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Happy Birthday Sydney!

April 13th is Sydney’s birthday; today she would have been 36. To remember her and mark the occasion, I hosted a small gathering last night. There were a number of stories told which brought laughter and joy, and I thought I’d share one of my favorite stories, which I relayed to the group.

To give you some background, for our  honeymoon, we choose to take a road trip through the North Carolina mountains, stopping at various cabins and B&B’s along the way. One of our favorite spots was The Greystone Inn in Lake Toxoway both because of the beautifully isolated setting and the killer dinner and breakfast included with the room. After our first year of marriage in Chapel Hill, we moved to Charlotte and began to enjoy frequent weekend trips to the mountains because of their proximity.

While we almost never went to the same place, the Greystone was one that we always doubled back to at least once every couple of years, generally going up on a Saturday morning and staying just one night. In one memorable Fall trip it started snowing on our trip up and our little Camry was sliding all over the roads by the time we got there. It continued to snow throughout the weekend and even though we only planned to stay one night, we were snowed in along with the entire staff!! Luckily we had purchased a plastic sled at a Wal-mart and spent much of the time sliding down the snow-covered hills on the neighborhood golf course. I think there was only one other couple there that weekend.

Well, a year or so ago, during one of her comeback periods, we decided to slip away to the Greystone yet again, for what would be our last trip there. During our candlelit, jackets-required, four course dinner, Sydney began to look around. There was a classical guitar player playing softly, various couples talking quietly to each other (most significantly older than us), and staff buzzing about, all reverently playing their roles to set the mood.

I could see something rise up in her as she said, “I just want to do something crazy.” “What do you mean?” I said. “Everything here is so… you know,” she said. “What will you give me if I take this lampshade and throw it across the room?” she said, pointing to the small decorative lampshade on the votive candle on the table.

“You won’t do it,” I said, knowing that as much as she wanted to, she would not bring herself to carry it out. As soon as the words were released from my mouth, and without breaking eye contact with me, Sydney flung that lampshade as hard as she could across the room. It went flying past several tables of couples directly towards the guitar player’s chair. Luckily he was on a smoke-break or something because the chair was empty. It struck the chair and went rolling on the ground across the dining area.

My jaw was almost on the floor. To this day, it was the absolute most impulsive, visceral act I have ever witnessed. About this time our waitress walked out as Sydney was returning to the table with the lampshade in hand. We were chuckling and she could tell that something was up. She looked at us inquisitively. “Do you know where I could buy one of there lampshades?” Sydney asked her. “I don’t know,” she said, still trying to figure out what the joke was. “The owner does all the decoration.”

One of Sydney’s favorite quotes was by Harry S. Truman: “If you can’t convince them, confuse them.” She quoted this to me after the waitress walked away, which I anticipated.

As the evening came to a close, we got up from the table and began walking out the door. As Sydney proceeded me, I could see her eyeing the desert tray display to the right of us near the kitchen. She just could not stand the perfect presentation. The pie topped with flawlessly sculptured Crisco (made to look like whipped cream) was especially annoying to her. So, she looked back and me, and then rebelliously mashed her thumb into the Crisco on top of the pie. This was her final act of rebellion as we walked out the door.

On the way to the room, she immediately had remorse. “Was that bad? Should I go back and apologize?” she asked. All I could do was laugh. “What if the same waitress is working at breakfast in the morning? What am I going to do?” she asked. “It won’t be the same waitress,” I assured her.

By the next morning, her conscience had ripened and Sydney was really feeling bad. On the way to breakfast she said, “Should I apologize? I feel like I should talk to them.” “No,” I said, having reached my limit of awkward situations for the trip. We sat outside on the patio at a corner table, and you can probably guess that the exact same wait staff was working that morning. I wish you could have seen Sydney sitting there. She looked like Jackie O with her coat, scarf and big sunglasses, despite the 60 degree weather.

As every table around us chatted casually, Sydney looked as guilty as a dog in the corner. It was all I could do to keep Sydney from spilling the beans, all the while beaming with amusement from the situation. As we walked away from the breakfast together I remember shaking my head thinking, “She really is one of a kind.”

Some Days

I really hate to write this entry and much of me wants to wait to share until I am in a different place, but I think it’s important for me to authentically share my journey of grief and healing. Some days are just really tough, and today has been one of them.

