Tuesday, November 24, 2009

Thinking about loss...

It's early in the morning and I'm thinking about what it means to lose people. Nice way to start the day, huh? :) I don't know. It's part of life... we're part of it. It's part of us. None of us has been untouched, though some to greater extents than others. Somehow, the holidays make the losses come more sharply into view.

There have been moments in the last few days which have brought the whole theme of death and loss sharply into focus for me. We had a healing service the other night at church-- it was a precious night. It was completely unlike any healing service I have ever been to-- my background is truly charismatic, but my husband and I have found ourselves knitted into a church that would not necessarily identify itself that way :). It is a body of believers who truly, deeply love God and who believe everything the Bible says, as a rule, but so far I haven't seen anyone swinging from the chandeliers (and any folks who've gone to church with me in other states/countries know that if there had been a chandelier around, people would have been swinging from them and breaking limbs-- ahem, Pam....). I've been to many healing services and they were loud and sweaty and the worship was invigorating and the air, electric. So many times, sitting/standing/lying on the floor at those services, I wonder how anyone can resist Him. How anyone can let anything stand in their way, blocking them from this.

Anyway, the pastor announced that we'd be having this service at vespers. He taught on healing and a young boy, a prodigy really, was playing hymns on the piano. It felt so old fashioned. So honest. So... pure.

People filed forward, kneeling at the alter for the laying on of hands, the anointing of lavender-scented oil, and I heard sniffles, short gasps of quietly controlled crying, and the low voice of the pastor as he repeated his prayer over and over... I knelt with my mother and two dear friends flanking me, each of us before Him, hearts full of prayers for all kinds of things, and I remembered again and again that He is close to the broken-hearted, and knew, like I know, that He keeps pressing closer to me than I know. My heart is better today than it was a few months ago. There were nights, a few months ago, that I could not imagine living with the agony I was experiencing in my heart-- though my heart will ache for Benjamin until I hold him again one day, it is not like it was...and if you are at the beginning of that journey, know that it isn't simply that the pain fades-- there is one Who can minister peace to your soul. It's real. It isn't an act of mind over matter or self-delusion. His supernatural touch is what has saved my life this season.

As I went back to my seat, I closed my eyes and enjoyed the way the sanctuary feels at night and the closeness of a handful of believers gathered for one reason. I listened to the old hymns, enduring through so many years because so often they are simply, profoundly true, and heard the tears of people around me, mingling with my own.

So much loss. Such grief and suffering. There is only one set of shoulders able to help carry our burdens. My testimony is that He does.

But the depth of loss.... to know that the one we love is gone, even if it is better to be in the courts of God, worshipping before Him all day, it is agony to lose the ability to touch the person we have lost. To hear my child's cooing or crying, to smell his fragrance, to look into his eyes and to see and be seen. For a woman to lose her husband, her companion when everyone else is asleep.... For a daughter to lose her mother, that most unique of all connections-- the womb you spilled from, the woman who nurtured you, the one who loves you like no one else does... These are losses I have seen in the last few months, and just as others cannot imagine what it would be like to lose a child, I cannot imagine what it would mean to lose my husband, parents, brother, sisters-in-law, nieces, close friends.... Each relationship has a unique shape in our hearts.

How do we walk through it?

I didn't walk through the loss of Ben. I crawled. I wept. I sat up late at night, staring at a television screen I didn't see. I was afraid of the dark for a while. I couldn't see a commercial with a baby. I would walk into the center of his room, hang my head and groan with longing. My most oft-cried prayer? "Oh Goooooooooooooood .... help help help help help."

I'm so grateful for a God who knows what I mean even when I don't.

So lately, when I think about loss, my mind gets all jumbled up and all the words seem to push to the front of my mind, all trying to get out at once. So I prayed this yesterday: "Lord, You know." And I allowed myself to sort of feel each thought and imagined myself sort of pointing to the thought and looking at the Lord-- see that one? I'm praying and thinking that. And that, too. Oh, He is such a friend.

