Grief and Birth

I’ve been trying to figure out if, and if so how, I should add my voice to the many speaking out regarding the proposed name change for Philadelphia Biblical University that was announced this week. On the one hand, everyone is hearing my voice, because I’ve been a part of the team crafting emails, blog posts, and responses to comments “from the University.” On the other hand, no one is hearing my voice because none of that is going out under my name, and it is the official language.

But at the same time, I’ve been realizing that the official language is what is coming out of my mouth when I’m talking to people or coming through my fingertips when I’m typing, and I’ve been trying to figure out if that’s just because it’s familiar language or if it’s because I really think these things.

You see, while the bulk of the population only heard about this potential name change this week, I heard about the possibility of it last fall, and learned the actual name over a month ago. I’m well ahead on my processing from many others, and I didn’t document how I felt when I first heard. (Silly me, I have a rule about that at work – “Always put it in writing as a follow-up for reference, even if you had the conversation.” – but I don’t follow it very well).

I do remember one of my first thought being, “Ugh, that will be a ton of work.” Really, I think that thought overshadowed others for quite some time. But that ton of work, while still looming, has taken on a new meaning since my boss, Lisa, died after a brief illness a couple of weeks ago. She was so excited about this prospect, and she was so concerned when she was in the hospital that we would lose momentum on the progress made. Now that she’s gone, the work isn’t quite the burden that it seemed it would be. Instead, it’s a memorial to her, a stone I’m setting up in her memory to remind me of who she was and of how to move forward, taking in all the things she taught me.

So this week, when the announcement was made, the social media-verse exploded into action. We’ve been watching, responding where appropriate, and trying to take what people are saying with consideration and grace.

But the ones that have hit me hardest are the many folks who are questioning if this is the beginning of the end of all things when it comes to the centrality of scripture as the core of all that PBU does. Sometimes what they say is hurtful because, to me, it implies that they think we’re lying. I’m realizing that people may not really pay any attention to the things I’ve crafted that arrive in their mailbox on a regular basis. (I do know that I really shouldn’t take it personally, of course). Or, if they do pay attention, they seem to think that changing the title of an institution negates everything that has been said, over and over again, for the past three (well, more, but three that I’ve been involved with) years. There are times when I want to just yell, “We are still a biblical university! That will not change! Haven’t you seen us recommit to that as the nature of who we are in every issue of the magazine, every letter we’ve sent, every page on the website? Do you think that pulling the description from our title and instead allowing us to use it as a descriptor (you know, the way it’s built, being an adjective and all) means that everything we’ve said for the past three [or 12] years is a lie?”

In writing with an alumna from the days of PCB when my parents went there (when it was located at 1800 Arch Street), I finally found something new to say that is mine, something that really encapsulates how I feel about what’s going on, the changes that are taking place, and prospects for the future. I’ve adapted it for this space.

I grew up surrounded by 1800 Arch Street-ers and I grew up hearing the stories of those days. As a lover of all things historical, I am glad that that is where “my” university’s roots go. And “my” university (I graduated in 2003) was also a very different place than today’s institution. Not as different as the 1800 Arch days were, but different. I look back at my experience and I realize that I saw the very beginning of the birth-pangs of the changes that have taken place the past twelve years. I feel as though the past three years that I’ve been on staff have been the tail end of the birthing and that we are now poised to begin a new life; like a child from a parent, still the same blood, DNA, and genetic code, but an individual in his own right.

So I am praying for this University, no matter what the name ends up being. Because like any child there is absolutely the risk of losing the Way, no matter how much he says his identity is that of his parents, but we need our “parents” – those who’ve gone before as alumni, faculty, friends – to support us and help us to take new steps in this new world, challenging us to remain strong in our commitments, our core values, and our central focus on Christ and His Word.

That focus and foundation isn’t changing, even with a new name. And if it were to start to do so in my lifetime, I would rise up and tell the story of what is happening now, pointing to the figurative stones that are being set up right now as we approach this Board decision and saying, “We are founded on the Word of God. That is our very DNA. On the day when we changed this name we chose ‘Cairn’ because it gave us a marker to point to and say, ‘Look at what God has done. Walk in His Way.'”

And I will teach the next generation about these things, because my biblical university education taught me to do so (when I studied Deuteronomy 6 and 2 Timothy 2 J).