When we started down this journey, a friend of a friend very kindly shared her battle with depression. I was struck by her description, and find myself, at times, completely able to identify. I will share an excerpt from a letter written to Sydney.

“I am writing you because I was in the midst of cleaning my house when stronger than I have experienced in some time, I felt compelled by the Holy Spirit to pray for you and to write you and tell you that I am praying for hope…deep, peaceful, abiding, hope.  I struggle with depression and some years ago, I was in a deep bout of dark depression brought on my some fears pertaining to my physical health and the uncertainty of trusting God [meaning, trusting God doesn’t mean I’m promised health, simply that He is with us and cares for us, He has good things for us, and He is enough–which is all we need, but that is much easier to accept in theory without being tested.]  anyways, one of the most profound things I remember experiencing in that time, were these moments of peace and security and trust and hope, followed immediately by the temptation to say, “ok God, but what about this over here…what are you going to do about this?  can you promise me this or fix this?” And the moment I did that I would feel the peace slipping.  I had this mental picture of a trash heap basically labeled “my fears” can label it whatever.  And my back was towards it and I was facing Jesus, but I kept being so tempted to turn and look at it, to go back and try and figure it out, to drag Jesus over to it and beg him to do something about it, but His only answer was to just leave it alone, give it to him, and just keep my eyes on Him and to stay in that place of peace and trust and hope.  I cannot tell you the moment by moment struggle it was to resist the temptation to want to go back and do something with that pile of fears…it was exhausting.  I am sure you know better than me the tiresome work of taking captive your thoughts, but I pray that today you might experience some relief and find it easy to have hope and to trust and keep your heart on Jesus, and live in the present.”

What triggers this could be anything. Last night, for example, I got of the phone with my mom, as I was putting Boone to bed. He looked at me curiously and asked, “You were talking to mommy?” “I was talking to my mom, Bon-Bon,” I told him. “Bon-Bon?” he said. “Yes,” I said. He didn’t miss a beat and we continued the bedtime routine as he grabbed a book from the shelf. However, it hit me like a ton of bricks that for one brief moment, Boone thought I was talking to Sydney on the phone. As we have been told by psychologists, children can’t understand the concept of permanence until they are at least five years old, so this would not be such a stretch for him.

It just broke my heart to consider how long of a road he has to travel in terms of grieving the loss of his mother. His sweet, lighthearted, and purely innocent spirit simply can’t grasp the severity of the question he asked me. But one day he will know. One day he will understand and he will have to bear the loss.

But true to God’s faithful pursuit of me, while I have been nearly paralyzed today, struggling to simply do anything, He has literally bombarded me with loving emails, texts and calls from family and friends. As I was thinking about going to the gym, one friend texted and asked me to go with him. I came home yesterday to a peace lily left by friends, several Easter cards and notes and a book from my sister-in-law.

I will leave you with a few excerpts from Andrew Peterson’s “Fool With A Fancy Guitar”

I’ve got voices that scream in my head like a siren
Fears that I feel in the night when I sleep
Stupid choices I made when I played in the mire
Like a kid in the mud on some dirty blind street

I’ve got sorrow to spare, I’ve got loneliness too
I’ve got blood on these hands that hold on to the truth
That I am a priest and a prince in the Kingdom of God

But if it’s true that you gathered my sin in your hand
And you cast it as far as the east is from the west
If it’s true that you put on the flesh of a man
And you walked in my shoes through the shadow of death

If it’s true that you dwell in the halls of my heart
Then I’m not just a fool with a fancy guitar
No, I am a priest and a prince in the Kingdom of God

Maundy Thursday Reflection

Tonight we celebrate The Last Supper, which Jesus had with his disciples before his crucifiction. At a service tonight, I was struck by the reminder that The Last Supper was actually a passover feast, which celebrated the Israelites freedom from slavery hundreds of years before. During the first passover feast, the Israelites, enslaved to the Egyptian Pharaoh, were told by God that they were to sacrifice a lamb and wipe its blood on the doorposts of their homes. This act saved them from the judgement which God was bringing down on the Egyptians. They then ate the lamb meat with unleavened bread.

