Suffering

Jewelry Box

iurHe snuck up to my table when no one else was there.

“I know a bit of what you talk about.”

He paused, so I waited. I wasn’t quite certain what part of my presentation had resounded with him, and I didn’t want to assume.

“My only daughter was stillborn.”

Ah.

Something happens in my cheeks whenever someone tells me this. I don’t know what it looks like from the outside, but from the inside, it feels as if my skin releases from my muscles, as if my cheeks — in dutiful obedience to the speaker’s command — move into proper riverbed formation to direct the flow of any incoming tears.

“What was — is — your daughter’s name?”

“Sarah. She was born in 19 _ _.”

My breath caught in my throat. We looked at each other, and I debated whether or not to say it. What if I made things worse?

“That’s the year I was born. I am the age of your Sarah.”

He smiled and wiped a lone tear from one of his own riverbeds.

Then he told me stories. Stories about his work, about the many miscarriages his wife suffered after Sarah, about the way the children in his church would come up and start talking to him — “It hasn’t all been bad,” he assured. — about his love of working with wood, about how he made his wife’s casket when she died.

“She was the jewel of my life,” he said, “so I made a jewelry box to hold her.”

I don’t know how that gentleman felt when he eventually walked away from me, but I felt thankful that Sarah had — has — a father such as him to remember her and miss her and love her still.

 

All Kinds of Barrenness

IMG_0211Special thanks to Katy Cloninger for today’s guest post. Her words of empathy, compassion, and truth are a welcome start to the day.


What does it mean to be barren? Merriam-Webster coldly and bleakly defines it as “incapable of producing offspring,” or “not yet or not recently pregnant.” But on a personal level, there are as many kinds of barrenness as there are barren women.

Some women fall into what may be called the classic category: they have never been able to get pregnant, no matter how much they try to “take charge of their fertility.” Others have been able to conceive but not to carry a child to term. Yet others have carried a pregnancy to term, but the baby was stillborn. Lord, have mercy on us all.

Other women suffer from secondary infertility. They have had one or more children, but for whatever reason, or no apparent reason at all, they cannot have any more. Such cases are made even sadder when the one child a woman has is taken from her by SIDS or some other tragic circumstance. Lord, have mercy on us all.

There are women who have had abortions before they knew the value of life, or knew it but were coerced, and the procedure took away not only the child they had but the ability to have children later on. Or perhaps some other surgery, necessary to preserve their own life, robbed them of the ability to bring more life into the world. Lord, have mercy on us all.

Then there are those women who never found a suitable husband, though their greatest desire was to be a loving wife and mother. Others have found husbands, but their husbands have turned out not to want children, or there are difficulties consummating the marriage, or their husbands have abandoned them, terminating all dreams of a happy home full of children. Perhaps the husband is the sterile spouse. Or perhaps the husband met an untimely death, leaving his young and hopeful wife a widow in her prime childbearing years. Lord, have mercy on us all.

No doubt there are many more kinds of barrenness than I have named. And for every person touched by barrenness, the individual details and complications add layer upon layer of sorrow and grief. Often we feel completely unique and alone in our pain.

But that feeling is a satanic lie, for the Bible tells us so.

“Surely He has borne our griefs and carried our sorrows,” Isaiah prophesies of Jesus, “yet we esteemed Him stricken, smitten by God, and afflicted” (Is 53:4). This Jesus, the Son of the Virgin, indeed “grew up before [the LORD] like a young plant, and like a root out of dry ground” (v. 2), for the very purpose that He would be “despised and rejected by men, a man of sorrows and acquainted with grief” (v. 3)—for us and for our salvation. Though our suffering is unique in some ways, it is common in that we all suffer the effects of sin; we all suffer the death-in-life of existing in a fallen world. We need a Savior to come and suffer for us the true forsaking of God so that we can be assured that God will never forsake us (Heb 13:5).

But because we are in Christ, our suffering leads ultimately to glorification. St. Peter instructs that “those who suffer according to God’s will entrust their souls to a faithful Creator while doing good” (1 Pet 4:19), and to “rejoice insofar as you share Christ’s sufferings, that you may also rejoice and be glad when His glory is revealed” (v. 13). St. Paul picks up on the same theme. He reminds us that we are “heirs of God and fellow heirs with Christ, provided we suffer with Him in order that we may also be glorified with Him” (Rom 8:17). Paul later adds that “those whom [God] foreknew He also predestined to be conformed to the image of His Son” (v. 29)—an image that is first cruciform, and only later glorified.

Nevertheless, Paul comforts us that our sufferings are brief and, with Peter, he encourages us to await the revelation of God’s glory in our now-broken selves: “For I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory that is to be revealed to us” (Rom 8:18). Our glorification is so certain that Paul can speak of it in the past tense: “those whom He predestined He also called, and those whom He called he also justified, and those whom He justified He also glorified” (v. 30). Even now, Paul tells us, the Holy Spirit is bringing forth fruit as we suffer; we can “rejoice in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, and hope does not put us to shame, because God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit who has been given to us” (Rom 5:3–5).