In the past two weeks in my department at PBU we’ve had a death and a birth. And while we’re still grieving the loss of Lisa, our VP for Communications and Marketing, we’re also rejoicing in the healthy delivery of Sierra, daughter to my friend Jodi, who worked in our department and now is the Assistant to the President.

I hear the grief in the loss of the “old PCB/PBU”, but I also hear in my mind the cries of a prospective newborn “Cairn University.”

They’re lusty cries, healthy ones, and I can’t help but rejoice in the prospects and opportunities new life brings.

 

A Bewildering Reality

Every few hours I find myself clicking this link, and staring at the page, thinking, “Is it really real?”

As one of my coworkers put it today, we’re just dealing with her absence, not with the loss; it hasn’t sunk in yet.

We keep expecting to see her.

And while I don’t want it to be real, I don’t want to never see her again, I know that it is, and I know that I won’t.

I go to Lancaster on Saturday for a service in her honor. I don’t know what it will entail, but I know she planned it in her final days. So I know it’s not going to be focused on her; it will be focused on her Savior.

But I think it will take away a bit of the bewilderment and turn the reality from vapor to solid.

And that won’t be easy. But it will be real. And she loved real things.

When change and tears are past

This past week or so have been difficult. My Grandma Givens was in the hospital. She’s out now, and back in the skilled care area of the village where she lives, but we know she’s not well and we don’t know if she’ll be with us ten more days or ten more years. There’s not much more wrong with her than age – her body is simply wearing out. After 93 years, I suppose it has the right.

But it’s been hard. It’s hard to think about my life without Grandma as a part of it – she’s been an institution for 30 years of it so far. I know grandparents die – I lost both my grandfathers when I was very young, and my other grandmother when I was in high school – but somehow I never really thought about the idea that Grandma Givens would die.
I still can’t quite imagine a world without Grandma praying for me.
When I heard she wasn’t doing well, I panicked at first. Then I prayed. Then I got a chance to call her and tell her I love her. All of those things needed to be done.
And God gave me His comfort, and He gave me His grace, and He gave me His love. And all those things were good.
But yesterday He gave me one thing more. During our start of semester hour of prayer we sang, as we always do. Dr. Toews got up to read the opening passage of Scripture and he said that he had just finished teaching a course on the Wisdom Literature. And he said something that stuck out to me in a new way: “What became very clear teaching the wisdom literature is that one thing unique about Christianity is that in the midst of trouble, Christians sing.”
In an instant I was standing around a piano at Grandma’s house in my memory, singing with the whole family. Grandma was playing at the piano and working her way through the hymnal from favorite to favorite. We sang some of those hymns yesterday, and I needed to hear them.
Near the end of the service we sang one that I’ve known for a long time. It’s one that I can sing without paying a whole lot of attention to the words, because I’ve done so many times. But suddenly it was new and fresh to me, and I realized it was the story of Grandma Givens.
From a childhood without a father, to stepping away in faith from the Mennonite church, to raising six boys, to losing Grandpa fairly young, to dealing with fractious church members and family members, there have been griefs, pains, changes, and thorny ways. But Grandma’s best friend has always been Jesus. And He has always been faithful.
The second verse we sang targeted me. My turbulent fears of losing Grandma calmed as I thought of all the ways God has guided her through her life, and I remembered that He will do the same for me.
And as we sang a final verse, I began to cry the good kind of tears. Because I remembered that while I will be left without her, when Grandma goes to heaven, she will be with her Lord. Sorrow will be forgotten, love will be restored.
And one day, when change and tears are past, all safe and blessed we shall meet again at last.
Be Still, My Soul
by Katharina A. von Schlegel, 1752
translated to English by Jane L. Borthwick, 1855
Be still, my soul: the Lord is on thy side.
Bear patiently the cross of grief or pain.
Leave to thy God to order and provide;
In every change, He faithful will remain.
Be still, my soul: thy best, thy heavenly Friend
Through thorny ways leads to a joyful end.
Be still, my soul: thy God doth undertake
To guide the future, as He has the past.
Thy hope, thy confidence let nothing shake;
All now mysterious shall be bright at last.
Be still, my soul: the waves and winds still know
His voice Who ruled them while He dwelt below.
Be still, my soul: the hour is hastening on
When we shall be forever with the Lord.
When disappointment, grief and fear are gone,
Sorrow forgot, love’s purest joys restored.
Be still, my soul: when change and tears are past
All safe and blessèd we shall meet at last.