So, Maundy Thursday is actually the remembrance of a meal (The Last Supper), which was the remembrance of a meal (The Passover Feast). Jesus’ speech that night was loaded with symbolism as he began to reveal to his disciples that his body and his blood were taking the place of the passover lamb. And they would have to eat and drink it to be saved.

“Now as they were eating, Jesus took bread, and after blessing it broke it and gave it to the disciples, and said, “Take, eat; this is my body.” And he took a cup, and when he had given thanks he gave it to them, saying, “Drink of it, all of you, for this is my blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many for the forgiveness of sins. I tell you I will not drink again of this fruit of the vine until that day when I drink it new with you in my Father’s kingdom.”    Matthew 26:26-29

So, what strikes me about this is WHAT A STORYTELLER GOD IS. He has His people celebrate this event for 1500 years which is only a metaphor pointing to their ultimate deliverance. And this is not just one reference which is tied in to the story. This is the climax of an amazingly elaborate story written over a period of thousands of years. A few reference points of foreshadowing include.

1. 2000 BC Abraham is asked to sacrifice his son Isaac. He would say that “God will provide for himself the lamb for a burnt offering, my son.” Genesis 22:8

2. 1440 BC  The First Passover. “The blood shall be a sign for you, on the houses where you are. And when I see the blood, I will pass over you, and no plague will befall you to destroy you, when I strike the land of Egypt. This day shall be for you a memorial day, and you shall keep it as a feast to the Lord; throughout your generations, as a statute forever, you shall keep it as a feast.” Exodus 12:13-14

3. 800 BC The prophet Isaiah spoke of a messiah “like a lamb that is led to the slaughter, and like a sheep that before its shearers is silent, so he opened not his mouth.” and “he was pierced for our transgressions; he was crushed for our iniquities; upon him was the chastisement that brought us peace, and with his wounds we are healed.” Isaiah 53

4. ~30 AD After John spends some time with Jesus “The next day he saw Jesus coming toward him, and said, “Behold, the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world!” John 1:29

5. ~30 AD The Last Supper.  Jesus celebrates the Passover Feast with his disciples, revealing that he is the ultimate sacrifice, satisfying the requirement to reunite us with God once and for all.

If God is the author of a story so amazing, so beautiful, so captivating, how could I even begin to dare to not trust Him with my own story. If in His orchestrated master plan, He included the sacrifice of His own Son, how could I doubt His love for me. If I truly get these two truths 1) He is entirely sovereign and The Master Storyteller and 2) He is more for me than even I, or anybody else I know is, then I should sleep very easy tonight, and every night.

“For this light momentary affliction is preparing for us an eternal weight of glory beyond all comparison” 2 Corinthians 4:17

Exchanging Control for Thanksgiving

Despite the Heels’ disappointing loss the weekend before last, I still have enjoyed watching many of the NCAA games this Spring. Part of this is because I did not have time to watch the tournament in the prior years due to Sydney’s illness. While getting emotionally invested in the games, I’ve noticed an interesting behavior in myself and others. We want our team to win so badly, but we are completely unable to do anything about it. However, we still try. We shout directions to the players, telling them what to do, what not to do, and how to handle specific situations. We commentate on who the coach should play, what he should tell his players, and what specific plays to call. Even worse, when the game is over, we speculate on what they should’ve or could’ve done better.

In response to my behavior during last weekend’s game, Vail said to me,”Dad, you couldn’t do any better.” And although I know this is true, I can’t help indulge the illusion of grabbing the steering wheel myself. There is something about wanting to be in control. One of the most excruciating parts of the defeat is not being able to do anything about it. Even though Kendall Marshall was out because of Creighton’s rough play, and even though the refs missed four travel calls (can you sense an edge here), we have to simply accept that what happened, happened. We are not in control.

I think this is the hardest part of life for me right now. After decades of working hard to put myself in a beautiful and comfortable life, I find myself in a place that is nothing like the life I designed. Despite all my efforts to the contrary, I am playing a hand that I never would’ve chosen in a million years. I am on a path that was forced upon me; this was not my doing.

So, I have a choice. I can fight it, or I can embrace it. Clearly, the later is the healthy route. However, I have to constantly ward off the inclination to push back, to wish life were different, to live begrudgingly, to reject my story.