Where are these ones we love? For now, it's sometimes not comforting to know that they are in the presence of the Most High-- I'm glad they're safe, but the grief is earth-bound: I want my friend's mother to be with her on Christmas day. I want Wendy' mom to sit beside her, wherever it is that she always sits, on Christmas morning. I want her hands in Wendy's hair and her eyes to be lit with joy over her grandchildren. I want her family to have her. Oh God, oh God, oh God-- help help help help help. I want her husband to have the woman who has kept his bed warm.

I want them not to be alone.

I want them not to ache, as all of us who have experienced loss do, at three in the morning, arms empty and souls craving.

We were not made for this. We were built, designed, created to never taste death, but we are drawn to it in so many ways.

But You promised to not leave us alone. You said that You would send us a Comforter.

You knew that we would need Comfort.

Loss is so deep. So black. So unforgiving. So I pray that You minister comfort, that You minister Your very self to us this season. That You apply the balm of your presence to us as we wade into this, changing the channel when Publix commercials threaten to push us over the edge, or when diaper ads tug at our hearts. Oh God, that we would cling to You-- knowing that we can't get them back, but we can get to You.

And that this is faith, too: hanging on like crazy when it feels like the waves are going to overwhelm us.

Letter from a Friend

One of my dearest friends in the world is a worship leader out west and she read my entry below, sending me this response to my post about worship leading. I just love her perspective, always learn from it, and had to post this. She has years of experience and walks in the fear of the Lord.

i just read your blog about leading worship. i know you love honest conversation, so here's my story.

i lead blind. after so many years of gauging the way i lead a worship set by the reaction or participation of the congregation, i have learned that appearances can be so deceiving.

about 4 years ago, the Lord put me on the bench for the better part of a year. He proceeded to break me into tiny, tiny pieces. He put me back together, and worship was never the same. i have heard a lot of the things you had to say from a lot of different corners, and i believed it for myself for a lot of years, but here's my experience: if i listen to Holy Spirit, He will take us where He wants us to go.
everyone has a choice in worship, to engage or not. my job as a lead worshiper is to follow Holy Spirit and be followable in the way i sing and play. but ultimately, they will choose whether they will open their hearts up. what people see from me is a vulnerable demonstration of honest, passionate worship. yes, style and skill and sensitivity to where people are and with what they are burdened is important. but really, i am simply naked as i worship. a leader being willing to be broken and honest frees the people to also be broken and honest. it puts to death the spirit of performance and the need to be seen as having it all together that hinders true worship.

also, i have felt the anointing leave me and have pulled back so many times. finally, a prophetic friend came to me and said, "you keep pulling back just when things are about to break out!" i have learned that when i sense Him 'leaving' me, His presence is really just moving out into the congregation. i have learned how to wait in that place and not get nervous or in a rush. that's when the real work happens, is when He begins to do the stirring. all i am doing is facilitating the atmosphere of Heaven. a lot of times prophetic songs or proclamation or warfare in worship will happen. sometimes He sings over us. sometimes it is silence (people have to work up to that one!).

when i came back after that long break, He asked me to face Him, not the people. at first, it was difficult, because how do you know what's going on out there? but, as i have practiced 'leading blind', i have developed, in the same fashion, an increased hearing of His voice and sensitivity to His heart. i look out there every now and then, but except for communicating with my team, my eyes are usually closed. if i concentrate on what i see people doing, i get distracted. it makes it harder to hear.

i have learned that He means for me to be myself as i do what i am meant to do. i am fully aware that each of us carries a different anointing, and we are meant to. leading worship looks different for each leader and each fellowship. someone once said to me, 'God never intended you to minister like anyone other than yourself.' i thought, 'thank you.' this was a grace to me, and it brought healing to my heart after so many years of trying to perform or please people. i never fit the hole they wanted me to fit.

be blessed in your journey into the heart of God. i am asking for more of His presence, more anointing for you as you lead others to encounter Him in worship. i pray that you live under grace as you worship.

** emphasis mine

This is fantastic. I LOVE when you lead worship. I miss it, dear friend.

