It’s a beautiful, humid, sultry day on Fripp Island, off the coast of South Carolina. My husband’s family is taking our annual vacation here, in one of a hundred beach houses shaded by palms and palmettos, live oak trees curving and reaching across the window panes, Spanish moss dripping from the branches. After a morning of beach swimming with my three children, their cousins, and our extended family, then scouring off sand and salt, eating, playground-ing, and ice-cream-ing, I have put Mary Poppins on the TV (oh, how I love Julie Andrews), and I’m sitting at the dining room table wondering how to begin.
Many of you already know our story: my husband Chris and I are United Methodist pastors, I from Indianapolis, he from Spartanburg, South Carolina. We met in divinity school at Duke, and both started serving churches. We had an early miscarriage while I was still in school, an experience that later prompted me to write a book as a resource for people who’d experienced pregnancy loss.
A total of seven pregnancies and three living children and five churches later, in April of 2012, my husband had a series of sinus infections and blood counts that were a little wonky. With few other symptoms, he was diagnosed with a robust case of Stage IV T-cell rich large B cell non-Hodgkins lymphoma (it’s a mouthful). He started chemotherapy soon after, and after a compassionate United Methodist relocation across the state, we had reason to hope that he was in remission.
Less than two weeks before his restaging scans, he was in the hospital, scans showing chains of nodes and vertebrae white against the scan’s gray background, then taken by EMS down to the Medical University of South Carolina, where he would start salvage chemotherapy for an “unusually explosive” relapse. Late October of 2012 spiraled through hospital rooms to land us at an allogeneic stem cell transplant on January 30 of 2013.
During those blurry days of caregiving, friends asked me several times if I was writing about the experience. “What an amazing resource a book about this could be,” they’d say encouragingly. And they were right, and perhaps someday a book will indeed come from that terribly plowed field. But in the maelstrom, all I could do was journal and send unfiltered messages to a handful of close, patient friends, raw painful words dug from unexamined corners of my soul, or rushing out monotonous in their despair.
We’re in a different season now. And our children are a little older, and Chris’s health is stable, and I’m listening for God’s voice with less misery and more hope. And I’m ready to start writing again, not just for myself and God, but for other people too.
When the miscarriage book was published, I had a tremendous amount of fear. I didn’t want anyone to think I was telling her how to experience her own pregnancy loss. I didn’t want to come across as the “miscarriage expert,” the smug person who thinks she knows a bit more than anyone else in the room. And I worked very hard to include other voices, other stories in the book. I still think those many, bravely shared stories are what makes it a strong resource.
What I learned from the feedback, however – what I’m still learning even now – is that the goodness of that project was birthed in large part from my willingness to tell my story, and to ask other people to share theirs. Virtual community is not the only or the best way for us to travel together, but it can be meaningful. The bloggers I love most do this well – they create space into which they speak with vulnerability and truth and charity, space into which other people feel safe and loved sharing their own truths or wounds or questions.
I don’t really have a grand plan for this space. Catastrophic illness can end up unmasking the extent to which our sense of control over our lives is pretend. I resist this: I’m a planner, an enneagram 1, an INFJ, and a person who likes an illusion of security, a person who thrives on calendars with neat little spaces filled in and to-do lists organized by day, week, month, six-month, and year deadlines.
But when Chris was sick, I got rid of all my calendars, quit using my online version. Instead, I bought a few posterboards. And every month he was still alive, I would allow myself to draw a poster-sized calendar for the month to come. I would fill out only a day or two at a time, telescoping my reality down as far as I could.
The truth of this, the truth that Jesus and so many others have tried to help us believe, that we only have today, so there is no goodness in worrying about tomorrow or stocking up security in big barns – this truth has started to be real for me. I used to understand vocation as a metric – this gift plus this command plus that opportunity will equal God’s purpose for me. Now I suspect that it is more like following a trail of crumbs, and the next crumb doesn’t often actually appear until I’ve reached the closest one.
But this – creating this space – feels right, and exciting, and I feel close to the heart of God thinking about it. The next crumb I’m picking up. Daily bread.
I’m going to be focusing in the weekly blog posts on creative spirituality – in other words, connection with God that we experience in a unique way when we create. I have come to believe in deep places that part of what it means for us to be created in God’s image is that we are creators. Little “c” creators, but nonetheless, co-creators with our divine Parent.
You don’t have to be an artist or a musician to be in on this. Have you created a home for a family? That’s creative work. Have you rigged up a repair that was all your own? Creative work. More on this another time, but I am convinced that we have a chance to bump up against our truest selves and the God who loves us when we are engaged in the act of creation.
I’m thrilled about the potential guest bloggers I’m going to invite to be part of this – poets, dancers, theater directors, musicians, ETC. – oh my goodness, that’s going to be fun – and I’m going to be reflecting some on the creative work I’m doing. I’m also hoping to provide some easy-to-use resources for church work as well, for you ministerial types out there.
In every topic, though, my hope is the same. That we will say things together that are true, when that is easy and pleasant, and when it is hard and painful. That we will agree and disagree with grace and love, trusting that God is big enough to defend Godself and that we learn and grow through questions and defeat as much as (or more than) through certainty and victory. That this will be a place that is full and rich enough to hold people who are young in faith or experience, people who have had their lives tempered by crucibles hot and hard, and people who don’t understand themselves as religious whatsoever.
Hospitality, in the end, is what I’m after. There was a great post going around recently about messy hospitality, and it made me so happy. Because my home is full of loud, gorgeous, strong-willed children and a precious arthritic shedding dog and crafts and projects that may never get done, and piles of books and decaying music in every corner, and I love welcoming people into it anyway.
When I was younger I was more anxious about hosting people – I wanted to replicate my aunt’s beautifully crafted way of offering hospitality, which is sometimes Victorian and sometimes out of the pages of the most artsy modern home magazine you can find, and always thought out carefully and executed perfectly so that every person who experiences it feels treasured, honored, and nurtured. It is a strong spiritual gift in her.
But as I’ve gotten older, I’ve accepted that my way of opening my life and home to people is different. It’s more ad hoc, it’s more messy, it’s less well-planned.
It’s less like coming to a spa, when you step into my space, and more like walking in on a working studio.
Half-empty tubes and pots of paint, half-finished canvases piled against the walls, spilled colors. Lots of light, showing dust and dirt and corners that would really be prettier hidden.
And what I hope is that by saying, “come on in, here’s what I’m working on, here’s a place for you to sit, and why don’t you try this brush on that paper and see what happens?” some of you find a supportive space for your own messiness, for your own incompleteness, for your own attempts at making something new and potentially beautiful.
Please interact in this space. Tell me what you’d like to see me write about, disagree with respect, tell us what part of your story gets touched or triggered by what I and others share here. Nothing has to be perfect or finished. It just has to be real. And we’ll trust that in the end, it’s God who’s making the home for us to learn from our fellow pilgrims on the way.
With joy in the beginning,