Missing Uncle Sam

O come, Thou Day-spring, come and cheer
Our spirits by Thine advent here;
Disperse the gloomy clouds of night,
And death’s dark shadows put to flight.

“Christmas is a time of joy,” my boss said yesterday. “I have to keep reminding myself of that.”

It is. A joy tinged with sorrow, as the Man of Sorrows left his throne and came to be born in a manger, knowing he would be the sacrifice that redeemed the world. But a joy nonetheless, because the end result of that sacrifice was resurrection – not just once, but for all who believe.

I’m holding onto the hope of resurrection right now. Holding on to the hope that the Day-spring will put death’s dark shadows to flight. Because they are dark. And they are present. And I ache in the missing him.

“I’m okay,” I keep hearing myself say. “At the moment.”

On the one hand, day-to-day, I didn’t see Uncle Sam much – certainly not compared to his students or his fellow professors of music. But sporadic lunches, quick conversations in hallways or offices, greetings at concerts and events were enough to keep that long-seated friendship fresh, one that had grown from years upon years of relationship with my grandparents, my parents, my sisters, his brothers, his nephews, our shared friends. And now I am left with them all, aching.

He was a musician. I know that. But it’s not like that stood out to me in a unique way – saying Sam Hsu was a musician would be like saying any other person had eyes. It’s a given. His music was so much a part of him that I sometimes didn’t even take note of it.

I know that must seem strange to those who knew him from the world of music. But that wasn’t the world where we overlapped so much. We met more frequently over meals, at family celebrations, or academic discussions. He was my friend, my “uncle”; and my friend came with music in his blood.

He was a friend I was privileged to sit under as a student, enjoying the breadth and depth his knowledge gave to a class that could have been routine. And in between the insights into the music, art, and literature of the western world, were tidbits of great beauty and depth that would flow from him: “He’s experienced a little of me and I’ve experienced a little of him. That’s what friendship is, isn’t it?”

He was a friend who may have been thought somber by those who did not know him well. But they never got to experience the moments of humor that would come from around side – hilariously unexpected. I’ll never forget the day he sat at the keyboard to introduce us to a Russian Romantic composer and paused with his fingers hovering above the keys: “I’m going to show you how the Russians loved,” he said. Then he lowered his hands to the first chord; it struck and faded as he paused again: “I’m not a Russian. I hope you know that.”

I stood at the hospital on Thursday afternoon, looking about me at Uncle Sam’s students who were there, and thinking of those, former and present, who were not. Men and women of God whose passion for music is fueled by their passion for Christ. And I thought: that is what they learned from their teacher. More than fingering, more than history, more than style. They learned Christ-following from one who was, preeminently, a Christ-follower.

I have allowed my mind to swim freely in the lyrics and music of hymns and carols for the past few days, knowing that it is a place he would have loved to be with me. And the joy of Christmas, the beauty of this world, the grandeur and faithfulness of God, the great truths – all of them have resounded over and over to me.

And I will rejoice. For God is with us.

Rejoice! Rejoice!
Emmanuel shall come to thee, O Israel.

To read more about Dr. Samuel Hsu, click here.

Nothing is Wasted

This has become a theme of my week – not because I’m going through anything particular, but simply the truth of it – and its applicability to past and future events. Its been, for lack of a more somber word, “refreshing” to remember that Christ redeems sorrow and pain.

The hurt that broke your heart
Left you trembling in the dark
Feeling lost and alone
Will tell you hope’s a lie
But what if every tear you cry
Will seed the ground
Where joy will grow?

Nothing is wasted.
Nothing is wasted.
In the hands of our Redeemer
Nothing is wasted.

The wound that leaves a scar
Becomes a part of who we are,
But this is not the story’s end.
The pain that closed the chapter
Sets the stage for what comes after
When all we’ve lost is found again.

Nothing is wasted.
Nothing is wasted.
In the hands of our Redeemer
Nothing is wasted.

When hope is more than you can bear,
And it’s too hard to believe it could be true,
And your strength fails you half way there,
You can lean on me and I’ll believe for you,
And in time you will believe it too.

Nothing is wasted.
Nothing is wasted.
Sometimes we are waiting
In sorrow we have tasted,
But joy will replace it
In the hands of our Redeemer
Nothing is wasted.