Monday, November 23, 2009

Some thoughts on worship leading...

i will be dispensing with capitalization this post-- i'm not being paid to think this week so i'm trying to avoid it as much as possible :)

I want to post part of a note between a friend of mine and me. I've been thinking about this for years, honestly, but the word "midwife" has come to mind a lot-- since watching my friend Elizabeth (my midwife and friend of more than 20 years) and thinking about her job and her role in the delivery room the day Ben died, and the role she played when she guided me through the weeks leading up to his birth (and ultimately, death, much much much to our surprise) and the weeks after his death. she literally "came alongside" me in so many ways.

i believe that the same can be said for pastors, teachers, worship leaders, small group leaders, intercessors.... we are midwives to what the Lord is doing in the lives of His people.

and as believers, we need to be having conversations about what our callings look like. as academics, we have conversations all the time about educational pedagogy -- as believers, we must be fluid in the language of what we believe and why we believe it, and what we do and why we do it.

here is a portion of a note i sent to my friend paul, who is currently leading worship at our church. he has a gigantic heart and profound love for the Lord. i'm on his team and we keep experiencing His presence in our midst. this has to do with something we were talking about...

i was just thinking about [the idea that] the worship leader can't worship while the congregation worships and at first it made me mad-- it's ridiculous! how can you lead where you haven't been?

but then i remembered the word the Lord has been speaking to me lately: midwife. truly, it's like leaders-- pastors, teachers, worship leaders-- of all kinds are midwives to what the Lord is doing in the hearts of His people. the midwife's role is different from that of the people he or she is leading.

the midwife's head has to be in the game in a way that is different from the congregation, but that doesn't mean that he/she isn't worshipping-- it means that the anointing is different. i think that [he] meant that the worship leader can't sink down into the emotion of it b/c he has to be watching and that's true to some extent, i think. BUT it means that they walk into leadership having spent hours of time alone, worshipping, praying, seeking His face, on his or her own before leading in whatever way they're leading. they are worshipping, but they are watching, too, for what the Lord is doing, letting Him lead and watching to see if the people are coming, too, listening for what to do if they are not.

that's why i like the house lights up, too.

because we're not just song leaders. we are worship leaders; worship teachers. as a teacher, i come into my classroom with a plan (i'm prepared, ready, having grasped the concepts that i am teaching them about), but if i don't gauge where my "audience" is, how will i know if my kids are coming? i have to adjust what i'm doing if they're not. the worship leader comes out to say, "this is the way to the holy of holies-- i've been there and just came to say that this is the way-- come with me and we'll enter in." it's a LEVITICAL act! he or she has to be able to see them in a thousand ways. that's why you're totally dependent upon the anointing. upon His presence. it's all about Him anyway. as worship leaders, we have to adjust what we're doing if the congregation isn't with us.

for us, if the congregation isn't entering in, we are praying while we're on the stage, "Oh God, what are you doing now? Where do you want us to go?" or if they're fully engaged, "thank You Lord-- please help us come closer." He's doing it all anyway. it's all for Him, by Him, through Him. and it blesses the mess out of us.

anyway, i hope that's what he meant...because if you, the human leading worship, aren't worshipping, what is the Lord going to have to anoint? i mean, He set things up the way He did on purpose and He wants to pour out His anointing. you're having a different worship time
from the congregation because of the different roles, but you know, you can't control when the Lord swooshes in with emotion no matter what the role is. and i just LOVE that about worship.

it's not clinical, but it's not easily understood. it's profound and none of us has gotten to the bottom of it. it's the cry of the heart. it's important and necessary. the levites led the troops in worship-- i believe that we need it before teaching. the Holy Spirit is working in us, preparing the soil of our hearts. plus, He says that if we only GLANCE at Him, His heart melts.

alright. gotta go melt the heart of the Lord while i pack.

I will enter His gates with thanksgiving in my heart.

That is where He lifts the robes of mourning for just a second and ministers to the still-broken mother's heart in me, and where He has grafted Himself over that torn spot.

He is faithful and mighty.