But God consistently whispers the promise that none of this is without purpose. He is urging me to trust Him. I know it is not just me either. No matter where we are in life, we probably have something we just wish we could control, or could have controlled. Whether it is our life path, a relationship, our family, or our career, we are frequently desperate for something else, something more. The challenge is to let go, and to accept the things in life that are beyond our control, and even embrace them.

So I am working on embracing my place in life and moreover, being thankful for it. I am a single dad with three amazing children. I have a wonderful family, and amazing community and friends who love us well. I am learning to be okay with all of this, and even be thankful for the fact that I’m not in control. And I can truly say that I am beginning to see the fruits of it. As I finished working up a song on the mandolin on Saturday, I found myself laughing out loud with joy. I was having so much fun. And then I thought about how I would never have had the desire, or space in my evening schedule to learn a new instrument, if I wan’t in this precarious life situation.

I am currently reading One Thousand Gifts by Ann Voskamp, and I have been convicted to cultivate a life of thanksgiving. She points out how the first sin, in the Garden of Eden, was one rooted in ingratitude. Adam and Eve weren’t content with all that God had given them, they insisted on more. This was the last book Sydney was reading before she died. I recently passed her final bookmark, a couple of chapters in, and leave you with a quote near this mark in the book (sorry it is fairly long).

“I know there is poor and hideous suffering, and I’ve seen the hungry and the guns that go to war. I have lived pain, and my life can tell: I only deepen the wound of the world when I neglect to give thanks for early light dappled through leaves and the heavy perfume of wild roses in early July and the song of crickets on humid nights and the rivers that run and the stars that rise and the rain that falls and all the good things that a good God gives. Why would the world need more anger, more outrage? How does it save the world to reject unabashed joy when it is joy that saves us? Rejecting joy to stand in solidarity with the suffering doesn’t rescue the suffering. The converse does. The brave who focus on all things good and all things beautiful and all things true, even in the small, who give thanks for it and discover joy even in the here and now, they are the change agents who bring fullest Light to all the world. When we lay the soil of our hard lives open to the rain of grace and let joy penetrate our cracked and dry places, let joy soak into our broken skin and deep crevices, life grows. How can this not be the best thing for the world? For us? The clouds open when we mouth thanks.”

Cypress Friends

Sitting on the edge of the Pamlico River this past weekend, I took in the beauty of this unique place. As the sun went down on the quiet swampy river, I admired the bald cypress trees, older than I am, draped with spanish moss with widening trunks extending into the water. I remarked to my friend, Jeff Barwick, “I bet those roots are pretty strong.” “Yep,” he answered. “They don’t go down in hurricanes.” Jeff lost several large oaks in his backyard this past year due to the winds and flooding as a result of hurricane Irene.

You could probably guess that this was guy’s trip by the weekend menu: duck breast wrapped with bacon and jalapeños, venison tenderloin, smoked pork shoulder, 1/2 bushel of steamed oysters, and a low-country shrimp boil – all accessorized with beer and all cooked and eaten outdoors. Most impressively, all seven guys were fed Saturday evening’s dinner (oysters and shrimp boil) on a newspaper covered table without a single plate or utensil (besides oyster knives). Throw in a fire pit, constant laughter, pick-up basketball, a boat outing, corn hole, and some incredible NCAA tournament games on TV, and you have an near perfect man-weekend.

However, these are are not just friendly relationships. The seven of us, and a few others, lived together during our college years in a house just off campus in Chapel Hill. They all knew Sydney as my girlfriend before they even met their own wives. We were passionate young Christians bonded together in our commitment. However, our worlds were shaken Maundy Thursday 1996 when Tripp Kimbrough (far right in the picture below) was diagnosed with a large brain tumor in his temporal lobe. We shaved our heads alongside him in commraderie with his initial surgery which would be the beginning of a 13 year battle with brain cancer. Tripp currently receives semi-annual scans and has been “cancer-free” for 2 years (he recently had a concerning MRI which turned out to be a false alarm). Despite some very mild cognitive issues, Tripp is completely functional and amazingly whole. He works as a Hospice Chaplain, a career which was birthed out of his experience as a cancer survivor. Tripp loves what he does, and is generous with his gift of compassion.