Jason Gray, “Nothing is Wasted (Alternate)”

Elephants

I’ve always admired elephants. It’s a little complicated to explain to people (they always jump to “that’s weird” before they hear the whole reason), but if I were able to choose an animal to be, it would be an elephant. I love that they remember things; that they commemorate them. I do that as much as I can, but I’m not as good as an elephant.

But there are moments when I curse my elephant memory. When a conversation overheard about taking time off for a funeral sends me immediately back to a snowy January morning when I called my manager and asked for more time off because Keren had died.
And I’m there. And I’m grieving all over again. And I’m reliving that morning through my elephant memory.
And then I’m thankful. Thankful that that phone call to my manager was made from Michigan, not from Pennsylvania. That I was there, with my sisters and brothers-in-law and friends and family. That I did not have to get those phone calls when I was alone or drive or fly there by myself.
Mercy. It’s a memory of His Mercy.

On a quiet road in Maryland

Written 28 November 2010


Dear Aimee –
I went to your grave today. You weren’t there. I didn’t expect you to be; you left your earthsuit almost a year ago.
I stood quietly for a moment. It was cold, but not nearly so cold as the day we buried you. February’s chill hasn’t yet come. Then I read a part of First Corinthians 15 – one of the best parts, the part about earthly bodies and heavenly ones. The part that says we bear the image of the Second Man in our heavenly bodies. I wonder what you look like now.
I didn’t have anything to leave at your grave – it was sort of a whim to come by today. There were flowers there, though. Someone else came this week. I just read Scripture and then whispered to God.
I asked Him to hold your family tightly. To comfort them particularly in the next few months. I saw them a week ago, and we missed you. You were with us in our shared memory, but we missed the particular lilt to your voice, which didn’t enter the conversation, the particular turn to your smile which didn’t take part in the merriment, the particular tune of your laugh which didn’t ring at the jokes.
We talked of you some, we thought of you more, and when we parted, we prayed for one another. And I thanked God He’s protected them all this year. I thanked Him for holding your dad, for comforting your mom, for strengthening and encouraging your brothers, for caring for your sister. Some people might not think, knowing everything your family’s been through this year, that thanking God for what He’s done in their lives is the right attitude. But those people haven’t met your family – and they haven’t met their God.
I went to your grave today, Aimee, and as always, you pointed me to God.

Lamentations

He has filled me with bitterness,
He has made me drunk with wormwood.

He has broken my teeth with gravel;
He has made me cower in the dust.
My soul has been rejected from peace;
I have forgotten happiness.
So I say, “My strength has perished,
And so has my hope from the LORD.”

Remember my affliction and my wandering, the wormwood and bitterness.
Surely my soul remembers
And is bowed down within me.
This I recall to my mind,
Therefore I have hope.
The LORD’S lovingkindnesses indeed never cease,
For His compassions never fail.
They are new every morning;
Great is Your faithfulness.
“The LORD is my portion,” says my soul,
“Therefore I have hope in Him.”
The LORD is good to those who wait for Him,
To the person who seeks Him.
It is good that he waits silently
For the salvation of the LORD.
It is good for a man that he should bear
The yoke in his youth.
Let him sit alone and be silent
Since He has laid it on him.
Let him put his mouth in the dust,
Perhaps there is hope.
Let him give his cheek to the smiter,
Let him be filled with reproach.
For the Lord will not reject forever,
For if He causes grief,
Then He will have compassion
According to His abundant lovingkindness.

Spaghetti in the Pensieve

In one of the Harry Potter books, when Harry and Dumbledore are examining memories in the Pensieve, there’s one memory that Dumbledore has trouble getting out of its little bottle into the Pensieve. It clings to the glass, and stretches into strings as he forces it out…I think all memories are like that, in a way. They all cling, typically one to another, like strands of spaghetti that haven’t been tossed in olive oil.

It’s strange, really, the way things connect in the mind. One item references another, which triggers a third, and then, before you know it, you’re years away from where you started, deep in the reaches of memory or facing an unknown future.

It was editing an article that did it for me this time around. The author quoted Tobias Wolff, a contemporary fiction writer. At the moment, all I thought was, Tobias Wolff. I was in a writing workshop with him once. But hours later, in the quiet before sleep, strands began to cling, and my mind was off.