In our present vale of tears, we may not know why God sends us this cross or that one. But we are assured that somehow, it is for our good: “And we know that for those who love God all things work together for good, for those who are called according to His purpose” (Rom 8:28).

Our crosses, whatever they be, are always hard to bear—would be impossible to bear without God’s constant and mighty aid. But even if we are not bearing fruit in our wombs, the Holy Spirit is bearing fruit in us. So we wait with patience, trusting that the God who opens and closes our wombs knows best, and knowing that the glorification of our fallen world—and our fallen bodies—is at hand.


Katy Cloninger is a freelance copyeditor and the divorced mother of one. She has a BA in English from Newberry College and is a member of Holy Trinity Lutheran Church in Columbia, SC. She loves reading, writing, hearing, teaching, and singing about her Savior Jesus Christ and the marvelous truths of God’s Word.

Birth Announcements

iurI often am asked, “How do I tell my barren friend that I am pregnant?”

Personal preferences are always personal, so I cannot speak for every woman. However, I can share with you exactly how I want to receive the news of another’s pregnancy: personally and in private.

And if that personal, private pregnancy announcement is accompanied by a sincere invitation for me to take part in my pregnant friend’s joy, then I find that I often can, indeed, rejoice in the gift given to her. While it always hurts to remain barren when others are blessed, I recognize the tender care in being sought out ahead of the crowd. I see the extended kindness in being invited to join in on the celebration. Being remembered is always a better experience for me than being left alone.

But do you know what helps me the most during these times of grief? I am greatly comforted and encouraged when my pregnant friend rightly believes and confesses that her child is a gift from God, and that confession is often expressed — not through a cheeky Instagram picture or a clever Facebook announcement — but through a dignified email such as this:


Katie,

Several times in the past year, I felt quite a bit like Hannah — weeping bitterly before the Lord. I wondered many times why He didn’t remember me, as He remembered her. But the Lord is faithful and merciful, and He has remembered me. We found out last month that I am pregnant. And while this news has come with much joy and thanksgiving, it has also come with great grief. In my joy, I can’t help but think of all my sisters who, like Hannah, also weep bitterly before the Lord, and yet do not receive the gift of a child.

I pray for you and your husband often. I pray that He will shower you with the same blessings He has given me and my husband through our children. But more importantly, I pray He will grant you peace and comfort, and remind you ever that you are His, and that His love for you endures forever.

God’s blessings to you in all that you do.

In Christ,
Leah

Leah, in the midst of her rejoicing, chooses to remember — even share in — my grief.

And in the safety of such obvious love, I find it quite easy to share in her joy.

 

Why you should go to church tomorrow

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I know you are tempted not to go to church tomorrow, but please do. Jesus wants to give you the gifts of His Word and Holy Supper there, and His gifts are far better than any old carnation or corsage or greeting card.

Yes, you may have to endure the awkward, faltering “Happy Moth– Oh, I’m sorry” greeting at the door, but you will be fine. Just remember how many times you have misspoken to people, and thank God that He forgives both you and them.

You may grow red-cheeked before the tongue-tied usher handing out carnations, but red looks good on you. The man understandably doesn’t know what to say in the face of your childlessness, so rejoice in his recognition of your plight. Graciously give him a polite smile and nod of the head, and move on for both of your sakes.

You may very well be shamed and shunned by the pastor’s preservice announcements, children’s message, and sermon anecdotes, but there are worse things to endure in this life. You know it is true, for you, with God’s help, have already endured them. Mother’s Day shenanigans in the Divine Service are nothing compared to the death of your children. This too shall pass.

You also may cry during the service, but you will not be the first nor the last to do so. The Church is made up of cross-bearing criers, and you have nothing to hide. No one will begrudge a barren woman tears on Mother’s Day. Just be prepared to grab the tissues that are passed your way, and welcome them as the gift of love that they are.

By all means, go to church so that you may pray these words:

Forgive us, renew us, and lead us, so that we may delight in Your will.

Go to church so that you may sing with all the people of God:

Lord, have mercy.

Go to church so that you may confess:

I believe in Jesus Christ…who was conceived by the Holy Spirit.

Go to church so that you can hear the prophet promise:

I will sprinkle clean water on you, and you shall be clean from all your uncleanness, and from your idols I will cleanse you (Ezekiel 36:25).

Go to church so that you can be exhorted by the apostle:

As each has received a gift, use it to serve one another (1 Peter 4:10).

Go to church so that the evangelist may remind you of Christ’s command:

This is My commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you. Greater love has no one than this, that someone lay down his life for his friends (John 15:12–13).

Go to church so that you may take and eat, take and drink:

For the forgiveness of your sins.

Go to church so that you may return thanks to the Lord for all His benefits to you:

He recalls His promises and leads His people forth in joy with shouts of thanksgiving. Alleluia, alleluia.

Go to church so that you may be blessed by God Himself through your pastor:

The Lord bless you and keep you.
The Lord make His face shine upon you and be gracious to you.

The Lord look upon you with favor and + give you peace.

Go to church so that you do not miss out on what really matters: receiving Christ’s gifts. Being thus refreshed, I think you will find that you can celebrate your sisters’ joys, and they, in turn, will learn to bear your burdens. This is what we do. Together. Even tomorrow.