And I will worship Him no matter what. I didn't know before that I meant that. I know now...

Saturday, November 14, 2009

Welcome holidays...

Dear Jesus,

Thank you so much for life. For the fact that this life is completely full of ups and downs. For the fact that I happen to agree with every positive cliche I can think of right now. For the fact that life is both long and short. For the fact that we are learning how to live in You right now-- that, in a way, this life IS a dress rehearsal for eternity. Thank you that we can wake up, nurture our nests and our relationships and watch for Your glory and that sometimes we can weep and grieve and cry out at and to You. Thank you that this life is also short and that we're working our way toward You and we are living to really one day see Your face to face... to hold the children we've lost and the loved ones who've gone on before us. Thank you that, just like Christmas seems to take forever to get here and the morning itself seems like it came all too fast, one day we will hold You and be held by You and it will seem like it was nothing.

Today is beautiful. And tough. The beginning of the holidays without Ben... I know that I packed away an ornament that was for him, for his first Christmas, and I can't remember where it is, so I have no idea when I will discover it. I remember shopping last year and gazing longingly at the precious little ones bundled up and my heart was full with excitement for having one of my own this next Christmas. I remember thinking how our houses would be full of babies to hold. They still are-- they're just not mine this time.

But today is beautiful. TODAY is beautiful. And it's all going to be okay.

Thank you Jesus for grace that spills out of who-knows-where and for the mercy that sustains us, too.

Welcome holidays-- I'm ready for you. I'm going to feel everything and it's going to be alright.


ps i have no idea why my blog is hyperlinking to university of phoenix, but i'll see what i can do to fix it. it's not me!!

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

i need words
as wide as sky
i need a language large as
this longing inside
and i need a voice
bigger than mine
and i need a song to sing you
that i've yet to find...
i need you
well i need you
i need you
oh i need you...
to be here now...
to be here now...
to hear me now
to hear me now...

david crowder

I told my students today that I love the weather today. It's cloudy and rainy and gloomy and it makes me think of lovely days spent in the library at my dear alma mater, tucked in at a desk with piles of books around me, my winter coat across the back of my seat, my ears crammed with plugs (the only way to avoid distraction-- surrounded by so many precious girls, I had to make myself unable to hear their happy chirping or I would be irresistibly drawn away from my studies). This weather, I told them, makes me feel smart.

They didn't buy it.

They said that it makes them feel sleepy.

I didn't tell them that it makes me feel sleepy, too.


It also makes me sad-- but not because it's gloomy. I'm an artist-- we love gloom. Sorry if you're a sunny daisy artist-- I don't mean to stereotype, but there it is. No, it makes me sad because I find myself slipping farther and farther away from Ben and the months that were his. Right now I am still in the middle of months where I can say, "This time last year I was three months pregnant...." But in just a few months, these months will be no more. That type of connection to him.

But I'll always have the scar. I'm glad. I know, I'm weird.

But also... we've bought a house--I think I mentioned it? In just a few weeks we'll be movin g into it, and moving away from the only earthly home Ben ever lived in, even if his was matryoshka living... The front room is the front room, not "Ben's room."

But as always, I feel the Him of my heart drawing close, cleansing me all the time in a thousand ways. He is whispering to me that He is the center, He is the center. These things matter, but He matters most, and that as I draw Him over me like a warm blanket and as I breathe Him in like perfumed oxygen, He is pouring His life into me. And this deep ache? I offer it to Him daily-- it is not for nothing. And the song that wants to turn into a dirge when I'm not paying attention? He catches it at the minor key and my God, He harmonizes and it becomes something altogether else.

My God redeems.

My God redeems.

This mess is not beyond His touch. I am alive and He is here and this is not the end of the story, bless God.

Sunday, November 8, 2009


I haven't mentioned it before now, but we bought a house.

We did it back in September and it's amazing, but we're not in it yet. Renovations, you know.

And that's how this season of my life feels: not yet, because we're in renovations.

Sometimes I feel so hedged in by time.