I remembered the writing workshop. It was in a richly paneled room in the back of a mansion – a chilly day, grey out the windows. Mr. Wolff presented briefly, then dug right into our work. When he got to mine he said he bet that I wondered what people would think of one of my characters, the Imp. I hadn’t wondered anything of the sort; in my mind, my Imp was the centerpiece of my story. Without her, I had no tale. But I found it interesting that he was considering whether the Imp worked. I suppose, if she didn’t, then the entire piece would be a flop. She must have worked, though. Tobias Wolff liked my story.

To the workshop clung the story, the conversation I recorded between myself and my Imp. And to the story clung the event that spurred it: an afternoon, a few months after Keren died, when I watched a video about a Trisomy-18 boy who lived for just three months. To that afternoon clung grief. The loss of my little niece, the impact it had on me.

And then, like that memory in the Pensieve, reluctantly pulled to the fore, came a thought: my new baby niece has to have heart surgery. Up until that moment I had not allowed the thought sway. A routine surgery. Something that they do a lot. But in that moment, intertwined with my grief, I saw the unknown future – Emily on an operating table. And it terrifies me.

The tears come – the ones I’ve held back for the past few weeks, the ones I’ve heard in my sister’s voice on the phone – and they wash over the strands of thought and memory, dissolving them together into the basin of my mind where they bubble now, just below the edge, in danger of splashing out at any moment.

Resurrection

28 March 2010
Palm Sunday

I am again in a part of the world where Spring flourishes. Though today’s weather is chilly and grey, the flowers have been bursting forth for weeks now. The crocuses and snowdrops are already being replaced by daffodils and columbine. The forsythia glows along the sides of the road and the edges of fields and yards. A few blooming trees have burst in the unseasonable warmth, but most just sit, prepared, a sheen of color over their branches, ready to bloom forth from long Winter slumber with the coming of Easter next week.

This morning the words of an old hymn flow from my lips: “Fairest Lord Jesus, Ruler of all nature, O Thou of God and man the Son.” The hymn goes on to compare all nature to its Ruler. Te meadows, woodlands, blooms of Spring, sunshine, stars, and moonlight pale in comparison to the Son of God and Son of Man. This year, even the season seems to be in submission to Him. As though the resurrection of Spring desires to reflect the First Resurrection.

And resurrection is coming. But today I enter a week of reflection on His passion. More words blend with the music in my soul: “Amazing love! How can it be that Thou, my God, shouldst die for me?” Then we sing out His name: “Jesus, Messiah. Name above all names. Blessed Redeemer, Emmanuel. The rescue for sinners, the ransom from heaven, Jesus Messiah, Lord of all.” Before we celebrate the resurrection, we must face the reality of death. Rescue. Ransom.

Yesterday I cleared away the dead leaves and branches from around the green shoots and bursting blooms of daffodils. The leaves died last Autumn, and fell to the ground, turning brown. As I cleared the dry, dead leaves from the top, I found those underneath had begun to disintegrate, the papery brown giving way to become rich, dark soil. From the black soil, new life was coming forth. Their death led to new life.

The leaves paid a cost. They lost their glossy greenness, flaming out into red and yellow, then fading to brown. They lost their shape and structure, the membrane between the veins disintegrating into dirt. They died and their death paid a ransom that equipped new life. Nature once again following the pattern its Ruler set.

The Ruler arose, though. His real death, His rescue, His ransom, did not end His life. Resurrection. The blooming trees which lost their leaves last Autumn are perhaps a better analogy. They sacrificed their crown, their beauty, the bright green of high Summer, paying a price for new life to come forth. But now they await resurrection, to burst into greater beauty than they lost.

As I enter my reflection of Christ’s sacrifice, I look forward to Resurrection. Not only His, but also those for whom His sacrifice paid ransom. Their bodies lie still beneath the earth. Beauty covered by dead leaves. But from the dirt they will arise. Their former bodies having served to bring forth good things from the soil, they willl arise with a new crown of beauty.

I think of Keren’s grin, Aimee’s smiling eyes, Peter’s dad’s hands. We keep the old body in our memories, but we shall not see it again. As the glossy green leaves of Summer cannot compare to the flowering beauty of Spring blossoms, so those old bodies will fade in relation to the resurrected ones. I miss what I knew. I cannot imagine what resurrection will bring.

As Spring bursts forth from the ground in yellow, pink, purple, blue, and green, as the sheen of color replaces the icy white of winter’s blast and the dead brown of its end, I consider what the ransom of Christ’s death paid for: the resurrection of His own.