Driving down to the river Friday night with Tripp in my car, I couldn’t help but be emotionally stirred by the experience. There was something about being with him in the stillness of an eastern North Carolina night that was powerful beyond words. Our stories were and are so intertwined. I couldn’t exactly articulate it, but I felt God’s graciousness in preparing me for my trial with Sydney through my relationship with Tripp so many years ago. And I could see that He had given me so many amazing friends over the years in order to establish a web of support that I would really need, and my family would need someday.

And as we traveled east, I felt the love and acceptance of a group of guys who knew me well, and had loved me well for a long time. I wept. They were waiting for us with a depth of comfort that you just can’t develop quickly. A relationship offers a powerful presence when you can say, “This guy was for me fifteen years ago, and he is for me now. So, I don’t think that is going to change. I really can’t mess that up.”

Since those years, we have kept up with each other to varying degrees. But, the bond is always there. When Tripp showed up at Sydney’s hospital room shortly after her diagnosis in early 2009, though we hadn’t spoken in five or six years, we hugged and picked up right where we left off.

So, despite the incredible menu and agenda this past weekend (all of which I consider a special outpouring of grace on me), the true highlight was Sunday morning when we had a time of worship and sharing what God has been doing (and not doing) in our lives. We encouraged one another and spoke truth into each others’ lives. It is this experience of connecting deeply and vulnerably that has and will continue to grow our friendships through the years.

Like the cypress trees surrounding us on the Pamlico River, these relationships have a developed root structure which is wide and deep. I left with deep sense of gratitude for these and other “cypress friends” in my life.

They have and will continue to weather flood and wind, and thankfully for me, they don’t go down in hurricanes.

Iris in the Woods

“I hope I go first,” she used to say. “I don’t want to be left here without you.” “No I do,” I would protest. “I don’t want to be an old man left without a partner.” Of course at the time we had no idea what we were saying. We were both picturing ourselves as octogenarians saying goodbye to a long life lived and a bevy of grandchildren.

Several years later, who would’ve thought I would be walking away from her gravesite muttering the words “I miss you so much, but if it had to be one of us, I’m glad you are in heaven. I am glad it’s me here left to figure out life alone and not you.”

So frequently I find myself shaking my head in disbelief at where my life is. I simply struggle to accept the fact that I am a single father of three young kids, living a life which was almost entirely unplanned. I am a planner. I have worked hard my whole life to design and implement a life which would be safe and comfortable and easy enough. How could I end up here?

In Wendell Berry’s book, Jaber Crow, the protagonist remarks:

“But I feel that I have lived on the edge even of my own life. I have made plans enough, but I see now that I have never lived by plan. Any more than if I had been a bystander watching me live my life. I don’t feel that I ever have been quite sure what was going on. Nearly everything that has happened to me has happened by surprise. All the important things have happened by surprise. And whatever has been happening usually has already happened before I have had time to expect it. The world doesn’t stop because you are in love or in mourning or in need of time to think. And so when I have thought I was in my story or in charge of it, I really have been only on the edge of it, carried along. Is this because we are in an eternal story that is happening partly in time?”

Ultimately, we all must face the realization that we are not in control. We are all subject to a infinite number of external factors including: the time, country and family we were born into, genetics, the economy, the weather, the actions of a boss, friend, or family member, and eventually, our own mortality. We are not the playwright. We are merely players and though we think we own our own stories, there are many moments in life when we know we can not even say that.

And then there are moments when we sense what Jaber questions in the last line of his quote: “Is this because we are in an eternal story that is happening partly in time?” This can occur as we walk through the woods alone, or sit by a beach, or look at the stars in the sky. For me I sense this when I look at historical photos. I see lively faces of people and stories and families that have long since passed away. We sense this when we travel and see different cultures and ways of doing things. Our lives are so small from this vantage point. And there is something wonderfully satisfying about this.

Deep down I think we are okay with the fact that we are not in charge. However, the degree to which this is true hinges on the question, “can I trust the playwright?” If the answer is “yes” then we are content to be a part of his eternal story. If the answer is “no” because he is either asleep at the wheel, incapable or apathetic, then we are in trouble and have reason to be anxious.

