"That grief should come and bring joy with it was not something I felt able, or even called upon, to sort out or understand. I accepted the grief. I accepted the joy. I accepted that they came to me out o f the same world."
And so it was with you homegroup. I can recall so clearly the first night I came. With an impending move to Santa Barbara, we’d caught wind of this gathering. Annie – the always includer in my life – assured Phil and I that the Wilsons and the Careys were both great couples and she knew we’d fit in...
I can remember what I was wearing that night – partly because I’m strange that way but mostly because it was the first time I was able to button those particular olive cargo pants since having Hannah two months before. I arrived more broken than I even knew and made my way through the evening, sweating as I bounced my colicky newborn and wondered whether or not this idea was even feasible.
I can remember meeting Jane. True to form she welcomed me with both kindness and enthusiasm. She wanted to know me, to know what Hannah had been up to in her first few months of life and put me at ease as best she could as I bounced, and bounced and bounced.
Not long after arriving, I noticed a red-headed woman standing over by the piano; it was Claire of course. As I stood by and soothed sweet Hannah I watched as she unpackaged her day with two fellow teachers, Ann and Rhonda. The conversation sounded so professional, so full of life and intellect. Things like classroom management and cell theory felt far removed from the land of sleepless nights, swaddling techniques and spit up. I wondered again whether or not this was the place for me.
A few months in we were given the opportunity to share – one or two people each week – about the things that brought us joy at that time in our life. Oh how I hoped to be skipped over, to somehow be missed in this lineup. Yet with the Wilsons on deck there was no such luck and before long it was my turn to talk.
And so it was that my grief became yours. Inhaling deeply I confessed my lack of joy. There on the blue couch I spoke of the grief and confusion that I was swimming in as I tried to make sense of my brother’s untimely death. I felt hot, like my heart was beating faster than it really ought to be beating. Still, the words were met with incredible grace.
That red-headed biology teacher was quick to find me as we headed for dessert. Her demeanor was genuine, candid too. She told me the story of her own Dad – how jarring his death had been for her. The next day I got a call from Jane. She invited me to walk. She too engaged – not only as a leader who needed to follow up with the woman who just spilled her guts. Instead she came with an honest account of her own loss – of how it had changed her in her life and in her walk with God.
I suppose that was the turning point for me. I’d found a place to land each week and sit within this space that had room for both pain and joy. At the time I had no idea that this theme – that of life and loss cohabitating uncomfortably close to one another – would extend far beyond my own circumstances. If I’m perfectly honest, I’m not so sure I would have signed on the dotted line back in 2003 had I known where this journey would take me. Yet from where I stand today I can say that there are few places I would have rather been on Wednesday nights.
While I’m of course a bit biased, I’d have to say we’re an impressive bunch. Occupationally speaking we’ve had teachers, dancers, an astrophysicist, a writer, professors, carpenters, a personal trainer, moms, businessmen and women, missionaries, engineers, those in the non-profit sector, college administrators, students, lawyers, coaches and project managers.
Each week we’ve gathered around the table and that large silver salad bowl with food for the carnivore and the vegetarian alike. We’ve eaten greens of every variety, enchiladas and burritos, soups, breads, tofu, hamburgers, Korean BBQ, tabbouleh and Dutch babies. We made smores on summer nights and dined beach side on tuna wraps as the sun set into the sea. We roasted hot dogs in Summerland and sat together as women one sacred evening over fondue.
Naturally, as we ate we talked. We reviewed our weeks, sharing book recommendations, trails worth hiking, health challenges we were facing, travel plans we had booked, work dynamics we were sorting through, the highs and lows of dating, the ins and outs of parenting and what it would take for Kyle to help Cam to look more like Markie Mark.
Our conversations ran the gamut and so did the emotions of each evening. At times the mood was light; Brandon seemed especially gifted at leading us to this end. On other nights we found our hearts heavy as we learned of more loss, more pain and as we saw Claire struggle - never without grace and class - to make it through dinnertime on her own.
We learned how to do Bible study amidst the backdrop of bouncing babies, a freshly injured yet not yet confirmed broken wrist and our favorite little Gupta as he expressed his displeasure over turning in early. We would pause when Claire’s body betrayed her through seizing, yet soon learned to follow her lead in her desire for us to carry on. It was there that our souls expanded.
As our evenings drew to a close, we would turn our attention to prayer. And for many years, Claire walked us through the Psalms in a manner that only she could. She taught us to lean into these words, to trust them to replace our own. Ultimately she guided us toward believing them so completely that our hearts would hold fast when we were forced to say goodbye.
As a group, we had to face death. Our hearts have been broken on more than one occasion and we’ve been left to sort through this loss both as a family and on our own. Still, alongside this loss we’ve somehow managed to experience incredible joy right in its midst. We hula hooped, swam, surfed, walked, caroled, played Frisbee golf, hiked, ate donut holes and played bocceball, ping pong and air hockey. We held hands and we held babies. We threw birthday and engagement parties, attended each other’s weddings, welcomed new babies and gifted each other in big and small ways. We raced through supermarkets, watched Caleb circle his house in dinosaur pajamas and nursed sore muscles after playing Wii tennis at the Wilsons.
At moments, we annoyed each other. We stepped on toes, didn’t show up, forgot to pay, found ourselves lost for words, said more than we should have and overlooked each other from time to time. Still in the end I think you’d agree that God’s grace has never forsaken us.
For me, it is that very grace that has managed to bridge the daunting chasm between life and death. It’s provided me with a deeper understanding of how beauty and depravity come alongside one another and somehow emerge from chaos into harmony. This grace is stout. It is unwavering and entirely capable of supporting deep aches right alongside abundant joy. It has given me the time consider and the space to doubt. It has granted me the expanse to wander, and ultimately delivered the assurance to return with a greater understanding and still more questions.
I will never be a lover of change and because of this I am walking away from this group kicking and screaming … at least on the inside. Still, I want to thank each one of you for the part you’ve played in this story. May we accept the joy and may we accept the pain – the life we’ve share and the death we’ve endured –and by His strength alone may we walk graciously alongside the two both now and always.