Especially tomorrow.

 

Compassion With Conviction

In what could be considered a mental exercise in futility, a personal question has been nagging me: How is the suffering of barrenness akin to the grief of losing a loved one?

I suppose it’s an unfair question since there are many nuances to each affliction, and everyone handles suffering and grief differently. But I’ll take a stab at it since I have been carrying both crosses — the death of my mother most recently, and secondary infertility seven years after my son’s birth — for awhile now. For those who know back-to-back trials like a well-worn shoe, this is my feeble attempt at processing it out loud.

As Christians who are given the life-giving Word which forgives, renews, and strengthens, far be it from us to despair when tragedy strikes or we endure years of longsuffering. Right?

Eesh. What an anvil of condemnation since, if we’re honest, we do despair. We also grieve and suffer along with any other human being on earth because of the Old Adam and Eve in us.

So when it comes to death and barrenness, it is natural that any and all feelings surface. And it is sadly normal that temptations to sin arise as we hold dear what relationship we had to our departed loved one and perhaps what relationships never will be, desperately looking into things where there are no promises. Both command soul-piercing attention, because there is a very real separation, divide (a hiddenness) between people who existed in this world and those who never may.

Such suffering beckons us to look at separation and spiritual hiddenness (and perhaps the anxiety and distress that naturally follow) through a Biblical lens. We know we are connected to all the saints in Christ, but far be it for us to deliver lofty comforts with verses such as “Be anxious about nothing” without compassion. We do well to allow God to put His Word together for us through His faithful under-shepherds, our family, and friends in Christ who can and do walk alongside us in our suffering.

Luther’s pastoral letters to several friends who suffered terrible losses are tender and convicting. He always starts by realizing the natural expression of grief, especially when it is so new. He recognizes and empathizes with the agonies. Luther then moves from his own empathy to confessing God’s inscrutable kindness in Christ’s ability to identify with our suffering, loss, grief, and loneliness by overcoming it all in His crucifixion. He concludes his letters with understanding our limitations and proclaiming that God gives us all that we need — namely faith — to sojourn this side of heaven.

How should we conduct ourselves in such a situation? God has so ordered and limited our life here that we may learn and exercise the knowledge of His very good will so that we may test and discover whether we love and esteem His will more than ourselves and everything that He had given us to have and love on earth. And although the inscrutable goodness of the divine will is hidden (as is God himself) from the old Adam as something so great and profound that man finds no pleasure in it, but only grief and lamentation, we nevertheless have His holy and sure Word which reveals to us this hidden will of His and gladdens the heart of the believer.”1

So much to parse out here, but “finding no pleasure in God’s hidden will” stands out the most to me as such an honest testament in the midst of suffering. And still God delivers us. All to say that Luther as pastor is a beautiful example of all the faithful pastors, the family, and friends we have in our own midst now who empathize, gently encourage, and comfort us at the right times. It has certainly been what my family and I have experienced in coping with our own crosses. Thanks be to God.

How is barrenness akin to the loss of a loved one? Both can cause us to isolate or scatter from the fellowship of believers that God creates for our benefit. Then again, both afflictions can and do also bring us together because God knows we need each other. The Lord giveth and the Lord taketh away from us, yes, but He never leaves or forsakes us — though His presence is hidden under means. And sending faithful, compassionate Christians is one of the ways He abides. Blessed be the name of the Lord!

God grant us all the tender mercies we are promised through His Word so that we might grieve without shame, while confessing the hope that is within us in Christ. God give us the strength to accept our afflictions and serve one another in love. Amen.

  1. To John Reineck, April 18, 1536: Letters, 69-70 (WA Br 7.399-400).

He Restores My Soul

Emmanuel Press and I have been working hard on a little project the last few months. It brings me great pleasure to share with you — Finally! — that we are collaborating with a host of experienced female writers to bring you a new book, He Restores My Soul, set to release in October of 2018.

He Restores My Soul is primarily a book of empathy and encouragement for the cross-bearing Christian woman. Utilizing the timeless, rich comfort permeating Psalm 23, each chapter applies the theology of the cross to a particular kind of suffering, pointing the reader to a firm faith in God’s promises and a resounding joy in His mysterious work of conforming us “to the image of His Son” (Romans 8:29).

Various topics addressed within the pages of He Restores My Soul include living the Christian faith in the public arena, carrying a child in the womb who is not expected to live, mothering while working, regretting an abortion, struggling against same-sex attraction, caring for aging parents, children leaving the faith, living with mental illness, suffering from depression and chronic diseases, and raising children apart from one’s own upbringing.

Who are the other writers, you ask? Follow Emmanuel Press and me on Facebook in the months ahead to learn more.


About Emmanuel Press

Established by Rev. Michael and Janet Frese in 2004, Emmanuel Press is a publishing house dedicated to producing works essential to confessional Lutheran theology, including theological books, liturgical and catechetical resources, and ecclesiastical greeting cards. Emmanuel Press brings together treasures of Christian literature, exceptional artwork, and a clear confession of faith. Learn more at www.emmanuelpress.us or contact directly at emmanuelpress@gmail.com.

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