Even as I muttered those words at the cemetery I could sense that my heart was not right. When I looked closely, there was an undercurrent of complaint, of frustration with the struggle of life. “But this life is more than struggle,” I reasoned with myself. As soon as I thought that, on the edge of the woods I saw a few wild iris flowers in bloom, and they reminded me of the life which is still here, despite Sydney’s death.

Then I came home to three lively children, each with their own precious personalities and idiosyncrasies. I sat on the porch in the sunshine and read and thanked God for his incredible blessings, including his perfect wisdom, which for reasons unknown yet to me, kept me here, while Sydney went to heaven.

Mandolins, Trust and Music

The past few days leading into yesterday have probably been some of the hardest so far for me personally. I am not sure why, but this milestone struck me in a new and real way. Essentially it is the realization that she is not coming back. I am told that this is very normal, and grief often comes out in surprise.

Coupled with the six month anniversary of Sydney’s death was the news that our friend Amy Patwa’s cancer had spread. Our church held a prayer meeting last night where we cried out to God for mercy on this family. It hurts me so much to see them go through what we have gone through and struggle with all of the realities and pain of the situation.

However, I’ve used the phrase “touches of grace” and I wanted to share three special touches of grace that occurred to me yesterday where God demonstrated his lovingkindness and compassion amidst my sadness.

Mandolin Rain

I recently read my friend Settle Monroe’s blogpost about joy being restored in her tragedy “drip by drip.” She wrote, “I thought it would be different, this business of God restoring joy to my life. I thought He would deliver it in a package. I’d run to the door as the brown truck pulled away to find a sparkling present labeled ‘Joy for Settle’. ‘It’s here!  It’s here!’ I would squeal as I ripped through the cardboard… But today I’m not so sure.  Today I’m wondering if perhaps the return of joy looks more like water dripping down from a broken faucet.” (Settle’s Blog)

Well, Settle, ironically enough, joy for me yesterday was delivered to my door in a big brown cardboard box by a big brown truck. I was sitting on the porch when it arrived. I immediately noticed the return address from Birmingham, Alabama and the messy, slanted, all-caps handwriting of my dear friend from childhood, Jamie Gregory. Although I haven’t seen his handwriting in probably 10 or 15 years, our history from childhood is so deep that that I recognized it instantly.

Jamie is always getting into something new, so I was intrigued as to what he had sent me. As Mary Haven and I swept away the layers of styrofoam peanuts, I recognized the small instrument case in the form of a …. seriously… a mandolin!?!? Jamie and I both treasure music and frequently share new finds. Although he is not a musician, he knows that I have always loved playing guitar and creating music. I looked inside and realize that this instrument is very nice. I’m thinking, “I don’t play mandolin, but okay!?!”

I wanted to share some excerpts from his accompanying letter: “I know it’s odd and doesn’t make sense but I’m sending it anyway. For a while I wasn’t going to send because it seems so silly. I can see you thinking, ‘People sure don’t know what to do with me. So much so that I’m getting mandolins in the mail. I don’t worry about you but I pray for you and I love you.”

And later. “I chose the mandolin but have a Plan B and C if that isn’t a fit for you or you have one. Plan C makes me laugh so hard, it may become Plan B. Anyway, the goal is for you to have something fun to mess around with.”

The crazy thing is that God’s timing to paint a smile across my face just happened to coincide with one of the toughest days of grief I have dealt with. Jamie wasn’t thinking of the six month anniversary, he was just loving a friend well. And through this, God was looking out for me.

Trust Me

This is the lesson I keep coming back to again and again. God is saying, “I am enough, I am all you need. Can you let go of everything else and hold on to me?” The question posed seems louder on days like yesterday. Alongside this question is the gentle reminder of His goodness and His love for me. The words that opened my eyes this morning are from the Streams in the Desert devotion book.

“He will not only deliver you, but in doing so will impart a lesson that you will never forget. And in the days to come, you will return to the truth of it through singing. You will be unable to thank God enough for doing exactly what He has done.”

Farther Along

I was given this song Tuesday night by a new friend. I have a Sydney-like obsession with it. Seriously, I can’t stop listening to it. Do yourself a favor and download it, listen closely and link to these lyrics. The chorus is as follows:

Farther along we’ll know all about it
Farther along we’ll understand why
Cheer up my brothers, live in the sunshine
We’ll understand this, all by and by

-Josh Garrels