoming darkness, both the literal physical darkness and the deep soul darkness. Jesus has been redeeming the world since its first breaking, and will not stop until the day when all is made new.

When I felt the light of the moon on my face, the memory of sun that been shining for days, you’ve already been in this desolate place, you’ve already been here, and You’ve made a way. Jesus has always been, but he has also physically walked this material dirt under our feet, breathed this air in our lungs, looked at our night sky with its glorious stars. He was with us, and he is with us. His light is breaking in, every day and every night, and in the hearts of those who look for him. This is what I know.

Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil, for you are with me.

…So We Wait

“I have prayed so many times that God would bring Ginger home. Why doesn’t he answer my prayers? It’s like he doesn’t hear me. Does he not hear me, Mom?” I walked beside my 8-year old daughter in the chilly moonlight, having checked the fence line where she thought she heard a meow for our beloved, and lost, cat. My eyes misted over, my breath producing clouds in the cold winter air. “I know, babe, I know,” is the only answer I could muster at that moment.

How hard is it for God to bring back a lost cat? I can’t deny I have asked that very question. This is a small thing, God, such a small thing, but so important still. You could show the girls your power! How you answer their prayers! But perhaps what I meant was… you could show me your power. How you answer my prayers. You know I need to see it.

It’s been a season of deep darkness for us, of deep loss. Our hearts are sore and fragile, from brokenness. I had traveled alone back to the States to be with my family at an unimaginable time, to help plan a service I never imagined would need to happen. I had explained to my children how someone they love dearly had to meet Jesus before us, and how yes, we can still be very sad. I had been asking God all kinds of questions, not out of anger (yet) but out of pain.

Within two of weeks of my return, Ginger went missing. He (yes, he… I know) had been an unexpected, unrequested gift from God over four years ago, during our family’s first year in South Africa. That first year was filled with transition, grief, and stress, and then, this cutie, tiny kitty showed up in our lives and stuck around, providing much needed joy and humor. We weren’t allowed to acquire pets, living on a communal college campus, but he had acquired us, and so he stayed. Our children formed deep attachments, and if you asked them who they missed the most while in the US two years ago for our first home assignment, they would answer without hesitation, “Ginger!” But even through that long transition, he loyally waited for us, for eight months, and settled back in joyfully with his family upon our return.

Salt on an open wound, my mom had said. Yes, a very open wound, the wound of loss. The loss of our pet does not compare to the loss of our loved one, and I found myself saying, really, God? Can’t you just bring back our cat? Haven’t we lost enough already?

As I pondered how to help my daughter’s sore heart, I thought of the Psalms, where I have been spending a lot of time lately (a good place for a broken heart) and of how the psalmists asked very similar questions, in the midst of pain and suffering:

“My soul is in deep anguish. How long, O LORD, how long?” (Psalm 6:3)

“Why, LORD, do you stand far off? Why do you hide yourself in times of trouble?” (Psalm 10:1)

“Out of the depths I cry to you, O LORD. LORD, hear my voice!” (Psalm 130:1)

“Our heart has not turned back,
    nor have our steps departed from your way;
yet you have broken us in the place of jackals
    and covered us with the shadow of death.

Awake! Why are you sleeping, O Lord?
    Rouse yourself! Do not reject us forever!
Why do you hide your face?” (Psalm 44:18-19, 23)

The following evening, at dinner, we talked about my daughter’s questions. I explained that I have these questions of God too – and that others throughout the Bible have asked God, why? And some times, many times, if we are honest, there are no real answers to the hard things happening to us. Even if there were answers, how much comfort would they truly provide? Our losses will still be immense, the pain still deeply real. We talked about how nearly every person in the Bible had difficult situations in their lives, and that following Jesus does not mean our lives will be easy. And we explained that it is okay to not understand – because we don’t either – and yet we can tell God all that’s on our hearts, because he truly wants us to.