But I'm filled with the One who created time-- time doesn't tell Him what is possible or probable or impossible. Time doesn't push Him around and laugh at 38 and say, HA! Your eggs are gettin' OLD. Time doesn't decide who does or does not get created. Time doesn't decide when things happen. My Father created Time and plunked me down into the middle of it, but He never restricted me to it. I'm no victim of Time.

If it sounds like I'm talking myself into it, I suppose I kind of am :).

But this season has involved Don and me determining to keep our vision trained above the horizon, off the surface of the water, away from what things look like and focused on the One who loves us more than words can express.

You got dreams
turn 'em into plans
too big for human hands
trust Him and see
He's got all the power you need....
He's real, He's real
faith's a lot stronger than what you feel...

I've been singing this song a lot in the last few weeks.

I've been singing a lot this season, period.

Something about getting the crap squeezed out of me in April has produced music. Not my own music-- no, this has been a season of prose-- but finding these worship songs that say exactly what my heart has been wanting to say. Almost always, I find myself halfway into these songs before becoming completely overwhelmed with emotion and choking the words out, bent halfway over, heaving with deep, cleansing sobs.

He's real. He's real.

Friends, my God is healing my heart. I had no idea that He could do it. Before April, I had no idea who I worshipped. I think maybe I have even less now. Here's what I know: He's real.

How is it possible that a woman can hold her beautiful, perfect, precious, lifeless son, and walk away with hope in her heart?

How is it possible to return to the scene of the crime in my head, over and over again, and not be decimated?

I had no idea what I was capable of, and that there was survival beyond the worst loss of my life. I had no idea that the God that I have placed all of my hopes in is bigger than I thought. I have looked at the deepest sadness I have ever known and my faith in my Savior has been confirmed.

And I have no words for it.

Every time I open my mouth to sing, my mind goes back to the hospital room. I stepped in for Paul and led worship this morning and it happened again-- I'm singing to Him when suddenly, in my mind's eye, I see myself, half-comatose on drugs, holding Ben. I feel like the Lord is trying to tell me something every time this happens.

Today, I was telling Tara and Tinelle that I think He's trying to talk to me about how present He was in that place. How I have no idea how crammed with His spirit that room was. How He was pressing in there at a strength that was more intense than I have ever known.

And my heart's response, when He is showing me this tragic image during every worship time?

Explosion of love for Him.

That's INSANE!!!

Oh, God, how good You are!! How worthy of my praise!! How gentle and loving You are! How mysterious beyond all mysteries You are!! I do not understand Your ways, but I know that they are all perfect.

Thank you for healing me. Thank you that you are healing me every day. Thank you that there is HOPE on the other side of this devastation. Oh, Jesus, thank you for your great tenderness toward me, and that you know my grief and that you bear it with me. I give you my worries about time and age, and I give you my broken heart again and again, and I ask you to glorify yourself in all this. I give you my need to understand-- you know I'll give it to you a million times more, but I give it to you today, and I say YES to you. Yes, yes, yes.

Sweet, sweet Savior.

Sunday, November 1, 2009

"Fail Us Not" music video

Oh, this song. WORSHIP THE LORD!!! Every word is true!!


Today was All Saint's Day. At our church, as in many, a candle is lit for each of those who have outrun us to Jesus and their names are writ large on a banner and the pastor calls their names and a huge bell is chimed after each one. Their names echo among us like the bell that chimes deep and solemn.

Ben is my dead. The idea of "burying their dead" or "honoring their dead" has always brought to my mind, for some reason, images of long-skirted women, clad in calico and prairie caps, mourning sons and husbands lost to the Civil War or some dread fever.

But today, I was one of those women whose son's name was called-- a list whose twin was "called up yonder" only a few months ago. My son. My son, my son.

The first time the list was called was during the contemporary service, where I'm on the worship team and so, on stage. I wasn't prepared for that-- in years past, we didn't really read the list down in that service. I heard Pastor John say his name, his beautiful, strong name, and my whole chest just heaved. It still surprises me sometimes, the strength with which grief can grab me out of nowhere. Anyway, I kept it together, drawing myself in, asking the Lord for help, and was happy to be able to go straight back into worshipping Him from there-- out of my ashes, though you crush me, though this kills me, yet will I worship. Worship is the only thing that helps, I've found. Honestly. If you're reading this and you're where I was or am, or even just grieving anything at all, try this: worship God. Choose. Make a decision to lay aside all of your arguments and questions and just worship Him because no matter what your brain says, we are all completely inadequate when it comes to understanding the nature of life and death. We can't see anything. We don't understand.

And that's okay, I'm learning. It's alright.

But one of the songs we sang, or one of the hymns we sang in the traditional service afterward, mentioned that God is the keeper of time, and suddenly I had the beginning of an epiphany. I'll try to write it here, but I'm sure it will have to be revisited later. I have to keep thinking about it. I have to keep asking the Lord to reveal it to me. I really felt so much that it was Him.

I realize that it is so hard for me to imagine Ben as a separate person from me. I don't know if that's just normal for a mother, or because he died in childbirth, so he never existed unattached from me, but I don't naturally think of him as a separate individual. I think of his existence in terms of how it affected and still affects me: he surprised me with his conception, he bounced around in my womb, his presence inside me gave me heartburn and a pain in my sciatic nerve. When I was in labor I felt the excitement of it and the pain of contractions, and after he died, I lived in a weirdly calm cocoon of peace mixed with horror for several days. I wept, I laughed, I wondered, I argued, I struggled, I wrestled...

I, I, I.

Today, it occurred to me that Benjamin Joseph Swaney was his own person. True, he sojourned here for only 9 months, in my womb, and never drew a breath of the air we breathe, but he was his own little man. Today, I saw in my imagination a God-like figure standing at a door in what my imagination was heaven. He was waiting. And when Ben died, he went to Him.

It was a really simple little image, but it occurred to me that what happened to Ben was completely between him and God.

Does this make sense?

One of my best friends in the world, Winter, lost her son, Josiah, seven years ago, and it was the first time I had ever walked through anything like that with a friend. When Ben died, she was one of the first people I needed to talk to. Winter is so real, so G0d-fearing... I knew that I needed her counsel. I was right. She got me, every step of the confusing, terrible way. One of the things we talked about was "destiny" and how our sons had a destiny. Remember, we're just wondering. We don't know-- can't know-- what this is all about.

If you've just lost your child, you might not be ready for this lane I'm wandering down. I wasn't at the time.

But Benjamin was a person. He never got to grow up. Never got to feel my lips pressed against his face. Never learned to walk or ride a bike or see all the people who loved him. He heard my voice and I know that he felt the love I had for him-- I was so overwhelmed with feelings, so many times, there's no way he didn't feel the endorphins my body was releasing into his bloodstream-- and the beauty of that knowledge is staggering and intimate beyond anything I can adequately express-- but he was his own person. He had his own perfect little brain and his own little heart and liver and toes. He had his own personality, kicking at me and responding to pressure from my hand in the middle of the night, playing with me, knowing he wasn't alone. But he was an individual. He had thoughts and emotions.

And God had a plan for his little life.

So often, we think of life as something so contained here, in this place where we live, but it's not just here. "Here" will last about 90 years, if we're lucky, but THERE... this life is preamble, at best.

I don't know what he's doing, but I know where he is. And I long to be dressing him in the winter clothes I had for him. And I long to be pressing my nose into the crook of his little neck and to see him laugh at his hysterically funny father and to see my dad hold him and my mom coo over him and my sisters-in-law sit with him in their laps and his cousins pat his face and say "baby." But wherever he is, THAT is what is real to him: his present is in the city of God. Can you imagine? He is surrounded by love and the knowledge of the holy and he understands things that you and I can only guess about. My God heard my cry, that my son would know and love Him early.

Like I said, I'm still thinking it all through. It all boggles my mind.

Anyway, I've found a new worship song to add to my list of songs the Lord has used this season. I'm going to post it in its own post.

love love love.
God is faithful.