We could give the pseudo-spiritual pat answers, but where does that leave us? Those answers have not been a help to me, in deep loss, and they won’t comfort our children either. Our pain is real, it’s raw. If God is truly our Father, he wants us to honestly come to him in whatever broken place we find ourselves. And sometimes, just curling up with him in the unanswered questions is all we can do. And we wait.

God, we need you, we need to see your power, your goodness. So we will wait, we will wait for you.

“I wait for the LORD, my soul waits, and in his word I hope.” (Psalm 130:5)

On Empathy

We have all lost things in the last several months; some losses are far greater than others. But surely we can all relate, we can all “understand and share the feelings” (defining empathy) of others in this time. On some level, at least?

I know everyone is tired of this pandemic. I know you are itching to get out of your house, for your kids to go back to school, for more businesses to open, for life to resume to as “normal” as possible in the wake of such a global catastrophe. I know it’s felt like a long stretch.

To be frank, I am not concerned with your particular opinion about the seriousness of COVID-19, or how countries ought to be handling it, or if face masks are effective. I am not saying these things should not be discussed, or that your opinions don’t matter, but this is what I am saying:

Where is the empathy? Where is the Christ-likeness?

Christians, if you call yourself one, this means your life has been radically changed by the love of Jesus. You’ve recognized the depth of your sin, and the depth of your need for redemption. You have encountered Jesus and his overwhelming love and mercy at some point in your life, and have intellectually and emotionally understood that his sacrifice on the cross has cancelled your debt of sin against God, has removed your shame, and has conquered fear, even fear of death. Praise God!

Having been changed by his love, we are then compelled to live our lives marked by the same love that motivated Jesus – God’s own love. Is this what our lives are about? When others witness our lives, are they witnessing Jesus’ love embodied? When they read our Facebook pages or scroll our Instagram accounts, are they struck by our gentle love and kind understanding?

Regardless of at what rate people have died, or what they have died from, people have died. Some, many, have lost loved ones. Regardless of whether it was the right decision for governments to lockdown, or recommend people to stay home, people have lost their jobs. Some, many, are struggling financially. Some, many, don’t even have enough food to eat. Regardless of your particular opinion of these current events, people have lost freedoms.

Looking at Jesus, I’m struck by his example of gentle love and kind understanding, of empathy.

“I have compassion on the crowd because… they have nothing to eat. And I am unwilling to send them away hungry, lest they faint on the way” (Matthew 15:32). Jesus knew hunger, as he ate nothing for forty days.

When the scribes and the Pharisees brought Jesus an adulterous woman, he instructed “him who is without sin among you be the first to throw a stone at her.” When none did, Jesus looked at her and said, “Woman, where are they? Has no one condemned you?… Neither do I condemn you; go, and from now on sin no more” (from John 8:1-11). Jesus knew condemnation, as he bore it billion-fold on our behalf.

When Jesus’ friend Lazarus died, both sisters Mary and Martha asked him why he allowed him to die. Jesus speaks to Martha, confronts her with the truth that “I am the resurrection and the life.” When Mary asks the same question, Jesus weeps. He who is going to, in a matter of minutes, command life back into his dead friend, is deeply broken and hurting (from John 11). Jesus knew grief, as he was a “man of sorrows” (Is. 53:3) and bore it for us on the cross.

And as if his ministry to this point was not sufficient enough, Jesus walked in steady obedience to his Father to the cross, through scorn and shame, through torture and mocking, to death. Jesus knew death, and bore it willingly for us.

Jesus lived a fully human life, filled with every sort of human experience, and from it, ministered perfectly to those around him based upon their spiritual needs. While we cannot minister perfectly like Jesus, we can seek to follow his example in a time of crisis such as we know now. This is how the church can have a mighty impact in these times. This is how we can reflect the love of Jesus to those who don’t know him. This is how we can love each other right now.

Much has been lost. Are we concerned for those who have been experiencing great loss, or are we busy arguing for our opinion on these issues? Are we, as the body of Christ, “rejoicing with those who rejoice, mourning with those who mourn” (Rom. 12:15)?

Do we have empathy in these times?